Author Archives: weeklysift

Doug Muder is a former mathematician who now writes about politics and religion. He is a frequent contributor to UU World.

Meanwhile on Planet A

There is no Planet B.

– popular sign at Saturday’s science marches

This week’s featured post is “What’s Our Story?“, wondering how we can raise energy to defend Western values when we no longer believe the story the West has been telling about itself.

This week everybody was talking about Trump’s first 100 days

which end next Saturday. I was tempted to write my own summary, but there are too many already. The Atlantic‘s is pretty good. (At this point, Paul Ryan will be happy if we can get through the 100th day without a government shutdown. The biggest sticking point is funding for the Wall, which — surprise! — Mexico isn’t paying for.)

What I will do is quickly review what I said I would watch for out of the Trump administration:

One more thing I should say is that my worst fears haven’t manifested, and it may be too late for their most likely scenario. Last November, my biggest fear was that Trump’s first few actions would be popular. He’d be victimizing out-groups like Muslims, immigrants, and blacks, and the English-speaking white majority would love it. That popularity would set a snowball rolling that first Republicans, and then Democrats, and then the courts would be afraid to stand in front of. Before you know it, we’d have the kind of fascist populism I described in “How Populism Goes Bad“.

That didn’t happen. Trump is incredibly unpopular for a president at the 100-day mark. His approval rating is around 40%, and has never been higher than 45%. Before him, Bill Clinton was the least popular modern president at 100 days, with a 55% approval rating. Democrats are united, the courts are ruling against him, and even congressional Republicans may be starting to stand up to him.

and the Georgia congressional election

When Trump appointed congressional Republicans to his cabinet, he created a series of special elections to replace them. All the districts are in deep-red areas, so he didn’t think he was in danger of losing any of them.

Well, Trump’s general unpopularity and the corresponding mobilization of Democrats has so far made those elections surprisingly competitive. Two weeks ago in Kansas, the Republican held on to a seat that Mike Pompeo had won in 2016 by 30 points, but only by 7 this time. This week in Georgia, Democrat Jon Ossoff got 48% of the vote in a district where Republican Tom Price got 62% just a few months ago. If Ossoff had gotten 50%, he’d have won the seat. As it stands, he faces a June runoff against Karen Handel, who finished second with 20% in a divided Republican field.

538’s Harry Enten thinks the runoff looks like a coin flip. You’d think a few of the Republicans who voted for non-Handel candidates would move to Ossoff, but Republicans have a way of uniting against Democrats when the chips are down.

and the March for Science

Saturday there were marches all over the country (and even all over the world) to protest three main things

Wherever you were, there was a march nearby. I was in Santa Fe, where I marched from the downtown plaza to the state capitol with “a few thousand” other people. (I took the picture to the right while Senator Udall was speaking. The crowd behind me was at least as big.)

Marches in the bigger cities were even larger. I’ve seen estimates of 40,000 in Chicago, 50,000 in St. Paul, and so on. In D.C., the “early” crowd was estimated at 15,000, and I haven’t heard how big it eventually got.

I’m not sure where this woman was:

and Bill O’Reilly

Apparently, if you harass enough women in the workplace over a long enough period of time, and if some of them are brave and determined enough to inspire the others to come forward, and if boycotters make advertisers notice, and if The New York Times does a story about it, and if there’s a corporate parent that just doesn’t want the grief, then you might lose your job.

Clearly, we’ve come a long way.

Of course, you also might become president. There are still a few bugs in the system.

but the French election might turn out to be even more important

I wish I understood France well enough to tell you about it in detail. The headline is that someone from outside the traditional national-party structure, Emmanuel Macron, was the leading candidate in France’s presidential election, getting 24% of the vote. That will put him into a runoff in two weeks with the second-place finisher, Marine Le Pen, who got 22%.

Le Pen, who leads the party that her father founded, is not quite the anti-semitic fascist that he was, but represents France’s radical right. She is the Trump-Putin candidate: anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-EU, anti-NATO.

Polls say that supporters of the other candidates will unite around Macron in the runoff, so the disaster of a Le Pen presidency might be avoided.

and you might also be interested in

Paul Krugman has a good analogy for understanding the Republicans’ inability to come up with an ObamaCare replacement plan: trying to stuff a big balloon into a small box.

Republicans have … successfully convinced many voters that they could preserve the good stuff [of ObamaCare] — the dramatic expansion of coverage that has brought the percentage of Americans without health insurance to a record low — while reducing premiums, shrinking deductibles and, of course, doing away with the taxes on high incomes that pay for the program.

But healthcare costs money, and people who are poor or sick don’t have enough to pay for it. The government — or somebody — has to make up the difference. The repeated attempts at a Republican plan are all ways to try to hide the gap: You can’t pull out the government money — which is the main GOP goal — and keep the same level of coverage. So every time a plan gets well enough defined for the CBO to rate it, it turns out that millions of people will lose their health insurance.

The important thing to remember is that these problems don’t keep popping up because the people devising the plans are careless, and keep forgetting crucial issues. They’re popping up because the G.O.P. is trying to stuff a big balloon into a small box, and every time you squeeze it somewhere it inflates someplace else.


Matt Yglesias: If you tell working-class voters in dying communities that the mill or the mine is going to reopen and give them back their old jobs, you’re not respecting them, you’re pandering to them.


Shaun King makes a point relevant to my post last week on cold racism: There’s a simple reason that conservatives were upset by Obama’s golfing vacations, but are far less upset by Trump’s far more frequent golfing vacations: Obama’s golfing marked him as an “uppity Negro”.


Ordinarily, you don’t see a lot of stores closing unless the economy is in recession. But they are now. Possible reasons: Internet shopping has gotten big enough to hurt store traffic. Developers overbuilt malls, expecting growth that never happened. Consumers are spending less on stuff and more on experiences like vacations or meals.


Attorney General Sessions:

I really am amazed that a judge sitting on an island in the Pacific can issue an order that stops the President of the United States from what appears to be clearly his statutory and Constitutional power.

Someone needs to explain to the AG (1) how the federal court system works, and (2) that Hawaii is a state equal to any other state. This is yet another dog whistle to racists whose idea of “real America” doesn’t extend out to Hawaii.

Personally, I’m amazed that someone from Alabama has the stones to denigrate Hawaii.


When Republicans take over state government, one of the first things they do is make it harder to vote. My state of New Hampshire elected a Republican governor in November, and already had Republican control of both houses of the legislature. And so now comes an unusually insidious form of voter suppression:

According to the bill, wrongful voting/voter fraud is now considered to occur simply when a person “registers to vote on election day using an affidavit to satisfy proof of being qualified … and fails to provide a copy of the document by mail or present the document in person to the town or city clerk by the deadline.” This legitimate voter who doesn’t have documentation can now be subject to a fine of up to $5,000. He will also be removed from the voter rolls.

So if you take advantage of New Hampshire’s same-day registration, you now have to produce paperwork showing that you’re a permanent resident within 10 days, and if you don’t, you’ll be fined. So a legitimate New Hampshire resident who votes, but doesn’t get around to producing the required documentation within ten days is a criminal.

The bill has already passed the Senate on a party-line vote, with Republicans voting to criminalize legitimate voters.


The IRS is going to start using private collection agencies to get people to pay overdue taxes. What could possibly go wrong? I already get spam phone calls from boiler-room operations claiming to represent the IRS.


As you listen to your Bose headphones, they’re also listening to you. Well, not exactly, but almost. According to a new lawsuit, if you use the associated Bose app, it will tell Bose what you listen to, and Bose sells that information. Apparently, someone who knows what songs, podcasts, audiobooks, etc. you listen to can make a lot of good guesses about the rest of your life.

and let’s close with some advertising that shouldn’t work

This image off their Facebook page may look like it can’t possibly come from a real business, but while crossing Missouri on I-44 I saw a billboard with the same slogan.

What’s Our Story?

How do we defend Western values if we no longer believe the story that used to justify them?


