Scary and Unscary

NO SIFT NEXT WEEK. The next set of articles will appear on October 5.

It’s not hard to scare people, but it’s extremely difficult to unscare them.

Dr. Paul Offit, on vaccines

This week’s featured post covers Wednesday’s Republican debate: “Three Hours in Bizarro World“.

This week everybody was talking about Ahmed Mohamed

I’m assuming you’ve heard the basics of the story of Ahmed Mohamed and his clock-that-wasn’t-a-bomb. Now that social media has brought national attention to the story and given Ahmed a happy ending — despite a recent backlash — the narrative has taken on a fairy-tale quality. So let me draw the moral: When you’re young and relatively powerless, the small-minded people who control your immediate environment may seem to define reality, but they don’t. There’s a larger world out there, and sometimes it may come in on your side.

There’s another lesson to learn from the self-congratulating response the local officials had. For example, the letter to parents sent out by the high school principal acknowledges no mistakes, makes no apologies, and implies that Ahmed did something against the school’s code of conduct. It goes on to suggest:

this is a good time to remind your child how important it is to immediately report any suspicious items and/or suspicious behavior they observe to any school employee so we can address it right away.

Such policies are sometimes called “see something, say something” — the PopeHat blog refers to them as “willful paranoia” — and Ahmed’s story underlines how they are inherently discriminatory. What people think they “see” — a Muslim kid with a bomb, for example — depends on what they expect to see. And that, in turn, depends on the stereotypes in their heads. So see-something-say-something is a paved road that runs directly from the unspoken bigotry from our collective unconscious to bigoted action in the physical world.

For a completely different example of how this works, consider the death of John Crawford III. Crawford was a 22-year-old black man shopping in a Walmart near Dayton, Ohio. The store video shows him pick up a toy gun and then wander around talking on his cellphone, doing nothing particularly threatening or out of the ordinary. But a white shopper “saw something” — a thug with a gun — and “said something” by calling 911. The police showed up expecting to face armed resistance, “saw” Crawford with a rifle, and gunned him down before he had a chance to understand what was happening.

Maybe the scariest part of Ahmed’s story is the way that Islamophobes — Bill Maher, Sarah and Bristol Palin, Fox News — still want to support the school and police response, or at least blunt the sympathy Ahmed has received.

The most satisfying part? That’s easy: The fact that Ahmed gets to move to a school that wants him, while officials at his former school get no chance for a no-hard-feelings reconciliation scene in front of cameras. So Mr. Principal, Ms. Mayor, and all the rest of the Irving, Texas power structure — guess what? Sometimes when you screw up, you don’t get to define it away. You know what you did? You reinforced the country’s negative stereotypes, not of Muslims, but of white Texans.

and the continuing backlash against Black Lives Matter

Capitalizing on the success of its mythical War on Christmas, Fox News has invented a War on Cops and blamed BLM for it — ignoring a decades-long decline in police deaths that has made it safer to be a policeman now than at any time since the 1960s.

Also, none of the violence-against-cops incidents that are supposed to be part of the War on Cops has been credibly linked to BLM. No one at BLM has endorsed them or taken credit for them. So both aspects of the “BLM is fighting a war on cops” meme are false: There is no War on Cops, and BLM isn’t trying to start one.

One effect of the War on Cops meme is to justify aggressive actions against BLM and its allies, one of which hit home for me this weekend. My church (First Parish in Bedford, Massachusetts) has been displaying a Black Lives Matter banner on the side of our colonial-style building. Saturday night it was vandalized, as shown below. The church has a predominantly white professional class membership and sits in the middle of politically blue New England. But that didn’t protect our banner.

It turns out such vandalism is fairly common. If you google “church black lives matter banner vandalized”, you’ll find a bunch of them — including a church in Bethesda, Maryland whose banner was vandalized twice and then stolen.

This kind of thing may seem like a harmless prank if you haven’t thought about it much, but when it happens to you it feels like a warning shot: People don’t like what you’re saying, and they know where you live. They’re not afraid to break the law to shut you up.


My church yesterday.

and the Republican debate

This is how dedicated I am to staying on top of the news: I watched the whole effing three hours of it. (If you have done something bad recently and need to punish yourself, you can too: Here’s the video and transcript.) My horror at the more-or-less complete denial of reality is covered in “Three Hours in Bizarro World“.

