In case one requires a lesson about the long arm of Chinese influence in the United States, one need look no further than the recent fracas surrounding Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s pro-Hong Kong protests tweet.
The backlash in China to Morey’s errant post was sizable and swift. Live games and other upcoming promotional events were cancelled. Multiple Chinese sponsors announced their decision to cut business ties with the Rockets organization or the NBA outright and Chinese state television vowed to no longer air Rockets preseason games. In addition, Houston potentially faces $25 million in sponsorship boycotts and the league could see a hit to player contract monies owing to the newfound hostility.
Oof. Talk about the power of social media.
The magnitude of the Chinese reaction to criticism from one basketball executive is somewhat surprising in it of itself. All that for one tweet, which yielded an apology from Morey? What is more startling, if not unsettling, though, is how little support the Rockets GM has seemed to get in the United States.
Tilman Fertitta, billionaire owner of the Houston Rockets, for one, public distanced Morey’s comments from the team’s position, stating explicitly that the club is not a “political organization.” Joe Tsai, owner of the Brooklyn Nets and billionaire businessman in his own right, also condemned Morey’s support for the Hong Kong protests, characterizing the situation as a “third-rail issue” not to be touched and voicing his displeasure with the “separatist movement” of which these protests evidently are a part. Even the league itself has offered contradictory sentiments of support and regret, on one hand defending Morey’s right to self-expression but in the same breath deeply apologizing to China and its NBA fans in Chinese.
Morey’s and the NBA’s cautionary tale, so to speak, is not the only one lately to garner media attention. When Chung Ng Wai, a pro Hearthstone player who goes by “Blitzchung,” made a show of support for the Hong Kong protests during a Grandmasters tournament, he was removed from the competition, had his prize money forfeited, and was banned from tournament play by Blizzard, the game’s maker, for a year. Blizzard has since reduced the length of the ban and reinstated his winnings, but not before a public outcry earned the company strong criticism and spawned talk of boycotts and protests.
Apple and Google sparked outrage as well when they removed apps used by protesters or that were otherwise evocative of the protests/were vaguely supportive. Apple indicated it acted because the app in question allegedly was being used to target law enforcement officials and Hong Kong residents, a charge disputed by protest supporters. Google claims it removed The Revolution of Our Times for capitalizing on a sensitive event such as conflict.
Sound business practice or kowtowing to a censorious Chinese communist regime widely regarded as a human rights abuser in the name of money? Who’s pulling the strings? These are the kinds of questions major corporations like Apple, Blizzard, Google, and the NBA face in the wake of decisions that appear to favor the latter condition. It doesn’t help their cases that their various responses were made so quickly, and for Blizzard, arguably so disproportionately, at least initially. If what some believe is true, it’s not a question of whether these companies will jump, but how high.
This is part of the problem with China, a country that is a major player on the world stage and is seemingly unhappy with the amount of control it has in global affairs, including what people say about it and how. As Bill Bishop, author of the newsletter Sinocism, writes in an entry about the Morey-NBA flap with China entitled “The NBA’s poisoned China chalice,” Beijing doesn’t just want to be part of the conversation—it wants to lead the discourse. Bishop writes:
The broader context for this crisis is that the [Chinese Communist Party] has long pushed to increase its “international discourse power 国际话语权“, and as with many things its efforts have intensified under Xi. The idea is that China’s share of international voice is not commensurate with its growing economic, military and cultural power and that the Party should have much more control over the global discussion of all things Chinese, in any language, anywhere.
The Party is taking at least a two-track approach to rectifying this problem. On the one hand it is launching, buying, co-opting and coercing overseas media outlets. On the other it uses the power of the Chinese market to co-opt and coerce global businesses, their executives and other elite voices.
From the looks of it, these obeisant acts on the part of aforementioned American multinationals fit the second category. Never mind trying to influence politicians or meddle with elections. This takes a direct route to the heart of U.S. business, and including executives like Adam Silver and Tim Cook, nonetheless impacts influential figures who may yet have a voice in the domestic political discussion. Paired with a multi-million-dollar media campaign designed to shape public opinion and policy in the United States, China is anything but a passive player in the global politics of power.
Such is why, for the spotlight that has been shone on Russian interference in our elections and hacking of campaign infrastructures, the shadow China casts on American commerce (not to mention the amount of our debt it holds and potential attempts to steal intellectual property and other secrets) seemingly hasn’t had its due consideration. If China’s flexing to minimize criticism of its handling of the Hong Kong protests is any indication, the United States and other relevant world powers are highly susceptible to Beijing’s reactionary demands, right down to their more socially-conscious participants. As citizens and conscientious consumers, the scope of Chinese authority should concern us.
For those who have been sounding the alarm about China for years, that it might be something like Beijing’s knee-jerk retaliation against the NBA and the Houston Rockets organization or Blizzard’s Hearthstone debacle to affect the public consciousness is striking, although one supposes it may as well be one of these circumstances. In either of these instances, the shift in attention from the masses simply may have finally intersected with an area of importance to them, a milieu they conceivably enjoyed irrespective of their political leanings. Certainly, the duration and visibility of the Hong Kong protests helps in this regard.
Regardless of why there is such a strong focus all of a sudden on corporate management of the China-Hong Kong relationship, the realization across industries that politics does, in fact, play a role and compels executive leadership to take a meaningful stand is a critical one. Before, NBA figures such as Gregg Popovich, LeBron James, and Steve Kerr known for being outspoken on political and social issues in the United States might have gotten a pass for equivocating on the subject of China. Now, they’re getting their due criticism, or in the case of LeBron, having their jersey burned in a protest within the Hong Kong protests. To say the paradigm has changed would seem to be an understatement.
CNBC contributor Jake Novak, for one, marvels at how the NBA’s China fiasco has struck a nerve when years of reporting and pundits’ observations about how China hasn’t lived up to its promises to be a model state haven’t hit their mark, calling the ensuing fallout “just the wake-up call the world needed.”
As Novak explains, despite increasing economic engagement with the West, China, in numerous ways, has become or has tried to become more repressive and secretive. With Google’s help, no less, it worked on a government-censored search engine under the code name “Dragonfly” that only this past summer was terminated. It holds millions of people, many of them members of ethnic minority groups, in “counter-extremism centers” or “re-education camps,” and otherwise tramples on human rights, brutally punishing dissent. Militarily, China has built its forces to antagonistic levels, making bold shows of force repeatedly in the South China Sea before its neighbors. In addition, China’s lack of transparency concerning its international lending practices obscures the true level of debt (and therefore, risk) the global economy faces. This is the business partner countless American multinationals have chosen, a partner that fancies itself a victim in countless scenarios despite a pattern of aggression.
Of course, America is no saint when it comes to observation of human rights and respecting the autonomy of foreign lands, a notion much more glaring under would-be dictator Donald Trump. Attempted moral equivalencies by Kerr et al. aside, China’s quest to insinuate itself across state lines and continental divides is a problem not just for the U.S., but the world. Furthermore, it’s one that corporate America can be instrumental in addressing.
So, getting to the central question: how do we solve a problem like China? As James Palmer, senior editor at Foreign Policy, quoted in Bishop’s post instructs, part of the solution lies in boycotts, public shaming, and protests against company leadership that does business with China’s repressive regime under Xi Jinping. Also, Congress will likely have to intercede, calling on executives to testify about the deals they’ve made and threatening contracts and tax breaks for failure to comply with existing laws or for otherwise unsatisfactory answers.
Such is the good news: that we can take concrete steps to hold China and its enablers accountable for their misdeeds. The bad news? We’re, ahem, relying on consumer political participation and the efficacy of Congress, neither of which is a guarantee. As Novak suggests, the NBA is unlikely to be crippled by boycotts any more than the NFL was by fans upset over Colin Kaepernick. Bishop, in response to Palmer’s sentiments, is “not optimistic” on either front. Amid an emphasis on social responsibility—feigned or not—by chief executives and tough talk from politicians, the talk of the Chinese market’s money would appear to carry further.
In terms of solving our China “problem,” then, we may ultimately be more successful catching a cloud and pinning it down, or holding a moonbeam in our hand.
Chances are someone you know has given up on using Facebook, Twitter, or both because he or she regards it as a haven for discord and stupidity. Personally, my biggest gripe is there are too many Nazis and far-righters milling about, but I sympathize with the position of those who have forsaken these outlets. After all, when you write a post about how whiteness is a distinction that merits no pride, and the first comment you receive is from someone you don’t know living across the country who suggests you should pick a fight with a “real white man” and find out, you tend to want to roll your eyes, throw your computer in the garbage, and call it a day.
Suffice it to say, though, that outrage isn’t just plentiful in the Twitterverse and within the blogosphere—it may as well be a type of currency for social media. In the era of President Donald Trump, it seemingly has spiked the way bitcoin’s price shot up amid its initial surge.
Liberals are upset with the Trump presidency because, well, it’s a shit show. Conservatives are upset with liberals who are upset with Trump. Progressives are upset with liberals for hewing too close to center. Ultra-conservatives are upset with conservatives for spending too much on war and other things. Trump, on top of all this, tweets in frustration all the time, and most of us will be damned if we can figure out why exactly. In all, it’s an exhausting maelstrom of deprecation and fury.
The demand for outrage-inducing content is such that, in the haste to provide it, people, works of art, etc. can be exploited as icons of this outrage. Often times, this purpose will be served against the express wishes of those whose images or work is being usurped.
A recent salient example of this was when Mollie Tibbetts’ murder at the hands of an undocumented immigrant became a rallying cry for border security and immigration enforcement. Trump and other xenophobes like him once again began beating the drum of immigration “reform,” sounding a call for building a wall and for addressing the alleged flood of dangerous immigrants crossing into the United States.
One person who isn’t joining in with pitchforks and torches, meanwhile, is Ron Tibbetts, Mollie’s father, echoing a position other family members have espoused. In an op-ed piece in the Des Moines Register, he urged people not to “distort her death to advance racist views.” From the piece:
Ten days ago, we learned that Mollie would not be coming home. Shattered, my family set out to celebrate Mollie’s extraordinary life and chose to share our sorrow in private. At the outset, politicians and pundits used Mollie’s death to promote various political agendas. We appealed to them and they graciously stopped. For that, we are grateful.
Sadly, others have ignored our request. They have instead chosen to callously distort and corrupt Mollie’s tragic death to advance a cause she vehemently opposed. I encourage the debate on immigration; there is great merit in its reasonable outcome. But do not appropriate Mollie’s soul in advancing views she believed were profoundly racist. The act grievously extends the crime that stole Mollie from our family and is, to quote Donald Trump Jr., “heartless” and “despicable.”
Make no mistake, Mollie was my daughter and my best friend. At her eulogy, I said Mollie was nobody’s victim. Nor is she a pawn in others’ debate. She may not be able to speak for herself, but I can and will. Please leave us out of your debate. Allow us to grieve in privacy and with dignity. At long last, show some decency. On behalf of my family and Mollie’s memory, I’m imploring you to stop.
It is hard to imagine the heartbreak I would feel having a member of my immediate family die in such a gruesome way, and on top of this, to have people like Candace Owens invoke the racist trope of the white woman attacked by a man of color to further their agenda amid my grief. For that matter, I’m not sure I wouldn’t be angry at the individual who killed someone I love.
Keeping this in mind, I consider it a testament of Ron Tibbetts’ character and of Mollie’s that he would argue against messages of division and hate in the aftermath of learning that she had died. As such, his appeals to not “knowingly foment discord among races” as a “disgrace to our flag” and to “build bridges, not walls” carry much weight. As does his notion that the divisive rhetoric of Trump et al. does not leadership make.
“The Lonesome Death of Mollie Tibbetts” isn’t the only event in recent memory by which Americans, flying a flag of pseudo-patriotism, have taken an idea and run with it despite the explicit objection of its originator. The forthcoming movie First Man, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival, has garnered criticism for not showing the planting of the flag on the moon as part of Apollo 11, a perceived slight against America about which Buzz Aldrin helped kindle outrage. The movie reportedly focuses on Neil Armstrong’s personal journey leading up to the moonwalk, and on that walk, the visit to Little West Crater.
As Neil’s sons Rick and Mark Armstrong have interceded to emphasize, though they believe otherwise, the famed astronaut did not consider himself an “American hero,” a point actor Ryan Gosling, who stars in the film, also stressed. Thus, they defend director Damien Chazelle’s choice. Chazelle himself also explained that he wanted to portray the events of the Apollo 11 moon landing from a different perspective, highlighting the humanity behind Armstrong’s experience and the universality of his achievement. One small step for a man, and one giant leap for mankind, no? Besides, as Armstrong’s sons and others have reasoned, most people nitpicking First Man haven’t actually seen it to tear it asunder.
Then there’s the whole matter of Colin Kaepernick as the face of Nike’s 30th anniversary advertisement for their “Just Do It” campaign. The print ad, which shows Kaepernick’s face up close and personal, features the tagline, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” As self-styled arbiters of patriotism and what is good and right would aver, however, Kaepernick hasn’t sacrificed anything, and featuring a non-patriot like him is grounds for divorce.
Consequently, the hashtag #NikeBoycott was trending on Labor Day and into Tuesday, replete with videos of indignant Nike owners burning their sneakers and other apparel, cutting/ripping the telltale “swooshes” out of their clothing, or otherwise vowing to never shop Nike again. I suppose on some level I appreciate their enthusiasm, though I submit there are any number of reasons why this is folly, including:
First of all, if you never planned on buying Nike products in the first place, don’t front like your “boycott” means anything. It’s like people who complained about the Starbucks red nondenominational “holiday” cup controversy. Come on—you know y’all were only getting your coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts.
Assuming you did actually buy Nike sneakers and apparel, burning things doesn’t take the money back. As far as the company is concerned, you can eat the shoes when you’re done with them. The transaction is done.
Though it seems like a lost point by now, Colin Kaepernick consulted Nate Boyer, a former long snapper in the NFL and U.S. Army Green Beret, about how to protest respectfully. They eventually decided on kneeling rather than sitting as a sort of compromise, evoking the image of the serviceperson kneeling at the grave of a fallen comrade. At any rate, it’s not America or the military that Kaepernick and others have protested—it’s the treatment of people of color at the hands of law enforcement, the criminal justice system, and other rigged institutions.
A more meaningful boycott directed at Nike would be recognizing the company’s questionable commitment to worker rights here and abroad over the past few decades, including more recent allegations of a corporate culture that discriminates against women. Just saying.
As I’m sure numerous veterans would agree, regardless of what you think about Kaepernick and his playing ability, fighting overseas for inalienable human rights just to see players deprived of the right to protest—that is, able to enjoy fewer freedoms—does not indicate progress.
The financial fallout from Nike’s taking a stand, of course, still needs to be measured. There’s also the notion aligning with Colin Kaepernick will ruffle feathers of NFL executives and team owners. Still, one reasons Nike would not make such a potentially controversial move without knowing what it was doing, or at least figuring it was a gamble worth taking.
Going back to social media and expression of outrage, people unhappy about Nike’s decision to celebrate a figure in Kaepernick they perceive to be a spoiled rich athlete who doesn’t know the meaning of the word sacrifice also have been active in creating and sharing parodies of Nike’s advertisement with the late Pat Tillman, another NFL player/serviceperson, swapped in for Kaepernick. While Tillman is certainly worth the admiration, it appears doubtful he would want his image used in this way.
In fact, as many would suggest, based on his political views, it’s Kaepernick he would support, not the other way around. Marie Tillman, Pat’s wife, while not specifically endorsing player protests, nonetheless publicly rebuked Trump for retweeting a post using her husband’s image. As she put it, “The very action of self expression and the freedom to speak from one’s heart—no matter those views—is what Pat and so many other Americans have given their lives for. Even if they don’t always agree with those views.” As with Ron Tibbetts’s pleas not to exploit or capitalize his daughter’s death, Marie’s desire not to see her husband’s sacrifice and service politicized is one worth honoring.
There’s any number of examples of people’s art and memories being used without their permission (assuming they can give it) despite requests to the contrary. Recently, Aerosmith front man Steven Tyler sent a cease-and-desist letter to President Trump warning him not to use his (Tyler’s) music without his (Tyler’s) permission at his (Trump’s) political rallies. As Tyler insists, this is strictly about copyright protection—not about politics. As Trump insists, he already has the rights to use Aerosmith’s songs. If I’m believing one or the other, I’ll opt for the one who isn’t a serial liar, cheater, predator, and fraud, but you may do with these examples as you wish.
The larger point here, however, is that in the zeal for sparking outrage about political and social issues, there too frequently seems to be a failure to appreciate context—if not a blatant disregard for it. Mollie Tibbetts didn’t believe in an immigration policy which vilifies Latinx immigrants and other people of color. Neil Armstrong, in all likelihood, wouldn’t have balked at choosing not to show the planting of the U.S. flag on the moon. Pat Tillman probably would’ve backed the ability of Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players to protest during the playing of the National Anthem.
In all cases, a politically-motivated counternarrative threatens to derail meaningful discussion on the underlying subject matter. The outrage builds, as does the mistrust. The few issues upon which we disagree potentially overshadow the larger consensus we share on important topics. Sadly, this also seems to be the way many representatives of the major political parties like it.
I’ve highlighted examples in which people of a conservative mindset have coopted other people’s memories and works amid their expression of anger and resentment. This is not to say, mind you, that there aren’t occurrences on the other end of the political spectrum.
Not long ago, actor Peter Dinklage had to intervene to defray a controversy surrounding his casting as Hervé Villechaize in a forthcoming biopic about the late actor and painter. The charge was that this casting was a case of Hollywood “whitewashing.” As Dinklage explained in an interview, however, Villechaize is not Asian, as some people believe or claim, but suffered from a particular form of dwarfism that explains why they might assume this ethnicity. From the interview:
There’s this term “whitewashing.” I completely understand that. But Hervé wasn’t Filipino. Dwarfism manifests physically in many different ways. I have a very different type of dwarfism than Hervé had. I’ve met his brother and other members of his family. He was French, and of German and English descent. So it’s strange these people are saying he’s Filipino. They kind of don’t have any information. I don’t want to step on anybody’s toes or sense of justice because I feel the exact same way when there’s some weird racial profile. But these people think they’re doing the right thing politically and morally and it’s actually getting flipped because what they’re doing is judging and assuming what he is ethnically based on his looks alone. He has a very unique face and people have to be very careful about this stuff. This [movie] isn’t Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Personally, I would never do that, and I haven’t done that, because he wasn’t. People are jumping to conclusions based on a man’s appearance alone and that saddens me.
Jumping to conclusions—on the Internet? Well, I never! Dinklage seems to take this in stride along the lines of folks meaning well, but not necessarily being well informed. In this instance, the error is fairly innocuous, but the rush to judgment in today’s climate of information sharing can have serious consequences. There’s a lesson here, no matter what your political inclinations.
As for the Nike/Colin Kaepernick business which Donald Trump may very well be tweeting about right now, Drew Magary, writing for GQ, insists that something is “hopelessly broken” when people feel compelled to champion the company synonymous with the swoosh for taking a stand. He writes:
Corporations already control so much in America that people are compelled—happy, even—to depend on them as beacons of social change, because they are now the ONLY possible drivers of it. I shouldn’t need Nike to get police departments to stop being violent and corrupt. Making decent shoes is hard enough for them, you know what I mean? But I’m forced to applaud their efforts here only because I live in a world where people cannot effect anywhere near the level of change that a billion-dollar corporation can. The social compact of this nation was meant to be between its citizens, but brands have essentially hijacked that compact, driving all meaningful conversation within. A great many brands have performed a great many acts of evil thanks to this. Others have talked up a big game while still being evil (that’s you, Silicon Valley). Only rarely do brands use their ownership of the social compact for good and genuine ends, and even then it accomplishes far less than what actual PEOPLE could accomplish if they had that compact to themselves once more. Politically speaking, one Colin Kaepernick ought to be worth a million Nikes.
