Breaking Barriers

I am tired of the stranglehold that women have had on the job of presidential spouse.

Bill Clinton

No Sift next week. The next new posts will appear on January 18.

This week’s featured post is “Trump Supporters and Liberals: Why aren’t we on the same side?“.

This week everybody was talking about the old and new years

The New Yorker‘s John Cassidy picked out “Six Bits of Good News from 2015“, starting with how international cooperation stopped the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. And the long-term downward trend in global poverty continued.


I find all those best-books-of-the-year lists intimidating, not to mention depressing: If the list has 100 books on it, I’ve usually read about one, and if it’s just a top-ten list, I probably haven’t read any. That’s why I much prefer lists of what literate people (who aren’t all book critics) actually read and liked this year, even if it wasn’t new. Here are lists from the staff at Vox , The Week, and The Guardian.

My personal best reads of the year: The Half Has Never Been Told by Edward Baptist (nonfiction) and Forever by Pete Hamill (fiction). In teen/tween fiction, I’d pick Zombie Baseball Beatdown by Paolo Bacigalupi. Graphic novel: I agree with Alex Abad-Santos at Vox: Ms. Marvel. Best continuing comic-book series: Astro City. I also discovered the action/suspense novels of Greg Iles this year, and saw some surprising similarities between his old Southern riverport hometown of Natchez, Mississippi and my old Midwestern riverport hometown of Quincy, Illinois.


I saw so few movies this year that I can’t judge best-movie lists. But Cinema Blend‘s list is an intriguing mix of indie-art-house stuff and blockbusters.


TPM has announced the winners of 2015’s Golden Dukes, the annual awards given to “the year’s best purveyors of public corruption, outlandish behavior, The Crazy and betrayals of the public trust”. The grand prize winner is Dennis Hastert, for the revelation that all the while he was presiding over the House’s impeachment of President Clinton, he was paying hush money to a male student he molested when he was a wrestling coach. Says one contest judge:

But the sheer depravity, the utter lack of a moral compass, and the misuse of moral authority of Hastert’s pre-Congressional illegal acts, coupled with the hypocrisy of his work to end a presidency over consensual sex with an of-age partner and his efforts to deny rights to consensual partners of age who happen to be of the same sex, Hastert’s your guy, apparently.


More pundits should follow Steve Benen’s example: He rounds up his biggest mistakes of the year.


Science picks its top ten science images of 2015, including this shot of a new species of sea slug found on a reef in the Philippines.


Who can imagine, at this point, what wonders and blunders we’ll see in 2016?

and Bill Cosby and the affluenza teen

CNN has been obsessing over these two cases, but you shouldn’t. It’s good that prosecutors are finally listening to women (at least in this one case). It’s sad that a beloved cultural icon was such a sleaze in real life. But the Cosby case has very little impact on your life. The legal issues are kind of interesting, though.

The original affluenza defense was ridiculous; Ethan Couch was stupid to break the probation he was lucky to have in the first place; and what was his mom thinking in helping him run away to Mexico? But there are stories more deserving of your attention, like the next one:

and Tamir Rice

The Cleveland policeman who killed a 12-year-old boy playing with a pellet gun will face no charges. ThinkProgress identifies seven things everyone should know about the case.


Ta-Nehisi Coates discusses how police who kill citizens delegitimize police in general. If calling the police means that someone could wind up dead (with no one held accountable), then calling the police escalates conflict rather than leading to a resolution.

It will not do to note that 99 percent of the time the police mediate conflicts without killing people anymore than it will do for a restaurant to note that 99 percent of the time rats don’t run through the dining room. Nor will it do to point out that most black citizens are killed by other black citizens, not police officers, anymore than it will do to point out that most American citizens are killed by other American citizens, not terrorists. If officers cannot be expected to act any better than ordinary citizens, why call them in the first place? Why invest them with any more power?


I have a hard time apportioning the individual and collective responsibility in the Rice case. Obviously, Tamir Rice should not be dead and probably would not be dead if he were white. The officer who shot him at the very minimum should not be a cop any more, and probably should be convicted of something.

But I don’t want to pin the whole responsibility on the individual cop who pulled the trigger. There is the larger cultural problem of a police department that doesn’t value black lives. And beyond that, there’s the structural racism in our whole society, which casts black males as inherently dangerous. To most American whites, things just look different when blacks do them, a problem I illustrated with a collection of reactions to President Obama and his family in “What Should ‘Racism’ Mean?“.

I don’t doubt that when Officer Loehman looked at Rice, he saw a dangerous thug with a gun, and believed that he had a shoot immediately to defend himself. But why did he see and believe that? Why didn’t the possibility of a 12-year-old with a toy cross his mind? Or even the possibility that the “armed thug” might be talked down without violence?

Independent of what (if anything) happens to Loehman, Cleveland needs to take a hard look at how it trains its cops. All cities need to look at the us-against-them attitude within their police departments. (Why did Loehman’s partner back his story of giving Rice multiple warnings, when the video shows only two seconds between opening the car door and the first shot?) And we all need to examine our perceptual filters, to understand how we see blacks and whites differently.

and the Oregon militia stand-off

The Bundy militia is back in the news. Bundy’s son and some other armed yahoos have seized the headquarters of a national wildlife refuge in rural Oregon to protest something-or-other about land use. They have no hostages, but say they’re willing to use violence if the government tries to evict them by force.

“We are not hurting anybody or damaging any property.,” Ammon Bundy told [Oregon Public Broadcasting]. “We would expect that they understand that we have given them no reason to use lethal force upon us or any other force.”

Yeah, that can work sometimes if you’re white.


That Vox summary article includes the goodbye-to-my-family video of militiaman Jon Ritzheimer, who seems to think he’s going to his death. To me, it resembles the videos that Palestinian suicide bombers record. I’m not the only one who sees the similarities between our homegrown extremists and foreign terrorists: the nickname “Y’all Qaeda” is catching on, though it seems a little unfair to non-terrorist Southerners. #yallqaeda

Ritzheimer waves a pocket edition of the Constitution around as if it were sacred writ, but doesn’t say what it has to do with the issue at hand. I’ve read the Constitution too, and I don’t see the connection. Part of the constitutional system is that we have courts where we resolve such questions. I don’t recall any of the Founders saying that if my interpretation of the Constitution doesn’t win out, I’ll have to start shooting people.


Tempting as it is to imagine the government taking these guys by force, I’m applying the same frame I do to Al Qaeda or ISIS terrorism: The terrorists have a narrative, and we don’t want to play into it. I want them punished in a really boring and bureaucratic way that allows them no moment of glory whatsoever.

and the presidential campaign

Now that Donald Trump is promising to make Bill Clinton’s infidelities an issue in his campaign against Hillary, the next question is: What ever happened to Monica Lewinsky? Well, she’s become an activist against cyber-bullying, using her own experience to identify with young people who are being humiliated online. Here’s a TED talk she gave in March.

A marketplace has emerged where public humiliation is a commodity and shame is an industry. … The more shame, the more clicks. The more clicks, the more advertising dollars.


