Friday, June 30, 2017

"And what does the Lord require of you?"

This is a very good article on a very weird event.  I have a friend in Louisville, in the ministry, who attended this "meeting" where Gov. Bevins said the solution to violence in Louisville was prayer.  He thought it rather weird, too, to put mildly.  How he put it to me privately is not for publication (because I haven't asked his permission), but we've been friends for over 50 years, so you can imagine it if you try a little.

Gov. Bevins' proposal, as reported by RD, is

for faithful Christians to volunteer and assemble in “small groups of three to 10 people to begin a ritual of quietly walking one block, in one troubled neighborhood, at 7 p.m., several days a week for one year, praying as they walk.” The governor admitted the plan was “Pretty unsophisticated. Pretty uncomplicated. Pretty basic,” but he insisted—“I truly believe… I personally believe”—that such ritual prayer has the power to change material reality. “I’ve seen it,” he testified.
Sure he has.  I mean,  I believe in the Creator, Redeemer, and Holy Spirit, but that doesn't mean I believe in magic.  Or that I'm stupid.  I also think it's "unsophisticated and uncomplicated" in a way that allows it to be irresponsible,  as in, the people praying have no responsibility if their prayers don't move the people prayed for to become non-violent poor (black) people.  Let's just take a few quotes from pastors of churches in that part of Louisville, along with observations by the author of the article:

 “The fact of the matter is there is violence in the community because there is poverty, and the poverty is rooted in systemic injustice and racism that has plagued this country since 1619,” [Reverend Kevin Cosby of St. Stephen Baptist Church] said. “To talk about the present situation without talking about the historic and social antecedents that gave birth to it is disingenuous, is dishonest… it’s cowardly and it’s political.”
 “West Louisville needs the help that a governor can uniquely provide. Governors hold enormous power. Their hands rest on levers that could combat directly and profoundly the root cause of violence: poverty.” [Reverend Joe] Phelps [of Highland Baptist Church] argues that coinciding with the color-coded areas of the Louisville maps Bevin displayed at his meeting are African-American neighborhoods devastated by decades of national, state, and local policies favoring white communities and leaving black West Louisville to fend for itself. Jim Crow laws. The G.I. Bill. Bank redlining. Social security. All designed for whites to prosper—but not blacks. Systemic, governmental racism. Christians can acknowledge these sins and, like Luke’s story of Zacheus the tax collector, make financial reparations.
Those gentlemen echo the call of Micah:  what does God require except that you do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God?  Frankly, praying in public for all to see is much easier than all those activities, and doesn't require making amends for "systemic governmental racism...all designed for whites to prosper."  Prayer, I might add, should be for you to seek humility before God, not to ask  God to do things to (or for) other people that you can't be bothered to do.  The RD article goes on to examine a divide in American Christian theology which I think is both deep and real and well-realized there, but for my purposes I prefer Occam's Razor and the simpler solution:  people are selfish, and it's easier to pray for someone, than to actually do something for someone.  Which is pretty much why Jesus condemned public prayers, especially of the kind the Governor is calling for.  I'm pretty sure Jesus wouldn't be too impressed with this, either:

“I think that the problem there is pretty clear that it’s a crime problem,” said Huckabee Sanders. “I think that crime is driven more by a morality than anything else so I think that this is a law enforcement issue and our focus is trying to add additional support.”

Sarah Huckabee Sanders is speaking there for the White House about the crime problem in Chicago.  Call it the flip side of what Gov. Bevins is advocating, because it's the same coin:  pray that these people become more moral and therefore less criminal, because crime is driven more by morality than anything else.  Again, a convenient way out of any responsibility for the privileges somebody like Sanders has enjoyed all her life, and a comforting way to turn a blind eye to social injustice.

Christians can acknowledge these sins; but that takes membership in the Church of Sacrifice for Meaning and Belonging, rather than the Church of Meaning and Belonging.  It's just easier to ask somebody else to fix the problem, rather than make any sacrifice on our own (of our time, our treasure, our fellowship) to address the problem ourselves.

Twitter as an agent of KAOS

But look, over there!  Chicago!

What does he mean?  Money?  National guard?  Army troops?  Reince Priebus to whack Rahm Emmanuel upside the head?

No, apparently he meant ATF troops (but don't name 'em, the NRA will go nuts!):

The Chicago Sun-Times reported on Thursday that about 20 additional agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives had been sent to the city to combat gun violence.

The ATF agents work with Chicago and Illinois state police on a strike force to solve shootings and track down gun traffickers through ballistics technology, the paper said.

Whatever distraction value this had, he stepped on it with his next tweet, about "Morning Joe."  Yet more evidence Trump is a sooper-genius who controls our national narrative.

Or, he's the President of the United States, and his insanity is on full display to all the world.  As Mika Brzezinski pointed out, shouldn't we be worried about that?

“It’s alarming that this president is so easily played,” Brzezinski said. “What is that saying to our allies? What is that saying to our enemies?
Trump is due to meet the leaders of the world in Hamburg.  Putin is expected to play Trump like a fiddle, and Merkel has already thrown down the gauntlet.  Remember when we worried about Reagan reaching a deal with Gorbachev in Reykjavik to disarm our nuclear stockpile?  Ah, dim was de days!

First Rule of Chaos

A:  This is not high school.

B:  You're the President of the United States of America.  Don't you have anything better to do?

C:  Considering how you react to women who disagree with you, what can we expect at the G20?

In a defiant speech to parliament a week before she will host a summit of the world's top economic powers in Hamburg, the northern port city where she was born, [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel did not mention Trump by name but said global problems could not be solved with protectionism and isolation.

Her remarks raised the prospect of an open clash with Trump at the summit. She later met with European G20 leaders who promised to present a united front in Hamburg, while making clear they preferred compromise to conflict.

"These will not be easy talks," Merkel said. "The differences are obvious and it would be wrong to pretend they aren't there. I simply won't do this."
D:  Will you tweet about Angela Merkel bleeding next?

Governing is hard. It's HARD!

So screw it!  Burn it all down!

Right, Ben Sasse?

Because repealing a bill that  affects all Americans and 1/6 of the national economy and leaving the country in limbo as to what comes next couldn't possibly create chaos and wreak havoc with the markets and all the major insurance companies, right?  Who cares about 48 million people losing insurance coverage when we can potentially double that number!

What is wrong with these people?

UPDATE:  Turns out this idea originates with Sasse, so of course he would endorse it.  However, repeal of the ACA is not something that can be done through reconciliation, so the GOP would need far more than 50 votes to get it done.


So of course Rand Paul is on board for it:

Known by the company they keep....

Thursday, June 29, 2017

On Trump and Bullshit

Bullshit, Harry Frankfurt says (per Ezra Klein) is to be distinguished from lies because the liar wants to convince you that what he says is true, while the bullshitter just uses words as a means to an end.

However, in the observation of George Constanza, it's not a lie if you believe it to be true.  This, for example, is not bullshit:

This from the same man who's spokesperson claims the VA has been reorganized and reformed in just 6 months, a feat that Hercules wouldn't be able to accomplish.  It's a lie, of course, because the real world simply doesn't work that way.  You might as well claim we sent a manned mission to Mars and got it back home since Trump took office.  It's not even bullshit.  They don't want to persuade anyone.  They just want to make the claim and move on.

Trump likes to claim women bleed in public.  He has a fixation on it, almost akin to the ancient prohibition on women going out in public during times of menstruation because blood belongs in the body, and it's release by an otherwise healthy person is "unclean" (corpses oozing blood were unclean for much the same reason).  It's grotesque and childish, but it isn't bullshit.  Trump doesn't want to persuade so much as attack.  It's the attack that matters.  Recall on the campaign trail he spoke about how harsh he would be towards China.  Then he took office, and all that tough talk went away.  He bashes the processes of legislation in the Congress, then he meekly accepts whatever outcome there is, including the possible failure to repeal and replace Obamacare at all:

"This will be great if we get it done," Trump said. "And if we don't get it done, it's just going to be something that we're not going to like. And that's okay, and I understand that very well."

