Category Archives: Politics

A fundamental question of patriotism

There was a debate last night. For the last time in this election cycle, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton made their case to America. At times, they engaged in a fairly substantive discussion. An early question about abortion allowed each to establish their, respectively, pro-choice and pro-life bonafides. I don’t think either of them won any voters over on that most polarizing of issues, but both defended their positions with some passion. Trump did, I think, badly misrepresent the pro-choice position, but it’s likely that my pro-life friends would say the same about Secretary Clinton.

I wouldn’t say, up to that point, that Donald Trump did well. He spoke forcefully enough. But he’s woefully ill-informed about the issues, and is much given to strong declarative statements on policy that turn out to be entirely and completely untrue. And I wish I could say that Hillary Clinton confined her comments to substantive discussions of policy, but Trump has made too many bizarre pronouncements on the campaign trail to really ignore. She spent much of the debate plucking that low-hanging fruit. That works tactically for her, as he’s sufficiently thin-skinned that he can’t help but respond to what he perceives as insults, finally blurting out “what a nasty woman.” (The nimbleness of the Clinton campaign is evidenced by the fact that, within minutes, they had purchased the web domain, which now redirects to the Clinton For President website).

But then came the defining moment of the debate, the headline in every paper in America this morning. Here’s the exchange. I’m going to quote it at length, because it’s so important:

Wallace: Mr. Trump, I want to ask you about one last question in this topic. You’ve been warning at rallies recently that this election is rigged and that Hillary Clinton is in the process of trying to steal it from you. Your running mate Governor Pence pledged on Sunday that he and you, his words, will absolutely accept the result of this election. Today your daughter Ivanka said the same thing. I want to ask you here on the stage tonight, do you make the same commitment that you’ll absolutely accept the result of the election.

Trump: I will look at it at the time. I’m not looking at anything now, I’ll look at it at the time. What I’ve seen, what I’ve seen, is so bad. First of all, the media is so dishonest and so corrupt and the pile on is so amazing. “The New York Times” actually wrote an article about it, but they don’t even care. It is so dishonest, and they have poisoned the minds of the voters. But unfortunately for them, I think the voters are seeing through it. I think they’re going to see through it, we’ll find out on November 8th, but I think they’re going to see through it. If you look —

Wallace: But, but —

Trump: Excuse me, Chris. If you look at your voter rolls, you will see millions of people that are registered to vote. Millions. This isn’t coming from me. This is coming from Pew report and other places. Millions of people that are registered to vote that shouldn’t be registered to vote. So let me just give you one other thing. I talk about the corrupt media. I talk about the millions of people. I’ll tell you one other thing. She shouldn’t be allowed to run. It’s — She’s guilty of a very, very serious crime. She should not be allowed to run, and just in that respect I say it’s rigged because she should never —

Wallace: But, but —

Trump: Chris. She should never have been allowed to run for the presidency based on what she did with e-mails and so many other things.

Wallace: But, sir, there is a tradition in this country, in fact, one of the prides of this country is the peaceful transition of power and no matter how hard fought a campaign is that at the end of the campaign, that the loser concedes to the winner. Not saying you’re necessarily going to be the loser or the winner, but that the loser concedes to the winner and the country comes together in part for the good of the country. Are you saying you’re not prepared now to commit to that principle?

Trump: What I’m saying is that I will tell you at the time. I’ll keep you in suspense, okay?

Clinton: Well, Chris, let me respond to that, because that’s horrifying.

“I’ll keep you in suspense.” “That’s horrifying.”

In 1800, John Adams lost the Presidency to Thomas Jefferson. It was a nasty, contentious election, and although the two men would eventually reconcile, at the time Adams was furious. But when the votes were counted, he graciously conceded defeat, and stepped down. That precedent for the peaceful transfer of power has become one of the great strengths of American democracy. When Presidential candidates lose an election, they concede, completely and without reservation. They pledge their support for the new President.

Two examples, one from each party. In 1960, the Presidential race between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon was exceedingly close. Kennedy won by a little over 100,000 votes nationwide: 49.72% to 49.55%. Kennedy did win the electoral college 303-219.

But the vote totals were questionable, Kennedy’s victory tainted. In Illinois, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley was widely perceived as corrupt (because he was), and the Daley political machine guilty of voter fraud, which was, uh, not unimaginable. (“I see no reason to deprive a loyal, life-long Democrat of his voting franchise merely because he has passed on to a better world,” a Daley flunky is supposed to have said). And Texas politics were similarly colorful. And Kennedy’s running mate was “Landslide” Lyndon Johnson, whose place in the Senate was due to widely suspected chicanery, as he defeated former Texas Governor Coke Stevenson by 87 votes in 1948.

My father-in-law, a lifelong Republican, was convinced that Kennedy’s victory was illegitimate. He believed that Kennedy won both Texas and Illinois due to voter fraud, and that both states should have gone to Nixon, which would have given him exactly 270 electoral votes, enough for the win. And Nixon’s advisors wanted him to contest the election. Make a fuss. Insist on a full investigation, including recounts in both states. Nixon refused. He said “I want Senator Kennedy to know he has my wholehearted support.” It had been a bitterly contested election, and Nixon would not allow divisiveness to continue.

In that moment, Richard Nixon proved himself a patriot. He put the good of the nation ahead of his own personal ambitions. And, of course, he was eventually elected President, and we all know how that turned out. Still, he deserves full credit for his 1960 concession. He upheld the American democratic tradition. If you lose, you step down.

Next example: 2000. Al Gore and George W. Bush engaged in one of the closest elections in American history. Gore won the popular vote, 50, 999, 879 to 50, 456, 002. The deciding state was Florida, and the margins were razor thin. Initially, it appeared that Bush had won Florida by 537 votes; that total was close enough to trigger a mandatory recount according to Florida law. The exact mechanics of the recount was extensively litigated. Finally, the US Supreme Court stepped in, and by a 5-4 margin, Bush was declared the winner.

Again, Gore might have contested it in the court of public opinion. He did not. Al Gore was a patriot. Citing “the strength of American democracy” as his guide, he conceded the election.

I could discuss other examples. Democrat Samuel Tilden, in 1876, won the popular vote by a substantial margin. But electoral votes were disputed for three states–Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina. A commission was appointed to resolve the issue, and a deal was struck, ending Reconstruction in exchange for the election of Rutherford Hayes, by one electoral vote. And Tilden was a patriot. Tilden conceded defeat.

The time and energy and money and, above all, emotional investment required to run for President of the United States must be far above anything most of us ever go through. (Probably the one thing we might compare it to is pregnancy–that level of total commitment). Therefore the ultimate test of the strength of our democracy comes when the election is over, when we peacefully transfer power to the new President. Our losing candidates go into the process aware of our traditions, hoping to win, aware that they might lose, aware as well of the absolute necessity of a graceful concession.

That’s why the post-debate commentary last night was so strongly stated and so unanimous. “I’ll keep you in suspense?” Not in America. Donald Trump’s refusal to state unequivocally that he will concede defeat if he loses was the main topic every commentator addressed. Steve Schmidt (John McCain’s campaign manager) condemned it. Nicolle Wallace, who worked with Schmidt, agreed with Hillary Clinton: his comments were “horrifying.” And Hugh Hewitt (conservative commentator) called Trump’s comments “disqualifying.”

