All posts by Sheila

Shameless

Last Sunday, the New York Times Magazine’s cover story was “The Fog of Rudy”–a retrospective of sorts on a career that began semi-conventionally and now has a major role in the clown show that is the Trump Administration.

The article was undoubtedly informative for people who don’t obsessively follow political news. Since I’m among the obsessed, I was aware of most of the high and low points of Guiliani’s pursuit of fame and fortune–what the article described as his “seemingly hormonal desire for power and fame.” But I was struck by a theme running through the biographical material: shamelessness.

As a prosecutor,

Giuliani practiced politics in a different key, one characterized by brazenness, by shamelessness, by chutzpah. He embraced publicity indiscriminately, picked the highest-profile fights he could find and took all of them to the furthest possible extreme. He acted as if he were bulletproof; and so, in a way, he was.

Shamelessness is a central characteristic of what the article accurately describes as a new breed of politician

a publicity-obsessed, reality-defying master of resentment politics — that is, just the kind of figure who is now ascendant across the globe in the form of strongmen, oligarchs and even populist Tories. These are not men of vision, but men of appetites.

Shameless is a word that describes both Trump and Guiliani. These are men who are willing to say and do anything that will bring them attention–it’s almost as if they believe they don’t exist when the cameras aren’t on them. The Times article recounts Rudy’s numerous shady and self-serving activities as prosecutor, Mayor and private lawyer monetizing his connection with the tragedy of 9/11, and then returns to the theme of shamelessness:

Watching his invariably viral TV performances, it often felt as if the closest thing to a unifying explanation for his behavior was his pronounced inability to experience shame. Shamelessness is not an art or even a skill. It’s simply a way of operating in the world that informs all of your actions and interactions, for good or ill.

It’s a state of mind that he shares not only with Trump but also with a growing number of blatantly dishonest, nakedly opportunistic political figures. What creates the conditions in which such truly shameless figures can thrive? In 2020, the obvious answer is the rise of an all-consuming media ecosystem in which truth is no longer meaningfully litigated. … Combine that with the ubiquity of social media, which makes no distinctions between truth and lies, and what you end up with is a political conversation without consequences that favors the most outrageous voices. If you reliably make over-the-top claims, you will be rewarded with attention, and Giuliani never fails to make over-the-top claims.

The ability to feel shame requires an ability to recognize the distinction between right and wrong, and a desire to be–and be seen by others as– moral. I couldn’t help wondering about the sort of people who lack that desire, soI googled “mental health and shamelessness,” and found this psychiatrist’s explanation of the phenomenon compelling.

He writes that shamelessness is often displayed by pathological narcissists who are saddled with deep feelings of self-doubt and unworthiness, and who compensate with displays of  “rampant arrogance and a sense of entitlement.”

To be shameless–as opposed to shameful–is also to be guiltless. For in their assuming superiority over others (unconsciously, to dispossess themselves of buried feelings of inferiority), they see themselves as entitled to push their way (as it were) to the front of the line. Having once felt small, unimportant, and possibly demeaned and humiliated as well, their massively constructed defense system now enables them to feel “privileged.” They can experience themselves almost as above the law, and certainly beyond the court of public opinion. These are the individuals who, when convicted of trespassing on others’ rights–of having acted in flagrant disregard of their fellow humans–may demonstrate little, if any, remorse. And shamelessness, at its irremediable worst, is just one of many traits keying into the diagnosis of anti-social personality disorder.

The real question we must ask ourselves is: why do presumably rational people reward these damaged folks with our attention and/or our votes?

And why on earth would we trust one of them with the nuclear codes?

 

Thank God It’s A Short Session…..

Yesterday, I posted about one of the more odious bills being considered by Indiana’s legislature.

It’s just one example of why I always get an uneasy feeling when Indiana’s General Assembly is in session. Indiana’s legislators are an unpredictable mix; there are some thoughtful people who can genuinely be characterized as public servants, and then there are the others–religious zealots, wheeler-dealers, and a collection of rabid partisans for whom politics is a sport and their only loyalty is to their team.