Instead, as Magary tells it, “we live in a country where causes only to get to see daylight if they have a sponsor attached.” It’s a particularly bad phenomenon because corporations like Nike exist for their own benefit and have no “obligation to society.” Thus, if we need an athletic apparel company to lecture us on the virtues of sacrifice and of protesting police brutality, or if we need a pizza company to fill in potholes that municipalities can’t or won’t address, you know we’re in pretty bad shape.
While we contemplate our eroding civic virtue and crumbling infrastructure—a contemplation none too heartening, at that—we might also consider what we can do to end the “internet outrage cycle,” as Spencer Kornhaber, staff writer at The Atlantic, put it. Certainly, much as discretion may be deemed the better part of valor, discretion about what to post or tweet and whether to do so seems fundamental to limiting the reactionary culture of outrage, and outrage about others’ outrage that plagues much of interaction on contentious topics. Besides, while we’re dabbling in truisms, if one doesn’t have anything nice to say, perhaps one shouldn’t say anything at all.
Social media giants like Facebook and Twitter aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, and their ability to organize for meritorious purposes is too profound to ignore. If we’re going to use them constructively, we will need to resist the iconography of outrage, specifically that which distorts images and people to serve a new agenda. At a time when ownership of creative works can get lost in the ability to share them, and when public figures can become buried under an avalanche of negativity, it’s best to do our homework and to pick our battles when choosing a cause to fight for.
Earlier this year, in response to comments professional basketball player LeBron James made with respect to President Donald Trump—notably that Trump “doesn’t understand the people” and that some of his comments are “laughable and scary”—FOX News personality Laura Ingraham took to her show The Ingraham Angle to denounce the 14-time All-Star, calling his remarks “barely intelligible” and “ungrammatical.” Furthermore, she opined that it’s “unwise to seek political advice from someone who gets paid $100 million to bounce a ball,” and suggested that James “shut up and dribble.” Meow.
Before I delve deeper into why I categorically disagree with Ms. Ingraham, let me first address the tenor of her commentary. Ingraham holds a view shared by other Americans that star athletes like LeBron James are overpaid (hence the “$100 million” jab) to play a sport that children play (hence the “bounce a ball” dig). Ingraham being Ingraham, though, she takes her level of deprecation up a level by insinuating that James is uneducated and unintelligent. He’s a dumb basketball player! He doesn’t speak too good! Bear in mind there likely is a racial subtext here, too, but one can only guess at exactly what the FOX News host was thinking as she delivered her thoughts, so I’ll leave that for you to ponder.
Laura Ingraham’s condescension aside, in addition to thinking that professional athletes earn too much money for playing a game relative to the rank-and-file workers of the U.S.A.—they might not be entirely wrong in thinking this way, mind you—she and others of a similar mindset might wish that entertainers, whether highly-paid basketball players or famous movie stars or what-have-you, would leave their politics to their private conversations. We came for the dunks and the Oscar-worthy performances, not the politics. Stay in your lane.
Taking a step back for a moment, let’s talk some more about LeBron James, and in doing so, not simply dismiss the idea that he, indeed one of the highest-salaried players in the NBA, is one of its best, if not one of its all-time greats. He’s a four-time league MVP, three-time NBA Finals MVP and champion, 12-time All-NBA 1st Team award recipient, five-time All-Defensive 1st Team honoree, and three-time All-Star MVP, not to mention Rookie of the Year winner in 2004. If all he does is bounce a ball, then he bounces it exceedingly well. Thus, while you may not agree with how players are compensated in general, next to other exceptional talents in the league, he is appropriately remunerated for his on-court contributions, and should be given his due among the NBA’s elite. I mean, they don’t call him “King James” for nothing.
As for taking shots at James seeming or sounding uneducated, even people who don’t watch the NBA are likely familiar with his backstory. Straight after a standout high school career at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio, LeBron was drafted as the first overall pick by the Cleveland Cavaliers. In other words, he never went to college. As far as James and those around him were concerned, though, for someone who was a lock as a eventual NBA superstar, there was no need for him to seek a degree or try to prove himself against the top talent in the NCAA. This is not to say that he couldn’t have completed a four-year program, just that he didn’t. Besides, one doesn’t necessarily have to have a Juris Doctorate from the University of Virginia like Ms. Ingraham to be able to speak with any semblance of intelligence. For that matter, we might also be spared the haughty attitude.
With that aside made, let’s get back to the notion that the realm of politics and the realm of entertainment/sports should be kept separate. For those people who look at these media as escapes of sorts from the news media, especially stories of a political nature, this is a desire for which many of us can be sympathetic, at least in theory. Keeping up with the events of today is, in a word, exhausting. I’m sure there are some of us now whose blood boils at the mere mention of the name “Trump.” Even when we’re not having #NotMyPresident moments, there’s enough that goes on which is liable to depress us. Murder, rape, assault, theft, corruption, natural disasters, drug epidemics, mass shootings, salmonella outbreaks, glaciers melting, the last known male northern white rhino dying. So much of what we are made to absorb seems so abjectly negative, it feels only right we should have some sort of distraction or diversion.
In this regard, the controversy brought about by Colin Kaepernick kneeling in protest during the playing of the National Anthem might be a shock to the system as much as anything. Along these lines, NFL fans were probably angry on some level that they had to consider politics and social issues at all. Give me my three hours of men crashing into one another, cheerleaders shaking their pom-poms, and tons of commercials! I don’t want to have think about why people are unhappy with America!
Then again, maybe politics and social issues do have much to do with the nature of the controversy—too much, at that. Kaepernick intended his protest as a way to bring attention to the injustices faced by people of color at the hands of the criminal justice system and law enforcement in the United States, but without being disrespectful to veterans and members of the Armed Forces (after meeting and talking with Nate Boyer, former NFL long snapper and U.S. Army Green Beret, Kaepernick opted to kneel rather than sit).
After Donald Trump, a majority of NFL team owners, and other self-appointed arbiters of patriotism got a hold of it, however, it became a referendum on one’s appreciation for the military and the country. You don’t like it? Move to Canada! In Kaepernick’s case, the quarterback who at least could serve as a backup to one of 32 teams was all but officially blacklisted from the league. As far as Trump et al. were concerned re the “son of a bitch” Kaepernick, good riddance. And not another word about the treatments of blacks and other people of color in this proud nation.
This is where the desire to keep politics out of entertainment and sports gets tricky. If it’s part of a plea for a respite from the demands of the outside world, that would seem to have merit, or if nothing else, engender pity. If it’s based on a desire to kick dissenters out of the league for acting in accordance with First Amendment rights and to indefinitely prolong a meaningful conversation about race in this country, that’s a horse of a different color.
The latter condition accompanies an ongoing debate among self-styled culture warriors about whether there is a “time and place” for a discussion on important social issues, and whether “civility” should be observed. With respect to the ongoing dumpster fire that is the Trump administration’s handling of separating/reuniting immigrant families, some individuals decried Sarah Sanders’s being told to leave The Red Hen restaurant because of her politics, while others reveled in it. On the left, some, such as Maxine Waters, insisted Trump administration officials should expected to be “harassed” in public as long as the White House’s disastrous immigrant policy is in place, while others, like Chuck Schumer, put forth that this treatment was “un-American,” and even Bernie Sanders professed that Sanders and others should be able to sit down and have a meal.
While I, too, believe that individuals like Stephen Miller and Kirstjen Nielsen—reprehensible as their conduct has been in their official capacities—deserve not to be shouted at or threatened with bodily harm, all calls for civility are not created equal. First of all, what “civility” entails may be open to interpretation. Is asking Sarah Sanders to leave a restaurant uncivil? That might depend on who you ask.
Secondly, and more importantly, calls for civility are only as good as the ability to interact with the other party on an equal footing and with an openness to act in a corrective way. Indeed, there must be a time and place for such a dialog, alongside a legitimate promise to debate the issues at hand (unlike, say, a Mitch McConnell promise to his Democratic colleagues to hold a vote, which is almost certain to be broken).
Too frequently, meanwhile, protests that there is a time and place for serious deliberation signify that the desired time is “never,” the desired place is “nowhere,” and furthermore, that there is no guarantee the two sides will even talk about the same thing or agree to interact on level-headed, rational terms in the future. Besides, how do you debate, for instance, that tearing children away from their mothers is immoral? If it’s not already apparent that it is, this already signifies a bit of a problem.
Returning to the earlier war of words between Laura Ingraham and LeBron James, there are two concepts I submit we should consider. The first is whether or not Ingraham’s opinions carry more weight than James’s because she is specifically paid to express her opinions, whereas he is paid only to “bounce a ball.” While it might be Ingraham’s job to wax philosophical and political, and while she may be better-versed on specific topics, her opinions are no more valid than James’s, especially if buttressed by misstatements of fact and other misleading information. Sure, Ingraham’s education and experience may make her seem more credible, but just like you or I, she is subject to bias, not to mention a tendency toward elitism. Just because we might agree with her views doesn’t mean that bias isn’t there.
The second topic to consider is whether or not the want of refusal to “talk politics” should be considered an abdication of civil responsibility. Much as we might be loath to confront it, politics is infused into every facet of our daily life. Going back to the NFL, we might seek to avoid politics, but on the subject of player protests and other pertinent matters, the battle lines, if you will, have already been drawn. Consequently, not taking a stance is, in effect, taking a stance.
This sentiment only intensifies when the issue at hand directly impacts the person faced with making a judgment. How reasonable is it to expect professional football players, two-thirds of whom are black, not to have thoughts on this topic? Are they just supposed to “shut up and tackle?” Because they signed a contract to play football for a living, have they thus waived their freedom of speech? It’s no wonder players like Michael Bennett have likened the league’s treatment of its talent to how plantation owners treated slaves as property. It might be an extreme comparison, but it’s one that captures the feelings of blacks across the nation. Unless or until we’ve walked a mile in their shoes, we can’t really know what that’s like.
LeBron James changed team affiliations when he signed with the Los Angeles Lakers in early July, but his views on Donald Trump don’t appear to have changed any. In a recent interview with CNN’s Don Lemon, James reiterated his belief that President Trump is trying to “divide us” and that he feels that he “can’t sit back and say nothing” in the face of POTUS’s rhetoric. He also alluded to the President’s attitudes giving a sense of empowerment to those with strong racist beliefs to say demeaning things when previously they would not have, and stated his wish to never sit across the table from Trump (though he would do so with Obama).
If Laura Ingraham has had anything to say about LeBron James since her previous rant, I don’t know, though confessedly, I’m not really all that interested. Criticizing James as a stupid jock when he has remained free of controversy throughout his career (outside of “The Decision” and his numerous team changes, though this doesn’t relate to his personal conduct) and when he has done so much charity work for children in his native Ohio strikes me as petty and misplaced. As far as the NBA is concerned, James is to be celebrated on and off the court—not the other way around.
As some critics of Ingraham’s have suggested, it’s a little strange for someone who believes in individual liberty to rail against someone like James for expressing his or her personal opinions. What’s obvious in her reaction to James’s words is that she’s only telling him to stay in his lane because she doesn’t like what he says. If it were Candace Owens or Kanye West calling out professional athletes for kneeling during the playing of the National Anthem, Ingraham would, in all likelihood, be lapping it up, extolling the virtues of black Americans becoming “independent thinkers” and eschewing Democratic or liberal values. Cue the comment about taking the “red pill.”
While lamenting the idea that conservatives are threatening to ruin, for me personally, a movie in The Matrix which I have enjoyed since first seeing it in theatres, I am nonetheless focused on the real issue at hand. Though jingoistic Americans may feel otherwise, dissent can be patriotic, too. On the subject of athletes and entertainers using their platform to share their political views, such should be encouraged, for even if we disagree with them, there is no mandate which states that their beliefs are better than or count more than ours. They just happen to have a larger audience at their disposal, or stand to increase the size of their platform exponentially with their commentary. When prompted about her response to his interview, LeBron professed that, before their war of words, he had no idea who Laura Ingraham was, but that he definitely knew now and that it was good for her that she stoked this controversy. The baller he is, James knows not to hate the player, but the game.
So, let’s stop all this “shut up and dribble” nonsense. To be a citizen is to be an engaged, informed, and responsible individual—regardless of what you do for a living. After all, if we can elect a dangerously unqualified businessman in Donald Trump to be our leader, it’s just as well that we encourage one another to speak our minds.
2017 looks poised to finish on a high note, at least economically speaking. The stock market in the United States is near a record high, likely buoyed by the GOP’s corporation-friendly tax cut that President Donald Trump signed into law. Reportedly, the holiday season saw an increase of 5% in sales, an increase of 3.7% from the same span in 2016. Winning, winning, winning. Aren’t you tired of winning so much, fellow Americans? Aren’t you glad Pres. Trump is making America great again? Never mind the notion that he may not have as much to do with the economy as he would lead you to believe. Also, maybe we shouldn’t mention that, according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research in London, England, China and India’s economies will surpass that of the U.S.’s by 2030. In other long-term news, meanwhile, productivity growth within America’s economy remains low, income inequality remains startlingly high, the federal debt continues to skyrocket, and the nation is gripped by an opioid dependency epidemic.
So, glass half empty or glass half full? How do you see these United States shaping up over the next few years and into the future? It likely depends on which side of the political or socioeconomic fence you live—and whether or not you stand to personally benefit from the policies the Trump administration and a Republican-led Congress aim to advance. Looking just at the GOP tax cuts, opponents of this policy shift have assailed it as a present for the super-wealthy and industry leaders at the expense of average Americans, and as a greasing of the slippery slope toward the erosion of Social Security, Medicare, and other social safety net programs. In other words, the advantages of this agenda would tend to be appreciated by the few rather than the many, and perhaps it is no wonder Trump’s approval ratings are languishing south of 40%, a historical low at this point in the presidency.
Perhaps it’s instructive to see where we’ve been to help gauge where we may be going in 2018, in 2020, and beyond. Let’s take a look back at some of the topics covered in 2017 on United States of Joe. Warning: we may have a bit more to say regarding our orange leader. If you have any small children in the room, you may want to move them to a safe location—especially if they happen to frequent beauty pageants. I hear El Presidente and his buddies like ’em young, and like to invade dressing rooms of contestants while they’re potentially less-than-fully clothed. Without further ado, let’s do the…
US of J 2017 Review: This Time, It’s Personal—Because Our President Takes Everything Personally
The Biggest Inauguration in U.S. History—Kinda, Sorta
Hey—did you realize Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election? No? Let Trump himself tell you about it! In fact, let him tell you about how he won going away every time something goes wrong or the press challenges him on the quality of his performance as President. You know, even though he didn’t win going away—dude didn’t even win the popular vote. Of course, Trump being the stupid baby that he is, he would challenge the legitimacy of Hillary Clinton’s supremacy in the popular vote, a harbinger of a disturbing trend that continues to play out with the Tweeter-in-Chief. Hillary didn’t win the popular vote—it was massive fraud involving undocumented immigrants that illegitimately got her that small victory. There’s absolutely no credible evidence of this, mind you, and the bullshit voter fraud task force the White House commissioned hasn’t turned up anything either. Trump’s Inauguration crowds were bigger than Barack Obama’s. Don’t believe the visual evidence? That’s OK—Trump, Sean Spicer and Co. were simply offering “alternative facts.” Don’t care for CNN’s brand of reporting? No problem—it’s “fake news.” After all, the media isn’t to be trusted in the first place—it’s the enemy of the people. I’m sure you felt that deep down anyhow, though.
Donald Trump’s assault on the truth and on verifiable fact is unmistakable, and his attacks on the press, including his fetishistic obsession with CNN, are overstated. That said, it’s not as if American news media is blameless in this regard either. Even before Trump was elected President, the mainstream media was an unabashed enabler of his antics. With Buzzfeed’s release of the “Pee-Pee Papers,” a salacious and unauthenticated account of Russian prostitutes performing sex acts at Trump’s behest supposedly based on credible intelligence, and CNN retracting a story on a supposed connection between Anthony Scaramucci, whose tenure as White House Communications Director was remarkably short-lived, and Trump’s Russian ties, Trump suddenly appears more credible. In the push for ratings and clicks in an turbulent era for journalism, the rush of media outlets to meet the demand of consumers for up-to-date information is understandable, but this does not excuse sloppy, irresponsible reporting. For the sake of the institution as a whole, the U.S. news media must balance the need to generate revenue with the importance of upholding standards of journalistic integrity, and must stand together when Trump et al. would seek to undermine one among their ranks—or risk a more precipitous downfall.
Gorsuch: Silver Fox and Supreme Court Justice
One of the big concerns following the death of Antonin Scalia and prompting voters to think hard about voting strategically between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was the idea the next President would get to nominate Scalia’s successor. We would be remiss if we did not mention that Barack Obama, well in advance of his departure from the White House, had already tapped Merrick Garland, a fine candidate to fill Scalia’s void. Mitch McConnell a.k.a. Turtle McTurtleface and the other Republicans in the Senate, meanwhile, would not even entertain Obama’s choice, prompting their constituents to protest outside of their offices and chant “Do your job!” In other words, it was really a dick move on the GOP’s part, and a gamble that the party would win the 2016 presidential election so they could install Antonin Scalia 2.0. Trump’s upset electoral victory thus paved the way for Neil Gorsuch to ascend to the highest court in the United States.
Gorsuch, previously a U.S. Circuit Court Judge with a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, is eminently qualified in his own right. This didn’t seem to be a point of contention between leaders of the two parties. Still, coming off a situation in which a perfectly good candidate in Garland was blocked as a function of mere partisanship, it brought an added measure of scrutiny and tension to confirmation proceedings. The Democrats filibustered to prevent cloture and delay a confirmation vote. The Republicans countered by invoking the so-called “nuclear option,” effectively changing Senate rules whereby they could break the filibuster with a simple majority. By a 54-45 vote, Neil Gorsuch was confirmed as the latest Supreme Court Justice. The whole process ultimately revealed few interesting tidbits about Gorsuch, and more so demonstrated the ugliness of political brinksmanship that has become a hallmark of Congress in this day and age. And we wonder why average Americans are not more politically engaged.
The Trump Administration vs. the World
As a function of “making America great again,” Donald Trump apparently believes strongly in defense spending and letting the world know the United States is #1. After alternatively touting his desire to bring the country along a more isolationist track and vowing to “bomb the shit out of ISIS” on the campaign trail, Trump, well, sort of did both. In terms of shows of force, his administration was responsible for dropping the “mother of all bombs” on Afghanistan, as well as approving the launch of dozens of missiles into Syria, supposedly as retaliation for the Assad regime’s use of toxic gas on its own people. The latter, in particular, got the dander of his white nationalist supporters up, though as far as most kinder, gentler souls are concerned, the disappointment of a bunch of ethnocentric xenophobes is not all that much of a loss. Less talked-about, but perhaps no less significant, were other less successful operations across international lines. First of all, not long after Trump took office, there was a botched raid in Yemen that saw Navy SEAL Ryan Owens killed, and to date, little information has been offered on the attack that led to his death and by all appearances was ill-advised. And there was the massacre at a mosque in Syria outside Aleppo. According to U.S. officials, numerous al-Qaeda operatives were taken out by the strike in the town of Jinah, but activists and others on the ground there tell a different story, one of civilians attending religious services and being fired upon as they tried to flee the place of worship. Reportedly, at least 46 people were killed in the assault on the mosque, and the U.S. military was criticized by humanitarian groups for not doing its due diligence in assessing the target for the possibility of civilian casualties. Oh, well—they were Muslims and not Americans anyway. Whoops!
