Category Archives: Politics

Sweden

What do you think about terrorist attacks? Do you think it would be better if there were fewer of them, or if there more of them? I rather suspect that pretty much all of us would say that terrorist attacks are bad, and that it would be better for everyone if there were fewer of them. That, however, does not seem to be the opinion of the President of the United States, or of his aides. Otherwise, why make terrorist attacks up?

When Kellyanne Conway invented the massacre of Bowling Green, the response was very funny. Equal merriment has now greeted President Trump’s outrage over “what happened in Sweden. Sweden!” Oh my gosh: what happened in Sweden?! Did IKEA run out of Swedish meatballs? Did the Muppets’ Swedish chef botch a recipe? Did Abba break up again? Or, as Chelsea Clinton asked on Twitter, “What happened in Sweden? Did they catch the perpetrators of the Bowling Green massacre?”

More seriously, the Swedish government took our President’s comments literally. The Swedish ambassador to the US asked for a formal explanation. Trump responded by saying that he was responding to a Fox News report about ‘problems’ Sweden supposedly is having with immigrants. That news report has been discredited, with the Swedish officials featured therein furiously insisting that their comments had been distorted beyond recognition. The Swedish government pointed this out, and the Swedish embassy said it was looking “forward to informing the US administration about Swedish immigration and integration policies.”

The Sweden comment came amid a campaign rally in Florida which leads one to wonder why the elected President is holding campaign rallies a month into his Presidency. The answer, it seems obviously, is because he likes rallies. He also likes watching massive amounts of cable news, most especially Fox News. This is not the first time his news viewing habits have led him astray.

I like Sweden. I don’t know it anywhere near as well as I know Norway, but I have been there, read Swedish, and am a big fan of Abba, Ingmar Bergman films, and the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo novels. I also like those meatballs. Darn tasty.

American liberals tend to think of Sweden as governmental paradise, what with the universal health care, expansive social safety net, and enlightened family policies. It follows, therefore, that American conservatives are anxious to find everything they can that’s wrong with Sweden. Sweden has been particularly generous when it comes to taking in refugees and other immigrants. Since the heart of Trumpism is the belief that refugees are likely to be terrorists, and that immigrants generally are violent and dangerous, it follows that Trump would like a news story about how much crime has increased in Sweden, largely perpetrated by immigrants.

It isn’t true. Immigrant populations in Sweden aren’t committing lots of violent crimes. As Vox.com pointed out, the Fox story in question was pushing this narrative: “brown-skinned immigrants are raping blonde Swedish women.” It isn’t true, and it’s frankly racist.

In case you’re interested, here is a news story with all the facts and figures. Immigration has increased considerably in Sweden since 2005. During that same period, Swedish crime statistics haven’t changed. There is no Swedish immigrant-driven crime wave.

What has happened in Sweden since 2005 is a massive increase in incidents of rape. This doesn’t mean that more Swedish women are being raped. It means that in 2005, Sweden changed the way it counts rape statistics. Swedish crime statistics do show an increase in reported rapes. But it’s not because more women are being raped. It’s a statistical anomaly. Read the link above; it’s explained very clearly.

The specific news story at the heart of this is also highly questionable. It involves an interview between Tucker Carlson and a documentary filmmaker named Ami Horowitz. Horowitz is under attack for his journalistic integrity, and his story has been generally discredited.

In other words, in a rally he had no business holding, the President of the United States needlessly angered a long-time ally by mentioning a dubious and unflattering news story he’d half-watched. So, of course, he immediately backed down and apologized. Uh, no. And why not? Because President Trump wants more terrorist attacks. He wants us good and scared.

Best response to that, I think, is laughter. Which is why it’s important for us all to stand by Sweden. You know; in its time of need.

 

 

Milo Yiannopoulos at Berkeley

Professional conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos was invited to Berkeley to speak by the Berkeley College Republicans. Some 1500 people gathered to protest. A group of 150 masked and violent agitators attacked the protesters. Rocks were thrown; fireworks deployed. A riot broke out, and Berkeley security forces decided to cancel the event, to protect Yiannopoulos from physical harm. Those are the details I know; I’ll admit right now that I haven’t followed the story all that closely.

Nor have I followed the career of Milo Yiannopoulos very closely. (I have read that his followers generally refer to him as ‘Milo.’ So I won’t, even though it means having to type out the long and hard-to-spell ‘Yiannopolous’ over and over). Reading him would require that I go into Breitbart.com, which I am loathe to do. It’s an alt-right website; I’m not about to give them the click. As I understand it, he’s a Brit, ostentatiously gay, and absurdly good-looking. He was the head troll in Gamergate. He was banned from Twitter for harassing Leslie Jones, the actress, for having committed the unpardonable sin of getting cast in a movie. He hates ‘political correctness,’ which Breitbart seems to define as any constraints on mocking disabled people, women, or African-Americans. He’s anti-feminist, anti-immigrant, and anti-gay rights.

In short, he’s deliberately and intentionally insulting, needlessly vicious, and a self-promoter of the first order. He’s toxic, on purpose, for fun. And for profit: he just got a quarter of a million dollar book deal from Simon and Schuster. Which has done untold damage to that esteemed mainstream publisher; professional book critics have announced that they’ll boycott all Simon and Schuster books in future, other S&S authors have pulled out of their book deals; it’s a big mess. Which is great news for Yiannopoulos; like most infants, he likes causing messes.

And that’s the key to understanding the alt-right. They’re not Klan, and they’re not Klan wannabes. They’re not Nazis. They just get the giggles over using the rhetoric and style of the Klan and of Nazis, which usage they seem to regard as consequence-less. That’s Yiannopolous; when he insults feminists, he doesn’t seem to know or care if it actually harms women. It’s just how he gets his kicks.

