Browsing the blog archives for December, 2016.


False Flags About False Flags?

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News Media, Russia

WaPo has a story up about evidence of a possible Russian attempt to hack the power grid.

A code associated with the Russian hacking operation dubbed Grizzly Steppe by the Obama administration has been detected within the system of a Vermont utility, according to U.S. officials.

While the Russians did not actively use the code to disrupt operations, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a security matter, the discovery underscores the vulnerabilities of the nation’s electrical grid. And it raises fears in the U.S. government that Russian government hackers are actively trying to penetrate the grid to carry out potential attacks. …

…Burlington Electric said in a statement that the company detected a malware code used in the Grizzly Steppe operation in a laptop that was not connected to the organization’s grid systems. The firm said it took immediate action to isolate the laptop and alert federal authorities.

Besides the fact that I’m beginning to think I should be worried about my Kaspersky (a Russian company) security software — this story is a bit ambiguous; this might or might not turn out to be a big deal. But hacking of the electrical grid is a major deal, so it is something to be taken seriously. There will be more investigations.

This story also is being reported by Reuters, the Associated Press and the Guardian, although they are attributing most of their information to the Washington Post. These are news outlets with some standards about sources. Again, maybe it’ll turn out to be nothing, but I wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand.

However, others do. Today there was much hooting in social media about false flags. Sample:

Latest False Flag scapegoating, Russia hacking Vermont says MSNBC and Faux News?? Lol Lol. After all Vermont is a high value target. Feel the Bern. Lol. SERIOUSLY?? Anyone Remember the Movie, The Russians are Coming (a cold war era comedy)

Well, yeah, and there really were Russians, although nice ones. Hey, did you ever see the trailer for that movie? It’s a hoot.

Classic. Anyway, at the bottom of the WaPo story is a disclaimer, saying:

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Russian hackers had penetrated the U.S. electric grid. Authorities say there is no indication of that so far. The computer at Burlington Electric that was hacked was not attached to the grid.

Someone associated with Alex Jones called the WaPo story a false report. The Daily Caller put out a story headlined “Washington Post Publishes False News Story About Russians Hacking Electrical Grid” by a reporter named Alex Pfeiffer, who looks like he might be almost old enough to shave.

A story published by The Washington Post Friday claims Russia hacked the electrical grid in Vermont. This caused hysteria on social media but has been denied by a spokesman for a Vermont utility company.

The “denial” was that the hacked computer was not attached to the grid, as WaPo corrected. The Vermont utility company did not deny that a hacking code was found on one of their computers. But apparent journalism school dropout Pfeiffer continued to ridicule the WaPo story, playing up “panic among journalists.”

The thing is, that any foreign government might be attempting to hack the electrical grid, even if they haven’t succeeded, really is a big, scary serious thing. Even Pfeiffer might appreciate that if he ever finds himself in the middle of a major, prolonged blackout.

My larger point is that there’s such a thing as being too skeptical for one’s own good. I really hate that it’s now “cool” to dismiss everything in the news as just more manipulation.

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Kerry’s Rebuke of Israel: Too Little, Too Late?

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Israel, Obama Administration

This happened:

In what may be the last important act of his public life, Kerry got up on Tuesday and tried to explain the current state of affairs in the Middle East—specifically, the relationships between Israel and the United States, between Israel and the occupied Palestinian population, and between Israel and the rest of the world. He telegraphed the speech, which gave the usual suspects a head start at taking bites out of it.

But Kerry never has been better than when he drops political calculation—at which he probably is the most obvious politician I’ve ever seen—and fastens his feet to the ground. Per the CSPAN transcript of his remarks:

This is an issue which I have worked on intensively during my time as Secretary of State for one simple reason—because the two state solution is the only way to achieve a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians. It is the only way to ensure that Israel has a future, as a Jewish and democratic state, living in peace and security with its neighbors. The only way to ensure a future of freedom and dignity for the Palestinian people and it is an important way of advancing United States’ interest in the region. I would like to explain why that future is now in jeopardy. And provide some context for why we could not in good conscience stand in the way of a resolution at the United Nations that makes clear that both sides must act now to preserve the possibility of peace.

So, no, there will be no apology to Benjamin Netanyahu, and his good friend, the President-elect of the United States. Kerry explained this to Netanyahu. He pretty much told Donald Trump to stay in the backseat where he belongs.

Friends need to tell each other hard truths. And friendships require mutual respect. Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, who does not support a two state solution, said after the vote last week, quote—”It was to be expected that Israel’s greatest ally would act in accordance with the values we share and veto this resolution.” I am compelled to respond today that the United States did in fact vote in accordance with our values. Just as previous U.S. administrations have done at the security council before us…We cannot properly defend and protect Israel if we allow a viable two state solution to be destroyed before our own eyes. That is the bottom line.

… I honestly don’t know what else Kerry could have said. Gaza remains an open wound. The settlements are a permanent roadblock at this point, and somebody had to promote the two-state solution at least for the record before El Caudillo del Mar-A-Lago comes in and (perhaps) abandons it entirely. And Netanyahu—and the Fox News ambassador he sent over here—richly deserved the slap that came afterwards.

The result is that policies of this government, which the prime minister himself just described as “more committed to settlements than any in Israel’s history,” are leading in the opposite direction, towards one state.

If that’s the last big moment for John Kerry on a public stage, it at least was a principled one. Whoever comes next is really on his or her own.

Then came the usual side-taking and ducking for cover:

Secretary of State John Kerry’s rebuke of the Israeli government on Wednesday set off a wave of criticism from lawmakers in both parties. Republicans denounced what they said was the Obama administration’s harsh treatment of a steadfast ally and Democrats signaled that they were uneasy with Mr. Kerry’s pressure on Israel, even as they praised the effort to promote Middle East peace.

