Monday, November 12, 2018

Reality TV Insurgency

“Local Man Suddenly an Expert on US Midterm Elections”
 —Headline in the Irish satirical newspaper Waterford Whispers, November 8
Did the results of the U.S. midterm elections brighten your day and put a spring in your step? Or did they make you shake your head and wonder what is wrong with the country? If it’s any consolation, every country has its quirks and strangeness that seem to be brought out and put into high relief during political campaigns.

The Irish media paid a lot of attention to the U.S. midterms and, as usual, since the media here are pretty much dominated by the state broadcaster, the coverage was pretty much from the same kind of perspective as, say, PBS or NPR in the States. In other words, Democrats were treated as distant relatives and Republicans were regarded as alien creatures. For me personally, the coverage provided more opportunities to field questions from acquaintances and in-laws, like “How is it again that Hillary Clinton could get the most votes and still not become president?”

Ireland went through its own election a few weeks ago, although, unlike the U.S., it was not to fill seats in the national legislature. It was for the presidency plus a referendum on a proposed constitutional amendment. In an email to a friend in Seattle, I joked that Ireland is going to hell in a hand-basket because, after recently legalizing same-sex marriage and abortion, Irish voters have now decriminalized blasphemy.

That’s right. Up to now blasphemy has been a crime in Ireland. It is the kind of thing that is easy to joke about but, as we know from recent reports of a Christian woman spending years on death row in Pakistan, it is not always a laughing matter. Three years ago, Britain’s multi-talented Stephen Fry made some unflattering about the Christian God on an Irish television program and, because someone filed a formal complaint, the Irish police were obliged to go through the motions of an investigation. He was not charged.

The proposed constitutional amendment was not particularly controversial, and it passed with a 65-percent majority. There were, however, voices suggesting that maybe a law banning speech offensive to religious practitioners may not necessarily be a bad thing. I suspect these were thinking as much—or perhaps even more—about religions other than Christianity. Some would be nervous about those willing to take blasphemy enforcement into their own hands. Multiple attempted murders of Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, who mocked the prophet Mohammad, come to mind. It was striking at the time how many Europeans were actually ready to blame the artist himself for his own near-demise.

As for the Irish presidency, there was no surprise that the incumbent Michael D. Higgins received 56 percent the vote—and that was in a field of six. Because the post is largely ceremonial, it draws no seriously ambitious politicians but rather a quirky collection of individuals, each with his or her own idiosyncratic reasons for running. The only political party to nominate a candidate was Sinn Féin, the political remnant of the Provisional IRA. Higgins, a longtime Labour officeholder, nominated himself. The others had to get endorsements from various local authorities to get on the ballot. By a weird coincidence, three of the candidates were entrepreneurs who had all appeared on a reality TV program called Dragons’ Den. (Could they possibly have been encouraged by the 2016 U.S. election?) Of all the candidates, the one who created the most buzz was 61-year-old Derry-born businessman Peter Casey. His support shot up from 2 percent to 23 percent, earning him a strong second place finish in the election, after he was roundly criticized for comments he made about the Traveller community.

The Traveller thing is one of those subjects that is hard to explain to someone who has not lived in Ireland, and I am by no means an expert. My best understanding, however, is that they are essentially a subculture within the Irish culture. That is, DNA-wise they are no different than other indigenous Irish people, but as a group they have lived separately with their own customs and a nomadic lifestyle for as long as four centuries. Some Travellers are “settled” in public housing. Others camp at “halting sites” provided by local authorities. Others simply park their caravans wherever they find an open space, in other words squatting. They make up less than one percent of the Irish population and generally have lower education and quality-of-life statistics. Last year they were granted official recognition as their own ethnic group.

Casey’s comments were in response to a group of Travellers’ refusal to move into brand-new social housing offered to them in County Tipperary because there were no stables for their horses. Casey asserted that Travellers are not really an ethnic minority and that they are “basically people camping on someone else’s land” who are “not paying their fair share of taxes in society.” The latter point is arguable, while the former point seems technically accurate to me, albeit insensitively stated. Given the condemnation and charges of racism that were rained on him, one might understand if Casey felt he was running afoul of some kind of latter-day, politically-correct blasphemy prohibition.

Inevitably, Casey was immediately compared to Donald Trump. While Casey is much more pleasant and amiable than the U.S. president, he does share a knack for provoking powerful reactions from modern liberals while others think he is only stating the obvious.

With the election over, Casey amazed people by expressing his intention to become Taoiseach, i.e prime minister, which would be a much more consequential job than the mere presidency. That goal seems fanciful given his lack of party support and the resistance of Ireland’s entrenched and close-knit political establishment. On the other hand, Trump’s quest for the presidency two and a half years ago seemed pretty fanciful too.

If he refuses to go away, as the parties and main media want him to, Casey will join a number of other would-be so-called populist leaders agitating just out of reach of power in countries all across Europe. They are thus ready alternatives to entrenched and comfortably smug political establishments. Rather than attacking these figures, politicians and the media would serve a more useful purpose if they began at least treating seriously legitimate concerns of citizens drawn to such firebrands.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Return of the Native

“Elizabeth Warren Disappointed After DNA Test Shows Zero Trace Of Presidential Material”
—Headline in The Onion, October 15
Have I mentioned that I have reason to believe I am 0.390625 percent Irish?

