Saturday, March 31, 2018

Something to Know 31 March

Although I'm a squishy-hearted liberal, I have a soft spot for dyspeptic reactionaries like H. L. Mencken and V. S. Naipaul, men — they're almost always men — who speak to a dark, misanthropic corner of my soul. Thus I occasionally read Kevin Williamson, a truly vicious but sometimes bracing writer, when he was at National Review.

Where his words resonated with me, it would make me aware of hidden currents of cruelty in my own thinking. I grew up in a conservative rust belt suburb and hated it, and I loathe populist sanctimony that treats my stultifying hometown as more authentically American than the vibrant city I escaped to. So I felt a guilty shudder of satisfaction reading Williamson's vituperative 2016 attack on the dysfunctional small towns that supported Donald Trump. ("If you want to live, get out of Garbutt.")

The way Williamson's contempt spoke to me made me think about how my fury over Trump's rise, and my devotion to cosmopolitanism, was curdling into the very elitism people like me are constantly accused of. The ability to prompt such uncomfortable self-recognition is a good quality in a polemicist. So I almost understand why The Atlantic magazine, seeking to add a provocative right-wing voice to its roster, recently hired Williamson.


That hiring has set off the latest uproar over which conservatives belong in the opinion sections of elite mainstream publications, including, of course, The New York Times. These controversies are, naturally, of particular interest to people who write for opinion sections, and so receive disproportionate media coverage. But there's a broader significance to these recurring fights, because they're about how we decide which views are acceptable at a time of collapsing mainstream consensus. The intellectual implosion of the Republican Party, it turns out, creates challenges for liberals as well as conservatives, because suddenly it's not clear which views a person who aspires to fair-mindedness needs to grapple with.

The progressive objection to Williamson lies in the demeaning ways he's written about poor people, black people, women, and trans people. He described an African-American boy in East St. Louis sticking out his elbows in "the universal gesture of primate territorial challenge." Defiantly using male pronouns in a piece about the trans actress Laverne Cox, Williamson wrote, "Regardless of the question of whether he has had his genitals amputated, Cox is not a woman, but an effigy of a woman." Feminism, he wrote, is a "collection of appetites wriggling queasily together like a bag of snakes." He tweeted that women who have abortions should be hanged, later clarifying that while he has doubts about the death penalty, "I believe that the law should treat abortion like any other homicide."

In some ways I appreciate Williamson's honesty in admitting where his anti-abortion agenda leads. More abortion opponents should be willing to acknowledge that treating abortion as murder necessarily means treating women as murderers. All the same, I understand why many people are furious that the storied Atlantic magazine would give a perch to a man who traffics in crude stereotypes, and who thinks that the nearly one-quarter of American women who have had abortions deserve to die. "Too many men in power don't care," feminist Jessica Valenti wrote in despair. "To them, our lives and freedom are just abstract concepts — things to be debated rather than understood as a given."

The backlash against Williamson, in turn, has occasioned self-pity among some members of the conservative intelligentsia, who feel victimized by a concerted campaign to write them out of mainstream public life. In National Review, Williamson's friend and former colleague David French demanded, "Decide now, progressives, do you want any serious intellectual media space where conservative and progressive ideas clash?"

Personally, I do. But which conservative ideas?

In "Age of Fracture," an intellectual history of the late 20th century, the Princeton professor emeritus Daniel T. Rodgers described how the salience of ideas in American politics took on "new breadth and intensity in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Novel forms of intellectual production and dissemination — more politically oriented think tanks, new journals of scholarly debate and opinion, more argumentatively structured media — now began to move ideas more aggressively into circulation." Ideology was obviously not the only thing that drove politics — money and group interests were, as ever, important. But to understand national politics, you had to understand certain conservative ideas.

