Author Archives: weeklysift

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

Better in Russian

I’ve heard this sort of speech a lot in the last 15 years and trust me, it doesn’t sound any better in Russian.

– Garry Kasparov, former Putin challenger and world chess champion
7-21-2016

America was not built on fear. It was built on courage, on imagination, and an unbeatable determination to do the job at hand.

Tim Kaine, quoting Harry Truman
7-23-2016

This week’s featured posts are “You Have to Laugh“, where I (mostly) ignore the ominous implications of the Republican Convention and focus on the all the great comedy it inspired, and “The Big Lie in Trump’s Speech“, where I lay out the unspoken falsehoods that hold the speech together.

This week everybody was talking about the Republican Convention

It was hard to think about anything else this week. Both featured posts center on it, one on its humorous aspects and the other on the disturbing ones.

One of the more interesting perspectives on Trump’s acceptance speech Thursday night comes from Garry Kasparov, the former chess champion who (until he had to leave the country) was a leader in the movement against Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. In a WaPo op-ed, Kasparov writes:

I saw an Americanized version of the brutally effective propaganda of fear and hatred that Vladimir Putin blankets Russia with today. …

In both cases, the intent of the speaker is to elicit the visceral emotions of fear and disgust before relieving them with a cleansing anger that overwhelms everything else. Only the leader can make the fear and disgust go away. The leader will channel your hatred and frustration and make everything better. How, exactly? Well, that’s not important right now. …

It is painful to admit, but Putin was elected in a relatively fair election in 2000. He steadily dismantled Russia’s fragile democracy and succeeded in turning Russians against each other and against the world. It turns out you can go quite far in a democracy by convincing a majority that they are threatened by a minority, and that only you can protect them.


In that speech, Trump brought up his father, from whom he inherited his real estate empire:

My dad, Fred Trump, was the smartest and hardest working man I ever knew. I wonder sometimes what he’d say if he were here to see this tonight. It’s because of him that I learned, from my youngest age, to respect the dignity of work and the dignity of working people.

Folk-music legend Woody Guthrie was one of Fred’s tenants for two years. He had a different view of who Fred respected, writing (what look to be lyrics) in his notebooks about “Old Man Trump” and the “racial hatred he stirred up” by imposing a color line that kept blacks from becoming Guthrie’s neighbors. Years later, The Village Voice reported:

According to court records, four superintendents or rental agents confirmed that applications sent to the central office for acceptance or rejection were coded by race. Three doormen were told to discourage blacks who came seeking apartments when the manager was out, either by claiming no vacancies or hiking up the rents. A super said he was instructed to send black applicants to the central office but to accept white applications on site. Another rental agent said that Fred Trump had instructed him not to rent to blacks. Further, the agent said Trump wanted “to decrease the number of black tenants” already in the development “by encouraging them to locate housing elsewhere.”


Charles Pierce:

These were not people begging to govern. These were not even people begging to be governed. These were people begging to be ruled. For all the palaver about freedom and liberty, and all the appeals to the Founders and the American experiment, this whole convention was shot through with an overwhelming lust for authority.

This was a gathering of subjects thirsting for a king.


Trump appears to have gotten a small-to-medium-sized bounce out of the convention, which has (for the moment) put him narrowly in the lead in most polls. Between the conventions is often a skewed time to poll, so Nate Silver‘s NowCast (if the election were held today) model favors Trump, while his more sophisticated PollsPlus model still favors Clinton. Both currently project a close election.

and Tim Kaine

I admit it: I didn’t expect to like Tim Kaine. I’d never watched or listened to him, but his picture looks like some grey-haired vanilla white guy. (And speaking as a grey-haired vanilla white guy myself, I think we have enough representation in the halls of power.) As a senator, he has a generic-Democrat voting record, and when he wanders off the reservation, he tends to wander right rather than left.

I’d been hoping for somebody with better progressive credentials, like Elizabeth Warren or Sherrod Brown. (I’d really been hoping for Al Franken, who I think would do the best job of getting under Trump’s skin.) Some new face who could energize young people would be great too, though (not being an excitable young person myself) I have a hard time figuring out who that would be.

Like Digby, I was willing to give Clinton the benefit of the doubt on having done the political calculation right: Maybe the first female president, like the first black president, needs a running mate who calms everybody down. Her people have done the focus groups and I haven’t, so maybe they know more than I do.

Then I watched Kaine’s introductory appearance with Clinton at Florida International University. My first impression is that Tim Kaine is one of the most likable politicians out there. He seems spontaneous, even when you know he has to be using a prepared text. He somehow manages to sound light without sacrificing seriousness. (Having done some public speaking myself, I envy that.) He can talk about his faith without either pandering or getting preachy. He can put forward a positive vision rather than just tear down Trump. His facility with Spanish — which comes from leaving law school for a year to be a missionary in Honduras — is a bonus in an election that depends so much on Hispanic turnout.

And then there’s a moment in his speech (around the 46-minute mark in the video) that really does look spontaneous. He’s talking about immigration reform, and is starting a story about watching new citizens get sworn in, when he asks for a show of hands from all the naturalized citizens in the audience. Apparently there are a lot of them because Kaine seems surprised: “Yeah. Wow. Thanks for choosing us!”

I was charmed. So often the immigration discussion happens in a judgmental frame: Are these people good enough to be Americans? Kaine turned that around by appreciating the compliment they pay us by wanting to join our country.

So I still expect to hear about issues where I disagree with him, and I’ve already heard a few. But I’m going to listen to what he has to say.


Jonathan Chait has an interesting perspective on Kaine, beginning with the idea that he was considered acceptably progressive eight years ago when he was on Obama’s VP short list.

The left does have reality-based reasons for its dismay. There are aspects of Kaine’s record and beliefs it has reason not to like. At the same time, the complaints about Kaine suffer from a certain myopia that seems to be symptomatic of the hothouse atmosphere that has developed on the left during the Obama era. Emphasis on doctrinal purity have blotted out broader assessments of personal fitness, the absence of ideological dissent overwhelming the presence of positive qualities. The prevailing definition of a perfect leader has become a perfect follower.

and the Democratic Convention

which starts tonight with speeches by Bernie Sanders and Michelle Obama. Tuesday night’s headliners are Bill Clinton (who has spoken at every Democratic Convention since 1988) and Elizabeth Warren. Wednesday is basically the retirement party for President Obama and Vice President Biden, as well as Kaine’s acceptance speech. Naturally, Hillary will speak on the final night, Thursday.

I am hoping that the Democrats don’t fall into the trap of answering Trump’s 100%-negative convention with an all-negative convention of their own. (The Kaine speech I linked to above makes me hopeful.) I want to hear that Democrats are working on the real problems that face Americans, and that we’re even willing to tell you how we plan to attack those problems. It doesn’t need to be a seminar on public policy, but people need to hear that the Democrats have thought things through on a level deeper than “I’m going to build a wall.”

The tricky piece of messaging will be how to attack the Republican Congress, rather than just Trump. As I spelled out a few weeks ago: Obama is and for eight years has been a powerful voice for change in America; what maintains the status quo is the logjam in Congress.


The ever-present background story as the Convention begins is the leak of DNC emails, leading to the resignation of Party Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

There are 20,000 of these emails, and I have not even attempted to go through them myself. How serious you think the revelations are seems to depend on what you previously thought about the DNC and the Sanders campaign. Vox (which has generally supported Clinton over Sanders) finds no bombshell:

The emails seem to confirm Bernie supporters’ general impression that many DNC officials liked Hillary Clinton more than Sanders. What the emails don’t seem to prove, at least so far, is that they used DNC resources to help Clinton or hurt Sanders.

But more Bernie-leaning The Intercept has a harsher take on the story.

What makes the issue hard for me to judge (without more research than I’ve been willing to do so far) is that at some point the Sanders campaign began attacking the DNC fairly aggressively. So when internal DNC emails express anger at the Sanders campaign, it’s hard to tell whether the writers are angry at Bernie for running against Hillary, or for attacking the DNC. It would be understandable for people who feel under unfair attack to express anger among themselves against the source of those attacks. It would be still be wrong for them to take action on those feelings, but so far it’s not clear to me that they did.

On the fringes of the pro-Bernie left, there have long been conspiracy theories about vote fraud in the primaries and various other offenses far more serious than just rooting for Hillary when you’re supposed to be impartial. Nothing I’ve seen in the published snippets of the emails validates those claims, and it would be a shame if the DNC-email story perpetuates such talk.

On the Clinton side, there’s talk about a Russian role in the email hack, and accusations that Putin wants to influence the election in Trump’s favor. So far that’s also still mostly a conspiracy theory: You can tell a plausible story, and there is some evidence for each of the individual links, but the theory as a whole is still pretty speculative.

and you might also be interested in

One year in, the Iranian nuclear deal still looks pretty good from the American side. But Iranians who thought their economy would instantly rebound have been disappointed.



One of the featured posts focuses on political humor, but this piece didn’t quite fit and is too good to leave out: The Liberal Redneck tells us what he thinks about Black Lives Matter.

Responding to that sentiment with “All Lives Matter” would be sorta like telling Susan G. Komen to chill it with all the pink shit on account of all cancer sucks. That last part’s true, but it ain’t really the fucking point.


Things have taken a turn for the worse in Turkey, after President Erdogan survived a coup attempt last week. Erdogan has declared a three-month state of emergency, and struck back against a large swath of people he believes to be his enemies.

Some 60,000 bureaucrats, soldiers, policemen, prosecutors and academic staff have come under the government’s spotlight, many of them facing detention or suspension over alleged links to the Gülenist movement and the coup plotters.

Earlier on Wednesday, the government had imposed a work travel ban on academics, which, a senior Turkish official said, was a temporary measure as accomplices of the coup plotters in universities were a potential flight risk.

