• The Medium is the Message: “Created News” in the Age of Trump

    December 11, 2017 // 7 Comments

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    Posted in: Democracy, Trump


    About a week ago most major media outlets announced, again, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was about to be replaced. He is still in office. Was the story a non-story? Time will tell, but no matter what happens to Tillerson, we are in the era of created news, stories based on no facts, written to dominate the news cycle, not inform.

    Take Billy Bush and that infamous Access Hollywood tape. The New York Times recently reported a source (“a person familiar with the conversation,” so at least second hand) claimed Trump privately questioned the authenticity of the pussy grabbing tape. Nearly all established media outlets quickly jumped on the report, giving it greater validity simply by repeating it across the web until it could not be ignored. Sheer volume sent the story trending on social media.

    Amplification also carried a neat twist: the source for the secondary tranche of articles became in most cases a credible “New York Times reports…,” not the second-hand somebody from the original report. But unless you bothered to chase the tale around the web links, you’d never know how little the whole thing was based on.

    The next cycle were stories claiming Trump didn’t deny (the modern equivalent of the “Are you still beating your wife?” question) the anonymous-sourced original story. No one questioned the logic of having to deny something that may never have happened in the first place. Those non-denial stories were followed by commentary from second-tier media who proceeded as if the initial story was true, seasoned with the anxiety and outrage their readers demand as salve to their own anxiety and outrage. The third wave of articles were more sober, such as Op-Eds back in the New York Times, full circle, proclaiming Trump’s non-denial of what may not have ever happened as evidence of his instability. Or something.

    The point is no longer to inform — remember, journalism — it is just to keep the ball in the air, in this case to score political body blows against an easy, unpopular target. And for those who are fans of the surreal, the one person who truly seemed to benefit from all this was former Access Hollywood host Billy Bush himself. Bush, fired in 2016 for essentially being too much of a bro’ with Trump back in 2005, made late night rounds auditioning for redemption by sanctimoniously confirming the authenticity of a 12 year old tape no one was seriously questioning.

    This is all damaging enough when the subject is a puff of air like the Access Hollywood tape. The tape is from 2005, and its importance to voters was adjudicated by the last election. The game turns darker when the same strategy is applied to people.

     

    Welcome to Rex Tillerson’s world. Last week’s stories of his impending firing/resignation (and in other weeks past and future, those for Sessions, Mueller, Mattis, Kelly, Kushner, Ivanka, et al.) were crafted whole by the media out of anonymous sources. They have circulated almost since his first day in office. They have alternated between announcing UN Ambassador Nikki Haley as Tillerson’s replacement and proclaiming CIA Director Mike Pompeo as his replacement. Each story was based on the usual anon-sources, themselves a mystery even in anonymity — were the no-names actually Chief of Staff John Kelly with a trial balloon, or a White House intern passing on a bit of cafeteria gossip? We don’t know and the reporters do not seem to care to differentiate. What did matter is that each story published was blown bigger as multiple media outlets re-gifted one another’s pieces, a house of cards with no real base to stand on that grew taller and taller as new outlets grew not much of nothing into breaking news.

    The stories themselves eventually reached a critical media self-generated mass such that the administration was forced to again formally deny something that may not have even happened. The media in turn took the denials from Tillerson, Trump, and the White House spokesperson, and simply dismissed them — of course they are lying! It was the White House against the word of an anonymous source! Anything short of a full declarative denial was relabeled “did not actually deny,” something in 2017-speak that counts as a sort-of “yes.”

    Of course Rex Tillerson will leave office at some point, and you can expect the media to claim his skin when he does, much like a weather forecaster announcing rain every day, taking credit for being correct on the wet days and saying on sunny ones “Just you wait, I’ll be proved right in the end!”
    The disturbing arrival of created news on the media table is mirrored by other unpleasant trends. While much of this has deeper roots, the mass nervous breakdown that afflicted America on November 8, 2016 seems as a good an official start date as any other. Tricks that used to be the stock and trade of rags like the National Enquirer and its ilk, things like clickbait headlines at odds with body of the story, are now part of CNN and the Washington Post’s vocabulary. Opinion and commentary blend together with “reporting.” Where once journalists took pains to separate their personal political beliefs from their reporting, follow modern journalists on Twitter to see their pride in being hyper-partisan in their unedited, personal comments. There are other new normals: it is perfectly acceptable to call out the president with schoolyard-taunts, or make a crack about the orange man-child, or toss out homophobic jokes about Putin and bromance. Writers build whole columns out of lists (“ignorant… churlish… tacky”) of personal insults.

    Donald Trump’s victory was loathsome to the majority of journalists, whose cultural and partisan blindness lead to them misreport the election. Their reaction is this “new journalism.” Though it is unlikely to fade during Trump’s tenure, despite continuing issues with falling public trust in the media, the real question is what will happen after that. Will the hyper-partisan new journalism shift to Target Pence? Will it follow a Democrat into the White House? Is it possible for journalism to snap back?

     

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  • State Department, Meet the New Boss, Same/Worse as the Old Boss?

    December 8, 2017 // 3 Comments

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    Posted in: Embassy/State, Trump


     

    The rumors of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s demise may finally not be greatly exaggerated.


    A marked man, it was only about a month ago the media speculated on how soon United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley would replace Tillerson. Two weeks ago a trial balloon floated up with Mike Pompeo’s name in trail. But a burst of nearly-identical stories over the last few days, spearheaded by the New York Times, signals the end for Tillerson and names Pompeo, currently Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, as his successor. What lies ahead?

    The unique interplay between the Civil Service (non-diplomats largely stationed in Washington DC) and the Foreign Service (who have primary responsibility in Washington and who staff the embassies and consulates abroad) complicates Secretary of State transitions. Engaging both sides, with their different vested interests, can be tough. And unlike the military, where chains of command and internal procedures are written on checklists, State is a hybrid, half foreign and half domestic, with a structure that either conforms to a new Secretary or is conformed by a new Secretary. State is a vertically-oriented bureaucracy, with layers below the boss’ office waiting for bits of policy to fall so as to inform them of what their own opinions are. One academic referred to this as “neckless government,” a head and a body in need of an active connection.


    A huge part of Tillerson’s failure was in missing that last point. The traditional way of engaging the bureaucracy is for a new Secretary to fill key positions with political appointees, who will shape the rank and file below them. Bonus points to the Secretary who can pluck out career Foreign Service people with the approved ideological bent to act as a virtual political appointees, a strong point of Hillary Clinton’s. Tillerson left too many slots vacant too long, and now finds himself without allies inside Foggy Bottom. Meanwhile, left on their own, his diplomats found ways to make trouble, including disclosing once-sacrosanct internal dissent memos. Soon after Tillerson took office his diplomats leaked a dissent memo opposing the State Department’s role in Trump’s immigration plans. Another dissent memo leaked some ten days ago, this time with Tillerson’s people claiming their own boss was in violation of the law.

    Alongside building their version of the organization, it is incumbent on a new Secretary to aim the State Department at some goal. State is an agency without primary agency; under one administration it focuses on arms control. Under another, State tries to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan. More recently, the emphasis has been on “soft power,” programs to empower women, the use of social media, promoting democracy, and the growth LGBTQ rights. Tillerson never articulated much of a goal beyond some unfocused thoughts on structural reform that will never again see daylight. Though it is fashionable to label Tillerson as the worst Secretary of State of modern times, in reality Tillerson will be remembered as perhaps the most pointless of Secretaries.

    Based on my conversations with former State Department colleagues (I served 24 years as a diplomat) Tillerson’s successor will encounter a mood inside the State Department reminiscent of a rescue dog kennel; over there are the mutts who feel abused, wary of any new human. Off to the side are the ones who have given up; the need to log a certain number of years of service to get their generous pensions will keep many technically on the books but a new Secretary can expect very little from them. The majority of dogs will be open and waiting to see what happens (“Can’t be much worse, right?” is something many at State are saying.) But watch out for a few who feel newly empowered, the ones who think they helped drive a bad Secretary out of office. They may still bite.


    It is unclear Mike Pompeo, the heir apparent, will be able to succeed where Tillerson failed. The climate for political appointees in Washington today feels more like that of late in a moderately successful president’s second term; the good people have already been selected-served-moved on, many of the old standbys are not interested in signing up for what may turn out to be short-run jobs, and that leaves a small pool for Pompeo to fill State Department jobs from. Pompeo’s tenure at Central Intelligence was brief enough that he is unlikely to bring over many loyalists, and most at Langley see working for State as a kind of step down anyway (many at the Agency view themselves as the lacrosse team, with State as the nerd club.) Who will Pompeo staff with? And how can he do it quickly while the dogs are still weighing out their next moves?

    There is also the issue of culture. Pompeo began his tenure at Central Intelligence on a relatively positive note. However, his hard line stances soon rubbed many the wrong way, leaving them wondering if the boss could navigate the nuances that drive good decision making. How poorly that will play out at the State Department, with its culture of discussion and deliberation, its love of what-ifs and may-be’s, is easy to imagine.

    And there’s the record: Pompeo caught Trump’s eye in part for his tough stance on Iran. Inside the State Department, the Iran Nuclear Accords are seen as one of the institution’s modern-day signature accomplishments. Pompeo is a conservative, and State has always been the most “liberal,” as in committed to the global system of trade and democracy, part of modern administrations. Tillerson, weakly but in line with State-think, pushed for some sort of talks with North Korea and supported the Iran deal. Pompeo opposes both. That’s a big chip to have on your shoulder your first day at work.


    But at the end of the day, the mismatch between State and Pompeo, or State and Haley, or State and Tillerson for that matter, is not really about who is Secretary of State, but who is president. A lot of the anger directed at Tillerson was actually using him as a stand-in for Trump. The primary driver of foreign policy remains the White House, and the White House appears to have little love for its diplomats. If as an establishment Republican Tillerson had within him a bit of divergent thinking from Trump on issues like Iran and North Korea, Pompeo as an old school hawk is nothing but a loyalist, with a personal connection to Trump. If the president’s intention is indeed to dismantle the State Department, it is hard to imagine a person better suited to the task than a guy like Mike Pompeo. As the New York Times editorial board has already accused Tillerson of “making war on diplomacy,” it will be interesting to see what words they have left to label Pompeo’s opening shots.


    Rex Tillerson is still Secretary of State, even as people inside and outside of Foggy Bottom cheer his demise. The irony will be if in a few months from now some of those same people start wondering if they had not been better off under his leadership.


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  • Whither Rex Tillerson?

    December 6, 2017 // 8 Comments

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    Posted in: Embassy/State, Trump



    Pity soon-to-maybe-be-former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Here’s a guy who can’t get to the sports page of his favorite newspaper without wading through a new round of rumors of his own demise. If it is not a new leak out of Foggy Bottom saying someone cut in front of him in the cafeteria line to get the last Jello dessert, presaging a palace coup, it is the New York Times claiming the White House plans to oust him by the end of the year, possibly to replace him with current CIA director Mike Pompeo.

    Politico ran basically the same story two weeks ago, but it didn’t seem to attract much attention. And it seemed like only yesterday Tillerson was finished again, to be replaced by America’s UN Ambassador Nikki Haley. OK, sorry, that was last month.

    Let’s take a deep, cleansing breath, and recognize there are two stories here. The first is how long Tillerson will remain at State, a story that is more palace intrigue than anything else. The second is who will replace him.

    Whether Tillerson quits or gets fired soon is mostly just a matter of how his Wikipedia biography concludes. From Day One neither the media, nor his own organization, the Department of State, offered him a chance. Even before the 2016 election results, State’s supposedly non-political diplomats leaked a dissent memo calling for more U.S. intervention in Syria, a move then not supported by Candidate Trump. Soon after Tillerson took office, his non-political diplomats leaked a dissent memo opposing the State Department’s role in President Trump’s immigration plans. Yet another dissent memo leaked just ten days ago or so, this time with State’s people claiming their boss was in violation of the law over a decision regarding child soldiers. Daily “reports” from “sources” claiming the Secretary had cut himself off from the organization’s rank and file. Given the leaks, maybe Tillerson was wise to avoid the cafeteria.

    The media offered the Secretary no rest, proclaiming in near-apocalyptic terms the “end of diplomacy,” the dismantling of the State Department, and announcing with a kind of regularity old man Tillerson would ruefully envy the loss of U.S. standing in the world. Never one to miss a chance to pile on, Senators John McCain and Jeanne Shaheen sent a letter to Tillerson declaring “America’s diplomatic power is being weakened internally as complex global crises are growing externally.” Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albrighthe said Tillerson is creating a “national security emergency.”

    Despite factual evidence to the contrary, most mainstream media claimed State was hemorrhaging diplomats. With no evidence presented (State has always been notoriously tight-fisted with its personnel statistics), the New York Times stated without qualification Tillerson had “fired or sidelined were most of the top African-American and Latino diplomats, as well as many women.” Ouch, if true!

    Adding to the cat fight-like coverage of events of state, Tillerson supposedly called Trump a moron, Trump’s tweets were interpreted by the press as undermining whatever standing Tillerson might have had. The media, who had blissfully ignored State hiring below attrition since the Obama years, now seized on every routine retirement out of Foggy Bottom as proof that Tillerson was toast.

    Whether you believed Tillerson’s planned reforms for State were a sincere attempt at change to an institution already dipping into irrelevance next to the military, or whether you believed Tillerson’s reforms were the work of a hatchet man sent in to destroy the State Department (if you’ve had a couple of drinks reading this, the destruction was to empower Putin. If you’re still sober-ish, the destruction was revenge for State hiding Hillary’s emails), the bottom line was very clear: those reforms were never going to happen and Tillerson was a dead man walking. If you are really into conspiracy theories, forget Putin and Clinton. Tillerson needs to go because Trump fears his vote under the 25th Amendment to oust him. Pompeo (or even Haley) stands on more ideologically firmer ground.

    Outside the Beltway there is little love, or even real knowledge of, the State Department. It is doubtful Trump’s core constituency could give a hoot what happens at Foggy Bottom.

    I have no idea as I write this whether Rex Tillerson is still sitting in that office on the seventh floor of State Department headquarters or not. It doesn’t matter. If he’s still there today, he won’t be there sometime soon. So the real question shifts to who will eventually replace the neutered Rex Tillerson, and what if anything that means.

    The initial response is to look at the media’s current favorite horse in the race, Mike Pompeo, possibly still head of CIA as I write this (rumor suggests Pompeo would be replaced at CIA by Senator Tom Cotton, a key ally of the president on national security matters, according to the White House plan.) In the Politico hagiography of Pompeo, the CIA director glows in “favored status in the West Wing.” Haley is done. “The president has been turned off in part by speculation that Haley has her eyes on a presidential bid, two people close to the president said,” in the language of Washington today, where facts are simply what “people close” to things say.

    So what would Mike Pompeo be like as America’s 70th Secretary of State?

    Never missing a chance to get the first knife planted in the back, former Ambassador Jim Jeffrey warns while Pompeo currently “has this very close relationship with Trump, and you can’t nurture it the same way when you’re traveling all the time,” referring to the Secretary of State’s international schedule. But before the poo-poo, what was Pompeo like at CIA that might give us a clue to how’ll he will do at State?

    The signs are not good. Pompeo is a conservative, and State has always been the most “liberal,” as in committed to the liberal global system of trade and democracy, part of any administration. Pompeo is a hardlining on Iran; State sees as one of its few legacy successes the nuclear agreement with that nation worked out under Secretary of State John Kerry.

    Even at CIA, Pompeo showed a demeanor that seems at odds with the State Department’s culture of consultation, discussion, what ifs and may be’s. Pompeo’s clear certainty on issues such as Iranian nuclearization brushed hard against even the Agency’s culture, which one officials described as “The CIA isn’t Saudi Arabia, the people there appreciate nuance, they’re married to complexity.” It won’t get better at State.

    Sources at the Agency explain to become a successful head of the CIA you really have to own the place, which means embracing the entrenched powers, the people on the 7th floor and the one just below it. “You’ve got to get them on side, and you’ve got to spend time doing it,” said one Agency veteran.

    “I think Pompeo did that for a time and early on people liked him, thought of him as one of them — believed he would have their backs,” explained one CIA official. “But that’s changed. He has a temper and he’s used it, and that’s something that intelligence professionals frown on. I heard of one incident, outside his office, when he was screaming at a senior intel officer — ‘are you incompetent or just stupid?’ So, not surprisingly, at least recently, he’s started to lose people there.”

    It appears highly unlikely Pompeo would find himself well-liked at State. Diplomats displeased with the relatively bland Tillerson, whose faults extend to apparently not having many firm opinions on foreign policy matters, will be repelled by Pompeo’s views.

    Looking ahead to a Pompeo tenure, one State Department source told me “There is nothing analysts at State hate more than to have a theory dismissed with ‘But over at CIA they say…’ and Pompeo will walk into the building with that chip on his shoulder.” As Secretary of State, it is doubtful Pompeo will interact with, or care much about, the organization he’ll head up. As a Trump loyalist, whatever nefarious plans Trump has for the State Department as an institution will find a boss happy to see them carried out. Trial balloons masquerading as reporting saying Pompeo’s supposed closeness to Trump will be welcomed by the State Department rank and file are sad gasps in the dark. There is no good news ahead for Foggy Bottom.

    Whatever pundits did not like about Trump and his State Department they will dislike plus double much under Pompeo. Whatever one believes about the administration’s plans to destroy diplomacy, that belief will be reinforced during Pompeo’s tenure. But here’s the prediction I am most certain of: about two months after Pompeo takes office as Secretary of State, the media will start writing revisionist pieces claiming Tillerson was a check on Trump’s impulsivity, and is missed at State. The New York Times will remember Tillerson’s tenure as the time no new wars started, when the U.S. did not start a war with Iran, North Korea, Russia or China.

    Rex Tillerson is not the worst Secretary of State and he is far from the best of them. For the State Department rank and file, he was a punching bag, a symbol of what they believe the Trump administration has in store for them as an institution. For the media and some members of Congress, Tillerson was a stand-in for all that they hate about Trump and his view of the world. The guy never stood a chance. It is hard to see anyone seeing Pompeo much differently. He takes office as a dead man walking.



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  • The Media and the Myths of Trump

    December 1, 2017 // 23 Comments

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    Posted in: Democracy, Post-Constitution America


    Donald Trump’s victory was so loathsome to journalists that instead of acknowledging their cultural and partisan blindness lead to them misreport the election, they doubled down, growing two overlapping myths to delegitimize the presidency they never wanted to happen.

    The two myths are Trump did not really win the election, and that once in office Trump is so unfit to serve that he is a danger to the nation and must be removed as a people’s act of literal self-defense. Psychiatrists call this denial; political scientists may call it a kill shot to democracy.

     

    The myth Trump did not actually win exploded outward like the Big Bang from November 8, 2016. There were the Jill Stein recounts, and false claims of voter fraud, gerrymandering, and racist voter suppression that lead to an “unfair” win. This all morphed into what stands as one of the most ignorant themes ever expressed in American politics, that because Clinton “won” the popular vote she was somehow entitled to the Oval Office. Reporting on all this came close to claiming the Constitution itself conspired against Hillary. “We’re in uncharted waters,” proclaimed CNN’s Anderson Cooper; the network also featured an ex-CIA officer calling for a new election, what in CIA-speak is better known as an overthrow.

    Instead of dismissing such unconsitutional nonsense, the media featured elaborate justifications, and coined the term “Hamilton Electors” to tie the quixotic effort to one of the few Founding Fathers voters knew via song. An online petition to declare Clinton president that in normal times would have been seen as a crank call was instead promoted into gaining the largest response in Change.org history. Editorials called for the Electoral College vote to be unconstitutionally postponed. Once-cogent pundits like Lawrence Tribe and Robert Reich were handed mainstream platforms to morph themselves into human cottage industries proclaiming the impeach-ability of various Tweets and statements.
    Even today, the New York Times’ White House correspondent beats the fan fiction drum for the importance of the popular vote. Her paper continues to focus on the urgent need to do away with the Electoral College after 220 years, the system that put Obama and Clinton and Carter into office, before the next time Trump runs. In what under normal times would be dismissed as a conspiracy theory, Huffington Post features interviews saying the election may not be “legitimate,” over a year later.

     

    The efforts to somehow keep Trump from office continued right up to the swearing in ceremony, itself boycotted by Democrats who did not want to “normalize” the election.

    It was at that point the second myth came to the fore: Trump was unfit to serve. The uber-disqualification is that Trump is literally a Russian agent (“Is Donald Trump Working for Russia?” asked New York magazine, in a headline that would have made reporters blush during the McCarthy Red Scares), directly under the control of the Kremlin, who holds power over him via some sort of pornographic pee tape no one has seen, or sweetheart real estate loans no one has seen, or in return for buying Trump the election demonstrated by evidence no one has seen.

    Alongside the “Trump is a Russian agent” disqualifier are a handful of memes never before seen in American politics. Trump’s hotels make his presidency illegal under the Emoluments Clause, a Constitutional snippet that generally escaped notice for 220 years (that Obama might get a $60 million book advance to write about things he did in office but only paid out, alongside six figure speaking engagements, after he left office, or that foreign governments donated to the Clinton Foundation while Hillary was Secretary of State, are not discussed.) Trump’s tax returns, available to the IRS for decades, are a media strawman; only if the people of Twitter examine those old 1040s can democracy be saved, IRS auditors and their technical knowledge be damned. Maxine Waters, a Member of Congress, said Trump should be impeached because he is boorish and crude.

    Waters’ statements and other similar, albeit slightly more coherent ones, are addendums to the myth, the idea that Trump is on borrowed time. The media fans the flames of Mueller, expecting the smoking gun that has so far eluded the CIA, NSA, FBI, IRS, and NYT to emerge any day. The 25th Amendment, created after the Kennedy assassination to codify the line of succession should the president become incapacitated, has been crowd-sourced into some sort of psychological failsafe mechanism whereby the Vice President, et al, will wake up one morning, realize the Washington Post has been right all along, and force Trump out of office.

    Ensuring that Trump is to appear as unqualified, the media focuses on “evidence” of that. Looking at his trip to Asia, the main story out of the Japan leg was some silliness over Trump overfeeding fish, not what was discussed with the Japanese regarding North Korea. CBS News’ White House Correspondent purposefully pulled a quote about Japanese auto manufacturing out of context to make Trump appear uninformed, whereas the full statement paints the opposite picture. From China, the theme was Trump was “rolled,” cajoled into, well, something, via a VIP visit to the Forbidden City. The main point of the APEC meeting in the Philippines? A silly photo. His speech in Korea, focusing on the problems with the North, was largely reported based on a irrelevant cherry-picked sentence about a Trump golf course. Back at home, the New York Times headlined Trump taking an awkward drink of water.

