Making Truth Matter

This is the crisis of journalism, which I feel that journalists have not wrapped their heads around very well: It’s no longer particularly difficult to uncover the truth and write about it. All knowledge is public these days. Everything is out there. If you want to go find it, you can. The challenge is making truth matter.

– David Roberts
Why is this Happening?” 12-4-2018

This week’s featured post is “Why All the Bush Nostalgia?” In the end, I find that what I’m nostalgic for is a shared reality that is accepted by both major parties and forms the playing field for our political contests. Now 1/3 of the country lives in its own reality and is virtually unreachable.

The David Roberts interview quoted above plays a key role in that post. Near the end of that conversation, Chris Hayes sums up: The problem isn’t with conservatives as individuals — Roberts has just said that they’re not dumb — but with the social processes of the conservative community.

Remember: Everyone’s got confirmation bias. Everyone does motivated reasoning. We’re all doing that. But in the divorce, one side got the actual institutions that do a pretty good job of producing knowledge, and the other side didn’t get any of it. That’s the key here. … The institutional universe of developed rigorous processes of attempting to get at the truth, the entirety of that, more or less, ended on the left side in the epistemic divorce.

By “institutional universe” he means the scientific community, academia, and mainstream journalism.

This point is similar to the one I was making last week in my review of Network Propaganda.

This week everybody was talking about the Mueller investigation

A number of interesting court documents came out these last two weeks:

Some of these documents (particularly the Flynn memo) were only released to the public with substantial redactions, so there has been a lot of tea-leaf-reading in the media. I’m trying to avoid getting ahead of the facts, so I’ll just link to it without commenting.

One part that doesn’t require much interpretation, though, comes from the “Cohen’s illegal campaign contributions” section of the SDNY document:

During the campaign, Cohen played a central role in two similar schemes to purchase the rights to stories – each from women who claimed to have had an affair with Individual-1 – so as to suppress the stories and thereby prevent them from influencing the election. With respect to both payments, Cohen acted with the intent to influence the 2016 presidential election. Cohen coordinated his actions with one or more members of the campaign, including through meetings and phone calls, about the fact, nature, and timing of the payments. In particular, and as Cohen himself has now admitted, with respect to both payments, he acted in coordination with and at the direction of Individual-1. [my emphasis]

SDNY (not Mueller) is claiming that the president himself was part of that criminal conspiracy. The Trump Organization was also involved:

Executives of the Company agreed to reimburse Cohen … the Company then falsely accounted for these payments as ‘legal expenses.’

It’s fascinating to watch Fox News try to spin this. Here’s Byron York suggesting how Trump might claim that the payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen MacDougal weren’t illegal campaign contributions:

I think Trump’s biggest defense in the payoff case is: “I’ve been paying off women for years. … I didn’t start doing it when I ran for president.”

Basically, it’s an “I’m not a crook, I’m just a scumbag” defense. The Fox panel also invokes the same logical fallacy Trump himself often uses: that charges of non-Russia-related crimes indicate that prosecutors don’t have evidence of Russia-related crimes. But there’s no logical connection there.

Also, Cohen’s lying-to-Congress confession goes right to the heart of collusion: At the same time that Russia was hacking the DNC and putting together its social-media campaign to elect Trump, and Trump was calling for an end to sanctions against Russia, Trump’s people were negotiating with Putin to build Trump Tower Moscow. The outlines of a conspiracy case are starting to take shape.

Another campaign violation is coming out: There was illegal coordination between the Trump campaign and the NRA, which spent $30 million supporting him.

Reporting by The Trace shows that the NRA and the Trump campaign employed the same operation — at times, the exact same people — to craft and execute their advertising strategies for the 2016 presidential election. … “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a situation where illegal coordination seems more obvious,” said Ann Ravel, a former chair of the FEC who reviewed the records. “It is so blatant that it doesn’t even seem sloppy. Everyone involved probably just thinks there aren’t going to be any consequences.”

A point that everyone needs to keep in mind: Again and again, when Trump’s people were asked about contacts with Russia, they lied. Some lied to Congress, some lied to investigators, and Trump himself repeatedly lied to the public. Trump and his supporters still have not put forward a credible story that explains what motivated all these lies.

