Friday, April 19, 2019

Sanctuary Much

My upcoming newspaper column:
William Barr chose to lie, blatantly, about the Mueller report. Taking time to digest that, let’s change the subject. 
Donald Trump’s idea of transporting refugees to “liberal sanctuary cities” and releasing them onto the streets fills all the squares we need to understand him and his most unwavering enthusiasts. It shows he views those desperate people as pawns, cruelty to whom he counts on to please his supporters; it explains his obsession with our southern border, not as an immigration issue, but as a reliable arouser of his flock. 
After all, if his aim is to keep refugees out because they’re rapists and murderers whom liberals would turn into voters using the kind of dark magic only liberals know, setting them loose in our cities exposes the lie for what it is. 
In addition, it shows his vengeful attitude toward those who disagree with him; and it confirms a theory posited by many writers, including this one, about why the most devoted among Trumpists love him: they have in common their hatreds. In this case, immigrants and liberals. 
It’s immaterial whether the hauling away and dumping of refugees was Trump’s idea or, as has been said, came from Stephen Miller, the most evil inhabitant of Trump’s lowest circle of Hell. That it’s seriously considered is all one needs to know. And it follows a well-worn pattern of ill-conceived policies that have, or would have, the opposite of intended consequences. Like tariffs and trade wars, shutting down the government, closing the border, cutting or eliminating taxes on corporations.  
It’s easy to imagine a conversation in the White House that followed the proposal: “That’ll stick it to those treasonous liberals. Hah. Hah. Low five.” We can be sure Trumpists of the rally-attending sort love the idea, for exactly that reason. Imagining refugees wandering the streets, getting what they deserve for huddling beside the golden door, yearning to breathe free. While liberals shrink away, their hypocrisy exposed. 
In fact, it’s certain that people in those cities, and their governments, would scramble to do right by the refugees. Governors and mayors have already said so. It’s equally certain that Trump would fail to recognize such empathy and traditional Americanism for what it’d be. Not his oeuvre.  
That we have a “president” who thinks like this and who has followers who love him for it, shows how deep is our decline as a nation, and how sharp is the inflection point at which we find ourselves, on which we must act come November 2020. If, among Trumpists who take offense at having their motives questioned, there are people who like this dumping idea or find it amusing, they need to stop pretending they’re not something they are.  
As there’s no bottom to this “president’s” intentional cruelty, it’s unsurprising that he’s also unloading poisonous attacks on US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, nor that they’re resulting in death threats against her. About which he said he’s “not at all” concerned. Whatever one thinks of her comments or how they’ve been characterized, one ought to expect better from a “president.” The last person to hold the office without quotation marks also failed in uniting us; yet, notwithstanding a few easily-misconstrued remarks, he spoke of our commonality. But he said a murdered black youth could have been his own son. How divisive! 
That’s in stark contrast to Trump, who calls for jailing opponents, considers Constitutionally required oversight treasonous, and threatens the free press; who can’t be trusted to be truthful about anything; who claims Democrats hate America. Raucous agreement from those who, were they actual conservatives, would know better is alarming. Silence from those who, under other circumstances, would speak out, is disappointing. Are we, finally, irreparably fractured?  
Among Americans who see refugees differently is Pete Buttigieg, whose candidacy-announcing speech ought to be seen by everyone, especially those who assume they wouldn’t like it. Confuting the right’s standard characterization of Democrats, he shares his Christianity unhesitatingly. Unlike Trump’s multimillionaire megachurch preachers and their followers, he advocates policies that don’t ignore the least among us. Freedom, he reminds us, derives not only from military power, but from health and economic security. And equality.  
In times unremembered, Republicans would have agreed with much in Mayor Pete’s speech. In the era of “alternative facts,” though, having forsworn Christian values by embracing the politics of greed and exclusion, Trumpists are claiming it’s Buttigieg who’s not a real Christian. Which reveals their own apostasy. Were they capable of it, they’d feel ashamed.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Bordering On Insanity

My next newspaper column:
Anyone remember what happened in September, 2001? Remember what led to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security? Turns out there was a massive, coordinated, long-planned terrorist attack. Turned out, also, there were hints of it known to various intelligence-gatherers, who weren’t talking to each other. 
Of that revelation was born the DHS, whose mission is to prevent future terrorist attacks; to be an entity to which all others reported, coordinating information, puzzling pieces together, being vigilant. As there’ve been nothing close to 9/11-level events since, it appears DHS has been doing a decent job. 
So far. 
After Donald Trump was placed in office by antiquated Constitutional quirks, aided by a dangerous foreign adversary, DHS has been attending disproportionately to our border with Mexico, across which, to date, no terrorists have attempted to come. 
Trump’s purging of DHS leadership is ominous. Kristjen Nielsen wasn’t “tough enough.” Perhaps she hadn’t put enough kids in cages or tear-gassed enough asylum-seekers to satisfy him. (He’s lying about the oranges of his family-separation policy, BTW. Again.) This places Stephen Miller, white-power-sign-flashing, Muslim-ban-creating sociopath, denounced by his Holocaust-surviving family members, effectively in charge of immigration. 
Meanwhile, Trump has defunded agencies and programs aimed at identifying and reducing home-grown, right-wing terrorism. It’s as if his intent is to deflect attention to the back door, while the front door is being left wide open. 
It’s hard to decide whether Trump’s obsession with our southern border is because of his own shallow thinking or because he counts on it from his enthralled supporters. Evidence for the former includes ending financial aid for Central America’s Northern Triangle countries, as punishment for not stemming the exit of refugees therefrom. Policy experts told him the aid has improved the dismal conditions from which their people have been fleeing, and has decreased the rate; that ending it will make things worse. He doesn’t care. 
Evidence for the latter includes his threat to close the entire border, which would have produced predictably disastrous consequences for the US economy. One assumes he shovels such petulant nonsense to his anti-immigrant base because he figures it validates their fears and anger enough to cause them to ignore his other harmful policies: increasing pollution, ignoring climate change, removing healthcare coverage, eliminating OSHA rules; skyrocketing deficits, hugely profitable corporations paying no taxes. Hey, look: immigrants!  
Or, maybe, like cutting funding for programs helping Americans in need, it’s simply cruelty for cruelty’s sake. Hungry American children, caged Latino ones, who cares? Not Trumpists, evidently. If they dislike it, they’re keeping it to themselves.  
There’s also the benefit of keeping the misled masses distracted from his legal entanglements and the efforts being made to keep eyes off his tax returns and the Mueller report. Who among his supporters, after all, has pointed out that if they’re indeed exculpatory, he’d silence doubters instantly by releasing them? It’s what an innocent person would do.  
As with many of his ill-considered policy announcements, Trump has backed down on closing the border. It’s one thing to hurt brown people fleeing from horror; quite another to affect his backers’ bottom lines. Still, it leaves us to wonder what’s behind his monomaniacal distaste for asylum-seeking refugees, and why he insists on portraying them as a greater threat than homegrown terrorists. Not to mention foreign-grown, like those that entered here legally, far from the Mexican border. 
So great is his obsession that he tried to get border agents to ignore the law and to lie to immigration judges. Of whom he wants to get rid. This is a “president” who considers laws impediments to be ignored; a man who would be king, confident his supporters love the idea.  
Illegal immigrants are a diminishing problem, though businesspeople like Trump would like to keep hiring them. The thousands of emigrants seeking refuge here, however, challenge our values on many levels. How to fix it is a question that resists answers, or even serious efforts to find them. But Trump’s demagoguery is not just counterproductive: it raises troubling questions about his real intentions. As does decapitating DHS and directing its mission away from where real dangers remain. 
Which raises the final word. “Spying.” That Attorney General Barr used it to describe addressing concerns about a presidential campaign’s Russian contacts confirms the obvious: he was hired to protect Trump, and is willing to do whatever it takes. 