This year, the legislature meets for its 60-day short session. (In Indiana, regular and short sessions alternate.) The fact that time to consider bills is limited, however, doesn’t prevent our culture warriors from introducing divisive and/or ridiculous proposals, which is one reason why Harrison Ullmann, the now-deceased editor of NUVO, our local alternative paper, always referred to Indiana’s General Assembly as “the World’s Worst Legislature.”

It isn’t just Rep. Soliday’s proposed gift to coal companies. A week or so ago, I posted about a bill authored by one Representative Curt Nisly–in addition to prohibiting all abortions, the bill presumed to forbid the courts to declare the measure unconstitutional or the executive branch to enforce any such court decisions if made. While I grant that the degree of constitutional ignorance displayed by that measure puts Nisly in a class of his own, plenty of other bills  demonstrate the often bizarre, corrupt and/or inhumane priorities of too many Indiana lawmakers.

In the “bizarre” category, the Northwest Indiana Times reports, tongue firmly in cheek:

The Indiana House is poised to vote Tuesday on what may be the most significant piece of pro-worker legislation since Republicans took majority control of the chamber in 2011.

It’s not an increase in the state’s $7.25 per hour minimum wage, unchanged since 2009. It’s not a requirement that businesses provide employees with their work schedules a week in advance. And it certainly won’t make it easier for workers to organize into unions and collectively bargain for wages and benefits.

Instead, House Bill 1143 would expressly prohibit an employer from requiring an employee, or a job candidate, to have an identification or tracking device implanted in their body as a condition of employment.

According to the Legislative Services Agency, there are currently no employers in the U.S. requiring such implantation. But hey–it might happen. You never know…

The ACLU of Indiana has a list of pending bills that threaten civil liberties, including one that Doug Masson analyzes at Masson’s Blog prohibiting persons born biologically male from competing in school sports contests against females. As he concludes:

As far as I can tell, this legislation isn’t so much an effort to address a real problem as it is simply a vehicle for expressing unhappiness that society is increasingly recognizing that gender identity is not perfectly correlated with biological sex.

Indiana’s lawmakers tend to be fixated on issues around sex and sexuality. Case in point is a measure that definitely belongs in the “inhumane” category: Indiana Senate Bill 300. This effort to allow discrimination in the service of (certain people’s) religion would allow mental health professionals to turn away clients seeking emergency services for suicide prevention and emergency interventions, “on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, those who have received reproductive services, those who are divorced, etc.”

Ironically titled “Conscience protection for mental health providers” the measure would prohibit a hospital or other employer from discriminating against or disciplining such a professional because of the “sincerely held ethical, moral, or religious belief” that impelled that “professional” (note quotation marks) to withhold emergency assistance to desperate people of whom he or she “sincerely” disapproves.

Indiana’s public schools are underfunded. Our teachers are underpaid. Indiana’s infrastructure is crumbling. Hoosiers are embarrassingly unhealthy. The opiod epidemic has been brutal here. I could go on and on.

But thanks primarily to gerrymandering, those issues get short shrift. The bills referenced above are a very small sample of the damaging nonsense that our legislators prefer to address, and that we Hoosiers have come to expect.

At least it’s a short session….

Speaking Of The Legislature…

Indiana’s legislature is in session, demonstrating that it isn’t only Republicans in Washington who are more interested in protecting favored industries (aka donors)than the public or the environment. (I know, you’re shocked!)

Hoosiers and regular readers of this blog may remember the 2017 bill that made it much less advantageous for homeowners in Indiana to install solar.

Homeowners selling excess power generated by their solar panels back to the utility lost most of the benefit of doing so under Senate Bill 309. Prior to its passage, if you had rooftop solar, “net metering” allowed you to send any excess energy you generated back into the grid, with the utility crediting you for that excess at the same rate that you pay the utility for power when you aren’t generating enough to cover your needs.

Even if it was an even swap, however, you still had to pay the utility an amount sufficient to cover its overhead costs–billing, meter reading, etc. Fair enough.