Feel free to be skeptical. I have not had my DNA tested, so my assertion is unhindered by the existence of chromosome evidence. It is based entirely on non-rigorous personal research into my family history by way of clan anecdotes, an old family Bible, and the conclusive authority of the internet. I have convinced myself that I may be the sixth-great-grandchild of Margaret Lewis, born in County Donegal in 1726. As I recounted on this blog three years ago, I have used this ancestral quest as a pretext for adventures both here in Ireland and in the U.S. state of Virginia. Margaret was a daughter of John Lewis, a second-generation Donegal resident (apparently transplanted from either England or Scotland, for reasons not clear) who fled Ireland after killing his new, young landlord in a dispute. John Lewis wound up in Virginia where, according to his gravestone, he “settled Augusta Co., located the town of Staunton, and furnished five sons to fight the battles of the AMERICAN REVOLUTION.”

So, once apprised of this information, my friends and neighbors here in Eire immediately accepted me as one of their own, right? Well, I have to say that they are indeed all very welcoming and have all made me feel that this country is my home, but no one seriously considers me “Irish.” Not even naturalization confers that identity in any meaningful (as opposed to legal) sense. Yes, newsreaders on RTÉ diligently do make a point of identifying every third-world-born resident and/or citizen in Ireland as “Irish” if they make the news. I have yet to hear them, though, use that term with any naturalized American or Brit. I am pretty darn sure that if I somehow got featured on the main evening news—unless I have won a Nobel Prize or something similar—I fully expect I will be described as “an American residing in Ireland.”

That will not bother me. I certainly do not self-identify as Irish—even though I happen to be the husband and father of Irish women. I do not expect the purchase of a house or the filing of a few papers to change who I am. On the other hand, if people from Ireland—or anywhere else—emigrate to my country and become naturalized, I do consider them fully American and do happily refer to them as such. That is the way I was raised to think, and that is how my country self-identifies: as a nation of immigrants. I truly believe that despite the fact that immigration has become a contentious political issue. From where I sit, the debate is a massive case of cognitive dissonance. One side thinks they are arguing about whether immigrants are good or bad. The other side thinks it’s about whether immigrants should come in legally or not.

Anyway, I understand that most other countries, such as Ireland, see themselves differently than the U.S. Irish-ness is an ethnicity as well as a legal status. What you realize here and in most countries is that the ethnicity is what matters to people. The passport you use is nearly seen as incidental. It is not uncommon, for example, to hear someone described in the news as “an Irish woman holding a UK passport.”

These musings on ethnicity and identity have been spurred, as you might have guessed, by the kerfuffle caused by Senator Elizabeth Warren when she drew attention to the results of her DNA test indicating that, “[w]hile the vast majority of the individual’s ancestry is European, the results strongly support the existence of an unadmixed Native American ancestor in the individual’s pedigree, likely in the range of 6-10 generations ago.” In other words, Senator Warren is about the same percentage (or possibly less) Native American as I am Irish.

Senator Warren comes from Oklahoma and, having grown up around a lot of people from that state and other parts of the Midwest, I always noticed how an awful lot of them proudly point to Native American or “Indian” heritage. It is nearly a badge of honor to say, “I am part Cherokee” or “my great-grandmother was Shawnee.” I always saw this pride as a positive thing and a sign of the good old American melting pot. I suppose, though, one could also view it as cultural appropriation. I certainly never felt compelled to ask question anyone’s claims of Native American pedigree or ask them for proof.

The senator’s announcement pretty much backfired, as fellow Democrats criticized her timing (right before the midterms when she is not even running), the usually non-political Cherokee Nation pointedly issued a statement that a “DNA test is useless to determine tribal citizenship,” and Republicans had a great time pointing out that the percentage of her Native American DNA could well be lower than the average U.S. citizen. CNN and The Daily Beast embarrassed themselves by rushing to proclaim that Warren had been vindicated in her self-identification as Native American. (She apparently once had four recipes published in a cookbook called Pow Wow Chow: A Collection of Recipes from Families of the Five Civilized Tribes: Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek & Seminole.)

So why did she do it? She did it because President Trump baited her, and she took the bait. Observers have taken this to mean that she is definitely running for president in 2020. Lots of families have lore that is historically imprecise or apocryphal, so she should not embarrassed about that. (On the nearly-pure Swedish side of my family we used to hear about “a Spanish grandmother,” whom I have been trying to track down for years.) There is no reason to believe that she profited from designated minority status at Harvard, as her critics charge, although it appears Harvard may have used her Native American self-identification to boost its own diversity statistics. It makes no sense for her to behave defensively about a non-issue.

The real issue is what the whole episode says about her character and judgment. Of course, when it comes character and judgment, the current standard seems to be pretty malleable. I mean, look at who is in the White House at the moment. So what may really matter is what the whole #fauxcahontas episode says about the senator’s suitability for the current environment of political hardball and voters’ exhaustion with the old rules of politics.

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’être 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.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Election Protection

“An article on Sunday about Campbell Brown’s role as Facebook’s head of news partnerships erroneously included a reference to Palestinian actions as an example of the sort of far-right conspiracy stories that have plagued Facebook. In fact, Palestinian officials have acknowledged providing payments to the families of Palestinians killed while carrying out attacks on Israelis or convicted of terrorist acts and imprisoned in Israel; that is not a conspiracy theory.”
—Correction published in The New York Times, April 24

“Zuckerberg Bombarded with Facebook Ads for Suits, Haircuts”
—Headline in the Irish satirical newspaper Waterford Whispers, April 12
“I hate the internet!”

