PURE THEATER

Posted in Rants on October 25th, 2017 by Ed

Maybe this is all Aaron Sorkin's fault.

The Big Speech has always been a powerful tool in politics, and no format is more consistently attention-getting than the public J'accuse/Emperor has No Clothes soliloquy. Speechifying probably peaked in American politics in the second half of the 19th Century, when (aided by the lack of widespread literacy or any form of electronic entertainment) the "Four hour speech" was a cornerstone of party and campaign strategy. Have you ever tried to talk about something for an hour or more without interruption? It's not easy. Now imagine you're an 1870s machine politician who probably isn't real bright but knows a few big words. You can imagine the kind of empty yet florid rhetoric that produced.

We are looping back to the Gilded Age in more ways than it is comfortable to recognize, notably with our zeal for deregulation, immigration restriction, and wealth worship. And I have to wonder if even in this noisy media environment (which I suppose is weakly analagous to the cacaphony of newspapers around the turn of the 20th century) elected officials are rediscovering the power of the pretty, totally empty monologue.

It works, after all. Look at the fawning media coverage Flake's two years too late declaration that he has some very important principles for which he absolutely MUST stand up right after he works with Mitch McConnell to steal a Supreme Court appointment and OK maybe let's hold out a few more months to see if we can get some tax cuts out of this too. No? Well voting to allow forced arbitration for nursing home patients is a pretty good consolation prize.

This generation of elected officials may simply have watched far too much West Wing and other politics-themed dramas. In those, the big dramatic speech is always an integral part of the story. It keeps the audience's attention and is a really basic device for advancing the plot because after the Big Speech something changes. The speech by Senator Everyman causes three plot dominos to fall and create new narrative possibilities for the screenwriters. In that world you change things by giving a big, earnest, hushed-audience speech. After it, things are different.

In real life, speeches like Flake's, or John McCain's biannual Soul Unburdenings, serve a function. But they don't serve that function. They don't change anything. You give them, pundits slobber on you, your positive rating goes up a little in focus groups, and you get free advertising for a couple days. What doesn't happen is anything meaningful. It changes nothing. People admire briefly the pretty words and then it disappears. And whatever grave social ills it inveighed against are right where you left them. Maybe a few more people glanced at them for a minute, but nothing changed.

Change happens in government when people do things, not when they talk about the things they don't like. But, as doing things is hard, talking about them is a tempting alternative. That is not new. What is new is the troubling sense that these people believe that talking pretty is the substantive part. It isn't. It's some varnish. It's a top layer. It's for the cheap seats and the casual observer who doesn't care to hear about the process behind the rhetorical curtain. We see United States Senators who give every indication of believing that after they express their vaunted principles, they dust off their hands and declare, "Job well done!"

Thank you for the pretty words, Senator Flake. But you have not done anything. Talking didn't solve the problem. Do something. If you need some hints, consult the Constitution.

GET LOW (EXPECTATIONS)

Posted in Rants on October 22nd, 2017 by Ed

I wrote the following back in January:

(One) of the most worrying aspects of this new Age of Nationalism, with far right movements and their leaders flourishing in Europe, India, Asia, Russia, and now the United States, we will shift the ideological spectrum even further to the right. Far enough that basically anyone who isn't a fascist is going to look like a progressive. While it is fair and accurate for observers to claim that just about anyone would be better than Trump, when Paul Ryan starts to look like a reasonable statesman or Rick Perry stands out among the Cabinet as a voice of reason and professionalism, you've seriously lowered your standards. And just as the public got used to centrist Rockefeller Republican types like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair as the most extreme conceivable political left, give this five or ten years and we may be living in a world where Paul Ryan is a liberal firebrand. No, I don't mean that Ryan will be moving to the left. I mean that if you stare at the Le Pens and Trumps and Putins and Dudas and Modis of the world for long enough, just about anyone is going to look like Eugene Debs in comparison.

What this means, in essence, is that a further erosion of what "the left" and "liberal" mean is as likely to be the result of this as any kind of left wing rebirth and resurgence.

It was on my mind all weekend after ex-President GW Bush released a fairly blunt anti-Trump statement to positive reviews late last week. We got to the point I was referencing in January – David Frum and Bill Kristol as voices of reason, W sounding like a master orator, gutter-dwelling GOP Senators elevated to the position of heroes – a lot more quickly than I expected. And it's probably going to keep getting worse.