In terms of isolating itself from the international community, America has done that under Donald Trump—if for other reason than it has done to things to alienate that international community. There was the whole backing of out of the Paris climate accord thing, which is voluntary in the first place and thus mostly serves as a middle finger to those here and abroad who give a hoot about polluting and climate change. Even before apparent attacks on American diplomats there, Trump and his administration have reversed course on Cuba relative to an Obama-era thawing of frigid diplomatic relations, and the benefit of this 180 to either side merits questioning. They’ve taken a tough tone with Iran and accused the country of not meeting its end of the bargain with respect to the nuclear deal much hated by conservative Republicans, in apparent deference to the whims of Saudi Arabia. Trump and North Korean president Kim Jong-un have basically had a year-long war of words through television news media and social media, with the latter referring to the former as a “dotard.” (Essentially, he told our President he’s a senile moron. Thanks, Merriam-Webster!) The White House has resolved to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and to acknowledge the city, contested as to its very boundaries, as the capital of Israel, prompting a United Nations resolution condemning the move. And this is all before we even get to the investigation into Trump, his transition team, his administration, and suspected ties to Russia. In short, if Donald Trump hasn’t pissed you off this year, you’re either one of his core supporters or have just run out of f**ks to give—and I’m not sure which one is worse.
Race to the Exit: The Trump Administration Story
Viewing some of Trump’s picks for Cabinet posts and various positions within the White House at length, it was a wonder for many to see who might be first to go or fail to even get confirmed. At least Andrew Puzder, then-CEO of CKE Restaurants, the parent of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, had the decency to withdraw before the confirmation process was over; as potential Secretary of Labor, it was his employ of undocumented immigrants which was his undoing. Not giving less than half a shit about his employees and being opposed to raising the minimum wage? Nah, that was fine. In fact, it made him more than suitable for nomination in the era of Trump. Betsy DeVos, Ben Carson, Linda McMahon, Mick Mulvaney, Steve Mnuchin, Rick Perry, Tom Price, Scott Pruitt, Jeff Sessions—these are the kinds of individuals that Donald Trump, seemingly without irony, tapped for important government posts despite a lack of proficiency in their area of supposed expertise, a stated desire to abolish the very agency they were named to head, or both. Price ultimately resigned when information about his questionable spending of the government’s finances to suit his convenience came to light, and there have been whispers about the job security of Sessions and Rex Tillerson from time to time, but for the most part, the bulk of them still remain. And so much for draining the swamp—between Goldman Sachs and billionaires, this Cabinet is as marshy as they come.
As for other appointees and residual officeholders, there was yet more volatility to be had. Michael Flynn was National Security Adviser for all of about a month before getting canned, and currently, he’s facing repercussions after pleading guilty to lying to federal investigators. Not to be outdone, the aforementioned Anthony Scaramucci lasted a scant ten days before his sacking as White House Communications Director, and in that short time, he divested himself of business ties and ruined his marriage. Welcome to the team, Mooch—and don’t let the door hit you on your way out! His predecessor, Sean “Spicey” Spicer, made it to July before bowing out, but not before some hilarious cameos on Saturday Night Live featuring Melissa McCarthy as Spicer. Steve Bannon, the Skeleton King, made it to August before he was either fired or before he resigned—depending on who you ask. Sebastian Gorka also departed in August, and seeing as he didn’t do much but argue with the press in interviews anyway, I’m relatively sure he isn’t missed. Omarosa Manigault Newman is set to resign in January, and evidently is not afraid to tell all. In sum, people can’t get out of the Trump White House soon enough, and whether some vacancies will go unfilled or simply are taking forever to get filled, the hallmark of this administration is disarray and upheaval. And somehow Kellyanne Conway still has a job. Sorry—that’s the sound of my head hitting the wall. I’ll try to keep it down.
The Democrats Form a Killer Strategy to Win in 2018, 2020, and Be—Oh, Who Are We Kidding?
For a while, it was relatively quiet on the Democratic Party front following the election and even the Inauguration with the Dems licking their wounds. This is not to say, obviously, that nothing was going on behind the scenes. One event which seems fairly minor but reflects deep conflicts within the Democratic ranks was the election of a new Democratic National Committee chair to replace departing interim chair Donna Brazile, herself a replacement for Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Keith Ellison, a Bernie Sanders supporter and popular progressive Democrat, was the front-runner for the position early, but concerns about Ellison’s lack of obeisance to the positions of the DNC’s rich Jewish donors and the establishment wing of the party not wishing to cede too much control to the “Bernie-crats” among them led former Labor Secretary Tom Perez to enter the fray. In the end, the vote was close, but Perez carried the day. That the Obama-Hillary segment of the Democratic Party would expend so much energy on a position that is largely ceremonial and concerned with fundraising is telling, and signals that any progressive reform of the party will be slow in coming—if at all.
If there is any further doubt about this, look at how certain races played out outside of the presidential milieu. Sure, Democrats may point to more recent victories in the gubernatorial elections of New Jersey (Phil Murphy) and Virginia (Ralph Northam), as well as the special election to replace Jeff Sessions in Alabama (Doug Jones), but other losses appear indicative of the Dems’ failure to commit to a comprehensive, 50-state strategy, namely Jon Ossoff in Georgia, James Thompson in Kansas, and Rob Quist in Montana, who lost to Greg Gianforte, even after the latter beat up a reporter. Seriously. Elsewhere, Hillary Clinton, after a moment of repose, released a book in which she accepted full responsibility for losing a election she was largely expected to win. Kidding! She blamed Bernie Sanders, voters for not coming out more strongly for her, James Comey, and even the DNC. That last one seems particularly disingenuous, especially when considering that Donna Brazile herself had a book to release critical of Hillary and one which confirmed what many of us already knew: that Hill-Dawg and the Committee were in cahoots long before the primaries. The Democrats seem content to allow Donald Trump and the machinations of the Republican Party to dig the GOP into an electoral hole. For an electorate increasingly weary of the “We’re Not the Other One” line, though, this does not a strategy make, and without an obvious frontrunner for 2020, the Democratic Party’s presumed advantage could well be overstated. Such that, if Trump actually makes it that far, it’s not inconceivable to think he could be re-elected. Talk about a recurring nightmare.
The White Supremacists, They Come Bearing Tiki Torches
In 2017, I would’ve thought it crazy for a scene to play out like it did in Charlottesville, Virginia this past August. And yet, lo and behold, it did. Some 250 protestors, carrying kerosene-filled torches and rebelling against a perceived erosion of their heritage and history, marched on the University of Virginia campus, shouting epithets, vowing not to be “replaced,” and generally ready to start a ruckus over the planned removal of a statue honoring Confederate general Robert E. Lee. The next day, though, if not as frightening in terms of the imagery, was worse in terms of the outcome. Protestors arrived carrying nationalist banners clubs, guns, and shields. Counter-protestors were also on hand to “greet” the white supremacists, the anti-fascists among them armed as well. It was not long before violence broke out, and by the time the police intervened, there already were injuries to tally. The worst of it all, though, were the fatalities. Heather Heyer, a counter-protestor, was killed as a result of a man deliberately plowing into people, and two state troopers, H. Jay Cullen and Berke M.M. Bates, died in a separate helicopter crash. In terms of senseless violence and loss, the Charlottesville riots seem to epitomize the very concept.
The apparent surge in white nationalist leanings following the election of Donald Trump is disturbing in its own right, but by the same token, so too is it unsettling that people would condone attacks against their ranks so readily. Some people who reject any set of principles that resembles Nazism believe violence to suppress hateful rhetoric is justified. Such is the belief of various antifa groups, and this where the debate of the movement’s merits comes into play. Though anti-fascists like those who don the mark of the Black Bloc don’t actually have much to do with traditional liberalism, their association with the left threatens the credibility of true liberal and progressive groups, and nullifies the bargaining power that these individuals have over the deficient worldviews they oppose. Two wrongs don’t make a right, and violence as a tool to suppress violence does not serve its intended purpose.
Congress vs. Everyday Americans: F**k Your Health Care, and F**k Your Income Inequality
Per President Trump, the Affordable Care Act, also affectionately known as “ObamaCare,” is a total disaster. Republican leaders likewise have been decrying the ACA for some time now, painting it as an unwanted intrusion of the federal government in the health care industry. Never mind that a significant portion of red-state voters depend on the provisions of the Affordable Care Act to be able to pay for medically necessary services, and that a sizable subset of America would actually like to see the nation move to a single-payer/Medicare-for-all model. Trump and a GOP Congress had a lot riding on a repeal of the Affordable Care Act and replacing it, though owing to the notion the devil is in the details, that Republicans tried to rush legislation through the House and the Senate with little idea of what was in it was telling that it probably wasn’t something they would want to share with their constituents. In the end, John McCain’s “no” vote on a “skinny” repeal of ObamaCare turned out to be pivotal in the measure’s failure to pass. Trump would later issue an executive order that would broadly task the government with working on ways to improve competition, prices, and quality of care, though it faced criticisms for how it essentially opened a backdoor for the destabilization of ACA marketplaces by taking younger, healthier consumers of the equation. Yet more significant could be the planned ending of cost-sharing subsidy payments to insurers that would likely mean higher prices for the consumer. Whatever the case, Trump and the GOP haven’t killed the Affordable Care Act, despite their boasts—they’ve only repealed the individual mandate aspect of the law. Of course, this doesn’t mean the Republicans are done coming for affordable health care. Far from it, in all likelihood.
Where Trump et al. found greater success—to our detriment, it should be stressed—is in the passage and signing of their tax reform bill. Once again, the knowledge of its contents prior to voting among lawmakers was questionable, but ultimately, by relatively slim margins in the House and Senate, what many have referred to as the “GOP Tax Scam” cleared Congress. Make no mistake: this is not good news for average Americans. Any benefits to be enjoyed in the short term are outweighed by how the wealthiest among us and corporations will experience that much more of a boon, with long-term consequences to the national debt and minimal rewards to be trickled down to the rank-and-file. In short, it’s class warfare, and potentially a troubling herald of future attempts to screw with Medicare, Social Security, and other entitlement programs—and the worst part is most of us seem to know it. One can only hope that Republicans will face their own consequences in forthcoming elections. It’s not a great consolation, but at this point, it’s the best we’ve got.
Some Protests Get Lost in the Shouting/Tweeting; Others Succeed Beyond Expectations
Even before Colin Kaepernick, there were player protests and refusals to stand at attention for the playing of the National Anthem at professional sporting events. Not long after the start of the NFL season, however, the continued kneeling, sitting, staying in the locker room, or raising of fists raised the ire of one President Donald Trump who, while apparently not busy playing golf or signing disastrous legislation into law, started a fracas about players refusing to stand during the Star-Spangled Banner, suggesting they should be suspended or outright released for their disrespect of the flag and of those who have served and died for our country. Trump also cited the NFL’s declining ratings and ticket sales as a direct impact of the players kneeling. While it’s possible reactions to player protests may be a factor in these downturns, this overlooks other persistent issues facing professional sports in general: declines in traditional television viewership among younger adults, high costs of premium sports channel packages, the prevalence of injuries and concerns about traumatic brain injuries, the steep price tag for attending games in person, and the mediocrity of play of any number of teams. All the while, the original thrust of Kaepernick’s protest—to raise awareness of the unfair treatment of people of color at the hands of police and other institutions—seemed to get lost in the discussion of who was protesting, which teams issued ultimatums about standing and which did not, and why people weren’t watching now. So much for fighting racial injustice. Better luck in 2018, people of color.
In perhaps a surprising turn of events, though, and possibly a watershed moment in the fights for gender equality and for standing up for victims of sexual assault and harassment, movie producer Harvey Weinstein’s exposure as a habitual offender of sexual misconduct, if not outright rape, opened the floodgates for other accusations, admissions, allegations, and denials. Hollywood has apparently borne the brunt of the revelations inspired by the #MeToo movement, with any number of projects shelved or cancelled as a result of men’s misdeeds, but the political realm also has seen its share of high-profile figures caught in the spotlight. Al Franken was forced to resign from his seat in the U.S. Senate after numerous women accused him of impropriety. John Conyers, another congressional Democrat, resigned too in the wake of a veritable mountain of allegations. Roy Moore didn’t abandon his political aspirations even after the likes of Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan suggested he should step aside, but he also didn’t win as a Republican in Alabama. And then there’s maybe the biggest fish of them all: none other than Donald Trump. That Trump hasn’t been brought down by his own accusations—or for any other wrongdoing, for that matter—is somewhat deflating. Then again, maybe it’s only a matter of time. As with members of the GOP losing in 2018 and 2020, once more, we can only hope.
Meryl Streep famously put Donald Trump on blast at the Golden Globes. Predictably, this invited jeers from Trump supporters who felt “limousine liberals” like herself should “stay in their lane.” You may not like that Streep has a platform in this manner, but she still is an American, and that means not only is she entitled to say what she wants given the opportunity, but as she and others might see it, she has a civic duty to speak out when someone who ostensibly represents us, the people, does so in a destructive way. Kudos, Ms. Streep. I look forward to your acceptance speech at the forthcoming Golden Globes. Come on—you know it’s coming.
Bill Maher more or less engaged in a conversation with Sam Harris about how Islam is a deficient religion—though both men notably have their issues with organized religion, so take this for what it’s worth. In a separate chat with Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, when jokingly asked by the senator if he would work in the fields of Nebraska, Maher referred to himself as a “house n****r.” For an educated guy, Maher is kind of a dickish moron.
Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz had a health care debate on CNN. Why? Why not! At any rate, it was better than the Republican Party debates from last primary season.
In perhaps a glaring example of where we are as a nation in 2017, our President revealed he did not know who Frederick Douglass is—though Trump being Trump, tried to play it off like he did. Also, Kellyanne Conway continued to speak words that sounded like actual thoughts, declaring herself a “feminist” who apparently doesn’t know the meaning of the word, and elsewhere suggesting microwaves can be turned into cameras and be used to spy on us. Hmm—it appears my nose is bleeding. Or maybe that’s just my brain liquefying from these comments. Carry on, please.
In international news, Canada moved closer to legalizing marijuana, with a target date of Canada Day, 2018. In the States? Jeff Sessions the Racist Dinosaur and others like him talk about how weed is a drug for “bad people.” So, if you’re keeping score at home: cannabis :: bad; alcohol, tobacco, and firearms—things that are way more deadly than cannabis :: good. Well, at least we’ve got our priorities straight.
A handful of inmates were executed in Alabama, essentially because the state had a bunch of drugs used in lethal injection at its disposal set to expire, so—what the hell!—might as well use them! Pardon me for waxing philosophical as this moment, but the death penalty is state-sponsored murder. It is revenge for the sake of revenge, and way too often (and too late), it has ended the lives of those whose guilt would be proven false with new evidence and advances in forensic science. It should be abolished. Thank you. I’ll get down from my soapbox now.
James Comey was fired from his post as FBI director. This was in no way politically or personally motivated and in no way related to the investigation into Donald Trump, his finances, and any collusion with or other connections to Russia involving him or his surrogates. Right.
In Florida, the Grieving Families Act was signed into law, allowing women who have had miscarriages to obtain a “certificate of nonviable birth” for their fetus. So it’s about providing solace to women and their families? No, not really. At heart, it’s an end-around about abortion that seeks to specify when life begins and potentially heralds future attempts to chip away at women’s reproductive rights. Not to mention it connotes the idea that women who lose or terminate their pregnancies should only feel grief, when really, it can be a complex mix of emotions. As long as men are making decisions on the behalf of their female constituents about what they can and can’t do with their bodies, we’ll continue to see policies like this. Keep your eyes peeled.
Dana Loesch released a fiery video about the NRA and how it is “freedom’s last stand.” In other exciting gun news, a guy shot up a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas and killed a bunch of people. Let freedom ring, eh?
White nationalists apparently love Tucker Carlson because he question the merits of all immigration—legal or not. Carlson, like Bill Maher, is kind of a douche.
Venezuela held a sham election “won” by Nicolas Maduro. Maduro identifies with socialism. Socialism, therefore, is bad, and Bernie Sanders is the devil. Are you following this logic? If it makes sense to you, um, you’re probably not the intended audience for this blog, but thanks for reading anyway.
Catalonia had a vote to declare independence from Spain. The Spanish government, well, didn’t like that too much. The result was a violent crackdown against pro-independence protests and a lot of international attention drawn to the situation, and in a recent vote, separatists won a slim majority after Spain ousted the previous Catalan government. Great job, Prime Minister Rajoy! You really screwed the Puigdemont on that one.
Joe Arpaio, a virulent racist and all-around ass-hat who held inmates in substandard conditions and profiled residents suspected of being undocumented immigrants as Maricopa County Sheriff in Arizona, was pardoned by President Trump. In other words, f**k off, Hispanics and Latinos.
Millennials can still be blamed for pretty much anything, depending on who you ask. The extinction of the dinosaurs? Oh, yeah—we did that shit.
Bitcoin continues to see wild swings in its valuation after the spike in the second half of the year which brought it to the national consciousness. Does this mean it’s inherently bad? Not necessarily. As with any emerging technology, there are ups and downs to be had with Bitcoin made more pronounced by its recent prominence. Are you behind the curve now, though, with respect to making big bucks off of a relatively small investment? Most definitely.
By installing Mick Mulvaney as the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, America moved one step closer to eliminating the one agency expressly devoted to protecting consumer interests as regards their finances and investment vehicles. Consumer advocacy—what a joke!
Speaking of one step closer, the powers-that-be edged the Doomsday Clock one tick nearer to midnight. Er, pop the champagne?
In advance of the coming year, as far as politics and current events are concerned, there are all kinds of things that may factor into predictions for 2018. Certainly, though, we would expect certain things to continue as they are. Our beloved President will undoubtedly keep Tweeting acrimonious barbs at anyone who runs afoul of him and making cheap concessions to his supporters, especially from the context of rallies that he shouldn’t be having while not on the campaign trail. A GOP-majority Congress will still try to pass off policy designed to primarily benefit its wealthy corporate and individual donors as a boon for the “American people.” Bitcoin will probably still see extreme volatility as to its price, if the bubble doesn’t burst outright. And don’t even get me started about America’s attention to environmental conservation. When Trump and his Republican cronies are repealing Obama-era protections on keeping mining waste out of clean water, reversing bans on the Keystone XL Pipeline going through Native American reservations, allowing for the use of lead ammunition in national parks, and greenlighting drilling for oil in wildlife refuges, you know we are not close to doing our part to combat deleterious climate change. These actions belie the seriousness of the problem, and stunt the progress which can’t be stopped regarding the transition to renewable energy sources away from fossil fuels. At a time when we need to do all we can to slow or reverse the damage we’ve done to our planet, standing still is going backward.
Sounds bad, huh? While there are yet more reasons to be concerned from an activism/human rights standpoint—the all-too-slow recovery from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico; the pervasive influence of money in politics and gerrymandering purely for political gain; the plight of immigrants, migrants, and refugees worldwide; and the repeated iterations of the travel ban (read: Muslim ban) jump to mind—there is yet for hope for those on the left, and perhaps even those on the right. You know, even if they don’t know any better. In the political sphere, in particular, the deficient policies advanced by Republicans could end up in an electoral backlash in 2018 and 2020. Granted, this does not mean that Democrats don’t need to be held to higher standards, and as bad as GOP leadership has been, that Bernie Sanders, an aging independent from Vermont, remains a more popular choice than most prominent Dems suggests not is entirely well with the Democratic Party either. Speaking of bad leadership, and depending on the contents of Robert Mueller’s investigation, President Donald Trump might also be in real trouble from an ethical/legal standpoint. While visions of impeachment and President Mike Pence aren’t all that inspiring, at this point, anyone seems better than President Pussy-Grabber. I mean, eventually, all the terrible shit Trump has said and done has to come back to him, right? Right?