And Hewitt’s right. Wallace’s question went right to the heart of who we are as a democracy. Donald Trump was faced with the ultimate test of his patriotism. And he failed. Donald Trump has disqualified himself to serve as President of the United States. He put his ego over his country. He has proven himself insufficiently patriotic.


Lying, corruption, and the Presidential election

Let’s talk about lying.

In this endless, soul-abrading electoral season, accusations of lies and corruption and rampant dishonesty have been tossed back and forth like so many hand grenades. Both candidates are described by their enemies as being the biggest liars in the history of American politics. And corrupt beyond description. And completely untrustworthy. And so on.

And it can all be difficult to sort out. Who is trying to mislead us; what sources can be trusted. And, of course, we all want our President to be a basically honest person. And we also have to ruefully admit that none of us could withstand the kind of scrutiny to which a Presidential candidate is subjected. I think I’m a reasonably honest guy. But if everything I ever said ever about anything was carefully parsed by a national media just looking for inconsistencies and errors, I’d probably end up looking terrible.

So here are some ground rules that I think reasonable people can agree on.

First, in order to call a statement a lie, the person saying it has to know it isn’t true. There has to be a deliberate attempt to deceive. That’s why policy differences shouldn’t really inflated to ‘lies.’ I saw an internet meme the other day: ‘twenty Hillary Clinton lies.’ Eighteen of them were just statements of policy. Example: Hillary stated that her tax proposals will result in ‘x’ dollars in new tax revenue. ‘That’s a lie!’ this meme shrieked. But a policy estimate is not the same thing as a lie. I suppose it’s possible that an economic projection could be a lie. If you said “The Tax Policy Center says this proposal will reduce the deficit by x amount,” and the TPC had never vetted the proposal, and you knew that when you said it, okay, that’s a lie. But that kind of thing rarely happens. Even if your proposal is bonkers, you can probably find a think tank somewhere to praise it. To call someone a liar, you have to know that they said something untrue, that the knew it was it untrue when they said it, and that they said it with intent to deceive.

Second, to judge the veracity of some statement or another, you need to know where the information came from and if it’s a reliable source. So, for example, there’s a new book about Bill and Hillary Clinton, published by WND Books. It has Hillary acting in a particularly shrewish manner. A little research shows that WND Books is a rabid right-wing publisher, having published, among many other fine tomes, a book accusing President Obama of treason. The putative author of this book, Dolly Kyle, claims to have had a 33 year affair with Bill Clinton. No proof, just her word on it. Even then, the most damaging stories in the book, she admits, describe events she didn’t see, but heard about second or third hand. This book, in other words (and I’m not going to tell you the title), is a very poor source for information about the Clintons. In fact, it really has no credibility at all. (A tell-all book by some supposed intimate of Donald Trump, published by, say, The Daily Kos, wouldn’t be terribly reliable either). FWIW, I automatically discount any story that was ever reported, at all, by Matt Drudge, or that ever appeared in The Drudge Report and Breitbart are automatically suspect sources.

Third, when it comes to charges of corruption and wrong-doing, we have to have solid, unimpeachable evidence. For example, Hillary Clinton gave paid speeches for big New York investment banks. Does this automatically mean that she’s corrupt? For many people on both the Right and Left, the answer to that question is ‘yes.’ She took money from Wall Street. That makes her a corrupt tool of the system. But that doesn’t follow. Corruption is a serious charge. You have to prove it. You have to demonstrate some clear example of a quid pro quo. She took this money, and she did that for it. No one has found a single instance of this for Hillary.  By the same token, Donald Trump is a New York real estate developer. That industry has traditionally had ties to criminal enterprises. That doesn’t mean that Donald Trump is mobbed up. I want proof before I’ll believe it.

So with those ground rules in place, let’s look at some news stories that have become part of the Trump’s-a-crook, Hillary’s-crooked narratives.

Benghazi. “Hillary lied; people died.”

Well, no. First of all, there’s absolutely no connection whatsoever between whatever lies Secretary Clinton may have told and the tragic deaths of Ambassador Stevens and the three security personnel. Even if the nastiest right wing Benghazi narratives were true, Benghazi has been thoroughly investigated and adjudicated. About all that’s left is this: the day after the attacks, she met with the families of those who had died, and told them that the Benghazi attacks were the results of an anti-Islamic video. Was this a lie?

No, it absolutely was not. Hillary Clinton didn’t lie to anyone about Benghazi. Her information didn’t happen to be entirely accurate. But that doesn’t make it a lie.

September 11 2012 was a terrible day for the State Department. A vicious, anti-Muslim video, Innocence of Muslims, had been broadcast throughout the Middle East, leading to spontaneous, angry rioting in most major cities, usually outside US embassies. For awhile there, it looked like the US embassy in Cairo would be overrun. In that ‘fog of war’ context, the Benghazi attack must have looked like similar riots in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and elsewhere.

In fact, Benghazi was a little different; it was a more carefully planned and executed attack, though the Benghazi attackers did say they were responding to the video. Secretary Clinton did tell the Benghazi families that the attack on the mission was a spontaneous anti-video uprising. Meanwhile, she sent an email to Chelsea (just a quick ‘this is what’s happening’ thing) saying the attack had been made by Al Qaeda. That wasn’t true either; the attack was made by the terrorist group Ansar al-Sharia.

In other words, on a particularly confusing day, with contradictory intelligence arriving all the time, the Secretary provided the victims’ families with an explanation that reflected the noise and confusion of a particularly difficult day. It turned out not to be true. That doesn’t make it a lie. For her to have lied makes no sense anyway; what was there to gain by misleading those families? What possible reason could she have, aside from an imaginary natural predilection for malevolence. It was a terrorist attack, and it was organized, and it happened in response to the anti-Islamic video. That’s the essence of what she said about it, and what President Obama said about it the same day.

Okay. What about Trump? Did Donald Trump lie about sexually assaulting various women? It’s not looking good for him.

In the second debate, Trump said, unequivocally, that the actions he described in the famous ‘Billy Bush’ video did not describe anything he’d actually done. Ten women have now come forward with stories of being assaulted by him. In every case, they had corroborating evidence–usually involving friends they’d told of the attacks at the time they happened. So, yes, I think we can say he did lie in the debate.

What’s really remarkable about Donald Trump, though, is that he consistently denies having said things in the past that he clearly and obviously did say. It’s really bizarre. When we’ve seen him say things, it really doesn’t make sense to deny it.

To be fair, though, it’s also clear that Bill Clinton lied when he said he didn’t have sexual relations with Monica Lewinski. That was a lie. But Bill Clinton isn’t running for public office this year. And as far as I can tell, his wife is generally a very honest person. Allegations are not evidence, and she’s been investigated more thoroughly than most previous candidates. And found not guilty every time. And when you hear about the various Hillary lies she’s supposed to have told, they tend to vanish into thin air. She just isn’t much of a liar. Honestly, she isn’t.