After passage of SB 309, you were forced to sell all the electricity you generated to the utility at a much lower price than the utility charged you, and then buy back what you need at their substantially higher “retail” price.

Solar energy may be good for the environment, and good for consumers’ pocketbooks, but it had begun to cut into the profit margins of the big electrical utilities. Friends at the legislature to the rescue!

This year, the legislature is showing its solicitude for coal.

Credit where credit is due; the Indianapolis Star, which rarely covers government these days, had the story:

Hoosiers’ electricity bills could rise and several state utilities may face obstacles in their plans to phase out coal-based power generation in the coming years under politically charged legislation that would help a struggling Indiana industry.

House Bill 1414, filed last week by state Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, would require Indiana utilities to prove that any plans to shut down a power plant are either required by a federal mandate or otherwise in the public interest.

But not just any plants. Though the word “coal” does not appear once in the language of the bill, advocates and analysts say the legislation specifically targets coal-burning plants.

Utilities in the United States have been responding to market forces and (to a lesser extent) environmental concerns, and have been transitioning from the use of coal as an energy source in favor of natural gas and various renewables. In the past few weeks, at least two utilities in Indiana have announced their intention to shut down coal generating plants.

One state utility–northern Indiana’s NIPSCO– predicts that the shift could save customers billions of dollars in coming decades. NIPSCO is one of the Indiana utilities that has announced its intent to significantly diminish its use of coal and substitute renewable resources.

Typically, utilities have made their own decisions about their energy use, but Soliday’s House Bill 1414 allows the state to override those decisions. (I thought Republicans wanted government to “get out of the way” of business–silly me!)

Keeping coal plants running comes with a huge cost, according to Citizens Action Coalition’s Kermit Olson.

If coal plants are not able to be retired and if they have to be maintained — as another part of the bill suggests — then those costs will be passed down to customers.

“The idea that we are trying to, as a state, to undo a utility like NIPSCO’s current business plan, which is based on economics and least costs of service to customers is just absurd if not downright unethical,” Olson said.

He is referring to NIPSCO’s planning process in the last few years that determined accelerating the closure of all its coal plants and a transition to renewable energy sources, particularly wind, would save its customers nearly $4 billion over a few decades.

The utilities oppose this bill. Environmentalists oppose this bill. Consumers get screwed by this bill. But yesterday, it emerged from committee.

Coal companies– unable to compete in the marketplace– are lobbying hard, hoping their friends in Indiana’s General Assembly will put a very heavy thumb on the policy scale….

 

Corrupting The Judiciary

There is a bedrock principle of ethical behavior that requires avoiding conflicts of interest. If someone serves on a board or commission, for example, and a pending case has been brought by a relative or close friend,  we expect that person to recuse–to abstain from participation in the decision.

When the issue is judicial behavior, it is even more important to avoid even the appearance of bias or impropriety, because the legitimacy and effectiveness of the judicial system depends upon public confidence in the probity and disinterestedness of judges.

One of the (multitude of) problems with Trump’s nomination of unqualified judicial candidates that Mitch McConnell then rams through the confirmation process is that ethical behavior is one of the qualifications a number of them appear to lack.

A recent report originally penned by David Badash for The New Civil Rights Movement is a troubling example.

Legal experts are scratching their heads after a federal judge appointed by President Donald Trump announced on Tuesday he is delaying handing down his decision in a Trump tax returns case until other federal judges hand down their decisions in other Trump cases. That judge is a former Trump transition team volunteer and has donated to the Trump campaign.

District Judge Trevor McFadden of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia announced he will hold up his ruling in a case brought by the House Ways and Means Committee against the U.S. Treasury Dept. The case involves gaining access to six years of Trump’s tax returns. The law clearly says the IRS “shall” hand them over to Congress. The Trump administration says Congress has no right to investigate.

This is not a case where legal or factual complexities require time-consuming analysis. This is a case in which a judge has a blatant conflict of interest, and should have recused himself.

