New Normal

No. 2019 is never going to happen again, and that’s fine. I’m not getting “back” to normal: I’m settling into the new normal, for me.

Rebecca Watson, founder of the Skepchick blog

This week’s featured post is “What if public schools were the target all along?

This week everybody was talking about Ukraine

For weeks now I’ve been a Ukraine-invasion skeptic. Not a disbeliever — I don’t understand the situation well enough to convince myself that it’s not going to happen — but I was going to need more than just US intelligence reports to convince me it was.

This week some more sinister things started to happen. Belarus announced that the provocative military exercises it was doing with Russia — ones that put Russian troops on Ukraine’s northern border in addition to its eastern and southern borders — weren’t going to end on schedule. There’s no set date now when Russian troops will go home.

The Putin-backed separatists in Ukraine’s Donetsk region bizarrely announced fears of an invasion by Ukrainian troops, and declared an evacuation to Russia to avoid “genocide”. (Putin’s propaganda goes back and forth about whether Ukrainians are ethnic Russians, or whether they’re inclined to exterminate ethnic Russians.) It defies logic that Ukraine would pick a moment when it is surrounded by Russian troops on high alert to attack a Russian ally, but that’s what they’re claiming. Western experts worry that this imaginary “genocide” might be the cover story Putin needs to invade.

After announcing Tuesday that he was pulling some troops back, Putin apparently did the exact opposite, moving them closer to the border and putting them into attack formations.

So Biden’s claim over the weekend that Putin has already made the decision to invade sounds very credible. At the same time, such a direct roll-the-tanks approach doesn’t seem like Putin to me. He always has some extra card up his sleeve, and I can’t figure out what it would be this time. Some devastating cyber-attack against the US? A coup inside Ukraine? Flipping a NATO ally? I can’t guess.

The kinds of sanctions being discussed in response sound pretty severe to me, and Russia’s economy isn’t in great shape to start with. He probably doesn’t want to get bogged down in a guerilla war in Ukraine, but a quick incursion where he kills a long list of pro-Western activists seems short-sighted. I just can’t believe you can kill your way to popular acceptance.

Josh Marshall has put together a Twitter site to focus on Ukraine.

and Trump’s bad week

Just about any time I checked headlines this week, “Trump loses in court” was somewhere near the top of the feed. In case all the losses blended together in your mind, here they are:

In other news, the National Archives verified that the 15 boxes of documents they retrieved from Mar-a-Lago included classified documents. This information has been passed along to the Department of Justice.

Remember what a huge scandal it was that some of the email on Hillary Clinton’s server included classified information? For what it’s worth, I’m trying to stay consistent with the position I took then: Sloppiness with classified information (at least among civilians) is an administrative issue. It is never prosecuted unless it gets connected with some criminal intent, like trying to sell the information, or to make it go away in a cover-up of something else.

So we won’t really know whether Trump should be prosecuted until we know why he took the documents. That should be investigated, but “Lock him up!” is premature, even if it is the standard he wanted to apply to Hillary. (Hypocrisy is a sin, not a crime.)

BTW: I just re-read my Clinton-email article from 2016, written a month before Comey’s famous press conference, and I think it holds up pretty well as a summary of what Clinton did and how serious or not-serious it was.

Right-wing media, of course, couldn’t waste much air time on any of Trump’s possible crimes or shady business practices, so they had to fill their programs with some other story pointing in the opposite direction, even if they had to make one up: Hillary Clinton paid people to spy on Trump.

Supposedly, this “scoop” derived from a court filing by Trump-appointed Special Counsel John Durham. But Durham never actually said any of that, and by Thursday he was actively backing away from such claims. (If you want to understand what Durham’s filing really means, look here.)

Then, as so often happens in right-wing media, this worse-than-Waterate scandal-of-the-century just suddenly vanished from their coverage: No corrections, no apologies — it’s just on to the next made-up outrage.

and the decline of political comedy

Christopher Buckley eulogizes recently departed P. J. O’Rourke as “the last funny conservative”, which seems right to me. I confess I haven’t done an extensive survey of conservative humor, but for years O’Rourke has been the only right-leaning humorist clever enough to make me smile even when I disagreed with his point. (“If you think health care is expensive now, wait until it’s free.”)

So what happened to conservative humor? Well, basically there are two comic styles: underdog humor and bully humor. Underdogs can target either those in power (because power makes people clueless about their own ridiculousness) or themselves (for the flaws that contribute to their lack of success). Bullies, on the other hand, laugh at the guy they just pushed into a mud puddle.

During the Rush Limbaugh era, bully humor took over on the Right, and is typified by Trump mimicking a reporter’s disability or “joking” about police roughing up suspects. Remember Obama parodying his inflated image? (“Contrary to the rumors you have heard, I was not born in a manger. I was actually born on Krypton and sent here by my father Jor-El to save the Planet Earth.”) Trump isn’t capable of that kind of thing; he says ridiculously self-aggrandizing things in all seriousness, but his people later claim it was a joke.

