Category Archives: Random Blogging

Baffle Them With Bullshit

The BBC recently opined that the goal of all those Russian bots and trolls isn’t to convince Americans of any particular fact or position–it’s to bombard us with so many competing versions of everything that nothing makes sense.

The observation reminded me of the old saying, “If you can’t convince them with your arguments, baffle them with your bullshit.”

CNN recently ran a story with a similar premise: the title was “Why Russian Trolls May be More Excited That the NFL is Back Than You Are.

The same Kremlin-linked group that posed as Americans on social media during the 2016 US presidential election has repeatedly exploited the controversy surrounding the NFL and players who have protested police brutality and racial injustice during the National Anthem, playing both sides in an effort to exacerbate divides in American society.

The debate is almost certainly an irresistible one for the Russians, given that it includes issues of race, patriotism, and national identity — topics the Russian trolls sought to exploit during the run-up to the election, and have continued to focus on in the two years since.

Propaganda in the age of the Internet has gotten far more sophisticated, and the goals it pursues are no longer limited to winning a particular debate or political campaign. The changes really started in earnest with Big Tobacco–the PR firms trying to head off new regulations realized that a frontal attack on the medical science showing that smoking is linked to cancer would fail, because contrary scientific studies paid for by the tobacco companies wouldn’t be seen as credible.

Instead, they hit on a tactic that has since been used to great effect by  other special interests, most notably fossil fuel companies denying climate change: they claimed that the evidence was still “inconclusive” and Congress should wait for more information before acting. Encouraging confusion was far more effective than attacking the science. The tactic played into the reluctance of lawmakers to pick a side in contentious debates.

It’s even easier for the Russians, because their goal is simply to divide us. They don’t care which side “wins” a debate–their goal is to add fuel to the fire and watch it burn.

Darren Linvill, an associate professor at Clemson University who has been studying the Russian group’s behavior with his colleague Patrick Warren, explained that the trolls “don’t slant toward one side or the other in the NFL flag debate, but they do slant very steeply to both extremes,” he said.

“Kaepernick is either a hero fighting a corrupt system or a villain who has betrayed his country. It’s two very simple, divisive story lines told at the same time with the goal of dividing our country rather than adding nuance to an ongoing, important national conversation.”

The most pernicious aspect of a fragmented media environment in which partisans can “shop” for the realities they want to find is the overwhelming uncertainty that less ideological citizens experience. We no longer know which sources are credible, which advocacy groups we can trust, which “breaking news” items have been vetted and verified.

We don’t know what’s bullshit and what isn’t–and that’s paralyzing.

Picture This

There’s an old saying arguing that one picture is worth a thousand words. An activist named Joe Quint is testing that thesis.

The promotional postcard reproduced below describes the project, sponsored by the “Faith, Justice and the Arts” program of St. Paul’s church.

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On the website giving additional information about the project, Quint explains what motivated him to produce graphic representations of the consequences of gun violence.

It was mid-2014 – right after the University of California at Santa Barbara shooting – and I happened to glance at that weeks’ issue of PEOPLE magazine. The cover story was about some Kardashian wedding and there was a little blurb in the upper right corner about the shooting… with a subhead saying ‘How could this happen – again?’. Setting aside the disproportionality in importance of these two stories, I was struck by both the naivety and irresponsiblity of that copy….

I became increasingly frustrated by inaction – my own and the inaction of my country. I could no longer pay lip service to the importance of reducing the over 36,000 senseless and preventable deaths that take place every year. I could no longer just sign petitions or – worse – scratch my head in amazement every time there was a national tragedy and wonder what it was going to take to change society for the better.

The result of his frustration was It Takes Us, a long-term documentary project about the impact of gun violence on the survivors, their family members , and on witnesses to these horrific acts.

One of the unfortunate consequences of the turmoil generated by Trump and his administration is the sheer number of important issues competing for our attention. Gun violence and our need to address its causes must compete with assaults on women’s equality, efforts to undo environmental protections, defund public education, eviscerate the ACA…the list goes on. But as the teenage survivors of Parkland have reminded us, America’s gun culture can no longer be ignored.

If you live in or around Indianapolis, or another venue listed on the website, go see the exhibit.

If All Your Friends Jumped Off A Cliff, Would You Jump Too?

My mother used to throw that line at me when I protested that “all the kids” were doing whatever it was she disapproved of.  Despite promising myself that I would treat my children differently–I used that same line with mine. It made a point.

Let’s face it–we all know that just because your co-worker is stealing from the till doesn’t give you a pass to do likewise.

That homely truth applies even more urgently to our political system. One of the reasons so many of us are so concerned (okay, frantic) about the current willingness of the GOP to ignore time-honored norms–to “play dirty”– is that damaging behaviors by one party are too often seen by the other party as permission to act just as badly.

