Category Archives: Politics

Setting aside emotion. . .

The Republican National Convention is over. I didn’t blog about it; I spent the week without computer access, and now the Democratic Convention is happening. But I thought I’d offer some thoughts about the Republicans, by way of catching up.

It was a fearful convention. The speeches were full of fear; the appeal was almost entirely emotional. People are scared. My parents were in town recently, and when we talked politics I could sense their fear, not for themselves particularly, but for their grandchildren and great grandchildren. Everyday, we see it on the news; another mass shooting, another terrible terrorist attack. We feel vulnerable. A night club attacked, an airport, a public rally in a park. It’s not surprising that a political candidate would base his appeal to voters on those feelings. “We live in dangerous times. I promise to make you safe.” That’s an effective approach for a politician to take in these dark times. And Donald Trump’s nominating speech, the most important of his political career, played to fearful voters.

In addition, Hillary Clinton, Trump’s opponent, is not well-liked or trusted. It makes sense for Republicans to go after that vulnerability. But the tone grew uglier and uglier, with repeated called for her to be jailed, most especially in completely over-the-top speeches by Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie. Honestly, watching the convention, I was afraid for her. I thought that if she had shown up to the convention, she would have been physically unsafe.

I understand why the appeal to voters was so dark, so authoritarian, so full of dark forebodings and portents. It’s important to emphasize that Trump’s speech was specifically factually inaccurate. When he said “decades of progress made in bringing down crime are now being reversed by this Administration’s rollback of criminal enforcement,” that’s factually untrue. Violent crimes are down, not up. The Obama administration has not ‘rolled back’ criminal enforcement. Trump may have plugged into real feelings people have, but those feelings have no basis in fact. When he said “nearly 180,000 illegal immigrants with criminal records, ordered deported from our country, are tonight roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens,” he’s essentially making things up. No such threat actually exists.

But politicians need to respond to feelings too. I’m not attacking Republicans for addressing the genuine fears that their voters do seem to feel. Polling shows that voters generally feel like the country is on the wrong track right now. I don’t necessarily see that as a rejection of President Obama, who is quite popular right now. I think people are furious at gridlock, at a Congress that seems incapable of compromising or governing, at the ideological divide. That said, I would have appreciated a bit more emphasis on policy. What specifically will President Trump do, if elected?

We know a few things. He wants to build a wall between the US and Mexico. He intends to deport undocumented workers. He plans to prosecute the war against ISIS more vigorously. But what else? Granted that his speech was light on policy specifics; still, we can make some educated inferences.

“I have a message to every last person threatening the peace on our streets and the safety of our police: when I take the oath of office next year, I will restore law and order our country.”

Law enforcement is almost entirely a local and state matter. The FBI investigates certain federal crimes, but they represent a tiny fraction of crimes committed. The only real way that the President can ‘restore law and order’ would be for him to declare martial law. If that’s not what he intends, he needs to clarify.

“We are going to defeat the barbarians of ISIS.”

He makes three specific proposals; to improve our intelligence-gathering in the Middle East, to work with allies, and “we must immediately suspend immigration from any nation that has been compromised by terrorism.’ The first two involve efforts the Obama administration is already doing. The third requires clarification; what does he mean ‘any nation compromised by terrorism.’ After the convention, he clarified. He meant nations like France.  France.

“I am going to turn our bad trade agreements into great ones.”

In other words, he’s going to renegotiate trade deals. Specifically, he’s going to renegotiate trade deals with China, Mexico, South Korea, and the EU. This will almost certainly result in trade wars. Cycles of retaliatory protectionism rarely work out well, and even have a tendency to turn into real life shooting wars. Either way, they will not and do not result in economic growth. Expect another recession.

“I have proposed the largest tax reduction of any candidate who has declared for the presidential race this year.”

It’s very difficult to know what exactly the Trump tax proposal entails. As soon as his economic plans are scrutinized, he tends to change them. Still, he has made a proposal specific enough for the Urban Brookings Tax Policy Center to analyze it. Here goes.

Currently, the tax code has seven brackets. He would reduce those to three: 10%, 20% and 25%. He would raise the standard deduction to $50,000 (married filing jointly), and lower capital gains and dividends. The corporate rate would be cut to 15%.

This proposal is almost comically regressive, and would add trillions to the deficit. Rich guys would benefit tremendously. It’s not a serious proposal. William Gale, co-director of the TPC, calls it “pie-in-the-sky nonsense.” To be fair, Trump has also said that this would merely be the starting point for further negotiations with Congress. Otherwise, this proposal would be ruinous for the US economy.

In his speech, in other words, Trump’s nomination speech, the most consequential of his political career, didn’t just appeal to fear and hatred and other negative emotions. It has policy implications. And the policies he either espouses or suggests are uniformly unworkable. A political campaign needs to appeal to the mind as well as the emotions. I would suggest that Trump fails both tests.

 

Secret Service Clinton Rumors

I have a family member who told me recently he could never, under any circumstances, vote for Hillary Clinton. The reason? Because his cousin knows a guy who knows a ward member who was a member of Mrs. Clinton’s Secret Service detail. And you wouldn’t believe the stories of depravity! Another friend of mine told me the same thing; her cousin has friends, good LDS people, I was assured, who know a Secret Service agent, and who had stories of literally hundreds of women smuggled into the White House for sexual trysts with Hillary Clinton. The Clintons have an open marriage, you see. And now, there’s one Gary Byrne, also former Secret Service, who declares himself ‘sickened’ by the horrible stuff he saw when serving in the Clinton White House in the ’90s, which he just had to put into print, now, twenty years later.

Byrne’s book has been hotly condemned by the non-partisan Association of Former Agents of the U. S. Secret Service. They point out that Byrne was a uniformed security officer, not part of the Clintons’ detail, and thus not in a position to have seen what he claims to have seen. Plus, Byrne’s book puts him, an obscure low-level agent that most of agents at the time barely remember, at the center of events. Byrne’s publisher, Center Street, is a Christian imprint that also does all kinds of rabidly right-wing political books, and that is also known for paying pretty well. Did Byrne make it all up? Was he passing on gossip? Because it’s easy enough to dismiss the possibility that he might be telling the truth.

Remember the Arkansas state troopers? Back in ’93, two troopers who had been assigned as security for then-governor Clinton claimed that they had arranged sexual liaisons for Clinton, an expose first published in American Spectator. David Brock, author of that article, later apologized to Bill Clinton, saying that the troopers in question were in it for the cash, and calling them ‘slimy.’

The fact is, we don’t actually know very much about most public figures. What we see is a carefully crafted image. And it’s shocking when we learn of ugly incidents or facts or opinions that contradict the family-friendly portraits we’re used to. We initially refuse to believe it. Bill Cosby can’t have done that. What, Tiger Woods? But John Edwards seems so wholesome.

But with someone like Hillary Clinton, there’s a huge incentive for some unscrupulous people to paint her in the worst colors imaginable. Gossip can go viral. And if the source is putatively someone like a Secret Service agent, someone in a position to see all sorts of, well, secrets, all the better. That’s why all this gossip comes from someone’s best friends’ cousin’s neighbor’s nephew. It sounds authoritative.