I’m not usually a David Brooks fan. Too often his columns remind me of the “big thinks” of Dr. Moreau‘s upgraded ape-man; he seems far too impressed with his own ability to take on such deep subjects, and has far too little of substance to say about them. His column this Friday “The Crisis of Western Civ” raises a typically Brooksian big-think topic, and as usual provides few useful hints of where to go with it. But this time, he has at least spotlighted a question the rest of us would do well to think about: If Western society no longer feels comfortable telling the Greece-to-Rome-to-Europe story (in which progress’ forward march leads to democracy, science, and human rights), what story should we be telling?

Societies, like individuals, motivate themselves with stories. Individuals often have life crises when the stories they’ve been telling stop working: When the save-the-world or rule-the-world ambitions that got you through school become untenable in middle age, you have a mid-life crisis. The death of a child can leave a parent facing not just grief, but also a who-am-I-now question. Hitting retirement can be a crisis for someone whose story has been all about career and organizational success.

Countries and civilizations do the same thing. Soviet Communism, for example, fell for a lot of reasons, but one important one was that its idealistic story (about leading the world’s oppressed masses in a revolution that would achieve the perfect society) stopped being credible. If you couldn’t believe that any more, then the Party was just another ladder to climb to get more privileges. So who would sacrifice for it or stick by it when times got tough?

Brooks points out that western societies, and America in particular, used to have an equally compelling story: Progress. A representative democracy that respects individual rights, a wide-ranging public debate that allows people of many views to speak their minds without violence, the march of science towards an ever-broader objective truth, and a corresponding march of technology that creates an ever-expanding abundance — this was presented as more than just a trend. It was the “end of history“, the goal that humanity had been consciously or unconsciously advancing towards since it split off from the apes.

And we were the vanguard of that capital-P Progress. It was our job, in Europe and the United States, to perfect Progress and teach it to the rest of the world, much of which was still in some primitive state of ignorance.

Like all stories, Progress was true only up to a point, and got pushed well past that point. Our role as the vanguard of Progress turned into the white man’s burden, and justified the abuses of colonialism and slavery. In practice, the story often turned out to mean little more than freedom and abundance for us at the expense of everyone else. The view of the material world as something to master in our quest for abundance, and a corresponding disrespect for the complexity of the natural systems that regulated life on Earth prior to our ascendancy, has led to mass extinctions of non-human species and the looming crisis of climate change.

So the story of Progress’ triumph has, particularly in academia, gotten replaced — or at least supplemented — by the story of Progress’ tragedy. And that has resulted in a generation of well-educated potential leaders who don’t really believe in the root story of the West. Or maybe they just believe in it half-heartedly.

That’s what worries Brooks: Representative democracy, the rule of law, human rights, science, objective truth, and so on — those are still good things, they are under attack, and they need more than a half-hearted defense. As Putin-style nationalist autocracy starts spreading across the world, as fundamentalist Islam abroad and fundamentalist Christianity at home threaten to turn back the clock to less enlightened eras, defenses of Western values are disturbingly tepid. [2]

Now let me push beyond what Brooks says, into my own big-think territory. Simplifying greatly, so far societies have come up with only three basic types of motivating stories:

  • tribalism. Those of us united by blood and soil are in a zero-sum competition with everybody else. Either we dominate them or they’ll dominate us. [1]
  • transcendent religion. We worship the universal God who has told us exactly how he wants human beings to live. By adopting our ways and worshiping our God, anyone can join us.
  • humanism. We stand for universal values that apply to everyone whether they believe in them or not. Truth is objective and can be found by rational methods available to all. But our understanding of Truth is always open to improvement through exploration and the development of new ideas.

The Progress story always had elements of tribalism and religion, but at its core was a humanistic vision. As that vision loses strength, rival stories based in tribalism and religion gain.

Trump’s message, at its core, is tribalist — America first; zero-sum relationships with other nations in which we either win or lose; non-white or non-Christian immigrants may try to join us, but they’ll never be “real Americans”; and so on. Trump’s ongoing flirtation with white supremacists is not a coincidence or a marriage of political convenience; they make sense to each other because they’re both telling a tribalist story.

In The Atlantic, Peter Beinart recently made a related claim about religion: As it loses its transcendent quality, it also reverts to tribalism. The evangelical embrace of Trump — he carried white evangelical Christians by a wider margin than either Romney or McCain — may seem mysterious, given the pasted-on quality of his own Christianity and the total divergence between his agenda and the Sermon on the Mount. But Beinart digs deeper into the numbers: Trump’s earliest and most fervent supporters are evangelicals who don’t go to church.

As Americans have left organized religion, they haven’t stopped viewing politics as a struggle between “us” and “them.” Many have come to define us and them in even more primal and irreconcilable ways.

… Whatever the reason, when cultural conservatives disengage from organized religion, they tend to redraw the boundaries of identity, de-emphasizing morality and religion and emphasizing race and nation. Trump is both a beneficiary and a driver of that shift.

So is the alt-right. … Its leaders like Christendom, an old-fashioned word for the West. But they’re suspicious of Christianity itself, because it crosses boundaries of blood and soil. [3]

What both Brooks and Beinart are pointing to are the limits of deconstruction. When you critique someone’s worldview — show him that the God of his childhood is too simple to be real, or that his “rational” and “universal” values are hypocritical and self-serving — you hope that he’ll progress towards a more advanced vision, towards a more complex and nuanced religion or a more truly universal humanism. But it’s also possible, perhaps even probable, that the opposite will happen: The failure of his story may lead him to fall back to a more primitive one. And the most primitive story of all — me and mine need to protect ourselves against a rapacious “them” — is incredibly resilient. If all other stories fail you, that one never will.

What Brooks seems to want, by the end of his column, is for critics to let up on the West, its dead-white-men literary tradition, and its unfortunate history of oppression. Beinart doesn’t make such a plea, but it’s easy to come out of his article with a feeling that maybe critics should leave churches alone: If we break them by demoralizing their members, what comes after will probably be worse.

But returning to either the Mother Church or the dead-white-male curriculum seems unlikely to solve the problem. No doubt many voices in the Soviet Union similarly called for a return to true Marxist-Leninist idealism, with less attention to the culture of corruption that was growing as revolutionary fervor faded. It didn’t work for them and a similar relaxation of criticism won’t work for us.

The recent devolutionary trends, though, should at the very least put pressure on those of us who believe in Western values to pay more attention to the positive sources of our faith. One of the many things the 2016 election proved is that our most basic assumptions can’t be taken for granted any more. The virtue of universal human rights and the evil of bigotry is no longer an of course. A belief in objective truth and the scientific method does not go without saying. Neither does democracy and the rule of law.

In the Age of Trump, returning criticism for criticism is not enough. We need to understand why we believe what we believe, why our values are worth defending, and why anybody else should agree with us. OK, the West isn’t the vanguard of History, and there is a lot to regret about our past actions. We have never fully lived by the values we profess. But they continue to be great values, and they deserve a story that explains why.


[1] Note the difference between tribal and tribalist. A tribal story is whatever story a tribe tells, and might be based on a worldview as morally sophisticated as any. A tribalist story is one saying that my tribe is the best and deserves to dominate all the others.

[2] A related problem, which Brooks doesn’t touch, is corruption from within. We tolerate unlimited money in our politics, gerrymandering of our legislatures, presidents taking office after losing the popular vote, a justice system that applies the law differently to whites and non-whites, and many other practices that would outrage us if we truly believed in Western democratic values and saw ourselves as the vanguard of Progress.

[3] American Catholic leaders, for example, understand that they represent not just the white ethnic groups Trump is appealing to, but also a large number of Hispanic immigrants, both documented and undocumented.

The Monday Morning Teaser

I’m still in the West — Santa Fe this week — so things might run a little later than usual again.

