Posted in No Politics Friday on October 23rd, 2016 by Ed

More than a year into its rise as a Cultural Phenomenon, I knew almost nothing about "Hamilton." I do not like musicals in general – there's nothing wrong with them, I'm simply not the intended audience for it given the things I like – so not only did I not make an effort to see it but I remained almost totally ignorant of it. I knew it involved rap and Aaron Burr and a guy named Lin-Manuel Miranda who received a Macarthur Grant despite the fact that he already earned like a billion dollars off the musical. Other than that, I was a blank slate when an old friend texted me that an extra ticket was available for a group outing among her friends. Though somewhat worried about the ticket cost (I'd heard rumors, dark rumors) I accepted. It didn't seem likely to hurt me to put on some decent looking clothes and hang out with other adults for a while on a Sunday.

I would not necessarily recommend that anyone run out and pay the borderline crazy prices being sought for second hand tickets, but I will say that I have a very, very hard time believing that anyone who saw this performance could fail to enjoy it. I looked hard for reasons not to like it, and I found none. There are some minor nits to pick with the production, like the fact that the cartoon Pepe le Pew French accent makes Lafayette totally unintelligible, and with the accuracy of the way that some people are portrayed. Thomas Jefferson's role, as many critics have noted, is particularly odd but I also understand that this is a musical, intended to entertain, and that some character would have to serve as the comic relief and secondary antagonist. The spirit of the events retold here is accurate, and obviously the writer was not trying to reproduce conversations verbatim (it turns out the people involved did very little rapping in 1800). Overall, I strongly suspect that a viewer who could not enjoy a live performance of this musical is not capable of enjoying much of anything.

This is so Ed, but I have to be honest about something: I liked it slightly less when, later that evening, I did a little reading about Mr. Miranda. There's nothing deficient about his character or his motives. He obviously created something that strikes a chord with audiences right now and deserves to be rewarded handsomely for it. What disappointed me slightly – remember, I consume no theater or musicals at all – was that he was already successful when he wrote this. As it had been told to me, I was under the impression that this was a crazy idea carried out by an eccentric genius, a man devoted entirely to an idea so insane that one can only admire the fact that he stuck it through to completion. "It's going to be about Alexander Hamilton, but lots of rapping" is not a description that would produce many encouraging responses.

However, Miranda had already starred in a play called In the Heights and had been nominated for a Tony Award for his performance. Even I know that means he was already well established in the world of Broadway, enough so that he could take a relatively crazy idea and receive full benefit of doubt. No matter how bad the idea looked on paper, you can imagine the money people saying "Well, what the hell. His last one was a hit" and putting it on anyway. I'm not sure why, but that diminished it for me just a bit. It didn't change the performance, obviously, but it took a little bit of the shine off the backstory. I guess I liked the idea of some guy living dollar to dollar sitting in his apartment scribbling out a script and telling himself, "You'll see! It will be a hit, I'm telling you! Just you watch and see!" Everyone likes a good Starving Artist Makes It story, I guess.

Lastly, I think one of the reasons many people do not like musicals is that it's hard to do a musical really well, and the difference between a musical done really well and one that is mediocre or worse is stark. There are only a small number of performers with enough talent to really pull something as conceptually weird as Hamilton off. I'm sure this will eventually spawn several touring versions, which may or may not be just as good, but I'm glad I saw it with the A+ cast while I had the chance. I think it would be hard to pull off with anything less than the best performers.

So for the first and last time that's my take on a musical. Ten stars, would see again, call the babysitter, fun for the whole family.


Posted in Rants on October 19th, 2016 by Ed

All year long I've felt (and voiced privately, because it's a bit salty to put it out there in public even by my standards) that Trump has been taking it strangely easy on The Jews.

Hold on. Don't make angry comments yet.

I'm not saying that Trump or anyone else SHOULD be blasting The Jews for any particular reason. It is merely that given the campaign's regular recourse to racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and in general the basest kinds of bigotry, it was unexpected and somewhat surprising that anti-Semitism would not be present as well. I hope that makes sense. I'm not advocating anti-Semitism; it merely struck me as bizarre that we were seeing far less anti-Semitism from him than one would expect given his neolithic attitudes toward every other group defined as The Other by white protestant male America.

It turned out, as it so often has throughout this campaign, that I only had to be patient and that with time things would indeed get Much Worse. When Trump announced on Oct. 13 (in PALM BEACH of all places, I mean what the hell, maybe he can book the Apollo Theater in Harlem and rip on black people for an hour) that "international bankers" were to blame for many of the ills, real or imagined, that his supporters bemoan, I realized that he had merely been keeping anti-Semitism in reserve as kind of a closing act. Jew-bashing would be to Trump 2016 what Beyonce and Jay-Z would be to a long music festival: the big finish. The crescendo. The climax.

