Public Relations and lying that’s perfectly cool

The biggest, most dangerous lies we have to contend with, the most far-reaching in their effects, are promulgated by experts in spreading information that favors one party to the detriment of all others. This is called Public Relations, PR. PR is the art of telling the public selected things that will make them accept “externalities” like poverty wages, dead babies, toxic drinking water, thousands of bankrupted farmers dead by suicide. Best of all, from a PR perspective, is to make this ugly shit disappear entirely, so we can have harmony, prosperity and a good business climate. Yer proverbial rising tide that lifts all boats (except for the many already submerged and out of sight, which goes without saying).

There is a term in the law that excuses a certain kind of blustering lying, it is called “puffery”. Presumably you puff yourself up to make your threat look bigger and more terrible than it is, to make the other party back down. There’s no crime in puffery, nor has any lawyer been punished in any way for what can be justified as mere puffery. Puffery is your proverbial slippery slope down to a trough of shit, and many an outright public lie has been defended as mere puffery.

Public Relations is closely related to commercial advertising, indistinguishable from it, actually. The techniques of Public Relations, creating a desirable one-sided story to influence the public to accept whatever it is you’re trying to do, are identical to the ones used by propagandists. Propaganda, most people believe, is a bad thing, since it hides the truth and makes a false case for things like war, discrimination, genocide.

But Public Relations, you understand, is a completely different field, and basically morally neutral, clean, even its dirty little sibling political advertising. One key thing about successful public relations messages — they should be as ubiquitous as possible. I offer a couple of examples that spring to mind.

I just heard a great episode of Krista Tippett’s insightful On Being. Every week she engages in discussion with someone putting spiritual insight into practice to make the world a better place. She spoke to the co-founder and director of Theatre of War, a group that stages ancient Greek tragedies to foster audience discussion of our own traumas [1]. It is a moving discussion, very pertinent in our traumatic moment in history, and I recommend it.

In thanking her sponsors at the end, Krista reads this perfectly articulated 8 second PR message from a billionaire philanthropist named Charles Koch:

Well-born, iron-willed billionaire engineer Charles Koch has done more than perhaps anyone in US history to bring about a violently divided society where the 0.01% percent have as much wealth as the bottom 80%, enshrining his inherited advantages in perpetuity through canny political action, funding dozens of “think tanks” and other politically influential institutions, aided by an army of lawyers and ruthlessly effective PR. Now, as his death approaches, he wants to be remembered as a generous and courageous collaborator dedicated to discovering and elevating tools to cure intolerance and bridge differences.

Sure, after a lifetime dedicated to hobbling democracy, suppressing wages, fighting integration, destroying the environment and all ecological regulation, creating influential far-right organizations, funding the Tea Party “revolution,” sowing the ground for Trump, packing the federal courts with judges of his extreme political stripe — why not take a bow as a man dedicated to curing intolerance?

Depending on your political orientation you may be sad or happy about the recent defeat of the unionizing efforts in an Alabama sweatshop run by the world’s wealthiest man. It was a one-sided loss for the union advocates. Most Amazon workers in the Bessemer, Alabama warehouse voted not to unionize, after Amazon spent millions in what many see as a coordinated effort to intimidate its workers. The anti-union effort worked beautifully. Now is the time for continued PR.

The turnover rate for Jeff Bezos’s wonderful, well-paid warehouse jobs (who doesn’t enjoy pissing in a bottle?) is around 100% a year, we learn. These great, very demanding jobs burn people out pretty quickly, apparently. But pay no attention to that, PR to the rescue. You can watch smiling actors of all colors and genders talk about how great it is to work for the world’s richest man, how it has enriched their lives and given them a brighter future. These ads are ubiquitous, as are Amazon’s messages of support for a $15 minimum wage from a wealthy man who already voluntarily pays that large hourly sum to his well-paid, happy workers.

I love the way the Amazon swoosh, as carelessly artless a swoosh as there is in the world of branding, idiotically, and likely unintentionally, slashes and defaces the word “wages”. It also seems to put a crudely drawn question mark at the end. Talk about Freudian slips. But the point is made. A company that clawed back its generous $2/hr hazard pay increase two months into the pandemic, fired and vilified workers who protested against unhealthy working conditions during the pandemic, and paid dozens of expert consultants $3,200 a day to help crush an attempt to unionize an Amazon warehouse (success!), is very generous and changing lives for the better for more than a million low-skilled, low-paid workers.

To round out this PR piece, let’s go to former Attorney General Bill Barr and his boss, the former president who, very much like George Washington before him, could not tell a lie.

You will recall that in their attempt to hold on to power leading up to the rigged 2020 election they were working on an American Carnage scenario. Their story was that irrationally enraged Blacks and their radical allies were overrunning Anarchist Jurisdictions, where hopelessly liberal mayors and governors were allowing these massive demonstrations, these riots, and showing terrible disloyalty to the President. The spin was that these out of control mobs, rampaging for absolutely no reason and seemingly enraged at overwhelming police force arrayed against them, were threatening life as we know it and it was likely that martial law would have to be invoked to protect democracy, or some cherished right wing version of it.

Barr sent federal troops to protect a federal building in Portland, Oregon, pursuant to an Executive Order about protecting federal property from violence. Violence escalated immediately, once the anti-riot forces arrived on the scene. You recall the unmarked shock troops jumping out of unmarked rented vans to grab protesters, who they drove around, handcuffed and hooded, and released without charges. It was a radical experiment, to see if federal forces could be widely deployed to put down this threatening Black revolution. Black Lives Matter was portrayed as a violent terrorist group, as was antifa. People who claimed that police killings of unarmed Blacks is a serious ongoing problem in America were themselves the serious ongoing problem in America. These lawless rioters would not be tolerated.

