Monday, December 12, 2016

In Defense of Ebeneezer Scrooge

Oh, joy. The War on the War on Christmas is back. People are hollering that now that Trump has been elected, everyone is going to have to say "Merry Christmas" all the time and have "Merry Christmas" said to them all the time, whether they like it or not, and they don't like it, screw them anyway. What better way to express the meaning of Christmas? It's so very far from the spirit of Christian humility and love that I find myself, against all odds, ready to mount a defense of Ebeneezer Scrooge.

As we all know, Scrooge's response when wished a "Merry Christmas" is to say "Bah! Humbug!" We all know that, from early in childhood, as Scrooge's tag line. And we don't worry about what it means, exactly. It's an old-timey phrase that Scrooge says, and we get that it's negative. We learn the phrase much too early for the word "humbug" to be in our vocabulary for other reasons. So we don't think about it. But Scrooge is saying something very specific. The word "humbug" means fraud. Scrooge is saying that the holiday of Christmas is a fraud and an imposture. And, as Dickens's original readers all knew, Scrooge is saying that for well-established religious reasons.

Scrooge is expressing a religious objection to Christmas. A Christian religious objection to Christmas. Although Scrooge isn't shown as especially pious (because the whole story is set up to make him lose his argument), he is speaking for a long English Protestant tradition that viewed Christmas as a bunch of non-Biblical paganish nonsense. Those Puritanical Protestants had a strong  theological point here, in that the December 25th date is sooooo totally not Biblical.

(I'm not going to walk you through the details, but think about the Gospels' reference to the shepherds tending their flocks by night. What kind of shepherds tend their flocks outdoors at night near the end of December? Terrible, terrible shepherds who are letting all of their sheep die of painful exposure to the cold. What is wrong with these shepherds? Why don't they bring the flocks in for the winter like everyone else does? Do they hate sheep? But I digress. The answer is, it's not actually winter in the Gospel story.)

Anyway that have-you-heard-this-before rap your atheist office-mate annual lays on you across the cubicle divider about how Christmas is really this pagan holiday that Christians took over blah blah etc. etc., turns out to be basically accurate. But your atheist explainer friend has unwittingly borrowed that argument from a group of hard-core Christian fanatics from earlier centuries, who were absolutely determined, on the grounds of their faith, not to celebrate any Papist idolatrous nonsense like Christmas.

Ebeneezer Scrooge is recognizably descended from those Christian hard-liners, which is why his first name is Ebeneezer. Giving your children names from the Old Testament, rather than the name of a later Christian saint, is a Puritan practice, and into the 19th century that combination of Jewish first name and English last name is a sign of Puritan family history, the same way having a first name like "Rainwater" suggests that your parents were hippies. (If you see an early American named Ezekiel, Abraham, or Nathaniel, you can be 95% certain they have New England Puritans in their family tree.) Ebeneezer Scrooge is actually named after a rock (no, really) from the first book of Samuel. He's got a stony heart, right? But notice that his hard-firsted partner, Jacob Marley, also has an Old Testament/Puritan name. The nice guys in A Christmas Carol don't get those Old Testament names. They're named Bob and Fred.

Also notice that, partly because of stubborn religious objections, Christmas was not actually a legal holiday in Dickens's England. As in, no one had to close their store. That little exchange near the beginning where Bob Cratchit asks for Christmas off (or, and this is worth noticing, Scrooge prompts Cratchit to ask for Christmas off: "You'll be wanting the whole day off tomorrow?") makes no sense to us today. Why does Bob have to ask for the holiday off? Everybody gets the holiday off. Actually, they don't, because it's not actually a holiday. So give Ebeneezer Scrooge his propers: even at the beginning of the story, he gives Cratchit Christmas Day off when he doesn't have to. He closes shop on a day he could have done business and he pays Cratchit a full day's pay for a bogus fake holiday, a fraudulent humbug that Scrooge probably thinks of as un-Christian. He even goes out of his way to make sure to that Cratchit asks, which means that however much Scrooge huffs and grumbles he has actually decided to give Cratchit the paid day off before Cratchit asks. So don't be so hard on the guy.

Now, my boy Charles Dickens is very intent on promoting Christmas, for lots of reasons. Part of it is about a larger High-Church Anglican movement bent on reviving traditional holidays. And part of it, famously, is commercial, because Dickens wanted to promote Christmas gift-giving. (He published a lot of work in once-a-year annuals designed to be given as Christmas presents; A Christmas Carol was first published in one of these Christmas-gift-ready compilations.) He wants to make the strongest case for Christmas he can. And therefore, by and large, he leaves Jesus out of it.

A Christmas Carol always works from the premise that Christmas itself is not religiously defensible. The Ghosts make every conceivable argument for the Christmas holiday EXCEPT the argument about Jesus's birth. They never go to the Bethlehem story, never even get close. Because there's no way to con Scrooge, or frankly to con the readers, into accepting that this is actually Jesus's birthday. Dickens knows better than to make an argument he can't win.

So Dickens makes a case for a non-sectarian, ultimately secularized Christmas, based on recognizably but not exclusively Christian values, such as generosity, and a generally small-c conservative emphasis on the pleasures of tradition. (Dickens is working the tradition angle from the first few sentences of the story, in ways that work all the better because they don't call full attention to themselves.) And in there Dickens slyly folds in his message that the best way to celebrate Christmas is to buy things.

Now, I love A Christmas Carol. It tells its story very well. But then, I'm a superstitious Papist. What do I know? But I want to point out that one of the things A Christmas Carol is doing is taking Christ out of Christmas. And it does that in 1843. So don't tell me it's some modern liberal conspiracy. Charles Dickens did it, long before any of our grandparents were born. And he invented the holiday we all know today: a commercial and secular holiday that's about vague, feel-good sentiments and about tradition for tradition's sake, rather than about any actual religious content per se. Dickens made Christmas for everyone, because if it were actually about Jesus most Christians would not have accepted it.

Ebeneezer Scrooge doesn't accept Christmas because of Jesus. Ebeneezer Scrooge doesn't accept that Christmas has anything to do with Jesus. And no one in the story who comes from the Afterlife tries to tell him any different. What turns Ebeneezer Scrooge around is a general set of positive values, loosely tied to Christianity but by no means tied to any specific sectarian identity: kindness and generosity, warmth and affection, values that you'll tend to find among believers of nearly every religion. Scrooge likes to hear the Christmas bells, but you'll notice he doesn't actually attend any church. He's not observing a religious holiday. He's just in it for the peace on earth and goodwill to men.

So, however you celebrate these winter holidays, let's keep Dickens and Scrooge (reformed version) in our hearts this winter: a warmth and generosity that extends itself to all without exclusion, without getting hung up on the details of doctrine or on membership in any specific sect or tribe. Wish people well this holiday season with no strings attached, without being stingy of your good will. And God bless us, every one.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Having a Partisan Thanksgiving

I hope you've all had a happy and relaxing Thanksgiving. I was lucky to host this year, with both my wife's family and mine traveling here to scenic Ohio, and I was also the lucky cook. (I took over turkey and gravy a few years ago, but this was my first year doing the whole meal, and -- since people had traveled to see us -- also feeding the crew on Tuesday and Wednesday nights.) And I was lucky enough to avoid political arguments at the table, because no one in my family voted for Trump. But political arguments on Thanksgiving are not the end of the world. Thanksgiving, as a national holiday, is the direct result of political conflict, and it's a mistake for us to forget that.

So, a quick history lesson:

Everybody knows the story about the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth Plantation. And that's true, in the sense that the event really did take place. But that's not when Thanksgiving became a national or even a regular holiday. The Pilgrims didn't have another Thanksgiving the next November. And some people know the historical fact that Lincoln proclaimed the first regular, national Thanksgiving, although that fact tends to confuse people. How did this holiday get founded twice, first in 1621 and then in 1863? And how can it be that Thanksgiving's two original moments happen more than 240 years apart?

A quick google search will explain that Lincoln simply set a standard national date for Thanksgiving, which different states were celebrating on different days. And that is part of the story. But that makes it sound as if the whole country was already united behind Thanksgiving, which only the logistical problem of deciding when to have it. That's not true. (Think "things left to the states to decide" and "Lincoln" and you'll see where this story is going.)

The real truth is that Thanksgiving was originally part of America's cultural wars, and so was Christmas. We now think of those two holidays as part of a single season, but they used to be indirectly (and sometimes pretty directly) opposed to each other. Not everyone celebrated both, and the division between the holidays broke down on regional, religious, and ideological lines.

Thanksgiving is a New England thing. It was originally a regional holiday, celebrated by New Englanders. It's also, not to put too fine a point on it, a Puritan holiday, celebrated in the Northeast by Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and other churches with Puritan roots. Thanksgiving was especially valuable to these Puritan-leaning New Englanders because they did not celebrate Christmas. They actively despised Christmas as a lot of heathenish nonsense. Celebrating it, or even closing the store on December 25, went against their religious beliefs.

