Category Archives: Articles

On Doing Your Own Research

It’s easy to laugh at the conspiracy theorists. But our expert classes aren’t entitled to blind trust.


One common mantra among anti-vaxxers, Q-Anoners, ivermectin advocates, and conspiracy theorists of all stripes is that people need to “do their own research”. Don’t be a sheep who believes whatever the CDC or the New York Times or some other variety of “expert” tells you. If something is important, you need to look into it yourself.

Recently, I’ve been seeing a lot of pushback memes. This one takes a humorous poke at the inflated view many people have of their intellectual abilities.

While this one is a bit more intimidating:

And this one is pretty in-your-face:

I understand and mostly agree with the point these memes are trying to make: There is such a thing as expertise, and watching a YouTube video is no substitute for a lifetime of study. In fact, few ideas are so absurd that you can’t make a case for them that is good enough to sound convincing for half an hour — as I remember from reading Erich von Daniken’s “ancient astronaut” books back in the 1970s.

Medical issues are particularly tricky, because sometimes people just get well (or die) for no apparent reason. Whatever they happened to be doing at the time looks brilliant (or stupid), when in fact it might have had nothing to do with anything. That’s why scientists invented statistics and double-blind studies and so forth — so they wouldn’t be fooled by a handful of fluky cases, or by their own desire to see some pattern that isn’t really there.

All the same, I cringe when one of these memes appears on my social media feed, because I know how they’ll be received by the people they target. The experts are telling them: “Shut up, you dummy, and believe what you’re told.”

They’re going to take that message badly, and I actually don’t blame them. Because there is a real crisis of expertise in the world today, and it didn’t appear out of nowhere during the pandemic. It’s been building for a long time.

Liberal skepticism. Because the Trump administration was so hostile to expertise, we now tend to think of viewing experts skeptically as a left/right issue. But it’s not. Go back, for example, and look at liberal Chris Hayes’ 2012 book The Twilight of the Elites. Each chapter of that book covers a different area in which some trusted corps of experts failed the public that put its faith them: Intelligence experts (and the journalists who covered them) assured us that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. Bankers drove the world economy into a ditch in 2008, largely because paper that turned out to be worthless was rated AAA. The Catholic priesthood, supposedly a guardian of morality for millions of Americans, was raping children and then covering it up.

Experts, it turns out, do have training and experience. But they also have class interests. Sometimes they’re looking out for themselves rather than for the rest of us.

More recently, we have discovered that military experts have been lying to us for years about the “progress” they’d made in promoting Afghan democracy and training an Afghan army to defend that democratic government.

It’s not hard to find economists who present capitalism as the only viable option for a modern economy, or who explain why we can’t afford to take care of all the sick people, or to prevent climate change from producing some apocalyptic future.

Such people are very good at talking down to the rest of us. But ordinary folks are less and less likely to take them seriously. And that’s good, sort of. You shouldn’t believe what people say just because they have a title or a degree.

If not expertise, what? So it’s not true that if you argue with a recognized expert, you’re automatically wrong. Unfortunately, though, recent events have shown us that a reflexive distrust of all experts creates even worse problems.

  • It’s hard to estimate how many Americans have died of Covid because we haven’t been willing to follow expert advice about vaccination, masking, quarantining, and so on. Constructing such an estimate would itself require expertise I don’t have. But simply comparing our death totals to Canada’s (713 deaths per million people versus our 2034) indicates it’s probably in the hundreds of thousands.
  • Our democracy is in trouble because large numbers of Americans are unwilling to accept election results, no matter how many times they get recounted by bipartisan panels of election supervisors.
  • The growing menace of hurricanes and wildfires is the price we pay because the world (of which the US is a major part, and needs to play a leading role) refuses to act on what climate scientists have been telling us since the 1970s.

Without widespread belief in experts, the truth becomes a matter of tribalism (one side believes in fighting Covid and the other doesn’t), intimidation (Republicans who know better don’t dare tell Trump’s personality cult that he lost), or wishful thinking (nobody wants to believe we have to change our lives to cut carbon emissions).

Which one of us is Galileo? The foundational myth of modern science (Galileo saying “and yet it moves“) expresses faith in a reality beyond the power of kings and popes. People who have trained their minds to be objective can see that reality, while others are stuck either following or rebelling against authority.

The question is: Who is Galileo in the current controversies? Is it the scientific experts who have spent their lives training to see clearly in these situations? Or is it the populists, who refuse to bow to the authority of the expert class, and insist on “doing their own research”?

Simply raising that question points to a more nuanced answer than just “Shut up and believe what you’re told.”

Take me, for example. This blog arises from distrust of experts. After the Saddam’s-weapons-of-mass-destruction fiasco, I started looking deeper into the stories in the headlines. Because I was living in New Hampshire at the time, it was easy to go listen to the 2004 presidential candidates. Once I did, I noticed the media’s habit of fitting a speech into a predetermined narrative, rather than reporting what a candidate was actually saying. Then I started reading major court decisions (like the Massachusetts same-sex marriage decision of 2003), and interpreting them for myself.

In short, I was doing my own research. Some guy at CNN may have spent his whole life reporting on legal issues, but I was going to read the cases for myself.

When social media became a thing, and turned into an even bigger source of misinformation than the mainstream media had ever been, I began to look on this blog as a model for individual behavior: Don’t amplify claims without some amount of checking. (For example: In this weeks’ summary — the next post after this one — I was ready to blast Trump for ignoring all observances of 9-11. But then I discovered that he appeared by video at a rally organized by one of his supporters on the National Mall. I’m not shy about criticizing Trump, but facts are facts.) Listen to criticism from commenters and thank them when they catch one of your mistakes. Change your opinions when the facts change.

But also notice the things that I don’t do: When my wife got cancer, we didn’t design her treatment program by ourselves. We made value judgments about what kinds of sacrifices we were willing to make for her treatment (a lot, as it turned out), but left the technical details to our doctors. At one point we felt that a doctor was a little too eager to get my wife into his favorite clinical trial, so we got a second opinion and ultimately changed doctors. But we didn’t ditch Western medicine and count on Chinese herbs or something. (She’s still doing fine 25 years after the original diagnosis.)

On this blog, I may not trust the New York Times and Washington Post to decide what stories are important and what they mean, but I do trust them on basic facts. If the NYT puts quotes around some words, I believe that the named person actually said those words (though I may check the context). If the WaPo publishes the text of a court decision, I believe that really is the text. And so on.

I also trust the career people in the government to report statistics accurately. The political appointees may spin those numbers in all sorts of ways, but the bureaucrats in the cubicles are doing their best.

In the 18 years I’ve been blogging, that level of trust has never burned me.

Where I come from. So the question isn’t “Do you trust anybody?” You have to; the world is just too big to figure it all out for yourself. Instead, the question is who you trust, and what you trust them to do.

My background gives me certain advantages in answering those questions, because I have a foot in both camps. Originally, I was a mathematician. I got a Ph.D. from a big-name university and published a few articles in some prestigious research journals (though not for many years now). So I understand what it means to do actual research, and to know things that only a handful of other people know. At the same time, I am not a lawyer, a doctor, a political scientist, an economist, a climate scientist, or a professional journalist. So just about everything I discuss in this blog is something I view from the outside.

I don’t, for example, have any inside knowledge about public health or infectious diseases or climate science. But I do know a lot about the kind of people who go into the sciences, and about the social mores of the scientific community. So when I hear about some vast conspiracy to inflate the threat of Covid or climate change, I can only shake my head. I can picture how many people would necessarily be involved in such a conspiracy, and who many of them would have to be. It’s absurd.

In universities and labs all over the world, there are people who would love to be the one to expose the “hoax” of climate change, or to discover the simple solution that means none of us have to change our lifestyle. You couldn’t shut them up by shifting research funding, you’d need physical concentration camps, and maybe gas chambers. The rumors of people vanishing into those camps would spread far enough that I would hear them.

I haven’t.

Not all experts deserve our skepticism. Similarly, one of my best friends and two of my cousins are nurses. I know the mindset of people who go into medicine. So the idea that hospitals all over the country are faking deaths by the hundreds of thousands, or that ICUs are only pretending to be jammed with patients — it’s nuts.

If you’ve ever planned a surprise party, you know that conspiracies of just a dozen or so people can be hard to manage. Now imagine conspiracies that involve tens of thousands, most of whom were once motivated by ideals completely opposite to the goals of the conspiracy.

It doesn’t happen.

I have a rule of thumb that has served me well over the years: You don’t always have to follow the conventional wisdom, but when you don’t you should know why.

Lots of expert classes have earned our distrust. But some haven’t. They’re not all the same. And even the bankers and the priests have motives more specific than pure evil. If they wouldn’t benefit from some conspiracy, they’re probably not involved.

Know thyself. As you divide up the world between things you’re going to research yourself and things you’re going to trust to someone else, the most important question you need to answer is: What kind of research can you reasonably do? (Being trained to read mathematical proofs made it easy for me to read judicial opinions. I wouldn’t have guessed that, but it turned out that way.)

That’s what’s funny about the cartoon at the top: This guy thinks he credibly competes with the entire scientific community (and expects his wife to share that assessment of his abilities).

My Dad (who I think suspected from early in my life that he was raising a know-it-all) often said to me: “Everybody in the world knows something you don’t.” As I got older, I realized that the reverse is also true: Just about all of us have some experience that gives us a unique window on the world. You don’t necessarily need a Ph.D. to see something most other people miss.

But at the same time, often our unique windows point in the wrong direction entirely. My window, for example, tells me very little about what Afghans are thinking right now. If I want to know, I’m going to have to trust somebody a little closer to the topic.

And if I’m going to be a source of information rather than misinformation, I’ll need to account for my biases. Tribalism, intimidation, and wishful thinking affect everybody. A factoid that matches my prior assumptions a little too closely is exactly the kind of thing I need to check before I pass it on. Puzzle pieces that fit together too easily have maybe been shaved a little; check it out.

So sure: Do your own research. But also learn your limitations, and train yourself to be a good researcher within those boundaries. Otherwise, you might be part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

A Dozen Observations about Abortion, Texas, and the Supreme Court

https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2021/sep/03/opinion-john-deering-cartoon-about-texas/

As you undoubtedly already know, the Supreme Court refused to interfere with the new Texas abortion ban, which took effect Wednesday. In brief, the law bans abortion after a “heartbeat” is detectable in the embryo, which happens (not really, but sort of, more below) at around six weeks. That’s usually before a woman knows she’s pregnant, so most pregnant Texas women will not, at any point in the process, have legal options other than carrying their fetus to term.

What makes this law different from dozens of other anti-abortion laws (that routinely get voided by the federal courts) is its method of enforcement: Abortion is illegal, but not criminal. No one is arrested or sent to jail. But private citizens can sue people (other than the pregnant woman herself) who perform or “abet” a post-heartbeat abortion. If they win, they get attorneys fees plus $10,000.

That enforcement method makes it tricky for a federal court to block the law. Ordinarily, a court would enjoin state officials not to enforce a law that violates established constitutional standards, but here Texas can say: “We don’t enforce it. Private citizens and the state courts enforce it.” Five conservative judges (three of them appointed by Trump) decided to take advantage of that loophole. So the law stands and abortion is effectively banned in Texas.

Much has been written about this situation in the last week, so rather than add another article to the stack, I want to organize what’s already out there. That’s why this post is a list of short observations rather than a single essay. In each case, I’ll point you to other sources that do the elaboration.

Let’s start with some basic references.

The law itself (Senate Bill 8) is here. It’s written for lawyers, and I don’t recommend reading it unless you’re really getting down into the weeds.

The Supreme Court’s rejection of the request to intervene is only 12 pages, and is much more readable. The majority’s statement is barely more than a page. Chief Justice Roberts wrote a three-page dissent. Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan also wrote dissents, each of which was co-signed by the other two. So the Court published roughly ten times as much material explaining why it shouldn’t have done this than justifying why it did.

Slate has a good FAQ about what the law covers and how it might be interpreted. Some of the issues will depend on what judges do, and even if the law is technically on your side, you still will have to respond if someone sues you.

The bill is named the Texas Heartbeat Act, but a six-week embryo doesn’t have a heart.