Trump put an end to that. The field of ideas has gone from being the ground on which politics are fought to a side in politics, which is why it's so difficult to find serious intellectual Trump defenders. Trump has resentments and interests, but not ideology; he governs more as a postmodern warlord than a traditional party leader. Few things signal the irrelevance of ideas to his presidency like the appointment of John Bolton as national security adviser. Bolton's relentless advocacy of regime change contradicts the isolationism Trump touted during the campaign. Trump called the Iraq war a "disaster"; Bolton is one of few who continue to defend it. Yet Bolton's appointment isn't discordant, because he and Trump are both belligerent bullies, and in this administration stylistic similarities matter more than policy details.


Inasmuch as there are ideas bound up with Trumpism, they are considered too disreputable for most mainstream publications. An opinion section that truly captured the currents of thought shaping our politics today might include Alex Jones, the conspiracy-mad Sandy Hook truther; the white nationalist Richard Spencer; and CliffsNotes fascist Steve Bannon.

Most supporters of liberal democracy, on the right as well as the left, realize that once we treat issues like religious freedom and the desirability of racial equality as matters for debate rather than as first principles, we are lost. But because there's now so little correlation between the political arena and the intellectual one, the question of which conservatives liberals ought to engage becomes subjective and arbitrary.

Williamson was hired at The Atlantic not just for being an energetic writer, but in the name of ideological diversity. "If we are going to host debates, we have to host people who actually disagree with, and sometimes offend, the other side," wrote Atlantic editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg — no relation — in a memo to his staff. "Kevin will help this cause."

But Williamson, perhaps to his credit, doesn't really represent a "side." His ideas — with their combination of laissez-faire capitalism and harsh moralism — are fairly marginal. If they're going to be defended, they should be defended on their own terms, not as representing an important tendency in our civic life. But on their own terms, they are very hard to defend.

Editors can't escape the fact that, even when they want to broaden the conversation, their choices make a statement about where the parameters of acceptable argument lie. I'd have thought that supporting the execution or mass incarceration of women by the millions would put a writer, even one capable of enjoyably caustic prose, well outside those boundaries. I'd like to hear a serious argument about why it doesn't. Somehow, Williamson's champions don't seem to want to have that debate.

Patriotism is not a short and frenzied outburst of emotion but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.
- Adlai Stevenson

Friday, March 30, 2018

Andy Borowitz

Scientists Baffled by McConnell and Ryan's Ability to Stand Upright Without Spines


WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report)—Calling it a "medical mystery of the first order," scientists are baffled by the ability of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan to stand upright without the benefit of spines.

Doctors at the University of Minnesota Medical School, who have been studying the skeletal structures of both Republicans for months, believe that their ability to stand, walk, and even break into a brisk trot when confronted by reporters' questions is "virtually inexplicable."

"The fact that they can do these things without the aid of spines makes McConnell and Ryan anomalies in the animal kingdom," said Dr. Davis Logsdon. "According to everything medical science teaches us, their bodies should be collapsing to the ground in two heaps."

As the Minnesota scientists have struggled to solve the medical conundrum presented by the two invertebrate leaders, one theory that has gained traction is what Logsdon calls "the startled-deer hypothesis."

"Just as a deer freezes in the headlights of a car and briefly appears statue-like, we believe that Ryan and McConnell's bodies may retain their rigid structure out of terror alone," he said. "In other words, fear is performing the function that a spine performs in other people."

Calling it "just a theory," Logsdon said that the anatomies of McConnell and Ryan require further study, and that there was growing public support for both men to be dissected.

Patriotism is not a short and frenzied outburst of emotion but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.
- Adlai Stevenson

Something to Know - 30 March

(sarah sanders?)

For those of you who missed this piece on last Sunday's 60 Minutes, it provides a great escape from the continuing drum noise of reporting on Trump's behavior, and the detritus he leaves in his wake.  It is a story about a refugee family that left Nigeria, and took up residence in the cheapest real estate and lower economic level of Athens, Greece.   The family made the best of their new life, and produced a son who has turned into the "best basketball player in today's NBA".   He IS the best, and you should see and hear this TV piece of journalism.   The biggest challenge fans have is to learn how to pronounce his name - give it a try:

Patriotism is not a short and frenzied outburst of emotion but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.
- Adlai Stevenson

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Something to Know - 29 March

I think we are tired of the daily grind of news (Russians found under every overturned rock, Stormy tales, fired White House folks,Trump's many woes and tweets, etc).   So, I have just the news story to take your mind to somewhere that is interesting and has nice pictures of undisturbed seascapes and coastlines.