Ubu for President

Down the rabbit hole. Kafkaesque. 2016: where everything’s made up and the points don’t matter. Just describing this current election strains the descriptive faculty. This election feels more like art than politics. But not the kind of art we’re used to; weird art, avant-garde art. A hundred years after the preposterously brutal horror of World War One led to the rise of futurism, surrealism, expressionism, absurdism, artists insisting that art no longer describe reality, reality itself having been violently shattered, so what we needed instead was anti-art, reflecting a radical opposition to/immersion in politics. I feel like we’ve stepped into a time machine, gone back 100 years, to 1916 and Zurich and the Cabaret Voltaire, where Dada reigned. Dada was a nonsense word for nonsense art; its performers tore up Shakespeare’s sonnets, then read their words in random order. Or placed a lovely French child on-stage, in her first communion dress, to read a poem consisting of the vilest profanities in German, a language of which the child was ignorant. Tristan Tzara, Hugo Ball, and Jean Arp, who was also called Hans Arp, because as he held joint citizenship in France and Germany.  This election reminds me of Dada. Anti-art, reflecting anti-politics. Because the Republican Party–the conservative, white bread, buttoned down, relentlessly bourgeois party!–has nominated Donald “Ubu” Trump for the Presidency.

But let’s take our time machine back another twenty years. To December 10, 1896, the one performance of Ubu Roi, a hilarious and blasphemous and horrifying and intentionally offensive play by the madman/genius Alfred Jarry, at the Theatre de lŒuvre in Paris. Riots shut down the show. In fact, rioting began with the first word spoken on-stage: “merdre,” almost, but not quite, a French swear word. And in the play, the fat and disgusting Ubu raged and whined and beat his wife and insulted women, while conquering Poland.  In the audience was William Butler Yeats. He was shocked and horrified and appalled by the play, but more than a little impressed, and reflected on his own avant-garde past, and then added “after us, what more is possible? The savage God.” Ubu Roi is a grotesque caricature of the bourgeoisie, with the revolutionary Ubu at its center: violent, inarticulate, brutal, venal, misogynist, racist. A revolutionary who becomes King. Sound like someone you know?

So I make this case. Ubu Roi, by Alfred Jarry, prefigures the candidacy of Donald Trump. It’s savage and it’s funny and it’s profoundly anti-democratic. Isn’t Trump running, not for President, but for King? Isn’t his candidacy built, as Ubu’s first line puts it, on ‘merdre?’ Not quite merde, but close to it, the misspelling adding to the ridiculousness of it, the whole play teetering on the edge of comedy, if it wasn’t so horrifying. After its one performance, it was obvious that the play could no longer be performed as written. So Jarry turned it into puppet theatre. And wrote two more plays in an extended Ubu saga, neither of which was performed in his lifetime, except with puppets. And Ubu begat dada, and surrealism, and absurdism. Ubu leads to Zurich, and the dada crowd.

This is now. This is happening. Murderous clowns cavort in southern forests. An advisor to a major party Presidential nominee insists that the current President of the United States is demonic, that he reeks of sulphur and attracts hordes of flies. A new movement has arisen, insisting that Obama was demonized–turned demonic–by the Grand Demon from Hell: Oprah Winfrey. A televised Presidential debate was conducted with a Greek chorus of accusing Furies, assault victims of one candidate’s husband, sitting in grim judgment. As for Hillary Clinton, another close advisor to Mr. Trump has detailed descriptions of 67 homicides she’s supposed to have committed. That’s where we are. A sizeable percentage of the electorate is convinced that one of the candidates is a serial killer.

Our political process has become ontologically unstable, if not epistemologically unhinged. We can’t agree on what’s real. We can’t agree on what sources we can read that might describe what’s real. To paraphrase Yeats again, in his greatest poem, we’re turning, turning in the widening gyre, the center really cannot hold. (But, boy, can we ever more clearly than ever, the rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem to be born). We don’t agree about the basic nature of the world. We don’t agree about what ‘truth’ means. We have at our fingertips the greatest technology for the dissemination of information ever invented, and we have learned, to our dismay and shock, that all it does, aside from sharing cute kitten videos, is exacerbate confirmation bias. Make us more polarized. More at each other’s throats.

We’re used to elections in which the candidates do not agree about policy. That’s normal. That’s usual. I feel considerable nostalgia for 2012 (so long ago in the past, it feels!) when Barack Obama and Mitt Romney disagreed about things like tax policy. Deep in our hearts and souls, we knew that both men were fully qualified to become President, and would do their best to serve honorably if elected.

(But there was always something beneath that, wasn’t there? An irrational core of festering hatred and fear and racism and self-disgust. It was always there, barely acknowledged, but bursting forth periodically).

But what now, when we can’t even agree about what issues our country actually faces, what problems we expect our politics to solve? Look at Donald Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. It was death and destruction, murder and violence, hordes of roaming illegal immigrants slaughtering our children. He said “Decades of progress made in bringing down crime are now being reversed by this Administration’s rollback of criminal enforcement.” He said “This is the legacy of Hillary Clinton: death, destruction and weakness.”

Apocalyptic language; if Hillary Clinton wins this election, we cannot survive. And of course, that’s happened before. Hyperbolic prophecies of incipient doom are often invoked by the most fanatical political partisans, Right or Left. But this is something else again. I’ve talked to Trump supporters, and if there’s one thing they have in common, it is an insistence that our country is in terrible shape, and that unless something is done about it, we may not any of us survive. Or at least, our fragile democracy is seriously threatened.

(And it’s all nonsense. Violent crime statistics show massive decreases over the last eight years. Nafta didn’t destroy our economy, and Isis isn’t much of a threat, and immigration is a good thing, economically, even if it’s illegal. He’s factually wrong about everything).

When irrationality triumphs, what’s left are irrational false narratives. Conspiracy theories. Here was Donald Trump today on the campaign trail.

Our movement is about replacing a failed and corrupt — now, when I say “corrupt,” I’m talking about totally corrupt — political establishment. There is nothing the political establishment will not do — no lie that they won’t tell, to hold their prestige and power at your expense. And that’s what’s been happening. . It’s a global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities.

This is not simply another four-year election. This is a crossroads in the history of our civilization that will determine whether or not we the people reclaim control over our government.

This is nothing new. This kind of rhetoric has been used before, most appallingly in Germany in the 30s. Once it was the Rothschilds, or, more simply, a cabal of “Jewish bankers” conspiring together to destroy America, or the world economy, or western civilization. Or ‘mongrel races.’ Or it was ZOG that threatened (Zionist Occupation Government, a favorite acronym of the Ku Klux Klan). Or perhaps something more actively demonic. Alex Jones (a ‘2-degrees of separation’ Trump advisor) had this to say.

I’m told her and Obama just stink, stink, stink. You can’t wash that stuff off, man. I’m told there’s a rotten smell around Hillary. I’ve been told this by high-up folks. They say, listen, Obama and Hillary smell like sulphur. I’ve talked to people who are on protective details. They’re scared of her. They say, listen, she’s a demon, and so’s Obama, and they stink of sulphur.

