Saturday, July 31, 2021

Reckoning With the Republicans Who Stood Up to Trump

After four years of Donald Trump in the White House, it has become difficult to be shocked by his behavior. But in previous times, this report would have risen to the level of a "smoking gun" when it comes to proof that he used his position as president to try and overturn an election. 

President Donald J. Trump pressed top Justice Department officials late last year to declare that the election was corrupt even though they had found no instances of widespread fraud, so he and his allies in Congress could use the assertion to try to overturn the results, according to new documents provided to lawmakers...

The exchange unfolded during a phone call on Dec. 27 in which Mr. Trump pressed the acting attorney general at the time, Jeffrey A. Rosen, and his deputy, Richard P. Donoghue, on voter fraud claims that the Justice Department had found no evidence for. Mr. Donoghue warned that the department had no power to change the outcome of the election. Mr. Trump replied that he did not expect that, according to notes Mr. Donoghue took memorializing the conversation. 
“Just say that the election was corrupt + leave the rest to me” and to congressional allies, Mr. Donoghue wrote in summarizing Mr. Trump’s response.

The "congressional allies" Trump referred to appear to include Rep. Jim Jordan, Rep. Scott Perry, and Sen. Ron Johnson. 

Regardless of what we might think of Rosen and Donoghue, they refused to comply with the president. That might have been a seminal moment in this country's history — even more momentous than the stand taken by Attorney General Elliot Richardson during Nixon's Saturday night massacre. Christian Vanderbrouk noted the signifiance.

I don’t think the “democracy was never in danger” crowd understands how much their argument rests on executive branch officials refusing to follow the president’s orders.

This is a particular issue for the “it wasn’t that bad” apologists who profess to believe in the unitary executive.

If Trump was so out of control that you think unelected bureaucrats were right to ignore, defy and undermine him, you’ve conceded the argument that he was a threat to the republic.

"Unelected bureaucrats," who had been appointed by Trump, are what stood in the way of the most serious threat our democracy has faced since the Civil War.

That points to a tension I've felt ever since Trump entered the White House. At first, it came from the NeverTrumpers who broke with their party in powerful ways. All of the sudden I found myself occasionally agreeing with people like David Frum, Bill Kristol, and Jennifer Rubin. I actually welcomed the support of "Republican Voters Against Trump" in the 2020 election. 

But the tension grew exponentially when former Attorney General Bill Barr resigned his position early over the kind of pressure Trump went on to bring against Rosen and Donohue. That didn't change the fact that I had always viewed Barr as the most dangerous figure in the Trump administration. But I had to admit that, when it came to overturning an election, he did the right thing in refusing to cooperate.

I have a similar reaction to Rep. Liz Cheney. Politically, we don't agree about anything. Cheney has also demonstrated that she is her father's daughter when it comes to the lengths to which she will go to maintain power. But an attempt by the sitting president to overturn an election was a bridge too far. She has been willing to take on her own party in defense of our democracy.

While it is very uncomfortable, the tension I feel about people like Kristol, Rosen, Barr and Cheney is probably a good thing. There are lessons to be learned. Part of what we see from the MAGA crowd these days is a willingness to demonize anyone they disagree with as evil. I don't want to go there. My disagreement with them doesn't require dehumanization. I can stand my ground firmly against their views and recognize that there might be places where we can ultimately find common ground.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who was imprisoned for disagreeing with the USSR government, reminded us of the risks of defining who is good and who is evil.
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

Thursday, July 29, 2021

A Strong Woman

As I wrote previously, there is both good and bad news in the right's obsession with critical race theory. The good news is that white patriarchy is being challenged in powerful ways these days. As has always happened in our history, that created a severe backlash from those whose identity is embedded in the status quo.

This week, Simone Biles challenged some of our deep patriarchal views. For pulling out of Olympic competition, she has been called a "coward" and a "quitter" (among other things). But take a look at what one mother posted on Facebook. 

We knew [Simone Biles] was strong. We knew she was brave. But, by god, the courage and resolve that she has shown in the last two days are just BEYOND. 

