Theater And The Absurd

When the whole world seems nuts–when every morning we wake to some bit of news that causes us to shake our heads and mutter “What the f**k are they thinking??”–the arts become even more essential than they are in more normal times.

(And they’re pretty darn essential in normal times. Assuming there really are normal times, rather than times that are simply a bit less harrowing than others.)

I share this bit of non-wisdom as an introduction to a new theater venture in Indianapolis, where I live.

Indianapolis is already home to a thriving arts community, including performing arts;  this new theater company  (full disclosure: I have joined its Board of Directors) will add a distinctive perspective–a feminist point of view.

Summit Performance Indianapolis was established by two supremely talented young women who are determined to produce top quality theatre exploring the lives and experiences of women.

Summit’s focus is threefold: to employ women of diverse backgrounds as playwrights, theatrical designers, artisans, actors, and staff; to create high quality theatre productions centered on social issues of the moment; and to use these productions as springboards to inspire an ongoing dialogue about those issues in the Indianapolis community through performance talk-backs, guest speakers, and town hall discussions.

The company will be housed in the Phoenix Theatre’s brand new, state-of-the-art facility on  the Glick Peace Walk (a key stretch of the city’s widely-lauded Cultural Trail).  Its two founders are among central Indiana’s most experienced theatre artists: Georgeanna Smith Wade and Lauren Briggeman.  Its goals are lofty: Summit Performance Indianapolis not only aspires to be a pillar of quality entertainment and a cultural hub, but also, in the wake of #metoo and #timesup, to serve as a necessary forum for women’s voices.

If you are curious, you can find more information on the theater’s Facebook Page.

Tumultuous times tend to produce new, exploratory arts outlets. Whether that art is visual,  musical or theatrical, it satisfies a very human need to engage with the social changes we are experiencing, and to understand the disruption that comes with the uprooting of the tried and true. The arts are a way we come to terms with the ever-changing world we inhabit; they help us recognize the truths and passions of others–and perhaps more importantly, of ourselves.

At some point–assuming our insane “Commander in Chief” doesn’t start a nuclear war–Americans will become more comfortable with the reality that women and men are just human beings with different plumbing, who should be seen as the individuals we are. Women’s voices, after all, are human voices, some pathetic, some strong, some profound, some wise, some not.

Until very recently, social structures have ensured that females of the species would have very different life experiences than their male peers. Theater is an ideal place to explore those differences and remind us all that–in the wider scheme of things–they were imposed upon humans whose actual differences are pretty superficial. Theater is a place to listen to, and learn from each other–and to internalize those messages.

It will be fascinating to see how Summit Performance develops. To those of you in Central Indiana, I say–stay tuned!

Computational Propaganda, Part Two

After each new Trump travesty, my friends and family have taken to asking each other the same question: “Who the hell could still support this buffoon? How stupid would someone have to be to drink this particular Kool-aid?”

A recent study conducted by Oxford University apparently answers that (not-so-rhetorical) question.

Low-quality, extremist, sensationalist and conspiratorial news published in the US was overwhelmingly consumed and shared by rightwing social network users, according to a new study from the University of Oxford.

The study, from the university’s “computational propaganda project”, looked at the most significant sources of “junk news” shared in the three months leading up to Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address this January, and tried to find out who was sharing them and why.

“On Twitter, a network of Trump supporters consumes the largest volume of junk news, and junk news is the largest proportion of news links they share,” the researchers concluded. On Facebook, the skew was even greater. There, “extreme hard right pages – distinct from Republican pages – share more junk news than all the other audiences put together.”

The researchers monitored 13,500 politically-active US Twitter users, and a separate group of 48,000 public Facebook pages, and looked at the external websites that they were sharing.

The findings speak to the level of polarisation common across the US political divide. “The two main political parties, Democrats and Republicans, prefer different sources of political news, with limited overlap,” the researchers write.