My general impressions about the horse-race aspects of the debate pretty much tracked everyone else’s: If I turned off my internal fact-checker, Fiorina looked impressive. She was confident and authoritative; she handled the men well. Rubio also looked strong.

Trump was Trump; if you liked him before, you probably still like him. But he did seem to shrink as the debate got more wonky. So if I were the RNC, I’d push for wonkier questions in future debates, and hope that makes him look like the short kid in a game of keep-away.

I can’t judge Ben Carson, probably because I have so little in common with his target audience. I thought he was unimpressive in this debate, but that’s what I thought about the last debate, and his support jumped afterward.

If I had to pick out a loser, I’d choose Scott Walker. Nothing he said was memorable. He has mastered boilerplate conservative rhetoric, but can’t put any zing into it. I couldn’t tell whether Bush did himself any good or not.

The first post-debate poll more-or-less validated everybody’s first impressions: Fiorina up, Trump still leading, but with less support, Carson slipping, Rubio up a little, and Walker crashing.

and Bernie Sanders at Liberty University

I want to write about this speech, but the story got crowded out by the Republican debate. I’ll get to it. In the meantime, you can watch for yourself.

One comment I will make: Liberals need to do more of this. We shouldn’t write people off just because they happen to live in a conservative stronghold or belong to a conservative demographic.

One way you can tell that Bernie Sanders is becoming a more credible candidate is that the Right has begun trying to take him down. Up until now, they’ve been expressing a grudging respect for him, because they saw him as damaging the candidate they were really worried about, Clinton.

But last Monday the WSJ printed a scary headline about the $18 trillion price tag for Sanders’ proposals over the next decade. The Nation looked at that a little closer: Most of that $18 trillion is the $15 trillion that creates a Medicare-for-all single-payer healthcare system. So that’s not a new expense for the American people, it’s just a shift of resources from private insurance to public insurance.

Then you get to figure in the fact that Medicare has proven to be more efficient than private insurance.

According to Gerald Friedman, an economist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst who authored the analysis cited by the Journal, that transition would reduce American healthcare costs by almost $10 trillion over 10 years through economies of scale, better control of pharmaceutical costs, and savings on administrative bloat. … Sanders’s Medicare expansion would cost $15 trillion, but without it American businesses and taxpayers would spend $20 trillion over the same period, while still leaving millions uninsured.

So, not that scary after all.

I mean, I couldn’t really be so shallow as to choose a candidate based on who has the coolest t-shirt, or advise you to do the same, but … isn’t this a seriously cool t-shirt?

and Republican candidates and Muslims

Donald Trump raised eyebrows by not challenging a questioner at a New Hampshire rally who said that Muslims are “a problem in this country” and that “we know our current president is one”. Further, President Obama is “not even an American”. The guy asked “when can we get rid of them?” Them in this case seems to refer to training camps where Muslims learn to “kill us”, though some people have interpreted them to mean American Muslims. It’s also a little vague whether the questioner intended to say that such camps are here in America.

Trump gave an evasive answer about how “We’re going to be looking into that and plenty of other things”. Sunday on ABC’s This Week, Trump refused to answer questions about the incident.

But other Republicans did answer questions. Ben Carson said he believes President Obama is a Christian and said “I certainly would not have accepted the premise of a question like that.” But he went on to say that a candidate’s faith should matter to voters “if it’s inconsistent with the values of America. … But if it fits within the realm of America and [is] consistent with the Constitution, no problem.”

In a subsequent interview, he was more explicit: “I do not believe Sharia is consistent with the Constitution of this country.” He added that if a Muslim candidate “publicly rejected all the tenants of Sharia and lived a life consistent with that, then I wouldn’t have any problem.”

Nobody ever asks the follow-up questions I’d like to hear: Are some versions of Christianity — Dominionism, say? — also inconsistent with the Constitution? If not, what’s principle distinguishes Dominionism from Sharia?

but only liberals were talking about Jade Helm 15

which ended Tuesday without establishing martial law in Texas or any other state. Or at least that’s what they want us to think. Maybe martial law was established, but we all don’t notice because of mind-control beams from the cell towers or something.