Trump’s 100th day is Saturday, so I was tempted to write a 100-days post. But after I read about six such articles, I realized that there will be hundreds of them, so mine may not be strictly necessary. Still, though, I wrote an article last November “The Trump Administration: what I’m watching for“, so it seems like basic accountability to go back and check whether any of the things I was worried about have been happening. That didn’t take nearly so many words, though, so I tucked it into the weekly summary.

The idea for this week’s featured post ended up coming from David Brooks, of all people. I usually grind my teeth through Brooks’ columns in the NYT, and, well, I did through Friday’s “The Crisis of Western Civ” as well. But it raised an issue that I thought deserved better than Brooks was giving it: whether the collapse of the story the West used to tell about itself has something to do with the difficulty the West is having defending itself against the rise of fundamentalist religious movements on the one hand and neo-fascist nationalist movements on the other.

Once I started doing my own version of that column, it linked in with another article: Peter Beinart’s “Breaking Faith” in The Atlantic, where he noted that the Christians most vulnerable to Trump’s tribalist us-against-them message are the ones who don’t go to church any more. They retain Christianity as a tribal identity, but not as an active faith whose practice pulls them into the community. Once again, the breakdown of an old message was leading not to progress, but regress.

Naturally, my post, “What’s Our Story?”, isn’t going to solve either problem. But I hope it will get you thinking about it in a different way. That should be out sometime in the next hour.

As it has for around 100 days or so, the weekly summary suffers from an excess of news: Trump’s 100 days, the Georgia congressional election, the March for Science, Bill O’Reilly’s firing, the French election, and a few other things. I’m not sure when that will be out.

Treacherous Division

Maintaining the division between the Colony and the Nation is treacherous precisely because of the constant threat that the tools honed in the Colony will be wielded in the Nation; that tyranny and violence tolerated at the periphery will ultimately infiltrate the core.

– Chris Hayes, A Colony in a Nation

This week’s featured post is a suggestion for framing discussions about the more subtle forms of racism: “Racism, Hot and Cold“. And it’s an appropriate time to look back at my attempt in 2013 to promote a secular Easter mythology in “Wrestling with Easter“.

This week everybody was talking about rumors of war

The Syria attack got Trump such good press that many were skeptical Thursday when we dropped the Massive Ordinance Air Blast (MOAB, a.k.a. Mother of All Bombs) in Afghanistan. But Vox thinks it was legit.

“It’s a weapon that has a narrow target set,” an Air Force official told me. “It’s primarily intended for soft to medium surface targets — targets like a cave and canyon environment.”

The area hit in Afghanistan appears to be one of the few targets that fit this profile.

All the same, it was weird to watch the chest-thumping on the Right over a big-but-mostly-meaningless explosion. Our national pride used to be based on stuff like inventing the light bulb or landing on the Moon. Now it comes from dropping really big bombs.


The more worrisome situation is North Korea, which has been ramping up both its nuclear tests and its missile tests. The Guardian reports:

There has been little doubt in recent years that the end-point of the North Korean programme is an arsenal of working ICBMs and nuclear warheads small enough to put on top of them. The dilemma of how to stop it reaching that goal is the hardest problem facing any US administration, a point that Barack Obama repeatedly made to Trump during the presidential transition.

… Trump seems to be hoping that by introducing some unpredictability into this static scenario, he can frighten the Chinese government into putting real pressure on Pyongyang. There are some signs that might be working, with hints in China’s semi-official media that Beijing could tighten oil deliveries, North Korea’s lifeline.


Trump’s reliance on China may explain why he’s reversed himself on his currency manipulation charge. Branding China a “currency manipulator” — something he was going to do “on Day 1” of his administration — would have begun a formal process that would likely have led to tariffs and a trade war. Now he’s changed his mind.


Like Syria, North Korea is a situation where no one has any really good ideas. North Korea probably already has the ability to destroy Seoul, a South Korean mega-city of about 25 million. So a preemptive war could have an enormous cost. But waiting for the North Korean regime to gain the power to similarly threaten Tokyo or Los Angeles is not a great prospect either.

Some Trump fans thought the MOAB blast was a warning to North Korea, but actually it wouldn’t be much of a threat there. Vox again:

“If you think about what a target profile might look like in either Iran or North Korea — both of those countries have air defense systems,” [University of Kentucky Professor Rob] Farley says. “This is a weapon dropped from a C-130, which is not a stealthy aircraft and not really a combat aircraft at all. This is not a weapon you can drop on someone who has an active defense of the target — fighters or any kind of surface-to-air missile.”


Fortunately, yesterday’s North Korean missile test seems to have failed.


In any international conflict, we hear the argument that “You can’t talk to [insert name of foreign leader], he’s crazy.” On occasion it might be true, but it really can’t be true every single time. Maybe it’s true about Kim Jong-Un; a lot of people certainly think so. But this article in Newsweek from last year claims not.

and the United Air Lines fiasco

By now you’ve undoubtedly heard the story and probably even seen the videos: Dr. David Dao, who was already seated, refused United’s compensation offer for leaving the plane and was dragged off my force.

Criticizing United for this incident is shooting fish in a barrel; everybody has done it already. Twitter has a #NewUnitedAirlinesMotto hashtag, with gems like: “If we can’t beat our competitors, we’ll beat our customers” and “United: Putting the hospital in hospitality”. Jimmy Kimmel created a new United commercial:

But United’s situation is even worse than it initially appeared: Early coverage assumed that the fine print of its ticket agreement gave United the legal right to do what it did, even if it obviously shouldn’t have. But now it looks like United is wrong even legally. Apparently, the contract allows United to “refuse boarding” to a passenger for just about any reason, including that they have some other use for the seat. But nothing gave them the right to remove Dao after they had boarded him, unless he was being disruptive — and he didn’t become a problem passenger until after they started trying to remove him.

Beyond that, the interesting articles are about the larger meaning of this event. Is the problem these particular United employees? United itself? Airlines in general? Capitalism? I think the quote at the top of this page, which comes from Chris Hayes’ A Colony in a Nation (discussed last week) nails it.

Maintaining the division between the Colony and the Nation is treacherous precisely because of the constant threat that the tools honed in the Colony will be wielded in the Nation; that tyranny and violence tolerated at the periphery will ultimately infiltrate the core.

In other words: We tolerate that in poor, black neighborhoods, people who don’t do what some authority tells them are beaten and/or dragged away by police, even if the authority is overstepping. Whenever someone gets killed in such a circumstance, you will inevitably hear the argument: “Why didn’t he just do what the officer told him?”

Once that idea gets out there — that (even if you’re in the right) you do what you’re told or face violence — it’s not going to stay in its box. Socially, an airliner may seem far, far away from Ferguson or Baltimore. But when you’re sitting in your middle seat, you’re powerless too. So you’d better do what you’re told or face violence.

Once we accept this kind of violence, there’s no way to define a boundary that will keep it away from you. The only solution is to resolve that people will not be treated that way. All people, everywhere.

and the continuing retreat of liberal democracy

Turkish voters passed a referendum taking power away from its parliament and centering it in the executive. The Erdogan government has been getting increasingly autocratic for some time, and this is a big step further down that road. (The idea that a narrow majority can authorize this kind of sweeping change is scary in itself, and typical of the rise of dictators.)

A coup against Erdogan failed last year, and he has used that opportunity to rule in an “emergency” mode. International observers judged that a valid referendum could not take place under these circumstances.

For a long time, Turkey seemed headed towards membership in the European Union, which would have exacerbated Brexit-like pressures on countries that didn’t want a large influx of poor Turks looking for jobs, but also was liberalizing Turkey internally. Now that process seems to be over.


Now all eyes turn to France, where the first round of a presidential election will be held on Sunday. It’s uncertain which two of the current 11 candidates will be in the run-off on May 7, but one of them is likely to be Marine Le Pen, leader of the extreme-right National Front.

but this article is also worth your time

Rick Perlstein has been writing books about the history of the American Right for many years, beginning in 2001 with Before the Storm about the Goldwater movement, and continuing with Nixonland and the most recent in the series The Invisible Bridge, which takes the story up to Ronald Reagan’s nearly successful challenge to President Ford’s renomination in 1976.

