Category Archives: Articles

Why the Russians did it

The atrocities discovered when Ukrainian forces retook Bucha are in perfect harmony with Kremlin rhetoric.

As Russia retreated from its attempt to encircle Kyiv, Ukrainian forces entering the town of Bucha reported finding the bodies of hundreds of civilians, many of them killed execution-style, with their hands tied behind their backs. Some bodies were buried in mass graves while others were left lying in the road.

My first thought was that it was wise to be skeptical of these reports. [1] It obviously serves the Ukrainian cause if the world believes Russia’s soldiers behaved in monstrous and inhuman ways, or that the Kremlin authorized them to do so. Using atrocity stories as propaganda goes back at least as far as World War I, when the British exaggerated stories of German crimes in Belgium.

Predictably, Russia claimed the Ukrainians had faked everything. This theory, though, is no less outrageous, because it seems to imply that the Ukrainian forces killed their own people when they re-entered the town.

As evidence mounts, I have come around to believing the Ukrainian reports. Independent reporters were brought in quickly and given a lot of freedom to wander about and talk to survivors. Satellite photos and intercepted radio chatter from before the Russians withdrew appear to correspond to some of the bodies found. The more we hear, the more the Ukraine-faked-it theory acquires the common flaw of most bad conspiracy theories: The number of people who would have to be in on the plot has grown beyond reasonable bounds.

The Ukrainian reports also fit with the Russia’s apparent disregard for civilian casualties when it shells cities. The most recent example was the missile attack on a train station in Kramatorsk. Previous Russian campaigns in Chechnya and Syria have been similarly brutal. (A general associated with massive civilian casualties in Syria has just been put in charge of the Ukraine campaign.)

But what clinches the case for me is not anything from Ukrainian or NATO sources, or from the western press. It’s an article called “What should Russia do with Ukraine?” by Russian political scientist Timofey Sergeytsev, published a week ago by the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti. (Alternate translation here.)

Sergeytsev is not a soldier, not in Ukraine, and as far as I know has killed no one. But he has documented, and state media has published, an argument that would justify (and perhaps even welcome) all the actions Russia has been accused of.

The article revolves around “de-Nazifiying” Ukraine, a phrase that has been the centerpiece of Russian war propaganda. To Sergeytsev, this term means much more than simply deposing the current “Nazi” government led by President Zelensky, a Jewish Ukrainian whose grandfather’s brothers were killed in the Holocaust. The deeper problem, you see, is that the Ukrainian people support Zelensky and don’t want to be dominated by Russia.

De-Nazifying is necessary when a significant part of the people – most likely, the majority – have been sucked into the Nazi regime politically. That is, when the “people are good – the government is bad” hypothesis no longer works.

In other words: the Ukrainian people are not just misled, they are bad and deserve to be punished.

De-Nazifying is the measure applied towards the masses of Nazi followers whom one is not able to subject to direct punishment as war criminals because of technicalities.

… Besides the top leaders, a significant part of the masses are guilty as accomplices of Nazism, the passive Nazis. They supported and indulged the Nazi power. The just punishment of this part of the population is possible through inflicting the unescapable hardships of our just war against the Nazi system, with careful and cautious relations towards other civilians when feasible.

In order to de-Nazify Ukraine, Russia needs total control. A “Nazified” populace has no right to self-determination or democracy.

De-Nazifying requires winning, which means achieving the unconditional control over the de-Nazifying process and the government that maintains this control. Hence, a de-Nazified country cannot be sovereign. Being the de-Nazifying country, Russia cannot practice a Liberal approach to de-Nazifying. The guilty party subjected to de-Nazifying cannot dispute our de-Nazifier’s purpose.

What will Russia do with once it achieves total control?

De-Nazifying the population further consists in re-education through an ideological repression (suppression) of Nazi attitudes and a strict censorship: not only in the political sphere, but also critically, in culture and education.

Of course, Ukraine will have to be cut off from the West, and especially from Western aid that might rebuild the country after the war.

Their political aspirations cannot be neutral – the expiation of guilt before Russia for treating it as an enemy can transpire through relying on Russia in the processes of restoration, revival and development. No “Marshall Plans” should be allowed for these territories. There can be no “neutrality” in the ideological and practical sense, compatible with de-Nazifying. The cadres and organizations that are the de-Nazifying instrument in the newly de-Nazified republics cannot but rely on Russia’s direct military and organizational support.

For how long? Decades, at a minimum.

The de-Nazifying time frame is no less than one generation that needs to be born, brought up and to have reached maturity during the process of de-Nazifying.

In the process, the very idea of Ukraine has to be stamped out, and replaced with the identities of “Minor Russia” and “New Russia”. [2]

De-Nazifying will inevitably also be a de-Ukrainizing, i.e., rejecting the large-scale artificial overblowing of the ethnic component in self-identification of the population of the territories of the historical Minor Russia and New Russia. … Unlike Georgia and the Baltic countries, Ukraine is impossible as a nation-state, as history has shown, and any attempts to “build” a nation-state naturally lead to Nazism. Ukrainism is an artificial anti-Russian construct that does not have its own civilizational content; it’s a subordinate element of an alien and unnatural civilization.

The territory-formerly-known-as-Ukraine will have to be divided by an “alienation line” that separates Russia-loving people in the east (who could aspire to “potential integration into Russian civilization”) from Russia-hating people in the west (some of whom will have to be relocated from the east). But even the western part will never be independent.

The guarantee of the preservation of this residual Ukraine in a neutral state should be the threat of an immediate continuation of the military operation in case of non-compliance with the listed requirements. Perhaps this will require a permanent Russian military presence on its territory.

Again: This is not some Western analysts’ dark fantasy of what Russians are thinking. This is Russian state media telling Russians what they should think.

So imagine that you are a Russian soldier and that you believe you are entering a Nazi country (which is not really a country, but “an artificial anti-Russian construct that does not have its own civilizational content”) whose civilians bear the “guilt” of treating Russia as an enemy. Imagine that only “technicalities” prevent these civilians from being punished as war criminals, and that “the unescapable hardships of our just war” constitute their “just punishment”.

What would restrain you from committing crimes like those whose evidence is being found in Bucha? After all, it’s only the “other civilians” (not the Nazi-supporting majority) you need to be careful with, and only then “when feasible”.

[1] I hate that people like Tucker Carlson and Joe Rogan have poisoned the phrase “just asking questions”. Questions should be asked, but as part of a process of seeking answers.

The problem with Carlson and Rogan isn’t that they’re asking questions, but that they’re not seeking answers. Instead, they ask questions simply to blow smoke and create paralyzing doubt. They imply that the questions they ask have no good answers, invent repressive forces that are trying to stop people from asking them, and cast themselves as brave rebels against those imagined forces.

I remember, early in Covid vaccination campaign, hearing Carlson do this same routine about vaccine safety. It took me less than a minute to google one of his “courageous” questions and discover that it had been asked and answered on the CDC web site. If Carlson didn’t want to accept the CDC’s answer, fine; but to pretend that the authorities had no answer and were trying to suppress the question was just dishonest.

[2] The article identifies Ukrainian nationalism with S. Bandera. (One translation calls the current regime “Banderite”.) I had to look up who that was: Stepan Bandera was a World-War-II-era Ukrainian nationalist who (depending who you talk to) was either a Nazi collaborator or a Ukrainian patriot who tried to play the Nazis and Soviets off against each other.

Limitations of Experience

No Sift next week. The next new articles will appear on April 11

He characteristically would tell us things that we knew but would rather forget; and he told us much that we did not know due to the limitations of our own experience.

Supreme Court Justice Byron White
“A Tribute to Justice Thurgood Marshall”

This week’s featured post is “Where Does the Religious Right Go After Roe?

How did Christianity become so toxic?“, from two weeks ago, was one of the rare posts to have a bigger second week than its first. It has now gotten over 17,000 page hits, and is still running. That puts it in 13th place on the Sift’s all-time hit list, mostly behind posts from the era when Facebook algorithms let links go viral more easily.

This week everybody was talking about Judge Jackson

The televised interviews with the Judiciary Committee are over now. The committee vote on Ketanji Brown Jackson’s nomination is planned for April 4, and she seems likely to pass on a party-line vote.

The full Senate will vote sometime after that. She can be approved with only Democratic votes. So far, no senator of either party has announced a decision to break ranks. Senator Manchin recently came out in support, which probably means she’s in, though Senator Sinema still hasn’t committed herself.

Charles Blow pointed out how far the Senate has gotten from its constitutional duties. The point of the confirmation hearings on Judge Jackson’s nomination has never been to examine her qualifications or judicial philosophy. The point, rather, is to “put on a show”.

Lindsey Graham and various other Republican senators used the hearings to air their issues with Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings. But from my point of view, comparing those hearings makes a very different point: If you’ve ever wondered what white male privilege consists of, the contrast between the two hearings makes it obvious.

Judge Jackson had to be responsive, civil, and under control at all times, while Republican senators frequently interrupted her or talked over her. Kavanaugh, on the other hand, was free to go on a partisan rant, push a conspiracy theory, cry and express anger, lie and misdirect, and throw hostile questions back at his questioners. A Black woman could never get away with that kind of behavior.

The Republican senators at the hearing knew they were using smear tactics. Ted Cruz, for example, tied Jackson to books that are used at a private school where Jackson serves on the board (as if she had personally selected those books). He then misrepresented the books.

GOP senators repeatedly referenced Wesley Hawkins, an 18-year-old who Judge Jackson sentenced to three months prison, three months home detention, and six years of supervision because he possessed child pornography. He’s now 27 and has not been charged with anything since. The WaPo detailed his case and talked to him.

One popular falsehood I’ve heard during the hearings is that conservatives believe in judicial restraint while liberals want to expand judicial power. WaPo’s Henry Olsen put it like this:

Democrats favor the court expanding its jurisdiction into political matters; Republicans favor a restrictive view, generally deferring to democratically elected bodies at all levels of government rather than making the court the final arbiter of public policy. This is one of the most important political issues of our time.

If that was ever true, which I doubt, it certainly is not true now.

One case this week demonstrated how conservative justices are reaching for power: Three conservative justices — Thomas, Alito, and Gorsuch — tried to insert judges into the Navy’s chain of command, undercutting President Biden’s role as commander-in-chief.

Another right-wing judicial power grab is the push for “nondelegation“, a theory under which Congress cannot delegate regulatory power to agencies of the executive branch like the EPA or the SEC. In practice, this makes the Supreme Court the ultimate regulator, as it decides which regulations are or aren’t sufficiently specified by Congress’ authorizing legislation.

And finally, we can’t ignore the two places where conservative justices regularly invent new rights: for corporations and for right-wing Christians. Corporations are not mentioned in the Constitution, and yet conservatives are constantly defending their right to influence elections or to act on their religious convictions as “corporate persons“. And right-wing Christians (but not other religious groups) are held to be largely exempt from laws they don’t like.

and Ginni Thomas

People who pay attention have known for years that Ginni and Clarence Thomas were a scandal waiting to happen: Ginni is a right-wing political organizer, and she runs a profit-making lobbying firm. Her husband Clarence is a Supreme Court justice who rules on cases that sometimes overlap with Ginni’s interests. That’s been going on for years. The New Yorker detailed the ethical problems the Thomases raise back in January. The NYT Magazine followed in February.

What’s new this week are text messages she exchanged with Trump’s Chief of Staff Mark Meadows during the period between the election and the January 6 riot.

The messages — 29 in all — reveal an extraordinary pipeline between Virginia Thomas, who goes by Ginni, and President Donald Trump’s top aide during a period when Trump and his allies were vowing to go to the Supreme Court in an effort to negate the election results.

Ginni encourages Meadows (and Trump) to “stand firm” against “the greatest Heist of our History”. She gives strategic legal advice on a case that her husband might have needed to rule on.

Among Thomas’s stated goals in the messages was for lawyer Sidney Powell, who promoted incendiary and unsupported claims about the election, to be “the lead and the face” of Trump’s legal team.

She repeatedly embraced the most bizarre and baseless conspiracy theories about the election.

Ginni has admitted attending the January 6 rally, but claims to have left early, before the assault on the Capitol.

Clarence was the lone dissent in an 8-1 decision not to hear Trump’s objections to the National Archives delivering documents to the January 6 Committee. The Ginni/Meadows texts were not part of that trove, but his wife’s involvement certainly creates a strong appearance of impropriety.

and Ukraine

This week Ukraine has been pushing back Russian troops threatening Kyiv, while Russian forces continue to make slow progress in the eastern part of the country.

Russia is now claiming that everything has gone according to plan.

“The main objectives of the first stage of the operation have generally been accomplished,” Sergei Rudskoi, head of the Russian General Staff’s Main Operational Directorate, said in a speech Friday. “The combat potential of the Armed Forces of Ukraine has been considerably reduced, which … makes it possible to focus our core efforts on achieving the main goal, the liberation of Donbas.”

Of course, the combat potential of the Russian forces has also been reduced, which probably wasn’t part of the plan. Maybe this announcement means that Russia has scaled down its ambitions and no longer intends to conquer the entire country. Or maybe the speech is just noise. It’s always hard to tell.

Karolina Wigura and Jaroslaw Kuisz write in the NYT about the divide within NATO. Everybody supports Ukraine against Russia, but the former Warsaw Pact countries in the East frame the issue differently than NATO’s original members in the West, including the United States.

For Western countries, not least the United States, the conflict is a disaster for the people of Ukraine — but one whose biggest danger is that it might spill over the Ukrainian border, setting off a global conflict.

For Central and Eastern European countries, it’s rather different. These neighbors of Russia tend to see the war not as a singular event but as a process. To these post-Soviet states, the invasion of Ukraine appears as a next step in a whole series of Russia’s nightmarish assaults on other countries, dating back to the ruthless attacks on Chechnya and the war with Georgia. To them, it seems foolhardy to assume Mr. Putin will stop at Ukraine. The danger is pressing and immediate.

