Sunday, October 9, 2016

Hillary Clinton's debate problem: She's a woman named Hillary Clinton

I'm seeing friends, right and left, suggest that Hillary Clinton failed to land a knockout blow against Donald Trump in tonight's debate. I'm not so worried: I think Clinton knows, after Friday's release of the "Billy Bush" tape, that she's ahead on points, and she doesn't have to work too aggressively to win the championship.

Here's the problem: She's a woman named Hillary Clinton.

This is the woman who commentators tell to smile more one debate, smile less then next. She's a woman who faces the same issue many professional women do — act too aggressively and you're a bitch. Moderate your presentation and you come across as a shrinking violet. No woman can win by those standards — indeed, they're not supposed to.

Hillary, after decades in the public eye, is ultra-aware of the dynamic. So: If she presses the case too hard against Trump tonight, there's an excellent chance that lots of post-debate pundits are using b-word euphemisms to describe her tonight. The knockout blow expected from a man in her situation would likely be used against her.

So. She lets her opponent punch himself out. It's not like people are going to like the Billy Bush tape tomorrow morning. She just had to stay on her feet and not let Donald land a clean hit. It's not the genital-measuring contest we might've expected to see between two male candidates, but it does require patience. And for better or worse, Donald was right: She does have that patience. She never gives up. Her fighting style is the one that's best suited to who she is.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Teaching our sons not to be Donald Trump

This is the Facebook status of a friend. I'm so angry on her behalf that I can barely hold back the tears.

I've just had a conversation with my son. He's a good kid. But he lives in this stupid, fallen, fucked-up world.

We told him

Never touch a girl or woman without her permission.

Never call her names.

Never act disrespectfully in any way to a girl or woman.

There will be times when it might seem like the fun thing to do. When you see other boys acting that way. That doesn't make it right. There will be peer pressure. Resist. And talk to us, if you will.

I realize that there's only so much we can do. He spends so much time in this stupid, fallen, fucked-up world already without us. So it's imperative that we use the remaining time to affirm, and reaffirm, and reaffirm again, what those values are.

Look at Donald Trump, son. Do the exact opposite.

Friday, October 7, 2016

I am Billy Bush

By now, you've probably heard of Donald Trump's horrific recorded comments from 2005 about how he treats women. It's hard to see how he survives this and gets elected, but this is a weird and stupid election season: Never say never.

What interests me in the recording, though, is the acquiescence of Billy Bush, who just goes with the flow as Trump describes his interaction with women in ever-more-disgusting terms:

“And when you’re a star they let you do it,” Trump says. “You can do anything.” 
“Whatever you want,” says another voice, apparently Bush’s.
Trump today described the comments as "locker room banter." It's been a few decades since I spent regular time in a locker room, and I remember it could get rowdy and bawdy — but Trump's recorded comments exceed anything in my memory.

Still, I'm now racking my brain. Am I Billy Bush?

Have I sat by, maybe even chuckled, as a man — thinking he was speaking among men — spoke of a women or women in such disrespectful terms? I don't have a clear memory of it if so.

But that doesn't mean it didn't happen. Indeed, it's all too easy to understand how, confronted with such comments, one might try to chuckle nervously and get the encounter over with. "Boys will be boys" and all that.

And yet.

I interviewed Fred Phelps, the notorious gay basher, once. It was brief phone call. A national Jewish group had put out a report demonstrating that Phelps was also a fairly accomplished anti-Semite. I asked Fred for his response, and his quote was this: "I welcome anything those Christ-killing fag lovers have to say about me."

I giggled.

I giggled because it was shocking. I giggled because I wasn't going to get into an argument with Fred Phelps while I was on the job and I didn't know what else to do. I giggled because, for whatever reason, I wasn't going to tell Fred Phelps he was wrong.

I've laughed at racist jokes, too.

The point is: This stuff happens unless we choose to make ourselves uncomfortable — if we choose to make other people feel uncomfortable — and confront comments that are so at odds with our values. It's tough. Oftentimes it doesn't feel worth it. But every time we don't — every time we chuckle — we signal our approval. We tell the person making the lewd, disgusting comments that it's ok to be that way. Even if we think otherwise.