I posted this video when it came out in 2017, but it’s worth watching again.

and election fraud in North Carolina

Invariably, when one side starts making up stories about the other cheating, the result is cheating “to get even” on their own side. It’s no big deal any more, they think, because everybody is doing it.

In North Carolina’s 9th congressional district, Republican Mark Harris appeared to win by 905 votes. But there were some obvious shenanigans with absentee ballots. Once that was noticed, it became clear that something similar had happened in Harris’ narrow primary win over the incumbent congressman.

The state election board has refused to certify Harris’ victory, and could order a new election. This is the only seat in Congress that is still undecided.

and other Republican attempts to undo the will of the voters

After Democrat Roy Cooper won the North Carolina governorship in 2016, the gerrymandered Republican super-majority in the legislature changed a bunch of rules to take power away from the governorship. At the time this seemed like an extreme overreach, causing the Electoral Integrity Project to score North Carolina’s democracy as on a par with countries like Cuba and Indonesia.

But that’s become the model for how Republicans respond to losing elections.

In November, Wisconsin’s electorate ended eight years of Republican dominance in state government by choosing Democrats Tony Evers as governor and Josh Kaul as attorney general. Democrats also won races for secretary of state and state treasurer. … Having lost the governorship, [Republicans are] using a lame-duck session of the legislature to strip Evers of many powers they were perfectly content to see Republican Gov. Scott Walker exercise. Why are they doing this now? Because Walker, who was defeated by Evers, is still in office to sign their bills.

Among other things, the legislation would stop Evers from taking control of a state economic development agency that the Democrat has pledged to abolish, and it would make it harder for him to overturn restrictions Walker imposed on social benefits. It would also limit early voting (which helped the Democrats win by expanding turnout). For good measure, the legislature wants to prevent Kaul from withdrawing the state from a lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act — even though that’s exactly what Kaul told voters he would do.

In addition to the plain bad sportsmanship of this, there’s another issue: The Republican majority in the legislature is already illegitimate.

The Democrats won the popular vote in State Assembly contests by a margin of 54 percent to 46 percent but emerged with only 36 seats to the GOP’s 63.

Something similar is happening in Michigan. In a variety of states, Republican legislatures are mucking around with laws passed by voter referendums. In Florida, for example, 65% of the electorate voted to restore voting rights to felons (other than murderers and rapists). But not so fast, voters. The Secretary of State has invented some problems with the language of the referendum, and so he is refusing to give instructions to local officials who need to implement the law.

Some counties say they will allow former felons to begin registering on January 8, but others may not. That could lead to lawsuits over the disparities in people’s voting rights based on the county where they live. Michael McDonald, a University of Florida professor and an expert in elections, predicted Tuesday that Detzner’s “resisting implementation of the restoration of felons voting rights…is going to lead to costly litigation for the state, with voters footing the bill.”

but you should still be paying attention to the climate

Carbon emissions are still rising: Up an estimated 2.7% in 2018, after a 1.6% rise last year. This breaks what had been a “three-year plateau”.

The United States is one of the culprits, with emissions up 2.5% after several years of declines. (The EU posts a decline.) That’s not as bad as India’s 6.3% rise, but there’s also much less excuse for it. (India is still trying to bring electricity to 300 million people.)

It’s important to keep the right baseline in mind: Leveling off is not nearly good enough to avoid climate disasters down the road. Carbon emissions need to be going down quickly. The NYT has some compelling graphics comparing the track emissions are on, where the Paris Agreement would put them, and what would be needed to keep global warming below 2 degrees centigrade.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration continues to go in exactly the opposite direction. This week they unveiled a plan to open 9 million acres of the American West to oil and gas drilling.

and you also might be interested in …

The New York Times points out just how revealing the location data collected by your cell phone apps can be. The data sold to advertisers may not say who you are, but who else spends the night at your house and then goes to your workplace? A separate article gives you instructions for turning off this data flow.

A hidden gem from a couple of weeks ago is Ezra Klein’s conversation with Peter Beinart on Klein’s weekly podcast. It’s the kind of conversation that a non-Jew like me seldom gets to hear: two smart, articulate, liberal American Jews talking to each other as Jews.