OK, maybe that’s the second-to-next question. The next question ought to be: How is this a reason to vote against Hillary? That’s what has Paul Waldman scratching his head:

What’s much harder to figure out is why Bill Clinton’s behavior provides a reason to vote against his wife. That’s the substance of the question, which still awaits an explanation.

I’m with Josh Marshall:

At the risk of stating the obvious, this is a tactic that may work great for Trump in a Republican primary – particularly with the people who make up Trump’s core constituency. But in a general election, with an electorate not driven by the things that drive Trump supporters, having a thrice married, philandering blowhard like Trump trying to beat up on a woman over her husband’s philandering, about which she is if anything the victim rather than the perpetrator, is almost comically self-destructive on Trump’s part.


Hillary’s charge that terrorist groups were using Trump’s anti-Muslim statements as recruiting tools apparently was based more on intuition than evidence (unless the testimony of these experts counts). Consequently, it was premature: At that time she said it, no one could find any examples of Trump appearing in terrorist recruiting videos (which isn’t exactly what Clinton charged anyway). But now they can.

It stands to reason. ISIS’ main message to Muslim youth is: There is no place for you in a world dominated by the West. Who makes that point better than Donald Trump?

and you might also be interested in

This week’s guns-make-us-safer story: Wednesday night, a Florida woman killed her 27-year-old daughter after mistaking her for an intruder. Now apply the guns-everywhere theory and imagine that the daughter had been armed and ready to shoot back when she saw a muzzle-flash in the dark. (She wasn’t.)


The Oregon bakers (the ones who think that discriminating against gays is part of their religious freedom) have finally paid their $135K fine plus interest. It wasn’t hard, because fans have sent them $515K, and the money is still coming in. Fox News’ Todd Starnes calls this “the price the Kleins had to pay for following the teachings of Jesus Christ.” I’m still searching for whatever teaching that is and where in the Bible Jesus taught it. If you know, please comment.


Steve Benen shares my view of the spying-on-Israel flap. Israel had somehow acquired inside information about our nuclear-weapons-development negotiations with Iran, and was feeding them to Republican congressmen to undermine the chances of reaching an agreement. You can say that we shouldn’t spy on our allies, but Israel wasn’t acting as an ally in this situation.

Netanyahu and his team tried and failed to derail the diplomatic efforts, but they still had hopes of sabotaging American foreign policy through Congress. For intelligence agencies, this created a real dilemma. On the one hand, the very idea of U.S. intelligence agencies spying on members of the U.S. Congress is a major problem. On the other hand, U.S. intelligence agencies spying on a foreign government actively trying to subvert American policy is about as common as a sunrise.

The tricky part, obviously, is the challenge facing intelligence officials when it’s American members of Congress who are coordinating – and to a degree, partnering – with a foreign government to undermine the foreign policy of the United States. Such a dynamic has no real precedent in the American tradition, but in the Obama era, radicalized congressional Republicans have made this rather commonplace.


BTW: about that agreement. Monday, Iran took one of the major steps towards implementation when it shipped 25,000 pounds of low-enriched uranium to Russia. According to Secretary Kerry, the “breakout time” Iran would need to construct a nuclear weapon has already tripled, from 2-3 months to 6-9 months.

As I pointed out at the time, we gave up nothing of ours to get that result. After it jumps through a few more hoops, Iran will get some of its own money back.


Paul Krugman points out that Obama’s re-election had other important consequences: Rich people paid more tax and more people had health insurance.

and let’s close with some New Year’s resolutions

AJ+ offers ten resolutions to actually make America great.

She starts in a good place: If you want to “make America great again”, you should define great and again. Are we talking about when black people couldn’t vote? When women weren’t in the workforce? When?

Trump Supporters and Liberals: Why aren’t we on the same side?

Working Americans do need to “take our country back”. But from who?


Back in 2011, in “One Word Turns the Tea Party Around“, I suggested a simple change to Tea Party rhetoric: Wherever the word government occurs, replace it with corporations. When I did that, suddenly I could agree wholeheartedly with the people Tea Party web sites loved to quote. Like Ronald Reagan:

Man is not free unless corporations are limited.

or Ayn Rand:

We are fast approaching the stage of the ultimate inversion: the stage where a corporation is free to do anything it pleases, while the citizens may act only by permission.

After the switch, Grover Norquist is still a radical, but I can see where he’s coming from:

We want to reduce the size of corporations in half as a percentage of GNP over the next 25 years. We want to reduce the number of people depending on corporations so there is more autonomy and more free citizens.

When I changed Washington to Wall Street, Rand Paul was right on target:

Wall Street is horribly broken. I think we stand on a precipice. We are encountering a day of reckoning and this movement, this Tea Party movement, is a message to Wall Street that we’re unhappy and that we want things done differently.

Running the wrong way. Looking at the Tea Party rank and file — the ordinary people who swelled its ranks rather than the ones who funded it or constructed its message or rode it to Congress — I found a lot to identify with. I agreed with them on a lot of key points, which I listed:

  • Honest, hard-working Americans are seeing their opportunities dry up.
  • The country is dominated by a small self-serving elite.
  • Our democracy is threatened.
  • The public is told a lot of lies.
  • People need to stand up and make their voices heard.
  • If we stand together, we’re not as helpless as we seem.

The problem, as I saw it then, was that somehow these people had gotten turned around — to illustrate, I linked to a video of Jim Marshall’s famous wrong-way touchdown run —  so that when they thought they were striking back at an oppressive government, they were in fact carrying the ball for the real sources of oppression: the billionaires and the corporations.

Tallying up. Four and a half years later, we can tally up the results of that wrong-way run. Tea Partiers provided the victory margin that gave Congress and many governorships to the Republican Party. But what has that power been used for?

Whose agenda is that? How does any of it address the issues that created the Tea Party in the first place?

“Anti-establishment” Republicans. Recently, a lot of Tea Partiers claim to be catching on, so they’re now in revolt against the Republican establishment. Instead, they’re supporting supposedly anti-establishment Republicans like Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, and especially Donald Trump.

But to me, it looks like they’re falling for the same shell game all over again. Because they’re still turned around, still trying to make common cause with billionaires and corporations against the scourge of Big Government, still expecting the wolves to help them keep the sheep dogs in check. Again, the form of the rhetoric is right, if only a few words would change. Then Ben Carson would denounce the billionaire class instead of the political class, and Carly Fiorina would say:

This is not an economy anymore that works for everyone. We have come to a pivotal point in our nation’s history where, truly, the possibilities for too many Americans — entrepreneurship and innovation — is being crushed. It’s being crushed by corporations that have grown so big, so powerful, so costly, so corrupt and so inept.

Ordinary Americans do need to “take our country back”. The question that separates liberals from Tea Partiers is: Who do we need to take our country back from?

Divide and conquer. All through American history, the very rich have used a divide-and-conquer strategy to stay on top of the more numerous classes. Particularly in desperate times, their message to working people has always been the same: There is an even more desperate class of workers coming to take what’s yours. So in order to keep what you have, you must help us keep what we have.