So the Berkeley college Republicans, for fun, decided to invite the most incendiary alt-right troll on the planet. To Berkeley. They knew there would be protests. Anticipating those protests, a bunch of masked thugs launched a violent counter-protest, for kicks. Kind of like Fight Club; violence being politically incorrect, so let’s do that too.

So how should a university respond to a guy like Milo Yiannopoulos? First of all, the College Republicans were within their rights to invite a speaker to campus. And Berkeley students are within their rights protesting that invitation. As long as that protest, and that invitation live up to certain standards of civil discourse–and those standards need to be expressly stated and understood–then the University can be said to be fulfilling its main educational purpose. Invite speakers. Let them speak. Let protesters protest. Use the fact of that talk and that response to influence how teachers teach and how learners learn. Do not, ever, ban certain speakers or points of view.

And if you think it unlikely that Yiannopolous is going to say anything worth listening to (which I do), then don’t go to his speech.

What I strenuously disagree with is the idea that potentially offensive speakers should be banned from college campuses. Campuses absolutely must invite speakers, and some of those speakers are likely to hold points of view that some members of the campus community find offensive. Fine. Invite them anyway. A robust and bracing exchange of views is good for all participants.

Do you think Milo Yiannopolous is a contemptible weenie? Me too. In which case, his ideas, such as they are, won’t stand the test of time. So who cares?

Seven Countries

The President’s de facto Muslim ban was sold as a security measure, restricting entry to the US based, not on religion, but on country of origin. Nobody believes that that’s actually its intent, least of all Trump himself, who was caught on camera calling it a Muslim ban within hours of its enactment. Still, since the only possible way this particular executive order could survive judicial scrutiny was by positing it as a more effective way to vet potential threats, the various Trump apologists selling the policy have insisted it’s really just about seven specific countries which pose a terrorist threat. So let’s look at those seven nations.

Iraq and Syria: ISIS, in other words. Since June 2014, ISIS has conquered large sections of both Iraq and Syria. Syria has been embroiled in the most brutal civil war, which created a power vacuum that ISIS filled. Meanwhile, the Iraqi army’s initial response to ISIS attacks was to drop their weapons and run for safety. Why? Because the Iraqi army is Shi’ia-dominated, and the Sunni thugs in ISIS don’t believe in taking Shi’ite prisoners. Aleppo, in Syria, the second largest city in the country, is a humanitarian disaster. Three million Iraqi refugees have sought asylum in the West, mostly in Europe. Millions live in refugee camps in Jordan, which is struggling to feed them, and couldn’t without massive international help. There are literally millions of displaced Syrian and Iraqi people, desperate people, people in the most dire need of basic food, shelter and medical care. Many of the ones turned away over the weekend also helped us fight the insane war we started.

Libya: Formerly, the odious and contemptible thugocracy of Moammar Gadhafi, whose regime was toppled by Western-backed militias. Turned out those militias each had their own agendas, incompatible with Western interests, or with each other. Getting caught in the middle of that firefight was essentially at the heart of the Benghazi attack. Caught in the middle, of course, are also ordinary Libyan citizens, many of whom are resolutely pro-US. (Remember, Benghazi had a security force; a pro-American militia bodyguard. Wiped out by the terrorist attack that also took the lives of four Americans. We never talk about Libyan casualties in that battle). Libya has become a terrorist haven, but with millions of impoverished and displaced citizens. The country’s still swimming in oil, but its GDP is tanking. Vetting Libyan refugees would be a challenge, but don’t think there aren’t lots of them.

Yemen: Total basket case. Embroiled in a massive civil war. Out of a total population of 27 million, 20 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. 3 million displaced peoples. Children starving throughout much of the country.

Somalia: Continues to be ripped apart by warring strongmen. Basically no government. A growing sanctuary for terrorists. Essentially the countries economy is driven by piracy and the cultivation and sale of qat. It’s a flowering plant of the region; chew the leaves and you can get high. Somalia does now have a (barely) functioning government in place. But it also has 12 million people living in fear for their lives.

Sudan: There’s a continuing war between the Army of Sudan and the Sudan Revolutionary Front. That’s after the war between Sudan and South Sudan ended, leading to South Sudan’s independence. Darfur remains a war zone, and represents perhaps the most prominent humanitarian crisis on the planet.

Iran: And then there’s Iran. Which has a stable government, a functioning economy, and which has troops fighting against ISIS in Syria. Iran is, in fact, a relatively prosperous and peaceable nation. For awhile they had nuclear ambitions, but as you know, the Obama administration negotiated a deal in which they suspended that program, in exchange for an end to economic sanctions. There are even a number of pro-Western Iranians.

So what we have here are six of the most screwed up nations on earth, with literally tens of millions of displaced citizens in absolutely desperate need of humanitarian assistance. And also, comparatively well-off Iran. Those are the countries Trump has targeted. Because: terrorists.

Again, another factor those seven countries share is this: the Trump organization does not have financial interests in any of them. This isn’t surprising; the President builds luxury hotels. These countries barely have functioning economies; some of them do have oil. Still, the Islamic-dominant nations that actually have a track record of attacks on US soil–Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Afghanistan–and which the Trump organization has investments, they’re not on this watch list. Conflict of interest?

There are absolutely terrorists in each of those seven countries. Those terrorists haven’t attacked the US, but of course, they could. Well, not so much Iran, but Iran supports Hezbollah. Refugees from those countries would need to be vetted.

But these are countries in which the US has tried to intervene diplomatically, with catastrophic results. These are countries with huge displaced populations, countries with millions of refugees. We’re the richest and most powerful country in the world. And we’re rather proud of our ‘national values,’ and our status as a Christian nation. And now we’ve closed the door to the “wretched refuse of (their) teeming shores.”

