BEGIN BY HOARDING SUPPLIES

Posted in Rants on July 16th, 2017 by Ed

Well, the end of the world is upon us. Bill Kristol made a good point.

If there is one thing this President is not, it is complex. He and his motivations are baldy, even embarrassingly, obvious. As even some people in the conservative media are starting to figure out, his entire anti-media, anti-intel barrage since being elected has all been an attempt to ready his base for the information that he and everyone involved with his campaign knows is going to come out. When you know that it is going to be revealed that intelligence professionals have evidence of collusion with Russia on a grand scale, the only play you have is to convince people that everything intelligence professionals say is a lie and oh by the way the media reporting the story is lying too.

This is Chapter 1 of the authoritarian playbook; only I can be trusted. The elites and institutions are scared of me because I am so powerful and honest that they feel threatened, so they will lie to destroy me. Believe nothing and no one except me.

(It's also how cults operate, but that's tangential at the moment. Or is it.)

As Kristol somehow notes astutely, what I have been saying for six months now appears to be true: this is just going to get worse and worse. The dribble of damning information will never stop. Six months is enough to establish a decent understanding of the pattern, and it is (with respect to my old man, a career prosecutor) a very obvious Prosecutor Trick that Trump will never, ever stop falling for. First, present Fact A. Give Trump a week to lie about it in an attempt to explain it away. Reveal Fact B, proving that everything said in response to A was a lie. Give him another week to tie himself to a made-up story. Reveal Fact C. Repeat.

Works every time, at least on people who are wildly overconfident or extremely stupid.

I tend not to believe in large conspiracies – collective action is too difficult to coordinate for most conspiracy theories to be plausible. I don't think, then, that there is one person or a small group of people coordinating the release of this information. But the revelations about Trump's Russian ties do feel eerily regular, like a conveyor belt that neither speeds up nor slows down. Like clockwork, every week brings a new piece of information. Ample time is provided for Trump to throw temper tantrums and make up a bunch of garbage. Then the next one arrives just as the media furor begins to abate.

One thing you will not hear Bill Kristol say, though, is that 2017 is the year we can put to rest any pretensions the GOP had left of having any integrity as a group. It is abundantly clear that they would have strapped Obama into the electric chair on the steps of the Capitol with 1% as much evidence as there now is regarding Trump, yet all we hear are excuses. Ultimately, I still believe that even without principles or integrity, self-preservation is enough to motivate some of these people. Eventually. A House Republican in this era is the perfect example of the person who will do the right thing (and expect to be lauded for it) only after literally every single other option has been exhausted.

SUBMITTING TO PEER PRESSURE

Posted in Quick Hits on July 14th, 2017 by Ed

After holding out for about a decade, I gave up and joined Twitter this week. Here I am on the Twitters. Follow me on the Twitters. Am I doing this right?

Also, the "None of this is OK" t-shirts have shipped, and I have a scattered half dozen still available (men's and women's XXL included). Submit to peer pressure and buy one. Be one of the lucky remaining few.

AGE OF CONSENT

Posted in Rants on July 13th, 2017 by Ed

Although I catch myself in writing, my friends can confirm that in casual conversation I refer to my students as kids. "How was your day?" "Oh, the kids were really dead this morning, there must have been parties last night" or whatever. Technically this is a thing I should not say, because every single student I've ever encountered in my career has been, legally, an adult. Most are 19. The bare minimum for some overachievers is 18. The upperclassmen are like, SUPER adults. They're almost 22.

The reason I and so many other academics I interact with say "kids" is twofold. One is the recognition that even though we teach in universities, we are still teachers; there is a common thread to what I do and what a kindergarten teacher does, as it sometimes becomes all to clear. The other is that a veteran college professor can usually count on two hands the number of students he or she has had who truly carried themselves as adults. It's very easy to lapse into calling them Kids because they are, in all but the legal and physical-medical sense, children.

