Sunday, December 29, 2019

Sunday Reading

Bartlet for America — Sarah Lyall in The New York Times with an appreciation of “The West Wing.”

Election night, 2017. Alarmed and unnerved by the state of politics in America, Josh Reinitz, a lawyer and Democrat in Fair Lawn, N.J., is running for borough council. But it is a stressful time.

As his campaign waits for the results at a local senior center, Mr. Reinitz slips away to a dark room to the side and powers up his iPhone. For the next 45 minutes, he sits by himself watching television — “Two Cathedrals,” to be specific, his favorite “West Wing” episode.

“Fortunately,” Mr. Reinitz recalled recently, “I was able to immerse myself in the episode to the point that I didn’t hear another sound until the room erupted in cheers as our victory was assured.”

“The West Wing,” a workplace drama set in the White House and dedicated to the notion that Washington is run by good people who are doing their best, was broadcast on NBC for seven seasons, from 1999 to 2006. Though its ratings declined over the years, at its peak it regularly drew more than 17 million viewers.

It is now streaming on Netflix. And to its many liberal and independent-leaning fans, in particular, it has become something more than just a nostalgic drama from a time when men’s suits with pleated pants is fashionable and Twitter does not yet exist. For many in the Trump era, the show is an idealistic alternative reality, an escape from the vitriol and ill-will that they see coursing like poison through contemporary politics.

Much as people may return to the film “It’s a Wonderful Life” to remind themselves that feeling worthless does not mean you have no worth, or to the children’s book “Goodnight Moon” to remember that bedtime once meant being enveloped in a cocoon of love, fans revisit “The West Wing” to recall an era — even a fictional one — when it seemed possible for the three branches of government to be populated by public servants of integrity, intellect and wit.

“When I feel the need for comfort from the circus in the White House, I watch the pilot,” said Terry Callanan Kempf of Glens Falls, N.Y., who belongs to the Facebook group “Fans of West Wing Weekly Podcast,” whose members share a passion for revisiting the show. “Seriously, almost every night before I go to sleep.”

“The West Wing” premiered two years into President Bill Clinton’s second term in office, but the bulk of it was broadcast during President George W. Bush’s administration. The partisan divide was bad then, but it was not nearly so awful — so personal, so vicious, so apocalyptic, so apparently beyond redemption — as it appears to many people now.

Bradley Whitford, the actor who played Josh Lyman, the deputy White House chief of staff, has called the show “liberal porn,” and that is true, in a way. Its president, Josiah Bartlet, is a progressive Democrat whose policies run firmly to the left. Erudite, articulate, empathetic, able to speak Latin and quote the Bible, inclined to give people the benefit of the doubt, he seems almost painfully distant from many American presidents (some perhaps more than others).

But “The West Wing” also presents the opposition Republicans, for the most part, as equally honorable — as much as they may disagree with President Bartlet’s politics. For much of his administration, he battles a Congress led by Republicans, losing as often as he wins.

“The bulk of the mail we’d get would be from people who identified themselves as Republicans or said, ‘I don’t agree with the politics’ but nonetheless liked the way they felt when they watched the show,” Aaron Sorkin, who created the show and wrote nearly all of the episodes in the first four seasons, said in an email. “That continues today.”

Katherine Bell Butler, 43, a lifelong conservative from Sharpsburg, Ga., who describes herself as “not crazy over Trump,” said that she had the boxed set, and had watched every episode of “The West Wing” “multiple times.”

“I love the show,” she said in a Facebook message. “Even when I disagreed with something said, I honestly didn’t care.”

For Allison Picard, 61, a retired local government official from Martinez, Calif., the best episodes are those that show healthy bipartisan cooperation, as in Season 4 when President Bartlet, played by the actor Martin Sheen, steps aside after his daughter is kidnapped by terrorists, briefly ceding control of the country to the conservative Republican speaker of the house, played by the actor John Goodman. (The vice president has unfortunately resigned over a sex scandal, leaving a gap in the order of succession.)

Ms. Picard also loves the president’s decision to hire Ainsley Hayes, a fast-talking, fast-thinking Republican lawyer who vehemently disagrees with him. “It’s such a patriotic moment, that the president would want someone who was smart and who would challenge his perspective,” Ms. Picard said, sounding a little teary over the phone.

Netflix does not release viewing figures, so it is impossible to know how popular “The West Wing” reruns are. But for something that ended 13 years ago, the show continues to have a peculiar relevance to public life.

While a student at Harvard, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, ran for president of the Institute of Politics in part by proposing that students meet for “West Wing” viewing parties.

He has appeared on “The West Wing Weekly” podcast and seems to see himself as a “West Wing”-style politician. When he opened his presidential campaign office, Mr. Buttigieg posted a video of himself walking down the hall while interacting with his aides, one of the classic shots from the show. “Finally an office with room for a walk and talk,” he wrote on Twitter.

There is also a “What would Bartlet Do?” Facebook page, with nearly 4,200 members. At American University in Washington, students compare the show to real life in Gautham Rao’s “The West Wing as History” course. And on “The West Wing Weekly” podcast, the actor Joshua Malina, who played Will Bailey in the show, and Hrishikesh Hirway, a musician and superfan, have been hosting an episode-by-episode discussion of the program since March 2016.

They are currently up to the final season, which only has a few more episodes scheduled. Some 3,500 fans showed up in London for a live broadcast recently. (The podcast has its own Facebook page, with more than 56,000 followers. The fans’ Facebook group has 6,800 members.)

“It’s a particularly painful time to be watching the show,” Mr. Malina said. “We have an administration and a chief executive who ought to watch it for basic civics lessons about the Constitution and checks and balances and all the stuff the rest of us learned in fifth grade.”

Not everyone is into it, of course. People who don’t like “The West Wing” say, as they have all along, that the program presents an unrealistically idealistic view of government, that it moralizes, that it preaches, that it incorrectly suggests that minds can be swayed by grand gestures and eloquent speeches.

“I sense there are two kinds of people: people who like ‘The West Wing’ and people who find that shows like ‘Veep’ and ‘House of Cards’ are much more realistic portrayals of how politics happen in the real world,” said Christy Quirk, an American-born consultant who lives in Nice, France, and is also a member of the podcast fans’ page on Facebook.

She would put herself in the latter group.

“I watched the first season or so, but I found the speechifying, the high-minded earnestness — it was like fingernails on a blackboard,” she said. “The stakes are really high right now, and we have to have a very realistic view of what can happen if we don’t understand the real dynamics and motivations of people, that not everyone is in this for the right reasons.”

But it can be hard, sometimes, to follow politics in Washington and not indulge in wishful thinking, even when what you are wishing for comes from a television show.

After observing the impeachment proceedings unfold, Al Sibilo of Alberta, Canada, had a question: Why can’t the politicians in 2019 behave more like the politicians on “The West Wing”?

He is thinking of a particular time in Season 3 when the hostile Congress investigates President Bartlet after he fails to disclose his multiple sclerosis while running for office. But instead of impeaching him, the Republicans censure him.

“Censure may have been a great option for the Democrats and perhaps a more proportional response to many of the president’s wrongdoings and indiscretions,” Mr. Sibilo, 53, said of President Trump.

On the other hand, he said in an email, Mr. Trump is unique in his zest for flouting the norms of presidential behavior.

“As a concurrent resolution, they’d need President Trump to admit he was even just a little bit wrong — it will never happen,” Mr. Sibilo said.

Kim Elliott, 50, a teacher in Nashua, N.H., is a devoted viewer who spent much of Inauguration Day — Jan. 20, 2017 — watching not the inauguration, but “The West Wing.”

During her lunch hour, she sat alone in her classroom and watched the pilot episode. When she got home, she watched three more of her favorite episodes — two about the Supreme Court and the third a special episode in Season 3 featuring real-life presidents and staff members from both parties.

“I watched these episodes not to wallow, but to gear up,” Ms. Elliott said in an email. “Yes, I was avoiding the news coverage. But I wanted to remind myself of what ideas to keep front and center.”

Kill But Keep — Poll Results from The Onion.

HAMDEN, CT—According to a new poll out Wednesday from Quinnipiac University, 54% of Americans approve of President Trump receiving the death penalty, but believe his transgressions have not risen to a level that warrants removal from office. “While nearly all survey participants agreed the president should be executed in a highly public setting, only a minority thinks he should receive a proper burial, with more than half stating that the deceased commander-in-chief should be allowed to complete his four-year term,” said polling analyst Rebecca Glenski, explaining that the results indicate an unwillingness among Americans to effectively overturn the outcome of a presidential election. “Of that 54%, approximately two-thirds said that after he is put to death—preferably by hanging, beheading, or crucifixion—Trump should not only remain in the Oval Office but also be permitted to appear at public events, attend official White House functions, and have a seat at global summits like the G7. In addition, most respondents strongly indicated the president’s corpse should stand for re-election next year so the people can decide whether to remove his earthly remains from office.” Polling suggests in 2020 the bloated, lifeless body of Trump would continue to enjoy a strong, built-in advantage in the Electoral College.

Doonesbury — Planning Ahead.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Sunday Reading

The Eclipse of Reason — David Remnick in The New Yorker.

The shock of Donald Trump’s election, in November, 2016, obscured a tragedy of equal moment—the eclipse of reason, fact, and ethical judgment in the Republican Party.

Twenty-one years ago, during the impeachment of Bill Clinton, there were numerous Democratic lawmakers who lambasted him for his trespasses; five voted against him. Clinton, for his part, apologized to the American people before the House voted on his fate. “What I want the American people to know, what I want the Congress to know, is that I am profoundly sorry for all I have done wrong in words and deeds,” he said. “I never should have misled the country, the Congress, my friends or my family. Quite simply, I gave in to my shame.”

Clinton had lied about sex. That was the root of the accusations against him. Trump, with the help of Rudy Giuliani and others, attempted to withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance to Ukraine, an ally under assault from Russia, as a way to extract a crude and distinctly personal political favor. Was this not a far graver offense? And yet everyone knew that there was never the remotest chance of hearing a word of contrition from Trump—and that from the Republican Party there would be no self-questioning, no doubt. Tribalism—and the demands of Trumpism—would not permit it.

There was a time, not so long ago, when Lindsey Graham recognized, and said publicly, that Trump was “unfit for office”—and when Mitch McConnell, Marco Rubio, Susan Collins, Cory Gardner, and so many other Republicans in Congress recognized Trump for the moral vacuum that he is. Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s acting chief of staff, once called Trump “a terrible human being.” Rick Perry, his Secretary of Energy, saw him as a “barking carnival act” and deemed his candidacy “a cancer on conservatism.” Ted Cruz called him a “pathological liar” and “utterly immoral.” They used to care. But things have changed.

At the same time, nearly every loyalist who leaves the Trump White House—James Mattis, Gary Cohn, H. R. McMaster, John Kelly, Rex Tillerson, et al.—comes clean, on or off the record, about despising Trump. They describe in detail the President’s countless acts of duplicity and incompetence. Only fearful, humiliated ex-Trumpers in need of campaign support, such as Jeff Sessions, who is again running for the Senate in Alabama, abase themselves and speak of his virtue. Nikki Haley, who seems intent on being Trump’s successor (or perhaps Mike Pence’s replacement on the ticket), refers to Trump as “great to work with” and “truthful”; in 2016, she said that he was “everything a governor doesn’t want in a President.”

In other words, when it comes to Trump, everyone knows. As the Republican caucus members fell into line on Wednesday, they revealed themselves. No one defended Trump on the merits, on the facts—not with any conviction or coherence. Who came to praise his character or values? No one. Instead, there were only counter-accusations, smoke-bomb diversions about procedure, ill will, and even talk of the President’s martyrdom. Barry Loudermilk, a Georgia Republican with a name fit for Mencken, was distinguished in his metaphors, yet hardly eccentric among his caucus, when he said, “Before you take this historic vote today, one week before Christmas, keep this in mind: when Jesus was falsely accused of treason, Pontius Pilate gave Jesus the opportunity to face his accusers. During that sham trial, Pontius Pilate afforded more rights to Jesus than Democrats have afforded this President in this process.” Democrats, in fact, had offered the President the chance to defend himself, but he had declined to do so. His “defense” was to hold back as much evidence and as many witnesses as he could.