That's not bullshit; that's indifference.  I suppose you could argue he talks tough in front of adoring crowds to "persuade" them to applaud him; but that's pretty weak tea.  Trump doesn't talk to persuade; Trump talks because Trump believes his lies.  He talks to crowds who believe his lies because it makes him feel good.  The man traffics in conspiracy theories.  That isn't bullshit; it's indifference to the complexity of truth.

Is this the way a "bullshitter" behaves?  Or even adults?

“This is a president who fights fire with fire and certainly will not be allowed to be bullied by the liberal media,” [Sarah Huckabee] Sanders told Fox News.

“Look, I don’t think that the president’s ever been someone who gets attacked and doesn’t push back. There have been an outrageous number of personal attacks, not just to him but to frankly everyone around him,” she said.
"Everyone around him."  So the President speaks for his staff, and his staff speaks for the President.
And it's a lot easier than than facing reality.  This, by the way, is what Mika said:

“Let’s say someone came into NBC and took over NBC, and started tweeting wildly about people’s appearances, bullying people, talking about people in the competition, lying every day, undermining his managers, throwing them under the (bus) — that person would be thrown out,” she continued. “It’s just not normal behavior. In fact, there would be concerns that the person who runs the company is out of his mind.”
Clearly an outrageous personal attack to which the only response is to talk about bleeding facial scars.  The appropriate response to a claim of "tweeting wildly about people's appearances" is to....tweet wildly about people's appearances.  Or, as we used to say in 5th grade:  I know you are but what am I?

We were too clever for bullshit, even then.

Turns out, some U.S. Senators are not children, either:

Texas, Your Texas

Like most things about Texas, this is a joke.  I wish you folks would quit taking us so seriously.

This is a pretty good analysis of rural white America.  A bit one-sided and certainly with an axe to grind, but for all the ranting about the blinkered point of view labeled "fundamentalist" in this essay, the writer does point out progressives can be just as blinkered and shift their point of view just as dramatically when theory becomes practice, and ideology becomes personal reality.

Read it through, you'll see what I mean.

What I don't understand, and this is the premise of the argument, is why we are so anxious to turn America into Texas, with California our national Travis County (home of Austin).  Texas is a deep red state, and has always been politically conservative, but not as conservative as it is now.  We gave the country John Nance Garner and John Connolly and LBJ, as well as the Governor Mizz Anne, Molly Ivins, and Jim Hightower (Sec. of Agriculture, for one term, and a darn good one.  Rick Perry replaced him.)  We even had one of the most progressive (and aggressive) consumer protection laws in the country, some 40 years ago.  That law, the Deceptive Trade Practices Act (DTPA), is an object lesson in not resting on your political laurels.  It's probably an object lesson in what not to do when you get control of the Lege, either.

The DTPA was passed in what turned out to be the waning days of Texas Democrats, in the '70's when even Dems in Texas were liberal (well, by prevailing Texas political standards).  Halcyon days, and the Dems, as it turns out, went out with a bang.  DTPA was effective in curbing all kinds of shenanigans for businesses, putting the power in the hands of the consumers who could, under the right circumstances, recover treble damages really rather readily.  I remember working for a defense firm and if there wasn't some attempt to shoe-horn the DTPA into the plaintiff's complaint, it was tantamount to malpractice.  That kind of power in the hands of the low-born and the many-headed, of course, could not last.  The bidness of Texas bidness is bidness, and that's all government is for (well, was, until Dan Patrick; that's another story) in Texas.  The DTPA flashed across the sky and, by the time I'd left legal practice as a legal assistant and slogged through 3 years of law school, it was dead.

Dying, anyway, finally put out of its misery before my brief legal career (all 3, maybe 4 years of it; I'd rather not remember) was over.  It was almost a symbol of liberal excess, and it, along with people like Hightower who talked too much goddamned sense about ordinary people (see that line about bidness, again) led to the ascendency of Rick Perry, who gave way to Greg Abbott (who makes us all forgive Perry and want him back) who begat Dan Patrick (who we would gladly elect to the Senate, if Cruz wasn't already there as the designated asshole even Texas isn't big enough for).  Downhill, in other words, goin' to hell in a handcart.

Reaction to the over-reach, if you will.  We still don't know what hit us, us once-proud yellow dog Democrats.  We may never figure out the enemy was us.

The usual analysis is that this arch-conservatism, the Dan Patrick bull-goose looney variety especially, exists not in the major urban areas (Dallas-Fort Worth, which I think is actually larger in population than Houston but not being one city but many, especially all the suburbs that surround Dallas like lampreys on a shark, doesn't count; Houston; San Antonio, home to a very "liberal" (again, Texas standards) Democratic Hispanic mayor, who had a career until he couldn't keep his pants zipped; El Paso, Austin), which all went for Obama, twice; but the rural areas, where more people vote than in the urban areas.  Mind, there are more people in the latter, but it's the former that go to the polls.  Souls to the polls always wins.  Which is why voter ID, but that's another matter.....

This is probably true in Texas, and it doesn't have to be, but we Democrats still don't know what hit us and think if we could go back to the '70's people would love us again, so there you are.  But why is it happening across the country?

For one thing:  white rural America didn't elect Donald Trump.  The greater truth is urban and suburban America didn't do enough to push Clinton across the line, because they thought somebody else would do it for them and besides:  Clinton!  Ugh!  Trump didn't pull off a miraculous win, he fell into the White House by default.  So, no, we don't need to "understand" rural America.

For another, we misunderstand by insisting we must understand, but not in the way the Raw Story essay has it.  BBC went to Ken-tucky (I love the RP mispronunciation.  What is it about the British?) and found plenty of rural folk as disgusted with Donald Trump as they can be.  Whether they realize Mitch McConnell is more the author of their impending pain (KY expanded Medicaid, and apparently the new GOP hatchet man in Lexington hasn't rolled that back yet.  He probably knows better.), but they despise Donald Trump for setting up the disaster they are sure is about to happen.  They need Medicaid, and they know it.  Anybody looked at KY?  Outside of Louisville (one of my favorite cities), it's about as rural as Arkansas.  If those people aren't the white fundy conservatives that Raw Story essay is about, where are they?

Frankly, the essay is more than a bit of a caricature.  I've known rural people in East Texas and even around Dallas (yes, Dallas) for all my life.  They aren't as blinkered and malevolent and blind as this article indicates, but if they are, it's because of what Alvin Toffler called "Future Shock."  I was talking to my daughter about this just tonight:  how her generation doesn't mind transgendered people and gays and lesbians (I grew up learning to call such people names I equate with the "n-word" now.  Transgender was a concept I only encountered in my 20's, and then it seemed more weird than likely. Now, Caitlin Jenner.  I remember Bruce in the Olympics.).  I mentioned the other BBC story, from south India, about a group of transgenders living in a port city renowned for its tolerance of diversity in India; but these people were a bridge too far.  The upshot was a group of nuns (bless 'em!  Not under the Bishop in Illinois, obviously!) took them in, because the people in that city, well, some, reacted violently to the presence of transgenders.  Dan Patrick just wants to segregate their bathroom usage in Texas public schools.  Still, to go from ignorance of such persons to acceptance can be quite a shift in one's thinking.  As the Raw Story essay points out, it usually takes personal experience (as it did for me, too; mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa) to change minds.

Or just a new generation determined not to find reasons so hate people they don't personally know.  Well, it's an improvement.

But the shift, the push, the rapid onset of change, is engendering reactions.  Is rural white America really so blinkered and benighted?  Are they wrong to feel besieged, especially if communities, as the essay describes, went from affluence to poverty in one stroke?  Do they blame the people they relied on for that?  Might as well blame themselves.  No surprise, then, they don't want to listen to "coastal elites" with their "education".  Although, highly educated as I am, I've never had trouble speaking to such people.