Recall how things escalated in Portland. Trump supporters began staging counter protests in Portland. An armed Trump supporter was shot to death one night by a violent “antifa terrorist”. Four days later, the suspected anitfa killer was found 120 miles from Portland and quickly died in a hail of police bullets when federal marshals staged a raid. The story of the original murder of the Trump supporter, was reported, by the Washington Post, at the very end of the article about the police killing of his suspected murderer, this way:.

The incident came after a caravan of Trump supporters, including members of the Patriot Prayer group, made their way through Portland, sparking skirmishes with those who objected to their presence. Portland has seen more than three months of often violent protests after the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis, and the shooting seemed to intensify the persistent tension.

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As for the police killing of the suspected killer of the Trump supporter? From that same article in the Washington Post:

A vocal proponent of the far-left antifa movement who was suspected of fatally shooting a supporter of a far-right group in Portland, Ore., this weekend was shot and killed in a confrontation with law enforcement Thursday, the U.S. Marshals Service said.

Investigators were seeking to take Michael Forest Reinoehl into custody in connection with the fatal shooting of 39-year-old Aaron J. Danielson on Saturday after confrontations between supporters of President Trump and Black Lives Matter counterprotesters.

The agency said Reinoehl was shot by police near Olympia, Wash., after drawing a weapon as officers tried to arrest him.

“The fugitive task force located Reinoehl in Olympia and attempted to peacefully arrest him,” said Jurgen R. Soekhoe, a U.S. Marshals spokesman, in a statement. “Initial reports indicate the suspect produced a firearm, threatening the lives of law enforcement officers. Task force members responded to the threat and struck the suspect who was pronounced dead at the scene.”

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The attempt to peacefully arrest him was accomplished when officers jumped out of two SUVs that had sped to the scene, cut off Reinhoel’s parked car and opened fire on the left-wing suspect, killing him in a barrage of 37 bullets. Here’s Barr, about the “confrontation” between Reinoehl and the officers who attempted to peacefully apprehend him and, in his estimation, justifiably opened fire on the dangerous fugitive:

In a statement Friday, Attorney General William P. Barr called Reinoehl a “a dangerous fugitive, admitted Antifa member, and suspected murderer,” who was shot by law enforcement after he “attempted to escape arrest and produced a firearm.”

“The streets of our cities are safer with this violent agitator removed, and the actions that led to his location are an unmistakable demonstration that the United States will be governed by law, not violent mobs,” Barr said.

A few days later, a more accurate picture of how admitted Antifa member Reinoehl was killed came out. But not before Trump weighed in. The NY Times reported:

The U.S. Marshals Service declined to comment for this article, citing the pending investigation. The agency previously said that it had attempted to “peacefully arrest” Mr. Reinoehl and that he had threatened the lives of law enforcement officers.

President Trump, who has described the racial justice protests that have roiled the nation as the work of lawless criminals, praised the operation.

“This guy was a violent criminal, and the U.S. Marshals killed him,” the president told Fox News. “And I will tell you something, that’s the way it has to be. There has to be retribution when you have crime like this.”

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Kill one of ours, the government will kill one of yours. Hammurabi.

The Times article cited above details what actually happened in the “confrontation” that led to Reinoehl’s killing. Witnesses thought it was a mob hit, or a drug cartel execution. Reinoehl was walking toward his car, holding a cell phone and a bag of candy when the “confrontation” began. Two SUVs sped to the scene, cutting off Reinoehl’s car, four armed men leapt out and immediately opened fire. Nobody heard anyone identify themselves as police or yell anything else at the suspect. An unfired handgun was found in a pocket of Reinhoehl’s bullet riddled corpse, (proof that his killing by government agents was totally justified, as police investigators later found.)

Of course, who are you going to believe, the Lying New York Times, and twenty-two so-called “witnesses” who were interviewed by the paper, or men of unimpeachable integrity like Bill Barr and a president who, try as he might, simply cannot tell a lie?

George Grosz “Shot While Escaping”

[1]

Krista’s opening:

“Remember,” Bryan Doerries likes to say in both physical and virtual gatherings, “you are not alone in this room — and you are not alone across time.” With his public health project, Theater of War, he is activating an old alchemy for our young century. Ancient stories, and texts that have stood the test of time, can be portals to honest and dignified grappling with present wounds and longings and callings that we aren’t able to muster in our official places now. It’s an embodiment of the good Greek word catharsis — releasing both insight and emotions that have had no place to go, and creating an energizing relief. And it is now unfolding in the “amphitheater” of Zoom that Sophocles could not have imagined.

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Well-done, Frank Bruni

My mother always loved Frank Bruni’s writing. A fan of clear prose, attuned to wry touches, a savorer of wit, my opinionated mother loved the opinionated Bruni’s craft. I don’t know why I remember this so clearly, and my mother died more than ten years ago, but I remember her telling me she’d started reading him when he was a restaurant critic and had always liked his style. Maybe she’d given me an op-ed of his to read, and I’d agreed it was very good. I remember her smile, glad that I appreciated the same kind of writing she did.

In today’s New York Times Frank Bruni puts his finger on the cruelty of current GOP politics. A party increasingly desperate to suppress the vote, and drive maddening wedges between voters, the unprincipled extremists now openly in charge of the party have found a nasty new culture war issue: making laws to prevent parents of transsexual kids from legally consenting to their adolescent children having medical treatments recommended by their doctors.

That no hypocrisy phases the GOP is a reality too obvious to need further demonstration, just think of anything McConnell or Graham have said in the last year or so, but this extreme right version of the party of the wealthy is the party of Individual Liberty and freedom from all government “coercion”, starving government of taxes to shrink it small enough to drown in a bathtub, passing laws that force people who have wrestled with the difficult decision of letting a trans child transition to another gender, to simply give up that liberty and freedom from government coercion. Because, you know, their children, that miniscule fraction of all children, are hateful monsters that our most passionately bigoted voters love to fucking hate.

