What progressives have been waiting for! The OpEdge endorsement for Democratic nominee

When I think of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, I always imagine an enormous rock that weighs thousands of tons and symbolizes American society. Bernie and Hillary are charged with moving the rock one mile down the road. Hillary talks of using ropes, winches and pulleys and of humans working together to slowly move the rock to where it needs to be. Sanders, by contrast, thinks he can fly over the rock, pick it up and instantly transport it.

This extended metaphor captures the major difference between these two long-term progressives. Bernie focuses on the final goals, which he implies are quickly and readily achievable, whereas Hillary focuses on what we can do now to nudge us to the goals. For both candidates, I think these goals include a hybrid economy with a strong middle class, bolstered by a government that provides universal healthcare, keeps quality public education inexpensive or free, cleans up our environment, fosters the transition to renewable fuels and protects the rights of all minorities in a secular society that embraces diversity.

Healthcare provides a good example of their differing approaches and appeals. Bernie is calling for universal Medicare, which Republicans, aided by the Dark Money billionaires, will vehemently oppose and use as an issue to destroy a Sanders presidency. Hillary, who was bruised badly in her own attempt to install universal health coverage in the 1990s, is right to want to improve the Affordable Care Act, as opposed to ripping it up and starting from square one. She wants to push the healthcare rock further to where it would be if the United States were a European social democracy. Sanders’ thinks he can pick up the rock and fling it down the road. Sanders statements on foreign affairs are similar: he states emphatically that we have to get rid of ISIS in a tone that suggests that he will do it. But we never hear the details of how. In a sense, Bernie creates a cult of the strong man who will get it done, just as Donald Trump has.

The appeal of this superman approach by Trump and Sanders may reflect the same cultural imperative as the spate of superhero movies that seem to have dominated the box office over the past 10 years. It would be lovely indeed if someone could solve the problems by virtue of her-his special powers—but that would also border on fascism. Interestingly enough, Democratic voters seem to be splitting by age. Younger voters who have grown up on superhero culture are gravitating towards Bernie, whereas older voters who have largely eschewed these comic-book-cum-video-game-cum-special effects extravaganzas are gravitating towards Hillary.

Sometimes when I look at Bernie Sanders, it’s like looking into a mirror (although he has more hair on the top of his head and no beard)…Jewish, an avowed socialist, a bit of a nudge when it comes to intellectual matters. Hey, that’s me. I can’t help but love the guy.

But when I look at Hillary Clinton, I see someone just as intelligent, quick-witted, progressive and caring as Bernie. Plus I see a list of accomplishments which make her perhaps the most qualified person ever to run for President of the United States, for these reasons:

  • High intelligence: How can anyone deny that Hillary is both highly gifted intellectually and a lifetime learner? So is Bernie, BTW.
  • Past experience: Only the rabid right would call her time in the Senate and as Secretary of State anything other than successful. Bernie has enjoyed success as the loyal opposition, for which he should have our undying gratitude. Hillary has actually been in charge and gotten things done.
  • Lack of hypocrisy: Hillary has never said one thing and then hypocritically did something else, for example, rail against the Affordable Care Act and then sign up for Obamacare, as Ted Cruz has done, or advocate against gays all the while trolling public bathrooms for same-sex quickies, as Republican Senator Larry Craig did.
  • She admits when she’s wrong (like Obama!): She admitted her mistake when she voted to allow Bush II to begin the ill-fated Iraq War and supported the harsh crime laws during her spouse’s presidency that led to the mass incarceration of minorities for victimless crimes. She also admitted that it was a mistake for her, like Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell before her, to use her private email for government matters.
  • She has a cross-cultural understanding of social cues, which means that she won’t embarrass herself by saying or doing the wrong thing, as Mitt Romney constantly did during the 2012 presidential campaign. Romney publicly revealed a secret briefing that many had undergone over the decades but that everyone else had the good sense to keep confidential. Romney also broke the cardinal sin of retired Chief Executive Officers, which is not to criticize the new administration unless involved in a hostile takeover; Mitt criticized the London Olympics (unfairly, too, as it turned out) even though he was a past CEO of the Olympic games. Far from making these “bull in a china shop” mistakes, Hillary seems to enjoy tremendous respect among the people of the world and world leaders. While Bernie may end up being too abrasive, I’m sure he will do a better job in representing us among the world’s countries than any of the Republican candidates would.
  • She is competent running an organization: Hillary seemed to have done a good job of running the State Department, even during the Benghazi disaster. The differences between running a small city, as Bernie did, and the State Department are enormous.
  • Science-based decision-making: Hillary has never said or written anything that tried to deny science. Contrast with the Republican candidates: all of them deny science in one way or another regarding a wide variety of issues, including global warming, science teaching, women’s fertility issues, gun safety and economics. I’m not saying Hillary is always right, but that she always reasons from the facts and not from what she wants the facts to be. So does Bernie.

There are certain issues on which I am closer to Bernie than Hillary, such as what the minimum wage should be, the abolition of capital punishment and the possibility of making public universities free to all. But on some other issues, I prefer Hillary’s stands, such as gun control and the way by which we will achieve universal healthcare. We’ve already detailed some of Hillary’s mistakes.  As for Bernie, his neglect of whistle-blowers when he was chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee looks like a lesser version of Bush II’s approach to Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq war. His gun stands remind me of the triangulation of another former president, Hillary’s spouse.  In short, both have made decisions they regret and compromises that make their true believers wince.

When elected, we can expect Hillary to hit the ground running because she has lived through the mistakes that young, first-time presidents like her spouse and Obama have made. She will not need a learning curve—she already knows the political process with all its pitfalls. Bernie’s oppositional politics may hamper him as he tries to scrounge up Republican votes to support needed legislation.

