Friday, May 18, 2018

Brain Farts

My next newspaper column:
Here's a heavily reworked piece from a past life. That it’s a mishmash reflects how thoroughly recent Trumptivity has smacked my gob:  
America is losing its collective mind, so it shouldn't be surprising that med schools and even vaunted hospitals are offering "alternative medicine.” Some call it “complementary.” Give ‘em what they want, I guess. It’s as cynical as hiring Scott Pruitt to run the EPA.  
It’s hard to figure how otherwise intelligent people become convinced of the efficacy of whatever “medical” woo they wish, even when studies have shown it doesn’t work. Why is truth so unattractive? Why isn't inquisitiveness universal? Doesn't realism confer survival benefit? Or would we all be jumping off cliffs if we didn't have mythology? Maybe that's it. Maybe too many skeptical realists have already jumped.  
The neediness of the human brain, stacked against its obvious power -- the ability to create, to invent, to inquire, to love -- is a paradox. If it’s a stretch to write my way from frustration about “alternative” medicine to the destruction of democracy and the planet at the hands of Trump and Trumpists, they’re of a piece with climate change denial and the need to impose one’s religious views on others via legislation which flies in the face of separation. Because, I guess, when others don’t share one’s views, it threatens one’s ability to stave off dubiety.  
As there are billions of people on the planet with vastly differing religious beliefs yet equally certain in their singular truth, it’s obviously a fundamental human need. Amazingly, for some, the cult of Trump is replacing their religion. Trump, of all people: a faker whose only religion is self-aggrandizement. He’s brilliant, though, at deceiving others to accomplish it. Happy was he to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, helping his enablers to feel ever closer to rapturing, while figuring they’ll remain Earth-bound, sending money even as he fleeces their flock. 
At one time, believing the unprovable had survival benefits: when dangers were mostly natural and the advantages of grouping together were obvious, belief in all-powerful protectors were civilizing. But as society has gotten impossibly complex and the dangers we face are mostly human-generated, they’re becoming detrimental. Rather than encouraging people to cleave together and feel their common humanity as they once did, the increasingly hardened beliefs of a few are causing us to fall upon one another in hate and fear. Lies (Trump’s about the Iran agreement being among his latest) have, for half of us, become preferred over truth. 
Magical thinking is who we are, I guess. If, in the medical world, it only served to enrich some at the expense of others, so what? But it’s hurting people; and it's pretty clear, with anti-vaccination for example, that it can hurt us all, not just the gullible or desperate. 
When I see this mainstreaming of bogosity, I can't keep help thinking of the other side of the same coin: people murdering in the name of their gods, blaming natural disasters on gays, demonizing the educated, undoing environmental protections and human rights, ignoring climate change. They arise, seemingly, from the same shortcomings of the human brain.  
In less than a lifetime, we've gone from Model T to Tesla, from Kitty Hawk to Mare Tranquilitatis, crystal sets to satellite radio. The power of science is obvious. Yet despite -- or is it because of? -- the amazing progress we've seen at the hands of science, people willfully and in increasing numbers simply ignore it; reject it in order to maintain their prejudices. Or, in the case of today’s Republican Party, by legislating their falsehoods into law, their cash flow. The draw of delusion is great; if straws they be, grasp at them we must.  
But one shouldn’t get to pick and choose. Don't believe in evolution? Okay. Then don't get on an airplane. Earth is six thousand years old? Your call to make. But return your smartphone. Homeopathy makes sense? Drink it down. But put away that laptop, never avail yourself of GPS. Because if man and dinosaurs lived at the same time, if carbon-dating is bogus, atomic clocks don't work and organ transplants are impossible. If vaccines cause autism, and no-touch Reiki heals, Rovers aren't on Mars, Trump’s a truth-teller, climate change is a hoax, and nothing will happen when I click the button to send this in.
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Friday, May 11, 2018