All 1,577 deans of public and private universities in Turkey submitted their resignations at the government’s urging. This came after 20,000 teachers and administrators were suspended from their jobs as a result of the coup, along with 6,000 soldiers and more than 2,700 judges and prosecutors, and dozens of senior generals accused of involvement in the coup.


Roger Ailes is out at Fox News, after Gretchen Carlson’s complaints of sexual harassment were echoed by other women who have worked at Fox, including current star Megyn Kelly. But don’t cry for Roger, he gets a $40 million dollar parachute.

And apparently the problem is bigger than just Ailes.

The investigation by Fox News’s parent company, 21st Century Fox, focused narrowly on Mr. Ailes. But in interviews with The New York Times, current and former employees described instances of harassment and intimidation that went beyond Mr. Ailes and suggested a broader problem in the workplace.

The Times spoke with about a dozen women who said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment or intimidation at Fox News or the Fox Business Network, and half a dozen more who said they had witnessed it. Two of them cited Mr. Ailes and the rest cited other supervisors. …

They told of strikingly similar experiences at Fox News. Several said that inappropriate comments about a woman’s appearance and sex life were frequent. Managers tried to set up their employees on dates with superiors.

Here’s a longer article devoted to a single case: former Fox reporter Rudi Bakhtiar, who says she was fired after she complained.

Donald Trump’s comment is classic male chauvinism: “I can tell you that some of the women that are complaining, I know how much he’s helped them.” Dean Obeidallah of The Daily Beast responded:

Think about that comment for a moment. Trump is basically saying that since Ailes had helped these women with their careers, the alleged sexual harassment was okay because it was the price to pay for his help.

Larry Wilmore of The Nightly Show referred to this idea that you can harass women you’ve helped as “the Skeazy Pass”.


This is the third or fourth time I’ve seen a small businessman tell the same story about dealing with Trump. You’ve got to wonder how often this happened.

and let’s close with something awesome

The Late, Late Show‘s James Corden spends 15 minutes with the First Lady. When the Obamas return to private life, I’m going to miss Michelle.

You Have to Laugh


Whatever else you may have thought about last week’s Republican Convention, it was a gold mine for comedians.


If you watched the Republican Convention live, it didn’t seem like a laughing matter: chants of “Lock her up!”, endless talk about the Muslims and Mexicans who are coming to kill us, and assertions that “our very way of life” is threatened. Even Donald Trump’s attempt to assure us that “I alone” can fix the rigged system was a bit creepy, along with his claim that “I am your voice.” (I’d been wondering why I’ve sounded so raspy lately.)

Away from the podium, the situation was even worse, with calls for Hillary Clinton to be “shot for treason” or left “hanging from a tree“. Perhaps even more disturbing was the Trump campaign’s half-hearted distancing from such rhetoric: “We’re incredibly grateful for his support, but we don’t agree with his comments [about shooting Clinton].”

Admittedly, there were a few moments of unintentional humor, like when Trump’s third wife did a Rickroll testifying to his loyalty, or his daughter introduced him by talking admiringly about policies — equal pay for women and affordable childcare — that are part of Hillary Clinton’s platform, not her father’s. Those thigh-slapping moments, though, were few and far between.

But events and people that are nothing to laugh about are often precisely the ones that we need to laugh at, so for comedians Donald Trump has been maybe the best opportunity since Charlie Chaplin had that German guy to spoof. And last week our political humorists did not let us down. Jon Stewart may have walked into the sunset last year, but the Daily Show alums — Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee and John Oliver — brought their A-game. The other late-night hosts pitched in admirably. And never say Donald Trump never did anything good for us: Jon even came back to cover him.

Trevor Noah got the week off to a good start, with his coverage of Rudy Giuliani’s opening-night fear-mongering.

In my opinion, he also had the best response to the Melania Trump plagiarism flap:

We should be encouraging her. Because if she feels comfortable stealing Michelle’s speeches and we make it normal, maybe Donald Trump will feel OK stealing Obama’s policies, and then the country won’t be in such a dangerous place. And I know people might say, ‘Wait, Trevor, we can’t just just plagiarize President Obama, can we?’ And I say: Yes. Yes we can.

Here’s the whole segment:

Runners-up for Melania coverage were Bill Maher, who reached a similar conclusion by a somewhat crueler path:

She stole a speech about her parents teaching her values, confirming what Donald has always said: Immigrants steal. I hate to generalize, but Slovenia is not sending us its best people. They’re plagiarists, they’re models — some of them I assume are good people.

… And of course in the media this is the only story anybody cares about. Have they been watching this convention? These assholes cheered letting off the cops who killed Freddie Gray. They’re against health insurance and for coal mining. I want them to steal more ideas from Michelle Obama.

and Late Night‘s Seth Meyers, who had the best one-liner:

Melanie did it: She found something less original than being a model married to an old billionaire.

Throughout the week, Meyers had a series of on-point characterizations. Trump’s fog-and-silhouette entrance Monday was “like ET returning to Earth“. Chris Christie’s Tuesday-night speech — with it’s repeated calls to the audience to pronounce Clinton “guilty” — was “a Stalinesque show trial“. Ben Carson’s linking of Clinton to Saul Alinsky to the Rules for Radicals dedication and from there to Lucifer was “the old six-degrees-of-Satan technique“. In his acceptance speech Thursday, “Trump talked about America like he was pitching a post-apocalyptic show to the SyFy network.” And Marco Rubio appeared by video

probably in hopes that once he was projected on a giant screen, Trump would stop calling him Little Marco. “Did you see me Donald? I was 50 feet tall!”

After Ted Cruz’ boo-provoking refusal to endorse Trump, Meyers asked: “Is there anybody more comfortable being hated than Ted Cruz?” Which was followed by my favorite: After playing a clip of Cruz telling the Texas delegation:

That pledge [to support the nominee] was not a blanket commitment that if you go slander and attack Heidi, that I’m gonna nonetheless come like a servile puppy dog and say “Thank you very much for maligning my wife and maligning my father.”

he imagined Chris Christie’s response: “Ruff-ruff-ruff-ruff.”

About Christie’s speech: Trevor Noah demonstrated how easy it is to evoke the verdict you want from a friendly audience by getting the Daily Show audience to pronounce Christie guilty of Bridgegate and a variety of other things, some completely absurd. And he protested the RNC’s favoring a chant of “Lock her up” over any serious discussion of the issues facing ordinary Americans, by leading his audience in a chant of “Cut the shit.”

Daily Show reporters also had some good moments. Here, they ask conventioneers: “When was America last great?

Samantha Bee’s Monday-night time slot was mistimed for convention coverage, so instead she emphasized her journey to Cleveland, during which she stopped in on a moderate Republican politician from Pennsylvania.

SAMANTHA: So we’re stuck with this shit sandwich, let’s eat it.

REP. JIM CRISTIANA: I think that’s a fair way to characterize what I just said.

She also filed short updates from Cleveland.

Trump named Omarosa as his African-American outreach person. She is uniquely qualified, since she is actually the only African-American the campaign has ever reached out to.

Stephen Colbert brought back the Bill-O’Reillyish character from his old show, and did a “The Word” segment on “Trumpiness“.

Eleven years ago, I invented a word: truthiness. Truthiness is believing something that feels true,  even if it isn’t supported by fact. … I have to admit [Trump] has surpassed me now. Truthiness has to feel true, but Trumpiness doesn’t even have to do that. In fact, many Trump supporters don’t believe his wildest promises, and they don’t care.  … Truthiness was from the gut, but Trumpiness clearly comes from much further down the gastro-intestinal track.

Colbert rediscovered his alter ego when he tracked Jon Stewart to the wilderness cabin where he has been hiding, and called him back to service.

I found that segment surprising, because I was sure Jon was hiding in the ruins of the old Jedi temple on the planet Ahch-To. But Colbert’s mission led to Jon taking over Colbert’s Late Show desk Thursday night.

And Jon closed by addressing Sean Hannity and other conservative voices directly:

I see you. You’ve got a problem with those Americans fighting for their place at the table. You’ve got a problem with them because you feel like the — what’s Rep. Steve King’s word for it? — subgroups of Americans are being divisive. Well if you have a problem with that, take it up with the Founders: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

Those fighting to be included in the ideal of equality are not being divisive. Those fighting to keep those people out, are.

Prior to the convention, Colbert took on a different character and invaded the podium to announce “The Hungry for Power Games“.

As for printed humor, Andy Borowitz is the champion.

Donald J. Trump was jubilant Thursday night after accomplishing his goal of delivering a speech that no one will ever want to plagiarize, Trump aides confirmed. …

“There was one sentence toward the beginning that had traces of humanity and rational thought,” Manafort said. “Fortunately, we caught it in time.”

Of course, we can’t forget the great Trump comedy pieces of previous weeks. Like Australian comedian Jim Jefferies’ Trump rant:

He’s a lot of fun. And there’s a little bit of me that thinks: “Fuck it. Let’s do it. Let’s do it and see how fucking crazy shit can get.”

… But this is where it’s not fun. … You’re a 16-year-old boy or girl that’s a Muslim living in this country. You’ve lived your entire life in this country. You’ve always considered yourself American. And then all of a sudden, someone who could be your president says “You are not welcome here” and that you should be put on a register. Now that kid … how fucking quickly do you think that kid could be radicalized now?

And Jimmy Kimmel’s parody of The Producers.

Finally, John Oliver summed it all up last night:

It was a four-day exercise in emphasizing feelings over facts. … This is a graph of the violent crime rate in the United States. It’s not a fucking Rorschach Test. You can’t infer anything you like from it. … [Newt Gingrich] just brought a feeling to a fucking fact fight. … I think we can all agree that candidates can create feelings in people. And what Gingrich is saying is that feelings are as valid as facts. So then, by the transitive property, candidates can create facts. Which is terrifying, because that means somebody like Donald Trump can essentially create his own reality.