So declared someone in our house recently while reading her phone. I share her annoyance. Her exclamation was presumably prompted by yet another email asking or demanding her to review and approve a revised privacy policy for some web site or app. I’ve been getting a lot of those myself, and I am guessing that you are too.

On Friday the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) goes into effect, spurring internet companies and publishers to comply by informing and/or getting permissions from their consumers. Generally, companies outside the EU seem to be following suit because it makes sense business-wise. The GDPR was adopted two years ago, but its imminent long-planned implementation has timely urgency in the wake of concerns over deceptive social media advertising and aggressive data mining, such as Cambridge Analytica’s early work for the Trump campaign. It is interesting to note that, in the past, these sorts of European edicts were directives that then had to be enacted in national legislation for them to take effect in each country. By contrast, this regulation is directly enforceable by the EU on its own authority. I think we can pretty much consider the EU a true super-state now.

Like most things governments do to protect or look out for the interests of citizens, much of the burden—and indirectly the cost—ends up landing on the shoulders of those very same citizens. It creates a lot of profitable work for lawyers who are required to draw up new user agreements and policies, and end-users wind up with clogged in-boxes full of links to long, detailed, jargon-filled on-line documents that few will bother to actually read. In the end, will we all be safer privacy-wise? Count me as a hard skeptic.

Something else is happening on Friday. Ireland is holding a referendum in which voters will decide whether to preserve or delete language in the national constitution giving the unborn equal status under the law with the women who carry them. I find it strange that a constitution would actually include medical policy in the first place, but on the other hand, the U.S. Constitution does the same (although to opposite effect)—at least as ruled by the Supreme Court in Roe v Wade, which said that abortion is a constitutional right. If Friday’s referendum passes, the government has said it will legislate to make abortion freely available in Ireland up to the twelfth week and in limited cases after that. Polling suggests that the repeal will be enacted, largely on the strength of a surge in registration of urban voters.

No one can have missed the competing campaigns, as posters proclaiming “Yes” (“Tá” in Irish) and “No” cover every available electricity and telephone pole. The debate is also taking place on the internet, and that is where we may be getting a glimpse of where the hysteria over Russian “meddling” may lead us. A couple of weeks ago Facebook announced that it would ban any referendum advertising that originated outside of Ireland. Google went a step further and said it would ban all Irish referendum advertising—regardless of geographic origin—from the large number of web sites displaying ads via Google. (My own movie blog would be the most minor of examples of sites running Google’s third-party ads.) Interestingly the Yes side declared it was quite happy with this, while the No side cried foul. The anti-abortion side has benefited significantly from foreign supporters, notably groups in the U.S.

Legally, Facebook and Google are private companies which are entitled to accept or reject advertising from any clients they wish, but a moment like this drives home just how much influence these businesses’ decisions can have in the general dissemination of ideas and opinions. Internet companies are under intense pressure to eliminate “fake news” from users’ feeds, but who gets to say exactly what “fake news” is? If you are one of the millions of Americans who are distraught over the last presidential election, you may see no problem with social media companies filtering out foreign-sourced posts working to Donald Trump’s advantage. Once you start censoring content for any reason, though, there will be unintended consequences or—if you are a cynic—possible malevolent intended consequences. It is worth remembering that the Russians also did some boosting of Bernie Sanders, since their ultimate goal was to undermine the supposedly inevitable winner, Hillary Clinton.

Here is another way to look at it. Suppose the Russians, instead of using Facebook and other social media, had put their provocative political content on good old-fashioned paper and put it into envelopes and mailed them through the U.S. Postal Service. Would we now be talking about having the post office filter out certain types of letters with certain kinds of content from its system?

The difference between snail mail and social media is that, unlike the USPS, Facebook is a private company that would like to keep government regulation as light as possible. As such, it is susceptible to influence from politicians—not to mention its own internal biases. Also, the nature of digital data is such that, unlike traditional mail, it is relatively easy to design algorithms to screen out certain types of information deliberately.

Just as ordinary citizens are the ones who bear the ultimate burden when governments and super-states try to protect us, it could ultimately be our access to a free flow of information—the good along with the bad—which could suffer because hysterical people did not like the outcome of one election.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Scout’s Honor?

“James and Patrice Comey have five children, having lost one son, Collin, who died at a very early age. The couple’s four daughters, after being disappointed that Hillary Clinton didn’t win, have been politically active in the wake of the 2016 election. ‘I wanted a woman president really badly, and I supported Hillary Clinton. A lot of my friends worked for her. And I was devastated when she lost,’ Patrice Comey told [George] Stephanopoulos.”
—Meghan Keneally, “James Comey’s wife warned him: ‘Don’t be the torture guy,’ ”, April 15
In my previous post I patted myself on the back for my prescience five years ago in seeming to see where the pursuit of political data mining was going to go. In the interest of balance, allow me to revisit some comments more than a year ago where I now realize I got it wrong.

Fifteen months ago I wrote, “I have nothing but sympathy for [FBI Director James] Comey. He had a sterling reputation going into the election period, but he wound up in a situation where he was guaranteed to have political activists on all sides livid at him. He clearly did not want to be discussing the investigation at all, but his boss Attorney General Lynch left him no alternative.”

At that point I saw Comey as a man forced unwillingly into a terrible position. Because I had heard so many people on both sides of the political divide refer to him invariably as “a Boy Scout” and “a straight shooter,” I took it on faith that he was a disinterested public servant doing his best in a difficult situation. Subsequent events—not the least of which are his recently published book and his non-stop media publicity tour—have shown me once again it is wise to be skeptical even when—or maybe mostly when—“everybody” seems to agree on something.

