Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Unnatural Disaster

Florida has had its share of troubles, but the karmic lesson of reaping what you sow on top of Mother Nature and her visits are becoming a bit much for Trump fans in one part of the Sunshine State.

MARIANNA, Fla. — A federal prison here in Florida’s rural Panhandle lost much of its roof and fence during Hurricane Michael in October, forcing hundreds of inmates to relocate to a facility in Yazoo City, Miss., more than 400 miles away.

Since then, corrections officers have had to commute there to work, a seven-hour drive, for two-week stints. As of this week, thanks to the partial federal government shutdown, they will be doing it without pay — no paychecks and no reimbursement for gas, meals and laundry, expenses that can run hundreds of dollars per trip.

“You add a hurricane, and it’s just too much,” said Mike Vinzant, a 32-year-old guard and the president of the local prison officers’ union.

If nature can be blamed for creating the first financial hardship, the second is the result of the even less predictable whims in Washington: President Trump warned last week that the shutdown might last “months or even years.”

In Florida, where Republicans dominated the November midterms and the state’s only Democratic senator went down in defeat, conservative towns like Marianna — along with farm communities in the South and Midwest, and towns across the country that depend on tourism revenue from scaled-back national parks — will help measure the solidity of public support for Mr. Trump and his decision to wager some of the operations of the federal government on a border wall with Mexico.

Jim Dean, Marianna’s city manager, said he had already been concerned, even before the shutdown, that the hurricane would prompt public agencies to consider reducing their footprint in the region. What if an extended shutdown contributed to keeping the prison closed indefinitely?

“I worry about the government pulling out of rural America,” he said.

It’s easy to gloat and practice saying “schadenfreude” with a particular Germanic tone, especially when you remember that at this stage in the recovery from Hurricane Maria, people in Puerto Rico were still 90% without power and nothing was happening even with the government up and running.  It’s also a reminder that a lot of people who supported Trump are the ones who were so sure that they didn’t need the government hand-outs — bootstraps, everyone! — and those who had their hands out were lazy druggies or worse: immigrants.

I don’t minimize the pain and struggle the folks in Marianna went through after Hurricane Michael; I know hurricanes and they don’t care about politics, and all the best preparation doesn’t stop them.  But the rest of it was easily prevented, both before November 2016 and after when they were so sure that rhetoric and metaphors about mythical walls was the real solution to all their problems.

The shutdown will end at some point, the checks and back pay will come, and given the short attention span of the American electorate, they will probably vote back in the same people who lied and conned them the last time.  They probably know it; rest assured the liars and the con-men are counting on it.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Looking Back/Looking Forward

Time for my annual recap and predictions for this year and next.  Let’s look back at how I did a year ago.

  • There will be indictments at a very high level in the administration as the Mueller investigation rumbles on.  Plea bargains and deals will be made and revelations will come forth, and by summer there will be genuine questions about whether or not the administration will survive.  But there won’t be a move to impeach Trump as long as there are Republican majorities in the Congress, and invoking the 25th Amendment is a non-starter.

I’ll give myself a B on that since it was pretty much that way a year ago and the gears of justice grind slowly but irresistibly.  No high-level members of the administration were indicted, but shame and scandal did bring down an impressive number of folks who had hard passes to the West Wing.

  • The Democrats will make great gains in the mid-term elections in November.  This is a safe bet because the party out of power usually does in the first mid-term of new president.  The Democrats will take back the Senate and narrow the gap in the House to the point that Speaker Paul Ryan with either quit or be so powerless that he’s just hanging around to collect pension points.  (No, he will not lose his re-election bid.)

I’ll go with a C on that since I hit the nail on the head in the first sentence; I should have just left it there.  But no; I had it backwards: the House flipped but the GOP still has the Senate, and who knew that Paul Ryan would decide to quit?

  • There will be a vacancy on the Supreme Court, but it won’t happen until after the mid-terms and Trump’s appointment will flail as the Democrats in the Senate block the confirmation on the grounds that the next president gets to choose the replacement.

I’ll take an A- on that since I got the timing wrong, but I think Brett Kavanaugh did a great job of flailing (“I like beer!”) before the Senate Judiciary Committee.  The predator still got on the court, though, and we all hold RBG in the Light for at least another two years.

  • There will be irrefutable proof that the Russians not only meddled in the 2016 U.S. election, but they’ve had a hand in elections in Europe as well and will be a factor in the U.S. mid-terms.  Vladimir Putin will be re-elected, of course.

A+ Duh.

  • Raul Castro will figure out a way to still run Cuba even if he steps down as president, and there will be no lessening of the authoritarian rule.

Another A+, but what did anyone expect?  Trump’s half-assed attempts to restrain trade with Cuba, along with Marco Rubio doing his yapping perrito act, only make it more ironic when it’s the administration’s policy to cozy up to dictators like Putin and the Saudis.  If Trump owned a hotel in Havana he’d be down there in a second sucking up to the regime with video to prove it.

  • The U.S. economy will continue to grow, but there will be dark clouds on the horizon as the deficit grows thanks to the giveaways in the GOP tax bill.  If the GOP engineers cuts to entitlement programs and the number of uninsured for healthcare increases, the strain on the economy will be too much.

