No Sift next week. The next new posts will appear May 2.

Consolidating control is not the way to protect democracy and enhance free expression

Samir Jain,
director of policy at the Center for Democracy and Technology

This week’s featured post is “Elon and Twitter“.

This week everybody was talking about Elon Musk’s bid for Twitter

That’s the subject of the featured post.

and the Ukraine War

Ukrainian missiles sunk the Moskva, a guided-missile cruiser that was the flagship of the Russian Black Sea fleet. Russia disputed claims that Ukraine was responsible, instead saying just that a fire broke out (which is undoubtedly true, if not complete). After initially saying it didn’t know, US intelligence eventually confirmed the Ukrainian account.

If you want to speculate on exactly how this happened, Naval News postulates a chain of Russian failures rather than one clever Ukrainian tactic.

Ukrainian forces are still holding on to the Azov Sea port of Mariupol, but it could fall at any moment. Currently, Mariupol is the only holdout between Russian forces in the Donbas and those in Crimea.

Eliminationist Russian rhetoric towards Ukraine (which I noted last week) is spreading. The Washington Post characterizes it as “genocidal speech” and gives these examples:

On state television, a military analyst doubled down on Russia’s need to win and called for concentration camps for Ukrainians opposed to the invasion.

Two days later, the head of the defense committee in the lower house of parliament said it would take 30 to 40 years to “reeducate” Ukrainians.

And on a talk show, the editor in chief of the English-language television news network RT described Ukrainians’ determination to defend their country as “collective insanity.”

“It’s no accident we call them Nazis,” said Margarita Simonyan, who also heads the Kremlin-backed media group that operates the Sputnik and RIA Novosti news agencies. “What makes you a Nazi is your bestial nature, your bestial hatred and your bestial willingness to tear out the eyes of children on the basis of nationality.”

WaPo searched for an expert assessment.

Ruth Deyermond, a Russia expert in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, said such arguments are “hard to read in any other way than a justification for mass killing. It’s extremely disturbing language and clearly has genocidal overtones. It’s not that they, Ukrainians, have a Führer or a political ideology or a Nazi system. They’re just Nazi.”

Long but interesting background reading: Retired Lieutenant General Mark Herling tells stories about his interactions over the years with both the Russian and Ukrainian militaries. When he first interacted with them, both were corrupt and inept. But the Ukrainians worked to get better.

A Finnish writer explains one way Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has backfired: Finland wasn’t planning to join NATO, but now many Finns think it must.

and the pandemic

I’ve described the last few weeks as a stalemate between the fading of the previous Covid wave and the start of the next one. The battle line was around 30K new cases per day.

This week the new wave made a decisive breakthrough. Cases are now running at about 38K per day. Hospitalizations and deaths are still headed downward. I’d expect hospitalizations to turn upward in a week or two, but whether deaths turn around is an interesting question. More and more of the infected people have at least some resistance from either a vaccination or a previous infection. Also, treatments keep improving. So maybe deaths, which have come down to about 500 per day from peaks over 3000 in January of 2021 and a recent peak over 2600 in early February of this year, can stay around 500 for a while.

Nate Silver tweets some interesting numbers:

Some tangible indications of the return to “normal” pre-pandemic social behavior in the US: Restaurant reservations = 100% of pre-pandemic levels MLB attendance = 100% of pre-pandemic levels Air travel = 90% of pre-pandemic levels

Tucker Carlson spoke at a church and told them he isn’t vaccinated, something he has never revealed before during his many anti-vax rants. Jimmy Kimmel doesn’t believe him:

Tucker Carlson is the vaccine equivalent of the guy on the Titanic who dresses as a woman to get on the lifeboat first. The sickest part is his audience is mostly scared and impressionable senior citizens, who happen to be the most vulnerable group when it comes to Covid. This is like selling Girl Scout cookies outside a diabetes clinic. But I’m glad to see the church welcoming prostitutes, as Jesus taught us to do.

and presidents’ relatives involved in corruption

I have to be careful about covering this topic without engaging in whataboutism. The fact that what Jared Kushner did is so much worse than what Hunter Biden is accused of is not an excuse for ignoring Biden.

Since the point of whataboutism is to avoid discussing something bad about your own side, let’s start with Hunter Biden. Frank Figliuzzi at MSNBC outlines what needs to be investigated there.

Hunter Biden’s contract with [Chinese energy company] CEFC is questionable not only because of the large sums involved in return for services that he appears ill-suited to provide, but also because of the characters it brought him in contact with.

Figliuzzi, a former counter-intelligence director at the FBI, sees this as part of a larger pattern of foreign adversaries attempting to form relationships with people close to powerful figures. Hunter Biden is supposed to have closed off business dealings with CEFC before his father became president, and

We may never know precisely what executives, said to be affiliated with the Chinese government, thought the Bidens could do for them.

But at a minimum this is an example of bad judgment. Democrats have been slow to take any of this seriously because the previous conspiracy theories about Hunter and Ukraine were so badly overblown. But if Biden did something illegal, the law should apply to him the way it would to anyone else.

Now let’s talk about Jared Kushner.

Six months after leaving the White House, Jared Kushner secured a $2 billion investment from a fund led by the Saudi crown prince, a close ally during the Trump administration, despite objections from the fund’s advisers about the merits of the deal.

… But days later the full board of the $620 billion Public Investment Fund — led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler and a beneficiary of Mr. Kushner’s support when he worked as a White House adviser — overruled the panel [of advisers].

Ethics experts say that such a deal creates the appearance of potential payback for Mr. Kushner’s actions in the White House — or of a bid for future favor if Mr. Trump seeks and wins another presidential term in 2024.

You don’t say. Hunter Biden was close to a powerful figure, and we can’t identify an actual quid-pro-quo. It looks like the Chinese just wanted to generally get in good with the Bidens.

Kushner, on the other hand, was himself a powerful figure who repeatedly did favors for the Saudis, and for MBS personally, while he was in office. And now he’s gotten his payment.

and culture wars

The Missouri House was debating an amendment that would ban trans students from school sports (one of several anti-trans bills in the Missouri legislature this term) when Ian Mackey, a gay Democratic legislator from St. Louis, blew his top. It’s worth listening to. Speaking directly to the amendment’s sponsor, Mackey said,

I was afraid of people like you growing up. … Gentlemen, I’m not afraid of you any more. Because you’re going to lose. You may win this today, but you’re going to lose.

State Rep. Martha Stevens, a Democrat from Columbia (site of Missouri’s flagship state university) also wasn’t inclined to be polite about Republican legislators scoring political points by attacking children.

It makes my blood boil and the same time it breaks my heart that children have to keep traveling to this capitol to face adults, elected officials, … that they have to come down here and justify their existence.

Both speeches are several minutes longer than those excerpts, and are well worth your attention.

Last month, I told you about a librarian getting fired in Llano, Texas because she resisted conservative censorship. Yesterday, The Washington Post added a lot of detail about the right-wing-Christian takeover of the Llano public library system.

“God has been so good to us … please continue to pray for the librarians and that their eyes would be open to the truth,” Rochelle Wells, a new member of the library board, wrote in an email. “They are closing the library for 3 days which are to be entirely devoted to removing books that contain pornographic content.”

[Local parent Leila] Green Little [who has started an anti-censorship group] said little is known about what administrators did during the time the libraries were closed. The book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” a work about systemic racism by Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist Isabel Wilkerson, has mysteriously vanished, and the fate of several other works remains unknown, she said.