The picture that has emerged of Comey is not now nearly so flattering. When the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s rogue email server was completed, it was unusual that the findings were announced publicly. It was even more unusual that they were announced personally by the FBI director. The proximate reason for it going down that way was that Attorney General Loretta Lynch had announced she would automatically accept the FBI director’s recommendation on the matter. While not formally recusing herself, she effectively gave Comey the last word, which explains why he made the announcement instead of her. This happened because a short time before she had had a private meeting in her personal jet with the former president who had jump-started her career by appointing her as a U.S. Attorney and who also happened to be Hillary Clinton’s husband. We now know from Comey that he actually quite willingly took the opportunity to make the announcement, not only because of the appearance of conflict-of-interest in the Lynch/Clinton meeting but also because of other compromising information about Lynch that was not revealed.

“In early 2016,” reported on Comey’s interview with George Stephanopoulos, “the U.S. intelligence community obtained classified information that, according to Comey, ‘raised the question of whether Loretta Lynch was controlling me and the FBI and keeping the Clinton campaign informed about our investigation.’ ”

Many people blame Comey’s announcement of the (brief) re-opening of the email investigation for costing Clinton the election. There is no way to know that, but amazingly Comey has now explained that he made the announcement to actually help Clinton, i.e. to avoid any reason for her opponents to later accuse her administration of being illegitimate. He has said he only made the announcement because he was sure she win the election anyway. Text messages between FBI officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, who were desperate not to see Donald Trump be elected, have suggested that Clinton’s exoneration had always been a done deal. They also suggest that FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe was doing his best to sit on re-opening the investigation until after the election but ran out of time. Thus the investigation was re-opened at the worst possible time for Clinton—just days before the election. In other words Comey and McCabe were actively trying to help Clinton but inadvertently may have doomed her chances. With friends like them, who needs enemies?

That top officials of the FBI would be taking sides in an election and attempting to affect the results is frightening and shocking. Such behavior could possibly be justified if they had concrete evidence that Trump represented an existential threat to the republic. In his book and interviews, Comey does his best to insinuate that this is the case. Yet the best case he can muster for his animus against Trump is that Comey finds him morally unfit. He has provided no hard evidence that would justify an impeachment and, in fact, nothing that voters did not know when they voted in 2016. Having felt that strongly, Comey’s only viable course would have been to resign in protest and to give his principled reasons. Instead, he did his best to hold on to his job. He has actually said that he thought he was safe because, as FBI chief, he was in charge of the Russia investigation. In other words, he thought he had leverage over Trump. When Trump resisted that leverage by insisting Comey state publicly what he was telling the president privately (that Trump was not a target of the investigation), Comey refused. Trump then fired him, and Comey retaliated by leaking his own notes of their meeting, knowing it would trigger a special counsel. A year later there is still no sign of anything chargeable or impeachable involving Trump personally in relation to the Russian election meddling. In fact, so far there is much more evidence of collusion coming from within the Justice Department on behalf of Trump’s opponent.

In light of what we know now, it is actually reasonable to understand that, when Trump told Comey he needed loyalty, what he meant was that he needed to know he would not be stabbed in the back. If that is indeed what he meant, he certainly got his answer soon enough.

I have absolutely no interest in being a defender of Donald Trump, but here is the thing. By the end of January 2021—2025 at the latest—Trump will be gone. The FBI, on the other hand, does not face elections and enjoys a certain amount of independence from our elected representatives. It will still be around long after Trump has left the White House. Maybe a politicized FBI does not bother you because you happen to agree with Comey’s political views, but it certainly scares me. I do not like the idea of an FBI director who feels he knows better than the voters who should be in charge of the government—and who is willing to use the bureau’s resources accordingly.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Campaign Claim-jumping

“Looking at it objectively, one could fear that any candidate with a good enough data mining consortium (Obama used the Washington-based Analyst Institute) could not be stopped from manipulating his way to election. But this distortion of the electoral process will be self-correcting. In 2012 Mitt Romney’s data science unit was one-tenth the size of Obama’s. You can be sure that will not be true of 2016’s Republican nominee.”
—A post on this blog on June 18, 2013
Sometimes I go back and re-read my old posts on this blog. This is not something I do frequently because it is an exercise that mostly makes me cringe. Observations that seemed wise at the time may be seen as hopelessly naive with the benefit of hindsight. A recent survey of past posts, for example, has convinced me that I was too hard on President Obama during his two terms in office. On the other hand, every criticism was motivated by a sincere desire to see him succeed and for the country to be better for it. Given the tumult of the Trump presidency, Obama’s eight years now seem like a blissful period of calm. But only if we forget how bad the economy actually was during much of that time. The financial crisis that coincided with his election was not his fault, but it is fair to criticize him for policies that, for many anyway, starved the recovery and paved the way for a candidacy like Trump’s.

My review of past writings did not always anticipate events flawlessly, although in fairness the trends I tend to highlight are pretty long-term. In some cases, though, I am amazed at my prescience. Almost five years ago in a post titled “No Place to Hide,” I wrote about the data mining of citizens’ personal data on the internet by political campaigns and how it could distort the electoral process. This was spurred by an article I had read in the January/February 2013 issue of MIT Technology Review by Sasha Issenberg. It was called “How Obama’s Team Used Big Data to Rally Voters.” The issue’s cover is now a tad ironic given the current hysteria over Cambridge Analytica and its data mining hijinks with Facebook. The cover features a head shot of rock star Bono (who else?) staring out thoughtfully over the headline “Big Data Will Save Politics.” Further down are subheads like “Bono: Data Can Fight Poverty and Corruption,” “Sasha Issenberg: Data Makes Elections Smarter” and “Joe Trippi: Data Puts the Soul Back into Politics.”