To stand firmly in one’s own humanity and to say, from that incredibly vulnerable place, “My safety comes first,” should not have to be a radical act, but it is. Oh, how it is. In the world in which we live (and far more so in the rarified air of elite competition), it is not just radical, it’s revolutionary.

Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka are the role models I want for my girls. Women who know their worth. Who declare and own and defend their *inherent* value - not based on what they can do but on who they are. Women who achieve incredible things not despite their perfectly human limitations but precisely *because* they are willing to acknowledge and respect them.

The chasm between those two views stems from very different ideas of what it means to be strong and brave, which is all based on our view of power. 

Our culture has been steeped in power over/against for centuries. In that scenario, competition is a way to assert dominance. Strength and courage are demonstrated by excelling in the game of domination. There is nothing inherently wrong with that —until it is viewed as the only option and lives are sacrificed in the process. 

Personally, I never bought the idea that athletes should "play through the pain." It always seemed to me that our bodies use pain to send the message that something is wrong and requires attention. We should listen to our bodies. 

In the face of all of the pressure to "dominate" women's gymnastics, Simone Biles's body was telling her that something was wrong (mentally and/or physically). The fact that she listened to that message went against the entire culture that has developed in the world of sport and competition. THAT is what took tremendous courage. 

This is the kind of thing we can expect to happen as those who have been marginalized begin to assert their power. Our entire culture is going to be challenged in countless ways. We will begin to understand that words like "courage" and "strength" have broader meaning, which will continue to trigger some people because it is a radical change. Here is how a blogger named keres put the big picture years ago.
Our societies are not "OK", except for the sexism, racism, heterosexism, ablism, etc. Our societies are intrinsically those things - they cannot be removed without a complete revisioning of the social compact. Nothing, and I do mean nothing, in an apartriachal society would look, sound, or feel even remotely the same as to what we have now.

Riane Eisler wrote about the nature of that social compact in her book Chalice and the Blade.  

The underlying problem is not men as a sex. The root of the problem lies in a social system in which the power of the blade is idealized - in which both men and women are taught to equate true masculinity with violence and dominance and to see men who do not conform to this ideal as too soft or effeminate.

Years ago Marge Piercy wrote a whole poem challenging what it means for a woman to be strong. Here is how she ended it (emphasis mine):

A strong woman is a woman who loves
strongly and weeps strongly and is strongly
terrified and has strong needs. A strong woman is strong
in words, in action, in connection, in feeling;
she is not strong as a stone but as a wolf
suckling her young. Strength is not in her, but she
enacts it as the wind fills a sail.

What comforts her is others loving
her equally for the strength and for the weakness
from which it issues, lightning from a cloud.
Lightning stuns. In rain, the clouds disperse.
Only water of connection remains,
flowing through us. Strong is what we make
each other.
Until we are all strong together,
a strong woman is a woman strongly afraid.

What has amazed me about all of this is that Simone is only 24 years old. During that short lifetime, she has already experienced multiple traumas (bounced around the foster care system and sexually assaulted by Larry Nassar). And yet, she seems to have learned the wisdom of listening to her body and standing up for her own inherent value against all of the pressure she was under. Given what she was experiencing, that wisdom might have saved have life. And according to other gymnasts, it might have given the rest of the women on her team a chance to win the silver medal. 

The picture of Simone up above was taken after she had pulled out of the team competition as she cheered on her teammates. Here's NBC's coverage:

Simone's teammates said that they dedicated their silver medal to her. I am tremendously inspired by this group of young women who understand that "strong is what we make each other." They are going to change the world.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Ornstein and Mann: "A balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality"

I guess is shouldn't surprise me that Simone Biles's decision to pull out of the gymnastics team finals at the Olympics is being politicized. Right wing news outlets have headlines today that call her a "quitter" and a "coward." Meanwhile, even Michelle Obama reached out in support.

We're living in an era where everything is politicized — which plays right into the hands of Republicans. If Democrats see something one way and Republicans take the opposite point of view, there is no room for facts or truth. As the saying goes, "if nothing is true, then anything is possible." That is precisely how propaganda has been used to build the wall of polarization we are experiencing in this country today. 

