Float and Sting

Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.
The hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see.

— Muhammad Ali

This week’s featured post is “Preserving the Cult of the Job Creator“.

This week everybody was talking about Muhammad Ali

who died Friday at age 74.

Boxing has declined in the last few decades, to the point that it’s now on the fringes of most sports fans’ attention. I had to look up who the heavyweight champion of the world is now, and didn’t recognize any of the names I saw.

If you grew up in this era of decline, you may not have any notion of what the heavyweight boxing title used to mean. I can’t think of anything to compare it to today. It had a mythic quality; the Champ wasn’t just a star athlete, he was the current avatar of some essential aspect of manliness. In recent years, probably no athlete has stood as high as Michael Jordan did in the 1990s, but even he was just a man playing a game. Half a century ago, the Champion of the World was more than that.

So it mattered who the Champ was, even if you didn’t care about boxing as a sport. That a black man like Joe Louis could be Champ in the 1930s and 40s (not just beating all comers, but representing America against foreigners like Nazi Germany’s Max Schmeling) didn’t just inspire his fellow blacks, but influenced many whites’ thinking about race, and probably played a role in the acceptability of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s.

In pure sporting terms, Muhammad Ali was a figure on the scale of Tiger Woods or LeBron James. He changed his sport with a style that was light and graceful. Previous champions had been powerful punchers. But Ali’s quickness made opponents miss by embarrassing margins, letting him strike back while they were off balance.

And then there was his beyond-sports significance. Joe Louis had epitomized the soft-spoken black man who knew not to overstep. Satchel Paige played the minstrel and clown, hoping to avoid white hatred by keeping things light. Jackie Robinson understood that his play on the field could be his only response to racist abuse. But Ali got in America’s face. “I am the greatest!” he announced bluntly. He set the stage for the black-power turn in the civil rights movement. Why did a successful black have to be humble and take care not to offend? Why couldn’t he be as brash as any white man?

And why did he have to be Christian? Already celebrated as Cassius Clay, he rejected that as a “slave name” when he converted to Islam. By insisting that the public use his Muslim name, Ali blazed a path later followed by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and many other sports stars.

At the height of his career, Ali refused to be drafted for the Vietnam War, catalyzing a national debate about whether black men should fight yellow men to maintain white men’s power. (“No Viet Cong ever called me nigger,” he said.) After being refused conscientious-objector status, he was convicted of draft evasion (later overturned by the Supreme Court on a technicality) and banned from boxing for more than three years.

Then he returned to take the championship back from Joe Frazier. The three Ali/Frazier bouts were Super-Bowl-level events; for a few days all other sporting news faded to insignificance.

So if Ali’s heyday happened before your time, this is what I would like you to understand: He filled a role in society that does not exist any more. There is literally no one like him.

and (yet again this week) Donald Trump

Whatever else you may think of Trump, he is a genius at drawing media attention. Hillary Clinton got a lot of buzz for her foreign-policy speech Thursday, but only because she was talking about Trump. Afterwards, conservatives criticized Clinton’s speech because it unveiled no new foreign-policy ideas … as if anyone would have covered an actual Clinton-doctrine speech that wasn’t about Trump.

Donald Trump’s ideas aren’t just different – they are dangerously incoherent. They’re not even really ideas – just a series of bizarre rants, personal feuds, and outright lies. He is not just unprepared – he is temperamentally unfit to hold an office that requires knowledge, stability and immense responsibility.

The Trump University fraud suits got major coverage this week. The basic story is the same one I summarized in March. What was new was how Trump doubled down on vilifying the judge in the San Diego suit, claiming that he must be biased against Trump because he is “Mexican” (actually an American born in Indiana to legal Mexican-immigrant parents). He also suggested that a Muslim judge might be also be biased against him.

Try to imagine any comparable situation. Picture, say, President Nixon denouncing Judge Sirica for being Italian, or Ted Cruz blaming the same-sex marriage decision on Justices Kagan, Breyer, and Ginsburg being Jewish.

The Atlantic notes an appellate court’s comment on a case in the 90s where similar objections were made:

“Courts have repeatedly held that matters such as race or ethnicity are improper bases for challenging a judge’s impartiality,” wrote the chief judge, Ralph Winter, a Reagan appointee. “Nor should one charge that a judge is not impartial solely because an attorney is embroiled in a controversy with the administration that appointed the judge. … Finally, appointment by a particular administration and membership in a particular racial or ethnic group are in combination not grounds for questioning a judge’s impartiality. Zero plus zero is zero.”