I’ll take a B on this since I didn’t factor in tariffs and the trade war(s) he’s launched that led to wild uncertainty in the markets, not to mention Trump’s bashing of the Fed chair that he appointed and told him to do what he’s doing.

  • This “America First” foreign policy will backfire.  All it does is tell our allies “You’re on your own.”  If we ever need them, they’re more likely to turn their backs on us.

I get an A on this because it has and they are.

  • The white supremacist movement will not abate.  Count on seeing more violence against minorities and more mass shootings.

Sadly, a very predictable A on that.

  • A viable Democratic candidate will emerge as a major contender for the 2020 election, and it will most likely be a woman.  Sen. Elizabeth Warren is considered to be the default, but I wouldn’t rule out Sen. Kamala Harris of California or Sen. Kristen Gillibrand of New York just yet.  (Sen. Gillibrand would drive Trump even further around the bend.  She was appointed to the Senate to fill Hillary Clinton’s seat when she became Secretary of State in 2009.)

I get a B on this because it was rather easy to spot and I’m already getting begging e-mails from Ms. Harris.

  • On a personal level, this will be a busy year for my work in theatre with a full production of “All Together Now” opening in March and several other works out there for consideration.  I will also be entering my last full year of employment in my present job (retirement happens in August 2019) but I’ll keep working.

This was a great year for my playwriting with a lot of new friends and opportunities out there and more to come in 2019 (see below).

  • People and fads we never heard about will have their fifteen minutes.

Yep.  I’ve already blocked them out.

Okay, on to the predictions.

  • Barring natural causes or intervention from an outside force, Trump will still be in office on December 31, 2019.  There is no way he will leave voluntarily and even with the House of Representatives in Democratic control and articles of impeachment being drafted they will not get to the Senate floor because the Republicans are either too afraid to rile up the base or they’re too enamored of their own grip on power to care about the government being headed by a poor imitation of a tin-pot banana republic authoritarian douche-canoe.
  • The Mueller Report will be released to Congress and even though it’s supposed to be classified it will be leaked with great fanfare and pundit predictions of the end of the Trump administration with calls for frog-marching him and his minions out of the West Wing.  Despite that, see above.
  • There will be no wall.  There never will be.  Immigration will still be a triggering issue as even more refugees die in U.S. custody.
  • There will be no meaningful changes to gun laws even if the NRA goes broke.  There will be more mass shootings, thoughts and prayers will be offered, and we’ll be told yet again that now is not the time to talk about it.
  • Obamacare will survive its latest challenge because the ruling by the judge in Texas declaring the entire law unconstitutional will be tossed and turned into a case study in law schools everywhere on the topic of exasperatingly stupid reasoning.
  • Roe vs. Wade will still stand.
  • With the Democrats in control of the House, the government will be in permanent gridlock even after they work out some sort of deal to end the current shutdown over the mythological wall.  House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will become the Willie Horton for the GOP base and blamed for everything from budget deficits to the toast falling butter-side down.
  • We will have a pretty good idea who the Democratic front-runner will be in 2020.  I think Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s chances are still good (she announced her exploratory committee as I was writing this), as are Sen. Kamala Harris’s, and don’t count out Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, but who knew that Beto O’Rourke, a charismatic loser in the Texas senate race, would raise a lot of hopes?  That said, fifteen years ago when I started this blog, Howard Dean looked like the guy who was going to beat George W. Bush.
  • The economy will continue with its wild gyrations, pretty much following the gyrations of the mood of Trump and his thumb-driven Twitter-fed economic exhortations.  The tax cuts and the tariffs will land on the backs of the people who provide the income to the government and the deficit will soon be out there beyond the Tesla in outer space.  But unlike that Martian-bound convertible, the economy will come crashing back to Earth (probably about the time I retire in August) and Trump will blame everyone else.
  • There will be a natural event that will convince even skeptics that climate change and sea level rise is real and happening.  Unfortunately, nothing will be done about it even if lots of lives are lost because [spoiler alert] nothing ever is done.
  • I’m going out on a limb here with foreign affairs predictions, but I have a feeling that Brexit will end up in the dustbin of history.
  • Personally, this will be a transition year.  My retirement from Miami-Dade County Public Schools occurs officially on August 31, 2019, and I’m already actively looking for something both meaningful and income-producing to do after that.  (E-mail me for a copy of my resume; nothing ventured, nothing sprained.)  My play “Can’t Live Without You” opens at the Willow Theatre in Boca Raton, Florida, for a two-week run on March 30, and I’m planning on returning to the William Inge Theatre Festival for the 28th time, either with a play or most assuredly with a scholarly paper.  I have my bid in for a variety of other theatre events and productions; I think I’m getting the hang of this playwriting thing.
  • I will do this again next year.  I hope.  As Bobby says, “Hope is my greatest weakness.”

Okay, your turn.  Meanwhile, I wish continued good health and a long life to all of you and hope you make it through 2019 none the worse for wear.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

That Won’t Be The Worst Of It

There is nothing to stop Hurricane Florence — or any other storm, for that matter — so the best we can do is be fully prepared and safe.  What happens after, however, is completely in our hands and those of the people we’ve chosen to run things, and that’s where the real disaster can happen.

