“Blue Apron” Food Stamps. Refugees. School Shootings. For the GOP, Meanness is The Goal

On Valentine’s Day, which will forever be known to the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland as the day their young lives became forever associated with trauma, Allison and I decided to watch something old, and romantic, so we could not talk about the daily horrors for a few hours. We had that luxury, of course.

We quickly picked Casablanca, which neither of us had seen for years.  What struck me watching it again, beside how great it still is, is that beside the main three (or four) characters, you are meant to deeply sympathize with the young couple trying to get out of the city.

Real people (2/3rds)

We’re primed to sympathize with them, to feel their plight, to feel the agony of their neverland time in Casablanca. This isn’t just because they are young and attractive, but because the opening narration perfectly lays out their situation.

With the coming of the Second World  War, many eyes in imprisoned Europe turned hopefully, or desperately,  toward the freedom of the Americas. Lisbon became the great embarkation point. But not everybody could get to Lisbon directly, and so, a tortuous, roundabout refugee trail sprang up. Paris to Marseilles, across the Mediterranean to Oran, then by train, or auto, or foot, across the rim of Africa to Casablanca in French Morocco.

Here, the fortunate ones, through money, or influence, or luck, might obtain exit visas and scurry to Lisbon, and from Lisbon to the New World. But the others wait in Casablanca — and  wait — and wait — and wait .

You can feel their desperate pain. These are people whose lives have been upturned by the horrors of war, by the mad headlong rush of violence into their lives. They are broken and shattered and scared and lost, half-dead, barely clinging onto hope. We feel for them, because they are human, and we can see ourselves in them.

We have the same situation in Syria, today. Millions of people have had their lives turned inside out, blown apart by a savagely cruel war. They spent their lives under the cadaverous pallor of the Asad regime, and when some rose up, peacefully, they were slaughtered. Over the next 7 years, their country has been turned into a charnel house, ripped apart by warring factions inside the country (especially the regime), transnational groups like ISIS, and international actors like Russia, Iran, the United States, Saudi Arabia, now Turkey, maybe Israel.

They fled across the self-same Mediterannean. They fled to Europe, many with eyes toward America. But we didn’t see them as people. We saw them as others, verminous danger, and closed our doors.

Not real people

That’s clear in the latest budget, and it is clear in, say, the dozens of refugee resettlement centers that are being closed under Trump and Paul Ryan.

But that’s the GOP. That’s who they are as a party, and it is clear in issue after issue: cruelty is the point, and empathy is a weakness. It is not a coincidence, nor a distortion, that their President is a man entirely incapable of empathy, and whose primary instinct (other than self-aggrandizement) is to be cruel to those he thinks are weaker than him.

It’s how he became President after all, and in every move he makes and every reaction he has, and in every piece of policy crafted in the head of Paul Ryan, making the lives of actual humans even worse is the primary goal. Punching down, and pulling the last shreds of a decent life from those who have so little.

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Clean Water is a Common Good. That’s Why Its Access is Being Limited.

Pictured: Not Tang.

“Brackish” is a wonderfully descriptive word; it is nearly onomatopoetic in its immediate salinity. It has a scaly tangibility to it, and contains within it an instant shudder. “Brack” is the sound you make when you taste something undrinkable, something wrong, something poisonous.

But for too many Americans, that is the reality of their water. It is choking, dirty, and dangerous. It is the opposite of what water should be. It has been degraded by capitalism and left to fester by the people elected to remember the forgotten.

This is laid out in stark detail by Sarah Jones and Emily Atkin at the resurgent The New Republic, in an article titled, with no pulled punches, Rural America’s Drinking Water Crisis.

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Frayed Alliance: Turkey, Russia, and Iran Circle Back to Familiar Patterns

 

Image result for caucasus middle east

he This map helpfully has every area I want to talk about

During WWI, the Ottoman Empire’s main concern wasn’t the British or French, and certainly not the Americans, but the Russians. The Russian Empire had fought the Ottomans time and time again throughout the centuries, with at least 11 distinct wars over territory.

