Marie Bashkirtseff

Marie BashkirtseffOn this day in 1858, the great Ukrainian painter Marie Bashkirtseff was born. The reason you have probably never heard of her is that she died of tuberculosis when she was only 25 years old. But she was a master. She was an admirer of Jules Bastien-Lepage, although I think she shows greater technique. What I especially like about her is that depending upon the work, she can use the finest of brush strokes while at other times using very crude strokes as found with the impressionists. Of course, she is of that time and Bastien-Lepage was an influence on the movement.

Bashkirtseff is also known as a diarist and sculptor — probably because we have so little of her work. She died in Paris on Halloween in 1884. Normally, I would provide a bit of her work. But I found this excellent three-minute video that gives a very nice overview of her work — even including one of her sculptures. She was an amazing talent.

Happy birthday Marie Bashkirtseff!

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Yet Another Murder Exoneration — After 39 Years

Ricky Jackson Leaving PrisonThe most repetitive story in America never gets boring. You know the one. The police pick up some guy and decide he committed a murder. The guy is always poor and almost always dark skinned. So the police get someone to lie or do so themselves. And then decades later, he is exonerated. It’s so much nicer than the much more common story that is the same except for the end, “And the state put him to death despite many problems with the case.” Now we have the story of Ricky Jackson and Wiley Bridgeman — two men released from the Ohio prison system on Friday after 39 years behind bars. Because Jackson was in a bit longer, he now holds the record for the longest time spent in jail before being exonerated. I assume Bridgeman holds the record for the second longest.

This case is especially bad because the police used a 12-year-old boy, Eddie Vernon, to do their dirty work. The crime was a very brutal convenience store robbery. But as usual:

There was no evidence linking the three men to the crime. Vernon said that once he told authorities the names of the three and the fact that he saw the slaying, Cleveland police fed him information about the crime and what happened.

But here’s an excellent additional example of our criminal justice system. Wiley Bridgeman was paroled back in 2000. But he didn’t stay out long:

In a chance meeting just months after leaving prison, he ran into Vernon. The two talked, and Vernon testified this week that he asked for Bridgeman’s forgiveness.

Someone saw the two men together and told Vernon that he must report the meeting to Bridgeman’s parole officer, as Bridgeman was told he could not meet with any witnesses in the case. Bridgeman was soon sent back to prison for a parole violation.

The question on my mind is why we see this over and over again, yet nothing happens. We have a broken criminal justice system where prosecutors have almost unlimited power and the police have little regard for the truth. And none of them are ever held accountable. These two men were convicted on the say-so of a child with no other evidence. That’s something more tha just laziness and incompetence. That’s villainy.

These two men also spent time on death row. I bring this up because whenever I talk to a death penalty supporter, they always think that death penalty cases are air tight. But in that, they are usually like this case: based upon almost nothing other than the fact that the defendants are poor and can’t mount a good defense.

This is justice in America, folks. It is despicable. And we do nothing about it because judges, prosecutors, and police offers have nothing to fear from being too harsh. Is it any wonder that we treat the weak as though they were animals?

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Illegal Immigration Is Not Just About the Border

Scared RepublicansI heard from my father that the Fox News ranters have been talking about our double plus good border fence. You know the one: the double fence mandated by the Secure Fence Act of 2006. The Republicans have been really mad that the fence was never completed. The problem is that the fence is estimated to cost more than four billion dollars and the Republicans never allocated money to pay for it. But that’s perfect for them. They don’t actually want to do anything about illegal immigration. They know the business community (Along with all those rich people with all those big lawns to mow!) wants those undocumented workers. So they can maintain the current situation while demagoguing the the issue on Fox News. “If the president really cared about our immigration problem, he’d build the double plus good border fence!” And that leaves the Fox News viewer outraged that yet again, Obama just won’t enforce our immigration laws!

There is a bigger problem here other than the usual Republican disingenuousness. The truth is that enormous numbers of undocumented residents did not come here illegally. Let’s start with the fact that not all undocumented people come from Mexico. The fraction is high, but probably not as high as most people think: 59%. What’s more, 15% come from five countries way across the big ocean: Philippines, India, Korea, China, and Vietnam. In total, perhaps 40% of all undocumented residents in the United States came legally and simply stayed.