Given the current administration’s down-is-up view of how they handled things with Hurricane Maria and the fact that there’s a runway full of bottled water in Puerto Rico waiting to be distributed a year later, the people who will be impacted by Hurricane Florence had better know that they are in for a long and strenuous struggle when the winds and rains have ended.  It will be just the start.

Meanwhile, the money set aside for FEMA has been rerouted to ICE because brown people seeking asylum are a much larger danger to America than a Category 3 hurricane.

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration took nearly $10 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s budget this summer to help boost U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to budget documents shared with USA TODAY.

The revelation, just ahead of Hurricane Florence’s expected landfall in North and South Carolina, was found by Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., who first shared the documents live on MSNBC late Tuesday.

He told USA TODAY that after the devastation of last year’s storms, including hurricanes Maria, Harvey and Irma, FEMA should have the funds it needs to be prepared for another disastrous hurricane season.

“It’s almost guaranteed to happen again, so this is just incredibly irresponsible,” Merkley said.

The budgeting document, titled “Department of Homeland Security FY 2018 transfer and reprogramming notifications,” lists $9,755,303 taken from FEMA’s budget, about .9 percent of the agency’s listed overall budget, and given to support ICE.

Heckuva job, there.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Something’s Coming

Rudy Giuliani is all over the TV and very proud of the confusion he’s sowing.

“I’ll give you the conclusion: We all feel pretty good that we’ve got everything kind of straightened out and we’re setting the agenda,” Giuliani, the former New York mayor who recently joined Trump’s legal team, said in an interview with The Washington Post. Giuliani said he met with the president at Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Va., to discuss developments and legal strategy.

“Everybody’s reacting to us now, and I feel good about that because that’s what I came in to do,” he said.

Yeah, everybody reacted to the Hindenburg explosion, too.

Meanwhile, the Kilauea volcano in Hawaii is opening up the earth and spewing forth lava, wiping out homes and turning a tropical paradise into something that resembles the last moments of Mordor (or Pompeii for those of you not into the Lord of the Rings).

Shortly after Kilauea erupted Thursday, the ground split open on the east side of Leilani Estates, exposing an angry red beneath the lush landscape. From the widening gash, molten rock burbled and splashed, then shot as high as 80 to 100 feet in the air.

The Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency called it “active volcanic fountaining.” Some residents insisted it was Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess, come to reclaim her land. Residents there were ordered to flee amid threats of fires and “extremely high levels of dangerous” sulfur dioxide gas.

Soon, another such fissure had formed less than three streets to the west. Then another, and another. From the vents, hot steam — and noxious gases — rose, before magma broke through and splattered into the air.

I’m not one of those people who believes in tying the forces of nature to the doings of humanity.  Gay marriage doesn’t cause hurricanes, and the spewing forth of lava, destroying everything in its path, isn’t a warning from Pele.  It’s just that the volume of vitriol and destruction from the Trump mouthpieces is eerily similar what’s flowing out of the ground in Hawaii.

I have nothing other than just a gut feeling that there’s something coming down the road, heading right for us.  I don’t think it’s impeachment — that can’t happen as long as the Republicans are in control of Congress — but I’m getting the very powerful feeling that the shitstorm is going to hit, hit soon, and hit hard.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Monday, December 11, 2017

Friday, December 8, 2017

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Short Takes

The Mideast is in turmoil over Trump’s plan to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.

Mueller goes after Trump’s Deutsch Banke records.

Mass evacuations in the Ventura County wildfires in California.

Russia banned from 2018 Olympics.

Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) retires from Congress in wake of accusations of sexual assaults.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Sunday Reading

Deadly Serious — John Cassidy on Robert Mueller’s mission.

On Friday night, CNN reported that a grand jury in Washington, D.C., has approved the first charges arising from the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible collusion between Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign and the Russian government. Citing “sources briefed on the matter,” the network said that a judge had ordered the charges kept under seal, but that at least one arrest could take place as early as Monday.

Details were scant. The CNN report didn’t specify what the charges were or whom they had been brought against. But the news created an immediate furor, as other news organizations sought to follow up the story, and people on television and social media began speculating about the nature of the charges. Shortly before midnight, the Wall Street Journalconfirmed CNN’s scoop, without providing any additional details.

Speaking on CNN, Michael Zeldin, a lawyer who served as a special assistant to Mueller when he was director of the F.B.I., suggested that Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, might be the person charged. Zeldin imagined Mueller taking such a step to pressure Manafort to coöperate. “There is a lot of pressure on people who are under investigation to coöperate with Mueller after this indictment,” Zeldin said. Well before Mueller was appointed special counsel, the F.B.I. had been investigating Manafort’s financial ties to a pro-Russia party in the Ukraine. Mueller took over that investigation after he was appointed, in May. In July, F.B.I. agents staged a pre-dawn raid on Manafort’s home in Alexandria, Virginia.

Manafort isn’t the only name being speculated about. Other commentators suggested that Carter Page, a former adviser to the Trump campaign who had his own extensive Russian ties, or Michael Flynn, the former national-security adviser who was ousted from the White House over his post-election contact with Russia, might be subjects of the charges. It has been reported that the former F.B.I. director James Comey, when he was leading the Russia investigation, secured permission from a secret court operating under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to tap the communications of Page and Manafort. It has also been reported that Mueller’s team demanded White House documents about Flynn.

