Monday, October 24, 2016

Well enough

Leave well enough alone.

- re-election slogan of President McKinley (1900)

This week's featured post is "Why so frustrated, America?" And in view of recent claims about "rigged" elections, I want to flash back to my 2013 post "The Myth of the Zombie Voter".

This week everybody was talking about how wonderful it is that the debates are over

[Final debate: transcript, video] I think Ezra Klein really nails it in his analysis of Clinton's debate strategy: Ordinarily, a good debate performance means making your case effectively, connecting well with the voters personally, and maybe scoring a zinger or two on your opponent that will get replayed on the news shows (like Lloyd Bentsen's "You're no Jack Kennedy" to Dan Quayle). You can also hope your opponent screws up, but that's mostly out of your hands.

This time, though, Clinton recognized that Trump could be baited into screwing up, and into driving a negative news cycle against himself (like he did when he couldn't let go of his conflicts with Judge Curiel or the Khan family). By the end of the third debate, Trump was sputtering like a kid losing a playground argument: "You're the puppet. ... I did not say that. ... No, you're the one that's unfit. ... Such a nasty woman."

Tweeted by Daniel Dale of The Toronto Star:

In spite of Trump's claims that everything is rigged against him, I found Chris Wallace's questions to have a conservative bias. Media Matters lists a few, but somehow missed the first question (addressed to both candidates), which was about the Supreme Court:

What’s your view on how the constitution should be interpreted? Do the founders' words mean what they say or is it a living document to be applied flexibly, according to changing circumstances?

Literally no one denies that the Constitution's words "mean what they say". That jaundiced framing of the liberal position is conservative propaganda, pure and simple. The "living document" issue concerns whether you limit the Constitution's meaning to the specific situations people had in mind at the time, or interpret them as abstract principles that might apply to new situations in unexpected ways. For example, today the 14th Amendment's "equal protection of the laws" includes how marriage laws apply to same-sex couples. Granted, I doubt anyone was thinking about that application when the amendment was written, but the broader interpretation is not based on claiming that the words don't mean what they say. Quite the opposite: Same-sex couples deserve the equal protection of the laws.

I'll add a very simple example, which I bet I'll bet the loonier parts of the far right will start trumpeting after Inauguration Day: When Article II of the Constitution lists the qualifications for the presidency, it doesn't specify that the president be male. But later, when it lists the powers of the president, it uses a masculine pronoun: "he shall have power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States" and so on. So do we need a constitutional amendment to extend those powers to a woman president, or can we assume that the Founders were describing the presidency in an abstract manner that does not change when a woman takes office?

If the latter just seems like common sense to you, then you believe the Constitution is a living document.

Trump described the Second Amendment as "under absolute siege". The Trace summarizes the gun-related issues likely to make it to the Court in the near future. I think Trump has exaggerated bigly.

Three presidential debates and one VP debate: no questions about climate change. Well done, moderators.

and rigging the election

The morning-after headline from the third debate was Trump's refusal to pledge to accept the result of the election, which he expects to be rigged. If you look at the transcript of that part of the debate, it's even worse than the headline makes it sound. You could imagine a candidate delaying his concession, like Al Gore in 2000, or Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman when Al Franken beat him in 2008. There is a process for disputing an election result. You can ask for recounts, contest in court the validity of various ballots, and so on. Gore's case went to the Supreme Court and Franken didn't get to take his seat in the Senate until July.

In a really close election with legitimate issues about the count, there's nothing undemocratic about pursuing that process as far as it goes. So it would have been legit for Trump to answer moderator Chris Wallace's question with something like: "I'll have to see what the issues are on election day. If my poll watchers report irregularities, if there are precincts where the totals look absurd, then I might have to go to court. It's too soon to rule that out."

But that's not the set of concerns he raised. (Later, he tried to backtrack and pretend he did. "I will accept a clear election result. But I would also reserve my right to contest or file a legal challenge in the case of a questionable result." It's typical of Trump to put forward multiple positions like this and keep everyone guessing.) He did mention "millions of people that are registered to vote that shouldn't be registered to vote"  though he did not give any reason for believing someone will vote those registrations. But the bulk of his answer didn't have anything to do with making sure the winner really won.

First of all, the media is so dishonest and so corrupt. And the pile-on is so amazing. The New York Times actually wrote an article about it, that they don't even care. It's so dishonest. And they have poisoned the minds of the voters. ... So let me just give you one other thing as I talk about the corrupt media. I talk about the millions of people. I tell you one other thing. She shouldn't be allowed to run. She's guilty of a very, very serious crime. She should not be allowed to run. And just in that respect, I say it's rigged. Because she should never -- Chris, she should never have been allowed to run for the presidency based on what she did with emails and so many other things.

So he's saying that he may not accept the election result even if it's clear the voters voted against him. Because they shouldn't have been allowed to vote for her at all and the media talked them into it and Mom always liked her best. There is no process that can resolve such claims, which would be based entirely on Trump's feeling that he wasn't treated fairly -- like his claim that he was "screwed out an Emmy" when The Apprentice lost out to The Amazing Race.

Gore and Coleman did everything the system allows to make sure the votes were counted right. And even if they didn't get all the court rulings they wanted, each eventually admitted that the process was over and he had lost.

Trump does not envision doing that. That would be new in American history, and it's scary.

Republicans across the country disputed the idea that the election would be rigged. Ars Technica founder Jon Stokes warns Democrats to be less adamant about claiming that American elections are unriggable.

But what if our election system is vulnerable, and the Russians were to hack the vote and hand what polls indicated to be a clear Hillary win over to Trump? At that point, all of the folks who’ve been going on about the unassailability of our voting system would have a very hard time making the case to the public that the election was, in fact, rigged. They would have walked right into a trap, and when they attempt to climb out of it, Trump supporters and Putin’s online troll army would keep them down by bludgeoning them silly with their own quotes.

In some ways, the Russians would have an easier time hacking our election than either party. Republicans and Democrats would be trying make the results look as realistic as possible so as not to get caught. But Russian propaganda wins just by showing that American elections are suspect. So if Tim Kaine's home precinct goes for Trump 3,000 to nothing, that might be fine with them.

and hacking the internet

Friday morning, some of the internet's most popular websites were inaccessible for several hours. This appears to be something more sinister than just a glitch: Somebody launched a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack on Dyn, a company you've probably never heard of that maintains an important piece of the infrastructure of the internet. (Briefly, a DDoS is when an attacker floods a server with so many fake requests for service that it can't find the real requests. Imagine walking into an empty bar when suddenly dozens of ghost customers appear in front of you and start yelling for the bartender's attention.)

