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About James Fillmore

I am a spy for MI-6 who recklessly sleeps with innumerable gorgeous partners, drinks like a madman, ruins expensive company equipment, and I get away with all of this because I save the world on a consistent basis. As my cover, I am a poor person living in Minnesota.

Libertarian Island Is an Actual Proposal

Drowning

For years, I had this wicked little idea for a “reality show” called Libertarian Island. In it, we’d drop prominent free-market types on a deserted island, and let them fight to the death. Like The Hunger Games with uglier participants and more cannibalism.

Rush would get killed first, as he has the most meat on his bones. The Koch brothers would form an alliance with Scott Walker, then eat him. Sarah Palin would, ironically, get trampled by a moose. Newt Gingrich would contract cancer and divorce himself. I’m not sure who would win, but Dick Cheney’d be best at shooting into people’s faces.

Unbeknownst to me, there’s been a libertarian think tank that actually wants to create their own floating island. Not for murder (well, not of the rich), but as the ultimate free-market utopia. They’re called the Seasteading Institute, as in like homesteading, on the ocean. (Phonetically, it makes me think of some chic new birthing procedure.)

Apparently, for a while the idea gained real traction among Silicon Valley types, no doubt dreaming of being surrounded by great minds like themselves. (Peter Thiel of the Valley is a major investor, and a major blowhard.) Yet they lost interest (perhaps sensibly realizing they already get every concession they want from America’s political parties).

Happily for fans of really crazy ideas, the project is now back on. The Seasteading people are in negotiations with French Polynesia (islands containing Tahiti, Pago Pago, and other places Marlon Brando lived to be weird).

This would appear to make sense from the Polynesian standpoint; it brings flights to their airports, money to their economy, and some cool stuff to wash up onshore when an eventual typhoon or tsunami wrecks the seasteaders.

A Study in Silliness

I still doubt it can happen. (Why spend all that startup cash when you can just bank in Panama?) Yet the effort they’re putting into it is impressive.

Particularly fun is this academic-style PDF, presented at a conference in the Bahamas. Unless the conference featured peer review, it’s not really an academic paper, but it adds a little intellectual patina. Like having impressive book titles lying around that the owner never intends to read. (A suggested example for conservatives is Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History Of Whine.)

The paper is full of silly pseudo-terminology. Libertarian ideology is “public-choice theory.” (For rich people.) “Constitutional states” are those with, um, actual rules, which are always doomed to failure. (For rich people.) “Mobile citizens”? Rich people. (The authors praise that laboratory of “competitive government” innovation, feudalism.)

Free Market in People

This passage is my favorite:

The European settlement of North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries shows this dynamic at work. The open space of this frontier allowed many new jurisdictions to be formed. Colonies, some of which were explicitly for-profit enterprises, had a great deal of independence and varied in their approach to governance. With an abundance of land and a shortage of people, colonies needed to attract residents to survive and grow. Settlers were comparatively mobile and good rules would give a colony an advantage in the competitive struggle for citizens. Churches and various culturally-specific governance providers added to the diversity, and the result was many new entrants into the governance market competing for citizens.

Nothing like genocide and forced labor camps to make the “governance industry more competitive.” You get the sense that if an extinction-size meteor were heading towards Earth, these people would be arguing for regulatory cuts.

Real Governmental Problems

To be fair, the authors do have some good (if common) sense in their criticism of existing governments:

When the role of individual interests in choice are reduced, expressive concerns are even more likely to dominate than is the case in workaday politics.

My monster-to-human translator decodes that as “voters who feel powerless make emotional choices instead of logical ones.” True enough — but Thomas Frank says it more readably.

Enforcement of constitutional promises is usually left to governments themselves, leaving them relatively free to break these rules, either explicitly or through liberal interpretation.

Again, old news.

Real Villains

Democracies are always subject to the risk of regulatory capture — rule by the very organizations they are supposed to be subjecting to law. This was a favorite argument of Milton Friedman.

It shouldn’t come as any shock that one of the authors here is Milton’s grandson, Patri. Naturally, Gramps was more concerned with labor unions and taxes than he was with corporate malfeasance, and so when Patri mentions “special interests,” it’s not hard to guess who he has in mind.

One Little Problem — How the Heck Can It Work?

Ayn Rand

How is this all to be paid for? The magic of the market, naturally. Investors will buy their own floating houses, easily detachable from the Hive if they don’t like how it’s working. (And go … where? To a houseboat community in America? Warning: vermin issues.)

What will power the economy? The authors have some ideas, including aquaculture and medical tourism “enabled by cheap labor.” Well, if you don’t have money for cancer surgery in America, you certainly don’t have the money for tickets to Tahiti.

I suppose they could specialize in experimental treatments for the desperate. And that perennial favorite of rich folks — black-market organ trafficking.

That “cheap labor” line is no surprise — conservatives have loved it forever. But it is telling of a major problem with the model. Cheap labor means a workforce. They have to live somewhere. You’re not going to give them their own fancy detachable houses, as they might detach. They also might want to organize. Which means paying for a goon force, which means taxes.

And we haven’t even discussed military protection yet. Let’s say the floating island is highly popular. What’s to stop a single warship from showing up and demanding a ransom, or threatening to sink the island? Well, for that you need a military alliance of some kind. They’re not going to provide that service for nothing.

So the Seasteaders would need a government and constitution and taxes — or something pretty much the same, if labeled differently. (A “freedom fee”?) Why not just go live in a touristy tax shelter and open some hotel there? It would cost less.

The Ayn Rand Fantasy

These are dreamers, my friends. If you look at their board members, you see a lot of young faces. They’re gonna change the world!

You also see the usual libertarian interest groups. Drug legalization types, gay rights folks, hedge fund managers, Big Ag executives, right-wing think tank members, etc.

These are people who’ve swallowed the Norquist Kool-Aid; the only reason conservative policies haven’t created earthly paradise is, naturally, that pro-business trends worldwide haven’t gone far enough.

It’s the Ayn Rand fantasy. If you only achieve perfect “freedom” for those who can afford it, their brilliance will shower humankind with its blessings. War, famine, global warming, all shall be solved through “market innovation.” (Forgetting that markets are profiting quite handsomely off all three.)

It’s the supreme arrogance of true believers, and ultimately no different from the religious fanaticism that justifies terrorism. Except that it kills far more people.

Best of Luck!

In any case, I hope this project is pursued for years to come. It strikes me as a harmless way for rich idiots to lose their money, which is never a bad thing. Maybe someone can talk President Trump into investing.

He can slap his name on the organ-dealing hospital. And when his sign washes ashore, it can grace some charming Polynesian tiki bar.


Image cropped from pxfuel. Image cropped from Ayn Rand by DonkeyHotey under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Tacos, Beer, and Defeat on Super Tuesday

Image

Frankly Curious

Thought I might do this like a sports game, I’ve done a few of those. Here it is.

Pre-Game

I’ve been to this place before, with Mrs James. I think for the Iowa caucus returns (that wretched clusterfuck). It’s overwhelmingly white, but that’s just the scene at Twin Cities microbrewery bars. Good luck finding a non-honky at any of these places (and I’ve been to plenty).

The Crowd

The mix tends to be late-20s and early-30s types, either artists beginning to realize that Most Art Don’t Pay Shit, or low-level office drones on the verge of marriage, house, and kids. (Half these people could be clip art for an article titled “10 Best Deals at IKEA.”)

It’s a crowd that’s worried about their future, and this is a good thing — you don’t want to be around these types who also brag about their brilliant lives. Those sorts are vile, and their children will need lots of therapy.

The Venue

This place used to be a factory. It made labels for Hershey bars and such until that got outsourced to wherever. You can still smell the machine oil in the hallway leading to the bathrooms. That smell doesn’t go away with a coat of paint.

It feels like the right location for a Sanders party. Where were the Biden people?

Where the Bidens Are

I looked this up. The Biden people had their Super Tuesday party at a Minneapolis bar kitty-corner from the Catholic Eldercare nursing home. I’m not familiar with that bar or that facility, but I must say: well done, Biden staffers.

The bar’s food menu features a burger that has “Irish whiskey BBQ sauce, with sharp cheddar, fried onion rings, and lettuce.” That’s so beautifully disgusting, I’d probably enjoy eating it. Although you’d lose the virtues of sharp cheddar by dousing it in BBQ sauce (minor quibble).

The menu has items in “$13.00” format, which is right and proper. Never go to a place where the menu has prices listed as “13” without the dollar sign or cents amount. Those are where the Happy Yuppies fester. If the fries with that “Irish Whiskey” burger have potato skins on, this would qualify as a decent bar.

In-Game

Bernie Sanders

Showtime: 8:30. The place is fucking packed. Less young yuppie crowd than before, quite a few people my age or older. Some black people, too. More than one table playing “Magic: The Gathering.” It feels like you could get a serious Kirk-vs-Picard debate going pretty easily, or even a discussion of “Doctor Who” episodes. These people are definitely nerds. My kind of people.

Colorado and Bloomberg

Colorado is called for Sanders. Polite applause. I’m guessing not a lot of Air Force Academy alums here. Certainly, most have been to Mile High Stadium, in the broadest sense.