In a recent Facebook exchange, a Sanders supporter averred that Bernie would not be as large of target for Republican dirt during the fall campaign. That’s a very naïve statement. Anyone who thinks the Republicans won’t go after Bernie with a vengeance is living in a dream world. They will constantly bludgeon him with three large and spiky clubs: They’ll hammer him about being a godless, un-American socialist. At 75, they will say he’ll be too old to start a first term as president. They will figure out a dozen code phrases to remind the public that he’s Jewish. We in our progressive universe of cities and college campuses don’t care about his religion, but believe me, there is still a lot of hidden anti-Semitism in the country, especially in rural areas. Evangelicals will not find it inconsistent to support Israel, but hate “the Jew.”

Hillary has withstood 24 years of false accusations about Whitewater, the suicide of Vince Foster, her supposed role in a cover-up of her spouse’s affairs, Benghazi, her emails and her foundation. She is used to not melting in the heat of Republican lies. Additionally, many have grown tired of all the dirt thrown at Hillary that never hits or sticks. We have come to discount it. The dirt on Bernie will be fresh and therefore make more of an impact with independents. Finally—and this point is very subtle—the Republicans excoriate Hillary for what she did and does. They will excoriate Bernie about what he is—an aging Jewish socialist. You can change what you do, but not who you are. (For the record, I hope neither Bernie nor Hillary change either!)

Both Bernie and Hillary come off well in debates compared to the no-nothing liars running for the Republican nomination. But in town hall meetings and one-on-ones, when there is time to give a more nuanced presentation, Hillary soars. She thinks on her feet and she has command of the facts. Her explanations always make sense. She takes no leaps of logic, nor does she depend on widely-believed myths. She is definitely a progressive. Her style reminds me of a female Barack Obama—friendly, studied, compromising.

Finally there is the issue of sex. It’s about time we elected a woman president, years after England, Israel, Germany, India and many other nations have done so. If we were talking about Sarah Palin or Carly Fiorina, the sex of the candidate wouldn’t be an issue at all, because both are incompetent liars. And really, it doesn’t matter in Hillary’s case either. Man or woman, black or white, gay or straight, Methodist or Muslim—Hillary Clinton is as qualified to be president by virtue of her abilities and accomplishments as anyone who has ever run for the office.

Thus, I’m going to continue to give the love to Bernie. But I’m going to support Hillary Clinton and vote for her in my state’s primary.

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Dark Money shows how difficult it’s going to be to recapture our democracy from rightwing billionaires

Jane Mayer’s Dark Money does a thorough job of dissecting the 40-year campaign of a small coterie of billionaires to change the American political agenda for their own selfish ends. She explains the process by which our country has reached the point at which it is overwhelmingly centrist-looking-left but controlled by right-wingers, especially at the state level. It explains how the Democrats could outvote the Republicans by millions and still not have a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. It explains why the mass media focuses on inessential issues such as the deficit or promulgates ridiculous myths such as the social value of lowering taxes and the idea that science is unsure about global warming.

The ultimate reason for the current state of American politics and public life is money. In this case, money spent over the past 30+ years by a small number of billionaires who wanted to lower their taxes and end regulation that cost their businesses money. The main organizers of this group have been Charles and David Koch, two of four sons of industrialist and rightwing funder Fred Koch, an original founder of the John Birch Society.

These rich folk have included among others Richard Mellon Scaife, the DeVos, Bradley and Olin families, Phillip Anschutz, Peter Singer and Sheldon Adelson, but most of the organizing has come from Charles Koch.

According to Mayer, their long-term game plan, hatched in the mid-70s, came partly from a memo by Lewis Powell before he joined the Supreme Court and a white paper put together by William Simon after he was Secretary of the Treasury. It started with secretly starting and financing think tanks that churn out position papers supporting their rightwing political views, e.g. government is always bad, the free market solves all problems, a minimum wage leads to unemployment, unions constitute restraint of trade, taxes should be lowered on job creators—the entire package of lies still peddled by Republican candidates, Fox News, the Wall Street Journal and a horde of think tanks. They also invaded the universities, feeding them with money to study economic, political and social phenomena from a rightwing perspective. Mayer does an especially good job of showing how Koch money has turned George Mason University into a center of phony rightwing research. One of the more successful think tanks has been the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the organization that writes all the anti-union, voter suppression, gun rights and shaft-the-poor legislation that Republican legislators have passed in recent years.

For years Koch has held secret seminars for his billionaire pals in which he outlined issues, discussed strategies and shared information on how to establish layers of nonprofit organizations to hide the names of donors and how much they have given.

From the think tanks, rightwing ideas spread to the general public through the news media, especially the rightwing media which used to consist of a few hundred radio stations but now includes the vast Fox broadcasting empire. At a certain point, the Kochtapus—a description of the Koch network of fellow billionaire contributors—began to invest millions in supporting specific candidates. After Citizen’s United, the ultraright ratcheted up candidate investment. Along the way, they found it easier to control local and statewide elections than national ones.

The 30 or so rich individuals or families Mayer mentions as part of the Dark Money network fall into one of three categories:

  1. Their business interests have depended either primarily or substantially on government contracts, which explains why the ultraright hates government but loves military contracts and subsidies for oil and gas.
  2. Owners of companies that have gotten into trouble for not following environmental, financial or other regulations and owe or have paid the government a ton of money or are involved in litigation with the government.
  3. People who are both, which include the Koch brothers who are the closest people to being pure evil as I have ever encountered in reading or real life.

In other words, these billionaires will often wrap themselves in a flag and say they are trying to preserve and enhance our freedom, but their desire is to create a government that bows to their selfish interests. For all of the billionaires, the only thing that matters is money and power, but others are motivated by their religiosity, racism or love of guns, which partially explains the alliance these plutocrats have made with the religious right and the gun lobby.

