Some thinks about the persistence of statuary

>> Thursday, August 17, 2017

So, this week it's Robert E. Lee. I notice that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder is it George Washington next week, and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?
- Donald Trump and lots of other guys.


So there's a perfectly practical matter here that's not inconsequential even if it's not a big moral or philosophical argument, and that would be that Washington and Jefferson, you know, won their war while Lee and Jackson didn't.  Which is important because if Washington and Jefferson had lost their war, and had fallen into the hands of the British, well, no doubt they would have been hanged as traitors and there wouldn't be any statues of them to speak of, and any commemoration of them would have been in the same vein as British celebrations of Guy Fawkes' night, i.e. a celebration of the preservation of the monarchy that gradually turns ironic; you'd probably have troublemaking artistes like Alan Moore going around saying, "Remember Jefferson!" and using this reference to a vaguely-remembered insurrectionist as a grand metaphor for the importance of repudiating Thatcherism or somesuch.

And so, also, we need to point out that treason, which in the United States is defined as "levying War against them [the United States], or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort," (which is something Lee and Jackson totes did in front of literally thousands of witnesses, and not merely the two necessary to secure a conviction) has traditionally been punished throughout the world by death.  It's one of the primo capital crimes, partly because trying to destroy civilization is about as transgressive a crime against civilization as civilization can contemplate, and also because there's a long history of people who fail to overthrow the government the first time around coming back and trying again (and again and again and again) if given the opportunity.  It's probably only in the post-WWII era that countries like Britain and France that outlawed the death penalty switched to handing out life sentences for treason, because (obviously) it's hard to sentence someone to death for treason when you have no death sentences (duh).  Having pointed this out, to then point out that the United States exercised considerable forbearance after the Civil War in not hanging Confederates or lining them up in front of firing squads, as the main issue with how to deal with traitors up to that point had been whether to go with the traditional rope or the ease and convenience offered by contemporary firearms.

All of which leads us to a statement about just how crazy and screwed up the United States is, and how screwy the Civil War was, and how screwy all this stuff about Confederate statuary is: because there's actually a debate or discussion to have about how the leaders of the Confederacy were regarded after the war, and that debate or discussion is concerned with whether those guys should all have been killed or not, and was the decision not to do so moral or pragmatic, necessary or expedient, just or political, etc.?  And how crazy is it that we aren't having that debate or discussion, instead having a discussion or debate about how to honor these guys who in just about any other war in any other place at any other time would have been strung up and buried in unmarked graves with no fanfare?  Right?  I mean, that is really, really, really messed up, right there.  Just the fact these guys ended up being honored with marble or bronze instead of hemp is messed up, and then the rest of it?  Damn.


Aside from the practical fact that Washington and Jefferson won, and winners typically don't get hanged for treason while losers do (or did until countries started outlawing capital punishment, anyway), we should talk about civic virtue and mythology and cultural aspiration and things like that.

The fact is that there is a necessary and important discussion to be had about Washington and Jefferson as slaveowners and, for that matter, as human beings, and how they went out and stood for one thing in public but often failed to live up to their mythic personas in messy reality.  It's kind of stupid that I have to write that sentence that way, as if that discussion isn't actually being had, because, actually, lots of people are having that frank discussion, mostly on university campuses and in academic papers and at various conferences.  These were complex guys who often failed to live up to the ideals they espoused, or to the implications of those ideals, and this isn't a shocking notion to anyone who has taken a college semester covering early American history at any time in the past, oh, fifty years or more.

Jefferson, in fact, if you want to be blunt about it, was a bit of a two-faced, lying, hypocritical cunt-dripping when you actually get down to it; I think you could make the case that the ugliness that entered into the bitter political fighting of the early Republic came not from the profound ideological, economic, and regional differences among the Founding Fathers, but from the fact that one of them, whose name rhymed with "Mommas Beffershun," was a backstabbing son-of-a-bitch who went around in public sanctimoniously announcing he was above mundane partisanship and self-interest while in private he conspired, betrayed, and hired people to slander his rivals, and if he'd dropped dead of a stroke after authoring the Declaration of Independence it's conceivable that the rest of the Founders would still have had bitter arguments about federalism, representation, slavery, and all the rest, but would have been much more polite about it.  Maybe not.  But Jefferson was a rat bastard.

A rat bastard who, you know, penned what is arguably the single greatest paean to the Rights of Man ever written, and there's the rub, that's the thing.  And this is one of the big reasons one expects statues of Jefferson to stick around despite the actual man's propensity for slandering his friends, fleeing his enemies after talking a lot of smack about "watering the tree of Liberty," owning human beings, screwing said human beings (I'm not going to even begin to touch the issue of whether having a complicated lifelong sexual relationship with your slave is rape, but I'm not saying it isn't and I want us to be clear that this is out there and we don't get to simply ignore it), and perennially defaulting on his debts.  It surely wasn't Jefferson's intention to pen the best argument ever penned for liberating the same people he enslaved, but he did it.  It may or may not have been his intention that revolutionaries from Haiti to Indochina would take up the Declaration of Independence and liberally quote him while announcing they weren't going to settle for anything less than determining their own destinies, but that's exactly what happened.

And Washington, you know... Washington.  Slave-owner, kind of a hypocrite, no, doesn't really get a pass for freeing his slaves after a lifetime of enslaving them (would have been nice to do that, you know, maybe decades earlier if it meant that much to you, guy); but also, first President of the United States, successfully prosecuted a war in the name of liberty and freedom and equality, refused to be crowned king, established the informal tradition that lasted until FDR of stepping down after two terms that was subsequently written into the Constitution after FDR broke with the conventional practice (had a good excuse, middle of WWII and all, but still).  These things matter, these things show up on the man's balance sheet.

