Monday, December 28, 2015

The Yearly Sift: 2015

The past is what you remember, imagine you remember, convince yourself you remember, or pretend you remember.
-- Harold Pinter
review all the Sift quotes of 2015

Ordinarily, The Weekly Sift lives in the moment and comes together week by week. But at the end of every year, I look back to see if there's any pattern in what I've been doing.

The themes

Looking back at the 48 Sifts between this one and the last Yearly Sift, several themes stand out. I've pulled three out into their own articles: the presidential race; the religion/morality/law complex that resulted from the Supreme Court's same-sex marriage decision and continued in the "religious freedom" debate that followed; and the year-long debate over Black Lives Matter.

The books

Over the last few years, the number of book reviews has gone down, in favor of longer posts that pull together a larger reading program ("Not a Tea Party" is the model there.), or short recommendations that don't stretch into a full article.

The full-fledged reviews this year were Islam Without Extremes by Mustafa Akyol, Creditocracy by Andrew Ross, The Half has Never Been Told by Edward Baptist, and How Propaganda Works by Jason Stanley. Ta-Nehisi Coates' book Between the World in Me got reviewed in a segment of a weekly summary; I'm not sure why I didn't break that out into its own article.

Posts that leaned heavily on particular books include "Small-government Freedom vs. Big-government Rights", which leaned on After Appomattox by Gregory Downs. "What Just Happened?", my discussion of Benjamin Netanyahu's re-election in Israel, leaned on two books: My Promised Land by Ari Shavit and Goliath by Max Blumenthal. "You Don't Have to Hate Anybody to be a Bigot" leaned on Almighty God Created the Races by Fay Botham

My analysis of Hillary Clinton's campaign speeches was actually a report on a much larger reading project: Hillary's It Takes a Village, Living History, and Hard Choices, as well as David Brock's The Seduction of Hillary Rodham and Blinded By the Right.

Well-worth-reading books that I mentioned in weekly summaries but never worked into a larger article include: The Doubt Factory by Paolo Bacigalupi, Dallas 1963 by Bill Minutablio and Steven Davis, Why I am a Salafi by Michael Muhammad Knight 12-14, and What is Islam? by Shahab Ahmed 12-14

The mosts

Most popular posts. By far the most popular post, for the second year in a row, was "Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party". It had settled down from its original run last year, but then the Charleston shooting and the subsequent controversy over the Confederate flag set it off on an even bigger run. It got 300K hits this year, building its total to 485K. Whenever "Not a Tea Party" goes on a run, it carries along two posts it links to: "A Short History of White Racism in the Two Party System" (17K new hits/ 32K total) and "Slavery Lasted Until Pearl Harbor" (6K/11K). Each is worthwhile on its own.

The most popular new post (second overall) was another deep dive into American history: "You Don't Have to Hate Anybody to be a Bigot" got 101K hits. All-time, it moved into third place behind "Not a Tea Party" and "The Distress of the Privileged" (52K new hits/ 394K total). "You Don't Have to Hate Anybody" looks at how religion has been used to justify discrimination all through American history; the "religious freedom" argument currently being used to justify discrimination against gays and same-sex couples is virtually identical to religious arguments that justified discrimination against blacks and against interracial couples; there are also parallels with the religious justifications for slavery.

Two other popular posts this year were "Slurs: Who can say them, when, and why" about the proper usage (and non-usage) of words like nigger and bitch; (13K hits); and "The Political F-word" (10K hits), which compared Donald Trump's campaign and following to various models of fascism.
Most prescient comments. The most prescient comment actually is from July of 2014, when I predicted not only the result of this year's ObamaCare decision, but the 6-3 split:
I don’t think they’ll overturn the subsidies. ... I can imagine Thomas, Alito, and Scalia going that way, but Roberts and Kennedy will be reluctant.
When Charleston-church-shooter Dylann Roof was characterized as a "lone wolf" despite his online contacts with white supremacist groups and his manifesto being full of standard white-supremacist rhetoric, I speculated:
Make the parallel to Muslim terrorists and ISIS. If a Muslim shooter had been browsing ISIS web sites and wrote a manifesto full of ISIS rhetoric, would we see him as a loner, or think of him as part of ISIS?
Well, we found out the answer to that after the San Bernardino shooting.
I also feel good about refusing to jump on the Jeb-Bush-inevitability bandwagon. I won't claim to have seen Donald Trump coming, but back in June (when Jeb announced) I was skeptical:
What issues will he run on? His positions on immigration and education are unpopular with the Republican base. I have heard no specific suggestions for how he would fight ISIS or terrorism in general differently than President Obama. I really don’t think his blaming Obama for “the biggest debt ever” will stick, given that Obama has drastically reduced the deficit he inherited from Jeb’s brother.
Just before Hillary's Benghazi Committee testimony, I predicted:
Republicans will browbeat her in order to look tough for their base, but Clinton will maintain her composure and look like the winner to most of the country.
Least prescient comments. Hands down, the least was my underestimation of the Trump threat. In July I wrote:
He really has no interest in being president, and when the campaign gets serious he won’t be there. So if his candidacy is getting you either excited or riled, don’t waste your energy. ... [T]his campaign is a more elaborate bluff than he’s run in previous years, but it’s still a bluff. Look for him to find an exit sometime in December.
In October, I was still waiting for the bluff to unravel. I noted that Bush had started to put major money into New Hampshire, which would force Trump to do the same. "We’ll soon know whether Trump is serious or just running as a publicity stunt." Well, Trump didn't put serious money in then and still hasn't.