Jesus H Cracker Crisper, does Mike Bloomberg look like a reanimated fucking corpse. DNC chair Tom Perez isn’t much better. Those two make me nervous my delicious juicy brain is uncovered.

Wolf Blitzer appears to be a live human, albeit one who’s overindulged on juicy delicious brains. Watch that chocolate sauce, Wolf! You gotta be able to fit under the Baghdad hotel room table! (1991 reference.)

Andrew Yang on CNN singing the praises of Bloomberg, “People think of him as a Wall Street guy; he’s a tech guy. He’s like a spaceship…” Oh, fart me.

Bloomberg has gotta be done, right? He ain’t winning shit, he’s just splitting the “electability” vote. At least I won’t have to watch his goddamn ads anymore.

Texas and Sanders

Texas called for Biden. Place is starting to get loud. People are clapping along to the applause lines in Bernie’s Vermont victory speech. My God, when he mentions healthcare as a human right, I’m clapping too. That and having opposed Iraq War get the most response here. (Climate change a very distant third.)

Wow, is Sanders going hard after Biden in this speech?! Fair enough, Uncle Joe’s basically the Senator From Your Credit Card Company, that’s how completely corrupt Deleware politics are. It’s just unusual for Bernie to slag off a primary opponent.

Biden

When Biden begins to speak, I make my way to the bathroom. But just when I think I’m free, I find they’ve got his vapid babblings piped in. Coffee got deep-sixed because, tacos! Three tacos and a beer for $10, momma Fillmore didn’t raise any boys stupid enough to turn that down. Not when the cheapest beer is $6.

(I suppose I could have gotten one of the more expensive beers at the same price, but those have a higher alcohol content. Momma Fillmore didn’t raise any boys stupid enough to drive drunk more than once.)

Went to get more napkins from the taco serving table; what can I say, good hot sauce makes my nose runny. A bunch of people standing in the way were asking, “Have you heard Krystal Ball on MSNBC today?” Methinks my time here is almost done.

California

California is called for Sanders. This was it — the big prize. It’s what everybody was waiting for. A guy behind me yells, “Well, those other states suck anyway!” It gets a laugh, as this includes Minnesota.

People are packing up their board games. It’s pretty clear at this point that Biden will probably be the nominee, either on the first vote or second. I think he’ll lose to Trump.

Still, it’s not a funereal atmosphere. Virtues of an older, slightly less lily-white crowd. We’ve all experienced political disappointments before.

Post-Game

Losing Minnesota tells it all. It’s frustrating because it went hard for Sanders in 2016.

A volunteer asked if I’d sign some clipboard on the way out. Why? What’d be the point? Sanders won what he was predicted to win, nothing else. His shot at getting a majority of the delegates is over. It won’t happen.

The Future

The liberal local radio station I listened to on the way home said, “If you loved the endless nonsense about Hillary’s emails, you are going to absolutely adore what’s coming down about Biden and Ukraine.”

Also, Joe Biden smiling with those flashy teeth looks like a Monty Python animation. It has to be said, so I’m saying it.

Anyhoo, I thought this poster was really neat:

Sanders Poster

The bartenders liked it, too. It’s a fool who doesn’t listen to bartenders (or doesn’t tip 20%). If I’d had another beer, I might have proposed to one of them. Yes, I’m married, so what?

Utah went for Bernie, Minnesota didn’t.

I’m quite glad I didn’t have another beer.

And that’s about as much as I think I can write on the 2020 election right now.


Bernie Sanders by Gage Skidmore. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. Poster image by the author.

Bullies Are Never The Adults In The Room: The Fall of Deadspin

Deadspin Logo

Recently, a “private equity firm” (read: rich guys with money) bought most of the Gizmodo Media Group. That company includes several sites which aren’t hugely read, and several that are — such as The Onion, Jezebel, The Root, and Deadspin.

I assume everyone knows what The Onion is. Jezebel is a feminist website. The Root is an online magazine co-founded by Henry Louis Gates Jr, which focuses on African-American politics and culture. (It’s often surprisingly funny, even when dealing with instances of dumb racism that infuriate the writers.) Deadspin is about sports, so I’ve cited it often in my baseball-related writing.

History of Deadspin

The thing about Deadspin is that it was founded primarily for writers to make snarky remarks criticizing the fawning coverage of successful teams and athletes often featured on ESPN.

Over the years, it maintained the snarky tone but branched out to include skeezy team owners and politicians (and even annoying holiday catalogs) among its targets. The great Neil deMause, our nation’s top writer on terrible taxpayer-funded stadium deals, often wrote there.

Drew Magary, a former commenter on the site, eventually became an editor. He made the absolutely true observation that when readers say “just stick to sports” they don’t really mean it. What they mean is “don’t cover sports with” things some readers don’t want to know about, such as players who make statements against racism or war or shabby college athletic pay. (They’re fine with F-15s flying over the Super Bowl, and stories of players who saved kittens.)

Deadspin would cover “edgy” political sports stories, usually with a left-of-center attitude, and made quite a bit of money doing so.

The Beginning of the End

Enter the new owners — a group of old men who’d run almost every publication they’d ever been in charge of into the ground. (Well, except Forbes. Rich people will always like their Forbes.)

They started off by hiring their buddies, ignoring internal candidates, and several female staff complained about a particularly rude, dismissive tone. The first thing they did was tell all the writers they were expected to generate Moar Page Views[1], which is the besetting nightmare of anyone who puts thought and energy into their writing (yes, even jokes about sports take thought and energy).

Then they made it clear that this political nonsense was going to stop. Deadspin was going to be a series of click-through articles with virtually no content to distract readers beyond increasingly loud, pushy ads. The staff, naturally, fought back on this, arguing that the site was successful precisely because it drew an audience bored by what most dumb sports sites were churning out.

That’s when heads began to roll. First, Megan Greenwell, the editor-in-chief, left. Next, the deputy editor was fired, after refusing to “stick to sports.” One day later, in a truly brilliant move, the senior writers all posted non-sports, fully political articles each tagged “stick to sports” — then quit. Drew Magary quit the following day (the site’s masthead still features a direct link to his archived articles).

What you’re left with as a company might very well remain profitable, but it’s no longer any place anybody wants to work.

Jerk Boss Behavior

Similar complaints about editorial interference and overbearing new management prickiness have been made by editorial and writing staff at all of Gizmodo Media’s other websites, although none with an exodus so large as Deadspin‘s. Some former writers have noted, correctly, that this is exactly normal when private equity firms take over, well, anything (be it a successful website or struggling retail company).

But the most fascinating observation came from Deadspin‘s first high-profile escapee, aforementioned editor-in-chief Megan Greenwell, in her essay called “The Adults In The Room”:

The beginning of the end of my time here came when Spanfeller, my boss’s boss, threw a tantrum in an email to the entire company over a story our staff was reporting on his hiring practices, management style, and threats to editorial independence. He accused us of biased journalism based on the fact that we had sent an early draft to our media lawyer, which is standard journalistic practice. He accused me and a 26-year-old reporter who works for me — a wildly talented reporter who has as much integrity as anyone I’ve ever worked with — of trying to “shame and discredit others in our community” by reporting a story. When another colleague suggested in an all-staff meeting that his email was itself an attempt to publicly shame and discredit his employees, he doubled down, saying he is a transparent guy who says what he thinks…

After I submitted my resignation, explaining that the ongoing undermining from my bosses made it impossible for me to continue to succeed in my job, and that I believed I was putting my staff at risk by staying, the CEO threw a tinier tantrum. When I passed Spanfeller in the office a week after I put in notice, he let out a cruel barking laugh, as if he was disgusted to be in my presence. I said “you can speak to me, you know,” and he responded in a tone familiar to anyone who was ever bullied in middle school. “I don’t want to,” he sneered.

Greenwell’s point, of course, was that this sort of management style is common among those who consider themselves to be the hard-nosed realists, the grownups, the adults in the room. And that as a result, it drives talented people away. What you’re left with as a company might very well remain profitable, but it’s no longer any place anybody wants to work. (Sociopathic environments like Enron and the Trump White House have shown a spectacular propensity to ruin all they touch.)

That office interaction she describes also reminds me of a line from the show Deadwood: “Can’t shut up. Every bully I’ve ever met can’t shut his fuckin’ mouth.”[2]

Why Can’t Bullies Ever Shut Up?

The bully, by definition, always has to have the last word. Because anything else means admitting, or at least allowing others to believe, that you realize your behavior was wrong.

Now, are bullies the only ones who do this? Heavens, no. We’ve all done it in arguments with romantic partners, family members, online commenters, insurance company phone reps, whatever, when we felt we were in the right. Most of us, though, will eventually realize we’ve taken an argument too far and agree to disagree, retire to separate corners, drop the argument altogether — apologize if we really feel crummy about the whole thing.

A true bully will always have the last word. Even if they apologized before, they’ll nurture and nourish their interior anger at having had to do so, and take the first opportunity to resume the argument (if not with the individual in question, then anyone who seems an appropriate abuse double).

A true bully never really regrets behaving the way they do; they consider it their right as the more powerful person.

Most of the writers who quit are enormously talented and probably will have no difficulties finding new employment.

