No Sift next week. The next new articles will appear on April 3.

The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms.

– attributed to Socrates by Epictetus
Discourses, book I

This week’s featured posts are “A right-wing judge takes aim at medication abortions” and “Can the anti-woke mob define ‘woke’?

This week everybody was talking about indicting Trump

For some while, I’ve been playing down speculation about possible Trump indictments, because those stories have been in reruns for months: Yes, there are all these grand juries and a list of possible charges that could be pressed at any time. We could talk forever about all the possibilities. But is anything actually happening?

This week, though, things got a lot more definite, at least with respect to the Manhattan grand jury investigating the Stormy Daniels payoff and the false business records that covered it up. AP reports that law enforcement officials are making security plans to handle a Trump indictment and arrest. Trump’s lawyer said Friday that Trump would appear voluntarily if indicted (and would not hand Governor DeSantis the hot potato of deciding whether to delay or block his extradition from Florida). NBC says the arrest could happen this week. In a Truth Social post, Trump claimed he would be arrested tomorrow. So that’s a little more than just speculation.

Former Manhattan prosecutor Karen Friedman Agnifilo describes the process in a 13-minute video, including a few things I did not already know: The indictment will be sealed until the arraignment, but Trump will have seen it, and so will be able to spin it for some period of time while the DA’s office is obliged to stay silent. Also, if he refused to come to New York and fought extradition, his problems wouldn’t be limited to Florida. Any state could arrest him and send him to New York. It’s kind of hard to run for president under those conditions.

Here’s the outline of the case: Trump had sex with porn star Stormy Daniels (real name Stephanie Clifford) in 2006. Late in the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump’s fixer Michael Cohen paid Daniels $130,000 not to tell her story to the media. (As Chris Hayes reminded us this week, the payoff happened shortly after the Access Hollywood grab-them-by-the-pussy controversy had nearly destroyed Trump’s candidacy. A follow-up sex-with-a-porn-star scandal would have been a big deal.) Trump repaid Cohen over a period of months, with the Trump Organization falsely recording the payments as legal fees. An indictment would claim that the $130K was an unreported campaign contribution, which would be a crime. Falsifying business records in furtherance of a crime is another crime.

A lot of people find it ridiculous that Trump would be indicted for this, rather than for his more serious offenses, like inciting a riot and trying to overturn an election. (That said, a Fulton County grand jury is still discussing whether to indict him for election manipulation in Georgia.) I’m sure we’ll hear similar complaints if Jack Smith indicts Trump for mishandling classified documents and obstructing the investigation of that crime.

Politically, the unfortunate thing about this case is that the scandalous part (sex with a porn star while your wife is tending a new baby) isn’t the criminal part, which is more technical. So it sounds to a lot of his (male) supporters like he’s being charged with something that shouldn’t be illegal, and that they’d do if they had the chance.

And while complaints about the smallness of the crime may be valid as far as they go, I think that’s the wrong way to look at this situation.

it’s really not a notional offense. If we had known in the final weeks of the 2016 election that a presidential candidate would arrange a hefty payment to kill a story about his sleeping with a porn star and do it by committing tax fraud and campaign finance fraud, I don’t think any of us would have said, “Oh, well, that kind of stuff happens all the time. Let’s not pretend those types of fraud are crimes.”

You and I would be indicted if we did what Trump has done, so he should be indicted too. There shouldn’t be one set of laws for Trump and another set for everybody else. (His fans want to claim the reverse, that the law shouldn’t be harder on him than it would be on anybody else. I agree with their point in theory, but I don’t believe that’s what’s happening.) If you don’t think these laws should apply to Trump, what laws should?

The obvious comparison here is Al Capone, who was convicted of tax evasion, not murder and racketeering. I’m sure that prosecution also seemed a bit ridiculous, but should Capone have been able to get away with avoiding taxes just because he was also a murderer?

The second big question related to a Trump indictment is whether he will incite another riot. He’s posting all-caps screeds on his Twitter-clone Pravda Social, calling on supporters to PROTEST and TAKE OUR NATION BACK, which resembles his pre-January-6 rhetoric.

Trump’s speeches have always been dark, full of visions of “American carnage” and so on. But lately it’s gotten worse.

In 2016, I declared, “I am your voice.” Today, I add: I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution. I am your retribution.

He’s been getting more and more explicit about the idea that if he gets back into power, he’ll make a lot of people suffer.

In other Trump-related legal news, a DC judge has ordered Trump lawyer Evan Corcoran to testify to the grand jury investigating Trump’s mishandling of classified documents. Courts ordinarily don’t expect lawyers to testify against their clients (i.e., attorney/client privilege), but the judge is invoking the crime/fraud exception: Conversations in which a lawyer and his client conspire to break the law are not privileged.

That means that Special Counsel Jack Smith has convinced the judge (by a preponderance-of-evidence standard, i.e., more likely than not) that Trump and Corcoran discussed committing a crime.

Tucker Carlson may have texted “There isn’t really an upside to Trump.”, but I believe that’s too pessimistic. Think of all the law we’ve learned since the Donald came into our lives.

and abortion

One of the featured posts covers the lawsuit that seeks to outlaw the abortion drug mifepristone.

and Ron DeSantis

DeSantis seems to have entered a tricky new phase of his quest for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. He hasn’t declared his candidacy yet, but he has begun making appearances in places like Iowa that sure look like campaign rallies. Previously, Republicans had mostly been responding to the idea of nominating DeSantis, but now they’re going to have a real campaign and candidate to examine. This is a transition all candidates have to go through. Some sail through it, while others are thrown by it.

One famous example was Ted Kennedy in the 1980 presidential cycle. High inflation and the Iranian hostage crisis had made President Carter vulnerable to a primary challenge, and Kennedy seemed to represent a return to the halcyon days of JFK’s Camelot. Polls showed him crushing Carter in the primaries, and then probably sailing into the White House. But in August of 1979, just as he was getting ready to announce his candidacy, Kennedy sat down for a televised interview with Roger Mudd — an interview so consequential that it headlined Mudd’s obituary more than 40 years later. “Why do you want to be president?” Mudd asked. Kennedy was stumped for an answer. (One lesson here is that abrasive or pugnacious interviewing is not necessarily the most hard-hitting. A simple question can be devastating if there’s no good answer. One of the featured posts discusses a similarly devastating simple question: When Briahna Joy Gray asked Bethany Mandel to define woke.)

Ted went forward with his campaign and took his challenge all the way to the convention, where he gave a historically great speech. (“The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”) But after the Mudd interview, the bloom was off the rose. A new Kennedy presidency no longer seemed inevitable, and Ted was just a candidate running to Carter’s left, not the reincarnation of his sainted brothers.

Early in the 2012 cycle, Texas Governor Rick Perry was briefly ahead in the polls. But his campaign had a rocky start, and his chances vanished for good during a debate in November, 2011, when he boldly promised to eliminate three government agencies, but could only remember the names of two of them.

The candidates most vulnerable to this transition might be described as “high concept”. They haven’t run nationally before and don’t have a committed following, but their attraction can be summed up in one simple line: Scott Walker was the governor who broke the public-employee unions. Marco Rubio was a handsome young senator who could bring Hispanics into the GOP. Gary Hart was a new kind of Democrat challenging the Mondale establishment.

Ron DeSantis’ high concept is that he’s Trump without the baggage. He’s the anti-woke candidate who will troll the libs and fight tooth-and-nail against the kind of people the Republican base hates, but he’s not a pussy-grabbing insurrectionist who will have to spend more time in court than on the campaign trail. He can look ahead to 2024 and beyond, rather than constantly relitigate 2020. At 44, he can exploit Joe Biden’s age in way that 76-year-old Trump can’t.

That capsule description looks good to a lot of Republicans, but now they’ll have to see what they think of the actual Ron DeSantis. We started getting a preview of that process this week, when he answered Tucker Carlson’s question about Ukraine.

While the U.S. has many vital national interests – securing our borders, addressing the crisis of readiness within our military, achieving energy security and independence, and checking the economic, cultural, and military power of the Chinese Communist Party – becoming further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia is not one of them.

In some sense, that was the right answer for his campaign. Aiding Ukraine is popular nationally, and most voters understand that the Russian invasion is more than a “territorial dispute”, but the most likely Republican primary voters are on the other side of that question. In MAGA circles, aid to Ukraine is always cast in a zero-sum frame: “Why are we sending our money to Ukraine when we still have problems X, Y, and Z at home?” (as if they have obvious solutions to X, Y, and Z that can only be funded if Ukraine aid gets scrapped). So nobody who challenges Trump can afford to be the pro-Ukraine anti-Putin candidate.

But the deeper problem is that he had to answer the question at all. Reagan Republicans may be in the minority now, but they’re not gone, and Republicans who look to the general election know that it would be fatal to run as the Putin party against the Zelenskyy party. And DeSantis wants to be seen arguing with Pete Buttigieg or Kamala Harris. He doesn’t need people like John Cornyn and Marco Rubio challenging his lack of foreign-policy experience.

But that’s going to keep happening for a while now: DeSantis wants to talk about woke teachers indoctrinating kids to hate America, Anthony Fauci shutting down America’s economy for no reason, and predatory doctors pressuring teen girls to cut their breasts off. But he’s going to face increasing pressure to take positions on issues that are off-brand for him, like health care and jobs.

And as he goes into small early-decision states like Iowa and New Hampshire, individual voters are going to be telling him the actual problems in their lives, and expecting him to pretend that he cares. That might be difficult for him.

An NYT newsletter (behind a paywall) claims DeSantis is falling behind Trump in recent polls. Polling is hard in this race, because the results various polls get are wildly inconsistent with each other. But

In this situation, the best way to get a clear read on recent trends is to compare surveys by the same pollsters over time. … Every single one of these polls has shown Mr. DeSantis faring worse than before, and Mr. Trump faring better.

DeSantis is suffering from the same problem Republicans have been having since 2015: He seems to be hoping Trump will magically disappear, because he doesn’t want to anger Trump’s base by criticizing him. So Trump can tear him down without any fear of DeSantis striking back.

Barring a heart attack or a well-placed meteor, the only way to beat Trump is for somebody to take him on. If DeSantis won’t do that, he should save his effort and not run.

and you also might be interested in …

The International Criminal Court in The Hague issued an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin. He’s charged with war crimes for deporting Ukrainian children to Russia.