Also, I consistently over-estimated how close we'd come to a government shutdown this year. No particular quote stands out, but there's a general pattern.

I usually pick out a Best Post Nobody Read, but this year the good posts all did pretty well. I may have to change my definition of nobody.

The numbers

Since the last Yearly Sift, I put out 48 weekly sifts (49 if you include this one) and took three weeks off.

2015 continued 2014's upward trend in the Sift's readership. The most straightforward measurement of that growth is in the annual page-views:
2013: 215K
2014: 415K
2015: 777K (as of this morning)
As I comment every year, though, page-views is a deceptive measure, because it depends so heavily on the timing of viral posts, which can't be scheduled or projected into the future. About 300K of 2015's page-views came from the second run of 2014's "Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party".

But other statistics support the growth story told by the page-views: The hits on the home page,, come mostly from people who have it bookmarked, and so are at least semi-regular readers. That trend looks like this: 15.5K in 2012; 22.6K in 2013; 44.1K in 2014; and 98.3K in 2015.
WordPress tells me the blog has 3820 followers, up from 2281 last year. The number of comments is also up: 531 in 2013, 879 in 2014, and 1407 in 2015. Qualitatively, I feel like the commenting community is starting to move to another level. In previous years, the comment section was mostly a back-and-forth between me and individual readers. But this year the commenters often had interesting discussions completely on their own, without me needing to say much beyond what was in the original post.

Something really unusual happened in November: The blog got nearly 60K hits, but the home page was the only thing that got 10K or more. Ten different posts got at least a thousand views. That had never happened before.

and let's close with something amusing

Monday, December 21, 2015

Making It Real

Government, despite its many sins, remains the only institution that can make our freedom real.
-- Gregory Downs, After Appomattox

This week everybody was talking about Baltimore

Jurors were unable to reach a verdict on any of the four charges against police officer  William Porter in the death of Freddie Gray.

Porter is one of six officers charged in Gray's death, and Porter was tried first because prosecutors hoped to use his testimony in the subsequent cases. It's not clear where the prosecution goes from here.

and Chicago police corruption

The Laquan McDonald story just keeps getting worse. It isn't just that we have video that shows a police officer blasting away at McDonald for no apparent reason, contradicting all the official reports. It's that lots of other police officers lied to cover for the killer.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has already fired Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, and many are calling for Emanuel's own resignation or for a recall election. But just changing faces won't solve this. The Mayor -- whoever that turns out to be when the dust settles -- needs to make it a priority to change the culture of the Chicago Police Department. What Emanuel has said so far, that he takes responsibility "because it happened on my watch" makes him sound like an innocent bystander, and just doesn't cut it.

Neil Sternberg of the Chicago Sun Times raises the key issue:
The motto on Chicago squad cars, “We Serve and Protect,” is a phrase without an object. “We serve and protect whom?” The implication is the people of the city of Chicago, and to be fair, much serving and protecting goes on, all the time, all day, every day. ... But the ooze from the bad apples spatters [the good police officers], big time. The routine competence and occasional excellence of the department is undercut by a general atmosphere that could be emblazoned on their cars as “We serve and protect ourselves.” The attitude is that their job is so dangerous that their first duty is to each other, and it fosters an insular world of corruption and cronyism.

and that the government will stay open

A budget deal got done. Ezra Klein has a good summary. The bill includes money for the medical bills of the 9-11 first responders. There's no defunding of Planned Parenthood or blocking of Syrian refugees.

and wild over-reactions to Islam

A world-religions teacher in a Virginia high school assigned students to draw the Islamic statement of faith, the shahada, as an exercise in Arabic calligraphy.
Students were not asked to translate the statement or to recite it. The lesson was found to be in line with Virginia Standards of Learning for the study of monotheistic world religions.
It was similar to a previous assignment that involved drawing Chinese characters, and came out of a standard text.