There is not a sentient adult who fails to recognize references to Bankers, particularly of the International variety, as a crystal clear euphemism for Jews dating back to the Renaissance. It is almost literally the oldest trick in the book. The wink is implied. In his inaugural address, even FDR – a friend of Jews in general and reliant upon dozens of Jewish individuals in his administration – sunk to the level of telling Americans that "wicked moneylenders" and "bankers" were responsible in dark but unspecified ways for the Great Depression. True, the banking system as a whole was at its heart; nonetheless the choice of language is a clear appeal to baser attitudes.

The more I thought about Trump's remarks of Oct. 13 it became apparent that in the modern era, anti-Semitism is the final stage of the growth cycle of demagoguery. It used to come earlier in the process of Idiot Mitosis because it used to be more socially acceptable and Jews were generally a powerless underclass in any society they inhabited in numbers. Today Jews have more social and political power as a group and thus the first stages of bigoted demagoguery focus on groups against whom prejudice is more socially acceptable: blacks, Hispanics, immigrants in general, and so on. So it makes sense to start there. It is not until a group or individual has made peace with dwelling on the fringes and has accepted marginalization that he or they embrace good old fashioned Jew-bashing. An unsettling percentage of Americans don't much mind politicians dumping all over blacks (referenced by any number of dog-whistle euphemisms), immigrants, the poor, and people identifiably "foreign" living among us. Anti-Semitism, once as popular among the upper crust as among the lowest classes, is now too obviously gauche, too lower class to be accepted in Ivy League schools and corporate board rooms. This is not to suggest that anti-Semitism no longer exists, but that it is today more likely to be frowned upon in the same settings in which slanders against "thugs" and "welfare queens" and "the Mexicans" would still receive an approving nod.

When someone goes after The Jews in 2016, that is a person preparing for a life beyond the fringes of respectability in polite society. It is the difference between Ben Carson and Alex Jones; the former lives on the fringes of range of acceptable opinions, the latter is comfortably beyond them. Embracing the language and theories of The Protocols and Henry Ford (callback to Monday's post!) is a signal that post-Election 2016 Donald Trump is not going to be a figure welcome anywhere in polite society. He is about to be shunned as if he is toxic and he knows it, so like a smart, savvy self-promoting narcissist he is ensuring that the path is clear between his current place on the fringes and his future pandering to neo-Nazis and selling books and media programming to white nationalists.


Posted in Rants on October 17th, 2016 by Ed

Most Americans who are reasonably well informed about history know that Henry Ford was at least as important and influential to the development and popularity of anti-Semitism in the United States as he was to the automobile. That's saying a lot, given that it is almost impossible to overstate Ford's contributions to the latter industry. He can be credited with very few actual innovations in automotive engineering, as the Germans and French can claim most of the world's automotive "firsts" (which explains, incidentally, why so many French terms like chassis, limousine, chauffeur, coupe, garage, and carburetor made it into English). But like his friend Thomas Edison, where he excelled was not as an inventor but as someone who could apply ideas on a grand scale successfully. He took ideas available to him – both automotively and with anti-Semitism – and really made them work on a scale other proponents could hardly have imagined let alone executed.

The Dearborn Independent, Ford's anti-Jewish rag, was a source of friction (obviously) between Ford and his Jewish friends and colleagues. Most abandoned him without hesitation. One, powerful Detroit rabbi Leo Franklin, had been a friend of Ford long enough to attempt to appeal to him on a personal level. Franklin believed, as was undeniably the case, that Ford was a fundamentally decent person who simply wasn't very bright and was easily led to support wacky ideas outside of his narrow range of mechanical and organizational talents. During a libel trial, for example, Ford received great ridicule for being unable to answer grade school level questions about the world, such as the significance of the year 1776 to American history.

Alas, Franklin eventually gave up. When Ford representatives sent the rabbi a new Ford in 1920, as they did annually, he returned the gift. Informed of this by his underlings, Ford asked incredulously and sincerely, "What's wrong Dr. Franklin? Has anything come between us?"

Ford believed, as many people do, that he could be virulently anti-Jewish without that fact interfering with his personal relationships with Jews. He argued in essence, I don't like Jews in general or as a whole but of course I like YOU in particular, Jewish Friend. It's the classic soft racist "I'm not against all ______, just the bad ones. You're one of the good ones" tactic.

A few weeks ago a generally very good sports journalism website ran this piece, "Donald Trump is Tearing the NFL Apart," to offer an interesting look at how personal friendships are being strained by the current political climate. Certainly the clickbait title is alarmist and the "data" of the voting preferences of 25 black and 25 white players is useless in any meaningful sense, but despite that the underlying issue here is real. It turns out that when one supports a political candidate who is so outspokenly derogatory toward anyone who isn't a white Christian male and whose election would represent real, tangible threats to women, Hispanics, African-Americans, and other demographics, people might re-evaluate their friendship with you. And it is not difficult at all to imagine many of the white Trump supporters in that article being genuinely surprised that black players might not feel particularly close with them anymore after learning that they like a guy who has employed literally every form of coded racism known to man in his campaign, along with some of the more explicit type.