     

    Running alongside such spot reporting is a steady stream of anonymous source-based predictions war is imminent in Iran or North Korea, and that DeVos, Mueller, Sessions, Kushner, Tillerson, Mattis, and Kelly will be fired or resign. That such things haven’t happened in a year is irrelevant; the media says without evidence they still might. A silly Trump tweet criticizing a reporter becomes “evidence” the President has abandoned the First Amendment. Journalists, who as a group once took pride in their objectivity, now openly proclaim their “not Trump” political allegiance.

    Routine tussles of government, the stuff of our system, are overstated to a rube-like public such that courts doing what they are supposed to do, ruling on the President’s immigration orders, are inflated into “constitutional crisis.” It’s not a crisis if the system functions as it was created to do.

    Journalistic standards of evidence, typically requiring multiple sources and/or on-the-record witnesses, are replaced by the egregious use of anonymous sources that are little more than gossip from interns. Watch the mushroom-level growth of headlines with colons, such as Revealed:, Sources: or Reported: and passive constructions such as “I’m told…” that get around the fact that the story is not really based on facts.

    Reporters compete with one another to show how aghast they are at the “latest.” Newsweek is gleeful at the possibility Trump won’t finish his term. CNN talks of deposing the president. Politico runs an innuendo-heavy but fact-free piece claiming the KGB, seeing into the future, compromised Trump in 1987.

    The sum of such snarky, non-substantive reporting is clear: America is on the lip of chaos, Trump is not leading America, he is accomplishing nothing of substance, he is unfit.

     

    But the most unprecedented element of myth is the steady stream of reporting the President of the United States is so mentally ill that his continued presence in the White House is a suicide plan for America. Never before have mainstream media so freely and casually declared the President to be medically, legally, insane, and all based on little but fear and a few Tweets. The media has normalized this into common knowledge; as an example, an article pitch I made to a global media outlet explaining why war was not imminent in Korea was rejected because I could not “prove” Trump was not insane (The American Conservative bravely published my story.)

    The myth is buttressed by medically unethical remote diagnosis, such as that of Dr. John Gartner, former assistant professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University Medical School. “I don’t think people have any idea how close we are the point of no return,” Gartner said. “I think that there is an 80% chance he’s going to push that nuclear button. Why? Number one, Trump is a malignant narcissist. As far as I know, I cannot recall a single malignant narcissist in history who did not start a major war.” Gartner concludes “the noose is tightening around their necks and unlike Richard Nixon, Trump and his cabal are not going to leave gracefully. Donald Trump is going to be really like Bonnie and Clyde; he’s going to shoot his way out.”

    Though the nation’s nuclear command and control procedures have for better or worse been left relatively unchanged since the Truman administration, it is only now, under the guise that Trump is insane, that the media and some Members of Congress are promoting the idea that change is needed. Media outlets champion the idea the military could refuse to launch missiles, advocating insubordination, essentially a coup, as the best hope our nation will survive. Such paranoia exceeds the worst of Cold War fears.

    Along the way the myths have created their own new normals; it is now perfectly acceptable to call out the President with schoolyard-taunts: Trump has small hands, a joke about Cheeto Jesus, the orange man-child, homophobic jokes about Putin and bromance, that sort of thing. Writers like Charles Blow in the New York Times build whole columns out of lists (“ignorant… churlish… tacky”) of personal insults.

     

    For the first time in our nation’s history powerful mainstream forces are trying to change the results of an election. Shocked by Trump’s victory, many in the media wanted to stop him from entering the White House. Failing that, they delegitimize the president in the manufactured-from-thin-air belief that he is such a threat that it is necessary to destroy democracy in America to save it.

    At some point Trump will leave office. CNN and others would be expected to return to their originally scheduled programming at that time. The problem is once you let the genie of trying to overturn an election loose, you won’t be able to stop it. It’s foolish to think this process won’t be used again in 2020, or 2024. The clumsiness of the Obama birth certificate conspiracy to delegitimize a president is nothing compared to the approach being tried with Trump. People are getting more skillful at the game, learning more about the tools available. A new political weapon has been unsheathed. America is playing with fire.

     

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  • What If Trump Dismantled the State Department, and It Didn’t Matter?

    November 30, 2017 // 7 Comments

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    Posted in: Embassy/State, Iraq, Trump



    Bad news: President Donald Trump may be dismantling the State Department. The good news? No recent president has made much use of those diplomats, so they are unlikely to be missed. And that’s really bad news.


    Recent stories try hard to make the case that something new and dark has crept into Foggy Bottom. Writing for the December 2017 Foreign Service Journal, American Foreign Service Association President Barbara Stephenson sounds the alarm on behalf of the organization of American diplomats she heads: “The Foreign Service officer corps at State has lost 60% of its Career Ambassadors since January… The ranks of our two-star Minister Counselors have fallen from 431 right after Labor Day to 369 today.”

    Stephenson doesn’t mention a 60% loss of Career Ambassadors, the most senior diplomats, means the actual headcount drops from only five people to two (and of the three that did retire, two are married to one another suggesting personal timing played a role. One retiree worked in the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, another was seconded to a university, important but outside State’s core diplomatic mission that many feel is “at risk.”) Choosing to count noses “right after Labor Day” is deceptive. Most retirements take place officially on September 30 in line with the ending of the federal fiscal year, so numbers will seem lower in November. Stephenson also leaves out the losses are voluntary retirements, not a taking of heads by the Trump administration. None of the retirees have stated they are leaving in protest.

    The number of Career Ministers (another senior rank) in the Foreign Service actually increased from 22 to 26 under Trump. Growth had been delayed by Senate confirmation process, not the White House.

    Stephenson is equally alarmed at Trump’s government-wide hiring freeze affecting entry level diplomats, though fails to note the freeze won’t touch a good two-thirds of new hires, as they come from exempt fellowship programs.

    Also not mentioned is that intake of new Foreign Service officers is now primarily via existing fellowship programs, as regular intake is frozen. These fellowships recruit heavily from historically black colleges and universities, which means diversity at State should actually increase under Trump. And hiring has been below attrition since the Obama years anyway.


    So good news, the dismantling is not happening. Overall, the number of senior diplomats (the top four foreign service ranks) is only 19 people less than at this time in 2016. But the bad news: while a shortage of diplomats is not new under President Trump, the weakening of American diplomacy is real.

    For example, no other Western country uses private citizens as ambassadors over career diplomats to anywhere near the extent the United States does, handing out about a third of the posts as political patronage in what has been called a “thinly veiled system of corruption.” In 2012, the Government Accountability Office reported 28 percent of all senior State Department Foreign Service positions were unfilled or filled with below-grade employees.

    Relevancy?  State has roughly the same number of Portuguese speakers as it does Russian. 

    Or take a longer view: in 1950, State had 7,710 diplomats. The pre-Trump total was just 8,052 as State has failed to grow alongside the modern world. The reasons may differ, but modern presidents simply have not expanded their diplomatic corps.


    It is the growth of military influence inside government that has weakened State. Months before Barbara Stephenson’s organization worried about Trump dismantling the State Department, it worried about State becoming increasingly irrelevant inside a militarized foreign policy. That worrisome 2017 article cited an almost identical worrisome article from 2007 written at the height of the Iraq War.

    In between were numerous reiterations of the same problem, such as in 2012 when State questioned its relevance vis-vis the Pentagon. In Africa, for example, the military’s combatant commanders are putative epicenters for security, diplomatic, humanitarian, and commercial affairs. One reason is range: unlike ambassadors, whose responsibility, budget, and influence is confined to a single country, combatant commanders’ reach is continental. When America’s primary policy tool is so obviously the military, there is less need, use, or value to diplomats. As a foreign leader, who would you turn to get Washington’s ear, or to pry open its purse?


    It wasn’t always this way. A thumbnail history of recent United States-North Korean relations shows what foreign policy with active diplomacy, and without it, looks like.

    For example, in 2000 there were American diplomats stationed in North Korea, and the Secretary of State herself visited Pyongyang to lay the groundwork for rebuilding relations. These steps took place under the 1994 Agreed Framework, which ended — diplomatically — an 18-month crisis during which North Korea threatened to withdraw from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The Framework froze North Korea’s plutonium production and placed it under international safeguard.

    President George W. Bush’s post-9/11 inclusion of North Korea in his “axis of evil” scuttled that last real attempt at direct diplomacy with Pyongyang. Bush demanded regime change, which led to the North going nuclear. Unlikely at the advice of his State Department, Bush also found time to refer to North Korea’s then-leader Kim Jong-il as a pygmy. Bush plunged into the Middle East militarily with little further attention paid to a hostile nuclear state.

    With one failed exception, President Obama also avoided substantive negotiations with Pyongyang, while warning the United States “will not hesitate to use our military might.” The Obama administration-driven regime change in Libya after that country abandoned its nuclear ambitions sent a decidedly undiplomatic message to Pyongyang about what disarmament negotiations could lead to. Without a globally thought-through strategy behind it, war is simply chaos. Diplomacy has little role when the White House forgets war is actually politics by other means.


    It is clear that President Trump thinks little of his State Department. Morale is low, the budget is under attack, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s reorganization plans have many old hands on edge. But the real question of what is wrong with President Trump’s non-relationship with State is answered by asking what value Presidents Bush and Obama derived from a fully-staffed State Department, either by ignoring its advice, or simply ignoring diplomacy itself. As with the numbers that suggest State is not being dismantled, the point is much of the current hysteria in Washington fails to acknowledge that a lot of what seems new and scary is old and scary. It is a hard point, rationality, to make in a media world where one is otherwise allowed to write declarative sentences that the president is mentally ill and will start WWIII soon in a tweet.

    Having the right number of senior diplomats around is of little value if their advice is not sought, or heeded, or if they are not directed toward the important issues of the day. Whether Trump does or does not ultimately reduce staff at State, he will only continue in a clumsy way what his predecessors did by neglecting the institution in regions where it might have mattered most.


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  • #Metoo is for Me, Too

    November 28, 2017 // 7 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Other Ideas



    As a young man I was the victim of unwanted sexual attention from someone in Hollywood. In the intervening decades I never told anyone what happened. I know the name of the man who did this to me, but I am not sure what to do with that.


    I landed a summer internship with a major studio, out of a Midwestern college in the 1980s where people simply did not talk much about sexuality. One of the only men at the school who was open about being gay was considered something of a political celebrity on campus. I am a straight man, what today people dismiss sarcastically as boring CIS binary old white bread.

    I knew no one in California. The man who played me was in a position to help me in all sorts of ways, and he sometimes did. He was generous with advice and what seemed to be friendship. Things changed as I remember him showing me the thick binders of aspiring actors and actresses’ head shots, him lingering on the beefcake images and making jokes about how he knew a no-name young shirtless actor, who since went on to some modest roles. The man complimented me on the way I looked, and “accidentally” touched my arms, especially on the days I wore short sleeves. I was very naive and it wasn’t until the invitation to take a drive out into the desert that I finally realized what was happening.

    I distanced myself from him via a rotational program that sent me to another office. It never occurred to me to say anything. For anyone who questions the value of Human Resources in 2017, it was called just Personnel then and did little more than process tax forms. After I moved to the new department, the man called me a few times, showed up at my new office to “say hi” more than once, and invited me to lunch, parties, events, and a place he kept in Palm Springs long after he knew I would say no. He was older than me, and married to a woman at the time. He wrote me a nice letter of recommendation, which I shamelessly and selfishly used to get a future job.


    After I left California, he sent me occasional photos, often just in beachwear. A string of late night phone calls that woke me up, always with an apology that he’d mistaken the time difference – again – between California and the east finally made me realize who I was and what he was when he looked at me like a meal. I think my new-found hostility coupled with his growing boredom (perhaps there was a new intern?) convinced him to leave me alone.

    I never heard from him again after that last unwanted call. I have had no contact with him for decades, and I wonder if he would see this article if he’d even have any idea who I am.

    I don’t think of myself as a survivor, or anything like that. But some of my adult bitterness has roots in what happened. Nobody just walks away. I did learn a lot. I learned about fear and insecurity, and because I was ashamed of myself, I learned how to keep my mouth shut while for years people said to me in response to all sorts of terrible things in the news “Well, you don’t know what it feels like” when I did.

    I wrestled for some time with the idea that I had done something wrong – this took place in a world away when even in Hollywood people didn’t show all their cards to strangers, and some careful back and forth signaling was not uncommon if one party found another of the same sex attractive. Maybe I sent out the wrong signals, maybe I didn’t realize I had to say no unambiguously much earlier than I finally did. Maybe at some level I enjoyed the attention, drawing a line in my mind that didn’t exist in his between the non-sexual and sexual.

    The events of the past weeks brought all of this back from the dark place in memory where I had left it. I was able to make peace with myself long ago, but the complexity of emotions these days still surprised me.

    It took me a moment to pull his name forward, though his face came readily into my mind once I let that happen. Some Googling of a person I had not thought of for many years tells me he’s still in the movie business, doing well, though by no means an A Lister. You’ve heard of some of the projects he has worked on, and he is very active with charities. Turns out he played an important behind-the-scenes role in a TV series I really enjoyed watching with my kids when they were younger. He has some minor connections with the Democratic party. In the current climate, the story might make the news.

    If I say his name.


    I tried to think why it would make sense now to say who he is. If I said his name and Twitter caught it, I’d have a chance to tell everyone I did it for those who can’t stand up, to empower others, those things people seem to know just how to say now when the cameras come on. Maybe someone else would find comfort knowing they are not alone, but I really doubt the world needs my story to understand unwanted sexual attention is rampant. Maybe people would say I am brave and put me on a talk show. We don’t like to acknowledge it, but in 2017 there can be profit in being a victim, and sensationalism for its own sake is part of the world we live in.

    Who knows, maybe the guy would Tweet out an apology, say he was ashamed of his former self, explain he has since gotten help or something, though that would be for him and the people close to him. I certainly don’t need it for anything. Humiliation isn’t zero sum. His wouldn’t erase mine. There was never a chance of justice, not then and not now.

    I can only speak for myself in saying the only reason I could really come up with to “name and shame” this man now is revenge.

    Years ago he was in a position of power over me, and I convinced myself I had no choice but to put up with what was done. Times have changed, and in a way I’m now the one in power: he potentially has something to lose via my accusations while I have little to worry about in the current climate. I have the chance to use the power I have now to hurt him.

    So yeah, #MeToo. But if me, too, means doing to him what he did to me now that I finally can, then, no, not me, too.



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  • How to Talk to Trump-Hating Millennials This Thanksgiving

    November 22, 2017 // 7 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Other Ideas, Trump

    Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving (Not in Iraq)


    With Thanksgiving fast approaching, many freshmen college students will be heading home for the first time to confront their ignorant, racist parents. Semi-employed millennials will leave their joblets to endure a long weekend of Dad and Uncle Mark spouting fascism between tearing hunks of non-free range turkey flesh off bone.


    To prepare these young people for the ordeal, the Internet will soon be running guides, such as “How to share a table with relatives whose views you abhor.” A Google search for something like “how to talk to family at thanksgiving about Trump” brings up a cornucopia of advice. Young folks are told to listen to the olds’ racism with compassion and to realize we are threatened by our impending extinction. The job for youth alongside the turkey and gravy? “We have to put in the messy and unfun labor of listening to complaints about modern America, and then offer solutions that aren’t built on fear and hatred for the other.”


    Well, that’s fine for telling them how to deal with us. But here are our tips for young people on how to better prepare for a Thanksgiving political showdown.


    1) Take a moment to note history did not begin on 11/09/16. Mother and I want you to know Trump’s wars started under Bush and Obama. Much of the assault on our civil rights, particularly the devolution of the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments, began right after 9/11. The CIA, NSA, FBI, Robert Mueller, John McCain, and others may be rock stars today because you think they’re part of #TheResistance, but each has a long history of serving the deep needs of the State. I read 1984 in high school, and Handmaiden’s Tale was written before you were born, so no need to quote them to me. Pass the beets, willya? Who doesn’t like beets?


    2) Everyone can have an opinion, but you might want to listen more closely to the one held by somehow who has studied a particular subject her whole life. Some things have such a history behind them that they are “facts.” If you want to read informed content on federal contracting in regard to Puerto Rico, the lawyers at POGO are better than the kids at Daily Beast, for example. “Conspiracy” in legal filings doesn’t mean spying, it means only that more than one person worked together to commit a crime; lawyers know this, dudes on Twitter do not. So careful about “hot takes;” what you want instead in most cases is a well-debated question among experts. Read The Death of Expertise to learn how intellectual egalitarianism cripples informed discussion. Think about Uncle Mark’s coffee mug, the one that says “Your Google search is not the same as my medical degree.”


    3) For the love of all good things, look up the definition of “fascism” and read a bit about the rise of Hitler before citing each as a response to every thing in the news that frightens or offends you. Might as well dig into causes of the civil war and history of early compromises on slavery in American instead of citing blurbs from the Trevor Noah show about the roots of racial inequality. The people on late night TV are comedians. You are not better informed by listening to their jokes. Entertainment isn’t education. Damn, the stuffing is good this year. Why don’t we have this more than once every twelve months?


    4) Freedom of speech means protecting the right of someone to say things without necessarily endorsing their content. The Supreme Court has repeatedly said no to banning hate speech. The ACLU supports the First Amendment rights of nazis. Get with the program. The rights you defend are in reality your own.


    5) The nation is not at the edge. Democracy is not dying in darkness. The issues of today can be important without being apocalyptic. Nobody is setting up labor camps for LGBTQ illegal immigrant POC refugees. A few nazi cosplayers at a rally are not the same as Crystal Nacht, nor are they likely a predecessor to that. You sound like bad dystopian fan fiction. Get off the ledge – America survived a civil war, two world wars, and a real constitutional crisis surrounding Watergate and Richard Nixon. A President who Tweets is not the end of us. And stop sounding gleeful alongside CNN when you predict it might be.


    6) There’s a bunch of important stuff going on you don’t seem to be focused on. If you’re looking for things to change, speak out against the war in Afghanistan, now in its 16th year. You and the soldiers deployed there wore Huggies when it started; pretty much the same for the fighting in Iraq. You’re worried about the treatment of Muslims at America’s airports? Cool; spare a thought for the treatment of Muslims in the multiple nations where America is making war at present. More gravy?


    7) Learn how to read critically and think skeptically. The media environment is rough, with “facts” increasingly corrupted by ideology, and speed of publishing a hot take taking precedence over getting the story right. Be skeptical of reports you absolutely agree with, especially if they are based on anonymous sources. Ask yourself who would really know what the President said in a closed door meeting first-hand, and why would they leak that? There’s usually an agenda, by either the writer, the source, or both, so try and understand it. You might actually have to read multiple media outlets, some representing a point of view you don’t agree with, to get a full picture.


    8) Thoughtful criticism of a (black, female, etc.) candidate is not racism/sexism/bigotry/misogyny, it’s thoughtful criticism. A good line of questioning by a black, female, etc., candidate isn’t brave, fierce, courageous or an attack on the patriarchy, it’s just a good line of questioning. Lotta turkey this year; you want seconds?


    9) In the real world, you can’t slam the door on arguments with single-word retorts like Mansplaining! Benghazi! The Emails! Putin! Whataboutism is not a one-word alternative to the real intellectual work of sorting out history, precedent or parallels that matter. Two things can both be wrong. A bad thing by a Democrat does not cancel out something bad a Republican did. It might be necessary to talk about both. Some ideas cannot be explained in 280 characters. Some require whole books. Don’t dismiss an argument because learning about it is more work than thumbing a scroll wheel.


    10) Talk is fun. But somebody has to in the end do some real work if anything is going to get fixed around here, so help clean up after Thanksgiving dinner.




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  • Soldier Boy, for Veteran’s Day

    November 16, 2017 // 4 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Iraq, Military



    Perhaps only ancient Sparta claimed to support its military more than the United States. From the “soldiers in uniform board first” rituals that happen only in American airports, to politics where a decision not to serve is forever held against a candidate, there are reminders that America’s troops are a presence in our society like few others.

    The desire to claim a piece of that leads to elaborate lies, known as “stolen valor.” People buy regulation uniforms and walk through society showing off medals, telling fake war stories, and accepting unearned thanks, all without ever having served a day. They want the juice without having endured the squeeze. They are out there this Veteran’s Day, and they are to be loathed.

    At the same time we curse the fakes, we might also spare a thought this Veteran’s Day to those who really did serve, and how society in return shows its real support. Because while some fake service, in too many ways society fakes support:

    — We pass by 40,000 veterans homeless on any given night. More than half suffer from mental illness.

    — We watch the troops die because of long waits for care at U.S. veterans hospitals.

    — We know some 460,000 vets from the Iraq and Afghan wars suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; another 260,000 have Traumatic Brain Injuries. Statistics are hard to come by from America’s other wars, but since the working figure for PTSD out of Iraq and Afghanistan is about 20 percent, that would leave millions of Vietnam and Korean vets suffering.

    — We read in Losing the Battle: The Challenge of Military Suicide that military suicides increase among those who deploy overseas, among those who suffer brain injuries, and particularly among those who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder.

    — We are silent as 20 veterans a day commit suicide.

    What does it all add up to on Veteran’s Day? This.


    As a State Department foreign service officer I spent a year embedded with the Army in Iraq at several smaller forward operating bases (FOBs). I wrote this about one very bad day.

    I heard about Private First Class Brian Edward Hutson’s (name changed) death at breakfast and walked over to his trailer. He’d put the barrel of his rifle into his mouth, with the weapon set for a three-round burst, and blew out the back of his skull. I saw the fan spray on the wall, already being washed off by the Bangladeshi cleaning crew. The bleach solution they used was smearing more than cleaning, and the Bangladeshis had little stomach to wring out the mop heads all that often. The blood smelled coppery and though I never smelled that before or since I can summon the smell into my mind at any time I wish, and at some times I don’t wish.

    The death of any soldier reverberated through the FOB. This was, after all, a small town, and nobody was left untouched. The ritual prescribed by regulation was the same, whether the death was by suicide or in combat. The chapel had rows of chairs set up, much as it would in Ohio or Georgia for a wedding, only at the front of the room was a wooden box with holes for the U.S. and the unit flag and a slot to stand the deceased’s rifle. The remains of the deceased were likely already on their way home and not with us. The box was made of plywood, stained and varnished like paneling, and reminded everyone of a high school wood shop project. The dead man’s boots stood on either side of the rifle, with his helmet on top. It was fitting no one had cleaned the boots, because the presence of the dust and dirt wiped away a lot of the cheapness of the event.