It would be bad enough if somebody just had a grudge against Dyn, but it appears to be worse than that. Computer security expert Bruce Schneier (my wife is in the field and reports that he's one of the top people) says this looks like one of a series of probing attacks on internet infrastructure.

Over the past year or two, someone has been probing the defenses of the companies that run critical pieces of the Internet. These probes take the form of precisely calibrated attacks designed to determine exactly how well these companies can defend themselves, and what would be required to take them down. We don't know who is doing this, but it feels like a large a large nation state. China and Russia would be my first guesses.

So the Dark Army on Mr. Robot may be more than just Sam Esmail's invention.

An interesting aspect of this attack is that it might have corrupted and weaponized devices that we don't ordinarily think of as computers, the so-called "Internet of Things", which includes "CCTV video cameras and digital video recorders". Think about it: If your refrigerator is accessing the internet (say, to text you that it's out of milk), how do you know it hasn't also been corrupted into sending spam emails to thousands of complete strangers? Vendors of such online devices tend not to make security a priority, and it doesn't occur to most of us to virus-check our smart thermostats or internet-accessible baby monitors.

Computer-security people sometimes refer to "the Internet of Compromised Things". One of the end-of-the-world scenarios in Charles Stross' techno-supernatural "Laundry Files" novels is Case Nightmare Yellow, when all of our smart devices become haunted and turn against us. (Laundry-agent slang calls this threat "the Internet of Things that Go Bump in the Night".)

While we're talking about hacking, there's the series of hacks directed at Democrats and the Clinton campaign, the ones that have resulted in all those emails being released through WikiLeaks. The ones that came out in the last couple of weeks have been from a hack of Clinton campaign manager John Podesta.

On Thursday, private security researchers said they had concluded that Mr. Podesta was hacked by Russia’s foreign intelligence service, the GRU, after it tricked him into clicking on a fake Google login page last March, inadvertently handing over his digital credentials.

The U.S. government had already attributed the hack against the Democratic National Committee to the Russian government. But government intelligence agencies usually don't tell us any more than they have to, so the conclusions have had a take-it-or-leave-it quality. We get a lot more details from this non-government report.

To date, no government officials have offered evidence that the same Russian hackers behind the D.N.C. cyberattacks were also behind the hack of Mr. Podesta’s emails, but an investigation by the private security researchers determined that they were the same.

Threat researchers at Dell SecureWorks, an Atlanta-based security firm, had been tracking the Russian intelligence group for more than a year. In June, they reported that they had uncovered a critical tool in the Russian spy campaign. SecureWorks researchers found that the Russian hackers were using a popular link shortening service, called Bitly, to shorten malicious links they used to send targets fake Google login pages to bait them into submitting their email credentials.

The hackers made a critical error by leaving some of their Bitly accounts public, making it possible for SecureWorks to trace 9,000 of their links to nearly 4,000 Gmail accounts targeted between October 2015 and May 2016 with fake Google login pages and security alerts designed to trick users into turning over their passwords.

and the Al Smith dinner

Ever since Kennedy and Nixon in 1960, the two major-party candidates have shown up for a white-tie fund-raising dinner for Catholic charities devoted to needy children (of all religions) in New York. Traditionally, it's been a way to lighten up the campaign and establish that the candidates have a sense of humor. In each cycle, the Al Smith dinner reminds us that after the election we're all supposed to be friends again.

The main thing it showed me this year is that I'm going to miss Barack Obama. Obama is a natural comedian who has made this stuff look easy: Just get your staff to write some jokes and go deliver them to people who want to laugh. In contrast, Hillary Clinton works hard not to step on her best lines, and mostly succeeds, but you can see the effort. And Trump only half gets this strange human notion of comedy; sometimes he just insults Clinton and looks pleased with himself. (His statement that Clinton was "pretending not to hate Catholics" drew boos.)

To remind yourself of what we'll be missing when Obama goes back to private life, take a look at this video encouraging early voting:

and the Mosul offensive

Together with Turkish and Kurdish forces, the Iraqi government is trying to retake it's second-largest city (Mosul) from the Islamic State. Success seems likely (eventually), but the questions are (1) how costly it will be in both military and civilian terms, and (2) whether this strange alliance can agree on what to do with the city afterward. But ISIS' dream of a territory-holding caliphate seems to be crumbling.

and you might also be interested in

If men are constantly telling you to smile more, here's a product that can help.

Maricopa County may be about to run Sheriff Arpaio out of town.

BridgeGate. It's looking bad for Chris Christie. He still hasn't been charged with anything, but his political career is probably over.

Larry Lessig was insulted in one of the Clinton campaign emails WikiLeaks released. In response he defended the privacy rights of his insulter:

I can’t for the life of me see the public good in a leak like this — at least one that reveals no crime or violation of any important public policy.

We all deserve privacy. The burdens of public service are insane enough without the perpetual threat that every thought shared with a friend becomes Twitter fodder. Neera has only ever served in the public (and public interest) sector. Her work has always and only been devoted to advancing her vision of the public good. It is not right that she should bear the burden of this sort of breach.

Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas has an optimistic reading of the long-term tea leaves: Post-Trump, the GOP fractures and the Democratic Party's demographic advantage (and it's youthful liberal wing) keeps growing. I don't have a specific argument to make against his scenario (yet), but I find it hard to believe that the big-money types don't find some way to compete.

but believe it or not, watching Clinton/Trump debates can be fun

I found it hard to make myself watch the debates. But maybe the least annoying way was to see the final debate songified by Weird Al.

Or you could watch Bad Lip Reading turn the first debate into a game show.

and let's close with something enviable

The 20 most beautiful bookstores in the world, as of 2012. Unfortunately, I don't live near any of them. (Two are in California and the rest in other countries.) They include this one, El Ateneo Grand Splendid in Buenos Aires. Built in 1919 as a tango hall, converted to a cinema in 1929, it's now filled with books.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Making Them Cry

Georgie Porgie, puddin' and pie
Kissed the girls and made them cry.

nursery rhyme

This week's featured post is "A Teaching Moment on Sexual Assault".

In other Sift news, the post "Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party" has passed the 500,000 page-view mark. It's the most popular Sift post ever.