No one marshalled any evidence to dispute that the President had dispatched Giuliani and others to assist him in manipulating and muscling the Ukrainian government into doing him a “favor.” No one denied with any conviction that Trump had asked for foreign help in 2016 (“Russia, if you’re listening…”) and was looking for it this time around, too. Not only had Trump not apologized or denied it, he doubled down. Hadn’t he asked the Chinese, in October, to carry out an investigation of the Bidens right there on the White House lawn?

Republican members may sincerely admire the judges whom the President has appointed, the tax cuts for the wealthy that he has supported, and the ad-libbed trade war that he has waged. But they also know that Trump is, as Adam Schiff put it in the most eloquent speech of the day, a cheat. On July 24th, Trump watched as the special counsel Robert Mueller testified, damningly but ineffectively, in Congress. On July 25th he called the Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, and asked for his “favor.” On July 26th, he called his million-dollar campaign donor and Ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, at a restaurant in Kyiv, to make sure that the Ukrainians were going to do it—that they were going to investigate the Bidens, on his behalf. He didn’t care about corruption in Ukraine, or the war Russia was waging against Ukraine. He cared only about “big stuff,” as Sondland put it. He cared about himself. And he was willing to extort an ally to get what he desired.

On Wednesday evening, the commentators on television solemnly invoked the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton, history. Everyone went full-on Jon Meacham.

But Trump made it plain that he would not nod to any sense of grace or occasion. During his impeachment crisis, President Andrew Johnson was quick to the bottle and revealed, in many speeches, a deep streak of self-pity. “Who has borne more than I?” he asked an audience in Cleveland, in 1866. Trump is certainly as thin-skinned as Johnson was. Consult his Twitter feed. And yet just around the moment when the House passed the first article of impeachment, Trump was trying his best to do a rhetorical devil-may-care act at a rally in Battle Creek, Michigan, asserting that real Air Force pilots were more handsome than the “Top Gun”-era Tom Cruise. He improvised. He did shtick. He threw out one random insult and Dada observation after another. He talked about Beto O’Rourke. (Remember Beto O’Rourke?) He talked about showers. He talked about sinks. He talked about many other things. He performed as if none of what was happening in Washington mattered. He was now impeached for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, but he felt safe. He had his party. He had Fox News and his Twitter followers. He had his base. He could not be touched. “It’s impeachment lite,” he told the crowd. “I don’t know about you, but I’m having a good time.”

God Bless Us, Everyone! — Charles P. Pierce.

As you may have noticed, the shebeen has been disarranged for the past couple of weeks. The sudden intervention of an automobile into my affairs—and, it must be said, into my lower back—has kept me watching the considerable landfill of recent news from the sidelines—often, I must admit, severely hopped up on goofballs, as Joe Friday would have said. (I got a small glimpse of the opioid crisis from the inside and, let me tell you, the other day, the oxy was whispering to me the way Richard Pryor’s crack pipe used to talk to him. Motherfcker is strong, Jack.)

I am one lucky motherfcker, I’ll tell you that. If I had bounced another foot, I would have bounced into oncoming traffic, which would have complicated matters considerably. My head landed hard, but it landed in a snowbank, which not only cushioned the blow but slowed the bleeding. I was one lucky motherfcker because of the people who surrounded me while I was on the road. The first-aid worker who was first on the scene and called my wife. The nurse who had just come off an overnight shift and who apparently left all the fcks she had to give back in her work locker. Some idiot started honking his horn to get around the scene, and she took a bit of time out to yell, in a wicked pissah Boston accent, “Will you shut the fuck up, you arsehole!” at him. Nurses, man. They could take over the world in an hour.

I am one lucky motherfcker because of the people at The Brigham who worked on me. The ER doctors and nurses, many of whom I will never recognize again because I only saw them upside down. They kept me calm and comfortable while they inspected, detected, neglected, and rejected every part of me. Of course, my family, who went to DefCon 1 immediately. My wife and daughter beat me to the Brigham and, when I began to get agitated, as is my wont in any medical situation including reruns of MASH, my daughter booted up the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack on her phone and put it next to my ear. Worked as well as the Toradol did. (Hi again, Toradol!) I am one lucky motherfcker.

And then there were the ward nurses and the nurses aides and the various types of orderlies and technician. At one point or another, I was shuffled around the hospital hallways by a man from Ethiopia, two people from Haiti, and a woman from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Americans all, dammit. Let me tell you about Myosha. Her parents brought her from Haiti when she was very small and now she’s in high school. She works six days a week hauling the likes of me around on gurneys, and she was taking me down to get yet another X-ray when I asked her what she wanted to do when she graduated. She wants to be a physician’s assistant, Myosha told me, and she wants to work in the ER Trauma unit. That’s tough work, I told her. I was just there. Yes, she told me, and that’s where people need help the most. She was disappointed because she’d learned that morning that she wouldn’t have to work on Christmas Day. “I wanted to work that day,” she told me. “with the old people in the hospital, because they have nobody with them and it is Christmas.” Honest to god, if she’d sprouted wings and flown me down the hall, I wouldn’t have been shocked at all.

I have heard from so many people, even some of them who have felt the kick of the shebeen’s poitin straight, no chaser. Joe Scarborough shouted me out on TV; that one had me wondering whether or not it was the goofballs, I admit. My direct-messages on the electric Twitter machine included old sportswriting pals and people I’d worked with at all my various stops. (One former colleague assured me that we could commit a federal narcotics crime and get away with it.) I heard from the longform brigade, one and all, and from athletes and coaches, pols and pundits and TV stars, and even from one presidential candidate, who shall remain anonymous. I heard from all corners of the blogosphere.

And, best of all, of course, I heard from the longtime denizens of the shebeen, many of whom are now paying a cover charge for the two-drink minimum, and I thank you all for that again. What I’m saying is that, along with a look into the opioid crisis, I got a deep vision of the simple fact that there is still a lot of good in this erratic, carbon-based lifeform that we are. Generally, at this time of year, I quote from A Christmas Carol the rebuttal that Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, throws back at the wretched, covetous old sinner in reply to the very first “Bah, Humbug” that the old man utters. (By the way, ACC was first published in London on this week in 1831. I learned this on the intertoobz because what in the hell else did I have to do.) But we’re going a little deeper into the text this year, I think, to our first visit to the home of the Cratchits. Scrooge and the Spirit of Christmas Present are invisible in the corner of the little hovel when Bob and Tim come back from church.

“And how did little Tim behave?” asked Mrs. Cratchit, when she had rallied Bob on his credulity, and Bob had hugged his daughter to his heart’s content. “As good as gold,” said Bob, “and better. Somehow he gets thoughtful, sitting by himself so much, and thinks the strangest things you ever heard. He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.”

These are the some of the things I thought while I was lying alone, in the street and in the hospital. We are all lucky motherfckers, the lot of us, even if sometimes, we can’t quite see it. I hear the mail thump. Christmas cards!

Nope. Another inescapable milestone on the road to recovery.

Letters from personal-injury attorneys.

God bless us all, everyone.

Doonesbury — Holy smokes!

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

As If To Prove The Point

Yesterday’s post about the inability of conservatives and Trumpers to use humor was made glaringly clear by the Trump campaign’s tweet to Elizabeth Warren.

Unless you think this is their idea of punching up and admitting that Sen. Warren is superior than they are. Otherwise, as Digby notes, let’s all freak out about how mean she was to the God-fearing Jesus-shouters who have an unnatural obsession with other people’s private lives and how it might ruin her chances for winning over the MAGAnauts.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Make ‘Em Laugh

Sen. Elizabeth Warren got off a good one last week at CNN’s LGBTQ forum.

[Rim shot]

Now that’s how you tell a joke.  And a lot of people got it and thought it killed.  And it did.

Then again, there are those among the Very Serious People who neither know a good joke when they hear one or get all freaked out by whom it might offend.

The glitterati gushed. “The single greatest response to this question, in or outside politics,” wrote actress Minnie Driver. “Made my day,” added actress Alyssa Milano. Javier Muñoz, who recently played the title role in the smash musical “Hamilton,” posted seven emoji of clapping hands.

But Republicans and some Democrats warned that the quip at the CNN-sponsored forum would play poorly among a big swath of voters.

“It’s about telling people who don’t agree with you that they are backward by definition,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic strategist who advised Bill Clinton’s presidential reelection campaign. The line was a “stab” to those who don’t agree with her, he said, and “it is a battle cry for men to turn out against Elizabeth Warren.”

The 44-second exchange captured the promise and peril of Warren’s candidacy. She is quick-witted and sharp-tongued in a way that has played well in the Democratic primary and could prove effective against President Trump. But conservatives warn that she can come off as condescending and dismissive.

Oh, conservatives are warning about coming off as condescending and dismissive?  As if their current example of how to tell a joke is the headliner at the Laugh Factory.

The problem — and I’ve said this many times but obviously it needs repeating — is that the conservatives and the Trumpers do not understand the basic essence of humor or how to tell a joke, including the most important rule: punch up, not down.  Making fun of the snooty, the elite, the pompous, and the self-important works, but making fun of the poor, the downtrodden, the ones hurting does not.  This has been axiomatic in comedy since the ancient Greeks right up through today.

This also proves one cosmic truth about humor: it is the ultimate weapon against Trump and the base who support him.  They literally cannot take a joke, and every time someone gets off a laugh at their expense, it makes them look like the fools and trolls that they are, especially when they get all huffy about being made the butt of jokes.  And it proves the point that Mel Brooks and many others have known for time out of mind: if you really want to defeat someone, laugh at them.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Sunday Reading

James Fallows in The Atlantic: If Trump were an airline pilot.

Through the 2016 campaign, I posted a series called “Trump Time Capsule” in this space. The idea was to record, in real time, what was known about Donald Trump’s fitness for office—and to do so not when people were looking back on our era but while the Republican Party was deciding whether to line up behind him and voters were preparing to make their choice.

The series reached 152 installments by election day. I argued that even then there was no doubt of Trump’s mental, emotional, civic, and ethical unfitness for national leadership. If you’re hazy on the details, the series is (once again) here.

That background has equipped me to view Trump’s performance in office as consistently shocking but rarely surprising. He lied on the campaign trail, and he lies in office. He insulted women, minorities, “the other” as a candidate, and he does it as a president. He led “lock her up!” cheers at the Republican National Convention and he smiles at “send them back!” cheers now. He did not know how the “nuclear triad” worked then, and he does not know how tariffs work now. He flared at perceived personal slights when they came from Senator John McCain, and he does so when they come from the Prime Minister of Denmark. He is who he was.

The Atlantic editorial staff, in a project I played no part in, reached a similar conclusion. Its editorial urging a vote against Trump was obviously written before the election but stands up well three years later:

He is a demagogue, a xenophobe, a sexist, a know-nothing, and a liar. He is spectacularly unfit for office, and voters—the statesmen and thinkers of the ballot box—should act in defense of American democracy and elect his opponent

The one thing I avoided in that Time Capsule series was “medicalizing” Trump’s personality and behavior. That is, moving from description of his behavior to speculation about its cause. Was Trump’s abysmal ignorance—“Most people don’t know President Lincoln was a Republican!”—a sign of dementia, or of some other cognitive decline? Or was it just more evidence that he had never read a book? Was his braggadocio and self-centeredness a textbook case of narcissistic personality disorder? (Whose symptoms include “an exaggerated sense of self-importance” and “a sense of entitlement and require[s] constant, excessive admiration.”) Or just that he is an entitled jerk? On these and other points I didn’t, and don’t, know.

Like many people in the journalistic world, I received a steady stream of mail from mental-health professionals arguing for the “medicalized” approach. Several times I mentioned the parallel between Trump’s behavior and the check-list symptoms of narcissism. But I steered away from “this man is sick”—naming the cause rather than listing the signs—for two reasons.

The minor reason was the medical-world taboo against public speculation about people a doctor had not examined personally. There is a Catch-22 circularity to this stricture (which dates to the Goldwater-LBJ race in 1964). Doctors who have not treated a patient can’t say anything about the patient’s condition, because that would be “irresponsible”—but neither can doctors who have, because they’d be violating confidences.