Friday, April 5, 2019

Publish Or Perish

Saturday's newspaper column:
As of this writing, we still don’t know what’s in the rumored four-hundred-page Mueller report (not counting tables and appendices), other than William Barr’s cagey four-page letter to Congress, which he first characterized as, then claimed wasn’t, a summary. Nevertheless, reactions from Trump and his apologists have been fierce, and, despite knowing nothing, signal shocking disregard for our Constitution. Were it not so dangerous, it’d just be bizarre.  
Say what you will about liberals and their desire to make American capitalism work for everyone; they’re not, unlike Trump and his adulators in Congress, trashing the Constitution, confident their flock will swallow it. 
To repeat: we don’t know what’s in the report. We do know, though, that Barr explicitly stated it did NOT exonerate Trump. He also intimated Mueller found suggestions of collusion with Russia; just not enough for him, as opposed to Congress, to level charges. This we learned from words. Written by Mr. Barr. To Congress. In English. A language we understand. Except Trump, et ilk. Doesn’t exonerate. Is what it said. Exoneration: didn’t happen.  
Trump claimed complete and total exoneration. 
He added that those who’d dared to investigate him had committed treason. Announced desire for retribution. Demanded resignations, imprisonment. Because we have this peculiar piece of parchment called the Constitution, which, quaintly, created separation of powers and the jejune concept of “checks and balances,” you’d think members of Congress, regardless of political party, would rise, united, to affirm their Constitutional role and its obligations.  
You’d be wrong.  
Instead, intelligence-impaired Republicans taking up space on the House Intelligence Committee unanimously called on Democratic Chairman Adam Schiff to resign. Bad move. Have you seen his response?  
Trump oinked his intention to see “this never happens again.” By “this” he meant Constitutionally bestowed oversight, by Congress, of the Executive Branch. Countries in which “this never happens” are called dictatorships. Countries against which the US has occasionally stood, particularly when not receiving their electoral help. Republicans in Congress, all but waving banners saying “The Constitution is un-American” and “The Founders Were Pinkos,” are on board. People who investigated one Clinton for years, impeached another, now proclaim -- and Trump’s rally-attending apostles, switching to “Lock THEM up,” agree -- investigations of possible malfeasance by the Executive Branch are treasonous except when it’s their party investigating the other. 
All it took was Trump’s lie about Barr’s memo to convince Republicans that Mueller’s investigation, vested by a Republican Congress, was ipso-facto, retro-acto, seditious. Having first professed he wanted the full report released, Trump now says those calling for it are “a disgrace.” Surprised? 
By contrast, Republicans released every word of Starr’s report. And Watergate.  
It’s perfectly proper to debate what circumstances should trigger what level of Congressional oversight. Javakna’s use of private servers and unsecured communications, for example, might be more investigation-worthy than Hillary’s. If one, why not the other? Fair question. But to contend there’s no rationale for Mueller’s investigation or the ones gearing up in the House of Representatives is to be blissfully uninformed or cosmically hypocritical. 
That Russia interfered with our election on Trump’s behalf is undeniable. That there are legitimate grounds for probing possible collusion and obstruction is, too. Chairman Schiff’s response to that failed Republican coup covers them well. 
Imaginative fourth-grade-level wit that he is, Trump began calling Mr. Schiff “pencil-neck.” Unembarrassed to expose their well-cultivated ignorance, delighted deplorables are selling T-shirts so imprinted. Choosing Foxic ridicule over honest reflection, theirs is American exceptionalism, Trump style. 
Like those that came before, Trump’s latest provocations are pernicious. Anyone who abides them rejects the essential principles on which our republic stands, confessing preference for autocracy. For if Congress hasn’t the duty to oversee the conduct of a “president,” there’s no wall between us and tyranny. No believer in America should countenance this, even when it’s “their” president. But Republicans do. In Congress and at Trump’s deranged rallies, dropping prior pretense of being the “law-and-order” party, they display their disturbing, anti-constitutional inclinations.  
If no criminality is found, fine. (We've just learned, though, that there's more in the report than has met our eyes.) But vilifying those seeking answers undermines America. Whether or not Trump did, vilifiers are providing aid and comfort to our enemies. In 2020, it’s imperative that they’re outvoted and voted out. America now stands, without question, at a crossroads. 
Meanwhile, Director Mueller’s report remains hidden, the conditions of its release subject to the will of an Attorney General hired explicitly to protect Trump. 
[Image source]