And now, it appears, there’s a new evangelical group of Trump backers, who claim to have identified the arch-demon who turned Barack and Hillary evil. Who? Wait for it: Oprah Winfrey.

That’s where we are. That’s where we stand. At the end of Ubu, he wrestles, and defeats a bear, a traditional symbol for Russia. Earlier, Russia invades Poland. It’s like Jarry sort of even got the politics right. Russia as threat and savior? Seriously?

Jarry once described himself as ‘blind and unwavering undisciplined at all times the real strength of free men.’ Blind as Trump is blind, unwavering (the Mexicans are paying for that wall, by golly!), and so remarkably undisciplined, with insanely self-destructive tweets at four in the morning. Every morning, I check the internet. What else has happened? Could anything get stranger? Ignoring two major hurricanes, because that madman did something even more surreal last night. Dada: absolutely. Ubu indeed.




I try to explain this election even-handedly

I was in a physical therapy office, getting work done on my leg. Five different therapists worked on me, off and on, doing various things, attaching electrodes, fetching ice. Nice kids, most of them still in or just out of college, while the main therapist popped in and out as he supervised me and another half dozen patients in other rooms. And one of the therapists, a young woman, expressed her frustration over the recent Presidential debate. “They were just shouting at each other,” she said, sadly. “They just kept attacking each other. I don’t feel like I learned a thing about either of them.” And then one of them said ‘Mr. Samuelsen, you seem pretty smart. What do you think about this election?’ Another one chimed in quickly, ‘Don’t tell us who to vote for!’ and they all quickly agreed. ‘Just explain it.’

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘I’m not going to lecture. Just analyze. Let me know if this stops being helpful.’ Which they all agreed with.

‘Hillary Clinton,’ I said, ‘is an experienced professional politician. She’s served in both the executive and legislative branches of government. She knows how to use the resources of government to get things done. But she’s also aware that the two parties, Democrats and Republicans, don’t agree about much, and don’t get along. She knows she’s never going to get everything she wants. So she wants to improve peoples’ lives, but probably only in small ways. So she’ll try to pass a raise in the minimum wage. Obamacare doesn’t work very well, but with some tweaks, it could be a good program; she’ll try to fix it. She’ll work for a national maternity leave policy, so working women who have babies can afford to stay home for awhile and be with their children. She’s in favor of changing our energy policy to make it more environmentally friendly. She’s an incrementalist. She’s likely to be a solid administrator–her campaign for President in 2008 was a disorganized mess, but she learned from it, and this campaign runs smoothly and efficiently. She won’t fix a broken political system. But she might improve things in modest ways.’

‘Donald Trump is a revolutionary. He thinks the entire American political system is hopelessly broken; he wants radical changes.’

‘Is that why he’s so obnoxious?’ asked one of the kids.

‘That’s right,’ I responded. ‘His followers like that about him. They don’t mind that he can be rude and crude and impolite; they like the fact that he’s politically incorrect. If you’re going to be a political revolutionary, why not talk like one?’

‘So one big issue for him is international trade. Most countries negotiate trade agreements with other countries, setting rates for tariffs, for example. A tariff is basically a tax on imports. If you’re a businessman, and you want to import a product from another country, you rely on those trade agreements; you want to know exactly what your costs are going to be.’

‘Well, Trump hates all the trade deals America has with other countries, and he wants to get rid of them. He’s a radical; he thinks he can unilaterally, all by himself, renegotiate every trade deal every enacted. He thinks those trade deals don’t favor American businesses enough, and he wants to impose big new tariffs on other countries’ exports. He wants to blow up our entire trade policies, essentially.’

‘What would that do?’ asked one of the kids.’

‘No one knows,’ I responded. ‘It’s never been tried before, certainly not on this scale. Maybe it will really be good for the US economy. Maybe it will work out fine. But what if other countries retaliated with new tariffs of their own? That’s called a trade war, and trade wars are generally bad for everyone. They can even lead to actual shooting wars. That might not happen; nobody knows. It’s a revolutionary step. It might be dangerous. But it also might work the way Trump thinks it will. That’s the risk we take if we elect him.’

‘Trump wants to lower taxes, and especially tax rates for really rich people. That’s nothing new; most Republicans want to cut taxes. Reagan cut taxes, George W. Bush cut taxes. But Trump wants to lower the highest tax rate to 15%. Right now, the highest tax rate is 39.6%. That’s just a huge tax cut, unprecedented. It might be a disaster; it might drive up the deficit by massive margins. But it also might provide enough economic stimulus to pay for itself. Again, he’s a radical. He wants to try radical new solutions. They might work. They might not. Probably they won’t, but we don’t know. Nobody’s ever tried it before.’

Another pause. One of the kids said ‘so we’re really taking a chance if we vote for Trump. And Hillary may be less inspiring, but she’s also a heck of a lot safer.’ ‘I think that’s right,’ I said.

Another longish pause. And then one girl said ‘well, I think I’m a fairly adventurous person. But I don’t want to play chicken with the American economy.’ Another pensive pause, and then she said, ‘now, how do I explain to my Mom that I’m voting for Hillary Clinton?’

‘Don’t,’ I said. ‘It’s your vote. None of her business who you vote for.’ ‘You don’t know my Mom,’ she replied, laughing. And with that, a buzzer went off, and it was time for me to exercise.

The first debate: Trump v. Clinton

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump held their first debate last night, moderated by Lester Holt. Holt did a fine job; fact-checking when it was needed, otherwise allowing both candidates to state their case for why they should be President.

And when they actually started debating, Hillary obliterated Trump. She blew him off the map.

Early on, on the subject of free trade, Trump did well. Trade deals like NAFTA are bad for American manufacturing; he gets that, and articulates it well. That’s most of his candidacy–‘our economy struggles because trade deals favor Mexico and China.’ That’s bonkers, but it’s simple, easy to memorize, and plays for American nativists. And Hillary Clinton has a tough time there. Her instincts are pro-free trade, and she generally supports trade deals. (And should; they’re ultimately beneficial). But the costs of free trade are obvious; the benefits are subtler, and more difficult to explain. Rather than go through a long, abstruse explanation of the ways NAFTA really was good for America, she could only really pivot to her basic economic message. He drew blood on trade, and it showed; for a moment, Trump seemed to be winning.

That was twenty minutes in. For the rest of the debate, she blew him out of the water. She kept Trump off-balance. She adroitly kept the conversation limited to her issues, not his. (He said nothing about immigration, for example, nothing about that doggone wall). She raised serious questions about his finances, which clearly angered him, and kept the heat on. In the meantime, she also managed to demonstrate her grasp on policy, with solid answers on foreign policy, Iran, Isis, and the economy. He kept interrupting her, she kept smiling, and refused to be derailed.

As I watched, I realized that each of them was trying to articulate a specific narrative for the other one, and that their successes and failures throughout the debate depended on how successfully they managed to sell those narratives.

Here’s Hillary Clinton’s narrative: Trump is woefully unprepared to be President. He’s not a politician; his resume is as a businessman. He’s not a good businessman, though. He’s a businessman who stiffs subcontractors. He has repeatedly filed for bankruptcy. His first job in business involved a scheme to discriminate against minority homeowners. (His answer seemed to be that we should all be applauding him for building a non-discriminating resort. What?) It’s not just that big business and politics are very different arenas. He’s quite specifically the kind of businessman who is unlikely to be a good President. She takes his main qualification for the Presidency, and turns it into a liability.