Democrats named as being critical of Kerry’s speech were New York’s Sen. Chuckie Schumer (but you knew that already, didn’t  you?), Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, and Rep. Eliot L. Engel of New York. Republicans on the whole are more loyal to Bibi Netanyahu’s Israel than they are to the U.S., so we know how they reacted.

In Europe, however, Mr. Kerry’s speech was greeted warmly, with officials calling it a courageous and thoughtful effort to salvage the idea of a two-state solution for the Israelis and Palestinians. Still, across the Arab world, his harsh words for Israel were met with a collective shrug, coming at the end of eight years of Obama administration policies that left many in the Middle East frustrated.  …

… In France, Britain and Germany, Mr. Kerry’s speech was greeted with more full-throated support. Senator Nathalie Goulet, vice president of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the French Senate, said Mr. Kerry “is right, he is absolutely right.”

“The more there are settlements,” she said, “the less it is likely there will be a two-state solution. But nobody ever dares condemn Israel. There is a double standard that nourishes the propaganda of the terrorists.”

In a statement, the German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, praised Mr. Kerry’s speech as a “passionate and deeply convincing” defense of “the only credible way” to solve the issue: a two-state solution.

British officials said they regarded Mr. Kerry’s speech as a thoughtful summary of longstanding British and European concerns about the direction of Israeli politics. Britain and France, both members of the Security Council, voted for the resolution on settlements, and France has been extremely active in pressing for a kind of peace conference, to which the Israelis have objected.

In the Arab world, analysts said the Obama administration should have spoken out sooner.

“At the last five minutes of the hour, apparently Kerry and Obama are showing some courage to stand up to Israel, but it is coming too late in the game,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a professor of political science in the United Arab Emirates. “It is after the fact. They should have shown this amount of political courage four years ago, if not eight years ago.”

I’m with Abdulkhaleq Abdulla on that one, although we know that Kerry’s predecessor in the State Department would never have given that speech. She made that clear last March. So it was up to Kerry to say what needed to be said. Fat lot of good it will do, though.

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Feminism Is Not Doomed

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Feminism

Michelle Goldberg has written a lot of commentaries I genuinely admire. This column is not among them.

For the last couple of years, feminism has been both ubiquitous and improbably glamorous, its pop culture currency symbolized by Beyoncé silhouetted before a giant glowing FEMINIST sign at the 2014 Video Music Awards. On television, women went from ornaments to protagonists, starring in a slew of raunchy comedies in which men were often afterthoughts. Feminist polemics became a staple of fashion magazines. Female college students demanded standards of sexual consent that were often unfathomable to their elders. In my little corner of Brooklyn, ambient feminism appeared to influence the way fashionable young women dressed. They wore oversized shirtdresses or loose wide-legged pants and chunky shoes, clothes for doing things rather than displaying oneself. Last year, the New York Times ran a trend piece about hip young women rejecting thongs in favor of comfortable underwear. Female masochism, it seemed, was falling out of style. …

This is not a fashion column. Whether “ambient feminism” was influencing women’s wear outside of Brooklyn I cannot say. After some more verbiage on women’s cultural triumphs in the Big Apple, Goldberg gets to her point.

For 25 years, after all, Clinton was reviled as a synecdoche for unseemly female ambition. That’s part of what made her candidacy so fraught. If she’d become president, it would have been in the teeth of widespread male opposition; even the models that showed her winning had her losing the majority of men. She proposed policies that would have increased women’s power and autonomy at every level of society: equal pay, paid family leave, subsidized child care, abortion rights. For all her manifold faults, her election would have both signified progress toward gender equality and made more such progress possible. Before Nov. 8, it looked as if the arc of history was bending toward women.

Trump’s victory has obliterated this narrative. In many ways it was a fluke; had a few thousand votes in a few Rust Belt states gone another way, we’d be talking about Clinton’s popular vote landslide and the decisive defeat of Trumpian reaction. However freakishly contingent his triumph, it forecloses the future feminists imagined at least for a long while. We’re going be blown backward so far that this irredeemably shitty year may someday look like a lost feminist golden age. The very idea that women are equal citizens, that barriers to their full human flourishing should be identified and removed, is now up for grabs. A pastor warming up the crowd at a post-election Trump rally in Louisiana promised that with Trump in office, the White House would be a place “where men know who men are, women know who women are.” The massive power of the American state is about to be marshaled to put women in their place.

The rest of the column is pretty much about how far backward feminism will be blown. It doesn’t look good for Roe v. Wade and reproductive rights generally, but for women in large parts of the country outside of Brooklyn that’s been true for the past few years. And right-wing clergymen have been calling for putting women in their place all along, as well. You don’t hear them much in Brooklyn, but they can be pretty loud elsewhere.

A synecdoche in Goldberg’s context means that Hillary Clinton was the embodiment of all uppity women. That was true in the 1990s, and it remains true in some right-wing enclaves, I’m sure.

But Hillary Clinton is not all women, uppity or otherwise. She is a particular woman with a particular history who has been in the worldwide public eye for about a quarter of a century now. To see rejection of her as a rejection of all possible women presidential candidates trivializes both feminism and Clinton, I say.

I would argue that if anyone was rendering Clinton into a synecdoche of anything, it is the upscale urban women who identify with her. But the 2016 presidential election was just plain not a referendum on feminism. I’m sorry, ambient Brooklyn feminists, but people out here in Not Brooklyn Land actually are concerned about other issues.

There’s that income inequality thing. You may remember hearing something about it during the primaries. An Economic Policy Institute study released this year said that income inequality in the U.S. has reached levels not seen since the late 1920s. That is a seriously bad thing that’s having a real impact in peoples’ lives.