Why Are Many People In Power Some Degree Of Bully?

Orwell once stated that every bully is also a coward. I’m sure there is some truth to this. Any child services professional knows that bullies are often children who come from abusive homes. So do behavioral psychologists who study serial killers. That sort of bully might have a twisted manifestation of the impostor syndrome, where someone who has power over others constantly fears being found out as a fraud.

Some bullies, however, show no signs of ever having been mistreated in their lives. And that’s the kind I think those new Gizmodo Media owners are. They don’t fear being exposed for the frauds, or jerks, that they are. In fact, they assume such a thing will never happen. Not to them.

Power corrupts, as the saying goes, and if that’s not innate to human behavior it is certainly innate to our current form of capitalism. Everyone under capitalism is ranked by their status, in ways both big (investment portfolio size) and small (an office worker at an ad firm is considered “cooler” than a garbage hauler who makes more money).

A great many people who demean others because they have a higher status under capitalism are Orwellian coward-bullies; they’ll be rank suck-ups to those above them and full-on buttholes to anyone beneath. (As another saying goes, “shit rolls downhill.”)

Not the ones at our very top, though. Not the ones who know that no decision they make will ever harm their lives in any serious way. The super-rich almost never become poor — and only go to jail when they present a problem to the other super-rich. Since they have no need to fear any repercussions for their actions, why not be a rude jerk “who says what he thinks,” if you like? If it makes you feel really, really badass.

The Ultimate Fate Of Deadspin

Most of the writers who quit are enormously talented and probably will have no difficulties finding new employment. Craig Calcaterra at NBC Sports’s Hardball Talk does something very similar with his sportswriting. There’s lots of places a clever writer can go if they don’t want to write sports on the internet anymore. (One does need a solid resume for this, however.)

Could the site itself come back in some sort of different form? Ari Paul at Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) thinks there may be, if writers band together to form some kind of employee-owned website. Paul admits such a venture would require considerable risk with very little early reward, yet suggests that “for independent media to survive… we’re at a breaking point, so it’s necessary.”

How about the site itself? No doubt it will continue in some sort of fashion, as it currently does, but I suspect it will never draw such a loyal following again. Especially not if the new owners continue amping up intrusive ad placements. Fans of witty sports/politics coverage can find other places to go, especially on podcasts and the like.

My guess is Deadspin‘s most consistent readers — you know, the ones advertisers like best — will drift away if they already haven’t fled in disgust. (God help these new owners if they push The Root‘s staff into mass escapage.)

Will it hurt the private equity investors at all? They might make less profit than they expected, but they’ll be fine. Even if they do take a loss, they’ll certainly blame someone besides themselves. Not every spoiled brat grows up to be a bully, but every rich bully is a spoiled brat.


[1] “Moar” is apparently who high young-people spell “more” online. Who am I to stand in the way? -FM

[2] The full quote is, “Can’t shut up! Every bully I ever met can’t shut his fuckin’ mouth. Except when he’s afraid.” It is said by Seth Bullock to George Heart in the final film.

Deadspin Logo by Deadspin – Univision, Public Domain.

What Trump, Erdoğan, and We Have Done to Syrian Kurds

YPG Fighter With Child

The Kurds are an ethnic/linguistic stateless people living primarily in Eastern Turkey and northern Iraq (where they make up about 20% of the national population), northeast Syria and northwest Iran (where they make up roughly 10%).

Since 2012, northeast Syrian Kurds have formed an essentially independent government, based on libertarian socialist principles (non-authoritarian socialism). They’ve been able to do so by fighting off the ISIL faction in Syria’s civil war, and as such were loosely allied with American troops in the region.

On 7 October 2019, President Trump announced his plans to reassign these troops elsewhere in Syria. Since the troops will be taking their air support with them, this leaves Syrian Kurds vulnerable to invasion by Turkey. Turkish president/thug Recep Tayyip Erdoğan then indicated he would do so, using ethnic cleansing to clear a 20-mile deep area along the border as a new home for some of Turkey’s 3.6 million Syrian refugees. Attacks began almost immediately. Erdoğan has threatened to release the Syrian refugees into Europe if he is opposed (how he would do so is unclear).

Why Does Erdoğan Hate the Kurds?

There’s been resentment in Turkey towards its Kurdish minority for decades, roughly since a Kurdish separatist movement arose following the end of the Ottoman Empire. Authoritarian politicians, there as here, sporadically stoked this resentment in hopes of bolstering their own popularity. Repressions have included sometimes banning the language, deposing democratically elected Kurdish politicians, jailing and murdering leaders and journalists, and so on. After a failed 2016 coup attempt (probably started by members of the Turkish military), Erdoğan used the coup as an excuse to crack down even further on Kurdish civil society.

The mostly Christian Armenian population now coexists peacefully with the mostly Muslim Kurdish population.

And ethnic cleansing is not new to Turkey either; during WWI the government is estimated to have murdered between 700,000 and 1,500,000 Armenians (some Kurds helped, as is often the case with genocides: turn one oppressed minority against another). Some who fled for their lives ended up in Northeast Syria, where Armenian culture has existed for centuries. The mostly Christian Armenian population now coexists peacefully with the mostly Muslim Kurdish population. They are sure to be among hundreds of thousands at risk of losing their homes if Erdoğan fulfills his invasion plans. This has caused some prominent American evangelical leaders to criticize Trump’s strategic decision. (I don’t imagine they’ll stay mad for long.)

A Common Fate for American Proxy Allies

It’s not the first time America has used Kurdish fighters as allies then abandoned them to regional enemies; as Jon Schwarz observes, it’s more like the eighth, usually involving our obsession with ruling Iraq from Washington.

Nor are the Kurds our first recent foray in exploiting the self-determination dreams of a stateless people; we did it in Southeast Asia with the Hmong, who faced reprisals from the Laotian government after supporting the US side.

Thousands died in Laotian re-education camps or trying to reach refugee camps in Thailand. We allowed a handful to escape here. There are sizable Hmong populations in California and Minnesota today as a result.

Why Is Trump Doing This?

America has used Kurdish fighters as allies then abandoned them to regional enemies many times before.

Who knows. Trump apparently made the decision following a call with Erdoğan, one of the endless series of tyrants our would-be Mussolini admires.

Probably it’s a win-win-win scenario in his mind since it pleases a tyrant, pretends to be disentangling the US from endless Middle Eastern wars, and screws over suffering people. The US foreign policy establishment, naturally, considers any example of even slightly successful socialism to be a strategic threat, although it’s unlikely Trump pays any attention to such matters.

He did promise that “if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off-limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!).” No doubt Syrian Kurds feel better now. Besides, as William Rivers Pitt points out, Trump owns a hotel in Istanbul; “financially firebombing your own properties” is not a typical Trump move (except via his own stupidity and narcissism).

The Time I Needed Kurdish Tea

Which brings to mind a personal anecdote. I used to live above a Kurdish restaurant in Saint Paul (one of my favorite restaurants, ever). The building owner, a serious Trump-type super-jerk who inherited the building from his dad, was a slumlord and a sleaze; he’d hang out in the lobby at the beginning of every month to hit on college students moving in.

It was impossible to interact with this man without him being insulting and demeaning, making fun of you for having a low-rent apartment. One time he really got under my skin, I don’t remember with what. It was right before I was meeting someone at the restaurant.

And boy, did I vent. I let loose a tirade of f-bombs that would make a mobster blush. The place was pretty empty at the time, and I’m sure my voice was audible all the way in the kitchen.

The owner, a conservatively dressed middle-aged woman, came over to our table. “I think you need some Kurdish tea,” she said, and comped me a cup.

She was right! It absolutely calmed me down.

I’m happy to report that not long after I left that horrible landlord, the restaurant did, too. They’re doing fine in a new location nearby. Same owner, same excellent food, and the same tea.

How to Follow This Story in the US

Right now, there is major media coverage in the US, largely because a few Republican members of Congress have criticized Trump’s withdrawal decision. (This is presumably because of the risk to Armenian Christians and the possible resurgence of ISIL in the region, not concern over the Kurds.) This coverage is already beginning to fade; simple humanitarian crises don’t make our evening news.

One can, of course, trust Al Jazeera English to stay on the story and to see updates from Democracy Now! Economic anthropologist David Graeber (a strong supporter of the Kurdish socialist movement) has, for years, been providing links to coverage of anti-Kurdish repression on his Twitter feed, including many local news sources.

We should follow what happens because, in large part, we did it. And the great anti-war writer, ex-soldier Danny Sjursen sadly notes, betrayal is American foreign policy; “next time, and there will be a next time, don’t even think about trusting Uncle Sam. You’ll thank me later.”

Update

Since I wrote this, the Syrian Kurds have asked corrupt Syrian president Bashar al-Assad for military assistance resisting the Turkish invasion. Assad has virtually no support from anybody in Syria, but he does have lots of guns, probably half of which we sold him, if the history of US interventions is any guide.

Accepting Assad’s help means the end of a socialist Kurdish society in northeast Syria. And that’s correct; preventing murder or forced relocation is more important than protecting an experiment in actual democracy. It’s what Sjursen predicted, and it’s terribly sad. Why not actually flex our international muscle to support the locals, for once? Because we’re America, and that’s not what we do.