I don’t believe any of it, though. First of all, all these stories fit too neatly into pre-existing sexist narratives. Byrne’s book describes Hillary Clinton as a raging harridan, a foul-mouthed and abusive queen bitch. No one else ever describes her that way, but it’s easy to believe, because it fits a specific cultural stereotype. The other ‘secret service’ narrative fits a different stereotype: she’s sexually voracious, a (shudder) lesbian. Also, in one particularly nasty bit of slander I’ve heard, Hillary Clinton’s a poisoner, a murderess akin to Livia Drusilla, the supposedly lethal second wife of Caesar Augustus. (Her Secret Service codename was Livia, it seems. Except it wasn’t, of course).

There’s never any corroborating evidence for any of this. And there should be. If Hillary Clinton was indeed foul-mouthed and violent, there should be dozens of similar stories from former employees, associates, acquaintances, former friends. Especially given, let’s face it, a voracious tabloid press in this country willing to pay big bucks for any verifiable Clinton nastiness. By the same token, according to my friend’s story, Hillary smuggled hundreds of sexual partners into the White House. Well, White House visitors are logged. Those logs are public information. Shouldn’t be hard to prove, or disprove that specific allegation. (And, of course, it turns out to be bonkers).

This election is going to get nasty. It’s already been nasty, and it’s very likely to get nastier. Donald Trump is going to be subjected to attack ads. Probably, if the ads they’re running right now are any indication, they’ll just use his own words against him; that shouldn’t be difficult. But Hillary will be attacked too, and probably a lot of the attacks will take place under the national political radar. Expect to see viral emails. Expect an increase in this kind of gossip. There will certainly be more anti-Hillary books. And Trump’s use of social media in this cabin has been unparalleled. And he loves conspiracy theories.

As I’ve talked to many friends about this election, the main reaction from most people is to express their dismay for the two major party candidates. And national polling suggests that most Americans are as appalled with Secretary Clinton as they are with Mr. Trump. When you ask what their problem is with Clinton, they say, ‘she’s corrupt, she’s dishonest, she’s crooked.’ But then you ask for specifics. And they’ll say something like ‘Benghazi’ or ‘her emails,’ so-called ‘scandals’ that were thoroughly investigated, and in which Mrs. Clinton was cleared.

The distrust of Clinton is, in other words, inchoate, non-specific. It’s just ‘what everyone knows.’ You hear vague references to ‘all those scandals.’ If you point out that non-partisan fact-checkers have declared her the most honest politician in this election, they stare at you in incredulity. Surely, that can’t be true. Surely, I have to be kidding.

I’m worried about this election being decided in the shadows, in the murky darkness of gossip, slander, rumors and innuendos. That’s why these ridiculous Secret Service stories are so dangerous, and need to be challenged.

That’s why it’s so important, this year above all others, for fact-checkers to do their jobs. That’s why it is so important that we all vigilantly ask for evidence, for solid, corroborating proof of any particularly nasty allegation. Because this political year is about to get ugly. Hold on to your hat.

 

What I don’t know, what I know

I don’t want to watch anymore. I’m watched out. Another police shooting, another unnecessary and unprovoked killing, another panicky cop’s lethal mistake. In Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Only, wait, no, that’s not all; turns out there was another one a few hours later, in St. Paul, Minnesota. And so we add two more names to the list, two more African American men executed without cause or merit. Philando Castile. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Tamir Rice. Dontre Hamilton. John Crawford. Ezell Ford. Dante Parker. Akai Gurley. Rumain Brisbane. Jerame Reid. Eric Harris. Walter Scott. Freddie Gray. Alton Sterling.

And yes, there were cops killed in Dallas last night. And that was tragic and awful and unnecessary too. And they go on the list too.  Absolutely. Brent Thompson. Patrick Zamarripa. There were three others; as of this writing, their names haven’t been released. But yes, police work is dangerous. I know a few cops, and I know the prayers their families offer every shift they work. “Please, let him come home safely. Please protect her. Please, not today.”

But the movement is called, rightly and appropriately, Black Lives Matter. That’s what needs to be said, repeated, insisted upon. Because that’s what, apparently, we in the white community don’t simply take for granted.

And I feel helpless, impotent, infuriated and heartsick. Mourning doesn’t seem to be enough. Posting and blogging and tweeting doesn’t make a difference. I’m an old, fat, sick white dude. I got nothing. Well, that’s not entirely true. I do have a slight glimmering of a few somethings.

I don’t know much about the way police officers are trained. But I do know that a lot of police departments–Las Vegas, Seattle, New York–have implemented de-escalation training, a shift of emphasis from ‘control the situation’ to ‘calm the situation down,’ less confrontational, and that the results have been substantial decreases in violence, and in police shootings.

I don’t know all that much about gun laws, in part because I don’t know much about guns. Since Heller, we have to accept that, at least for now, the 2nd Amendment is understood to mean that private citizens have a constitutional right to own firearms. I think Heller‘s a foolish decision, wrongly decided. But it still allows the state to prohibit the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, it allows for laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in places like schools and government buildings, and it permits all kinds of laws imposing conditions on the sale of guns, or banning “dangerous or unusual” weapons. There are, in other words, a whole bunch of gun-restricting regulations that Congress could pass. Also, an Australian-style national gun buy-back program is constitutionally permissible.

I don’t know how to get rid of most Americans’ guns. I don’t think there’s much question that the fact that American gun ownership is off-the-charts internationally, and the fact that American gun deaths are likewise out of control are correlated. We’re a heavily armed people. We don’t need to be. When cops go out to maintain public order, they’re obviously on edge, knowing how heavily armed the populace is. Cops are human, cops are scared, and yes, cops make mistakes. We can support the police, and also hold policing to a higher standard. Those ideals are not incompatible.

I don’t know how to solve the problem of racism. I do know that we’re fighting a whole of history here, and that the fact that black people face less legal discrimination now than they did when I was a kid does not mean that the black community hasn’t been profoundly and significantly harmed. Larry Wilmore last night said that his home, in Pasadena, is also home to a significant Armenian community. He has lots of Armenian friends. But, he said, if you’re with them and you mention Turkey, the reaction is immediate, angry and harsh. It’s been a hundred years since the Turkish massacre of Armenians, but feelings are still raw. Why, then, should we assume that centuries of systemic violence and hatred directed towards blacks, by whites, in America, hasn’t been similarly damaging and hurtful, and with lingering, residual effects?

I don’t know how to change the political direction of this country, how to combat the effects of institutional racism, or how to reverse the tide of violence. But I do know this: nothing will happen for good or for ill unless millennials vote.

This is really important. And it’s not just about gun violence, or racism, or Black Lives Matter. It’s about climate change. It’s about paying for college. It’s about health care. There are a huge variety of life-or-death issues that have political ramifications and political solutions. And if you’re reading this, and you’re 18-35, you probably know the statistics on this as well as I do.

The General Social Survey, one of the most respected national surveys shows that millennials are, in fact, very politically engaged. You engage in political discussions on the internet. You post political views on social media. You’re very likely to attend a rally or a protest. That’s all great. And it means nothing–absolutely nothing–if you don’t vote. And you don’t. Less than 20% of you vote in local or state elections, and less than 40% in Presidential years.

Think about your grandparents. Grumpy old gramps, who watches Fox News all day, and yells at kids who cross his lawn, and whose favorite topics of conversation are his health and what a terrible President Obama is. I mean, you love him to death, but you don’t take him all that seriously, do you? Well, he has a much greater say on what’s going to happen in this country than you do. Because he votes. So does Grandma. Every election, without fail.

