No Sift next week. The next new posts will appear May 2.

Consolidating control is not the way to protect democracy and enhance free expression

Samir Jain,
director of policy at the Center for Democracy and Technology

This week’s featured post is “Elon and Twitter“.

This week everybody was talking about Elon Musk’s bid for Twitter

That’s the subject of the featured post.

and the Ukraine War

Ukrainian missiles sunk the Moskva, a guided-missile cruiser that was the flagship of the Russian Black Sea fleet. Russia disputed claims that Ukraine was responsible, instead saying just that a fire broke out (which is undoubtedly true, if not complete). After initially saying it didn’t know, US intelligence eventually confirmed the Ukrainian account.

If you want to speculate on exactly how this happened, Naval News postulates a chain of Russian failures rather than one clever Ukrainian tactic.

Ukrainian forces are still holding on to the Azov Sea port of Mariupol, but it could fall at any moment. Currently, Mariupol is the only holdout between Russian forces in the Donbas and those in Crimea.

Eliminationist Russian rhetoric towards Ukraine (which I noted last week) is spreading. The Washington Post characterizes it as “genocidal speech” and gives these examples:

On state television, a military analyst doubled down on Russia’s need to win and called for concentration camps for Ukrainians opposed to the invasion.

Two days later, the head of the defense committee in the lower house of parliament said it would take 30 to 40 years to “reeducate” Ukrainians.

And on a talk show, the editor in chief of the English-language television news network RT described Ukrainians’ determination to defend their country as “collective insanity.”

“It’s no accident we call them Nazis,” said Margarita Simonyan, who also heads the Kremlin-backed media group that operates the Sputnik and RIA Novosti news agencies. “What makes you a Nazi is your bestial nature, your bestial hatred and your bestial willingness to tear out the eyes of children on the basis of nationality.”

WaPo searched for an expert assessment.

Ruth Deyermond, a Russia expert in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, said such arguments are “hard to read in any other way than a justification for mass killing. It’s extremely disturbing language and clearly has genocidal overtones. It’s not that they, Ukrainians, have a Führer or a political ideology or a Nazi system. They’re just Nazi.”

Long but interesting background reading: Retired Lieutenant General Mark Herling tells stories about his interactions over the years with both the Russian and Ukrainian militaries. When he first interacted with them, both were corrupt and inept. But the Ukrainians worked to get better.

A Finnish writer explains one way Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has backfired: Finland wasn’t planning to join NATO, but now many Finns think it must.

and the pandemic

I’ve described the last few weeks as a stalemate between the fading of the previous Covid wave and the start of the next one. The battle line was around 30K new cases per day.

This week the new wave made a decisive breakthrough. Cases are now running at about 38K per day. Hospitalizations and deaths are still headed downward. I’d expect hospitalizations to turn upward in a week or two, but whether deaths turn around is an interesting question. More and more of the infected people have at least some resistance from either a vaccination or a previous infection. Also, treatments keep improving. So maybe deaths, which have come down to about 500 per day from peaks over 3000 in January of 2021 and a recent peak over 2600 in early February of this year, can stay around 500 for a while.

Nate Silver tweets some interesting numbers:

Some tangible indications of the return to “normal” pre-pandemic social behavior in the US: Restaurant reservations = 100% of pre-pandemic levels MLB attendance = 100% of pre-pandemic levels Air travel = 90% of pre-pandemic levels

Tucker Carlson spoke at a church and told them he isn’t vaccinated, something he has never revealed before during his many anti-vax rants. Jimmy Kimmel doesn’t believe him:

Tucker Carlson is the vaccine equivalent of the guy on the Titanic who dresses as a woman to get on the lifeboat first. The sickest part is his audience is mostly scared and impressionable senior citizens, who happen to be the most vulnerable group when it comes to Covid. This is like selling Girl Scout cookies outside a diabetes clinic. But I’m glad to see the church welcoming prostitutes, as Jesus taught us to do.

and presidents’ relatives involved in corruption

I have to be careful about covering this topic without engaging in whataboutism. The fact that what Jared Kushner did is so much worse than what Hunter Biden is accused of is not an excuse for ignoring Biden.

Since the point of whataboutism is to avoid discussing something bad about your own side, let’s start with Hunter Biden. Frank Figliuzzi at MSNBC outlines what needs to be investigated there.

Hunter Biden’s contract with [Chinese energy company] CEFC is questionable not only because of the large sums involved in return for services that he appears ill-suited to provide, but also because of the characters it brought him in contact with.

Figliuzzi, a former counter-intelligence director at the FBI, sees this as part of a larger pattern of foreign adversaries attempting to form relationships with people close to powerful figures. Hunter Biden is supposed to have closed off business dealings with CEFC before his father became president, and

We may never know precisely what executives, said to be affiliated with the Chinese government, thought the Bidens could do for them.

