Monday, July 29, 2019

Like a Wrecking Ball




On these hot summer days, my Yahoo! news feed is filled with mostly titillating stories like Miley Cyrus stripping down to beat the heat, but Trump has somehow managed to intrude with all his racist comments about Baltimore, his rants against Sweden, and his ongoing feud with Robert Mueller.  There's another Democratic debate coming up this week, but you would never know it as you have to scroll far down the headlines to find it.  First you have to read how annoyed Maryanne Williamson was after the ridicule she received from the first debate.  It's good to know she is sticking with her campaign theme, "love is the answer."

The Trump strategy this summer is just the opposite.  He is casting the Democrats in the worst possible light so as to make them defend themselves.  He's lashing out at everyone from Nancy Pelosi to Barack Obama to Joe Biden, but his harshest tweets have been directed at Elijah Cummings, leading many to view Trump as racist.  His staff says the president is an equal opportunity troll.

One wonders whatever became of Melania's project, "Be Best?"  Trump has degraded the office of the president to such a low point that his angry tirades hardly qualify as news anymore.  However, among his base, he is still thought of as the best thing to ever happen to the White House.

Trump appears to represent the disenfranchised mass of white voters, yearning to return to a time when they held the upper hand in American society.  A time when they could call a spade a spade, so to speak, and not feel ashamed to say it.  They long for dirty jokes at the water cooler, copping a feel at a waitress' expense, and using racial nicknames to describe the world around them.  They are tired of all this PC bullshit and want to be free to say whatever comes to their minds without facing any legal incrimination.

They also want to smoke in public places, not wear motorcycle helmets or seat belts, not have to pick up their dog's poop, which many local and state laws now require them to do.  Basically, they want the Libertarian dream of a country devoid of pesky rules and regulations governing human behavior.  They believe as individuals, they are entitled to say or do whatever they wish as long as it doesn't harm anyone.  In short, "No Harm, No Foul."

The problem is that there is a lot of harm that comes from Trump's demeaning tweets, and the behavior of trolls in general.  Baltimore is understandably very upset at being called a "disgusting ... rodent infested mess," as any city would be if disparaged like this by the President.  Baltimore isn't the first city to face abuse by the President.  He has similarly gone after Detroit, San Francisco, Chicago and even his home city of New York.  The pattern is easily discernible.  Cities are seen as Democratic strongholds, and he wants to project this image that Democrats can't even clean up their own urban messes, much less the United States.

I don't know when Democrats adopted their urban strategy, probably after the Civil Rights legislation of 1964, when our country became even more bitterly divided over race.  Much of the attempts at establishing social equality took place in cities around the country.  There was the now infamous attempt to impose busing on Boston, which was met with angry protests not only in Boston but all around the country.  No one wanted to be told what to do, especially when it came to their kids.

Cities began to be viewed as Democratic human experiments in social policies, and as such were viewed in a largely negative light.  This is why so many whites fled to the suburbs in the 60s and 70s, as they didn't want to be Democratic lab rats.  This left many American cities predominantly Black and/or Hispanic, so we saw a wave of newly elected Black and Hispanic mayors and police chiefs, which in many white suburban dwellers' minds made these cities "no-go zones."

Movies from the late 70s and early 80s cast cities in the worst possible light, such as The Warriors and Escape from New York.  What makes Escape interesting is that it was set in the near future, 1997, with Manhattan converted into a maximum-security prison.  After terrorists hijack Air Force One, forcing the president's plane down in this literally crime-filled city, Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is called in to save the day, a la Rambo.  Cities had become so bad, they might as well be converted into penal colonies.

Trump projects this same urban dystopia in his tweets.  It doesn't matter that cities today are far cleaner, more lively, and in general have lower crime rates than they did back in the notorious 70s, he projects the old view that cities are horrible places to be and that the only way to escape this urban nightmare is to live in a tower, like he did on Fifth Avenue.

Many Americans share this view.  They prefer the pastoral view projected by Hollywood of small town America, even if this is an equally false view of what it is like to live in rural and suburban America.  Only in recent years have we seen this warm and fuzzy image of small towns called into question, most notoriously by David Lynch in Blue Velvet.

Just the same, the rural myth predominates in American politics.  The mainstream media still likes to refer to the vast plains of Middle America as The Heartland, and project the belief that this is the place where real American values lie, not in our congested dysfunctional cities.  This is why Iowa gets so much prominence in the primaries.  It is a principally rural state, with its economy largely tied to agriculture.

These are the voters Trump and his fellow Republicans prey on.  For whatever reason, Democrats felt they could win state-wide elections by appealing mainly to urban voters, discounting these wide stretches of rural America.  That's why if an election came down to real estate, Republicans would win almost every Congressional seat.  Democrats don't seem to want to travel these country roads, and so Republicans have made them their own.

Beto O'Rourke tried to shatter this view in 2018, by visiting every county in Texas during his race against Ted Cruz for one of the state's senate seats.  He very nearly won thanks to his boyhood charm and willingness to reach out to disenfranchised rural voters.  This was pretty amazing for a state that hadn't elected a Democratic senator since 1996.

There was a time when Democrats had strong pull in the Heartland.  Republicans were seen as the party of urban elites, but all that changed with Ronald Reagan, himself a Hollywood projection.  Barack Obama was very much correct when he said that the Gipper changed the trajectory of American politics.  Reagan fulfilled the Hollywood dream of a cowboy riding into town and cleaning up the mess left by his corrupt predecessors, in this case Democrats.  It took quite a few years to flush out the Democrats, but in 1994 the Republicans achieved their ultimate goal of retaking Congress and being able to rewrite Democratic legislation and setting federal budgets.

You wouldn't have had Reagan without the exodus of white voters to the suburbs in the 60s and 70s.  Although Reagan liked to project himself as "colorblind," his campaign was largely based on re-establishing a white vision of America.  One where affirmative action would be abolished and we would return to a so-called level playing field.  Not that the field was ever level to begin with.

For 12 years, his and George H.W. Bush's administrations fought a Democratic Congress tooth and nail over domestic programs and federal policies that supported affirmative action.  It was only with the surprise election of Bill Clinton in 1992 that white voters began to panic, especially when Toni Morrison declared "Bubba" Clinton the "first Black President."  Talk of new Democratic social legislation such as expanded health care led Republicans to offer their Libertarian vision in the so-called "Contract with America," that led to the conservative overthrow of Congress in 1994.