Of course, right wing media is mostly to blame. For years they've told their readers, viewers, and listeners that they exist because mainstream media has a liberal bias. Fox News was built on the lie that the conservative viewpoint was silenced until they came along. But mainstream media gave that notion a boost when they responded by bending over backwards to "tell both sides of every story." From that vantage point, the goal was never to report objective facts, but to regurgitate the positions of both liberals and conservatives.

While our polarized reaction to Simone Biles probably doesn't pose much of a threat, a both sides approach to what happened at the Capital on January 6th lays the groundwork for upending our democracy. The same is true for an investigation into what happened that day. So I thought it was important to promote the voices that are speaking out against this latest iteration of bothsidism. Here are four articles I highly recommend:

1. Our democracy is under attack. Washington journalists must stop covering it like politics as usual, by Margaret Sullivan.

2. The absurd coverage of the January 6 committee, by Jon Allsop.

3. Media's "both sides" obsession has gone too far, by Amanda Marcotte.

4. Can the media Both Sides an insurrection? They're gonna try, by Eric Boehlert.

Those authors give us a lot of insight into how bothsidism is embedded in the reporting we're seeing these days. We all need to get familiar with how it happens so that we can recognize it immediately. 

Sullivan begins her piece by reminding us of the prescient book written by Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann back in 2012 titled, "It's Even Worse Than it Looks" about "the rise of Republican Party extremism and its dire effect on American democracy." Here's how they made the point in an article published at the Washington Post (emphasis mine).

We have been studying Washington politics and Congress for more than 40 years, and never have we seen them this dysfunctional. In our past writings, we have criticized both parties when we believed it was warranted. Today, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party...

The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges...

If our democracy is to regain its health and vitality, the culture and ideological center of the Republican Party must change. In the short run, without a massive (and unlikely) across-the-board rejection of the GOP at the polls, that will not happen. If anything, Washington’s ideological divide will probably grow after the 2012 elections...

We understand the values of mainstream journalists, including the effort to report both sides of a story. But a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality. If the political dynamics of Washington are unlikely to change anytime soon, at least we should change the way that reality is portrayed to the public.

That is how they described the situation during Obama's presidency and, of course, things have gotten a whole lot worse since then. The Republican Party is now aligning itself with the insurgents who stormed the Capital with the intent of overturning an election. To distort that reality with bothsidism presents a clear and present danger. For the sake of our democracy, the media must prioritize truth over balance.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

The Good and Bad News About the Right's Obsession With Critical Race Theory

A little over a year ago, Ta-Nehisi Coates surprised himself (and everyone else) when he told Ezra Klein that he had become uncharacteristically hopeful. Coates initially referred to his father's experience in Baltimore during the 1968 riots.

The idea that black folks in their struggle against the way the law is enforced in their neighborhoods would resonate with white folks in Des Moines, Iowa, in Salt Lake City, in Berlin, in London — that was unfathomable to him in ’68, when it was mostly black folks in their own communities registering their great anger and great pain.

I don’t want to overstate this, but there are significant swaths of people and communities that are not black, that to some extent have some perception of what that pain and that suffering is. I think that’s different.

The murder of George Floyd by police officers didn't just ignite the Black community. White people all over this country (and around the world) rose up to protest yet another example of injustice. That inspired hope - even for a pessimist like Coates.

But as has always been the case, that turn of events also inspired a backlash. The protesters (who were almost exclusively peaceful) were called "thugs" and referred to as "violent." Then came a right wing obsession with so-called "cancel culture" and attacks on the NYT's 1619 Project. As Ibram Kendi noted, all of that eventually came together in an obsession with critical race theory.

And now the Black Lives Matter demonstrators, cancel culture, the 1619 Project, American history, and anti-racist education are presented to the public as the many legs of the “monstrous evil” of critical race theory that’s purportedly coming to harm white children. The language echoes the rhetoric used to demonize desegregation after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, in 1954.

That is the context in which you should read a piece by Elie Mystal titled "My Black Generation Is Fighting Like Hell to Stop the Whitelash." He sums up both the good and bad news.