I just don't try to convince them they're wrong, and I'm right.  But many of them know something is wrong, and no small number of them know what's wrong has a name:  Donald Trump.

He's not all that's wrong, of course, but it's a beginning.  It's an improvement, just to identify someone.  It was the uber-wealthy who put Trump in office, the Koch Brothers and their ilk.  Rural America just turned out and voted, as usual.  It as urban America who failed to stop them, the same reason Trump has a GOP Congress.  The mass of American voters, in their many-headed wisdom, have for decades now given one party the White House, and the other party Congress (or at least one House of Congress).  This year they gave the GOP the big domed building, expecting like the rest of us a Democrat would be sleeping in the white mansion.


But it's not a sea-change, and we don't need to demonize white rural America to feel better about it, or to beat up the Democrats.  They can do that on their own well enough; believe me, we don't need to make the country more like Texas in that respect, either.

And this whole Texas emulation thing; America, you really need to get over that!

In the land of the clueless

The Trump Senate Cheerleader is the King:

The CBO says the Senate bill would push the number of uninsured up by 22 million, which means the total number of uninsured Americans would be closer to 50 million.  This is an improvement, how, exactly?

If Obamacare is leaving 28 million uninsured, then the answer is to replace Obamacare with Medicare for All, isn't it?  Isn't that what you just admitted?

What is it about fervently supporting the Vulgar Talking Yam that makes one as stupid as the Yam?

It's like this, Cat

In the 1990's, when Newt Gingrich issued his Contract on America, and made it a principle of his election and the election of a GOP Congress (he got the House, anyway), they WOULD impeach William Jefferson Clinton (two separate events, but go with me), he made good on his promise.

As they say in the Texas Lege, you gotta dance with the one what brung ya.

The upshot of that impeachment was that Clinton finished out his second term, Gingrich lost the House in 1998, was forced to resign the Speakership, and then resigned from Congress (and there was an ethics scandal in there, too, quelle surprise.)

History repeats itself; the first time as comedy, the second time as tragedy.  Well, tragedy for somebody.

I've seen a headline somewhere on the internet (which is Latin for "ephemeral") indicating support for Trumpcare is down to 17%, but still Mitch McConnell gingriches on.  He's supposedly planted clever time bombs in this bill, so the real cuts to coverage don't happen until after the 2018 elections, because people are really, really stupid.  Which is as may be, but I don't think the immediate failure to destroy Obamacare coverage for many people is going to make them think the total eclipse of the sun won't happen and they won't be cast into terrible darkness at midday.

No, they really aren't that stupid.  The people, I mean; McConnell is going full Gingrich on us.  He's lost to human contact.

Interestingly, the GOP Senate is not quite so willing to commit hari-kari as the House was, mostly because Senators are elected statewide, not in gerrymandered "safe" districts.  Will McConnell pull the hat trick of getting enough of them to swallow the cool-aid?  Reply hazy, ask again later, but it does not look good, and Trump is no help at all:

“Just to do a little official business, health care is working along very well,” Trump said during a meet and greet with the Chicago Cubs in the White House. “We could have a big surprise with a great health care package. So now they’re happy,” he added in an aside to the team, gesturing at the reporters.

“What do you mean by big surprise, sir?” one reporter called.

“I said you’re going to have a great, great surprise. It’s going to be great,” Trump said.
The man hasn't the first clue what's going on.  And explaining it to him would be like trying to explain quantum mechanics to a horse.  McConnell knew he needed to do this by Friday; that his entire plan to restructure the tax system and funnel even more money to his true masters depended on getting this first tax cut, disguised as the "repeal and replace" of Obamacare, was the linch pin, for reasons that have to do with why he can do this with only 50 votes.  And now, legislative genius that he is, he can't get 50 votes.

And probably won't.  And if he does, he can kiss his leadership of the Senate good-bye.  I heard interviews yesterday on BBC with people in Ken-tucky (as the BBC announcer pronounced it, like that state was cousin to Barbie's boyfriend Ken), and they are madder'n wet hens that Trump screwed 'em over, lied to 'em, doesn't give a wet snap for 'em after all, and wants to take their Medicare away.  All I'm sayin' is:  McConnell better watch his ass.  Politically, he may be in the shit.

Nobody wants this, but the GOP insists on hearing the voice of their masters.  Won't be long before those masters are the only people who will pay attention to them.  Well, that and FoxNews.

Just ask Gingrich.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

There Are Men Too Selfish To Live Among Humans

Because Atlas doesn't give a shit about people who are NOK, either?

With those puppy dog eyes, how could you deny he cares?

"What they're basically saying at the Congressional Budget Office is if you're not going to force people to buy Obamacare, if you're not going to force people to buy something they don't want, then they won't buy it.* So it's not that people are getting pushed off a plan. It's that people will choose not to buy something they don't like or want," Ryan said on Fox & Friends.
And then they'll get sick and go to the ER, preferably a government run facility, because the private ones will dump them in the street ASAP, and their care will cost lots and lots of money, but not to federal tax payers, so who cares?

Or maybe they'll do us all a favor and decide to die in a ditch.  It's a matter of choice, after all.  And then we can move on to denying ambulances to people who have overdosed because, really, they chose to become drug addicts.  Unlike people who are self-medicating on opioids, because they deserve our help (people who self-medicate need help, drug addicts need to die).

See?  It's all a matter of labelling.  Although this question of choice is hard!  It's hard!!

[Sen. Rand] Paul [R-KY Jelly] said buying insurance as an individual was expensive, but suggested allowing individuals to join group policies to “get a way out of that individual conundrum.” A “big group” he said, had the “leverage to demand” more complete coverage at lower prices. 

You know like, through their employers!  And if that doesn't work, don't expect Medicaid to help you out.  See Kellyanne Conway for more.

“So why not go for the biggest group of all and just have insurance for everybody?” Burnett asked.

“Socialism’s not a good idea,” Paul responded. “Socialism’s an utter failure.” 

I'll alert the Nordic countries and, for that matter, most of Western Europe, not to mention Americans on Medicare, one of the most socialistic government programs on the planet.

He then pointed out the problems in Venezuela, a socialist nation that is currently suffering an economic collapse.

Because, like Texas once upon a time, their major source of income is oil.  Ooops.

“But you did just make a great argument for nationalized health care,” Burnett said. “You said ‘the bigger the group, the lower the cost,’ so all I’m taking is your argument to its logical conclusion.”

Paul wanted nothing to do with that one.

“I was talking about voluntary groups,” he said. “Not the gulag.”
Being told to buy insurance is just like a day in the life of Ivan Denisovich!  For days and days!  Maybe even forever!

See? It's all about choice.

*Or can't afford, since not all of us earn as much as the Speaker of the House, and find ourselves buying policies on the open market, rather than at group rates through employers.  But don't let reality get in the way of your lying narrative, please.  And yes, I know, the whole point of the mandate was to lower costs for insurance by increasing the number insured, but I've long ago given up reasoning with these people, even at such a far remove.  Now I just gaze in amazement at what people can convince themselves is true.  There really is no bottom, except the final descent into chaos.

Closed for Business

Can't post today.  In arrears on my internet taxes.

Gotta do my internet tax return and file for an extension to pay what I owe.

This guy knows what I'm talking about.

Fake news is expensive, ya know!

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

"When Grace dances, I should dance"

I don't have the links to this I would like, but my memory and a recent post concur that NPR had a discussion (not necessarily a story I can find on their website!  Drat!) that the July 4 deadline (actually June 30, a date that will now live in infamy.  Or maybe not....) was a drop dead on repeal of the ACA because the GOP needs to get tax reform under "reconciliation," too, and the only way to get two bills through that specific process in one calendar year is to space them out.  Or something.  Truth to tell, my knowledge of the arcana of Senate rules is nil, and even less than nil on this subject.

But there were reasons McConnell needed repeal of Obamacare to pass by Friday of this week, as I mentioned before.  He has now decided that's not going to happen.