It didn't matter that Clinton was cut in the same mold as previous Southern Democratic leaders, white voters now saw Democrats in the same negative light they had previously seen Republicans -- urban elites.  Republicans capitalized on this phony set of impressions,  thanks to the start-up Fox News, which many viewers took to be news parody when it first appeared in 1996 on the heals of the Republican Revolution.  Fox very quickly rose to become the voice of disenfranchised America and the faux news juggernaut it is today.

Fox achieved its supremacy among news networks by casting all the other news networks as being liberally biased.  It din't matter that Fox was based out of New York, like so many of the other news networks, it projected the image of being the News of the Heartland, uniting rural and suburban voters in a shared view that the vast interior plains was where America's heart lay, and that we should all be afraid of cities and the urban elite.

Of course, it didn't help that all the major news networks tended to report urban crime and mayhem in disproportionate amounts.  You see very few feel good urban stories.  American cities became the Sodom and Gomorrah of the Books of Moses.  This had always been an effective political tool, but Fox was even more blunt, bringing in a slough of so-called experts to vouch for these assertions.

Most recently, they brought in Kimberly Klacik, to give us a rat's eye view of West Baltimore, which Elijah Cummings represents.  She focuses her camera on the appalling conditions she personally witnessed, and holds Cummings entirely to blame for this urban nightmare.  No one really knows who Klacik is, as she had no previous real journalistic experience.  She appears to be entirely a product of social media.  We don't even know if she actually is from Baltimore.  She is now a media sensation and "GOP strategist," who has taken great relish that Trump used her same words to describe Baltimore in his blistering attack of Elijah Cummings.

This provides Trump cover from the allegations streaming on mainstream media that he is a racist. He simply echoed the words of a Baltimore native.  It is the same way he uses Kanye West and other black celebrities to project the warped vision that he offers an alternative view to the "plantation mentality" that pervades the Democratic Party.  As long as he has a black person in his corner, Trump believes he cannot be viewed as racist.  An impression echoed by his  White House staff.

This vast open-ended discussion makes it difficult for the Democratic presidential candidates to get a word in edge wise, no matter how hard they try.  Kamala Harris saw right through Trump's attempt to project himself as A$AP Rocky's savior, but to no avail.  Trump is seen as the one being high-minded in trying to intercede on the rapper's behalf.  If this strategy continues to play out this way, Democrats are in real trouble come 2020, as Trump appears to have found a way to divide and potentially conquer the urban black vote, or at least relegate it to the fringes.  You might call him the "wrecking ball."


Saturday, July 27, 2019

45 is a puppet




It didn't take long for viewers to see there was something amiss about the presidential seal behind Trump as he took the stage of a youth rally sponsored by Turning Point USA.  I thought it was an on-line joke, but it turns out the techie who was in charge for the screen presentation was either grossly incompetent, had his presentation hacked or is the ultimate troll.  Whatever the case, this is a moment neither Trump nor Turning Point will be able to live down for a long time, as the seal has now become the unofficial emblem of the Trump White House.

The creator of the satiric seal has become an internet celebrity.  When he created this image at the height of the 2016 campaign, he could never have imagined that one day Trump would stand before it.  He will have a hard time holding onto the rights of the design, as I'm sure it will be plastered all over t-shirts and caps in the days ahead.  It's the perfect emblem for a faux president who thinks he is king of the world.

Trump has really outdone himself in recent days, venting before a North Carolina audience and now a group of conservative teens, about all the imaginary threats in this world.  One of them turns out to be Sweden, whose police had the audacity to arrest A$AP Rocky for starting a fight in Stockholm.  So now Trump is leading the #FreeRocky movement from the White House.  He was very disappointed that PM Stefan Lofven wouldn't act on his request to let the rapper go.  It seems the new mantra of his foreign policy will be "treat Americans fairly."

Former Swedish PM Carl Bildt had a few words to say in response.  He hasn't had a chance to learn that there is no winning a rhetorical battle with @realDonaldTrump on twitter.  He will soon enough.

Meanwhile, A$AP is milking this new found attention for all its worth and when finally allowed to leave Sweden, I'm sure will be stopping by the White House to personally thank Trump, maybe even with his main man Kanye West in tow.  A$AP is an up-and-comer in the World of Rap, and was badly in need of some street cred.  Of all the places to find it.

This level of absurdity underscores the White House, which is why Kamala Harris took time to address the issue at the NAACP convention in Detroit.  She, unlike others, sees the misuse of presidential power, not to mention the shameless attempt to pander to the African-American community.  But, she has gotten more flack than Donald Trump for not rushing to the defense of her young countryman, as other Democratic presidential candidates have done.

The only video evidence we have of A$AP's presumed innocence are the videos he posted on Instagram, supporting his claim he was being taunted by two men before he slammed one to the ground.  If a similar incident had taken place in New York, I doubt Trump would be defending the rapper.

Sadly, this is the state our presidency has deteriorated to.  Trump will falsely accuse Ilhan Omar of sleeping with terrorists and her own brother at a NC rally, but will rush to the defense of A$AP Rocky because Kanye and Kim interceded on his behalf, showing how easily he can be pulled in any direction.  What kind of mixed signal does this send to the African-American community in our country, or all Americans for that matter?  About the only purpose these twitter rages serve is to deflect attention from the real crimes being committed by this malevolent administration.  This is what Kanye and Kim or any American should be worried about, not A$AP Rocky, who is being treated by Swedish authorities much better than are the Central American migrants and asylum seekers in Trump's detention centers.


Thursday, July 25, 2019

Shameless




I didn't expect much from the Mueller hearing, so I'm not surprised to read that it failed to live up to expectations.  What did surprise me is just how shameless Republicans are in defending their Commander-in-Chief.  They wasted no opportunity to besmirch Mueller's reputation, question his judgement, and point out what they regarded to be the many failings of his investigation.  To be fair, Democrats likewise used their allotted time to chasten the President rather than ask Mr. Mueller specific questions.

It didn't matter that he netted several persons within Trump's inner campaign circle, and showed that Russia actively interfered in the 2016 elections, which he had been charged by the DOJ to determine.  In their minds, Trump remains cleared of all charges, even when Mueller specifically said he didn't have the power to indict him.  Instead, he laid out ten incidents where the president could be seen as obstructing justice.