Also, a flat ban on at-a-distance diagnosis doesn’t really meet the common-sense test. Medical professionals have spent decades observing symptoms, syndromes, and more-or-less probable explanations for behavior. We take it for granted that an ex-quarterback like Tony Romo can look at an offensive lineup just before the snap and say, “This is going to be a screen pass.” But it’s considered a wild overstep for a doctor or therapist to reach conclusions based on hundreds of hours of exposure to Trump on TV.

My dad was a small-town internist and diagnostician. Back in the 1990s he saw someone I knew, on a TV interview show, and he called me to say: “I think your friend has [a neurological disease]. He should have it checked out, if he hasn’t already.” It was because my dad had seen a certain pattern—of expression, and movement, and facial detail—so many times in the past, that he saw familiar signs, and knew from experience what the cause usually was. (He was right in this case.) Similarly, he could walk down the street, or through an airline terminal, and tell by people’s gait or breathing patterns who needed to have knee or hip surgery, who had just had that surgery, who was starting to have heart problems, et cetera. (I avoided asking him what he was observing about me.)

Recognizing patterns is the heart of most professional skills, and mental health professionals usually know less about an individual patient than all of us now know about Donald Trump. And on that basis, Dr. Bandy Lee of Yale and others associated with the World Mental Health Coalition have been sounding the alarm about Trump’s mental state (including with a special analysis of the Mueller report). Another organization of mental health professionals is the “Duty to Warn” movement.

But the diagnosis-at-a-distance issue wasn’t the real reason I avoided “medicalization.” The main reason I didn’t go down this road was my assessment that it wouldn’t make a difference. People who opposed Donald Trump already opposed him, and didn’t need some medical hypothesis to dislike his behavior. And people who supported him had already shown that they would continue to swallow anything, from “Grab ‘em by … ”  to “I like people who weren’t captured.” The Vichy Republicans of the campaign dutifully lined up behind the man they had denounced during the primaries, and the Republicans of the Senate have followed in that tradition.

But now we’ve had something we didn’t see so clearly during the campaign. These are episodes of what would be called outright lunacy, if they occurred in any other setting: An actually consequential rift with a small but important NATO ally, arising from the idea that the U.S. would “buy Greenland.” Trump’s self-description as “the Chosen One,” and his embrace of a supporter’s description of him as the “second coming of God” and the “King of Israel.” His logorrhea, drift, and fantastical claims in public rallies, and his flashes of belligerence at the slightest challenge in question sessions on the White House lawn. His utter lack of affect or empathy when personally meeting the most recent shooting victims, in Dayton and El Paso. His reduction of any event, whatsoever, into what people are saying about him.Obviously I have no standing to say what medical pattern we are seeing, and where exactly it might lead. But just from life I know this:

  • If an airline learned that a pilot was talking publicly about being “the Chosen One” or “the King of Israel” (or Scotland or whatever), the airline would be looking carefully into whether this person should be in the cockpit.
  • If a hospital had a senior surgeon behaving as Trump now does, other doctors and nurses would be talking with administrators and lawyers before giving that surgeon the scalpel again.
  • If a public company knew that a CEO was making costly strategic decisions on personal impulse or from personal vanity or slight, and was doing so more and more frequently, the board would be starting to act. (See: Uber, management history of.)
  • If a university, museum, or other public institution had a leader who routinely insulted large parts of its constituency—racial or religious minorities, immigrants or international allies, women—the board would be starting to act.
  • If the U.S. Navy knew that one of its commanders was routinely lying about important operational details, plus lashing out under criticism, plus talking in “Chosen One” terms, the Navy would not want that person in charge of, say, a nuclear-missile submarine. (See: The Queeg saga in The Caine Mutiny, which would make ideal late-summer reading or viewing for members of the White House staff.)

Yet now such a  person is in charge not of one nuclear-missile submarine but all of them—and the bombers and ICBMs, and diplomatic military agreements, and the countless other ramifications of executive power.

If Donald Trump were in virtually any other position of responsibility, action would already be under way to remove him from that role. The board at a public company would have replaced him outright or arranged a discreet shift out of power. (Of course, he would never have gotten this far in a large public corporation.) The chain-of-command in the Navy or at an airline or in the hospital would at least call a time-out, and check his fitness, before putting him back on the bridge, or in the cockpit, or in the operating room. (Of course, he would never have gotten this far as a military officer, or a pilot, or a doctor.)

There are two exceptions. One is a purely family-run business, like the firm in which Trump spent his entire previous career. And the other is the U.S. presidency, where he will remain, despite more and more-manifest Queeg-like  unfitness, as long as the GOP Senate stands with him.

(Why the Senate? Because the two constitutional means for removing a president, impeachment and the 25th Amendment, both ultimately require two thirds support from the Senate. Under the 25th Amendment, a majority of the Cabinet can remove a president—but if the president disagrees, he can retain the office unless two thirds of both the House and Senate vote against him, an even tougher standard than with impeachment. Once again it all comes back to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.)

Donald Trump is who we knew him to be. But now he’s worse. The GOP Senate continues to show us what it is.

Cheap Flights — Jiji Lee in The New Yorker checks out these budget airlines.

D.I.Y. Air

This no-frills airline gets you where you want to go, so long as it’s in or around Belarus. You’ll also need to bring your own food, seat cushion, oxygen mask, and, for those flying in basic economy, flight crew. This crafty airline further cuts costs by occasionally allowing passengers to help out with basic tasks—like repairing the wing that will definitely come apart mid-flight.

Newark Air

An affordable option for those flying into New York City. The ticket price unfortunately does not include cab fare from Newark Airport into Manhattan, which will cost you more than the flight itself.

Dunkelhansa

This German airline is popular for its cheap flights to Europe and keeps its fares low by hiring philosophy grad students as flight attendants. Snack-and-beverage services have been replaced by conversations about nihilism. Your seat-pocket reading is just a mirror with which to face your own existential dread as you realize that air travel will never be both cheap and comfortable. (No Wi-Fi.)

Patreon Air

You pay what you can per month. In-flight entertainment is a newsletter that your friend writes semi-regularly and that you’re also paying a hundred dollars a month for.

Rx Air

Owned by a massive pharmaceutical company, Rx Air offers luxury amenities and nonstop flights for less than a hundred dollars. By purchasing a ticket, passengers have implicitly consented to participating in clinical drug trials. Rx Air is the only airline that has given canine flu to humans along with first-class seats at economy prices. Enjoy that extra legroom (if you can still feel your legs after all the injections)!

Three Kids in a Trenchcoat Airlines

A low-cost air service that’s part of the Southwest Airlines family. The flights are so cheap because all of the employees are just three kids stacked on top of each other in a trenchcoat. (You must pay extra for luggage.)

Amazon Prime Air

Same-day arrival guaranteed. There is no first class or even an economy class, because you’ll be riding in a cargo plane with Amazon Prime packages and also delivering the packages. Oh, and you’re an Amazon employee now. There is no food or water on board, but you will get to watch all episodes of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” for free (only if you sign up for Amazon Prime).

Jet Zoo

This pet-friendly airline provides exceptional service to humans and wild animals. You’ll love the expansive seats and Noah’s Ark atmosphere. Check in early or your seatmate will be a hungry Siberian tiger.

Karaoke Air

You pay extra for food and drink, but all karaoke song requests are free. And, although the fuel-efficient aircraft gets you to your destination on time, your flight will feel twice as long when you hear “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” for the twentieth time in a row.

Fly Bieber

Justin Bieber hasn’t produced a single in a while because he’s been too busy learning how to fly a plane. Flights are surprisingly entertaining, and you can see this airline lasting a very long time in the industry, despite what the haters say.

Oceanic

It’s the airplane from the TV show “Lost.” Flights seem to take forever, and it often feels like the pilots have no idea where they’re going. In the end, you’ll find out you were just in purgatory the entire time. But, on the plus side, easy-to-navigate Web site!

Air Bud

Ain’t no rule says a dog can’t fly a plane.

Doonesbury — Quick answers to complex questions.

Friday, July 26, 2019

The Man Behind The Seal

Following up on yesterday’s “Flipping Him The Bird” post, the Washington Post did some research.

Charles Leazott hadn’t thought about the seal in months.

The 46-year-old graphic designer threw it together after the 2016 presidential election — it was one part joke, one part catharsis. He used to be a proud Republican. He voted for George W. Bush. Twice.

But Donald J. Trump’s GOP was no longer his party. So he created a mock presidential seal to prove his point.

He substituted the arrows in the eagle’s claw for a set of golf clubs — a nod to the new president’s favorite pastime. In the other set of talons, he swapped the olive branch for a wad of cash and replaced the United States’ Latin motto with a Spanish insult. Then, his coup de grace: a two-headed imperial bird lifted straight from the Russian coat of arms, an homage to the president’s checkered history with the adversarial country.

“This is the most petty piece of art I have ever created,” the Richmond resident said in an interview with The Washington Post.

The seal wasn’t meant for a wide audience. But then, years later, it wound up stretched across a jumbo-tron screen behind an unwitting President Trump as he spoke to a conference packed with hundreds of his young supporters.

That was Tuesday. On Wednesday, The Post was the first to report that the seal was fake — and that neither the White House, nor Turning Point USA, the organizers of the star-studded Teen Student Action Summit, knew how it got there or where it came from. Leazott woke up Thursday and saw the news in a Reddit post as he drank his morning coffee. Then, a torrent of messages.

“It’s been chaos,” he said. “This is not what I expected when I woke up today.”

[…]

“I’m a graphic designer, it’s just something I tossed together,” he said. “This was just a goofy thing for some people I knew. I had no idea it would blow up like this.”

[…]

In one fell news cycle, Leazott began making money and fielding calls from papers and TV stations from across the country. People wanted to support him. But the trolls came, too.

“The worst has been Facebook,” he said, which he hadn’t checked “in like a year.”

“Holy crap at the amount of vile, hateful Facebook messages,” he said. “It’s apparently a personal affront to some people.”

But, Leazott said, it’s him who gets the last laugh. A photo of Trump in front of his seal is now his computer background, and the person who used it at the event is “either wildly incompetent or the best troll ever — either way, I love them.”

As of Thursday afternoon, Leazott’s shirts were sold out. He said he had to start working with a fulfillment center just to meet the demand. He also revived the primary website for his brand, OneTermDonnie, which includes a paean to the American Civil Liberties Union, where the site says 10 percent of all sales will be directed.

“It’s cool people are buying this, that’s great and all,” he said. “But I’ve got to be honest, I am so tickled in the most petty way possible that the president of the United States, who I despise, stood up and gave a talk in front of this graphic. Whoever put that up is my absolute hero.”

The person who found it and put it up has been fired, so finding him/her a job would be nice.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Flipping Him The Bird

Somebody got clever with the presidential seal and punk’d Trump at a rally.

At first glance, there was nothing unusual about President Trump’s introduction Tuesday at Turning Point USA’s student summit. In many ways, it mirrored the production style that has become synonymous with Trump’s campaign rallies.

Following a 12-minute video illustrating Trump’s rise to the presidency, music blared as the president’s name flashed across a giant screen in a bold shade of red. Trump took the stage and soaked in the raucous cheers from hundreds of young supporters packed inside the Marriott Marquis in Washington.

Charlie Kirk, Turning Point’s outspoken founder and executive director, was on his left. But the image on the screen to Trump’s right — captured in dozens of photos and videos from the event — is less familiar.

The image almost resembles the official seal of the president, but a closer examination reveals alterations that seem to poke fun at the president’s golfing penchant and accusations that he has ties to Russia. Neither the White House nor Turning Point knows how it got there or who created it.

The eagle has two heads instead of one — a symbol historically tied to empire and dominance. It closely resembles the bird on the Russian coat of arms and also appears on the flags of Serbia, Albania and Montenegro. Its left talons, rather than clasping 13 arrows, appear to clutch a set of golf clubs.

One Washington Post reader noted a website that sells merchandise featuring what appears to be the same fake seal. In those images, the words on the parody eagle’s banner say “45 es un titere,” which in Spanish translates to “45 is a puppet.” On the official presidential seal, the eagle’s mouth holds a banner with the U.S. motto, “E pluribus unum” — out of many, one. The fake seal on the shop’s merchandise shows the eagle clutching cash in its right talons.

Heh.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Sunday Reading

Charles P. Pierce — Paranoia Strikes Deep.

