Sunday, January 29, 2017

August Wilson's century in blacks and blues

WHAT goes around comes around. Whoever came up with that existential truth lived long enough to witness both the upside and the downside of its alternately tireless application. August Wilson did. When he died in Seattle on Oct. 2, 2005, he’d seen his breakthrough play, “Fences,” pivot American theater, and our expectations of what African Americans could say in that American theater, in a new direction. Fast forward 11 years and “Fences” — at long last — has become the lapidary, powerfully incendiary motion picture it had to be.

In light of last Tuesday’s Oscar nominations for the film, directed by Denzel Washington, I’m revisiting an Oct. 2, 2005 appreciation of Wilson. The piece, published in what’s now, is in part a revisitation of my interview with him in San Francisco in 1991. The universality of his themes within an African American context was transformative. Times are more challenging now than in 1991, or 2005. Considering the myriad marginalizations, insults, assaults and tragedies that have happened to black Americans since then, and their corrosive internalizing effect on the psyche and the soul, it’s no wonder “Fences” speaks to us today.

WHEN AUGUST Wilson’s play “Fences” opened on Broadway in March 1987, in a New York City in the throes of racial conflicts that seemed to permeate every aspect of daily life, the play was hailed as a revelation in American theater. Simply put, the play reached people.

Though its characters were African American, the play’s central clash — the chafing between a father and son on differing but parallel courses in search of themselves — brought multiracial audiences to tears night after night.

Wilson, who died Sunday at age 60 of inoperable liver cancer, thus enjoyed a wide renown as a playwright unrivaled in the 20th century he documented. And that’s not just as a black playwright; assessments of his talent so narrowly defined miss the point of what made his plays work, what made them so eagerly anticipated by theatergoers of every persuasion.

In creating his sweeping 10-play cycle of black American life, Wilson worked in the idiom of black America, but his genius lay both in universalizing that experience for theatergoers largely unaccustomed to black America on stage, and in investing those plays with a deft weave of reality and myth.

Until “Fences,” mainstream American theater received black plays with painful infrequency, in indifferently-regarded works that either isolated the black American experience from everything else, or celebrated black life in the trappings of the musical, a theatrical form that fixes narrative and context in a frothier, more dramatically insubstantial framework.

Not that music was alien to Wilson: One of his triumphs of invention was how he used the blues. A music mostly relegated to the national past forms the emotional underpinning for many of his plays. Wilson explained for this reporter in a 1991 interview its importance as soundtrack and spiritual touchstone. ...

Read the full essay at

Image credits: Wilson: Michelle McLoughlin/Associated Press. Fences art: © 2017 Paramount Pictures/BRON/Macro.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

All tomorrow's rallies: The Women’s March,
the next march and the one after that

THE PUSSY GRABS BACK.” A Jan. 15 email with this frankly irresistible title, from Caitlin Alesio Maloney of the Courage Campaign, clued me and other like-minded Americans of what was coming. Oh, Maloney and everyone in the country knew about the Trump inauguration, which was happening the following Friday. But that’s not what she meant. She was referring to the Women’s March on Washington, set for Jan. 21, and planned since Nov. 9, the day the U.S. presidential election went into the books (more or less).

Maloney wrote: “In what promises to be the largest mass rebuke of Trump’s misogyny, racism, and xenophobia to date, the march will send a bold message to Trump and Congress: We're NOT backing down.”

That was an understatement.

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Saturday, January 21, was an amazing moment. In the wake of an underwhelming inaugural message that sounded more like a threat or a throwdown of the gauntlet than a necessary, anodyne moment of national healing, people protested around the country and the world in small groups and vast and friendly tides. Over the course of the day, an estimated 4,750,000 people rallied in more than 650 cities. According to Twitter Data, 1½ million tweets related to the protests were sent globally.

It wasn’t a Women’s March on Washington, it was a women’s march on the world. They expected 80,000 people to march here in Los Angeles. They got 750,000. In Minneapolis and London, in New York and Oakland, in Denver and Seattle, in Hawaii and Miami, the word was out: People intended to push back bigly against a repressive governmental agenda and the reckless orange misogynist advancing that agenda in Washington.

And happily, it wasn’t just nasty women, either. One of the lesser-known but still resonant messages was that the marches weren’t exclusive to them. It wasn’t a protest against men as a gender, but against the toxic masculinity of which Donald Trump is hands-down the avatar of the moment.