This is a bit of a generalization, but here goes: terrorists are fantastically good at scaring people into thinking they’re a huge threat, and absolutely horrid at actually posing such a threat. They’re great at producing terror. They’re great at making otherwise sensible people think that a war exists with someone we’re not actually at war with, and that that war must be won, no matter what. And none of that is even a little bit true. Their attacks are merely theatrically effective.

Twenty five hundred years ago, the world was a lot scarier place than it is now; infinitely more violent, every bit as full of terror. And yet God whispered to Isaiah: “Fear not; for I am with you.” And then He continued: “Be not dismayed; for I am God: I will strengthen you; I will help you; I will uphold you. All they that are angry with you will be confounded; they shall be as nothing, they shall die. They that war against you will become nothing. They will vanish.” Though Isaiah 41 does throw in a little something about people dying of starvation. Give them water to drink, he says.

Donald Trump is a bully and a coward, in addition to being a fool. His actions will accomplish nothing positive, nothing at all. Every national security expert says so; this executive action will strengthen terrorist organizations, not weaken them. As for refugees from Iraq, Sudan, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Yemen, the numbers we should be accepting should be numbered in the millions, not the thousands.

Instead of blogging about Trump’s SCOTUS pick, I spent today researching seven countries, places I’ve never visited, filled with people I’ve never met. It broke my heart. It made my spirit contrite. This executive ban is beyond contemptible. It cannot and must not be allowed to stand.

Keep it going

It’s been a wild 11 days, hasn’t it?

Donald Trump has been President of the United States for about a week and a half. Here’s what I think we’ve learned. He meant what he said while he was running. Like most Presidents, the ideas that animated his campaign are going to form his Presidential agenda. The new President is as infantile as ever, as thin-skinned and reactive. He responds to criticism badly, and resorts to childish name-calling on Twitter, just like he did when running. His campaign was a disorganized mess; his administrative style is similarly chaotic.

I had a friend who once told me of an experience he had when waterskiing. He did a lot of fancy tricks one day, and ended up with a lot of slack in the line, which somehow ended up around his leg. He watched the boat zipping away, saw the slack line tighten, and thought ‘that rope is going to break my leg.’ There was nothing he could do to prevent it; it was just going to happen. He said he felt rather calm. About two seconds later, of course, the rope did tighten, and it did break his leg. But he said the calm before that particular pain was quite remarkable.

That was us, three weeks ago. Now the rope has tightened, the bone has snapped, the pain is palpable. We’d be in mourning, but frankly, it hurts too much right now.

The latest move, of course, was the Muslim ban. Granted, it wasn’t officially a ‘Muslim ban.’ It was a temporary ban on people from seven Muslim-dominant countries–whose citizens have committed exactly zero terrorist attacks on US soil–entering the US. And so we got to see people with all the proper paperwork, people who have been vetted and approved and authorized, denied entry into our country. Including a five-year-old Iranian kid, in handcuffs. Kept from his Mom for eight hours. This executive order came without warning. Airport officials had no idea what was going on, and were forced to improvise, without instructions, which of course went about as well as we might have supposed.

Yes, it’s not officially a ban on Muslims. Just on people from certain countries. Except, on Sunday morning, when White House spokestroll Sean Spicer was defending it on ABC News, they cut to the President calling it a Muslim ban. That’s one thing about Trump; he’s undisciplined enough that sometimes he’ll get away from his staff’s carefully defined talking points. Of course, an hour later, he lied about it; that’s also part of the Trump modus operandi. A brief moment of candor, then back to the lying.

Lots of people, by the way, have pointed out that countries like Iran and Iraq, which have not attacked the US, were on the list, while Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which did, weren’t on it. Leading to this thought; Trump has business interests in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. He singled out countries that haven’t attacked us, where he has no financial stake, and let countries that have attacked us go unmentioned. Because the Trump organization’s bottom line is at stake? What that a consideration? We don’t know; maybe not. But that’s the tricky thing about conflicts of interest. They poison everything.

Meanwhile, the optics have been amazing. A whole bunch of people went to American airports to show their solidarity with people stuck in this weird, unnecessary, Trumpian legal limbo. It was topsy-turvy; Kennedy Airport was the positive center of attention! People were cheering . . . Muslims! And lawyers! People were cheering for lawyers!

And suddenly, Sally Yates, a woman none of us had ever heard of two days ago is an American liberal heroine.

It’s been great. People are energized; excited. First the Women’s March, now this. Our leg bone may be shattered, but we’re still limping around, defiant and unafraid.

So protest. March. Shout. Carry banners. All that’s great. But 2018 is looming, and none of this energy will matter at all unless we take back the House and Senate. Did you join the Women’s March? Awesome. Two years from now, though, we’re going to need you to vote, and to bring five friends with you. We have passion on our side, we have right on our side, we have morality on our side. We can and must oppose Trump, everywhere. Cut him no slack at all, on anything, ever. I’m for all of that.

What we don’t have is power. That boat is zipping away, and its driver can’t hear us. Passion declines; energy dissipates. It’s been an amazing 11 days. Just two more years to go.

Feelings, and politics

In several recent posts, it’s possible that I have been mildly critical of our new President-elect. This failing has been helpfully pointed out to me by some of my Republican friends, who have suggested that it’s time to support our new President, the election being over. “Get over it,” would be the main thrust of their argument. Also “stop whining.”

And so I found myself wondering this: what exactly do Trump supporters want? I mean, I remember 2009. I remember how annoying it was when those sore losers who didn’t like Barack Obama kept insisting that they never, ever, would regard him as their President. They were being sore losers, I thought. Expressing sour grapes. What on earth was wrong with those people? And now I am one of them. Mr. Sore Loser Sour Grapes Man.