Vox makes this observation:

For a man who’s quick to claim that “the Hispanics” love him, Trump certainly seems quick to assume that actual Hispanics do not.

Trump’s other defense was to release a video in which Trump U customers praised the seminars they attended. AP discovered that these were not “typical” Trump U customers at all, but were “beholden to Trump” in some other way. For example, one owed Trump a favor for providing a blurb for her son’s self-help book. Another is a businessman who sells products through Trump’s golf courses, restaurants, and resorts.

As for why there are lawsuits in only two states, Vox reports: “State attorneys general who dropped Trump University fraud inquiries subsequently got Trump donations.” A former Texas official told The Dallas Morning News:

The decision not to sue him was political. Had [Trump] not been involved in politics to the extent he was at the time, we would have gotten approval. Had he been just some other scam artist, we would have sued him.

Tuesday, Trump lit into the press for doing its job too well.

Recapping the story from the beginning: Back in August, Fox News hosted a Republican debate. Megyn Kelly’s questions to Trump were tougher than he liked, so he tried to intimidate Fox into removing her five months later when Fox News held the last debate before the Iowa caucuses in January. Fox refused, so Trump boycotted the debate and staged a rival event, which he promoted heavily and billed as a fund-raiser for veterans groups. He claimed to raise $6 million, of which he supposedly donated $1 million himself.

In any other campaign, reporters would routinely ask the campaign office for proof that the money had been distributed, some staffer would assemble the paperwork and put out a press release, and that would be the end of it, probably without you ever hearing about the follow-up. But the Trump campaign didn’t do its part, so The Washington Post started contacting veterans groups to see if they’d gotten the promised money.

The Post’s David Fahrentholt first wrote about it in March, when he could only account for half the money. He came back to the topic on May 21, and got Trump’s campaign manager to admit that they only collected $4.5 million. He wouldn’t say whether Trump’s million was part of that or not.

Then on May 24, the checks suddenly went out.

Summing up: When Trump made a claim that garnered him good publicity, at least one hard-working reporter checked to see if it was actually true. It turned out to be only half-true, and the reporter’s scrutiny shamed Trump into making good on his promises. That’s good journalism. Any veterans group that got a check dated May 24 should send David Fahrenthold a thank-you note.

But Trump went into a tirade against the press corps as a whole, calling an ABC reporter “a sleaze”.

The unprecedented scale of Donald Trump’s disconnection from the truth has swamped ordinary notions of fact-checking. (PolitiFact has identified 29 Trump pants-on-fire lies, compared to 3 from Clinton and none from Sanders.) How the media should adjust has become a topic of discussion. Here, CNN tried out something new: fact-checking him in real time.

A number of American writers, some as famous as Stephen King and Amy Tan, published “An Open Letter to the American People” speaking out against Donald Trump. Unfortunately, it included this line:

Because American history, despite periods of nativism and bigotry, has from the first been a grand experiment in bringing people of different backgrounds together, not pitting them against one another

which Daniel José Older described as

not only empirically false, it’s a continuation of the ongoing legacy of sanitized lies America has shoved down its own throat since its creation

I guess I’d say that from the beginning, the two impulses have struggled for dominance. In every generation, America was bringing people of diverse backgrounds together in new ways, and also pitting people against each other. (“All men are created equal,” the slave-owner wrote earnestly.) Over time, I think the bringing-people-together impulse has been slowly winning out, as movements for abolition, women’s suffrage, civil rights, gender rights, gay rights, (and so on) attest. But I think it’s a mistake to minimize either the authenticity of the idealism that has animated Americans through the centuries or its consistent failure to fully manifest in a fair society.

And yes, electing Trump would be a lurch back towards nativism and bigotry.

and the Democrats

Tomorrow is the last big round of primaries, with only D.C.’s primary next week still left. California is the big one and may be close, but probably it will also be anticlimactic. New Jersey is in the Eastern time zone and Clinton should win it easily. That should give her more than enough delegates have the nomination already clinched before California is called.

Then Wednesday, we get to the moment everyone has been speculating about: What will Bernie do? At this point I think I’ll just wait and see.

