Friday, January 20, 2017

The blind spots of Donald Trump

WHAT ophthalmologists call “scotomas” we call blind spots. Donald Trump, the presumptive 45th president of the United States, has displayed their political and rhetorical equivalents from the start of his public life, and certainly from the start of the campaign that has led him — improbably, shockingly — to this day, hours from assuming the Oval Office.

The 17 months of his scorched-earth campaign were an extension of the contractual, mathematical, business world he knows intimately, the world he lives and breathes, a world in which he takes no prisoners and brooks no dissent. When he wrote (in his 2000 book “The America We Deserve”) that “I'm a good businessman and I can be amazingly unsentimental when I need to be,” he was telling us in no uncertain terms exactly what moves him, and exactly the kind of unemotional, first-blush world view we can expect from a Trump administration.

Call it Trump’s lack of vision thing. It’s a blinkered view of the nation, reflexive, tirelessly transactional and sadly incomplete, one in which the people of America won’t be citizens as much as minions, operatives in the vastest empire Trump has ever imagined.

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Trump failed to inspire the broad, ecumenical response he claimed to want from the American electorate. The 2.8-million-vote shortfall of the election was the first evidence of that; the dozens of protests around the country since Election Day — and the protests bubbling in Washington today and tomorrow — are and will be more visceral proof of the same thing.

When Trump bellowed “I am your voice!” at the panoramic 20-car pileup of a Republican convention this summer, that was his reach for Americans in the aggregate. When protesters across the country carried signs that read “NOT MY PRESIDENT” the day after the election, it was their way of saying his bid for that wider acceptance had utterly failed. That’s the country he’ll inherit today at noon.

During his campaign, Trump capitalized on the blind spots of his supporters, and their inability to see the country the way it is, the way it’s been evolving. Their highly vocal desire to turn back the clock to an America that only nominally existed to begin with is a sad short-sightedness that hearkens back to an imagined white supremacy, back to the days of blacks and minorities “knowing their place.”

That inability (or unwillingness) to see this nation clearly was indelibly captured in Trump’s own campaign slogan “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.” As though the country hadn’t ever been great. As though the country isn’t great today. As if Donald Trump were the only human being in the 325 million who live here who could retrieve that hypothetically absent greatness from an equally hypothetical abyss.

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THE TRUMPIAN absence of vision extends to the marching orders for his own fledgling administration. The Donald has tapped several multimillionaires and billionaires to serve in the Trump Cabinet, but whatever office they will hold, whatever jobs they’ll do will first be focused on rolling back the myriad achievements of President Obama. Trump doesn’t see the folly built into that pursuit.

To spend the first year to 18 months of an administration undoing the work of your predecessor in the White House — repealing this, replacing that, mothballing one agency or another, overturning one executive order or another — is to validate that predecessor’s work by proxy. That’s not the same as advancing your own agenda. Not even close.

Undoing the eight years of Obama administration achievements and policies was at the heart of the pledges Trump made throughout his campaign. That was the red meat he threw to crowds at campaign rallies, with both hands, and the crowds couldn’t get enough. It’s the same diet he’s trying to feed to the American people via Twitter right now. Trump hasn’t made the pivot from that behavior, fine for a campaign, to the actions reflecting a grasp of governing. And that will lead to his undoing.

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Earlier this month, Michael Kruse of Politico surveyed some of Trump’s biographers, people who are in the best position (besides his wife and his children) to know what makes Donald John Trump tick. Their insights are troubling.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

2,922 days: Barry O drops the mic

“This is the terra incognita our nation was meant to be. This is, now, finally, the America that America has been waiting for.”
                                             Short Sharp Shock, Jan. 20, 2009

ON JANUARY 20, 2009, when Barack Hussein Obama II reset the baseline of American possibility to become the 44th president of the United States of America, he became heir to a cratering economy, the stewardship of two foreign wars (one of them wholly unnecessary), and an image of America as tireless global belligerent, a nation ethically adrift and divided.

In the intervening 2,922 days, and in the face of Republican lawmakers less concerned with being loyal than being the opposition, President Obama has transformed much of the nation’s political landscape and its internal terrain, the nation’s own most deeply ingrained sense of what is possible.

It’s the height of a cruel irony that Donald Trump, the next to occupy the White House starting on Friday at noon, is himself a beneficiary of Obama’s abiding maxim: When you believe in yourself, anything can be accomplished. Such was the nature, the all-encompassing power of a message meant for everyone.

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What’s happened since January 2009? Only everything. The economy has seen the lowest unemployment rate since January 2007, and (as of December) 82 straight months of private-sector job growth.

The nation saw an end of one war and a serious drawdown in forces in the other. The American auto industry was taken off the respirator and returned to profitability, as automakers revitalized the American brand in the marketplace with the help of an unprecedented stimulus package.

President Obama commuted the terms of 1,715 people enduring “unjust and outdated prison sentences” for drug offenses. He enhanced vehicle fuel efficiency standards, increased infrastructure spending, slashed the homeless rate of veterans, increased funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs, signed legislation to curb pay discrimination against women, leveled the playing field between consumers and credit-card issuers, and made it a federal crime to assault people based on sexual or gender identification.