Now he recognizes that the story he and other historians of the Right have been telling doesn’t lead to Trump, and that has him re-evaluating his whole approach.

If Donald Trump is the latest chapter of conservatism’s story, might historians have been telling that story wrong?

His article “I Thought I Understood the American Right. Trump Proved Me Wrong.” is a fascinating history of historians trying to make sense out of events whose consequences are still playing out. When the main thing they knew about Goldwater was his landslide loss to LBJ in 1964, he looked like an aberrant throwback, which is how Richard Hofstadter portrayed him in “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”

Then his campaign became the forerunner of Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980, and historians began telling a different story of conservatism’s march to respectability. Now the story of “modern conservatism” begins in 1955, with William F. Buckley’s National Review rejecting the conspiracy theories of the John Birch Society, the nativism and racism of the KKK, and the anti-modernism of the Scopes Monkey Trial.

But Trump, Perlstein now recognizes, has a lot more to do with the old, crazy conservatism than with Buckley-style respectable conservatism. That means that the march to respectability was always partly an illusion, the old conservatism must always have been there under the surface, and the roots of Trump go back further than Perlstein had thought.

and you might also be interested in

Apparently the attempt to raise an uproar about Susan Rice was just another Trump attempt to distract from his own Russia scandal.

After a review of the same intelligence reports brought to light by House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers and aides have so far found no evidence that Obama administration officials did anything unusual or illegal, multiple sources in both parties tell CNN.


Josh Marshall reflects that few presidents arrive in office really prepared for the job, and each of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama had to learn a lot in their early days. But Trump is unique in that he truly seems not to have previously understood that knowledge was possible. When he discovers something that literally everyone who pays attention to the news already knew (like that health care is complicated, or that China and Korea have a long and difficult history), he presents it as if we should all be as surprised as he is.


Having failed to repeal ObamaCare, Trump is threatening to break it. If he thinks this threat is going to get Democrats to go along with his repeal plan, he’s going to have to think again.


Thursday Trump signed a bill that allows states to deny federal grants to Planned Parenthood.

Now that the rule has been repealed, states can effectively block Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers from funds associated with the Title X Family Planning program, which was established in 1970 to subsidize organizations that offer services related to contraception, pregnancy care, fertility and cancer screenings primarily for low-income people.

This is widely misunderstood as “defunding Planned Parenthood”, as if there were a “subsidize Planned Parenthood” line somewhere in the federal budget. What the federal government in fact subsidizes are services, which people can get by going to the service-provider of their choice.

So basically, what Trump and Republicans at the state level are doing here is anti-freedom. They’re saying that you can’t get your federally subsidized cancer screening or contraception where you want to get it. You have to get it from some provider conservatives approve of.


Free college was one of Bernie Sanders’ most popular proposals. New York state is now moving in that direction. The SUNY and CUNY systems will be tuition-free to in-state students whose families make less than $100,000, if they fulfill academic requirements and stay in the state after graduation.


Jay Rosen is promoting the expansion of the Dutch news organization De Correspondent to the American market. He says De Correspondent looks as if it were built around the question: “What if news organizations optimized every part of the operation for trust?”


Conservative media outlets loved to run stories about how the Obamas were “living large” at the public expense, as if life in the White House had been spartan until 2009. But Trump’s expenses are blowing away Obama’s numbers. Vanity Fair reports:

In all eight years of President Barack Obama’s presidency, his travel, both personal and professional, amounted to a total of $97 million, according to Judicial Watch. That puts Trump on track to surpass Obama’s travel spending over the course of two terms in about one year.

Judicial Watch, it’s worth pointing out, is a conservative group that was outraged at that $97 million figure.


The sheriff’s department in Lake County, Florida made a video to try to scare drug dealers. It ought to scare pretty much everybody. I think I might rather run into drug dealers than these masked vigilantes.


Democratic strategist Jess McIntosh discovers that her Dad gets his news from alt-right web sites, and he isn’t completely sure that she doesn’t eat babies.

and let’s close with an amusing way to waste time

Fifty pictures that sum up each of the fifty states. Like North Carolina:

Racism, Hot and Cold

It’s hard for conservatives to talk about race. Maybe we could make it easier.


Liberal/conservative conversations about race often go like this one that happened on MSNBC at the end of March.

There is an incident (in this case Sean Spicer scolding a black female reporter, April Ryan) that shows lack of respect for a person of color. The liberal (in this case, Jason Johnson) places it in a larger context, a pattern of disrespect, and calls it out as racism. The conservative (Matt Schlapp) takes offense at the accusation and a shouting match ensues, ending any real exchange of ideas.

To an extent, I think this is a calculated tactic on the part of conservative pundits (or, at least, somebody calculated it at one point and others have imitated): There can be no discussion of patterns of disrespect based on race or gender. Any attempt to start such a discussion has to be shouted down.

Accordingly, any individual incident has to be presented as a unique occurrence and explained by the details of that particular situation. (Schlapp explains that Spicer “got feisty” with Ryan because he was under pressure to get through a lot of news that day.) Attempts to put a racial context around the incident have to be shut down. [1]

But whatever Schlapp or other talking heads might have in mind, it’s worthwhile to consider why their conservative viewers approve of this tactic and never see it for what it is: In conservative circles racism has a very specific meaning that usually doesn’t apply to the situation at hand. To conservatives, racism means conscious hatred, an intention to harm or humiliate a person purely because of his or her race. It isn’t that racism doesn’t exist, but it applies only to the KKK or the Nazis.

To Schlapp, then, it is absurd and outrageous to imagine that Sean Spicer is at his podium thinking “I’m tired of black reporters getting uppity with me, so I’m going to slap this one down.” That’s what Schlapp means when he says, “You don’t know what’s in Sean’s heart.”

But of course, Johnson had never claimed to know what was in Spicer’s heart, or to see conscious hatred there. He was pointing to a pattern of behavior both for Spicer and throughout the Trump administration, in which non-whites are shown less respect. There might be all kinds of reasons for such a pattern.

For example, what if Spicer simply sees blacks (or women) differently than he sees whites (or men)? [2] What if it’s his mental habit to interpret black actions more negatively, and to feel that harsher responses are appropriate? In that case, he might have been entirely unaware that he was treating April Ryan differently than a white White House correspondent like Peter Alexander or Jeff Zeleny, because even if Alexander or Zeleny had done the same thing, it would have looked different to him.

To the conservative mind, though, that’s not racism. If there is no conscious hatred involved, then it’s totally unfair to suggest comparisons to the KKK, as they feel racism does.

“So fine, then,” a liberal might say, “give me the word that applies to this situation and we’ll use it.”

But then you hit the root problem: There is no conservative term for the habitual and perhaps unconscious tendency to see people of another race differently, judge them more negatively, and react to them more harshly. In the absence of such a term, there is no way to point out the phenomenon and discuss it. You can’t ask about the elephant in the room, because elephant refers only to mastodons, who died out ages ago. There is no word for the big, gray animal swinging his trunk around, so any attempt to discuss him inevitably veers off in some other direction.

A conservative might respond that I’m describing an esoteric phenomenon of so little consequence that it doesn’t really need a name or a discussion. But that is completely unconvincing after eight years of the Obama administration, during which conservative media outlets repeatedly raised their audience’s outrage when Obama did things white presidents had been doing without incident for decades. I don’t claim to know what was in the hearts of the people who felt that outrage — I doubt that most of them were consciously aware they were applying different standards to Obama — but the pattern of observable behavior was clear and obvious. [3]

Likewise, this is the whole issue behind Black Lives Matter. It isn’t that people become cops because they like to kill blacks. (I mean, some small number probably do, but I doubt it’s typical, and I believe the system tries to weed those guys out.) But white guys can safely carry semi-automatic rifles through Target, while a black guy in Walmart gets gunned down for picking up a toy. Cops just see young black men differently, judge their actions more negatively, and respond more harshly. We can’t have a rational discussion of that issue because conservatives refuse to call it racism, but don’t offer any alternative term for it.

