Sunday, September 13, 2020

Sunday Reading

Remembering Trump — Roger Cohen in the New York Times.

After two weeks of battling Covid-19 — thank you, dear readers, for all the good wishes — I can report that the droning discomfort has passed, some energy has returned, I can taste again, and, for better or worse, I am recovering my personality from whoever hijacked it. I can also certify that the virus is a devilish addition to life on earth. Do not mess with it.

My memory is also returning, a mixed blessing as it turns to familiar obsessions, like Trump’s ego.

You know that ego could not resist 18 interviews with Bob Woodward, just as you know that he spent some of those interviews detailing his lies to the American people about the virus (he preferred “to always play it down”), just as you know that he said in 2018 that the Aisne-Marne American cemetery in France he declined to visit was “filled with losers,” just as you know that in 2017 he said Haitians “all have AIDS” and Nigerian immigrants wouldn’t ever “go back to their huts.”

You know because the president’s personality is consistent: a mix of coward, racist, liar, con artist, narcissist, grifter, and blowhard, with uncanny antennae for the worst instincts of humanity, and for how to use the media to channel insecurity and hatred into a mass political movement galvanized by his fiendish energy.

Yes, you just know with Trump. You know he insisted that Sean Spicer say his inauguration was “the largest audience to ever witness” the ceremony, and that the former senior White House counselor Kellyanne Conway used the Trump playbook when she said the statement was not false but “just alternative facts,” and that when Trump started insisting (falsely) that there had been voter fraud in the election he had won, he was laying the groundwork for real voter suppression in November 2020, and that downplaying the virus was about getting the Dow to 30,000 so he would not suffer an impossible defeat in the coming election.

Alternative facts have been the diet of Americans for 44 months now. No democracy, built on accountability and law, can survive such an onslaught indefinitely. That is why Joe Biden’s most effective slogan is a simple one: “You deserve a president who tells you the truth.”

Biden has a fight on his hands. Millions of Americans have lost their jobs. Militarized police confront angry mobs. Insecurity is rampant, as is racial tension. A plague stalks the land. These are near perfect conditions for a proto-fascist like Trump who seeks a disoriented populace.

You just know, and the knowledge is that cloying glob of sludge that can never quite be washed off in the Trump era, however hard you scrub. It permeates existence.

You know he doesn’t believe climate change is a threat, that he has done his best to eviscerate the Environmental Protection Agency, that he does not believe in science, that he thought “disinfectant” might knock out the virus “in a minute,” that he has hobbled the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that he couldn’t care less about transgender people, that he loathes immigrants he has described as “animals,” and that he authorized the separation of thousands of immigrant children from their parents at the border. You know that in textbook totalitarian fashion, he calls a free press “the enemy of the American people.”

Yes, you know, and you also know that Trump wants you to know all this so well, and so relentlessly, that you don’t care. He has always gotten away with it. He has no reason to believe he will not continue to bat 1.000.

“The fact is, we’re here, and they’re not,” he taunted his opponents at the White House last month. It is a fact, alterable only through an immense summoning of American character and will.

You know Trump thought there were “very fine people on both sides” at the 2017 neo-Nazi Charlottesville rally, and that he thinks any Jew who votes for a Democrat shows “great disloyalty,” and that he winks daily at millions of Americans who believe he is their savior from a takeover by Black and brown people, Jewish finance, cosmopolitans, and leftist radicals. You know Trump is “very much behind” President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt because he has yet to meet a dictator he does not dream of emulating. You know Trump must be compromised with President Vladimir Putin to the point of ignoring Russian bounties on American troops in Afghanistan.

American deaths, as this year’s virus death toll has shown, are a matter of indifference to a president who believes empathy, like patriotic sacrifice, is for suckers.

It’s important not just to know, to be aware, but to remember. It’s hard to remember. It’s like looking for the way out of a labyrinth in the mist.

It’s important to remember that Trump believes he has done more for Black Americans than any president since Abraham Lincoln and that he claims he will preserve coverage for pre-existing conditions even as he is asking the Supreme Court to destroy Obamacare. Because Trump is delusional and a world already on the brink of an armed Chinese-American confrontation may not survive a second Trump term without disaster. Nor will the oldest democracy on earth.

To Tell The Truth — Susan B. Glasser in The New Yorker on how Bob Woodward did it.

President Donald Trump began the day on Wednesday engaged in a bout of self-promotion, dreaming of the Nobel Peace Prize he might soon win. Delighted with the news that a right-wing crank in the Norwegian parliament had nominated him for the honor, Trump had the White House press secretary put out an official statement that hailed the President’s “bold diplomacy and vision.” Before 10 A.M., Trump retweeted stories about the Nobel nomination—and congratulations to himself for it—nearly two dozen times. I would not be surprised if he took particular delight in the tweet he passed along from @RealMattCouch, a self-described journalist and patriot: “Can you imagine the riots and temper tantrums from the leftist mob when President Trump is re-elected and he wins the Nobel Peace Prize in the same year . . . This is going to be glorious :)”

But, of course, there will be no Nobel, nor will there be a Middle East peace deal to end all peace deals, with Trump’s name emblazoned on it in gold. Do his followers in the MAGA bubble know this? Does Trump? By lunchtime, the fantasy was forgotten, or at least temporarily set aside. Reality, in the form of the President’s own words, taped by the journalist Bob Woodward with Trump’s permission, had intruded. The coronavirus was “deadly,” he had told Woodward, on February 7th, “more deadly than even your strenuous flus.” As we now all know, Trump then spent the next month publicly downplaying the danger, telling Americans the exact opposite of what he had privately confided to Woodward. By March 19th, after finally being forced to confront the reality of the escalating pandemic inside the United States, and having declared a national emergency, Trump admitted to Woodward the scale of his wintry deception. “I wanted to always play it down,” he said, according to Woodward’s forthcoming new book, “Rage.” “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.” This, too, is on tape, and as of Wednesday afternoon it was playing on a loop on CNN—the President, in his own words, confirming his calculatedly cynical approach to a public-health catastrophe that sometime in the next few days will have claimed two hundred thousand American lives.