A library board of political appointees is meeting secretly to make decisions about what books to keep or purchase.

An English teacher at Greenfield High School in Greenfield, Missouri has been fired for teaching “critical race theory”. Her offense was distributing a worksheet “How Racially Privileged Are You?” to prepare the class for reading the award-winning young-adult novel Dear Martin. (The novel is about a Black teen-ager in Atlanta who tries to make sense of his run-in with police, and more generally his life as a Black scholarship student in a predominantly White prep school, by writing a series of letters to the spirit of Martin Luther King.)

The worksheet is a list of 15 true/false questions for readers to answer about their own experiences, like: “I can go shopping alone most of the time and feel sure that I will not be followed or harassed.” and “I can be pretty sure that if I ask to speak to ‘the person in charge’ I will be facing someone of my own race.”

A letter from the Superintendent Chris Kell

stated this reason: “Your decision to incorporate the worksheet associated with the novel ‘Dear Martin,’ due to the content and subject matter.”

In a subsequent interview with the News-Leader, [Kell said the vote was not unanimous. He said the vote not to rehire Morrison went against his recommendation and that of the high school principal.

What probably drew complaints is the scoring scale at the bottom of the worksheet. The upper range of scores sits above the statement:

You are privileged. You may or may not know it. It means a lot of other people in the world don’t live life with the advantages you have, and that’s something you should always be aware of, as you can use your voice to help those who are marginalized.

Incidents like these make it clear what anti-CRT laws are trying to protect White students from: learning about the existence of racial privilege in America. It’s very important that White teens who “may not know” about their privilege remain ignorant.

The Florida Department of Education announced Friday that it is banning 54 of the math textbooks submitted for use in Florida public schools.

28 (21 percent) are not included on the adopted list because they incorporate prohibited topics or unsolicited strategies, including CRT.

FDoE’s announcement gave no examples to illustrate how the math books were teaching critical race theory. The Miami Herald explains the larger process, and why math books are the current targets:

The state has a textbook adoption cycle that rotates through subjects every six years. When buying books for their schools, districts turn to the state’s approved list to make sure they align with state standards. Next up is social studies, and many educators have predicted the effort will be more confrontational than in past years

In DeSantis Newspeak, textbooks have to be banned in order to stop “attempts to indoctrinate students”.

A lawsuit challenging Florida’s Don’t Say Gay law is calling out the law’s vagueness as implicit discrimination. While the text doesn’t specifically target LGBTQ discussions,

the law plainly isn’t intended to ban discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity related to “non-LGBTQ people.” It doesn’t intend to ban a teacher from presuming “the normalcy of opposite-sex attraction while teaching literature,” or to ban “run of the mill references” to people’s heterosexuality.

So the suit argues that under the measure, “anyone who discusses or acknowledges any aspect of LGBTQ identity must fear running afoul of the law,” while it’s “taken for granted that discussing heterosexuality or cisgender identity in school settings is perfectly fine.”

and you also might be interested in …

Easter humor is tricky, but some people manage to pull it off.

Alex Jones is trying to escape responsibility for his lies by declaring bankruptcy.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott is backing away from his disruption of trade with Mexico. He has accomplished nothing, but the supply chain issues and increased inflation he caused will probably get blamed on Biden.

The Republican National Committee voted unanimously to pull out of the Commission on Presidential Debates, saving Trump the embarrassment of losing another debate in 2024. If Trump is the candidate, he will have to spend his entire campaign avoiding obvious questions, like why he tried so hard to hang onto power after he lost the election in 2020. His whole campaign will take place inside a bubble of sycophants.

The move is part of a decades-long trend on the Right: Any organization they don’t control must be biased against them. Recently Facebook has been showing me ads for a conservative rival of AARP, because any group that isn’t explicitly conservative must be “woke”. (The research I do on conservative issues sometimes confuses Facebook’s algorithms.)

Relationship coach Matthew Fray writes in Atlantic about his amazing discovery: When people you love tell you they’re unhappy about something, you should listen to them. (I don’t know how I’ve survived 38 years of marriage without the benefit of insights like this.) The book-length version of Fray’s startling wisdom came out last month.

On his Substack blog (which I subscribe to and recommend), James Fallows writes about DC’s ban on gas-powered leaf blowers. Banning these devices may seem like one of those laws whose main effect is to annoy homeowners, but actually it’s a big deal. In Fallows’ words:

  • The little pieces of equipment are a genuine concern. They are far and away the most-polluting form of machinery still in legal use. In California they produce more ozone pollution than all cars combined. They emit carcinogenic fumes. For neighbors, their unique noise might be irritating; for lawn crews, it can be deafening
  • They’re one more example of poorer people being exposed to greater environmental risks. The people breathing the fumes all day, and being battered by high-decibel sound within inches of their ears, are disproportionately low-wage and often non-English-speaking. They’re sacrificing themselves to keep some customer’s lawn pristine.
  • There are wholly practical alternatives, thanks to the battery revolution transforming all industries.

Fallows is also one of the best observers of news-media behavior. In this post, he discusses a number of topics in current framing:

  • How the mainstream media’s life-in-a-red-state lens colors all news from places like Texas, which are much more three-dimensional than they get credit for.
  • The pointless fixation on trying to predict how elections will come out, which pundits are bad at anyway. Unlike coverage of government or the mechanics of democracy, the value of even accurate predictions evaporates once there is a real outcome to report.
  • How all things Trump are graded on a curve. Attacks on democracy or financial corruption are just “Trump being Trump”, rather than the front-page stories they’d be if anyone else did the same things.
  • The important distinction between “tough” reporters who stage confrontations with powerful newsmakers, and authentically tough reporters who respectfully but firmly insist on getting their questions answered.

Jen Psaki sort-of defended Fox News reporter Peter Doocy on Pod Save America Thursday. The host asked her if Doocy really was a “stupid son of a bitch” (as President Biden said in a hot-mic moment in January and then apologized for), “or does he just play a stupid son of a bitch on TV?” Psaki answered that Doocy

works for a network that provides people with questions that, nothing personal to any individual including Peter Doocy, but might make anyone sound like a stupid son of a bitch.

So (in my words) Doocy is a victim of what we might call “systemic stupidity”. Psaki went on to tell “a nice Peter Doocy story”.

The President did call him a stupid son of a bitch, right? So, that happens and it was like, “oh, okay. That happened.” So, what do you do about it? The President called him. He’s talked about this a little bit. The President called and apologized and what have you. So, he went on TV that night and I actually watched Sean Hannity to see what he said. … But Sean Hannity asked him about the, you know, what the President had said and what he said back and he could have been like, “he is a son of a bitch” or, “I’m standing up for —” whatever. He could have said anything. And instead, he said, “you know, he called me. We had a really nice conversation. I’m just asking my questions. He’s doing his job.” So, I will say that was a moment of grace. You don’t have to like everything Peter Doocy says or does but that is certainly a moment of grace by Peter Doocy.

and let’s close with something

I’ve closed with Holderness Family song parodies before. In this one, Penn Holderness starts with the music from Dua Lipa’s “Levitating”, and turns it into an ode to his wife Kim’s different way of dealing with the world: “Introverting“.

Elon and Twitter

Will Elon Musk buy Twitter? Should he? What if he does?