    There was a program with the official Army photo of the deceased, posed in front of an American flag — you could see a few red pockmarks on the side of his face, a chicken pox scar on his forehead. All these photos showed a vacant stare, same as every high school graduation photo. The chaplain read the 23rd Psalm.

    The required speeches were strained because the senior officers who had to speak at these events rarely knew, or could know among the many troops under them, the deceased. The dead man’s job had something to do with radios and most present didn’t say much beyond that. The eulogy thus rang a bit hollow, but you reminded yourself the words were not necessarily intended for you and that the Colonel may not have been the best man for the job. He was a responsible man, trying hard to do something impossible, and he probably felt bad for his lack of conviction, and that he was not a Pericles or Lincoln.

    The last speaker was by tradition someone acquainted with the deceased. In this ceremony, things were especially awkward. The dead man had taken his life after only a few months in the Army and even less time at this FOB. Nobody had befriended him, and this being the third suicide on the FOB made the whole thing especially grim. The ceremony felt rushed, like an over-rehearsed school play where the best performance had taken place the night before.

    But sometimes things surprised you, maybe because of low expectations, maybe because every once in a while somebody stood up and said just what needed to be said. A young Captain rose without notes. “I was his team leader but I never really knew him. Brian was new here. He didn’t have no nickname and he didn’t spend much time with us. He played Xbox a lot. We don’t know why he committed suicide. We miss him anyway because he was one of us. That’s all I have to say.”

    The ceremony ended with the senior enlisted person calling the roll for the dead man’s unit. Each member answered, “Here, Sergeant Major” after his name was called. That was until the name called was the dead man’s. “Brian Hutson?” Silence. “Brian E. Hutson?” Silence. “Private First Class Brian Edward Hutson?” Silence. Brian was not there and almost none of us had known him but yes, that day, at that place, we all missed him anyway.


    We will hear a lot this Veterans Day about supporting the troops and thanking them for their service. Please do those things; they deserve it.

    But don’t traffic in bullshit this Veterans Day. For all the talk about how much we owe, no one ever demands we pay up. If our nation insists on being so quick to send men and women into harm’s way, then it damn well better face up to its obligation to take care of them beyond yellow ribbons, firm handshakes, and discounts on wings ‘n beer. Food, shelter, health care, counseling– that’s how you support the troops on Veterans Day and every other day. We remember Private First Class Brian Edward Hutson by taking care of the brothers and sisters of his we created.



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  • The First (Terms of Service) Amendment

    November 10, 2017 // 4 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Post-Constitution America

    The First Amendment must catch up with the 21st century. What we say on Twitter and elsewhere online is too important to be governed by a Terms of Service agreement.

    I recently wrote about how the Ohio State University is preventing white supremacist Richard Spencer from speaking on campus. Despite falling under the First Amendment, Ohio State is looking for a legal loophole to block speech it doesn’t agree with.

    The semi-comforting news is that Ohio State’s face slap to the First Amendment is subject to legal challenge. Not so in the cyberspace-based public square of the 21st century. What should be the modern arena of diverse ideas is instead controlled by corporations and their self-written Terms of Service. Hiding behind the bushes of private ownership, the quasi-public forums on Twitter, Facebook, Google, and their predecessors and successors skirt the First Amendment to control what people say, read, and by extension, think. They are the censors the Founding Fathers feared. It is hard to imagine a more significant threat to the free exchange of ideas.

    It is time to expand the First Amendment to quasi-public institutions.

    The scope of the First Amendment has regularly expanded. In the earliest days of the Republic the Bill of Rights applied only to the federal, and not any state or local governments. It wasn’t until the post-Civil War incorporation doctrine, followed by court cases well into the 20th century, that those restraints on government applied equally to the states. In its own founding days Ohio State could have easily banned a speaker for his beliefs.

    Actually, Ohio State might have been able to ban a speaker it found offensive until even more recently. It wasn’t until a 1995 case that the Supreme Court held a university’s choices on funding student publications fell under the First Amendment’s obligation not to discriminate against particular viewpoints. Other expansions of the First Amendment took place in the 1950s, when the Supreme Court extended protection to non-traditional “political” speech, including nudity and advertising.

    The First Amendment grows with the times, and needs to do so again to take in what Justice Anthony Kennedy called the “vast democratic forums of the internet in general, and social media in particular.”

    The problem is that those forums today enjoy the freedom to suppress what once were inalienable rights.

    When you use various web sites, you agree to a dense set of conditions, Terms of Service, along with the understanding that Twitter (we’ll use them as shorthand for the range of sites and apps) can interpret things as they wish. So while the Supreme Court continues to hold the line against banning “hate speech,” Twitter is free to apply any standard wishes, along any political or ideological lines it wishes. Twitter may ban speech acting as an arm of the government, skirting the First Amendment because it can.

    That appears to have been what happened with Twitter’s decision to ban advertising from Russian media outlets RT and Sputnik. Both have been accused via a hazy intelligence community assessment of influencing the 2016 presidential election. While the federal government is stuck with that creaky old First Amendment preventing it from chasing RT and Sputnik back to Moscow, Twitter can — literally with a Tweet — silence them. Twitter quickly followed the Russian action with a decision to ban whatever it thinks are “violent groups and hateful imagery and hate symbols.” In the same week Twitter suspended the account of conservative Roger Stone. No explanation was given, though the suspension appears to be related to Stone’s angry Tweets directed at CNN.

    My own Twitter suspension occurred in the process of defending myself against several antifa people who conflated my defense of free speech in the broadest terms with what they believed was my personal support for nazi hatred. Their threats to “punch nazis” lead me to respond. My response was deemed by Twitter incitement to violence (though it would never meet the actual definition of that term the Supreme Court established) and I got the boot. When suspended, Twitter still allows you to read your timeline, so I could see attacks continue until the antifa people tired of it all. I could not block them or respond in any way. It felt a lot like five big guys holding me down while a bully whacked away.

    Google has quietly implemented censorship in the most well-intentioned way possible: to stop child predators. The internet giant tweaked its English-language search results to block sites it believes link to child pornography. “We will soon roll out these changes in more than 150 languages, so the impact will be truly global,” the company claims.

    While no one can argue against stopping child predators, those same tools can be used in other ways, known as the search engine manipulation effect. Generally, the higher an item appears on a list of search results, the more users will click on it. Research shows putting links for one candidate above another in a rigged search can increase the number of undecided voters who chose one candidate by 12% or more.

    Burying a link can have a similar effect. Google highlighting an OpEd that argues one way to the query “What is Trump’s Russia policy?” while leaving an opposing opinion out of the search results is a critical free speech issue of our time. A current Google search for “greatest president of the 20th century,” for example, highlights a brisk historical debate over Ronald Reagan versus Franklin Roosevelt, and brings up over 300,000 sites. What if it yielded only one? America would never accept government issuing a list of approved books for dead tree libraries few use anymore, but blithely accepts the same from the most-used research tool in human history.

    Technology has changed the nature of censorship so that free speech in 2017 is not as much about finding a place to speak, but about finding an audience. Censorship in the 21st century targets speakers (example: Twitter) and listeners (Google.) There will soon be no fear that anyone will lock up dissident thinkers in some old-timey prison to silence them; impose a new Terms of Service and they are effectively dead.

    The arguments that Twitter and Google are private companies, that no one forces you to use their services, and in fact you are free to switch to MySpace and Bing, are tired attempts to justify end runs around the First Amendment. Platforms like Twitter are the public squares of the 21st century (seven of 10 American adults used a social media site in 2016), and should be governed by the same principles, or the First Amendment will become largely irrelevant.

    Pretending a corporation with the global reach to influence elections is just another company is to pretend the role of unfettered debate in a free society is outdated. Absent a court decision that places quasi-public forums under the First Amendment, we face a future that will splinter debate and discussion into a myriad of ideological-based platforms such that no one will be listening to anyone they do not already support. It will be a future where Twitter and Ohio State protect students from the words of Richard Spencer at the expense of teaching them how to challenge those words.

     

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  • Safety or Liberty? The Constitution Says We Can Have Both

    October 31, 2017 // 3 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Post-Constitution America



    Certain things used to be more, well, self-evident. A great many of us didn’t necessarily like, but understood, the First Amendment protected some speech we strongly disagreed with, or some speech that even made us afraid. We accepted there was an often uncomfortable duty to protect the right to speech irrespective of its content. We understood if we allowed government and institutions to block one person’s speech, even someone with terrible ideas, they could block others. Right up to when they came for us.

    Then a collective mental breakdown took place in November 2016, and an almost organic sense that overnight America set itself on the path to fascism became the justification for the weakening of the First Amendment. Free speech is now seen by many as a liability, an enabling tool for anyone one might label a “nazi.” Some 69% of American college students believe hate speech (“Using language on campus that is intentionally offensive to certain groups”) should be banned by the government. It is an increasingly common point of view that taking away someone’s right to speak, a tool of fascism, somehow protects against the encroach of fascism.

    And so welcome to The Ohio State University, which has refused to allow white supremacist Richard Spencer to speak on campus November 15.

    The attorney representing Ohio State said Spencer would pose a “substantial risk to public safety, as well as material and substantial disruption to the work and discipline of the University.” Ohio State was no doubt also thinking of the $600,000 the University of Florida claimed it cost to provide security for Spencer’s recent appearance there. The Florida response included hundreds of police officers from five jurisdictions, as well as SWAT teams and snipers.

    Both Ohio State and Penn State (also denying Spencer the chance to speak) are being sued for violating the First Amendment. Without explanation, nearby University of Cincinnati will allow Spencer to speak.

    The law does not appear to be on Ohio State’s side. Blocking a speaker to protect public safety is an absolute last resort, and some risk to safety is part of the cost of the unfettered speech a democracy needs to thrive. Freedom, it seems, really is not free. The security costs are in fact to protect the First Amendment in broad practice, not simply one man in the specific.

    The security problems Ohio State cites are not created by the speaker; they are created by the mob expected to oppose the speaker and on the assumption Spencer’s supporters will fight back. A historian lecturing across campus from Spencer on Babylonian art needs no police presence. Allowing the mob to have the final word on who speaks can in fact help create mobs where none otherwise exist. Placing a dollar test on free speech means it is only available to those who can afford it.

    These questions are not new. Public safety has been long (mis)-used to silence. The town of Urbana, Illinois arrested someone burning an American flag (an act long-held to be a form of protected speech) claiming he was in danger from bystanders. Similar thinking has been used to deny permits for civil rights marches, with law enforcement saying they could not protect the protestors. Both sides in the abortion debate have used this argument as well outside clinics.

    While institutions do have an obligation to public safety, that obligation must be balanced against the public’s greater right to engage with free speech. The answer is rarely to ban speech outright simply to maintain order. One landmark case from 2015 provides some of the clearest guidance yet:

    “When a peaceful speaker, whose message is constitutionally protected, is confronted by a hostile crowd, the state may not silence the speaker as an expedient alternative to containing or snuffing out the lawless behavior of the rioting individuals. Nor can an officer sit idly on the sidelines — watching as the crowd imposes, through violence, a tyrannical majoritarian rule — only later to claim that the speaker’s removal was necessary for his or her own protection. Uncontrolled official suppression of the privilege [of free speech] cannot be made a substitute for the duty to maintain order in connection with the exercise of that right.”

    The case involved a group called the Bible Believers who used crude langauge (“Turn or Burn”) at an LGBTQ gathering. The judges continued in their opinion allowing the Bible Believers to speak:

    “We do not presume to dictate to law enforcement precisely how it should maintain the public order. But in this case, there were a number of easily identifiable measures that could have been taken short of removing the speaker: e.g., increasing police presence in the immediate vicinity, as was requested; erecting a barricade for free speech, as was requested; arresting or threatening to arrest more of the law breakers, as was also requested. We simply cannot accept Defendants’ position that they were compelled to abridge constitutional rights for the sake of public safety, when at the same time the lawless adolescents who caused the risk with their assaultive behavior were left unmolested.”

    The belief law enforcement, or any institution, can turn first to shutting down speech that requires physical protection, has failed other courts’ tests in cases are diverse as Occupy and where a Christian group brought a pig’s head to a Muslim Arts festival.

    I spent four years as an undergrad at Ohio State, and saw first-hand how the university can protect the free speech rights of a diverse group of speakers. A former member of the Black Panther party spoke in favor of racial violence. My time on campus was an era of fights for LGBTQ and other rights, and I saw massive police turnouts to protect gays marching across campus, and for a women’s “Take Back the Night” march through rough neighborhoods. Iranian students massed for anti-American demonstrations at a time when U.S. diplomats were being held hostage in Tehran. Meanwhile, Ohio State every other Saturday in the fall deploys a massive security presence for home football games, where the crowd rises above 100,000, multiples past who might show up to protest Spencer. Events likely to cause hardship to passersby are well-advertised, and students know to avoid them if they wish. Such events, past and current, clearly created the same “material and substantial disruption to the work and discipline of the University” that Ohio State fears Spencer will bring but were allowed anyway.

    And Ohio State knows things worked out smoothly last fall, in fact just days before the election, when the school welcomed white supremacist Milo Yiannopoulos to campus.

    Ohio State can do it, they just want to be able to pick and choose when they do it. And that is wrong.

    An institution cannot cite avoiding public disruption as the initial or sole reason to restrict speech. The problems of having Richard Spencer, or anyone, speak on campus are outweighed by the obligation to protect free speech. Getting rid of the speaker is expedient but unconstitutional. Maintenance of the peace should not be achieved at the expense of the free speech. It’s pretty much self-evident.




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  • The Next Middle East War, Post-ISIS

    October 29, 2017 // 3 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Iran, Iraq, Syria, Trump

    Iraqs-Prime-Minister-Nuri-al-Maliki

    Islamic State is in fatal decline. The Middle East will soon enter a new era, post-Islamic State, dominated by the Saudi-Iranian power struggle. The struggle will, as it has as it ran alongside the fight against Islamic State, involve shifting Sunni and Shiite allegiances. But the fight is not about religion. Religion this time has more to do with complicating choices in political bedfellows and where proxies are recruited than dogma. For behind that Sunni-Shiite curtain, this is a classic geopolitical power struggle — for control of Iraq and Syria, and for expanding diplomatic and strategic reach throughout the region.

    In the fight against Islamic State, it has been all too easy to cite expediency in putting complex issues aside, but as the alliances created for that struggle run their course, the new reality will force changes. With the strategic value of funding Islamic State as a bulwark against Iranian influence in Iraq gone, the Saudis appear to be pivoting toward building warmer relations with the Shiite government in Baghdad. That a Saudi airline is just now announcing the first return of direct service between the two countries since Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 is no coincidence, nor is it an isolated event

    The Saudis also appear willing to let a lot of religious water pass under the bridge to take advantage of a looming intra-Shiite power struggle in Baghdad among Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (above), and Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Sadr, the most religiously zealous Shiite of the group, has always been something of a nationalist, and unlike his rivals, is wary of Iranian influence. It is perhaps not surprising that he has made friendly trips to Sunni Riyadh and the United Arab Emirates, the first time in 11 years done under official invitation from Saudi Arabia.

    Sadr is an interesting choice for the Saudis to use to gain influence in Baghdad. Real progress for Riyadh means untangling years of close Iranian cooperation in Iraq, to include limiting the power of the Iranian-backed militias. Sadr has significant influence among the militias, and can use his religious credibility to sell Saudi cooperation to the vast numbers of his followers who remember well the Saudis funded al Qaeda in Iraq and Islamic State’s killing of so many Shiites over the years. Further enhancing Sadr’s Shiite religious status can thus further Sunni Saudi goals. During his visit, the Saudis gifted Sadr with $10 million for “rebuilding,” but also astutely threw in some special visas for this year’s Hajj pilgrimage for Sadr to distribute.

    One should not, however, sell Iran short. Its ties to officials in Baghdad are a tiny part of a deep relationship forged in the bloody fight against the American occupiers. Iranian special forces then helped defeat Islamic State, Iranian money continues to support Iraq, and the Shiite militias who will suddenly have a lot less to occupy their time post-Islamic State are still mostly under Iranian influence. In the absence of any effective national army, no government will stand long in Baghdad without militia support. At the moment, Iran is way ahead in Iraq.

    Iran is also likely to be a winner in Syria. Islamic State’s defeat will significantly lessen Sunni influence there, and Iran’s role as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s protector will only increase in value now that it appears Assad will remain in control of some portion of the country. The Saudis backed the wrong team and are left with little influence.

    In addition to a strong hand in Iraq and Syria, Iran is also probably the most stable Muslim nation in the Middle East. It has existed more or less within its current borders for thousands of years, and is largely religiously, culturally, and linguistically homogeneous (though keep an eye on the Kurdish minority.) While still governed in significant part by its clerics, the country has held a series of increasingly democratic electoral transitions since the 1979 revolution. And unlike the Saudis, Iran’s leaders do not rule in fear of an Islamic revolution. They already had one.


    Power struggles create flashpoints, and the Saudi-Iranian struggle post-Islamic State is no exception.

    The Saudi-Iranian proxy war in Yemen has settled into a version of World War I-style trench warfare, with neither side strong enough to win or weak enough to lose. In an ugly form of stasis, the conflict seems likely to stay within its present borders.

    A potential powder keg however lies in Kurdistan. The Kurds, a de facto state arguably since 2003, did the one thing they weren’t allowed to do, pull the tiger’s tale by holding a formal independence referendum. That vote required everyone with a stake to consider their next moves instead of leaving well enough alone.

    Iran, and the Iranian-backed government now in Baghdad, are clear they will not tolerate an actual Kurdish state. With Islamic State defeated, those governments will simultaneously lose the need to make nice to keep the Kurds in that fight and find themselves with combat-tested Shiite militias ready for the next task. Following a Shiite move against the Kurds, and stymied in Yemen, imagine the Saudis throwing their support into the fight, and a new proxy war will be underway right on Iran’s own western border.


    While it may seem odd to write about the balance of power in the Middle East leaving out the United States, that may very well describe America’s range of options post-Islamic State.

    The United States, which did so much via its unnecessary invasion of Iraq and tragic handling of the post-war period to nurture the growth of Islamic State, seems the least positioned of all players to find a place in a post-Islamic State Middle East. American influence in Baghdad is limited, and with Washington having declared its opposition to the Kurdish independence referendum, likely limited in Erbil as well. Detente with Iran is in shambles under the Trump administration, leaving Washington with few options other than perhaps supporting the Saudis in whatever meddling they do in Iraq.

    Having followed his predecessor’s single minded “strategy” of simply “destroy Islamic State,” there are no signs the Trump administration has any ideas about what to do next, and with the military exhausted and the State Department apparently sitting out international relations at present, it is unclear if any will emerge. It will soon be mission accomplished for America with nothing much to follow. And if that sounds familiar, echoing back to 2003, well, then you understand how things got to where they are.




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  • Madmen, North Korea, and War

    October 25, 2017 // 4 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Syria, Trump


    The seemingly accepted wisdom that American President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un are paired madmen on the edge of war has little to support it other than projected fears. There will be no war because war on the Korean peninsula benefits no one and is very bad for everyone (we’ll get to the madmen theory in a moment.)

    North Korea’s weapons, nuclear and conventional, are arguably the most defensive ever fielded. The North has no realistic claims on overseas territory or resources to resolve, and its borders are stable. Its weapons have not been used offensively more or less since 1953. They exist within the most perfect example of mutually assured destruction history has seen.

    Mutually assured destruction, MAD, is what kept the Cold War cool, the understanding that if either the United States or Russia unleashed nuclear weapons, both sides would be destroyed. The same applies today on the Korean Peninsula, where any conflict means the end of the North and the end of the Kim dynasty. “Conflict” in this sense also includes an invasion of South Korea by the North. The United States and its allies will win any fight. Kim and everyone with any power, influence or stake in the North knows that. The nation of North Korea exists to exist, living proof of its own juche philosophy of self-reliance. North Korea has no reason to start a war that will end in its own destruction. Its nuclear weapons are only useful if they are never used.

    Any talk of an American conventional “surgical strike” ignores the reality that no amount of planning can ensure every weapon of mass destruction will be destroyed; if that was possible the United States would have done it. Any attack on North Korea will result in a nuclear response — there is nothing “limited” for a cornered animal fighting for its life. While it is unclear a North Korean missile could reach American territory, no one in Washington has ever been willing to bet the house that a submarine with a nuke, or North Korean special forces with a dirty bomb, couldn’t do significant damage to an American city. Or to Seoul and Tokyo, both also well within range of North Korean nuclear and conventional missiles.

    So while the American mainland is not under the threat of mutually assured destruction from Pyongyang per se, war on the Korean Peninsula would inevitably destroy American allies South Korea and Japan, unleash radioactivity across the Pacific, and cripple the global economy such that from Washington’s point of view it does indeed exist in a state of virtual mutually assured destruction. Deterrence works. Ask the Cold War.

    All that’s left is the madman theory, the idea that Kim and Trump are irrational, impulsive people who could just one night say let’s push the button. The problem with this theory is that nothing in history supports it.

    The Kim dynasty has been in power some 70 years, three generations. They have weathered conventional conflict, famine, crushing sanctions, internal strife, and hostile acts. They survived the fall of the Soviet Union, the transition of China to a pseudo-capitalist economy, and American governments from Truman to Trump. You don’t stay in power for seven decades acting irrationally or impulsively. You stay in power and hold your own against multiple superpowers by careful action. And there is nothing in the current record to support any contention the current Kim might act any more irrationally than his nuclear-armed dad did.

    The Central Intelligence Agency agrees. A top official said Kim’s actions are those of a “rational actor” motivated to ensure regime survival. “There’s a clarity of purpose in what Kim Jong Un has done,” according to Yong Suk Lee of the Agency’s Korea Mission Center. “Waking up one morning and deciding he wants to nuke Los Angeles is not something Kim is likely to do. He wants to rule for a long time and die peacefully in his own bed.”

    Which leaves Trump as the last standing madman. The problem is, after some ten months, it is hard to point to any irrational act, an actual decision made or action taken that is without logic or reason, something that a madman did anyway knowing the consequences would be dire.