Well, maybe it was predictable that some Christian parents would object, but who could have predicted how far out of control the situation would spiral? Due to "a deluge of 'profane' and 'hateful' messages from around the country" the school operated under lockdown on Wednesday and Thursday. Thursday evening, extra-curricular activities were cancelled. Friday, following the advice of local law enforcement, all the district's schools and offices were closed.

Remind me: Which side are the terrorists supposed to be on?

At Wheaton College in Illinois, tenured political-science professor Larycia Hawkins posted on Facebook that part of her Advent worship this year would be to "stand in human solidarity with my Muslim neighbor" by wearing the Muslim headscarf, the hijab. She said that, as a Christian, she saw Muslims as fellow "people of the book", and quoted Pope Francis saying that "we worship the same God".

That was too much for the Wheaton administration, who suspended her indefinitely, commenting:
Some recent faculty statements have generated confusion about complex theological matters, and could be interpreted as failing to reflect the distinctively Christian theological identity of Wheaton College.
Yale theologian Miroslav Wolf, whose book Hawkins had referenced, isn't buying that the motives behind her suspension are "theological".
Hawkins asserted that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. She did not insist that Christians and Muslims believe the same things about that one God. ... There isn’t any theological justification for Hawkins’s forced administrative leave. Her suspension is not about theology and orthodoxy. It is about enmity toward Muslims.
... When Hawkins justified her solidarity with Muslims by noting that as a Christian she worships the same God as Muslims, she committed the unpardonable sin of removing the enemy from the category of “alien” and “purely evil” other.
It seems to me that once you declare that there's only one God, you lose the option of claiming that other people worship a different God. You can claim that they have crazy beliefs about God and worship God all wrong, but you can't claim their omnipotent Creator of the Universe is a different being from your omnipotent Creator of the Universe.

BTW: I wonder if the administration's unwillingness to interpret away their differences with Hawkins has anything to do with the fact she is the only tenured black woman on the Wheaton faculty. One of the ways unconscious racism and sexism plays out is in the presumption that "he must have had a good reason to do or say that", while women and blacks are likely to be seen as radical or irrational.

No idea whether there's any connection or not, but a dozen or so girls at Vernon Hills High School in Illinois have also started wearing a hijab in solidarity with Muslims suffering discrimination.

While we're talking religion: Fontbonne Academy, a Catholic prep school for girls in Milton, Massachusetts, hired a guy to be director of food services. When he filled out his employment form, though, he listed his husband as his emergency contact. The school rescinded the job offer "because his marriage was inconsistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church."

Since being Catholic or having a lifestyle consistent with Catholic teachings had never previously been a requirement for directing food services, the guy sued. The school tried to argue that this wasn't discrimination against gays. (You can be gay, you just can't get married.) But courts aren't that stupid, so they lost.

This pattern shows up a lot among people who think they aren't prejudiced against anybody: I don't have anything against you or your people, I just object to your attempt to live a normal life. (Go ahead a be transgendered. Just don't use public bathrooms.)

Franklin Graham, heir to his father Billy's evangelistic empire, is calling for an end to Muslim immigration "until the war with Islam is over".
Graham also said Islam is not compatible with American values and therefore the U.S. might have to shut down mosques.
This is precisely why the Founders wanted to separate church and state: Graham's version of Christianity may see itself at war with Islam, and think that Islam is incompatible with its values, but that crusade has nothing to do with the United States of America.

And before we leave religion entirely, Vox has a great article about the dilemma of Western imams when they see young people getting radicalized. You don't want them learning Islam with only radical internet chatter for guidance. But
if they do and try [to help] these young people, and for whatever reason it doesn't work, then they get in trouble. [Police] come knocking at the door saying, "You were in touch with this person and they went overseas. What did you tell them?"
One of the article's most important observations comes early:
Mosques are where radicalization is stopped: They provide vulnerable Muslims with a sense of community, thus overcoming the isolation that can allow online extremist propaganda to seep in, and they give imams an opportunity to intervene in troubled lives and counteract extremist ideas.
Unfortunately, that kind of social work isn't what imams are trained for.