Wednesday, when Elon Musk announced a $38 billion offer to buy the 90.8% of Twitter stock he didn’t already own, the news feeds I follow erupted in two very different directions:

  • Political commentators began assessing the implications of the world’s richest man gaining sole control of one of the world’s most influential social-media platforms.
  • Financial writers skeptically asked, “Is this really going to happen?”

The financial question seems logically prior to the political question, so let’s start there. Better yet, let’s start with some general background.

Who is Elon Musk? Musk is a high-tech entrepreneur whose start-ups have struck gold several times, with the proceeds getting rolled into ever-bigger efforts. As a result, he is now believed to be the richest person in the world, with a net worth recently estimated at $273 billion (a figure that fluctuates with the stock market). He is most famous (and richest) from his investment in the electric automobile company Tesla. But he also founded and owns a large chunk of the satellite-launching company SpaceX. He has founded and sold off businesses that became part of Compaq and PayPal.

Born in South Africa, he moved to Canada as a teen-ager to avoid serving in the South African army, which was then fighting to defend the apartheid system. From Canada he moved to the United States and became a US citizen in 2002. (If you hope or fear that he might become president someday, naturalized citizens aren’t eligible.)

His political views are a mixture of right and left: He takes climate change seriously, and Tesla plays an important role in the electrify-everything strategy to reduce carbon emissions. He also has a strong libertarian streak, opposing most government regulation and boosting cryptocurrencies. But libertarianism hasn’t stopped him from taking advantage of government programs when he can. He opposes raising taxes on rich people like himself. He moved to Texas to avoid California taxes.

He has used his 81-million-follower Twitter account to spread Covid misinformation, and he resisted shutting down Tesla’s California factory during the lockdown. He is anti-woke. and anti-cancel-culture. His stated motive for buying Twitter is to protect free speech, but he does not seem worried about Twitter’s disinformation problem.

His public image is larger than life. If you like him, he fits the billionaires-will-save-us model of Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark, or perhaps Hank Rearden. If you don’t, he’s a James Bond villain waiting to make his move — BitCoinFinger, maybe.

Why Twitter? If you want to acquire influence on America’s (and the world’s) politics and culture, Twitter gives you more bang for your buck than any comparable platform. Buying other social media giants like Meta (owner of Facebook and Instagram) or Alphabet (owner of Google and YouTube) would cost more than even an Elon Musk can hope to come up with. Meta has a $570 billion market capitalization, and Alphabet’s is $1.7 trillion.

The reason Twitter is comparatively cheap (i.e., tens of billions rather than hundreds of billions) is that it hasn’t exploited surveillance capitalism as effectively as the other major social-media platforms. Not that it hasn’t been trying, but it hasn’t had the same level of success.

In the surveillance-capitalism model, the purpose of offering free internet services is to accumulate data about the people who use them. That data, in turn, can be used to exploit or manipulate the people who inadvertently provided it. Targeted advertising is the most obvious (and one of the most benign) uses of this data. Facebook, for example, has figured out that I’m learning to cook, so it shows me ads for air fryers and carbon-steel skillets. This beats the less-well-targeted old days, when spam email tried to sell me viagra and pictures of underage girls.

But the data can also be used to make the platform itself more addictive, and to design disinformation that individual users will be most likely to believe and act on. Unfortunately for democracy and civil society, the most addicted users are the ones who have gone down some conspiracy-theory rabbit hole. So that’s where the algorithms lead.

Twitter’s comparatively poor financial performance relative to Facebook and Google is one reason why Musk skeptics are alarmed by his ambition to “unlock” Twitter’s “enormous potential”.

Will Musk really buy Twittter? Musk announced on March 14 that he had bought 9.2% of Twitter. At first there was speculation that he wanted a seat on the board, or for the company to agree to some list of changes. But Wednesday he announced an offer to buy the whole company for a price that puts Twitter’s value at $43 billion. That would make Twitter a private company, and Musk could do whatever he wanted with it.

Financial types were immediately skeptical. Sure, Musk says he wants to spend another $38 billion buying Twitter stock. But Musk says a lot of things.

[J]ust because Elon Musk says something doesn’t mean it’s so — even when he’s talking about his own money. Musk is, at a minimum, maddeningly inconsistent. In 2018, for instance, he announced — on Twitter — that he wanted to turn Tesla into a private company and that he had “funding secured.” Which turned out not to be true.

The next question was whether Musk even has $38 billion. He’s certainly worth much more than $38 billion, but (as any rich-on-paper homeowner knows) that doesn’t mean he has cash. He could raise cash by selling or borrowing against his Tesla and SpaceX holdings, but does he really want to do that? Such a move might risk him losing control of the rest of his empire at some point down the road.

And then there’s the possibility that Twitter may fight to stay out of Musk’s control. Friday the Twitter board adopted a proposal that would make it more expensive to acquire.

Twitter said on Friday it adopted a poison pill that would dilute anyone amassing a stake in the company of more than 15% by selling more shares to other shareholders at a discount. Known formally as a shareholder rights plan, the poison pill will be in place for 364 days.

Just how much more money Musk would have to commit depends on how the existing shareholders respond to the plan, and how much capital they could come up with. There’s also the possibility of a rival bid emerging.

It’s also possible that Musk never intended to buy Twitter, but instead anticipates burnishing his crusading reputation after the company fends off his bid. In other words: He tried to save us, but the corrupt system defended itself.

Finally, Musk may be engaging in an elaborate market manipulation. Sometimes would-be takeover targets offer greenmail to make predator capitalists go away. Or if Musk’s offer elicits an rival offer for a higher price, he could walk off with a considerable profit on the shares he already owns.

But what if he succeeds? Whether you think Musk is the answer to Twitter’s problems depends on what you think those problems are. Voices from both the Left and Right worry about social media platforms forming a bottleneck that limits political discussion, but they frame that problem very differently.

If the problem is Big-Tech political bias, then Musk could be the answer. Conservatives see any institution they don’t control as biased against them, so they cast Twitter and Facebook as powerful allies of “cancel culture” and “woke-ism”. (Whether Big Tech actually is biased against conservative beliefs is questionable. But any anti-disinformation effort is going to affect conservatives more than liberals, because conservatives spread more disinformation.)

So Tucker Carlson, a powerful disinformation-spreader himself, is rooting for Musk to take over Twitter. MAGA types anticipate Trump getting his Twitter account back. (He lost it after using Twitter to promote the January 6 coup attempt.) And given how badly Trump’s copycat Truth Social platform is going, getting back on Twitter must look good to him, in spite of his claims to the contrary.

But if the problem is the bottleneck itself, Musk just makes it worse. A small number of corporations have an inordinate influence on what can be discussed and how widely a given point of view spreads. As public companies, those entities are accountable at least to their stockholders, and (to a lesser extent) to the public. A Musk-owned Twitter, by contrast, would be accountable to him alone. Trusting the world’s richest man to look after the public interest seems incredibly naive. (I am reminded of sci-fi humorist Terry Pratchett’s description of the system of government in Ankh-Morpork: “Ankh-Morpork had dallied with many forms of government and had ended up with that form of democracy known as One Man, One Vote. The Patrician was the Man; he had the Vote.”)

Another piece of the nightmare is what Musk (or any unfettered individual) could do with the kind of data Twitter collects (or could decide to collect in the future). This is not just tweets, but perhaps also the location data from smartphones running the Twitter app. If you always knew who was with who when, how much blackmail material would you have?