Think about this for a second and consider how alarming it is. Bush, Frum, and Kristol – three of the primary architects of a strategy to fabricate and cherry-pick intelligence to justify a war that we're still involved in 15 years later – look at the way Trump treats the truth and are (or at least present themselves as) horrified. It's good that they're willing to be critical. I wonder, however, if they have any conception of what role they played in paving the way for Trump to happen. They were the ones that elevated Fox News to the gospel truth, treated all disagreement as unpatriotic slander, and gleefully took advantage of the basest parts of the GOP electorate. If they're learning a lesson from this at all, it's that next time they need a tighter grip on power within the GOP.

These are not good people. These are not people with pure motives or anything resembling ideological moderation. They are the same far-right neocons they were in 2002 and the only difference is that a plurality of the GOP base has lurched far enough to the right since then to make people like Rumsfeld, Bush, Ashcroft, and that whole cast of bloodless hacks look moderate in comparison. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party continues to think that the path to success points toward the right. They're beginning to wobble on immigration the same way they always accepted the consensus against gay marriage and deregulation – soon "getting tougher" on immigration will be yet another issue that Everybody agrees upon.

"It could be worse" has always been a key component of politics in a two-party system. Now that we've reached a point at which it can't get a whole lot worse, anything and anyone who looks better than our mental worst case scenario looks good. And that's as dangerous in the long term as the current administration. Imagine a future in which Ted Cruz and Bob Corker, because they criticized Trump a handful of times, portray themselves as moderates and the media plays along.

Some days I'm convinced that I won't live to see the damage being done right now undone.

WILL NO ONE RID ME OF THIS MEDDLESOME PRIEST

Posted in Rants on October 18th, 2017 by Ed

If nothing else, this presidency is teaching the public about some of the less prominent parts of the Constitution. I never thought I'd see a day with features in major newspapers about the 25th Amendment.

With Bob Corker's semi-public semi-meltdown still causing a few faint ripples in the Beltway pond, it is clearer than ever that even the people who go along with and enable this disastrous farce see it for exactly what it is. It seems like there are more than just a handful of prominent Republicans who really would like to be rid of this guy. Unfortunately they'd like to be rid of Trump in the same sense that most of us would like to lose weight or save more money; that is, we want it consistently but apparently not enough to do anything about it. Bob Corker is me talking about how I need to eat healthier and take better care of myself as I wait for the bartender to bring me another order of hot wings.

Everyone on the right who hasn't chugged the Kool-Aid seems to want to be rid of Trump, sincerely, and they all have some kind of fantasy about how it will happen without Republicans in Washington having to do anything. Maybe Comey will take care of it somehow! And then there's Mueller, Mueller can probably find some way to indict him or something! Or maybe the 25th Amendment! The Cabinet is unelected, so they can do that 25th Amendment thing and absorb the political fallout! Oh hey look here's General Kelly – he's tough or something, look at his uniform! He'll straighten this all out, probably! Hey what about resigning? Is that plausible? He looks and sounds miserable, so maybe he'll just quit? Yeah that could happen! And if all else fails, the guy's 71 and fat and always exploding with rage. Maybe an aneurysm will do our constitutional duty for us!

It appears never to occur to these people, or at least it fails to do so in any way that sticks, that as sitting members of the United States Congress there is in fact something they could do about this. They seem to speak from some alternate reality in which they are expecting us to sympathize with them, each of them on the verge of turning to the camera like Jim Halpert and making the "Do you see this shit I have to deal with?" face.

Yes, we see it. We are living it. We are all too aware of it, probably even moreso than members of Congress since their power and money insulate them from much of the real life the rest of us can't avoid. Stop expecting the public to see you as some sort of helpless victim and wailing about how you wish upon a star that someone would come along and fix this.

Either shut up and admit that you're happy to enable it with silence or shut up. Nothing is more frustrating than listening to someone talk (for the nth time) about how much they're suffering when experience demonstrates that they refuse to take any action to improve the situation. Thanks for airing your true feelings, Senator Corker, but there's no way to get out of this without breaking a sweat. Put on the big boy pants and do your job.

BIXBY LETTER

Posted in Quick Hits on October 18th, 2017 by Ed

Once America had a president who wrote the following:

Executive Mansion,
Washington, Nov. 21, 1864.

Dear Madam,–

I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle.

I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.

I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.

Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,

A. Lincoln

Now look at us.

YO TAMBIEN

Posted in Quick Hits on October 16th, 2017 by Ed

I'm mildly sad that the recent Nation piece about Columbus now has a correction.

In emphasizing that there is no obvious historical connection between Christopher Columbus and colonial America at the time Columbus surged to popularity, I pointed out that Columbus set foot in no part of the United States as it is today while other explorers of his era did. This is not technically true. On a subsequent voyage (not his 1492 "discovery" one), Columbus landed in Puerto Rico.