LiveScience.com explains:

Rather, at six weeks of pregnancy, an ultrasound can detect “a little flutter in the area that will become the future heart of the baby,” said Dr. Saima Aftab, medical director of the Fetal Care Center at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami. This flutter happens because the group of cells that will become the future “pacemaker” of the heart gain the capacity to fire electrical signals, she said.

NPR goes into more detail:

“When I use a stethoscope to listen to an [adult] patient’s heart, the sound that I’m hearing is caused by the opening and closing of the cardiac valves,” says Dr. Nisha Verma, an OB-GYN who specializes in abortion care and works at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

The sound generated by an ultrasound in very early pregnancy is quite different, she says.

“At six weeks of gestation, those valves don’t exist,” she explains. “The flickering that we’re seeing on the ultrasound that early in the development of the pregnancy is actually electrical activity, and the sound that you ‘hear’ is actually manufactured by the ultrasound machine.”

Healthline.com says that at six weeks, an embryo is “about the size of a grain of rice”.

You might be wondering why anti-abortion activists lie so blatantly about this rather obscure point of biology (or perhaps how they can call themselves Christians while they do). Similarly, they make bogus claims about a fetus’ ability to feel pain at 20 weeks. Neither of these thresholds have any legal significance. (After all, farm animals have heartbeats and feel pain, but they are killed by the millions without any political backlash.)

What activists are trying to suggest with heartbeats and suffering is the presence of a human soul, which many of them say enters the embryo at conception. (In National Catholic Reporter, Michael Sean Winters writes: “That heartbeat should strike the consciences of anyone with an open mind about the morality of the issue.” Sorry, but that shot just goes right past me; I am neither engaged nor shamed by it.)

They may describe this theological speculation as “Biblical”, but in fact it is not, as I’ve explained before. In Catholic circles, this teaching was virtually unknown before the 1600s, and it didn’t become orthodox among conservative Protestants until after Roe. For Evangelicals, the politics motivated the theology, not the other way around.

In any case, one American’s theology does not bind other Americans, because the Founders very explicitly did not set up a theocracy.

Complete bans on abortion are not popular now, and never have been.

Gallup has been asking about abortion for nearly half a century, and the numbers have been remarkably stable. Less than 1-in-5 Americans believe abortion should be “illegal in all circumstances”, and that’s been true consistently since 1975. The split between those who want abortion legal in “any circumstances” or “certain circumstances” bounces around a bit more. Even that may not represent an actual change of opinion, but could correspond to a change in the circumstances that came to mind when the question was raised.

On the specific question of overturning Roe v Wade, public opinion has long supported leaving Roe alone. In 1989 the public was against overturning Roe 58%-31%, and the most recent survey was 58%-32%.

I sum up my reading of public opinion with a quip. Most Americans, whether we are conservative or liberal, have exactly the same opinion about both abortion and guns: “I am appalled by the sheer number of them in this country, and wish there were fewer. But if my family gets into some extraordinary situation and decides that we need one, I don’t want the government to stand in our way.”

The court majority is acting in bad faith.

The majority purports to be stymied by the complexity of the situation: No one knows exactly who will decide to enforce the Texas law, so how can they craft an injunction?

it is unclear whether the named defendants in this lawsuit can or will seek to enforce the Texas law against the applicants in a manner that might permit our intervention.

Will Wilkinson points out the obvious:

you know that the conservative majority would not affirm this principle in general. There is zero chance that Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, Barrett and Thomas would offer the same deferential treatment to a formally identical California law designed to frustrate citizens’ 2nd Amendment rights by incentivizing civil lawsuits against anyone who gives away or sells or in any way aids or abets the possession or ownership of a firearm.

Justice Sotomayor’s dissent is blunt and direct:

It cannot be the case that a State can evade federal judicial scrutiny by outsourcing the enforcement of unconstitutional laws to its citizenry.

But of course, it’s not the case in general. This is a one-time-only principle that applies solely to abortion.

https://twitter.com/mluckovichajc/status/1433774563502985218

A decision this consequential shouldn’t happen through the shadow docket.

Essentially, the Court has reversed Roe v Wade: Texas has made nearly all abortions illegal; the Court has refused to protect a woman’s previously recognized constitutional right; and now other red states are scrambling to pass their own bounty-hunter law.

It is certainly within the Court’s power to reverse previous precedents and thereby reinterpret the Constitution. But the typical way for a reversal to happen is through the regular docket (known to lawyers as the “merits” docket): A case challenging the precedent works its way up through the federal courts. Through that process, the lower courts develop a body of publicly available evidence and reasoning. Then the Supreme Court hears lawyers for both sides argue the case, and interested third parties submit briefs supporting one side or the other. The justices withdraw for weeks or months to consider it all, and then a decision is announced, supported by a written majority opinion (which may be critiqued by dissents from judges outside the majority). When Brown v Board of Education reversed Plessey v Ferguson in 1954, that was the lengthy process it went through. (The original lawsuit was filed in 1951.)

A case challenging Roe is already on the Court’s calendar for this term. We should get a decision by June at the latest. If a majority wants to reverse Roe — and apparently it does — that is the proper way to do so.

One key virtue of the regular process is transparency: The Court’s power may be mostly unchecked, but when it does something, we at least know what it did and why. Five justices can’t just say “Do this” and go home; they have to spell out the new interpretation in enough detail that lower courts and the various levels of state and federal government know what the law is now. The Court’s reasoning is available for legal scholars to examine and criticize, and Congress knows exactly what it must do if it wants to achieve a different outcome.

But the Court also has what is called the “shadow docket”. Wikipedia explains:

Shadow docket decisions are made when the Court believes an applicant will suffer “irreparable harm” if the request is not immediately granted. These decisions are generally terse (often only a few sentences), unsigned, and are preceded by little to no oral arguments. Historically, the shadow docket was used only rarely for rulings of serious legal or political significance, but since 2017 it has been increasingly utilized for consequential rulings, especially for requests by the Department of Justice for emergency stays of lower-court rulings.

So, for example, you might ask the Court to intervene if a law was about to go into effect that would remove one of your previously recognized constitutional rights. If, say, you had to give birth to your rapist’s baby because all the abortion providers in your state had to turn you away, you might reasonably claim to face irreparable harm. The no-longer-viable clinics might also reasonably claim irreparable harm.

By not acting, the Court is basically announcing: “Not so fast about thinking you have a constitutional right.” It has made women’s rights evaporate without any kind of transparent process. Or maybe that’s not the Court’s intention at all. Who can say, when the majority barely wrote a page of explanation?

Chief Justice Roberts, who is usually thought of as one of the conservative justices, complained about this lack of process:

I would grant preliminary relief to preserve the status quo ante—before the law went into effect—so that the courts may consider whether a state can avoid responsibility for its laws in such a manner. … We are at this point asked to resolve these novel questions—at least preliminarily—in the first instance, in the course of two days, without the benefit of consideration by the District Court or Court of Appeals. We are also asked to do so without ordinary merits briefing and without oral argument. … I would accordingly preclude enforcement of S. B. 8 by the respondents to afford the District Court and the Court of Appeals the opportunity to consider the propriety of judicial action and preliminary relief pending consideration of the plaintiffs’ claims

Translating from the legalese: If we don’t know what to do, we should freeze the situation as best we can until we have time to figure it out. But the other five conservative justices rejected that reasoning.

The Senate’s hearings on recent Supreme Court nominees have been a charade. The nominees lied, and the senators who credited those lies were either naive or complicit.

Numerous examples are possible, but the most ridiculous one was the 45-minute speech Susan Collins gave defending her vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh. For eight paragraphs she addressed “the concern that Judge Kavanaugh would seek to overturn Roe v. Wade”, assuring the country that the constitutional right established in Roe “is important to me”, and extolling Kavanaugh’s reverence for long-established precedents.

Naive? Complicit? Hard to say.

The 6-3 conservative majority is the result of a system rigged to over-represent White rural voters. The Court’s current conservatism does not and never has represented the will of the American people.

Supreme Court justices are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Both of these institutions are rigged in favor of White rural voters.

Three of the current justices (Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett) were nominated by Donald Trump, who was chosen by the Electoral College in defiance of the American people. (Trump lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by 2.8 million votes, but won a 304-227 victory in the Electoral College.)

Sometimes Roberts and Alito are included on this list of minority justices, because George W. Bush also lost the popular vote in 2000. However, they were nominated in Bush’s second term, after he won re-election democratically.

Recent Republican majorities in the Senate have also not represented the American people. The principle that each state has two senators means that blue (and racially diverse) California’s 39 million residents have the same power as red (and almost entirely White) Wyoming’s 581 thousand. Combined with the successful attempt to stack the Senate by admitting tiny Northwestern states in 1889-1890, Republicans have a consistent structural advantage: For the last quarter-century, Republican senators have neither represented a majority of voters nor received a majority of votes, and yet they have held the majority of Senate seats about half the time.

This includes the term when Mitch McConnell refused to consider President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland, as well as the next term when McConnell and popular-vote-loser Donald Trump awarded that Court seat to Neil Gorsuch.

Senate Republicans use their artificially inflated numbers, together with the filibuster, to make sure the system stays rigged in their favor by denying statehood to (largely Black and urban) District of Columbia and (Hispanic) Puerto Rico.

Now that abortion rights have actually been lost, the Republican dog has caught the car.

Somewhere in Islands in the Stream, Ernest Hemingway describes a bridge that is much desired but (precisely for that reason) can never be completed: As long as the bridge is in the future, corrupt politicians can raise funds to build it. But if it is ever finished, the money will dry up.

For decades, anti-abortion politics has been a similar scam, as David Frum explains:

Pre-Texas, opposition to abortion offered Republican politicians a lucrative, no-risk political option. They could use pro-life rhetoric to win support from socially conservative voters who disliked Republican economic policy, and pay little price for it with less socially conservative voters who counted on the courts to protect abortion rights for them.

That dynamic played out most clearly in 2016, when Trump dominated the anti-abortion vote, while pro-choice people assured each other that they could stay home or vote for Jill Stein.

But now, after years and years of warnings and an ever-increasing set of hoops women have had to jump through, abortion rights really are vanishing, even for women who are privileged in every way other than gender. If you live in a professional-class suburb of Dallas, and if your U of T freshman daughter gets roofied at a frat party and comes home pregnant, she either carries the baby to term or your family has to break the law — and maybe get sued.

If this possible impact on their lives means that the complacent majority will get riled now, the jig is up. That’s why national Republicans haven’t been spiking the football to celebrate an achievement they’ve been promising for decades.

Congress could fix this, if Democrats thought women’s rights were more important than the filibuster.

The Texas abortion law would be undone if Congress passed the Women’s Health Protection Act, which reinstates the protections of Roe v Wade nationally. Speaker Pelosi believes she can get the bill through the House. It’s unclear whether all 50 Democrats in the Senate would vote for it. But a handful of Republicans also claim to be pro-choice — here’s a chance to redeem yourself, Senator Collins — so the bill should get a majority, if it comes to a vote.

But it won’t come to a vote, because of the filibuster. A woman’s right to choose is yet another price the country must pay for Senator Manchin’s and Senator Sinema’s attachment to this time-dishonored Senate tradition, because the WHPA clearly can’t muster a 60-vote supermajority.

The Department of Justice could also do something.

Law professor Lawrence Tribe explains: It turns out the country has previously faced the problem of states turning a blind eye to (or even encouraging) vigilantes trying to intimidate Americans out of exercising their constitutional rights. In that previous era, Congress responded by passing the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, which is still on the books.

Section 242 of the federal criminal code makes it a crime for those who, “under color of law,” willfully deprive individuals “of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States.” … In addition, Section 241 of the federal criminal code makes it an even more serious crime for “two or more persons” to agree to “oppress, threaten, or intimidate” anyone “in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him by the Constitution or laws of the United States, or because of his having so exercised the same.” This crime may be committed even by individuals not found to be acting “under color of law” but as purely private vigilantes, as long as they’re acting in concert with others.

Tribe believes that using the KKK Act to protect abortion rights in Texas would be “in tune not just with the letter but the spirit the law”. He asserts that we have now reached the point where “the need to disarm those who cynically undermine constitutional rights while ducking all normal avenues for challenging their assault on the rule of law becomes paramount.”

