Saturday, April 22, 2017

Elizabeth Warren and that Pocahontas Thing

One thing Donald Trump proved adroit at doing was to capture in a single word or phrase the most damaging image of an opponent. It's a playground bully tactic, but in American politics it proved effective. 

“Pocahontas is not happy, she’s not happy. She’s the worst. You know, Pocahontas  I’m doing such a disservice to Pocahontas, it’s so unfair to Pocahontas  but this Elizabeth Warren, I call her ‘goofy,’ Elizabeth Warren, she’s one of the worst senators in the entire United States Senate.”
--Donald Trump

So Jeb Bush was not thoughtful; he was "low energy Bush."
Marco Rubio was not an energetic young man coming on, he was "little Marco."
And so on.
More than 1/32 Black

He seized on Elizabeth Warren's claim to have Cherokee Indian heritage--she may be 1/32 Cherokee--and he pounded her with it, making her look ridiculous, if not dishonest.  Scott Brown first raised the issue running against her for Senate, saying she had used the Native American card to gain admission to Harvard Law. He had "checked off the box" saying she was American Indian to get an advantage in gaining admission.  This played to several Republican narratives:  1. It is unfair to white Americans that Blacks and Native Americans can get in line for Harvard before them. This is an advantage liberals gave away, damaging Whites in the process. 2. It was a lie. Just look at her blue eyes and blonde hair: How could she be Indian?  
Of course, Elizabeth Warren never checked off that box, and she was admitted to Harvard for being brilliant, not for being Cherokee. And whatever the reasons she got in, she sure made the most of it once she got there. You don't get appointed to the Harvard faculty because you are 1/32 Cherokee.
Not Pocahontas

The fact is, Warren opened herself up to this by ever saying anything about her heritage.  But now that she has, what can she do about it?
Those aren't contact lenses

The first thing she must do is to think about why this has had such traction and durability.  
To look at her, to listen to her, you see a woman who is a professor of law at Harvard, and you think, she has all the advantages--for her to talk about her life on the hard side, the daughter of a struggling single mother, her life story as a disadvantaged girl may be the truth, but it flies in the face of what we see when we look at her. 
Lot of the massah's genes in the offspring

Examples of people trying to claim a harder life than they led are sadly common.  Brian Williams, the news anchor claimed to have come under fire covering the war in the Middle East, when in fact he had not. The fact is, just being in Iraq should have been enough.  Hillary Clinton once claimed her airplane had come under fire, when in fact, it had not. The fact is she flew all over the world to some of the worst hot spots--she didn't need to gild the lily.  Senator Richard Blumenthal claimed he had served "in Vietnam" when in fact, he never left the United States during that war.  For some reason, public figures want to be heroes and if their own stories aren't heroic, they are tempted to embellish, which is to say, lie.
Politician looking ridiculous

Trump, who used his father's connections to get an exemption from the draft--claiming he had disabling heel spurs--has never fallen into this trap. He is a fat, pampered White rich kid, and he never tries to claim to be anything other than that.  He does claim he has done a lot of good for people who grew up in tough circumstances by providing jobs in his various enterprises.  He wears dark suits and really spiffy ties, and does not try to dress down by wearing plaid shirts and blue jeans. He does not try to be one of the hillbilly set. He tacitly says: I'm very rich. I make no apologies for who I am or where I came from.
That comes across as honest.
And this from a man who has no concern for the truth.
Hybrid Beauty

So what can Elizabeth Warren say?
Well, first she has to address the issue.
I would hope she'd laugh it off and shrug it off, but address it.
"Well, I may be only 1/32nd part Cherokee, but I'd rather be part Pocahontas than part segregationist.  President Trump forbid Blacks from living in his buildings; He's New York's answer to the Ku Klux Klan. I'd call him the Grand Dragon. The Grand Dragon with heel spurs."

Or something like that. 

She might also add: "You know one thing about Pocahantas: She may have saved John Smith's life, but she wasn't fool enough to marry him.  She did marry another Englishman. A rich guy who dressed her up and promised her the world, and once he had her "civilized" he brought her back to England, took her away from her American home. She never made it back alive. There may be a lesson for today's women in that.  When men start promising you the world, you better look at the risks. Promises are easy. It's real life that will bring you down, if you're too gullible."