Hard to say what’s going on with the general-election polls. Some show a close race between Trump and Clinton, while others don’t.

and the gorilla that got killed

Harambe, a gorilla at the Cincinnati  Zoo, was killed the Saturday before Memorial Day after a 3-year-old boy fell into the gorilla enclosure and seemed to be in danger.

This set off a storm of social media commentary because it wasn’t Harambe’s fault, maybe the boy could have been saved without killing the gorilla (though I wouldn’t want to be the guy who made that decision if the boy then died), and so on.

One major target was the boy’s mother, for not keeping better track of him. She has four children (who I assume were all at the zoo with her, though I haven’t seen anybody verify that explicitly). The fact that the family is black raised the old stereotype of irresponsible black women who have more children than they can manage. And it came out that the children’s father had served a year in jail on a drug charge, as if that had some relevance.

It’s a shame there isn’t more sympathy for a mother who clearly must have believed her child was about to die right in front of her.

My wife and I are that couple you know who likes kids but have none of their own, so we’ve had lots of conversations with parents who were letting their hair down. I think every parent I’ve known can tell a story about a moment when their kid was suddenly gone, and then just as suddenly reappeared someplace he or she couldn’t possibly be. Kids are ingenious little buggers who can spot momentary distractions and take advantage by moving really, really fast.

Here’s my negligent-adult story: I was out in the yard with a friend’s daughter. At one point she was standing securely on my shoulders, perfectly balanced between my raised arms, which she could grab if she got unsteady. But then she jumped off at a moment and in a direction that I completely did not expect. My dive to catch her was too slow, and we stayed in eye contact all the way to the ground, which seemed like a very long time. Landing on her back scared her and knocked the wind out of her, but she was otherwise unharmed.

All the stories I know personally are like that: The shield of adult protection momentarily fails, and something really bad could happen, but it doesn’t. Cars stop inches short, human or animal predators don’t happen to appear during the defenseless instant, the ER people get the stomach pumped out in time, and so on. That’s what happens almost every time adult vigilance fails. Some people get unlucky, but the rest of us (if we’re honest) have to admit this truth: If perfection were the standard, then nobody would deserve to have healthy children.

So the reactions I empathized with were like Amanda Marcotte’s:

The expectation that you spend the next 18 years of your life never being less than perfect for a moment is one reason I don’t want kids.

And Kimberley Harrington’s:

If you want to know why mothers — especially mothers in this country — are so batshit crazy, maybe it has something to do with the fact that we are blamed for every. god damn. thing. BY STRANGERS. Work full time? Why are you letting someone else raise your kid? Stay at home mom? Why aren’t you teaching them to be independent go-getters? Breastfeeding, formula feeding, fucking wilderness schools, grit, financial savvy, watching them all of the time, watching them none of the time, free range, Tiger Mom-ing ALL OF THE THINGS OH MY GOD INTERNET MAKE UP YOUR FUCKING MINDS.

but I need to fix a mistake

Last week I got taken in by some of the bad reporting on a case of an antibiotic-resistant infection. A commenter linked to a more accurate article from Ars Technica.

While, again, this isn’t exactly good news, it’s not catastrophic. There are several last-resort antibiotics, and doctors can try different combinations and strengths of prescriptions before an infection may be deemed untreatable.

The somewhat more detailed summary goes like this:

Thursday’s report of a mcr-1-based colistin-resistant bacterial infection in a US patient is concerning, but unsurprising. The plasmid based resistant gene threatens to spread to other bacteria, potentially to ones that are already resistant to last resort drugs, such as CRE. However, the trajectory of mcr-1‘s emergence and its contribution to drug resistant infection trends is not yet clear. For now, the case serves mostly to highlight the ongoing crisis of rising antibiotic resistance and furthers the need for better stewardship of old antibiotics and development of new ones.

My mistake in falling for — and worse, promoting — the more apocalyptic version of the story (that the bacteria was resistant to all antibiotics) demonstrates a type of error I think everybody needs to watch out for: I’ve been watching the erosion of antibiotic effectiveness for years now and trying to call my readers’ attention to it. So when reputable news outlets seemed to be saying that the disaster I’d been warning about was finally here, I didn’t check the details the way I should have.

and you might also be interested in

In case you missed it, here’s the town hall meeting President Obama had Wednesday in Elkhart, Indiana.

And he answered more questions afterward, like this one about gun control.