While the West believes it must prevent World War III, the East thinks that, whatever the name given to the conflict, the war against liberal democratic values, institutions and lifestyles has already started. …

NATO’s cautious steps look to many Central and Eastern Europeans like an echo of the phony war of 1939, when France and Britain undertook only limited military actions and did not save their eastern ally, Poland.

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas summed up the Eastern view:

At NATO, our focus should be simple: Mr. Putin cannot win this war. He cannot even think he has won, or his appetite will grow.

Elliot Ackerman is a former Marine and intelligence officer writing for The Atlantic. He had an enlightening conversation with a former Marine now fighting for Ukraine about the way weapons like the Javelin missile have changed the tactics of warfare.

When Ackerman was in Fallujah in 2004, Abrams tanks were key in the infantry’s advance into the city — a role the tank has played since it was invented in World War I to lead soldiers over enemy trenches.

On several occasions, I watched our tanks take direct hits from rocket-propelled grenades (typically older-generation RPG-7s) without so much as a stutter in their forward progress. Today, a Ukrainian defending Kyiv or any other city, armed with a Javelin or an NLAW, would destroy a similarly capable tank.

If the costly main battle tank is the archetypal platform of an army (as is the case for Russia and NATO), then the archetypal platform of a navy (particularly America’s Navy) is the ultra-costly capital ship, such as an aircraft carrier. Just as modern anti-tank weapons have turned the tide for the outnumbered Ukrainian army, the latest generation of anti-ship missiles (both shore- and sea-based) could in the future—say, in a place like the South China Sea or the Strait of Hormuz—turn the tide for a seemingly outmatched navy. Since February 24, the Ukrainian military has convincingly displayed the superiority of an anti-platform-centric method of warfare.

They also discussed the difference in philosophy between the Russian and the more NATO-style Ukrainian command structures.

Russian doctrine relies on centralized command and control, while mission-style command and control—as the name suggests—relies on the individual initiative of every soldier, from the private to the general, not only to understand the mission but then to use their initiative to adapt to the exigencies of a chaotic and ever-changing battlefield in order to accomplish that mission.

The Russian system breaks down when soldiers wind up in situations that make it impossible to carry out their specific orders. (As orders to go to a particular place break down when the roads are jammed with traffic.) They can’t improvise effectively, because they don’t know what the larger mission is.

Wednesday, the NYT and CNN published articles about US contingency planning for scenarios where Russia escalates to nuclear, chemical, or biological warfare. It’s very hard to tell how seriously to take this possibility.

Dictators have a long history of playing chicken with democracies, figuring that a leader not accountable to public opinion has more room to take risks, so he will be able to get elected leaders to back down. This is basically the story of Hitler and the West prior to his attack on France in 1940.

He is the very model of a Russian major general.

and the pandemic

Last week I wondered if we were in the eye of the storm. This week the trend definitely seems to have turned: After two months of steep drops in the number of new Covid cases, the curves look like they’re turning upward again.

Last week, new cases per day were running just under 30K, this week they’re just over. If you use a two-week window, that’s still a 12% decline. But the national flattening out over the last week hides the fact that cases have turned upward in the parts of the country that usually lead the statistics (New York City, for example), but are still falling in parts that lag.

This is personal to me. My wife takes a cancer-survivor drug that can have immune-suppressing side effects, so we’ve been especially cautious during the pandemic. And though I’ve started to enjoy cooking during the pandemic, I still miss the days when we ate out often. (Take-out is not the same.) A few weeks ago we made a judgment: If new-cases-per-100K in our Boston-suburb county got into single digits, we could eat indoors at restaurants if we avoided the times when they’re crowded.

We didn’t get there. Our county’s number bottomed out at 11 sometime last week, and is now back up to 16. This morning it’s snowing again, and outdoor dining seems far away.

and anti-LGBTQ oppression

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has sent the Austin Independent School District a letter informing them of his opinion that their Pride Week is illegal.

By hosting “Pride Week”, your district has, at best, undertaken a week-long instructional effort in human sexuality without parental consent. Or, worse, your district is cynically pushing a week-long indoctrination of your students that not only fails to obtain parental consent, but subtly cuts parents out of the loop.

AISD says the focus of its Pride Week is “creating a safe, supportive and inclusive environment”, not teaching about human sexuality. Apparently, Paxton can’t see the difference between teaching students to accept one another and teaching them how to perform sexual acts.

The district shows no signs of giving in; the superintendent tweeted back:

I want all our LGBTQIA+ students to know that we are proud of them and that we will protect them against political attacks

Paxton, you may recall, also opines that gender-affirming therapy is child abuse, and was investigating nine Texas families with trans children until a state court made him stop.

After he’s done persecuting children and their families, I have to wonder how much time he has left to do his job as the state’s chief law enforcement officer.

If you want to know where right-wing rhetoric about schools “grooming” children for pedophiles is headed, look at Mississippi’s former legislator and gubernatorial candidate Robert Foster, who tweeted:

Some of y’all still want to try and find political compromise with those that want to groom our school aged children and pretend men are women, etc. I think they need to be lined up against wall before a firing squad to be sent to an early judgment.

When Mississippi Free Press requested an interview to discuss this, Foster messaged back:

I said what I said. The law should be changed so that anyone trying to sexually groom children and/or advocating to put men pretending to be women in locker rooms and bathrooms with young women should receive the death penalty by firing squad.

So if you’re advocating for trans people to choose their own bathrooms, or trans women to be allowed to compete in women’s sports, you should be shot. Or let me boil that down further: I should be shot. Maybe you should be shot too.

It’s hard to come up with the right response to stuff like this, because real pedophiles do exist, just not with anything like the numbers or the organizational power of Foster’s fantasies. In the same way, there were a handful of real Soviet spies during the Red Scare, and probably some tiny percentage of the six million Jews Hitler killed were up to no good.

To be fair, this guy is nobody. He didn’t get nominated for governor, and there are a lot of crazy former state legislators out there. But Florida Governor DeSantis’ spokesperson has also described opponents of the Don’t Say Gay bill (that’s me again) as “groomers”.

If you’re against the Anti-Grooming Bill, you are probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4-8 year old children. Silence is complicity. This is how it works, Democrats, and I didn’t make the rules.

Foster is just pointing out where that kind of thinking leads.

The WaPo calls attention to books quietly vanishing from school library shelves. Administrators are ignoring the defined processes for dealing with complaints and just pulling books without any process, often over the objections (or without the knowledge) of librarians.

And after the school libraries are purged, they’ll come for the public libraries. Llano County, Texas just fired a librarian for refusing to remove books. KXAN quotes a library patron as saying “There are very clear rules that should be followed with regards to censorship to books in the public library, those rules were not followed.”

and you also might be interested in …

If you missed the Oscars, CODA won as best picture. Here’s a list of all the other winners.

One reason more and more Republicans feel they need to move on from Donald Trump is that he is stuck in the past; he’s still fixated on his crushing defeat in the 2020 election, which he lost by 7 million votes.

Well, this week he moved on from 2020, but in the wrong direction: to 2016. He’s filed a lawsuit in a Florida federal court against, as TPM puts it, “Everyone Who Ever Offended Him Over 2016 Election”.

At the core of Trump’s claim is the idea that Clinton ordered others to spread lies about him regarding Russia and the 2016 election. With Clinton at its head, the argument goes, a vast conspiracy to deprive Trump kicked into action, featuring people and entities that have populated Trump’s rhetoric since before he won in 2016 and, subsequently, right-wing media.

They include Fusion GPS, the opposition research firm that the lawsuit accuses of creating “false and/or misleading dossiers” to damage Trump’s chances in the election.

Jim Comey, the former FBI director, makes the cut to be a defendant, as do FBI officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page. The DNC and its 2016 chief, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, also show up as defendants.

WaPo’s Phillip Bump points out the most ridiculous aspect of the suit: In order to “prove” that Clinton masterminded a conspiracy to manufacture a Trump/Russia “hoax”, the suit quotes from DNC emails illegally hacked by Russia to benefit the Trump campaign.

Whenever Trump’s 2016 conspiracy theory comes up, I feel obligated to repeat the established facts:

  • Russia did help Trump get elected in 2016.
  • That Russian effort included crimes, such as hacking computers at the DNC, and distributing illegally obtained emails through WikiLeaks during the fall campaign.
  • Trump knew Russia was helping him, to the point of saying in public “Russia, if you’re listening …”.
  • The Trump campaign had two major interfaces with the Russian effort: campaign manager Paul Manafort, who had been paid millions of dollars by Russian oligarch Oleg Derapaska, and long-time Trump ally Roger Stone, who was the campaign’s link to WikiLeaks. Neither man cooperated with the Mueller investigation, and Trump rewarded both of them with pardons.

In view of all that, and the likelihood that Trump would have to answer questions under oath if the suit made it to trial, probably the point is to scam more money out of his followers.

Oh, and they’re still trying to make a thing out of Hunter Biden’s laptop.

Belarus has granted asylum to a man charged in the January 6 insurrection. Putin’s allies consider people who rioted to keep Trump in power after he lost the election to be political prisoners.

In case you were still doubting that Mike Flynn is insane, he buys into the Bill-Gates-wants-to-microchip-you theory. The following picture is not authentic.

Vanity Fair has the sordid story of how the conservative Project Veritas obtained Ashley Biden’s diary.

If you ever watched the TV series Heroes, and if you had witnessed the scuffle involving actress Hayden Panettiere Thursday, could you have resisted calling out “Save the cheerleader!”?

and let’s close with some literal interpretation

This Dad assigned his kids the task of writing instructions for making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. He then followed their instructions as literally as possible, with amusing results.

While I think this exercise taught the kids a valuable lesson, I predict Dad will soon regret having done it, as the kids will start following his instructions literally as well. “You told me to go to school. You didn’t tell me to go inside the school.”

Where Does the Religious Right Go After Roe?

Suppose the Supreme Court reverses Roe v Wade this term. Then what?

The Dobbs case. The Supreme Court has already heard arguments on Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a case centering on a law Mississippi passed in 2018. That law bans all abortions after 15 weeks, in direction violation of the 24-week standard the Court laid out in Roe v Wade in 1973 and affirmed in Planned Parenthood v Casey in 1992. This is the first major abortion case to hit the court since Amy Comey Barrett’s arrival gave conservatives a 6-3 majority. A ruling is expected before the Court’s current term ends in June.

Based on the justices’ general philosophies, and on their comments and questions during the hearing on this case in December, most observers expect the Court to uphold Mississippi’s law. The question is how they will do it: Will the conservative majority leave the framework of Roe and Casey in place, but find a loophole that lets Mississippi’s law stand? Or will it fulfill the decades-old dream of the Religious Right and reverse Roe and Casey outright, essentially declaring that those decisions were mistakes?

If you’ve been following Chief Justice John Roberts over the years, you know that big reversals are not his style, particularly in cases where a majority of the public disagrees, as it does here. Roberts has a partisan Republican agenda, but he likes to keep it just below the public’s radar, and he is wary of sparking a left-wing backlash that could benefit Democrats. The last thing he wants is to make the Court itself a central issue in the 2022 midterms, or to reawaken talk of packing the Court with enough new justices to overcome the conservative majority installed by presidents and Senate majorities that didn’t represent a majority of voters.

So it’s clear which approach Roberts will favor: Don’t make headlines by reversing Roe, but chew away at it by creating a loophole for Mississippi, maybe by changing the definition of “viability”. The language of such a decision could subtly invite states to push the boundary further, until a woman’s right to control her own pregnancy would have little practical meaning. Roe would continue to stand, but like a bombed-out building without walls or a roof, would protect no one.

That probably won’t happen, though, for a simple reason: When Barrett replaced Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Roberts lost control of the Court. He is no longer the swing vote, so he loses 5-4 decisions when he sides with the Court’s three surviving liberals. That’s what happened in September when the Court refused to grant an injunction stopping Texas’ six-week abortion ban from taking effect. The Court did not rule on the validity of the law, so Roe was not overturned. But it refused to enforce Roe, so abortion is effectively banned in Texas for the time being. (And other states are passing similar laws.) Like many observers, I read that refusal to act as a tacit acknowledgement that Roe is doomed: Why should the Court bother to enforce a precedent they’re going to reverse soon anyway?

Justices Alito and Thomas have made no secret of their desire to reverse Roe. The three Trump appointees (Barrett, Kavanaugh, and Gorsuch) all refused to commit themselves during their confirmation hearings. But the conservative movement that backed them intended for them to reverse Roe, and it will feel betrayed if they don’t.

Getting through Senate confirmation tends to encourage boldness that wasn’t apparent during the hearings. In 2018, for example, Brett Kavanaugh convinced swing-vote Senator Susan Collins of his reverence for precedent, which Collins interpreted to mean Roe. But by the time Dobbs was argued last December, Kavanaugh was singing the praises of reversals.

If you think about some of the most important cases, the most consequential cases in this Court’s history, there’s a string of them where the cases overruled precedent. Brown v. Board outlawed separate but equal. Baker versus Carr, which set the stage for one person/one vote. West Coast Hotel, which recognized the states’ authority to regulate business. Miranda versus Arizona, which required police to give warnings when the right to — about the right to remain silent and to have an attorney present to suspects in criminal custody. Lawrence v. Texas, which said that the state may not prohibit same-sex conduct. Mapp versus Ohio, which held that the exclusionary rule applies to state criminal prosecutions to exclude evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Giddeon versus Wainwright, which guaranteed the right to counsel in criminal cases. Obergefell, which recognized a constitutional right to same-sex marriage.

In each of those cases — and that’s a list, and I could go on, and those are some of the most consequential and important in the Court’s history — the Court overruled precedent. And it turns out, if the Court in those cases had — had listened, and they were presented in — with arguments in those cases, adhere to precedent in Brown v. Board, adhere to Plessy, on West Coast Hotel, adhere to Atkins and adhere to Lochner, and if the Court had done that in those cases, you know, this — the country would be a much different place.

