I know you’re out there, and this is for you. What you’re weighing, it’s not as easy as you think. But it can matter more than anything else you do with your professional life.
Washington is awash with leaks; if they were real water we’d all drown. The American people feel they are seeing the inner most workings of government, and it is not pretty. Powerful people are falling. Our democracy may be at risk. President Trump and his team have no intention of watching from the sidelines. There is a struggle going on, and people are taking sides.
So if you’re a government employee sitting in a cubicle in Washington DC, what are you thinking? To leak or not to leak? Will you blow the whistle?
I know more than a little bit about your decision. With 21 years of service at the Department of State, I was assigned to wartime Iraq in 2009. For me, when the waste, fraud, and mismanagement of the reconstruction program under Presidents Bush and Obama reached the limits of what in good conscience I could participate in, and after failing to see any change going through channels, I blew the whistle, via a book, We Meant Well. The State Department in response flirted with sending me to jail, tried to fire me in part for “lack of candor” in refusing to participate in their investigation, and in the end pursued me into an early retirement.
I learned the decision to contact a reporter, or otherwise to blow the whistle, is a hard one. In the end you have to ask yourself one seemingly simple but actually complex question: is the juice worth the squeeze?
As for that squeeze, an anonymous leaker must expect people to come looking; you’re taking on the President of the United States after all. If the past (including my case) is any guide, much of the action that follows a disclosure will be aimed at the leaker, not the information leaked. You will be scared going in, but the fear should make you cautious. You will need to learn what intelligence officers call tradecraft; you may end up trying to hide your actions from them. Whatever journey you embark on, fear will travel with you.
There are real things to be afraid of. Following the example set by the Obama administration, someone exposing classified information may be subjected by the Trump administration to Espionage Act prosecution, with the near-certainty of Federal prison time if convicted.
Think you’re too unimportant for an investigation? Safe because your leak was, as in my own instance, nothing remotely classified? Maybe. But the most effective way to silence the next person in your position is to have them afraid to even try. Your now-adversaries would love to get the high level leakers, but won’t care too much if the heads on display come from the lower ranks instead. Either way the point to those others out there still considering leaking is made.
The administration will fight back in other ways, too. You are an anonymous source, an unnamed official, someone “with knowledge of the discussion.” It’s your word against that of a person who can appear on a major news program to offer up information (real or not) that discredits yours. Americans tend to assess truthfulness these days in line with preconceived beliefs, and that’s running about 50-50 on any given day in the Trump Era.
That’s the squeeze for a leaker. Now the juice.
You may not have the evidence of a still-smoking gun to “bring down” anyone. But you can contribute to a larger story, supply a missing puzzle piece, or nudge an investigative process forward. A big mosaic is made of little pictures. What you know likely does matter, and the people have a right to know what matters about their government. Who besides someone on the inside – you – can tell them?
Things can change significantly if you decide to blow the whistle, as opposed to leaking. While there are legal definitions, the key difference is a whistleblower purposely gives up their anonymity; Edward Snowden is the best known example. The risks scale up geometrically after that – you are saying “here I am, come after me.” Legal protections exist, including the Whistleblower Protection Act, but they do not snap into place easily. You will need a good lawyer well before you blow any whistle.
The returns for blowing the whistle can be significant, and it was this calculus (plus a dollop of ignorance I’m afraid) that lead me away from leaking into a full public disclosure. Standing up by name, you earn credibility against attacks ad hominen, and for the information you supply. Your presence encourages and empowers others. Your motivations are on display; you are more easily seen as a patriot than a partisan. And you aren’t just passing on information. You are bearing witness, at risk to yourself.
As one who has been there, my counsel is to think practically, not emotionally. Think larger than yourself, and think larger than political gossip. If I had the chance, I would remind every potential leaker or whistleblower their oath of service was to the Constitution, not to any particular leader or party, neither the one in, nor out, of power. So act on principle, not ego or revenge or ambition; the power to disclose carries with it a responsibility to act ethically. Your conscience will then be bulletproof, something very important as you will spend a lot of time in there. No guarantees, but an ethical disclosure may be easier to defend as well.
People of conscience, leakers and whistleblowers alike, we’re made. We’re made by what the government does and fails to do, and by what we witness. If government acted as the Founders expected it should, we would not be here, like mushrooms that didn’t pop up on a dry lawn.
It’s what all of us share: a love of country, if not necessarily its politicians. It’s in your hands to be on the right side of this struggle. One courageous act of conscience can make a difference in an America gone astray. That will be your anchor on an unsettling and fearful journey. I made a choice to be a whistleblower. I’d do it again. To me, the juice was worth the squeeze. You?
Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Joe Biden would have beaten him.
Think about why Trump won. He was by sheer accident the more or less least worst choice. Despite his behavior, he kept failing upward, right into the White House.
A large portion of this election was about income disparity, cultural and economic displacement, a sense that the country had abandoned too much of its center. I don’t know how many of those people voted for Trump per se, but some percentage voted against for Hillary Clinton (spare me the popular vote bit, we’re dealing with the reality of the system which was here in 2016 and will be here in 2020.)
Biden has always been able to speak to many of those who voted for Trump. His roots are in Pennsylvania, his background blue collar. His son served in uniform. He has dealt with personal tragedy and understands it in others. He talks and displays real empathy in a way Hillary could never do, and embarrassed herself when she tried. Biden in the Midwest would have exposed Trump as a fake populist because Biden would have come across as a real one.
A significant number of voters “like” or dislike a candidate; some of an election is a popularity contest, and everyone likes and trusts Biden. Clinton could never get past herself on that. She was the kid on the debate team; Joe was class clown.
Think Comey hurt Hillary somehow? Think the Democratic National Committee emails showing Clinton’s dirty tricks against Bernie hurt her? Think the Clinton Foundation, quid pro quo, pay-to-play, the server and coverup, Bill’s sexcapades, Huma, Weiner, health questions, maybe even Benghazi, think any of that cost her votes (it did)? Well, none of that would have touched Biden. Most of America still wouldn’t know who Comey is. Putin could have leaked all the emails in the world and… nothing. Trump could not have played off hiding his tax returns with Clinton hiding her Goldman-Sachs speeches.
Trump would have had to talk policy and issues. Nothing for Congress to investigate, no scandals. Nothing for the right wing media to feed on. Nothing for the left wing media to have to keep defending.
Meanwhile, the strengths Clinton had — experience in government, claimed foreign policy skills, whatever good will could be inherited from Obama — would all be there for Biden. Without any baggage. Biden was in the room when bin Laden was killed, too, for whatever that is worth.
It’s likely Biden would have run a more respectful campaign against Bernie than Clinton did, as he would have been driven, but without being obsessed by fear of failure. He might have run a positive general election campaign, not one that was a continuous flow of hit pieces on Trump that left voters unsure what Hillary had to offer herself.
That might have brought more Bernie voters out who chose instead to stay home on election day. Biden would have been able to choose a vice president such as Elizabeth Warren that would not have been seen inside the party as a threat to Clinton. Biden, himself a once forever Senator, might even have chosen Bernie as his VP. Imagine a VP choice that inspired, instead of a cynical move like disposable drone Tim Kaine selected just to (barely) grab Virginia’s electoral votes.
There was much talk abut why Biden didn’t run, centering around the death of his son Beau. It was a major factor. However, sources are clear that pressure was applied to Biden the old-time party man to stand aside, that this was Hillary’s turn, arrangements had been made, deals done. Biden could have whatever else he wanted (other than VP…), choice of cabinet jobs, an emeritus position as ambassador somewhere, appointment to a presidential commission created for him, just name it, Joe.
Biden said post-election “The family was broken, and I was more broken than I thought I was. How broken? I don’t know what I’d do if I was in a debate and someone said, ‘You’re doing this because of your son,’ I might have walked over and kicked his ass.”
And in that moment the election would have been over.
Many Americans outside the coastal media were unconcerned about an old tape of Trump being crude, and did not see his statements as “sexual assault.” They were skeptical about decades old allegations of sexual harassment that seemed to appear on cue just before a debate. But you don’t mess with someone’s dead son, a veteran at that, and had Trump insulted Beau and Joe Biden slugged Trump live on TV, every American who supported Trump would have understood what a bully was and every one of them knows what to do about bullies.
In the end, you win this way:
— Pull votes away from the other guy (blue collar Biden)
— Secure your base (experienced, Obama-Dem Biden) and
— Don’t lose voters (baggage-free Biden.)
Clinton failed on all three counts, and it is now President Trump.
The point here is not just a thought experiment, a political argument to hash out over beers. There’ll be another election in 2020, and Trump will run against another Democrat. If the Democrats can’t understand what election they are running in, and can’t objectively weigh out their candidates’ strengths and weaknesses instead of assuming succession based on internal party logic, they will lose again to Trump.
Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Nobody has a lot of hope left, so we got Trump.
I’ve taken to doing this thing Kurt Vonnegut used to do, semi-randomly calling people I haven’t spoken to for awhile. No emails, a phone call, the numbers I can track down online. The phone rings on their end and announces I am demanding to talk with them. It’s selfish. I want to know what’s going on in America. I ask them that.
The way things work, these people have dispersed themselves all over America. Most of the people I speak with are in their 50s, nobody younger than about 35. They are representative only of “people I still sort of know.” The whole thing is about as scientific as the smell off a pile of dog crap.
I’ve found nobody with a lot of hope left. They seemed to have used it up.
I haven’t run across anyone who voted for Trump who said “Well, that’s that, time to sit back and watch things get fixed.” A lot of these people voted for Obama, at least in 2008, and not because he was going to be America’s First Black President but because they really believed in his promise of Hope. The Bush years had worn out. We stayed scared enough, but then no post-9/11 attack came, the wars dragged on, and most of the stuff that was supposed to make us feel safe just ended up somewhere between inconvenient and bullying.
People have no sense of being in control of their lives. They know they have a lot less money than they used to, they don’t see their kids doing better, but they see on TV that some few seem to have most of everything. They can figure if they have less and someone else has more where that more came from.
“Hope” means different things but it one way or another meant change for the better and that didn’t happen. Depending on who you were and where you lived, things stayed about the same or they got worse. The news said another 20,000 jobs were created but they still worked at Target. The news said solar and coding and Internet of Things and self-driving cars and they still made $7.25 an hour when their grandfathers made $23.50 with benefits. In 2017 they could not afford health insurance, stuck between not having enough money to buy it and not having too little enough to get subsidized. And they know health insurance and healthcare are not the same thing, as in high deductibles and Bronze plans that never seemed to cover things, or cover them fully. They know that, and deeply resent anyone who tells them it’s not really that way and they are better off.
You can’t tell a person soaked in water they aren’t wet.
Having been fooled, prepped for years, they looked at the 2016 election and saw a choice between a guy who was so cynical about providing hope he didn’t even bother to offer anything beyond a vague exhortation to be great on a cap, and a women who didn’t even bother with that, just a selfish demand for affirmation, “I’m With Her!” going through the motions enroute to what she thought was hers already.
They knew Trump was a bully, a cheat, someone mean, and did not need to be told. They resented being seen by Clinton as too dumb to get that on their own and needing a lecture. Same now for the endless late night mockery and Washington gossip by “sources” that passes for news. Nobody cares about Nordstrom’s or who the spokesperson is when they’re hungry, and they resent the people who do not get that.
Economist Thomas Piketty found the share of U.S. national wealth claimed by the bottom 50% of the country dropped to 12% from 20% in 1978, along with a drop in income for the poorest half of America. That level of change will not go unreacted to.
It wasn’t that most of them hated Blacks and gays and the people of so-called identity politics, it was just that they did not care all that much about them either way. People in smaller places all know about Mr. Saunders the “confirmed bachelor” and while he couldn’t hold hands with his “roommate” around town, really, otherwise, who cares, I’m down to canned tuna and cereal the last week of the month when my food aid money runs out waiting for the first of the next month. Sorry equal rights for everyone isn’t in place, but let’s fix some other things first. We’ve all taken a beating.
You don’t have to like it, but that’s what a lot of people think. And unlike a fair number of other voting blocs who need to be made to show up on election day, these people turn out. They don’t need buses, they drive themselves.
So to hell with it they said, I’ll vote for the guy, being fooled knowing I’m being fooled. It doesn’t matter if Trump pisses off the Prime Minister of wherever. My kid will fight that war, like he fought the last war, because he can’t find another job and joins the Army, and Cory Booker’s nephew or niece won’t and if they does somehow join the service they’ll be a pilot or work intel or some other clean hands job and won’t be up on the line. Can my other kid go to college? Maybe, but she’ll eat debt for 20 years for a throwaway degree that isn’t worth much. We want our daughters empowered because we know that offers them a good life, but we first want them fed and employed.
We were promised that. Didn’t happen.
None of those people are going to have their minds changed by pussy hat marches or Lady Gaga at the Superbowl which just brings an eye roll from the men and women at the bar, and they don’t appreciate being called racists, nazis and fascists by millennials who have never really met one and fling those words around to enrage each other into shaking their heads at each other. They are unaffected by protests not against some policy, but against the idea that the candidate they voted for won.
Meanwhile, if someone who is a real nazi or fascist offers the people at the bar even a touch of hope they’ll put up with some of the rest even though they don’t care for it personally. Most people really don’t want to live like it’s the 1950s Deep South again, but they’ll take a cleaned up version of 1969’s economy.
See, “resistance” is part of the long-failed stay negative Democratic policy, the same one that lost the 2016 election. Find something to be for, Dems, or you’ll lose in 2018 again.
So if you want to really throw up a wall between America as we want it to be and the America you’re afraid it will become, shut the hell up and create some jobs. Just do that, dump some money out of the pot and build some bridges and highways. Start. People who wear black shoes and white socks don’t really care whether you fund the National Endowment for the Arts as long as you also fund a new water plant for every Flint, and there is or will be one in every state. That’s a big gulp of what stopped real fascism from catching hold in 1930s America.
But right now people out there are heading toward accepting an awful lot of hateful things because they want to believe someone will help them.
Every year we wait makes it harder and less likely we’ll get out from under this blue dusk. The party or candidate that can really do this — create some jobs, give people back their pride, allow them to take care of their families, throw out a little hope — will win every election they want to run in.
We’re not headed into authoritarianism per se. We’re headed into giving up. That’s the demon that’ll destroy us. There’s the weight of emptiness out there and something’s gonna fill it up.