Issenberg’s article described glowingly how the Obama team’s data mining techniques were able to pinpoint citizens’ concerns and thinking right down to the individual level. “[A] Web platform called Dashboard gamified volunteer activity by ranking the most active supporters,” he wrote, “and ‘targeted sharing’ protocols mined an Obama backer’s Facebook network in search of friends the campaign wanted to register, mobilize, or persuade. But underneath all that were scores describing particular voters: a new political currency that predicted the behavior of individual humans. The campaign didn’t just know who you were; it knew exactly how it could turn you into the type of person it wanted you to be.”

In other words, people working on behalf of Obama team were pretty much doing the same thing as people working on behalf of Trump would be doing four years later. And I predicted it, as seen in the quote at the top of this blog post. The funny thing is that, while the data mining done for the Obama campaign was known and discussed at the time, I do not remember anyone raising a concern about Facebook users’ personal information being used for purposes of a political campaign. Compare that with the current hoopla over Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. You would think that Mark Zuckerberg had been caught red-handed stuffing ballot boxes in precincts across the nation. It is hard to escape the conclusion that, in the eyes of Democrats and the Washington press corps anyway, data mining is only now a problem—and was not four years ago—because in 2016 the wrong person won.

To be clear Cambridge Analytica violated Facebook’s terms of use which, to be honest, were not being enforced with much vigor. To the extent that anyone actually violated the law, they should certainly be sanctioned, and Facebook needs to answer for the way it has handled its users’ data. On the other hand, there is no reason to believe that the data mining itself—which happened in 2014 and was not used because even better data was available from other sources—actually changed the outcome of the election. Let us not lose sight of how the data mining is actually used. It is used for advertising. Yes, it is advertising that is extremely targeted and often sneaky, but at the end of the day it is not so much different than advertising has ever been. It’s funny how some people can get so freaked out by creative and new uses of the First Amendment.

The result will probably be that companies like Facebook will have to submit to some sort of regulation—either governmental or, if their lobbyists are earning their money, self-imposed—and that may calm people down—at least until the next new and creative use of technology in a presidential campaign by people whom Democrats and the mass media do not like.

There you go. Another forecast that may or may not come true. I will end this post the same way I ended the one five years ago: “Unfortunately, while these new techniques have now been shown to work with incredible efficacy, there is no sign at all that they contribute in any way to making the successful candidate, once in office, a better leader or president.”

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Democracy’s Fraying Fabric?

“[T]he difference between Republicans and Democrats? Republicans know they’re right; Democrats entertain the possibility that they might be wrong… And that’s why you see liberals drawn to the arts because it’s more of an open-minded type of thing.”
—Filmmaker/actor Rob Reiner, speaking to Laura Ingraham on her Fox News Channel show, January 21 
“While #Liberals scream about the 50’s blacklist, my #Repub actor friends are terrified of losing their ability to provide for their families”
—Tweet from actor James Woods, August 22
Last June I made an admittedly unlikely comparison between President Trump and former Chilean president Salvador Allende. My point was not that the two men were anything at all alike in their politics or their character. Rather, the similarity was in how, from the moment each came to power, the entrenched political establishments of their respective countries immediately began working to cleanse the system of the unwanted interloper.
How Democracies Die
It turns out that I am not the only one to whom it occurred to draw a parallel between Chile in the early 1970s and the United States in the late 2010s. A couple of months ago a book called How Democracies Die was published. The authors are Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, professors of Government at Harvard University. Their tome is clearly meant to be a stark warning. The book’s cover consists entirely of its alarming title in large white letters on an intensely black background. In the introduction they write, “[I]n 2016, for the first time in U.S. history, a man with no experience in public office, little observable commitment to constitutional rights, and clear authoritarian tendencies was elected president. What does all this mean? Are we living through the decline and fall of one of the world’s oldest and most successful democracies?” So we definitely know at the very outset where the authors are coming from.

Their approach is to examine failed democracies—notably Europe in the 1920s and 1930s and Latin America in the 1970s—and look for warning signs that can flag dangers to democratic institutions. In the first chapter, they list the four main warning signs—rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game, denial of the legitimacy of political opponents, toleration or encouragement of violence, and readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media. They emphasize the importance of shared understandings among all sides about what is and is not acceptable, calling these understandings “the guardrails of democracy.” They point out that some of “history’s most tragic democratic breakdowns were preceded by the degrading of basic norms,” giving Chile under Allende as an example. After his election, partisan hostility intensified—exacerbated by the fact that Allende had won with only 36 percent of the popular vote and had no majority in Congress. His opponents dug in, in a way that one might call The Resistance, while Allende found inventive ways to implement his policies that did not require legislative votes. Thus Chile’s guardrails of democracy failed, and “the military seized power. Chileans, who had long prided themselves on being South America’s most stable democracy, succumbed to dictatorship.”