Ordinary people can monkey-wrench the enforcement process.

A campaign to spam websites asking for tips on Texas abortions is taking off. We’ll see if this is just a snap reaction or if it has staying power.

If any pro-life folks think women’s-rights defenders are playing dirty, let me point out that so far no one is using the kinds of tactics the pro-life movement has long used against abortion clinics. No one is bombing their offices or threatening their workers with violence, because (unlike the pro-life movement) the pro-choice movement doesn’t have a terrorist wing.

As satisfying as monkey-wrenching might be, though, it probably won’t make much difference. Even if monkey-wrenchers make vigilante lawsuits harder to assemble, abortion clinics and other support services are already being shut down by the threat of such lawsuits, even if suits have not yet been filed.

Texas has made rape a viable reproduction strategy.

If you are a man who is unable or unwilling to convince any woman to bear your children voluntarily, you can still win the evolutionary battle to pass on your genes by committing enough rapes. Eventually you may wind up in jail, but your descendants will thank you. They will also thank the Evangelical Christians who paved the way for you.

Power Move

Charles Blow wants Black people to reverse the Great Migration and form majorities in the Southern states.


One day in 2013, New York Times columnist Charles Blow was at a conference on civil rights, when he heard 86-year-old Harry Belafonte ask “Where are the radical thinkers?”

On the walk back to the Times’ Midtown offices, … it occurred to me that maybe I had been thinking too small, all my life, about my approach to being in the world and conceiving my role in it. I had to remember that a big idea could change the course of history.

The result was The Devil You Know: a Black power manifesto, which came out in January but had somehow escaped my notice until recently. Blow’s big idea is indeed big: Black Americans in the North, particularly young adults looking for a place to establish themselves, should move to the South, for the purpose of forming a Black majority in several Southern states.

This would be bigger than just electing a Black mayor or governor somewhere. The entire political power structure would know it was answerable to a Black majority. For the first time in American history, Blacks could focus on ending White supremacy through their own power rather than on compromising their goals to get White cooperation.

Those same majorities could elect two senators per state, and those senators would all know that they could not stay in office without maintaining their Black support.

I am not advocating for a Black nationalism, but a Black regionalism — not to be apart from America, but stronger within it.

Blow is very frank about the reason to take this radical approach: If the issue is achieving true equality, everything else has been tried and hasn’t worked. Abolition didn’t do it. Moving north during the Great Migration may have opened some economic opportunities and allowed an end-run around Jim Crow, but the North had its own forms of racism. The civil rights movement achieved an on-paper legal equality, but all the major gaps remain in wealth, income, education, home ownership, incarceration, and even life expectancy.

He describes at length the generations of effort to form majority coalitions with sympathetic Whites: from Booker T. Washington’s attempts to promote Black virtue and education in order to convince Whites that his people deserved their favor, to W.E.B. Du Bois’ vision of a “talented tenth” that would blaze a trail into the professions and into positions of power, all the way up to Barack Obama’s audacity of hope. Blow wants to be done with waiting and hoping; he wants Black people to have the power to shape their own destiny.

Black colonization of the South isn’t a philosophy or an intellectual posture. It’s an actual plan.

Blow grew up in a majority-Black town in Louisiana and went to college at Grambling, an HBCU. Throughout his formative years, being Black felt normal to him. He was not an outsider or an interloper or someone who had to prove he deserved to be wherever he was. He then went north to achieve success in White-dominated institutions like The New York Times before returning south to live in Atlanta. He sees the South as a cultural homeland, not just for himself, but for American Blacks in general. The South, horrific as its racism has been at times, is the devil they know.

His logic often resembles that of Nikole Hannah-Jones, who chose historically Black Howard University over University of North Carolina after a tenure battle, and brought Ta-Nehisi Coates with her.

I really wanted to take my talents and the resources I could bring and bring them to an institution that was actually built for Black uplift and Black excellence, that wasn’t built in opposition to the work that I want to do and me as a human being.

Like Hannah-Jones, Blow seems to be done with proving himself to Whites, and wants a plan for Black equality that doesn’t rely on convincing Whites to overcome their racism.

For me, that was one of the most fascinating aspects of reading this book. Blow is writing to convince other Black people, so I am not his target audience. I suspect that’s why the book is as short and readable as it is: He can appeal to Black common sense — about the police, about the centrality of racism in America history and culture, about the role of the South in African-American consciousness, etc. — without marshaling arguments to help Whites catch up. So I can be a fly on the wall as Blacks talk to each other.

This in itself is a lesson in White privilege: It’s strange and even shocking that an NYT columnist would write a book not targeted at us. But those outside of privileged classes must have that experience every day.

Afghanistan, Biden, and the Media

https://www.ajc.com/opinion/mike-luckovich-blog/818-mike-luckovich-clumsy-withdrawal/POF33YQUYFDGFEPLRLXVOVEA74/

This was a bad, pointless war, and I’m glad the US will soon be out of it. No number of talking heads will convince me otherwise.


Last Monday afternoon, President Biden committed an unforgivable sin: He didn’t apologize for his decision to leave Afghanistan.

The choice I had to make, as your President, was either to follow through on [the Trump administration’s] agreement or be prepared to go back to fighting the Taliban in the middle of the spring fighting season.

There would have been no ceasefire after May 1. There was no agreement protecting our forces after May 1. There was no status quo of stability without American casualties after May 1.

There was only the cold reality of either following through on the agreement to withdraw our forces or escalating the conflict and sending thousands more American troops back into combat in Afghanistan, lurching into the third decade of conflict.

I stand squarely behind my decision. After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces.

That speech led to what TPM’s Josh Marshall called “peak screech” from the DC media. In Tuesday’s morning newsletter from Politico, Marshall elaborates, “A sort of primal scream of ‘WTF, JOE BIDEN?!?!?!!?!’ virtually bleeds through the copy.”

Immediately after Biden’s speech, MSNBC’s Nicole Wallace offered this blunt assessment of a mainstream that her show itself was often swimming in:

Ninety-five percent of the American people will agree with everything [Biden] just said. Ninety-five percent of the press covering this White House will disagree.

Her numbers were exaggerated, but the overall point was dead-on: I can’t remember the last time the media was so unified and so intent on talking me out of my opinion.

This was not a question of facts that they knew and I didn’t. The mainstream media has been equally unified in combating misinformation about the Covid vaccines, say, or in batting aside Trump’s self-serving bullshit about election fraud. But in each of those cases, there is a fact of the matter: The vaccines work. Fraud did not decide the election.

But Afghanistan is different. The belief that our troops should have stayed in Afghanistan a little bit longer (or a lot longer or forever) is an opinion about what might happen in the unknowable future. It’s also a value judgment about the significance of Afghanistan to American security compared to the ongoing cost in lives and money. Reasonable people can disagree about such things.

But apparently not on TV. The Popular Information blog talked to “a veteran communications professional who has been trying to place prominent voices supportive of the withdrawal on television and in print”.

I’ve been in political media for over two decades, and I have never experienced something like this before. Not only can I not get people booked on shows, but I can’t even get TV bookers who frequently book my guests to give me a call back…

I’ve fed sources to reporters, who end up not quoting the sources, but do quote multiple voices who are critical of the president and/or put the withdrawal in a negative light.

I turn on TV and watch CNN and, frankly, a lot of MSNBC shows, and they’re presenting it as if there’s not a voice out there willing to defend the president and his decision to withdraw. But I offered those very shows those voices, and the shows purposely decided to shut them out.

In so many ways this feels like Iraq and 2003 all over again. The media has coalesced around a narrative, and any threat to that narrative needs to be shut out.

Paul Waldman noticed the same thing:

As we have watched the rapid dissolution of the Afghan government, the takeover of the country by the Taliban and the desperate effort of so many Afghans to flee, the U.S. media have asked themselves a question: What do the people who were wrong about Afghanistan all along have to say about all this?

That’s not literally what TV bookers and journalists have said, of course. But if you’ve been watching the debate, it almost seems that way.

So Condoleezza Rice, of all people, was given an opportunity to weigh in. (She said the 20-year war needed “more time”.) The Wall Street Journal wanted to hear from David Petraeus, who “valued, even cherished, the fallen Afghan government”. Liz Cheney, whose father did more to create this debacle than just about anyone, charged that Biden “ignored the advice of his military leaders“, as if that advice had been fabulous for the last 20 years.

A parade of retired generals, military contractors, and think-tank talking heads were given a platform to explain how Biden had made a “terrible mistake“, that was “worse than Saigon“, and that pushed his presidency past “the point of no return“. Afghanistan has ruined the Biden administration’s image of competence and empathy, and it will “never be the same“.

As we saw with the beginning of these wars in 2001-2003, these moments of unanimity allow a lot of dubious ideas to sneak in to the conversation. Let’s examine a few of them.

Yes, this was a “forever war”. One false idea I keep hearing is that Afghanistan had settled down to the point where a minimal US commitment could have held it steady: maybe 2-3 thousand troops that would rarely take any casualties. Jeff Jacoby was one of many pushing this point:

Yes, the United States has been involved in Afghanistan for almost 20 years, but the last time American forces suffered any combat casualties was Feb. 8, 2020, when Sgt. Javier Gutierrez and Sgt. Antonio Rodriguez were ambushed and killed. Their sacrifice was heroic and selfless. But it makes little sense to speak of a “forever war” in which there are no fatalities for a year and a half. Nor does it make sense to apply that label to a mission involving just 2,500 troops, which was the tiny size to which the US footprint in Afghanistan had shrunk by the time Biden took office.

And The Washington Post made space for Rory Stewart to claim:

When he became president, Biden took over a relatively low-cost, low-risk presence in Afghanistan that was nevertheless capable of protecting the achievements of the previous 20 years.

But you know what else happened in February of 2020? Trump’s peace agreement with the Taliban. Once Trump agreed to totally withdraw, the Taliban stopped targeting US troops. The “low-cost, low-risk” presence depended on the Taliban believing our promise to leave. If Biden had suddenly said, “Never mind, we’re keeping 2,500 troops in place from now on.”, we’d soon start seeing body bags again, and realizing that 2,500 troops weren’t enough. Biden was right: “There was no status quo of stability without American casualties after May 1.”

Popular Information points out the hidden cost to the Afghans of our “light footprint”:

With few troops on the ground, the military increasingly relied on air power to keep the Taliban at bay. This kept U.S. fatalities low but resulted in a massive increase in civilian casualties. A Brown University study found that between 2016 and 2019 the “number of civilians killed by international airstrikes increased about 330 percent.” In October 2020 “212 civilians were killed.”

Jacoby invokes the example of Germany, where we have kept far more than 2,500 troops for far longer than 20 years. “Should we call that a forever war, too?” No, because Germany has no war. If Nazi partisans were still hiding in the Bavarian mountains, which we regularly pounded with air power, and if we worried about them overthrowing the Bundesrepublik as soon as our troops left, that would be a forever war in Germany. Is that really so hard to grasp?

Actually, no one saw this coming. Much has been made of the few intelligence reports that warned of the Afghan government falling soon after we left. But if that had actually happened, we’d have been OK — or at least better off than we are.

What did happen, though, is that the Afghan army dissolved and the leaders fled Kabul before we were done leaving. That’s why we’re having the problems we’re having. And literally no one — certainly not the “experts” who are denouncing Biden on TV — predicted that.

Evacuating our people sooner wouldn’t have avoided the problem. Imagine you’ve spent the evening in the city, and as you go through the subway turnstile you see the last train home vanishing down the tunnel. Naturally, you think “I should have left the party sooner.”

Commentators are thinking like that now, but the metaphor doesn’t work. In the metaphor, you and the train are independent processes. If you’d arrived at the station five minutes earlier, the train would have been waiting and you’d have gotten home.

The fall of Saigon in 1975 was exactly like a train leaving: It took time for the North Vietnamese/Viet Cong forces to fight their way to Saigon. If you didn’t get out before they arrived, you should have started leaving sooner.

But the Taliban didn’t fight their way to Kabul; the Afghan army we had so lavishly equipped simply dissolved in front of them, in accordance with surrender deals previously worked out. And the signal that started the surrender was the Americans beginning to leave. Nobody wanted to be the last person to wave the white flag, so when they saw Americans evacuating, it was time.