A few years ago, when Cheney and Dubya won a second term in 2004, the inflammatory wedge issue that drove their victory was homosexual marriage. It was going to destroy the nation, millions of religious people were very worked up about it. The idea of two gay people, people of the same sex (the same sex!), having a sexual and civic union sanctioned by the government drove millions of homophobes to the polls. It was probably the single issue most responsible for bringing a second term to those deserving funsters Cheney and Bush.

Today relatively few people get that worked up about whether gay people can get married or not. Gay marriage has no bad effect on anyone, except perhaps unhappily married gay people and their social circle. The president finally embraced gay marriage as a civil rights issue, the Supreme Court OK’d it. Allowing homosexuals to marry, and have all the rights of other married couples, became the law of the land. People soon forgot their rage against homosexuals being allowed to marry, went on to be mad about other things. The GOP is always looking for the next thing to make millions of people enraged enough to vote for an extremist party that promises to wipe that thing they hate OUT.

Let’s let Frank Bruni tell it, he once again does a beautiful job. His op-ed is called Republicans Have Found Their Cruel New Culture War.

Straight people have often asked me what I, a gay man, have in common with someone who’s trans. Gay people have often put that question to themselves. There are many answers. Here’s one: I know what it’s like to have my identity, my dignity — my very hold on happiness — pressed into partisan battle and fashioned into a political weapon.

I know what it’s like to be used.

And right now, trans people are being used, cruelly.

You probably heard about what happened in Arkansas. On Tuesday, state lawmakers there voted overwhelmingly, by a three-to-one ratio, to override a veto from the Republican governor, Asa Hutchinson, and effectively ban gender-affirming medical treatments, such as puberty blockers and hormone therapy, for trans youth under the age of 18.

It doesn’t matter if those youth are pleading for this kind of help or have already begun receiving it and found it to be lifesaving. It doesn’t matter if their parents, having wrestled hard with the situation and done extensive research, believe that therapy is crucial. It doesn’t matter if physicians have concluded it’s in the youths’ best interest. Politicians know best.

And they’re expert at identifying vulnerable, marginalized populations and demonizing them in the interest of political gain. That’s what Republicans in Arkansas, in Alabama and in dozens of other states are doing with scores of active bills, many of which focus on denying trans youth gender-affirming treatments and dictating how they may or may not participate in sports.

They’re inventing a problem to whip up a culture war that they’re convinced will redound to their benefit. Worried that their party can’t retain or wrest power with its positions on the economy and prescriptions (or lack thereof) for health care, they’re fighting on other turf, with no pause to contemplate the need for their offensives and no thought for the casualties.

Back in the early aughts, they put gays and lesbians in their sights, railing against nascent progress toward marriage equality and deciding that for the good of the republic — for its very survival! — it was necessary to outright outlaw same-sex marriage via ballot referendums and amendments to state constitutions. This was all the Republican rage in 2004, which just happened to coincide with President George W. Bush’s re-election effort.

The legally recognized weddings of two men or two women had no negative practical effect on the straight people around them, who might be offended by the idea but were hardly so much as inconvenienced by the reality. It wasn’t as if the gay or lesbian couples were going to stop being gay and lesbian couples if they couldn’t put their names on marriage licenses. And their vows were as much an affirmation of traditional values, such as commitment and monogamy, as they were a repudiation of them.

But many Republicans — aided, to be fair, by many Democrats’ support in 1996 for the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which President Bill Clinton signed — cast those vows as cultural death knells. Many Republicans portrayed me and my kind as leches, even child molesters, laundering perversion into propriety. It’s a hell of a thing: to hear words from civic “leaders” that openly or tacitly encourage people to hate you, maybe even to strike out at you. It puts fear in your heart and rage in your brain.

And it’s happening to trans people. Republicans’ response to their party’s political failures at the ballot box in 2018 and 2020 is to find an issue that they believe paints Democrats as convention-smashing libertines and themselves as the defenders of innocent children and a moral order. It’s to name monsters out there and take up torches against them. The issue is trans equality. The monsters are trans people.

Not by accident, they made an uncharacteristically prominent appearance in Donald Trump’s first big speech after his exile from the White House, when he and other disappointed Republicans were regrouping and trying to figure out the path forward.

“Joe Biden and the Democrats are even pushing policies that would destroy women’s sports,” he told an audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Florida in late February. An overnight feminist, he added that young girls and women “are now being forced to compete against those who are biological males.”

Leaving aside his loaded language and reductive description, he was suggesting that a relatively rare scenario was pervasive. That’s a classic wedge-issue strategy. Similarly, Republican lawmakers in the many red states pushing measures like Arkansas’ raise the specter of irreparably damaged, even abused children — the Arkansas law is the Save Adolescents From Experimentation Act — without much if any proof of that.

“There’s no evidence being presented, no evidence being pretended,” Mara Keisling, the founder and executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, told me. That’s a big clue that this is about political theater more than public welfare.

Other clues: The rapid metastasizing of often like-worded laws around the country and the sudden urgency of lawmakers intoning the same dark warnings. That smacks of coordination from some misanthropic mother ship.

When Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, grandstands in a Senate hearing by comparing surgery elected by trans people to the “genital mutilation” — a phrase he used repeatedly — of girls in cultures that seek to subjugate women by stamping out their sexual pleasure, that’s not an honest policy debate. That’s just a storm of nasty words distracting voters from the governmental and societal failures really standing between them and the American dream. Trans people aren’t the impediment.

The arrogance of Republican lawmakers at the state level is stunning. They’re overriding parents’ considered decisions regarding their own children, whom they surely care and fret about more than any stranger does. If you read or listen to interviews with them, what’s most striking is how much research and reflection they’ve done, how thoroughly they’ve considered what their children confront and what their children need.

Lawmakers are getting between physicians and patients. They’re staging a medical intervention, on the grounds that one group of people (doctors, parents) must be controlled for the protection of another (children). If that’s OK in this case, why not when Covid-blasé Americans reject masks or refuse vaccines, putting other Americans at risk? Some of the same Republicans who claim that they’re coming to the rescue of children receiving testosterone are just fine letting the rest of us marinate in the coronavirus.

