Don’t Trust Your Lying Eyes, Say the Liars

What’s the matter, Nick? Don’t feel like wearing your MAGA hat now? What about that smirk? Stop it before I throw up. (Image Credit: Savannah Guthrie/Twitter)

A while back, I attended a Saturday morning meeting for a group of Democratic Party supporters in northern New Jersey. Former FOX News personality and Democratic strategist Julie Roginsky was the special guest. She talked about, among other things, having conversations with people who hold different political views, and at one point, fielded questions from those in attendance.

Anna Wong, a tireless activist and someone I know from her work with Indivisible NJ-5, stepped up to the mic, and with a sense of due frustration, asked how we’re supposed to reach across the aisle when we can’t even agree on a set of facts, let alone whether facts matter.

Anna’s question and how she delivered it prompted laughter from the audience—myself included—but she was very earnest in her query. Thinking back to this scene, as I frequently do, I too wonder how having a dialog with people of opposing ideologies is possible when both can’t agree to the same qualitative or quantitative data—right down to what we see.

The episode which jumps to mind, especially as a tone-setter for the Trump administration, is the whole business about whose inauguration crowd was bigger: Donald Trump’s or Barack Obama’s. It seems like eons ago when Sean Spicer—remember him?—was trying to persuade us to believe that the president’s detractors were manipulating camera angles of aerial views to diminish Trump and his achievements.

Meanwhile, in the real world, objective visual analysis showed Obama’s numbers clearly bested Trump’s. Like, it wasn’t even close. If Washington, D.C. transit numbers are any indication, Obama walloped Trump in attendance, managing 513,000 trips on the Metro by 11 A.M. in 2009 to his successor’s 193,000 by the same time. The numbers, at least in this case, don’t lie.

And yet, Trump et al. held to their erroneous claim. As Groucho Marx would say or is thus attributed, who are you going to believe: me or your lying eyes? Like some errant, erratic philosopher, President Trump seemed to be arguing against the very existence of verifiable truth. To borrow a phrase from Kellyanne Conway, there were no lies—only “alternative facts.” Seeing is believing? No, no—believing is believing. If you’re not on the side of the president, you’re not on the side of America. How are we supposed to make the country great again if you don’t buy in?

We’re in 2019 now, but the same tactics are being used by conservative commentators and, in turn, centrist media outlets to make us question what we see and know. Back in November, there was an uproar from the right after CNN reporter Jim Acosta was alleged to have manhandled a female aide who tried (unsuccessfully) to grab his microphone during a Trump press conference. Abuser, they cried! Assault, they railed! Of course, there was a proportionate uproar from the other direction when the Trump administration moved to revoke Acosta’s credentials (and deservedly so), but with various critics calling for his ouster at CNN, one might’ve been concerned the network would give in to the calls for Acosta’s head.

What was truly disturbing about the whole episode was not Acosta’s conduct—the CNN correspondent may have been a bit defensive about giving up the mic but he did excuse himself as the young woman grasped for it—but rather the attempts to discredit him. Instrumental in the effort to get Acosta canned was a video shared on social media by InfoWars editor-at-large Paul Joseph Watson and later passed along by Sarah Sanders that showed the interaction between Acosta and the aide.

The clip appeared to show Acosta arresting the woman’s arm with a “karate chop” of sorts. Casually omitted from proliferation of this video segment, however, was the knowledge that the action had been slowed or sped up at points to make Acosta’s movement seem harsher than it actually was. The audio of Acosta excusing himself also was removed. The footage from the press conference was, in a word, doctored.

By the time the clarifications could be assigned a day later, the right was already off and running with its narrative. To this day, conservative trolls maintain that Acosta should’ve been fired for his “attack” on the aide. In doing so, they have chosen a very convenient point at which to come to the defense of a young woman when members of the Republican Party are generally so intent on circumscribing women’s power and freedom. But I digress.

These cases are a little bit different in their presentation. With the aerial shots that proved Obama’s crowds were bigger beyond the shadow of a doubt, there was little Donald Trump and his cronies could do outside of arguing for the relativity of truth in the abstract. Re Jim Acosta vs. the female White House aide, there was intentional manipulation at work(Watson denies it, but it’s not like he and InfoWars have built a strong sense of credibility), though there were other versions of the clip from more trustworthy sources available. Either way, you were made to doubt what you saw or thought you saw. The eyes, they play tricks. And as we know, tricks are for kids. You’re not a kid, are you?

It is within this context that we can view the much-talked-about interaction between Covington Catholic High School (KY) students in Washington for a March for Life and Nathan Phillips, a Native American and veteran present for the Indigenous Peoples March. The iconic moment, if you will, happened when Nick Sandmann, one of the students and one of a number of them wearing a MAGA hat, stood face to face with Phillips while the latter beat a drum and sang. As Phillips has said in interviews, he was attempting to intercede between the students and members of the Black Hebrew Israelites, who shouted epithets at the high schoolers and preached about how they were “cursed Edomites.”

In the initial reaction to video from the interaction, most people regarded the Covington Catholic H.S. students fairly negatively. They were akin to a mob, standing in menacing opposition to Phillips, who was but one man. And that smirk. The enduring image of Sandmann staring motionless and speechless with a smirk on his face conveyed notions of racism and white privilege. Here were a bunch of white kids ganging up on an older person of color, a veteran and Native American no less. What better symbol of Trump’s effect and how discriminatory values are inculcated in future generations?

Not soon after, though, the narrative began to change. Additional videos were released that showed additional footage, including the students being egged on by the Black Hebrew Israelites. All of a sudden, these boys were the victim or were regarded with less contempt than before given the circumstances. Actually, now that I look closer, Phillips accosted them, not the other way around! We owe them an apology! We’re so sorry, Covington Catholic High! Our mea culpas and retractions can’t come fast enough!

Thankfully, not everyone is buying the “both sides” arguments and self-flagellation many among the media, their associated outlets, and Hollywood’s elite have begun to make. Laura Wagner, reporter at Deadspin, for one, advises us not to doubt what we saw with our own eyes.

Recounting the predictable shift from immediate condemnation of the boys’ conduct to downplaying if not outright denying any wrongdoing, Wagner addresses the notion that the kerfuffle on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial is nothing more than a Rorschach test for what you personally believe:

One lesson of the past two days is that you will see what you want to see here, if you are determined to do so; that does not mean that there is anything to be seen but what is there. I see a frothing mass of MAGA youth—who, since we’re taking in all angles here, go to a school where students fairly recently wore blackface to a basketball game—frenzied and yelling and out of control. I see four black men who seem to belong to the Black Israelites—a threat to women in their orbit, but not to random white people they’re heckling—yelling insults at the students. Then I see Phillips, as he has stated from the beginning that he did, walk up to the teens, in what seems to be an attempt to diffuse the situation. I see them laughing and dancing, red MAGA hats bobbing up and down in glee. I see them yell in Phillips’ face, and I see that he doesn’t falter. I see the smugness of a group secure in its relative power over someone more vulnerable than they are. Nothing about the video showing the offensive language of Black Israelites changes how upsetting it was to see the Covington students, and Sandmann in particular, stare at Phillips with such contempt. I don’t see how you could watch this and think otherwise unless you’re willing to gaslight yourself, and others, in the service of granting undeserved sympathy to the privileged.

And yet, that’s exactly what happened. Various individuals backtracked, excused themselves, blamed their “reptile brains.” They ignored their initial emotional responses and, without much else informing their decision-making, reversed their position. I apologize. I regret. I shouldn’t have. I’m sorry.

As far as Wagner is concerned, the reason for this is simple: it makes them seem more reasonable and trustworthy. They’re not among the followers of the news who react impassionedly to it, betraying their better judgment for the sake of an outrage fix. Even if that means, as Wagner puts it, “siding with some shithead MAGA teens and saying that 2 + 2 = 5 in the face of every bit of evidence there is to be had.”

Whatever the reason, the final outcome still stands. These people failed to believe what they had seen with their own eyes.


One criticism from people tracking this story is that these kids are being demonized by some, but what would you have them do instead? Unfortunately for promoters of this line of thinking, the answers are pretty easy. Walk away. Find a chaperone. Certainly, don’t make mocking tomahawk chants. For those suggesting “boys will be boys” or pointing to the folly of youth, that shouldn’t be an excuse. If Gillette can make an advertisement about toxic masculinity (which you may hate for being too preachy, but that’s another story), these Catholic school kids can behave in a respectful manner. Blame the parents if you want, but let’s have some responsibility assigned.

Otherwise, some might point to the remarks made by Nick Sandmann and agree with his side of the story. But come the eff on. Why would this kid and his family need to hire a PR firm if, as the saying goes, the truth shall set you free? And that smirk. I know I’m harping on it, but it’s pretty hard to get past. Sandmann says he was trying to diffuse the situation, but he could’ve taken any of the prescribed actions to do that rather than standing within feet of Nathan Phillips and smiling like an entitled little asshole. That Savannah Guthrie would encourage his defense of his “right” to stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and listen to Phillips as part of a softball interview is downright nauseating.

The last objection to deliberation on this altercation may be perhaps the most valid: “Who cares?” That is, why are we spending so much time on whether some high schooler was smirking at an older Native American man when there’s a crisis in Yemen, lead is still being found in drinking water, and other catastrophes abound? Relatively speaking, the events of this past weekend are a blip on the proverbial radar.

Their symbolic value, meanwhile, carries more weight. It’s about media portrayal of members of different ethnicities. It’s about how pressure by conservative commentators and right-wing trolls—including threats of violence and release of personal information—can influence individuals and media outlets to spin the national conversation toward white victimhood. And it’s about how people irrespective of gender or political ideology can be made to doubt what they see. It has nothing to do with “intelligence” either. When group dynamics are at work, the pressure to conform is a powerful force. We’re all susceptible.

Returning to the anecdote from the start of this piece, if it’s hard to agree on what is factual or whether that matters, it’s that much more difficult to have a meaningful conversation when something is right before our eyes and we can’t come to a consensus on what we see. That’s the most disturbing implication of the Covington Catholic/Nathan Phillips standoff and why people like Laura Wagner invoke 1984‘s dystopia. When you’re made to question your own judgment, you’re liable to believe anything.

Should Nick Sandmann or anyone else involved herein be sent death threats? Of course not. But should he and his peers be absolved of all culpability? I submit no, and neither should the antagonists of the Black Hebrew Israelites. If you saw what I saw, you’re not wrong—lying eyes and all.

You Can’t Debate Cruelty and Hate

Tucker Carlson is a white supremacist masquerading as a legitimate journalist, and boycotts of his show are well within the bounds of what should be deemed as appropriate. (Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Why does [INSERT NAME OF CABLE NEWS OUTLET] insist on giving air time to [INSERT NAME OF OFFICIAL]?

The above is a refrain I’ve seen countless times on social media in relation to the appearance of some political figure on a show like Meet the Press or Anderson Cooper 360°. Usually, the official is Kellyanne Conway or someone else for whom the commentator has little regard in the way of truth-telling or giving a straight answer. Deflect, pivot, or lie outright. I’m sure you can think of a few such examples.

In an era in which consolidation among media outlets or talk thereof is all but constant, and in which the desire for media output is such that traditional purveyors of the news must find new ways of competing with alternative sources, there seemingly has never been a greater need for scrutiny of the media’s stewardship of the day’s breaking stories. Who will watch the watchers?

An unfortunate byproduct of this state of affairs is the effort to appeal to “both sides” on a given topic. As it is with other forms of reporting (e.g. sports pregame shows), this lends itself to rather bloated collections of panelists. On-screen discussions begin to look less like conversations and more like the opening theme to The Brady Bunch. This is problematic for no other reason that, in a political climate already predisposed to name-calling and shouting matches, there is all kinds of cross-talk and people unable to get a word in edgewise. If at first you don’t succeed, just yell louder or cut off others while they’re speaking.

