Category Archives: Politics

Trump and Bernie

Blame this on Matthew Dowd. On This Week with George Stephanopoulos, Dowd suggested that the young people who support Bernie Sanders might not automatically turn to Hillary Clinton, but to Donald Trump. Dowd argued that Trump’s positions on issues were more likely to resonate with those who feel the Bern than with folks committed to trudging up the Hill. That seemed preposterous when he said it, and more so the more I considered it. And then, suddenly, I saw it. I’ll explain.

I don’t presume to tell other people how to vote, nor can I read anyone else’s thoughts and/or feelings. I’m also less interested in politics than in policy. I care about what works, regardless of ideology. I have been consistent in my views all along when it comes to this election. I am a liberal. I am a progressive. For that reason, I support Hillary Clinton’s candidacy for Presidency. If Bernie Sanders were the Democratic nominee, I would cheerfully support his candidacy. And I find Donald Trump frighteningly unqualified for the job.

Let’s start here: as someone who does study the issues pretty carefully, the idea that there exists any compatibility whatsoever between the views of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders is simply laughable. No such compatibility exists, either in terms of domestic policy or in terms of foreign policy.

Bernie Sanders believes in raising the national minimum wage to $15 an hour. Donald Trump believes that the current minimum wage is too high. He does say that when he becomes President, everyone will, magically, have higher wage jobs, without specifying how he would make that happen–renegotiating trade deals, mostly. Bernie Sanders wants the United States to provide free college tuition. Trump most emphatically does not, and started a for-profit, non-accredited on-line university that is accused of fraud in a major lawsuit. Bernie Sanders has called wealth and income inequality the biggest moral issue of our time. Trump is a rich guy who clearly intends to get richer. He proposes a tax cut that would sharply reduce the top tax rate on individual income from 39.6% to 25% and lower the tax rate on corporate income from 35% to 15%. It would increase the federal deficit by $10-12 trillion. It’s the most preposterously profligate tax proposal in US history. I mean, Fortune Magazine opposed it, in part because of how much it would increase inequality. Let me repeat this: the Trump economic plan is so extreme, it drives Fortune to Bernie’s side of this issue.

But what about foreign policy? Didn’t Trump oppose the war in Iraq? Which Sanders also opposed, and which Hillary Clinton, famously and wrongly, supported? It’s certainly true that Bernie Sanders was outspokenly opposed to the Iraq war. Good for him. Hillary Clinton was unequivocally wrong to support it, which she has, repeatedly, acknowledged. So if Trump did oppose the US intervention in Iraq, that’s an issue where he and Sanders were in agreement.  And Trump is certainly plenty vocal about how strenuously he opposed the war back in 2003. If he did.

Which he didn’t. No one has found the slightest shred of evidence that Donald Trump opposed the Iraq war at any time in 2001-3. couldn’t find a single statement, prior to the war, in which he opposed it. Politifact rated that claim, by Trump, as Mostly False. He certainly did come out against the war later on, in 2004, when everyone else could see what a fiasco it had become. But before the war? Didn’t happen. has run a number of articles strongly supporting Bernie Sanders’ candidacy. Salon’s best political writer, Digby, recently examined Trump’s foreign policy. (May I strongly urge you all to start your day reading Digby–she’s terrific). As she points out, Trump has consistently, regularly talked with great enthusiasm for torture, and for the commission of war crimes. Repeat: he’s pro-torture, pro-war crimes. 26 years ago, Trump was interviewed by Playboy, and he talked approvingly about how the Chinese government dealt with the Tiananmen Square protestors.  “That shows you the power of strength,” he concluded. There is absolutely no evidence that Donald Trump is an isolationist, or a dove, or anything but an imperialist thug.

(The more you read Trump’s foreign policy statements, the more he sounds like a mafioso. “You want our protection? You gotta pay a lot more, pal.”)

Donald Trump wants to build a massive wall on the American/Mexican border, so he can keep Mexicans out of the US. It’s the one issue he mentions at every rally. He also intends for Mexico to pay for it. Bernie Sanders, um, does not support anything like that. Donald Trump wants a national registry of Muslims, and wants to refuse Muslims into the US, even if they’re US citizens traveling abroad. Bernie Sanders does not. Donald Trump’s rallies have been frequently punctuated by acts of violence. That cannot be said about Bernie Sanders rallies. Bernie Sanders believes that billionaires have too much influence over our politics. Donald Trump is a billionaire who wants to be President of the United States. Bernie Sanders wants the US to take bold action to combat the threat of global climate change. Donald Trump believes that the notion of global climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese.

An important Sanders’ issue is health care reform, and it is an issue where there is a superficial resemblance to his plan and Trump’s. Sanders’ plan is simply to extend Medicare to cover all Americans. Trump’s plan? Well, that gets complicated. He has variously suggested something similar to Medicare-for-all, but also has offered a seven-point plan full of unworkable conservative bromides: selling insurance across state lines, making premiums tax deductible. The one thing we can say for certain is that Trump loathes Obamacare, and intends to replace it. With what? Hard to say. He wants the government to ‘cut deals’ with hospitals, if that helps. Suffice it to say that Bernie Sanders has offered quite specific proposals for reforming health care, along with detailed funding mechanisms (which may or may not add up), while Trump has spoken off-the-cuff on the subject in contradictory ways.

So okay. There’s no single point of convergence between Trump and Sanders. They don’t believe in the same things, they don’t support even slightly similar proposals. They have essentially nothing in common. But I do think that at least some Sanders’ supporters might vote for Trump nonetheless.

This isn’t a matter of logic, or reason. It’s about emotion. Both Sanders and Trump are fervently supported by very large crowds of people who are angry with the status quo. Both candidates speak to and for people who are disaffected from the political process, who believe that the ‘establishment’ is hopelessly out of touch with and unresponsive to their needs. Put it stronger. Both Trump’s and Sanders’ supporters feel lied to and ripped off. Both feel that mainstream candidates have no viable solutions to the very personal issues with which they contend. Both groups of supporters are in the mood for a revolution. And so, both groups have turned to candidates who are, at the very least, unorthodox. Outsiders.