PS:  There is a special connection between New Hampshire and John Smith, and through that to Pocahontas. (Perhaps we need a Pocahontas Society.) After being rescued by Pocahontas, John Smith explored New England, giving it that name on the maps he published--he named the Charles River and Cape Ann.  He likely got as far north as the Isles of Shoals. A monument to Smith was built on Star Island (the Isles of Shoals) a granite pillar which weathered badly and was partly rebuilt by the New Hampshire Historical Society. 

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Bombs Not Bridges

Do you know how much that big bomb President Trump dropped on Afghanistan cost? According to the New York Times, $16 million.

Around 8 p.m. Afghan time, the United States had dropped a 21,600-pound, $16 million bomb on Asadkhel, a tiny village nestled between two forested hills, to attack a decades-old tunnel system that was being used by fighters claiming allegiance to the Iraq- and Syria-based Islamic State.
--New York Times

What kind of bridge could you build for $16 million?
by Martin Provensen

My wife recently returned from a trip to Viet Nam, where she toured some of the 25 miles of tunnels near Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City).  Her first words, when she got off the plane were, "There was no way we could have won that war."  Some of those tunnel systems were several stories deep, housing hospitals and everything but a spa. Even if we had a big bertha bomb, we could never have destroyed the tunnel system the Viet Cong had built because, well, they lived there and we did not.

They just kept building new tunnels.
Martin Provensen

Afghanistan has been at war for 40 years, at least, or I should said, "lately."
Does President Trump really think we can "bomb the shit out of ISIS" and that would change anything?

Pink Lake, Obadiah Youngblood

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Sanitary Pads in India: The World Americans Do Not Know

PBS News Hour ran a story about a man in India who discovered why women use rags instead of sanitary pads for their menstrual flow in India: Pads were simply too expensive. So he engineered an inexpensive way to produce inexpensive sanitary pads and now there are over 4000 factories producing this. He intentionally did not patent his process, hoping others would improve on it and help solve the problem of menstrual flow in India, where 75% of genitourinary tract infections are related to unsanitary rags stuffed up vaginas during menses.

I have heard from returning Americans about the bodies they saw floating in the Ganges, behind women washing laundry there, but it was only when I consulted Professor Google about this and came upon a "filthy India" site, apparently set up by some horrified Chinese that I grasped the full dimension of the problem. 

India is not just poor: It is home to a set of cultures which foster unsanitary conditions, from allowing cows to wander about defecating on public thoroughfares to dumping dead bodies into the Holy River so they can float out to sea, to stuffing vaginas with old rags.

When Indians come to live in the United States, apparently, they have no trouble adapting to our sense of sanitation.

The same may not be true of men from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, who find themselves in a public square in Cologne, Germany, side by side with attractive blonde women, out to celebrate Christmas eve.  Where they come from, groping women under these circumstances is de rigueur , but German women were not amused.

Do we have a war of cultures with the Muslim world?
Yes, of course we do.
But we have always had conflict when we first came into contact with people who have different beliefs and values.
In the nineteenth century this was called colonialism, and before that, the slave trade was part of this.   In those cases, high tech cultures imposed misery on people of low tech cultures. But it is also possible for high tech cultures to relieve suffering and improve the lives of people from low tech cultures.
Slavers rationalized kidnapping slaves in a variety of ways, but one rationalization was that they were bringing civilization to the slaves. When the slaves arrived, religious people slapped some Christianity on them. So they were saved. Enslaved, but saved.
In fact, I was struck by Black American friends who returned from a trip to Africa, to discover their roots, and they returned horrified by the poverty, the lack of sanitation and the misery.  Were they thanking the slave traders for getting them out of Africa? No. But they could see that the misfortune of their ancestors did eventually result in a benefit to them and their own children.

Economic globalization has surged way beyond cultural globalization. We have a radiologist sitting in Delhi, reading a CT scan for a patient in Silver Spring, Maryland, and outside his window a corpse is floating down the Ganges as women wash their family's laundry in that river.
What a wonder the modern world is.