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HE TOOK OUT Osama bin Laden with special forces troops, he took on Wall Street with the Dodd-Frank Consumer Protection Act, averting the financial meltdown many of his supporters feared and most of his detractors had predicted; he gave new teeth and urgency and visibility to the drive for LGBT marriage equality. And with the Affordable Care Act, he got health insurance into the hands, and lives, of more than 23 million Americans.

He was a champion of technology, the first president to stream every White House event live, and the first to hold an online town hall, fielding questions direct from the public. He oversaw a major overhaul of the nation’s food safety, and signed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, to boost nutrition for schoolchildren.

He signed a law that changes outmoded language that referred to some minority groups in archaic terms. He changed fair-housing laws to make home ownership an attainable dream. And he officially eliminated a Muslim registry established in the days after 9/11 — a registry that, thanks to Obama’s efforts, will be harder for his successor to resurrect.

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But in addition to alla this — doing half of it would have made him a consequential president — Barack Obama did more. With Michelle Obama, his partner in life and in national transformation, President Obama imbued and invested the White House with a sense of style, grace and cultural cool that the People’s House hasn’t enjoyed since the Kennedy Administration.

Everyone who was anyone showed up at or played the 1600 Pennsylvania Club, from rappers to rockers, poets to painters. Kendrick Lamar and Mick Jagger. James Taylor and Jay Z. Trombone Shorty and Esperanza Spalding. Lin-Manuel Miranda and Demi Lovato. The list goes way on and on.

And it wasn’t just their appearances that mattered. The president made his own history with playlists of his own musical favorites. It’s a little ironic: The president who publicly pushed back on identification as a black president had a personal music collection that borrowed from the best of African American music.

And other music too: Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes? Fiona Apple? They won’t show up on most bruthas’ playlists at all — bet that. Barry brought them and more to his musical welcome table, in a cultural extension of his panoramic perspective of the nation itself.

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AS MUCH AS anything, Barack Obama showed the presidency how to relax, how to balance the awesome responsibilities of being the indispensable world leader with the rhythms of everyday life. The sang-froid, the emotional equipoise he brought to the presidency was no act. Jonathan Chait tapped into this more than two years ago, in New York Magazine:

“The president’s infuriating serenity, his inclination to play Spock even when the country wants a Captain Kirk, makes him an unusual kind of leader. But it is obvious why Obama behaves this way: He is very confident in his idea of how history works and how, once the dust settles, he will be judged. For Obama, the long run has been a source of comfort from the outset. ...

“To his critics, Obama is unable to attend to the theatrical duties of his office because he lacks a bedrock emotional connection with America. It seems more likely that he is simply unwilling to: that he is conducting his presidency on the assumption that his place in historical memory will be defined by a tabulation of his successes minus his failures. And that tomorrow’s historians will be more rational and forgiving than today’s political commentators.”

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I wrote this on Election Night 2008: “For the first time at this nation’s highest elective level, the Idea of America has fully become Praxis and become so in a way that is, more by intent than coincidence, the single greatest act of bridging the racial divide in the history of this nation.”

Writing in The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates observed of that heady time and the years that followed: “We were launched into the Obama era with no notion of what to expect, if only because a black presidency had seemed such a dubious proposition. There was no preparation, because it would have meant preparing for the impossible. There were few assessments of its potential import, because such assessments were regarded as speculative fiction. ...

“[H]e had not embarrassed his people with a string of scandals. Against the specter of black pathology, against the narrow images of welfare moms and deadbeat dads, his time in the White House had been an eight-year showcase of a healthy and successful black family spanning three generations, with two dogs to boot. In short, he became a symbol of black people’s everyday, extraordinary Americanness. ...

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Lions of resistance

WITH THE COUNTDOWN to the great unknown now underway — 48 hours or so — it’s important to be on the record with statements made by certain champions of an America we may be about to lose, or at least an America that is literally two days from being under siege like never before.

Days away from the inauguration of a president we’d already just as soon forget, two people in Congress recently took on the roles of drum majors for justice — like the man whose name graces the weekend that just ended, the man whose life’s work may have never been more necessary than now.

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and Georgia Rep. John Lewis spoke before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Jan. 11,  against the confirmation of closet segregationist Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions to be the next Attorney General.

It’s a special kind of rhetorical fighter who’ll stand in the ring with his principles when the odds (and the other fighter) are massively stacked against him. That’s what it’s like for Democrats in Congress right now. The battle against Sessions’ confirmation was going to be uphill from the jump; Democrats knew that going in. But Booker and Lewis brought their A games to Capitol Hill, with words that shouldn’t be forgotten. They spoke last week. So what? Their message, their passion will be worth remembering years from now.

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BOOKER SPOKE first in an appearance that broke with Senate tradition; it’s very uncommon for a sitting senator to speak out against another one in a confirmation for a Cabinet post.

“In a choice between standing with Senate norms or standing up for what my conscience tells me is best for our country, I will always choose conscience and country,” he said.

“Sen. Sessions has not demonstrated a commitment to a central requisite of the job: to aggressively pursue the congressional mandate of civil rights, equal rights, and justice for all of our citizens,” Booker said. “In fact, at numerous times in his career, he has demonstrated a hostility towards these convictions and has worked to frustrate attempts to advance these ideals.”

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“The arc of the moral universe does not just naturally curve toward justice, we must bend it,” he said. “America needs an attorney general who is resolute and determined to bend the arc. Sen. Sessions record does not speak to that desire, intention or will.”