There are simply no issues of significance on which Trump and Sanders agree. What their supporters have in common is something beyond reason. They’re pissed off. They’re furious. They have that in common. And their rage may be enough to bring them together, strange bedfellows though they are.

What’s really strange, though, is that the sensible, pragmatic progressivism of Hillary Clinton is likely to come much closer to solving the specific problems that have become issues in this campaign. But that’s not an easy case to make in a weird year like 2016.




Donald Trump’s foreign policy

As this year’s Presidential election continues to veer randomly between surrealism and farce, on a day when the former Speaker of the House compared a leading Presidential candidate from his own party to Lucifer, and another former Speaker went to prison for child molestation, Donald Trump, the probable Republican nominee, gave a speech on foreign policy. I read it. It’s almost completely incoherent.

Read Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ Foreign Policy Speech

“America first will be the major and overriding theme of my administration.”

I’m going to start in a spirit of good will, and cut him some slack. Let’s assume that his use of the unfortunate phrase ‘America First’ was not intended to invoke Charles Lindbergh’s anti-war movement from the early ’40s. The America First movement, which flowered from 1940 right up until Pearl Harbor, is popularly associated with Lindbergh’s, um, less savory pals in Germany and Italy. In fact, America First was more isolationist than fascist, and was bi-partisan, with leadership that included the socialist Norman Thomas, Potter Stewart and Sargent Shriver. Nowadays, ‘America First’ sounds more like the name of a credit union than the nascent neo-Nazi movement it turned into back in the day. In fairness, I think Trump is just saying that the central principle of American foreign policy should be national self-interest. Fair enough.

Trump then does a quick historical survey, from WWII (good for us!) and Reagan demanding that Gorbachev ‘tear down this wall.’ (Even better!)  But then, he insists, our post-cold-war foreign policy veered off-course, as “logic was replaced with foolishness and arrogance, which led to one foreign policy disaster after another.” And what specific examples of foolishness and arrogance does Trump mention? Bush’s invasion of Iraq.

We went from mistakes in Iraq to Egypt to Libya, to President Obama’s line in the sand in Syria. Each of these actions have helped to throw the region into chaos and gave ISIS the space it needs to grow and prosper. Very bad. It all began with a dangerous idea that we could make western democracies out of countries that had no experience or interests in becoming a western democracy.

Let’s break that down. The invasion of Iraq was indeed an example of neo-conservative nation building. ‘Egypt’ and ‘Libya’ however refers to the Arab Spring events, beginning in 2010. Certainly, the US took sides. Egypt and Libya were ruled by brutal dictators. The people in their countries revolted. The Obama administration supported what we believed might be pro-democracy movements. There were factions in each of the Arab Spring nations that did want democracy. American policy did backfire badly in Libya and Syria. But we do see some progress towards democratization in Yemen, Tunisia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Lebanon and Oman.

But Trump does not differentiate between an invasion, like Iraq, where a US-led coalition toppled a dictator and tried to impose democracy, and Tunisia, where the US offered logistical support for pro-Western factions leading protests in their own country. And that’s a crucial point. Perhaps the US shouldn’t have tried to intervene at all. But Trump doesn’t say that either. Just that our foreign policy is “bad.” Largely, it seems, because our policies have strengthened Iran.

It’s at this point that Trump’s speech becomes almost completely contradictory. For example, he insists that President Obama’s economic policies have weakened our military, making it difficult for the US to intervene internationally. But he also criticized the Obama administration for trying to intervene internationally. Well, which is it? He insists that the US foots too much of the bill in order to support NATO, and he calls for our European allies to pay more. “The countries we are defending must pay for the cost of this defense, and if not, the U.S. must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves.” In the next paragraph, though, Trump says “your friends need to know that you will stick by the agreements that you have with them. You’ve made that agreement, you have to stand by it and the world will be a better place.” In other words, he intends to present Europe with a large bill for all the military forces we’ve been providing. That, in his view, is what it means to be a good ally.

He promises, of course, to complete wipe out ISIS. By acting “unpredictably,” I suppose. And although he doesn’t specify where his policy would require military intervention, it doesn’t seem likely that ‘wiping out ISIS’ could be done without ground forces. He talks about solving problems through diplomacy. But he absolutely intends to unilaterally renounce the international Iran nuclear deal. His first act as President, as far as I can tell, will be to start a trade war with China. He’s opposed to NAFTA, and intends to rescind the US involvement in that trade agreement. Same for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Amazingly, he seems to think that pulling out of every major trade deal of the last twenty years will strengthen the US economy, and lead to better relations with our allies.

It’s an amazing speech, in part because of its lack of organization. He really does just jump from topic to topic; the entire talk is one extended non sequitur. He particularly jumps from right wing talking point to right wing talking point. This silly nonsense about how President Obama ‘refuses to name the problem,’ by not using the exact formulation ‘radical Islamic extremism’ is a case in point. And, of course, the persecution of Christians in Syria is much more important to him than the sufferings of many more Muslims. But to his credit, Trump isn’t afraid to criticize the war in Iraq, and to correctly identify that intervention as leading directing to the establishment of ISIS.

Still, it’s simple-minded. Muslim=bad. American strength=good.

The purpose of this talk is to help Trump appear more Presidential. In one sense, the talk succeeded. Trump stood behind a podium, read from a teleprompter, seemed more subdued and reflective, and didn’t gratuitously insult anyone. He also demonstrated only the most simplistic understanding of the world we live in and the diplomatic challenges the United States faces. It’s a talk by a man who is not just ignorant of the subject he is addressing, but uninterested in learning more. It’s really quite terrifying.