Something about Speaker Nancy Pelosi sets all the bats flying in his belfry. On Thursday, the president* and his administration* surrendered to the bats entirely. The belfry is too crowded with bats for anyone of them to think clearly and every damn one of them at this point is in some way barking mad. I warned you about the prion disease that was eating the higher functions of the conservative brain ever since Ronald Reagan first fed them the monkey-brains in 1980. They are the living dead now, and they are running the country.

First, there was this insane press availability—the second insane press availability in as many days, if you’re keeping score while fleeing the country—in which El Caudillo del Mar-a-Lago dragooned his minions into public assertions that he had been, in his own words, “an extremely stable genius” during his brief meeting with Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, the one that he ended with a badly rehearsed tantrum. From Politico:

In a remarkable scene, the president proceeded to name-check senior White House staff and advisers in the Roosevelt Room whom he said had attended Wednesday’s session on infrastructure initiatives with top congressional Democrats — which Trump abandoned after declaring that the lawmakers could not simultaneously negotiate legislation while investigating and threatening to impeach him. “Kellyanne, what was my temperament yesterday?” Trump asked White House counselor Kellyanne Conway. “Very calm. No tamper tantrum,” she replied before criticizing journalists’ coverage of the meeting, which Trump has complained portrayed him with a “rage narrative.”

It was a reporter’s question at the White House about Pelosi’s “intervention” remark — which Trump dubbed “a nasty-type statement” — that put the president on the defensive Thursday. He began turning to aides such as Mercedes Schlapp, the White House director of strategic communications, and pressing them for first-hand accounts of his scuttled meeting with Democrats. “You were very calm and you were very direct, and you sent a very firm message to the speaker and to the Democrats,” Schlapp said.

Next up was Trump’s top economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, who said the president’s conversation with Democrats was “much calmer than some of our trade meetings,” followed by White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who described the president’s demeanor as “very calm and straightforward and clear.”

But the greatest praise for the commander in chief came from Trump himself, who told the assembled members of the media during one non-sequitur: “I’m an extremely stable genius. OK?”

Highly respected Intertoobz weisenheimers were split over whether the president* was re-enacting this famous movie scene, or this famous television skit.

Later on, after this brief comic interlude, the president* got down to some serious paranoia, and things stopped being funny very quickly.

He reiterated Thursday that he believes he is the victim of a long-running effort that meant to stop him from winning in 2016, delegitimize his presidency and remove him from office either through impeachment or by Democrats damaging him enough with investigations that he can’t be re-elected. He has charged that some of his adversaries are guilty of treason, and he was asked Thursday to provide the names of people who should be held accountable for a crime punishable by death. Trump answered with a list of names: McCabe, Comey, former FBI agent Peter Strzok and former Justice Department official Lisa Page. Strzok and Page exchanged text messages during the 2016 campaign — when the FBI was investigating Trump’s operation — that disparaged him, and Trump says attempted to prevent him from winning.

He answered with a list of names. Of people he thinks should be tried as traitors and subject to the only crime defined in the Constitution and one that is punishable by death. Think about that.

And, later on Thursday, he put the power of his office behind this angry fantastical snipe hunt of his. From the AP:

The move marked an escalation in Trump’s efforts to “investigate the investigators,” as he continues to try to undermine the findings of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe amid mounting Democratic calls to bring impeachment proceedings against Trump. Press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement that Trump is delegating to Barr the “full and complete authority” to declassify documents relating to the probe, which would ease his efforts to review the sensitive intelligence underpinnings of the investigation. Such an action could create fresh tensions within the FBI and other intelligence agencies, which have historically resisted such demands.

Trump is giving Barr a new tool in his investigation, empowering his attorney general to unilaterally unseal documents that the Justice Department has historically regarded as among its most highly secret. Warrants obtained from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, for instance, are not made public — not even to the person on whom the surveillance was authorized. Trump explicitly delegated Barr with declassification power — noting it would not automatically extend to another attorney general — and only for use in the review of the Russia investigation. Before using the new authority, Barr should consult with intelligence officials “to the extent he deems it practicable,” Trump wrote in a memo formalizing the matter.

If you’re an FBI agent, and you’ve been chasing down, say, something about where Deutsche Bank got some of its money, and you hear this news, you’re not sleeping well tonight, I guarantee you. And that’s the point.

And the last signifying event on Thursday was the superseding indictment filed by the Department of Justice against Julian Assange, who now stands accused not of helping Chelsea Manning hack a government server, but of 17 violations of the Espionage Act in sharing the fruits of Manning’s hacking with various news organizations. This move runs headlong into both the First Amendment and the Supreme Court’s decision in the Pentagon Papers case. But with the very real possibility that Assange may never see the inside of a U.S. courtroom, it’s incumbent on us to look for another motive for this overreaching indictment. From The New York Times:

For the purposes of press freedoms, what matters is not who counts as a journalist, but whether journalistic activities — whether performed by a “journalist” or anyone else — can be crimes in America. The Trump administration’s move could establish a precedent used to criminalize future acts of national-security journalism, said Jameel Jaffer of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. “The charges rely almost entirely on conduct that investigative journalists engage in every day,” he said. “The indictment should be understood as a frontal attack on press freedom.”

If you’re an investigative reporter, and you get a tip about, say, where Deutsche Bank got some of its money, and you hear this news, you’re not sleeping well tonight, I guarantee you. And that’s the point. With the active connivance of his pet attorney general, William Barr, the president* is putting his own law enforcement apparatus and the free press on notice—do what I want or I will make your lives hell. The only saving grace in the whole situation is that Nancy Pelosi is driving him so far up the wall that he probably can’t concentrate long enough to be the dictator he wants to be. That’s a helluva thing to hang your republic on, but here we are.

Carl Hiaasen — Ghost Stories

The ghost of Richard Nixon sat down in his favorite armchair in front of the television. He still didn’t know how to work the remote, so the ghost of H.R. “Bob” Haldeman turned on the TV and handed the former president a glass of red wine.

“What channel?” Haldeman’s ghost asked.

“Anything but Dan Rather.”

The ghost of Haldeman got tired of reminding his former boss that the pesky Rather had been gone from CBS for years. He put on the Fox News network, which was broadcasting live from the Rose Garden at the White House.

“I never liked those outdoor press things,” the ghost of Nixon remarked sourly. “You’d always hear those damn hippies raising hell across the street in Lafayette Park. The anti-war crowd, you know. Did we ever find out who was paying them?”

Haldeman’s ghost said, “Still working on that, Mr. President.”

Just then, on television, the current non-ghost president entered the Rose Garden and announced that he’d just walked out of a meeting with Congressional Democrats because they were all out to get him.

“Welcome to the club,” muttered Nixon’s ghost, and took a loud sip of wine.

On TV, the mortal president began to fulminate, veering from one random topic to another —investigations, infrastructure, the Mueller report, his unfairly persecuted son Don Jr. On it went.

Fascinated, the ghost of Nixon edged forward in his chair.

“Didn’t his staff give him a list of talking points?” he asked.

“He pays no attention to his staff,” Haldeman’s ghost explained. “He likes to wing it.”

“Is he insane, or is this just an act?” Nixon’s ghost signaled for more wine. “They said I was nuts for talking to the White House portraits in the middle of the night, but I was drunk as a skunk at the time. What’s this guy’s excuse?”

Haldeman’s ghost shrugged. “Trump doesn’t drink. We’ve had this discussion before.”

The Rose Garden tirade went on for 12 full minutes. The ghost of Nixon watched transfixed, his expression pinched and brooding. Afterward, when the Fox commentators began chattering, he told Haldeman’s ghost to mute the volume.

“Bob, that was the most unconvincing, half-assed denial of a cover-up I’ve heard,” the ghost of Nixon said. “Mine were so much better.”

“Absolutely, Mr. President. Your denials were rock-solid. The gold standard.”

“Well, until the day I resigned.”

“This fellow won’t ever do that,” said Haldeman’s ghost.

“You think they’ll actually impeach him? That’s what he seems to want.” The ghost of Nixon gazed out the window, his mood sinking as it often did. “Maybe I should’ve gone the impeachment route instead of quitting. Made those bastards drag me from the Oval Office kicking and fighting.”

The ghost of Haldeman was accustomed to such maudlin talk. “Mr. President, they don’t have the votes in the Senate to convict Trump. That wasn’t your situation during Watergate. You did the honorable thing by sparing the nation a long, divisive trial.”

“That’s right — and the damn liberal media, they claimed I did it just for the pardon!”

“History will judge you kindly,” said the ghost of Haldeman, a line he used no less than 10 times a day to placate his old friend.

But the face of Nixon’s ghost was a familiar mask of bitter intensity.

“Bob, I could be spiteful, paranoid and anti-Semitic, but I never paid hush money to a porn star! I never hid my IRS returns from the public! I never grabbed women’s privates and bragged about it! I never got campaign dirt from the Russians, even in the McGovern race! And I never ordered anyone working for me to defy a Congressional subpoena. I might’ve asked them to tidy up their testimony a little, but —”

“Mr. President, all you ever did was lie about a third-rate burglary.”

“Exactly! Compared to this guy, I was a model commander-in-chief. My face ought to be up on Mount Rushmore next to Lincoln and FDR!”

It wasn’t unusual for the ghost of Nixon to mix up his Roosevelts after a few drinks. Haldeman’s ghost said nothing.

“Bob, answer me this. Trump tells more lies before lunch every day than I told in all six years I was there. How on Earth is he still sitting in that office? And don’t get me started on his hair! Did he steal that stupid wig from Carol Channing?”

“Time for your nap, Mr. President,” Haldeman’s ghost said gently. “Don’t worry. I’ll wake you up for ‘Jeopardy!’”

“That kid with the name I can’t pronounce — he’s still winning?”

“Yes, he is.”

Hmmm,” said Nixon’s ghost, rising. “I guess that’s all right.”

Doonesbury — Act now!

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Sunday Reading

Be Grateful — Kori Schake in The Atlantic.

Passover and Easter are religious holidays of gratitude—gratitude for the release of the Jewish people from Egypt, gratitude by Christians for the sacrifice of Jesus in redemption for humanity’s sins. The Trump administration may have cynically calculated that releasing the Mueller report on the eve of a double holiday might dampen interest, but the timing seems oddly fitting, because the special counsel’s findings provide so much to be grateful for.

Undoubtedly, the special counsel’s report on the 2016 election makes for grim reading. A foreign government conducted a years-long campaign to undermine American democracy. It used the openness of our society and the technologies of our creation against us. Russia crafted “a social media campaign designed to provoke and amplify political and social discord in the United States,” paired with criminal acts designed to assist the election of Trump. And they succeeded.

The Russian influence operation should be taught in graduate schools of political science and journalism—and in intelligence training programs. Operatives began in mid-2014 to identify social fissures and build a wide following. They passed as American citizens and organizations while assisting candidates Trump and Bernie Sanders. They shifted as the presidential race narrowed to “a targeted operation that by early 2016 favored candidate Trump and disparaged candidate Clinton.” They orchestrated not just internet activities but also acts in the physical world, including rallies. They intruded into the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee to steal hundreds of thousands of documents, made those documents public via third parties thought to be independent of the Russian government (including WikiLeaks), attempted (in some cases successfully) to access voting machines in 21 U.S. states, and surreptitiously purchased political advertising to affect voting in swing states. The former FBI agent Clint Watts has argued that even shielding Trump from direct contact was by design, because the “standard Russian approach would have been to influence Mr. Trump through surrogates like Mr. Gates and Paul Manafort rather than through direct command.”

Nevertheless, let us be grateful that our worst suspicions were not substantiated: The president of the United States is not a traitor. A liar, a petty and ineffectual chief executive who repeatedly attempted to get others to commit illegal acts and suborn themselves for his protection—those qualities the Mueller investigation proved. But not a traitor. The Mueller investigation unearthed no evidence that the president is in the employ of a hostile foreign power or actively cooperating with a hostile foreign power to harm our country. That it even had to be proved is shocking, but it is nonetheless a relief to know that Trump is not a Manchurian candidate.