I know I can’t keep “we,” “you “and “they” separate in the essay above and after spending a lot of time trying to fix that I realized it was meant to be that way.
Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
This journalism thingie has gotten so easy, anyone can do it. Let’s play make the fake news funtime!
The elderly may remember the Old Journalism. Back in BT (Before Trump) journalists in mainstream outlets had to gather facts (i.e., true things) from sources (people with names who knew true things) that would withstand fact-checking (looking stuff up, or having a second source confirm stuff.) If you quoted something already established as a fact, you were obligated to link to it.
There were notably exceptions. For example, in 2003, the New York Times simply “believed” everything it was told about Iraq having massive destructive weapons and typed it into the paper. FYI: The Times assisted in generating enthusiasm for the Iraq invasion, helping kill 5,000 Americans and perhaps one million Iraqis! Media such as the National Enquirer and gossip blogs would just make things up, aliens and Bigfoot and all that, but it was with a wink and everyone knew it was fake and for fun.
Then Shazaam! Every media in America miscalled the election for Clinton while Trump won. Media collectively got a sad. They did not know what to do. Certainly admitting they screwed up was not in the cards, nor was accepting that Trump won and moving on. So, they invented Newer Journalism.
It works this way. A reporter, say from the Washington Post, calls up someone who works at say, the State Department, or is called by someone who wants to leak something. It is always bad news about Trump. The reporter types it up word-for-word, and then publishes it to the world as a true thing. In the story the source is anonymous, so no one knows if the reporter spoke to an intern on her third day, or just made it all up. But, and this is important, that doesn’t matter! All that matters is that it is bad news, the more bombastic the better.
From there other media simply repeat the story. But it gets better, because the next media in line says “The Washington Post reports sources inside the Trump administration say…” allowing some crappy blog to inherit whatever credibility the WaPo still clings to. But, and this is important, that doesn’t matter! Because the article will be saying something readers want to believe (“White House policy making is in disarray, everyone will resign by Thursday.”)
Now Thursday will roll around and everyone has not resigned, but, and this is important, that doesn’t matter! The media has moved on to the next story and who the hell goes back and reads last week’s Tweets anyway. Repeat.
The way Trump is being covered reminds me of so-called reporting out of North Korea, or the Cold War Soviet Union. Reporters claimed they could not reveal their sources, and every tiny scrap of an event was inflated into Deep Meaning. Every story warned of catastrophic consequences to follow, that never did. But that’s what Americans wanted to believe about those two countries, and it sold (in those days) newspapers.
So let’s try it. Keep in mind this is entirely made up, especially if you see it reprinted on Rawstory or HuffPo as fact.
Sources inside the State Department who are otherwise not authorized to speak to the media report that rank-and-file diplomats remain dismayed at the treatment given them by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Many are quietly talking about ways to resist, some even going as far as suggesting mass resignations may occur. Some liken it to a Constitutional crisis that could upset an already fragile democracy.
The diplomats — many of whom signed the recent letter of dissent over Trump’s Muslim Ban — claim that Tillerson has not held a full staff meeting since taking office, preferring to work only with a tight circle of advisors from the campaign whom he has dubbed the “Trump Centaurians.” These Centurians have been described as politically motivated, watching Tweets out of the White House for policy guidance.
“They have no idea what they are doing,” said one senior diplomat. “These are people with zero experience inside government talking down to experienced Russia hands in my office. One of these so-called Centaurians used to work for Ivanka’s clothing line. God help us, she’s now in charge of energy policy across the MidEast. It is chaos, pure chaos. Period. Full stop.”
In response to Tillerson, State Department officials have begun to slow-walk requests from the Secretary’s office, with some going as far as withholding information for fear it might be shared with the Kremlin. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see a bunch of people go critical and simply punch out one day,” stated another seasoned diplomat. “And I’m hearing the same thing from friends inside the NSC. I’ve never seen it this bad before, and it’ll get worse.”
Tillerson’s office did not immediately return a request for comment.
See? That took me about ten minutes to crank out. Lunchtime.
The United States government seems to have a real thing for social media and terrorism, stoutly believing if only they could “take out” Twitter the global jihadi movement would collapse. Or something like that. Maybe it’s Instagram?
Social Media vs. Jihad
But while Trump talks the talk, Obama walked the walk.
You may not know it, but since December the United States quietly changed the standard online entry form (ESTA) used by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a part of your neighborhood Department of Homeland Security.
The question added is “Please enter information associated with your online presence — Provider/Platform — Social media identifier.” The question is for all foreign travelers’ who use the visa waiver (visa-free) system for admission into the U.S. The form is not used for American citizens.
The form also asks for info on citizenship, passport data, and contact information in the U.S., along with hilarious questions inquiring if the traveler is coming to the U.S. to commit espionage, sabotage or terrorism (seriously; see here). Not so many people answer Yes.
The entry process for all foreigners already includes fingerprinting, photographing, an in-person interview, and numerous database checks.
The U.S. government had 77.5 million foreign visitors in 2015. Collecting social media accounts for all visitors is producing one of the largest government-controlled databases of its kind.
And even though the social media question is voluntary, apparently most travelers have been filling in the blank out of fear of calling attention to themselves and prompting further attention at the border.
As a reminder to all those who bark fascism at every turn: this change went into effect by order of the Obama administration, not Trump’s.
And who is having their social media examined? Citizens from the visa-waiver countries. No, no, not those naughty people from the Seven Banned Muslims nations, but American allies like Japan, the UK, Germany and the like. And guess what? There’s not been a word of protest, not a single court challenge. It’s almost as if people paid no attention to any of this before Trump came long.
Mohammed Atta on Twitter?
According to the rules, the new info “will be an optional data field to request social media identifiers to be used for vetting purposes, as well as applicant contact information. Collecting social media data will enhance the existing investigative process and provide DHS greater clarity and visibility to possible nefarious activity and connections by providing an additional tool set which analysts and investigators may use to better analyze and investigate the case.”
So the concept is that Mohammed Atta (for example) rolls up to the Customs checkpoint at the airport, and jots down his Twitter handle as @terrorist911 and then enters the U.S. to resume his flight lessons. Someone from Customs later trolls Atta’s account to discover “Shout out to all the brothers, gonna lay down some whoop ass on Septemb–” Ah poo, only 140 characters, now we’ll never know.
Image Courtesy of Edward Snowden
This isn’t about Trump. It’s about judging the media, whoever and whatever they report on. It is about reading critically when so much out there is just simply inaccurate. Not maybe inaccurate, pure dead solid perfect stupid. So don’t call me a nazi.
Step One is to note if the story you’re reading/seeing is all or mostly unsourced, or anonymously sourced. Red flag.
Step Two is to see if the story is bombastic, dramatic, something that really makes you angry. Something that adds to or dovetails with something you already believe is true. If it sounds like gossip, that’s probably all it is. Red flag.
Step Three is to check if the story is a negative one about a person or subject from a media outlet that celebrates its partisan position. Red flag.
Congratulations! You’ve got a sample target, and are ready to apply a basic test.
Ask who would know the information, why would they tell anyone, and apply a light sniff test: does it make any sense at all?
Here’s one to practice on, courtesy of the New York Times. There are no sources at all for the most part, and the story is bombastic, suggesting the people in the White House are dumber than third graders. The Times has had trouble with objectivity concerning the administration. Much of the story sounds like mean gossip.
We’ll zoom in on a couple of opening lines, keeping in mind this was presented on the front page as news:
President Trump loves to set the day’s narrative at dawn, but the deeper story of his White House is best told at night.
Aides confer in the dark because they cannot figure out how to operate the light switches in the cabinet room. Visitors conclude their meetings and then wander around, testing doorknobs until finding one that leads to an exit.
So the venerable New York Times reports Trump’s aides sit in the dark because they do not know how to operate light switches.
Seriously? Light switches are rarely complex. Those aides have been on the job for about two weeks and have not figured out how to turn on the lights? And by the way, the White House is full of non-political, permanent staff, including servants, janitors, the Secret Service, secretaries. Hell, you can dial zero on the house phone and ask for maintenance. It is simply impossible for the Times’ statement to be true, and it would have had to have been reported by one of the aides themselves, because no one else was there, or could see what was happening in the dark.
Next up: the line about visitors wandering the halls looking for an exit.
Access to the White House is as controlled as anywhere in the United States. One does not simply walk around trying doors. Visitors are escorted, the Secret Service is stationed everywhere, and there are cameras and motion detectors. Being alone inside the White House is a privilege allotted to very, very, very few people ever. Visitors are badged and checked in and out. The building itself is not a suburban movie theatre, with lots of doors opening out into the parking lot. Visitors go in and out via a limited number of portals. It is simply impossible for the Times’ statement to be true.
Later in the same story the Times reports:
When Mr. Trump is not watching television in his bathrobe or on his phone reaching out to old campaign hands and advisers, he will sometimes set off to explore the unfamiliar surroundings of his new home.
While the image of old man Trump wandering around the place in his robe and slippers, perhaps hair amuss, is amusing, the statement is ridiculous as news.
If the White House is hyper-controlled space, the Residence, the second floor where the president actually lives, is doubly so. Access is strictly limited to those personally invited by the president, staff who have worked there decades, and a handful of Secret Service stationed outside key doors. The idea is to offer a respite, a personal space for the family.
The White House staff and Secret Service have a long tradition of not leaking intimate details of the First Family. They would throw away a decades-long career if they did. Neither group has leaked salacious gossip over the years about presidential affairs, husband and wife fights, drunkenness and the like in real time. It is incredulous that the Times would have any idea what Trump does inside his own living room.
Another caution would be reports that purport to know what a senior policy maker is “thinking,” the very ideas and feelings in his head. While anything is of course possible, how likely is it that someone in public life would voice those things to people junior enough to leak them (oh but you want to believe it, don’t you?) Here’s the Times again:
Cloistered in the White House, he now has little access to his fans and supporters — an important source of feedback and validation — and feels increasingly pinched by the pressures of the job and the constant presence of protests.
The first line is of course easily destroyable, as the president can invite anyone into the White House, and most anyone would be happy to rush in. And don’t his son-in-law and daughter Ivanka live just down the street in DC? In addition, should Trump want to talk with “fans and supporters,” there is that telephone thingie. Obama famously had a guarded private number for a handful of friends, and Bill Clinton, keeping with his times, used a personal FAX machine whose number was changed regularly and distributed to very few long-time associates.
And by the way, how could the Times, or anyone really, know Trump is “increasingly pinched by the pressures of the job”? What does pinched even mean? Did someone deep inside Trump’s inner circle overhear him say “Dammit, I am feeling pinched as hell” and rush to whisper that in a reporter’s ear? Can someone be “increasingly” pinched after only some two weeks on the job?
The piece goes on and on, claiming Trump obsessed over the drapes in the Oval Office, watches TV during lunch (!), somehow indicated to somebody that the Oval Office “is a totem of a victory that validates him as a serious person,” and startlingly, “ordered that four hardback chairs be placed in a semicircle around his desk” which seems to be important for some reason never really explained.
For those who say “This is not who we are,” well, look again. It all seems to be exactly who we are and have been.
President Donald Trump’s executive order banning travelers, immigrants and refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries is only the latest twist of dark threads that have always been present in America and its immigration policy. The executive order is not unprecedented. It is evolutionary, predictable, nearly an inevitable step.
The Seven Targeted Countries
Begin with the targeted countries, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. America has bombed or used drones and special forces in six of them, and attacked the seventh with cyberwar. The Muslims there have suffered far in excess of a travel ban at the hands of America. Indeed, many of the refugees leaving those nations became refugees as a result of American war-making, often under the guise (Libya, Iraq, Syria) of “protecting” those people from an evil dictator, some Sunday morning talk show version of genocide, or a red line few outside the White House could see.
The countries in Trump’s executive order have long been singled out for special treatment under American immigration law.
Though Trump in his crude style talks about “extreme vetting,” such a process has been in place since the George W. Bush administration, continued under Obama, and is operating today. It has a nicer, if somewhat Orwellian name, “administrative processing.” On the list of nation affected: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. People from these nations, and a few others, go through an alternate visa processing procedure that delays their travel. The process involves various intelligence agencies vetting the traveler. Some applications are left to pend indefinitely, a de facto travel ban.
The seven nations also were a part of the Bush-era Muslim registry, known as NSEERS.
Trump’s seven nations also appear on an Obama-era list. That list, the equally Orwellian-named Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act, disallows use of America’s visa-free travel program to persons who even once visited the targeted nations. So, for example, a British citizen otherwise eligible to enter the United States without a visa must instead appear for questioning at an American embassy abroad if she, for any reason, even as a journalist, stepped foot in Iran.
That nations long-held to sponsor terrorism such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are not on Trump’s list is not surprising. They haven’t appeared on most of Bush’s or Obama’s lists either.
Refugees Not Welcome
Following Trump’s directives aimed at refugees it quickly became almost mandatory for celebrities and pundits to come up with a personal story or two about their family’s immigrant ties, and preach a bit about the Statue of Liberty and freedom.
Left unsaid was that the number of refugees admitted to the United States is small compared to many other nations.
The U.S. admitted a record number of Muslim refugees in 2016, some 38,901 of the nearly “>85,000 total refugees allowed into the U.S. Go back to 2006, and the total number of refugees admitted drops to under 50,000. Though there have been refugee “surges” into the United States such as Holocaust survivors following World War II (650,000 people) and the Vietnamese “boat people” (100,000) after the end of that war, Americans historically feared refugees, not welcomed them. Since 1980, the United States has accepted less than two million refugees overall, and 40 percent of those were children accompanying their refugee parent(s). The U.S. sets an annual ceiling on refugees admitted, currently 85,000. Refugee number 85,001, no matter how desperate her case, must wait until the next year.
In contrast, among Syrians alone, Canada in 2016 took in about twice as many refugees as the United States. Some 25 percent of the entire population of Lebanon are refugees. Germany expects to admit 300,000 refugees from various nations in 2016, following close to one million in 2015.