This is one of those brutal weeks in the Trump Presidency—and there have been many—when the facts revealed about the President are so painful that it is not just his supporters in the Senate, perennially dodging reporters’ questions on their way to lunch, who might prefer to look away. Among Democrats and the liberal commentariat, there was the usual Woodward bashing: Why had he waited so long to publish this damaging information? But there was also another question: Will any of this new information matter, what with Trump voters so locked into their support of the President that no outrage, no matter how deadly, will sway them? For Trump’s defenders, it was just another time to dodge and deflect. On Fox News, the host Tucker Carlson opened his prime-time show with a long attack on Senator Lindsey Graham, the Presidential confidant whom Carlson blamed for convincing Trump to coöperate with Woodward. Carlson noted that Graham had sat in on the first interview, but did not offer his viewers any explanation for why Trump conducted seventeen subsequent interviews with Woodward.

I found a certain emptiness to the exercise, to the partisan vaporings and performative outrage of the political class. Everyone is suiting up for a fight, and they all think they know its resolution: Trump will deny and dissemble, and then some other thing will happen and the news cycle will move on. The strategy from Trump and his partisans was quickly apparent; this is a play they have run many times before. If the President can pretend the virus that he had called “deadly” is, in fact, not so bad, then he certainly can pretend that he never said those things to Woodward; that the book, like all the other books, is just a “political hit job”; and that it’s irrelevant, anyway, because he is doing such a terrific job and his enemies are terrible.

Sure enough, by Thursday morning, Trump was back to demanding that Democrats reopen schools, the coronavirus be damned. He was tweeting about his good friend Kim Jong Un, planning to hold a campaign rally in Michigan, and complaining about the “phony Russia, Russia, Russia HOAX.” A day after implausibly reacting to the Woodward book by claiming that, in lying, he was just acting responsibly, to avoid panicking the American public, Trump returned to scaring it. “If I don’t win,” the President tweeted, “America’s Suburbs will be OVERRUN with Low Income Projects, Anarchists, Agitators, Looters and, of course, ‘Friendly Protesters’.”

Soon after that tweet, I heard a thwack at the front door. My copy of the Woodward book had arrived. Should I even bother to read it? In Trump’s nihilistic world, nothing matters. There is no point, no truth that is not partisan. The election is just under two months away. To Trump, that is all that counts. How will the book, or any other book, for that matter, change its outcome? I thought about all of that. I decided to start reading.

The reviewers at the Times and the Washington Post have already had their shots at Woodward’s book. His latest work has prompted as much fury on their part at the cowardly group of sycophants and enablers surrounding the President as at Trump himself. All of us already know that Trump is a charlatan, a con man, a fool. But isn’t it infuriating that these decorated generals and self-professed Christians have spoken privately with Woodward but have refused to level with the American people? Perhaps it’s “a tale not of character but of complicity,” as Jennifer Szalai wrote in the Times. “What makes the book noteworthy is Woodward’s sad and subtle documentation of the ego, cowardice and self-delusion that, over and over, lead intelligent people to remain silent in the face of Trumpian outrages,” Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown University law professor, concluded, in a review for the Post.

It is hard to disagree with their assessment. At times, you may slam the book down in frustration as you read, yet again, about Trump’s enablers telling a journalist how paranoid and narcissistic, foul-mouthed and foolish, the President is. These are people who have worked closely with him, and who apparently believe that Trump is a mortal danger to the nation, but they never say anything about him to the public. Still, the problem is this: as enraging and perplexing as their self-imposed silences and self-serving leaks appear to be, Jim Mattis and Dan Coats and all the rest are not running for President. They are, in the end, not responsible for the follies of the Trump Presidency, any more than Bob Woodward is responsible for the outrageous things that Trump told him. Does anyone seriously believe that, had Woodward published an article based on his February phone call with the President, Trump would have chosen any different course of action toward the pandemic? At every step along the way, the President has been called on his public misstatements and untruths about the virus. It did not make one bit of difference. Trump is unrepentant, now and forever.

By late Thursday afternoon, the Woodward news cycle had made its inevitable way to a Trump press conference, the ritual moment wherein the President would denounce the book, deny wrongdoing, and say a whole lot of other words.

“Why did you lie to the American people?” the ABC News correspondent Jonathan Karl asked, when Trump gave him the first question.

“There’s no lie,” Trump responded. “And the way you asked that question is very disgraceful.”

Perhaps even more to the point, Trump repeated, over and over, that what he told Woodward essentially does not matter. Because America’s response to the coronavirus has been right, terrific, amazing. Better than Europe. Better than anywhere. “I think we did a great job,” he told Karl. And also, “We’re rounding the final turn.” The pandemic, to hear Trump tell it, is practically over.

This is the same mix of fantasy and lies that Trump was spreading publicly in February, while privately telling Woodward the truth about the coronavirus’s deadliness. The difference is that nearly two hundred thousand Americans are dead now, and few of them had any inkling that their lives would soon be in danger because the President chose neither to tell the country the truth nor take actions that would empower the government to properly respond to a pandemic of this scale and lethality.

Will it make any difference in the election? I doubt it. But the awfulness of the latest Trump revelations is no less awful for having been both anticipated and completely consistent with what we already suspected. In fact, it might be even worse than a surprise bolt from nowhere. Through sheer repetition, Trump has defeated the idea of the game-changing disclosure. Just in the past few days, weeks, and months, we’ve learned that his former national-security adviser considered him “unfit” for office; that his first defense secretary called him “dangerous”; that his first director of National Intelligence thought Vladimir Putin must have had damaging kompromat on him; and that his own sister was secretly taped saying that he was a “cruel” man “with no principles.” None of these disclosures significantly altered the landscape of American politics in this election year. Why would it change anything to know how cynical Trump has been with American lives—to have the confirmation of what you already knew and believed? By now, that’s the thing about these disclosures: the awfulness is not only in the knowing but in the instantaneous awareness that the knowing probably doesn’t much matter. It just makes it a bit more awful.

Are We Ready for Football? — Jerry Brewer in the Washington Post.