Think about this. It is estimated that there are 11.4 million undocumented residents in the United States. To listen to Republicans on the subject, no undocumented population is acceptable. But if we closed down the border and didn’t allow anyone through, we would still have 4.6 million undocumented people living here. The fewer people in the country illegally, the harder it is to find them. So we are always going to have large absolute numbers of people here illegally. The only way to avoid that is to turn the United States into the kind of prison that communist China was during the Cultural Revolution. I realize that there are certain conservatives who would be all for this and that Fox News could doubtless convince a third of the country that we must do this. But it isn’t a good idea and I doubt the American people would stand for it. (But it wouldn’t shock me if they did!)

The reasonable way to look at our undocumented population is to start by deciding what we will accept. How big a population is acceptable? Currently, 3.6% of our population is undocumented. That actually doesn’t sound that bad. And that is probably why people always shout about eleven million illegal immigrants! If 1.5% is an acceptable target, then all this focus on the double plus good border fence makes a certain amount of sense. But I do not think that the immigration hysterics who rant about 11.4 million people would change at all if the number were 4.6 million. That’s why I think it is important to find out what level of illegal immigration they think is acceptable.

There will always be undocumented residents in any country that has trading relations with other countries. I’d like to see what Republican politicians have to say about this. Because I know that the Republican base is not going to think that almost five million undocumented residents is acceptable. This will be yet another case where Republicans are demagoguing an issue with no ideas as to what they would do. The demagoguing is the product. And it fits in perfectly with the Republican base’s thinking. It is a kind of magic thinking that believes that with enough will to succeed, everything will be accomplished. All we have to do is line up tens of millions of border patrol agents on the southern border and there will be no illegal immigration. What will they think when they learn this is just half the problem? Well, they will never learn that as long as we allow Republican politicians to pretend that illegal immigration is all about the US-Mexico border.

Afterword

There is one solution to the undocumented residents. We could allow our economy to become so terrible that there is no opportunity here and our citizens go to other countries looking for jobs. This is what Republican and New Democratic economic policy is bringing to the United States. So maybe it is wrong to say that the conservatives don’t have an immigration plan.

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New Atheists and Non-Overlapping Magisteria

Stephen Jay GouldIn 1997, Stephen Jay Gould published an essay, “Non-Overlapping Magisteria.” In it, he posited the idea that there was no conflict between religion and science because they dealt with different things. For example, religion was concerned with questions of morals and existence — issues on which science had no opinion. One could question this on the moral front, where science actually has a lot to say about many of our morals. But the obvious counterargument is that religion isn’t really concerned with morality as find it but rather morality as we ought to find it. On the issue of existence, science really does have nothing of value to add, although sadly most atheists can’t seem to understand that.

I’ve always seen Gould’s essay as more a plea to religions to stay on their own ground. One of my great frustrations in dealing with theists is their reliance on Iron Age myths for their science. So they think that Genesis is literally true. But claims like humans being created originally in their current form and the Grand Canyon being formed by the great flood are not religious claims; they are scientific claims. Not only do these fanciful stories soil science, they also make religious people stupid in a theological sense.

Recently, the atheist community has begun to attack the idea behind Non-Overlapping Magisteria. In fact, they are so outspoken about it, I had assumed that I had missed something — that there was some critical flaw with the idea. But then I came upon the following video by Hemant Mehta. In general, I like his work. But on this video, he shows his smug atheist colors. I take special offense to one line, “If you are a devoutly religious person, and one who accepts the scientific method, something’s gotta give.” Ugh!

I am greatly concerned about the way the atheist community fetishizes the scientific method. They seem to have learned about this in high school science class and decided it was The Truth™. I noticed this same thing in the first episode of the new Cosmos. Neil deGrasse Tyson said that even though Giordano Bruno was right about stars just being other solar systems, he wasn’t a scientist. Why? Apparently because he never proved that it was true. He just had an intuition. This is an enormous error of thought. It mistakes the scientific process for what any given scientist does. What Bruno did was no different from what Einstein or Maxwell or Newton did.