Friday, March 29, 2019

A Pair Of Summaries

My next newspaper column:
Some thoughts on Robert Mueller’s report, about which we hear much but know little: 
Specified in Attorney General Barr’s four-page summary was that it did not exonerate Trump. Trump, being Trump, lied that it did. Republicans picked up the ball and are running with it. 
Barr wrote, Mueller “did not establish” collusion, which is different from saying he established there was none. It’s consistent, though, with Mr. Mueller gathering facts for presentation to Congress, leaving conclusions to them, rather than to an A. G. who trolled for the post with unsolicited opinions on obstruction. In that job application, Barr ruled out prosecuting Trump for obstruction, long before the final report, and despite agreeing, during his confirmation hearing, that actions similar to Trump’s constitute obstruction. 
Following Special Prosecutors’ reports on Nixon and Clinton, their Attorneys General deferred to Congress. Barr, though, did what he was selected to do: the opposite. More so if he censors the report. Either it contains material that’s more damning than he implied, or the deals Mueller granted were for what, nothing? Why, for example, lie about the Trump Tower meeting?  
Barr wrote that Mueller found both-sided evidence but chose not to opine about obstruction. Trump’s end-zone dance may or may not be on the five-yard-line. If the report does provide total vindication, you’d think he’d want its full disclosure, immediately. (Reportedly, he required a summary of the summary. Read to him.) Let’s see if he orders its release. If not, we’ll understand there’s plenty he wants to remain hidden.  
Spiking the ball, Trump named people he’d ban from media, calling them “evil” and “treasonous.” (Amusingly, he also announced plans to force speakers on colleges.) As certain as his next lie, we’ll see more vindictiveness from Trump and his cheerleaders. 
So, celebrating the possibility that the “president” might not be a criminal or have colluded with them, we return to our regular programming, beginning with updating Trump’s torrential lies and promises he’s broken like the eggshells on which we’ve all been walking. 
At every campaign rally, Trump vowed to end budget and trade deficits. Last month saw the highest of each, ever, all-time. Strangely, his supporters are silent. Also: he just resumed trying to extinguish Obamacare, without creating a promised, beautiful replacement.  
Though his latest budget proposal has zero chance of becoming law, it underscores Trump’s dishonesty, including reneging on pledges to protect Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid. Throughout his campaign, to full-throated hosannas, he vowed not to cut any of them. His 2020 budget does exactly that, well beyond a trillion dollars’ worth. Again, silence.  
Giving the Pentagon more than requested, Trump’s proposal makes huge reductions to education, research, and student loan funding. It cuts the EPA drastically, removes $200 billion from SNAP and $20 billion from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Trump extends a hand of riches to his corporate sponsors, withdrawing a helping hand from Americans in need. It’s shameful dereliction of a “president’s” duty to protect all citizens, present and future. Intentionally, it exacerbates sequestration of wealth in the hands of a few. His few. For our capitalist republic to survive, such imbalance is unsustainable.  
More unsustainability: projections of future budget shortfalls show trillion-dollar deficits lined up like boxcars on a coal train, far as the eye can see; and significantly lower growth than Trump asserts. It’s timely to recall his promise to balance budgets and eliminate the national debt in eight years. No rational person believed it, but his supporters did; now they pretend otherwise.  
Speaking of coal, Trump’s administration just admitted production has declined during his term, and will continue to do so. Bringing it back was one of his most ridiculous lies, swallowed only by the sort that attend his rallies. Happily, despite his efforts to stop it, energy from renewables rose by thirty-percent in the last two years. Trumpic cravenness toward the fossil fuel industry hasn’t hidden reality from forward-thinking entrepreneurs, as opposed to his credulous abettors. Maybe there’s still a chance, however small, to mitigate anthropogenic climate change. 
Finally, to those communicative conservatives who concluded my previous column called them all white supremacists: it didn’t. Serendipitously, this week a study reported that counties in which Trump held rallies experienced a 226% increase in hate crimes. That’s Trumpism. I implored decent Republicans to acknowledge it, reject it, and reclaim their party. Perhaps that could still happen, too. 
[Image source]