OK, I have to admit: That part wasn’t funny. There was a lot to laugh at last week, but when you boil it all down, the scary essence is still there.

Even Charlie Chaplin couldn’t sum up the reality of The Great Dictator in a funny way. The climax of his movie was both serious and a fantasy.

We didn’t get that speech Thursday night. So after we laugh — and hopefully regenerate our energies by laughing — we have to go back to the reality of a frightening political situation.

The Big Lie in Trump’s Speech

Stopping Mexican or Muslim immigration will not make you safe.


To explain Donald Trump’s acceptance speech properly, I have to go back to two previous posts: 2015’s “How Propaganda Works”:

If your target audience has a flawed ideology, then your propaganda doesn’t have to lie to them. The lie, in some sense, has already been embedded and only needs to be activated.

and also 2012’s “How Lies Work“:

You can’t be blamed for the false information, irrational prejudices, and ugly stereotypes that already sit inside people’s heads, waiting to be exploited. So good propaganda contains only enough false or repulsive information to leverage the ignorance and misinformation that’s already out there.

In other words, the central lie in an effective propaganda campaign is the one you never explicitly say. It’s out there already, sitting in the minds of your followers, so you just need to allude to it, suggest it, and bring it to consciousness in as many ways as you can. Your target audience will hear it, and afterwards most will believe you said it. But because you aren’t saying it in so many words, it’s immune to fact-checkers, and you barely need to defend it at all. Let PolitiFact and NPR carp all they want about the details of your speech. They can’t touch your central point because it’s not really there.

The explicit promise of Trump’s speech is that he will make the country safe, not just eventually after doing the long, hard work of changing public policy, but almost instantly.

The crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon — and I mean very soon — come to an end. Beginning on January 20th 2017, safety will be restored.

So if you have been hiding under your bed, you’ll be able to come out next January.

This is the kind of sweeping pledge that ordinarily would be met with embarrassed laughter. It’s as if Barack Obama had promised not just that he would get health insurance for millions of people before he left office, but that all the uninsured would be covered by the time he got done with his inaugural address.

Imagine if Hillary Clinton were to promise this week in her acceptance speech that poverty and unemployment “will very soon come to an end, beginning on January 20”. I’m voting for Clinton, but I’d laugh at that promise. I might give her credit for good intentions, but systemic problems like poverty and unemployment are obviously beyond the power of presidential wand-waving.

So are crime and violence, but for some reason Trump’s audience was not laughing. Why not? What in the worldview of Trump or his followers makes it credible that “the crime and violence that afflicts our nation” can be ended “very soon” by presidential action?

If you don’t already know, the speech will not tell you. In fact, if you don’t already understand the big lie that the speech is based on, you will have a hard time making sense of it at all: The whole hour-plus speech will seem like a grab bag of loosely related anecdotes and factoids, many of which are false.

Since the speech never lays out that central claim, I will: The main threat to your personal safety is the street crime and terrorism brought to America by Mexican and Muslim immigrants.

If you hold that (false) fact in your head, the speech hangs together. Many of its details are still untrue, but at least it begins to tell a coherent story.

Decades of progress made in bringing down crime are now being reversed by this administration’s rollback of criminal enforcement.

Here we begin to see how crime and violence might come within the president’s power, and what could instantly change on Inauguration Day: President Obama doesn’t enforce the law; President Trump will.

But what laws has President Obama stopped enforcing? Murder laws? Rape laws? No: In the American law enforcement system, those crimes are almost entirely the responsibility of state and local officials. But there is one kind of law that falls almost entirely under federal enforcement: immigration laws.

Nearly 180,000 illegal immigrants with criminal records, ordered deported from our country, are tonight roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens. [See endnote 1.] The number of new illegal immigrant families who have crossed the border so far this year already exceeds the entire total of 2015. They are being released by the tens of thousands into our communities with no regard for the impact on public safety or resources.

Trump goes on to mention several individuals (some of whom previously spoke to the Convention) who are victims of violent crimes by Hispanic immigrants. The existence of such stories should not surprise anyone; it wouldn’t be hard to compile anecdotes of crimes by any reasonably large group of people, like the left-handed or the red-haired. What makes these immigrant-crime stories more than just talk is the unspoken implication that they illustrate some kind of trend: an immigrant crime wave.

But in reality, the anecdotes are just anecdotes: There is no trend. Immigrants, both documented and undocumented, commit fewer violent crimes per capita than American citizens. They are responsible for such a tiny amount of violent crime in America that, if Trump does manage to make them all disappear somehow, your safety will be virtually unaffected. In short: There is no immigrant crime wave.

One more thing you should notice in that quote: how effortlessly Trump glides from immigrant criminals to immigrant families, and from public safety to public resources. Since there are so few violent immigrant criminals, the white voters Trump is targeting are very unlikely to be their victims or to know any of their victims. But many white families send their children to school with Hispanic children whose immigration status they don’t know. (Most are either legal immigrants or American citizens.) The point of lumping families and criminals together is to imply that those Hispanic children are a threat to your white child. [2]

In addition to crime, Americans are afraid of terrorism. This is another part of “the crime and violence than today afflicts our nation”. The federal government has a key role to play in disrupting 9-11 style plots, in which terrorist groups conspire to kill large numbers of Americans. In recent years it has been doing that job very well (or else the threat is not a large as we thought immediately after 9-11). No plot remotely comparable to 9-11 has been carried out.

But it’s not clear how much the feds can do to stop lone-wolf terrorists like Dylann Roof (a native-born American white Christian who bought a gun legally and used it to kill nine members of a black Charleston church) or Omar Mateen (a native-born American Muslim of Afghan heritage who used legal guns to kill 49 people in a LGBT nightclub in Orlando). For every American who carries out an attack, countless others fantasize about one in some vague way, and may even discuss their fantasies on social media. We can’t lock them all up.

But Trump again ties this threat to immigration.

Lastly, and very importantly, we must immediately suspend immigration from any nation that has been compromised by terrorism until such time as proven vetting mechanisms have been put in place. We don’t want them in our country.

My opponent has called for a radical 550 percent increase — think of this, this is not believable, but this is what is happening — a 550 percent increase in Syrian refugees on top of existing massive refugee flows coming into our country already under the leadership of president Obama.

She proposes this despite the fact that there’s no way to screen these refugees in order to find out who they are or where they come from. I only want to admit individuals into our country who will support our values and love our people. [3]

The only Muslim immigrant tied to a recent terrorist act is Tashfeen Malik, half of the couple who killed 14 people in San Bernardino last December. (Her husband was native born, as was the shooter in Orlando. So were the assassins who killed police in Dallas and Baton Rouge.) She came to this country on a fiancée visa, not as part of any refugee program or by sneaking across a border. So even in that exceptional case, building a wall or refusing to help Syrian refugees would have made no difference. There is no Muslim refugee terrorism problem.

The real American terrorist threat is overwhelmingly homegrown, and includes white supremacists, violent anti-abortion activists, and Bundy-and-McVeigh-style anti-government militiamen, in addition to native-born ISIS-inspired jihadists. Nothing Trump has proposed will do anything to make you safer from them.

The speech then segues from fear of violence to economic fears, and again immigrants are at fault:

Decades of record immigration have produced lower wages and higher unemployment for our citizens

Two things to notice here: First, in TrumpWorld those low wages have nothing to do with the decline of unions, which has diminished workers’ negotiating power. They also have nothing to do with the decades-long decline in the inflation-adjusted minimum wage, which Trump wants to see continue. In short, anything real the government could do to improve the lot of low-wage workers has been pushed aside in order to scapegoat immigrants.

Second, and perhaps even more important, adjectives like illegal or undocumented have vanished: All immigrants are the problem now. Having raised fear with anecdotes of violent crime by undocumented Hispanic immigrants and implications that Muslim refugees are responsible for our terrorism problem, that fear is now channeled into anxieties about jobs and money, and targeted at everyone who comes to America, including those who come legally hoping to find legal jobs, as my ancestors did 150 years ago.

So now that I’ve laid out the larger structure of Trump’s speech, and the unspoken big lie that pulls it together, I invite you to go back and read his text end-to-end, preferably one of the versions annotated by fact-checkers. If, as you read, you bear in mind that there is no immigrant crime wave and no Muslim refugee terrorism problem, I predict that the speech’s whole theme will fall apart. You will be left with a collection of cherry-picked statistics and random falsehoods, which the fact-checkers can handle quite well.


[1] The Chicago Tribune adds context to this number:

The actual crimes committed by this group are not documented, however, so Trump cannot easily claim that all of these illegal immigrants “threaten peaceful citizens.” A significant percentage of their crimes involve immigration violations and nonviolent offenses, according to historical records.

In other words, we’re more likely to be talking about paper crimes, like faking a driver’s license or other ID, rather than the violent crimes Trump is implying. And that stands to reason: If you’re in this country without legal status, you’re trying to hide from authorities, not call attention to yourself by assaulting someone.

[2] Obama’s most obvious non-enforcement of immigration laws is that he is not deporting the Dreamers, those undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as young children, who grew up in the U.S. and know no other country. Trump’s rhetoric also makes them a threat to your child.

Today, Dreamer Astrid Silva addresses the Democratic Convention. I invite you to watch her and do your own threat evaluation.

[3] Fact-checkers can catch all the individual lies here: We are admitting only a tiny number of Syrian refugees, so even a 550% increase will still be just a drop in the bucket. (About 5000 since October 1, and 1682 in the year before that. For comparison, Germany already had about 100,000 Syrian refugees a year ago, and is talking about admitting 500K a year. There are about five million Syrian refugees worldwide — 11 million if you count the ones displaced to other parts of Syria.) We are vetting them extensively. So far, the refugees who make it through the U.S. vetting process are responsible for zero acts of terrorism.

