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When We Don’t Know It When We See It

Ever since Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart admitted that he couldn’t define pornography, but that “I know it when I see it,” the line has become something of a joke–trotted out to underscore the less-than-coherent nature of an observation or complaint.

What isn’t a joke, however, is the increasing divide between people who recognize the complexities and realities of the world we live in and those who are increasingly at sea. The latter group– grasping for bright lines and responding to slogans in lieu of analysis–are easy pickings for  politicians willing to pander to their fears and incomprehension.

A recent commentary posted at Talking Points Memo provides a graphic example of the phenomenon. The writer attended the Trump/Palin/Cruz rally against the Iran agreement, and noted the reaction to Trump’s bombastic, non-specific attack, which boiled down to “I could have done it better” and “America needs to win again, and I’ll make America a winner.”

“We’re going to build up our military. We’re going to have such a strong military, that nobody—nobody!—is going to mess with us. We’re not going to have to use it,” said Trump.

This is American Exceptionalism re-imagined by Charles Atlas. Trump wants to prove that he can make America so huge and so strong—the strongest!—that no terrorist would dare kick sand in our faces again. Thinking this way is more than a little silly, but it is exactly how the people who went to the Stop Iran Deal Rally felt.

The pity of this all is that the Iran deal shows how America can lead (and win!) in an increasingly disorganized world. We negotiated with Iran from a position of strength. We had support from our European allies. We had Iran’s billions in our banks. Behind door number one was Iran giving up their nuclear weapons program. Behind door number two was Iran becoming the next destination for Drone Airlines. The United States gave up nothing in this deal. In exchange for their own money, Iran gave us what we wanted: an Iran without The Bomb.

This is what winning looks like. This is our enemy surrendering their weapons without a fight not because they love us but because they know they would not survive the fight. After our embassies getting bombed, 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, Russia invading Georgia, the red line in Syria, Benghazi, Russia invading Ukraine, Boko Haram, and ISIS, stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons was change we need to believe in.

One of the most frustrating aspects of the dispute over the Iranian agreement was the absolute lack of alternatives (other than war) offered by its opponents. Watching proponents and opponents debate the issue was like watching an adult argue with a two-year-old having a meltdown.

If people who don’t know it when they see it, people looking instead for simple, non-specific messages, bombast and empty rhetoric, end up outnumbering thoughtful Americans at the polls next year, we’re all in trouble.

The Ugly American

A friend just asked me an interesting question: why do you suppose no one has interviewed Dick Lugar about the merits/demerits of the agreement with Iran?

A good question, to which I have no good response. But it does raise another question: when and how did the party of Dick Lugar, Bob Dole, Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller–among many, many others–become the party of Ben Carson, Bobby Jindal and Donald Trump?

I have resisted writing about Trump, because really…why waste the digital ink? But it occurs to me that the reason I find him so repulsive is because he embodies everything that is wrong with my country; he’s like the “ugly American” tourists who used to roam Europe routinely embarrassing the rest of us.

  • Start with the narcissism: the belief that he is “exceptional.” The insistence that he is always right, and any critic is wrong, jealous, unable to appreciate his superiority.
  • The glorification of money and the delusion that he is self-made: I’m rich so I’m better, and it’s all due to my brilliance; I don’t owe my (exaggerated) fortune to my inherited wealth, or my ability to avoid the consequences of bad business decisions through multiple bankruptcies, or the “old boys” network available to the sons of well-to-do white Christian males.
  • The substitution of witless name-calling for discourse: if I disagree with you, you’re a dummy or a clown. I don’t have to explain why you’re wrong, or what I would do instead, or why my idea is better. Just playground-level epithets.
  • The full-throated bigotry and racism: Obama is black, so he couldn’t possibly have been born in the U.S.; brown people are all illegal immigrants who are murderers and rapists.
  • The chutzpah. Denigrating John McCain’s service while Trump was taking advantage of deferments available to the pampered and privileged.
  • The confusion of tasteless and tacky with quality.

There is more, but what I don’t understand is how a significant part of the Republican base can take this delusional buffoon seriously. He is an embarrassment to the party and the country. Granted, the rest of the field ranges from undistinguished (to put it mildly) to terrifying, but Trump’s antics are so outsized as to make even Rick Perry (“oops!”) look sentient by comparison.