The warrant has few immediate consequences, since the ICC won’t be taking Putin into custody anytime soon. However, it does limit his travel options and puts a stigma on him. The ICC has international prestige, so this counts for more than just a claim made by the Ukrainian government or his country’s other enemies.

Saturday, the NYT published an article on something that has been long rumored but never definitively established: The Reagan campaign’s successful attempt to sabotage the Carter administration’s efforts to negotiate the release of American hostages in Iran.

The state of Texas is taking over Houston’s schools. The state is dominated by White Republicans, the city by Black Democrats, so trust is hard to come by here.

and let’s close with a simple test

If you see a Ukrainian flag here, you’ve been watching too much news. It’s a Jersey shore sunrise, photographed and submitted to a Smithsonian photo contest. (The flag would be upside down anyway.)

Can the anti-woke mob define “woke”?

Does the word still mean anything, or is the whole point to throw around a meaningless buzzword?

The controversy started Tuesday, when conservative author Bethany Mandel’s appearance on The Hill’s “Rising” podcast went viral. Host Briahna Joy Gray asked a question that, in some other circumstance, might have been a softball:

Would you mind defining “woke”? Because it’s come up a couple of times and I just want to make sure we’re on the same page.

As Gray emphasized later, this was not intended as a gotcha.

I wanted to be able to figure out whether I agreed with her on certain points, as I had done earlier in the interview. Alternatively, I want to be able to articulate why we differed on other aspects of her argument without devolving into the typical shouting matches.

Mandel, who claims she spent an entire chapter of her new book Stolen Youth: How radicals are erasing innocence and indoctrinating a generation defining “woke”, floundered. Her humiliation quickly spread across liberal social media, because it appears to illustrate something many of us have been claiming for some while: Woke is the latest in a long series of right-wing pejorative terms like cancel culture and political correctness. Their purpose is not to point to any real ideas, but to identify someone as an enemy. The MAGA base has been trained like Pavlov’s dogs to react to these terms without thinking, so calling something “woke” is just a way to say “sic ’em”.

Amanda Marcotte puts it like this:

The inability to define “woke” is a feature, not a bug. “Woke” is very much meant to be a word that cannot be pinned to a definition. Its emptiness is what gives it so much power as a propaganda term. “Woke” is both everything and nothing. It can mean whatever you need it to mean, and you can deny that it means what it obviously means. The ephemerality of “woke” is what makes it so valuable. “Woke” morphs into being when a right-winger needs to feel outrage and evaporates into thin air should anyone try to ask a rational question about it.

It’s the vagueness of woke that allows it to be used more or less whenever Mr. Burns wants to release the hounds. Silicon Valley Bank collapsed, for example, because it was “woke”. So there’s no need to talk about deregulation or interest rates or risk management or any other headache-producing idea. Instead, we can cut off discussion by invoking unthinking hostility. Woke: bad.

And I’m still trying to figure out why Tucker Carlson thinks M&Ms are woke.

But not all liberals gloried in Mandel’s failure. Center-left commentator Jonathan Chait was more generous.

She may be wrong, but she’s not an idiot. She just froze up on TV. It happens.

Freezing up does happen, particularly to people who are used to writing rather than responding in real time. But the incident also points to something significant: Mandel clearly did not prepare for this question. She anticipated being able to throw the word around without being asked what it means. For comparison, before I started referring to Trump as a fascist, I wrote an article explaining what I mean by that term. I don’t carry all my writings in my head, though, so if you stopped me on the sidewalk and asked for a concise definition of fascist, I might flounder too. But if I were planning to use such an emotive word in an interview, I would anticipate being challenged to define it and would prepare an answer.

Mandel clearly didn’t think that was necessary. That strikes me as telling.

She’s not the first anti-woke warrior to be put on the spot like this. When he was asked in court what woke means, Ron DeSantis’ General Counsel Ryan Newman defined it as: “the belief there are systemic injustices in American society and the need to address them”. That’s a perfectly fine definition a lot of liberals would agree with. The problem for Newman (and DeSantis) is that it doesn’t justify a Pavlovian negative response: Does the DeSantis administration really want to claim that there are no systemic injustices in America, or that (if there are) nothing should be done about them? Is that what all the shouting is about?

The next line of conservative defense is to put aside the gotcha moment — which the viral clip became, whether Gray intended that to happen or not — and get the discussion back on track by producing the answer Mandel should have given. Mandel herself later offered this definition:

A radical belief system suggesting that our institutions are built around discrimination, and claiming that all disparity is a result of that discrimination. It seeks a radical redefinition of society in which equality of group result is the endpoint, enforced by an angry mob.

She avoids Newman’s what’s-so-bad-about-that problem by inserting a bunch of pejorative judgments into her definition. I mean, why not just tell us what wokeness is, and let us judge for ourselves whether it’s radical, angry, or mob-oriented? If you take out the judgments and just include the definitional parts, you wind up with “The belief that group inequality is caused by discrimination that is built into our institutions, and that a fundamental reorganization of society is necessary to correct this problem.” When you think about it, that’s not far from “systemic injustices and the need to address them”. And like Newman’s definition, it also doesn’t capture what the shouting is about.

So we start to see the Scylla and Charybdis a good conservative definition of woke has to navigate between:

  • The definition should mean something.
  • What it means should justify how conservatives have been using the term.

I’ve been looking around, but I haven’t seen one that does both jobs.

Ross Douthat more-or-less gives up on the idea of a concise definition, but instead describes a worldview and a narrative (which he says he doesn’t believe). It starts like this:

What is America all about, at its best? Equality and liberty. What is the left all about, at its best? Transforming those ideals into lived realities.

But this project keeps running into limits, disappointments and defeats. Everywhere you look, terrible disparities persist. And that persistence should force us to look deeper, beyond attempts to win legal rights or redistribute wealth, to the cultural and psychological structures that perpetuate oppression before law and policy begins to play a part. This is what the terminology of the academy has long been trying to describe — the way that generations of racist, homophobic, sexist, and heteronormative power have inscribed themselves, not just on our laws but our very psyches.

And once you see these forces in operation, you can’t unsee them — you are, well, “awake” — and you can’t accept any analysis that doesn’t acknowledge how they permeate our lives.

Up to there, I give him points for accuracy: Yes, those are all things I believe. From there his narrative gets a little more suspect, but what’s really disappointing is his column’s ending: It’s all about feelings.

If you find a lot of this narrative persuasive, even filtered through my conservative mind, then whatever “woke” describes, it probably describes you.

If you recoil from it, welcome to the ranks of the unwoke.

He doesn’t cite any reason to reject the narrative he describes, he just observes that people like him “recoil from it”. Again, this emotional “recoil” doesn’t explain why books have to be banned and drag shows have to be outlawed, or why the state has to intervene to prevent parents, children, and their doctors from assessing their own problems and choosing courses of action. Why can’t Douthat “recoil” over in the corner and leave the rest of us alone?

Douthat at least seems to be writing in good faith. So does Thomas Chatterton Williams, who expresses sympathy for some of what conservatives are trying to capture with wokeness, but eventually reaches a conclusion I can agree with:

But perhaps we can all agree, at bare minimum, to set ourselves the task of limiting our reliance on in-group shorthand, and embracing clear, honest, precise, and original thought and communication. If we want to persuade anyone not already convinced of what we believe, we are going to have to figure out how to say what we really mean.

I am pessimistic that this view will catch on, though, because I don’t think people like Ron DeSantis are interested in “clear, honest, precise, and original thought and communication”. I think they find it far more useful to wield a meaningless term that evokes a Pavlovian response.

A right-wing judge takes aim at medication abortions

Someday soon, a perfectly safe abortion drug could become unavailable nationwide, even in states that defend reproductive rights. That sounds so crazy that most of us have a hard time taking it seriously. (Wasn’t the whole point of reversing Roe to turn the abortion question over to the states?) You hear the claim and then think, “That can’t really be happening.” But it is.

Here’s how it works.

Trump left us a kangaroo federal court. The Amarillo division of the Northern District of Texas has only two federal judges, and one of them, Matthew J. Kacsmaryk, hears 95% of the civil lawsuits. Kacsmaryk is the very model of a Trump judge. He was a lawyer for the right-wing First Liberty Institute until Trump tapped him for a federal judgeship in 2017. Since then, he’s become famous for out-of-the-mainstream legal opinions that are reliably right-wing, but not terribly well reasoned or well rooted in the law.

While on the bench, Kacsmaryk has made a string of controversial rulings: He declared Biden administration protections for transgender workers unlawful; twice ordered the administration to enforce the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” policy; and attacked Title X, the only federal program designed to provide birth control to low-income and uninsured people.

The beauty of this arrangement, if you’re an right-wing culture warrior, is that Amarillo has become the perfect place to file a controversial suit, particularly if it’s based on ideology rather than law. You’re practically guaranteed to get Kacsmaryk, which means you’re practically guaranteed to win, at least until there’s an appeal. [It’s worth pointing out that political activists on all sides try to venue-shop like this. But nowhere in America is as well-greased for liberals as Amarillo is for conservatives.] And even if you ultimately lose, you still might win for a considerable chunk of time, because Kacsmaryk might issue an injunction that favors you until the Supreme Court gets around to reversing his opinion, which could take months or even years.

That’s what happened when he forced the Biden administration to continue Trump’s remain-in-Mexico immigration plan. The Supreme Court ultimately reversed Kacsmaryk’s decision 6-3. (Yes, that’s how far-right his reasoning was: Not even John Roberts and Brett Kavanaugh were convinced.) Nonetheless, an injunction kept remain-in-Mexico in place for more than a year while the case was under consideration.

That shouldn’t have happened, but both courts above Kacsmaryk, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court, are dominated by conservative judicial activists. They aren’t so unprincipled that they could endorse Kacsmaryk’s ridiculous reasoning, but they have more wiggle room when deciding whether or not to lift a temporary injunction. Both courts used that discretion to screw the Biden administration. (Trump’s requests to set aside injunctions got much more favorable consideration.)

So what is the current case?

Mifepristone. More than half of all abortions in the US are now through medication rather than surgery. That’s bad news from the anti-abortion perspective, because there’s no abortion clinic to picket or shoot up, and it’s easier to smuggle pills into a handmaid’s-tale state than to run an underground surgery clinic in one. So now that Roe v Wade has been reversed and states are outlawing abortion, the pills are the next big target. Friday, Wyoming became the first state to outlaw them.