This could well be a bigger problem for the GOP than they wanted to have.  Yes, the repeal and replace measure is just a method of tax reform aimed at shoveling money upward to the rich.  Yes, it will increase the number of uninsured to levels higher than before Obamacare was implemented.  These are features, not bugs.  And yes, I think their commitment to this is strong enough to see it passed by September 30, a deadline according to this ThinkProgress article.

For the moment can I do a little happy dance in the face of all the Cassandras convinced that if my attention wasn't focussed on Mitch McConnell rather than James Comey or Jared Kushner or Ivanka Trump, that my sympathetic magic powers would allow the Senator to wreck the U.S. economy?  Because really, it doesn't work that way.

Anyway, this probably wrecks tax reform, which wasn't going to go anywhere anyway, but might have tried harder on the wings of a smooth road to ACA repeal.  Repeal is inevitable, and the strategy is to fight it and then hang it around the neck of the GOP in 2018.  Another reason tax reform needed to happen this year; nobody is rewriting the tax code in an election year.  Not even Paul Ryan.

Yes, national political life would be easier with Hillary Clinton in the White House, but these are the conditions that prevail.  Trump is Our Man on Their Side in anything legislative.  He's as ignorant as a child and as incurious as stump, as willing to listen as a brick wall and as capable of learning as a dead dog.  He's the albatross around the neck of the GOP.  The only thing to do now is to make that curse stick.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Working out your own salvation with fear and trembling

“If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the bottom of everything there were only a wild ferment, a power that twisting in dark passions produced everything great or inconsequential; if an unfathomable, insatiable emptiness lay hid beneath everything, what would life be but despair?”

--Soren Kierkegaard

"Stabbing Anthony Kennedy in the back is certainly not beneath Mitch McConnell because nothing is beneath Mitch McConnell."

--Charlie Pierce

Kierkegaard had much to say about the terrors of nothing, and he said it most eloquently in Fear and Trembling; but he examined it most thoroughly in The Concept of Irony.  He pointed out there that Socrates' use of irony was not meant to lead to enlightenment, but to doubt of the kind Descartes later realized he had to avoid, to make any sense of his skepticism at all.  But the unfathomable, insatiable emptiness that lies hidden beneath everything?  Socrates was happy to shove our face in that, because that's where his ironic questioning led:  there, and nowhere else.

And now?  Charlie Pierce's statement rests on two metaphors:  stabbing Justice Kennedy in the back is a reference to rumors about his imminent retirement, rumors Mr. Pierce imagines started with the likes of Sen. McConnell, not with well-placed sources (the better to obtain control of the Supreme Court before 2018 possibly makes that impossible).  But take the second metaphor more literally, and you have a better appreciation of the game being played by Sen. McConnell and others.

There is a desire in Texas, among the more radical Republicans, to impose vouchers on our citizens so money can flow to private schools.  This won't open a floodgate of new private schools that will improve the public schools with "competition."  In practice, it will probably lead to the same fraud Texas suffered when it allowed "charter schools" to be private institutions taking state money.  Many gave their students classrooms with no chairs, a vending machine for a cafeteria, and didn't even bother with textbooks, the better to take the money and run.  This scheme will allow parents who can afford private school to get some tax money back, and won't make new openings for parents who need the voucher to make even a down-payment on private tuition.  And then there's the idea that students in public schools need to be shamed further about their gender preferences, so let's make 'em use a bathroom only for them (because the schools will know and enforce it.  We aren't putting bathroom police in public spaces and making people pass inspection before they enter.)

The desire, it is rumored, sensibly, masks a deeper desire:  to dismantle the public school system in Texas altogether, because it's government and government is bad.  How else do you get government small enough to drown in a bathtub if you don't get rid of major portions of it?  Will this wreck government with bidness, the only people government actually serves in Texas?  Yup, but so what?  You think bidness wants that "bathroom privacy" bill?   It's an obtuse madness, that you control on one hand and destroy on the other, but both are measures of control, so there's a sanity to it, however insane it is.

And beneath the madness is nothing.  Not the limit they will still go under, like Mr. Pierce means about Sen. McConnell and company; but literally nothing.  The howling primordial chaos.  The nothing that is something, and that is a worse vision than the most amoral defiance of limits of decency one can imagine.  Beneath this is not even a deeper depth that can be plumbed:  we've reached that limit.  Beneath this is nothing.  Literally.

And still they keep digging.

Thursday, June 22, 2017


Has there ever been a "religious left" in America?

Reinhold Niebuhr is the closest thing to a public theologian we've ever had in America who wasn't either promoting Aristotle's old wine ethics in new wineskins (Norman Vincent Peale) or tub-thumping to save souls (I probably shouldn't even include Billy Sunday or Billy Graham as "theologians" alongside Niebuhr, simply because it's a category error).  Niebuhr at least made the cover of TIME magazine (then again, so did Billy Graham; but Niebuhr didn't do it for preaching to football stadia full of people (attended one of those in my youth)).  Maybe it was 1948, and a different time.  In the early 20th century Biblical scholarship was so popular people were buying Greek lessons by mail order so they could read the scriptures themselves in the original tongues (well, the New Testament, anyway, although they could have read the Septuagint, too).  As well, publicly attested religious faith was at it's lowest point in 1914; that kind of attitude leaves a mark, even 34 years later.  Of course, after the second World War American prosperity blossomed, and with it the rise of safe, placid, God-with-us in this land flowing with milk and money suburban Christianity.*

Niebuhr was never a theologian for suburban Christians.  But neither was he a restless firebrand, even though he pastored working class people in Detroit in the '20's.  He was a powerfully influential figure, though his most all known book was actually a very conservative challenge to more "liberal" theologians of his day.  His brother Richard, undoubtedly the better scholar and theologian, despaired to "Reinie" that if Moral Man and Immoral Society was right in its thesis, then there wasn't a lot of hope for humanity's improvement (which was still the quest of religious belief in most American circles).

Still, few conservative or evangelical Christians in America today would take much comfort in Niebuhr's analyses of human history, culture or nature.  He wasn't speaking to them, either.

He did speak to Martin Luther King, Jr., who greatly admired Niebuhr's work, and was strongly influenced by it.  Not surprising, since Niebuhr's thought is fundamentally practical (and about praxis), and King was a very practical preacher and religious leader (and equally invested in the importance of praxis).  To even mention King in this context is to invite danger:  we first have to get King off the unicycle of "a dream" that we have put him on, and recognize King was the public face of the civil rights movement, and the leader of the SCLC effort (but not the only person or group seeking equality under the law at long last; Malcolm X is one counterpoint, and his views, too, were grounded in religious belief.  Another would be Muhammed Ali, who doesn't get the credit yet that he deserves.)

But King didn't lead a "religious left" movement.  When he finally turned against the Vietnam War, a distinctly leftist position in 1967, he was abandoned by many "liberals" who had been with him to that point.  He'd stopped preaching and gone to meddling, as the hoary cliche has it.  He had already shattered the myth of a "religious left" in his famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail," a letter condemning Christian churches (and Jewish synagogues) because they would not openly and publicly support his civil rights movement.  King's movement was supported by black churches, but those churches had a vested interest in the outcome:  equality under the law for their members.  The churches King assailed had a vested interest in the status quo, as he pointed out to them.  Pastors who stood outside that status quo, or challenged it, could find themselves without a pulpit.  Religious figures who did challenge the way things were, being against war or for civil rights, by and large had no institutional ties, or none that could be threatened.  They also didn't have much effect.  King's movement was a religious movement, for him and the group he represented, but it was a secular one for many of the people who eventually came to march with him, and to this day we honor King as a secular saint for his "dream," rather than regard him as a prophet in the Hebraic tradition (an honor he deserves but seldom gets).

I suppose you can find "leftist" religious influence in American culture.  Prison reform and the idea of rehabilitation rather than simply warehousing, is a product of Quaker thought (I think solitary confinement is, too, though I'm open to correction on that.  Good with the bad, as usual).  The "social gospel" was meant to be a way of understanding systemic problems of poverty in America, and not deciding the poor would always be with us, so there's nothing we can do (it was the perfectionism of the social gospel Niebuhr savaged, not the concern for the poor).  But a religious left to counter the religious right?