Levitsky and Ziblatt see a similar situation in Trump’s first year as president. While their thesis is that breakdown occurs because of failure on both sides of a political divide, they mostly find fault with the president. Interestingly, though, their indictment of him relies more heavily on his rhetoric than on his actions. They tend to assume that the president actually means—and would act on—every utterance and tweet. So far, at least in my estimation, his behavior has been much more moderate and conventional than his all-too-numerous off-the-cuff statements and infamous late-night tweets. For example, while Trump’s rhetoric about building a wall is highly provocative, the notion of enhanced border security was entirely mainstream just a few years ago. His aggressiveness on tariffs has economists and journalists in a tizzy, but in the last presidential election no candidate (including Hillary Clinton) was defending major free-trade agreements.

The authors’ solution for reining in the president and saving democracy requires Republicans to hold him in check and for voters in general to withhold support. While Democrats do not escape criticism, it is clear the writers consider Republicans most responsible for the nation’s polarized state. They seem to consider the mere fact of Trump being in office as a democratic failure. But look again at their four warning signs. Weak commitment to democratic rules? President Obama had many executive orders overturned by the courts, suggesting he was not entirely immune to the same temptation to inventiveness as Allende. Trump too has been rebuked by courts, mainly because of his immigrant ban, but to date he has always respected the courts’ rulings. Denial of legitimacy of political opponents? Democrats and the press have been casting doubts on the validity of Trump’s election since November. There has been persistent talk of impeachment and/or declaring the president medically incompetent, sounding not unlike the urging for a coup. Toleration of violence? Curtailing civil liberties of opponents? Of people invited to give a political speeches on campuses these days, the ones more likely to need security—or have their speech canceled due to safety fears—tend to be conservative. Yes, you can find examples on the other side as well, but that is my point—and ostensibly Levitsky and Ziblatt’s as well: the democratic breakdown involves all sides, not just one.

In the end, the authors run into the same problem in the academic debate as do participants in the political debate. It is impossible to present yourself as an unassailable authority or a reasonable arbiter when you so clearly identify with one of the sides. And you always wind up putting the onus of responsibility on the other guy.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Take a Memo

“Mueller: ‘Well, We Got The Liar. Probe’s Over’"
—Headline in The Onion, December 1, after former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was charged with lying to the FBI
Remember back in March when President Trump tweeted, “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!” and we all thought he was crazy?

Okay, lots of us still wonder if he is crazy. With the passage of time, though, the above tweet, amazingly, sounds a wee bit slightly less crazy than it did at the time. While there is no reason to believe that President Obama personally ordered Trump’s “wires tapped,” we do now know that the Obama Justice Department and FBI did go to a secret court—one set up over objections of civil libertarians for the purpose of spying on terrorist suspects—to get a warrant to spy on a then-recently departed Trump campaign volunteer.

That information has been confirmed by the Devin Nunes memo. Its release and the way various politicians have carried on over it has caused me to question whether everybody in Washington is not crazy. Some Democrats screamed that the memo would reveal all kinds of national security secrets. It didn’t. Some Republicans echoed the president in saying the memo totally vindicated him. It didn’t. Don’t they know that we can see the same things that they see and we can tell when they make stuff up? Apparently, they all hope enough people aren’t paying attention and are only absorbing the spin.

As is so often the case, the memo ends up raising more questions than it answers. Maybe the next memo with the Democrats’ alternative facts will answer some of them. Or maybe we will eventually get answers from somewhere else. In the meantime, here are some questions that come to my mind.

When the Christopher Steele dossier came to the attention of the FBI, did it occur to anybody that they should investigate why the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee paid a foreign agent to talk to Russians in an effort to dig up dirt on Donald Trump?

Probably not. After all, it is not a crime to talk to Russians. Nor is it a crime to dig up dirt on people. On the other hand, isn’t that precisely what a lot of people are saying is so scandalous about the Trump campaign? I have heard no serious or credible charge that the Russians actually changed the results of the 2016 election. As far as we know, their meddling amounts to hacking communications and submitting content to social media sites. If the Trump campaign cooperated with them on any of that, then that is a crime, but we have yet to see any serious indication that happened.

Why was the Steele dossier the main evidence—the only evidence, if you believe the Nunes memo—given to the FISA judge in order to get a warrant to spy on Carter Page?

The FBI was familiar with Page and his interest in all things Russian as far back as 2013. If they had probable cause to spy on him, then they surely had other evidence they could have presented. Why rely on a dossier that was all about Donald Trump—unless the purpose was to see what they could find out about Donald Trump by listening in on Page? If that was the case, were agents not concerned about the fact that they were essentially teaming up with the opposition research team of one political candidate to spy on another political candidate? To make it worse, the FBI was paying Steele at the same time that he was sharing his dossier with various news outlets. When they realized this, they severed ties with him, yet they continued to use his dossier as a basis to keep extending the Page warrant.

Is any of Robert Mueller’s investigation based on information obtained under the FISA warrant obtained with the Steele dossier?

There is no reason to believe that it is, but we simply don’t know. If it turns out it was, though, then that would be a big boost to those who charge that the Clinton campaign, the DNC and Mueller have all been working in tandem and that the investigation was politicized from the beginning.

Why was there such a flurry of unmasking requests in the Obama Administration (particularly on the authority of Susan Rice and Samantha Power) after the election?

Under the FISA law U.S. citizens who are caught up in surveillance of which they are not the specific target are meant to have their identities protected. Government officials with appropriate security clearance, however, can request to know the identities of such people, and the outgoing Obama crowd asked for a lot of those names. They were perfectly entitled to do this, but it does raise questions. Forget Trump and what you think of him. Doesn’t this demonstrate that the government’s ability to spy on its citizens—combined with the ability of appointees with political loyalties to peek into that information—present a huge temptation for abusing a system meant, after all, to protect the country from external enemies?