First Things First

My next newspaper column:
“By their attorneys shalt thou know them.” (Judges 22:13)  
Roy Cohn, Michael Cohen, Rudy G. The first two, Trump hired years ago, not in spite of but because of their talents for law-skirting, “fixing” scandals, and willingness to do shady deals. Rudy, who knows? Before he lost his mind, he had an occasionally positive reputation. Until his post 9/11 self-promotion and his enigmatic “security” firm, he was often considered effective; nowadays a disqualifying characteristic for a Trump job. But his unhinged scream-fest at the RNC upped his cred. It’s the demented Rudy that Trump unleashes on TV studios.  
Roy Cohn became notorious as Joe McCarthy’s Rasputin, glowering beside him at Senate hearings of a seriousness absent today. Returning from subsequent exile, he became Trump’s mentor, teaching him the ins and outs of cheating and bribing one’s way to success. Cohn had other clients, too, including the Catholic Archdiocese, Mafia boss Carmine Galante, and Newhouse Publishing; and he managed to curry favor with politicians of both parties. By “curry favor,” one means “buy off,” a skill he taught his willing pupil. Interestingly, Cohn was also tight with Ronnie and Nancy, who managed to get him to the head of the line for the then-experimental AIDS drug, AZT. For more, read this. 
Diehard Trumpists, as they do about his entire career of cheating, will say it’s just good business. Who, other than honest people, wouldn’t want a mob lawyer in a city known for corruption? Trump’s Mafia connections might be more widely known and believed, had exposure not been quashed by the Wall Street Journal’s management in the run-up to the election. 
Other than a vowel, the difference between Cohn and Cohen is lawyerly competence. Roy, they say, was brilliant. Poor Michael can’t seem to do or say anything smart or exculpatory about the devious dealings he had with his boss. Now he’s outed for clandestinely receiving tons of Russian money for presidential access. What sort of man serially hires attorneys known for ignoring the law, threats, bribes, and deals done under the table? What sort of people consider such a man presidential material? How much corruption is too much, finally?  
If you think Mueller looking into those business dealings goes beyond his mandate, how about this: after a career of boasting of being “the king of debt,” Trump suddenly switched to cash, by the hundreds of millions. The smell of rumored money-laundering for Russian oligarchs rises like methane from a swamp. Let’s assume Mueller knows more than we do.   
Now, catching up on the latest news avalanche:  
So desperate was Trump to discredit the Iran deal, it appears his people hired Israeli spies to dig dirt on members of the Obama administration who worked on it. To those who’ll “whatabout” the Steele Dossier: if you can’t see the difference, explaining won’t help. The mendacious, dangerous, reckless idiocy of backing out demands a separate column. After the ash settles.   
To offset injurious tax cuts for the rich, Trump would remove billions from CHIP and other programs for the needy. Family values.  
Ollie North is the perfect choice for NRA president.   
Scott Pruitt’s ethical cloud should be made into a logo, put on a flag, and flown over the Gold House.  
Ben Carson believes tripling rent for subsidized housing will incentivize residents to work harder. Or become homeless. I forget which.  
At record lows, Bering Sea ice recently diminished by a third in eight days. Nice hoax you’ve got there, Don.  
Suckering Texas’ governor and all of right-wing screamerdom, the JadeHelm/Obama/Walmart/incarceration conspiracy was the product of a Russian troll-farm  
Paul Ryan fired the House chaplain because, like some crazy liberal featured in the New Testament, he prayed for poor people. Good that taxes provide spiritual care for Congressfolk, though, as they coax camels through the eyes of needles.  
Trump’s goons stole his medical records from his former doctor. Illegal. And intriguing.  
Blaming GOP sabotage of Obamacare, health insurers in Virginia want 64% rate increases. The uninsured rate is rising, too. As predicted.  
Torture is back in the news. Reminder: except to elicit false confessions, it doesn’t work. Also, it’s immoral.  
Good for Trump that three American prisoners were released by North Korea. Because he’s Trump, he lied about it  
Last, hardly least, another liberal hero falls to a sex scandal. Sigh. 
[Image source]