Friday, March 22, 2019

In The Driver's Seat

My next newspaper column:
Observing the steady and, from right-wing media, deliberate dumbing down of our populace, I’ve often wondered how many smart, informed people our country needs to remain intact. Now I find myself wondering how few white supremacists and people who empower them it’ll take to bring it all down. And, noting how many American high school graduates winning awards and doing great things are immigrants or first-generation, I wonder how long we’ll last if anti-immigration Trumpism gets its way.  
The attacks on New Zealand’s mosques were planned before Trump boasted about the violent potential of his followers, but what he said was sickening: “… I have the support of the police, … the military, … the Bikers for Trump – I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough — until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad.” (New Zealand bikers performed a haka to honor their Muslim community.) 
Queen Kellyanne of the Unreachables later pretended, “He was talking about how peaceful and gentle many people are who are otherwise tough.” Yet Trump deleted his tweet referencing it. Why, Kelleyanne? “Shut up and pray,” she told the press. 
An American “president” elbows police, military, and civilians toward violence “at a certain point.” Worse, there are Americans who, rejecting the essence of our republic, love it. Who’ll support America only if it puts aside people who aren’t Christian, heterosexual, white, and, mostly, male. Such toxicity takes nurturing, and not caring by whom, or why.  
The line between here and there isn’t straight, but the White-Power-sign-flashing assassin cited Trump as a hero. So did the murderer of Muslims in Quebec. And the mail-bomb sender. And the Coast Guard would-be terrorist. After the slaughter, Trump offered “Best wishes” to New Zealanders, then said he doesn’t see white nationalism as a problem. Following boilerplate condemnation, he turned to “crimes of all kinds coming across our Southern border.” Of course he sees no problem: white supremacists are the dogs at whom Trump whistles loudest. Formerly decent Republicans shutter their consciences and look away.  
Humanity’s worst had their predictable say: Rush Limbaugh, Trump’s second-favorite liar, called it a “false flag” operation. Fox “news” and their airwave doppelgängers blamed liberals. Praising it with faint damns, right-wingers across the globe and here at home expressed “understanding” of the anger behind the shootings; allowed “the problem” might better have been handled “politically.”  
Trump and his execrable officials, adoring followers, and Congressional white supremacists like Steve King and others may not be directly responsible for murders in mosques. Or synagogues. Or black churches. Or Sikh temples. Or the desecrations. Or the videoed vilifications we see. But they traffic in the same poison. The more they speak, the more those human failings seep from our primeval parts, encouraged intentionally and by dereliction. “This is MAGA country,” a desecrator of Jewish gravestones scrawled, just last weekend. 
White nationalist atavism is increasing. No matter in whose image you believe mankind was created, or under what evolutionary pressures, our species lacks the ability to deal with the problems it has now brought upon itself. Facing dangers everywhere, early humans were instinctive killers. When ancestors discovered the benefits of community, not everyone followed. The paranoia and suspicion that protected them from saber-toothed tigers lost their usefulness. Yet they remain. 
Attacking others for one’s own inadequacies, and the ability to rationalize selfishness when problem-solving requires sacrifices – these weaknesses have long dwelt in our ancient parts. White supremacists, climate-change deniers, and, lately, blamers of the poor for their circumstances in order to justify abandoning them: if the purveyors don’t entirely overlap, they have in common the same residua. Primitive hate exists worldwide, but only our home-grown, right-wing retrogression has the potential to end our democratic republic and render our habitat unlivable. 
Regressives who mock calls for tolerance and for addressing existential problems, if numbering fewer than progressives, have the loudest voices. And, readying for Trump’s “certain point,” they’re armed. As Steve King has reminded us. Potential collapse is hastened by Republicans unwilling to speak out; and by those who like what they see. 
White nationalism, not foreign terrorists, is democracy’s greatest threat. So, by their silence, are its acquiescent enablers. It’s time for Republicans to devolve and try again. Reclaim the humanity they once had. Wrest America’s true greatness back from Trumpism’s empathy-bereft, malevolent bigots. Or acknowledge their complicity.  
[Image source: somewhere on Facebook]

Friday, March 15, 2019

Robots Will Not Replace Us

Here's my upcoming newspaper column:
To benefit humanity, and from the goodness of my liberal, bleeding heart, I answer medical questions on some websites. Of late, many concern “robotic” surgery, about which it’s apparent there’s much misinformation. As it happens, the FDA just warned surgeons to stop going crazy with what they’re doing using robots. So let’s talk about it. 
For general surgeons, robotic surgery is laparoscopy, but cooler. The laparoscopy revolution happened well after I finished my surgical training, so I took courses later. The first, for laparoscopic gallbladder removal, was sponsored by a laser manufacturer; in fact, the procedure was originally called “Laser Laparoscopic Cholecystectomy.” We practiced on pigs (sorry), using both lasers and standard electrocautery. Seeing no advantage to the laser, I asked the sales-guy why anyone should spend fifty grand (back then) on the device. “Because,” he replied, “If people hear you’re not using one, they’ll go elsewhere.” Ah.  
In hospitals across the land, those lasers gather dust, after recognition that, for most operations for which they were purchased and advertised, there was no added benefit. It’s unlikely surgical robots will become electrified dust-bunnies, but, for now, their value is familiarly controversial: multiple studies have found no improvement in outcomes, whereas operative costs increased by several thousand dollars. (Robots cost millions. Attachments add more.) That FDA missive was occasioned by surgeons using robots for mastectomy, raising concerns, because of more restricted view, about leaving critical tissue behind. Having done many mastectomies, I’m concerned, too.  
Evidently, lots of civilians believe robots do the operating, employing extraordinary artificial intelligence. They ask if my profession is threatened, if surgery is better done by robots than humans. So, here’s the deal:  
Robotic surgery was conceived as a way for military surgeons to operate on soldiers near the battlefield, but remotely, from behind the lines. (Not so, of course, for the medics who’d be installing the instruments.) Mechanical arms would move the instruments, controlled from anywhere, wirelessly, even across the internet.  
My analogy: you’re being driven somewhere. The driver is your surgeon, the car is the operating room. With traditional open surgery, the driver sits up front, her hands on the wheel, gearshift, operating all controls directly, looking out the windshield to see the road.  
With laparoscopic surgery, the driver sits in the back seat, controlling the wheel, etc., with long tools, and instead of looking out the window, he’s looking at an image sent from a maneuverable camera on the front of the car to a TV screen, giving a closer, changeable view. 
Also, it’s a minicar.  
In robotic surgery, servos, grabbers, whirring motors, are attached to the controls. That marvelous mass of machinery is being operated by your driver, who’s nowhere to be seen; ensconced, rather, at a console, in the garage, at home, or, truer to the surgery analogy, in a trailer being pulled behind the car, in case of mechanical trouble. She’s got fingers in all sorts of moveable gadgets, her head in a booth at the front of which is a TV screen. The controls of the car are moved by the attachments, but only in response to your driver’s every action, including verbal commands. It’s laparoscopy by remote control and with more agile instruments. The “robot” itself, though, is stupid. Acrobatic, yes. But dumb as a gallstone.  
Robot-assisted abdominal surgery ramped up with prostatectomy and hysterectomy. Surgeons like the view they get, and the un-anatomical movements that are possible using their brilliantly-engineered tools. And it’s fun. Because medicine in the US is a commercial, competitive enterprise, doctors, and especially hospitals, trumpet their use of robotics. As with lasers, patients are impressed, convinced it’s even more “non-invasive” and less dangerous than laparoscopy alone. Futuristic. Magical. Cutting edge, one might say.  
Now, “robots” are employed in ever more complex operations. Also, simple ones: gallbladder removal, hernia repair, for example, adding complexity (setting them up is a big deal). Better results have yet to be demonstrated, compared to standard laparoscopy. Greater expense remains the only consistent finding. But robots market really well. 
Occasionally, robots have been used as imagined, by surgeons remote from the operative location. Having a world-renowned expert available from afar to “do” your operation is rightly appealing. In other situations? We’ll see. No matter what, though, there’s no thinking robot involved. Tender and variable tissues still need human minds. We’re not even at the R2D2 stage, let alone C3PO.
[Image source]