Could competition emerge? Conservative attempts to respond to their perception of Twitter’s bias by creating their own platforms, like Parler and Truth Social, have so far not taken off. (I have to wonder whether conservatives really want their own platform. Isn’t the whole point to troll liberals?) Whether liberals would be any more successful is anybody’s guess.

Attempts by one Big Tech corporation to invade another’s territory have also done badly. Google launched Facebook alternative Google+ with much fanfare in 2011, but shut it down in 2019.

The basic problem is a network effect: Any social network where people already gather for a specific purpose has a huge advantage over a new network attempting to fill the same niche. The problem is especially difficult when the existing service is free, preventing competition on price.

However, imagine if Musk’s “free speech” alterations make Twitter all but unusable. Tweets you actually want to see might get buried under disinformation and hate speech. Posting anything at all might open you up to abusive attacks and cyber-stalking. (In other words: Like now, but moreso.) A better curated platform might become attractive enough that a deep-pocketed competitor might emerge. (What if, for example, Amazon started a paid-subscription model, but the cost was folded into Amazon Prime membership?)

What’s the real problem? My own feeling is that trying to fix America’s “free speech problem” (as Musk claims to want to do), is misguided, because the root problem is actually much bigger. Free speech, bad faith, incivility, disinformation, and a simultaneous lack of public trust and public trustworthiness are all part of the same picture. We’re not going to solve one of those problems without thinking about all of them.

The Monday Morning Teaser

There was already no lack of news Wednesday when Elon Musk announced his intention to buy Twitter. We still had the continuing stories of the Ukraine War, the pandemic, a long list of anti-gay and anti-trans bills progressing through red-state legislatures, the drip-drip-drip of revelations about Trump administration corruption and conspiracy, and much else.

But Musk and Twitter are each controversial in their own ways, so the possibility that they might merge was like a pop-music princess dating an action-movie hero. Everything else faded into the background, and I kept waiting for the tabloids to make up a Bennifer name like “Twelon” (which Google tells me is already the name of a song).

I usually go one of two ways with stories like this: Either I decide it’s overblown and mention it briefly with a link to a fuller explanation, or I write a featured post with the intention of cutting through the hype. I’m going the second way today. “Elon and Twitter” should post by 10 EDT.

The weekly summary will try to cover all the ongoing news stories, before closing with a humorous ode to introverts. That should post sometime after noon.

Big War

What Putin has been doing for many, many years is building up to a big war. At a certain point, I felt crazy for saying it because the big war kept not starting. But the logic of his rhetoric, the logic of his actions, the logic of totalitarianism in general — all of these things required a big war.

Masha Gessen

This week’s featured post is “Why the Russians did it“.

This week everybody was talking about Russian atrocities in Ukraine

The atrocities, and why I believe in them, are discussed in the featured post.

Everyone is saying that the war in Ukraine has entered a new phase. The attack on Kyiv from Belarus appears to be over. Forces are being shifted to the Donbas region in the east, where Russia is trying to conquer the two Ukrainian territories that it has recognized as independent countries.

This is sort-of-good news. Putin seems to understand that the effort to conquer the whole country has failed, and is scrambling to achieve secondary goals that he could still spin as a victory. Without admitting any failures, Putin has replaced the invasion’s top general.

A Russian column has been reported headed towards Kharkiv. It’s not clear whether this force will do any better than the one that targeted Kyiv.

Military experts and western officials have also speculated that Putin’s generals are feeling the pressure to deliver some sort of results ahead of May 9, when Russia marks Victory Day, the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945. But a fresh analysis from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a US-based think tank, casts some doubt on Russia’s ability to concentrate the forces needed to make a breakthrough in the Donbas.

“We assess that the Russian military will struggle to amass a large and combat-capable force of mechanized units to operate in Donbas within the next few months,” the analysis states. “Russia will likely continue to throw badly damaged and partially reconstituted units piecemeal into offensive operations that make limited gains at great cost.”

Fiona Hill has a book coming out soon. The story about her in the NYT Magazine makes connections between Trump’s first impeachment, 1-6, and Putin’s Ukraine invasion.

“In the course of his presidency, indeed, Trump would come more to resemble Putin in political practice and predilection than he resembled any of his recent American presidential predecessors.”

Hill found it dubious that a man so self-​interested and lacking in discipline could have colluded with Russia to gain electoral victory in 2016 … Still, she came to see in Trump a kind of aspirational authoritarianism in which Putin, Erdogan, Orban and other autocrats were admired models.

… Hill was at her desk at home on the morning of Jan. 6, 2021, writing her memoir, when a journalist friend she first met in Russia called. The friend told her to turn on the television. Once she did so, a burst of horrific clarity overtook her. “I saw the thread,” she told me. “The thread connecting the Zelensky phone call to Jan. 6. And I remembered how, in 2020, Putin had changed Russia’s Constitution to allow him to stay in power longer. This was Trump pulling a Putin.”

In the Economist, John Mearsheimer makes the blame-America case for the Ukraine invasion: We provoked Putin by raising the possibility that Ukraine could join NATO. I’m not convinced by that, because I don’t regard NATO-invades-Russia-for-no-reason as a credible fear; it’s been hard enough getting the alliance to unite in helping Ukraine defend itself. But Hill puts an interesting spin on that argument: Leaving Ukraine dangling as a maybe-someday NATO member was “the worst of all possible worlds”. We should either have let it in and helped defend it, or made it clear to Russia that NATO had no interest in extending that far.

and the larger lesson about autocracy

The most insightful thing I read this week was The.Ink’s interview with Masha Gessen, the Russian-American author who often writes for The New Yorker. She has written a biography of Putin, and a book-length account of contemporary Russian society. Her grasp of authoritarianism and totalitarianism reminds me of Hannah Arendt.

The opening part of the interview is focused on the Ukraine war and how it might play out. (Gessen takes the threat of nuclear war seriously, and believes that Putin, like Hitler, will not fall without bringing his country down with him. But, unless he dies soon of some other cause, he will fall.)

Then the discussion goes global, and this is the part I find most fascinating: Putin is part of a larger momentum towards right-wing autocracy, a wave that includes Orban in Hungary, Trump in the US, and Le Pen in France. Putin’s social rhetoric, she says, should be very familiar to Americans.

It’s how the American right weaponizes fear of your kids turning trans. It’s shorthand for the decadent West. It’s shorthand for the Other. It’s the promise of returning to an imaginary past when there was nothing that made you uncomfortable, like having to accept weird gender stuff and other queerness.

The message is: If you want to feel at home in the world again, if you want to feel at home in your country again, we have to get rid of this Western contagion. …

Erich Fromm very accurately describes preconditions for autocracy in Escape From Freedom. He wrote in the late 1930s and looked at extreme economic anxiety and mass displacement. Extreme economic anxiety related not only to hyperinflation in Germany but more broadly to a changing world, a world in which it was impossible for people to imagine who they’ll be and how they’ll live some years from now, or where their children will be. Those are conditions that are very much present in many parts of the world. There are kinds of societies and governments that try to address anxieties, and there are kinds that don’t. We definitely have the kind that doesn’t. I think that’s a culture-wide failure that isn’t concentrated on the right.

Is the point you’re making that, in a sense, the bad guys do address those kinds of anxieties whereas the good guys don’t?

Yes, that is the point I’m making. I think we see some attempts from the Biden administration to address those anxieties, but they’re meek, unconvincing, and unsustainable.