A point that needs to be made here, with all the people saying absurd things about "whitewashing history" or "erasing history" is that we don't really put up statues to remember history, we put these things up to establish the civic mythology.  We remember that Jefferson was a slave-owner and a nasty guy; but we celebrate that he wrote that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness," and this was such an amazingly clear and inspiring thing to have written down that slaves could subsequently go around saying, "What that guy said!" and quoting this self-evident truth back at the author's heirs for generations to come.  We remember that Washington was kind of not-that-great as a military leader and his presidential administration was kind of a mess, and that his war effort was salvaged by French and Prussian adventurers who thought it would be cool to join the Revolution and offer advice to its general and whip his irregulars into shape; but we celebrate that he did all he could to establish a political culture and tradition of citizenship, in which civilians would give themselves up to public life and duty so long as their nation needed their services, and then retire with grace and humility exactly as Cincinnatus was said to have done.

The superficial comparison one can make from this to Lee or Jackson falls apart like wet Kleenex, you know.  What is there to celebrate in a pair of oath-breakers who stood up against human freedom in support of... what?  Not a nation, but a region?  For a principle (anti-federalism or "state's rights") that was already faltering as the Republic's westward expansion and increasing global importance as a regional power and economic partner demanded a stronger centralized government with the authority to negotiate trade and military agreements with similarly powerful states?  I mean, what are we celebrating here, if we put a gloss on what so many of us know is actually being celebrated?

By which I mean: the answer to the question of "What are we celebrating?" with the Confederate statuary is readily answered by observing that most of them were erected in the era of counter-Reconstruction, alongside the enactment of Jim Crow laws, while a great revisionism of Civil War history was underway that re-framed the battle as a heroic effort to quash Federal overreach instead of a pathetic and desperate attempt by less than half of the country to undo the Constitution to preserve an immoral and unsustainable economic and social order dependent on racism and chattel slavery against the wishes of the remaining more than half of the country.  I just wanted to make the point that if you gloss this--which, really, you shouldn't, but let's do it as an intellectual exercise--what Lee and Jackson fought for was small and stupid, especially compared to what Washington and Jefferson were standing for.  Got it?

Like, Jefferson's out there saying, "all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights," and Lee is out there saying, "I sure love Virginia a whole lot!"?  I mean, fuck that guy.  Seriously.  I'm from North Carolina.  We didn't betray our country until we were surrounded, which is a sad, small excuse, but I'd at least ask respectfully for an acknowledgement that we didn't wind up on the wrong side of history until being a Border State was no longer an option because, thanks Virginia.  So fuck Virginia, and fuck Robert E. Lee. At least in this context, because otherwise it's a lovely state and there are plenty of nice things you can say about it in other contexts.


The thing with slippery slope arguments, besides being logical fallacies and all that, is that they don't really work if the threat... isn't all that threatening.  Like, remember when that Trump supporter went on TV and said that if you didn't elect Trump there would be taco trucks on every corner, and everybody who wasn't some kind of bug-eyed racist went, "Mmm, tacos, drool"?   The good old days, and I guess something else we can blame the President for is that it's lunchtime and I'm typing this and I can't just take five from it to run downstairs and outside and up to the corner and buy a delicious, delicious empanada?  Or better yet, two?  With that dipping sauce, not the chimichurri but the other kind that's, I guess, sour-cream based but it's orange?  What is that stuff?  That is just the best--


Anyway, you get some people saying, "Well, what's next, taking down statues of Washington and Jefferson?"  Which is supposed to be a--I really hate that this country has turned this expression into an inexecrable pun by electing that man President--supposed to be a trump card?  Because this would be utterly terrible, for... reasons?  If this happened?

I don't see it happening, because of the things I rambled about in section II.  I think Washington and Jefferson, unlike Lee and Jackson, are integral to this nation's ideas about itself as a nation of citizens who serve the public and who stand for liberty and justice and freedom from tyranny.  And also because of the things I rambled about in section I, because maybe statues of Lee and Jackson could be justified if they'd successfully founded a nation based on, oh, whatever (slavery, but did I need to spell that out?), but they didn't, so there.

But what if it did?  What if some future generation of Americans decided that Washington and Jefferson were no longer sound symbols of what America represented?  Why would that be inherently bad?  I'm not saying I would be happy if they tore down the statues of Washington and replaced them with statues of George Lincoln Rockwell, because, yes, that would make me very sad and I hope I never live long enough to see something like that.  But assuming whatever went up in lieu was some other brighter, shininger symbol of an Enlightenment-values state founded on democratic and republican principles, dedicated to the establishment of a beacon to guide the world to embracing liberty, equality, and justice-for-all, so what if for some reason it's not specifically George Washington?  I expect it will be, because traditions, but so what if it isn't?

What if it was, say, Abraham Lincoln?  Would that be so terrible?  I don't know, it sounds like it could be kind of nice.  Lincoln was good people.  We should all revere and admire that guy.  Not perfect, none of them were, but we should all like Lincoln if we aren't fascist moron bastards.

To some extent, obviously, we erect statues and memorials to establish traditions, to encourage future generations to venerate the ideals we venerate now.  Geez, that's why the Daughters of the Confederacy came to buy in the first place all these goddamn statues we're trying to figure out how to dispose of now.  They wanted everybody to remember our treasonous progenitors as people who were dashing and good-looking and just as concerned with freedom as people who wrote an Emancipation Proclamation or who invested Vicksburg to make it harder for pro-slavery people to shoot abolitionists.  There's limits, though, to how much we can pass along or how they'll take it; if future generations decide Jefferson isn't really how they want to personify human rights, that's for them.

I get, I really do get, that the idea of future generations abandoning earlier generations' symbols (and perhaps values) is a thing that people understandably get worked up about.  I get it because I would like future generations to share my values, and get horribly depressed whenever I contemplate how few of my values seem to have real traction in the present era.  But, you know, things change unless we're all dead.  That's how things work.  Mostly, slowly, they change for the better despite occasional setbacks.  Living things, including cultures, grow or they die.  That's it.  That's the iron law.