Republicans against Republicans

Lately, I’ve been noticing the most interesting phenomenon; life-long Republicans who are completely fed-up with the current Republican party. Bruce Bartlett, for example. No, that’s not President Bartlet’s brother. Josiah Bartlet’s brother was named Joseph, plus he was a Democrat, and also, you know, fictional. No, Bruce Bartlett is an historian and economist who worked for Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush. He recently endorsed Donald Trump for President, which endorsement, given Bartlet’s policy preferences and personality, seemed a bit surprising. Then, when asked in a recent interview why, said this: “my goal is to try to destroy the Republican party.” He then elaborated:

“I think only when it has reached rock bottom can responsible Republicans once again come back and make it a reasonable governing party. Right now the party is just a coalition of cranks, and racists and bigots and religious kooks. The Tea Party have to be run out of the Party completely. And I think Trump is the vehicle that will allow that to happen. I think if he gets the nomination, and I hope he does, he will go down to a historic defeat. I think the Republican establishment will have no choice but to disown him. I think there will be a very substantial “Republicans for Hillary” effort and I think he will lose disastrously and hopefully bring down a lot of Republican senators and congressmen with him.”

Remember, this isn’t from Bill Maher or someone. This is from an eminence grise of the Republican party. Here’s another one, Lindsey Graham, Senator from South Carolina, who appeared on The Daily Show a month ago.

What’s remarkable about this clip is the thinly disguised contempt Graham has for his party’s presumptive nominee, that nominee’s main opponent, and his party in general, which he calls ‘totally screwed up.’

Charles Koch said on Sunday that he and his brother were strongly considering ‘sitting this one out,’ and not donating money to any of the candidates running for President. GOP voters routinely speak of their party’s candidates as ‘sophomoric,’ and ‘disgusting.’

Of course, a lot of this reflects a general mainstream Republican distaste for Donald J. Trump. His xenophobia, religious bigotry and bullying manner are seen, by power brokers and party insiders, as inconsistent with the kind of gentlemanly politics they were raised with. In other words, I suspect that a lot of the opposition to Trump is more stylistic than substantive. Candidates for President of the United States are expected to comport themselves with some dignity. That’s why the candidacy of John Kasich is so appealing to a lot mainstream Republicans. He’s managed to distance himself from the antics of Trump and Cruz and Rubio and the rest of that sad lot.

But there’s a reason Trump voters are so fervid in their support for him. The American economy has done fairly well over the last seven years, but not for some people; not for blue-collar lower-middle class white folks. Trump seems to get it. He says ‘hey, this economy stinks. Vote for me, and we’ll win again. We’ll have so much winning, you’ll actually get tired of all the winning. The problems we’ve had have been caused by Others, by All Those People. We’ll build a wall between the US and Mexico, and we’ll start trade wars with China, and we’ll keep Muslims out, and if we do those things, Americans will begin to win again.’ And that’s an appealing message.

Now, absolutely nothing in the actual policies Trump seems to favor will accomplish any of that. From a wonkish perspective, his policy proposals are nothing but complete and utter rubbish. None of the numbers add up, and there’s no discernible path to prosperity. By rejecting ‘political correctness,’ Trump seems to suggest that we just need to be ruder to each other, and then we’ll be fine. That’s just silly. And to people like Bruce Bartlett and Lindsey Graham, of course Trump’s success is incomprehensible.

But Trump’s supporters are right too. Mainstream Republican dogma insists, for example, that massive tax cuts pay for themselves, that cutting taxes authomatically stimulates the economy sufficiently to create jobs and prosperity. That wealth trickles down. That insight–supply-side economics–was the focus of Bartlett’s work for Reagan. And it’s nonsense too. This new rebuilt, freshly relevant Republican party Bartlett and Graham imagine needs to be built on something substantive. Supply-side economics is not it.

One of the great under-reported stories in politics right now are those states who took supply-side orthodoxy most seriously, cut taxes, and now are in a world of fiscal hurt. Wisconsin, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Florida are all in big trouble, right now, thanks to the ideological conservative purity of their governors and legislators. Cutting taxes confers no particular economic benefit to anyone except for the wealthy folks who get the extra cash.

Voters may not understand policy with much sophistication, but they know a political system rigged against them, and they know a bad economy. That’s where Donald Trump’s snake oil finds customers. But it’s not Trump’s fault and it’s not the fault of the voters. It’s the Republican establishment, pursuing foolish policies for ideological reasons. And if the Republicans do re-invent themselves, dumping ideological movement conservatism might be a good place to start.







































































































































How to save Puerto Rico

For the last few weeks, every time I turned on my car radio, I would hear an ad attacking Representative Rob Bishop for supporting what it calls a “radical plan called Super Chapter 9” to allow the U.S. territory bankruptcy protection. It’s a deal, the ad suggests, that would take money from American pension plans, and give it to those profligate, irresponsible Puerto Ricans. “What’s worse is that Congressman Rob Bishop is standing with the Obama administration to support a bailout of Puerto Rico instead of supporting negotiations between Puerto Rico and its creditors,” the ad concludes.

There’s also a television ad:

These ads are produced by an entity called The Center for Individual Freedom. That’s a political non-profit organization, either a 501 (c) (4) or 501 (c) (6), which is to say, a group that doesn’t have to disclose its funding sources.

Let’s not mince words: every word in these ads are complete nonsense. The ads are lies, in their every detail. Congressman Bishop isn’t pushing for something called “Super Chapter 9” or anything like it. The Congressman chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over Puerto Rico and other US territories. The Republican House and President Obama are currently negotiating a way to help Puerto Rico deal with its crisis; Bishop’s the Republican point man in those negotiations. They’re close to a deal, a crucially important, deeply necessary one.

I know that John Oliver is a comedian, not a journalist, but his show last night dealt comprehensively, and as far as my research suggests, accurately, with the real causes of the Puerto Rican collapse. I wish I could link to it. In general, though, I prefer not to link to R-rated material. May I suggest that you look it up. Look up John Oliver Puerto Rico on YouTube.

The fact is, though, Puerto Rico has historically attempted to deal with its debt crisis through the sale of municipal bonds, which have tax-free properties that make them an attractive investment. At least some of the measures that Congress is considering might cost hedge fund investors some money. I can’t prove this, and neither can Oliver, but it doesn’t seem unlikely that this Center for Individual Freedom is funded by hedge funds. They stand to lose some ill-gotten gains, so they put some money into a TV/radio disinformation campaign.