… What we need is recognition on the part of politicians that people all over the world are in this state of extreme anxiety, for very good reasons, and they need to be addressed as “my dears” [as the mayor of Kharkiv did recently]. We can’t just leave it to the bad guys to address the anxieties.

She sees Zelensky as a model, because he makes an FDR-like emotional connection with his people: He feels their fear and speaks to it, rather than telling them that everything is OK.

He models political speech. It is not about policy, and it is not about military strategy. It’s about people. No matter who he is addressing, he’s addressing people directly. He’s speaking directly to their experience.

and Justice Jackson

Thursday, Ketanji Brown Jackson became the first Black woman to be confirmed as a Supreme Court justice. The vote was 53-47, with all 50 Democrats voting in favor. They were joined by only three Republicans: Collins, Murkowski, and Romney. Romney was the only Republican with the good grace to applaud for her.

Justice Jackson will take her seat this summer, when Justice Breyer’s retirement takes effect.

Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted that voting for Jackson’s confirmation made the Collins, Murkowski, and Romney “pro-pedophile“. I wasn’t going to make a big deal about that desperate plea for attention, but then it turned into this bru-ha-ha with Jimmy Kimmel. In his response, Kimmel coined a useful term: snociopath, a person who is both a sociopath and a snowflake.

and the pandemic

A tug-of-war is going on between the fading of the January wave and the start of a new wave. The result is case numbers that have been more-or-less flat for almost a month. Falling numbers in the Midwest and South have masked rising numbers in the Northeast.

Probably because the increase is in the highly vaccinated Northeast, deaths continue to fall nationally. (When cases rise in Mississippi, more people die than when cases rise in Vermont.) They’re now averaging 570 a day, cut about in half in the last month. Hospitalizations and ICU admissions are also still falling.

The Tyee, an independent news site from British Columbia, summarized a study in Nature of Sweden’s hands-off approach to Covid. The results were not good: Sweden’s death rate (though enviable by American standards) was four times its neighbor Norway. The Canadian writer finds parallels to

places like Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, B.C. and Ontario, where political leaders didn’t adopt consistent public health goals, withheld data and offered little transparency about the decision-making process.

Yeah, but did they push quack treatments, demonize researchers, turn public health into a partisan issue, hold super-spreader events, ridicule people who wear masks, and personally spread the virus to others, as our former president did? That could be why Canada’s total of 991 Covid deaths per million people will never catch the US’s 3026. More than 600K Americans would still be alive if we had handled the pandemic as well as Canada. That should be a national scandal.

and the Trump coup

Newly released text messages show that Donald Trump Jr. was already envisioning how his father could stay in power in spite of the voters on November 5, two days after the election and before any news organizations had declared a winner.

The November 5 text message outlines a strategy that is nearly identical to what allies of the former President attempted to carry out in the months that followed. Trump Jr. makes specific reference to filing lawsuits and advocating recounts to prevent certain swing states from certifying their results, as well as having a handful of Republican state houses put forward slates of fake “Trump electors.”

If all that failed, according to the Trump Jr. text, GOP lawmakers in Congress could simply vote to reinstall Trump as President on January 6.

“We have operational control Total leverage,” the message reads. “Moral High Ground POTUS must start 2nd term now.”

Arizona’s Republican Attorney General Mark Brnovich reported on his six-month investigation into the 2020 presidential election in Arizona. He has uncovered no mass fraud that could have changed the outcome of the election.

By law, the State Department is supposed compile an annual list of gifts US officials receive from foreign governments. But there is no accounting of gifts to Trump or other White House people in 2020, because the Trump administration routinely flouted anti-corruption laws.

and the culture wars

When radical Christian lawmakers propose extreme bills that hurt people, liberal politicians have a tendency to go easy on them: They have sincere beliefs, they mean well, they’re basically good people, and so on.

Well, not in Nebraska this week. Senator Megan Hunt represents a blue district in Omaha and is term-limited out of running again, so she’s got no appearances to keep up any more. She successfully led a filibuster of an abortion trigger law that would kick in if the Supreme Court overturns Roe “in whole or in part”, as it’s expected to do in June. The bill would have outlawed killing fertilized ova in just about all circumstances, including rape, incest, ectopic pregnancy, and possibly in-vitro fertilization, depending on how judges interpret its language.

Hunt played political hardball: Her maneuvers prevented amendments that might soften the bill to get the last few votes needed to end debate. So her filibuster held by two votes.

Her speech on the floor of the state’s unicameral legislature didn’t pull any punches:

There is no scenario where this will be amended, because I got to it first. You guys pulled the wrong bill. If this bill advances, IPP motions [to indefinitely postpone activity] are going on the bills of every proponent, because to me, yeah, this is personal.

I am not a person who can say, if you think my 11-year-old should be forced to give birth, that we can still be friends. I don’t understand a person who can say something like that. Maybe it’s a person who can’t give birth. Maybe it’s a person who’s never been raped. Somebody who doesn’t have a clue what it is to go through it. …

In life, sometimes we go through things where we have to draw a boundary. It is healthy for me, as a mother, as a rape survivor, to draw a boundary and say if you think that my child should be forced to give birth, you are not my friend.

And if I go to the Pearly Gates and meet your God someday—which sounds great, I hope I do—I don’t think I’m gonna get in any trouble for killing all of your bills who vote for this. I don’t think your God’s gonna have any problem with that. And I don’t think I’m gonna see any of you there either.

The guy who started the Republican panic about critical race theory is now planning a direct attack against public schools and public universities. “To get universal school choice,” he says, “you really need to operate from a premise of universal public school distrust.”

By belatedly objecting to Florida’s Don’t Say Gay law, Disney has made itself a target for conservative authoritarians.

Remember: In other contexts, conservatives believe that corporations are people and have a right to their own moral views. That’s why the Obama administration wasn’t allowed to make Hobby Lobby pay for birth control.

Now, if conservative individuals don’t want to do business with Disney any more, that’s their right. I’m fine with them declaring a boycott and trying to get people to unsubscribe from Disney Plus. It’s hypocritical to do that while denouncing “cancel culture”, but hypocrisy is not illegal. (I should mention here that I own some small amount of Disney stock. I don’t think it’s affecting my view of this situation, but full disclosure and so on.)

However, threats to retaliate against Disney by using government power in unrelated areas — that’s corrupt; it’s basic machine politics. Government power should be wielded for the benefit of citizens, and not to further partisan political goals. So it’s corrupt for Governor DeSantis to threaten to revoke the special local-government status of Disney’s holdings in Orlando. (As a protection racketeer might say: “Nice park you got there. Be a shame if anything happened to it.”) And Fox News host Laura Ingraham was promoting corruption when she said:

when Republicans get back into power, Apple and Disney need to understand one thing: Everything will be on the table–your copyright and trademark protection, your special status within certain states, and even your corporate structure itself.

I can only imagine Ingraham’s howl of rage if President Obama had similarly declared war on Hobby Lobby for getting in his way, or on Koch Industries because the Koch brothers contributed to conservative political campaigns. (That’s exactly what Trump repeatedly tried to do to Amazon to get back at Jeff Bezos for letting The Washington Post criticize him. But we already knew Trump was corrupt.)

(BTW: I have long opposed Congress’ repeated moves to extend copyright just as Mickey Mouse approaches the public domain. Lawrence Lessig is right about this. If the current conservative temper tantrum gets us a sensible copyright law, that would be good.)