Trump claims the relocated soldiers will be returning home. He says, “Those that mistakenly got us into the Middle East Wars are still pushing to fight. They have no idea what a bad decision they have made.”

That’s a good campaign bit, but it’s utterly untrue — we’re not getting out of the Middle East, we’re just repositioning troops. Our war on and about that region never ends. Trump didn’t start it, Trump will not end it, and the suffering will continue, far away, to people about whom we couldn’t give a damn.


Kurdish YPG Fighter by Kurdishstruggle licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The Real Reason Trump Wants to Buy Greenland

Nuuk, Greenland

Like most of us, I am sick of hearing, reading, or talking about Trump. Friends will ask if I’ve heard of the latest outrage he’s committed, and I’ll usually answer, “No.” What’s the point? It’ll either be bigoted, ignorant, dishonest, or utterly destructive to civilization’s future. Usually all of the above.

It’s standard-brand Republican politics, as practiced for at least 40 years, but with more boorishness. Trump’s fans love him for these things, and I have no interest in trying to discern their motives. Some sort of psychological disorder, no doubt, and not a particularly compelling one.

So I was overjoyed to recently read that Trump has been pestering aides with questions about whether the United States can buy Greenland. That’s the kind of amusing, harmless stupidity I hope for from Republican administrations. Like Bush II mispronouncing “nuclear” or Reagan telling Gorbachev that if aliens attacked Earth, America and the USSR would work together.

Even better were the responses of semi-sane people. The Guardian had a fun article quoting Greenlanders and Danes, both politicians and average citizens. (Greenland is self-governing, but still technically a protectorate of Denmark, which provides what military defense the island requires.) Their comments ranged from the sensible (“Why on Earth would anybody want to be an American colony?”) to incredulous (“It must be a joke!”). A member of Denmark’s “nationalist” (read: anti-immigrant) party said, “It is definitive proof that [Trump] has gone crazy.” Again, that’s the far-right, anti-immigrant party speaking.

Note to Danes: it’s not a joke, and he’s been crazy for a looooong time before this.

What the Danes Have Told Me

We have several old Danish friends. (When Mrs James left for college, her father developed empty-nest syndrome and had a series of exchange students; she’s stayed in touch with the ones she liked best.) One spent a few years living in Greenland, another is a communications specialist in the navy.

The com specialist has observed in the past that Denmark and every other nation with Arctic territory maintains a naval presence in the Arctic Ocean. “Basically,” she said, “we just sail around and let each other know we’re there.” Reduced thickness of sea ice has made it possible for oil companies to put oil rigs in places where, before, the ice would crush them like tinfoil. As some of the sites oil companies are interested in lie well offshore, the question comes up of whom has sovereignty over which international waters. “I like it when we sail up north,” she told us. “It’s not so damn hot.”

The man who lived in Greenland left because he broke up with his girlfriend there. Besides, he said, he was drinking too much. The largest town has 17,000 people, and in smaller ones it’s common to stock up goods for the winter before basically hunkering down. If one’s relationship is going sour, there really isn’t much else to do but drink. (Rationing would be key here.)

His response to Trump’s proposal was the simple text message “Why?!”

Seriously, Why Would America Want Greenland?

Several writers have addressed this question, with varying levels of seriousness. A columnist covering European affairs for Bloomberg actually typed about “reviving the market in sovereign territories, which once made America great.” Brian Kahn, usually a environmental writer for Gizmodo UK, said the idea was “plainly, batshit,” but addressed some of the possible geopolitical advantages (world’s largest supply of freshwater, mineral deposits under a melting ice sheet, military location, etc.) My favorite was by Matthew Walther at MSN, who noted that Greenland is essential territory in the boardgame Risk:

So far the Danes are insisting that they are not interested in a sale. We should remind them that they are spending $600 million a year to subsidize the fantasy that the most remote part of North America is actually European. We should also offer them an absolutely ridiculous amount of money — paying off their entire national debt, a match of whatever their GDP is for the next 20 years, the rights to the next five Super Bowls, Trump’s second-favorite son changing his name to “Erik.” As far as the Greenlanders themselves go, they could get the Armageddon deal: no taxes ever, for the rest of their lives.

No one is going to feel bad about the price tag in 50 years when Helge Damsgaard and her Sirius Patrol shield-mate Kaj Knudsen successfully defeat Russian forces off the coast of Uunartoq Qeqertaq armed with only a pair of laser axes.

Right you are, sir. Yet, just to pretend, let’s look at the “serious” reasons one-by-one.

Seriously, These Reasons Make No Sense

Mineral deposits/oil reserves: Greenland does have these. So why would Denmark have any conceivable reason to sell? They’re a perfectly wealthy country, with a diversified economy (and a better standard of living than that of most Americans) — they don’t need our money. Their asking price would be well what the territory is worth and more; it’d be cheaper for us to just bomb some suffering nation and steal their stuff.

Strategic military location: we already have bases in Greenland. Denmark is part of NATO, as we are (for now). In fact, one of our planes once caught fire and crashed while carrying huge atomic bombs. The bombs didn’t go off (these near-misses have happened more often than most people know), but the crash spread toxic radiation over a wide area. Needless to say, Greenlanders were not pleased.

Besides, we’re not living in 1964, Dr. Strangelove days anymore, when B-52s were our primary nuclear delivery threat: we have submarines that can shoot missiles from anywhere, and ICBMs which can shoot missiles to everywhere. One decommissioned silo in South Dakota, now the Minuteman National Historic Site, features a giant blast door painted by USAF staffers to resemble a Domino’s Pizza box. The tagline: “Worldwide Delivery In 30 Minutes Or Less / Or Your Next One Is Free.”

That’s from a Cold-War era missile silo. I promise you today’s missiles go much faster.

Water: Neither Trump nor any other Republican cares remotely about America’s drinking water supply (ask Flint, Newark, etc). If most of the water on Earth gets poisoned, rich people will have access to the last good stuff.

What Trump Does Care About, Bigly

Once you count territorial possessions, the United States is Earth’s fourth-largest country, geographically, behind Russia, Canada, and China. Purchasing Greenland would make us a solid #2.

Would anyone really put such an idiotic motive past Trump? He wants the biggest military parade and biggest wall. He lies about having the biggest audiences and largest fortune and greatest electoral victory. (If Trump consciously lies, which I doubt; I suspect he thinks that whatever he thinks is true.) He’s said that the World Trade Center attacks made his Trump Tower the biggest building in downtown Manhattan. He brags about TV ratings and Twitter followers. Let’s not forget his ridiculously oversized neckties.

Maybe this is some kind of Freudian thing, or simply the twisted mindset of aspirationally rich people — keeping up with the Joneses taken to psychotic extremes. I don’t particularly care. Serial killers are far more interesting than rich people (and ultimately far less dangerous).

In any case, this explanation makes the most sense to me. So I’m officially calling it the best. And the biggest.

Charlie Pierce Can Torture With the Best of Them

The Torture of Prometheus - Gioacchino AsseretoCharlie Pierce wrote:

“‘It’s hard. It’s really, really hard because my husband died by gun suicide,’ said Judy Schneider-Wallace, a former schoolteacher from Seattle.”

Okay, Pierce: bring it, you’ve already broken my heart past repair.

“She and her husband, Paul, were double victims of the economic collapse and of the financial-services vampires who both caused it and then profited by looting the lives they’d already ruined.”

No, Charlie! No more!

“They were in the process of renegotiating their mortgage with Wells Fargo, a process that brought grief to thousands of people across the country whose personal economies already were in tatters.”

Okay. I’m far past the point of being able to handle this.

“While they were wrestling with financial ruin, Paul shot himself to death on the first day of school.”

No. You cannot do that, Pierce. You cannot lead readers down that path to a place so gruesome and grim, even though it is the truth.

I would never do so. And that’s why I’m a baseball writer and Charlie Pierce is, funny names for politicians aside, a real writer. I don’t always agree with him, but does he ever leave pretenders like Chait or Yglesias in the damn dust?

My wife is good at talking to people and hearing their stories; it’s never been a thing I’m skilled at.

Home Repair and the Joys of Marriage

Flooded BasementSo a month ago, I went downstairs to grab a beer, and there was water in the basement.

I should explain — I live in Minnesota. We have snow, if you haven’t heard. And it usually melts gradually. This crap melted all at once.

Twenty standing inches of it.

And I only moved in a few years ago. (I’ve always lived in apartments.)

I went upstairs to drink my beer, hoping when I was done, the basement water would have gone away. Maybe house spiders would have drunk it or something. As is usual when avoiding problems, when I went back, the basement water was worse.

Contacting the Wife

I called Mrs James at one of her three jobs. “I fucking think the goddamn fucking basement is flooding like fucking shit.”

No response to that voicemail.

I called again. “We have water downstairs. I cannot scoop it up fast enough.”

I was bailing it out with the drip tray from a toaster oven, that’s all I could think of.

Her response? “I just left work; I’ll be there in 15 minutes.”

I seem to have a reverse polarity with cussing, where I swear so constantly, people who know me take me seriously when I stop swearing. Go figure.