Friday, March 8, 2019

Oversights And Oversight

My next newspaper column:
What an amazing week, the one when Trump’s bone spurs didn’t keep him from Vietnam and Michael Cohen spurred the bones of Trumpworld. Our reprise begins with Trump’s behavior around dictators: 
What world leader takes a high-profile trip across the seas, after his or her people had been working on an important international agreement, without having it nailed down? Or, putting it another way, who but a delusional narcissist would believe his deal-making skills were so phenomenal that he could single-handedly hammer one out, in a day or two, with a murderous dictator known for his creative methods of offing relatives?  
Well, he tried. Called Kim a great leader, a great guy, said they “like each other.” (Last time, it was “fell in love.”) Took his word, that of a malevolent tyrant who surely knows what goes on in his torture chambers, that he, Kim, knew nothing about the merciless, slow assassination of American Otto Warmbier. 
Buttering up the person across the table can be a useful tactic, but this? A despotic starver and punisher of his own people, who demands absolute fealty, on pain of death? Trump also takes Putin’s word over our intelligence agencies’, even as Russia openly called for Kim not to give up his nukes. And Putin’s emissary was in Hanoi. 
Fudging the fiasco, Trump said “walking away” was smart. After such embarrassing failure, it surely was, but it didn’t erase the travesty by which Kim made Trump look weak and ineffectual, lost nothing, and won another cancelation of US-South Korea war games. Last year Trump announced the nuclear threat from NoKo was NoMo: “Sleep better at night,” he beamed. This failure was over denuclearization. Fake news back then, from its primary purveyor. 
After Trump’s decampment, North Korea called him a liar. And we’ve just learned Kim is buffing the missile site he’d promised to dismantle. Played like a janggu.  
On, now, to Michael Cohen, starting with obvious questions for his Republican interrogators: If your point is that he’s a liar, cheat, and felon, what are your thoughts on the man who employed him for a decade? (The RNC did, too, for a while.) Although you never will, is it inconceivable that a person who rolled over for a crook found a conscience? What does Cohen, already heading to federal prison for years, have to gain by lying now? 
Trump called Cohen a rat, possibly ill-advised mob-speak for a guy who squeals. There are prior examples of testimony before Congress from convicted felons that blew doors open on criminal enterprises for which they worked, leading to bipartisan action. But that was when both parties had integrity.  
The extent to which Michael Cohen is deemed credible depends, we know, on one’s political leanings and ability to compartmentalize. For example, Trump bleated that everything Cohen said is a lie except the “no collusion” part. Per usual, Trump was lying about Cohen’s statement, which was not that there was no collusion; only that he’d not witnessed it. Suspected it, though, and provided reasons. 
No Republican attempted to exculpate Trump from Cohen’s disclosures; how could they? For that matter, excepting Justin Amash, none showed a molecule of interest in exploring the possibility of criminal activities by an American “president.” A dais of deplorables, it was.  
How likely is it that Trump’s career as a lying conman, bully, and swindler ended when he took office? It’s public record: Bankruptcies, stiffing contractors. Scam businesses, racist housing policies. Tax evasion, insurance fraud. When his tax records are made public, we’ll understand why he wanted them hidden. 
Because Trump’s crimes are self-evident, Michael Cohen’s testimony was mostly unsurprising, but, in this political climate, it was undeniably brave. What was surprising was the incoherence of Republican inquisitors. Repeating irrelevant questions, cherry-picking the record, flinging discredited falsehoods, they even whined the hearing lasted too long. The guys who chased Hillary Clinton for eight years, whose investigations of Trump when they were the majority were being exposed, before their eyes, as vaporous shams. That week, we saw what Constitutionally-mandated oversight looks like, when the majority and its chairman have rectitude. We’ll see more.  
A constantly lying “president” can’t expect to be believed when he proclaims innocence, nor should he be. So, off he went to CPAC, whipping up resentment, disgorging a record-breaking torrent of lies, spewing unprintable obscenities to the adoring, “conservative,” “family-values,” USA-USA-chanting throng.
[Image source]