If you live in a blue state like California or Vermont, you may roll your eyes: Wyoming is like that. But your state guarantees abortion rights, so the effort to limit access couldn’t possibly affect you or the women you care about, right?

Not so fast.

A typical medication abortion combines two drugs: mifepristone and misoprostol. So a coalition of anti-abortion groups and individuals have filed suit to make mifepristone illegal nationwide, claiming that the FDA made a mistake when it declared the drug safe in 2000.

The suit would be laughed out of any legitimate court, for reasons that former Anton Scalia law clerk Adam Unikowsky explains in detail in his blog Adam’s Legal Newsletter:

  • The plaintiffs’ theory of standing is irreconcilable with Supreme Court precedent.
  • The statute of limitations has expired on plaintiffs’ challenge to the FDA’s approval of mifepristone. The plaintiffs claim that the FDA “constructively reopened” that approval in 2016, thus restarting the statute of limitations, but that’s clearly wrong.
  • The plaintiffs did not exhaust their claims, even though a regulation explicitly required them to do so.
  • Although the plaintiffs claim that the FDA’s actions are contrary to the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA), the plaintiffs have failed to identify any particular provision of the FDCA that the FDA has actually violated.

Problems like that would be fatal to an ordinary lawsuit. But wait, there’s Amarillo, where ordinary legal reasoning doesn’t apply. “What’s Amarillo got to do with anything?” you might ask. The FDA isn’t located in Amarillo and mifepristone isn’t manufactured there. Amarillo appears to have no connection at all to mifepristone. But the venue is appropriate, according to the lawsuit, because one of the suing organizations is located there.

This district and this division are where Plaintiffs Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine, including the doctors of its member associations, and Dr. Shaun Jester are situated and are injured by Defendants’ actions.

AHA appears to be “a front group for the Catholic Medical Association, the Coptic Medical Association of North America, the American College of Pediatricians, the Christian Medical & Dental Associations, and the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists.” It was founded last August, after Roe was reversed in June, apparently for the specific purpose of filing this lawsuit in Amarillo.

And what “injury” are the local doctors alleging? Unikowsky summarizes:

The plaintiff-doctors’ theory of standing is, in a nutshell, that if mifepristone stays on the market, other doctors will prescribe mifepristone to their pregnant patients, the pregnant patients will suffer side effects, and then the patients will switch doctors and come to the plaintiff-doctors. This, in turn, will injure the plaintiff-doctors because it will divert their attention from their other patients, potentially force them to complete “unfinished abortions,” and possibly expose them to malpractice lawsuits. By contrast, if mifepristone is off the market, these women will elect to carry their babies to term (as opposed to seeking surgical abortions), thus preventing the plaintiff-doctors from facing these risks.

If that “injury” sounds a little too roundabout to be credible, that’s because it is. Unikowsky cites Supreme Court rulings that have already rejected similar standing claims.

As for safety, the FDA’s original studies are now backed up by more than two decades of experience, both here and abroad. CNN summarizes:

Data from hundreds of studies and 23 years of approved use has shown that mifepristone is highly safe and effective, according to 12 of the country’s most respected medical associations, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Medical Association, which signed an amicus brief in the Texas case.

This medicine combination for abortion is also available in more than 60 other countries.

Since its approval in the US in 2000, there have been 5 deaths associated with mifepristone for every 1 million people who used it, according to the US Food and Drug Administration. That means the death rate is 0.0005%.

Mifepristone’s safety is on par with those of common over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen and acetaminophen, studies show.

Data analyzed by CNN shows that mifepristone is even safer than some of the most common prescription medications. The risk of death from penicillin, an antibiotic used to treat bacterial infections like pneumonia, for example, is four times greater than it is for mifepristone. The risk of death after taking Viagra – used to treat erectile dysfunction – is nearly 10 times higher.

If there actually were a safety issue, you might expect some women’s-health organizations to sign onto the lawsuit, but none have. The suing organizations all have prior religious or political orientations. For some it is right in their name, like the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the Christian Medical and Dental Associations. The one whose name sounds like it might be objective, the American College of Pediatricians, isn’t:

The group’s primary focus is advocating against abortion and the adoption of children by gay or lesbian people. It also advocates conversion therapy. … ACPeds has been listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for pushing “anti-LGBTQ junk science”.

Hearings. Kacsmaryk held hearings this week, and seemed open to the plaintiffs’ arguments. Of course, no one can say for certain what he will do until he does it, and perhaps the intense attention his kangaroo court has gotten lately — some protesters have come dressed as kangaroos — will intimidate him into backing off. Ordinarily, I advise readers not to get riled up about events that haven’t happened yet and may not happen. But if Kacsmaryk does what he is expected to do, and issues a nationwide injunction making mifepristone illegal, the effects will be sweeping and instantaneous.

An anti-Kacsmaryk protester dressed in judicial robes and a kangaroo mask.

Ordinarily, when an injunction disrupts an otherwise uneventful status quo, you can expect a higher court to set it aside pending review. But they don’t have to. Higher courts don’t even need to endorse whatever justifications Kacsmaryk offers for his injunction; all they have to do to promote right-wing policies they favor is drag their feet. That would get mifepristone off the market for a year or maybe longer, for no legal reason whatsoever.

If they do, women could still use misoprostol alone to induce an abortion. That is slightly less effective than a smaller dose combined with mifepristone, and causes more discomfort and side effects. (Remember: The most likely way for women to get caught when they induce a medication abortion in a state that bans them is to have side effects that take them to the emergency room.) Worse, misoprostol would then become a single target: Finding a way to ban it could end about half the abortions in the US.

Of course, there’s no legal reason to ban misoprostol, so it ought to be safe. But maybe not in Amarillo, where the law doesn’t matter any more.

The Monday Morning Teaser

After a long wait, it looks like Trump is about to be indicted for something. It’s not for the worst things he’s done yet, but any indictment, if it happens, would be the beginning of accountability for a long record of lawlessness. Even so, that’s not the main thing I’m writing about this week, because months of speculation means that there’s not much more to be said about a thing that hasn’t happened yet. Give me an indictment to read, and maybe I’ll decide to examine it in more depth.

So what am I writing about this week? Two things:

  • The bizarre federal court in Amarillo that is wired for outrageous conservative lawsuits, and how it might soon issue an injunction banning one of the two main abortion drugs nationwide.
  • How a viral interview started a discussion about the meaning of “woke”.

The first featured post is ready to go and should be out by 9 EST. The second still needs a lot of work, but I predict it gets out by 11.

The weekly summary will discuss the looming Trump indictment, the perils Ron DeSantis faces as his candidacy stops being an idea and starts to become real, the ICC’s arrest warrant for Putin, Texas taking over Houston’s schools, and a few other things. Let’s guess it shows up a little after noon.

Swimming naked

Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.

Warren Buffett

This week’s featured posts are “Is it 2008 again, or not?” and “Democracy in Israel“.

People who don’t follow financial markets probably need an interpretation of the quote above. What Buffett meant is that an investor can get away with just about anything when the market is going up. But when it starts going down, you see who was using sound principles and who wasn’t.

This week everybody was talking about bank failures

The collapse of Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank is covered in one featured post. Everything’s been happening so quickly that you may not realize what’s at stake.

and Tucker Carlson’s fairy tale

Predictably, Tucker Carlson is using his exclusive access to January 6 security footage (granted to him by Speaker McCarthy), to produce pro-insurrection propaganda. So let’s start by repeating the facts he is trying to whitewash:

In reality, a total of about 140 police officers were assaulted as they defended the Capitol during the riot, which resulted in $2.9 million in damages and costs to the Capitol Police, according to the Department of Justice.

Roughly 1,000 participants in the riot have been arrested so far, according to the most recent update from the Department of Justice. About 326 of them have been charged with assaulting, resisting or impeding officers or employees. Of those, 106 have been charged with using a deadly or dangerous weapon or causing serious bodily injury to an officer.

“I was among the vastly outnumbered group of law enforcement officers protecting the Capitol and the people inside it,” Michael Fanone, an officer for the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia, told a congressional committee several months after the attack. “I was grabbed, beaten, tased — all while being called a traitor to my country. I was at risk of being stripped of and killed with my own firearm, as I heard chants of, ‘kill him with his own gun.’”

Carlson, however, presented the situation differently on his March 6 show, describing the “overwhelming majority” of demonstrators as “meek,” saying, “these were not insurrectionists, they were sightseers.”

It’s hard to know what to do with this kind of blatant gaslighting. Being outraged is probably counter-productive, since trolling liberals is part of Tucker’s shtick; his fans love him for it. So maybe the best thing to do is to laugh at his ridiculousness. [Hat tip to Yahoo News for collecting many of these examples.] The Daily Show produced fake footage of Tucker covering the JFK assassination, which he describes as “proud Americans out for a drive on a lovely day in Dallas”. Another Daily Show video edits footage of Tucker himself to have him say the exact opposite of what he actually said. See how easy it is?

Stephen Colbert’s Late Show imagined Tucker covering the events of “Jaws”. Lee Aronsohn uses Tucker’s techniques to show that Hitler and other Nazis came to Paris as tourists. Seth Meyers explains that

When you cherry-pick the footage you’re showing you can prove whatever you want. I could show you footage from John Wick that proves he’s non-violent. Take a look. [clip of Wick feeding his dog] You’re telling me that guy is a trained killer? Give me a break!

The Dominion Voting Systems lawsuit has made it a matter of public record that Tucker (like Fox’s other prime-time hosts) lies to his audience. He says one thing when the camera is on, and something else entirely when it’s off. This week we found out what he wrote in private text messages two days before January 6:

We are very, very close to being able to ignore Trump most nights. I truly can’t wait. … I hate him passionately.

Once the camera’s on, though, he’s as dedicated a Trump bootlicker as you’ll find.

One person who appears to be taking Tucker’s BS seriously is Elon Musk, who tweeted “Free Jacob Chansley”. Chansley is the Q-Anon Shaman, who Carlson said was peacefully led through the Capitol by police. “They acted as his tour guides.”

Of course, we already know how Chansley got in: He was right behind uniformed militiamen who broke two windows and then forced open a door.