While Mayer does an excellent job of shedding light on all of this dark money, she doesn’t put the experience of the last 40 years of rightwing insurgency financed by a handful of the ultra wealthy into the context of U.S. history. Around the time of Simon’s call to action, which was general, the progressive sociologist William Domhoff laid out in great detail how to control American policy decisions in his public policy model. Domhoff constructed a complicated flow chart that describes in advance exactly what the Kochtapus did: Start by controlling research and universities, then public policy, and finally legislation and legislators. Domhoff is illuminating a process that has controlled American policy since at least the turn of the 20th century. The controlling interests have always been the ultra wealthy and have always skewered to the right. What differs with the current bunch of oligarchs is the vastly larger sums of money involved, that they have concealed so much of their activity behind multiple layers of organizations and that so much of the ruling elite has turned its back on the compromises made with the New Deal.

Mayer doesn’t mention it, but I believe that the massive tax break that Reagan pushed through Congress early in his first term has led to the great increase in the money that these billionaires have contributed to controlling the American political process. The tax cut both freed up more money for them to throw around and by making them richer, gave them more incentive to fight against social welfare programs and for lower taxes. I believe Thomas Piketty made a similar argument in Capitalism in the 21st Century as to why incomes for chief executive officers skyrocketed after the Reagan tax breaks.

Dark Money is a depressing book, but one I recommend that everyone who cares about the future direction of our country read.

How do we fight the forces of Dark Money? To my mind, progressives, liberals and centrists must vote for the Democratic candidate this year, no matter who it is, and more important, to vote Democrat in every off-year election. A mildly progressive president won in 2008 and 2012, but his victory was neutralized to a large degree because of the election of 2010, which determined who was going to set the boundaries of Congressional districts.

Like Obama and Hillary Clinton, most Democrats tend to be extremely progressive on domestic issues and hawkish on foreign policy issues, but much less so than the Republicans. The loud cry of people like Elizabeth Warren drives the more mainstream Democrats even further left. Voting for Democrats, but driving the party further left is the only way we can stop the United States from becoming a land of rich and poor with fake elections controlled by a handful of selfish and very wealthy people.

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I was wrong when I said transgendered should use public bathroom of their genitals. See original OpEdge article at Vox Populi: http://voxpopulisphere.com/2016/02/01/marc-jampole-5/

Last week, when I wrote that the transgendered should use the bathroom for the sex of their genitals, I was wrong. Two friends pointed out that a transsexual will often dress and look like the sex with which she/he identifies and to use the bathroom of the other sex would be disruptive. One friend rightfully worried that there are still enough unenlightened individuals around that if a transgendered female who has not had surgery uses the men’s room, she risks getting beat up.

I did note that the problem is easy to fix while giving people more dignity and privacy: Have unisex bathrooms with stalls that are actually little rooms.  Until that happens, it is best that transgendered people use the bathroom of the sex with which they identify, but always in a stall.

I haven’t changed my mind about the rest of the article, which proposed using genitalia to determine which public shower rooms, sports teams and scholarships are appropriate for a transgendered person who has not had surgery. You can see the article at Vox Populi.

We are talking about inherently ambiguous situations which surgery immediately and profoundly clarifies, certainly for the rest of the world and perhaps for the transgendered individual as well.

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Many similarities between Donald Trump & Ronald Reagan, with but one difference: Trump’s smile is turned upside down

Like many people who don’t inhabit the alternative universe known as 21st century American conservatism, I have been cogitating a lot about why Donald Trump has sustained his popularity among those who affiliate with the Republican Party. After poring over a list of his stands on and approaches to the issues, his background, his attitudes towards politics, his demeanor, speaking style and other pertinent aspects of his candidacy, the answer hit me with the strength of an epiphany.

Donald Trump is popular because he is just like Ronald Reagan in all significant ways, except for one: Reagan spoke with a smile of hope, whereas Trump prefers a frown of angry fear.

Let’s take a look at the many ways Trump resembles Reagan. Trump is still active, but I’ll make my comparisons in the past tense for ease of reading:

Both served as omniscient hosts for television shows. Before TV, both had mediocre careers, Reagan as a B movie actor and Trump as a real estate developer who sent properties into bankruptcy multiple times, lost billions of his investors’ dollars, and achieved a net worth about half of what it would have been if he had passively invested the hundreds of millions he inherited from his father into stocks.

Both started as progressives, but then moved far right before beginning their political career. Both campaigned as anti-establishment, anti-government outsiders, cultivating dissatisfied and resentful voters who were convinced someone or something had taken away their birthright, a group comprising to a large degree whites without a college education who voted the Democratic Party line before 1980.

Both were divorced, non-observant secularists with what some might label amoral pasts who nevertheless found lots of support among very religious Christians.

The economic platform of both depended on lowering taxes and removing government regulations to transfer wealth and income from the middle and lower classes up the socio-economic ladder to the rich and super-rich.

Both supported building up our armed forces and advocated a robust use of the military to resolve foreign conflicts and prosecute foreign policy. Both articulated foreign policy stands with bluster.

Both painted a vision of America based on a mythical past and declared confidently that he would return the country to those halcyon days.

Both demonized innocent groups and turned perceived enemies into one-sided all-evil comic book villains.  Both appealed to our worst natures in matters involving race and charity for the poor. One minor difference here that reflects our loss of civility in the public sector—Reagan would always talk in polite, a well-understood code, such as “welfare queens,” whereas Trump mixes code with vulgar explicitness.

Neither was a master, or even an apprentice, of the everyday details of developing and pursuing policies, preferring to talk about and consider only the larger picture.

Although one cultivated a westerner’s demeanor and the other thought he epitomized the Big Apple, both were old-fashioned, town-and-country, meat-and-potatoes, American songbook types who reflected a pre-rock-and-roll mentality and zeitgeist, one in which women play an inherently inferior role. Neither gave a hint of enjoying intellectual pursuits. Both artificially processed their hair to appear younger.

Both tended to make their points using anecdotes instead of facts. Both proved to be quite able to fabricate realistic-sounding lies to support their views. Neither ever backed down from a lie once told, and often doubled-down by insisting on the veracity of his false statements. Consider the similarities between Reagan’s denials on the Iran-Contra scandal and Trump insisting that thousands in New Jersey cheered on rooftops as the Twin Towers toppled on 9/11.