In other words: Afghanistan is more like the train operator being in contact with someone at the party, so that he could start pushing off as soon as you were on your way.

So yes, Biden could have started pulling out a month or two sooner. And the collapse would have happened a month or two sooner. Again, Biden nailed it: There was never a good time to leave Afghanistan.

Imagine if Biden had foreseen everything and been transparent about it. So in June or July he goes on TV and says, “The Afghan Army isn’t going to fight, so the government going to fall very suddenly. If you want to be part of the evacuation, start off for the airport now.”

Not only would the collapse have begun immediately, but all the Liz Cheney and David Petraeus types would claim that Biden had stabbed the Afghans in the back. Biden’s lack of faith, they would claim, and not the Afghan government’s failings, would have been to blame.

And now picture what happens to the politics of welcoming the Afghan refugees. Tucker Carlson and the other nativist voices are already claiming the Afghan rescue is part of the massive Democratic plot to replace White Americans with immigrants. “First we invade, then we’re invaded.” Laura Ingraham echoed that concern:

All day, we’ve heard phrases like “We promised them.” Well, who did? Did you?

How much more weight would this immigration conspiracy theory have, if the first visible sign of collapse had been Biden expressing his lack of faith in the Afghan government? Clearly, replacement theorists would argue, Biden wanted Afghanistan to collapse so that he could bring in more immigrants — possibly “millions” of them, as Carlson has already warned.

The war, and not the end of the war, is what lowered America’s standing in the world. I can’t put this better than David Rothkopf already did when he listed “the top 30 things that have really harmed our standing”. His list is more Trump-centered than mine would be — I’d give a prominent place to the Bush administration’s torture policy — but we agree on this: Having things go badly for a few weeks while we’re trying to do the right thing is not on it.

Spending 20 years, thousands of lives, and trillions of dollars fighting a war that, in the end, accomplished little — that lowers our standing in the world. Ending that war doesn’t.

So what explains the “peak screech”? I’m sure someone in the comments will argue that the DC press corps is part of the corrupt military-industrial complex that has been profiting from the continuing war, but I’m not going there. (In general, I am leery of the assumption that the people who disagree with me are corrupt. That assumption gives up too easily on democracy, which requires good-faith exchanges of ideas between disagreeing parties. I’m not saying there is no corruption and bad-faith arguing, but I have to be driven to that conclusion. I’m not going there first.)

Josh Marshall offers a two-fold explanation, which rings true for me. First, the major foreign policy reporters have personal connections to a lot of the people who are at risk in Afghanistan, or to people just like them in other shaky countries. If you reported from Afghanistan, you had a driver, you had an interpreter. Maybe your cameraman was Afghan. You depended on those people, spent a lot of downtime with them, and maybe even met their families. Maybe their street smarts got you out of a few difficult situations. Will they now be killed because they helped you? You never committed to bring them to America, which was always beyond your power anyway. But you can’t be objective about their situation.

Second is a phenomenon sometimes described as “source capture”. A big part of being a reporter is cultivating well-placed sources. For war reporters, that means sources in the Pentagon or the State Department, or commanders in the field, or officials in the Afghan government or military. Even if you have no specific deal with these sources, you always understand the situation: If you make them look bad, they’ll stop talking to you.

Over time, as you go back to your sources again and again, you start to internalize that understanding, particularly with the ones who consistently give you reliable information. You identify with them. You stop thinking of them as your sources and start to think of yourself as their voice. If they are invested in a project like the Afghanistan war, you start to feel invested in it too.

Marshall sums up:

[W]hat I’m describing isn’t a flag-waving, America’s never wrong, “pro-war” mindset. It’s more varied and critical, capable of seeing the collateral damage of these engagements, the toll on American service members post combat, the corruption endemic in occupation-backed governments. And yet it is still very bought-in. You see this in a different way in some of the country’s most accomplished longform magazine writers, many of whom have spent ample time in these warzones. Again, not at all militarists or gungho armchair warriors but people capable of capturing the subtleties and discontents of these missions and the individuals caught up in their storms. And yet they are still very bought-in. And it is from these voices that we are hearing many of the most anguished accusations of betrayal and abandonment. It is harrowing to process years or decades of denial in hours or days.

What we see in so many reactions, claims of disgrace and betrayal are no more than people who have been deeply bought into these endeavors suddenly forced to confront how much of it was simply an illusion.

If the last two weeks have revealed anything, it’s exactly how much of an illusion our “nation-building” in Afghanistan always was. Real countries, with real governments and real armies, don’t evaporate overnight.

People who have been living in denial typically react with anger when their bubble pops. They ought to be angry at the people who duped them, or at themselves for being gullible. But that’s not usually where the anger goes, at least not at first. The first target is the person who popped the bubble.

So damn that Joe Biden. If he’d just kept a few thousand troops deployed and kept the money spigot open, we could all still be happy.

The Once and Future Coup

https://www.theitem.com/stories/editorial-cartoon-wednesday-jan-6-2021,357112

Trump’s minions had a coherent plan to keep him in power,
and next time it might work.


Last November, the few days after the election were tense. On election night itself, Trump was clearly doing better than the polls had predicted, but how much better was hard to guess. He won Florida and North Carolina, which the polls had said leaned towards Biden. Ohio and Iowa, which were supposed to be close, weren’t. He had leads in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, but there were still a lot of Democratic votes to count. Like Hillary Clinton, Biden had clearly gotten more votes than Trump, but the Electoral College left the final outcome in doubt.

Wednesday, as more of the mail-in ballots got counted, Biden’s chances improved. Thursday, he looked like the winner, but it wasn’t conclusive yet. The major news organizations declared his victory on Saturday.

The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. Then the focus shifted to Trump’s effort to have the voters’ decision overturned by any means necessary. His lawyers, and various others working on his behalf, filed dozens and dozens of lawsuits, each one a little crazier than the last. Some were based on bizarre conspiracy theories about computers in other countries, others on piles of affidavits described by one judge as “notable only in demonstrating no firsthand knowledge by any Plaintiff of any election fraud, misconduct, or malfeasance”. Some made claims (mainly about the rules around mail-in ballots) that might have been reasonable to raise — and were raised — before the election, but which in no way justified ignoring millions of votes cast in good faith.

I, like many other Democrats, felt uneasy about these suits, but not because of the strength of Trump’s arguments. We worried instead about all the right-wing judges Trump had appointed, including three on the Supreme Court. Maybe they would repay him by ignoring law and precedent to overthrow American democracy. [1]

But when even Trump-appointed judges threw these cases out, often with sharp criticism, the whole thing began to seem comical. Trump’s lawyers were the Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. The whole effort was summed up by Rudy Giuliani in the parking lot of Four Seasons Total Landscaping, hair dye running down his face. [2] I began to look forward to court rulings, wondering what insults the next judge would come up with.

The violent insurrection on January 6 wasn’t at all funny, but was just as misguided. The riot might have turned out a whole lot worse (and nearly did), but it was never going to keep Trump in the White House. After it failed to intimidate Congress out of fulfilling its constitutional duty to count the electoral votes, QAnon kept anticipating a move by the military. But the generals had always felt uneasy about someone as ignorant and unstable as Trump being commander in chief. They certainly weren’t going to violate their oaths to keep him in power.

By Inauguration Day, I was laughing at myself for having worried so much. For four years, we had watched the Trump administration fail to organize infrastructure week. How had I imagined that they might mastermind a successful coup?

This week, though, we discovered that there actually was a coherent plan. And with just a bit more corruption at the top of the Justice Department, it might have worked.

The corruption of Justice from Sessions to Barr. When Trump appointed Jeff Sessions as his first attorney general, alarm bells went off. Sessions had been state AG in Alabama, and seemed likely to bring Alabama’s racial practices to Washington. And sure enough: The effort to control racism in local police departments went out the window. DOJ’s Civil Rights Division got retasked to focus on discrimination against Christians.

But Sessions had one saving grace none of us appreciated at the time: He actually wanted to be attorney general, and not just operate as a Trump puppet. [3] In spite of endless abuse from his boss, for example, he followed the rules and recused himself from the Russia investigation. His views on the nature of justice may have been reprehensible, but he understood that the Department of Justice needed to keep its distance from the politics of the White House.

After Sessions’ independence got him forced out, the Senate believed that Bill Barr, who had been AG before under the first President Bush, would maintain that standard. But instead he became the most political AG since Nixon’s John Mitchell (who went to jail). He undermined the Mueller Report. He fed Trump’s conspiracy theories (and intimidated future investigations) by launching an investigation of the Russia investigation. He intervened to sabotage cases against Trump cronies. Trump had always said he wanted a Roy Cohn as attorney general, and now he seemed to have one.

In the end, though, even Barr’s corruption had its limits. Before the election, Barr had obediently (and falsely) cast doubt on the trustworthiness of mail-in ballots. Immediately after the election, he instructed US attorneys to investigate election fraud allegations, ignoring the usual standard of probable cause, and seemingly validating Trump’s claim that there was something substantial to investigate. But when Trump wanted Barr to falsely announce that those investigations were finding real violations, that was a bridge too far. On December 1, Barr was interviewed by an AP reporter, who then wrote:

Disputing Donald Trump’s persistent baseless claims, Attorney General William Barr declared Tuesday the U.S. Justice Department had uncovered no evidence of widespread voter fraud that could change the outcome of the 2020 election.

By Christmas, Barr was no longer attorney general. With no time for a Senate confirmation, Jeff Rosen became acting AG.

Endgame. By Christmas, it was clear that the courts were not going to keep Trump in power. Giuliani’s and Trump’s efforts to corrupt Republican election officials, or to convince state legislatures to appoint Trump electors directly, had also not succeeded: The elections had been certified, the electors appointed, and the Electoral College had voted. Sealed envelopes from each state were due to be opened in Congress on January 6.

But there was still one more card to play: badger the temporary Justice Department officials to make the kinds of claims that Barr wouldn’t, and then use the manufactured “uncertainty” of the election outcome to justify Republican state legislatures usurping the power of the voters.

The key player here was Jeffrey Clark, a minor DOJ lawyer who got elevated to head the Civil Division.

On December 27, Trump called to pressure Acting AG Rosen, and Acting Deputy AG Richard Donoghue took notes. [4]

“Understand that the DOJ can’t + won’t snap its fingers + change the outcome of the election, doesn’t work that way,” said Rosen, according to the notes.

“Don’t expect you to do that, just say that the election was corrupt + leave the rest to me and the R. Congressmen,” Trump replied, per the notes.

At another point in the call, the notes showed Rosen and Donoghue trying to convince Trump that his allegations of voter fraud were false.

“Sir we have done dozens of investig., hundreds of interviews, major allegations are not supported by evid. developed,” Donoghue told Trump, per the notes. “We are doing our job. Much of the info you’re getting is false.”

Trump however would not be swayed.

“We have an obligation to tell people that this was an illegal, corrupt election,” he said, according to the notes.

How they were supposed to “say the election was corrupt” became clear the next day, when Clark drafted a letter for Rosen and Donoghue to sign. The letter we have was addressed to Georgia’s governor, speaker of the house, and president pro tem of the senate, but similar letters were prepared for all six states Trump lost but wanted to subvert: Georgia, Arizona, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

The Department of Justice is investigating various irregularities in the 2020 election for President of the United States. The Department will update you as we are able on investigatory progress, but at this time we have identified significant concerns that may have impacted the outcome of the election in multiple States, including the State of Georgia.

The letter contains no specific facts that the Georgia officials might evaluate or try to check. It just raises doubt about “significant concerns”. [5] It then goes on to tell the officials what to do about this uncertainty.

In light of these developments, the Department recommends that the Georgia General Assembly should convene in special session so that it’s legislators are in a position to take additional testimony, receive new evidence, and deliberate on the matter consistent with its duties under the U.S. Constitution. [6]

If the governor doesn’t see fit to call the legislature into session, the letter opines that the U.S. Constitution justifies the legislature calling itself into session for this particular purpose. It presents a speculative constitutional argument that state legislatures can do whatever they want with regard to electors.