Friday, March 1, 2019

It's Not Easy Being Green

My next newspaper column:
Atop the list of ironies soiling our divided political landscape is the right-wing claim that liberals are about “free stuff.” Pegging the irony-meter is their counterfactual assertion that tax cuts pay for themselves, so the nation can have what it needs without paying for it. That “free stuff” corporate tax-avoidance benefits us all. And, because government is the problem, we can ignore increasingly dire problems, cost-free. Market magic will fix them.  
Enter the “Green New Deal,” decidedly not free. From the variety of attacks on it and its primary sponsor, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one concludes it hits a little too close to the foundation of Republicans’ house of cards. “Her apartment is too nice,” they say. “No airplanes! Forced veganism!” they lie. “Communism” and “socialism” come up as often as cheeseburger burps in the Oval Office. 
By some, knowledge is still considered good; those who so wish can read the actual bill here. 
Let’s stipulate that, after the “Whereas-es,” which are factual, the proposals lack detail, even as they imply optimism that our system might still work. Albeit deferring to technological feasibility, its sky remains pied; and although its goals merit thoughtful consideration (a political oxymoron nowadays), it’s too sweeping to have a snowball’s chance in the Senate well. Perhaps, risking enlightenment, climate-change deniers might consider, before responding with the usual “climate has always changed,” and “in the 70’s ‘they’ predicted another Ice Age,” and “carbon-dioxide is good for plants,” and “scientists fake it for grant money,” taking the time, out of self-respect, to search “climate change science” and “debunking climate change denial” before jerking. Their knees. Where’s the harm?  
Blame for climate-change illiteracy doesn’t fall entirely on the amateur denier: they’ve been played for fools by the most expansive and effective disinformation campaign since tobacco producers attempted to hide the dangers of smoking. They’re human, and it’s the exploitable weaknesses of humans that are targeted so precisely by an operation designed to be unrecognized as such by its victims.  
Civilian deniers gain something by remaining misinformed – excuses for not modifying certain behaviors or paying more in taxes – but the Senators (including some Democrats) who refuse to debate the GND have gained much more; receiving, on average, $670,000 apiece from oil and coal companies. Which shows the incline of the uphill battle realists are facing.  
If arguably overreaching, the Green New Deal properly reflects the existential seriousness of climate-change, and the depth and breadth of responses it demands. Moreover, those responses are the opposite of socialism: they’re aimed, among other things, at improving the lot of the workforce, without which the system fails. Good jobs. Workers’ rights. Clean water and air. Healthcare. Infrastructure. Energy-efficient workplaces. The oil of the machinery of capitalism. 
Nearly all Americans benefit from such things. To recognize who doesn’t, namely the oligarchs among us (except that, in the long run, they do), is to understand the reasons for the fierce pushback. Knowing the lengths to which fake news and disinformation are being pushed by the fossil fuel industry and the legislators they own, affords some sympathy for those in their thrall. On the other hand, since the truth is easily obtained by any serious person, and given the cataclysm furthered by continued ostriching, such sympathy is past its shelf life.  
Naïve Ocasio-Cortez may be, but it’s only to the extent that she believes there’s hope that legislators, pushed by enlightened voters (or pushed out by them), can be made to act in the public interest instead of their own. She also presumes enough voters might come to recognize how they’ve fallen for cynically generated fictions. 
Still angry that our government released a factual, dire report on climate change, Trump is trolling for a new group of “scientists” to “reassess” the threat it poses. Among those netted so far is a physicist with no climate science expertise who’s compared attacks on carbon dioxide to the murder of Jews during the Holocaust. “Only the best people,” indeed. Unsurprisingly, the group is carefully constructed around avoidance of public disclosure laws. Trump’s swamp has no drain.  
If nothing else, Representative AOC has provided a framework for honest discussion. It falls upon all of Congress and, even more, upon citizens, to acknowledge the reality beyond the lies. The time is now for detoxification from Foxification, and taking actions equal to the enormity of the crisis.
[Image source]

Friday, February 22, 2019

Notes From The End Of Time

Tomorrow's newspaper column:
February fifteen, two-thousand-nineteen. Day one of the denouement, the beginning of the end. Herewith and henceforth shall I endeavor to document the fall, in hopes survivors, if any there be, may come to comprehend and avoid our fate. 
Today it was announced that our country is in a state of national emergency. Responding as a patriot, and for as long as I’m physically able, as long as there’s air to breathe, I’ll record events as they unravel. Perhaps an eventual historian, even an alien lifeform or probe, picking through the rubble, will find these words and piece together the finale of a formerly great and powerful country. Here will be a diary for the future reader, whoever it may be and whatever it may hold.  
Day two. Saturday, February sixteen. The “president” has fled the White House. Ensconced in a state protected on three sides by ocean waters, his panic is palpable. Mysteriously, he is photographed ordering an omelet. I struggle to decipher the meaning: an attempt, albeit inconsistent with his declaration, to convince us to go about our business as if nothing has happened? If so, is it intended to expose us to harm, as with his prior pollution and energy directives, and treaty dissolutions? Is he party to the emergency? Or, given his bodily habitus and the effects of eggs thereon, has he decided the emergency is so dire, nothing matters? We’re left to wonder. And worry. Perhaps it was egg-white only. What then?  
Day three. Sunday, February seventeen. Relentless snowfall and freezing temperatures ended long since, yet snow remains, now become ugly, black, disfigured, like random chunks of crumbled buildings, smothered in toxic ash. Is this the true emergency, poison falling from the sky rather than amassing at our borders? I shudder, as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road calls itself to mind. I must acquire, hoard, and protect food and drink. 
Day four. Monday, February eighteen. The stock market has failed to open. Mail is undelivered, and my bank is closed for the third day straight. Systemic collapse has become undeniable. I recall something whose meaning originally escaped me: our garbage was picked up but the recycle bins weren’t. Of course! Why recycle as Armageddon approaches? And yet they collected the garbage. Oh! I understand: they intend it as feed for themselves. The situation is far worse than I’d allowed myself to think. But it reminds me to retain everything that might be digestible. Trees are bare. Would that I hadn’t forgone plantings last spring. 
Day five. Tuesday, February nineteen. Using blankets and scraps of cardboard, we’ve blacked out our windows. I worry light may still show through, alerting marauders of our presence. I’m grateful my neighbor is Deputy Chief of Police, but his drab, aging, unmarked patrol car affords no visual deterrent and little comfort. I assume he’s armed. If it comes to that, I believe he’d share extra weapons. Unarmed, I place full-tang, cocobolo-handled, high-carbon Damascus steel, Santoku-style chef’s knives inside each door. Lacking enough, one gets a can opener.  
Day Six. Wednesday, February twenty. Housebound for days, I venture out. Needing reinforcement fencing and more protection for my larder, I head to Home Depot, parking several blocks away, reconnoitering on foot. Approaching the parking lot, I see an ominous gathering of brown people, eying me in ways I can’t interpret; greedily, perhaps. Eschewing eye contact, I turn away, wondering how many more are on their way, and what are their intentions. The warnings have been too mild. And too late.  
Day Seven. Thursday, February twenty-one. Daring to check the news, I discover all is not lost: Bernie is running again. He must believe the US will still exist in 2020, and surely, as they always do, Democrats will select and rally around their best candidate, setting aside bitterness for the good of the country when it isn’t Bernie. What could go wrong? 
But then I discover there’s been massive voter fraud, after all, just as Trump has told us. He was right. About. Everything.  
Wait. It was Republican fraud? In North Carolina? Home of “surgical,” Republican-created voter ID laws? Later, I read McCabe informed the Gang of Eight, and Trump takes Putin’s word over the DNI on Kim’s missiles. I no longer know what to believe. 
Hopelessness overwhelms. We uncover our windows, resigned to the onrush of rapists, murderers, landscapers, and roofers. 
[Image source]


