Thursday, September 27, 2018

National Crucible

“Trump Asks Why Kavanaugh Accuser Didn’t Just Immediately Request Hush Money”
 —Headline in The Onion, September 21
Sixty-five years ago Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible premiered on Broadway. Recounting the story of the Salem witch trials of 1692-93, it tells the following story. Several young women alarm the community with their strange behavior. Under persistent questioning, they eventually accuse several townspeople of consorting with the devil. In the resulting hysteria, citizens are arrested, put on trial and, despite their protestations of innocence, convicted and hanged. The play was a thinly veiled allegory of the campaign to root out Communist influence in American society in the 1940s and 1950s. Thus, among his other literary contributions, Miller popularized the term “witch hunt” in the political sense.

Six decades later there is again hysteria across the land. As in the 1950s, the hunt is on to find people secretly working with Russians and against America’s interest. The difference now is that, instead of the political right hunting Russians under every bed, it is now the political left raising the alarm over Russian bots lurking in our social media accounts and controlling the commander in chief in some kind of Manchurian Candidate-style plot. We keep waiting for Special Counsel Robert Mueller to give us the definitive word on what exactly went on between the Trump campaign and the Russians, but so far we have only the hysterical speculations of politicians and commentators. People have been indicted, but so far only for infractions unrelated to the election or for so-called process crimes, that is, transgressions arising from not cooperating fully with the investigation itself.

Some people think that the #MeToo movement is a wave of hysteria. Personally, I think that any concerted campaign that roots out people abusing their authority or preying on the vulnerable is a good thing. If the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby are convicted in a fair trial, by all means punish them to the full extent of the law. On the other hand, there are instances of calling out alleged perpetrators that have an air of the French Revolution or the Chinese Cultural Revolution about them. For example, the allegations made against actor Aziz Ansari by a 23-year-old anonymous woman sounded like nothing more than a bad date. The accusation by Jimmy Bennett against fellow actor Asia Argento (who played his mother in a movie) sounds like an audacious attempt to cash in on the fact that he was 17 when they had sex. Of course, I don’t know the real truth of any of these situations. It’s not as though I was in the room when any of these things happened. Should I even try to have an opinion?

That brings us to the current circus which is the confirmation hearings of President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee. What are we to make of it? On one hand, it is not actually necessary for me to have an opinion on it because it is the Senate that will be voting, not me. On the other hand, being a serious citizen requires me to have some sort of opinion. It comes down to whom one believes about things that happened decades ago and whether one believes those alleged events should be disqualifying. But since there is no objective way for any of us to know what the truth is in this situation, the question is really, who should get the benefit of the doubt? It does not help that the last-minute allegations against Brett Kavanaugh are such that they can not be objectively proved or disproved. You hear some people say that, in cases of alleged assault or rape, the woman should always be believed. That policy would certainly simplify things, but unfortunately one of the people currently saying this is Hillary Clinton, who vilified the multiple women who made accusations against her husband. And what about the accusations made by Tawana Brawley and Crystal Gail Mangum (of the Duke lacrosse case), which were eventually proven false? No matter how prevalent male criminal behavior may be, it makes absolutely no sense to consider a person more credible purely because of her gender.

My fear in all of this is that the progress made by the #MeToo movement will be undone by by one party’s blatant wielding of it as a political weapon. Donald Trump’s behavior towards women was well documented by the time he became a serious candidate for president. He had earned no benefit of the doubt, but I certainly took notice when multiple women made public accusations against him, all on the same day and each one located in a state about to hold a primary vote. Nor has it escaped my attention that the allegations against Kavanaugh, who had heretofore appeared to be nothing but squeaky clean after six separate FBI background checks, began to be doled out by activist Democratic lawyers, one after another at a point in the process when there would be little time to adequately vet them. Trump may well have won the presidency because enough voters decided that women’s accusations against him were politically and/or monetarily motivated and so could be discounted. The danger for Democrats—and for everyone—is that the allegations against Kavanaugh will look like such a blatant and callous partisan smear that it will undermine the credibility of the #MeToo movement in general.

When I think back on The Crucible, I am struck by the coincidental parallel of it chronicling the downfall of a basically good man because of overwrought testimony from various women who were egged on to condemn him. Of course, that does not mean the same is happening to Judge Kavanaugh. Besides, The Crucible was written by a man. But I am also reminded of another seminal literary work, one which was written by a woman. In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Tom Robinson is accused by Mayella Ewell of rape. Though we are given plenty of reason to doubt her story, it turns out to be an instance where the jury chooses to believe the woman. Tom Robinson is convicted and ultimately dies in a vain attempt to escape.

In that case, as in the cases of Trump and Kavanaugh, people end up choosing to believe what they need to believe.