A key political question is whether these charges are related to things that happened as part of the Trump campaign, or whether they relate to alleged wrongdoings that occurred before it began or separate from it. If there are direct ties between the charges and the campaign, that will obviously have huge ramifications on Capitol Hill and elsewhere. But if the charges concern alleged actions on the part of Manafort or others that were unrelated to the 2016 campaign, the White House may well accuse Mueller of moving beyond his remit. That allegation wouldn’t be accurate—the terms of Mueller’s appointment gave him license to investigate “any matters that arose or may arise directly” from the Russia probe—but accuracy has never concerned Trump much.

One thing we can say for sure is that the news of the charges has moved the Mueller investigation firmly into the media spotlight, where it is likely to stay. Since Mueller’s appointment, his team of prosecutors and investigators has operated largely out of the public eye. One of the few known facts was that it had convened a grand jury in Washington. Friday night’s CNN report said that earlier in the day, “top lawyers who are helping to lead the Mueller probe, including veteran prosecutor Andrew Weissmann, were seen entering the court room at the D.C. federal court where the grand jury meets to hear testimony in the Russia investigation.”

There was no immediate comment from the White House about the CNN story. But it was published less than twelve hours after Donald Trump tweeted, “It is now commonly agreed, after many months of COSTLY looking, that there was NO collusion between Russia and Trump. Was collusion with HC!”

For days, the White House and conservative media organizations have been touting a Washington Poststory that revealed that Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee helped to pay for the controversial Russia dossier written by Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence officer. “I think this further proves if there was anyone that was colluding with the Russians to influence the election, look no further than the Clintons, look no further than the D.N.C.,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House spokeswoman, told Fox News on Thursday. “Everything that the Clinton campaign and the D.N.C. were falsely accusing this President of doing over the past year, they were actually doing themselves.”

After CNN published its story on Friday night, some Democrats and commentators suggested that the Trump Administration may have known the Mueller indictments were coming and leaked the Steele story to create a smokescreen. “So clearly target is in crosshairs, alerted Trumpsville, right wing media & Trump engineered mass diversion &main stream media fell for it,” Neera Tanden, a former adviser to Hillary Clinton who is the president of the Center for American Progress, tweeted.

Plausible as that theory sounds, it, too, is conjecture. What isn’t speculation is the fact that, five months into his investigation, Mueller has brought a first set of criminal charges. By the standards of recent special prosecutors, that is fast work, and it confirms Mueller’s reputation as someone who doesn’t like to dally. Now that he has started arresting people, there is no reason to suppose he will stop. And that is precisely the message he wants to send.

Hurricane Recovery — Nathalie Baptiste and Mark Helenowski on how nature is reclaiming itself five years after Sandy.

Five years ago, Superstorm Sandy—a monstrous post-tropical cyclone with hurricane force winds—struck New York, bringing record-breaking wind gusts and deadly flooding. In New York City, 53 people diednearly half of them were from Staten Island. The Ocean Breeze, Midland Beach, and Dongan Hills communities were especially hard hit, with 11 fatalities.  A few months after the storm, WNYC reporter Matthew Schuerman described the square mile that makes up parts of these communities as “the most dangerous place to be in New York City” during Sandy.

Joe Herrnkind, a middle-aged man who moved to Ocean Breeze in 2000, remembers those days, as he walks through the deserted streets of his once tight-knit beach community. Most of the homes have been torn down, and a few are boarded up waiting to be demolished. The homes that do remain are surrounded by empty plots of land where wild turkeys wander. Unlike many other New York victims of Sandy who have rebuilt their communities, those from these neighborhoods knew that rebuilding was not the best option. Some sold their land to developers, and a few others, like Herrnkind and his neighbors, sold their land to the governor’s office so it can be returned to its natural state.

“We’re a low-lying community,” he says. “We had constant flooding and wildfires. You hear all this and you’re saying, ‘Why would you want to live there?’”

Recent hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria have all raised the same question: What is to be done with the dozens of towns and cities in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico that have developed infrastructure on vulnerable flood-prone land that routinely requires massive cleanup and rebuilding efforts after each disastrous storm? Altogether, the recent storms could costup to nearly $400 billion in damages. But some communities and local leaders are starting to realize that this model won’t break the cycle. In Ocean Breeze, instead of rebuilding on vulnerable flood plains, some residents have chosen to leave old neighborhoods behind and let nature take its course.

In 2012, when Sandy approached New York, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered evacuations of nearly 375,000 people in low-lying communities ahead of the storm. Herrnkind gathered his two dogs and left to stay with a friend in New Jersey. Most of his neighbors followed the evacuation orders, but eight or nine families stayed behind. Two of his neighbors died.

Sandy’s peak winds were recorded at 115 miles per hour and Staten Island saw wind gusts of up to 80 miles per hour. Father Cappodano Boulevard, the main road separating Ocean Breeze from the Atlantic, rises several feet above the side streets. Sandy’s unprecedented 16-foot surge overtopped the roads and poured into homes. A few days later, when Herrnkind was able to return, he had no idea if his home was going to be standing. The city estimated that more than 300,000 homes were damaged by the storm’s flood.

