Land of the Free

Even the most stalwart conservative who dares not venture out in the street at night and hesitates on occasion to drink the water or breathe the air must now wonder if keeping public services at a minimum is really a practical formula for expanding his personal liberty.

– John Kenneth Galbraith (1969)

This week’s featured post is “The Right has an immature notion of Freedom“.

This week everybody was talking about gun violence

I discuss the symbolic meaning of Highland Park (home of Ferris Bueller and Joel Goodsen) in the featured post. But I wanted to keep that post short, so I’ve got more to say here about guns.

Friday, former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was assassinated. Still an influential politician after his retirement, Abe was giving a campaign speech for his party’s candidates when someone killed him with the homemade gun shown below. The gun would only allow two shots, so no one else was injured.

NRA shills are using Abe’s assassination, together with a recent shooting at a mall in Denmark, to argue that gun restrictions don’t work. “See,” they say, “even countries with serious gun control can’t stop shootings.”

This kind of thinking is similar to the claims that Covid vaccines and masks don’t work, because vaccinated people can still get sick, even if they wear masks. It exemplifies the conservative tendency to think in absolutes while ignoring numbers. (Scientific American analyzed statistics from March and deduced that vaccinated-and-boosted Americans were 17 times less likely to die of Covid than their unvaccinated countrymen. That’s not a guarantee, but I see it as an advantage well worth the inconvenience.)

It’s true that Japan and Denmark have both controlled guns much more tightly than the US, and so have fewer civilian guns. The US has 120 guns per 100 residents, Denmark 9.9, and Japan 0.3. Even those numbers don’t capture the full difference, since millions of American guns are powerful semi-automatics like AR-15 rifles or Glock handguns.

As a result, gun violence in both countries is rare and incidents are less deadly than in the US. In 2017, (the most recent year Wikipedia had statistics for) the US had 12.21 gun deaths per 100K residents per year, 4.46 of which were murders. In 2015, Denmark had 0.91 gun deaths and .18 gun murders per 100K residents. Japan in 2015 had 0.02 gun deaths and no gun murders. According to the NYT, Japan has had only 14 gun-related deaths since 2017, fewer than the number of Americans who died in the Uvalde shooting alone.

The Danish mall shooter apparently used a hunting rifle that was not semi-automatic and was purchased illegally. He managed to kill three people before being subdued. Abe’s assassin used a homemade zip gun that gave him only two shots.

The Abe shooting could be a dictionary example of an exception that proves the rule. Months of planning and preparation allowed his shooter to get those two shots off. Contrast the Abe attack with the Gabby Giffords assassination attempt in Tucson in 2011, when a shooter with a legally purchased semi-automatic handgun got off dozens of shots, killing six and wounding 13 others.

The NYT sums up:

[A]n American-style shooter can, virtually on a whim, readily arm themselves with the firepower to kill large numbers of people before police can respond, targeting victims even hundreds of yards away.

But a Japanese shooter may require long stretches of dangerous preparation to build their weapon. They then must secret it to within feet of their victim and squeeze off what may be their only shot before they become effectively defenseless, and a bystander overpowers them.

It is also worth noting that, contrary to NRA propaganda, a disarmed citizenry has not made either Denmark or Japan vulnerable to tyranny. In 2021 the US had a democracy index of 7.85, noticeably lower than Denmark’s 9.09 and Japan’s 8.15. In neither country has a leader defeated at the polls tried to hang onto power by force, as Donald Trump recently did.

Quite the opposite of promoting democracy, America’s loose gun culture has made our politicians more distant and less approachable. Our presidents talk to us from behind shields and after we’ve been searched, because it’s not safe to do anything else.

Our gun culture is also related to the trigger-happy nature of our police. Police in America are now killing more than 1000 people per year. That’s a per capita rate a bit higher than countries we think of as repressive, like Pakistan and Egypt. By contrast, Denmark had no police killings in 2019, and Japan had two in 2018, the most recent years I could find statistics for.

Living with the risk of being killed by the police doesn’t sound like freedom to me. But it’s necessary, police tell us, because every suspect they meet might be armed and ready to shoot them.

and January 6

The next hearing is tomorrow at 1 p.m. It’s supposed to be focused on the role of extremist groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers. Rep. Jamie Raskin said:

One of the things that people are going to learn is the fundamental importance of a meeting that took place in the White House [on Dec. 18, 2020].