We could give them one.

I know this isn’t a new idea. In liberal circles, there is already a distinction between conscious and unconscious bigotry. We often talk about implicit bias, and there is even a test you can take for it on the internet. But every term I’ve heard smacks of some liberal bastion like psychology or academia. None of them would sound right rolling out of a conservative mouth. A conservative talking about implicit bias would impress his fellow conservatives about as much as a macho man talking to his locker-room buddies about relationships and commitment.

If we want a real discussion to start, what we need isn’t technical jargon appropriate for an academic journal, but some ten-cent words already in everyday use, taking advantage of some metaphor that ordinary people might come up with if they happened across the phenomenon on their own, without ever attending a course in racial studies.

Here’s a common metaphor that might work: Emotions have temperature. Hate and anger are hot. If you feel a vague aversion towards someone, you are cool to them, and if the aversion got stronger you might want to freeze them out.

If we apply that metaphor to racism, then the kind conservatives already acknowledge, the conscious hatred that Emmett Till‘s killers must have felt, is hot racism. When Richard Spencer calls for “ethnic cleansing” to turn American into a “white ethnostate”, that’s also hot racism.

Cold racism, on the other hand, doesn’t actively wish harm on people of color, but simply fails to factor in their interests or to weigh them as heavily as the interests of whites. Those who watched Eric Garner die saying “I can’t breathe” and felt motivated to make excuses for the police choking him — most of them probably weren’t feeling hatred or anger towards Garner, they were just failing to feel compassion for a fellow human being. The problem wasn’t their heat it was their coldness. [4]

The kind of racism that whites can live with and not notice — the kind that simply sees blacks differently and then acts in a way that feels appropriate to that harsher perception, without any awareness of personal animus — could be described as room-temperature racism. The room-temperature racist feels like he is the one acting normally, and doesn’t understand why others are getting upset with him.

That, I believe, describes Sean Spicer. An avowed white nationalist like Richard Spencer knows that race is an issue for him. But Spicer just believes he’s responding appropriately to what he sees. The details of the Holocaust (to bring up another recent example) just don’t stick in his head. Why, he probably wonders, are Jews so bent out of shape about that?

If liberals started consistently applying a temperature gauge to racism, I think most moderates would understand the metaphor without much explanation, and conservatives might eventually get it in spite of themselves. Some talking heads — the ones who are consciously looking to disrupt discussions of race — might keep reacting with outrage to any mention of racism, regardless of temperature. But part of their audience might realize that finding room-temperature racism in the patterns of Spicer’s responses isn’t the same as fitting him for a white hood. They might eventually recognize that there is a consistent phenomenon in the incidents that carry that label.

Elephants, they might come to understand, are not mastodons. Occasionally there is one in the room. Maybe there should be a conversation about it.


[1] Conservatives, in their usual pot-and-kettle way, claim that it is liberals who shut down discussions by bringing up racism. But this is true only if you begin with the premise that racism can never be discussed. Apparently, it is impossible for conservatives to respond to “That’s racist” with a skeptical “How?”.

[2] In this article I’m going to focus specifically on racism, but what I’m saying could apply to any form of bigotry. We could talk about hot and cold sexism, hot and cold nativism, and so on.

[3] In 2014, I documented a long series of examples, but two moments should stand out in everyone’s memory: State of the Union addresses have contained debatable statements for as long as I can remember, but no white president was ever interrupted by “You lie!“. And the entire Birther theory, which as late as last summer was still given credence by a majority of Republicans, demonstrated that a large number of Americans were ready to believe anything negative about Obama, regardless of evidence.

There are comparable examples of baseless conspiracy theories about white presidents — that George W. Bush was complicit in 9-11 or FDR was secretly Jewish. But all of them stayed on the fringes of public debate. None ever caught on like Birtherism or stayed viable in the face of clear evidence and repeated debunking.

Now, does that mean that Joe Wilson was consciously thinking, “I can’t let that nigger get away with saying that”? Am I implying that everyone who doubted Obama’s citizenship is a potential cross-burner? Not at all, but it is part of a long pattern of seeing blacks differently, judging them more negatively, and responding to them more harshly.

[4] When I google “cold racism”, most of the examples are of the form “stone cold racism”, which is a different thing. It’s the hardness of the stone that’s being evoked, not the temperature of the feeling.

The Monday Morning Teaser

Arizona, it turns out, doesn’t do daylight time. Here in Sedona it’s Mountain Standard Time, three hours head of my usual Eastern Daylight. So the Sift may run a little later than usual this week.

One of the themes I touch on now and then is how to talk about racism. In 2014’s “What Should ‘Racism’ Mean?” I collected a bunch of “outrages” committed by President Obama — things all presidents do, like putting their feet up on the desk in the Oval Office or letting soldiers hold umbrellas over their heads — as examples of a more subtle kind of racial bias: To many, maybe even most whites (including me, sometimes) things just look different — and usually more objectionable — when blacks do them. And I raised the question: If you don’t want to call that racism — reserving that word for extreme cases like slavery and Jim Crow — what is your name for it?

Last year I followed that up in “What Should ‘Racism’ Mean? Part II” by pointing out that two-thirds of Republicans (a group that did not include Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, among other GOP leaders) did not consider an outrageous Trump statement (that Judge Curiel couldn’t rule fairly in the Trump U lawsuit because he was “Mexican”) to be racist at all. What definition of racism did that imply?

This week I return to that subject with a positive suggestion: Let’s allow conservatives their distinction between the KKK and the more subtle kinds of racism by modifying racism with a temperature metaphor: Active racial animus is hot racism, while disregard or skewed perception of non-whites is cold racism, or even room-temperature racism. I’ll explain how that works using a recent shouting match on MSNBC as a jumping-off point in “Racism: Hot and Cold”. That should be out shortly.

In the weekly summary, there’s talk of war: The MOAB was used for the first time in Afghanistan, and Trump rattled his saber at North Korea. And by now you probably know all about the United Air Lines fiasco, but there’s been some interesting writing about its larger meaning. Rick Perlstein’s reassessment of conservative history in the wake of Trump is fascinating reading. Turkey continues moving towards dictatorship. And I’ll close with a collection of 50 photos intended to sum up each of the 50 states, like this summary of Kansas.

Where It Ends

You know where a war begins, but you never know where it ends.

– Otto von Bismarck

This week’s featured posts are “Where Did That Come From?” (about the Syria attack) and “Justice and the Police” (connecting the latest from Trump’s Justice Department to the analysis in Chris Hayes’ A Colony in a Nation).

This week everybody was talking about the Syria

I covered this at length in one of the featured posts.

One further thought: During the Obama years, Republicans often ridiculed his teleprompter, as if the President himself were simply a mouthpiece for words written by someone else. To me, that criticism always misfired, because Obama in fact had a deep understanding of the issues and thought quite well on his feet.

But watching Trump’s announcement of the cruise missile attack, I couldn’t help thinking that I was hearing a teleprompter speak and not a president. Trump read his statement slowly, always looking to the screen on one side or the other, and never forward into the camera.

and the byzantine rivalries inside the White House

Steve Bannon’s star seems to be in decline. He was removed from the National Security Council, a role a political operative should never have had to begin with. Some attribute his removal to National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster, while others credit/blame Jared Kushner.

Breitbart, the alt-right pseudo-news site Bannon ran before becoming Trump’s chief strategist, continues to be Bannon’s propaganda outlet. Of late, it has taken a strong anti-Kushner tack. After the NSC announcement, it gave major space to an interview with Ned Ryun of American Majority (an organization devoted to training new conservative leaders). He described Bannon’s demotion as part of a power struggle between

national populists, really led by Bannon, versus, quite frankly – there’s no other way to describe them – the liberal New York City set that have come in.

i.e., Kushner and his wife Ivanka Trump.