The response you’re most likely to get from a Carlson fan if you object to his cherry-picking is “Isn’t that exactly what the January 6 Committee did?” (Because “everybody else is despicable too” is the way all moral people respond to criticism.)

In a word: no. Most of what the Committee showed in its hearings came from under-oath testimony by Trump’s own people: Bill Barr, Cassidy Hutchinson, Pat Cipollone, and many others, including even Ivanka and Jared. Any of them could have gone on Fox afterwards to explain how they had been taken out of context, but none of them did.

Mike Pence’s speech at the Gridiron Dinner Saturday night points out how skinny a tightrope he is trying to walk. On the one hand, he described Tucker’s project harshly: “what happened that day was a disgrace, and it mocks decency to portray it in any other way.” He also said that Trump was “wrong” about the vice president’s power to count the electoral votes however he wants, and that “history will hold Donald Trump accountable”.

“History”, though, is not Mike Pence. He’s standing by his effort to avoid testifying to the special counsel. The American people “have a right to know what took place” during the insurrection. Just not from him.

and the threat of national default

Here’s all you need to know at this point: President Biden put forward a budget proposal that preserves Medicare and lowers future deficits by raising taxes on the rich. (Full details here.) Meanwhile, Republicans have been working on their fanciful plan for managing a national default, where the government’s obligations get prioritized for payment as revenue comes in. Not even Koch-funded economists are on board with this.

Brian Riedl, an economist at the Manhattan Institute, said the U.S. government’s computer systems do not have the technology to implement the system and prioritize payments.

“Unless they can build a new system in the next four months, it doesn’t matter,” he said, adding that even then the measure still likely may not address a “bond market panic.”

Several Republican groups say they are working on budget proposals, but none have published one yet, and prospects are slim for the party as a whole taking a position anytime soon. The House “Freedom” Caucus produced a single page that the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, Rep. Brandon Boyle (D-PA), characterized as reading “more like a ransom note than a serious budget proposal”.

It’s big on arbitrary spending caps without specifying what program cuts those caps might entail, other than rolling back the $80 billion already appropriated for the IRS to collect taxes that rich people aren’t paying (which will increase the deficit by reducing revenue), and making sure we burn as much fossil fuel as possible (by reversing all the alternative energy subsidies in the Inflation Reduction Act and “unleashing the production of reliable domestic energy by ending federal regulations”).

The ransom note says the members of the “Freedom” Caucus will “consider” voting to raise the debt ceiling after their demands are written into law. In other words, it’s not a good-faith proposal. Even if Biden were to give in to all their demands, they won’t commit themselves to supporting the result.

It seems clear that the MAGA wing of the GOP won’t be happy with any compromise that avoids a catastrophe, and Speaker McCarthy seems completely in their pocket. I can see only two ways this resolves: Some number of Republican congressmen face reality and join with Democrats to raise the debt ceiling, or Biden pulls a rabbit out of his hat that makes the debt ceiling irrelevant. (The New Republic advocates challenging the debt ceiling in court; I largely agree with their interpretation of the law, but I can’t guess how the Supreme Court would view it.)

After the country gets past the artificial debt-ceiling crisis, then there’s the actual budget compromise to work out. That will be a difficult negotiation, but it’s normal legislating. I see the whole discussion as being like trying to decide what color to paint some room of your house, when your spouse announces that if they doesn’t get their color, they’ll burn the house down. First you have to get an agreement not to burn the house down, and then you can go back to talking about colors.

and Israel

The current protests in Israel, and the threat to democracy that led to them, is the topic of the other featured post.

and debates about Covid

One of the problems with having major chunks of our media (i.e., Fox and its friends) committed to disinformation is that it’s really hard to have a nuanced public discussions of scientific issues. If you’ve been following topics like creation/evolution or climate change, you’ve been seeing the patterns for decades. For example, when the consensus view of evolution shifted from gradualism (where evolutionary change is slow and steady) to punctuated equilibrium (where long periods of relative stability get interrupted by periods where evolutionary change happens more quickly), creationists were suddenly crowing that “New research is proving that Darwin was wrong.” That false message was the only one a lot of people got out of that discussion.

Something similar is happening in response to a recent journal article about the effectiveness of masks in preventing the spread of viral disease like Covid. The researchers did a meta-analysis of 78 other studies.

One big problem in this whole line of research is that the study that would answer the question most directly is unethical: You’d have infected and uninfected people meet in a lab, in various combinations of masked and unmasked, at various distances for various lengths of time. Then you’d see who got Covid. You might end up killing a few of your subjects, but it’s all for the greater good, right?

Since you can’t do that, you try other techniques that don’t get the information you really want. Professor Jason Abaluck (who did a mask study in Bangladesh) summarizes:

The vast majority of the studies assessed by the Cochrane Review ask, “If we give people masks and information about masking, do they get healthier?” Most of these studies find that the answer is, “Not much healthier.”

But there is a problem: giving people masks is not generally enough to get them to wear masks! In piloting in Bangladesh, we found that mask distribution plus information plus involving village leaders increased mask use by less than 10% (we later added other elements that were more impactful). In other scale-ups, masks and information alone did even less. One study in Uganda found that giving people masks and information increased mask use by one percentage point—that is, by 1 in 100 people.

The anti-public-health people are jumping on this to crow that they were right all along: Masks don’t do anything. (“Will the mandaters apologize?” asks the right-wing Washington Examiner.) Columbia Professor Zeynep Tufekci explains in the NYT explains why that’s the wrong interpretation. But no matter, the disinformation is out there. When the next pandemic hits, lots of people will confidently declare that the ineffectiveness of masks was proved during Covid.

You can see a similar kind of thinking whenever there’s a mass shooting in a place that has more gun laws than most other places: See, gun control doesn’t work! But has any community in America actually succeeded in controlling guns? (Chicago’s gun laws just make you get your gun in Indiana.) Until one does, we won’t really know whether gun control works.

Then there’s the origin-of-Covid debate. Pretty much everyone agrees that Covid-19 first appeared in the Chinese city of Wuhan. The two main theories are that a human caught it from an animal (probably a bat) in Wuhan’s live-animal market, or that it escaped containment at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which studies viruses in bats.

The lab-leak theory, while credible at one level, quickly became the root of wild and improbable conspiracy theories: Covid wasn’t just collected and studied in a lab, it was created there. It’s a bio-weapon that the Chinese engineered to attack us. (Never mind that they killed a bunch of their own people first and lost hundreds of billions of dollars worth of economic growth in the subsequent lockdown. It’s all about us. Or maybe it’s all about Trump.)

President Trump, desperate to avoid blame for his own mishandling of the pandemic, got way ahead of the facts and jumped on the lab-leak theory as a way to shift blame to China. (People who think Covid was an intentional attack on the US to destabilize the Trump administration need to explain how the Chinese knew Trump would botch the response. Lots of governors saw their popularity rise during the pandemic. Trump might have done the same had he shown real leadership rather than try to happy-talk his way through a real crisis.) He amplified his claims with openly racist rhetoric about “the China virus” or the “Kung Flu“. Predictably, this led to a rise in anti-Asian violence in the US. (Remember how President Bush urged Americans not to blame all Muslims for 9-11? Trump never did that for Chinese Americans and Covid.)

So the debate was politicized from the beginning. The scientific question “How did this happen?” and the public-health question “What can we learn from this?” quickly turned into the political “Who should we blame?” Often that resulted in Trumpists harassing or even harming innocent people.

Liberals responded by over-estimating the evidence for the natural-transmission theory. The truth is that we don’t know for sure and may never know. The origin of pandemics are often hard to pin down. (After decades of research, some scientists concluded that HIV passed from monkeys to humans in the 1920s. Who had that on their bingo card?) This one is even harder than most, because the Chinese government, also sensitive to claims that it botched its initial response, has been uncooperative.

One US source, the Department of Energy, recently put out a new assessment: A lab leak was the “likely” source of the pandemic, a conclusion it reached with “low confidence”. But various agencies of the US government still disagree, and the overall situation has not changed much since an October, 2021 report from the Director of National Intelligence summarized with this graphic:

But of course the lab leak theory is now considered an established fact on the Right.

and you also might be interested in …

This morning the administration approved the development of a new oil field on the Alaska’s North Slope. I’d like to give President Biden the benefit of the doubt on this, but I’m going to need some convincing.

Here’s what I’d like to hear: I’d like to know that there’s a definite plan for getting the country off fossil fuels by a set date. That plan would have targets for exactly how much fossil fuel we expect to need in meantime, and how we’re going to get it in the least destructive way possible. If the new oil field is part of such a plan, I could be OK with it.

If we had that kind of vision, it would put us past the oil-good/oil-bad debate, where environmentalists feel obligated to oppose all fossil fuel development plans everywhere, and pro-economic-growth people feel obligated to support all fossil fuel development plans everywhere. We’d get past the maximize/minimize production debate and agree on a path to zero.

Maybe such a plan exists, but I don’t know it. If there is such a thing, the Biden administration should be publicizing it.

Last week, Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) called for cutting funding from any public school that teaches comprehensive sex education. This week, she announced that her 17-year-old son has gotten his even-younger girlfriend pregnant, making Boebert a 36-year-old grandmother sometime next month. According to The Denver Post:

Boebert staffers on Friday confirmed the announcement. Breaking from a meeting for an interview, Boebert verified her son and his girlfriend are not married and declined to reveal the age of the girlfriend, other than to say she’s over 14. [i.e., Boebert’s son didn’t commit a crime under Colorado law.]

My faith (Unitarian Universalism) offers a very comprehensive version of sex education, one that emphasizes giving teens accurate information, teaching them important life skills (like how to buy a condom), and encouraging them to think through the consequences of their actions. As a result, I don’t know any 36-year-old grandmothers. I think Boebert’s son’s girlfriend would have done well to seek us out.

Ron Filipkowski summarizes what we know about the Twitter Files:

  1. Musk buys twitter and sets out to prove his premise that the govt used twitter to censor right wingers.
  2. He chooses two people to “investigate.” Nobody else can see the “evidence.”
  3. He only provides them with evidence that fits his chosen narrative. They admit that they were not given things like the Trump WH seeking to censor people on the Left.
  4. They reach Musk’s desired conclusion.
  5. Musk then goes to the Capitol and visits McCarthy. He doesn’t meet with Dems.
  6. Weaponization Comm is formed.
  7. These two people are brought in by Jim Jordan.
  8. They say that they can’t reveal who their source is for the information they received, even though the whole world knows it was Musk.