But at a minimum this is an example of bad judgment. Democrats have been slow to take any of this seriously because the previous conspiracy theories about Hunter and Ukraine were so badly overblown. But if Biden did something illegal, the law should apply to him the way it would to anyone else.

Now let’s talk about Jared Kushner.

Six months after leaving the White House, Jared Kushner secured a $2 billion investment from a fund led by the Saudi crown prince, a close ally during the Trump administration, despite objections from the fund’s advisers about the merits of the deal.

… But days later the full board of the $620 billion Public Investment Fund — led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler and a beneficiary of Mr. Kushner’s support when he worked as a White House adviser — overruled the panel [of advisers].

Ethics experts say that such a deal creates the appearance of potential payback for Mr. Kushner’s actions in the White House — or of a bid for future favor if Mr. Trump seeks and wins another presidential term in 2024.

You don’t say. Hunter Biden was close to a powerful figure, and we can’t identify an actual quid-pro-quo. It looks like the Chinese just wanted to generally get in good with the Bidens.

Kushner, on the other hand, was himself a powerful figure who repeatedly did favors for the Saudis, and for MBS personally, while he was in office. And now he’s gotten his payment.

and culture wars

The Missouri House was debating an amendment that would ban trans students from school sports (one of several anti-trans bills in the Missouri legislature this term) when Ian Mackey, a gay Democratic legislator from St. Louis, blew his top. It’s worth listening to. Speaking directly to the amendment’s sponsor, Mackey said,

I was afraid of people like you growing up. … Gentlemen, I’m not afraid of you any more. Because you’re going to lose. You may win this today, but you’re going to lose.

State Rep. Martha Stevens, a Democrat from Columbia (site of Missouri’s flagship state university) also wasn’t inclined to be polite about Republican legislators scoring political points by attacking children.

It makes my blood boil and the same time it breaks my heart that children have to keep traveling to this capitol to face adults, elected officials, … that they have to come down here and justify their existence.

Both speeches are several minutes longer than those excerpts, and are well worth your attention.

Last month, I told you about a librarian getting fired in Llano, Texas because she resisted conservative censorship. Yesterday, The Washington Post added a lot of detail about the right-wing-Christian takeover of the Llano public library system.

“God has been so good to us … please continue to pray for the librarians and that their eyes would be open to the truth,” Rochelle Wells, a new member of the library board, wrote in an email. “They are closing the library for 3 days which are to be entirely devoted to removing books that contain pornographic content.”

[Local parent Leila] Green Little [who has started an anti-censorship group] said little is known about what administrators did during the time the libraries were closed. The book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” a work about systemic racism by Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist Isabel Wilkerson, has mysteriously vanished, and the fate of several other works remains unknown, she said.

A library board of political appointees is meeting secretly to make decisions about what books to keep or purchase.

An English teacher at Greenfield High School in Greenfield, Missouri has been fired for teaching “critical race theory”. Her offense was distributing a worksheet “How Racially Privileged Are You?” to prepare the class for reading the award-winning young-adult novel Dear Martin. (The novel is about a Black teen-ager in Atlanta who tries to make sense of his run-in with police, and more generally his life as a Black scholarship student in a predominantly White prep school, by writing a series of letters to the spirit of Martin Luther King.)

The worksheet is a list of 15 true/false questions for readers to answer about their own experiences, like: “I can go shopping alone most of the time and feel sure that I will not be followed or harassed.” and “I can be pretty sure that if I ask to speak to ‘the person in charge’ I will be facing someone of my own race.”

A letter from the Superintendent Chris Kell

stated this reason: “Your decision to incorporate the worksheet associated with the novel ‘Dear Martin,’ due to the content and subject matter.”

In a subsequent interview with the News-Leader, [Kell said the vote was not unanimous. He said the vote not to rehire Morrison went against his recommendation and that of the high school principal.

What probably drew complaints is the scoring scale at the bottom of the worksheet. The upper range of scores sits above the statement:

You are privileged. You may or may not know it. It means a lot of other people in the world don’t live life with the advantages you have, and that’s something you should always be aware of, as you can use your voice to help those who are marginalized.

Incidents like these make it clear what anti-CRT laws are trying to protect White students from: learning about the existence of racial privilege in America. It’s very important that White teens who “may not know” about their privilege remain ignorant.

The Florida Department of Education announced Friday that it is banning 54 of the math textbooks submitted for use in Florida public schools.

28 (21 percent) are not included on the adopted list because they incorporate prohibited topics or unsolicited strategies, including CRT.

FDoE’s announcement gave no examples to illustrate how the math books were teaching critical race theory. The Miami Herald explains the larger process, and why math books are the current targets:

The state has a textbook adoption cycle that rotates through subjects every six years. When buying books for their schools, districts turn to the state’s approved list to make sure they align with state standards. Next up is social studies, and many educators have predicted the effort will be more confrontational than in past years

In DeSantis Newspeak, textbooks have to be banned in order to stop “attempts to indoctrinate students”.