“An officer told me, ‘You can’t go down there,’” Herrnkind recalls. When he finally arrived the water was still nearly waist deep. “It’s still there,” he remembers thinking when he first saw his house. “I have something to work with.” The watermark on a lamp post today shows that the storm surge reached far above his head, which explains why his furniture and all his personal belongings were gone.

Local leaders struggled to respond to the crisis. New York City created Build It Back, a program for rebuilding destroyed and damaged homes. There are more than 8,000 participants and by 2017, the mayor’s office estimates 87 percent of those who enrolled have received compensation, completed construction, or had their homes acquired by the city. But the program has come under criticism. Many homeowners dropped out due to delays. City Controller Scott Stringer and City Councilman Mark Treyger who represents parts of Brooklyn have been fierce critics of the program. In a letter to Build It Back director Amy Peterson, the two wrote that the number of dropouts “raises serious questions about our City’s ability to mount an efficient and effective recovery operation in the event of a future disaster.” Herrnkind jokingly refers to it as “Build It Wrong.”

After six months of living in his car, which he had parked in front of his abandoned house, and disappointed by the city’s program, Hernnkind realized “the land itself should never have been built on.” Much of the region was a salt marsh, particularly vulnerable to storm surge and floods. “It was a very low, natural, spongy salt marsh, and it was filled to create homes,” Robert Brauman, a project manager for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection told Curbed New York in 2016, “and that was where the problems started.”

Another option for some homeowners was a program from the Governor’s Office for Sandy Recovery, which has been buying houses that were destroyed or substantially damaged and transforming them to open space and wetlands. The goal is to create a natural coastal buffer that can protect communities from future storms. In late 2013, more than a year after the storm Gov. Cuomo announced that Ocean Breeze would join Oakwood Beach as a town eligible for state buyouts, and Hernnkind’s entire block was included. Reluctant to “put someone else in harm’s way,” Hernnkind concluded that he and his neighbors should take advantage of the state buyout program. He was able to sell his home to the state at pre-storm value and move elsewhere on the island.

So far, more than 600 homes have been purchased through the buyout program. Once the sale goes through, the state government demolishes the home and lets nature reclaim the land. Today, Ocean Breeze is mostly empty, but complicating matters are the residents who refuse to leave. In Oakwood Beach where most of the land is going back to nature, remaining residents struggle with lack of trash pick-up and crumbling roads. One of Herrnkind’s former neighbors who stayed behind is an elderly woman who feared her children would put her in a nursing home if she left. Some opted out of the program because they didn’t have the proper paperwork required to sell their homes. Others didn’t want to give up their homes in a community they loved.

But staying behind comes with a cost. According to the New York Timesflood insurance premiums could rise up to 25 percent for homes that were damaged by Sandy.

On Hernnkind’s section of the street, only one home remains out of eight. “Around here, 90 percent of each block went,” he says, “and only one or two people stayed.” Just down the street from where Herrnkind used to live, more turkeys mill about on empty lots where homes used to be.

Hernnkind’s former neighbor Frank Moszczynski, a tall man with a large presence, took the state buyout and moved to another neighborhood on Staten Island. He doesn’t have much sympathy for someone who willingly stays in a vulnerable area. “Why should someone emergency workers have to go out and risk their lives for someone who chose to stay in harm’s way?” he asks pointedly. Today, the only thing protecting the Ocean Breeze from another storm is a four-foot hill of sand.

Across the street from the vacant lot he used to call home, Hernnkind stands on the beach looking at the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and Brooklyn’s Coney Island, a view he used to be able to see from his bedroom window. “If it weren’t for Sandy,” he says, “I’d still be here.”

How Twitter Killed the First Amendment — Tim Wu in the New York Times.

You need not be a media historian to notice that we live in a golden age of press harassment, domestic propaganda and coercive efforts to control political debate. The Trump White House repeatedly seeks to discredit the press, threatens to strip broadcasters of their licenses and calls for the firing of journalists and football players for speaking their minds. A foreign government tries to hack our elections, and journalists and public speakers are regularly attacked by vicious, online troll armies whose aim is to silence opponents.

In this age of “new” censorship and blunt manipulation of political speech, where is the First Amendment? Americans like to think of it as the great protector of the press and of public debate. Yet it seems to have become a bit player, confined to a narrow and often irrelevant role. It is time to ask: Is the First Amendment obsolete? If so, what can be done?

These questions arise because the jurisprudence of the First Amendment was written for a different set of problems in a very different world. The First Amendment was ignored for much of American history, coming to life only in the 1920s thanks to the courage of judges like Learned Hand, Louis Brandeis and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Courts and civil libertarians used the amendment to protect speakers from government prosecution and censorship as it was practiced in the 20th century, such as the arrest of pamphleteers and the seizure of anarchist newspapers by the Postal Service.

But in the 21st century, censorship works differently, as the writer and academic Zeynep Tufekci has illustrated. The complete suppression of dissenting speech isn’t feasible in our “cheap speech” era. Instead, the world’s most sophisticated censors, including Russia and China, have spent a decade pioneering tools and techniques that are better suited to the internet age. Unfortunately, those new censorship tools have become unwelcome imports in the United States, with catastrophic results for our democracy.

