Avatar

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.

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.

Ta-Nehisi Coates on the Obama Presidency

Ta-Nehisi CoatesSince the election, I’ve been clinging to voices of sanity. Anyone with a brain. I like imagining they aren’t outliers. Scientific lectures, comedy, even politicians talking — if the author has something to teach me. So, I’ve wondered, where has Ta-Nehisi Coates been? After all, Trump ran the most overtly racist campaign since George Wallace. Coates is one of our finest essayists — especially on racism in America. He would certainly have a unique way of viewing the election.

As it turns out, he’s been preparing a richly-layered analysis of Barack Obama. It appeared earlier this week in The Atlantic, My President Was Black. It features both interviews with Obama and Coates’ views on the President’s legacy. Like most of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s writing, it caused me both to question and accept many of his conclusions.

Why Was Obama So Centrist?

He notes, “I came to regard Obama as a skilled politician, a deeply moral human being, and one of the greatest presidents in American history.” Skilled and moral, yes. But among the greatest? I’m not so sure. He didn’t pass all that many laws after 2010.

Coates continues, “He was phenomenal — the most agile interpreter and navigator of the color line I had ever seen. He had an ability to emote a deep and sincere connection to the hearts of black people, while never doubting the hearts of white people.”

Obama Was Constrained by Racism

This is unquestionably true. It gets at both my primary criticism of the Obama administration (not liberal enough), and Coates’s ongoing examination of the role racism plays in America. It’s unlikely Obama could have been much more liberal. Any such effort would have been excoriated as “Giving Free Money To Shiftless Negroes” (many Republican voters believe this falsehood).

Obama says as much to Ta-Nehisi Coates, talking about being approached by activist groups: “You feel like saying to these folks, ‘[Don’t] you think if I could do it, I [would] have just done it? Do you think that the only problem is that I don’t care enough about the plight of poor people, or gay people?'”

And here’s the conundrum of Obama — the devil’s bargain anyone who seeks power inevitably makes. The key factor in a “deal with the devil” story is very like the Midas legend; be careful what you wish for, you may get it. Obama was elected on a populist platform he had no hope of enacting. Racism will out.

Election 2016: The Unblackening

Ta-Nehisi Coates unflinchingly describes the myriad versions of racial backlash Obama’s mild-mannered demeanor inspired, and quotes the President in a frank observation of why New Deal politics may now be unsupportable:

But what I do believe is that if somebody didn’t have a problem with their daddy being employed by the federal government, and didn’t have a problem with the Tennessee Valley Authority… that all helped you build wealth and create a middle class—and then suddenly as soon as African Americans or Latinos are interested in availing themselves of those same mechanisms as ladders into the middle class, you now have a violent opposition to them—then I think you at least have to ask yourself the question of how consistent you are, and what’s different, and what’s changed.

Obama and Coates (And you and I!) all know “what’s changed.” Wealth redistribution was fine when it went from richer to poorer white people. After the civil rights movement secured legal racial equality (theoretically anyway), suddenly redistribution became an evil. An assault on freedom. This reaction was in place long before mythical legends of Welfare Queens driving around in their Cadillacs.

I have struggled with the election results. There are two primary reasons. First, I am simply afraid of their practical ramifications for people inside and outside the country. Second, I know the hideousness that produced the results. This is both the hideousness of rapacious corporate greed that’s erased our safety net and the demonizing of the Other, which capitalism is quite happy to exploit. This is America’s fascism. Perhaps it always was.

Being Wrong About the Comforting Narrative

“Racism is never simple,” Ta-Nehisi Coates succinctly observes. Earlier, he delivers a solid refutation of my own previously held position:

One theory popular among (primarily) white intellectuals of varying political persuasions held that this response was largely the discontented rumblings of a white working class threatened by the menace of globalization and crony capitalism. Dismissing these rumblings as racism was said to condescend to this proletariat, which had long suffered the slings and arrows of coastal elites, heartless technocrats, and reformist snobs. Racism was not something to be coolly and empirically assessed but a slander upon the working man. Deindustrialization, globalization, and broad income inequality are real. And they have landed with at least as great a force upon black and Latino people in our country as upon white people. And yet these groups were strangely unrepresented in this new populism.

It’s what scientists call a positive feedback loop. Racism gave Republicans their first opportunities to chip away at the New Deal. That erosion made life for working people worse. That made them blame “government” (for presumably wasting their tax dollars on minorities) more. So it enabled further-right politicians, who slashed the safety net more — and on and on and on.