An NFL season doesn’t usually slide into consciousness. You hear its thundering footsteps months in advance. But somehow, after what felt like the longest offseason, this 2020 debut managed to sneak up on us.

In a roundabout way, it’s a pleasant surprise the league is playing on schedule. When the novel coronavirus forced sports to go dark in March, many assumed six months would be plenty of time for football to resume. As the challenges to contain the pandemic continued deep into summer, pessimism took over. However, the NFL was undeterred, arrogant as usual and, most of all, sedulous in its planning.

It hasn’t just powered through the way the sport often does. It has shown great thought with its protocols and testing, an appreciation for the scientific challenges and the ability to learn from the successes and failures of other leagues. The work has led to a microscopic number of coronavirus cases; the NFL and its players’ association announced last week only eight positives out of 44,510 tests in the latest round of results. It leaves a sense the season is beginning as safely as possible.

It’s close to miraculous that the NFL figured out a way to start without interruption and without competing in a bubble environment that has worked so well for the NBA, WNBA and NHL. It didn’t seem as if any sport would be able to compete on its terms, not when the nation has struggled to avoid outbreaks and simply agree on an effective plan of action. Football did have to scrap its offseason program and preseason exhibitions, but we’re one game and 34 Kansas City Chiefs points into Week 1, and the country is free to obsess over a full slate of games Sunday.

Well, sort of.

Covid-19 still looms. Without a vaccine, the threat of another debilitating wave remains. An undisturbed NFL season should be considered wishful thinking, even as the players, coaches and staff teach a valuable lesson about discipline and teamwork. The initial success doesn’t minimize the long-term challenges. And there’s one other problem: How does the league recapture the attention of fans who have greater concerns this season?

The NFL once cowered before Trump. Now it has a chance to stand for something.

The NFL is used to announcing its arrival and watching every kind of fan — the die-hards, the casuals and the ones who have supposedly sworn off the game — come running. But before the defending champion Chiefs and Houston Texans kicked off the season Thursday night, the anticipation included an abnormal reaction appropriate for what people have been through: “Oh, for real?”

Sports aren’t an invincible distraction right now, and with so many athletes committed to social justice, they don’t want to be, either. But even if the players were adamant about only providing blind entertainment, it still wouldn’t be the same. The majority of major sports had to go away for four months. Children aren’t getting to compete as much. Adult beer leagues and regular pickup games have been canceled. Part of what makes athletics irresistible is their prevalence, dependability and timelessness. The games go on, always. They create more than a passion. They put you in an emotional trance, becoming intrinsic to your sense of community and need for human connection.

Disrupt this way of life for too long, and people learn to live another way. Some of that is happening here. For as desperate as people said they were for sports, the ratings and anecdotal evidence suggest they have yet to come back in full force. It’s more nuanced than blaming the stances that players are taking against systemic oppression. Since returning from hiatus, the audience hasn’t been there. This was true before people fully experienced this new wave of activism.

It’s a factor, sure, but it’s presumptuous to consider it the factor. Preliminary numbers for the NFL opener Thursday night indicate general sports fatigue or an abundance of competition more than some kind of public disgust. No one had any clarity on what the Chiefs and Texans were going to do before the game, so the notion of preemptive disillusionment makes little sense. I suppose you can argue the NFL is paying the price for other leagues failing to stick to sports, but that’s a thin assumption that ignores polling data suggesting the majority of fans are tolerant of athletes taking a stand.

There are other issues to consider. For one, these sports feel soulless right now, no matter how well the games are presented for television. There’s little atmosphere, nothing grand about the event. The quality of play has been impressive, and the athletes deserve immense credit for their mental and physical resolve. But compared with the normal spectacle, this version can be boring at times. And when there are thrills, something still seems off. Sports have become background noise. Watching them is something to do, not the premier thing to do. Struggling is what we all do, in some form, right now. There is no satisfying diversion from this pain.

In addition, the schedule is oversaturated currently, and everything is out of context. Everyone is used to the football season starting at this time, but it has had to compete with the NBA playoffs, the Stanley Cup playoffs, U.S. Open tennis and many other options. Everything is crammed into September, including the Kentucky Derby and Tour de France. Fans can be excited but also overwhelmed. They can be interested but also preoccupied with more important things. Signs of diminished enthusiasm magnify that fans are humans with healthy minds and broken hearts.

The NFL, the king of American sports, isn’t immune. The football-loving nation will appreciate its return, but it might not fixate on it.

So an anticipated return morphed into a sneak attack. The NFL is back in the game. This time, though, it doesn’t feel like the only game. There are more pressing matters, and this season, success depends on how well football blends into this fidgety new world.

Doonesbury — Survival of the twittest.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Monday, July 8, 2019

And Then Some

From the Washington Post:

With gold medals around their necks and fresh jerseys that proclaimed “Champions” on their backs, members of the U.S. women’s soccer team took turns cradling and kissing the World Cup trophy, then raising it aloft with triumphant howls.

As confetti pooled around their ankles at Stade de Lyon, packed with a capacity crowd of 57,900, some fell flat on their backs and made snow angels. Others draped themselves in the American flag and danced.

Upon winning the country’s fourth Women’s World Cup title Sunday with a 2-0 victory over the Netherlands, the team celebrated as it had competed the entire four-week tournament — wholeheartedly and unapologetically.

[…]

Three months before the tournament kicked off in Paris on June 7, the members of the U.S. women’s team sued their employer, the U.S. Soccer Federation, for gender discrimination, citing wages and working conditions that are inferior to those of their less successful male counterparts.

In doing so, the athletes knowingly and deliberately made their burden greater heading into the World Cup. Whether the lawsuit was a post-match talking point or not (and it rarely was), each goal and each victory the U.S. women scored became a statement about their prowess on the field and their leverage off it.

Chants of “Equal pay! Equal pay!” rang out from the stands in the delirious aftermath of Sunday’s U.S. victory, leaving no doubt about how soccer fans would rule if they were judge and jury of the legal proceedings.