I absolutely intend to support Donald Trump’s Presidency in all the ways that are required of me. I will pay my taxes, and I will fulfill the other obligations of American citizenship. In those respects, I fully intend to ‘support’ Donald Trump.

But I don’t think that’s enough for my Trump-supporting friends. For many of them, they don’t just want passive acquiescence. They want us to feel something. They want us to be okay with his electoral win. They want us to set aside our policy differences with the man, and, at least passively, accept him as President. That’s why Congressman and Civil Rights hero John Lewis’ comments questioning the legitimacy of Trump’s victory stung so sharply. That’s exactly what we’re not supposed to do.

In short, Trump supporters want me to feel the same way about Trump that we felt about previous Presidents we didn’t vote for. And I don’t, and won’t. Not now, not ever. And this isn’t just sour grapes or being a sore loser. I cannot and will not normalize his election victory. We don’t know how closely the Trump campaign and Vladimir Putin cooperated during the election, or the degree to which Russian hacking contributed to the result, but we do know now that the answer to both those questions is, at least, ‘somewhat.’  Did Russian hacking influence 1% of the voters’ decisions? Less? 1/2%? 1/4? We don’t know, and will never know, but the answer clearly was a sum somewhere above zero. We cannot and should not normalize that kind of behavior.

It’s more than that. Trump did not run as a normal, usual sort of candidate. All previous recent presidential candidates released their tax returns, or at least some of their tax returns; Trump kept putting the press off with some bogus nonsense about an audit, and now Trump’s people say his tax returns will remain off-limits, forever, because. Trump lies. He lies all the time, stupid, easy to catch lies, about, for example, whether he said things he was captured on camera saying. His appeal as a candidate was his unorthodoxy. And that’s fine; it was an effective strategy and it worked. Americans were, apparently, enthusiastic about ‘change.’ But he said and did offensive things, then attacked people who found his language and conduct beyond the pale as being, absurdly, ‘politically correct.’ Just as he now labels news organizations that criticize him ‘fake news,’ and ‘liars.’

He wants us to feel okay about him being President. And I don’t, can’t, won’t, never will.

Which is why the two biggest news stories recently were so heartening. The first was the spectacular success of the Women’s March on Washington, and the complementary protests that took place all across the country. My Facebook page was flooded with images of old friends gathering in protest and celebration. Protesting, not just Trump, but Trumpism; his authoritarianism and racism and misogyny, his full-throated embrace of white male privilege. But also celebrating our view of America, our version of America, an America where greatness is determined by inclusion and toleration and compassion. The energy of the Women’s March could fuel a renewed commitment to progressive ideals. It could also dissipate, become a wasted and empty gesture. We’ll see. I hope that doesn’t happen, though.

At least a lot of people showed up. And a lot more came to the Women’s March than came to Trump’s Inauguration. And so, the utterly surreal experience of the campaign was amplified, with Trump surrogates forced to pretend that more people celebrated Trump’s inauguration than actually were there. Culminating in the absurd declaration that obvious falsehoods weren’t really lies, they were ‘alternative truths.’

Feelings are powerful. Great political rhetoric can sway crowds, get policies enacted, start wars. And while it may not be polite to say so, no, I do not feel warm fuzzies at the Trump inauguration. Not in any way. And I intend to spend the next four years watching him like a hawk. We don’t like him, we don’t trust him, we don’t respect him. We don’t think his Presidency is legitimate, and we think it’s quite possible that he won the Presidency through acts of high treason. That’s how we feel about this President. I don’t wish him ill personally. I will try to muster some common decency in regards to his family. Otherwise, he’s not my President. Never never never.

And so it begins

Donald J. Trump was inaugurated today. I couldn’t bring myself to watch, but I did read his inaugural address on-line. A peaceful and orderly transfer of power is always something to be celebrated, I suppose. So while it may not be time for actual optimism, we can, perhaps, muster a certain grim hope. Let’s start by ignoring such events as the Deplora-ball, last night’s preening alt-Right celebration, complete with Nazi salutes, and also the prayer service, and the invocation by Pastor Robert Jeffress (who once said that “Mormonism is a cult dragged from the depths of hell”) and the other alarming signs and wonders of this moment. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump . . . we shall be changed.” For the better?

And while I’m being all sunny, let’s admit that some of his cabinet picks have been fairly reasonable: Nikki Haley, James Mattis, David Shulkin, Sonny Perdue. There’s a long American tradition of cutting new Presidents some slack. I wouldn’t go that far with this guy, but I don’t wish him ill. He’s going to try to do dumb and terrible things. Let’s hope he doesn’t succeed all that often.

Reading his Inauguration speech, though, I was struck by what seem to be Trump’s governing priorities. It seems to me that the first step to solving problems is identifying them. It’s not just that I think Trump’s approach to problem solving is likely to prove ineffective. It’s that the specific issues he wants to address are all things that aren’t really problems at all.

For too long, [those in politics] have reaped the rewards of government while people have borne the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered, but the jobs left and the factories closed.

His first point–that money, in politics, tends to corrupt people, seems inarguable. (Though his solution seems to be to appoint corrupt people to begin with). But are people struggling so terribly? People do feel like they are, but evidence suggests it’s not true. More Americans are employed right now, in good paying jobs, than ever before in history. More people are working in manufacturing than ever before. This dark vision of a dystopic America where no one can find work and factories are shut down and regular folks live lives of quiet despair is, frankly, a fantasy. It’s likely to become true–Trump’s policies (tax cuts, trade wars, cutting safety net spending) will certainly hammer lower class and lower middle class Americans. It’s just not true yet. He inherits a very strong economy from Obama; he’ll turn over an economy in recession to President Warren.