There's also the story of the New Jersey teacher who claims she was fired mostly for being a Muslim; not in so many words, of course, but because she did things (like show a Malala video) that would have been no problem for a non-Muslim teacher. I'm not making a bigger deal out of this because so far all we have is the teacher's version of events.

but more people should be talking about Flint

Other than Rachel Maddow, national news media hasn't shown much interest in the Michigan Emergency Manager Law, which allows the governor to appoint a manager for cities and towns that get into financial trouble. The manager essentially replaces the local government, and has the power to do just about anything but raise taxes. (Because taxation without representation would be tyranny, but having your union contract voided without representation is OK.)

As Rachel points out, though, this is a very radical notion: that democracy gets in the way when you're trying to pay your debts, so it just makes good sense to install what is essentially a dictator. (In practice, the Michigan cities that get in trouble tend to be overwhelmingly black, so to the extent that this law is in the American tradition at all, it's the American tradition of disenfranchising black people.)

In Flint, one way the emergency manager tried to save money was to start using water from the Flint River rather than continuing to buy lake water from Detroit. Lots of other cities use river water without any problems, but there is an issue: River water is more corrosive than lake water, so (unless treated) it has a tendency to dissolve lead out of pipes, raising the amount of lead in the water.

Well, Flint didn't take proper precautions, so the lead level in Flint water has spiked, a fact that is likely to lead to permanent neurological damage in Flint's children, ranging from lower IQs to mood disorders. Friday night, Rachel devoted most of her show to this story, starting with a very enraged reporting of the facts, and followed by an interview with the doctor who found elevated lead in Flint children's blood.

and you might also be interested in

ProPublica's "An Unbelievable Story of Rape" is both important and heart-breaking. An 18-year-old woman said she was raped. But when police and her former foster mothers started to doubt her story, she admitted that she made it all up. Then they caught a serial rapist who had her in his notebook, and found the pictures he took.

The reporters do a good job of not demonizing the police involved in the case, most of whom are women. Figuring out what to make of the testimony of someone who has been traumatized is genuinely difficult, and the detectives' training didn't adequately prepare them for a case like this.

In the middle of an otherwise serious poll, PPP asked 532 Republican primary voters whether they would favor or oppose bombing Agrabah. 30% said yes and only 13% no. 41% of Trump voters favored bombing Agrabah.

Agrabah is fictional; it appears in the Disney movie Aladdin. You have to wonder what results they'd have gotten if they'd asked about bombing a real city in a Middle Eastern country our government is on good terms with, like say Riyadh or Abu Dhabi. A similar question in a poll of 532 Democratic primary voters found only 19% willing to bomb Agrabah, with 36% opposed.

The Republican responses to reality-based questions were pretty remarkable as well. 34% support Trump. Combined with Ted Cruz' 18%, that's a majority. 54% support Trump's call for a ban on Muslims entering the country. 46% support a national database of Muslims. 36% believe the totally baseless claim that thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheered when the Twin Towers fell on 9-11.
Interestingly, 55% of the Republicans support raising the minimum wage to $10 or higher.

Fareed Zakaria debunks the "mystical powers" Republicans assign to the phrase "radical Islamic terrorism". (Read his WaPo column or watch him present it on CNN.) Zakaria has been using the phrase himself since 9-11, so he can testify that "it gives absolutely nothing in the way of an answer or strategy to deal with terrorist attacks."
The best proof that calling radical Islam by its name provides no solutions is that the Republican candidates had none at Tuesday’s debate. After all the huffing and puffing, the most aggressive among them proposed more bombing, no-fly zones and arming the Kurds.
These are modest additions to Obama’s current strategy, each with its own problems. ... judgment calls, not no-brainers.
... Strangely, after the GOP candidates boldly and correctly described the enemy as an ideology — which is much broader than one group — they spoke almost entirely about fighting that one group. Even if the Islamic State were defeated tomorrow, would that stop the next lone-wolf jihadist in New York or Paris or London?
Zakaria calls attention to a great line by Seth Meyers:
So [Obama] used the words ‘radical,’ ‘Islam,’ and ‘terrorism,’ he just didn’t use them in the right order. Which would be a problem if it was a spell and he was Harry Potter, but he’s not, so it isn’t.

I'm way behind in my debate watching. Let me say, though, that I'm pleased to see Clinton and Sanders continue to take the high road. Sanders famously refused to make an issue of Clinton's emails in the first debate. In Saturday's, Sanders apologized for the data-theft incident that made such a flap this week; Clinton accepted and said they should move on.

and let's close with something topical

Bad Lip Reading does Star Wars.

