The Wingnuts Want to Turn the U.S. Into Myanmar

I’m skipping my usual Memorial Day musings for this bit of current news. This is from Market Watch

Former national security adviser Michael Flynn said over the weekend that a Myanmar-like coup — in which the military overthrew a democratically elected government — “should happen” in the U.S.

Appearing in Dallas at a QAnon conference, Flynn was asked during a Q&A session that was shared in a Twitter video:  “I want to know why what happened in Myanmar can’t happen here?”

After cheers from the crowd died down, Flynn responded:  “No reason. I mean, it should happen here.”

Here’s the video:

The Market Watch article continues,

Myanmar’s military seized power Feb. 1 and imprisoned the country’s democratically elected leaders, on the basis of unproven allegations of voter fraud. At least 800 civilians have died, and thousands have been arrested, in protests that have wracked the Southeast Asian nation in the months that followed.

Supporters of the QAnon conspiracy theory have praised the Myanmar coup and called for the U.S. military to do the same, citing unsubstantiated claims of election fraud.

Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is no stranger to military dictatorship. Its history since gaining independence from Britain in 1947 is mostly a list of insurgencies and coups. It’s been under the thumb of military dictatorship most of that time, especially from about 1962 to about 2008. (Note that it wasn’t the same military junta running things, exactly, during that period. The coups had coups.) It managed to almost sorta kinda function as a democratic nation from about 2011 to very recently, but now the military has taken over again.

Myanmar is unfathomably screwed up. It would take a book to describe how screwed up it is. Just note that the various military juntas that ran the nation through most of its history did not do much good for the people. The juntas did not respect civil liberties or even concern themselves much with whether people had food and shelter.

Buddhism is the dominant religion in Myanmar, and the Buddhist establishment there is also a mess. Part of the reason for that goes back to the independence movement, which was led by monks, but that’s a long story. It’s also the case that during the worst of the earlier dictatorships many families gave their young sons to the temples, to be ordained, so that at least they would have something to eat. This resulted in a large number of Monks With Issues who were more interested in politics and activism than in meditation.

Did I mention Myanmar is bleeped up? So, yeah, let’s try to be just like them! That’s the ticket!

Morons. On the plus side, most U.S. career military officers have more respect for the Constitution and our democratic tradition than do the Republican Party these days. They aren’t going to follow Michael Flynn anywhere.

Myanmar military.

U.S. Workers and the Not So Free Market

Paul Waldman wrote on Friday:

As the economy rapidly recovers, particularly in sectors such as entertainment and food service that were hard-hit during the pandemic, many employers say they’re having trouble finding workers at wages they’re willing to pay. So GOP-run states are cutting back unemployment benefits to force people to immediately take any available job.

But if an employer is having trouble finding workers, the answer is for them to offer more money. That’s how supply and demand works in a market economy: When the demand for labor increases, the price of labor increases as well.

Yes. Of course. Why isn’t that obvious? Yet Anna North writes at Vox that employers aren’t getting the memo.

Now, with vaccinations on the rise and summer approaching, a lot of employers are going back to business as usual.

Restaurant and other service industry employers are saying they can’t find workers, and some are blaming expanded unemployment benefits — even as many businesses continue to offer wages that feel stuck in 2019 and safety remains uncertain in an ongoing pandemic. …

… Hazard pay is long gone, and grocery store workers in some places are fighting for even the smallest wage increases. “We were there through the whole pandemic,” Heidy Lopez, a cashier at a Food 4 Less grocery store in the Los Angeles area, told Vox. But now, “you feel like this company doesn’t care.”

Ya think?

Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickle and Dimed: On Not Getting By in America was published in May 2001, twenty years ago. I remember that one of her recurring points was that U.S. employers will do just about anything to fill jobs except raise wages. Even considering raising wages was worse than heresy, somehow. On top of that, for some reason U.S. companies maintain a middle management class of largely incompetent white men — and some women — most of whom couldn’t do the work they are supervising and whose apparent mission in life is making the workplace as inefficient and miserable as possible.

When someone works for less pay than she can live on … she has made a great sacrifice for you … The “working poor” … are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone.  [p. 221]

Some employees who continued to process meat, stock shelves, clean bedpans, and work cash registers throughout the pandemic got a little extra money in “hazard pay,” but that was discontinued long before the hazard had dissipated. And it appears a lot of workers who stayed home and got a bit of a reprieve from life on the shit farm also took time to think about their lives and what they were willing to put up with from now on.

I wrote about this earlier this month, in Are the Serfs Rethinking Feudalism?

Low-wage food service workers in particular have been rethinking the meaning of life and aren’t that eager to return, especially while the pandemic is still going on. “Many workers still don’t feel safe returning to work during a pandemic. Others don’t want to fight with patrons over health and safety guidelines. Some may have left town or joined another industry while they were laid off and will return when the timing and opportunity are right,” it says here.