Monday, April 17, 2017

How Do Leaders Emerge?

Never took a history course in college.  That is a blind spot in my own education I've tried to fill by reading, but I have the distinct sense I am missing something, still blind, because I have never heard a real historian talk about, say, Lincoln, beyond the gabbing of a Doris Kearns Goodwin, being interviewed on TV or someone on Public Television talking about their new book about Teddy Roosevelt or whoever.
And most importantly, I have never had the opportunity to grill an historian about how she knows what she knows.

All the historians I see on TV, Michael Bechloss, the whole pantheon of academics they typically trot out on The News Hour, seem to be nothing much more than well groomed gossips.

In her preface to White Trash, Nancy Isenberg says that history is not a bedtime story; it is trudging around in musty archives, squinting at hand written letters and trying to connect a lot of dots.
This means to me, history is ultimately an exercise in imagination. Trying to imagine what people were actually like, based on their letters or what other people were saying about them in their letters, I imagine how historians would try to reconstruct my life from sources like that and I am sure, beyond a reasonable doubt, they would not come within a country mile of the real me.

So it must be so for  Lincoln, Lenin, Roosevelt, Hitler, Churchill.

When you ask, "How did Hitler come to power?" or "What was it about Lenin which made him so important?" you are in the realm of scholarship cum fantasy.

What made Obama the right man for his time?  What catapulted Trump into the Presidency?

We can interrogate all the pundits; we can read all about it, but we cannot really know. 
Yes, people from the top to bottom of the economic and intellectual scale could see George W. Bush was too stupid to be an effective President. And yet they elected and re elected him. 
And when President Obama ran against an inarticulate, dumbed down President as an articulate, scaled up intellect, you could see he was the anti-W. He was not running against McCain; he was running against W.

And Trump was the anti-Obama, simplistic where Obama saw paralyzing complexity, Trump saw easy solutions:  chanting phrases--Build the Wall! or Lock her Up--where Obama dealt in umms and ahs.

But I have to believe it was important for Lenin and Hitler and Churchill and Roosevelt, for all of them, to have groups of people thinking about politics and economics and philosophy, talking about it, arguing the positions before the seeds of any one of these flowers called Trump or Lenin could bloom.

Today, in the United States, there are innumerable gardens where thinkers are tilling the rich loam of thought in which the next candidate will be planted, from talk radio, Limbaugh, Hannity, to The Federalist Society and The American Enterprise Institute to the John Birch Society.
But where are the thinkers on the left?


Sunday, April 16, 2017

When Eyebrows Beat Bombast: The Subtle Devastation Wrought by Ashley Parker

As Sean Spicer tried to dig himself out of the hole he had dug himself, only to make things worse, trying to explain why Assad is worse than Hitler because Hitler never gassed his own people, or, wait, maybe he did in "Holocaust Centers" but he never dropped bombs with gas on them, which is even worse than "Holocaust Centers," cameras caught the reaction of two White House reporters listening to him.

As Spicer sputtered and fumbled and looked like, "Oh, please get me off this stage," a reporter for the Washington Post, Ashley Parker,  listened silently, but across her face, which she was clearly trying to control, flitted expressions which are simply ineffably great. Behind Ashley, April Ryan's face was far more demonstrative, but it was the contrast between the two which played so well and made this moment an instant "meme" on Twitter.  It all went viral.

It is a true Schadenfreude moment, watching Spicers squirm, in agony, on the pin wielded by the White House press corps, and Parker's response is, at first, not easy to read, more of a "Wait. What did he just say?" 

This progresses to "No! he didn't say that! And is he not going to correct himself." Then, the faintest hint of a smile plays around her lips, while she is able to contain her eyebrows, momentarily and then you shift focus to April Ryan, whose face is clearly saying: Where did they get this clown?
Where is C.J. Cregg when you need her?

It must be a little vexing for Parker, who, at 35, has been building her career, patiently, daily, with discipline. She wrote for her high school paper, wrote and wrote at The University of Pennsylvania, got a job with the New York Times , out of college and now works for the Post.  She has written reams of articles over the years and for those who notice by lines, it's clear she has built a solid body of work. 