Monday, December 14, 2015


If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, and blaming it on you ...

-- Rudyard Kipling

It is no accident that President Obama’s America has given rise to Donald Trump.

-- Ben Domenech

This week's featured posts are "How Republicans Trumped Themselves" and "The Leadership We Need".

This week everybody was trying to figure out what to do about Donald Trump

In "How Republicans Trumped Themselves" I pull together a chorus of voices that diagnose the Trump phenomenon as a symptom of a larger ill: The GOP has been pandering to bigotry for decades, and conservative media has created a safe zone for every kind of conspiracy theory, no matter how poorly grounded in reality it might be. Now that bigotry and that disregard of facts is being used against them.

In "The Leadership We Need" I take a more abstract look at leadership, and describe how to tell a Leader from a Demagogue.

Meanwhile, this guy knows how he wants to respond.

In "How Republicans Trumped Themselves", I briefly quoted Heather Hogan's article "This is How Fox News Brainwashes Its Viewers". That article examines the complete Fox propaganda cycle and deserves to be read end-to-end.

and the Paris climate agreement

Grist does a good balancing of the good and bad.

The COP21 conference brought every country to the table, they all accepted the science of climate change, and they agreed to work together to do something about it. But some proved more ambitious than others, and the rich countries didn’t come up with enough money to get the best deal possible.

The bottom line is that the agreement gets us far closer to containing climate change than we were two weeks ago, but still far short of where we need to go. In fact, we won’t even know for years what it will accomplish. How much the agreement reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and through that reduces warming, will depend on whether countries meet their targets for curbing emissions and deploying renewable energy and whether they ramp up their ambition in the years ahead.

and the aftermath of mass shootings

Here's what we now know about the San Bernardino shooting. 14 people were killed and 22 injured by a married couple, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, who were killed in a subsequent shootout with police. In the attack they used two semi-automatic rifles, two semi-automatic pistols, and an "explosive device".

The weapons were acquired legally by Farook and his friend and next-door neighbor, Enrique Marquez. They were illegally modified to accept larger magazines. Farook took out a $28K loan two weeks before the attack, which may have been used to buy guns, ammunition, and other supplies for the attack.

Farook was born in the United States. He was a Sunni Muslim who traveled to Saudi Arabia more than once. In 2014 he met Malik there, and she came to the U.S. under a fiancé visa. While they appear to have had online contact with terrorist groups, so far there's no indication that they actively belonged to a larger cell, or that anyone (with the possible exception of Marquez) helped them plan or finance their attack.

Apparently, they were both already "radicalized" when they met. Farook attended a mosque, but stopped going there a few weeks before the attack, so it seems unlikely that somebody there whipped him up to do this. There is no evidence that anybody else at the mosque was involved.

In short, San Bernardino does not seem to be an example of the kind of thing we're being told to fear, and wouldn't have been prevented by the anti-Muslim proposals we're hearing: The attackers weren't infiltrated into the U.S. by ISIS, they weren't recruited at a mosque, and it's not even clear that keeping Malik from entering the country would have prevented Farook from launching an attack.

To me, Farook and Malik look a lot like Robert Lewis Dear, the Planned Parenthood shooter, or Dylann Roof, the Charleston church shooter. None of them seem to have been agents of a larger conspiracy, but they are all examples of what can happen when unstable people believe the kind of hateful, irresponsible rhetoric that is so easy to find these days, and then easily acquire deadly weapons.

To me it barely matters which crazy set of beliefs your violence arises from, whether it's that ISIS is the proper political heir to Muhammad, that the white race is facing a battle for its survival, or that Planned Parenthood is dismembering babies for profit. As responsible people, we should be trying to prevent all crazy ideologies from inspiring violence.

Amanda Marcotte put it well:

Liberals understand that there are theological and political differences between the different kinds of radical fundamentalism that lead to terrorism, but we are keenly aware that people who pick up a gun in the name of God have more in common with each other than they do with the rest of us.

The Daily Show's Jordan Klepper discovers that becoming an effective good guy with a gun is harder than it looks.

Meanwhile, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcomed the first planeload of the 25,000 Syrian refugees he has promised to take in by the end of February. So Canada, a country with a fraction of our population, is taking in 2 1/2 times as many refugees.

But I'm sure that when the Canadian experiment goes smoothly, and none of their refugees gets involved in terrorist attacks, American conservatives will see the err of their ways and happily increase the number of Syrians we're giving refuge to. Won't they?

and Islam

For some reason, this year I haven't gotten around to writing all the book reviews I planned. So as a down payment on a longer post, I'll leave you with two quotes from recent books about Islam. Both books portray Islam as more diverse and more flexible than is commonly imagined by the American media.