They’re opportunists. They’re extremists. Don’t take my word for it. Take Hutchinson’s. The governor of Arkansas is hardly anyone’s idea of a moderate Republican. He recently signed legislation allowing Arkansas physicians to cite religious objections in refusing to provide treatment. He also signed into law a bill barring trans women and girls from competing against other women and girls in sports.

But he has said repeatedly over the past week that the bill regarding medical care for trans youth was reckless and uncompassionate. In an interview with The Times’s Lisa Lerer, he conceded that as part of “the cultural wars that we’re engaged in,” Republicans were often “acting out of fear of what could happen, or what our imagination says might happen, versus something that’s real and tangible.”

He finally, in this instance, drew a line and took a stand. My own fear is that it will be a lonely one, and that a great many people will suffer because of that.

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Incoherence is no problem

The obvious problem with an incoherent position — one that relies on nothing but the right to take any position you want– is that, as long as the incoherence persists, there is no hope of solving any disagreement. We can only persuade each other if we reach a basic agreement about the facts in front of us. An incoherent argument doesn’t depend on facts, agreement or anything else– it’s an illogical position that closes the mind to persuasion.

I’ll give you one example, the argument over the filibuster, to stand in for the rest, as we navigate this “alternative fact” world we are living in post-Trump.

A lie, which can be shown to be a lie, can now be openly cited to prove that the policy you favor is necessary. That it is a demonstrable lie is no longer a problem, for purposes of partisan position-taking. You can call the well-publicized lie a “widely believed allegation”, which makes it sound much more reasonable. The same goes for any glittering generality pulled out of one’s nether sphincter — it’s good enough to support an otherwise incoherent argument.

Most Americans get their news from partisan sources. On the right people say that PBS, MSNBC and CNN are just as distorted, prejudiced and untruthful as FOX, Newsmax and OANN. It’s a flimsy claim, unsupported by actual evidence. Media on the right frequently highlights conspiratorial claims as though they are mainstream beliefs — when pressed on airing false claims they call the promotion of fringe ideas “entertainment” rather than factual “news” which has a much higher standard of “truth”.

Even the wildest ideas quickly become mainstream beliefs, like the widespread belief among conservatives that the 2020 presidential election may well have been stolen by massive fraud. A large percentage of Republicans believe the 2020 election was stolen from Donald J. Trump and that the January 6th riot at the Capitol was understandable, peaceful, non-threatening and perfectly legal [1].

Here’s one example of circular incoherence in public debate about restricting or getting rid of the peculiar institution known as the filibuster.

The problem is that a party with a razor thin Senate majority needs to find ten votes, in a disciplined opposition party that votes as a block, in order to pass almost any law. This is because the burden, in a filibuster, is on the majority party to reach 60 votes to end debate (even if there is no actual debate) and vote on a bill becoming a law.

Why is the burden not on the minority party filibustering to kill a proposed law? Why are 41 filibustering members not required to be present to maintain a filibuster rather than the majority party having to find ten votes among the filibustering party to stop this form of obstruction? There is no coherent explanation offered. It’s just the way it is.

Why is nobody in the minority party now required to stand and talk non-stop to keep a filibuster going? No coherent explanation is offered — outside of the small change in the rules that makes announcing the intent to filibuster good enough to infinitely block debate on any bill.

Those who advocate neither changing filibuster rules nor abolishing the parliamentary practice outright claim this obstruction technique encourages bipartisanship by making people more willing to compromise.

We don’t need to change anything about the filibuster, say conservatives like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, what we need is more bipartisanship, more compromise, more trust between political parties that have become armed camps. We need more faith in the integrity of American elections that tens of millions now have lost faith in. We need this faith because our confidence in the fairness of our own democracy has been, rightly or wrongly. so badly undermined — and it’s a bipartisan problem.

That the argument is incoherent, in a nation where one party is committed to a lie about widespread voting fraud (and cast not a single vote to relieve the suffering of millions of Americans during a pandemic), is not a problem. Listen to Manchin being interviewed, read his op-ed in the Washington Post. Nobody will press him on the essential incoherence of his position, which he states as calmly and reasonably as can be, and which amounts to: the answer to racism is for people to stop being so damned racist.

The role of incoherence in human, particularly American, life is hard to overstate. Why do racists hate the people they hate? Ask ’em, they’ll tell you. It’s not all of ’em, you see, there are good ones, even among them. It’s really mostly the bad ones we hate, the angry ones, the ones who are violent, the ones who don’t denounce the violent ones, the quiet ones nobody can tell which side they’re actually on. Am I making sense? If not, maybe you need to think harder. We got this sturdy rope here, and the mob is pretty worked up, so think hard before you answer that you understand what I’m saying, since there’s none of them around to string up right this minute and people’s blood is getting hot, been getting hot, I can tell you for sure.

I keep thinking of a very neurotic guy I was friends with since grade school, his eyelid twitching as he nervously accused me of trying to deliberately destroy his troubled marriage. When he was done explaining his insane claim I was able to straighten things out a bit, but, you know, seriously– what the fuck?

Incoherence is particularly attractive when you’re very, very angry. Takes nothing particularly persuasive to convince oneself of the righteousness of one’s own rage. Anger can always justify itself, as long as you stay mad.

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There is no PROOF that the people chanting “Hang Mike Pence!” were NOT actually skillfully disguised antifa provocateurs, rather than Trump supporters, nor that the policeman killed, or the one who lost an eye, were not attacked by these same BLM activists, disguised as Confederate flag waving insurrectionists. Listen to this:

Principled Democrat [sic] Moron Speaks Out in the Washington Post

The filibuster is a critical tool to protecting that input [from small, less populous states] and our democratic form of government. That is why I have said it before and will say it again to remove any shred of doubt: There is no circumstance in which I will vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster. The time has come to end these political games, and to usher a new era of bipartisanship where we find common ground on the major policy debates facing our nation.