The one salient difference between The Gipper and The Donald is that Reagan delivered his messages with a smile that told us that he was confident about the future. Reagan spoke optimistically about the glorious, limitless utopia in store for the country upon his election, which contrasted with four years of Jimmy Carter’s sour wailing about how bad things were. Now it’s Trump who is bemoaning the present, but instead of whining as the cartoonish media image of Carter did, Trump bellows aggressively, shows his teeth and brandishes his bloodlust, much as Segismundo in Calderón’s classic drama “Life is a Dream.” Interestingly enough, every Republican candidate is painting a similarly dire picture of the U.S. economy and society in alarmist terms that makes it seem as if we are on the verge of a complete collapse and invasion.

Facial expression aside, though, Trump is heir to the Reagan mantle. But times have changed. Conditions have worsened for most Americans, thanks in whole to the policies that Reagan advocated.

Trump’s bellicose sky-is-falling approach matches our anxious zeitgeist. Trump feeds off the panic felt by several groups: by evangelicals as they see the country accept gay marriage and a woman’s right to an abortion; by blue collar whites as they see manufacturing jobs continue to disappear and the ones that still exist generate less purchasing power than before; by nativists and racists who fear immigrants and minorities are taking over the country and that the government is giving away their hard earned dollars to support those they believe to be inferior; by gun owners fearful of a coming wave of gun control ordinances as Americans grow tired of gun deaths and injuries. Overriding all these anxieties is the fear felt by most Americans of another terror attack, which has caused some to become xenophobic and anti-Islam.

Thus, when Donald Trump speaks to his supporters, who years ago formed the core of Ronald Reagan’s constituency, all The Donald does is turn the Reagan smile upside down and makes it a frown.

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I.O.C. will eventually regret decision not to require transgendered athletes to undergo reassignment surgery

There are very few situations in public life in which the differences between males and females matter. In fact, I can only think of four:

  1. Only women can bear children.
  2. Men are faster and stronger than women, so we segregate the two sexes at the very highest levels of athletic competition. This segregation is not necessary for intellectual pursuits.
  3. Our society has developed a group modesty about the naked human body, especially when it is engaged in elimination functions. One way we enforce our body mores is to have separate bathrooms, locker rooms and shower rooms for each sex.
  4. Certain organizations and individuals establish scholarships or other financial aid for people of one sex, usually but not always female. These scholarships often compensate for the decades of discrimination women faced that led to an underrepresentation in certain professions, such as the natural sciences and engineering.

The first distinction between men and women I noted above does not affect a discussion of the rights of the transgendered, but the other three are at the nexus of the problem of assigning and defining sexual identity in a way that includes the transgendered and does not discriminate against them.

The avant-garde of political correctness is now parsing sexual identification into a number of categories: cis (someone who identifies with the sex “assigned” to them at birth by virtue of their visible genitalia) and trans, male and female, and, if we include sexuality, straight, gay, bi and the other varieties of love. Thus, someone can be a cis straight male, a bi trans female or any number of other combinations.

(FYI, I find it highly problematic to use “assigned” to describe the process of identifying the sex of a child at birth. What the real world does when a child is born is not the aggressive action of assignment, but the more passive act of acknowledging the sex of a child at birth as defined by its genitalia. What else do we have to go on at that point?)

This segmentation probably comes in handy on dating websites and has a sociological value, as well. On the other hand, sexual identification and orientation should matter not a whit when it comes to decisions related to hiring, firing, promotion, university admission, club admissions, government, healthcare and employment benefits, housing, business, shopping and congregating in public places.

But we can’t have a separate bathroom or separate professional basketball leagues for each of these types of sexuality. The question remains then, how do we define female and male in those few, limited situations when it matters? Let’s keep in mind that best-guess estimates put transgendered people at two-tenths of one percent of the population (700,000 out of 322.3 million). According to one source, about one-third of all transgendered people have undergone surgery to obtain the genitals of the sex with which they identify, which means that defining who is a man or woman for the purposes of athletics, scholarship or bathroom use affects only about one out of every 691 people. That number will decline as acceptance of the transgendered grows in society and more select surgery.

In a sparsely covered announcement, the International Olympics Committee (I.O.C.) has said that moving forward it would allow transgender athletes who have not had surgery to compete in the Olympics. People identified at birth as female who now consider themselves male get a free pass, whereas those identified as male at birth who consider themselves female will have to pass a test showing that their testosterone level is below a certain point.

I think it’s a bad decision for several reasons: First of all, past scandals involving performance drugs, including East Germany’s women’s track team in the 1970s, suggests that the probability of abuse is high. Beyond that, for transgendered people who have not had surgery, we have to take them at their word that they are truly transgendered and not trying to game the system. There is also the issue of fairness—it’s unfair to set a higher bar for one transgendered sex than for the other.

Lawsuits or the loud outcry when the public sees someone who looks male competing in women’s track will quickly make the I.O.C. regret its decisions.

The I.O.C. should have required that transgendered athletes complete the process of transformation through having surgery. In fact, for those small numbers of instances when we must distinguish between male and female, the assignment of sex should always follow the genitalia.

Meanwhile, we should eliminate as many of the areas as possible in which we need to make sexual distinctions. There are quick and not-so-quick fixes for the challenge of bathrooms and preferential scholarships that involve eliminating the need for the distinction. We could easily switch to unisex bathrooms in which every stall is a separate room. I like the idea, but be forewarned that three things will happen: 1) Men will complain of long lines; 2) More sexual and drug behavior will occur in public bathrooms; 3) Most people will feel a greater sense of privacy and dignity not having to urinate three inches next to a stranger or see a stranger’s leg and shoe while unreeling toilet paper. Special scholarships and programs for women will disappear about a decade after workplace and other discrimination against women ends.  On the other hand, I see no way around the sexual wall that exists at the highest level of professional sports.