The study did not find a high percentage of social media penetration by the Russians, but it did identify clear political preferences of those who consumed junk news.

But there was a clear skew in who shared links from the 91 sites the researchers had manually coded as “junk news” (based on breaching at least three of five quality standards including “professionalism”, “bias” and “credibility”). “The Trump Support group consumes the highest volume of junk news sources on Twitter, and spreads more junk news sources, than all the other groups put together. This pattern is repeated on Facebook, where the Hard Conservatives group consumed the highest proportion of junk news.”

There has always been a credulous segment of the American public; given our embarrassingly low levels of civic literacy, it shouldn’t surprise us that a percentage of voters unhappy with their position in the polity would “choose the news” that confirmed their biases. As a colleague of mine recently wrote (citations omitted),

The flourishing of scientific polling and the increased sophistication of social science research methods have provided scholars with an opportunity to put these concerns to the test, and the results have largely confirmed the worst fears of political philosophers. Foundational studies of voters and elections published in the mid-20th Century documented voters’ ignorance, wishful thinking, and reliance on simple cues like partisanship, and nearly 8 decades of subsequent research has largely confirmed those conclusions.The democratic polity is not now and has never been made up of highly knowledgeable, informed and engaged civic citizens.

And there are plenty of charlatans, would-be power-brokers and snake-oil salesmen ready to lead the willing down the garden path…..

Polluting The Judiciary

Assuming a sufficient turnout of Democrats, Independents and Republicans horrified by Trump, much of the daily damage being inflicted by this administration can be rectified.

But some very real damage cannot be undone, and the evisceration of the role played by the federal courts in checking unconstitutional behavior by government is one of the most consequential.

We’ll be stuck for a generation with judges like Kyle Duncan–one of the many ideologues and bigots being nominated and confirmed to the federal bench.  

Lambda Legal has sent out an alert about Duncan:

Kyle Duncan, a lawyer who has built his career around pursuing extreme positions that target members of the LGBTQ community, has been nominated by Donald Trump for a lifetime appointment to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

A brief Google search confirms Lambda Legal’s warning. Duncan is best known as the lead lawyer in the infamous Hobby Lobby case, in which he argued successfully that closely-held corporations should be able to deny their employees insurance coverage for birth control.

A Louisiana news organization called the Bayou Brief described his career:

“(He) is staunchly and vociferously pro-life… (and he) is staunchly and vociferously pro-religious liberty,” Sen. John N. Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican, told colleagues. “I like that about him.”

When a lesbian mother was stripped of her parental rights after moving from Georgia, which recognized her rights, to Alabama, which did not, he argued to the United States Supreme Court in defense of Alabama, claiming, among other things, that the mother’s harms were “overstated.In a per curium decision, he lost that case as well.

Just this year, he unsuccessfully attempted to convince the United States Supreme Court to uphold a North Carolina law that was specifically intended to make it more difficult for African-Americans to vote.

He has won some cases too, though. He successfully convinced a split United States Supreme Court that a district attorney- in this case, former Orleans DA Harry Connick, Sr.- cannot be held liable for certain violations committed by their prosecutors, even if those actions result in a man spending 18 years behind bars on a wrongful conviction.

It is clear from the reporting about Duncan that he is a skilled lawyer, albeit on behalf of what I consider “the dark side,” so I found it interesting–and baffling–that Duncan and his supporters on the religious right found it necessary to beef up his resume by mischaracterizing one of his former positions. The claim was that he had been  “Solicitor General” of Louisiana.

Carrie Severino of the Judicial Crisis Network repeated the same claim in a short column published in The National Review. “Kyle served four years as Louisiana’s first Solicitor General,” she wrote (emphasis added), “performing so well that he has since been called back to represent the state repeatedly as special counsel.” (Severino’s organization spent a small fortune promoting Duncan, even releasing a television ad on his behalf).

Among many others, Breitbart and the Heritage Foundation also described Duncan as the state’s very first Solicitor General.