More importantly, though, the desire of news outlets to appear free of bias creates situations in which “experts” with diametrically opposed views “debate” matters in such a way that the dialog is less substantive discourse on relevant issues and more a manner of ceding a platform to individuals with objectionable policy stances based on false statistics and misleading narratives.

Journalist/columnist Lauren Duca recently penned an opinion piece about how defending oneself as presenting “both sides” doesn’t (or shouldn’t) apply when someone is a vehicle for hate speech. Duca, in particular, references Tucker Carlson—with whom Duca memorably debated back in December 2016 on his show, calling him a “partisan hack”—amid expressing her viewpoints, labeling him a “full caricature of white supremacy.”

Duca’s Exhibit A in a long list of evidence in her charge against Carlson is a recent segment on his show when he denigrated Central American migrants and those who support their lawful entry into the United States, averring that letting them in “makes our own country poorer and dirtier and more divided.” So much for those tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free, eh, Tucker? In response, Tucker Carlson Tonight lost over a dozen sponsors—and rightly so. The only downside is it took these companies so long to distance themselves from Carlson and his show.

As Duca explains, Carlson protests that his right to free speech is being disregarded, and while he’s right that he’s being “silenced” by boycotters who exert pressure on companies not to advertise on his show, this is not inherently unfair. Or as she puts it, “I keep Command-F-ing the Constitution, and can’t seem to find the place where our founding fathers guaranteed that a bigotry variety hour be sponsored by IHOP.”

Other critics advocating on behalf of Carlson—or specifically, against any boycotts—suggest there is danger in allowing customer protests to dictate advertisers’ decision-making. We might see corporate sponsors shying away from the political arena altogether unless to support a pro-corporate message. Or commentators who are also members of vulnerable minority groups might be attacked with strategic boycotts based on some vague conservative “moral” objection. Cue the slippery slope imagery.

It’s worth noting at this point that sponsors jumping ship is not censorship. This is not to say that the abstract idea of companies as arbiters of content is necessarily A-OK either; while we might revel in Carlson losing advertisers, we have seen what companies like Facebook have done in their negation of content that veers toward either political extreme and away from the corporatist mainstream vanguard.

Still, it’s not as if the long arm of the federal government is holding Tucker down. If businesses don’t wish to align themselves with your brand, that’s their decision. We might disagree if we feel their standards are being applied unevenly—or not at all. In any case, the free speech defense rings a bit hollow with FOX News’s boy wonder here.

Even if we frame the argument for or against Tucker Carlson in terms of constitutional liberties, though, the point Duca makes is that defending him on the basis of a “both sides” argument assumes he is a legitimate journalist with legitimate opinions. But he’s not, and his hate speech as deemed acceptable by corporate sponsors isn’t guaranteed by the First Amendment. Furthermore, it’s not as if his opinions are merely bad ones. They’re intentionally designed to dehumanize their subjects.

What makes this so troublesome is that views like Carlson’s are not based on facts. There is no preponderance of data which supports them. Duca similarly assails a Yahoo! News ad as part of the company’s “see all sides” campaign in which the statement “immigrants enrich us” is juxtaposed with “immigrants endanger us.” The implication is that the two ideas are on a par with one another, but the latter is, as one Twitter user put it, “racist garbage.” Immigrants are no more likely than native citizens—and are, according to multiple studies, statistically less likely—to commit dangerous crimes. It’s a false equivalency.

Duca closes with these thoughts on the immigration “debate” as it involves Carlson:

According to Carlson and those condemning the boycotts of his show, the right to empower white supremacy relies on the idea that all views deserve unbridled expression regardless of public will or their relative harm. This creates a perverted juxtaposition in which personhood is set on a level playing field with bigotry. The idea that a group who is being targeted has no right to self-defense is a patently absurd. You could fault Carlson’s line of thinking as a person with a soul, or just as someone who comprehends the basic principles of logic. If nothing else, we can thank Carlson for the egregiousness of this example, which reveals the fatal flaw at the core of “both sides” nonsense with stunning clarity. Carlson insists that his dehumanization of immigrants be heard based on the ignorance at the core of “both sides-ism” and the “free speech” hysteria that often surrounds it. Beneath his whiny white supremacy lies the ugly fallacy that somehow all opinions are equal, but all people aren’t.

There’s no context in which Carlson’s commentary is acceptable or correct, and therefore no use in “debating” him on the merits of his arguments. Boycotting his program is the most direct way of telling him that he and his rhetoric have limits—even if his employer doesn’t enforce any. To insist otherwise is to make it that much more likely his hate has a place in everyday conversations.


For many conscientious objectors to the way the Trump administration is handling enforcement of immigration law and its messaging on the need for border security, irrespective of what we think about illegal immigration or the efficacy of any wall/slatted steel barrier, what is striking is the heartlessness inherent in their attitudes and speech, as well as those espoused views of their supporters. If the parents didn’t want to be separated from their children, they shouldn’t have crossed illegally. If they want to apply for asylum, they should do it at a port of entry. I mean, only two children died in federal custody. Um, that’s not that bad, right?

It shouldn’t be surprising that fundamental misunderstanding of how asylum/immigration works and what exactly families from Mexico and Central America are leaving behind accompanies this spirit of overall callousness. The insistence on applying for asylum at ports of entry doesn’t account for the delays in processing applications and the refusal of customs officers to even entertain asylum-seekers, as well as President Trump’s and Jeff Sessions’s modifications—attempted or otherwise—to make asylum or other lawful entry more difficult for those who would entreat it. Nor does it appreciate the seriousness of the threat of violence in the region related to the drug trade, a situation we have helped fuel.

As for the whole kids dying in federal custody thing, I’m not sure how this can really be deemed acceptable, but there are people who will defend it along the lines of my sample remark above. Kevin McAleenan, head of Customs and Border Protection, has claimed that federal agents did “everything they could” to avoid the deaths of two children age seven or younger while defending the administration’s agenda. So, what—we just chalk these up as “oopsies,” shrug our shoulders, and move on?

McAleenan also sought to defend not telling Congress about the death of the seven-year-old when he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee last month, so his judgment is already somewhat suspect. Either way, children shouldn’t just mysteriously up and die. And DHS chief Kirstjen Nielsen should really have made more of an effort to know how many children had died in federal custody before her own testimony—not to mention not waiting until a second child died to visit the U.S.-Mexico border.

On the subject of separation of families and putting mothers and their children in cages, meanwhile, Donald Trump’s defenders will point to their trusty rebuttal of “Obama did it first.” As it bears constant reminding, however, while Barack Obama and his administration were not above reproach in their numbers of deportations and of prosecuting people who entered the United States illegally, the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy stepped it up and then some.

Under Obama, at least initially, asylum-seekers and parents were only targeted in extreme circumstances (e.g. the father was carrying drugs). By contrast, under Trump, they were detained and separated as part of standard operating procedure, and with increased vigor. In Obama’s case, too, the administration was responding to a surge in unaccompanied minors crossing the border and a lack of resources leading to struggles in accommodating these numbers. That it sought to deter asylum-seekers by detaining and deporting them expeditiously was bad policy, but eventually, Obama put an emphasis on removing those who committed felonies or were otherwise considered dangerous. Besides, the courts checked him on the use of detention as a means of deterrence for more than 20 days, citing Flores v. Reno as precedent.

With Trump, on the other hand, his administration has aggressively sought to overturn the Flores settlement and to separate families, aiming to hold them indefinitely and longer than 20 days as well as take children away from their parents and treat them as “unaccompanied minors.” Trump has also bandied about the notion of ending birthright citizenship, whether or not he can actually achieve it. What’s more, even if this were Obama’s legacy—which it isn’t, noting the shift in us-versus-them rhetoric and the indiscriminate persecution of immigrants—that was then and this is now. Donald Trump clearly hasn’t learned any lessons from his predecessor—not that he really wanted to in the first place.

Coming from a man who began his presidential campaign with labeling Mexicans as rapists and other criminals with a broad brush, and who refuses to take one scintilla of responsibility for anything that happens during his tenure, it should surprise no one that an agenda predicated on fear and hate would be devoid of empathy. That it would resonate with those who voted for him and those who continue to stand by him is what continues to confound many of us not among them. It sounds almost silly, but we simply can’t wrap our minds around this sort of indifference to human suffering.

And yet, as Adam Serwen wrote about in a piece for The Atlantic from October of last year, the cruelty of it all “is the point.” Beginning with allusions to 20th century lynchings and other state-sponsored murders of blacks with the photographs of white men grinning alongside their bodies, Serwen makes the connection between the present-day cruelty of the Trump administration, a cruelty which includes the “ethnic cleansing” of the president’s anti-immigrant stances but also extends to the male-dominated laughter at Christine Blasey Ford’s expense (and that of all other survivors of sexual violence).

In all cases, there is a communion based on the shared enjoyment of others’ suffering, a perverse joy that, much as we might be loath to accept it, is part of the human condition. Worse yet, it is a communion built on hypocrisy. Only President Trump, his family, his inner circle, his supporters, and those people he himself supports deserve “the rights and protections of the law, and if necessary, immunity from it.” All others merit scorn, if not outright abuse.

Serwen concludes his article with these thoughts that echo Lauren Duca’s take-down of Tucker Carlson:

Trump’s only true skill is the con; his only fundamental belief is that the United States is the birthright of straight, white, Christian men, and his only real, authentic pleasure is in cruelty. It is that cruelty, and the delight it brings them, that binds his most ardent supporters to him, in shared scorn for those they hate and fear: immigrants, black voters, feminists, and treasonous white men who empathize with any of those who would steal their birthright. The president’s ability to execute that cruelty through word and deed makes them euphoric. It makes them feel good, it makes them feel proud, it makes them feel happy, it makes them feel united. And as long as he makes them feel that way, they will let him get away with anything, no matter what it costs them.

To hear Serwen talk about Donald Trump in this way provides at least some comfort to those of us who oppose everything he represents. I personally have bristled at the notion Trump deserves credit for anything, even when it is pulling one grand confidence trick, because appealing to people’s baser instincts is generally not something I’d hold in any esteem. That Serwen would limit Trump’s talents to this questionable skill, though, reinforces the idea that Trump is not nearly as skilled as some would make him out to be save for his ability to connect with those of a like mindset.

It is through this lens that we can view Tucker Carlson’s hate speech and the futility of debate on its merits. When the narrative has no merit because it is built on the negation of the other’s humanity and on distortions of reality, what utility is there in trying to expose or rationalize this line of thinking away? Along these lines, when cruelty is the driving force behind a shared vision of America, what is the use of amplifying the voices that would coalesce this mentality?

For this reason and more, discussion of boycotting Carlson’s show and the Trump family’s business enterprises is well appropriate. As far as the mainstream is concerned, their message of division must not be normalized. While we should stop short of violence to achieve this purpose, coming out in support of marginalized groups and standing up to each white supremacist rally with vastly greater numbers where it may arise is essential. You can’t debate cruelty and hate with those that choose to make them their modus operandi, but you can show that they have no place among what can be deemed generally acceptable.

2018 in Review: Hey, We’re Still Here!

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other women newly elected to Congress are a big reason for excitement leading into 2019 despite disappointments in 2018. (Photo Credit: Mark Dillman/Twitter)

Rejoice! If you’re reading this, it means we haven’t yet managed to get ourselves embroiled in a nuclear war and that the future of our civilization as a going concern—despite our best efforts—is still a possibility!

Whatever your outlook on the days, weeks, and years to come, it’s worth looking back on the moments of the past 12 months and revisiting the themes they evoked.

Without further ado, it’s time for…

2018 IN REVIEW: HEY, WE’RE STILL HERE!

Mueller…always a good call.

When the year started, what did you figure the odds were that Robert Mueller’s investigation would still be going? 50% Less than that? At this writing—with Donald Trump and this administration, you never know what might happen and who might suddenly quit or get fired—the Mueller probe into Trump’s presidential campaign and possible collusion with Russia continues largely unimpeded.