There’s also copious data showing that a disproportionate number of employees not returning to work are women with children. Their day-care arrangements evaporated with the pandemic. Their older kids have been doing virtual school, and now we’re heading into summer vacation. Exactly how are they supposed to go back to their jobs, Mr. Employer? Have you ever even thought of that?

The “free market” conservatives running state governments decided the serfs just need to be forced back to work by cutting their enhanced employment benefits. As of five days ago, twenty-four states have announced that the extra $300 will go away some time in June (if it hasn’t stopped already) instead of the end of September. Yeah, that makes paying for day care so much easier.

Just wait; by August, Republicans will be blaming continued labor shortages on the monthly child tax credit payments. I’m betting Republicans even now are plotting to bring back sharecropping, as soon as they can come up with a new name for it.

Back to Paul Waldman:

Conservatives have had remarkable success spreading their preferred economic model throughout the country, one in which collective bargaining is but a memory and all power rests with employers. In that model, if you have a job you’re supposed to be thankful, no matter what the job entails.

You often hear them say that because unemployment was low when Donald Trump was president (the continuation of a decade-long decline that began under Barack Obama), that meant we were experiencing the best economy in history. But if you had an $8 an hour job at a fast-food joint where you had to sign a contract preventing you from getting a job at another fast-food joint, a job with meager benefits, no paid vacation, a boss who sexually harassed you, surly customers who berated you, and the constant threat of being fired, it probably didn’t seem like the greatest economy in history.

The “free market” advocates who run these businesses don’t want to see the government regulating their workplaces to give employees some say in the terms of their employment. Conservative/libertarian mythology says that free market capitalism creates the famous rising tide that lifts all boats, but the truth is that free market capitalism simply allows those with money to unmercifully exploit those without. It’s great if you’re in the moneyed group; not so much otherwise.

Not One of Our Better Weeks

The Texas legislature is about to send a bill to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk that would not only make it harder to vote; it will also make it easier for the state legislature to overturn results it doesn’t like. Way to go, Texas. See also the Texas Tribune, Texas lawmakers poised to pass sweeping voting bill to restrict voting hours and change election rules.

Meanwhile, delightful duo Margerie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz are touring the country and holding rallies to whip up violence against everybody they don’t like, including Silicon Valley …

… and the government.

No, the Second Amendment has nothing to do with allowing citizens to overthrow the government.

We’re still looking at fallout from the failure of the January 6 commission bill. Kysten Sinema is being roasted by the Arizona Republic for her role in standing in the way of just killing the filibuster already. “At some point, Sinema is going to have to realize she can’t have it both ways,” writes E.J. Montini. “She can’t support legislation she believes to be vital and maintain her position on the filibuster.” Sinema didn’t even bother to vote on the bill.

And then there’s Joe Manchin. I understand some people are still holding out hope that he will realize the filibuster has to go. If he hasn’t seen it by now, I don’t know what’s going to do it, though.

I am not feeling terribly optimistic at the moment. Well, try to do something fun over the Memorial Day weekend.

Let’s not Make 2020’s Mistakes in 2022

Do read Can Democrats avoid the pitfalls of 2020? A new analysis offers striking answers by Greg Sargent. You’ll remember that Democrats didn’t do as well in House races as they had expected to do last year. And now it wouldn’t take much for the Republicans to take back a House majority next year.

Greg Sargent discusses an analysis of campaign advertising that points out how much Democrats emphasized “working across the aisles” to “get things done” while Republicans emphasized “Democrats are demons who want to abolish police departments, turn America socialist, and eat your babies.” Guess which approach worked?

Jenifer Fernandez Ancona, the vice president of Way to Win, said that, in sum, Democrats in 2020 sent mixed messages: They touted their willingness to work with Republicans, even as Republicans called them socialists and extremists.

“By far their biggest spend,” Ancona told me, speaking of Republicans, was “on vilifying us as extreme in all kinds of ways.”

Meanwhile, Acona said, by constantly touting bipartisanship, Democrats were “effectively normalizing their attacks,” because Democratic messaging essentially said: “We want to work across the aisle with people who are painting us as extreme villains.”

That’s exactly what happened in Missouri. Republican campaign ads were all negative, all the time, and worked hard to hang unrest in Portland, Kenosha, etc. around the necks of Democratic opponents. Videos of flaming cars were frequently featured, as was the word “socialism.” The Dems tried to emphasize how good they were at working with Republicans. That’s exactly what happened. And it workd, for the Republicans.

This isn’t necessarily a new problem. I think Claire McCaskill lost to Josh Hawley in 2018 in part because she was too careful to not come across as “too liberal.” Her big issue was a promise to reduce prescription drug costs. Any issue more hot-button than that was avoided. I don’t recall that she ran any negative ads against Hawley. Meanwhile, Hawley’s ads against McCaskill accused her of all kinds of misuse of funds and personal corruption, and I don’t remember that she answered them.

