Standing the Strain

I know I need a small vacation
But it don’t look like rain.
And if it snows, that stretch down south
Won’t ever stand the strain.

– Jim Webb, “Witchita Lineman

This week’s featured post is “Who Messed With Texas?

This week everybody was talking about Texas

The weather caused power failures which caused water failures, and now the weirdness of Texas’ energy system is resulting in outrageous electricity bills. All that is in the featured post, plus the state’s history of mismanagement and its leadership’s attempt to deflect blame onto sustainable energy, which works fine in much colder places like Wisconsin and Antarctica. And Ted Cruz is the comedy relief, standing in the Cancun airport with his flag-of-Texas face mask demonstrating how much he identifies with the state he was running away from.

As long as that article is, one point got left out. Remember the Russian SolarWinds hack, the one that spread into more systems than anyone has fully listed? One of the things computer-security wonks (like my wife) worry about is penetration of systems that control the power grid.

Probably the scariest thing about the whole Texas situation was what would have happened if ERCOT hadn’t starting pulling the plug to reduce demand:

The worst case scenario: Demand for power outstrips the supply of power generation available on the grid, causing equipment to catch fire, substations to blow and power lines to go down.

That scenario could have left Texas blacked out for months (kind of like Puerto Rico). But now think about this: Imagine some hostile hacker, maybe from the Russian military, has penetrated ERCOT’s control systems. Maybe the hack only survives because the hackers don’t do anything to draw the system’s attention, but they know they have a short time window to meddle before they get detected and booted off. What if that time period is long enough to block the ERCOT shut-down order for the “minutes and seconds” necessary to trigger that worst case?

and legislation

The March 14 deadline is looming for Congress to pass Biden’s Covid relief package, or something like it. (Otherwise people start to lose unemployment benefits.) The administration is still hoping to get some Republican support, but also preparing to push a bill through the Senate using the reconciliation process that would circumvent a Republican filibuster.

That’s probably all going to work out somehow, because Biden has been going around the Republican opposition in Congress to get support from state and local Republican officials, as well as the American people. Neither Democratic nor Republican moderates will want the blame if nothing passes.

But two other bills will come up shortly, and their fates are much less certain: an immigration bill and a democracy bill.

The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 includes: an eight-year pathway to citizenship for nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants; a shorter process to legal status for agriculture workers and recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program; and an enforcement plan that includes deploying technology to patrol the border.

The For the People Act

makes illegal essentially all of the anti-enfranchisement tactics perfected by the right over the past decades. It then creates a new infrastructure to permanently bolster the influence of regular people.

The bill’s provisions largely fall into three categories: First, it makes it far easier to vote, both by eliminating barriers and enhancing basic outreach to citizens. Second, it makes everyone’s vote count more equally, especially by reducing gerrymandering. Third, it hugely amplifies the power of small political donors, allowing them to match and possibly swamp the power of big money.

Neither bill is likely to get support from ten Republican senators. Nor does either fit within the tight constraints on the reconciliation process, which is focused on issues of taxing and spending. So that will be the point where the filibuster issue can’t be finessed any further. Either Democrats will have to eliminate the filibuster (or poke such a big hole in it that it might as well be eliminated), or they will have to go back to core constituencies and admit failure.


The For the People Act stands in stark contrast to the hundred or more voter-suppression laws being considered in Republican state legislatures.

This is a good time to repeat the theme of a 2018 Sift post “You can’t compromise with bullshit“. At that time, I was focusing on the various “border security” measures Trump and his nativist allies were pushing: the wall, concentration camps for asylum seekers, and so on. The point of these measures was to end the “American carnage” of a non-existent immigrant crime wave. Trump pushed this dark fantasy again and again, to the point of implying that the US has no indigenous criminals: “STRONG BORDERS, NO CRIME” he tweeted.

For years, Democrats had hoped for a grand bargain on immigration: Legal status for the 11 million undocumented immigrants already here in exchange for increased border security. The reason that deal has never worked out is simple: Because the “immigrant crime wave” never existed, no amount of border security can stop it.

Same thing with elections: No amount of “election security” can ever be enough to satisfy Republicans, because the “voter fraud” problem they are trying to solve doesn’t exist. As I wrote in 2018:

When claims are based on nothing, they can go on being based on nothing, no matter what you do to mollify the people who make those claims.

and the virus

The statistics continue to improve, while the spread of new variants of Covid-19 looms ominously. (I think the cartoon is too pessimistic, but it expresses an important point of view.) The US recorded its half-millionth Covid death, a total that is already well past the number of deaths the country had in World War II. 43.6 million Americans have gotten at least one vaccine shot, and 18.9 million are fully vaccinated. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which requires only one shot and can be stored in a simple refrigerator, is getting closer to approval. Shots could start in early March.