This is not to say that its continued operation and final delivery are guaranteed. Jeff Sessions’s watch as Attorney General has ended, and his dismissal created the objectively strange sensation of a furor over his removal by the left despite his support of the Trump administration’s destructive agenda. His replacement, Matthew Whitaker, a Trump loyalist, inspires little faith there will be any obfuscation of the investigation, especially since he has rejected the advice of an ethics official from the Office of the Deputy Attorney General to recuse himself from the investigation.

With Mitch McConnell the obstructionist refusing to allow a vote on a bill that would safeguard the investigation, there’s little hope Congress will act to intervene should Trump move to fire Mueller. Which, as he has reminded us umpteen times, he can do because he’s the president. Whatever Mueller’s fate, the results of his team’s findings are yet impressive and suggest the probe should be permitted to run its course. Over 30 people and three Russian companies have been charged in the special counsel’s investigation, producing more than 100 criminal charges, and more yet might be on the way.

Despite Trump’s hollow concerns about the cost—Mueller’s probe is a “waste of money” and yet we should fund a wall that a lot of people don’t want—Robert Mueller and Co. have been remarkably effective and efficient. Trump shouldn’t mess with this investigation if for no other reason than not to risk a major public outcry against him.

“Guns don’t kill people,” but more people killed people with guns

Think we don’t have a problem with gun violence in the United States? That there’s an entire Wikipedia entry for mass shootings in the U.S. in 2018 alone begs to differ.

The February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in which 17 students were killed and another 17 injured was perhaps the most notable for the activism it helped inspire, but there were other newsworthy shootings around the country. Yountville, California at a veterans home. Nashville, Tennessee at a Waffle House. Santa Fe, Texas at the high school. Scottsdale, Arizona in a series of shootings. Trenton, New Jersey at the Art All Night Festival. Annapolis, Maryland at the Capital Gazette building. Jacksonville, Florida at a Madden NFL 19 tournament. Aberdeen, Maryland at a Rite Aid. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania at the Tree of Life synagogue. Tallahassee, Florida at a yoga studio. Thousands Oaks, California at a bar. Robbins, Illinois at a bar. Chicago, Illinois at Mercy Hospital and Medical Center.

Gun rights advocates may point to the varying locales of these shootings and suggest that no matter where you go and how restrictive the gun laws, people can still acquire firearms by illicit means and can do harm. In any number of cases, however, shooters haven’t needed to subvert legal channels. Either way, this shouldn’t deter lawmakers from passing more restrictive gun laws. It should be difficult for individuals to acquire guns. There are too many guns. More guns means a higher likelihood that people will get shot. This is not complicated.

If you want to talk about mental health aside from the gun issue, I’m with you. If you want to insist that we just need more good people with guns, I’m not with you, but I still think we should talk about it. In the case of Jemel Roberson in the Robbins, Illinois shooting, he was the good guy with a gun, and got shot because he was black. We haven’t come close to solving the gun violence problem in America, and as long as groups like the National Rifle Association will continue to lobby against gun control and resist statistical research into fatalities related to gun violence, we won’t make progress on this issue. Here’s hoping the NRA continues to suffer a decline in funding.

“Stormy” weather

Stormy Daniels alleges Donald Trump had an extramarital affair with her back in 2006. Trump, who denies everything, denies this happened. Meanwhile, someone paid her $130,000 in advance of the election. Who do you believe? Also, and perhaps more to the point, do you care?

I have no reason to doubt the veracity of Daniels’s account. For some people, though, the mere notion she gets and has gotten money to have sex on camera puts her word in doubt. She’s an opportunistic liar looking to cash in on her 15 minutes of fame. Ditto for her lawyer Michael Avenatti, who naturally has political aspirations.

Even for those who might believe her or who would like nothing more than to nail Trump on some dimension, the nature of her profession is such that they might be loath to discuss the matter of Trump’s infidelity and hush money payments. Talking about sex and adult entertainers is, well, icky for some.

In this respect, our willingness or unwillingness to confront this chapter of Daniels’s and Trump’s lives is a reflection of our own set of values and morals. It’s especially telling, moreover, that so many white evangelicals are willing to forgive Pres. Trump his trespasses. For a group that has, until Trump’s rise, been the most insistent on a person’s character to eschew such concerns demonstrates their willingness to compromise their standards in support of a man who upholds “religious liberty” and who exemplifies the prosperity gospel.

Thus, while some of us may not care about Stormy Daniels personally or may not find campaign finance law riveting, there’s still larger conversations about sex and money in politics worth having. Despite what nonsense Rudy Giuliani might spout.

FOX News continued its worsening trend of defending Trump and white supremacy 

Oh, FOX News. Where do we begin? If we’re talking about everyone’s favorite source for unbiased reporting (sarcasm intended), a good place to start is probably their prime-time personalities who masquerade as legitimate journalists.

Sean Hannity, now firmly entrenched as FOX News’s night-time slot elder statesman with Bill O’Reilly gone, was revealed as a client of Michael Cohen’s (yes, that Michael Cohen) and an owner of various shell companies formed to buy property in low-income areas financed by HUD loans. Surprise! That surprise extended to Hannity’s employer, to whom he did not see fit to disclose a potential conflict of interest when propping up the likes of Cohen and Ben Carson, or his adoring viewers. Not that they care, in all likelihood. Hannity tells it not like it is, but how they want to hear.

As for more recent more additions to the prime-time schedule, Laura Ingraham, when not mocking Parkland, FL survivor David Hogg for not getting into colleges (he since has been accepted to Harvard) or telling LeBron James to “shut up and dribble,” denounced the “massive demographic changes” that have been “foisted on the American people.” She says she wasn’t being racist. She is full of shit.

Tucker Carlson, meanwhile, remained the go-to guy for white supremacist viewpoints, questioning the value of all forms of immigration and more recently deriding immigrants as poor and dirty. He has lost more than a dozen advertisers since those latest comments. Good. The only criticism is that it took them this long to dissociate themselves from Carlson’s program.

FOX News has seemingly abandoned any pretense of separation from the Trump administration in terms of trying to influence the president’s views or tapping into his racist, xenophobic agenda. It hasn’t hurt them any in the ratings—yet. As those “demographic changes” continue, as television viewership is challenged by new media, and as President Trump remains unpopular among Americans as a whole, however, there is no guarantee the network will remain at the top. Enjoy it while you can, Laura, Sean, and Tucker.

Turns out big companies don’t always do the right thing

Facebook, Papa John’s, and Wells Fargo would like you to know they are very truly sorry for anything they may or may have not done. Kind of.

In Facebook’s case, it’s selling the information of millions of users to Cambridge Analytica, a consulting firm which did work for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and was founded by Steve Bannon (yes, that Steve Bannon). It also did a piss-poor job of weeding out fake news and hate speech and has since taken to relying on a questionable consortium of fact-checkers, most suspect among them The Weekly Standard.

Papa John’s had to reckon with the idea John Schnatter, the company’s namesake, is, well, kind of a racist dick. They’ve been battling over his ouster and his stake in the company ever since. As for Wells Fargo, it’s still dealing with the bad PR from its massive account fraud scandal created as a function of a toxic sales-oriented corporate culture, as well as the need to propose a reform plan to the Federal Reserve to address its ongoing shady practices (its proposals heretofore have yet to be approved).

In all three cases, these companies have sought to paper over their misdeeds with advertising campaigns that highlight their legacy of service to their customers or the people within their organization who are not bigoted assholes. With Facebook and Wells Fargo in particular, that they continue to abuse the public’s trust conveys the sense they aren’t truly repentant for what they’ve done and haven’t learned anything from the scandals they’ve created.

Unfortunately, cash is king, and until they lose a significant share of the market (or the government refuses to bail them out), they will be unlikely to change in a meaningful positive way. The best we can do as consumers is pressure our elected representatives to act on behalf of their constituents—and consider taking our business elsewhere if these organizations don’t get their shit together.

Civility, shmivility

Poor Sarah Sanders. It seems she can’t attend the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner or go out for a meal with her family without being harangued.

While I don’t necessarily think people like Sanders, Kirstjen Nielsen, and Stephen Miller should be denied the ability to eat (although it’s pretty f**ked up that Miller and Nielsen would go to a Mexican restaurant amid an immigration crisis), calls for “civility” are only as good as the people making such calls and the possibility of substantive action in key policy areas.

People were upset with Michelle Wolf, for instance, for telling the truth about Sanders’s propensity for not telling the truth by making allusions to her as Aunt Lydia from The Handmaid’s Tale and by referencing her smoky eye makeup as the ash from burned facts. Members of the press tripped over themselves to comfort Sanders and to disavow Wolf’s performance. But Wolf was doing her job, and told truth to power. It’s Michelle Wolf who deserves the apology, not habitual liar and Trump enabler Sarah Sanders.

I believe we shouldn’t go around punching Nazis—as satisfying as that might be. That said, we shouldn’t allow people to dispense hate simply to appease “both sides,” and we should be vocal about advocating for the rights of immigrants and other vulnerable populations when people like Miller and Nielsen and Sanders do everything in their power to pivot away from the Trump administration’s destructive actions. After all, it’s hard to be civil when children are being taken from their mothers and people are being tear-gassed or dying in DHS custody.

Brett Kavanaugh…ugh. (Photo Credit: Ninian Reed/Flickr)

There’s something about Alexandria

Love her or hate her, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has arrived on the national stage following her upset of incumbent Joe Crowley in the Democratic Party primary for New York’s 14th congressional district.

If you’re a devotee of FOX News, it’s probably the latter. The incoming first-year representative has joined Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Nancy Pelosi in the vaunted space of people to be booed and hissed at for pretty much everything she does. She took a break before the start of her first term? How dare she! She refused to debate Ben Shapiro? What is she afraid of? As a young Latina socialist, she ticks off all the boxes their audience possesses on their Fear and Hate Index. All without spending an official day on the job.

Like any inexperienced politician, AOC has had her wobbles, chief among them when she flubbed a question on Israel and Palestine. Nevertheless, she has handled the numerous attacks on her on Twitter and elsewhere with remarkable deftness and grace. More importantly, she appears ready to lead her party on key issues, as evidenced by her outspokenness on the concept of a Green New Deal.

Party leaders may downplay the significance of her upset primary win, but Ocasio-Cortez’s emergence, to many, heralds a progressive shift for Democrats, one in which its younger members and women are not just participants, but at the forefront. At a time when establishment Dems only seem more and more unwilling to change, there is yet reason for genuine excitement in the Democratic Party.

John McCain died. Cue the whitewashing.

I don’t wish death on anyone, but John McCain died at the right time. That time would be the era of President Donald Trump, and by contrast, McCain looks like a saint.

McCain is best remembered for his service to the United States and for helping to kill the Republicans’ intended replacement for the Affordable Care Act. But we shouldn’t brush aside the less-savory elements of his track record. As a Trump critic, he still voted in line with the president’s agenda most of the time. He was a prototypical war hawk, advocating for intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as a proponent of armed conflict with Iran—even after all he saw and endured in Vietnam.

Meanwhile, as a presidential candidate, though he is celebrated for defending Barack Obama at a town hall as a good Christian man (though he didn’t specify that he’d be worth defending if he were actually a Muslim), he was an unrepentant user of a racial slur directed at Asians and he signed off on the unqualified Sarah Palin as his running mate. A lot of the fondness he receives now from journalists likely stems from the access McCain gave reporters while on the campaign trail. Even his vote not to quash the ACA was done with a flair for the dramatic that belied the seriousness of its implications.

John McCain wasn’t the worst person to inhabit the U.S. Senate. But simply being more civil than Donald Trump is a low bar to clear. Regardless, he should be remembered in a more nuanced way in the name of accurate historical representation.

Brett Kavanaugh…ugh.

There were a lot of shameful occurrences in American politics in 2018. I already alluded to the Trump administration’s catastrophic mishandling of the immigration situation and of ripping apart families. The White House also seems intent on hastening environmental destruction, doing nothing to protect vulnerable subdivisions of the electorate, and pulling out of Syria as an apparent gift to Assad and Vladimir Putin.