That was the meeting when “Team Crazy” — Rudy Giuliani, Sidney Powell, Michael Flynn — urged Trump to take radical actions like seizing voting machines. The next day, Trump sent out his tweet inviting his followers to a protest rally in DC on January 6, promising it would “be wild”.

We’re also likely to see video from Pat Cipollone’s testimony Friday. Cipollone was Trump’s White House Counsel and figured in several of the stories told by Cassidy Hutchinson. (She described his attempts to put the brakes on before too many laws got broken.) Rep. Adam Kinzinger has said Cipollone’s testimony didn’t contradict what the committee had previously heard. I assume that means that when they asked him about the actions and statements Cassidy Hutchinson attributed to him, he didn’t say no.

We now know the reason Cassidy Hutchinson’s testimony was rushed into an “emergency” session: The Committee was afraid of TrumpWorld’s escalating witness tampering.

This isn’t a January 6 story exactly, but it’s part of the whole abuse-of-power theme. The IRS randomly selects a handful of taxpayers, about 1 in 30,000 for extreme audits. By some bizarre “coincidence”, both Jim Comey and Andy McCabe — FBI directors Trump blamed for the Russia investigation — got “randomly” selected. The Treasury Department inspector general will investigate whether the White House used inappropriate influence.

As so often happens, this Trump scandal appears to be a real version of a fake scandal Republicans tried to pin on Obama.

The Atlantic’s Barton Gellman looks into “What Happened to Michael Flynn?

and Boris Johnson

After a series of scandals (that look fairly tame by Trump standards) caused members of his Conservative Party to quit his government, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced his resignation on Thursday.

It’s only sort of a resignation, though, because he will continue as “interim” prime minister until the Party can settle on a new leader, which might not happen for months.

Jonathan Pie is a fictional news commentator created by comedian Tom Walker. His “Bye-bye Boris” rant is epic. From an American point of view, it’s hard not to notice how much of Pie’s characterization of Johnson and the Tories also applies to Donald Trump and the Republicans who still bow down to him.

Lies on top of lies on top of lies. He lies and then gets people to lie on his behalf and then lies about the lying. … who is so blatant about his dishonesty that when accused of lying to Parliament, he simply tries to change the rules to make it OK to lie to Parliament. …

The devastating cries over the last few days from the Tory Party of “Enough is enough” and “one step too far” are coming from the same people who have sat and watched him take a flame-thrower to their party and our constitution for three fucking years. … All of them, talking about trust and integrity. If you cared so much about trust and integrity, then why the fuck did you put Boris Johnson in #10 in the first place?

and responses to Roe

So many red states are restricting or banning abortion that it’s hard to keep up. NBC has a state-by-state rundown as of Friday. CNN covers the legal challenges to those laws. In some states, the state constitution may protect reproductive rights even if the federal constitution no longer does.

The first real test of abortion’s new electoral significance will come in a few weeks in Kansas. On August 2, Kansans will vote on a constitutional amendment that will not outlaw abortion itself, but will give the legislature the power to do so — power it will almost certainly use.

  • YES, which supports amending the Kansas constitution to state, that nothing in the state constitution creates a right to abortion or requires government funding for abortion and that the state legislature has the authority to pass laws regarding abortion, or
  • NO, which opposes amending the Kansas constitution, thereby maintaining the legal precedent established in Hodes & Nauser v. Schmidt, that there is a right to abortions in the Kansas Bill of Rights.

Interestingly, abortion has given blue states a way to appeal to business: Come here and you won’t have trouble recruiting women to work for you.

It’s hard to know what to make of President Biden’s response to the Dobbs decision overturning Roe. He waited three days to comment, but said more-or-less the right thing when he did, denouncing “the outrageous behavior of the Supreme Court” and calling on Congress to put aside the filibuster and protect reproductive rights by statute.

He issued an executive order on Friday, but it doesn’t have a lot of teeth. It’s mostly about instructing HHS and DoJ to identify actions the government can take, rather than telling them to do anything. Maybe those departments will come back in two weeks with a list of meaningful actions. Or maybe not. One way of the other, it raises the question: We all saw this coming after Alito’s draft leaked in May. Why wasn’t there a contingency plan in place?

Now quite possibly Biden has concluded that anything he can do without Congress will be set aside by the Supreme Court anyway, and he may be right. But my personal opinion is that he should force the Court’s theocrat majority to show its hand. Trump understood the importance of putting up a fight, even if you were going to lose; Biden doesn’t seem to.

Any time liberal protesters inconvenience a conservative official, it’s going to get national attention. (Generally, conservative protesters have to shoot somebody to get similar coverage.)