The High School Science Class MethodWhat Mehta is getting at is that people who accept the “scientific method” only believe things that have been proved. This is patently false. What it means in practice is that atheists believe in the current state of science. Hooray for that! But most issues are not this clear. When it comes to the murky waters of economics or child rearing, do atheists really use the “scientific method” or do they just go with their gut? We all know the answer to that regardless of what some iconoclastic atheist might say.

There is one issue on which science has no opinion: ontology. And here I’m not just talking about the fact that science has no answers. Science is not designed to answer questions that exist outside the realm of existence itself. But I’ll admit: maybe some day science will have answers. But given the fundamental paradox of existence, it seems unlikely. But until then, science has no answer. And to expect people to simply have no opinion on such a fundamental question until science does have an answer is just silly.

I think that the Non-Overlapping Magisteria concept is just what we need today. I’ve already mentioned how religions soil science by applying their Iron Age myths to scientific questions. But atheists have a strong tendency to soil religion by applying scientific answers to theological questions. The ultimate example of this is Lawrence Krauss’ facile ontological answer, “Nothing is unstable.” It’s a perfectly fine scientific answer to why universes form. Similarly, the big bang is a perfectly fine scientific answer. And if we ever manage to show that our universe is part of a multiverse, that too will be perfectly fine scientific answer. But people who are interested in the ultimate question of why anything exists at all will not be satisfied with these answers.

From my perspective, there is one and only one question that is beyond the conceivable reach of science. But it is the biggest question there is. And atheists do themselves no good by pretending (1) that the question doesn’t matter and (2) that eventually science will answer it. And the idea that science has answered it is just fatuous. Atheists need the idea of Non-Overlapping Magisteria. Stephen Jay Gould was a lot smarter than the leaders of the New Atheist movement.


See also: Non-Overlapping Magisteria Helps Theists and Atheists

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Ever to the Right Democrats!

Thomas FrankCarter’s vice president, Walter Mondale, ran for the presidency in 1984 on a platform that The New York Times called “bluntly conservative,” a “turn to [the] right,” because it promised spending cuts and higher taxes in order to deal with the federal deficit. Yet, after Mondale lost — in a landslide even worse than Carter’s — the verdict among pundits and Democratic strategists was well-nigh unanimous: The party had to cut its ties to what were then called “special interests” (meaning labor and African-Americans) and find its way to the center.

On and on it went. The Democratic presidential candidate in 1988, Michael Dukakis, seemed like a centrist’s dream, a post-partisan problem-solver who famously refused to call himself a liberal until the race was as good as lost. Once he had been good and properly floored by George Bush senior, however, the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, high priests of the move-to-the-right postmortem, found it convenient to make Dukakis the symbol of everything they despised.

Bill Clinton, though, won elections; therefore: Visionary! Meaningful! A champion of the “vital center”! Except for when Bill Clinton didn’t win elections (like in the mid-terms in 1994, after getting the Republicans’ beloved NAFTA passed); in which case: Hie thee to the center, lib’rul! Al Gore, a DLC centrist of impeccable credentials, lost his bid in 2000; therefore: Populism discredited for all time.

Barack Obama presented the mythmakers with a challenge. On the one hand, he is obviously a fellow worshiper at the pundits’ post-partisan shrine, and his efforts to conciliate the GOP and be nice to Wall Street have sometimes been enough to make one wince with shame. On the other hand, the right has always regarded him as a socialist and maybe even a Satanist. So, what is a pundit to make of him?

Well, duh: the same as always. When Obama succeeds, it is yet another triumph for centrism, even when Obama pulls off the win by going “populist,” as he did against Mitt Romney. When Obama’s team loses, as came to pass earlier this month, the man suddenly no longer represents the “center” at all; now he has supposedly led his party into the wilderness of the left. This is asserted even though the man didn’t do anything significant to speak of between the 2012 and 2014 elections.

—Thomas Frank
Phony Spin Even Fox News Won’t Buy

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Robert Towne

Robert TowneThe great screenwriter Robert Towne is 80 years old today. I know, I know: another screenwriter?! But I quite like Towne. Most especially, I like him for Chinatown, which is a great screenplay and a great movie. In Hollywood, he is probably best known as a “script doctor.” He is legend for all the films he has helped fix. I can’t really comment on that. I tend to think that kind of stuff is anti-art. For example, he was brought in to work on Crimson Tide. But really, what major screenwriter in Hollywood was not brought in to work on that film?