“The next attorney general must bring hope and healing to this country,” Booker said. “This demands a more courageous empathy than his record demonstrates. ... Law and order without justice is unobtainable. They are inextricably tied together. If there is no justice, there is no peace."

Some have proposed that with his testimony last Wednesday, Booker was laying the groundwork for a possible 2020 run at the White House.

“By taking this extraordinary measure, he is showing that he could have the chops to lead the party, be our standard bearer in 2020 and, at a minimum, it helps define the resistance to Trump’s agenda at this critical time,” said Brad Bauman, the former executive director of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, to However true that might be, it doesn’t undercut the power of Booker’s testimony.

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LEWIS HARBORS no such desire for higher office. A veteran of the crucible era of civil rights, the Georgia congressman expressed fears that Sessions’ confirmation would mean rolling back “decades of progress and the return to the dark past.”

“We can pretend that the law is blind. We can pretend that it is even-handed. But if we are honest with ourselves, we know that we are called upon daily by the people we represent to help them deal with unfairness in how the law is written and enforced. Those who are committed to equal justice in our society wonder whether Sen. Sessions’ call for law and order will mean today what it meant in Alabama, when I was coming up back then. The rule of law was used to violate the human and civil rights of the poor, the dispossessed, people of color.

“I was born in rural Alabama — not very far from where Senator Sessions was raised. There was no way to escape or deny the chokehold of discrimination and racial hate that surrounded us. I saw the signs that said ‘White Waiting, Colored Waiting.’ I saw the signs that said ‘White Men,’ ‘Colored Men,’ ‘White Women,’ ‘Colored Women.’ I tasted the bitter fruits of segregation and racial discrimination.

“We have come a distance. We have made progress, but we are not there yet. There are forces that want to take us back to another place. We don’t want to go back. We want to go forward.

“It doesn’t matter whether Sen. Sessions may smile or how friendly he may be, whether he may speak to you. We need someone who will stand up and speak up and speak out for the people who need help, for people who are being discriminated against. And it doesn’t matter whether they are black or white, Latino, Asian or Native American, whether they are straight or gay, Muslim, Christian or Jews We all live in the same house, the American house. We need someone as attorney general who is going to look for all of us, not just some of us.”

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It’s a sign of how historically tone-deaf the president-presumptive is already that, after Lewis’ testimony, The Donald took to Twitter three days later, to offer his opinion (in a rare two-part tweet):

“Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to......mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results," Trump tweeted Saturday. “All talk, talk, talk -- no action or results. Sad!”

Sadder still is a president-apparent whose grasp of the national history, history he lived through, is so weak, so indifferent, so antagonistic to the truth. Action, he wants? Results? Trump only needs to look at the nation whose stewardship he will briefly inherit — a country uplifted by Lewis’ actions and empowered by his results — to see how wrong he is.

image credits: Booker and Lewis: CNN. Lewis bottom: Jackson (Miss) Police Department.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Donald Trump, the necessary unnecessary apprentice

DONALD TRUMP’S chilly longtime catchphrase, the one he rode to power and prominence in the world of reality TV not so long ago, has been too much and too long a fact of American life since the Great Recession, a time when irony and schadenfreude have become not-so-strange bedfellows in our politics.

The Donald assumes the presidency at noon eastern time one week from today, taking the helm of the world’s oldest popularly-elected representative democracy. Ironically, it’s at that moment of great national importance, pompous and circumstantial, when Trump’s stock begins to fall in value. It’s that time when the wish for calamity to befall him and others — schadenfreude — will start to be granted, and not just by his political opposites.

That’s when, in some and several ways that will not be readily comfortable for the Republican Party leadership to admit, the political and electoral services of Donald John Trump will begin to no longer be required.

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After he takes the oath of office, he’ll have done what they needed him to do at the start of his campaign: win back the White House, energize the base and advance the right-wing social agenda.

Like any good contract worker, Trump will have fulfilled the terms of his (18-month) contract. He’ll then be in a position to hand off what he’s done so far — and you’ve done so very much, Donald — to the professionals, the ones who know politics and government like Trump knows hotels and casinos ... and buh-bye. Mission accomplished, sir. Leave your cardkey with the receptionist.

This, in practical political terms, is one reason why the event horizon for the Trump administration is likely to be a short one. The other, deeper reason is statutorial. When a president is gravely, constitutionally wounded from the literal dawn of his time in the White House, any hope of really governing is a waste of time. Passing the muster of adherence to the United States Constitution tops everything else; that fact may not be immediately apparent, but sooner or later, it will be, and it’ll be unavoidably apparent when it is.

When a president is a constitutional transgressor the way Trump is— brandishing a flat-out disregard for the boundaries of our founding document, the operator’s manual of the United States government — it makes his hold on the presidency that much more tenuous, and his tenure in the office that much more of a liability to a Republican Party that doesn’t need any more headaches.

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THE HEADACHES that Trump presents are hardly theoretical. His unwillingness to relinquish control over his vast global holdings are a violation of the Emoluments Clause of the United States Constitution, and pose a clear and present danger to, first of all, his administration’s integrity.

A Nov. 17 letter signed by numerous government ethics attorneys said that “whatever the personal discomfort caused, there is no acceptable alternative—and your duties to the American people now must prevail over your personal ties to the Trump Organization businesses.”