Most of these wars revolved around the Balkans and the Ukraine, territory both empires thought was rightfully theirs. Russia, when the wars began in the 1600s, was an upstart, unfurling its frozen limbs from St. Petersberg after a slow recovery from Mongol depredations.

But conflict wasn’t entirely in Slavic lands. The reason why the Turks were so worried about the Russians, of course, was that the Russians had pushed their empire into the Caucasus Mountains, on the Ottoman’s eastern flank. That region, flanked by the Black and Caspian seas, was of vital importance to the local players, which is why a fur-hat dominated European hereditary dynasty fought bloody and indecisive wars to tame it.

This should clear everything up

Some of these wars that Russia fought for the Caucasus were against the region’s other historic power, the Persians. As Russia moved into that area, they fought a series of wars against the Persians, being rebuffed in the first war in 1651, but slowly gaining ground as the empires traded strength. By 1828, Russia was in firm control of what had been Persian territory.

As_Between_Friends_(Punch_magazine,_13_December_1911,_detail)

See?

So during the Great War, the Turks got awfully worried about the Armenians, Orthodox Christians who had spent nearly 100 years as part of the Russian Empire, serving as a buffer or a fifth column inside Ottoman territory. And it was pretty clear with whom the Armenians sided.

So, in order to prevent the Russians from consolidating territory, they had gained from the Persians and using it as a launching ground for an eastern front, the Young Turks tried to eliminate the Armenians, whose crime was being in the middle of three great empires.

This is sort of a long way of saying: that’s where we are again today.

Post-West, A Region Falls Into Historical Patterns

I was thinking about this when I read an article on Eurasia Review, originally from the Tasnim News Agency. It is about the Iranian president criticizing Turkey for their incursions in Syria.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani urged that Turkey’s military assault on Afrin region in northwest Syria should come to an end, stressing that the presence of an armed force in another country needs the consent of that country’s government and people.

Now, you might be skeptical of Iranian concern for this, given that they have been operating in Syria for the duration of the war, being, along with Russia, the main supporters of Asad. Rouhani could probably scoff at charges of hypocrisy though, since his statement was couched by saying “needs the consent of…government and people.”

And he has the consent of the government, if you believe Syria really exists anymore, which I sort of don’t. The people? That’s a bit trickier. But the main point is that none of the major players are actually concerned with the wishes of a sovereign Syrian people. Instead, this is a regional battleground. For Iran, it is partly (largely) against the Sauds, but more and more, it is becoming the testing ground for old enmities against Russia and Turkey.

Last year I talked about these powers, and how they were maneuvering with and against each other. There was sort of an alliance between the three, but that, to me, was one of quick convenience, a way to fully and finally push out the US and the rest of the West. And that’s what happened: while we can still bomb Syria and supply Saudi Arabia to destroy Yemen, there isn’t much in the way of US influence.

Trump is so emotionally conflicted by this image

 

It is tempting to say that’s a void into these other powers are filling, but that’s not really accurate. Rather, the presence of the West is a recent imposition which has been removed. Your mileage may vary about Russia being the West or not, but there is no doubt it has been active in the region for nearly 500 years. While Russia has always cared about its east, and pushing into Europe, it is its south, with warm water, open ports, and route into the Indian Ocean, that has driven it.

Russia would love for Asad to win, and to be able to take advantage of a friendly country to establish warm water ports in the Mediterranean. Along with its Crimea grab, that would give it a foothold in the both that sea and the Black. And it needs those, because it is being outmaneuvered by both Iran and Turkey in the Caspian (which we talked about last year, my favorite to write and least-read article.)

But it isn’t like Turkey and Iran are buddies, either, as Rouhani’s criticism of Turkey shows. This is more Iran wanting Turkey to stay out of what it considers its zone, but Turkey wants to rid itself of meddlesome Kurds, and so is creating, in Afrin, a “buffer”.

If it happens to claim a chunk of Syria, well, what is Syria anyway?