What’s in the Steele dossier anyway?

We actually know the answer to this. Because so much of its content was unverifiable, most news organizations would not touch the dossier when Steele shopped it around. A couple did, though. One was Michael Isikoff, who was previously best known for having his scoop on Monica Lewinsky killed by his employers at Newsweek, thereby allowing Matt Drudge to make his name by breaking the story. Isikoff wrote a story for Yahoo News based on Steele’s dossier. This was actually used as evidence in support of—and ostensibly separate from—the Steele dossier in obtaining the FISA warrant for spying on Carter Page.

More to the point, the BuzzFeed web site actually published the dossier itself—prompting a lawsuit from Donald Trump and no small amount of criticism from other news organizations on journalistic ethics grounds. So the good news is that the dossier is currently available to read on the internet. The bad news is it is all assertions without evidence. Maybe it’s all true. Maybe none of it is. It boils down to the following points. Trump was long anxious to do business in Russia. (If that’s a problem, someone should tell Pfizer, Ford, Boeing, Pepsi, GE, Morgan Stanley, Starbucks and Krispy Kreme.) The Russians provided Trump with compromising information on Clinton. (This is, of course, according to the compromising information Clinton paid someone to get from the Russians.) The Russians have compromising information on Trump which could be used to blackmail him. (Yes, we know because Clinton paid to get it for us. Really, come on, is there anything left to know about President Trump that could possibly embarrass him or put him under more scrutiny than he already is?) Russians were behind the hacking of the Clinton’s emails in order to help Trump. (Point taken. Russians are bad dudes who have been trying to subvert American democracy. But wasn’t one of your other points that they also had information compromising Trump? So weren’t they actually playing both sides?) Carter Page met with Russian officials. (Okay.) There’s more, but we get the idea. Lots of things can be tied together to concoct a Trump-Russia conspiracy if you’re inclined to see one, but the problem is that conspiracies by their nature are simply hard to prove or to disprove without some really good smoking-gun evidence. (My favorite bit in the memo is where we “learn” that the Kremlin at one point thought about pulling Trump out of the presidential race altogether. Sounds like a Richard Condon novel.)

We have gotten to a really interesting—and kind of scary—place in the whole Trump-Russia drama. There are basically only two places to go from here. If, after all this time, Mueller and his team come up with clear and incontrovertible evidence of subversion of the electoral process, they will justifiably be seen as heroes. If, on the other hand, it turns out that all their time and resources were spent on something inconsequential—or merely trapping a few individuals in “process crimes” that only arose out the investigation itself—while handicapping the first year or so of a duly elected administration, then it will look to many like Mueller and the FBI themselves were participants—witting or otherwise—in the subversion of the electoral process.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

More Light, Not Less

“Have you ever seen so many open-government groups and reporters argue to keep secret alleged government abuses against US citizens?”
—Journalist/author and former CBS investigative reporter Sharyl Attkisson, in a tweet about the infamous FBI memo, yesterday
In May 1975 three prominent anti-war activists paid a visit to the University of California at Santa Barbara, where they participated in a panel discussion about the Vietnam War. One was Daniel Berrigan, the Jesuit priest who, as one of the Catonsville Nine, burned draft records in 1968. Another was David Dellinger, a longtime radical who was tried as one of the Chicago Seven. The third man was Daniel Ellsberg, the former military analyst who provided a classified Defense Department study (popularly called the Pentagon Papers) to The New York Times, The Washington Post and 16 other newspapers.

The UCSB student newspaper Daily Nexus reported on Ellsberg’s reflections on how his illegal act affected the course of the Vietnam War:
 Ellsberg attributed the end of the war more directly to Nixon’s fall from power. He noted that most people now concede that the manner that the war ended was inevitable, but he added that this “was as true in 1945 as in 1975.”
 He said the Pentagon Papers raised many questions but gave few answers. They did show, he said, that all Presidents involved in the war said they were on the edge of victory although they all knew they were not.
 He said their goal was to avert a defeat in Vietnam, “which means they had 30 years of success.”
 He said that Nixon’s fall made the difference in American air power and troops in Indochina and that the lack of power and troops was crucial to the communist victory. He maintained that without the subsequent congressional action of preventing troops to be used in Southeast Asia, the war could have continued ten more years.
The quality of the student reporter’s writing could have been better, but give me a break. I was only 22 at the time.

I have been thinking back lately to my personal brush with Ellsberg and the other anti-war figures of the time for a couple of reasons. One is the release in December of Steven Spielberg’s The Post, which dramatizes the story of that newspaper’s decision to report on the Pentagon Papers’ content despite threats of legal action by the U.S. government. Another reason is the current political debate raging in Washington over the imminent release of a House Intelligence Committee memo. The memo was classified because it includes classified government information. Democrats and the FBI strongly oppose the release, arguing it could compromise sensitive information on FBI operations and methods.

Interestingly Republicans, who normally err on the side of national security, want the memo want released. More interesting, though, is the fact that Democrats, who usually err on the side of exposing potential government abuse, are energetically arguing against its release. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that politics is the main motivator on both sides.