The conversation is multi-faceted, but centers on (in Klein’s words) “the strange, vulnerable space that many Jews, myself included, find themselves in today.” It covers fear of rising anti-Semitism; the debate over whether Jews are better off turning to the right and allying with the Evangelical Christians or to the left and allying with other religious communities (like American Muslims) who understand the need for religious tolerance; disillusionment with Israel’s right-wing drift; and a view of Judaism that emphasizes “the importance of remembering what it’s like to be a stranger in a strange land, of knowing that bigotry takes whatever forms it requires to justify itself, of maintaining humanity amid struggle.”

Here’s an interesting view from the other side: an anti-transgender-rights activist analyzes his side’s stunning (68%-32%) loss on a referendum to repeal a transgender rights law in Massachusetts.

The author faults his side’s reliance on the fear-mongering predator-in-the-bathroom argument, which he admits was “largely contrived”, i.e., based on nothing. He argues instead that conservatives need to target trans people directly:

three important points were not being presented to the public: (1) the LGBT movement’s “civil rights” argument has no basis whatsoever; (2) that “transgenderism” is actually a mental disorder and a destructive ideology, and (3) this law forces people to accept an absurd lie – men can never become women.

He makes an analogy to the same-sex marriage debate, which his side also lost: Rather than talk about side issues like “every child deserves and mother and and father”, they should have denigrated gays more:

they refused to argue that homosexuality was immoral, had terrible health risks, was fraught with addiction and mental health problems, etc.

Personally, I think that strategy only works as long as the denigrated group stays in the closet. Once people understand that they already know such individuals, they stop buying the argument that they’re all sick and immoral. (It’s hard to convince yourself that the nice gay couple across the street is a threat to Western civilization.)

Through my church, I know a couple of transgender young adults. They don’t seem mentally ill to me. And to the extent that they have any problems — what young adult doesn’t? — I don’t see how forcing them back into their previously assigned gender roles will help.

Forbes looks at the President’s self-dealing. Of the money contributed to Trump’s 2020 campaign, $1.1 million has been spent at Trump businesses. The article raises questions about how much value the campaign is getting for its money.

Price-fixing schemes prevent generic drugs from lowering your healthcare expenses as much as they should.

The former presidents and their wives shared a pew during the Bush funeral. During the recitation of the Apostle’s Creed, Trump and Melania were the only ones who didn’t join in. It’s often illuminating to think of Trump as a child, and that’s what I saw when the cameras panned past him: Church is boring, and he doesn’t endure boredom well. At least he didn’t fidget.

If Colin Kaepernick’s lawsuit against the NFL needed any more ammunition, the Washington Redskins have just provided it. Kaepernick — who has been criticized by President Trump for kneeling during the national anthem to protest police killings of young blacks — was still unsigned on opening day. But as the season goes on, more and more quarterbacks get injured and jobs open up. Kaepernick has not been offered any of them, despite being a Super Bowl quarterback still in his prime.

Washington was leading its division when it’s starting quarterback, Alex Smith, broke his leg. But rather than turn to Kaepernick, they moved back-up Colt McCoy into the starting role and signed ex-Jet Mark Sanchez to to be the back-up. (Sanchez is best known for the famous butt-fumble play against the Patriots, which made #2 on this list of all-time worst plays.) Things went badly, and the team fell to 6-6.

Even so, there were still many playoff scenarios when McCoy also got injured for the rest of the season. Of all the quarterbacks available during this time, Kaepernick has clearly been the best option. But instead they signed Josh Johnson, who “last threw a pass in 2011”.

Sunday, the Redskins fell behind the New York Giants 40-0 before losing 40-16. Their playoff chances are now virtually gone. Their fans need to start asking why staying on Trump’s good side was more important than winning.

Rex Tillerson made his first public appearance since being fired from the Trump administration.

On Thursday night, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a rare public appearance that he had to repeatedly tell Donald Trump that some of the things the president wanted to do were impossible because they were against the law or violated a treaty.

“I’d say here’s what we can do,” the former Exxon CEO said in a Houston speech. “We can go back to Congress and get this law changed. And if that’s what you want to do, there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Mr Tillerson called the president “a man who is pretty undisciplined, doesn’t like to read, doesn’t read briefing reports, doesn’t like to get into the details of a lot of things, but rather just kind of says, ‘This is what I believe.'”