Being out of power hasn’t sparked conservatives’ wit, it has just made them angrier. So while there is certainly material for humor in, say, White liberals trying to prove how woke they are, Trevor Noah exploits that angle better anybody on the Right. The apex of current conservative humor is exaggerating Biden’s stutter or making oral sex jokes about Vice President Harris.

P. J. O’Rourke outlived his era. Most conservatives will not miss him, even though they should.

In another political-comedy obituary, The Washington Post’s Graham Vyse mourns the loss of The Capitol Steps, a DC institution that couldn’t survive the pandemic.

That got me thinking about the Steps’ unlikely origins and their considerable success, and about how growing political polarization made their middle-of-the-road approach to comedy harder to sustain — especially in the Trump era.

Political humor had changed. It was less lighthearted, more snarky and sarcastic. Washington had changed, no longer a place where Democrats and Republicans would rib one another without too many hurt feelings. Moreover, America had changed, probably forever.

I hadn’t known the history of the Steps: They started out as a group of staffers for Illinois Senator Chuck Percy, who was a moderate-to-liberal Republican in the days before that tribe went extinct. Today, he would be a RINO wandering in the wilderness.

and the pandemic

The big question is where the post-Omicron statistics will settle. New-infection rates continue to drop like a rock, and are now down to 100K new cases per day rather than 800K five weeks ago. Will they crash down close to zero, or level off at some still-fairly-high level?

The decline has been going on long enough that the hospitalization and death totals have also turned around, though they’re still high relative to pre-Omicron levels in November.

and law

Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern examines two outrageous court decisions that both happened this week. In one, two Trump-appointed judges didn’t just grant an injunction voiding United Airlines’ vaccine mandate for its employees, it created a whole new power to issue injunctions under a law that didn’t allow that before. The panel’s third judge — a Reagan-appointed traditional conservative — penned a stinging dissent, saying that if he ever wrote such an opinion “I would hide my head in a bag.”

In the other case, another Trump judge refused to strike down a racially gerrymandered map in Arkansas, not because it wasn’t an illegal racial gerrymander, but because only the U.S. attorney general could file such a case under the Voting Rights Act. This is a brand new idea that rejects a Supreme Court precedent.

While we’re discussing law, Vox’ Ian Millhiser describes the gap between Amy Coney Barrett’s rhetoric and her behavior.

The Court’s youngest justice drew a distinction between “pragmatists,” judges who “tend to favor broader judicial discretion,” and “formalists,” who “tend to seek constraints on judicial discretion” and “favor methods of constitutional interpretation that demand close adherence to the constitutional text, and to history and tradition.” She placed herself in the latter camp.

As a justice, however, Barrett has behaved as an unapologetic pragmatist. Along with the Court’s other Republican appointees, Barrett supports flexible legal doctrines that give her Court maximal discretion to veto federal regulations that a majority of the justices disagree with — especially regulations promoting public health or protecting the environment. And she’s joined her fellow Republican justices in imposing novel limits on the Voting Rights Act that appear nowhere in the law’s text.

The pragmatist/formalist model needs a third category: opportunists. They’re the ones who espouse high principles when they’re in the minority, but do whatever they want as soon as they get majority power.

An article in Columbia Law Review highlights another bit of Supreme Court hypocrisy. Justice Gorsuch purports to be an originalist, arguing that the meaning of a law is whatever it was thought to mean at the time of its passage. Simultaneously, he believes that laws should be governed according to a constitutional principle of nondelegation — a regulation-destroying doctrine that sharply limits the decisions that Congress can delegate to the Executive Branch.

The article explains the problem with that combination: At the time the Constitution was established, no one thought it contained a nondelegation doctrine.

Our conclusion is straightforward. The nondelegation doctrine has nothing to do with the Constitution as it was originally understood. You can be an originalist or you can be committed to the nondelegation doctrine. But you can’t be both.

and you also might be interested in …

It’s been a long time since I linked to the Skepchick blog, produced by Rebecca Watson and a few of her friends. This is an oversight on my part: Skepchick is an always-insightful take on the intersection of science, feminism, and politics.

This week I want to call attention to her take on the Joe Rogan issue. Rogan is a serial distributor of literally deadly Covid misinformation, as well as someone whose I’m-not-politically-correct image allows him to pander to racists and sexists. (Being merely racism/sexism curious rather than racism/sexism committed allows Rogan’s defenders to put together video collages like this one, where he takes all sorts of non-racist, non-sexist positions that he’ll happily undermine later.) Neil Young and several other musicians have taken their music off the Spotify platform in protest, because Spotify produces Rogan’s show and signed him to a nine-figure contract. There’s a move among ordinary people to cancel their Spotify subscriptions.

A few weeks ago, Jon Stewart argued that pressuring Spotify to either control Rogan or fire him was misguided: Better to “engage” with Rogan and change his mind. This is a familiar argument, sometimes summarized as “The answer to free speech is more free speech.” Which sounds great.