Here’s Trump’s narrative: Hillary Clinton is a typical politician. She’s all talk, no action. She’s been thinking about these important issues her entire adult life, but to what end? What has she actually accomplished? Our political system is broken anyway, and it’s broken because of politicians like Hillary Clinton. She has these terrible and costly ideas, which cost tons of money and end up not working. Or, her occasional good ideas never seem to get implemented. She had her chance–on trade, in the Middle East–and blew it. She epitomizes how broken American politics has become. She’s not just a politician, she’s specifically the kind of politician unlikely to be a good President. He takes her main qualification for the Presidency, and turns it into a liability.

That’s what they’re both trying to accomplish. And last night, I thought she did a better job of selling her narrative. She got lucky in one sense. I could hardly believe it, but last night, in a debate featuring Hillary Clinton, there was no mention of Benghazi, no mention of Whitewater, no mention of the Clinton Foundation, and only one question about her emails, which she dismisssed briskly. In the biggest missed opportunity of the night, Trump was asked about the threat to American cyber-security posed by hackers, and did not pivot immediately to her email server, as I expected him to. Instead, we got this completely incoherent word salad, all about which police unions have endorsed him, and how the DNC hack might have been done by foreign actors, or by some 400 lb. guy in his bed, and wasn’t it cool to read all those hacked emails anyway?

So Trump wasn’t particularly swift afoot, and Clinton kept the pressure on, and by the end, Trump sounded pathetic, shouting that he did too have the best temperment. Still, there will be three more debates, two involving these two and one more with their Vice-Presidential picks. (That could get interesting: Mike Pence is dumb as a brick). But watch the two narratives. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton each have a story they’re selling. And the one who sells theirs best will likely become President of the United States.


Cops, politics, and race

I got pulled over by the police yesterday. I totally deserved it. In Utah, if you’re driving in the furthest right lane, and you see, on the right shoulder, a traffic stop, you are obligated to move over a lane, so as to not endanger a cop or fellow motorist. I didn’t know that was the law, but I had plenty of room to move over, and it’s a sensible thing to do, distance yourself from a potential problem. One of the many factors that make policing dangerous is the hazard posed by traffic. Anyway, my interaction with the officer was cordially non-confrontational. He let me go with a warning, which was nice of him, but if he had cited me, I did break the law, and had no grounds to be obnoxious about it. Patience and courtesy prevailed.

That has been the case every time I have interacted with police. It doesn’t happen often. I’ve gotten maybe 3 tickets in my life, plus been involved in perhaps 3 or 4 minor traffic accidents investigated by cops. I wouldn’t say things ever got confrontational or even adversarial. I’m treated politely–I’ve responded politely. But then, I’m white. I’m a middle-aged white guy. I’m very large, but still–I don’t seem to be ever perceived as any kind of threat.

That’s not true of Black people. In Tulsa Oklahoma, recently, an unarmed 40 year-old African-American motorist named Terence Crutcher was gunned down by a police officer as he stood, with his arms up, next to his car, which had broken down. The next day, in Charlotte, North Carolina, Keith Scott, a 43 year-old African American man, who suffered from a brain injury, was shot and killed by police outside his home. Scott’s family insists that he was sitting in the shade by his car, reading a book, waiting for his son to get home from school. A video shot by his wife has been released. It does not, however, answer the key question in the case. Was he armed? The family insists that he was not. The police have refused to release their video of the incident, which suggests, at least, that it wouldn’t appear exculpatory.

So, twice more. Two more incidents of Black men killed by the police. In the case of Crutcher, he was not armed. (Why, then, did a police helicopter observer declare that Crutcher was “a bad dude?” From the helicopter footage, the only thing you can see about Crutcher is that he was Black. Does that automatically make him “bad” in the eyes of the police). In the case of Scott, it’s uncertain whether he was armed or not.

In both cities, there were demonstrations, and in Charlotte, those demonstrations turned violent. Despite calls for peaceful protests from, among others, Black Lives Matter leaders, some folks responded by rioting. Sixteen police officers have been injured. Those riots seem now to have calmed down.

Still, the whole thing’s dreadful. And, of course, because this is America, it’s all gotten politicized. A young blonde woman named Tomi Lahren, who I literally had never heard of until this morning, has 60 million viewers on Facebook for rants like this one:

What an awful person. Meanwhile, Seattle Mariners’ back-up catcher Steve Clevenger enlightened us with his views on these shootings, posted on Twitter:

Black people beating whites when a thug got shot holding a gun by a black officer ha ha cracks me up. Keep kneeling for the anthem.

(Later) BLM is pathetic once again! Obama, you are pathetic once again! Everyone involved should be locked behind bars like animals.

Clevenger has been suspended by the Mariners organization for the rest of the season, without pay.

Meanwhile, on my personal Facebook page, Black Lives Matter was compared to the Ku Klux Klan, as part of an, uh, lively conversation on these matters. And President Obama was accused of ‘fanning the flames’ of racial unrest and strife.

All right. Let’s begin by trying to understand. The narrative on the Right would begin in an unexceptionable place; we should all respect police officers. We should recognize how dangerous and how essential their jobs are, and we should stand by their efforts to keep public order. I completely agree with all of that.

At the same time, we need to recognize that police make mistakes, like all humans, and when someone dies, there should be a reckoning. What infuriates people about these moments when unarmed people are killed, is that the officers in the case are rarely held accountable. The officer in the Tulsa case has been criminally charged, with manslaughter. That’s good. But far too often, no charges are even filed. And the relationship between police and prosecutors is hardly adversarial. It can feel awfully cozy, the way prosecutors present cases to grand juries, the way police shootings are investigated, the whole comfortable relationship between the various entities in the criminal justice system.

We’re talking about power, and who has it, and who wields it, and to what end. During the civil rights movement in the ’50s and ’60s, police were the bad guys. Übervillain of the entire Birmingham protest was Bull Connor, chief of police. Police exist to preserve public order, but ‘public order’ is defined by the political power structure. Me, I’m very much in favor of public order; what scares me is anarchy. But I’m white. I’m automatically empowered. I’m generally seen as a ‘good guy’. I look like one. White privilege favors me. Even in situations, like yesterday, when I commit a minor traffic violation. Slap on the hand; don’t do it again.

I’m saying, in part, that ‘public order’ is often defined by the white power structure in ways that harm Black people. I’m saying that police officers have an exceptionally difficult job, and are deserving of our respect, and simultaneously that too many unarmed people seem to be dying. It’s possible to support police, and express concern about how well they’re trained. It’s possible to support the police, and still wonder about the degree to which racism remains part of police culture.

This is why Black Lives Matter is so very very important, and so right. Black people are not generally, routinely, automatically, presumptively thought of as mattering. With very few exceptions, African-Americans are NOT part of the power structure. My Black friends are, without exception, successful. They’re middle-class, educated, employed, good at their jobs. But when they’re pulled over by cops, they experience fear at a level that I can’t comprehend. They are, to at least some degree, Other, in a white society. And I am privileged, and know it. I don’t fear cops. People of color do, and for good reason.