The United States is now the most economically unequal nation of all Western nations. Americans have considerably less social mobility than Canada and Europe. (Source.) The Middle Class is shrinking just about everywhere in America. Most Americans are one paycheck away from living on the streets. White working class people are so stressed about this, their life expectancy is in decline.

One can argue, possibly truthfully, that whites are more stressed about their economic decline than nonwhites because they had further to fall. One definition of suffering is that it’s what’s found in the space between expectations and reality. That, however, doesn’t mean that their stress should be dismissed as a vestige of white privilege. Being one paycheck away from the streets doesn’t feel privileged.

There is all kinds of data telling us that the biggest change in voting patterns between 2012 and 2016 is found in the Rust Belt states. These are the places where, 50 years ago, a guy could graduate high school, get a union job at the local factory or steel mill, and enjoy both job security and a cushy middle-class lifestyle, complete with a home, the occasional new car, and trips to Disneyland for the family.

Those days are gone. People are very stressed about it. And neither party, to be honest, has done much to give people any hope that the future won’t be even bleaker.

Along comes the 2016 election. Trump, the narcissistic con man, went to the Rust Belt and told people what they wanted to hear. But Clinton barely talked to them, and if she addressed their particular concerns at all, they didn’t hear it.

And she lost their votes.

Feminism had little to do with it. I don’t doubt gender bias whittled some votes away from Clinton, but it wasn’t to blame for her collapse in the Rust Belt states. That was the economy, folks.

It was also class. Class inequality is real, and getting worse, in the U.S. And upscale urban liberals are oblivious to it.

The mistake many upscale urban liberals make is that they assume the bigots who leave comments on Facebook, or the violent dimwits who showed up at Trump rallies, are representative of all Trump voters. Yes, Trump tapped into a vein of bigotry, including misogyny. But data tell us that many people who voted for Trump acknowledged he was a jerk. They simply judged — wrongly, I believe — that he was the jerk who might actually do something to make their lives better.

So reflect on that over your chai lattes, ambient feminists.

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Unilateral Dehumanizing Disarmament

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Obama Administration

The Rabbi Michael Lerner is a wise man. He wrote this column right after the election, and I missed it at the time, but I am pointing to it now.

Though job loss and economic stagnation played a role in his victory, so did shame. As the principal investigator on a study of the middle class for the National Institute of Mental Health, I found that working people’s stress is often intensified by shame at their failure to “make it” in what they are taught is a meritocratic American economy.

The right has been very successful at persuading working people that they are vulnerable not because they themselves have failed, but because of the selfishness of some other villain (African-Americans, feminists, immigrants, Muslims, Jews, liberals, progressives; the list keeps growing).

I also blame liberals/Democrats for not doing a better job of bringing a different message to the white working class. I’ve been ranting about the iron curtain of right-wing hegemony. In vast parts of the country, most people are never exposed to progressive views. They don’t see them on the teevee, they don’t read them in their local papers. Unless you make an effort to seek out other opinions, the only opinions you ever hear are right-wing opinions.

This accounts for a lot of the lingering racism in the U.S., by the way. Yes, this racism is real, and it is pervasive. But we could have moved further beyond it by now, if the Right weren’t allowed a media monopoly in large parts of the country. And we could have moved further beyond it by now if progressive voices had been heard everywhere in the U.S. Maybe more folks would have gotten a clue that working people of all colors have many common causes.

In short, the Democratic Party’s near abandonment of the white working class — to the point of not even talking to them — makes Democrats at least partly responsible for the racism that frustrates and defeats them.

The dominance of the iron curtain came about because right-wingers started working back in the 1970s to put together an integrated institutional-media infrastructure that hones right-wing messages and gets them in front of the public. After all this time, the Left hasn’t come anywhere close to creating anything similar. Chip Berlet published a fine rant about this on Facebook last week, and I recommend it highly.

But let’s go back to Rabbi Lerner. This part is not going to sit well with a lot of folks:

Instead of challenging this ideology of shame, the left has buttressed it by blaming white people as a whole for slavery, genocide of the Native Americans and a host of other sins, as though whiteness itself was something about which people ought to be ashamed. The rage many white working-class people feel in response is rooted in the sense that once again, as has happened to them throughout their lives, they are being misunderstood.

The truth is, if you’re a rust belt white guy who is stressed out of his mind about job insecurity, layoffs, underemployment, loss of opportunity and decaying communities, being called out for “white privilege” is utterly infuriating. I understand that white privilege is real, but I really wish we could retire the term outside of academia. Any demographic group experiencing rising mortality rates is not “privileged.” See also “All Hollowed Out: The lonely poverty of America’s white working class.”

Skipping down a bit, the Rabbi concludes,

Democrats need to become as conscious and articulate about the suffering caused by classism as we are about other forms of suffering. We need to reach out to Trump voters in a spirit of empathy and contrition. Only then can we help working people understand that they do not live in a meritocracy, that their intuition that the system is rigged is correct (but it is not by those whom they had been taught to blame) and that their pain and rage is legitimate.

After the election I saw a lot of rage directed at Trump voters. Urban liberals passed many judgments on them and spoke of white working class Americans in clinical terms, as if they were an exotic aboriginal tribe recently discovered in the wilderness. And those were the polite comments. The less polite dismissed the white working class as racists and rubes and fools, and according to one widely cited article they couldn’t think properly because their brains have been scrambled by religion. I saw little sympathy; just contempt.

Part of the problem is that “Trump voters” are all presumed to be just like the neo-nazi fanboys who show up for Trump rallies and threaten dissenters with violence. Yes, Trump tapped into a faction of racist extremists who hate modern civilization and want to destroy it. But “Trump voters” also include people who just want some attention paid to their problems, which have been ignored by both parties for too long.