In the Old South, the more desperate workers were the black slaves, if they should ever get their freedom. So poor Southern whites fought and died to maintain the human property of the plantation owners. Even after the war, they were the shock troops of the KKK, whose terrorist violence crushed the Reconstruction state governments and took away the new rights of the freedmen. And was their loyalty rewarded? No, it was not. Throughout the New South, the old aristocracy continued to keep its own taxes low, maintain few public services, and (in particular) not fund the public education that might have allowed poor whites to better their lot.

All the poor whites had done was to disenfranchise their potential black allies, who might have helped them take power from their real enemies, the aristocrats.

Something similar was happening in the North, against other “invasions” of desperate workers: the Irish, the Italians, the Jews. Who benefited? The robber barons: Rockefeller, Carnegie, Vanderbilt, and all the rest. Railroad tycoon Jay Gould is supposed to have boasted that he could hire half the working class to kill the other half.

The targets then weren’t just the new ethnic groups. They were also union organizers: “communists” and “anarchists”. In the coal mines, workers sang:

They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for J.H. Blair.

Which side are you on?

And the working people who stayed loyal to the bosses, were they rewarded? In the short run, a little. Busting heads for the Pinkertons paid decent money. And scab wages were good, for as long as the strike lasted. But after the moment passed, things always went back to normal fairly soon.

You load sixteen tons, and what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.

In the 1920s, President Coolidge proclaimed, “The business of America is business.” His administration, followed by President Hoover’s, saw no problem in the speculative excesses of the financiers. And when it all collapsed, leaving millions of working Americans without jobs, did either the plutocrats or their politicians say, “These workers built America, we have to take care of them.”? Of course not.

Once I built a railroad, I made it run
Made it race against time
Once I built a railroad, now it’s done
Brother, can you spare a dime?

Once I built a tower up to the sun
Brick and rivet and lime
Once I built a tower, now it’s done
Brother, can you spare a dime?

Taking the country back. But you know something? Those people actually did take their country back. How? They elected a liberal: Franklin Roosevelt. That’s how we got Social Security and union rights and a minimum wage.

For once, working people didn’t let themselves be split against each other, white against black, Protestant against Catholic, native-born against immigrant. They stayed united against the people FDR called “the malefactors of great wealth”. And as a result, when World War II was over and there was new money to be made, it flowed to all classes, not just to a few people at the top. For three decades, we had rising wages, shrinking gaps between rich and poor, and increasing opportunity across the board.

Even Republicans turned liberal in those days. Dwight Eisenhower built the ultimate Big Government monument: the interstate highway system. Richard Nixon signed the Clear Air Act, put forward a national health care plan, and pursued a fiscal policy that led Milton Friedman to quip “We are all Keynesians now.” Those were good times for working people.

Today. Recent decades haven’t been so good. There’s room to argue about what caused it or which choices made it better or worse, but one thing is clear: More and more people feel desperate. And so the rich are making their old pitch: Even more desperate workers are coming to take what’s yours. If you want to keep what you have, you have to help us keep what we have.

If you’re wondering what has happened to your piece of the pie, they want you to look down the ladder at immigrants and the poor, not up at them. Look at the undocumented Hispanics, who aren’t in a position to demand the minimum wage or a 40-hour week or even safe working conditions, for fear their bosses will turn them in to the immigration police. Look at the blacks who work two minimum-wage jobs and still don’t make enough to get by without food stamps. Look at the Muslims who came here looking for a better life, just like Catholics did 150 years ago. (In those days, Catholics were the ones whose religion was supposed to be incompatible with American values.) Those are the folks you’re supposed to be afraid of and guard yourself against, not the wealthy few who are monopolizing all the benefits of the expanding economy.

Trump. The chief pitch-man for this message is a billionaire, one whose wealth comes from inherited capital and connections, who has probably never done a day’s physical labor in his life, and who I suspect has gone decades at a time hearing nothing from working people other than “Yes, Mr. Trump” and “No, Mr. Trump.” and “I’ll get that for you right away, Mr. Trump.”

He’s the guy who’s supposed to be speaking for Joe Sixpack and all the other Americans who just want a chance to work hard for a fair wage. Does that make any sense?

Trump lives here, but your wages are too high.

But, you might object, FDR was rich too. So let’s look at what Trump wants to do. He’s mostly kept things vague, but he does have a few specific proposals and positions: His tax plan gives a huge cut to the very rich; the top tax rate comes down from 39.6% to 25%, and the corporate rate shrinks even further to 15%. He opposes raising the minimum wage, calling American wages “too high”. If he has come out clearly against any of the plutocratic policies I listed above, I haven’t heard it. As the Who sang:

Meet the new boss
Same as the old boss.

The only thing that’s different about Trump is that he’s not “politically correct”. In other words, he harkens back to a day when white men didn’t have to worry about insulting blacks or Hispanics or women or gays or the disabled. Back then, if you had white skin and a penis, you just let your words fly and never looked back. (Or so I’m told.)

I suppose if you’re a white man who has been tut-tutted once too often, it can be satisfying to watch somebody flout all those new rules of courtesy. But face it: None of that is going to do anything to take the country back for working people or make America great again.

Bernie. You know who is offering a program to take our country back? Bernie Sanders. Like FDR, he wants to create jobs by rebuilding America’s infrastructure, investing money in things that produce economic growth, like roads and rail lines and airports and the electrical grid — not a wall across the middle of the desert. He has offered the only realistic plan to replace ObamaCare without cutting off millions of people’s health insurance. He’s behind a higher minimum wage. He wants everybody to be able to afford a college education. He advocates breaking up the big banks, so that they never again have the economy over a barrel like they did in 2008. He has proposed a constitutional amendment that gives Congress back the power the Supreme Court took away with the Citizens United decision: the power to keep billionaires from buying our political system.

Those plans would make a real difference in the lives of working people. But there is a downside, if you want to call it that: Rich people and corporations would have to pay more tax, and Wall Street would have to pay a tax that would discourage financial manipulations by introducing some friction into their transactions.

Sanders’ proposals are also politically impossible, we are told. He can’t be elected, and if he were he wouldn’t be able to get any of his ideas through Congress. Well, they wouldn’t be impossible if all the hard-working Americans who want to take the country back would get behind him. If working-class people — and, let’s face it, specifically white working-class people — would ignore all the fear-mongering and race-baiting and instead ask themselves what’s really going to change their lives for the better, then 2016 could see a liberal sweep that could reverse all those wrong-way touchdowns of 2010 and 2014.

In order to do that, though, a lot white working-class Americans would have to turn around. They’d have to stop looking at the imaginary threats below them and focus instead on the very real ways that those at the top of the pyramid — the billionaires and the corporations — are cutting off their hopes. They’d have to stop worrying so much about Big Government — which we can get control of if we all stand together — and worry more about Big Money, which we’re never going to control without using the power of government.

Will it happen? Probably not. It’s hard to turn around once you get up a head of steam. But it has happened before, and each election is a new chance, maybe to take the country back, or at the very least, “to get down on my knees and pray we don’t get fooled again.”

The Monday Morning Teaser

In this week’s featured post, I’ll return to the theme of one of my old favorites, “One Word Turns the Tea Party Around” from 2011, which was the first Sift post to go viral and get 10K hits. The point of that post was that while I agreed with a lot of Tea Party rhetoric about how working people need to take the country back from a tyrannical elite, TPers got turned around when they identified that elite as Big Government and sought to control it by allying with billionaires and corporations. The reality was exactly the reverse: The ruling elite we need to take the country back from are the billionaires and corporate executives, and we need to use the power of government to do so.