What they’re not is patriotic. There does not exist some coalition of Americans in favor of individual freedom. ‘Individual’ and ‘freedom’ are two words that, when put in the same sentence, sound like something we should all be in favor of. But no. The Center for Individual Freedom was founded by tobacco companies opposed to regulating tobacco. Literally lethal. They’ve morphed. Now they’re in favor of letting Puerto Rican hospitals go under. This is a bad organization that does bad things. And that’s all they are.

In any event, if you live in Utah, you know all about their ads. I suspect that you’re aware of them wherever you live. Just remember; the ads are fundamentally dishonest. Congress and the President are actually working on a bi-partisan plan to help Puerto Rico out. (Repeat: a bi-partisan plan).

And something needs to happen, and it needs to happen now. Puerto Rico can’t keep the lights on. They’re closing schools and hospitals. Four million American citizens are in serious crisis. We can help. It’s a complicated issue, but this is something government can do, and needs to. And Rob Bishop is that rare Congressman, a guy who is trying to do the right thing for the right reasons. That’s maybe something worth supporting as well.


Okay, progressives, liberals, my friends. I speak to those of you feeling the Bern. You’re part of the insurgency, the movement, the revolution. You’re fans of Bernie Sanders. Let’s talk about the upcoming election.

No, not the Presidential election in 2016. The one in 2018. That’s the important one.

To me, the most remarkable, hopeful, positive development in this election has been the candidacy of Bernie Sanders. I love the passion. I love the energy. I love Sanders’ personality, his basic, fundamental integrity. Driving to vote in the Utah caucus, I was so inspired by all the young people waiting patiently in line to vote. I find the whole movement immensely exciting.

It’s probably not going to win Bernie Sanders the Presidential nomination in 2016. In all likelihood, the Democratic candidate for President will be Hillary Clinton. And there are two ways to think about that. One way would be to say ‘the system is rigged. It’s completely corrupt. I give up. Politics is dirty and bad people win, and why even bother trying.’ But as I understand it, that’s actually not the message of Bernie Sanders.

If Bernie Sanders loses the nomination (and he’s likely to), the second way to look at it is to say ‘temporary setback. No big deal. The cause is what matters, and the fight will continue.’

As I understand it, the message of the Bernie Sanders campaign is that Bernie Sanders isn’t what matters. What matters is progressivism. What matters is the idea of using politics to make life better for everyone. What matters is reshaping American society in a more equitable, more fair, more shared direction. If Bernie Sanders were to win the Presidency, that would be one small step in the right direction. But that’s all it would be. If Bernie Sanders doesn’t win the nomination (and he probably won’t), every part of the vision he articulated remains within our grasp. We’ll just have to find a different way to accomplish it. And that’s okay.

I say all this as a supporter of Hillary Clinton. I believe in her commitment to the basic goals of progressivism. I see her as an incrementalist, as a policy wonk. That’s my personality; I believe in small, accumulative changes, based on solid research and reasoning. I’m pretty much a Fabian socialist. But I wouldn’t support her if I didn’t think that her goals were fundamentally compatible with the basic principles of progressive policy.

She’s also going to win. Donald Trump is a dreadful candidate for President of the United States, all bluster and bigotry and ignorance. Most Republicans I know have quietly written this year off.  When she wins, the hard work will begin.

Earthly paradise? The US becomes Norway? Universal health care, free tuition, paid maternity leave? Fifteen bucks an hour minimum wage?

No. Not yet. In a Parliamentary system of government, the winning party or party coalition gets to impose its agenda. In the US, we have checks and balances. It’s harder to pass legislation, intentionally. That’s why the United States is more conservative then Europe. Any President has to get his program through not one, but two chambers of Congress. And that’s hard to do. Ask President Obama.

In fact, the Obama Presidency provides a template that we really want to avoid. A two year honeymoon (during which time he was also trying to dig the US out of the rubble of the biggest economic collapse since 1929), then, in 2010, a catastrophic low-turn-out midterm election, followed by six years of obstruction and stultifying deadlock. Not President Obama’s fault. If you didn’t vote in 2010, it’s your fault. Own it.

Here’s Samantha Bee on 2010. (Warning: some language and disturbing, in fact disgusting, images).

Whenever I hear young progressives say ‘there’s no difference between the two American political parties. They’re both corrupt. They’re both controlled by corporate interests’ I want to throw up my hands in despair. I’m perfectly aware of the shortcomings and hypocrisies and compromises and corruption within the Democratic party. Of course it’s a deeply flawed vehicle for progressive social change. Obviously that’s true. So what? It’s what we have.

Is it possible that you haven’t noticed that the other party, the Republican Party, defines itself in terms of a conservative ideology that is fundamentally opposed to progressivism? Have you watched any of the Republican debates? You are aware, aren’t you, that when Republicans talk about a ‘pro-growth’ economic plan, they mean cutting taxes for rich people? That that’s their solution for everything?

Are you aware that at the heart of conservatism is ‘limited government?’ And that the heart of progressivism is ‘use the powers of government for good?’ I have many conservative friends, good people. But we don’t, fundamentally, agree.

Do you want to get good things done? Do you want to actually make the United States of America a progressive paradise?  Then you have to work. You have to work with Congress, with the Constitution, and above all, with the Democratic party.

And above all, you have to vote, and you have to organize, and you have to get your friends to vote, and you have to quietly, gently persuade the more skeptical among you.

It’s what conservatives are great at. Give them props; Republicans are amazingly good at networking, at grass roots organizing, at finding fellow conservatives and working together to get things done. We should study them, and learn from them.

But if, in what will be the most important, most consequential election of your lifetime, in 2018, it turns out that only 12% of young people vote, then everything Bernie Sanders stands for will have failed. All that passion, all that energy, all that excitement, all for naught. That will be the test. Will we fail? Again?