Like it or not, Trump spoke to them and seemed to “get” them. Clinton didn’t speak to them at all. Yes, Trump’s pitch was a con, but as I keep saying, nobody speaks to the white working class except to manipulate them. That’s been true for a long time.

Sarah Kliff went to Kentucky to find out why people who really needed Obamacare voted for Trump. The answer: It’s complicated. They didn’t believe he actually would end it; they thought he would make it better. And of course, there’s a belief that somehow, somewhere, there are undeserving (and probably dark) people getting better benefits. We might all be frustrated by how ignorant that is. But who told them anything different? Who actually explained to them that if they vote for Trump they might lose their insurance? Did a single one of Hillary Clinton’s ads about Trump using naughty words or getting his ties made in China talk about the ACA?

I’m writing this from Trump Country. People here are mostly walking around with standard human brains in their heads. Most of them possess the standard amount of human empathy. They can read and write and find foreign countries on a map about as well as average city folks. Most of them are not members of the Klan or actually expect the Second Coming to happen any day now. They have a one-side view of politics because the Right talks to them, and the Left doesn’t.

I repeat: The Right talks to them. The Left doesn’t. That didn’t use to be true. I can remember when a liberal politician of the John Kennedy mold could get a respectful hearing here. But that was decades ago.

Not everyone gets this. Amanda Marcotte recently wrote,

Under the circumstances, it’s understandable that many people are arguing that we need more empathy and communication across partisan lines in this country. And clearly we do! The problem is that such efforts are almost always one-sided: Liberals are instructed to reach out to conservatives and practice empathy for them, as evidenced by the series of preachy articles published in the wake of the election, urging urban liberals to get out of their supposed bubbles and talk to conservatives in the heartland.

The irony in all this is that the reason pundits ask this of liberals and not conservatives is because they know liberals are likely to listen. Everyone understands, on some level, that asking conservatives to reach out to liberals will be met with a bunch of guffaws, a profane invitation to perform anatomically difficult feats and more stereotypes about how liberals are a bunch of useless welfare sucks.

Okay, let’s think about this. The Democrats just got clobbered in a national election. We didn’t just lose the White House to an odious toad. We lost all across the U.S.

Republicans control both chambers in 32 states, including 17 with veto-proof majorities. Those 32 states cover 61 percent of the U.S. population. Democrats, meanwhile, control the legislature in just 13 states, amounting to 28 percent of the country’s population; only four of those chambers have veto-proof majorities.

With a firm grip on the presidency, Congress, and soon the Supreme Court, Republicans have won more political power in 2016 than in any election since at least 1928, when Herbert Hoover was elected to the White House. Democrats now face a deep hole they need to climb out of to fight back against the coming reactionary policy shift of the pending Trump administration and its allied state governments.

We’re not going to turn that around until we stop stamping our feet and wailing, but it’s not fair! I don’t wanna talk to those awful other people! 

Indeed, the biggest reason we are losing is that we don’t talk to those people. So maybe we should change our attitude, if only because it’s in our own bleeping self-interest to do so.

We are the ones who need people who are being hurt by The System and The Plutocracy to unify.  The Right benefits by keeping us divided. Got that?

Marcotte complains that the Right dehumanizes liberals, and that’s absolutely true. Liberals are the boogyman here. Throughout the campaign I saw one political ad after another in which the Democrat was sneered at as a liberal, as if nothing more needed to be said.

But the reason that works is that liberals are perceived to be snooty rich city folks who look down their noses at us and think they are better than us, and nobody tells them any different. And, truth be told, sometimes they have a point. Urban, educated professionals really do live in their own bubble and don’t see what’s going on out here in Walmart Land.

So, I am proposing unilateral dehumanizing disarmament. The white working class needs progressivism, even if they don’t understand that themselves. It’s up to us to do outreach and find a way to bring as many as we can into the progressive fold. And I say it’s do-able. You won’t get all of them, especially older people, but if we don’t get some of them, we are doomed.

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What to Do Now

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big picture stuff

Well, I’m back. My PC forgot how to do wifi — the problem is not with the wifi, since all the other wifi thingies in the house are all fine. So naturally the quick fix is to connect the laptop to the router with an ethernet cable. But the laptop has no ethernet port, and it took me awhile to get my hands on a USB ethernet adapter. So I’m back online, but some day I’m going to have to try to get the wifi function fixed.

Anyway — the question at hand is, what should we do now? I started out to write about what the Democrats should do, and I still wrote a lot about that. But there’s also the individual dimension — what should each of us do?

I do urge that people engage with the Democratic Party. There are a lot of (naive, inexperienced, mostly young) people out there who question why we need parties at all. Maybe I’ll write about that some time. The short answer is republican government doesn’t function without them. Without the organizing function of party, government becomes every politician for himself. So they always form. And because of the way we run elections in the U.S., we are pretty much stuck with two dominant national parties, like it or not. However, explaining why that’s true will need to be the point of another post.

There’s a battle royale going on for the DNC chair; the main contenders are Rep. Keith Ellison and Labor Secretary Tom Perez. Perez and his supporters have made it a nasty fight. It got so bad that members of the California DNC issued a statement denouncing the mud slinging. “Now more than ever, the Democratic Party needs to have a principled debate about its future that is based on issues and organizing strategy,” they said.

Well, yes. So the first thing the Democrats need to do is stop with the internal character assassination. I have no reason to dislike Perez, and he might be good in the job, but the dirty in-fighting thing makes me want him to lose.

Along those lines, this was spotted on Facebook, to the question of “What the Democrats should do now”: “Clean house. Be done with the Clintons. Get some new blood. Don’t cry so much. Put forward new ideas not just slam the other side. No more name calling. Appeal more broadly. Listen to middle America. Stop starting/continuing war abroad.”