Friday, Alabama became the latest state to pass laws targeting trans teens. Alabama’s SB184 is only 11 double-spaced pages, so you can read it for yourself. The bill makes a Class C felony out of medical treatments

performed for the purpose of attempting to alter the appearance of or affirm the minor’s perception of his or her gender or sex, if that appearance or perception is inconsistent with the minor’s sex as defined in this act

The banned treatments include puberty-blocking drugs, cross-sex hormones, and surgery.

The law justifies itself by claiming “Some in the medical community are aggressively pushing for interventions on minors”, and arguing the state knows better than either doctors or parents do. (Conservatives often claim to support “parental rights”, but that’s only when they approve of the parents’ decisions.)

Minors, and often their parents, are unable to comprehend and fully appreciate the risk and life implications, including permanent sterility, that result from the use of puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones, and surgical procedures.

Section 4b creates an exception for surgeries that attempt to turn intersex infants into boys or girls. (Conservatives only support “nature” when nature does what they want.)

Section 5 of the law forces nurses, counselors, teachers, and administrators at public or private schools to violate their students’ trust. They are forbidden to

(1) Encourage or coerce a minor to withhold from the minor’s parent or legal guardian the fact that the minor’s perception of his or her gender or sex is inconsistent with the minor’s sex.

(2) Withhold from a minor’s parent or legal guardian information related to a minor’s perception that his or her gender or sex is inconsistent with his or her sex.

Governor Ivey also signed HB322, which is just four pages. Section 1 of that bill requires public schools to segregate multiple-person bathrooms and locker rooms by sex. Students must use the facilities associated with the sex specified by their birth certificates.

Section 2 is a don’t-say-gay provision:

An individual or group of individuals providing classroom instruction to students in kindergarten through the fifth grade at a public K-12 school shall not engage in classroom discussion or provide classroom instruction regarding sexual orientation or gender identity in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.

It also requires the State Board of Education to establish such standards. (As with parental rights, local control is only a conservative value if local officials do what conservatives want.)

Reason eventually prevailed in Starr County, Texas: The woman arrested for murder after she had a miscarriage will not be prosecuted. She was charged with murder when the hospital reported to the county sheriff’s office that the miscarriage was self-induced. The local DA later announced that this was “not a criminal matter”. It was never clear exactly which law was being enforced.

Texas Public Radio has details.

Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, said it was also troubling that this incident began with hospital staff making a report to police.

“We should not be living in a country where people who get pregnant are afraid to go for help at a hospital, because somebody there will turn them in or might turn them in, and it will result in arrest,” Paltrow told TPR.

Apparently there are some depths that Republicans are not willing to sink to yet. The Republican Party of Hampton, Virginia tried to remove the local Republican electoral board chair after his Facebook post assailed Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and retired three-star general Russell Honoré as “dirty stinking ni**ers” (without the asterisks) and recommended “a good public lynching” as “the best way to pull us back from the brink”.

That seems to be a step too far, at least for now. The Hampton GOP has revoked his membership and returned his contribution. But I’ve got to wonder how this guy managed to rise so far without anyone noticing he was a raving bigot.

The official in question, David Dietrich, refused to resign until Governor Youngkin stepped in. Dietrich faulted Austin for his attempts to remove White nationalists (who Dietrich characterizes as “conservative, freedom-loving Americans”) from the military. Honoré’s sin was to accept Speaker Pelosi’s invitation to review Capitol security infrastructure in the wake of the 1-6 insurrection. Dietrich says Honoré, who is Creole, sounds like “a Black nationalist”.

and you also might be interested in …

With hardly anybody noticing, the economy continues to do quite well. New claims for unemployment last week came in at the lowest level since 1968.

Europe is reconsidering nuclear power. The Ukraine war is causing European countries to question their dependence on Russian natural gas. According to Grist

Roughly one-fourth of Europe’s energy comes from natural gas, and as much as 40 percent of it flows from Russia.

If you do the math, 10% of Europe’s energy comes from Russian gas. There are ways to replace that 10%, but they’ll take time: increasing renewable power (which is already ramping up, but not fast enough), and importing liquified natural gas from places like the US (the port facilities for unloading it aren’t adequate yet). Europeans could turn down their thermostats, but that’s not going to be a popular solution.

In addition, the prospect of replacing gas-powered cars with electrics requires more generating capacity, not just maintaining the current capacity.

Normally, you wouldn’t think of nuclear power as a quick solution, because nuclear plants take a long time to approve and build. But Europe has recently decommissioned a number of plants, and more are scheduled to close over the next few years. Restarting the closed nuclear plants and extending the life of those still online would indeed provide a short-term boost over currently anticipated generating capacity.

Not everyone likes this idea, of course. Disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima loom large in European thinking, as they should. The Grist article is a pretty well balanced look at the pros and cons.

A guy who has bounced around from one working-class job to another, and now cleans carpets, has a remarkable knack for languages. He speaks 24 languages, and has a lower-level understanding of many more. He didn’t set out to break any records, he just wants to understand what people are saying.

Proposed mergers involving smaller airlines Jet Blue, Spirit, and Frontier are a challenge to regulators. Air travel is dominated by four big carriers: United, American, Delta, and Southwest. Either of the proposed mergers would create a fifth large airline. Is that good or bad for competition in general?

and let’s close with something stupid

We should all be more familiar with economist Carlo Cipolla’s work on human stupidity. Cipolla had a very succinct definition of stupid people: those who cause harm to others without benefit to themselves.

Cipolla’s Five Laws of Stupidity are:

  1. Always and inevitably, each of us underestimates the number of stupid individuals in the world.
  2. The probability that a certain person is stupid is independent of any other characteristic of the same person.
  3. A stupid person is one who causes harm to another person or group without at the same time obtaining a benefit for himself or even damaging himself.
  4. Non-stupid people always underestimate the harmful potential of stupid people.
  5. The stupid person is the most dangerous person that exists.

Cipolla’s theory leads to this four-bin categorization:

My one quibble with this model is in the upper left quadrant, which should be divided: If you understand that you are harming yourself to help others, you are generous. But if you don’t, you are gullible, and are probably being victimized by a bandit.

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.

The Monday Morning Teaser

The war in Ukraine seemed to enter a new phase this week. Russian forces have pulled back from their attempt to encircle Kyiv, and appear to be starting a new offensive in the east, attempting to secure the two Ukrainian provinces Russia has recognized as independent states.

As Ukrainians retook territory north of Kyiv, evidence of Russian war crimes against civilians came out. Russia, of course, claims this is fake news. I had my doubts at first, recognizing how useful war-crimes charges are to the Ukrainian effort to get more help from NATO. But punishing the civilian population of Ukraine lines up perfectly with the kind of rhetoric currently coming out of the Putin regime. I’ll explain that by quoting extensively from an article by a Russian political scientist that was published by a pro-Putin Russian news outlet. My post is called “Why the Russians did it”. It should come out around 9 or 10 EDT.

I’m still undecided whether there will be a second featured post. The most insightful thing I read this week was an interview with Masha Gessen, discussing not just Russia and Ukraine, but the rising tide of autocracy globally. I’ll either write an article about that or quote extensively from it in the weekly summary.

