Saturday, July 01, 2017

Distractions from the Ominous

There are two interpretations of the malicious tweeting and pervasive lying by the apprentice dictator in the White House.  The first and the most frequent is that he is out of control, impulsive and unhinged.  Richard Wolffe's column represents this point of view,  but he is one among many.  Some suggests this mania has increased since inauguration.

The other point of view is expressed most eloquently by Rachel Maddow.  She proposes that his attention-getting outrages are strategic, unleashed when the a.d. needs media attention to move away from more damaging stories, such as the latest in the Russia connection, or the sordid healthcare bill mess.

Update: There is a second "strategy" that has also been mentioned recently: the political one of playing to his base, which is fairly small, but it multiplies by being the core of the Republican party which reflexively follows it.  This strategy makes the most sense when filtered through Fox News and the rabid right radio rants.

The question also can be raised about most of the current regime's actions.  By and large they have been bumbling, so badly structured that major pieces of them fall apart immediately, or totally deceptive in that they are at best p.r. releases, not actionable orders or legislation.

For instance, the White House commission request to obtain detailed data on all individual voters in all the states.  For various reasons, including contradictory statements on how this data will be used (made public?  locked up tight?) most states have so far refused--some colorfully:

The pushback was bipartisan: The Mississippi secretary of state, Delbert Hosemann, a Republican, said Friday that he had not received a request from the commission, but colorfully suggested he would not honor one if it came.

“My reply would be: They can go jump in the Gulf of Mexico, and Mississippi is a great state to launch from,” Mr. Hosemann said in a statement. “Mississippi residents should celebrate Independence Day and our state’s right to protect the privacy of our citizens by conducting our own electoral processes.”

The stated intent of gathering this information is to investigate whether there was widespread fraudulent voting in the last election, for which there is zero evidence and which only the apprentice dictator believes happened.

Is this omnivorous demand for data just another product of pique (to justify the absurd assertion that he would have won the popular vote but for fraud) in the usual blunt overkill manner?  Or is it strategic?  And to what end?

The reason many see is to further the GOP crusade to suppress voting when it might be against them. There are other possibilities just as sinister and perhaps even more so.  What if this detailed data is funneled only to the GOP, to target misinformation and other political dirty tricks to the most vulnerable?  Such an operation is reportedly part of the Russian connection investigation.

On an even larger scale, besides being a goldmine for thieves that should outrage everyone (for the request includes last four digits of S.S. #) is it a database for more general suppression?  It is the kind and extent of information a dictator needs for his secret police.

So which is it--insanity or strategic genius?  There's no way to know, so it's best to concentrate on what the actual effects are--that is, for the effects that don't depend on knowing the answer.  Because in a sense it doesn't matter.

Whether outrageous tweets are designed to change the subject, they in fact do, and that must be resisted.  People can point out the shocking and deeply sad damage to the presidency and the country that they cause, but the subject doesn't have to dominate every news and cable show for several news cycles, nor need it be the subject of every opinion column and analysis.

Similarly, the resistance to this outrageous demand for voter data--backed by the apprentice dictator's Nixonian, HUAC, dictator-like statement (what are they hiding?)--is necessary for whatever the reason for it was.  The attention should be, as it has been so far, on the possible effects that cannot be risked.

And it is important to go back and find those stories that have been obscured, as Rachel did when she also mentioned the defunding of the federal Election Assistance Commission, which is the only federal agency working with the states on cybersecurity of voting machines and other aspects of the election process.

Another related, undercovered story is that Homeland Security has refused to check voting machines to see if any were hacked during the 2016 election, even as concern over Russian interference increases.

These acts, when taken together and placed beside the suspicions still being investigated concerning collusion with a foreign dictatorship to determine an electoral outcome, are ominous fragments suggesting a very dark future for U.S. democracy.

Devilish Details

Sometimes the devilish details are small but irksome.  Nevertheless they change or obscure meanings, and that always means something.

A little verbal sloppiness seems to intrude more often on Internet posts than they used to in print.  I wonder if this is part of some weird Internet ethic that says you can't have editors or editing.  There is this tradition now that every time a post is changed, the change has to be noted.  Why?  I edit posts for clarity any number of times. As I believe I should.

The esteemed Jonathan Chait is trenchant as usual in his column on the week's major revelation about the Russian connection.  But near the beginning there's this sentence:

That line of defense is likely to disappear now that The Wall Street Journal has reported that Peter Smith, a Republican opposition researcher who said he was working for Michael Flynn, colluded with Russian hackers to try to obtain stolen emails from Hillary Clinton.