The Georgia General Assembly accordingly must have inherent authority granted by the U.S. Constitution to come into session to appoint Electors, regardless of any time limit imposed by the state constitution or state statute requiring the governor’s approval. [7]

Rosen and Donoghue refused to sign. (“There is no chance that I would sign this letter or anything remotely like this,” Donoghue replied in email.) The New York Times reported that Clark met with Trump on January 3 to discuss a plan where Clark would replace Rosen as attorney general, and presumably provide the kind of DOJ support Trump wanted prior to Congress’ debate January 6 on accepting the electoral vote totals. Reportedly, this plan was only headed off by the threat of mass resignations at DOJ, which would have undermined the effectiveness of Clark’s claims.

https://theweek.com/political-satire/1003214/the-road-not-taken

Alternate history. No one can say what would have happened had Trump succeeded in bullying Rosen (or Barr) or replacing him with Clark. At numerous points in the process, Republican election officials did their jobs honorably rather than try to subvert the will of the voters. (Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger is one example, Michigan Board of Canvassers member Aaron Van Langevelde another.) It would be pleasant to believe that patriotic, pro-democracy Republicans existed in sufficient numbers to keep state legislatures from responding to the Clark letter by holding hearings on the election-fraud conspiracy theories, and then attempting to replace their Biden electors (who had already voted by this point) with Trump electors. Or that even if one or two legislatures caved to Trump, he would not get the three states he needed to win in the Electoral College.

But who knows? And if states attempted that maneuver without their governors’ approval, in violation of the Electoral Count Act of 1887, but consistent with Trump’s self-serving interpretation of the Constitution, would Congress have accepted those ballots? Would the Supreme Court have to weigh in? What would they have said?

At the very least, the suspense would not have ended on January 6, or perhaps not even on January 20. Even if Biden had ultimately prevailed, significant damage would have been done. From then on, Americans would all know that our elections are just the first shot in a much longer drama whose ultimate outcome might have nothing to do with how we voted.

The next coup. Joe Biden won the popular vote by a margin of just over 7 million. With the exception of George W. Bush’ re-election in 2004, no Republican has won the popular vote since Bush’ father in 1988.

In the normal course of two-party politics, this persistent failure would send Republicans scrambling to reinvent themselves. Presidential hopefuls would be marketing themselves as “New Republicans”, and looking for new ways to reach out to a majority of Americans. That was Karl Rove’s “permanent majority” vision already in 2004: Jettison the racism that Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy” had brought into the party, and court the rapidly-growing bloc of socially conservative Hispanics. (Bush got 44% of the Latino vote in 2004. Trump got 32% in 2020.)

Instead, the GOP’s post-election focus has been on how to take or keep power without the backing of a majority. They aren’t pushing bright new faces, or looking for candidates who can flip Democratic voters. [8] They have unveiled no new programs or policies or even messaging strategies. But they hope to get the House back in 2022 by gerrymandering better this time and making voting even harder for pro-Democratic groups. (When was the last time you saw reports of people waiting for hours to vote in majority-Republican precincts?)

The most worrisome thing about the Republican response to their 2020 defeat is their focus on controlling how elections are run, how votes are counted, and whether the voters’ choice will matter at all. [9] The Georgia voter-suppression law that got baseball’s All-Star Game moved out of Atlanta contained one particularly ominous provision: The Republican-controlled legislature can take over the management of elections in Democratic counties. Wasting no time, the legislature has already started the process that would let it take over Fulton County, where Atlanta is.

Not only has the Arizona Senate sponsored the partisan circus of the Cyber Ninjas election “audit”, but a law proposed by a Arizona state Rep. Shawnna Bolick of Phoenix would allow the legislature to ignore the voters entirely next time, and award Arizona’s electoral votes to whomever it wants. The law did not pass, but now Bolick is running for secretary of state, with “securing our elections” as her top priority. In 2024, Arizonans’ votes may be counted by someone who doesn’t believe their votes should count at all.

All the Republican officials who stayed loyal to American democracy rather than Trump have been punished. Aaron Van Langevelde was not renominated to the Board of Canvassers. Brad Raffensperger has been put on Trump’s revenge list, and is unlikely to win his primary next year. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger are facing primary challenges for daring to investigate the January 6 insurrection.

So if 2024 is a close election, we can’t count on honest Republicans to once again do their jobs with integrity. Anyone who finds himself in that situation will know that integrity is a career-killer in the GOP. And the legislatures-can-do-whatever theory of the Electoral College won’t be sprung on the states at the last minute, after a loss, as it was in 2020. Republicans in swing states will see that coming, and will have a plan for winning even if the voters have other ideas.

And finally, what happens in Congress on January 6, 2024? If Republicans do win back the House, if Kevin McCarthy is Speaker and election-respecting Republicans like Cheney and Kinzinger have been purged from the caucus, can a Democratic victory be recognized at all?


[1] There’s an old joke about a baseball game between Heaven and Hell. “You can’t possibly win,” Saint Peter boasts. “We’ve got the greatest players of all time.”

“Maybe so,” Satan replies, “but I’ve got all the umpires.”

[2] Those were actually two different fiascos, but they have merged in my memory, and, I suspect, in most other people’s memories as well.

[3] Sessions came into office with a rather quaint view of his relationship to Trump. Trump considered every appointment a favor that the appointee had to repay with unquestioning loyalty. But Sessions had been the first senator to endorse Trump, giving his candidacy legitimacy that it very much needed at the time. So Sessions thought he was becoming attorney general because Trump owed him. He did not understand that Trump collects debts, but does not pay them.

[4] Not only was the whole conversation inappropriate — presidents are not supposed to tell the Justice Department what to investigate — but notice how backwards this conversation is. Ordinarily, the lower-level people who have actually investigated something would be telling their boss what they discovered, and the boss would make decisions based on those facts. (Rosen and Donoghue try to play that role.) But Trump isn’t interested in what facts DOJ’s investigations have uncovered, or what theories they have debunked. He is going to define the truth for them, based on his own needs.

[5] The letter couldn’t allude to any specific “concerns”, because by this point all Trump’s fraud theories were absurd and easily debunked. A few days later he would parade them during his infamous phone call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who batted them aside as quickly as Trump offered them up.

[6] Even if it really had uncovered evidence that cast doubt on Georgia’s election, DOJ has no business making such specific recommendations to a state. As Donoghue wrote: “I do not think the Department’s role should include making recommendations to a State legislature about how they should meet their Constitutional obligation to appoint Electors.”

[7] The governors of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin are Democrats, and Georgia’s Governor Kemp had already expressed skepticism about Trump’s Big Lie, so the governors have to be taken out of the picture. Also, this is the only legal argument I can recall that claims a legislature needn’t be bound by the constitution that created it.

[8] Monday, Chris Hayes noted the remarkable extent to which this is not happening. Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis is considered the Republican 2024 front-runner if Trump doesn’t run. He has botched his Covid response pretty badly, with numbers that are getting worse all the time. Meanwhile, Republican Governor Phil Scott of Vermont has one of the best Covid record in the nation, and in November won a third term with 68% of the vote in a blue state.

Literally no one considers Scott to be a likely Republican presidential nominee, because what Republican wants to attract Democratic votes? Instead, DeSantis is looking over his shoulder at an even Trumpier governor with an even worse record on Covid, Kristy Noem of South Dakota. In spite of being far enough off the beaten track to miss the first Covid wave entirely, South Dakota has been hit harder than just about any other state: It’s third-worst in cases per capita and tenth in deaths per capita. (Vermont is the second-best state behind Hawaii in both measures, without the benefit of being an island.)

Hayes: “In any sane political culture, Phil Scott would obviously be a top-tier candidate for higher office. … But not only is that not the case, it’s literally the opposite of the case. The fact that Phil Scott managed the pandemic so well is disqualifying.”

[9] Returning to the joke in [1], Republicans have doubled down on the strategy of recruiting more umpires rather than better players.

Simone Biles vs. Sports Culture’s Toxic Masculinity

https://theweek.com/political-satire/1003145/still-the-goat

Real athletes aren’t supposed to have mental blocks, or yield to physical injuries. They’re also supposed to be men.


Simone Biles is widely acknowledged as the greatest female gymnast in the world, maybe the greatest ever. She entered the Olympics as the favorite to win gold medals in several different events, to go along with the Olympic medals she already has. Instead, she pulled out of the team competition on Tuesday, and then from subsequent events as they became imminent.

Biles has explained that she is suffering from what gymnasts call “the twisties”, an unpredictable (and usually temporary) loss of “air sense”.

The twisties are a mysterious phenomenon — suddenly a gymnast is no longer able to do a twisting skill she’s done thousands of times before. Your body just won’t cooperate, your brain loses track of where you are in the air. You find out where the ground is when you slam into it.

Nobody knows whether the twisties are physical, psychological, or some combination of the two. All the gymnast knows is that some unconscious process she had relied on has stopped functioning.

Similar mind/brain failures happen in other sports, and not just to world-class athletes. Several years ago, I was playing a pick-up basketball game when the unconscious fine-tuning process that usually targets my jump shot went poof. I would leap, twist in the air to sight the basket, and then wonder “What am I doing up here?” as if I had never shot a basketball before. The next time I played, the unconscious process was back. Was it a mini-stroke? Something I ate? An emotional issue? I never figured it out.

In golf, this is known as “the yips“. One famous baseball case is the pitcher Rick Ankiel, who had started a promising career when suddenly he lost the ability to target his pitches. It never came back (but he did work his way back up to the major leagues as a hitter).

In most sports, the main risk of continuing on in spite the yips (or whatever you call them) is the embarrassment of failure. Golfer Ernie Els once six-putted from three feet out. I ended up flinging the ball at the basket with my conscious mind and hoping it would go in. The result was pretty much what you would expect from someone who had not spent hours and hours practicing shooting until it became unconscious.

But I can barely imagine the terror of a gymnast, upside down in the middle of a flip, when the unconscious process fails and she thinks “What am I doing up here?” That’s a life-threatening situation.

So Biles was absolutely right to pull out of the competition and face all the resulting disappointment and criticism. In some ways, that took more courage than just going out and hurting herself. I wonder how many other gymnasts would have invented some invisible physical injury — a groin pull, say — rather than be honest and deal with what Biles has been subjected to this week.

Reaction to Biles’ decision was not, strictly speaking, political, but it did tend to break along liberal/conservative lines.

Following superstar gymnast Simone Biles citing concerns of mental health after shockingly pulling out of the women’s team competition, a number of conservative media figures and pundits attacked her on Tuesday for supposedly being a “quitter” and “selfish sociopath” who had brought “shame on her country.”

Conservatives do love to attack Black athletes — going after LeBron James, Steph Curry, Colin Kaepernick, etc. was a go-to move whenever Trump wanted to rally his base — and they also have problems with strong women. (There’s a reason why Kamala Harris gets targeted more viciously than Joe Biden.) But I think this particular case is less about racism and sexism than hyper-masculinity, which holds that will-power and “character” are supposed to blast through mental difficulties and even physical injuries. (See Curt Schilling’s “bloody sock game“.)

The idea that you’re supposed to play hurt and risk more serious injury is one important piece of football’s concussion problem.

Unfortunately, due to [toxic masculinity], many concussions go unreported, or mishandled as a result of the athlete playing it down, pretending it didn’t happen, or simply not knowing that they actually have a concussion.

White male NFL quarterback Andrew Luck took a lot of grief for retiring young, in spite of this clear explanation.

For the last four years or so, I’ve been in this cycle of injury, pain, rehab, injury, pain, rehab, and it’s been unceasing, unrelenting, both in-season and offseason. And I felt stuck in it, and the only way I see out is to no longer play football. It’s taken my joy of this game away.

Lacking a race or gender stereotype to beat Luck up with, Fox Sports’ Doug Gottlieb chose a generational smear:

Retiring cause rehabbing is “too hard” is the most millennial thing ever #AndrewLuck

Gottlieb has also criticized Biles, but resents CNN characterizing him as a “white male talking head”. He has claimed not to be a Trump supporter, but googling “Doug Gottlieb politics” led me to a series of conservative-leaning opinions.

Toxic masculinity is not a purely conservative problem, but there is a high correlation. (One much-admired Trump trait is his “strength”, which mainly manifests as a stubborn refusal to admit any mistakes.)