As I have repeatedly maintained, the nation needs two responsible, ethical, adult political parties. When one party is off the rails, it’s harder for the other party to maintain discipline and enforce ethical and responsible behavior.

Time Magazine recently made that point. 

The article pointed to incidents in which Senate Democrats ignored longstanding norms during the recent Kavanaugh hearings. I will admit that I cheered many of those norm-breaking efforts; after all, we stand to lose a half-century of settled jurisprudence that has expanded and confirmed individual rights if this partisan warrior is confirmed, but it’s hard to argue with Time’s observation that the behaviors of Senators Harris, Booker and Warren, among others, was inconsistent with the decorum and comity we expect in such hearings.

The article wasn’t a hatchet job on the Democrats; far from it. It conceded that the relatively minor deviations of the Democrats during the hearings paled in comparison to the daily offenses perpetrated by the occupant of the Oval Office:

After all, this is a president who argued a judge couldn’t be fair because of his Mexican ancestry, criticized a Gold Star family, called for violence against protesters, threatened to jail his opponent, declined to release his tax returns,hired his daughter and son-in-law to work in the White House, declined to disentangle himself from a D.C. hotel and other businesses,conducted official business from his private golf club, chastised his own attorney general for allowing investigations into himand two Republican lawmakers, repeatedly called reporters “the enemy of the people”and regularly attacked the FBI and the judiciary.

The point of the article was not to castigate the Democrats’ newly aggressive behavior; the point was to identify an undeniable problem: once partisans start down this path, with each side justifying inappropriate behavior by the equivalent of “well, he started it!” we are in danger of losing critically important, if unwritten, rules that safeguard reasoned democratic deliberation and make government accountable.

In his speech on September 7th, former President Barack Obama called on Democrats to show up at the polls in November and restore “honesty and decency and lawfulness” to government– to take the high road back to power. Obama is urging Democrats to play fair despite the fact that neither the President nor his GOP has shown any interest in playing by the rules.

During the Obama Administration, a Republican in the House shouted that the president was a liar during a State of the Union while the grassroots — including then private citizen Trump — spread conspiracy theories about his birth certificate. Republicans in the Senate blocked his judicial nominees at a higher rate, leading then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to change the Senate rules to end the filibuster on most nominees. Republicans then refused to vote on Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, then ended the filibuster on Supreme Court nominees to allow Trump to appoint Neil Gorsuch.

The real test will come when Democrats return to power (hopefully after the upcoming midterm elections). If they decide to exact revenge by acting as dishonorably as the GOP has acted, we may well see an ugly race to the bottom and a further erosion of civility and  willingness to work together to get the people’s business done. As the Times article concluded:

One day, Trump will no longer be in office, but by then it may be that breaking norms is the new normal.

If the Democrats jump off that cliff just because the Republicans jumped before them, we will all be the real losers.

Define “A Great Economy”

Our demented President continues to brag about the economy, claiming sole credit for producing good numbers, and (as usual) fabricating many of them.

That said, according to the metrics used by most economists and pundits, the economy is doing quite well.

Republicans running for the House and Senate are trying hard to emphasize that economic “good news,” and one of the more puzzling aspects of the midterm campaigns has been the lack of traction those efforts have generated. Usually, when the economy is humming along, that’s good news for the incumbents; this time, economic arguments don’t seem to be convincing many voters.

The “chattering classes” attribute this to a variety of factors– Trump’s extreme unpopularity, concerns about the negative effects of Trump’s tariffs and the escalating trade war with China. Those things clearly matter, but I have a different explanation: we are using the wrong metrics to measure economic performance . I’ve misplaced the link, but I copied the following paragraph from an MSN website that makes the same point.

A humming national aggregate economy does not necessarily translate into improved livelihoods for most workers. Since the recession, nominal wage growth has been anemic compared to past business cycle peaks. Health-care and education costs keep rising while job benefits disappear. Most households are still in rather precarious financial straits. And there’s still a large population of “shadow” unemployed the official unemployment rate isn’t catching.

According to official statistics, the net worth of the typical American household is still about 20 percent below where it was when Lehman Brothers’ failure triggered the financial crisis. It is true that the gross domestic product is now substantially higher than it was — but a majority of Americans have not seen their incomes improve. And as the above quote notes, the admittedly very good unemployment rate ignores people who have given up looking for work.

If a “good economy” is measured by stock market performance and corporate profitability, then yes, we currently have a good economy. If, however, it is measured both by aggregate indicators and the degree to which citizens share in the prosperity, our economic performance doesn’t look quite so good.

A recent analysis from the Brookings Institution addresses that disconnect. After conceding the positive indicators, the report notes that the labor market continues to struggle.

 Wage growth is still sluggish, with modest gains offset by inflation. Despite recent increases, the share of prime-age Americans in the labor force is still slightly below the pre-Recession level. Levels of unemployment vary widely across places and the population by key demographic characteristics.