Wednesday night, reproductive-rights protesters learned that Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh was eating at Morton’s Steakhouse in downtown DC. They showed up in front of the restaurant and appear not to have assaulted anybody or broken anything. Kavanaugh avoided them by slipping out the back. Sources differ about whether he finished his meal first.

Anyway, this is now an outrage in right-wing media, with Fox News’ Steve Doocy hilariously denouncing the protesters for violating Kavanaugh’s “privacy”. Such moments make me miss Jen Psaki, who I’m sure would have had the perfect response.

Pete Buttigieg, though, did pretty well with the question yesterday on Fox News.

Look, when public officials go into public life, we should expect two things. One, that you should always be free from violence, harassment, and intimidation. And two, you’re never going to be free from criticism or peaceful protest, people exercising their First Amendment rights.

Implicit in that answer is that Supreme Court justices need to develop the same kind of thick skin politicians have, now that they’ve decided to start running the country.

It was going to happen: Chaz Stevens is asking a Florida high school that he attended if he can lead a Satanist prayer at the 50-yard-line at one of its football games. “There’s been no word back from them on that,” Stevens said.

Jonathan Rauch argues for a federal abortion compromise based on the Defense of Marriage Act:

Congress could take important steps to localize the issue. It could make abortion bans unenforceable across state lines, for example, which would please pro-choicers. It could clarify that states have the power to restrict abortion within their boundaries, which would please pro-lifers. Such measures allowing states to go their separate ways would provide time and political space for a durable policy consensus to form.

Rauch anticipates that consensus eventually mirroring Roe, just as the debate that raged during the DOMA years eventually settled on legal same-sex marriage. (According to Wikipedia, Mississippi and Arkansas are the only states where a majority opposes same-sex marriage, and those margins are narrow. Support is over 80% in Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Washington.)

Here’s why I don’t buy that comparison: The main thing same-sex marriage had going against it in the 1990s was that most people had never seen one. That made the practice easy to demonize in the most outlandish terms: In 2004, as the first American same-sex marriages were being performed in Massachusetts, religious-Right leader James Dobson claimed they would cause the American family to crumble, “presaging the fall of Western civilization itself”.

Lots of people really believed that kind of nonsense. But those arguments collapsed as soon as same-sex marriages became real events rather than apocalyptic fantasies. It was hard for theocrats to claim that civilization would fall in New York, after it had obviously not fallen in Massachusetts. Once same-sex marriage became that woman at the office, or that gay couple down the street, the panic was hard to sustain.

Legal abortions, on the other hand, have already been happening for 50 years. I fail to see why a DOMA-like era will usher in a new consensus.

and the pandemic

It’s hard to know what to make of the numbers: deaths remain in the 300-350-per-day range they’ve been in for weeks, hospitalizations and positivity rates are rising, and nobody knows what the case numbers mean any more, now that so many people with minor cases never tell the medical system they’ve tested positive at home.

Meanwhile, the BA-5 omicron subvariant has become the dominant strain of Covid in the US. It circumvents immunity produced by both vaccinations and infections by previous strains.

and you also might be interested in …

The June jobs report came out and was surprisingly good.

The unemployment rate held steady at 3.6%, as analysts expected, while the alternative U6 measure of unemployment, which includes discouraged and some part-time workers, fell sharply to 6.7% — an all-time low that suggests the labor market remains exceptionally tight.

That alternate measure is known to economists as U6. The number you usually hear is U3.

More and more Democrats are discussing whether Biden should run for reelection — and mostly saying “no”. Personally, I think Biden has been dealt a difficult hand and does not get nearly enough credit for cleaning up Trump’s mess. But I also think he shouldn’t run. I believe his heart is in the right place, but that he’s not an effective spokesman for Democratic ideals.

I think alternative candidates should start declaring, without waiting for Biden to decide what he’s doing.

The situation reminds me of one early in Lyndon Johnson’s career. The congressman from his district died, and his widow was dithering about whether she would run. If she ran, she would be the obvious favorite.

Some mentor figure, I forget who, told LBJ not to wait for her decision. He should announce his own candidacy, and make it clear that the campaign would be a real battle rather than a coronation. If he did that, the widow probably wouldn’t run. And that’s how it worked out.

Obviously, people inside the administration like Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg can’t do that without appearing disloyal. But there’s no reason why Democrats in Congress or in governorships shouldn’t try it.

The tables have turned: Now Elon Musk wants out of his agreement to buy Twitter, but Twitter’s board is trying to hold him to it.