Biles’ decision was more-or-less the opposite of toxic masculinity. She faced reality, and admitted that she is not always as she would like to be. In the world of sports, that was a heresy of high order.

So like any heretic, she had to be denounced. If you happened to be conservative, the opportunity to dis a strong Black woman was just a bonus.

After the Fall

Ben Rhodes raises a hard question: How did America get from the pinnacle of our Cold War victory to this sorry place?


The Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989, five days before Ben Rhodes‘ 12th birthday. The wall’s demise was the culmination of a series of large and (mostly) bloodless revolutions that brought down nearly all the Soviet-imposed governments of Eastern Europe. The Soviet Union itself was looking shaky, and would officially dissolve into its constituent republics in 1991.

Rhodes’ teen years were a period of undisputed American triumph. Not only were we the sole surviving superpower, but our political vision (representative democracy with constitutionally protected human rights) and economic vision (market economies gradually merging into a global free-trade zone) had also triumphed to such an extent that a US-style political economy was seriously put forward as the end-point of history.

The distant origins of the present volume lie in an article entitled “The End of History?” which I wrote for the journal The National Interest in the summer of 1989. In it, I argued that a remarkable consensus concerning the legitimacy of liberal democracy as a system of government had emerged throughout the world over the past few years, as it conquered rival ideologies like hereditary monarchy, fascism, and most recently communism. More than that, however, I argued that liberal democracy may constitute the “end point of mankind’s ideological evolution” and the “final form of human government,” and as such constituted the “end of history.”

… The most remarkable development of the last quarter of the twentieth century has been the revelation of enormous weaknesses at the core of the world’s seemingly strong dictatorships, whether they be of the military-authoritarian Right, or the communist-totalitarian Left. From Latin America to Eastern Europe, from the Soviet Union to the Middle East and Asia, strong governments have been failing over the last two decades. And while they have not given way in all cases to stable liberal democracies, liberal democracy remains the only coherent political aspiration that spans different regions and cultures around the globe. In addition, liberal principles in economics – the “free market” – have spread, and have succeeded in producing unprecedented levels of material prosperity, both in industrially developed countries and in countries that had been, at the close of World War II, part of the impoverished Third World. A liberal revolution in economic thinking has sometimes preceded, sometimes followed, the move toward political freedom around the globe.

Today, though, liberal democracy seems to be in retreat around the world, to the point that America itself has a flourishing fascist movement. Last winter, Donald Trump attempted to stay in power after losing the election, and even instigated a riot in an attempt to intimidate Congress away from recognizing Joe Biden’s victory. For a moment it appeared that he had finally gone too far, and that his own party would now turn against him. But within weeks, he had reasserted control of the GOP, which is now working to craft tools for a better coup against democracy in 2024.

But it’s not just us. Russia appeared to be democratizing in the 1990s, only to become the model of the new fascism under Vladimir Putin. Similar nativist authoritarians have since taken power in Hungary, India, Brazil, and several other countries.

China’s communist leaders once looked like dead-enders. By suppressing their own democracy movement at Tiananmen Square in 1989, China appeared to have staked out a position on the wrong side of history. Both Bill Clinton and the two Presidents Bush believed that opening up trade with China would increase the pressure on its leaders to democratize. A growing Chinese middle class, Americans of both parties agreed, would soon insist on political rights commensurate with its prosperity. Hong Kong, which Britain yielded to China in 1997, looked like a Trojan Horse. Surely the freedom and prosperity of Hong Kong would change China more than China changed Hong Kong.

Today, President Xi has more power than any Chinese leader since Mao, hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs are held in camps that could be a model for a new dystopia, Hong Kong is being brought to heel, and Chinese influence is spreading not just in Asia, but in Africa as well. Worse, numerous studies indicate that the Chinese middle class fears political change that might rock the boat of Chinese prosperity.

After the Fall. In his new book After the Fall: Being American in the World We’ve Made, Rhodes discusses the state of democracy around the world, and how we got here. He recounts his conversations with democracy activists in places where authoritarianism is ascendant: Hungary, Russia, and Hong Kong. Always in the background is the ghost of his younger self, who visited these places in happier times, and proudly imagined that his own democratic America was the model all other countries aspired to imitate.

Another ghost is the idealistic Rhodes who wrote speeches for Obama and believed that the 2008 landslide marked a sea change in US politics and governance. Present-day Rhodes is constantly confronted with how his work has been undone, turned around, or made meaningless.

In the final section, Rhodes humbly comes back to the US to analyze where we went wrong and what those foreign activists might have to teach us about democracy.

One thing Rhodes does well is to look past the bright shiny object that is Donald Trump. He has no illusions about what Trump represents or what a disaster his administration was for democracy and for America’s place in the world. But the anti-democracy movement in the US is part of a global anti-democracy trend that Trump did not start.

From our post-Cold-War apex, when democracy seemed to be a lesson the whole world wanted to learn, how did we get to a point where a Trump presidency was even possible?

First mistake: failing the fledgling post-Soviet democracies. Vladimir Putin did not come out of nowhere. He rose to power because the Yeltsin government in Russia was inept and corrupt. Privatizing the Soviet government’s assets and creating a capitalist economy was supposed to bring prosperity. Instead, it created a class of billionaire oligarchs and impoverished the general population. Democracy was supposed to give the people a voice in government, but instead the oligarchs bought the major media and spent lavishly to re-elect Boris Yeltsin in 1996. The legitimacy of Russia’s 1996 election was widely doubted.

These events produced a cynicism about democracy, markets, and America that is now deeply embedded in the Russian consciousness. The Yeltsin disaster didn’t just happen, it had American fingerprints all over it. American economists were everywhere in Russia in the 1990s, pushing privatization. American political consultants helped shape Yeltsin’s 1996 campaign, and President Clinton was clearly rooting for Yeltsin to prevail. At the same time, when the world price of oil collapsed and took Russia’s economy with it, the US and other Western democracies were stingy with aid.

US government and non-government advisors were so entranced by the vision of Russia joining the global market economy that we didn’t pay much attention to how it happened, or whether it was good for the Russian people.

We set the stage for Putin to raise Russian identity politics and restore national pride. And if he also turned out to be corrupt, his message that all governments are corrupt is very plausible. His elections are unfair, but no democracy plays fair. He provides order and protects Russia from foreign dominance. What more could the people expect?

Russia and the other post-Soviet republics were part of a larger pattern: Again and again, the vision of a borderless world economy trumped democratic ideals. China in particular did not have to raise its human-rights standards to get into the world economic club. There was money to be made from China’s billion-person market and its bottomless well of cheap labor, so we could overlook a few transgressions against human rights. Surely that would all get fixed after China became prosperous.

Second mistake: abandoning our principles after 9-11. America’s message abroad has always been two-sided. On the one hand, we promote democracy and human rights as universal values. On the other, we have often supported cruel dictators like the Shah of Iran or Saddam Hussein (until he invaded Kuwait).

But after 9-11, the Bush administration took the attitude that national security justified anything. We could invade any country we wanted, and launch attacks anywhere we believed the terrorists were hiding. We could ignore the Geneva Conventions and hold prisoners in legal limbo in Guantanamo, where they were protected by neither the laws of war nor American jurisprudence. American citizens could be declared “enemy combatants” and vanish into military prisons. Intelligence services could scoop up Americans’ private communications and sift them for terror-related keywords. We could even torture people if we thought they could tell us about terrorist plots.

In its post-9-11 zeal, the Bush administration created a rhetorical template for authoritarian governments around the world. If their opponents could be labeled “terrorists”, then any action against them was justifiable. Is China herding Uyghurs into concentration camps? Doesn’t matter, they’re terrorists.

Third mistake: the 2008 banking collapse and its aftermath. From the beginning, globalization had winners and losers. Opening a national economy to foreign trade both created jobs and destroyed them. Immigration simultaneously added vigor to an economy and increased competition for low-level jobs. Financial deregulation both created wealth and increased risk. The argument was that the gain outweighed the pain.

That argument was always a tough sell among working-class people, who benefited little from a rising stock market, but saw their once-secure jobs move overseas. They could buy cheap manufactured goods at Wal-Mart, but could never hope to be employed making them.

2008 underlined a problem: The gain-over-pain argument held in theory if everyone followed the same rules. But if there was one set of rules for the rich and another for everyone else, the wealth at the top would never trickle down. If bankers can profit when risky investments succeed, but get bailed out by the government when they fail, then the whole system is rigged.

Outside America, 2008 showed that globalization made local economies vulnerable to mistakes and corruption abroad, particularly in the US.

No one was ever brought to justice for the corruption behind the banking collapse. That never sat right with working-class people both in America and abroad. “I lost my job and my home,” people told each other. “What did Bank of America lose?”

Fourth mistake: Trump. The election of Donald Trump was both a cause in its own right and an effect of the previous three causes. He followed the Putin model of combining cynicism with nationalism and nativism: He was a liar and a conman, but (in his view) so was everyone else. If the system was already rigged, why not elect someone who promised to rig it in your favor?

Within the US, Trump dismantled the rules and traditions that protect democracy against authoritarianism and government corruption. He ignored the Constitution’s emoluments clause by running businesses and dues-collecting clubs that anyone seeking a favor could patronize. He bulldozed the barriers that kept the Justice Department from becoming a political weapon. His emergency declarations usurped Congress’ power of the purse. He pardoned his co-conspirators in exchange for their silence. His failure to stay in power after losing the 2020 election was more frightening than reassuring, and his supporters in state legislatures have been paving the road to make a 2024 coup proceed more smoothly.

Outside the US, Trump destroyed the idea that America is a reliable ally or a champion of democracy. He undermined NATO. He invented reasons to impose tariffs on Canada. He put the world on notice that the US would not cooperate to fight climate change. He praised dictators and denigrated democratically elected leaders. Human rights played no part in his foreign policy. If China wanted his favor, it should buy more soybeans, not allow Hong Kong the independence promised in China’s treaty with the United Kingdom.

Worse, he raised the fear (both here and abroad) that America might simply go crazy. However reasonable Joe Biden might sound today, who knows what some future president might do? Foreign leaders would be foolish to follow America’s lead or put much stock in American promises.

We’re not alone. None of the activists Rhodes talked to has yet succeeded: Putin and Orlov are still in power, and Hong Kong continues to lose its freedom. So he doesn’t conclude with a five-steps-to-restore-democracy chapter. Perhaps the central thing Rhodes learns is that the struggle against autocracy is so similar in such disparate places.

He ends up thinking we need to internationalize that struggle: Hong Kongers, for example, are not protesting for their rights; they’re protesting for human rights. We in American should take inspiration from the fact that they’re not giving up, in spite of facing oppression far beyond what we currently have to deal with. I’m reminded of an idea I’ve seen attributed to Jesse Jackson (but can’t quote from memory): You shouldn’t be fighting just to make sure that your people aren’t forced to the back of the bus. You should fight to make sure that nobody is forced to the back of the bus.

Rhodes wants to rehabilitate the notion (debased by hollow post-9-11 rhetoric) that democracy and human rights are universal values. It’s fine that Hungarians want to achieve Hungarian democracy and Americans want American democracy. But it would be so much better if, as human beings, we wanted democracy for everyone.

He closes with the idea that America might still have a key role to play. In spite of Trumpist rhetoric, there are no “real Americans”. We are a collection of peoples gathered from all corners of the Earth. If we can overcome nativism and white supremacy here, we might finally become the beacon of hope we used to believe we were.

The Cleveland Indians/Guardians: a teachable moment?

One of the eight Guardians of Traffic on Cleveland’s Hope Bridge

Systemic racism might be easier to grasp in a setting that doesn’t threaten anybody’s safety or livelihood.


Next year, the Cleveland major league baseball team will begin calling itself the Guardians rather than the Indians. This is the culmination of a long process of protest and negotiation, and unsurprisingly, not everyone is happy about it. But whether you love or hate the change, it pulls many of the issues surrounding systemic racism together into one easy-to-grasp package.