It’s not “chicken and egg,” because we know what came first. Racism did. But it is a self-strengthening mechanism. A Danish friend once told me their saying is “a screw without an end.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates Makes Me Think

Ultimately, Coates’s article made me reconsider Obama’s time in office. I wanted him to be more liberal. I still want Democrats to be. And yet, even the conservative ACA was seen as a giveaway to Those People. How much more could Obama have done? How do we end the screw?

Can we fight inequality without being accused of racial favoritism? Can we fight inequality without a dedication to alleviating the great injustices done to so many of our citizens? These positions seem contradictory. Since the disease of racism poisons all of us.

And Coates made me aware just how much darker Trump’s election was for people of color. What a slap in the face it is that the centrist, elegant Obamas incurred so much hatred. Even the “talented tenth” (or thousandth) of a percent are never acceptable enough.

Ta-Nehisi Coates noted of an Obama appearance at the storied Howard University, “Six months later the awful price of a black presidency would be known to those students.” What a price! What moral debts we have accrued. And what terrible interest we continue to pay.

Trevor Noah Steps It Up Against Tomi Lahren

Tomi LahrenLast Wednesday, Trevor Noah of The Daily Show interviewed far-right video’s “It Girl,” one Tomi Lahren. Ms. Lahren’s bile-filled screeds against the evils of liberal America are hugely popular right now on social media. (Shouldn’t we change that description to “antisocial”?) She comes across as the Muppet Babies version of Ann Coulter.

It has apparently been widely shared among Noah fans, who appreciate his unflappable demeanor, and among Lahren fans, who like it whenever someone uses a vicious manner to expresses hateful sentiments they admire. (Oh, yes, does that make them feel strong.) Tomi Lahren also lies, which her audience no doubt loves, as well.

Dish It Out vs Take It

The lies begin immediately, with Lahren claiming she’s “not angry.” Well, then she does a good job playing it on TV (and she’s well aware that constantly-fueled rage is what her intended audience feeds upon).

As is usual with far-right media figures, Lahren’s untruths and deliberate distortions don’t cease. They become something like Phil Spector’s Wall Of Sound, with constant delivery and repetition of falsehoods substituting for argument. Throw in a little flag-decal patriotism, and the effect means to convey that people On God’s Side have so much data to back them up, their bomb-droppings are irrefutable.

With immense patience and charm, Noah sets about defusing them. It’s a terrific performance. He addresses each of her bogus claims and false equivalencies. I won’t spoil any of his jokes (and the best ones seem to fly right over Lahren’s head), but here’s one example of his tone.

Tomi Lahren considers BlackLivesMatter to be essentially a violent subversive organization, morally equivalent to the KKK. To “prove” this, she cites instances of destruction and murder committed by self-identified BLM supporters. Noah counters that these are the actions of individuals, and the movement does not advocate violence (which is true). Nope, says Lahren, if someone says your movement inspired their hatred, your movement is hateful.

Noah then asks about the KKK and Trump — by Lahren’s logic, isn’t Trump responsible for the KKK’s resurgence? Even if you haven’t watched the video yet, you already know her answer. No! Trump is good! BLM bad! Etc. We’ve heard this record before.

Tomi Lahren’s Damn Lies and Statistics

Tomi Lahren soon floats a statistic so baffling, the audience gasps; a black person is 18.5 times more likely to shoot a police officer than get shot by one. She then claims the 18.5 number is a statistic “no one wants to talk about.” Noah deftly changes the discussion point.

That multiplier 18.5 stuck in my head for a day. Surely, it can’t be true?

Of course, it’s not; and, as Gore Vidal once said elsewhere, it would make a good project for a course in logic. What on Earth can she mean? Well, for one, this statistic actually refers to the probability of any given police officer being shot by a black person, versus the probability of any given unarmed black person being shot by a police officer.

Since there are vastly more black citizens in America than police officers, the number starts to make sense. While policing is not among America’s most dangerous jobs, it does carry some risk, more so than that of the average citizen being killed by a cop.

Look at it this way: shouldn’t the police have a far higher risk of being shot by criminals than you have of being shot by officers? In that context, 18.5 seems amazingly low. If air travel was only 18.5 times less likely to end in explosions than space rockets, none of us would fly again.

The statistic comes from author Heather Mac Donald, who has long written that excessive police violence against minorities is a myth. As she has a clear ax to grind, her number is suspect, but I’ll use it for the sake of argument.

A Simple Test

The argument then becomes: how much more likely is a police officer to be shot by a non-black person than a non-black person to be shot by an officer?

