Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The tone-deaf Jeb

Jeb Bush doesn't think the term "Redskins" is offensive.

With regard to the controversy over the Washington Redskins' team name:

“I don’t think it should change it,” the Republican presidential hopeful said on the The Arena. “But again, I don’t think politicians ought to be having any say about that, to be honest with you. I don’t find it offensive. Native American tribes generally don’t find it offensive.”
About that last assertion: Bush compared the "Redskins" brouhaha to one involving Florida State's team, the Seminoles, observing that the Seminole tribe came to FSU's defense when others demanded a name change.
But unlike the tribal name of Seminole, the term “redskin” is offensive to many. A 2014 poll found 83 percent of Americans said they would not use the term to a Native American’s face.
That Jeb could believe Native Americans don't find the term offensive is a sign that he doesn't give enough of a damn about the world to read the headlines outside of the conservative media bubble.

Also, something about the audacity it takes to run for President seems to invite muddy, delusional thinking. I'm reminded of Scott Walker asserting that facing down angry Wisconsin teachers qualified him to take on ISIS if he became President. Walker and Jeb not only betrayed the shallowness of their thought processes, but their not-credible belief they know what they're talking about. They can't see how badly their assertions measure up against reality.

You get a pass for not understanding everything (that's why you surround yourself with experts). You don't get a pass when you obviously don't care whether you understand.

Jeb doesn't grok minorities. He speaks Spanish and is married to a Mexican woman, but he nevertheless lacks the imagination to walk in the shoes of someone who has been marginalized. He can't envision a life other than his own, which has been very comfortable and very privileged because he's white, male, Christian, and wealthy.

But what's worse is that he seems genuinely blind to his own blindness. He, like his brother George, is temperamentally opposed to reflection.

We want a President who, when the circumstances call for it, can put aside his or her doubts to make a decision — but we can't afford one who isn't thoughtful enough to have doubts about his or her understanding of things. We can't afford one who sticks to his or her own "facts" and can't be bothered to find out the truth.

Jeb is tone-deaf about people who aren't like him because he's indifferent to them. He's not malicious, just incurious.

We can't all be intellectually curious and well-educated, just as we can't all be star athletes (or even mediocre ones). But just as we don't want the average high-school bench-warmer to play center on our favorite NBA team, we don't want (and can't afford) another incurious and uncomprehending scion of a wealthy family to hold the Presidency, a job that requires a willingness to learn about our ever more complex world.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Boehner has leverage, if he wants it

John Boehner's resignation from Congress, and surrender of the Speaker's gavel, has prompted furious speculation about who will take his place, and what turmoil will unfold during the remainder of Barack Obama's presidency. But Boehner's resignation won't take effect until 30 October. What will he do until then?

I'm sure House rules will prevent Boehner from singlehandedly deciding the agenda, but like most Congressional veterans he probably has procedural tricks up his sleeve that he'll start pulling out in favor of his priorities.

Some starry-eyed optimists have suggested that now would be a good time to act on the immigration bill that died in the House last year. Others point to the sorry state of the highway trust fund. Personally, I wonder if he'll choose what to do, and not to do, based on the anarchic far-right bloc's own priorities — to frustrate them as much as he can. They put the squeeze on him, after all: it would only be human to get payback while he can.

However, I could be wrong.

Chris Krueger of the investment firm Guggenheim Partners told clients on Friday that he was raising the prospects of a damaging showdown on the debt ceiling. He dismissed hopes that Mr. Boehner was about to play a bipartisan Mr. Fix-It on his way out the door.

“Essentially, Boehner is the kindergarten teacher who is leaving his flock unsupervised and wants to get all the sharp objects out of the room before he goes off into the sunset,” Mr. Krueger wrote.

A great analogy, except I don't know where Krueger gets the idea Boehner's trying to remove any sharp objects. Boehner will merely try to keep his charges from burning the place down while he's in it.

At some point I'm afraid it's going to be necessary for truly patriotic Americans to fix Congress the only way we can, by moving to the thoroughly irresponsible districts that keep electing far-right bozos and voting in such numbers that we can swamp the idiots and elect people who actually have an interest in governing. This business of governing by temper tantrum and political arson is unsustainable.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Trump and the truth: mere acquaintances

In the second GOP debate Trump bloviated about the horror of pumping numerous vaccines through a needle "that looks like something for a horse" (I paraphrased from memory) into a "beautiful little baby". He went on to mutter darkly about people in his own campaign whose infant children had horrible reactions to the standard immunization routine.

Emotionally compelling, perhaps. But factual? I doubt it. The thing is, we can't tell because nobody calls The Donald on such gibberings and demands that he back up his offhanded assertions with evidence. His supporters obviously don't care, but neither his opponents nor the media seem to give much of a damn, either, when he pulls airy nothings and unsubstantiated anecdotes out of his ass.