BYU, the Honor Code, and Sexual Assault

On April 7, at a Rape Awareness event on the BYU campus, it was revealed that women who report having been sexually assaulted may be reported to the Honor Code office. Turns out this wasn’t hypothetical. A nineteen-year old student from California had been raped, and had been contacted by a representative from the Honor Code office about a possible violation. A sheriff’s deputy had inappropriately given a copy of the case file to university officials. The young woman had refused to cooperate with the subsequent University investigation, and had been blocked from registering for classes. As a result, she was considering returning home to California. Utah County prosecutors have expressed their frustration over the case, because her absence from Provo might complicate their investigation into the alleged attack.

Of course, BYU does not regard being raped as a violation of the Honor Code. The point of an Honor Code investigation is to discover ancillary HC violations. Was she out past curfew? Was she alone with a man in her apartment? That kind of thing. However, it seems obvious that pursuing that kind of investigation could have a chilling effect on women reporting an assault. If a woman is raped, and knows that reporting that rape might result in university disciplinary action, she’s going to be less likely to report it. I don’t doubt that ‘fewer women reporting being attacked’ is an unintended consequence of this policy. It’s still a consequence.

And it seems just as obvious that this policy would really only apply to sexual attacks. If a woman is raped, she is the victim of a violent crime. Let’s suppose that a man was violently attacked. Let’s suppose that someone beat him up, for example. Would the Honor Code office get involved? Would they ask if he’d been somewhere he wasn’t supposed to be, dressed inappropriately? In general, we would say that any victim of any violent crime should be encouraged to report that crime, and we would hope that the police would investigate the crime, with an eye to arresting its perpetrator. And in all such instances, if the victim of the crime was a BYU student, there’s really no appropriate role for the Honor Code office.

And so, ever since we learned of this policy, there’s been a lot of outrage about it. I share that outrage. 30,000 people have signed a petition asking BYU to ‘stop punishing victims of sexual assault.’ I agree with the goals of that petition. BYU seems to be straining at the gnat of minor HC violations, while swallowing the camel of serious violent crimes. I also think it’s very unlikely that those policies will change. This is, after all, BYU we’re talking about.

Let me clarify. I taught at BYU for over twenty years. They were joyful years. I loved the students I was able to teach, loved the colleagues I worked with, loved experiences I had there. I also found BYU administrators could be, at times, difficult to work with. I rather suspect that faculty across the country would say the same about the university administrations at their schools. BYU administrators don’t like being challenged.

As a faculty member, I was particularly troubled by the dress and grooming standards of the Honor Code. As a male faculty member, it seemed to me that the language of the dress and grooming standard unnecessarily and inappropriately sexualized the young women in our classes and at the university. I was told, on occasion, that it was my responsibility as a faculty member, to ‘enforce’ those standards. This meant that I was to scrutinize the clothing choices of our students, to determine if clothing was ‘form-fitting’ or ‘revealing.’

I do not know, did not know, and never cared to know what any of that meant. Those terms strike me as quite subjective. And for me to determine if a young woman was wearing an outfit that was ‘revealing’ would require me, as a male faculty member, to view her as something beyond simply as a student.

I decided early on that I wouldn’t do it. I opted out. My informal interactions with colleagues suggest that pretty much everyone opted out. It was my job to teach. It was not any part of my job to judge how people chose to dress. Or how they cut their hair, or how many earrings they wore, or if they chose to express their individuality through tattoos. I wasn’t going to worry about any of it. I taught my classes, and I made myself available for office consultations, and I wrote letters of recommendation when asked, and I made lifelong friends. I never once turned anyone in for anything.

Except that’s not entirely true. I did turn students in to the Honor Code office, twice. Once, it was a student who openly, obviously and egregiously cheated on a paper. Plagiarized. And, when I asked him to meet with me about it, was so dismissive, so contemptuous, and so obnoxious about it I felt that I needed to do something about him. He was a kid with a problem and an attitude, and I thought the Honor Code office handled his situation with a mix of sensitivity and firmness that, in my mind, was kind of the Platonic ideal for dealing with rude and dishonest students. So that was one. The second time I turned someone in, it was a stalker situation. A student asked me what she should do; she didn’t want to call the cops, but she also wanted this guy to leave her alone. Again, the Honor Code office handled the situation well.

So it sounds like I’m defending the Honor Code office. In a way, I am. I only interacted with that office twice, and both experiences worked out well. I heard anecdotally of students whose interactions with the HCO were less positive. The operative verb would be ‘hassled.’ ‘I’m being hassled by the Honor Code folks.’ That’s a shame. I think monitoring whether students wear their hair too long, or their skirts too short is silly. I do think that it’s helpful to have an office you can turn to when students cheat on exams or harm other students.

The fact is, almost every university has a code of personal conduct to which students are expected to conform. And almost every university in the country struggles to deal with the national scourge of sexual assault. President Obama’s Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault has listed 124 institutions under investigation for possible violations of federal law regarding sexual violence cases. This is an important national issue. BYU is not alone in sometimes handling it badly.

Without becoming a BYU apologist, I do think that this situation is complicated in ways that have not been recognized in the public discourse over it. I agree, of course, that preventing campus rape should be a goal towards which every university should strive. One way to accomplish that is it to remove all possible barriers discouraging victims of sexual violence to come forward. This BYU policy creates such a barrier. The policy really does, therefore, need to change.

But there are ways in which the Honor Code could also help solve the problem. Since the code already prohibits ‘obscene or indecent conduct or expressions,’ then grossly sexist expressions would also seem to be prohibited. ‘Red Pill’ or ‘Gamergate’ attitudes towards women are already incompatible with the standards of the Church. As, of course, is rape itself. There are surely more positive steps that BYU can take. Call me naive, but in my experience, the will to take them largely already exists.

Eye in the Sky: Movie Review

Eye in the Sky is a beautifully calibrated, superbly acted, morally compelling and thoughtful film that also couldn’t possibly be more relevant to the contemporary world. As such, sadly, it also became kind of a box office flop. Still, it’s a terrific movie, and one I wholeheartedly recommend.