You remember the Michael Brown shooting? Remember all the protests, all the anger, all the people who showed up to express their outrage over that shooting? When you read about Ferguson, and how much more likely black residents of the town were to be pulled over and fined, and how essential those fines were to the city’s finances, and how few Ferguson cops were African-American, well, it was disgraceful, and infuriating, and the anger of the protesters seemed completely justified. And someone decided to do something about; set up a voter registration booth right there in the middle of the protests. If you were a Ferguson resident, and African-American, well, there was your chance to make a change, vote out an incompetent mayor and replace the police chief. Guess how many new voters were registered in Ferguson Missouri. Just take a stab at it.

128. One hundred. And twenty eight.

And I thought of Fannie Lou Hamer, testifying in 1964 about how badly she was beaten in Mississippi by the local sheriffs, for the crime of trying to register to vote. Because, as she put it, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired. We want a change! We want a change in this society in America!”

Well, so do I. And I don’t know how to solve this. I don’t know who to blame, or what solutions to try. But I do know this: we have to try. Because this America, this violent and racially charged and furious America does not represent who I want to be, or who you want to be, or who we want to be together.

I believe, like Kendrick Lamar, “if God got us then we gon be alright.” I pray every night for peace, for our nation’s secular salvation. And then I listen to that still small voice and I realize what He’s saying. He gave us hands to work, to help our brothers and sisters. And we gave us minds, to think. And those hands and those minds have to work together. And we start by voting. Every election: vote. That’s all I got, and all I know.

 

 

 

I pray every night for peace, for our nation’s secular salvation. And then I listen to that still small voice and I realize what He’s saying. He gave us hands to work, to help our brothers and sisters. And we gave us minds, to think. And those hands and those minds have to work together. And we start by voting. Every election: vote.

The Purge: Election Year

I’ll say this about the Purge movies; they’re getting better. In James DeMonaco’s futurist dystopia trilogy, positing a future United States of America in which the economy booms due to a nasty annual bloodletting, the storytelling and basic filmmaking chops have clearly improved, film by film. And this third film, Election Year, is the first film to really explore seriously the ramifications of the films’ premise. In broad outline, the idea behind the Purge movies have become increasingly plausible. In detail, of course, they’re silly action movies. So how well do they speak to our day?

Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir had a lot of fun with this kind of analysis, writing that there are two versions of an election year available:

One of them is a ludicrous and idiotic narrative about race and class in America, full of unbelievable characters and implausible plot twists, anchored in the naïve belief that popular revolt through the ballot box can bring down a corrupt oligarchy. The other one is a movie.

Yes, very funny. I would put it this way: for the Purge movies to really work, we’d have to find the premise sufficiently plausible that it sends a little chill down our collective spines. Parallels to our reality would have to really resonate, so much that we’d nod a bit in recognition. So, here’s the basic Purge idea. What do you think?

At some point in the future, at a moment of national crisis, a conservative party called the New Founding Fathers of America (the NFFA), establishes a new holiday, the Purge. For twelve hours, during the Purge, everything goes, with no legal penalties for any act by anyone. Including murder. From 7-7 some night, roving gangs, wearing garish costumes and masks, just randomly go around killing people. During the Purge, no emergency services are available; no cops, no EMTs, no ambulances.

As a result of the Purge, the US economy has boomed. Unemployment is essentially non-existent; inflation unheard of, profits are high. This is, the movie suggests, because the government doesn’t have to spend much on welfare, or health care, or food stamps. There just aren’t any excess people. Welfare recipients are, uh, culled annually, like English football relegation, only lethal. Rich people, of course, can afford really tight security systems, and are tend not to be victims of the Purge. Poor people are on their own.

This whole thing has a racial component, especially in the third movie. We see various NFFA leadership meetings, concluding with a religious rite scene, set in a cathedral, in which a succession of poor victims are ritually sacrificed by NFFA leadership. The NFFA consists entirely of older white people. Meanwhile, a multi-ethnic coalition opposes the NFFA. Led by a Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), a blonde white woman, who is running for President (and might win, if she can just take Florida). Hillary Clinton? Kinda sorta maybe?

There’s another group out there, an underground revolutionary group, that sets up an emergency ward for the wounded, and is led by a charismatic gangster, Dante Bishop (Edwin Hodge). Only Bishop’s done with conventional politics and do-gooding. He’s got a plan, to assassinate the entire NFFA leadership. And Senator Roan wishes he wouldn’t. She thinks she can win the election fair and square.

Of course, that’s all just background. The actual plot of the movie has to do with Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo), head of Roan’s security team, and his efforts to protect her from an assassination attempt by, essentially, the entire US government. They’re joined by a convenience store owner, Joe Dixon (Mykelti Williamson), who is determined to protect his store from a nasty girl gang of murderous teens wearing prom dresses and Catholic school uniforms, armed with AR-15s. Joe, and his one employee, Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria), an immigrant from Mexico (with, apparently, mad sniper skills), save Leo and Charlie when they’re set upon by a group of German tourists, Purging having apparently become Euro-chic. Joe and Marcos also have a friend, Laney (Betty Gabriel), who spends the Purge riding around in an armored van rescuing people in need. So Laney, Joe and Marcos join Leo and the Senator, and try to fend off mercenaries hired by American rich people conservatives. That’s the plot. It’s still basically an action movie.

So how plausible is it? Not very. I mean, come on. American conservatives, in my experience, tend to believe in a bootstraps narrative, in which America is defined as the place where anyone with sufficient gumption can be successful. Republicans want to lift poor people, not, you know, murder them.

But let’s suppose that high welfare rolls really were what was holding our economy back. Let’s suppose that high social spending on a parasite class really was a major drag on the economy. (Not true, actually, but for the sake of argument, let’s grant the premise). Could we really solve that problem by just shooting the bottom five percent every year? Or, you know, essentially deputizing all our sociopaths?

Probably not, no. And yet, here’s the paradox of this movie; it starts with this appalling premise. And the movie tells us, repeatedly, that the idea of the Purge is desperately immoral. And heroic Senator Roan campaigns on the idea that the Purge is violent and sick and needs to go away. And all the more sympathetic characters in the movie are all in agreement about how awful the Purge is.

And yet, the movie is also built on the idea that the Purge does, in fact, work. We see a debate between Senator Roan and her NFFA opponent, and when he asks her what she proposes (“more welfare spending?” he sneers), she doesn’t have an answer. In fact, the movie advances an even-more-contemptible idea–that poor people are nothing but a drag on the economy. A net minus for any advanced nation.

In a way, the Purge movies, when they’re not distracting us with firefights, are sort like Swift’s A Modest Proposal. An insane idea, presented tongue-in-cheek, to force us to confront our own prejudices. Only the Purge movies don’t just toss this awful, murderous idea out there. They build a narrative around the idea that the awful, murderous idea is also economically sound.

So, at first, I thought this series, for all the bloodshed it depicts, did at least have its heart in the right place. Now I’m less sure. I can at least say this. In our own time of scary, scary politics, we do have a blonde woman to vote for. At least there’s that.

 

 

 

Hillary’s emails

Yesterday, FBI director James Comey announced that no criminal charges will be filed against Hillary Clinton or any member of her staff in relation to her use of any unauthorized private server while she was serving as Secretary of State. So that’s over.

Ha.

Because Comey didn’t just say that Secretary Clinton wouldn’t be charged with anything. His statement was actually kind of remarkable. He went into great detail regarding the investigative process the FBI went through, and why the investigation reached the conclusions it did. He was thorough, and he was persuasive. I found his statement fascinating, and recommend it to anyone interested in these issues.