From Michael Muhammad Knight's Why I Am a Salafi:

A text's repeatability in part depends on the potential for its old words to produce new results. A verse remains powerful not because it imposes its meaning on the future, but because it accommodates the future's needs: The verse is not bound to its author or its first audience.

From Shahab Ahmed's What is Islam?:

Some years ago, I attended a dinner at Princeton University where I witnessed a revealing exchange between an eminent European philosopher who was visiting from Cambridge, and a Muslim scholar who was seated next to him. The Muslim colleague was indulging in a glass of wine. Evidently troubled by this, the distinguished don eventually asked his dining companion if he might be so bold as to venture a personal question: "Do you consider yourself a Muslim?" "Yes," came the reply. "How come, then, you are drinking wine?" The Muslim colleague smiled gently. "My family have been Muslims for a thousand years," he said, "during which time we have always been drinking wine." An expression of distress appeared on the learned logician's pale countenance, prompting the further clarification: "You see, we are Muslim wine drinkers." The questioner looked bewildered. "I don't understand," he said. "Yes, I know," replied his native informant, "but I do."

and Peanuts

Marking the 50th anniversary of A Charlie Brown Christmas, how the whole thing came to be, including a certain amount of the spiritual journey of Charles Schulz.

An attempt to enlist the Peanuts characters in the War on Christmas yielded some pushback.

I'm not the only one who's been making the analogy between guns and security blankets.

and you might also be interested in

On a blog he shares with his son, Sift reader Bill Camarda recently posted a piece he called "My America", in which he presented a personal, positive vision of what America has been and could become. My point in mentioning it is not so much that this particular post should go viral, as that the idea behind should: What if people all over the country started writing their own "My America" and posting it to whatever blog, Facebook page, or other outlet they had access to? That might be a constructive response to the bigotry and hatefulness that seems to be running so wild these days -- more constructive than wringing our hands and saying "Isn't what Trump just said awful?"

I'm not sure what mine would say, but I'm thinking about it.

We're not quite at the point of a government shutdown yet, but the agreement to prevent one is proving hard to work out.

Jon Stewart came back to The Daily Show briefly to try to shame Congress into taking care of the 9-11 first responders.

The irony of global interdependence:

Russian production of T-shirts with anti-Turkish slogans has been delayed by disruptions in fabric imports from Turkey, Russian media reports said Wednesday.

President Obama's reluctance to plunge deeper into the Syrian mess looks a lot better when you compare him to less cautious leaders, like Putin. Knowing when not to act is as big a part of leadership as knowing what to do.

and let's close with some fascinating possibilities

Up until now, attempts to replace meat with vegetable products have ranged from unsatisfying to downright awful. But here are two attempts to attack the problem on a deeper level. First meat and then eggs.

In either case, the point isn't to do away with animal products. But what if the number of situations where doing without them feels like a hardship got much smaller? That could make a huge difference in both public health and the environment.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Thoughts and Prayers

Your "thoughts" should be about steps to take to stop this carnage. Your "prayers" should be for forgiveness if you do nothing - again.

-- Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut)

Just another day in the United States of America, another day of gunfire, panic, and fear.

-- BBC intro to the San Bernardino shootings

This week's featured posts are "Guns are security blankets, not insurance policies" and "The 2016 Campaign: a mid-course assessment".

Last week's post about fascism, "The Political F-word", had one of the best first weeks in Weekly Sift history: At 7700 hits so far, it's already the 15th most popular Sift post ever.

This week everybody was talking about mass shootings and terrorism

It's been fascinating to watch the radically different responses to two terrorist attacks that happened within a few days of each other: San Bernardino and Planned Parenthood. Liberals had just about the same response to each: It's way too easy in the United States for somebody to get guns and start shooting people.

For conservatives, on the other hand, the Planned Parenthood shooting in Colorado Springs was just one of those things. It's the price of living in a free society and there's really nothing to be done about it. The San Bernardino shooting, though, was something Muslims did, so it is a national emergency that requires carpet bombing or maybe a ground war.

Personally, I don't care whether the person who shoots me is a Muslim extremist or a Christian extremist. Heck, if there are Zoroastrian extremists, I don't want them to shoot me either. (Funny how you never hear about somebody gunning people down for atheism.) Mass shootings are the problem we need to solve, not just a particular kind of mass shootings.