That is not a way of saying they're Bad. They are often a real joy to deal with. But on the whole they display distinctly kid-like behaviors. They pout. They eye-roll. They throw tantrums when they don't get what they want. They need to be told (begged, cajoled, threatened, etc) a thousand times to do things. They are readily distracted. Their interests tend toward the juvenile.

Again, that's not intended as a string of insults. It's just what they are, with some exceptions. Occasionally I lose time pondering what it says about me, about us, about higher education, and about American students that we call them "kids" when they are properly adults. In the long run it's likely a harmless reaction to forces beyond our control. Society encourages over-parenting and over-protection (Scary threats are everywhere!!) so colleges receive Men and Women who are in many important ways still Boys and Girls. So they mature a little later, socially and personally. No big deal in the grand scheme.

Last year during the Olympics, several famous American athletes embarrassed themselves and the country with drunken loutishness. It was widely noted that the IOC and many apologists for the men, notably Ryan Lochte, concluded that they were just kids having some fun and making some mistakes. Ryan Lochte is 32. This stands in contrast, of course, to black males who are adults – big, terrifying, scary Adults – the minute they graduate from diapers to underwear. The comments about Lochte and other famous "Boys will be boys" white adult men were widely contrasted, for example, with descriptions of 18 year old Michael Brown or 14 year old Tamir Rice. A 14 year old black male must bear the full brunt of the consequences of his actions, while white males of sufficient social class and fame get to play the Boys Will Be Boys card for half of their lives or more.

I bring this up now as I read this comment about Donald Trump Jr., here in WaPo but quoted widely this week:

"The kid is an honest kid," said one friend of Trump Jr. "The White House should’ve never let that story go out on the president’s son"

Donald Trump Jr. is thirty-nine years old. Perhaps the speaker is an older person and to him, everyone under 50 is "kid." But it seems more likely, given his behavior, demeanor, and absolute absence of contact with anything that could be described as Real Life, that people who know him think of him as a kid because he is not an adult in any meaningful way. And because nobody and nothing has ever forced him to accept responsibility for his decisions as an adult might be expected to, here we are talking about the 39 year-old son of a billionaire President of the United States like a teenager who egged the principal's house. Look at his innocent little face; how was he to know?

No one, it goes without saying, will synthesize this view of Donald Jr. as a helpless little puppy-child and his father's decision to give him a great deal of power and authority over a multinational corporation and the affairs of the state. "He's just a kid" and "I'm gonna let him and Jared handle China" blend together seamlessly in a country that's a half step away from just giving up altogether.

ON LEAKS

Posted in Rants on July 11th, 2017 by Ed

Every time Trump says something denigrating the work of the intelligence community, as he did last week when he stated nonsensically that "Nobody knows for sure" if Russians attempted to meddle in the election, every professional who has devoted his or her career to serving the country in that capacity nods and gets ready to turn the thumbscrews one more full revolution. These people are anonymous, and they've spent their entire careers training to be anonymous. But they have more than enough professional skill to dig up an endless array of dirt on someone as loud, attention-hungry, and stupid as Donald Trump has been for thirty-plus years. They have every piece of information they need to reduce him to a smoldering pile of ashes, and they're doling it out piecemeal.

Simply put, an intelligent person would not have spent January shitting all over the people with the greatest potential to destroy him. But Donald Trump is not an intelligent person. He is a blustering idiot, and he thought that if he went hard enough at the CIA and NSA that he could convince the public that everything intel agencies say (especially the things they were about to start saying about him) is false. That gambit failed. And now here we are, after months of pathetic excuses and denials and sophomoric lies, with open admissions of pre-election collusion right before the NY Times, no doubt in possession of intelligence-leaked information, could publish the damning emails itself. And in another week or two, when this revelation has subsided, they will release the next damning evidence.