Within seconds, the hashtag #EqualPay spiked fivefold on Twitter, according to a company official. Twitter was the social media platform of choice Sunday for U.S. soccer supporters, including former first lady ­Michelle Obama and former president Bill Clinton; actors Ryan Reynolds and Bette Midler; and NFL quarterbacks Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. President Trump and first lady Melania Trump also tweeted their congratulations.

Equal pay?  They should be earning more.  They’ve done more for soccer in the US than the men’s team, and — according to those who follow the sport — are better at it.

Meanwhile, Fox News got an earful when they cut to a local sports bar in Lyon, France, after the game.

World Cup viewers at a bar in Lyon, France on Sunday marred a Fox News segment by chanting profanities at Donald Trump.

Fox News cut to the sports bar in Lyon just moments after the U.S. women’s team won the World Cup championship.

As correspondent Greg Palkot began his report, the establishment’s bartender prompted a chorus of chants.

“Fuck Trump!” the bartender shouted.

“Fuck Trump!” the bar began to yell in unison.

“We were going to be outside,” Palkot explained. “We were going to be looking at a screen with the football game. But in fact it was cancelled by officials because they were worried about security measures. The American fans came over to this sports bar.”

“It’s been a crazy time,” the veteran war reporter added.

Cut to commercial!

Monday, February 4, 2019

The Long Game

Rather than watch the football game, I turned on TCM at 4:30 and, for the first time since I saw it in a movie theatre in 1965, I watched “Doctor Zhivago,” three and a half hours of long, silent wide-screen shots of the Russian steppes punctuated now and then with longing looks between Omar Sharif and Julie Christie and the occasional World War I battle and the Russian Revolution.  The actual story itself could have been narrated and shown in about twenty minutes.

I hear the football game wasn’t much more interesting.  Then again, the movie was presented without commercial interruption.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Sunday Reading

Meet Sherrod Brown — John Nichols in The Nation.

Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown is exploring a presidential bid that would frame his progressive-populist politics around a “Dignity of Work” message that seeks to unite working-class voters of all backgrounds in the sort of coalition that he had maintained in Republican-leaning Ohio. There’s appeal in the Midwestern Democrat’s overt challenge to President Trump’s claim to the mantle of populism, especially when Brown complains that

Trump has used his phony populism to divide Americans demonize immigrants. He uses his phony populism to distract from the fact that he has used the White House to enrich billionaires like himself. Real populism is not racist. Real populism is not anti-Semitic. Real populists don’t engage in hate speech and don’t rip babies from families at the border. Real populists don’t insult people’s intelligence by lying.

There’s skepticism about whether Brown has the name recognition and the base, outside of his native Ohio and perhaps a few other states, to compete in a Democratic race that is likely to be packed with higher-profile contenders, including Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris. There’s also at least some skepticism about whether provoking a wrestling match between progressive populism and right-wing populism makes sense as a 2020 strategy. Brown will explore these questions in visits to caucus and primary states in coming weeks, and pundits will ponder his potential bid.

There is more to Sherrod Brown than the shorthand profile of a Democratic senator who swept to reelection in 2018 in a state that voted for Donald Trump in 2016.

As a member of the House in the 1990s and 2000s, he was an essential opponent of the North American Trade Agreement and a host of other trade deals that he argued would be disastrous for American manufacturing and the communities it has sustained. With Elizabeth Warren, Brown has for many years been at the forefront of legislative and popular crusades to address the abuses of the big banks and Wall Street. Brown was an early and energetic foe of the Iraq War, and for decades has been an outspoken advocate for diplomacy and enlightened internationalism. He voted in the fall of 2001 against the USA Patriot Act, joining Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, Sanders, and a handful of others in courageous defense of civil liberties. And he was the first member of the Senate to announce opposition to Donald Trump’s nomination of Jeff Sessions to serve as attorney general—speaking up because, Brown said, “The U.S. Attorney General’s job is to enforce laws that protect the rights of every American. I have serious concerns that Senator Sessions’ record on civil rights is at direct odds with the task of promoting justice and equality for all, and I cannot support his nomination.”

The Ohioan focused his objection on concerns that Sessions, who had a record of threatening voting rights in Alabama, could not be counted on to restore the full protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This was not a new issue for Brown.

The senator has been one of the country’s most consistent champions of voting rights since he served as Ohio’s elected secretary of state from 1983 to 1991. In that position he earned national headlines for his aggressive efforts to promote high-turnout elections. Still in his late 20s when he was elected, Brown crisscrossed the state as an evangelist for voter registration. He and his team set up voter-registration sites in high schools, food banks, and Bureau of Motor Vehicles facilities.

Brown even convinced McDonald’s to print voter registration forms on the liners of the trays Ohioans used to carry their food from the counter to the table, so that “you could order a Big Mac and fill out a voter registration form.”

“You could see voter registration cards with ketchup and mustard on them,” Brown recalled years later, “and we accepted them.”

As a member of the US House and now as a senator, Brown has regularly used his elections expertise to shred Republican lies about rampant “voter fraud.” When Trump started making claims about “millions of people who voted illegally” in the 2016 election, Brown demanded that the president-elect “retract your false statements.”

In a November, 2016, letter to Trump, Brown wrote:

As Secretary of State of Ohio for eight years, I know there are few things more important than the integrity of our electoral system. Your choice to spread false conspiracy theories and to claim millions of fraudulent votes is not only unbecoming of a gracious winner, it is downright dangerous to our democracy.

There is no evidence—zero—of any large-scale voter fraud in the United States. Not in this election and not in any presidential election in recent memory.

Peddling this nonsense and stoking these fears undermine our system of government—and your own election, damaging the public’s faith in our democracy. You won the Electoral College. That is a fact, and you are the President-elect. It is also a fact, however, that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by more than 2 million votes.

Hillary Clinton’s popular vote victory margin is larger than John Kennedy’s over Richard Nixon, it’s larger than Richard Nixon’s over Hubert Humphrey, and it’s larger than Jimmy Carter’s over Gerald Ford. This was far from a landslide victory, and the only way to bring the country together and move forward is to reach across the aisle and work together.