I will never understand why so many Republicans go out of their way to defend Trump, who has trampled over them on numerous occasions.  The way he treated Lindsay Graham during the campaign, with Lindsay bitterly responding to Candidate Trump comes to mind.  In December 2015, Graham called Trump "a race-baiting, xenophobic bigot," but 1318 days later Graham ardently defended Trump's race-baiting, xenophobic speech at a North Carolina rally, in which the president viciously accused Ilhan Omar of sympathizing with terrorists and committing incest.  It doesn't get any uglier than that.

Lindsay Antebellum is not alone.  We have seen other so-called moderate Republicans defer to Trump, like Susan Collins, who defended the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh in the face of compelling evidence of sexual assault in the Supreme Court justice nominee's past.  Even if she didn't think there was enough proof to confirm the allegations, the way he conducted himself at the hearing should have given her pause.

However, no one represents this moral and ethical decay worse than Mike Pence, a Democrat turned Republican, former US Representative and Indiana governor, who now has his head so far up Trump's ass that he could only bear to grimace after witnessing the appalling conditions at one of his president's detention camps.  Back in the 90s, he had a radio show, where he was constantly calling Bill Clinton's character into question, but has no problem serving a president who has multiple sexual assault allegations leveled against him, and constantly demeans women on public record.  A self-professed born-again Christian, Pence is like so many conservative Evangelicals who have learned to look the other way when it comes to Trump.

The only Republicans who question Trump are those no longer in power like John Kasich, the former governor of Ohio, and William Weld, the former governor of Massachusetts.  Trump has successfully shut down any dissent within the active rank of Republican leaders throughout the country.  He's done so by securing the base of the party so that any Republican seeking public office has to subscribe to his cynical vision or face being "primaried" in his or her election bid. Even Lisa Murkowski, the GOP Senator from Alaska, is afraid to speak too harshly against Trump, despite having survived a primary challenge back in the wild Tea Party days of Mama Grizzly Sarah Palin. This is a very sad indication of how deep the Republican Party has sunk in its depravity.

It once was said that Republicans were smarter than Democrats, driven by pragmatism rather than ideology.  That is not the case today.  Fewer Republicans have a college education, and many never graduated from high school.  No matter, universities today are viewed as elitist institutions promoting political correctness.  Instead, we hear college-educated Mike Rowe promoting vocational training with college-educated Tucker Carlson, as if this is the answer to all our problems.

Not surprisingly, many Republican governors have advocated massive reductions in education funding, and our President supports a huge cut in federal education spending, sponsored by his Education czar Betsy DeVos.  It seems Republicans are purposefully dumbing down the electorate, hoping to get more converts.

Science has been widely discredited by religious conservatives who don't believe in evolution, global warming, vaccines or that we live on an orb, much less sent a man to the moonYoutube is largely blamed for spreading these conspiracy theories with all the spiffy videos calling basic science and medicine into question.  These dangerous theories are peddled all over social media to the point we have had the worst outbreaks of measles in decades thanks to the widely-held belief that MMR vaccines cause autism.  It was only after these outbreaks that Trump broke from his previously held belief that vaccines are bad to urge Americans to "get their shots.

The worst part is the utterly shameless way in which this information is transmitted.  There is little or no attempt to tell the truth.  It is all about convincing an audience with your power of conviction, much like tele-evangelists of the past.  Now, these charlatans have the added benefit of literally putting words into other person's mouths with voice apps , as well as altering photographs and forging documents in photoshop to make their case on Youtube.

It's not like Republicans have to go out of their way to deter young people from going to college.  Tuition rates and boarding costs have skyrocketed to the point many families simply can't afford to put their children through college without assuming crippling loans. The average student loan debt today is a whopping $30,000.  Factor in interest and students will probably not be paying down their loans for decades.  Vocational school aren't much cheaper, so kids would have to take out loans to become plumbers, welders and electricians as well.

This dumbing down of America has reached alarming proportions.  Persons are much more vulnerable to conspiracy theories, as they are more likely to turn to pundits offering shameless manufactured opinions than they are seeking out information on their own.  Fox News and local news syndicates have been the prime benefactors of this intellectual laziness, as more and more people turn to these so-called news networks because its pundits aren't afraid to speak their minds no matter how profoundly ignorant they are.

Chris Wallace, who is considered one of the sharper pencils in the Fox News box, glibbly dismissed Robert Mueller's testimony before it even really began in an interview with Stephen Colbert.  I suppose he had to make it up to Trump after giving his chief bully boy, Stephen Miller, a hard time a few days before.

Few people actually listened to Mueller's testimony.  Instead, they turned to their favorite news and comedy network programs to hear distillations of the proceedings.  Trump also offered his own color commentary to his devoted fan base, repeating many of the same Fox talking points, including Chris Wallace's demeaning account.

We no longer seem willing or capable of forming opinions on our own.  We prefer easily digestible opinions that can be further distilled into memes and spread across social media, dismissing fact checks as biased.  No wonder Robert Mueller looked completely exasperated.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Chutzpah




It takes a lot of chutzpah to use your Jewish identity to defend Trump's cages, but that's exactly what Little Stephen Miller did in an interview with Chris Wallace.  He flipped Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's comments on the detention camps along the border into an attack on her, calling her allusion to concentration camps a "historical smear."  He claimed he was "profoundly outraged as a Jew."

Yet, he defended his President's malicious attacks on "the Squad," once again flipping the widespread criticism Trump received in the wake of his North Carolina rally into an attack on Democrats for trying to stifle free speech.  Wallace made attempts to counter Miller but to no avail.  It's like hitting tennis balls against a backstop.

Miller appears to be the dominant force in the Trump White House.  Trump supposedly went so far as to make him in charge of immigration when Kirstjen Nielsen resigned as Secretary of Homeland Security, no longer able to cope with the extralegal measures Trump wanted to impose on unwanted migrants and asylum seekers.  Miller has no qualms imposing such inhumane measures.  In fact, he was probably the one who suggested them.

At 33, he is two generations removed from the Holocaust, which he alluded to in his interview with Wallace.  If he knew his history, he would be aware that Jews were rounded up and placed in concentration camps long before war broke out in 1939.  The camps were a convenient place to lodge undesirables, get free labor out of them, and deter anyone else from speaking out against the state.