I don’t know why Hillary Clinton used a private email server and not the .gov server available to her. Still, I want to put this case into some perspective; view it in human terms. See if that brings some clarity.

The first thing that jumps out at me, reading Comey’s report, is the number 30,000. That’s the number of Hillary Clinton emails the FBI initially examined, but their investigation turned up several thousand more. She switched servers a few times, and switched devices. Here’s Comey:

Secretary Clinton used several different servers and administrators of those servers during her four years at the State Department, and used numerous mobile devices to view and send e-mail on that personal domain. As new servers and equipment were employed, older servers were taken out of service, stored, and decommissioned in various ways. Piecing all of that back together—to gain as full an understanding as possible of the ways in which personal e-mail was used for government work—has been a painstaking undertaking, requiring thousands of hours of effort.

That’s a huge number of emails. 30,000, 35,000; whatever the number may have been, it’s a lot. I’m a pretty avid emailer, but I don’t send 50 a month.

Previous Secretaries of State had private email accounts, but used the official government email systems for public business. But they also didn’t send out anywhere near that many. Secretary Clinton really likes to communicate via email. Official procedure should have gone as follows; if she wanted to send a personal email, she needed to put away her official government device, step out of the room, and access her personal email device located in another room. That’s a colossal pain in the neck. It would work well if your life was really neatly compartmentalized; you deal with work when you’re at work, and you go home and open your email on your home PC. Her life isn’t like that; never has been.

Because she’s a woman? Because the balancing act–home/work–is different for women than it is for men? Because men can do this; step into another room, another space, to deal with the annoyance of a family situation? And women can’t?

Because, while she was Secretary of State, two big personal events also took place. Her mother died, and Hillary had to plan her funeral. (And isn’t it true that planning a funeral is different for women than it is for men?) And Chelsea Clinton got married. Hillary and Chelsea are very close, and you can imagine all the emails it took to plan Chelsea’s very nice, expensive, highly political wedding. And, again, isn’t planning a wedding a different experience for a Mom than it is for a Dad?

So, she’s in a meeting. They’re discussing some international situation. She’s got her Blackberry, she’s emailing various underSecretaries. She gets an email from Chelsea–‘what do you think of these flowers?’ She’s supposed to excuse herself, leave her meeting, get her personal device, respond to Chelsea’s email, then put the device away and go back into her meeting.

It strikes me as . . . unreasonable.

And so, she resisted. And in order to keep her personal account, in order to store all those emails, government regulations required that she print off every email, no matter what the content, and store them in big binders full of email hard copies. They tried it for a couple of months, and Secretary Clinton realized what a colossal pain the whole thing was going to be for her staff, printing off hundreds of emails every day, filing them, storing them someplace. So they quit doing it.

Why didn’t anyone stop her? Why didn’t someone say ‘you can’t do this?’ Because she was the Secretary of State. Her boss was POTUS. It was too trivial a matter for the President of the United States to worry about.

There are a couple of other factors to consider as well. Comey says that the FBI was unable to determine if anyone had hacked her private account; whether her carelessness with internet security protocols ever led to foreign actors getting hold of American state secrets. But whether or not anyone hacked her account, we know that US government computers, the official, secure computers that Hillary was supposed to use get hacked all the time. Google ‘US government computers hacked.’ Look at the links that pop up: ‘hacking of government computers expose 21 million people.’ Over and over again. (Is it possible that foreign hackers were so busy actually compromising US cyber security that they missed Hillary’s private server entirely?)

Comey’s statement has been parsed by everyone, on every side of the political spectrum. First, here’s Comey’s explanation of why he didn’t file charges:

Although there is evidence of potential violations of the statutes regarding the handling of classified information, our judgment is that no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case. Prosecutors necessarily weigh a number of factors before bringing charges. There are obvious considerations, like the strength of the evidence, especially regarding intent. Responsible decisions also consider the context of a person’s actions, and how similar situations have been handled in the past.

In looking back at our investigations into mishandling or removal of classified information, we cannot find a case that would support bringing criminal charges on these facts. All the cases prosecuted involved some combination of: clearly intentional and willful mishandling of classified information; or vast quantities of materials exposed in such a way as to support an inference of intentional misconduct; or indications of disloyalty to the United States; or efforts to obstruct justice. We do not see those things here.

People who would, for political reasons of their own, very much like to see Hillary Clinton indicted, read this statement, and conclude that the fix was in. She’s a crook, and she got away with it. Elites protecting elites. But Comey’s actually referring to the principle of prosecutorial discretion. This is normal practice for law enforcement officials: to decide that a technical violation doesn’t rise to the level of criminality. Comey gives us a subtle, nuanced description of a complex process.

It also recognizes the reality that Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State, and that she is now running for President. Comey adds this clarification, which some people have found confusing.

To be clear, this is not to suggest that in similar circumstances, a person who engaged in this activity would face no consequences. To the contrary, those individuals are often subject to security or administrative sanctions. But that is not what we are deciding now.

What does he mean by ‘security or administrative sanctions?’ Clearly, Comey’s not talking about any kind of criminal charges. He dealt with the issue of criminality in his previous paragraph. But it’s possible that the FBI could recommend some other kind of lesser penalty. In other words, someone else doing what Hillary did could be fired.

I’ve heard some people suggest that Hillary should be fined for her actions. That would be the kind of ‘lesser sanction’ that Comey suggests. But you can’t. The only way to fine Clinton would be as the result of a criminal procedure. You can’t just say ‘Mrs. Clinton, we’re not going to charge you. But could you please pay a fine?’ Can’t happen. A judge can fine someone in lieu of jail time. But that was never going to happen.

Didn’t Hillary Clinton know how bad this whole thing might look? Didn’t Bill Clinton realize how his innocent airport visit to Loretta Lynch’s plane would appear to people? This story, from Vox.com, explains it beautifully. Bill and Hillary Clinton are caught in a horrible, toxic cycle of suspicion and mistrust with the press.

I think it goes back to what was likely one of the most traumatic events of the Clintons’ lives: the suicide of Vince Foster. Foster was a close personal friend of them both, and a trusted aid. When he saw how badly the press overreacted to the travel office story, he fell into a deep depression, resulting in his tragic suicide. And then the Clintons found themselves accused of having murdered him.

I don’t think they’ve ever recovered from it. I think it’s even possible that Hillary Clinton suffers from untreated PTSD stemming from Vince Foster’s suicide. And she concluded, probably both Clintons concluded, as a result, that they are never going to be treated fairly by the national media. Scandals simply erupt, based on nothing, and there’s nothing they can do to prevent it. So who cares about appearances? So a private email server looks bad? It could become a big problem? Well, so what? If it’s the emails, it’ll be something else.

Hillary Clinton knows she will never be treated fairly, that her reputation will be maligned no matter what she does. And her reaction is to keep on keepin’ on. Her instinct is to hunker down, fight harder, study more, and try to do some good in this world. The email thing is over. Let’s elect her President.

 

The Loretta Lynch “scandal”

On Monday night, Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s plane was waiting on the tarmac at the Phoenix airport. Bill Clinton’s airplane was also down, a short distance away. So Bill Clinton strolled over to her plane, uninvited, to say hi. They chatted for a few minutes, about family, especially Clinton’s grandchildren, and travels; the kind of innocuous chitchat old friends engage in. Then he went back to his plane, and they both went their separate ways. That’s it. That’s the sum and substance of the current Loretta Lynch scandal.