The only films that I’m really sure he was the primary writer on were Shampoo and the second Mission: Impossible film. The first Mission: Impossible film is probably more typical of what Towne is paid extremely well to do. After going through a number of screenwriters, the production didn’t have much of a script. Brian De Palma (the guy who made good films at one time) put together a few action sequences in pre-production, so Towne took David Koepp’s basic story line (What?! Team leader double crosses team?) and De Palma’s action sequences and created some kind of a structure. In the end, the film almost seems like it makes sense.

Mission: Impossible II makes a lot more sense. It is riddled with Hollywood movie cliches and its most clever plot twist is so unbelievable that it would make Stan Lee wince. But it is a good vehicle for John Woo and probably as good a thing as he did in America. But it does highlight something unpleasant: being a writer for hire is probably the perfect thing for Robert Towne.

But sometimes a great craftsman gets the perfect project and great art is born. And that is the case with Chinatown. Actually, The Two Jakes is a great script too. It shows that having a great director is also important though. Towne did some directing too. Nothing worth mentioning. Let’s forget all that and just watch a little Chinatown. The following scene brings together three ideas that are very important to me: (1) money is a self-aggrandizing game for the powerful; (2) under the right circumstances, people are capable of anything; and (3) the powerful are far more likely to be evil than the weak.

Happy birthday Robert Towne!

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Fernwood 2 Night

Fernwood 2 NightI’ve noticed that YouTube is overflowing with quite good copies of the late 1970s television show, Fernwood 2 Night. When I was a kid, I thought it was a big deal. But I was wrong. It only played for 65 episodes during the summer of 1977. Then they did another 65 episodes in the fall of 1978 in a “national” format as America 2-Night. But I’m often impressed with just how good my taste was as a young boy. I don’t recall fully understanding the show, but I certainly understood that it was something hip and generally silly enough to enjoy.

The show had a strange birthing process. It all started with the comedic soap opera Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. I don’t know a lot about the show because it was far too dry for my young brain. Consider the following dialog from the first episode:

Loretta: She said, you know that new family over there, the Lombardies? And I said, well, no, I hadn’t met ‘em yet. She says, well you should have met them while you had the chance. Because they’re gone now. Somebody just shot ‘em all.

Mary: Oh my God. The whole family?

Loretta: All five of ‘em plus two goats and eight chickens.

Mary: I can’t believe it. What kind of madman would shoot two goats and eight chickens? [Pause.] And the people. The people, of course.

Funny stuff and throughout the episode, everyone seems more focused on the goats and chickens than the family. But after a year, Louise Lasser left the show. So they changed the show to Forever Fernwood, which ran for a half year with all the same characters except for Mary Hartman. And then they changed it to, Fernwood 2 Night — a local talk show.

Fernwood 2 Night was hosted by Barth Gimble, who is the brother of Garth Gimble, a wife beater on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Both characters were played by Martin Mull. Fernwood 2 Night is still pretty dry fare. But it is spiced up with Mull’s sarcasm and Fred Willard clueless silliness. The show also has Happy Kyne, as the band leader — played as dour as can be by Frank De Vol. It’s all brilliant.

The first episode is, “Talk to a Jew.” In addition to the titular segment, it also has Bruce Mahler as Howard Palmer playing piano while in an iron lung, which in addition to being offensively funny is also kind of amazing. I think you can find most of the other episodes on YouTube at this time. That also goes for Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and America 2-Night as well.

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Democracy Loses Even When Scandals Debunked

Darrell IssaAfter two years of investigation with Darrell Issa hellbent on finding something — Anything! — to make into a scandal, the House Intelligence Committee released its report on Benghazi yesterday. And their results: nothing. Everything was just the same as the administration had always claimed. No political maneuvering. And certainly no “stand down” orders costing Embassy personnel their lives. Nothing at all.

Ken Dilanian at Associated Press provided all of the details, House Intel Panel Debunks Many Benghazi Theories. The House report found pretty much what the previous six investigations found. And it found what the eighth investigation by the House Select Committee will find. And that is because there is no there there.