Two years later, as Georgia’s mangled 2018 election stirred a national outcry, the senator pointed to problems with the counting of votes in the closely contested gubernatorial race between Democrat Stacey Abrams and the Republican who oversaw the election (as Georgia’s secretary of state) and eventually prevailed, Brian Kemp. “If Stacey Abrams doesn’t win in Georgia,” Brown declared, “they stole it.”

Speaking of Republican efforts to restrict voting rights, Brown employs the confident language of a former top election official in one of the key battleground states in the country. “They can’t win elections fairly; they win elections by redistricting and reapportionment and voter suppression,” he told a recent National Action Network meeting, where he complained about “all the ways that they try to scare people, particularly people of color, how they make it hard for people on college campuses [to vote], especially community colleges where there are more low-income people and more people of color.”

“We know those despicable laws are often aimed that way,” he concluded.

Brown brings a populist commitment to the fight for voting rights. He is not cautious about speaking up, or about stirring things up. The senator’s “bottom line,” which he has stated for a very long time, speaks to that commitment: “We should be making it easier—not harder—to vote.”

I Like Sports — Ethan Kuperberg in The New Yorker.

I like sports! I like the sport where the ball goes in the big hole and the sport where the ball goes in the little hole. My favorite sport is the one where the two groups push each other on the grass—I like to eat snacks while watching that sport.

When I watch sports, I usually make a secret wish for one group to be better at sports than the other group. And I prefer that my friends have the same secret wish as me. If you have a different wish, well, get ready for an argument. It might be a fun argument, and it might not be!

My favorite thing about sports is that they give me an acceptable way to express my feelings in a patriarchal culture that views expressions of male emotion as weak. For example, if my favorite sports group doesn’t put the ball in the hole enough, I’m allowed to be sad in front of my friends. Nobody knows that I’m really thinking about Sarah or my dad.

And if my favorite group puts the ball in the hole a lot, I’m allowed to hug my friends and tell them that I love them! Since I usually feel scared to outwardly display affection toward the people who make me feel safe, it’s sort of a win-win.

I also like the costumes that the sports players wear. Sometimes, when I am watching sports with my friends, we dress up in the same costumes! It’s fun to act like we are the people playing the sports, even though we’re just using our imaginations.

Another thing I like about sports? The people are real. It’s not like when you watch a movie, and the person you’re watching is actually pretending to be someone else. That’s fake. How about you try being yourself for a change, Sarah?

I like talking about sports. It’s fun to decide which players are the best at putting the ball in the hole. I like it when my friends agree with me (“This sports player is the best”). But every once in a while a friend will disagree (“No, that sports player is best!”). It sounds silly, but we get into real fights.

One of my favorite sports players is LeBron James. I like LeBron James because he takes good care of his team—it’s almost like his team is his family. And a dad should never leave his family. That’s just not right.

Did you know that the ancient Greeks also had sports? They called it the Olympics. I wonder what they made the balls out of back then and what their commercials were for. Probably olives.

The last thing I like about sports is that they never end. Sports can’t end, because when the players stop being good, they are replaced by other players who are still good. A lot of other things end, like movies, or regular communication with family members.

So give me a ball, of any size, and a target or a hole, and a group of sports players, and a second group, and a stadium, and cameras, and referees, and broadcast it straight into my living-room television, because I’m a sports guy through and through! But I don’t love sports. Sports aren’t my dad.

[Photo by Getty]

Doonesbury — Celebrity shout-out.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Did You Watch?

The only event I watched on the 2018 Winter Olympics was a curling match last Saturday at 6 a.m. between Norway and Switzerland.  The TV was on the channel running the match when I turned it on.  That’s it.

I didn’t boycott the games, I just didn’t have the inclination to watch them.  They were either on during prime time when I’m usually writing or going to bed, or there just didn’t seem to be anything I was all that interested in watching.

But that’s me.  What about you?  What did you watch?  What did I miss?

Monday, February 5, 2018

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Sunday Reading

Nothingburger with Cheese — Charles P. Pierce.

I think I may have broken the RETURN key on my laptop. I was reading The Memo a short time after its release by the Republican majority of the House Intelligence Committee. I got to the end and I realized that, even though the Christopher Steele report is The Memo’s chief bogeyman, there was nothing in The Memo that undercuts anything we know about the substance of the Steele dossier. In fact, there is nothing in The Memo that undercuts anything pertaining to the relationship between the Russians and the Trump campaign, nor is there anything that undercuts what we know about the Russian ratfcking generally. I got all the way to the last of the six pages and I couldn’t quite believe that this was what all the fighting had been about for the past couple of weeks. There had to be more. I kept hammering that poor RETURN key in vain. You let me down, Devin Nunes, you White House lawn ornament, you.

I grew up with the Watergate tapes. I grew up with the revelations of the Pike and the Church committees. (Revelations, I might add, that produced the FISA process and the congressional intelligence procedures that Nunes turned into dog food Friday.) I grew up with George Schultz’s diaries that showed that everyone in the upper reaches of the Reagan administration was involved in the crimes of Iran-Contra. I watched every second of the several inquiries into the Whitewater land deal, which is how I know what a crock that was, but at least there was some phony substance to those phony charges. This Memo, Devin, isn’t even a good try. You and your staff have to be the laziest alleged obstructors of justice that I’ve ever seen. All it appears to be is a lame-ass defense of a self-important goofball Russophile named Carter Page. That’s all you got?

This is a guy that got on the FBI radar in 2013, when the president* was still firing celebrities on his television show. The FBI found that Page had been actively cultivated by Russian intelligence as a possible asset. And now, your whole argument is that the FISA warrants were prompted by the Steele dossier and that Steele is a shtunk who was biased against the president*? For this, you needed a memo? For this, you needed a month’s worth of drama? For this, you needed to demolish the good faith between the intelligence community and the congressional committees designed to conduct oversight of that community? You couldn’t even get the date of David Corn’s breakthrough story in Mother Jones right. Hell, you could have saved us all the trouble and just done a couple of nights on Hannity to make that case. You’d have reached every single American that currently buys what you’re peddling.