God bless them, they’re part of the Trump family, but let’s not kid ourselves: they are part of the Manhattan liberal set. … I think we should start asking questions – who are they really? What has been their experience? What is their worldview? Because I’m starting to suspect their worldview does not line up with the campaign promises that Trump was making. … I’ve got to tell you, my hope is that Trump will say, “I know what got me in. I know what brought me to the White House. Steve Bannon is really the lead cheerleader on that front. Keep Steve close. Listen to Steve.”

I find it fascinating that Bannonists are calling themselves “national populists” and focusing on appealing to the white working-class voters in the Trump base. If they’re ever looking for a Tea-Party-like name, how about National Populist American Workers’ Party? That has a ring to it, don’t you think?


One Kushner ally the National Populists (Nappies?) particularly hate is Gary Cohn, the former Goldman Sachs COO who is head of the National Economic Council and has been rumored as a replacement for Reince Preibus as chief of staff.

Beneath all the Breitbart codewords — liberal, New York, globalist — is a meaning you have to go to the more extreme sources to translate: Jew. Kushner was born Jewish and Ivanka converted, but Cohn is the alt-Right’s worst nightmare: an honest-to-HaShem Jewish banker.

and the Senate approving Gorsuch

Senate Republicans had to change Senate rules on the fly to do it, eliminating the filibuster on Supreme Court nominations.

There are those who mourn this move, or who wish Democrats had saved their filibuster for some future nomination, but I don’t see it. What is to be mourned here are the traditions of fair play and mutual respect that for centuries allowed the Senate to use the filibuster responsibly.

Until the last two decades, the filibuster was an extreme tactic, reserved for situations in which the minority wanted to serve notice that it was aggrieved in more than just an ordinary way. Filibustering was outside the range of ordinary negotiating tactics, similar to when a spouse threatens to leave.

A number of major bills, ones that opponents must have thought were important, were not filibustered: the Social Security amendments that created Medicare and Medicaid in 1965, for example. Entire years might go by without a filibuster.

As the graph shows, use of the filibuster started to ramp up around 1970, gradually increased in the next few decades, and then spiked after Republicans became the minority in 2007. Mitch McConnell’s years as minority leader saw unprecedented obstruction; it became a commonplace that “it takes 60 votes to do anything in the Senate”.

Among McConnell’s new tactics was the blockade of an office, without regard to the qualifications of the individual nominated to fill it. He attempted to keep the Consumer Financial Protection Board from operating, and very nearly brought the National Labor Relations Board to a halt by refusing to let any nominee come to a vote. That’s what led Democrats to eliminate the filibuster on all nominations but the Supreme Court in 2013.

McConnell was majority leader by 2016, when he blockaded the Supreme Court seat that opened when Justice Scalia died. If there had been something objectionable about Merrick Garland — a generally moderate judge of sterling record — Republicans might have rejected Garland for cause and let President Obama nominate someone else, as the Founders intended. But the point of this maneuver was to prevent the seat from being filled, in hopes a Republican president might someday fill it. This was entirely unprecedented in American history.

Democrats couldn’t simply go back to the status quo after that. Returning to the marriage analogy, it would be like one spouse accepting that the other had won an argument by violence, and pretending that everything could go back to normal afterward. The courtly traditions of the Senate are gone now; pretending they can be restored without any acknowledgment of the gravity of the Garland nomination would be pointless.

It would have been similarly pointless to save the filibuster for the next nomination. If the Republican majority is determined to have its way, regardless of previous Senate traditions, then it will. A tool that exists only as long as you never use it is worthless.

While Senate traditions of collegiality are something to mourn for, the filibuster itself is not. Without the traditional restraints on its use, it becomes an instrument of minority obstruction, and enables the kind of gridlock we saw in the last six years of the Obama administration. Right now, liberals may wish they could stop more things from happening, but ultimately minority obstruction undermines the efficacy of democracy. If the people vote for something, they should get it. If they don’t like it, they should vote for something else.

but don’t forget about the Russia investigation

This week’s development was that House Intelligence Chair Devan Nunes recused himself from the investigation. He’ll continue as committee chair, but Rep. Mike Conaway of Texas will fill his role on the Russia probe.

Trump and his people have tried to make a distracting pseudo-scandal out of Susan Rice having names of Trump’s people “unmasked” from intelligence reports. So far, though, nothing we’ve learned seems all that suspicious to people who understand the process. For people who don’t, here’s a primer.

and you might also be interested in

As I explained last week, the effort to revive ObamaCare repeal is going nowhere. Congress is taking its April recess with no further action, in spite of Trump’s statement on March 28 that such a deal would be “easy” and happen “quickly”.

Matt Yglesias points to another area where Trump’s rhetoric outstrips anything actually in the works: infrastructure. He continues to talk about the $1 trillion infrastructure idea he floated during the campaign, but there is no actual plan Congress could vote on, and no one appears to be making one. Yglesias refers to an infrastructure plan as “vaporware”, a software industry term for promised features that aren’t actually being programmed.


I can’t vouch for the underlying data, but this map of each state’s largest employer is interesting: It’s usually either Walmart, a university, or a healthcare provider. Boeing in Washington and Intel in Oregon are the only manufacturers.

and let’s close with some dancing

I really should save this for the week when Bannon gets fired, but it’s never a bad time to watch a parrot rock out.

Justice and the Police

Inside our nation is a colony of poor, mostly non-white communities whose police are not under their democratic control. Jeff Sessions wants to keep it that way.


Recalling Ferguson. I remember exactly when I came to accept that Darren Wilson should not be prosecuted for killing Michael Brown: when I read the Justice Department’s report on the shooting. Until then, no entity I trusted had been able to examine all the evidence and report its findings to the public.

From the beginning, the Ferguson police had shown no interest in uncovering the truth; Wilson was their man, and they wanted him to go free. The local prosecutor, likewise, did not want to get on the wrong side of the police, and even Missouri’s Democratic governor saw the case as too hot a potato to pick up.

Only the Obama administration’s Justice Department was far enough removed from the local power structure to be objective. So its report was what finally convinced me: Wilson’s account of the incident was closer to the evidence than the hands-up-don’t-shoot narrative that had been echoing through Ferguson’s black community.

Even after that report, I still believed that Wilson’s animalistic (and at times even demonic) description of Brown was racist. I will never be convinced that killing Brown was his only option, or that he wouldn’t have found another way to resolve the situation if Brown had been white and middle-class. But even so, I knew that if the case went to trial and I were a juror, I could not vote to convict.

Simultaneously, though, Justice issued a parallel report about the general state of policing in Ferguson. The primary mission of Ferguson’s police, the report found, was not public safety, but generating revenue for the city by citing poor blacks for violations that carried fines. Likewise, the municipal court’s mission was to monetize those violations, and if possible to multiply them by making the court process as difficult as possible to navigate without incurring further fines.

The community’s response to Brown’s killing, the two reports implied, was based not so much on the facts of that particular case as on a hope: Maybe finally the police had done something so egregious that the outside world would have to notice the illegal and unconstitutional abuses Ferguson’s black citizens had to endure every day.

The Justice Department had noticed. It worked out a consent decree with the city to change how its police and court systems operate. It is one of many consent decrees Justice has worked out with cities all over the country.

But it’s not going to do that any more.

From oversee to overlook. This week, the Trump Justice Department, led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, gave notice that it was getting out of the business of overseeing local police. In a memo to his department heads and to local U.S. attorneys, Sessions wrote:

Local control and local accountability are necessary for effective policing. It is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies. [1] … The Deputy Attorney General and Associate Attorney General are hereby directed to immediately review all Department activities — including … compliance reviews, existing or contemplated consent decrees — … in order to ensure that they fully and effectively promote the principles outlined above.