Given the similar rhetoric used by Trump, you get the feeling that Miller read Goebbels moreso than he has ever read the Torah.  Miller is very good at spinning words to appeal to the hardline conservative base of the Republican Party.  His interview was a prime example of this, as he torched the Squad by saying, "these four congresswomen detest America as it exists, as it is currently constructed."   What he meant by this is open to interpretation, but the message is clear, the Squad is a threat to state security.  As a result, they are being attacked viciously in conservative social media and receiving death threats. 

While many Republican leaders have expressed their concern with the language being used by the Trump administration, few have publicly admonished him for it.  As long as Trump has the overwhelming support of the Republican base, Republican congresspersons will say little to detract from him.  Miller knows this, and it has become an effective weapon in keeping the Congressional Republican leadership quiet while Trump carries out his zero-tolerance immigration policy which does look an awful lot like the Nazi concentration camps of the 1930s.  Even Vice-President Mike Pence had to grimace by not saying anything when he visited one of the detention facilities, although he too admonished the mainstream media in calling them "concentration camps."

The big question is what Miller and/or Trump hopes to gain from these camps.  Regardless of whether you liken them to concentration camps, the unvarnished reports we have received are deeply unsettling, and will be used in the general election against Trump.  The conservative core at the heart of the Republican Party may support this immigration policy, but it has not been received well among the electorate as a whole.  

Trump has backed himself into a corner on the detention facilities, and it will take a monumental effort in flipping the current perception of these "concentration camps" into an attack on the Democrats for being soft on border security, which it appears is what Stephen Miller is trying to do by saying the Squad wants "a socialist open-border country."

This too oddly reflects pre-war Germany, in which Hitler came to power over the fear that Communists would overtake the country following their strong showing in the 1932 elections.  Hitler's Nationalist Party only won 33 per cent of the vote, but being the majority in parliament was able to convince the Social Democrats and in turn the country of the threat of the Communist Party (which only won about 15 per cent of the vote) and form a coalition that made him Chancellor.  It took less than a year to dismantle the state government and declare himself Fuhrer, with control over all 661 seats of the Reichstag.  He quickly rounded up the Communist leaders and their collaborators and placed them in concentration camps like Dachau.    

Stephen Miller is certainly playing on these same fears among the conservative base. By holding the base tight and casting doubts among moderates he hopes to repeat the same magic that led Trump to victory in 2016.  

What's ironic is the way he used his Jewish identity as a means of attacking Alexandria-Ocasio-Cortez.  Many Jews have themselves likened the detention camps to concentration camps and are calling for them to be closed.  AOC is far from alone in her view that these detention camps are an ominous reminder of our racist past.


Friday, July 19, 2019

Il Douche



You kinda get the feeling Trump is the Grinch Who Stole America, as he stumbled upon his catch phrase for his 2020 campaign.  At first, he appeared to be coming to the defense of Nancy Pelosi, who AOC accused of singling out persons of color in her criticisms, but very quickly it morphed into an attack on four Congresswomen, aka the Squad, who a large part of the conservative electorate believes are foreigners and should be deported.

From a political point of view, it would have been smarter for Trump to continue to support Pelosi in the tiff between the House Speaker and The Squad, as it would have divided Democrats, but Trump (or more likely Stephen Miller) saw a great opportunity to rile up the base, so Trump made Ilhan Omar the poster child of his anti-immigration movement.

Ms. Omar is the only one of the four who was actually born outside the US.  She came to America from Somalia at the age of 10 and is a naturalized citizen.  She has been in the country longer than Melania, not that it matters to the MAGA crowd.  Ilhan holds two degrees, beginning her career as a community nutrition educator before becoming involved in the campaigns of Minnesota politicians.  She is very active in her community, which is why she won her Congressional district in a landslide in 2018.

It didn't hurt that her district has a very large Somali-American population, probably the largest in the US.  In our ethnically diverse country, there are many ethnic pockets, which are usually represented by Congresspersons who have ethnic links to these communities.  It doesn't make them any less American.  However, Trump implied it does make them less American at his rally, to which his adoring crowd chanted, "Send Her Back!"

Trump has resurrected the Know Nothing Party of the 1850s.  At the time, Irish and Germans were seen as undesirables.  Blacks and other minorities of color didn't have the right to vote, so they weren't viewed as a political threat.  It's a theme that has run through American politics from the time of its inception, but reached its ugliest proportions during the Jim Crow era when states went out of their way to disenfranchise emancipated Blacks from the political process, and lynched anyone who challenged the post-antebellum status quo in the South.

We thought we had put these ugly sentiments behind us when we elected Barack Obama in 2008.  Many pundits were hailing America as now being a "post-racial society," but that turned out to be one of the many myths we are so good at projecting about ourselves.  Much of our country remains ethnically segregated.  People tend to live in homogeneous communities and shape their societal views accordingly.  Just look at anyone's facebook page, and you will see it is not very diverse ethnically, mine included.

When I lived in Washington, DC, I lived in a mostly Black community but had little contact, other than with my immediate neighbors.  People were friendly enough, but I was very clearly the outsider.  As it turns out, my black neighbors were worried about gentrification.  I was renting a basement apartment from a young white couple, who was always complaining about the noise from the adjoining townhouse.  You don't seem so bad, the black woman said to me.

We ended up in these ethnic pockets or "bubbles," as they have recently come to be called, largely because we were herded into them.  Blacks and other minorities weren't welcome in white communities.  Before that, Irish and Italians and Germans weren't welcome in predominantly British communities. In studying the labor history of Lowell, Massachusetts, many years ago, Portuguese were similarly discriminated against in the mill towns.  Many of them ended up settling in New Bedford, where there remains a large Portuguese-American community

This is the nature of our society.  Most political leaders embrace it the way Ronald Reagan did when he gave his farewell address in 1988, but not Donald Trump.  He and his political cronies appear to view these pocket communities as safe harbors for illegal immigrants, at least those of Hispanic descent.  It doesn't matter that the vast majority of  persons who live in these communities have been living in the US for three, four or more generations, they are viewed as outsiders.  This is very dangerous rhetoric to be used, as we saw in Nazi Germany before World War II, but then our nation has initiated similar purges, albeit not on the same scale as the Holocaust.