On the other hand, Christmas was widely celebrated in the South, which had been heavily settled by Anglicans who observed the traditional liturgical holidays. (New York was also a stronghold of Christmas, partly because of its old Dutch roots and partly because it was such an ethnic and religious melting pot.) But plenty of Southerners wanted nothing to do with Thanksgiving. They saw it as alien: a celebration of another region's culture and another denomination's beliefs. They were not wrong. A lot of Southerners also saw Thanksgiving as an abolitionist thing, and they weren't wrong about that either. The lead campaigner for Thanksgiving as a national holiday was the novelist Sarah Josepha Hale: a feminist Yankee abolitionist. Thanksgiving was against Southern values.

Christmas spread more or less nationwide in the 1840s and 1850s, although it did not become a legal federal holiday until 1870. But it was slowest to spread in New England and, although I don't want to overstate the case, there was at least some overlap between the people campaigning for Christmas in New England and the people campaigning for national unity and brotherhood, meaning appeasing Southerners on the slavery question. Thanksgiving spread out across the country as well, perhaps more slowly, because people kept moving west from New England to places like Michigan and Ohio and bringing Thanksgiving with them. So there was eventually an overlap where states celebrated both holidays, but Thanksgiving in November did not really spread in the South.

Thanksgiving, our holiday of national unity and togetherness, became a national holiday because the North won the war. Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving nine months after the Emancipation Proclamation. Sarah Josepha Hale was happy about both. American Thanksgiving was a victory for Northern abolitionist values.

We don't remember all of this story, because we don't like to remember it. Our country can never forget the Civil War, but we work very hard to forget the twenty or thirty years that led up to it. We like to talk about unity and civility and getting past partisan divisions. We don't like to remember that unity, civility, and compromise were key arguments for continuing to permit slavery. We forget that the opponents of slavery were called divisive and accused of tearing the country apart. If we remember that, we would have to remember that the Civil Rights Movement was accused of tearing the country apart, that Martin Luther King, Jr. was called a radical communist. We would have to remember that the people calling for unity and mutual understanding in the 1950s and early 1960s were calling for more sympathy for Southern segregationists and their feelings about their local traditions, that demands for justice were called unnecessarily confrontational.

We like to tell ourselves a story about a united, harmonious nation, joined in consensus. That story is neither true nor healthy. Our history is one of repeated confrontations over core national principles, and maybe most importantly a history of confrontation over race. And, time and again, Americans who stand up for racial equality, for America's best republican-with-a-small-r traditions, are accused of incivility and divisiveness. Because the cardinal rule of American political etiquette, in 1856 and in 1956 and in 2016, is that it is divisive and uncivil to take non-whites' side against one's fellow white people. How can you be so unpleasant and make such trouble, when surely whatever this problem is can wait?

That's still the story today, when there are public calls to unify behind the most divisive political figure in modern history, a politician who only sees some Americans as real Americans. The call for "unity" is a call to accept that racist, tribal definition of America, to "unify" by excluding a third of our fellow citizens and to pretend that they are not "really" American. That isn't unity. And that isn't the America I celebrate.

But Thanksgiving is a reminder of one old, deep strand in the American spirit, a strand that has stood by unpopular principle and resisted wrongful power. That's the spirit of the Pilgrim Separatists at Plymouth, and the spirit of the New England abolitionists who followed after them, with a heavy helping of Revolutionary patriots in between. I am grateful for that American legacy, which we need today as much as we ever have.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Sunday, November 13, 2016

I'm Staying American. How About You?

Because I love my country, Tuesday's election broke my heart. My fellow Americans -- less than half of us, but still too many -- turned their backs on what is best in our country to elect a man who has no love and no understanding of the things that make America great: freedom and equality.

Somewhere between forty-seven and forty-eight percent of voters decided that they wanted a race-baiting authoritarian instead. Those voters turned out not to love the same country I do, not to love it for the reasons it is worth loving.

But I still believe in that America. I believe in the America of liberty, equality, and justice for all, the America that has not always lived up to its values but still always had them. I am not quitting on that country. I was raised to love it, and I will die believing in it.

If America is about white people hating brown people, you can have it. That version of America can go to hell, and will. Yes, I know our history of racist violence and plunder. I cannot deny it. But I have no allegiance to that history. The America I believe in, the America worth believing in, has always existed alongside that uglier vision. They are the wrestling sides of the American soul. I am not done wrestling. If we give up on our better angels, there's no country left for me to love.

For the last five nights and days, I have been asking myself what I am going to do now. And I still have no answer but Whatever I have to. The path forward is not yet clear, and I am not ready for everything I may need to do. I am not eager for any of it. This is not the fight I would have chosen.

But I have had it easy. I grew up lucky in a free country, in a generation that was not asked much. I was a sunshine patriot, born in the sun. I could praise the heroes of our past, the Franklins and the Lincolns and the Dr. Kings, without having to ask if I would have met their challenge. That isn't true anymore. I wish it were, but it's not.

Some generations are asked to go to Valley Forge: to stand by their country when the outlook is darkest. Some generations are chosen to stand up for the American experiment, to risk and suffer for it, to bear witness. We have now become one of those generations, and we are off to a sorry start.  But this, of all times, is not the time to quit. This is when America, the America we grew up loving, needs us most. The time for the sunshine patriot is gone. These are the times that try men's souls.

crossposted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

freedom for all under the law, equal protection and opportunity, and America dedicated to expanding

Monday, November 07, 2016

Vote for American Democracy. Vote Hillary.

This Tuesday, I want to ask you to vote for something bigger than a person. I ask you to vote for the future of our country. I ask you to vote, as an American, for our democratic republic and for the constitutional political system that has preserved us from civil violence for the past hundred and fifty years. I ask you to keep faith with the American experiment. The best and only way to do that this year is to vote for Hillary Clinton.

Vote for a country where we don't jail the loser of an election, or threaten to jail our political opponents.

Vote for a country where both parties agree to abide by our elections.

Vote for a country where no major candidate casts doubt on the fairness of our elections.

Vote for a country where the politics stop at the water's edge, and no party accepts or tolerates interference from a foreign power.

Vote for a country where we have a full and functioning Supreme Court, and where no party damages our democratic government just to keep the other party from having its turn to make appointments.

Vote for a country where the President does not order our military to kill unarmed women and children.

Vote for a country where we do not shut down the government or threaten to default on the national debt because one party lost a fair vote about something they wanted.

Vote for a party where no eligible voter is turned away from the polls, and no voter is intimidated while waiting to vote.

Vote for a country where the President does not threaten freedom of the press.

Vote for a country where we solve our disagreements through rules that we have agreed on beforehand, the rules of politics, law, and civil order, rather than through force. Vote for a country where we make deals and live by them rather than shooting at each other or throwing each other in jail.

If "making deals" sounds corrupt or dirty to you, remember that the alternative is lawlessness and despotism. The choice is not between compromise and idealism. The choice is between compromise and tyranny. It is the rule of law or the rule of force.

And if tearing up the system sounds like a good idea to you, remember that the system we're talking about -- peaceful transfer of power, freedom of the press, parties abiding by elections -- is the system put in place by George Washington and the Framers of the Constitution.

This year, one candidate is running to be President inside George Washington's system. The other is running to make himself something like a king, with powers that Washington did not want any president to have and that the other Founders would not trust even to Washington: the power to jail opponents, the power to shut down newspapers. It is not clear our democracy can survive that.

Don't take my word for it. Take Donald Trump's. He has said he wants to throw his opponent in prison. He is campaigning on that. He has promised to order our soldiers to kill women and children, promised to authorize torture, promised to "open up the libel laws" so he could close down newspapers and news channels. And he has openly said that he will not agree to accept the results of the election if he does not win. He is not running against Hillary Clinton. He is running against the American Republic.

Hillary Clinton is a compromising politician, which makes her unpopular with some people. But I ask you to vote for an American who solves conflicts through compromise and politics, within the bounds of the Constitution. I ask you to vote for a negotiator. I ask you to vote for a deal-maker. I ask you to vote for four more years of Americans at peace with one another in our own country.

I ask you, above all, to vote for the possibility of another election like this one, to give yourself another chance to vote in 2020, and 2024, and for the long hopeful future of our beautiful country. I ask you to vote for politics and for politicians, for democracy in all its messy, mundane, compromised glory. I ask you to vote for the Constitution of the United States of America, and to vote for Hillary Clinton, who will guard that Constitution for all her days in office and pass that sacred charge along, as Washington and Adams and Jefferson did, to her duly elected successor.

I ask you to keep the faith with all the Americans who have gone before us, believing in our democratic Republic, and to keep faith with all the Americans yet to come. Let the American Experiment go forward, and may it last forever.

cross-posted from (and all comments welcome at) Dagblog

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Dylan's Nobel and the State of American Literature

I was very pleased when Bob Dylan got the Nobel Prize today. But I understand a number of people were not. Almost immediately upon the announcement my social media stream was full of disgruntled poets complaining that Dylan should not be eligible for the prize. (The silver lining was that one of the talented poets I know was immediately pushing back on this.) And by mid-afternoon the websites of major periodicals were full of think pieces, ready for tomorrow's print editions, about why Dylan should not have won.