Removing a statue of Robert E. Lee now is a big deal because the statue should never have been erected, the question should be why we didn't hang the man and not how he should be honored, it sends a dubious message to present generations at best and a hostile message to many of our citizens (and not just persons of color, mind you) at worst, and removal sends a positive message of hope and change to people who have been waiting for hope and change since January 1, 1863; they're due.  We're due.  Whether or not removing a statue of Thomas Jefferson is a big deal at some unspecified point in the future in the improbable event such a thing actually ever happens is... to be determined.  I'm not scared.  Are you?  For crying out loud, why would you ever be?


August 14, 2017-- Thoughts that I tried to put together, nearly deleted, decided to publish, no answers, only doubt and grief

>> Monday, August 14, 2017

I find myself more sad than angry, somehow.  I find myself feeling an inarticulate to express pity for my country and my people.  I don't mean to say there's no anger.  There is.  But anger is exhausting, anger leaves you feeling brittle and impotent, and when the anger has burned itself out what is left standing are the brittle, flaking, ashen bones of sorrow.

There.  I went and tried to articulate it and wandered into a cheap stab at poetry.

What is new is old.  I know that; I'm not entirely stupid.  The people who went to Charlottesville with violence and rage are hardly distinguishable from the bastards who burned down Greenwood in 1921 or committed a municipal coup d'etat in Wilmington in 1898.  They've spent a hundred-fifty-years plus marching and shouting and lynching and shooting and burning.  They're on the Internet, now, but they used to have pamphlets and leaflets and fliers, you know, and books you could send for by mail.

What I am, I think, if I'm not stupid, is naive.  I grew up with an idea of a future in which the past was the past, where the great lesson of the Second World War was that the xenophobia and racial rage was a thing fading into the past.  The dreamers I suckled from throughout my childhood came from the generation that fought and won and was stricken by the horrors of that war, and they insisted that if we didn't learn from the horrors wreaked by fascism in places like Poland and Nanjing, we'd be bound to repeat them with the added convenience of atom bombs.  And, okay, you'd still see the odd Klansman, Jesse Helms was one of my state's Senators, the skinheads were packing up and moving to Idaho and collecting guns; but these were the lunatic fringe, weren't they?  These were the people who were dying.

If so, easy to forget that a dying animal can turn mad and stupid.

Too often these days I find myself thinking that the intelligentsia made a terrible mistake in the 1980s when we didn't take the reactionaries at their word when they declared a culture war was in progress.  It seems to me that too many of us shook our heads and tried to be conciliatory; "What are these people thinking?" we asked.  "Nobody is declaring a war on faith, on Jesus, on American values, on Christmas, on their way of life," we said.  Not realizing that we had, indeed, declared war on their values inadvertently, accidentally, with good intent and largeness of heart, because we misunderstood and misconstrued those values; because we believed that all people are good at heart and all humans are rational creatures at some fundamental root of intellect; because we believed that the bright shining future would be one that was ultimately, inherently virtuous and good because it promised more equality, more justice, more peace, more fairness; not understanding at all that what some people wanted was the security of the familiar order even when the familiar order preyed upon them and theirs, even when the familiar order bloomed in a bed of iniquity from wicked seed.

We ought to have just said, "You're absolutely right," and damned them in every way we could.

But writing this brings me grief.  This is the part that may be hardest to explain.  This may even be why we may lose, why we don't even have a future, much less the postwar dream.  I do not know how to destroy my enemy.  I do not want to burn his churches, I do not want to run him down in the street.  I would let him go off somewhere he could do no more harm and have his little church and his little pride in his own righteousness and wait for him to die, recklessly confident his children will abandon him because I want to believe in their goodness at heart and fundamental rationalism.  I do not know or want to know how to use his weapons: the guns and sticks and fire and animal rage.  I do not want to learn how to fight on his terms--the thought makes me ill and brings me tears.


A new theory of Trump

>> Friday, July 21, 2017

Lately, my junk e-mail folder has been accruing conservative spam.  I have a couple of non-exclusive hypotheses for this.  One explanation is that I seem to get a lot of junk e-mail that appears to be directed to a digital doppelganger whose name could be compressed and truncated into something that would produce my e-mail address if he'd registered for it before I did; this gentleman (yes, he appears to be male) would, based on how some of my spam is addressed, be an elderly, conservative African-American who resides or previously resided in Pennsylvania.  The other likely explanation is that somebody, a friend, acquaintance, or nemesis who had my e-mail address has signed me up for spam from certain websites as a joke or prank or annoyance.

You find yourself conflicted by this kind of thing: on the one hand, it's annoying to get some of these mailings even if they go straight to a spam folder and can be deleted en masse and unread.  On the other hand, they are an insight into the Other America, and frankly some of them are pretty funny (although they surely don't mean to be).  And then there's the skepticism I have about clicking on any de-registration links, seeing as how telling them not to send something to my e-mail would confirm they had a live one, not to mention the risk of exposing yourself to some kind of cyberattack if the source site is actually phishing.

Plus, on top of all else?  The possibility, as unbelievable as it may seem, that one of these random junk mailings, should you open it and read it, will give you the insight you've been missing the entire time, the insight that may very well explain the true hidden agenda of the Trump administration and things like the President's recent New York Times interview.