This week everybody was talking about Donald Trump and sexual assault

Since this story has dominated the news all week, I'm going to assume that anybody who wants to follow the details has been able to. So rather than rehash it all, I'll just hit the low points:

  • A week ago Friday, a video from 2005 came out in which Trump boasted about how easy it is to get away with sexual assault (unwanted kissing, grabbing women "by the pussy") when you're a star like him.
  • Two days later, in his second debate with Hillary Clinton, Trump said that what he said on the tape was just "locker room talk" (which didn't happen in a locker room, but seems to mean: false bragging that men do to impress each other when no women are around). He said that had never actually committed such assaults.
  • Beginning this Wednesday, women started coming forward to say that Trump assaulted them in precisely the ways he described.

Huffington Post has been keeping a list of the women and their charges, updated as new charges arise. To me, the accounts vary in their persuasiveness. Kristin Anderson's story would probably not be newsworthy if not for its similarity to the others: She recalls a 30-second encounter in a New York nightclub in which Trump put his hand up her skirt, but she can't recall a date any more exact than "the early 1990s", or who she was with who might corroborate her account, or even be certain which club it was. Not that it didn't happen, but it's hard to imagine an account so vague getting published in a different news environment.

At the other extreme, I found Natasha Stoynoff's account compelling: She had regularly covered Trump for People magazine, and was well known to both Trump and his wife Melania. While she was at Mar-a-Lago to interview the couple for a first-anniversary feature, Trump lured her into a side room "and within seconds he was pushing me against the wall and forcing his tongue down my throat." She didn't tell her editor, finished the feature (which was published without mention of the incident), and made sure she was never assigned to cover Trump again.

Trump denies everything, and has counterattacked.

These people are horrible people. They're horrible, horrible liars.

One counterattack is particularly vile: He has been suggesting to his rallies that the women aren't attractive enough to make their stories credible.

These events never, ever happened, and the people that said them, meekly, fully understand. You take a look at these people, you study these people, and you’ll understand also.

About Stoynoff in particular he said:

Take a look. You take a look. Look at her, look at her words, you tell me what you think. I don’t think so.

Of another accuser, he told a crowd in North Carolina:

Believe me, she would not be my first choice.

While he was at it, he also body-shamed Hillary Clinton. Answering the criticism that he stalked Clinton during the second debate, he blamed her for walking in front of him, and then said:

She walks in front of me, you know. And when she walked in front of me, believe me, I wasn’t impressed.

To me, that just sums it all up. She's a grandmother who will turn 69 in two weeks. She's been First Lady, Senator, Secretary of State, and Democratic nominee for President. And we're supposed to judge her by her butt.

Trump has also attacked People and The New York Times, which started the deluge by publishing the first two accounts Wednesday. When Trump's lawyer sent a letter threatening a lawsuit, The Times lawyer fired back what can only be described as a bring-it-on challenge:

We did what the law allows: We published newsworthy information about a subject of deep public concern. If Mr. Trump disagrees, if he believes that American citizens had no right to hear what these women had to say and that the law of this country forces us and those who would dare to criticize him to stand silent or be punished, we welcome the opportunity to have a court set him straight.

The next step here is easy to predict: Trump may file a lawsuit to grab a one-day headline and get his side on the record, but he cannot afford to pursue it. In a previous unsuccessful lawsuit against a reporter, giving a deposition under oath forced him to make a number of embarrassing admissions.

Trump's other response to his problems has been to go further down the rabbit-hole of conspiracy theories and fascist tropes. In the West Palm Beach speech -- which you can watch in its entirety via PBS -- he painted himself as a savior. Typical American political rhetoric warns of future problems unless we change our ways, or unless the speaker's movement or philosophy gains power. But Trump made it about himself: The political establishment

has taken our jobs away, out of this country, never to return unless I am elected president.

He repeated a claim he has made before: "I am the only one who can fix it."

This is a struggle for the survival of our nation. Believe me. And this will be our last chance to save it, on November 8.

Trump blamed the sexual-assault allegations on a conspiracy that includes "the Clinton machine", "the corporate media" as a unified entity "with a total political agenda", and "international banks" plotting "the destruction of U.S. sovereignty".

As Yochi Dreazen points out, only one word is missing from what is otherwise an ancient libel:

it’s true that Trump’s allegation Thursday that a global financial cabal is secretly working hand in hand with the media to destroy the United States doesn’t include the word “Jew.”

But here’s the thing: It doesn’t need to. Trump is using barely coded words that directly echo one of the most ancient of all anti-Semitic libels. Jews have long been accused of controlling the global financial system. Jews have long been accused of controlling the media. And Jews have long been accused of being disloyal citizens secretly working to maneuver governments to pursue disastrous policies solely for their own benefit. Trump has now chosen to combine all of those charges into a single paranoid and hate-filled rant.

If you need someone to supply that word, Trump's alt-right allies are happy to oblige. The neo-Nazi Daily Stormer, ex-KKK grand wizard David Duke, and numerous other far-right sources are promoting the theory that the Access Hollywood tape that started this whole furor was leaked by a Jewish aide to Paul Ryan. A Daily Stormer editor posted:

The 35% or so of the country that is hardcore pro-Trump is going to know that it wasn’t “liberals” that defeated Trump, but traitors within the party who abandoned him. And they are going to want to know why that happened.

And there is only one answer:

The Jews did it.

[For the difference between standard conservative Republicans and the alt-right, see this conversation between Hugh Hewitt and Jonah Goldberg. At the time, Hewitt was supporting Trump, but more recently he has called for Trump to withdraw from the presidential race.]

Best response to the whole sordid mess: Michelle Obama.

and sexual assault in general

I cover this in the featured post "A Teaching Moment about Sexual Assault".

It didn't fit into the frame of that post, but subsequent to Jessica Leeds' story, Slate did a story about airlines and sexual assault.

and more Clinton campaign email leaks from Russia by way of WikiLeaks

In particular, we now have transcripts of Clinton's three speeches to Goldman Sachs in 2013. Personally, I'm glad they're out. As long as they remained secret, Clinton-haters could imagine they contain some secret plot to do whatever. Now that they're out, it's clear that they don't.

It turns out they aren't even speeches, they're Q&A sessions that mostly cover foreign policy. I found them educational, particularly the notion that the Chinese military is a power not completely under control of the central government, and that it is the force most supportive of North Korea.

I'm not sure what the point of keeping the transcripts secret was, or why Clinton refuses to verify their authenticity now. But I wonder if it has more to do with foreign governments than with the American public. For example, it might be convenient to maintain deniability of that China/Korea statement the next time she has to deal with either government.