Happily, a programmer named Joseph Atkins-Turkish has read Mac Donald’s work, and done the computations for us, Next Time You See a Racist Abuse Statistics, Here’s How You Call Them Out. Surprise, surprise! Using Mac Donald’s numbers, an officer is 124 times more likely to get shot by a non-black person than a non-black person is to be shot by an officer.

I realize this is Mac Donald’s sin. She is a published book author and contributor to publications like the Wall Street Journal, while Tomi Lahren is merely a young twerp kissing instant celebrity’s rear end. The one knows she is lying; the other blithely repeats this lie. Still, from my perspective, it’s hard not to fault them both.

Noah’s Better At Being Serious Than Funny

I have not watched The Daily Show much since Noah took over. To be honest, I never watched it much before, as I haven’t had cable in 10+ years. But I’d come across the occasional Jon Stewart segment online which had some bite to it.

Most Americans probably first saw Trevor Noah, as I did, on a Daily Show segment where Noah played a game called “Spot the Africa” — showing thriving cities and broken slums, asking Stewart to pick which one was America and which one Africa. The joke was that we tend to stereotype Africa as though it hasn’t changed in the last half century.

The appeal of that segment no doubt helped Noah land the Daily Show anchor gig. How’s he done? It’s a matter of opinion.

Larry Wilmore

Myself, I preferred seeing clips from Larry Wilmore’s Nightly Show — Wilmore’s an older fellow, like myself, and his sense of humor just gels with me more.

Plus, Wilmore got fired, largely because he wasn’t picking up the antisocial media “traction” Noah does. I’m still plenty mad at Comedy Central about that. We could have used Wilmore during the general election — and I think the added viewership during election season would have translated into more people coming to appreciate Wilmore’s dry wit.

But, that’s not Noah’s fault, and I should stop resenting him for it. Does his tenure on The Daily Show need time to find its own rhythm? Surely it does. Will they find it? Who knows.

His skilled, polite (on his side, at any rate) debate with Tomi Lahren shows one direction the show might go in. Noah’s “Spot the Africa” segment was serious underneath the irony. His interview here is deadly serious, yet he unearths humor in it. This might be his superpower! Let’s hope so.

Chelsea Manning: Obama Should Pardon Her Now

Chelsea ManningAs you know, Presidents have Constitutional authority to pardon people for any federal crime. This can be someone convicted, or someone who hasn’t faced trial yet. Ford pardoned Nixon of all crimes Nixon might have committed in office. A loyal gesture which doomed Ford to half a term.

You also know that Presidents are concerned about their “legacies”: how they will be remembered by historians. Perhaps this comes from reading too much modern history of past Presidents. Jackson, for example, is not coming off so well as he once did. Every President since Hoover has a Presidential library, where documents, recordings, and films are stored. Sometimes bones of those Presidents are there, too; six chose to be buried at theirs. Ford has both a library and a museum! (He’s buried at the museum.)

Up until recently, Barack Obama often said he hoped the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) would be a major part of his legacy. Now, Democratic dreams of using the ACA as a start towards better and better health-insurance reform appear to be all but dead. With control of Congress and the White House, Republicans are almost guaranteed to wipe the law from history.

If President Obama wants to have something in his legacy besides being America’s first black chief executive (a proud legacy in itself), he should pardon Chelsea Manning.

Different Kinds Of Pardons

Chelsea Manning is serving a 35-year sentence in Fort Leavenworth (this sentence imposed when Manning was 25). She has attempted suicide twice.

Pardons are used by Presidents for different reasons. Sometimes they are the result of a petition movement that stirred the President’s compassion. Sometimes they arise from a sense of injustice. Lincoln pardoned 264 of 303 Sioux men sentenced to death in the Dakota War of 1862. Perhaps this was out of mercy, perhaps sending a message that Confederate soldiers would not be tried as traitors. (The Sioux executed were those who had committed crimes against civilians; Lincoln pardoned those who only fought against the US Army.)

Pardons may protect former political allies. George HW Bush pardoned several Iran-Contra participants,. Bill Clinton did the same for old Arkansas cronies. Presidents pardon family members (Carter pardoned his brother). They can be posthumous. Send a cultural message. They can be any or all of the above; Carter also pardoned Jefferson Davis. This neatly acknowledged that Davis was a traitor and forgave him for it simultaneously.

A pardon of Chelsea Manning would send a different message; one to the future. The Trump administration is practically certain to commit high crimes and misdemeanors. Trump has already vowed vengeance on reporters who’ve ever criticized him. A Manning pardon could announce that people who expose government wrongdoing are to be celebrated, not persecuted.