That memo had immediate effects, though perhaps not entirely the ones Sessions intended. His subordinates tried to torpedo the consent decree that Obama’s Justice Department had worked out with Baltimore just before leaving office. But the presiding judge was having none of it, ruling that

The case is no longer in a phase where any party is unilaterally entitled to reconsider the terms of the settlement; the parties are bound to each other by their prior agreement. The time for negotiating the agreement is over. The only question now is whether the Court needs more time to consider the proposed decree. It does not.

Having received the judge’s blessing, the Baltimore agreement is now in force. However, the outline of an agreement that had been worked out with Chicago is not yet official, and may well go back to the drawing board. Mother Jones paints the larger picture:

A report released in February by Samuel Walker, a police reform expert at the University of Nebraska in Omaha, determined that most consent decrees enforced by the Department of Justice since 1994—when Congress passed legislation granting the DOJ oversight authority over local police agencies—have been successful in achieving long-term reforms. Consent decrees are binding legal agreements, and once signed, they are overseen by a federal judge and an appointed monitor. The DOJ’s ability to interfere with that process is limited, [former Obama Justice official Jonathan] Smith said.

But there are things the DOJ can do to undermine it. It could ignore violations of decrees and stop taking police departments to court because of them. It could also seek to renegotiate the terms of a decree or to have it dropped altogether—though that would be difficult even with the cooperation of a police department, Smith said. “After all, these injunctions are entered to protect the public interest,” Smith said.

Why isn’t local accountability enough? But even if we recognize the damage likely to result from Sessions’ decision to stop overseeing and start overlooking police abuses, we have to admit that the first line I quoted from his memo is quite true:

Local control and local accountability are necessary for effective policing.

The obvious question to ask, then, is why such local accountability doesn’t exist in so many places. The black citizens of Ferguson live in a democracy, after all, and local elections are held on a regular basis. Why did they — or the black citizens of Baltimore or Chicago or dozens of other cities — have to raise the attention of the national media and of Washington in order to get local reform?

The answer to that question is in Chris Hayes’ fortuitously timed A Colony in a Nation, which came out last month.

This book makes a simple argument: that American criminal justice isn’t one system with massive racial disparities but two distinct regimes. One (the Nation) is the kind of policing regime you expect in a democracy; the other (the Colony) is the kind you expect in an occupied land. … If you live in the Nation, the criminal justice system functions like your laptop’s operating system, quietly humming in the background, doing what it needs to do to allow you to be your most efficient, functional self. In the Colony, the system functions like a computer virus: it intrudes constantly, it interrupts your life at the most inconvenient times, and it does this as a matter of course. The disruption itself is normal.

Ferguson and the Founders. Hayes begins, like I just did, in Ferguson, where the goal of policing is not public safety, but revenue enhancement. And he draws a parallel I would not have thought of: to the American colonies in the decade before the revolution.

In high school American History, we were all taught that the revolution was about “taxation without representation”. But in fact, Hayes argues, the colonies had existed under onerous tax-and-tariff laws for a long time. From Britain’s point of view, the purpose of the American colonies had always been to produce raw materials for British industry and markets for its finished goods. From the beginning, the colonies had been barred from trading with rival powers and taxed steeply when they traded with the homeland.

And from the beginning, the colonies had been rife with smugglers, some of whom (like John Hancock) achieved great prestige. Colonial life was largely one big smuggling conspiracy. Ordinary people did their best to interfere with customs agents, and juries often let guilty smugglers go.

What changed after the French and Indian War wasn’t so much the British laws and taxes, but their policing regime: They began trying to collect the taxes the law said were owed.

The British crackdown essentially inaugurated America’s first tough-on-crime era. It was a classic crackdown: more customs officials were granted more expansive powers, while courts were streamlined to produce swift punishment and avoid the maddening jury nullification … After 1763 customs officials no longer looked the other way in exchange for small bribe. Instead, they began operating in ways that looked a lot like what we now call “stop and frisk.” … American colonists were subject to British invasions of their carriages, ships, and homes without the safeguards enjoyed by their English cousins.

It wasn’t the financial burden of taxes that caused the revolution, it was the “insulting and humiliating” policing necessary to collect those taxes.

No wonder places like Ferguson sometimes seem so rebellious now.

Real community policing. Among law-enforcement theorists, community policing means that police maintain relationships with the local community. The image of community policing is the cop walking a beat, recognizing and being recognized by the people he passes.

But Hayes raises the stakes, pointing out what community policing might mean: Not individual cops maintaining relationships, but an entire system of policing — what laws get enforced and how — that is responsive to the community being policed.

That sounds incredibly utopian until Hayes points out that such systems already exist: on college campuses. First he describes the lax enforcement of drug laws he remembers from his student days at Brown. But then he reports the shock to his Ivy League sensibilities when he got a job in Madison, home of the University of Wisconsin.

Nothing I’d seen during my college years quite prepared me for the sheer insanity of a big football program home game. Tens upon tens of thousands of people, of all ages, were shit-faced drunk. Frat row was in a state of debaucherous pandemonium, with dozens of students passed out on lawns and outdoor couches, amid no small amount of vomit, urine, and broken bottles.

He wonders about the role of race.

[W]ould all this (mostly harmless) mayhem meet with such enthusiastic tolerance if it were a hundred thousand drunk-as-hell black folks streaming through downtown Madison? Something tells me, no chance.

The couple I was staying with had season tickets to the games, and while they rolled their eyes a touch at some of the excesses, they were part of a community, and they understood and embraced that this was a community ritual, a norm collectively arrived at.

Compare that mental image to the militarized police rolling down the streets of Ferguson during the Michael Brown demonstrations. Was that display of force also “a norm collectively arrived at”? Or was it control from the outside?

If you took a lot of [student] behavior out of the Nation and put it in the Colony — say, out of Harvard Yard and into a big city housing project — if would provide the material for dozens of articles on the pathologies of poverty that hold back poor people of color. People sleep all day; they engage in loud, frequent relationship dramas while having numerous different sexual partners, and they get into drunken arguments and brawls and consume ungodly amounts of controlled substances.

University police know that their job is to serve the interests of the students they police (and their parents, who pay the bills). No one wants to pay hundreds of thousands to send their children to college, only to have them sent from there to jail, or to come home with a criminal record. So universities are policed in a way that minimizes those outcomes.

No doubt citizens of the black and Hispanic neighborhoods of New York didn’t want to be routinely stopped and frisked, or to see minor confrontations spiral out of control until their fellow citizens were imprisoned or dead. Black citizens of Ferguson didn’t want police to see them as prey, as sheep to be sheared for the benefit of the municipal budget. But they lacked the power to get the policing they wanted through local democratic channels. And now, under the Trump administration, they will also lack the power to go over the heads of local political interests and get a sympathetic hearing from federal officials.

Larger factors. So far, my summary sells Hayes’ book short: It paints a far larger picture, including discussions of white fear, the difference between law and order (and public safety, which is a separate consideration), and the financial value of order to owners of real estate.

But the book will have done an important job if it simply gets its central image into the public discussion: Some parts of the United States are nothing more than colonies run for the benefit of other parts.

To the Colony, Jeff Sessions is like the new governor sent over by George III to maintain control. And the next time there’s a shooting like Michael Brown, we will never really know what happened, because no disinterested party will ever investigate.


[1] Actually, it is the responsibility of the Justice Department. In essence, Sessions is saying that he will not enforce the following paragraph of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.

§ 14141. Cause of action

(a) Unlawful conduct

It shall be unlawful for any governmental authority, or any agent thereof, or any person acting on behalf of a governmental authority, to engage in a pattern or practice of conduct by law enforcement officers or by officials or employees of any governmental agency with responsibility for the administration of juvenile justice or the incarceration of juveniles that deprives persons of rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States.

Where Did That Come From?

The attack on Syria reverses what little we thought we knew about Trump’s foreign policy.


In his campaign and the early days of his administration, Trump did not lay out a detailed vision of foreign policy. But he did have a slogan:

From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first  America first.