So yeah. I've probably been Billy Bush. Probably you have too. What are we going to do about it?

Monday, October 3, 2016

In (sort of) defense of Donald Trump's comments about vets and suicide

This Donald Trump comment is making a lot of people mad today — the insinuation that vets who commit suicide are "weak."

"When people come back from war and combat and they see things that maybe a lot of the folks in this room have seen many times over and you're strong and you can handle it, but a lot of people can't handle it," Trump said, speaking Monday morning at a panel for the Retired American Warriors PAC in Virginia.
Sounds pretty bad, right? Well, ABC at least includes the rest of the quote — which is omitted from a lot of media accounts.
"We need mental health and medical, and it's one of the things that is least addressed and one of the things — one of the things that I hear most about when I go around and talk to the veterans," he said. "So we are going to have a very robust, very, very robust level of performance having to do with mental health."
Now: I'm not one to defend Donald Trump.

But in this case he's not dismissing a rival politician, a la his comments about John McCain's captivity. He's not insulting parents who took a stand against him at a rival party's convention.

By God, I think ... he's trying to be sympathetic. He's trying to be sensitive, in his clumsy ham-fisted way. He's trying to provide a policy answer to help veterans who need it!

Now. If you want to criticize him for a worldview that separates everybody into winners and losers, strong and weak, I get it. And if you want to get after him for having an understanding of PTSD that, I'm willing to bet, comes from action movies and old episodes of "24" instead of any firsthand encounters with soldiers, be my guest. (At one point, he references how the experiences of such vets are worse than what you'd ever see in movies.)

But I don't think Trump was trying to bash suicidal vets here. I think he was trying to offer help. There are plenty of reasons to think he's an awful person. This isn't quite the reason everybody seems to think it is. 

What's so bad about Obama?

Reading the pro-Trump website American Greatness, I come across this comment from Seth Leibsohn:
"There is all the justification in the world for conservatives, Republicans, Independents, and disaffected Democrats to support their one and last chance to stop an experiment in leftism that will rival in power and duration the New Deal and the Great Society."
Which made me wonder: What's been so awful about the last eight years?

Or, to put it another way: Are you better off than you were four years ago?

I'm not a fool: Obama's presidency began in the middle of the Great Recession and America has been somewhat slow to claw its way out of what once looked like a civilization-ending financial disaster. So your life might not be as grand as before the housing bubble burst, but then again — that happened before his watch. Me? It's an iffy question, but I work in a journalism industry that's undergoing generational changes that would be happening no matter who is president.

So. Is your life, personally, worse than it was eight years ago? Poorer in ways that don't measure on a financial statement? And if so, how do you attribute that worsening to President Obama?

My Trumpist Conservative friends seem to think everything's gone to hell. I don't think life is easy for many folks, certainly, but I don't know if most people have that same experience of feeling like we're on the precipice. Maybe I'm wrong. Anybody have answers?

What liberals can learn from conservatives, revisited

A few years ago, I wrote a short column for the Philly Mag website trying to distill what I'd learned from years of close interaction with conservative friends like Ben Boychuk, William Voegeli, and Steve Hayward — three strong ideas of conservatism that, perhaps, liberalism doesn't always get well.

Do the lessons hold up in the age of Trumpism? Let's revisit.
• They’re often better at recognizing the law of unintended consequences: Simply put, the attempt to fix a problem can sometimes end up creating new, unanticipated problems that also need solving. You can, for example, make the case that the federal government’s decision to seriously start fighting wildfires in the last century actually ended up making wildfires … worse. In Boulder, Colo., attempts to rein in that city’s runaway growth have driven housing prices skyward—ruining some of the grassroots charm activists there were trying to preserve.
Conservatives aren’t perfect at applying this principle—see the invasion of Iraq—and sometimes it becomes their excuse to do nothing, but liberals would probably benefit from applying this insight a little more consistently.

Some of this caution, I think, reaches back to the Declaration of Independence — a document whose signers declared revolution, and which also declares that you might not want to do this kind of thing that often. The Declaration says: "Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed."