Chelsea Manning, American Hero

Chelsea Manning is serving a 35-year sentence in Fort Leavenworth (this sentence imposed when Manning was 25). She has attempted suicide twice. The first time resulted in a cruel and unusual punishment of solitary confinement; the second time was during this confinement.

Manning’s conviction was over releasing classified video and text information which revealed two primary things. One, that US diplomats routinely lie to and manipulate other diplomats, which is a complete shock to absolutely no one (diplomats from other countries do exactly the same).

The second offense was identifying war crimes committed by the US military. Chelsea Manning leaked a number of important things:

  • Video of airborne soldiers rejoicing as they murdered civilians
  • Internal documents which proved that Pentagon statistics on civilian deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan were deliberately falsified
  • How assaults, rapes, and murders of civilians were being reported to superiors by principled military personnel, and those atrocities were not being investigated.

Doing so was an act of pure moral courage on Manning’s part. And, quite possibly, required by military law.

Soldiers Can’t Follow Illegal Orders

Adolf EichmannIn the Nuremberg trails of Nazi war criminals, an argument used repeatedly by defendants involved claiming they were only following orders. Partially in response to this (also possibly to bolster our moral authority in reconstructing Germany and Japan, where we’d bombed millions of civilians), Congress authorized new rules for our armed forces in 1950. They are the Uniform Code Of Military Justice, or UCMJ.

The UCMJ is our military law. It concerns violations within the armed forces. If a soldier on leave is caught pickpocketing a tourist’s wallet in Times Square, that soldier will face criminal prosecution under normal New York laws. If a soldier steals a fellow soldier’s smartphone while on base, that soldier is disciplined via the UCMJ.

Everyone joining the military is made aware of the UCMJ. They aren’t taught the whole thing (it’s huge), but told how the rules are different from other rules. For example, spitting on another person’s shoes in civilian life is not illegal (most places). Spitting on an officer’s shoes in the military can get you in big trouble. Conversely, if you punch a fellow soldier, you will be busted for months, yet no criminal charge goes on your civilian record. In civilian life, you can be sued or charged with a crime for that.

Article 92

Article 92 of the UCMJ says that military personnel have a duty to obey lawful orders and to disobey unlawful ones. What is an unlawful order? This is tricky. Generally, anything that would be considered a war or civic crime. What constitutes a war crime can be difficult for combat personnel to answer. Consider this: you are ordered, “Blow up that house!” You say, “I saw kids in there.” And your commander says “They’ve left, it’s all enemy soldiers now.” Who bears the moral burden?

If you blow up the house, and find dead children, who was wrong? Perhaps your commander saw shadows and thought they were children running out. If you refused to blow up the house, you would be under major risk of prosecution for insubordination. If you defend your insubordination as disobeying an illegal order, you need to prove your commander knew for certain kids were inside. That’s almost impossible to prove.

Ethical Conviction, Civilian Oversight

Manning had vast proof of illegal orders being issued, of war crimes, and things that others in the military had reported and were being ignored. She wrote “This is one of the most significant documents of our time removing the fog of war and revealing the true nature of 21st century asymmetric warfare.” Whether or not Chelsea Manning was acting out of fidelity to the UCMJ, or simple moral revulsion, I do not know. She made a brave decision to share this information with the world — and more important, with the American people.

Our President is called the commander in chief of the United States Armed Force for a reason. The President is a civilian; our military is under civilian control. By voting for President, we decide who gives orders to our military. In order to assess if our President is a good commander, we need to know what our military has actually done. Past tense: done. Things the enemy already knows. War crimes? Body counts? Those are not secrets to the other side. And if they are kept secret from American voters, this effectively eliminates citizen command of the military.

What Chelsea Manning leaked about diplomacy was a good laugh to diplomats all over the world. It embarrassed us a little bit. Who cares? That’s like sharing video of a President farting. It harmed no one. What Manning leaked about our wars was a vital service to American democracy, and fully in keeping with the highest ideals our military forces aspire to.

Obama’s Legacy, Trump’s Accountability

One of Donald Trump’s notable characteristics is never admitting to being wrong. One of Barack Obama’s many noble attributes is his willingness to share self-criticism in public. The first poses as strength; the second shows real strength.

President Obama did not choose to put Chelsea Manning in prison (she was charged under the UCMJ). But he has not pardoned her service to the nation. And his administration has prosecuted other whistleblowers who acted out of ethical concerns.