And yet, the nomination and eventual confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court somehow became the most galling example of D.C. partisanship witnessed in sometime. Of course, any discussion of Kavanaugh would be incomplete without the mention of Merrick Garland. On the heels of Republicans’ refusal to hear him as a nominee following the death of Antonin Scalia and after Neil Gorsuch was sworn in, things were already primed for tension between the two major parties.

When reports of multiple alleged instances of sexual misconduct dating back to Kavanaugh’s high school and college days surfaced, though, the GOP’s stubborn refusal to budge and choose a new candidate was downright appalling. Kavanaugh didn’t do himself any favors with his testimony on the subject of these accusations, lashing out at the people who questioned him, insisting this investigation was a partisan witch hunt, and assuming the role of the aggrieved party like the spoiled frat boy we imagine he was and perhaps still is.

Kavanaugh’s defenders would be wont to point out that the rest of us are just salty that “they” won and “we” lost. Bullshit. Though we may have disagreed with Gorsuch’s nomination and conservatism prior to his being confirmed, he didn’t allegedly sexually assault or harass anybody. Brett Kavanaugh, in light of everything we now know about him, was a terrible choice for the Supreme Court. Senate Republicans should be ashamed of this chapter in American history, and this might be a good segue into talking about term limits for Supreme Court justices. Just saying.

Death by plastic

In case you were keeping score at home, there’s still an ass-ton of plastic in the world’s oceans. According to experts on the matter, the global economy is losing tens of billions of dollars each year because of plastic waste and we’re on a pace to have more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050. Doesn’t sound appetizing, does it?

By all means, we should keep recycling and finding ways to avoid using plastic on an individual basis. Every bit helps. At the same time, we’re not going to make the progress we need until the primary drivers of plastic waste are held accountable for their actions. Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Starbucks, Unilever—looking at you.

In terms of world governments, China is the worst offender hands down, and numerous Asian countries line the top 10 (Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia), but we’re not exactly above reproach. In fact, with Trump at the helm, we’ve been active in helping water down UN resolutions designed to eliminate plastic pollution.

Plastic pollution is not an isolated problem, and it’s not going away either. Literally. That stuff lasts a long time. We need to stop plastic production at the source, and push back against companies like Nestlé who exploit downtrodden communities with lax water safeguarding laws. This isn’t a game.

The Dems flipped the House, Brian Kemp stole an election, and other observations about the midterms

It’s true. Though Republicans widened their majority in the Senate, Democrats flipped the House, presumably paving the way for Nancy Pelosi to return to the role of House Majority Leader. Groan at this point if you’d like.

With the Dems running the show in the House, there’s likely to be all sorts of investigations into Donald Trump and his affairs. I mean, more political and financial, not the other kind, but you never know with that guy. That should encourage party supporters despite some tough losses. Beto O’Rourke fell short in his bid to unseat Ted Cruz from Senate, despite being way sexier and cooler. Andrew Gillum likewise had a “close but no cigar” moment in the Florida gubernatorial race. Evidently, voters preferred Ron DeSantis, his shameless alignment with Trump, and his thinly-veiled racism. Congratulations, Florida! You never fail to disappoint in close elections!

Perhaps the worst of these close losses was Stacey Abrams, edged out by Brian Kemp in the Georgia gubernatorial race. If you ask Kemp, he won fair and square. If you ask anyone else with a modicum of discretion, he won because, as Georgia’s Secretary of State, he closed polling stations, purged voters from the rolls, failed to process voter applications, and kept voting machines locked up. Kemp’s antics and the shenanigans in North Carolina’s Ninth Congressional District give democracy a bad name, and beckon real voting reform championed by grassroots activists. After all, if Florida can restore voting rights to felons—Florida!—the lot of us can do better.

George H.W. Bush also picked a good time to die 

Like John McCain, I didn’t wish for “Bush Sr.” to die. Also like John McCain, people on both sides of the aisle extolled his virtues at the expense of a more complete (and accurate) telling of his personal history.

Bush, on one hand, was a beloved patriarch, served his country, and had more class than Donald Trump (again, low bar to clear). He also was fairly adept at throwing out first pitches at baseball games, I guess. On the other hand, he campaigned for president on dog-whistle politics (see also “Willie Horton”), pushed for involvement in the first Gulf War by relying on fabricated intelligence, escalated the war on drugs for political gain, turned a deaf ear to people suffering from AIDS, and was accused by multiple women of trying to cop a feel. So much for being miles apart from Trump.

Was George H.W. Bush a good man? I didn’t know the man, so I can’t say for sure. But he was no saint. Nor was his son or Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton or Barack Obama or any other president. He led the country. Let’s not erase his flaws in the name of “togetherness.”


I chose to review these topics because I covered them at length on my blog. This obviously doesn’t cover the sum total of the events that transpired in 2018. Let’s see.

Congress reauthorized Section 702 of FISA and rolled back Dodd-Frank, extending our use of warrantless surveillance and making it more liable we will slide back into a recession. That sucked. Devin Nunes released a memo that was reckless, misleading, dishonest, and not quite the bombshell it was made out to be. That sucked as well. Our national debt went way up and continues to rise. American workers are making more money because they are working more, not because wages have risen.

What else? Trump got the idea for a self-congratulatory military parade—and then cancelled it because people thought it was a waste of time, effort, and money. DACA is still in limbo. U.S. manufacturing, outside of computers, continues its downward slide. Sacha Baron Cohen had a new show that was hit-or-miss. Oh, and we’re still involved in Yemen, helping a Saudi regime that killed journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

So, yeah, in all, not a whole lot to get excited about in 2018 on the national news front. Moreover, that there seems to be mutual distrust between liberals and conservatives dampens enthusiasm for 2019 a bit. And let’s not even get started on 2020. If you think I’m raring to go for a Biden-Trump match-up (based on current polling), you’d be sorely mistaken.

And yet—step back from the ledge—there is enough reason to not lose hope. Alongside Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a record number of women won seats in Congress. Ayanna Pressley became the first black women elected to Congress from Massachusetts. Michelle Lujan Grisham became the first Democratic Latina governor. Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland were elected as the first Native American women to Congress. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib were elected as the first Muslim women in Congress. Guam got its first female governor in history in Lou Leon Guerrero. That’s real progress.

Indeed, while Donald Trump as president is intent on standing in the way of progress, and while his continued habitation of the White House is bad on so many fronts, his win has been a wake-up call to ordinary people to get involved in politics, whether by running for office, by canvassing for political candidates and issues, or by making their voices heard by their elected representatives one way or another. Politics can’t be and is no longer just the sphere of rich old white dudes. Despite the efforts of political leaders, lobbyists, and industry leaders with a regressive agenda as well as other obstacles, folks are, as they say, rising up.

There’s a lot of work to do in 2019, the prospect of which is daunting given that many of us are probably already tired from this year and even before that. It’s truly a marathon and not a sprint, and the immediate rewards can feel few and far between. The goal of a more equal and just society, however, is worth the extra effort. Here’s hoping we make more progress in 2019—and yes, that we’re still here to talk about it same time next year.

There’s a Crisis in Yemen, and the U.S. Bears Responsibility

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Without a formal authorization of war, we’ve been providing weaponry and logistical assistance to a coalition including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, while a humanitarian crisis unfolds on the ground in Yemen and al-Qaeda grows in influence. For our involvement, meanwhile, little attention has been paid to Yemen and the extent of the suffering there. (Photo Credit: UNICEF/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0)

There is only so much time in a day, and only so many resources that news services can devote to the coverage of the pressing matters of the world. Still, the relative sparsity of mainstream attention to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen is a phenomenon that a lack of manpower, time, or money can’t explain. Indeed, there’s a conscious effort to sanitize the news and downplay the U.S.’s role in perpetuating the violence that has made for such a catastrophically deadly situation for civilians, and one that has otherwise led to widespread malnutrition and massive displacement of people.

Yemen has been in the throes of a civil war for more than three years, in which Shia-led Houthi rebels backed by Iran have been fighting against the Yemeni government of exiled President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, backed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and yes, the United States of America. With the insinuation of the likes of the Saudis and the UAE into this conflict as part of a coalition designed to ostensibly reinstate Hadi to power, the nature of the violence being inflicted on the people of Yemen has only gotten worse.

Shireen Al-Adeimi, a Harvard University graduate and Yemeni by birth, writing for In These Times, explains the magnitude of the turmoil there, as well as the extent of the U.S.’s involvement:

Both the Obama and Trump administrations have provided the Saudi-led coalition with extensive military support, selling hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of weapons, deploying U.S. Special Forces to the Saudi-Yemen border and providing midair refueling of Saudi and Emirati jets during bombing campaigns. American support has continued as more than a million people have been infected with cholera, tens of thousands have been killed by violence, and at least 113,000 children have perished from malnutrition and preventable illnesses.

The publication of Al-Adeimi’s piece comes on the heels of two significant developments relating to the situation in Yemen. One is the August 2 airstrikes carried out by coalition forces on the city of Al-Hudaydah which killed upwards of 55 civilians, strikes that targeted a market and a hospital and of which coalition leadership denies any involvement.

This sort of crime against humanity is difficult, if not impossible, to hide, and of course, is a bad look for the coalition forces supporting Hadi, hence their disavowal. Yet even much of the reporting of this catastrophe tends to overlook America’s role in arming the Saudis who lead the coalition. UPI speaks of the U.S. providing “logistical support” to those responsible for the strikes, but this omission covers for the fact that the U.S. is dealing weapons to Saudi Arabia.

The other relevant development here is the recent passage of the National Defense Authorization Act, which authorized a $717 billion defense budget for 2019. This legislation and its language are what especially draws Ms. Al-Adeimi’s focus, language that by itself is insufficient to either limit the scope of America’s complicity in war crimes or to prevent deadly airstrikes against civilians like the ones that ravaged Al-Hudaydah. Al-Adeimi writes:

Senators Todd Young (R-Ind.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), as well as Representatives Adam Smith (D-Wash.), Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) and Mark Pocan (D-Wis.)—all of whom oppose the United States’ unauthorized military involvement in Yemen—successfully included provisions in that aim to limit the NDAA’s use toward the war on Yemen. These include measures requiring the Secretary of State to verify that the U.S.-backed coalition is taking steps to alleviate the humanitarian disaster, minimize harm to civilians and end the civil war. According to the bill, such certification is required for the United States to engage in midair refueling to support bombing campaigns. However, the Secretary of State could issue a waiver to allow midair refueling for “security reasons,” so long as a detailed justification is submitted to Congress.

These stipulations are better than nothing, given that, in the words of Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), there is “an American imprint on every civilian life lost in Yemen.” The cooperation between House and Senate lawmakers on including the “Yemen provision” stems from growing concern about U.S. complicity in apparent war crimes.

These caveats, however, pose a significant problem for a coalition that has consistently denied bombing civilians and infrastructure outright despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, or dismissed such bombings as “mistakes.” The August 2 attack conducted by the Saudi-led Coalition on al-Thawra Hospital and a popular fish market in the embattled city of Hodeidah has been described by locals as a “massacre.” The airstrikes killed at least 55 civilians and left over 124 people injured, many of whom are fighting for their lives in health facilities that are barely functional due to repeated airstrikes and medicinal shortages resulting from the Saudi/UAE-imposed blockade. Whatever “protections” U.S. lawmakers are extending to Yemeni civilians, those protections did nothing to prevent this assault.

It stands to reason that massacres like the attack on Al-Hudaydah are liable to happen if we sell aircraft and weaponry to Saudi coalition forces backing the Yemeni government. Sure, the U.S. government might ask real nicely for the Saudis not to bomb civilians, but as long as the Saudis possess such superior military capability, and as long as Iran is invested in the Yemeni civil war, shows of force like this are eminently possible, if not probable. After all, if the Saudi-led coalition can carry out attacks on fish markets and hospitals without acknowledging its culpability and without proportionate censure from the international community, there’s no real risk for it to operate with anything other than impunity.