One of the best strategies in life for self-preservation is to figure out who has the power to destroy you and be really, really certain to stay out of his or her or their way. Yes, Trump and his supporters are correct to note that leaks are the source of most of the revelations about his connections to Russia – the NYT's oblique reference to "three persons familiar with the email" all but screams, "Someone with the ability and desire to dig deep into the Trump landfill sent this to one of our reporters." And the leaking is a direct result of the Boss's total disregard for the law, for democratic norms, and for the people who serve under him. People know that any investigation done within the normal channels will end up being politically quashed. What option does that leave them? Well, they have two. They can sit around and watch this ass clown shit all over everything they care about. Or they can use their vastly superior intelligence (pun intended) to drip-dry him.

As I have been saying since his surprising election, this presidency will end when we reach a breaking point, when the evidence for illegal collusion with Russia is so damning and overwhelming that even congressional Republicans can't ignore it without imperiling their own political careers. This week we are one step closer to that.

INSTITUTIONAL CAPACITY

Posted in Rants on July 9th, 2017 by Ed

The Federal bureaucracy is like the world's most anal-retentive child meticulously building a sand castle for decades. The Trump administration is the asshole who kicks the whole thing down in thirty seconds. Nowhere is that becoming more obvious than in the State Department.

Politico has a piece and Slate has a related podcast on the disintegration of the State Department in less than six months since Trump was inaugurated. Like every aspect of governing under what is essentially a third world style autocrat, every function of the state has been assigned to either a family member or an inner-circle sycophant. Why do we need ambassadors or people who know anything about countries other than the United States? Just send Jared. We can trust Jared. Jared's real smart. Jared will fix it.

This underscores a fundamental reason that Republicans have the upper hand in modern politics. Their only goal is to tear down as much of the structure of government as possible or, perhaps even preferably, turn it into a poorly functioning tool for channeling government contracts to their hangers-on. Democrats, even in the lukewarm Centrist style of Democrats like Hillary Clinton, want The State to do things. Implementing any policy, law, or initiative in which the government has to do something requires the bureaucratic capacity to do it. And in the era of the annual tax cut and the deluded belief that we can budget-cut our way into the black, just maintaining existing capacity is a challenge. Expanding it is out of the question. What is lost during periods of right-wing governance rarely is recovered.

What is happening with the State Department – previously seen, alongside the Pentagon, as one of the few parts of the state Republicans did not actively attempt to set ablaze – is particularly damaging in the long term. For a country that still likes to see itself as the "leader" of the world or at least some portion of it, the machinery of diplomatic interaction would seem to be a prerequisite. The number of career diplomats the State Department has lost and will lose under Trump, combined with a hiring freeze that will create a large cohort gap of talent for the future, virtually guarantees that the ground lost around the world will never be made up. We are looking toward a future in which major world events will take place uninfluenced by the interests and wishes of the United States. When that nightmare for conservatives comes to pass, the blame will of course be ladled on whoever happens to be in the White House at that moment. Historical memory isn't a thing they do, broadly speaking, and no one will recognize the staggering amount of damage done in a short amount of time under Caucasian Mobutu.

NPF: NOT QUITE HISTORY

Posted in No Politics Friday on July 6th, 2017 by Ed

The Telegraph recently ran an update of a story that works its way through the auto journalism community once or twice per year: the "endangered cars of the UK" report. Don't stop reading if you don't care about UK family sedans. There is a larger point here.

Long story short: nationwide auto registration databases are used to track how many of a particular year and model of car are still on the road. And some of the numbers are pretty astonishing. Cars that used to be so common that it seemed like everyone owned one are often down to just a few remaining examples. The once ubiquitous Austin Metro, for example, saw 643,000 built between 1973 and 1981. Today 186 are still on the road – a survival rate of 0.03%.