An education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge. . .

We do spend a lot of money on education, but our schools are hardly ‘flush with cash.’ Teachers are badly underpaid, and basic school supplies generally come out of their pockets. And while we can certainly improve student achievement (starting by banning all unnecessary testing), our students aren’t ‘deprived of all knowledge.’ For one thing, there’s this resource called the Internet. Which kids are better at using than their parents.

We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth . . . of our country has dissipated over the horizon. One by one, the factories shuttered and left our shores with not even a thought about the millions and millions of American workers that were left behind. The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed all across the world. We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first .

Trump hates international trade deals. He consistently spoke out against, specifically, NAFTA and the TPP, and has talked of pulling out of both. And that’s nuts. Both NAFTA and the TPP, though flawed, were net positives, both for the US and internationally. I know this is kind of an unpopular view, but it’s the only opinion actually supported by, you know, evidence.

Donald Trump comes from the zero-sum-game world of Manhattan real estate. He seems to have difficulty in conceiving of a deal in which both sides prosper. But those are the best kinds of deals imaginable. He says our policies should be driven by national self-interest. Sure, fine; every country on earth does that. Making a deal between nations requires balance. We all know how to weigh costs and benefits. By that standard, NAFTA was a success. NAFTA was a trade agreement between the US, Canada, and Mexico–the three nations of North America. Since it passed in ’93, trade between those three countries quadrupled, from 297 billion dollars to 1.14 trillion. It boosted economic growth, created millions of jobs, and lowered consumer costs in all three nations. And yes, also a few American factories moved to Mexico.

In 1999, my wife and I bought our house. It provided a safe shelter for ourselves and our kids, and also, a great neighborhood for the kids to grow up in. But we also had to make a mortgage payment every month. Trump’s view of NAFTA is the equivalent of focusing entirely on that payment. ‘What a terrible deal! Look at all the money you spent!’

We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones and reform the world against radical Islamic terrorism , which we will eradicate from the face of the Earth.

Let’s be honest: absolutely nobody thinks it’s going to be possible to eradicate ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’ Ask any military or intelligence expert in the world; it cannot be done. That’s the bad news; the good news is that ISIS, or Al Qaeda, or any other group you want to lump into the definition ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ cannot succeed in their stated aims and intentions. ISIS wants to establish a multi-national pan-Islamic caliphate. There is zero chance of that ever happening. ISIS is not an ‘existential threat’ to the American way of life, or to Western society.

What we actually have is a humanitarian crisis in Syria. That’s bad enough. And while we’re doing that, yes, we want to reduce the ability for terrorist groups to mount attacks on US soil or in Europe. Those are lofty and difficult goals. But let’s be honest; those attacks, when they do occur, are at worst, minor annoyances. I’ll grant you that they don’t feel so minor–our hearts go out to the victims of terrorist attacks. But such attacks really only achieve one thing; they affect us emotionally. They spread terror. They terrify us. They make us afraid. And when people are afraid, they tend to overreact. The kinds of violations of civil liberties that Trump has talked about are counterproductive. Terrorist groups can only disrupt us, and that can only happen if we allow it to happen. Which, believe it or not, we don’t have to do.

Trump, blessedly, said very little about the signature issue of his campaign; illegal immigration. He made passing mention to America’s ‘refusal to defend our own’ borders. That’s also nonsense, of course. The US does maintain a border patrol. But the larger point is this: immigration is good. Immigrants are a great blessing to our society and nation. And it’s doesn’t particularly matter whether they arrive here illegally. Of course, we should be accepting more Syrian and Middle-Eastern immigrants, and of course, we should be welcoming more immigrants from Mexico and South and Central America. They are, by every possible measure, an economic plus.

What’s needed is amnesty. What’s needed is a sensible immigration policy, that makes it easier, not harder, for folks to enter our country and work here and marry and raise families here. And create jobs here. Instead, Trump wants to waste time and money building a wall. At least, he didn’t include that particular piece of idiocy in his Inauguration address.

Meanwhile, of course, he said nothing about, you know, actual problems. Like world-wide climate change. Or universal health care. Or the rise in racial intolerance and bigotry. But that would have been asking for too much.

We have four years to get through. They’re going to be tough. We will survive, though. And starting in 2020, we can get back to making America great again.

News and Fake news

Donald Trump held his first press conference in months yesterday; I watched it, and thought it did not go well. (I acknowledge that others may have thought he did just fine). Trump’s stock-in-trade is, I think, a combination of belligerence, braggadocio, prevarication and ignorance; all were on full display. One exchange particularly got my attention. CNN Senior White House Correspondent Jim Acosta stood to ask, well, essentially, if he would be allowed to ask a question, and the President-elect shouted him down, bellowing “No! Not you! Your organization is terrible!” Then, as Acosta persisted, Trump shouted “don’t be rude. You don’t get a question. You’re fake news.”

This was the election of ‘fake news,’ which is to say, the creation and dissemination of highly partisan clickbait nonsense on social media. There are guys, apparently, who do this for fun and profit; make up ludicrous stories, inventing a legit-sounding ‘news source’ for them, and clogging up your Facebook page. All human beings are susceptible to confirmation bias, which is why this stuff is so insidious. I’m a liberal. If I see some story that says that, say, Sarah Palin said something preposterous, I am likely to believe it, even if it isn’t true.

Each advance in human evolution must always first involve overcoming confirmation bias. To that end, I must begin by believing in the essential fairmindedness and objectivity of people I disagree with. It is my impression that conservatives are far more likely to believe in fake news stories than liberals are. That impression, that tendency, is simply confirmation bias at its most basic level. Hillary Clinton did not order the murder of multiple political opponents. George W. Bush did not order bombs to be planted in the World Trade Center. Both are conspiracy theories, one favored by conservatives and one favored by liberals. Both are silly. Can we at least agree on that much?

