Murder on a Sunday Morning

Benton Butler vs Juan Curtis
Brenton Butler (left) and Juan Curtis (right)

I recently discovered the Academy Award winning documentary feature Murder on a Sunday Morning. It tells the story of the prosecution of Brenton Butler for the murder of Mary Ann Stephens, a tourist to Jacksonville, FL.

It tells a story that we know far too well: a young black man is out walking and the police frame him for a murder. Of course, no one thinks they meant to frame an innocent man. But their casual racism and overt laziness created a narrative which they then did everything they could to make true.

The murder had happened about two hours earlier and they new they were looking for a six-foot tall black man between the ages of 20 and 25. Butler was black, but he was only 15 and considerably shorter than six foot.

Butler made the mistake of being on his way to a Blockbuster video store to apply for a job at the wrong time. The police decided to talk to him. Although there was nothing suspicious about him, the police put him in the back of a squad car and had the victim’s husband, James Stephens, identify him.

Stephens first did it at the distance. He said Butler was the man but that he would like to get a closer look. When he got a closer look, he repeated his identification.

A Terrible Eye-Witness

The film doesn’t go into it much, but this is a terrible set-up. If you show someone in the back of a police car, you are priming them to think that the person is a criminal. And why would the police be asking the husband if they didn’t have some indication that Butler was the guy?

Note that there was no line-up. The standard thing is to get a small group of people who look more or less alike. Then, if the witness identifies the suspect, it might mean something. This identification meant nothing at all.

The Real Killer

A couple of months after the state had embarrassed itself and lost in court, the defense team alerted the police to a young man named Juan Curtis. He not only fit the initial eye-witness’ description, his fingerprints were found on the victim’s purse. The police had not checked for fingerprints on the purse during their investigation of Butler.

As you can see in the picture at the top of this article, Brenton Butler and Juan Curtis do not look at all alike.

Building the Case

Once the police decided they had their man (The first person they questioned!) they set about proving it. That mostly meant interrogating a 15-year-old boy without representation or even telling his parents that he had been arrested.

After hours of this, Butler still maintained that he was innocent so they brought in a “specialist” who beat him up and eventually implied he was going to shoot the young man. That’s when Butler signed a confession.

Interesting thing about that confession: it was filled with a bunch of stuff that went against what was known about the case. But it didn’t matter.

Nor did it matter that the purse was found 9.5 miles away. Butler would only have had two hours to take the purse there and then return home. But this loose end, like all the others, was ignored.

A Bad Prosecution

According to one of the defense lawyers, he contacted the state attorney — basically to say, “You need to drop this case; it’s garbage.” But the state attorney said that they had to prosecute the case to defend the honor of the cops. As is clear in this film, these cops didn’t have any honor. They ranged from lazy to selfish to evil.

The case was led by long-time public defenders Ann Finnell and Patrick McGuinness. They are now part of their law film, Finnell, Mcguinness, Nezami & Andux. Brenton Butler wrote his own book of the ordeal, They Said It Was Murder.

A Great Film

I highly recommend watching this film. Many of the courtroom moments are right out of a Hollywood movie. When the cops aren’t talking about what a terrible job they did, they are lying. And it’s good to see the lawyers tear them apart.


Image created from two frames in the film. It is taken under Fair Use.

Achilleus, Hector, and American Masculinity

Achilles Slays Hector

Over at Vox, Anna North wrote, What Trump’s Refusal to Wear a Mask Says About Masculinity in America. It discusses how some men don’t wear masks because they see it as unmanly. This goes along with my experience.

The basic idea here is that a real man ain’t afraid of no germs. There are many aspects to this. For one, it’s anti-intellectual. No one would say welding with a helmet was unmanly because the potential harm is obvious. But a virus is invisible so wearing a mask is for sissies.

More important, wearing a mask shows care for others. And this is at the core of this toxic idea of masculinity. It is part of the “live free or die” ethos of American males that sees only rights and no responsibilities on the part of society’s supposed leaders. This kind of thinking is understandable among the young who are, by and large, selfish and stupid. But from our president who is in his mid-70s, it’s outrageous.