Monday, August 27, 2018

R.I.P. Senate’s Maverick

“I fell in love with my country when I was a prisoner in someone else’s.”
—John McCain
As with John B. Anderson, the onetime congressman and presidential candidate who died in December, I feel compelled to eulogize Arizona Senator John McCain. In a way, though, I already have. It was in a blog post on my movie web site a decade ago, just after he was defeated by Barack Obama by a landslide in the Electoral College.

“During the Vietnam war,” I wrote, “while [George W.] Bush was ensconced in the relative safety of the Texas National Guard (and Obama was a child), McCain was risking his life and undergoing torture in the service of his country.” This was in reaction to people I had heard during the campaign repeating the mantra that there was no difference between McCain and Bush.

I continued, “While Bush was always eager to get along with his political colleagues and run up huge spending deficits, McCain was always quick to annoy and anger his fellow Republicans with (sometimes overly) principled stands. While Bush was willing to tolerate rough treatment of terrorists in U.S. custody McCain, drawing on painful personal experience, opposed anything that fit his definition of torture. While Bush saw no problem cutting taxes and increasing spending, McCain greatly annoyed the president and many of his colleagues by voting against the Bush tax cuts because there were not offsetting spending cuts. While Bush gave lip service to the issue of global warming but did not treat it as a particularly urgent problem, McCain embraced the issue. Indeed, McCain’s positions are such a strange jumble that there is something in them to annoy just about everyone.”

McCain was elected to the House of Representatives in 1982 and to the Senate in 1987, succeeding Barry Goldwater. McCain was never going to be president, although he did make a good run for the office in both 2000 and 2008. A main obstacle was his eclectic set of political positions and personal principles. They made it too hard to enthuse voters in his own party. Of course, a strange or inconsistent set of principles did not stop Donald Trump from getting elected, so the determinative factor certainly had more to do with McCain’s campaign style. He was literally too nice to be president. Look at Trump’s over-the-top attacks on his opponents, particularly Hillary Clinton, and compare that to the town meeting where McCain praised his opponent and admonished a questioner for suggesting that Obama was “an Arab.” Imagine what Trump would have done with the provocative sermons of Obama’s former pastor Jeremiah Wright. On principle McCain refused to use Wright as a talking point, despite the urging of fellow Republicans at the time, many of whom now turn their noses up at Trump’s unseemliness. Meanwhile, someone planted a story about McCain’s supposed affair with a lobbyist, which got great play in The New York Times until it became overwhelmingly obvious the story was a fabrication.

Apart from his own deficit in cutthroat political technique, McCain’s weaknesses also included little appetite for fund raising during the primaries, an inability to tap into the country’s mood over the financial crisis and, perhaps most definitively, his choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate.

There is probably no better example of McCain being too principled to be president than his campaign finance legislation. This was an area to which he was deeply and personally committed, and the result bore his name. The McCain-Feingold Act limited how much could be spent on campaigns. Thus it was no surprise that, in his run for president, McCain chose to take the limited public funding provided by the law. Obama, on the other hand, who had pledged to do the same, instead forwent public funding because he was able to raise so much more money without the limits and thus vastly outspent McCain. The eventual irony was that, eight years later, the law’s entire raison d’ĂȘtre was called into question when Trump defeated Clinton even though she vastly outspent him—even if you count all known Russian expenditures on social media sites. This, of course, is why we have heard nothing more about campaign finance reform for the past couple of years. The law still bedevils Trump, though, as prosecutors use it to try to make a case against him spending his own money to buy two women’s silence.

As tributes to McCain now pour in, Democrats and the media praise him for his penchant for bi-partisan initiatives, although many in his own party did not appreciate them. His final act of annoyance for them was casting the deciding vote against his party’s so-called “skinny repeal” of Obamacare, thereby keeping the law, technically at least, still on the books. This despite years of promises to repeal Obamacare.

Despite his principles and willingness to reach across the aisle, his career was not without its blemishes. He was one of the Keating Five caught up in a scandal emerging from the 1980s savings & loan crisis, though he ultimately emerged unscathed. After the 2008 election, he candidly admitted to taking no position on the Confederate flag on South Carolina’s statehouse, hoping for more votes in that state’s primary. He clearly regretted his political expediency and was even able to laugh about it, noting, “And I lost anyway.” The fact that he could even admit this was nothing less than refreshing.

That ability to laugh at himself and not take himself too seriously was the most appealing thing about the man. Apparently, behind the scenes he could have a terrible temper, but in public he had a wonderful sense of humor. After the 2008 loss, when asked how he was doing by Jay Leno on The Tonight Show, he quipped, “Well, I’ve been sleeping like a baby. I sleep two hours, wake up, and cry. Sleep two hours, wake up, and cry.” I do not think I ever saw him interviewed when he did not make me smile and like him.