Steve Benen nails the root problem of Jim Jordan’s attempt to expose the “concerted effort by the government to silence and punish conservatives at all levels”: There has been no such effort.

It would be no more productive for House Republicans to create a select subcommittee to investigate Bigfoot. They could hire dozens of investigators, depose countless witnesses, hold hours of hearings, and send out a steady stream of subpoenas, but in the end, things that don’t exist can’t be found.

I’ve seen some discussion that we shouldn’t dignify the committee by using the name House Republicans have given it: “Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government”. Some writers would just call it “the Jordan Committee”. I’m starting to like “Jim Jordan’s Bigfoot Committee”.

The Manhattan district attorney has invited Donald Trump to testify voluntarily to the grand jury that is presumably considering charges in the Stormy Daniels payoff matter, as well as possible financial crimes. It’s far from the worst thing Trump has done, but it is one of the most easily proved of his crimes; Michael Cohen has already done jail time for carrying out his wishes.

In New York, an offer to speak in front of a grand jury is typically the last step before a criminal indictment. State law mandates that potential defendants must be given an opportunity to appear before a grand jury to answer questions before they are indicted.

Trump will undoubtedly decline the invitation, just as he has repeatedly pled the fifth in any deposition under oath. In general, innocent people want the truth to come out, but guilty people don’t.

I long ago lost patience with Trump-is-about-to-be-indicted stories, so I’m not getting excited. Call me when there’s an actual indictment.

Ron DeSantis would like you to believe that book-banning in Florida is a “hoax“, and the only books getting banned from Florida school libraries are “pornographic and inappropriate”. But it looks like DeSantis is the one who’s been hoaxing us. And novelist Jodi Picoult would like a word:

In the past six months, my books have been banned dozens of times in dozens of school districts. As sad as it seems, I was getting used to the emails from PEN America’s Jonathan Friedman telling me that yet again, my novel was under attack. But this week, something truly egregious happened. In Martin Country School District, 92 books were pulled from the school library shelves. Twenty of them were mine.

… It is worth noting I do not write adult romance. The majority of the books that were targeted do not even have a kiss in them. What they do have, however, are issues like racism, abortion rights, gun control, gay rights, and other topics that encourage kids to think for themselves.

So whenever DeSantis says the word “pornography”, in your mind you need to interpret that as “Jodi Picoult”.

Also in Florida, the state’s surgeon general has been pushing Covid misinformation that federal agencies warn is harmful to the public.

and let’s close with something that depends on your point of view

Artist Michael Murphy makes sculptures that may look entirely different from different perspectives.

Democracy in Israel

One of the countries where democracy is currently in serious trouble is Israel. The Knesset is considering a proposal by Prime Minister Netanyahu to make the Supreme Court inferior to the Knesset; by majority vote the Knesset could reverse court decisions. It would also claim the right to nominate new judges, taking that power away from a less partisan commission.

That may sound like a few technical adjustments, but it undoes a key part of the liberal-democratic social contract, in which majority rule is tempered by an independent judiciary that protects the rights of minorities. Under Netanyahu’s proposal, controlling a parliamentary majority would allow him to do pretty much whatever he wants, possibly including quash a corruption case against him.

Massive numbers of Israelis see this threat, and have been on the streets protesting for weeks. NYT columnist Thomas Friedman describes this as Israel’s “biggest internal clash since its founding”, and argues that American Jews cannot stay neutral.

At a deeper level, the current crisis goes back to a tension that has existed from the beginning: Israel views itself as both a democracy and a Jewish state. Both elements are central to its identity, but they have always fit together uneasily.

This tension is not unique to Israel; it exists whenever a nation thinks of itself as both a democracy and a homeland for a particular ethnic, religious, or cultural group. We can also see it in Orban’s Hungary or Modi’s India, not to mention the Christian nationalist fantasies of the American Right. Democracy insists that all citizens are equal, but the X-homeland vision makes the members of Group X special.

The two identities can coexist without too much friction as long as Group X has a comfortable voting majority and the deal it offers not-X citizens is good enough to win their acquiescence. Historically, and glossing over a lot of counterexamples, the deal in Israel has been that Arab parties are locked out of any ruling coalition in the Knesset, but the judicial system is committed to defend the rights of Palestinian Israelis as individuals.

That tension is also what makes the problem of the occupied territories so intractable: If Israel annexes the territories outright and makes them part of Israeli democracy, the Jewish voting majority is threatened, and the new Palestinian citizens have such a long history of conflict with Israel and with Jewish settlers that many of them could not acquiesce to peaceful membership in a Jewish state. But continuing to rule the territories as an occupying power creates an undemocratic Jew/Arab relationship that can’t help but cross the border into pre-1967 Israel and affect Israeli citizens.

So Netanyahu’s push for the elected government to take control of the courts is not only corrupt (motivated largely by Netanyahu’s personal legal problems) and undemocratic in general (since it undoes the rule of law), but it strikes at the heart of the historical compromise between the Jewish state and Israeli democracy. Going forward, the Jewish voting majority would be empowered to rule unchecked, with regard for the equal rights of non-Jews shrinking into a secondary position, from which it could conceivably vanish entirely.

Ordinarily, I would find myself 100% on the side of democracy and opposed to the homeland vision. That’s how I feel about Christian nationalism in America, as well as Hindu nationalism in India, and so on. But Israel’s unique history muddies things up for me. The lesson many people drew from World War II — and it’s hard to argue that they’re entirely wrong — is that the world needs a Jewish homeland somewhere.

You don’t have to believe that the Jews are God’s chosen people to recognize that they have been chosen to be targets of bigotry again and again. For reasons I don’t fully understand, antisemitism appears to be a unique strain of prejudice. (I wish I knew who to credit for this line, but sometime in the last year or two I heard this explanation of why American Jews should be uneasy with the conspiracy-theory-promoting American Right, even if it purports to be pro-Israel: “Anybody who believes crazy things will eventually believe crazy things about Jews.”)

Even in places where it appears to waning, antisemitism can pop back up. Jews seemed to be gradually assimilating into Germany prior to Nazism. The Bolshevik Revolution had a place for Jewish leaders like Trotsky before antisemitism reasserted itself under Stalin. An American president whose daughter converted after marrying a Jew could nonetheless wink and nod at American Nazis chanting “Jews will not replace us”, and traffic in rhetoric that led a man to massacre Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue.

So a decade or two ago I might have scoffed at the idea that American Jews would ever need an escape plan or an obvious place to land. I still think it’s unlikely. But unimaginable? I not as sure as I used to be. The world, I think, still needs Israel.

Simultaneously, though, I have no answer for a Palestinian who wonders why he has to be a second-class citizen (or not a citizen at all) in the land where his ancestors have lived for centuries. And while I can’t offer a simple solution to the democracy/homeland tension, I have to believe there’s a better way to protect the Jewish homeland than establishing an Orban-style autocracy-with-democratic-trappings. So I’m rooting for the protesters.

Is it 2008 again, or not?

Runs on two banks raise questions about the stability of the whole system.

If you had money in Silicon Valley or Signature Banks — both of which have gone under since Friday — you still have it, even if your account was larger than $250,000 and technically shouldn’t be insured by the FDIC. On the other hand, if you owned stock in either bank, your money is gone. If you were a senior manager at either bank, you have lost your job. If the banks’ remaining assets won’t cover the above-$250K accounts, the extra money will come from a special assessment on surviving banks, not from the taxpayers.

That’s the upshot of a joint statement released yesterday evening by the Federal Reserve, the Department of the Treasury, and the FDIC. It’s a very different resolution than the 2008-2009 banking crisis, when failing banks were bailed out in their entirety, with management still in place.

What remains to be seen is whether yesterday’s government intervention ended the crisis. Bankruptcies have a way of cascading like dominoes; if I can’t pay you, maybe you can’t pay your creditors either, even though your business looked sound yesterday. And if I have to close my doors and lay off my workers, the businesses that count on my workers to be their customers could also be in trouble. That’s how depressions start.

Idiosyncratic or systemic? Sometimes a big financial failure is an isolated incident. This bank or that brokerage house might go under due to fraud or a few idiosyncratic bad decisions that say nothing about the larger economy. But sometimes it’s a signal that a systemic problem is worse than anybody thought. When Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008, it demonstrated that the subprime lending problem was not limited to a few foolish lenders, and before long all financial institutions were in trouble.

So the big question that faces the markets and the government this week is: Which kind of failure is this? There are indications in both directions.

For each of the failed banks, you can tell a story that makes their problems unique: Silicon Valley’s customers were largely start-up companies that had future prospects but no current earnings. Such companies saw a big influx of investor cash when interest rates were near zero. But as rates rose, market sentiment shifted towards safer investments, so start-ups began to burn through their cash rather than raise more of it. So Silicon Valley’s deposits began to shrink rather than grow. Signature had lent to companies associated with crypto-assets. So the recent slide in the market value of cryptocurrencies hurt them.

But both banks, once they started to run into problems, had an issue that they share with just about all other banks: Their “safe” money, the money they were counting on to be there if they needed it, was invested in long-term government bonds. Those bonds are indeed safe, in the sense that the government is good for the money when the bonds come due (assuming House Republicans don’t create a debt-ceiling crisis later this year). But if you can’t wait until the bond comes due to get your money, you have to sell the bond on the open market — and that has been a problem lately. As interest rates go up, the market value of such bonds goes down. (It’s common sense: Why should I buy your bond yielding 1% when new bonds are coming out yielding more than 4%? Of course you’re going to have to take less than face value for your bond.)

So at each bank, the need to raise cash forced them to sell bonds at a loss, which ate into their capital. When word gets out that capital is low, big depositors — the ones with way more than the $250,000 FDIC insurance limit — start to worry. Then the bank becomes vulnerable to a run, when all the depositors want their money at the same time. That’s what happened to Silicon Valley late last week: It faced withdrawals of $42 billion on Thursday alone. On Friday, it closed its doors.

Once a run starts at one bank, depositors at other banks start to worry whether their money is safe. So Signature, facing its own capital problem, saw a run begin on Friday and threaten to become overwhelming by today. That’s why the government shut it down. We’ll see today and tomorrow whether runs start at other banks, or whether the announced government intervention has plugged the hole in the dam.