So Friday morning America's newspapers will be filled with these editorials about how our fellow American Dylan does not deserve this prize. That will be a change from most years, when those same newspapers have no earthly idea whether or not the new Nobel laureate should have won, because even the editor of the books page does not really know who the new Nobel laureate is.

Do you see the connection? This year, the Nobel committee gave the prize to a figure with global stature and an international audience. That is not the only benchmark of merit, obviously, and I have always been glad that the Nobel sometimes elevates lesser-known writers. But to say that fame should not matter at all, in the terms of a global literary prize, is absurd.

Let's be clear: the idea that a songwriter is not a writer is transparently false and historically ignorant. By that standard Homer would not be eligible for the Nobel Prize. The Prize does not specify particular genres. It says only "in the field of literature" and the definition of literature changes over time. The novel was once a despised junk form, as was live theater before it, and the migration of low genres to high places will always continue. The real complaint is that a popular artist won. The horror!

The complaint is that a famous pop artist won something that "rightfully" belongs to more "serious" artists. But that complaint only masks the real problem. The real problem, for American poetry and all of American literature, is why none of the "serious" artists has a broad popular following.

The truth is that there is not a single living American poet who is a serious contender for the Nobel Prize. I wish that were not so, but it is. That is not meant as an insult to any of wonderful poets who are working today, or to the talented poets among my friends, or to my friends' accomplished mentors. Those poets are wonderful. A few are unsung national treasures. But they are, nonetheless, mostly unsung, and not one is a legitimate national figure, let alone an international figure. I saw someone today, in a serious publication, negatively comparing Dylan to Richard Wilbur. Now, Richard Wilbur is a gifted artist who deserves respect, but to say that he is a global figure in real contention for the Nobel Prize is simply delusional. If I could put an American poet up for the prize I would nominate Ferlinghetti, but I do not for a second expect that Ferlinghetti will win. No living American poet has that kind of international stature.

This is not because the individual poets lack talent or dedication. It is because American poetry, with its institutions and ambitions and professional culture, has turned away from wider relevance. No American poet is even attempting to write for a broad national audience today, and a young poet who attempted it would be considered a hack. More importantly, there is no infrastructure in place for an American poet to write for the general public. But if you ignore for the wider public for decades on end, it will ignore you back and then forget about you completely.

And, lest we forget, the Nobel Prizes are specifically intended for those who have done "the greatest benefit for mankind" and the Prize in Literature specifies "the person who in the field of literature the most outstanding work in the ideal direction." The "ideal direction" part clearly specifies some attempt at public uplift, which has not been part of American poetry's general ambitions for some time now. "The Times Are A-Changing" does display that ambition, pretty clearly, even if many working poets would find that corny. The finding-it-corny part, actually, is the heart of the problem. I get it, poets, I get it. You don't want to be Carl Sandburg. Congratulations: you're not.

Now, I have also seen a number of complaints by and on behalf of novelists and fiction writers, with whom I still strongly identify despite the long lapse of my artistic practice. But to them, too, I say: be honest. There may be, and I would say that there are, a handful of American novelists who are plausible candidates for the Nobel. But they are merely plausible, and perhaps even dark horses. If Oates or Pynchon or DeLillo or Roth won I would be happy, but I would never say that I had expected it all along. And I recognize that many people would have said, "Hmm. Okay." My own favorite for the prize is Le Guin, who would surely be a controversial winner in her own right, and who has done her work in a despised popular field. There are a few people who could win the Nobel, but no one who is an overwhelming favorite. None of them are culturally central in that way. Toni Morrison? Sure. But she's won already. There are other Americans whom I would like to see win, but none of them can say that they were robbed if they don't. None of them, much as I love them, are owed that prize.

But it's important to ask why not. It is not about lack of literary gifts. Nobody could ever say that Pynchon or Oates does not have enough talent. And some of this is audiences turning away from the written word to various electronic media. I know that. But American fiction has also lost part of its claim on the public arena by relinquishing that claim. Are we even trying to write the Great American Novel anymore? Maybe. But I'm not so sure. I worry that American fiction has ceded something of its public ambitions. If we don't have a Tolstoy among us, it is partly because, of course, the conditions are not there to create a Tolstoy may not exist any more, but also because American letters, not simply the writers themselves but the agents and editors and teachers and critics, have lost interest in producing one. I would like our ambitions to be greater and our horizons wider.

Forgive me if this post has been negative. It was prompted by a wave of public grumbling and complaining, of the kind I like least: the claim that an artist does not deserve something. To say that Dylan does not deserve this prize is ungenerous and small-minded, because many more artists deserve than get. To say that someone else was owed the prize instead is vainglorious and delusional, because no artist is ever owed anything but the chance to make art. And the worst trap for any artist, or any artist's backer, is to complain about what someone else has achieved, when the answer -- the only answer -- is to try to become better. Talking about taking something away from Dylan is petty and mean. We should talk about making our "serious" literature more serious.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Hillary Clinton and the First Wives' Club

So, Camp Trump has decided, again, that the smart thing to do is to go after Hillary Clinton because her husband was unfaithful to her. When you're facing an opponent who has had trouble being taken as human and sympathetic, what better way to go?

And of course, because I am a human being with a functioning brain stem, I wondered, "How does a serial adulterer on his third marriage go after a woman for having been cheated on?" Only this week did I realize the question was really, "How do THREE serial adulterers on their third marriages go after a woman for having been cheated on?" Because it's Trump, Gingrich, and Giuliani, with their nine marriages between them, harping on the disqualifying vice of having a husband betray you.

Then it became clear: these men hate and fear Hillary Clinton exactly because she is a first wife. She reminds them of their own abandoned first wives, whom they hate and fear. And, because they scapegoat those wives, blaming the women they betrayed and abandoned for their own betrayal and abandonment, it seems only logical to them, as the night follows the day, that Bill's behavior is all Hillary Clinton's fault.

Don't believe me? Here's a notorious tweet from Frank Lutz (a Republican), highlighting a text sent to him by a Republican Congressman:

What's striking about that, first, is that the Unknown Republican Congressman does not distinguish between his wife and his mother: both "bitchy" old women who make him feel anxious about his own authority. What's even more striking, on reflection, is that the Unknown Republican does not like his wife or his mother. He thinks of them both as bitches. I myself happen to be fond of both my mother and my spouse and have never had the least trouble telling them apart. But maybe I'm just some liberal.

Trump, Gingrich, and Giuliani are counting on the electorate as a whole seeing things the way they do, on a pretty primal psychological level. They are counting on everyone else's hostility to first wives, to female authority figures, to mothers. That seems like a mistake. Part of what they are banking on is what Josh Marshall talks about as dominance and aggression, where the victims you mistreat are shamed for being weak enough to abuse. The thinking here is that Secretary/Senator Clinton is weak and contemptible because she let Bill cheat on her. But this leaves out the part where Hillary can routinely outdo all three of these chuckleheads. Note, for example, that Rudy Giuliani somehow never managed to become Senator for New York. Newt Gingrich hasn't won an election in twenty years. And Trump's last debate involved Hillary Clinton slapping him all around the room. If they're trying to brand her as a loser, they should really check their own resumes.

But it's deeper than that. Men like Trump and his spittle-flying monkeys hate their first wives because they fear them. Those men, and I am using that term loosely, don't have the confidence or security to deal with strong, accomplished partners their own age. So they run to younger, weaker, partners who are easier to push around. Guys like Trump, Gingrich, and Giuliani couldn't even feel confident dealing with their second wives, and ran to a third.

 (In related news, they also traded in for overtly sexier partners, but this may be because the men's libido is waning as they age and they need much more stimulation than they used to. Libido isn't masculinity, but Trump thinks it is, and it's not clear he still has the libido for a sexy older woman. Don't let the Slovenian model fool you: tweetmeister Trump isn't doing anything important in bed at 3 am.)

This is not alpha male behavior. It's a desperate imitation of alpha male behavior, getting a series of younger and more easily controlled wives as "trophies" of the personal confidence they badly lack. Bill Clinton, for whom confidence has never been the big problem, has no problem dating a major world leader. He clearly enjoys it. His ego is not only strong enough to let his wife be the boss sometimes, but to let her be the boss of the free world for four to eight years.  Bill Clinton does not seem intimidated by that possibility in the least. But it obviously makes Trump's testicles shrink in fear, just like it makes Gingrich's and Giuliani's. Their response to Hillary Clinton is terrified rage.

Trump is banking on the rest of the country feeling the same primal fear and hatred that he feels when a strong woman is speaking. And he's partly right. There are a lot of little men out there. The bad news for Trump is that the men who are most like him are losers.

[This post has been updated to remove a poorly-thought-through jibe at Trump's testosterone levels, in response to a persuasive complaint from a commenter.]