Matt Taibbi wrote last June,

The maddening thing about the Democrats is that they refuse to see how easy they could have it. If the party threw its weight behind a truly populist platform, if it stood behind unions and prosecuted Wall Street criminals and stopped taking giant gobs of cash from every crooked transnational bank and job-exporting manufacturer in the world, they would win every election season in a landslide.

Again, more good advice. But from what I’ve seen so far, the old leadership that got it so wrong is putting him a massive fight to stay in control. And if they do, we’re sunk.

If the Democrats are a brand, what does that brand stand for? A big part of the problem is that I don’t think it stands for anything any more. It is the party that is somewhat less awful than the other party. It is the party that generally doesn’t stand in the way of cultural progress, but you can’t trust it with economic progress. It is the party that pays lip service to being for working people, but usually isn’t.

Duncan Black wrote an awesome post a short time back that I recommend. Here is just a bit:

We’re sort of reaching the breaking point of the decades long battle between the party that promises to kick those other people, and the party that promises not to kick them quite so hard. I think there have been some signs of Dems recognizing it, but they’re still largely locked into that way of thinking. ACA, for all its benefits, just couldn’t be implemented without making it fucking hard for people. That the subsidies aren’t generous enough makes it too expensive for people, and that’s a problem, but it’s one thing to be forced to buy a car you can’t really afford, another to buy a car that you can’t afford that you have to take in for repairs every other week. The government can’t just provide the nice things it once provided because reasons. Hell, once upon a time they built community pools and golf courses. Now your HOA might have a pool.

We’re the richest damn country in the history of the world (close enough, anyway). Life shouldn’t be so hard. Not against The Data, but the data doesn’t really capture what’s going on for “the middle class.” It isn’t that wages are stagnant or shrinking – though that’s an issue too! – It’s that doing the right thing and having a tiny bit of luck is no longer enough to achieve economic security anymore. Life’s a crap shoot from 18-67 (soon to be longer, if Republicans get their way). We’re all one medium sized economic hit (including medical) away from the downward spiral. And thanks to that glorious bankruptcy bill, once you get into a hole you’re probably trapped there. Bipartisany goodness to make David Broder swoon. 74-25 in the Senate, 302-126 in the House. But the Dems are the good guys! Yah, well, not enough of them and not consistently enough. Vote for Dems and the share of them voting for horrible things will shrink slightly!

And it isn’t complicated. Thinking that it is complicated is the problem. There are better and worse ways to achieve things, and the wonks can fight it out, but the point is to achieve them. And, really, given how small the nice things budget is who cares?

“There are better and worse ways to achieve things, and the wonks can fight it out, but the point is to achieve them.” To, you know, actually do stuff. And if you manage to do stuff that will be good for working folks, be sure to follow through and let working folks know about it. IMO part of the opposition to Obamacare comes from the fact that lots of folks have yet to figure out what it is and how it works. That makes it easy to lie about.

For years, Democrats have made promises that they will Fight For You! if you send them to Washington. So we send them to Washington, and with the rare exception of the problematic ACA, nothing much changes. So along with stopping the nasty infighting, we need leadership that has a clue. No more wishy-washy centrism. No more “interest group brokerage party that seeks to mediate between the claims and concerns of left-wing activists groups and those of important members of the business community,” to quote Matt Yglesias.

No more selling us out, Democrats. No more assuming that we have to vote for you because we’ve got no other choice. Be for something, stick to it, do it. Deliver.

The rift between the coastal liberal college-educated Democrats and working class people will have to be mended, and that won’t be easy.  I’ll have more thoughts on that in coming posts.

Of course, this assumes that our representative democracy survives as such for a few more election cycles. We are in danger of slipping into totalitarianism. The next couple of years could be critical.

How to resist? What is the best course? First, I suggest that further ridiculing the dumb hillbillies who voted for Trump is counterproductive. They are not the enemy.

I’m going to copy and paste something I found on Facebook.  The author is Yale historian and Holocaust expert Timothy Snyder.

Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so. Here are twenty lessons from the twentieth century, adapted to the circumstances of today.

1. Do not obey in advance. Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then start to do it without being asked. You’ve already done this, haven’t you? Stop. Anticipatory obedience teaches authorities what is possible and accelerates unfreedom.

2. Defend an institution. Follow the courts or the media, or a court or a newspaper. Do not speak of “our institutions” unless you are making them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions don’t protect themselves. They go down like dominoes unless each is defended from the beginning.

3. Recall professional ethics. When the leaders of state set a negative example, professional commitments to just practice become much more important. It is hard to break a rule-of-law state without lawyers, and it is hard to have show trials without judges.

4. When listening to politicians, distinguish certain words. Look out for the expansive use of “terrorism” and “extremism.” Be alive to the fatal notions of “exception” and “emergency.” Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.

5. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives. When the terrorist attack comes, remember that all authoritarians at all times either await or plan such events in order to consolidate power. Think of the Reichstag fire. The sudden disaster that requires the end of the balance of power, the end of opposition parties, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Don’t fall for it.

6. Be kind to our language. Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. (Don’t use the internet before bed. Charge your gadgets away from your bedroom, and read.) What to read? Perhaps “The Power of the Powerless” by Václav Havel, 1984 by George Orwell, The Captive Mind by Czesław Milosz, The Rebel by Albert Camus, The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, or Nothing is True and Everything is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev.

7. Stand out. Someone has to. It is easy, in words and deeds, to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. And the moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.

8. Believe in truth. To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.

9. Investigate. Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles. Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to print media. Realize that some of what is on your screen is there to harm you. Learn about sites that investigate foreign propaganda pushes.