In truth, I am not terribly optimistic about 2018. But I’m also not done resisting against those who compromise ethical and moral standards to enrich themselves at the expense of others. By this, I mean the people at the top who are willing to see everyday Americans struggle through hunger, poverty, sickness and even death to further their bottom line. For all the preoccupation about border security, crime, and terrorism for many prospective 2020 voters, the “rigged” system about which Trump offhandedly talks is a yet bigger worry, and the aforementioned climate crisis our Earth faces is potentially worst of all. This all sounds very old-hat and trite, but until we start making real progress on the various forms of inequality which plague our society, these aphorisms must be repeated and stressed. Accordingly, through all the trepidation we might feel, there is too much work to be done not to do it. It’s worth the effort. After all, it’s our very lives and livelihoods we’re fighting for.
Whatever path you choose, best wishes to you and yours for 2018 and beyond, and keep fighting the good fight.
With all that is going on with recovery efforts after a barrage of hurricanes in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, and with a battle over the future of health care in the United States of America in its current iteration in the form of the Graham-Cassidy Bill causing divisions even within the Republican Party, it almost seems silly to be talking about whether or not players kneel during the National Anthem. Then again, man-child Donald Trump is our President, Twitter is readily available, and his base apparently values blind patriotism over most things, so here we are. Trump essentially picked a fight with those individuals who would protest by doing anything other than standing with hand over heart—and by proxy, started in with the entirety of the National Football League—even going as far as to call these would-be dissenters “sons of bitches” and suggesting they should be fired. The NFL, meanwhile, through statements released by commissioner Roger Goodell and various owners, as well as through on-field shows of solidarity including kneeling, sitting, locking arms, and even remaining in the locker room during the playing of the Anthem, took Trump to task for his divisive rhetoric. These sentiments echo those of a separate fight picked with Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors of the National Basketball Association regarding whether or not he and they would honor the invitation to the White House customarily afforded to the champions of their sport. After it became apparent Curry and the Warriors would not be attending, Trump assailed them on Twitter and disinvited them—you know, despite the idea they already said they weren’t going. YOU CAN’T QUIT—YOU’RE FIRED! DO YOU HEAR ME? YOU’RE FIRED!
What was especially significant about this turn of events regarding the NFL’s repudiation of Donald Trump’s off-color language is that admonishment came not only from those players who assumed the distinction of being the target of the President’s ire and their coaches, but from those individuals who had previously indicated their support for Trump during the presidential campaign. Rex Ryan, who appeared with Trump at one or more campaign stops in New York state (Ryan previously coached both the New York Jets and the Buffalo Bills) and is now an analyst in ESPN’s employ, indicated he was “pissed off” by Trump’s comments and that he “did not sign up for” the kind of shenanigans in which Trump was engaging. This line of discussion, however, prompted some curious reactions on social media and even from his fellow on-air personalities (for example, see Randy Moss’s face when hearing Ryan reveal he voted for Donald Trump). A number of critics highlighted the notion that Rex Ryan evidently signed up for a man leading the country who has denigrated Asians, the disabled, environmentalists, the LGBT community, members of his own party, Mexicans, Muslims, veterans, and women—but calling football players a name was where he drew the line? Especially when, based on their size, these players are relatively more capable of defending themselves?
Psychologically speaking, it is perhaps unsurprising that Rex Ryan would react in this manner to the hissy-fit President Trump threw over players kneeling during the playing of the National Anthem. Tough talk and rhetoric is all well and good—until someone starts talking about you or someone you care about. Transcending the NFL and people who get paid to render their opinions on sports, however, Ryan is not the only person whose support for Donald Trump has ended with disillusion and distancing oneself from the so-called “leader” of the nation. After Trump’s response to Charlottesville and his condemnation of white supremacy were deemed to be—how shall we say this?—insufficient, his business councils were disbanded when CEOs couldn’t leave fast enough to separate themselves from his hate. When companies aren’t merely dissolving their working relationships with the Trump family, they are scaling back or outright terminating their business relationships with their litany of brands, in part thanks to targeted campaigns by members of the Resistance such as the #GrabYourWallet movement. As you might recall, months back, Donald Trump threw a whole different hissy-fit at Nordstrom for its announcement that it was phasing out his daughter Ivanka’s products from its stores—HIS DAUGHTER! WHAT A BUNCH OF MEANIES! Like with Rex Ryan and his support for Trump’s agenda up until the point of belittling rank-and-file football players for expressing their personal beliefs, all was well and good until Trump’s behavior threatened these organizations’ bottom line. As the saying goes, money talks and bullshit walks. In this instance, rather, people walk when Trump’s bullshit costs them money. After all, wouldn’t you?
If any of the above were isolated incidents, there wouldn’t be much here to discuss. Plenty of CEOs are dicks. Plenty of political leaders are dicks. Why shouldn’t Donald Trump—CEO-turned-President—be one of them? Ah, but Pres. Trump is not your average dick. The embodiment of rich white male privilege, Trump has never had to deal with meaningful consequences for his actions; even in business, some creditor or his daddy was there to bail him out. As the putative leader of the free world, meanwhile, Donald Trump is in a position that beckons diplomacy and restraint, two skills in which it is very clear at this point the man lacks proficiency because he has never had to hone them. Accordingly, for all those individuals who feel compelled to entertain Trump’s invitations to help him elaborate his policies, whether because of respect for the office of President of the United States or because they think they can manipulate him into serving their own interests, it is worth considering whether or not they truly understand what they’re getting themselves into.
Matthew Gertz, senior fellow at Media Matters for America, helps explain trying to work with Donald Trump at perhaps its most essential by keeping a running account of dealings with Trump in which #45 has publicly tried to debase or discredit the other party. Or, as Gertz, terms it, “If you try to work with Trump, he will humiliate you.” The list of instances of Trump throwing someone under the bus, getting into the driver’s seat, and backing over them again is far too long to regurgitate here. (If you really want to peruse Gertz’s ever-expanding Tweetstorm on the subject, suggested clicks are here and here.) That said, there are still, um, “highlights” to be had by which we can get a better sense of just how ill-fated any partnership with Donald Trump is owing to how self-aggrandizing this man is. Here is just a sampling of “working with Trump” looks like:
Trump passed over Mitt Romney for the office of Secretary of State, taking him out to dinner at a fancy restaurant and essentially having Romney publicly express his confidence in Trump as a repudiation of his earlier misgivings.
After Paul Ryan informed Trump he didn’t have the votes to make the GOP version of “repeal and replace” of the Affordable Care Act go through, Trump still wanted a vote. In subsequent talk of tax reform, Trump and his administration sought to take a more hands-on approach to the issue—and cut Ryan out of the picture in the process.
Trump regularly contradicted members of his administration and his aides regarding whether he had planned to fire James Comey as FBI director or whether he relied on the advice of deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein before doing so.
Disregarding the advice of members of his business councils, Trump pulled out of the Paris climate agreement.
There was this time when everyone around Trump’s table was praising him out loud. Super creepy and weird.
Sean Spicer felt he had to resign over the appointment of Anthony Scaramucci as White House communications director—who lasted less than two weeks in that role.
Scaramucci, for that 10 days in his tenure, sold his business and had his marriage dissolve. Congratulations, Mooch!
Steve Bannon had his supposed role in helping Trump get elected diminished by Trump himself, suggesting Bannon came onto the campaign late. Bannon was gone shortly thereafter.
Jeff Sessions has basically eaten shit over the issue of Russia. Heaps of it.
And now there’s the whole NFL thing. People like Rex Ryan and Tom Brady and owners like Jerry Jones (Cowboys) and Robert Kraft (Patriots) lent Trump their support in advance of the election, and to satisfy his base and distract from other issues like health care and North Korea, Trump picked a fight over kneeling for the National Anthem, one which only serves to magnify the race problems that he and the League face. Thanks for your contributions, guys! Perhaps beyond being momentarily “pissed off” or “humiliated,” Ryan and Co. don’t really mind so much. After all, they got the President they wanted—or at least got the man they thought they wanted—and from the appearance of things, a conservative agenda for the White House is in place, the economy is humming along, and “America first” is our raison d’être. By the same token, however, perhaps there is just a twinkling of a spark of regret from these Trump backers that they helped create a monster. Probably not, but—what can I say?—I’m an optimist.
If non-politicians may be looking on at President Trump’s tenure with a sense of buyer’s remorse, what might congressional Republicans be experiencing? Their own embarrassment or shame? Such a question implies that these lawmakers can possess these emotions, or genuine feelings altogether. (Like Trump re Mexicans, I assume some members of the GOP in Congress are actually good people.) One individual who seems to lack the ability to express actual human sentiments is Mitch McConnell the Toad-Man, a guy who has overcome having a neck pouch to become Senate Majority Leader. Vis-à-vis Trump, McConnell has toed the party line on elements of the President’s agenda where their goals have aligned, trying to push through health care reform legislation even Donald Trump himself, the Grinch Who Stole the Election, could recognize was “mean,” exercising the “nuclear option” to require a simple majority to confirm conservative justice Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court, and arousing feminist ire around the country by silencing Elizabeth Warren on the Senate Floor for trying to read a letter from Coretta Scott King believed by Warren to be relevant to the appointment of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General.
In the latest chapter of the Donald Trump-Mitch McConnell relationship, the two men were perhaps strange bedfellows in the Republican Party primary in the special election for the vacant Senate seat created when Jeff Sessions was sworn in as Attorney General. Trump, McConnell, and most of the GOP establishment backed Luther Strange, an attorney and the interim junior senator from Alabama so appointed when Sessions became part of the Trump administration. Roy Moore, the challenger, is—well, Roy Moore is a special individual. Former Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, Moore’s greatest claims to fame—or, perhaps, infamy—are refusing to remove a statue of the Ten Commandments from outside his courthouse, thereby signaling his intentional blurring of the lines of separation between church and state, and his order to probate judges to refrain from issuing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples. So, yeah, more of that whole church-state business. For these incidents, Moore was twice removed from his role as Chief Justice by the Alabama Court of Judiciary, and based on his experience and penchant for inflammatory conduct and remarks, he was likely considered a liability by Republican leaders. Again, though, in the current political climate, Moore may just as well be seen as a godsend by many of his prospective constituents, and in the deep red state of Alabama, he looks to be in a great position to be an elected successor to Mr. Sessions despite his apparent craziness to a national audience. What’s more, despite McConnell’s signaling that he intends to work with Roy Moore should he be elected, many—including Moore himself—probably see his primary victory as a rebuke to McConnell’s brand of politics and a movement to oust centrist, ol’ fuddy-duddy Republicans like him.
Rich Lowry, writer for the New York Post, devoted a recent column to matters of Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, Roy Moore, and the GOP’s handling of an evident insurgency within its own party. Hearkening back to the larger issue with which we began—the issue of working with Trump—as Lowry sees it, the party establishment still doesn’t understand how to do so, creating problems for both sides. Lowry explains:
The result in Alabama will render Trump even more up for grabs everywhere else. Is he going to simply move on and work with the congressional leadership on the next big priority, tax reform? Is he going to exercise the “Chuck and Nancy” option? Is he going to double down on his base and resume afflicting the comfortable of the GOP establishment as he did in the primaries? All of the above? Does he know?
Trump’s problem isn’t that he threw in with the establishment, as his most fervent supporters believe; it’s that he threw in with an establishment that had no idea how to process his victory and integrate populism into the traditional Republican agenda.
One of the many causes of the failure of ObamaCare repeal is that Republicans didn’t emphasize the economic interests of the working-class voters who propelled Trump to victory (and Trump showed little sign of caring about this himself). Out of the gate, tax reform looks to have a similar problem— the Trumpist element is supposed to be a middle-class tax cut, but it’s not obvious that it delivers one.
This gets to a fundamental failing of the populists. House Speaker Paul Ryan isn’t supposed to be the populist; Trump is. But the president and his backers haven’t even started to seriously think through what a workable populist platform is besides inveighing against internal party enemies, igniting cable TV-friendly controversies and overinvesting in symbolic measures like The Wall.
If the populists don’t like the results, they should take their own political project more seriously, if they are capable of it.
A success on taxes would provide some respite from the party’s internal dissension, yet the medium-term forecast has to be for more recrimination than governing. Whatever the core competency of the national Republican Party is at the moment, it certainly isn’t forging coherence or creating legislative achievements.
It’s no great surprise that Donald Trump and his cronies don’t have much of an idea about what they’re doing; concerning matters of domestic and foreign policy, Trump is a veritable Magic 8-Ball—shake him, wait a few moments, then shake again and see whether or not you get a different response. On the side of the Republican leadership’s veteran wing, however, this failure of party brass to respond to the needs of past voters and potential future voters is an ongoing concern somewhat mirrored in the battle for the soul of the Democratic Party between moderates and liberal progressives. The main difference, of course, is that, on the left, progressives seek to take centrist Dems to task for overvaluing corporate interests and not going far enough in seeking policy-based reforms, while Trumpist populists seem more concerned with the right’s refusal to embrace cultural elements of far-right conservatism. Germane to the Republican Party or not, it strikes the observer that Mitch McConnell and other GOP members of Congress greatly overestimated their ability to corral, handle, wrangle, or otherwise work with Donald Trump, much as they overconfidently thought they could ram the Graham-Cassidy Bill down our throats, underestimating we, the people, in the process. Thus, if you believe I believe that the likes of Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell deserve a shred of sympathy for making a deal with the Devil, you would be sorely mistaken.
There’s no working with Donald Trump because he is a capricious, spoiled, man-baby with no room for other people’s considerations aside from his ego. Moreover, he is a known con man and liar who has exhibited a willingness to step on and over anyone who is an impediment to his desires, and for those who think that he will fulfill their own desires, they would be advised to wait for the other shoe to drop. Or, as Matthew Gertz might put it, wait to be humiliated.
On Monday, January 9, the underdog Clemson Tigers defeated the Alabama Crimson Tide in a thrilling upset and game overall. Of course, if you were a fan of the pure spectacle and sport of the proceedings, including the notion Clemson overcame a 14-point deficit to score the winning touchdown with a second left on the game clock, you, in all likelihood, enjoyed the experience. (If you are an Alabama fan or had money riding on the game, um, you, in all likelihood, did not.) As noted, the Tigers were an underdog—by as much as six or six-and-a-half points prior to the game—which is not insignificant by football odds standards. The Crimson Tide, after all, were the consensus #1 team in the country, topping both the Associated Press and Coaches’ polls as well as the NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision rankings. Undaunted, the Clemson Tigers proved victorious.
From my standpoint, I was glad to see Clemson win, even if it aligned with my brother’s amateur prognostications of the Tigers’ victory and thereby fed the notion of his self-professed expertise, for it, if only temporarily, put aside notions of an Alabama dynasty in college football. For better or for worse, though, what I’ll remember most from the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship was not an instance from the game itself, but a moment from the hoopla afterwards. Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney—great name, by the by—during the post-game press conference referenced a comment made in November by Colin Cowherd, former ESPN personality and current Fox Sports radio and television host. Back then, Cowherd had this to say about Clemson’s relative talent level:
“Clemson’s a fraud. Clemson is going to get their ears boxed by whoever they play. They should have three losses, maybe four. I don’t buy into Clemson. They’re the New York Giants of college football. I don’t care what their record is. I don’t buy into them. And I had Clemson in the final four, so I should be rooting for them. I got no dog in the fight here. I think USC is the second-best team in the country and Vegas agrees.”
Strong words. After all, Colin could’ve merely said they were overrated or lucky or what-have-you, but calling someone a fraud seems a bit personal, as if to go for the jugular. This is perhaps why Swinney didn’t take the criticism lightly, and fired back thusly during the post-game presser:
At the end of the day, we left no doubt tonight. We wanted to play Alabama because now y’all got to change your stories. You got to change the narrative. Y’all got to mix it up. The guy that called us a fraud? Ask Alabama if we’re a fraud. Was the name Colin Cowherd? I don’t know him, never met him. Ask Alabama if we’re a fraud. Ask Ohio State if we’re a fraud. Ask Oklahoma if we’re a fraud. The only fraud is that guy, because he didn’t do his homework. I hope y’all print that.
As the kids would say, “Oh, snap!” In faith, I don’t think either of these men are “frauds.” Retrospectively speaking, I’m not sure whether or not Clemson benefited from a particularly weak schedule, but regardless, they proved their mettle and that they weren’t the, ahem, paper tiger Colin Cowherd made them out to be. Cowherd himself is a radio show host who is paid to give his opinions, and I begrudgingly acknowledge he was right about the Giants. To call someone a “fraud,” literally speaking, is to find him or her intentionally doing something wrong with a design to deceive. Barring any evidence of malfeasance on Clemson’s coaching staff’s part or some financial misappropriation perpetrated by Cowherd, neither is the dictionary definition of a fraud.
Why do I include this anecdote about Clemson, Colin Cowherd, Dabo Swinney, and the indiscriminate hurling around of the word “fraud”? Perhaps it is indicative of the current zeitgeist in which the public’s trust in institutions like news media and voting is being challenged, if not eroded, and allegations of electoral fraud and unsubstantiated reports are seemingly rampant. Leading up to the presidential election, President-Elect Trump was quick to suggest that if he didn’t win enough electoral votes, it was due to some sort of collusion or electoral fraud. Then, he won the electoral vote, but he lost the popular vote, and stuck with the whole fraud angle—despite any actual evidence of this. Accordingly, it made for an intriguing bit of theater when Trump challenged the integrity of CNN reporter Jim Acosta and his organization during his Wednesday press conference for all to see and hear.
First, let’s back up a bit and discuss the press conference at large, which, as you might imagine, was in it of itself quite the intriguing spectacle. Feel free to watch the video and read the New York Times transcript for yourself to get the full effect, but here are some “highlights,” if you want to call them that:
1. First, before we get to the aforementioned first, let’s discuss what already had Donald Trump, incoming White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, and other Trump Train riders all in a tizzy. CNN reported on Tuesday that U.S. government officials had made Trump aware of an intelligence report indicating that Russian agents had claimed to possess compromising information about him. BuzzFeed, meanwhile, published its own report claiming to offer the contents of the larger 35-page memo on which this alleged intelligence report was based, but the claims for this material were unverified, explaining why CNN worked the following day to distance itself from the BuzzFeed report. Which was a prudent thing to do, even though a lot of Americans deep down wanted it to be true. I mean, lurid tales of Donald Trump paying prostitutes to perform “golden showers”? No wonder #GoldenShowers was trending on Twitter! It was worth it for all the piss jokes!
2. Trump, after a lead-in from Spicer which more or less harangued CNN and BuzzFeed as partners in crime—even though the content of their reports were very different—and a short introduction by Mike Pence, which also lashed out at the media and its “bias,” began by further attacking the two media outlets and praising the rest of the providers/publications present, essentially for just not being either BuzzFeed or CNN. Then, he launched into his usual rambling, semi-coherent, self-congratulatory blather. Trump’s mish-mosh began with more praise, in this case, for Fiat Chrysler, Ford and General Motors for saying they would be keeping jobs in the United States. This is the same Fiat Chrysler which later on in the week would be accused by the EPA as utilizing software to bypass emissions standards much in the way Volkswagen did, and which already is under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department for allegations of securities fraud based on inflated sales numbers, but that’s another story.
3. President-Elect Trump (still hurts to say) next spoke about the need to orchestrate deals to win back the pharmaceutical industry and the military aircraft industry. I believe the emphasis here is on saving American jobs. Well, I mean, it should be. After all, if you’re asking us to feel bad for the industries themselves, it would seem misplaced, as they don’t seem to be hurting with the kind of revenues they’ve generated in recent years.
