Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Why Are We Led By So Many Damaged Men?

I just read the long New Yorker profile of Carl Icahn from the summer. And my first reaction was - why are so many of the super rich and successful business people (well strictly men, in this case) such mentally and emotionally damaged people?

This passage early on in the piece stuck with me:
The old conundrum about whether it is better to be loved or feared has never posed much of a dilemma for Icahn. In “King Icahn,” a 1993 biography, the author, Mark Stevens, described his subject as a “germophobic, detached, relatively loveless man,” and quoted one contemporary saying, “Carl’s dream in life is to have the only fire truck in town. Then when your house is in flames, he can hold you up for every penny you have.” When the biography was published, Icahn stocked his office with copies to give to visitors. These days, he bristles at the term “corporate raider,” favoring the euphemism “activist investor,” but the reality is that when Icahn targets a company the response from management is generally terror. He has a volatile temper and a vindictive streak. Everyone makes time to take his calls.
How screwed up of a person do you have to be to still feel as Icahn does, or did at the time his biography was published 25 years ago when he was nearly sixty, to be a multi-billionaire, yet still be so insecure and needing "a win" at all times? Now in his eighties, he used Trump's sycophantic idolization of him to try to get the EPA to make a change that would directly benefit his business empire.

These "alphas" spend their whole lives using money and power in an attempt to fill the emptiness in their hearts. And no matter how much money they make and power they accumulate, it's never enough to fill that gaping hole.

They need constant acknowledgement of how great and smart they are. Along with Icahn, I immediately thought of Trump, Welch, and others of that ilk. And as a society what do we really get out of this? Some jobs I guess, but their goal is making deals that benefit themselves. The jobs created are often accidental or at best beside the point.

The kicker is that our society lionizes these figures and their success, so it's a constant feedback loop where being a "successful businessman" or at least playing one on a reality TV show is all that matters. And now the results of society enabling this mental illness every day is on display from the White House.

Friday, September 29, 2017

In Defense of Not #StickingToSports

(SI cover, week of 9/25/17)
After the election last year I noted that now more than ever this was NOT the time to #StickToSports. It was not time to just go about our lives pretending a normal person had just been elected president. People who are telling sportswriters, athletes, coaches, and other sports fans to #StickToSports whenever they make a political point are really telling them to go along with the status quo and to normalize this situation.

In the ensuing months, it became even more obvious that acceptance of the status quo would be a normalizing device for white supremacy, misogyny, and xenophobia, as part of an administration that is looking more and more like a (thankfully incompetent) version of a kleptocratic, ethno-white nationalist autocracy.

#StickingtToSports is a tacit endorsement of the present state of affairs. Remaining apolitically neutral in this extremely politicized environment, with our ignorant President tweeting out attacks and opinions on whatever topic was just aired on Fox and Friends, is a political statement in and of itself. That is essentially saying "your grievances aren't important, or at least not important to me." Discrimination in the criminal justice system? Racial profiling? Police shootings? White supremacists demonstrating and believing they have a strong ally in the White House? Not my problem. Threats to curtail freedom of speech and expression? Not my problem, as long as it’s not affecting me, personally, which is a version of holocaust survivor, Martin Niemöller's famous poem,
"First they came...."