“If Mr. Trump does not place his business assets into a genuine blind trust, the conflicts of interest will become so extensive that they will undermine not only the credibility of his Administration but of the United States,” wrote Paul S. Ryan, vice president of policy and litigation for Common Cause, an established government-ethics watchdog organization.

“Turning your businesses over to your children is what leaders of Banana Republics do," Ryan wrote. “Americans expect and deserve better from the Trump Administration.”

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The chorus for change isn’t strictly partisan. A Nov. 17 editorial in the conservative-leaning Wall Street Journal said this: “One reason 60 million voters elected Donald Trump is because he promised to change Washington’s culture of self-dealing, and if he wants to succeed he’s going to have to make a sacrifice and lead by example. ...

“Mr. Trump’s best option is to liquidate his stake in the company ... If Mr. Trump doesn’t liquidate, he will be accused of a pecuniary motive any time he takes a policy position. ...

The Journal editorial continued: “Along the way Mr. Trump could expose himself to charges, however unfair, that he is violating the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, which prohibits public officials from accepting gifts or payment from foreign governments. ...”

“The presidential stakes are too high for Mr. Trump to let his family business become a daily political target.”

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AS A NEOPHYTE, Trump has already proven to be that most unreliable politician-in-training: one who manages to confound low expectations and bottle the lightning once, and only once, over the course of a campaign with many unforced errors, each one more breathtakingly unbelievable than the one before. He has no standing with the political class in Washington, no affinities or old-school ties that might at least endear him to politicos on that fraternal basis.

As his supporters will tell you forever, much of his qualification for the White House rests with being a political outsider, and presumably heir to the fresh eyes and perspective that an outsider — pretty much a newcomer by definition – would ideally bring to the Oval Office and its vast powers and responsibilities.

Trump and his acolytes championed the virtue of The Donald as exogenous change agent, but his outsider status was never a real qualification in the first place. When he takes the oath of office, that “qualification” becomes instantly irrelevant.

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So the outsider meme of the Trump campaign — initially a philosophical stalking horse for the consummate political operatives (insiders) ready to set up shop in the White House — has outlived its usefulness. When the outsider becomes an insider, the value of the outsider persona drops, in political terms, to almost nothing.

And the outsider identity Trump used to bull his way into office is actually problematic right now. His scorched-earth style of leadership is antagonistic to the more procedural mechanics of Washington politics. The two don't mix already.

LA Weekly: Day Laborers Have Become
an Easy Target for Anti-Immigrant Vigilantes

MANY THINGS precede the actual beginning of a presidency; in the case of the looming dawn of the Trump administration, that’s meant the dawn of a raw ugliness deliberately targeting the most vulnerable of those who walk among us.

In the current LA Weekly, Jason McGahan has this week’s cover story, a smart, compelling, compassionate, informative piece on the plight of Los Angeles’ day laborers, increasingly being singled out by vigilantes, this part of a backlash against the immigrants in the most precarious situations, a backlash that marks its timeline from the presidential election.

McGahan’s well-researched story explores the lives of some of these immigrants, from Guatemala and Mexico, and examines the role of Los Angeles police and the federal government, and the corrosive ways the advent of the Trump White House has damaged their already precarious lives before the administration is even a fact of life.

“President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to deport from the United States as many as 3 million undocumented immigrants. And the president-elect's inciting rhetoric — calling Mexicans drug dealers, murderers and rapists — is emboldening vigilantism against day laborers across the country. Though not all day laborers are undocumented, many are, and the visibility that comes from the act of seeking work in public places makes them the subject of policy disagreements about the enforcement of federal immigration law.”

Read the rest at LA Weekly

Image credit: Day laborer Ubaldo Hernández: Ted Soqui.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Will the real Jeff Sessions please stand up,
please stand up?

THE SENATE Judiciary Committee spent eight hours on Tuesday interrogating — by turns aggressively and genially — Republican Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions on the first day of his confirmation hearings to be the next U.S. Attorney General. The hearing, meant to reveal what makes Jeff Sessions tick, often revealed more about how he ticks than anything else.

“Sessions emphasizes primacy of the law over his political views,” read the headline in Tuesday afternoon’s Washington Post, a head that might as well have said “Water is wet.” It’s a given that, when the chips are down and a new job is at stake, Cabinet hopefuls will concentrate on making nice, creating as little controversy as possible. Sessions’ day-one hearing was no exception.

For the most part, the senator was the soul of circumspection, saying the right things, sounding the right anodyne notes of probity and fair treatment under the law when responding to questions about his views on Muslim immigration, waterboarding and LGBT Americans. He defended his record on voting rights and race, and offered insights on how he’d handle voter suppression, legal debates over voter ID laws ... and President Trump himself.

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The first day of hearings was a chance for Sessions to show off his ethical vertebrae — not just for his questioners at the Russell Office Building, but also that which he’d presumably brandish against the 45th president.

Sessions said he’d push back on being a “mere rubber stamp” for Trump, and he quickly came up with an example.

He fielded questions on his support or opposition to a ban on Muslim immigration, something Trump campaigned on for months. “I have no belief and do not support the idea that Muslims as a religious group should be denied admission to the United States,” he said.

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SESSIONS WAS also forced to confront his relationship with John Tanton, the white supremacist founder of the Foundation for American Immigration Reform, and Frank Gaffney, founder of the conservative Center for Security Policy and a vocal source of anti-Muslim rhetoric. Sessions has reportedly accepted awards from both men.