Well, first, the old joke is true:  the religious right is neither.  One of its most public promoters was Ralph Reed, a man who escaped jail by the skin of his teeth, and who could give Elmer Gantry lessons in hypocrisy and shamelessness.  The religious right today stalwartly supports Donald Trump despite the fact the man has led a life that would have been used to fuel a whole series of fire-and-brimstone sermons about the evils of the world and the path of the Devil to perdition, with Trump as the poster child for what God-fearing Christians should not do.  It's almost not a judgment to say they are blatantly hypocritical; it almost qualifies as a mere fact.  But are they so monolithic and powerful as to have a stranglehold on national politics?

I think it's without question that they have a stranglehold on the public discourse about religion.  Dr. King is not remembered as a religious figure, which makes him safe for public consumption.  Jim Wallis is either widely ignored or even more widely unknown (my wife would probably recognize his name, but that's because I was intrigued by Sojourners about 40 years ago.  I doubt I could find many people I know even casually who have heard of him.)  He's more likely to be castigated for his "conservative" attitudes than praised for his more liberal ones; and as a religious thinker, he's really quite conservative.  Does that play into the discussion at all?

The Berrigan Brothers were quite liberal in their politics, but their allegiance to the Church of Rome never seemed to bother anyone.  Today that might well be a stumbling block for many, especially on the left.  Many Christians are presumed by the media to be evangelicals or at least very conservative in their politics.  Non-evangelical Christians are either silenced by being ignored, or tagged as "liberal" and therefore a minority in circles of public thought; and by and large, they are.

I started this there, and it stalled.  Then Pastor Dan posted his follow-up, and I found that ministry has made him a more cynical and jaded soul.  Or just more aware, as my favorite seminary professor put it, that "life is messy."  And you sure as heck aren't in charge; you're just responsible.

Yeah, dwell on that a minute.  Then consider what Pastor Dan adds:

In sum, I’d probably say something like this: the religious left is chasing a phantom. Its leadership appears to believe that if it can project just the right faith-rooted message with just the right messenger or messengers, the broad middle of Americans who only want to do the right thing can be reconciled across racial and political lines. This will then somehow usher in a new progressive era of peace and justice.

I've made this same argument myself, in different contexts.  People really don't want to be told what to do, and are not empty vessels waiting for you to fill them up, or standing about in blank anticipation of the revelation of your wisdom.  They pretty much know what they think and, as Pastor Dan says a bit later (I'm sure I'll quote it in a minute) and just want that confirmed.

In a word, the religious left is extremely, politically, naive.

Well, duh.

Listen, the fight for a more “moral politics” never was going to be a success. Saying “I’m not a ____, I’m a Christian” is trying to have your cake and eat it too. Politics cannot be so easily transcended, as any student of Augustine or Niebuhr understands.
Yup; Niebuhr again.  Hard to get past his take on reality and ethics and Christianity.

Rallying cries summoning believers to “battle for the soul of the nation” aren’t much help either. Our nation doesn’t have a soul. It has a moral narrative if anything, and that a contested one. Even to the extent that America can be said to have a soul, that thing is a dark, twisted and brutal thing. Hasn’t anyone ever read Moby Dick? The Fire Next Time? People don’t want to redeem the “soul” of the nation. They don’t even want to do the right thing, half the time. What they want is for their ethics to be normative. Let’s be honest about that.
The first part of that is Niebuhr's thesis in Moral Man.  The latter, as promised, is what people want; and they don't want to hear something new and challenging from you.  They may be the light of the world, but you aren't.  Remember that, it will save you a lot of trouble.  And sorry, I can't resist quoting even more:

It isn’t a “deeper” politics rooted in a “fuller” understanding of the gospel. The number of scripture verses you can quote doesn’t matter a bit. Nor does how many more of those verses speak of social justice than sexual ethics. It does not matter how “prophetic” people are. Nor does it matter how spirituality informs one’s politics. We live in a secular and hyper-partisan age. These things motivate almost no one.

Another lesson from seminary; actually from experienced pastors seeing us dewy eyed and freshly doused in our seminary learning:  "They don't care how much you know, until they know how much you care!"  In the rhetoric of argument, it's Aristotle's four elements: Ethos, Logos, Pathos, and Kairos.  Logos is the reasoning of your argument; how "prophetic" you are, in Dan's words; or how many verses you know.  But that, as Aristotle pointed out, is useless without Pathos, getting your audience to understand you empathize with them (rather than, as is more usual, trying to get them to empathize with you).  Ethos also goes to the speaker, not the logic; if they like you, think you are worthy, they listen.  If not, your logos is a clanging gong and a sounding cymbal.  They don't care how much you know until they know how much you care.  And if all you care about is how much they should know, you aren't getting very far.  We've known this for several thousand years, yet it still is news.

And this, quoted from Twitter, which echoes my statement about the Religious Right:

“Religious left” is an oxymoron (this spoken by secular leftists and religious conservatives alike).
Yeah, let's stop and argue about "religious" awhile!  That's always productive!  But raise the issue and try to avoid the arguments it implies.  I'll hold your coat over here.

Remembering my one-sided arguments with Pastor Dan over the years, it's almost sad to read a realization like this:

In reflecting on this question, I’ve come to the realization that I don’t actually care much about the institutional religious left. To be sure, there’s room for organizations that try to develop the political identities of religious voters and represent them in Washington. But those groups are effectively irrelevant to what’s actually happening in the political world, or close to it. My God, the roadbuilders’ association leads the Wisconsin state government around by the nose. Meanwhile, nobody’s paid attention to a clergy protest here in decades. So no, I don’t really find much to care about in the religious left, as it is.

Yup.  The UCC, bless its institutional heart, regularly releases earnest press releases which no one pays any attention to, including most of the people in UCC pews.  But here is where I would counsel him to be careful what he wishes for:

What I do care about is religious liberals or leftists who are willing to use power. Moral suasion does nothing. Anybody who’s ever watched Paul Ryan penitently bite his lip, then pledge to burn another piece of the social safety net to the ground ought to understand that. Raising money for the opponents of miscreant politicians just might change their course, though.

I don't find a lot of support for gaining and using political power in the scriptures, frankly.  God warns Israel against any government structure more complex than the judges who basically act as tribal elders.  Not that Israel could continue as a series of confederated tribes, but there's really not much in the entire Bible that says political power is good and you should have some.  There are reasons for this, as I've said before.  My sympathies are more with the Dorothy Days of the world than the LBJ's, anyway.  And I'm not sure what the church, right or left, had to do with his political career, anyway.  God moves in mysterious ways, and all that.

Pastor Dan goes on to advocate small groups forming around the country, working on local issues.  He writes as if this isn't happening, although I know from my brief career in ministry that it is.  It may be under his radar, or he may not think much of the efforts of those groups already established, but it's already there.  Maybe it's just not politically active enough for him; I just don't hold a belief in the efficacy of power that he does, so, as I say, this is where we always part company.  He closes with a reference to the parable of the sower, and says maybe we should trust God (faith!) to make the seeds grow that we scatter:

What if people spent less time trying to developing a religious left, the religious left, and focused instead on letting religious lefts and leftists blossom, trusting that God would increase their efforts thirty or sixty or a hundredfold? Some people won’t get it, of course, and some people will reject it, while others won’t be able to act on it. But those who do might just be able to change the world.
"Those who do" being the ones Rev. Schultz agrees with, of course; there's that power thing again.  Who am I to judge, I have to ask?  He appends a not about making "Christian" a normative of the conversation in a world with Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and secularists.  But then he thinks his leftist politics should be normative because, well, that's what he agrees with.  And there's the messy again:  if you want to take a stand and say, in any way, that God is with us, you are already taking a stand against, as well.  "Some won't get it...and some people will reject it, while others won't be able to act on it."  Kind of depends on what you expect them to "get" and how they should "act on it," doesn't it?  And in the basilea tou theou where the first are last and the last first, maybe I should seek to 'change the world' by living as if that were true, and the kingdom of God were right here, right now.