Americans – white ones in particular – are in love with the idea that politics and religion can be segregated neatly into a separate reality that does not have to interfere with friends and family relationships. And in many cases, it works well enough. I find it very difficult but not impossible to imagine someone breaking off a friendship because Joe decided to vote for the lukewarm hole in the atmosphere that was Mitt Romney. Sure, there are people whose lives would be worse off had he been elected (and others whose lives would be better, namely the super rich) but he was hardly a polarizing figure. Most people probably struggle to remember his name right now.

The Trump campaign has so openly embraced the style and message of European far-right nationalist parties, the white power movement, and other groups whose popularity derives from racism, xenophobia, or other Neanderthal sentiments from the bottom of the political barrel that it's not hard to understand why someone not defined as a Real American by Trump would take it personally that friends and family support him. We're never supposed to take politics personally. We're supposed to "leave those differences aside" and carry on while avoiding the subject for the sake of maintaining good relations. That concept works alright if we support different candidates in the usual narrow window of political disagreement found in American politics. We're not going to come to blows because your guy supports repealing the Estate Tax, even though I find that idea both stupid and immoral.

This is a long way of saying to the people who support Trump (and therefore would never read this) that "Let's agree to disagree and keep being friends" is a poor strategy this year. However you've managed to rationalize it in your head, supporting someone so openly and enthusiastically racist, xenophobic, and flat-out mean says a lot about you. White America already asks quite a lot of people we define as Not One of Us: that they protest, dress, behave, talk, think, act, and generally live in a way that makes us feel comfortable. And it is a deep irony that the same people most likely to cry "White privilege isn't real!" are the ones who expect black and Hispanic people in their lives (not to mention women, LGBT people, and a host of others Trump Cretins define as the enemy) to laugh off their Trump support or ignore it so that a bunch of angry white guys don't have hurt feelings and don't have to spend any time reflecting on what their endorsement of a de facto white supremacist says about them. If that isn't privilege, then nothing is.


Posted in Rants on October 12th, 2016 by Ed

A lot of people who have experienced it as a tactic of emotional abuse react negatively to applying the term "gaslighting" to politics, but this Jamelle Bouie article about the VP debate makes a convincing case that it is the best description for one of the Trump campaign's main strategies and, in the future, most toxic legacy.

I've been in two relationships where this has happened to me. It hits me hard and in an exaggeratedly personal way when I see this happen in a political context. As a tactic, there's no doubt that it works. After weeks and months of being told that you're crazy, that you're imagining things, that things that happened did not happen, that things that were said were not said…it's not much of a leap to questioning your own sanity and perception. And it's not easy to bounce back from, either. It has been several years since I got away from it and I'm not completely over thinking that way. The way I hold onto things, there's a decent chance I'll never be completely over it.

Only very rarely do I write about even the most trivial personal matters on here, so it feels very uncomfortable to throw this out there. But I bring it up to underscore the viscerally negative reaction I have to watching Trump and Pence use a calculated strategy of lying blatantly and assuming – correctly, in most cases – that Americans are too lazy, too uninterested, or too short of attention span to remember to check their statements for accuracy. There is no other explanation for why a candidate would repeatedly insist "I/he never said that" when it is so remarkably easy to verify in this day and age that it was in fact said. Hillary Clinton's campaign, just for example, had videos of Trump saying many of the things Pence asserted he never said circulating online before the debate even concluded.

To formulate a campaign strategy around a technique of abuse and manipulation says a lot about the kind of human beings we are dealing with here. Politics has always treated the truth somewhat casually. Interpretations of facts, statements, and events are often creative to say the least. But simply to insist that a verifiable fact, statement, or event is not true or did not happen is rarer than our cynical view on politics might conclude. Imagine if George H.W. Bush had campaigned in 1992 insisting that he never said "Read my lips" or if Bill Clinton continued to insist that he had no "sexual relations with that woman" even after evidence was brought to light that it did. People lie a lot in politics, but rarely do they continue to perpetuate a lie that can be so easily disproved.

It takes a remarkable amount of gall to do that on a worldwide television broadcast. Or it takes a total lack of respect for the dupes you perceive to be watching. Or it takes being a fundamentally abusive, manipulative, narcissistic person. The Venn Diagram of those three circles has Trump and Pence in the middle.