I know what I’m saying is going to anger and offend many transgendered people, possibly including two of my first cousins. I am so proud of both of them. They made a decision to come out of the closet that was particularly gutsy in light of the rigidly macho family we come from. I am delighted that they are happier people now, and it pisses me off when I hear someone make a derogatory comment about them or other transgendered people. I support their choice, and the choice made by all 700,000 transgendered Americans, those who undergo surgery and those who don’t.

But in the public world, corruption and other forms of darkness always fill ambiguity, and there is no way we can remove the ambiguity that exists to the outside world in someone who proclaims he or she is transgendered and has not had surgery. I do not believe we unfairly discriminate against transgendered individuals to insist that they must have the genitalia associated with the sex of the team for which they want to play or the bathroom they want to use. It’s the only fair way to resolve the inherent ambiguity in the situation, e.g., someone with a penis who proclaims he’s a woman wants to play for the women’s team.  Remember that the situation is ambiguous only because they chose to make it so by not having surgery—which, by the way, should be covered under all healthcare insurance—to confirm what they know in their hearts to be true.

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Celebrity culture takes over politics: A reality TV flop endorses a reality TV star for president

That reality television flop Sarah Palin was endorsing reality television star Donald Trump for the office of president of the United States has been known since late August, when Mint Press covered it. The Mint Press story said that in return Trump might give Palin a cabinet-level position in his administration. Fortunately or unfortunately, a lot of Mint Press stories are ignored by the rest of the news media. In this case, the story never mentioned a specific endorsement speech.

At the time I wrote, “The news is pure hot air—the insubstantial stuff of which the celebrity news is constituted. Everyone knows that there is no way Trump will get nominated by the Republicans, and if he runs as an independent, there is no way he will win the election.”

Fast forward to two weeks before the Iowa caucus and half of what I predicted may turn out to be false. We may very well see the Republican Party nominate Donald Trump as its presidential candidate.

Nothing has changed about the incompetent Palin. She has managed to become a has-been in three professions—politics, reality TV and news-casting. Palin disappeared from the political radar, I think, because her ignorant opinions and frequent misstatements scare off all but the small base of rightwing Christian fundamentalists who were always her primary audience. For that base to matter to Trump or any other candidate, there would have had to have been a larger audience for Mamma Grizzly’s reality show. As it turns out though, Palin’s name matters a little bit in Iowa. Her second attempt at endorsing Trump comes the same day that Iowa Governor Terry Branstad asked Iowa caucus-goers to vote for anyone but Ted Cruz. The push-and-pull of Palin and Branstad so soon before the caucus may help Trump defeat Cruz, which would mark the beginning of the end of the Canadian’s candidacy.

The announcement itself was pure Barnum & Bailey. Someone living off a long-tarnished reputation endorsed someone known to the American people primarily as a business celebrity. This was the perfect Kodak moment for the 2016 campaign, which represents the apotheosis of American celebrity culture. Since the 1960 election of John Kennedy with fewer than 50% of the vote, the news media have gradually taken the focus of their election coverage away from issues and placed it on the same concerns that dominate celebrity news: Gotcha’s and mistakes. Personality clashes. What others think. Family life. Hobbies. Speaking style. Charisma. Skeletons in the closet. Long-time grievances and jealousies. Insulting other candidates. The latest popularity contest. The race for money.

In every election, ever more time and space is devoted to “celebrity issues” and ever less time to economic, social, international and environmental issues. Moreover, since the turn of century, at the same time the media has been celebritizing our news, reality TV in all of its formats has grown to dominate broadcast and cable television.

Today’s announcement thus marks the final stage in the blurring of political news and celebrity entertainment. It is an announcement that resonates as loudly in the world of reality TV as it does in the world of politics.

Virtually every cable news show made the Palin-loves-Trump announcement the focal point of news coverage for the day. An army of pundits and experts appeared, each spinning the announcement to support his or her own opinion or speculation on where Iowa and New Hampshire voters, the Republican Party and the country are headed and why. Lots of hot air with very little content. Imagine an “American Idol” in which the judging took 50 times longer than the singing, and instead of three judges, there are 60 or 70.

Treating the nominating process as if it were a reality show distracts the American public from considering carefully what the candidates say they will do. It keeps us from realizing how bad the Republican program is for anyone who isn’t rich and privileged, because we’re too busy analyzing the gotcha’s and trying to figure out if the non-Trumpeteers will coalesce behind Cruz, Rubio or someone else. In the process, each candidate becomes redefined as a celebrity brand that we can describe in a few sentences, as opposed to the pages it would take to describe their positions on important issues.

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Mainstream media love illogical articles that blame liberals for the ills created by conservatives

In a self-righteously overwrought article that blames liberals for the lack of gun control laws, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof either makes a classic rhetorical mistake or employs a reliable propaganda trick: stating that just because two things happened at the same time, one caused the other. In algebraic terms, the flaw unfolds thusly: A is true, B is true, therefore A caused B.

In “Some Inconvenient Facts for Liberals,” Kristof points out that since 1993, gun homicides have dropped by 50% while gun ownership has increased by 50%. Kristof wants us to believe that the increase in the number of guns in circulation led to a decrease in gun homicides.

But he’s wrong, and he may know it.  Note that Kristof refers only to gun homicides: all gun deaths and injuries are up over the past 20 years, whereas all homicides are down, not just gun homicides. Two years ago, Oliver Roeder, Lauren-Brooke Eisen and Julia Bowling of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, released What Caused the Crime Decline?, which analyzed all of the possible factors leading to a decline in the crime rate using the most complete reports and advanced computer modeling techniques. Among other interesting revelations, the trio found that enactment of looser gun laws had absolutely no effect on the crime rate. Also note that statistics from around the world demonstrate that when private gun ownership increases, so do homicides, deaths and injuries from guns.