That’s the insidious way in which racism works. And, yes, of course racism still exists, and still, in part, defines Black/White relationships. We’re not talking segregated rest rooms (though, incredibly, throughout much of the nation, we ARE still talking about segregated schools). We’re talking about how Black Americans get pulled over by traffic cops 31% more often than white drivers are. How New York City’s contemptible and unconstitutional ‘stop and frisk’ policing (which Mr. Trump wants to revive and extend), focused almost entirely on people of color. And the shocking fact that a significant number of Black drivers, pulled over by police, aren’t ever told why.

So when a Bill O’Reilly points to black-on-black crime statistics, or suggests that if ‘those people’ lived in more stable families things would be fine, putting the blame on African-Americans themselves, he just comes across as foolish and ignorant. Our country, in dealing with the issue of race, took shortcuts. We went from overt displays of racial prejudice to pretending that everything was swell, and that no one harbored those feelings anymore.  We didn’t evolve, but leapt, from ingrained systemic obvious racism to more subtle and quieter forms of it.

One problem, of course, is our nation’s failed war on drugs, which turns a public health problem into a criminal disaster. Another is educational apartheid, nearly 70 years after Brown v. Board. Another is mass incarceration. President Obama has made some small progress during his eight years in office. Now, with Trump, we’re seeing the backlash. But we have to solve this, especially since we’re increasingly becoming a multi-cultural society.

Our first and most obvious beginning requires that we listen to Black Lives Matter. Because they do.


London Has Fallen: reviewing an interestingly terrible movie, with comment on the political implications thereof

For some reason, movies in which the President of the United States finds himself alone in a hostile environment, with one protector, surrounded by terrorists, turn out to be terrible. Like, for example, the movie we’re going to talk about today, kids: London Has Fallen. It is kaka poo-poo bad. It’s also not entirely uninteresting, and may be even, like, historic. Plus, it helps explain Donald Trump. Let me unpack.

A few weeks ago, I reviewed Big Game, a Finnish film with President Samuel L. Jackson, protected by a Finnish kid. It was one of those movies that was so bad it was kind of fun. London Has Fallen is just as bad–more technically proficient, much stupider story. Aaron Eckhart plays President Benjamin Asher, who barely survived the last terrorist attack, on the White House, in the inexplicably popular Olympus Has Fallen, to which this movie is the sequel. As in Olympus, POTUS is guarded by Secret Service Superman, Mike Banning (Gerard Butler). Banning is also married, and his wife (Radha Mitchell) is pregnant. So it has Family Values, see?

Anyway, the Prime Minister of England dies, and President Asher has to go to the funeral, along with many many other World Leaders, and Banning is in charge of, and worried about, security. So are the Brits, of course, and we get lots of tense conference room scenes where security people Express Concern. But, whaddya gonna do, not bury the guy? So AF1 lands, a motorcade is formed, dignitaries gather. And then all hell breaks loose.

We’re supposed to believe that one terrorist mastermind (angry over a drone strike that took out his daughter), has succeeded in suborning essentially all British security forces. Including the Queen’s Guard–the guys with the bearskin hats. Uh, those guys are really, really vetted. But whatever. They just suddenly start shooting people.

Thank heavens, Mike Banning (our hero) is there! To kill maybe fifty people. But they’re all bad guys, so who cares.

The rest of the movie is basically about killing terrorists and freeing POTUS, who at one point gets himself captured. It’s impossibly stupid, especially when Banning gets the stupendous idea of full-frontal attacking the terrorist stronghold, where the assault team he heads is outnumbered, like, 200 to 20. But the bad guys can’t shoot straight, so there’s that. Plus Banning never misses. It’s too stupid for words.

But this is also what’s interesting. Much of it’s essentially not a movie at all, but a FPS video game; visually, it’s like watching someone play Call of Duty or Counterstrike. Lots of critics panned it, as indeed they should have done (it got 26% on Rottentomatoes, a score 25 points too high), but no one pointed out how visually innovative it is. Indeed, it got dinged for ‘bad CGI’, which misses the point. It’s not a movie; its a video game, or more accurately, a weird combination of the two. Not based on a video game, narratively, like Warcraft. I mean, maybe fifteen minutes of this thing is given to watching a first person shooter mow down hundreds of terrorists. And then cut to, you know, the movie; plot and acting and so on. (At one point, the President questions the wisdom in directly attacking a terrorist center, and Banning says grimly ‘we have no choice.’ The goal is to preserve the President. They’re in London, one of the world’s most populated cities. They have literally hundreds of thousands of buildings they could hide in. No choice? I really did laugh out loud).

I wish I could show you a different clip. The one above doesn’t capture it very well. Really, Banning is breaking into this heavily guarded building, and he does it by just shooting tons of baddies. With a handgun, mostly. (He does occasionally pause to reload, like you have to in an FPS). But it’s exactly like watching someone else play a combat-type game (my son, say). Bad guys pop up, you hit ’em, then more bad guys pop up and you hit them. Then on to another room, and continue.

Now, although the numbers are preposterous, it’s maybe barely plausible, if you could somehow overcome the logistical difficulties in, like, magically transporting all of ISIS to central London and giving them police identities and uniforms. But that’s not the choice this silly movie makes. And you’re not going to convert hundreds of lifetime British security people into terrorists, so they can happily die for the glory of jihad. The central premise of this movie is preposterous. Which is fine for a video game. And not really the end of the world for a bad action movie. What it isn’t is true. The movie is built on the premise that terrorism is a real, actual, huge, current threat. And that’s not the case.

In fact, the actual factual terrorist danger is overstated by a factor of, oh, a billion. You’re more likely to drown in your bathtub than to be killed by terrorists. You’re more likely to die when your car hits a deer. You’re more likely to be killed by a brain-eating parasite. You’re more likely to be killed by a vending machine falling on you.

Cue the Donald. Because, let’s face it, one of the major party Presidential candidates in this race has built his campaign, quite explicitly, on fear. We’re supposed to be afraid, very afraid. Bad guys are trying to kill us; Big Daddy President Man will keep us safe, as long as it’s a man. (The job is too tough for women, he consistently implies). A movie like this one feeds that narrative. As, probably, do FPS video games, if anyone was lame enough to take them seriously in a political sense.

In fact, every gamer I know is perfectly aware that he or she is playing a game, that it’s not real, that it’s just for fun. And frankly, I don’t think many people are naive enough to think that a dumb movie like this one represents, you know reality. But movies are taken more seriously than games, and this movie is the first one to blend the two so clearly. I’m not saying this movie is likely to have any political impact in this election. But to the extent that we do fear terrorists–and we do, irrationally and disproportionately to their actual threat–this movie feeds that fear. I’m not saying it shouldn’t have been made. And if any of you are gamers, I would appreciate it if you’d watch it and comment. But not all bad movies are created equal. And this one is worse than most, for zeitgeist-y reasons it had no real role in creating.