But that Flynn "colluded with Russian hackers to try to obtain stolen emails from Hillary Clinton" is not what he meant--at least I don't think so. If I'm correct, they didn't try to obtain anything from Hillary Clinton.  They tried to obtain emails that were stolen from Hillary Clinton. There's a big difference, and while his meaning may be eventually clear in context, the sentence is needlessly confusing.  It stopped me cold anyway.  (And Chiat wasn't the only one to make this mistake.)

Or the group of moderate Republicans that issued an important statement on the R budget, as reported by Politico.  They concluded: “[A]bsent such a bipartisan, bicameral agreement, we are reticent to support any budget resolution on the House floor,” the letter reads.

"Reticent" is an odd word to use, since it usually means not inclined to speak.  While not speaking in favor of the resolution is part of the meaning, the more accurate word to describe what they mean is "reluctant."  They are reluctant to support the budget resolution.  That's plenty mealy-mouth for politicians without being bewildering as well.

But devilish details can also be quite big.  For instance, a lot of verbiage can obscure some important numbers.

In an eloquent column on the Republican healthcare proposals, Paul Krugman provides a broad if shocking understanding of the basic cruelty at the heart of Republican policy.  But several numbers he uses to make his case deserve to stand alone, especially as they are not usually included in stories about the Senate bill.

The numbers are these:

Percentage of tax cuts in this bill that will go to Americans with incomes of over $1 million:  40%

Percentage their income will rise due to these tax cuts: 2%

Estimate of the number of otherwise preventable deaths that will be caused by provisions of this bill:  200,000

Friday, June 30, 2017

My 71st Year

My 71st Year

After surmounting three-score and ten,
With all their chances, changes, losses, sorrows,
My parents' deaths, the vagaries of my life, the many tearing
   passions of me, the war of '63 and '4,
As some old broken soldier, after a long, hot, wearying march,
  or haply after battle.
To-day at twilight, hobbling, answering company roll-call,
   Here, with vital voice,
Reporting yet, saluting yet the Officer over all.

Walt Whitman

Thursday, June 29, 2017

The New American Flag

Click to enlarge. Captured from the Washington Post

Another Article of Impeachment

In the almost universal condemnation of our apprentice dictator's latest tweets, many people--especially Republicans--used the phrase "beneath the dignity" of the presidency.

It's worse than that, and eventually these tweets are going to appear in an article of impeachment, or should, under the charge "conduct detrimental to the presidency."

If such articles are written, there will likely be others of more obvious weight, such as obstruction of justice and dereliction of duty (for failing to confront Russian interference in American elections) as well as some fancier way of saying profiteering from the presidency.

But this will be one, or should be.  Because destroying the credibility of the presidency, the representative of our country to the world, is no laughing matter.


Ever since his post on May 10 about Hospice help on his Fred's Humboldt Blog, I've checked local sites and googled his name every week or so, but for some reason I didn't see his June 1 obituary until today.

I never met Fred Mangels and didn't know him personally, only as a Humboldt blogger.  He and I were in the first group of bloggers hereabouts.  Fred reached out to the rest of us and stayed interested---the last time he commented on a post here was just a few months ago.  It was a small group back then, and such was Fred's standing that a half dozen or so of us contributed to buy him a new computer when he sorely needed one.

Fred inspired a certain affection even among those of us who really didn't share his politics.  His blogging voice was unaffected and direct, his approach personal and sincere.  He wrote mostly about local politics and libertarian issues, but he also wrote about daily concerns and other local matters.

In recent years Fred and I had a teasing relationship.  He changed the name of my blog on his blogroll to "Bill's Obama blog."  I changed his on mine to "Fred's Climate Crisis Denial blog."  When he commented here on an Obama post-presidency post, I promised regular posts on the subject just for him.

I may be wrong but Fred and I may have been the only bloggers left of that original group.  Fred's blog was more of a local institution and got aggregated locally.  His blog and his voice will be missed.  May he rest in peace.

Two Books That Changed The World

2017 is an anniversary year for two novels that changed the world in recent times.  It's intriguing to consider them together.

Although it would not be until the early 1970s that One Hundred Years of Solitude created a sensation in English speaking countries, the novel in Spanish by Gabriel Garcia Marquez published as Cien Anos De Soledad fifty years ago in 1967 began its conquest of the world in his native South America.

 In his recent Vanity Fair article, Paul Elie writes:
"The novel came off the press in Buenos Aires on May 30, 1967, two days before Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released, and the response among Spanish-language readers was akin to Beatlemania: crowds, cameras, exclamation points, a sense of a new era beginning."

"Eight thousand copies sold in the first week in Argentina alone, unprecedented for a literary novel in South America. Laborers read it. So did housekeepers and professors—and prostitutes: the novelist Francisco Goldman recalls seeing the novel on the bedside table in a coastal bordello. García Márquez traveled to Argentina, to Peru, to Venezuela, on its behalf."