But none of this means that the investigation was useless. The point of the investigation was the same as pretty much everything that Darrell Issa has investigated. The point is to generate a bunch of smoke so that everyone will think there is a fire. This has been the plan all along and it has been extremely effective. It keeps Issa in the news and it reduces confidence in the government. What could be better for a Republican politician?

Susan RiceThere is pretty much nothing that Issa can do that the mainstream media won’t pick up on. And their approach is about the same as his: write a bunch of stories questioning the government; then when it goes nowhere, just drop it. The harm has been done. Most Americans don’t know much about the “scandals” regarding Benghazi, the IRS, and the Fast and Furious program. But they have a vague idea that the government was up to no good. The Republican Party could have no greater propagandists than The New York Times and 60 Minutes.

All along, the linchpin of the Republican case was the most pathetic thing: Susan Rice’s “talking points” when she went on the Sunday news shows. The outrage about this from conservatives was palpable. And the more information that came out, the tinier their argument was. In the end, it really came down to the fact that Rice had said that the attack came out of a protest over an anti-Muslim film. This turned out to be wrong. But somehow, conservatives were outraged that the American people had been misled for a couple of days. This went along with conservative outrage that Obama said the attack was an “act of terror” rather than a “terrorist act.” This is a good indication of just how vacuous the conservative movement has become.

But now even Darrell Issa’s committee has to admit that Rice’s talking points were not part any nefarious plot:

But Rice’s comments were based on faulty intelligence from multiple agencies, according to the report. Analysts received 21 reports that a protest occurred in Benghazi, the report said — 14 from the Open Source Center, which reviews news reports; one from the CIA; two from the Defense Department; and four from the National Security Agency.

In the years since, some participants in the attack have said they were motivated by the video. The attackers were a mix of extremists and hangers on, the investigation found.

“To this day,” the report said, “significant intelligence gaps regarding the identities, affiliations and motivations of the attackers remain.”

But what will Issa himself say? Well, the release of the report on a Friday afternoon before Thanksgiving should give you some idea. But I’m sure that Issa will now claim that this was always about the intelligence failures. But that isn’t true. The investigation was always political. Issa’s idea was that he could use Rice to show that the administration had manipulated the talking points to assure Obama’s re-election. (Note: Republicans still think the election was ever in any doubt.)

This morning over at Washington Month, Martin Longman wrote, What Fair & Balanced Would Look Like. He suggests that after the media spent two years pushing what was always a farcical scandal, they should spend the next two years falling over themselves to explain that there was no scandal. I like the idea. But it would never work. Regardless of getting the people to understand that there was no Benghazi scandal, the damage has been done. People have been given more (but fake) evidence that says that governments are incompetent and corrupt. No amount of counter-evidence on a single issue will reverse that.

Darrell Issa-1; Democracy-0.

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Low Greek and the New Testament

What Jesus MeantThe marketplace Greek of the New Testament — koine (“common denominator”) Greek — is not elegant. When Alexander the Great conquered his huge patchwork quilt of different peoples speaking different languages, the only way the defeated could communicate with Macedonian officers, and with other parts of the empire, was in fumbling attempts at the rulers’ Greek. When the Romans succeeded the Greek imperial forces, they had to use the language in place, not their own Latin. As Cicero said of the Roman empire, “Greek is read in practically every nation, while Latin is hedged within its own narrow confines.”

In koine, as in any pidgin language, niceties tend to be lost. Words are strug together, often without connectives to get across a basic meaning. Most of the gospels are written in this basic language, used equally by Romans like Pilate and by Aramaic speakers like Jesus and his followers. Sentences sometimes fumble clumsily at meaning. “What to me and to you, woman?” says Jesus to this mother (John 2.4). “Nothing to you and to that just man,” says Pilate’s wife (Matthew 27.19). “The law and prophets up to John” (Luke 16.16). “I must be at my father’s” (Luke 2.49) — his father’s what? Commentators quarrel. Definite articles, used according to subtle rules in classical Greek, come and go confusingly in koine: the Lord’s Prayer open with an address to “Our Father in the heavens,” but a little later in the prayer we get “in heaven and on earth.” Tenses shift randomly.