Posted in Rants on October 11th, 2016 by Ed

At the end of the summer I made some predictions about the general election, some of which were very specific and clearly aren't going to work out (e.g., Trump "firing" Pence as a publicity stunt now seems farcical, while Pence quitting the ticket in a desperate attempt to salvage his political future seems marginally more plausible). But we've reached a stage in this campaign that I've feared was coming since Trump became the presumptive nominee: The point at which he, a man psychologically incapable of accepting the idea of losing anything, realizes that there is not a chance in hell he is going to win. In fact, the odds are improving that he may receive a drubbing the likes of which we haven't seen since the Franklin Roosevelt years. Trump, in short, is dead in the water. It doesn't matter that everyone knows it; I'm not looking forward to what happens now that he knows it.

With one tweet, the Republican nominee for president essentially kicked off a month of what promises to be pure scorched Earth politics. If he can't win, then causing as much misery and destruction as possible on his way to the losers' podium is the next best thing. I still expect this to culminate with an insistence shortly before Election Day – timing the announcement to cause maximum damage to the GOP he now hates as much as the Democrats – that his supporters shouldn't bother voting, that he never really wanted to be president anyway, and that he's come to the conclusion that America does not deserve his genius. He's been laying the groundwork for his post-defeat narrative since the summer, creating a "Stab in the Back" legend before the ballots even had his name printed on them.

It appears that the Vagina Grabbing tape was the last straw for some of his less ardent supporters, and certainly we could have a field day talking about why that was a bridge too far when they had been willing previously to condone all the racist, xenophobic, proto-fascist things he has said. His chances of winning hover around statistical zero. People and organizations who haven't supported a Democrat for half a century or more are giving at least grudging support to Hillary Clinton. Her myriad flaws as a candidate don't even seem to matter at this point; the country is willing to settle for her strictly on the basis that she appears to be largely sane and not openly displaying most of the diagnostic criteria for sociopathy.

I do not for a moment relish the opportunity to see "unshackled" Donald Trump. If this has been him behaving, trying to appear likable, attempting to play within some kind of set of rules, then it strains the imagination to think of how much worse he can get. I feel like Sunday night's debate was a preview of the rest of the campaign; he made not the slightest effort to talk about any of the political issues where he makes some people think he sounds reasonable, instead going full Yahoo Comment Section. We're in for four weeks of Vince Foster, Benghazi, 33,000 emails, Sidney Blumenthal, and basically every idiotic right-wing conspiracy theory to enjoy any popularity on the internet at any point in the last 10 years. He's done with "We need to bring jobs back to the United States" and is casting his entire lot in with the revenge fantasies of the white underclass. Without even a passing effort to connect anything he says to reality or the truth, expect that any and every email forwarded to you by your least intelligent friends and relatives over the past few months to become a fully fledged talking point until November when this mercifully ends.

We are unaccustomed to uncompetitive presidential elections. The last real blowout took place in 1988, and 1984 before it was the last time the map was essentially one color. The Republican Party is going to come face to face with the hardest of the hard core of its base, and it's unlikely to like what it sees – a group of people whose views are medieval, inarticulate, and unmovable, and a group of people rapidly shrinking in this country. But that problem is not ours to solve. We need merely to find out a way to hold on for another month and then begin the process of purging this entire embarrassing, enraging experience from our collective unconscious.


Posted in No Politics Friday on October 7th, 2016 by Ed

Because my work schedule involves me working a lot and sleeping little on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday before a 3-4 hour drive home in traffic on Thursday evening, I've really been dropping the ball on NPF lately. Let's just say I'm not filled with enthusiasm for writing or doing much of anything else when I walk through the door at 9:00 and flop on the couch. I'm going to try to make it all up to you with the power of this one story.

The British Empire once proudly boasted of covering more of the planet than any in history. While it remains technically true today that "the sun never sets" on said Empire, it has declined to a very tiny sliver of what it used to be. Yes, the UK still has colonial possessions of various kinds. However, the list is not terribly impressive. In the three decades after the conclusion of WWII nearly every part of the Empire that stood a passing chance of surviving on its own economically and militarily declared independence, and the last real part of the Empire of any significance – Hong Kong – returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. What remains, with the arguable exception of Bermuda, is a scattered list of barely populated islands held due to military significance (Diego Garcia, Ascension Island) or because nobody wants them (Saint Helena, Tristan da Cunha, etc). The Empire as it remains is less a proud possession and more of a burden. You get the distinct impression that were there any way to talk Saint Helena into declaring independence or perhaps to find another country willing to take it the Brits would hand it over with pleasure.

The saddest part of the Empire, though, is Pitcairn Island. Home to less than 50 people today, Pitcairn is known (if at all) as the place where Fletcher Christian and the mutineers from the "Mutiny on the Bounty" incident took refuge. The story has been made into books, films, and other media countless times, so at least Britons are familiar with it. Pitcairn is one of the most isolated populated places in the world, and its population of heavily inbred castoffs has only garnered the interest of the modern world in 2004 when women who escaped the island brought suits in UK courts claiming (accurately, as it turned out) that the island's primary social activity for decades had been organized rape. The UK is at present patiently waiting for the remaining islanders – no women of child bearing age remain to grow the population – to die out so they can declare it uninhabited and be done with administering it once and for all.