So the metaphor I gave for the Tea Party was Jim Marshall’s famous wrong-way touchdown run, which looked great athletically, but scored points for the wrong team. I proposed to fix Tea Party rhetoric by changing the word government to corporations, and the post gave many examples to demonstrate how well that works, like this adjusted Ronald Reagan quote:

Lord Acton said power corrupts. Surely then, if this is true, the more power we give the corporations the more corrupt they will become.

Well, four and a half years later, Tea Partiers are catching on to the fact that the Republicans they elected aren’t serving their interests, so they’re going with “anti-establishment” Republican candidates like the billionaire Trump. In other words: They’re still running towards the wrong goal line. I’ll flesh that idea out, with some background on how the working class has been suckered by the rich throughout American history, in “Trump Supporters and Liberals: Why aren’t we on the same side?” That should be out between 9 and 10 EST.

In the weekly summary, I’ll link to some best-of-2015 lists, then talk about Bill Cosby, the affluenza teen, Tamir Rice, the Oregon militia stand-off, Donald vs. Bill, and a few other things, before closing with AJ+’s resolutions for 2016 “that will really make America great”.

The Yearly Sift: 2015

The past is what you remember, imagine you remember, convince yourself you remember, or pretend you remember.

— Harold Pinter
review all the Sift quotes of 2015

look at “The Yearly Sift: 2014

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

The themes

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

The books

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

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

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

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

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

The mosts

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

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

Two other popular posts this year were “Slurs: Who can say them, when, and why” about the proper usage (and non-usage) of words like nigger and bitch; (13K hits); and “The Political F-word” (10K hits), which compared Donald Trump’s campaign and following to various models of fascism.

Most prescient comments. The most prescient comment actually is from July of 2014, when I predicted not only the result of this year’s ObamaCare decision, but the 6-3 split:

I don’t think they’ll overturn the subsidies. … I can imagine Thomas, Alito, and Scalia going that way, but Roberts and Kennedy will be reluctant.

When Charleston-church-shooter Dylann Roof was characterized as a “lone wolf” despite his online contacts with white supremacist groups and his manifesto being full of standard white-supremacist rhetoric, I speculated:

Make the parallel to Muslim terrorists and ISIS. If a Muslim shooter had been browsing ISIS web sites and wrote a manifesto full of ISIS rhetoric, would we see him as a loner, or think of him as part of ISIS?

Well, we found out the answer to that after the San Bernardino shooting.

I also feel good about refusing to jump on the Jeb-Bush-inevitability bandwagon. I won’t claim to have seen Donald Trump coming, but back in June (when Jeb announced) I was skeptical:

What issues will he run on? His positions on immigration and education are unpopular with the Republican base. I have heard no specific suggestions for how he would fight ISIS or terrorism in general differently than President Obama. I really don’t think his blaming Obama for “the biggest debt ever” will stick, given that Obama has drastically reduced the deficit he inherited from Jeb’s brother.

Just before Hillary’s Benghazi Committee testimony, I predicted:

Republicans will browbeat her in order to look tough for their base, but Clinton will maintain her composure and look like the winner to most of the country.

Least prescient comments. Hands down, the least was my underestimation of the Trump threat. In July I wrote:

He really has no interest in being president, and when the campaign gets serious he won’t be there. So if his candidacy is getting you either excited or riled, don’t waste your energy. … [T]his campaign is a more elaborate bluff than he’s run in previous years, but it’s still a bluff. Look for him to find an exit sometime in December.

In October, I was still waiting for the bluff to unravel. I noted that Bush had started to put major money into New Hampshire, which would force Trump to do the same. “We’ll soon know whether Trump is serious or just running as a publicity stunt.” Well, Trump didn’t put serious money in then and still hasn’t.

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

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

The numbers

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

2015 continued 2014’s upward trend in the Sift’s readership. The most straightforward measurement of that growth is in the annual page-views:

2013: 215K

2014: 415K

2015: 777K (as of this morning)

As I comment every year, though, page-views is a deceptive measure, because it depends so heavily on the timing of viral posts, which can’t be scheduled or projected into the future. About 300K of 2015’s page-views came from the second run of 2014’s “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party“.

But other statistics support the growth story told by the page-views: The hits on the home page, weeklysift.com, come mostly from people who have it bookmarked, and so are at least semi-regular readers. That trend looks like this: 15.5K in 2012; 22.6K in 2013; 44.1K in 2014; and 98.3K in 2015.

WordPress tells me the blog has 3820 followers, up from 2281 last year. The number of comments is also up: 531 in 2013, 879 in 2014, and 1407 in 2015. Qualitatively, I feel like the commenting community is starting to move to another level. In previous years, the comment section was mostly a back-and-forth between me and individual readers. But this year the commenters often had interesting discussions completely on their own, without me needing to say much beyond what was in the original post.

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

and let’s close with something amusing

Themes of 2015: Black Lives Matter

The third theme running through 2015’s Sifts has been Black Lives Matter. All year in the weekly summaries, I called attention to whatever the latest case was of unwarranted police violence caught on tape, from Walter Scott to Laquan McDonald.

In March, the Justice Department ripped the veil off the predatory police-and-municipal-court system in Ferguson, and the racist policing that enforced it.

[T]he City of Ferguson relies on fines for a major portion of its revenue. It regularly budgets for fines to increase, and it pressures the police department to meet its budget goals by finding more offenses it can cite citizens for. Its municipal court is an opaque, inflexible system that is hard to navigate, particularly if you are poor and/or lack transportation.

As a result, a minor initial offense can snowball into an endless and expensive series of interactions if a citizen fails to appear in court when expected (whether notification of a court date has been received or not) or fails to pay the full fine assessed (regardless of the citizen’s ability to pay).

In short, the Ferguson justice system is predatory and the citizens are the prey.

The counter-attack from the Right was that BLM is anti-police, or even promotes violence against police. I tried to answer that in “Rich Lowry’s False Choice“. (The choice was between the bad racist policing so many black communities see now, and no policing at all.) I drew the implicit conclusion from Lowry’s BLM-slandering article:

So that’s your choice, black America: Live in completely lawless communities, or STFU whenever police kill young blacks they already have subdued, or shoot down young blacks who are doing nothing wrong. You can have police who continue misbehaving the way they have been, or no police at all. There is no third alternative.

A second objection came from people who claimed to sympathize with BLM’s issues, but found BLM tactics unnecessarily rude, as when two young black women shut down a Bernie Sanders speech in Seattle in August. In “Why BLM Protesters Can’t Behave“, I raised the question “What if you must be heard, but no one listens to your polite voice?” and quoted an activist:

I’ll tell you why. It’s because nobody listens to black people until we fuck their shit up. That’s what works. And we are trying to survive, so that’s what we do.

In “Protesting in Your Dreams” I called out Ben Carson, and all the other people who somehow blame BLM for the non-existence of the protest movement they’d prefer to see, but who don’t lift a finger to start that “better” movement.