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TALKING TO Ashley Fetters of GQ Magazine, Adam Khalid, a 28-year-old anesthesiologist assistant from Baltimore, nails the why of Why Men Went:

“I didn't think I was going to participate in the March in the beginning, because its leadership was unclear about the overall message,” Khalid said. “But as the message evolved, I became more interested.

“I’ve had strong female role models my entire life and couldn't imagine being where I am without them. It made me angry to see Trump and his ilk boast about not only assaulting women, but treating them as if they were nothing but objects.”

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And just as happily, in the wake of events since the Women’s March, the Saturday march wasn’t a one-off.

On Wednesday night, New Yorkers rallied in support of immigrants and Muslims’ rights at Washington Square Park. And another anti-Trump protest was held Wednesday night in Philadelphia. Protesters shouted: “No hate, no fear, immigrants are welcome here!”

The protests continued today as The Donald arrived to meet with fellow Republicans at an annual retreat. “Trump arrived in Philadelphia to address Republican lawmakers and broke with a long-held bipartisan tradition by refusing to take any questions from the elected officials of his own party,” Salon’s Sophia Tesfaye reported.

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SCIENTISTS ARE planning a march on Washington, Climate Central reported on Wednesday. The web site says that researchers and prospective organizers are meeting this weekend to discuss strategy and possible dates for the event, which was inspired by a discussion on Reddit. They’ve already started Facebook and Twitter accounts — de rigeur for social activism these days.

Even the Juggalos are hittin’ the bricks. Fans and followers of Insane Clown Posse and the juggalo lifestyle will march on the National Mall in D.C. on Sept. 16, in protest of the Justice Department’s characterization of Juggalos as a “loosely organized hybrid gang,” a misrepresentation they intend of oppose in the streets.

Plans for this march were reportedly in the works for a year, so this isn’t a specific response to policies of the Trump DoJ. But given the Trump White House’s penchant for accusations and the punitive, it’s a safe bet that the Juggalos would have planned this more recently anyway.

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And Ed Mazza of The Huffington Post reported on Jan. 23 that protests are planned for April 15 — Tax Day — to focus on Agent Orange’s refusal to release his tax returns before he was elected, consistent with a promise he made during the campaign. Jennifer Taub (@jentaub) seems to have been first with the idea, on Sunday, and it’s exploded into the twitterverse with joyful fury since then.

We can expect more of this in the months and (shudder) years to come. As the president-presumptive enacts various policies consistent with his world view and no one else’s, as he continues to run roughshod over the Constitution, he’ll go on being a highly visible target of opportunity for protests, here and around the world.

By the end of his first six months in office, it won’t just be the pussy grabbing back.

Image credits: Women's March top: Vulva: The Huffington Post. Not My President sign: Crosscut. Washington Square protest: Entertainment News Gaming. Juggalo Mardch poster: via Protesting bear: @Salon.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Darkness at noon: Trump assumes the presidency

UNDER LEADEN SKIES in Washington, a kind of future for the United States began on Friday at noon. With an inaugural speech that dressed nationalism in the robes of patriotism, rage in the robes of strength and protectionism in no robes at all, Donald John Trump — sociopathic attention addict, billionaire supergrifter, real-estate mogul, labia grabber, Moscow marionette and the greatest carnival barker in history — assumed the office of President of the United States of America. So help me God.

The event expected for about ten weeks was sparsely attended, certainly by the standards of either the 2009 and 2013 inaugurals for President Obama. Those who braved the weather were treated to the fashion show that an American inauguration is. New first lady Melania Trump channeled Jacqueline Kennedy in a powder-blue number designed by Ralph Lauren. Outgoing first lady Michelle Obama (whom we miss already) wore Jason Wu.

President Obama (whom we also miss already) came correct, in the last suit and tie he's likely to wear for a good, long, deserved while. Obama smiled warmly as he greeted The Donald, who came wearing what looked to be his usual campaign attire: dark suit, blinding white shirt and Pantone Republican-red tie. He came dressed for business. When Trump spoke, in his first POTUS address, it was pretty clear he was ready to give America the business.

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Simply put, any hope that Inauguration Day might usher in a Kinder Gentler™ Donald Trump were dashed from the start. There was just more opportunity to induce the same rhetorical blunt-force trauma that characterized his speeches on the campaign trail for a year and a half. Factories shuttered! Jobs fleeing to foreign lands! Criminals loose and crazy in the streets a la “The Purge”! Trump doubled down Friday on the same hellscape vision he painted from the start of his White House bid in June 2015 — a vision that only he can rescue us from.