Weirdly, I never remembered the anthem being a big deal during NFL games when I was younger and it turned out my memory was correct. Prior to 2009 players would usually remain in the locker room during the anthem, except for Super Bowls or other special games. 
As recently as 2015, the Department of Defense was doling out millions to the NFL for such things as military flyovers, flag unfurlings, emotional color guard ceremonies, enlistment campaigns, and — interestingly enough — national anthem performances. Additionally, according to Vice, the NFL’s policy on players standing for the national anthem also changed in 2009, with athletes "encouraged" thereafter to participate. Prior to that, teams were not given any specific instructions on the matter; some chose to remain in the locker room until after opening ceremonies were completed. (It’s unclear whether the policy change was implemented as a direct result of any Defense Department contracts.) 
In 2015, Arizona Sens. Jeff Flake (R) and John McCain (R) revealed in a joint oversight report that nearly $5.4 million in taxpayer dollars had been paid out to 14 NFL teams between 2011 and 2014 to honor service members and put on elaborate, “patriotic salutes” to the military. Overall, they reported, “these displays of paid patriotism [were] included within the $6.8 million that the Department of Defense (DOD) [had] spent on sports marketing contracts since fiscal year 2012.”
 “While well intentioned, we wonder just how many of these displays included a disclaimer that these events were in fact sponsored by the DOD at taxpayer expense,” they added. “Even with that disclosure, it is hard to understand how a team accepting taxpayer funds to sponsor a military appreciation game, or to recognize wounded warriors or returning troops, can be construed as anything other than paid patriotism.”
The way NFL owners tried to co-opt the protests was a mixed bag. I'll give them credit for showing they had the players' backs. But they seemed very careful not to come out and say they wouldn't cut anyone for exercising their rights, as our Dear Leader demanded. Joining arms to show unity is literally the least you could do and offend no one, while burying the original point of the demonstrations. None of these big Trump donors have had an issue with anything he has said or done until it affected them personally. 

As an aside, I do think the issue inflamed more people all because of social media and how headlines are written now. So many people just read headlines and not the story. For over a year now headlines have called this an "Anthem protest." Some of that was maybe due for editing reasons. Some of it maybe for clicks. But in any case, way too many people were ignorant or willfully ignorant, including our President, and have continued calling it an "Anthem" or "Flag" protest. Yeah it's an "Anthem" protest in the same way a hunger strike is protesting the taste of food. Such a widespread dumb take. 

I was also reminded of this story from last September. Last year Colin Kaepernick met with former Seattle Seahawk and army green beret, Nate Boyer, after he wrote a column saying he was disturbed by Kaepernick sitting during the anthem. So they met, talked it out, and decided kneeling was a more respectful way to protest. Boyer joined Kaepernick on the field for the game after this with his hand on his shoulder in support.
"We sorta came to a middle ground where he would take a knee alongside his teammates," Boyer says. "Soldiers take a knee in front of a fallen brother's grave, you know, to show respect. When we're on a patrol, you know, and we go into a security halt, we take a knee, and we pull security."
Violent protests are obviously wrong and counterproductive and should be condemned. But for a country founded on protest, I find it baffling how resistant people are to various peaceful protest movements. There are very few forms of nonviolent protests that people seem to support. 

This is how we used to treat peaceful marches in the South:

Oh wait, we're still kind of doing that. Here is St. Louis last week after a police officer was acquitted by a judge for shooting an unarmed suspect, after being on caught on tape saying he was going to kill the suspect, being caught on video planting a gun in his car, and with forensics showing no DNA of the victim on the gun.

The elderly woman who was trampled was charged with "interfering."

So what are peaceful demonstrators to do? Block traffic? People complain. 

Inconvenience people in any minor way? People complain. 

Organize protests in various cities with outside groups involved? People complain and tell protesters they have nothing better to do and need to get a job. 

Take a knee or raise a fist during the anthem while at your job, inconveniencing no one? People complain it's not the right time and place - you should be doing it alone in your basement, I guess, where no one may be offended seeing it, because that's how you affect change! Or post a rant in an Internet comment section. That should do the trick!

Speak out on an issue? People complain you should put your money where your mouth is. 

Donate money to organizations that will advance your causes as Colin Kaepernick and Eagles Malcolm Jenkins and Chris Long (who is playing for free this season, donating all of his game checks), and many others have done? People complain you're just trying to get attention. (well, yes, Sherlock, that's the point of all of this!)

Taking a knee before the anthem even starts? Fans in Arizona booed. And if standing and honoring the country during the anthem is some sort sacred ritual to these fans, shouldn't they be singing, hands on hearts, and not focused on what a few dozen players are doing? 

If you feel like you are on the right side of an issue, more attention being drawn to it should not worry you.  The real issue with many critics seems to be PWB - Protesting While Black. Listen to how many commentators on Fox News last week referred to the protesting players as "ungrateful" - as if rich black athletes need to be "grateful" because their wealth and status was given to them (by white people), and not earned. Hmmm. You can trace that strain of argument all the way back to the days of slavery where slaves were supposed to be grateful that their "massas" provided them food, clothing, and shelter.