Given that Kavanaugh was the new justice considered most likely to follow Roberts’ lead, sometime in June we can expect a 5-4 decision reversing Roe, as part of a 6-3 decision upholding Mississippi’s law. The Religious Right will erupt in celebration, as a half-century quest reaches a successful conclusion. Like the Ring of Sauron melting into the flames of Mount Doom, Roe will be gone forever.

But what then? Is that the end of the saga, or will there be sequels? Maybe the Religious Right will be like the dog that final catches the car and doesn’t know what to do next. Maybe they’ll hold a victory party and then break up, like a caravan that has crossed the desert and finally reached its destination.

Or maybe not. Maybe the Religious Right and the Court’s conservative radicals still have places to go.

The legal roots and branches of Roe. Conservative rhetoric makes Roe a prime example of “legislating from the bench”. In this way of telling the story, seven justices in 1973 thought a right to abortion was a good idea, even though the Constitution doesn’t mention it. So like a small, un-elected, lifetime-tenured legislature, they voted to establish that right. Of course they had to construct some hocus-pocus argument to hide their usurpation of legislative power, but really they conjured abortion rights out of thin air.

That’s not how it happened. Roe was part of a long process that included several decisions before it and several after, most of which had nothing to do with abortion. And just as Roe wasn’t conjured out of thin air, it can’t vanish in a puff of smoke either. Whatever logic reverses it will have far-reaching consequences that may take decades to play out.

Roe, along with several other important decisions, arises out of an interpretation of the 14th amendment, one of the three post-Civil-War amendments that freed the slaves and defined their place in American society. (A series of terrible 19th-century Supreme Court decisions undercut those amendments, opening the way for the former Confederate states to disenfranchise Black voters and replace slavery with Jim Crow. But that’s a topic for another day.) In particular, the 14th amendment says:

No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

It’s not hard to figure out what it means to deprive someone of life or property, but lawyers have been arguing ever since about the definitions of liberty and due process. A narrow definition of liberty might just mean staying out of jail; a broad definition might extend to living the way you want to live.

And if some state is telling you that you can’t live the way you want to live, how much process are you due? Maybe due process just means that a state has to dot all its i’s and cross all its t’s before it starts dictating your major life decisions. Or maybe some decisions are so central to a life of liberty that states need really good reasons to interfere in them. And maybe some are so important that a state can’t limit them at all.

The idea that the 14th Amendment’s due process promises more than just a procedural standard is known as substantive due process. Fundamentally, this notion is neither liberal nor conservative. Roe is rooted in substantive due process, but so are arguments against vaccine mandates. (Contra Senator Cornyn, though, Dred Scott was not a substantive due process case.) Conservative courts from the Progressive Era to the early New Deal used substantive due process to throw out liberal reforms like limited work-weeks or a minimum wage: Telling workers they couldn’t work long hours for low wages was seen as such an egregious violation of their liberty that no process was deemed sufficient. (The Court at the time did not appreciate the irony of using an anti-slavery amendment to justify working long hours for low wages. Obviously, those decisions are not in force today.)

The path from the 14th Amendment to Roe goes like this: Substantive due process implies that each person lives inside a sphere of personal liberty, which cannot be violated by governments for any but the most serious reasons, if at all. (Vaccine mandate cases, for example, revolve around whether a pandemic killing almost a million Americans sufficiently justifies invading the personal sphere of anti-vaxxers.)

Prior to Roe, that personal sphere was found (in Skinner) to contain a right to procreate even if the state would like to sterilize you, (in Loving) to include a right to marry someone of any race, and (in Griswold) to encompass a married couple’s right to use birth control. (Justice Douglas wrote: “Would we allow the police to search the sacred precincts of marital bedrooms for telltale signs of the use of contraceptives? The very idea is repulsive to the notions of privacy surrounding the marriage relationship.”)

After Roe, the personal sphere grew (in Lawrence) to include the right of consenting adults to choose their own sexual acts, and (in Obergefell) to allow same-sex couples to marry.

In short, Roe doesn’t stand alone. It is part of a web of substantive due process decisions on a variety of issues. Reversing Roe will send ripples through the whole web, putting all those rights up for grabs.

Conservative understand this, and welcome it. This week, at Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation hearing, Senator Cornyn of Texas pushed Jackson to disavow substantive due process entirely.

Justice Jackson, … you’ve suggested that policy making isn’t in your lane and you strive to be apolitical, something I applaud. But why isn’t substantive due process just another way for judges to hide their policy making under the guise of interpreting the Constitution?

He went on to rail against the Obergefell decision on same-sex marriage. And Senator Braun of Indiana had this exchange with the Indianapolis Star:

Question: Would you apply that same basis to something like Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court case that legalized interracial marriage?

Answer: When it comes to the issues, you can’t have it both ways. When you want that diversity to shine within our federal system, there are going to be rules and proceedings, they’re going to be out of sync with maybe what other states would do. It’s a beauty of the system, and that’s where the differences among points of view in our 50 states ought to express themselves. And I’m not saying that rule would apply in general depending on the topic, but it should mostly be in general, because it’s hard to have it on issues that you just are interested in when you deny it for others with a different point of view.

Question: So you would be OK with the Supreme Court leaving the question of interracial marriage to the states?

Answer: Yes, I think that that’s something that if you’re not wanting the Supreme Court to weigh in on issues like that, you’re not going to be able to have your cake and eat it too. I think that’s hypocritical.

And Senator Braun is correct: Unless the argument used to reverse Roe is very precise and subtle — and I’ve seen no sign that any of the conservative justices combines the skill and will needed to write such an opinion — it will also be an argument for reversing a long list of rights Americans have come to rely on.

Those rights will not go away immediately when Dobbs is settled in June, but red-state legislatures will recognize the Court’s invitation to pass laws violating them. And once those cases reach the Supreme Court (which may take several years), the conservative bloc will see no option other than to make a decision compatible with their reversal of Roe.

After all, as Brett Kavanaugh explained to Susan Collins, the Court has to respect precedent.

About Those Gas Prices

As someone born into the era of big tail fins and bumpers with breasts, it’s not news to me that we Americans get irrational about our cars.

So of course we also obsess about gas prices. If the rent or the cable bill goes up, we’ll grumble and pay it. If the price of beef skyrockets, we’ll eat more chicken. When there was no toilet paper on the shelves, the most common response was frantic desperation, not anger. But high gas prices bring out the pitchforks and torches: This has to be somebody’s fault, and we’re going to make them pay.

So maybe it’s Biden’s fault or Putin’s or Exxon’s or environmentalists’. Let’s see if we can sort this out, starting from the beginning.

How bad is it? Various commenters had already been talking about “record gas prices” for several weeks, but prices didn’t actually start breaking records until March 7. Even then records were not being broken by much, and only if you didn’t adjust for inflation. In July of 2008, national average gas prices hit $4.11. Cumulative inflation in the last 14 years has been 32%, so gas prices won’t equal 2008 prices in inflation-adjusted dollars unless they hit $5.42. AAA’s current national average price is $4.25.

The price a year ago, when Covid was keeping most people close to home, was an unusually low $2.89. So there’s been a steep increase since then, but not to off-the-charts levels.

Rockets and feathers. The apparent reason for the increase was that the price of oil went up. But oil prices crashed back down this week, and gas prices are still high. (Though they are trending somewhat downward. AAA reports a drop from $4.33 in the last week.) This is the main reason people give when they blame the oil companies for price gouging.

The following chart was on the Trending Economics web site Saturday morning.

So a year ago, the world price of oil was about $60 a barrel. It started creeping upward as economies recovered from the Covid emergency, reaching $90 by late February, when the Ukraine crisis began to get serious. Post-invasion and post-sanctions, it jumped up to $123 on March 8. Then it fell back below $100, and ended last week at $104.70.

The complaint is that gas prices go up immediately when the price of oil rises, but they don’t fall immediately when it drops. This is not your imagination.

The trend is called “rocketing and feathering,” according to oil industry analysts. Gas prices rocket up and then they come down slowly like a feather in the wind.

Think about how this works: Suppose you run oil tankers back and forth between, say, Nigeria and the United States. A trip takes weeks, maybe a month, depending on conditions. So the oil you loaded in Lagos was worth about $90 a barrel, but by the time you get to America, the price has risen to $120. So what do you sell for?

The way a lot of people’s economic intuition works, you ought to sell for $90 plus a reasonable profit on your expenses; say, $93 or $95. (Those numbers are based on several minutes worth of googling, so don’t use them for anything other than illustration.) This way of thinking is called “just price economics“, and it was popular in the Middle Ages.

But the world doesn’t really work that way. Of course you sell for $120, making a $30-a-barrel windfall profit. On other trips you might have windfall losses, so you’d better take the money now.

That’s how rocketing works, all the way up and down the path from oil well to gas pump: Increases get incorporated into the price immediately. Imagine you own a local gas station. Your last delivery arrived when you were selling gas for $3.50 a gallon, so in theory you could still sell for $3.50 and make a profit. But your next delivery is going to cost $4 a gallon. So why would you sell something for $3.50 when it’s going to cost you $4 to replace it?

But now picture what happens when prices fall: You paid $4 a gallon for the gas in your tanks now, so you’re going to be reluctant to sell it for less than that, even if you can replace it for $3.50. You’ll lower your price when you have to, i.e., when the gas station across the street lowers its price.

How fast prices fall depends on how much competition there is. If there are bottlenecks in the market — say, a small number of refineries producing gas for a large region — the businesses that control that bottleneck are in a position to insist on getting at least a just price. And they will. You would too.

The conclusion I draw from all this is that no one in the rocketing-and-feathering scenario is particularly villainous. Price drops would happen faster if markets were more competitive, as in the classic Adam Smith model. But this situation is very different from monopoly pricing, where sellers are only restrained by consumers’ inability or unwillingness to keep paying. (True monopolists don’t need an excuse to raise prices or to keep them high.) Supply-and-demand is working, albeit with a little sluggishness.

A long-term partial solution — nothing would solve it completely — would be more rigorous antitrust enforcement. Short-term, a direct government payment financed by a windfall profits tax would deal with the painful symptoms.

Why is oil so high? Oil is an unusual commodity, because in the short term, neither supply nor demand have much elasticity. An oil field isn’t like a car factory that can run longer shifts, pay overtime, and deliver more cars to the dealers in a matter of days. In the medium term, an oil company can drill more wells, and reopen wells that weren’t economical to run at lower prices. Longer term, it can explore for new oil fields. But none of that increases supply immediately.

Similarly, when the price goes up by 10-20%, you still have to get to work, and you’re probably not going to cancel your vacation plans. Airlines aren’t going to cancel flights. It takes time to arrange a carpool, replace your gas-guzzler with an electric, or move closer to your job.

The result of that lack of elasticity is that oil prices swing more wildly than most commodities. It goes way up and way down because that’s what it takes to change people’s behavior. (Remember what a market price is: The price at which buyers want the exact quantity that sellers are offering. So price moves that don’t cause people to enter or leave the market aren’t big enough.) So when demand crashed at the beginning of the Covid lockdowns, the price on the most volatile oil markets briefly went negative. (Imagine the grocery paying you to take away their excess milk.) Here’s the 25-year version of the graph above.

Not a lot of other prices relevant to your life went up 7 times between 2002 and 2008, only to crash all the way back by 2020.

I learn a few things from this graph.

  • If you just look at the 2020-2022 part, the price is skyrocketing. But if you take a longer view, you see a lot of zigging and zagging within a wide range. It’s a mistake to imagine that the Covid-lockdown price of $20 was “normal”.
  • I’m not surprised that oil production doesn’t instantly ramp up in response to a high price. If I’m deciding whether to drill a well that I expect to be productive over 5-10 years, how can I be sure the price won’t be much lower for most of that time?
  • The price increase didn’t start with the Ukraine War. Oil prices went up because the world economy was recovering (and speculators anticipated further recovery). The effect of war and sanctions sits on top of that rise.

Is Biden to blame? Mostly no, but there are hooks you can hang that argument on if you really want to.

First, there’s inflation in general. Like many other governments, the US policy response to the Covid lockdowns focused on avoiding a depression, which was a real possibility. So the Federal Reserve pumped a lot of money into the economy, and the government distributed money directly to individuals and businesses. Both policies started under Trump, but Biden continued and even increased the depression-avoiding spending with his American Rescue Plan.

Two consequences come out of that: the intended one of keeping the economy afloat, and the unintended (but somewhat expected) one of inflation. So unemployment is now at 3.8%, down from 6% a year ago and 15% two years ago. It’s close to the pre-Covid 3.5% that Trump claimed as evidence of “the greatest economy ever”.

The price of those jobs is inflation, which was up to 7.9% before the Ukraine invasion and the sanctions against Russia. Personally, I think that’s a price worth paying. But other people may disagree, and many more will argue in bad faith, criticizing Biden for the inflation without crediting him for the jobs.

Second, we come to the sanctions, which again are a trade-off. Getting Russian oil off the market leaves a production gap, which raises prices. I don’t have a good explanation for why oil has almost returned to its pre-invasion level, but I wouldn’t count on it to stay there.

It’s possible that a President Trump might have been able to call his good buddy MBS and get the Saudis to produce more to make up the gap. (Of course he won’t do that now, because a larger oil supply would just benefit America, and not Trump personally.) Other possible sources of increased oil production would be the other sanctioned countries: Iran and Venezuela. (Iranian oil might not be sanctioned at all if Trump hadn’t scrapped the Iranian nuclear deal.) But none of that has worked out either.

Finally, there’s the question of American production. And here is where the case against Biden is flimsiest. The accusation is that American oil production would be much higher if Biden weren’t so hostile to the oil industry. If he had only kept building the Keystone XL pipeline, or opened more federal land to drilling, or not rejoined the Paris Climate Accord, or maybe had just smiled more at oil executives — then we’d have so much production the world wouldn’t need Russia.

This is nonsense, and I can’t explain it any better than Jen Psaki did.