One culprit, of course, is the legendarily terrible quality of the British Leyland years, which is a story for another time. Many of these cars were not only small, cheap, and spartan, but also put together with extreme indifference or even malice (labor strife led to stories of assembly workers welding glass soda bottles inside doors for shits and giggles). So, many of these cars that ended up at the crusher earned the trip there. At the same time, though, the "classic car" industry proves that people are willing to spend large amounts of money to keep shoddily built crap from the 1970s running. The compact sedans of the "malaise" era simply aren't sexy enough or remembered with enough sentimentality to earn that special treatment, though.

This is a phenomenon I notice a lot in architecture. There is always an outcry to protect "old" buildings (generally anything made before 1970 in the U.S. context). Meanwhile, when the concrete brutalism of the late 1970s and 1980s is slated for the wrecking ball, nobody cares. It isn't old enough to be Historic, new enough to be Modern, or far enough removed from our consciousness to be Nostalgic or Retro. There is a bubble, then between being too new to destroy and not old enough to save. And that's where we lose a lot of history, I suppose. In 30 years collectors will probably pay big bucks for those bland econo-cars now numbering only a few dozen, and architecture fans will be admiring the surviving architecture of the Carter years will be subject to some kind of revival and update.

The cycle moves more quickly with some things – music, for example. Take what is popular today and in five years nobody will have any interest in listening to it. In 20 years it will be Classic and ready to be enjoyed again. Fashion is much the same. You'd instantly recognize a Vintage item from the 50s as valuable while throwing something from the early 00s in the donation bin. If any of us are still alive in 2050, people will be clamoring for those ultra-rare original vintage Jorts or whatever nightmare costuming you thought was a good idea in 2002.

No real resolution here; it's just an interesting pattern I have noticed a lot lately. Things become rare in that interval between being New and being venerable. Why do we value the more distant past so much more than the medium term?

AT LEAST I KNOW I'M FREE

Posted in Rants on July 5th, 2017 by Ed

I almost made it through Independence Day without hearing Lee Greenwood. Alas, I asked too much of myself and this great land.

When I heard it on Tuesday evening, under protest, I marveled at the spectacular corniness of the lyrics. Of particular note is the refrain insisting that the best part about being American is that, come what may, at least Americans have Freedom.

This song was written at the tail end of the Cold War and relied heavily, as did all unsophisticated appeals to patriotism, on the Communist boogeyman. People who lived through that era remember well the tales of political prisons, bread lines, state-controlled everything, and generalized gray malaise that awaited the Free World if Communism were to emerge victorious from the battle of ideologies.

There is no point in rehashing all of that here. What is important and uncontroversial is that the Cold War is over. Communism is Over, despite the handful of mental stragglers who insist that China's lip-service version counts. Other than North Korea, which is too crazy and pitiful to serve as a boogeyman that threatens the Way of Life of the Free World, it is difficult to find examples today of people who are not Free in the sense that Lee Greenwood and Americans during the Cold War used that term.

There are only two threats to the Freedoms of Americans now: ourselves, and our economic system.

To the extent that Americans are not free to say or live as they please today, it is because groups of people who have been oppressed continue to be oppressed by a political majority that insists on imposing its beliefs and cultural attitudes on everyone. To the extent that our ability to do what we please with our lives is limited, it is because we are all too busy trying to scrape together enough money to make ends meet to do anything else.

Implicit in the Cold War Freedom narrative was the ability of a person who worked to earn enough to support a family and perhaps even enjoy a few things in life. Now that we have replaced that notion with "Get a second job" and "Spend your free time serving people in the Sharing Economy," the idea that we are Free because we can wave Bibles around and hoard guns and go online and say awful, stupid, unhinged things is only fooling the easily fooled at this point. An honest appraisal of their own lives by anyone who spent Tuesday belting out Lee Greenwood's chorus would conclude that we are all as free as we can afford to be, and no more. Big Brother isn't the reason you're not free to do what you want with your life; capitalism is.