Greek Heroes

Roughly speaking, the Greeks presented us with two ideals of masculinity.

Achilleus

The first was Achilleus (more commonly, Achilles). He was a bachelor warrior. A man who cared only for himself and his glory.

When he doesn’t get his way during the war, he runs home to mother and refuses to fight. If it weren’t that he was definitionally a Hero, everyone would see him for the petulant child he is.

Remember: Achilleus chose to die young but to be forever remembered as a glorious hero. Yet what did he do? He didn’t defeat the Trojans. Mostly, he defeated Hector and then desecrated his body like an immoral fiend. (Admittedly, Homer seems to see the defeat of Hector as the defeat of the Trojans.)

I’ve never liked the character. From the first time I read The Iliad, I thought he was a total dick. It didn’t help that I saw way too many Achilleuses all around me — men who thought caring for their own desires was the alpha and omega of masculinity.

Hector

When Hector is killed in The Iliad, I was crushed. He represents a decidedly different view of masculinity. Whereas Achilleus choose a short and glorious life, Hector would have chosen the long and uneventful one. He was a reluctant warrior and a family man.

Hector is also a regular guy in that events affect him. Achilleus got to choose his destiny. Hector gets stuck with a brother who can’t keep it in his pants. And this results in his own death and the enslavement of his family.

Real Men

To me, Achilleus is a child’s idea of what a man should be. Hector is the hero we should admire.

And if you read more serious conservative writers (or at least conservative writers when they are trying to sound serious), you will see that they talk about how men should act as protectors of the weak in society.

But for most Americans, entitlement is the essence of masculinity. What makes a man is his disinterest in those around him.

We see this with face masks today. I wear a face mask to protect others. I’m not concerned about myself. First, I’m in good health and would doubtless weather the virus well. Second, I’m not afraid to die.

At the same time, I hate wearing a mask. But doing so is a small thing compared to protecting others — especially the weak and otherwise vulnerable.

A Choice of Men

The American idea of masculinity is like the American idea of a lot of things: it’s a children’s complaint, “You can’t tell me what to do!” But we aren’t talking about enslaving ourselves for the purpose of helping others. In this case and many others, we are talking about the most minor inconveniences. Yet this is portrayed as tyranny.

I’m not saying that Achilleus and Hector are the only ways for men to be. But they are the traditional ideals. And they are the ones that conservatives appeal to when it suits them. But when it comes to it, they thoughtlessly choose Achilleus. Mostly, they seem unaware that Hector is an alternative.

It’s time for us to give up our obsession with Achilleus. No good society can be based on that kind of narcissistic personality. We elected a president who personifies this. And if we can’t get past this, we are doomed.


Image cropped from Achilles Kills Hector by Peter Paul Rubens via Wikipedia in the public domain.

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.

What the Coronavirus Pandemic Says About the November Election

Donald Trump

Some of my friends are feeling way too cocky about the upcoming November election. They see that tens of thousands of people have died and that the economy is in trouble, and they think Trump cannot survive. What’s more, Trump has clearly screwed this up and more recently he seems like he’s losing his mind.

It does seem like a slam dunk. But both Obama and Bush Jr had low approval ratings at this point and they went on to win re-election. And the opposite is also true. A year out, Bush Sr had almost a 70% approval rating and he lost badly. I have little doubt that if the election were today, Trump would lose in a landslide. In six months? I don’t know.

Two Scenarios

Roughly speaking, there are two ways this can go. Things could stay bad. The cases could keep mounting and the deaths could continue to climb. The economy could struggle along but more or less stay where it is right now.

If that happens, not only is Trump going down big, so is the entire Republican Party. We could see Mitch McConnell lose his seat in Kentucky. And as much as I do not want to see this happen for my own sake and that of everyone else in the nation, such a defeat would be a silver lining. (But don’t kid yourself: after the Democrats began to heal the economy, the Republicans would come roaring back.)