A digitally enhanced photo of a footprint found at Calvert Island, British Columbia that researchers dated to 13,000 years old. CreditDuncan McLaren

Big feet. Little feet. A heel here. A toe there.

Stamped across the shoreline of Calvert Island, British Columbia, are 13,000-year-old human footprints that archaeologists believe to be the earliest found so far in North America.

The finding, which was published Wednesday in the journal PLOS One, adds support to the idea that some ancient humans from Asia ventured into North America by hugging the Pacific coastline, rather than by traveling through the interior.

"This provides evidence that people were inhabiting the region at the end of the last ice age," said Duncan McLaren, an anthropologist at the Hakai Institute and University of Victoria in British Columbia and lead author of the study. "It is possible that the coast was one of the means by which people entered the Americas at that time."

An aerial view of Calvert Island, where researchers say the discovery of footprints supports a hypothesis that early human settlers of North America ventured along the Pacific coastline. CreditKeith Holmes/Hakai Institute

Dr. McLaren and his colleagues stumbled upon the footprints while digging for sediments beneath Calvert Island's beach sands. Today, the area is covered with thick bogs and dense forests that the team, which included representatives from the Heiltsuk First Nation and Wuikinuxv First Nation, could only access by boat.

At the close of the last ice age, from 11,000 to 14,000 years ago, the sea level was six to ten feet lower. The footprints were most likely left in an area that was just above the high tide line.

"As this island would only have been accessible by watercraft 13,000 years ago," Dr. McLaren said, "it implies that the people who left the footprints were seafarers who used boats to get around, gather and hunt for food and live and explore the islands."

They found their first footprint in 2014. While digging about two feet beneath the surface in a 20-square-inch hole, they saw an impression of something foot-shaped in the light brown clay.

In 2015 and 2016, they returned and expanded the muddy pit. They discovered several more steps preserved in the sediment. The prints were of different sizes and pointed in different directions. Most were right feet. When the team was finished they had counted 29 in total, possibly belonging to two adults and a child. Each was barefoot.

The researchers think that after the people left their footprints on the clay, their impressions were filled in by sand, thick gravel and then another layer of clay, which may have preserved them.


    Using radiocarbon dating on sediment from the base of some footprint impressions, as well as two pieces of preserved wood found in the first footprint, Dr. McLaren and his team found them to be 13,000 years old.

That would make them the oldest preserved human footprints in North America.

"It's not only the footprints themselves that are spectacular and so rare in archaeological context, but also the age of the site," said Michael Petraglia, an archaeologist from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany who edited the paper for PLOS One but was not involved in the work. "It suggests an early entrance into the Americas."

Dr. Petraglia said the footprints also provided strong evidence for the coastal movement hypothesis and he added that they may have rode the so-called "Kelp Highway," a hypothesis that underwater kelp forests supported ecosystems down the North Pacific coast that helped ancient seafaring people hunt, develop and migrate.

"The work is important because it shows the 'real' people, not just artifacts or skeletal remains," said Steve Webb, a biological archaeologist at Bond University in Australia. "However, the footprints are limited in number and don't shed light on activities or movement that tell us very much."

He added that future hunts for footprints should keep in mind that not everyone from this time period walked around barefoot. If anthropologists are too busy searching for soles, toes and arches, they might miss clues from those who wore animal skin shoes.

Patriotism is not a short and frenzied outburst of emotion but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.
- Adlai Stevenson

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Something to Know - 27 March

It appears that 45 is left standing with no legal team that can adequately represent him while Mueller is looming large to confront him.  Too bad, he deserves what repugnance he has created.   Today's column is written by a Washington Post writer who served in the George W. Bush administration as speech writer, and has been known to present neo-conservative points of view.  He is also the writer who I passed on the other day on the subject of the Last Temptation (Evangelicalism and Trump).   Why do I include Gerson in the readings.....well it because I think he represents the body of writers who have been known to be on the right-of-center scale, and who have stepped into the discussion to reveal the disgust with Trump that he has done for conservatives and the Republican Party.  