10. Practice corporeal politics. Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.

11. Make eye contact and small talk. This is not just polite. It is a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down unnecessary social barriers, and come to understand whom you should and should not trust. If we enter a culture of denunciation, you will want to know the psychological landscape of your daily life.

12. Take responsibility for the face of the world. Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.

13. Hinder the one-party state. The parties that took over states were once something else. They exploited a historical moment to make political life impossible for their rivals. Vote in local and state elections while you can.

14. Give regularly to good causes, if you can. Pick a charity and set up autopay. Then you will know that you have made a free choice that is supporting civil society helping others doing something good.

15. Establish a private life. Nastier rulers will use what they know about you to push you around. Scrub your computer of malware. Remember that email is skywriting. Consider using alternative forms of the internet, or simply using it less. Have personal exchanges in person. For the same reason, resolve any legal trouble. Authoritarianism works as a blackmail state, looking for the hook on which to hang you. Try not to have too many hooks.

16. Learn from others in other countries. Keep up your friendships abroad, or make new friends abroad. The present difficulties here are an element of a general trend. And no country is going to find a solution by itself. Make sure you and your family have passports.

17. Watch out for the paramilitaries. When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching around with torches and pictures of a Leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-Leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the game is over.

18. Be reflective if you must be armed. If you carry a weapon in public service, God bless you and keep you. But know that evils of the past involved policemen and soldiers finding themselves, one day, doing irregular things. Be ready to say no. (If you do not know what this means, contact the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and ask about training in professional ethics.)

19. Be as courageous as you can. If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die in unfreedom.

20. Be a patriot. The incoming president is not. Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come. They will need it.

–Timothy Snyder, Housum Professor of History, Yale University,
15 November 2016.

And with that — Merry Christmas.

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Talk Among Yourselves

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Obama Administration

My PC is having internet connection issues, so for the moment I can only post from my Kindle Fire. This is a step up from clay tablets, but barely. So just carry on.

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Assassination in Turkey

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Bad Hair, Middle East

So is the assassination of the Russian ambassador in Turkey an Archduke Ferdinand event that will lead to wider conflict? I’m hoping not, of course. But it seems to me that this is a hell of a time for power in the U.S. to someone known to be a Russian stooge. And on top of that the nominee for Ambassador to Israel is a worse hard-liner than Bibi Netanyahu.

Thoughts?

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Looking to Trump’s Katrina

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Bad Hair, disasters, natural and unnatural

There’s so much nonsense going on it’s hard to focus on any of it, but I will try.  Today I want to bring up something I read in the Guardian that I’m not seeing elsewhere: “The White House is struggling to prevent a crippling exodus of foreign policy staffers eager to leave before the arrival of the Trump administration, according to current and former officials,” the Guardian says.

The top level officials in the National Security Council (NSC) are political appointees who have to submit resignations and leave in a normal transition. The rest of the 400 NSC staff are career civil servants on secondment from other departments. An unusual number of these more junior officials are now looking to depart. …

… “Career people are looking get out and go back to their agencies and pressure is being put on them to get them to stay. There is concern there will be a half-empty NSC by the time the new administration arrives, which no one wants,” said one official.

The NSC staffers want to get out before Michael Flynn takes over, and I can’t say I blame them.

Reports from the state department suggest most of its staff are taking a wait-and-see to the prospect of having the ExxonMobil oil executive, Rex Tillerson, at the helm. On Thursday, most of the Democrats on the House foreign affairs committee wrote to the current secretary of state, John Kerry, offering his staff protection against a “witch-hunt” by the new administration against civil servants who worked on Obama policies Trump wants to reverse. The letter was sent after the energy department refused to hand over to the Trump transition team a list of names of staffers who had worked on climate change.

I don’t know how those staffers are going to be protected once the Trump appointees take over. There will be witch hunts. The “old hands” will continue to leave.

Two words come to mind: Institutional memory. You might remember the wonder that was FEMA after Hurricane Katrina. It came to be realized that the massive incompetence that marked the response to Katrina was a combination of bad management and loss of institutional memory. So many old FEMA hands had left in disgust during Bush’s first term that the agency literally was staffed by people who didn’t know what they were doing. Not enough people remained who knew established procedures, what worked and what didn’t.

In the case of foreign policy, though, there’s another precedent that comes to mind. The McCarthy witch hunts in the 1950s were especially  hard on the State Department. People with expertise in Asia were targeted in particular after Mao Zedong gained control of China. I have read that the loss of the old China hands in State left the U.S. largely blind when dealing with subsequent events in Asia, and this fed into the decisions that eventually got us more and more entangled in Vietnam. Loss of a critical number of professionals in any agency could have disastrous consequence long after Trump is gone.

So climate scientists may yet be purged, and foreign policy personnel, and I hate to think what’s going to happen to the Justice Department. It’s going to be very, very bad. And Trump may have a lot of Katrinas on his hands.

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Hacked to Pieces

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big picture stuff

This has been the week that Russian hacking finally was mostly taken seriously. If you missed the New York Times’s long expose on how our political system was hacked, please take the time to read it. Since that piece was published, unnamed senior intelligence officials told NBC and ABC that Vladimir Putin was personally involved, and that Putin did intend to tilt the election to Trump.

Lots of people continue to believe this news is just propaganda, and not all of those people are Trump supporters. Some die-hards on the Left are certain the stories are being circulated by Clinton supporters trying to sway the Electoral College. But I think the hacking stories need to be taken seriously.

Because I think the Russian hacking issue needs to be taken seriously, I think it needs to be separated from the issue of whether Trump legitimately won the election. As long as it’s about the election, partisans will continue to fight over what’s true and what isn’t based on how it reflects on their candidate.