So. Let's time travel to a different but equally sad place: Appalachia in the early 1980s. It's time to meet a man named Smiley Ratliff.

Mr. Ratliff was a cartoon character, a multimillionaire coal baron right out of Central Casting. He was dumb, crude, uneducated, weird, profane, and somewhere to the right of the John Birch Society (which he actively supported) – a hybrid of JR Ewing from Dallas and Jed Clampett. Briefly, Mr. Ratliff had a short list of things he hated with a passion bordering on obsession: Communists, psychoanalysis, paying taxes, and journalists were the primary villains in his world. The things he loved included privacy, drinking, his dozen mistresses, and watching old cowboy movies. So, to make a long story short, Smiley decided in the late 70s that what he really needed was to find a remote island somewhere on the globe, buy it, rebuild his enormous mansion there, and be left alone for all eternity.

That is how, one day in 1982, a no doubt bemused British civil servant responded haughtily to a request to purchase Henderson Island – an unpopulated rock off Pitcairn – for the purpose of building an airstrip, leveling everything else, and importing the entire life of one Mr. Arthur "Smiley" Ratliff there. Parts of the Empire are not for sale, "SIR," you can imagine him saying. Undeterred, Ratliff used his wealth and political connections to press the matter. Eventually it occurred to someone in Whitehall that, matters of honor and pride aside, the British do not actually want this goddamn place anymore. And – though it later attempted to deny it – that is how the British ended up very nearly accepting his generous offer of $3 million cash, an airstrip on Henderson with a ferry boat to allow its use by Pitcairners (who were and are otherwise without an air link to the outside world) and medical and telecommunications facilities for Pitcairn and Henderson.

The man was crude and uneducated, but he knew how to do business apparently. The UK government began to realize that it couldn't generate a good enough excuse NOT to accept such an offer. Pitcairn was a money pit and its people a national embarrassment. Here was a man willing to essentially take over the burden of supporting the place in exchange for being allowed to do whatever he wanted on an empty fragment of land near it. Alas, those proud defenders of Empire and British pride found salvation in the World Wildlife Fund, which pointed out that Mr. Ratliff's plan would devastate the pristine habitat of dozens of rare flora and fauna. Some are found nowhere else on Earth. Rather than further antagonize the environmentalists already vocally criticizing the UK government in the early 1980s, Whitehall informed ol' Smiley with regret that it must decline his very nice offer.

Ratliff died in 2007, never having found a government to sell him an island but not for lack of trying. And that's the story of how the British almost sold part of the Empire populated by inbred hillbillies to a different, very wealthy hillbilly so that he might turn it into some kind of Xanadu / Fortress of Solitude.

It's good to be back, Fridays.


Posted in No Politics Friday on October 5th, 2016 by Ed

At long last, you can finally show the world how important regular visits to The Clurb are in your life. If you are not familiar with The Clurb you must not be following Gin and Tacos on Facebook, which is your loss. Due to popular demand I'm offering the following Swag (as the kids probably no longer say) featuring a campaign-inspired design inviting everyone to follow you to The Clurb.

These stylish t-shirts show the world that you're on your way to The Clurb AND on the reverse side (not pictured) invites said world to "Dance Up On Me." Gin and Tacos is not responsible for any Dancing Up On that occurs as a result of these cotton-poly blend Canvas brand t-shirts screenprinted (no cheap transfers) in vibrant color in Ohio, USA by Screenin' Fever. Unisex / Men's shirts in athletic/heather gray are $20 plus a small shipping fee and, since women earn 79% of a man's salary for the same work in this country, Women's fit V-Neck shirts (also by Canvas in heather gray) are $17. Click for Canvas sizing guides for unisex and women's v-neck shirts. Click the image to order, or here to see a slightly larger version of the shirt. (Note: as of the date of this post this is a PRE-SALE, since I have no idea what sizes and quantity are in demand. Shirts will arrive to you no later than Oct. 30)

Choose size and style

BUT WAIT. THERE'S MORE. We have these lovely bumper stickers in UV-resistant vinyl from the fine folks at Sticker Robot. 9" x 2". Guaranteed to get you followed by strangers intrigued by the mysteries of The Clurb. $4.50 (shipping included in the US, with a $2 surcharge for non-US shipping). Slap one on your car, your guitar case, your genitals, or literally anywhere solid. Here's a full sized image, or click the sticker below to purchase via PayPal.

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Can you do any less than order one now? Finally you'll have a garment suitable to be married in!


