Sunday, April 23, 2023

Speaking of Which

Supposedly Obama's motto as president was "don't do stupid shit." Republicans this week, perhaps more than ever before, proved themselves to be his polar opposite.

Sad to hear of the death of Fern Van Gieson (1928-2023), a dear friend we met twenty-some years ago through the Wichita Peace Center.

Also passing this week was Australian comedian Barry Humphries, better known as Dame Edna Everage. I can't say as I've ever been much of a fan, but this reminds me how common, innocent, and downright silly drag has been going back longer than I can remember. Republicans want to vilify and criminalize drag. While it's always possible that their schemes are just some cynical plot hatched from Frank Luntz's polling, the deeper implication is that their fears are rooted in deep insecurities, as well as a defective sense of humor, and a general loathing not just for people who are a bit different, but also for people who are a bit too similar.

Top story threads:

Kevin McCarthy v. America: I don't have time to write more, but this reminds me of the scene in Blazing Saddles where the black sheriff escapes a lynching by threatening to shoot himself.

Trump: No new indictments. E. Jean Carroll's defamation case against Trump is scheduled to start on April 25, with or probably without Trump's presence. I skipped over a bunch of articles on how Trump is polling (he seems to be burying DeSantis).

  • Isaac Arnsdorf/Jeff Stein: [04-21] Trump touts authoritarian vision for second term: 'I am your justice': He goes on: "And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution." "The former president is proposing deploying the military domestically, purging the federal workforce and building futuristic cities from scratch." The latter are to be called "freedom cities": "with flying cars, manufacturing hubs and opportunities for homeownership, promising a 'quantum leap in the American standard of living.'" Stephen Moore wants to build them with tax incentives and deregulation, as well as a "super police force that keeps the place safe." Some ideas do suggest Trump input, like "classical-style buildings, monuments to 'true American heroes,' and schools and streets named 'not after communists but patriots.'"

  • Sophia A McClennen: [04-22] Sick of Trump? Try laughing at him. Author wrote a book on the subject: Trump Was a Joke: How Satire Made Sense of a President Who Didn't (Routledge, rather pricey at $35.96 paperback). Author previously wrote [02-01] Donald Trump is the worst kind of fool.

  • Luke Savage: [04-20] Donald Trump's NFTs Are the Perfect Symbol of American Capitalilsm in 2023.

Other Republicans: If you want an intro here, refer back to the top.

Guns: OK, this is the week I finally gave up on trying to rationalize a right to guns. Take them away. Consider "my cold dead fingers a taunt." I'm the first to admit that banning something people really want doesn't make it go away, but in this case it would certainly make it harder for a lot of very stupid people to do vicious things that are completely unjustifiable. Jeffrey St Clair (more on his piece below) offers a quick rundown:

In one 24-hour period last weekend, there were at least 15 mass shootings in the US, including 4 shot in Northridge, California, 6 in Louisville, 36 in Dadeville, Alabama, 6 in Cyrus, Minnesota, 3 in New Orleans, 6 in Paterson, NJ, 5 in Wiainai, Hawaii, 4 in Detroit, another 3 in Louisville, 4 in Phoenix, 3 in Los Angeles, 3 in Charlotte, 4 in Newark and 3 in Cincy.

This week in America . . .

  1. A teenage boy was shot for ringing the wrong doorbell.
  2. A teenage girl was shot for entering the wrong driveway.
  3. A cheerleader was shot for going up to the wrong car.
  4. A six-year old girl shot for rolling a ball into the wrong yard.

Globally, 87% of the children killed by gunfire were shot in the USA.

He also offers stats for mass shootings in US by year, rising from 272 in 2014 to 415 in 2019, then to 610-690 from 2020-22. This year's total of 164 in 108 days is actually a bit behind the recent pace (although 554 would be the 4th most ever). [PS: Others insist Frequent shootings put US mass killings on a record pace.] Further down, he also notes that "Boston cops shot two dogs this week while serving a warrant against a man for . . . driving without a license." I'm beginning to feel wistful for the threatened dystopia of a "world where only criminals have guns." For one thing, that would make it easier to identify the criminals. Some of these stories below (and by Sunday there'll no doubt be more):

The Courts:

Fox: Just before the trial opened, Dominion Voting Machines agreed to settle their defamation suit with Fox, for a whopping $787 million (they had originally sued for $1.6 billion, so about half that).