Unlike more fraught battlegrounds like policing or affirmative action, changing the name of a baseball team does not affect anyone’s safety or livelihood. No one will die because Cleveland calls its team the Guardians, or would have died if they had continued as the Indians. Feelings on both sides may be heartfelt, but they are clearly feelings rather than material interests. To steal a phrase from Thomas Jefferson, the logo on Shane Bieber’s jersey “neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg”.

That said, the next thing to acknowledge is that the feelings on both sides are easy to understand and even sympathize with.

This is especially true of the Native Americans who dislike being turned into mascots. Native Americans were minding their own business in 1915 when a newspaper contest picked Indians as the new name for the Cleveland Naps, who had just traded their defining player, Nap Lajoie, to Philadelphia.

Imagine being a Native American parent who is trying to instill a sense of cultural pride in your children. Now picture White people running around in headdresses and warpaint while they root for a team that (in most seasons) has no actual Native American players. Let’s just say it doesn’t help. After your kids see random people at the mall wearing the stereotyped Chief Wahoo logo, it’s going to be hard to convince them that their heritage is serious and worthy of respect.

Admittedly, this constant low-level ridicule isn’t the worst thing that ever happened to Native Americans. It’s not on the same scale as, say, genocide or having the continent taken from them by force. But like those injuries, it’s an imposition from the outside; they did nothing to invite it or deserve it.

https://ftw.usatoday.com/2016/10/cleveland-indians-fans-dressing-up-as-chief-wahoo-world-series-racist

Once you’ve pictured that point of view, you may be tempted to declare Native Americans the good guys and those who love the Indians the bad guys. But that oversimplifies the situation.

Instead, try stretching your empathy to encompass Indians fans without pulling away from Native Americans. Being a fan may not be as central or immutable as a racial identity, but after more than a century, it also is a heritage. To the team’s fans, the Indians are Tris Speaker and Bob Feller and going to extra innings with the Cubs in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series. The Indians may be one of the few enduring connections you made with your Dad, something you can still talk about when you visit him in the nursing home. Maybe what you remember when you think of the Indians is being 10 years old, and sneaking a radio under your covers to listen to a west coast night game after you were supposed to be asleep.

And racism? The Indians became the first American League team to integrate when Larry Doby joined the team only months after Jackie Robinson became a Dodger. Doby and Satchell Paige were key players in the Indians’ last championship in 1948.

But now, it seems, people are trying to make you remember all that with shame rather than nostalgia.

https://theathletic.com/875177/2019/04/04/top-25-moments-in-progressive-fields-25-year-history/

Back in 1915, making a mascot out of Native American heritage was a sin of obliviousness, not malice. It wasn’t about insulting any actual tribes, it was letting yourself forget that the tribes still existed or might care.

What’s more, probably no one who participated in that newspaper poll is still alive. Everyone who feels attached to the Indians today came to love a team already in progress. Many developed that attachment when they were too young to understand stereotypes or racism. The Indians were the family team; Chief Wahoo was their symbol. That’s all.

Nobody consulted you about it. You never made a decision to root for the team with the racist trappings. You rooted for the team that your parents or big brother or friends at school rooted for. Years later, people started telling you that it was a disrespectful misappropriation of somebody else’s cultural heritage. But that’s never what it meant to you. So why do people want you to feel guilty about it?

Welcome to systemic racism.

The main thing to understand about systemic racism is that trying to assign individual fault and guilt misses the point. Saying that a problem is systemic means that it doesn’t reduce to good guys and bad guys. Something in the structure of institutions pits well-meaning people against each other, and there’s no way to resolve the issue without hurting somebody.

Good guys vs. bad guys is dramatic. Systemic racism is tragic.

So: A long time ago, things got set up so that the civic pride of Cleveland would conflict with the ancestral pride of Native Americans. That conflict is entirely artificial: There’s no inherent reason why saying “Yay, Cleveland!” has to carry a sense of “Boo, Native Americans!” Things just wound up that way. And while we could go round and round about the intentions of the people who started it all, that’s just a distraction, because they’re dead. We’re not a jury discussing their punishment; we’re heirs trying to sort out their legacy.

That legacy, though, is not dead and buried like the people who created it: It causes an ongoing injury. The most obvious ongoing injury is to Native Americans, but there is also an injury to Cleveland and its baseball fans. Those five-year-olds who love their Chief Wahoo caps and jerseys will one day be 15-year-olds who look back and say, “Wow, that’s really racist.” What should be purely warm memories of childhood and family will instead be tainted.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

And that’s a key lesson to learn about anti-racist activism: The point isn’t to assess blame or demand that people feel guilty or apologize. The point is to make the injustice stop. Change the structure of things so that well-meaning people are no longer drafted into an artificial conflict. [1]

So: Keep your fond memories of Sam McDowell’s unhittable fastball, or the incredible 1995 lineup of Albert Belle, Jim Thome, Eddie Murray, and Manny Ramirez, or even (if you go back that far) the amazing pitching rotation of Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, Early Wynn, and Mike Garcia. Nobody needs you to feel bad about any of that.

The activists who campaigned to change the Indians name don’t benefit from your shame. They just want to make the ongoing injury stop. And renaming the Indians achieves that goal, both for Native Americans and for Cleveland. Native Americans get back a chunk of their heritage. And the five-year-olds who receive Guardians jerseys next year won’t ever have to reassess what they mean.


[1] I am not trying to say here that all racial conflicts are artificial. Clearly, some people actively seek the benefits that come from white supremacy, and a smaller number glory in pushing other races down, even when they get no benefit from it. But we will have come a long way if we can eliminate the purely systemic racial conflicts, which individuals are often surprised to discover they participate in.

What makes the Cleveland situation a good example is that it is so purely artificial. Attachment to the Indians has very little to do with hostility to Native Americans.

In many other examples, teasing legacy systemic racism away from active malicious racism can be tricky. Take the response to President Obama, for example. Americans had never seen a Black president before, so no matter what he did, it looked “unpresidential” to a lot of people, even if his White predecessors had done exactly the same thing. The lack of any prior images of Black presidents is a systemic problem, but at the same time, malicious political operatives were doing their best to stoke the unconscious reaction that there was something vaguely wrong about Obama being president, like maybe he wasn’t really born in America or something.

Ordinarily, systemic racism is hard to separate from the active individual racism that builds up around it. But with the Indians, it’s not so difficult.

DACA: One More Example of Broken Democracy

https://www.usatoday.com/picture-gallery/opinion/cartoons/2012/11/28/editorial-cartoons-on-pop-culture/1733923/

The judicial and executive branches tussle over a bone that belongs to legislative branch. But in spite of near unanimous pro-Dreamer public opinion, Congress has wasted nine years doing nothing to protect them.


Friday, a Bush-appointed federal judge in Texas issued an injunction that stops the Department of Homeland Security from approving any new DACA applications. The judge’s opinion reviews the main arguments against the legality of the program from the beginning, but his ruling stopped short of removing its protections against deportation, and Dreamers will still be able to hold jobs. The order undoubtedly will be appealed, and will eventually end up at the Supreme Court.

In short, this was yet another incident in a very tangled legal history. President Obama established DACA by executive order in 2012 in order to protect undocumented immigrants who had been brought to the US as children. He tried to extend the program to their parents via another executive order in 2014, but the courts blocked that plan. President Trump tried to end DACA by executive order in 2017, but the courts stopped him too. Now a judge appears to want to end the program himself.

I’m tempted to do what I usually do with significant court rulings: explain in layman’s terms why the judge is right or wrong. But that kind of article would miss the point. The larger and more important story is that democracy shouldn’t work this way. And the root problem isn’t with the two dogs barking at each other: It’s not that Obama or Trump overstepped, or that the courts should or shouldn’t have let them. The problem is with the dog that hasn’t barked: Congress.

How this started. I doubt President Obama ever imagined that DACA would still be around nine years later. In the speech that announced the program, he prodded Congress to pass the DREAM Act, or take some other action to supersede his order:

This is a temporary stopgap measure that lets us focus our resources wisely while giving a degree of relief and hope to talented, driven, patriotic young people. It is the right thing to do.

Precisely because this is temporary, Congress needs to act. There is still time for Congress to pass the DREAM Act this year, because these kids deserve to plan their lives in more than two-year increments. And we still need to pass comprehensive immigration reform that addresses our 21st century economic and security needs

At the time, passing the DREAM Act didn’t seem like a heavy lift. DACA immigrants, a.k.a. Dreamers, are the poster children of the undocumented. Their parents brought them to the US as minors, when they had little choice in the matter. They have grown up here, stayed out of trouble, and gotten an education. Most speak English like natives and are full participants in American culture. Hundreds and hundreds of them have served in the US military.

Some did not know they were undocumented until it came time to apply for a driver’s license or a Social Security card.

Freshman year is when I first found out I was undocumented. I was waiting at registration and when the clerk was going through my paperwork, she asked if I knew my Social Security number. I told her I’d get it from my mom later. When I got home, my parents had told me about my “story”.

Many have little connection to their country of origin.

I haven’t been to Mexico since I left as a 3-year-old, more than 25 years ago. I have no memory of the place, and I’m culturally American — I would feel more like an outsider there than I do here. I have no clue how I would make a living, or where I would go. I had the opportunity to take some Spanish classes in college, but I speak it with an Alabama accent and can’t read or write the language well.

As Obama said back in 2012:

Put yourself in their shoes. Imagine you’ve done everything right your entire life — studied hard, worked hard, maybe even graduated at the top of your class — only to suddenly face the threat of deportation to a country that you know nothing about, with a language that you may not even speak.

In short, deporting the Dreamers to Mexico (or wherever else they might have been born) would be an obvious injustice. In poll after poll, large majorities of Americans recognize this. And while many right-wing politicians are anti-immigrant, few step up to lead an anti-Dreamer movement. Even President Trump purported to be rooting for them. As President-Elect in 2016, he told a Time interviewer:

We’re going to work something out that’s going to make people happy and proud. They got brought here at a very young age, they’ve worked here, they’ve gone to school here. Some were good students. Some have wonderful jobs. And they’re in never-never land because they don’t know what’s going to happen.

Dysfunction. So if everybody is for you and nobody is against you, you should be OK, right?

Not so fast. In September of 2017, Trump and Democratic leaders in Congress briefly seemed to have a deal, but it quickly fell through. The problem: As much as Trump claimed to sympathize with the Dreamers, they made great hostages, and he never thought Democrats were paying enough to ransom them. As late as last summer, he kept naming a price and then backing away from it:

Trump has previously offered legislative proposals that would give Dreamers permanent legal protections in exchange for some of his hard-line immigration priorities, including cuts to legal immigration and border wall funding. But the offers failed in part because the president himself backed away after facing opposition from immigration hawks who accused him of going against his own campaign promises.

Some version of the DREAM Act has passed the House more than once, most recently on March 18. Once again, though the anti-democratic nature of the Senate looms:

The American Dream and Promise Act is the latest version of the Dream Act, which Senate Republicans have filibustered five different times to prevent the taking of a vote. This year, Democrats have edged out Republicans for control of the Senate, but a sixth filibuster is all but certain as it takes 60 votes to defeat a filibuster.

But the filibuster hasn’t been the only problem. Back in 2013, the stars aligned in the Senate, but not the House, largely because Speaker Boehner enforced a different anti-democratic process: the Hastert Rule, which allowed nothing to come up for a vote without the support of a “majority of the majority”. The rule worked like this: Republicans held 234 of the 435 seats in the House, so a mere 118 Republicans would constitute a “majority of the majority”. So 27% of the House could block the other 73% from accomplishing anything.

That anti-democracy feature built on top of another one: Gerrymandering was the only reason Republicans had a House majority at all. In the 2012 elections, John Boehner’s Republicans got 47.7% of the vote, and Nancy Pelosi’s Democrats 48.8%. In other words, Republicans representing on 24% of the country held veto power over the other 76%.

So nothing happened.

Power abhors a vacuum. If you read much about American politics, you will often run into complaints about the imperial presidency, or judicial activism. Presidents of either party, and liberal or conservative judges alike, are grabbing too much power, power the Constitution never intended them to have. Examples are easy to find.

But the problem isn’t executive or judicial strength, it’s legislative weakness.