The “support our values and love our people” line is a dog whistle to Islamophobes. Newt Gingrich spelled it out on July 14:

Let me be as blunt and direct as I can be: Western civilization is in a war. We should frankly test every person here who is of a Muslim background, and if they believe in Sharia, they should be deported. Sharia is incompatible with Western civilization. Modern Muslims who have given up Sharia, glad to have them as citizens. Perfectly happy to have them next door.

As other people have explained in more detail, sharia is not the same as terrorism, and asking Muslims whether they “believe in” sharia is like asking Jews if they believe in the laws of Moses. At some level of interpretation, of course they do; but that doesn’t necessarily mean they intend to kill adulterers or gay men. Gingrich’s implication — that we can accept Muslims in America only if they don’t take their religion seriously — ought to offend any person who does take religion seriously.

BTW: Cutting off Syrian immigration means turning away Syrian Christians, who are being wiped out in some areas and whose relief is a special project of many Evangelicals. But if Trump makes an exception for them, then he’s back to having a religious test for letting people into the U.S.

The Monday Morning Teaser

From Melania’s plagiarism on Monday to Donald’s promises on Thursday that “I alone can fix [the rigged system]”, “I will be your voice”,  and “Beginning on January 20th of 2017, safety will be restored”, the Republican Convention dominated the news this week.

Personally, I found the whole thing to be a very scary spectacle. But beyond just quaking, I typically have two constructive reactions to fear: (1) analyze and (2) laugh. The two are hard to fit together in one article, so this week there will be two featured posts: one that analyzes “The Big Lies in Trump’s Speech” in terms of the previous articles I have written on propaganda, and another, “You Have to Laugh”, that pulls together the comedy that came out of the convention, including the return of Jon Stewart.

“Big Lies” will come out first, probably around 8. “Laugh” will follow, maybe 10ish.

The weekly summary includes some notes about the RNC that didn’t fit into either of the articles, some look-ahead to the DNC, my first impression of Tim Kaine, and Roger Ailes’ well-compensated exit from Fox News after sexual harassment charges, before closing with Michelle Obama’s “Car Pool Karaoke” appearance. Figure that to come out before noon.

The Call Remains

The movement began as a call to end violence. That call remains. … My prayers are with the victims of all violence.

– DeRay McKesson, a Black Lives Matter activist

This week’s featured posts are “A Real Pro-Police Agenda is Liberal” and “Mike Pence. I’ve heard that name before.

Recently everybody has been talking about the police officers killed in Baton Rouge and Dallas

As I often note, a weekly blog is not a good place to cover breaking news. We’re still figuring out what happened yesterday in Baton Rouge, and the first details that come out in such situations often have to be revised later. Watch the Wikipedia page for developments.

In both Baton Rouge and Dallas, though, it looks like the shooters are black veterans of the Iraq or Afghanistan wars. Who knows if this was really their thought process, but it’s not hard to imagine one: If you’ve been trained to solve problems with violence, what are you going to do when you see your people being killed and the system failing to call anyone to account?

The important thing at a moment like this, I believe, is to avoid assessing collective guilt and assigning it to individuals who merely resemble the wrong-doers you feel threatened by. That was one of the two big mistakes Dallas shooter Micah Johnson made: The police he murdered had nothing to do with killing Alton Sterling or Philandro Castile. (The other mistake was taking the law into his own hands.)

Assigning Johnson’s or Gavin Long’s guilt to the entire Black Lives Matter movement would a similar mistake. BLM is not about killing police or killing whites; it never has been. BLM is a response to a society that seems not to value black lives. Police killings are only a piece of that story: Across the board, problems are taken less seriously if they mainly affect blacks. The egregious cases we’ve been seeing, of police killing black men on video and facing no consequences — matching stories that have been told in the black community for decades, but which were discounted by whites because there was no evidence (beyond the testimony of other blacks) — are simply the clearest examples of that larger issue.

Refusing to assign and punish collective guilt, though, doesn’t mean that we have to ignore systemic problems. Individual police around the country are not responsible for killing Alton Sterling, and anyone who attempts to punish them for it is expanding the problem rather than solving it. But there is a systemic problem in the way that American police departments deal with blacks, particularly young black men. There is also a problem with the tendency of police to cover up the wrong-doing of other police rather than uphold high standards.

Pressure to reform the way police departments work from coast to coast should not stop just because two individuals carried out collective vengeance.


The post-Dallas attacks on Black Lives Matter caused me to look back at the various BLM-themed posts I’ve written over the last year. I think they hold up pretty well; or at least I don’t see anything major I want to change. The main BLM-related Sift posts are

  • Samaritan Lives Matter, where the example of Jesus’s most famous parable illustrates why “All lives matter” isn’t the right slogan.
  • Rich Lowry’s False Choice, the false choice being that black communities can either have the current overly violent, racially biased kind of policing, or no policing at all.
  • Why BLM protesters can’t behave, the answer being that the rest of us ignore them when they make their case politely.
  • Justice in Ferguson, about the Justice Department’s report on policing in Ferguson

A post that doesn’t specifically mention BLM, but is still relevant, is “My Racial Blind Spots“.

and the Nice attack

Hard to believe this attack, where 85 people were killed and 303 injured by a man driving a truck, happened on Thursday. So much has happened since.

Am I the only one who sees the similarity between this and Stephen King’s novel Mr. Mercedes?

and Hillary and Bernie

It finally happened on Tuesday in Portsmouth, NH. Senator Sanders didn’t embrace Clinton’s candidacy with the enthusiasm of Elizabeth Warren, but he appeared on a platform with her and said the important words:

I have come here to make it as clear as possible why I am endorsing Hillary Clinton and why she must become our next president. Secretary Clinton has won the Democratic nomination and I congratulate her for that. … I intend to do everything I can to make certain she will be the next president of the United States.

The preliminary schedule for next week’s Democratic Convention has Bernie speaking on Monday.

and reactions to the FBI’s recommendation not to prosecute Hillary Clinton

FBI Director James Comey’s statement about the Clinton email investigation should not have surprised anybody who read my article “About Those Emails” last month. Comey concluded:

In looking back at our investigations into mishandling or removal of classified information, we cannot find a case that would support bringing criminal charges on these facts. All the cases prosecuted involved some combination of: clearly intentional and willful mishandling of classified information; or vast quantities of materials exposed in such a way as to support an inference of intentional misconduct; or indications of disloyalty to the United States; or efforts to obstruct justice. We do not see those things here.

To be clear, this is not to suggest that in similar circumstances, a person who engaged in this activity would face no consequences. To the contrary, those individuals are often subject to security or administrative sanctions. But that is not what we are deciding now.

Since that’s more or less what I predicted — not because I’m so brilliant, but because the experts I’ve been reading had already reached similar conclusions months ago — I am not scrambling to explain how Comey could possibly have made this decision.

However, pundits inside the conservative bubble (and many Sanders supporters who had latched onto conservative-bubble accounts to feed a desperate hope that Clinton might not be nominated) were shocked by this outcome, because they had concluded long ago that Clinton should be in jail and that Comey was exactly the kind of upright investigator to put her there. Unable to say, “I guess I had that wrong”, they came up with a number of creative theories about the corruption of Comey and Attorney General Loretta Lynch and President Obama, or about what other considerations could have motivated Comey’s actions.

This kind of thing has happened before: In the closing weeks of the 2012 election, dwellers inside the conservative bubble decided that the polls were all skewed, and so a Romney victory — nay, a landslide — was at hand. When reality reared its ugly head, conspiratorial explanations were required, like massive vote fraud in multiple swing states (most of which had Republican governors) that somehow produced no evidence other than Obama’s victory.

But instead of stretching to explain the failure of reality to live up to their expectations, surprised people might do better to consider the question raised by Ollie Garky on Daily Kos (later picked up by AlterNet): If events keep surprising me, shouldn’t I change my news sources? Back in 2013, Conor Friedersdorf suggested this criterion for comparing news sources: Who best equipped readers to anticipate the outcome that actually happened?


The Comey announcement does seem to have knocked Clinton down in the polls, so that in some polls the race is even now. (538’s weighted average still has her with a 3.6% lead.) I’m expecting that dip to be temporary, but we’ll see.

and Trump’s upcoming convention

My comments about Mike Pence have been spun off into a separate article.

A related topic is the ill-fated TP logo, which was inserted into the public discussion and then prematurely withdrawn about 24 hours later. Not only does the TP bring toilet paper to mind, but the penetration imagery was a little too suggestive. As she so often does, Samantha Bee took it all the way with an animated breaking-the-mattress GIF.

More seriously, there is the Republican platform, which TPM describes as defining “the party of Kris Kobach“. McCain and Romney tried to soften the hard-right positions of the base in order to make a better appeal to the general electorate, but the Trump campaign has gone all-in on the red-meat issues.

but we should pay more attention to the coup attempt in Turkey

which apparently failed. Most Americans think of Turkey as a country way over there that has little to do with us. But if Islam is going to find a synthesis between its religious traditions and Western secular values of democracy and human rights, Turkey is the most likely place for it to happen. If democracy is not going well there, it’s a very bad sign for the world.

It’s also hard to say whether the failure of the coup is good or bad for Turkish democracy in the long run. President Erdogan has been getting increasingly autocratic, but a military junta might have been worse.