  • Keystone XL wouldn’t be operating yet anyway. It wasn’t scheduled to open until 2023.
  • Pipelines don’t produce oil, they just move it. The Canadian oil Keystone XL would move is getting to market by other means.
  • Psaki claimed (and I have no way of checking) that the oil companies have 9,000 unused drilling permits. It’s not that they have nowhere to drill.
  • US production went down when the price of oil went down, but it is ramping back up. Next year the US should produce more oil than ever before.

Some of the points here are related to the next blame-object, environmentalists.

Are environmentalists to blame? As Fox News reporter Peter Doocy put it (in a question to Psaki): “How high would [gas prices] have to get before President Biden would say ‘I’m going to set aside my ambitious climate goals and just increase domestic oil production, get the producers to drill more here, and we can address the fossil fuel future later’?”

The unstated assumption behind that question is that climate change isn’t really that big a deal. Global warming is the liberal version of made-up conservative issues like critical race theory and cancel culture. So in the face of a real threat like Russia, and a real consequence like $4 gas, why can’t liberals just get off it?

But the vast consensus of scientists who study this issue is that climate change is a big deal, and will have catastrophic consequences (some of which are already apparent) if humanity continues to burn fossil fuels at an ever-increasing rate. There will always be competing problems that present more obvious short-term dangers. If we let those problems delay action on climate issues, we will never take action, with dire results.

Breathing is more of a short-term necessity than eating, but if we are to survive, we must envision a future where we can do both. In the same way, we have to find a path into the future where we deal with both aggressive autocrats and climate change.

Right now, Germany’s decision to close its nuclear plants makes it more dependent on Russian natural gas. (The proper role of nuclear power in limiting carbon emissions is a debatable issue that I haven’t studied.) That choice has certainly made the current situation more difficult.

But in a longer view, the faster we get to a sustainable-energy future, the less dependent we will be on fossil-fuel exporting countries, many of whose governments are repugnant. The price of wind energy has not increased at all in the last few months, and Vladimir Putin cannot affect it.

In conclusion, higher gas prices have two main causes: The general inflation that comes from choosing to stimulate job creation as we come out of the Covid economic downturn, and the reduced supply of oil as Russian oil is pushed off the market. Those are both policy decisions that were made for good reasons.

Other Biden decisions, like canceling the Keystone XL pipeline, have had little to no effect. Anything the US government could do now to stimulate oil production wouldn’t produce results for many months or even years. Meanwhile, market forces are raising US oil production without any new government encouragement.

Oil companies are gaining windfall profits as the price of oil rises, but I don’t see anything sinister going on there. They could altruistically decide to charge less, but none of the rest of us do that. If those profits are a problem, they could be taxed.

And in the long run, the pain caused by the current high gas prices is one more reminder that we need to become less dependent on fossil fuels. Trying to get out of the present crisis by finding more oil somewhere is just trading one problem for another.

How did Christianity become so toxic?

Six ways conservative theology undercuts the teachings of Jesus.

If you devote much of your time to trying to make the world a better place, you’ve probably noticed a paradox.

On the one hand, some of your most dedicated co-workers are church people. You may not have realized it right away, because they’re not the kind of Christians who say “Praise the Lord” whenever something good happens. Rather than preach at you or try to lead the group in prayer, they just show up and share the work: ladle the soup, stuff the envelopes, hammer the nails, make the phone calls. Only after you spend some down time talking do you start to understand what motivates them: They think some guy named Jesus had some pretty good ideas about healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and welcoming the stranger.

But at the same time, when you look at the bigger picture, it’s hard to escape the idea that Christianity is your enemy. The loudest, best-funded, and best-organized groups working to make the world harsher, crueler, and less forgiving are the ones waving the cross. There’s nothing subtle about it. All their rhetoric is about what God wants, what God hates, and the “Christian values” that the law should impose on Christians and non-Christians alike.

And strangest of all, those “Christian values” seldom have anything to do with healing the sick, feeding the hungry, or welcoming the stranger. These followers of the Prince of Peace aspire to be “spiritual warriors“. They revere a man whose self-sacrifice brought forgiveness to the world, but their focus is on punishment.

The name of Jesus shows up in every paragraph of their rhetoric; his teachings, not so much.

The value of cruelty. Pretty much any time you want, you can pull examples out of the headlines. Recently, the people Christians want to punish have been kids who express the wrong gender identity or sexual orientation, as well as the adults who support them.

Until Friday, when a state judge put a stop to the practice for violating the state constitution, Texas was investigating nine families for “child abuse” because they’d been seeking medically approved treatment for their child’s gender dysphoria. One child’s mother commented:

I know what the law says. And yet it is terrifying to have a [Child Protective Services] worker come into your home and threaten to take your children away for doing nothing more than loving them unconditionally.

Florida’s new Don’t Say Gay law will stop kids who are uncertain about their sexual orientation from confiding in teachers or school counselors: By law, school employees have to break their students’ trust and out them to their parents; otherwise, the school district could be sued. And if you’re a teacher or principal who sees elementary-school kids being bullied because of their gender expression, you can’t start a conversation about that without risking a lawsuit, because such topics are not “age appropriate”.

As soon as you picture either law in practice, the cruelty is obvious, and it’s hard to see who benefits. But if you ask the people behind these efforts what motivates them, one answer almost always comes up: their Christian values. The Tennessee version of Don’t Say Gay includes this in its list of justifications:

WHEREAS, the promotion of LGBT issues and lifestyles in public schools offends a significant portion of students, parents, and Tennessee residents with Christian values” …

Where on Earth did these “Christian values” come from? Not Jesus.

Did Jesus have “Christian values”? If you’ve never read the gospels, but you’ve listened to the people who invoke his name, you might think Jesus talked about sex and gender constantly. But in fact you’d be wrong. Homosexuality never comes up in his sermons and parables, and Jesus never rebukes his followers for getting their gender roles confused.

Sex is on the mind of the Pharisee who faults Jesus for letting a prostitute touch him, and on the minds of the men he stops from stoning an adulteress, but little in the text indicates that Jesus himself made a big deal out of people’s genitals or what they did with them. (Examine, say, the parable of the sheep and the goats. None of the failings that keep people out of Heaven are sexual.)

If you believe that Jesus defines Christianity, then persecuting gay and trans people isn’t a Christian value at all.

Other Christian values. Those are recent headlines, but these last few weeks have been nothing special. If I’d written this article in a different month, I might have talked about the Christians who were doing their damnedest to help a deadly virus spread freely and kill as many people as possible.

Religious liberty” now includes churches’ right to host superspreader events, which many of them have been eager to do. Rather than thank God for the scientists who found and tested a vaccine so quickly, many Christians spread lies and conspiracy theories about the vaccines (“For those of you who say you are Christians, what will your life review look like at the end of your life? Will the Lord say to you: ‘You coerced people into being injected with this gene-modification technology that irreversibly disrupts your chromosomes?’”). Wearing a mask in church became evidence that you didn’t trust God’s protection. (But if you really trusted God, wouldn’t you jump off a tall building?)

In other weeks, the headlines have been about Christian attempts to shut down discussion of systemic racism, or to stop children from learning America’s racist history.

Making women bear their rapist’s child is a Christian value. (“As plain as day, God spoke to me. … And I said yes Lord, I will. It’s coming back. It’s coming back. We are going to file that bill without any exceptions.”) But miscarriage-inducing herbs have been part of women’s folklore since the beginning of time. Isn’t it strange that Jesus never mentioned them?

Keeping refugees and asylum-seekers out of the country is a Christian value. Some prominent pastors defended breaking up immigrant families, while others invented elaborate sophistries to explain why the Bible’s many references to immigrants don’t mean what they say.

The Bible warns us not to bear false witness. But Christian churches have become the prime breeding ground for the most vicious and baseless conspiracy theories.

Jesus told a young man to “sell your possessions and give to the poor“. But now getting rich is a Christian value, and successful Christian preachers live in palaces and travel in personal jets.

Joel Osteen’s house

“Put away your sword,” Jesus said in Gethsemane. But now gun-toting vigilantes are Christian heroes, and the faithful are carrying concealed weapons in church. (What was that about trusting God’s protection?)

You know who’s also a Christian hero these days? Vladimir Putin. A Republican candidate for the Senate praised Russia as a “Christian nationalist nation” and told CPAC

I identify more with Putin’s Christian values than I do with Joe Biden.

As far back as 2014, Franklin Graham was lauding Putin for the even harsher Russian version of Don’t Say Gay:

Isn’t it sad, though, that America’s own morality has fallen so far that on this issue — protecting children from any homosexual agenda or propaganda — Russia’s standard is higher than our own?

And of course I have to mention the righteous politician who in 2020 garnered 80% support from White Evangelicals: a compulsive liar and conman, who has cheated on all three of his wives and traded the first two in for younger models, who can’t name a single Bible verse and admits that he has never sought God’s forgiveness. What a guy!

How did this happen? You might imagine that the teachings of Jesus would be a pole star for Christians, and that any time they started to drift away, the Sermon on the Mount would guide them back.

Clearly that’s not happening. But why not?

The reason is simple: Jesus told stories and gave advice, but he never laid out a systematic theology or worldview. He used imagery that was designed to upend the way his disciples were thinking, but he never told them step-by-step how they should think.

So in Jesus’ stories, mustard seeds — which were the scourge of Mediterranean gardeners because once mustard got into your garden you never got rid of it — were good things. An employer paid everyone the same, no matter how many hours they worked. A priest and a Levite could be bad neighbors compared to some nameless Samaritan. It was all pretty confusing.

Jesus hinted that you’re not really supposed to understand right away. The Kingdom of God, he said, is like yeast; it works on you invisibly. His images and stories are supposed to sit in the back of your mind and ferment, not proceed logically from axioms to theorems.

And while that’s a fine guru-to-disciple teaching technique, it leaves an opening for people who do lay out systematic theologies and worldviews, and do tell people what to think. Over the centuries that’s what’s happened. A conservative worldview has built up around Jesus’ teachings and almost completely sealed them off.

Here’s a simple example: According to John, Jesus once made this enigmatic statement: “The Father and I are one.” But he never explained exactly how that worked. The result has been centuries and centuries of theological battles about the precise nature of the Trinity, arguments that have occasionally erupted into gruesome executions or even warfare.

In short: People got lost in the mystery of that one line, and wound up on the other side of the world from loving their neighbors.

How conservative theology leads people astray. Today, when you come to an Evangelical church, the main thing you are met with is a worldview that contains simple answers about what’s going on in the world and how you should respond to it. Sometimes those answers are proof-texted back to something Jesus said (though more often they point back to Paul or Leviticus or some verse in Revelation that could mean just about anything). But invariably the logic only works one way: After the idea is presented to you, you can squint at one of Jesus’ more puzzling statements and say “Oh, that’s what he meant.” But you can’t walk that path in the opposite direction; what Jesus said would never lead you to the idea if some community-endorsed authority hadn’t already put it in your head.

I’m not claiming this is a complete list, but here are six ways that a conservative theology and worldview tilts Evangelical thinking in directions that eventually put a wall around Jesus and his teachings.

  1. Focusing on the Devil opens a person to conspiracy theories.
  2. Believing that we’re in the End Times justifies suspending normal reasoning.
  3. Traditional religion values tradition more than religion.
  4. A focus on individual souls and individual salvation makes systemic or social reasoning heretical.
  5. Fundamentalism promotes bad-faith reasoning.
  6. Christian imagery and rhetoric tilts towards autocracy.

1. The Devil is the prime conspirator. The conventional wisdom isn’t always right, and occasionally powerful people do conspire for nefarious purposes. But the problem with conspiracy-theory thinking is that it’s too easy: You can always come up with some way to fit current events into whatever story you want to believe. No matter what actually happens, you can make it prove that whoever you like is the hero and whoever you hate is the villain.

So if you want to live in the real world rather than some dramatic fantasy of your own choosing, you need some standards that filter out the crazy conspiracies. The most important standard is to realize that conspiring is hard. People all have their own motives and purposes, so keeping a large number of them on the same page is difficult, especially if you have to do it secretly.

So the first questions a rational person asks about a conspiracy theory are: How many people would have to commit to this, and why would they? What keeps them all pulling in the same direction? Why don’t they rat each other out?

Those questions sink most conspiracy theories. Take the central Q-Anon theory for example: that the world is run by a ring of child-sex traffickers, and has been for a long time. Now picture yourself as a rising star in the world of money and politics. At what point would the conspirators reach out to you? And what if child sex wasn’t your particular kink? It just seems really hard to make this work.

But now imagine you believe in the Devil. (Satan does show up in Jesus’ stories, but those references are easy to misread. Our current picture of the Devil stitches together diverse Biblical characters with different names, and didn’t fully congeal until a century or so after Jesus. Neil Forsyth described the process in The Old Enemy.) The Devil doesn’t need a motive to launch some evil plot, because for the Devil, evil is its own reward. Minions of the Devil, likewise, do things just for the sake of being evil.

If you can imagine a core of people like that, who don’t need the conspiracy to bring them wealth or power or status or any other visible benefit beyond the simple opportunity to do evil, then just about any conspiracy becomes feasible. The door to believing whatever you want is wide open.

2. Strange things happen during the End Times. In the summer of 2013, 77% of Evangelicals told the Barna Group that they agreed with this statement: “The world is currently living in the ‘end times’ as described by prophecies in the Bible.” Evangelicals not only believe this, they seem to enjoy thinking about it: The Left Behind series of novels (based on a literalistic interpretation of the Book of Revelation) has sold more than 80 million books and inspired six movies.

Paradoxically, a belief that the world is ending soon has always been prominent in Christian circles. As far back as the first or second century AD, St. John could close his Book of Revelation with

He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

That’s Jesus’ second coming he’s talking about, the one Christians are still waiting for. Nearly two thousand years later, John’s “soon” has still not turned into “now”.

But in spite of this extended delay, the persistence of the end-times belief is not hard to understand. Basically, it’s a form of self-aggrandizement, because it makes our lifetimes special. Nobody, apparently, wants to believe that they live in a humdrum era.