Friday, February 15, 2019

No Intelligence For You

Tomorrow's newspaper column, today:
Lost in the afterglow of what Ann Coulter called the lamest State of the Union Speech of all time was an actually significant utterance from Trump. Using words not written for him to read, haltingly, off a teleprompter, he arbitrarily dismissed the Congressional testimony of the heads of each of our intelligence agencies; all, to a man and woman, contradicting pretty much everything he says about threats our nation faces. That’s far more consequential than evanescent calls for the high-minded politics of which he’s incapable.  
Trump claims ISIS is defeated; they said it’s reconstituted, engaging new tactics. Trump says North Korea is no longer a nuclear threat; they said Kim has no intention of relinquishing his nuclear ambitions, and is hiding his activities. The Iran deal is failing, swears Trump. They’re following its conditions, say our intelligence agencies. There’s no threat from climate change, insists Donald. The opposite, squared, is what the intelligence community understands. Nor did they confirm a security “crisis” at our southern border.  
Claiming they’re “naïve,” Trump spurned those leaders, all of whom he appointed. Virtually alone among his appointees in having expertise in the positions for which they were chosen, they’re even more unique in their willingness to tell it like it is, rather than offering him only what he wants to hear. 
Merely a week past my frolic amongst happy amphiscians, it’s jarring to consider the implications of a “president” who absents himself from daily intelligence briefings, already pared down to a third-grade comprehension level, and who, when he can’t avoid hearing it, disregards the information those agencies provide. Who, according to reports, gets angry when shown material that belies his preferred beliefs, causing people to avoid giving it to him. The implications should be obvious, even to Trumpists, so consider it we must. In a world where hyper-partisanship didn’t require otherwise thoughtful people to excuse the inexcusable, no one would defend such dereliction.  
The mission of our intelligence-gathering agencies is to provide a president with the best possible data about potential threats, foreign and domestic; to ground critical decision-making, affecting war and peace, in facts as one is best able to know them. They, and no one else, have the resources: surveillance satellites, spyware and spies, analysts, informants, communication networks with similar foreign agencies. If a president, or, in this case, a “president,” decides he can make life and death decisions without their input, on what or whom, then, will that person rely?  
Ample is the “president’s” gut, and he’s said it’s the source of his best thoughts. His brain, he reminds us with misspelled words, is like none other’s: no one knows more than him about anything. Likely, he even believes it; yet he regularly shows lack of comprehension about almost everything of which he speaks. (Documentation provided on request.) So, if not our intelligence agencies, and if not only his gut, whence comes the information that convinces him of the naivety of the intelligence community? John Bolton? What unique sources does he have? Vladimir Putin? He has plenty. 
We’ve learned Trump’s announced withdrawal from Syria was not discussed with the Joint Chiefs. Happening immediately after a chat with Turkey’s Erdogan, it received instantaneous approval from Putin. Does this reveal who’s pulling Trump’s strings? Which would be worse, a “president” who takes orders from foreign leaders (or Fox “news” screamers), or one who considers himself infallible? In either option there’s little comfort. The only other is that he studiously evaluates gathered intelligence, but he’s eliminated that possibility.  
Everyone should find this scary as hell. Example: by ending Reagan’s INF treaty, against expert advice, Trump rewards his donors with fat military contracts, Putin realizes his dream of nukes on his European border, and the world becomes more dangerous. And we’re to believe an information-averse, pathologically-lying “president,” who just lied his way through El Paso, when he tells us otherwise.  
Beyond learning how to operate, the most critical part of my surgical training was having drilled into me – under penalty of expulsion – what I didn’t know. Even more than technical skill, such boundaries define a safe doctor. No one would risk their life with surgeons who considered their teachers naïve, refused to learn new approaches, didn’t read surgical journals, attend professional enrichment courses; didn’t seek advice when needed, considered germ theory a hoax. 
So, what justifies doing the equivalent with Trump? The wall? Imaginary tax refunds? Is life that cheap? 
Also: if you're okay with Trump's "emergency," you don't get to say you love America anymore.

[Image source]

Friday, February 8, 2019


My upcoming newspaper column:
Hearing Donald Trump talk up bipartisanship is like listening to a lecture by Hannibal Lecter on veganism. Unsurprising as cold weather in winter, he trashed Democrats, per usual, at a lunch with news anchors before the speech. Bipartisanship died before the speech was birthed. (No, I won’t even begin to unpack the lies, implicit and explicit, he produced when addressing late-term abortion. Nor the cynical appeal to his ready-for-outrage base, for whom such lies are coin of the realm.)  
Seriously: how many spit-takes occurred around the country, around the world, when the word “bipartisanship” passed his lips? The lips of the guy who’s consistently claimed Democrats want open borders, care more about criminals than law-abiding citizens. The guy who calls for locking up former opponents and considers news reporters enemies of the people. 
After removing all knowledgeable people from the HIV/AIDS task force established by President Barack Obama, Trump now calls for Congress to appropriate money to fight it. (Important insight: he used to brag about making his girlfriends be tested.)  
Economic miracle, he called it, and indeed it is, for CEOs, shareholders, and the millionaire recipients of his tax cuts. For those in the middle class expecting their “average $4,000” in tax cuts: fooled ya! For those concerned about trillion-dollar deficits: you, too.  
We must reject the politics of revenge, resistance, and retribution,” alliterated the personification of each of those. Who’s done everything possible to bring pain to immigrants, LGBT people, and non-Christians (of which, ironically, he is one.) “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation,” he said. Right. Legislation and investigations are as incompatible as war and peace. Anyone buy that? Was it true during the endless investigations of Hillary Clinton? If so, was it because Rs had no spare time to legislate, or because they insisted on blocking President Barack Obama no matter what?  
Watching Trump read words arranged in complete sentences is like watching a toddler trying to fit shapes into one of those fit-the-shapes-into-one-of those-shape-things. When confronted with proof of Trump’s endless string of lies, his supporters either deny that he lies, or ask us to ignore his words and focus on what he does. Okay, let’s. 
Let’s see what happens with his change of heart on AIDS. Let’s see how much drug prices drop (to date, on his watch, they’ve dropped about a half of one-percent.) Mainly, though, let’s see how he uses his office to model cooperation, high-minded politics, and to discourage hate for his usual targets. Let’s see how he addresses those trillion-dollar deficits and missing middle class tax refunds; whether he reverses his orders that have increased pollution, allowed poisons in food, and have, for the first time in years, caused America’s carbon emissions to rise.
Let’s see what he does about climate change, continued denial of which denotes mulish idiocy, and mention of which, like his bullying shutdown, received none of his speechwriters’ attention. And, since he’s suddenly the very model of a modern compromiser, let’s see if he’s willing to buck the frothing of his base by offering permanent resolution of DACA and TPS in exchange for his unnecessary wall. Let’s see if he’s willing to promise that he’ll accept his $5.9 billion for it, and not a penny more, ever. 
All SOTU speeches aspire to soaring rhetoric. Some presidents have the chops to deliver them soaringly, too. Coming from Trump, who, when not stumbling through a teleprompter, descends into mendacious incoherence, there’s a certain loss of luster. But I’m a generous guy. Sunning, as I am at the moment, in Hawaii, accompanied by my sweet, adorable, innocent, and as-yet unpolluted grandchildren, I’ll accept Trump’s word that he’s had his recently referred-to “Come to Jefferson” moment. 
And, for the sake of those grandchildren and everyone else’s, too, including the ones of those who unfailingly attack me as a commie blinded by baseless hate of Trump, I’ll afford him the benefit of my doubt, until such time as he proves he’s the same fomenter of fear and hate and denialism he was before Tuesday night.  
That’s all I can muster, pounded out reluctantly, in the warmth of my surroundings. Grandpa’s presence is required to accompany the kids to the beach. By the time this is printed, I’ll be back among you, hoping the pipes ain’t froze, trying to retain the mellow memories of happy disconnect. 
[Image source]