Democratic Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal asked him: “How can Americans have confidence that you’re going to enforce anti-discrimination laws if you’ve accepted awards from these kinds of groups and associated with these kinds of individuals and won’t return the awards?”

“I didn’t know if he had anything to do with the award,” he said of the Tanton award, adding that neither honor would stop from enforcing anti-bias laws.

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Sessions’ overall demeanor on Tuesday was crisp, matter-of-fact, accessible and generally conciliatory. If he was smarting from Clemson’s victory over the Crimson Tide in the college football championship the night before, he kept it to himself.

But he was no pushover, The Post reported. “He said, for example, that he supports the continued operation of the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for terrorism suspects. He said he would not object if President-elect Donald Trump abandoned an executive action by President Obama that allows people who came to the United States illegally as children to receive work permits and a reprieve from possible deportation, although he offered no solution for what to do with those who had received such reprieves.

“He refused to agree to keep intact consent decrees prompting reform in police departments across the country, saying such agreements and the lawsuits that lead to them “undermine the respect for police officers” and should be approached with “caution.” Justice Department officials have been pressing to negotiate such reforms in Baltimore and Chicago before the end of the Obama administration.”

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OTHER TIMES we were invited to ask the real Jeff Sessions to please stand up, please stand up.

“I abhor the Klan and what it represents and its hateful ideology,” he said Tuesday in response to a question by Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy. This at odds with the 80’s-model Jeff Sessions, who said he thought the KKK "were OK until I found out they smoked pot.”

On Tuesday, Sessions acknowledged that “Roe vs. Wade is fully ensconced as the law of the land,” an acceptance 180 degrees athwart his voting record on the 1973 Supreme Court decision.

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Sleight-of-hand like that may be more of a focus as the Sessions hearings continue Wednesday, a day that's likely to be overshadowed by a news conference with Session’s next boss, the president-presumptive.

Minnesota Democratic Sen. Al Franken won’t be letting Sessions off the hook.

“I was very troubled by the answers to my line of questioning, particularly on his very much exaggerating, misrepresenting his history in terms of civil rights cases," Franken said after the hearing in an interview on MSNBC.

"I'm going to digest all of this," he added. "But the attorney general is the person who is — his job is to make sure that there's not fraud in elections, but also there's not voter suppression…we can't have the chief law enforcement official of our nation who doesn't recognize that there is such a thing as voter suppression.”

Image credits: Sessions: MSNBC. Gitmo (2009): Reuters/Brenna Linsley.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Going after Jeff Sessions

THE SENATE Judiciary Committee is vetting Alabama Sen. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III for the office of Attorney General of the United States today in Washington, in the Russell Senate Office Building room 325. That rather prosaic address may be the ground zero for the next iteration of the United States as a democracy, the place where civil rights as an American foundational is, or is not, more than a quaint phrase from the national past.

While many of the country’s activists and political observers have been boarding up the windows and double-locking the storm doors (in anticipation of the serious nor’easter expected midday on January 20th), members of other organizations, and a private citizen or two, have been starting to take the fight directly to Sessions, possibly a whole 'nutha hurricane brewing. They strongly oppose Sessions' confirmation as the heir to Eric Holder.

On Monday, in a letter released direct to the Judiciary panel, Khizr Khan — the courageous Gold Star father who spoke truth to power at the Democratic National Convention — called on the committee “to think beyond partisan politics” as it weighs Sessions’ fate.

“Thirty years ago, a bipartisan group of senators rejected Mr. Sessions' nomination to be a federal judge. His record since then does not give us any reason to believe that those senators were in error... The most minimal standard for leading the Department of Justice must be a demonstrated commitment to pursuing justice for all Americans. Mr. Sessions fails to meet that standard.”

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Also on Monday, New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker made clear his intention to testify against Sessions, on the basis of the AG nominee’s controversial racially-intolerant past. “I’m breaking with a pretty long Senate tradition by being a sitting senator testifying tomorrow against another sitting senator,” Booker told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes. “These are extraordinary times and they call for extraordinary measures.”

“We’ve seen consistently Jeff Sessions voting against the Matthew Shepard Act, speaking out against the ideals around the Voting Rights Act, taking measures to block criminal justice reform. He has a posture and a positioning that I think represent a real danger to our country.”

And last week, the NAACP, the nation’s oldest American civil-rights advocacy organization continued its evolution in this century, reaching back into the past, embracing use of a proven venerable weapon to use against a new foe.

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ON JAN. 3, Cornell William Brooks, the NAACP’s national president, led an old-school, old-style sit-in at one of Sessions’ Alabama offices in protest of his appointment as Attorney General by president-presumptive Donald Trump.

Brooks sat with three associates (maybe other NAACP members) and tweeted a photo from the Sessions office. Brooks made a pledge to stay there until Sessions withdrew his name from consideration or until Brooks and the others were “arrested” or removed by authorities. Not long after the tweeted photo, authorities came to do just that.

Other protesters blanketed the state of Alabama, conducting wildcat protest at Sessions district offices in Dothan, Montgomery, Birmingham and Huntsville, as well as at Sessions’ main office in Mobile.

"The Voting Rights Act was born in Selma. Sen. Sessions was born in Selma. If he wants to honor the legacy of Selma, honor the sacrifices of the Selma marches, honor what so many have given here in Alabama and across the country for the right to vote, he should withdraw his own name," Brooks said late on Jan. 3.