No longer would we spend “trillions and trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay.” We weren’t going to commit our blood and treasure for sentimental reasons, or to uphold abstract global principles, or perhaps not even to defend our allies. Our military would be used to promote our interests, and nobody else’s.

The administration’s early moves followed that course: His proposed budget sharply cuts foreign aid. By some accounts, he presented German’s Angela Merkel with a printed bill for Germany’s share of NATO’s defense expenses.

He particularly applied this view to Syria. Such troops and air strikes as we committed to Syria were to fight ISIS, and not to play any role in helping rebels oust the Assad regime. Not only did he want to reverse President Obama’s commitment to taking in Syrian refugees, he didn’t want anyone at all to come here from there, not even as tourists. Just 11 days ago, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson were saying that we no longer were going to “focus on getting Assad out“.

Then Tuesday came Assad’s gas attack on Khan Sheikhoun, killing dozens of civilians and producing horrifying video. Trump’s initial reaction was to blame Obama for not taking military action against Assad after a previous chemical attack in 2013 — inaction that Trump demanded at the time. Then he made a semi-coherent statement expressing personal horror at the videos, blaming Assad, and praising himself in advance for his “flexibility”, i.e. not being bound by anything he had said in the past.

Thursday, he shot 59 Tomahawk missiles at the airbase the gas attack came from. The attack was mostly symbolic, since the base reportedly was back in operation quickly, and further airstrikes were made against the same rebel-held area, though apparently no chemical attacks.

So what’s the United States’ foreign policy now? No one seems to know.

What should we do? Before I get too far along in criticizing Trump, let me state for the record that I don’t know what to do about Syria either. Neither do you and neither does anybody else.

Revolutions and civil wars can have happy endings when there is a popular will or national identity that the current ruler is thwarting. In such a case, if you just get that ruler out of the way, things can take their natural course. Being conquered did wonders for Japan and Germany (at least in the west) because the people in those countries had a strong notion of what it meant to be Japanese or German. Given a benevolent conqueror, democratic institutions could be established and a popular government elected.

But while democracy can empower a popular consensus, it can’t create one from nothing. That’s what we’ve seen in Iraq. An occupying power can hold elections, but if the winning and losing sides still want to kill each other, the elected government can’t represent them both. When there is no popular will for democracy to bring to power, no consensus notion of what the country is or how it should be run, then there is no obvious happy ending to aim for. Any outside power that intervenes is looking at a menu of dismal outcomes, all of which will leave its people asking: “We killed and died for this?”

That’s Syria. There isn’t a popular resistance, there are a dozen or so of them, none of which gets along with the others.

Talking past each other. If I can’t give a just-do-this answer, I can at least try to disentangle some of the public discussion. A lot of the commentary on Syria consists of people talking past each other, and the main reason seems to be that “caring about Syria” can mean you care about a lot of different things. Here’s an incomplete list of what your concerns might be:

  • the Syrian people
  • the political stability of the region
  • the rivalries of great powers as they express themselves in the region
  • international law, particular as it concerns chemical weapons

For example, many have pointed out that the Syrian people probably don’t much care whether Assad kills them with gas or with explosives. But to others, the limited use of chemical weapons since World War I is one of the great successes of international diplomacy, and it would be a shame for that to fall apart, even if preserving it doesn’t help any Syrians.

Conversely, accepting more Syrian refugees doesn’t address any of the concerns of the international-law folks.

The limited menu. Whoever was president this week would have had the same three immediate military options:

  • Don’t respond. Let the civil war continue with its endless death. And let the world’s malefactors infer that (for practical purposes) chemical weapons are OK now.
  • Launch an attack to bring Assad down. Either we’d take over Syria with our own troops, or we’d cripple Assad’s military so badly from the air that some group of rebels could win. The risks are endless quagmire for our troops, a larger war with Russia and/or Iran, the possibility that the winning anti-Assad faction will be even worse, or that even after Assad is gone, the war between the other factions will continue and be just as bad.
  • Launch a symbolic attack that won’t affect the outcome of the war. Such an attack won’t help the Syrian people, but Russia and Iran will probably accept it, and it will preserve (to some extent) the international stigma on chemical weapons.

Trump made the third choice, which probably is pretty close to what Hillary Clinton would have done.

The question is whether there is any follow-up — Clinton probably would have had something in mind — and so far it appears that the answer is no. On the Sunday talk shows, Nikki Haley said regime change in Syria is “something that we think is going to happen”, but National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster strongly implied the ball was in Russia’s court, not ours.

We are not saying that we are the ones who are going to affect that change [in the Assad regime]. What we are saying is, other countries have to ask themselves some hard questions. Russia should ask themselves, what are we doing here?

So we’re waiting to see what Russia does, and so far they’re not backing away from Assad.

A few more points worth making:

Obama is getting a bad rap. Numerous commentators are giving Trump credit for “doing something”, compared to Obama who “did nothing” after Assad’s chemical attacks in 2013.

That’s only true if “something” has to be a military attack. What Obama did was get Russia to oversee the removal of large stockpiles of chemical weapons from Syria, which resulted in no chemical attacks for the rest of his administration. Given the either bad or negligible consequences of the military choices (which Trump is facing now), finding something off the menu was a pretty good move.

Don’t forget the climate change angle. The “Climate Wars” episode of Years of Living Dangerously features Thomas Friedman in Syria, exploring the role an exceptional drought played in starting the civil war.

What if Trump’s reaction really was spontaneous? One explanation of Trump’s missile attack is that he was so affected by images of the victims of the chemical attack that he felt a spontaneous desire to strike back, even if it contradicted all his previous positions.

Here’s the analogous story that popped into my mind: In 1952, bank robber Willie Sutton was caught because amateur detective Arnold Schuster spotted him on a New York subway. Schuster was then murdered, which was a mysterious development, since Sutton had never been that kind of criminal.

One explanation that eventually came out was that mob boss Albert Anastasia, who had no connection to Sutton and who was getting increasingly unstable as his power grew, saw Schuster tell his story on TV and spontaneously told his men “I can’t stand squealers! Hit that guy!”

An unstable guy with too much power has a violent-but-fleeting reaction to something he sees on TV, and people wind up dead. I think I’d rather believe a conspiracy theory.

The Monday Morning Teaser

I’m running an hour behind this week, because I’m in the Central Time Zone. (Amarillo, to be exact, on my way to Arizona.)

Two featured posts this week. The first is the week’s obvious news story: the attack on the Syrian air base. Usually I leave major news stories to major news outlets and only provide links, but here I think the coverage is doing a bad job of disentangling the diverse ways people are reacting. Also, I think Obama is getting a bad rap for “doing nothing” about Assad in 2013, when people really mean “not blowing anything up”. That should be out sometime before 9 EDT. (I’m giving times in Eastern because that’s what I usually do. I’m traveling, but most of you aren’t.)

The second relates a news story to a new book: Jeff Sessions’ announcement that the Justice Department is going to stop overseeing local law enforcement — ignoring a law to do so, by the way — dovetails nicely with Chris Hayes’ new book A Colony in a Nation.

Hayes argues that the right way to think about cases like Michael Brown and Freddie Gray isn’t that the American justice system was biased against them, but that their neighborhoods exist under a different justice system than the one whiter and more affluent people live under. They live in what he calls “the Colony”, not “the Nation”. In the Colony, police are an occupying force, controlling the public in accordance with rules and standards imposed from outside the community.

Obama’s Justice Department tried to bring the rights of America’s internal colonial subjects closer to those of full-fledged citizens. That is the effort that Sessions has pledged to stop. I’m guessing about when that will appear, maybe 10-11 EDT.

In the weekly summary, I’ll talk about the White House palace intrigue that has Steve Bannon retreating from Jared Kushner; the Senate changing its rules to approve Supreme Court Justice Neal Gorsuch, and why the filibuster is nothing to mourn for; Trump’s infrastructure vaporware; and a few other things before closing with a rocked-out parrot.