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Monday, September 26, 2016

Thinking: Not Just for the "Elites"

The pundits handicapping tonight's Trump-Clinton debate were slowly driving me insane, and now they've speeded up. The debate is not a fair fight, and should not be. A guy who doesn't know anything is supposed to lose a debate against a smart person who knows a lot. Anything that makes those people an "even" match is a fix. But the craven attempts to frame Trump v. Clinton as an even-money proposition has finally put my finger on something that's been bugging me for a long time: the insistence that being smart is elitist. That is not true, and never has been, because there are a lot more smart people than there are elite people. The idea that only "elitists" are smart is complete bigotry. It flatters people who consider themselves elite, and plays on their stupidity. 

America was built upon a broad populace of basically smart and decently educated people. That is what makes the country work. The idea that average people are basically bright and remember things they've learned is not some fantasy. The idea that "intelligence" is confined to ten percent of the population, mis-defining intelligence as being in the top ten percent of the standardized test scores, is the shoddy thinking of the snobbish. 

A majority of people in the United States are smarter and better informed than Donald Trump, who has enough money not to think at all. You don't need an advanced degree to know Mexico is not paying for any wall. You don't need to go to Harvard to see that this guy is full of it. You need to be a pampered elite journalist to mistake that blowhard for one of the average people outside your little bubble.

Now, we have been steadily neglecting or attacking most of the institutions that support our basically-smart country: the public libraries, the public schools, the public universities. There has been an enormous slant in this country toward monopolizing education for the elite, to the benefit of those elites and the undoing of our country. Underestimating the average person's intelligence is the basic error of all American elitists, but a mistake that benefits them in the short term. Of course, in the long run, being at the top of the pyramid because you've undermined its base is a sucker's move. But nobody said the elite were actually very smart. Well, except them.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Why Art?

Why study the arts? Some politicians ask the question as a joke, mocking this or that discipline as impractical. Those who defend the arts and humanities answer in economic terms, arguing for the rich and versatile skills one learns in the humanities classroom. I have made that economic case myself. As far as it goes, it is true. But it is not the only argument, and it does not go far enough.

We need the humanities because we are human. We need the arts because we are mortal. We need art and poetry because everyone we love will some day die.

We are human, and so we have problems that we cannot solve. That is not pessimism. Life is also full of beauty, wonder, and fulfillment. But even the best life includes the certainty of pain and loss. They are sure to come, and there is no "practical" solution for them.

Medicine can cure disease, it can ease suffering, it can extend life. It cannot banish death. Medicine does remarkable things, and I am grateful for it. But the larger problem remains.

Human ingenuity and practicality and industry can do wonders, and I am lucky for everything technology has done for me. But technology does not end the problems of the human spirit: loss and loneliness, wounded hearts and broken souls. We will never have a technological fix for these problems. There is not an app for that.

Right now, somewhere in California, some of the richest men alive are trying to find a technological solution to the problem of death. They have come to believe, or at least to hope, that money and technology will buy them immortality. What does this teach us? That people like Larry Ellison, Sergei Brin, and Peter Thiel, for all their fabulous wealth and admirable math skills, can be complete idiots. This problem is not to be solved in the way they hope. (The idea that immortality would come out of Silicon Valley, whose products are not built to last even a single decade, is hilarious.) The problem that they want to overcome is called "thermodynamics." It is part of the nature of all things. Silicon Valley's riches do not change that. They only fuel the hubris that lets billionaires mislead themselves.

None of us, personally or as a society, are ready to look straight ahead at problems like death, or to think about them too long. We have built marvelous toys to distract ourselves, like children putting off bedtime. The old folk saying about only using ten percent of our brainpower is not quite true; the truth is we use ninety percent of our brain power to trick ourselves out of dealing with the truths we can't face.

But we will all find ourselves, sooner or later, dealing with problems that money and technology cannot solve:

                   Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
                   mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
                   che la diritta via era smarrita.

                  (In the middle of our road of life,
                  I found myself in a darkened wood
                  Where the right path was lost.)

When that happens, and it will happen to all of us, we will be stuck with it. We will not be able to write a check. We will not be able to take a pill. We will not be able to ask Siri for the answers. The new car won't save us, because we'll already be off the road.

For these moments, humankind has invented the many arts and disciplines called "the humanities." Philosophy, art, literature, history, religion, theater. These disciplines do not solve the fundamental problems in the sense that those problems go away. No poem will keep you from dying. But all of these arts search for ways to deal with those problems, to come to grips with them honestly. Technology solves the problems that can be solved. Art faces the problems that cannot be solved.

Those problems do not go away. But the accumulated human wisdom of a few millennia does often help. Sometimes, what you need most is perspective, and sometimes, alas, there is nothing to give you but perspective. Philosophy, literature, and art are tools for broadening and deepening your perspective. You are a thinking soul in a difficult and transient material world. When there is nothing for you to do except to think, nothing you can change but your own thoughts, Tolstoy and Milton and Yeats are there to help.

And when all else fails, as eventually it must fail, the arts provide consolation. When the matter fails you, you will be forced to seek the comfort of self-deception or to reach for the hard-won consolation of difficult truths. For some, that consolation is philosophy, for others faith, for still others art. But I would humbly suggest that you rely on everything you can.

If nothing else, the arts and humanities give us something durable to think about in our fleeting, temporary world: things that, if not eternal exactly, are at least durable. When the world changes under your feet, the thought of something that came long before you and will remain long after you are gone is a kind of comfort. At least, it has been for me. And then I am like the poet Keats, who could no longer deceive himself about his death), looking at the ancient Greek pottery which would outlive him:

     When old age shall this generation waste,
                Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man ...
What else to say? We are flawed and human and fragile, and we need all the friends that we can get.
cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Monday, September 05, 2016

Balanced Coverage and Baseball

So today, Paul Krugman told it like it is about the newspaper that employs him and its strange "balance via bias" coverage of the Clinton and Trump campaigns, in which the Grey Lady tries to give both candidates equivalent amounts of negative coverage. This requires (or allows) the Times to exhaustively cover "shadows over" and "questions about" the Clinton campaign while outright ignoring outrageous Trump behavior (such as funneling $25,000 to a state DA who was considering whether to sue one of Trump's businesses). The Times has written multiple stories on donors to the Clinton Foundation asking for favors and (wait for it) not getting them, while writing no (none, nada, zero) stories about the Trump Foundation giving the Florida DA twenty-five grand while a lawsuit was being considered. That's fair, right?

And the logic here, as in much of the media coverage, is that Trump has done so many terrible things that there isn't room to cover them all. So if he behaves badly enough, he gets some free bad behavior as an incentive. What journalism!

Then the Times, in a not at all biased piece of behavior, responded like this:
The Times did eventually tweet a link to Krugman's column, about nine hours after Silver's public shaming. So public shaming, plus nine hours, to get the routine social media promotion that all the paper's op-ed columns get. Nice.

Now, I know some of you will want to get into the weeds about details of Hillary Clinton's e-mails and the penumbras and emanations of the meetings she did not actually hold. So let me switch the topic entirely. Let's talk about baseball.

Sixteen years ago (on August 29, 2000, to be precise), two baseball teams played a game in which an eye-popping eight members of one team, including the manager, were ejected by the umpires, while exactly none of the other team's players or coaches got thrown out. Eight ejections to no ejections. How can that be fair? I have occasionally heard sportscasters ask exactly that question. If one team has eight people thrown out and the other side none, I have heard one Hall of Famer say, something has to be wrong. Obviously, this discrepancy is a sign of biased umpiring, right? Right?

No. Not at all.

On the home team's first at-bat, the visiting pitcher, Pedro Martinez, hit the leadoff batter with a pitch. (Full disclosure: I am an ardent Red Sox fan, and a pretty big Pedro fan. But I will fully admit that Pedro Martinez sometimes threw at guys intentionally. I might be biased in the Red Sox's favor, but in this case all of the facts are clear beyond question.) The umpires, rightly or wrongly, believed that Martinez had hit the home team player (Gerald Williams of the Tampa Devil Rays) by accident.

Williams, however, chose to run out to the mound to attack the pitcher. This is a clear baseball no-no. It also led to nearly all the players from both teams rushing onto the field, pushing and shoving each other. Have I mentioned that the game had just started? The umpires regained control, sent everyone back to their places, and resumed the game. They ejected one player, the player who had rushed the pitcher's  mound, and kept everyone else in the game. That was basically the last eviction that involved the umpires' judgement calls. One Devil Ray ejected, no Red Sox ejected. Still with me?

A couple of innings later, the Devil Rays pitcher hits a Red Sox batter. This, too, may be an accident. But there is a clear baseball tradition of pitchers retaliating for hit batsman by going out and hitting one of the other team's batters as payback. At this point, the home team pitcher is not ejected. But, in baseball parlance, the benches are warned. This means that any further hit batters, or clear throws at batters, will lead to the automatic ejection of that pitcher AND his manager. Automatic. No questions. Great. Each team has hit one batter, one player has been ejected for starting a fight, and now both teams face automatic ejections if someone else gets hit.