But that was just the beginning. Eventually One Hundred Years of Solitude was translated into 37 languages, and had the same effect almost everywhere.  "It’s the book that redefined not just Latin-American literature but literature, period,” insists Ilan Stavans, the pre-eminent scholar of Latino culture in the U.S., who says he has read the book 30 times.

Its broad appeal to that first South American readership--from the literati to laborers, was echoed everywhere.  I remember discussing it with Ted Solotaroff, then editor of the New American Review and a renowned champion of new writers.  His face lit up, and neither of us could keep from smiling.  For the next several years, when young women, from artists to waitresses asked me to recommend a book (partly because I was the book review editor for the Boston Phoenix and taught a course on new books) I always named this one.  I gave copies as gifts.  It never missed.  Never.

This is a book that created rapture.

"Unofficially, it’s everybody’s favorite work of world literature and the novel that, more than any other since World War II, has inspired novelists of our time," Elie asserts.  His article quotes several writers on their response.

Marquez won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982 and wrote many other distinguished books.  His voice remains unmistakable throughout.  But One Hundred Years of Solitude remains unique, with the same power to amaze and enchant new readers fifty years later.

Twenty years ago a novel for children was published in England called Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by a new author, now known as J.K. Rowling. While almost immediately successful, the book itself assumed a special significance as the beginning of a series that became an unparalleled global phenomenon.

It also reached a breadth of readers, most notably in terms of age.  First and foremost the Harry Potter books were enormously popular with children, who grew along with Harry and the series.  But soon--perhaps with the second or third book--adults became readers almost as fanatical.  Margaret and I were introduced to the series by adult friends, and like them, we made a ritual of reading them aloud to each other.  Eventually we awaited each new volume with our version of the same enthusiasm as young readers.

These were books that created rapture.

One Hundred Years of Solitude and the Harry Potter series share some fascinating aspects.  Both stories came to their authors all at once, on moving vehicles (Marquez in a car, Rowling on a train.)  Both combine the ordinary with the magical, the recognizable with the mythic.  Both have memorable characters, memorable incidents and scenes, and strong stories.  They contain the major milestones of life--birth, marriage, children, death--and the major relationships--parents or parent figures and children, lovers and friends.

 Though one is a kind of cosmic tragedy and the other a comedy (ending in marriages, as Shakespeare's comedies do) in which good triumphs over evil at a cost, they both create capacious, credible worlds that include the incredible.  Their worlds in general conception are strikingly imaginative and unique, bringing the new back to the novel. Moreover within these worlds the narrative reveals one surprising invention after another, in details, characters and story, that have captured the imaginations of readers for as long as they've been books.

 Both deal with big themes and with the larger world, including the political world, its issues and consequences.  But even in their worlds apart, they do so through characters who are not in positions of power.

Both are literary works, with debts to many earlier writers (Marquez idolized Faulkner and thought of himself as a journalist, Rowling reminded me first of the British children's writer E. Nesbit and in later books, as her characters got older and the world more sophisticated, I thought of Jane Austen and others.)

A teenager visiting Arcata from England became
the Harry Potter stand-in for the midnight release party
at Northtown Books for the last Potter book.
And yes, I was there. 
But above all they each have an unmistakable and individual voice--the rhythm of words and sentences and paragraphs, the narrative tone--that carried the writer and then the reader forward as a confidant.

Like all major successes, timing and luck and the right people helping them played a part.  But above many others, these two books argue for the undeniability of work so transcendent that its success seems only natural if not inevitable.  In a world with more than enough horror, these are welcome wonders. I'm grateful to have them, and to have been there to see them happen over their lifetimes so far.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Tipping Point of Cruelty

Update 6/27: Senate Republican leadership withdrew their Kill Obamacare and the People It Serves bill from immediately going to the floor for debate and a vote when it became clear that not enough Rs supported this first step.  The next opportunity comes in two weeks, after negotiations with key Senators may result in a revised bill.  The nail in the coffin of this bill appears to be the Congressional Budget Office estimate that 22 million Americans would lose coverage.  Meanwhile opposition is growing, both from healthcare related organizations, including the American Medical Association, and voters, who may have the opportunity to move their demonstrations from Senate offices to the home districts during the Fourth of July break.  Laurence O'Donnell and guests on his show suggest that the bill actually had the support of from 5 to 20 or 30 Republicans, which would seem to make getting to 50 an uphill climb.