President Obama's speech Sunday night was basically a stay-the-course speech. It was well-reasoned (because what we're doing to fight ISIS is mostly well-reasoned already), but I suspect it did little to slow down the national panic.

The problem Obama is facing is that most of the dramatic actions he could take -- indiscriminate bombing or a ground invasion of Syria, harassing Muslims in the U.S., etc. -- would do more harm than good. He's quite correct that ISIS is hoping for those kinds of responses. It's worth noting that hardly any of the public figures who criticize Obama for not doing enough have offered any detailed suggestions. They want to "get tough" and take strong action, but exactly what those actions would be is left vague.

Strangling an insurgency without creating a new insurgency is a long, slow process. As sad as that thought is, we're lucky to have a president who understands it.

Peter Beinart wrote an insightful article about Obama's thinking on terrorism.

Obama is a kind of Fukuyamian. Like Francis Fukuyama, the author of the famed 1989 essay “The End of History,” he believes that powerful, structural forces will lead liberal democracies to triumph over their foes—so long as these democracies don’t do stupid things like persecuting Muslims at home or invading Muslim lands abroad. His Republican opponents, by contrast, believe that powerful and sinister enemies are overwhelming America, either overseas (the Rubio version) or domestically (the Trump version).

For them, the only thing more terrifying than “radical Islam” is the equanimity with which President Obama meets it. And, to their dismay, that equanimity was very much on display on Sunday night.

and guns

I tried to keep "Guns are security blankets, not insurance policies" focused, so I had to edit out this second point:

Guns don't protect freedom, they threaten it. One of the what-if fantasies that justifies a well-armed civilian population is: What if the government becomes tyrannical? Won't we want to have the ability to launch a Red-Dawn-like insurgency?

A bunch of things are wrong with this fantasy, the biggest being that my handgun or hunting rifle wouldn't be much use against the U.S. Army, if it ever came to that. The historical references people back this point with are also usually dead wrong. (No, Hitler didn't confiscate the German people's guns.) The actual examples of tyrants being overthrown in recent history aren't stories of civilian militias shooting it out with the army. Instead, they involve mass demonstrations by unarmed people, raising the prospect either of the army or powerful foreign protectors turning against the government. (See: Arab Spring, or the overthrow of the Shah of Iran.)

There is, however, one example from American history that fits the civilian-militia scenario perfectly: the Ku Klux Klan's resistance to the occupation of the South after the Civil War. (I have written about this before; for a more detailed discussion, read the recent book After Appomattox by Gregory Downs or Eric Foner's Reconstruction.) At the end of the Civil War, the U.S. government recognized that simply freeing the slaves on paper wasn't enough, because the white-supremacist power structure of the Southern states would quickly re-assert itself and deny any real rights to black citizens. Tens of thousands of Northern troops occupied the South for several years, attempting to establish a social order in which blacks and whites were equal under the law.

To the former rebels, this was tyranny imposed by a distant government in Washington DC. They wanted to restore the pre-war whites-only power structure, in which blacks were subject to separate, harsher laws that they had no voice in either making or enforcing. To that end, the KKK unleashed a campaign of political terror, attacking not Army units, but political gatherings of blacks and pro-government loyalists, and assassinating numerous public officials who attempted to enforce the federally-mandated laws.

Ultimately, the KKK succeeded in throwing off the "tyranny" of Washington, resulting in the Jim Crow era.

In other words, in the historical example that best fits the pro-gun rhetoric, it was the federal government that was fighting for real democracy and freedom, while the armed civilian militias were fighting to take rights away from the new citizens (who we think of as minorities, but who actually constituted a majority in Mississippi and South Carolina).

Something similar is happening today in the recent abortion-clinic violence: The federal government protects the right of women to make their own decisions about their pregnancies, while an armed minority wants to make those decisions as dangerous as possible, and ultimately to intimidate citizens into not using their rights. The point isn't to fight the Army, it's to assassinate doctors and terrorize pregnant women.

I hate to admit it, but I understand why Congress doesn't want to ban people on the no-fly list from buying guns. The no-fly list is already a little constitutionally suspect, because it works a real hardship on people without due process of law. You don't know whether you're on the list or why, and you have no recourse for getting your name off. The list is a product of the executive branch without any judicial involvement, so theoretically you could wind up on it just because somebody in the White House doesn't like you. (I used to bitch about this kind of thing all the time during the Bush administration, so I sort of need to stay consistent.)