To stress, however, even if America isn’t the one pulling the trigger, they’re still implicated in the devastation in Yemen. What’s more, the United States’ involvement preceded President Donald Trump’s tenure, and has continued despite the absence of a formal authorization by Congress to engage in hostilities there.

How does this happen? How does the United States of America provide “logistical support” for years to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—and thus serve as party to human rights violations—in relative obscurity? As Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone tells, the cone of silence surrounding the atrocities in Yemen is owed to a perfect storm of factors that lend themselves to sparing media coverage and limited interest from Jane and John Q. Public. He writes:

Ultimately, the ancillary humanitarian disaster that has grown out of the war has become a distinct tale in itself. The U.N. puts the number of displaced persons at over 2 million, with more than 22 million people “in need.” Yet still the Yemen crisis has received little attention, likely because it represents a whole continuum of American media taboos.

For one thing, the victims are poor nonwhite people from a distant third-world country. Also, our involvement is bipartisan in nature, which takes the usual-suspect cable channels out of the round-the-clock-bleating game (our policies in the region date back to the Obama presidency, and have continued under Trump).

Thirdly, covering the story in detail would require digging into our unsavory relationship with the Saudi government, which has an atrocious human rights record.

In just a few sentences, Taibbi outlines a number of elements lying behind the failure of much of the news media to adequately address the situation in Yemen. There’s a racial component (likely aided by a distrust, for many, of Muslims and a sense of hopelessness about peace in the Middle East), the specter of classism, a shared sense of blame for representatives of both parties (which doesn’t help generate clicks in an era of partisanship), and a long-standing material financial relationship with the Saudi government buttressed by a mutual distrust of communism and a mutual love of oil.

This is all before we even get to discussing the possibility that the U.S. starts selling drones to the Saudis, a concern Taibbi addresses. As part of our aversion to being associated with Saudi violations of international law, we’ve, until now, refused to supply Saudi Arabia with killer drones (although we’re happy to sell them F-15s and help them re-fuel in mid-air). With China already supplying the Saudis and the UAE with drones, meanwhile, there is a push within the United States government to ease restrictions on the sale of these machines. If you were thinking President Trump is leading this push, you were right. It’s unfortunate, and yet wholly predictable.

At the end of the day, America’s penchant for meddling in other countries with military might alongside Yemen’s status as an unsexy topic in this Trump-oriented age of clickbait news has pushed the crisis there to the back pages at a point when Yemeni civilians are the most vulnerable and their plight merits a more robust response from the international community. As Taibbi writes in closing, “Until [Yemen] becomes a political football for some influential person or party, this disaster will probably stay at the back of the line.”

As part of a line including American farmers hurt by Trump’s trade war, immigrant families deported and separated as a function of the administration’s “zero tolerance exercise in cruelty, victims in Puerto Rico of Hurricane Maria and the government’s woefully insufficient response to the storm, and a water crisis in Flint of which the impact stands to be felt for decades to come, that’s a wait that Yemenis in need can ill afford.


What makes matters worse—yes, it does get worse—is that Yemen is home to one of the most dangerous wings of al-Qaeda in the form of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, and the bombings/drone attacks and substandard living conditions there only give rise to an increased ability for this terror network to recruit new members.

In this respect, the United States is apparently caught between competing interests. On one hand, in its ongoing (and amorphous) war on terror, it wants to combat the influence of extremist elements in the Arab world and in other countries where Islam has a significant number of followers. On the other hand, it is loyal to a Saudi government engaging in a proxy war with Iran in Yemen, a government that is notorious as a sponsor for jihadism. If the cautionary tale of Syria is any indication, then inaction presents its own consequences. As is always the case, there is no perfect solution to a problem marked by hostilities between groups along international and sectarian divides.

Complicating this power struggle and U.S. involvement is the notion that Saudi-Emirati coalition forces are actively negotiating with al-Qaeda to leave key areas in exchange for cash, equipment, and weapons. An Associated Press report by Maggie Michael, Trish Wilson, and Lee Keath details the nature of these arrangements, as well as the anger in certain circles that America is prioritizing coalition concerns with Iranian expansionism over fighting terrorism and stabilizing Yemen.

To be clear, the AP report states there is no evidence that American money has gone to AQAP militants, and the U.S. government has denied complicity with al-Qaeda. This notwithstanding, the gist one gets is that we’re at least aware of these deals. In all, it’s a big mess of factions and interests, and what’s more, the indication in the report that AQAP’s numbers are on the rise suggests there is some degree of comfort for the group in Yemen. At any rate, it runs counter to a narrative that coalition forces are stamping out al-Qaeda’s influence in the region, and for a war we’re involved in that hasn’t even been met with a congressional declaration, that’s not encouraging.

At the heart of the trouble with the Yemen situation is the overwhelming humanitarian need, it should be emphasized. Sadly, and while not to dissuade aid efforts, until real progress can be made to curb open hostilities, treating the victims will only temporarily assuage their wounds and will only help a portion of those impacted. Accordingly, due notice must be paid to the suffering of the Yemeni people, and with that, the United States’ hand in this state of affairs.

Based on principle alone, Yemen deserves more attention, and noting the U.S.’s assistance to the Saudi-Emirati coalition, it’s yet more incumbent upon our nation to accept responsibility. Whether or not the prospects of such recognition are particularly good, however, is another matter entirely.

Is Sacha Baron Cohen’s New Show Bad for America?

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Is Saron Baron Cohen’s new show bad for America? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe he’s just a comedian playing tricks on people for entertainment value, and we should just leave it at that. (Photo Credit: Joella Marino/Flickr)

He’s baaaaa-aaack!

Sacha Baron Cohen’s new show Who Is Americapremiered this past Sunday on Showtime, the first episode in a seven-episode series that sees Baron Cohen return to the world of donning disguises and accents, and continuing to dupe people of influence into interviews and supporting positions publicly that undermine their credibility.

Ahead of its release, few details were released about who or what would appear on the show, save for Dick Cheney signing a “waterboarding kit” (which amounted to little more than a jug of water) in the promotional materials. Also, Sarah Palin copped to being played by Baron Cohen, although not without calling him “evil and sick” for tricking her, and Roy Moore threatening to sue Showtime over his chicanery. Clearly, the man has already struck a nerve.

At this writing, reviews are yet sparse, with only a handful having been aggregated by the likes of Metacritic. Having seen the premiere, I can say that Republicans are not the only targets of his comedy, although whether these figures are the jokes or whether Baron Cohen’s send-ups of American culture are tends to vary more as we move more leftward across the political spectrum. Bernie Sanders appears in a segment with Baron Cohen’s character Dr. Billy Wayne Ruddick, an Alex Jones-style conspiracy theorist, engaging in an absurd conversation where “Ruddick” engages in some warped math involving the 1% and 99% before Sanders confesses he has no idea what Ruddick is talking about.

As Rick Sherman, meanwhile, an ex-con who paints portraits with bodily fluids, Baron Cohen also meets with Christy Cones, a fine art consultant for Coast Gallery in Laguna Beach, who praises the bravery behind “Sherman’s” story and work. Since finding about the ruse, Cones has evidently expressed a desire to meet face-to-face with Baron Cohen as “compensation for his underhanded tactics,” criticizing him for “pretending to be someone who suffered when he probably hasn’t suffered a moment in his life.” To what extent Cones may have “suffered” in her own life, who knows, but for someone who seemed a willing participant in the throes of the filming, certainly, she is not taking it all in stride after the fact.

Sacha Baron Cohen’s “art”—some might say I am being generous in calling it that—relies on deception and making people feel uncomfortable, both on screen and off it. It’s not a style for everyone, particularly those who feel victimized by their encounters with him and his portfolio of personas. In terms of perceptions of its quality, as noted, reviews are still being written or are in the waiting, but from my estimation, while entertaining, some segments play better than others. Baron Cohen, in his sit-down with June Page Thompson, a Trump delegate from South Carolina, and her husband and fellow Trump voter, Mark Thompson, as Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello, a liberal Democrat who apologizes for his identity as a white cisgender male, tells accounts of raising his children that are obvious caricatures of liberalism taken to an extreme. The Thompsons don’t bite, though, or not to the extent that they angrily ask him to leave. It’s as if Baron Cohen is slow-playing them for a reaction he never gets, and the final product seems flat as a result.

The payoff proves larger for a segment in which Baron Cohen, as Col. Erran Morad, an Israeli anti-terrorism expert, convinces numerous gun rights advocates/Republican lawmakers to lend their support to an initiative that would arm children with guns as a means of curbing gun violence in schools. Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida does not take the bait, but others, including Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California, Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina, and former U.S. senator Trent Lott, appeared only too happy to endorse the measure. It’s both funny and terrifying, and the most redeeming value is that these men consented to appearing as they did and reading from prepared materials. That is, they can’t claim this is “fake news” because the tape doesn’t lie.

Whether or not the show is subjectively “good” or “bad” as a comedic creation does not approach, however, the subject of whether or not Who Is America? is a show that real-world America needs in the current political climate. This topic is at the heart of a recent piece by Aja Romano, Internet culture reporter for Vox, who believes Baron Cohen’s “prankster provocations are a bad match for our current cultural climate.” Declaring them “exhausting” and “dangerous,” Romano attempts to quickly poke a hole in the liberal balloon of giddiness in delighting over the trickery and debasement of conservative figureheads:

On the one hand, all this may seem like the beginning of a glorious sublime parade of politicians owning themselves. But on the other hand, these politicians were tricked into appearing on the record as themselves, in a way that further perpetuates and entrenches not only the cultural ideological divide, but the idea among conservatives that “liberal” media, including entertainment media like Baron Cohen’s production, is a constant and perpetual trap to be distrusted at all costs.

Not only that, but the mileage Team Reality will get out of Baron Cohen’s performance-art antics won’t be nearly as potent as the validation Team Fake News will get out of claiming that Who Is America? represents a new low for liberals. And that’s because Team Reality was losing its hold over a single dominant reality paradigm long before Baron Cohen cycled back onto the scene.

As Romano would have it, it’s not so much that Sarah Palin et al. allowed themselves to be deceived, but that someone like Baron Cohen, who may or may not have an ax to grind, is doing the deceiving and providing cannon fodder for conservatives in the ongoing “culture war” coloring much of political interaction today. In other words, the right does not need any more material, not when they are especially good at creating it—out of thin air, if need be.

The problem, as Romano tells it, is that Baron Cohen is an “old comedy dog with old comedy tricks.” Back in 2006, when the Borat movie was first released, his comedy was still fresh and novel, and YouTube and the 24-hour news cycle had yet to really explode. Now, YouTube pranksters are numerous, outrage over news is Twitter’s currency, and it’s getting harder and harder to tell what is the genuine article and what is a meme designed to provoke hysteria. As such, in an era when real news seems like a parody of itself, exposing celebrities as Baron Cohen does loses its (shock) value.

Romano also cites Ted Koppel, who reportedly was also interviewed for the show. While dealing with his being duped better than others, Koppel expresses real concern about whether or not the whole exercise is productive, saying that “if there’s one thing we don’t need any more of in this particular era, it’s people posing as documentarians,” and that “to undermine whatever tiny little bit of confidence might be left by pulling a stunt like this” may make for good comedy, but at the same time, might not be terrific for the “overall atmosphere.” When so much focus is levied on the cultural “divide” and on people adhering to their social media “bubbles,” as a seasoned journalist, Koppel knows full well what is he talking about when he refers to such an atmosphere.

In all, as Aja Romano sees it, Sacha Baron Cohen is not adding to the national dialog, “but…gleefully poking at it and watching everyone — politicians and onlookers alike — get upset.” To wit, I am not familiar with Romano or her work, though that doesn’t mean her commentary is to be dismissed. It’s not like she is the only one concerned about where Who Is America? fits into the whole modern political conversation, either.