He was in a different category than any other politician. As a veteran, he was even in a different category than war heroes such as John F. Kenney and George H.W. Bush. The injuries he received from ejecting from his plane, his capture, prison beatings and repeated torture, as well as more than five years of captivity entitled him to more deference than most people will earn in a lifetime. The fact that he refused an offer of early release unless it did include the rest of his men just made him the kind of human being we all wish we were but probably are not.

John McCain was never going to be president. One cannot help but at least wonder, however, if the country would have been better off if he had been.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Nanny Super-State Blues

“We extricated ourselves from the British Empire only to accept unthinkingly the rule of the Roman Catholic Church and after that the EU.”
Irish Sunday Independent columnist Ruth Dudley Edwards, October 9, 2016
The other day my wife asked me to check whether a particular procedure was covered by our medical insurance. Finding the written policy overly complex and not very user-friendly, I decided to try the little chat window that always pops up on the insurance company’s web site. After waiting in a queue for several minutes, I was eventually informed that my wife would have to contact them directly. They could not converse with me about her coverage—even though we are married and it is all one policy—under Europe’s new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Unlike most policies/directives/edicts handed down by the crowd in Brussels, the GDPR is actually having a noticeable effect on my life. And I don’t just mean that my wife now has to get her own insurance-related questions answered. For instance, when I visit the web sites of many U.S. newspapers—including the one in Bakersfield which was the local daily paper I read growing up—all I get is a screen informing me that I cannot access the content because my IP address is in the European Union. Even more aggravatingly, one of the apps I use on multiple devices to save and read online articles (Instapaper) has stopped working for me. The web site explains that, in order to avoid any potential violation of European law, European users are being blocked until further notice while they study the law to see what they need to do in order to be in compliance. I suppose I could blame Instapaper. After all, anyone who was paying attention knew this was coming two years ago. On the other hand, I can understand why operators of a U.S.-based web site might put a low priority on something that, in theory, only affects users in other countries.

I mused on the possible effects of GDPR just as it was about to go into effect last month. To recap, this is a regulation handed down by the European Union which has the force of law in all EU countries even though no national parliament actually enacted it. It establishes very strict legal requirements for the storage and retention of individual citizens’ personal data as well as establishing sweeping legal rights for citizens to exert control over such data. In practice, as far as I have observed anyhow, the main practical effect is that for those of us in the EU there are many more legal agreements to review and agree to before we can do anything online. Of course, such agreements were common before GDPR, but now they are even longer and more complex and virtually ubiquitous. Past surveys have suggested that most people click on the “agree” button without bothering to read the agreement, and I have little reason to think it is any different now. As I understand it, I do now have the legal entitlement to contact any web site I have used and direct them to delete any or all of my data which they hold and/or to let me see it. Personally, I do not envision doing this, but who knows? Maybe a situation will arise in which I will be glad for this protection. In other words, I am not sure the benefit for me personally outweighs the inconvenience it has caused.

One U.S. publication that has not shut me out of its web site is The Wall Street Journal—probably because of the money I pay them. The paper’s tech columnist Joanna Stern notes that GDPR requires privacy policies to be “concise, easily accessible and easy to understand” and also written in “clear and plain language.” She adds, a bit mischievously, “Ironically, that’s found on page 11 of the 88-page official document.” As an example of the regulation’s effect, Twitter’s privacy policy has expanded from about 3,800 words to around 8,890.

According to two cybersecurity and privacy attorneys (Brian E. Finch and Steven P. Farmer of Washington and London, respectively) writing in The Journal last month, the main beneficiary of GDPR could well be cybercriminals. After all, the whole point of the regulation is to severely restrict sharing of individuals’ information. Apparently, this extends even to law enforcement.

“No government has ever before sought to impose such a sweeping privacy control,” observe Finch and Farmer, “perhaps because of the obviously deleterious effects on law enforcement.” Cybersecurity journalist Brian Krebs has written that European-based security companies have become “reluctant to share” internet-address information that could help identify cybercriminals.

Maybe you think it’s a good trade-off to make things easier for terrorists and criminals to communicate over the internet as long as it means that people won’t have Russian bots micro-targeting them to try to stir them up over populist issues. Me, I’m not only not sure it’s a good trade-off, I’m not sure that such internet mischief will be seriously curtailed.

Maybe I will be proved wrong, though, and I will see it differently over time. For now, however, this looks increasingly like what happens when you hand a problem to an army of bureaucrats who are not accountable to—indeed not even in the same country with most of—the vast swathes of people who will have to comply with their handiwork. To top it off, it may well actually make worse the problem they were supposed to solve.

Still, I will keep an open mind. In the meantime, if you come across any really interesting news from Bakersfield, please pass it on to me.