    Forget the tweets; whatever they are, they have come to be seen by the world outside the media as inconsequential. The Tweets are mean, stupid, crude, unpresidential, provocative, and all the rest, but they have never added up to much more than steamy fuel for pop psychologists. Internationally, governments have learned to leave them unanswered except for the occasional diplomatic snark. Nothing that scales to the level of nuclear war-irrationality has actually happened.

    The strongest case for “irrational” is based on Trump’s apparent impulsivity. Despite his lack of political experience, Trump has lived a very public life, in the spotlight for most of the time at least two of the three Kim’s have been on the world stage. He ran companies, made and lost money, he got himself elected president. He’s been in office now some ten months and absolutely none of the apocalyptic predictions people have made have come to pass. We end up right back at the tweets, a long string of impulsive remarks not followed by impulsive acts.

    In comparison, President George W. Bush invaded Iraq in part because they tried to assassinate his dad 12 years earlier. It was Bush’s nonsensical inclusion of North Korea in his “Axis of Evil” that scuttled the last real attempt at nuclear diplomacy with Pyongyang. Bush provacatively demanded regime change, a string of actions which lead in a direct line to the North going nuclear in 2003. Bush also found time to refer to North Korea’s previous leader, Kim Jong Il, as a pygmy.

    President Obama created new American wars in Syria, Libya, and Yemen, re-entered the Iraq war, and surged without result into Afghanistan. He held weekly meetings where he alone decided which human beings across the globe would be snuffed out by drones, allegedly claiming “I’m really good at killing people.” With one failed exception, Obama avoided substantive negotiations with Pyongyang, while threatening the United States “will not hesitate to use our military might” against the North.

    And yet the current president is the one voted most likely to act impulsively and start a war. So far he’s the only recent president who hasn’t.

    What’s left is the “but not yet” pseudo-argument, that whatever one expects Trump to do, just because he hasn’t done it does not mean he won’t. Hard to refute people who demand one foretell the future, but go ahead and bookmark this page and see how the conclusions look in a year.

    At this point we have run out of reasons why there will be war on the Korean Peninsula.

    With the exception of the Trump element, all of the factors that will prevent war in 2017 have been preventing war in Korea for decades. There is nothing in the record, recent or historical, that supports the idea Trump (or Kim) will wake up for cocoa, push a button, and start World War III. It’s a rough, messy, incomplete version of peace, and we’re just going to have to learn to live with it.

     

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  • Review: Springsteen on Broadway

    October 15, 2017 // 8 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Other Ideas



    Springsteen on Broadway, Bruce Springsteen’s one-man show now running through February in New York City, is something extraordinary. A man who has entertained us our whole lives stands on a stage for two hours and confesses his sins, asks for our forgiveness, offers an apology, and opens his heart to a room of people about what it means to acknowledge you’re closer to the end than the beginning.

    I almost wrote “a room full of strangers,” but that would not have been true. We all grew up with different parents in different towns, and went to different schools together, but we knew each other. Despite our differences, we grew up hearing the same stories, listening to these same songs. And now, he at age 68 and most of us in our 50’s it seemed, it was time to make amends.

    I’d heard some of this before – at AA meetings where people working through their 12 Step Programs had to admit what they had done, the people they had hurt, and seek forgiveness. Bruce stood up and apologized for allowing Born in the USA to become an anthem; he sought amends tonight by telling us it should have always been sung as a protest song, that it always was to him, but he let it slip away. So tonight he took that back, hitting the line “son, you don’t understand” hard, maybe directed at himself back in 1984 trying to ride the tiger of fame, maybe at himself as a young man dodging the draft and wondering when he visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington decades later who was sent in his place. Calling his own career “frivolous” in the face of such sacrifice, Bruce was pissed off up there tonight singing, no, shouting the lyrics.

    Age is omnipresent as a theme – maybe we ain’t that young anymore – right down to the construction of the unchanging set list; of the 15 songs, three of them come from the Born to Run album, published when Bruce was only 26 years old, one from earlier than that (Growing Up), and another from before he turned 30 (Promised Land.) For a career that spanned 45 years and counting, it’s telling that a 68 year old Springsteen chose a third of the set from that youthful period. As Bruce said tonight, there’s less blank paper for us to write on.

    “I have never held an honest job in my entire life. I’ve never worked 9 to 5. I’ve never done any hard labor. And yet this is all that I’ve written about. I have become wildly and absurdly successful writing about something of which I personally have had no practical experience,” Bruce confessed or apologized or maybe both, confusing us further by delivering the sentences in his odd acquired Midwestern drawl that sounds like nobody in New Jersey. These thoughts could explain the absence from the show of any of Bruce’s material from Ghosts of Tom Joad, the industrial songs from The River and Darkness, the American folklore tunes, and the Seeger sessions. He had to leave a lot out to make it all fit on Broadway, but those omissions seemed purposeful, not merely practical.

    Maybe those tunes were left out because they really weren’t his own; he owned the emotions there as a character but not the biography, and tonight was all about biography. A lot of this has hummed around the edges of Bruce’s performances for years; he was already working out his emotions over his unloving father on stage as a kind of rap meditation when I first saw him perform in 1978. But tonight when he imitated his father telling him to go away as a young Bruce was sent to fetch him from some bar – “don’t bother me here, don’t bother me here” – that was an 8 year old on stage mimicking an adult. If it was Bruce acting for us, it was Academy Award-quality, because the pain as present as the sweat that popped out involuntarily on his forehead.

    Bruce’s autobiography, published last year, covered a lot of what he’s saying on Broadway, and parts of his speeches tonight were nearly verbatim quotes from the book. But it was clear the book, the words, weren’t enough without the music. Springsteen’s a poet, but his poetry is meant to be played, not read.

    The unexpected musical highlight of the evening was Promised Land, framed around a retelling of Bruce’s first long car trip out of Jersey, one that took him across the great western deserts. Bruce made no secret that the promise he saw in America then remained unfulfilled now in what he described as a dark chapter in American politics. He finished the song, updated from 1978 to 2017 in those few words, aside the mic, singing and playing without amplification directly to the hushed crowd. It was as if he was singing to each of us as individuals, and it was meant to be so. Unlike the other songs, applause waited for a moment of silence to pass after the last chord faded. The universe of people who had previously heard Bruce Springsteen sing to them unamplified just grew exponentially.

    Unlike a typical Springsteen concert, where anything less than three hours is a short cut, and four hours on stage more common, the Broadway show was about two hours, with a definitive ending. No encores. It was tight, maybe even felt a bit rushed. Not like Bruce was trying to cram in everyone’s favorite songs and still get home for the news, but that he had a lot to say and knew he didn’t have a lot of time to say it. The end is coming even though we don’t know exactly when, so you listen up now.

    While the tickets cost a fortune, and while Bruce was careful to throw in a few stagy tunes (Dancing in the Dark didn’t fit otherwise except maybe to pump up the crowd for the finale), much of what happened in the theater wasn’t for us. We didn’t show up to see him as much as he seemed to need us to show up so he’d have someone to talk with. It’s something Bruce maybe didn’t even know he told us about in his autobiography, but when you see the book as a whole, his adult life has been all about crippling bouts of depression relieved only by maniacal touring and marathon shows. You could imagine if it was somehow magically possible, Bruce would have liked to deliver this show to each of us individually, maybe in the kitchen, with little more than the light off the stove to give some space between us. Gathering everyone into a theater was a necessary but unwanted logistical thing.

    The evening was as dark and sad and as necessary as a last hospital visit with an old friend. Bruce wanted to know – he asked – if he’d done OK by us, had he been a “good companion.” We’d made him very rich, allowed him as he joked to never have to hold a job in his life, indulged him through the low periods, let him sneak some mediocre material in here and there. Twice he accused himself of being a fraud, saying he’d never been inside a factory in his life. But it’s time now not to focus on a bad track or a disappointing night, but take that long walk. We’re tired, we’re old, we’re at the point where there is more to look back on than to look forward to. So did he do OK by us? Was it… enough?

    Yeah, Bruce, it was enough. The show finished where things started really, with Born to Run. It was on side B of his third album and it was 1975 when it came out. And everyone in the audience heard it a first time a different time, but now, 42 years passed, we were all hearing it together. Every one of us, and by God that had to include Bruce, heard a hundred versions of that song in that moment, our lives flashing before us. Born to Run on a car radio, our hand slipping a satin bra strap aside. Born to Run in some foreign dive bar, reminding us we were forever tied to who we are no matter how far we’d run ourselves. The DJ played Born to Run at our wedding even though there is no way anyone can dance to it. Born to Run the first time one of our kids asked “What’s that, it’s not bad” and every time we heard it on 8-track, cassette, LP, CD, MP-3 and had to face the warm embrace and cold slap of never being 16 years old again.

    Bruce’s message was clear and true, and he made sure we got it: I may not be doing this much longer. The weight of it all – the bad father, the love lost, the hate and pain collected, that marriage gone wrong – feels heavier than it used to. So, Bruce seemed to say, I’m going to get these things together for you and hand them over during these two hours. After that, they’ll be yours to take care of.

    In a way, they always were.



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  • Puerto Rico: Disaster Management Works, Just Not Always on TV

    October 8, 2017 // 8 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Embassy/State, Trump


    It seems there’s a template for Trump versus the Hurricanes: he won’t do enough, it isn’t being done fast enough, everything will collapse (ready Katrina headlines) and then the draining, heroic reality of the response takes hold. With more stormy weather ahead for this administration, it’s time for a better understanding of how disaster management works.

    A disaster destroys in hours infrastructure that took decades to build. Millions of people plunge from first world to third world status in real time. The things that separate a Texas suburb from a Nairobi slum – clean water, sewers, power, hospitals, roads – disappear.

    Meanwhile, the media tends to focus on drama and controversy. They often overplay the story via anecdotal reporting (“Here’s Mrs. Hernandez without electricity, she says [pause] with no help in sight”) and underplay the work being done, especially at the beginning of the response where progress is hard to see. First responders on laptops methodically solving supply problems are not very mediagenic, after all.

    At the moment of disaster, the Big Bang, needs are at 100% while the response is at a zero point. The response starts in deficit. It always looks grim, especially to participants and outside observers unfamiliar with the process that is starting. They want what is a marathon to play out like a sprint.

    In dealing with a major disaster, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the military follow a standard playbook. I know, I worked with both on and off for two decades while with the State Department. I trained with them, and was on-the-ground during the Kobe, Japan earthquake (6,000 dead) and Asian Tsunami (280,000 dead.) I worked the Washington DC-end of many other disasters. I read after-action reporting from 20-30 other such events. That’s a (much) younger me pictured above in the headgear you have to wear on military helicopters.

    The critical initial step is a needs assessment, from which everything else flows. Responders need time to visit sites, confer with local officials, and determine what is needed and where the needs are greatest. It is a slow process in a chaotic environment, delayed by weather, roads, and communications. From the outside it can look like nothing is being done; Mrs. Hernandez still doesn’t have electricity even as helicopters are flying around, apparently ignoring her!

    The needs assessment gets the right help to the right places in order of priority. As an example, I was part of a liaison team with the American Navy at Phuket, Thailand following the Asian Tsunami. Without any local input, the first helicopters brought in huge fresh water bladders. It turned out most of the water was unneeded; the city had warehouses full of the bottled version. The Americans weren’t helping!

    It took a day for us to track down, but the most urgent need the Navy could address was a buildup of medical waste at local hospitals. Waste pre-disaster was trucked out daily; the tsunami wrecked the roads, and so boxes of soiled bandages and infected sharps accumulated. When American resources turned to help dispose of that, hospitals were able to run at peak, and lives were saved. The water bladders lay abandoned in parking lots around town.

    Other decisions that can flow from a needs assessment might include restoring power to one school to shelter fifty families before fixing fifty individual homes. It can mean blocking people from calling internationally so limited cell capacity can be directed to local 911 calls. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, for example, set as a priority reopening dialysis centers across Puerto Rico. Somebody else didn’t get helped first to make that possible.

    At the early-to-intermediate stages of a disaster response people in less affected areas will wait in long lines for supplies. It looks bad on TV, but can actually mean the system is working, as help was directed to a higher priority. It takes good reporting to know if that’s the case. Instead, “success” is often too quickly defined as “make everything back to the way it was before the storm.”

    The military plays a key role in disaster response. The problem is Americans are conditioned to believe there are unlimited resources of all types, instantly movable to where they are needed.

    Military units tend to have war fighting as their primary job, and most are somewhere doing that, or training to do that. Shifting to a disaster mission can happen quickly but not instantly. Lots of people showing up with can-do attitude is vitally important. But just as important is gathering the right skills – electrical engineers, teams that desalinate sea water for drinking, and sewage crews (3.4 million people’s waste festering with fecal-borne disease is a dreaded secondary killer in this disaster.) The process can always be started sooner than it was, but it can’t be done effectively until needs are known.

    Much mockery has been directed at Trump’s statement about Puerto Rico being an island, surrounded by “big water.” His phrasing was callous, but the fact Puerto Rico is an island is significant. Unlike Texas or Florida, no one can self-evacuate, by car or even on foot. Same for incoming aid. Everything must travel by plane, or, more likely, ship.

    Planes and helicopters can do great things, but they lean toward small scale. Puerto Ricans now need some two million gallons of fresh water a day. A gallon weighs about eight pounds, so that’s 16 million pounds of water. A C-130 cargo plane can carry some 42,000 pounds. So that’s 380 flights a day, every day, just for water. There are bigger aircraft, but the bottom line is always the same: you simply have to move the epic quantities required to respond to an epic island disaster by ship to a port, then inland by truck.

    That last step, moving supplies from a port (or airport) to those who need them is known as the “last mile” problem. It haunts every disaster response.

    Success with the last mile depends on local infrastructure. If it was neglected before the disaster, it will never be better (and often worse) than that during the disaster response. Next comes the need for trucks, fuel for those trucks, drivers, security, and personnel and equipment to offload the ships and pack the trucks. If you’re missing one link in the chain the aid does not move.

    From the outside it’s easy to see these as excuses for why more hasn’t been done for desperate people. They are instead practical realities men and women are wrestling with right now on the ground. It can be a complex, methodical process, addressing a single problem (get water to that village) as a cascading string of nested problems. While the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s remark that Puerto Rico relief is the “most logistically challenging event” the United States has ever faced seems exaggerated, it does underscore the size of the job at hand.

    So don’t be distracted by the Tweets. While no response is ever fast and robust enough, this is not Katrina. That was the result of a system breaking down, one that has been fixed and is operating in Puerto Rico now. Even as the hard work goes on, people will remain outraged not everyone has everything at once. Lack of drinking water remains a critical issue. And there will be tragedies to report; responses are always imperfect, and Hurricane Maria was a tremendous storm. The loss of life in Puerto Rico is at 16, though will climb as rescuers reach more remote areas. For Harvey, the death toll was at least 70, Irma 72. Katrina saw 1,833 fatalities with over 700 people still missing.

    But a tipping point will take place, where adequate services are restored and people will start to see the help they need. Problems will reduce from regions without power to villages without power to an isolated home without power.

    None of this is intended to be a Trump apology. I have seen disaster management up close myself, and dirtied my own hands doing it. Standard actions and pacing that are lost in the politics surrounding events in Puerto Rico are there. Everything else right now seems to be just Twitter wars.




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  • Kurdistan Independence Referendum: Fuse for Iraq War 4.0, and What Might Have Been

    October 5, 2017 // 1 Comment

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Iran, Iraq, Syria

    Free Iraqi Child

    It was all a terrible, terrible waste. There were plenty of worthy markers along the way, but history loves a signature event, so let it be September 25, 2017, the day of the Kurdish independence referendum. That overwhelmingly “yes” vote to someday, somehow break away from Iraq will be followed by parliamentary and presidential elections in October.


    The referendum, coupled with the ongoing decimation of Iraq’s Sunni minority population (with the destruction of Mosul in summer 2017 as its signature event), means “Iraq” no longer in practice exists. In its place is a Shiite state dominated by Iran, a new nation in all but name called Kurdistan, and a shrinking population of Sunnis tottering between annihilation or reservation-like existence, depending on whether the United States uses the last of its influence to sketch out the borders or abandons the Sunnis to fate.

    The waste comes in that a better version of all this was available around 2006. Every life (estimates are of some one million Iraqi dead, plus those 4,424 Americans), every dollar (the cost is in the trillions), and every unanticipated outcome (the rise of Islamic State, conflict in Syria) since then is part of the waste.


    The 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement created modern Iraq, dividing up Arab lands that had been part the Ottoman Empire. A key goal of the era, creating Kurdistan, never happened. The 1920 Treaty of Sevres left an opening for a referendum on Kurdish independence. The referendum never took place, a victim of fighting that saw the Turkish people separate themselves from the remains of the Ottoman Empire and fight for two years to prevent the dismantling of what is now modern Turkey. The result is 30 million Kurds now scattered across parts of modern Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria.

    No one at the time of Sykes-Picot could have imagined the Kurds would wait over 80 years for the United States to show up under the false flag of post-9/11 retribution to create the conditions for a modern referendum.


    The 2003 American invasion, arguably the single worst foreign policy decision since WWII, destroyed all civil order in Iraq. American failures opened the door to massive Iranian influence, such that a pro-Iranian government was installed in 2010 under the passivity of an America in retreat anxious for the illusion of stability. Iran and its Iraqi Shiite allies manipulated chaos into opportunity and began a process of political marginalization followed by direct ongoing violence against Iraqi Sunnis. That in turn created an opening for a Sunni protector, Islamic State, to replace the scattered al Qaeda.

    The situation facing the United States at that point was grim. While then President Obama seemed content to accept a pro-Iranian government in Baghdad in return for enough stability to maintain the false impression at home that America had at least “not lost” in Iraq, he could not accept a powerful Islamic State holding territory in northern and western Iraq, threatening Baghdad. When the Iraqi national army dropped its weapons, broke, and ran in 2014, and local Shiite militias proved too weak to fill the breach, Obama reinserted the U.S. military into Iraq, saving the Kurds with air power to then repurpose those fighters against Islamic State.

    It kind of worked: the Kurds, with American help, blunted Islamic State’s progress in the south, and retook territory in the north. The problem was that while American diplomacy, the carrot-and-stick of aid, and difficulty of maintaining long-distance logistics saw the Kurdish forces replaced by Shiite militias in some locations, the Kurds held their gains in the north. Victorious and blooded, they were not about to go home empty handed. The Kurds’ need for American arms did force them to postpone an independence referendum in 2014 opposed by Washington. However, three years later with Islamic State mortally weakened, Washington no longer holds that sway over Kurdish ambitions.

    The ground truth in autumn 2017 — a referendum-endorsed Kurdistan in the the north, a Shiite state in the south, a marginalized Sunni population out west — is pretty much the deal that could have been had in 2006, albeit now for a 2017 price.


    In 2006 then-senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Joe Biden proposed Iraq be divided into three separate regions: Kurdish, Shiite, and Sunni. Biden wanted the United States to broker the deal and leave behind a “residual force to combat terrorists and keep the neighbors honest.” A peacekeeping force of Americans that would impose itself between Sunni, Shiites, and Kurds, while keeping outsiders like Islamic State at bay. The Senate actually passed a resolution in 2007 supporting Biden’s idea.

    It probably would have stabilized the region. The Middle East in 2006 was a very different place than in 2017.

    In 2006 Iran faced an American military as yet unsullied by a decade more of grinding war. That military sat on both Iran’s western border with Iraq, and eastern border with Afghanistan. The Iranian nuclear program was years behind where it is today, leaving Iran’s ability to intercede in Iraq minimal. Syria in 2006 was a relatively stable place under not-then-yet-enemy of the free world Bashar al-Assad; indeed, there was some hope the young Assad might be a minor reformer. Turkey was stable, a recognized albeit reluctant NATO ally. Russia was not in 2006 a major player in the Middle East. Many of 2017’s regional genies were thus still in the bottle.

    By Middle Eastern standards security would have been a manageable proposition via a modest American military presence. Alongside this, America would have realized its long-sought enduring bases in Iraq and could have decoupled its Islamic State-forward Syrian policy from Iraq. Never mind the savings of all those lives and all that money.


    Instead, the rough play of the last decade has brought us to a worse place on the ground in Iraq at much greater cost. The ten years has also torn apart the regions surrounding Iraq such that Kurdish independence being a source of stability has greatly diminished. There are now new questions: in 2017 and beyond, will an empowered Iran push back against the Kurds? Will an engorged, nationalistic Turkey politically distant from NATO go to war over disputed borderlands with Kurdistan? Will the Kurds, emboldened by their victories and aware of America’s weaker position try to hold territory they now occupy in Syria? Will the Russians, newly returned to the neighborhood, look for opportunities? Will Israel, who backs Kurdish independence as part of its search for allies, seek a bigger role in the ongoing conflicts?

    Who will control the disputed flashpoint city of Kirkuk? And what will become of the oil reserves held by the land-locked Kurds? That question is key to the future of Kurdistan, as the government there is some $20 billion in debt with oil as its primary export.


    Alongside these questions, the American military, once with the chance of a role similar to that played in former Yugoslavia, instead will exist as a crumple zone among the forces of its own warring semi-allies. Imagine American forces trapped between Turk and Kurd fighters, all three sides armed by the United States, on a scale dwarfing the so-far quickly deconflicted skirmishes now happening inside Syria. Such a scenario tells the tale of what might have been in 2006 when the United States could have managed events, and 2017, when Americans can do little more than witness them.

    Kurdish independence — the 2017 version — is a fuse waiting to ignite the next phase of Mesopotamia sorting itself out. Call it the end of Iraq War 3.0, and the start of the next version.




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  • Review: Ken Burns’ Vietnam

    October 2, 2017 // 5 Comments

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    Posted in: Iraq



    Though Ken Burns’ 10-part PBS documentary The Vietnam War doesn’t try very hard, he can’t be blamed for failing as a filmmaker even if he had. It can’t be done. There are too many Vietnam War’s to accurately portray in a documentary, even one 18 hours long. So fair enough. But Burns’ real failure is not as a documentarian per se, it is one of courage.


    Burns teases us at the beginning of the series that there will be courage here, a reckoning of sorts, riffing off the final pages of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, showing war footage in reverse, so bombs return to their mothership’s belly, rockets are sucked out of the bush back onto helicopters, and, in case the point wasn’t clear yet, the 1st Cav walks backwards onto their Huey’s and departs the rice paddy. See, it’s an antiwar movie.