The rule of law is being upheld even where politically damaging to the powerful. Special Counsel Robert Mueller determined that Russian activities violated U.S. criminal law and charged those identified with “conspiracy to defraud the United States by undermining through deceptive acts the work of federal agencies charged with regulating foreign influence in U.S. elections, as well as related counts of identity theft.” The investigation concluded that there was no evidence American citizens had conspired or coordinated on those operations, which is also cause for relief (although the report notes a “reasonable argument” that Donald Trump Jr. violated campaign-finance laws).

Another source of relief is the extent to which the agencies of government and civil society worked as intended. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Agency saw the pattern of interference early and properly reported it to both the executive and legislative branches. They were unwavering in their assessments even when the president attempted to suborn them (the deputy attorney general, the FBI director, the NSA director and deputy director all documented those attempts). The Justice Department initiated investigation and sustained it against blistering pressure. Individual failures abounded, but bureaucracies are designed to buffer against individual failure, and they largely succeeded.

Journalists, too, deserve applause and appreciation. American media reported on all of the key elements in the report before its publication: Instigation of social division, the Trump Tower meeting, Paul Manafort’s decision to share polling data, WikiLeaks’ timed release of hacked emails to blunt the effect of the Access Hollywood tape, Eric Prince’s Seychelles meeting, Michael Flynn’s phone call to Russian Ambassador Kislyak, widespread lying to investigators by Trump associates. The only new element I saw in the Russia volume of the Mueller report was that Jared Kushner had devised a “reconciliation plan” for the U.S. and Russia. Journalists, too, have been under constant derogation by the president, yet have continued to provide the public with accurate information and essential insight into the conduct of administration officials.

Journalists do deserve some condemnation for their unwitting complicity in Russia’s interference campaign. Russian military intelligence rightly assessed that American journalists would be unable to resist the temptation to report on criminally acquired information. All of the major American news outlets regaled readers with stories of hypocrisy and personal quirks (John Podesta’s pasta sauce) that hurt the Democrats. Keeping our government honest requires journalists to receive leaks, and journalism is a business as well as a profession, so they are not to be maligned for writing about what the public will pay to read or watch. But in this new Wild West of cyberespionage, journalists ought to be more introspective about whether to publish stolen information.

I’m also grateful that, through this process, rather unlikely individuals have proved themselves capable of standing on principle. I confess I was surprised by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s starchiness in protecting the investigation, as well as by the number of people who simply disregarded presidential direction they considered illegal or immoral. Obviously it’s not ideal that senior government figures felt they had to ignore the elected chief executive, but even some of the least upright people the president has surrounded himself with, it turns out, have a useful sense of self-preservation, maybe a moral compass. Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis got a standing ovation at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner for his integrity; the Mueller report indicates that figures of less obvious rectitude deserve credit for protecting the republic from the president.

Out To Get Them — Satire from Andy Borowitz.

WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report)—Reacting to the journalist April Ryan’s call for her to be fired, the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said, on Friday, that she has been the victim of the media’s “widespread anti-liar bias.”

“From their obsession with fact-checking to their relentless attacks on falsehoods, the media have made no secret of their bias,” Sanders said. “It’s open season on liars in America.”

“This is media hypocrisy at its very worst,” she added. “The same journalists who advocate freedom of speech want to take that freedom away from anyone whose speech consists entirely of lies.”

“This is nothing more or less than a direct attack on the lying life style,” she said. “You take away my right to lie and you take away my ability to earn a living.”

Kellyanne Conway, the White House senior counsellor, spoke out in support of Sanders, telling reporters, “An attack on one liar is an attack on all liars.”

“Our country has seen some dark days, from the Bowling Green Massacre to the bugging of the White House microwave,” she said. “But this might be the darkest.”

Doonesbury — Milestones.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Sunday Reading

Blown Away — James Fallows in The Atlantic on ridding the nation’s capital of the leaf-blower.

For a long time I thought the problem was all in my head. When I was growing up, I knew that a certain kind of noise was one I needed to avoid. Food blenders in the kitchen, hair dryers in the bathroom, a vacuum cleaner whooshing around—all produced an intense whining sound that, given the specific wiring connections between my ears and my brain, kept me from thinking about anything but the sound itself while it was going on. Over the years I lived by this code: I used high-performance earplugs if I needed to write or otherwise concentrate while sitting in some place that was unusually loud. I added noise-canceling headphones on top of the earplugs in really tough cases.

As time went on, the earplugs-plus-headphones protection rig became standard writing gear. That was because the use of gas-powered leaf blowers in my Washington, D.C., neighborhood evolved from a few hours a week during the leafiest stretch of autumn to most days of the week, most weeks of the year, thanks to the advent of the “groomed” look that modern lawn crews are expected to achieve. One of my longest-running themes as a journalist has been how changes in technology force people to adapt their habits and livelihoods. I thought I was doing my part, with gear that let me attend to my work while others attended to theirs. There even turned out to be a bonus: As other parts of my body went into a predictable age-related descent, my hearing remained sharp.

Then I learned several things that changed my thinking both about leaf blowers and, up to a point, about politics.

One thing I learned has to do with the technology of leaf blowers. Their high volume, which I had long considered their most salient feature, is only their second-most-unusual aspect. The real marvel is the living-fossil nature of their technology. And because the technology is so crude and old, the level of pollution is off the charts.

When people encounter engines these days, they’re generally seeing the outcome of decades of intense work toward higher efficiency. The latest models of jet-turbine engines are up to 80 percent more fuel-efficient than their 1950s counterparts. While power plants burning natural gas obviously emit more carbon than wind or solar facilities, they emit about half as much as coal-fired plants. Today, the average car on America’s streets is almost 200 percent more efficient than in 1950, and smog-causing emissions from cars are about 99 percent lower.

The great outlier here is a piece of obsolete machinery Americans encounter mainly in lawn-care equipment: the humble “two-stroke engine.” It’s simpler, cheaper, and lighter than the four-stroke engines of most modern cars, and has a better power-to-weight ratio. But it is vastly dirtier and less fuel-efficient, because by design it sloshes together a mixture of gasoline and oil in the combustion chamber and then spews out as much as one-third of that fuel as an unburned aerosol. If you’ve seen a tuk‑tuk, one of the noisy tricycle-style taxis in places such as Bangkok and Jakarta, with purple smoke wafting out of its tailpipe, you’ve seen a two-stroke engine in action.

But you won’t see as many of them in those cities anymore, because governments in Asia and elsewhere have been banning and phasing out two-stroke engines on antipollution grounds. In 2014 a study published in Nature Communications found that VOC emissions (a variety of carbon gases that can produce smog and harm human beings) were on average 124 times higher from an idling two-stroke scooter than from a truck or a car. With respect to benzene, a carcinogenic pollutant, the group found that each cubic meter of exhaust from an idling two-stroke scooter contained 60,000 times the safe level of exposure. Two-stroke engines have largely disappeared from the scooter, moped, and trail-bike markets in America. Regulators around the world are pushing older two-stroke engines toward extinction.

Yet they remain the propulsive force behind the 200-mph winds coming out of many backpack leaf blowers. As a product category, this is a narrow one. But the impact of these little machines is significant. In 2017, the California Air Resources Board issued a warning that may seem incredible but has not been seriously challenged: By 2020, gas-powered leaf blowers, lawn mowers, and similar equipment in the state could produce more ozone pollution than all the millions of cars in California combined. Two-stroke engines are that dirty. Cars have become that clean.

So that’s one thing I learned about gas-powered blowers. A second thing I discovered is the damage leaf blowers do to people’s hearing. The biggest worry of today’s public-health community is not, of course, leaf blowers—it’s the opioid disaster, plus addictions of other forms. The next-biggest worry is obesity, plus diabetes and the other ills that flow from it. But coming up fast on the list is hearing loss. According to a 2017 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one-quarter of Americans ages 20 to 69 who reported good to excellent hearing actually had diminished hearing. This is largely caused by rising levels of ambient urban noise—sirens, traffic, construction, leaf blowers—which can lead to a range of disorders, from high blood pressure to depression to heart disease. “When I started out, I’d see people in their 60s with hearing problems,” says Robert Meyers, an ENT specialist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Now I’m seeing them in their 40s.”

Leaf blowers are especially insidious. Something about their sound had long attracted my attention. A study organized by Jamie Banks, a scientist and the founder of Quiet Communities, a Boston-area nonprofit, quantified what it was. Acoustic engineers from a firm called Arup compared gas- and battery-powered blowers with equal manufacturer-rated noise levels. Their analysis showed that gas-powered blowers produce far more “sound energy” in the low-frequency range. This may seem benign—who doesn’t like a nice basso profundo?—but it has a surprising consequence. High-frequency sound—a mosquito’s buzz, a dental drill—gets your attention, but it does not travel. It falls off rapidly with distance and struggles to penetrate barriers. If you’re in the next room, you may not hear it at all. By contrast, low-frequency noise has great penetrating power: It goes through walls, cement barriers, and many kinds of hearing-protection devices. The acoustic study found that in a densely settled neighborhood, a gas-powered blower rated at, say, 75 decibels of noisiness can affect up to 15 times as many households as a battery-powered blower with the same 75-decibel rating.

Hearing damage is cumulative. When the tiny, sound-sensing hairlike cells, called stereocilia, in the inner ear are damaged—usually by extended exposure to sounds of 85 decibels or above—they are generally gone for good. For the landscapers (and homeowners) who use gas-powered blowers—a foot away from their ears—the most powerful can produce sounds of 100 decibels or more. Meyers told me, “Each time I see these crews, I think to myself: 10 years from now, they’ll be on the path to premature deafness.

In the three decades since backpack blowers from Echo, Stihl, and other companies became popular, at least 100 U.S. cities have banned or restricted their use. Most of those cities are in California, because California is the only state whose jurisdictions have the authority to set their own air-pollution standards. With air-quality standards that were more aggressive than those in other states, California received special treatment under the Clean Air Act when it was passed in 1970. In the rest of the country, the law gives standard-setting authority to the federal government, which in practice means the Environmental Protection Agency.

Considering the current condition of the EPA, people wanting to regulate leaf blowers could be forgiven for throwing up their hands. But as it happens, there is another legally and scientifically legitimate line of attack: going after gas-powered blowers not because they pollute but because they make so much noise.

Starting in 2013, my wife, Deb, and I traveled around the country to report on local-improvement narratives, which always seemed to begin with “I wondered why my town didn’t do _______, so I decided to get involved.” We’d long been active at our kids’ schools and with their sports teams. But we wondered why our town—Washington, D.C.—wasn’t doing something about the leaf-blower menace, given that an obvious solution was at hand. We joined a small neighborhood group—barely 10 people at its peak—to try to get a regulatory or legislative change, using noise, not pollution, as the rationale.

In November 2015, we had our first success, when our Advisory Neighborhood Commission—the most local governmental unit in the District—voted 8–1 to support phasing out gas-powered leaf blowers. (The one no vote came from a libertarian who didn’t like regulation of anything.) In retrospect, the resulting request was amazingly timid. We simply asked that our city-council member, Mary Cheh, introduce legislation for a ban. She did so; the measure got nowhere by the end of the council’s term in 2016; she introduced a new measure in 2017. Over the next 18 months, we successfully encouraged more than a third of all ANCs in D.C., representing seven of the District’s eight wards, to endorse council action on the bill. Anyone aware of the racial, economic, and other dividing lines within Washington can imagine the level of organizing and explanation necessary to achieve such broad support.

In July 2018, the chair of the city council, Phil Mendelson, convened a hearing to consider the bill. Nearly 20 witnesses spoke in favor. They included members of our group as well as scientists, a former regulator, an acoustic engineer, representatives of the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society, ordinary citizens and residents, and landscapers who had switched to all-battery operation. On the other side were two industry lobbyists, who said that market innovation and “courteous” leaf-blower use were the answer. Council members listened to them with visible incredulity. In the fall, the full council approved the bill unanimously. In December, Washington’s mayor, Muriel Bowser, signed it into law. On January 1, 2022, the use of gas-powered leaf blowers will be illegal within city limits.

After spending decades writing about national politics, I’ve come away from this experience having learned some lessons about local politics—obvious lessons, maybe, but also vivid ones.

To begin with: Showing up matters. Our group met in person every two or three weeks over more than three and a half years. Perhaps our most indefatigable member, a lawyer, made presentations at dozens of ANC meetings. We got to know the legislative directors and schedulers for many of the District’s 13 council members.