Does the candidacy of Donald Trump qualify as a revolutionary act? Let's agree, at least, that it's one in which many previous norms — observed by both politicians and the press — have been tossed aside. Whether it amounts to "revolutionary" probably depends on whether he wins.

Here's "Decius," writing at American Greatness, offering his rationale for a Trumpist presidency. "A Trump victory could pave the way to a restoration of proper constitutional government. Note to speed-readers: I said “could.” Hillary surely won’t. Trump might. He at least offers us a chance to begin the process of achieving a restoration for ourselves."

Decius' best rationale for Trump is a "maybe, but maybe not." He sweeps aside talk of the consequences of a Trump administration all too lightly. Do Trump's advocates take the law of unintended consequences seriously here? It appears not.

They’re often better at recognizing that big bureaucracies can become oppressive: Anybody who has dealt with L&I or the city’s revenue department in Philadelphia can probably offer an amen here, as can anybody who has tried to clean up a trashed city-owned lot. It’s why conservatives are against “big government” instead of better government—they believe, not without reason, that bigger government can create problems and badly affect individuals just because of the insidious ways bureaucracies tend to try to claim more power without offering ore accountability.
I don't think even Trump knows his own vision well enough to know if the bureaucracy will grow or shrink during his presidency, so let's move on.

• They have an idea and stick to it: Recognizing there are several varieties of conservatism in this country, what most profess to have in common is a belief in the Founders, the Constitution, and limited government.
Trump is unusual for a Republican in that he hearkens back to the Founders with far less frequency than his predecessors. He's show fealty to specific parts of the Constitution — the Second Amendment — and contempt for others (the First) and done little to offer up any explanation of his Constitution vision. Suffice it to say, though, he's given every indication that he doesn't see any limits to the powers he might have as president. "I alone can fix" America's problems, he says, and that's the not the comment of a man who respects limits on the powers of the presidency.

So. Three years ago I offered three lessons liberals could learn from conservatives. Trumpist Conservatives, it seems, are ignoring or whistling their way past two of those lessons. It's bad for conservatism; I suspect it might be bad for the United States as well.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

The endless rage of the Donald Trump election

Probably this is too personal, too emo, too revelatory, but here we go:

I'm pissed. All the time.

If you're paying close attention to the election, I suspect you are also pissed all the time. But maybe you're not.

It's clear, though, a lot of people are pissed all the time.

Now: Some of this is almost certainly fair. Donald Trump keeps finding new ways to demonstrate he'd be a very poor president. Possibly disastrous. It's rage-inducing to see smart people make implausible arguments for him, or — worse in my view — pretend his candidacy isn't the vehicle for the new ascendancy of white-nationalist anti-semitism it clearly is.

The problem is this: I don't trust my rage.

I don't trust it to help me make sound judgments. I don't trust it to help me deal with people fairly. I don't trust it to help me preserve friendships that I want to last beyond this stupid, stupid election.

On the other hand, I'm also worried that in my caution to keep rage from clouding my vision, I'll stop short of calling out bad things (like anti-Semitism) for what they are.

I have my biases, no doubt. But within those parameters, I do want to be fair to people who think differently from me.

None of this is paralyzing. But it does slow me down. Perhaps that's for the best. In any case: I'm tired of being pissed all the time. There's got to be a better way.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

How to completely destroy Nebraska football in four easy steps.*

1. Be a nearly all-white state.

2. Have a team that relies on African American players to be competitive.

3. Have angry white officials threaten to kick those players off the team for protesting racial injustice. Compound that with "fans" sending lynch threats to those players.

4. Watch the recruiting bonanza come in!

* Yeah, I know. Lots of football today. It's what caught my eye.

George RR Martin predicted the end of football ... back in 1975.

I was trying to remember this afternoon, a story I read in sixth-grade English about how professional sports had declined because people had come to enjoy video simulations of them much more. It struck me as possibly prescient, so I plunged into Google.