Except that “engaging” doesn’t work when you’re dealing with people who argue in bad faith, as Rogan does. Debate in a modern-media setting, where time and attention is necessarily limited, favors people who are willing and able to shovel a lot of bullshit in a short time. In the time it takes to “engage” one BS claim, the bad-faith talker has already spouted ten more — a technique known as the Gish Gallop after the anti-evolution shoveller who popularized it.

Anyway, enough of my summarizing. Listen to the Skepchick herself.

And while you’re on her blog, check out “We Will Never Get ‘Back to Normal’“, which is a pretty good summary of how an intelligent science-respecting person manages risk these days.

No. 2019 is never going to happen again, and that’s fine. I’m not getting “back” to normal: I’m settling into the new normal, for me. There’s still a virus out there that’s killing people who aren’t vaccinated or who have comorbidities. Sure, most of the people who aren’t vaccinated are in that position because they’re fucking morons, but they still don’t deserve to die. Neither do the people who can’t get vaccinated because of health reasons, and the people who are vaccinated but are still at risk of dying or being hospitalized from COVID. And I can easily reduce the number of people who are exposed to COVID (and influenza and pneumonia) by simply wearing a mask inside. It’s easy, it’s healthier for ME, and it saves lives.

So when I say I’m going to be normal now, what I really mean is that I’m dropping the anxiety, the isolation from my friends, and the greatest restrictions on my movement around the world. Keeping a mask in my car for the grocery store is simply not a big deal to me, and the good it causes is so great that it just makes sense. After all, people have been doing it in Asian countries for decades. Why should I consider it some ridiculous infringement upon my freedom?

The biggest issue in the 2022 Wisconsin Republican primary might be 2020. An upstart candidate for governor is running to decertify Biden’s 20K-vote victory in Wisconsin, a move that he is (falsely) telling voters could have some impact on the Biden presidency.

In the real world, every legislature in the country could vote to decertify its electors, and Biden would still be president, because (despite the terrorist attack on the Capitol) Congress counted the electoral votes on January 6, 2021, ending the election. Electoral votes are like individual votes: Once they’re cast and counted, that’s it. Changing your mind later makes no difference.

Meanwhile, incumbent Democratic Governor Tony Evers is focusing his reelection campaign on “roads, bridges, infrastructure, broadband, education, health care“. So November may offer Wisconsin’s voters a choice between real issues and fantasy issues. I wonder which they’ll choose.

I’m not sure what to make of the claim that Chinese pressure forced Enes Kanter (who recently added Freedom to his name) out of the NBA. Kanter/Freedom has been vocal about Chinese oppression of the Uyghurs (who are predominantly Muslim, as Freedom is himself). The Chinese stopped airing games played by his team (the Celtics, who are my local team), and now he is out of the NBA.

I was not shocked when the Celtics traded Freedom to Houston, or when Houston released him, and not because I was figuring in the political reasons. He’s the kind of big man who is out of style in the NBA these days: not very mobile, not strong on defense. He played limited minutes for the Celtics, and represented a part of their bench that needed an upgrade.

Still, it’s a little hard to accept that no team has a place for him.

and let’s close with something Olympian

Some people watched a little too much curling during the Olympics.

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  • reverendsax  On February 21, 2022 at 1:54 pm

    Susan Glaser, who wrote well about Putin and Ukraine in the New Yorker, was on radio this morning telling how Putin has poisoned opponents even in other countries, and how there are no gays in Russia because he kills them. The same she says will happen in Ukraine. We all need to ask ourselves, “Is there nothing we would go to war for, or die for?”

    • Thomas Paine  On February 22, 2022 at 7:27 pm

      One of the (many) negative consequences of never-ending wars, especially when it’s achieved using a comparatively small number of troops that are constantly being redeployed back into life-threatening environments, is that eventually it becomes so politically exhausting that when a situation arises that could actually be in our own national interest, more troop deployments aren’t available as an option unless it’s something like China invading and annexing California.

      Putin is 70. He despises the loss Russia suffered of territorial power that came with the demise of the Soviet Union. He intends to leave his mark on Russian history – the big picture kind of history that’s expressed by comparing maps and showing territory added as the symbol of success. This will not end until Ukraine has been effectively reabsorbed into the Russian orbit, with a government at least as compliant as Belarus. And there is no way the US is going to directly confront the military that will make it so.

      • janinmi  On February 23, 2022 at 5:45 pm

        I think your take on Putin is correct, as is your view of the likely US military. Any military response to Putin’s moving on Ukraine would have to come from NATO as a whole, and I have the feeling that it would start with non-traditional means first (cyber-attacks, guerilla warfare, supply chain disruption, etc.). The spectre of nuclear weaponry still hangs in the air.

  • Anonymous  On February 22, 2022 at 11:11 pm

    I really don’t understand how an “engaging” is supposed to work when one of the parties is insane. Imagine trying to negotiate an agreement on dinner plans with your date: you suggest Italian but your date states their preference would be a meal of tungsten shards and anthrax. If you can figure out a way to split the difference there and find a meal you will both enjoy, you can probably figure out how bridge that gap.

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