    Well, not really, or maybe not also. Burns quickly moves on to the next test, getting all the greatest hits in. There’s the iconic image of a Vietcong prisoner being shot in the head, and Nick Ut’s photo of a naked Vietnamese girl running from a napalm raid, alongside that footage of bombs dropping, exploding Kodachrome orange against greener-than-green foliage. If the Rolling Stones’ Paint It Black hadn’t been written during Vietnam, it would be necessary to invent time travel to place it alongside the war. And yep, there’s Dylan, a hippie chick with flowers, grunts in the jungle, Marlboro hard packs and M-16s at the ready. Check, check, check – Oh Suzy Q!

    No, wait, it’s one of those balanced documentaries. Burns treats us to the trope-ish story of Ho Chi Minh foolishly writing fan letters to American presidents over the years, starting way back with Woodrow Wilson at the end of WWI, thinking the American love of freedom, ye olde tale o’ democracy, the experience as fellow colonialists, should in fact bond the United States to his side over the imperialist French. That didn’t happen, you see, so it’s ironic. There’s also a bunch of actual Vietnamese interviewed in Burns’ movie, albeit disproportionately far too many identified as formerly of the “South Vietnamese Army.” The ties to the CIA of several of those interviewed are also left obscured.

    For the Americans in the audience, there’s also a dollop of “Vietnam as a test of manhood/the test of manhood is actually a metaphor for broken American dreams of the 20th century.” Burns had no choice with this one, as it is required as much as the shots of Saigon whores in their tight ao dai’s. America loves the manhood story; it’s the version of Vietnam that allows us to revere a crusty old war monger like John McCain (Episode Four of Burns’ film even includes a shot of George W. Bush in the Air National Guard), and leaves people who took deferments like Donald Trump and Bill Clinton forever in shame.

    Burns does the manhood theme proud, though, slipping us both the noble grunt version via gritty personal anecdotes from guys you don’t know (though rough-and-tumble Marine guy Karl Marlantes pops up), and the Oliver Stone subreddit, where manhood is proved only after it is broken down (forget Platoon, his real telling was in Born on the Fourth of July.) Stone and his subject Ron Kovic don’t appear for Burns’ camera, but a non-celebrity grunt named John Musgrave is on camera to illustrate the journey from gungho killer to “it was all a lie, man.”

    OK, fair enough, Dad shouts at the TV screen, this is Ken Burns for heck’s sake. He does jazz, he does Americana, he gets baseball in a way that sends George Will reaching for the Viagra, of course he’s gonna go folksy. That’s why we donate and get the PBS tote bag each year. At least he filmed this one in color, all 79 individual interviews.

    But where Burns lets us down is where nearly everything that has or maybe will be written about Vietnam lets us down. He is too easy on the politicians who cynically manipulated the public, he is too easy on the bulk of the media who gleefully participated in the manipulation (everything short of proclaiming WMDs in Hanoi), too easy on individual soldiers who took advantage of lax leadership to, in historian Nick Turse’s words, kill anything that moves (My Lai was one, far from the only.)

    Burns drinks too deeply from the cup of “hate the war, not the warrior.” Deaths were committed because of a policy that demanded body counts, a number of “enemy” killed, as the borderless war’s only metric of accomplishment. As Turse writes and Burns omits, “U.S. commanders wasted ammunition like millionaires and hoarded American lives like misers, and often treated Vietnamese lives as if they were worth nothing at all.” In 2017 America, where the military is fetishized, personal responsibility is lost.

    Burns indeed lets all of us off too easy. Us, the American people, the voters, the spectators, the ones who bought the epic story that Vietnam was a struggle between two great forces for the soul of civilization, Communism versus Freedom. The American people in 1962 (or ’65, or ’68, or 1945, or 1954) were not yet cynical. They were easily convinced what was little more than a continuation of colonialism was instead a firewall of the Cold War. We had come out of WWII winners, with anything that would have made that less than the Good War hidden for another couple of generations. Vietnam was then our bad childhood, and should have left us with no such excuse for Iraq (Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Libya…)

    Burns lets us off too easy because he does not demand we not let it all happen again, and that is his sin, omission.

    “With knowledge comes healing,” the filmmaker told Vanity Fair about his goal, but that is not the film he made.

    We should know better but we were the ones who bought the epic story that Iraq, et al, like Vietnam, was a struggle between two greats forces for the soul of civilization, Terrorism versus Freedom (feel free to substitute in Islam and Christianity.) We had to fight them over there (the beach at Danang instead of the beach at San Diego) or we’d fight them over here, the smoking gun a mushroom cloud over Cincinnati. We let Kennedy and Johnson and Nixon lie to us about the war, then let five successive modern presidents, including a Nobel Peace Prize winner (Kissinger also won the Peace Prize for ending the war he first helped prolong) lie to us about Iraq in a spin of our illusion of invincibility and moral rightness.

    Burns tips his hand in the first minutes of his series when the narrator intones the war was “begun in good faith.” Who could have known Vietnam was a war for independence, not a civil war as sold to the American people? That Pakistan supported the Taliban with U.S. aid money? That there gosh dang it weren’t any WMDs in Iraq? Burns doesn’t tell us that Vietnam was not an exception, it was a template.

    And so we all say “thank you for your service” today with the same uninformed conviction that we said “baby killer” back then. Americans need to die for freedom, yes, that’s standard, but civilians from the other side need to die in vast, angry clouds of millions, too, for their freedom. Agent Orange in the ‘Nam to punish the next generation of slopes, depleted uranium across the Middle East for the baby ragheads. There are no names of any Vietnamese civilians on that wall in Washington DC.

    Burns tried to be all things to all people, while failing at the most important task, making history valuable to the present. He does not seem in search of lessons, only in creating a catalog of Vietnam stuff and leaving it on the table for us to poke at, historical amuse bouche. By eschewing experts from his interviews to focus on “real people” and their anecdotes, Burns by default puts himself into the expert role. He then chooses not to responsibly occupy it.

    Ken Burns had a chance to reach for a higher goal with his work on Vietnam. Instead, there is no reckoning, and it is doubtful there ever will be. You can’t close the book on Vietnam if you want to keep it open for Syria, or Iran, or wherever America again makes war on an industrial scale on nations far less advanced, and commits torture, assassinations, and mass killings all the while trying to hide its dirty hands from the American public with the media’s financially-comfortable cooperation.

    Each of these wars is not the equivalent of stepping on a Lego in a darkened bedroom. It’s the same story, the same war. It has the same ending. It serves the same purpose. It’s Vietnam. We just slog through 18 hours of Vietnam documentary because it lasts 18 hours. After the 25th similar shot of helicopters landing, you may not even be sure why you’re still watching. You want to finish Burns’ documentary with the feeling the American people will rise up and shout “we won’t be fooled again,” but instead shut off the TV knowing we have, and will.



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  • Thanks, and Goodbye

    August 13, 2017 // 54 Comments

    Tags:
    Posted in: Democracy, Post-Constitution America

    I’ll save someone the time typing in the Comments section — yes, yes, I won’t let the door hit me on the ass on the way out.

    I’m going to take a break with this blog. I may post here and there when I get bored, I may rerun some old things, I may do nothing at all. But after some six years and over 2,000 posts, I’m gonna do something else. Not sure just what yet.

    The reason is simple: the Internet has become too boring and too toxic. It is no longer a matter of having a thick skin, it is a question of why bother.

    The past election finally broke the idea of the informal interchange blogs thrive on, as it broke journalism. And as it apparently caused most of America to lose its mind.

    Partisan reporting devolved into partisan facts; for example, though the basics are black and white in how the government’s document classification system works, the mass of media allowed itself for over a year to believe that Clinton had no classified material on her email server because someone retyped things without the SECRET headers, then spent months telling everyone even if she did that did not matter, even after it did. There are plenty of other examples. For example, a large number of Americans now believe, based on no real evidence presented yet so far, that our government is literally controlled from Moscow. But mention the idea of a Deep State and you’re labeled a nut case conspiracy theorist. Sure.

    Journalism used to involve sources, people and documents — facts. Reporters told us how they knew something so we could judge the validity of the reporting. If the source on a new strategy toward India was an intern who quit last year versus a senior national security advisor, we could judge. Now, major stories are near-exclusively sourced anonymously, and often include second and third hand leaks and rumors, all jumbled together as fact. As long as the main story point supports a given bias (Trump is bad) most people seem to play along. As the old joke goes, that’s not reporting, it’s typing.

    Outside of some pretty dank hyper-conservative media, it is impossible to write about Trump except to ridicule him, and even that must be done in the most juvenile ways to pass muster. I can’t write about a decision, or compare something today to actions of the Obama administration, unless I also call Trump a petulant fool, a man-child, orange Cheeto, and state he is planning to start a war with China, Iran or North Korea this same day. Anything less than that and I am a fascist, nazi, rethugblican or just plain stupid. History has been rewritten on the fly to deify Obama, and even George W. Bush has seen a bit of a makeover. Anything other than overt attacks on Trump are labeled as support. There is nothing left to write other than grade school level insults.

    There is no point I can see anymore in researching and writing an explainer on how something like the Emoluments Clause works, for example, when the response is inevitably something like “You suxxxx, go f*ck Putin, stupid white man!!!!”

    I also see no real progress being made now that everyone is empowered to insult everyone else. It is not “resistance” to call me names for being straight and white. Legitimate political criticism of a politician is instantly labeled misogynistic. Or homophobic or sexist or racist.

    Oh yes, and I’m threatened by all this, I’ve heard a million times. Friends, I’ve been shot at, mortared, told I might go to jail under the Espionage Act, made to believe the government might seek to bankrupt me in legal costs, stuff like that. Trust me, your Tweet is not a threat. It’s just tiresome, repetitive, and unoriginal.

    The final straw for me is the attack on free speech from the left, the growing sense that the use of violence is an acceptable tool to silence offensive speech as long as you can say without irony your violence is the anti-fascist kind. Progressives, if you can’t see the wrong in using fascist techniques to fight fascism, I can’t help you. But God help all of us.

    So anyway America, enjoy. I’ll be over here in the corner with a water glass of tequila, watching as we tear ourselves apart, and wondering how long 300 million people can keep the lights on with a near-complete lack of civil discourse. Then again, I always was a big Mad Max fan.

    See you later.

    (Sound of the door slapping me on the ass as I walk away…)




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  • Five Bad Arguments to Restrict Speech

    August 10, 2017 // 20 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Post-Constitution America


    Without free speech people stop thinking, losing out on all but a narrowing band of ideas. Open discussion, debate, and argument are the core of democracy. Bad ideas are defeated by good ideas. Fascism seeks to close off all ideas except its own.

    Yet all of these most basic concepts of free speech in our nation are under threat, and too many of them are under threat from the left. I never thought I would write that last phrase, just as I never thought I’d need to explain five bad arguments the Left is using to restrict speech from the Right.

     

    Despicable People

    Despicable people and their ideas have always existed, though it is essentially a quick summary of the whole point of free speech to remind that at different times in our history speaking out against slavery, against war, against one president or another, have all been seen as despicable. Restrictions on free speech have been used to ban great literature, books about women’s reproductive health, and photos once deemed “pornopgraphic” now displayed as art. Someone will always find an idea or word offensive. Allowing that person to judge for all of us has never proven to be on the right side of history.

    The arrival in 2017 of neo-nazis, alt-right, white supremacists, racists, and the many flavors of ‘phobes is sadly nothing new. The current poster children for hate, Richard Spencer, Milo Yiannopoulos, Ann Coulter, and Charles Murray, are no one new either (Coulter’s first book came out in 1998; Murray published his loathed book on welfare in 1984 and both have spoken publicly ever since.) What does seem to be new is that their opposition — the antifa, the anti-fascists — is now aggressively embracing many of the same tools once used to try and stop the anti-war movement, feminists, and other progressive groups in the past. The justification is Everything Is Different since November’s election, and the old rules not only don’t apply, but that wishy-washy democratic ideals of free speech are now a threat to democracy.

     

    Punching Nazis

    And so an incident at the Trump inaugural set “Is it OK to punch a Nazi for what he said?” bouncing around the media, including in the New York Times and The Nation, two venerable outlets which have otherwise long fought for free speech, and whose writers have long risked jail time in the practice of it.

    What happened was that alongside the inauguration Neo-Nazi Richard Spencer was explaining live on camera the meaning of Pepe the Frog, a silly cartoon figure somehow adopted as a mascot by the anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, and anti-feminist movement Spencer promotes. An anonymous black-clad antifa protester ran into the scene and sucker punched Spencer. His free speech was ended by that act of violence.

    There followed tens of thousands of comments on the YouTube videos of the attack. The standard response was “I don’t condone violence BUT…” and then go on to condone violence. Another popular comment was to invoke Hitler, claiming violence is now justified as a leftist response to hateful speech by the right, and that if perhaps more people had punched Hitler in the early days the world would be a better place. More than a few people online also 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 used phrases along the lines of “the end justifies the means” and “by any means necessary.”

    A popular meme was to put different songs, many calling for more violence, 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.”

    Following the Spencer attack, similar violence landed at Middlebury College, then at a rally where one protester who displayed a Confederate flag was attacked, and at the University of California Berkeley (the university was ironically home to the Vietnam War protest-era Free Speech Movement.) Institutions, including Berkeley and New York University, canceled, postponed, or scheduled into dead zones for attendance speeches by conservative speakers, citing public safety concerns.

    What grew out of the Spencer incident and those in Berkeley, Middlebury and elsewhere are a series of inaccurate and/or weak arguments from too many in favor of restricting speech. Let’s look at some, and why they do not hold up.

     

    1. The First Amendment Only Applies to Government?

    The first fallacious argument used to shut down free speech is that the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights in our Constitution only applies to government, and so universities or other entities are entitled to censor, restrict or shut down altogether speech willy-nilly.

    Short Answer: Not really. Public funding invokes the First Amendment for schools, and free speech runs deeper than the Bill of Rights. It’s as much a philosophical argument as a legal one, not a bad thing for a nation founded on a set of ideas (and ideals.)

     

    Free speech in America is an unalienable right, and goes as deep into the concept of a free society as any idea can. Though cited as far back as 1689 in England, the American version of this was laid out most clearly by Thomas Jefferson, in the mighty Declaration of Independence, where he wrote of rights that flowed from his notion of The Creator, not from government, and thus were fixed.

    Jefferson’s invocation of the Creator is understood now as less that free speech is heaven-sent and more that it is something that exists before and after our time. Government thus did not give us the right to free speech and therefore cannot take it away. The First Amendment simply codifies that latter part, laying out like much of the Bill of Rights what the government cannot do. So the argument that the First Amendment does not necessarily apply to all public speaking can be both true and irrelevant at the same time, and the latter is more important. Abetting free speech is an obligation in a democracy in general, and to an institution devoted to truth and education in the particular.

    And though the fundamental argument is the controlling one, there does also exist a legal one that extends the First Amendment restrictions to institutions that accept Federal funding (which means most of them); in the 1995 case Rosenberger v. University of Virginia, the Supreme Court held that the University could not fund all student publications except those addressing religious views because such a policy violated the institution’s constitutional obligation not to discriminate against particular viewpoints.

    Bottom Line: Universities are not free to restrict speech simply because they are not the government. They should be ashamed of themselves for trying to find ways to circumvent free speech instead of promoting it.

     

    2. What’s Said May Provoke Violence in the Room (A Clear and Present Danger)

    Some claim that certain conservative speakers, such as Milo Yiannopoulos, who purposefully use anti-LGBTQ slurs to provoke their audiences, should be banned or shut down. Their speech is the equivalent of yelling Fire! in a crowded movie theatre when there is no actual danger, provoking a deadly stampede for the exits.

    Short Answer: The standards for shutting down speech are very restrictive, and well-codified. Milo comes nowhere close.

     

    The Fire! line from a Supreme Court decision Schenck v. United States 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 full decision says the First Amendment doesn’t protect false speech that meets three conditions: 1) the speech must be demonstrably false; 2) it must be likely to cause real harm, not just offense or hurt feelings, and 3) must do so immediately. That’s the “clear and present danger.”

    This interpretation of the First Amendment has been adjudicated to impose a high barrier to restrictions on what can be blocked or banned, and over the years has allowed flags to be burned in front of veterans, Nazis to march among Holocaust survivors, artists to make religious sculptures from their own body waste.

    Schenck was what jurists call bad law, in that it sought to use the Espionage Act against a Socialist pamphleteer, to stop free speech, not protect it (in other words, the pamphleteer was determined to be a clear and present danger in wartime and rightfully arrested.) The case was eventually overturned, and in truth Holmes’ statement was originally intended to mean 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.

    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.

    Bottom Line: The Supreme Court has set a very high bar against restricting speech based on the idea that what is being said leading to violence. Concerns, offense or general threats alone are insufficient to justify silencing someone as a solution.

     

    3. What’s Said May Provoke Violence Outside (Public Safety)

    The idea that a university or other venue cannot assure a speaker’s safety, or that the speaker’s presence may provoke violent protests, or that the institution just doesn’t want to go to the trouble or expense of protecting a controversial speaker has become the go-to justification for canceling or restricting speech. Berkley cited this in canceling and then de-platforming (rescheduling her when most students would not be on campus) Ann Coulter, whose campus sponsors are now suing, and New York University cited the same justification for canceling an appearance by Milo Yiannopoulos.

    Short Answer: Canceling a speaker to protect them or public safety is the absolute last resort, and some risk to safety is part of the cost to a free society for unfettered speech.

     

    The most glaring misuse of this argument is when such a justification is applied only toward one strain of speech, say unilaterally against conservative speakers and not against others. The conclusion can only be danger comes from unpopular ideas based solely on their being presented on a left-leaning campus. The argument of restricting a speaker “for their own safety” who is otherwise willing to take on certain risks to make their voice heard can thus be applied in a biased manner. Restricting speech for safety needs to be content neutral.

    Public safety has been long (mis)-used to silence otherwise protected speech. Recently the town of Urbana, Illinois arrested someone burning an American flag (an act long-held to be a form of protected speech) claiming he was in danger from bystanders. Such thinking has in the past been used to deny permits for civil rights marches, with law enforcement saying they could not protect the protestors. Both sides in the abortion debate have used this argument as well outside clinics.

    While institutions do have an obligation to public safety, that obligation must be balanced against the public’s greater right to engage with free speech. Though there exists opinion on the proper balance, the answer is rarely to ban speech outright simply to maintain order.

    One landmark case from 2015 provides some of the clearest guidance yet:

    When a peaceful speaker, whose message is constitutionally protected, is confronted by a hostile crowd, the state may not silence the speaker as an expedient alternative to containing or snuffing out the lawless behavior of the rioting individuals. Nor can an officer sit idly on the sidelines — watching as the crowd imposes, through violence, a tyrannical majoritarian rule — only later to claim that the speaker’s removal was necessary for his or her own protection. Uncontrolled official suppression of the privilege [of free speech] cannot be made a substitute for the duty to maintain order in connection with the exercise of that right.

    The case involved a group called the Bible Believers who used crude langauge (“Turn or Burn”) at an LGBTQ gathering. The judges continued in their opinion allowing the Bible Believers to speak:

    We do not presume to dictate to law enforcement precisely how it should maintain the public order. But in this case, there were a number of easily identifiable measures that could have been taken short of removing the speaker: e.g., increasing police presence in the immediate vicinity, as was requested; erecting a barricade for free speech, as was requested; arresting or threatening to arrest more of the law breakers, as was also requested; or allowing the Bible Believers to speak from the already constructed barricade to which they were eventually secluded prior to being ejected from the Festival.”

    “If none of these measures were feasible or had been deemed unlikely to prevail, the officers could have called for backup… prior to finding that it was necessary to infringe on the group’s First Amendment rights. We simply cannot accept Defendants’ position that they were compelled to abridge constitutional rights for the sake of public safety, when at the same time the lawless adolescents who caused the risk with their assaultive behavior were left unmolested.

    The understanding that law enforcement, or any institution, can turn first to shutting down speech that requires physical protection, has failed the courts’ tests in cases are diverse as Occupy and where a Christian group brought a pig’s head on a stick to a Muslim Arts festival.

    In sum, the court has long recognized that content-based regulation of speech in a public forum (the “health and safety” restrictions) is permissible only “to serve a compelling state interest” and only when the regulation “is narrowly drawn to achieve that end.”

    Bottom Line: An institution cannot cite avoiding public disruption as the initial or sole reason to restrict speech. The problems of having Ann Coulter speak on campus are outweighed by the obligation to protect free speech. Maintenance of the peace should not be achieved at the expense of the free speech. Getting rid of the speaker is expedient but unconstitutional. There are plenty of laws that legitimately protect against violence on their own.

     

    4. Speech Can or Should Be Restricted Based on Content (Hate Speech)

    There are no laws against “hate speech.” A speaker can call people names, and insult them by their race, sexual orientation or religious beliefs. What many people think and say is hateful. It is carefully thought out to inspire hate, to promote hate, to appeal to crude and base instincts. Indeed, that is their point. But there is no law or other prohibition against hate speech. Even restrictions on “hate speech” meant to prevent violence, often cited as the justification to restrict such speech, are by design extremely narrow.

    Short Answer: You cannot restrict hate speech. Free speech means just that, with any limited restrictions content-neutral.

     

    The Brandenburg case test precludes speech from being sanctioned as incitement to riot unless (1) the speech explicitly or implicitly encouraged the use of violence or lawless action; (2) the speaker intends that their speech will result in the use of violence or lawless action, and (3) the imminent use of violence or lawless action is the likely result of the speech. A hostile reaction of a crowd does not transform protected speech into incitement. Listeners’ reaction to speech is thus not a content-neutral basis for regulation, or for taking an enforcement action against a speaker.

    A second type of speech that is categorically excluded from First Amendment protection and often erroneously labeled hate speech are “fighting words.” This category of unprotected speech encompasses words that when spoken aloud instantly “inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.” No advocacy can constitute fighting words unless it is “likely to provoke the average person to retaliation.” Offensive statements made generally to a crowd are not excluded from First Amendment protection; the insult or offense must be directed specifically at an individual.

    The upshot is that apart from some very narrow definitions of violence-inducing words, the obligation exists to the concept of free speech independent of the content of that speech. This is also one of the most fundamental precepts of free speech in a democracy. There need be no protections for saying things that people agree with, things that are not challenging or debatable or offensive; free speech is not really needed for the weather and sports parts of the news. Instead, free speech is there to allow for the most rude, offensive, hateful, challenging stuff you (or your neighbor, your political party, your government) can imagine.