Both banks were unusually vulnerable to a run: At both banks, a large percentage of deposits were in large, uninsured accounts where depositors would be unusually skittish. At Silicon Valley, a large number of them knew each other: Many of the start-up companies had connections with the same venture capitalists. So once it became known that a few key depositors were pulling their money out, the race was on.

At the same time, both banks share problems with the rest of the banking system. Rising interest rates have hit the whole economy, so just about all banks are looking at large unrealized losses in their bond portfolios. And the run on Silicon Valley demonstrated just how quickly a bank run can happen in this new era of electronic banking.

Our classic image of a bank run comes from the Depression: Long lines of depositors trying to get into a bank to withdraw their money. During the bank run in It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey gets to remonstrate with the customers one by one: Faith in his S&L means having faith in each other and in the community. A bank run could take all day or even several days. In the meantime, maybe a banker could sell some assets or get a loan from some other bank.

But a 21st-century bank run can happen without any personal contact at all, and it can bleed a bank dry in minutes.

Liquidity or solvency? In the Wonderful Life bank run, George’s savings and loan has a liquidity crisis, not a solvency crisis. That’s what he’s trying to explain to the panicking depositors: Your money isn’t in the vault, but it’s invested in your neighbor’s house. If you trust your neighbors to pay their bills, you can trust the S&L. So if everybody is patient, nobody has to lose money.

But a solvency crisis is different: The bank owes its depositors more than its assets are worth, so somebody is going to lose money. The question is who, and that will be determined by how fast everybody can act. If you’re the first in line to close your account, you’ll be fine, but if you snooze, you lose.

A bank run can turn a liquidity crisis into a solvency crisis, by making banks sell assets quickly at bad prices. (As an analogy, imagine that you had to pay off your mortgage by the end of the day. Probably you’d end up selling your house for less than it’s worth, just to get cash.) So there’s a vicious cycle: Worries about a solvency crisis can lead to a bank run that creates a solvency crisis.

The 20th-century bank reforms were aimed at stopping bank runs and solving liquidity problems. The Federal Reserve was created to be a lender-of-last-resort, so that a bank facing a liquidity crisis could get a loan to keep it afloat long enough to realize the value of its assets. Government inspection of bank balance sheets was supposed to spot problem banks early, and to give the public confidence in the solidity of banks that stayed open. FDIC insurance guaranteed middle-class depositors that their money would not vanish.

At its root, though, 2008 was a solvency crisis. Banks had loaned money to people who were never going to be able to pay it back, based on collateral that was overvalued precisely because banks had loaned money to bid the prices up. From there, complex financial derivatives magnified the problem; essentially people were placing bets on the value of valueless assets, creating more valueless assets. So a lot of the “assets” on bank balance sheets weren’t real. That’s what made the problem so difficult to solve: Floating some loans would just delay the day of judgment. New money had to come from somewhere, so it came from the government.

Right now, the role of the non-performing subprime loans is being played by low-interest-rate government bonds whose market value has fallen below their face value. That lost value is not as crazy and negligent as 2008’s subprime mortgages (or the derivatives based on them), but nonetheless the value has been lost. The question is what this does to bank balance sheets: If losses are within the margins of error, banks are still solvent.

Moral hazard. The worst mistake the government made during the 2008 crisis was to bail out the banks more-or-less without consequences. Most of the executives kept their jobs and the shareholders were not wiped out. Some bank stocks have never regained their 2006 highs, but others are more valuable than ever. (As you can see in the chart below, Citigroup stock never recovered, but JP Morgan Chase has done well.) Many banks that were too-big-to-fail then are even bigger now.

Anger over that outcome was a big piece of the populist wave that has been roiling our politics ever since. If you lost your home or your job, but your bank got bailed out, you’re not going to forget that. Worse, many bankers who “earned” big bonuses by booking phony profits got to keep that money after the “assets” they built turned out to be worthless. The idea that cheaters profit while the government protects them from consequences is corrosive. It eats away at public trust and makes it harder for government to deal with non-financial problems like climate change or the Covid pandemic.

At the same time, though, banking really is a unique industry that should get special consideration, because bank failures can have repercussions that travel well beyond the banks.

That’s what’s behind the remaining anti-populist element of Sunday’s intervention: Depositors with accounts larger than $250K were never insured by the FDIC, but their money is being guaranteed anyway. This is just as much of a bailout as, say, canceling student loans, and the beneficiaries are much richer. But it’s happening just like that, without any public debate.

The argument for covering those large deposits revolves around stopping two kinds of contagions:

  • Not covering them might make large depositors at other banks nervous, and start bank runs elsewhere.
  • The depositors themselves are businesses that might go under if they lose their money. They, in turn, might start a wave of cascading bankruptcies.

For liberals the poster children of depositors are the solar-power start-ups, many of which are Silicon Bank customers. If you want to save them, you’ll have to save a lot of rich people as well.

* Disclosure: Slightly less than 1% of my retirement portfolio is invested in bank stocks: JP Morgan Chase and Citicorp.

The Monday Morning Teaser

As I write this, a banking crisis might be forming. Silicon Valley Bank went under Friday, and Signature Bank over the weekend. Last night, Treasury, the Fed, and the FDIC announced their plan to deal with the two banks. Maybe it will be enough, and maybe it won’t. We should know in the next few days.

The question to be answered is how unique the problems at the two banks are. And the answer is: sort of unique. Each had individual problems that made them vulnerable, but they couldn’t recover due to problems that exist in just about all banks right now. I’ll talk that through in the featured post, which should come out around 10 EST.

The weekly summary covers Tucker Carlson’s attempt to whitewash January 6, Biden’s budget proposal and the lack of any coherent Republican response, the political crisis in Israel, debates about how Covid started and whether masks slowed it down, and the latest reasons to think Donald Trump might be indicted soon. That should be out before 1.

Learn Everything

No matter how hard some people try, we can’t just choose to learn what we want to know and not what we should know. We should learn everything, the good, the bad, the truth of who we are as a nation.

President Biden, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge,
marking the anniversary of Bloody Sunday

This week’s featured post is “Imaginary problems, real laws, real victims“.

This week everybody was talking about bills in state legislatures

The featured post focuses on some of the scary laws either recently passed or under consideration in red-state legislatures, including Tennessee’s anti-drag law and Ron DeSantis’ attempt to get ideological control of Florida’s state university system.

I left out some bills would indeed be terrible laws, but so far show no signs of moving in that direction. Remember: There are 50 state legislatures, most of which have two houses and 100-200 members. So there are thousands of state legislators, any one of whom can file a bill saying whatever. You can’t let them troll you.

So Florida also has a bill that would make bloggers register with the state and file monthly reports if they write about state politics and receive money.

If a blogger posts to a blog about an elected state officer and receives, or will receive, compensation for that post, the blogger must register with the appropriate office, as identified in paragraph (1)(f), within 5 days after the first post by the blogger which mentions an elected state officer. … Upon registering with the appropriate office, a blogger must file monthly reports on the 10th day following the end of each calendar month from the time a blog post is added to the blog

The reports have to say who paid you and how much. Failure to report on time carries a $25 per day fine for each post. I don’t make any money off this blog, so it wouldn’t apply to me. But I do wonder about blogs with advertising.

Anyway, the bill was filed on Tuesday, has only one person’s name on it, and hasn’t yet even been assigned to a committee. I’m not worried about it yet.

There’s also a Florida bill to “cancel” the state’s Democratic Party, but I doubt it’s going anywhere.

and propaganda

We keep getting more information from the Dominion Voting Systems lawsuit against Fox News, and it just keeps looking worse for Fox. Earlier we saw internal communications among the most popular Fox anchors — Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham — indicating that they knew the 2020 election had not been stolen, and that the guests they were promoting to claim otherwise were “insane” or (in Sidney Powell’s case) “a complete nut”. When a Fox correspondent (accurately) fact-checked a Trump tweet claiming fraud, Carlson told Hannity:

Please get her fired. Seriously….What the fuck? I’m actually shocked…It needs to stop immediately, like tonight. It’s measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down. Not a joke.

This week we discovered that top executives knew what the network was doing. In a deposition under oath, Fox owner Rupert Murdoch acknowledged that Trump’s stolen-election claims were false, but disputed that Fox News as a whole had endorsed them. When asked specifically about the false stolen-election narrative, though, he did admit that “some of our commentators were endorsing it”.

Also revealed in Dominion’s filing, Rupert Murdoch gave Jared Kushner, son-in-law of former President Donald Trump, “confidential information about [President Joe] Biden’s ads, along with debate strategy” in 2020, “providing Kushner a preview of Biden’s ads before they were public,” the court filing states.

Paul Ryan, who is on Fox’s corporate board, warned Murdoch.

On at least one occasion, Ryan advised the Murdochs that the company should “move on from Donald Trump and stop spouting election lies.”

During this time, Ryan told the Murdochs that many of those who thought the election had been stolen did so “because they got a diet of information telling them the election was stolen from what they believe were credible sources.”

But of course, neither Murdoch nor Ryan did anything to stop the lies or warn the public about them.

Sean Hannity’s response to the scandal is telling. He has been caught red-handed promoting lies to his audience — not just getting something wrong, which can happen to anyone, but telling his viewers they should believe something that he knew was false and believed to be absurd.

At any legitimate news outlet he would be fired. But since he won’t be, think about the ways he could conceivably respond to his scandal as an individual: He could resign voluntarily. He could apologize to his viewers and ask for their forgiveness. He could explain that the post-2020-election period was an unusual time that created unique pressures on him. He could tell his audience that he has learned a terrible lesson and will never intentionally mislead them again.

Of course, that would be completely un-Hannity-like. He isn’t sorry, he hasn’t learned a lesson, and he intends to continue propagandizing his viewers, whom he rightly sees as gullible rubes. So what does he do instead? He hosts a segment about how other media people lie.

They lie all the time and what bothers me is that they get away with it, and they just move on to the next set of lies.

So he doesn’t even deny that he lied to his viewers (which would itself be a lie). He just tries to convince them that other people lie too.

This week a deceptive 19-second video of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy went viral. In it he seemed to be calling on the US to send troops to defend his country from Russia. “The US will have to send their sons and daughters … to war, and they will have to fight.”