We live in a world that is complicated and increasingly interdependent. We need leadership that understands those complexities and can analyze and debate the available options for dealing with them–not purveyors of bumper-sticker slogans, faux machismo and belligerent bullshit.

The party of Dick Lugar and Bill Hudnut is long gone.





Perils of Policing

Thanks to the ubiquity of cellphone cameras, Americans these days get treated to a lot of stories about police misconduct–so much so that we sometimes forget that–troubling as they are– misbehaving officers represent a small percentage of the men in blue.

We’ve all recently seen the graphic and unsettling evidence of cops mistreating black teenagers at a pool party. But Juanita Jean–proprietor of the World’s Most Dangerous Beauty Salon, Inc.–has provided us a glimpse of the other side of the equation, namely, what happens when a perfectly reasonable police officer confronts a self-important “Sovereign Citizen” spouting bizarre legal theories about why the state of Texas lacks the authority to ticket him.

The video shows the May 2 arrest of 49-year-old Scott Richardson after being pulled over for allegedly driving 50 mph in a 40 mph zone. Recorded by Richardson on his cell phone, it shows him arguing with the Addison officer for over four minutes before the policeman gets out his baton and breaks the driver’s side window and pulls the man from the car. …

During the course of the interchange, the officer requests the man show him his driver’s license and proof of insurance a total of 15 times before he gets out his baton, makes the same request a final time, and begins breaking the window.

I think my favorite part of the exchange was Richardson demanding of the officer “As a man, what right do you have to stop another man?” (I guess it would be okay to stop a woman??)

You really need to click through and see the entire confrontation.

A day in the life…..



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That Sound You Hear is Me Gnashing My Teeth…

And Thomas Paine thought that his were the times that tried men’s souls….

Recently, the Oklahoma House has approved legislation purporting to protect ministers who refuse to conduct same-sex weddings from civil liability.  

Evidently, they don’t teach basic civics in Oklahoma. (As I have previously noted, they aren’t too keen on American history, either.) News flash, Oklahoma legislature! The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment got there first! It already provides the religious liberty you want to “restore.” For the zillionth time: churches and their clergy are exempt from civil rights laws that conflict with their theology. They’re protected from the nefarious “gay agenda” by that Constitution you all pretend you’ve read.

It’s maddening enough that state legislators–including a not-insignificant number from Indiana–are clueless about the actual application of the religion clauses, but it is mind-boggling when a (presumably plausible) candidate for President of the United States exhibits abject ignorance of the most basic Constitutional principles.

Recently, Mike Huckabee spoke to a group of rightwing pastors about the pending Supreme Court case on same-sex marriage, and he began by repeating the same tired lie: if the Court rules for marriage equality, pastors will be sued or jailed for refusing to preside over same-sex nuptials. It’s hard to know whether Huckabee is really that uninformed, or whether his statement was just reflexive demagoguery of the sort he regularly delivered during his stint at Fox News.

What really set me off, however, was his follow-up to that bit of dishonest rabble-rousing:

Getting a decision from the court, it’s not tantamount to saying ‘well that settles it. It’s the law of the land.’ And when I hear people say that I just cringe and I’m thinking ‘How many people pass 9th grade civics?’ This is not that complicated. There are three branches of government, not one. We don’t like it if the executive branch overreaches and pretends that it can act in difference to the other two. And neither can we sit back and allow the court, one branch of government to overrule the other two. And so when a court rules that same sex marriage is okay, it doesn’t mean that the next day, marriage licenses should be issued for same sex couples. It simply means that if the legislature agrees with that court decision and the representatives of the people—the elected officials—if they then put that into legislation and it is signed and enforced by the executive branch, then you have same sex marriage. But until those other two branches act, what you have is a court opinion and nothing else.

I hate to tell you, Mike, but when the Supreme Court issues a decision, that does settle it. Short of a constitutional amendment, it’s over.

How can a man who was a Governor of a state, a man who has run for President of this country, who has debated legal and policy issues with knowledgable people, have so little grasp of the most basic operation and structure of the American legal system?

If Huckabee really does know better– if he is just counting on the ignorance of his audience–the fact that he can make such statements secure in the knowledge that no one listening will know enough to challenge him is even more depressing.

Evidently, no one ever took 9th grade civics.