Friday, February 1, 2019

Moron The Shut-storm

Saturday's newspaper column:
Where have you gone, Ronald Reagan-o?  
In an administration filled with ironies (the nicest way to put it), it’s particularly amusing that the Trump shutdown, in addition to accomplishing nothing other than pain for people about whom Trump couldn’t care less, may have permanently entombed an undead Reaganism: “Government isn’t the solution, it’s the problem.” (Among others are his voodoo economics, that he single-handedly ended the Cold War, and his Iran-Contra innocence.)  
First, let’s review: More than a month after rejecting the exact offer he just accepted, having originally indicated he would but backing off when Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh jerked on his leash, Trump has re-opened the parts of government he’d shut down to prove... something. He didn’t get his wall, but he managed to create hardship for 800,000 people and their families, and for those who depend on the services those government employees provide.  
“I am very proud to announce today that we have reached a deal,” Trump feigned, hoping we’d believe it was something other than what had been on the table from day one. Hoping we’d conclude the great negotiator had won the day, that his shut-storm hadn’t been a failed attempt at extortion, over a promesa he couldn’t keep. 
Being Donald Trump, boastful bully, he added that he has a “very powerful” alternative, but didn’t have to use it “at this time.” Meaning, of course, declaring a national emergency. Usurping the role of Congress in setting funding. Reducing the criteria for engaging emergency powers to presidential whim. Paving the way to unrestrained authoritarianism. Every sentient Congress-dweller ought to reject it, unconditionally. Because whatever else is true about illegal immigration, by no definition can it be called an emergency. It’s been on the decline for a decade (except at Trump properties).  
Also, being Trump, he lied. Said Democrats have “fully acknowledged” that a “barrier, a fence, a wall, or whatever you call it” (love that!) is an “important part of the solution.” They haven’t. His desperation to pretend Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi hadn’t pitched a double-header no-hitter was obvious. The genius deal-maker. How many bought it, other than O’Reilly and Hannity? Not Ms. Coulter. 
But to the point: when the shutdown began, Trumpists crowed it was a brilliant maneuver, which would expose “non-essential” government workers, a way to get rid of those paycheck-getting, do-nothing employees of the American people. Funny thing: it did the opposite. Turns out – who knew? – government does important work, without which bad things happen. Stuff for which government is, indeed, the solution. The shutdown proved the inverse of what rightists were celebrating.  
It also took creating another shutdown off the table. Though Donald seems to relish inflicting pain for its own sake, it’s doubtful he’ll try that stunt again. It’s “national emergency, behold my Putintial power,” or nothing. Extortion replaced by usurpation. At which time self-described conservatives who still support Trump will face a “Come-To-Jefferson” moment. 
If they’re okay with Trump declaring an emergency when there’s none, they’ll be admitting what they’ve heretofore pretended away: they’re delighted to have a dictator, as long as he’s dictating what they want to hear. (First they came for…) Because it will come down to this: do they accept America’s constitutional imperatives of checks and balances, separation of powers, co-equal branches, “elections have consequences,” or not? Is their professed patriotism, which they claim liberals lack, applicable only when they’re fully in charge? (Reminder: when Rs were fully in charge, Trump couldn’t get his wall.)  
Trump might be realizing his go-to thuggery won’t work anymore; that he’s facing in-charge Democratic Representatives who’ll neither be bullied nor countenance his lies; who’ll do the work demanded by our Constitution, lacking for the past two years. For once in his privileged life, he’s unable to get his way by coercion, barratry, or cheating. Were he capable, and if he wants to accomplish anything, he’d finally attempt to learn the job. No more bailouts from Daddy or Russia. No more prostrate, bi-cameral Republican majorities. The Constitution: it’s partly back, baby. 
As long as we’re high-fiving, let’s fantasize no more dereliction of duty by such miscreants as Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham. Who knows why they’ve rolled over, but their submissive acquiescence to Trump’s extortion (blackmail?) and demagoguery has been shameful and dangerous. And they’re already encouraging Trump to declare his emergency. So it becomes undeniable: dictatorship, is where they stand.  
Koo-koo-ka-choo, Mister Jefferson.
[Image source]

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