We all know he's a bully. He prides himself on being one, and enjoys our outrage at his pride. But not enough of us are angry that he gets away with saying stuff that isn't true.

I don't expect that I'll agree with a national GOP candidate on most issues for the rest of my life, but I'll at least respect that candidate if he or she talks about the world as it is, not as it looks in paranoid nightmares. (Incidentally, on vaccines, it's the science-deniers on the left who are the biggest problem.)

But even the low bar of respectful disagreement is too high for the vast majority of the GOP's presidential candidates. Only John Kasich seems to be consistently willing to talk about the real world, rather than pandering to the far right's angry delusions. And Trump picks up from the frayed edge of where the other GOP candidates leave off stretching the truth.

This business of the country becoming more anti-intellectual as time goes on has got to stop. The stupid, to borrow Matt Taibbi's term, has got to be rejected firmly at every turn. We can start by branding Trump what he is: a serial liar.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Colbert, night 2

I hadn't planned on talking about Colbert again so soon, but his second Late Show outing exposed the biggest problem he has right now: he can't hack the network late-night show celebrity interview.

I couldn't tell who was more uncomfortable, Colbert or Scarlett Johansson. Worse, the interview lasted for two segments. Elon Musk, on the other hand, got only one segment, but Colbert obviously had a lot to ask him and looked like he was having fun. (It was Musk who looked and sounded trapped.)

Without his old character, Colbert has no default point of view from which to pose questions (or make outrageous statements that trigger a discussion). He'd better find the hook that will let him pull off celebrity puff interviews, or people like me will turn away from the unwatchable mess he makes of them.

The other option, of course, would be for him to have complete control of booking, but CBS isn't going to let him indulge himself the way Comedy Central let Jon Stewart. (Stewart, incidentally, often coasted through interviews with Hollywood types who were on promotional tours, but he explicitly made a joke out of his tepid interest in such interviews. Colbert doesn't have that out.)

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Colbert or Wilmore?

For months, I've been wondering what I would do when confronted with the choice of Stephen Colbert or Larry Wilmore.

After about fifteen minutes of Colbert's first Late Show, it's not looking good for Wilmore.

The Nightly Show has improved a lot since I voiced my disappointment with its early episodes: the flow is better and the jokes land with more force.

But fifteen minutes into tonight's Colbert — and especially after his second segment, devoted entirely to Trump and Oreos — I'm welcoming back a sorely-missed friend.

The lazy description of The Colbert Report is that it revolved around a parody of a conservative pundit. That's how it started, absolutely, but it soon outgrew the character. It became a showcase for all the facets of a ridiculously talented man who has a stunning gift for improvisation.

Tonight, the rest of the world met that man.

One very big unknown remains whether CBS will force Colbert to devote a lot of time to the fluffy Hollywood promotional-tour interviews that have filled late-night talk shows since the beginning. I hope not. Nothing would get stale faster than competing with Fallon and Kimmel for the most vacuous ten minutes with [insert actor's name]. One of the minor glories of The Colbert Report was the wide range of guests: authors, politicians, activists, scientists, artists, sports figures. No doubt this was partly due to Jon Stewart, who brought a taste for interesting guests to The Daily Show and who was a co-executive producer of the Report. (He's listed as an executive producer on The Late Show, too, which is a delightful surprise.)

(In what's perhaps a troubling sign for the future, Colbert has said he looked forward most to doing interviews unshackled from his Report character. Neither of tonight's interviews turned out well, and as entertaining as many of them were on the Report, they were often the least interesting part of that show.)

I'll still check out The Nightly Show when I remember. It hasn't become an indispensable accompaniment to The Daily Show, and whether I even stay with the latter depends on what Trevor Noah does with it. Now that it seems Colbert will be allowed to fulfill his potential, it's going to be that much harder to keep my Comedy Central 11-midnight habit.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Think twice before retaining "The Liberty Counsel"

The Liberty Counsel, the nonprofit outfit representing jailed Rowan County (Kentucky) clerk Kim Davis, filed an amendment to its appeal of her incarceration for contempt of court. I don't know what precisely the appeal said, but here's how the AP described the organization's news release of Sunday (6 September):
"Mrs. Davis is entitled to proper notice and due process when she is threatened with the loss of her freedom," Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, said in the news release. "There was no indication that she would be incarcerated. We will be presenting our arguments on appeal and asking for an expedited ruling."
If you're not rolling on the floor laughing, you should be. The whole world knew she could be jailed. Everybody. Really. Even her supporters. The idea that her lawyers didn't know is laughable. And not believable.

Staver, et al., made their claim in a press release, but have they made it in court papers? If The Liberty Counsel hasn't made this claim in a court filing, I call "bullshit" on it. The net result would be that they're not unbelievably incompetent lawyers, but they're trying, in an unbelievably stupid way, to cover their asses in the court of public opinion.