Recruiting the Wife

Anyhoo, as it turned out, the house vacuum does double duty. Remove the dirt filter and that machine can slurp up floodwater. Problem is, it doesn’t do it fast as the water comes in, so you gotta run and empty it constantly for about 12 hours. You do this in shifts. One person grabs an hour or two of couch sleep, then the other takes over, etc.

A day later, we were both still sleep-deprived, and got into an argument over some meaningless thing. So I ran out of the room to kick a hole in some drywall. (While I have never struck a living being in anger, I have been known to attack inanimate objects.)

Wisdom of a Wall

If walls could talk, this one would have said, “You dumbass! You wanted the movie version of when some couple comes together to save the family from a flood, or volcano, or alien monster attack, and at the end, they’re closer than ever for all eternity. In fact, even dealing with a leaky basement for hours on end is stressful and exhausting. At the end, all you saved was thousands of dollars in basement repair you can’t afford right now.”

I would have nodded and admitted, “Yeah, right.”

“Well, haha! Now you’re going to have to fix me! Who’s the supposedly self-aware collection of atoms now? At least I didn’t mrmuph glurn nmmble…”

Because, if walls could talk, that’s when I would have taped newspaper over the drywall hole to shut it up.

They can’t, but in fact, I did. Since I don’t know how to fix drywall. But I’ll get around to it later.

Bill Maher, Lee Camp, and Comedy Cojones

Lee CampAs a reader of this site, you are of course a good liberal, and no doubt familiar with the many post-Jon Stewart purveyors of political humor. John Oliver, Hasan Minhaj, Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, Seth Myers’s “A Closer Look” segments, the unfairly canceled Larry Wilmore, and Michelle Wolf.

All have done great work. But you may not be familiar with a more left-wing alternative, the columnist and comic Lee Camp. We’ll get to him in a moment!

Bill Maher: Daring Truthteller

Recently, the funny writer Drew Magary posted an article at GQ, titled Bill Maher: Do We Need Him? Maher has, once again, said something people take umbrage at — this time, joking that rural communities lack sophistication. As Magary observes, this is far from the most offensive thing Maher’s ever said — it doesn’t even crack the top 20. (And, in this case, the riffing clearly was a joke; most of Maher’s truly repugnant opinions are delivered with full sincerity.)

Magary is perhaps a little too dismissive of Maher’s long-practiced joke-delivery style. It’s old-fashioned, but he is skilled at it. What Magary gets absolutely right is exasperation at Maher’s “smarmy brand as Teller of Uncomfortable Truths,” a tone Maher’s adopted since being fired by ABC for saying 2001’s suicide bombers were, physically, not cowards.

While ABC was rather gutless in that instance, Maher ended up quite rich and happy at HBO — essentially, like getting fired from a bad job and immediately finding a better one. So Maher’s firing hardly counts as a great hardship, suffered for Telling Uncomfortable Truths.

Punching Down

Along with his self-righteous sense of singular moral courage, Maher has repeatedly punched down on targets his audience shares no admiration for (fundamentalist Muslims, humorless liberals) and, worse, given airtime to others who’ve been justly criticized for more viciously doing the same.

The likes of Ann Coulter, Grover Norquist, Jordan Peterson, and Milo Yiannopoulos, Maher seems to believe, are kindred spirits, attacked by those who want to stifle free speech. In fact, they are the ones attempting to stifle free speech, by deflecting genuine criticism with evasions, untruths, and whining about persecution.

There might be some point in having these monsters on if Maher or his other guests called out their incessant dishonesty. That rarely seems to happen. The most widely-watched clip on Maher’s YouTube page is where Larry Wilmore berates Yiannopoulos for his repugnant remarks towards the LGTB community. Generally, the guests, and Maher, let the liars get away with it.

(The vile Yiannopoulos, now broke, wants other to feel sorry for him. Nobody complains more than a neofascist whose viciousness towards others stops being rewarding.)

As Magary correctly states: Bill Maher’s “show has done far more to legitimize shitty people than to subvert them.” Which, more than the smugness, more than the faux-daring offensiveness, is why I no longer tolerate the skilled joke delivery of Bill Maher.

Lee Camp

I’d been reading Camp’s occasional TruthDig columns for a while, and finally got around to noticing that his bio line mentions the show, Redacted Tonight. It’s roughly in the same visual style as most of those mentioned above, although it clearly doesn’t have the same budget. (In that way it reminds me of the early years of The Daily Show, with a far stronger political viewpoint.)

Here’s his column’s take on our mucking around in Venezuela:

Maybe those people really need our help, and U.S. intervention will work out great—exactly like it did in Syria,
and Yemen,
and Iraq,
and Iran,
and Afghanistan,
and Chile,
and Honduras,
and Haiti,
and Somalia,
and Libya,
and Guatemala,
and Nicaragua,
and Colombia,
and Panama,
and Fraggle Rock,
and those tree forts where the EWOKS LIVED!

Camp is an avowed socialist and Washington, DC native; that’s where the program is taped. (Most of these programs are taped in New York — Bee and Oliver share the same studio, in fact, and Bee once carved her name in his desk!)

It’s presumably because Washington is the home to RT America (The US branch of RT Network, which is funded by the Russian government). They presumably host Camp’s program because of his opposition to American imperialism.

A Few Words About RT Network

The little-seen network is state-sponsored and claims to receive no editorial interference. That’s hard to determine, but they’ve certainly run programs with hosts and/or guests who are no lovers of the crony capitalism Russia has embraced since 1989. For example, Chris Hedges, Thom Hartmann, and Noam Chomsky, among others.

It’s also had some true wackadoodle guests on before, like the crazy Jesse Ventura. Larry King has a show there, maybe because he missed wearing the suspenders. Basically, the gist seems to be that anyone who legitimizes the viewpoint that America isn’t always a Pure Force Of Moral Goodness for our world is welcome on that network.

Well, as others have noted, it’s not like we don’t export CNN to basically every airport on Earth, and that’s in the business of justifying America’s awesomeness. My best guess is that RT will hardly allow any direct criticism of Moscow’s policies, while most other subjects are fair game. Al-Jazeera English, which is widely considered a genuine source of reportage, doesn’t ever criticize Qatar.

As Glen Greenwald noted recently, the US media accepted unquestioningly a false 23 February story from Venezuela that showed our preferred side in the best light while demonizing the enemy. An RT reporter got the story correct, later that very day. (It took The New York Times until 10 March to confirm what that reporter had said immediately.) While Greenwald admits that we should look hard at any government’s state-approved media, in this instance, it was the RT reporter “who was acting like a journalist trying to understand and report the truth.”

The New York Times, naturally, considers Lee Camp a Russian tool. NPR is slightly more forgiving.

Redacted Tonight

Camp comes across a little like a young college student who just discovered socialism. But he was born in 1980 and told Fox & Friends to go fart itself, on air, ten years ago. He’s been an Onion writer and part of the East Coast comedy scene. If anything makes him look younger, it’s the long hair; in one episode a co-performer calls him “progressive Jesus.”

Most episodes feature Camp in the funny-angry opening role, then interviewing either one of his co-performers (he’ll play the straight man) or a serious guest; one recent episode featured human rights’ activists from Colombia.

He could use a larger writing staff (most of these shows credit at least ten), as sometimes the jokes are a little repetitive; Camp relies on a lot of what Spock called “colorful metaphors.” Take this recent example:

In my professional opinion, anyone who had anything to do with the selling, perpetrating or planning of the Iraq War should never again hold a position higher than assistant trainee to the guy who picks up the shit of a dog that does not belong to anyone of any particular importance. If that position does not exist, we as a nation should create it just for this moment.

But even when the jokes sound similar, his outrage at criminal injustice always feels real. Here’s a typical recent episode:

Fake Cojones And The Real Thing

Ultimately, Maher’s schtick is hugely neoliberal. It’s humor for the kind of socially tolerant careerists who trust our financial overlords, are vaguely critical of our widely-known military disasters and don’t want to hear about the secret wars. The sort of people who think TED Talks and (Maher’s frequent guest) Andrew Sullivan represent common-sense wisdom. For whom Maher can seem kinkily outrageous at times, but mostly against those dumb religious sorts and super-lefties who don’t live in the real world.

Maher pretends to have Giant Cojones, which gets him accepted among the faux-intelligentsia and has made him obscenely rich.

Lee Camp’s humor might at times feel a little more desperate because he’s genuinely angry. Is he hurting? No, he’s got a perfectly successful comic career, even if it currently involves going a bit quiet on Russia’s crimes. But, as a true liberal, he’s frustrated and furious at what our system of power does here, there, everywhere. And that takes more cajones than Bill Maher has ever had since his struggling club days.

Al Franken’s Shame and Evil’s Gain

Al FrankenI watched Al Franken’s resignation speech on Thursday. It was broadcast live on local news here in Saint Paul. My wife watched the last half of it with me. Like me, she’d been an ardent Franken supporter before he was accused repeatedly of sexual misconduct. The speech seemed sincere, and Franken appeared to be fighting back tears through most of it. He did not admit to abusive sexual behavior, yet he affirmed how all such accusations must be taken seriously.