The report was generated as part of Brookings annual update of the employment rate gap (which, as the authors explained, differs from the jobs gap), calculating each indicator  by race/ethnicity and level of education. The employment rate gap is the  difference between the demographically adjusted 2007 employment-to-population ratio and the same ratio at other points in time.

As the report concluded,

The Great Recession inflicted economic pain on many American families, but its burden was not equally distributed. Ultimately, the brunt of the Great Recession was borne by those without the protection of postsecondary education. College raises average lifetime earnings, and it also helps insulate workers from economic downturns, providing economic security in the times they need it most. Finally, racial disparities have been less severe in recovery than in the worst years of the Great Recession, though differences in employment rates persist. For the American labor market to be truly healthy, it needs to work for all people—not just some.

A truly “great” economy distributes its largesse widely. It is that often-referenced rising tide that lifts all boats.

When most of the benefits generated by economic productivity enrich only the top 1%–or even the top 10%–that economy is only “great” for the pigs who have monopolized access to the trough.

 

Crazytown

It’s unlikely that Bob Woodward’s new book will move public opinion. The country is so polarized between people who are appalled by Donald Trump and dispirited by the unwillingness of the Congressional GOP to meaningfully confront him, on the one hand, and his white supremcist “base” on the other, that it is hard to see the added documentation doing much to change the political dynamic.

For me, the most difficult aspect of the last few years has been the need to accept an ugly reality: approximately 35% of my fellow Americans enthusiastically support a racist, and are willing to ignore every other distasteful and disgraceful thing about him, in return for his constant reassurance that– despite all the evidence to the contrary–their pigment makes them superior.

Woodward’s book won’t penetrate that. At best, assuming America survives this descent into tribal hatefulness, it will join the growing mountain of evidence available to future historians and psychiatrists.

As CNN describes the book,

Woodward’s 448-page book, “Fear: Trump in the White House,” provides an unprecedented inside-the-room look through the eyes of the President’s inner circle. From the Oval Office to the Situation Room to the White House residence, Woodward uses confidential background interviews to illustrate how some of the President’s top advisers view him as a danger to national security and have sought to circumvent the commander in chief.

Many of the feuds and daily clashes have been well documented, but the picture painted by Trump’s confidants, senior staff and Cabinet officials reveal that many of them see an even more alarming situation — worse than previously known or understood.

Actually, those of us who have been glued to news sources since November of 2016 do understand how alarming this Presidency is, and how utterly pathetic a man-child Trump is. It really isn’t necessary to get confirmation from anonymous sources–every day, Trump tweets his lack of even the most superficial understanding of the government he heads or the Constitution and laws that constrain it.

Let’s be honest. Trump owes his (very slim) electoral success to Barack Obama. Trump’s votes came largely from the white people (mostly men, but plenty of women) who couldn’t abide the presence of a black family in the White House. For eight years, they seethed, exchanging racist emails and sharing racist posts, looking for anything they could criticize publicly, and inventing things when the pickings were slim.

When Trump proved willing to say publicly the things they’d been thinking and saying privately–when he was willing to re-label civility as “political correctness,” and to “tell it like (they believe) it is,” they were his. Woodward’s book won’t change that; it is doubtful that many of them will read it.

 

I know that many good people, good citizens, good Americans will cringe at what I’ve just written. It’s too close to name-calling, too uncivil, paints with too broad a brush. President Obama himself, in his recent speech, took the higher road.

We won’t win people over by calling them names or dismissing entire chunks of the country as racist or sexist or homophobic. When I say bring people together, I mean all of our people. This whole notion that has sprung up recently about Democrats needing to choose between trying to appeal to white working-class voters or voters of color and women and LGBT Americans, that’s nonsense. I don’t buy that. I got votes from every demographic. We won by reaching out to everybody and competing everywhere and by fighting for every vote.

I understand what he is saying, and I absolutely understand that candidates cannot be as accusatory as I have been. But as Zach Beauchamp wrote after sharing that paragraph  in a perceptive article for  Vox 

There’s a part of this that feels like it’s ignoring reality. Political science research on the 2016 election suggests that Trump won because a huge chunk of voters responded positively to his racism and sexism. Voters who scored high on tests of racial resentment were unusually likely to support Trump, as were voters who scored high on measures of hostile sexism. These voters did not tend to be particularly stressed economically; this wasn’t displaced economic resentment. Rather, they seem to genuinely share the current president’s values, agreeing that the way to “Make America Great Again” is to slow or even roll back social change.

My hopes are pinned on the midterm elections. I do believe that most Americans are better than the base for whom “Crazytown” is just fine so long as they see it vindicating their white privilege. This is one election where every blue vote will count–whether it elects someone or not–because it will be, and will be seen as, a vote against tribalism, racism, sexism and the pervasive corruption of Crazytown.