Juan Cole sees both angles: He is encouraged that the people came into the streets to oppose the army, yet he recognizes that “President Erdogan looks at the system as an elective dictatorship.” In a later post he says:

President Tayyip Erdogan is taking advantage of the failed coup against him to purge the judiciary and security forces of anyone who is lukewarm toward or actively critical of him.

and the UK’s assessment of the Iraq War

Unlike us, the United Kingdom decided to take an official look back at its involvement in the Iraq War, assess what went wrong, and see what could be learned. The result is the massive Chilcot Report, which I have not read. The best summary I have run across is in The Guardian. It paints an ugly picture. For example

the intelligence community worked from the start on the misguided assumption that Saddam had WMDs and made no attempt to consider the possibility that he had got rid of them, which he had.

The report finds that there was no imminent threat from Saddam Hussein, and that Prime Minister Tony Blair intentionally exaggerated the evidence that there was. Eight months before the invasion, when there were still many options other than war, Blair promised President Bush “I will be with you, whatever.” The invasion began with essentially no plan for putting Iraq back together.

We can only wonder what a similar investigation into the Bush administration would find. But Congress has been unable to squeeze such a probe into its tightly packed schedule of eight Benghazi investigations.

and one thing Trump said

I know, it seems impossible. The media hangs on his every word, so how could something he said deserve even more attention? But this does. In the aftermath of the Dallas shooting (discussed above) Trump told Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly:

When somebody called for a moment of silence to this maniac that shot the five police, you just see what’s going on. It’s a very, very sad situation.

It wasn’t a slip of the tongue. He repeated the claim at a rally in Indiana:

The other night you had 11 cities potentially in a blow-up stage,” he said. “Marches all over the United States—and tough marches. Anger. Hatred. Hatred! Started by a maniac! And some people ask for a moment of silence for him. For the killer!

Given Trump’s record, it probably won’t shock you to learn that the event he is talking about never happened: No one called for a moment of silence to honor Dallas cop-killer Micah Johnson. But it’s worse than that: No one — including his campaign — can even explain where he got the idea. To all appearances, he just made it up.

Why would somebody do that? And then to imply that the BLM marches were “started by a maniac”, as if Johnson were a central figure in the Black Lives Matter movement, or the post-Dallas marches were intended to carry on his work (when in fact all public statements by march organizers denounced the killings) … why would anybody make up a Big Lie that incendiary?

Josh Marshall comments:

These are the words – the big lies rumbling the ground for some sort of apocalyptic race war – of a dangerous authoritarian personality who is either personally deeply imbued with racist rage or cynically uses that animus and race hatred to achieve political ends. In either case, they are the words of a deeply dangerous individual the likes of whom has seldom been so close to achieving executive power in America.

and you might also be interested in

Ark Encounter, the Kentucky theme park that presents Noah’s flood as a historical event, is back in the news.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent letters to a thousand public school districts in nearby states, warning that a class field trip to the Ark would violate separation of church and state by inappropriately proselytizing for a religious sect. (That ought to be obvious, but apparently to some people it isn’t.)

Ken Hamm, who is behind both the Ark and the Creation Museum, struck back by offering reduced admission to public school groups. We’ll see if anybody takes him up on it, and what court cases result.


Paul Ryan had his picture taken with the Republican interns of the House. Did you ever see so many white people in your entire life?


Architect Andrew Tesoro relates his experience of doing business with Donald Trump. It’s a story repeated by many small businessmen — at least 60 by the count of USA Today — who deliver their products and then get bullied into accepting a much smaller payment than the one Trump had agreed to. (Tesoro isn’t one of those 60, because he was intimidated out of filing suit.) “His definition of winning is making sure the other guy loses. … You can’t run a country the way Mr. Trump has run his businesses.”

and let’s close with something awe-inspiring

Time-lapse video of how storms form and move.

A Real Pro-Police Agenda is Liberal

Police are killing and being killed because we keep putting them in impossible situations. Let’s stop.


Americans love to tell stories with well-marked villains. For the last two or three years, my social network of liberal friends has been telling a lot of stories about black men killed by police, and in nearly all of them the police are the villains: They strangled Eric Garner as he gasped “I can’t breathe.” They gunned down 12-year-old Tamir Rice with barely a thought. They shot Alton Sterling at point-blank range, while two officers were holding him down. They killed John Crawford III in a Walmart where he was planning to buy a toy gun.

Conservatives have also been telling police stories, but theirs have different villains. Sometimes they make villains out of the same people who were victims in the liberal stories: Michael Brown was a thug, and Tamir Rice was acting like one. Freddie Gray injured himself to make police look bad.

Sometimes the villains are the civil rights leaders who mobilize a community to protest, the people Bill O’Reilly calls “the grievance industry“.

Sometimes the villains are the Black Lives Matter protesters and their allies — people like me and my liberal friends, who are “anti-police”. When gunmen killed police in Dallas on July 7 and in Baton Rouge yesterday, such story-tellers felt validated: This is what happens when you villainize police. People start killing them.

Occasionally, the villains are fantasy people who exist only in the perverse imaginations of hate-mongers like Donald Trump. When Black Lives Matter protests continued after the Dallas shooting, he made up this lie about people who honor the assassin:

The other night you had 11 cities potentially in a blow-up stage. Marches all over the United States—and tough marches. Anger. Hatred. Hatred! Started by a maniac! And some people ask for a moment of silence for him. For the killer!

Not even his campaign can explain where he got that or what he based it on. But of course he offers no apology. (A more typical BLM response to the shootings came from DeRay McKesson, who had been arrested in the demonstrations immediately after Alton Sterling’s death: “The movement began as a call to end violence. That call remains. … My prayers are with the victims of all violence.”)

Three narratives. In short, what we’ve been seeing in the media are two opposing narratives: the liberal “anti-police” narrative in which police are killing young black men for no good reason, and the conservative “pro-police” narrative in which young black men deserve to be killed, and unscrupulous political leaders get publicity by raising anger against the police, resulting in unstable minds deciding to kill them.

I want to propose a third narrative that supports both the police who are trying to do their jobs without killing or being killed, and also the communities of color that feel constantly harassed by police and in danger of violence from them.

Unfortunately, the villains in my story are most of the rest of us, who are in denial about the true state of our country: We throw police into the gap between our Fourth-of-July fantasies and the unjust society we actually live in. We tell them to make those contradictions work, and when they can’t we go looking for someone to blame: either the police themselves, or the victims of injustice they were supposed to keep under control so that we don’t have to notice them.

Scandinavia and Missouri. When liberals argue that violent police are not necessary, we often point to small Scandinavian countries. In Finland, for example, police handle about a million emergency calls every year. In 2013, they dealt with those million situations while firing exactly six bullets. With 5.4 million people, Finland is small as countries go. But it’s bigger than Chicago, and one Chicago police officer fired 16 shots into Laquan McDonald in 13 seconds.

Or take Iceland, which has had one fatal police shooting in its 71-year history. Sure, it only has about 330,000 people, but it’s bigger than Stockton, California, which had three fatal police shootings in the first five months of 2015.

That sounds bad for American police. But I want to propose a thought experiment: What if those non-trigger-happy Finnish and Icelandic police had been covering Ferguson, Missouri, the St. Louis suburb where Michael Brown was killed? The reason I choose Ferguson for my experiment is that we know a lot about what Ferguson police were asked to do, based on the Justice Department reports that got written after the Michael Brown shooting. Here’s what I think is the key sentence:

Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs.

Let me flesh that out a little: Like several other near suburbs of St. Louis, the kind populated by the people who get pushed out of city centers as they gentrify, Ferguson doesn’t have a sufficient tax base to support schools, street repair, and the other services it needs to offer. Neither St. Louis County nor the State of Missouri wants to take responsibility for this situation, so Ferguson and various other towns came up with what probably seemed like the only solution: They’d use the police and the municipal courts to squeeze fines out of poor people.

In other words, the relationship between the police and the mostly black community was designed to be adversarial, a predator/prey arrangement: The purpose of the police was to find violations they could ticket people for, and the purpose of the courts was to make compliance difficult, so that small fines could be multiplied into ongoing revenue streams. (John Oliver did a great job describing how this system works in municipalities across the country.) When citizens found themselves unable to pay their fines, the police would be called on again to bring them to what was essentially a debtor’s prison.

I’m willing to bet that the Finnish and Icelandic police have no experience making a system like this work. Could they do it without ratcheting up their level of violence? I’ve got my doubts.

My point is that if you watched the Ferguson protests unfold and told a story that made either Michael Brown or Darren Wilson the villain, you missed the bigger picture: Both of them were victims (though of course not equally). Michael Brown had to live (and then die) in a hellish community, and Darren Wilson’s job was to enforce that Hell, and keep it from leaking out and bothering the people who live in more privileged communities.

When social services fail. If you Google “mentally ill man killed by police in parents yard”, you don’t just get one story. That’s a generic description of something that happens over and over. The mother of a victim in Denver described her experience: “I told the cops he was mentally ill. He was schizophrenic. I called for help. I didn’t call for them to kill him.”

The ACLU notes the larger pattern:

Many people recognize the names Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice, African-American men, and a child, killed by the police.

Less well known are the names Milton Hall, James Boyd, Ezell Ford, Kajieme Powell, and Tanisha Anderson.

They are people with psychiatric disabilities – most of them people of color – shot and killed by police. In many cases, police were responding to requests for assistance to get the person mental health care.

Teresa Sheehan’s name might also be included in the list. In 2008, she was shot five times by police after her caseworker sought assistance in getting her to the hospital for treatment. She, unlike the others, survived. And she sued.

Schools increasingly have been using police to handle discipline problems. Cops don’t understand kids any better than teachers — probably less so — but they are empowered to use more force. So they do.

As we cut taxes and cut the government services that they fund, police are left to pick up the slack. If you find yourself in a situation you can’t handle, you call 911 and they send the police. The officers who arrive probably have no more training to deal with the situation than you do, but they have no one to pass the buck to. They are not psychologists or negotiators, and the tools they have been trained to use are guns and tasers. The barked orders that will get compliance from a drug dealer may not work on a psychotic or a bratty middle-school student throwing a fit, but it’s what they know.