Turns out the story, "The Last Superbowl," was written by none other than George RR Martin. *

The story is actually two tales, as he covers the last Superbowl which takes place in January 2016 and interjects the depiction of that Superbowl, between the Green Bay Packers and the Hoboken Jets, and the downfall of real sports. Real sports, in the 2016 of Martin’s fictional world, have been overtaken in popularity by simulated sports. 
Simulated sports are controlled by a computer that can put any team, from any era, against any other for the enjoyment of the spectators. The technology he describes in the computers that control the simulated sports may have been a thing of science fiction in 1974, when I assume he wrote the piece, but here in the real 2015, our computers are powerful enough to create those simulations. Just look at video games like Electronic Arts’ Madden and FIFA series.
The Super Bowl is still pretty popular, and doesn't look to be overtaken by video games this decade, at least. But with growing concerns about what CTE does to the brains of football players — and the dearth of injuries and suicides by digitized players — it's not difficult to see Martin's scenario, or a version of it, coming to pass.

* I thought it had a tremendous amount of gratuitous nudity and sex for a story in a sixth-grade textbook.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Hillary Clinton is the only candidate who can beat Donald Trump.

The conventional wisdom so far is that Hillary Clinton is so personally unpopular that she might be the only Democratic candidate that could lose the presidential race to Donald Trump. I have an alternative theory.

Hillary's the only candidate who can beat Donald Trump, at least this year.

Donald has turned all the subtext of politics into text, and thus — in the primaries, at least — all but turned the campaign into a dick-measuring contest: He beat his GOP opponents mostly by displays of dominance: "Lyin' Ted," "Little Marco," "No Energy Jeb." The TV news coverage looked less like a campaign and more like nature documentary footage of wild predators establishing a clan's alpha male.

Watching Hillary play rope-a-dope tonight — baiting Donald, then watch him bluster and interrupt while she smiled calmly — it occurred to me she's not playing the dick-measuring game. She was content to poke him, then step back and let him reveal his essential nature while she plugged away with a wonk's command of facts, figures, and plans.

The skills she displayed, a million women Tweeted tonight, are the kinds of skills that smart, professional women generally have had to employ in a world full of mansplainers. It's a form of jiujitsu — let the dudes demonstrate their alpha male moves while the women maneuver around the egos and get stuff done.

A traditional male candidate might not be able to beat Donald Trump's dominance displays this year. A woman? One like Hillary who has spent decades maneuvering among alpha male egos at the highest level? She might be the only person who could beat Donald Trump this year.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Let's turn the news into a public utility. Let the BBC be our model.

Another shitty day for local journalism:

I mean, damnit.

We're left with a couple of conclusions:

• The business model for local newspapers has utterly failed.
• The mission of local newspapers is needed, desperately.

So I make a proposal — one I don't think will find much support in a nation used to thinking of "news" as a "business," but one that recognizes that knowing what's going on is vital to our civic health.

It's time to make the news a utility.

I thought for awhile that the model for this should be public radio, with its funding reliant on donors, grants, and some public backing. But I don't think that'll do that trick. Instead, my model is the BBC, where anybody who uses a TV is required to hold a "TV license" that pays the television, radio and online services of the BBC.

Every city, I now believe, should charge a similar licensing fee and use it to create an online news service to serve the local population. The city's governing body would appoint an independent board to oversee operations and insulate the news operation from political pressures. And while the operation would serve as a repository for citizen opinion — comments, letters to the editor, submitted op-eds — it probably wouldn't have an editorial voice the way newspapers do, so as to reduce the odds your local city council unduly influences public opinion. (This doesn't save Yael's job, unfortunately.) 

A publicly funded news operation would cover the meat-and-potatoes: Local government, crime and courts, schools — and covering sports teams of the local schools would probably be part of that — and business.

Oh, and because it's a public operation: Other news outlets, even for-profit outlets, would be able to use the content generated by the Utility News for free.