    This is why, in the midst of Berkeley seeking to ban Ann Coulter from campus, Elizabeth Warren said “Let her speak. If you don’t like it, don’t show up.” Same for Bernie Sanders, who said “What are you afraid of, her ideas? Ask her the hard questions. Confront her intellectually. Booing people down or intimidating people or shutting down events — I don’t think that that works in any way.”

    More? The ACLU also supports Coulter’s right to speak. And so the ACLU supports the rights of all groups, to include Nazis and the Klu Klux Klan, to speak.

    It should make a college age ACLU donor proud to know her $25 contribution helps both Black Lives Matter and the Klan to stand up and say what they think, but it apparently does not.

    The president of the Newseum goes as far as arguing some people have developed an “alternate understanding” of free speech, with students in particular believing “offensive” speech is or should not be protected, particularly when the offense is directed at groups defined by race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.

    Ulrich Baer, vice provost for faculty, arts, humanities, and diversity, and professor of comparative literature at New York University, wrote plainly “Universities invite speakers not chiefly to present otherwise unavailable discoveries, but to present to the public views they have presented elsewhere. When those views invalidate the humanity of some people, they restrict speech as a public good. In such cases there is no inherent value to be gained from debating them in public.”

    Baer is worth quoting at length, because his views capture the view of many progressives toward the now-threatening concept of unfettered speech:

    The idea of freedom of speech does not mean a blanket permission to say anything anybody thinks. It means balancing the inherent value of a given view with the obligation to ensure that other members of a given community can participate in discourse as fully recognized members of that community. Free-speech protections — not only but especially in universities, which aim to educate students in how to belong to various communities — should not mean that someone’s humanity, or their right to participate in political speech as political agents, can be freely attacked, demeaned or questioned.

    He ends without irony this way:

    Freedom of expression is not an unchanging absolute. When its proponents forget that it requires the vigilant and continuing examination of its parameters, and instead invoke a pure model of free speech that has never existed, the dangers to our democracy are clear and present.

    Baer could not be more wrong. There is no legal or other justification for banning speech based on who it may offend or threaten, in fact, quite the opposite. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes declared unpopular ideas should have their opportunity to compete in the “marketplace of ideas.” Free speech is not an ends, it is a means, in a democracy.

    Justice Louis Brandeis held that people must discuss and criticize ideas, that free speech is not only an abstract virtue but also a key element that lies at the heart of a democratic society. Even the fact that speech is likely to result in “violence or in destruction of property is not enough to justify its suppression.” Brandeis concluded “the deterrents ordinarily to be applied to prevent” violence and disruption “are education and punishment for violations of the law, not abridgment of free speech.”

    Bottom Line: There is no justification for restricting speech so that people are not offended. Speech may offend, indeed that may be its point, but bad ideas are then defeated by better ideas.

     

    5. Free Speech Should Not Be Subject to the Heckler’s Veto

    Another argument used by some progressives is that the so-called Heckler’s Veto is in itself protected speech. Someone may have a right to speak, but someone else has the same right to shout them down and prevent them from being heard.

    Short answer: Free speech is not intended to mean whomever can literally “speak” the loudest gets to control what is said. The natural end of such thinking is mob rule, where Speaker A gets a bigger gang together to shout down the gang Speaker B controls.

     

    While protestors have an obligation not to abuse their rights of free expression by harassing or intimidating speakers in ways that unduly interfere with communication between a speaker and an audience, there does exist a balancing process.

    Agreed upon is that numerous legitimate ways exist to challenge speakers, including engaging them or ignoring them entirely. In contrast, using a Heckler’s Veto to keep unpopular speakers from expressing their views not only stifles a particular idea, but threatens to chill public discourse generally by discouraging others with controversial ideas from sharing them. Who wants to stand up only to be shouted down by a mob?

    The most insidious use of the Heckler’s Veto is to have audience members create a situation that compels law enforcement to shut down a speaker for them, abusing their own freedom of speech to get the government to shut down someone else’s. The law allows for law enforcement to act this way, but also makes clear it is wrong for “regulations to allow a single, private actor to unilaterally silence a speaker.”

    It is also quite sad to note the same tactic used at Middlebury College to silence speaker Charles Murray was employed during the civil rights movement when whites threatened violence if civil rights marches were permitted to take place. The tactic is also used by abortion foes to try and shut down clinics. The Supreme Court concluded the government’s responsibility in these circumstances is to control those who threaten or act out disruption, rather than to sacrifice the speaker’s First Amendment rights. Unfortunately, that was not what happened in Middlebury College, as Murray was run out of town for his own safety and the mob won.

    Bottom Line: Balancing the rights of the speaker, those who wish to hear them, and those who wish to protest is complicated. But simply shutting down one party entirely, or allowing one party to block the rights of the others, is wrong.

     

    Flipping the Argument

    It is hard today to be seen as defending the nasty words of a guy like Richard Spencer when one is defending his right to speak independent of what he says. It is easy for some in Trump’s America to claim the struggle against fascism overrules the old norms, that freedom must be defended and that defense justifies violence. Flipping an argument makes it easier to see the fallacy. So:

    So this guy beat the air out of this Black Lives Matter woman; she was spewing out hate speech, really racist stuff, and the guy acted in what he perceived as self-defense. Then some people who opposed Trump’s travel ban started calmly laying out their views on a street corner, and the same guy, who believes deep into his soul that Muslims are a threat to democracy and allowing them into America is a step toward fascism, got a bunch of his buddies together and by sheer force of numbers shouted down the pro-Muslim people, forcing them to run away for fear for their safety.

    Justification? The dude was pretty clear he was just exercising his First Amendment rights, that it was wrong for those protesters to have a platform and hey, he isn’t the government and the First Amendment only applies to the government. Sure violence is bad in isolation, but in defense of freedom, well, by any means necessary. While he was beating on the activists, he shouted he “understands the moral and practical limitations of wholly free discourse.”

    You get it.

    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 says. Free speech means a lot of things, including that I can write this article, and you can say what you want about it and me. It is messy as hell, and it is our essential defense against fascism and control, whether from the left or the right.

     

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  • Sorry, No War in North Korea

    August 8, 2017 // 44 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Military, Trump



    I’m so sorry to disappoint so many people, but there is not going to be a war with North Korea.


    No, no, Trump is not going to start a war there. And, no, Kim Jong Un is not going to start a war there. It is not going to happen, despite a cottage industry of pundits who seem to really believe war is only moments away.


    Let’s start with the obvious. A war on the Korean peninsula benefits no one and is really, really bad for everyone (we’ll get to the irrational madman theory in a moment.)

    Any conflict means the end of North Korea, and the end of the Kim dynasty. The U.S. will win any fight, nuclear or not, and Kim and everyone with any power or money in the North knows that. North Korea has no reason to start a war that will end in its own destruction. The people there with power and money do not want to give those things up.

    South Korea, same thing. They will also be destroyed in whole or in part, and, should much survive in the south, they will also get stuck with the mass of refugees flowing out of whatever is left of North Korea. China will not want war for much of the same reason, plus the loss of the buffer state the North represents, plus the desire not to have a smoking radioactive ruin on its border.

    The U.S. does not want war because of all of the above, the likelihood that ally Japan will get trashed along the way, the likely global economic depression that will follow and/or because no one in Washington will bet the house that the North Koreans don’t have a submarine that might get close to Hawaii, a way to deliver a dirty bomb somewhere, or that a glow-in-the-dark North won’t spark off a worldwide radioactive climate crisis.

    Because see, how unlike every other shooting war of the last 70 years including everything in the Middle East, war on the Korean peninsula is different. North Korea is a nuclear state, and that changes everything. Deterrence works, it really does. Ask the Cold War about that.


    And that leaves us with the madman theory, the idea that either Trump or Kim or maybe both are irrational, impulsive crazy people who could just one night say, to hell with it, let’s push the button. The problem with this theory is that nothing in history supports it.

    The Kim dynasty has been in power some 70 years, three generations. They have weathered conventional war, sanctions, and numerous war-like acts. They have dealt with famine. They survived the fall of the Soviet Union and generations of American governments. They did not act irrationally. You don’t stay in power for seven decades acting irrationally or impulsively. You stay in power and hold your own against multiple superpowers by careful actions and good choices. There is nothing — nothing — to support any contention Kim might act any more irrationally than his nuclear-armed dad did.

    Sorry to say it, but same for Trump. You hate him, I know that. He is not bright. But same as Kim, he has decades of actions that show he knows how to handle things. He ran a company, he made some money, he got himself elected president. He’s been in office now some seven months and absolutely none of the apocalyptic predictions people have been puking up on the Internet since November have happened.

    Neither Trump nor Kim will wake up for cocoa and push a button like Dr. Evil and start WWIII.

    So relax. There are other things to worry about. Say a Chernobyl-like nuclear accident in North Korea that sends millions of refugees into South Korea and irradiates Japan as air currents blanket Tokyo with glowing dust.



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  • Morality, Expediency, and Hiroshima

    August 8, 2017 // 10 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Hooper's War, Military



    August 6 usually doesn’t make headlines in America. But mark the day by what absence demonstrates: on the 72nd anniversary of the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and some 140,000 non-combatants, there is no call for reflection in the United States.

    In an era where pundits routinely worry about America’s loss of moral standing because of an offish, ill-mannered president, the only nation in history to employ a weapon of mass destruction on an epic scale, against an undefended civilian population, otherwise shrugs off the significance of an act of immorality.

    But it is August 6, and so let us talk about Hiroshima.


    Beyond the destruction lies the myth of the atomic bombings, the post-war creation of a mass memory of things that did not happen. This myth has become the underpinning of American war policy ever since, and carries forward the horrors of Hiroshima as generations of August 6’s pass.

    The myth, the one kneaded into public consciousness, is that the bombs were dropped out of grudging military necessity, to hasten the end of the war, to avoid a land invasion of Japan, maybe to give the Soviets a good pre-Cold War scare. Nasty work, but such is war. As a result, the attacks need not provoke anything akin to introspection or national reflection. The possibility, however remote, that the bombs were tools of revenge or malice, immoral acts, was defined away. They were merely necessary.

    That is the evolved myth, but it was not the way the atomic bombings were first presented to the American people.


    Harry Truman, in his 1945 announcement of the bomb, focused on vengeance, and on the new power to destroy at a button push – “We are now prepared to obliterate more rapidly and completely every productive enterprise the Japanese have above ground in any city,” said Mr. Truman. The plan put into play on August 6 – to force the Japanese government to surrender by making it watch mass casualties of innocents – speaks to a scale of cruelty previously unseen. It was fair; they’d started it after all, and they deserved the pain.

    The need to replace the justification to one of grudging military necessity, a tool for saving lives, grew out of John Hersey’s account of the human suffering in Hiroshima, first published in 1946 in the New Yorke. Owing to wartime censorship, Americans knew little of the ground truth of atomic war, and Hersey’s piece was shocking enough to the public that it required a formal response. Americans’ imagined belief that they’re a decent people needed to be reconciled with what had been done. With the Cold War getting underway, and with American leadership fully expecting to obliterate a few Russian cities in the near future, some nuclear philosophical groundwork needed to be laid.


    And so the idea that the bombing of Hiroshima was a “necessity” appeared in a 1947 article, signed by former Secretary of War Henry Stimson, though actually drafted by McGeorge Bundy (later an architect of the Vietnam War) and James Conant (a scientist who helped build the original bomb). Dr. Conant described the article’s purpose as countering Hersey’s account at the beginning of the Cold War as “You have to get the past straight before you do much to prepare people for the future.”

    The Stimson article was the moment of formal creation of the Hiroshima myth. A historically challengeable argument was recast as unquestionable – drop the bombs or kill off tens of thousands, or maybe it would be millions (the U.S. regularly revised casualty estimates upwards), of American boys in a land invasion of Japan. It became gospel that the Japanese would never have surrendered owing to their code of honor, though of course surrender is in fact exactly what happened. Nonetheless, such lies were created to buttress a national belief that no moral wrong was committed, and thus there was no need for reflection and introspection by the United States. Full speed ahead into the nuclear age.

    No later opportunity to bypass reflection was missed. American presidents from Truman to Bush chose not to visit Hiroshima. The 50th anniversary of the bombing saw a moderately reflective planned exhibit at the Smithsonian turned into a patriotic orgy that only reinforced the “we had no choice” narrative. When Barack Obama became the first sitting president to visit Hiroshima in 2016, his spokespeople went out of their way to make it clear he would be looking only forward, the mushroom cloud safely out of sight.


    American foreign policy thus proceeded under a grim calculus that parses acts of violence to conclude some are morally justified simply based on who holds the knife, with much of the history of the next 70 some years a series of immoral acts allegedly servicing, albeit destructively and imperfectly, the moral imperative of saving lives by killing. America’s decisions on war, torture, rendition, and indefinite detention could be explained in character as the distasteful but necessary actions of fundamentally good people against fundamentally evil ones. Hiroshima set in motion a sweeping, national generalization that if we do it, it is right.

    And with that, Boom! the steps away from August 6 and the shock-and-awe horrors inside the rubble of Mosul are merely a matter of degree. The drone deaths of children at a wedding party are unfortunate collateral damage in service to the goal of defeating global terrorism. Same as the 3,100 civilians killed from the air since the U.S. launched its coalition war against Islamic State, along with 3,674 civilians destroyed by drone strikes in other parts of the world.

    We are, in fact, able to think we are practically doing the people of Afghanistan (Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia…) a favor by killing some of them, as we believe we did for tens of thousands of Japanese that might have been lost in a land invasion of their home islands had Hiroshima not be killed for their prospective sins. There is little discussion because debate is largely unnecessary; the myth of Hiroshima says expediency wipes away concerns over morality. And with that neatly tucked away in our conscience, all that is left is pondering where to righteously strike next.


    America’s deliberate targeting of civilians, and its post-facto justifications, are clearly not unique, either in World War II, or in the wars before or since. Other nations, including Japan itself, added their own horror to the books, mostly without remorse. But history’s only use of nuclear weapons holds a significant place in infamy, especially on this August 6. America’s lack of introspection over one of the single most destructive days in the history of human warfare continues, with 21st century consequences.




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  • Hiroshima and the Scar of Moral Injury

    August 7, 2017 // 6 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Hooper's War


    For military historians, walking a battlefield is a special experience. That’s where things previously locked away in books happened, the hill that blocked an advance, the river that defended an important city and altered the course of human history. Historians visit Waterloo, Gettysburg, and Normandy all the time.

    Things work differently for those interested in the final days of World War II. Absent the bloody struggle for Okinawa, the real end days of the war were conducted from the air. The firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945, the greatest civilian loss of life in a conventional air raid, left no signs some 70 years later in the modern city. There is nothing to indicate a million people were left homeless because one-fourth of the urban area was destroyed. And that is exactly as the Japanese want it. It was all cleaned up, buried, as if it never had happened.

    The only indication in Tokyo that any war at all took place is tucked away in the Yushukan War Memorial Museum. Attached to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, where the souls of Japan’s war dead reside (including some who committed war crimes), Yushukan is in its own way a marker of things cleaned up and things buried. The building houses carefully curated artifacts from the war. The choices speak of things almost no Japanese person, and few Japanese textbooks, will otherwise talk about.

    There’s a locomotive from Burma, the rail line it traveled constructed by slave labor (as shown in part in the movie Bridge Over the River Kwai). It is not a symbol of shame, however, like the locomotives displayed elsewhere in the world that pulled train cars into Auschwitz, but a point of pride: Japan brought modern train service to the jungle. Also in the museum is a kaiten, a human-guided, suicide torpedo. Not a symbol of the madness of war, but one of martial spirit. There’s an aircraft like one that bombed Pearl Harbor. A video shown claims Japanese forces were liberating Asia from western colonialism and that Japan’s troops were warmly welcomed into Manchuria. Located inside the stigmatized Yasukuni Shrine grounds, the museum is almost purposely not easily visited. Certainly not by foreign tourists or young people out for day’s entertainment.

    Otherwise, there is little to see, even less to experience, of the war, all across the country. Small towns lack the plaques and displays to the fallen you see in rural America, and certainly nowhere is there evidence of the self-reflection one sees across Germany. Elsewhere, the museum and peace monument at Nagasaki are small, a bit out of the way and well, tatty around the edges. There’s almost nothing of a world war in Japan.

    Nothing except Hiroshima.

    Hiroshima is the place that has not been buried, the place not allowed to heal fully. The Peace Park and Museum at Hiroshima were created for the Japanese as a symbol of their victimhood, but they end up, against all plans, exposing raw edges of a war everyone otherwise wanted to go away.

    I’ve visited Hiroshima many times.

    The thing that always struck me was simply being there. The train pulled into the station under an announcement that you had arrived in Hiroshima. It was just another stop on the bullet train’s long run from Osaka to Fukuoka, so they called out the name as if it was just another stop. I’d step out into the sunlight — that sunlight — and I was in Hiroshima.

    No matter how many times I went, I always expected something different to happen, when in fact nothing happened. There were 200,000 souls out there. I couldn’t see them for the crowds of people pushing into the station, and I couldn’t hear them over the traffic noise, but past lives lingered. It couldn’t be helped. No matter how much concrete and paving had been laid down, it could not have been enough. History runs very deep in Hiroshima.

    Even if you have never been to the place, you know the place. The mountains that form the background in all the old photos are still backstopping the city. A lot of newer, tall buildings now, but the Ota River delta, where thousands drowned trying to cool their bodies and extinguish their burning flesh, is right there. You’ve seen the pictures. Most of the bridges and streets were rebuild right where they’d been before the Bomb. Same for most public buildings. You could see where you were in 2017 and where you would have been in 1945 because they are the same place.

    In August, Hiroshima is hot as hell and twice as humid. You can’t really sweat, there’s so much moisture in the air. You feel like you have asthma. But in 2017, you can duck into a McDonald’s not far from the Atomic Dome and absorb as much free air conditioning as you’d like. An American there, or in the Peace Park, is as likely to be ignored as just another tourist as he is to become the target of some nice Japanese person wanting to practice English and lead you around chatting. Have you seen the famous watch, they ask, the one that the atomic bomb froze at the moment of detonation? How about the atomic shadows, the ashes of people photo-flashed to death? You can take pictures, no problem.

    But no matter how many truly genuine smiles or how many Big Macs, you can’t get away. Hiroshima is an imperfect place, and one which will not easily allow you to forget the terrible things that preceeded its day of infamy.

    Outside of Japan, most people feel the Japanese government has yet to fully acknowledge its aggressiveness in plunging East Asia into war. Indeed, the museum inside the Peace Park has been chastised as focusing almost exclusively on a single day, out of a war that began over a decade earlier and claimed millions of innocent lives before the bomb fell on August 6, 1945. The criticism is particularly sharp, given the rise in militarism occurring under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Now, as in decades past, China watches to see what Japan will do with its armed forces.

    There is also ongoing friction between Japan and Korea regarding Hiroshima.

    An estimated 40,000 Koreans were injured or killed in the atomic blast, most slave laborers kidnapped and brought to work in Hiroshima’s factories. They were the industrial equivalent of the “comfort women,” the Korean sex slaves raped by the Japanese military. The centerpiece of the Peace Park, the Memorial Cenotaph, is the final resting place for the ashes of the bomb’s victims. Japan, however, only allowed those remains believed to be Japanese to be placed in the Memorial. There was of course no way to determine whether a handful of ashes was Japanese or Korean. The Korean dead did not get a marker until the 1980s, and that was laid off to the side, and was paid for by Koreans. Until that time, following Buddhist tradition, the souls of those men and women could not rest.

    How deep does hate lie? Or is it actually a shallow grave?

    There are others with things to atone for, and much to reconcile. The U.S. remains unrepentant. It was only on the 60th anniversary of the bomb that the first American ambassador came to Hiroshima on an August 6th morning to pay respects. There has never been an apology for the first use of a nuclear weapon, and against a civilian target at that. Ask most Americans about the bombing, and it would be surprising not to hear the phrase “the Japs deserved it.” A few elderly survivors, many with disfiguring burns, still suffer today. Yet there is not enough vengeance for some, even seven decades later.

    But perhaps the oddest part of my visits to Hiroshima was always at the end. I simply got on a train, and left it all behind me. Or so I thought each time I tried.



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  • August 6: The Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima

    August 6, 2017 // 6 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Hooper's War

    hiroshima


    There is a lot to say about this day, when 72 years ago, the United States became the first and only nation to use nuclear weapons.


    So much is said every day about Iran and nuclear weapons, and terrorists and nuclear weapons, Putin with nuclear weapons and so forth, but that one fact remains among all the blather. For all the talk, only America has dropped the bomb.

    We did it twice (the Nagasaki bomb was on August 9) and we did it on two civilian targets. There is no use arguing that the two cities had significant military value; if there had been, they would have already been firebombed to tinder the way Tokyo and other cities in Japan had been. Nagasaki was a port, but not far away was the major naval base at Sasebo, which some say was not bombed because the U.S. planned to take possession of it after the war for our own navy (we did.) Both cities had some defense industry, but pretty much any place in Japan larger than a village also did.

    Civilians were not, in today’s language, collateral damage. They were the targets. The image above shows what one child victim then looked like as an adult.

    Please think of him when you hear some American say the Japs deserved it.


    So we’ll leave it at this. As part of my research for my next book, Hooper’s War, I found this, below, an accounting by the United States of the exact, precise number of school children it killed on that hot August morning in 1945.


    hiroshima school children dead




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  • Review: Hooper’s War Shows “Moments of Prized Grace”

    August 4, 2017 // 7 Comments

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    Posted in: Hooper's War



    A new review of Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan from the Historical Novel Society says “This anti-war novel in the tradition of Catch 22 and Slaughterhouse Five unfolds in reverse order timeline. It is intense and bloody, with moments of prized grace preserving its humanity.” Here’s the full review:

    Although set in WWII Japan, it is re-imagined as if the atomic bombs were not unleashed and an invasion of Japan proceeds. The war is still raging in 1946, and the ancient city of Kyoto is about to be firebombed. Nineteen-year-old Lieutenant Nate Hooper is in way over his head. He depends on his war-experienced sergeant to help him lead the men in his charge. But they keep dying around him.

    With a wounded comrade, Nate seeks refuge in the house of a Japanese woman, Naoko. They take time out of the carnage to reflect and connect. They are soon joined by a Japanese soldier, Sergeant Nakagawa, a childhood friend of the woman. We also learn his story. Neither man can escape the trauma that war has unleashed. Seventy years later, Nate returns to Japan, still looking for the power to allow him to heal.