My Black generation is doing everything we can think of to stop this. Our activists have used every tool available to start entire movements, like Black Lives Matter, to halt this onslaught of white rage. Our thinkers and writers are on fire: People like Nikole Hannah-Jones, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Michelle Alexander, and so many others, are producing the works that leave the white supremacists so unable to compete in the marketplace of ideas that their only resort is to try to ban these Black intellectuals from the marketplace. Black voting power is so strong and energized that white Republicans have decided to turn their backs on democracy all together. We are fighting. But we are also losing, primarily because the mass of white Americans has become inured to shame. 

That takes me back to what inspired Coates to feel hopeful last summer...the commitment of white people to the cause of equality. 

Several years ago a friend of mine who went by the name Robinswing wrote a blog post titled "We Cant' Fix Ya!" The point she made has stuck with me for a long time.

The blackwoman has been thinking it might be time to seek out some solutions for eliminating racism. A more difficult project than I imagined.

Race is a problem for white people to solve. If black people or brown people could have made racism go away it would have long since disappeared back into the nothing-ness from which it came.

Nah, it’s on white folks to make the necessary moves to kill and bury, once and for all, the notion of race. I think in a generation or two this just might happen...

We took what we could get...

White people have to come up with the solution to racism. Some of these folk are family. Some are neighbors. Some are friends. Talk to them. Don’t let them get away with the stereotypes. Challenge them on privilege. Point out that as long as this privilege exists, racism has a home.

If all else fails, remind them that they are soon to be the minority and that karma is a bitch.

The first civil rights battle in this country ended slavery. The second eliminated laws that enshrined inequality. As Robinswing suggested, the next step is going to require white people to listen, learn, and change. This might be the hardest step of all because a major part of white privilege is the assumption that our experience is normative, so we already know it all. 

We are at this point because, as Mystal wrote, the Civil Rights laws of the 60's opened the doors of opportunity and his generation took full advantage. We even elected this country's first African American president and now have a woman of color as vice president. In pretty much every field imaginable, Black people are succeeding. That sets off something Jonathan Chait wrote in response to the movie 12 Years a Slave (emphasis mine). 

Notably, the most horrific torture depicted in 12 Years a Slave is set in motion when the protagonist, Solomon Northup, offers up to his master engineering knowledge he acquired as a free man, thereby showing up his enraged white overseer. It was precisely Northup’s calm, dignified competence in the scene that so enraged his oppressor. The social system embedded within slavery as depicted in the film is one that survived long past the Emancipation Proclamation – the one that resulted in the murder of Emmett Till a century after Northup published his autobiography. It’s a system in which the most unforgivable crime was for an African-American to presume himself an equal to — or, heaven forbid, better than — a white person.

So when you see right wingers frothing at the mouth about things like critical race theory in an attempt to shut down the movement that began after the murder of George Floyd, remember that those folks are scarred shitless of the fact that a majority of people in this country might take the next step in realizing the promise of equality at the heart of our founding ideals. They're doing anything and everything they can to shut that whole thing down. Are we going to let them get away with that?

Monday, July 12, 2021

Talking Past Trump

Don Landgren, Augusta Chronicle

Adam Gopnik has written a fascinating piece outlining Biden's "exasperating but effective strategy to counter Trumpism." He starts out by noting that it's never a good idea to "play a guy at his own game." So what is the game Trump and his enablers are playing?

Donald Trump invented a game: of bullying, lying, sociopathic selfishness, treachery, and outright gangsterism, doing and saying things that no democratic politician had ever done or even thought of doing, and he did it all in broad daylight...It was a game designed for Trump alone to win, but all too many got drawn into it...It was designed, in plain English, to throw out so much crap that no one could ever deal with it all. Trying to bat the crap away, you just got more of it all over you, and meanwhile you were implicitly endorsing its relevance.

Perhaps since the dawn of time, people have been giving advice about how to deal with bullies. For the most part, conventional wisdom suggests that a show of physical force is necessary. So we teach children who are being bullied to punch back. But with people like Trump and his minions, we're talking about verbal bullying. So a lot of people find satisfaction when someone "hits back" verbally the way that Joy Reid took on Tucker Carlson. 