Sending a Signal

President Barack ObamaIf President Obama pardoned Chelsea Manning, it’d signal to America what distinguishes Democrats from Republicans most: our ability to change what doesn’t work. Obama, no doubt, thought it crucial for national security that we come down hard on whistleblowers in this new age of cyberleaks. And yet we need to distinguish between those who should be removed from sensitive positions and those who should be jailed for treason. (Much like the decision Lincoln made about pardoning the Sioux men.)

It would signal that in the next four years, what we need above all are fearless people willing to shine a light on any wrongdoing by the new administration. Power, especially unchecked power, affects the judgment of even those most determined to resist it. There is little indication President-elect Trump has any such determination.

A Legacy to Be Proud Of

Barack Obama will be remembered as an inspiring example to America of what foolishness we perpetuated by keeping African-Americans from our political sphere, and what evil we continue to perpetuate by permitting the poison of racism in our culture. He’ll be remembered as a skilled political navigator who overcame Republican efforts to dismantle functioning government during his last six years.

Yet his signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act will almost certainly be gutted — becoming a historical footnote. But there are still things he can do to help the nation and improve his legacy. He could do something unprecedented and far-reaching by pardoning Chelsea Manning. It is something that might inspire the next person in the next (or any other) administration to have Manning’s courage to speak out.

That would be a legacy. It’d certainly last longer than the worship we once had for Jackson.

Why Trump Is the Greatest American Idol

Donald Trump - Hero of Republican EstablishmentLet us salute the greatness of lazy men.

It was bound to come to this. We’ve demeaned workers and the very concept of labor long enough. Now the person who gets up, has coffee, puts in their eight, and comes home, doesn’t feel like “I did an honest day’s work.” No. They feel like a sucker.

Because the clever ones, the “winners,” are those who figured out how to make gazillions doing as little as possible.

Once upon a time, we were fascinated by con men and grifters precisely because they were weird. And weirdos are interesting! The grifter or the hustler — someone who abhorred regimented labor — was an amazing figure. Everyone would enjoy giving the finger to their boss and never filling out a time card again.

Old and New Grifters

Of course, the classic grifters are not lazy. To become a master con man takes years of practice — and probably a lot of beatings. It’s actually much harder than having a regular job. But that’s not how we view them. We see the grift as easy money.

Over the last four decades, we have seen the rise of a new kind of gift. And these new grifters are Our Heroes. Don’t think Joseph Weil. Think Gordon Gekko.

Forget the blather about soldiers and teachers and people who bring wounded abandoned puppies back to health. They’re saints. As is, we’re glad they exist, because we sure as hell don’t want to do that stuff. But they aren’t heroes.

No. A “hero” is someone we look up to — someone, at our best, we think we could be.

Greatest American Hero

And Trump is the Greatest American Hero.

He’s never done an honest day’s work in his life. Never had to. Early on, he figured out that the American lip service paid to a work ethic was quickly becoming blather. So, rather than pretend to a work ethic like his kind did in generations past, he was simply “deserving.” His schtick was, “I’m too awesome to work.”

Truly, a man ahead of his time.

Sociopathic Society

This attitude is sociopathic, of course. In a sane culture, you’d never be proud of laziness. Even if you hate a co-worker, you do what needs to be done for them. If for nothing else, you assume this creates an environment where they do the same for you.

But that was Old America. Before we learned that every human interaction must be weighed by a cost-benefit economic analysis. Before free riders — the people who don’t obey social norms, yet get away with it — became Our Heroes.

American Idols

Trump’s art form is the “reality” show, and what are those? They’re quick, easy cash for TV networks. You can spend a bundle on period decor and fabulous actors and talented writers for Mad Men. Or you can produce a bunch of cheap crap and hope something sticks.

Notice the title of late, unlamented American Idol. It was never about singing. Your local PBS station has programs about singers in your community who are unbelievably good at their craft, totally unknown, and stick with it for the joy of honing their skills and sharing this joy with others.

American Idol was about becoming an “idol.” About “winning.” Not being a “loser,” like those local musicians who are so damned good. Pride in a difficult task, well accomplished? Save that for the nerds.

The losers.

The people who haven’t “figured it out.”

Valueless Work

Trump is an idol for a nation that’s devalued workers so badly, we’re not sure helping our fellow employee (or fellow anyone) makes sense anymore. Sure, it seems right. But what does that matter? Maybe the liars and hustlers were the smart ones, all along.

I don’t believe that. I think it’s destructive madness, ultimately. But is cashing in on it currently rewarding? Yes.

Yes, it is.