But if you look at a longer clip, that’s not what he’s saying at all. Having been asked what he would say to Americans who oppose sending aid to Ukraine, one reason he gives is that Putin will not stop after conquering Ukraine. Zelenskyy warns that Russia will then move on to attack NATO members like the Baltic states, which the US is treaty-bound to defend. Then “the US will have to send their sons and daughters …”

So the gist of Zelenskyy’s argument is the exact opposite of what his social media critics claimed: not that American troops should go to war for Ukraine, but that the US should support Ukraine with money and weapons so that American troops don’t have to go to war later on somewhere else.

The cleverly edited clip went viral because it fooled a lot of people like your MAGA friend from high school. And I find it hard to blame them for sharing it, because devious propagandists fool ordinary people all the time. That’s their job. Ordinary people don’t usually have the time or attention or google-fu to follow the good advice CNN correspondent Daniel Dale gives at the end of this segment: “When you come across a sensational but short clip on social media, it’s always a good idea to look for the extended footage.”

But the clip was also shared by Senator Mike Lee and former Trump administration spokesperson Monica Crowley. Them I do blame, because they’re supposed to be more sophisticated than this. Lee in particular has staff that could check things like this out for him, and he has a responsibility not to mislead his constituents.

Lee has since removed his tweet, but that’s not good enough. He needs to apologize in a forum that gets as much attention as his original tweet did.

Speaking of irresponsible, do you think MTG was just fooled by the viral clip, or was she actively being dishonest during her CPAC speech?

I think the Republican Party has a duty. We have a responsibility, and that is to be the party that protects children. [applause] Now whether it’s like Zelenskyy saying he wants our sons and daughters to go die in Ukraine …

As Rick Perlstein pointed out back in 2012, conservative politics has had a long and intimate relationship with grifting. After all, both rely on identifying and exploiting people who are easily fooled. So it should surprise no one that Don Jr.’s fiance Kimberley Guilfoyle was pushing her precious-metal investment company at CPAC.

and you also might be interested in …

I don’t want my kids reading books that make them feel bad about being big and bad.

Last week I talked about mainstream news sources like CNN, the NYT, and WaPo trying to avoid being cast as “the liberal media” by giving undeserved attention to conservative voices. Well, Wednesday brought a new example: “My Liberal Campus Is Pushing Freethinkers to the Right” by Princeton senior Adam Hoffman, published in the NYT.

Increasing radicalism among conservative students, Hoffman claims, is the fault of liberals.

For those on the right, the experience is alienating. The typical American’s views on gender ideology or American history are often irrelevant to his or her day-to-day life. But for the conservative college student, life is punctuated by political checkpoints. Classes may begin with requests for “preferred pronouns” or “land acknowledgments.”

I’m not getting it. If someone asks you what pronouns you prefer, it’s not a “political checkpoint”, it’s a question. You can just answer it, the same way you’d answer someone who asked how to pronounce your name. (I’ve found “he/him” to be a perfectly acceptable response.) And having someone tell you which Native American tribe used to live here is alienating why exactly? The trauma escapes me.

One reason I follow David Roberts is that he doesn’t just vent about something like this, he uses it as a teaching opportunity:

I just want to highlight what a perfect example of Murc’s Law it is. Murc’s Law says, basically: only the left has agency; the right is merely reacting, having its hand forced, being “pushed” or “shaped.”

This is not some quirk, it is central to reactionary psychology. Every fascist (and fascist-adjacent) movement ever has told itself the same story: our opponents are destroying everything, they’re forcing us to this, we have no choice but violence.

It is, at a base level, a way of denying responsibility, of saying, “we know the shit we’re about to do is bad, but it’s not our fault, you made us.” Once you recognize the pattern it shows up *everywhere*.

I don’t understand why some crimes or trials catch some network’s attention while the vast majority don’t. I can’t count the number of times I’ve channel-scanned through CNN in the last month and immediately kept scanning because they were telling me about the Alex Murdaugh murder trial. The CDC says there were about 26,000 homicides in the US in 2021, the most recent year I could find numbers for. I have no idea why I should care about this one more than the others.

The public fascination with the O. J. Simpson trial in 1994 made some sense to me, because O. J. had been a celebrity for years; many Americans probably felt like they knew him. But I still remember how puzzled I was by the way the JonBenet Ramsey murder case dominated the news for months in 1996. During that time, dozens or maybe even hundreds of other little girls were murdered or vanished without a trace. But we didn’t hear about them, we heard about Ramsey.

So this week Murdaugh was convicted and sentenced. I have no opinion about whether that was a fair outcome or not, because why should I? I just care that it’s over, because maybe now CNN can get back to covering the news.

Eli Lilly announced plans to cap insulin prices at $35 per month. It’s not that they’ve decided to be the good guys, but it’s bad PR to so publicly be the bad guys.

David French responds to the “national divorce” idea, echoing many of the points I made last week. He adds a disturbing historical observation.

The South separated from the North and started a ruinous and futile war [in 1861] not because of calm deliberation, but rather because of hysteria and fear — including hysteria and fear whipped up by the partisan press.

So my question is not “Is divorce reasonable?” but rather, “Are we susceptible to the unreason that triggered war once before?”

Here’s a fun tweet storm:

My sustainability class just finished a module about disinformation. I had them write me a letter assuming they were flunking and arguing that they deserve an A, using the techniques of disinformation we discussed, like cherry picking, false experts and ad hominem. HOO-boy.

The thread of examples is both amusing and instructive. More classes should try this exercise.

Even Fox News’ Jesse Watters has started to notice that the House GOP majority isn’t accomplishing much, even by their own standards. “Where are the bombshells? Have the investigations even started? … Where are the smoking gun documents?”

But he isn’t ready yet to reach the obvious conclusion: Maybe the “scandals” the Republicans promised to uncover are actually a bunch of crap that can’t stand up to scrutiny outside the friendly environment of Fox News.

But Matt Gaetz has an answer to that problem: one-party rule.

It is no longer time to go back to the old, low-energy Paul Ryan, Trey Gowdy days of fake oversight. These are the Jim Jordan, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Matt Gaetz days. And if the Democrats are going to obstruct our investigation, then I am calling to remove the Democrats from our investigation. They shouldn’t be allowed to sit in the depositions and hear the evidence if they are going to use that to try to get in the way of thorough, rigorous oversight.

Think about what he’s saying here: His side won’t be able to make their case if anyone in the room can fact-check, or ask the witnesses unscripted questions. So get them out of the room.

I can anticipate an objection to what I just said: “Isn’t that what happened in the 1-6 committee hearings?” Two counter-points: (1) Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger were Republicans; they just weren’t MAGA Republicans. (2) Kevin McCarthy is the one who pulled his people off the committee, because he thought he could de-legitimize it.

and let’s close with something local

The library about half a mile from here has a charming annual contest to make a diorama with peeps. It may or may not be great art, but it has become a beloved local tradition. I hope your town has something similar.

Here’s my favorite from last year: the “Immersive Van Peep” exhibit.

Imaginary problems, real laws, real victims

In red states, a barrage of new laws are diminishing freedom, violating parents’ rights, and mandating that schools teach conservative dogma. It’s not clear what real problems these laws are attempting to solve, but it is clear who’s being hurt.

This week, Tennessee passed a law banning drag shows in public spaces, or anywhere else they might be seen by children, and NBC reports that 15 states are considering similar laws. The state also passed a law banning gender-affirming medical care for minors, and permitting minors to sue their parents if the parents authorized such treatment. The Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law says 15 states have either already passed similar laws or are considering them.

One proposed Florida bill goes even further: It legalizes a parent kidnapping a child from another state and bringing the child to Florida in order to “protect” the child from gender-affirming care, and orders Florida courts to ignore any other state’s child-custody rulings in such cases. [1]

A court may not treat a parent′s removal of a child from another parent or from another state as unjustifiable conduct or child abuse if the removal was for the purpose of protecting the child from one or more of the prescriptions or procedures referenced in paragraph (a) and if there is reason to believe that the child was at risk of or was being subjected to the provision of such prescriptions or procedures. … A court of this state has jurisdiction to vacate, stay, or modify a child custody determination of a court of another state to protect the child from the risk of being subjected to the provision of sex-reassignment prescriptions or procedures as defined in s. 456.001. The court must vacate, stay, or modify the child custody determination to the extent necessary to protect the child from the provision of such prescriptions or procedures.

Last year, Florida’s legislature began an effort to turn its schools into indoctrination centers with the Parental Rights in Educationt Act (a.k.a. Don’t Say Gay) and STOP WOKE Act that banned the teaching of specific lists of ideas and caused entire counties to remove books from their classrooms. [2] Several states have passed similar laws, and a national Don’t Say Gay bill (the Stop the Sexualization of Children Act) has been introduced in the House. A new bill in Florida would expand the restrictions of Don’t Say Gay from third grade to eighth grade. [3] Another new bill would expand Governor DeSantis’ power to give ideological marching orders to the state universities.

In an administrative move, Alaska’s State Commission for Human Rights has downgraded “sexual identity and gender orientation” from the list of always-illegal bases for discrimination to the list of discrimination that is illegal “in some instances”. According to Pro Publica and The Anchorage Daily News

it began refusing to investigate complaints. Only employment-related complaints would now be accepted, and investigators dropped any non-employment LGBTQ civil rights cases they had been working on.

The onslaught of such legislation is so intense that I’m sure I’ve missed something important. But let’s take a closer look at a couple of these bills.

Controlling Florida’s universities. This year the top-down effort to control what is discussed in Florida’s K-12 classrooms is being extended into the state universities. (To a certain extent it was already there in STOP WOKE.) Governor DeSantis has used his administrative power to appoint a new board to govern New College in Sarasota, with the expressed goal of turning it into an academic center of right-wing ideology similar to Hillsdale College in Michigan, which is privately funded and explicitly Christian. [4]

A bill currently in the legislature would impose similar controls on the state university system as a whole: It adds a new mission to the university system “the education for citizenship of the constitutional republic”. [5] It instructs each “constituent university to examine its programs for the inclusion of any specified major or minor in critical race theory, gender studies, or intersectionality or any derivative major of these belief systems, that is, any major that engenders beliefs in those concepts defined in [STOP WOKE]” and to submit documentation of “the university’s process to remove from its course catalogues any specified major or minor” in the same subjects.