When his speech ended, my wife said, “At least he didn’t make his wife stand behind him.” And this is true. By announcing live on the Senate floor, Franken avoided using her as a prop, the way so many politicians do at press conferences when pleading innocent to similar charges. (Frannie Franklin was in the gallery, along with the Senator’s soon-to-be-unemployed staff.)

The contradiction was jarring. Here is someone who obviously respects his wife enough not to make her publicly bear his disgrace. And yet his disgrace centered around accounts of demeaning women. Franken’s political service itself remains a contradiction. He was a great Senator for Minnesota, and a good one for America. Yet his personal failings resulted in our losing a key progressive voice, who could work easily with both wings of the Democratic Party, right when such figures are needed the most. His fall almost feels like an abandonment — even if it was deserved.

Did Franken Deserve It?

In his speech, Al Franken pointed out the irony of his resignation when Republicans are backing politicians accused of far worse — one of whom was caught on tape bragging about sexual assault.

In his speech, Al Franken pointed out the irony of his resignation when Republicans are backing politicians accused of far worse — one of whom was caught on tape bragging about sexual assault. Feminist writers such as Dahlia Lithwick and Ramona Grigg have defended him to some degree. They have argued that, given such a vast degree of difference between the criminality involved in these accusations, Franken’s resignation represents a gift to the forces of evil.

Make no mistake, Franken’s ouster is the GOP’s gain. There are several highly principled and intelligent individuals Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton can appoint to fill Franken’s seat. (My favorite is apparently not on Dayton’s shortlist.) Yet none would be able to match Franken’s legislative influence. (That’s particularly so as the appointment will only last until next November when a special election will be held.)

However, those accusations — if true — indicate a kind of behavior that cannot be tolerated in any workplace.

Was Franken Guilty?

This is, of course, the pertinent question. The opinions of people in Minnesota are varied. Some believe it’s all slander. Others believe he’s probably gotten away with worse. My opinion is, “I don’t know what happened.”

Eyewitness testimony is, as we know, an unreliable form of evidence. Human memory isn’t that good. And that’s just the beginning. It’s entirely possible that Franken’s alleged groping behavior at photo shoots was accidental. It’s harder to believe the instances of forced kissing were accidents.

The Guardian quoted Larry Jacobs, a University of Minnesota political scientist. He said, “I didn’t know of any of these accusations but he’s a very self-confident person who thinks of himself as special. With some of the accusations you see that: what he felt was being goofy or having his way was clearly unacceptable.”

Self-Confidence or Harassment?

I could see that being the case. Al Franken, after all, got away with books titled Rush Limbaugh Is A Big Fat Idiot and his anti-Fox News Lies And The Lying Liars Who Tell Them. Those titles were meant to be provocative, and they were. (Unlike similarly-provocative titles “written” by right-wingers, Franken used fact-checkers.) Also, Franken spent years working at Saturday Night Live, described as having a backstage environment where “everyone hates everyone else and is jealous of everyone’s success.”

Where Franken Came From

If you can thrive in the vicious worlds of political polemics and a Lorne Michaels program, you may very well become accustomed to getting away with Alpha behavior that less competitive people rarely display. I’ve had jobs where I was extremely valuable, and I knew it. At that time, I got into heated arguments about how correct my plans were. I cringe now to remember this behavior. I’d hopefully never talk to a colleague like that today.

But no matter the degree of gray areas in accusations against Franken, I believe it was time for him to go.

The Perils Of A Persona

Some politicians (LBJ, any mayor of Chicago) present themselves as tough guys who “know the game.” Consummate insiders. They don’t expect voters to approve of them personally. Instead, they promise to deliver policies the voters want enacted. And they remind us about how the sausage gets made.

That was not Al Franken’s style.

He claims to have had no interest in politics before the death of (still beloved) Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone in a plane crash in 2002. Franken said he was particularly incensed by Wellstone’s successor, Norm Coleman, a career opportunist who told one reporter “I am a 99 percent improvement over Paul Wellstone.” He said it while waving a cigar — the very picture of DC corruption.

Al Franken’s Rise

Franken beat Coleman by a handful of votes. But he took office and established a reputation as one of the hardest working, most dedicated liberals in Congress. He frequently toured every last corner of Minnesota, holding town halls even in non-election years. He made nice with local Democratic Party insiders who’d tried their hardest to defeat his primary nomination. When in Washington, Franken would post, on his website, hours where he’d be having coffee in publicly-accessible Senate spaces. If you were in town, you were welcome to join him.

Al Franken’s image was one of absolute political integrity. He was in office, not for power, not to secure some board membership once he’d delivered favors to donors, but to serve his constituents. He was re-elected by a far larger margin. Even some conservative Minnesotans who disagreed with his politics believed in his sincerity.

And so, once the sexual accusations began to accumulate, Franken’s shine was tarnished. (His first, most famous accuser originally said she forgave him; had that been the only instance, he wouldn’t be stepping down.) Even if his statements about “I remember the incident differently” were 100% honest, they sounded exactly like what any other politician would say. Al Franken wasn’t supposed to be like any other politician; he was supposed to be something different.

Come Back, Shane

I bought it. And I’d enjoyed Franken ever since his days on the old Bill Maher program Politically Incorrect. (You remember: back when Maher was willing to let his guests do most of the talking.) I’d heard his radio show; I’d read his books. And Norm Coleman was (And still is!) human slime — your typical ex-liberal who switched sides when it became convenient. He ran one ad which featured an honest-to-God cancer kid; it would have made Elvis Costello sick.

A Personal Recollection of Franken

The man aspiring to good ruined, perhaps deservedly so. The man wallowing in evil triumphant, and certainly not deservedly so.

At the time of Franken’s first campaign, I was working at a residential facility for adults with disabilities. We took all of them to the State Fair, as every Minnesotan except me loves the State Fair. We went very, very early in the morning — 6:00 am! — because the crowds are thinner that early, and pushing wheelchairs is difficult in a big crowd.

At one point, we ran into Franken. We were taking a break — it was still early, but we needed coffee — and I spotted Franken similarly caffeine-ing up a few feet away with his wife. I walked over; he looked exhausted. “Hi, I’m sorry to bug you,” I said, “but this guy I know over there is a big politics junkie, and if you could just take a picture…”

Now, that individual isn’t just a politics junkie (which he is, he’ll watch city council meetings on public-access cable), but one of the most outgoing souls I’ve ever known. Half the time he looks like he’s about to die of pure old age right there in his wheelchair. Then he meets someone he’s happy to see, and his whole face glows with joy.

Al Franken came over, got the Joy Face at full strength, and you could see Franken’s spirits lift. A corncob tasting at some unholy hour on a Sunday morning, that’s the drag of campaigning, but the good moments — they’re worth it.

The picture of them together still hangs in that person’s room. When frustration or physical pain or low pay was getting me down at work, sometimes I’d go look at that picture, and remember one time when my feeble efforts helped make someone very happy.

Tarnished Memories

And now that memory is partially ruined.

As is the memory of how much my wife enjoyed listening to Franken’s last book, Giant Of The Senate on CD. She particularly liked Franken talking about how, in that 2008 campaign, his adult children asked him if the opposition would dig anything up they needed to know — and Franken said no, their family was safe from that shame.

The day after my wife finished that book, the first accusations came out. Her response was very angry and straightforward, “He lied to his family.”

The Scum Also Rises

So, quite likely through faults of his own, Al Franken is gone. While worse certainly remain, and worse certainly served a full career without any accountability for their darkest behavior.

Bob Packwood

In 1995, I was living in Oregon, during the forced resignation of senator Bob “The Tongue” Packwood. (He not only was accused of worse than Franken, he kept a diary about it.) A GOP congressman who pressured Packwood to resign later said, “we had a choice: Retain the Senate seat or retain our honor. We chose honor, and never looked back.” That was Mitch McConnell, current Senate majority leader and apologist for Donald Trump and Roy Moore. Honor, indeed.

Norm Coleman

Our old friend, Norm Coleman? He’s doing great! He became a lobbyist, naturally, serving all kinds of wonderful clients, including a stint pimping for Saudi Arabia. Now he’s chairman of a Israeli lobbying group (show me the money, honey!) which shared on their website Coleman’s bliss over Trump announcing that America would no longer recognize Palestinian claims on Jerusalem as a historic capital. “No more false news,” Coleman was quoted. (Lord, he can’t even get his dogwhistle catchphrases right.)

Sheldon Adelson

This group, the Republican Jewish Coalition, is funded by scumbucket Vegas casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson. They threw an exclusive gala at the Trump International Hotel in DC Thursday night. What a glorious day for Coleman; knowing how lushly he’s been rewarded for stooping so low, and how disgraced his old opponent was, who tried to behave with such dignity.

Aspirations Aren’t Enough

The man aspiring to good ruined, perhaps deservedly so. The man wallowing in evil triumphant, and certainly not deservedly so. I’ve always liked to believe this recurrent American story would someday change. But I am considerably less hopeful about the possibility than when I used to look at that smiling Al Franken State Fair picture.

Parchment Paper and Delicious Healthy Enchiladas

Parchment Paper And Delicious Healthy EnchiladasI have a few things to say about parchment paper. And it isn’t just that it isn’t wax paper.