Posted in Rants on October 4th, 2016 by Ed

I'm not much for providing practical information here unless splenic venting is suddenly practical. That said, my research on voter turnout requires me to keep up with changes in the processes of registration and voting, so it seemed worth the time to put together a short guide to ways that They are trying to make voting more difficult and what you can do about them. I can't lie: following these steps will take about five minutes of your time. I can't make it any easier than that, because registration and voting rules vary by state and I can't (OK, don't want to) type out the rules for every state in the union right here. Meet me halfway?

As a foreword, regardless of what ID requirements exist in your state, bring a valid photo ID with you – a passport, driver's license, State ID, or equivalent. This will be your best asset in any attempt to challenge your identity or residency. If you're a US citizen and reading this, my guess is you have one of these.

Now, onto the specifics:

1. Issue: You are not registered properly. Have you moved since the last time you voted? Has your state passed a totally not-racist law that kicks voters off the rolls if their name in the state system is not an exact match for the Social Security database? That's right, in some states like Georgia voters are being purged now if one database says, for example, "Jose" and the other says "José". Do you have a "hard" name, especially one that is hard for old white people? Do you sometimes go by Denise Hall-Smith and sometimes as Denise Hall? If any such conditions apply, it is worth it to double-check.
What to do about it: Contact your state board of elections now to verify your registration. Google your state board. The website may have a tool that allows you to search and verify your registration, but most SBOE websites are intentionally difficult to use. directs you to the relevant website in your state. If a phone call is necessary, call. If you have not yet registered, deadlines for most states occur within the next 10 days. Do it now. The NAACP offers this print-and-mail form, but most state websites have an easier process in place now.

2. Issue: Long lines. In some jurisdictions – I'll let you guess which ones – underproviding voting equipment and reducing the number of polling places is a passive-aggressive tactic to reduce turnout. People see a line out the door and get back in the car. In Maricopa County, Arizona, for example, the March 2016 primaries saw only one polling station per 20,000 voters (one per 1000 is considered average).
What to do about it: Two things. One, vote before Election Day. Two, if you cast an in-person Election Day vote (EDV), go in the morning if at all humanly possible. Every state now offers some kind of alternatives to in-person EDV. Does your state offer no questions asked absentee ballots? Request one now. Is early voting at a central location, usually your county courthouse, offered? If so, what dates? Are "Voting Centers" (as in New Mexico) available throughout your city, and if so, can you plan to visit one in a less crowded area? As far as voting on Election Day, polling places are like airports; the problems accumulate throughout the day and eventually choke the system to a halt. Just like that 6 AM flight is most likely to depart O'Hare on time, your vote at 8 AM is much, much less likely to encounter delays than a 6:30 PM vote. If your personal situation permits, vote early.

3. Issue: You don't know where to vote. Polling places are moved, and not infrequently. You may know where you voted in 2012 and 2014; is that the same place to vote in 2016?
What to do about it: Both your state's website and national databases like this one will show you the correct voting location for your registered address. In most states you must vote at this location. If your state uses "Voting Centers" you may have options, but assume that the polling place for your specific address is where you must plan on voting.

4. Issue: Someone tries to stop you from voting. This is 100% clear. Whether "poll watchers" are with an organized group or self-appointed vigilantes, no individual can prevent you from being able to vote. Being prepared to verify your identity and registration status is a good idea.
What to do about it: If someone challenges you, DO NOT LEAVE. Remain calm. You do not have to follow any orders that do not come from a law enforcement officer or a properly credentialed state or county election official. If available, use your phone to take pics or video of the person interfering with your rights. Provide ID documents to properly credentialed election officials. Call 866-OUR-VOTE and speak with an attorney for free to receive advice and report voter intimidation. Do. Not. Leave. Repeat firmly and calmly to properly credentialed election officials that you are entitled to a ballot until you are done voting.

5. Issue: OK, you screwed up. Now what? Sometimes people with good intentions do something wrong. Maybe you go to the wrong polling place or you got dropped from the registered voting rolls for some technical reason without your knowledge. Don't give up just because you are informed that something has gone wrong.
What to do about it: request a provisional ballot and instructions on how to fix whatever registration issue exists. This varies by state, but in most states you can cast a ballot that will not be counted until you have fixed your issue. Doing so often requires only some easy steps like signing an affidavit certifying that you are who you claim to be. If you visit the wrong polling place, a provisional ballot can be sent to your correct precinct after Election Day in most states. Do not be aggressive; you may be the one who made an innocent mistake here. The poll workers are volunteers following a set of rules. They should be prepared for the procedure of issuing a provisional ballot. If they are not, insist on speaking to someone who can. Call your state board of elections if necessary.

So, in summary, to ensure that none of the many efforts to trip citizens up in their efforts to vote are effective against you, do the following today. Not soon, not next week, but today.