    This anti-war novel in the tradition of Catch 22 and Slaughterhouse Five unfolds in reverse order timeline. It is intense and bloody, with moments of prized grace preserving its humanity. Its trauma and dilemmas are as fresh as the anguish that today’s returning vets are experiencing.




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  • The US: A Nation Of Immigrants With a Bad Immigration Policy

    August 2, 2017 // 7 Comments

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    Posted in: Embassy/State, Trump



     immigration good for the United States? Mostly yes, but sometimes no. But that’s the wrong question to ask, so try this one: is the policy, law, and regulation of immigration haphazard at best and clearly not serving the nation’s needs? Absolutely.

    That America is a nation of immigrants is far from a trope; no other nation on earth has been so formed by immigration, from its national myths to the hard core realization of its industrial revolution to its current draw of immigrants, from the most highly-skilled to the most unskilled, from around the globe.

    At the same time, no other nation so intertwined with immigration has as ambivalent attitude toward it as expressed through law and policy, and no other nation whose economy is intimately tied to immigration has a set of laws so seemingly divorced from that. America, at best, jerks forward and backward on immigration issues based on often largely uninformed thought, at times racist emotion and good old political pandering.

    Let’s take a deep dive into the way American immigration currently works, its benefits and pitfalls, and what might be done to maximize those benefits and avoid the worst of the pitfalls.

    What is the State of Immigration Today?

    Immigrants are those seeking, legally or not, to live permanently in the U.S. There are also non-immigrants, persons such as temporary workers (from the unauthorized agricultural worker to the skilled H1-B programmer), as well as students, and the like.

    But nothing seems to dominate the American political mind more than undocumented immigration (or maybe terrorism, but even that is often conflated with immigration issues.) From Candidate Trump planning to build a wall on the Mexican border, to Candidate Clinton offering various legislative schemes to immigration-savvy Hispanic voters, the topic is very much a part of the American conversation.

    Conservatives seize on every violent crime report that features an undocumented immigrant perpetrator, while liberals point to immigration’s economic benefits and the humanitarian aspects of united families. Pretty much everyone chokes up to see new immigrants become citizens in front of the flag.

    Under the current way, immigration works in America, people arrive via three main streams: undocumented immigrants, legal immigrants joining family members, and legal skilled workers. The latter two categories are also known as Green Card holders, or Legal Permanent Residents (LPRs). Most will upgrade to full-on U.S. citizens. There are also those who immigrate by winning the visa lottery, refugees, legal semi-skilled workers, and other niche sub-categories.

    Let’s take a look at each of the three main streams delivering immigrants to the United States.

    Undocumented Immigrants in the United States

    A huge hole in any discussion of undocumented immigrants is no one knows how many of them there are. Intelligent estimates range from 11-20 million, quite a spread, especially given the very vague math behind the accounting. And even the low estimates seem, well, high. Between 1880 and 1930, the magical Ellis Island period of nearly unfettered immigration into the U.S., the total intake over 50 years was 27 million people.

    The walk-ins, mostly Mexicans, make up about half of America’s undocumented immigrants. Something like 40% of soon-to-be undocumented immigrants in the U.S. enter legally, on tourist and student visas, and then simply stay. But the lack of any comprehensiveness tracking system means nobody can be too sure.

    And because the group is indeed undocumented, who they are is also unknown. How many will work at all, how many will take low-level jobs and how many will move into well-paid positions and possibly seek legal status at some point is tough to sort out. In Florida, a neat number are older Brits settled into the sunny retirement communities there. Undocumented people self-select to come to the U.S., and so there is no sorting out of things, no connection to America’s economic and job needs.

    Keep an eye on that last sentence, about no connections to America’s economic needs, as we turn to family reunification-based immigration.

    Family-Based Immigration to the United States

    The second stream of immigrants into the United States are persons legally entering under America’s family reunification laws; the process accounts for about two-thirds or more of all lawful immigration to the U.S. every year. American citizens and Legal Permanent Residents can apply to bring their relatives to the U.S., to include in one way or another (the categories can be complicated) foreign spouses, unmarried children, parents, adopted children, fiancées of American citizens, married sons, married daughters, and brothers and sisters of adult U.S. citizens.

    Family reunification has long been the cornerstone of American immigration policy. Many early immigrants to America, particularly those fleeing religious or political persecution in their homelands, migrated as families. In subsequent centuries, a head of household often came first to the new land and later sent for his family. Prior to 1965, when the current family reunification law was first codified, the timeliness of family reunification in the U.S. depended almost entirely on how long it took for this first family member to secure a job and raise enough money for his spouse and children.

    The family reunification system was and is still largely based on immigrants applying for other immigrants. Immigrants from countries that send a lot of people to the U.S. later bring more people from those same places in. Thus Mexico, the Philippines, China, India and the Dominican Republic dominate the current immigrant pool in a kind of statistical snowball.

    But at least families can get together, right?

    Wrong. Because of that snowball effect, and because Congress places numerical limits on the number of most family reunification-based immigrants, the waiting lines grow exponentially. Over the years Congress was pressed into creating country-by-country limits for the most robust sending nations. Those limits have become unmanageable under the first-come, first-served system. The most-backed up is the processing of siblings of American citizens from the Philippines. That process is now only taking those applications (“priority date”) first filed in 1992. Applicants literally pass away waiting for their turn.

    The family reunification system, which once made sense in a growing nation anxious for workers of all kinds, now represents something of a 19th-century legal hangover. Because the only qualification is that family tie, America gets the loser drunk uncles alongside the brilliant sister physicists. It’s a crap shoot. There is no sorting out of things, no connection to America’s economic and job needs.

    Now keep an eye on that last sentence, about no connections to America’s economic needs, as we turn to skills-based immigration.

    Highly Skilled Immigrants in the United States

    Immigration based solely on skills is the smallest stream of legal entries into the United States. While some 140,000 persons enter yearly under this overall umbrella (by comparison, the U.S. admits about 70,000 refugees each year), only about half of those fall squarely under what can be considered highly-skilled categories (keep in mind we are discussing immigrant visas, Green Cards, that allow permanent residency and employment in the U.S., and not more well-known non-immigrant, temporary, visas such as the H1-B. There are, for example, some 700,000 H1-B visa holders in the United States at present, a guesstimated 20% of the IT workforce alone.)

    Aside from the highly-skilled immigrants, employment-based immigration still for some reason retains a category for unskilled workers, another for those whose jobs require less than two years training, and one for those whose work only requires an undergraduate degree. Like all permanent working immigration, those categories are numerically limited by law (with additional limits for Chinese, Indian, Mexican and Philippine citizens.) While the numbers of un- or semi-skilled worker immigrants are small, that such categories exist at all in 2016 (priority date backlogs mean that cases currently being processing were first filed in 2003; what business can wait 13 years for an unskilled worker to arrive?) and in the face of large numbers of undocumented immigrants already in the U.S., explains much about the unfocused nature of America’s immigration policy.

    The tighter numerical limits on some countries, especially China and India, are designed to make the system “fair” by leaving room for immigrants from other places, and have no connection to the higher standards of education, and thus presumably higher quality workers, there. So an especially gifted Chinese programmer must wait her turn to allow a mediocre photographer from Spain in first.

    Across the spectrum of work-based immigration, almost no mind is paid to what skills the immigrants bring to the U.S. Unlike countries such as Canada and Australia that use “point based” systems to try and prioritize those with especially needed skills, the U.S. requires only that its work-based immigrants be skilled, at well, something. And then they get in line, first-come, first-served.

    No need to add that line about no connection to America’s economic needs again, right? You get the picture by now.

    Is Immigration Good for America?

    The answer is pretty much a clear yes. Always has been. Easy to imagine it always will.

    America’s 19th-century industrial revolution could not have happened without the influx of workers into the nation. Cities such as New York were built literally by hand by early Irish and Italian immigrants, who brought strong backs and ready skills in with them. Scandinavian immigrants settled the vast northern territories of the U.S., adapting their home agricultural techniques to cold lands most existing American farmers weren’t sure what to do with. Chinese immigrant labor built the great railroads of the West.

    Do we really need another list of famous immigrants and their contributions? Albert Einstein, Joseph Pulitzer, Intel founder Andy Grove, Google creator Sergey Brin, Yahoo’s Jerry Yang, Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright, along with Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Neil Young, David Bowie, Tracey Ullman and Mario Andretti. Pick any field and you’ll find within it significant achievements by immigrants, and their sons and daughters.

    Economic Benefits of Immigration

    Immigration is infrastructure. Every person who brings his/her skills and labor contributes to the growth of the United States. Each of those persons who acquired his/her skills abroad did so at no cost to the U.S., and each of those people making a contribution inside America improves the nation’s competitive level at the expense of the losing country — the brain drain from one, the brain gain to the other. In a 21st century global economy, that represents a significant advantage to nations that understand infrastructure is much more than bricks and mortar. It’s brains.

    Economically, immigrants broadly (many studies are unable or uninterested in parsing out who is undocumented and who is legal) represent a significant presence at nearly all strata of America society. Some 46 percent of immigrants work in traditionally white-collar positions. And while immigrants only make up 16 percent of the workforce in general, they make up over 20 percent of dental, nursing and health aides, and double-digit numbers of all software developers.

    While immigrants on average initially make less than their native-born peers, in many communities all family members are expected to work and pool their incomes. The percentage of immigrants below the poverty line, at 20%, is only slightly higher than the national average of 16%. No data is available, however, as to how long immigrants remain below the poverty line, as compared to citizens.

    Immigrants also show a greater entrepreneurial spirit than many native-born Americans. In a 2012 report, the Partnership for a New American Economy notes “over the last 15 years, while native-born Americans have become less likely to start a business, immigrants have steadily picked up the slack. Immigrants are now more than twice as likely as the native-born to start a business and were responsible for more than one in every four U.S. businesses founded in 2011, significantly outpacing their share of the population.”

    Immigrant-owned businesses in the U.S. generate more than $775 billion in sales and pay out more than $126 billion in payroll each year. There are also hefty tax payments alongside all that money. One in every 10 workers at privately owned U.S. businesses works at an immigrant-owned company. Altogether, immigrant-owned businesses collectively created four million of the jobs that exist today in the United States. And much of that economic growth comes from exports, as immigrant-owned businesses are 60% more likely to export than non-immigrant businesses. Who better than a Guatemalan expat to sell U.S. goods in Guatemala? And of course, exports are a major plus for an economy, pulling foreign money in.

    Immigrants and their children founded 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies, which collectively generated $4.2 trillion in revenue in 2010, more than the GDP than of every country in the world except the United States, China, and Japan. A little less than 20 percent of the newest Fortune 500 companies – those founded over the 25-year period between 1985 and 2010 – have an immigrant founder. Those whose concepts of immigration are based on images of fruit pickers think far too small.

    Does Undocumented Immigrants Bring Economic Benefits?

    Undocumented immigrants and the American payroll and tax system create an odd windfall for Social Security, paying an estimated $13 billion a year in social security taxes and only getting around $1 billion back, according to the chief actuary of the Social Security Administration (SSA).

    As most undocumented workers who are not paid under the table lack legal Social Security numbers but still need to fill out tax forms for their employers, many/most use fake or expired social security numbers. The money comes out of their paychecks and is sent off to SSA, and is seen by the workers as a cost of their new life in America. As the social security numbers are bogus, no one comes calling to collect benefits on them and risk exposing the fraud. The SSA estimates unauthorized workers paid $100 billion into Social Security over the past decade.

    Those same undocumented immigrants pay almost $12 billion in federal, state and local taxes. Tax contributions from ranged from less than $3.2 million in Montana with an estimated undocumented population of 6,000 to more than $3.2 billion in California with more than 3.1 million. It is one thing to cheat on immigration law, quite another to try and escape the tax man. Not convinced? Roll into any large immigrant neighbor in the Spring to see tax preparation services popping up alongside the small groceries and ethnic restaurants.

    People paying taxes is good. Social Security can always use more money. New businesses are good for business. Jobs create jobs. Employed people spend money in their communities. Exports make America stronger.

    If you’re still not sure about immigration, imagine some sort of immigration Rapture, right out of the television show The Leftovers, where one day every immigrant to the U.S. magically disappears. Look at the money above, and imagine the economy without it. Look at the jobs that would no longer exist or be created in the future, and impact on our health care system of the loss of workers, the children who would no longer be paying tuition at colleges, and the loss of cultural diversity. Any argument against immigration needs to begin by negating all of the above, in dollars and cents.

    Indeed, if immigration to the U.S. did not exist, it would be necessary to (re)create it.

    Is Immigration Bad for America?

    Most arguments against immigration rely more on emotion than data, and always have.

    Looking back into America’s past, each successive wave of immigrants was demonized by the preceding ones, or criticized with old world prejudices carried over along with the luggage. And so cheap Italian labor was going to take away jobs from people who a decade earlier were going to take away jobs from whomever got there first. Jews coming to America ran into anti-Semitism reminiscent of Eastern Europe, likely practiced by some of the same people from home who just had gotten on a earlier boat. During the World Wars German saboteurs were the scary boogie men jihadists of their day. None of these things makes for a very strong anti-immigration argument.

    That said, immigration as it stands now in America, where the largest numbers of newcomers are undocumented people from Mexico and Central America, clearly does hold down wages and fill up the lowest level jobs. That large numbers of such immigrants are clustered in border states and cities like New York only adds to the problem, as the burden is not spread anywhere close to equally. To counter, however, critics point to the unanswerable question of how many of those jobs would be taken by Americans without a substantial increase in the minimum wage.

    One area where wage suppression seems a clear concern is in the tech industry, where a Green Card is often offered as a form of compensation in lieu of a better salary. Many immigrants from the tech industry first arrive in the U.S. via temporary H1-B working visas. In return for accepting lower than market salaries, their companies sponsor them for permanent status. Once in possession of a Green Card, the worker may move on, to be replaced by a new H1-B person from abroad.

    Immigrants, legal and otherwise, do send money “home” and always have, money that is pulled out of the host economy. Globally, India is the top recipient of such remittances at about $72.2 billion, followed by China with $63.9 billion and the Philippines at $29.7 billion. The money flow is so important to economies such as the Philippines that the government established the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration to manage the flow of workers out, and money back in. The World Bank estimates the real size of remittances is actually “significantly larger” than recorded as there are unrecorded flows through the formal and informal sectors.

    Note that those are worldwide numbers, for all Indians working away from home all across the globe. The outflow directly from the United States is harder to establish, though Mexico, with the majority of its overseas workers in the U.S., receives $24 billion a year in such remittances. It is also difficult to know who is sending the money; the remittance businesses don’t ask if the sender is a citizen, a legal immigrant or undocumented.

    No one can argue that large sums of money leaving the U.S. is a good thing, but one can also argue that money earned belongs to the worker to do with as s/he chooses. And of course many wealthy Americans export significant sums to avoid taxes or as investments, never mind American corporations who offshore their profits to bypass U.S. taxes.

    Immigrants in general, and illegal immigrants specifically, do add to the costs of public education in the United States. The 1982 Supreme Court case Plyler v. Doe struck down a state statute denying funding for education to undocumented immigrant children and simultaneously struck down a municipal school district’s attempt to charge such children an annual $1,000 tuition fee to compensate for the lost state funding. The ruling made clear states can’t deny free public education to its children on the grounds of their immigration status. For communities where large numbers of immigrants arrive seasonally to do agricultural work, are paid under the table, and thus do not contribute in taxes, this can be a significant financial burden.

    The collection of welfare, food stamps (now known as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP) and other social programs by immigrants is a touch-point issue for persons opposed to immigration. One study showed the welfare payout to all immigrant-headed households, legal and illegal, was an average of $6,241, compared to the $4,431 received by a citizen households. Unexamined in that data are the questions of which of those benefits were earned, such as Medicaid, by working people, and which went to the American citizen children of immigrants. As citizens, those children are fully entitled to the same things offered to any American, no matter the status of their parents. The dollar amounts alone do not answer the question asked.

    Food stamps are not available to non-U.S. citizens, with exceptions for some refugees, the disabled, the very old and the very young, what all but the most cynical would consider a humanitarian necessity. Critics, however, point to the easy availability of fake citizenship documentation and suggest persons not legally entitled to SNAP receive it anyway. Some no doubt do, but no one has any hard numbers on the problem.

    Alongside the social benefits arguments, critics of immigration point to crimes committed by illegal immigrants. Statistics do not, however, support this argument per se, but the money side of the issue does sting.

    According to Department of Justice, some 14 percent of federal prison inmates are illegal immigrants, though many locked up only for immigration violations. In state prisons, illegal immigrants account for less than five percent of all inmates. Some argue that without illegal immigrants present in the U.S., none of those crimes would have been committed at all, and none of the prison costs would have been paid. A study done in 2010 estimated administration of justice costs at the federal level related to criminal immigrants at $7.8 billion annually. The comparable cost to state and local governments was $8.7 billion.

    Lastly, any accounting of the burden immigrants place on American society should include the $18 billion spent annually by the federal government on immigration enforcement.

    The State of Immigration in Other Countries

    Comparing immigration among various countries is very difficult, as policy is deeply tied to each nation’s history and culture. What works in one country has no business in another, and it is hard to find a place where immigration plays anywhere near the role it does in the United States.

    That said, Old Europe may offer some lessons in how to get thing mostly wrong. Old prejudices and young idealism seem to control views on immigration, and centuries of homogeneity, driven by established culture, language and stable borders, make assimilation tough. Few economies are expanding beyond the professionals produced domestically anyway, and much of the true immigration debate is tangled up in lurching refugee policies, themselves often driven by outside forces, such as American pressure to “deal with” the Syrian crisis.

    Japan is an especially egregious example of dysfunctional immigration policy, essentially one of no legal immigration at all. Despite declining birthrates and soaring numbers of the elderly such that the country is experiencing a shortage of workers, prejudice toward outsiders dating back hundreds of years or more stops discussion of an obvious solution: bring in new blood from abroad. Instead, Japan delays some obviously approaching day of reckoning with the idea that robots will fill in the labor gap.

    Another interesting case is China. With an expanding economy, China has first looked internally to its large population. As high tech needs grow, the nation has essentially created a hybrid class of immigrants, Chinese educated abroad who are convinced to leave jobs in the U.S. and Europe to return home. While not immigrants per se, these Chinese bring a mix of foreign education and diversity typically only available through traditional immigration. Plus there are little-to-no assimilation issues. India has similar options available.

    Overall, while terms like “good” and “bad” can be seen as relative, as best we can tell, the benefits of immigration to the United States outweigh any negatives. Add them up yourself.

    The “Hypothetical Immigration” Reform

    Immigration per se is hard to argue against. The preponderance of evidence over decades points to the nation-changing economic, cultural and social benefits gained by the United States. Any costs must be calculated, as in any business situation, against the benefits.

    While immigration itself is hard to rationally argue against, it is equally hard to argue against the need to reform immigration policy (some might say “create a policy” instead of accepting the de facto one that has evolved on its own.)

    If the goal is to enhance the benefits to the U.S. of immigration while lowering the costs, the present system fails so badly that it remains a miracle that any good comes out of it at all. The working/skills based immigrants are untethered to America’s economic needs, the family-based system is backlogged and make little sense in the 21st century, and no one even knows how many undocumented immigrants are in the U.S. or what they are doing.

    So What Do We Do To Fix Immigration in the US? 

    Anyone, candidate for office or otherwise, who tells you s/he has pat solutions to America’s immigration situation is lying, misinformed or simply pushing some political position. And yes, yes, any proposed change will be difficult, costly, time-consuming, impossible to get through Congress (the last comprehensive immigration reform, absent all the security-related legislation post-9/11, took place in 1986). So, if it is easier to swallow, think of the following as a kind of thought experiment, a pie-in-the-sky wish list.

    Here are some ways things that might change.

    – America must move away from its over-emphasis on family-based immigration, especially for categories such as siblings and adult children that are so backed up as to be meaningless. The system may have been the right thing at the right time in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but it is long past its over-due date here in the 21st.

    – Whatever the current work/skills immigration system is based on, it should be remade into a points system directly tied to American economic needs. Skills needed in the economy should be assigned points to be matched up with applicants. Need electrical engineers more than web developers? Prioritize. Change the priorities as often as needed, and move resources from the family-based side to the skills side so that cases are processed fast enough that demand and supply match up. Adjust the intake so as not to disadvantage existing workers.

    – Better data. How can one work on a problem that is not actually understood? How many undocumented immigrants are there, where do they come from, what do they do when they are here, how much do they pay in taxes and Social Security, and how much do they draw out via social programs? In addition to the big unknowns, in nearly every instance where “facts” are available, data that supports immigration comes from pro-immigration groups’ research, and the opposite for “negative” information. Fully objective data is nearly impossible to find, and parsing out all of the statistical anomalies and bad scholarship is very difficult.

    – Reform immigration record keeping. One under-discussed problem in collecting data on undocumented immigrants is the determination of who is and is not “illegal.” U.S. immigration law takes up more shelf space than federal income tax law, and in many ways is more complex. For example, if you were stopped and told to prove your citizenship by a police officer, exactly how would you do that? The only iron-clad documents that prove citizenship are a U.S. passport or travel card, a Certificate of Naturalization, or a bona fide U.S. birth certificate. Few people carry those around, and fewer law enforcement personnel can tell a real one from a good fake. There is no national database of citizens and Americans resist a national ID card in favor of a pastiche of driver’s licenses and ragged cardboard Social Security cards. Green Cards are issued for life, and some old timers have one with a photo of their twenty-five-year-old self on it.

    As another example, student visas are valid for the period of time the bearer remains in full-time education. In theory, assuming no departures from the U.S., a teenager could be legally given a student visa for four years of high school, that she used for another four years of undergraduate education, followed by three years of grad school, followed by a work-study period of employment, followed by a 90-day grace period until required departure. It is all legal, but sorting that out roadside is near impossible.

    – Trump’s hyperbole aside, America does need some sort of effective border control. It is clear that large numbers of people are able to simply walk in. That “policy” is no policy.

    The State Department issued some 12 million non-immigrant visas (student, tourist) in 2015. Most visas are valid for five years, meaning there are some 60 million of them out there at any one time. In addition, citizens of 38 countries, such as Canada, Japan and Britain, can enter the U.S. for tourism or business without visas.