Sometimes it goes wrong.

Sentinels of the gated community. In the Ozzie-and-Harriet fantasy of middle class America, police are seldom necessary, and when they do show up, they help find a lost child or support the community in some other way. Citizens in this vision of America comply with laws voluntarily, because the laws were made by and for people like them. If you find injustice, you just tell someone, and eventually the word gets to people who can solve the problem.

If the United States was ever that country, it isn’t now, and the situation is getting worse. Again, let’s compare to Finland and Iceland: In a list of 34 OECD countries, Iceland had the lowest level of income inequality after taxes and transfers, with a GINI coefficient of .244. Finland was a bit higher at .260. The United States was the second-most-unequal country (after Chile, a country we don’t usually compare ourselves to), with a .380 coefficient.

When 17 of those same countries are compared according to a standard measure of social mobility (the correlation between the wages of fathers and sons), the United States is the fourth most immobile society. Iceland is not listed, but Finland has the third most fluid society, after fellow Scandinavian countries Denmark and Norway.

As our distribution of wealth and income gets more skewed, our restrictions on campaign contributions are being dismantled, with the result that the concerns of middle-class people — much less the poor — draw less and less attention from government officials. A study by two Princeton political scientists concluded:

When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover … even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.

In short, we are becoming a society of haves and have-nots. The lack of social mobility means that if you are born a have-not, you have less and less chance of doing anything about it. And if you can get a lot of have-nots to support changes to make the system fairer … you probably still can’t do anything about it.

In that situation, the case for voluntarily obeying the laws gets less and less compelling. And Sheriff Andy of Mayberry has to get replaced by people who look a lot scarier.

A real pro-police agenda. The phrase “pro-police agenda” conjures up images of bigger budgets, ever more militarized hardware, and decreased accountability when bad things inevitably happen. But that’s “pro-police” only if you believe that police actually want the role we have given them, or that a future as paid thugs for the 1% appeals to them.

But I suspect a lot of American cops envy those Finns who only had to fire six bullets in a million emergency situations, or the Icelanders who only had to kill one person in 71 years.

That’s not some magic of the Northern climate, it’s democratic socialism. It’s the best public school system in the world. It’s mental healthcare integrated into a national healthcare system that interacts with schools and businesses. It’s tuition-free universities. It’s an economy where your parents’ income doesn’t decide your caste. It’s a political system not dominated by money. It’s refusing to segregate poor people into dysfunctional communities.

We could do all that here. And if we did, the United States would be a much easier country to police.

Mike Pence. I’ve heard that name before.

He hasn’t come up often, but the examples are illuminating.


Friday, a few days before the Republican Convention that begins today in Cleveland, Donald Trump announced his vice presidential choice: Governor Mike Pence of Indiana.

This is a liberal blog and I make no secret about rooting for Democrats. After all, my commitment to my readers is to be honest, not unbiased. (I’m skeptical of people who believe they can be totally objective.) Being honest, I confess to this perceptual bias: Whenever the Republicans nominate someone, all his previous actions seem to take on a sinister aspect, and I find myself suddenly realizing that he is the worst human being since Hitler. (“How did I miss that until now?” I wonder.)

So to discipline my thinking, I thought I’d look back and see where Pence has come up in the The Weekly Sift in the past, before I knew he’d be a national candidate. Two kinds of Republicans make frequent appearances in the Sift: decision-making leaders like Paul Ryan and fringe voices like Sarah Palin or Louie Gohmert, who are constantly saying things too crazy to ignore. (Ted Cruz is a bit of a hybrid: a leader of the crazy faction.) So where and when has Pence shown up?

I found two mentions of him by name and a third story I somehow left his name out of, even though he was right in the middle of it. That verified my initial impression that he has been around a while and done a few things, but so far has had little historical significance.

The first mention is just two sentences and falls into the crazy category: In March, 2009, when the economy was still plunging and even conservative economists were talking about a stimulus of some kind, Pence was urging Congress to push demand down further:

Indiana Republican Congressman Mike Pence knows just what to do in these times when nobody but the government is spending: “Freeze federal spending immediately!” I’m speechless.

The second is harder to pigeonhole: During the 2012 campaign, I was reviewing the bait-and-switch by which the Tea Party had focused on the deficit during the 2010 campaign, but then immediately pivoted to a right-wing social agenda once they took office. This 2011 Pence quote demonstrated that pivot:

Our economy is struggling and our national government is awash in a sea of debt. Amidst these struggles, some would have us focus our energies on jobs and spending. … I agree. Let’s start by denying all federal funding for abortion at home and abroad. The largest abortion provider in America should not also be the largest recipient of federal funding under Title X. The time has come to deny any and all federal funding to Planned Parenthood of America.

And my comment was:

Annual Planned Parenthood funding under Title X was about $70 million. Take that, trillion-dollar deficit!

In March, 2015 I didn’t name Governor Pence, but he was right in the middle of Indiana’s Christians-have-a-right-to-discriminate-against-gays law, summed up by this cartoon.

The law is basically identical to the one that Governor Jan Brewer — never known as a defender of gay rights — had just vetoed in Arizona, but Pence signed Indiana’s version. That left me facing the emptiness of my own threats:

How the heck am I going to boycott Indiana, when I was never planning to go there anyway?

(Ultimately, Indiana’s business community pushed the legislature to pass a second law, which mitigated some of the damage. Pence signed it.)

The GOP’s anti-science tendencies often come up in the Sift, but Pence has never been the national face of those issues, so I haven’t written about him in that context. However, I can’t conclude this article without mentioning a number of anti-science positions he has taken:

  • He won’t say whether he personally believes that evolution happened, but he wants public schools to teach the evolution/creation pseudo-controversy (“teach all of the facts about all of these controversial areas, and let our students, let our children and our children’s children, decide”), a back-door position through which tax dollars can be spent promoting scientifically baseless religious theories in science classes. This practice not only encourages the relativistic view that you can believe whatever you want about science, but also wastes classroom time that could be spent teaching actual facts.
  • Pence wrote: “Despite the hysteria from the political class and the media, smoking doesn’t kill.”
  • Pence wrote: “Global warming is a myth … the Earth is actually cooler today than it was about 50 years ago.” (This was not as obviously false when he wrote it in 1998 as it is today, but it was still false. At the time, you could cherry-pick your data (see the second graph in this link), compare an unusually cool 1995 against an unusually warm 1945, and claim they were about the same. But even then you had to know you were playing deceptive games with numbers.) In 2009 he claimed: “In the mainstream media, there is a denial of the growing skepticism in the scientific community on global warming.” (That “scientific” skepticism comes almost entirely from the fossil fuel industry. In the actual scientific community, the consensus is solid and growing in certainty.)

All in all, I have a hard time arguing with Steve Benen’s assessment (which he bases on the DW-nominate system of quantifying congressional voting records on a left/right scale) that Pence is “the most far-right running mate in modern history”.

Let’s put this another way: during his congressional career, Pence wasn’t just more conservative than Paul Ryan. His voting record also put him to the right of Michele Bachmann, Todd Akin, Steve King, and even Louie Gohmert.

So I’m going to restrain myself from speculating about where Pence ranks on the Hitler Scale of human beings. But if we’re looking at the Jan Brewer Scale of right-wing extremist governors, or the Bachmann/Gohmert Scale of crazy congresspeople, he might take it to 11.

The Monday Morning Teaser

The Baton Rouge shooting yesterday upended the post I had been writing about police reform. Posting it would be like: “Too bad about your friends and colleagues dying. Here’s how you’ve all been doing your jobs wrong.” So I’m scrambling a little this morning. What exactly is going to come out when is hard to predict.

One short post should be out soon. I did a search of past Sift posts to see where Mike Pence has come up before and what I said about him. I figured that was a way to keep myself honest, rather than just posting a knee-jerk reaction of “Trump picked him, so he must be pond scum.”

The result is “Mike Pence. I’ve heard that name before.” It should be out between 8 and 8:30 EDT.

I have a huge number of short notes for the weekly summary — I picked an eventful week to go on vacation — so I could just stop with the one short featured post. But it feels cowardly to ignore the issue most of us are churning over: police killing and being killed. So I’m going to wing something difficult. I want to step back to the larger perspective, in which both police and young black men are victimized by an unjust society that pits them against each other. The working title is “A Real Pro-Police Agenda is Liberal”. Wish me luck on that; it’s still all in my head and could fall completely apart before the glue sets.

Then there will be the summary: Republican convention, Turkish coup, Nice attack, Bernie endorses Hillary, reactions to Hillary’s non-indictment, Baton Rouge, Chilcot report on Iraq. Your typical two weeks in the 21st century.

Dogma and Storm

No Sift next week. The next new articles will appear on July 18.

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.

– President Abraham Lincoln (1862)

It is preposterous to suppose that the people of one generation can lay down the best and only rules of government for all who are to come after them.

– President Ulysses Grant (1885)

This week’s featured post is “Are we overdoing the Founding Fathers?

This week everybody was talking about terrorist attacks in the Muslim world

In Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Bangladesh, and Turkey. Note how much less impact these attacks had on the American news cycle than attacks in Europe usually do. That’s a measure of implicit bigotry that I can see in myself: I have to struggle against a shit-happens reaction to human tragedies that don’t involve Americans or Europeans, as if Bangladeshi lives were just a different currency than European lives, with an unfavorable exchange rate.

and two pseudo-scandals that may finally be reaching their conclusions

The House Select Committee on Benghazi finally issued its 800-page report, which not even Chairman Trey Gowdy could pull spin as a revelation:

I simply ask the American people to read this report for themselves, look at the evidence we have collected, and reach their own conclusions.