One of the striking facts about vaccine distribution is the racial inequity.

This is a good example of the kind of systemic racism conservatives deny exists. (Laura Ingraham is offended that President Biden even uses the phrase “systemic racism”.)

I’m pretty confident that nobody in the public-health power structure has been saying “Let’s not waste our scarce vaccines on people of color.” (That would be overt, personal racism, not systemic racism.) But somehow, things just work out so that white people are more likely to get vaccinated first. If nobody consciously makes racial equity a priority, the gears just turn in a way that favors Whites.

and the Mars landing

https://theweek.com/cartoons/967840/editorial-cartoon-mars-perseverance-covid

One of my earliest memories is of my grandfather and I watching the countdown on John Glenn’s Mercury flight. For a lot of people of my generation, space flights still evoke that little-kid belief that anything is possible if we all work towards it. Hearing that we had landed a new rover on Mars rekindled some of that.


The Mars rover has its own Twitter account

and Rush Limbaugh

He died of lung cancer on Wednesday.

It’s hard to decide what to say about him. He doesn’t deserve the protection of maxims like “Speak nothing but good about the dead”, because his whole career was about scorning those kinds of rules (like when the “AIDS Update” segment on his show mocked dying gay people). On the other hand, it’s not the dead who benefit from such restraint. Vindictive thoughts are corrosive; we control them for our own well-being.

So it’s tempting to say nothing, but Limbaugh had a big impact on American political culture, so his death requires an assessment. That assessment can’t be positive, because his impact was far from positive. But I refuse to revel in his death. I have smiled at some of the more vicious things I’ve seen posted on Facebook, but I won’t pass them on.

Over a 40-year period, Limbaugh’s voice popularized a new style of conservatism. Pre-Rush conservative media personalities like Bill Buckley and George Will modeled upper-class intellectuality: Some people are just better than the rest, and government attempts to pretend otherwise are bound to backfire. They could be funny in a clever, Victorian way; sometime the next morning you might figure out exactly how you had been insulted. They were embarrassed by the yahoos, the Birch-society conspiracy theorists of their day, and did their best to keep them in the closet. Most of all, the Buckley/Will conservatives were about ideas — bad ideas, for the most part, but defended with all the skill their Yale and Oxford educations could bring to bear.

Limbaugh changed all that, creating a conservatism that was about tribes rather than principles or programs. Day after day, he fought a scorched-earth culture war. He championed the yahoos, reveled in conspiracy theories, and lied without qualm or apology. The goal was not to persuade liberals, but to make them cry.

The Republican Party today, the party of Trump, is largely his creation. It has no core ideas or governing philosophy, but instead has personalities and grievances. It cares nothing about facts, doesn’t believe in democracy, and is comfortable being supported by violence. It can motivate 74 million people to vote, but it can’t come up with even a back-of-the-envelope diagram of a healthcare plan.

Did he have any virtues? Fellow conservative pundit Rich Lowry tweeted:

Liberals who didn’t listen to Rush, and just read the Media Matters accounts, never understood how *funny* he was. What set him off from his many imitators was how wildly entertaining he was, and the absolutely unbreakable bond he formed with his listeners.

But what kind of “funny” was he? Humor revolves around surprise: An expectation is set up and then violated. In most of the Limbaugh humor I saw, the surprise came from violating the taboo against cruelty. (“I can’t believe he said that!”) As Slate’s Justin Peters put it: “his was the wit of the prep school bully making fun of the foreign exchange student’s lunch.”

Limbaugh violated “political correctness” by relentlessly mocking and insulting anyone who threatened his white male Christian privilege. If you were similarly privileged (as Rich Lowry is), and if you felt stifled by a culture that increasingly disapproved of the vicious things you wanted to say, it was probably cathartic to hear Limbaugh say them and defy the consequences. But I’ve googled various versions of “Limbaugh’s funniest lines”, and all I get are the outrages collected by his critics. “Limbaugh jokes” will lead you to jokes about Limbaugh, not jokes he told. (They’re not particularly funny either.) Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf verified my finding:

He will likely be remembered more for the worst things he said than the best things he said, because unlike Buckley, who said his share of awful things, no Limbaugh quote stands out as especially witty or brilliant.