The e-mail I received this week is a spam flier from something called... well, merely naming them doesn't quite do things justice, so here's their masthead:

An anxiety aggregator clickbait site for conservatives, in short.  All the news that's misfit to print.  Discover the truth, read about the world going to hell in a handbasket, click on this headline, no, click on this one, click the headlines, all the headlines, click like the fate of the world depends upon it, which it does!  Also, advertisements.  And it was the advertising, not the headline, "Thousands of Mink Dead After Activists Release 38,000 From Fur Farm," that opened my eyes.  I was blind, and now I see.  No, not because they wanted to sell me glasses.  Because they wanted to sell me this:

Now, my first reaction to this was exactly what I anticipate yours to be: inarticulate laughter, seeing as how it seems improbable that Dr. Ben Carson could research his way out of a paper bag if you left one end of it open for him.  But that ad was only the advert at the top of the e-mail for the product they want to sell the elderly right-wing paranoids of America.  No, the big reveal came down at the bottom of the mailer, with the follow-up advert-disguised-as-a-headline:

Now, my first reaction was... well, I don't know if it was your first reaction or not; your first reaction may have been identical to your reaction to the first ad--what kind of research, etc.; but my first reaction was to wonder why Dr. Carson was trying to snort a brain.  Is he smelling it for freshness?  Kissing it?  Is there some kind of taste-testing that brain surgeons perform as part of their work, the way a chef or bartender might check to see if a dish or glass needs something?  Salt, maybe?  That is an extremely strange photograph.  I am not sure what is happening in that image.  Maybe it is just a kiss: maybe Dr. Ben Carson really, really loves brains, and I don't mean in a Return of the Living Dead sort of brain-loving sense, but maybe more in the Hugo the Abominable Snowman will name him "George" sense.  Though, in which case, maybe you should... I don't know how hugging and petting and squeezing and patting and petting and rubbing and caressing a brain fits in with modern surgical sterilization procedures, but... forgive me, I'm not a doctor and I do not at all mean to overstep professional boundaries and expertise, but maybe the brain stays in the head?  Usually?

But then my eyes re-read the lines beneath the weird check-the-brain-for-freshness photo (I wonder of they're like eggplants and you can tell the gender from the shape of where the root connec--never mind), and it took me another re-read and maybe even a third to be the charm, and something connected--

"Ben Carson's Newest Research Triples Memory In 21 Days!"  [emphasis added and all that]

"Memory," did it say?  "Memory"?!  They're claiming, as improbable as it may seem, that Dr. Carson is researching memory?

And that's when I understood.  Or, maybe that's overstating, insofar as I have no evidence for what I am about to propose other than a snake-oil advertisement disguised as a news headline in a spam e-blast sent out in the hope it will reach somebody dumb enough to buy unprescribed non-FDA-approved memory enhancement pills online from persons unknown.

What if... what if the reason for the Trump Administration's behavior to date is... that Ben Carson has the entire Administration on drugs?!

I mean, think about it: you're Dr. Ben Carson, brain specialist extraordinaire, a scientific maverick who has licked things no other researcher would dare to lick.  They called you mad, mad, MAD!!!, M@DDFSFDDFSD! in medical school, but you persisted, guided by a unique vision and the knowledge that you, and you alone, could find a cure for memory.  Lapses.  Memory lapses.  You should probably clarify that in a future draft.  Yes, memory, that elusive quality of the mind that has eluded philosophers and scientists alike for millions of years, and you could be the one to solve the great enigmatic mystery!  You!

But you need test subjects, and test subjects are expensive and hard to get.  You can advertise for them, but then you get that weirdo in a diaper knocking at your door at 3 a.m. again.  You can hire them, but that's expensive and RFP paperwork is confusing and eats up time from the all-too-brief mortal span during which you should be sciencing all the science you can science.  Lab rats are sort of traditional, but their brains are small and tend to get stuck on the end of your tongue and you always end up either messing up the brain trying to get it out of your mouth or you end up having to swallow it, destroying years of valuable research.

And then you get this opportunity to work in Washington DC as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, hobnobbing with all these folks who, as it happens, have lots of stuff to remember, stuff like having secret meetings with Russian agents is wrong, and whether you promised to get rid of healthcare for people or give everybody all the healthcare, and that you're not supposed to tell everybody you meet about the cool spy stuff you learned yesterday, and where your tax returns are, and who Napoleon was, and just, just, just so much stuff.  And these folks, they'll help a buddy out, right?  There's a pill, you say?  To cure memory?  Sign me up for ten bottles!  No, wait, double that, make it twelve bottles!

And now you're really fracking with gas!  Everybody in the Administration is now taking your not-yet-patented memory pills, why, Attorney General Jeff Sessions just ordered six more jars of Doctor Carson's Memory Magic (trademark pending) and is snorting them... from a Pez dispenser... which is actually a problem and kind of disturbing, because, I dunno, probably shouldn't do that but if you're gonna, maybe you ought to grind them up or something?  Jared and Steve don't want to say anything that might be taken as a slight, so they're just slipping them to each other in one another's meatloaf and ice cream (only one scoop apiece, sad) and wowee, they are rememorizing the hell out of everything--why, Bannon didn't even realize he spent six hours standing in front of Albert Bierstadt's "Rocky Mountain Landscape," memorizing every last detail of it (obviously) to the point that he knew so much about the painting he couldn't even answer any questions about it because he didn't know where to begin describing it!

It all makes sense, doesn't it!  I mean, maybe it makes sense.  It could make sense.  Okay, okay, fine, a mix of stupidity, cupidity, profound ignorance, and maybe just a smidge of incipient senile dementia (seriously, did you read this week's NYT interview?!) would, possibly, maybe, maaaaaybe satisfy Occam's Razor's demand for parsimony better than my new theory that Dr. Ben Carson has the entire upper levels of the Administration tanked to the gills on a really ineffective memory enhancement treatment.  I mean, "ineffective" in the sense of, "Dear God, you're only making it worse" sense, obviously.  And there's the rebuttal, admittedly, that a lot of the people we're discussing seemed pretty stupid even before they started grabbing Dr. Carson's hand and aggressively jerking it towards them under the pretense of a civil handshake.  So that's two strikes against my explanation.  Fine.  Go on and win with your... "logic," and your... "evidence."