Trump naturally couldn’t let that be the final word, so he struck back, tweeting that Tillerson was “dumb as a rock” and “lazy as hell”.

Trump never seems to get it: When you insult someone that YOU brought into the public eye, you’re just insulting your own judgment. As I commented after he called Stormy Daniels “Horseface”: Dude, you’re the one who had sex with her.

Trump continues to strip expertise out of the government: Nikki Haley may not have had foreign policy experience before she became UN Ambassador, but at least she had some kind of substance (having been governor of South Carolina). Her replacement, Heather Nauert, has none. She was a Fox News blonde until Trump made her a spokeswoman for the State Department. She looks good on TV, and that’s what counts in this administration.

“In terms of what we normally look for at the United Nations, her résumé is very thin,” David Gergen, the veteran presidential aide, told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Thursday night. He said the role of U.N. representative was not a “communications job” but rather “a place where we conduct active diplomacy with nations around the world.”

Not any more, apparently.

and let’s close with something seasonal

This year once again, we’re debating “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”: Is it really a date rape song or not?

Here’s an analysis that I find persuasive: In the context of its era (the 1940s), it wasn’t. But that context is so lost by now that playing the song should require an explanation longer than the song itself. Here’s the conclusion:

So it’s not actually a song about rape. In fact it’s a song about a woman finding a way to exercise sexual agency in a patriarchal society designed to stop her from doing so. But it’s also, at the same time, one of the best illustrations of rape culture that pop culture has ever produced. It’s a song about a society where women aren’t allowed to say yes … which also happens to mean that it’s also a society where women don’t have a clear and unambiguous way to say no.

So I wouldn’t include it on my holiday play list, but now that I know how to listen to it, I also won’t be disgusted by it.

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  • reverendsax  On December 10, 2018 at 12:36 pm

    These last two posts on reality and truth resonate with my reading last week on Goebbels and his insights into propaganda. He determined that the enemy was democracy and that power owns reality. His strategy was the mass effect of attacks for everything and nothing, continual and repeated lies and distractions, fear, terror, strong symbols, and dazzle. Fortunately, Trump has not tried terror.

  • Abby Hafer  On December 10, 2018 at 2:19 pm

    “In the end, I find that what I’m nostalgic for is a shared reality that is accepted by both major parties and forms the playing field for our political contests.”

    Welcome to my world! As an evolutionary biologist, I’ve been dealing with the post-truth environment for a looong time. Consider me to be a canary in the coal mine. I have tried to get through to people about this for years, and only now are they noticing. To paraphrase Martin Niemöller:

    “First they came for evolution, and I did not speak out—because I was not an evolutionary biologist.
    Then they came for climate science, and I did not speak out— because I am not a climate scientist, and besides, I have stock in Exxon.
    Then they came for visible, verifiable facts, and I did not speak out—because I already knew a bunch of facts.
    Then they came for language that means something—and nobody said anything because language was meaningless.”

    • weeklysift  On December 10, 2018 at 4:09 pm

      Having grown up in a Bible-as-literal-truth religion, I know what you’re talking about. And yes, climate change denial looks a great deal like evolution denial.

      The Niemöller rewrite is really good. Are you the author? Can I quote it?

  • Dave Andre  On December 10, 2018 at 3:24 pm

    Doug — why the sexist remark about blondes? “Trump continues to strip expertise out of the government: Nikki Haley may not have had foreign policy experience before she became UN Ambassador, but at least she had some kind of substance (having been governor of South Carolina). Her replacement, Heather Nauert, has none. She was a Fox News blonde until Trump made her a spokeswoman for the State Department. She looks good on TV, and that’s what counts in this administration.” There’s no need to call her a “Fox News blonde”. Just say she worked at Fox or was a Fox News reporter. Why is her gender (or hair color) relevant to her experience, except as a sexist joke in poor taste? I strongly suspect you don’t mean it that way, but that’s certainly how most will read it.

    • weeklysift  On December 10, 2018 at 3:34 pm

      Because her hair color is relevant to her experience at Fox News, where being blonde is a major factor in whether or not a woman can get on the air.

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