I like facts. But all facts are not news. It is a fact that the sun rose this morning, but it’s not news, which is, by definition, about things that are remarkable. News is noteworthy and consequential. As I write this, snow is falling outside, with more expected. That’s news, because people have to drive in it.

So if we want to be thoughtful consumers of news, it seems to me that we should insist that the stories the media present to us be truthful, remarkable and consequential. Ideally, the divorce of Mr. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie wouldn’t make the cut. Their business; not ours.

CNN’s misdeed, in the opinion of the President-Elect, was to run a story about alleged connections between Mr. Trump and Russia. According to a dossier prepared by a British intelligence operative, Russia may be in a position to blackmail Mr. Trump. According to this source, not only did Russian hackers deliberately work to defeat Hillary Clinton, they coordinated their efforts with the Trump campaign. Not only that, they had evidence of kinky sexual practices Mr. Trump engaged in in a Moscow hotel. Not only that, but Russia may have evidence of Trumpian financial shenanigans.

So here we have a thinly sourced, unconfirmed story that could be highly damaging to Mr. Trump. And the information in that story has been known by American intelligence sources for months. We also don’t know if any of it is true. That’s not fake news. The fact of these allegations is the part that’s true; this British spy, Christopher Steele, does exist, and has written them down. What we don’t know is if the allegations themselves are factually based. It’s certainly consequential; Trump may have committed high treason. And yes, the story exploded yesterday; it’s absolutely remarkable. So Buzzfeed published a two page summation of this British guy’s accusations, and CNN ran a story on it. Did they show good news judgment? Is this real news?

Of course, comedians had a field day with the sexual allegations; the details in Buzzfeed’s story are just specific enough, and just salacious and disgusting enough to make for some dirty-minded comedy. Stephen Colbert had a lot of fun with it; so did Trevor Noah, so did Samantha Bee. My daughter and I watched ’em all, going ‘ewwwww!’ all the while. I don’t blame Trump for being angry.

It’s inevitable that the kinky stuff would, initially, dominate the news cycle. But that won’t last, and doesn’t really need much investigation. The real story has to do with possible collusion between Putin and Trump. So what we have is an important news story, and also one that may be false. We don’t know. The story may be untrue, which both Buzzfeed and CNN acknowledged. But if it’s true (and it will certainly be investigated), Donald Trump is a traitor.

What it isn’t, is fake news. It doesn’t seem to be something someone made up. This British spy is real. His name is Christopher Steele; he spent years working for MI6. He now runs a private research firm, Orbis Business Intelligence. He’s a Russian expert, specializing in the intricacies of the Kremlin’s business dealings. He prepared a dossier, and it’s been circulating for months. And now, Mr. Steele has gone to ground; is in hiding. Doesn’t this all seem like the plot of a new John LeCarre novel? But John LeCarre’s novels are, after all, pretty much all fiction.

This is not fake news, in other words. It’s a genuine news story, but one in its earliest stages. It might be false, in which case that falseness will become the story. It behooves us all not to come to any conclusions about it yet. We don’t have enough information to conclude anything.

Does it seem plausible, though? How we answer that question probably depends on where we stand politically and ideologically. If we voted for Trump, we probably think it’s all partisan nonsense. If we opposed Trump, we probably think there’s something to it. Because that’s how confirmation bias works.

 

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir at the Trump Inaugural

For any of you who follow this, this will be my first post in weeks, a lapse for which I apologize, necessitated though it was by health difficulties. I actually began a post, back before Christmas, about the decision by the The Mormon Tabernacle Choir to accept an invitation to perform at the Trump inauguration. That decision was controversial; it has become less so, inevitably, with time. I mean, here we are, a third of the way through January, nine days from the events itself. Nonetheless, even now, I do have some thoughts about the issue, which seems to lend itself to an ongoing dialectic unique to this impending Presidency.

Let’s start with the pros. Of course the Tabernacle Choir should accept an invitation to perform at the Trump inauguration. Obviously, they should. An inauguration is a celebration of the American political system, and specifically, of the peaceable transfer of power which is one of the glories of our republic. To be invited to sing at such an event is a great honor. The Choir has performed at previous inaugurations, celebrating Presidents of both parties. This is not a partisan issue. The office of the President is one of the great creations of the Framers. Whatever concerns individual choir members may have about the policies or character of any individual elected President, they’re irrelevant to this decision. Americans held an election, as we do every four years. Incumbent Presidents stand down; the new President assumes power, which he (only ‘he’, so far) will relinquish in due time. That fact is worth celebrating and worth honoring.

Cons. Of course, the Tabernacle Choir should turn down this invitation. Obviously they should say no. Donald Trump is not like previous Presidential candidates or Presidential winners. He is unique, and his victory presents a unique challenge. He began his campaign for President by insulting Mexican/American immigrants, calling them criminals and rapists. He has proposed a ban on Muslim immigrants, and has peppered his campaign rhetoric with Islamophobic stereotypes. He has been caught on tape boasting of sexual exploits, including criminal assaults on women. He openly mocked a disabled reporter. And he continually and repeatedly lies about all of it. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir represents the Church, my Church, the restored Church of Jesus Christ. The values of the Church are, in every specific, incompatible with the character of the man, Donald Trump, as revealed by his own words, his own actions. The BYU football team is not allowed to play games on Sundays, because keeping the Sabbath holy is a central tenet of our faith. By the same token, the Choir cannot be part of a ceremonial meant to honor a man of such demonstrated vileness.

Precedent says the Choir should sing. Tradition makes the same case. It’s become normal for the Choir to be invited to sing at important events–an Olympic Opening Ceremony, for example. Well, an Inaugural is like that; a big public event. It’s normal to be invited, and normal to sing.