The other possibility is that things slowly start to get better. In two months, new cases come to a trickle. In 4 months, most people are back at work. And in six months, sports return but with limited seating.

If that happens, people will likely re-elect Trump. They will only see that things are improving; it won’t matter at all that he is the guy responsible for making things so bad. I know: it’s crazy! But this is how people vote.

(I know a lot of my leftist friends are learning this painful lesson. I’ve seen people complaining that most Biden voters are more in agreement with Sanders’ policies. Welcome to the party! Politics really isn’t about policy; it’s about relationships. And if we are ever going to get the kind of power necessary to make systemic change, we need to embrace this.)

The Lynn Vavreck Election

Probably the best scenario is that things do return to normal quickly but we get an election like Lynn Vavreck laid out in The Message Matters. According to her research, an out-party (the Democrats in this case) can beat an incumbent despite strong economic growth if they can make the campaign about something other than the economy.

In general, it’s hard to do this. People care about the economy above all else. Think of it in the most blunt terms: people want to be sure they will have food and a safe place to live. That’s what a strong economy means to them.

I’ve often noted that had Howard Dean won the Democratic primary in 2004, he probably would have won the general election. That’s because he would have made the election about the Iraq War, which was unpopular by then. Instead, the Democrats nominated Kerry, who couldn’t make that case well because he had essentially voted for the war.

Can Biden Vavreck Trump?

Joe Biden 2019

If Biden is smart, he will make this election all about corruption. He could also make it about norms and civility. These are things where Trump is extremely vulnerable. Trump can counter, “Hunter Biden,” but I don’t think that plays outside the people who are guaranteed to vote for him.

One of the problems for Hillary Clinton in 2016 was this weird narrative that had been going on since the early 1990s about her being untrustworthy. Vince Foster killed himself just a few months after Bill Clinton took office and already there were claims that Hillary Clinton had him murdered!

Yes, that was all in the right-wing fever swamps, but it was something that accreted so much garbage over the years that mainstream journalist started thinking there must be something there. Either that or that they simply had to cover such nonsense as though it were real. (Also: it’s pure sexism — the idea that women are duplicitous and can’t be trusted.)

Biden doesn’t have that problem. And I think that whatever happens, Uncle Joe will come out like he did in the 2012 vice-presidential debate. You may remember that Paul Ryan was going on about how Obama was stealing money from Medicare to pay for Obamacare. And Biden came back with, “Look, folks, use your common sense. Who do you trust on this?”

I was blown away with that because it accepts the way people think. You don’t have to look at the numbers. You might not like Obama and Biden for a lot of reasons, but you know that they would protect Medicare better than Romney and Ryan would.

Help Joe Biden Win

So I think as long as Biden does not talk about the economy, he stands a good chance of winning. I can’t say more than that because, as Vavreck showed in her book, when this approach works, it leads to extremely close elections.

Of course, there is another possibility. It could be that our current situation is so unusual that none of the political science based on elections after World War II matter. In that case, we don’t know what will happen.

In that case, we need to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. And that means doing what we can to defeat Donald Trump in November. Sign up to make phone calls or send texts, help people get registered to vote and to vote when the time comes, talk to persuadable people, whatever it takes.

Most of all: don’t assume November is in the bag. We really don’t know.


Trump image cropped from Donald Trump Official White House Portrait by Shealah Craighead in the public domain. Biden image cropped from Joe Biden by Gage Skidmore via Flickr. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Morning Music: Blackbird

The Beatles White Album

I’m not a huge fan of the Beatles. Or rather, I’m kind of bored of the Beatles. You see, my first significant girlfriend was a huge Beatles fan. So I listened to them excessively and read about them almost as much.

Today, however, we’re going to listen to “Blackbird” off The Beatles (traditionally called “The White Album”).

I remember reading that Paul McCartney had said the song was written for the Civil Rights movement in the US. In truth, he’s said a number of things. That’s to be expected. When you work on something long enough, you will think of it in different ways.