Next up, Mike Lindell: But even before he faces his own Dominion lawsuit, there's this:

Earth Day:

  • Elizabeth Kolbert: [04-22] It's Earth Day -- and the news isn't good: "New reports show that ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica are melting faster than anticipated, and other disasters loom."

  • Kate Aronoff: [04-18] Is Jimmy Carter Where Environmentalism Went Wrong? "Carter's austerity was part of a bigger project. It didn't really have much to do with environmentalism." There is a lot to chew on here, but also more stuff the author doesn't mention, like the "Carter Doctrine" that committed the US to securing oil shipping lanes in the Persian Gulf -- the second of two major decisions in the 1970s to keep gas cheap (the other being Nixon's refusal to conserve oil after production peaked in 1969, leading to a trade deficit in 1970 that has only grown ever since).

  • Liza Featherstone: [04-20] Nixon Was the Weirdest Environmentalist: "Richard Nixon, the original culture warrior, helped establish Earth Day and poured millions of dollars into conservation, despite his own ambivalence about the environmental movement." There was a brief period 10-20 years ago when some liberal pundits thought it would be clever to rehabilitate Nixon as a closet progressive, largely on the basis of a series of bills that he signed after Democrats in Congress passed them, including the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and OSHA. But the best you can say for Nixon is that he recognized that government needed to move left to even begin to deal with some pressing problems (and with the Cuyahoga River burning down bridges, the environment was the most obvious one). But Nixon rarely if ever cared about solving problems (one fine example of his indifference was making Donald Rumsfeld head of the EEOC). He just didn't want to lose any political power by taking the wrong side of an issue, and the one thing he really did care about was power.

Buzzfeed, Twitter, etc.:

Ukraine War:

  • Connor Echols: [04-21] Diplomacy Watch: US ignores calls for negotiations at its own peril: "Huge swathes of the world want the war in Ukraine to end as soon as possible. Can Washington afford to disregard them?" Brazilian president Lula da Silva "sparked a controversy" when he said the US "needs to stop encouraging war and start talking about peace." A US spokesman replied that "Lula's comments amounted to little more than 'Russian and Chinese propaganda.'" The Americans aren't even to the stage of pretending they' care about peace. Granted, Russia isn't at that stage either, but why should that stop the US from offering the prospect of a future where the present conflict is dead and buried? Failure to do so suggests that the real US goal isn't to defend Ukraine but to destroy Russia -- which is the belief, and fear, of most hawkish Russians. The Ukrainian position that they'll only talk after Russia fully withdraws is similarly unhelpful.

    Echols also interviewed John Sopko in: [02-21] Afghanistan watchdog: 'You're gonna see pilferage' of Ukraine aid. No doubt. It happens everywhere else -- the Pentagon is notoriously unable to keep track of their own allocations. Opponents of US support for Ukraine have latched on this, hoping to discredit the war effort by taint of scandal (see Kelly Beaucar Vlahos: [04-20] Republican lawmakers to Biden: no more 'unrestrained aid' to Ukraine. It doesn't mean there should be no aid, but it's always important to stay vigilant against corruption (Afghanistan and Iraq being prime examples, but same thing was endemic in Vietnam).

  • Joshua Frank: [04-21] Will the West Turn Ukraine Into a Nuclear Battlefield? Specifically, he's talking about the use of depleted uranium shells, which are effective for penetrating tank armor, but are also radioactive and toxic ("depleted" means they are pure U-238, after the slightly more fissile U-235 isotopes have been removed). Depleted uranium was used extensively by the US in Iraq in 1991 and 2003, where it caused cancer, both in Iraqis and in US troops.

  • Jen Kirby: [04-22] So what's the deal with Ukraine's spring offensive? While it can be said that both sides are refusing to negotiate based on the hopes that they can still improve their territorial positions with an offensive once conditions permit, Ukraine's hopes are slightly better grounded: they made net gains around Kharkiv and Kherson in the fall; they've withstood Russian efforts to capture Bakhmut (in one of those classic "destroy the village to save it" operations); they've gained tanks and other weapons for offensive operations. A year ago, Russia was on offense, and Ukraine was pinned down, focusing on defending its capital, Kyiv, while giving ground in the south, including Kherson and Mariupol. I question whether their offensive will be much more successful than Russia's, especially when it comes to areas that have been effectively part of Russia since 2014, but it's not unusual for people to have to learn their limits the hard way.

  • Branko Marcetic: [04-21] Why is Facebook censoring Sy Hersh's NordStream report?