Discrimination by Nationality
Following the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, 8 U.S.C. 1152 Sec. 202(a)(1)(A) makes it unlawful to ban immigrants (i.e., Legal Permanent Residents, Green card holders) because of “nationality, place of birth, or place of residence.” The law however allows banning nonimmigrants such as tourists or students, as well as refugees, for almost any reason. Challenges to this are near-impossible. American courts have consistently upheld that they cannot exercise judicial reviewability over visa decisions made abroad in the specific, and more broadly, generally do not extend the protections of American law to foreigners outside the U.S. The Supreme Court has also long-acknowledged immigration law’s “plenary power” doctrine, which generally immunizes from judicial review the substantive immigration decisions of Congress and the executive branch.
And even though legal immigrants are not banned by nationality or place of birth per se, restrictions on the number of legal immigrants from certain nations are limited to the point of near-virtual bans. For example, the restrictions are such that some Filipino and Mexican relatives of American citizens face a 24 year wait (another Orwellian term, “priority date”) for a Green card. It is not uncommon for applicants to pass away before their turn comes.
However, the most evolutionary aspect of Trump’s executive action on immigration, and the inevitable hardening and expansion of such positions, is the underlying driver of it all: fear.
The government of the United States, from September 12, 2001 through the present day, has constantly fanned the flames of fear of terrorism. Despite the well-known statistics of how an American here at home has a greater chance of being struck by lightning than dying in a terror act, that following 9/11 only a handful of Americans have fallen victim to acts of terror inside the United States, and despite the fact that few of any terror attacks inside the Homeland were committed by the poster child of fear, the foreign terrorist who infiltrates the U.S. specifically to do harm, Americans remain terrified.
For over 15 years, three presidents have used fear (they called it security) as a justification for, well, nearly everything. And Americans bought the line nearly every time. Fear of the smoking gun being a mushroom cloud. Fear of terrorists slipping through the net justifying NSA spying on Americans. Fear of more terrorism justifying torture, drone attacks, leaving Guantanamo open, militarizing Africa, having us take our shoes off at the airport, not being able to bring a bottle of water on a plane, no longer being able to enter a growing range of buildings without some sort of security check and bag search, background checks, showing ID, and the No-Fly list. 30 American governors said they’d refuse to accept Syrian refugees into their states if they could.
Trump’s use of executive orders to accomplish his immigration goals is also nothing new. Both Bush and Obama did the same. In fact, Franklin Roosevelt used an executive order to establish the World War II Japanese internment camps.
The Ugly Truth
Of course nothing Trump has done or has proposed regarding immigration will realistically make America safer. That is true, and it is irrelevant. Like much of the security theatre that has become normalized post-9/11, safety is not the point. Keeping fear alive and maintaining the politically-driven myth that government is on the job protecting the Homeland is what matters. Trump knows this, as did Obama and Bush.
The ugly truth is despite the airport protests, a large number of Americans remain afraid of foreigners and want what Trump did. The ugly truth is there is unfortunately nothing here unique to the Trump era.
BONUS: Those who focused last weekend on the two Iraqis who translated for the American military in Iraq at great risk to their lives and were detained at a New York airport may wish to read about the decades-long struggle of translators from Iraq and Afghanistan to escape those nations for fear of their lives, and the poor treatment they have received at the hands of now three administrations.
Please come join me for a bit of speaking and discussion at Yale University on February 7. The event is free and open to the public.
My speech is part of Yale’s Macmillan Center for Global Justice Program, and I’ll kick off this semester’s slate of speakers. The event will be held in the ground-floor seminar room at 230 Prospect Street beginning at 4:30 pm. No advance tickets or reservations needed.
I’ll offer some thoughts on whistleblowing, my own case as well as those of Manning and Snowden, leading into wider reflections on Iraq, the First Amendment, and what options exist from inside government when one deeply disagrees with specific policies.
Kinda timely stuff.
There will be open discussion and plenty of time for questions. Those who oppose free speech are also welcome to come and punch me in the head.
The media has been aflame recently trying to stretch the facts — personnel changes and some unhappy employees in the midst of a major governmental transition — to fit the narrative of a State Department on the verge of collapse. But while rumors of the State Department’s demise are largely exaggerated, the organization may yet find itself shunted aside into irrelevance.
There has been a lot of hot-blooded talk about Donald Trump and the federal workforce. The media once claimed Trump would not be able to fill his political appointee positions, and then suggested employees might resign en masse before he even was inaugerated. Another round of stories fanned panic that Trump had dumped his existing ambassadors, when in fact it was only the Obama-appointed ones who tendered resignations by tradition, as happens every four years.
Then only last week the Washington Post published a bombastic story claiming the State Department’s entire senior management team had resigned in protest. The real story, however, was that all/most of the six were de facto fired. Several were connected to the Clinton emails or Clinton’s handling of Benghazi. One of these people, Pat Kennedy, played a significant role in both. These were not protest resignations, they were housecleaning by the new boss in town.
As for plunging the State Department into chaos, the loss of six employees is not going to bring on Armageddon. Reports that these people represent “senior management” at State confuse terms. Because of the odd way State is organized, four of the six work in the Management Bureau, M in State talk. Kennedy was the head of the Bureau. The four play varying roles and collectively are not the senior management of the State Department. Two work in other parts of the Department directly tied to Obama-era policies likely to change under the new administration.
In addition, all six persons come from offices with a deep bench. It is highly unlikely that any of the work of the State Department will be impeded. This is all part of the standard transition process. The same applies to embassies overseas that lost their Obama-appointed ambassadors.
The latest Chicken Little reporting concerns “dissent” messages circulating within the State Department, aimed at Trump’s executive order on immigration; one media outlet characterized this as a “revolt” waiting for Tillerson on his Day One.
Such bombastic language misses the mark completely. Though State’s internal process requires a response from senior leaders, they have 60 days to provide it, it is not public, and if experience serves will almost certainly be of the “we acknowledge your concerns” content-free variety.
Others feel that while having no practical impact on policy, such dissent measures the state of employee thought, and there may be some truth to that. The average State Department Foreign Service officer has served 12 years, meaning a large number have never worked for any president other than Barack Obama and more than half have seen only the current presidential transition.
These employees have never had their oath of service to the Constitution, not to Barack Obama or Donald Trump, tested. Government carries out the policies of the president on behalf of the United States. It’s called public service for a reason. Those concerned because the wrong candidate won are probably simply learning they are in the wrong business. Though indelicate in his phrasing, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was actually only expressing a version of official policy when he said of those diplomats they “should either get with the program, or they can go.”
As a reality check, out of a workforce of thousands at the State Department there were only three resignations of conscience over the 2003 Iraq War, one other related to Afghanistan. There were no publicly known resignations related to torture, Guantanamo, drone assassination or any of the other horrors of the War on Terror stretched across two administrations. The last time more than a handful of diplomats resigned in protest was at the height of the Vietnam War.
So it is without much evidence that Rex Tillerson will walk into a State Department weakened by dissent. But what he may preside over is an institution largely devoid of relevance, and suffering budget and personnel cuts in line with that.
The signature issues Secretaries Clinton and Kerry supported — women’s and LGBTQ rights, social media messaging, soft power, climate change — are unlikely to get much attention under the Trump administration. In addition, given State’s role in hiding Clinton’s email server for years, and then slow-walking the release of her emails until ordered by the courts to speed up, it is doubtful there is good will and trust accumulated from the campaign. Foreign policy has increasingly gravitated under Bush and Obama deeper into the military, National Security Council, and the Oval Office anyway. None of that is likely to change.
Kerry’s original legacy issue, peace in Syria, is literally in flames. The United States was not even invited to the Russian-Turkish brokered peace talks, and there is little stomach anywhere for deposing Assad and generating more chaos. Kerry’s second shot at legacy, the Iran nuclear accords, seem destined to at best merely linger around if it does not just collapse. Iraq and Afghan policy, such as it is, appears mostly in the hands of the Pentagon, and Trump has chosen a powerful, experienced Secretary of Defense. No side sees the U.S. as an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Issues with China will fall into the lanes of trade and defense. It appears big-picture policy toward Russia, Mexico and elsewhere will be run directly out of the Oval Office.
At the same time, Trump’s federal hiring freeze has already impacted State. Even before the freeze there were more military band members than State Department Foreign Service Officers. The whole of the Foreign Service is smaller than the complement aboard one aircraft carrier. Yet Paul Teller, Trump’s liaison to the right wing of the House Republican Party, has already spoken of cutting back further on the number of America’s diplomats. If employees do leave on their own, or, more likely, stay at their desks in zombie state waiting out their pensions, that will only make State less useful to anyone in Washington.
What’s really left for State to do?
Tillerson will find himself in charge of a Cabinet agency is search of a mission. He may very well end up somewhere between the traditional ceremonial role of the Vice President, attending conferences and funerals, or perhaps simply overseeing his network of embassies serve as America’s concierge abroad, providing cover stories for the intelligence community, arranging official visits for fact-finding Members of Congress, and hosting senior Washington policy makers in town to do the heavy lifting of international relations. State will still hold the monopoly inside government on things like Sports Diplomacy and paying for reality TV shows in Niger to influence those there with TVs.
If that all doesn’t sound like a very attractive job, you’re right. It’s difficult to imagine Tillerson sticking around for four years. Who knows, the resignation out of the State Department that attracts the most attention of all might be his.
Many of the Wikipedia-driven insta-experts on the Electoral College are now transforming into insta-experts on the Emoluments Clause, claiming the Clause can be used to impeach President Trump. But it is not that simple. What is the Clause, and in practical terms, how might it affect Trump?
Save Us Please, Emoluments Clause!
Deep inside Article I of the Constitution are a handful of lines called the Emoluments Clause, intended to bar office holders from accepting gifts (the full definition of emolument includes a salary, fee or profit from employment or office) from foreign sovereigns, including in the language of the 18th century, kings and princes. The Founders’ intent was to prevent foreign influence buying.
Insta-experts seem to be circle-logicing themselves into believing Trump will be in violation of the Emoluments Clause literally as he takes the oath of office, and thus impeachment proceedings can follow, all because of his global business interests.
But unlike most everything else in the Constitution, issues connected to the Clause have never gone before the Supreme Court, there is very little case law, and very little legal study. It has simply not come up in any significant way. Journalists have discovered the Clause, however, and now are promoting it as a way to defeat President Trump.
The problem is that much of what is being written appears to come from Clinton supporters in denial. The election failed, the recounts failed, the move to sway faithless Electors failed, the sludge of Russian allegations failed, Meryl Streep failed, and Beyonce not pole dancing at the inauguration failed. All that stands between democracy and the abyss is the Emoluments Clause.
Luckily, there are non-partisan sources out there, including the American Bar Association, and the National Constitution Center. Before wading through your next fake news article, let’s synthesize some of what has been said about the Emoluments Clause.
The Emoluments Clause
The Clause is aimed at governments, those kings and princes, seeking to influence the United States. It has nothing to say about 21st century life, such as Trump’s companies doing business with entities controlled in whole or part by foreign governments (state-owned businesses, such as the Bank of China, as is common in many parts of the world.)
The Clause is also untested in regards to complex corporate ownership. It is common in the media to state matter-of-factly “Donald Trump owns a hotel in Dubai.” Yet most of Trump’s business, like most corporate business in general, is done through a web of companies that are legal entities of their own. Some involve stockholders, some in which Trump holds a minority position. Similar questions would likely have been asked about foreign government donations to the Clinton Foundation had Hillary been elected president. None of this existed when the Clause was written, and all of this requires a 21st century judicial interpretation.
Emoluments are more complex than simply doing business overseas. The Clause may allow for fair market price transactions, for example. So, if a piece of real estate is legitimately (and yes, we’ll argue over that word) valued at $100,000, it is not a bribe or a representation of influence to sell it for $100k. It would be more questionable to accept $150k. Some have claimed if a foreign diplomat stays at a Trump hotel, the standard room price paid would violate the Clause. That’s a question of legal exchange; if Trump accepts money from Iran to remove sanctions, that’s a bribe. If a Trump hotel collects money for a night in the bridal suite, that’s a simple exchange of goods and services. Does the Emoluments Clause apply?
Some legal scholars argue the Emoluments Clause doesn’t apply to the president at all. A different clause of the Constitution makes bribery an impeachable offense. That clause specifically mentions the president by title, while the Emoluments Clause does not. In addition, other parts of the Constitution that specifically address the president typically include a separate delineation for “officials,” the wording used in the Emoluments Clause.
That all suggests emoluments may exclude the president. However, precedent suggests the Clause does apply. George Washington was allowed to accept a foreign gift, Andrew Jackson was not, and Martin Van Buren had to agree to a 50-50 split with the State Department over gifts from the Imam of Muscat. And in 2009 the Office of Legal Counsel said President Obama could accept the Nobel Peace Prize money without violating the Clause. But all four men asked for an OK ahead of time. There was no actual challenge, and none of the cases involved doing business.
Another issue is standing, who can sue over any of this to get it into the courts for a ruling. One legal professor feels no one seems to have such standing, and so states “if there are concerns about how President Trump handles his various investments, the only remedies will be political.” Meaning vote him out of office in the next election if you don’t like what he’s doing.
There are also those who skip most of the legal arguments, and focus on the so-called larger picture; clearly the Founders did not want the president beholden to foreigners. So never mind the parsing of words, the Emoluments Clause was written precisely to stop a person like Trump.
In terms of practical matters, the less Trump makes public about his business dealings, the less chance anyone has of looking into any of this. Congress can’t even think about impeachment unless there is a “high crime or misdemeanor” involved and a Trump business deal per se is far from definitive evidence of that. Impeachment involves a lot of people in Congress agreeing on moving forward, and Congress for at least the next two years is controlled by the Republicans.
And should anyone find a way to pursue it, it would be easy for Trump’s side to drive the issue through the courts for some time, and, because it ultimately involves interpretation of the Constitution, to the Supreme Court.
There are mostly questions and very few answers about the Emoluments Clause. There are also legitimate concerns over conflicts of interest during the Trump administration; no president in history has come into office with as vast and complex financial holdings. Modern presidents have bypassed all of this by using blind trusts, something Trump has said he will not do. This is clearly uncharted legal and political territory.
That said, it appears use of the Emoluments Clause to impeach Trump is another Clinton martyrdom political fantasy. Any clarification will involve extensive travel through the court system, and given the initial question of who even has standing to pursue that, nothing can happen quickly, if at all.