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Thus writes the highly principled Joe Manchin of West Virginia in an op-ed called I will not vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster. He believes the two parties must work together. Many Americans believe this, of course, probably most of us, although the solid 40% who support Trump no matter what are apparently down for any Big Lie that might help their party maintain power. There are principled members of both parties, Manchin insists. Therefore, it stands to reason that:

There is also bipartisan support for voting reform and many of the initiatives outlined in the For the People Act. Our ultimate goal should be to restore bipartisan faith in our voting process by assuring all Americans that their votes will be counted, secured and protected. Efforts to expand voting hours and access, improve our election security and increase transparency in campaign finance and advertisement rules should and do have broad, bipartisan support and would quickly address the needs facing Americans today. Taking bipartisan action on voting reform would go a long way in restoring the American people’s faith in Congress and our ability to deliver results for them.

Manchin writes this after the GOP majority legislature of the great state of Georgia passed a voter suppression law that would have enabled Trump to overturn the 2020 election, had it been in place last November, a law so transparent in its intent to favor one party that even corporations have denounced it as the Jim Crow artifact it is.

Manchin writes this editorial after 0 Republicans (in either House of Congress) voted for the COVID relief bill that Democrats narrowly passed by reconciliation.

Manchin believes in bipartisan cooperation with a party that speechified, paid to advertise doubt about “election integrity” based on a lie and cast 147 votes in Congress against certifying an election that officials of both parties declared free of widespread fraud.

Manchin can work with a party that is blocking a commission to get the facts on the January 6 riot at the Capitol. That’s what politics is all about.

I hate to revert to type, but the truth matters, even in politics, Joe Manchin, you stupid, posturing motherfucker. Same goes for your colleague Ms. Sinema.

Manchin reminds me of the Dubya Bush that Stephen Colbert skewered at the Correspondents’ Dinner a few years back. “You’re steadfast, sir. You believe the same thing on Wednesday that you did on Monday, no matter what happened on Tuesday!”

There is bipartisan support for keeping assault weapons out of the hands of violent maniacs, has been for decades. The GOP won’t vote for it. There was bipartisan support for Obama’s moderate nominee Merrick Garland for Supreme Court. The GOP Senate leader told the president to go fuck himself, no hearing, no debate. After Trump fomented, organized and incited the riot on January 6, #Stop the Steal, based on the Big Lie, the GOP fell into line to make sure he couldn’t be convicted in his impeachment, using a dubious rationale about having delayed the proceeding until it had no constitutional force.

Manchin ends his op-ed with these high-minded phrases:

We will not solve our nation’s problems in one Congress if we seek only partisan solutions. Instead of fixating on eliminating the filibuster or shortcutting the legislative process through budget reconciliation, it is time we do our jobs.

So, of course, that means not changing the filibuster rules back to requiring the party blocking debate to stand in the well of the Senate talking and talking. It means not changing the rule to put the burden on the minority to maintain a 41 vote quorum, but leaving the burden on the majority party to find 60 votes, ten among Trump dead-ender partisans. It means changing nothing, but the hearts of Manchin’s fellow legislators.

The odds are 50-50 that Manchin simply turns Republican if pressed hard enough by Senate colleagues. If the GOP suddenly got a majority in the Senate with “moderate” “centrist” Joe Manchin joining their caucus officially, they’d immediately end the filibuster, you can take that to the bank. Manchin would probably be OK with that.

The conservative Red State Democrat already shares many of their core beliefs. You don’t need to make a living wage if you’re poor, you can make do with a much smaller raise — it’s all you deserve anyway. If it’s not for endless war we can’t spend trillions fixing roads, bridges, transitioning to a more sustainable economy, training Americans for new jobs, etc. HOW WE GONNA PAY FOR IT? YOU SURE AS HELL CAN’T FORCE THE SUPER-WEALTHY AND CORPORATIONS TO PAY MORE TAXES! The man is a Republican asset, enjoying his moment as principled king maker/kingpin of obstruction. Fuck him and the flea-bitten bipartisan donkey he rode in on.

Jim Crow 2.0, yo

In an excellent op-ed in the NY Times the other day, entitled If It’s Not Jim Crow, What Is It?  Jamelle Bouie offers an insightful treatment of the old Jim Crow voting laws, which were always crafted with a certain subtle shading (to avoid the federal punishments for depriving people of the right to vote based on race or previous condition of servitude). Not one of these Jim Crow voting laws were framed in terms of race, political party or any other discriminatory intent. Had they been, they would not have survived judicial scrutiny, even by outright racist judges.

Here’s the opening section of Bouie’s analysis:

The laws that disenfranchised Black Americans in the South and established Jim Crow did not actually say they were disenfranchising Black Americans and creating a one-party racist state.

I raise this because of a debate among politicians and partisans on whether Georgia’s new election law — rushed through last month by the state’s Republican legislature and signed by Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican — is a throwback to the Jim Crow restrictions of the 20th century.

Democrats say yes. “This is Jim Crow in the 21st century. It must end,” President Biden said in a statement. Republicans and conservative media personalities say no. “You know what voter suppression is?” Ben Shapiro said on his very popular podcast. “Voter suppression is when you don’t get to vote.”

The problem with the “no” argument here is that it mistakes both the nature and the operation of Jim Crow voting laws. There was no statute that said, “Black people cannot vote.” Instead, Southern lawmakers spun a web of restrictions and regulations meant to catch most Blacks (as well as many whites) and keep them out of the electorate. It is true that the “yes” argument of President Biden and other Democrats overstates similarities and greatly understates key differences — chief among them the violence that undergirded the Jim Crow racial order. But the “no” argument of conservatives and Republicans asks us to ignore context and extend good faith to lawmakers who overhauled their state’s election laws because their party lost an election.

and, in describing the seeming subtle nature of many of these restrictions, Bouie points out that

Between the 15th Amendment, which prohibited overt discrimination on the basis of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” and the 14th Amendment, which allowed Congress to slash the representation of states that disenfranchised adult males for any reason other than crime or rebellion, Southern lawmakers could not just write Black voters out of the electorate. “The disenfranchisers were forced to contrive devious means to accomplish their purposes,” Kousser writes.