When Trump singles out Ilhan Omar, he is casting the entire Muslim-American population in a negative light.  He peddled false social media claims at his rally in a feeble effort to impugn her character.  This feeds directly into the ethnic biases of his following, who see all Muslim-Americans as threats to the country, particularly those from Africa.  This is the same tactic Trump used in questioning Obama's birthright when he first flirted with the idea of running for president in 2011.  It backfired terribly on him and he never forgot the humiliation he suffered.  Trump sees a fresh target in Omar to exploit.

These are the tactics of White Nationalists, whether in Germany, the US or any other predominantly white country.  The social media has taken to calling Trump "Il Douche," mockingly referring to the Italian strongman who introduced fascism in the 1930s.  Unlike his fascist predecessors, Trump doesn't seem to have the stomach for violence.  He prefers inflammatory rhetoric, hoping to get others to do the violence for him.  He drops his little word bombs at his rallies and then leaves it up to his following to interpret it how they will, a tactic derived from shock jocks like Rush Limbaugh.

It's very effective as we found out in the 2016 election.  A lot of white Americans are worried about the changing face of our country.  They see their white privilege as being lost in an increasingly multi-cultural society.  Other politicans had toyed with these tactics before, notably Pat Buchanan, but none were as successful as Donald Trump.  He proved he could peddle hate better than anyone imagined possible.

But, Ilhan Omar may end up benefiting from all this negative publicity.  Most Americans embrace diversity, and when Ilhan returned back to Minnesota, she was greeted with a much more welcome chant.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Going Back to Scituate




It's a big thing these days to track down your family roots.  My wife and I were watching Eurovision a few weeks back and the constant plugs for My Heritage had us thinking why not?  Some of our friends had gotten their results back on the DNA tests and were busy assembling their family trees on the interactive website.  We're still waiting on our DNA results, but we both started putting together our family trees.

I didn't expect much to come of it.  I had a fair amount of information on the Ferguson side of my family, but almost nothing on the Lahr side.  I figured my mother's father or his father was a German immigrant and not much information is on file, at least not in the US.  I didn't feel like going for the annual subscription just yet, so I started searching around the Internet for information on my mother's parents, mostly to fill in the blanks on the family tree.  Lo and behold I discovered my grandmother's mother was a Sprague, and there was a project devoted exclusively to this family that was freely available to search out connections.

The Sprague family line tapered off pretty quickly, but it turned out my Great Grandmother had Torrey and Hatch family connections, which took me all the way back to the early 17th century Plymouth village of Scituate, one of the earliest settlements in Massachusetts.  Here I was thinking I was mostly a product of Scottish, Irish and German ancestry and I find this deep English connection that I tracked all the way back to 1415 and the town of Sellindge in County Kent.  I was floored!

I imagine I will find much more once I choose to subscribe to the services that MyHeritage provides, as I have a slough of notifications I can't open until I do.  Meanwhile, I followed up on some old leads I had, and tracked my great grandfather on my father's side to Bicester, Oxfordshire.  Everyone in the family thought he hailed from Inverness, Scotland, but his Scottish father was an itinerant minister who ended up in this English town where my great grandfather was born.  I paid five pounds to The Genealogist, which gave me 50 credits, and I came up with a marriage notification for my Great Great Grandparents, and a historic birth record of my Great Grandfather.

Pretty much all these search engines cost money these days.  It seems MyHeritage and Ancestry cull together huge data bases to help ease the search.  They will find matches for you so that you can better fill in your family tree.  These sites also serve as a social network, as my wife found out when some guy in California wrote to say his tree overlapped with hers, and they have been sharing information ever since.

The flip side is that myths are often shattered.  My family believed our Great Grandfather came from some great Highland clan, but turns out he was of much more humble origins.  When he came to America in the early 1870s, he reinvented himself, as so many persons did, and those stories were passed down through the family.  He did eventually make a name for himself in starting a steamship company to bring silver ore from Alaska to San Francisco in the late 19th century, but died broke in a hotel in Denver, Colorado, in 1895.  Fortunes made and lost overnight.

My grandfather had pieced together a scrapbook that included photos, wedding and birth announcements and other sorts of fun information.  That book has been passed around quite a bit, and it is hard to say where it is now.  Fortunately, I made copies of it when it passed through my hands.  The photos and handwritten family notes helped a genealogist locate John Henry, when my wife and I visited Inverness a few years back.

Genealogy is fun.  It gives you a great sense of who you are, as long as you are willing to accept the findings.  Neal Ascherson made fun of Americans, like Trent Lott,  hoping to find Scottish clan connections, in Stone Voices.  It wasn't very hard to get a certificate signifying you had "royal blood."  I found a copy of Samuel Deane's History of Scituate online, which I hope to read in the days ahead.

I encourage others to do the same.  Having these search engines greatly speeds up the process of discovery.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

History repeats itself as farce




Never a dull moment in The Apprentice: The White House Years, as former apprentice Sebastian Gorka strutted over to tell Playboy journalist Brian Karem, "You're not a journalist - you're a punk!" to the chants of "Gor-ka, Gor-ka" from the right-wing media choir whom Trump was honoring at a social media summit on the White House lawn.  It's almost as bad as the time Reagan invited Jerry Falwell and his band of Evangelist ministers to the White House.

Trump may be the dumbest president we ever had, but he is not the worst.  We can thank Reagan for ushering in these kooks back in 1981 when he rode into Washington on the backs of the so-called "Moral Majority."  Reagan, or rather his inner circle, quickly sought to undermine the progressive reforms of the Carter administration and all things Democratic.  The only problem was that Congress was still Democratic, so the House and Senate often overrode his vetoes, like the Clean Water Act that the Gipper vetoed in 1986.  Reagan even removed the solar panels from the White House roof purely out of spite.

This was the beginning of a restoration project by the Republicans that led to them overturning Congress in an unprecedented rout in 1994 with their so-called Contract with America.  Since then Republican policies have held sway for the better part of the last 25 years.  There was a brief spell between 2006 and 2010 when the Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress, but the bloodletting over the Affordable Care Act allowed the Republicans to take back the House in 2010 and essentially stymie any further progressive legislation.  In 2014, the Republicans regained the Senate too, allowing Mitch to effectively block all of Obama's judicial appointments, including Merrick Garland as Supreme Court Justice after the unexpected death of Antonin Scalia.