Two batters later, the Devil Rays pitcher hits another Red Sox batter, the Red Sox's best hitter, pretty clearly not by accident but that's no longer even the question. The pitcher and the team manager get run off the field. 3 Devil Rays ejections, 0 Red Sox ejections.

Meanwhile, the Red Sox are doing pretty well. They build up a three-run lead and -- this part will be important -- their pitcher Pedro Martinez is throwing a no-hitter. After hitting that first batter, he hasn't let anyone else on base. He has gotten every single Devil Ray batter out, inning after inning. They simply can't hit him. They can't even work a walk.

So, eventually, the Devil Rays pitchers hit, or try to hit, more Red Sox batters. When they do this the pitcher, and whichever coach is filling in as manager at that moment, get ejected. In one memorable sequence (and I still remember watching this), the Devil Rays pitcher throws at one Red Sox batter so that the pitch is literally behind the poor guy. That pitcher gets ejected, taking one of his coaches with him. The Devil Rays bring in a new relief pitcher, let him warm up, and he immediately hits the very same batter that the last pitcher was ejected for throwing at. Four ejections in one at-bat. This is how you get to eight.

Why did this happen? Because, after a certain point, the Rays kept hitting batters because they wanted to bait the opposing pitcher into hitting one of them. If he got upset and retaliated, he would be thrown out of the game. They desperately wanted him out of the game, because he was throwing a no-hitter. But he obviously was not going to do anything to get thrown out of the game for the very same reason: he was throwing a no-hitter, a record-book accomplishment that he had never achieved. He was not going to be ejected if he could help it, and since he could help it, he did.

The team that was getting repeatedly ejected were not being treated unfairly. They were breaking rules that the other team was following. They were doing it to bait the other side into a misstep, and also trying to work the umpires. Should one of the Red Sox been ejected for "balance" every time a Devil Rays player got ejected? If that were true, the Devil Rays could get the Red Sox punished for the Devil Rays' own bad behavior. Which brings us back to the 2016 election.

The Clinton-Trump election is like this. One side is way outside the established rules and falling behind. The other is playing carefully by the rules and winning. The rule-breakers are protesting loudly that things are not fair and many in the media (who now behave, in the worst possible way, like sportscasters) are coddling those complaints and seeking to punish the winning campaign for the losing campaign's misdeeds. This dynamic will only intensify when Trump next falls further behind in the polls. He will do his damnedest to get Hillary thrown out of the game.

To some, including some people who make their living as Serious Journalists, this seems only fair. Because they have lost their sense of what fairness actually entails.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Horserace? Or Hindenburg?

Donald Trump is clearly losing this election. What is the media going to do about it?

Even Trump understands that he's way behind in the polls and that those polls are on the level. That's why he shook up his campaign staff this morning to make it more Trump-y. (New campaign motto: "Let Trump be Trump. We're out of other options.") He's doing much worse than Mitt Romney was four years ago, and Romney lost by a solid margin.

Trump is actually doing so badly that he has defeated the national media's reflexive need to "balance" coverage and to present the Presidential election as a close contest. There are plenty of reporters out there happy, more than happy to write the "Trump Comeback" story or, if necessary, the "Trump: Down But Not Out" story. But Trump's campaign has been so, well, Trumpalicious that he hasn't given those reporters a chance. Trump is currently losing so badly that they can't spin the polls any other way. You can't write the comeback narrative if the comeback kid keeps falling further behind.

The great James Fallows tweeted last week that we were approaching a turning point, where the media would have to decide how to cover the election:
Well, this is the week for that collision. Trump's campaign shakeup is, among other things, a clear attempt to get some journalists back to the Comeback narrative, by giving them a "turning point" as a hook for those stories. That, after all, is how Trump's last shakeup, the firing of campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, worked. It provided a peg to hang the "Trump is about to pivot" stories from. It's the equivalent of hanging an "Under New Management" sign on a restaurant that's been closed down over health violations. Now the pivot hasn't worked, because Trump didn't actually pivot, and so he has new new management and Paul Manafort now reports to someone who is basically Corey Lewandowski with even less campaign experience. Whee! Keep your hands and feet inside the roller coaster at all times!

But since the clear point of this reshuffle is to double down on Trump's previous unworkable strategy, there's a chance that it reinforces the Loser in Disarray story instead and brings on the mother of all media pile-ons. The standard thinking is that Trump is failing and flailing because he's refusing to act like a normal candidate. Now he's essentially declared that normal is for losers, and he's going to be more -- God help us -- unrestrained. More rallies, uglier personal attacks, no bothering with stuff like campaign offices in, say, states. Who knows? Maybe he'll burn a cross on his own lawn. Trump is simply going to flail away with both arms. Since most journalists understand Trump's Trumpiness as the reason he's losing, they are going to assume that turbo-Trumping the campaign will only make him a bigger loser.

The press wants a good horse race, always. The horse race means ratings and sales and advertising dollars. They want a close election the way sportscasters want a close game, because it delivers eyeballs. It takes an a lot to pry the media away from their desire to present a national election as neck-and-neck. An election that seems over before Labor Day is basically their worst nightmare: boring, predictable, and bad for business. How do you generate story ideas when the story is already over?

But the national press can also reach a tipping point where they no longer treat the election as a contest at all. Once that point is reached, the press will start to cover Trump and his campaign for the sheer curiosity value of public-self destruction. Not horse-race coverage, but Hindenburg coverage, where you stop pretending the thing is getting off the ground and just invite the viewers to watch the beautiful colors as it burns. This is how local news covers car crashes. This is how reality TV, from which Trump comes, covers the personal meltdowns of the psychologically troubled people they keep putting on camera. They learned early that the audience doesn't watch reality TV to see other people succeed. They watch reality TV to see other people flame out. When Trump's political failure becomes spectacular enough, the press will treat the disaster as a spectacle.

We've basically reached that tipping point now. It's becoming impossible to pretend that Trump has a fighting chance or that he's capable of taking it, that he is anything but a loser. And so the media will be forced to cover him as the huge, dangerously volatile bag of gas that he actually is. You will be able to see the explosion across New Jersey. And the press will just roll the cameras and watch him burn.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Outsourcing Political Violence: Trump and Daesh

There are still three months to go and we've already gotten to the smirking-death-threats portion of our general election. I can't even say that I'm surprised Trump did it. I just never expected it so early, and I'm sickened by the thought of how much lower the man will sink by November 8. It will get even worse. I mean, of course it will. There's no doubt. But I'm not looking forward to it.

If you have any doubts, or buy any spin, about whether or not Trump intended to threaten Clinton, stop listening tot he clip itself and listen to what he's said since. His campaign's apology isn't just a lie, but an aggressively transparent lie. It is an eff-you lie, designed to show contempt for the person being lied and challenge them to dispute the naked falsehood. (Eff-you lies re a key part of Trump's campaign M.O.)  And more important is what he hasn't said. At no point has he said explicitly, or even had his surrogates say, "We do not want any harm to come to Secretary Clinton." Trump hasn't said that because he doesn't want his followers to hear him saying that. Is it just his personality disorder, keeping him from ever apologizing or admitting a mistake? Is it fear of turning off his hard-core followers who are excited by the death threats? Does it even matter?

So we've reached the perennial question of Campaign 2016: Is It Fascism Yet? Today's answer is: close (all too close), but not quite.

I don't believe that Trump actually planned to threaten Clinton before the moment that he did it. Trump, as you may have noticed, does not think ahead. I think he improvised the threat in response to crowd mood, which is what Trump does at his rallies: feels out his crowd and gives them what they want. The problem, then, is that we now have a sizable number of our fellow Americans who want to go to a campaign rally and hear one candidate for President call for the other candidate's blood. That is a bad, bad thing, and threatens to be a problem long after Trump himself is gone. Trump himself is bad. But the audience Trump has attracted is worse, and might someday be harnessed by a demagogue more directly dangerous than Trump.

Trump has clearly identified, and responded to, a troubling appetite for political violence. What he hasn't done, and doesn't have the skills to do, is to actually organize political violence. I'd like to think he wouldn't have the stomach for that. I'm confident that he doesn't have the organizational ability. Trump isn't going to turn his most blood-thirsty followers into a cadre of brownshirts because, really. Trump can't even open a damned field office. Trump rallies are a ripe recruiting ground for potential thugs, but Trumps campaign can't even turn those rallies into a decent voter-contact list.

Instead, Trump is outsourcing the threat of violence: floating the threat out there in a nominally deniable way and seeing if anyone takes him up on it. Trump  has not thought through what would happen if some Travis Bickle out there took him at his word. or the horrible blowback he would suffer if, God forbid, someone actually took a shot at Clinton; Trump has not thought, in the normal sense of that word, at all. But he's played the same game before, in the primaries, when he muttered about "riots in the streets" if he were denied the nomination. And there the threat was clearly made in his direct political interests, suggesting to the Republican Party that people might use violence on Trump's behalf. This is a card Trump plays. He doesn't orchestrate violence, but uses code words that might lead someone else to become violent for him.