As far as the other emails that have been released, there's a lesson we all should have learned after the ClimateGate email dump in 2009: Whether you've done anything wrong or not, you never look good when your enemies get to comb through emails you thought were private and publish the excerpts they find most damaging. Countless investigations in both the US and the UK found no wrong-doing in the ClimateGate emails, but to this day climate deniers believe they revealed some nefarious conspiracy.

In emails to known associates, people say the same kinds of things they might say face-to-face: At times they are flip, snide, and short-tempered. They blow off steam to people they think will be sympathetic, and make statements they couldn't support well enough to say them on the record. They float outrageous ideas, sometimes seriously, sometimes in jest.

I occasionally read articles in the right-wing press about some particular batch of WikiLeaks Clinton-campaign emails. Like this one where the main thing that strikes me is how tame it all is.

The emails, published by WikiLeaks after a hack of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s private account, also show Clinton campaign officials and Democratic leaders disparaging supporters of Sen. Bernard Sanders as “self-righteous” whiners, calling Hispanic party leaders such as Bill Richardson “needy Latinos,” labeling CNN anchor Jake Tapper “a d—k” and even lambasting longtime Clinton ally Sidney Blumenthal.

Horrors! In the middle of high-pressure situations, Clinton campaign staffers privately said unkind things about people who were making their lives difficult. I fear for the future of the free world if such monsters get their hands on the levers of power. But wait, there's worse:

The Clinton campaign’s biggest problem may be its assault on Catholics.

Podesta didn't participate in this exchange himself, but he was copied on emails that Clinton campaign spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri  received from someone outside the campaign: John Halpin of the Center for American Progress.

In the exchange, Mr. Halpin mocks media mogul Rupert Murdoch for raising his children in the Catholic faith and said the most “powerful elements” in the conservative movement are all Catholic.

“It’s an amazing bastardization of the faith. They must be attracted to the systematic thought and severely backwards gender relations and must be totally unaware of Christian democracy,” Mr. Halpin said.

It's actually a good point: Catholic economic doctrine is not even remotely conservative, and hasn't been for over a century. So there actually is a mystery here. Palmieri had a fairly boring response:

I imagine they think it is the most socially acceptable politically conservative religion. Their rich friends wouldn’t understand if they become evangelicals.

This is the "assault on Catholics" that The Washington Times thinks Palmieri should be fired for. And Paul Ryan believes Palmieri's single line about the social status of Catholics compared to evangelicals "reveal[s] the Clinton campaign’s hostile attitude toward people of faith in general."

I wonder how many emails they had to read before they found such a bombshell.

The other issue raised by the series of WikiLeaks releases of Clinton documents is the role of Russia.

There is mounting evidence that the Russian government is supplying WikiLeaks with hacked emails pertaining to the US presidential election, US officials familiar with the investigation have told CNN.

NBC News claims to know that U.S. intelligence officials had briefed Trump on this before the second debate, in which Trump asserted that Clinton "doesn't know if it's the Russians doing the hacking. Maybe there is no hacking."

Yesterday on Fox News, VP candidate Mike Pence appeared to break with Trump on this:

I think there's no question that the evidence continues to point in that direction [of Russian responsibility]. There should be severe consequences to Russia or any sovereign nation that is compromising the privacy or the security of the United States of America.

This is a problem we haven't had to deal with before, and it's hard to know how to think about it. On the one hand, the WikiLeaks dumps are what they are, and it seems silly to avoid knowing what's in them. On the other hand, how do we assess the fact that one of our chief rivals wants Donald Trump to win?

and you might also be interested in

No, Canadians are not flocking to the U.S. to get health care.

Good news for the climate: 197 nations just agreed to cut way down on their use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which are used in air conditioners. Originally, they were supposed to replace the CFCs that were killing the ozone layer. (And they succeeded, the ozone hole seems to be filling in.) But HFCs are powerful greenhouse gases 10,000 times as effective as carbon dioxide. Estimates say that the agreement will shave anywhere from .2 to .44 of a Celsius degree off the average global temperature by the end of the century.

A fascinating story in The Washington Post about the conversion of Derek Black, son of the founder of the white-nationalist Stormfront web site, who as a teen-ager had his own radio show where he helped popularize the notion of white genocide. He has now left the white-nationalist movement, which has created a family crisis.

His story reminds me of a New Yorker article from last November about Megan Phelps-Roper, granddaughter of Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church, the people who picket funerals with "God Hates Fags" signs.

In both stories, conversion away from a hateful ideology happens not through logical argument, but by getting to know and admire people that the ideology condemns. The personal relationship opens up a channel for new ideas to come in.

Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature. A popular songwriter had never won before, but I guess the times, they are a-changing. I'd have voted for Thomas Pynchon myself, but what do I know?

plot by anti-Muslim "Crusaders" was broken up before the group could blow up an apartment building in Garden City, Kansas. They were hoping to kill a lot of Somali immigrants and "ignite a religious war".

A Republican Party office was firebombed in North Carolina Saturday night. Donald Trump immediately attributed it to "Animals representing Hillary Clinton and Dems". Clinton denounced the bombing, and other Democrats raised $13K to help the Republicans rebuild.

So far, nobody knows who did this. If the perps think this helps the Democrats, they're wrong and they need to stop before the "help" any more. Others have suggested a false-flag operation to gain sympathy for Republicans, but that's a big claim to make without any evidence. Let's hope the authorities solve the case soon so we can all stop speculating.

Washington Post editor Fred Hiatt got philosophical on MSNBC's Hardball Friday:

I've covered a lot of countries -- dictatorships, democracies, everything in between -- and the key thing to a democracy ... I mean, there are really two things that are key. You have an election, and the loser acknowledges that they lost, and the winner lets the loser survive for another day. Trump is challenging both of those things. He's saying "If I lose, it's not legitimate" and "If I win, I'm going to lock her up." This is the Putin model. It's not democracy.

Political science professor Shaun Bowler makes a related point: After every election, people who voted for the loser are tempted to doubt the result. One key to whether a democracy succeeds or fails is whether losing candidates try to soothe or enflame those responses.

and believe it or not, you should listen to Rush Limbaugh

Wednesday, Limbaugh unleashed the most amazing rant about how hypocritical it is for liberals to invoke moral standards against Donald Trump. The point, which he borrows from therapist Michael Hurd, is that liberals have no standards when it comes to sex, so how can we invent a standard to apply to Trump? Limbaugh explains this mystery, but does so in a tone of outrage and anger.

You know what the magic word, the only thing that matters in American sexual mores today is? One thing. You can do anything, the left will promote and understand and tolerate anything, as long as there is one element. Do you know what it is? Consent. If there is consent on both or all three or all four, however many are involved in the sex act, it's perfectly fine. Whatever it is. But if the left ever senses and smells that there's no consent in part of the equation then here come the rape police. But consent is the magic key to the left.