“For too long,” he said, “a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered, but the jobs left and the factories closed. The Establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country.

“Their victories have not been your victories. Their triumphs have not been your triumphs. And while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.

“That all changes starting right here and right now, because this moment is your moment; it belongs to you.”

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AT OTHER TIMES, Trump seemed to be talking about another country altogether. At one point in his catalog of travail — “mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation” — he declares with plenary fire that “[t]his American carnage stop[s right here and stops right now.”

“American carnage”? Great title for a slasher movie. It’s a phrase whose heat and power seemed designed to provoke an emotional response, rather than an intellectual one. Trump in campaign mode. Still.

Then he said that “[F]or many decades, we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry,” overlooking the more recent rise of U.S. corporate profits to record levels (during the Obama administration, inconveniently enough). He lamented “the very sad depletion of our military,” in a statement that’s almost a slander of what has been and remains the world’s pre-eminent military force.

Read NPR’s annotated version of Trump’s speech

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And in a disconcerting misappropriation of a freighted historical phrase, Trump said: “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. It’s going to be only America first. America first.”

In this regrettable call to American nationalism — almost certainly written by Trump White House chief strategist/media prince of darkness Stephen Bannon — Trump invoked the name of the America First Committee, an American movement with a history of isolationism and anti-Semitism in the run-up to America’s entrance into World War II; the aviator Charles Lindbergh was a supporter of the group and its non-interventionist policy.

Whether Trump grasped the deeper implications of the antiquated phrase he used on Friday is anyone’s guess.

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I’VE BEEN watching and listening to inaugural addresses since John F. Kennedy’s, in 1960,” wrote Ed Kilgore, a New York Magazine reporter and a veteran of previous presidential orations. “I’ve never heard anything like this one in terms of its divisive content and complete lack of uplift.”

“Even its call for the blessings of the Almighty was to a nationalist God Trump seemed to be charging with protecting the country — if and only if our military and police forces failed. And absent any admission of his own fallibility, his appeal to unity sounded more like a threat of repression than a call for mutual understanding and bipartisanship.

“By the time Trump got to the climax of the address, a secular doxology of the national greatness he would achieve (wealthy! strong! safe!), the hope of so many people, especially those who fear him, that the 45th president would rise to the moment and make a graceful, civic-minded speech, had long been dashed.”

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A low high point of Inauguration Day got even lower. You can see it in any number of still shots and videos of the inaugural parade: vast swathes of empty bleachers all along the parade route. Secret Service agents walking the presidential limousine down streets and next to sidewalks as empty as they’d be first thing on a Sunday morning.

Even for the billionaire mogul known for faith in the power of positive thinking (Norman Vincent Peale’s book was an early influence), the sight of empty bleachers couldn’t help but be dispiriting.

As much for us as for him. By definition, inaugurations are all about beginnings. By most of our longstanding civic metrics, Friday’s was not a good one for a new leader of the nation that, naysayers of American exceptionalism notwithstanding, still says something singular around the world.

An American president is a direct reflection of the people who elected him to office. That we chose an arrogant, racist, insecure, transactional, bullying billionaire hotelier to represent this nation to the world says more about us — our vision, our pride, our judgment, our sense of ourselves — than it says about the man himself.

Image credits: Trump top: Andrew Harnik/Associated Press. Trump 2: Patrick Semansky/Associated Press. Trump 3: Getty Images via Politico. Motorcade walk: Soledad O'Brien.

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 18 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 definition. 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 used to achieve 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 comfortable for the Republican Party leadership to readily 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 tenure of 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 is a violation of the Emoluments Clause of the United States Constitution, and poses a clear and present danger to, first of all, his administration’s integrity.

A Nov. 17 letter to Trump 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.”

◊ ◊ ◊

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.”

◊ ◊ ◊

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, after 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's acolytes have 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.

◊ ◊ ◊

So the outsider meme of the Trump campaign — initially a philosophical stalking horse for the consummate political operatives (the insiders) ready to set up shop in the White House — has outlived its usefulness. When the outsider becomes an insider, the value of Outsider Persona stock 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.

◊ ◊ ◊

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.

◊ ◊ ◊

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.

◊ ◊ ◊

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.”

◊ ◊ ◊

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.

◊ ◊ ◊

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.”

◊ ◊ ◊

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.

◊ ◊ ◊

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.

◊ ◊ ◊

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.

◊ ◊ ◊

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.”
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