The Russian government was among the first to recognize that speech itself could be used as a tool of suppression and control. The agents of its “web brigade,” often called the “troll army,” disseminate pro-government news, generate false stories and coordinate swarm attacks on critics of the government. The Chinese government has perfected “reverse censorship,” whereby disfavored speech is drowned out by “floods” of distraction or pro-government sentiment. As the journalist Peter Pomerantsev writes, these techniques employ information “in weaponized terms, as a tool to confuse, blackmail, demoralize, subvert and paralyze.”

Our distressing state of public discourse stems from the widespread use of these new tools of censorship and speech control, including by the White House. The administration habitually crosses the line between fact and propaganda. Instead of taking action itself, it demands that others punish its supposed enemies. To add to the mess, it is apparent that the Russian government and possibly others hope to manipulate American political debate, as its exploitation of Facebook and Twitter in the last election shows.

What can be done? It is time to recognize that the American political process and marketplace for ideas are under attack, and that reinvigorating the First Amendment is vital. First, it is an imperative that law enforcement and lawmakers do more to protect journalists and other public speakers from harassment and threats. Cyberstalking is a crime. And as the Supreme Court has made clear, threats of violence are not protected speech. A country where speaking one’s mind always results in death threats is not a country that can be said to be truly free.

Second, too little is being done to protect American politics from foreign attack. The Russian efforts to use Facebook, YouTube and other social media to influence American politics should compel Congress to act. Social media has as much impact as broadcasting on elections, yet unlike broadcasting it is unregulated and has proved easy to manipulate. At a minimum, new rules should bar social media companies from accepting money for political advertising by foreign governments or their agents. And more aggressive anti-bot laws are needed to fight impersonation of humans for propaganda purposes.

Finally, the White House needs to be held accountable when it tries to use private parties to circumvent First Amendment protections. When it encourages others to punish its critics — as when it demanded that the N.F.L., on pain of tax penalties, censor players — it is wielding state power to punish disfavored speech. There is precedent for such abuses to be challenged in court.

Some might argue, based on the sophomoric premise that “more speech is always better,” that the current state of chaos is what the First Amendment intended. But no defensible free-speech tradition accepts harassment and threats as speech, treats foreign propaganda campaigns as legitimate debate or thinks that social-media bots ought to enjoy constitutional protection. A robust and unfiltered debate is one thing; corruption of debate itself is another. We have entered a far more dangerous place for the republic; its defense requires stronger protections for what we once called the public sphere.

Doonesbury — Walled off.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Short Takes

Half of Puerto Rico still without fresh water.

Japan parliament dissolved ahead of snap election.

Trump/GOP tax plan is revealed except how to pay for it.

Russia, U.S. discuss lunar base.

R.I.P. Hugh Hefner, 91, creator of Playboy.  (Oddly enough, I never understood the attraction, but hey…)

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Sunday Reading

Racial Demagoguery — David Remnick in The New Yorker on Trump’s attacks on black athletes.

Every day, and in countless and unexpected ways, Donald Trump, the President of the United States, finds new ways to divide and demoralize his country and undermine the national interest. On Thursday, he ranted from the lectern of the U.N. General Assembly about “Rocket Man” and the possibility of levelling North Korea. Now he has followed with an equally unhinged domestic performance at a rally, on Friday evening, in Huntsville, Alabama, where he set out to make African-American athletes the focus of national contempt.

In the midst of an eighty-minute speech intended to heighten the reëlection prospects of Senator Luther Johnson Strange III, Trump turned his attention to N.F.L. players, including the former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and asked a mainly white crowd if “people like yourselves” agreed with his anger at “those people,” players who take a knee during the national anthem to protest racism.

“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these N.F.L. owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired!’ ” Trump continued. “You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s gonna say, ‘That guy disrespects our flag, he’s fired.’ And that owner, they don’t know it. They don’t know it. They’re friends of mine, many of them. They don’t know it. They’ll be the most popular person, for a week. They’ll be the most popular person in the country.”

“People like yourselves.” “Those people.” “Son of a bitch.” This was the same sort of racial signalling that followed the Fascist and white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. It is no longer a matter of “dog whistling.” This is a form of racial demagoguery broadcast at the volume of a klaxon. There is no need for Steve Bannon’s behind-the-scenes scriptwriting. Trump, who is desperate to distract his base from his myriad failures of policy, from health care to immigration, is perfectly capable of devising his racist rhetoric all on his own.

In these performances, Trump is making clear his moral priorities. He is infinitely more offended by the sight of a black ballplayer quietly, peacefully protesting racism in the United States than he is by racism itself. Which, at this point, should come as no surprise to any but the willfully obtuse. Trump, who began his real-estate career with a series of discriminatory housing deals in New York City, and his political career with a racist calumny against Barack Obama, has repeatedly defined his Presidency with a rhetoric that signals solidarity to resentful souls who see the Other as the singular cause of their troubles. Trump stokes a bilious disdain for every African-American who dares raise a voice to protest the injustices of this country.

And lest there be any doubt about his intentions or allegiances, Trump tweeted this afternoon, “If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL, or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem. If not, YOU’RE FIRED. Find something else to do.”