When the meaning is obscure in such a simple language, it is less often because of any sublime meaning conveyed than from mere linguistic clumsiness. Grammar can be muddled, if not neglected altogether. The Book of Revelations is especially ungrammatical — Nietzsche, a trained classicist, said that if God wrote the New Testament, he knew surprisingly little Greek. Except in the Epistle to the Hebrews, the complex sentence structure of classical Greek is rarely evident. We get a simple stringing-on of independent clauses (parataxis) linked repetitively with the boring kai (“and”). Dialogue has no elegant variation. It is a matter of “And X say… And Y says… And X says…”

Most of the words used are common. The infant Jesus is laid in a hay trough (phatne). But translators know that people expect a “biblical English” in the gospels. They make the hay trough more dignified by using a foreign word (French manger, for food) instead of “hay trough.” When Jesus answers Pilate, “So you say,” they try to find a more elegant form of answer — though “So you say” exactly replicates the Greek. Translators try to give more churchiness to the evangelists, to teach them their linguistic manners. Jesus should not say to his mother, “What to me and to you, woman?” So they do not let him. Almost every translation into English tries to hide the “faults” of the new Testament. They straighten out the grammar, make the tenses more uniform, break up the repetitions.

—Garry Wills
What Jesus Meant

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Rand Paul’s Process Argument All About Policy

Rand PaulDigby wrote a very interesting article yesterday, Power and Process. It follows off a statement of concern from Rand Paul about President Obama’s executive action on immigration. According to Paul, “[T]here are instances in our history where we allow power to gravitate toward one person and that one person then makes decisions that really are egregious.” And his example, “The president issued an executive order. He said to Japanese people ‘we’re going to put you in a camp.’” Rand Paul is a classic subgenius: he is smart enough to be dangerous, in part because he greatly overestimates his intelligence.

Roosevelt wasn’t acting in a vacuum. Congress wanted the internment and passed a law to enforce it. The people wanted the internment. If it had gone for a vote, it would have passed. And when the Supreme Court ruled on the matter, they upheld it. So how exactly would collective action have helped? How was “The World’s Greatest Deliberative Body” and its mentally retarded brother the House of Representatives going to make this situation better? Digby rightly noted that Paul’s concern here is all about process. So his statement is really vile. The problem with the internment of ethnically Japanese citizens was wrong not because it represented the majority oppressing a minority, but because it wasn’t done the right way.

I realize he didn’t put it that way. He is claiming that when everyone is involved, such things don’t happen. History shows otherwise. Jackson was one of the most popular presidents in history and he oversaw the Trail of Tears and numerous other outrages. The truth of the matter is that like all conservatives, Paul just hates Roosevelt so he wants to put the whole thing on him. Because only Democrats are tyrants. The bottom line is that Paul has the causation wrong. All that was necessary to intern the Japanese-Americans was an executive action because it was hugely popular.

And in the case of Obama today, the executive action was finely crafted. As Greg Sargent noted yesterday, “[I]t shows that the proposal’s legal rationale is tightly circumscribed to reflect that Congressional intent [to relieve humanitarian hardship endured by US citizens].” So the idea that the president is just doing whatever he wants is ridiculous. But that won’t stop the Republicans from screaming about it.

Digby noted that a big part of Rand Paul’s claim here comes from the fact that he simply wants the government to get nothing done. In this way, he is no different from other conservatives. Boehner’s pleading to allow the legislative process to do its job is just another way of saying, “Let us block anything getting done!” And that is another aspect of Mitch McConnell’s plan to make Obama a one term president: stop everything possible until the Republicans are back in power.

Arguments about process are always arguments about policy. We know that Paul would be much more understanding of executive action if a Republican were in the White House. And he would be entirely in favor of it if he were that Republican. So we should forget about these arguments about the right and wrong way to do things — at least so long as we actually do have democratic institutions that set limits. These process arguments are just a cover for people to argue against policy they don’t like but can’t be seen as attacking. Digby put it well:

I no longer fetishize the legislative process because it’s mostly just kabuki anyway. At this point, I’ll take decent outcomes wherever I can get them and be thankful for it since they happen so rarely.

Roosevelt’s executive action was wrong because the policy was wrong. Obama’s executive action is right because the policy is right.

Afterword

To be clear: the argument here is not that process never matters. It is just that in almost all cases, process arguments are disingenuous. Ultimately, the question is policy.

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