1. Confirm your proper registration and polling place location.
2. Investigate alternatives – Can you vote early? Get an absentee ballot? Vote at a location other than your polling place?
3. Plan ahead. If you must vote on Election Day, go early in the morning rather than after work if at all possible. Confirm your polling hours, which vary by state.
4. Bring photo ID and phone numbers to report problems. 866-OUR-VOTE, the local chapter of the ACLU, the Justice Department voting hotline, and your state/county Boards of Election can all help in an emergency. Expect them to be very busy on Election Day.
5. Report any malfeasance you witness to one of these resources.
6. Help others if you see them being challenged.

You will spend 30 minutes watching Netflix and YouTube videos today. You certainly can devote a few of those minutes to following these simple steps to ensure that nothing stands between you and voting.


Posted in Rants on October 2nd, 2016 by Ed

The constant complaints from the right about the inaccuracy of polling reflects a deep-seated distrust of Math and Facts and Science that happens to disappear completely whenever the polls say they're doing well. It has been especially amusing this year to listen to their conspiracy theories, since anyone with even a passing understanding of the process (and challenges) of conducting polling today would realize that if anything they are likely to oversample the most likely Trump supporters.

I've always defended, and will continue to defend, the fundamental reliability of the polling. Is every polling firm totally above board and in compliance with AAPOR standards in every single poll they conduct? Of course not. There is always going to be a "pay the piper" element to polling conducted on the behalf of media outlets, parties, campaigns, and politically active groups. But taken as a whole, polling gets it right. Since 2000, polling has done an almost eerily good job of predicting election outcomes provided – and this is an important caveat – we are willing to accept "too close to call" as a valid result. One of the reasons that aggregate polls have become so popular as a predictive tool on sites like 538, Real Clear Politics, and is simple: it's really quite accurate.

Most polling agencies now incorporate some measure of online-administered responses in their samples, but telephone polling of both landline and cell users remains the backbone of the industry. And polling industry people will tell you that random samples do not materialize from random phone dialing. In theory it should, but here's the thing: while any phone number has an equal chance of being dialed by a random number generator, there is a bias to who actually 1) answers the phone and 2) stays on the line to participate once they realize that this is either telemarketing or a survey. One of the reasons pollsters have such a hard time getting young people, low income people, blacks and Hispanics, and other demographic groups in their samples is that those people are the least likely to stay on the phone and participate even if the survey team manages to reach them. For younger and cell-only users, they're unlikely to even answer when they see an unrecognized number.

So, to produce random samples survey researchers resort to a lot of…statistical adjustments. Weights are given to respondents until the sample roughly approximates their target population. Firms differ in whether their "ideal" sample is the population as a whole or their best guess at the demographics of the electorate that actually shows up to vote (different guesses about which groups of people will turn out and in what numbers are one of the key reasons that polls often vary slightly among firms). They get away with this largely because 1) Young people generally do not vote, so getting a sample with few young voters is survivable, 2) African-Americans and Hispanics are pretty monolithic in their Democratic preferences, so a small number can be weighted to represent a larger population without much error, and 3) old white people are both the most likely to respond when phoned and the most likely to vote.

Why is it that the majority of people responding – not being called, but actually responding – to polling calls are old? Well. They're more likely to be home when a pollster decides to call, especially after retirement. They're more likely to want to vent their opinions at someone. They're less likely to reflexively hang up on an obvious cold call because they developed their phone habits in an earlier era. And, I'm sorry to say, a lot of them are just lonely and want to talk to someone. The challenge of polling in this era certainly is not "How do we get enough likely Trump supporters in our sample, especially white ones over 55?" The challenge is getting anything other than that.

To that end, right wingers who complain about polling are correct: the unweighted sample drawn by polling firms is not truly representative of the demographics of the nation or even of the electorate. It is, if anything, over-representing the people who are most likely to be conservatives today.


Posted in Rants on September 28th, 2016 by Ed

It is not a secret that I've never cared much for Hillary Clinton. Personally, I find it difficult to get very enthusiastic about anyone in the "New Democrat / New Labour" (Bill) Clinton / Blair mode of the 1990s. It's obvious that they're willing to embrace neoliberalism if doing so helps them maintain a grip on power and some other part of their agenda deemed more important and worthy of sacrificing another part. The constant unwillingness to state a firm position until there is certainty that a sufficient majority of the public will express support for it irritates me to no end.

As for Hillary herself, she always struck me as highly driven, intelligent, and competent. She strikes me equally as someone for whom the aspect of politics that involves projecting personality and warmth do not come naturally. She does it, but she does it in a way that makes it easy to imagine highly priced consultants instructing her on how to do it while practicing before a triptych of mirrors. It's the difference between someone who smiles a lot and John McCain in 2008 after his advisers told him he needs to smile a lot. If you force it, it's gonna look worse than not doing it at all.