Rolling Stone’s Bob Moser commented:

He wasn’t selling political ideas — and he never has. He was selling political attitude. The swaggering certitude. The mocking dismissiveness. The freedom to offend. The right to assert your privilege without guilt or embarrassment.

and continued fallout from the Trump coup attempt

Even after I have the thought “There oughtta be a law”, it’s still sometimes surprising to discover there actually is one: the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D- Mississippi) has filed a lawsuit against Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani, the Proud Boys, and the Oath Keepers, invoking the KKK Act’s provisions for civil compensation:

The carefully orchestrated series of events that unfolded at the Save America rally and the storming of the Capitol was no accident or coincidence. It was the intended and foreseeable culmination of a carefully coordinated campaign to interfere with the legal process required to confirm the tally of votes cast in the Electoral College. …

Accordingly, this action seeks the award of compensatory damages to redress the harm to the Plaintiff caused by the Defendants’ use of intimidation, harassment and threats of violence to interfere with his discharge of his legally required duty as a Member of Congress and punitive damages to punish the Defendants for the reckless and malicious manner in which they acted and to enjoin and deter a recurrence of this unlawful conduct. …

Under the Ku Klux Klan Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1985(1), Defendants may not “conspire to prevent, by force, intimidation, or threat, any person … holding any office, trust, or place of confidence under the United States … from discharging any duties thereof; or to induce by like means any officer of the United States to leave any … place[] where his duties as an officer are required to be performed, or … to molest, interrupt, hinder, or impede him in the discharge of his official duties.” …

As a result of the acts set out in the above paragraphs committed in furtherance of this conspiracy, Plaintiff Thompson was hindered and impeded in the discharge of his official duties and suffered the deprivation of his right to be free from intimidation and threats in the discharge of his official duties, as explicitly protected under Ku Klux Klan Act. …

As a result, Plaintiff Thompson seeks an award of compensatory damages [and] an award of punitive damages to punish the Defendants for engaging in a concerted and continuing course of unlawful conduct and to deter the Defendants and others from engaging in similar unlawful conduct in the future.

[Don’t be confused like I was: The quote above doesn’t say that the KKK Act is from the year 1985. It’s section 1985 of the U.S. Code.]


Nine members of the Oath Keepers are also facing criminal charges.

A 21-page indictment alleged that the defendants “did knowingly combine, conspire, confederate, and agree with each other and others known and unknown” to force entry to the Capitol and obstruct Congress from certifying the election of Joe Biden as president in riots that led to five deaths and assaults on 139 police.


One of the attorneys who filed one of Trump’s baseless lawsuits to overturn the election is going to have to explain himself. The judge in that case has ordered him to face a grievance committee that could recommend discipline. (Disbarment? The article doesn’t specify.) The attorney “has not sufficiently allayed the court’s concerns regarding potential bad faith.”

you also might be interested in …

After a long delay, which might have been intended to avoid interfering with the election campaign, then not interfering with Trump’s attempt to invalidate the election, and finally not interfering with his impeachment trial, the Supreme Court has ruled that Trump’s accountants have to turn over the documents that Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance wants, including his tax returns. Vance responded with a laconic statement: “The work continues.”


Last spring, the country briefly went ga-ga over Andrew Cuomo’s Covid briefings. They were such a realistic contrast with happy talk that came out of the White House.

Well, Cuomo has his own Covid scandal now.

An investigation by the New York State attorney general found that the governor’s office may have misled the public on the number of pandemic deaths in nursing homes after it ordered elderly people hospitalized with the virus returned to their facilities.


One of the more interesting links in this week’s featured post came from the Chicago Tribune. Well, enjoy it while you can. The Tribune Company is about to be bought by a slash-and-burn financial group. In the same boat are the Orlando Sentinel and New York Daily News, which the Tribune Company owns. But Baltimore gets a reprieve. The Baltimore Sun will be spun off to a nonprofit organization.

Having lived in the Chicago in the 1980s and visited many times since, I’ve already mourned the Trib that I used to know. It once was the kind of paper you couldn’t finish in a single sitting. Those days are long gone, but the Trib still retains the ability to do a certain amount of real journalism. That’s probably going to end soon too.


Advice from Heather Thompson Day on responding to sexist jokes:

My dad just told me “never laugh. They will mistake your nervous laughter as compliance. Instead, pretend you don’t get it, and watch them explain to you why you should be laughing.” I’ve used this advice my whole life since.

When I was 19 my boss said I should be a phone sex operator & laughed.

I said “I don’t get it”

He said “it’s a joke”

I said “explain it to me”

& that’s how I learned that once sexual harassers have to explain why their inappropriate jokes are funny, they stop laughing.