But, and give me this much: you have to admit that Ben Carson going around the White House giving everybody he meets his new "memory enhancer"--you have to admit that it's a pretty great theory on the merits, if not on the actual, you know, evidence side of things.  My theory, which is mine, that is to say, this theory that belongs to me--you know, either you already got that reference or you didn't, and I'm too lazy to link because I'm really just trying to wrap up here; as I was saying, my theory ought to be true, and I'm going to embrace it periodically and suggest you do the same even if you don't really believe, even if I have utterly failed to convince you, because in the years of sorrow and frustration ahead it may be a small spark in the darkness to imagine Ben Carson bursting into the Oval Office to announce that he's here to make sure nobody suffers from memory aga--MEMORY DEFICITS, YOU KNOW, FORGETTING STUFF, IS WHAT HE MEANT TO SAY--as he was starting to say in your imagination before you closed your eyes to sleep, he's here to cure the evil scourge of memory forever.


The not ready for prime-time players

>> Wednesday, July 12, 2017

I was asked to have a meeting by an acquaintance I knew from the 2013 Miss Universe pageant with an individual who I was told might have information helpful to the campaign. I was not told her name prior to the meeting. I asked Jared and Paul to attend, but told them nothing of the substance. We had a meeting in June 2016. After pleasantries were exchanged, the woman stated that she had information that individuals connected to Russia were funding the Democratic National Committee and supporting Ms. Clinton. Her statements were vague, ambiguous and made no sense. No details or supporting information was provided or even offered. It quickly became clear that she had no meaningful information. She then changed subjects and began discussing the adoption of Russian children and mentioned the Magnitsky Act. It became clear to me that this was the true agenda all along and that the claims of potentially helpful information were a pretext for the meeting. I interrupted and advised her that my father was not an elected official, but rather a private citizen, and that her comments and concerns were better addressed if and when he held public office. The meeting lasted approximately 20 to 30 minutes. As it ended, my acquaintance apologized for taking up our time. That was the end of it and there was no further contact or follow-up of any kind. My father knew nothing of the meeting or these events.
- Donald J. Trump, Jr., July 9th, 2017.

Of course, it seems a bit obvious that this statement is nearly certainly a through-and-through lie considering it's (a) at least the third version of Trump, Jr.'s meeting with Natalia Veselnitskaya (the first being that there was no meeting at all, and the second being that there was maybe a meeting but no campaign issues were discussed at all), and (b) this version is contradicted by Trump, Jr.'s e-mails, released by the man himself in an apparent attempt to achieve transparency by shooting himself and thereby making himself a window.

But never mind that for a moment.  Consider this: one of Trump, Jr.'s petulant responses to the blow-back from his self-administered fatal wounds was to tweet, "Obviously I'm the first person on a campaign to ever take a meeting to hear info about an opponent... went nowhere but had to listen," as if this resolved anything, as if he was obligated to take the meeting and to do nothing but lie about it afterwards.

If only, oh if only, we had any kind of example to look to for an instance of a political campaign being offered potentially damaging material under the table and what they ought to do about it.  Say, oh, just for an entirely hypothetical example, suppose that a campaign was offered a video and strategy book from their opponent's debate prep prior to a televised debate, just to cite a what if something that really happened happened?

Here's what Gore's campaign did: they contacted the FBI, and the Bush campaign, and there was an investigation and an indictment and a mail fraud conviction that came out of the whole affair.

All of which, of course, were options for Mr. Trump, Jr., before, after, or during his meeting that he denied for months and months and then apparently mischaracterized.  Had he reported Veselnitskaya's contacts with the campaign to the FBI and or FEC and wanted to not-comment on them, he certainly could have so; "I cannot comment on Russian attempts to contact my father's campaign because of certain ongoing investigations I'm not at liberty to discuss," is only 137 characters in length and fits easily into a tweet (substituted the comma inside the quotes with a period and see for yourself, ye doubters and cynics).  And if the New York Times dug deeply and discovered Trump, Jr., was an honest broker and law-abiding citizen, who would be the hero of that tale, hm?

We're talking about this at all, in short, because whatever the President's eponymous son did re: the didn't-have-it-no-wait-you-meant-that-meeting-I-guess-we-did-but-it-isn't-what-you-think-okay-maybe-it-totally-is magical meeting was not ethical, nor prudent, nor legal.

And there's one more point about all of this that is the real reason I decided to write this ("Finally, VanNewkirk, and about goddamn time!"), if you're still with me and haven't nodded off.  It's very much worth mentioning that the Gore campaign, back in 2000, wasn't only motivated by Boy Scoutism, Fair Playness, and Legal Asscoverism:

[Texas Democratic Party chair Molly Beth] Malcolm and other Democrats suggest the materials were leaked as part of a political sting operation aimed at trapping Gore in possession of confidential information. The two presidential candidates will meet in the first of three high-stakes debates on Tuesday.

Gore's team, in short, considered the possibility they were being played.

Which, if the Trumps were as smart as they keep telling us they are, surely might be something that would have occurred to them if an angel--or a "government attorney" coming directly from Moscow--was due to arrive "with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father."  A reasonable person might wonder, "Are we being compromised by the Russians?  Or by the Clintons?  Or by Sacha Baron Cohen?!"  In the era of bumbling provocateurs like James O'Keefe, gotcha filmmakers like Michael Moore, and "We'll just keep the cameras running until you look stupid" late night television like The Daily Show, might you respond to an e-mail offering a meeting with a mysterious Russian lawyer by ringing up the local FBI field office and asking if you should take this meeting, or if you should take it in a room packed with more bugs than a Fourth of July cookout in Southern swamp country?

You might, you know.  You just might.