Now, in fifteen seconds, she's become famous for not writing a word, simply listening, with effect. 

Friday, April 14, 2017

Justice Souter, Washington, DC, New Hampshire

There is something about the story of retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter which invites reconstruction, fantasy, Hollywood myth making and lots of projection.

Reading about him on line, in articles in the New York Times, and elsewhere one gets the illusion you know the man, when, in fact, like most public figures you think you know, you do not know him. You only know the story which emerges out of public articles about him.

But there are some conclusions to be drawn from the facts: 
1/ The fact is he retired from the Supreme Court of the United States at age 70.  Retiring from the Supreme Court is not common and usually the Justices work into their 80's.  It's a lifetime appointment and one can well imagine why Justices work until they die:  Most people find themselves getting ignored as they get older. What they say doesn't matter so much any more because they are no longer in power. Age begets irrelevance in our nation.

But if you are one of 9 Supreme Court Justices you remain relevant as long as you stay on the Court.

It's one of the few jobs in America where you can be a celebrity, at the peak of power, for two decades after ordinary retirement age of 65. And in Washington, D.C., where so much of the culture revolves around power, position, job title, you can sail into your seventies and eighties on top.

In New York, even if you are mega rich, by the time you are in your late 70's you have likely given up much of your day to day operational control of your companies to younger hands, and you can still go to the Met and get the best seats and you can still eat at the best restaurants, but everyone knows you are not really the pivotal player any more.

Not true, in Washington, if you are a Supreme Court Justice.  There are still cases you are judging which are current, in the news and attracting lots of attention and people want to know what you think.

2/ At the end of every Supreme Court term, Souter drove home  to his family homestead in New Hampshire.

Which is to say, he did not stay in Washington.
He did not spend his summer going to dinner parties, playing golf at Burning Tree Country Club, sailing  down the Potomac on  yachts.
He could have cashed in on his status, enjoyed the power game, and given his status as a Supreme Court Justice, not to mention his academic pedigree,(Harvard undergrad, Harvard law, Oxford/Rhodes Scholar)--he had the  keys to the kingdom in the Washington, D.C. dinner set society.

He was named by some rag Washington's "most eligible bachelor."  Because he was not seen to be capitalizing on this or simply because he never married, he was rumored to be gay, but that would not have prevented him from cashing in on the glittering evenings and social perks of being a Supreme Court Justice.

But he did none of the high life stuff. He just went home to New Hampshire, where, to listen to him, he read history. Even if he did wild and crazy things back in New Hampshire, the fact is he didn't feel compelled to say anything beyond, "I read history." In fact, when asked what he liked doing back in New Hampshire, beyond reading, he mentioned he enjoyed going to the town dump, because that's where you see your neighbors.

Can you imagine Antonin Scalia or Alito or Clarence Thomas saying they enjoyed going to the dump on a Saturday morning?

What I like about this guy is:
1/ He apparently took a look at what passes for the good life in the big city, in the glittering city on the Potomac and said, "Uh, I don't think so."
We might infer he was saying, "You all worship false gods here." But again, we would be projecting and reading into a man we do not know.
2/ He was so appalled by the Supreme Court intervening in the Gore v Bush election he nearly resigned, but friends convinced him to stay because then Bush would have not only won the election but seized control of the Court.
3/ He was ushered in as another Scalia but he actually did what Supreme Court Justices always say they will do but never do--he followed the law as he saw the law and wound up voting with the liberal Democrats, even though he was appointed by a Republican. That is tantamount to Donald Trump switching parties after his election.
Hampton, NH

What I really could not abide during my own years in Washington was the smugness. People who had been winners in their youth, getting into the right colleges,  where they told each other they deserved to be at Harvard because, after all, they merited it, they were the cream rising to the top, and they continued to grab onto the "glittering prizes" and pass them around among themselves, like A list dinner party invitations.
Tugboat Obadiah Youngblood

New York had rich people, successful people, but somehow they were not as often smug.  They felt fortunate. They exulted about the good things they had: Opera at the Met, wonderful exhibits at the museums, great meals at great restaurants, but somehow I never got the vibe, even from the really rich, they thought they particularly deserved their good fortune.  "Better to be lucky than smart," they would say.