Now think about the everyday significance of that belief: More than three-quarters of conservative Christians approach the evening news the way the rest of us approach the final chapters of a novel. They expect diverse plot threads to start coming together. Connections that would ordinarily be wild coincidences are almost required. (Of course the serving girl with amnesia is the Duke’s long-lost niece! I should have seen that a mile away.)

What’s more, as the final battle of Good versus Evil approaches, the participants should become easier to identify. So of course there’s an international conspiracy of blood-drinking child molesters. How could there not be?

3. Traditional religion is more traditional than religious. Religious teachings are one of the prime ways that a community maintains its institutions and passes down its folk wisdom. The practices in one part of the world may be completely different than those somewhere else, but you can be pretty sure that in both places, some local deity wants things to work that way.

New empires often bring new religions (which usually complete the circle by justifying the new imperial order). But community practices change much more slowly than military or political power structures. So old practices get woven into the new mythology and the new belief system, as if they had been part of the new religion all along. The annual fertility rite of a pagan deity continues, but instead is blessed by a Catholic saint. And no matter how many Islamic scholars say that the Quran does not endorse honor killings, many common people in Muslim countries keep on believing that it does.

In 21st century America, “traditional values” and “Christian values” are often used interchangeably, but they ought to be very different concepts. Countless varieties of bigotry are traditional in America: racism, sexism, antisemitism, anti-gay prejudice, and many others. Like any dominant religion, Christianity has often been co-opted to justify abusing “outsiders” (however that term has been defined at different times in different places). But custom shouldn’t turn prejudices into Christian values.

4. Bias towards individuality. One of Jesus’ most mysterious phrases is “the Kingdom of God”. He said it a lot, and anyone who claims to know exactly what he meant by it is kidding somebody, most likely himself. Sometimes it sounds like a vision of an ideal future. Other times it seems more like a metaphor for the state of consciousness Jesus had achieved and was trying to teach. Once in a while it resembled an afterlife.

Nobody really knows. It’s even possible that Jesus meant different things at different times, or that the gospels occasionally misquote him.

But in the conservative theology I was taught growing up, the Kingdom of Heaven was a literal place that I could hope to reach after death. I’d get there as an individual, because we all have individual souls, which will be judged at the end of time. There’s no such thing as a collective soul (except in Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walter Wink’s creative reimagining of angels).

My teachers never admitted that all this stuff about souls is speculative. It’s not really spelled out anywhere in scripture. (If the sheep and goats story is supposed to be a description of literal events, it’s just about the only parable that is.) Heaven is speculative also, and (like the Devil) has meant different things in different eras.

Once you’ve made that speculative leap, though, any kind of social thinking is going to give you problems. If good and evil are only accounted for in judgments about individuals, then good and evil must only exist in individuals.

Systemic racism, then, can only be a heresy. If racism is evil, then that evil has to be accountable to individuals, not to systems. If stealing is a sin, then the man who steals a loaf of bread is guilty, and not the society that left him no other way to feed his family. If enslaving people is evil, then George Washington, Robert E. Lee, and many other people we might want to admire were evil. Slavery can’t be blamed on society, because society will never stand before St. Peter and be sent to Heaven or Hell. So maybe slavery wasn’t really so bad.

Theologians created these problems by going too far out on a limb. They’ve constructed a semi-logical structure around some hints in scripture, and that structure leads them into absurdities and injustices.

5. From apologetics to bad-faith denial. Apologetics is the art of using rational argument to support positions that originate in faith. It often looks like philosophy, but it isn’t, because practitioners aren’t reasoning in order to find truth. Instead, they believe they’ve already found truth through their faith, and are now just trying to persuade others. So apologists start with their conclusions already established, and try to tie them to convincing first principles via logic.

Apologetics can be an honorable practice if the apologists are open about what they’re doing. (And philosophy can even benefit if the arguments are sharp enough. Aquinas’ Summa Theologicae proudly claims to be apologetic, but philosophers still read it.) The practice goes back at least as far as the Middle Ages, and is still taught in seminaries.

But for most of its history, apologetics was an esoteric field of study. Parishioners in the pews might believe what they were taught or doubt it, but they didn’t really care whether St. Anselm’s proof of the existence of God was sound.

That all changed in the 19th century, when geologists discovered a world far older than Genesis described, and biologists developed a theory of human origins very different from God shaping Adam out of dust. Science was now invading turf that had previously belonged to religion, and many religious people believed they had to fight back.

That was the origin of fundamentalism.

But a problem soon became apparent: If you restrict yourself facts and logic, Genesis is just wrong. If you’re going to argue that it’s right (without invoking faith), you have to cheat. You have to make bad-faith scientific arguments and hope you can sell them. So fundamentalists did that. They’re still doing it.

The result was that fundamentalist churches encouraged their members to reason badly, and to accept any kind of nonsense if it supported a literal interpretation of the Bible. In essence, they built a back door into their members’ reasoning processes. But in the long run, that kind of corner-cutting always has unforeseen consequences. In the subsequent decades, self-induced gullibility has made fundamentalists prey to intellectual hackers and conmen of all sorts.

Today, motivated reasoning is the rule in Evangelical churches, and has spread to topics that have little to do with the Bible. So Evangelical churches have become centers of climate change denial and Covid denial, as well as hotbeds of Q-Anon conspiracy thinking. Rose-colored views of American history — where the Founders are latter-day prophets, slavery wasn’t really so bad, and the Native American genocide shouldn’t be examined too closely — are practically dogma among White Evangelicals.

Evolution denial established the notion that if enough people don’t want to believe some true thing, it’s OK for them to support each other in denying it. That genie is out of its bottle now, and it will work ever-greater mischief in conservative churches until they recognize the problem they have made for themselves.

The Divine Monarchy. When monotheism replaced polytheism, the Universe began to be viewed as a vast autocratic system. You can see the transition happening already in Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, written in the fifth century BC. There are still many gods at this point, but the sky god is sovereign to the point of tyranny. In the opening scene, the personification of Power explains to Hephaistos why he must complete the disagreeable job of chaining Prometheus to the mountain: “Zeus alone is free.”

Jesus often talked about the Kingdom of Heaven, but St. Paul supported worldly kings in Romans 13:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.

If we know that Heaven is a kingdom, then maybe Earth should be a kingdom too. Maybe we should find the godliest man we can (of course it has to be a man), and do whatever he says. (And by the way, have I told you about the lying, womanizing, unrepentant, Bible-illiterate conman all the other Christians are voting for? Maybe he’s the guy.)

Today, Christians talk about “Christ the King” and say “Jesus is Lord!” with the enthusiasm of football fans saying “We’re #1!” But again, Jesus never laid out his political theory. If you think you know what kind of theocracy Jesus wants you to establish, or even who Jesus thinks you should vote for, you’re standing at the end of a long chain of speculation.

I can’t tell you what Jesus would think, but I can tell you what I think: If that long chain of speculation has you supporting cruelty, and if it gets in the way of healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and welcoming the stranger, then you probably did it wrong.

Notes on the War in Ukraine

[This is really a collection of short notes rather than a coherent article, but there are so many of them I decided to split them off into their own post.]

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is in its second week now. Plan A was blitzkrieg: Occupation of the major cities, capture of Zelensky and the rest of the government, and NATO unable to get its act together on sanctions in time to matter. That plan failed due to fierce resistance from Ukrainians, poor planning and execution by the Russian army, and effective coordination between President Biden and the other NATO heads of state.

Plan B is the Grozny/Aleppo approach : bludgeon Ukraine into submission by knocking out utilities and shelling civilian areas. In the words of Tacitus: “They make a desert and call it peace.” That strategy will take longer, the Ukrainians might have too much spirit for it, and meanwhile the Russian economy is collapsing and oligarchs fear for their yachts.

Targeting of civilians appears to be deliberate. Negotiated evacuation corridors for refugees have failed.

In the country’s southeast, hopes that a second attempt to open up safe evacuation routes for civilians in Mariupol and Volnovakha might succeed — after a first effort failed on Saturday — were dashed within hours.

The governor of the Donetsk region, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said on Facebook on Sunday that the planned “evacuation convoy with local residents was never able to leave Mariupol today: the Russians began to regroup their forces and heavy shelling of the city. It is extremely dangerous to evacuate people in such conditions.”

This morning’s NYT says that US cargo planes full of weapons are still landing in Ukraine. [I got this wrong, as a commenter points out below. It’s a Ukrainian plane.]

So far, Russian forces have been so preoccupied in other parts of the country that they have not targeted the arms supply lines, but few think that can last.

Cargo planes are big slow targets. I’m not sure how the American public will react when we lose one.

Maybe the best single piece of advice for observing this war comes from Isaac Saul on the Tangle blog: “Don’t lose the plot.” There are a million ways to sidetrack discussions of Ukraine, and a million different rabbit-holes you can go down. And free people should be able to pursue any of those rabbits if they want to. But don’t lose the plot.

An authoritarian leader has invaded a country that posed no threat to him because he believes that country, and its 40 million innocent citizens, belong to him. He told his soldiers they’d be greeted as liberators, and instead they are rightly being greeted with guns and Javelin anti-tank missiles. NATO did not make Putin launch this war. Biden did not. Trump did not. Ukraine did not.

Putin did.

Nobody is being de-nazified and nobody is being liberated. Civilians are being slaughtered. Children are being slaughtered. Watch the extremely graphic videos of what’s happening if that is what it takes to understand it.

Young Russian soldiers are fighting a war they didn’t even realize they were being sent to. Fighters on both sides are dying, at first by the hundreds and now by the thousands. 18-year-old Ukrainian kids wearing kneepads are now headed to the front lines.

Some guy on the internet (Igor Sushko, apparently a Ukrainian race-car driver) claims to be posting a translation of an analysis he got from an analyst in the FSB (i.e., Russian intelligence). Authentic? I have no idea. But it is a fascinating view of the current situation.

The analyst claims that nobody at the FSB knew a Ukrainian invasion was in the works, so they thought the contingency planning was “only intended as a checkbox”. They skewed their analyses to come out well for Russia, because that’s what higher-ups wanted to hear. But now the invasion is really happening and sanctions have been imposed, so the nation is depending on these fantasy scenarios.

We have no analyses, we can’t make any forecasts in this chaos, no one will be able to say anything with any certainty

He paints a gloomy (for Russia) picture both of dealing with Western sanctions and of the logistics of maintaining a force big enough to occupy Ukraine.

And here’s a similar explanation for why the Russian army isn’t performing well.

The Kremlin spent the last 20 years trying to modernize its military. Much of that budget was stolen and spent on mega-yachts in Cyprus. But as a military advisor you cannot report that to the President. So they reported lies to him instead. Potemkin military

President Zelensky is asking for NATO to declare a no-fly zone over Ukraine. I understand why he wants that, but I also understand why NATO doesn’t want to do it.

A no-fly zone would mean that NATO planes patrol Ukrainian airspace and shoot down Russian planes that dare to go there. Russia has the world’s second-largest air force and might not back down easily, so maybe that works and maybe it doesn’t. But suppose it does. Russia’s next move is to shoot surface-to-air missiles at the NATO planes. Some of our planes will be shot down, and some NATO pilots will become prisoners of war.

Then NATO has to decide whether or not to defend its planes by targeting SAM launch sites. Now we’re directly killing Russian soldiers on the ground.

The question no one can answer is where this escalation pattern would stop. LBJ couldn’t answer it when the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968. Eisenhower couldn’t answer it when the Soviets invaded Hungary in 1956. And Biden can’t answer it now.

Two NATO presidents most likely to be targeted by Putin the future — Gitanas Nauseda of Lithuania and Alar Karis of Estonia — look at the no-fly-zone proposal differently. Nauseda is for it, but he hopes Putin won’t call NATO’s bluff and force NATO to shoot down Russian planes. “If we are decisive, maybe this is the best way to achieve peace.”

Karis is more skeptical: “You probably understand what that means: It means the Western world is going into a war with Russia, and that means NATO is not a defensive organization anymore. This is against our understanding of what NATO is.”

Both of them would welcome US troops being permanently based in their countries, which was not being considered before the Ukraine invasion.

Two articles about the effectiveness of Putin’s propaganda within Russia, especially among older Russians who get their news from official sources.

The NYT talked to several Ukrainians who have relatives back in Russia about how their relatives simply don’t believe them when they talk about the war. Misha Katsurin wondered why his father in Russia didn’t call to find out how he was doing in a war zone, so he called instead.

“He started to tell me how the things in my country are going,” said Mr. Katsurin, who converted his restaurants into volunteer centers and is temporarily staying near the western Ukrainian city of Ternopil. “He started to yell at me and told me, ‘Look, everything is going like this. They are Nazis.’”

The BBC has a similar article.

“My parents understand that some military action is happening here. But they say: ‘Russians came to liberate you. They won’t ruin anything, they won’t touch you. They’re only targeting military bases’.”

Too good a story to check:

In Kyiv a woman knocked down a Russian drone from a balcony with a jar of cucumbers.

And this is what it looks like when you toss a Molotov cocktail at Russian armor as you drive past.

One constant theme in the #Ukraine Twitter feed is a series of tweets and memes comparing Ukraine to Palestine, and calling out Western hypocrisy.

There is some racism and anti-Muslim prejudice involved in the different responses to Ukrainians and Palestinians, as I discussed last week. But the analogy only works up to a point: I see Ukraine/Russia as a much less morally ambiguous conflict than Palestine/Israel. I could discuss this at length, but the biggest difference is this: The Ukrainians are shooting at invading soldiers, not blowing up coffee shops in Moscow. If this conflict drags on for 75 years, Ukrainians may by then be blowing up coffee shops, but the morality of their cause will have become less clear-cut.

Here’s a painless way to get historical background on Ukraine, which is especially important in the face of Putin’s attempt to paint Ukraine as just another part of Russia.