While any number of celebrities and humorists have extolled the show’s virtues—presumably because they genuinely enjoy the show and not merely as a show of solidarity—not everyone is as keen on labeling it “essential” viewing. Indeed, Charles Bramesco of The Guardian, for one, finds much of the program’s content “inconsequential,” and Mike Hale of The New York Times prefaces his review of the first episode with the tagline “Should We Care?” When Romano speaks to a larger exhaustion at having to deal with real politics, her assessment of Baron Cohen’s comedy as exhausting might just hit the nail on the head. Certainly, not everyone affixed to the “liberal media” is so amused by his antics.

Then again, it could be that the program is but one amid a glut of comedic programming devoted to the state of political affairs in the United States. With so many competing voices, perhaps it’s natural that Baron Cohen, delivering material in a format not dissimilar from his previous efforts, loses his appeal in light of all the alternatives. In a sea of angry (or wryly amused, at least) voices, maybe he was bound to be unable to add anything to our discourse before he began.


In asking whether or not Sacha Baron Cohen’s new show is “bad” for America, it should be stressed that, while this question is phrased in terms of a yes-or-no binary, a fitting answer may be simply that it is neither bad nor good for America—it just is. Even if Who Is America? isn’t deliberately provoking outrage from detractors on the right, therefore—already, it’s evident that it is provoking outrage, so the remaining debate is whether Baron Cohen should shoulder the lion’s share of the blame or whether his victims should for allowing themselves to get so PO-ed in the first place—and assuming, as Ms. Romano insists, that the program doesn’t add to the discussion but only entertains, might this be a counterproductive creation in that it keeps us stuck in place when we should be making progress on bridging the divide? That is, if we’re not moving forward, are we essentially moving backward?

In considering the utility (or potential lack thereof) of Baron Cohen’s show, I’m reminded of the media’s attempts to grapple with The Daily Show‘s popularity in the Jon Stewart era. At its peak, about 12% of Americans cited The Daily Show as a place where they got their news, according to an online poll by Pew Research in 2015. That didn’t make it a leader in news, of course, but it put the show roughly equal to sources like USA Today and Huffington Post. Stewart, ever self-effacing, has always been quick to downplay the show’s influence, at least as much as he brought to it, and even the results of the poll suggest most respondents watched for the entertainment value during his tenure rather than for in-depth reporting, the latest headlines, or views and opinions.

Any inherent limitations as a news source aside, Stewart’s 16-year stewardship of Comedy Central’s flagship program was admired for his being tough on public figures when the occasion arose, notably Barack Obama and Tony Blair, the latter for his insistence on military solutions to a war on terror which was becoming increasingly apparent could not be fought be purely on military terms, but also had to confront the underlying ideologies.

Accordingly, while interviews with various entertainers seemed comparatively lightweight, the show’s regular dissection of the motives of established political figures and aspiring candidates alike, as well as the agendas of authentic news media outlets, was seen as meritorious. As with Michelle Wolf’s takedown of the news media alongside the political elite in the most recent White House Correspondents’ Dinner (Wolf herself is a Daily Show alum), comedy was a tool for Stewart and his confrères to cut through the bullshit and hold the objects of their critical lenses accountable.

And while Stewart downplayed this aspect of the show, too, his measured, rational approach to confronting the issues of the day prompted favorable responses, not to mention this column in The New Yorker from Amy Davidson Sorkin entitled “Jon Stewart, We Need You in 2016.” In an era in which more traditional news sources are either losing customers (newspapers) or credibility (cable news), The Daily Show seemed less like an escape from reality and more like a bastion of sanity, capped off by its trademark closing “Your Moment of Zen.” By this token, antipathy from the FOX News wing of political belief systems was considered more of a badge of honor than a legitimate admonishment to be honored or feared, with the conservative network billing itself as “fair and balanced” guilty of more than its fair share of biased “reporting.”

Besides, it is not as if Jon Stewart hasn’t been critical of Democrats. In fact, since ending his run as host of The Daily Show, he arguably has reserved his harshest rebukes for figures outside the GOP fold, as if to express his dismay and disapproval with a party that has appeared, at times, to lack a unified message or to act in accordance with its stated values. In a notably tense exchange in a live podcast taping with David Axelrod for The Axe Files, Stewart blamed the Dems, in part, for the rise of a demagogue like Donald Trump by not doing their part to make government more effective and efficient for their constituents. There was still plenty of humor to be enjoyed throughout, although perhaps not as irreverently told as when he was host of The Daily Show—and not without plenty of harsh words for “man-baby” Trump.

This is where I’m a little unsure how to regard Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest act. The backlash from the Joe Arpaios, Roy Moores and Sarah Palins of the world is to be expected, and deceiving them, one might argue, is going after some low-hanging fruit, politically speaking. Then again, when has the provocateur suggested he is interested in anything else but entertainment? If the first episode of Who Is America? is any indication, everyone is fair game, including liberals, so allegations of bias might be deemed overstated.

What’s more, this irritation at Baron Cohen’s humor seems indicative of a larger trend of conservatives reacting negatively to jokes made at their expense, either because of their inability to take a joke, their frustration with having drastically fewer comedians at their disposal in alignment with their ideologies, or both. Liberal humor panning conservatives seems rooted in poking fun at people like Sean Hannity, Sarah Palin, and Donald Trump who carry themselves so seriously and yet merit none of the respect they crave.

When the script is flipped, meanwhile, stabs at comedy feel predicated on lazy stereotypes, if not real contempt for the objects of the joke-maker’s gaze and/or resentment of the perceived snobbery of the left. Or it could be that so many people who enjoy humor with their political news tend to be younger, and by association, more liberal. Or it could be that conservatism is about preserving the status quo, and is therefore fundamentally at odds with comedy, the milieu of the underdog. Or, as comedian Dean Obeidallah would aver, it’s that conservatives want desperately to be funny, but just aren’t very good at it. While humor indeed is subjective, statistically speaking and for what it’s worth, it’s hard to come up with many examples of successful right-leaning comedians. You can fill in the blanks herein as you see fit.

Is Who Is America? a great show, or even among Sacha Baron Cohen’s best work? Probably not. Is it good for America? Maybe, maybe not, though having already outed a number of GOP lawmakers for supporting the right of kindergartners to bear arms, it feels like Baron Cohen has already done fine work. But at the end of the day, perhaps it’s not Baron Cohen’s job to provide hard-hitting commentary, much as it wasn’t incumbent upon Jon Stewart to be a clarion call amid the static of the cable news cycle and the entropy of the social media sphere. Let the funny man play dress-up and prank people, calls for civility aside. There are those in Congress, in the Supreme Court, and the White House who are specifically tasked with upholding major American institutions, and are thereby more deserving of our scorn. No kidding.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Primary Win Has People Shook

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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset of long-time congressman Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary for NY-14 has Democrats, the mainstream media, and Republicans all flustered. Good. (Photo Credit: Twitter/Jesse Korman

In advance of this year’s New York Democratic primaries, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had already generated a lot of attention, thanks in large part to a viral campaign advertisement called “The Courage to Change.” The spot highlights how Ocasio-Cortez is, to put it simply, not your average congressional candidate. As the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaigner says in a voiceover for the two-minute ad:

Women like me aren’t supposed to run for office. I wasn’t born to a wealthy or powerful family. Mother from Puerto Rico, dad from the South Bronx. I was born in a place where your zip code determines your destiny. My name is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I’m an educator, an organizer, a working-class New Yorker. I’ve worked with expectant mothers, I’ve waited tables, and led classrooms, and going into politics wasn’t in the plan.

So, what compelled the 28-year-old Ocasio-Cortez to run? Not to suggest her campaign is a derivative one, but her platform sounds a lot like one belonging to a certain Vermont senator who ran for president:

After 20 years of the same representation, we have to ask: who has New York been changing for? Every day gets harder for working families like mine to get by. The rent gets higher, health care covers less, and our income stays the same. It’s clear that these changes haven’t been for us, and we deserve a champion. It’s time to fight for a New York that working families can afford.

That’s why I’m running for Congress. This race is about people vs. money. We’ve got people, they’ve got money. It’s time we acknowledge that not all Democrats are the same. That a Democrat who takes corporate money, profits off foreclosure, doesn’t live here, doesn’t send his kids to our schools, doesn’t drink our water or breathe our air cannot possibly represent us. What the Bronx and Queens need is Medicare-for-all, tuition-free public college, a federal jobs guarantee, and criminal justice reform.

We can do it now. It doesn’t take a hundred years to do this. It takes political courage. A New York for the many is possible. It’s time for one of us.

Ocasio-Cortez has stated her campaign is not about progressives vs. establishment Democrats, and rather, that it’s about people over politics and money, but it’s clear from her mission statement that she’s there in opposition to politics as usual, and if that means going through long-tenured party members to do it, so be it.

In particular, her campaign spot name-checks Joe Crowley, Democratic representative from her district and member of the House since 1999 (hence, the “20 years” reference). Crowley, for what it’s worth, doesn’t seem like a bad guy per se, but he also represents the centrist, “old white guy” political mold that voters increasingly are eschewing in their embrace of substantive policy ideas (and it probably doesn’t help he’s been chummy with lobbyists and pro-business types). Sure, he’s moved farther left than when he started in Congress, but going against someone who looks and sounds like a real-deal progressive, he and others like him are suddenly more vulnerable.

As the title of this post would indicate, they may be very vulnerable, indeed. In a fairly surprising result, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez took down the 10-term incumbent Crowley in last week’s primary, capturing 57% of the vote. Ocasio-Cortez’s “upset” win is surprising for any number of reasons, not the least of which are her status as a relative unknown and political neophyte, Crowley’s entrenchment in Washington, and her being outdone roughly 10-to-one in campaign spending. Ocasio-Cortez’s political bid began seemingly as a feel-good story, and progressives likely would have been happy with her showing regardless of the outcome. Now, however, she appears poised to be a force to be reckoned with.

In the immediate aftermath of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upending of Joe Crowley’s re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-election bid, it would seem few are really well equipped to reckon with her success. Certainly, that we are even treating her victory as a surprise is owed somewhat to the media’s previous lack of focus on her, a trend that others outside the establishment vanguard have encountered (see also Cynthia Nixon, of whom we would stand to know little if we weren’t already familiar with her acting).

Journalist Glenn Greenwald, who has been consistently critical of the blind eye turned toward progressives in everyday political discourse, in particular chastised Joy-Ann Reid and MSNBC in a couple of tweets the day after Ocasio-Cortez’s upset win:

Compare @JoyAnnReid’s revealingly insular and self-justifying tweet above about how “political journalism” (i.e. MSNBC) ignored the @Ocasio2018 race to @brianstelter’s honest and accurate @CNN story on how several media outlets actually covered the race.

A cable network that is monomaniacally devoted to faithfully serving the agenda of Party leaders and uncritically disseminating their talking points is obviously going to miss – or deliberately suppress – any challenges to those Party dictates. That’s what happened there.

While MSNBC talking heads are overlooking progressive candidates for public office and even the sources that more closely follow them, moderate Democrats are painting Ocasio-Cortez’s victory as an anomaly or one-off rather than a sign of the times during this post-mortem period. Nancy Pelosi, notably, dismissed these returns from NY-14 as being indicative of a movement or anything “larger” than one district. It’s perplexing considering the energy and press following Ocasio-Cortez seem like things Democrats of all make and model should be embracing. Then again, this is Nancy Pelosi we’re talking about here, a woman that Republicans seeking office are only too happy to have around because she evidently possesses a Hillary Clinton-like ability to make public declarations GOP political advertisers can use to their strategic advantage to make her and the Dems seem out of touch.

Speaking of Republicans, they’ve got their own reasons to be scared of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Jay Willis, writing for GQ Magazine, explains that they’re “terrified” of the 28-year-old political hopeful, precisely because they can’t beat her on a policy debate. Instead, conservatives like John Cardillo have resorted to questioning her credentials right down to her upbringing, suggesting, among other things, that she grew up in a more wealthy household/neighborhood than she is otherwise letting on. This, to me, is akin to the types of conspiracy theories that would have you believe survivors of mass shootings and children separated from their families at the Mexican border are paid actors. It’s as reprehensible as it is dishonest.