This is threadbare. This is shabby. This reveals absolutely nothing. All it does is damage. It isn’t even really good ratfcking. I mean, what the fck, Devin? You should’ve outsourced this to the Russians, who really do know how to do this kind of thing well. They wouldn’t have left hanging details like this, from Section 5 of The Memo:

The Papadopoulos information triggered the opening of an FBI counterintelligence investigation in late 2016 by FBI agent Pete Strzok.

I thought it was The Dossier. I’m confused.

And the Russians never would have tried to argue that Steele was simultaneously an untrustworthy operative and a “longtime” FBI source. The FBI wouldn’t have kept him on as a “longtime” source if he wasn’t trustworthy. The FBI is not as dumb as you are. And this is the best you have for a defense?

“The Committee has discovered serious violations of the public trust, and the American people have a right to know when officials in crucial institutions are abusing their authority for political purposes. Our intelligence and law enforcement agencies exist to defend the American people, not to be exploited to target one group on behalf of another. It is my hope that the Committee’s actions will shine a light on this alarming series of events so we can make reforms that allow the American people to have full faith and confidence in their governing institutions.”

Oh, shut up.

‘The brave and assiduous oversight by Congressional leaders in discovering this unprecedented abuse of process represents a giant, historic leap in the repair of America’s democracy. Now that a few of the misdeeds against the Trump Movement have been partially revealed, I look forward to updating my pending legal action in opposition to DOJ this weekend in preparation for Monday’s next small step on the long, potholed road toward helping to restore law and order in our great country.’

Good lord, Carter. Brave! Assiduous! Unprecedented! Giant! Historic! The long, potholed road! Who the hell are you when you’re at home?

The fact is that there isn’t a serious violation of the public trust anywhere in The Memo. There is no abuse of authority. There is nothing giant and/or historic about anything in it. On MSNBC, retired FBI agent Bobby Chacon rightly called The Memo a glorified motion to dismiss the evidence, and not a very good one, either.

Naturally, various Democrats have chimed in, all expressing great disappointment that Nunes has turned out to be the unmitigated hack they all knew he was. (Hell, even gonzo former Congressman Joe Walsh believes that.) The Democrats on the Intelligence Committee said, in part:

“The premise of the Nunes memo is that the FBI and DOJ corruptly sought a FISA warrant on a former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser, Carter Page, and deliberately misled the court as part of a systematic abuse of the FISA process. As the Minority memo makes clear, none of this is true. The FBI had good reason to be concerned about Carter Page and would have been derelict in its responsibility to protect the country had it not sought a FISA warrant. In order to understand the context in which the FBI sought a FISA warrant for Carter Page, it is necessary to understand how the investigation began, what other information the FBI had about Russia’s efforts to interfere with our election, and what the FBI knew about Carter Page prior to making application to the court – including Carter Page’s previous interactions with Russian intelligence operatives. This is set out in the Democratic response which the GOP so far refuses to make public.”

Let us be clear about one thing. I do not care if the meatheads and morons out there buy this bilge. I don’t care how “effective” as spin the acolytes of the Church of The Savvy think the release of The Memo is. I think the Mueller investigation will blow through this flimsy excuse for an argument like a train through a willow tree. But the damage it will do to congressional oversight of the intelligence community—a dubious proposition on its best day, which was not Friday, god knows—will be long-lasting and far-reaching.

That oversight, as well as the FISA court, grew out of the CIA and FBI horror stories revealed in the late 1970s, which was a genuine scandal, and one with an actual body count. (Some of the more noxious revelations from the congressional investigations of that time were illegal CIA operations within the United States, CIA assassination plots overseas, and the foul campaign against Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. waged by the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover.) People risked a lot to inform American citizens of what was being done in their name; Frank Church of Idaho, who led the Senate committee looking into the crimes, was defeated in the next election. Even the current system, which is not something of which I am overly fond, deserves better than what Devin Nunes did to it on Friday in order to run cover for a president* of very dubious character.

And now everybody’s on board. Speaker Paul Ryan, the zombie-eyed granny starver from the state of Wisconsin, is posing once again as a civil libertarian.

“Unlike most judicial proceedings, the FISA system depends not on an adversarial process, but instead on the government providing a complete presentation of the facts and circumstances underlying its warrant applications. It is clear from this memo that didn’t happen in this case, and as a consequence an American’s civil liberties may have been violated.”

And, meanwhile, everybody involved in Friday’s burlesque, from Devin Nunes to Carter Page to the president* himself, knows full well that the Russian ratfckers are gearing up for the 2018 midterms. And the institutions of our government are being asked to resist assaults from without and within. Things are not looking up. At all.

The End of Football — David Remnick in The New Yorker.

The Super Bowl is the most popular annual event in American life. When the ritual began, in 1967, the Green Bay Packers, of the National Football League, defeated the Kansas City Chiefs, of the American Football League, by a score of 35–10, and, although the Los Angeles Coliseum contained patches of empty seats, more than fifty million people watched on television, the largest sports audience in the history of the medium at the time. Last year, more than a hundred and eleven million people watched the Super Bowl, more than triple the TV audience for the Oscars. There’s little doubt that the game between the Patriots and Eagles on Sunday night will attract a similarly gargantuan viewership.

Fans of a certain age (and all those with the technical dexterity to operate the YouTube time machine) might best recall the charms of the early Super Bowls, and of the game itself, by watching N.F.L. Films and listening to its most stentorian narrators, including John Facenda, a.k.a. the Voice of God. N.F.L. Films was the brainchild of a Second World War veteran and topcoat salesman named Ed Sabol, who, in the early sixties, won a small contract with the N.F.L. to film the games and produce highlight films for broadcast on television.