I guess it’s not that surprising to hear that there’s a 50th-anniversary Monkees album. But the fact that it’s getting good reviews is a shock.

and let’s close with something hopeful

José Picardo is a high school assistant principal who thinks the kids might be all right. In an article published on Medium, he recalled this photo that went viral on the internet last year, apparently showing teen-agers at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam staring into their phones while ignoring Rembrandt’s masterpiece “The Night Watch” on the wall behind them.

Lots of folks took the photo as “a perfect metaphor for our age”, in which young people are so addicted to technology that the beauty of the real world escapes them.

But what were they doing? Texting? Playing Angry Birds? Checking how many Likes their selfies were getting?

Not exactly.

It turns out that the Rijksmuseum has an app that, among other things, contains guided tours and further information about the works on display. As part of their visit to the museum, the children, who minutes earlier had admired the art and listened attentively to explanations by expert adults, had been instructed to complete an assignment by their school teachers, using, among other things, the museum’s excellent smartphone app.

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  • cnminter  On June 6, 2016 at 11:05 am

    Hillary Clinton go a lot of buzz because she gutted the bald pig.

  • lbacon  On June 6, 2016 at 11:33 am

    Re: “But I think it’s a mistake to minimize either the authenticity of the idealism that has animated Americans through the centuries or its consistent failure to fully manifest in a fair society” For an insightful and thorough in-depth discussion of this (America’s idealism and our failure to achieve it), see Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.’s book “Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul”, 2016.

  • Eric Albright  On June 6, 2016 at 11:37 am

    To answer your question about what Bernie Sanders will do on Wednesday, it seems no mystery: superdelegates do not cast their vote until the July Convention and Sanders will carry his campaign to that point. He may end Tuesday with an approximately equal number of pledged delegates, more or less as Clinton. Neither Democratic candidate will have sufficient pledged delegates to “clinch” the nomination before July, and it will be a contested convention of the likes when FDR won his nomination. It would be remiss to not clarify this process and presume that Hillary will win on Tuesday when in fact it is impossible. The superdelegates’ support for Clinton was given more than a year ago, before Sanders was polling at 2% nationally. In her 2008 run, Clinton was burned by her expectation that the supers would carry her when actually a majority of them switched to Obama at the end. Oh, and Clinton is currently under FBI investigation, the only presidential candidate to have borne that distinction, and the IG’s report released last week contradicted a number of Clinton’s claims regarding her private server and how many email accounts she used. I don’t seem to gather details like these in the otherwise effective Sift.

    • weeklysift  On June 6, 2016 at 11:46 am

      For Sanders to make up Clinton’s pledged-delegate lead would take not just a victory in California, but a complete blow-out. He will also continue to be far behind in total votes. The idea that the superdelegates would reverse the clear judgment of the primary voters seems far-fetched to me.

      I’ve been covering the email controversy as new information comes out, but I still don’t see the seriousness of it. http://prospect.org/article/why-hillary-wont-be-indicted-and-shouldnt-be-objective-legal-analysis

    • Guest  On June 7, 2016 at 8:11 pm

      You’re absolutely right, Eric, and I think you’d get a kick out of Glenn Greenwald’s postmortem on the super-delegate coverage (https://theintercept.com/2016/06/07/perfect-end-to-democratic-primary-anonymous-super-delegates-declare-winner-through-media/), but as to the Sift’s blind-spot on the developing email scandal specifically and Clinton in general I’m just as curious as you are. The prospect.org column cited in reply to you was written back in March by a veteran of the pro-militiary-industrial-complex Brookings Institute (which is very chummy with the Clintons and for good reason). The since released IG report you mention pokes a lot of holes in his case, and in many of the comments coming out of the Clinton camp, but that could all be beside the point. Could an indictment out of the FBI criminal investigation or a damning revelation out of the FOIA civil case tank the Clinton campaign? Sure, but there’s just as good odds that she wins anyway. That said, I wouldn’t mind a more critical approach to Clinton in these parts. For instance, last week’s column on major questions/themes of the country’s future missed a big one (if you ask Lawrence Lessig, THE big one), namely, a political system dominated by economic elites and their establishment handmaidens in both major parties. I can’t help thinking that the omission can be explained in part because even bringing up the topic makes the Clintons look bad for reasons too obvious to list. And no, I don’t think the omission was a conscious decision on Doug’s part to protect Hillary, that’s silly, but the evolution of this perceived bias is just one of the many reasons I’ll be staying tuned here every week as I’m sure you will too, Eric.