4. Donald Trump then talked about—huge surprise!—the fact that he won the election. In doing so, he took potshots at the pollsters who incorrectly predicted he would lose. He also seemed to intimate that those states which helped him win would benefit in terms of jobs and security, once again conforming to his habit of playing favorites with those who brown-nose and curry his favor. Not that I would’ve encouraged New Jerseyans to kowtow to Trump for this reason, but it appears we are SOL for voting blue in 2016. Oh, well.
5. Following a reiteration of his pick-and-choose mentality—i.e. let’s “make America great again,” but only those portions of the country which don’t piss me off—Trump casually dropped the day’s appointment: David Shulkin as head secretary of the Veterans Administration. You know, a non-veteran. Makes total sense. Why is blood dripping from my nose? That’s right—this is Trump’s America now. Thinking too hard only encourages pain.
6. Then, we got to the meat of the press conference: the actual “press” portion. The floor was opened up to the gates of Hell, and President-Elect Trump revealed his true demonic form. Kidding! It was simply opened to questions from the reporters and writers in attendance. Here are some of the queries and responses realized in this segment:
When asked about the two-page summary of the allegations that Russia had dirt on him, as well as the theoretical consensus of the U.S. intelligence community that Vladimir Putin ordered the DNC hack and the attempted hack of the RNC, Trump first deferred and went on a diatribe about the unsubstantiated “crap” that people had reported. Once that was dispensed with, Trump then said he thinks it was Russia who hacked us—but come on!—who hasn’t tried to hack us? Oh, by the way, the Democratic National Committee, for allowing themselves to get hacked, were idiots. Not like the Republican National Committee. What an organization! Also, aren’t Hillary Clinton and John Podesta just awful? Next!
The press, apparently still not done asking questions about the Russian hacks—you know, only because it’s a HUGE F**KING DEAL—then queried Donald Trump about whether he accepts the notion Putin orchestrated these hacks to help him win the election, and whether he would touch the sanctions President Obama authorized based on the findings of U.S. intelligence. On the first count, Trump said, and I’m paraphrasing, “Hey! So Putin likes me! Big whoop! Isn’t it good that he likes me? We can have slumber parties together, making popcorn, watching movies, and discussing how to dismantle ISIS.” On the second count, Trump, um, didn’t really answer, but basically symbolically whipped his junk out and asked, “Does this look like I wouldn’t be tougher on Putin than Hillary would?” (Side note: if Donald Trump actually did this, I think people would be interested to see, if only to verify: 1) whether his member is as orange as the rest of him would suggest, and 2) if visible, whether or not his pubic hair looks as ridiculous as the hair on top of his head does.)
Trump was asked again about those unsubstantiated BuzzFeed memos and whether or not he could be a target of blackmail by the Russians. His response? Bizarre, man. First, he insisted he is, like, the careful-est when he travels abroad and in the public purview. Second, he touted the Miss Universe contest in Moscow—you know, the competition which judges women on their physical features and only occasionally on their brains. Lastly, he said he was a bit of a germophobe, presumably making a funny about the whole “golden showers” bit. Golden showers, golden showers, golden showers. There—I think I’ve gotten it out of my system.
Here was, if not the most stupefying portion of the program, a close second. President-Elect Trump was asked if he thought the Russian hacking—boy, these reporters are persistent buggers, aren’t they?—was justified, how he planned to untangle his business entanglements, and whether he would do us the courtesy of releasing his tax returns to prove he had no conflict of interests. Here’s where it gets stupid: when Trump answered. According to Donald J. Trump:
He has no deals or debt with Russia, and “as a real estate developer, he has very little debt.” As if by mere virtue of working in real estate, the idea of debt is mutually exclusive. This is, in case you haven’t guessed, balderdash, hogwash, and pure poppycock. Trump had estimated his debt at $315 million (so little), but more conservative (read: more accurate) estimates place the figure closer to $1 billion. That’s a shit-ton of debt for someone who professes he’ll do wonders for the U.S. economy and help us reduce our own mounting obligations.
He has a no conflict of interest provision as President. Um, not a thing. Not even close to being a thing. Being President of the United States does not magically permit you to run the country and your business at the same time. In fact, it should compel you to divest yourself of all your business entanglements. There’s no way you could be more wrong in what you just said, Mr. Trump.
He can’t release his tax returns because he’s under audit. Also not a thing. The IRS themselves debunked this notion months ago, and so I wonder if his stubborn adherence to this explanation means he thinks we all believe it, or that he really doesn’t give two shits what we believe. Speaking of not giving two shits what we believe, Trump made the bold claim only reporters care about what’s on his tax returns (which, according to him, don’t tell you all that much anyway), and that we, the people, don’t. Hey, President-Elect Trump, thanks for personally not asking me what I care about, but as it turns out, I do care about what’s on your tax returns. A lot of us do. Release them.
Finally, he says he will be ceding control of his company to his sons Donald Jr. and Eric. No conflict of interest here. They certainly won’t be talking business with their pops, right? Not at all. These men are “professionals,” after all.
7. Donald Trump then turned over control of the press conference to Sheri Dillon, tax lawyer for the firm of Morgan, Lewis and Bockius, to explain how his turning over of his business to his sons was OK. Because he sure as shit didn’t make the case. Dillon’s speech within the speech was pretty lengthy and detailed, and included a lot of tax and legal mumbo-jumbo, apparently about how what the Trump family is doing is totes kewl. Sec. 18 USC 202 doesn’t apply to POTUS, OK? Anyhoo, since Donald Trump is too legit to quit, first of all, he’s putting his ish in a trust. Believe that. Also, his sons and a guy named Allen Weisselberg are running the Trump Organization now, with no interference from the main man himself, y’heard? Also Part Two, we’ve got an ethics adviser on board. Ethics, son! Have some! Plus, Ivanka’s got nothing to do with this whole enterprise. That just happened! Still not satisfied? Peep these deets: only liquid assets in the trust, no new foreign deals, he will only received consolidated profit-and-loss statements, and we’re going to have a chief compliance counsel. He didn’t even have to do that last one, but he did—FOR ALL OF YOU. Dude’s like Jesus up in this piece. Now, before a lot of you bustas start mouthing off, I know what you’re thinking—what about a blind trust? First of all, what about your blind trust? Dude’s President, and he loves America. Loves it. Second of all, eff that blind trust business. I mean, Mr. Trump just can’t unknow his businesses, can he? That would just be some dumb shit right there. Speaking of dumb, what trustee would know better than his sons how to run his interests? No trustee—that’s who. Or some of you might be saying, “What about the Emoluments Clause?” What about the Emoluments Clause? What is an emolument anyway? Do you know? No, you don’t. No one does. Yeah, that’s what I thought. Last but not least, all foreign government payments to his new hotel are going straight to the United States Treasury. You’re welcome. I would drop the mic, but this press conference is still happening! Dillon out!
Sounds all good and fancy and convoluted, right? Too bad, according to Walter Shaub, director of the Office of Government Ethics, it doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense. Per Shaub’s remarks on Wednesday at the Brookings Institute:
We can’t risk creating the perception that government leaders would use their official positions for profit. That’s why I was glad in November when the President-elect tweeted that he wanted to, as he put it, “in no way have a conflict of interest” with his businesses. Unfortunately, his current plan cannot achieve that goal. It’s easy to see that the current plan does not achieve anything like the clean break Rex Tillerson is making from Exxon. Stepping back from running his business is meaningless from a conflict of interest perspective. The Presidency is a full-time job and he would’ve had to step back anyway. The idea of setting up a trust to hold his operating businesses adds nothing to the equation. This is not a blind trust—it’s not even close. I think Politico called this a “half-blind” trust, but it’s not even halfway blind. The only thing this has in common with a blind trust is the label, “trust.” His sons are still running the businesses, and, of course, he knows what he owns. His own attorney said today that he can’t “un-know” that he owns Trump Tower. The same is true of his other holdings. The idea of limiting direct communication about the business is wholly inadequate. That’s not how a blind trust works. There’s not supposed to be any information at all.
Here too, his attorney said something important today. She said he’ll know about a deal if he reads it in the paper or sees in on TV. That wouldn’t happen with a blind trust. In addition, the notion that there won’t be new deals doesn’t solve the problem of all the existing deals and businesses. The enormous stack of documents on the stage when he spoke shows just how many deals and businesses there are. I was especially troubled by the statement that the incoming administration is going to demand that OGE approve a diversified portfolio of assets. No one has ever talked to us about that idea, and there’s no legal mechanism to do that. Instead, Congress set up OGE’s blind trust program under the Ethics in Government Act. Under that law anyone who wants a blind trust has to work with OGE from the start, but OGE has been left out of this process. We would have told them that this arrangement fails to meet the statutory requirements.
The President-elect’s attorney justified the decision not to use a blind trust by saying that you can’t put operating businesses in a blind trust. She’s right about that. That’s why the decision to set up this strange new kind of trust is so perplexing. The attorney also said she feared the public might question the legitimacy of the sale price if he divested his assets. I wish she had spoken with those of us in the government who do this for a living. We would have reassured her that Presidential nominees in every administration agree to sell illiquid assets all the time. Unlike the President, they have to run the gauntlet of a rigorous Senate confirmation process where the legitimacy of their divestiture plans can be closely scrutinized. These individuals get through the nomination process by carefully ensuring that the valuation of their companies is done according to accepted industry standards. There’s nothing unusual about that. For these reasons, the plan does not comport with the tradition of our Presidents over the past 40 years. This isn’t the way the Presidency has worked since Congress passed the Ethics in Government Act in 1978 in the immediate aftermath of the Watergate scandal. Since then, Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all either established blind trusts or limited their investments to non-conflicting assets like diversified mutual funds, which are exempt under the conflict of interest law.
Now, before anyone is too critical of the plan the President-elect announced, let’s all remember there’s still time to build on that plan and come up with something that will resolve his conflicts of interest. In developing the current plan, the President-elect did not have the benefit of OGE’s guidance. So, to be clear, OGE’s primary recommendation is that he divest his conflicting financial interests. Nothing short of divestiture will resolve these conflicts.
While it lacks of the panache of my urbanized version of Sheri Dillon’s defense of the Trump’s position, Shaub’s explanation makes up for it with being vastly more correct than the statement which preceded it. So much for all that ethics junk.
8. Back to the Q & A. Donald Trump was asked about having a Cabinet and administration full of conflicts of interest, including but not limited to his own. Trump then proceeded to take out a pistol slowly from his jacket coat, and fired several times, killing the correspondent dead on the spot. OK, so that didn’t happen, but you know he totally would if he thought he could get away with it. I could tell you what he actually said, but it started with Rex Tillerson and disintegrated into some gibberish about bad trade deals. Next!
9. Finally, a question about ObamaCare! You know, the thing the Republicans are trying to dismantle without anything to replace it. Mr. Trump was asked what the GOP would do in place of the “disaster” that is the Affordable Care Act. More gibberish. No substantive answer. There, I saved you the trouble.
10. The question was about whether Donald Trump planned to involve himself in all these individual deals with companies (e.g. Carrier) and when we would see the program on capital repatriation and corporate tax cuts. Simplified answer from Trump-speech: those companies who want to leave for Mexico are going to pay a hefty border tax. Unless, you know, they work out a highly-visible sweetheart deal with the U.S. government and I get to talk about how many jobs I save—even though those numbers probably don’t tell the whole story.
11. The next question was a three-part question with three very different parts, so bear with me. On (1) the status of the Mexican border wall, uh, still evidently happening. There appears to be some sort of reimbursement aspect now involved with it, though to be fair, he could’ve just made that up on the spot. On (2) the status of his Supreme Court pick, that’s evidently coming in the fortnight after Inauguration. And on (3)that bizarre Tweet about us living in Nazi Germany, more griping about the unsubstantiated BuzzFeed reports. Because that’s what happened in Nazi Germany. And, um, just the attempted extermination of the Jews. Other than that, though, exactly like it.
12. Trump was asked if President Obama went too far with his sanctions on Russia, and what he thought of Sen. Lindsey Graham’s plan to send him a bill for tougher sanctions. Succinctly, he said no, Obama didn’t go too far, and then proceeded to belittle Graham’s presidential aspirations. Classy, Mr. Trump. Classy.
14. President-Elect Trump was asked once again about all this “false news” business and what reforms he might suggest for the news industry, pray tell. This is literally what he said: “Well, I don’t recommend reforms. I recommend people that are—that have some moral compass.” Spoken by the pussy-grabber himself.
15. The rest of the press conference was devoted to more about Russia, hacking, and Russian hacking, so let’s breeze through this, shall we? Yes, Donald Trump trusts his intelligence community, but only the people he’s appointed and they’ve got a great hacking defense strategy coming—just you wait and see. Wait, does Trump believe Russia was behind the hacks? Probably, but maybe not. (Writer’s Note: Ugh.) What is his message to Vladimir Putin, if, indeed, he was behind the hacks? Mr. Putin, you will respect America. Same goes for you, China. Japan, Mexico, everyone else, you too. And Don and Eric, you better do a good job, or I’ll say, “You’re fired!” No, seriously, he said his catch phrase. At the end of a presidential press conference. Hmm, it appears that that bleeding coming from my nose has intensified. Could someone grab a box of tissues, please? I think my brain may be in the process of complete liquefaction. Remember me as I was prior to Donald Trump being sworn in, I beg of you.
You may have noticed a number was missing from the ordered list comprising my extensive breakdown of Trump’s Wednesday press conference. Hey, it’s called triskaidekaphobia, and I’m sensitive about it! Seriously, though, I’ve had enough of bullshit explanations from the man himself, so let’s get to it. At a point in the press conference, Donald Trump, in his usual delicate style, referred to BuzzFeed as a “failing pile of garbage,” and went on to say that CNN “went out of their way to build it up,” as if to suggest that CNN piled on to the pile of garbage that BuzzFeed had created. In reality, though, CNN’s report preceded BuzzFeed’s, and was appreciably different, with the latter’s being of a salacious and irresponsible manner, prompting a rebuke from Chuck Todd of MSNBC for willingly publishing “fake news.”
Naturally, when impugned by name, you may wish to defend yourself, or at least have a chance to speak, which is what CNN’s Jim Acosta tried to do, asking, “Since you’re attacking us, can you give us a question, Mr. President-elect?” Simple, respectful, no? This was Trump’s response: “Your organization is terrible.” He then proceeded to move onto another questioner, and when Acosta pressed him for a chance to defend his organization, Trump fired back by telling him “don’t be rude” and eventually admonishing him by saying “you are fake news.” And he refused to grant Jim Acosta a question. Just like that. Acosta’s question would actually be asked and answered in the waning minutes of the press conference, but the damage was already done, and furthermore, according to Acosta’s account, he was approached by Sean Spicer and told that if he were to “do that again,” he was going to be thrown out of the press conference. So much for freedom of the press.
Predictably, self-appointed enemies of the left and the “liberal media” loved this result, with numerous conservative “news” sites cheering Donald Trump’s “beatdown” of Jim Acosta. Spicer himself insisted Acosta was behaving inappropriately and rudely, and both he and Newt Gingrich called on him to apologize to Trump. Not the other way around. What’s most striking to me and numerous others, I’m sure, though, is how pretty much everyone else in the press just sat or stood by and let Trump efface Acosta from the press conference, metaphorically stepping over his carcass to get a place at the dinner table. Matt Gertz of Media Matters for America has an even starker comparison for it: “Trump Just Shot Jim Acosta in the Middle of Fifth Avenue and the Press Didn’t Blink.” Referencing a boast from the campaign trail of Trump’s that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and he wouldn’t lose voters, Gertz pointed out a trend of Donald Trump lashing out at criticism of him and his campaign, banning members of the press and whole news organizations, and the rest of the press corps not doing shit about it:
This is a pattern. Members of the press have repeatedly refused to stand together as Trump has lashed out at their colleagues. Trump banned The Des Moines Register from covering his campaign after it printed a critical editorial. There was no collective response from the press. So he banned more outlets when he didn’t like their coverage. His campaign threw a New York Times reporter out of an event. No response from the press. He confined the reporters to press pens where he could mock them by name to the glee of his supporters, putting them in physical danger. And into the pens they went, day after day. His campaign manager allegedly manhandled a reporter. CNN hired the campaign manager! Trump treats reporters like conquered foes who he can manhandle at will. If they can’t figure out a way to stand up together and for one another, he will pick them off one by one and grind the free press into the dirt.
Even if people in the news community came to Jim Acosta’s and CNN’s defense after the fact, that they were content to remain silent during Trump’s finger-wagging illustrates the point: the news media generally isn’t willing to stand up for one of its own when that isolated target gets attacked. Case in point FOX News, which, prior to the rise of Trump, Breitbart, the alt-right, and fake news sites which specifically target audiences on social media feeds, more or less had the market covered on fake and misleading coverage. On one hand, correspondent Shepard Smith came to CNN’s defense with journalistic principles in mind, saying as much Wednesday following the press conference:
CNN’s exclusive reporting on the Russian matter was separate and different from the document dump executed by an online news property. Though we at FOX News cannot confirm CNN’s report, it is our observation that its correspondents followed journalistic standards, and that neither they nor any other journalist should be subjected to belittling and delegitimizing by the president-elect of the United States.
FOX News, whose personalities—notably Megyn Kelly while still in the network’s employ—are no stranger to Donald Trump’s wrath, and so it at least makes sense that someone like Shepard Smith would support CNN and Jim Acosta in this way. On the other hand, Neil Cavuto, fellow FOX News talking head, couldn’t help but put a smirk on his face and stick it to the network’s cable news rival a day later. On Your World with Neil Cavuto—at least, I think it was Your World with Neil Cavuto; I don’t really give a shit about any of the programs he hosts—the program’s namesake had this to say about Trump’s rough handling of CNN in this instance:
How does it feel to be dismissed, or worse, ignored? How does it feel when your feelings are hurt, when your reporters are singled out, and you’re treated unfairly and unkindly, even rudely?
Later on in the segment, Cavuto closed with this mean-spirited jab at CNN:
Isn’t it obnoxious and unfair how some celebrate your plight? Kind of feels like the way you celebrated ours, doesn’t it? They say payback’s a bitch. If only you would take a moment to rewind the tape and see the shoe was on the other foot. Or am I confusing it with the one now kicking you in the ass?
My, my, Neil, aren’t you the tough guy? In Neil Cavuto’s defense, President Obama’s relationship with the press corps was far from sterling, as numerous outlets criticized the lack of transparency with which his administration dealt with the press as a subset of his administration’s larger failings in this regard. Moreover, Cavuto is mostly right that other members of the mainstream media didn’t come to FOX News’ defense when Obama singled them out, though interestingly enough, Jake Tapper of, ahem, CNN, has. Still, two wrongs don’t make a right, and if Cavuto is expecting an apology because FOX News has become popular by pandering to liberal-bashers and Obama-haters and because Donald Trump won the election, he’s got a long wait on his hands. Besides, today it’s CNN, but what’s to prevent FOX News from being next on Trump’s hit list or on it at some point in the future? Will Neil Cavuto be quite so smug then? What if CNN comes (again) to his network’s defense?
For any number of reasons, Donald Trump’s press conference in advance of his inauguration is frightening stuff. His persistent refusal to blame Russia for anything, his failure to provide substantive answers to anything related to policy decisions, his and his administration’s questionable ethical standards and conflicts—you name it. But Trump’s refusal to field a question from CNN’s Jim Acosta with the justification that his organization is “terrible” and “fake news” should concern all Americans and members of the press, and not just those on the left. Barack Obama wasn’t exactly a saint, but Trump has displayed signs of being a tyrannical leader well before formally being sworn in. In an age in which fake news is threatening our knowledge of the facts, and political leaders are trying to make us believe truth is not as relevant as opinion and how much we feel something should be true, the failure to hear real news is even worse than the fake article.