(Peter Van Buren, a 24 year State Department veteran, is the author of “We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.” His next book is “Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan.” @WeMeantWell)
The media has gone near-insane, claiming State is crumbling in protest under the Trump administration. This is not true. What happened at State is very routine.
Leaving the Department are head of the Management Bureau Pat Kennedy (above), Assistant Secretary of State for Administration Joyce Anne Barr, Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Michele Bond, Ambassador Gentry O. Smith, director of the Office of Foreign Missions, arms control official Tom Countryman, and Victoria Nuland.
Here’s the story:
— No one at the State Dept resigned in protest.
— No one was formally fired.
— Six people were transferred from or retired from political appointee positions. Technically those who did not retire can be considered to have “resigned,” but that is a routine HR/personnel term used, not some political statement. The six are career Foreign Service career personnel (FSOs) They previously left their FSO job to be appointed into political jobs and now have resigned those (or retired out of the State Department) to return to career FSO jobs. A circle. They are required to submit a letter of resignation as a matter of routine when a new president takes office.
— As for perspective: only one Under Secretary of State (Alan Larson) stayed through the transition from Bill Clinton to George W. Bush. It is routine for senior officials to leave or be reassigned.
— Several of the six are connected to the Clinton emails and/or Clinton’s handling of Benghazi. One of these people, Pat Kennedy, played a significant role in both, as well as many other controversial issues during Clinton’s term. Sources tell me that although officially Kennedy “retired,” he was more or less required to do so by the Trump administration.
— I have no information on the others, whether they were asked to retire, or just part of a reshuffling of positions and will routinely be reassigned. Most likely the latter, as such reshuffling is very common as administrations change. As everywhere in the government, the new administration fills its own political appointee slots.
— Some of the six will hit mandatory retirement age on January 31 anyway.
— Reports that these people represent “senior management” at State confuse terms. Because of the odd way State is organized, four of the six work in the Management Bureau, M in State talk. Kennedy was the head of the Bureau. The four play varying roles and collectively are not the senior management of the State Department. Two work in other parts of the Department (Countryman and Nuland) and are more directly tied to policies likely to change under the new administration.
— All six persons come from offices with a deep bench. It is highly unlikely that any of the work of the State Department will be impeded by any of these changes. Every office has a second, third, fourth, etc., person in charge who will step up pending formal replacements to be nominated and confirmed. This is all part of the standard transition process.
— As an example, I worked in the Bureau of Consular Affairs for most of my 24 years at State, including working with/for Michele Bond, one of the resignees. I personally know the people in the next rank below her, and all have equal experience and tenure as Bond. There will be no gap in experience or knowledge as some press reports have fretted. There will be no “void.” A slightly more dire, but responsible take, here.
— There will very likely be more, similar, “resignations” and reshuffling at State. New political appointees will bring in their own staff, for example. But unless and until an employee holds a press conference to announce s/he is resigning out of protest, the media should take care to calm down, verify facts, and report accurately.
— The Washington Post stated these changes were part of an “ongoing mass exodus of senior Foreign Service officers who don’t want to stick around for the Trump era.” I am not aware of any other noteworthy departures (two lesser officials left earlier this month in circumstances not clearly connected to Trump) and as stated above, the six did not resign in protest. Regardless, eight people in any context do not constitute a mass exodus.
— The Post article is, in my opinion, grossly alarming. It reflects a reporter apparently unfamiliar with transitions at State.
I am still not getting the “everything is different” argument. Everything seems sort of the same way it always has worked. Sure, the policies are different, but the process is working the same as always. The system is not breaking down.
Trump was elected by the same electoral system in place for over 200 years. There have been four other elections where the winner of the popular vote lost the Electoral Vote. Sometimes elections are close. Close doesn’t count, popular vote doesn’t win. That’s just the way it is.
Trump was elected by people who want him to make changes and he has and will continue to do so, like every other president (ex. Carter to Reagan, Bush to Obama.) About half the country, maybe more, will disagree, as usual. The president’s popularity will go up and down and everyone will argue about the statistical methods used. The same party currently controls the Congress and Executive. Nothing unique, happens often in history. The president will try and fill the courts with judges who agree with him. Political appointees will be seeded throughout government. Business as usual.
Congress has steadfastly chosen not to pass a law that requires the president to release his taxes, and so Trump has not. So maybe somewhat unique, but seriously, you think you’ll find a 1099 form in there for “Misc Espionage Work, Russia?” A yellow sticky saying “Owe money to China, be nice to them?” The taxes have become a strawman argument, something opponents can throw up (likely forever) and then say “See, he won’t release them!” as proof that Trump has something to hide.
The press can choose for itself what role to play (so far, it is largely that of Chicken Little.) People will protest, sometimes a lot of them at once. Some policies and decisions will work out better than others. Cabinet members will disagree with the president and either be pulled into line, kept as alternate opinions, or fired.
Any panic that Trump will start a nuke war is based on nothing but fear based on fear; hell, if it makes you feel better, he won’t start a nuclear war because it’ll be bad for his business. On the other hand, the last two presidents started and/or continued plenty of wars. And hey, maybe some reassuring news, Trump has made his first drone strikes, on Yemen, continuing Obama’s policy. He plans to keep Gitmo open, just as Obama did for eight years. He wants to restart torture, like Bush did and Obama silently allowed to pass without prosecutions.
The only significant thing that seems new is that yes, absolutely, Trump is crude in his manner and speech. We’ll agree is is a pretty lousy human. But he’s in the White House now and that reality has to be dealt with as a reality. If you feel better calling his wife a classless whore and his son autistic, sad for you, but whatever. People are welcome to hate Trump for the person he is, but that is not the same as being terrified of everything that might happen and concluding the Republic is finished. Most of the rest seems stuff people just don’t agree with and which would not have changed under Clinton and they can’t accept that.
What does seem new is the scary willingness of people, in and out of the press, to make giant leaps of terrified pseudo logic. For example, the people who clapped for Trump at his CIA speech were White House staffers. not CIA –> the CIA hates Trump –> Trump will not accept information from the CIA and/or they won’t provide it –> another 9/11! Seriously?
The one thing that does seem unique this election is the continuing efforts to believe somehow Trump can be made to “un-win.” So we had Jill Stein’s failed campaign to recount critical states, followed by Michael Moore’s, et al, failed campaign to sway so-called faithless electors to not vote Trump, followed by the IC’s failed campaign to scar Trump as a Russian super agent, followed by the lame hope Congress would not certify the election results, plus Meryl Streep and Madonna’s calls to Les Barricades. Now it is on to the Emoluments Clause with the idea that that will lead to Trump’s impeachment.
Quick note: since the Republicans control the House for at least two more years, there’s not going to be any impeachment for at least that long.
Disclaimer: It seems these days any article that does not simply insult and criticize Trump is deemed to be pro-Trump, and, often by extension, racist, sexist, etc. I do not like Trump, I disagree with most of his positions (I am no TPP fan, and I like the idea of disengaging with Syria and negotiating with Putin as needed) and certainly did not vote for him. Please touch in with reality and read critically if you can. Thanks!
NOTE: The following is a rebuttal to my own article explaining how stopping speech you disagree with via violence is wrong. I am reprinting the rebuttal in its entirety and with permission. I received a lot of comments on what I wrote, and this one below is pretty typical, albeit without as much profanity and personal threats/insults as the others.
Jesus H. Jones,this infernal debate continues. Peter Van Buren, possessor of such a nice Aryan name and a defence so strident of Nazis right to free speech that he will probably not be in danger of imprisonment, execution or genocide if they win, has written a piece in The Nation as a riposte to Natasha Lennard’s article in the same publication.
Van Buren’s argument comes from the standpoint of the first amendment to the constitution of the USA, the one that protects, on paper anyway, the right to free speech, freedom of religion and freedom of the press.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Let’s stop here for a second and consider the words of that amendment. They look very nice, don’t they? But there’s a reason I said “on paper anyway”; Look closely and read between the lines. You’ve noticed haven’t you? First amendment rights have routinely been cast aside when they clash with the interests of the US American ruling class. People who agitated against the first world war were imprisoned for as little as printing pamphlets and newspapers or speaking in public, during the nineteen forties and fifties, people suspected of being communists were brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and now Trump wants Muslims to have to sign a register. So much for rights.
Poor people too have ‘first amendment rights’ but rarely get to use them in the way the Van Buren is advocating for Neo-Nazi mouthpieces. When was the last time you saw someone from the slums of Detroit being interviewed about their political views on national television or publishing pamphlets or writing newspaper opinion pieces? I am reminded of the words of Anatole France in Le Lys Rouge, “In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread.” The first amendment to the US constitution protects the right to free speech for rich and poor alike, but that means nothing to someone living in poverty, or someone being burned out of their home for being the wrong colour or for practicing the wrong religion.
In the article, Van Buren says that if you condone the act of punching a Nazi then you must condone the act of ripping a hijab off a woman’s head. That he considers these two things equivalent speaks volumes of the ‘moderate’ tendency to empty acts, and indeed words, of their meaning. Ripping a hijab off a woman’s head is an act of oppression. It says that this woman, who has said or done nothing to threaten anyone is a legitimate target for hatred and violence. Punching a Nazi on the other hand, is an act of self defence. Nazi’s are not just using words to get their point across, they are organising physical violence against people of colour, Muslims, LGBT folk and left wing radicals; They are actively threatening the lives of people who are different or who disagree with their world view. Their world view is to eradicate freedom in it’s entirety for the vast majority of human beings. That’s why they should be physically confronted, that’s why their movement must be smashed before it can wreak too much havoc.
He also reduces the fight against the Nazis in WW2 to a “70 year old struggle between nation states.” No doubt, the entry of various states into war against the Nazis was prompted by threats to their Imperialist hegemony – in particular the USA entered the war because of the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbour, but people fought in their millions against fascism, from well before the war in Europe broke out, specifically because of what Nazism and Fascism represent – midnight for the human race, the victory of unreason over reason, racial nationalism, anti-communism, or as Orwell put it “a boot stamping on a human face forever.” (Orwell meant authoritarianism in general – both right and nominally left).
If we don’t want to relive the horrors of Nazism, the racial laws, the genocide, the stamping out of all political freedoms, not to mention the war, that ravaged Europe in the mid 20th century, it is necessary to stamp it out in it’s infancy. It is a threat across the globe, here in Ireland the far right is small, but there is larger minority among us who will flock to them if they feel it is safe to do so. Until now they have feared to raise their heads above the parapet, and this is a good thing. When white nationalist movements have tried to go public, they have been physically beaten back. These actions protect the freedom of the vast majority of humanity. But now, in the wake of Brexit and Trump’s victory, the racists, the authoritarians everywhere are raising their voices. The comment threads in online publications are a cesspool of embryonic fascist thought. It only takes a small breakthrough for a far right organisation to rally these people behind its banner, and the likes of Peter Van Buren, and our own Irish liberal establishment, who enjoy debating fascists to prove their intellectual superiority, make those breakthroughs more likely.
In Britain, France, Germany, Austria, Greece and the USA, the far right is a tangible threat to the freedom of the vast majority of humanity. Constitutional rights won’t stop them, only an organised anti-fascist movement that is well organised, prepared to take the fight to the fascists, to snuff out their ideas in their infancy and keep fighting until their movement is back in the dustbin of history where it belongs. We will be harshly judged by the future generations if we let them rise again.
No, we should not.
Condoning, applauding or giggling over the idea of punching people in the head whose political positions, however abhorrent, we don’t agree with is so wrong I am not even sure why it is necessary to talk about it. However, given the events of this weekend, it seems we have to talk about it.
“Is it OK to punch a Nazi for what he said?” is a question bouncing around the media and the Internet after an attack on Richard Spencer following the Trump inauguration. Spencer created the term alt-right. On video, he was explaining the meaning of Pepe the Frog, a silly cartoon figure somehow adopted as a mascot by the racist, far-right fringe movement Spencer promotes as anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic and anti-feminist.
The punch was captured on video:
There are over 4,500 comments on YouTube alone, and most condone the punch. The most popular format is to say “I don’t condone violence BUT…” and then go on to condone violence. Another popular comment is to mention Hitler, WWII and the defeat of the Nazis, and somehow see the video as a part of that 70-year-old global struggle fought between nation states.
The main thrust of commentary is that violence is now justified as a response to speech by the right some do not care for. More than a few people have suggested punching someone in the head is in fact a form of protected free speech itself, and others seem to think whatever they label as “hate speech” is a crime. Others mouth stuff along the lines of “the end justifies the means.”
A popular meme is to put different songs, many calling for violence themselves, behind the punching video. Jon Favreau, a former speechwriter for Barack Obama, tweeted “I don’t care how many different songs you set Richard Spencer being punched to, I’ll laugh at every one.”
Where to begin?
— If violence against those exercising their First Amendment rights (speech, religion, etc.) can ever be condoned, why wouldn’t that also condone tearing off a woman’s hijab, or lynching someone? See how the “violence is justified” argument can work?
— There are no laws against hate speech. Details here.
— Punching people is not a form of protected speech. Expressed legally in a number of ways, Supreme Court Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes stated “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.”
— Free speech protection covers all the things people want to say, from the furthest left to the furthest right. You can burn a flag, display a nude body, fill a fish tank with urine and call it art, put on a KKK uniform and march past a Black church, and say whatever Richard Spencer was saying. It means I can write this article.
— The First Amendment and the broader traditions of free speech are there to protect the most challenging awful mean terrible hateful racist sexist anti-American garbage people can spew out. The protections are not there to cover the easy stuff most people agree with (though they do.) That is the whole point.
— The ACLU has defended the right of both Nazis and the KKK to speak.
It saddens me greatly to see even one person suggest violence as a proper response to the exercise of our precious right to free speech.
It saddens me even more when everyone of us cannot see thinking you are opposing fascism by beating up those who ideas you disagree with.
John Lewis, Barack Obama, hell, any Democratic politician, waiting on you to denounce this. Also, everyone on Twitter and elsewhere saying I personally support genocide, is it possible for you to understand I support the concept of free speech in its purest form, and none of that implies support for any specific position, from naked art photos to Holocaust deniers to the films of Jerry Lewis. I am simply astounded how many people are unable to distinguish between support for speech itself from support for what someone says. I expected this from the right someday, am gobsmacked that it hit me from the left. Sigh.