This is the thing, and the point of this whole bit: there's no reason to take Donald J. Trump, Jr., at his word when his word has been changing for months and months now.  But if you do, if for some reason (no good reason at all) you decide to, the man is an idiot and a fool by his own admission.  The man lacks the minimal common sense and sense of self-preservation and sense of caution we expect of those in public service and that is the natural habit, for better and worse, of the political class in any democracy... well, in any government, ever, actually.  The natural state of the politician is to reasonably expect to be stabbed in the back by the people standing to his front and back, which can be irritating to the general public when it leads the politician to be mealy-mouthed and eight-faced and noncommittal about what he had for breakfast much less where he stands on an issue, but has the virtue of allowing the public to generally feel safe that its secrets and trust can be kept by one who assumes every motive is ulterior.

The Trumps, perversely, lack this basic quality.  And rather than this lack making them more honest, or more transparent, it merely makes them more stupid, and more dangerous.  As when the President blabbed--again to the damned Russians--about secret intelligence in a way that was, while not particularly specific (apparently), nevertheless specific enough for the Russians to be able to deduce where we got it from and how and from whom in a way that most likely burned sources, jeopardized lives, and made our allies less wont to share future secrets with an unreliable and loose-lipped partner.  

Junior's admission, should you take it at face value (and, really, honestly, even if you don't, even if you correctly assume he's a lying liar who lies), is only proof that he (and his family, and their advisors, and circle) are in far over their heads, kiddies who have strayed from the relative safety of the shallow end into deep waters that, admittedly unusual in a neighborhood pool, are notoriously shark-infested and poisoned.  (Shark-infested?  Try Xothian-infested, the secret squamous spawn of Cthulhu itsself reaching up from the depths with their unholy tentacles to grab the legs of incautious swimmers and drowning babes like Jared Kushner and Donald J. Trump, Jr..)

What kind of idiot takes a meeting with someone he doesn't know, represented as a foreign government's lawyer who is eager to discuss information stolen from an American citizen on behalf of nefarious hinted-at interests, but who could be anyone at all from said skullduggering foreign agent to an actress hired by a struggling YouTuber to show up in a Natasha Fatale getup with an accent stolen from Walter Koenig and a lipstick camera tucked in her cleavage?  Well, it turns out that Donald J. Trump, Jr., wants you to think he's just that kind of idiot.

Probably because he doesn't want you to think he's a felon.


Idle Friday speculations

>> Friday, June 16, 2017

It depends on what you mean by "collusion," doesn't it?  No, I don't think there were secretive meetings where Trump and/or his surrogates sat down in shadowy rooms and discussed swinging the 2016 Presidential election to the Republicans, mostly because I don't believe for a second that very many people (if any) in the Trump campaign or in Moscow seriously thought for a minute, or even a second, that Trump had any chance whatsoever of winning.

On the other hand, I think there's an extraordinarily good chance that the bottom feeders Trump associates with--and perhaps even the Bottom-Feeder-in-Chief himself, personally or through mouthpieces--and some folks in Russia talked about the opportunities inherent in the whole situation.  Financial, obviously, with all the opportunities for money laundering inherent to the messy books of even a not-corrupt political campaign, and all the opportunities for graft and kickbacks and future transactions and personal favors owed.  Political, to the extent that Vladimir Putin allegedly has a special loathing for Hillary Clinton and that it would be in Russia's national interest more broadly for the next American President-Elect to arrive in Washington D.C. bleeding, compromised, and in a buzzing cloud of questions of electoral legitimacy.  Personal, to the extent that the Russians likely have leverage over Trump and maybe some of his associates and family members in terms of blackmail or extortion options; and I don't necessarily mean the more salacious details of the Steele Dossier--it's not at all unlikely that the Russians are in a position to start calling in debts Trump owes him and/or could cancel building negotiations and/or contracts with Trump, and (in short) could ruin and humiliate the man.

So no, I don't expect any investigations of Trump, Kushner, and the whole lousy lot will expose a grand scheme to throw the Electoral College to Donald Trump.  Does anyone seriously think this?  I feel like I'm laying out some obvious points here.  The idea that the Russians really planned to install Trump in office seems like the kind of plan that only works in movies, the kind of plan where an hour after walking out of the theatre, it's really, really bugging you that the entire third act of the film depended on the hero or villain knowing that someone would perform (or not perform) some very specific act in some very specific manner; the kind of plots the old Batman TV show regularly lampooned with Batman and Robin just happening to have predicted they'd need to implement some arcane countermeasure before the final face-off.  But you hear this word, "collusion," and it depends on what you mean by "collusion," right?

Things that are just running through the head, probably obvious to you, Dear Reader, and telling you nothing at all you weren't already thinking.  But sometimes one feels compelled to lay it bare, you know.

And so I do think Trump is in a bit of trouble.  And this is why he certainly needs to be feeling something ominous creeping around the corners of the eye and up over his shoulder.  In a sense, the "Russia Investigation" is likely to come up empty in certain respects; I don't think we're talking about treason in any kind of formal sense.  But I think we're talking about corruption, which may be a better word than "collusion," which is why I sort of wish some folks would stop using the one c-word and swap it out for the other.  What I think people were most likely meeting about wasn't what Trump could do for if he became President; I think they were meeting about how everybody could get ahead exploiting the circumstances.

Y'know, there's a kicker to this, obviously (obviously?) in that Trump getting elected President may actually be the whole thing failing catastrophically.  Irony, yeah?  In that if Trump had done as well in the election as everybody was expecting he would back in October of last year, people might be getting comfortably rich without a whole lot of scrutiny, or very much consequence.  It's a political norm in this country for Presidents-Elect to be magnanimous in victory: there's nearly no chance President Clinton would have sicced DOJ on the Trump campaign, it just isn't done.  Besides which, President Clinton doubtlessly would have been too busy with Congressional hearings over e-mail servers and Benghazi and whatever else Congress could come up with besides to pay much notice to Trump coincidentally signing a bunch of Russian contracts or Manafort suddenly getting a good lobbying deal or whatever.  And, hell, if anybody did notice or care, probably it could all be handwaved away as the Russians opportunistically bestowing favors and sowing chaos.  Losers, anyway, rarely (if ever) are subject to the same scrutiny that you're suddenly under when you become head of state to a great world power, and in a democracy with a free press, to boot.