In addition to urging the N.F.L.’s owners to fire any politically impertinent players, Trump also disinvited the N.B.A. champions, the Golden State Warriors, from visiting the White House after one of the team’s stars, Stephen Curry, voiced hesitation about meeting with the President.

Twitter was alight with players and others rushing to the support of those on the receiving end of Trump’s barbs.

“Going to the White House was a great honor until you showed up!” LeBron James said. Many professional athletes tweeted in the same spirit as James, and even the N.F.L. commissioner, Roger Goodell, who has hardly been stalwart in the interests of his players, issued a statement calling Trump’s comments “divisive” and showing an “unfortunate lack of respect” for the league and its players. Compared to the N.B.A. commissioner, Adam Silver, who has been consistently anti-racist and supportive of the players’ right to protest, Goodell is a distinctly corporate figure, whose instinct is nearly always to side with the owners. (At least six N.F.L. owners each contributed a million dollars, or more, to Trump’s Inauguration fund, including Woody Johnson, of the Jets, Robert Kraft, of the Patriots, and Daniel Snyder, of the Redskins.)

Trump has experience in professional sports––with boxing, as a casino operator; with football, as an owner. (And if professional wrestling counts, the man is practically a charter member of the W.W.F.) In the eighties, he was the owner of the New Jersey Generals, a team in the ill-fated United States Football League, which played its games in the spring. He was reportedly interested in buying the Buffalo Bills as recently as three years ago.

And yet his sympathy for the players is minimal. Not only does he try to isolate them as ungrateful anthem-defiling millionaires, he also could not care less about their health. No matter how many reports are issued making clear that the sport has left countless players suffering from all manner of neurological diseases, Trump is unimpressed. C.T.E. injuries in football seem to be no more a reality to him than climate change.

At a rally in Lakeville, Florida, during the Presidential campaign, Trump aroused the crowd by insisting that the N.F.L., which has hardly gone to great lengths to protect its players, was “ruining the game” by inflicting penalties on players who, say, hit the quarterback too late. “See, we don’t go by these new and very much softer N.F.L. rules. Concussion? Oh! Oh! ‘Got a little ding in the head—no, no, you can’t play for the rest of the season.’ Our people are tough.”

What Trump is up to with this assault on athletes, particularly prominent black ones, is obvious; it is part of his larger culture war. Divide. Inflame. Confuse. Divert. And rule. He doesn’t care to grapple with complexity of any kind, whether it’s about the environment, or foreign affairs, or race, or the fact that a great American sport may, by its very nature, be irredeemable. Rather than embody any degree of dignity, knowledge, or unifying embrace, Trump is a man of ugliness, and the damage he does, speech after speech, tweet after tweet, deepens like a coastal shelf. Every day, his Presidency takes a toll on our national fabric. How is it possible to argue with the sentiment behind LeBron James’s concise tweet at Trump: “U Bum”? It isn’t.

The Slow Road to Recovery for The Caribbean — Julie Bosman in the New York Times.

First the hurricanes came, bringing rain, winds and ruin to St. Martin, a tiny island in the Caribbean. Then, said Corby George, a 41-year-old taxi driver there, there was a rush of residents leaving the island, possibly never to return.

“Their jobs are no more,” he said.

Two ferocious hurricanes in less than two weeks caused widespread devastation in the Caribbean this month, leaving dozens dead, millions without power or drinking water and countless homes destroyed.

The storms also ripped through the tourism industry in a region unusually dependent on well-heeled visitors, where a thriving network of hotels, souvenir shops, taxis, charter fishing boats and restaurants powers local economies.

In the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, cruise ports and airports throughout the Caribbean are closed, beachside bars are flooded and, on many islands, tourists are absent. And the risk of a far longer term ripple effect looms, threatening the region’s ability to rebuild: Without a steady influx of cash from tourists, businesses suffer, employers cut back and local residents lose jobs; workers on especially hurricane-stricken islands could move elsewhere for opportunity, denting the local economy further.

“Right now, the livelihood of tourism on a whole is in a coma,” said Jen Liebsack, 45, an events and sales manager at Zemi Beach House, a luxury hotel in Anguilla, a British overseas territory where about 90 percent of the electricity infrastructure was damaged and the hotel has canceled its bookings through the end of October.

Hillary Bonner, 36, a bartender on St. John on the United States Virgin Islands, said that most of her friends worked in boating or hospitality, and that nearly everything else was staked on the fates of those fields, too. “Without tourism, you don’t need 10 policemen, you need two,” said Ms. Bonner, who has been staying in New York, waiting to be allowed to return to the heavily battered island. “You don’t need three banks, you need one.”

In the Caribbean region, travel and tourism account for a higher share of the gross domestic product than they do in any other region of the world, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council, and officials say it is far too soon to know when the industry will fully recover.

At stake are some of the more than 2.3 million travel and tourism-related jobs in the region. According to the Caribbean Tourism Organization, almost 30 million tourists visited the area in 2016 and spent more than $35 billion. But as officials race to restore power and begin rebuilding basic services, the precise fallout to the tourism industry is uncertain.

Some islands, like St. Kitts, appeared to be barely touched; others, like Barbuda, part of the two-island state of Antigua and Barbuda, were nearly destroyed.

Maria Blackman, a spokeswoman for the Antigua and Barbuda Tourism Authority, said that many hotels were closed during the off-season in September anyway, a common time for annual renovations. The cruise ports and airport remain open.