Friday, May 4, 2018

Less Alfred, More William

I’m on record, around my house anyway, saying President Obama should have refused his Nobel Peace Prize. Maybe that confers credibility when I say to those, including South Korean President Moon, suggesting the next one ought to go to Trump, “Not so fast.” 
The question is to what extent Trump had anything positive to do with potential Korean peace, and the answer is, who knows? Was his uninformed bellicosity instrumental? If so, was it deliberate strategy? If the answers to both are yes, then, okay, give him a slice. So far, though, pledges to end the Korean War and denuclearize the peninsula seem to have happened absent the US.  
Which leads me think the two Korean leaders decided to do it on their own; because, based on Trump’s desire to renege on the Iran agreement, TPP, and Paris, they figure they couldn’t trust any accord to which the US was signatory. Is there a Nobel Prize for untrustworthiness? 
Other factors: the literal collapse of NoKo’s nuclear facility; Kim’s secret meeting with Xi; Kim’s existing nukes, about which, after his meeting with Pompeo, there was no mention of removing. That, it seems, is between the two Koreas. Aware Trump’s promises are worth less than a reverse Stormy denial, Kim cleverly asked for assurance we wouldn’t invade. It’s meaningless, but it gives cover for both of them. Moon knows Nobly flattering Trump accrues points for later. For that matter, Binyamin Netanyahu knows deceptions about the Iran agreement will impress Trump and the Foxified. 
But, sure: if sustainable peace and verifiable denuking happens, if Trump avoids harshing the mellow, and if the Swedes want to include him in their prize, they should. (My fantasy: it goes to Kim, Moon, and Pompeo.)  
More praise for Trump: I agree the White House Correspondents’ Dinner should go away. It’s become an embarrassment, especially to the White House press. Their job is not to make nice with any administration, it’s to keep skeptical distance while calling them to account. Given a chance to affirm those truths last week, they blew it. Ironically, at the bizarre, grandiose rally Trump held during the dinner, he passed the three-thousand official untruths mark. 
Yes, Michelle Wolf was crude and nasty, though not compared to Trump’s most rabid – if easily offended – base. (NSFW proof.) But, more than many in her audience whose job it is, she spoke truth to power. She owes Sarah Sanders and Kellyanne Conway apologies? No. They owe us. They accept money to tell lies, about Trump, about the press, furthering Americans’ disregard for truth. Sordid lies from the White House vs. vulgar humor from a comedian: which damages our country more? Yet leadership of the press corps and several of its members condemned the speech. 
Brooking unprecedented attacks on journalists and their profession, nonstop attempts to diminish their indispensable role in the preservation of freedom, an administration lying its way past multiple offences, even threatening blackmail of a US Senator, they hadn’t the courage to stand up. If there’s a problem with mainstream media, it isn’t liberal bias; it’s forgetting what they’re called to do, and by whom. 
Right-wing screamerdom was outraged. Silent over the vulgarities of their president, fresh from eight years of slinging vile insults at the prior one and his family, countenancing misogyny, racism, homo- and xenophobia, torrents of dishonesty and threats, they melted like snowflakes at hearing someone respond in kind. Donald Trump, the very embodiment of the word, called Ms. Wolf “filthy.” From our unfair and unbalanced media such hypocrisy is expected. From those who consider themselves serious reporters, the sort empowered and protected by the Constitution, it’s discouraging.  
So it’s a good time to recall the words of William Lloyd Garrison, journalist, abolitionist, suffragist, written before the Civil War (I do, when people tell me to tone it down): “I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation… Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm … but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present… I will not equivocate -- I will not excuse -- I will not retreat a single inch..." 
So, good for Ms. Wolf. Her audience, present and absent, needed calling out for their malfeasance. Sadly, she gave them more credit for understanding their role than they deserved. 
[Image source]