Helen Mirren plays a British military officer, Colonel Katherine Powell, tasked with monitoring an Islamist terrorist group operating out of Kenya and Somalia. As the film begins, she’s planned an joint op with the US and Kenyan military to capture the 2nd, 3rd and 5th most wanted East African terrorists. One of them, it turns out, is a British national, Susan Danford, now known as Ayesha Al Hadi. A radicalized American is also in her group. The Brits have intel about a meeting of these terrorist leaders, and the Kenyan military stands by for a raid and capture. American drones watch from above. But the intel is faulty, and the drones are unable to confirm the identities of all the targets. The bad guys pile into a van, and drive through the streets of Nairobi to a much more secure location, a house in an area heavily patrolled by armed militias. Powell has to call off the Kenyan operation. However, a Somali agent (Barkhad Abdi, as good in this as he was in Captain Phillips) is able to infiltrate a market close to the terrorist house, and send in this freaky little tiny insect-size drone, which gets into the house, confirms the targets. And then the drone camera captures, in another room, a chilling image; suicide vests and packets of C-4. And Powell realizes that a suicide bomb attack may well be imminent.

The story cuts between several locations. One is the tiny op center for the drone, where the pilot, Steve Watts (Breaking Bad‘s Aaron Paul) awaits orders. Another is a conference room, where General Frank Benson (the late Alan Rickman, in his last film) is joined by two cabinet ministers, ready to observe the operation, and approve or deny any change in plans. Another is the market place in Kenya, where a little girl, Alia (Aisha Takow), plays with a hula hoop her father made for her, and also goes into the market to sell the bread her mother bakes. And her sales table is right next to the wall of the terrorist’s house.

Powell is certain that the terrorists are planning a suicide bombing. Since capturing them is no longer possible, she believes a drone strike is justified. But Watts, the American pilot, can see, in his cameras, this child next to the strike site. He insists on another collateral damage assessment. Powell is furious, but agrees. And the British cabinet ministers will not approve the attack. They insist on getting authorization from the British foreign minister. And meanwhile, of course, they all can see images from the teeny bug drone inside the house. They can see two young men donning suicide vests, those vests loaded with explosives, the explosives wired together, the men making their farewell propaganda videos. The clock is ticking, and Powell is desperate to authorize a kill order.

Meanwhile, their Somali agent continually risks his life for the girl, offering to purchase all her bread. But the little girl just goes back to her table and sells some more.

When we think of drone warfare, we tend to think of it as antiseptic. Clean strikes, from long distance. We also tend to think of it as fairly dispassionate. Intel provides a target, and our drones take out bad guys. Boom. This film reminds us that human beings operate those astonishing weapons, that those people have feelings and consciences and scruples. Aaron Paul is extraordinary, playing an ordinary soldier desperate somehow to obey his orders, but also keep civilian casualties to a minimum. Desperate to save the life of a child.

But Mirren and Rickman are no less remarkable, playing career soldiers who see an opportunity to strike a crippling blow against a vicious enemy. Powell and Benson know how terrorist groups operate. They believe that the people they can see donning suicide vests plan to launch an immediate attack on civilian targets. By risking the death of this one child, they may save dozens of civilian lives, including the lives of other children. Meanwhile, the politicians in Benson’s conference room have to weigh the propaganda costs. Possibly saving 80 civilians may damage the hearts-and-minds war, if the cost is a single child.

As we left the theater, my wife and I were both pretty shaken by the film, and my wife commented that she could see, and even agree with, the perspectives of every single character, even when those characters passionately disagreed. I thought so too. It’s a film in which each character represents a point of view, in addition to being an interesting character in his or her own right.

I especially loved Mirren’s performance, even at times when she seemed a bit off-puttingly bloodthirsty. Because, as Rickman’s character says at the end of the film, (probably the last line spoken by Alan Rickman on camera), “never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war.” That cost is front and center in Eye in the Sky.

And that’s part of what makes it such an important film. Children die in the war on terror. And sometimes, we’re the ones who kill them. Is it worth it? I love the way that this film does not provide a comforting answer to that disturbing question.







Hillary Clinton’s email

Nobody trusts Hillary Clinton. I mean, why would anyone trust her? She’s been a one-woman crime wave, apparently, for most of her career. Benghazi, for example. Or Whitewater; she was involved with that. And now, I mean, she’s this close to being indicted, for the email thing. I mean, she can’t be President from prison, right?

As I write this, it’s April, 2016. Hillary Clinton is running for President, against Bernie Sanders. And let’s get real; Sanders has run a terrific campaign for President, he’s inspired lots of people, especially young people, who were previously uninterested in politics, to become engaged politically. In every possible sense, the Sanders’ campaign has been a healthy, positive thing for our country. If he’s the Democratic nominee, I will work for him and I will support him. But he’s not my preferred candidate, and it’s very unlikely that he will win.

And the Republican dumpster fire/train wreck/sewage spill will almost certainly end in the nomination of either Donald Trump or Ted Cruz. Donald Trump. Or Ted Cruz. Yikes.

So, for the good of the country, let’s deal with the Clinton negatives. She’s probably going to be the Presidential nominee of one of our nation’s two major political parties. The other party is likely to nominate either an egomaniacal fool or a religious fanatic. I don’t mean to be unkind–I have friends who support both Trump and Cruz–but personally, I don’t know of any moment in American history when two worse potential nominees were running. For the good of the country, if she’s the nominee, Hillary Clinton has to win this.

Emails, then. Let’s start here. You may distrust this news source, but I went ahead and fact-checked its assertions. Can’t find any discrepancies. Here’s another source. And another. And Did Secretary Clinton use a private email server? Yes. So did Condoleeza Rice. So did Colin Powell. Using a private server was not illegal, nor was it unusual. Did she email classified documents using her private server? She asserts that she did not, but that that some documents that were emailed have subsequently become classified. So far, no evidence has emerged to the contrary.

I want to be very clear. I am not an IT expert, and I am not a national security expert. I’m a playwright with wifi. I try to be independent in my thinking, but I am a liberal and a Democrat, and I support Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy. It’s not surprising how incredibly politicized this all is. Google anything like ‘Hillary Clinton emails’ and you’ll find hundreds of news stories, going back a year or so, insisting that she’s going to jail any day now, and also that she has nothing, legally, to worry about. What we believe about Hillary’s emails is predicated on where our politics lie. On nothing more edifying than confirmation bias.