Except, of course, it’s not. There’s pressure on Lynch to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate this ‘secret meeting.’ There may well be a Senate investigation. Did they talk about Hillary’s emails? Did Bill Clinton pressure the Attorney General of the United States to instruct the FBI to drop their investigation? Did Lynch and Clinton cook up some kind of plot to make the email problem go away? What did they really talk about?

Here’s the take from Vox.com, which I pretty much can’t improve on:

The overall structure of the scandal mirrors that of many Clinton imbroglios of years past: Travelgate, Troopergate, Whitewater, and so on. The media and conservative critics seized on these as evidence that the Clintons are willing to do anything to help themselves and their friends, and will interfere with investigations if necessary.

But to the Clintons and their defenders, they’re tempests in teapots, proof that the media will try to construe even the most meaningless incidents as evidence of the Clintons’ perfidy. That belief, in turn, seems to inspire a cavalier attitude about actions that lead to such tempests, fueling the cycle all over again.

Put more strongly: there are people who care more about Hillary Clinton’s emails than they care about almost anything on earth. Some are Republicans and some are Democrats, but what unites them is not just a belief but an absolute conviction that Hillary is guilty of serious criminal acts in regards to her emails, plus a whole bunch of other crimes in addition to the emails, that she is being shielded by Old Family Friend Loretta Lynch, that any day now the FBI will announce her indictment, ending her presidential bid. Obviously, some die-hard Bernie Sanders supporters believe this. Just as obviously, some Trump supporters do too, fueled by Trump’s tweets about it. And full-time Clinton haters (and their numbers are legion) are certain of it. Bill Clinton met with Loretta Lynch. It was kind of secretive, off anyone’s schedules, sneaking from plane to plane. OF COURSE it was about the emails. What on earth could it have been about otherwise?

But to Hillary Clinton (and undoubtedly Bill as well), the email thing isn’t important at all. It’s just the latest silly nonsense she has to deal with. Clinton’s enemies are always inventing these ridiculous pseudo-scandals. She had a private email account. So did previous Secretaries of State. It wasn’t against the law, and nobody told her she couldn’t. She never sent classified material over her private server. She never broke any laws. It’s nothing. Loretta Lynch really is an old friend. Bill popped over to say hi, and to show off the latest pictures of his grandchildren. Period.

I never cared about the email scandal. It really has always seemed trivial to me. But I have, in recent weeks, had occasion to talk to several people who work for companies where internet security is a very big deal, including a friend who works for a company with Department of Defense contracts. These friends (who are otherwise inclined to vote for Hillary), are appalled at the thought of someone using a private email server to handle company business, or, heaven forfend, State Department business. In their experience, this is a fireable offense. And the fact that she was the boss makes her offense even more egregious. She was Secretary of State. She should have set a good example for cyber-security. So, yeah, the email scandal has some resonance. There’s no evidence that anyone actually hacked into her private email account. But ill-intentioned cyber-persons could have, and if they had, State secrets could have been compromised. Getting lucky is not much of a defense.

So there’s that. I think Hillary Clinton was unnecessarily cavalier about internet security, and perhaps a bit arrogant about not taking it seriously. I think there are also all kinds of mitigating factors involved that tend to absolve her. For one thing, she was a prolific emailer. One estimate is that the disputed emails number about 30,000. I like email, but I don’t send 10 a week. She loved her Blackberry, and she loves email as a communications tool. I can see that having to switch back and forth between devices would become a pain. While she was Secretary of State, her daughter was getting married, and her mother died. Both of those events took a lot of planning, with many emails back and forth. Nobody seems to have told her she had to use two devices. So she didn’t.

There is, of course, a conspiracy theory vibe to the whole Loretta Lynch scandal. And, like most conspiracy theories, it falls apart on closer examination. The FBI investigation into the Hillary server wound up in May. She’s not going to be indicted, unless really damning new evidence turns up at the last second, which isn’t remotely likely. Why on earth would Bill Clinton do something as egregiously stupid as pressure Loretta Lynch to halt an investigation that was already pretty much over? Isn’t it more likely that he merely stopped by her plane to say hi?

So why risk it? Knowing the scrutiny the Clintons always face anyway, why would he do something risky like drop in on the sitting Attorney-General? Shouldn’t he go out of his way to avoid even the appearance of evil?

Because he’s Bill Clinton. Because he’s learned, by sad experience, that ‘avoiding the appearance of evil’ is simply impossible. Why? What’s the point? Remember some of the ‘scandals’ from the past. A close friend, Vince Foster, killed himself–the Clintons were accused of murdering him. Bill shut down the White House travel office because of accounting irregularities–they were attacked in the press for it, with weepy stories about those poor poor travel office folks. They lost money in a real estate deal, and spent the next six years being investigated for all sorts of alleged misdeeds under the broad umbrella ‘Whitewater,’ an investigation that found no wrong-doing. Hillary and Bill Clinton have been in the public eye since, at least, 1991, and have been accused of all manner of malfeasance every single day of that time.

All of these accusations have been false, except one. Bill really did have a consensual affair with Monica Lewinski. Most of the others have been preposterous. And so, sensibly enough, Bill and Hillary have apparently decided not to care anymore. Bill thought he’d stop by Loretta Lynch’s plane to say hi. That’s what happened, and I’m pretty sure that’s all that happened.

Reflections on the Brexit vote

Last Thursday, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. They executed a Brexit. Polling suggested that the vote would be close; still, I thought it likely that Remain would win. Young people, Millennials, voted overwhelmingly to Remain. The problem was that not enough of them bothered to vote at all (the figure I saw was 38%). This was, as it happens, a vote about the future of the United Kingdom. But it turned into a vote in which the future of young people was determined by old people.

I spent last week trying to blog about the Brexit vote. I drafted blog after blog, only to discard them all. I realized that I simply did not know enough about English or European politics to comment usefully or thoughtfully. So I tried to give myself a crash course on the subject, only to feel more and more foolish with each draft.

What I was able to determine was that there were very good arguments made on both sides of the Brexit issue. There are excellent reasons for British voters to resent or dislike or even despise the EU, and to want to vote Leave. There were equally excellent reasons to Remain. To some extent, Leave engaged in misleading advertising; undoubtedly, so did Remain. I would have voted Remain, but I don’t regard those who voted to Leave as dunces, racists, or fools. To me, it would have been something of a tough call. (I would have suggested that the UK use the leverage of a threatened Brexit to force a renegotiation with the European Parliament over a number of matters, especially the EU continued policy of economic austerity. Which has to be reckoned a catastrophic failure).

What is interesting is how, immediately after the election, both Liberals and Conservatives over here, in the US, recast the vote so it reflected our own polarized politics. Leave became the conservative stance; Remain, the liberal one. Conservative commentators and journals crowed over the ‘courage’ of the British for standing up for national sovereignty. Liberals saw the Leave victory as a triumph of ascendent Trumpism. And that all strikes me as both illustrative and very interesting.

Leave was certainly a vote for national sovereignty. Even the more contentious issue of immigration was couched in terms of nationality; what kind of nation is one that can’t control its own borders? But it goes well beyond the single issue of immigration. Brussels issues all sorts of pettifogging regulations over all aspects of British economic life. One of the more entertaining spectacles in the run-up to the Brexit vote was a pitched sea battle using water cannons in the Thames between fishing boats trailing Leave banners and a yacht owned by Sir Bob Geldof of the Boomtown Rats band, slinging water balloons for Remain. Comical, sure. But illustrative; fisherman were furious over EU regulations over when, what, how often they could fish.