And devious, while still “in-your-fucking face”, this Georgia voter suppression law is, whatever else one might want to say about a law that fixes a problem that never existed, based on an electoral loss that can only be prevented by immediately changing the laws of the state.

The idiocy of zero-sum thinking

A modern day Hitler, say Saddam Hussein, defies the world in some terrible way. The response of the united democracies is to pressure him, by harsh economic sanctions (which hurt his victims, kill ailing children and leave him untouched) or war (which kills thousands of his victims, displaces millions, creates a refugee crisis that destabilizes the region for decades into the future). In the war Hussein is eventually captured and, after a short trial with a pre-ordained outcome, hastily strung up in some kind of garage or hangar, in the middle of the night. Democracy declares itself the winner.

What’s wrong with this scenario? It’s like using an atomic bomb to get rid of a single, nasty insect, for one thing.

I didn’t think of this in terms of Major League Baseball pulling $100,000,000 of business out a state where citizens are suffering mightily under the economic devastation caused by COVID-19 (also known as “Kung Flu” or the “Trump virus”) until I heard this very reasonable commentary from Tennessee comedian Trae Crowder:

If Major League Baseball had announced its firm intention to move the all-star game if certain provisions of the Georgia law were not revised, and used removal of a $100M game as a negotiating lever, might a strenuous public debate in Georgia have emerged? Of course, there is no mechanism available to do this kind of thing, though one imagines such a mechanism, with a May 15 deadline, could have been devised to address something of this anti-democratic magnitude.

Stacey Abrams, who the GOP blames for this bleeding of a fortune from the citizens of Georgia, was against the MLB boycott. She applauded the sentiment MLB’s decision expressed, and the giant corporation’s good intentions, but did not support the boycott itself. No matter, we live in a post-truth, alternative fact America.

Mitch McConnell will continue to threaten and lecture corporations about their political speech extending only to massive, unlimited campaign donations. He will block all COVID relief in the senate (as he did, month after month) unless it included blanket corporate immunity from law suits, no matter how egregious the corporate behavior was. He will go to the mat for the rights of corporations to be free of all restraint, to pursue profits as roughly as they see fit, but that doesn’t give the corporations a right to express outrage, no matter how outrageous the provocation they are responding to.

Zero sum. No solution was ever found in a zero sum world, except for one that benefits one side while screwing the other side completely. There’s no idea of any kind of win-win outcome with a party that only believes in victory at any cost.

Trump and the two GOP senators narrowly lost elections in Georgia. There was an immediate riot at the Capitol, the very day the two new Georgia senators won their run-offs. Trump wildly accelerated his efforts to loudly change the story from the GOP loss in Georgia to the widespread fraud he’d been fraudulently screaming about for months. The GOP state legislature in Georgia rushed to change the law to make sure this could never happen again, to remove any kind of political independence in the counting and certification of votes in the GOP-controlled 50-50 state of Georgia. The new law ensures the GOP wins any close election in the future.

The Georgia law, which ensures the GOP will have the final say in every county, district and precinct in Georgia (as Trump demanded, unsuccessfully, after the thrice recounted and certified election) is a new Jim Crow. The GOP defenders of this law to combat fraud by non-GOP voters appear on TV to snarl that it is not any kind of voter suppression effort, that the new law is needed to ensure “election integrity” and protect it from (imagined) voter fraud, that Blacks not whites are the actual racists, but the law is (absent the long Southern tradition of physical violence against targeted voters), without question, a new Jim Crow voting restriction. Jim Crow 2.0, yo.

Can’t shake being all shook up

A friend I hadn’t talked to in a while asked how I was doing. I went down the list of the reasons I’m basically doing fine, my health is OK, the people I know all seem to be healthy, I had the second dose of the vaccine last week, I have enough money to get by, Sekhnet is doing fine, my arthritic knees hurt, but I’m still walking every day, I’m grateful for all this.

Then there’s this feeling I can’t shake, that I am living in Europe in 1932. A student of history, my friend immediately agreed with the comparison.

Weak and badly shaken democracies worldwide are buffeted by constant well-funded lies that agitate millions of angry citizens to rage about their grievances, real and imagined. These weakened democracies try to solve pressing problems for their citizens while an implacable, unprincipled enemy undermines them at every turn, snarling that democracy itself is the problem and arming and organizing itself for violent insurrection, if needed. In the US, these enemies would be willing to sacrifice another 500,000 American lives to the pandemic and kill a bunch more cops, a small price to make the current government look feckless and despicable and ensure their party’s return to absolute political power very soon.

My friend said the Georgia voter suppression law, like the ones passed more quietly in a few other states of the former Confederacy, could not stand a constitutional challenge. I walked him through John Roberts’s blandly dishonest decision in Shelby County v. Holder [1], the infamous 2013 case that threw away the most crucial protections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in spite of Congress reauthorizing it almost unanimously (98-0 in the Senate), President George W. Bush signing it immediately, with a statement about its centrality to democracy and justice, and the challenged law being upheld by the two federal courts below the Supreme Court.

Roberts also failed to consider (or mention) the provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that allows a clean record of ten years with no voter suppression attempts to exempt a state from the preclearance requirement that Roberts threw out. In the Shelby County case itself, plaintiff Shelby County, Alabama (carefully chosen by a consortium of powerful right wing lawyers) had no such clean record. In fact, it had a blemished record. Never mind, John Roberts solved a problem that didn’t exist by taking a gut hook to a law that had been working pretty well to prevent the worst of the voter suppression it was designed to prevent.