But that’s precisely why the Choir should have refused this invitation. It normalizes Trump. It makes his electoral victory seem like an ordinary part of American civil society. Every four years, we have an election, someone wins, and is inaugurated President. That’s part of what’s admirable about America. And that’s why we should suspend what’s normal this time, just this once. The guy who won this time is uniquely unadmirable.

That’s the key word, isn’t it? Normal. Donald Trump’s entire campaign was a repudiation of normal. In fact, that’s probably why he won. There’s nothing wrong with a candidate pursuing an unorthodox strategy; that’s fine. In fact, every candidate running (especially in a wacky year like 2016) is trying to distinguish him/herself from the crowd. Trump’s appeal was based on how  unnormal he was as a candidate. He self-financed. (He didn’t really, but he said he did, and some voters found that attractive). He took positions on issues at odds with normative Republican positions. Above all, he based his campaign on a full-out assault on what he called ‘political correctness.’

Which, frankly, I’m not a great fan of: political correctness. I’m disabled, not ‘differently abled.’ I certainly think we should be careful in our use of language. We shouldn’t set out deliberately to offend. But I find some examples of academic language comically punctilious.

That’s not what Trump meant by political correctness, though. Not at all. And for some of his voters, Trump’s language was a major selling point. Why pussyfoot around, they probably thought. Illegal immigrants are criminals, and probably most of them are rapists too; why not say so? Because Trump was the anti-PC candidate, he survived gaffes and misstatements that would have sunk most candidacies. By saying “I hate political correctness,” he essentially wrapped himself in Teflon. It allowed his alt-Right followers to say whatever they wanted to. And somehow, discovering that Trump supporters included borderline Klan members didn’t hurt him with the general electorate. He was opposed to political correctness, after all.

And that’s how Trump survived a scandal that would have destroyed nearly every other candidacy in the history of American politics; the discovery of the Billy Bush tape. For Trump to speak in such disgusting and disrespectful terms about women didn’t kill him. It was ‘locker room talk,’ guys being guys. Sure it was gross, but whaddya gonna do? That’s how men talk sometimes. Don’t overreact. It’s no big deal.

By attacking political correctness, Trump normalized what essentially amounts to bragging about criminal sexual assault. By electing him anyway, the good citizens of the United States normalized, at least, talking that way. We strained at the gnat of Hillary’s emails, and swallowed the camel of Trump-being-Trump.

And nothing has changed. Most Presidential candidates are very careful to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest. If their business holdings could, in any sense, be seen as ethically questionable, they divest.  Trump has more extensive investments than any President-elect in history. He has done nothing to distance himself from the interests of his own corporations. He is already normalizing corruption. What’s the big deal? He’s a rich guy; he owns lots of stuff. So what if foreign diplomats already curry favor by staying at his Washington hotel? Who cares?

Donald Trump is not a normal President-elect. This was not a normal election, and this won’t be a normal inauguration. The Tabernacle Choir disgraces itself by normalizing his election in this way. His values are not our values; we should not pretend that everything’s okay, that all’s well in Zion. One choir member, Jan Chamberlin, has resigned over this. She’s the one genuine heroine of this narrative. The Trump Presidency is a unique phenomenon, and requires an unusual response. We have to do this; oppose everything Trump, all the time, always. A good place to start is by refusing to sing at his party.

Losing my sense of humor

Here’s what angers me most about the election of Donald Trump. It’s not the ridiculous policies. It’s not the corruption. It’s not the close association with the alt-right. It’s not the thin-skinned tweets. It’s not any of those things.

It’s that I don’t find all of that funny. And I should. Because it is.

I’m losing my sense of humor. This cannot be allowed.

Imagine that someone wrote a satire about a newly elected US President, a businessman with zero political experience. Let’s imagine that the screenplay or play or novel included a montage scene of congratulatory phone calls, from heads of state to the new President-elect. So the Scottish political leader calls, and the new President accepts his good wishes, then mentions how annoying wind farms are. Especially when they block the view at his/my/the President’s Scottish golf course. “Of course,” says the Scottish leader. “We’ll get right on it.” That scene would be funny, right? And then the Argentinian President calls, and the P-E mentions permitting problems the business is having for a skyscraper they want to build in Buenos Aires. Of course, in on those phone calls would be the P-E’s former supermodel daughter, now officially running the various Presidential businesses. Seriously; funny stuff, amiright?

The days after the election, I moped around the house, all depressed. I tried to find solace with my friends–John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah–only they seemed as discombobulated as I felt. It’s like we all forgot how to be funny, or how to laugh. I was heartsick for my country, depressed, close to despair in fact, that somehow America had voted for this orange-face, small-handed, thin-skinned buffoon. And I was angry. I was furious. At everyone and anything. Those losers in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida; especially them.

If Mitt Romney had won in 2012, or John McCain in 2008, I would have been fine with it. Not my preferred candidate, but an honorable man, capable, and a patriot–we could certainly do worse. That’s how I would have felt. Not now. Not this semi-Klan walking dumpster fire. Not this incoherent demagogue.

And that’s funny. My misplaced anger and sorrow and frustration. It’s funny; if I (we) lose my (our) ability to laugh at my (our) selves, then what else do we have?

And so we see Trump’s appointments, the people he’s going to hire to help run his government. And it just gets funnier. Someone who hates public education as Secretary of Education. A more-or-less open racist as Attorney General. Someone who hates Obamacare for Health and Human Services. My favorite is his choice for White House Attorney, the guy who is supposed to be the ethical conscience of the White House. He announced Don McGahn for the role. McGahn was Tom DeLay’s attorney. You remember Trump’s ‘drain the swamp’ campaign pledge? McGahn’s the swamp. Probably the most corrupt attorney in Washington will be the Trump White House’s ethical watchdog.