Regardless, I don’t much care. I prefer my political songs to be more explicit. But it is a beautiful song. And it makes me think of my crows who are more black than most blackbirds. And they’re just better — no matter what Alfred Hitchcock might tell you.


The Beatles White Album by Beat 768, own work, in the Public Domain.

The Sad Story of Tara Reade and Joe Biden [Update]

Joe Biden 2019

Tara Reade, a former Joe Biden staffer, says that he sexually assaulted her. This story has been spinning around Twitter for a while. I didn’t give it much credence, but more recent reporting has me concerned. Regardless what the truth is here, it’s very sad.

Reade worked for Biden when she was in her 20s. When she first discussed the matter publicly, she described the kind of stuff we’ve come to expect from Biden. She said he would “put his hand on my shoulder and run his finger up my neck.” But more recently, she has expanded the story — and the crime. She now alleges that Biden penetrated her with his finger. Legally, I think this would qualify as rape.

As I mentioned, I didn’t think much about Reade’s claims because it seemed like nothing more than yet another pointless battle in the Biden-Sanders war. But when I looked into it, the allegations seemed credible. That’s not to say that she’s telling the truth. I really have no idea. But there are things that tend to make me believe her.

In particular, she told her brother and friend at the time that this happened. But it hasn’t been thoroughly reported. In Ryan Grimm’s article, he reports, that she told them “about the incident.” Is this the inappropriate touching or the penetration? I tend to think it is the latter because he mentions “sexual assault.” (Grimm never calls it rape.)

Biden has unequivocally denied the allegation. Clearly, it is a story that needs more reporting.

The Two Sides

Meanwhile, the battle rages on among the Biden and Sanders supporters. As usual, I find them both wanting.

The Biden Camp

On the Biden side, people dismiss Tara Reade because of a now-deleted Medium article she wrote where she gushed about Vladimir Putin. She has defended herself by saying that her opinion has changed and that she was then writing a novel set in Russia.

I can see why people find this suspect. Just the same, I can so see myself doing the same thing. When I’m researching something new, I often get very excited about it. So I don’t have a problem believing her explanation.

On the other hand, maybe she is a Russian asset. Like I said: I don’t know.

The Sanders Camp

I understand Sanders supporters who think that Biden is a less than stellar candidate to go up against Trump. I agree although I blame the the Sanders campaign and its poor performance as much as anyone.

In the case of Tara Reade, the Sanders side is reacting the way they have to every other thing that’s come up to attack Biden. I don’t see any more thought given to it than to the ridiculous “Biden has dementia” claims.

And it’s sad because a lot of Sanders supporters don’t seem to realize how important Reade’s claims are. For many, this is just another stick to hit Biden with. But if what she says is true, this will change the primary, but not in the way that they think.

Sanders is not going to be the Democratic nominee. It is not really possible for Sanders to catch Biden. So even if Biden drops out, the nomination is going to be thrown to the party. And they will pick a unity candidate — almost certainly a woman. (And no; I’m not thinking of Warren.)

A Sad Story

So all the glee I hear coming from Sanders supporters is ill-advised. This is important stuff. If Reade is deluded, I feel for her. If she isn’t, Biden is a monster — or at least was at that time.

I’m not sure what happens if it is shown that he is guilty. But most likely, what will happen is that the allegation will remain but no other women will come forward and we will never know.

And we will be left with the uncertain and sad world we’ve always had.

Update (1 April 2020)

I’ve read more about this and I’m as confused as ever. But I’m at least more secure about what both sides are saying in this fight.

Brian & Eddie Krassenstein wrote Evidence Casts Doubt on Tara Reade’s Sexual Assault Allegations of Joe Biden. They deliver on that title but nothing they report is rock solid. It literally does cast doubt but doesn’t destroy her claim.

The one thing I found most interesting was how positive Reade had been toward Biden in the past. Human psychology is weird though. The article is worth a read.