Musk’s problem is that he overbid, and the market has turned against him. He offered $54.20 per share for the Twitter shares he doesn’t already own, but Friday’s closing price was $36.81. He needs to either sell or borrow against his Tesla stock to finance the purchase, but that share price also has dropped: from $985 per share to $752.

An unsuccessful Republican candidate in Georgia’s recent gubernatorial primary made an issue of the Georgia Guidestone monument, calling it “satanic” and promising to have it torn down. Wednesday it was bombed, reminding me at least of when the Taliban blew up the Bamiyan Buddha statues.

A new Arizona law makes it illegal to film police encounters within eight feet unless you’re the one being questioned.

GOP Senate candidate and ex-football-star Herschell Walker hasn’t just been lying to the public about his three secret children (that we know of). He’s been lying to his campaign staff. Quoting an anonymous source, The Daily Beast reported:

He spouts falsehoods “like he’s breathing,” this adviser said—so much so that his own campaign stopped believing him long ago.

“He’s lied so much that we don’t know what’s true,” the person said, adding that aides have “zero” trust in the candidate. Three people interviewed for this article independently called him a “pathological liar.”

The Walker campaign declined comment. But hours after this story published, [Scott] Paradise—the campaign manager—issued a statement broadly criticizing, but not denying, the story.

A small town in New Hampshire got a lesson in what happens when you don’t show up to vote. Libertarians took over the town meeting and cut the school budget in half.

I know I’ve talked about this before, but librarians are under fire from the Right.

and let’s close with something cultural

An article in Friday’s NYT combines high-tech, cloak-and-dagger tactics, and issues of cultural appropriation: The British Museum displays the Elgin Marbles, statuary that was originally in the Parthenon, but was bought from the Turks by a British ambassador (Thomas Bruce, earl of Elgin) in the early 1800s. Greece holds that the Ottoman Empire was an invading power, and had no right to sell the statues; it wants them back.

Repatriating them would require an act of Parliament, and the British Museum doesn’t want to give them back, for a variety of reasons, which I find unconvincing. For one: The marbles have been in England so long that they have put down cultural roots there as well. Keats wrote a poem about them, and Rodin was inspired by seeing them in the British Museum. But if you make that case, you also have to acknowledge another part of that cultural heritage: Byron’s characterization of Elgin as a “filthy jackal” in “The Curse of Minerva“.

For Elgin’s fame thus grateful Pallas pleads,  
Below, his name—above, behold his deeds!     
Be ever hailed with equal honour here     
The Gothic monarch and the Pictish peer:  
arms gave the first his right, the last had none,  
But basely stole what less barbarians won.     
So when the lion quits his fell repast,     
Next prowls the wolf, the filthy jackal last

Byron envisioned an angry Athena withdrawing wisdom from Britain, resulting in the loss of both its empire and its industry — which has pretty much come to pass.

Enter high tech. Roger Michel, executive director of the Institute of Digital Archaeology, suggests a possible solution: Do detailed 3-D scans, and have his robot sculptors make near-perfect copies. Send the Marbles to the Acropolis Museum in Athens, and let the British Museum display the copies. “When two people both want the same cake, baking a second, identical cake is one obvious solution.”

This scenario opens up philosophical issues about the meaning of “identical”. (What happens to the Louvre if robot reproduction eventually allows anybody to own a brushstroke-by-brushstroke Mona Lisa copy that only a laboratory can distinguish from the original?) And since Michel’s plan involves repatriating the originals, the British Museum isn’t cooperating. That’s where the cloak-and-dagger comes in.

In March, after the museum refused a formal request to scan the pieces, Mr. Michel and Alexy Karenowska, the technical director of the Institute, showed up in the Duveen Gallery of the British Museum as visitors and resorted to guerrilla tactics. While security staff looked on, the two used standard iPhones and iPads, as many of the latest models are equipped with Lidar sensors and photogrammetry software, to create 3-D digital images.

Then the robots got to work. Two samples will be displayed somewhere in London by the end of the month. Next, Michel plans to produce two more duplicates, which will (in some ways) be more authentic than the originals.

Later this summer, Mr. Michel plans to have the robot fabricate two more copies and touch them up to show how the originals would have looked, with any absent pieces restored and damage repaired.

But wait, there are more issues: If the Marbles aren’t Michel’s, and aren’t even the British Museum’s, what right does he have to make these copies?