There is no such office under Louisiana law.

“Captain Crunch has more of a real job than anyone claiming to be Solicitor General of Louisiana,” a lawyer with extensive experience in state government told The Bayou Brief, on the condition of anonymity, “because at least Captain Crunch is on a cereal box.”

While this transparent puffery suggests a lack of integrity–or at the very least, the sort of meticulous attention to accuracy that good lawyers possess–that’s the least of the problems we should all have when a committed culture warrior is elevated to the federal bench.

Lawyers advocating for their clients, or for their favored interpretation of the law or the constitution are entitled to be zealous (albeit not zealots). We expect judges to approach their jobs with a very different, far more disinterested “judicial temperament.”

If Senate Republicans cared about their obligation to the Constitution and their duty to “advise and consent,” ideologues like Duncan would not be confirmed. But the Senate GOP–described by former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum as “lickspittles”–has abandoned even the pretense of independence or statecraft.

We the People are about to lose objective courts of law for a generation.

Too Many Assaults, Too Little Time

It isn’t possible to keep up with this administration’s assaults on American government (not to mention decency, healthcare, the poor…).

A regular reader sent me a link to an article that highlighted an overlooked passage from Trump’s State of the Union speech.

Standing in front of a divided Congress, with possible obstruction charges looming over him and facing governance struggles produced by his ineffective leadership, the president sought to undermine a 135-year-old law protecting federal civil servants from the whims of tyrants and hacks. “I call on the Congress to empower every Cabinet secretary with the authority to reward good workers — and to remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people,” he said.

Now, as the author of the article readily concedes, this sounds perfectly reasonable. We’ve  been regaled for years with stories–some true, most not–about all the red tape that prevents public officials from firing incompetent or insubordinate workers. Of course, as the old saying goes, one person’s red tape is the next person’s accountability…and that, of course, is the issue.

In this case, it’s important to understand just how and why the law Trump wants to repeal was passed in the first place.

“To the winner goes the spoils” applies to politics as much as war. Political patronage persisted far longer at the local level, so most of us don’t realize that until the late 1800s, when a new President took office, he  (it was always he) could fire everyone who worked for the federal government and install his own people. If his victory ushered in a change of parties, that was pretty much what happened. (Federal service wasn’t what you’d call a stable job.)

But in the 1870s, consistency and competence in the federal bureaucracy became more important as the nation’s political and commercial life grew more complex. Americans became increasingly aware of political corruption (see: the Grant administration) and its drag on government and commercial efficiency. When, in July 1881, President James A. Garfield was assassinated by disgruntled office seeker Charles Guiteau, the push for reform gained enough momentum to force Congress to rein in the patronage system.

The Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883 cost its namesake, Sen. George H. Pendleton (Ohio), his job in a political backlash against the new anti-spoils system. Nevertheless, the Pendleton Act was a major step forward for good government, and over the next quarter-century the majority of ordinary and largely essential civil service positions became disconnected from political machinations, filled instead through a standard set of hiring practices and exams, and protected from arbitrary firing.

Today, most state and local governments have implemented similar reforms. A new chief executive–Governor, Mayor– is entitled to policymaking folks who agree with his or her agenda, but not entitled to replace the guy who gives drivers’ tests at the BMV, or the clerk in planning and zoning.

The result is a more stable and experienced government workforce, a Congress that gets accurate reports from its research bureaus and federal departments that provide a certain level of regulatory consistency for citizens and businesses at home and around the world.

Because civil service incorporated mechanisms that prioritized merit-based hiring and firing, rather than finding a spot for your donor’s brother-in-law, the bureaucracy became attractive to minorities; today, African Americans are 30 percent more likely to work in civil service than white Americans. Which brings us back to the danger Trump poses.