Having facts also matters—yes, even in today’s America. At the beginning of the process, it felt as if 99 percent of the press coverage and online commentary was in the sneering “First World problem!” vein. That has changed. The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Washington Monthly, and other publications have called attention to the leaf-blower problem, often arguing that gas-powered blowers should be banned. Reflexive sneering is down to about 5 percent among people who have made time to hear the facts. Noise, they have come to understand, is the secondhand smoke of this era.

Technological momentum and timing matter. We worried all along that the lawn-care industry would mount a major lobbying effort against the bill. It never did. Nearly everyone in the industry knows that 10 years from now, practically all leaf blowers will be battery-powered. One of our arguments was that we were simply accelerating the inevitable.

Having a champion matters. At a “meet the council member” session on a rainy Saturday morning in the fall of 2015, Mary Cheh said she’d stay with the bill—if she could rely on us to keep showing up. We did our part, and she did hers—she stayed with it to the end.

Luck matters as well. In its first journey through the council, starting in 2016, Cheh’s bill was assigned to a committee whose chair was a council member whose approach to many bills seemed to boil down to: What’s in it for me? To widespread surprise, apparently including his own, a long-shot challenger upset him in the primaries for the 2016 election.

The final lesson is: Don’t get hung up on the conventional wisdom—it’s only wise until it isn’t. Everyone says nothing gets done in Washington. This one time, everyone was wrong.

Time-Shifting — Joel Achenbach in the Washington Post about the semi-annual argument about DST.

This weekend, Americans will once again navigate their complex relationship with the chronically confusing and arguably misnamed daylight saving time. In most of the United States, the clocks spring forward early Sunday when 2 a.m. suddenly becomes 3 a.m. People are advised to avoid scheduling anything important for 2:30 a.m. Sunday, since, by law, such a moment does not exist.

But the law may change. The national policy of switching from standard time to daylight saving time and back again is under legislative challenge from coast to coast. Multiple initiatives in Congress and in statehouses would terminate our current system of time toggling — a system that started a century ago and has been controversial ever since.

It’s not really daylight saving time that’s drawing fire: It’s standard time. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) on Wednesday reintroduced a bill to make daylight saving time a year-round reality across the country, with no more biannual time changes. Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) introduced matching legislation in the House. The moves come in the wake of a vote in the Florida legislature last year to adopt daylight saving time year-round.

If the Sunshine Protection Act became law, it would essentially end daylight saving time by making it the new, permanent, immutable standard time. (Just to be clear: Astronomically, nothing is new under the sun. The sun will remain a star, radiating light, and Earth will continue to orbit the sun while spinning on an axis. The amount of sunshine will remain the same.)

There are two issues here. One is whether changing the clock is inherently a bad idea, because of sleep disruption, negative health effects and the general confusion generated by a jumpy time system. The other issue is whether we need to favor the evening over the morning when trying to distribute our sunlight — not just during spring and summer and early fall but throughout the year.

Researchers have published a variety of studies that question the wisdom of changing the clock. A 2016 study found evidence that the switch back to standard time in the fall is associated with a spike in diagnoses of depression, for example. A study published in Europe in 2018 found a “modest” increase in heart attacks after the clocks change, with the effect more pronounced during the springtime shift. Certainly the time change can disrupt our sleep cycles, particularly in the spring, research shows.

Rubio and other advocates for year-round DST say it promotes public safety. A 2015 report published in the Review of Economics and Statistics found that extra daylight in the evening after the switch to DST led to a drop in crime that was not offset by increased crime during the darker morning hours. “[R]obbery rates didn’t increase in the morning, even though those hours were darker — apparently, criminals aren’t early risers,” researchers Jennifer Doleac and Nicholas Sanders wrote in a Brookings Institution article.

“Studies have shown many benefits of a year-round Daylight Saving Time, which is why Florida’s legislature overwhelmingly voted to make it permanent last year. Reflecting the will of the State of Florida, I’m proud to reintroduce this bill to make Daylight Saving Time permanent nationally,” Rubio said in a statement.

California voters overwhelmingly approved a similar proposition in November. State Assembly member Kansen Chu (D), who represents San Jose and other communities in the heart of Silicon Valley, has introduced year-round DST legislation that is making its way through two committees.

Chu said he became interested in the time change issue when he heard about health risks associated with moving the clocks forward and back. He predicts his bill will easily pass both houses of the state legislature, but he believes Congress needs to lead the way to ensure that state action won’t run afoul of federal law.

“I guess it’s all depending on how fast the people on Capitol Hill can move on this issue. I know they have a lot of more important headaches,” Chu told The Washington Post.

Business interests have long supported the later daylight, he said. For example, the golf industry and the barbecue industry have been big promoters.

There’s one massive objection to the idea of year-round DST: The already dark, cold mornings of fall and winter under standard time would become even darker and colder, and potentially dangerous for kids walking to the bus stop or to school. “National PTA is opposed to daylight saving time during the winter months because of the safety factor,” said Heidi May Wilson, spokeswoman for the National Parent Teacher Association.

Daylight saving time was first implemented by Germany during World War I and was soon adopted in the United States. But it was always controversial, particularly among farmers, who liked early morning daylight in the summer. It became a cultural conflict between agrarian and metropolitan interests, said Michael Downing, an English professor at Tufts University and author of “Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time.”

DST was implemented haphazardly for decades, until Congress passed the Uniform Time Act in 1966 to bring some order to the system. Some states and territories opted out, however. Arizona, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are among the places that still reject DST. Congress has extended the duration of DST twice, and it now covers two-thirds of the year. Since 2007, DST has begun on the second Sunday in March and ended on the first Sunday in November.

Critics say DST is an artifact of a different era. One of the purported virtues of the switch has been that it saves energy. But there’s no evidence that, in the modern world, shoving daylight into the evening hours saves significant amounts of energy, said Matthew Kotchen, a Yale professor of economics who co-wrote a study on energy usage in Indiana before and after the state adopted DST. Lighting is far more efficient now, he said. Moreover, when the sun remains in the sky into the “evening” hours, homes remain warmer and people are more likely to keep their air conditioners running. Heating and cooling are much bigger factors than lighting when it comes to energy consumption, he said.

“There may be a lot of reasons why we want daylight saving time and why we don’t, but the only thing I can say for sure is that daylight saving time should not be part of the Energy Policy Act,” Kotchen said.

A stylebook note: It’s not “daylight savings time.” That’s imprecise speech. Also, while we’re at it: Daylight saving time does not really save daylight. It should be called daylight shifting time.

“There continues to be the mythic idea that we are saving something by turning our clocks forward and backward,” Downing said. “It’s such a preposterous idea that we can gain or lose an hour by simply sticking our finger in the face of our clocks.”

Almighty Wrath — Andy Borowitz hears from God.

MONTGOMERY, Alabama (The Borowitz Report)—God has offered to give the people of Alabama brand new Bibles to replace the ones that Donald J. Trump signed during his visit to the state on Friday.

In a rare public statement from the famously mysterious deity, God said that He was furious at Trump “for defacing My book,” calling Trump’s signature “a wanton act of vandalism.”

“Where was Mike Pence in all of this?” God asked. “These people can’t do anything right.”

God added that He was “dumbfounded” that Trump had taken it upon himself to sign his name on a book to which he had “no relationship whatsoever.”

“I’ve got news for Trump: the Bible is not ‘The Art of the Deal,’ ” God said. “Of course, he didn’t write that book, either.”

Doonesbury — Gut instinct.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Sunday Reading

The Central Issue — Charles P. Pierce on the Democrats’ identity crisis.

I may have mentioned once or twice that the single most dispiriting political event I ever attended—prior to Election Night 2016, that is—was the 1982 Democratic Midterm Convention in Philadelphia. This was the first gathering of the party since the disastrous 1980 general elections and it was prior to the party’s partial legislative comeback in the midterm elections later that year. Mainly, it was an ensemble exercise in performance-art terror at the prospect of dealing with the electoral juggernaut that was Ronald Reagan. Bold strokes were readily dismissed. “We have concluded,” said a great Texas progressive named Billie Carr, in summing up the first day of this fiasco, “that crime is really bad.”

The chairman, a banker buddy of Jimmy Carter’s named Charles Manatt, was ever alert to any signs that the party’s left flank would be tempted to color outside the lines. In that event you could see the sprouting seeds of what became the Democratic Leadership Counsel and every attempt thereafter to restructure the Democratic Party along a more corporate-friendly, less-civil-rights-conscious lines—from the DLC, to the Concord Coalition, to “neoliberalism,” to Pete Peterson’s assaults on Social Security, to No Labels, to the cult of Simpson-Bowles, to the Problem Solvers Caucus and right up to the present day. In 1982, the entire gathering was so deadeningly cautious that I wound up spending most of the first afternoon and evening in the hotel bar with Christopher Hitchens and Alex Cockburn, drinking many funereal toasts to any politician to the left of Scoop Jackson.

So, anyway, I’ve been watching these folks for a long time. And one of the things that consistently drove me around the bend was the refashioning of the word “centrist” to suit the agenda of the DLC and its many descendants. What we had here were conservative Democrats—in truth, some of them were more Eisenhower Republicans—but there suddenly was no such thing as a conservative Democrat. There were liberals and “centrists.” For decades, the dialogue shifted inexorably that direction. (One of the side effects was that, as the Republicans slid steadily off the right edge of the political world, some Reaganauts found themselves referred to as “moderates,” which did not help matters, either.) Now, though, “centrist” has taken on a whole new meaning and a whole new purpose within the Democratic Party. It is now a club to beat people with.

In the long view of history, a lot of people who are being accused of being “centrist”—or, more often, “centrist corporate Democrats”—hold positions well off the port beam of the 1972 McGovern campaign, and almost over the horizon from the left side of most Democratic presidential candidates of the past 20-odd years. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 2016 platform was the most progressive Democratic platform since McGovern’s. That’s not deniable. Neither is the fact that the most conservative member of the prospective Democratic field in 2020 is Joe Biden. But if, as a lot of people seem to believe, anyone who is not full-tilt behind the Green New Deal and/or Medicare For All is unacceptably “centrist,” then the word has lost all meaning and the Democratic Party is in danger of losing its way.

Bernie Sanders had a moment with Stephen Colbert on Thursday night that is worth studying in this regard. They were talking about Medicare For All, and Sanders said it is no longer a fringe idea, which is true. Colbert asked, logically, what the political path to achieving this laudable goal might be, particularly through a Republican-controlled Senate. Sanders replied:

If the Democrats in the House move us in the direction of Medicare For All, and Mitch McConnell chooses not to do anything, there will be enormous pressure all over this country on Republican senators to do the right thing, do what the House did.

Now, it is not being “centrist,” or “corporate,” or in any way “neoliberal” to point out that Sanders here is being almost preternaturally optimistic, to the point of being unacceptably glib, about the difficulty of getting McConnell and the Republicans to do anything of the sort. And swinging those words around like a baseball bat to any Democratic politician who points out that’s a short route to chaos and a return to general minority status.

The fact is that there is a natural center in American politics that is not neoliberal, or corporate, or “centrist,” in the ever-changing meaning of that word. My politics don’t happen to reside there, but that doesn’t make it any less real. It’s been obscured by decades of dishonest politics, personal agendas, and rhetorical sleight-of-hand. It happens to be the solid place whence can be launched real progress. Political patience is the most lost art of all.

Teachable Moments — Humor from Andy Borowitz in The New Yorker.

WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report)—Pushing back against criticism of her lack of diplomatic experience, Donald J. Trump’s choice to be the next United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Heather Nauert, said on Friday that a memorable visit to the “It’s a Small World” ride at Disney World made her eminently qualified for the U.N. post.

“When people look at me, they think Heather Nauert, former Fox News anchor,” Nauert told reporters at the State Department. “What they don’t realize is I’m also Heather Nauert, who went on ‘It’s a Small World’ three times when she was nine.”

Nauert said that, while career diplomats might spend twenty to thirty years learning about only one country, “I learned about twenty-five countries in fifteen minutes.”

Laying out her objectives for her tenure at the United Nations, the prospective Ambassador said, “Right now I’m just looking forward to seeing all of the other Ambassadors wearing their festive costumes and doing their dances. That’s going to be amazing, I think.”