Now on the other hand, if TLC has or will put forth this argument in a court filing, they are either genuinely unqualified to practice law, or they're lying to the court. I haven't read any of their briefs but I find it hard to imagine they're such complete jackasses that they aren't qualified to practice law. Presumably they passed the bar somewhere. Yet would they really risk jail and disbarment for perjury? I find that hard to imagine, too.

Whether this is genuinely clueless lawyering or a flat-out lie, every current and potential client of The Liberty Counsel should be wondering: do I want these guys' help?

Get some perspective on Trump

Being in favor of Trump because he's not a professional politician is like being in favor of a Twinkie because it's not a pesticide-laden fruit.

Shouldn't you insist on a genuinely better choice?

Friday, September 4, 2015

Is it piety or hatred?

Now that Kim Davis is in jail for defying a federal court's order to do her job (or, in the alternative, to let her deputies do the job for her), the Rowan County (Kentucky) clerk's office is issuing marriage licenses again. Hey, great! The system managed to bypass an obstruction.

Well, maybe not.

Davis, through her Liberty Counsel lawyer, says the licenses issued in her absence are invalid.

"They are not being issued under the authority of the Rowan County clerk's office. They are not worth the paper that they are written on," said attorney Mat Staver after meeting with Davis in the Carter County jail in Grayson.
He claims that only Davis has the authority to issue a marriage license. The Rowan County Attorney, Cecil Watkins, has said that deputy clerks don't need their boss' approval to issue a marriage license.

I suspect we won't know who's right until somebody files suit and the Kentucky Supreme Court eventually rules one way or the other.

This prompts a bigger question, though: exactly how does Davis suggest that Kentucky resolve the tension between her beliefs and settled law?

Frankly, I don't see how we can accommodate the unbelievably stringent notion of what I call "transitive sin" with human law, period.

Davis objects to standard legislative accommodations of objecting religious believers. She won't allow her deputies to do the physical work of issuing documents because they still require her signature, and even if the signature were imprinted by a machine it would, in her eyes, still reflect her endorsement of a sinful act. This level of belief can't be satisfied by legalistic fig leaves that exempt the believer from physically participating in the act: it considers standing aside and letting the action take place to be tantamount to complicity. (Last year I mentioned a piece about the Little Sisters of the Poor, who have a similarly strict view of what constitutes "participation" in a sinful act.) Since the sinfulness can't be avoided by permitting an intermediary to do the dirty work, I call this view of sin and action as "transitive".

This is a pretty expansive idea of moral responsibility. Moreover, the lengths to which she has gone to satisfy her beliefs call into question her sincerity on a different matter.

Davis claims she has no problem if same-sex couples seek their license in another county. Yet how does this absolve Davis in her own eyes?

The obvious answer is, Davis' legal authority doesn't extend to a different county. But how much does Davis respect legal authority? Not much, as far as a federal judge's order is concerned. Why does she respect the legality of county boundaries but not a judge's order aimed specifically at her? Why should one carry weight with her but not the other?

Then there's the spiritual aspect of the matter. If she is so concerned with not enabling sin, how can she be okay telling same-sex couples they can get a marriage license in the next county? How are her hands clean in that case? She enabled them to commit the sin of same-sex marriage!

If you sincerely believe that the least little contact makes you complicit in a sin, I don't see how you can be virtuous in the modern world. I also don't see how you can believe in freedom of belief for anyone else if you're inclined to constrain what other people can do if their actions impinge on your "web" of possible complicity.

The legal rule of thumb for how far any given "freedom" can extend is, it has to be reined in when it impinges on someone else. In other words, "Your freedom to stretch ends at my nose". How can Davis' expansive version of "religious freedom" fit that legal rule of thumb?

I don't think it can.

The claimed injury to Davis' freedom of worship is so vaguely expansive, the "penumbra" of what might impinge on her religious belief can't be defined in the law. Common-sense, reasonable accommodations for religious belief have not sufficed for her. I doubt any accommodation is possible.

When your "personal" belief extends so far that you won't let others do your work, you've crossed a line. We can't and shouldn't accommodate you, because you are imposing your belief on others.

By the way, the strength of her belief in this particular sin strongly suggests that what really motivates her is a deep animus toward homosexuals. That, too, can be "protected" under the rubric of religious belief, but it's a much less trendy sentiment.

Oh, and those like the tiresome Mike Huckabee who are crying "Religious intolerance!" and "Christian persecution!" to the rafters are simply trying to raise money. Davis was jailed because she refused to do her job. You jokers are amplifying hostility toward yourselves and your coreligionists by being too goddamned greedy to secure power for yourselves. Worried about a more secular world? If that happens, you will bear much responsibility because you will have discredited genuine spiritualism with your whining and bigotry. So I'm actually doing you a favor by telling you to fuck off.