Scalia had been a Reagan appointee.  He was a major proponent of the unitary executive theory, which gave the President autocratic control over the executive branch of government, and denied Congress or the federal courts any means of recourse.  As it turns out, this is not the case, as Congress does have oversight powers, and the federal courts can block executive orders which it deems unconstitutional.  Nevertheless, Republicans have tried to exercise this right in each of their administrations, especially when it comes to foreign policy, which they regard as solely under the authority of the President.

This unitary privilege allowed Reagan to funnel arms and ammunition to the Contras in Nicaragua, and fund other insurgent groups around the world, including the so-called freedom fighters in Afghanistan during the Soviet-Afghan War, all in the name of fighting communism.

Reagan's administration was deep in scandals throughout his eight years, leading to the investigation, indictment and/or conviction of 138 administration officials.  The Iran-Contra investigation dominated the news, with former Col. Ollie North eventually being sent to prison, but others like Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney skated clean, eventually to come back and serve George H.W. and W. Bush.

The Bush presidencies were also fraught with scandal, but at least H.W. Bush sought UN approval before going to war with Iraq.  His son chose to have his envoys and allies barge out of the Security Council when it was clear the other members of the council weren't going to give him such authority.  An effort they were convinced was organized by France resulting in a boycott of French fries and French toast on Capitol Hill.  As a result, we ended up in a war with Iraq that lasted the better part of ten years.  This on top of an ill-advised war with Afghanistan which continues to this day.

As bad as Trump is, his administration officials are rank amateurs by comparison, as seen in Sebastian Gorka's outburst on the WH lawn.  Hard to believe Gorka actually served as Trump's deputy assistant and strategist before returning to television in August, 2017.  It was part of a purge that also resulted in the end of Bannon's short tenure as Trump's chief adviser.  Before, the British-Hungarian con man served as Hungarian PM Viktor Orban's deputy assistant and strategist and was a frequent contributor to RT, or Russia Today.

Trump has essentially surrounded himself with clowns, which is why Dick Cheney is none too happy about the current situation.  In fact, many former Reagan and Bush advisers have been pretty harsh on the Trump administration, mostly because Trump appears to be too close to Putin.  For decades the conservative foreign policy had been all about keeping Russia isolated, but Trump has essentially given Putin free rein anywhere in the world, to the point that Russia effectively blocked American efforts to overthrow the Maduro government in Venezuela earlier this year.  However, this isn't really fair, as George W. Bush pretty much turned a blind eye to Central and South America, with Russian warships doing maneuvers off the coast of Venezuela back in 2008.

Obama tried to make lemonade out of lemons by re-establishing an embassy in Havana and hoping to appeal to Maduro's better self at a UN assembly.  It didn't work out in Venezuela, but things looked quite promising in Cuba before Trump came to Washington.  Since January, 2017, we have seen a return to the same hard line attitudes toward Central and South America that we saw under previous Republican administrations.

It's hard to say whether it is incompetence or weakness or both that underlies Trump and the chicken hawks in his administration.  John Bolton, another surly figure from the Bush years, was notably peeved when Trump refused to follow through on air strike after Iran took down an American drone.  Bolton had been doing his damnedest to initiate a war with Iran only to see it blow up in his face.  Is Donald really so squeamish that he worries over a few hundred civilian lives?  He doesn't seem to worry that much over the migrant children he keeps locked up in cages on the Mexican border.  Most likely, Trump got a call from Putin, who told him ixnay on an air strike, otherwise those pee pee tapes might leak out.

Trump's closeness to Putin has befuddled conservative hawks.  They can't figure out for the lives of themselves what Putin has over Trump.  Dear Donald doesn't seem to move without consulting Vlad first on foreign policy.  He even takes cues from Erdogan, who apparently encouraged Trump to pull out of Syria, but this too was probably at the behest of Putin, who has the Turkish president under his thumb as well.

What's confused neoconservatives even more is Trump's ongoing love affair with Kim Jong-un.  No one could have imagined the romance these two struck up after Donald spent his first year threatening the third-generation Kim with complete and total annihilation. These empty threats would come to characterize the Trump administration, which is why Iran didn't take his most recent threats very seriously.

Nevertheless, Trump has cultivated a devoted base, which we saw this past week at his social media summit.  Never has a president enjoyed such an loyal following that is willing to blow off his irregularities small or large.  The only conservatives who don't seem to accept Trump are the old-guard Republicans, but who are they going to turn to?  Certainly, not the Democrats.  They are forced to endure the reality show president, while Sebastian Gorka struts around like a prized cock on the White House lawn.  History repeats itself as farce.



Saturday, July 13, 2019

Stranger Things Indeed




Given the phenomenal success of the Stranger Things series on Netflix, I wouldn't be surprised if the Shopping Mall is raised from the dead.  Starcourt Mall plays a major roll in the latest season.  On the surface it is a new mall located in the fictional city of Hawkins, Indiana, but deep underneath a much more sinister world exists.  Leave it to our intrepid gang of geeks to find this hidden world after cracking an all too easy Russian code.  I will say no more, lest you want to visit this homage to 1985.

It's not just the shopping mall, but Polaroid cameras and walking talkies and ham radios that are finding their way back into the mainstream.  The Duffer Brothers, born in 1984, first re-imagined their birth year and turned it into a highly lucrative cable series that is chock full of product placements as we move slowly forward in the 80s.

Stranger Things is not the only television show or movie mining the 80s.  Believe it or not this era is hip.  This is Us takes a more serious look at this bygone time in developing the backstories to its set of protagonists trying to come to terms with their past.  Its family stems from Pittsburgh at the tail end of the Steelers' dominance in the Super Bowl.  There's an amusing scene featuring the "terrible towel."

The era also suits our current president, who came to commercial fame during the 80s with his jet-set lifestyle and now infamous book, The Art of the Deal.  It was a period when virtually anything went, resulting in the first major economic bust. Savings and loans banks went belly up in mid 80s, leaving the average family and business owner scrambling to cover their mortgages.  The massive number of foreclosures allowed guys like Trump to buy up property cheap.

The ubiquitous mall further stamped out small town America, which Stranger Things alludes to in its opening episode of the new season. The Duffer Brothers also take time to note the income disparities in Hawkins and how its mayor, a small town Trump, has sold out his community to dubious investors with Russian accents.  Poor Joyce is left operating one of the few businesses left on Main Street -- a drugstore.  However, this all serves as a backdrop for a show that sends us on yet another crazy adventure, borrowing liberally from sci-fi and action adventure movies from that era.