Even if I can't get anybody else to go along with me on that.  Oh, wouldn't that be a headache!  Or lovely, depending on your point of view.

*and how important is Niebuhr, in certain circles.  Note this last sentence in another RD article about the passing of Ainslie Embree:

Like Niebuhr, Embree was a realist in seeing that the “sublime madness” of the religious vision could be not only an inspiration for greatness but also a tool for venal political aspirations.
That's the only time Niebuhr's name appears.  I'm not sure the sentiment about politics is such an original observation, but attaching a name to it gives it authority; especially the "right" name.

Science can't explain it!

Tide goes in, tide goes out!

But wait, it gets better!

Informed of the president’s denial that he had recorded his conversations with Comey, a senior administration official replied, “At least that’s behind us.” When alerted to his apparent suspicions of Oval Office surveillance, the official replied in a text message, “fml.”

And there's this, too:

 “No clue what the thinking was,” a White House staffer said of the tweets. “He could’ve just said there are no tapes. It’s baffling, frankly.”

Topped only by Sarah Huckabee Sanders her own self!

“I think those are questions you’d have to ask those law enforcement agencies,” Sanders said when asked if the president suspected he was being monitored by the CIA, the FBI, or another agency.

“There’s public record that talks about surveillance, that talks about unmasking, we know those practices take place.”

“I don’t know specifically if there’s a direct concern” about Oval Office surveillance, Sanders said. Questions “about specific instances” should be directed to the relevant agencies.It's good to know the staff doesn't understand it any better than we do.  
Not as eloquent as known knowns and unknown knowns and unknown unknowns, but still retains that:  look, over there, dog on the loose!, quality to it.

But hey, maybe it's strategery!  or 11th dimensional chess!

“It is unclear why the president made that initial tweet,” Tapper said. “Was it bluster, witness intimidation, a desire to pressure Comey to be as truthful as possible? Either way, the plan seems to have backfired.”

Trump’s tweet on May 12 that suggested Comey “better hope” there are no “tapes” of their conversations prompted the former FBI director to release his memos detailing their conversations, and he admitted that he hoped such tapes existed to keep the president accountable and result in the appointment of a special counselor.

“That tweet began a course of actions that resulted in the point of Robert Mueller,” Tapper said. “So, not a great strategy, President Trump.”
Our man on their side!

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

These are the conditions that prevail

I almost remember this case, as I was living in Austin at the time it was prosecuted.

In 1992, Fran and Dan Keller were both sentenced to 48 years in prison over accusations of sexual abuse crimes related to children they babysat in their home daycare center outside of Austin. The accusations stemmed first from the testimony of one pre-schooler who claimed Dan Keller spanked her, and soon were twisted into many of the trademark accusations in the “Satanic panic” mass hysteria that gripped the nation in the 90’s, much of which occurred under the persuasion of parents, therapists and police officers.

 I do remember the panic, the fear that "Satan Worshippers" were traumatizing helpless children with unspeakable acts that they kept hidden until the innocent young souls were coaxed into telling the truth about what happened.  It sent innocent people to jail, these theories, and it ruined lives and reputations.  Today, in the words of the article, we say the evidence was "twisted," that parents, police, and therapists were all complicit in persuading children to say what we wanted to hear, even as we most feared it.  That's the narrative today; it wasn't the narrative in the '90's, and woe be unto the person who tried to point out the flaws in that accepted thesis.

This part of the story is especially chilling:

In 2013, after spending 21 years behind bars, the Kellers were released from prison after journalist Jordan Smith revealed that the medical opinion of the then-novice emergency room doctor that examined one of the children in the case was incorrect. The doctor initially concluded in 1991 that the child may have been abused, but soon after learned that the signs he took as abuse were normal physical variants.

When my daughter was 3 or 4, so sometime in the mid-'90's, she had mild swelling on the soles of her feet, and my wife and I agreed she needed to go to the doctor.  Our daughter's pediatrician at the time was an elderly man with many years experience who had just taken on a newly minted doctor, and it was the latter who entered the room to examine my daughter.  She looked at my daughter's feet, then looked at me like something she'd step on if she found me in the kitchen when she turned on the lights.  She began questioning my daughter in the most serious manner, determined to pry the truth from her innocent lips.  My daughter was confused, and I quickly realized this woman thought I was a child abuser stupid enough to bring my damaged daughter to the doctor after my anger (or whatever) had subsided.  Just before she was about to leave the room (and probably lock the door) to call the police, the older doctor walked by, and she asked his opinion of my daughter's condition.  From the hallway he looked at her feet and pronounced:  "Sand fleas."  He looked at me:  "Has she been playing in a sandbox?"  Yes.  "Sand fleas.  Give her some Benadryl, she'll be fine."

Narratives can make us see what we see, make us interpret what we have to interpret in order to understand.  25 years ago it was Satanic rituals.  Today, it is rape culture.

Well, almost; that's at least the outcome proponents of "Believe the women!" would have us pursue.  We believed the children because, after all, why would they lie?  We pressed them to tell us horrible things and then, when we heard our worst fears repeated back to us, we took it as true.  There was something comforting in making the world that simple, that either/or, a bright line between good and evil.  Now we are supposed to do that again:  believe the people who allege they were raped, and lock up the people they point to as guilty.  Trials are an obstruction, especially when they don't produce the results we prefer.

The Kellers got a trial, but it was a kangaroo court, a farce, a prosecution conducted in as fevered an atmosphere as any trial in Salem during the witch scare.  Even our justice system is not immune to this kind of fear and paranoia.  But that doesn't mean we should go on repeating it, giving the fear a new name and another justification and calling it "justice."

Justice is simply much harder to achieve than that.

"Let them eat cake!"

I'm a little surprised that this article at Slate never gets around to the real world experience of New Orleans after Katrina.

You will remember the tales of apocalypse and chaos coming out of the city:  the gangs roaming the Super Dome, raping and pillaging at will; the looting of the stores (or, in the famous AP photo, the white people feeding themselves, while the blacks were looters); even the people being turned away on the bridges out of town by police afraid the chaos was a contagion and would spread to them.  The stories sounded like this:

At stake in stories of disaster is what version of human nature we will accept, and at stake in that choice is how will we govern, and how we will cope with future disasters. By now, more than a week after New Orleans has been destroyed, we have heard the stories of poor, mostly black people who were “out of control.” We were told of “riots” and babies being murdered, of instances of cannibalism. And we were provided an image of authority, of control—of power as a necessary counter not to threats to human life but to unauthorized shopping, as though free TVs were the core of the crisis. “This place is going to look like Little Somalia,” Brigadier General Gary Jones, commander of the Louisiana National Guard's Joint Task Force told the Army Times. “We're going to go out and take this city back. This will be a combat operation to get this city under control.”
Combat operations because civilization was washed away with the flood waters.  As I say, one of those things was true:  the police did panic and block at least one bridge, and turn back American citizens who needed their help.  But the police didn't see human beings then:  they saw agents of chaos, Typhoid Marys of disaster, a plague of human locusts.  They saw the end of civilization as they knew it, and the rule of nature "red in tooth and claw," where life is "nasty, brutish, and short."  It wasn't quite like that, however:

As the water subsides and the truth filters out, we may be left with another version of human nature. I have heard innumerable stories of rescue, aid, and care by doctors, neighbors, strangers, and volunteers who arrived on their own boats, and in helicopters, buses, and trucks—stories substantiated by real names and real faces. So far, citizens across the country have offered at least 200,000 beds in their homes to refugees from Katrina's chaos on, and unprecedented amounts have been donated to the Red Cross and other charities for hurricane victims. The greatest looter in this crisis may be twenty-year-old Jabbar Gibson, who appropriated a school bus and evacuated about seventy of his New Orleans neighbors to Houston.