Last week a commenter pointed out that I had ignored the story of racism against Afro-Ukrainians and foreigners of color as they try to escape the war. I found an informative podcast on the topic, which begins with how many Afro-Ukrainians come to be there: When the USSR was trying to promote Communism in Africa, Soviet universities accepted a large number of African students, some of whom stayed. Their children have never known any other home.

The Ukrainian comedy Servant of the People that made made Volodymyr Zelensky famous is available (with English subtitles) on YouTube.

Zelensky and Trump have switched places: Zelensky is a player on the world stage, while Trump has become a comedian.

Former president Donald Trump mused Saturday to the GOP’s top donors that the United States should label its F-22 planes with the Chinese flag and “bomb the s–t out of Russia. And then we say, China did it, we didn’t do it, China did it, and then they start fighting with each other and we sit back and watch.”

That proposal “was met with laughter from the crowd of donors, according to a recording of the speech obtained by The Washington Post.”

Wednesday, Gov. DeSantis segued from talking about Ukraine to gratuitously insulting France. This is why the current generation of Republicans can’t lead alliances. Trump nearly killed NATO, and DeSantis would be no improvement.

The NYT provides advice in case you’re worried about a Russian cyberattack on the US.

And where in American society do you think pro-Putin disinformation might take root? In anti-vax groups. And in the “freedom convoy“:

The conspiracy theory, which is baseless and has roots in QAnon mythology, alleges that Trump and Putin are secretly working together to stop bioweapons from being made by Dr. Anthony Fauci in Ukraine and that shelling in Ukraine has targeted the secret laboratories.

I wonder how long it will be before fringe MAGA politicians like Marjorie Taylor Greene or Matt Gaetz start dog-whistling to this segment of their base, and how long before Ron DeSantis et al start following them.

For now, though, Republicans are trying to cover up their long-standing love affair with Putin. The Daily Show would like to recommend medication to help them forget: Tyranol.

What Can We Know About Ukraine?

For weeks I under-covered the Ukraine crisis on this blog, largely because everything I read was speculative, and I didn’t know who to believe. US intelligence said Russia was going to invade. Russia said it wasn’t. Ukraine said maybe, but not just yet. Putin’s government had a long history of lying, but US intelligence’s record wasn’t spotless either. I didn’t feel like I knew anything, so I didn’t write anything. (I recommend this policy to others.)

When last week’s blog posted, things were starting to happen in the real world rather than in the imaginations of interested parties: Russia’s forces were staying in Belarus past the previously announced end of the two countries’ military exercises. The pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine were making weird announcements — ethnic Russians should evacuate to Russia to avoid “genocide” — whose purpose seemed to be to give Putin an excuse to invade and save them.

So it looked like something was going to happen, but it was still hard to say what. Maybe Putin was just trying to start a panic in Ukraine, and wouldn’t actually attack. Maybe he’d invade the Donbas provinces he said he wanted to “liberate”, but stop there. The Biden administration said an attack on the whole country was coming.

Well, now we know. Biden was playing it straight with us all along, and US intelligence must have some really good sources inside Russia. The invasion began on Thursday, as Russian troops advanced not just from the east, but from the north (Belarus) and south (Crimea). The whole-country invasion was on. Now Putin was pledging not just to liberate Donbas, but to “de-nazify” the entire country. (Why a Nazi government would be led by a Jewish president like Zelensky has never been adequately explained.)

Since Thursday, the fog of speculation has been replaced by the fog of war. The problem isn’t that we’re all trying to imagine what might happen once things get started, but that too much is happening and too many people are reporting it through their own (possibly distorted) lenses.

Putin’s mistake. Even so, one general conclusion from the last few days seems obvious: Putin guessed wrong.

If the Ukrainian government were what he had been claiming — a corrupt puppet regime imposed on the country by the West — it should have folded under pressure the way the American-established Afghan government did in August. Nobody takes David’s side against Goliath unless they really believe in David’s cause. But the Ukrainian army has been putting up much stiffer resistance than anyone expected, and ordinary Ukrainians (as well as celebrities who could easily opt out) are taking up arms to support the government. (Instead, it may be the Russian army that faces problems with desertion and poor morale, though it’s hard to get solid information about that issue.)

Putin also guessed wrong about NATO. During the Trump administration, NATO had seemed to be on the road to collapse. Trump called it “obsolete” and claimed it was a bad deal for America. He openly questioned whether the US should fulfill its treaty obligations to defend tiny NATO countries like Montenegro or the Baltic republics, if Russia should attack them. He frequently insulted NATO leaders while praising Vladimir Putin, even siding with Putin against US intelligence. (He’s still doing it.)

But rather than shattering under pressure, NATO has pulled together during the Ukraine crisis. Getting all the allies in line has often slowed down the actions Biden wanted to take in response to the Ukraine invasion, but not for long. Agreeing to remove major Russian banks from the SWIFT system, for example, took until Saturday. But it happened. Just about all of Europe has closed its airspace to Russian flights. Arms are flowing into Ukraine from all over Europe, including non-NATO Sweden. The EU is sending fighter planes.

In addition, Putin’s invasion has changed the politics of Europe, and not in his favor. Germany has decided to substantially increase defense spending (a result all of Trump’s nagging couldn’t accomplish). Finland is suddenly talking about NATO membership, and Sweden bristled at Russia’s warning of “serious military-political consequences” if it should decide to join. Even Switzerland is cooperating with some EU sanctions against Russian banks.

The result is that while Russian forces continue to advance on major Ukrainian cities, the operation is moving much more slowly than expected, and the Russians are taking much larger losses. His troops may yet occupy Kyiv and install a favorable government, but if Putin had been hoping for a quick Crimea-style victory that would present the world with a fait accompli and make sanctions (or guerilla resistance) seem pointless, he hasn’t gotten it.

Here’s this morning’s assessment from the NYT:

There was growing evidence that despite its superiority over Ukrainian forces, the Russian military was having difficulties getting a foothold in many regions around the country.

In Kyiv, Ukrainian soldiers have managed to keep most Russian troops out of the city center. In the northeastern city of Kharkiv, where Russian forces have been pounding outlying villages and neighborhoods with artillery, Russian troops briefly pushed into the city center on Sunday, but were driven back by Ukraine’s military, according to Ukrainian officials.

After a short respite, shelling again commenced on Saturday against Ukraine’s busiest port city, Odessa, but there was no sign the city was in danger of falling into Russian hands. And in Mariupol, another port city, the Russian navy’s first attempt to mount an amphibious assault was thwarted, though another effort was in the works, Ukrainian officials said.

Instead, talks between the Russian and Ukrainian governments have started. Probably nothing will come of them, because it’s hard to picture what concessions either side could offer at this point. But we’ll see. Meanwhile, the shooting continues.

Ukrainian morale. I spent much of the weekend glued to Twitter’s #Ukraine, where Ukrainians posted videos shot out their windows, and pictures of themselves and their neighbors, in addition to spreading stories and memes that are floating around in Ukraine. (In theory, anybody can post, including pro-Russian sources. But the tweets of Ukrainians and Ukrainian sympathizers have dominated.)

I had to keep resetting my cynicism filter. These are raw, unverified accounts, and many are posted by people who are trying to keep each other’s spirits up in the face of harrowing threats. Something you see posted ten times might be ten echoes of a single falsehood. (For half an hour, I was sure that hackers from Anonymous had taken over Russian state TV.) Undoubtedly mythmaking is happening, and maybe some of it is well-constructed propaganda. And yet it’s hard not to be moved by stories like

My thoughts keep coming back to this couple, who moved up their wedding date so they could be married before they went to war. “After their wedding, Arieva and Fursin, 24, a software engineer, prepared to go to the local Territorial Defense Center to join efforts to help defend the country.” I look at the picture below and wonder if they’re still alive. I hope so.

Twitter also provides many images of Ukraine’s incredibly photogenic women soldiers, from the first lady on down. And seeing Ukrainian MP Kira Rudik hold a Kalashnikov, as she prepares to defend her home, illuminates Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s gun fantasy. It’s like glimpsing the movie star who wears the dress your neighbor thinks she looks so good in.

And finally, there’s President Zelensky (who has to keep posting videos to refute Russian propaganda that he has left the country). As one tweet put it: “If Zelensky dies he’s a martyr. If he lives he’s a hero.”

Putin has worked so hard on his manly image; it must really gall him to see Zelensky upstage him like this.

International support. I wish I could remember where I saw this observation, but someone described Putin’s Ukraine invasion as the worst propaganda disaster since the Kaiser invaded neutral Belgium.

NATO countries that border Ukraine are all preparing for refugees. Suddenly the issues about immigrants have vanished. (I’m sure that being mostly White and Christian makes a difference.) #Ukraine tells of Romanians waiting at the border to offer Ukrainian refugee families a place to stay.

Rallies in support of Ukraine happened all over the world this weekend, like this one in Berlin.

The whole world seems to be lit up in Ukrainian yellow-and-blue.

Morale in Russia. The Russian soldiers have no idea why they’re fighting. Particularly in the western part of the country, Ukrainians clearly don’t want to be “liberated”. And because Ukrainians look and sound so much like Russians (and typically speak pretty good Russian), it’s hard to dehumanize them as “gooks” or “ragheads”, as Americans did in Vietnam and Iraq. Putin’s soldiers are killing their cousins, and they know it.

It’s very dangerous to protest in Russia these days, but thousands of people have been. From the outside, it’s hard to know whether that’s a radical fringe or the tip of a iceberg. Russian celebrities overseas have not denounced Putin directly, but many have spoken out generally against war and left the rest to our imaginations.

What is clear is that there is no broad upswelling of support for the invasion. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 was met with widespread jubilation inside Russia. That’s not happening now.

The delay in finishing off Ukrainian resistance is giving sanctions a chance to work. Ordinary Russians will soon feel the bite. The value of the rouble is plunging and there are worries of runs on sanctioned Russian banks.

Like its soldiers, Russia’s citizens don’t understand why this war is necessary. Putin can control the state TV, but information blockades are difficult these days, particularly when so many Russians have relatives in Ukraine. His claims about “liberating” and “de-nazifying” Ukraine can’t be very convincing. And while the government can hide its casualties for a while, eventually soldiers either communicate with their families or they don’t.

More worrisome to Putin, though, has to be the effect of sanctions on his fellow oligarchs. They’re losing billions, and losing access to the billions more they have stashed in the West. To the extent that Putin’s regime resembles a Mafia, the history of Mafia gang wars may apply: Often they end when one family’s capos decide that continuing the war is bad for business. They hit their own boss and make peace.

As Josh Marshall has laid out, none of this would matter if the Russian forces were having a quick and easy victory. The deed would be done, and the rest of the world would just have to get used to it, even if they didn’t like it. Ukrainians would be intimidated rather than angered. NATO politicians might posture, but in the absence of any effective actions to be taken, they would soon run out of steam.

But Ukraine is holding out, and that opens up all kinds of alternative futures.

What if public schools were the target all along?

Maybe the point of stoking phony issues like “critical race theory” is to make the whole notion of a public education seem untenable.

Every now and then, conservative pundits give Democratic politicians “helpful” advice, a practice related to concern trolling. Democrats could have so much more success, they tell us, if only we’d stop acting like — you know — Democrats. Give up on unions. Stop annoying White people by talking about racism, or men by calling out sexism. Abortion rights, climate change, police reform, gender equality, universal health care … it’s all just so much baggage. If Democrats would dump it and stand for nothing-in-particular, then we could appeal to that broad segment of the electorate that also stands for nothing-in-particular.

Or so they tell us.

Such advice should not be confused with actual Democrats lobbying for their priorities. No single campaign can be about everything, so there are always going to be debates about whether to emphasize your issue or my issue. And there’s always going to be a messaging discussion between those who want to focus on the next step (universal background checks) and those who would rather talk about the ultimate goal (stopping gun violence). Or whether some widely misunderstood slogan (“defund the police”) needs to be better explained, or maybe replaced with something that doesn’t need so much explanation.

That’s all normal intramural jostling. The Helpful Conservative, on the other hand, is usually suggesting some issue where we should just surrender: Write off the gays or the trans folk or the rights of Muslims; they’re unpopular, so you’d be better off without them.

The Helpful Conservative may or may not have read Sun Tzu, but he’s practicing The Art of War‘s most potent advice: The supreme strategy is to win without fighting. If liberals can be tempted into abandoning some part of their agenda, that victory that costs conservatives nothing.

While you should never take the Helpful Conservative at face value, there is still one good reason to pay attention to him: Sometimes his advice can help you cut through the confusing rhetoric of the moment and understand what the other side really wants.

Imagine no public schools. Earlier this month, Discourse, a journal published by the Koch-funded Mercatus Center at George Mason University, produced a classic piece of oh-so-helpful advice: “Dear Democrats: Here’s How to Save the Republic” by Robert Tracinski.

He sounds like such a nice man.

I am not one of you, but I would like to vote for you.

Of course you would, Robert. I believe you. I also believe that hot young babes want to be my Facebook friends. I’m sure they look just like the pictures they post.

More to the point, I would like independent voters—not to mention whole sections of the restive base of the two parties—to have a reasonable alternative to turn to, a standard to which the wise and honest can repair.

We need you to save the republic,

That’s great, Robert. Every night I drift off to sleep fantasizing about how I’m going to save the Republic. It’s so validating to hear that you also fantasize about me saving the Republic.

and here are my ideas for how to do it.

So by now the sugar-coating has dissolved in our stomachs and we start to digest the actual medicine.

His first suggestion is to get more housing built by eliminating environmental regulations, and I’ll just let that one pass without comment. (If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you can probably guess what I think.) But what caught my eye is the second suggestion: “End the School Wars”.

The “progressives” have tried to turn the schools into centers of indoctrination, pushing a tendentious narrative about “systemic racism.” The right has reacted with their own counter-attempt to control the schools, restricting discussion of certain ideas, policing school libraries and offering bounties to informants.

But most voters don’t want to be drafted into the culture wars. They want to be left alone, and they really want their kids to be left alone. The party that can offer a truce in the school wars will earn a lot of votes.