What is it about the 80s that has us in its thrall?  I have to admit I enjoyed the ride, although I was surprised the Duffers were so primitive when it came to technology.  After all, the Mac computer first appeared in 1984 and I would think Dustin at least would have one of these iconic computers parked on his desk.  David Lightman was already tapping into the strategic missile defense system in War Games, which hit the big screen in 1983.  We do get an allusion to an early cell phone, but the kids are relying almost exclusively on walkie talkies to communicate with each other.

Hawkins does seem a bit behind the times if it only got a shopping mall in 1985.   By this point, outlet malls were undercutting retail prices and drawing patrons further away from the old town centers.  Starcourt is more a celebration of the 70s, when malls seemed like the center of the universe to young Gen Xers, which helps explain all this pre-hi tech nostalgia.

The odd part is that it is all coming back thanks to these television shows.  13 Reasons Why, another Netflix production, is set in the present but the teenagers all seem wrapped up in 1980s nostalgia replete with cassette tapes and Polaroid pictures to tell its deeply sad story over two seasons.  Clay fishes out his father's old boom box to listen to Hannah's tapes until his buddy gives him a more portable Walkman.

I bought my daughter a Fuji Instax camera, based on the old Polaroid camera, a few years back.  The original Polaroid is now available with a Stranger Things tie-in.  Strangely, I don't recall a single scene a Polaroid was used in the series.  These are truly an anachronism given that digital cameras and cell phones relieve us of the burden of waiting for 35 mm pictures to develop, but my daughter loves it.

It's kind of like rummaging through the attic and finding all these strange things your parents had before.  50-somethings constantly make fun of how kids today have no idea how to use a rotary phone, which gave way to the push-button phone by the 80s, another anachronism in the show.  Of course, rotary phones were virtually indestructible so Joyce might have held onto hers, assuming her local communications provider still allowed pulse dialing.

Anyway, shows like these are not meant to be scrutinized too deeply, nor our nostalgia for this arcane technology.  It seems that current computer hardware and software has hit a standstill.  Computers and cellphones provide more power and move faster, with 5G technology holding the promise of even faster networks, but sadly it feels like same old, same old.   This opened the door for retro products.  Even the old Nokia banana phone has come back, albeit amped up with a better display screen and more memory.  Who needs the pricey iPhone X, which has more capabilities than the biggest supercomputer from the 80s.

Still, you have to fork out a lot of money for this nostalgia unless you are lucky enough to have dads or uncles who held onto all their gadgets from the past.  The retro Polaroid One-Step comes with a hefty $180 price tag.  You seriously have to ask yourself if it is worth it, as the film cartridges don't come cheap either.  One has more fun rummaging through flea markets, even if the old items don't work anymore.  What use are they anyway.

The only thing that has really survived the test of time is the vinyl.  With a good turntable, amp and speakers you will be rewarded immeasurably for your investment in the quality of sound.  You can still buy a good turntable or amp for $200, throw in a pair of $200 bookshelf speakers, and you are well below the cost of an iPhone with its best music player apps.  Of course, it's not portable.  You have to wait to get home to enjoy your music.

I was surprised Stranger Things made no allusion to vinyls.  There was no trip to Sam Goody or Camelot Music in the Starcourt Mall, two of the more popular music store chains from that era.  Instead, the kids check out the new video rental store at the end of the series, presumably Blockbuster Video which first appeared in 1985, soon wiping out all local competition. That is until Netflix came along.



Tuesday, July 9, 2019

MoonFire




I dusted off my copy Of a Fire on the Moon to read this month, as the great mission of Apollo 11 turns 50.  I bought the Taschen version of the book a few years back.  It is loaded with pictures, while still being a convenient size.  I see they have enlarged the format for the golden anniversary, beefing up the price in the process.

Mailler is best when reporting news stories.  His novels tend to be dense, unwieldy things, driven by a false bravado.  The purple prose comes out in his non-fiction books as well, but I like the way he captures the excitement around an event, like he did in The Fight, probably my favorite book of his.

He starts this book with the pre-flight interview by the astronauts.  They were kept in a glass box so as not to pick up any viruses in the movie theater packed with reporters and photographers.  He seems to be attracted to Buzz Aldrin more so than Neil Armstrong, who comes across as wooden.  Michael Collins is pretty much odd man out.

I grew up on the Apollo missions.  It was Tang and space food sticks for me at breakfast.  I was steeped in the lore of the Apollo missions throughout the 70s.  It was thrilling to see the Americans and Soviets join together on the Apollo-Soyuz missions, reducing the tensions of the Cold War that began with Sputnik 18 years before.    My dream of becoming an astronaut faded with time, but the memories remain.  It is great to see NASA once again returning to the fore.

Aldrin has become the face of the American space agency in recent years.  Neil Armstrong died in 2012.  Michael Collins is still alive but lives largely in the shadow of the famous moon mission, despite having written what is regarded as one of the best books on the mission, Carrying the Fire.  It didn't help that Mailler had beat him to the punch with his serialized telling of the mission, which first appeared in Life magazine between 1969 and 1970.  I suppose in many ways Collins set the record straight, if anyone cared to read.

The mission has a particular resonance this year, as NASA announced it would go back to the moon.  It is the first part of a two stage mission to Mars.  NASA hopes to turn the moon into a base of operations for further exploration of the solar system.  It is an ambitious mission that will carry us well into the future, assuming the government is willing to underwrite it.  One of the big problems over the years has been lack of funding, with NASA resorting to unmanned missions to the planets within our solar system, transmitting back valuable new information.

NASA will be competing against the interests of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, who have both launched rocket companies.  Musk has set his sights on Mars within the next decade. China also has big ambitions after successfully landing a spaceship on the dark side of the moon earlier this year.  At some point it would be nice if all these competing interests would come together in an International Starfleet.

It is great seeing all this interest in space travel again.  After the end of the space shuttle program, the US has had to resort to sending its astronauts to the International Space Station in Russian rockets.  This took a lot of the luster out of the space program.  A trip to the moon would go a long toward restoring public confidence in NASA.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Are Democrats too liberal for their own good?




This is the question put forward by the media daily.  We hear not just from moderate Republican pundits like David Brooks, who claims to be seriously courting a Democratic candidate for President this time around, but also from mainstream news pundits as well.