Instead of citing a statistic out of context as Kristof does, if we look at the totality of available evidence, we must conclude that if the number of guns had not increased in society gun homicides would have declined even more than they did over the past 25 or so years.

Kristof wonders, at least rhetorically, why legislatures don’t pass anti-gun legislation, when most Americans want stiffer gun laws, including 74% of National Rifle Association (NRA) members. He answers his own question, blaming liberals for antagonizing gun owners by coming across as “supercilious, condescending and spectacularly uninformed about the guns they propose to legislature.”

His two examples of being uninformed don’t prove anything: 1) He says the New York State legislature was uninformed when it passed legislation banning gun magazines holding more than seven bullets, when for most guns, the magazine always holds more than seven bullets. All that proves is the legislators were covering all bases. 2)  He points out that assault weapons accounted for only 2% of guns used in crimes and references without citing a study that found that only 2% of all guns used in crimes were assault weapons. Kristof wants us to draw the conclusion that the fuss about reinstituting a ban on assault weapons is wasted effort and shows the ignorance of liberals. The online edition of the Times thankfully provides a link to the study, by three University of Pennsylvania researchers. Titled, “An Updated Assessment of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban: Impacts on Gun Markets and Gun Violence, 1994,” the study states that assault weapons account for a large share of police killings and public mass murders, again demonstrating that liberals were not uninformed. Congress knew when it passed the temporary ban on assault weapons in 1994 that it would reduce police and mass shootings, and it did, for the ten years it was in effect.

As to the charge of superciliousness and condescension, Kristof provides not one shred of evidence, not one quote, not one attitudinal study, not one Internet word analysis.  He’s just tarring liberals with some unpleasant adjectives. His ad hominem attack on those who favor gun control conveniently shifts that blame for our loose gun laws to the “supercilious” liberals and away from the NRA and the multitude of politicians on the state and federal level who pig out at its all-you-can-eat money trough.

Kristof declares that he is sympathetic with those advocating tighter gun control laws. He writes that “Americans are absolutely right to be outraged at the toll of guns.” He agrees we need to reduce the carnage from guns, and proposes what he calls a new strategy, to take a “public health approach.” Essentially he wants to stop talking about “gun control” and start talking about “gun safety.” As if changing one word is going to completely rebrand the gun control movement and make it more palatable to the NRA, whose supporters—weapons manufacturers—depend on selling the myth that the only way to be safe it to own a gun and carry it with you everywhere.

Kristof is a fool if he actually believes that if “liberals” had presented the proposed ban on selling guns to suspected terrorists as a “safety” measure instead of a “control” measure” the NRA would have signaled their legislative factotums to vote “yes” or those factotums would have felt secure enough in the desires of the electorate to defy the NRA. No way.

Near the end of the article, Kristof calls for universal background checks for anyone wanting to purchase a gun. Why he supposes calling such a new law a “gun safety” measure will matter to the NRA and legislators remains a mystery.

In short, Kristof’s column is nonsense, the sole purpose of which is to blame liberals for something that is not their fault. The mainstream news media seems to love these articles by centrists or self-loathing liberals that fault liberals and progressives for their inability to pursue their political agenda. Perhaps the self-loathing liberal motive shows up so often media because the owners of mainstream news media tend to be corporations and ultra-wealthy. Like Kristof’s, these articles typically neglect the power of money, influence and control of the news media to subvert the desires of the American people, not just when it comes to gun control, but also on economic, educational, tax and healthcare policies.

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When Ted Cruz insults “New York values,” he insults the totality of human experience

Screw you, Ted Cruz.

All personal feelings aside, when Ted Cruz tried to insult Donald Trump by saying he had “New York values,” he misjudged the rest of the country’s current feelings towards the Big Apple, the most visited tourist spot in the Americas, including Las Vegas.

New York still represents the big city, but not necessarily in a negative way. For millions of vacationers, New York offers a wonderfully homogenized tourist zone: the cleaned-up Times Square, the High Line, a Broadway musical or two, a visit to Strawberry Fields in Central Park and a shopping or window-shopping trip down Fifth Avenue. Along the way, the average tourist may run into an historic building or a museum or gallery. For educated young people, who tend to like cities and mass transit more than their parents do, New York represents a Mecca, as it does to anyone interested in either traditional or cutting edge performing or visual arts.

New York represents all the positive trends in cities over the past twenty years. Cities all over the country are cleaner and much safer than they used to be, filled with creative and educated young people, multiple entertainment venues and interesting non-chain restaurants, magnets for wealthy consumers, empty nesters and recent immigrants. The energy and diversity of cities are now glorified and considered precious national resources.

In other words, Senator Cruz, your anti-New York dog won’t hunt.

Today’s view of New York is largely positive. Sure there are small-town folk throughout the country like my uncle in Macon, Georgia, who don’t like New York and may be intimidated by it or, like a friend of mine in the Los Angeles area, feel uncomfortable traveling unless driving an automobile. But for most of the country, New York is a cuddly and loveable town. Dozens of celebrities and pundits from all over the country, including many fellow Republicans, joined in the chiding of Cruz, even the Wall Street Journal.

Cruz was wrong not just in his cynical attempt to tar Donald Trump with insults by connecting him to the Big Apple. Cruz conflates New York with a set of social values that are now largely accepted throughout the country. The fight for gay marriage did not take place in New York, but California, Ohio, Texas and Kentucky. The Roe v. Wade case came out of Texas. There is no difference in the number of women using birth control sometime in their life in New York City and elsewhere in the country.

Also implicated in “New York values” is the concept of the suspicious or dangerous “other” lurking in ethnic and cultural diversity. True enough, New York City is the most diverse city in the world, a place where you can hear more languages regularly spoken within its five boroughs (actually one, Queens) than any other municipality in the world. But the rest of the United States is gradually following New York’s lead and becoming far more diverse, not just in its population, but in the mainstreaming of ethnic and sexual minorities.

As New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and others have pointed out, “New York values are American values.”