This strategy is very much like Trump's post-bankruptcy approach to real estate. Trump no longer puts up big buildings. He doesn't have the money or the credit with major lenders to do that. Instead, he attaches his name and brand to buildings other people finance and build. In the same way, he seems open to lending his name and brand to political violence that he, himself, does not have the ability to pull off. He can't afford his own stormtroopers, so he's exploring options for outsourcing.

What Trump has done also, alarmingly, echoes the even uglier strategy of Islamist terrorists like al-Qaeda and Daesh (the group often called "ISIS." I prefer the name Daesh, because they hate it.) Now, I am NOT comparing anything Trump has done to the scale or direct culpability of a group like Daesh. But those groups also outsource a lot of their violence. They cannot actually do nearly as much harm as they would like, so they spread their brand on social media and hope some poor, demented Travis Bickle type decides to declare allegiance to them before his grotesque murder-suicide. This makes the suicidal Travis Bickle feel connected to something bigger than his sad, failed self, and makes Daesh/ISIS/al-Qaeda appear capable of more violence, with a longer reach, than they can actually make happen on their own dime. In this way, terrorism and political violence in the 21st century is weirdly mimicking corporate behavior, reducing their own direct capabilities and outsourcing core activities through branding arrangements. If this is the future, I hate it.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Friday, July 29, 2016

Watch Donald Crack

I enjoyed that Democratic Convention a lot, and mostly for the right reasons. In fact, I'm still enjoying it, because I'm currently five time zones ahead of Philly time and so watch the major speeches the next day. [SPOILER ALERT: Don't tell me who they nominate in the finale!] The Democrats presented a positive vision about candidate, cause, and country: inspiring reminders about what they are about, what we are about, and what America is about. It's great, and also I'm walking around London with Stevie's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" stuck in my head. I am one happy Democrat.

This is a much happier feeling than watching the Republican convention was. That was a mix of fearful apprehension for my town, sickened horror at the speakers' outpouring of authoritarian hatred, and mocking schadenfreude at Trump's torpedoing his own convention. I had some fun in there, but it wasn't pleasant fun. It was more the point-and-laugh kind. It didn't make me feel especially good about myself. Thanks to Bill, Barack, and Hill for re-centering the moral compass.

There are far more opportunities for schadenfreude ahead, unfortunately. Because Donald Trump is already starting to come unglued.

One of the most useful psychiatric terms I've picked up in my travels is the word "decompensation." Decompensation is, just like it sounds, the opposite of "compensation." It is when a patient responds to stress or setbacks by getting sicker. The going gets tough, and the patient's symptoms get worse. That doesn't fix whatever's causing the stress; it just deepens it. An alcoholic gets fired and goes on a four-day bender.  A bipolar patient who's having trouble finding work becomes too depressed to even leave the house. Just when the patient needs to step up and cope with a challenge, they become even worse at coping. Bad, bad times.

It's been no secret on this blog that I consider Donald Trump to have at least one fairly serious psychiatric condition. He is, to put it politely, a profoundly disordered personality. And under the stress of the campaign, he is going to decompensate badly. Running for President of the United States is incredibly challenging and stressful, even for strong, sane people who have already run many successful campaigns. Donald Trump is neither strong nor sane, and he has never been elected to any public office in his life. Not dog-catcher, not zoning board, not public water commission. He is not going to be able to take this. He is going to crack.

In fact, he has already started.

Over the last few days, as the general election gets underway, he has done a huge number of maladaptive things: expressed his desire to punch various speakers from the Democratic convention, decided to rant on Twitter about how Mike Bloomberg was mean to him, and mostly damningly urged the Russian government to spy on his election opponent. None of that is rationally calculated to help him. None if it is something you would do to help yourself. And I don't think he planned to plea to Putin at all; it was just another troubled impulse he could not control. Lack of impulse control is one of his symptoms.

You can look at his behavior as demonstrating his lack of fitness for office, and you should. He is appallingly unfit for that office. But you can also understand what Trump is doing as the expression of psychiatric symptoms getting worse under pressure. Maybe that moves you to some compassion for him, and maybe it doesn't; Trump's condition prevents him from feeling compassion for anyone else, and in his current position he is extremely dangerous to our country. But we shouldn't necessarily lose our compassion because he has. We're bigger than he is.

Those symptoms are only going to get worse, because the pressure of the campaign is only going to get worse. I mean, the general election hasn't even really gotten started yet. Donald Trump is going to crack under that pressure, and he is going to do it in front of the entire world. I am not looking forward to watching that. But anything is better than watching him crack in the Oval Office.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Monday, July 25, 2016

Just a Thought (DNC Convention)

It would really be great if DNC delegates would stop, you know, booing black people.

Comments disabled. End of post.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

RNC Cleveland: Local Grievance Edition

Trump and his circus have left town, and so have I. But before I turn myself over entirely to watching the DNC on GMT, let me point out a few local Cleveland issues that bothered me about this convention. I've already blogged about the big stuff. Let me just get some Cleveland things off my chest.

1) As someone who used to live in downtown Cleveland (at least for most of the week) I felt a special sympathy for the immigrants and first-generation Americans who live and work downtown in the convention zone. Back when I lived on East 12th Street, I did all my local grocery shopping from a little store run by Arab immigrants. For a party that talks endlessly about small business owners, the Republicans talk a lot of smack about the hard-working immigrants who own many of those small businesses.

I found myself thinking a lot about the family that runs that grocery, and what it must be like to have the neighborhood around your family store be taken over by America's Number One immigrant hater and Muslim basher. Sorry, guys. I am really, really sorry.

2) Well-known former actor Scott Baio used some of his ridiculous prime-time slot to misuse Langston Hughes. This is standard practice among conservatives, who find "Let America Be America Again" too tempting a phrase to resist (although they can easily resist actually reading Langston Hughes's poem, which means the opposite of what they think it means. Generally, they seem pretty good at not reading things.).

But even if this has become standard operating procedure, it takes a special amount of ignorance to misuse Langston Hughes's words in Cleveland. Langston Hughes is from Cleveland, Chachi. There are places named for him inside the convention "event zone." Do a little research before you open your mouth, and have some respect.

Also, for those of you keeping score at home, Baio kicked off the Republicans' Monday-night theme of "taking language from black folks without giving them credit."

Hughes's poem is a little masterpiece, at once embracing the best version of the American Dream, the dream of freedom and equality, while acknowledging that "America was never America to me." Or, out another way, Hughes points out that that vision of America has never been completely real, but that it can and should and must be. Here's a little taste:

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe. 

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
If you like that, just wait until Hughes really gets going:
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.  
You can read the whole thing here. If this sounds to you like exactly the opposite of the hateful Republican convention and the hateful demagogue it nominated with a "false patriotic wreath," you're exactly right. It is the opposite of that.

On a related topic: Shut up, Chachi.

3. In the middle of all the disorganized hate-mongering, Unindicted Co-conspirator Chris Christie revealed that Trump the First would, if elected, purge the civil service of Obama appointees.  Not just get rid of Obama's political appointees whose terms automatically end when parties change power, but any career civil servants, the non-political types who are there to do their jobs no matter who the President is. What Trump and Christie want is the power to fire the entire civil service, everyone with a government job, and potentially replace them all with political appointees.

We used to do it that actually, and it is no way to run a serious country. It rewards partisanship over competence. (Imagine a system in which every election leads to someone replacing your mailman, and where the mailman doesn't actually have to do his mailman job as long as he does his real job as a political activist. Sound like fun? It wasn't.) This is outrageous just on the level of basic good governance and, you know, wanting to actually operate like America.

But here's what really hacks me off: it was Republicans who changed that corrupt system, Republicans who created our professional, non-partisan civil service, and for that to happen a Republican President of the United States had to die.

He was President James Garfield. He was murdered by a lunatic assassin who was enraged at civil service reform. He was from Cleveland. He is buried in Cleveland. His tomb is about six miles or so from the convention floor.

So let me say that it is particularly grotesque that these alleged Republicans demand a return to the old corrupt "spoils system," in the city where the man who gave his life to end that corruption has his tomb. Chris Christie wants to turn basic civic services into crass political tools? Huh, funny. No one is surprised. That's what he's already in trouble for doing.

But if Chris Christie wants to badmouth that particular Republican achievement, all I can tell him is: "Meet me at the Garfield Monument and say that again."

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog


Thursday, July 21, 2016

How Donald Is Screwing Up His Convention

I've had enough of the Republican Convention. I'm getting out of Cleveland today and flying to London. So I won't see Trump's speech in real time. I'll just get the replays tomorrow, and spend the next two weeks reassuring frightened Brits that the end of the world is not approaching. (Someone, please, reassure me.)

But it's already clear that the RNC has not gone well for Trump, and even the best speech tonight will, at best, make up part of the ground he's lost. It's been one problem after another, so much so that some aides getting in a car accident on the first day counts as one of the good points. So instead of getting bogged down in the details, let me leave town with four big take-aways from three troubled days:

1. Trump is not the party boss. People are chattering about Ted Cruz not endorsing Trump. But why would anyone expect Ted Cruz to endorse Trump? Cruz never said that he would. The convention started with Cruz's #1 wing man Mike Lee trying to start a floor revolt over the convention rules. But this isn't about Cruz. Trump has not made peace with any of the other major players in the party, and he has no control over them.

