Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

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The civil war continues

June 11, 2020

A few days before the murder of George Floyd sparked a new round of protests, our family happened to start watching the 1990 Ken Burns documentary on the Civil War. We finished it last night.

I’m not going to write about the documentary as a whole, but I thought the segment below — from the last night of the documentary — was sadly relevant to the current upheaval.

Here is what historian Barbara Fields says starting at 3:40 (taken from a 1987 interview archived here: https://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_509-2r3nv99t98).

I think what we need to remember most of all is that the Civil War is not over until we today have done our part in fighting it, as well as understanding what happened when the Civil War generation fought it. William Faulkner … said once that history is not was, it’s is, and what we need to remember about the Civil War is that the Civil War is, in the present as well as in the past…. The generation that fought the war, the generation that argued over the definition of the war, the generation that had to pay the price in blood, that had to pay the price in blasted hopes, in the lost future, also established a standard that will not mean anything until we have finished the work. You can say, there’s no such thing as slavery anymore, we’re all citizens, but if we’re all citizens then we have a task to do to make sure that that too is not a joke. If some citizens live in houses and others live on the street, the Civil War is still going on. It’s still to be fought, and regrettably, it can still be lost.

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The whistling is all around you — if you listen

June 4, 2020

Here is a quick story to illustrate what awareness of racism looks like in a well-intentioned but insufficiently attentive white guy.

In 2014 or 2015, I read Claude Steele’s book “Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us And What We Can Do.” The title refers to a black graduate student (Brent Staples, now of the New York Times) who would whistle classical music to make his presence seem less threatening to white people on the streets of Chicago.

At the time, my reaction to this anecdote was:
* Yes, racism is real, important, and tragic.
* What an efficient, clever way of putting everyone at ease and avoiding conflict!

Note that my reaction did NOT include the following:
* What a shame that this innocent black guy had to take it upon himself to calm everyone else.
* Gee, I wonder whether such defense mechanisms are common among people of color?

Now fast-forward to the present. George Floyd has just become the latest unarmed, nonthreatening black man to be killed by out-of-control police officers. I come across the article It Does Not Matter if You are Good by R. Eric Thomas. And some more grim realities finally start to sink in:
* Whistling Vivaldi, in the metaphorical sense, is VERY common among people of color, and especially among black men.
* It’s deeply unfair that potential victims of racism should have to whistle as a means of protecting themselves.
* No matter how loud or how tuneful the whistling is, it doesn’t always save you.

This reminds me of another metaphor — one that reveals the seemingly cheerful opening of Steele’s title to maybe not be so cheerful after all.

“Whistling in the wind” is an old phrase referring to an action that is utterly ineffectual.

Enough whistling!

whistling

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I suspect that Christine Blasey Ford is being truthful

September 23, 2018

Nobody asked for my personal take on the Blasey Ford/Kavanaugh allegations, but here it is anyway.

My main concern here is the question, who is most likely to be telling the truth? We will never know for sure, but we can consider what is possible and what is likely.

First: Could they BOTH be telling the truth? Could Blasey Ford really have been assaulted in the manner that she described, but by someone else whom she mistook for or misremembers as Kavanaugh? Not likely. Blasey Ford has said there is zero chance that she has the wrong guy. Either her story is wrong, or Kavanaugh’s is.

Second: Is either person known to be serially dishonest? I don’t think so. Blasey Ford is a generally respected psychology professor; Kavanaugh is a generally respected judge. Some have argued that Kavanaugh perjured himself before the Senate, but the details are sufficiently dense that I’m not sure what to believe.

No, what really has me pissed off are the ignorant, disingenuous, and cruel portrayals of Blasey Ford as an out-of-control liar — from people who demonstrate little to no germane understanding of sexual assault in general or Blasey Ford’s case in particular. Here are some of the common yet utterly wrong claims being made.