To conservatives (at least over here), then, Leave was a reaction to intrusive Big Government, a rejection of heavy-handed statism and bureaucratic overreach. I get that. I respect it. Conservatism rejects statism; is skeptical of government generally. That’s a principled position.

Of course, that’s not all that Leave stood for. A lot of Leave voters were vocally opposed to EU policies of free immigration, for reasons that do strike us Yanks as uncomfortably redolent of The Donald. When you see voters talking openly about wanting to keep out ‘that sort’ of people, we hear echoes of Trump’s cover of The Wall. (As for Trump, he was, as the Brexit vote unfolded, in Scotland, promoting his golf course. Because that’s what Presidential candidates do, hold press conferences to extol the exceptional bathroom fixtures in the luxury suites at the golf course he just renovated). We all saw those post-Brexit images; angry older white Brits wanting to Make England Great Again.

Of course, liberals in the US are as interested in exploiting Brexit for our political purposes as the Trump campaign is. And so we conflate a part with the whole, and craft a narrative in which Brexit is Old White Racists rejecting immigration. But that’s unfair. Surely, for most Leave voters, arguments about national sovereignty and economic freedom were more compelling. By the same token, American conservatives are genuinely worried about encroaching statism. If we liberals genuinely do want to eradicate poverty, we need to recognize that free markets will do more to accomplish it than any combination of government initiatives and agencies and programs.

But, here’s the thing. That’s not the only thing ‘conservative’ means. Conservative can also mean a resistance to radical change. Part of conservatism, it seems to me, is a concern about unintended consequences. Ill considered government actions could make things worse; programs can exacerbate the  very problems they’re meant to solve. So, for example, conservatism’s skepticism to anti-poverty programs. Won’t those programs lead to welfare dependency? Won’t they provide incentives for people not to work? Shouldn’t work be the goal? And so, in the history of American politics, we see progressive program after progressive program proposed by liberals, and opposed by conservatives. And that’s not because conservatives are all a bunch of hard-hearted meanies. Conservative concerns are legitimate. Will this program work? How do we pay for it? If we raise taxes, will that hurt the economy? That’s why our government works best when any bill has the benefit of both approaches; liberal passion, conservative skepticism. That’s why government requires compromise, and the forging of alliances.

And that’s also why Brexit is a bad issue. It’s purely up and down; Remain or Leave, with no middle ground in-between.

But isn’t it also seriously weird that LEAVE is the de facto conservative position?

I mean, seriously. If there’s one thing Leave will mean, it’s chaos and uncertainty. What will happen to Britain’s economy? No one knows. Could it be catastrophic? Oh, sure, of course it could. It could easily lead to a recession, and that recession could spread to the rest of Europe and the US. What will the EU do in response? No one knows. If the UK invokes article 50, what happens then? What will the EU/UK negotiations be like? No one knows. Will Scotland Leave? Possibly. What about Northern Ireland? Is it possible this could leave to an Ireland/Northern Ireland merger? Seriously? Bad things could happen, good things could happen; this becomes, genuinely, Anarchy in the UK. If there’s one thing conservatism should be presumed to oppose, it’s their world turning into a real-life Sex Pistols album.

A few days before the Brexit vote, Paul Krugman wrote a column about it. Paul Krugman is a Nobel Prize winning economist, but he’s also a well-known liberal political commentator. And in his column, after soberly describing the Leave and Remain positions (and the reasons each of them had merit), he decided he would probably vote Remain, if he had a vote. Why? Because Leave was just too dangerously radical. It could have really terrible consequences. And if you vote Remain, you could always change your mind later. Better be safe than sorry.

In other words, one of liberalism’s leading writers declared for Remain for what are fundamentally conservative reasons. Remain is a vote for the established order, for things not changing. And leading conservatives declared for Leave, supporting, therefore, massive, chaotic change, a leap into the void sort of change, exactly the kinds of change liberals generally like. What a topsy-turvy, radically de-centered world we seem now to inhabit!

A look at Republican foreign policy

Donald Trump is going to be the Republican nominee for President, a job for which he is manifestly unqualified, and particularly when it comes to foreign policy. Last week, Hillary Clinton gave a big speech on foreign policy, which included her harshest criticisms yet of Mr. Trump’s positions. Secretary Clinton impressively pointed out not just where she disagreed with Mr. Trump’s positions, but how unpresidentially unjudicious is his basic temperment.

Every Sunday morning, I watch This Week with George Stephanopoulos, so that y’all don’t have to. Although This Week drives me crazy sometimes, I watch it just to get a sense of mainstream Beltway opinion, which is, of course, frustrating and empty-headed and political. But it can be amusing, too, the rehashing of that eternal human comedy: who’s up, who’s down, who’s winning, who’s losing, and what does it all portend?

Anyway, Stephanopoulos wanted a Republican response to Hillary’s Trump take-down, and so they got Senator Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to provide it. Corker is, at least officially, a Trump supporter, though over the course of his interview with Stephanopoulos, it became clear that he disagrees with Trump on essentially everything. But he obviously couldn’t say that–he was on the show to support Trump. So he tap-danced, not very nimbly. It got pretty funny.

Did Corker, for example, agree with Trump’s recent comments about Judge Curiel?  “I think we need to move beyond that, and he has a tremendous opportunity to disrupt the direction Washington is moving in, and create tremendous opportunity.” That’s an actual quote: Trump has a ‘tremendous opportunity’ to ‘create a tremendous opportunity.’

Stephanopoulos: “can you make a positive case why Trump will make a good Commander-in-Chief?’

Corker: “Yeah.”

That’s it. That’s Bob Corker’s defense for the idea that Donald Trump is tempermentally qualified to be commander-in-chief. One word. ‘Yeah.’

Stephanopoulos didn’t let him off the hook. He bored in, asking again for Corker to make the case for Trump. Corker started off with another ‘yeah.’ Then this: “well, he has an opportunity to transition. He’s talking to people that I respect greatly: Secretary Baker, Dr. Kissinger. Two of the greatest foreign policy experts in our nation. So he’s talking to the right people. So he has an opportunity to transition. . . ”

In other words, Trump can become stronger on foreign policy, if he’s willing to change, and listen to Jim Baker and Henry Kissinger. Yikes.

But what got really interesting was when Corker pivoted to attacking Hillary Clinton. I think that’s why he was on the show, to savage her:

Look, I listened to the speech, and I think her team believes that her service as Secretary of State makes her vulnerable. . . if you think back to the decisions she made in 2011, they were really disastrous. She played a central role in really creating a home for where ISIS resides today. If you look at the Libya incursion, which I think will be a textbook case for what we ought not to do in making foreign policy decisions. And then if you look at the precipitous leaving of Iraq, and look at encouraging the moderate opposition in Syria, and never following through. I think they feel that she’s very vulnerable, and that’s why these attacks are being made.

When it was pointed out that attacking Hillary Clinton didn’t really constitute supporting Donald Trump, Corker danced some more.

So here’s what I have seen, in many of the statements that he’s made recently, it’s a degree of realism in our foreign policy. For years, we’ve had neo-cons on the one side, we’ve had liberal internationalists on the Democratic side, and I think that bringing that maturity back into our foreign policy is something that’s important. That doesn’t mean us being isolationist. But it does mean selective engagement. It’s bringing a maturity, looking at our US national interest, realizing who our friends are, things like throwing aside Mubarak so quickly, after decades of relationship, and not figuring out a better way for him to be eased out.”