What’s going on? What went down? How should I know? I don’t know anything about internet security, or government regulations pertaining to them. Here’s what I can say; this follows the pattern of all the previous Clinton scandals.

Here’s what happens. The Clintons (Bill or Hillary, it doesn’t matter), make a decision that they think is innocuous; often, it’s something good that they’re trying to accomplish. But the situation turns out to be more complex than they’d originally imagined. At first, their response is to say ‘this isn’t any big deal, there’s no way this could blow up on us. Our intentions are pure.’ But the conservative press gets hold of it, and a narrative, involving charges of corruption and malfeasance and criminality emerges. The Clintons have to respond, and eventually do, though rarely satisfactorily.

Take the very first big scandal; Travelgate. Shortly after President Clinton took office, in 1993, he learned that an audit had revealed irregularities in the accounts of the White House Travel Office. That’s an office that’s been around since the Presidency of Andrew Jackson, nowadays tasked with making travel arrangements for members of the White House press. The office had a cozy relationship with journalists, at times even providing inaccurate paperwork so that reporters could file with their papers for travel expenses they weren’t entitled to. Clinton decided that he’d ferreted out a web of corruption, and fired the seven employees of the office, hiring instead a travel agency called World-wide Travel, a reputable company, but one with ties to Clinton’s third cousin. The press was outraged (the fired employees were friendly with reporters, and had had their jobs for years), and the new narrative was all about nepotism. So the whole thing blew up, and became a major embarrassment for the Clintons. Eventually it became a focus of Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr as part of the Whitewater investigation. Two things came out. First, the Travel Office’s records were a goshawful mess; they should have been fired. And second, the Clintons did nothing wrong. But that determination wasn’t made until 2000. Of course, the Clintons were exonerated. But nobody remembers that. This Wikipedia article does a good job of explaining the case in detail, in case you’re interested.

Compare it to the email scandal. Mrs. Clinton had a Blackberry she liked. She was also a very active emailer. The government’s IT security folks wanted her to have two accounts; one for personal emails, and the other for government business. She didn’t want to, and knew as well that previous Secretaries of State had used the same device for both work-related and personal business. So she insisted that she intended to go on using her Blackberry. Frankly, I get that. We older folks hate learning how to use new devices. And we have a tendency to think that IT security folks are too persnickety.

Since the story broke about an investigation of her emails, though, Mrs. Clinton hasn’t handled the situation very well, in part, it appears, because it took her awhile to realize that something like this could be a big deal. Again, typical Clinton scandal. She knew she hadn’t done anything wrong, so why is everyone freaking out? And, as is often the case with the Clintons, she hasn’t managed the subsequent hooraw very effectively. And so it’s still a story.

But it’s a story I’ve seen before. And when all these furious accusations of gross malfeasance start pouring in, I tend to take them with a grain of sale. There’s never anything to it, and there’s nothing to this one either. And years from now, when the whole story of the entire scandal is revealed, we’ll realize that this really isn’t actually important.

Remember this: For Bill and Hillary Clinton, the world is defined by sound and fury. For the most part, signifying nothing. Prediction: she’s not going to be arrested. She will eventually be exonerated. Which means, it’s okay to vote for her.




GE, Trump and Sanders

A whole series of commercials for GE explain, I think, the Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump political campaigns. But first, a story from my childhood.

I grew up in Indiana. The neighborhood I lived in as a child was, I now realize, pretty strongly blue collar, and that was reflected at the school I attended. I remember one day, in sixth grade, when our teacher asked a question that would be completely non-PC nowadays; she asked ‘what do your fathers do for a living? Where do they work?’ And around the room, the kids all answered: ‘He works at Westinghouse,’ ‘at Otis Elevator,’ ‘limestone worker,’ ‘at Crane (a naval base).’ In almost every case, the kids’ dads worked at factories or labor-intensive work sites in town. (We were just at the end of the Indiana limestone boom). When I said “my Dad’s an opera singer,” the kids stared at me like I was a Martian. And I knew recess that day would be, uh, trying.

What that odd classroom question reflected, however, was a kind of blue collar paradise that really did exist back then. You graduated from high school, got a job at the local factory, worked there for forty years, retired with a decent pension. Meanwhile, you filled your spare time with good works; coached Little League or volunteered as a Scoutmaster, or were active in your church, or joined the Elks or Moose Lodges or the Rotary Club. It was a good life, an honest life, hard work and sacrifice, but one that enabled you to raise your family and enjoy the fruits of a generally happy marriage.

And it’s almost completely gone nowadays. Gone for good, frankly. The economy’s changed. Those manufacturing jobs have vanished, and they’re not coming back. And it’s not just those jobs that are gone. It’s the whole social contract those jobs–that schoolroom conversation–represented. What we have nowadays is an information-driven economy.

Now, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are highly critical of free trade, and more specifically, the PNTR, the deal by which China got Permanent Normal Trade Relations, which has, as its end result, the reality that your I-phone was almost certainly built in China. Sanders says that one deal probably cost the United States 3 million manufacturing jobs. That’s almost certainly true, if we look at only one side of a very complicated series of calculations.

My point, for now, is not that those sorts of trade agreements have compensating virtues even for the US. Nor is it really that free trade is the single greatest weapon we could possibly wield in the fight against world-wide severe poverty. I mean, that’s true, but it’s a hard argument to make without sounding self-righteous about how much more moral your policy preferences are. (Not that this isn’t also a moral issue. Which is why I support Hillary Clinton’s candidacy).

No, the point is this: the US economy has changed, permanently and for the better, but with consequences that are severe and troubling for blue-collar workers and their families.

Which brings me to these commercials. They’re about a guy named ‘Owen,’ a software developer, who is very excited about his new job at GE. And he can’t explain it to anyone, because they literally don’t understand the ways in which the economy has changed, or because they regard those changes as threatening and foreign.