More important, Emily Alford wrote at Jezebel Tara Reade’s Allegations Deserve More Care. It gets to the heart of what’s so troubling about the reporting on this: that there is none. There are tons of people and documents that need to be checked that simply have not been. And as Alford notes, this all should have been done before Reade’s allegations were pushed into public.

And this is just the most basic reporting that needs to be done. The most troubling thing about the allegations is that I’ve never heard whispers that Biden was a sexual predator. Generally, guys don’t do this kind of thing just once. What normally makes allegations of this type stick is that there is an existing narrative that simply isn’t well-known outside a particular group — like was the case with Harvey Weinstein.

The lack of all these pieces does a disservice to both Reade and Biden. And sadly, I suspect that we will continue on like this with both sides convinced they are right and no one in a position to do the reporting caring enough about getting to the truth.


Image cropped from Joe Biden by Gage Skidmore via Flickr. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Morning Music: Madeleine Peyroux

Anthem - Madeleine Peyroux

Every time I introduce someone to Madeleine Peyroux, they say the same thing. “Oh, I like Billie Holiday!” That is the first thing you notice about her. The timbre of her voice is very similar. But that’s about where it ends. She very much does not have Holiday’s phrasing. For that, turn to Frank Sinatra, whose whole career was based on her phrasing.

When she first began performing, she focused on acoustic jazz. She had started performing while living in Paris, and you could definitely hear the French influence on her music. Peyroux gradually developed her own style. I get the same feeling from her work that I do from Leon Redbone, although I find her more interesting.

In 2018, she released Anthem. The title refers to her cover of the Leonard Cohen song. But almost all of the songs were written by her and her band. This short set includes songs from the album.


Image of Anthem from Amazon via Fair Use.

What I Learned Canvassing

Bill George Canvassing

On the weekend before Super Tuesday, I was out canvassing for Warren. On Saturday, I had a partner and on Sunday, I was alone. It’s more fun with a partner but more productive alone. Of course, I wasn’t really doing it to be productive. I knew that Warren was out of the race and that Super Tuesday would likely be her last race in the Democratic primary. To be honest, I don’t know why I did it except maybe to show some solidarity with other Warren supporters.

But what I got out of it was different. The places I canvassed were not Warren areas. There were a lot of Sanders supporters. And it retrospect, that makes sense because one day I was in a Latino neighborhood and Sanders did really well with Latinos in California. But I met a lot of Biden supporters too. This was, after all, at a point in the race where there were really only two candidates.

Bad Experiences

As I feared, there were a couple of unpleasant encounters. The worst was with a Bloomberg supporter. He seemed angry and annoyed. But he was clearly busy. He wouldn’t even shut his vacuum off. So I give him a pass.

And the other one was with a Sanders supporter. It wasn’t really that bad. He was just telling me some things I’ve heard online that, while untrue, were hard to counter without making things ugly. They were sexist, but I thought it best to simply extricate myself as quickly as possible. He had made up his mind and I had plenty of other homes to visit. But that interaction was more annoying than unpleasant.

The Glue That Binds: Donald Trump

Other than this, all the experiences were positive. They were also, to a shocking degree, predictable. Democratic voters hate Donald Trump! They weren’t emotional about it. They spoke of him the way you would a broken sewage pipe that was draining into your drinking water. There was a problem and it needed to be fixed as soon as possible.

Other than the two men I discussed above (and of course they were men), everyone was bound together and ready for the general election. Most people had their favorites but ultimately didn’t care. (There were a few who, like me, bristled at the idea that Michael Bloomberg might be the nominee.) I even spoke at some length to some of them about the nonsense conflict online between Sanders and Warren supporters.

My takeaway from canvassing is that the internecine fighting I see online is mostly absent offline. And sure: maybe that’s just because it’s a lot harder to yell at someone standing in front of you. But that just illustrates the point. It’s easy to vilify abstract people. It’s much harder to say that four more years of Trump is better than allowing Sanders/Biden to be president when you are talking to someone whose healthcare would be on the line because of it.