That said, I also consider "personality" a wildly overrated measure of candidates. We're not electing a mommy, a drinking buddy, or someone to sit shotgun on a coast-to-coast drive in a cramped car. I want intelligence and judgment in a candidate. It matters very little that Al Gore seems like he would be boring as hell to be around, and it matters a great deal that he probably wouldn't have started a war with Iraq just for shits and giggles on the deluded premise that it would only take a couple of weeks.

But for many, possibly most, voters personality is important. They will not learn enough about the candidates or issues in most cases to make a fully informed judgment, so being able to radiate that "You can trust me, you'd like me if you knew me" vibe is important – for Hillary Clinton and for everyone else. And for her 25 years on the national stage, Hillary Clinton has struggled mightily to generate that kind of feeling. We could talk endlessly about reasons why, particularly the impossible position women are in when trying to tread the line between Too Nice (which makes her ditzy and a lightweight) or Too Serious (which makes her a Bitch). For the present purposes it's sufficient to say that for whatever reason, Hillary Clinton has and always has had very high negatives and one of her most commonly cited vulnerabilities is the difficulty people have warming up to her. More charitable commentators describe her as "robotic" or "seemingly insincere." Less charitable ones print her name on t-shirts prominently featuring the word "bitch" or worse.

On Monday night, Donald Trump did what 25 years of effort on her part, on the part of her numerous advisers and paid staffers, and nine figures worth of advertising over the course of multiple campaigns could never do: he made Hillary Clinton look really human. A sympathetic figure, even if only for a few moments. He solved her most persistent weakness for her, and he did so because he is stupid and he doesn't think about anything he does before, while, or after he does it.

With even the smallest amount of pre-debate planning or forethought Trump would have realized that his "bully" routine was likely to play very poorly in this format to anyone who is not already a die-hard supporter. While Trump Nation would slap its diabetic hands together in glee at the spectacle – "Haw haw! You tell that stupid bitch! Me like big man!" – to everyone else it would look like a half-drunk CEO who calls all the female employees "sweetheart" berating, belittling, and talking over a woman vastly superior to him in experience (even if "bad experience"), intellect, and dignity. Would he have talked to a man the same way? Absolutely. We've seen him do it. But it wouldn't have looked nearly as bad. Her strategic choice to decline to respond to his behavior in kind required either the patience of sainthood or a Xanax scrip.

While most viewers tapped out of that shitshow within the first 45 minutes, I watched it start to finish. And in the last half hour, when Trump really went off the rails even by his standards, I felt something I had never imagined in a million years I would feel: I felt bad for Hillary Clinton. I felt tremendous sympathy for this successful, intelligent woman for whom I have refused to vote in two different elections as she had to stand there and put up with This Shit. I, and I suspect many viewers, felt empathy too – who among us, even men, has not been in the position of having to stand there while some asshole authority figure has talked over us, interrupted us, and generally treated us as something he finds stuck to his shoe after a stroll through the yard. Women probably felt that empathy even more keenly, having been talked over and disregarded by Big Men far more regularly than men experience it. I've never "liked" Hillary Clinton in that way before, and frankly making that happen is a feat of political wizardry on par with convincing America that former Andover and Yale cheerleader George W. Bush was a cowboy with a southern drawl. Trump did what consultants have spent careers trying to do without success; he made Hillary Clinton human and likable.

Hillary is someone who has, to my standards, led a very successful life. I don't pity her, even when people tear her to shreds. I'd give an arm and a leg to have any of the things she has and has had in her career. And somehow on that stage Monday evening, I looked at this multimillionaire, "one percenter" power broker, a member of the American oligarchy if ever there was one, and I felt as bad for her as I would for a nerdy kid getting picked on at the playground. Real, genuine sympathy and empathy. I cannot believe this woman has to put up with this shit, I thought, over and over. This is not fair, I said aloud in an empty apartment. She does not deserve this, because nobody deserves this, to stand there and have this adenoidal ass-clown con man, this ape in a suit, fling feces at her while she has to stand there and take it.

The unusual circumstances of this election – namely the specter of that same ape being the president, led me to conclude months ago that I would vote for Hillary Clinton despite the laundry list of doubts I have about her political positions and track record. There is good, there is bad, and there is unacceptable. When one candidate is unacceptable, you recognize the limited choices made available by the rules of our system, you recognize that life is rarely about getting what we want, and you vote for Not Unacceptable. For at least a few minutes on Monday night, though, I felt like I wanted to vote for her, not because of anything she says or believes but for the sheer disgust I felt at watching the way she was spoken to and treated. That, more than anything else, makes Donald Trump a virtual political miracle worker. He did for her what all the commercials and appearances on talk shows in the world never did. Good work, genius.