    Altogether, as an example, during 2011 alone, there were 159 million non-immigrant admissions to the United States, visa and visa-free. No one knows where they are. Presumably most returned home, but, since the United States stands alone among industrialized nations (travelers in the Schengen zone are an exception) in having no outbound/exit immigration control, no one knows. Various programs are in evolution, but almost all involve the airlines gathering data when people fly, instead of making an inherently governmental process the business of the government.

    Student visa holders are only tracked by their schools, who report to the Department of Homeland Security. As one can imagine, Harvard and Ohio State take this job seriously, the Podunk School of Cosmetology less so.

    – If, and only if, all that gets done, an amnesty to reset things seems justified, and will allow the U.S. to better judge the status of its reformed immigration policies.

    – Finally, outside of legislation and regulation, it is time for America to move past the angry falsehoods and full-on hate that drives too much of the conversation on immigration. Same for the myths that immigration is so enshrined in the American story as to be untouchable. The questions to answer and the problems to solve are with us. We need to get down to it.



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    Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!

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  • I Have Become An Old White Straight Male (OWSM)

    August 2, 2017 // 5 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: #99Percent, Other Ideas

    angry-old-men

    I can’t help it. I was born this way.

    When I was hiring and managing people, I worked hard to choose the most qualified candidates whoever/whatever/however they were. When I managed I tried to judge only performance. I acted as I did because it was the right thing. Please don’t dismiss me by saying “well, good for you, you at least had that choice.” To me it was not a “choice” but a part of who I am. I never used racial slurs, and am pretty sure the last time I referred to a person with a gay slur was at age 13 in a Midwestern junior high school. Got me there.

    Am I telling you all this because I seek your approval? Mansplaining? Defensive much? Looking for a white-guilt laden liberal high-five (which used to be a gesture reserved for urban Blacks until appropriated by everyone)?

    Nope. Because I am not your stereotype, here for you to make yourself feel woke by telling me I’m not.



    And that’s by way of introduction to me recently becoming an Old White Male (OWM.) I did not know I was this until recently, but I guess it’s true.

    Built into that OWM label is the implication that I am also straight, er, cis. I am also implied to be boring, which I concede. I guess you can look at me and see I am old, white, and male, but I’m not sure how anyone knows my sexual orientation. But let’s call it Old White Straight Male (OWSM.) I know we’ll soon enough get caught up in nomenclature during this essay, but let’s try and forestall that as long as we can.

    Whatever, I am so many people’s enemy now, part of so many people’s problems. At one place I recently worked, people who looked like me were referred sotto voce as “red hats,” for the invisible #MAGA caps we were all assumed to be spiritually wearing.

    I guess I am supposed to be shamed, and/or ironically awareness-raised that I am being judged by the color of my skin, my gender, my age, and my (implied) sexuality.

    Here’s an example of what people say now (written online, but I’ve been told things very much the same):

    But as a white woman, it would be tone-deaf of me to assume that there’s nothing problematic about me taking a black person’s lived experience and making it cutesy and palatable for a mostly-white audience. Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice” isn’t about Trick or Treating with his family; the song is about Snoop’s teen days in Long Beach, which belong to him — warts and all. De-contextualizing his music and obscuring the history behind it is a form of erasure and, let’s be honest here, a form of racism. Similarly, adopting the mannerisms, dress, and slang of black artists, like the white rappers in popular YouTube parenting raps — that’s racism as well. It’s little better than contemporary blackface.

    For the record, I have made no rap videos. Unlike about 99% of the white people I see on Facebook and Instagram, I have never posed for a photo making exaggerated kissy lips throwing what I imagine is a gang sign with “my boys/my bitches.”

    Some good news is as an OWSM I do have one tiny carve-out exception available.

    And that’s if I can tie myself to someone younger, less white, less straight, and/or less male. So, if say my spouse is Black I’m “allowed” to comment about Black stuff more. I think. I think it works the same way as if someone has never served in the military but can kind of inherit military vet dry humping cred by saying stuff like “You can’t say that, man, ’cause my cousin fought in Iraq (I’ve heard it as “my dad in WWII” as well) and it’s disrespectful to our troops!”

    A big problem I recently discovered is that as an OWSM I do not belong to any “community.”

    I am not part of the Hispanic community, which does include the 55 million persons of Hispanic ethnicity in the U.S., and maybe the millions more in places like El Salvador and Argentina though I don’t think we count them. Not part of the gay community (I said it, yes, I am straight, but you already supposed that.) About the best I could do to join a community is get some disease, and thus be a part of the liver cancer community but there’s not much future in that.

    I get “privilege” and do not in any way imply our society is not chock-a-block with prejudice. But note more than 19 million whites fall below the poverty line, accounting for more than 41 percent of the nation’s destitute. Also, a bit of history. Before we were a monolithic heap of “white men,” we were Paddys, Kikes, Hillbillies, Wops, Hunkies, Polacks, and all the other forms of prejudice and discrimination.

    A big messy part of all this is Trump, who has been anointed the leader of the OWSM “community.”

    Trump is an OWSM. He does not represent me, and I do not support him or what he stands for or the way he acts. FYI, I also did not support Hillary Clinton, who is by the way an OWSF, three-quarters of what I am. And don’t dismiss my deeply-thought political choice of whom to vote for as misogynistic.

    Yet I’m pretty sure a decent number of people stopped reading this essay a few paragraphs above thinking Trump and me have a lot in common.

    One thing I can say about being the old part of being an OWSM is after 57+ years (full disclosure: some of that in diapers and before I could read) of following the same basic set of liberal, trying always to be fair and reasonable, trying to treat all people with respect, things, I am pretty sure I’m going to ride those values into my grave. No deathbed conversion to hate crimes planned. I have proved myself to myself.

    So why do my fellow liberals have to be such boring but self-righteous stereotypes in treating me as an OWSM? Such scolds outrage me, offended warriors so quick to dismiss whatever successes I’ve had to privilege. It’s not nice to use any large group as a punching bag. As my personal needs system is in pretty good shape, I will sum it up as less offended than saddened.



    Maybe I’ve been too harsh, so let me end in a way to make you feel better about boxing me in as an OWSM: Hey you kids, get off my lawn!

    Even that doesn’t work. I don’t have a lawn, I live in an apartment. Dammit.



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  • Apologizing to George Takei (and Everyone Else!)

    July 31, 2017 // 18 Comments

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    Posted in: Other Ideas



    Um, yeah, so, like we white guys got together for a Handmaiden’s Tale watch party, and realized we owed a lot of people an apology.

    Actually, we need to apologize to pretty much everyone except the few of us stuck in this dying demographic. So we gotta get this done before heading off to the Galapagos Islands in hopes those big turtles will breed with us and allow our bloodline to continue. But it turns out even with social media, none of us know a lot of POC, or LGBTQ folks, or even women who’ll answer our calls (those restraining orders can be tricky) so we decided to apologize to you, George Takei, in hopes that you’ll spread it around for us.

    Of course if anyone had any message for we white men, I’d be happy to pass those along and return the favor!


    See, we realized (and I speak for all of us, from those Manchester by the Sea kind of people to wiseguys in New York to meth heads in Ohio to my cousin out west, ’cause apparently somehow we’re all the same anyway) George you kind of sum things up in America right now.

    First, you’re like the the best victim ever. As a child you were in a Japanese internment camp. I mean, you went with your parents and all at age 5, but the U.S. government did that and yep, white guy in charge, it’s in all the history books. There have been reparations paid, formal apologies made, a national monument created, a lot of documentaries and Never Again statements, but you have personally, George, kept that victim thing alive some 70 years later. Respect. By the way, you know the white guy who was in charge then, Franklin Roosevelt, was in a wheelchair so I kinda thought we’d cut him some Caucasian slack as a disabled person, but, whatever, it’s OK.



    Lastly, George, we picked you because you haven’t really done anything special other than be victimized.

    You were an actor on a TV show when I was a kid and then… you did some other stuff, right, like, um, be an example and raise awareness and all. In fact, here’s what you say in your autobio: “George Takei is best known for his portrayal of Mr. Sulu in the acclaimed television and film series Star Trek. He’s an actor, social justice activist, social media mega-power, originated the role of Sam Kimura and Ojii-Chan in the Broadway musical Allegiance, and subject of To Be Takei, a documentary on his life and career.” In 2015, Cosmopolitan Magazine named Takei “One of the Internet’s 50 Most Fascinating People.” Your resume is basically full-Kardashian, but she has never clicked as a victim.

    So what could be better than for us to choose you, a guy whose basic job title is Victim of Stuff, to receive our apology for the things white guys have done bad (ongoing) since the dawn of civilization?

    Sorry, George. Please tell the others.




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  • Drinking Rum Until I Understand the Cuban Embargo

    July 27, 2017 // 38 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Democracy



    It was easier for me to pass through Cuban customs and immigration than it was for me to come home to the U.S. “Be sure to try our rum while you’re here!” said the Cuban official. “You’ll need to pay duty on that rum,” grumped the American official a week later, after the retinal scan, facial recognition scan, photo, passport inspection, agricultural questioning, and bag check that allowed me home.

    The rum is in a way what a trip to Cuba for an American is really all about. Rum, and el bloqueo.

    It becomes the first Spanish word you learn after the glasses are filled: el bloqueo, the blockade, the economic and political embargo. Some 60 years ago the United States slapped a near-complete economic embargo on Cuba, a Cold War spasm that lives on long after the struggle it may have served ended. It accomplished little of substance in Cuba except perhaps to impoverish some while fostering blackmarkets and corruption that enriched others. And like that other imperial boil, Guantanamo, the embargo sits atop Cuba as a symbolic wet blanket of American foreign policy, maintained by presidents Democratic and Republican alike.

    The embargo is also why you can’t buy Cuban rum in America.

    “Sit down, have something to drink, rum for my friend, you’re American, I must ask you a question” is how a dozen encounters with Cubans from different walks of life began. Educated or not, old or young, they all asked: why does the United States maintain the embargo? Fidel Castro is dead. His successor, his brother Raul, soon will be. The Soviet Union is no more. The excesses of the Cold War, when Cuba sought to export its revolution, are now just adventure stories old men misremember to their bored grandsons.

    The embargo started in earnest back in 1962, and grew to include almost all commerce between the United States and Cuba, snaring famously that Cuban rum (and cigars. Then-president John F. Kennedy loved his Cuban cigars so much he had an aide buy out existing stocks in Washington DC before he initialed the embargo paperwork.)

    The stated purpose of the embargo is to pressure the Cuban government toward “democratization and greater respect for human rights.” The result was that American businesses could not invest or operate in Cuba. Cubans could not sell their agricultural products in the United States. The embargo preserved those wonderful classic American cars you see in any documentary about Cuba, frozen in time as new vehicles could be imported. The Russians slid into place as Cuba’s economic godfather, followed by the Special Period, those years of particularly acute suffering after the collapse of the Soviet Union. There was a limited loosening of the embargo as it applied to tourists under the Obama administration (and a titular change of the American Interests Section in Havana into the American Embassy in Havana; “unofficial” diplomacy never really ceased) followed by a planned re-tightening of tourist travel by President Trump.

    “My whole life all I know is the Americans don’t come,” said one Cuban doctor to me. “The Russians came. Canadian tourists we have everywhere, some Chinese. Fidel brought over many visitors from Africa. But no one from the United States. It’s only about 90 miles that way, you know.” We clinked glasses. Forget your mojitos; rum this good is drunk neat. Sitting there, it seems simple enough.

    I tried in every rum-fueled encounter to explain why the United States might want to keep the embargo in place. How of all the things they did not agree on, why did presidents from Kennedy through Carter through Trump all support the embargo? Don’t the Cuban people want freedom I asked? Yes, of course, but the embargo doesn’t seem to have had much effect on that and it’s been a lifetime, said most. How is the president prohibiting the import of spare car parts promoting democracy in Cuba anyway?

    Well, I tried to explain as the rum warmed me a bit too much, since Cuba is a socialist economy, lifting the embargo will benefit the government, which owns everything. As one person put it, for decades the U.S. made life harder on eleven million people to try and influence two, Fidel and his brother. My older Cuban drinking pals wondered if I was stupid enough to believe Cuba was still smitten with the revolutionary hallucinations of the 1960s, or was I simply blind to the fact that independent commerce was everywhere in Cuba and only likely to grow further if the doors were fully opened. Cuba was already an inverted pyramid of an economy, with some already rich off the proceeds from small independently owned restaurants, and taxi drivers making dozens of times what doctors do. The new One Percent of Cuba, I was told, were those who have figured out how to get their homes on AirBnB to rent out to foreigners. End the embargo, Cubans said, let us grow, and we’ll sort out the rest for ourselves.

    Cuban coffee is as good as its rum, and helps you clear your head after a long night out. What is left among the empty glasses is the sad truth that the embargo still exists because it is popular among Cuban-Americans in the United States and American candidates courting this voter pool know it. At least for now; polls show the more recently a Cuban-American voter came to the United States and the younger they are, the more liberal their attitudes toward easing the embargo. At some point the balance may tip, and American politicians will no longer need to support the embargo to win votes. Demographics in south Florida will end the last relic of the Cold War in the western hemisphere.

    The critical element of American foreign policy towards the Caribbean’s largest nation is based mostly on the favor of a shrinking pool of aging voters. And that’s where I gave up. It turns out I can’t drink enough rum, even in Cuba, for the embargo to make real sense. The embargo won’t be the cause, but someday if Cuba ever does achieve a different form of government, the people will have a lot to learn under democracy about how undemocratic such systems can be.

       

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  • Sour Grapes: Iran Wins the Iraq War, and I Scooped the NYT by Six Years on the Story

    July 23, 2017 // 31 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Embassy/State, Iran, Iraq


    The New York Times is featuring a piece stating Iran is the big winner of the U.S.-Iraq wars, 1991-2017.

    So what does winning in Iraq look like, asks the Times? About like this:

    A Shia-dominated government is in Baghdad, beholden to Tehran for its security post-ISIS. Shia thug militias, an anti-Sunni and Kurd force in waiting, are fully integrated into the otherwise-failed national Iraqi military. There are robust and growing economic ties between the two nations. An Iraqi security structure will never threaten Iran again. A corridor between Iran and Syria will allow arms and fighters to flow westward in support of greater Iranian geopolitical aims in the Middle East. And after one trillion in U.S. taxpayer dollars spent, and 4,500 Americans killed in hopes of making Iraq the cornerstone of a Western-facing Middle East, American influence in Iraq limited.

    It seems the Times is surprised by the conclusion; it’s “news” for some apparently. The newspaper ran the story on its hometown edition front page.

    But sorry, it wasn’t news to me. I tried writing basically the same story in 2010 as a formal reporting cable for the State Department. Nobody wanted to hear it.

    At the time I was assigned to Iraq as an American diplomat, with some 20 years of field experience, embedded at a rural forward operating base. All the things that took until 2017 to become obvious to the New York Times were available to anyone on the ground back then with the eyes to see.

    The problem was what I wrote could never get cleared past my boss, and was never allowed to be sent to Washington. The Obama administration message was that America had won in Mesopotamia, and that we would be withdrawing to focus our national efforts on Afghanistan. “Everything that American troops have done in Iraq — all the fighting, all the dying, the bleeding and the building and the training and the partnering, all of it has landed to this moment of success,” said Barack Obama. “We’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self reliant Iraq.”

    So it was off-message – I was off-message – and thus needed to be ignored. The area where I was assigned in Iraq had a heavy Iranian presence, both special forces working with Iraqi Shia militias to help kill Americans, and Iranian traders and businessmen selling agricultural products (the Iranian watermelons were among the best I’ve ever eaten.) Bus loads of Iranian tourists were everywhere. Most were religious pilgrims, visiting special Shia sites, including mosques that had been converted by Saddam into Sunni places of worship which had been restored to their original Shia status, often with Iranian money, following America’s “victory.”

    In fact, somewhere in Iran are a tourist’s photos of me and his family, posing together in the area outside Salman Pak. He begged me for the souvenir photo op, never having met an American before, telling me about the small local hotel he hoped to finance for Iranian pilgrims in the future. I’d sure like a copy of the picture if he somehow reads this.

    Even after my boss deep-sixed my reporting in 2010, I still thought there was something to this Iranian thing. So I spoke to the designated “Iran Watcher” at the American Embassy in Baghdad. Her job was to monitor and report on Iran-related news out of Iraq, albeit from well inside the air conditioned Green Zone, without ever speaking to an Iranian or worrying that her convoy might be blown up by an Iranian Special Forces IED.

    I told her about the watermelons, those delicious Iranian fruits which were flooding the markets in the boonies where I lived. The melons were putting enormous pressure on Iraqi farmers, whose fruit was neither as tasty nor as government subsidized. The State Department Iran Watcher was quick to point out that I must be wrong about the Iranian fruit, because she had only yesterday been in a meeting with the Iraqi agricultural minister who had explained the Iraqi government’s efforts to seal the border had been wholly successful; she’d seen a translated report! Things went downhill from there, and the Embassy offered only canned peaches in syrup at lunch. Damn things tasted like the can, and there was a joke about the truth being too bitter to swallow I was too tired to make.

    A year later, 2011, back in Washington DC, I set down the same broad ideas about Iran victorious in layperson’s terms and was turned down as an op-ed by the New York Times, the Washington Post, and others. One editor said “So you’re telling Barack Obama he’s wrong? That the surge failed, the war wasn’t won, all those dead Americans were for nothing and Iran came out on top? Seriously?” I was made to feel like I was wearing a skirt in an NFL locker room.

    The best I could do with the knowledge I had that in yet another way the war had been for nothing was to settle for being treated as a kind of novelty, a guest blogger at Foreign Policy. Here’s the article I wrote there, scooping the New York Times by six years.

    As for the U.S. government, I’m still not sure they’ve gotten the story on Iraq.

     

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  • New Five-Star Review for Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan

    July 21, 2017 // 6 Comments

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    Posted in: Hooper's War




    This review comes from A Girl Who Reads:

    Nate Hooper fought in Japan in World War II, fighting on the ground and following the orders of his superiors. Along the way, he lost fellow combatants and his innocence, though superiors don’t care much about the loss of spirit and hope. They care about orders followed, Japanese opponents fought, and painting a heroic picture for those left behind in the United States.

    The story is told in reverse chronology; it opens in 2017 with Nate returning to Japan, then we go backward in sections to see the events referenced, interspersed with Nate’s musings in 2017, First, we see the battle at Kyoto, then the “daring escape” his superiors talked about and changed the nature of in reports, the train station attack, the fields, etc. We keep going further and further back, seeing the origin of his disillusionment. Death is never pretty, but he sees it in various kinds of ways. It’s vividly described, and brings home the horror of war on soldiers. We also get scenes from the perspective of Sergeant Eichi Nakagawa, and the horrors are the same for Japanese soldiers.

    “…the opposite of fear out there isn’t safety, it’s love. And you do insane things for those you love, including die for them.” (page 102)

    War, as seen on the ground, is one that carves out humanity in pieces. Battles aren’t grandiose, and the losses are glossed over for the media back home. It’s an entirely different world, one where the casual cruelties are rewarded. Saving lives is actually punished if that goes against orders, further lessening the hope in the field.

    “War isn’t a place that makes men better. Flawed men turn bad, then bad men turn evil. So the darkest secret of my war wasn’t the visceral knowledge that people can be filthy and horrible. It was the visceral knowledge that I could be filthy and horrible.” (page 115)

    The end of the book feels melancholy, and Van Buren adds commentary to explain the historical significance of the events he chose to portray in the novel. This is definitely a book that will haunt you long after you put it down.

    Buy Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan now, in paperback or Kindle, at Amazon!



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  • Six Months of Trump: Where Things Stand

    July 20, 2017 // 19 Comments

    Tags:
    Posted in: Democracy, Trump



    I awoke this morning to find it was not Judgement Day but simply morning.


    A little cloudy, might have some showers later. Things looked pretty normal. I ran the usual checks to make sure I hadn’t awoken in some alternate reality, that I had not slept through a time vortex and risen in a world run by super-intelligent apes, that sort of thing. Nope, regular everything. The milk in the fridge that was a little on edge yesterday morning was kinda ripe today.


    Trump’s been in office for six ten months and everything is… sorta normal. He’s a crappy president, pretty much as we expected. I don’t see he’s done much good, but on the other hand looking over what the media, academics, and those who speak for us all, Colbert, Meyers, Samantha Bee, and George Takei have been predicting would have gone down by now, all and all things are not so bad.


    — No nuclear wars.

    — No wars with China, Russia, Iran or North Korea. Same wars Bush and Obama started or escalated still going strong.

    — No diplomatic breakdown because of Taiwan. No change in U.S. “Two China Policy.”

    — NATO and alliances with Australia, Japan, etc., intact.

    — No mass resignations among government employees. CIA, NSA, and State Department still open for business.

    — The people the media has been non-stop predicting would be fired/quit/indicted — Reince, McMaster, Mattis, Spicer, Ivanka, DeVos, Sessions, Tillerson, et al — are all mostly still around.

    — Trump has not annexed the Sudetenland.

    — No coups.

    — 1st Amendment, and others, still nicely in place.

    — No impeachment, no invocation of Emoluments Clause, no use of the 25th Amendment, no formal charges of treason.

    — No roundups of POC, women, journalists, or LGBTQ people. Deportations are still below Obama-era headcount of 2.5 million deported, highest under any presidency.

    — Stock market did not crash. Doing well, actually.

    — No psychological break down by Trump leading to anarchy, war, etc.

    — No signs of capitulation to Putin. We still own Alaska.

    — U.S. justice system and courts still open and functioning.

    — Absolutely nothing has changed regarding abortion rights, whatever the f*ck our healthcare system is, marriage equality… nope, steady state.


    In the interest of presenting a balanced view of events, here is a hysterical rebuttal to the points made above:

    It’s too early! OMG, it has only been six ten months. How’s the Kool-Aid nazi lover? As a white man of privilege who isn’t gay what do you know anyway about suffering, so f*ck you. The Resistance has held Trump back for now by posting on Facebook, but what about tomorrow?!? Luckily we marched with pussy hats or things would have been worse. You don’t know how bad it is because most of the changes are hidden. America’s prestige abroad is trashed and Andrea Merkel is leading the Free World! Putin’s playing 3-D chess and just waiting to make his move. Any day now Robert Mueller is going to announce ____ and the sh*t will come down. We are nasty, fierce, persistent, and have excellent vocabularies. And did you see what anonymous sources told the NYT today? At least Dr. Who is a woman, so that means Hillary really won, doesn’t it?




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