Over the past 30 years, conservative valorization of “market solutions” has been accompanied by deeply racialized notions of government inefficiency that aim to undermine these civil rights achievements by invoking the image of a wasteful, corrupt public workforce — one viewed by many Americans as dominated by African Americans.

Trump’s assault on the Pendleton Act isn’t simply part of his desire to dole out jobs to his favored sycophants and toadies. It is another effort to pander to his base, much of which shares this profoundly racist worldview.

Despite the widespread belief that civil service employees can’t be fired, they can be. They simply have to be accorded reasonable due process.

Most of us want government managers to be able to dismiss incompetent people, or people who aren’t doing their jobs. What we don’t want–and what current law prohibits–is permission to hire and fire based upon race, gender, sexual orientation or other identities that offend bigots’ sensibilities but have absolutely nothing to do with competence.

For that matter, I wouldn’t trust Trump or his “best people” to recognize competence if they fell over it.

 

About That “Reign of Error”….

I never thought I’d be grateful for incompetence, but that was before Trump.

Paul Krugman recently addressed the “qualifications” of several of Trump’s appointees, under the headline “The Gang That Couldn’t Think Straight.”

A few days after President Trump was inaugurated, Benjamin Wittes, editor of the influential Lawfare blog, came up with a pithy summary of the new administration: “malevolence tempered by incompetence.” A year later, that rings truer than ever.

In fact, this has been a big week for malevolence. But today’s column will focus on the incompetence, whose full depths — and consequences — we’re just starting to see.

Krugman then takes readers on a stroll through some of those “best people” Trump promised us. There’s FEMA, of course–over half of Puerto Ricans still lack electricity, and the delivery of food and water is, shall we say, less than optimal.

And what about that opiod epidemic? As Krugman notes, we’ve heard rhetoric, but seen zero action. Recently, however, Trump has chosen a nominee to handle that effort:  a 24-year-old former campaign worker, with no relevant experience and who, it appears, has lied on his résumé . Trump has been in office a year, and is just getting around to appointing someone to an important senior position in the Office of National Drug Control Policy. You might think, given that length of time, that his administration would have at least vetted their potential nominee.

Meanwhile, the Trump-appointed director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention resigned after Politico reported that she had purchased tobacco-industry stocks after taking office. This was unethical; it was also deeply stupid. And the C.D.C. isn’t some marginal agency: It’s as crucial to safeguarding American lives as, say, the Department of Homeland Security.

As Krugman notes, these aren’t isolated examples. A lot has been made of the fact that so many positions in the administration remain unfilled a year into the President’s term; there has been less public discussion about the unprecedented number of appointees who have been forced out over falsified credentials, unethical practices or racist remarks.

The obvious question is “why”? Why are so many positions unfilled? And why are so many of the people who have been appointed so…undistinguished (to put it mildly)? (Okay–ragingly incompetent.) Krugman says it reflects both supply and demand: “Competent people don’t want to work for Trump, and he and his inner circle don’t want them anyway.”

I have a number of former students who work for government agencies; they aren’t at the “appointee” level–they are the “faceless bureaucrats” who actually keep government functioning. When Trump was elected, I got anguished emails from several of them, asking whether they should stay or go. Most elected to remain, explicitly to protect the missions of the agencies they serve.

At the level of appointees, however, it is hard to disagree with Krugman’s statement that competent people don’t want to work for Trump. The likelihood of emerging from his cesspool unscathed diminishes every day. (Would you hire Sean Spicer? Kellyanne Conway? Any of the current White House doofuses? )

By now it’s obvious to everyone that the Trump administration is a graveyard for reputations: Everyone who goes in comes out soiled and diminished. Only fools, or those with no reputation to lose, even want the positions on offer. And in any case, Trump, who values personal loyalty above professionalism, probably distrusts anyone whose credentials might give some sense of independence.

Krugman goes on to point out the dangers inherent in incompetence, and I  know he’s right. But I’m just grateful; think how much more damage these yahoos could cause if they actually knew what they were doing!