(1) “The timing of her compliant is highly suspicious.” No, it’s not, explains Dahlia Lithwick. Blasey Ford kept this to herself for a long time because that’s what many girls and women do in a society that has shown them little sympathy. She eventually alluded to the event in years-ago conversations with her husband and therapist, then wrote her letter when Kavanaugh was one of several potential nominees under consideration. That’s not proof of anything, but it’s not suspicious either. Imperfect handling of her charge by Sen. Feinstein and Democrats is not her fault.

(2) “It’s not plausible that she remembers X from this incident, but not Y.” Blasey Ford’s account should certainly be examined for internal consistency and for consistency with other external facts. But if you claim (as a physician friend of mine did on Facebook) that Blasey Ford’s story is incompatible with “basic behavioral psychology,” you’re being WAY too presumptuous about what she should and shouldn’t remember. When a person experiences trauma and then tries unsuccessfully to forget about it for 35 years, the nature of the 35-year-old memory will depend on (A) the details of the trauma, (B) the details of the post-trauma processing, and (C) the particular brain of the survivor. I’m not an expert on memory per se, but I do have a Ph.D. in physiology. Most amateur psychologists, including my friend, are in over their heads on this one.

(3) “She just made this up to stop the Kavanaugh nomination because she’s pro-choice, etc.” I’d assume that Blasey Ford, like most academics, is politically liberal, and there has been some reporting to support that. But I haven’t seen any good evidence that she’s a radical activist or anything like that. More to the point, who among us would trade a peaceful, happy life for a flurry of death threats and public vilification, all for the sake of possibly reducing a particular judge’s chances of confirmation, when the next judge nominated will probably be equally pro-life anyway? That’s not an ulterior motive; that’s closer to masochism.

It’s those who are smearing Blasey Ford who have the ulterior motive.

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Favorite columnists: Bruni, Lithwick, Loofbourow, Saletan, Stephens

September 3, 2018

Some of my favorite blogs have regular “linkfest” posts featuring notable pieces from around the web, often with brief commentary. I’ve wanted to do that myself for years, so here’s a post along these lines. More will follow if I can find the time and energy. For now, I’ll just admit that I get a lot of my news from Slate and the New York Times, so these sources will be overrepresented in listings like those below.

NEW YORK TIMES

SLATE

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Don’t assume that Paul Ryan is lying about his family

April 12, 2018

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) has decided not to run for reelection. Some liberals are reacting very smugly. For example, Slate’s Will Saletan (whom I generally consider to be a reasonable journalist) notes that Ryan claims to want to spend more time with his children, then dismisses this as obviously fictitious:

It’s great that Ryan wants to be with his kids. But they’re teenagers now. Having chosen to spend 16 years in Congress while they were small, he asks us to believe that he has suddenly decided they need him in a way that requires him to retire. And he denies that this year’s inauspicious polls, which have driven dozens of other Republicans to leave Congress, played any role in his decision.

Saletan is not necessarily wrong, but his speculation is unseemly in multiple ways.

First of all, he isn’t paraphrasing Ryan very well. What Ryan actually said was, “My kids aren’t getting any younger. And if I stay, they’re only going to know me as a weekend dad. And that’s just something I consciously can’t do.” Does this mean his kids NEED him? Maybe. Or maybe HE just WANTS to know THEM better, before they’re gone for good. We can’t really tell.

Second, it certainly is possible that one or more of his children really DO need him. Some teens sail through the teenage years essentially independently of their parents; others require more support than ever as they navigate the minefields of hormones, acne, bullying, etc. We should not assume that Ryan’s kids don’t need or want much parental oversight simply because they’re teenagers.

Third, note the unnecessary sarcasm of “suddenly decided they need him in a way that requires him to retire.” Ryan did NOT say, “The situation is so dire that I have no choice but to retire.” Maybe he just weighed his options and picked the one that was best for his family. But what if one of his kids truly IS in a crisis situation (e.g., suicidal thoughts) and this WAS a sudden decision?

Fourth, “having chosen to spend 16 years in Congress while they were small” is too snide and judgmental for my taste. Maybe Ryan skypes with his kids daily, or exchanges lots of emails with them. Who knows what innumerable decisions he and his wife have made about child-rearing over the years, and how well they have lived up to their goals? Let’s not assume he’s been a bad dad just because he chose to be a Congressman.