Friday, April 27, 2018

The Problem With Governing Humans

Comes now my next newspaper column:
Unprecedented stock market volatility. Poorer than expected jobs reports. Layoffs. Businesses still sending jobs out of country, working people still struggling to get by, an extra ten bucks a week notwithstanding. The only difference between Trump’s and Bush’s tax cuts, and the other Bush’s, and Reagan’s, is that its economic shortcomings are becoming evident sooner than usual. Maybe because the others figured on two terms.  
Readers seem to like calling me a communist when I point out the obvious about what’s needed to make capitalism work. In addition to showing how unaware they are of the meaning of the term, they refuse to provide examples of my alleged affinity. Which is understandable: there aren’t any. Capitalism has been good to me. In turn, unlike Trump, I’ve been good to capitalism: pay my taxes, follow the law, don’t cheat people or go bankrupt. Invest in good companies. Recycle. Minimize polluting. 
Communism and unfettered capitalism do have something in common, though: they both assume a level of goodness inherent in humankind that doesn’t exist. Self-designations to the contrary, there’s never been a communist country. Purely socialist, yes; and they’ve failed. Other than a few collective farms, the USSR was never communist. It wasn’t even in its name. Same with China. It’s an unworkable, borscht in the sky system.  
Over here, a few hippies and transcendentalists tried to live “from each according to ability, to each according to need,” (communism’s essential definition) but they dispersed after acrimonious collapse. As a whole, notwithstanding examples of individual selflessness, humanity simply isn't good enough to manage it.  
Since the point is philosophical rather than economical, this isn’t the place to discuss how upside-down and ill-timed Trump’s tax cuts were, other than to point out that with a humming economy after President Obama rescued it from Bush, with corporate profits at record highs, with crumbling infrastructure and escalating economic inequality, money extracted from revenues and handed to corporations and, therefore, to their investors but mostly no one else, while causing untenable increases in budget deficits and national debt, could have been much better spent to guarantee the survival of our system, by creating jobs and raising wages for real rather than a couple of impermanent boni. (There. I devoted only one sentence to it.)  
Communism doesn’t work because humans are inherently greedy and jealous. Pure socialism doesn’t work because most people need incentives to be excellent, and when the government controls all production, there aren’t any. (That, plus the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev, not Reagan, is why the Soviet Union ultimately failed.) Capitalism works, but does so to the extent it’s mated with regulations providing reasonable restraint on the worst human tendencies. 
America has experienced unregulated capitalism. It led to abuse of workers (including children), disregard for the environment, the Great Depression, and, as is happening yet again, sequestration of too much money in the hands of too few. It’s the opposite of what drives successful capitalism: average people having the means to buy stuff, and rules mitigating corporate greed. And it’s where Trump and his invertebrate congress are taking us, yet again. 
For Trump’s part, maybe the wrongness of his tax cuts derives from his ingrained disinterest in educating himself. Republican Congressfolk had to have known though, from experience; they just don’t care. By action and inaction they’ve signaled their intent to take the money and run; and since they don’t see preserving our planet as remunerative, they figure they may as well take it with them, too. What they’ve done, while being decidedly pro particular donor capitalists, is demonstrably anti capitalism. Proof is everywhere. 
There’s one thriving system of governance that’s designed to improve the lot of its citizens, giving them a voice in the process while confronting the strengths and weaknesses of humanity: “democratic socialism,” a better name for which might be “democratic kinda socialistic capitalism.” Countries demonstrating it regularly top lists of health and happiness. Also, they invented telephone handsets, implantable pacemakers, medical ultrasound, three-point seatbelts, zippers, and dynamite.  
“Godless” liberals, foolishly counting on human decency, call for shared sacrifices to help all Americans, while the party claiming an inside track to Jesus Himself gives itself over to human nature’s darkest side, legislating every man for himself. (Woman, not so much.) Liberals get called communists by people who think Trump loves America. And Mick Mulvaney admits it’s all about bribery.
[Image source]