Those of you who’ve poked around this site long enough know that Mr Curious likes to cook. He seems to be pretty good at it. And, as he would tell you, anyone can be! All it takes is practice. The more things you try making, the better you will become. You will learn which methods and shortcuts work best for you.

If you want to learn to cook and don’t know where to start, find a cookbook one of your relatives has lying around. Try making some dish you want to eat, but have never made before. (Avoid recipes with complicated-sounding steps or equipment you don’t have.) If you follow the recipe, the dish will turn out perfectly edible. You might make a mistake — it won’t poison anybody. (Unless it’s undercooked meat or spoiled vegetables.)

I heartily recommend Better Homes And Gardens cookbooks — preferably older ones.

Over time, you will rely less on recipes, using them more for ideas than as strict guidelines. The reason cooking is easier than singing or writing? You’re your own food critic! You know when something tastes good, and you’ll learn how to adjust a recipe to your tastebuds and cooking style.

The Fightin’ Side Of Me

How to adjust a recipe brings up my know-it-all side. Mr Curious has an all-but-ideal recipe for Potatoes au Gratin. Which is much easier to make than scalloped potatoes, and just as delicious, if not more.

Our chef correctly notes that the problem with potato dishes is they can be a mess to clean up. Potatoes are very starchy, and often stick to the cooking pan’s bottom under oven heat. The above recipe provides an elegant solution to this problem.

Unfortunately, the solution is wrong. I have the correct one!


Embedding “The Fightin’ Side of Me” does not imply approval of jingoistic lyrics.

Parchment Paper Does Everything Right

Parchment paper is a thick paper which does not burn at regular oven temperatures. (Under 400-425 °F, but probably safe for higher temperatures if you keep an eye on it.) It is generally used for baking bread or dessert items, to prevent them from sticking in the pan.

But you can use it for so much more! It’s ideally suited for anything being cooked in a rectangular glass casserole dish. If your cooking dish has a reusable plastic storage lid, you don’t even have to take your leftover food out! Just wait until it cools, put the lid on, and stick your leftovers right in the fridge. It won’t get the parchment paper soggy.

I’m not aware of anything that sticks to parchment paper. So cleanup is a cinch. Your food comes out easily, and your cookware is easy to rinse.

Worried about the waste of throwing out paper? Worry no more! Parchment paper is easier on the environment than aluminum foil, and it doesn’t come from factory farms like dairy fats. Wax paper, which is often used instead, has a petroleum-based coating and doesn’t work any better. Besides, you won’t be using parchment paper all the time — and, let’s face it, most people throw away a lot of paper products they should be recycling. (You can’t recycle used parchment paper, but you can compost it.)

A Healthy Delicious Enchilada Recipe

Now that the lecture’s over, let’s cook! You will need a baking dish (I use one that is 8.5"×13"), parchment paper, and the following food items:

  • 1 block firm tofu
  • 1 packet MILD dry taco seasoning mix
  • 8-10 soft whole wheat tortillas, almost as wide across as your baking dish
  • 2 cups enchilada sauce (canned, or packet mix with tomato paste and water)
  • Reduced-fat cheese of choice (see recipe for amount)

Instructions

Drain the tofu by pressing it with a dry, smooth cloth. Crumble the tofu into a bowl and stir in the seasoning mix. (You do not need to heat it or add water.) Now cover the bottom and sides of your baking dish with parchment paper.

Put some tofu in a tortilla. If you like, add shredded or thinly sliced cheese strips. Roll up the tortilla to be shaped like a long pipe. You want enough filling so that the rolled tortilla looks full inside. But you don’t want so much that the tofu spills out the ends when you roll it.

(If it’s not full enough or the tofu spills out, just unroll, add or remove tofu, and roll it again.)

Place each rolled tortilla in the baking dish, with the tortilla flap on the bottom (so it won’t unroll). If your baking dish isn’t long enough, don’t be afraid to smush the tortillas in there so they get tall and skinny.

Cover the tortillas in that enchilada sauce. Add more cheese on top if you like.

Bake, uncovered, at 350°F for 20 minutes, longer if the cheese on top isn’t melted to your satisfaction.

Recipe Notes

My spouse invented this tonight! Start to finish, it took about 45 minutes. I think it cost about $12. Refried beans would be cheaper and just as delicious, with only a little more fat and cooking time.

The taco seasoning flavor is strong, which is why I suggest using a packet labeled, “Mild.” You can also add half the packet to start, then taste a bite of tofu before adding more seasoning. You can save any seasoning you don’t use for later.

Of course, you can go the less-healthy route. I’m preaching the virtues of parchment paper, not nutrition. White flour tortillas roll up fine (not corn tortillas, though). You can crumbled beef, shredded chicken, or pork, anything you want can go in the tortillas. Pre-cooked bell peppers, onions, or cactus would be a tasty addition. (They would require more tortillas and a larger baking dish.)

And if you absolutely loathe reduced-fat cheese, by all means use the regular kind. Do not use nonfat cheese! Nonfat cheese doesn’t melt at all. It just gets dry. That’s fine for some things — But not enchiladas (or pizza)!

Afterword: Mr Curious Responds

Frank responded:

“I will certainly use parchment paper in the future. But the point of my Potatoes au Gratin bottom was not to make clean-up easier — even if this is a bonus. The point is to make the cheese at the bottom easy to cut into bite-sized pieces.

“Also, enchiladas don’t have to go alone. Normally, I serve enchiladas along with my refried beans and Spanish rice. It’s true: doing this does create an enormous amount of food. But I like all of this so much that I don’t have a problem eating it for a week straight.”

Observe the Writer in Its Unnatural Habitat

Mall of America

Anybody out there want a free vacation? Plane tickets, hotel room, and $80 per diem included? Plus a nice $2,500 check?!

Well, all you have to do is win the Mall Of America’s “Writer-in-Residence” contest.

The Mall of America — pride of Bloomington, Minnesota — is turning 25 this year, and they’re looking for writers to capture that undefinable “Mall atmosphere.” (Um, it’s a mall.)

Submit your 150-word proposal at contest page before 10 March 2017. No previous publishing experience is required. And be creative! As the entry page says, “Heck, if you can make the assignment work as a musical-comedy screenplay, by all means make it so!”

Selected semifinalists will advance to an elimination round, amping their proposal up to a daunting 500-800 words. That’s around 50 Tweets, but life is full of challenges. Be brave.

The Mall of America Gig

So what, exactly, is the “in residence” part? I’m glad you asked. That’s where the real fun begins. You get five eight-hour days hanging around the Mall, and you are supposed to write about it. Not in some corner office! Oh, no. Here’s how it works — from the Official Contest Rules page (PDF):

Winner’s workspace will be located in a common area space within Mall of America. The core daily work hours will be 11:00 am to 7:00 pm. While the Winner will be encouraged to take breaks from writing to explore the Mall, post on social media, eat and find inspiration, the Winner will need to be physically present at the writer’s desk for no fewer than four (4) hours per day. The Winner’s ongoing work may be displayed in almost-real time on a large monitor at the workspace.

The work product may scroll continuously throughout the day for passersby to view. Content will not be displayed on the monitor until it has been submitted by the Winner and approved by a Mall of America Marketing representative. The Winner must submit new content of no less than 150 words, to be displayed on the monitor at three (3) mutually agreed upon times each day. Winner’s written work must not be inaccurate, derogatory, incompatible with, inconsistent with, or otherwise contradictory to the Mall of America’s desired presentation of the Mall or the patrons, tenants, licensees, invitees, or employees of the Mall.

Essentially, it’s a zoo with one animal: the lone ad copy writer in its unnatural habitat. Parents can bring their children to observe the writer as it types, stares blankly, types, stares blankly. “Look, Billie, it’s going to forage for food!” I’m tempted to apply for this, but unlike a zoo chimpanzee, I would not be allowed to fling poo.

What Would Be a Good Mall Story?

If you didn’t have to write ad copy, there’s lots of interesting people at malls. The workers, for one: security guards, janitorial staff, those unfortunate young women working at Hot Dog on a Stick. Obvious tourists (although the Mall isn’t as big a draw for them as it was back when). Teenagers with nothing else to do.

There are also old folks, in almost every large shopping mall, who go walking in the morning before stores open. I don’t know which mall started this, but it’s pretty common. It’s a way for the seniors to get some exercise on a surface which is smooth, under climate controlled conditions, and without crowds knocking them over. They’ll usually finish their walk at some little store where they can get coffee and doughnuts. Those are interesting people; I’ve met a few.

Where Have All the (Ad Copy) Writers Gone?

But ad copy? Are ad writers so lousy now you need an open contest to find any new ideas? Malls are surrealistically creepy, and always were — that was their appeal, once they spread like gangrene. Ooh, check out the pus, it’s so strange! Capitalism made blatant, with only the feeblest attempts to resemble anything human — a sad tree here, some soothing music there.

To go biblical, these contest runners are desperately trying to pour new wine into old wineskins. Reanimating an abomination that never should have existed at all.