One of my favorite quotes includes the lines “I awoke this morning to find that it was not judgment day – only morning. Morning: excellent and fair.” I think that sums up a part of my thinking, but certainly not all.
A nuclear reckoning, war with China, or anything else quite so violently apocalyptic is imminent, or even underway, as far too many of us think. I live in one of those bubbles, the sum of which make up America now. Many of the people I talk to, in person and here online, seem to believe, truly believe, the world is coming to something of an end. These are by and large educated, once-rational people, some of whom have been voices of reason in the past. They are not that way now.
We are however falling, some important threads of our nation being teased apart, and our best days are behind us. But this did not start on November 8, 2016, or January 20, 2017, thoough historians will note those dates as significant milestones (same as September 11, 2001.) But not because of Donald Trump. Because his name just happened to be attached to what has been growing inside us since the end of WWII.
The Russians did not elect Trump. They may or may not have tried to get involved in the election, but we did this to ourselves. As the historian you have probably not read but should read Morris Berman predicted years ago, we are eating each other.
We are consumed most of all by our fears. Fear of what the Soviets, and maybe the Chinese, would do after WWII. We created a nuclear arsenal measured in how many multiples of times it could destroy the world. We dragged our country through disasters like Vietnam, that murdered so many and cracked apart our nation. Our fear of race, our war on drugs, and then of course our fear of a world beyond our control after 9/11. Another quote that seems to fit is “The leader of genius must have the ability to make different opponents appear as if they belonged to one category.”
The fears were encouraged at every opportunity by those who profited from them, either by rawly making money, or by acquiring power and control, or in most cases, both. We are unconcerned — it’s normal — that politicians routinely leave office wealthy despite modest salaries. We have so much, and share so little. We enthusiastically abandoned so many of the good things about America, such as our Bill of Rights. America’s pre-WWII Constitutional Era was grossly imperfect. Yet for its obvious failings, there was a sense of the possibility of progress; halting, awkward, unfinished, but, well, for lack of a better word and to use a word that has become a symbol of modern irony, hope.
Of course none of that was close to perfect, but it was good and it is gone in some arenas and going away in most of the rest. We’ll still be allowed to rant on Twitter, a modern day bread and circus, but the real stuff of standing up and speaking back to government will happen only with handfuls of whistleblowers who will sacrifice their lives and freedom to say what they need to say.
I thought we had a chance at change in 2008 but instead was proven to be a dupe. I thought he might turn it all around, in those first weeks he could have asked the rivers to flow backwards and they just might have. He could have grounded the drones, torn up the Patriot Act, held truth commissions to bring into the light our tortures, re-emancipated America in ways not unlike Lincoln did in the 1860s. Slam shut the gates of Guantanamo, close the secret prisons that even today still ooze pus in Afghanistan, stop the militarization of Africa, bring the troops home, all of it, just have done it. What a change, what a path forward, what a rebirth for an America who had lost her way so perilously. One man could have made a difference and when he did not even try, he helped solidify in America a sense of cynicism and powerlessness that empowers evil people further. If there was no Obama there would be no Trump.
A new generation, and me again, thought there was another chance with Bernie Sanders. We were stupid. He was a distraction, and showed his true colors throwing away everything he said previously to support a candidate of the same old old school we’ve been voting for since WWII.
Trump is at best/worst a symbol of all this. How powerful people play us against each other and exploit our differences. How fear (currently fear of Trump filtered through fear of Putin) can be used to manipulate us. How the ideas of democracy can be so easily tossed aside so that our most progressive thinkers are convinced elections are illegitimate, and anything from silly name calling to demands for something akin to a coup are justified when the enemy is as perceived evil as Trump. Echoing the famous lines from Vietnam, it is in their minds necessary to destroy democracy in order to save it.
I’ve written here before open letters to my daughters, talking about the world they are maturing into. This is in that spirit. Somebody, maybe them, is one day going to stop and wonder how they got to where they ended up, an oligarchy that profits from mouthing the nice words of our Founders while ignoring them. Maybe they will find this essay, dated for convenience only, January 20, 2017.
It is impressively sad how quickly this all happened.
Their shock that Hillary could lose to… him… needed some sort of explanation, as it could not have anything to do with Clinton’s shortcomings. It was cheating (we’ll have recounts), it was the Electoral College (faithless electors, unite!), it was Comey, or the media, or… when all else fails, you go with what you know: the Russians.
Putin is just a wonderful supervillain, and Trump such a stupid foil, that it was an easy sell. Dust off some old propaganda (the RT.com Red Scare part of the IC report was four years old itself, the material in it about 50 years old) and you are set. The American people are the most frightened puppies on earth and with terrorism just not scary as it once was, a new villian that plays to old fears appeared at the right place at the right time.
The Chinese might have been a good group to blame, but they don’t seem to take the bait and plus they make all our stuff. Never mind that long string of evil dictators who attack their own people across the MidEast the U.S. has used for the last 15 years to keep the war machine chugging, we’re back to the Eagle versus Bear. We’ll probably give Putin back the Fulda Gap just so we can fight over it.
After that, it is all just farce. Yes, yes, Trump is a secret agent, cleverly cultivated for years (how did the Russians know he’d be president, oh, yeah, they are all chess masters), blackmailed by Boris and Natasha with a (Hmmm, what should it be, how about) golden showers. People who appear on RT.com are puppets, anyone who traveled to Russia suspect, those who deny any of this simply useful idiots.
If you’re a journalist, simply phone up your favorite CIA leaker for a quote, or hell, just make something up, throw in a few Googled-translated Russian words for stooge (марионетка) or compromise (компромат) to make seem authentic, slap on a closing line about our very democracy itself in danger, use a few Tom Clancy terms such as “clear and present danger,” and poof, you’ve made your deadline before lunch.
It’s going to be four years, and it will get worse.
Chelsea will be free in May!
With more than a little irony, while I was in Iraq working for the State Department, Chelsea Manning’s office was across the hall from mine. While I was winning the war by writing emails to the embassy, Manning was across the hall capturing the texts of hundreds of thousands of State Department cables, famously released by Wikileaks, showing that was could never be won.
My war in Iraq ended in near-complete failure. What Manning did will have an impact far beyond that terrible struggle. In this video, I ask the question of why I didn’t do what Manning did, and challenge the audience: when faced with history, would you have the courage to do what Manning did?
Skip ahead to about 2:30
The United States will release a gold coin featuring Lady Liberty as a Black woman, the first time she has been depicted as anything other than white on the nation’s currency.
“Part of our intent was to honor our tradition and heritage,” stated a spokesperson from the Mint. “But we also think it’s always worthwhile to have a conversation about liberty, and we certainly have started that conversation.”
Good for everyone. Only the most dark hearted could be upset that a fictional character is represented in any particular way. This can’t be bad.
…Unless we acknowledge that America is apparently satisfied with “having conversations,” raising awareness about race, and various other symbolic gestures. The Academy Awards are coming up, and lots of people will be keeping track of how many are given out to non-white men and making much of the tally, their “much” depending on which side the scale tips. Gestures of all types are all good enough on their own, but they never really affect much. The issues of race stretch back to the Founders, well before we elected a Black president and then elected one who throws racist statements around on Twitter. We’re still dealing with the same questions.
The same day the new liberty coin was announced, the Department of Justice released a terrifying report describing the failures throughout the Chicago Police Department, saying excessive force was rampant, rarely challenged and chiefly aimed at African-Americans and Latinos. The report was released as Chicago faces skyrocketing violence, with murders are at a 20-year high, and a deep lack of trust among the city’s Black and white residents. And yeah, of course, the police force is very, very white.
Where was this report a year ago, or eight years ago, or ten years ago? Because the implication here is that the Obama administration issued this in its final days, allowing it (and not any solution or progress) to be part of his legacy. Suspecting Trump will not make dealing with these issues a priority, Obama’s DOJ can take credit for “starting a conversation” about Chicago while walking away from the heavy lifting of helping fix it. Hell, DOJ might as well have issued a commemorative coin in lieu of the report.
We all know the rest: 1 in every 15 African American men are incarcerated in comparison to 1 in every 106 white men. According to the Bureau of Justice statistics, one in three Black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime. Once convicted, Black offenders receive longer sentences compared to white offenders. You can find similar numbers for poverty (nearly a quarter of blacks are living in poverty, almost the same as in 1976), unemployment (double that of whites), life expectancy, and voter disenfranchisement.
Clearly over the last seven decades somebody could have fixed some of that. It can’t all be impossible.
Now, there has been some progress. America wrapped up formal slavery in 1865, only 76 years after the Bill of Rights. And then it was only another 100 some years before the Civil Rights laws tried hard to grant Blacks the rights the 1865 victory gave them. We don’t have lynchings and killings much anymore (though the Chicago PD keeps its hand in) and places that wish to discriminate against Blacks have to do it much more subtlety.
I’m not making light of suffering, but I am using sarcasm to show how angry I am about lack of real progress. We seem content to see presence as progress — first Black major leaguer, first Black Supreme Court Justice, first Black _____, first Black president. Again, there is nothing bad there, but now that the top box has been checked, what happens next?
In other words, we get Martin Luther King day as a Federal holiday while at the same time we don’t get the values King embodied. There you go. As one person put it “The Dr. King we choose to remember was indeed the symbolic beacon of the civil rights movement. But the Dr. King we forget worked within institutions to transform broken systems.” Change is not organic; it must be made to happen.
It is hard to come to any conclusion other than we as a society just don’t care. There are so many excuses (he was blocked by the Republicans, they’re still a tiny minority in Congress, the media, etc.) but even America’s Black president failed hard to make much of a real difference. We seem satisfied with symbolic gestures, blowing them out of proportion while the real problems sit in plain sight, unattended. What people will characterize over the next four years as sliding backwards on racial progress seems more like business as usual, albeit without the eloquent speeches.
BONUS: Someone will label me a racist for this. Someone on Twitter will tell me to go f*ck myself. Many people will tell me because of my race I have no understanding, even no right, to talk about these issues. Others will claim I shower with Trump. OK if any of that makes you feel better, but none of that changes what I’ve said.
EXTRA BONUS: Just got accused of “white-splaining” because of this. Apparently that is a thing.
A report, “Lessons From the Coalition,” emerged from a conference co-hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace (yes, we have one, it is part of the State Department and doesn’t do much but organize events in Washington.) The conference brought together representatives from eleven major donor nations, the EU, UN, World Bank, and NATO to share common experiences and lessons from the Afghan reconstruction effort.
Here’s what they concluded:
— The confluence of conflicting goals and divided actors led to a situation in which countries were often pursuing disparate and sometimes ill-defined missions in Afghanistan. In fact, many nations were unclear as to what they were trying to achieve in Afghanistan.
— Many countries were primarily motivated by their alliance commitments to the United States, rather than specific strategic goals related to Afghanistan, and were often more focused on what was happening in Washington than in Kabul.
— Conference participants were critical of instances when military forces undertook development work, indicating their efforts often ended up costing more and being less effective than those of their civilian counterparts.
— Inability to understand the local context led to projects that unintentionally benefited corrupt officials, threatened local governance, led to escalating violence, sabotage of the project itself, and wasted resources.
— Development projects did not buy security. Participants believed that when development projects occurred in insecure places, the projects either benefited the insurgency or insurgents increased violence to counteract any potential gains.
— One participant referred to the regular turnover of personnel as an “annual lobotomy.”
— Conditions placed on funds were often not credible, as donors were ultimately unwilling to withhold funds that were essential to preventing the collapse of the Afghan government. Afghan officials were aware of these limitations and were able to call donors’ bluffs. When faced with a donor’s conditions, Afghan officials could often obtain funding from another donor.
But, hey, I’m sure they all meant well in their efforts. Hell, someone should write a book about that so no one repeats the same mistakes in the next war.
Want to know how to evaluate the memo alleging Trump is run by the Russians, and that they have video of him and his golden showers? I can tell you. Read.
The use of anonymous sources was once a major line for a journalist to cross.
By not naming a source, the journalist insists you trust them. Did they talk to an intern or a policymaker? Every source has an agenda; if we don’t know the source we have no idea of the agenda. Was the journalist trying to act carefully, but was fooled themselves? Remember the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War, and the way the press facilitated that via articles based on unnamed sources we now know were Bush administration officials with fake tales of Weapons of Mass Destruction.
Anonymous sources have their place. With Deep Throat during the Watergate scandal, the Washington Post tried to use his information as a tool to work backwards to verifiable truths, or to allow them to reach people who would go on the record. Part of Edward Snowden’s credibility came from his named status.
2016: New Rules
The 2016 election appears to have changed the rules. Writers seem to be able to publish potentially game-changing stories based only on unnamed sources, with little or no collaborating evidence other than “it might be true.” And how can one refute an anonymous source presenting unique information, say something pulled from a highly classified document the public may never see? Adding to the question of credibility, the stories often track the writer’s political stance.
Many readers feel they have only two options: take the writer’s word for it, or not. The result is a steady flow of amazing insider stories that get blasted through sympathetic repeat media, then left like online roadkill for us to Tweet about, labeling them as fake news or screaming at the people who label them as fake news.
Thinking Like a Spy
So how do readers try to reasonably exercise some healthy skepticism and critical thought? One way is to apply tests intelligence officers follow to help them evaluate their own sources.
— Is the source in a position to know what they say they know? Someone in Human Resources who says a guy in the Analysis section is underpaid and vulnerable to recruitment, yep. Someone in Human Resources who says they have the embassy’s economic predictions for Country X for next year, hmmm. One of the ways Snowden’s critics sought to discredit him was to claim he could not have had access to the information he released (and so it must be fake.) When this idea is worked backwards — you are out looking for a source on some subject — it is known as spotting.
— The “position to know” idea scales up sharply when a source says they are privy to conversations well-above their pay grade; how would they know the contents of a call the president made? Anyone who claims to know the why behind some action, what was in the heads of the decision makers, is subject to special skepticism. Overall, the further away from probability — plausibility — a story stretches, the more obligation on the intelligence officer to address those questions.
— All sources have agendas. Human nature being what it is, sources who just want to do the right thing need to be looked at more closely. The source is risking something by talking, maybe even jail; why? Is what they will get out of the leak worth the risk they are assuming? And if you don’t know your source’s agenda — what they want — then you’re like the guy at the poker table who can’t tell who the rube is.