The immediate result of throwing away the umbrella that was keeping us dry during a pelting shit-storm (to paraphrase RBG’s famous “throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.“) was the instant mushrooming of restrictive voting laws in many states that would have previously needed pre-clearance before passing laws that discriminated against certain voters.

These newly liberated states had the laws all ready to go, signed them into law as soon as John Roberts fixed the Voting Rights Act for them.

In the first three months of 2021, 361 more such laws have been introduced in 47 states, emergency laws needed to deal with an “emergency” that only exists in right-wing media and the fevered hive-mind of Trumpism. These laws, it must always be pointed out, are based on a lie about widespread voter fraud. Their passage preemptively allows Republican state legislatures to intervene to certify the final vote tally, by throwing out thousands of legal votes, if necessary, as Trump illegally sought to have them do in 2020. In Georgia, no more worries about a law-abiding Secretary of State having the last word, the votes in every county will be counted by the GOP as well as all recounts.

This time, Roberts, on a 6-3 Federalist Society court, wouldn’t even have to get involved in upholding the Georgia law as reasonable and narrowly tailored to deal with a hypothetical problem, even one that has never been shown to exist in reality. No longer the “swing vote” on a 6-3 conservative court he can once again demonstrate that he is a principled institutionalist by voting with the three libtard losers that the Georgia law is arguably unconstitutional.

My friend said the court has to be increased to 11. I did the math for him. Georgia law upheld as constitutional 6-5, Roberts for the win, like in Hollywood Squares.

“Fuck,” he said.

The larger problem of institutional injustice is baked into the legalism of the law. A case often turns on an obscure bit of creatively-applied precedent, expressed in jargon the uninitiated have no hope of understanding. An obscure doctrine like the Non-deferential Exception Exemption Standard (a hypothetical doctrine pulled out of my ass) can be deployed by an unappealable Supreme Court to narrowly rule that, for example, a corporation has no obligation to do anything but make money for its shareholders and cannot lawfully be regulated in its pursuit of profit by any government agency or even sued by any consumer in a court of law.

“How can this be?” the average citizen asks. Well, that’s just your ignorance asking, you clearly don’t understand the fine points of the inviolable Non-deferential Exception Exemption Standard as set forth by our most brilliant jurists.

There was a great analysis of this right-wing judicial activism in the New York Times last week. The predominance of Federalist Society ideologues on the federal bench, appointed for life, is the result of a well-organized, well-funded forty year campaign to pack the court with friends of corporate and religious liberty. I clipped out the op-ed at the time, and Heather Cox Richardson mentioned it in her Letter from an American last night:

“By legislating from the bench, Republicans dodge accountability for unpopular policies,” writes Ian Millhiser in a terrific piece in the New York Times on March 30. “Meanwhile, the real power is held by Republican judges who serve for life — and therefore do not need to worry about whether their decisions enjoy public support.”

Ian Millhiser ends his piece:

Yet to understand decisions like Little Sisters and West Virginia, a reader needs to master arcane concepts like the “nondelegation doctrine” or “Chevron deference” that baffle even many lawyers. The result is that the Republican Party’s traditional constituency — business conservatives — walk away with big wins, while voters have less access to health care and breathe dirtier air.

By legislating from the bench, Republicans dodge accountability for unpopular policies. Meanwhile, the real power is held by Republican judges who serve for life — and therefore do not need to worry about whether their decisions enjoy public support.

It’s a terrible recipe for democracy. Voters shouldn’t need to hire a lawyer to understand what their government is doing.

source

Earlier in the op-ed he lays out a few of the prize decisions the Federalist Society Supreme Court has delivered for its ideologically-driven deep-pocketed patrons in recent years:

In the same period, the Supreme Court dismantled much of America’s campaign finance law; severely weakened the Voting Rights Act; permitted states to opt out of the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion; expanded new “religious liberty” rights permitting some businesses that object to a law on religious grounds to diminish the rights of third parties; weakened laws shielding workers from sexual and racial harassment; expanded the right of employers to shunt workers with legal grievances into a privatized arbitration system; undercut public sector unions’ ability to raise funds; and halted Mr. Obama’s Clean Power Plan.

Now, a 6-to-3 conservative-majority Supreme Court is likely to reshape the country in the coming decade, exempting favored groups from their legal obligations, stripping the Biden administration of much of its lawful authority, and even placing a thumb on the scales of democracy itself.

I told my friend there would need to be at least 15 justices on the Supreme Court to remove the power of a single “swing vote” like religious fundamentalist Amy Coney Barrett (her first decision was that traditional religious worship is more essential to freedom than state medical precautions during a pandemic), and a bipartisan committee to agree on and transparently vet candidates (no more hiding thousands of pages of prejudicial Brett Kavanaugh legal opinions or spending millions in dark money on a public relations campaign during confirmation, as was spent by Team Boof), and term limits on the justices to ensure that every administration had a pick or two.

“They’d never go for fifteen,” my friend said glumly, probably regretting he’d asked me how I was doing.

[1]

The essential dishonesty of the Roberts decision was its insistence that the debate over the Voting Rights Act relied on forty year old data, data that was largely erased by enforcement of the law he was now gutting. Since it had solved the problem he argued, as demonstrated by contemporary voter demographic data, and, as no pattern of racist voter suppression was currently in evidence, there was no further need to burden formerly racist states with an extra step, pre-clearance, before allowing them to institute restrictive voting laws that could, in any case, always be challenged in court.