All right. Sorry for the long block quotation. Anyway, according to Bob Corker (and, apparently, James Baker and Henry Kissinger), Donald Trump represents a ‘new maturity’ in our foreign policy. And as evidence of Secretary Clinton’s comparative immaturity, we have her ‘throwing aside’ Hosni Mubarak ‘so quickly,’ after ‘decades of a relationship.’

When Corker talks about the events of 2011, he’s referring to the Arab Spring uprisings, which began in December 2010 in Tunisia, and continued throughout the next year or so.

So, what caused the Arab Spring? Widespread dissatisfaction with local regimes, with their corruption and violence, with dictatorship as a way of life, and with horrific unemployment and poverty throughout the region. It went fast, driven in part by social media. By the end of February 2012, rulers had been forced from power in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, with civil uprisings in Bahrain and Syria, and with major protests in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco and Sudan. Such dictators as Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Moummar Gadaffi in Libya, and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt fell from power.

Essentially, Corker is saying that during Clinton’s tenure at State, the US mishandled the various opportunities and difficulties posed by the Arab Spring. Surely, though, Corker is aware of how limited our options were back then. These were exceptionally popular uprisings, against brutal and corrupt dictators. Really, the best the US could have done was see, in each case, if among the protestors, there were  pro-Western, pro-democracy elements, which we could aid and support. Those elements did exist, in each of those countries. But they were very much in the minority.

So, in Libya, the Gaddafi government was overthrown, with help from UN forces. But within a few months, a civil war broke out between pro-Western forces and Islamist groups. That civil war continues–Libya is today, essentially, a failed state. In Egypt, after Mubarak fell, the military took command. Elections were held, which were won by the Islamist Mohammed Morsi. After a year, Morsi was deposed by the military, leading to a military dictatorship today. Again, not a great outcome. What better outcome was available?

What would have been nice would have been for pro-democratic, pro-Western forces to have won in each of those countries, leading to non-violent Muslim governance akin, perhaps, to Turkey. But the US had very little ability to control events back in 2011.

So to take the preposterous scenario Corker outlines, in which the US was able to keep our old pal Mubarak in power a while longer, that was simply never possible. Mubarak was toxic; utterly loathed. Egypt was being run by Egyptians.

It is absolutely true that the West intervened militarily in Libya in 2011, that NATO’s intervention didn’t work very well, and that Libya is a failed state today. The point of that intervention was to protect civilian lives. In Oct. 2011, NATO withdrew. In retrospect, that may have been an error. But, of course, we wanted Libya to be governed by Libyans. The US had no desire to nation-build yet again. The attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi didn’t help. The fact is, we tried to intervene on humanitarian grounds, and the result was a humanitarian nightmare. It’s fair to criticize Secretary Clinton for the failures of policy in Libya. What isn’t clear is what policies might have worked better.

In making the case for Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy expertise, it’s not just that she was once Secretary of State. It’s that she was Secretary of State during the Arab Spring, when the Middle East exploded in a whole variety of revolutions, counter-revolutions, uprisings and civil wars. There was very little the United States could have done to direct or even influence the way those events played out. We did try to intervene when possible, with mixed results. She was the US main foreign policy official in the most complicated and difficult era the Middle East has seen in my lifetime. She tried to manage events. For the most part, those events proved unmanageable.

It’s fair to offer criticism of her record. But when Bob Corker offers as a counter-proposal something as ludicrous as propping up the dessicated remains of Hosni Mubarak for a few more days, it’s fair to dismiss his complaints entirely. If retaining dictators in power is what constitutes this new ‘maturity’ in foreign policy Corker claims to see in the proposals of Donald Trump, then, I’m sorry, but I’m not interested. Trump’s foreign policy, as he’s described it so far, would involve starting trade wars with China and Mexico, offending Muslims world-wide, and ending the US commitment to NATO. That’s not maturity–it’s infantile.

What Hillary Clinton will bring to the table is a maturity born of humility, a sense of just how limited America’s ability is to change the course of history. That seems like a valuable resource, her experience and maturity and habit of thoughtful reflection. Especially given the alternative.

 

 

 

TSA

Having chosen a sedentary lifestyle, or had one chosen for me, I haven’t traveled for months. I used to travel a lot. I miss it. But the one thing I do not miss are the long long lines at security checkpoints. What I do not miss at all is the TSA.

The Transportation Security Administration is the federal agency tasked with airport security. And it is an agency that sucks at its job. TSA’s level of suckitude is really not in much dispute. In recent airport security ‘red team’ tests, TSA agents missed 95% of bombs and guns testers tried to sneak through the system. That’s a horrible test result, like a college exam where you got 5% of the questions right, and missed all the rest. And it’s not an isolated result. They fail these sorts of tests all the time–a 91% failure rate in a Newark test in 2006, 75% in an LAX test in 2007, several failures since.

They’re inefficient, but they’re also annoying. Do you travel? I bet you have some horror stories lately. My niece told about a long wait in an airport security line, while they carefully scrutinized medical equipment she travels with for her ten month-old son. My niece expressed the opinion that her toddler probably did not constitute much of a terrorist threat. The agent was unmoved. And so, a young American woman traveling with two exhausted whiny small children was detained for an absurd amount of time. Why? Because. Because they could. Because she expressed a certain minimal frustration over a needlessly annoying experience.

So why? Why do we spend ten billion a year on the TSA? Why do we make air travel needlessly unpleasant? Why do we put up with intrusive and annoying and rude treatment from underpaid and officious uniformed jerks? Why do we put up endless lines and missed flights and being pushed and prodded and manhandled? Because, right now, TSA agents are very good at making travel more miserable than it needs to be. What they’re bad at is catching people trying to blow up airplanes.

If they’re so bad at their jobs, then why aren’t planes being blown up all the time? Because, frankly, there aren’t that many people trying to blow them up. The terrorist threat in this country is overstated by a factor of, I don’t know, several million. But think about it logically. If 95% of all attempts to sneak bombs and guns and knives into planes succeed, then we should be seeing planes, from American airports, falling out of the sky all the time. And it isn’t happening. There simply do not exist large swarms of terrorists trying to pull off more 9/11s. As Bruce Schneier, probably America’s leading security expert, recently put it, “The TSA is failing to defend us against the threat of terrorism. The only reason they’ve been able to get away with the scam for so long is that there isn’t much of a threat of terrorism to defend against.”

Here’s more from Schneier:

This isn’t to say that we can do away with airport security altogether. We need some security to dissuade the stupid or impulsive, but any more is a waste of money. The very rare smart terrorists are going to be able to bypass whatever we implement. The more common, stupid terrorists are going to be stopped by whatever measures we implement.

We should demand better results out of the TSA, but we should also recognize that the actual risk doesn’t justify their $7 billion budget. I’d rather see that money spent on intelligence and investigation.

There’s another narrative I’ve heard a lot lately, especially from conservatives. The TSA’s manifest failures echo larger failures of government. Government is the problem. Government is bad at everything it tries. So, of course, TSA is bad at its job. We shouldn’t expect otherwise.

In fact, the TSA is bad at its job, and the main reason is political. But it’s not because some mysterious entity called ‘government’ is universally incompetent. Politics reflects human weaknesses and failings. And the point of the TSA isn’t really to prevent terrorist attacks. It’s to create the impression that We’re Doing Something about terrorism. Paradoxically, the more rude and overbearing TSA agents are, the more they remind us that government is responding to a threat we think of all the time, even though it’s really minimal.