When someone blows up a physical embodiment of the year “2016” and encourages people to tell that year to go f**k itself, you know it’s been an abnormally bad one. John Oliver took the opportunity to give 2016 this proper send-off (a report on this event was equally properly filed under the category “F**K 2016” by Aimée Lutkin and Jezebel), and that HBO agreed to afford Oliver the chance to explode something of that magnitude likewise speaks to the horror that was this past 366 days. That’s right—in case you had forgotten, 2016 was a leap year, so all-too-appropriately, we were given one extra day to protract the misery. The Julian and Gregorian calendars can eat a collective dick on that front.
I only started this blog in the middle of June of this year, so I missed the chance to comment on some things that happened earlier in 2016. With over 50 posts under my belt on United States of Joe, however, there’s still enough topics to revisit to make reflecting on the year that was worthwhile. Well, at least as far as I’m concerned. And since, despite my overall belief in fair and democratic principles, this blog is not a democracy but a Joe-ocracy, that’s the agenda for this session. You’re welcome. So, kick back. Get plenty of champagne ready—noting how awful the past year has been, it may take quite a bit of alcohol to get into the spirit. And get ready to count down to 2017. It’s time to give our own send-off to 2016, middle fingers in the air and all.
Well, before we take the plunge into the abjectly negative, let’s go back to the app-based sensation that was Pokémon Go. Since its initial breakthrough success which had critics saying the smartphone game had ushered in a new era of augmented reality and had fundamentally changed the way we look at mobile gaming, downloads and use of the title have understandably cooled. In light of the downward trend, members of the media are now looking at Pokémon Go altogether as a disappointment, especially in light of some updates which failed to impress. You need to walk 3 KM just for one stinking Charmander candy? I’m never going to get that Charizard! NEVER, I SAY!
Now that I’m done being dramatic, not only do I find these charges against the game and its maker Niantic overblown (although, seriously, those Buddy System ratios are pretty shitty), but expectations, buttressed by the app’s initial success, were probably always too high. Though Niantic did its part to make the game palatable to people of all ages and ability levels by making gameplay largely based around throwing Poké Balls and by simplifying battles, the players who are most likely to find the experience rewarding are fans of the original game, who are used to grinding for experience, completing the game as completely as possible, and overall, staying in it for the long haul. It’s not Angry Birds. It’s not Candy Crush Saga. It’s not Fruit freaking Ninja. You have to walk and work for your rewards. You know, when you can’t pay money for some of them. Either way, you still have to walk!
When Bernie Sanders suspended his campaign in July and formally endorsed Hillary Clinton, it admittedly felt like a punch to the gut. For all the mental preparation made, when the moment actually arrived, it still hurt. What made Sanders’ decision and the associated feelings yet worse, though, was the reception his standing behind Clinton received and the accusations that got hurled around in the wake of the announcement. Con-man. Sell-out. Traitor. Looking at Bernie’s endorsement in a purely ideological vacuum, it is easy to assess this move as a betrayal of his principles and what he stands for. In this instance, however, context is everything, and with Donald Trump having sewn up the Republican Party nomination, Sanders saw greater merit in trying to unite Democrats and other prospective voters in an effort to defeat Trump. Ultimately, the orange one shocked the world and scored an electoral victory, but Bernie Sanders did his best to avoid this eventuality. That not enough Americans either came out to vote or otherwise didn’t buy what Hillary was selling is largely on her, not Bernie.
Of course, in the immediate aftermath of the suspension of Bernie Sanders’ campaign, the remaining candidates looked to capitalize. Even with the bulk of Sanders supporters presumed to be going over to Hillary Clinton’s camp, Donald Trump himself made an instantaneous pitch to those “feeling the Bern,” trying to tap into their fervent and justifiable anger at the political establishment. Third-party candidates like Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, too, though, made a play for these suddenly available votes, rationalizing that there was no better time than now than to tell the two major parties to shove it. In endorsing Clinton, Bernie repeatedly tried to communicate the danger and inadequacies of Trump as a presidential candidate first and foremost, even though he may have largely been preaching to the choir, as younger voters by and large detested “the Donald.” He also, meanwhile, cautioned against a “protest vote” for someone like Johnson, Stein, or even Harambe (and yes, he would’ve loved to follow this election), realizing, as did all these newfound suitors for Bernie backers’ affections, that the votes of his faithful could swing the election by helping to decide key swing states. To reiterate, it didn’t work all that well, but the effort on Sanders’ part was there.
Ultimately, as Bernie Sanders himself will insist, his run for President, while important, was always more concerned with starting a revolution and getting more Americans, especially younger voters and working-class individuals, involved with the political process, even at the local level. Whether the energy behind his campaign and the urge for progressive grass-roots activism is sustainable in the United States is yet to be seen, but either way, there is yet room for optimism that people will want to keep active and informed as a means of exerting greater control over their own destiny. Thus, you may call Bernie any name you want, but I choose to label him an inspiration, and I feel history will bear out this sentiment as well.
As we Bernie Sanders supporters worked our way through the Five Stages of Grief and Loss, eventually, we had to come to accept that either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump was going to be our next President. In fact, even the non-Berners were forced to do the same, in all likelihood ensuring many who were on the fence—that is, on whether or not they would vote at all—would choose the latter option and just stay home. In my piece referenced in the title of this section, I mused about the notion that maybe we, as a collective electorate, did not deserve better than these choices that a significant portion of said electorate neither trusted nor cared for much. Ever since 2000, when Ralph Nader was accused of costing Al Gore the election (even though Gore lost that shit on his own, with an admitted probable helping from electoral shenanigans down in Florida), Americans have been highly critical of parties like the Green Party and the Libertarian Party, with the usual refrain being some combination of “they could play spoiler to a legitimate candidate” or “you’re throwing away your vote” if you opt for one of them.
However, to invoke the words of Mr. Nader himself, not only is this attitude politically bigoted, as it negates the will of the individual to make an informed choice in accordance with his or her conscience, but it nullifies our bargaining power with the two major parties. After all, if we blindly vote either Democratic or Republican, beyond losing the election, what motivation does either party have to institute reform that better reflects the needs and wants of the voting public? Especially for members of the working class, both Democrats and Republicans have seemed to take them for granted, which at least partially explains why the Dems lost this election and why Trump and Sanders achieved the levels of popularity they did this election cycle.
In the end, though, despite the increased visibility of Gary Johnson and Jill Stein in the lead-up to the election, most Americans who voted (and there was a good portion of the country who could’ve voted which didn’t) cast their ballots for either Hillary or Donald. As historically unfavorable as these two candidates were, and for all their flaws—Trump as an idiot and professional con-man stoking the flames of fear and hatred, Clinton as an out-of-touch elitist with a penchant for pandering and expensive Giorgio Armani jackets—better than nine-tenths of voters decided they had to pick one of the two, if for no other reason than to block the other candidate they liked even less. Which is pretty shitty, if you ask me. Personally, even with the knowledge that she wouldn’t win, I voted for Jill Stein, as I felt neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton had earned my vote. That relative few other Americans opted out of the two-party paradigm, however, signals to me that we, as a nation, are not ready to demand political change as strongly as we should. It’s either red and blue in these United States, and if you don’t like either color, the present message, unfortunately, is to get the f**k out.
Holy f**k, indeed. In retrospect, I’m not sure why the pollsters were so surprised that Donald Trump scored the “upset” victory, or why we were so easily convinced that Hillary Clinton was such a strong favorite to win the presidency, when their models were consistently wrong or failed to predict the magnitudes of certain results throughout the primary season. At any rate, as must be reiterated for anyone who sees Trump’s win as a mandate, the man who considers himself a master of “The Art of the Deal” won the presidency on the strength of electoral votes, not because he had a resounding victory in the popular vote (in fact, he lost by more than 2 million votes, and it apparently tears him up inside)—and certainly not because he ran a stellar campaign.
So, how did Trump win? Looking at the exit poll data, certain trends do tend to stick out. Regionally, Donald Trump fared much better in the Midwest and the South, and of course, he carried key swing states, notably those in the Rust Belt (e.g. Ohio, Wisconsin). In terms of demographic data, Trump had an easy advantage among male voters and voters 45 and above, not to mention he held an appeal among less educated individuals and the wealthiest earners (a seeming paradox, though as evidenced by how they spend their money, rich people aren’t necessarily all that smart—look at Trump himself!), as well as evangelicals and married people, but perhaps most notable of all, whites voted at almost a 60% clip for Donald Trump, while close to three of four non-whites went for Hillary Clinton. CNN commentator Van Jones referred to this aspect of the results as a “white-lash”, as in “white backlash” after eight years of a black president the Republicans have characterized as a cause of America’s problems and someone with a secret Muslim agenda, and it’s hard to argue otherwise, really. When the former head of the Ku Klux Klan is cheering you on and citing you as an inspiration, you know white supremacist beliefs, racism and xenophobia helped you to victory.
On a somewhat related note, the thematic reasons why Trump voters chose the way did are also significant. Speaking of racism and xenophobia, supporters of Donald Trump rated immigration trends and terrorism the most important issues facing the United States. Screw the economy and foreign relations—let’s worry some more about brown people. As for the quality that best drew voters to Trump, it wasn’t whether the candidate cares about them, exhibits good judgment, or has the right experience—those voters tended to go for Clinton—but whether he or she could bring about “change.” Whatever the heck that means.
In a nutshell, that’s why Donald Trump is set to be our next President. As for who we can blame for this, besides the obvious in Trump himself and his supporters, there are three core enablers for the man’s political success. Certainly, the Republican Party let him waltz right in and secure the nomination after a barrage of similarly weak candidates failed to stand in his way, and after the GOP at large sowed the seeds of fear and hate he exploited. The media, too, acted irresponsibly and selfishly, chasing ratings while failing to challenge Trump on his lack of defined policy, his factual inaccuracies, his reckless language, or even his refusal to publish his tax returns. In addition, the Democratic Party, in its own right bears some responsibility. Among its most damning sins are its failure to stand up for the working class, its inability to protect jobs and wages, its support for disastrous trade deals like NAFTA and TPP, its complicity with corporations and wealthy donors, and its allowing antitrust laws to lapse or otherwise become weaker, thereby consolidating power into fewer and fewer hands. The failure to stop Donald Trump is a collective one, and though it probably won’t happen, these enablers should do some serious soul-searching for fear of endangering their long-term prospects.
Should anything happen to Donald Trump, whether in terms of his health (not that I’m wishing for the man to pull a William Henry Harrison or anything) or impeachment, the next man in line may not be all that much of an improvement. Mike Pence, who has been governing the proud state of Indiana, has arguably made a number of shitty choices during his tenure. He vetoed a refund of a tax overcharge on the basis it would have cost too much to administer. Before he got too much (warranted) negative feedback, he proposed JustIN, a state-run news service some likened to Pravda in the Soviet era. He rejected Medicaid expansion in his state under the Affordable Care Act on principle, to the detriment of his constituents. He insisted on a ban against a needle exchange program that was effective in limiting the spread of HIV related to a particular drug injection, and later reversed his position, but refused to use state funding to provide for such exchanges. Perhaps most notably, he signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law, which allowed for discrimination against the LGBT community and cost Indiana some $60 million in revenue before its reversal. An opponent of gay marriage and women controlling their own reproductive rights, Mike Pence is one of a seemingly increasingly long line of conservative Republican leaders who puts evangelical beliefs ahead of his state’s and the nation’s best interests. He’s not Trump, but he’s no rose either.
In terms of what damage he may do in terms of signing legislation into law and what damage he likely already is doing in his appointees for key positions (Rick Perry for Secretary of Energy—are you f**king serious?), that Donald Trump has been thrust into a position of immense power is bad enough, but his association with the far-right and his inspiration to the likes of David Duke makes for some shitty ripple effects just the same, let me tell you. I said earlier that Trump’s electoral victory should not be seen as a mandate given how he lost the popular vote and in light of how divided we are as a nation. And yet, the Breitbart crowd and members of the so-called “alt-right” have taken it as such, viewing themselves as fighters in a culture war they are winning, standing against political correctness and other liberal “absurdities.” They also apparently like boycotting companies who don’t stand for their white supremacist agenda. You know, even though they probably don’t use their products anyway. But boycott it is! TRUMP TRUMP TRUMP TRUMP!
When Hillary Clinton formally acknowledged the alt-right in a speech during the campaign, though I feel it needed to be said, it further legitimized this loosely-constructed movement that coincides with the likes of Gamergate’s sexist perpetuators. That Stephen Bannon has been given a prominent advisory role in Trump’s administration, though, should concern us more conscientious Americans. Donald Trump is not normal, and those who sanction his misdeeds and try to normalize his objectionable behavior are standing in the way of progress. Furthermore, the gang mentality with which many of them operate, encouraging online attacks on and/or death threats against individuals whose values clash with theirs, is troubling, as is the unwillingness of social media services to more aggressively pursue those accounts which violate their terms of service for fear of losing traffic. In short, the alt-right has arrived, as much as many of us might not like to dignify them with a response, and it is incumbent upon those of us who have respect for others—not just respect for white males who refuse to admit to their privilege—to speak out against their behavior and words as dangerous and wrong.
Before Donald Trump swooped in to save the day and stop the threat of taco trucks on every corner in the United States, the United Kingdom gave us a teaser trailer for the U.S. presidential election with a referendum vote on whether or not to remain in the European Union. As with the election in the States, the experts predicted voters would do the sensible thing; if this were an analogy in the vein of the old SATs: UNITED STATES: ELECT HILLARY CLINTON :: UNITED KINGDOM: VOTE REMAIN. And, as with the election in the States, voters did the exact opposite.
The parallels are uncanny. The decision to leave the EU was, as it was in the United States, mediated by a greater incidence of older voters opting to do the wrong thing. Like with Trump’s anti-immigrant appeals and vague notions of “making America great again,” Leave voters were swayed by visions of “securing the nation’s borders” and “taking back control” of the country’s economy, not to mention equally empty promises of the UK Independence Party. Additionally, voters seemed to be making choices that were a direct rejection of existing politics. Barack Obama, David Cameron—either way you slice it, the public clamored for change, no matter who would bring it or what it would entail. The fallout from both votes is still being assessed, but the discontentment of the working-class voter and upward trends in outspokenness among white nationalists worldwide suggest the U.S. and UK votes are not isolated incidents, and in turn, that the risk of other Brexit-like events occurring in the future in other countries is all-too-real. The winds of change are blowing, and one can only hope our houses don’t get knocked over when the gusts have subsided.
Contrary to the apparent beliefs of some, black people don’t enjoy getting mowed down by police at routine traffic stops. While police shootings may not have been any more numerous in 2016 than in years past, through the advent of cellphones and other camera-based technologies, violence involving police certainly has become more visible. Whatever the precise rates of deaths related to encounters between civilians and police, it would seem as though we have a lot of progress to make regarding recognition of the disparity of treatment people of color receive at the hands of police and that which is received by whites, regardless of whether the person accosted by one or more officers has a gun or not.
A perfect illustration of the failure of much of white America to confront its privilege in this regard comes in arguments about the very name and nature of black activism in the United States which exists in large part due to documented police brutality. In response to hearing the moniker Black Lives Matter, or merely even the phrase “black lives matter,” some people are too quick to “correct” the original speaker with the phrase “all lives matter,” or counter with their own version (i.e. “blue lives matter”) that serves to negate the critical recognition of blackness inherent in the initial figure of speech. To me, however, this falls prey to a fairly obvious logical trap: if all lives matter, then black lives, as a subset of all lives, should matter too, and there should be no problem accepting that terminology. “Black lives matter” does not mean black lives should matter more than other lives, but simply that they should matter as much as white lives, blue lives, or any other color lives of which one can think. Clearly, though, they don’t, or else there wouldn’t be a need for organizations such as Black Lives Matter.
The need to scrutinize adherence by individual officers to specified protocol when engaging possible suspects, as well as the systems which serve to shield “rogue” cops from criticism and/or prosecution, is undermined by two key strategies of those who react to protests with knee-jerk defenses of our uniformed police. The first is to question the integrity of the victim—yes, victim—who, because he or she is labeled a “thug” or has a history with the law, evidently deserves to be effectively lynched by the police who intercede him or her. The second is to de-legitimize efforts of black activists wholesale, conflating them unfairly with those who loot and otherwise take advantage of violence and associated protests for their own gain, likening them to terrorists, or wrongly insisting they are advocating for the slaughter of police. In both cases, this is counterproductive, regressive thinking.
As some have argued, those cops who are too nervous not to shoot someone at a routine encounter shouldn’t be placed in such a highly leveraged situation, and either way, good police—which comprise the majority of forces around the nation, let’s be clear—should be appreciative of efforts to root out bad actors from their ranks. As for the protests against police brutality, this doesn’t equate to disrespect for the police, nor does kneeling during the playing of the National Anthem constitute an affront to our military, as Colin Kaepernick’s example reminds us. Black Lives Matter et al. don’t want to see law and order dissolved. They just want to see police officers and officials who wear the badge held accountable when they do wrong, and at a very basic level, not to be utterly afraid they might die when getting pulled over by a squad car. It’s 2016. We need to do better as a country in addressing racial inequality, especially within the purview of criminal justice.
There have been too many mass shootings in the United States of late, but the Orlando nightclub shooting, in particular, was particularly devastating for many of us. Not only was it a tremendous loss of life, but that the LGBT community was apparently the specific target of the violence made this brutality that much worse for a population that regularly faces hatred and persecution. Speaking for myself, it is difficult to comprehend how someone could harbor such hate for themselves and others that they would wish to walk into a building and start firing indiscriminately. Perhaps this idea gets the tiniest bit easier to understand when we understand this hate works both ways. As jihadists would seek to inspire terror in the West through bombings and mass shootings, white nationalism encountered in Austria, France, Holland, the United Kingdom and the United States, among other nations, has created an environment that has often proved hostile to Muslims, and has made the prospect of accepting more refugees from war-torn countries like Syria decidedly poor. I mean, Donald Trump ran on a platform of which one of the key tenets was a temporary ban on travel to the U.S. for all Muslims. It’s incredible, and incredibly shameful, at that.
Never mind the idea that all this bluster about “bombing the shit out of ISIS” may actually be good for the Islamic State’s ability to recruit and strengthening its resolve. The jingoists among us would have everyone believe that Islam is fundamentally incompatible with the laws of the United States, that it is a “cancer” to be snuffed out, and that American Muslims who don’t do enough to help discover would-be terrorists in their midst (which, evidently, is quite easy) are guilty in their own right, and regardless, likely merit surveillance of their homes/places of worship and tests administered to gauge their love for and commitment to the U-S-of-A. This conflation of Islam, a religion which preaches peace at its core, and the bastardized religion ISIS and other jihadists/”radical Islamists” practice, is a patently false equivalency.
For the sake of an analogy—one for which I can’t take credit, let me stress—ISIS is to everyday Muslims what the Ku Klux Klan is to white people who aren’t unabashed racists. In both cases, the majority disavows the hate and violence these groups perpetuate. This is by no means saying we shouldn’t be vigilant against individuals who would wish to do us harm. As bad as the Orlando massacre was, though, and as unforgivable as the actions of an organization like ISIS/ISIL have proven, our responses and the negative feelings that accompany some of these reactions reveal an ugly side to our patriotism as well. In the demonization and the pursuit of “the other,” we run the clear risk of losing ourselves.
I didn’t originally write about it, but the Chicago Cubs actually won the World Series. To wit, I have neither observed nor heard any stories about swarms of locusts descending on fields or rivers of blood forming, but I’m not ruling them out just yet. The apocalypse takes time to develop, you know?