But what if your purpose is to support the status quo, and maybe to gain the gratitude of the Powers That Be by helping derail and delegitimize the only effective action that’s currently happening? Then you should do what Ben Carson is doing: Fantasize about protest movements that could be happening, but aren’t.

Because that’s one thing the Powers That Be can always count on: Fantasy protests never change anything.

And finally, in “Samaritan Lives Matter“, I answered the “all lives matter” point, using a frame that Christian social conservatives should be able to understand.

The point, I believe, of making the third man [in the Good Samaritan parable] a Samaritan rather than a generic human, is precisely that saying “A Samaritan is my neighbor” would stick in a Judean’s throat, while “Anybody can be my neighbor” probably wouldn’t. “Anybody can be my neighbor” is an abstract feel-good idea a Judean could hold in his head without raising any of his specific prejudices.

The same thing is going on with “Black Lives Matter”. It isn’t meant to say “Black lives matter more than white lives” any more than Jesus was trying to say that Samaritans are better than Judeans. The point of saying “Black lives matter” is that it sticks in the throat of a lot of white Americans. By contrast, “Lives matter” and “All lives matter” are nice, feel-good abstractions. When we say them, we can think about generic people — who we probably picture as white.

Themes of 2015: Religion, Morality, and the Law

All year, gay rights has had to compete with claims of “religious freedom”. I should have predicted that: If you look back in American history, bigotry has always hidden behind religion.


As 2015 began, same-sex marriage was clearly headed to the Supreme Court. The ruling in Obergefell v Hodges wouldn’t come until June, but both sides were making their final push to bend public opinion in their favor. So in February, I wrote “When Hate Stays in the Closet” to answer what seemed to me to be the two most reasonable-sounding arguments against same-sex marriage. (A consistent gripe I have about the national debate is that all sides tend to focus on the most hateful and unreasonable arguments made against them, and leave the more reasonable ones untouched.)

On April 6, “Religious Freedom: Colorado’s sensible middle way” explained the principles involved in the various cases involving bakers, photographers, and other folks who felt their religious convictions should allow them to not serve gay couples who were planning their weddings. The key principle, which was already embedded in First Amendment cases and didn’t need any new religious-freedom laws to enforce it, was:

a business open to the public should be (and I believe is, without any new religious-freedom laws) free to refuse to endorse an idea, but it should not be free to refuse service to people merely because they practice or promote that idea.

So if a baker refuses to put “Gay Marriage Rocks” on a cake, that’s his First Amendment right. But if the shop sells wedding cakes to the public, it isn’t free to refuse a wedding cake to a same-sex couple.

I continued on the religious-freedom theme in May with “Turning the Theocracy Against Itself“, making the point that the new religious-freedom laws were clearly intended only for conservative Christians, and predicting that

If “religious freedom” laws end up giving atheists and Muslims the same consideration Christians are claiming, Christians will repeal those laws themselves.

For example: Inscribing “In God We Trust” on the money forces atheists either to do without the convenience of a national currency, or to hand out pieces of paper that denounce their own religious views. How can any non-sectarian religious-freedom law not ban that?

In May, I gave my best explanation of why I think bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional, even though the people who ratified the 14th Amendment probably never envisioned protecting same-sex couples.

In current law, the [legal] roles of husband and wife are virtually interchangeable. … So the claim that gays and lesbians want to “redefine marriage” has it exactly backwards. During the last century-and-a-half, marriage has already been redefined. And in marriage as it exists today — rather than during the Revolution or the Civil War — what’s our justification for refusing its advantages to same-sex couples?

In short, the Constitution and the 14th Amendment haven’t changed, but the world has changed around them. Nor is the Supreme Court being asked to “redefine marriage” or to pass a “judicial law” legalizing it. That’s not what a court is for. But we do need the Court to tell us what “equal protection” is going to mean in the context of today’s marriage laws.

Also in May/June, the Josh Duggar molestation scandal broke. For reasons I can’t recall, I resisted devoting an article to it, but a segment of a weekly summary was of article length and scope, concluding:

Morality, as I conceive it, is about how we’re all going to live together on the Earth without making each other miserable. If you picture it instead as a private interaction between yourself and the Divine Lawmaker, I think you’ve still got some growing up to do.

In early June, the Bruce/Caitlin Jenner story suddenly put transgender issues in the headlines. I had never thought about the topic seriously before (and it showed; ever since, commenters have been educating me about how not to inadvertently give offense). But rather than mask my own squeamishness, I decided to explore it to see what insight it could give me into the people who saw the celebration of Jenner as a “snapshot of just how corrupt, how morally corrupt, how morally bent, how morally twisted, how morally confused, how morally bankrupt we have become”. In “What’s So Scary About Caitlyn Jenner?” I announced an abstract principle that I should probably break out into its own article sometime: Everything you thought was a category is actually a continuum.

I think the unifying principle of social conservatism is the desire to believe that the categories in our heads — male/female, black/white, good/evil, friend/enemy, and so on — correspond to real and solid divisions in the external world. Social conservatives increasingly retreat into an information bubble as it becomes more and more obvious that what they want to believe simply is not true. Binary categories are just kludges evolution has provided to help us simplify a world too complex for our brains to fully grasp.

When the Obergefell decision arrived in June and same-sex marriage became legal nationwide, I was pleased by the result but (once again) disappointed in Justice Kennedy’s reasoning.

Justice Kennedy got the right result for the wrong reasons, and that will eventually cost us.  Not in other marriage cases – that’s over, just like everybody says. But Kennedy’s soaring rhetoric about the dignity of gay relationships wasn’t supported by a sound legal framework that we can use in, say, employment equality cases.

By founding his decision on a vague “right to marry” that he scries out of the word liberty in the 14th Amendment, Kennedy fed conservative rhetoric about “redefining marriage” and “judicial activism”. In the long run, I believe the reasoning that will stand is the equal-protection argument above, which I learned by reading the lower-court decisions.

After Obergefell, opponents of same-sex marriage largely went into denial, claiming that the other branches of government (or some popular uprising) could still stop this abomination (which has been happening in Massachusetts for more than a decade with no visible ill effects).

The opponents hate to be called bigots, and argue that their opposition is based on religion, not hatred. So it’s completely different than say, the opposition to interracial marriage in the 1960s. In order to make that argument, you have to be completely ignorant of history, so I tried to fix that with a history lesson in “You Don’t Have to Hate Anybody to be a Bigot” (the year’s most popular new post). After reviewing the religious arguments that have justified segregation and slavery, I concluded:

There’s nothing new about nice, salt-of-the-Earth people who sincerely believe that certain other people are undeserving of empathy or respect or fair treatment. There’s nothing new about those beliefs being expressed and justified in religious terms, or put forward by ministers and theologians.

Quite the opposite, that’s the normal situation.

In other words, it is totally typical for Americans to hide their disregard for their neighbor behind their love of God. Today’s Mike Huckabees and Kim Davises are heirs to a long tradition of religiously justified bigotry, even if they would rather not claim that legacy.

In his Obergefell dissent, Chief Justice Roberts raised the specter of polygamy as the next step down the slippery slope. In July, I examined that possibility, finding that (A) it’s not nearly so simple a step as Roberts implied, and (B) it’s also not the horror that he imagined.