This piece of video is amazing, one of the best sequences I've ever seen on Rachel Maddow.  It starts as a mundane story about the upcoming Fourth of July weekend, and what happened in Denver in 1978 on a similar weekend, with the 4th on a Tuesday.  It then becomes a story of a successful social justice campaign, that over a scandalously long time, won rights for the disabled--providing them the liberty of free movement on public transportation.

Then it comes up against the current Senate Kill Obamacare and the People It Serves bill, specifically the draconian cuts in Medicaid which will devastate the lives of a large proportion of the disabled.

The climax of this piece is a bit of video of disabled demonstrators outside the offices of Senator McConnell that is heartbreaking and haunting.  The woman being dragged away while pleading "Don't touch Medicaid!" is very powerful video.

This segment illustrates and suggests why this bill is the tipping point of cruelty.  If it passes, it will change America more than any single act of this regime, and tips the future into a very ugly place.

Medicaid is the insurer for a third of disabled adults and 60% of disabled children (and 40% of all children.)  Medicaid insures nearly half the births in America.  Medicaid is by far the largest health insurance provider in the United States--75 million Americans--much bigger than Medicare.

And here's what Republicans are trying to do:

Washington Post:
"Congressional budget analysts plan to issue their projections as early as Monday on the legislation’s impact on the federal deficit and the number of Americans with insurance coverage. Already, proponents and critics alike are predicting that the Senate proposal would lead to greater reductions through the Medicaid changes than the estimated $834 billion estimated for a similar bill passed by House Republicans last month."

This is almost incredible, as most observers assumed the Senate bill will moderate the crude brutality of the House bill.  But this one is worse, particularly on Medicaid.

 Medicaid is not only enormously important, it is also popular with the American public.  The Post again:

"Part of the pressure the moderates now face is that Medicaid consistently draws widespread support in surveys. A poll released Friday by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that three-fourths of the public, including 6 in 10 Republicans, said they have a positive view of the program. Just a third of those polled said they supported the idea of reducing federal funding for the expansion or limiting how much money a state receives for all beneficiaries.

Even among Republicans, the foundation found, only about half favor reversing the federal money for Medicaid expansion."

The money that the federal government won't pay into Medicaid goes directly to a tax cut for the wealthy.

America's first social programs may not have been purely or even largely motivated by compassion.  In the 1930s, even the bankers worried about revolution.  But FDR's programs, including Social Security, put social justice on the agenda, and gave permission to politicians to act decently.

When Michael Harrington published his landmark book on poverty in the early 60s, he estimated that a fourth of the population was below the poverty line.  Dwight McDonald, in his review of the book in the New Yorker, suggested that in practical terms it was more.

Harrington's book caught the attention of President Kennedy, who had already proposed the program that became Medicare.  Kennedy identified poverty as the domestic issue he would emphasize in his reelection campaign in 1964.  Following his lead and using his memory to get it passed, President Johnson got enacted the programs that made up his War on Poverty.

For awhile, poverty did decrease. But with the additions and subtractions of programs and especially the rapid changes in the economy affecting jobs and incomes, poverty--especially child poverty--has increased, and many Americans are living so close to the edge that nearly 40% could not sustain an emergency costing just $400.

The expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare was the single most important social justice effort in decades, as it provided medical care for the most vulnerable, especially poor and disabled Americans.  The Senate bill erases the expansion, and limits Medicaid in ways certain to decrease coverage and increase harm.  Here's a pretty good summary from, of all places, Cosmopolitan.

The Senate version, should it become law, will directly threaten the independence and the very lives of the disabled and the elderly requiring care beyond Medicare.  Many more will be hurt.  In the long run it will increase poverty in America.

Harrington's book is called The Other America. Poverty in the 50s and 60s was hidden outside the mainstream, in urban ghettos among people of color, and in isolated rural areas--in Appalachia for instance--where poverty was often white.  (Even today most welfare and Medicaid beneficiaries are white.)

Today there is homelessness everywhere that would have been a scandal in the 50s but which has become invisible except as nuisance or threat.  Major parts of cities like Detroit look like the bombed out streets of European countries after World War II.  And rural poverty is widespread again, if it ever abated.

But as two new books from Princeton U. Press (reviewed here and in the June 22 issue of New York Review of Books) describe the greater extent of economic vulnerability.  Because of volatility in jobs and incomes, fully a third of all Americans are living below the poverty line for at least one month of the year. Costs of necessities have risen enormously in just the past decade.  Social programs are generally not flexible enough to respond.  They need to be improved, not destroyed.

Social justice movements made injustices painfully visible.  With this Senate bill it may be happening again.

If this bill passes, it will pave the way for more self-defeating cruelty in the proposed Republican budget.  But more immediately, this Senate bill will devastate not only the lives of the most vulnerable, but the American soul.