We tolerate the no-fly list because we all believe we'll never be on it. We ought to be figuring out some more acceptable way to replace it, not increasing its influence.

and prayer

The New York Daily News called attention to the cynical use of prayer as a response to a massacre, and Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy offered the tweet at the top of this post.

I've updated the Conservative-to-English Lexicon to include a definition of prayer:

A way to appear to take action on issues you don’t actually care about. Example: the prayers routinely offered for the families of victims of mass shootings.

Naturally, conservatives took offense at the aptness of remarks like Senator Murphy's, or the Daily News cover above, charging that they denigrated religion and the power of prayer. Ted Cruz called it "prayer shaming".

Nothing of the kind is happening. The point is that we can all pray for ourselves, we don't need to elect representatives to do it for us. We elect representatives to exercise the powers of government, which Republicans refuse to do whenever action would offend the NRA.

I have a suggestion: Whenever Republican candidates are asked about how they plan to combat ISIS or limit government spending, they should offer their prayers and move on to the next question. I think any candidate who tries this will soon discover exactly how much stock the conservative base puts in the power of prayer unsupported by any direct human action.

and the Paris climate talks

The shootings have driven the Paris climate summit off the front pages, but it's still happening. In the long, it might be the most important that's happening right now.

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The House has been repealing ObamaCare every month or two for years now. Well, they finally got a repeal through the Senate, using the "reconciliation" procedure that is immune to filibusters. So this is the first ObamaCare repeal that has made it to President Obama's desk, and he will veto it.

MaddowBlog's Steve Benen notes that this was a vote to increase the number of uninsured Americans by 22 million, and that it's a trial run of a repeal procedure that presumably will work in 2017 if Republicans win the White House. However, it's not clear that Senate Republicans could stick together if they were really taking health insurance away from millions of Americans. (Two Senate Republicans defected on this bill; more might if they couldn't count on a presidential veto.)

Meanwhile, Paul Ryan promised:

we think this problem is so urgent that, next year, we are going to unveil a plan to replace every word of Obamacare.

Benen observes that it's only been six years since ObamaCare became law, and that Republicans have been promising to unveil a replacement any minute now for most of that time. Somehow, the "urgent" replacement never comes together.

This point is routinely lost on much of the chattering class, but Republicans don’t actually like health care reform, which is why we’ve waited so many years to see a plan that still doesn’t exist. GOP lawmakers didn’t see the old system – the bankruptcies, the uninsured rates, the deaths, Americans paying more for less – as a problem requiring a solution, which is precisely why they haven’t invested time and energy in writing a detailed reform blueprint.

So coal baron Don Blankenship was convicted of conspiring to violate coal mine safety standards. Those violations played an important role in the Upper Big Branch mine disaster that killed 29 miners in 2010. But assuming Blankenship can't get his conviction overturned on appeal, at worst he faces one year in prison, and he might get off with a fine.

“The jury’s verdict sends a clear and powerful message,” U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said. “It doesn’t matter how rich you are, or how powerful you are — if you gamble with the safety of the people who work for you, you will be held accountable.”

To me the "clear and powerful message" seems a little different: If your gamble results in a deadly disaster that makes the national news, then, years later, you might face some fairly minimal consequences. If my spouse or parent were one of those 29 dead miners, I wouldn't feel vindicated.

Trump's bogus claim that Muslims in Jersey City cheered on 9-11 reminded me to recommend a comic book: the current Ms. Marvel is a Muslim high-school girl from Jersey City. The comic is well-written, and the main characters are very believable teen-agers.

It's the season for politicians to send their supporters cards with heart-warming holiday themes, like the Confederate flag, or the whole family standing in front of the tree with guns.

I believe I've previously posted my opinion that Ben Carson is a crackpot. Here, he tells a group of Jewish Republicans a tall tale about how the Star of David (that Carson sees) on the one-dollar bill came to (not) be there.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump made sure Jewish Republicans understand that he sees them in terms of stereotypes.

In Tuesday's NYT, Thomas Edsall's column "Donald Trump's Appeal" didn't use the word fascism, but otherwise echoed a lot of the themes in last week's Sift article "The Political F-word": the need for a social-psychology explanation, a focus on the white working class, and supporting Trump as a response to humiliation.

When I first saw the picture, I assumed Dick Cheney had been put into stasis, like when Han Solo was frozen in carbonite. But no: A bust of the former VP is being displayed at the Capitol.

and let's close with something you won't hear at the office

You know the kind of motivational consultants who do presentations at big companies, teaching everybody how to relax and focus? I don't think they're going to use this guided meditation.

Runner-up: the Dalek Relaxation Tape.