That isn’t their only front either. They are also waging a war of influence in the Caucuses, with Azerbaijan beginning to turn toward Ankara, even though the historic Azeri heartland is split between that country and northern Iran.

And so that’s where we are. Once again, the Eurasian heartland is slowly being dominated by its historic powers, with Saudi upstartedness as essentially a rearguard action by the West. I have no idea who this will play out. But it is time to stop looking at the brief flicker of the 20th-century as a regional paradigm. For better or worse (but most likely neither, or both), it has been snuffed.

The new old reality is back.

 

 

 

Trump’s Military Parade Not Un-American, But A Different America

Recently, Allison and I have been rewatching Parks and Rec. It’s not a proper binge, as we just put it on here and there. There wasn’t really a reason for starting it, other than that I think one day I just wanted to watch something enjoyable, and the theme song is basically my happy place.

We didn’t have a strictly political reason to watch, even though nearly all decisions made now have a political patina to them, and that the specter of our idiot leader looms over everything. But as we watched it, there has been happiness at being in that world, where good people work together to do good things, and to be at a time when we weren’t in an open kakistocracy.

It’s more than the show being about nice people, of course (although their fundamental decency is a huge part of the appeal). It’s what the show is actually about: it is a celebration of the common good, and the idea that the government is a collection of who we are, and not an alien enemy.  That it can be frustrating and maddening and prone to charlatans manipulating it and dummies hijacking it, but at the end, it is us.

We happened to watch the Debate episode, where Leslie Knope is running for city council. This is her closing statement, after he opponent, a rich scion (who is actually just an amiable dope) said that his daddy would pull the one big factory out of town if he lost. (I can’t seem to find a video)

I’m very angry. Angry Bobby Newport would hold this town hostage & threaten to leave if you don’t give him what he wants. Its despicable. Corporations are not allowed to dictate what a city needs. That power belongs to the people. Bobby Newport and his daddy would like you to think it belongs to them. I love this town. And when you love something, you don’t punish it. You fight for it. You take care of it. You put it first. As your City Councilman, I will make sure that no one takes advantage of Pawnee. If i seem too passionate, it’s because i care. If I come on too strong, its because I feel strongly. And if I push too hard, it’s because things aren’t moving fast enough. This is my home, you are my family, and I promise you, I’m not going anywhere.”

You put it first. That’s the ethos: that we come together, despite everything, and fight for something other than our own short-term glory.

Needless to say, we aren’t living in that world.

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The Flowers of Trumpism: In Illinois, The Far-Right Comes Grabbling From The Ground

 

Image result for ives benedict rauner ad

Pictured: Illinois!

On Friday, word started getting around Twitter and various Illinois blogs that Jeanne Ives, Republican challenger to Bruce Rauner, had released a strange, offense ad titled “Benedict Rauner.” In it, she was supposed to discuss how Rauner “sold out” his constituents by pandering to the worst people in Illinois: feminists, immigrants, LGBTQ.

It actually seemed sort of impossible, and indeed, on the venerable Capitol Fax blog, commenters couldn’t quite believe it. It seemed like a joke. I sort of didn’t even pay attention to it, since it seemed ridiculous.

Well, come Saturday, as I was watching my Butler Bulldogs play DePaul (in the manner one watches a cat toy with a mouse), the commercial came on. I honestly goggled gape-jawed while watching. It was the most vile ad I’ve ever seen in the state.

I don’t want to link to it, but the cast is above. In it, these people thank Bruce Rauner for a litany of sins. As least offensive, you have the rich tycoon thanking Rauner for bailing out Exelon, the energy giant. We can all get behind the anti-fatcat message, I suppose.

But you also have the pussy-hatted frump-chic girl thanking Rauner for “making Illinois taxpayers pay for my abortion.” You have the black CTU representative thanking Rauner for giving Chicago teachers everything they wanted. You have the bandanna criminal thanking Rauner for allowing Chicago to be a sanctuary city. That they cast a white guy showed, for once, a modicum of common sense, but the message was clearly there.