    • weeklysift  On June 8, 2016 at 11:18 am

      The point of the Prospect article, which still seems valid to me, is that nobody who claims Hillary should be indicted has been able to identify what exactly she should be indicted for.

  • Tom Hutchinson  On June 6, 2016 at 12:21 pm

    Tennessee state rep. goes full racist about Ali on Twitter. http://www.nydailynews.com/sports/tennessee-assemblyman-criticizes-muhammad-ali-offensive-tweets-article-1.2661575

  • James C  On June 6, 2016 at 4:16 pm

    I think news outlets should stop carrying Drumpf stories except when he says something kind, compassionate, or true.

    • JJ  On June 6, 2016 at 4:27 pm

      No, they should also point out that the complete bullshit is complete bullshit.

    • weeklysift  On June 6, 2016 at 7:09 pm

      I keep trying to abide by the rule that “I can’t believe he said that” doesn’t make it news. But I keep failing.

  • Peter  On June 7, 2016 at 3:06 am

    With regard to the antibiotics-are-now-useless claim from sites such as CNN, almost everyone pushed the panic button without once mentioning phage therapy (a form of treatment some countries have used effectively since the 1950s, one that the FDA has been resisting even more strongly than the pathogenic bacteria :))


    Luckily the Wall Street Journal seemed to have better journalists available…


    Both articles are written in such a way that they make it appear that the treatment involves slopping dirty sewage onto the wound, rather than emphasizing that the bacteriophages (specialized viruses that only target specific strains of bacteria) are only *sourced* from such material – by the time the organisms are used in a clinical setting they’ve been purified for medical use and are probably many generations descended from the originals.

    The cool thing about phages is the speed with which they act – rather than weeks or months of dosing before an effect is seen, it can sometimes be as little as 20 minutes before the benefits begin.

    Whether medical insurers in the US will support such therapy is open to question…

    (I mistyped my email address in an earlier attempt to comment- oops)

  • DMoses  On June 7, 2016 at 7:41 pm

    A heads up. I am 100% going to steal this line.

    ‘“All men are created equal,” the slave-owner wrote earnestly’

    I don’t know when or where or why (as i don’t publish anything but comments and forum posts) but its brilliant and perfect.

  • JJ  On June 8, 2016 at 7:40 am

    So, I just checked the results from the primaries. With 94% of the votes counted, Clinton is ahead in California 56%-43%. No surprises there.

    The weird thing is on the Republican side. Trump got 75% of the vote in California, which means 25% of the people voted for someone other than the only guy running. Same thing in the other states: Montana 73%; New Jersey 80%; New Mexico 70%; South Dakota 67%. How can someone get only 67% of the vote if no one else is running? Who were all those other people voting for? And WHY?

  • SamChevre  On June 10, 2016 at 3:12 pm

    Unlike you, I find “Try to imagine any comparable situation” pretty easy.

    Let’s imagine a judge who’s white, part of several white-only/pro-white organizations, and is presiding over a trial that’s a he-said/she-said case with a white victim and a black suspect. I can very easily imagine criticism “there’s a real potential for bias” from a lot of left-leaning people.

    In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve read at least a dozen news articles in the past year proposing that systematic bias against black defendants by white prosecutors and judges may be a problem.

    • weeklysift  On June 10, 2016 at 6:13 pm

      Systemic bias and personal bias are two different issues. If almost all judges and prosecutors were Hispanic or black, in a community where the wealth and power was largely in the hands of Hispanics or blacks, then whites might have a complaint.

      Similarly, I don’t see the comparison between a pro-Latino group and a pro-white group. The pro-Latino group can be trying to overcome systemic bias. The pro-white group can only be trying to preserve systemic bias.

  • ccyager  On August 19, 2016 at 12:42 pm

    Thank you for publishing the other side of the whole gorilla – kid debate. I also felt sorry for the mom. Kids can be little rascals, as you note, and it’s just impossible for adults to anticipate every single move they’re going to make. The mom had told the kid to stay where he was, as I heard it, and he disobeyed her. I can imagine the conversation later when all the hoopla dies down — the mom reminding her son that she’d told him to stay put and there was a good reason for that. I doubt that kid will ever forget it.

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