People will be arguing until the end of time whether the hacking really made that much difference in the election. My opinion is that of all the things that soured Clinton’s campaign, the revelations from Wikileaks were very low on the list. The actual revelations may have been embarrassing to the people involved, but none seemed to me to be devastating. The worse of them merely reinforced what many of us already believed, that Clinton really was isolated from the bread-and-butter issues that mattered to most Americans and that the DNC had its thumb on the scale for her throughout the primaries. But those things were apparent without the leaks.

However, in the unlikely event the electors use the hacks as a reason to deny Trump the presidency, I’m not going to argue with them.

Even so, too many people are not moving on from the election, seems to me. Clinton supporters are still moaning all over social media that She Wuz Robbed and the election was rigged and Comey letter and hacking and fake news and it wasn’t fair, and probably the election was rigged and it’s all Bernie Sanders’s fault. In other words, they’re a lot like the Sanders supporters who still believe Sanders really won the primaries and Clinton somehow stole it from him.

I endorse what Josh Marshall says here:

Just to put my cards on the table, I believe there is a good likelihood, probably even a probability, that if the Russian subversion campaign had never happened and James Comey had never released his letter, Hillary Clinton would be prepping to become our new President. My own guess is that Comey’s letter had the bigger impact. These were both profoundly damaging events in the race and Clinton lost by very tight margins in most of the newly (hopefully temporarily) red states. I see little way to challenge this assertion.

But the tiny margins are only one side of the story. Let’s take Wisconsin. The final tally puts Trump ahead by .8%, or 22,748 votes. That’s a tiny margin. Any number of things could have shifted the balance. Spending the final week of the campaign talking about a new investigation of Clinton’s emails was more than enough to tip the balance. Spending not just a single trip but more concerted time in the state could have too. But now look at the shift from 2012. The shift in the direction of the GOP was 7.7%. That is a huge shift over four years. Huge. There’s no getting around that. If you step back from Wisconsin to the larger Upper Midwest region and indeed the United States you see something more fundamental. Donald Trump did what we all remember Barack Obama doing in 2008: He changed the shape of the electorate.

What all of this comes down to is that something very big happened in this election that was quite separate from Comey and Putin.

And if Clinton had squeaked out the Electoral College win, by now that very big something would have been completely brushed aside. The one silver lining to her loss is that maybe Democrats will be forced to confront their failures as a party. But many of them are still in denial that Clinton or the Democratic Party are in any way at fault.

Right now the Dems are dividing up into pro- and anti-Keith Ellison factions. Rep. Keith Ellison is campaigning to be the next DNC chair, and I endorse him wholeheartedly. I think he’s just the guy we need. But yesterday I heard someone who wants a centrist chair say that we have to be careful about moving too far Left and getting McGoverned.

After the debacle that was November 8, they’re still worried about being McGoverned? And not concerned about continuing to be Clintoned?  Unreal.

People are also still arguing about whether the Democrats need to win back working-class whites. Some still think that demographic trends will lead the Dems to glory some day without having to deal with working-class white voters. Someday minorities will be a majority, and younger voters tend to be more liberal, so Dems will rule. Some day. And then a guy actually said this:

“Demographically, the Electoral College is heading in the right direction” for Democrats, Dan Pfeiffer, a former adviser to Mr. Obama, said. What Mr. Trump pulled off, he added, “would be hard to replicate.”

What would be hard to replicate is the fact that younger voters clearly wanted somebody else entirely to vote for, and The Establishment is still in denial about it. But let’s move on …

One of the smartest commentaries I’ve seen yet is by Matt Bai, who says — correctly, IMO — that Trump was made possible by the fact that hardly anyone trusts our civil institutions any more.

There was a time, not long ago, when it was possible to believe that no one would pay a very steep price for that cascade of failure during the Bush years, when just about every trusted institution in American life seemed to collapse of its own dereliction.

Disgraced pundits kept on pontificating. The CIA kept right on stonewalling — successfully — to keep its history of torture sealed off from public view. The parties in Washington kept on fighting like spoiled brats. The bankers kept on making money and loaning it out.

A decade passed, and American voters seemed to have settled into their cynicism, in the same way baseball fans still filled the stadiums after the steroid debacle and Catholic parishioners still lined the pews after coming to terms with chronic abuse.

No wonder we’ve become a post truth society. If the Bush years taught us anything, the “experts” on the teevee are all idiots, and “truth” can be whatever the guy with the biggest megaphone says it is. And he’s probably lying.

Trump had figured out that no one really believed the elite media anymore — the same media that said Iraq was an existential threat, that the banks had to be saved, that Obama would transform our dysfunctional politics. The same media that nightly featured a cavalcade of smug morons whose only qualification to opine on TV was an almost pathological shamelessness.

Who is the arbiter of truth these days? We have no Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite. Frankly, we get better information from John Oliver than from the Network Evening News. So, why not pick whatever smug moron you want to believe and ignore the rest of them? Truth is whatever you want it to be.

Something big has happened in our civil life, and it is a lot bigger than James Comey or Vladimir Putin or pizzagate or emails. It is bigger than Clinton or Trump. It’s that our civil life has lost all cohesiveness. There appears to be nothing real there; it’s all smoke and mirrors. Facts don’t matter. History is fungible. Believe what you like.

Trump’s victory not replicable?  Seriously?

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The Electoral College: Its Hour Come Round at Last?

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elections, The Constitution

It’s enormously unlikely that the current Russian hacker flap is going to stop Donald Trump from being inaugurated, but if he is stopped, it’s my understanding it can only happen in the Electoral College. So let’s take a look.

Why Is There an Electoral College? The Founders were opposed to electing presidents by popular national vote, mostly because they figured each state would just vote for its own “favorite son.” They considered having presidents chosen by Congress or by state legislatures. They finally settled on Electors, however, who were supposed to be really smart guys who would choose a president based purely on merit, and without consideration of partisan politics.