Sabol, soon joined by his son Steve, did for the League what John Ford did for the War. Most historians of the form speak of Sabol’s film of Green Bay’s last-second victory over the Dallas Cowboys on “the frozen tundra” of Lambeau Field, in 1967, as his masterpiece, but, like those cineastes who unaccountably prefer the period charms and underlying darkness of “The Magnificent Ambersons” over the more obvious qualities of “Citizen Kane,” I am partial to “Elements of Victory,” an ambling masterwork on the Packers-Browns championship game of 1965, featuring a Hemingway-terse script by Tex Maule, Ray Scott’s understated narration, and the kettledrum-and-brass soundtrack that thunders under each “Super-Slow Motion” play from scrimmage. The narration begins—“In the gray chill of early dawn, the snows came to Green Bay”—and the martial drama unfolds from there. The dramatis personae include the stout and earnest place-kicker Lou Groza, the omnipotent running back Jim Brown, the “Golden Boy” Paul Hornung, and the hulking creatures of the line—particularly the pulling blockers Jerry Kramer and Fred (Fuzzy) Thurston. Sabol’s signature technique––his answer to Orson Welles’s “deep focus”—was called “tight on the spiral,” in which he keeps the camera trained on the pigskin as it leaves the quarterback’s twisting, unravelling arm; gently ascends in slo-mo; peaks downfield, then descends, rotating, rotating, into the outstretched hands (always “the outstretched hands”) of the receiver. The setting is rarely a sunny clime; nearly always, the action unfurls in frigid places like Lambeau Field, in Green Bay, where “the elements”—snow and rain and mud and “howling wind”—conspire to make the gridiron battle resemble the Battle of the Somme, but with commercials for beer and radial tires.

When I was a kid, I watched these Sabol-produced films incessantly: “NFL Game of the Week,” “Hard Knocks,” “Greatest Moments” (the histories and tragedies), and also “Football Follies” (the comedies), which featured the League’s fumbles, pratfalls, and bobbled balls. Sabol made the games far more dramatic than they were; there were no longueurs. Each moment of action was heightened, prolonged, monumentalized.

But what the Sabols, to say nothing of the various N.F.L. commissioners, broadcasters, and advertisers, were not especially eager to emphasize was the damage. Super-Slow Motion was a super deception. Collisions on the field that led to fractured arms and legs, broken backs, cracked spines, torn ligaments, and, above all, concussions, were lost under all the Wagnerian flights, the basso-profundo voice-overs, and the mythopoetical scripts.

The hits were always “spectacular,” never gruesome. Injured players got “dinged,” then they “shrugged it off.” Someone got his “bell rung” or his “cage rattled.” Euphemism was, for decades, the stoical language of football. And yet we now know, and we have known for long enough, that football doesn’t have “an injury problem”; it has a brain-damage problem. Countless players suffer from early dementia, depression, confusion, suicidal tendencies, and countless other alarming, often mortal, conditions resulting from the game.

A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that, when scientists examined the brains of a hundred and eleven deceased N.F.L. players, all but one showed signs of degenerative brain disease. That’s what all those “spectacular”—and unspectacular—hits so often come to: chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E.

When Rob Gronkowski, the redoubtable tight end for the Patriots, got “dinged” in a helmet-to-helmet collision with the Jaguars safety Barry Church last month, he suffered an injury, his second concussion, that could only hasten a path to a diminished middle age. Nevertheless, he has pronounced himself “full go, ready to roll” for the Super Bowl. “My mindset is, whenever you hit a speed bump in the road, just to get back up, keep doing what you gotta do through the process and not put yourself in more danger,” he told reporters. “Do everything that you can right, and just keep on truckin’ and get back out there.”

In the mid-fifties, the dominant sports in the United States were baseball, boxing, and horse racing. American life had not urbanized and accelerated to the point where the three hours of languid, pastoral play in a Tuesday-afternoon baseball game were deemed “slow.” Speaking one night at Delmonico’s, in 1889, Mark Twain referred to the sport as “the very symbol, the outward and visible expression of the drive and push and rush and struggle of the raging, tearing, booming nineteenth century!” That lasted well into the twentieth, somehow. In the mid-fifties, everyone knew the name of the heavyweight champion, an exalted office, and columnists competed to find the apt gladiatorial metaphor to describe each bout. The Kentucky Derby was an event far bigger than the N.B.A. Finals. If you were Jimmy Cannon or Red Smith or any of the big columnists, you saw basketball as a banal game of “up and down,” played by curious overgrown gland cases; you preferred an afternoon at Churchill Downs, the grandstand redolent of bourbon, crushed mint, and horseshit.

Things have changed. As baseball’s ratings slump and twitchy fans complain of games dominated by long episodes of spitting, scratching, and pitching-mound conferencing, there are rumbles of reform (shifting the strike zone) and revolution (a seven-inning game). Baseball is still selling tickets and drawing fans, but it feels as though it has dropped out of the center of popular entertainment, lost pace with the times. Horse racing has declined far more radically, overwhelmed by alternative games of chance. An image of corruption, drugs, and cruelty to animals did not help much, either.

Boxing, by its very nature, proved unreformable. There is, undeniably, a terrible beauty in the best fights––an athletic craft exemplified by the likes of Ali, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Roberto Durán––but cruelty and violence, and the terrible pleasure taken in cruelty and violence, are at the center of things. The very point of the contest is to render an opponent temporarily unconscious or to bruise and bloody him into a helpless state of “technical” knockout. Who wants their child to box? Twenty years ago, when I was writing a book about Muhammad Ali, nearly all the ex-fighters I interviewed displayed signs of dementia or worse. When I spoke with the former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson, in 1997, he was still the chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission, which supervises prizefighting in the state. He was only intermittently coherent. The next year, during a deposition, he could not remember the names of his associates or of his secretary, and he had to step down from his position.

In the journalism of the past decade, more and more N.F.L. players and players’ families are describing the toll of the game on their bodies, their minds, and their lives. It is a collective portrait of pain, mental illness, physical debility, and, often enough, shattered families. The latest is an essay published this week in the Times, by Emily Kelly, whose husband, Rob Kelly, played for the New Orleans Saints and the New England Patriots in the late nineties and early two-thousands. As with so many other veteran players, Rob Kelly suffers from debilitating emotional problems, including paranoia, sleeplessness, depression, and an inability or unwillingness to communicate. There is almost no doubt that the cause is football.