The Greek government’s apparent reluctance to weigh in troubles Bernard Means, director of the Virtual Creation Lab at Virginia Commonwealth University. Dr. Means said he would only have attempted such a project with the consultation and full support of Greece. “Otherwise,” he said, “the effort is suggestive of that colonial mind-set, where those who appropriated objects without the informed consent of the colonizers feel they have the right to do with the objects as they please — often in the guise of science, and even if well-intentioned.”

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  • charlesroth2016  On July 11, 2022 at 12:12 pm

    Re abortion rights: this morning, a broad coalition of groups delivered 753,000 signatures for a Michigan constitutional amendment to (effectively) restore ‘Roe’ rights in the state. Amendments require 425,000 signatures to go on the ballot, so it’s extremely likely Michiganders will be voting on this in November. Early polls suggest 70% approval. This is the highest number of petition signatures gathered in ANY campaign in Michigan’s history.

    Another amendment campaign to improve voting rights got “only” 669,000 signatures, and is also expected to pass. (9 days early voting, 1-time absentee voting registration, etc.)

  • ted  On July 11, 2022 at 1:13 pm

    If the Marbles aren’t Michel’s, and aren’t even the British Museum’s, what right does he have to make these copies?

    I think you may have this backwards. People generally have a right to copy the ideas and expressions of others unless some law (such as copyright) *takes away* that right.

    Because these are ancient cultural artifacts, they should be freely copyable as part of the public domain unless there is some authority to take away those public domain rights we all enjoy.

    • weeklysift  On July 12, 2022 at 7:16 am

      I thought about that too. In general, I’m in favor of expanding the public domain, but something about deep scans of immortal works seems different to me. I can’t put my finger on what it is.

      • ted  On July 12, 2022 at 9:39 am

        That makes sense. Sometimes things just seem off. I can see how putting a scan of a sacred artifact into the public domain might yield some pretty offensive uses. I’m not sure where you might draw the line between permissible and impermissible, though.

  • Janet Amaral  On July 11, 2022 at 1:16 pm

    Love your work. But when you link to pieces behind a pay wall ( NYT) it gets really frustrating! You might think about giving those items a little more explanation than one sentence for those readers who don’t wish to subscribe to a bunch of online sources. And keep up the good work! Sometimes your take on events is the only thing keeping me from plunging into despair over the futility of fighting the conservative nut jobs.

    • ted  On July 11, 2022 at 1:22 pm

      The Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine usually has a paywall-free version of NY Times articles, so pasting the paywalled link there often allows reading an otherwise blocked article.

      • Janet Amaral  On July 11, 2022 at 6:24 pm

        Thank you I will try that!

    • charlesroth2016  On July 11, 2022 at 6:35 pm

      If you have a university affiliation (often even as an alumni), you may be able to get to NYT articles thru their campus search engine. Ditto ditto some public libraries. thru YMMV, however.

    • weeklysift  On July 12, 2022 at 7:13 am

      Thanks for the input. It’s often a dilemma for me whether to trace a story to the source that originally reported it (often behind a paywall) or to a free service that is basing its reporting on the paywalled source. But you’re right: the tantalizing clue leading to someplace you can’t go must be frustrating.

  • Donna M. Horsford  On July 11, 2022 at 1:35 pm

    I read you every week and I always have something more to think about!

    I DO wonder why I have seen no informative articles on kinds of birth control or a reminder to use it especially now!

  • ADeweyan  On July 11, 2022 at 5:14 pm

    In your response to Rauch’s argument suggesting the ultimate acceptance of DOMA is a model of what may happen with abortion rights, I think you overstate how they are dissimilar. Yes, we have seen safe and legal abortion for 50 years, but we have NOT seen 10 year olds being denied termination of a pregnancy that resulted from rape, significant numbers of women dying from back-alley abortions, despair and increased poverty faced by populations that can’t afford to travel to get the care they need and so on. It’s backwards from the DOMA situation, but it still has force.

    • weeklysift  On July 12, 2022 at 7:09 am

      That’s a good point. I wasn’t looking at the situation “backwards”, as you suggest.

  • David Goldfarb  On July 11, 2022 at 8:04 pm

    I saw that rant about Johnson reblogged on Tumblr by Neil Gaiman and it depressed me: all I could think about is that you could rant just as much about Trump, and both his fans and his foes would shrug their shoulders and say, “Yeah?” That is how much damage he has done to the idea of civilized behavior.

    • weeklysift  On July 12, 2022 at 7:08 am

      I regard rants mostly as entertainment, especially for people who feel internal pressure to be reasonable all the time. I don’t expect them to persuade anybody.


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