Vox‘s Jeff Stein accepted that challenge, and concluded that the report would only impress people who came to it with the assumption that the Obama administration must be up to something sinister.

Nothing in it convinced me of a devastating scandal. The scales did not fall from my eyes to expose the secret malevolence of the Obama administration.

In other Clinton-pseudoscandal news, Hillary was finally interviewed by the FBI. The FBI has said all along that her interview would come near the end of the investigation, so maybe that will soon be over as well. I have not seen anything yet that makes me want to revise my opinion from three weeks ago.

Update: FBI says no charges.

and the Supreme Court’s abortion decision

Remember that anti-abortion law Wendy Davis filibustered in the Texas legislature in 2013? It passed in the next session, and now the Supreme Court has invalidated it because it places an “undue burden” on a woman attempting to exercise her right to have an abortion.

ProPublica pulls together the best analyses of the decision. From a layman’s point of view, here’s what I think it means: Legislatures and courts represent equal branches of government, so typically judges make an assumption of good faith when they analyze a law. In other words, judges assume the legislature is trying to do what it says it is trying to do, and they read the law within that frame.

However, there are certain situations where legislatures again and again have passed bad-faith laws. Racial discrimination has been the biggest example; for decades the rationales kept changing, but the results were always that the races stayed separate and minority races drew the short straw. Eventually, the Supreme Court developed the levels-of-scrutiny doctrine that allowed it to reject consistent legislative bad faith.

That doctrine has never applied to abortion laws, but the Texas law in this case is a classic bad-faith law: It purports to be about women’s health, but the actual intent is to impose so many hard-to-satisfy regulations on abortion clinics that most of them would go out of business. Outside the big cities, that would make abortions so hard to get in Texas that women without much support or many resources just wouldn’t be able to get them.

The Court’s decision never uses the phrase bad faith, but that’s what the decision is about. The Court has finally lost patience with bad-faith regulation of abortion clinics. Bad-faith anti-abortion laws all over the country should start coming down.

and Elie Wiesel

who died Saturday.

I’ve been looking for the perfect Elie Wiesel retrospective and not finding it. I never met Wiesel or even saw him speak in person, but he came to symbolize two important things for me.

First, in regard to the dark side of life, we all have a narrow path to walk: To one side is denial, the temptation to say that because the bad things are not happening to me, at least not at the moment, they aren’t real. They won’t happen because they don’t happen and they haven’t happened, even if some people say they did. To the other side is the temptation to dismiss or debunk all higher values, and so give in to cynicism, bitterness, or depression. Wiesel, to me, represents the hope that it is possible to walk that path without sliding off in either direction: We don’t have to whitewash the world to love it, or imagine that people are wonderful in order to have compassion for them.

In terms of religion, to me Wiesel represented a balance between traditional religious values and modern humanism. He often talked about God, but never simplistically or dogmatically. The one clear thing the Holocaust had taught him was that God cannot be counted on to save us. If the world is to avoid spiraling into ever deeper darkness, human beings will have to step up and see to it.


Bernard Avishai’s Wiesel piece in The New Yorker starts well, but ends up focusing on Wiesel’s reluctance to confront Israel about its treatment of the Palestinians. I get where he’s coming from and agree with him on the substance, but I have more of a nobody’s-perfect reaction. I hope for a more generous response when I die, so I feel obligated to extend that generosity to others.

but not enough people are paying attention to this article

Most progressives regret NAFTA, feel an instant antipathy to any action of the WTO, and oppose ratification of the TPP. At the same time, it’s one of those obvious Econ-101 truths that trade is good. Just as no individual can hope to be self-sufficient at a level much above subsistence, no country can truly prosper by cutting itself off from the rest of the world.

So a blanket opposition to any and all trade agreements can’t be the right progressive position. If only someone would lay out some general principles of a positive progressive trade policy. Well, Jared Bernstein is taking a whack at it.

and you might also be interested in

Good environmental news is so rare, you shouldn’t miss it when it happens.

Remember the hole in the ozone layer? Well, three decades after countries started banning the chemicals destroying it, the ozone layer is on the mend, according to a study published Thursday in the journal Science.


Full scale 2016 coverage begins with Nate Silver’s first general election forecasts. He started Hillary Clinton with about an 80% chance of winning, now down to 77%. Nate explains his thinking here.

He offers three different models, one based only on polls, one based on other factors like economic data, and a third projecting what would happen if the election were today. (Look in his left-hand column for the buttons that choose the model.) They allow you to look at different kinds of uncertainty. The if-today model, which he calls the Now-cast, only reflects the uncertainties in polling: If the election were held today, a candidate who has Hillary’s current lead in the polls would win 85.5% of the time. The other two models also reflect uncertainties of events, what we might call the shit-happens factor. Polls in June can only tell you so much about what will happen in November, which is what gets Clinton’s win probability down to 80.3% in polls-only and 73.5% in polls-plus.

The models are constructed in such a way that they will converge by election day.


While we’re on polls, the NYT’s Nate Cohn talks about the different assumptions and corrections that can go into polls, and how they can go wrong. In a separate article, Cohn discusses conspiracy theories about vote fraud:

There are plenty of good reasons for people to think the U.S. election system doesn’t work, even if there are basically zero reasons to think it’s “rigged” or that there’s multistate election fraud.


I’m not sure how I missed “I’m Angry! So I’m Voting For Donald Trump” when it came out three months ago, but it’s still accurate. At the time, Klavan’s eventual conclusion to “vote for someone else, who would be, like, a better president” probably meant some other Republican. (The Daily Wire is a conservative web site, after all.) But it works just as well for Hillary.


TPM’s analysis of Trump’s fund-raising problems is interesting. So far, there’s still no confirmation of his pledge to forgive the loans he has made to the campaign.


The Obama administration has admitted to killing between 64 and 116 civilian bystanders in drone strikes outside war zones. Outside organizations have higher estimates. Long War Journal estimates 158 civilian deaths in Pakistan alone.


A draft of the Democratic Platform is out.


Governor Jerry Brown just signed a slew of new gun-control laws in California. To me the most interesting one is the ban on magazines that hold more than 10 bullets, because it requires gun-owners to do something specific: turn those magazines in or otherwise dispose of them. I wonder how many will comply, and how aggressively California will enforce the law.


George W. Bush was historically unpopular when he left office, but his fans claimed that history would vindicate him. (I argued against that view.) So far, not so much. Noted presidential biographer Jean Edward Smith (whose previous books made the case that Eisenhower and Grant were under-appreciated) has a new book Bush, which ends with this line:

Whether George W. Bush was the worst president in American history will be long debated, but his decision to invade Iraq is easily the worst foreign policy decision ever made by an American president.

That doesn’t sound much like vindication.

and let’s close with something awesome

Earth isn’t the only planet to have an aurora phenomenon. Here, the Hubble space telescope spies one on Jupiter.

Expect gobs of amazing Jupiter photos this week as the Juno probe arrives.

Are we overdoing the Founding Fathers?

When we turn Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton into divinely inspired prophets, our political disagreements become religious schisms.


We Americans love our Founding Fathers, especially on the Fourth of July. How did you honor them over the weekend? Did you go out and hear a speaker praise them? Watch 1776 on TV? Listen to the Hamilton soundtrack, or read the best-selling biography it was drawn from? Call up HBO’s John Adams mini-series on demand?

Or maybe this year you did it up right and took the kids to the Washington and Jefferson Monuments near the Capitol, or to Independence Hall in Philadelphia, or even to the Founders’ holiest shrine, Colonial Williamsburg, where Washington, Jefferson, and the other great Virginians still give speeches and answer your questions every day.

Personally, I devoted a chunk of the weekend to a book that asks whether we’ve overdoing it, or maybe just doing it wrong: The Jefferson Rule: how the Founding Fathers became infallible and our politics inflexible by David Sehat. [1]

Looking around our current political landscape, it’s not hard to find examples of people going overboard in ways that embarrass the Founders’ memory. The WWFFD (“What would the Founding Fathers do?“) billboard above comes to us courtesy of fringe congressional candidate Rick Tyler, whose more famous billboard instructs us to “Make America White Again“. As they seized the headquarters of a federal wildlife refuge and held it by force, the Bundy militamen waved tiny booklets of the Constitution — as annotated by right-wing crank W. Cleon Skousen. “What we’re trying to do is teach the true principles of the proper form of government,” Cliven Bundy told the L.A. Times. Apparently America is so far gone from the Founder/Skousen vision that this teaching can only be done by heavily armed men threatening to shoot any officials who come to enforce the law.

Political fundamentalism. If you’ve ever paid attention to debates between fundamentalist sects — be they Christian, Islamic, or whatever — this is what they sound like: One particular interpretation of sacred scripture is projected onto the text, as if it were literal and inescapable. Anyone who reads it differently must be an infidel; to entertain their heretical ideas, even briefly or for the sake of argument, is flirting with damnation.

Voting cannot resolve such conflicts. At some point you either have to let an issue go or resort to violence.

That fundamentalist style in American politics is not just a fringe phenomenon. Even as he constructed justifications for torture and placing the decisions of the unitary executive beyond the reach of Congress, high-ranking Bush-administration legal adviser David Addington carried a well-worn pocket Constitution with him everywhere. In the 2016 Republican presidential primary campaign, one candidate after another cast himself as the pro-Founder, pro-Constitution candidate — as if President Obama led an anti-Founder, anti-Constitution party. Ted Cruz, for example, made “Restore the Constitution” one of the key planks of his campaign, and Donald Trump said, “The Constitution of this country has been absolutely riddled with bullets from the Obama administration.”

To such opponents, President Obama is not a constitutional scholar with different — and discussable — interpretations, he’s an infidel. His actions are not based on a different understanding of the laws, they are “lawless“.