  • Kelley Beaucar Vlahos: [04-17] Lieven inside Ukraine: some real breaks, and insights.

Other stories around the world:

Other stories:

Kenneth Chang: [04-20] SpaceX's Starship 'Learning Experience' Ends in Explosion: Elon Musk's biggest erection yet blew up a few minutes after liftoff, but somehow nearly every article has followed the company line that the disastrous failure is really just a "learning experience." It's true that there is a hip management culture in Silicon Valley that sees taking risks as something to be encouraged, and it's always important to learn from mistakes, but you usually want to keep your test cases small and discrete, and do them in ways you can easily observe. Piling several billion dollars worth of hardware up and blowing it up 24 miles into space is far from ideal, which makes the spin seem a bit desperate.

Jay Caspian Kang: [04-21] Has Black Lives Matter changed the world?: "A new book makes the case for a more pragmatic anti-policing movement -- one that seeks to build working-class solidarity across racial lines." The book is by Cedric Johnson: After Black Lives Matter.

Rebecca Leber: [04-19] Why Asia's early heat wave is so alarming: This should probably be the biggest story of the week. With no further references in my usual sources, I looked more explicitly and found:

Will Leitch: [04-18] The Sports-Betting Ads Are Awful, and They're Not Going Away. Just because something is legal (in the sense of not being illegal), doesn't mean you should be able to advertise it everywhere (or for that matter, anywhere). One critical thing that distinugishes advertising from free speech is that it almost always appears as a sales proposition -- this is every bit as true for political as for deodorant ads -- which means that mistruths should be prosecuted as fraud. Still, the gray areas, where they dance around the truth, or say one thing while implying another (like when big pharma ads list side-effects while everyone keeps smiling), is often worse. I think this is basically true for everything, but gambling has got to be one of the worst things you could possibly advertise. It's not just that gamblers lose (while foolishly led to believe they won't), or that the people who take their money are among the most undeserving and unscrupulous of racketeers, but that the very idea that one should so disrespect one's hard-earned labor destroys the soul.

I should add a personal note: When I was a child, I noticed that most TV shows were sponsored ("brought to you by") big corporations, which splashed their names about, taking full credit for things I enjoyed, and mostly selling things I could imagine my family buying. Then I saw a list of America's biggest companies, and noticed that insurance companies were huge, but hadn't been buying TV advertising. So I wished that they would share some wealth and contribute to my entertainment . . . until they did, and I was shocked and disgusted by their sales pitch. That's when I decided some things should not be advertised. Of course, lots of services couldn't be advertised back then, like lawyers. Later, cigarette advertising was banned, and that turned out all to the good.

Back in the 1970s, I wound up doing a fair amount of work behind the scenes in advertising. I read numerous books on the subject (notably David Ogilvy). I came to respect the craft, creativity, art, and science of the industry -- the latter was built on the social sciences, which was my major in college, and something I viewed with an especially critical eye. Of course, I also came to be repulsed by the whole business. While there needs to be ways for honest businesses to make the public aware of their products and services, our current system of advertising does much more harm than good. And depending on advertisers to support essential public services like journalism (see Robinson below) does even more harm. So ban it all. But sports betting would be a particularly good place to start.

Jasmine Liu: [04-21] On the Road With the Ghost of Ashli Babbitt: "Jeff Sharlet saw close up how the far right has used grief and bitterness to grow its ranks." Interview with Sharlet, whose new book is: The Undertow: Scenes From a Slow Civil War.

Samantha Oltman/Brian Resnick/Adam Clark Estes/Bryan Walsh: [04-21] The 100-year-old mistake that's reshaping the American West: "What happens if the Colorado River keeps drying up?" Introduction to a new batch of articles.

David Quammen: [04-23] Why Dead Birds Are Falling From the Sky: Another pandemic may be just around the future (or if you're a bird, already here).

Nathan J Robinson: Also look for Buzzfeed above.