While that can be emotionally satisfying (which is an important factor to consider), it doesn't have a lot of impact on the "game." As Gopnik noted, you simply invite more crap and implicitly endorse its relevance. 

That last part has a lot to do with why I chose silence for the last two months. I refuse to play the game by giving any credence to the malicious lies being told by the right - even if it is in an effort to discredit them. For example, these days Tucker Carlson is making a name for himself by saying totally outrageous things and garnering headlines all over the media. While we congratulate ourselves for landing a good verbal punch, he's laughing all the way to the bank.

As Gopnik notes, President Biden refused to play Trump's game. He recognized that "an atmosphere of aggravation can only work to the advantage of the permanently aggrieved." Instead, he has focused on how to improve the lives of Americans—whether it be through tackling the coronavirus or proposing major investments in infrastructure. Pete Buttigieg, Biden's Transportation Secretary, put it this way during the campaign: "You can’t defeat a cartoon villain by being a cartoon hero. You defeat a cartoon villain by helping people remember that life is not a cartoon."

One of the reasons I was so interested in Gopnik's piece is that, over the years, I've suggested that this same strategy has been used by Michelle Obama - the only person I know of that effectively silenced Trump. As an example, her speech at the virtual Democratic Convention in 2020 included a description of two visions of America. The one Trump inhabits is totally void of empathy. It's the place where "greed is good, and winning is everything because as long as you come out on top, it doesn’t matter what happens to everyone else." The other is a place where courageous people go the extra mile for each other and pursue justice. In the end, Obama focused our attention on that one.
This is who we still are: compassionate, resilient, decent people whose fortunes are bound up with one another. And it is well past time for our leaders to once again reflect our truth.
As I listened to Michelle’s speech, it struck me that, given what we know about Donald Trump, I doubt he even understood what she was talking about. I’m sure he understood the words she used, but she addressed our common humanity—something his narcissistic ego has never actually experienced. As a result, Trump has never openly criticized Michelle Obama or used one of his ubiquitous nick names for her. She refused to play his game and he was left flat-footed.

Similarly, Biden has rarely engaged on Trump's level. Instead, he has focused almost entirely on speaking directly to the American people and promoting an agenda that garners their support.

None of this is to suggest that we should ignore Trump and his minions. What they are doing poses a serious threat to our democracy and we have to take that seriously. But I'm equally certain that we will not be successful in defending democracy if we play their game. 

Over the last few days I've been thinking about a fable I read back in the 80's (which I can't find anywhere on the internet today). It is the story of a woman who worked all night trying to sweep away the dark. When dawn finally came, she was so tired that she'd fallen asleep. 

We can't let ourselves get consumed with defeating the darkness. No matter how bleak things look, there is a crack in everything...that's how the light gets in. 


So let your little light shine and let's see how many cracks we can find!

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Why I chose silence

I abruptly stopped writing about politics two months ago. For those who wondered what was up, I apologize. But I couldn't explain what was happening because I didn't know myself. All I knew was that the effort to research topics to write about felt pointless. As has often happened in my life, I figured that eventually an explanation would emerge...if I followed my instincts and listened. 

A piece by Ibram X. Kendi, one of those recently maligned "critical race theorists," finally pulled it all together for me. His point is that the Republican operatives who are fear mongering about critical race theory are arguing with themselves.

There are differing points of view about race and racism. But what we are seeing and hearing on news shows, in school-district meetings, in op-ed pages, in legislative halls, and in social-media feeds aren’t multiple sides with differing points of view. There’s only one side in our so-called culture war right now.

The Republican operatives, who dismiss the expositions of critical race theorists and anti-racists in order to define critical race theory and anti-racism, and then attack those definitions, are effectively debating themselves. They have conjured an imagined monster to scare the American people and project themselves as the nation’s defenders from that fictional monster.

Kendi goes on to give several examples of people discussing his work in a way that is at odds with anything he's ever said or written. As he says, they're conjuring up an imagined monster. So what's the point of engaging.