The best sense of what the Founders were thinking might be gleaned from Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist #68, in which he expounds in his overwritten way that

It was desirable that the sense of the people should operate in the choice of the person to whom so important a trust was to be confided. This end will be answered by committing the right of making it, not to any preestablished body, but to men chosen by the people for the special purpose, and at the particular conjuncture.

It was equally desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.

Hamilton goes on to explain that each state would somehow choose a committee of electors who would convene only once, for one purpose only, and that is to choose a president. In this way this crew would be less subject to being bribed or being under the influence of foreign powers.

The Constitution didn’t specify how the states chose their Electors. I understand that, at first, most of the time they were chosen by state legislatures.

How Was the Electoral College Supposed to Function? In the original wording in the Constitution, Electors were to vote for two people, at least one of whom was not from his state. Then as now, the Electors don’t meet in one place, but within their own states, to vote. The votes were sent in a sealed envelope to the President of the Senate (who would be the sitting Vice President). The votes were to be counted in front of the Senate and House of Representatives. In brief, whoever got the most votes was POTUS and whoever came in second was VPOTUS.

Well, that didn’t last long.  The 12th Amendment, ratified in 1804, provides that Electors vote separately for a president and a vice president. It also provides that if no one candidate receives a majority of all votes (currently the magic 270 number), the House of Representatives chooses the POTUS from among the top three contenders, and the Senate chooses the VPOTUS.

Other than the original provision of voting for one person not from their states, the Constitution places no restrictions on the Electors about whom they can vote for, other than the qualification requirements:

No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.

One little archaic constitutional vestige I did not know — to this day, an Elector cannot vote for a president and vice presidential candidate from his own state. One candidate is okay, but not both. So if both the presidential and vice presidential candidates were from Pennsylvania, for example, the Pennsylvania Electors would have to abstain.

And that’s where the U.S. Constitution stands on the matter of the Electors and choosing a president.

The Electoral College Today. Today,  of course, people vote for presidential candidates, and then Electors go through the motions of choosing the POTUS as outlined in the 12th Amendment. That way of doing things evolved pretty quickly in the 19th century, rendering the Electoral College vote into a meaningless, archaic ritual. Lots of amendments have been proposed to get rid of the Electoral College. Obviously, none have gotten very far.

The Electors are chosen by the parties, usually in state party conventions. Some are chosen by state party central committees. A handful of states use other methods — they are appointed by the governor, for example, or even appointed by the presidential nominee him- or herself. The point is that they are people chosen not for their wisdom, but for their loyalty to the party.

There are two aspects of today’s Electoral College that are problematic.

One is the “winner take all” method of choosing Electors that all but two states have adopted. This is not in the Constitution at all, and it’s this factor that makes it mathematically possible for one candidate to have a respectable popular vote majority and still lose the Electoral College. If the Electors were chosen in a proportional way, that’s much less likely to happen. Lawrence Lessig has been arguing that the “winner take all” thing is unconstitutional. However, his argument is based on the Court’s “reasoning” in Bush v. Gore, and there are those who don’t buy it.

Still, while we may be stuck with the Electoral College itself — the less populated states like it, because it gives them a disproportional voice in presidential elections — if someday the winner-take-all practice could be done away with, the Electoral College would more accurately reflect the popular vote.

The other “new” aspect is the binding of the Elector’s votes. Twenty-nine states have made it a felony for an Elector to go rogue and not vote according to his state’s vote. In practice, such “faithless” Electors are very rare and are usually only given a small fine, but they could be penalized more harshly.

Over the years, many constitutional scholars have said that the state “binding” laws are blatantly unconstitutional, and that the Electors must be free to vote as they choose. It was clearly the intent of the guys who wrote the Constitution for the Electors, not the people by popular vote, to choose the president. And while we may think that’s stupid, it hasn’t been amended. The Constitution still says that.

And it was also the clear intent of the guys who wrote the Constitution for the Electoral College to be a bulwark against “cabal, intrigue, and corruption,” as Hamilton put it:

These most deadly adversaries of republican government might naturally have been expected to make their approaches from more than one quarter, but chiefly from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils. How could they better gratify this, than by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union?

This is the very corruption that the Electoral College is supposed to prevent. The masses of the people may be swayed by passions fired up by demagogues, but the wise and level-headed Electors are supposed to be the ones who make the final decision. Or that’s how the Founding Guys imagined it would work, anyway.

If there was ever a time for the Electors to carry out their Constitutional duties and make their own choice for POTUS, this would be it. And if they don’t, then the Electoral College really has utterly failed in the duty it was given.

Blocking Trump wouldn’t necessarily give the election to Hillary Clinton, since the Electors can vote for anybody. If enough of them voted in a way that denied the majority to Donald Trump — say, by choosing Gary Johnson —  the election would go to the House. The House must choose among the three top vote getters. And since we’re talking about the House, that wouldn’t be Clinton. But maybe it wouldn’t be Trump, either.

(For an interesting take on what a mess that could turn out to be, see “Deadlock: What Happens If Nobody Wins” by Laurence H. Tribe and Thomas M. Rollins, from the October 1980 Atlantic.)

I’m hearing a lot of talk on social media that maybe a court could void the election. Courts have voided Senate elections a couple of times, apparently. But I don’t think any court would touch this mess with a thousand-foot pole, especially since the Constitution provides for the Electors or the House to make the final decision in the case of presidents. (And there is no provision whatsoever for re-doing an election, for any reason, which is another rumor I saw somewhere. )

The Electoral College vote is scheduled for Monday, December 19. Chances are Trump will at least get his 270 votes and be inaugurated. But we can dream …

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