Wells Fargo was forced to fire thousands of mid-level managers for directing employees to create fake accounts and sign up customers for services without their knowledge, essentially making them scapegoats for the company’s aggressive sales model. The company eventually apologized—sort of—and John Stumpf was eventually removed from the role of CEO, but the big bank largely closed the book on this sordid chapter of its history without really admitting wrongdoing, and Stumpf had a nice golden parachute on which to drift to security. Meanwhile, Wells Fargo has apparently learned absolutely nothing from this fiasco, as new CEO Tim Sloan has expressed the belief that the company and the banking industry as a whole could actually do with less regulation. Evidently, it’s all fun and games when you get to play with other people’s money.
FBI director James Comey, despite finding that Hillary Clinton and her aides were extremely careless in their handling of E-mail while Clinton was Secretary of State, that Clinton should’ve known certain E-mails were classified and didn’t belong on an unsecured server in the first place, that the State Department was generally lacking in security protocol for classified E-mails, and that Hillary used multiple unsecured devices in locations where American adversaries could have exploited this vulnerability, held a press conference to announce he was not recommending charges be filed against the Democratic Party nominee. Then, a week before the general election, he announced that the Bureau was looking anew into Clinton’s E-mails, which she and her campaign cite as a factor in why she lost. So, nice going, Director Comey! You’ve undermined confidence in the Federal Bureau of Investigation and perhaps swayed the election! Don’t pat yourself on the back too hard!
Chris Christie not only failed to capture the Republican Party nomination, but he was overlooked by Donald Trump for vice president despite being, more or less, his manservant. Oh, and Bill Baroni, deputy executive director of the Port Authority, and Bridget Kelly, Christie’s deputy chief of staff, two key figures in “Bridge-gate,” were found guilty on all counts in a trial related to the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal, and a separate criminal trial is set to take place for Christie himself. Congratulations, Chris. You played yourself.
Puerto Rico defaulted on its debt, a result fueled by a combination of fiscal and economic factors, including the repeal of tax breaks for businesses, the creation and sale of triple tax-exempt municipal bonds, the inability of the commonwealth to declare for bankruptcy, exempting wealthy investors and businesses from paying capital gains taxes, “vulture” hedge funds buying up bonds and demanding a full payday, and institutions like UBS selling risky bonds they themselves underwrote to unsuspecting customers. Today, Puerto Rico’s financial future is yet in peril with individuals who are alleged to have helped the island along the path to crisis serving on its appointed oversight board, and with Donald Trump being a crazy mofo. Also, the U.S. Virgin Islands may be on the way to its own debt crisis. Um, huzzah?
In some good news, the Trans-Pacific Partnership seems to be all but dead, being disliked on both sides of the political aisle. Also, the Dakota Access Pipeline is on indefinite hold, as the Army Corps of Engineers found more research needed to be done regarding the environmental effects of its intended route through the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Of course, supporters of these canceled or postponed initiatives may yet redouble their efforts, so we concerned progressives can’t really relax. At least we can enjoy a short breather before the ball drops, eh?
In the title of this piece (remember back that far?), I reference the notion that 2017 has to be better than 2016. I’m not sure it amounts to much, though, beyond wishful thinking. If the best qualification for improvement which comes to mind is that we won’t be electing Donald Trump, it’s cold comfort in light of the fact he’ll already be President. Going back to his appointees, if they are any evidence, the country is set upon a bumpy path for the next four years, or until the man gets impeached—whichever comes first. His Defense and National Security Cabinet leaders view Islam as a threat to America. His Education Secretary is an opponent of public schools, despite never having attended one. His Energy Secretary infamously once forgot the name of the department he has been tapped to helm. His Health and Human Services director wants to privatize everything and largely gut social programs like Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security. His HUD Secretary knows nothing about housing administration.
Wait, I’m not done yet! His head of the Justice Department failed to be confirmed as a federal judge once upon a time because he was an out-and-out racist. His Labor Secretary opposes raising the minimum wage. His Secretary of State has likely financial ties to Vladimir Putin. His Transportation Secretary is married to Mitch McConnell—and that’s evidence enough of poor judgment. His Treasury Secretary oversaw 50,000 or so foreclosures from his position within OneWest Bank, an entity which was accused of unethical practices and discrimination against minorities. His EPA head is a climate change denier. His Small Business Administration director is former CEO of a fake wrestling empire. And his United Nations representative has no foreign policy experience. Irresponsible does not begin to describe these selections, and fingers are crossed that one or more of them fail to get confirmed by the Senate.
So, yeah, I’m not incredibly optimistic about the United States’ prospects right now. The silver lining, as I see it, is that more and more Americans are waking up to the realization that our system is broken and that it doesn’t work for everyone, and with luck, that number will grow as the sheen wears off the shiny promises Trump has made and can’t hope to keep. I wouldn’t have wished for a Donald Trump presidency in a thousand years, but if this hastens the movement of the nation in a more progressive direction, so be it. For those of us who refuse to accept Trump and the America he has envisioned as normal, and who insist that we’ve come too far as a country to simply put the train in reverse, the resistance starts now. 2017, we look to you in strengthening our resolve. And 2016, once more, you can go f**k yourself.
These days, with cameras on every cellphone and the proliferation of online content and social media such that content is easily shared and thus highly visible, not much that we as human beings do goes unnoticed. The NFL, of course, one of the most successful organizations in professional sports today, is no exception. That’s why when running back Marshawn Lynch took to the sidelines and enjoyed some celebratory Skittles once upon a time, or quarterback Mark Sanchez tried to sneak a bite of a hot dog while as the quarterback of the New York Jets, or when Sanchez, still with the Jets, um, picked his nose and wiped it on his teammate’s jersey, word got around, and because the Internet remembers everything, these athletes will always be linked to their less-than-private moments.
It is no great wonder, therefore, that Colin Kaepernick’s recent actions and comments concerning police brutality against African-Americans and the overall treatment of blacks in the United States have caused such a firestorm of controversy. The San Francisco 49ers quarterback—though whether or not he will actually remain on the team has been in question even before he started gaining attention for his political and social stances—has caused a stir among casual football fans and even those people who don’t follow sports for his decision not to stand up for the playing of the national anthem before the start of a recent preseason contest. Here’s what Kaepernick had to say about his very public, ahem, stand on the issue of race relations in America:
I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.
Colin Kaepernick is not mincing his words here, and I am of the belief that he shouldn’t with respect to a subject of such relevance today, necessitating talk of expanding the use of body cameras within police forces and activism on the part of Black Lives Matter and other like-minded groups. Certainly, though, others disagree with his viewpoint, not to mention the form of his protest, and made their objections to his silent refusal very vocal indeed. Former New York Giants running back and current CBS Sports radio show host Tiki Barber, for one, voiced his displeasure with Kaepernick’s actions, saying this:
I agree with his desire to continue the narrative. There are issues in this country. That, you have to commend him for. But I don’t commend him for sitting and not honoring this country and our flag.
Barber, for his trouble, was roundly criticized for aiming to lecture someone on their behavior when he, among other things, ditched his pregnant wife for his 23-year-old blonde “sidepiece,” but at least his argument was a more nuanced one. Others were more unequivocal, with athletes from other sports such as John Daly and Tony Stewart going so far as to call Colin Kaepernick an “idiot.” And lest we envision this as merely a black-vs.-white controversy, instead of a red, white and blue one, former NFL player and sports personality Rodney Harrison had to recently apologize for comments he made in anger that Kaepernick isn’t really black (Colin was born to a white mother and raised by white adoptive parents). Clearly, not all current and former players support Colin Kaepernick, and perhaps fittingly, there aren’t clean divisions of opinions along racial lines regarding the biracial quarterback’s protest.
However seriously football players, athletes and other critics are taking Kaepernick’s refusal to stand, for those who disagree with it, the same types of comments seem to predominate, and I think each is worthy of dissection on its own merit.
“He should respect the flag.”
Jerry Rice, whose legacy among the greatest wide receivers ever to play in the National Football League is unquestioned, is among those who believe not standing for the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner equates to disrespecting the American flag, and by proxy, I guess, America. To say that Colin Kaepernick, by staying seated, it is disrespecting the flag, however, may be to make a faulty assumption. The Supreme Court has affirmed twice within the past 30 years that flag desecration, in particular burning, is protected under the First Amendment to the Constitution as “symbolic speech.” Granted, one can’t just go taking other people’s flags and burning them all willy-nilly, but like it or not, people can burn the flag however they want, barring context-specific restrictions. In Kaepernick’s case, he is merely refusing to stand, and certainly not bringing flames into the situation. Literally speaking, the QB isn’t doing anything to make a demonstration against the Stars and Stripes.
“He’s disrespecting the men and women who serve our country.”
In his explanation of the reasons behind his actions, there’s nothing to suggest Colin Kaepernick is showing a disrespect toward or protest against members of the United States military, let alone those who serve and protect the public faithfully as officers of the law. Kaepernick’s concerns are with systemic bias and prejudice against blacks and other people of color in America, and accordingly, reflect frustration with racial inequality rather than specific individuals. Either way, again, he is not making any pointed attacks against our servicemen and -women, and is simply showing his discontent for the status quo. Moreover, it is not out of character for him, as he frequently posts civil rights-oriented material on social media.
Such is apparently the state of today’s hyper-patriotism where any perceived slight against our soldiers or against the United States, whether this takes the form of choosing not to stand for the playing of the national anthem, criticizing the endless War on Terror (and bear in mind, this is a knock on the mission and its parameters or lack thereof, not the troops themselves), or not wishing to throw piles of money at the Department of Defense, is liable to earn someone of an opposing viewpoint a harsh rebuke. However, it is not as if our veterans would necessarily think raging against conscientious objectors to standing for the Star-Spangled Banner is the right course of action. Going back to 1989 and the notion of flag desecration, before United States v. Eichman reaffirmed flag burning is protected as free speech, President Bush signed into law the Flag Protection Act of 1989, and who protested by lighting cloth aflame? It was Vietnam veterans, furious in thinking they put their lives on the line so that future generations could have fewer freedoms. As they would have it, they fought for the sanctity of the Constitution, not for a piece of colored fabric that costs $20 or less at the local store.
“There’s a time and a place for that kind of protest.”
This paraphrases the thoughts of Alex Boone, an offensive lineman now with the Minnesota Vikings, who admittedly has a bit of a personal connection to the Stars and Stripes and to our Armed Forces with a brother who served as a Marine in deadly combat situations. Here’s some more of what he had to say when interviewed by reporters and asked how he would’ve handled the situation if he were still playing for San Francisco, in his own words:
See, I’m a very emotional person. So I think if I had known that, my emotions would’ve been rolling—I think we would’ve had a problem on the sideline. And I get that he can do whatever he wants. But there’s a time and a place. Show some respect, and that’s just how I feel.
With all due respect to showing respect, Alex, what exactly is the right time and place for such a protest? At 3 AM in his living room—with no one around him? This is the big problem I have with people suggesting there’s a time and place for a protest. I think if it were up to people like Boone, such a show of dissent would never occur, at least not in this country. Often enough, when people offer some pointed criticism of the United States that is judged by others who are self-appointed arbiters of patriotism as borderline heretical, they will offer something along the lines of, “You don’t like it here? Why don’t you leave?” Presumably, these angry defenders of America’s virtues would be apt to point the original critic to Canada, or Europe, or some other region assessed to be a home “for pussies.”
Barring the logistical difficulties of suddenly relocating upon request, this kind of thinking, despite the “best” intentions of the jingoist expressing herself of himself, is the most un-American expression of them all, in that it tries to squelch those opinions the expresser doesn’t like, thereby ironically limiting expression. It is thereby antithetical to our American ideal of the “home of the free.” In modern-day political and social theory, a mindset outside of black-or-white thinking seems to be one of a dying breed, such that one must agree or disagree with a political candidate, ideology or party in sum, or else risk looking wishy-washy or whiny. Speaking of black and white, as we must keep stressing, Colin Kaepernick is sitting out the playing of the national anthem because of the need he feels to express his anguish at seeing African-Americans get routinely shot and killed by police, a sentiment that already has been co-opted by the kinds of people who see Black Lives Matter as a “terrorist” organization and inherently anti-cop or anti-white (see also All Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter). Now throw a perceived slight toward past and present members of the military into the fray, and there’s no way Kaepernick’s message can survive over the shouting. Or, as Dylan Hernandez, writing for the Los Angeles Times put it, “A well-meaning Colin Kaepernick starts a conversation that, sadly, seems headed nowhere.”
As you might imagine, not everyone has been critical of Colin Kaepernick, though it should be noted few public figures have fully embraced him, either deferring to the idea “it’s a free country,” or saying they feel his message is important without “approving of his methods.” Hall of Famer Jim Brown says he is behind Colin 100%, though for him, the top issue is young black men killing other young black men. Perhaps the best defense of Kaepernick’s stance, meanwhile, comes not from a civil rights attorney or even a fellow football player, but rather a basketball player. Like Brown, this man carries quite a bit of clout as a legend of his sport, as well as someone very politically engaged on a personal level. In an recent op-ed in The Washington Post, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar reflects on how our response to Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand reveals more about what we think and how we express our patriotism than it does him (Kaepernick). From the beginning of Abdul-Jabbar’s essay:
During the Olympics in Rio a couple of weeks ago, Army Reserve 2nd Lt. Sam Kendricks was sprinting intently in the middle of his pole vaulting attempt when he heard the national anthem playing. He immediately dropped his pole and stood at attention, a spontaneous expression of heartfelt patriotism that elicited more praise than his eventual bronze medal. Last Friday, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose not to stand with his teammates during the national anthem. To some, Kendricks embodies traditional all-American Forrest Gump values of patriotism, while Kaepernick represents the entitled brattish behavior of a wealthy athlete ungrateful to a country that has given him so much.
In truth, both men, in their own ways, behaved in a highly patriotic manner that should make all Americans proud.
The discussion of the nuances of patriotism is especially important right now, with Trump and Clinton supporters each righteously claiming ownership of the “most patriotic” label. Patriotism isn’t just getting teary-eyed on the Fourth of July or choked up at war memorials. It’s supporting what the Fourth of July celebrates and what those war memorials commemorate: the U.S. Constitution’s insistence that all people should have the same rights and opportunities and that it is the obligation of the government to make that happen. When the government fails in those obligations, it is the responsibility of patriots to speak up and remind them of their duty.
Kareem goes on to say that Kendricks’ and Kaepernick’s actions carry meaning because they involved sacrifices; for Sam Kendricks, he broke concentration to salute his country, risking poor performance. In Colin Kaepernick’s case, he made a stand knowing full well this could jeopardize his place on the team and in the National Football League, as well as cause sponsors to bail on him, and yet he did so anyway, vowing to continue his protest as long as he deems sufficient. Both seemingly small gestures are much bigger than the sum of their physical requirements.
It also should be recalled that Colin Kaepernick’s protest is not the first of its kind in sports. Basketball player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, some 20 years ago, sat during the playing of the national anthem for a game in opposition to America’s “oppression” and “tyranny,” a decision which was instrumental in the demise of his NBA career. In Major League Baseball in 2004, Carlos Delgado did not take the field for the playing of “God Bless America” over political objections, for which he caught his fair share of heat, too. Going back further in time, there are a number of salient examples of political protests in and out of sports. The flag-burning at the hands of Vietnam vets has been discussed, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar likewise touches upon it in his editorial, but we would be remiss if we didn’t mention John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s “Black Power” salute in the 1968 Olympics, and obviously, Rosa Parks’ historic act of “sitting down to stand up” is alluded to in the title of this article. Colin Kaepernick is no Rosa Parks, but his stance on police brutality is important, particularly because this is 2016 and we still have so far to come in this country with respect to race relations. If we can put aside our emotions and prejudices long enough, we might be able to use this event as a springboard for an authentic discussion about race and other related issues. With the NFL regular season soon to begin, however, and with a presidential election not far behind, I worry that larger discussion will be quick to get swept under the proverbial rug as a function of the calendar year and the 24-hour news cycle, and that is indeed a shame.
By most counts and accounts, the United States of America had a fine Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. According to the official medal count, the U.S. was head and shoulders above the other competing countries, garnering 51 more medals (121) overall than China, the next-best country on the list (70), and 19 more golds than Great Britain/the United Kingdom, besting them 46 to 27. And while, perhaps, Usain Bolt’s capturing three more gold medals and cementing his legacy as one of the all-time greats, as well as the host country winning gold in its two biggest sports—soccer and volleyball—were most significant on the world stage, a number of American athletes made their mark on the record books. Gymnast Simone Biles won five medals at the Games—four of them gold—vaulting high into the air, and of course, into our hearts. Swimmer Michael Phelps continued to add to his trophy case. Fellow swimmer Katie Ledecky proved dominant in her races, at one point breaking her own world record. In all, the United States was a force with which to be reckoned in basketball, swimming and track and field, and the women’s soccer team’s early exit at the hands of Sweden marked the only real big upset of the Olympics on the American side, unless you count Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross failing to win gold, and that was only really surprising considering Jennings had never lost at any Summer Games.
Unfortunately, it was not all sand, smiles and sunshine in Rio for Team USA, and despite the country’s relative dominance in the 2016 Olympics, the achievements of the whole have been at least somewhat overshadowed by the actions of one or more bad apples. In particular, the drunken late-night-into-early-morning antics of Ryan Lochte and other members of the U.S. men’s swim team have gotten a fair bit of play on social media and traditional news for the seeming strangeness of it all. It all started innocently enough—if that’s the word one would use about a purported crime—as a tale of Lochte and Co. being pulled over by men posing as police officers, only to have these men point a gun at Ryan’s head and rob them. After all, the story made sense. Rio de Janeiro is no stranger to crime and violence, and within the course of these very Olympics, at least one other athlete was legitimately held up at gunpoint, while reports surfaced of gunfire narrowly missing reporters. The tale weaved by these soused swimmers, owing to what we know of Rio and Brazil, sounded, early on, plausible.
It was not long, though, before the Lochtean narrative began to unravel. Just a few days after Ryan Lochte gave his account of the night’s events and the armed hostility which allegedly ensued, Fernando Veloso, Rio de Janeiro police chief, categorically denied the American swimmer’s claim, and furthermore, said this of him and his story: “We saw our city stained by a fantastical version.” Lochte initially told authorities the taxi the members of the swim team were pulled over, and then a gun was cocked and put to his head. That, evidently, didn’t happen, however, at least not in that way. The taxi instead stopped at a gas station upon the swimmers’ request so they could use the bathroom, whereupon they treated the facilities with the utmost respect. Kidding! They acted like drunk assholes, tearing up the joint! It is only then that a security guard brandished a gun, and witnesses say they saw the Americans give the guard money before leaving.
In fact, right down to the times of events supplied by both sides’ accounts of what happened, key details differ. Simon Romero, in an article for The New York Times, and with the help of Larry Buchanan and Josh Keller, in an interactive point-by-point comparison of Lochte’s version vs. the Rio police’s, outlines how materially inconsistent the two narratives are from one another. The four swimmers—Gunnar Bentz, Jack Conger, Jimmy Feigen and Ryan Lochte—said they had left Club France, a creation of the Rio Games to honor its namesake, at four in the morning, all intoxicated-like. According to Fernando Veloso and video camera evidence, however, it wasn’t until 5:50 AM that the four members of Team USA stumbled out of the joint. As noted earlier, Lochte’s telling of what happened next at the gas station paints a different picture than what the police insist and what surveillance shows. No gun was cocked and pointed at Ryan’s head, and as he casually failed to initially mention, the swimmers tore up the bathroom and urinated around the premises, though Lochte was adamant on both points that his account was accurate. Perhaps most telling of all, Ryan Lochte said in an interview on The TODAY Show that he and the other athletes were the victims, and that any inconsistencies in his recounting of that night could be attributed to “traumatic mischaracterization.” Once more, however, the videotape tells a different story, and footage of their return to the Olympic Village shows the men laughing and joking around. Seemingly odd behavior from a bunch of victims.