Thank You for Your Service

There was another kind of reaction that I got a lot — especially from people who had already voted. They were glad to see people out canvassing. I got this vibe of, “Thank you for your service!” And there’s probably a lot to that because many of them also seemed vaguely ashamed because they were not out doing it.

And there is a feeling of pride doing it. If we are going to keep what is left of our democracy, this is the kind of thing we need to do. (But it isn’t nearly enough as I plan to discuss later.)

United Left

Overall, canvassing made me feel a lot better about the state of the Democratic Party. It made me think that we are all a lot more united than it appears. And that was also my takeaway from Sunday’s debate between Sanders and Biden — contentious as it was.

But it’s made me a lot less tolerant of what I read on Twitter every day. It’s coming from both sides. And it’s all nonsense — or a more coarse synonym.


PA AFL-CIO President Bill George by Molly Theobald for the AFL-CIO America’s Unions, licensed under CC BY 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.

Good News About the Democratic Primary

Bernie Sanders

After Saturday’s caucus in Nevada, I was shocked to see people get so worked up. Of particular note was Chris Matthews. But all I could think was, have these people been living in a cave?

The Real Clear Politics average going into the caucus had Sanders with twice the support of his nearest rival, Joe Biden.

So how did the first vote compare to the polling average? Shockingly well:

Candidate Poll Vote
Sanders32.534.0
Biden16.017.6
Buttigieg16.015.4
Warren14.012.8
Klobuchar9.59.6
Steyer9.09.1

In other words, everyone did just about as well as they were supposed to. I understand that most people don’t pay attention to this. But political commentators? I guess they were living in a dream world.

But okay: a bunch of people freaked out. Luckily, a lot of people stepped up. In particular, I was impressed with Paul Krugman who wrote a short twitter thread, Bernie Sanders Isn’t the Left’s Trump. Sadly, the initial reaction was not good.

Most people got hung up on one thing that Krugman said, “Bernie Sanders is now the clear favorite for the Democratic nomination.” How dare he say that?! The same people who were freaking out because Nevada supposedly made Sanders inevitable were now freaking out that a gentle call for perspective included the fact that Sanders was the frontrunner.

The Sun Came Out

And then something changed. I can’t quantify it. There are still a lot of people who hate the idea that Sanders will likely be the nominee. But it’s different. There’s a certain resignation and acceptance that maybe he isn’t that bad — and certainly, he’s nowhere near as bad as President Donald J Trump.

I should point out, however, that the people who are against Sanders are not, in general, against him because they think he is horrible and will be successful in stealing the Democratic Party. Mostly, they are concerned that he will lose.

This is a reasonable concern. My biggest concern about Sanders was always that a large fraction of powerful Democrats would sleepwalk their way to the general election. But I no longer believe that.

It seems that the anti-Sanders forces are pragmatic (Who would have guessed?!) and understand that Trump poses an existential threat to this republic. And the last couple of days have shown that the process has begun for everyone to get behind whoever wins the nomination.

(To be honest, I don’t know about the other side of this battle. Sanders supporters seem to be younger and more volatile. I see a lot more “I will never vote for…” from them than I do from the other side. If Sanders starts to lose, I’ll face that then.)

Just Like the Democrats

I was thinking recently that Sanders getting the nomination is the most normal outcome for the Democrats as one could imagine. We tend to like justice. In 2016, we nominated the second-place finisher in 2008. And in 2020, we are heading to nominate the second-place finisher in 2016.

I think we can all take some solace in that. Krugman also wrote, “America under a Sanders presidency would still be America, both because Sanders is an infinitely better man than Trump and because the Democratic Party wouldn’t enable abuse of power the way Republicans have.” Sanders is no radical.

And if Sanders gets the nomination and loses the general election, that’s too bad. We have a system. It isn’t perfect. Nor is it clear that any Democrat will beat Trump in November. So yes, I think I am reversing on Bernie Sanders Won’t Unify the Democratic Party.

Regardless, we persist.