It would make sense to spend less on the TSA, not more. It would make sense to simplify and refine security protocols, make it much less intrusive, run more people through more quickly, with only cursory spot checks on peoples’ luggage. But any politician suggesting anything of the kind is going to be accused of being ‘soft on terrorism.’ TSA checks are time consuming and rude and uncomfortable because that’s what we want them to be be like. We want the illusion of security. We don’t care about reality. We prefer a comforting fantasy. In fact, I think we rather like the frisson of thinking that we’re being threatened by Them.

Let’s face it; TSA agents have incredibly boring jobs. It’s a job that attracts people who are willing to do a boring, dreadful job. I’m sorry to say this, but it’s also a job that attracts people that like pushing people around. It’s far past time to consign TSA security to the dustbin of history. And this will never, ever happen.

Captain America: Civil War. Movie Review

Captain America: Civil War is generally being lauded as one of finest comic book movies, like, ever. It’s at 90% on Rottentomatoes.com, and not only have critics embraced it, but it’s become a big popular hit. Like the best of the Marvel movies, it combines humor and well executed action sequences. More than that, it’s smart. It’s not just escapist fare. Comic book characters can be ridiculous, of course, what with all the spandex and ridiculous names, but the fact is, they’re about violence, about warfare, about terror as a tactic; they have surprising contemporary relevance. And this movie deliberately plays on that awareness.

And that’s also why I found this movie so off-putting. It’s not that I’m opposed to comic book movies paralleling contemporary politics. I think that’s great. I just find the conclusions drawn by this movie to be facile and obvious. And I found the film unwilling to interrogate the darker implications of its own narrative.

All right. Let me explain where I’m coming from here. This Captain America picks up the Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) story thread from previous Avengers’ movies, and places that story at the center of a conflict between Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). It starts with a battle in Nigeria, between what appear to be terrorists and a team involving Captain America and several other Avengers–Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). As the battle progresses, a building explodes, killing a dozen civilians. Turns out, the UN and the US governments are both getting fed up with superhero battle collateral damage, as well they might. An international conference to decide what to do about it is convened, and is likewise attacked. A peace-making king is killed. And this attack appears to have been made by Captain America’s old friend Bucky.

At one level, it makes sense that Cap would be at odds with the other Avengers over Bucky. Captain America, remember, is really a character from the 1940s, as is Bucky. Somehow Cap was frozen, his body recovered and revived. By us, Americans, good guys. Bucky, though, was also saved, but by bad guys, Hydra. Cap and Bucky are childhood friends. Of course Cap feels a tremendous loyalty to Bucky.

But this isn’t the same Bucky that he remembers. Hydra gave him enhanced powers, and also a psychological trigger, a phrase which, when spoken, causes him to surrender his ability to make decisions. At one point, Tony Stark calls him the Manchurian candidate, and that’s dead-on. Bucky’s a decent, good guy. Also a time bomb. And the one thing Cap prizes the most–his freedom, his ability to choose–Bucky does not have.

So that’s one issue in the film: what do we do about Bucky? But it relates to another, more profound one. Oversight.

The Nigerian disaster clarifies how tired the world is getting of collateral damage caused by superheroes. So the United Nations decides to form a ‘superhero oversight committee.’ That committee will decide where and how the Avengers will be deployed, and to what end. It will hold them accountable for damage caused in battle. The committee will exercise some degree of political control over superhero actions.

Initially, it seemed odd to me that rugged libertarian individualist Tony Stark would agree to political oversight, and that supersoldier Captain America would not. But we need to remember Tony’s background. The United States of America has never experienced a military coup, and I think it’s unlikely we ever will. That’s how ingrained in our military culture the idea is of a civilian heading our chain of command. The President of the United States is an elected official, and also commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Our military respects that.

Well, Tony Stark is a product of America’s military-industrial complex. That’s his background. And he’s a thoughtful and intelligent man. He recognizes how essential it is that the Avengers appear legitimate; that this issue of superhero collateral damage erodes that legitimacy. And so he signs on, and agrees to sell this oversight committee–the Tribunal– to the other Avengers.

Again, it seems initially strange that Steve Rogers, super-American-military-hero, a product of American military culture, would be the one who rejects the Tribunal. But here’s the thing; he’s Captain America. He is, quite literally, the embodiment of American exceptionalism. And Americans don’t take direction from international bodies.

We just don’t. Sure, we conduct diplomacy, and we make treaties, and try to live up to our international obligations. But allow a foreign body to dictate what our soldiers do? Never.

I think I can make a case for the idea that Steve Rogers, once he realizes just what his abilities can allow him to do, decides that he and only he can be allowed to decide what and who he’ll fight for. He’s only going to be morally accountable to himself, to his own conscience. But I think I can also make a case for Captain America, superhero, representing America, the world’s only superpower. And Americans don’t allow other nations to tell us what to do militarily. And that means that he will not surrender his autonomy to an international Tribunal.

Thinking about this movie, I was reminded that last Saturday, Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour was killed by an American strike drone, in Pakistan. Mansour was unquestionably a bad guy. Still, that’s the world we live in, one in which an Afghani political leader can be killed by Americans, in Pakistan, and we Americans applaud. And President Obama announced the killing with some grim satisfaction for a job well done. We’re Americans. We get to do that; kill people in other countries without any accountability or oversight from anyone official. I don’t doubt that President Obama, if he was in fact involved in the decision, did not make it lightly. Still, we are America. We are exceptional, and we are the one nation on earth for whom killing a foreign leader in a foreign country is considered legitimate by much if not most of the rest of the world.

This film should, I suppose, be applauded for putting a political science debate, about oversight and accountability and violence and warfare and the legitimacy of the use of force at the center of a comic book action movie. I do not applaud it, though, for, in my mind, so unquestioningly putting American exceptionalism at the center of that debate. We’re Americans. We get to kill bad guys living in other countries. No due process, no trial, our President just gets to decide to do that; kill guys we designate as terrorists (no doubt legitimately), as worth killing. Yay for us. This movie took one of the most thoughtful and interesting characters in the Marvel universe, Steve Rogers, Cap, and use him to articulate a case for American exceptionalism–not just for America as exceptionally moral, but America as exceptionally empowered. Captain America is the living embodiment of American values. And this is a movie where Cap rejects oversight, and is applauded for it by the subsequent events of the movie.

I do think that the screenplay is trying for greater nuance and complexity than my admittedly simplistic explication allows it. Early in the movie, we see the way Hydra (who pretty much has to represent International Terrorism) mistreated Bucky and also five other enhanced baddies. The main bad guy, Zemo (Daniel Bruhl), looks like he’s about to free those five supergoons. I thought the movie was setting up a final confrontation between the Avengers and the five Hydra super-villains. But Zemo just kills them off, instead choosing to use Bucky to instigate a final fight between Iron Man and Captain America. That’s actually a more interesting dramatic choice than the obvious one–Avengers vs. Hydra Creations. I do think it’s a film that tries to deal with the contemporary and political complexities the creation of this oversight body suggest.

To me, though, the film fails,and to at least some degree ends up letting Cap off the hook. I’ll grant that it doesn’t quite go as triumphalist as I feared. No flag waving, no final pro-American jingoism. It still does, ultimately, defend American exceptionalism. Couldn’t it deconstruct our own tortured politics just that tiny bit more thoughtfully? Couldn’t we leave the theater feeling just that tiny bit more conflicted?