How do you “fix” a game in which the attraction of the game resides in its violence, in the crash of huge, super athletic men, down after down, game after game, year after year? A special helmet? More rule changes? No less an authority than the President of the United States has complained that rule changes are “ruining the game.” “Today, if you hit too hard, fifteen yards, throw him out of the game!” an outraged President Trump said during a rally in Alabama last year.

I don’t watch much football anymore—the N.B.A. playoffs are, for me at least, an infinitely greater pleasure—but, hypocritical as it is, it’s hard to deny the excitement or the beauty of the game when I do tune in. But the beauty is the beauty of a car crash in an action movie—only here there are no stuntmen, no C.G.I. As N.F.L. players often say, nearly every play feels like a car crash, a real one. Even after an “injury-free” game, players soak themselves in ice baths; they are, head to toe, an enormous contusion.

After covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I remember driving one Friday night from New Orleans to the airport in Houston to get a flight back to New York. For hours, all I could find on the radio was high-school football, and everywhere I looked, along the road in Louisiana and Texas, there were illuminated stadiums filled with cheering fans and kids slamming into one another, revelling in the game of football. Now the ratings for the N.F.L. are starting to decline. Some Pop Warner and high-school programs, particularly in wealthier communities, have diminished or shut down. Parents are asking the question once asked of boxing: Do you want your kids to play football?

This will not be the last Super Bowl any more than Ali–Frazier III was the last heavyweight-championship fight. But, just as boxing inexorably shifted to the margins of American life, this might be, for football, the start of the long eclipse.

The Multiple Lives of J.K. Simmons — Melanie McFarland in Salon profiles the understated but prolific actor.

You may find it hard to believe this, but aside from a mercifully brief stint as an overwhelmed temp, “Counterpart” star J.K. Simmons has never worked in an office. “Oh god, I’m glad nobody has film of that,” he told Salon recently.

This is a rare and somewhat odd gap in the resume of a man who has played an extensive range of roles, lending his talents to everything from animated series aimed at children to Tom Fontana’s celebrated HBO drama “Oz” which spun a tapestry of violence cruel enough to force the hardiest of viewers to tap out.

For a man who has played all kinds of roles, “Counterpart” may prove to be one of his most challenging projects because he’s playing two versions of the same person, at the same time. Not only that, it places him inside the life of, yes, an office drone.

Simmons’ Howard Silk amounts to more than this — twice as much in fact. In the show’s chilly Berlin setting, Silk is a bureaucrat whose job entails completing a set task each day that isn’t just boring, it makes no discernible sense. But he soon finds out that the world doesn’t make sense, largely because there are two versions of it, the result of a Cold War event gone wrong.

These parallel existences mean that every person has a duplicate, although the government strains mightily to keep that under wraps. Howard’s happens to be a spy assigned to a mission to capture a killer who has found a way to cross between these existences.

Dual roles aren’t unique — especially in recent seasons — or relegated to science fiction. Think James Franco playing the role of brothers on “The Deuce,” or Ewan McGregor pulling off a similar job on the third season of “Fargo.”

“Counterpart,” currently airing Sundays at 8 p.m. on Starz, creates a different challenge for Simmons in that the actor must play one man, two different ways. In the drama’s universe, they share the same upbringing and the same memories until the split forced one to take a part the other probably did not consider. And he manifests this with delicate changes between one personality and another. The smallest change in posture gives Howard Silk the bureaucrat the torso of a sedentary working stiff, which is apparent as he stands across from Howard Silk, government agent.

And as Simmons recalled, two versions of one person in a number of scenes made this role a little more daunting than others.

“I was going to say there were no days off of work,” he said, “but every once in a while those days where all I had to do was, ‘You’re just walking from here to there, and now you’re walking from there to here’ turned into, ‘but you’re this dude, and you’ve experienced this, this, this, and this, which we haven’t shot yet. And you’re pretending to be the other dude.’

He jokingly added, “I kept thinking of the line from Robert Downey Jr. line in ‘Tropic Thunder’: ‘I’m the dude dressed as a dude, pretending to be that other dude.’ That was the guy I felt like sometimes, yeah.”

In the real world, if Simmons seems like he’s everywhere, that’s because he kind of is. Simmons takes the term “working actor” seriously to a degree that’s beyond impressive, continuing to rack up voice work credits even while he’s in demand as a film actor and TV star.

Spend an hour watching TV, and it is possible to see him as the spokesperson for Farmers Insurance company, to hear him voicing the part of the yellow M&M (yes, that’s him) and, possibly, popping other animated roles within the same stretch.

Simmons got his first Hollywood break relatively late, at the age of 39 when he landed a part in the Denis Leary vehicle “The Ref.” Cutting his teeth on stage in the early years of his career provided a basis for dramatic versatility that has served him incredibly well ever since.

His wide-ranging adaptability as a performer enabled Simmons to move past being associated with one of the most terrifying characters on television, the white supremacist leader Vern Schillinger on HBO’s “Oz.” Schillinger was Simmons’ first regular series role, and the viciousness the actor poured into the part made Schillinger tough to forget. Fortunately it didn’t typecast him. During the run of “Oz” Simmons appeared in the “Law & Order” franchise as Dr. Emil Skoda, a psychiatrist working with the police department.

He also went on to play J. Jonah Jameson in Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” in addition to extensive work in TV, including on series such as “The Closer,” before landing the role of a cruel, hard-driving instructor in the Oscar- and Golden Globe-winning 2014 film “Whiplash,” the part that would earn him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

“That’s a blessing that I’ve had, really my whole career since I was doing theater 40 years ago, is I’ve had opportunities to play many different kinds of characters,” he said.  In this, to be able to play different kinds of characters on the same show, on the same day, in the same scene sometimes, is just a really, it’s like a nice workout where you’re . . . I don’t know . . . you get in your cardio and your weight lifting at the same time.”

Doonesbury — Missing in action.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

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Superb Owl

Owl Be Watching You - 01-05-16

I haven’t really cared much for the final football game of the season since the Dolphins went undefeated in 1972.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017