And for the cream of the crop, you have the transgendered representative, which in the pinched world of Ives and her supporters, is an ugly man in an ill-fitting dress, stubble and chest hair given places of prominence, thanking Bruce Rauner for letting “people like me use the women’s bathroom.”

The level of outrage here scrapes the sky. Every single one of these was designed to inflame the Breitbart base. Transgendered are tranny pervs, all teachers are black and want handouts, all undocumented immigrants are gangster thugs, all feminists are abortion-loving lesbians (don’t ask for logical or biological consistency).

The Democratic candidates for governor united as one to condemn it, and after a few hesitations, the Illinois GOP did as well. Bruce Rauner took a bit too long to do so; when asked, he immediately pivoted to repeating “Mike Madigan” like an incantation. But everyone is pretty outraged.

Ives? She doesn’t seem to understand the fuss. In a talk yesterday, which Eric Zorn, who does god’s own work in the state, transcribed, she gave some boilerplate dissonance about “respecting everyone in God’s image”, even if she disagrees with them, but is sad that people who disagree with her are all up in arms. It was standard maddening dishonesty. It was the Q&A that got good.

When asked again about the ad, she replied:

“The fact that you saw a visual representation of the policies he put in place is maybe considered offensive. I don’t understand that. That’s exactly the fat-cat Exelon guy, that’s exactly who you bailed out. Hello!  The teacher from CPS, that’s whose pension you just bailed out. The transgender man, that’s exactly what, typically, a transgender man looks like  (groans in the audience). Sir, with all due respect, I’ve had them show up at my door, so …”

It’s just what they look like. That’s the teacher! That’s the fatcat! (the fatcat is good inoculation against bigotry, in theory.) That’s typically what a transgender man looks like. And she knows! They’ve showed up at her door. I guess, selling cookies?

Look, this is all clearly dishonest. The ad was designed to appeal to the hard right, who feel sold out by Bruce Rauner, because while he is doing everything in his power to destroy unions, crush workers, and turn Illinois into Wisconsin, he isn’t quite there.

For one thing, he isn’t powerful enough to do it to the extent they want (see for example the outrage that teachers are getting the pensions they were promised, which is apparently a capital crime). For another, he sometimes, whether for political or personal reasons, he isn’t the culture warrior they demand. He isn’t, at the end, a total bigot.

This isn’t enough for some people. Ives wouldn’t have a shot if Rauner weren’t such a bumbling clod and a terrible politician, but she saw an opening, and she took it. She’s now being backed by Breitbart, as Natasha Korecki pointed out in her morning playbook, and is being funded by the right-wing Uihlein family, out of Lake Forest. They were last seen backing Roy Moore, propelling him to a primary win over Luther Strange. He was backed not in spite of being a theocratic bigot and hateful know-nothing, but because of it. And he lost the general not because of that, but because he likes them young.

In any other year, Ives would have been a fringe candidate, like when Alan Keyes ran against Obama in 2004. Rauner is hard-right, an absolute plutocrat’s plutocrat. Sure, he’s not great at it, but he is giving these people most of what they want, economically. But it isn’t enough. His cloddish nature gives them an opening, but it isn’t just that.

It’s that there is something wild and unburied here. From the race riots of Cairo to the entrenched bigotry of Chicago, Illinois has never been a truly progressive state. With our Great Lakes to Deep South length, and the tension between farm and city, and the tensions in a huge, racially-mixed industrial city, there have always been elements of ugly in out politics.

In my lifetime at least, these have been progressively buried. The Council Wars of the 80s are now unthinkable, and Alan Keyes was a joke. Culture warriors don’t win.

But Donald Trump has stirred something nasty and cruel, an secret serum, a potion that incantates buried corpses from the ground. They are stirring because they feel strengthen. They feel powerful. They feel that it is their time. Trump may be unpopular, but he is still a hero to the worst.

I’ve been shielded from that in Illinois, and maybe that is why the ad was so breathtaking. Maybe people in other states saw that and shrugged; another day in America. But that it can break into this bubble, is being proudly played during Saturday morning basketball, shows to me the far-reaching damage that Trump’s dark magic is doing to America.