At the end of Ted Cruz’ brief list of the values he despises and that New York symbolizes for him, he mentioned money. When he says money, everyone understands he means the capitalist system, lots of very wealthy people and great wealth inequality. In condemning New York for its “money” Cruz is not wrong on the facts, just being hypocritical, for two reasons: 1. Cruz supports policies which help “money” make and keep more money. He is a fanatical believer in the free market unencumbered by regulations and unions. 2. Cruz has accepted a ton of money from New York sources. Judging from his list of campaign contributors, including loans from two large New York banks that epitomize Wall Street, Ted Cruz loves New York money.

The biggest mistake that Ted Cruz makes is to try to characterize New York. New York is everything and has archetypes and prototypes of every kind of person: Billionaires, investment bankers, hedge fund managers and trust fund babies, yes. But also secular Jewish socialists, left-leaning professors, strong labor unions, progressive publishers, jazz hipsters, aging hippies, Brooklyn rappers, punks, goths, geeks and LGBTQ, immigrants from every continent, artists, dancers, musicians, writers, designers, inventors, first-nighters and birdwatchers (in the many large parks and wetlands within the city limits), communists and neo-cons, trannies and tanned jetsetters, fashionistas with Fendi bags and feminists with shopping bags, plus millions of ordinary families of every color, race, religion, sexual orientation and ethnicity.

In short, New York is everything and has everything. New York values encompass all values. To insult New York is to insult the totality of human experience.

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When Jane Austen meets zombies, the result is plenty of gore, kitsch and economic anxiety.

As far as I can tell from common usage, a zombie is a former human being whose dead body has been reanimated. Zombies walk around in a stiff stupor and often want to kill and eat humans as their only way to survive. While not all zombies feed on humans, most of them do in popular fiction, video games and movies, which connects zombism directly to vampirism.

The vampire, and by extension the zombie, is the perfect image for an age when selfishness reigns as the underlying ideology.  I call it the Age of Reagan because it was under Ronald Reagan’s leadership that the country began its turn towards selfishness.  Reagan expressed it best with his oft-told joke with the punch line, “I don’t have to run faster than the bear, just faster than you.”  A human creature who stays alive by sucking the blood of other humans is an apt metaphor for the current epoch in which our social and economic policy creates small numbers of ultra-wealthy Americans, while everyone else gets poorer.  In a real sense, the wealthy feed off the bodies and work of the rest of the country.

Five years ago in these pages, I noted the vampire fad and predicted it would continue, because it served so well as a symbol for the zeitgeist. The spin-off these past few years into zombism is therefore not surprising. A five-minute Internet search yielded the following list of zombie or zombie-vampire television series showing on broadcast, cable, premium cable or Internet television: “The Walking Dead,” “Z Nation,” “Dead Set, Death Valley,” “In the Flesh, Raised by Zombies,” “Ash vs. Evil Dead,” “The Returned “and “Zombie Hunter: City of the Dead, to name a few. I’ve assiduously avoided this nonsense, but sometimes see the promotions for these shows while channel surfing.

The zombie is not exactly a vampire and doesn’t hold exactly the same subtextual symbolism. Unlike the vampire, who is generally a loner or runs in small packs and usually comes from a privileged background, the zombie is a creature of groups. Whereas the vampire represents the capitalist, the horde of zombies may in fact be stand-ins for illegal immigrants, who are currently getting the blame for many of our problems by most Republicans.  Criminals, rapists, stealers of jobs from honest Americans, users of our social safety net—these zombies who live off the body politic come from the dregs of society, not the higher planes as many vampires do.  Mitt Romney was the perfect vampire, whereas Donald Trump projects himself as the ruthless superhero protecting us from the zombies.

The latest entry into zombie entertainment caught me by complete surprise: a new movie titled Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The trailer makes the movie look like a martial-humans-versus-supernatural-monsters flick set in the late 18th century.

Not recognizing the title merely shows how out of the mainstream of pop culture I can be when it comes to adult horror and fantasy fiction, because as it turns out, the movie called “P&P&Z,” as I’m going to abbreviate it, is based on a 2009 novel by the same name. According to the Wikipedia article on the novel, about 85% of it repeats Jane Austen’s original words, which are now in public domain and therefore available for use without royalty payments. The author, Seth Grahame-Smith, interweaves several subplots about the living dead into Austen’s classic story of star-crossed lovers kept apart by their own foibles of pride and prejudice.

Not the author, but the publisher, is responsible for creating the concept of interjecting zombism into Jane Austen. Quirk Books editor Jason Rekulak developed the idea for “P&P&Z” after matching a list of popular supernatural characters with a list of books whose titles are in the public domain. Once he came up with Pride and Prejudice and zombies, he turned the project over to a writer, much as a marketing vice president would turn an industrial video, a television ad campaign or website concept over to a PR writer.

I usually don’t depend this much on the contents of a Wikipedia article, but the Wikipedia description of the opening of the novel gives a pungent sense of the odd pastiche produced by combining Jane Austen with the living dead:

“Elizabeth Bennet and her four sisters live on a countryside estate with their parents. Mr. Bennet guides his daughters in martial arts and weapons training, molding them into a fearsome zombie-fighting army; meanwhile, Mrs. Bennet endeavors to marry the girls off to wealthy suitors. When the wealthy and single Mr. Bingley purchases a nearby house, Mrs. Bennet spies an opportunity and sends the girls to the first ball where Bingley is expected to appear. The girls defend the party from a zombie attack, and attraction sparks between Mr. Bingley and the eldest daughter Jane Bennet. Elizabeth clashes with Bingley’s friend, the haughty monster-hunter Fitzwilliam Darcy.”

Elizabeth and Darcy have become superheroes, while maintaining their upper class country English breeding. As a “Saturday Night Live” skit, I would think it a hoot of a travesty. But in a full-length novel or movie, I imagine that the joke quickly becomes boring and the tongue gets a little tired firmly stuck in the cheek for hours at a time.  Plus the frequent interjections of violence must quickly overcome the humor of mixing 18th century gentry with zombies.