The weekly summary also has Judge Justice Jackson’s confirmation to cover, including Jimmy Kimmel’s hilarious back-and-forth with MTG. A Nebraska legislator really cut loose against Christian religious extremism as she successfully filibustered a radical anti-abortion bill. Alabama passed two similarly radical anti-trans and anti-gay laws. A Texas woman who miscarried was charged with murdering her fetus. The pandemic spun its wheels as one surge faded while another began. Disney is now a right-wing political target. And I’ll close by quoting the Five Laws of Stupidity.

I’m running behind today, so the summary may not appear until after 1.

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.

The Monday Morning Teaser

The Ketanji Brown Jackson confirmation hearings this week were an embarrassment for the Senate, as Republican senators pandered to Q-Anon with specious claims that Jackson was somehow pro-pedophile. But they also served a valuable purpose: The senators’ concerns pointed to the issues the Court’s culture-warrior majority will pursue after it overturns Roe v Wade in June.

Same-sex marriage, access to birth control, interracial marriage, and many other currently recognized rights are all based on the same constitutional interpretation as Roe, a doctrine called “substantive due process”. Reversal of Roe will call substantive due process into question, and bring these other rights into the Court’s crosshairs. This week’s featured post “Where Does the Religious Right Go After Roe?” explains how Roe fits into the web of other rights not explicitly listed in the Constitution, and how Roe’s reversal might ripple outwards.

That post should be out shortly.

The weekly summary covers the week’s developments in Ukraine, the Jackson confirmation hearings, the dangerous “grooming” rhetoric of anti-gay and anti-trans extremists, the Ginny Thomas texts, Trump’s crazy new lawsuit, and the apparent bottoming out of Covid case numbers. That should post before noon EDT.

Whose House?

It’s not Russian airspace. It’s Ukrainian airspace.

– former NATO commander Wesley Clark
commenting on a no-fly zone over Ukraine

This week’s featured post is “About Those Gas Prices“. Last week’s “How did Christianity become so toxic?” is the most popular Sift post since last October’s “Reading While Texan“.

This week everybody was talking about Ukraine

From the NYT: Russian forces advance slowly in the East and South, but are stalled in the North.

This week, the conventional wisdom began entertaining a question that seemed absurd a few weeks ago: Could Russia actually lose this war?

Early on, everyone took for granted that Russia’s military superiority over Ukraine meant that of course they would eventually overrun the entire country, just as the US had overrun Iraq. The question then would shift (as it did in Iraq) to whether Russian occupation forces could pacify the country well enough to install a friendly government and keep it in power for the long term.

And they still might get to that point; maybe that’s still the most likely scenario. But the resilience of Ukrainian resistance, Russian military incompetence, and the unity NATO’s determination to keep Ukrainian fighters well supplied, have combined to raise the question: What if Russia can’t overrun Ukraine? How long can Russia sustain these kinds of losses before their army’s best option is to turn around and go home? And facing that situation, would Putin lash out in some desperate way with chemical or nuclear weapons?

The WaPo summarizes:

in the absence of substantive progress on the ground and given the scale of the losses being inflicted on its ranks, Russia’s military campaign could soon become unsustainable, with troops unable to advance because they lack sufficient manpower, supplies and munitions, analysts and officials say.

President Zelensky gave a virtual speech to the U.S. Congress on Wednesday. Zelensky had a narrow path to walk: He wanted to express gratitude for the help the US and NATO have given his country, but he also wanted to challenge us: “I call on you to do more.”

He asked for some very specific things:

  • air defense. He’d like NATO to defend Ukrainian airspace directly by declaring a no-fly zone. But he seemed to realize he won’t get that commitment. “If this is too much to ask, we offer an alternative. You know what kind of defense systems we need, S-300 and other similar systems.” S-300s are Soviet-era air-defense missiles that three NATO countries (Bulgaria, Greece, and Slovakia) field. Slovakia has offered to provide S-300s to Ukraine if other NATO allies would replace them with some equivalent system. Russia has said it “will not allow” such a transfer, whatever that means. Presumably Zelensky specified S-300s because Ukrainians already know how to operate them.
  • broader sanctions. “We propose that the United States sanctions all politicians in the Russian Federation who remain in their offices and do not cut ties with those who are responsible for the aggression against Ukraine, from State Duma’s members to the last official who has lack of morale to break this state terror. All Americans’ company must leave Russia from their market, leave their market immediately because it is flooded with our blood. All American ports should be closed for Russian goods.”

After Zelensky’s speech, President Biden announced an additional $1 billion of military aid.

800 Stinger anti-aircraft systems, 100 drones, “over 20 million rounds of small arms ammunition and grenade launcher and mortar rounds,” 25,000 sets of body armor, 25,000 helmets, 100 grenade launchers, 5,000 rifles, 1,000 pistols, 400 machine guns, 400 shotguns, as well as “2,000 Javelin, 1,000 light anti-armor weapons, and 6,000 AT-4 anti-armor systems.”

The US will specifically provide Switchblade drones to Ukraine, two sources familiar with the matter told CNN. The small, portable, so-called kamikaze drones carry warheads and detonate on impact. The smallest model can hit a target up to 6 miles away

Arnold the former Governator has a powerful message for the Russian people and Russian soldiers in Ukraine. Apparently a lot of people are hearing it.

Netflix has brought back Zelensky’s comedy TV series “Servant of the People”. You can also watch it on YouTube.

Varia Bartsova laments the Russia she grew up in, now that Soviet-style repression and Iron-Curtain-like isolation have returned.

Vladimir Putin gave his own speech Wednesday, a quite scary one that seemed to threaten a Stalin-style purge.

The Russian people will always be able to distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors and simply spit them out like a fly that accidentally flew into their mouths. I am convinced that such a natural and necessary self-purification of society will only strengthen our country, our solidarity, cohesion and readiness to respond to any challenges.

A report from the Institute for the Study of War indicates that a purge may already be going on within the military and intelligence services. Some officials are being fired, while others are being arrested.

Putin reportedly fired several generals and arrested Federal Security Service (FSB) intelligence officers in an internal purge. Ukrainian Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council Oleksiy Danilov stated on March 9 that the Kremlin has replaced eight generals due to their failures in Ukraine, though ISW cannot independently verify this information.[21] Putin additionally detained several personnel from the FSB’s 5th Service, which is responsible for informing Putin about the political situation in Ukraine. The Federal Protective Service and 9th Directorate of the FSB (its internal security department) reportedly raided the 5th Service and over 20 other locations on March 11. Several media outlets reported that 5th Service Head Sergey Beseda and his deputy Anatoly Bolyukh are under house arrest on March 11.[22] Independent Russian media outlet Meduza claimed the 5th Service might have provided Putin with false information about the political situation in Ukraine ahead of his invasion out of fear of contradicting Putin‘s desired prognosis that a war in Ukraine would be a smooth undertaking.[23] Putin is likely carrying out an internal purge of general officers and intelligence personnel. He may be doing so either to save face after failing to consider their assessments in his own pre-invasion decision-making or in retaliation for faulty intelligence he may believe they provided him.

Everyone is focused on the war’s effect on the world’s energy production. (See the featured post.) But a more serious problem might be the effect on food production: Not only are Ukraine (where the next crop is not getting planted) and Russia (whose exports are sanctioned) top grain-exporters, but Russia and Belarus are important suppliers of potash, one of the key ingredients in fertilizer. Crop yields far from the battle zone may be affected.

And like the oil price rise, the expected rise in food prices will come at a time when prices are already high. This will be an annoyance to most Americans, and we may fight political battles over whether to offer some special food subsidy to the poor. But the world’s less well off countries could face real shortages.