Is this a perfect solution? Nope. Will it work? I think it's time to get news out of the news business; we've had 20 years to find a business model and so far we really haven't. The information produced by the news business, however, is still needed. It's time to experiment with new forms.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Evening Walk: Venus

Walking in my neighborhood, after dark. It's not lit as well as my old Philadelphia city block — I probably need to buy reflective shoes or something. The app on my phone tells me I have 2,000 steps to go to make my daily goal, so I keep walking, keep walking, keep walking past my house and my path occasionally lit by the occasional street lamp.

Holst's "Venus: Bringer of Peace" is on my headphones. Above, through breaks in the clouds, I can see a star or two — the benefit of reduced light pollution. The darkness and the music go together; I feel like I'm creating or experiencing my own private segment of Walt Disney's "Fantasia" as I move through the neighborhood.

For a moment, the real world and the digital world playing in my head merge. Everything flows.

And then the music ends.

The tragedy of George W. Bush

This picture:

George W. Bush was, to my mind, the biggest failure as president in postwar history — more than Jimmy Carter, more than Richard Nixon. His choices were uniformly wrong. Budget surplus? Let's fritter it away. Terror warning? Ignored. Terror attack? Respond with attack on Iraq. Devastating hurricane? Heckuva job, Brownie. And, finally, he left us with the Great Recession.

But now, we see, that list doesn't even encompass the worst of his legacy.

For all his faults, you see, Bush doesn't strike me as a bad man. And more than any major Republican before him — at least in the post-Civil Rights Era — Bush seemed to want to treat African Americans as part of America: No Child Left Behind, despite its problems, as aimed at improving educational outcomes for blacks. His RNC chairman acknowledged and refuted the GOP's long-running "Southern strategy." And, as has been pointed out elsewhere, he helped get funding for the national museum of African-American history past reluctant Republicans. (In this he was aided by Sam Brownback. Yeah, I'm still struggling with that, too.)

And so I wonder:

If Bush's presidency hadn't been so thoroughly discredited by nearly everything else that happened in Bush's presidency — if he hadn't failed so badly that even Republicans turned their back on him — would we have today's Trumpist GOP, with white nationalism and, yes, racism resonating so strongly with the base of a major political party?

I do believe the surge in white nationalism is, in part, a backlash to America's first black president. But even Barack Obama became inevitable only because of Bush's failures — chiefly, Iraq — and the complicity of his opponents (Hillary, John McCain) in those failures.

So I'm left  pondering: If George W. Bush been a success, might other Republicans view his example on race as part of the template to follow?

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Daniel Pipes, burqa bans, and basic math

Daniel Pipes calls me out at NRO:

I am frustrated that Westerners don’t perceive the obvious point that burqas and niqabs, both of which cover not only the head but the whole body, threaten public security. A person wearing these Islamic garments can be male or female, can carry an assault rifle, and can usually get away with anything anonymously. 
But no, whether it be an intellectual like Martha Nussbaum, a journalist like Joel Mathis, or the many, many voices opining on the recent burkini ban from French beaches, security issues inspire a collective shrug, with almost everyone focused instead on the symbolism of these two garments, whether it be concerning the welcoming of the other, the inhibition of social interaction, or the status of women. 
I'm old enough to remember when National Review was filled with cries for religious liberty.

But I digress. This argument goes back a couple of years, to when a man in a burqa robbed a Philadelphia bank, and Pipes — per usual — offered it as a reason we need to make Muslims act like the Rest of Us.

The problem is, he's right. This particular issue, so far at least, deserves a bit of a shrug.


I expected that my compilation of burqa- and niqab-assisted crimes and acts of political violence going back nearly fifteen years and now about 150 incidents long, would convince any sensible observer of the public security problem.
Let's do the math.

One hundred fifty incidents in 15 years. That's 10 incidents a year.

And Pipes is taking his examples from around the world, not just Philadelphia, or not even a single country. Which means he's drawing on a world population of 6 billion, more or less, in which those 10 incidents are produced.

What's the per capita number, then, on those incidents per year? It's not quite zero, but it's pretty damn close.

So for a problem that, by Pipes' own statistics, is so small as to be unobservable if he hadn't set out to observe it, Pipes would have us deprive millions of Muslim women the right to make their own religious choices.

I don't buy it.