So, sure, “I want to spend more time with my family” might be a cover for other motives. But to simply assume this, without allowing for the possibility that Ryan actually cares about his children, is cynical and mean.

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An earnest attempt to persuade Trump supporters that Trump is dishonest

December 14, 2017

To me, it seems obvious that Donald Trump says whatever he WANTS to be true, rather than what IS true.

Lots of Americans agree with me, but lots don’t. One recent poll says that 36% of Americans do consider him honest.

Is there any way I can convince some part of the 36% that this guy is not worthy of their trust? I feel compelled to take my best shot.

First of all, here’s what I’m NOT going to do. I’m not going to cite some favorite examples (or a comprehensive list) of Trump saying incorrect things, coupled with links to credible sources saying the opposite. I don’t think this “fact-checking” approach is convincing to most Trump supporters. They may think, with some justification, “Everybody twists the facts. Who’s to say that Trump’s lies are any worse than those told by Hillary Clinton, or by Obama?”

That question has an answer, to be sure, but the answer is not completely straightforward. Rating the frequency and severity of lies can be tricky and subjective.

Instead, I want to offer a simpler argument based on three premises that I think most people can accept.

Here are the three premises:

(1) Everybody says things that are wrong.

(2) People of integrity admit their mistakes.

(3) If Trump were to admit a mistake, it would be well-covered by the media.

Anyone who follows the news regularly knows that the media essentially never post stories about Trump admitting mistakes. Therefore it’s safe to say that Trump essentially never does this. And since everybody is wrong sometimes (premise #1), it’s equally safe to say that Trump is making mistakes but not admitting them.

So, Trump supporters, do you really want to trust a guy who never admits to being wrong about anything?

To me, the overall behavior pattern is far more sinister than any individual fib. Once again, we all get things wrong, but our character is revealed by our handling of these flubs.

Some Trump sympathizers will say, “Well, the media are just as bad because they are biased in their coverage of Trump!”

To that, I have two responses.

(1) Yes, OF COURSE the media are biased! How can you blame them? Who among us would not be “biased” against someone who treats us as an enemy to be maligned and mocked at every opportunity?

(2) Biased or not, the media DO admit their mistakes ALL THE TIME. All decent newspapers have standard, well-established mechanisms for reporting and correcting their errors (e.g., at the bottom of online articles).

If you’re still unsure whom to believe in Trump’s feud with the media, I urge you — I beg you — to trust the side that has the integrity to own their errors.

* * * * * * *

UPDATE: I had an interesting exchange about this on Facebook with my friend Jeremie Perry. I am posting that exchange here with his permission.

JP1JP2JP3

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Intolerance all around

June 11, 2017

On Facebook, I recently made a plea to keep political dialogue respectful. It did not go well.

screenshot_anonymized_cropped

The guy on whose timeline this exchange occurred then unfriended me. I’m saddened to think that the unfriending was triggered by my rather mild defense of nonviolent speech.

And while this is just one cherry-picked example, higher-profile examples of liberal intolerance are being reported too. Fareed Zakaria noted protests of commencement speeches by Mike Pence and Betsy DeVos. Frank Bruni described students’ hostility toward apparently-not-liberal-enough faculty at Evergreen and Yale. And then there was the Kathy Griffin debacle, of course.

I’m no fan of either Pence or DeVos, but do we really need to voice our dissatisfaction by disrupting every public appearance they ever make? Call their offices; write letters; ask them tough questions when they appear at policy forums (rather than ceremonial events). There is a time and a place for everything.

Well, almost everything. Speech that promotes violence, whether technically protected by the Bill of Rights or not (it varies, depending on the context), is virtually never in good taste and is virtually never necessary, no matter who is speaking about whom.

Liberal friends reading this may retort, “But conservatives’ intolerance is worse!” Yes — but “they’re doing it too!” is a lousy defense of childhood behavior, and an even poorer defense of childish behavior by adults.