Anyway, here was a key Gallup polling statistic I saw this week in re of MLK:
In 1963, King had a 41% positive and a 37% negative rating; in 1964, it was 43% positive and 39% negative; in 1965, his rating was 45% positive and 45% negative; and in 1966 -- the last Gallup measure of King using this scalometer procedure -- it was 32% positive and 63% negative.Gallup did not measure King in 1967 or 1968.
So the more effective King's protests were in achieving tangible gains for black people - desegregation, voting rights, fair educational opportunities, etc, the less popular he became among white people. He started out with an image of a clean cut, articulate preacher, seeking equality and justice. And by the mid 1960's he was thought of as a radical troublemaker. King is now held up as a godlike figure like Gandhi, a standard-bearer for effective peaceful protest movements. Yet in his own era, he and his methods were about as unpopular and divisive as NFL players kneeling during the national anthem are today.

And for the fence-sitters, #StickToSports-ers, I am reminded of MLK's Letter From a Birmingham jail in 1963:
"First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action;" who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a "more convenient season." 
Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection."
Time and time again history repeats itself. And comfortable middle class white people continue to act as the "white moderates" of King's era. This is a chance to be on the right side of history at the right time, when it matters, and not thirty years after the fact. And all that is asked is that you engage on the issues, perform a little self-examination, and endure a few minutes of potential discomfort watching the national anthem at a sporting event, while respecting other people's rights of free expression, which our great Constitution ensures - yes our Constitution, not our President or Senators or the anthem. Our nation has already survived previous anthem protests. Like this:

John Carlos and Tommie Smith protesting during medal ceremony in 1968 Olympics

And this:

Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf praying to Allah during national anthem at an NBA game in the 1990s

And this:

Browns players kneeling during the national anthem during the preseason, August 2017

I'm pretty sure we will survive this too and be better for it. Groups of people who suffered a real or even a perceived injustice are given a platform to try to be change agents. If certain laws or rules go unchallenged out of fear of speaking out or due to forced performative patriotism and obsession with order, we become a weaker country. And if by speaking out, those issues get addressed, it makes the country stronger and is better for all of us in the long run.

Former Missouri Secretary of State, US Senate candidate, and military veteran, Jason Kander, summed up it perfectly in this tweet:

Amen. That's a sentiment we all can stand and salute.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Welcome to the Resistance

I've been grappling with what to post as a follow up to the presidential election in November for, oh, about eleven weeks now. I've had dozens of conversations about it and the way forward. Donald Trump and his administration are every bit as dangerous a threat as the pre-election warnings promised. This is the biggest threat to our democratic institutions in a long time, maybe since the Civil War. The delusional premise among some pundits that Trump would move to the middle to find common ground with Democrats was laughable. So now we have a Cabinet full of bankers, oil men, climate deniers, unqualified dopes, and a white supremacist as chief strategist attempting to carry out the bold and divisive campaign promises. Great job, voters.

The Democratic party is powerless at every level of the federal government, save for the bills and nominations the U.S. Senate is able to filibuster. And the GOP has dominant holds on 30+ governors and state houses. So dig in, it's going to be a long 2-4 years. 

And the chances of the Dems retaking one of the two houses of Congress in 2018 are both long shots, unless Trump remains deeply unpopular. The Senate map for the Dems in 2018 is terrible with them mostly playing defense in states Trump won. So realistically the best case scenario is probably just a loss of a few seats and not a disaster, where their minority shrinks to the point that they are unable to win a majority in 2020. 

The House may provide more fertile terrain, but with only 40-50 competitive seats, they will need to do very well to reclaim a majority there. So that's what we're up against nationally. At the state level, there are some prime opportunities to pick up wins in gubernatorial elections in OH, MI, WI, MA, MD, FL, and some other swing or blue states where Dems lost badly in 2010 and 2014. And aside from that just organize locally. Treat things like State Senate elections with increased importance. If Barack Obama didn't win his Illinois State Senate election in 1996, he probably would not have been a presidential candidate in 2008. Start small and pay attention to every election.