We've absorbed the lesson of lawlessness and rapine so deeply that I remember, in my Houston neighborhood, the sign on a boarded up house (protection from the hurricane, not abandoned) with the boards covered in a scrawl that read:  "Looters will be shot."  This was when Rita descended on Houston even as the Astrodome was still full of refugees from New Orleans and fear of Katrina was so strong the highway from Houston to Dallas, all 250+ miles of it, was one giant traffic jam of fleeing people in cars.  It wasn't the fear of a hurricane that drove them; Houston has had its share of hurricanes.  It was fear of the apocalypse, of the breakdown of civilization.  The only thing civilized about that endless line of cars is that people didn't try to ram other cars out of the way, or take off across country in a desperate bid to flee.

But as I say, none of the breakdown of civilization and resort to gangs and tribalism and rule by those who were most ruthless and had the most guns occurred in New Orleans.  It was reported that way by the most respected journalists in America, and none of them lost their jobs for being liars, or apologized for having no idea what they were talking about.  Nobody was punished for repeating rumor and innuendo and plain fiction and fantasy as truth, because it fit the narrative we'd all agreed upon, and besides most of the faces in the Superdome were black ones, so it made it seem even more true (see that AP photo set again if you doubt it).

We are convinced, and our literature convinces us, that the veneer of civilization is a thin one, and it will part and erupt into chaos if we aren't careful.  This is, I think, a particularly American fantasy, and it is based on history.  Columbus came here first from Europe, and immediately set about making slaves of the natives because he could.  He had the firepower and the attitude, and the natives submitted, those who didn't run away from their homes to remain free. Slavery in America started there, and continued until the 13th Amendment was passed in the 19th century, almost 400 years later.  It takes a great deal of violence to maintain a system of slavery that America was built on (when the government wasn't building the country by offering land to settlers who would venture beyond the Mississippi, or supporting the transcontinental railroad, etc., etc., etc.  California's wealth was built as much on defense contracts as on Hollywood and orange groves.).  That violence came at a psychic cost:  we grew up fearing what the slaves would do if they had the chance, how they would repay us in kind for our cruelty.  Aside from fantasies of history by Quentin Tarantino, such violence never occurred.  Freed slaves in Texas didn't engage in a bloodbath on Juneteenth (June 19, 1865, the day emancipation was pronounced in Galveston, Texas), they set up a park in Houston, Texas which exists to this day:  Emancipation Park.  But fear of justice still haunts us, and so our greatest fear now is not vampires and werewolves prowling the night, but chaos and the horrors of disorder:  not coincidentally, the fears of the ruling class about what the "lower classes" will do, a la the French Revolution.

We fear it because we know what we have done.

The collapse of Rome led to the feudal system in medieval Europe, and we look at that system as a particularly evil one, full of oppression and class distinction.  We do that because we've been taught to honor Rome (it's a British leaning, as much as anything.  They still call their circles "Circuses," taught their best and brightest Latin as if it still mattered to know the tongue, base much of their legal practice if not their laws on the Roman models left behind millennia ago, and passed on to America a veneration of Rome it ill deserves).  If you want an example of how enlightened Roman rule was, look no further than the life of Jesus of Nazareth, a man barbarously executed by a method still considered brutally inhuman today (who practices it?  Even ISIS executes swiftly, not as slowly and publicly as crucifixion.), all for talking about the wrong things at the wrong time.  If that's "civilization," give me the German tribes or the Celts on the other side of Hadrian's Wall any day.  American society is still built on that wall:  on one side, civilization, on the other, blue-skinned barbarians and "berserkers."  We process equality and democracy and the common man; but we retreat into walled compounds when we can't wall ourselves in through property values and laws, and fear those who are "NOK," because we know they are savages at heart and will take from us what we most prize.

My neighborhood, as I've mentioned before, lies just across a freeway from some of the wealthiest families in Houston.  When the new grocery store opened on my side of the freeway (within walking distance of my house, where I've lived with my family for 15+ years), people from the other side were drawn to the store, but afraid of the violence they were sure is endemic to the area.  They were sure they would be robbed in the parking lot, or worse, so the store put out cameras and hired off duty police officers to stand outside and simply wear their uniforms.  It took several years before they decided it was safe to shop at that store.  They weren't afraid for any good reason:  no robberies have occurred there (the robberies have been at another store, on the other side of the freeway, in a neighborhood where many executives of oil companies live.  You can cut the irony with a knife.), no assaults in the parking lot.  But still, that freeway is a "wall" that keeps the good people safe, and the bad people out.

American society is divided along these lines everywhere, and the tripwires of fear are almost impossible to disarm.  I think the fear is because they know they are outnumbered; that the vast majority of people in this country are not as privileged as the wealthy minority.  And they think that we, like them, think only of possession, and our only way to possess is through theft and robbery, that our natural recourse is to violence.  So they buy guns, and hire private security, and pay for local police forces (the neighborhoods are in villages politically separate from Houston) to keep them safe from violence that never comes.  They are convinced these measures are all that keep the violence on our side of the freeway.  That, and money; because rich people are not inherently violent, only poor people are.  The poor are violent because, having nothing, they have nothing to lose.  They have nothing to gain, either, from violence, but that doesn't figure into the equation.  We are "NOK" to them (not that I am poor, but neither am I rich enough to live across the freeway), and they fear most that which is not them.

We all do.  The question is:  why?  Why do we believe so little in democracy, in the ideals espoused in our most famous founding documents?  Why are we so convinced our civilization is a thin veneer which will soon be swept away to reveal a ravening chaos that isn't even the nature of the jungle, but something so much worse?  I don't want that and you don't want that, but "they" do.  And who is they if not you and me, to someone else?

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Meanwhile, on Bizarro World

How dare you hold Trump to the standard he himself set?  Trump is not a politician!  He's still learning this job!

Besides, China tried!  What more do you expect of a President, except to thank another country for trying?  It's not like we can do more, ya know!

The Paucity of Public Discourse

Summed up in a paragraph:

As a political matter, Democrats should be shouting from the rooftops about McConnell’s secrecy. But they should also be hitting what we know, what is really all but certain: that the net effect of this bill will be to deprive tens of millions of Americans of the coverage they currently have – whether that’s because of the loss of market subsidies, Medicaid expansion or because of the curtailment of regulations which allowed various classes of individuals to purchase coverage at realistic rates.

In other words, if Democrats were doing this right, the evil thing that's about to happen WOULD NOT HAPPEN!!!!!!1111!!!!!!!!


All I hear in the news, even on NPR, is that the Republicans are keeping this bill secret.  NPR has even reported (twice) that McConnell understands you can't fight what you can't see, so he's not going to let the public (or the Democrats) see this bill until he just has to (i.e., when he has secured 50 certain votes for it).  Smart money (again, per NPR reporting) says he has to do this by the July 4 recess (which will start July 3 and run through the 10th, unless McConnell holds the Senate in session on the 1st and 2nd), because they also want to pass tax reform (Ryan is already talking about it) and, well, there are deadlines and other requirements of reconciliation which make June 30th (effectively) the drop dead date (if Senators are less than enthused, can McConnell keep them in town the weekend before the recess?  Not likely.)

None of this matters, of course, because the GOP is dastardly and unified and monolithic (which is why they passed a bill out of the House the first time, right?) and will destroy our noble band of squabbling heroes if they don't SHOUT IT FROM THE ROOFTOPS!

Because shouting would cause the people to storm the castle with pitchforks and kill the monster that is there aborning.  Right?

Here's the thing (again):  the GOP is acting this way because they are dancing with the ones what brung 'em.  Having promised for years to repeal and replace, it's time to fish or cut bait.  Trump isn't helping their cause at all, but failing to pass a bill would be political suicide.  They have to do what their voters voted for them to do, at least as they see why they were elected.  Sure the town halls are erupting in anger, and sure repealing the ACA is about as popular as drowning puppies on live TeeVee, but the alternative is just to quit now and save themselves in the trouble in 2018 (well, for one-third of the Senate, anyway).