When the People want something, and Congress can’t act because it has tied itself in knots, presidents will look for a way to make it happen. (That’s where DACA comes from.) If Congress can’t wield the war power, presidents will. (Congress still hasn’t repealed or replaced the Authorization for the Use of Military Force it passed after 9-11. Maybe it will soon.)

When laws are vague, or become obsolete as times change, and Congress refuses to clarify or update them, judges will find a way to read meaning into the laws they have. (This is basically the problem with the Second Amendment, which no longer means anything independent of judicial interpretations. How does that text give you the right to own an AR-15, but not a bazooka or an exocet missile? Did the Founders really anticipate that distinction?) No judge is going to tell plaintiffs and defendants “Hell, I don’t know.” And once you have to start making something up, why not make up something you think is good according to your own lights?

So we shouldn’t be arguing year after year about whether the Supreme Court is interpreting the Religious Freedom Restoration Act properly. Congress should look at the Court’s interpretation of the old law and pass a new one that better captures the People’s will. Those debates should be happening in committee hearings, not in amicus briefs to judges.

Conversely, when powerful interests in the country want something to happen and Congress won’t stop them, they’ll get their way by manipulating the bureaucracy. If unscrupulous presidents know Congress won’t enforce the limits on their power, and that they can violate any law without fear of impeachment, bad things will happen. And whose fault will that be?

American democracy had a near-death experience the end of the Trump administration. There is no lack of good thinking about how to tighten up the constraints that protect us against future usurpations. But will any of that happen? Of course not.

In a year or two, we may be back to deporting people who know no other country than this one, and who show every sign of the potential to be good citizens. Hardly anybody wants that to happen. But the body whose job it is to stop it is broken.

Vaccines versus Variants

https://theweek.com/political-satire/1002377/5-cartoons-about-the-rise-of-the-delta-variant

Ever since the Delta variant of Covid-19 emerged as the most virulent strain yet, public health officials have been talking about a race between the vaccines and the virus. In the US, the vaccines have been winning that race since the post-holiday-season peak in mid-January, which, conveniently for President Biden, coincided almost exactly with his inauguration.

But then the tide started to turn again. Cases began trending upward. New cases per day hit a low around 11,000 in mid-June, but now are back up to 19,000.

The usual pattern in Covid surges has been that hospitalizations and deaths lag a little, but eventually follow the case-number trends. (That makes intuitive sense when you think about how a Covid death plays out: First you get sick, then you are hospitalized, then you die.) Now hospitalizations have turned (up 11% in the past two weeks), though deaths are still (for now) trending downward. As treatments improve, we might hope to see a less solid link between hospitalizations and deaths, but we won’t know for another week or two which way the death trend will go.

It’s not hard to see why the graphs turned. Initially, vaccination was a logistics problem. Large numbers of people, like me, were eager to get vaccinated, and it was just a matter of producing and distributing enough doses. I would happily have taken my first shot in January, but (being just below the age-65 cutoff) I ended up waiting until April. Vaccinations increased as the logistics problems were handled, and peaked at over four million doses per day in early April.

But then they started to fall, as the number of eager unvaccinated people dwindled. Around half a million shots are still being given every day, but the Biden administration fell just short of its 70%-by-July-4 goal, and it’s not clear how much above 70% we’ll ever get.

https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2021/01/28/960901166/how-is-the-covid-19-vaccination-campaign-going-in-your-state

Politics and risk. Like masks and other public health measures that would have been nonpartisan in previous eras, vaccines have become political. Former President Trump himself may be vaccinated, and may even mildly encourage his followers to get vaccinated, but Trump Country has become the center of vaccine resistance, which Trump Media actively promotes. The result is a wide divergence of vaccinations by state. Blue states like Vermont (66%) and Massachusetts (62%) have the largest percentages of their populations fully vaccinated, while red states like Alabama (33%) and Mississippi (33%) the least. (These numbers are not directly comparable to Biden’s 70% goal, which was a percentage of adults getting at least one shot, not the percentage of the whole population fully vaccinated.)

Unvaccinated people are like dry tinder to the virus: The fire doesn’t start until a spark comes, and the exact spot where that will happen is unpredictable. The center of the current outbreak is along the Arkansas/Missouri border.

the rise in cases seemed to be caused by three factors: the area’s low vaccination rate, the arrival of the Delta variant and Springfield [Missouri]’s recent decision to lift its mask mandate. Ninety percent of Covid patients at Cox Medical Center South in Springfield have the Delta variant, and they are trending younger

https://twitter.com/deAdder

Taney County, Missouri is the site of the Branson tourist-resort area. It currently has 26% of its people fully vaccinated and only 30% with at least one dose. It is averaging 84 new cases per day per 100,000 people, compared to the national average of 6.

Over the last 16 months, we’ve seen numerous news reports about hospitals overwhelmed by Covid patients. The current ones are coming from Springfield — the first city up US 65 from Branson.

Many other counties are just as vulnerable, but have lesser outbreaks. The list of states where cases have doubled in the past two weeks is: Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama, Kansas, Louisiana, South Carolina, Florida, and Mississippi. All are Trump states with low vaccination rates. (In fairness, Florida is just slightly below average: 47% fully vaccinated compared to 48% nationally.)

Delta and the vaccines. One part of the story of the recent surge is that the virulent Delta variant has become the dominant strain of Covid in the US. That has started people wondering how effective the vaccines are against Delta. Data from Israel is mildly discouraging: The Pfizer vaccine Israel used (the same one I got) is effective against Delta, but less so than against earlier strains.

Vaccine effectiveness in preventing both infection and symptomatic disease fell to 64% since June 6, the Health Ministry said. At the same time the vaccine was 93% effective in preventing hospitalizations and serious illness from the coronavirus.

The ministry in its statement did not say what the previous level was or provide any further details. However ministry officials published a report in May that two doses of Pfizer’s vaccine provided more than 95% protection against infection, hospitalization and severe illness.

But other studies report higher numbers:

In Britain, researchers reported in May that two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine had an effectiveness of 88 percent protecting against symptomatic disease from Delta. A June study from Scotland concluded that the vaccine was 79 percent effective against the variant. On Saturday, a team of researchers in Canada pegged its effectiveness at 87 percent.

The article goes on to note that assessing effectiveness in the field is harder than in a controlled study. (That’s why medical researchers use two different terms: Controlled trials measure “efficacy”, while field data measures “effectiveness”.) One key difference: In real life, vaccinated people know they are vaccinated, so they may behave differently.

One speculation is that the different results might reflect how long ago someone got vaccinated.

The Israeli data also raise an important question that it may be too early to ask: Does the declining effectiveness rate have to do with waning protection among the vaccinated given how early Israelis began receiving their shots?

Pfizer is now collecting data on booster shots that would be given six months after the initial vaccination. Experts are conflicted over whether to recommend that the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine be followed by a booster. It seems like a good idea, but hasn’t been tested thoroughly yet. Getting a Pfizer or Moderna shot on top of a J&J vaccine is likewise untested.

Not as much data is publicly available about the Moderna vaccine (which my wife got) and Delta. Like the Pfizer, it seems to be effective, but less so.

My conclusion: If you’re vaccinated, don’t fret, but don’t get cocky. You’re like a soldier with a good helmet and armored vest; protected, but not invulnerable.

South Dakota and Vermont. One red state that isn’t seeing an outbreak right now is South Dakota. Ashish Jha, Dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, explains how two states, Vermont and South Dakota, took very different paths to arrive at the same result: the lowest-risk (green) category for Covid infections.

The two states are similar in some demographic ways: small states, mostly rural, older population, similar median incomes. But they achieved high levels of Covid immunity in different ways: Vermont vaccinated three-fourths of its people compared to South Dakota’s half. But South Dakota acquired immunity the old-fashioned way: by getting a large percentage of its people infected. 40 out of every 100,000 Vermonters have died of Covid, compared to 230 out of every 100,000 South Dakotans.

Governor Noem appears to be proud of that record of getting her constituents killed unnecessarily. She bragged about her Covid response at CPAC Sunday, and questioned the “grit” of Republican governors who enacted mask mandates and closed businesses.

Here’s a rule of thumb: Whenever Republicans pat themselves on the back for having the “courage” to “make the tough decisions”, you can be pretty sure that someone is about to die.

Rhode Island and Mississippi. Looking at the long-term state data shows other interesting patterns. Early in the pandemic, before anybody really knew what they were doing, Covid ravaged the Northeast. So if you looked at death totals per capita a year ago, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island were at the top of the list by a wide margin.

They still are, but Mississippi, Arizona, and Alabama are catching up. (They’ve already passed Connecticut.) Mississippi (2500 deaths per million) may soon edge out Rhode Island (2577) for fourth place. Rhode Island still hasn’t reported a death in July, while Mississippi is averaging 3 per day, a number which is likely to increase.

In terms of total cases per million, Rhode Island is the only northeastern state still in the top ten, which otherwise is entirely made up of red and purple states like the Dakotas, Utah, Iowa, and Arizona. New Jersey is down at 13, New York 17, and Massachusetts 31. (The Northeast had its cases early, when treatment was much less advanced. Hence: more deaths per case. Also, Covid tests were hard to get early on, so it’s possible that the number of cases in the Northeast was underestimated.)

My assessment: The Northeast learned from its experience, and has been more rigorous about shutdowns, mask mandates, distancing, etc. Red states in the South and West refused to learn from the example of the Northeast, so they have had to repeat the experience.

Northeasterners died because they were surprised by something new. Red staters are dying of stubbornness.

Kill your audience. One reason red states are slow to learn is that conservative leaders in politics and the media seem to be actively trying to get their followers killed.

Up until now, the primary mode outside the true fever-swamp precincts has been Just Asking Questions—or, in Tucker Carlson’s case, Just Asking Questions about why no one is allowed to ask questions, which in turn leaves the viewer believing there are not just questions to be asked but answers that are bad, even though we’re still actually dealing in questions about questions.

But the rhetoric keeps escalating, as these things tend to do. This week, in a particularly egregious exploitation of his audience’s presumed stupidity, Carlson observed that most people dying of Covid in Ohio had already outlived their life expectancy, so the pandemic itself (which has killed more Americans than combat in World War II) is “overhyped“. I have to wonder how many of Tucker’s viewers looked at the graphic below and concluded that Covid might help them live longer.

“This is the — I think, I honestly think is the greatest scandal of my lifetime by far,” he said with all of the expected breathlessness. “I thought the Iraq War was; this seems much bigger than that.”

The “this” at issue? That the government would “force people to take medicine they don’t want or need” — something that the government is not doing. That President Biden said a few hours earlier that public health professionals might go into communities to offer the coronavirus vaccine to those limited by time or mobility from seeking it out themselves was misinterpreted by commentators like Carlson to suggest that government patrols would soon be seizing people off the streets to inoculate them.

And if “they” can go door-to-door offering vaccines that you can refuse, but which might save your life, why couldn’t they go door-to-door to impose all kinds of tyranny? Here’s Rep. Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina.

Think about the mechanisms they would have to build to be able to actually execute that massive of a thing. And then think about what those mechanisms could be used for. They could then go door to door and take your guns. They could go door to door and take your Bibles.

Of course, the DC mayor’s office is already sending volunteers door-to-door, without any complaints of Bible or gun seizures.

During a CNN interview, Illinois Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger (who already burned his bridges in January by voting for Trump’s second impeachment) denounced this kind of rhetoric as “insanity”.

What President Biden said is: We’re willing to come to your house to give you the vaccine. At no point was anybody saying they’re going to break down your door and jam a vaccine into your arm despite your protests. This is outrage politics that is being played by my party, and it’s going to get Americans killed.

But outrage politics works in certain circles, which is reason for conservatives to celebrate it. At CPAC this weekend, vaccine refusal was an applause line:

“Clearly, they were hoping — the government was hoping — that they could sort of sucker 90% of the population into getting vaccinated,” Berenson said. “And it isn’t happening,” he said as the crowd applauded people rejecting the safe, effective, and free vaccines.

Nobody is saying this part out loud, but I see a pretty cold calculus at work: If conservatives can get another Covid wave started, not only would that make Biden look bad, but it might spark another round of mask mandates and business closures. Then in 2022 Republican candidates can run against the “tyranny” that they themselves made necessary.

That plan may be evil, but it shows grit, and the courage to make the tough decisions.