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THIS DIDN’T come outta nowhere. Sessions, a product of the state that was both the cradle of the Confederacy and of Jim Crow, has had a long and contentious past with African Americans. He's been accused of calling the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union “un-American” in a private conversation.

The same Judiciary panel Sessions is in front of now previously rejected him for a federal judgeship in 1986, when certain outwardly bigoted comments disqualified him. Thomas Figures, a former assistant U.S. Attorney in Alabama, said Sessions frequently called him “boy” and that he once told him to “be careful what you say to white folks.”

More recently, he’s weighed in against widening protections for LGBT Americans, and voted against the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, made law in October 2009, and intended to expand federal hate-crime law to cover crimes sparked by a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. He fought like hell against removal of the Confederate flag, saying it was "a huge part of who we are."

And Sessions has been a fierce opponent of any immigration bills that gave any path to citizenship for immigrants in the United States.

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Sessions isn’t a fire-breathing dragon; there've been times during his long Senate career when he reached across the aisle, working with Dems on certain issues, including some elements of criminal justice reform. As much as anything, this will likely be his saving grace in the confirmation hearings: the fact that he’s worked with the loyal opposition just enough to keep from being painted as a solely ideological animal.

In any case, the man whom Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center said would be “a tragedy for American politics” in the Trump White House is likely a slam-dunk to be Attorney General. The Democrats don’t have the numbers, and Senate Republicans will almost certainly vote as a bloc to confirm.

That’s when we’ll know, or certainly when we’ll start to learn, how far the new Jeff Sessions is from the old Jeff Sessions. A lot of people aren’t convinced there’s enough distance between the two.

Lizetta McConnell, who directs the NAACP's Mobile branch, called him out in a press release last week: "We need someone who realizes that an attorney general has to actually care about the people's rights he's protecting, and not just doing it because it's his job."

Image credits: Sessions and Booker: MSNBC. Sessions office photo: Cornell Brooks, NAACP.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Yahoo’s naval gazing

THE VALUE of copy editors in the social media age has been much debated (and deflated) for years, as the digital economy, and the digital speed central to it, have made getting it first as much a priority for news organizations as getting it right. And sometimes more.

We’re the captives of a quick-twitch media environment, and the longtime prisoners of the clean, polished, correct look of everything we look at on a screen. It all just looks so right. Until we hit SEND or TWEET ... and find out how wrong it was.

Those are — we hope — the only sensible explanations for what happened Friday at the Yahoo Finance news desk. A tweet, in the Yahoo Finance Twitter feed, was accompanied by a story on the Yahoo Finance web page — a republished piece by Eric Pianin of The Fiscal Times about plans by the administration of president-apparent Donald Trump to increase the size of the United States Navy.

By now you’ve heard about or seen that tweet published by the Yahoo Finance social media oarpuller without thinking, and apparently without even reading:

Trump wants a much nigger navy: Here’s how much it’ll cost

◊ ◊ ◊

The keyboard you’re using with your computer right now almost certainly follows the QWERTY alphabet protocol of Western-language keyboards, a convention under which the B and N keys are right next to each other.

A keystroke mistakenly uttered at high speed on deadline. A managing editor howling for that competitive tweet. The TWEET command, locked in for eternity with a click before it should have been and ... that’s how this happened, of course.

The error, while embarrassing in its own right, has a subtext that should give copy editors and wordsmiths cause for something like optimism in the continuing disaster of their — our — craft.

When things like this can happen, and they happen hundreds of thousands of times a day, there will always be a need for that extra pair of eyes on a story or a caption or a tweet before the Twitter bluebird — our high-speed version of the stork — delivers our wisdom into the world.

Or that which we’ve convinced ourselves is wisdom.

Most of the time, it’s no such thing. Sometimes, it’s worse.

◊ ◊ ◊

ANYWAY, predictably, Twitter went wild, with a lot of people coming up with fanciful, visually-driven tweets of how such a new navy would manifest itself under the Trump administration.

The Root offered a good roundup

The digs at Yahoo Finance were mostly couched in an acidic kind of fun. We knew how this happened; there’s every reason to think it was an accident. Yahoo has too many existential challenges facing it already, and we've all generated too many typos of our own in a lifetime. Benefit of the doubt.

It was regrettable, though, that someone, somewhere in the vast Yahoo editorial chain of command didn’t see this, didn’t notice. It’s sadly ironic that this hugely glaring error didn’t intellectually permeate into the subconscious minds of Yahoo’s editors for about 20 minutes.

By which time the damage was done.

If you’ve ever wondered what copy editors do at the news organizations either treading water or doing all they can to keep from treading water, it’s this. Copy editors push back against the executive-suite demands for triage-ing more content in less time with fewer people for the same money or less, doing what they can to keep that content — stories, headlines, captions, tweets — as close to error-free and readable as possible.

And there’s also a role that’s been a historical fact for editors at news orgs for generations: sometimes, as much or more than anything else, they save their writers from themselves.

Or they try to.

Image credit: Yahoo Finance bug: © 2016 Yahoo.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Alternet on the amoral Electoral College

UP TO NOW, it was all kinda sorta theoretical. The billionaire attention addict and carnival barker Donald Trump appeared to have won the 2016 presidential election, defeating Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton in the Electoral College tally, despite Trump losing the headcount vote by 2.86 million votes.