Here’s my favorite:

See what I mean? He’s telling his parents about this fabulous new job he’s gotten, one that he couldn’t be more excited about. And his father is almost openly contemptuous. He’s not going to be, you know, working. With tools. Like, a hammer.

The Dad’s a Donald Trump supporter. Right?

The next one shows Owen telling his friends about the job. And they are, apparently, all liberal arts weenies (says me, the lib arts weenie), resigned to their own lives working service industry jobs. (All of them, one presumes, feeling the Bern).

Finally this one. This time, his friends really, literally, don’t understand him. It’s like they’re speaking different languages. I love how condescending they are.

These commercials are weird to me, frankly. I mean, the obvious point is that GE is telling us about the way the company is changing. But in a larger sense, these commercials chronicle changes in the US economy that are frankly scary and more than a little damaging to a lot of people, in ways that have so far had all sorts of political ramifications.

What can we do? Work for GE, in development. Job retraining, education, expand the social safety net. But short term, let’s admit it; free trade causes pain, in addition to creating opportunities. And ‘picking up the hammer’ isn’t likely to work very well either.

The Trump/Kaufman hypothesis

I have a theory. Just tossing it out there. I don’t have, you know, any, like, evidence to support this theory. But I can say that the line of coincidences and correlations and suggestions is getting longer all the time. So, bear with me, and try to keep an open mind.

I think Donald Trump is actually Andy Kaufman.

That’s right. I think that the legendary comedian, Andy Kaufman, is playing a part, has taken on the persona of a billionaire reality TV star and is currently running for President of the United States.

It would certainly be in character for Kaufman. Most of his act was a put on. For much of his career, an aggressively untalented and obnoxious lounge singer named Tony Clifton would open for him. But Kaufman was Clifton; he played both characters. He pretended to be a wrestling ‘heel,’ and made up a feud with professional wrestler Jerry “The King” Lawler. (In fact, they were friends). And he wrestled women, as part of his act.

Kaufman’s act was a convoluted deconstruction of comedic convention, whether it involved his intentionally bad Foreign Man impressions (which he’d follow up with a spot-on Elvis), reading The Great Gatsby on-stage, or announcing his conversion to Christianity and engagement to a gospel singer. Kaufman never really did stand-up. His entire act was a long, extended piece of performance art. He was the original reality TV star.

So how out of character would it be for Andy Kaufman to take parts of his Tony Clifton characterization, turn him into an obnoxious billionaire, and run for President?

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Andy Kaufman can’t be Donald Trump, because he died in 1984. But did he really?

  1. In 2014, a woman claiming to be his daughter showed up to the Andy Kaufman Awards show in New York, insisting that her Dad had faked his death and was still alive.
  2. Andy Kaufman’s brother, Michael, insists that Andy is still alive, and that he has been in contact with him.
  3. A video of Kaufman was found in 2013, showing him living in New Mexico.
  4. He was Andy Kaufman. Why wouldn’t he fake his own death?

Other evidence: Donald Trump was born in 1946; Kaufman in 1949. Close enough. Trump is listed at 6′ 3″, while Kaufman was also tall, at 6′ 1″. Close enough. Trump is famous for his combover; Kaufman was balding at the time of his death or disappearance. They both had roundish faces, prominent noses.

More to the point, though, look at the Trump campaign. The essence of the campaign is precisely similar to Kaufman’s comedy. Trump takes ideas to their logical possible extreme, then bluffs his way through the resulting mayhem. He’s not a conservative Republican, he’s playing one, on TV, for political purposes, and it gets him in all kinds of trouble. And, of course, it’s also really funny.

So: ‘should women who have chosen to have abortions be punished, legally?’ Well, if abortion is the wanton taking of human life, then the answer to that is obviously yes. But the pro-life movement is trying to win hearts and minds; they can’t, you know, say that. So Trump, hilariously, changed his position on abortion five times in three days. Genuine confusion? Or satire?

On every issue, Trump (or Kaufman) does this. Republicans always propose tax cuts. So what does “Republican” Trump do? Proposes a tax cut so massive as to be completely bonkers, while still insisting he’ll pay off the deficit in 8 years. Macroeconomic ignorance? Or supply-side deconstruction?

What would a billionaire businessman do in foreign policy? Well, the one thing he knows is how to make deals. So he’d look at our free trade agreements first, and promise to renegotiate them, more favorably for us. Trade wars? I don’t care about no stinkin’ trade wars.

Plus, you know, the wall. That wonderful, surreal, Kaufmanesque wall, to keep the Latkas of the world out. Which Mexico will happily, happily pay for.

Last week, the comedy kept building. Trump pretended to take a hard, serious look at NATO, and ended up concluding ‘we should get rid of it.’ Same with South Korea;  ‘what are we getting out of protecting Seoul? Why shouldn’t Japan have nukes? And Saudi Arabia, why not?’ And then, when Europe and Asia and the rest of the world collectively lose it, he plays Mafia don: ‘if you want our protection, it’s going to cost you. Pony up.’ That’s Trump’s foreign policy. “I’m going to make ’em an offer they can’t refuse.”

You can’t say that Andy hasn’t thought the characterization through.

Look at the way Andy Kaufman treated women. One of the things Kaufman was most known for was wrestling women. Of course, his wrestling matches were, again, purely performance art. One of his first ‘opponents’ was Laurie Anderson, for heaven’s sake. As Bill DeMain put it, “despite Kaufman’s over-the-top parody of a trash-talking, chauvinistic jerk, a lot of people believed the whole thing was real. Just like they believed wrestling was real.” And they sent hate mail by the bucketful.

Sound like anyone we know?

So we need to ask. Andy. Did you hear about this one? Tell me, are you locked in the punch? Andy are you goofing on Elvis, hey, baby?

Are you having fun?

I’ll admit, there are a couple of problems with my theory. First of all, if Andy Kaufman has been playing Donald Trump for years, what happened to the real Donald? I suppose it’s possible that Ivana smothered him with a pillow, but proving it could be tricky. Second, although Kaufman’s absolute commitment to his various comic bits was impressive, surely he’s looking forward to the reveal?

And the reveal pretty much needs to happen soon. Doesn’t it?