Personally, my instinct is always to err on the side of releasing information rather than keeping it secret. This is not to say that there are not things that the government should legitimately keep hidden, but it is well known that the ability to classify information is way over-used and employed too often for the purpose of avoiding embarrassment—or worse. Democrats also argue that the memo, which was drafted by the staff of House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (who happens to represent the district adjoining my old home town in California), should not be released because it is one-sided. That is a silly reason. You can be sure that there will be plenty of rebuttal and that the memo will be dissected and discussed by people on all sides in the media for a long time to come. Democrats even drafted their own memo and then promptly began complaining that it had not gotten declassified like the Republican one—even while it continues to work its way through the same exact non-rushed process that the Republican one has gone through.

What are Democrats and the FBI so worried about? Is it related to the Justice Department’s inspector general investigation (as reported by The Washington Post) into why recently-departed Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe, for three weeks in the days leading up to the November election, sat on the discovery of a bunch of Hillary Clinton emails found on the unsecured private laptop of former Congressman Anthony Weiner? (McCabe’s wife was a Democratic candidate for Virginia’s state senate and received a half-million-dollar donation from a PAC run by close Clinton associate Terry McAuliffe.) Or does it have to do with what some conspiracy theorists think were dodgy grounds—tied to Clinton campaign opposition research—that the FBI used to get FISA warrants to spy on the Trump transition team?

There could reasonably be nothing at all to any of this, but frankly, the way Democrats are carrying on only makes it all seem more—not less—suspicious.

It’s enough to make you want to buy a ticket to a Spielberg movie and lose yourself in the fantasy of a time when the political left—and more than a few journalists—thought that throwing sunlight on government secrets was less risky in the long run than not being curious.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Life Imitating Art, Badly

“Paul Ryan on Shithole Remarks: ‘My Family Came From Ireland’ ”
—Headline on, January 12
I am confused, but what else is new?

I thought we were all worldly wise now. I thought that instantaneous, universal access to all media outlets had made us all experts on everything, including politics. I thought that, because nothing gets held back anymore, nothing shocks us anymore. I thought we all laughed at the cable series Veep—with its profane-laden, unprincipled portrayals of government offices and back rooms—and we applauded it, as it racked up tons of Emmy awards, because we understood that this is what politics is really like. We are not naive innocents anymore, right?

The exhilarating thing about the six seasons of Veep, which debuted a half-year before President Obama’s re-election in 2012, was how it seemed to cut through all the bull about politics and media coverage. It showed us what we had always suspected went on behind the scenes, and then took it to another, more shocking level. The depth and breadth of the hypocrisy, cynicism and total disdain for ordinary citizens was bracing and strangely liberating. Please, God, let its brilliant star, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, make a quick recovery from cancer treatment so she can soon begin filming a seventh season.

One of the genius strokes of Veep was that it never identified the political party of any of its politician characters. Sure, you could presume that the feckless administration of which Vice-President Selena Meyer was a member was Republican if that suited you, but there was nothing to stop others from assuming it was Democrat. That was the mesmerizing thing. The political fighting, jockeying and competition was all about the colors of the players’ jerseys, not at all about the content of their hearts. They all shared the same slavishness to political correctness—and hedges against outliers in their various constituencies—in front of the cameras, while showing nothing but contempt for everyone and everything in private. It was the kind of celebrated television series—fifty-nine nominations and seventeen wins from the Emmys to date—that seemed to be culture-changing. How could anyone look at politics and political press coverage the same way again?

Yet here we are.

Most people agree that it is wrong to deport non-citizens who were brought into the United States years ago as children. Yes, President Trump rescinded President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, but he made clear that he was doing so with a grace period so that Congress would legislate on the matter. In this instance, he is actually correct on the merits. DACA was never likely to survive to the end of the judicial review process because immigration policy is the constitutional province of Congress, not the White House. People who keep saying that they fear Donald Trump will become a dictator need to explain why they are so comfortable with the previous administration’s penchant for legislating by decree rather than doing the hard work with Congress.

Last week on Tuesday everything seemed hunky-dory for the “dreamers,” as their advocates like to call them. In the televised portion of a Roosevelt Room meeting with two dozen House and Senate members, the president suggested he would sign any immigration bill Congress sent him: “I’m not saying I want this or I want that. I will sign it.” Two days later he met with a bi-partisan group of Senators, who apparently took him at his word and who included in their proposal a few things guaranteed to provoke the hard-line elements that provide the president with his most entrenched support. Suddenly, the public debate switched from policy to moral outrage.

We do not know for sure what exactly was said in Thursday’s meeting. Different participants have had varying recollections, but it is clear the president made disparaging comments about African countries and Haiti. For days that is all anyone has been talking about. The political tactics are not hard to discern. This bolsters support among the president’s more xenophobic supporters, who were getting nervous about his happy talk on immigration compromise. Likewise, there is an ample constituency among Democratic supporters who get moral gratification at hearing the chief Republican repeatedly called a racist. The problem is that, while all this indignation may energize voters and donors, it does not solve the DACA problem. It is particularly rich to see Democrats, who have long characterized Republicans as moral scolds, now being the ones to swoon dramatically over the president’s impropriety and coarse language—which we only even know about, remember, because Dick Durbin made sure we know about it. The cable news networks are even better. Their offended-ness was so great that they were compelled to repeat the word “shithole” on air for days.

Presumably, away from all the media theater, the politicians know what they are doing and are making the necessary calculations to get the best deal they can. At least we hope that is true. But what if all these people are actually what they seem—a bunch of egomaniacs and preeners who do not care what happens to the country as long as they have job security and the donations keep flowing to their party coffers?

On Veep seeing these sorts of shenanigans exposed was funny and entertaining. In real life, not so much.