In short, centrist Democrats, conservative Republicans, and corporatist media outlets all see Ocasio-Cortez as somewhat of a threat, and this seems to be as much about her identity as her policy goals. In talking about her “identity,” I’m referring not to Ocasio-Cortez’s Bronx upbringing or Puerto Rican heritage, but her self-identification as a “democratic socialist.”

Much in the way Bernie Sanders was assailed on all sides from people who failed to draw distinctions between “democratic socialism” and “socialism” and ostensibly socialist regimes which belie a dictatorial bent—or intentionally confused them—Ocasio-Cortez’s win is forcing to those on the left and right alike to come to grips with the dreaded S-word. Within the press community, numerous outlets have taken to publishing articles trying to explain for the uninitiated what the heck, exactly, democratic socialism is. Nancy Pelosi, while diminishing Ocasio-Cortez’s surprise victory, also has publicly rejected the notion that socialism is “ascendant” within Democratic ranks.

On the right, meanwhile, SOCIALISM! SOCIALISM! BURN THE WITCH! This salvo from Cheryl Chumley for The Washington Times entitled “Ocasio-Cortez, New York’s socialist congressional contender, an enemy of America,” I share because I find it especially repugnant. It characterizes her primary win as a “face slap to America” and an “affront to all the Founding Fathers forged.” Chumley is the same woman who recently authored an essay on how “Democrats hate America,” apparently with the numbers to prove this assertion. For the record, her “numbers” are one statistic from a Gallup poll that shows Democrats are less likely to be “extremely proud” to be an American than their Republican counterparts—which surely doesn’t have anything to do with the Trump White House, a GOP-led Congress, and a conservative-majority Supreme Court, right?—and vague sentiments that reference Antifa, democratic socialists, and Obama apologists into one nebulous mix to be feared and loathed. Sorry Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t look and sound and think like you, Ms. Chumley. I forgot that makes her automatically less American or patriotic.

But about those policy goals. In the vein of a Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez supports progressive ideals such as Medicare-for-all, a $15 minimum wage, free tuition for public colleges, campaign finance reform, and housing as a human right. These are not new, and are not controversial to the extent that fellow Democrats may not explicitly argue against them, though they may be reluctant to embrace them in favor of more centrist policies.

Other views, meanwhile, are outside the mainstream, either by virtue of their direct opposition to commonly-held stances within the party or their relative novelty among leadership. For one, Ocasio-Cortez has been a vocal critic of Israel, and joins an evidently growing number of people on an international stage who question the free pass Netanyahu’s government receives for its actions related to Israeli settlements and its handling of Palestinian resistance to the latter group’s apparent subjugation.

While she hasn’t yet clarified her position on the BDS movement, that the Democratic Socialists of America are pro-boycott worries the Democratic elites who have come to count on wealthy Jewish patrons and staunchly pro-Israel groups among their lists of donors. It’s another point of potential division between factions within the Democratic Party, which tend to get played up for effect in the media anyway, but nonetheless may be indicative of a fracture between the old guard and the new vying to push the party in a certain diplomatic direction.

The other major policy quirk which has drawn additional attention to Ocasio-Cortez’s platform is her embrace of an “abolish ICE” mantra. On this note, her views seem to lack nuance, although it would likely be difficult to rally behind a cause with a more cumbersome message. As it would seem, Ocasio-Cortez only wants to “abolish” Immigration and Customs Enforcement to the extent that it would be replaced with a more accountable agency or otherwise reformed.

Of course, Republicans have sought to weaponize this stated goal by insinuating that Democrats who want to abolish ICE are asking for no border control at all, hence other Dems have been reluctant to embrace the slogan. Then again, in light of the ongoing crisis facing the detention and separation of immigrant families, as well as numerous alleged abuses by ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents, the discussion over what is permitted in the name of “border security” is a worthy one.

All this has made for a rather confusing dissection of a race that few outside of progressive circles and Ocasio-Cortez’s own support system were wont to predict in her favor, a dissection that tests us as consumers of the news to view our sources critically. After all, what these outlets say about the congressional hopeful may say as much about them as it does her. In the case of Cheryl Chumley, it reveals ugly attitudes predicated on jingoistic paranoia. As such, while the November election in New York’s 14th congressional district will now undoubtedly receive much more widespread attention, how much of it is good or fair remains to be seen.


Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has only just won the Democratic primary for her district, but given the heavy blue leanings of NY-14, she’s looking like a pretty sure bet to make it to Congress. Either way, there is real energy behind her and her campaign, and not just from New Yorkers.

In Ocasio-Cortez, many pundits see the future of the Democratic Party, one of female leadership and better representation for people of color and other minority groups. They also see, in progressives like Ocasio-Cortez daring to go “further left,” Democrats more authentically embracing the values that the party’s detractors would say mainline Dems have all but abandoned over the years, particularly in defending the working class and organized labor from attempts by the GOP to erode their influence.

By proxy, search for “Nancy Pelosi” and you’ll see umpteen calls for her to step aside or hand the baton over. Her defenders, meanwhile, see her as a great leader, prodigious fundraiser, and tireless worker, so it may just as well be that Pelosi isn’t going anywhere.

While comments to downplay Ocasio-Cortez’s and other progressives’ influence reflect poorly on Pelosi, it also is worth mentioning that one upset victory does not a party takeover make. This is not meant to throw water on the fire of young candidates on the rise, but rather to underscore the magnitude of the opposition others like Ocasio-Cortez will face from Democrats (esp. firmly-entrenched incumbents) and Republicans (esp. in red-leaning areas) alike.

Following Ocasio-Cortez’s win, candidates like Ayanna Presley in Massachusetts and Kerri Harris of Delaware have seen an uptick in their donations. Primary results still matter, though, and much work has to be done by their campaigns to build on their compatriot from New York’s success. In short, while there is momentum building, this is not to say that democratic socialism in the United States has truly arrived.

Still, that we’re even having this discussion about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the future of the Democratic Party means that we can’t rule out Presley’s or Harris’s chances, and that the discussion about whether platforms like theirs can be adapted to succeed in jurisdictions like the Midwest where the GOP possesses an advantage is a meritorious one. Seeing various reactions to Ocasio-Cortez’s win characterized by sheer bafflement, this only reinforces the idea few were ready for the eventuality of a liberal progressive gaining traction. Thus, while it’s too early to say what exactly this upset means, it’s highly intriguing to see people so “shook” over it.

Here’s hoping for a little more shaking-up before the 2018 election season is done.

To view this post as it appears on Citizen Truth, click here. Citizen Truth is an independent and alternative media organization dedicated to finding the truth, ending the left-right paradigm, and widening the scope of viewpoints represented in media and our daily conversations. For more on CT, please visit citizentruth.org.

Is Political Correctness Really Bringing America Down?

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Donald Trump believes America doesn’t have time for political correctness. On that assumption, however, Trump and those who think like him are very incorrect. (Photo Credit: Getty Images News/Scott Olson)

In my last post, I wrote about Jordan Peterson and how I believe, alongside others, that his rhetoric about the excesses of the left can be dangerous in the wrong hands. Naturally, my thoughts were summarily dismissed, my credibility was challenged, and I was told by numerous individuals, presumably Peterson’s supporters, that my references and I completely misunderstood Peterson and his theories, and that I needed to watch one of his lectures in its entirety or read one of his books—that is, hear it straight from the proverbial horse’s mouth—to fully comprehend what he’s talking about. In other words, it’s not Peterson’s fault he’s so misunderstood—it’s the fault of the liberal media who bashes his beliefs and me for being such a leftist dum-dum.

Leftist dum-dum as I may be, I do thank those who pointed me to the Munk Debates, a forum billed by the organization itself as “the world’s preeminent public debating forum.” The most recent debate, held back in May, involved the aforementioned Mr. Peterson; academic, author, preacher, and radio host Michael Eric Dyson; actor, comedian, presenter, and writer Stephen Fry; and author and blogger Michelle Goldberg. The theme was Political Correctness, under the tagline, “Be it resolved, what you call political correctness, I call progress.” Dyson and Goldberg represented the Pro side of the debate. Fry and Peterson comprised the Con half.

The merits of this particular debate can be questioned; Lord knows they have been, from my cursory reading of various reactions to the two-hour-long event. A common charge from reviewers was that, for a forum about political correctness, political correctness wasn’t discussed all that much, a sentiment that Fry, one of the participants, expressed during the actual proceedings.

The discourse wasn’t entirely civil, either. During a particularly heated exchange on the subject of white privilege, Jordan Peterson displayed a sense of irritation, challenging his confrères on the opposite side of the debate to quantify as to what percentage he has benefited from his white privilege, and to ask how he should recompense others for this advantage. Michael Eric Dyson countered by suggesting that white privilege is not something quantifiable, and pivoted to questioning Peterson on his tone: “Why you mad, bruh?” Or, to paraphrase Dyson in his subsequent comments, for all your success as an author and public intellectual, why are you so intent to play the part of the “mean mad white man”?

Unfortunately, comments like Dyson’s—valid or otherwise—have sort of overshadowed the larger conversation about political correctness as the night’s central point. Arguments about whether or not political correctness was adequately addressed also seem to be blown out of proportion. As Michelle Goldberg contended, part of the problem about talking about “political correctness” is how it’s defined and used. That is, political correctness is difficult to define as something discrete, and can be employed by its champions in service to respecting people’s differences or deployed as a weapon to attack liberal politics.

For Dyson, meanwhile, the outrage about political correctness is part of a reactionary attitude for whites in trying to come to grips with the need to cede power to minority groups. When nearly all white straight Christian males were in charge, per Dyson, political correctness wasn’t a thing. Thus, to speak about political correctness, one must acknowledge issues pertaining to race and gender, among other characteristics, as well as the need for larger conversations about these concepts.

Before I get to noting how attendees scored the debate, let’s first get into some background about political correctness itself. Merriam-Webster defines politically correct as “conforming to a belief that languages and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated.” From the apparent origins of its current use with the New Left in the 1960s and 1970s, the term has since been coopted in conservative circles as a pejorative to express discontentment with a perceived liberal/progressive orthodoxy in schools and especially at colleges and universities. As many liberal commentators view this alternative use of “PC,” it’s a segue to discrediting the views of “the Left,” as amorphous as that identifier may be.

In the context of the present “culture wars” between liberals and conservatives, the battle over political correctness has taken on new meaning in the era of Donald Trump, a man who, by most accounts, has eschewed traditional political norms as an unabashed political outsider, and according to fact-checkers, who have had no shortage of work during his tenure as President of the United States, is generally incorrect in what he states to be incontrovertibly true. Since then, in the eyes of many onlookers, these two sides have become only that more entrenched in defending their views from perceived attacks from the other side, and for that matter, from those within their own ranks.

Indeed, some people likely felt a sense of betrayal when they found out Stephen Fry, a liberal-leaning homosexual Jew, was to accompany Jordan Peterson on stage arguing against political correctness as progress. For Fry, who acknowledged that he and Peterson may have their differences of opinion—which may be putting it mildly—his argument against political correctness is that it doesn’t work, as exemplified by the rise of Trump and of the growing influence of white nationalism around the globe. As Fry believes, it only succeeds in promoting a backlash from destructive elements on the right and far-right, as well as alienating people by making them unsure about how to act, nervous about how to speak, and unafraid to be creative or experimental for fear of rebuke.

As for Trump, he has addressed the subject of political correctness directly, perhaps most notably in the first Republican debate of the 2016 election season in Cleveland. As Trump put it:

I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct. I’ve been challenged by so many people and I don’t, frankly, have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time, either.

So, to put the question point-blank, does the United States simply not have time for political correctness? And does it do more harm than good, or does it simply not work?