There have been a lot of dark jokes about the apocalypse these last two years, as the world has faced Pestilence, Death, and now War. But soon the fourth horseman, Famine, may make an appearance.

and the pandemic

I feel like we’re in the eye of a storm. Here in the US, case numbers have been falling almost everywhere since January. We now average fewer than 30K new cases per day, a level not seen since July. Deaths are still over 1100 per day, but that also is lower than we’ve seen since a very brief period around Thanksgiving, and before that you have to go back to August.

So: great news. But there are also ominous signs: A new subvariant is out there (BA.2 where Omicron was BA.1). Europe, which experienced the original Omicron surge before we did, is currently having a BA.2 surge. And wastewater testing, the earliest warning signal of a new outbreak, is finding more Covid in many parts of the US.

It’s also hard to know how much trust to put in the case-number statistics these days. A lot of the less serious cases might never appear in the stats. (People I know personally have tested positive at home and dealt with their symptoms without telling the medical establishment.) It’s tempting to shrug off those easily managed cases. But the virus is the virus; you may or may not do as well as the person who infected you.

Hospitalizations and deaths are more reliable numbers, but they lag in time.

So deciding what risks to take is tricky right now. Maybe you should seize this chance to go to a concert or take a trip. Or maybe the new surge has already started, but we won’t notice it for a week or two.

Both Pfizer and Moderna have asked the FDA to approve a fourth vaccination shot. My advice: Trust your doctor on this. If the FDA approves it and your doctor recommends it, get it.

and the culture wars

Kim Davis is back in the news. She was the county clerk in Kentucky who in 2015 refused to process wedding licenses for same-sex couples who were legally entitled to them. She eventually got voted out, but two couples that she refused to serve are suing her. Friday, a judge ruled that as a matter of law, she did violate their civil rights. Now a jury has to decide what damages to award.

Davis is offering the usual defense: Because her bigotry arises from her “Christian” beliefs, discrimination laws don’t apply to her. I find it impossible to imagine this argument being taken seriously if you substitute a different faith. What if a county health commissioner refused to approve new steakhouses because of his sincerely held Hindu beliefs?

Davis’ lawyers say the case “has a high potential of reaching the Supreme Court”. Given the current Court’s record of inventing special rights for Christians, she may win.

Paul Waldman explains why the Republican plan to double down on unpopular culture war positions can make short-term political sense.

[T]o engineer a political backlash, you don’t actually need to win converts to your cause. Often, all you need is to persuade the people who haven’t changed their minds as the world changes around them to get more upset.

Which is what we’re seeing right now. Particularly at the state level, Republicans have successfully convinced their base that their entire way of life is under dire threat from a trans girl who wants to play on her middle school softball team or from the books that are sitting in school libraries.

Speaking of which: When USA Today included HHS Assistant Secretary Rachel Levine in their Women of the Year list, conservatives couldn’t take that lying down, because she’s trans. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton tweeted “Rachel Levine is a man”, and National Review wrote a whole article to protest the choice. NR quoted Levine’s message to people questioning their gender identity:

I think you have to be true to yourself and I think that you have to be who you are. You have tremendous worth just for who you are, no matter who you love, no matter who you are, no matter what your gender identity, sexual orientation or anything else, and to be, be true to that. And then everything else will follow.

and commented “This is terrible advice.” Don’t be who you are; be who we say you are.

In an article focused on trans athletes in women’s sports, The New Yorker commented:

There was something absurd in the spectacle of conservative politicians who have never shown any interest in supporting women’s sports, which are chronically underfunded and underexposed, moralizing about the sanctity of collegiate women’s swimming.

I’m relieved to learn that no NFL team I root for won the bidding war for quarterback Deshaun Watson, who faces 22 civil lawsuits for sexual assault and other forms of sexual misconduct, but will not be criminally charged. Watson denies everything, which at some point starts to make it even worse: When you’ve got 22 accusers, it’s not a he-said/she-said any more. Denial doesn’t make you sound innocent, just unrepentant.

The Cleveland Browns gave up three first-round draft picks to get Watson from the Texans, and then signed him to a five-year contract for $230 million that sets an NFL record for the most guaranteed money. The contract is structured so that he’ll lose the minimum amount possible when the NFL gets around to suspending him for the start of next season. Given the way the NFL works, Cleveland has mortgaged the franchise for Watson; if he doesn’t work out, they can’t draft his replacement and they’ll have no money available to offer a free agent.

Just about any NFL team occasionally puts somebody on the field who is hard to root for, and like most football fans, I’ve adjusted by not thinking about it too hard. But I wouldn’t be able to stretch this far. Quarterbacks are so central in the NFL that rooting for the Browns next season means rooting for Watson. I couldn’t do it.

Yahoo sports columnist Shalise Manza Young makes the comparison to Colin Kaepernick: Kneeling during the national anthem to protest racism got him (unofficially) banned for life. Watson will probably be suspended for a few games, and then will be the public face of the NFL in Cleveland.

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When Texas was passing its latest voter-suppression law, critics said its main effect would be to screw up people trying to vote legally. And guess what? That’s exactly what has happened.

As Texans’ ballots were cast and tallied across the Lone Star State last week, Monica Emery received multiple letters from county election officials saying that her attempt to vote by mail had failed.

The problem, she learned, stemmed from SB1, Texas Republicans’ restrictive new voting law that not only requires an ID number on voters’ absentee ballots and applications, but also that the type of ID number match the number that a voter originally used to register. 

That law, signed by Governor Greg Abbott (R) last year, has now caused a massive spike in rejected applications to vote by mail. And for absentee voters in last week’s primary election, many of whom are elderly or disabled, it added an extra hurdle to what was once a simple process. 

Apparently, the number Emery wrote on her ballot — she thinks it was her driver’s license number — was not the one she used when she registered to vote. Other options include various state ID numbers and the last four digits of her Social Security number. Any of those numbers could be a voter’s ID number, it’s a question of which one a voter provided when they first registered.

“I did that 40 years ago,” Emery told TPM of her voter registration. “I just put a number down.”

When law-makers are warned that a law has unfortunate consequences, and they pass it anyway, you have to assume those consequences are intended.

Haven’t you suspected all along that Stacey Abrams was from the future?

The Webb space telescope is starting to produce sharp images.

Senate hearings on Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson begin today.

Josh Hawley, the Senator who gave a raised-fist salute to the seditionists on January 6, and then put the image on a coffee mug for his supporters (without permission from the news organization that took the photo), has come up with a particularly slimy charge to throw at Jackson: She “has a pattern of letting child porn offenders off the hook for their appalling crimes”.

One characteristic of an effective smear is that the charge is easier to grasp than an explanation of what really happened. For those who really want to understand, Ian Millhiser goes through the details. Other writers simply observe that Judge Jackson’s sentencing practices are in line with most other judges. Sentencing guidelines in child porn cases are widely believed to be out of whack, particularly in their inability to distinguish more serious cases (i.e., professional producers of child porn) from less serious ones.

Senator Hawley has already voted to approve judges whose sentencing practices are similar to Jackson’s.

Other Republicans looking for ammunition against Judge Jackson are joining this attack.

I’m not grasping the reasoning behind the push to make daylight saving time permanent. I can see not wanting to change clocks twice a year, but why not standardize on the original time system, rather than move it by an hour?

and let’s close with something soothing

If life has been too hectic lately, take a few minutes to watch an otter getting a good combing.