By September, we had the Kim Davis saga, which I covered in “Is Kim Davis a Martyr?” I describe the standard of purity Davis  and others want to apply here — that Christians shouldn’t involve themselves in other people’s sins in any way — as “a ‘sincerely held belief’ that was invented solely for this purpose.” I see no reason to take it seriously.

As the year ends, the push to define religious freedom broadly — for conservative Christians, if no one else — continues, accompanied by the self-justifying fantasy that American Christians are persecuted. We’ll undoubtedly see more states pass laws that legalize discrimination against gays, and since the male-Catholic-conservative majority on the Supreme Court (Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, Alito, Kennedy) shows no signs of grasping the problem yet, it wouldn’t surprise me if they extend the religious-freedom principles in the Hobby Lobby decision even further in 2016.

I don’t see this trend stopping until unpopular religious groups start claiming their equal rights under these laws and interpretations, and forcing conservative judges to explain why they don’t deserve the same consideration Christians get. When those laws start protecting the broadly defined religious freedom of Muslims and pagans and atheists, conservative Christians will lead the repeal effort themselves.

Themes of 2015: the Presidential Race

I started 2015 with clear expectations about how I’d cover the campaign. But by Fall, I had to back up and try to answer a more fundamental question than the ones I ‘d been addressing: WTF?


Back in January, I had it all laid out.

I figured that for the first half of the year I’d resist the temptation to speculate about who was and wasn’t running, whether Clinton and Bush were inevitable nominees or not, and what the earliest Iowa polls meant (because they probably didn’t mean anything). Presidential politics has a way of crowding out all other political thought, and I wasn’t going to play that game.

By summer, I’d be looking at the candidates one-by-one, and cutting through the media’s endless horse-race coverage to focus on where each one wanted to take the country. I figured I’d have to sort through all sorts of tax-and-budget schemes, education plans, environmental positions, programs for giving more or fewer undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship, and so forth. I’d have to argue that both global warming and racism are real, tax cuts don’t pay for themselves, privatization doesn’t work, the market isn’t going to fix inequality by itself, and so on. Different faces, different specifics, but basically the same philosophical battle the country has been having for decades.

Instead, we’re talking about throwing 12 million people out of the country, and banning Muslims from coming here at all. We’re discussing what fascist means, and whether one of our front-runners qualifies. A sizable chunk of the country believes that Planned Parenthood has a lucrative business in harvesting fetal organs, and wants to shut down the government (or maybe start shooting people) to put a stop to it.

In short, things didn’t go the way I expected.

The divergence started simply enough: Large numbers of candidates got into the race so early that I had felt I had to start covering them at the end of March, when I wrote my introduction to the Republican primary process. Shortly afterwards, I started my 2016 Stump Speeches series, which was intended to focus on each candidate’s implicit or explicit answer to the question: “Where does America need to go and why am I the person to lead us there?”

In retrospect, that looks ridiculously naive.

Democrats. On the Democratic side, I sort of did what I intended. I confess to ignoring Martin O’Malley, even though I’ve seen him twice and he seems like a competent guy. But he never convinced me that he brought anything special to the race, in policy, in message, or in electability.

Chafee and Webb were gone before they caught my attention. Biden didn’t run. Lawrence Lessig tried to run, and his exclusion from the process is an interesting and disturbing story I’ll get around to telling eventually. That left Clinton and Sanders.

I covered Sanders’ announcement speech and a later speech he gave at the conservative Christian Liberty University. It was easy for me to like Bernie and his message, but less easy to imagine him leading the party to victory. I know the polls don’t detect that problem yet, but I find myself wondering what completely bogus issues the Republicans will be able to throw at him if they start seeing him as something more than just a tool to use against Hillary. (I lived through 1988, when Bush the First was able to completely dumbfound Mike Dukakis by making a serious issue out of the Pledge of Allegiance. You never forget an experience like that.) Coming from the relatively pristine political environment of Vermont, is Bernie ready for that? Can he keep his composure when he’s waist-deep in bullshit? I have serious doubts.

Hillary strongest argument, from my point of view, is that she has endured everything the GOP could throw at her for more than 20 years. (The all-day Benghazi hearing in October was a microcosm of their inability to beat her down.) But what did I think of her as a person and what could I believe about her as a president? Is better-than-a-Republican all I can say about her?

So I did my homework. I pulled three Clinton speeches into one article, and added the insight I got from reading three books by her and two about her. After spending that much time listening to her author’s voice, I kind of get Hillary now, in a way that I don’t think most of her critics on the left do. If God tasked me with picking our next president, I’m sure I could find somebody I liked better. But I’ve gotten to be OK with Hillary. I will probably vote for Bernie in the primary to send a message, but when Clinton is nominated — as I expect her to be — I’ll have no problem with that. Given that we live in a you-can’t-always-get-what-you-want world, Hillary will do fine.

Republicans. With the Republicans, though, my project broke down. I started out diligently analyzing the speeches and proposals of Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Rick Santorum, and even Ben Carson.

And then, suddenly, we were in the Year of Trump, and any hope of a sensible, substantive discussion on the Republican side went away. It wasn’t just Trump; it was also what everyone else thought they had to do to compete with him. There was a chunk of the electorate energized by Trump, and suddenly everyone had to try to reach it.

I characterized one Republican debate as “Three Hours in Bizarro World“, but basically all of them have been that way. Fact-checking them has been pointless, because the distortions, lies, and mis-statements of fact have not been isolated incidents that can be picked out and corrected. The Republican campaign is happening in a completely different reality from the one I live in.

The NYT’s Patrick Healy nailed something important:

One of the most striking takeaways from the first two Republican debates and Tuesday’s first Democratic debate is that the two parties do not just disagree on solutions to domestic and foreign policy issues — they do not even agree on what the issues are.

That’s the root cause of the country’s polarization: People who want to solve a problem can usually find a way to compromise their solutions. But you can’t compromise about whether something’s a problem or not. If one side is discussing climate change while the other is trying to decide how big a wall to build on the Mexican border, what’s the compromise?

Eventually, I stopped trying to explain that Ben Carson’s “tithe” tax plan wouldn’t work, or why Jeb Bush’s claims about his economic record in Florida don’t stand up to scrutiny. I didn’t quite realize it at the time, but by the Fall I was trying to answer a more fundamental question: What the fuck?

Instead of mapping out policy differences, I found myself describing the difference between hucksters (Trump) and crackpots (Carson). I looked at models of fascism, and discussed how the Trump campaign did or didn’t fit them. I tried to figure out what leadership means to me, and what kind of leader we should be looking for. I traced the history of freedom rhetoric, and why it so often runs counter to rights. And whether it qualifies as fascist or not, how the Trump electorate has been building for years, and is the logical culmination of Republican politics.

I end this political year with more humility. I thought I knew what it meant to cover a presidential campaign, and it turns out that this year I didn’t. It’s not about taxes or infrastructure or education or drone strikes any more. Maybe someday it will be again, but for now I’ve still haven’t gotten past “What the fuck?”

I think I’ll be working on that question for a considerable chunk of the year to come.