Elaine Chao was named Transportation Secretary. The headline in Slate’s story pointed out, in tones of shock and surprise, that she’s actually qualified for the job.

All this stuff is funny. I mean, it’s kind of a grim kind of humor. How else do you report the fact that Donald Trump’s closest advisor, Steve Bannon, worked previously as CEO of a website beloved by white supremacists and, you know, the Klan? It’s one of those jokes without a punch line; you just report the facts and you get the laugh.

And it’s hard to laugh sometimes. I get it; it’s hard to find this stuff funny. Our country is falling from the sky, like Slim Pickens at the end of Dr. Strangelove, and there’s nothing we can do to prevent it. Gravity has taken over. But Dr. Strangelove is an amazingly funny movie.

It’s the end of the world as we know it. And I don’t feel fine. But we still have to laugh. We still have to make jokes. Trump may destroy our country. But he cannot destroy our humanity.

 

Rebuilding the Democratic party

I have a candidate for the new chair of the Democratic National Committee.

There are a couple of problems. Potential problems. Well, okay: problems. For one thing, my candidate has never worked in politics. For another, I don’t know if my candidate is a Democrat. (JK: he is). And I get that that could be a deal-breaker. If he’s a Republican, he might not be completely committed to, you know, do what the DNC chair is supposed to be do: elect Democrats.

Though he could hardly be worse at it than Deborah Wasserman Schultz was.

Still, I’m making a serious proposal here. I’m suggesting a genuine, thinking-outside-of-the-box pick, fresh thinking. I mean, we’d need to ask if he’s interested, and if he’s a Democrat. But if the answer to both questions is yes, this guy has a track record. 

I nominate Theo Epstein for DNC chair.

Theo Epstein. Team President of the Chicago Cubs. The guy who built the World Series champs. The Cubs had not won the World Series since 1908. They were a bad team, a team of losers. Then they hired Theo Epstein, in 2011. Took him five years to build a winner. Course, he’d done it before. His first gig was as General Manager of the Boston Red Sox, another sad sack franchise, another team that hadn’t won, a team on an 86 year losing streak. He was hired by the Sox in 2002, at the age of 29, the youngest General Manager in baseball at the time, and one of the youngest in baseball history. They won the World Series in 2004. To repeat: the two most storied losers in baseball history hired this brilliant young guy, and in two years and five years, respectively, he’d built them into winners.

He’s 42 years old. He’s never not succeeded, spectacularly. He has no more professional mountains to climb. And he may well be looking for a different kind of challenge.

Here’s the Epstein method. He identifies and acquires underutilized talent. That’s it. He loves data and he loves computer geeks. He puts together a team of really smart guys, and they comb through player personnel records and they find talented guys who aren’t being valued by their teams, guys who, in Epstein’s words ‘are just about to break.’ Look at this year’s World Champion Cubs. Their best player (and team leader) Anthony Rizzo, batted .141 in his rookie year with the San Diego Padres. Epstein traded an okay pitcher, Andrew Cashner, for him, and Rizzo’s now a star. Likewise their best pitcher, Jake Arrieta. Struggled with the Orioles; Epstein traded a back-up catcher for him. Epstein does this all the time. Identify talent; develop it; motivate it; reap the benefits.

Okay, imagine that skill set in the DNC. Because, let’s face it, the number one task of the Democratic party has to be to rebuild the party from the ground up. State legislators, city council members, school board members. In the last election, it was depressing to see all the races in which the Republican was running unopposed. Granted, I live in Utah. Still, the Democratic party needs to compete; we need to compete everywhere. In the last election, the Democratic candidate for the US Senate from Utah was a woman who worked as a clerk at a grocery store. Nice lady, but she had no credentials. Shouldn’t the DNC have discouraged that? Encouraged her to run instead for the state legislature? Build a resume, get experience, start modestly. Wouldn’t that have been better than just running someone who was going to get clobbered?

That’s what Theo Epstein is great at. Find and identify talented people, put them in a position to succeed, motivate them, coach them up, and give them the resources to succeed. Oh, and one more thing: nobody outworks Theo Epstein. There’s a reason a 29 year old was given the reins of the Boston Red Sox.

He’s also personable, an excellent interview. He’s very comfortable hanging out with rich guys–has to be, to succeed in baseball. And there’s also this; he’s every bit as great at understanding and responding to the needs of ordinary folks. Both in Boston and Chicago, he’s made ‘improving the fan experience’ a high priority. He listens, in other words. He makes sure all the seats are comfortable, all the bathrooms clean, all the refreshments tasty.  He’d be an outsider, if he ran for DNC chair. That’s a good thing. He’s the best possible guy for the job. You know, if he’s a Democrat.

(Which, by the way, he is. He strongly supported Hillary Clinton’s campaign, with a big donation). When one of his players (Arrieta, in fact), came out for Trump, Epstein responded: “Tolerance is important, especially in a democracy. The ability to have honest conversations, even if you come from a different place, is fundamentally important.” He didn’t reprimand the player, nor did he reprimand Curt Schilling, the famously conservative former Red Sox player, when he spoke out. In both instances, Epstein found an opportunity to have a conversation with the guy. And, with both guys, cordially agree to disagree.

We probably can’t afford him. Epstein makes ten million a year to run the Cubs. But he’s the perfect choice.

In the real world, the DNC chair will probably be Keith Ellison. He’s the only Muslim in Congress, a strong Bernie Sanders supporter, a great choice in most ways. And there are other fine candidates. But really, it should be Theo Epstein. Right man for a tough and important job. Let’s see if we can make it happen.