All the concerns about possible Russian involvement in the corruption of our election, about possible voter disenfranchisement in some states, about the manifestly unqualified/underqualified sociopathic opportunist leading the Republican Party came to nothing. The Donald was about to take power.

Comes now a new reason to think again, to rethink everything and, for some, to rethink the idea of a do-over election.

Steven Rosenfeld of Alternet reported Wednesday: “More than 50 Electoral College members who voted for Donald Trump were ineligible to serve as presidential electors because they did not live in the congressional districts they represented or held elective office in states legally barring dual officeholders.”

◊ ◊ ◊

That conclusion is the outcome of the Electoral Vote Objection Packet, a 1,000-plus legal brief put together by a bipartisan group of pro bono legal scholars for Congress, which votes on Friday in a joint session to certify the results of the election.

Rosenfeld continues: “While there have been calls to challenge that certification—including one women-led effort saying Trump's victory is due to voter suppression targeting people of color—the analysis that scores of Trump electors were illegally seated, and the additional finding that most states won by Trump improperly filed their Electoral College ‘Certificates of Vote’ with Congress, is unprecedented.”

“Trump’s ascension to the presidency is completely illegitimate,” said Ryan Clayton of Americans Take Action, who is promoting the effort. “It’s not just Russians hacking our democracy. It’s not just voter suppression at unprecedented levels. It is also [that] there are Republicans illegally casting ballots in the Electoral College, and in a sufficient number that the results of the Electoral College proceedings are illegitimate as well.”

Monday, January 2, 2017

2016 > 2017:
Crawling from the wreckage

WHEN THE FIREWORKS went off around the world marking the end of the annus horribilis 2016, if you were watching the videos, you’d be forgiven if you thought you heard something more than the sound of innocent explosions ... and ducked for cover. Or flinched for just a second. Was that ISIS at work? An offshoot of al-Qaeda? A neighbor with a serious grudge? The cops? Some cellular betrayal announcing itself inside our bodies?

We’re all raw like that right now, our nerves torn and frayed like the end of a wire whose insulation has been conducting way too much current for way too long. It’s been one thing after another. People push back against being angry, frustrated, cynical. Some of us are feeling worse than that.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention web site, more than 44,000 of us will die by suicide over the year, if the pattern for 2015 continues. It's an average of 121 a day. AFSP data shows there’s been a consistently upward trend in suicides in recent years.

◊ ◊ ◊

The holidays can be the worst; we've known that forever. But it was especially true about the year that is now, mercifully, over. The collective sense of our humor, a generally durable thing, was corroded as we took body blows to our sensibility, our frames of reference, all year long. And when the Christmas season finally got here — the time when we wanted to believe “It’s a Wonderful Life” — well, shit, it was one thing after another.

For much of last year, and sure as hell for the last two months, we’ve been feeling a bit like pre-guardian angel George Bailey in small towns and big cities across America, a country we don’t quite recognize anymore, where we can't quite get traction on our dreams, where up is down and wrong is politically fashionable (or soon will be) and facts are suddenly questionable and Mister Potter is about to take the oath of office that lets him run a helluva lot more than the bank.

Tech did what it could; just in time for the holiday season (or the runup to the Inaugural), levitation has become the latest thing in things. We have levitating speakers, levitating turntables, levitating smartphone chargers. With the mag-lev trains in operation in recent years, this technology has been working its way down to our everyday level.

Lately, tech’s telling us what we already know: We can use a lift these days. Right now we need all the levitation we can get.

◊ ◊ ◊

I’LL SPARE you the ritual litany of the greats we lost last year, the titans of every profession. From David Bowie in January to Debbie Reynolds just days ago, the year shuttled us from one disappointment of absence after another. So many talents taken from us, often decades too soon. While the jury’s out on this year being worse than other years in terms of the sheer numbers, there’s little debate that, even if that’s true, the magnitude of the stars we lost in 2016 was greater than in any year in recent memory.

Some of that terrible parade of departures was just a matter of the physiological luck of the draw: the sounding alarm of age and time, the Lachesis and Atropos of our telomeres making themselves known, quickly or slowly. Bowie led things off. He knew what was coming, and he transformed his exit into the lapidary valedictory of “Blackstar,” a stunning merger of life and art. For those departed lives, there’s only to say, sadly, “goodbye, indispensable one, we’ll see ya when we see ya.” That and accept it, holler and throw up both hands in surrender to our own final rush or walk or stroll, headlong into the irresistible.

Some of those departures were early leavings, and largely unnecessary, and we’re sadder about them than we are about the others. Sometimes, as in case of Muhammad Ali, grueling physical punishment experienced over years in pursuit of greatness finally took its toll. The grace in the passing of the athlete whose bold, pugilist spirit defined our age was undeniable. We knew this was coming, but that fact didn't make its jaw-dropping arrival any easier to take.

Other times they were the victims of a fall, of intoxicants, of accidents and overdoses, of too much and just enough of that inevitable human failing: being in the wrong place at the wrong time. We have to surrender ourselves to unexpected outcomes at that table in the great casino. Along with the desperate players, the unknowns for whom life is no game but something defended dearly and aggressively, during wartime, in Israel and the West Bank, the Ukraine, in Aleppo, and in Chicago (762 homicides) and New Orleans (176 homicides) and Philadelphia (277 homicides).

It was a great and terrible year to be a human being.