Ironically, such a heresy-avoiding and heresy-denouncing conversation is a far cry from the kind of debate the actual Founders had at the Constitutional Convention, where everything from a new monarchy to the abolition of the states was open for consideration.

Such hero-worship demands that the human and historical flaws of the Founders be papered over. They weren’t slave-owners who made sure the founding documents protected their human property, they “worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States“. If they reserved the vote for white male property owners like themselves, they were right to do so. To the extent that subsequent generations have altered their system — say, by letting the voters rather than the state legislatures elect senators — we should change it back.

America the Exceptional. Those of us who have lived our entire lives in the United States have a hard time recognizing how strange our Founder-worship is. But other democracies don’t talk this way. From time to time French politicians may still invoke the Liberty-Equality-Fraternity ideals of their Revolution, but they don’t feel obligated to explain away the Reign of Terror. Rousseau and Voltaire still get quoted occasionally, but not as holy writ.

The English understand their evolution towards democracy as a long messy process that remains unfinished. King John stumbled his way into the Magna Carta, which was a great advance in its day, but not a timeless capital-T Truth. No one expects a proof-text from Edmund Burke or John Locke to end a debate once and for all. And Germans are more likely to quote their history as a cautionary tale than as Golden Age that needs restoration.

Maybe that’s healthy.

Locating the problem. Sehat’s criticism of the WWFFD approach to contemporary politics has two main parts:

  • It’s false history. The Founders were not a collective consciousness with a single point of view. The Constitution is full of compromises, and its authors began arguing about its meaning almost immediately. [2]
  • It’s destructive. Policy disagreements are hard enough to resolve without turning them into schisms of religious intensity. Republics depend on the ability of conflicting factions to work things out. That’s much harder if you view your opponents as infidels disloyal to the whole idea of America.

What would the Founders do? They’d argue. If the Founders really had formed a solid consensus around a well-worked-out worldview, the Washington administration would have been a time devoid of political tension. After all, the first Congress and the first cabinet didn’t have to ask what the Founders would do; they were the Founders.

In actual history, though, Washington presided over factions intriguing against each other, and many of their disagreements are still with us.

For example, today one of the marks of faithfulness to the Founders’ vision is supposed to be a “strict construction” of the Constitution, limiting the powers of the federal government to the ones very specifically granted in the text. For example, this is the essence of the conservative critique of ObamaCare: The Constitution nowhere mentions a power to force citizens to buy health insurance.

On the surface the strict-construction folks seem to be on firm ground. After all, the very phrase strict construction goes back to one of the holiest of the Founders, Thomas Jefferson. However, Jefferson coined that phrase in an argument with another ranking member of the Founder pantheon: Alexander Hamilton, who had already coined the phrase most often used to oppose strict construction: implied powers.

They were arguing about Hamilton’s proposal to establish the Bank of the United States. Secretary of State Jefferson’s reading of the Constitution did not see any bank-establishing power there. But Treasury Secretary Hamilton argued that the Constitutional Convention — where he had been a delegate and Jefferson hadn’t — had never intended to spell out every detail. In his view, whenever the Constitution gave the federal government responsibility for an area of governance, it also implicitly granted it the powers necessary to fulfill those responsibilities.

Hamilton’s job would have been impossible without such implied powers, and he had already exercised them on numerous occasions. The Constitution had, for example, given Congress the power to impose a tariff; it had done so, and Hamilton was collecting it. But the Constitution never specifically mentioned the power to construct custom houses, hire port inspectors, or deploy a coast guard against smugglers — which he had also done, and without which the taxing power was meaningless. To him, the Bank of the United States was a similarly implied means to assigned ends: managing tax receipts, paying down the national debt, and supervising the currency.

This disagreement got as vicious as anything we see today: Jefferson painted Hamilton as a monarchist seeking to return us to British rule, while Hamilton painted Jefferson as a France-loving Jacobin, ready to unleash the guillotines on unsuspecting Americans.

Jefferson lost on the Bank, but won the larger political struggle: Hamilton died in middle age and his Federalist Party collapsed, while Jefferson and his Virginian successors Madison and Monroe held the presidency from 1801 to 1825. In practice, though, Hamiltonianism survived under the surface: Jefferson and the other Virginians often made use of implied powers of their own, as when Jefferson stretched the treaty-making power to allow the Louisiana Purchase.

It was during this period, in Sehat’s telling of the story, that the history of the Founding Era was rewritten into an orthodoxy: Jeffersonianism represented the one true vision of the Revolution. To this day, politicians who invoke “the Founders” as a unified consciousness are probably invoking the Founders as re-envisioned by Jefferson. [3] The more ambitious government of Hamilton — and the pragmatism of Washington, who often saw Hamilton’s approach as the best way to solve practical problems [4] — has been swept under the rug.

The fundamentalist style in American politics. The bulk of Sehat’s book is a history of how the Founders have been invoked in American politics through the centuries. He portrays the influence of this style of argument as pernicious: It has hardened disagreements and mythologized politics. Rather than discuss the pluses and minuses of available policy options, Americans have instead cast themselves as the true successors of the Founders’ vision and demonized their opponents as treacherous infidels. As a result, it has been easier for each side to overlook the other’s love of country, and harder to reach the compromises necessary to move forward together.

The most extreme example of Founder-fundamentalism hardening a position beyond any compromise was that of the Southern nullifiers and secessionists from Calhoun to Jefferson Davis. On the other side, Lincoln tried it both ways. In 1862 he told Congress “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.” But his Gettysburg Address reclaimed the Founders for “a new birth of freedom”.

In the decades after the Civil War, the Founders lost their central position in political debate, as leaders saw little resemblance between their problems and those of the 18th century. As President Grant wrote in his memoirs:

It is preposterous to suppose that the people of one generation can lay down the best and only rules of government for all who are to come after them.

And Teddy Roosevelt proclaimed in his 1905 inaugural:

Our forefathers faced certain perils which we have outgrown. We now face other perils, the very existence of which it was impossible that they should foresee.

But 20th-century conservatism revived Founder rhetoric. President Harding is credited with coining the term Founding Fathers, and opposition to FDR’s New Deal built its message around the myth of a single founding vision. FDR’s central opponent, the Liberty League — representing the 1% of its day — invented the technique of defending “the Constitution” as a vague unity rather than discussing any particular passages, which might bear divergent interpretations.

The progressive temptation. Another point Sehat makes is that Founder-worship inevitably looks backwards, and so privileges conservative arguments over progressive ones. Progressives are often tempted to enter into WWFFD arguments, because the conservative mythologizing of the Founders so often approaches the ridiculous, and is easily refuted by reference to historical facts. Also, it can be hard to resist harnessing the mythic and symbolic power of the Founders to more worthy causes than the preservation of slavery or the further aggrandizement of the propertied class.

In the short term, this often is very effective, as when Martin Luther King framed the Declaration of Independence’s statement that “All men are created equal” as a “promissory note” that the nation had never redeemed for its black population.

But as much as the idealism of certain individuals from the Founding Era can still inspire, in the long run the ahistorical fusion of “the Founding Fathers” is going to work mischief on contemporary politics. Once welded together, the Founders are a slave-owning propertied class that wants to preserve its privileges, and is suspicious of spreading power to too many people. Any fair reading of the Constitution has to recognize the sheer distance its system places between the People and their government. The People are not supposed to govern themselves; they are supposed to recognize their betters, and choose them to administer the government. [5]

Government of the Living. Americans can rightly be proud of our founding generation. Most revolutions fail, and when time-honored systems are swept aside, they are often replaced by something worse. The first democratic revolution in England produced Cromwell; in France, Napoleon; in Germany, Hitler. The newly created 20th-century nations of Africa again and again saw the pattern of “one man, one vote, once”, as the winner of the first election saw no reason to hold a second.

The United States avoided all that. We have had our turbulent moments, including one of the bloodiest civil wars you’ll find anywhere. We have done terrible things, from the Native American genocide and African slavery through the many vicious and greedy strongmen we inflicted on third-world nations during the Cold War. And from time to time we continue to do terrible things, as global superpowers have always done.

But we have also often been a force for progress in the world or for liberation from tyranny, and our example has inspired progressive change in many other countries. The documents left behind by the Founders, and the example of their conduct, has a lot to do with that.

So absolutely, we should honor them. They deserve to have monuments in our capital, to appear on our money, and to have fireworks and parades in their honor every summer.

But they were men and women, not prophets or gods. The argued with each other, compromised on important issues, and in general did what they could with the problems of their day, just as every generation does. The did not foresee nuclear weapons, or even automatic ones. They had absurd medical theories, primitive notions of macro-economics, and self-serving beliefs about race and culture.

To the extent that their opinions still make sense today, we should quote them. But the fact that they believed something does not obligate us (or our opponents) to agree. Those who disagree with them should be met with evidence and arguments and a willingness to consider that their disagreement might be justified.

A government of the People must always be a government of the Living. If our ancestors would have disagreed with us, so be it. They had their day, and now we have ours.


[1] Ironically, I found the book at the Colonial Williamsburg Visitor’s Center.

[2] This mistake is typical of fundamentalisms. Fundamentalist Christians, for example, picture the early Christian community as a model of the pure doctrine they want to recover and preserve. But if you actually read the documents of the era, they are more theologically diverse than Christian churches are today.

Similarly, Muhammad didn’t have a worked-out theory of governance; he just governed. Sharia was constructed centuries later.

Unified doctrine is usually achieved by some later generation — often through political power or by force — rather than by those who actually heard the gods or prophets speak.

[3] Or possibly as re-re-envisioned by slavery advocate John Calhoun, as I explained in “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party“.

[4] In the Hamilton musical, Jefferson and his allies sing, “It must be nice to have Washington on your side.

[5] The most egregious example of this is the Electoral College. The popular vote in presidential elections was not even tabulated until 1824.

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