Each university’s board is empowered to review the tenure of any faculty member at any time, and power to appoint new faculty members is centered in the board, which is explicitly “not bound by recommendations or opinions of faculty or other individuals or groups”. No money — not even private donations — can be used for any programs that “that espouse diversity, equity, and inclusion or critical race theory rhetoric”.

Previously established programs at University of Florida and Florida State are now expanded into “colleges” that can hire faculty and enroll students. These colleges appear to have a Hillsdale-like purpose resembling the ideological mission DeSantis has given New College.

This bill so far has just been filed and the legislature has taken no action, but it looks serious. Similar bills are filed in both the House and Senate, and it seems like a fulfillment of DeSantis’ previous statements. Inside Higher Education says:

The bill mirrors much of the governor’s recent rhetoric and revisits draft legislation from DeSantis that never made it into the 2022 legislative session.

Tennessee’s anti-drag law. This one leaves me (and, I suspect, a lot of other people) shaking my head. Men dressing as women is a comic trope that goes back more-or-less forever. Shakespeare is full of gender-switching roles, and if you go back far enough, every female role was played in drag, as putting women on the stage was considered inappropriate.

Governor Bill Lee himself (who signed the bill) dressed in drag for his high school yearbook, something he has dismissed as a “lighthearted school tradition” that bears no resemblance to the “obscene, sexualized entertainment” the law restricts.

But if that’s true, his critics argue, then why is a new law necessary? Tennessee already has laws against obscenity and public indecency. So what is it about cross-dressing that should bring additional rules into play? If an act is too pornographic for male or female impersonators to perform in front of children, does it become OK if the performers wear gender-appropriate costumes instead? Conversely, if a dance routine is acceptable for, say, the Tennessee Titan cheerleaders (who I assume are women) would it suddenly become obscene if it were performed by a man wearing the same outfit?

Like the Florida education laws, the anti-drag law takes advantage of vagueness. In the key phrase “male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest”, the term “prurient interest” is never defined, and is largely in the eye of the beholder. (Do the Titan cheerleaders “appeal to a prurient interest”? Sometimes, I guess, maybe. I’m not sure.) The upshot of that vagueness is that promoters will be afraid to schedule drag shows, no matter how benign their content might be. Similarly, Florida teachers and professors are afraid to say anything about race or gender. Nobody wants to be sued, even if they believe they would ultimately win.

Conversely, vagueness gives conservatives cover: Ron DeSantis can deny that he told any teacher or librarian to ban any particular book. All he did was sign a law that might get them fired or sued if they leave the wrong books on the shelf.

The issue of “obscene, sexualized” drag shows also demonstrates a common propaganda technique: Something widely considered unsavory or disreputable becomes a special problem requiring special action when an out-of-favor group does it. The classic example is how the Nazi newspaper Völkischer Beobachter focused on the issue of “Jewish crime”. Jews are people and people commit crimes, so the VB didn’t have to invent Jewish crimes (though it probably exaggerated a few). The propaganda element was the implication that “Jewish crime” was a special problem that needed a special solution, as opposed to just better law enforcement generally.

In the 1980s, there was a national panic about gay high-school teachers seducing their students, as if this problem had nothing to do with straight high-school teachers seducing their students. More recently, the Trump administration ran the Nazi play almost move-for-move when it established the Victims Of Immigration Crime Engagement Office (VOICE), as if the victims of crimes by undocumented immigrants were somehow different from other crime victims.

This shouldn’t need to be said, but clearly it does: It is not a crime for a man to cross-dress. And an otherwise legal action should not become a crime if a cross-dressing man does it. So there is no need for a special law.

Why now? To my knowledge, there has been no drag-queen crime wave. So why do legislators in 15 states find it necessary to pass anti-drag laws their states never needed before? The answer has more to do with changes in Republican politics than changes in American society.

The elections that have followed Donald Trump’s yuge 2020 defeat [6] have given Republicans a lot to think about, both positive and negative.

Negatively, they have learned that a pure backward-looking Trumpism weighs down their candidates; it only works in places where a more traditional Republican would win easily. In New Hampshire, for example, a Reagan/Bush Republican like Chris Sununu won the governor’s race by over 15%, while MAGA Republican Don Bolduc lost the Senate race by over 9%. Arizona’s 2022 Republican candidates were all-in on election denial, and got swept by the Democrats. Candidates closely identified with Trump lost winnable Senate races in Pennsylvania (Dr. Oz) and Georgia (Herschel Walker). And while J. D. Vance did win in Ohio, he ran well behind the far less Trumpy Republican Governor Mike DeWine, who cruised with a 25% victory margin.

More positively, in 2022 crime and inflation were issues Republicans could win congressional races on. But that’s a lesson with a limited shelf life, given that Republicans have no policies to address either one, and inflation is likely to fade on its own by 2024.

But Republican wins in two governors’ elections stand out as possibly repeatable examples: Glenn Youngkin’s 2021 victory in Virginia and Ron DeSantis’ 2022 Florida landslide. Both largely ignored typical kitchen-table issues like jobs or health care to focus on a much vaguer anxiety about our changing society. Both talked a lot about education, but not in the usual sense of raising test scores or creating opportunity. The next generation needs protection, they claim, but not against observable threats like mass shootings or scientifically predictable threats like the looming catastrophes of climate change. Instead, the villains of this narrative are undefinable boogeymen like “critical race theory” and “wokeism”.

In essence, CRT and Wokeism, like “cancel culture” and “political correctness” before them, are Rorschach tests: If you are afraid of some societal trend, you see it those shapeless blobs.

And if you poke at any of that too hard, you have to invent conspiracy theories with improbable villains: Teachers are conspiring to turn your kids gay or make them hate America. Parents are pushing gender changes onto their children, who go along because everybody else is doing it. Rich Jews are convincing Guatemalans to leave perfectly fine lives so that they can steal jobs from all the good Americans who want to clean our toilets and pick our tomatoes.

Why drag queens? Back in 2015, when famous Olympic champion Bruce Jenner came out as trans and announced a new name, Caitlyn, I introspected and got philosophical about my own discomfort. (In hindsight, that article is clumsy in a lot of ways, because I still had a lot to learn. But I stand by the flow of ideas.) In essence, I decided, I was responding to my own insecurity and denial. The human mind can’t handle the task of conceiving the Universe as it is, so we collect real objects into categories and treat similarly categorized objects as if they had a unity they don’t actually have. Hence man/woman, Christian/Muslim/Jew, gay/straight, rich/poor, Black/White/Asian/Hispanic and so on. But all those categories are just arbitrary markings on a continuum. Deep down we know we’re telling ourselves a story, and that knowledge makes us anxious.

If you think seriously about how flawed the fundamental building blocks of our thinking are, it’s scary. At any moment, some part of the Universe you’ve been assuming away could come back to bite you. That’s the human condition.

That’s why we get such an oogy feeling whenever we see an example of something we were raised to think didn’t exist: an effeminate man, two women kissing, a child with dark brown skin and frizzy red hair. It’s a reminder that we don’t really grasp the Universe; we just apply kludgy notions that more-or-less work most of the time.

… At its root, social conservatism is a way to deny that fear and transmute it into anger. Conservatism reassures us that the categories in our heads are real. We didn’t make them up; God created them. They’re natural.

Drag is specifically designed to get into the boundarylands where our usual categories fail. The illusion is designed to be imperfect. A man who managed to be indistinguishable from Liza Minnelli might as well be Liza Minnelli; he wouldn’t be doing drag any more.

That lingering in the boundrylands is precisely what many people find scary about drag: It points out that while your sexual organs are real, your gender is a performance that could fall anywhere on a continuum from he-man to girly-girl. The people you meet are not necessarily one thing or the other. The world is more complicated than you usually allow yourself to realize.

But that boundaryland experience is also why some parents want to take their children to drag shows. (And why it’s a violation of freedom for Tennessee to tell them they can’t.) Some children may want to be told what their roles in society are, so that they can get on with learning to play them. But others experience the most common roles as oppressive. Seeing someone smash through those roles demonstrates that life holds more possibilities than just the obvious ones. It’s liberating.

[1] I often warn people not to get upset about bills that have no chance to become law. This bill might be in that category, but I can’t tell yet: It has only one sponsor, who introduced it this week. No committee has heard it or voted on it. Even if the bill passes, I suspect there are constitutional issues here having to do with the Full Faith and Credit Clause.

[2] DeSantis insists this is a “fake narrative”. Of course he does.

[3] Think about what that means. By eighth grade, students often know (or at least strongly suspect) who in their class is gay or trans or contemplating a gender transition, and bullying is already well underway. Under the proposed bill, it would be illegal for teachers or administrators to recognize potential problems or take steps to deal with them through classroom instruction. Any effort to teach 14-year-olds to accept or tolerate one another’s gender identities or sexual preferences would be illegal.

The same bill would also declare — as a matter of state law — that “it is false to ascribe to a person a pronoun that does not correspond to such person’s sex” which is “an immutable biological trait”.

[4] DeSantis-appointed trustee Chris Rufo (arguably the architect of the crusade against “critical race theory”) is very explicit about his goals:

We will be shutting down low-performing, ideologically-captured academic departments and hiring new faculty. The student body will be recomposed over time: some current students will self-select out, others will graduate; we’ll recruit new students who are mission-aligned.

I went to a state university (Michigan State) in the 1970s. Michigan had a Republican governor at that time, but I don’t recall ever having to worry that I might not be “aligned” with his “mission” for the university, or that any member of the university’s governing board was hoping I might “self-select out” because of my political views. This kind of ideological repression is new in America.

Today’s NYT notes a similar ideological battle over North Idaho College, which may lose accreditation as a result.

[5] That mission may sound benign until you realize how it’s going to be defined and interpreted. “Performance metrics and standards” for achieving such goals are to be part of a strategic plan the law instructs the DeSantis-appointed Board of Governors to write. Previously, the missions of the university system were apolitical ones, like “the academic success of its students”.

[6] Even reality-respecting Republicans who don’t claim massive fraud in 2020 often falsely portray the 2020 election as close. But it wasn’t. In terms of raw vote totals, Trump came within 500 votes of breaking Herbert Hoover’s record for the biggest loss ever by an incumbent president. Trump was 7,059,526 votes behind Joe Biden, while Hoover lost to Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 by 7,060,023 votes.