The fact that President Biden is far more popular with the American people than Trump ever was is really bugging right-wing media. The counter-attack is already underway, using the old Karl Rove tactic of trying to turn an opponent’s strength into a weakness.

Tucker Carlson sarcastically poked at the Joe-and-Jill relationship, which seems infinitely warmer and more genuine than previous first couple’s. In the process, he managed to repeat his denial of climate change and invoke the ridiculous Biden-is-senile trope. (Trump never had the kind of mental acuity Biden demonstrated in his CNN townhall Tuesday in Milwaukee — though he did misstate a few statistics. When asked a question, Biden actually answered it, rather than talking over it and daisy-chaining rambles about himself and his grievances, as Trump usually did. His answers reflected his ability to imagine what the questioner’s life is like — something Trump could never do.)

The Bidens’ affection is totally real. It’s in no way part of a slick PR campaign devised by cynical consultants determined to hide the president’s senility by misdirection. No, not at all! Their love is as real as climate change!

Meanwhile, Newsmax picks another target: Biden’s 12-year-old German shepherd Champ.

and let’s close with something energetic

In 1943, the Nicholas Brothers performed what Fred Astaire claimed was the greatest dancing he had ever seen on film. The NYT told the brothers’ story, and here’s the video, from the movie “Stormy Weather“. (Hat tip to another sifter, the twisted one.)

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Comments

  • nicknielsensc  On February 22, 2021 at 8:56 pm

    I was always taught to never speak ill of the dead, but to only say good.

    Rush Limbaugh is dead. Good.

  • David Goldfarb  On February 22, 2021 at 9:25 pm

    I love that Nicholas Bros. clip. There are some others on YouTube.

    I remember once I showed that clip to a relative. We asked my wife if I’d showed it to her. She said, “I’m not sure.” My relative remarked, “If you’re not sure, then you haven’t seen it.”

  • Myles  On February 23, 2021 at 6:11 pm

    “This is a good example of the kind of systemic racism conservatives deny exists.”

    I’m worried that this catch-all of “systemic racism” is neither useful nor correct. The linked article doesn’t do a good job of breaking down the data to try to isolate causal factors, but does contain this quote:
    “Experts say several factors could be driving the emerging disparity, including deep distrust of the medical establishment among Black Americans because of a history of discriminatory treatment; inadequate access to the vaccine in Black neighborhoods; and a digital divide that can make it difficult to get crucial information. Vaccination sign-ups are being done to a large degree online.”

    Many of potential causes could themselves be the result of historic (or even modern?) racism, but none of them point to actual racism in the distribution of the vaccines.

    Seems to me that the cry of “systemic racism” is lazy, accusatory way of oversimplifying complex reality, which I’d expect to see elsewhere, but this blog is usually so deep and insightful that I’m surprised to see it here.

  • Dale Moses  On February 24, 2021 at 3:31 pm

    I don’t think the Buckley Era was one of ideas. Like many things that have not aged well you can go back and read the things they wrote and how they wrote it. The vocabulary was larger but the structure was the same “do what i say because i say it”. And the tactics used to defend it were not an honest construction of ideas but just more personal attacks. You remember the idea that Buckley might have insulted you in a way you did not realize until the next day precisely because all you remember about Buckley was that he insulted you. Because that is all he did

  • Meredith  On February 24, 2021 at 6:42 pm

    “Limbaugh had a big impact on American political culture, so his death requires an assessment. That assessment can’t be positive, because his impact was far from positive. But I refuse to revel in his death.” Reading what you’ve written about Limbaugh’s death reminded me of the death of another divisive figure: Margaret Thatcher. And reminded me of one of the best things I read about that, from Russell Brand. It’s a great piece of engaging writing that manages that assessment, and strikes the right balance between rejoicing at the death and white-washing the negative impacts of these people: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/apr/09/russell-brand-margaret-thatcher

  • Craig E Jackson  On February 25, 2021 at 10:24 am

    I think it’s a little facile to just mention the effects of systemic racism in vaccine administration without drilling into the causes. I suspect that there’s less of a current cause and more of a historical cause. Vaccines have mostly been limited to older Americans and persons in health-related professions.

    I expect that there are marginally few older Americans of color because of historic health care issues. (Cost, reasonable distrust of the health care system, differential involvement in more health-threatening jobs.) I also expect that there are marginally fewer physicians of color due both to overt discrimination and economic disadvantage. I expect that caregivers in nursing homes are marginally more likely to be persons of color. I don’t have any good idea what the marginal penetration would be for the remaining persons.

    I think that the overriding idea is that if you target older Americans in your vaccine drive, you’ll vaccinate fewer persons from historically disadvantaged populations.

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