The Monday Morning Teaser

It’s the final Monday of 2015; time for the Yearly Sift. Today I’ll assess what the Sift’s themes of the year have been, link to the most popular and most significant articles, provide a handy list of links to all the books I reviewed this year, claim my most and confess my least prescient comments, link to a list of all the year’s opening quotes, and tell you how the blog has been doing in terms of readership.

The themes of the year should start coming out soon, and I’ll try to get everything done by noon.

Making It Real

Government, despite its many sins, remains the only institution that can make our freedom real.

— Gregory Downs, After Appomattox

This week’s featured post is “Small-government Freedom vs. Big-government Rights“.

This week everybody was talking about Baltimore

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

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

and Chicago police corruption

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

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

Neil Sternberg of the Chicago Sun Times raises the key issue:

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

and that the government will stay open

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

and wild over-reactions to Islam

A world-religions teacher in a Virginia high school assigned students to draw the Islamic statement of faith, the shahada, as an exercise in Arabic calligraphy.

Students were not asked to translate the statement or to recite it. The lesson was found to be in line with Virginia Standards of Learning for the study of monotheistic world religions.

It was similar to a previous assignment that involved drawing Chinese characters, and came out of a standard text.

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

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


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

That was too much for the Wheaton administration, who suspended her indefinitely, commenting:

Some recent faculty statements have generated confusion about complex theological matters, and could be interpreted as failing to reflect the distinctively Christian theological identity of Wheaton College.

Yale theologian Miroslav Wolf, whose book Hawkins had referenced, isn’t buying that the motives behind her suspension are “theological”.

Hawkins asserted that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. She did not insist that Christians and Muslims believe the same things about that one God. … There isn’t any theological justification for Hawkins’s forced administrative leave. Her suspension is not about theology and orthodoxy. It is about enmity toward Muslims.

… When Hawkins justified her solidarity with Muslims by noting that as a Christian she worships the same God as Muslims, she committed the unpardonable sin of removing the enemy from the category of “alien” and “purely evil” other.

It seems to me that once you declare that there’s only one God, you lose the option of claiming that other people worship a different God. You can claim that they have crazy beliefs about God and worship God all wrong, but you can’t claim their omnipotent Creator of the Universe is a different being from your omnipotent Creator of the Universe.

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


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


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

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

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


Franklin Graham, heir to his father Billy’s evangelistic empire, is calling for an end to Muslim immigration “until the war with Islam is over”.

Graham also said Islam is not compatible with American values and therefore the U.S. might have to shut down mosques.

This is precisely why the Founders wanted to separate church and state: Graham’s version of Christianity may see itself at war with Islam, and think that Islam is incompatible with its values, but that crusade has nothing to do with the United States of America.


And before we leave religion entirely, Vox has a great article about the dilemma of Western imams when they see young people getting radicalized. You don’t want them learning Islam with only radical internet chatter for guidance. But

if they do and try [to help] these young people, and for whatever reason it doesn’t work, then they get in trouble. [Police] come knocking at the door saying, “You were in touch with this person and they went overseas. What did you tell them?”

One of the article’s most important observations comes early:

Mosques are where radicalization is stopped: They provide vulnerable Muslims with a sense of community, thus overcoming the isolation that can allow online extremist propaganda to seep in, and they give imams an opportunity to intervene in troubled lives and counteract extremist ideas.

Unfortunately, that kind of social work isn’t what imams are trained for.


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

but more people should be talking about Flint

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

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

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

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

and you might also be interested in

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

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


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

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

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

Interestingly, 55% of the Republicans support raising the minimum wage to $10 or higher.


Fareed Zakaria debunks the “mystical powers” Republicans assign to the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism”. (Read his WaPo column or watch him present it on CNN.) Zakaria has been using the phrase himself since 9-11, so he can testify that “it gives absolutely nothing in the way of an answer or strategy to deal with terrorist attacks.”

The best proof that calling radical Islam by its name provides no solutions is that the Republican candidates had none at Tuesday’s debate. After all the huffing and puffing, the most aggressive among them proposed more bombing, no-fly zones and arming the Kurds.

These are modest additions to Obama’s current strategy, each with its own problems. … judgment calls, not no-brainers.

… Strangely, after the GOP candidates boldly and correctly described the enemy as an ideology — which is much broader than one group — they spoke almost entirely about fighting that one group. Even if the Islamic State were defeated tomorrow, would that stop the next lone-wolf jihadist in New York or Paris or London?

Zakaria calls attention to a great line by Seth Meyers:

So [Obama] used the words ‘radical,’ ‘Islam,’ and ‘terrorism,’ he just didn’t use them in the right order. Which would be a problem if it was a spell and he was Harry Potter, but he’s not, so it isn’t.


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

and let’s close with something topical

Bad Lip Reading does Star Wars.

Small-government Freedom vs. Big-government Rights

The issues of Reconstruction continue to animate today’s political rhetoric.


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One of the central words in conservative rhetoric is freedom. The far-right members of the House are the Freedom Caucus. Nate Silver did the math, and found that the 2012 Republican platform mentioned freedom four times more often than the Democratic platform. At times they even push it to absurd lengths: To chide France for not supporting the invasion of Iraq, House Republicans renamed their cafeteria’s french fries “freedom fries“.

Freedom is so universally cited by conservatives that liberals often satirically suggest the explanation “because freedom” for any conservative proposal that doesn’t add up. (Wonkette: “Ben Carson will defund commie liberal colleges, because freedom.” Josh Marshall has used “Because Freedom” as a satirical headline at least twice.) Freedom, they’re suggesting, is just a buzzword conservatives throw out whenever they have no substantive justification for what they want to do.

Its not that Democrats don’t like freedom, but they tend to talk about particular freedoms (freedom of choice) rather than capital-F Freedom as an abstract entity. They’re more likely to talk about rights: voting rights, abortion rights, civil rights, and so on.

There are, of course, a large number of counter-examples in both directions. (Gun rights, for example, or FDR’s “freedom from want” and “freedom from fear”. [1]) But in general, the parties are talking about two subtly different concepts: Freedom, particularly the way conservatives use it, is inextricably linked to small government: Freedom means the government doesn’t get in your way.

Rights on the other hand, only exist if society provides some method of enforcement. Without a court you can appeal to when your rights are violated, and ultimately, without a police force or army that will enforce that court’s judgments, you don’t have any rights. Black children, for example, didn’t begin to acquire a right to an equal education until President Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock. Rights require some kind of government to enforce them, and if the forces that want to violate your rights are strong, you need a really big government. [2]

A simple example: If you want to be able to buy a little marijuana and smoke it without fear of narcs busting down your door, you want freedom. But if you want to be sure that what you buy really is marijuana, that no toxic or addictive chemicals have been added to it, or that the seller won’t just bash you over the head and take your money without giving you anything, then you’re looking for your rights as a consumer. Your freedom just needs the government to get out of your way, but your rights require government involvement. [3]

The relative value of freedom vs rights depends in large part on how much power you have. If you are wealthy, well-connected, or otherwise privileged, then there are all kinds of things you could do, if government would just stay out of your way. But if you are poor, then the barriers you face have more to do with your lack of resources than with government regulations.