A half dozen or more of the Democrats at the debate professed themselves to be moderate voices, but the only one among them to have gained any traction to this point is Joe Biden, who had been polling around 30 per cent before the debates.  John Hickenlooper, Amy Klobuchar, Tim Ryan, and others all made their cases, but have yet to make a dent in the polls.

On the surface, it appears that Bernie Sanders has done more to energize the party than his more conservative counterparts in the Senate, with the notable exception of Liz Warren.  Democrats want to see a more progressive candidate at the top of the ticket, but not sure which one.  By calling out Joe Biden on federal mandated busing at the debates, Kamala Harris has vaulted herself into consideration along with Bernie and Liz.  Mayor Pete remains a distant fourth among progressives.

Brooks makes some good arguments, particularly on health care.  Bernie, Liz and now Kamala are all pitching Medicare for All, yet the majority of working Americans have some kind of insurance through their employers and for the most part are satisfied with it.  Medicare for All would completely uproot the current system and have everyone using the federal government as its health care provider.  This may play well among a small demographic of Americans, but not the country as a whole.  This is why we have the Affordable Care Act to provide health insurance to those who fall through the cracks, roughly 10 per cent of the population.

Brooks arguments are not so good on the economy and immigration.  Democrats are right to sound the alarm on the economy because we are currently heading in the same direction we did back in 2004, which ultimately ended in the worst economic collapse since the Depression.  Supply-side economics doesn't work.  All these tax cuts and deregulation of the banking industry result in short term gains for large companies and investors, but are non-sustainable.  We have gone down this road with each and every Republican president since Eisenhower with the exact same results.  A Democrat then comes into office to clean up the mess left behind by re-imposing fair taxes and regulations, only to be vilified for ruining the so-called free market.

Even wealthy financiers and industrialists like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates have said the tax rate is unsustainable and that it needs to be raised to meet the government revenue shortfall.  The national debt has mushroomed more than $2 trillion since Trump took office, and this during a time of economic prosperity.

As for immigration, no Democratic candidate is calling for open borders, as Brooks implies in his op-ed piece.  What Democrats are calling for is a path toward citizenship for illegal immigrants who have families in the United States so as not to break these families apart.  What they want is a more humane immigration policy that has been put forward by Republicans and Democrats alike, most recently in 2013, with John Boehner scuttling the Senate bill in the House and turning it into a 2014 mid-term election issue that holds forth to this day.  There is nothing radical about what the Democratic candidates are proposing on immigration.  What is radical is the degree to which the Trump administration has perverted existing immigration policies to justify his zero tolerance approach to illegal immigration.

I agree that the Democratic candidates need to be careful in not pushing highly contentious issues so that they alienate moderate voters who are very much looking for an alternative to Trump.  So far I don't see that, at least not on these three key issues.  Where the more progressive candidates are putting themselves on thin ice is reparations for slavery.  This is an issue that has been floated any number of times, and dropped each and every time because we are talking about something that happened five generations ago.  It's not like reparations for Japanese-American internment during WWII, where you still had living survivors when President Reagan signed a reparations bill in 1988 that offered some degree of compensation.  How do you determine who today was affected by slavery more than 150 years ago?  This reparations issue could very definitely come back to bite the Democratic nominee in the general election if the candidates continue to pursue it.

It would be more wise to strengthen and enforce the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972, increasing educational and economic opportunities for everyone.  This was largely seen at the time as the best means to deal with the continued repression of the Black community until the passage of the Equal Rights Act in 1964.  Access is the real issue here, not reparations.

What is abundantly clear in the first two debates is that there are too many candidates.  Most of them seem to be seeking national exposure, maybe to eventually mount campaigns against Republican senate seats?  John Hickenlooper, a self-professed moderate and former governor of Colorado, should be gunning for Cory Gardner's seat in the Senate.  The same for Steve Bullock in Montana, where the current Republican Senate seat is up for re-election.  For that matter, the more liberal Beto O'Rourke would be wise to seek John Cornyn's Senate seat in Texas, as he has failed to gain any traction in the polls.  However, we are most likely stuck with this crowded field until the first caucus in Iowa, after which the field will winnow quickly.

As for David Brooks and other Never Trumpers, it is doubtful they will be fully satisfied with any Democratic candidate, and most likely hold out hope for a conservative independent candidate to emerge in the general election.  Maybe Daddy Starbucks will get over his back problems and run as an independent, appealing to conservatives like Brooks?

The Democratic candidates don't need to cater to these dissonant voices.  They need to do what they can to mobilize the base of their party.  That means not being afraid to stake out progressive positions on health, education and the economy, as this will be what fires up the younger generation, which outnumber the geriatrics who voted for Trump in 2016.

We also don't need moderates like Amy Klobuchar throwing a wet towel on student loan debt forgiveness, as the enormous personal debt burden most Americans face is very real and in many cases stifles their economic opportunities.  This is an issue that has a direct impact on Millennials and their parents, who often try to cover the loans for their children until they get their feet on the ground.

Democrats also need to face up to global warming, an issue that got very minimal attention in the debates.  By coming up with a comprehensive plan to deal with climate change the potential for creating new jobs is great.  So far the only candidate to seriously address the issue is Liz Warren.  The others have simply offered palliatives.

A bold vision with a practical means of achieving big goals, both in the short term and long term, is what will ultimately carry a Democratic candidate to the White House.  Americans are looking for a change, not just from Trump but the economic status quo that seems to only benefit the rich, while leaving the middle and lower classes to scramble for whatever scraps are left behind.

Most Americans can no longer afford higher education, basic health care and have little or no money in pension accounts.  Nearly 80 per cent of Americans say they are living from pay check to pay check, which was made painfully visible during the government shutdown at the beginning of the year. 

If we learned anything from the 2018 midterms it is that Americans are hungry for change with Democratic candidates outpolling Republican candidates by staggering margins, and doing better than anyone expected in so-called red states.  For the first time in American history, a state legislature is dominated by women.

So far, the two strongest Democratic candidates are women.  Liz Warren was the clear winner of the first debate, and Kamala Harris upstaged Joe Biden and all her male counterparts in the second debate.   Perhaps the best alternative to Trump is not another crusty septuagenarian in Joe Biden, but rather a strong, assertive woman who is not afraid to tackle difficult issues.

Maybe this is "too liberal" for moderate and conservative pundits to accept, but right now Liz and Kamala look to me to be the best way forward for the Democratic Party.