My Google search of Alex Jones’ Infowars site didn’t turn up anything about the Jade Helm 15 military exercise since mid-July, but back in March he was warning: “This is in preparation for financial collapse, or maybe Obama not leaving office.”

JH-15 exemplifies how the extreme right wing keeps its followers in perpetual fear: Instead of a Jade Helm retrospective admitting that none of the wild predictions had panned out, Tuesday’s Infowars was full of new warnings about the dangers of taking in Syrian refugees, who might be jihadi infiltrators.

Same pattern for the NRA: You never see a retrospective about how Obama will be out of office in a year and a half, but he still hasn’t taken away anybody’s guns. No, no — the gun seizure is going to start any minute now. It’s been any-minute-now for six and a half years.

The Right is like an apocalyptic cult. No such cult ever throws a party to celebrate the fact that the world didn’t end when it was supposed to — next Monday, by some accounts — much less reviews what they got wrong and or draws the lesson that everybody should be more skeptical the next time somebody thinks he sees signs of the End. There’s never any time for that, because there’s always a new apocalypse to worry about, and its countdown clock is getting dangerously close to zero.

and you also might be interested in …

Arnold Schwarzenegger has been named as the new host of Celebrity Apprentice. The punch line to that story is so obvious I can’t even figure out who said it first: Donald Trump has lost his job to an immigrant!

August numbers are in: 2015 is still on pace to be the hottest year on record. If trends continue, it will break 2014’s mark by a considerable margin.

How climate-change deniers sound to normal people.

While I’m talking climate change, you have to love Jerry Brown’s response to Ben Carson’s statement: “I know there are a lot of people who say ‘overwhelming science’, but then when you ask them to show the overwhelming science, they can never show it.”

Brown wrote Carson a letter on official Governor of California stationery, and enclosed a thumbdrive containing the most recent report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

AP points out the obvious: Republican rhetoric about inequality doesn’t influence the tax plans they propose, in which tax cuts overwhelmingly go to the richest. Citizens for Tax Justice does the numbers on Jeb Bush’s proposal: The poorest 20% of taxpayers would see an average cut of $227, while the richest 1% would get an average cut of $82,392.

Vox connects the media’s credulousness at Jeb’s tax claims with its hyperfocus on Clinton’s emails, and recalls what happened in 2000: Every little wardrobe choice by Al Gore got dissected for evidence of inauthenticity, while W’s absurd claims that his tax cuts were fair and wouldn’t wreck the budget went unanalyzed.

National Review‘s current disgust with Donald Trump’s followers prompts Jeet Heer at The New Republic to look at the history of the “snobs vs. slobs” struggle inside the conservative movement. The often-repeated story that William F. Buckley excommunicated the John Birchers (I think I’ve repeated that one myself) is a little more complicated.

and let’s close with something

A horror becomes an adventure if you live to post the video. Here, a driver escapes the fires in Anderson Springs, California.

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Jeff Rosenberg  On September 21, 2015 at 12:33 pm

    I’d like to underscore the importance of the Liberty University talk by Bernie Sanders including the Q&A segment. First, I thought Senator Sanders was close to brilliant in the way that he both challenged, on the one hand, and invited, on the other hand, students to consider their concept and practice of “morality” and how there are many points of commonality with, shall we say, “liberals.” He does not apologize, triangulate, soften his message and yet there is a friendliness and non-defensive/non-attacking manner to the delivery of his message. There is also a fascinating and well-articulated reply by a graduate of Liberty University that is well-worth a listen — .

    • Anonymous  On September 21, 2015 at 6:38 pm

      I’d like to also put in a plug for campaign finance reform here. Both parties raise more money when they attack the other party than they do when they talk about the great things that they themselves are doing. Dialog would be easier without the pull of money against it. There are soooo many problems with the way we fund elections. My two favorite organizations working to change funding:
      * The Lessig presidential campaign, working to elect a president committed to reform (
      * The MAYDAY PAC, working to elect a congress committed to reform (

      • Anonymous  On September 21, 2015 at 8:57 pm

        Lessig’s speech to the New Hampshire Democratic Convention on September 19:

        Conservatives and liberals alike desperately want a democracy that represented them…. We must make restoring their democracy our first task,