His decision omitted many crucial facts that refuted his key assertions in the 5-4 decision (these are from Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s crystal clear, prescient dissent):

The reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act was passed, after 21 hearings and 15,000 pages of evidence of ongoing discrimination in the states under preclearance, by a vote of 390-33 in the House and, after further debate, 98 to 0 in the Senate. Reading the John Roberts decision you’d have no reason to suspect that President George W. Bush approvingly signed the reauthorization into law a week later, as RBG describes:

recognizing the need for “further work . . . in the fight against injustice,” and calling the reauthorization “an example of our continued commitment to a united America where every person is valued and treated with dignity and respect.” 

further reading

Helplessness hurts like hell

I’ve been gripped by unease recently, a hopeless feeling that comes from my helplessness in the face of what I can only call evil. It’s painful to sit with helplessness while watching inexorable horrors. It feels like a continual punch in the gut. I think it’s because helplessness serves to underscore the intractable cruelty of the world, and its irrationality — it doesn’t matter if your perceptions, feelings and beliefs are clearly right — you can do nothing about the upsetting unfairness you are witnessing. Particularly if the perpetrators are willing to employ every weapon imaginable to make you shut up, or, if it comes to it, simply die.

It is useless to argue with an enflamed lynch mob, try to convince them that they are mistaken, whipped up by lies that have driven them insane — you can only run like hell from that kind of lust to kill, and hope your trick knee doesn’t give out. It is a nightmare, truly, standing by and watching someone abuse, even murder, somebody else, and being unable to help, being forced to swallow the horror that you are helpless.

Hence the grating Serenity Prayer, about God granting you the wisdom to know when to stop being tormented about terrible things you can do nothing about. There is a time to walk away from a painful situation, but serenity is certainly not the cure for so many bad things we are told we must simply tolerate.

Listening to some of the testimony in the Derek Chauvin trial you hear over and over the pain of witnesses who felt helpless as they tried to intervene, tried to get Chauvin up off the dying man’s neck, tried to get medical attention for the unresponsive George Floyd after he’d gasped out his last pleas for mercy and lost consciousness. Several of the witnesses broke down crying while trying to describe how they’d been unable to get through to the four policeman who worked together to slowly kill the handcuffed, terrified man they had pinned, face down, on the pavement.

It is 2021, this is probably the first internationally televised trial of the perpetrator of a lynching. Hundreds of years of this practice went unaddressed, with shrugs, with filibusters against laws to make lynching a federal crime [1], with practical warnings about how to avoid being lynched — don’t make trouble, keep your eyes on the ground, head down and your mouth shut, except to say “yes, sir.”

When police commit such killings, in the course of doing their job, they are often protected by a legal concept called “qualified immunity” [2] which makes sure they are never even put on trial, and if they are, only long enough for this protection to be invoked and the case against them dismissed. While a concept that only applies in civil suits, a similar logic — holding the police accountable for every split second (or even nine minute plus decision, as in killing George Floyd) would make the job of the police officer impossible to do — works in decisions about whether to prosecute police officers for deaths of unarmed people they may sometimes cause.

It may seem partisan to call the killing of George Floyd a lynching, instead of a tragic mistake, or the result of a split second judgement call, but check out the behavior of the officers, their unchanging demeanor, even after it became clear to every witness that they were killing an unresisting prisoner, over a fake $20 bill.

Picture the impassive face of the former officer Derek Chauvin, one hand in his pocket, as he steadily pressed his weight on the neck of a handcuffed man, avoiding eye contact with the agitated crowd, choking the life out of a man who had long ago ceased struggling. He ignored the crowd that was yelling that he was killing the man who pleaded for his life, kept his knee on Floyd’s neck long after his victim went limp and lost consciousness (which he never regained).

I don’t see any difference between what Chauvin and his colleagues did to George Floyd and what violent strangers did to my family, most dramatically in 1942-3, what violent men did to families of Tutsis, Rohingya, Armenians, lynching victims of every ethnicity throughout the ages. One commonality of all these atrocities is the enforced reality of helplessness in the face of deadly violence. You have moral objections? OK, step right up, you can be next.

My mother, a lifelong practitioner of helplessness (as well as a great reader), used to love Frank Bruni, who has long written for the New York Times. She told me she used to read him when he was the Times restaurant critic, and that his opinion columns were equally good reading. I check him out from time to time, and my hat’s off to him. He wrote a recent op-ed addressing the pain of helplessness and our duty to help destroy certain kinds of helplessness — like the helplessness of a crowd witnessing a police killing of a handcuffed man and unable to stop it. I’ll let Frank Bruni sum it up, this is from the end of his op-ed Listening to Those Who Saw George Floyd Die.

Seeking context for Floyd’s cries to his dead mother just before his own death, one of the prosecutors asked Ross about Floyd’s relation with his mother and how the loss of her affected him.

“He seemed kind of like a shell of himself,” Ross said. “He was broken.”

Her testimony was meant to shed light not on how Chauvin behaved but on how Floyd lived, and that made it essential. She reminded anyone paying attention — and a great many of us are paying close attention — that Floyd, now a symbol, was also a man: loving, loved, strong, weak, with virtues, with vices.

And so very, very vulnerable.

The witnesses who were there at the end of his life came face to face with that. I think they came face to face, too, with their own vulnerability — with the confirmation of how many people are unsafe, and sometimes even helpless, when we let hatred and bigotry fester.

Unable to alter that big picture, a few of the witnesses wondered what, if anything, they might have done differently on that one day.

“If I would’ve just not taken the bill, this could’ve been avoided,” said Christopher Martin, the clerk at Cup Foods, where Floyd used a fake $20, prompting a manager to summon the police.

Martin, 19, seemed to be struggling with a kind of survivor’s guilt. So did other witnesses. They shouldn’t, but I can’t say the same for many of the rest of us. We too seldom turn toward the ills that factored into George Floyd’s fate. We too often look the other way.

[1]

imagine what these titans of the former Confederacy would have argued, in opposing a federal law to criminalize lynching, if they hadn’t been allowed, by parliamentary rules, to simply read the phone book aloud

[2]

In the United States, qualified immunity is a legal principle that grants government officials performing discretionary functions immunity from civil suits unless the plaintiff shows that the official violated “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known”. Wikipedia