Powerful groups can defend their own prerogatives whether they have government-enforced rights or not. Nobody has to force lunch counters to serve whites; no parent has to go to court to make the local public school offer courses in English; Christian children aren’t pressured to say “under no God” in the Pledge of Allegiance; and men in the workplace don’t have to wonder whether a glass ceiling is holding them down. But the rights of less powerful groups depend on government.

In the course of a typical workday, a woman who makes fries at McDonalds isn’t all that constrained by the government. Sure, taxes are taken out of her paycheck; she has to keep her hair covered while preparing food and wash her hands after using the bathroom; and she faces the threat of jail if she skims from the till, but the whims of her shift manager are a far bigger source of oppression than all the pencil-pushers in Washington.

On the other hand, the guy who owns her McDonalds franchise faces constant assaults on his freedom. He can’t pay his workers the $5 an hour he thinks they deserve, even if they’re so desperate they would have to take it. He can’t demand that they work in unsafe conditions. He can’t extract sexual favors from them. His kitchen has to face health inspectors. He has to make sure the trash is properly disposed of. Zoning keeps him from expanding to the new location he wants. And on and on and on. Everywhere he looks, there’s a regulation or a bureaucrat or a potential lawsuit. Tyranny, that’s what it is.

Several of those restrictions on his freedom are what the government has to do to establish the woman’s rights. She has a right to a basic level of respect and fair treatment from her employer, and (without government) she lacks the power to make him respect those rights.

That’s why American political rhetoric about freedom has such a bizarre history: a lot of it comes from slave owners. “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?” Patrick Henry demanded in the speech that ends with his memorable: “Give me liberty or give me death!” But he died owning 65 slaves. James Madison enshrined freedom of speech and freedom of religion in the Bill or Rights, but owned over 100 slaves. Thomas Jefferson is said to have owned 600 slaves in the course of his life, and a sizable chunk of his surviving descendants were fathered on a slave.

Confederate rhetoric was full of freedom, and the corresponding threat of “tyranny” or “slavery” (for white Southerners) if their cause did not prevail. In the first line of his famous speech “Slavery a Positive Good“, Senator John Calhoun warned that if the South didn’t respond to even the slightest encroachments on the institution of slavery, Southern whites were “prepared to become slaves”. In his inaugural address, Confederate President Jefferson Davis invoked “the consent of the governed” to justify a government that disenfranchised not only all its black subjects, but many poor whites as well. “All we ask is to be left alone,” said Davis. Left alone, that is, to enslave others.

The things powerful people want to be left alone to do have changed over the years: Now they want to be able to pollute rivers, get miners killed, refuse to serve gays and lesbians, use the public schools to promote their religion, put obstacles in front of minorities voting, and so on. But the basic rhetoric has stayed the same: If you just keep the government out of everybody’s way, then we’ll have freedom.

And it’s true: We will have freedom, but we won’t have any rights that more powerful people want to take away.

To see these concepts worked out in the most extreme way, pick up Gregory Downs’ recent book After Appomattox: Military occupation and the ends of war. It tells the story of the post-surrender occupation of the South by the U.S. Army, and the official state of war that continued until the last Confederate state had its representatives seated in Congress in 1871.

As I’ve described several times before, the Reconstruction Era is the unspoken reference behind a lot of the current conservative usage of tyranny, particularly as it relates to tyranny being overthrown by armed civilians. The tyranny in question was the military occupation of the South, which was absolutely necessary to guarantee any rights at all to the newly freed slaves. A terrorist insurgency by Confederate veterans eventually made the occupation more costly than the North could stomach, and black rights all but vanished after the troops were withdrawn, leading to the Jim Crow era.

Downs describes the philosophical shock that many Northerners suffered when they realized that slavery couldn’t be eliminated just by issuing proclamations or passing Constitutional amendments.

Wartime emancipation and the postsurrender struggle against slavery forced Northerners to examine the question of whether people could be free without the intervention of the government.

The law might say one thing, but the facts on the ground said something else.

[S]lavery endured on the ground well after the end of fighting. Of the nearly 4 million slaves in the United States in 1860, the vast majority were still held in bondage as the Confederate armies surrendered.

Slaves only became free when troops were around to prevent the masters re-asserting their ownership.

Ambrose Douglass, held a slave in North Carolina, captured the relationship between emancipation and the soldiers’ presence. In his area, “I guess we musta celebrated ‘mancipation about twelve time … Every time a bunch of No’thern sojers would come through they would tell us we was free and we’d begin celebratin’. Before we would get through somebody else would tell us to go back to work, and we would go.”

Many whites saw the same reality:

Arkansas’ U.S attorney similarly wrote that “he who stands between the late master and the freedmen for their protection, must be backed by the power of the bayonet.”

To the former Confederate, though, “bayonet rule” looked more like this:

Northerners knew they wanted to end slavery, but had no clear notion of what freedom would mean for the ex-slaves.

As freedpeople taught officers about the enduring power of slavery, soldiers and ex-slaves together developed the notion that freedom meant accessible rights. … [E]x-slaves found it easy to invoke rights as the measure of what it meant not to be enslaved. As slaves, they had virtually no rights they could defend in court. Looking to the experience of free people around them, they defined freedom in part as the opportunity to have these basic rights — marriage, control of children, property ownership, travel, and contract — protected by the government. … Instead of a march to freedom, with its connotations of separation from the state, freedpeople and soldiers described a walk toward government.

In particular, black men’s right to vote was established on paper by the 15th Amendment. But in reality, it only existed only where federal troops guarded the polling places. When the troops were withdrawn, Confederate veterans terrorized blacks who tried to vote. Ultimately, new state governments elected almost entirely with white votes disenfranchised blacks almost entirely until the federal government re-inserted itself into the situation in the 1960s through the Voting Rights Act.

Downs draws the conclusion:

[L]ooking at the story after Appomattox forces us to confront the dismaying, necessary fact that our own contemporary freedom and civil rights are in some ways the products of war powers. Even the rights we cherish are often fashioned by coercion.

So bear that in mind the next time you hear a conservative politician wax eloquent for freedom and against big government. How many of your rights will have to go away in order to allow the powerful people he represents the freedom he wants them to have?


[1] The confusion is amplified by two rhetorical back doors. In general “freedom from X” is a roundabout synonym for “the right to not-X”. So “freedom from want” includes a right to a minimum level of food and shelter. Conversely, the “right to be let alone” is a fairly broad description of what I am calling “freedom”.

[2] One popular conservative trope is that our rights come from God, not from the government. Ted Cruz said:

What is the promise of America? The idea that, the revolutionary idea, that this country was founded upon, which was our rights, they don’t come from man. They come from God Almighty. And it’s the purpose of the Constitution … to serve as chains, to bind the mischief of government.

While an appeal to the Declaration of Independence’s soaring rhetoric “All men … are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” is inspiring, it is also ineffective, because God is notoriously poor at policing rights-violations in a timely manner. His mills, after all, grind slowly.

[3] In this case, as in many others, the two notions are in opposition. What about the seller’s freedom to lie to you, to cheat you, or to bash you over the head? Your rights depend on restricting his freedom.

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