“On Antigua, we opened back up pretty much the next day,” she said.

But in the United States Virgin Islands, the damage was so widespread that visitors were told to cancel any planned trips, Beverly Nicholson-Doty, the commissioner of tourism, said.

“We are encouraging travelers to postpone trips to the islands at this time and are sparing no effort to rebuild communities and restore essential services so we can welcome travelers back to our islands in the months ahead,” Ms. Nicholson-Doty said in an email.

For most British Virgin Islands, tourism workers — many of them expatriates from the Caribbean or other parts of the world — the only certainty now is uncertainty.

Trisha Paul, who works as a waitress at Treasure Isle Hotel in the capital of Road Town, said she was unsure what she would do to make a living until tourists return.

“I don’t know,” she shrugged. “Just waiting to get word from the boss as to what is going to happen now. But right now we don’t have any work for waitresses.”

A native of Grenada, she said she fell into the profession largely by chance when she moved to the B.V.I. last year after studying psychology in Cuba. Now she is considering returning home.

“But I’m kind of confused right now between two minds, waiting and watching,” she said. “The hurricane season is still on. I leave here and I go back home, the next hurricane could — bam!”

Robertico Croes, associate director of the Dick Pope Sr. Institute for Tourism Studies at the University of Central Florida, said he did not expect that the Caribbean, over all, would lose tourists. Visitors will simply visit those islands that were untouched by the hurricanes and steer clear of those that were damaged, he said.

“I don’t imagine St. John for the next couple of years would be able to do anything with regard to tourism,” he said, noting that the damage was particularly crippling there. “For Puerto Rico, it’s less severe.”

It does not appear that way to residents there, though. Before the hurricanes, which severely damaged the power grid across the entire island, Puerto Rico was already in deep financial distress, impoverished and debt-laden. The island carries $74 billion in debt and declared a form of bankruptcy in May. Its finances are being overseen by a federal control board.

Alfredo Gómez, 42, the longtime owner of El Farol, a food kiosk in the popular beachside area just east of San Juan’s airport, said he had seen slumps over the last 20 years. But he had not seen the roof of his place blow off. That, he said, had left him wondering this time whether it was even worth giving it another go.

“I was tempted to not even come back here to make repairs,” Mr. Gómez said from the rooftop of his restaurant. “What if nobody comes?”

The restaurant was open on Friday making fritters, mostly feeding the employees who had come to clean up. “Tell the people, the tourists, to keep supporting us like they always have,” he said. “All of this area — Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico — lives off tourism. We can try to survive with business from the locals, but it’s with tourists that we live.”

Clarisa Jimenez, the president and chief executive of the Puerto Rico Hotel and Tourism Association, was supposed to be preparing for her industry’s biggest event beginning on Tuesday, its splashy annual convention and gala at the InterContinental San Juan, a luxury resort on a white sand beach.

Instead, she was sifting through the wreckage of her office in San Juan.

“My office was destroyed — I’m surprised the phone rang,” she said on Friday, describing the broken windows, strewn papers and soggy floors around her. The convention was hastily postponed to December. “It’s hard to even guess when things will get back to normal. But tourism is one of the industries that we need to help us overcome.”

High Security — Josh Marshall wants to know why the head of the EPA needs so many bodyguards.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt now has an 18 person, 24/7 security detail. The effort has become so elaborate that the EPA has now had to take agents off actual EPA criminal investigations to focus on protecting Pruitt.

This is offensive and ridiculous.

We had a member of Congress almost murdered a couple of months ago in what was clearly an ideologically motivated attack. People are also very upset about the Trump administration’s atrocious environmental policies. Pruitt is arguably the face of that. There are also very rare but real instances of violence committed by environmental extremists. So I don’t dispute the need for some security. But absent some very clear evidence of a specific, credible and on-going threat, this big of a security effort can only be explained by an attempt to create the impression of a threat for political reasons or the desire to avoid ever coming into contact with peaceful protestors, something we’ve seen throughout the Trump administration.

The Department of Education is paying the US Marshals service $1 million a month to provide extensive security to Secretary Betsy Devos – a move that appears to stem from an aggressive protestor yelling at her earlier this year. According to The Washington Post, the Marshals Service is hiring nearly two dozen people to guard DeVos. In other words, it sounds comparable to Pruitt’s detail, though we don’t know specifics about whether it’s around the clock protection or just how many people guard her at any one time.

According to the Post, before DeVos, the last cabinet secretary to be protected by the Marshals Service was the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, commonly known as the drug czar (The drug czar no longer has cabinet rank). Federal judges and law enforcement officials facing direct and specific threats to their lives generally make due with far less security.

This is a delicate topic. We can’t know the particular threats these people face. Nor should we discount the fact that there is some real risk for prominent public officials during this fractious era in our politics. But given the Trump administration’s broader push to whip up fear of ‘left-wing violence’, the most plausible explanation for what seems like comical levels of security for relatively obscure cabinet secretaries seems to be what I described above: an effort to whip up fear of largely non-existent anti-Trump violence and to be spared the annoyance and mortification of coming into contact with peaceful protestors.

Doonesbury — Defining term.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Thursday, September 21, 2017