I and every liberal I've mentioned this to have had a well-duh reaction: What consenting adults do is their own business, but as soon as somebody stops consenting and another party keeps going, then you've got rape.

and let's close with something amazing and hopeful

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have given a paralyzed man a robot arm that feels. Not only can his brain control the arm, but tiny electrodes in his brain allow him to know when a finger is being touched or pressed.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Bizarre Talk

If we’re worried about the longer-term implications of current policies, the buildup of greenhouse gases is a much bigger deal than the accumulation of low-interest debt. It’s bizarre to talk about the latter but not the former.

- Paul Krugman "What About the Planet?" (10-7-2016)

This week's featured post is "Best Responses to the Trump Video".

This week everybody was talking about leaks

In addition to Trump's sexual-assault-confessing video, which I cover in the featured post, WikiLeaks released thousands of emails hacked from the account of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta. Included in the haul are internal Clinton campaign discussions about what they would have to defend if the text of her Goldman Sachs speeches came out.

I haven't examined the Podesta emails myself. Matt Yglesias concludes: "The lesson of Hillary’s secret speeches is she’s exactly who we already knew she was". In other words, she is someone who works inside the system and negotiates with the powers that already exist rather than sweeping in from the outside. Yglesias is not alarmed by this, for reasons he explains. I'll try to formulate my own opinion in future weeks.

Andy Borowitz:

In what passes for morality in the Republican Party, leaders are calling for the presidential candidate who hates women to be replaced by the vp candidate who hates gays.

and the weather

Hurricane Matthew swept up the Florida coast and made it all the way to North Carolina before turning out to sea. It's been downgraded to a post-tropical cyclone.

Three theories on why hundreds dead in Haiti isn't news:

  • Haitians aren't Americans, so who cares? (This echoes my comments last week about Gary Johnson and the decline of foreign coverage.)
  • Most Haitians are black, and (no matter what white people might tell each other) black lives still don't really matter.
  • It's Haiti. Something bad is always happening in Haiti.

In the conspiracy-theory world many right-wingers inhabit, Matthew's path and intensity is no mystery: the government created it.

Hurricane truthers believe the government's goal is to create unrest and distract the masses from election fraud [in Florida] — namely, the left's attempt to rig the election for Hillary Clinton.

"Given the unparalleled significance of the 2016 election cycle, the politicos at the federal level would love to sow seeds of chaos any way they can in order to create cover for an election theft," wrote.

Since climate change is a myth in this alternate universe, there must be some other reason why more powerful storms are making it further north on a regular basis. The old reliable explanation is that liberals have offended the Lord with our gay-rights agenda and overall lack of piety. But if that doesn't convince you -- how's the reconstruction going, Tony Perkins? -- a nefarious human plot backed by sci-fi technology works too.

and more debates

The VPs debated Tuesday and Clinton/Trump had their second debate last night.

By far the strangest moment in the debate was when Trump told Clinton:

If I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation, because there has never been so many lies, so much deception. There has never been anything like it, and we’re going to have a special prosecutor.

And then followed up a bit later in this exchange:

CLINTON: It’s just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country.

TRUMP: Because you’d be in jail.

If you're not familiar with how our justice system works, you might not realize why so many people were frightened by this. Ezra Klein, for example:

Tonight was a scary moment in American politics. In fact, it's probably the scariest I can remember.

In our system, the Justice Department is supposed to be insulated from politics. Nothing in the Constitution says this, but it's a principle deep in the mores of our system. The president is supposed to make policy and appoint people to carry out that policy, but is not supposed to have any direct influence on specific cases. That's the principle Republicans were invoking when they objected to President Obama endorsing Secretary Clinton while the FBI was still investigating her. They were afraid that even the hint of the president's opinion, without any direct orders, would affect the investigation. Democrats invoked that principle during the Bush administration when they objected to the firing of seven states attorneys for what they believed were political reasons.

Well, the President appointing a prosecutor to look at a particular person -- especially a political rival, especially one the FBI has already cleared -- is completely off the scale. That's what happens in dictatorships, not in the United States. Trevor Noah was making this point about Trump already a year ago.

What you thought about the VP debate seems to have depended on whether you judged style or substance. Most pundits thought Tim Kaine interrupted Mike Pence too often and looked rude. But Pence chose to defend Donald Trump by simply denying that Trump has said what he said. On substance, that's a losing position.

That denial is probably a preview of how Republicans will look back on a Trump defeat: what he actually said and stood for will go down the memory hole. Something similar happened on a larger scale after President Bush left office with historically low popularity. There was no discussion about what went wrong or how the party needed to change. Instead, they just stopped talking about Bush for a while, and when they started again they said amazing things, like "We had no domestic attacks under Bush."

Many Republicans have expressed a hope that Pence will wind up running things. But I haven't forgotten how Gov. Pence dodged and weaved last year in order to defend the supremacy of Christians over gays in Indiana.

They don't get much publicity, but debates are also starting to happen in pivotal senate races. Here's video of Hassan/Ayotte in New Hampshire.

and you also might be interested in

Columbia University's Jay Rosen is one of the sharpest observers of the culture of political journalism. In this post on his blog PressThink, he discusses the underlying frame that most political coverage is based on, and why journalists are having so much trouble dealing with the fact that the Trump candidacy doesn't fit in that frame.

The two major parties are similar actors with, as Baquet put it, “warring philosophies.” Elections are the big contests that distribute power between them. The day-to-day of politics is a series of minor battles for tactical advantage. The press is part of this picture because it distributes attention, but — in this view of things — it does not participate in politics itself.

But in the real world, the two political parties have gotten increasingly asymmetric and are no longer similar actors at all. Trump has taken this to an extreme, and journalists have not adjusted.

Campaign coverage is a contraption that only works if the candidates behave in certain expected ways. Up to now, they always did. But Trump violates many of these expectations. ... Imagine a candidate who wants to increase public confusion about where he stands on things so that voters give up on trying to stay informed and instead vote with raw emotion. Under those conditions, does asking “Where do you stand, sir?” serve the goals of journalism, or does it enlist the interviewer in the candidate’s chaotic plan? ... The premise is that a presidential campaign wants to put out a consistent message to avoid confusing people, and to deny journalists a “gotcha” moment. What if that premise is false? The rationale for interviewing the campaign manager, the running mate, or some other surrogate collapses. They say one thing, the candidate says something else and the confusion is not considered a problem. It may even be a plus.

In an some other version of the United States, an election would be a time to have discussions about really important issues. Lester Holt tried to raise one in the first debate: Should the United States have a no-first-use policy on nuclear weapons?

Sadly, neither candidate rose to the challenge: Clinton cautiously avoided saying either yes or no, while Trump boldly and unequivocally said both.

It's actually a good question. Most Americans probably don't realize that we don't already have a no-first-use policy. Originally, there was  a strategic reason for it: We were anticipating World War III in Europe, where the Soviet Union had an advantage in conventional forces. Since the Soviet Union was itself a European power, it could cheaply keep huge armies in a position to strike, while it was much more expensive (not to mention unpopular with the Germans) for us to keep a comparable defensive army stationed in West Germany. So if Soviet tanks started rolling west, we reserved the option of nuking them.

Russia, without its former Warsaw Pact allies and without former Soviet republics like Ukraine, isn't nearly as formidable as the USSR was. But we still might be stuck for a non-nuclear answer if Putin decided to roll over one or more of the Baltic Republics, which we are committed to defend as members of NATO. Is that why we won't renounce first use? Or does the Pentagon have some other scenario in mind?

I don't believe for a minute this will actually pan out on election day, but one recent poll shows Clinton taking the lead in Arizona.

Geez, Bob, you need to stop holding back and say what you really think.

What interests me in this video is how De Niro is doing exactly what Trump does, but doing it better. They're both 70-something guys who still know how to talk tough, but who (at this point in their lives) would probably be push-overs in any real physical confrontation. Picture the two of them joining 86-year-old Clint Eastwood in a barroom brawl. The result would play better in a slapstick comedy than in an action flick.

And Britain has a favor to ask: Could we elect Trump so that everyone forgets about their boneheaded Brexit vote?

Massachusetts is about to vote on Question 2, which would expand the number of charter schools in the state. The main argument against charters is that they drain money out of the public school system. The long-term fear is that a vicious cycle gets started, where pulling resources out of the system leads to poorer performance, which leads more families to take their kids out of the public schools, which in turn reduces state subsidies to those schools.

Last week, an editorial in The Boston Globe repeated claims made by the Massachusetts Taxpayer Foundation:

Examination of school funding trends in districts affected by charter school enrollments does not suggest that charter schools are over-funded, that students in district schools are suffering a loss of support, or that the per-student funding of districts is trending negatively. Rather, per-student funding has increased quite steadily across the state, and the district-charter balance has been stable.

But former state Education Secretary Paul Reville counters by pointing out that schools have many fixed costs that don't go away when a student leaves:

Mainstream public schools would argue that the marginal savings associated with losing a student are not nearly as much as the marginal costs associated with losing a student.

But even that misses the point. The most valuable thing charter schools siphon off isn't public money, it's easily teachable students. My nightmare is that the kids who can sit still and process information from a teacher standing in front of a blackboard all wind up either in charters or in voucher-funded private schools. Meanwhile, the public schools are left to handle all the special needs kids, all the kids with undiagnosed vision and hearing problems, all the kids who bring their home problems to school and act out, etc. And when it costs more money per student to operate that public school, we'll be told some nonsense about the efficiency of the private sector.

There's a parallel to the healthcare system, particularly as it operated before the Affordable Care Act stopped insurance companies from rejecting sick people. Sometimes the way to make money isn't to offer better service, it's to make sure you only get the customers who don't need service.

One bit of tax law that's unpopular on the right, is the "Johnson amendment" from 1954, saying that churches can't endorse candidates. The Republican platform calls for repealing it, a promise Donald Trump often makes to evangelical audiences, saying the repeal would "give churches their voice back". Right-wing web sites call the Johnson amendment a "Christian gag rule".

If you aren't familiar with the details, that can sound convincing. I mean, religious convictions often go hand-in-hand with political stances, so why shouldn't a pastor be able to speak his mind from the pulpit without worrying about his church losing its tax-exempt status? (In fact, many pastors do, and get away with it, because the rule is only enforced in egregious cases. Like when a church “placed full-page advertisements in two newspapers in which it urged Christians not to vote for then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton because of his positions on certain moral issues.”)

But the point of the Johnson Amendment is simple: Contributions to churches are tax-deductible, but contributions to political campaigns or PACs aren't. So without some kind of restriction on church activity, churches could become money-laundering schemes: You give tax-deductible contributions to a church with the understanding that it will spend that money campaigning for your candidate. I have yet to hear any repeal-the-Johnson-amendment argument that addresses this problem.

but we should be paying more attention to Columbia

Last week I forgave Gary Johnson's ignorance by citing the general decline in Americans' awareness of other countries, and blamed a generational shift in news coverage. So let's talk about what's going on in Columbia, which produces the bulk of the cocaine Americans abuse.

One thing that makes the whole coca-growing enterprise harder to control is that Columbia has been fighting a civil war for half a century. Picture that: Our Civil War lasted only four years. If it had gone on as long as Columbia's, we'd have been fighting until just before World War I. The BBC estimates that 260,000 people have been killed, and another six million driven from their homes. The whole country has less than 50 million people.

The government negotiated a peace deal with the guerillas (FARC, which translates to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia), which was announced at the end of August and signed with much ceremony on September 26. But in a Brexit-like reversal of government policy, the Columbian voters rejected the deal in a referendum on October 2. The vote was close: 50.2%-49.8%, to the great surprise of pollsters, many of whom had the referendum passing with over 60% of the vote.

FARC has a Marxist orientation, and claims to represent the interests of the rural poor against the landed gentry and the urban elite. The areas it controls are prime coca-growing territory, and it funds itself via the drug trade. (So if you think about it, the U.S. has been bankrolling both sides. Our tax dollars aid the government, while our drug spending keeps the opposition going.)

Vox has a good article summing up the situation, quoting extensively from the BBC about what's in the peace agreement. The agreement sounds like a model of reasonability: FARC gives its weapons to the UN and becomes a political party guaranteed ten seats in Congress. (I'm not sure how this splits between houses. There are 166 in the lower house and 102 in the upper.). Its fighters apologize to their victims and won't be prosecuted for the war-related crimes they confess to. (Though "crimes against humanity" don't get this amnesty.) They get temporary financial aid to re-integrate into society.

Opponents of the agreement think that lets FARC off too easy. (One woman said: “How is it justice if I, who committed no crime, was ‘imprisoned’ in a rebel camp for four months, and these criminals get off without going to jail?” While understandable from a personal point of view, this feeling is why conflicts like this drag on decade after decade: By the time one generation gets "justice" for the wrongs committed against it, a whole new set of wrongs have been committed by both sides.) Some also don't trust FARC to disarm, while others fear having another left-wing party in Congress.

Ironically, the voters' rejection didn't prevent Columbian President Juan Santos from receiving the Nobel Peace Prize Friday. Whether he'll be able to salvage an actual peace, though, is still uncertain.

and Israel

The Obama administration is objecting to the announcement of a new Israeli settlement in the occupied territories. CNN summarizes.

and let's close with something adorable

We could teach our children violence, or maybe we could just teach them to dance. The Irish magazine Galway Now posted this viral video.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Oily Opinions

It’s not that Trump is saying things he believes to be false. It’s that he doesn’t seem to have beliefs at all, not in the way people typically talk about beliefs — as mental constructs stable across time and context. Rather, his opinions dissolve and coalesce fluidly, as he’s talking, like oil on shallow water. That’s why he gives every indication of conviction, even when, say, denying that he has said something that is still posted on his Twitter feed, or denying that he said something that he in fact said on live television, in front of millions of people, just minutes earlier.

- David Roberts "The question of what Donald Trump 'really believes' has no answer"

This week's featured post is "Investigative Reporters and Donald Trump: The 9 Best Articles".

This week everybody was talking about the Clinton/Trump debate (and Miss Universe 1996)

A week ago, the polls looked like a dead heat, and the momentum was still with Trump. Last Monday's debate seems to have changed that dynamic. But not because we learned anything new about the candidates' philosophies or programs.

I'm not even sure it was the debate itself that moved the polls. Sure, Clinton did look sharper and Trump made mistakes. But the more serious problem for Trump came afterwards. He spent the rest of the week off-message, overcome by his inability to let go of any argument that he's not winning. All week he's been proving the truth of what Clinton said in her convention speech:

A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.

First, there was the Miss Universe flap. Josh Marshall pointed out how easily Trump could have stepped around the whole issue.

Anyone with the most basic communications experience or simply a conscience knows there's a simple and solitary way to deal with something like this: "We quarreled years ago. I'm sorry we did. That's a long time ago. I wish her the best." Done and done.

But no. As with the Khan family, Trump took the attack personally and couldn't let it go. Someone had implied he did something wrong, and he never does anything wrong.

He was still fuming in the wee hours of Friday morning. Clinton described this as "unhinged, even for him. Really, who gets up at 3 o’clock in the morning to engage in a Twitter attack against a former Miss Universe?" And Elizabeth Warren chimed in, tweeting at Trump: "You never tweet at 3am with ways to create new jobs for workers or hold Wall Street accountable."

So does insulting a young woman 20 years ago mean Trump should never be president? No. It may not cast him in a positive light, but it's a minor event far in the past. Does his reaction this week prove Clinton's point that he is "temperamentally unfit" for the presidency? Yes it does. Ezra Klein did the best job of explaining why: Hillary set a trap for him and he has spent a week flailing in it. If he were president, ISIS and Russia and China could do the same thing.

The problem is that Trump is predictable and controllable. ... As unpredictable and uncontrollable as he is to his allies, he is exactly that predictable and controllable to his enemies, and to America’s enemies.

Trump made two other unforced errors: He said "That makes me smart" when Clinton suggested he hadn't paid any income tax. Ross Rosenfeld responded in The Hill:

I guess the rest of us are just stupid because we have to pay taxes. If only my daddy had left me a real estate empire, a host of political and financial connections, and no morals whatsoever — then I, too, could be "smart" like Donald Trump.

And on his own, Trump brought up his insults directed at Rosie O'Donnell, saying:

Somebody who’s been very vicious to me, Rosie O’Donnell, I said very tough things to her, and I think everybody would agree that she deserves it, and nobody feels sorry for her.

Lawrence O'Donnell said what I was thinking: "She deserves it. That is what every man guilty of spousal abuse always thinks." So what exactly did Rosie do to deserve being called "disgusting" and "a fat pig"? She made fun of Trump on TV ten years ago. He can't let it go.

The claim that Trump pays no taxes might be true, at least for a long stretch of years. The New York Times got hold of a few pages of Trump's state and local income tax returns from 1995. They show Trump declared a huge loss, presumably on the collapse of his Atlantic City casinos.

Tax experts hired by The Times to analyze Mr. Trump’s 1995 records said that tax rules especially advantageous to wealthy filers would have allowed Mr. Trump to use his $916 million loss to cancel out an equivalent amount of taxable income over an 18-year period.

I feel like this is half a story, and I hope we see the other half before we vote. Unanswered questions: Is that loss real, or the product of creative tax accounting? Did he in fact use it to pay no taxes in subsequent years?

Trump once again used that I-could-talk-about-your-mama-but-I-won't tactic that we all remember from fourth-grade recess. (Build your vocabulary: The technical name for this is apophasis.) Even more immature is that both he and his son Eric expect credit for not bringing up what they just brought up by talking about how they weren't going to bring it up.

If Trump starts the conversation about Bill Clinton's infidelity, here's how it ends: Chelsea Clinton explains on TV how grateful she is that her parents held their marriage together, so she didn't have to go through a divorce at age 7 like poor Eric Trump did.

and there were some unusual newspaper endorsements

The New York Times' endorsement of Clinton and denunciation of Trump really shouldn't have surprised anyone. That The Washington Post also dislikes Trump wasn't that big a shock either.

But The Arizona Republic had never endorsed a Democrat in its 126-year history, until Tuesday.

Clinton has the temperament and experience to be president. Donald Trump does not.

USA Today also has never endorsed a presidential candidate, and it still hasn't, exactly. But it did take a side. Its Editorial Board "does not have a consensus for a Clinton endorsement." But the Board could agree on this:

This year, the choice isn’t between two capable major party nominees who happen to have significant ideological differences. This year, one of the candidates — Republican nominee Donald Trump — is, by unanimous consensus of the Editorial Board, unfit for the presidency.

The Cincinnati Enquirer has "supported Republicans for president for almost a century", but this time it says

Clinton is a known commodity with a proven track record of governing. ... Trump is a clear and present danger to our country.

The Dallas Morning News last endorsed a Democrat for president "before World War II", but this time it says

There is only one serious candidate on the presidential ballot in November. We recommend Hillary Clinton.

Trump has not managed to get a single major newspaper endorsement (though the conservative Washington Times and Wall Street Journal have yet to commit themselves, and it's not hard to tell who The National Enquirer is rooting for). Even New Hampshire's conservative voice, The Union Leader, has defected to Libertarian Gary Johnson. So have The Chicago Tribune and The Detroit News (breaking a 143-year-old Republican tradition).

Along the same lines, the NYT's Ross Douthat also makes the conservative case against Trump:

Set aside for a moment Trump’s low character, his penchant for inflaming racial tensions, his personal corruptions. Assume for the sake of argument that all that can be folded into a “lesser of two evils” case.

What remains is this question: Can Donald Trump actually execute the basic duties of the presidency? Is there any way that his administration won’t be a flaming train wreck from the start? Is there any possibility that he’ll be levelheaded in a crisis — be it another 9/11 or financial meltdown, or any of the lesser-but-still-severe challenges that presidents reliably face?

I think we have seen enough from his campaign — up to and including his wretchedly stupid conduct since the first debate — to answer confidently, “No.” Trump’s zest for self-sabotage, his wild swings, his inability to delegate or take advice, are not mere flaws; they are defining characteristics. The burdens of the presidency will leave him permanently maddened, perpetually undone.

and Congress avoided another government shutdown

The new federal fiscal year began Saturday. Wednesday, Congress avoided a shutdown by passing a bill to fund operations through December 9. Republicans gave in to Democratic spending requests on issues that really shouldn't be controversial or partisan: Flint's water crisis, the Zika virus, and opiod addiction. Money related to the Louisiana floods was also in the bill. Democrats didn't get everything they wanted though: the SEC still can't take "action to increase transparency in public companies’ political spending".

Not so long ago, we all took for granted that Congress would figure out some way to keep the lights on. Now it's considered an accomplishment.

but Obama suffered his first veto override

This is kind of an odd story. Some families of 9-11 victims would like to sue Saudi Arabia for its alleged role in the attack. The problem is a legal principle known as sovereign immunity, which prevents people from suing foreign governments. Recently, Congress passed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism bill to allow these suits. President Obama vetoed it, and Congress just overrode his veto, making the bill a law.

Overriding a veto takes a 2/3 votes in each house, so Republicans couldn't do this by themselves. Apparently, congressional Democrats decided that opposing 9-11 victims right before an election was too politically dangerous, so most of them supported the override.

The problem is that when you take some action against a foreign government, it can respond. So Saudi Arabia, or maybe other countries, might start allowing their citizens to sue the U.S. for the damages we cause. This could result in the kind of huge mess that sovereign immunity is supposed to avoid.

So now congressional leaders are having second thoughts about what they've done, and Republicans are blaming President Obama for reasons that really defy analysis. Mitch McConnell said:

Because everyone was aware who the potential beneficiaries were, but nobody focused on the potential downside in terms of our international relationships. And I just think it was a ball dropped. I wish the President -- and I hate to blame everything on him and I don't -- but it would have been helpful had ... we had a discussion about this much earlier than the last week.

Because expecting Congress to do its own research into the consequences of its actions is setting the bar way too high. And McConnell listens so well when Obama tries to tell him something.

and you also might be interested in

Shimon Peres died. At 93, Peres was described as the "last link to Israel's founding generation". Because of that symbolic role, the articles this week about his death and career often say as much about the author's attitude towards Israel and its current politics as about Peres.

David Roberts' article in Vox, "The question of what Donald Trump 'really believes' has no answer" doesn't meet the criteria for my "Investigative Reporters and Donald Trump: The 9 Best Articles" post, because it's analysis rather than reporting. But it's insightful and seems dead-on to me.

Roberts' claim is that people use language in two sometimes-conflicting ways: to communicate ideas and to position themselves in the social hierarchy. But Trump is almost always focused on the second purpose. The reason it is so frustrating to discuss the content of Trump's statements is that most of them were not intended to have content: They are pure maneuvers for dominance.

This point helps explain why Trump cannot ever admit a mistake or an error. He can only process accusations — of dishonesty, of cruelty — as social gambits, not as factual claims. To him, the demand that he apologize or admit error is nothing more than a dominance play. Apologizing is losing. ...

It helps explain why Trump has such a long and rich history of defrauding investors, refusing to pay contractors, using his charitable foundation as a piggybank, and declaring bankruptcy to escape debt. Contracts and promises are just plays in the game, not words that carry meanings or create obligations. You sign them or say them when you need to, to win whatever negotiation you are in, and then they are gone like smoke.

Rush Limbaugh warns: "Don't be fooled by fact-checkers."

Usually we only talk about needlessly aggressive police tactics when someone winds up dead, but here are two videos of the kinds of interactions that might be happening every day without making headlines.

Calling attention to stuff like this is sometimes labeled as "anti-police". But that's not it. There is good policing and bad policing. You can be against bad policing without being anti-police.

and believe it or not, I decided to cut Gary Johnson some slack

This week Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson had what he described as another "Aleppo moment": asked by Chris Matthews to name a foreign leader he admired, he couldn't come up with a name without the help of his VP, Bill Weld. It looked like he had no idea who else belongs to the world-leader club he wants to join.

I was ready to ridicule him over this, when I noticed that I can't list a lot of world leaders either. What's the name of the British woman who came into office after Brexit? Who's leading France? Spain? Italy? India? China? Iran? Iraq? Anywhere in Africa? Who's heads the junta that took over Egypt a few years ago? I'd have to look all that up.

If you're under 30, or maybe 40, you've lived your adult life in an era when the news media doesn't bother much with other countries, so you may take this kind of ignorance for granted. Maintaining a far-flung network of foreign correspondents is expensive, and the economics of the news business has gotten harsher, so for decades we've gradually gotten less and less international news. Most of the coverage we do get is shallower, the kind you can do by pulling video of some disaster off the internet and narrating it from New York or London.

It's all happened so gradually that the result is hard to notice, until something like the Johnson incident happens. But I'm about to turn 60, so I remember an era when the leaders of major countries were household names: Maggie Thatcher, Francois Mitterrand, Indira Gandhi, Willy Brandt, King (not Saddam) Hussein, Franco, Begin, Sadat, and so on. When I was a kid, Mad Magazine sometimes made fun of French President Charles de Gaulle, because of course their core audience of teens and tweens would know enough about him to get the joke.

As a society, we never talked it over and decided to become this ignorant of foreign affairs. It's just one of those self-reinforcing cycles market economies are prone to: The less you know, the less you wonder. It never occurs to us to ask why we don't know what we don't know.

and let's close with an ordinary person's act of kindness and courage

Would you pull a Coke can off the head of a skunk?