Shouting is not going to change that.  Who was leading the charge in the town halls?  Schumer?  Sanders?  Warren?  Somehow I don't think so.  Is further organization really the answer? And will this repeal solve problems for the GOP?  I don't think so.  They're in a round room and being told to sit in the corner, and they don't know what to do but keep trying to find the corner.  Damned if they do and damned if they don't, in other words.  And if reports are true that "moderate" Democrats of the Liebermann/Nelson ilk (who killed single payer when Obama tried) are in the minority, and if less "moderate" Democrats win in 2018, we may get single payer out of this; and are more likely to if Obamacare goes the way of the dodo.

In fact, don't think of an elephant, or a dodo; think of a phoenix.  And calm down; just because you think it's true doesn't mean everyone would if THEY WOULD JUST LISTEN!  It's never been that simple, and it never will be.

Woe is us!

Since I shopped at Whole Foods back when it was "Whole Floods" (I'll explain in a minute), I am an expert on the purchase of Whole Foods by Amazon.

Well, as expert as anyone else is.

Whole Paycheck is, and always has been, an elitist institution.  That's what it is, that's how it stays in business.  I shopped there very infrequently when I worked in downtown Austin and could walk to the original store ("Whole Floods" because it sat the the bottom of a valley created by the landscape and caught all the water flowing down in two directions.  The store took to marking the high water marks by painting a water logo on the side of the building and dating each one.  WF didn't leave that location until well after it went public in the '90's, if memory serves.) on my lunch hour.  I shopped there for organic meat when no one else carried it (and still I ate just hamburger.  The prices for steaks or non-ground meat was too much to bear.), and remember it had almost no sugar at all (not even "evaporated cane juice," one of the funnier euphemisms of the "natural foods" movement).

Later, after it went public, WF started carrying Imperial Sugar; white and brown.  I don't think I ever got over the shock.  (You can't be a publicly traded grocery store chain and not sell regular sugar.  That, for me, is when WF lost its "do-gooder" reputation.)

What I never saw was WF crowded.  Well, the original store was, but it was tiny and crowded with more than 2 customers in the place.  The grocery near my house I use now is a Texas chain, and it doesn't even cover all of Texas.  Still, the store is crowded on the slowest days (it's very popular), and it ain't catering to the Wal-Mart crowd (largest grocery seller in the country, I'm told).  I occasionally go to the nearest WF (for vitamins, mostly, and a cheap French wine I can't find anywhere else), and even at Thanksgiving or Christmas, I've never seen it as crowded as the store near me on a slow day.  There are two WF's within driving distance of me (about equally inconvenient to me); one I avoid like the plague because the shoppers there are even snottier than at the other store.

Which is the funny thing about WF:  it used to be a hippie store, and while the hippies could be annoying in their own way (where do you think vegans get the attitude?), they are not snotty.  WF is now the realm of the nouveau riche, and I think that's why tout le internet is so upset that Amazon has bought them.

Typical is the response that Amazon will now rule the retail world, buying up a grocery chain of 400 stores that serves a select clientele.  The Slate article mentions Aldi and even Wal-Mart in the same breath, but those two are competing for the same customers, and not the ones served by Whole Foods.  I'm beginning, in fact, to think of Amazon as the Fox News of retail.  It's probably more important than that, but the response to Megyn Kelly on NBC is proving that FoxNews is a big fish in a very small pond, and those who go to the big pond don't bring much with them.  I don't know what the sales comparisons are between Amazon and Wal-Mart, but I don't think Wal-Mart is sweating too hard.  Their customers don't require an internet connection and a credit card to make their purchases.  That's not a deadly limiting feature, but it is a defining one.  Especially since the people who buy food at Wal-Mart probably couldn't identify the location of a Whole Foods in their city.

The Slate article argues that Amazon is all about being the Wal-Mart of the internet:  cutting prices to undercut competitors and take over markets.  That is a self-limiting proposition in that Amazon will never really eat into Wal-Mart's customer base, though I'm sure that doesn't keep Jeff Bezos up at night.  But if Amazon decides to slash prices at Whole Foods, who is going to pour into that store to buy organic meat and flour?  I can already get that stuff at my popular local store, and I regularly buy organic ground bison (much better flavor and less fat) at Costco, where I can buy a lot of other organic foods (yes, Costco is self-limiting, too; but  7-Eleven is about the only place you can't easily buy organic food anymore).  Whole Foods works because it offers greater variety than Trader Joe's and because it offers an elite experience.  Paying more for Imperial Sugar there (and organic meat) proves you are a superior kind of person.  Destroy that experience in the name of going Amazon and you've just pissed away $14 billion.

Something tells me Jeff Bezos isn't that stupid.

I've read other, even more outlandish expectations from this purchase.  I confess I don't really care, because Whole Foods is not Safeway or Kroger, and there really isn't a national grocery chain that rules this country.  I remember that idea being bandied about a few years back, when Safeway and Kroger didn't seem to be doing so well.  There is a definite regional bias in grocery stores, and chains cannot really become national champions and rule from sea to shining sea.  400 stores nationally may sound like a lot, but Google tells me Kroger has over 2200, just ahead of Albertson's (heard of them?) at 2000.  Unless Bezos turns WF into Kroger or Albertson's, he's not likely to catch up with that number of stores anytime soon.  And if he does, will customers flee those stores to buy at Amazon's Whole Paycheck Discount Grocery where they have to be Amazon Prime members to buy things without whipping out cash or a check or even having staff in the story to check them out (I've actually seen this as an expectation of Bezos' plans)?  Probably not.*

What will happen?  Don't know, don't really care.  I barely shop on Amazon, and I don't shop at Whole Foods enough to make any difference to them (and if I had to stop, I'd barely notice).  What's funny about this kerfuffle is now elitist it is.  I mean, the people so concerned about it seem to be the people most afraid they'll be affected by it.

And despite what they think, they are not tout le monde; not by a long shot.

*Matt Yglesias gives us a nice, typical argument:

Of course the nightmare scenario for the supermarket industry is that acquiring Whole Foods does allow Amazon to fundamentally crack the grocery home-delivery game in a way that leads Kroger to go the way of Borders.

But the reason the takeover is such a disaster for the industry is that the financial implications are bleak even if Amazon doesn’t succeed in bringing incredible game-changing innovation to the sector. Introducing a player into the market that doesn’t care about profit margins is going to be devastating to competitors who have to.

They won’t necessarily be put out of business, but they will be forced to respond to lower prices and lower margins with lower prices and lower margins of their own — making the current round of dividend hikes extremely difficult to maintain. From the standpoint of an executive at a conventional business it must seem extraordinarily unfair. How is anyone supposed to compete and make money in an industry that features a major player who doesn’t actually try to make money? So far, history hasn’t shown us many examples of companies who’ve been able to pull it off.
This analysis is predicated on the idea that home delivery of groceries is going to take over the world, again (it was once a common practice when stores were smaller and closer to the homes they delivered to (i.e., non-suburban America).  Even then, deliveries were for the rich; everyone else walked to the store almost every day.  The store I shop at has opened a curbside pick up service; you purchase on-line and drive up later to get your car loaded.  It's popular, but only with people who think they are too busy (or important) to walk the aisles of the store.  You gotta remember, it costs extra, and extra means you can afford it, and they can; which is the whole appeal of Whole Paycheck.  The curbside service has probably increased store traffic, but it hasn't really made a dent in the crowds inside, and I doubt it ever will.  Again, the people this idea appeals to are the people who think Whole Foods is a major grocery store chain.  Google tells me my local preferred chain has 370 stores; which makes them no less significant than WF, but since they don't appeal to the elites on the internet (and aren't thinly spread across the nation, rather than concentrated in only part of Texas), if Bezos bought that chain everyone would just wonder what he was thinking.

As for the undercutting prices argument, as I said, once you do that, you're just another grocery store. Then what?