Those who believe that this triumph of marketing over creativity reflects the bankrupt spirit of western culture should remember that the practice of a business person giving a concept that mixes unlike elements to an artist goes back at least to Roman times, when the Emperor Augustus’ political advisor Maecenas gave the well-known poet Virgil the task of creating a Roman epic that incorporated elements of the Iliad and the Odyssey into it, but with a Roman hero. In a sense, the early Renaissance paintings which depict the family of the person who paid for the artwork adoring the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child perform the same kind of genre mixing and for the same reason: to make money. We could analyze for days what makes the Aeneid or Botticelli’s “The Adoration of the Magi” great art and ”P&P&Z” a piece of titillating dreck. The points we would discuss include artistic technique, depth and consistency of characters, avoidance of the explicit, historical significance and discussions of or allusions to great issues.

As a cultural document reflecting its time,“P&P&Z” may be more telling than the Aeneid or Renaissance art, which after all, reflected the predilections and fears of a small sliver of the population, the wealthy. “P&P&Z” incorporates the politics of selfishness in its most extreme manifestation—consuming other people to survive and killing the worthless living dead who threaten to overrun the stable society of the prosperous living. It therefore both reflects and ameliorates the fears many have of falling behind in an economic system in which 95% of the population has stagnated or lost ground over the past three decades, while elected officials have used tax and spending policies literally to take money from the poor and middle class and give it to the wealthy, and then placed the blame on the poor themselves.

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End game for Oregon Refuge occupiers is a nation with a few rich folk & mostly poor people

It seems as if the real goal of Ammon Bundy and the other occupiers of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is to take permanent possession of government land as an act of armed rebellion. That’s the simplest way to understand their actions and their statements.

They are playing a game of chicken with the federal government. The current frigidly right-wing winds blowing throughout the country would make an armed attempt by the police or army to dislodge this rag-tag army a probable public relations disaster for President Obama. Bill Clinton faced a lot of criticism for the Waco siege and its violent conclusion in an age much more hostile to gun rights and secession fantasies than today. Imagine if a police force killed a few of Bundy’s buddies.

But I don’t think Ammon Bundy is suicidal. He just plays a good game of poker. He figures that he can stay on the land as long as he likes, as long as he doesn’t start shooting at people.

Good poker player, yes. Good PR hack, not so much. The problem Bundy faces is that everyone has lined up against his group—the people he’s trying to help, the local authorities and even the politicians who pontificated on the rights of his father not to pay nominal fees to have his cattle feed on public lands that tax dollars maintain. Plus wacko groups from the Northwest’s thriving survivalist movement have descended on the Refuge, looking to hook up with Bundy’s group. The more people out of his control—and maybe his payroll, for all we know—the greater the possibility that someone does something stupid that gives the federal government ethical permission to charge in. I’m pretty sure that Ammon Bundy is of the “discretion is the better part of valor” school, adhering to the Falstaffian belief that being a martyr is great PR for the cause, but hazardous to your health. Come to think of it, a fictional Bundy married to a redhead with two children often expressed the same sentiment.

All irony aside, the broader issue is one of property ownership. The Bundys and their supporters, don’t believe that the federal government should own any land. What they don’t realize is that if private hands held all land, the Bundys would have to pay market-rate fees to the owners of the land that the government now allows ranchers to use at low rates subsidized by taxes. The Bundys probably figure that they’ll be the ones who own the land and charge big bucks for its use.

The concept of public ownership of land is at least as old as the concept of kingship. Governments hold land for the public good in virtually every country of the world, from the most right-wing to the most leftist. A majority of all land in the United States has been public since U.S. armies took it from the Native American tribes in the 19th century. And those tribes tended to have a kind of shared concept of ownership in which no one owned the land, but everyone could enjoy it. If you think it’s a weird custom, consider that those readers who own houses may not own the drilling rights below the land surface and those in co-op apartments own only shares in a corporation that gives them the right to occupy their domicile. Every civilization complicates the issue of private property.

As the New York Times has reported, there is an active movement to transfer public lands from federal to state hands, especially out West. As usual, Koch money is behind some of the efforts to neuter the federal government. One state legislature, Utah’s, has passed a law demanding control of the federal lands in the state. The government has ignored the state.

To understand why the ultra rightwing wants to transfer federal lands to the state level, we need only analyze what states have done on national issues over the past ten years.  Working on the state level, whose legislatures tend to be controlled by rural conservatives, has enabled Republicans to pass a large number of laws that make it harder to vote and harder to get an abortion or food stamps and easier to carry a gun. Those in favor of having states own public land must figure they can then whittle away environmental regulations and usage limits, and perhaps eventually convince states to sell the land at typical government discounts.

There are two major conceptual problems with giving the states federal lands. Keep in mind that most of the land in question is uninhabited forests, wetlands, mountains, prairies and desserts. The issues involved in wildlife management, fire control, species protection, resource use, strategic resource management as an aspect of defense policy and environmental degradation go beyond the confines of any state. Addressing these concerns involves an enormous long term investment that the states can’t afford. Without tax dollars from other states with fewer square acres of public lands, individual states would be unable to manage these large holdings.

The privatization of the government has so far mostly led to a shift in the division of the income generated by providing the privatized goods and services. Management takes home a bigger share of the pie and most employees take home a small piece. Privatization is one of several policy changes the federal government made beginning in the Reagan era that have led to the rapid increase in wealth and income inequality we have experienced. Is there any reason to think that privatization of public land would be any different?

Let’s try to imagine how privatization of public land would play out: If the government gave away a fair share plot to every citizen, that would represent a crude form of communism, and we know the Bundys, Kochs and others toying with concept of massive land privatization don’t want that. No, what they probably have in mind is an auction or sale of public land. Large corporate interest will end up buying and then benefitting from most of it.

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