Bernie Sanders by Gage Skidmore. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Refined Tribalism Will Destroy Us

Fox News

Dental hygiene among Paleolithic people was, all things considered, pretty good. This came as a surprise to the first archaeologists who studied it. But it soon became clear that the issue was that our teeth had evolved for the kind of diet we had. With the rise of agriculture and especially more recently with processed foods and refined sugar, we reached a point that we were doing things to our teeth that they just weren’t designed for.

I think we are seeing this with our media diet. Fox News is a particularly good example because they have managed to refine their product better than anyone else. I’m very interested in the way that it is able to finetune the worst aspects of tribalism.

There are important and good aspects of our tribal nature. But a little tribalism goes a long way. And it’s hardly necessary for Americans to subdivide themselves — especially when many claim that they are the only “true Americans.”

Our Interests

For a long time, I’ve pushed back on the idea that many white Americans “vote against their interests.” My (and many others’) argument is that we shouldn’t define a person’s interest in selfish economic terms. By such terms, I vote against my own interests all the time.

I now see this as a limited argument, however. Far too many people are made to be confused about their interests. Yes, I fully admit that for insecure white men, the rising status of women and people of color can be seen as catastrophic.

But is it? In a more hopeful world, would their feelings of worth really be determined by Marvel only publishing comic books with white male superheroes — all other characters relegated to villains and bystanders?

I’m constantly shocked at the insecurity of those around me who are ostensively powerful but who require constant reassurance. I’ve noticed this about patriotic displays at sports events and the hysterical anger at the use of “Happy Holidays.” If you are secure in your patriotism, why the need for others to demonstrate it? If you know Jesus is the savior, why the need for Target clerks to reinforce it?

But outlets like Fox News have found that it isn’t profitable to tell these people they are doing fine (which is true). Instead, they stoke resentment and fear.

Trump Is Always Right

One of the most remarkable things during the Trump presidency is how nothing bad about him ever makes its way to his supporters except as an example of the “fake news” that is being unfairly reported by radical leftists at The Washington Post. And when talking to Trump supporters, you hear a never-ending stream of Fox News-approved talking points.

There is certainly some of this on the left. But it is limited by the fact that liberals and leftists still exists in the fact-based world. It’s really amazing that online conservatives like Jordan Peterson spend so much time complaining about the left’s “postmodernism” and “relativism,” yet it is the right in this country that has completely abandoned the concept of absolute reality.

And I don’t think this would be the case without Fox News and related media. Most people think that there is something like absolute reality. Even the Fox News viewers who act like cultists believe in it outside of politics. And why? Because that is the default belief. It is only the constant assault of propaganda that allows them to abandon it in politics.

Problems on the Left

Twitter

Where this manifests most profoundly on the left is in internecine conflicts. What I have in mind is the Democratic primary. I’ve seen a lot of people who only get information about candidates they don’t support from supporters of the candidate they do.

I first noticed this with myself regarding Kamala Harris. I kept hearing the same three talking points about her. They weren’t good, but they always weren’t terrible. Eventually, I started to think that if these were the worst things about her, she probably wasn’t that bad. So I did some research and I learned that they were largely true. There was more nuance to issues. But while I still found them negatives, they weren’t disqualifying.

This comes most from Bernie Sanders supporters, but only because they are more organized. I sometimes think if Sanders got a hangnail, his supporters would get #BernieNailCare trending. The problem is with everyone.

On the other side, people are hysterical in their hatred of Sanders. I’m not keen on some things that Sanders has done. But again, are they disqualifying? No. I never thought so little of Hillary Clinton as when she wouldn’t commit to supporting Sanders if he were the nominee.

Narratives and Facts

And it’s all the same thing. The only information that gets through to Sanders haters are things that make him look bad. And I am tired of hearing people tell me they get the full picture but these bad things just really matter. That’s just having a particular narrative and dismissing everything that runs counter to it as “unimportant.”

I first saw this tendency among Clinton supporters against Sanders in 2016. Then I saw it from Sanders supporters against Clinton in 2016. Most recently, I’ve seen it from Sanders and Harris supporters against Warren.