What we write doesn’t matter to the people arguing with themselves. It doesn’t matter that I consistently challenge Manichaean racial visions of inherently good or evil people or policy making. It doesn’t matter that I don’t write about policy making being good or evil, or that I write about the equitable or inequitable outcome of policies. It doesn’t matter that I’ve urged us toward relative equity, and not toward perfect equity...

How should thinkers respond to monstrous lies?...Because restating facts over and over again gets old. Reciting your own work over and over again to critics who either haven’t read what they are criticizing or are purposefully distorting it gets old. And talking with people who have created a monologue with two points of view, theirs and what they impute to you, gets old.

And yet, silence comes with a price. As Kendi writes, "democracy needs dialogue. And dialogue necessitates seeking to know what a person is saying in order to offer informed critiques."

While Kendi's piece is focused on the fear mongering about critical race theory, it is also true of all of the lies being told by right wingers about Democrats more generally. As just one example, this week they're freaking out over something HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said recently. The editorial staff at the Washington Examiner wrote about it in a piece titled, "The wretched Xavier Becerra wants to control your life."

“We need to go to community by community, neighborhood by neighborhood, oftentimes, door to door — literally knocking on doors to get help to the remaining people protected from the virus,” Biden said last week.

Asked on CNN whether it’s “the government's business knowing who has or hasn't been vaccinated,” the cultural warrior turned Biden proxy replied, “Perhaps we should point out that the federal government has spent trillions of dollars to keep Americans alive during this pandemic. So it is absolutely the government's business. It is taxpayers' business if we have to continue to spend money to try to keep people from contracting COVID and helping reopen the economy.”...

The answer was both stupid and clarifying.

...It was clarifying because it revealed one of the Left’s motivations in expanding federal spending: It wants more control over your life.

Every time Democrats say they want the government to pay for something, they mean they want the government to control that part of your life.

Becerra revealed that he and his ilk want the government to be your health insurer so that the government can micromanage your diet, your exercise, and probably your family size.

They want the federal government to fund education from pre-K through college so they can dictate the curriculum.

They want to pay the piper so that they can call the tune. Big government is the Trojan horse for an all-out culture war.

How do you engage in dialogue with people who go from money spent on vaccinating people during a pandemic to "micromanaging your diet, your exercise, and probably your family life?" It would be possible to do so if you were engaging people who sincerely wanted to listen in order to truly understand your position. But we all know that's not the case. At this point, even facts and evidence are irrelevant because they are dismissed as nothing more than partisan lies. 

In some ways, this kind of distortion has always been part of politics. What's new is the way that social media and right wing news outlets have not only propagated conspiracy theories, but have inoculated their followers against ever having their perceptions challenged. Last year Julian Sanchez explained that his concept of epistemic closure goes far beyond merely being an echo chamber.

The idea of “epistemic closure” was that you WOULD hear new and contrary information, but you have mechanisms in your belief system that reject anything that might force you to update your beliefs…

I bring this up now, because the Trump ecosystem has developed a pretty sophisticated set of epistemic closure mechanisms that work to reject new information that might otherwise pose a problem.
The closure mechanisms the right has installed in order to inoculate their followers include references to things like the deep state, fake news, and the swamp. Once people buy into those, they can reject any information that comes from those sources. Recently Trump said that painting the news media as corrupt will go down as one of his greatest achievements. That is precisely how he inoculates his followers against reality. 

But it doesn’t end there. As Sanchez explains, they “effectively judo-flip [contradictory information] into confirmation of the preexisting narrative, rather than new contradictory data.” In doing so, the right actually turns those who challenge them into targets that reinforce their delusional lies.

So—like Kendi—I'm wondering what's the point. 

Beyond all of the specific issues, policies, and politics that are on the table these days, this is the most important meta issue we are facing. For democracy to survive, we're going to have to figure this one out. But as far as I can see, no one has an answer to this one. I don't either...which is why I went silent.

When it comes to the presidential race, are polls all that matter?

A little more than five months from the 2024 presidential election,  conventional wisdom  suggests that  Biden is losing . But according to ...