I have put forward one suggestion: school choice.

That “one suggestion” link goes to another Tracinski/Mercatus article that spells out what “school choice” means.

Imagine that instead of just shunting everyone into the public schools, your state government offered you a voucher or tax credit to spend on your child’s education. Do you want your kids to be inculcated with traditional values? Send them to a private religious school of the denomination of your choice. Do you want them to be so woke they can’t get to sleep at night? Fine, you can do that, too, and there are plenty of private schools that will accommodate you. Or, like the majority of us, do you want a school that will just teach the three R’s and leave you and your kids to iron out your political loyalties on your own? I suspect there will be quite a large market for this.

In other words: Do away with the public schools.

Just do that simple thing, and — poof! — all that bickering about Critical Race Theory and school mask mandates and book-banning and don’t-say-gay vanishes! All the right-wing demagogues will just have to go home! Fox News won’t know what to do with itself!

But on the other hand, maybe right-wingers will accept our surrendered territory and move on to the next battle, as Sun Tzu might suggest. The book-banning conflict, for example, could move on from the school library to the public library. (And look! There’s a plan to privatize all of them too.)

Once you start dissolving the ties that define a community, slowing transforming it into an atomized Ayn Rand sovereign-citizen utopia/dystopia, where do you stop? Managing any public resource leads to disagreement, and disagreement can lead to conflict. If someone fans that conflict to create division and hatred, they can always make a plausible case for disbanding the public resource so that we can all go our separate ways in peace. [1]

But what if that was the point of stoking the conflict to begin with? What if Mercatus isn’t making a helpful suggestion, but in fact is delivering the oligarchs’ ransom demand: Give up your public schools, and we’ll let the rest of your town live in peace.

The Siege of the Public Schools. I’m far from the first person to notice that the current conservative assault is taking its toll on public schools and their teachers. A week ago, a long Washington Post article detailed how confusing teachers in several states find the new anti-CRT laws.

Since the laws’ descriptions of what can’t be taught were written in terms of misconceptions spread by right-wing propaganda rather than by referencing actual curricula, it’s hard for teachers to know what they mean, or to be sure that tomorrow’s lesson plan won’t land them in a disciplinary hearing, or in court. Some bills vaguely prohibit teaching “divisive concepts“, while others set standards that are openly subjective: Students “should not be made to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race.” [2]

Some new laws imitate the Texas abortion ban by authorizing parents to enforce curriculum bans through the courts.

“What we’ve seen recently is, you can legislate things, like the Parents’ Bill of Rights, and sometimes the school districts don’t always follow it,” [Florida Governor Ron] DeSantis said. “We are going to be including in this legislation, giving parents private right of action to be able to enforce the prohibition on CRT and they get to recover attorney’s fees when they prevail.”

In New Hampshire, Moms For Liberty is offering a $500 reward to the first parent who catches a teacher breaking the state’s anti-CRT law, which could result in that teacher losing his or her license. There’s no wanted-dead-or-alive poster, and least not yet, but I’m sure teachers are picturing them.

Think about what this court-regulated system means in practice: There is no way to pre-clear your lesson plan or reading list. Because it doesn’t matter what your principal or superintendent or school board thinks “divisive concepts” means; you have to guess how some yet-to-be-assigned judge will interpret it.

So to be safe, teachers should teach nothing at all about race, or the history of racism in America. [3]

Ditto for sex and gender. A school board member in Flagler County, Florida filed a criminal complaint with the sheriff about the queer memoir All Boys Aren’t Blue being in high school libraries. Somebody, she thinks, should be prosecuted for that.

Florida’s Don’t-Say-Gay law, which is backed by Gov. DeSantis and seems on its way to passage, not only bans discussions of sex and gender that are not “age appropriate” (another concept that the law doesn’t define), but also requires teachers and school counselors to rat out kids who have confided in them about gender and sexual-preference thoughts they haven’t discussed with their parents. Parents can sue if they think the law is being violated.

Kara Gross, the legislative director and senior policy counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, provides another example: Elementary school students are assigned to draw pictures of their families and present them to their class. If a child being raised by a same-sex couples draws a picture of their two dads, Gross says, their teacher may face a decision between allowing the child to participate—and opening themselves and their school up to lawsuits—or excluding them from the exercise.

Again, it’s safest just to avoid talking to students about their lives outside of school. Stick to drilling them about the multiplication tables and spelling, or making them memorize dates of historical events rather than considering how those events shape the world they see around them.

The end result is that if you want your children to engage with schoolwork, and to understand that education isn’t just a set of hurdles to jump, but actually means something about their lives, you’re going to want to pull them out of public school.

And maybe that’s the point.

Whose agenda? When you begin to suspect that the public schools themselves are the target, you need to take a step back and ask: Whose target?

Because it’s crazy to argue that every angry parent who denounces “critical race theory”, whatever he or she means by that, is part of the conspiracy. Most of them are probably exactly what they appear to be: relatively normal folks who have come to imagine that something nefarious is happening inside their children’s schools.

Even that McMinn County school board member, the one who argued to kick the Holocaust graphic novel Maus out of the curriculum with this bizarre conspiracy theory:

So, my problem is, it looks like the entire curriculum is developed to normalize sexuality, normalize nudity and normalize vulgar language. If I was trying to indoctrinate somebody’s kids, this is how I would do it.

probably does not intend to destroy the public schools. Quite the opposite: He thinks he’s saving the public schools from a vast conspiracy to “indoctrinate” kids and “normalize” sexuality, nudity, and vulgarity.

But where do people get ideas like that? And how did so many parents all over the country come to all get upset about the same things at the same time, and to label their bête noire with an obscure law-school phrase that appears nowhere in the curricula they’re protesting? How did legislatures all over the country so quickly put forward virtually identical bills to fight this scourge that hardly anybody had heard of a year ago?

There’s definitely a spontaneous element to this movement, but the overall shape of it is not spontaneous at all. There’s money behind this, and organization. Who are the funding-and-organizing people? What do they want?

I think they’re telling us what they want. They’ve whipped up a mob with lies and deception, and now they’re sending some pleasant well-mannered folks to tell us what we can do to make that mob go away.

Until they want the next thing, and then the mob will be back. Because the oligarchs never run out of dark fantasies they can spread, or gullible people who will believe them.

[1] Ignoring, of course, the Hobbesian war of all-against-all that is bound to follow, once we stop viewing each other as members of the same community.

[2] I suspect that in practice such laws will only protect White students. What if some Hispanic students are made uncomfortable by lessons about the Alamo or the Mexican/American War? Will their concerns get equal attention?

[3] Try to come up with an acceptable way to talk about slave-owners in the pre-Civil-War slave states. If you say that many of them were decent people doing the best they could inside an unjust system, you’re teaching “systemic racism”, which is banned. And the alternative view is what? That each one of them, individually, was an evil bastard? Might some descendants of slave-owners “feel discomfort” when they hear that?

The only option left, then, if decent White people were individually responsible for slavery, is to teach that enslaving people isn’t necessarily bad.

Who Should You Back in the Midterm Elections?

Deciding what to do with your time and money is the rare instance where speculating about the political horse race makes sense.

One of things I criticize most about American media’s coverage of politics is the endless horse-race speculation: Who’s going to run? Who can win? What issues will the voters respond to, and what positions will they support? What do the polls say about elections that won’t be held until after a whole lot of things have changed?

Speculating about the future is engaging and easy. It fills airtime cheaply, and nobody ever suffers for being wrong.

Endless conversation about things that might never happen is an entertaining way to cover sports, where fans love to argue about who should be traded for who, or where some hot free agent will land. But sports are fundamentally about entertainment; politics shouldn’t be. For the most part, the time we spend speculating about the future draws our attention away from what is happening here and now, and what our leaders are doing about it.

There is one exception, though, and I’m about to invoke it. In every election cycle, people who want to affect the direction of the country have to decide who they’re going to support with their time and/or money. You can’t work for everybody and you can’t give to everybody, so you have to make choices.

One way to choose is to follow your heart; if some candidate inspires you, devote your resources to helping them. Another strategy is to take a pragmatic approach more like triage: There are inspiring candidates who are going to win with or without the help of people like you. (AOC has gotten over 75% of the vote in both of her races.) Other races are lost causes. (It would be great to beat Republican Speaker-in-waiting Kevin McCarthy, but he won by nearly 25 points in 2020, and every prognosticating outlet rates his seat as safe.) So you want to give a push to candidates who might or might not win, depending on whether people like you rally around them.

Most of us do something in between. We’d like to simultaneously feel good about our candidates and make a difference in the outcome. That means looking at races that could go either way and seeing how we feel about the candidates involved.

Figuring out which races those are requires speculation. So that’s what we’ll do this week. (But I’ll try not to make a habit of it.)

The overall climate. Conventional wisdom says that 2022 is going to be a bad year for Democrats, for a number of reasons:

  • Off-year elections usually go badly for the party in power.
  • The marginal voters Democrats depend on are less likely to show up in non-presidential cycles.
  • Biden’s popularity is low.

The current generic-ballot polls (would you rather vote for a Republican or a Democrat?) have the GOP ahead by 3.3%. If that holds up, gerrymandering produces a substantial Republican majority in the House. Generally, Democrats have to win nationally by at least 3% to break even. In 2020, they won nationally by 3.1%, which netted them a narrow 9-vote House majority. By contrast, a 1.1% Republican win in 2016 produced a 47-seat majority. (So Republicans are right when they say the system is rigged. It’s rigged in their favor.)

And who knows, things might play out that way. But November is still 9 months off, and there are other factors that could turn the situation around.

  • The Republican primaries may fracture the party, producing damaged candidates either too Trumpy to win or not Trumpy enough to mobilize the base. Nominating bad candidates lost the Republicans Senate seats they should have won in Missouri in 2012 and in Alabama in 2017, just to name the two most obvious cases.
  • The GOP has no agenda, which should become more apparent as election day approaches. In general, Democrats are running to do good things, while Republicans are running to stop bad things. Republicans only win if the public is in a sour mood, which it currently is, but may not be in a few months.
  • A lot of that sour mood is the public’s frustration with Covid, which might not be as big a factor by November.
  • By November, inflation should be slowing down, but Biden’s job growth numbers will still be something to brag about. Moody Analytics Chief Economist Mark Zandi writes: “The hair-on-fire discourse over high inflation is understandable, but it’s overdone.”
  • The Democratic base could get energized if the Supreme Court reverses Roe in June, as it seems they will.
  • As the legal net closes around Donald Trump, he may decide to take the GOP down with him.

Summary: As you go into the midterm elections, be realistic but not fatalistic. The future isn’t written yet.

The Senate. The current Senate has 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans. 34 seats are up for election in 2022; 14 held by Democrats and 20 held by Republicans. Wikipedia has a table of how four different well-regarded sites rate the elections. They don’t all agree, but most tilt slightly towards Republican control. The most pessimistic is Inside Elections, which favors Republicans in all their current seats, but thinks three Democratic seats are toss-ups: Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada, Raphael Warnock in Georgia, and Mark Kelly in Arizona. Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire also faces a tight race, though she’s currently favored to win.

All these predictions are subject to the same possible turns of the tide that I listed above. Raphael Warnock’s seat in Georgia is a good example. Current polling has Trump-endorsed Republican candidate Herschel Walker ahead of Warnock by 1%. But other than his name recognition from winning the Heisman playing football at University of Georgia in 1982, Walker is a terrible candidate. He’s not very articulate (especially if you put him on a stage next to Warnock, who is extraordinary), he has no political philosophy to speak of beyond loyalty to Trump, and he has a history of violence, domestic abuse, and mental illness. (No wonder Trump likes him.)

And finally, let’s be honest: A lot of the White racist voters Republicans need are going to lose interest in a contest between two Black guys. Republicans have a history of fantasizing about Black candidates like Colin Powell, Herman Cain, and Ben Carson, but changing their minds sometime before election day. Right now, when all most voters know about Walker is his name and his football career, is probably Walker’s peak.

But anyway, if you’re inclined to play defense, look at Warnock, Kelly, Cortez Masto, and Hassan to see who you feel best about. Warnock would be my choice, though I have supported Hassan in the past when I lived in New Hampshire.

If you expect Democrats’ fortunes to improve and want to play offense, the states to look at are Wisconsin (Ron Johnson), Pennsylvania (Pat Toomey is retiring), and North Carolina (Richard Burr is retiring). Of these, the most satisfying outcome would be to boot Covid-misinforming, coup-sympathizing Ron Johnson out of the Senate. The problem is that the Democratic challenger won’t be chosen until the August 9 primary. The current front-runner is Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes. I worry a little about the rural Republican base getting energized to fight a Black candidate from Milwaukee, but my quick look at Barnes suggested an Obama-like charm that might protect him. He did win statewide office as Tony Evers’ running mate in 2018.

Pennsylvania’s primary won’t be until May, and there is still a large field. But to me the promising candidate is Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman. He’s a little off-the-wall, but in a folksy way that should make him hard to demonize. (“John and Gisele have chosen not to settle in the Lt. Governor’s Mansion, instead opening up the pool in the official residence to children who typically wouldn’t have access to one. They live with their three children Karl, 12, Gracie, 10, and August, 7, in a restored car dealership in Braddock with the family dog, Levi.”) But if you hold the run-a-moderate-in-swing-states theory, Rep. Conor Lamb is probably your best bet.

In North Carolina, the field is wide and the primary is in May. The current favorite is Cheri Beasley, who was the first Black woman to be chief justice of the state supreme court. She narrowly lost a re-election campaign in 2020.

If you’re really ambitious, you might hope to knock off Marco Rubio in Florida. You’ve got a strong candidate to work with: Rep. Val Demings, who was on the short list to be Biden’s vice president.

The House. House races don’t get as much national attention as Senate races, so finding one you want to get involved in is harder (unless you happen to live a swing district with a good candidate). On the other hand, you’re more likely to have an influence on a smaller race.