Well, we'll see where the investigations go.  I think we all know there's something to be found.  I'm pretty certain the President knows it, too.


Hollow man

>> Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Donald Trump says a lot of things that aren’t true, often shamelessly so, and it’s tempting to call him a liar

But that’s not quite right. As the Princeton University philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt put it in a famous essay, to lie presumes a kind of awareness of and interest in the truth — and the goal is to convince the audience that the false thing you are saying is in fact true. Trump, more often than not, isn’t interested in convincing anyone of anything. He’s a bullshitter who simply doesn’t care. 
- Matthew Yglesias, "The Bullshitter-in-Chief,"
Vox, May 30th, 2017.

It is hard to tell what is going on in Trumpland.  Who knows?  I don't think there's a lot of evidence to support the theory that even those in his innermost circle know what's going on in there.

But I think there's some evidence that Trump isn't a bullshitter, though he may be full of shit.  My suspicion at this point is that grand unifying theories of Trump's behavior, motivations, and strategies overlook the unpleasant and distressing possibility that what we are seeing in the man is exactly what's there: a profoundly stupid, ignorant, amoral, and delusional creature who believes everything (or nearly everything) he says even when it's obviously wrong and contradicts something else he says and believes just as much.  That isn't to say that Trump isn't a confidence man or huckster; only that he has been so long surrounded by sycophants and hustlers that the grifting has bled indistinguishably into Trump's perceptual reality and created a mud-colored mess, like an untreated oil painting left out in the rain.

Rebecca Solnit wrote what I find to be a far more persuasive Theory of Trump for Lithub, "The Loneliness of Donald Trump," arguing that Trump is a crude creature of appetites who has lived for so long without any kind of honesty from himself or others, utterly weightless and free of consequence, that he has wished himself into the peculiar position of winning everything and thereby gaining nothing.  She writes:

The child who became the most powerful man in the world, or at least occupied the real estate occupied by a series of those men, had run a family business and then starred in an unreality show based on the fiction that he was a stately emperor of enterprise, rather than a buffoon barging along anyhow, and each was a hall of mirrors made to flatter his sense of self, the self that was his one edifice he kept raising higher and higher and never abandoned.


Equality keeps us honest. Our peers tell us who we are and how we are doing, providing that service in personal life that a free press does in a functioning society. Inequality creates liars and delusion. The powerless need to dissemble—that’s how slaves, servants, and women got the reputation of being liars—and the powerful grow stupid on the lies they require from their subordinates and on the lack of need to know about others who are nobody, who don’t count, who’ve been silenced or trained to please. This is why I always pair privilege with obliviousness; obliviousness is privilege’s form of deprivation. When you don’t hear others, you don’t imagine them, they become unreal, and you are left in the wasteland of a world with only yourself in it, and that surely makes you starving, though you know not for what, if you have ceased to imagine others exist in any true deep way that matters. This is about a need for which we hardly have language or at least not a familiar conversation.

These are truths.  And every new story out of the White House (or Mar-a-Lago), every leak seems to suggest that Trump's world is really a vast, empty, mirror-filled palace much like Charles Foster Kane's Xanadu, through which Trump, like Kane late in the film, wanders dazed and angry at being unloved, incapable of getting his head around how all his worldly success has nevertheless left him brutally alone and unable to receive what he is incapable of giving or returning.  Solnit observes that Trump has, by being elected President of the United States, managed to become "the most mocked man in the world."  Indeed.  It seems apropos to observe that Charles Foster Kane's model, William Randolph Hearst, was allegedly, per some sources, infuriated by more than anything else in Citizen Kane by the movie's use of "Rosebud" as a McGuffin: these sources say that screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, once a frequent houseguest of Hearst and the love of his life, Marion Davies, chose the word because it was Hearst's pet name for Davies' genitals, targeted mockery that went like a bullet right into Hearst's heart (whatever was left of it) (not to mention the added insult to poor Davies).

I also can't help suspecting that Solnit is onto something when she writes, "He got a boost at the beginning from the wealth handed him and then moved among grifters and mobsters who cut him slack as long as he was useful, or maybe there’s slack in arenas where people live by personal loyalty until they betray, and not by rules, and certainly not by the law or the book."  My mind was already going there before Solnit's piece came out.  I cannot help thinking that Trump got as far as he did to some great degree because what he did didn't actually matter very much or to very many people; if he lied about writing a book, or about what graduating from "Trump University" could get you, or about the height of one of his buildings, or about how much money he had, or about how successful he was--well... I don't want to say these lies didn't matter.  He shafted employees and ripped off investors and cheated the public, but it's not like he was cheating the nation.  Did it matter all that much if the southern view from a Trump Parc apartment was of an ugly wall?  A few people might sue him for this or that, regulators might write a nasty letter, he might even end up settling a discrimination suit with the Justice Department or a fraud suit with a state attorney general.  There might be awkward conversations with financial backers... here or, shall we vaguely say, abroad.  Maybe "conversations" should be in scare quotes.  "Conversations."

There's a point to bringing this up in the context of what may or may not be Trump bullshitting.  How far can a human being go in becoming a completely hollowed out shell standing for nothing, being nothing, representing nothing, before the mind rebels and tries to reconcile a gnawing, raging, instinctual sense of failure with the desire to be real?  If you were such a person, wouldn't it be reassuring, then, to surround yourself with people who would tell you that the lies your mind told you were true--yes, you are successful, yes you are respected, yes you are feared, yes you are attractive, yes you are brilliant, yes, you are the titan standing over all you surveyed, the ground does tremble beneath your feet and all look up in awe at your might and works?