Now. Allow me to be defensive for a moment. I'm good at it. Point to follow.

Part of the issue here was where and how I did my research / fact-checking, focusing (obviously too much) on the famous 1492 voyage. And, as the editor kindly agreed, this factual error did not subvert the argument in the paper. Nobody in 1770s America thought of Puerto Rico (which would not become part of the US for more than a century) as Columbus's claim to American soil. Chances are they didn't even know Puerto Rico existed.

But. More importantly, I did something that the vast majority of Americans probably do a lot: I forgot about Puerto Rico. That's all there is to it. I looked at it at some point, going over lists of Columbus's voyages and landings. And I simply did not register "United States" when I saw "Puerto Rico."

I feel badly about this. Not only for making an error in a piece people actually saw, but for consistently forgetting about the people who live in parts of the United States that are not states. Perhaps I'm projecting, and in reality you think about Guam and the Virgin Islands and the CNMI all the time. I suspect not, though. Hell, there are people in elected and appointed positions in the federal government who forget they exist on a regular basis.

Intellectually I know Puerto Rico residents are Americans. If you asked me, I would say yes without hesitation. But the point is, I obviously haven't internalized it well enough in 38 years for my radar to pick it up when I'm scanning a list of place names for parts of the United States. Even with PR in the news constantly for the last few weeks, I/we still think about it as Not Quite.

Maybe it's time to do something about the second-class status of the island, which might help the rest of us not treat it like a second-class citizen. Part of me thinks I'm making too big a deal out of missing something on a fact check, but there's something subconscious at work here. I had to have seen it, so why didn't I see it?

ACAB, UK EDITION

Posted in Quick Hits on October 12th, 2017 by Ed

Hoo boy you want to watch a really good doc / investigative reporting about a tragedy in the UK I remember being horrified by as a ten year-old, check this out. Just remember, kids: all cops, everywhere, protect their own at all costs and will do whatever is necessary to cover their own asses.

ACAB, man. ACAB.

HAVE A PARADE!

Posted in Rants on October 11th, 2017 by Ed

When I lived in Indiana, I took my sister's small children on more than one occasion to the very good children's museum in Indianapolis. It is a five-story affair with a large central spiral ramp, sort of like a normal museum but with a miniature Guggenheim in the atrium to connect all the levels.

The museum came up with one of the best ideas for emptying out at closing time that I've ever seen for a facility that deals mostly with children. An employee dressed in full drum major regalia started at the top floor and loud circus / parade / marching type music started playing on the PA. Every kid in the place ran to the atrium and got something (a mask, a pennant, a yo-yo, a noisemaker, etc) to join in the "parade." As the drum major slowly worked his/her way down the ramp engaging in Antics of the kind children would like, every kid fell in behind making spectacular amounts of noise and generally running wild. The parade continued all the way down to the main lobby, then out the front door, then a short way around the block toward the parking lot…where employees were waiting to gather everyone's parade props.

The first time I saw this I was floored at how clever it was. They tricked a thousand toddlers into filing out of the building quickly and in relative order. Imagine how long it would otherwise take every parent to corral their kid in what is essentially a giant building of toys. Come on, honey, they're closing! No, you can't play just one more game! Leave the Legos there! No, get back here! We have to leave!

Instead, five minutes of the Bozo marching music and the building is ready for the night crew to clean up. Brilliant.

I keep thinking of this example as I read the increasingly numerous and alarming stories about our toddler-president and how hard the inner circle of people around him supposedly has to work to keep him from killing us all. Apparently DC Republicans are as aware that we are dealing with a child as the rest of us have been since Day One. So I, a childless man, wonder why we aren't using more of the tricks available to us for manipulating the behavior of toddlers. Apparently parents and professionals who work with children have a deep reservoir of tactics that are mysterious to the rest of us. What else have you got?

Maybe if every day the White House had a parade for Trump and everyone told him how great and wonderful and special he was, they could lead him outside and lock the door behind him. Maybe while he stuffed his pockets with candy someone could slip his phone out of his pocket. Maybe they could feed him so much cake and ice cream that he'd go on a titanic sugar binge for 40 minutes and then crash hard for hours while other people hurriedly did Governing Stuff.

What I'm saying is, we as a nation have a child. It is up to us to parent him, apparently, since life is not fair and the adults who are supposed to do it are being deadbeat dads. What are some of your ways to trick a 4 year-old into behaving well or at least being distracted? And can you send a quick note about it to Gen. Kelly?

SMELL TEST

Posted in Quick Hits on October 10th, 2017 by Ed

We have a problem throughout society with allowing anecdotal evidence to overrule data. (Blank) can't be that common, nobody I know has one!