In general, the people you would feel best about beating — Marjorie Taylor Green, Matt Gaetz, Jim Jordan, Paul Gosar, etc. — are in very safe Republican districts. (That’s why they can be as extreme as they are.) I keep getting email from a Democratic guy running for MTG’s seat, and I definitely feel the temptation, but I keep reminding myself that there are more effective things to do than tilt at that particular windmill.

If you don’t have a good local candidate to support, take a look at the 16 crossover districts identified by Sabato’s Crystal Ball. These are House districts that elected a representative from one party, but voted for the other presidential nominee. In other words, they seem like races that could go either way, and so are obvious places to attack or defend.

In Maine-2, for example, Democrat Jared Golden was re-elected by 6.1% in 2020, while Biden was losing the district by 7.4%. In New York-24, Republican John Katko won by 10.2% while Biden was winning by 9.1%.

Sadly, the crossover Republicans tend to be the most reasonable people in their conference, so beating them won’t be all that satisfying. Katko, for example, voted to impeach Trump and negotiated the deal for a bipartisan January 6 commission that the rest of his party rejected. Possibly seeing the handwriting on the wall from both left and right, he’s retiring.

Likewise, if you’re on the leftward wing of the Democratic Party, the crossover Democrats aren’t likely to make your heart beat faster. Ron Kind is retiring, and of the remaining six, only Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania-8 has a 2020 GovTrack ideology rating more liberal than Nancy Pelosi; he was the 58th most conservative of 237 House Democrats while Pelosi was 48th.

Other seats rated as toss-ups are CA-22, CA-27, CA-45, CO-8, IL-17, IA-3, KS-3, MI-3, MI-7, MI-8, NM-2, NY-11, VA-2, and WA-8.

Governorships and other state offices. At this distance from November, it’s hard to guess which governor’s races will be competitive. For what it’s worth, the races that look close to outside experts are: Arizona, Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

Other than Kansas, those are precisely the Biden states Trump tried to steal, so having a Democratic governor in place in 2024 might be pretty important. Other than Arizona, where Gov. Ducey has been term-limited out, they all have Democratic governors now. Republican primary candidates are competing to see who can take the most extreme positions about the 2020 election, with most saying they would not have certified the results. (In Arizona, Trump-endorsed Kari Lake has pushed it even further: She said “I agree” when a crowd of her supporters chanted “Lock her up” about Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs.)

For similar reasons, you might want to support Democratic candidates in purple-state Secretary of State races that you’ve never cared about before. Republican candidates are basically promising to cheat, if that’s what it takes to put their favorite fascist back in the White House.

Two gubernatorial races that seem like long shots would be very satisfying to win: booting out Ron DeSantis in Florida and Greg Abbott in Texas. Abbott’s approval ratings are negative, but it remains to be seen whether Beto O’Rourke can cash in on that. DeSantis seems to be in better shape.

Local races. As we’ve seen in recent weeks, state legislatures and local school boards make important decisions. And as the Supreme Court whittles away at the power of the federal government (at least until Republicans can get back in control), that trend will only increase.

Local races are often the most satisfying to work on. You’re shoulder-to-shoulder with the candidate and working with your neighbors. And who knows? Once you get involved in local politics, you might find yourself running for office yourself someday.

Racism in the NFL

The lack of coaching opportunities for Blacks in the NFL is more than just the usual it’s-hard-to-break-into-management problem, and a new lawsuit explores why.

As far back as 1908, when Jack Johnson won the heavyweight boxing championship, sports have been a prime setting for America to work out its racial issues. Blacks might have been barred from most opportunities to excel, and what they managed to accomplish in spite of racial barriers could usually be minimized. But sporting events have objective outcomes. In the 1930s, for example, Whites who wanted to downplay Black achievements could claim that jazz wasn’t really music. But they couldn’t claim that Jesse Owens wasn’t really fast.

In sports, the 20th century was a long story of racial barriers falling and Black athletes succeeding. In 1947, Jackie Robinson was the only Black player in the major leagues. But he became the rookie of the year that season, and by 1949 he was the National League’s most valuable player. Willie Mays entered the league in 1951, and Hank Aaron in 1954. By 1981, the major leagues were 18.7% Black, but then percentages began to fall, possibly because Black athletes drifted into other sports. In 2016, major league baseball players were 63.7% White, 27.4% Hispanic, 6.7% Black, and 2.1% Asian.

Basketball is the sport most dominated by Black players: In 2020, about 3/4 of NBA players were Black, a number that has been relatively stable for some while. The change from majority White to majority Black happened fairly quickly: The first three Black players entered the league in 1950. By 1957, Bill Russell was the most important player in a Celtic dynasty that would win 11 championships in the next 13 years. Whether White owners and executives continued to have racist beliefs or not, there was no arguing with that kind of success.

The story of race in the National Football League has always been more complicated. The NFL had a handful of Black players when it was getting started in the 1920s, but instituted an informal color barrier from 1933 to 1946. That barrier was broken not through the efforts a crusading White general manager like baseball’s Branch Rickey, but out of legal necessity: When the Cleveland Rams moved to Los Angeles in 1946, they played in the publicly-owned Los Angeles Coliseum. Public accommodations couldn’t be segregated even in that era, so the Rams needed at least one Black player. The Washington Redskins became the last team to integrate in 1962, when the Kennedy administration similarly threatened not to let them play in a stadium on federally-controlled land.

The quarterback mystique. But even as Black athletes in many sports succeeded in blowing up the myth of White superiority, racism established a fallback position: Some Blacks might possess a raw animal physicality, but only Whites had the intellectual and moral virtues that made athletes truly admirable.

And so an article about base-stealing baseball players might emphasize a Black player’s blazing speed, but a White player’s painstaking analysis of pitchers and their moves. Black basketball players might be imposing Goliaths like Wilt Chamberlain, but (as the sports magazines of my youth told the story) White players compensated through smarts, hard work, and an indomitable will to succeed. That racial distinction was rarely spelled in so many words, but whenever I heard an athlete described as “crafty” or “scrappy”, I could be pretty sure he was White.

Baseball and basketball are inherently egalitarian sports — everybody bats, anybody can shoot — so this pro-White image-making had limited effects. But football is more corporate and specialized. In particular, a racial mystique developed around the quarterback position: Of course arm strength and other physical gifts mattered, but intangible (White) qualities like leadership and courage were more important, and quarterbacks needed the (White) mental capacity to analyze defenses and make sound decisions under pressure.

As a result, it took decades for football’s conventional wisdom to recognize that Black athletes could be good quarterbacks. The prophecy was self-fulfilling: High school and college coaches didn’t want to “waste their time” training unsuitable Black players to be quarterbacks, so by the time the quarterback pipeline reached the NFL, it contained mostly White players. As that pipeline combined with NFL coaches’ own racial preconceptions, Black NFL quarterbacks remained exceptional and usually had short careers until Warren Moon and Randall Cunningham became stars in the 1980s.

Naturally, if Black athletes lacked the cerebral and moral virtues needed to be good quarterbacks, it followed that they couldn’t be good coaches either. All sports have had racial barriers to management positions, as the larger society still does in many fields. (Bill Russell once explained the dominance of Black players in the NBA by semi-seriously observing that young Black men weren’t distracted by their opportunities in banking.) But no other sport has such a wide gap between its majority of Black players and its tiny number of Black coaches: 69% of players are Black, but only one of the 32 head coaches (Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers). With only a slightly higher percentage of Black players, the NBA has seven Black head coaches.

Until a few weeks ago, Brian Flores of the Miami Dolphins had been a second Black head coach. But he was fired at the end of the season, a move that seemed mysterious: In 2019, Flores had joined a team mired in mediocrity. The Dolphins had managed only one winning season out of the previous ten. His first season had been even worse: 5-11. But then he turned the team around, going 10-6 in 2020 and 9-8 in 2021. 2021 had seemed like two different seasons: The team had started 1-7 (and if Flores had been fired then, it would made some sense), but then finished 8-1. Teams that finish with that kind of spurt usually have high hopes for the next season. They don’t usually fire the head coach. So Miami’s Channel 4 seemed a bit puzzled:

During a Monday morning news conference, the primary issues [team owner Stephen] Ross cited for the decision to fire Flores seemed to have little to do with the on-field product and more with communication within the team’s braintrust — though there were no specific examples offered of how the team determined Flores wasn’t the right fit in those regards.

Anyway, life in the NFL. Flores moved on to apply for other coaching vacancies. And then, for a minute, it seemed like he had found something. The Patriots’ Bill Belichick — Flores had been his defensive coordinator during the Super Bowl winning 2018 season — sent Flores a text congratulating him on landing the New York Giants head coaching job.

The weird thing was, Flores hadn’t heard anything and hadn’t even interviewed for the job yet. That was supposed to happen in a few days. After a quick back-and-forth it turned out that Belichick had gotten the wrong Brian: The Giants had decided to hire Brian Daboll, a White coach who had also been a Belichick assistant at one point.

But even though they were telling people like Belichick that the decision was made, the Giants didn’t inform Flores. They went ahead with his interview, then announced that Daboll was their new coach.

Why they would do that has a simple answer: the Rooney Rule.

Rooney Rule. Named after former Pittsburgh Steeler owner Dan Rooney, the Rooney Rule says that NFL teams have to interview non-White candidates for coaching and management jobs. It puts no quota on hiring, but Black candidates at least have to get in the door.

It was established in 2003 after a similar controversy: Tampa Bay had just fired coach Tony Dungy (who would later win a Super Bowl in Indianapolis), and Minnesota had sacked Dennis Green (after his first losing season in ten years). A study showed that Black NFL coaches had, on average, better records than White coaches, but were less likely to be hired and more likely to be fired.

Clearly, the rule didn’t solve the problem. Nearly 20 years later, the NFL is down to one Black coach again. Instead, the rule has become a box-checking exercise, in which Black coaching candidates are put through charade interviews without being seriously considered.

They have long suspected this, but the Belichick text was the first time it could be established in a particular case.

The Flores lawsuit. Tuesday, Flores filed a lawsuit in federal court in New York (where the NFL is headquartered). It’s a class-action suit on behalf of

All Black Head Coach, Offensive and Defensive Coordinators and Quarterbacks Coaches, as well as General Managers, and Black candidates for those positions during the applicable statute of limitations period

The suit asks the court to declare the league in violation of several non-discrimination laws, to award monetary damages (both compensatory and punitive), and for

injunctive relief necessary to cure Defendants’ discriminatory policies and practices

And that’s where it gets interesting. What would a court have to do to “cure” the NFL of racism?

The problem is that each team hires only one head coach at a time, and those decision depend on subjective judgements: How well does this coach’s management style fit the team’s vision and the talent on the field?

So far this year, five of the nine coaching vacancies have been filled (all by White coaches), but it’s hard to pick out any one of them as a racist decision. The Jaguars, for example, just hired Doug Pederson, who in his last job won the Super Bowl with a back-up quarterback.

The fact that a coin comes up heads once doesn’t prove it’s rigged. But if it keeps coming up heads again and again, it probably is.

What Flores claims. Several of the specific charges in Flores’ lawsuit have gotten attention from the media, but not enough attention has been paid to the suit’s larger narrative.

For example, the accusation that Dolphins’ owner Ross offered Flores a bonus for losing games so that the team could get a better draft pick (an officially denied practice known as “tanking”), has been widely reported. But the larger implication is that hiring Flores in the first place was a sham: He wasn’t hired to succeed; he was hired to be the fall guy for losing seasons that would build a team that some other coach (presumably White) could lead to victory in the future.

Another former Black coach (Hue Jackson of the Cleveland Browns) has told a confusing story that supports Flores up to a point: At first he seemed to imply that he also was offered money to tank, but later backed off to claim only that the management above him was trying to lose.

I told [the Browns’ owner] that what he was doing was very destructive, to not do this because it’s going to hurt my career and every other coach that worked with me and every player on the team. And I told him that it would hurt every Black coach that would follow me. And I have the documents to prove this.

The Miami tanking scheme (which Flores obviously did not implement), also throws a different light on the official explanation of poor “communication within the team’s braintrust” as a reason to get rid of him.

In other words, the NFL’s problem is even bigger than the numbers suggest: Of the few Black coaches hired, how many were hired to take the blame for an intentional failure?

Prospects. The Federalist Society, which wouldn’t be able to find racism in a Confederate plantation, outlines the difficulties Flores’ suit will run into in the hardball world of anti-discrimination law.

What the lawsuit doesn’t contain, however, is actual proof that the NFL is a systemically racist organization and needs to be punished for discriminatory behavior.

Most of Flores’ allegations don’t come close to proving legally actionable systemic discrimination, which must involve finding racist intent or internal statistical “patterns” of inequity. He points out that the NFL currently employs only one black head coach (and three minority head coaches, counting Ron Rivera and Robert Saleh) in Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers. But judging an organization by one year of results is not actionable.

I agree with their analysis this far: Flores can’t win purely on the evidence that he cites in his complaint. But the class-action lawsuit is an open invitation for other Black coaches and coaching candidate to join his class. Hue Jackson is telling his story. How many others will chime in?

Informally, there’s a lot of sympathy with Flores. I’ve heard ESPN analysts quote unnamed Black coaches saying “I’ve been on that interview” where Rooney-rule boxes are checked without any real chance at a job. But does that mean they’ll come forward?

At some point, it’s not just about the law. The NFL needs public support. The racist blackballing of Colin Kaepernick is already a stain on the league, and so is the race-norming in the original concussion settlement. (Until a new settlement in June, Black players had a harder time claiming cognitive impairment, because the assumed baseline for cognitive function was lower for Blacks. In laymen’s terms: The league assumed Black players had less brainpower to lose.) Independent of what a judge might say, the NFL just can’t have a parade of Black players and coaches testifying about its racism.

And finally, there’s the discovery process. If Flores can get a look at NFL teams’ internal communications, who knows what he’ll find? The NFL is run by billionaires, and billionaires often assume the rules don’t apply to them.