But I do have to ask this: when Donald Trump says he has ‘a secret plan’ to take out ISIS, is this what he’s referring to? When he says he knows more than his generals (most of which he seems to think he can fire, like so many celebrity apprentices), has he had a FPS-style Dream? Does he imagine himself in full battle gear, mowing down ISIS? ‘Cause I sure have. And then I wake up.


Kaep’s protest

On August 14th, Colin Kaepernick, the backup quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, did not stand with his teammates during the playing of the national anthem, before an exhibition game with the Baltimore Ravens, choosing instead to sit on the bench. Nobody noticed. On August 20th, same thing; another exhibition game, they played the anthem, Kaepernick sat. Nobody noticed. On August 26th, the 49ers played the Packers, in another meaningless exhibition game. This time, Kaepernick’s protest was noticed, and he was asked about it in a post-game press conference. He said “I am not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people who are oppressed.” He later elaborated, speaking to the press for eighteen minutes, answering every question put to him calmly but firmly.

His press conference (which for some reason, I don’t seem to be able to link to), was remarkable. Asked what he was trying to accomplish, he responded:

I mean, ultimately it’s to bring awareness and make people realize what’s really going on in this country. There are a lot of things that are going on that are unjust, people aren’t being held accountable for, and that’s something that needs to change.

That’s something that–this country stands for freedom, liberty, justice for all. And it’s not happening for all right now.

It’s something that I’ve seen, I’ve felt. Wasn’t quite sure how to deal with originally. And it is something that’s evolved. It’s something that as I’ve gained more knowledge about what’s gone on in this country in the past, what’s going on currently, these aren’t new situations.

This isn’t new ground. These are things that have gone on in this country for years and years and have never been addressed. And they need to be.

I’ll continue to sit. I’m going to stand with the people that are being oppressed. To me this is something that has to change and when there’s significant change and I feel like that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent in this country–is representing the way that it’s supposed to–I’ll stand.

One specifically is police brutality, there’s people being murdered unjustly and not being held accountable. The cops are getting paid leave for killing people. That’s not right. That’s not right by anyone’s standards.

I have great respect for men and women that have fought for this country. I have family, I have friends that have gone and fought for this country. They fight for freedom. They fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice for everyone. And that’s not happening.

People are dying in vain because this country isn’t holding their end of the bargain up, as far as giving freedom and justice, liberty to everybody. It’s something that’s not happening.

-Q: Do you personally feel oppressed?

-KAEPERNICK: There have been situations where I feel like I’ve been ill-treated, yes. But this stand wasn’t for me. This stand wasn’t because I feel like I’m being put down in any kind of way.

This is because I’m seeing things happen to people that don’t have a voice, people that don’t have a platform to talk and have their voices heard and affect change.

So I’m in a position where I can do that and I’m going to do that for people that can’t.

More recently, Kaepernick has changed the manner of his protest, kneeling instead of standing for the anthem, after talking to decorated soldiers who sought him out. He’s been joined by other NFL players, including teammate Eric Reid, and others of his own teammates, and by women’s soccer star Megan Rapinoe. President Obama has weighed in, saying “I’d rather have young people who are engaged in the argument and trying to think through how they can be part of our democratic process than people who are sitting on the sidelines not paying attention at all.”

Of course, the backlash has been huge, loud, often irrelevant and viciously ad hominem. Kaepernick was once one of the budding stars in the league, and was offered, and signed, a 68 million dollar contract reflecting what NFL execs thought was his limitless potential. Many comments, therefore, suggested that a) he’s too well-paid to be considered ‘oppressed’ and b) he’s not very good. Play better, and maybe we’ll listen. Bleacher Report‘s Mike Freeman interviewed seven top NFL executives. None of them were willing to be identified for Freeman’s story, but all agreed on how much they hated Kaepernick. One compared Kaepernick, unfavorably, to Rae Carruth, the Panthers’ wide receiver who hired a hit man to murder his pregnant girlfriend.

It’s not just Carruth. The 49ers, Kaepernick’s team, have seen seven players arrested since 2012. Most recently, (just a few days after Kaepernick’s protest, in fact), a team captain, Bruce Miller, was arrested and charged with elder abuse, after an altercation in which Miller, intoxicated, beat up a seventy-year old after knocking on the wrong hotel room door. The NFL has a huge public image problem, after a whole series of arrests involving players for such infractions as spouse abuse, sexual assault, and child abuse. Not to mention two guys, Aaron Hernandez and Carruth, in prison for murder.

So Colin Kaepernick’s dignified, thoughtful, carefully considered protest is seen by at least some NFL executives as more damaging to the carefully burnished image of the league than a guy who murdered his girlfriend. But I can see why. It’s not just the national anthem played before games. The NFL likes to sell itself as wholesome, family oriented, and, above all, hyper-patriotic. Last Sunday, Sept. 11th, was the start of the 2016 NFL season, and the NFL outdid itself in pro-America celebrations, with a huge flag covering the entire field (in every stadium), and flyovers with military jets and salutes to soldiers. And a speech by President Obama, broadcast in every stadium, and loudly booed in most of them. That’s right, President Obama was booed on 9/11. Makes sense. He is, after all, Muslim.

Which is in part my point. It isn’t all that overt yet, but football is a contested space; part of the cultural war. Football isn’t just patriotic; it’s red state patriotic. It’s martial. It’s a sport full of ‘blitzes,’ defeated by ‘throwing the bomb.’ It’s built on the model of a military campaign, battles along a line of scrimmage for control of enemy territory. It hurts me to say this; I have enjoyed watching football for most of my adult life, and remember fondly hundreds of backyard contests. But it’s a violent sport, deeply damaging to its participants. (It can also be beautiful). And proudly embraced, by some, as proudly and emphatically politically incorrect.

And it’s becoming increasingly a regional sport, played more in the South than elsewhere. And, of course, it’s a sport where most of the players are Black, and most of the fans are white. (And where most of the coaches, most of the league executives, and effectively all of the owners are white). Also, played by guys, cheered on by attractive, underdressed young women. (And NFL cheerleaders are badly underpaid and mistreated).

Here’s what I think: I think Colin Kaepernick is acting more patriotically than all the people attacking him. Loving America means loving the promise of America, the ideals of equality and social justice that find such perfect expression in the Declaration of Independence and the Fourteenth Amendment. It means wanting America to grow, to improve, to get better, to actually treat all its citizens equally and fairly. It means protesting when we perceive America falling short of those ideals. The flag and the anthem are merely symbols, not objects of worship.

Good for Kaep. Good for the other protesters as well. Well done.

As a 49ers fan, I also wish Kaepernick was a better quarterback. But that’s a separate, and much less important question.


Hillary Clinton, mass murderer. Yes, there are people who believe this.

What is it with people and conspiracy theories? I ask, because I spent a frustrating couple of days arguing on-line with people who really do believe that Hillary Clinton is a mass murderer. I know, right? But there are people who believe this, that the Clintons routinely bump off people who are about to expose them. Expose what, you might reasonably ask? Well, all the women Bill raped, for one thing. The Clinton family drug smuggling. And also, duh, all the murders.