And then what would you do if, suddenly, everyone actually started caring about and scrutinizing what you did?  What if the people who told you such reassuring lies about yourself, who allowed you to reconcile your self with your perception of self, were now surrounded by people loyal to other things--to ideology, institutions, country, faith, honor, virtue, principles, philosophy?  Would you face yourself in the infinite mirrors and take a good long look at yourself, or would you scream at the television that CNN was getting it wrong, that people were lying behind your back, would you tweet the same damned things into the internet aether night after night as if truth came out of repetition, as if you could browbeat everyone else in the universe into agreeing with you the same way you used to be able to when all the people you browbeat needed to say "yes" to you to get something from you?

Why doesn't everyone love you?

There was a peculiar bit of news this morning.  Nearly half of Donald Trump's followers are bots--fake, nonexistent "people"--and the number of bots following Trump spiked this weekend after the news came back from abroad that the leaders of free Europe didn't love him nearly as much as oil  despots of the Middle East.  I doubt, though it's not impossible, that Trump himself paid the few hundred dollars that is all it takes to buy a horde of fantasy Twitter followers; no, more likely, seems to me, that some sycophantic staffer did this, perhaps even a family member, and didn't tell Trump what he was getting for early Christmas: no, the news isn't true, you are loved, you are loved, you are loved.  Here it is in hard numbers: you are loved.

None of this is terribly reassuring.  This isn't--probably--the collapse into a propaganda-driven Orwellian soft fascism that Matt Yglesias seems to fear.  But it's hardly better that what is probably the most powerful office in the world is held by a sad, delusional, empty sack, sorry excuse for a man.  That Donald Trump may well be insane; Philip K. Dick liked to say that reality was that which didn't go away when you denied its existence, well, what does it say about Donald Trump, then, that he goes along with the denial?  It might well be worse that Trump isn't bullshitting, that he's insistent that reality will be whatever he's holding in his head and not whatever is for the rest of the species.  Mercy upon us if he takes to stronger measures than 3 a.m. tweets to reconcile reality and his fantasies.


Fire away

>> Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Barack Obama should have fired James Comey, but it's pretty obvious why he didn't.  Whatever anyone wants to say about President Obama, he is not stupid, and he understands American politics; firing Comey would have looked like an act of political retribution and would have given the Republicans one more thing to beat him over the head with in a final two months better spent doing what he could to tie down his legacy against the barbarians soon to be coming through the gates.  Better to let it ride.

Donald Trump isn't not stupid and he doesn't understand American politics (regardless of his surprising success in getting to the top of the system; he obviously understands how to rouse a mob, but now that he's in office, he's proven himself the very Platonic ideal of the proverbial post turtle).  Trump decided yesterday evening to stick his arm into the wood chipper, and (being not smart and not understanding how things work) is apparently surprised that things look a lot like the ending of Fargo this morning.

There's plenty of good and not-good commentary out there today.  The thing I wanted to shine a light on as briefly as I can is simply that this isn't the end of the world; indeed, Trump, being the least capable man to ever clumsily stumble into the nation's highest office, has done pretty much the worst thing he could possibly do to kill the ongoing investigation into his administration's Russia connections.  It creates the obvious impression of a cover-up, but even if it's not a cover-up, the best take you could get out of it is that the Administration is completely incapable of minimally functioning, much less keeping a clean shop, and that the need for a special prosecutor has only increased.

We might remind ourselves that there are a number of theories for what's going on with Trump, his Administration, and the Russians; recently the Lawfare blog set out a continuum of seven not-necessarily-exclusive theories ranging from "it's all a lot of embarrassing coincidences" to "the President's a mole" (the quotes are my paraphrases, not necessarily the authors' exact wording).  Almost all of these involve some question of what the President knew and when he knew it--the old Watergate question that bedevils historians to this day.  (It might be worth noting, since we mention it, that there are plausible-if-unlikely theories to the effect that Nixon may have been brought down by rogues within his White House who were acting outside his awareness and without his authority--an irony, if true, since Nixon was up to his ears in impeachable offenses that didn't bring down his Administration.)  All Trump has done in firing Comey is to draw attention to that question.

It's also worth pointing out that while Comey received the Steele Dossier directly from John McCain (Vox has a pretty good timeline, here) Comey's "leading" of the Russia investigation almost certainly didn't involve the Director of the FBI hunting down leads and devoting a wall of his office to mugshots and surveillance photos connected by color-coded pieces of string.  (Do real law enforcement officers even do that, or is this just something they do in movies and television?)  I'm sure the agents Comey assigned to the investigation--apparently including a special Washington unit created to focus on the investigation--reported directly to Comey; but it seems unlikely he played that much of a direct role in the direction of their investigation, and their work is presumably going to continue.

And say it doesn't: after all, Trump could appoint a Director to kill the investigation, right?  Except this, again, is where we have to remind ourselves of the copious evidence that's already been amassed that Trump has no idea how Washington works.  Among other things, Washington D.C. leaks like a sieve and has for more than two hundred years now.  Do you know what happens if the Administration tries to lock down the FBI?  Let's ask Mark Felt.  At this point, if Trump tries to shut the investigation down, D.C. garages are going to be so full of journalists and disgruntled agents, commuters will be looking for parking in Baltimore.  (There's a better joke somewhere in there.  But it eluded me.)

This is already longer than I intended.  I think I have two main ideas here that I'll try to sum up.  First, that James Comey was a shit FBI director and the only things saving his job were the horrible political repercussions firing him would bring.  And, second, that Donald Trump just fired him.  I think that actually sums it up so well, I wish I'd started with that.  I may be a poor prophet here, we'll see, but I think there's a very good chance that Trump didn't kill the FBI investigation into his Administration's Russia connections; I think he just gave it a shot of adrenaline and a big old jolt from the paddles.  I think the dumb bastard just gave it new life.


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