◊ ◊ ◊

But the big thing, the mother of all things in the States in 2016 was the election, maybe the greatest shitshow in the history of American presidential politics, and something we’re still reconciling ourselves to. The signs seemed to be so right for Hillary Clinton, for change we could believe in, change whose contours we could recognize, change we could feel a part of.

Regardless of your personal politics, and who you voted for, there’s been a mood of quiet simmering dread about the outcome of this most divisive campaign. So much was never settled, Electoral College votes notwithstanding.

The mantra now is “Give him a chance.” Henry Louis Gates said “give him a chance.” President Obama said “give him a chance.” Dave Chappelle said “give him a chance.” But that was weeks ago, before he picked most of his people, before this payback vibe kicked in, before he started to congeal in the public mind as this real ... unavoidable thing in our lives for the next four years.

Pew Research Center reported on Dec. 8th: “As Donald Trump prepares to take office as the nation’s 45th president, 55% of the public says that, so far, they disapprove of the job he has done explaining his policies and plans for the future, while 41% approve of the job he has done.”

A new Pew Research poll, from earlier today, shows the same uncertainty as before, only worse. “As Donald Trump prepares to take the presidential oath on Jan. 20, less than half of Americans are confident in his ability to handle an international crisis (46%), to use military force wisely (47%) or to prevent major scandals in his administration (44%). At least seven in 10 Americans were confident in Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton in these areas before they took office.”

It’s the low-grade fever of buyers’ remorse. It just doesn’t feel right. We sucked it up and committed ourselves to this, of course. We’ve driven the vehicle off the lot, so it’s ours now. But in the back of our minds in the quiet of our private nights, laying awake and wondering what's next, there's that gnawing, nagging thought:

We bought it broken and we knew it. This is a gift for the mechanics of the United States Constitution. This vehicle's gonna spend more time in the shop than on the road.

◊ ◊ ◊

AND THE new boss-to-be hasn’t been any help. There’s been no unifying message of direction from the president-apparent. There’s no throughline to where he proposes to take the country. For now we’re left with the dismaying prospect that past performance is all but a guarantee of future results. It's like we’re all waiting for a tsunami to hit the mainland. They’re in your mailboxes now: bullet-point plans on dealing with Hurricane Donald.

Look at the first pictures of him touring the White House, or making his way around Washington. Even he looks uncertain about how all this plays out.

Other things have added to a kind of drift in the collective unconscious, not so much a malaise as an anxiety, buffered by the media and the nonstop impact of social media. Our technology and the tools of communication aren’t even fully dependable; the fears surrounding the influence of Russia's involvement in the November vote disabused us of the notion that free and fair elections will always be an American given.

◊ ◊ ◊

Whatever the source of the hacking that may have compromised the integrity of our national vote, the fact is that we’re less secure in making use of the one part of our national political infrastructure that ought to be secured and protected like the nation’s highest secrets, and for the same reasons.

The rules of who plays in media, content and technology changed again last year. A phone company will soon own Warner Brothers and DC Comics. Another phone company owns Yahoo and The Huffington Post. A Chinese company is buying Dick Clark Productions for about $1 billion.

The rules of society don’t feel secure. We’re facing the prospect of an Attorney General determined to be the anti-Eric Holder, working to stop or reverse the advances of African Americans, minorities and LGBT Americans. The nation’s biggest police union wants the Trump administration to make racial profiling acceptable again.

Life feels ... out of its moorings. It doesn’t feel reliable. We can’t count on things anymore. But sometimes blowing up expectations is a wonderful thing. The Chicago Cubs proved that in November, bouncing back from a deficit in the World Series to win it all in storybook fashion.

And someone, some enterprising soul in Los Angeles gave us a reason to laugh and look forward to a different kind of future. At some time in the netherhours between midnight and 2 a.m. on Sunday, Jan. 1, s/he artfully placed tarps and sheets over certain letters in the famed HOLLYWOOD sign, iconic treasure of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. Four swift changes under cover of night ... and Los Angeles awoke on New Year’s Day to witness the HOLLYWeeD sign in the distance.

It didn’t last long, but good jokes never do. It was of course a nod to California’s pending status as the next great recreational marijuana marketplace (sometime in 2018). But it was more than that.

◊ ◊ ◊

It was a way to tell people: Just chill. We're gonna get through this. Keep both hands inside the ride. Because there’s no way out of it, this ride of our still-wonderful lives. And events in America are about to arrest the attention of the world, as protests prepare to make the streets center stage in a new year, in the first days and months of an administration we never expected, led by a man we never believed, or believed in.

And never mind our worlds being upside down — that’s nothing new. Certain people have deeply persuaded themselves that there are no facts anymore. Really? Well ... Fact: We are still a democracy, in spite of everything. Fact: The sun still rises in the east and sets in the west. Fact: The curvature of the watery earth from Venice Beach at sunset is still breathtaking. Fact: Children still smile at you when you smile at them.

And fact: Life goes on ... life notwithstanding.

Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah.

Image credits: Stills from It's a Wonderful Life: © 1946 RKO Pictures. Levitating speaker: Bowie: Screengrab from promotional video for Blackstar, © David Bowie. Prince and Muhammad Ali: unknown (send me a comment with credit info if you have it). Trump approval ratings chart: © 2016 Pew Research Center. Trump: via Slate. TimeWarner logo: © 2016 TimeWarner. Hollyweed sign: Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press.
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