Friday, April 20, 2018

The Ping Pong Presidency

My next newspaper column:
They say the best contract is one in which both parties think they got screwed. (They also say, “Ruby you’re like a dream,” which I quoted in the introduction to my college biology research thesis, but that’s not important right now.) The point is that James Comey has managed to anger both political parties, which, by the aforementioned standard, suggests he did something right.  
My feelings are mixed. Unintended outcome it may be, but his actions in the months leading up to the 2016 election, by not revealing that Russia was helping Trump get elected, yet making a last-minute disclosure of what turned out to be nothing new in the Clinton email scandalette, thumbed the scales. Even Kelleyanne Conway accidentally admitted Comey swung the election to Trump. That email announcement was a momentum changer, by the accounts of many informed observers and pollsters.  
But I have sympathy: like President Obama when Bush left him with only bad choices in Iraq, all the options Director Comey faced were lose-lose. Had the “discovered” emails contained damning material, it’d have been a blot on the FBI’s and, sure, the election’s integrity, assuming Secretary Senator Clinton had won. Still, having withheld the Russia information, the standards look a little doublish. 
In that sense, it’s odd that popular-vote-loser Trump, and Trumpists, see Comey as a villain. Almost as much as they do Putin, voter ID laws, and the Electoral College, the creation of which was intended to prevent the seating of an amoral reprobate like Trump, they owe him for their win. And he has retrospectively admitted concern for rightwing chatter might have influenced his decision publically to criticize Hillary Clinton back in July.  
Mr. Comey might come off as self-serving, but it’s unmistakable that, unlike Trump, he’s not an inveterate liar. In a he-said/he-said competition, who’s more credible: a person recognized, throughout decades of government service, as one of integrity, selected for high office by presidents of both parties, approved all but unanimously more than once by the world’s formerly greatest deliberative body; or one whose business career and personal life consisted of shady deals, lying, cheating, adultery, serial bankruptcies, being sued thousands of times, suing hundreds, and who, since taking office, has disgorged falsehoods at a documented average rate of six per day? It’s not a close call. 
In matters large and small, critical or not to our security, it’s untenable to have an American “president” about whom the default assumption, at home and abroad, based on repeated observation, is that he’s lying. 
Which brings us to Syria.  
When you’ve lost Alex Jones… (Warning: decidedly, emphatically, hilariously NSFW) Unlike Jones, and Russia, I’m no conspiracist. But right after Trump proclaimed he wanted out of Syria immediately, (remember when he and the rest of the rightwing screamers castigated Obama for announcing withdrawal plans?) Assad used chemical weapons. Then Trump announced missiles would be coming sometime soon, giving Putin and Assad time to hide their ass…ets.  
Ignoring SecDef Mattis’ appeal to get Congressional approval, Trump loosed the missiles. And then… what, exactly? No after-action reports, no cool damage-assessment videos. Was anything there? What was accomplished, and in whose interest? It was done to protect the Syrian people, Trump assured us. After which, confirming his definitely not-fake Christianity, he announced plans to welcome refugees. (Kidding. I kid. But he did proclaim, without irony, “Mission Accomplished.”)  
Later, Nikki Haley declared tougher sanctions on Russia were coming. But wait, there’s less! Donald's mouthpieces said she was confused (back on which she pushed, angrily), and he assured the Russians they’re not. This is nuts: it’s presidency as omnishambles, with North Korea talks coming next.  
Narcissistic above all, Trump has no coherent policy. Impetuously, he pulls out of the TPP. Realizing he gifted economic supremacy to China, he wants back in. Then, like plans to fire McMaster, denies it. His treasury department reported last week that China and Russia aren’t unlawfully manipulating currency, after which he says they are. This isn’t, as my friend Mike the Trumpist says, crazy like a fox. It’s crazy like crazy.  
By what criteria can anyone -- friend or foe, edified or Foxified – believe anything Trump says? Rejecting expertise, preferring sycophancy, he basks in the company of toadying crooks, incompetents, and Fox talking heads. This diminishes us all. It diminishes America. It’s Ping-Pong policy by a Ping-Pong president.
[Update: Russia claims it dictated what targets in Syria were acceptable. Unsurprising, isn't it?] 

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Monday, April 16, 2018

Bombs Away

Interesting sequence: 
  • Trump announces he wants troops out of Syria, ASAP.
  • Assad uses chemical weapons.
  • Trump warns Putin missiles are coming.
  • Congresspeople demand prior congressional approval.
  • Trump fires off missiles.
Interesting prequel:
  • Trump is in deep shit domestically.
Now, I'm the furthest thing there is from a conspiracist, but it's hard not to wonder how the Foxolimjonesians would be characterizing events were "Trump" replaced with "President Barack Hussein Obama." Because there are several separate but equal issues, all of which have been brought up in the past, when roles were reversed:

First, announcing intended pullout. There were screams, including from the person currently staging an occupation of the White House, when Obama said he'd be leaving Iraq (as negotiated by the previous administration.) Don't let the enemy know your plans, they wisdomed. Haven't heard any on the right suggesting, as they did previously, that there's any connection to Assad's move.