— An intelligence officer needs to constantly ask themselves if they are being used, offered fake information for some purpose. How can they tell? What can the source offer that is verifiable? If they say they work directly for the ambassador, can they pass on a few internal phone numbers you can call anonymously?
— Presumably if you are looking into a topic, and your source claims to have information, do they otherwise seem to know at least as much as you know? And if you’re being leaked to on a topic you know little about, why are they coming to you anyway? Is what you are being told consistent with other information on the subject? Is the information something that follows from known things, something known as expectability? Has the source reported reliably in the past, or have they been referred to you by someone who has?
— Does what is being handed to you fit the “is the juice worth the squeeze,” risk versus gain, test? For example, a source claims Candidate X had a police officer beaten after she ticketed his car. Would a candidate risk news that he ordered a beating of a cop just to retaliate for a minor traffic ticket?
“It Might Be True”
While anything can have an explanation, “it might be true” or “you can’t prove it’s not true” are enablers of fake news. Instead, readers should apply some of the tests an intelligence officer might: who would know the information? How could someone know? How big a risk would that source be taking and why would take it? What agenda might the source and/or writer have? How plausible is what you’re reading, is the juice worth the squeeze?
In the end, an intelligence officer rarely knows what is 100% true, so they assign a rating to information, such as high confidence, or medium confidence, and act on the information (or not) in line with that.
A reader can never know with certainty the truth about an anonymously-sourced story. Anything is possible, but only some things are probable, and that’s usually the way you bet when you’re making up your mind whether to believe something in the media or not.
BONUS: Here’s one to practice on. The image below is already circulating online. Apply the tests above and judge its credibility yourself. (FYI: the info below is truly, absolutely fake, created for this kind of purpose.)
I love so many of your movies. Sophie’s Choice and French Lieutenant’s Woman were especially faves. When we were both younger I had a total fan-boy crush on you (full disclosure.)
And Trump is an ass, he did indeed mock a disabled person, hate breeds hate. Thank you, Meryl, for saying those truths.
However, by confining your criticism, and not speaking out against Obama and his NSA, drones, Gitmo, wars (Libya, Syria, Iraq, etc), use of the Espionage Act, poor record on Freedom of Information Act requests, shielding CIA torturers from prosecution, never mind just making nice speeches while doing nothing practical to curb racism and mass killings, you leave all those bad things on the table. Silence insulates Trump from criticism for, for example, future drone terror, because he’ll be able to say “Well, Obama did it and no one complained.”
You had a platform, a chance to lay down a marker to not allow the coming Obama revisionism to protect Trump, and you did not use it.
By leveling criticism at Trump only, you spoke to the same group of people that already dislikes Trump. You squandered any credibility with the people you need to speak to, those who supported Trump but need to understand what is happening going forward. You made yourself and your pals feel all revolutionary and warm, but do you think you gathered any new support for the Dems heading forward into midterms? Nope.
And by slipping in your snark against wrestling and MMA, Meryl, you flipped off a huge segment of the nation, some of whom the Dems may want as voters. I’m pretty sure very few people think of wrestling as what you called “The Arts” but sure, reinforce that idea that the Dems are cut off from regular people and that because those folks don’t watch black and white movies (how do you even know?) they are yokels.
You really don’t get it, do you, Meryl? Your near-total misunderstanding of what is going on outside your happyland (Meryl, it seems your net worth is $75 million, and the only job you have held since graduating from Vassar and Yale has been actress) makes your “stand” seem pretty sad. People are hurting.
So let me try and put it in terms you might “relate” to. One of your early roles was in the movie The Deer Hunter, about a group of blue collar steel workers who go off to Vietnam and are mentally and physically destroyed there. I spent a good part of a summer in the towns in West Virginia and Ohio where a lot of the movie was filmed. The factories are gone. The mills used as background scenery for your movie are cold and empty. The towns suffer from meth and opioid epidemics because of the pain. Nearly everyone is on some sort of food aid. An awful lot of the sons and daughters of the people who fought in Vietnam went on to fight in other pointless wars.
Those people are pissed off, Meryl. They are pissed off at people like you who want to dismiss them as simple racists and women haters. They are pissed off at being told they are too stupid to realize Obama fixed their economy, and that people like you know better. They do not see Hillary’s defeat as a martyrdom operation. The election was less about Trump than it was about people like you.
You made a movie in their backyard and then left them behind. That’s what happened, Meryl.
Oh, and Meryl, an underappreciated bit of stupidity in your speech was stressing the diversity of your attendees like Sarah Jessica Parker by saying she was from Ohio, and someone else starring in something was from New Jersey. What the hell was that even about?
People talk of the Deep State, a kind of shorthand to refer to the entrenched parts of the government, particularly inside the military, intelligence, and security communities, who don’t come and go with election cycles. The information they hold, and their longevity, allows them to significantly influence, perhaps control, the big picture decisions that change the way America works on a global scale. Who the enemies are, where the power needs to be applied, which wars will start and what governments should fall.
One of the features of the Deep State is that it prefers to work behind the scenes, in the shadows if you like. The big name politicians are out front, smiling for the cameras, and the lesser pols have to tend to the day-to-day stuff of government. The Deep State doesn’t trouble itself with regulating agriculture or deciding which infrastructure bill to fund. That is in large part why there will never be a full-on coup; why would the Deep State want to take on responsibility for the Department of Transportation?
When the Deep State does accidentally expose itself, it is often by accident, such as in the panic right after 9/11 when the president was sitting around reading a children’s book while Cheney, Rice, and Rumsfeld were calling the shots. Same for in the 1980s when a set of cock-ups exposed U.S. arms sales to Iran to pay for U.S. proxy forces in Central America while with U.S. support the Saudis paid for jihadists to fight in Afghanistan, laying the early groundwork for what would become the War on Terror.
Forget for a moment what you think of their actions, but pay attention: both our domestic intelligence service (the FBI) and our overseas intelligence service (the CIA) played significant roles in our election. Still not sure what the Deep State is? It’s that.
Forget what you “agree” with, and focus on what happened. In July the FBI exonerated Hillary Clinton of any wrongdoing in connection with her private email server. Yep, there was highly classified material, but that didn’t matter. Nope, the Russians and/or everybody else never hacked into her server, and nobody on her staff ever clicked Podesta-like on a phishing link. Nothing to see here. And then in October the FBI swung again and said well maybe there was something to see, buried conveniently on known-idiot Anthony Weiner’s laptop already in their possession. Funny about that. Anybody seen once marked-to-go places Huma Abedin lately?
As for the CIA, they managed to leak like Grandpa’s adult diapers throughout the campaign that Trump and Putin… something. Trump owes money to Russia. Trump’s computers communicate with Russia. Trump’s advisors work for Russia. Trump wants to build hotels in Russia. When none of that really stuck, it turned out the hacks into the DNC servers were done by Russians — in cahoots with arch-villian Julian Assange — ordered personally by Putin to elect Trump. All because Trump was Putin’s stooge, as the argument completed its circle.
UPDATE: When last week’s intelligence community report that “proved” the Russians did the DNC hack failed to really do much past a news cycle or two, it should be no surprise at all that this week a leak dropped on CNN that the Russians may have “compromising material” on Trump. Now, that leak supposedly came from anonymous sources from a classified synopsis included in a version of last week’s report that was based on allegation made public in the summer but only very recently “confirmed” by a former British intelligence officer who worked privately doing opposition research for an unnamed Trump Republican opponent.
If Trump could not be defeated, he would be delegitimized. Overnight the left/liberals/progressives/whatever turned into red-blooded supporters of the CIA and 21st century Cold Warriors, with anyone from that one asshole on Facebook you argue with to Pulitzer-prize winning journalists who disagree, labeled as Russian stooges, spies, fellow travelers and the like.
The result? A new Cold War, sold to the American people over the course of about a month.
When the Soviet Union collapsed and the old Cold War wrapped up, there was left a gaping hole for the Deep State. They nearly literally had nothing to do. Budgets were being cut, power in Washington defused. 9/11 was a helpful and timely accident; the War on Terror would provide the much-needed Cause to blow up spending and reconstruct status and power.
And the War on Terror started off with great promise for the Deep State, dovetailing nicely with long-sought Conservative projects such as remaking the Middle East and controlling the Persian Gulf. The future was wide open, Afghanistan a stupid but necessary prelude to the real first act in Iraq.
But despite the power of the Deep State, mistakes are made and nature finds a way. The War on Terror became a global clusterf*ck. Failures accumulated: Iraq and Afghanistan, of course. Libya, Syria, the messy Arab Spring, relations with Pakistan. You can’t really trust any of those folks to get it, we want a war that doesn’t end but looks good. Beheadings on TV simply stir people up at home and there is not much we can do about them.
Now, to be fair to the War on Terror, it had a good run. It normalized domestic spying and the omni-presence of security everywhere in America, and set up a nice bureaucracy to manage all that in Homeland Security. It got Americans used to see armed military, and militarized cops, on the streets.
But what was needed was a global struggle that made us look like we were winning without it ever ending.
If only there was some sort of model for that…
The Russians. Every American fear rolled into one guy, Putin, who might as well come from a Hollywood super-villian workshop. Unlike messy terrorists, who wanted, whatever, Sharia or a Caliphate, damn foreign words, Russia wanted old-fashioned territory, stuff on maps like Crimea and the Ukraine that mattered not a whit to America, but could be played domestically as Struggles for Freedom (C). The Russkies had troops with actual uniforms, and all the old propaganda materials were laying around. The Russians also knew how to play ball, blasting back through their RT and Sputnik channels nobody really watches but are right there to label as threats to our democracy. The Russian version of the Deep State knows a good deal when they see one, too.
Clinton was the perfect figurehead, already warm friends with one of the last dessicated Cold Warriors, Henry Kissinger, and already more than predisposed to cast the Russians into their role. Trump, well, he didn’t seem to get it, and, when it was becoming clearer he might win, he needed to be made to get it. The Deep State appeared to have some internal dissension; that publicly popped up when it appeared the FBI and CIA were not sure which horse to back in the latter days of the campaign and how to do it. Hey, mistakes were made, sorry, even the Deep State is kinda human.
Well, it was messy and dragged on past the actual election, but everything is settled now. The intelligence report that just came out made things clear: Russia is the bad guy, Trump now the cuck of the Deep State, things are back to “normal.” Funding will pour into the military, intelligence, and security communities. Since the war will be a cold one, the U.S. can declare periodic victories just like in the old days over things like the Olympics, chess matches, dissidents saved, spy stuff We Can’t Tell You About but will leak out anyway. We can have proxy wars and skirmishes that seem like huge deals but can usually be managed in scope. Any troublemakers at home, in or out of the White House, can be labeled Russian sympathizers on CNN and Maddow and dealt away quickly.
Overall, the 1950s weren’t that bad now were they?
BONUS: One currently outstanding question is whether the manipulations of the Deep State in our election became public by accident, such as after 9/11, or whether someone (us? Trump? Putin?) was meant to see them for some purpose. Hang on to that question.
MORE BONUS: Yes, yes, this is all conspiracy nonsense. The moon landings were faked and 9/11 was an inside job by the Mossad. There is no Deep State, or Trump really is a Russian Manchurian candidate, or the spiders from Mars are actually pulling the strings or I am reading those weird Geocities-like websites for preppers and soon will be posting cheesy animated GIFs of flags waving, whatever. I’m also a Russian, or Edward Snowden, or being paid by someone to write this. Whatever you need to tell yourself, and you should never believe what I say and say how sad it is that this is what I’ve come too. I’ll kill a puppy in your honor. Thanks!
It’s not Trump you have to worry about. You’re thinking short-term.
As people struggle to find third-parties to blame for Hillary Clinton’s defeat (pick one or more: Putin, Bernie Bros, Comey, The Media, Electoral Collegians, the Racist/Misogynist Hordes), an amorphous group has emerged as a popular domestic target: stupid poor white people who do not understand how much better they have had it over the last eight years.
These slack-jawed yokels just can’t seem to grasp that they have great jobs in a growing economy. The numbers prove it: the U.S stock market is at record highs and unemployment at its lowest level since the Great Recession.
“Anyone claiming America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction,” Obama said in his 2016 State of the Union address. He said his team has created a “more durable, growing economy” with “15 million new private-sector jobs since early 2010.” Tim Kaine also used the 15 million jobs talking point in the vice presidential debate.
But the problem isn’t jobs per se, it is income inequality.
This is the basis of the sense of economic disenfranchisement that drove many voters to seek change this past election, even if after seeing Sanders pushed out of the race that change meant overlooking Candidate Trump’s many shortcomings.
A big part of this inequality is while more Americans are working, more are working part time without benefits. Since 2007, the number of Americans involuntarily working part time has increased by nearly 45 percent.
Coupled with that is what many of those workers see as the failure of the Affordable Care Act (ACA; Obamacare) to live up to its promises. ACA was supposed to be the government supplying a key benefit employers refused to offer to part-timers. People may indeed now have access to insurance, but with high deductibles, they may not have access to healthcare. These are not people with ideological problems with Obamacare. They need help for their families and want the ACA changed.
In addition, because larger employers have to start paying into the ACA fund for each employee who works more than 29 hours a week, employers who offer the most jobs, retail, hospitality, and fast food, have cut most part-timers to 29 hours a week, down from the once-standard 39 hours a week that kept them outside of overtime.
Wages saw their biggest jump this year since 2008 — 2.9%. However, most of that increase came only in states that chose to raise their minimum wages independent of the stagnant federal minimum wage. And with inflation running about 2%, most of any increase was washed away. And what is .9% of minimum wage anyway? Pretty close to not a helluva lot.
Higher costs and less money. And of course for part-timers, vacation days, sick leave, pensions, child care, and other benefits remain elusive at best. The result is a workforce making up the gaps with multiple jobs, food benefits, and opioids. And they voted against the candidate that made a talking point out of saying she would maintain the status quo that was killing them.
Trump, of course, is unlikely to change much, but he represents change and that apparently was enough for a very large number of voters who still believe government may yet help them.
Their inevitable disappointment is likely to lead one of two ways: a complete giving up, a sad resignation they should be happy they get anything at all, or a rage that will seek out a true demagogue.