Before the convention even started on Monday, Trump's surrogates were attacking prominent Republican office-holders wo had not come to heel. Campaign manager Paul Manafort was berating Ohio Governor John Kasich for boycotting the convention, and getting booed for it by the local crowd. (Pro tip: if Ohio Republicans didn't like Kasich, he wouldn't be Republican Governor of Ohio. QED.)  Meanwhile Gingrich was sent out to call the Bush family "childish." That's right. "Childish," coming from the Trump camp, about George H. W. Bush.

These attacks have been a spectacular failure in bringing anyone to heel. Kasich has defiantly avoided the convention and paid the Trumpies back by leaking, on the day Mike Pence accepted the Veep nomination, the news that Kasich had been Trump's first choice for VP and outright refused. So bullying Kasich has just paid off in spades. And what on Earth does Trump think antagonizing the other Republicans will get him? He needs help from these people to turn out the vote, especially since they have GOTV organizations and Trump does not.

Trump has no control over the Republican Party. The Republican Party is currently without a political boss, because Trump hasn't managed to assume that job. He should have made peace with all the rival chieftains in the months before the convention, and come into Cleveland with a show of party unity. Instead, he's operating like a factional leader.

One of the great rules of politics is to take care of business before the meeting. You should not go into the meeting with things unsettled. Yes, I know, there are meetings where things get hashed out, but those are private meetings. Trump should have been having those private hash-it-out meetings for the last three or four months, so that the big public meeting could follow a smooth script. Apparently, Trump was unwilling or unable to make any deals.

More to the point, it's become obvious that the other party players are not afraid of Trump. They can defy him, because they do not fear him. He has no way to punish them, unless he actually becomes President. The level of open defiance from Kasich, Cruz, and several others makes it clear that they are not in the least worried that Trump will be elected. You don't do this to a member of your party who might be President in six months. Cruz and Kasich aren't just betting that Trump will lose. They are completely confident that he will lose.

2. It's personal, not business. Melania Trump's pointless, self-inflicted plagiarism incident is just the most vivid illustration of how Trump World rolls, ignoring the professionals in favor of family members and family retainers. It's not simply that the Trump campaign has not professionalized, which it has not. It's that the inner circle actively vetoes and undermines the attempts at professionalization. The Trump family runs like the Corleone Family would if everyone had to listen to Fredo.

There are some professionals around, but their professional judgment is ignored and they are told instead to enable the amateur insiders' decisions.  That misunderstands what professionals are for. They are not there to tell you what you want. They are there to provide expertise that you need and don't have. When a medical doctor gives you his professional advice, you should take it. When a rich client starts telling the doctor that the doctor is paid to do what the patient says, well, that's a rich client who is going to OD on something.

Two professional speechwriters, who had done this before and done it well, wrote a script. Melania, who has no experience with anything like this task, threw out that speech. She then rewrote it with a Trump family retainer who has done some writing but was not at all prepared for a high-stakes task like a major convention speech. So you had a family retainer who wasn't fully qualified operating at the direction, and following the instructions, of a family member who was thoroughly unqualified. Surprisingly, the result was not good.

Then Paul Manafort, one of the allegedly grown-up professionals, was forced to go out and do what the Trumps wanted, which was to flatly and obviously lie for two days, insulting his own intelligence with every word. On the same morning that Manafort had to sit and be called a liar to his face on CNN, the Trumps changed tack and had the family retainer admit to exactly the things Manafort had just denied. The professionals, again, got thrown under the bus.

Professionals only help you if you take your advice. Trump hires professionals to enable his own bad instincts. There is no reason to believe this problem will go away.

3. Trump is still running a primary campaign. It has been shocking how much the Trump convention has been about throwing red meat to the base. Even leaving aside the shocking calls to jail and even kill Hillary Clinton, in a complete break with America's civil politics, the whole show so far has been about riling up the base rather than reaching out to swing voters.

If you didn't know what Benghazi was, or why the Republicans blame Hillary for it, before Monday night, you still wouldn't know after watching this convention. And that's after a solid forty-five minute block of Benghazi programming on Monday. That material wasn't just pitched to the base's biases. It was pitched to people who had already absorbed the fairly complicated conspiracy narrative, which it never really bothered to explain. Even the hate-monging is only for the initiated.

I mean, yes, conventions are meant to get the activists excited, so they will go out and work hard for the campaign. But they are even more important as outreach to the wider electorate. Trump cannot win with just the base of voters who want to imprison Hillary. And what I'm seeing and hearing is a convention that's splitting and alienating even the Republican activists.

I'm not saying he's turning off swing voters. I'm saying he's not even trying to reach them.

4. Losing control of the narrative.  Trump needed this convention to change the press's conversation about him, and to dispel the conventional wisdom that he is a disorganized crazy person who's running his campaign into the ground. And the press would be willing, even eager, to go along with that "New Trump" narrative if Trump game them some slight and superficial grounds to go along with it. He doesn't really need to convince the media that he isn't crazy. He just needs to give them something they can use to pretend he isn't. Instead, Trump has gone out of his way to cement the crazy screw-up story. He has done this by 1) being crazy and 2) screwing up.

But it's worse than that. Trump has gotten as far as he has by bullying the media, by rolling them, and by counting on their laziness. When he's called on things, he's turned it around into an attack on the press, and then moved on to the next crazy. Those tricks are beginning to stop working now. They're not effective as they used to be, and sometimes they're counter-productive. The stakes are too high, the stage is too big, and the media have already been lied to so baldly that they're out of free passes to give. At this point, Trump is putting the media in the position of embarrassing him or embarrassing themselves, as he tries to force them to accept his Humpty-Dumpty lies in front of millions of people. They should have stopped accepting his lies a year ago. But he's pushed it to the point where they can't afford to accept his lies even if they wanted to.

Trump's basic communication strategy is signal jamming. He doesn't make a strong case for himself, He just creates so much noise, in the radio-engineer sense of "noise" as static, that no one else can get their message out clearly. That's what happened to the other 16 palookas in the primary. They couldn't make their cases to the public because Trump drowned them out with his endless static.

Hillary Clinton isn't the catchiest tunesmith, but she is a very experienced communicator and she has an enormous broadcast apparatus to send out her message. I expect Trump to spend most of his energies, especially during the Democratic convention, on creating distractions to try to dull Hillary's message. It may or may not work, depending on how the media play along. But what I do know, now, after a year of this nonsense, is that Trump has very little positive signal of his own to broadcast. He can't even get his own children to tell heart-warming anecdotes about him, suggesting that there really may be no heartwarming anecdotes about him. (Compare Melania's speech to the Michelle Obama speech she ripped off; what's missing are all the detailed personal stories Michelle told about her husband, the stories that are the point of the nominee's wife giving the speech in the first place.)

What we are looking at is a fall campaign between a politician and her fine-tuned campaign machine sending out a message about Hillary Clinton, on one hand, and a disruptive troublemaker trying to sabotage that message on the other. There will be no positive Trump vision. If he hasn't shown it by now, he doesn't have one. But Trump will now face trouble sending out even disruptive static, since he has actively trained the press to push back at him hard.

It's an old lesson: you can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time. I admit I didn't come up with that line myself. I borrowed it from a Republican.

cross-posed from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Sunday, July 17, 2016

What to Watch For

So, they're finally here. After months of anxious preparation here in our city, the Republican National Convention has come to Cleveland. The city is as carefully groomed and as nervous as a teenager before the prom. The pedestrian walk on East 4th Street is filled with broadcast booths. High-end restaurants have turned into the temporary headquarters of Bloomberg or Twitter. The park in Public Square has been completely, and beautifully renovated; we had to close it down for more than a year. The construction scaffolds are finally gone from Euclid Avenue, but new traffic barriers and fences are up. It's impossible to know which roads will be blocked off, where you can drive and where you can't. I won't be going back downtown until this is over. I'll be up in the Heights, holding my breath.

What goes on in the convention hall doesn't concern me. If the Republican Party and its loathsome nominee want to screw up on national television, that's their business. What happens in the streets matters enormously. We're trying to build this city up. We really don't need any additional trouble.

So I'm worried about protests turning into confrontations, because peaceful demonstrations can attract hangers-on who have no peaceful intentions. I'm worried about violent opportunists, including various lone-wolf lunatics, who might choose Cleveland as a target to attack. I'm nervous about a police department with some ugly recent history being put on edge by recent attacks against police.
I'm downright terrified by the open-carry activists who have apparently already taken to standing in Public Square with goddamn AR-15s, basically insuring that nearly anything that goes bad will go worse. And I'm nervous that pro-Trump demonstrators will look for an excuse to go after Black Lives Matter or other anti-Trump demonstrators. One of the things that's scary about this situation, and different from previous conventions, is the possibility of ideologically-opposed demonstrators looking for a brawl.