Certainly, there are those who would opine that political correctness is a deleterious force, that it does not make for constructive dialogs. One such opponent of PC culture, Michael Rectenwald, professor of Global Liberal Studies at NYU, believes the fundamental flaw of political correctness is it necessitates political correction.

As Rectenwald recently argued, the necessity to correct incorrect behavior involves a imposition of what is deemed to be right, and hearkens back to earlier invocations of the term as used in Soviet Russia and Maoist China. As he also insists, these allusions are not made merely for shock value, but because of the totalitarian impulses that likewise lie behind enforcing political correctness. Rectenwald writes:

I mention the Soviet and Sino-Communist sources of political correctness not to invoke a Red Scare but rather to note that the contemporary “social justice” movement is marked by the same impulses. Former Soviet and Maoist Chinese citizens recall a system under which verbal spontaneity and skepticism could be fatal. During our soft cultural revolution, those accused of ideological deviation — such as Google’s former employee, James Damore — while neither tortured or killed, are sent to the metaphorical gulags of public censure and unemployment.

On the specific case of James Damore, while it’s certainly the case that his memo was misrepresented by the media as being overtly “anti-diversity” (Damore actually offers suggestions for how Google’s handling of diversity issues might be improved), and while Google perhaps overreacted by firing him, to say that Damore was terminated merely for “ideological deviation” belies the offense that numerous women within the company took in relation to the circulation of this internal memo, and fails to consider that Google and its CEO Sundar Pichai found portions of the memo to be in violation of the company’s Code of Conduct and professed that these offending segments “cross the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace.”

Upon the memo’s contents going viral, numerous critics objected to the validity of the science contained within and regarded it as bigotry dressed up as empirically-derived evidence. In short, Pichai and others did not have a problem with Damore questioning specific policies at Google, but in doing so in a way perceived to be discriminatory. Indeed, prior to Damore withdrawing his complaint before the National Labor Relations Board, an NLRB lawyer found the company was within its rights to fire him based on his use of discriminatory language.

As for the invocation of murderous communist regimes, this is quite a comparison to make, and seems just as well suited to come from one of Jordan Peterson’s tirades against “postmodern neo-Marxism.” How does “public censure and unemployment” even come close to being “tortured or killed”? Sure, efforts should be made by Google and other employers to not disproportionately harm one’s image or livelihood in the event of a firing like James Damore’s. Such are unfortunate consequences. They’re not, however, the kind of things that, you know, get outlawed in the Geneva Convention. Rectenwald’s characterization here smacks of hyperbole.

Rectenwald’s other evidence for the growing totalitarianism of North American colleges and universities seems rooted in his personal experience. As he alleges, NYU strongly rebuked him for his “mere questioning of social justice ideology,” essentially forcing him to take a paid medical leave, and faculty members subjecting him to all sorts of racist and sexist slurs. That Rectenwald tweeted anti-Left sentiments any number of times using the handle @antipcnyuprof is not up for debate; the man admitted as much in an interview with the school newspaper. That he was the target of defamatory statements may be true, and I’m not about to question the validity of his claim here.

That he was pushed into taking leave, though, appears highly questionable. According to E-mail correspondence between Rectenwald and Fred Schwarzbach, dean of liberal studies at the university, Rectenwald specifically requested a leave of absence, and Schwarzbach indicated his dismay at how Rectenwald characterized his treatment by NYU to the media. At best, Rectenwald appears to be mistaken in his depiction of how events unfolded, and at worst, is purposely twisting them to serve the designs of his narrative.

Michael Rectenwald’s treatises on the pitfalls of totalitarian political correctness are, of course, not the only source for this type of content, so far be it from me to suggest that his questionable logical connections mean that his side of the debate has necessarily lost. Before we dispense with his case, however, it is worth noting the way in which he has been given a platform for his discontent. Breitbart and FOX News, perhaps predictably, latched onto the story as a case of SJW activism gone wrong, and Rectenwald has also gotten exposure on Tucker Carlson’s show, as well as in The Washington Post and in YouTube videos alongside—you guessed it!—Jordan Peterson.

His exposure is perhaps not on the level of Mr. James Damore, whose termination from Google earned him an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, as well as interviews with, among others, Ben Shapiro, Business Insider, CNBC, CNN, and—right again!—Jordan Peterson, but you get the idea. As with Peterson making waves for vowing not to comply with legislation on the use of gender-neutral pronouns, there seems to be more than just an issue of free speech at hand here.

At least for the moment, let’s pause and swing over to the other side of the debate fence. Mark Hannah, a staffer on the John Kerry and Barack Obama presidential campaigns, wrote a piece for TIME Magazine that characterizes political correctness not as the opponent of “unvarnished truth-telling,” but as the counterpart to carelessness toward other people’s attitudes and beliefs.

In thinking along these lines, Hannah invokes the presidential campaign of one Donald Trump (the column was published prior to the 2016 election), and highlights how the use of precise language by Obama vs. Trump’s free-wheeling approach gets conflated with views on political correctness. In particular, Hannah contrasts Obama’s refusal to refer to “radical Islam” with Trump’s rhetoric about Muslims and political correctness gone amok, recognizing Obama’s deliberateness as strategic rather than fawningly considerate. Hannah writes:

Conservatives might tell us Obama is “politically correct” and Trump “tells it like it is.” But when it comes to the debate over the phrase “radical Islam,” Obama is playing chess and Trump is playing dodge ball. If politics is about strategy, political correctness is arming oneself with a sound strategy while political incorrectness is strategic recklessness.

As Hannah details, Obama himself dismissed concerns about political correctness in avoiding the term “radical Islam,” saying that his careful use of language is about defeating extremism and hampering recruitment efforts. Reckless characterizations, on the other hand, invite alienation of our allies in the war on terror and motivation of adversarial groups like ISIS.

While criticizing Trump and his ilk, Hannah also stresses that perceptions about the right from the left on the subject of political correctness might be similarly confused. From his anecdotal experience as a lecturer, Hannah finds that while anti-PC stances may be a reaction for some in not being able to espouse their personal prejudices, for others, it’s a mistrust of deliberate speech as the tool of high-falutin’ politicians:

Many on the left think conservatives demonize political correctness because they resent having to suppress their own prejudices. That might be true for some. But as someone who teaches a college class on political rhetoric, I’ve come to appreciate that anti-PC attitudes are part of a longer tradition of suspicion toward carefully calibrated language. Throughout history, our species has tended to distrust people who have a knack for political oratory. Part of this stems from the fact that most people are not good public speakers at the same time most people have an affinity for people who are like them. This is something psychologists call “homophily,” and is the reason so many of us tend to want to vote for somebody we’d “like to have a beer with” rather than someone smarter than us.

Looking at the 2016 election post-mortem, while race definitely played a part in people’s votes (how else to explain, for example, the wide disparity between white evangelicals, a majority of whom voted for Trump, and evangelicals of color, a majority of whom sided with Hillary Clinton?), this suspicion of more polished orators like Obama was almost certainly a factor as well, favoring the “Make America Great Again” candidate. It’s a tendency, Hannah tells, with origins as far back as ancient Greece, rooted in distaste for the use of ornate language as a means of courting votes for public office or avoiding jail time. Given his scandal-plagued tenure as president, this sounds more and more like Trump as we go along.

As Hannah writes in closing, though, the use of political correctness is in line with American tradition, back to the country’s very formative days. Political correctness was not viewed as a way to “stifle insensitive speech,” but a manner of speaking for those “trying to out-compete that speech in a free and open exchange.” For Trump and others to complain about PC culture, therefore, is to blame the free marketplace of ideas a professed Republican like he should ideally embrace, or, to borrow a sports analogy, to “petulantly” argue with the umpire. In professional baseball, that’s the kind of thing that can get you thrown out of the game. Trump, alas, is very much still in the game, but there’s every reason to think he stands to do something that will get him removed from office. In theory, even his Republican supporters have their limits.


Going back to the Munk Debate on Political Correctness, it’s worth noting that while 87% of people in attendance expressed an openness to changing their opinion on the matter at hand, prior to the debate, a 64% majority agreed with the Con side, a majority that grew to 70% following its inclusion. Without detailed demographic information or follow-up questions, it’s hard to know precisely what the audience believed and why they voted like they did.

It’s possible they believed, as they are entitled to, that political correctness really is a force that retards societal progress. I surmise that, lost in these statistics, is an affinity for the Jordan Peterson and Stephen Fry that only grew in the wake of Michael Eric Dyson’s “mean mad white man” comment. After all, Peterson and Fry have quite the followings, and admittedly, Dyson and Michelle Goldberg were previously unknown to me. Fry’s self-deprecating humor, too, was one of the highlights of the debate, and provided a nice balance against Peterson’s nearly-relentless seriousness.

Then again, perhaps the uptick can simply be attributed to the sentiment that Peterson and Fry won the debate. After reading a sample of online comments related to viewing the debate remotely, a number of users appear to have indicated Dyson’s comments about Peterson were the point that decided that the Pro side lost the debate, because that’s when it got personal and Dyson’s views lost all weight. It’s difficult to know to what these random commenters genuinely subscribe, or what biases—conscious or unconscious—might inform their assessments of the validity of the onstage arguments.

Wrong or right, the timbre of Dyson’s diatribe was a direct response to Peterson’s tone in asking for a percentage of how much his white privilege has helped him, one of dismissiveness and vitriol. In this respect, you could say Dyson took the bait offered by a clearly-vexed Peterson. Or, you could claim Dyson’s just a “racist,” as numerous commenters did. Never mind the idea that racism implies power and invokes the institutions behind it. In today’s modern political parlance, for many, racism and prejudice are one and the same. Such may be a false (if not dangerous) equivalency.

I’m also not sure how well the percentages of those surveyed at the debate reflect the opinions of Americans or Canadians at large. Certainly, to have someone more liberally inclined such as Stephen Fry arguing against the widespread use of political correctness may be telling that objection to this convention can come from people on either side of the political aisle and in between. Someone on the left, for instance, may balk at the extension of the acronym LGBT to include categories like queer, intersex, asexual, and pansexual because it feels, to them, more like alphabet soup than a community. Political correctness must be adaptive to changing social norms, and requires that participants be capable of adapting with it. For even the most PC-minded among us, it can be a challenge.

This notwithstanding, and irrespective of the Munk Debate audience tallies, political correctness is something worth striving for. Even if its opposition doesn’t reflect an underlying annoyance at having to use preferred terms or, worse, a genuine loathing for someone or their constituent group, political correctness still facilitates an open exchange of ideas and indicates a willingness to deal with the other person on amicable, equitable terms. Moreover, to recapitulate Mark Hannah’s points about the values of our forefathers, political correctness is very much in the American way. As suspect as Barack Obama’s precise language made him seem to some, Donald Trump’s political incorrectness only reflects his lack of preparation and his cruelty. That’s not politically useful—it’s a liability and morally objectionable.

On top of all this, to address Fry’s concerns, political correctness does work. As tempting as it may be to side with social anarchy, political correctness provides guidance on how to act in situations involving mixed-group interactions, and on the plane of creativity, PC language does not stifle innovation, but allows it to grow by imposing constraints, whereas “blue-sky thinking” can give rise to deleterious phenomena like bigotry, groupthink, and misattributions of truth merely to those that speak loudest or most often (for more information, attend this excellent piece by Guardian columnist Oliver Burkeman and the appended Cornell study within the text). In short, political correctness works in any number of life situations, and in the era of #MeToo, rejecting it for fear of reprimand from some objector real or imagined is a rather hollow justification.

Political correctness isn’t standing in the way of progress, or making the world less safe, or killing comedy, or coddling our youth. It’s a useful method of communication and representation which connotes our ability to honor those different from us and understand where they’re coming from, and to grease the wheels of strategic advancement rather than to invite counterproductive, reckless behavior. To those of us like Donald Trump who insist we don’t have the time for political correctness, one may easily counter that it’s perhaps exactly the time for it, and something we need now more than ever.

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