(And yes, the Nazi getting the GOP nomination for Congress is pretty bad, but that’s more a product of the Republicans not putting up a challenger in a heavily-gerrymandered district. But while their offense at gerrymandering is adorable, one also has to ask: why does the Nazi identify as a Republican?)

How Democracies Die: In America, Part Farce, Part Fearful Spear

1961-11-01a

At one point last year, I think shortly before the inauguration that wrenched us across the border into this absurd and terrifying period, I woke up with a palimpsest of thoughts, the first a video-like replay of the moment during the debate where Hillary Clinton accused then-reality-star Trump of being a Russian puppet.

If you remember, he leaned into the mic and said, “No puppet. No puppet. You’re the puppet.” At the time, we all knew there was something hinky going on with Russia, but the next layer of thought in that morning black wasn’t about his deflecting the truth, but the artless and childish and idiotic way in which he did it. There was a moment of disconnect for me, where I thought how amazing it was that someone so dumb could come close to the Presidency. And even as that thought flickered through my gauzy dawnish brain, the horrible truth of what happened next came roaring like an unstoppable train.

For me, that is one of the worst parts of this horrible period, where the Republican Party is going all in on undermining every one of our institutions, subverting the rule of law in order to protect one man. It’s not just that they are breaking our democracy, it is that they are breaking our democracy for this schlub, for this witless dummy and his graspingly moronic children.

But that’s just for me. I have the luxury of having semi-removed despair. For those on the spear-end of racial authoritarianism, there is no remove. For those who are being ripped from their country and torn apart from their familes, or who are in the crosshairs of a new push toward massive incarceration, there is no distance.

In their incredible and powerful new book, How Democracies DieSteven Livitsky and Daniel Ziblatt outline the ways in which democracies can be eroded from within, slowly and then very quickly. They talk about the way in which norms are ignored, and more importantly, how allies give up any pretense of democratic leanings in order to protect their primary representative, whether that is Hugo Chavez or Donald Trump.

The cover isn’t subtle, but then, neither is what is happening. 

But most importantly, in the American context, they put into stark relief how central a role race and racism play in our democracy. They make the now-obvious but to me unremarked upon point that post-Civil War, democratic comity was dependent upon both parties agreeing to ignore civil rights.

It was only when the moral force of that issue was no longer ignorable, thanks to the bravery of the activists, the cruelty of the perpetrators, and the unrelenting and unmistakeable humanity of those ground under Jim Crow’s footsteps, that movement was made. And once the Democrats shook off their racist roots and became the party of Civil Rights, and the GOP became the home of apartheid, that our norms started fraying.

In this accelerated period, we see it in stark relief. Really, we see both sides. For people like me, protected from the worst by race and class and circumstance, the sudden capsizing of our democracy is playing out as farce. For those who are paying with their lives for the Republican reliance on racial animosity, it is tragedy.

The two sides are connected. If we really want to understand what is happening here, we have to look at both sides.

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Year End Subjectivity: Best Books of 2017

Image result for library of babel

In some ways, it’s been a bit of a weird and dark year. For some evidence of that, you can check: this blog’s entire archives. If you don’t feel like doing so, you can just reflect on why you need to pull tight the cloak around your shivering body, nervous with dread at each new dawn, wondering what horrors await. Either way!

But it’s also been a pretty good year for books. I’m usually pretty terrible at reading new things, especially new fiction, but for a few reasons have made more a point of doing so this year, in addition to the usual nonfiction.

So, here’s a totally subjective list of some of my favorites. This isn’t to say the “Best Books of 2017”, since that would be absurdly arrogant, not to mention extremely myopic. Here are the best books read this year, with no real division between fiction and non. I’m sure there are many I am missing, and will kick myself later on. I really need to start writing this stuff down.

The first list are ones published this year, then a shorter one of books I finally read, whether a few years old or many.

There’s no real order here, except the first one would probably be on top if I did.

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