Yes, Missouri is a red state, but the cities are blue. A big turnout in the cities can overcome the rural votes. But McCaskill cautious campaign didn’t inspire anyone in St. Louis or Kansas City to go out of the way to vote for her. A more full throated defense of urban issues, and a promise to stand up to Trump, might have kept her in the Senate.

Back to the anlysis of 2020:

This analysis also complicates an oft-heard argument about Republicans using leftist elements in the party — such as the “defund the police” movement — to tar mainstream Democrats. It’s sometimes said Democrats should more publicly denounce those [leftist] elements.

But the analysis suggests that at least part of the problem — in 2020, anyway — was that Democrats failed to rebut those attacks head-on or to effectively make the case that the GOP is genuinely captured by its extremist elements in a way the Democratic Party simply is not. That’s a very different failing than not doing enough to call out leftists.

Making the case that “the GOP is genuinely captured by its extremist elements in a way the Democratic Party simply is not” is a bit trickier than just calling the other side names, but I think that might be a smarter tactic than just running away from “the left” (as McCaskill did in 2018).

I hate negative ads, and I part of me hates to advocate negative ads, but we’re in an unusual situation here in that one party has ceased to  be a party and has become a danger to democracy itself. The Dems need to pull out all the stops and hand the right’s radicalism around GOP necks next year.

Successful GOP 2020 campaign ad.

Stuff to Read

Aaron Blake, WaPo, Trump’s Historic Legal Jeopardy. Trump may really become the first ex-POTUS to be convicted of a crime. See also Peter Stevenson, WaPo, The special grand jury used in Trump’s case, explained.

Philip Longman, Washington Monthly, Sickness in Health. This is a review of a book I haven’t read titled The Hospital by Brian Alexander. This could be a great book, but the review is worth reading in its own right. Alexander presents a fly-on-the-wall narrative about a small, independent hospital in Ohio, and in so doing presents the bigger picture of how our health care system got so screwed up.

Also at Washington Monthly, see Bill Scher, If Roe v. Wade is Struck Down, It’ll Cost Republicans. I’ve been thinking the same thing.

Paul Krugman, NY Times, The Banality of Democratic Collapse. It’s not the crazies in the Republican Party who are threatening democracy, Krugman argues. It’s “the acquiescence of Republican elites” to the crazy.

Political scientists have long noted that our two major political parties are very different in their underlying structures. The Democrats are a coalition of interest groups — labor unions, environmentalists, L.G.B.T.Q. activists and more. The Republican Party is the vehicle of a cohesive, monolithic movement. This is often described as an ideological movement, although given the twists and turns of recent years — the sudden embrace of protectionism, the attacks on “woke” corporations — the ideology of movement conservatism seems less obvious than its will to power.

In any case, for a long time conservative cohesiveness made life relatively easy for Republican politicians and officials. Professional Democrats had to negotiate their way among sometimes competing demands from various constituencies. All Republicans had to do was follow the party line. Loyalty would be rewarded with safe seats, and should a Republican in good standing somehow happen to lose an election, support from billionaires meant that there was a safety net — “wing nut welfare” — in the form of chairs at lavishly funded right-wing think tanks, gigs at Fox News and so on.

Of course, the easy life of a professional Republican wasn’t appealing to everyone. The G.O.P. has long been an uncomfortable place for people with genuine policy expertise and real external reputations, who might find themselves expected to endorse claims they knew to be false….

… Matters may be even worse for politicians who actually care about policy, still have principles and have personal constituencies separate from their party affiliation. There’s no room in today’s G.O.P. for the equivalent of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, unless you count the extremely sui generis Mitt Romney.

And the predominance of craven careerists is what made the Republican Party so vulnerable to authoritarian takeover.

The fact that Mitt Romney has become sui generis among Republicans tells us a lot has changed in the past few years.

And speaking of crazy, see Jonathan Chait, New York, The Strange Anti-Semitism of the Pro-Jewish Right.

Here We Go

Prosecutor in Trump criminal probe convenes grand jury to hear evidence, weigh potential charges

Manhattan’s district attorney has convened the grand jury that is expected to decide whether to indict former president Donald Trump, other executives at his company or the business itself should prosecutors present the panel with criminal charges, according to two people familiar with the development.

I don’t know anything not in the linked story, so just go there.

The GOP’s Massive Identity Crisis

Are Republicans the party of Reagan or the party of Trump? Are they the party of big investors, or free market libertarians, or the working class? They can’t seem to decide.

Last month a flurry of news stories broke out about how the GOP is “rebranding” itself as the party of the working class. See, for example, Susan Davis, NPR, Top Republicans Work To Rebrand GOP As Party Of Working Class; and Paul Waldman, WaPo, Republicans want to be a working class party. But not that much.

This proposed rebranding makes a kind of sense, seeing that working-class white people who believe in Donald Trump appear to be among their most fervent voters, beside maybe white evangelicals. Note that the two groups probably overlap a lot. But what do Republicans have to offer the working class? Waldman, in the article linked above:

Take, for instance, the memo Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) recently wrote for Republicans entitled “Cementing the GOP as the Working-Class Party.” It argued that continuing the success Donald Trump had (never mind that he lost the popular vote twice) will require “enthusiastically rebranding and reorienting as the Party of the Working Class.”

The revealing part, however, is the actual policy suggestions Banks offers. In their entirety: harsh immigration policies; protectionism on trade; “Anti-Wokeness”; opposing “Wall Street” by complaining about covid lockdowns that hurt small businesses; and going after technology companies’ “censorship” of conservatives.

WTF? Waldman cites several other examples, which basically all boil down to culture war issues. They are offering nothing that would make the real lives of working-class Americans any better — not better wages, access to health care, paid leave, nothing. But we’ll get those big tech companies that censored Donald Trump!

Even Henry Olsen, a conservative columnist at WaPo, has figured out that this ain’t gonna work. He points to an alternative budget released Wednesday by the 152-member House Republican Study Committee. It’s basically warmed-over Paul Ryan. Here are some highlights:

The proposal’s most notable features are its changes to the major entitlement programs most Americans rely on in old age. The age at which one receives full Social Security benefits would go up to 69 by 2030, from a planned rise to 67 in 2022. Medicare’s eligibility age would rise from 65 to 69.  …
… Medicare’s structure would also be thoroughly transformed. Instead of a guaranteed government set of policies, the RSC budget would instead provide a subsidy for premiums that could be used for any insurance plan, including a new “Fed Plan” that would replace traditional Medicare. The subsidy would be based on income, wealth and health status, and every senior would then be responsible for buying their own plan and paying for any difference between the federal subsidy and that plan’s premium from their own pocket.Many, if not most, retirees would pay more for their health insurance than they do now.

Yeah, the seniors will love that one.

Millions of Americans who get health insurance through Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program or the Obamacare exchanges could also see dramatic changes. All of these programs would be block-granted to states, meaning the program’s funding mechanism would be changed so that the federal government pays each state one lump sum each year.

That block grant proposal has been floating around for a long time. The point is to allow states to make their own decisions about who is eligible for the money, which in the case of red states would be pretty much nobody. And all those people who are getting Medicaid under the ACA expansion can kiss that off.

Henry Olsen is fine with all this, mind you, but he has polling that tells him those working-class voters might not be happy about it.

Sixty-three percent of Trump voters, for example, want to keep Social Security benefits the same for future retirees as they are for current recipients, even if payroll taxes must increase. Forty-five percent of Trump voters would rather ensure every senior citizen gets the health care they need regardless of the cost of Medicare to society; that number rises to 58 percent among voters who backed President Barack Obama in 2012 and President Donald Trump in 2020. A 2017 study found that nearly half of “American Preservationists,” a core demographic among 2016 Trump supporters, would be threatened by the budget’s proposed cuts to Medicaid and the Obamacare exchanges. Of this demographic’s members who are younger than 65, 44 percent received their health insurance from government. That’s up to seven times more than similar members in other Trump-backing demographics.

Let’s face it, Henry. Medicare and Social Security are about the only supports a lot of working-class people can count on in their senior years. They paid into those programs, and they expect to get them just as before. And a whole lot of working-class people don’t get health benefits any more; their only hope of getting insurance is through the dreaded Obamacare. Deal with it.

The RSC alternative budget also clings to free-trade orthodoxy. “Free trade is how we put America first,” it says. But a significant majority of working-class folks are suspicious of free trade and believe it has cost them lots of jobs, especially the better-paying manufacturing jobs that once supported a comfortable way of life for their parents and grandparents.

Are you taking notes, Democrats? There need to be ads about this next year. Lots of ads.

Also at WaPo, Michael Scherer and Josh Dawsey write that Republicans struggle to define a new governing coalition as Trump closes grip on party. They describe a standoff at a conservative rally between a giant pink pig (a parade float sponsored by Americans for Prosperity) and a pro-Trump float featuring a very big sound system.

Americans for Prosperity, a free-market group that helped propel the tea party uprising in 2009, drove in the pig to make a point at a conservative rally about federal earmark spending. The Trump rig, equipped with a sound system and pulled by an old ambulance, posed a threat.

“This event is not about Trump,” said Annie Patnaude, the Michigan director for AFP, explaining why the Trump display had to move away from the live band and full buffet tables she had set up. “This is about pork.”

To clarify, the pink pig was painted with the words “End government waste.” “Government waste” to AFP is, of course, any program that doesn’t put money into the pockets of rich people.

Rob Cortis, the [Trump] float’s owner, hails from the now dominant part of the Republican Party, in which the former president is still celebrated by many as the rightful winner of the 2020 election, a debunked claim. A list of Trumpian priorities — from “infrastructure” to “Stop the Steal” — were bolted to his trailer, with no mention of the old conservative traditions of limited government or lower debt.

The AFP and similar long-time factions are finding themselves being elbowed out by the Trumpers, who are all about Trump and his grievances and not much else. The Old Guard is worried that the Trumpers, and performative grievance candidates like Mark McCloskey, are going to continue to drive educated surburbanites away from the GOP. Plus, all kinds of polling show broad support among working people in swing states for raising taxes on rich people to pay for things, like infrastructure. This, of course, is heresy.

Also at WaPo, see Jennifer Rubin, Democrats must make the GOP spell out what it is for and against.

The things they [Republicans] oppose tend to be overwhelmingly popular. So they paint the agenda with the broad brush of “socialism.” Rather than insisting they are not socialists, Democrats should ignore the label and demand that Republicans specifically explain what they oppose and why. What is wrong with making corporations pay some taxes? Why don’t they want to provide two years of free community college? Do they really not want to rebuild Veterans Affairs hospitals, decrepit water systems and power grids?

Exactly right. Go on the offensive. And next year, run negative ads about Republican candidates hanging their real words and real positions around their necks.

With Actual Malice and Reckless Disregard

“Journalism’s ‘both sides’ doctrine, a guiding principle for news coverage by American media outlets, died on Tuesday after a prolonged illness.” That’s the first line of an opinion piece by Erik Wemple at WaPo, and it certainly drew me in. I fear the obituary was a tad premature, but we can hope. However, I think there could be bigger issues at play here.

Wemple’s column focuses on the lawsuits filed by voting system companies Dominion and Smartmatic against Fox News. Fox, of course, aired many unsubstantiated claims that the voting machines flipped the 2020 election from Trump to Biden. Part of Fox’s defense is that they felt an obligation to report on “both sides” of a controversy. So the likes of Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani were given many, many hours on Fox News to make utterly unsupported claims of vote manipulation in the 2020 elections. That’s just reporting “both sides.”

“Battling a well-drafted complaint such as Dominion’s is typically a see-what-sticks affair. So in a motion filed Tuesday, lawyers for Fox News argue that the network ‘went straight to the newsmakers’ in pursuing its obligation to report on the allegations; that there is no requirement under the First Amendment for news organization to expose the ‘underlying falsity’ of such allegations; that Fox News has ‘complete protection’ to report on government proceedings; that Dominion fails to document ‘actual malice,’ the sky-high evidentiary standard required to prove a public figure committed defamation.”

“Actual malice” is taken from the Supreme Court’s ruling in a landmark 1964 case, New York Times v. Sullivan. When I was a journalism major at U. of Missouri (class of ’73) this case was ground into my head. It was seen as a huge victory for journalism and a protection for news companies from being nibbled to death by litigation.

You can find the basic facts of the case here. In 1964, the New York Times ran an advertisement soliciting donations to pay for a legal defense for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The ad criticized the Montgomery, Alabama, police department, and those criticisms contained some minor inaccuracies, including the number of times King had been arrested and what song protesters had sung. The Montgomery police commissioner, L.B. Sullivan, sued the Times in an Alabama county court, which ruled in favor of the commissioner. Under Alabama law, Sullivan only needed to prove that there were mistakes and that they likely harmed his reputation. The case then went to the Alabama Supreme Court and eventually SCOTUS.

Justice William Brennan wrote the opinion for a unanimous Supreme Court, and in that opinion he said that public officials “may not sue news media for slander or libel unless the injurious statement is made with actual malice or reckless disregard for the truth,” it says here. Public discussion of government officials and issues should be “uninhibited, robust and wide-open,” he said. The actual malice standard may protect falsehoods, but  “erroneous statement is inevitable in free debate, and … it must be protected if the freedoms of expression are to have the ‘breathing space’ that they need to survive.”

Journalists certainly embraced this ruling, because there is no such thing as error-free news reporting. No matter how careful one is to get facts straight, there will always be sources that give inaccurate information — sometimes deliberately — and other just plain honest mistakes, especially when dealing with breaking news or very complex issues. New York Times v. Sullivan gave news companies some breathing room when reporting on public officials; they couldn’t be sued for inaccurate reporting or ads unless the official could prove actual malice, which requires proving that a statement was made “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.” Again, this applies to statements made about public officials, not to anybody. However, later cases extended the Sullivan rule to apply to other newsworthy public figures.

Actual malice and reckless disregard for the truth are notoriously difficult to prove, and many argue that the Sullivan standard gives news companies way too much leeway in presenting deceptive reporting. It also allows ads for political candidates to just plain lie like rugs. Further, I personally think the actual malice and reckless disregard in much of Fox News programming is palpably obvious. If that can’t be proved in court, then there are no rules at all.

Fox is arguing that “reporting both sides” relieves them of the reckless disregard rule. We’re just inviting these newsmakers on and letting them express their opinions, Fox is arguing. We are under no obligation to fact check what they say. I don’t know if that one’s been tried before, but it shouldn’t be allowed to fly.

Back to Erik Wemple:

“In advancing its ‘both side’ defense, the motion argues that “coverage of the election-fraud allegations was often quite skeptical,” and cites broadcasts from hosts Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson (who notably challenged Powell to furnish evidence of her claims), as well as an interview by anchor Eric Shawn with a Dominion representative. Other Fox News personnel — including ‘Fox & Friends’ co-host Steve Doocy — rebutted or expressed doubts about the election-related conspiracy theories. Dominion, for its part, contends that this awareness actually deepens the network’s culpability. “While these handfuls of statements from a handful of people at Fox do not absolve Fox for its onslaught of defamatory statements about Dominion, they do demonstrate that Fox at a mininum [sic] recklessly disregarded, and really knew, the falsity of the lies its most popular on-air talent were repeatedly promoting about Dominion,” reads the company’s complaint.”

Oops. Wemple goes on to explain how media critics for decades have complained that “covering both sides” often means, for example, pitting a climate scientist and a climate change denier against each other in a studio while a moderator simply sits there and offers no editorial context. This may be entertaining — and it’s a lot cheaper than real investigative reporting — but it does the public a huge disservice by giving science and nonsense equal weight.

A lot of both siderism comes from media’s terror of being accused of bias. Way back in 2000, during the Bush v. Gore presidential election campaign, Paul Krugman famously wrote:

“One of the great jokes of American politics is the insistence by conservatives that the media have a liberal bias. The truth is that reporters have failed to call Mr. Bush to account on even the most outrageous misstatements, presumably for fear that they might be accused of partisanship. If a presidential candidate were to declare that the earth is flat, you would be sure to see a news analysis under the headline ”Shape of the Planet: Both Sides Have a Point.”’

Since Trump, at least part of the media is somewhat less constrained from calling out lies as lies. In 2000, it wasn’t yet allowed.

Erik Wemple again,

“Fox News is arguing that the Trump-Powell-Giuliani lies about the election constitute a ‘side.’ ‘There are two sides to every story,’ reads the network’s motion. ‘The press must remain free to cover both sides, or there will be a free press no more.'”

Are there really “two sides to every story”? I guestion that. Sometimes there might be multiple “sides” from the perspective of multiple factions. But sometimes there’s just one side, which is factuality. What really happened? What does the data tell us? The “two sides” argument tosses facts out the window and just measures two opposing perspectives, which could be entirely biased. That’s what journalism is supposed to root out and expose, not perpetrate.

But here’s what’s rich about the current state of the Sullivan case. Recently some conservative judges, including Justice Clarence Thomas, have been making noises about getting rid of the actual malice rule. W. Wat Hopkins writes at Washington Monthly about a D.C. Circuit panel judge who wrote a dissenting opinion calling for an end to the actual malice rule. Why? Because it protects liberals.

“Silberman’s disdain for the actual malice rule was directly tied to its protection of what he dubbed liberal media who, he wrote, ‘manufacture[] scandals involving political conservatives.’ Finding their bias against the Republican Party shocking, he wrote, ‘The ideological homogeneity in the media—or in the channels of information distribution—risks repressing certain ideas from the public consciousness just as surely as if access were restricted by the government.’ He specifically identified as culprits The Washington Post, The New York Times, and the news sections of The Wall Street Journal. (Silberman approves of the Journal’s editorial stance.) He declared that ‘a biased press can distort the marketplace. And when the media has proven its [sic] willingness – if not eagerness – to so distort, it is a profound mistake to stand by unjustified legal rules that serve only to enhance the press’ power.'”

To which I say, okay. Do we want to allow candidates for public office to sue a television news station when it runs their opponents’ political ads making false accusations about them? That would put pretty much all Republican Party campaign ads in 2020 off the air. Yes, it would cancel some Democrats’ ads too, but not all of them, and probably not most of them.

And do we want to shut down the ability of Fox News to put any wackjob in front of a camera to lie about Democrats with no fact checking whatsoever? Maybe it’s time.

Once again, righties, be careful what you wish for.

The Price Many Paid for Politics

More than two months ago, Texas Governor Greg Abbott ended all state pandemic restrictions — mask mandates, capacity limitations, the lot.  Many predicted disaster would follow. But it hasn’t been that bad. There are new cases and new deaths. As of May 20, there were 75,260 active covid cases reported in Texas, and 44 people died of covid in Texas that same day. But those numbers are far lower than the stats for January. As far as covid data is concerned, Texas is about where it was on the first of June, 2020.

Note, however, that in July 2020, the Texas Tribune reported that Texas hospitals are running out of drugs, beds, ventilators and even staff.

Scene from a Texas hospital.

Does that mean that the restrictions and mandates didn’t matter? Not necessarily. At the Atlantic, Derek Thompson has another explanation.

Abbott’s decision didn’t matter because nobody changed their behavior. According to the aforementioned Texas paper, Abbot’s decision had no effect on employment, movement throughout the state, or foot traffic to retailers. It had no effect in either liberal or conservative counties, nor in urban or exurban areas. The pro-maskers kept their masks on their faces. The anti-maskers kept their masks in the garbage. And many essential workers, who never felt like they had a choice to begin with, continued their pre-announcement habits.The governor might as well have shouted into a void.

Across the country, in fact, people’s pandemic behavior appears to be disconnected from local policy, which complicates any effort to know which COVID-19 policies actually work.

In other words, responsible people followed the covid restrictions whether they were mandated or not, and the right-wingers didn’t. Plus now people are getting vaccinated. So maybe Texas won’t have a replay of last summer.

Another interesting bit of data shows that the economic impact of the pandemic was about the same whether there were lockdowns or not.

In November, for instance, a team of economists using private data to survey all 50 states concluded that state-ordered shutdowns and reopenings had only “small impacts on spending and employment.” … Last spring, Illinois towns issued stay-at-home orders, while Iowa towns a few miles away did not. The decline in economic activity was just about the same on both sides of the border.

This is what a lot of economists predicted as the pandemic was beginning. The economy is going to get slammed whether businesses are allowed to open or not, many said. The key to getting the economy back on track is getting the virus under control, they said.

Remember Sweden? All last year the wingnuts babbled about Sweden. Sweden didn’t close any businesses! Why can’t we be like Sweden?

Well, it turns out that Sweden’s experiment in natural herd immunity didn’t work, and the nation officially abandoned that policy last winter and ordered lockdowns. Sweden suffered much higher death rates than other nations in northern Europe. Whether the sacrifice helped Sweden economically depends on whom you ask about it.  Lars Calmfors wrote in the Washington Post in October 2020:

What has been the economic effect? Like other countries, Sweden has been hit hard economically. During the first six months of 2020, the gross domestic product fell by 8.5 percent. Unemployment is projected to rise to almost 10 percent in the beginning of next year.

The drop in GDP is considerably smaller than in southern European countries and the United Kingdom, and one to three percentage points smaller than in Denmark, Germany and the United States. The GDP fall, however, is larger than in Finland and Norway.

Just because the government didn’t mandate many restrictions didn’t mean a lot of Swedes weren’t voluntarily being cautious. Businesses, schools, and day-care centers remained open, but homes for the elderly were closed to visitors (eventually) and public gatherings of more than 50 people were banned (eventually). As in the U.S., telecommuting became the norm when possible. Many travel plans were put on hold. Yet here is the result:

The Swedes are not happy with their government, I take it. See The Inside Story of How Sweden Botched Its Coronavirus Response by Kelly Bjorklund at Foreign Policy.

It may be awhile before we see analysis of rates of infection and deaths in various states and cities and how events and policies might have made a difference here or there, and I’m not going to attempt such a thing now. Just note that this happened this week:

Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, during an interview on a conservative podcast this week, compared House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision to continue to require members of the House to wear masks on the chamber floor to steps the Nazis took to control the Jewish population during the Holocaust

Greene, in a conversation with the Christian Broadcast Network’s David Brody on his podcast “The Water Cooler,” attacked Pelosi and accused her of being a hypocrite for asking GOP members to prove they have all been vaccinated before allowing members to be in the House chamber without a mask.

“You know, we can look back at a time in history where people were told to wear a gold star, and they were definitely treated like second class citizens, so much so that they were put in trains and taken to gas chambers in Nazi Germany,” Greene said. “And this is exactly the type of abuse that Nancy Pelosi is talking about.”

Jewish groups were quick to condemn Greene’s remarks.

Maybe she won’t be re-elected next year. We can hope.

Clawing Our Way Back to Reality

I’ve been thinking about cults lately. Cults of various sorts seem to be eating civilization, and not just QAnon, which is bad enough. It’s getting hard to tell where QAnon ends and the Republican Party begins. And people appear to have formed cults, of sorts, around many peripheral issues — anti-vaxx cults, gun cults, political cults.

What’s alarming to me is that people are getting sucked into cults — or fantatical, cult-like movements — through the Web. The social psychologists need to up their game and study this. I cruised around looking for psychological research into cults, and most of what I found seemed to apply only to the cults of the 1960s to the 1990s, in which people were sucked into cults through personal contacts. Now one can be indoctrinated without leaving home. All you need is decent wi-fi.

I found one article that seemed to take in more recent cultish movements, but I know nothing about the author.  Anyway, her definition is:

A cult can be either a sharply bounded social group or a diffusely bounded social movement held together through a shared commitment to a charismatic leader. It upholds a transcendent ideology (often but not always religious in nature) and requires a high level of commitment from its members in words and deeds.

Cults also operate on continuums of influence and control, she says, They don’t always require members to go live in an ashram or devote their entire lives to the cult.

The Denver Post has a fascinating look at Amy Carlson, a cult leader (not the actress of the same name) recently found several days deceased and stuffed into a sleeping bag wrapped in Christmas lights. Carlson appears to have fallen down her own psychological rabbit hole to become as much a victim as a perpetrator of the religious fantasy she built.

But the article also describes a man, unnamed, who left his wife and two children in Mississippi to join Carlson’s cult in Colorado. This was a military vet who had a six-figure income and a $500,000 house, and whose biggest concern was what fertilizer to use on his lawn, his wife says. But he’d already been drawn in to QAnon when his job evaporated during the pandemic. And then he found Carlson’s website and videos.

His behavior at home became more unsettling. He slept less, and he started following a schedule aligned with the seven colors of the chakra, so on certain days he only ate foods and wore clothes that matched that day’s color, as ordered by the cult.

“He was just staring into the sun because they were telling him to do that to get light codes,” Whitten [his wife] said.

In May 2020 he left Mississippi for Colorado. Some time later he was found “wandering in the wilderness alone, naked, dehydrated and with cactus needles in his feet.” He believed he had transcended into another dimension. His family took him home and now say he can’t fathom why he behaved as he did. Assuming that this guy wan’t predisposed to psychosis somehow, it’s disturbing evidence of how easily people can be sucked into crazy through the Internet.

“Transcendence” is an operative word here. “The term transcendence denotes an ego-dissolving encounter – a breakdown of self-boundaries – with something greater than the self,” it says here. The “transcended” person is drawn into an “all-encompassing reality” that differs from mundane reality. As a Zen student I can’t very well knock transcendence, because a breakdown of self-boundaries is part of the practice. But I think what we’re looking at with cults is less about ego-dissolving but a fusing of one’s individual ego with that of a group or leader, which isn’t exactly the effect one is going for in Zen. I wrote a couple of years ago about the Trump cult of personality,

At the same time, many of our great social observers and philosophers — Erich Fromm, Eric Hoffer, Hannah Arendt — have long noted that alienated and insecure people easily surrender their own ego-identities and autonomy to mass movements and authoritarian strongmen. People march blindly into mass movements because the group provides something the individual feels is lacking in himself. Trump, to his fans, is a larger-than-life being of great power and certitude. By surrendering their autonomy to him, they feel that they absorb that power. Through Trump, they find connection, strength and a sense of belonging. The baffling, ambiguous world becomes a place of absolute clarity, with bright lines between good and bad, right and wrong, truth and lies, all as defined for them by Trump.

What a cult can offer is personal validation — your failures are not your fault — and a sense of belonging and connection to something greater than oneself, which can be exhilarating until you’re naked and dehydrated in a desert somewhere.

And there’s also one of my favorite quotes from Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer:

Passionate hatred can give meaning and purpose to an empty life. Thus people haunted by the purposelessness of their lives try to find a new content not only by dedicating themselves to a holy cause but also by nursing a fanatical grievance.

And what else is Trumpism but a complex of fantatical grievances, on steroids?

It’s one thing to be personally suspicious of vaccines. It’s something else to threaten and bully the county health officer out of her job because she tried to institute a mask mandate during a bleeping pandemic. See also Death threats, shoves, and throwing blood: Anti-vaxxers’ bullying of public health officials endangers our country.

I suppose one can be all-in for private gun ownership without being a fanatic about it. But Sandy Hook Truthers are a cult who harass the parents of slain children and anyone whose name got into newspapers in connection with the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Of the January 6 insurrectionists, some of them may have just been caught up in the moment, but some of them clearly had been living in fantasy land for some time and were serious about “taking” the Capital and stopping the certification of the election.

Pro-Trump protesters storm into the U.S. Capitol during clashes with police, during a rally to contest the certification of the 2020 U.S. presidential election results by the U.S. Congress, in Washington, U.S, January 6, 2021. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton – RC2P2L9YHHVX

And then there’s the Arizona “audit.”

This audit, as ridiculous as it is, has inspired Trump culties around the country to attempt the same thing. If they could just get their hands on the real ballots, surely they will reveal that Trump won. And if they don’t, the ballots can be manipulated somehow until they do, because Trump must have won. They are certain no other result is possible, because “Trump loses” is not part of their new reality.

Paul Waldman asks, What would it take to drag the GOP back to reality? “For those who have fallen down the rabbit hole, 2020 was just one manifestation of the larger problem, which is that elections are pretty much all rigged and no result in which your party loses can ever be legitimate,” he writes.

What’s especially troubling is that political leaders who, one assumes, know this is nuts are indulging the craziness because it’s politically useful to them. Which means it’s not going to end any time soon.

I sincerely believed that once Trump was out of Washington, the old GOP establishment would, perhaps gradually, reassert itself and take charge of the party. But that didn’t happen, and now it’s clear that the clowns are running the circus. Either go along with the act or, like Liz Cheney, be cast out. And I don’t see that the Republican Party has left itself a graceful way out of this.

See also GOP: A Cult Looking for a Personality from 2012.