How do I know this is happening? Because these people only ever talk about these opponents when they have something bad to share. I’m constantly surprised to hear of a little-reported Warren gaff in a Twitter thread. But don’t worry: they know all about Warren; it’s just that only the bad things matter.

It’s as though each campaign has its own negative press secretary for the other campaigns. And their supporters think this constant stream of negativity represents who the other candidates are. And why not? It supports their narrative.

Refined Tribalism

Humans are not designed to deal with modern media that is designed to solidify tribes. Just as our teeth are harmed by the refined sugar in our food, our society is harmed by the refined tribalism of Fox News and social media.

And in this way, conservatives have the advantage. While the Democrats are fracturing, increasingly looking at a billionaire from New York to save us, the Republicans are as committed to Trump as ever.

But as long as [fill in your most hated Democratic opponent] doesn’t win, it’s all fine. Amiright?!


Twitter Image by David Ferreira; licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0. Fox News by Johnny Silvercloud. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

The Status Quo Is Not Natural

Civilians with Hitler salute when Germans marched in - Occupation of the Sudeten area

It doesn’t matter where you go in the world there will always be people complaining about this or that endeavor being political. I recently saw a video by Jose on ComicsGate.

In that case, people were upset at the increase in diversity that was taking place in comic books. Many saw this as politicizing comics. They did not, however, see the facts the comics had always been overwhelmingly white and male as being a political statement.

Colin Kaepernick’s Crime Against the Status Quo

Another example of this is Colin Kaepernick. Now let’s be honest here. People hated him because he was protesting the status quo. The fact that he was black just made it worse. (Note how conservatives love people of color as long as they are telling other people of color they should sit down, shut up, and be happy they aren’t currently on fire.)

It was not because he was somehow disrespecting the American flag. But let’s assume that really was the issue for a moment.

If it were the case that his kneeling during the national anthem was politicizing the event then what was the national anthem itself? Clearly these people think there is nothing political about everyone standing and putting their hands on their chest and listening to the national anthem and watching the military flyovers.

Equating Status Quo With Natural

For these people, the constant jingoistic patriotism and the fetishization of the military is given. But it’s not. As Matt Soniak has explained, it wasn’t until World War I that the national anthem became part of professional baseball. And it didn’t become standard for sporting events until World War II.

It was all supposedly part of the war effort. But just nationalistic nonsense only accretes. When the wars end, these things stayed on. But that doesn’t make them natural.

In fact, I consider the whole thing disreputable. Why do professional sports wrap themselves in the flag? That’s especially true as sports become more international. What is the point of all this? It makes no sense to me. It goes against the things that I always thought America stood for like, for example, individualism.

Status Quo Destroys Freedom

Another thing conservatives love to go on about is freedom of speech and the supposed virtue signaling of SJWs. But ask yourself what would happen if you were an able-bodied person and you refuse to rise during the national anthem at a football game? You would certainly get a lot of angry comments. You might well be beaten up and even killed. Where’s the freedom of speech there? That’s fascist-level intolerance if you ask me.

But apparently as long as it is in the service of something that people think of as normal, it’s fine. But none of these things are normal. These things are the result of history. There is nothing fundamental about them. And you don’t have to be against the national anthem at sporting events to realize that.

I’d think proud patriots would rather that standing for the national anthem be voluntary. After all, what better way to signal that they are chauvinists than to stand proudly while people like me sit and chat with friends?

But it’s like with the War on Christmas: it isn’t enough to believe; everyone around them must also believe. If you ask me, this just means they don’t have a strong belief.

Social Convention

Everyone should admit that this is a social convention. It’s the way we do things. But it’s not the way we always did them. And it will not always be the way that we do them. So it’s open to discussion. And those who claim that it shouldn’t be open to discussion are villains.

Jose’s #ComicsGate Video

“Civilians With Hitler Salute When Germans Marched In — Occupation of the Sudeten Area” by German Federal Archive (Deutsches Bundesarchiv). It is in the public domain.