      • Anonymous  On September 30, 2015 at 12:33 am

        MAYDAY also just did a poll, which (among other things) showed that 92% of Democrats and 94% of Republicans agree that special interest money has too much influence in American political campaigns. Lessig is running as a Democrat, but this isn’t a partisan issue. Full results of the poll are on the MAYDAY website:

  • Larry Benjamin  On September 21, 2015 at 7:59 pm

    Does the Breitbart “backlash” to the Ahmed Mohammed story have any validity? Aside from whether the kid disobeyed instructions and brought his clock to another classroom (maybe he wanted to impress his friends?), it sounds as if the police may have been reacting to what appeared to be a “hoax bomb.” We have to be careful not to duplicate what we see right wingers do all the time – jump on a bandwagon without knowing all the facts. It’s easy to say “look at those stupid Texans – they thought a clock was a bomb!” but if that isn’t entirely accurate, it’s just as bad as ignorant right wingers crowing about “Planned Parenthood selling baby parts.”

    On the other hand, if this is just spin after the fact, then the police and school administraters deserve whatever ridicule they get.

  • Bill David and Kathy Cate  On September 21, 2015 at 8:05 pm

    Sorry your church was hit by vandalism. I understand a knee jerk reaction thinking it was the work of a bigot and it most likely was, but look what was left. “Lives Matter” On a church especially, a sign might be better if it read “All Lives Matter”. Look forward to your posts on Monday morning with a cup of coffee. Bill

    Sent from my iPad


    • weeklysift  On September 22, 2015 at 8:03 am

      The point is that we put up the sign we wanted, and someone decided to deface our property to make it the sign they wanted. There are lots of other people’s signs I think I could “improve”, but that’s not an acceptable way to have a discussion in America.

      I’ve discussed in previous weeks why “All Lives Matter” is a bad response to “Black Lives Matter”. But my fellow parishioner Dan Breslau explained it better in a Facebook post that is going viral.

      • Allison  On September 24, 2015 at 11:03 am

        I’m not sure if the possibility is more or less disturbing than alternatives, but I can’t help but think that some of the events of vandalism might be fellow UUs who want to “improve” the signs. I had a great facebook conversation with a fellow UU who honestly felt that BLM was undemocratic and violent, and therefore not in line with our 5th and 1st principles. (I don’t agree, but I was trying to listen as well as I could.) My gut feeling is that people like him are feeling a loss of control (privileged distress) over putting our support behind a larger movement that we ultimately don’t (and, in my mind, shouldn’t) control.

        I appreciated your fellow parishoner’s response. Another way to look at the same idea occurred to me when I was doing a safety inspection form at my work the other day. If the form said “Is your lab safe?” probably most people would check Yes and move on, so of course that’s not what we do. The form instead gives specific things to look for: frayed power cables, etc. Similarly when we say “All lives matter” it’s too easy to say “Yep, all lives matter. Everything is great.” When we get specific and say “Black lives matter” we have to do the hard work of looking around and noticing that we as a society are not doing a good job of valuing black lives.

  • Brent Holman  On September 22, 2015 at 3:40 am

    Colorado, where they have their rabid sights set on, Agenda21, & the UN, because rightwingers are demonstrably STUPID.

  • Sindy  On September 26, 2015 at 3:07 am

    “So Mr. Principal, Ms. Mayor, and all the rest of the Irving, Texas power structure — guess what? Sometimes when you screw up, you don’t get to define it away. You know what you did? You reinforced the country’s negative stereotypes, not of Muslims, but of white Texans”

    Riiiight, because that’s exactly what they’re thinking. The worst thing that happened is that they got rid of a kid who, at the LEAST, has a father who is an agitator.

    Victory in my book

  • Rais  On September 26, 2015 at 1:31 pm

    Here in Australia we have forest fires every summer. You will get used to them. But when a road is surrounded by fire like the one in your video we are always told to stay put, not try to follow the road out through the fire. You only have to get one burning tree across the road and you’re finished. No way out and probably no way back.

  • The Sage  On April 30, 2017 at 12:09 pm

    Of course you have two options in life: accept reality, or create your own reality. It can be scary or it can be unscary, it depends on what you learn to make reality better for yourself. Change your beliefs and your thoughts, and be unimportant, it’s that simple. If you get in trouble it means you haven’t done anything to create your own personal reality, it’s created for you by the hating mob. But to get one thing clear, learn to change reality and things can go much smoother

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