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Early-morning poetry

May 26, 2017

Rise Up Screaming
(Advice to an Infant … or a President)

The sky is dark, but dawn is near,
And though you’re safe within your crib,
The land outside holds much to fear.
It’s time to be alarmed, not glib!

Rise up! Rise up, and sound the call —
A call to arms; a call for milk.
Unleash a nice full-throated bawl
To rouse your parents and their ilk.

The early bird will get the worm;
The early child will get the toy.
Do not give in; stay loud, hold firm!
They must attend you, darling boy.

Rise up! Rise up, and yell, YOUR way,
In any garbled form you spew.
Despite what bleeding hearts may say,
Our world begins and ends with you.

Sam, 5am

[Inspired in part by Slate’s My First Big-Boy Trip.]

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TrumpWatch, part 7: this time it’s personal

February 28, 2017

Here’s the latest in my 100-part series on Donald Trump getting under my skin.

As a white cis-gender heterosexual American man, I am rarely if ever the victim of prejudice. Thus, when Trump blames American problems on, say, immigrants, my objections are more intellectual than visceral. I don’t personally experience queasiness, sadness, rage, or fear in the way that an immigrant (or a child of immigrants, or a dark-skinned native who might be mistaken for an immigrant) might.

There’s one partial exception, though: the President’s recent comment (on Twitter, since repeated at CPAC) that the news media are “the enemy of the American people!”

When my ten-year-old son asked me about this, I found myself choking up. “My dad spent twenty years of his life working for a newspaper,” I stammered. “He did his best to gather good information and explain it clearly. What’s so horrible about that?!?” My thoughts turned to my dad’s sister, a longtime copy editor at BusinessWeek … to their great uncle (?) Robert J. Bender, who covered the White House for the United Press Bureau around the time of Woodrow Wilson … to my own forays into journalism. A few tears fell. My son patted my leg sympathetically.

At that moment, there was no room in my head for cerebral ideas about Trump’s rhetorical strategies or how they might relate to his policy goals. All I could think was: the President of the United States has insulted my family and our earnest pursuit of knowledge. That’s not really what he did, of course, but that’s exactly what it felt like.

The moment passed fairly quickly for me. Before long I resumed my status as a white cis-gender heterosexual American man shaking his head at Trump with detached bemusement. But my heart goes out to the truly vulnerable targets of Trump’s rants, who may not be able to move on so easily.

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Slouching toward activism, step #2

February 17, 2017

Dear Representative Jayapal and Senators Cantwell and Murray:

Thank you for accepting our previous letter, which concerned the confirmation hearings of Ben Carson, Betsy DeVos, and Scott Pruitt. We appreciate your responses. It is regrettable that voting on DeVos and Pruitt basically broke along party lines, and that Carson is likely to be confirmed in a similar manner.

Given the deep partisan divide, we wonder whether the issue of Donald Trump’s tax returns can be addressed in a way that does not simply pit Democrats against Republicans (especially since that is currently a losing battle for Democrats).

As you know, in all presidential elections since the 1970s, candidates of both parties have voluntarily shared their tax returns. Donald Trump’s choice not to follow this precedent raises important questions about his potential conflicts of interest, e.g., in interacting with foreign countries such as Russia. However, it seems clear that Trump will not release his tax returns unless forced by law to do so. It also seems clear that Rep. Bill Pascrell’s recent amendment to mandate the release of Trump’s returns, while admirable in our eyes, has hit a dead end in the House Ways and Means Committee.

We wonder whether Pascrell’s proposal was rejected by every Republican member of the Ways and Means Committee in part because it was specific to Trump. Perhaps there is hope for a more general, less partisan-sounding version of this idea, requiring all sitting presidents and future presidential candidates to release their tax returns? Perhaps such a bill could (accurately) be marketed as a general effort to improve transparency in government, rather than as a partisan attack on Trump, and thus could win some support from independent-thinking Republicans.

We are unsure how realistic this scenario might be, but we wanted to encourage you to devote any available resources to this kind of common-sense, nonpartisan solution to the tax return debacle.

Sincerely,
Gregory J. Crowther & Leila R. Zelnick
[street address redacted]
Seattle WA 98103