That is not to say, "Tear down capitalism! Anarchy! Full Communism or fuck off!" It is to say that we owe it to ourselves to be realistic about what, if anything, makes us feel less Free. What are the limitations of your life? What makes it so that you can't say what you want to say, live where and how you want to live, and be happy as you define it? There's a very good chance that the answers to those questions sound the same for most of us: you need a paycheck, and you're tied to a job you probably hate. And because of forces entirely beyond your control, it's very likely impossible for you to quit, move, live as you please, and still somehow pay your ever increasing cost of living.

If "Freedom" means saying whatever we want on the internet and buying a lot of stuff, we have Freedom. But take a look at the unemployment numbers, your stagnant earnings, and the job opportunities around you and Freedom in a more mature, meaningful sense may not feel like the right word anymore.

YOU ARE CELEBRATING PEOPLE WHO READ BOOKS

Posted in Rants on July 3rd, 2017 by Ed

Standard patriotic celebrations of the 4th of July must, as if guided by some unseen law, involve the worship of the people and icons that represent Freedom. The Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Liberty Bell, and of course The Founders – Washington and Jefferson are the standards, Madison makes the occasional appearance, Hamilton is Cool now, and honestly I wonder how many people know Lincoln was not a contemporary of any of them.

It is trite to point out that the majority of Americans displaying these symbols can tell you almost nothing factual about them. Everyone loves the Constitution but nobody has read it. The Declaration of Independence and Constitution are effectively the same thing to many adults. Details of the lives of The Holy Founders are scant; you can drop jaws easily by pointing out that Jefferson didn't write the Constitution. Americans are bad at history. Nothing about this is new or interesting.

That was as true during the founding days of this country as it is today. Your "average man" in 1776 was barely literate or worse. But in the past, we've been less open about embracing ignorance, stupidity, and lack of intellectual curiosity as desired attributes in our leaders than we do at present. A nation that embraces the current president not in spite of but because of the fact that he has never read a book and does not know basic facts about American history is about to wave around the names and images of people like Jefferson without realizing the irony of the mixed messages.

Thomas Jefferson was a self-taught architect who owned the largest private library of books in the world at one point in his life. He founded the University of Virginia and the Library of Congress. He described his idols as Newton, Locke, and Bacon. He chaired the American Philosophical Society for a time. He spoke and wrote in five languages including English. He invented several gadgets for which he received patents.

The point is not that Jefferson was a Good Person. There is considerable room for criticism of his views (on slavery, most obviously). The point is that, in addition to being kind of a hypocrite and a d-bag with a sketchy private life like all elected officials before or since, he was smart. He was interested in things. What allowed him to achieve the things for which dullards wave around his picture and scream WOOO AMERICA! today was that he, in the common parlance, read books and stuff.

In addition to T-Jeff, the "Committee of Five" that drafted the Declaration of Independence included:

-John Adams, a lawyer who studied religion at Harvard and throughout his life.

-Benjamin Franklin, the inventor, linguist, philosopher, and Man of Earthly Delights whose accomplishments are so extensive and well known that they need not be repeated here but seriously this guy's idea of a good time was writing a new alphabet. And orgies. He also liked orgies.

-Roger Sherman, a major founder of Yale University, lawyer, career public servant, probably the most "all business" of this fivesome.

-Robert Livingston, speaker of six languages, negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, amassed his own near-Jeffersonian private library, self-taught engineer, enthusiast of education in The Classics

Maybe in their private lives they were all scumbags. But our system of government is designed to function under the leadership of scumbags; idiots, however, present a much more serious challenge. Today we glorify people the nation's founding men – giving them more credit than any small group of people deserves, of course, for shaping the institutions of such a large country – while missing the point completely on what made them "Great" as the average modern Patriot would so define it.

They were "Great" and they accomplished things because they were not stupid. They were not Great because they "believed in small government" or "were for individual rights" or whatever spittle you might get by posing this question to random Patriots over the holiday. They were children of the Enlightenment, and they were interested in learning things. It is a deep irony that the people most likely to hold them up as examples of all that is right in American history are the least likely to follow their example and pick up a goddamn book at some point.