But forget all that for a minute because that is the finish line for the first leg of this battle. And we have a lot of work ahead as #TheResistance before we get to the next election. So what can we do in the meantime? I'm not quite sure the leadership of the Democratic party and the old White House media people covering the Trump administration have reckoned with this new reality. I saw an unattributed quote passed around on Twitter this week (sic): "it's like democrats and republicans were playing a board game, then the republicans were like 'fuck it' and lit the house on fire, but dems are still just sitting in the burning house trying to win the board game." And I think this nails a little of bit of my impression of what is happening. The opposition needs to be stronger and better organized.

I knew it was going to be bad, but I didn't quite grasp all of what was coming until after the election. I believe in institutions as a check on power, to make the world more peaceful, to prevent humanity from acting on its worst impulses. The institutions we set up after the 20th century world wars - NATO, the United Nations, International Criminal Court, etc., while imperfect, have served to ultimately keep the world much more peaceful than it was prior to their creation. There is accountability and you risk economic sanctions by not complying with the rules and norms established by the institutions. Free trade also serves to keep us connected and more peaceful, with obvious economic disincentives to go to war. But the last few years have seen right-wing nationalism spread through Europe and now the United States, threatening the institutions, signaling exits from said institutions and trade agreements. There will be a power and influence vacuum and Russia and China seem more than willing to step in to fill the void with unknowable consequences for the rest of the world.

I'm ultimately a liberal institutionalist at heart, so I believed our institutions and rules would protect us from authoritarians and tyrants here in the United States. But there is little I've seen from our institutions so far to give me hope in the near future. You can't count on the Electoral College, Congress, the agencies the Trump regime is attempting to silence, etc. All of the usual checks on executive power will be hamstrung or will be going along in silent agreement. We are left with independent media and hopefully lawyers and courts. And ourselves. We can't assume everything will be OK and that the Democratic opposition and institutions will be sufficient to thwart an authoritarian regime. This is a fight you will need to stay engaged in daily, doing whatever you are able to do. This Sarah Kendzior piece really nails it - required reading for how to handle this regime. 

The good news is we are in the majority (if we could stop having purity/purge litmus tests among ourselves that would be great). We need to find common cause with liberals, leftists, #NeverTrump conservatives, and independents. We may disagree with some of these people on many issues, but we all agree Trump is an unprecedented threat to our republic and must be defeated at all costs. I think we all mouthed those platitudes to each other last summer but then went right ahead and allowed our common cause to be divided over petty issues and the result was the person with 46% of the vote, 2.8M less than the winner, becoming President. Let's not repeat that mistake.

If you aren't already you should immediately follow these people on Twitter:

Several of them are experts in covering authoritarian regimes and how they manipulate people. Re-reading a lot of Sarah Kendzior's posts from November are prescient for predicting what was to come in the opening days of the Trump administration. A flurry of activity, seemingly frantic or chaotic. Lots of distractions. Multiple stories being leaked to different reporters, neither of which turn out to be true, so then the administration can attempt to discredit the media. 

Do your best to stop focusing on Trump's tweets or whatever boldface lies the administration told, realized it looked ridiculous, and then walked back that particular day. It provides some comic relief for us liberals, but ultimately it's just an empty sugar rush. Keep your eye on the ball and don't get distracted from whatever executive orders or bills are due to be signed or voted on that day.

What else can you do? Contribute money to the ACLU and other organizations who will be vital in this fight. Call your congressional representative and Senators about every issue that is a concern. Even if you are in a deep blue or deep red district or state, make your voice heard. Order of preference to make an impact: phone calls, handwritten letters, emails. Social media contact means nothing. Check out swingleft.org for more info on where your contact can make the most impact. It'll tell you where your closest geographical swing district is. Join local or national social media groups to find out where protests are happening and how you can be a part of it. 

That's a lot to digest for now. I'll probably be blogging a lot more this year. Hopefully many more short posts rather than occasional long ones. Stay tuned. 

In the meantime, Organize. March. Protest. Resist.