A lawsuit challenging Florida’s Don’t Say Gay law is calling out the law’s vagueness as implicit discrimination. While the text doesn’t specifically target LGBTQ discussions,

the law plainly isn’t intended to ban discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity related to “non-LGBTQ people.” It doesn’t intend to ban a teacher from presuming “the normalcy of opposite-sex attraction while teaching literature,” or to ban “run of the mill references” to people’s heterosexuality.

So the suit argues that under the measure, “anyone who discusses or acknowledges any aspect of LGBTQ identity must fear running afoul of the law,” while it’s “taken for granted that discussing heterosexuality or cisgender identity in school settings is perfectly fine.”

and you also might be interested in …

Easter humor is tricky, but some people manage to pull it off.

Alex Jones is trying to escape responsibility for his lies by declaring bankruptcy.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott is backing away from his disruption of trade with Mexico. He has accomplished nothing, but the supply chain issues and increased inflation he caused will probably get blamed on Biden.

The Republican National Committee voted unanimously to pull out of the Commission on Presidential Debates, saving Trump the embarrassment of losing another debate in 2024. If Trump is the candidate, he will have to spend his entire campaign avoiding obvious questions, like why he tried so hard to hang onto power after he lost the election in 2020. His whole campaign will take place inside a bubble of sycophants.

The move is part of a decades-long trend on the Right: Any organization they don’t control must be biased against them. Recently Facebook has been showing me ads for a conservative rival of AARP, because any group that isn’t explicitly conservative must be “woke”. (The research I do on conservative issues sometimes confuses Facebook’s algorithms.)

Relationship coach Matthew Fray writes in Atlantic about his amazing discovery: When people you love tell you they’re unhappy about something, you should listen to them. (I don’t know how I’ve survived 38 years of marriage without the benefit of insights like this.) The book-length version of Fray’s startling wisdom came out last month.

On his Substack blog (which I subscribe to and recommend), James Fallows writes about DC’s ban on gas-powered leaf blowers. Banning these devices may seem like one of those laws whose main effect is to annoy homeowners, but actually it’s a big deal. In Fallows’ words:

  • The little pieces of equipment are a genuine concern. They are far and away the most-polluting form of machinery still in legal use. In California they produce more ozone pollution than all cars combined. They emit carcinogenic fumes. For neighbors, their unique noise might be irritating; for lawn crews, it can be deafening
  • They’re one more example of poorer people being exposed to greater environmental risks. The people breathing the fumes all day, and being battered by high-decibel sound within inches of their ears, are disproportionately low-wage and often non-English-speaking. They’re sacrificing themselves to keep some customer’s lawn pristine.
  • There are wholly practical alternatives, thanks to the battery revolution transforming all industries.

Fallows is also one of the best observers of news-media behavior. In this post, he discusses a number of topics in current framing:

  • How the mainstream media’s life-in-a-red-state lens colors all news from places like Texas, which are much more three-dimensional than they get credit for.
  • The pointless fixation on trying to predict how elections will come out, which pundits are bad at anyway. Unlike coverage of government or the mechanics of democracy, the value of even accurate predictions evaporates once there is a real outcome to report.
  • How all things Trump are graded on a curve. Attacks on democracy or financial corruption are just “Trump being Trump”, rather than the front-page stories they’d be if anyone else did the same things.
  • The important distinction between “tough” reporters who stage confrontations with powerful newsmakers, and authentically tough reporters who respectfully but firmly insist on getting their questions answered.

Jen Psaki sort-of defended Fox News reporter Peter Doocy on Pod Save America Thursday. The host asked her if Doocy really was a “stupid son of a bitch” (as President Biden said in a hot-mic moment in January and then apologized for), “or does he just play a stupid son of a bitch on TV?” Psaki answered that Doocy

works for a network that provides people with questions that, nothing personal to any individual including Peter Doocy, but might make anyone sound like a stupid son of a bitch.

So (in my words) Doocy is a victim of what we might call “systemic stupidity”. Psaki went on to tell “a nice Peter Doocy story”.

The President did call him a stupid son of a bitch, right? So, that happens and it was like, “oh, okay. That happened.” So, what do you do about it? The President called him. He’s talked about this a little bit. The President called and apologized and what have you. So, he went on TV that night and I actually watched Sean Hannity to see what he said. … But Sean Hannity asked him about the, you know, what the President had said and what he said back and he could have been like, “he is a son of a bitch” or, “I’m standing up for —” whatever. He could have said anything. And instead, he said, “you know, he called me. We had a really nice conversation. I’m just asking my questions. He’s doing his job.” So, I will say that was a moment of grace. You don’t have to like everything Peter Doocy says or does but that is certainly a moment of grace by Peter Doocy.

and let’s close with something

I’ve closed with Holderness Family song parodies before. In this one, Penn Holderness starts with the music from Dua Lipa’s “Levitating”, and turns it into an ode to his wife Kim’s different way of dealing with the world: “Introverting“.

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