Nauert bristled when a reporter asked about her controversial comment that D Day was evidence of the long-standing bond between Germany and the United States. “At the end of the day, there is just one moon and one golden sun, and a smile means friendship to everyone,” she said.

Doonesbury — Message delivered.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Laughed Out Loud

Via the Washington Post:

Trump has long argued that the United States has been taken advantage of by other nations — a “laughing stock to the entire World,” he said on Twitter in 2014 — and his political rise was based on the premise that he had the strength and resolve to change that.

But at the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, Trump got a comeuppance on the world’s biggest stage. Delivering a speech that aimed to establish U.S. “sovereignty” over the whims and needs of other nations, the president’s triumphant moment was marred in the first minute when he was met by laughter — at his expense.

The embarrassing exchange came when Trump boasted that his administration had accomplished more over two years than “almost any administration” in American history, eliciting audible guffaws in the cavernous chamber hall.

The president appeared startled. “Didn’t expect that reaction,” he said, “but that’s okay.”

Members of the audience chuckled again — perhaps this time in sympathy.

[…]

“The world just laughed @realDonaldTrump,” comedian Wanda Sykes tweeted. Referring to the famed theater in Harlem in which the audience boos and heckles bad performers offstage, she added, “Stay tuned, they might go full ‘Showtime at the Apollo’ on him.”

By the afternoon, Trump was projecting an air of nonchalance, telling reporters that his boast in the speech “was meant to get some laughter.” But most observers weren’t buying it from a president who seldom laughs at himself and whose default expression is an unsparing glare.

I’ve said it many, many times: the only way to bring this clown down is to drown him out with mockery and laughter.  It’s been a proven method all the way from the Greeks through Shakespeare to Mel Brooks.

Bonus: the real “Hail to the Chief.”

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Sunday Reading

It’s my birthday, so let’s lighten things up a little.

Are They Back? — Charles P. Pierce reports on strange goings-on out in New Mexico.

OK, this is pretty weird. From The Alamogordo Daily News:

The Sunspot Observatory is temporarily closed due to a security issue at the facility that’s located 17 miles south of Cloudcroft in the Sacramento Mountains Friday, an Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) spokeswoman Shari Lifson said.“The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy who manages the facility is addressing a security issue at this time,” Lifson said. “We have decided to vacate the facility at this time as precautionary measure. It was our decision to evacuate the facility.”

(Aside: how great is it that there are places in New Mexico called Sunspot and Cloudcroft? Rivendell must have been booked.)

The facility is the National Solar Observatory facility at Sacramento Peak that’s managed by AURA. Apache Point Observatory (APO) is currently in operation. APO was not evacuated. APO is about a mile away from Sunspot observatory. She said AURA does not have a comment about the type of security issue at this time. “I am actually not sure (when the facility was vacated) but it will stay vacated until further notice,” Lifson said. “It’s the people that vacated. At this time, it’s the facility that’s closed.”

Oh, OK.

She said she cannot comment on whether the FBI was involved in the situation. Otero County Sheriff Benny House said the Otero County Sheriff’s Office was asked to standby.

Wait. What?

“The FBI is refusing to tell us what’s going on,” House said. “We’ve got people up there (at Sunspot) that requested us to standby while they evacuate it. Nobody would really elaborate on any of the circumstances as to why. The FBI were up there. What their purpose was nobody will say.” He said he has a lot of unanswered question about what occurred at Sunspot. “But for the FBI to get involved that quick and be so secretive about it, there was a lot of stuff going on up there,” House said. “There was a Blackhawk helicopter, a bunch of people around antennas and work crews on towers but nobody would tell us anything.”

Sunspot, I would point out is only 134 miles from Roswell, as the alien gravity-powered spacecraft flies.

I’m just sayin’.

Love Me Tinder — Irving Ruan imagines legendary lovers meeting via social networking.

Romeo and Juliet

ROMEO: My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand to smooth with a tender kiss . . .

JULIET: Um, I shalt not wanteth sexual congress.

ROMEO: Thus with a text I die!

Two days elapse.

ROMEO: Heyyy, I think I killed your cousin.

Gatsby and Daisy

GATSBY: I’m glad we finally matched. I’ve been stalking you from West Egg for five years.

DAISY: Jesus Christ.

GATSBY: I’ve missed you! And by the way, I’m very rich and look like Leonardo DiCaprio.

DAISY: James, I’m married.

GATSBY: Then why are you on Tinder?

DAISY: I’m bored. LOL.

Lancelot and Guinevere

GUINEVERE: Nice sword 😉

LANCELOT: Thanks! We probably shouldn’t be chatting—feels like betraying Arthur.

GUINEVERE: It’ll be our little secret 😉 Meet me for a drink tonight in Camelot’s dungeon?

LANCELOT: Can’t. I’m teaching a seminar on sword-juggling. Can you do Friday?

GUINEVERE: I’ll be out of town for my niece’s birthday.

LANCELOT: Scheduling in 512 A.D. suuucks.

Macbeth and Lady Macbeth

LADY MACBETH: Wanna Murder King Duncan and chill?

Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy

MR. DARCY: It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. Hi 😉

ELIZABETH: What the fuck.

MR. DARCY: Well, this is the first time that opening line didn’t work.

ELIZABETH: I could easily forgive your pride, if you had not mortified mine.

MR. DARCY: So . . . no sexual congress?

Dante and Beatrice

BEATRICE: Your profile says that you’re a writer who was exiled from Florence for twenty years—so, basically a travel blogger!

DANTE: Not really. I’m writing an allegorical comedy starring myself, Satan, and a tiny boat.

BEATRICE: So you’re a comedian!

DANTE: Not really.“The Divine Comedy” is just a working title. On a separate note, would you like a nude drawing I made of myself on papyrus?

Two days elapse.

DANTE: So this is Purgatory.

Catherine and Heathcliff

HEATHCLIFF: Less than a mile away, huh? 😉

CATHERINE: Hehe 😉 What’re you up to tonight?

HEATHCLIFF: Being emo. You?

CATHERINE: Same.

Doonesbury — Getting the message out.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Friday, August 17, 2018

What’s Funny

My brother sent me a link to Cracked’s blog post about conservative comedy, and it’s both funny and revealing.

A lot of people aren’t very familiar with conservative comedy. That’s because it’s usually indistinguishable from ordinary racism or belligerence, but there are conservatives out there trying to be funny. This is an article about how and why it never works. Conservative politics are fine for squeezing a couple extra years of activity out of an incurious elderly brain, but they’re not a great inspiration for art.

You don’t have to be a liberal to understand how comedy works, and there actually are some conservatives who are funny, but on the whole the idea of “conservative comedy” is an oxymoron.  That’s because to be truly funny you have to be able to laugh at yourself and your own faults, but more importantly, you have to grasp the fundamental concept that a lot of humor — especially stand-up — is based on punching up: mocking the powerful and doing it in a way that imparts some insight to human nature.  Based on the examples in this article, the stars of conservative comedy are incapable of grasping those two concepts.

In order to be truly funny, you have to be able to connect with your audience in a way that elicits empathy: they can identify with your situation.  That’s not too hard; a lot of righties feel a common bond.  However, they do it based on victimhood and without any sense of self-awareness.  They are looking for pity, not insight, or a reassurance that their grievances against the world (i.e. liberals) are valid and should be taken seriously.  But if you can’t laugh at yourself — or at least be self-deprecating — no one else is going to find you funny.  That’s how comics like Rodney Dangerfield and Lewis Black made their mark.  I have yet to hear a conservative comedian make a living out of laughing at himself or his fellow righties because they would take offense.  The biggest barrier to conservative comedy is their inability not just to make a joke, but to take one.

Punching up — attacking the powerful or those who take themselves too seriously — is classic comedy going all the way back to the Greeks, and it still works all the way from the Borscht Belt to urban slam.  It crosses all socio-economic barriers from the button-down white stiffness of Bob Newhart to the edginess of Chris Rock.  And of course the king of both punching up and mocking the unmockable is Mel Brooks.

https://youtu.be/0IzFqGgLnD8

Need I say more?

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Sunday Reading

This Is A Test — Elaina Plott in The Atlantic on gauging the GOP response to this weekend’s Nazi rallies.

This weekend, an untold number of white nationalists and their sympathizers will gather in Washington, D.C., to rally against, in their words, the “civil-rights abuses” they endured in Charlottesville, Virginia, exactly one year ago. The “Unite the Right” gathering will take place in Lafayette Park, just across from the White House. It will mark the anniversary of not only the group’s march through Charlottesville, tiki torches ablaze, but also the horrors that resulted from it, including the murder of 32-year-old Heather Heyer.

It also potentially marks a paradigmatic shift for the Republican Party. President Donald Trump responded in the dark aftermath of last year’s march not by emphatically denouncing the bigotry that sparked it, but by reminding Americans of the “very fine people on both sides.” Chief of Staff John Kelly may have hung his head as Trump delivered those remarks, but, like most officials in this administration, he never spoke out against them.

It is this fact and its consequences that bear considering throughout the demonstrations this weekend: whether, in today’s GOP, racism has been relegated to gaffe-like status—a political pitfall to navigate against, rather than a moral failing to wholly condemn.

I happened to be with an administration official this time last year, interviewing him for a story unrelated to Charlottesville. But the violent march naturally crept into our discussion, as both of our phones trilled with news of Trump’s press conference. I remember the official sighing deeply, shaking his head as he scanned the reports. Yet I’d learn moments later that this was not in opposition to the president’s comments themselves; rather, it was anxiety about how to contain the fallout. “Great, yet another distraction,” the official said. “The media will never let this one go.”

It was as though Trump had mistakenly defined his proposed corporate tax rate—not equivocated on the actions of white nationalists.

Republican leaders were careful to denounce the demonstrations in no uncertain terms. But they were also careful to avoid any mention of Trump, or avoid criticizing him directly. “We must be clear. White supremacy is repulsive,” House Speaker Paul Ryan tweeted. “This bigotry is counter to all this country stands for. There can be no moral ambiguity.” Echoed House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy: “Saturday’s violence and tragic loss of life was a direct consequence of the hateful rhetoric & action from white supremacists demonstrating.”

“We have to unequivocally say that the KKK and the white supremacists were wrong,” Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel told ABC’s David Muir at the time. She tried to spin Trump’s words: “The president was saying that people brought violence from both sides.”

My conversation with the administration official, and the response from GOP leaders, brought Trump’s immunity from reproach into sharp relief. There’s been a lot of talk about “red lines” in the last two years, which is to say musings about what, if anything, could cause the GOP to turn on Trump. This weekend’s Unite the Right rally offers occasion to consider many things, about where this country is and where it is going. But crucially, it offers a potent reminder of Trump’s seeming infallibility in all corners of his party.

Depending on Trump’s reaction to the rally this weekend, should he have one at all, Republican leaders may have a chance to rewrite the script. At the very least, perhaps they will take issue with the group’s namesake, and make clear that white supremacy does not, in fact, fit into their definition of “the Right.” Or perhaps they will stay silent, and take comfort in the fact that, in the Trump era, political consequences seem to only last for so long.

What Really Happened — Larry David (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”) has the straight poop on the meeting at Trump Tower.

Everybody wants to know what was said in that Trump Tower meeting with the Russians in June 2016. Well, other than the people in the room, I, Steven Yablonsky, alone know exactly what was said because I worked as a janitor in the building and was hiding in the closet recording all of it on my phone. As it happens, I was fired yesterday for not putting up the “wet floor” sign in the lobby, and a few people took a tumble, including Tiffany, so now I can finally reveal all.

Transcription:

Through a crack in the closet door, four Russians enter. They are Natalia Veselnitskaya, Rinat Akhmetshin, Irakly Kaveladze and Anatoli Samochornov. Already present are Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner and Rob Goldstone. They all say hello and introductions are made.

Rinat: Where shall we sit?

Don Jr.: Anywhere you’d like.

Rinat: You want big chair?

Don Jr.: You can have the big chair.

Rinat: Ah, I feel a little funny.

Natalia: Take big chair. Don Jr. say O.K.

Rinat: (sits) I like this. It sinks in. Might fall asleep.

Irakly: (pointing) Look at nice spread.

Jared: Help yourself to anything on the table.

Irakly: Is that tuna fish or chicken salad? Very hard to tell difference.