While Simon Romero, in authoring his article, acknowledges the idea that a weapon does appear in both versions of the events in question and that the swimmers do end up giving money in response to this implied—if ultimately moot—threat, and while, furthermore, Chief Veloso admits that it is possible this was an attempt at extortion by the security guards, who were moonlighting at the gas station while also working as prison guards, that Ryan Lochte apparently made up details to make he and the rest of the swim crew present look better (I’m sorry, Ryan, but the idea you would say “whatever” to a gun cocked and held to your head strains credulity), and that he seems inauthentic in his contrition, makes his non-apology apology all the more disappointing. Lochte spoke to Matt Lauer—because when you want hard-hitting journalism, you naturally turn to Matt Lauer—in a one-on-one interview to clarify and apologize for his actions and earlier statements. And though he professed he had “let his team down” and that he was taking “full responsibility” for his actions, his euphemistic language betrayed the notion that he didn’t truly, well, get it—that he acted like an asshole, he lied about it, and he left the other swimmers to try to clean up his mess. A few choice comments from his responses:
“I left details out, which—that’s why I’m in this mess—is I left certain things out. And I over-exaggerated some parts of the story.”
“Over-exaggerated?” I don’t even know if such a word exists, but that’s not the point. Even if you lied by omission, you still lied. Don’t say you exaggerated to try to blunt the impact.
“You know, it was still hours after the incident happened. I was still intoxicated. I was still under that influence. And I’m not making—me being intoxicated—an excuse. I’m not doing that at all. I mean, it was my fault. And I shouldn’t have said that.”
Actually, that’s exactly what it sounds like, Ryan. I get it—alcohol impairs judgment. Still, no one, ahem, held a gun to your head and forced you to drink that much, and while we’re dissecting your words, you weren’t intoxicated—you were drunk. You and/or your mates were hammered enough to trash a gas station bathroom and piss all over the place. And though they are in their twenties, and that might afford them some clemency in chalking their hijinks up to youthful exuberance, 32 years of age, while still not that old compared to many, is more than enough years to warrant better judgment on your part.
“It’s how you want to—it’s how you want to make look like. Whether you call it a robbery, whether you call it extortion, or us paying just for the damages, like, we don’t know. All we know is that there was a gun pointed in our direction, and we were demanded to give money.”
This is where Ryan Lochte’s explanation begins to go off the rails, and where Lauer actually gets some points for pressing the Olympian on this issue. Robbery and extortion are two very different things, and as Matt Lauer highlights at one point, through someone translating so Lochte and Co. could understand, the Americans were made aware that they were paying money so that security didn’t call the police. In that respect, as Lauer insists, they were making a deal to avoid punishment, and weren’t “victims” being targeted, as calling it a “robbery” would suggest. In other words, they weren’t all that innocent.
“I was immature. And I made a stupid mistake. I’m human. I made a mistake. And I definitely learned from this. And I’m just really sorry.”
You’re human—well, aren’t we all? Isn’t it a premature to say you’ve learned from this, that this chapter of your life is over? You haven’t had remotely enough time pass to demonstrate through your actions that you’ve truly learned anything. And you say you’re sorry, but I tend to believe you’re mostly sorry you got caught.
“It could [cost me a lot of money]. And that’s something that I’m going to have to live with. That’s something that I’m going to have to deal with. But I know what I did was wrong. And I know I learned my lesson. And all I can do now is better myself and making sure that this kind of stuff never happens again.”
You mean, it should. See, this is why I think Ryan Lochte is truly sorry: because this incident could cost him endorsement deals (in fact, it since already has), and perhaps worse yet, could cost him a place on the U.S. swim team. If Lochte were truly repentant for his actions, he wouldn’t care about what this means for his sponsorships or his quest for more medals, but would place the greatest priority on restoring the public’s faith in him and Team USA, because he deserves to be admonished. I’m not sure that I would want Lochte’s “shenanigans” to permanently damage his image; no one was apparently hurt or killed, and besides, who doesn’t love a good redemption story?
All the same, you’re concerned about your legacy as a role model to little kids? For whose sake? Yours or the kids’? How about you start by admitting you lied, and to refrain from lying going forward? How’s that for a start?
What must have been particularly galling to Brazilians—and viewers from other countries, including the United States— in watching the events of “Lochte-gate” unfold was the feeling that a spoiled white athlete had acted like an idiot and chose to cheaply try to further pile onto an “exotic” (used by white people when they can’t tell where you’re from) city and country feeling the effects of economic distress, political turmoil, poor infrastructure and violent crime. Worse yet, that members of the media were already looking to exonerate Ryan Lochte, or at least mitigate his level of culpability and responsibility, smacked of a certain degree of privilege. This tendency toward revisionism was brought to the forefront beautifully in a dialog between—you guessed it—two more NBC personalities. A rather salty Al Roker came out in a discussion on The TODAY Show about Lochte by stating the reality of the situation more baldly than an Olympic swimmer’s shorn body. As he put it, speaking to Billy Bush, “He lied. He lied to you, he lied to Matt Lauer, he lied to his mom. He left his teammates hanging while he skedaddled. There was no robbery, there was no pull-over. He lied.” When Bush tried to argue that Ryan Lochte lied about certain details, or that he embellished within his account, Roker quickly interceded, having none of Billy’s sugar-coating Lochte being a liar-liar-pants-on-fire. Or as freelance writer Alexander Hardy put it, “And now, back to Al Roker vs. White Nonsense.”
Though perhaps not an especially egregious example of it, Ryan Lochte’s—and by extension, Billy Bush’s—euphemisms for his drunkenness and lying, as well as his seeking to quickly move on from the controversy, are what some would refer to as “whitesplaining.” As Dictionary.com defines the larger “-splain” neologistic family, it refers to “acombiningformextractedfrommansplain,andmeaning“toexplain orcommentonsomethinginacondescending,overconfident,and ofteninaccurateoroversimplifiedmanner,fromtheperspectiveofthe grouponeidentifieswith.” Thus, if we are whitesplaining Lochte’s antics, we would say he embellished, or over-exaggerated, or otherwise made a mistake. And, plus, he tearfully apologized. White people love when you do that.
I say Lochte-gate is perhaps not an especially egregious example of the phenomenon, because, again, besides a bathroom and the reputations of the swimmers involved getting superficially damaged, no one seems to have gotten physically hurt. It is therefore less serious as with the case of former Stanford swimmer Brock Turner, whose six-month jail month for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman was justified by the judge’s assertion it would “severely impact” his life—as if getting raped doesn’t impact one’s life. Or as in the now-infamous case of Ethan Couch, who killed four people while drinking and driving—while speeding and with a restricted license, no less—and then tried to claim “affluenza” (the inability to understand the consequences of one’s actions because of financial privilege) as a defense. And then there are the “whitesplanations,” if you will, that try to defend or justify more systemic forms of discrimination, as in the support of police officers in more obvious cases of brutality (“they shouldn’t have been resisting”) or the rejection of affirmative action and similar practices on principle (“I don’t want an inferior choice forced on me”). As the persistence of the Donald Trump presidential campaign beyond rational belief illustrates, white people can splain away pretty much anything if you let them.
Rich white people may seek to deflect accusations of rape or murder on the count of their privilege—or, in the case of Trump and his supporters, will assume it of other groups—but it’s their pretense of superiority while trying to hide their wrongdoing that really gets one’s proverbial goat. Not that it exculpates him, of course, but Donald Trump seems to have made this maneuver into an art form. He states some wildly inaccurate theory or lies outright, which is clearly wrong and/or easily debunked, he doubles down on his assertion, and he begins to treat you as if you’re the asshole for bringing up the whole issue he had previously considered closed. In a similar vein, but arguably not nearly as well, Hillary Clinton has stubbornly tried to move past any culpability in her use of one or more private E-mail servers to access classified material while serving as Secretary of State, putting our national interests at risk. She has claimed to have sent over all relevant E-mails in the ongoing inquiry into her use of a private E-mail account. But that’s not true, as 15,000 new E-mails just found would hint at. She has insisted that E-mails weren’t listed as classified at the time they were sent and received, but FBI Director James Comey has refuted that assertion, and after being directly confronted with Comey’s testimony, she responded to the controversy by non-apology apologizing that she “short-circuited” in her response. What are you—a robot, Hillary? No, you didn’t short-circuit—you lied. Then, as a consummate politician would, she tried to shift the blame, alleging Colin Powell told her to use a private server. OMFG, HILLARY, NO, HE DIDN’T. STOP LYING. FOR ONCE, JUST STOP.
And yet, as extremely careless and negligent as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are with their handling of facts or even their own finances, if we’re once more concerned with trying to explain away violence and wanton destruction, let’s highlight the ultimate government-related recipient of a free pass in the U.S. military. There are any number of ways you can approach lack of accountability within the leadership of the Department of Defense and the Armed Forces—discrimination against gays, and an apparent epidemic of sexual assaults against women without superiors doing enough to address the problem, come to mind—but in terms of the slaughter of innocent people, that those with the requisite authority can order a drone or helicopter strike, resulting in massive unintended civilian casualties if a miscalculation or other snafu occurs, and justify it with no more than an “Oops!” is troubling indeed.
Just last month, an American air strike left at least 85 innocent Syrians dead, and while Pentagon officials promised it would investigate these deaths, seemingly no outward progress has been made on this particular front, and it is not as if this error in accuracy and judgment yielding the murder of non-targets is an isolated incident. On one hand, the actions of ISIS and other terror groups is reprehensible, but on the other hand, when we’re indiscriminately bombing the Middle East, killing random human beings without even having to look them in the eye when we destroy their families and villages, that makes us as a country only marginally better. “War on Terror,” huh? When your primary distinction between what you do and what jihadists do is that you don’t film people getting their heads chopped off, that’s a problem, and when the American people accept these “mistakes” or fail to demand more accountability from their leaders in Washington and from the media reporting on these matters, we are guilty by association.
When all comes down to brass tacks, what especially matters, as a subset of this perceived lack of culpability, is that consequences of real weight so frequently seem to be lacking. U.S. Olympic Committee Chief Executive Scott Blackmun has vowed the USOC will review the case of Ryan Lochte and his accompanying drunken swimmers, including potential ramifications, but any theoretical strong ban or fine is unlikely. Brock Turner was banned from both the Stanford and U.S. swim teams, but as discussed, he still got off relatively easy. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton apparently live in a world where there are no repercussions for violating ethical and moral standards, if not the law outright, and in which fabrications and lies are assumed as part of “politics as usual.” And speaking of these two vis-à-vis the U.S. military, noting the former’s self-indulgent tough-guy image he puts forth, and the latter’s much-talked-about hawkishness, does anyone really believe either of them will do much to curb defense spending? If you do, let me tell you about some lovely beachfront property in Idaho I have for someone like you.
What the above figures fail to appreciate is that we, the American people, are smarter and less forgetful than they think we are. Well, most of us are. I’ll confess that some of my peers and adults younger than I am do things that cause me to scratch my head sometimes—not to mention adults my parents’ age. Also, I can personally attest to the notion millennials are forgetful, at least in terms of short-term memory. By the same token, however, the Internet never forgets, so there’s that to fall back on, and moreover, millennials are also supposedly quite good at reading people for authenticity. So, Ryan Lochte et al., some quick notes, in closing: 1) if you’re going to lie, at least do a better job of it; 2) ditto for your non-apology apologies; 3) we understand when you’re using euphemisms to hide your lies, or “over-exaggerations” or “short circuits” or “uh-ohs” or whatever you call them; 4) for us non-Trump-supporters or those of us who are not Jamie Foxx, blaming it on alcohol or people of color only makes matters worse, and 5) when property gets destroyed, or people get bombed, killed, raped or run over, and your reputation suffers, you are not the victim, so stop acting like one or crying that you are. The American public deserves better than a blanket apology, and exploiting your money, power and/or privilege to obscure this idea doesn’t make you better for it. Sorry, but we’re not sorry for saying as much.
The flame has been lit. The participating nations have made their grand entrance. Director Fernando Meirelles of City of God fame has inspired us to “plant a seed” for the world, you know, after initially depressing us with the notion that many of the world’s low-lying areas could be underwater sooner than we think. But yes—the 2016 Summer Olympics from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil is underway, and the city, the country, and the Brazilian people are brimming with pride! Ordem e progresso, and all that jazz! It’s going to be like one big Carnival!
Before we pander to the few things we know about Brazil (“They speak Portuguese there? Since when?”) and get swept up in all the pageantry, and despite the pure love of physical achievement and sentiments of international togetherness and all that crap which the Games promote, let’s approach this historic event with, shall we say, more pragmatic concerns. Though it yet remains to be seen whether or not Rio is truly up to the challenge of officiating the Summer Olympics and adequately providing for the athletes and spectators alike, in the lead-up to the start of the Games, the signs have not been all that promising for a smooth fortnight-and-change in the land of the cocoa and the palm. There have been due concerns about the state of the water in Guanabara Bay where the sailing will take place, as it, um, tends to fill up with untreated human waste. The Russian Federation, after revelations about its state-sponsored doping program, is frankly lucky to have any teams eligible to compete after specific bans on its track and field, and weightlifting, teams.
But, wait—there’s more! Budget cuts have forced organizers to scale back seating and the number of volunteers on hand, not to mention making alterations to transportation schemes, relying on contributions from Olympic sponsors like the Panasonic Corporation to chip in, and—perhaps worst of all—forcing athletes to stay in rooms without television! Michel Temer, acting president of Brazil, has been criticized and protested by his constituents for allegations of corruption and charges of overspending on the Olympic games—and he is filling in only because impeachment proceedings are underway for Dilma Rousseff for her own accusations of impropriety (namely of fudging the numbers of the national budget and of state-run banks) amid an ongoing national economic crisis. And by now, we’re well aware of the threat, however minimal, of the Zika virus, prompting numerous high-profile professional athletes to skip the Olympics completely. In short, there is reason for onlookers to be worried the Games in Rio will meet with difficulties, or in the case of the sailing, to be a literal shit-show.
For all these logistical woes, though, over the long term, the biggest worry may not be something endemic to Brazil or Rio de Janeiro, but rather a more global issue which has faced Olympic host cities. Simply put, it may not pay to host the Olympic games, from an economic standpoint. Craig Dale, in a piece for CNBC, highlights the notion that the Games were a questionable choice for Rio in the first place. To be fair, Dale notes, when Brazil first made and won the bid to host the 2016 Summer Olympics in 2009, its financial situation was different, as indicators like currency strength, economic growth, inflation, and stock market performance were all trending in the right direction. Today? Not so much. To accompany the state of political turmoil facing the country as noted earlier here, Brazil is in the midst of a profound recession, with inflation high and its sovereign credit rating, as Craig Dale puts it, “downgraded to junk.”. Moreover, as economist Andrew Zimbalist argues, Brazil is ill-suited to serve as Olympic host in the first place. To quote Zimbalist:
“It doesn’t have sufficient transportation infrastructure, it doesn’t have sufficient sanitation infrastructure, it doesn’t have sufficient sporting infrastructure, it doesn’t have sufficient telecommunications infrastructure. So there has been an enormous amount of investment that has been required of the city of Rio.”
As Dale notes, Brazil had to even borrow some $850 million to make the Olympic aspirations of an entire continent come to fruition. Which is exactly what a country with a slew of problems needs: more debt.
It’s not just Rio de Janeiro that faces a steep price tag, however, and it’s more than just Andrew Zimbalist in dissent. Binyamin Applebaum, in a 2014 piece for The New York Times, weighed in on this issue, addressing the notion that hosting the Olympics brings investment and tourism to a region. As he outlines, there is little evidence to support this idea, with Applebaum suggesting cities failing to address the opportunity cost of building stadiums (thereby rendering the underlying property unusable for real estate) and overstating the revenue directly attributable to hosting the Olympics as factors which can cloud organizers’ judgment. Furthermore, while countries tend to experience a bump in trade after securing a bid to host the Olympic Games, so too do those nations which finish as also-rans, with the same message of “we’re open for business” communicated—and at a much lower cost, to boot. Other analysts have found simply no significant change in economic activity altogether. The biggest benefit, then, and one that is harder to measure, is the sense of happiness and national pride which accompanies hosting the Olympics. How long that lasts, and how much that’s worth to the host nation, is, of course, the fundamental question.
Others report similar findings or make similar appeals to the questionable utility of hosting the Olympics. The Economist points to rising costs entailed in producing the Games as a limiting factor in any theoretical profit which stands to be gained. Not to mention the politicians who like to make these decisions and look good to the voters likely will not be in charge by the time the event is held—and the bill comes time to pay, out of their (the people’s) pockets, no less. Tony Manfred, writing for Business Insider, cites the research of Holy Cross professor Victor Matheson in explaining how countries will incorrectly use normal economic data to make predictions about a non-normal event in the Olympics, or otherwise will emphasize how much money will flow into the local economy without making it clear that most of this cash will flow to the business owners, not the lower-level staff. And that rascal Andrew Zimbalist has more to add on this subject. Writing for The Atlantic, ol’ Zimby enumerates three reasons as to why hosting the Olympic Games is a losing proposition. We’ve already considered the tendency toward overbuilding among hosts, as well as the shaky connection between hosting the Olympics and increased tourism, but a third problem stems from the private interests to which members of organizing committees cater, leading to excessive bids at the public’s expense.
Returning to Zimbalist’s thoughts from the Craig Dale piece, the economist, in stressing the pitfalls of the influence of private interests, shines a spotlight on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as a bad influence in this regard. In Andrew’s words:
“The problem starts with the fact that the Olympics are organized by the International Olympic Committee. It’s an international monopoly that is unregulated, has an enormous amount of economic power and what it does every four years is that it invites the cities of the world to compete against each other to prove to the IOC that they are the most worthy hosts of the Games. So the cities enter the competition with each other, each one tries to outdo the other, in terms of the lavishness.”
That someone like Andrew Zimbalist would criticize the IOC likely does not surprise those among us who follow sports closely, as the organization is no stranger to allegations and instances of corruption, chief among them the so-called Salt Lake City bid scandal, which resulted in the expulsion of six members for accepting bribes. As with FIFA or any international organization, unchecked power sows the seeds of malfeasance, and the wide latitude afforded the Committee appears to be a key reason why. For Zimbalist’s part, he recommends the IOC’s corporate sponsors “come together and insist on a different model” for the Olympics’ governing body. Then again, as long as everyone at the bargaining table is making money, reform is probably not high on the minds of those involved. Still, there’s no guarantee that more average taxpayers of host cities and nations won’t take notice at the inefficiencies of local and international organizing committees and demand change, or else will just simply review and reject Olympic bids outright. After all, information is power.
Was the opening ceremony for the Summer Olympics enjoyable? Yes, even with NBC’s personalities yammering on throughout the Parade of Nations. Will these Games produce stunning displays of athleticism that can and should make us step back in awed admiration? Undoubtedly so. In acknowledging these merits of the Olympics in Rio, meanwhile, we can still contemplate what will happen in the city and in Brazil at large once the sheen of the Games wears off. The nation, well in advance of August 2016, has faced economic and political turmoil, and these issues will still be there when the Summer Games come to a close. Accordingly, while we see scores of Brazilians in the stands living it up and having a good time, among the protestors outside venues and in the favelas, there is real discord, frustration and worry, something which affects many of us within a global economy. No amount of samba can hide that reality. Thus, while Rio de Janeiro may consider itself lucky for securing its bid to host the Olympics, history suggests it may be more of a curse than a blessing after all.