Judge McFadden has already exhibited bias in his handling of the case, which was originally brought last  August. According to Politico, he denied House Democrats’ request to expedite consideration of the case as well as their request to rule on its merits, despite the fact that this would seem to be a textbook case for summary judgment.

Now, he has informed the parties that he will not rule on the matter until the court that is considering a challenge to the subpoena of former White House lawyer Don McGahn has ruled. He has not offered an explanation for that delay, nor indicated what the McGahn case has to do with the litigation before him–undoubtedly because (as lawyers and legal commentators have noted) there is simply no connection between the issues in the two cases.

The only explanation that makes sense is that Judge McFadden is trying to help the President avoid disclosure of his taxes. Since the law is clear and unambiguous– a ruling in favor of Trump would be a too-obvious gift to a favored litigant–he is apparently trying to avoid ruling at all until after the election.

The Executive Editor of Above the Law summed it up as a “Trump judge trying to look for a way to prop up Trump’s terrible arguments without looking like he’s a Trump judge.”

It is no longer possible to ignore the fact that Trump, Barr, Pence, Pompeo and others in the administration are deeply corrupt. We are just beginning to realize just how much Trump’s terrible judicial choices have added to the rot and corruption.

And according to the Washington Post, one in every four circuit court judges is now a Trump appointee …

 

What Pictures Do And Don’t Tell Us

As we head into what promises (threatens?) to be a pivotal year for American democratic governance, we do so in an environment unlike any that we have previously occupied. The “disinformation” industry has really come into its own over the past several years–filling the void that has been created by the near-demise of local journalism, and taking advantage of the enormous influence of social media.

The most recent weapons against facts and accuracy are visual: “deep fakes” in which the alterations are nearly impossible to detect. The influence of those fabrications on people who have lived in a world where “seeing is believing” is difficult to predict.

In a recent article from Axios Future, philosophers considered the challenge presented by deep fakes.

One possibility they considered: Technology might “erode the evidentiary value of video and audio” with the result that we begin seeing them the way we now see drawings or paintings —  rather than as factual records. In that case, all bets are off.

As the article put it,

Normally, when you receive new information, you decide whether or not to believe it in part based on how much you trust the person telling you.

“But there are cases where evidence for something is so strong that it overrides these social effects,” says Cailin O’Connor, a philosopher at UC Irvine. For decades, those cases have included video and audio evidence.

These recordings have been “backstops,” Rini says. But we’re hurtling toward a crisis that could quickly erode our ability to rely on them, leaving us leaning only on the reputation of the messenger.

One huge implication is that people may be less likely to avoid bad behavior if they know they can later disavow a recording of their mischief.

Just think how technological advances in deep fakes can affect political campaigns.

Just in time for the presidential election, the Brookings Institution shares news about a new technique for making deep fakes, invented by Israeli researchers.  It creates highly realistic videos by substituting the face of another individual for the person who is really speaking.

Unlike previous methods, this one works on any two people without extensive, iterated focus on their faces, cutting hours or even days from previous deepfake processes without the need for expensive hardware. Because the Israeli researchers have released their model publicly—a move they justify as essential for defense against it—the proliferation of this cheap and easy deep fake technology appears inevitable.

Can videos of Joe Biden using the “n word” or Bernie Sanders vowing fidelity to communism be far behind? As the Brookings article notes,

If AI is reaching the point where it will be virtually impossible to detect audio and video representations of people saying things they never said (and even doing things they never did), seeing will no longer be believing, and we will have to decide for ourselves—without reliable evidence—whom or what to believe. Worse, candidates will be able to dismiss accurate but embarrassing representations of what they say are fakes, an evasion that will be hard to disprove.

In our incredibly polarized political environment, the temptation to “cherry pick” information–to give in to the very human impulse to engage in confirmation bias–is already strong. We are rapidly approaching a time when technology will be able to hand partisans a plausible reason to disbelieve inconvenient news about a preferred candidate, while giving others desired “evidence” about an opponent’s flaws.

We can also predict that a political party willing to employ gerrymandering, vote suppression and a wide variety of political “dirty tricks” will not hesitate to use these tools.

Uncharted territory, indeed…..