Rob: And they taste the same. That I don’t get.

(They all mutter in agreement. Why is that? One’s chicken, one’s fish.)

Manafort: O.K., shall we begin?

Natalia: We have very good dirt, as you say, on Clinton. You win election with this.

Manafort: Hold it, hold it. Wait a second. First off, that would be illegal. That would be conspiring with an enemy to commit election fraud.

Rinat: I thought that was what meeting about.

Natalia: Me too.

Don Jr.: What? Who told you that?

Rinat: What did you think it was about?

Don Jr.: I thought it was about adoption!

Rinat: Adoption?!

Manafort: Yes, adoption. We want you to rescind the ban. It’s taking a tremendous toll.

The Russians: (in unison) Ohh … well, this is big misunderstanding …

Jared: I’ll say.

Don Jr.: Can I have a word with my colleagues?

(The four Americans huddle up right in front of the closet door.)

Don Jr.: I think we should call the F.B.I.

Goldstone: Right now?

Don Jr.: Right now!

Jared: No, that’s crazy.

Don Jr.: We’re breaking the law, Jared!

Jared: No, we’re not. … What’s that word that starts with a “c”?

Goldstone: Constitution?

Manafort: Coffers?

Don Jr.: Conspiracy?

Jared: No … collusion! That’s legal! Is that a beauty? We’re not calling the F.B.I.!

Don Jr.: O.K., but my dad still might get in a lot of trouble for this.

Goldstone: I’m getting an Arnold Palmer.

Don Jr.: I don’t think there’s any lemonade.

Goldstone: Seriously?

(They return to their seats.)

Manafort: Sorry about the misunderstanding, but you see, there are thousands of families in America who are suffering because they’re unable to have children of their own. One of my dearest friends has no children. It’s been heartbreaking to watch them trying to adopt and come up empty.

Don Jr.: Do you have kids, Anatoli?

Anatoli: Yes, two beautiful daughters. The government take them for gymnastics.

Don Jr.: So you know how empty life is without them. I know relations between our great countries have been frayed. But that shouldn’t be what this is about. This should be about hardworking families who want to experience the joys of parenthood. Can’t you put yourself in their shoes? Can’t you … (begins to break down)

Manafort: Does anyone have a tissue?

Anatoli: Natalia, you have tissue in purse?

Natalia: Here, yes, of course. Don’t cry, Don Jr. Don’t cry.

Don Jr.: (bawling) Thank you. … I wanted to adopt a child from Cambodia, but Vanessa said no. It broke us up. … I’m sorry.

Natalia: I see how much this means to you. I will call President Putin to discuss. I am on your side.

Rinat: Me too.

Don Jr.: Thank you. This means the world to me. And you know who will be really happy about this? Dad. In fact, this whole meeting was his idea.

Natalia: Nice.

Rinat: And you’re sure you don’t want our information on Clinton? Election in bag.

Manafort: Oh, God, no. Please don’t bring that up again. You see, Rinat, this is America. We’re a democracy. Our elections are sacred. And when it comes right down to it, I’d rather lose than win by cheating.

Natalia: Understood. Our apologies. We will be in touch.

(They say their goodbyes and head out. As the door closes …)

Don Jr: I still think we should call the F.B.I.

Doonesbury — Show some backbone.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Sunday Reading

Marching In Miami — Via the Miami Herald, thousands of people took to the streets in the heat and humidity to protest Trump’s immigration concentration camps.

Several hours after protesters led by Broadway star Lin-Manuel Miranda marched from the White House to the Department of Justice headquarters in Washington, D.C., the exasperated chants and flailing picket signs reached downtown Miami Saturday evening as critics of the Trump administration’s immigration policies took to the streets in solidarity with more than 700 affiliated protests across the country.

Hundreds of demonstrators gathered at Miami Dade College’s Wolfson Campus at around 5 p.m. — and marched down Northeast Fourth Street to the Freedom Tower — in protest of the administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy of prosecuting as many immigrants caught illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border as possible, which in turn led to more than 2,300 children being separated from their parents and guardians and taken to migrant shelters across the country — including three in Miami-Dade County. One of the shelters, located in Homestead, was the site of a large protest last week.

Marching under the banner “Families Belong Together,” the Miami protesters called for President Trump to reunify fractured immigrant families as quickly as possible and criticized the administration’s new plan to indefinitely detain parents with their children as the adults undergo immigration proceedings. Many of them called for the elimination of ICE, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but most appeared centrally focused on the trauma they say children as young as toddlers have had to endure due to family separations at the border.

Marleine Bastien, executive director of the Family Action Network Movement, led much of Saturday’s protest, her voice growing hoarse as she bellowed into a megaphone about the need to reunify families in a quick and transparent manner.

“There are children as young as 18 months old that have been ripped out from their moms, from their dads, and caged like animals,” Bastien said. “This is not acceptable. This is unspeakable.”

“This is not the America we want, this is not the America we fought for, this is not the America we will accept,” she said. “We deserve better.”

The coast-to-coast protests were organized by four main groups — The Leadership Conference, National Domestic Workers Alliance, Move On and the American Civil Liberties Union — but local groups handled logistics for their sister marches.

The Miami march was one of 31 demonstrations planned in Florida, according to the Families Belong Together website. A smaller gathering took place in Palmetto Bay earlier Saturday, the only other affiliated sister protest in Miami-Dade County. Events were held as far north as Jacksonville and as far south as Key Largo.

Protesters flooded public streets in major cities across the country, including New York and Los Angeles. In Miami, police cruisers blocked off traffic as a swarm of chanting protestors showed the public “what Democracy looks like.”

“ICE, hey! How many kids did you take today,” they chanted.

Some viewed Trump’s June 20 executive order ceasing family separations as a clear sign their activism had been effective thus far. Pro-immigrant demonstrators have staged many demonstrations outside immigrant shelters and detention facilities in recent weeks, and the administration’s zero-tolerance policy — which was officially announced by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in April — had been subject to biting criticism from Republicans and Democrats in the nearly two months of its existence.
In a memorandum to federal prosecutors issued April 11, Sessions urged a “renewed commitment to criminal immigration enforcement” that would deter further illegal entries. The Department of Justice at the time said the policy came as the Department of Homeland Security documented a 203 percent increase in illegal border crossings from March 2017 to March 2018.

“I don’t understand how anyone can stand by it at this point,” said Marie Caceres, the principal of Aspira Arts Deco Charter. Caceres, among the first protesters to arrive Saturday, held a sign that said “This is America. Do you know where your children are?”

Caceres said some of her students have suffered through the trauma of living without a parent because they were deported or still remain in their native countries.

“It makes me want to fight,” she said.

Felipe Reis, a 20-year-old Brazilian immigrant and recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), addressed the crowd prior to the march. He said he was “proud to stand here today as an undocumented immigrant and unafraid.”

Reis, who led an “Abolish ICE” chant, said he has lived much of his life under “constant fear” of deportation and did not want the immigrant community in South Florida to fear any longer.

“No child, no father and no mother deserves to be threatened or taken away and abused because of their status — because they’re seeking refuge for their families,” he said.

Standing in front of the Freedom Tower, nicknamed the “Ellis Island of the South” for its role in providing relief to Cuban refugees fleeing the regime of Fidel Castro, protestors drew honks of support as they rallied.

Maria Rodriguez, executive director of the Florida Immigration Coalition, delivered an impassioned speech about fighting back against Trump’s immigration policies through activism.

“You can tell your grandchildren that you stood up,” she said to roaring applause and cheers. “You stood up for the children. You stood up for the families.”

If You See Something, Say Something Stupid — From The New Yorker, some of the calls that came in about brown people doing ordinary things.

“Hello, ICE? The person sitting on the park bench across from me just got tan.”

“Can you believe that these Puerto Ricans think they can enter America whenever they want, simply because they all have American passports?”

“Just saw a black person buy five pounds of crack at the grocery store in a sack labeled ‘flour.’ ”

“Those brown people keep walking down the street like they’re allowed to be on public sidewalks!”

“That Mexican-Arab-Native person is chewing an egg-salad sandwich like a terrorist.”

“Black people are barbecuing over there. Isn’t it illegal for black people to cook meat outside? And inside?”

“As we all know, it’s illegal for minorities to buy art.”

“Yeah, he does look exactly like that baby he’s pushing in that pram, but black people kidnap babies who look just like them every day.”

“They’re speaking Spanish. O.K., fine, maybe it’s Chinese.”

“I am one hundred per cent sure that this black person is tying her shoes in a suspicious way.”

“I just saw a brown person illegally cross the border from Vermont into New Hampshire.”

“Help! A minority glared at my dog.”

“Yes, I called five minutes ago, but that black person is still breathing.”

“There’s a black woman in my yoga class who’s stealing my moves.”

Doonesbury — Faking it.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Sunday Reading

Clean Up Job — Charles P. Pierce on how to pick up after Trump.

On Monday, at the Center For American Progress’s annual Ideas hootenanny, Sally Yates made a point that has stayed with me all week as the deep, underground web of corruption in this administration* expanded to almost every point of the political compass. It is almost impossible to keep track these days. It’s almost impossible to keep from tangling the various strands of it: Michael Cohen’s alleged dealings with the Qataris, Jared Kushner’s alleged dealings with the Qataris, Michael Cohen’s alleged dealings with Stormy Daniels, Paul Manafort’s alleged dealings with various Volga Bagmen, and who knows what all else is under there.

Anyway, Yates asked the assembled: What is going to happen when this administration is finally, blessedly over? It is a very good question and there is no very good answer to it. Nobody knows how many people, if any, are going to be convicted when all this shakes out, let alone how many of them actually might go to jail. Can we recover from the common high-end venality while simultaneously putting the political norms back in place? Can we reform the global damage done to American credibility while simultaneously getting back to sensible financial and environmental regulations? Is it possible to get the country back to normal on 10 levels at once?

I am not as optimistic as I once was.

First, a lot of the damage has been done through the enactment of policies that conservative Republicans have been slavering for over the past 50 years. They are one aging heartbeat away from finally having a solid majority on the Supreme Court, and the president* has been salting young Federalist Society bots throughout the federal judicial system. Further, before there ever was a President* Trump, Mitch McConnell demonstrated that Democratic presidents were not entitled to fill Supreme Court vacancies that occur on their watch. Under the glare of all the nonsense, conservative Republicans have achieved a lot of what they’ve been trying to do since Ronald Reagan stepped onto the Capitol rostrum in 1981.

Second, and as important, if this president* leaves office at any point prior to the end of his second term, I fear that the reaction among his supporters is liable to be loud and violent. They’re already primed, by the president* and by his pet media, to believe almost anything as long as it demonstrated that They, The Deep State are conducting a slow-motion coup. (The latest fever dream is that the Obama administration planted an FBI mole in the Trump campaign so as to throw the election to Hillary Rodham Clinton. That’s only been flying around for a couple weeks and I guarantee you that it’s already set in concrete out there.) The president* is not likely to sprout a conscience any time soon. There is no way that this can end well.

This is serious business, and the time to start thinking about it is now. It’s possible that this administration* will collapse all at once. It is also possible that we’ll be reading early morning tweets well into 2024. The elevation of Donald Trump caught the institutions of government by surprise. That’s bad enough. It’s important that the end of him does not do the same thing.

Fake Nobel — Andy Borowitz.

WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report)—Donald J. Trump has ordered a replica of the Nobel Peace Prize and is displaying it prominently on his desk in the Oval Office, the White House confirmed on Wednesday.

The replica of the Nobel medallion is mounted on what the White House described as a “tasteful black-velvet background” with an engraved plaque reading, “Donald J. Trump, 2018 Winner.”

At the daily White House briefing, the press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said that Trump “took the initiative” to award himself the Peace Prize rather than “waiting around” for the Nobel committee, in Oslo, to bestow it on him.

“What with his successes in Syria, Iran, North Korea, and whatnot, the President already knows he’s a lock for the Nobel,” she said. “It’s just a formality at this point.”

The fake Nobel was first spotted by Henry Klugian, a student who was on a White House tour with his seventh-grade class from Bethesda, Maryland.

“I thought it was kind of weird that he’d have something like that made up for himself, but whatever,” he said.

Doonesbury — Every dollar helps.