Really, I should know better. It’s completely impossible to argue with conspiracy theorists. For one thing, they’re obsessed. The Clinton-haters spend endless amounts of time reading books about the vileness of the Clintons. Which means they know way more about their theory than you’re likely to. They know the names and life histories, for example, of all 67 people the Clintons had murdered. How do you refute that?

So you scramble. It doesn’t take that long. A quick proficiency with Google leads to, yes, fifty articles supporting the conspiracy, but also to solid, factual evidence. But if you cite that evidence, it doesn’t matter. That’s what’s infuriating with conspiracy theorists; nothing fazes them. Disprove one allegation, and they’ve got twenty more lined up. I’m genuinely angry with myself. The number one rule with conspiracy theories has to be: do not engage. It’s impossible to argue with these people. Conspiracy theories are intoxicating. You get to feel superior. Everyone else is a dimwit; you possess the actual truth of things! You’re one of the secret elite; you’re Someone Who Knows.

There’s actually been some research on this subject, including a book-length study by political scientists Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent, which was published in 2014. It makes for depressing reading. Liberals and conservatives believe in conspiracy theories pretty equally, though the two sides like different ones. A third of Americans believe in birther theories about Obama; about the same number believe 9/11 is an inside job. In fact, liberals and conservatives are equally likely to think the favorite theories of their opponents are hilariously silly (because of course ‘those people’ believe that sort of ridiculous nonsense), while holding to favorite, equally nonsensical notions of their own.

Education helps, a little. 42% of people without high school diplomas are prone to conspiratorial thinking, while only 23% of people with post-graduate degrees do. Still, that’s depressing. One of five PhDs believe in absolute tommyrot? Because that’s the reality of conspiracy theories. They’re objectively untrue. They’re unsupported by, you know, evidence. Facts.

Anyway, the Clintons. The false narrative, in this case, argues that Bill and Hillary Clinton have murdered (or ordered murdered) 67 people over their time in the public eye. See, there’ve been all these mysterious deaths! Of people who were just about to testify against the Clintons about something nefarious they’d done! (Except, turns out, they weren’t). And they can name names: Ron Brown, Seth Rich, John Ashe, Victor Thorn, Shawn Lucas. Vince Foster (of course!) So many deaths! Has to be murder!

I grew up in Bloomington Indiana. I am a middle-class, unremarkable, politically insignificant man around 60. But I can certainly think of 67 people who I knew and who knew me, who died. In my neighborhood growing up, the kid who lived to our north died of AIDS. Another kid, a little further north, died in an auto wreck. The kid across the street committed suicide. One of my best friends, in high school, killed himself–I spoke at his funeral. Over fifty-some years, there have been lots of mishaps and illnesses and tragedies. My life isn’t anything special, but if some nasty-minded person wanted to stitch all those unrelated incidents together and create a false narrative about Eric the Lethal, I can imagine what it would look like.

And that’s what’s going on here. Not that it matters, but Ron Brown (Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Commerce) died in a plane wreck. The conspiracy theory is that they found a bullet hole in his skull–he was shot before the plane went down! Except that isn’t true; there was no exit wound, no bullet fragments in his skull. He died of blunt force trauma, because, you know, his plane crashed. Seth Rich died in a botched robbery. John Ashe died of a heart attack, Victor Thorn killed himself, Shawn Lucas died in an accident. And Vince Foster actually, really, did kill himself. Seven separate investigations proved it.

It’s all that silly. People sometimes die. All of us know people who have died. There’s nothing remotely suspicious about either the number of deaths of people the Clintons knew, or the circumstances in which those deaths took place.

Most of this garbage came from a recent book, Roger Stone and Robert Morrow’s The Clintons’ War on Women. Roger Stone is a professional Clinton hater, a guy who has spent his life digging for anti-Clinton dirt. Robert Morrow, meanwhile, spends his free time writing in a genre I had not previously known exists–Hillary porn. Researching this, I found some, read maybe half a paragraph of the most unspeakable vileness. (Now you don’t have to: you’re welcome). Their book is published by something called Skyhorse Publishing, which specializes in all sorts of conspiracy theory books, with titles like American Nuremberg (a truther book about 9/11), American Conspiracy, Spooks, and The Secret Coalition. Thar’s gold in them thar hills.

Of course, as is always the case with these things, the conspiracy requires the active collusion and participation of way too many people. There’s no way; someone would have blabbed. It’s like the Kennedy assassination theories; if, say, LBJ conspired to kill Kennedy, it would have required the cooperation of dozens of organizations and hundreds of individuals. Or the ‘moon landing was faked,’ literally hundreds of scientists and engineers with NASA, and that’s just for starters.

So let’s get real. Hillary Clinton absolutely doesn’t go around bumping people off. She’s been investigated more than any politician in the country, and there’s absolutely no evidence of criminal wrong-doing. And if you run into a conspiracy theorist, there’s a perfect way to handle them. Don’t engage. Don’t argue. Just change the subject, politely and firmly. Exactly the way Chelsea Clinton did, when confronted with Robert Morrow.


Phyllis Schlafly: RIP

Phyllis Schlafly just passed away, at the age of 92. Every major news outlet eulogized her, as is appropriate. I am not a major news outlet, and rarely do obituaries. And of course, I did not know the woman. Still, Schlafly’s passing leads me to ask this: how do we memorialize the life of someone with whom we disagreed?

On the internet, when someone both prominent and controversial dies, memes begin to appear, presumably amusing expressions of schadenfreud. ‘Ding dong, the witch is dead,’ seems to have been the predominant sentiment this time around. That strikes me as unfortunate. Death is the ultimate leveler, and its majesty, its tragedy, its reality should overawe us, should lead to humility, should supercede parochial concerns.

I believe that Phyllis Schlafly’s legacy is an unfortunate one. I think she left the world an unhappier place. I also thought her political views were mistaken, retrograde, invalid. But it’s not my role to judge.

And, in fact, she was an extraordinary woman. She was an attorney, a political candidate, an activist, and an author. She liked to cultivate a particular image; ‘housewife/activist.’ In fact, that description sells her short. Her book, A Choice, Not an Echo challenged the Republican orthodoxy of her day, and sold three million copies. She developed considerable expertise in international armaments, and researched and wrote books about national defense, staunchly in opposition to arms control agreements. Her newsletter, The Phyllis Schlafly Report, became a central text of the conservative movement. She founded the Eagle Forum, and was an activist, who led the opposition to the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.

I liked and supported the Equal Rights Amendment. I consider myself a feminist. I also like arms control agreements. But I am not blessed with omnipotence. I believe that the Equal Rights Amendment would have made life better for women; really, for everyone. She believed that it would make life worse. She won that political battle. Who knows whose views were right?

And she had a gay son. John Schlafly, her oldest son, came out in 1992. He nonetheless remained active in the leadership of the Eagle Forum. He ended up in a bitter dispute with his sister, Anne Cori, over the Forum’s enthusiastic support for Donald Trump; Cori thought they should endorse Ted Cruz instead. I understand bitterness over that controversy lingers still.

So, a bright, successful, accomplished woman. Devoted to her family, and to her favored political cause. Hers was an extraordinary life. For good? For ill? Let God decide.