Michael GersonMichael Gerson

Trump leaves a vacuum of integrity at the heart of our government

Mar 27, 2018
WASHINGTON -- Some who watched the Stormy Daniels interview on "60 Minutes" claimed it contained nothing new. On national television, an adult performer alleged that Donald Trump engaged in an extramarital fling, that his minions legally and physically threatened her to discourage public disclosure of the affair, and that Trump's fixer paid her $130,000 in hush money to secure her silence immediately before the 2016 election. People should just go back to their knitting. Nothing to see here. 

Americans who find this unremarkable have missed an extraordinary cultural moment. Daniels' allegations are denied by the president. Yet who in their right mind would trust Trump's word over hers? In this case, the porn star has more credibility than the President of the United States. It is not even close. 

If these allegations are true, they reveal a man of poor character. (The technical term in moral philosophy, I think, is "sleazeball.") Trump seems to regard beautiful women as an employment benefit of the wealthy and powerful. Porn stars and Playboy models are in the same category as a private jet or the key to the executive washroom. This is hardly surprising in our culture of celebrity. To a large number of American males, this represents exactly the kind of treatment they would want as a sports star or rock star. It is the ethical legacy of Ian Fleming and Hugh Hefner. 

The revelation of this type of behavior in a politician causes less and less political harm. Across the ideological board, partisanship has become far stronger than a concern for public character. Most liberals barely registered a protest when Bill Clinton treated women with the dignity of used Kleenex. Most social conservatives barely bat an eye when Trump is revealed as an acolyte of the Playboy philosophy. Polarization has become permission for just about anything, at least for politicians on your own side. 

And yet. Even if most people are not making voting judgments based on character issues, they certainly color their overall view of a politician. Bill Clinton triumphed politically. But he will always be tied to the blue dress in the public mind. Trump is not just the author of a tax cut. He is the author of a tax cut who allegedly slept with a porn star and tried to cover it up. None of us -- and oh, I have tried -- will be able to unsee the mental image of Daniels spanking Trump with a rolled-up magazine featuring his picture on the cover. I imagine it matters to Trump that he is seen as a pathetic figure of fun. 

There is also little doubt that this scandal will occupy a serious amount of media attention going forward. It certainly looks like the president benefited from a coverup that helped win an election. And plenty of questions remain: Where did the hush money actually come from? What was Trump's direct role in the coverup? Who else is out there with similar stories to tell? What foreign intelligence services might know these stories and regard them as leverage? 

This type of scandal demonstrates why character does matter in politics. The main problem is not sex. It is a certain approach to public life. Trump feels exempt from the normal rules of honesty and decency. He plays close to ethical and legal lines. And he uses his wealth and influence to shield his embarrassing behavior from view -- with hush money, non-disclosure agreements, legal threats and lies from the White House briefing room podium. He forces everyone around him to become complicit in his corruption. Members of Congress, White House staffers, party officials, conservative media figures and religious leaders are all expected to be accomplices. And we are left with a vacuum of integrity at the heart of our government. 

Trump has made a career out of paying and manipulating people to be dishonest about him. It is how he built his image as a plausible president, even though he was more of a con man than a successful businessman. This weakness of character is now what moves Republicans in Washington to speak of him as though he is a great leader -- bowing and scraping in the hope of getting what they want. Sometimes they do. But in the process they give Trump what he wants: people pretending he is something he is not. 

In this scandal, such tactics aren't working. Trump can't get the porn star to say he is wonderful and move on. This is the strange, unexpected public contribution of Stormy Daniels. 


Michael Gerson's email address is 

Patriotism is not a short and frenzied outburst of emotion but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.
- Adlai Stevenson