My Personal Mall Story

Naturally, being a Minnesotan, I have been to the Mall many times. One time, I went to go see a movie. Mall of America has got movie theaters, kiddie rides, bars, the whole deal — just like most mega-malls.

A while before, a friend had given me some marijuana brownies he’d made from homegrown weed. On my movie trip, I was riding the bus, planning on munching popcorn, and I thought this was the perfect time to eat those brownies.

I got to the Mall a bit earlier than planned, and the brownies were kicking in. Very strongly. So I decided to hang out in a sporting-goods shop. I like sports uniforms; they freak me out less than the garish stuff sold in most stores.

I saw a Minnesota Twins jersey I suddenly, really, wanted. I almost bought it. Then I remembered — there was another, competing sporting goods store about 300 feet away. I thought I should comparison shop. So I noted the price and headed for the other store.

The other store had a similar jersey, and I almost bought that one. Until I remembered I’d come there to comparison shop. What was the price in that other store? I’d forgotten.

You can see where this is going. I wandered between those stores — perhaps five times each. Finally I realized it was time for the movie, I was way too high to comparison shop, and I should just buy the damn jersey. Which I still have. Consumerism!

Think Outside The Box, While Inside a Box!

Come up with a musical-comedy screenplay. Or why not a comedy routine? A sarcastic, hipster slag on anyone insufficiently cool to realize how cool the Mall is? Everything is permitted. Nothing is forbidden. Assuming approval from Mall of America Marketing, of course.

I remember, during our high school graduation ceremony, the outgoing principal giving a speech about creativity. Don’t be afraid to dare new ideas, he said. Think different. Be a rebel. This contradicted every authoritarian ruling he’d decreed during my years at school, in a way. But in another way, it didn’t.

Think differently — for money. Be creative, dare to dream — for money. Change the world — for money.

So, have at the contest, folks! Be the zoo writer! Be innovative and new! Just keep in mind:

Contestant acknowledges and agrees that Sponsor may use Submission without the approval of Contestant throughout the world, an unlimited number of times, in perpetuity in any and all media, now known or hereafter invented.

That’s true even if you don’t win. But hey, you get a chance to write in your cage for five days.

Random Ramblings On Sports Fandom

SportsIt’s that magical time of year when Minnesota’s city park employees turn tennis courts and baseball diamonds into hockey rinks.

How do they perform this amazing transubstantiation? (H/T: Catholicism!) Well, there are several complicated steps. I shall endeavor to describe them as best I can.

  1. Remove tennis net or baseball bases. Put in storage.
  2. Get fire hose. Attach to fire hydrant.
  3. Spray court or field with water.
  4. Wait a day.
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 as necessary.
  6. Get hockey goals out of storage. Place in park. Number of goals depends on size of park; however, number must be divisible by 2.
  7. Empty park trash cans weekly.

How to Make Friends Through Sports

I am from Oregon, originally. So I grew up playing baseball, basketball, and football. Hockey? Not so much.

When I was about to move here, I stopped at Powell’s Books, a wonderful store in Portland. I found a book titled “50 Ways To Make Friends In Your New City” (or something like that).

I am terrible at making friends (largely because I don’t trust humans, which is a prejudice, but not an unjustified one). So I picked up and read the book. In Powell’s, it’s completely acceptable to grab a book, sit at the cafe, have coffee, and read the whole book. Pay for your coffee. And put the book back where you found it. These are the rules.

The book had lots of advice I couldn’t use. “Join a local church.” That’s a fine notion for some, not really my speed. “Change your political views.” For example, if you’re moving to Houston, become a Republican; if you’re moving to Seattle, become a Democrat. Well, I’d rather join a church than switch my party loyalty. My cultural background is quite mixed: Québécois, Irish, English Catholic, and some Native American. All have different traditions. One thing they have in common: they don’t switch political sides. That’s a no-go.

But this was a piece of advice I liked, “Root for the home team.” Yes! I can do that! And I did.

Minnesota Sports Are Cool

I had many fun evenings cheering along with Minnesota sports fans, in stadiums and bars. The Twins were quite good for a long while, and rekindled my childhood love of baseball. The Timberwolves are never good, but it’s kind of a shared misery thing.

Even the Vikings were fun. At least they were until I heard one too many fans complaining about “Culpepper & Moss”: a quarterback and wide receiver “team.” Daunte Culpepper, the quarterback, had a crazy strong arm. Randy Moss, the receiver, had the eyes of a wary small mammal. They’d glower out from under his facemask. He had a bizarrely balletic mid-air grace.

Culpepper-to-Moss

Imagine a clever chipmunk watching two dogs snarl at each other over some piece of meat. As they pace around and bristle their fur, our chipmunk friend dashes in, grabs half the meat, and disappears up into its tree before the dogs know what hit ’em. The dogs, furious, bark like mad. Tough luck, guys! Dogs can’t climb trees!

This was Culpepper-to-Moss. It was, as one writer put it, the pro football equivalent of every kid’s favorite football play drawn up with sticks in dirt, “You go long, and I’ll hit you.” The skinny kid runs as fast as he can. The quarterback throws a bomb. The skinny kid jumps in the air, and, even if about to get tackled by three guys around him, he corrals the ball with one hand and cradles it to his body.

This happened almost every Vikings game! And it was fantastic! But Vikings fans started complaining about “Culpepper & Moss.” I didn’t get why, at first. Then I did: they were both black. Football fans are pretty damn racist. So I stopped watching football.

(The Vikings also gave me one of my favorite sports memories. Another receiver, Cris Carter, had a contact lens pop out. As Carter was one of the football’s most respected players, referees paused the game. For two full minutes, giant behemoths from both teams were crawling around, looking in the turf for a contact lens. This was a wonderful thing to watch.)

But Not Hockey

I’ve enjoyed the Minnesota Wild, too. Or enjoyed other people enjoying them. Because, honestly, I don’t “get” hockey.

Not that I don’t appreciate the sport! It’s full of skill, drama, tension. Players do amazing things while skating at high speeds — even while skating backwards!

(My favorite hockey players are the goalies. People are hurtling a harmful projectile at you. Your job is to go “No! I can’t be hurt! Stop, projectile, stop!” For similar reasons, my favorite baseball players are catchers.)

However, I don’t “get” hockey: for the same reason anyone “gets” anything, whether it be a religion or cuisine or whatever. I didn’t grow up playing hockey! If you fire-hose-spray a city park in Oregon, you have a muddy park. In Minnesota, in winter, you have a hockey rink. So everyone plays hockey. That’s one subject in the fine Pixar film, Inside Out, directed by Minnesotan Pete Docter.

I don’t ice skate, and never will. I’m not training for any hobby which includes, as a practice requirement, “falling down repeatedly.” Fallen on ice lately? It’s very hard. It kills people! No ice skating for me. So I’ll never “get” hockey. (Or sadly, curling, which is much more up my alley, but still requires ice skating.)

Other Ways To Enjoy Sports

I used to work helping take care of disabled adults, and there was one guy I’d bring to Twins games. The guy didn’t talk and didn’t sign ASL. It was virtually impossible to communicate with him. He’d allow you to help him with some things, resist other attempts to help, that’s pretty much all the feedback you’d get.

He’d agree to let you load his wheelchair in the van for a Twins game. I don’t know why. With people who don’t talk or sign, I’d still talked to them. My reasoning was that it doesn’t take any effort to do so, and I have no clue what they’re picking up on the other end. It may be pure syllabic gibberish. They might understand every word. Or something in between. If they want me to stop talking, they can push me away.

So we’d go to Twins games, and who knows if this guy actually liked baseball. But there was one thing he clearly liked. (Keep in mind, this guy had a grumpy expression 99% of the time.)

If the Twins scored — and the crowd went wild — this guy would crane his neck around, look at all the cheering people, and start laughing. Belly laughing. He didn’t make laugh sounds, because he didn’t make sounds, but his chest would heave and his mouth would smile and tears pour from the corners of his eyes.

I suspect, though I do not know, that he found sports fans hilariously ridiculous. As, indeed, we are.

Nothing At The End

Now’s when I’m supposed to wrap this all up and make it come together, right? Nope. That’s for real writers. I’m posting on a blog!

There’s a local minor-league baseball team, the St Paul Saints. Yes, uninspired name, but they have a long history of inspired promotional gimmicks. At one, Mascot Night, there was a mascot from a pre-employment screening clinic. The mascot was a pee cup. Cup-shaped, yellow on the lower half. This was one of the most brilliant things I’ve ever seen.

Some years, the Saints do Atheists Night. It has various skits in-between innings. One had two random fans racing around the foul territory, with obstacles to overcome. As they raced, the PA announcer described what symbolic meaning each obstacle represented. Such as, for a mudslide, “it’s the primordial ooze!”

When one was first to the finish line, our PA announcer said, “The winner gets…” and froze. For 15 seconds. Then intoned, “What?! Did you think there was a reward at the end? It’s an atheist race! There’s nothing at the end!”

Nothing at the end here either, I’m afraid. Enjoy sports if that brings you closer to others. Remember, they are a bit silly. (But most hobbies are. Nothing wrong with that!)

Skate in the park if you live in a frozen place — if your home is warmer, enjoy it being not so damned cold. And have the merriest New Year you can.