That said, there are plenty of statistics that we encounter that deserve a double take. The unemployment rate is a classic example. Does anyone really think only 4.2% of Americans are unemployed? Only one adult in 25? No, and a closer look at the methodology – particularly the trick of removing people from the workforce after they've been unemployed for six months – reveals that the true unemployment rate as most people would define the term is higher. How much higher? Hard to say. But if a rate of something like ten or fifteen percent were announced, I doubt many people would feel that was unrealistically high.

I admit to having this reaction when I saw a report that traffic fatalities increased despite "distracted driving" being down. Consider your own driving experience and tell me, honestly, does it seem plausible to you that texting while driving is actually becoming less common? I must live in some sort of anomalous bubble if this is true, because if I had a nickel for every person I see whipping down the interstate or navigating a busy city street with their eyes down and glued to a phone I'd be a millionaire.

I see the data. And there's no reason to be suspicious of the motives of the Department of Transportation since they're perfectly willing to admit that fatalities increased. But there's something going on with these numbers that explains the decline in distracted driving in some way that has nothing to do with actual distracted driving. Maybe cops handed out fewer citations for it. Maybe whatever sample they analyzed is atypical. Maybe the decrease was a small amount well within the margin of error for their study. But it's hard to believe that people suddenly decided to stop looking at their phones or in-dash screens while driving. More people with more smartphones getting better data connections suggest that if anything, it should be on the increase.

Nobody wants to go wading into methodology, but often it's difficult to make any sense of data like this without it. And the more people see data that give cause for skepticism, the more they'll justify being skeptical of all data.

CONSTRUCTED COLUMBUS

Posted in Quick Hits on October 9th, 2017 by Ed

Very excited about a Columbus Day themed piece that I got into The Nation. Rather than rehash the fact that Columbus was a bastard – which I think is fairly well established at this point, or at least there is a substantial quantity of content out there that makes that point well – I wanted to look at how and why Columbus became a Thing in the first place. There certainly is no obvious reason we should celebrate him. He was Italian, he sailed on behalf of Spain, and he landed in the Dominican Republic and Bahamas. And Europeans were known even in his day to have seen or set foot in North America before he did.

The politics of the American revolution and some bad historiography are largely to blame, and I get to throw in a bunch of historical arcana along the way. Which is kind of my favorite thing to do.

So, enjoy. There were considerable efforts to present this as a "Columbus was a prick" piece for reasons of internet appeal, but I am happy with the extent to which the things that make it unique and interesting were preserved.

OUTSIDE THE LINES

Posted in Rants on October 4th, 2017 by Ed

There is real hope that the Supreme Court could deal a blow to partisan gerrymandering schemes during this term, which bodes well for the aftermath of the 2020 Census.

But it wouldn't be 2017 if I let you get excited. Don't get very excited. This isn't going to end gerrymandering or even partisan gerrymandering; it may put an end to partisan gerrymandering so blatant, so "Ha ha fuck you what are you gonna do about it" bad that when the map is rejected in Federal court one can only say, "You could have gotten away with it, but you got greedy."

Look. Gerrymandering is no longer an art. It is a science, thanks to GIS software, massive data mining of social and demographic data, and bitter partisanship. People who are good at this sort of thing could gerrymander a Republican majority in the Illinois State Legislature (which is currently 2/3 Democratic). If you think I'm kidding, trust me – I'm NOT an expert and I can do it. As long as one throws shame out the window and is willing to draw the most patently ludicrous districts without any reference to reality or legal precedent, it can be done.

The era of party bosses eyeballing wall maps and drawing districts with a marker are gone. This is block by block, house by house precision. The technology has made political power and sheer gall the only impediments to gerrymandering the hell out of a state.

Turning 45% of the vote statewide into 60% majorities in the state leg as Wisconsin Republicans did may no longer pass muster if the Court does rule against the state. However, defining what is and isn't "partisan gerrymandering" will not have a clear definition. Like many things dealing with this topic it will have to be treated on a case by case, "I know it when I see it" basis. The Courts have long recognized that race is a relevant factor in redistricting, so…I mean, you don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out how to draw districts in a way that favors your party while using "Well, we were just keeping Communities of Interest together!" as cover.

A favorable ruling would be a rare bit of good news in this otherwise abysmal year, but go into it with your eyes open. This is, at best, going to end only the most comically over-the-top abuses of the redistricting process. All of the ordinary gamesmanship and attempts at system-rigging will putter along. That would be a net positive, but certainly no reason to have a ticker-tape parade.