  • [04-17] We Can't Overstate the Danger of Tom Cotton's "Might Makes Right" Foreign Policy: The Arkansas Republican Senator has a new book out, called Only the Strong: Reversing the Left's Plot to Sabotage American Power, arguing that "Democrats are insufficiently militaristic" (an argument Robinson derides as "laughable," citing examples from Truman to Obama). Given that US foreign policy is already massively, if not admittedly, tilted in the direction that Cotton advocates -- naked projection of power for purely selfish ends, the only thing extra he's advocating is that US power should be utterly shameless (regarding purely self-interested motives) and unapologetic (regarding collateral damages) -- a foreign policy which was only seriously attempted by Germany and Japan in WWII (although Israel seems to think in those terms, which is why American neocons are so enamored, but somewhat more limited given their lack of size). While there is something to be said for cutting out the hypocrisy about democracy and freedom -- things Cotton has no desire to preserve domestically, let alone anywhere else -- such frankness would make it even harder to command alliances, and would only increase the resolve of those inclined to resist US dictates. Cotton seems to think that the only thing that has held kept his strategy from dominating is the pathetic wobbliness of lily-livered Democrats.

  • [04-19] Homelessness Is an Entirely Solvable Problem: "Whether we let people have houses is a choice we make." Also: "Shocking, I know. The more expensive a place is, the more people struggle to afford housing, and the more they struggle to afford housing, the more likely they are to be unhoused."

  • [2022-02-11] On Experiencing Joe Rogan: This is a bit old, but probably all you need to know.

Priya Satia: [04-18] Born Imperial: The lingering ghosts of the British Empire. Review of Sathnam Sanghera: Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain.

Jeffrey St Clair: [04-21] Roaming Charges: In the Land of Unfortunate Things: Opens with a bit about Dr. Bruce Jessen ("the CIA's torture shrink"), before moving on to the Dominion-Fox settlement, which winds up noting Rupert Murdoch's lobbying the British to nuke China rather than giving up Hong Kong, and on to other topics. "[US Supreme Court Justice Clarence] Thomas isn't being bribed to make decisions; he's being rewarded for the fact that he'd make these decisions without being bribed. So would Alito." This is actually a common model, but is more conspicuous with Supreme Court justices, as their lifetime appointments don't allow a tasteful wait until retirement. Clinton and Obama earned their post-presidential fortunes for their service to an oligarchy they made all the richer.

Michael Tomasky: [04-23] Here's the Gutsy, Unprecedented Campaign Biden and the Democrats Need to Run: Here's the guy who thought Obama would be transformational. (Or was that Robert Kuttner? Similar thinkers who get a bit myopic when they get their hopes up.) The one thing Tomasky is right is that Democrats need to win big in 2024 in order to get a chance to deliver on whatever it is they campaign on, big or small. And while I'm reasonably comfortable that Biden can beat Trump, DeSantis, Pence, or the lower echelon of GOP apparatchiki, he's not very good at explaining why a solid majority of Americans should vote for him, and he's not what you'd call charismatic. The only thing that distinguishes him from the next 20-30 contenders is that he's acceptable to both the party rank-and-file and to the moneybags who'd sabotage the election to make sure no one too far left got in.

Still, two problems here. One is that the laundry list of bills isn't all that big or helpful. Free opioid clinics and adding dental coverage to Medicare are tiny compared to Medicare for All. New laws to limit monopolies and to encourage unions could help, but will take some time to gain traction. Why not a Worker's Bill of Rights, which would combine some of these things (minimum wage, overtime) with some other recent proposals (like parental leave and prohibiting NDAs) with some more ideas that are overdue (like rebalancing arbitration systems)? What about a Reproductive Health Act, which would guarantee the right to abortion, and also provide universal insurance for pregnancy and early infancy? And why not combine marijuana legalization/regulation with pain clinics that could finally make some headway on opioids (not that pot is a panacea here; sometimes opioids are needed, but legal ones, administered under care with counseling)? And there's still a lot more work to do on infrastructure, climate change, and disaster relief. And if you really want to wow minds, why not work for world peace, instead of dedicating US foreign policy to arms sales (like Trump did, although one can argue that Biden is even better at it)?

Still, I doubt that policy ideas, no matter how coherent and bold, are the key to winning elections. Sure, eventually you have to do something worthwhile (which is why Republican regimes never last: they get elected in a wave of good feeling, then invariably spoil it within 8-12 years), but first you need to get people (who don't understand much about policy) to trust you to do the right things, and not just sell out to private donor interests. Granted, like the campers running from a bear, the Democrat should only have to be faster than the Republican, but appearing less crooked is trickier than you'd expect, as proven by Hillary Clinton's loss to Trump on just that issue.

Brian Walsh: [04-19] Are 8 billion people too many -- or too few? Wrong question, as the writer (if not the titlist) realizes. No time for a disquisition here, but the goal should never be to see how many people you can cram into Malthusian misery, but to figure out how to reduce the misery of those who we do have, then try to sustain that.

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