The good news is that many of the armed and/or truculent fringe groups who previously planned to descend on Cleveland to declare their allegiance to "protect" Trump and his followers, have now decided to skip the show. I'm more than happy that the Oath Keepers, the white supremacists, and the Bikers for Trump won't be arriving. (h/t to the great JJ Macnab's Twitter feed for providing updates on these groups). I watched the head of Bikers for Trump on the local news this week, raving about "protecting" Trump and "protecting" the police and keeping anti-Trump protestors in line. That, obviously, is the most brilliant event-safety idea since the Rolling Stones hired the Hell's Angels to provide concert security at Altamount. (To give Donald Trump his very limited due here, he did not explicitly invite any of these yahoos to Cleveland, while Mick Jagger actually went out and hired the Angels.) But the Bikers for Trump guy could not get a parade permit, so he's not coming. That gust of wind you hear in the trees is my sigh of relief, all the way from Ohio.

We're at a tense moment when people are wondering if we can maintain our civil peace and our democracy, when we can no longer entirely avoid the debate over whether or not Trump represents a genuine American fascism. That argument is endless, because "fascism" has never been especially well defined, but I do want to point to one thing we should look out for.

Authoritarian regimes generally, and fascist regimes specifically, tend to have a body of irregular, semi-official thugs, separate from the official security forces. Those groups conduct most of the violence and intimidation. Hitler had his brown shirts, the original Storm Troopers; Mussolini had his black shirts. But tyrants with different ideologies often have the same groups: the Duvalier regime in Haiti had its tontons macoutes, the Iranian mullahs have their "people's militia," the basij. The Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi was conducted by local militia. The Klan, a nominally secret society, carried out terrorism against southern blacks from the 1860s through the 1960s. Dictators don't necessarily send the army or the police. They often have these irregular groups to break windows and bust heads outside the official apparatus of power, and to help keep that apparatus in the tyrant's hands.

Donald Trump is, at best, a racist demagogue with no respect for the Constitution. He is a real danger to American democracy. But so far, he has not mobilized the support of any irregular or paramilitary forces. Should that ever happen, it will be a sign that things have taken a hard turn for the worse.

Trump has had some impromptu violence at his rallies, which he has both incited and pretended not to incite. But violent rally-goers have not yet formed any organization. So far they're just one-time, single-use mobs, and the Trump campaign doesn't necessarily have the skills or discipline to organize them as campaign volunteers, let alone as a paramilitary auxiliary. There are plenty of unsavory folks around Trump, but -- thank heavens -- he doesn't have an Ernst Rohm.

There are also pre-existing paramilitary groups who are clearly excited by Trump and willing to follow him: the Oath Keepers, the Three Percent Militia, and various white supremacist types including some chapters of the Klan. The actual capacities of these groups, as opposed to their fantasies, are not really clear. But these are people who talk about various kinds of action to promote their ideologies, and extra-legal violence is part of their ideology.

The Trump campaign has not taken these groups on board. Trump's own approach to them is the familiar one of winking disavowal: he clearly is happy for their votes, but will officially disavow them (he actually prefers the phrase "I disavow," with nothing else in the sentence) in ways the white supremacists apparently take as just window dressing. But Trump has not shown any interest in these groups busting any heads for him.

But if we reach a point where any of these groups, or a new group like them, starts to act in concerted ways to aid the Trump campaign: intimidating voters, vandalizing Clinton headquarters or wholesale trashing yard signs, then we'll have turned an ugly page. They might have some excuse or pretext, such as "fighting back" against the New Black Panthers or another group they call "thugs," but that will just be an excuse. And if Trump ever seems to give such behavior his ambiguous blessing, then it will be a genuine national emergency.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

She Was Never Getting Indicted. Really.

So, Hilary Clinton is not getting indicted. The media presents this as a surprise. But it is pretty obvious that no major political actors are surprised. The press has talked for a year as if Clinton could possibly be indicted. The players (the national Democrats, the Republicans, the White House, the donors) have acted as if they knew she would not. Even politicians who publicly said that she was in danger of indictment acted as if she would not. The simplest answer here is that this story has not been covered honestly.

Before we get into the bottomless-pit argument about the details of various reports and the phrasing of various clauses in those reports, I am not arguing about whether or not she should be indicted or whether she could be indicted in some hypothetical scenario. If you want to build a hypothetical case that she could be indicted, you surely can, because that is how hypotheticals work. What I am saying is that various movers and shakers have visibly acted on the belief that she would not be. It is clear that the various party actors have taken as given that Clinton would not be indicted, and they have acted on that presumption in ways that we can see, even from the cheap seats.

How do I know this? I know this because Joe Biden is not running for President.

If the Democratic or Republican presidential nominee were actually indicted on criminal charges, that would be a disaster for the nominating party. It would be throwing a national election away. No party would just let that happen. If there were even a tiny risk, a 1 or 2% chance, of that happening, there would be a concerted effort to find someone else. That effort might fail, as the effort to stop Trump did. But someone would make it.

Would Barack Obama gamble his legacy on a Democrat who might be on criminal trial during the election?  No. If Obama thought that there were even a slim possibility that Hillary Clinton might be indicted, he would have made sure that another strong contender from the Democratic mainstream was running. But Obama's behavior indicates someone who has not worried about that possibility at all.

Would the DNC and the big Democratic donors be willing to risk a nominee who might face a criminal trial? Of course not. They would have made sure someone else ran: if not Joe Biden, then someone like Andrew Cuomo or Cory Booker, someone with business-friendly policies and a reputation as a solid campaigner.

Would those party decision-makers and donors be willing to have Bernie Sanders be the understudy in case Hillary Clinton was indicted? Of course not. Would they be willing to entertain the risk that HRC would get indicted and thus lose the nomination to Bernie Sanders? Of course not. The primaries weren't rigged in any paranoid way, but it is true that the Democratic establishment genuinely doesn't want Bernie as their nominee, and if they thought HRC were vulnerable, they would have rounded someone else up. Didn't happen, because no one was worried.

"Ah!" you say, "The fix was in! Obama didn't act worried because he knew he could quash any prosecution." Actually, I didn't say that. If there had been a conspiracy -- if this had been a situation where a conspiracy were necessary -- what you would have seen would be a large number of party actors behaving as if they were very nervous and a small number of individuals, the actual parties to the hypothetical conspiracy, either seeming unusually calm or (more likely) pretending to act nervous rather than tipping their hand. Conspiracies are, by their nature, small and secretive. If the entire Democratic Party establishment is in on something it isn't a conspiracy. It's a campaign strategy.

If this had been a situation where someone needed to obstruct justice, you would still have seen lots of pressure on Biden to run, and if he refused pressure on someone else. The party as a whole would have been running scared. But in fact, none of them acted especially worried. They weren't worried precisely because they didn't think anyone needed to obstruct justice. Everyone clearly acted on the belief that HRC would be cleared of criminal charges. They didn't deny that her e-mail arrangement wasn't a huge mistake. They just all took for granted that it wasn't a criminal mistake.

But it's not just the Democrats. The Republicans have also acted, every step of the way, as if they did not expect HRC to be indicted. The endless Republican primary debates all harped on the e-mails, because it was good campaign material, but the whole teeming horde of candidates in those debates spoke matter-of-factly about Clinton as the eventual nominee. All the Republicans have planned, all along, for Clinton to be nominated. They haven't planned for the chance that a criminal indictment might derail her nomination. They didn't plan to face Bernie instead. They did not expect an indictment. And I think we can all agree that no Democratic cover-up would include the various Republican candidates for President.

If there's no conspiracy, and there isn't, why the mismatch between the way Clinton's indictment chances were discussed and the way people seemed to act on those chances? If both party establishments were acting on the premise that there was no realistic risk of indictment, why was it played a s a big question mark in the press?

You don't need a conspiracy to explain it. The motives of various actors are right there to see. For the Republicans, obviously, the idea that HRC might get put on trial was beneficial. Making the e-mails a campaign issue is a no-brainer: this is something that Clinton messed up, and it fits the existing narrative about her that has already been established in the public minds. The idea that Clinton's mistake wasn't just a bad mistake but maybe a crime only helps their campaign pitch. I mean, these are the people who held a seventh Benghazi investigation.

And the media obviously benefited from the idea that criminal charges might be coming, because that's a better story. You don't even have to be slanted against Clinton to want a juicier story. Campaign reporters sell the possibility of unlikely scenarios all the time. Look at how slow the press was to let go of the idea of a brokered Republican convention, long after it became clear that it wouldn't happen. To be fair, mainstream coverage of Clinton never outright said that she would  be indicted. But it was very reluctant to leave out the suggestion that she might.

That coverage was not accurate. The story was always dog-bites-man: former Secretary of State goofs on e-mails security, is publicly embarrassed, but is never in any real danger of criminal charges. That story was dull, so they hinted at the cooler story instead. The truth didn't bring the media any value this time: what's the point of telling a story everyone already knows?

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog