Monday, November 30, 2015

Immature Forms

If we think that we can only identify the rise of fascism by the arrival of its mature form -- the goosestepping brownshirts, the full-fledged use of violence and intimidation tactics, the mass rallies -- then it will be far too late. Fascism sprang up in fact as a much more atomized phenomenon, arising at first mostly in rural areas and then spreading to the cities; and if we are to look at those origins, then it's clear that similar movements can already be seen to exist in America.

-- David Neiwert
Rush, Newspeak, and Fascism (2003)

This week's featured post is "The Political F-word: When and how should we talk about fascism?"

This week everybody was talking terrorist attacks in America

but most people haven't been calling them that. There were two major ones: the gunman who killed three at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, and the shooting of Black Lives Matter demonstrators in Minneapolis.

It took a while for Republican candidates to figure out how to respond to the Planned Parenthood attack, and most seemed to come to the same conclusion: profess ignorance about how something like this could happen. Mike Huckabee called it "absolutely unfathomable" and a John Kasich tweet described it as a "tragedy" and "senseless".

But the attack is totally fathomable and makes perfect sense: If you believe the outrageous lies Republicans have been promoting about Planned Parenthood, that it encourages abortions so that it can profit from selling fetal organs, and if you believe that the government -- even the Republican majority in Congress -- is either unwilling or incapable of stopping this horror, then it's downright logical that individuals will step up and try to stop it themselves. We don't have a full manifesto from the attacker yet, but somebody in law enforcement quotes him as saying "no more baby parts".

Mother Jones points out that this is part of a trend of increased violence since the release of the doctored videos at the center of the baby-part-profiteering lie.

In the four months following the release of the videos, there have been at least four suspected arsons that targeted abortion clinics, compared with just one in all of 2014 and none in 2013. There have been at least five cases of vandalism since August. In comparison, there were 12 total cases of clinic vandalism in all of 2014 and just five cases in 2013, according to federation figures.

Last Monday, white supremacists wearing masks and bulletproof vests taunted BLM demonstrators protesting the killing of Jamar Clark by police, and when organizers tried to herd them away, they opened fire.

Again, how do such things happen? They're not senseless; they make perfect sense inside the alternative reality of the conservative bubble: If BLM really did advocate assassinating policemen, if the racism they protest were imaginary or just an excuse for lawlessness, if they were the real racists themselves, and if the Powers That Be seemed either unable or unwilling to take action against them ... well, shouldn't ordinary citizens be trying to do something about that if they can?

You can't promote a false image so offensive that it seems to call for a violent response, and then be amazed when someone responds with violence.

Having linked to all that poisonous propaganda, I have to post an antidote. Or two.

Ted Cruz' response to the Planned Parenthood shooting is off the scale: He is spreading the idea that the shooter is a "transgendered leftist activist" -- based on more-or-less nothing.

It's fascinating to watch anti-abortion activists be outraged that anyone could connect them to the shooter. He's a lone wolf, they claim, so they shouldn't have to answer for him. But how many of them will show that kind of consideration to Muslims?

and a Chicago cop charged with murder

A white police officer was charged with murdering a 17-year-old black male, Laquan McDonald, 13 months after the event. A dashcam video shows that the teen-ager had a knife, but made no threatening moves with it. The officer shot him 16 times, including several shots in the back, in full view of several other officers. The arrest was made almost simultaneously with the release of the video, which the police department had kept secret until ordered by a judge to release it. The city had previously paid a $5 million settlement to the family, but had not fired the officer.

The Chicago Police tried to cover up the murder, and would have succeeded if a whistleblower had not tipped off local reporters that the police report did not match the autopsy. No witness statements were taken on the scene, the security footage from a nearby Burger King was erased, and the official report said that McDonald had been shot once in the chest after lunging at the officer. ThinkProgress comments:

Today, even with the official story of McDonald’s death in tatters, city officials appear eager to limit the blame to Van Dyke. “One individual needs to be help accountable,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said on a conference call with community leaders Monday.

Once Van Dyke is prosecuted, the mayor said, “we can go as a city and begin the process of healing.” That process seems unlikely to include accountability for Van Dyke’s colleagues who abetted the official story about why and how he killed McDonald.

We can only wonder how many previous murders Chicago police have swept under the rug, murders in which there was no video, or no one told the press about the cover-up.

In late October, the minister at my church preached an amazing sermon. In 1988, while serving in a different town, he witnessed local police killing an unarmed young black man. As white citizens did in those days, he assumed it was justified and put it out of his mind, to the point that until recently he barely remembered at all. When the Black Lives Matter movement started, he began looking back and wondering: What exactly did I see? Who was that young man? Was his death necessary? And why didn't any of these questions occur to me before? [The YouTube is of the entire service; the sermon begins at the 34 minute mark.]

but hardly anybody was talking about this

Someday we may look back on November 11 as a negative milestone: The last day that the CO2 measurement at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii was below 400 ppm.

Unlike global temperature, global CO2 levels don't bounce around that much: There's a yearly cycle, but every year the measurements are higher than the year before. (The cycle bottoms out at the peak of the northern growing season, when plants have absorbed as much CO2 as they're going to. Mauna Loa, being high and remote, is a good proxy for a global CO2 measure.)

It made news back in 2013 when Mauna Loa's CO2 measurement went over 400 ppm for the first time, but it only stayed there a few days. Each year the period of 400+ measurements has increased. In the last cycle, it went above 400 ppm in February and stayed there until July.

It crossed 400 ppm again on November 12, maybe for good this time.

and you might also be interested in

The Washington NFL team didn't grasp that some people might be offended by this tweet (which appears to have been deleted since people started linking to it).

Interesting side-effect of the well-publicized trend of young people distancing themselves from organized religion: They're also much more likely to accept the theory of evolution.

and let's close with something wonderful

If you just want to spend some time staring and being amazed, check out the National Geographic Photo Contest, which includes this image:

Monday, November 23, 2015

Changing Colors

All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts. A British Tory will defend self-determination in Europe and oppose it in India with no feeling of inconsistency. Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage — torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians — which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side.

-- George Orwell, "Notes on Nationalism" (1945)

This week's featured post is "In times of hysteria", which gives six suggestions for restoring national sanity.

This week everybody was talking about refugees

I've already said just about everything I wanted to say in "In times of hysteria". But here are some odds and ends that didn't fit.

An NRA-backed Texas legislator argues that Syrian refugees shouldn't be allowed to come to Texas because what if one "purchases a weapon and executes an attack"? Oh now you see the problem with making it so easy to buy guns. I don't know if you've noticed, but we already have homegrown Americans shooting up movie theaters and executing people in churches. The FBI just arrested three white supremacist Virginians for plotting a terrorist campaign against black churches and Jewish synagogues. Maybe we shouldn't let any more white people come to America. That seems to be the real terrorist threat in this country.

Some idiot vandalized Isis Books and Gifts in Denver, which for 35 years has carried the name of an ancient goddess, and has nothing to do with a certain would-be caliphate. Possible reprisals worry me, because I live a couple blocks from the CIA (Corriveau Insurance Agency).

In the Dallas suburb of Irving, Texas, armed protesters gathered outside a mosque to "Stop the Islamization of America".

Incidents like this are why the idea that we need guns to protect ourselves from tyranny have everything exactly backwards. How tyranny typically happens is that civilians from a politically powerful group use force against less powerful groups in ways that the government couldn't. That's how the death squads worked all over Latin America, and what the Brownshirts did while Hitler was rising.

In American history, well-armed KKK members didn't oppose tyranny in the Jim Crow South, they established it. Knowing that sympathetic sheriffs and other local officials wouldn't stand up to them, they were free to terrorize any blacks who tried to claim their constitutional rights.

Same thing here on a smaller scale: The tiny Muslim community in Irving has exactly zero chance of taking the city over by force, or of conspiring with a liberal government to force Islamic tyranny on the Christian majority. But if government looks the other way, well-armed Christians could terrorize and tyrannize the Muslim minority, together with anybody else who sympathizes with them. That's the real threat, and a well-armed populace just makes it worse.

but I wish more people were talking about Margaret Thatcher

I keep thinking about Thatcher when conservatives try to make President Obama say "radical Islam".

The biggest terrorist threat Thatcher faced came from the Irish Republican Army, and she responded to it harshly. So, should she have declared war on radical Catholicism? The answer is obviously no, and if you think it through you'll see that the same logic applies to radical Islam today.

If Thatcher had made radical Catholicism the enemy, she would have legitimized Irish Catholics supporting the IRA. Rather than portraying the IRA as violent outliers in the Catholic community, she would have been validating their claim to be the true defenders of the faith. What's more, she would have been taking the radical Catholic label away from people who might use it in a non-violent way, like Mother Theresa.

and you might also be interested in

I thought the funniest line of the week was a response to Anonymous declaring war on ISIS:

The prophecy is coming true ... They are going to be screwed by 72 virgins.

But it turns out that Anonymous might actually have an important role to play, as they disrupt the online infrastructure that ISIS depends on to spread its propaganda and lure recruits. CBS News quotes David Gewirtz, who they describe as a cyberwarfare expert (whatever that means):

Cyberattacks can have a tremendous impact. Of course, they can't be used to arrest people or take terrorists off the field, but they can certainly be used to compromise structural components of terrorist operations. More to the point, they can go after both the money that terrorists have and their funding sources. Damaging the money flow can certainly have an impact on the terrorists' operations.

There are also more subtle effects. If you're a Muslim teen in Dearborn, and you go to an ISIS web site and find it offline or hacked, maybe that changes your impression of how strong and professional these guys are. Following their instructions to go to Syria or carry out some attack in the US starts to seem more speculative.

Interesting political reaction to the Paris attacks (or at least that's how I'm reading it): Carson's support is moving to Trump and Cruz. According to the Real Clear Politics polling average, the two front-runners were virtually tied on November 13. (Trump 24.8%, Carson 24.4%.) But their graph lines suddenly take off in opposite directions. Yesterday, Trump was at 27.5% and Carson at 19.8%. Cruz also has seen an uptick, from 9.6% to 11.3%. Summing up the support of all three, you don't see much movement: 58.8% on November 13 and 58.6% yesterday.

The New Yorker has a fascinating article about Megan Phelps-Roper, a grand-daughter of Fred Phelps, founder of the Westboro Baptist Church. For years, WBC used Megan the way a lot of groups use their young people, to give them a presence on social media. But a funny thing happened: As she tried to humanize the image of her cult to others, she began to see the humanity in them as well. Eventually she had to leave the church.

The article is a marvelous illustration of how people convert from cults: It wasn't just that she learned new ideas (because Satan is is clever, and can make any kind of wickedness sound good), nor that she started to like the people she was interacting with (because nice people can be deluded). It took a combination of the two: thoughtful discussion with people she couldn't see as evil, plus the dysfunctional internal politics of WBC.

So Politico thinks it needs to make an "unconventional hire" to bring in a more conservative viewpoint. When is any "centrist" media outlet going to do some similar affirmative action on the left? Why can't there be voices in mainstream media that are unabashedly socialist?

Derrick Lemos puts words around something a lot of us have been thinking:

I’ve been really angry and depressed for the last few months. I’ve finally pieced together why.

I’m afraid.

I’m not afraid of teenagers building clocks. I’m not afraid of women having economic empowerment or sexual freedom. I’m not afraid of weddings with two grooms/brides, trans folks using bathrooms, Latinos making a living or Black people wearing hoodies and playing music.

I’m afraid of an angry white dude with a gun who’s been told repeatedly that HIS country is dying and HE needs to take it back.

and let's close with something upbeat

Because I think we need a lift about now. Every era and subculture has its own style, but there's something universal about dancing, as you see in this mash-up of "Uptown Funk" with classic movie dance numbers.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Joining the Dance

Without knowing exactly why ISIS undertook these attacks, we risk dancing to their tune.

-- Will McCants

This week's featured post is "A Meditation on Terrorism".

This week everybody was talking about the Paris attacks

As I've said many times, a one-man blog is poorly equipped to cover breaking news. If you want to keep track of what is known, but avoid the TV networks' often-baseless speculations and obsessive focus on the most recently revealed detail (which may turns out to be false two days later), I recommend rechecking the Wikipedia article from time to time. As new facts are established and old ones debunked, the article is updated to retell the story as currently understood.

The larger question, though, is how we should respond to attacks like this. My basic take on terrorism hasn't changed since 2004, when I wrote one of my first popular blog posts "Terrorist Strategy 101: a quiz", which I updated on its 10th anniversary with "Terrorist Strategy 101: a review". I believe you shouldn't view a terrorist attack through the same lens as military attacks, because the intention of the attacker is completely different.

The point of a military attack is to degrade a country's ability to defend itself; by destroying something of military value, the attack is an end in itself. But the point of a terrorist attack is to provoke a response. So responding out of either fear or anger might be exactly what the enemy wants.

One advantage neo-cons have had since 9-11 is that they always have their frame well prepared: Every enemy is Hitler in 1938, and every response other than all-out war is Chamberlain betraying Czechoslovakia at Munich. The whole frame is already sitting in everybody's head, and it leaps to mind the instant a neo-con uses one of its code words, like appeasement. The instant the frame is invoked, the favored response is obvious: Do whatever it takes to stop the Hitler-analog now, before he gets more powerful later.

That's a really bad frame for thinking about ISIS. A few thousand jihadis in the Syrian desert don't bear much resemblance to the nation of Germany, and less than a dozen guys in Paris with AK-47s and grenades are not General Guderian's panzer corps. But a bad frame will win out against no frame, so we need to present a better way of thinking about this. That's what I try to lay out in the extended analogy of "A Mediation on Terrorism".

People always ask, "If Muslims don't approve of terrorist attacks, why aren't they saying so?" They are. Here are a bunch and here are a bunch more. It's hard to miss them, if you want to see them. If you don't want to see them, though, they're invisible.

I haven't vetted CaspianReport to any depth. It seems to be the work of one very dedicated guy, which makes me identify with him. But I'm not sure who he is or how he views his mission, so I'm not giving my full endorsement yet. But these two videos -- one on the origins of ISIS and the other on terrorism in general seem very insightful.

And man, do I envy that logo.

and red coffee cups

Segueing from the serious to the ridiculous, I spent a chunk of Thursday morning trying to figure out whether the Christian outrage over Starbucks' seasonal red coffee cups is a real thing. I don't believe it is.

I mean, the red cups are real, and they are kind of minimalistic as holiday decorations go: just red with a green logo, rather than including a bunch of secular seasonal images of candy canes and snowmen and such, as Starbucks holiday cups usually do. But I kept feeling like I was being punked: I heard a lot more from people outraged at the ridiculous triviality of the Christian outrage than I heard from actual outraged Christians.

I think that was the point. It all started with an online rant posted by Joshua Feuerstein, a guy whose sole claim to fame is that he posts evangelistic rants. He's not the leader of any face-to-face religious group. He has an online following, but it's not clear how many of them are Christians who agree with him, as opposed to secularists who watch his stuff because his antics amuse them, aggravate them, or bolster their sense of superiority. So if he made you look, he won, and the joke was on you. (Correction: us.)

In my opinion, an even bigger joke was on the people who got counter-trolled: the Christians so upset to see people criticizing other Christians that they felt obligated to join in the original complaint, even though they never would have noticed or felt offended by the cups on their own. And then there were the people trying to pander to such people, like Donald Trump. (Loser!)

And the big winner? Starbucks, who dominated the national discussion for a day or two with no advertising expense. CNBC predicts they'll wait a decent interval, release a cup with more traditional winter themes, and benefit from another huge wave of free publicity. (See the closing for another suggestion.)

and campus protests

By drawing the football team (and implicitly, its coach -- not to mention the support of nine deans) into their protests, black activists at the University of Missouri managed to get the resignations of the university president and chancellor.

It's kind of amazing how negatively this -- and similar protests at Yale and elsewhere -- have been covered. The gist of the complaint is that the university has tolerated a hostile environment for black students and faculty, in which they're subject to racial insults and symbolic terrorism (like a swastika being drawn in human feces on a residence hall wall). No one is claiming that the administration has been actively against blacks, but it has showed no sign of regarding the hostile atmosphere as a big deal. Low points were when the president refused to talk to protesters that blocked his car during the homecoming parade, and when he defined systemic oppression by referring to what black students believe rather than anything real.

The black students have been widely characterized as whiny opponents of free speech, and yes, it's true that Jackie Robinson and other civil-rights trailblazers endured far worse. But is that really the right standard? In 2015, should an African American need to be a Jackie Robinson to make it through a state university?

I'm also not buying the threat to free speech, or that our campuses are places where "political correctness" has run amok. (I stand by my definition of political correctness: "The bizarre liberal belief that whites, men, straights, Christians, the rich, and other Americans in positions of privilege should treat less privileged people with respect, even though such people have no power to force them to.") As Sally Kohn wrote in The Atlantic:

“Political correctness” only acquired a name when, relatively recently in American history, the idea of treating others respectfully was finally extended to include how white people treat black people, how men treat women, and so on.

The last time Jonathan Chait went off on political correctness, I responded sarcastically:

it’s up to white men (like me and Chait) to decide whether your concerns deserve attention, or if you’re just being too sensitive. We’ll let you know what we decide, but until then try to keep the noise down so that you don’t disturb the neighbors.

I don't see any reason to reconsider. In reality, campuses are not free speech zones and never have been. They're more like bars. No bar would post a list of things you can't talk about. But a good bartender tries to maintain a space where a diverse set of customers feels comfortable, and will not be afraid to tell one customer to tone it down if he's chasing away some of the others. The University of Missouri -- like a lot of American universities -- has been doing a bad job of running its bar, when it comes to maintaining a good learning environment for black students. Hopefully it will improve under new management.

and another Republican debate

Until the Paris attack, the quote I was planning to lead with was Trevor Noah's:

One thing most pundits agreed on about last night's Republican debate is that it was it was much better than previous debates, partly due to the fact that it had more substance -- which is true, because bullshit is a substance.

I don't want to repeat myself, so I'll just say that what I outlined in "Three Hours in Bizarro World" still applies: Listening to a Republican presidential debate is like traveling to an alternate universe, one with its own history and facts and arithmetic. For example, it continues to be a place where you can drastically lower taxes, spend more money on the military, not cut any spending that people will notice or miss, and still balance the budget. Similar policies may have led to the greatest economic disaster since the Great Depression, but the Bush administration was a long time ago and no one remembers it any more.

If anything, Bizarro World has only gotten more bizarre since the candidates revolted against the third debate's CNBC moderators. So the Fox Business Channel moderators of the fourth debate on Tuesday were careful not to notice when candidates dodged questions or said anything obviously false. They also phrased their questions in conservative NewSpeak, as when Gerard Baker opened a question on inequality with "Many are concerned that the new wealth seems to be going only to innovators and investors" rather than using, say, the equivalent phrase preferred by both Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, malefactors of great wealth, or the more pedestrian rich greedy bastards.

But I will point out a few things that are either new or I neglected to mention in previous debate-response posts.

Syria. On Ben Carson's statement that the Chinese are in Syria, Obama's national security adviser Susan Rice says: "unless you're talking about having a diplomatic presence, I'm not sure what he's referring to". I doubt he knows either, though Carson spokesman Armstrong Williams insists Carson's claim is backed up by "our own intelligence and what Dr. Carson's been told by people who are on the ground". So I guess there's a Carson Intelligence Agency now. Maybe they're the ones who convinced him the pyramids weren't built by aliens.

BTW, if the name Armstrong Williams rings a bell, it's because of his role in the No Child Left Behind payola scandal.

The tax postcard. Ted Cruz managed to work in the two biggest applause lines from his stump speech: simplifying taxes so that you can fill out your return on a postcard, and abolishing the IRS. I'm waiting for a moderator to ask the obvious question: Who do you mail the post card to? Whoever that is, you may not call them the IRS any more, but they are the IRS. And unless they're going to take your word for how much tax you owe, they're going to have to behave a lot like the IRS does now.

Cruz' postcard is worth looking at, because as soon as you picture filling it out, you realize he hasn't made taxes that much simpler at all.

On line 1, you need to know your investment income, which means you'll need to know the basis price of any investment you sold. And if you got dividends or interest payments, you'll need to know what part represented a return of capital, and so on. Unless you expect the government to take your word about all this, you'll have to be able to show your calculations if challenged. I'd suggest you retain the old Schedules B and D and fill them out just for your own records. And if part of your income is from self-employment, that's going to be a whole different form with its own complexities.

Line 4 asks about your itemized deductions, which means you'll have to understand how those are defined. Line 6 lets you deduct for a "savings plan", so you'll need to know which plans qualify and how much you're allowed to deduct. Line 10 retains a tax credit for earned income and child care, so you'll have to know whether you qualify for those and how to claim them.

In other words, if you have only the wage income reported on your W-2, and you take the standard deduction and don't mess with the savings program or claim any tax credits, your taxes will be simple. But in that case, they're simple now: the 1040-EZ form isn't much bigger than Cruz' postcard.

Line 9 is the only place where the flatness of Cruz' tax makes a difference: you figure your tax by multiplying your taxable income (line 8) times 10%. But if he kept the progressive tax rates we have now, Line 9 could say "Look up your tax on the tax tables." So the flat tax saves you maybe thirty seconds or so, at the cost of blowing a multi-trillion-dollar hole in the ten-year federal budget.

The three-page tax code. Related to Cruz' postcard is Carly Fiorina's "three-page tax code". Fiorina is endorsing what is known as a Hall-Rabushka flat tax, named after the two economists who wrote a book describing it. CNN Money notes that the Hall-Rabushka tax code is kept short by using vague terms that would require "hundreds of pages of regulations" to define rigorously.

For instance, there might need to be more clarity around notoriously confusing areas of income and expenses, such as that for the self-employed. Where's the dividing line between personal expenses and business expenses?

"Taxpayers want to claim all sorts of costs as deductible business expenses, and a lot of [today's] rules are aimed at limiting such abuse. When is use of a car business or personal? What about meals? Can you hire your kid and pay her $100,000 for services rendered?" Burman said.

The complexity of the current tax code isn't due to the perversity of the IRS, but to the ingenious justifications people dream up for not paying taxes. If taxes are going to be anything more than a voluntary pass-the-hat system, we'll continue needing rules to disallow those schemes, even during a Fiorina administration.

The Fed. Rand Paul blamed the Federal Reserve for income inequality:

By artificially keeping interest rates below the market rate, average ordinary citizens have a tough time earning interest.

Yep, if only the people who are falling out of the middle class could get a higher interest rate on all that money they have in the bank, we'd have our inequality problem whipped. Paul also blamed the Fed for high inflation -- which is only happening in his imagination -- and claimed that  people making $20,000 a year are hurt worst by it. In the real world, the lowest inequality in American history was in the 1970s, when the annual inflation rate sometimes topped 10%.

Ads for Hillary. After Donald Trump called for a "deportation force" to track down and remove the 11 million undocumented immigrants, and cited Eisenhower's Operation Wetback as a precedent that proves it can be done, Jeb Bush observed "they’re doing high-fives in the Clinton campaign right now" -- which the Clinton campaign verified via Twitter.

Another Clinton high-five moment came when Trump and Carson both opposed raising the minimum wage. Trump cited "wages too high" as a factor making the U.S. non-competitive. (In addition to his general insensitivity, Trump is ignoring all those minimum-wage jobs that aren't subject to foreign competition. I mean, I'm not going to Cambodia for an Egg McMuffin, even if they're cheaper there. And no matter how little Honduran janitors earn, nobody's going to ship a building to Tegucigalpa for cleaning.) And Carson echoed that black teen-agers are unemployed "because of those high wages".

So if you're making the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour, the Republican front-runners think your wage is high.

and you also might be interested in ...

There was a Democratic debate in Iowa Saturday night. I haven't had time to watch it yet myself. (One debate a week is about my limit.) According to most reports, both Sanders and O'Malley were more aggressive in attacking Clinton, though no one is reporting a serious knockdown moment.

If you thought O'Malley was angling for a VP slot with Clinton, he pretty well eliminated that possibility. If he were Clinton's VP,  his assessment of the Obama/Clinton foreign policy would be in every Republican attack ad: "Libya is a mess. Syria is a mess. Iraq is a mess. Afghanistan is a mess."

If you want to understand why it's important to affirm that black lives matter, consider these two articles: Liam O'Ceallaigh looks at the bloody career of Belgium's King Leopold II in "When You Kill Ten Million Africans, You Aren't Called 'Hitler'." Nobody gets out of high school without hearing about the Holocaust, and you probably have at least some vague knowledge of the killing fields of Cambodia or the Armenian genocide. But Leopold's genocide against the Congolese goes pretty much unnoticed. He is seldom mentioned among the great monsters of history, because, well, he just killed black people, and they don't really count.

Now check out the Wikipedia article on the terrorist attack in Kenya in April. In terms of the number of deaths, it was similar to this week's attacks in Paris. But even I have a reaction of "Oh yeah. I sort of remember that." We can tell ourselves that all lives matter, but they don't. Not really, not even among people like me. We've all got work to do.

I've given up on the fantasy of reading the Trans-Pacific Partnership treaty and making up my own mind. 3000 pages makes it a very boring equivalent of the entire Harry Potter series. So mostly I'm going to be relying on sources I trust on the various issues TPP affects.

So far that's not looking good for the TPP. Here's Grist's take on the environmental section.

and let's close with something subtle

Flashing back to the most virulent-but-trivial controversy on the internet this year, here's the cleverest response I've seen to the Starbucks-Christmas-cup flap: "Starbucks releases new White and Gold cups in hopes of offending less people."

Monday, November 9, 2015

Products of Fear

Beware of the tiny gods frightened men create.

-- Hafiz (13th century)

This week's featured posts are "I'd rather have Trump" and "Why are middle-aged whites dying?".

This week everybody was talking about the off-year elections

In Houston, we saw that fear is still a winning tactic. A LGBT-rights ordinance decisively lost because it got characterized as a "bathroom ordinance" that sexual predators could take advantage of. Of course, similar ordinances exist elsewhere, and no one has assembled evidence that sexual predation is rising there. But how can you not want to protect that little girl in the commercial?

In Kentucky, it was the 2010 phenomenon all over again: When turnout is low, radical conservatives win. All those demographic projections that show the Republican electorate dying out mean nothing if Democratic constituencies don't vote.

The one really encouraging result came from Ohio, where voters passed a measure that attempts to eliminate gerrymandering of state legislature districts. It has no effect on congressional districts, but it's a step in the right direction.

and why white Americans are dying

I try to personalize the statistics in one of the featured posts.

and police vs. Tarantino

Movie director Quentin Tarantino has been called a "cop-hater" and accused of calling for "violence against police officers". Police unions in New York and Los Angeles have announced boycotts of his new movie.

So what exactly did he say to incite all this? He spoke at a rally against police brutality and said:

What am I doing here? I’m doing here because I am a human being with a conscience. And when I see murder, I cannot stand by and I have to call the murdered the murdered. And I have to call the murderers the murderers.

Here's the weird thing about this controversy: Cops are killing innocent unarmed people, or harmless people who have committed minor infractions. That's not disputable; we have the video. Lots of video. Case after case, all over the country.

Everyone agrees that the vast majority of cops are not doing this. But for some reason they are choosing to identify with the ones who are. And by doing so, they are the ones who are slandering cops, not Tarantino. Tarantino is denouncing cops who murder people. If you then decide this is an offense to all cops, then you are the one saying that all cops are murderers. Not Tarantino.

Meanwhile, there was a weird turn in one of the stories that fed the war-on-cops meme. When a Houston deputy and an Illinois lieutenant were shot within a few days of each other last summer, suddenly the media -- especially conservative media -- were full of law enforcement officials blaming President Obama and Black Lives Matter for creating the hostile environment that had made it "open season on cops".

Now that the case of Fox Lake, Illinois Lt. Joe Gliniewicz has been investigated, though, we get a different result: Gliniewicz' death was "a carefully staged suicide ... [that] was the end result of extensive criminal acts that Gliniewicz had been committing." He had been stealing money from a program intended to mentor young people, and he staged his suicide to look like murder, hoping he would not be exposed.

Fortunately, the massive manhunt looking for the one black and two white men Gliniewicz had mentioned on the radio before his death didn't turn up anyone fitting the description.

Trevor Noah captured the absurdity of some of the defenses of police:

The police are just trying to make a basic point: People are treating them unfairly just because of who they are and how they look. People keep following them around with cameras, watching everything they do, suspicious that they're always about to break the law, leaving police afraid to even get out of their cars for fear that someone might whip out a phone and brutally film them. Who can imagine how that must feel? And if you listen carefully, all the police are saying is "phones down, don't shoot."

and Ben Carson

Carson is neck-and-neck with Donald Trump for leadership in the national polls of Republican voters. This week he faced a bunch of bad publicity, as I discuss in one of the featured posts. Whether this will puncture his bubble or give him increased cred for being "persecuted" by the "liberal media", I can't predict.

and you also might be interested in ...

The Keystone Pipeline is dead. The process was agonizingly slow, but in the end President Obama seems to have played it right. He stalled until circumstances swung against the pipeline, and his decision seems more like a final nail in the coffin than a deathblow.

I stand by pretty much everything I wrote in "A Hotter Planet is in the Pipeline". The big thing I learned in researching that article was that if we're going to avoid a climate disaster, most of the fossil fuels we've already discovered will have to stay in the ground. That's a fact that's hard to wrap your mind around, and I think most Americans still don't grasp it.

This week's guns-make-us-safer story comes from a Cracker Barrel in Sanford, Florida, where a man's gun fell out of his holster and went off. According to The Palm Beach Post, the bullet hit a kettle and split into fragments, wounding three people, including the gun-owner's fiance. (Dump that loser, girlfriend.)

As somebody -- I wish I could remember who -- was saying on Facebook, incidents like this are treated as accidents, but they're really not; they're negligence. WFXT's legal analyst says, "." But if so, that law needs to be changed. Carrying a gun is serious business. If you don't know how to keep it from going off, then you are endangering the public every time you go out armed.

Politically, that's a gun-control battle I'd like to see. Make the NRA defend these bumbling fools, rather than spin fantasies about the John-Wayne-like good guy with a gun.

I didn't post a guns-make-us-safer story last week, but I missed this one:

When Naomi Bettis called 911 on Halloween morning to report a gunman going on a shooting rampage in the streets of Colorado Springs, Colorado, it was her second call for help. Bettis had earlier called 911 to report a suspicious man brandishing a rifle, only to be told by the emergency operator that no help was coming because Colorado is an open-carry state.

That delay contributed to three people winding up dead.

The rationale for banning open carry is similar to that for banning drunk driving: Neither the drunk driver nor the guy walking down the street with a rifle has hurt anybody yet. And maybe they won't. (Every night, I'll bet thousands of drunks drive home without incident.) But it might be a good idea for police to notice them sooner rather than later.

Juan Cole begins his discussion of Ahmad Chalabi's death with a Clarence Darrow quote: "I've never killed anyone, but I frequently get satisfaction reading the obituary notices." Hoping to be set up as a pro-American ruler, Chalabi led the Iraqi exile group that fed the Bush administration the false intelligence it needed to justify invading Iraq. Cole concludes:

Chalabi was an accessory to one of the great crimes of the twenty-first century, the launching of an aggressive war with no casus belli and the ruination through incompetence and sectarianism of a great country.

and draws this lesson:

Persons full of overweening ambition and dedicated to the pursuit of narrow self-interest can often destroy the very prize that they so eagerly sought, crushing it to death in a satanic embrace.

The October jobs report was encouraging, with unemployment ticking down to 5% and the underlying numbers also looking good. For a little perspective, one of Mitt Romney's promises was that his administration would create so many jobs that unemployment would go down to 6% by the end of his first term in 2017.

A statistic frequently quoted by people who don't want to give the Obama administration credit for anything is the number of Americans not in the labor force. The Wall Street Journal took a look at who these people are and wasn't particularly alarmed. Most of them are retired or in school.

None of this is to say that the American economy is unbelievably great or unusually rosy. By almost any conventional labor market measurement the economy has yet to recover from a recession that started almost eight years ago. But the notion that 92 million Americans are unaccounted for, that there’s a conspiracy in these statistics, or that we have no idea what 20 million prime-age Americans are up to, just isn’t right.

and let's close with something both smart and amusing

Thames Valley Police explain the issue of sexual consent with a very British analogy.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Losing to Idiots

[Chess Grandmaster Aron] Nimzowitsch ... once missed first prize in a tournament in Berlin by losing to Sämisch, and when it became clear he was going to lose the game, Nimzowitsch stood up on the table and shouted, "Gegen diesen Idioten muss ich verlieren!" ('That I should lose to this idiot!")

-- Chess Review (1950), quoted by Wikipedia

I've about had it with these people. ... We've got one candidate that says that we ought to abolish Medicaid and Medicare. Have you ever heard of anything as crazy as that? ... We've got one person saying we ought to have a 10% flat tax that'll drive up the deficit in this country by trillions of dollars. ... We've got one guy that says we ought to take 10 or 11 million people ... and pick them up and take them to the border and scream at them to get out of our country. That's just crazy! ... We've got people proposing health care reform that's going to leave, I believe, millions of people without adequate health insurance. What has happened to our party? What has happened to the conservative movement?

-- John Kasich, 10-27-2015

Ben Carson 26%, Donald Trump 22% ... John Kasich 4%

-- CBS/NYT poll, 10-27-2015

This week's featured article is my attempt to explain Black Lives Matter to conservative Christians. It's called "Samaritan Lives Matter".

For months, July's post "You Don't Have to Hate Anybody to be a Bigot" has been asymptotically approaching 100,000 views. (Every week I've thought, "Two more weeks at this rate and it'll get there.") Well, it finally made it this morning. It's the Sift's third 100K post.

This week everybody was talking about Obama sending troops to Syria

So far he's not talking big numbers: less than 50, with a mission to "assist" groups fighting against ISIS and call in air strikes. I have four problems with this.

First, I haven't heard any explanation of exactly what the 50 are supposed to accomplish and why 50 is the right number to achieve that purpose. And that makes me wonder if in a month or two we'll need 100 or 500 troops to do something equally vague. DefenseOne describes

the beginning of this new strategy in the war against [ISIS], which will focus in Iraq on helping security forces retake Ramadi and Bayji and then eventually Mosul. In Syria, the immediate objective is to take and ultimately hold ISIS’s self-declared capital of Raqqa.

But what the final we-can-leave-now objective is, I have no idea.

Second, you know ISIS will put a high priority on capturing a few of those Americans and beheading them on YouTube. And you know what will happen then: Americans back home will start clamoring to "get the bastards", and it will be hard to resist mounting a full-scale invasion. Weirdly, that's what ISIS wants: It has an apocalyptic vision, and the apocalypse won't be complete until an American army arrives.

Third, I'm not sure who or what we're fighting for. I know ISIS is bad. The Assad regime is also bad, but maybe not as threatening to us or our regional allies as ISIS. Iran and Russia and Hezbollah are helping Assad, and we're happy about that when they attack ISIS, but not so happy when they attack other Syrian rebels. But even calling them "other Syrian rebels" makes the situation sound less chaotic than it is. Another DefenseOne article claims:

By one count from 2013, 13 “major” rebel groups were operating in Syria; counting smaller ones, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency puts the number of groups at 1,200.

Finally, Congress needs to authorize this. I know the Republican leadership doesn't want any responsibility for either endorsing or stopping Obama's moves against ISIS. But they're Congress, damn it. They do have responsibility, whether they want it or not. The country needs the kind of intelligent debate that we had before the Gulf War in 1991.

and the budget deal

John Boehner kept his promise: He got Paul Ryan elected Speaker, and "cleaned the barn" before Ryan picked up the gavel. The debt limit is suspended until March, 2017, and a new budget deal circumvents the sequester agreement of 2011 to increase both military and domestic spending. Rather than Boehner's barn-cleaning phrase, I would call it "releasing the hostages". I'm sure Tea Partiers will try to find something else they can shut down the government over, but for now it looks like we will avoid such artificial crises for a while.

Paul Ryan has promised to re-impose the Hastert Rule, which says that the Speaker won't bring a bill to the floor unless a majority of the Republican caucus supports it. Since there are 247 Republicans in the 435-member House, that means that 124 Republicans -- less than 30% of the total House -- can block any legislation. If Speaker Boehner had stuck to the Hastert Rule, the United States would be hitting its debt ceiling on Thursday, unleashing chaos in the global economy.

Here's what the Hastert Rule should mean to American voters: If you don't like the positions taken by most Republican congressmen, you should vote against the Republican in your district even if your local Republican candidate sounds reasonable. If your representative isn't in "the majority of the majority", his or her vote isn't going to count for much, other than to empower the more conservative Republicans who dominate the caucus.

and the third Republican debate

The thing to know about the third Republican debate [held Wednesday; here's the video and transcript] was that the candidates didn't debate each other, they debated the moderators and rebelled against the whole concept of facts or accountability. As in the second debate, the biggest applause came whenever a candidate clearly and boldly stated something that isn't true. (NowThis News made a video collecting some of the biggest lies.)

Slate's Jamelle Bouie:

The problem isn’t that CNBC engaged in “gotcha” questions meant to “embarrass” the Republican candidates. It’s that any serious look is a fatal blow to GOP plans and proposals, which don’t deliver on promised substance. Trump can’t deport millions of immigrants; Carson can’t raise enough revenue to fund the federal government; and the “middle-class” tax plans of Bush, Rubio, and others shower most of their benefits on the rich. And as long as this is true, GOP candidates will have a hard time with all but the most friendly moderators.

and William Saletan:

What happened in this debate wasn’t an attack by the press on the candidates. It was an attack by the candidates on the press. Harwood, Quick, and the other CNBC panelists were no harsher to the Republicans on Wednesday than CNN’s Anderson Cooper was to Clinton and other Democrats in their debate two weeks ago. What was different this time was the reaction. Presented with facts and figures that didn’t fit their story, the leading Republican candidates accused the moderators of malice and deceit.

and Ezra Klein:

the problem for Republicans is that substantive questions about their policy proposals end up sounding like hostile attacks — but that's because the policy proposals are ridiculous, not because the questions are actually unfair.

Here's the strangest thing about the objections to the "liberal media" in this debate: If you've ever watched CNBC, you know that it isn't liberal. Its target audience is the investing class, and it panders to them the same way that the Food Channel panders to foodies. In fact, the event usually cited as the beginning of the Tea Party was a Rick Santelli rant on CNBC in 2009. Santelli was one of the questioners Wednesday night. Not even Ann Coulter was buying that CNBC asked more hostile questions than Fox News did in the first debate.

What about Ted Cruz' claim that the Democrats got softball questions in their debate? Nope.

A few of the other falsehoods in the debate deserve special attention. Chris Christie's claims about Social Security were outrageous. First:

The government has lied to you and they have stolen from you. They told you that your Social Security money is in a trust fund. All that's in that trust fund is a pile of IOUs for money they spent on something else a long time ago.

What he means by "a pile of IOUs" is that the Social Security Trust Fund has invested its money in Treasury bonds. If a private pension fund did that, the only complaint auditors might make is that it is too conservative an investment strategy. If your IRA contains government bonds, or mutual funds that own government bonds, you also are basing your retirement plans on "a pile of IOUs".

And then he said:

Social Security is going to be insolvent in seven to eight years.

That claim is entirely baseless. The WaPo fact-checker: "Christie loves to say this but that doesn’t make it true." The Social Security Trustees Report says:

Interest income and redemption of trust fund assets from the General Fund of the Treasury will provide the resources needed to offset Social Security’s annual aggregate cash-flow deficits until 2034.

Candidates should be talking about what happens after 2034, but that's no excuse for Christie's scaremongering.

Ben Carson was asked about his involvement with the shady nutritional-supplement company Mannatech, which has claimed its products can cure autism and cancer. He said

I didn't have an involvement with them. That is total propaganda.

Jim Geraghty of National Review -- usually considered a key part of the conservative media -- recounted the Carson's history with Mannatech and commented:

Carson’s lack of due diligence before working with the company is forgivable. His blatant lying about it now is much harder to forgive.

The only "lie" the candidates wanted to discuss, though, was what Hillary Clinton said about Benghazi in 2012. Marco Rubio launched this attack:

Democrats have the ultimate SuperPac. It's called the mainstream media. ... Last week, Hillary Clinton went before a committee. She admitted she had sent e-mails to her family saying, "Hey, this attack at Benghazi was caused by Al Qaida-like elements." She spent over a week telling the families of those victims and the American people that it was because of a video. And yet the mainstream media is going around saying it was the greatest week in Hillary Clinton's campaign. It was the week she got exposed as a liar.

The truth, which is well known, is that while Clinton did offer different explanations of the Benghazi attack during that first week, she was also getting a changing story from intelligence sources. If you dislike her, you can decide to interpret those facts as her lying, but her "fog of war" explanation also fits the facts.

I'm puzzled by why Republicans see the possibility that Clinton might have lied as a moral disqualification, while Carson's Mannatech lie, or Christie's Social Security lie, or Carly Fiorina's claim to have watched a non-existent Planned Parenthood video (among other liberties she takes with the truth) aren't.

The root problem here is discussed in Mike Lofgren's "GOP and the Rise of Anti-Knowledge".

Thanks to these overlapping and mutually reinforcing segments of the right-wing media-entertainment-“educational” complex, it is now possible for the true believer to sail on an ocean of political, historical, and scientific disinformation without ever sighting the dry land of empirical fact.

Ted Cruz solution to the debate "problem" is to take Republican debates entirely into the conservative news bubble. He'd like to see Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Mark Levin moderate.

and meat

I had a hard time finding a good article about the International Agency for Research on Cancer's classification of processed meat as a "definite" cause of cancer and red meat as a "probable" cause. Lots of news sources sensationalized the story, like The Guardian's headline: Processed meats pose same cancer risk as smoking and asbestos, reports say.

Well, not exactly. The Cancer Research UK blog did much better.

As Professor Phillips explains, “IARC does ‘hazard identification’, not ‘risk assessment’. That sounds quite technical, but what it means is that IARC isn’t in the business of telling us how potent something is in causing cancer – only whether it does so or not."

So, yes, bacon and sausage are now in the same definite-cause category as tobacco, but that doesn't mean that Egg McMuffins are as dangerous as cigarettes. Cancer Research UK quantifies using a 2011 study from the World Cancer Research Fund:

We know that, out of every 1000 people in the UK, about 61 will develop bowel cancer at some point in their lives. Those who eat the lowest amount of processed meat are likely to have a lower lifetime risk than the rest of the population (about 56 cases per 1000 low meat-eaters).

If this is correct, the WCRF’s analysis suggests that, among 1000 people who eat the most processed meat, you’d expect 66 to develop bowel cancer at some point in their lives – 10 more than the group who eat the least processed meat.

If nobody smoked, the article estimates, there would be 64,500 fewer cancers per year in the United Kingdom. If nobody ate processed meat, 8,800 fewer cancers.

The upshot isn't that you should swear off hot dogs forever, but that if you eat a lot of them, you'd probably be healthier if you cut down. But you knew that already.

For balance, I have to link to this: "World Health Organization Warns that Consumption of Kale Leads to Arrogance".

A spokesperson for the WHO told The (un)Australian: “These findings though alarming are not surprising, I mean we’ve all been at a dinner party and had to endure the whining of a vegetarian or worse a vegan, talking about how superior they are to us carnivores. Until recently they merely whined, now with the introduction of kale and to a lesser extent quinoa their whining is now more boastful and confrontational.

and more police abuse

You've probably already seen the video: A police officer assigned to a South Carolina high school was called into a classroom to address what sounds like a fairly ordinary discipline problem. The teacher had asked a 15-year-old black girl to leave the class, and she wasn't going. When she also refused to cooperate with the cop, he flipped her desk over and threw her across the room. The student seems not to have posed any danger to the cop, the teacher, or any of the students.

The incident opened a larger debate on the role of "resource officers" assigned to schools. Originally, the idea was to humanize students' image of cops, but more and more they are being used to criminalize problems schools used to deal with in less confrontational ways.

South Carolina -- often a trail-blazer in bizarre laws -- has a law against "disturbing school". The first time I read it, I thought it was outlawing adults coming onto school property and making problems, which I guess it does. But apparently it applies to students too, who can be arrested for such vague things as "to act in an obnoxious manner" at school. (As I remember high school, I think we all could have been arrested for that at one time or another.)

As we saw in the recent it's-a-clock-not-a-bomb case, vague laws create openings for the unconscious prejudices of authorities, especially racial prejudices. One student carrying a baseball bat through the halls might look like he's taking a short cut to the playing field, while another -- doing exactly the same thing -- might look like a threat. One kid caught somewhere he shouldn't be looks lost, while another is interpreted as a criminal trespasser.

In other police-brutality news, NBA player Thebo Sefolosha had his leg broken by New York police in April, just as his Atlanta Hawks were about to enter the playoffs. The incident was caught on video, and the police don't look good. They charged Sefolosha with three misdemeanors, and apparently prosecutors thought they were being generous when they offered to let Sefolosha off with one day of community service.

He decided to go to trial, and was acquitted after less than an hour of jury deliberation. Now he's filing suit against the NYPD.

The NYPD had another athlete-related incident in September, when an officer misidentified retired tennis pro James Blake as a member of a fake credit-card ring and arrested him. Blake offered no resistance, but was violently wrestled to the ground anyway. Again, it was caught on video.

I think Stephen Judkins is on to something:

It's crazy that once personal video recorders became ubiquitous UFOs stopped visiting Earth and cops started brutalizing people all the time.

and you also might be interested in ...

There are two kinds of states in America: states that expanded Medicaid, and states that have a lot of uninsured people.

Here's why we need stronger anti-discrimination laws: A Michigan pediatrician refused to treat a six-day-old infant because she had two moms. He apologized in a note, saying: "I felt that I would not be able to develop the personal patient doctor relationship that I normally do with my patients."

I'm sure that back in the Jim Crow era, a lot of white doctors felt that way about black patients. Some probably still do, but today the law tells them "Get over it." It should say the same thing to homophobic doctors.

A few weeks ago, Donald Trump committed a Republican heresy when he challenged Jeb Bush's claim that his brother "kept us safe". (How safe were the three thousand people in the World Trade Center?) Last Monday, The Atlantic's Kathy Gilsinan took it a step further in "Is It Really Better That Saddam's Gone?", a question I've raised on this blog before.

Bad as he was, Saddam was a secular ruler who kept a lid on the Sunni/Shia conflict and religious extremists like the ones who eventually founded ISIS. His Iraq was a strong regional counterweight to Iran. Nobody wants to claim he was a good guy, but in certain ways he was useful. It should go without saying that replacing his repressive order with the current chaos wasn't worth losing over a trillion dollars, four thousand American soldiers, and countless Iraqis.

Here's how the Benghazi hearings are being spun now. In criticizing House Republicans' move Tuesday to impeach the IRS commissioner, Fox News' Charles Krauthammer said:

This is not going to end well. ... Republicans in Congress have shown that they have no ability to conduct successful investigations of this administration.

Implicit in this statement is that the Obama administration can never be cleared of a charge. If no wrongdoing is found, the investigation is just "unsuccessful". Maybe the next investigation will do better.

and let's close with some uncommon sense