For despite all of the apocalyptic prose spewing out of cranky Clinton supporters and all the newly-minted, New York-based, Midwestern blue collar experts, Trump is not the antiChrist of American politics. He is a minor celebrity who stumbled into a stream of history, a classic case of being in the right place at the right time.
But keep an eye out in eight years for the next guy. That’s the one to fear.
BONUS: Here’s another opinion on all this, titled “It was the racism, stupid: White working-class ‘economic anxiety’ is a zombie idea that needs to die.”
And if Dems, progressives, liberals, whoever, keeps insisting poor whites are racist-sexists who voted for Trump primarily because he encourages their hate vibe, then the next Democratic candidate will lose their votes again. Given the drift of the economy, there will be more of them next time, too. This election was a pay-attention-notice to the Democratic party, and it is so far not just ignoring it, it is saying the whole notion is wrong.
For those who would like to become a progressive columnist in the world of Trump, here’s a guide for your first and every subsequent article:
— Everything was pretty freaking close to perfect on November 7. Yeah, tough about Bernie, but Clinton was going to be great.
— Putin, Comey, media, maybe Bernie, everyone you hate and fear, elected Trump because 62 million Americans are white, misogynists, and Nazis. They also are wrong about not having good jobs; don’t people in the Rust Belt read the job statistics?
— Anyway, Trump is an oaf and/or an evil genius.
— He is out to destroy America; riff off this for the next forever.
Your First Essay Example
And if you’d like a good example on how to do it, turn to Neil Gabler’s essay on the otherwise intelligent blog from Bill Moyers.
Here’s how that essay starts:
America died on November 8, 2016, not with a bang or a whimper, but at its own hand via electoral suicide. We the people chose a man who has shredded our values, our morals, our compassion, our tolerance, our decency, our sense of common purpose, our very identity — all the things that, however tenuously, made a nation out of a country.
Whatever place we now live in is not the same place it was on November 7. No matter how the rest of the world looked at us on November 7, they will now look at us differently. We are likely to be a pariah country.
First of all, points for the “bang and whimper” cliche, followed by the happy bullsh*t about how wonderful America was last month as described by phony Hamilton the musical lyrics. I bet the show’s cast could make values, morals, compassion, tolerance, decency, common purpose, and identity rhyme.
Dude, we are a helluva people! Exceptional!
Because prior to the election results we weren’t a nation founded on a slave economy, which 250 years later still has its cops imprison and murder Blacks, who doesn’t have the highest incarceration rate in the world, mostly for small amounts of weed that has been long legalized in other western nations. Our compassion is set to full, except if you are different than me in your race, religion, or views on guns, gays or abortions. Of course we don’t really do much for women, and unlike say India, Israel, the UK, Burma, and a whole mess of other places, have never had a female chief executive.
Yeah, whatever, all that.
And lovely, that bit about American becoming an international pariah. Could happen. Luckily the world has overlooked so far that we are the only nation to have used atomic weapons (twice, on civilians), stayed at war, spied and overthrown governments in their countries pretty steadily for 70 years, set the Middle Easton on fire over fake WMDs, drone kill wherever we like, torture people, and run an offshore penal colony right out of Les Miserables. Man, Trump, amiright?
No More Democracy for You
Later in the article, author Gabler throws in a whopper: “Republicans… haven’t believed in democracy for a long time.”
Yep, one of the two parties in America, in fact the one that’s been out of power for the last eight years and which was voted into office via an election, does not believe in democracy. Makes sense. And to throw us off the trail, the sneaks are conducting a peaceful transition of power!
Luckily the Democrats over the last eight years have only drone killed American Citizens without trial (Fifth Amendment), spied on all of us (Fourth Amendment) and racked up the worst Freedom of Information Act response rate since the Act was created (First Amendment.)
This is the End
Wrapping it all up, Gabler says:
But the disempowered media may have one more role to fill: They must bear witness. Many years from now, future generations will need to know what happened to us and how it happened. They will need to know how disgruntled white Americans, full of self-righteous indignation, found a way to take back a country they felt they were entitled to and which they believed had been lost. They will need to know about the ugliness and evil that destroyed us as a nation after great men like Lincoln and Roosevelt guided us through previous crises and kept our values intact. They will need to know, and they will need a vigorous, engaged, moral media to tell them. They will also need us. We are not living for ourselves anymore in this country. Now we are living for history.
So there you go. It’s pretty much the fault of us white guys, except for great white guys like Lincoln and Roosevelt. Other once-famous white guys like Jefferson, maybe Kennedy and Carter, didn’t make the list. Hell, Carter was even a southerner.
There are going to be troubles ahead. Trump will not be a good president, and he is surrounding himself with inept people. The world is a complex place and even the best of our great white men have struggled with that. But for f*ck’s sake, stop imagining an America that never existed on November 7, and creating a dystopian nightmare that you imagine popped into being a day later.
A clear view of history is a necessary starting point as we edge into 2017.
BONUS: Neil Gabler is not otherwise an idiot. His biography says he is the author of five books and the recipient of two LA Times Book Prizes, Time magazine’s non-fiction book of the year, USA Today’s biography of the year and other awards. He is also a senior fellow at The Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California, and is currently writing a biography of Senator Edward Kennedy.
I survived. America, and the world, and you, survived. We awoke the first day of 2017 to find that once again, using the extraordinary power of fear, we again held off the terrorists. And Putin. And Trump, nationalists, racists, hackers, alt-Right fascists, CNN, persons of all colors, genders, shapes, sizes, and goddamn religions.
Fear Classic: Terrorism
Hard as it is to persuade a constantly re-frightened American public, there have been less than 100 Americans killed inside the Homeland by so-called Islamic terrorism since 9/11.
Argue the number, hell, go ahead and double or triple it, and it still a tragic, sad, but undeniable drop in the bucket. Throw in a few mysterious “foiled plots” the government never seems to have many specifics on to share and tack on some more to the terror body count. No matter how hard you drive, you just can’t get the number of Americans killed or even in clear danger of being killed to a very large number.
And do spare the tired trope of “well, security measures such as at our airports have saved us from who knows how many attacks.” Leaving aside the idea that the argument itself demands a kind of negative logic (the “who knows” part) to even make sense, a test by the Department of Homeland’s own Inspector General’s Office, posing as travelers, showed 95 percent of contraband, including weapons and explosives, got through during clandestine testings. If a failure rate of 95 percent did not have planes falling from the sky, one must conclude security does little to affect terrorism.
CNN on the Eve told us that almost two million people were in Times Square to see in the New Year, along with 7,000 cops and 65 giant trucks filled with sand to stop the 2016 fad (actually two cases, in Europe) of car/truck driving terrorists. More Americans died of alcohol poisoning (booze terror!) last night than terrorism.
A shout-out here also to a benevolent Allah, who mercifully did not tell any terrorists that while Times Square was secured on the Eve, the rest of the large crowds elsewhere in New York were pretty much not, and a suicide bomber could have ridden in on a camel. Same as the days after New Year’s, when there is the usual lack of any serious security everywhere but at Trump Tower. Luckily ISIS couldn’t figure any of that out. Whew.
Our New Fears for 2017
And despite the new fears, actually two old ones recombined, our such as it is democracy is still hanging around. The new fears are quite creative, lopping together that old standby, The Red Menace and its global evil genius Vlad Putin, and “hacking,” the computer thingie that scares old peoples and is why you need to go home every Thanksgiving and reboot grandpa’s PC so he can play Solitaire again.
We endured the fear-mongering of the autumn that our Very Way of Life was at risk, because John Podesta’s emails were released and because the Electoral College was full of meanie rats who wouldn’t do something something Hamilton and elect Hillary like the script said they should. If only the Russians and FBI and Clinton Foundation and email server and Bernie Sanders and the nine votes cast for Jill Stein and the recounts that actually cost Clinton a few votes and 62 million Americans hadn’t interfered, we would be entering 2017 basking in the warm and eternal glow of Dear Leader Hillary Clinton leading us from bondage. Dammit.
Trump has also failed (so far!) to start any wars with China, Planet Mongo, or Russia by breaking up with Putin and refusing to give the ring back. He has not instituted Sharia law or martial law or the Nuremberg laws or rounded up people who write liberal tweets or made all LGBTQ people marry illegal aliens and wear boring clothing to NASCAR races. That may come, it’s early in 2017, but so far, not yet.
But don’t believe me. “We should be absolutely terrified in 2017—perhaps more than at any other point in the 20th century,” said Robin Kelley, historian of social movements in the U.S. at the University of California Los Angeles.
Or maybe, believe me. It is all panic-mongering, designed to keep us in a state of fear. Fearful people are easy to manipulate. So stop being afraid.
BONUS: Many have written in to ask what I get in return for being a Russian puppet. To be honest, not much, mostly just a hobby. I do get to crash on Snowden’s pull-out when I’m in Moscow for reeducation sessions, and that saves me a few bucks.
In the through-the-mirror world we now live in, people who once unambiguously supported free speech now are finding plenty of things they want censored.
Chief among those opposing ideas they want silenced are Donald Trump’s. His remarks — from the silly, labeled unpresidential, to the more extreme labeled racist/sexist/misogynist/hateful — have attracted a surprising group of otherwise intelligent people demanding he be shut up.
Salon to Les Barricades!
An article on Salon made the case, specifically demanding Twitter ban Trump. Here’s one representative paragraph:
Republicans may not be willing to hold him [Trump] accountable for his dreadful behavior, but the rest of us don’t have to fall in line. Trump has repeatedly signaled his enthusiasm for dictators, which gives us serious reason to fear he may be eyeballing such powers for himself. Banning his Twitter account would be an important act of resistance.
(Of course American presidents have supported a long line dictators — pick your faves, from Stalin in WWII to Somoza to the Assads to Saddam –without themselves becoming dictators, but no matter, we’re beyond history here.)
But Twitter Has Terms of Service!
Twitter, Facebook, etc., are private businesses and thus not subject to the First Amendment (which only restricts the government from crushing speech) and can make any usage rules they like. But in reality social media outlets have in our age become the public squares of the day, and must be seen and treated as such. For example, when they actually had the guts, good newspapers would go out of their way to print opposing viewpoints, recognizing their status as a public forum.
So yes, yes, Twitter can ban redheaded users (sorry, gingers!) if they want to, but it would be detrimental to our broader national commitment to hearing each other out, including hearing from people we don’t agree with. No, ESPECIALLY hearing from people we don’t agree with. Of course there are also the problems that come up once you start banning people, given how opinions of what should be “allowed” can change as quickly as overnight election evening.
So the fact that an entity can ban speech doesn’t mean it should.
In a broader context, it is also always helpful to remember there are no laws against “hate speech” that prevent people from making rough political statements, or even stupid ones. There are laws against inciting violence “Kill all the redheads” but not against saying they suck or are monkeys.
“You Can’t Yell Fire in a Crowded Theater”
That paraphrase of a paragraph from a 1919 U.S. Supreme Court case, Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47 (1919), written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, is often cited as justification for limiting free speech. Here’s what Holmes wrote:
The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic. The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger.
The statement says the First Amendment doesn’t protect false speech that is likely to cause immediate harm to others, three conditions. The speech must be demonstrably false, and it must be likely to cause real harm (not just offense or hurt feelings, a “clear and present danger”), and do so immediately.
The interpretation of the First Amendment has been understood and adjudicated to impose a pretty high barrier to restrictions on what can be blocked or banned, and over the years has allowed flags to be burned, the KKK and Nazis to march, artists to make sculptures from their own body waste, and all sorts of political statements, at least a handful of which you would strongly disagree with and be deeply offended by.
And so expression whose ban has been upheld over the long run has been narrow, things the vast majority society agrees are truly dangerous, such as child pornography.
That’s the whole point — with as few limitation as necessary, protect expression people may or may not want to hear. The First Amendment is not there to protect Dancing with the Stars (though it does) but to protect the hard stuff, the hard calls.
Schenck is Actually Evil
And yes, Schenck itself was a crappy case that sought to use the Espionage Act against a Socialist pamphleteer, to stop free speech, not protect it, and the case was overturned. In fact, Holmes’ statement was a dictum that the First Amendment is not absolute, that restriction is lawful, along with the developing idea that restriction on speech should be narrow and limited.
It was the later case of Brandenburg v. Ohio that refined the modern standard for restricting speech to that “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.” But we talk about Holmes’ “fire in a crowded theatre” line as a kind of shorthand for all that.
Let Him Speak — Loudly
Justice Holmes, perhaps as an act of contrition, later wrote in another landmark case:
The ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out.
So following the broad values enshrined in the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech, even though it can, Twitter should not ban Trump. Let him tweet, hell, give him 20 extra characters. And let us know, judge, agree, oppose, and argue about what he says.
PERSONAL BONUS: Writing in a mainstream publication that the president shouldn’t be allowed on Twitter? Jesus Christ, pull your shit together and get a freaking grip on yourselves. If you can’t do that, go hide under your bed and hug your stuffed animal Bobo. You want to worry about authoritarianism? It always includes shutting up people you don’t want to listen to.
History loves little markers, tidy packages of symbolism that wrap up a big, complex thing.
You know, the helicopter on the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon standing in for years of failed war, the Berlin Wall being knocked down to visually note the end the Cold War, that sort of thing.
Well, the never-ending-gobsmacker of the Afghan War may have gotten its iconic moment.
Crash and Burn
Afghanistan’s first fixed wing female pilot, Captain Niloofar Rahmani, above, has applied for asylum in the U.S., citing worsening security conditions, and harassment by male colleagues. Rahmani says her family faces serious death threats from the Taliban and her father has had to go into hiding to avoid being killed. The Afghan government even stopped paying Rahmani’s salary, despite earmarks from the U.S. government for funding.
Captain Rahmani noted, as something as an afterthought, the Taliban also continue to make gains across her country even as America’s War for Freedom enters its 16th year of freeing Afghanistan.
Being a Propaganda Tool is Hard Work
As icons went, America loved Rahmani.
Rahmani was once widely hailed in Washington, D.C., where she received the Woman of Courage award from the State Department in 2015 and was personally praised by First Lady Michelle Obama. Rahmani was rolled into an Obama policy move to focus greater attention and resources on adolescent girls through the Let Girls Learn initiative which no one ever heard from again.
The Afghan pilot was even celebrated as a “woman who builds peace, prosperity, and stability,” which just happened to also be a U.S. propaganda slogan for the Afghan war. And sure, what the hell, the State Department threw in that “she will not be intimidated and she will not be silenced.”