Anyway, Justice Souter's rejection of what so many value is refreshing.  And it's not like an 18 year old kid who gets into Harvard and says, no, I'll go to Kenyon instead. In that case you wonder whether he just didn't have the confidence to take up that challenge. In Souter's case, he was already there, had already proven he deserved his place, but he said, "No, you can keep your trophy life. I've got something better."

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Schzoid Core of American Politics

"When a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government...all having the direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states...the state remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without and convulsion within...sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people and eat out their substances...he has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns and destroyed the lives of our complete the works of death, desolation and tyranny...with circumstances of cruelty and perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous Ages."

Thomas Jefferson, et al. The Declaration of Independence, 1776.

When Richard Hofstadter spoke of the "paranoid style" of American politics, I can only think, "Oh, you have no idea." He was talking about the John Birch Society in the 1950's but, as you can see, it goes way back to the founding fathers.
 I'm good enough. I'm smart enough. And People Like Me.

All this occurred to me as I started reading about the people who inspired the wonderful, creepy, indignant, explosive, smarmy character, Brett O'Keefe, in "Homeland."  At first, I thought, "Oh, Rush Limbaugh/Glenn Beck/Steve Bannon," but as the season progressed it was clear the writers had gone beyond that level of sleaze to something sublime. 
I just play one on TV

Apparently, he may be based, at least partly,  on a certain wacko in Texas named "Alex Jones" who believes the Oklahoma City bombing was carried out by federal government agents, that the Branch Davidian attack in Waco was another government conspiracy, that moon landing was staged, that the 9/11 attacks were a federal government conspiracy and that his own personal ancestors were responsible for winning the fight with Mexico which wrested control of the state of Texas for the white Anglos who died at the Alamo and whose brothers ultimately prevailed. So he is a hero by association. And, oh, yes, my favorite: Mr. Jones knows that the Sandy Hook slaughter of children was fake news, staged by lefties who want to take your guns away and deny you your God given right to own an assault rifle.

This man is a piece of work. He started out with a public access TV show, then went on to a radio show launched from home on the internet and now he is big business in Austin, Texas, which tells you something if the most liberal town in Texas has given rise to this mutant.
Puffy Pink Guy: Alex Jones

Not only that, a new world order of international banks colluding with the government is behind "manufactured economic crises" to seize control of everything.

If all this sounds far fetched, and if you are thinking "lunatic fringe," I would ask you to consider the sentences which have belched out of President Trump for the past two years, about climate change being a Chinese plot, about the Muslims who he saw or were seen by someone celebrating on the roof tops after 9/11 about Barack Obama's birth in Kenya and about vaccinations causing autism and mental retardation.
I think it might have been that lady in the parking lot who told Michele Bachmann about vaccines causing mental retardation who told Donald Trump about the celebrating Muslims.
That lady is just so tuned in!
 She knows. Ever notice how puffy white guys (PWG's) like Alex Jones and Donald Trump always start sweating when somebody asks for their sources? They are long on allegation, these PWG's but short on substantiation.
Now, Thomas Jefferson was no PWG, but he wasn't much into substantiation either, when you come to think about it, but he had all those good words.
Mr. Trump claims to have the best words, but I'm with Jefferson when it comes to words: usurpations, perfidy, plunder, ravage, desolation.  My favorite is "usurpation."

 You can only imagine how Mr. Trump would slay a press conference if he threw "usurpation" into some remark.  "Oh, that Obamacare is just such a usurpation! It has plundered and ravaged the middle class unto desolation. It'll implode. Just you wait." Wow. That would be worth another four years right there, alone.

Does he take his meals with these guys?

And people listen to Alex Jones on the radio in droves and of course, over 60 million Americans voted for Mr. Trump. Maybe Mr. Trump will appoint Alex Jones Secretary of Homeland Security. He'd be a natural.  Remember the Alamo.
Does he smell something bad?

I would submit, these guys are no fringe element in American life.  I would submit, they are, in fact, the mainstream.

Are These Guys Related? Same Gene Pool?

We might ought to check the lead levels in the water of all the counties which voted for Mr. Trump.

Grief and History, Washington DC