Rahami also had her own Twitter, in English of course, but not updated in over a year. “Her” last tweet– “#Salute to the #daughter of nation #Flying #Officer #Marium embraced $shahadat today #Mianwali The few the proud…” And that Rahami was photogenic by coincidence was not unnoticed.
The Captain summed it all up — her femaleness represented American goals of empowering women, her chosen career as a killer was in line with U.S. plans to destroy the Taliban, and her being in the Afghan Air Force seemed to justify the $3.7 billion U.S. tax dollars expended to create an indigenous Afghan fighting force.
So it’s just a neat kick in the Uncle Sam ass for Rahmani, in the United States for all sorts of expensive training, to bail out and request asylum after 15 months in America training via photo ops and not fighting any Taliban. Why, it’s as if the entire war in Afghanistan itself was merely a lengthy exercise in Potemkin foreign policy…
BONUS: Here’s George W. Bush posing with some Iraqi women of courage or whatever from that war. I love that photo.
The Washington Post, quickly followed by the New York Times and NPR and many others, headlined a story that Trump’s transition team asked the State Department for a list of programs and jobs aimed at promoting gender equality.
Rattled and Freaked Out!
The Times, citing anonymous sources, claimed the request “rattled State Department employees concerned that the incoming administration will roll back a cornerstone project of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.”
The Los Angeles Times quoted an anonymous senior State Department official as saying “People are freaked out.”
The Washington Post reported another anonymous source (as these all the same person?) as saying the request is “stoking fears of another witch hunt.” The Post did not detail where the earlier witchhunt had taken place to make this one “another.”
Reality: It’s Routine, Folks
The tone of the articles was bombastic, and implied something unique and insidious was going on. By itself, the request means nothing. But in reality, the request is normal and routine.
Every party transition in Washington includes information gathering; how else would the incoming staff know what they have ahead of them? Offices across the State Department (as well as every other cabinet agency) are flooded with demands for program and budget information, position lists, endless emails asking “Who handles this issue?” and “Where do things stand on Programs X and Y?”
It is thus absolutely no surprise, and certainly not news, that an email went out to relevant offices in State asking about “existing programs and activities to promote gender equality, such as ending gender-based violence, promoting women’s participation in economic and political spheres, entrepreneurship, etc.”
The email also requested a list of positions “whose primary functions are to promote such issues,” though not the names of people in those positions.
There are likely hundreds of identical requests, on different subjects, now circulating within State. I joined the State Department in 1988 and was employed through the transitions from Reagan to Bush to Clinton to Another Bush to Obama, and helped respond to such requests for information myself. In well-prepared offices, knowing such requests are routine and expected, the basic information would have been gathered even as the election was taking place. Somebody was going to ask.
So Why is the Media Reporting Inaccurately?
Assuming the anonymous sources cited by the media include someone other than a former intern’s roommate a reporter met on Tinder, why might the State Department people be “rattled and freaked out” by something so routine?
The simplest answer is about half of the Foreign Service Officer corps has been with State for less than eight years, meaning they have never experienced a party transition, and have served only under the Obama administration. They have no experience with any of this, and likely have bosses with at best one transitional experience. Most of these people have never had their commitment to serving the executive branch, no matter who is in the White House, tested. And senior management not communicating with the lower ranks is a long-standing State Department issue.
But the deeper explanation touches on the levels of hysteria across America following the failure of Hillary Clinton to get herself elected president.
As an organization, the State Department went all-in supporting Hillary Clinton, slow-walking the release of her emails, using Freedom of Information Act and classification games to redact significant content, and generally doing everything it could to protect the former Secretary of State. Many of State’s gender-based program were signature initiatives of Clinton, and track with the personal politics of many State employees. They are (correctly) certain they and these programs are unlikely to find many new friends in the incoming administration.
Bad Reporting With an Impact Far Beyond the State Department
Nonetheless, the impact of the sadly low-level of mainstream reporting on details of the transition is serious.
The seasoned reporters and editors at places like the New York Times know damn well what is and is not routine in a transition. Yet they reported inaccurately and bombastically nonetheless.
The media is speaking to an audience predisposed to believe every panicky story that can be shoveled out (remember the apocalyptic tales from early November that Trump would never be able to fill his political appointee positions, or that the transition was fatally behind schedule? The unfounded rumors of mass resignations inside the Federal government?)
The media’s near-obsession with inaccurate reporting on all things Trump, seeking to paint every detail of the president elect as not only negative, but pernicious, is in part what lead to the breakdown of accurate predictions right into election evening, and loss of credibilty by the media.
More significantly, some notable portion of those who voted for Trump did so out of a sense of disenfranchisement, a disconnection between themselves and Washington DC. In the Internet age, debunking of inaccurate and/or misleading reporting, such as with the routine request for information above, are more widely available than ever.
Thus, outside the Clinging-to-Clinton bubble, more people than ever have such resources available to them, and can thus more readily see through stories whose purpose is to tell “deplorables” that they voted wrong.
For those Democrats and Progressives hoping not to repeat the election disaster of 2016 in the 2018 midterms, or heaven forbid, in 2020, such media coverage is excessively harmful. Like full fat ice cream, it sure tastes good now, but boy is it bad for you in the long run.
Don’t believe me about the routine nature of the Trump administration’s request for information out of State? Believe this site instead.
So what better use of taxpayer money and time than for your State Department to make idiotic holiday videos?
Acting like an asshat is something of a State tradition year-round, but these annual videos seek to memorialize it. The very broad theory is that these things “humanize” American foreign policy in a way drones do not, and because they get lots of “clicks,” prove those foreigners really do love us after all. Of course, lots of people slow down for gory car wrecks, too.
A theme this year is American Embassy staff acting wacky and speaking their host country’s languages poorly, and thinking that is hilarious. Why, those goofy foreign words! Good thing everybody overseas speak English, amiright? Can anyone imagine a foreign ambassador in the United States going on YouTube and speaking sad, broken English like he’s Sasha Baron Cohen? Hah, the comedy Christmas Americanski joking time!
Anyway, it’s social media and that’s a good thing, right?
Those who are worried about the loss of respect for America under the coming administration should console themselves knowing there is little left to lose.
The loquacious American ambassador in Seoul:
Tokyo, featuring the ambassador dressed as Santa:
And here’s the U.S. Embassy crowd in Manila (skip ahead to about 1:00 for wacky funs)
It is fully normalized now in American mainstream journalism to build an entire story, often an explosive story, around a single, anonymous source, typically described no further than “a senior U.S. official,” or just “a source.”
For a writer, this makes life pretty easy. They can simply make up the entire story sitting in their bedroom, inflate a taxi driver’s gossip into a “source,” or just believe an intern they tried to pick up at happy hour who says she saw an email written by her supervisor saying their manager heard something something. The story goes viral, often with an alarming headline, and is irrefutable in an Internety way, demanding critics prove a negative: how can you say it didn’t happen?!?!?
The issue for readers as critical thinkers is that we tend to feel we have only two options: wholly take the writer’s word for it all, or not. The result is a steady flow of amazing insider stories that get blasted through sympathetic repeat media, left like roadkill for us to Tweet about, labeling them as fake news or screaming at the people who label them as fake news.
Any follow-up, including a straight-up debunking, is rarely sent viral, as it isn’t as click-worthy. Many sites that do little more than reprint other people’s work see no obligation to assume any responsibility for what they print; that rests with the originator, moving on.
A Political Agenda
Almost all of these “source” stories follow a political agenda, these days mostly to support a negative narrative about Trump (the last of the “pro-Hillary” stories like this, the Hail Mary CIA leaks ahead of the Electoral College vote, seem to have run their course for now.) And the best thing about these anonymous source stories? They are basically impossible to refute. How can you challenge a source’s statement, except perhaps by using another secret, counter, source? You can’t prove a negative, and you can’t do much if the base argument is only It May Be True!.
How to Read Stuff Betterer
That said, there are a couple of things a reader with a few firing synapses still left might do.
The first is to examine the underlying political goal of the writer. If they seem to spend more time “proving some evil” than reporting facts, be skeptical. Be particularly skeptical of a writer whose proved evil tracks very closely with an established narrative the writer has driven before. Show me a (generally conservative) DailyCaller piece exposing Trump corruption, or a (generally liberal) DailyBeast piece exposing Clinton corruption, and you will have my attention. Not necessarily my belief; remain skeptical no matter the source. Don’t stop thinking.
Next might be to ask if what is being reported as true fits with the “is the juice worth the squeeze” test? In other words, if what is being reported is true, is what’s gained worth what is being risked?
As an example, a writer claims Candidate X had a police officer beaten after she ticketed his car. Ok, of course It May Be True! but in reality would a candidate risk news that he ordered a beating of a cop just to retaliate for a minor traffic ticket? Seriously? Yes, yes, who can refute it 100% (you can’t) if it is reported by a “source,” and since you hate Candidate X anyway you want to believe it, but trust yourself and apply the old sniff test.
Trump and the Kuwaitis: Case Study in Bullsh*t
But one of the most useful tools of skepticism is to employ an old spy trick: is the source really in a position to know the information they say they know? How could they have come across it? How many in the organization would have likely known Fact X?
Let’s examine one recent example. The blog ThinkProgress reported this:
The Embassy of Kuwait allegedly cancelled a contract with a Washington, D.C. hotel days after the presidential election, citing political pressure to hold its National Day celebration at the Trump International Hotel instead.
A source tells ThinkProgress that the Kuwaiti embassy, which has regularly held the event at the Four Seasons in Georgetown, abruptly canceled its reservation after members of the Trump Organization pressured the ambassador to hold the event at the hotel owned by the president-elect. The source, who has direct knowledge of the arrangements between the hotels and the embassy, spoke to ThinkProgress on the condition of anonymity because the individual was not authorized to speak publicly. ThinkProgress was also able to review documentary evidence confirming the source’s account.
The story certainly tracks an ongoing narrative, Trump’s conflicts of interest in general and his ownership of a Washington DC hotel in particular. It is a story persons who already dislike Trump are very willing to believe.
But what about the risk versus gain necessary for this story to be true?
The Trump organization pressuring a foreign embassy to do anything would be explosive, likely falling very close to criminal. If caught, it would spark at minimum an investigation that Trump’s opponents would drag on for as long as possible. Someone wold suggest impeachment. This would be global front page news, the smoking gun of long-rumored corruption. The potential gain for Trump? Maybe a few thousand bucks of catering and ballroom rental money. It May Be True! but does it pass the sniff test? But to people who want to believe, the story also fits the belief that Trump will do anything for money, so It May Be True!.
But who would the source have to be, to be credible?
The story claims it was the Kuwaiti ambassador himself who was pressured. Was the source the ambassador himself? It Might Be True! but why would someone of his stature, or a close aide, risk anything to talk to a blog like ThinkProgress? Maybe a high level source inside the Trump establishment? It Might Be True!, but the same questions apply. How many people inside either institution, the embassy or Trump’s, would know about this “pressure” being applied? Who inside Trump’s organization would have the pull to get one-on-one with the Kuwaiti ambassador (Ivanka? Eric?) and why would they leak?
Bottom line is that very, very few people would be privy to any discussion at those levels, and none of them plausibly would leak to a blog.
Hearing from the Other Side
Another feature of fake news is limited inclusion, if any at all, of opposing views or information. Either the writer doesn’t bother to try and obtain any, or works to get a no comment or negative non-response “Is it true you are beating your wife?,” falls back on the “no response was received as we went to press” (i.e., four minutes after I made the call) or the grandaddy, “Trump denies it because of course he would, what’s he gonna do, admit a felony?”
That said, in the case of ThinkProgress and the Kuwaitis, another site, POLITICO, did trouble themselves to reach out to the embassy. Here’s what they got back:
We were not under any pressure. Nobody contacted us whatsoever, Ambassador Al-Sabah said [Note: an actual named source]. I just thought ‘It’s a new venue, it’s been in the news… The novelty of the venue would encourage people’ — that was first on my mind.
Al-Sabah called the ThinkProgress report ‘totally false and unfounded.’ Still, he said he had a tentative save-the-date understanding with the Four Seasons, where the event was frequently held in the past, although he’d never signed a formal contract. He also pointed out that his country held the same event at the Newseum in 2016.
‘Do you think a reception of two hours in the Trump hotel is going to curry favors with the administration when we host thousands of U.S. troops in Kuwait? When we have in the past and still do support American operations in Afghanistan and Iraq?’ the ambassador asked. ‘Our relationship is much deeper and much broader than me needing to be in a hotel for two hours.’
ThinkProgress has since updated its story to include parts of the Ambassador’s quote. Most sites that printed the original story do not appear to have updated their stories.
But… But.. It Might Be True
Another line in the story raises questions — “ThinkProgress was also able to review documentary evidence confirming the source’s account.” Now what documentary evidence might that be? Would someone at Trump create a written record of said pressure on the ambassador? Would a source have access to that record? Would they show it to ThinkProgress? Why wouldn’t ThinkProgress release a redacted version of this documentary evidence, evidence that would go global? ThinkProgress has not stated what the documentary evidence is, even in broad form, such as an email, or a contract, or a recorded phone call.
With fake news, as few verifiable facts as possible being used is a key indicator.
In the end, ThinkProgress tips its hand with the highly-couched (emphasis added) “what it means” paragraph:
The apparent move by the Kuwaiti Embassy appears to be an effort to gain favor with president-elect through his business entanglements, and it appears to show Trump’s company leveraging his position as president-elect to extract payments from a foreign government.
A lot of qualifiers in that for something supposedly based on documentary evidence, but whatever.
I Believe in Santa Claus
Yes, yes, It Might Be True! and no one can prove it is not true. Believe what you want to believe, it is the Christmas season after all, but stay away from the word truth, willya?
BONUS: Since writing this piece, I have been contacted by a source on the condition of anonymity because the individual was not authorized to speak publicly. My source stated the ThinkProgress piece is false, and that Kuwait shifted its plans to have its event at the Trump hotel based on little more than a lower price quote, all handled at the lowest administrative levels. The ambassador did not even know of the exact location of his fete until routinely reviewing his schedule with an aide a few days ago. My source showed me documentary evidence of all this, which unfortunately is not available to reproduce. Trust me…