Then there's the warning. Intent may be a subject of speculation, but there's no doubt it gave Putin time to shelter his ass. Ets. Same with Ass-ad's. 

Wisely or not, President Obama said the use of chemical weapons was a "red line," and he's been roundly criticized, including by popular-vote-loser Trump, for not following up. The thing is, wiselier or nottier, Obama went to Congress for approval and, as with all things Obama after Republicans took control, it was refused. That particular fact gets mentioned infrequently if at all on right-wing "news" sources.

And whereas we're hearing some dog-wagging from the left, I haven't seen or heard it, as there was incessantly in times not long past, from the right. In fact, if I were Alex Jones (speaking of whom, yikes!), I'd be saying the whole thing has been a "false flag" from the beginning: Trump got his pal Putin to get his pal Assad to use chemical weapons so Trump could respond, to get the news off the actual shit in which he finds himself, wherever he looks.

But that's not who I am. 

Russia, though: that's another story.

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Friday, April 13, 2018

An Offer He Can't Refuse?

My next newspaper column:
Dang. I had a nice medical school memory all teed up for publication, and then the feds raided Trump’s consigliere, Michael Cohen. Following which, Donald weighed in, affirming, yet again, how dangerously little he understands or cares about how our constitutional democracy works. Immediately thereafter, Fox “news,” Trump’s policy fountainhead, waved its reciprocal ignorance like a pirate flag. 
“Attorney-client privilege is dead,” Trump said. “It’s an attack on everything we stand for,” he whined. (Like “lock her up,” Donald?) Well, depending on what he meant by “we,” he could be right. There’s “we” America, and there’s “we” his collection of arrant liars and grifters. In Trump’s mind, apparently, anything but deference constitutes an attack on America.  
Attorney-client privilege has never been a shield for criminal activity by an attorney. Nevertheless, the relationship is highly protected, as it ought to be. To have done what the FBI did would have required scrupulous documentation of probable cause, enough to win the approval of a federal judge and the responsible US Attorney. The law was followed. If early reports are true that Cohen had made recordings of conversations and that they were among the items seized, it’s not hard to understand why the Trump gang’s dudgeon is turned up to eleven. 
If there’s a god – and if it’s true He put Trump in the White House, there probably isn’t – you’d think at some point Trump’s words would melt his tongue. “It’s an attack on our country in a true sense,” he declared. No, it’s not. It’s the opposite. It’s the epitome of the founding values of America, of what it has, until recently, always stood for: the rule of law. The idea that no one, not even those in the tallest towers of power, is above it. What it is, is DEFENSE of our country in the truest sense; a reflection that America was established by people who abhorred autocracy, who put in place enduring (so far) mechanisms to prevent it. (Devin Nunes just announced his intention further to tear them down.)   
Trump claims, and Trumpists believe, it’s a witch hunt. (With Trump, the distinction between claims and beliefs is squishy. He still claims, for example, there were millions of illegal votes in his historically immense popular vote loss; who knows whether he believes it, or just figures his excusers will?) It wouldn’t be unprecedented, after all: other than Monica Lewinsky and Clinton’s lies about her, Ken Starr’s $80 million investigation, about which I don’t recall Republicans upping themselves into comparable arms, turned out to be one. 
But none of us yet knows. There looks to be more smoke than was recently pouring out of Trump Tower, and for a guy who claims innocence, Trump is acting pretty nervous lately. If, in his heart or the space typically containing one in primates, he’s certain there’s nothing to fear, and had he found himself a competent capo, one might think he’d quiesce and let the process unfold. Eventually, it will, and at the witching hour we’ll all be there to see.  
If America isn’t about the rule of law, it’s about nothing. Claiming a constitutionally empowered investigation into possible governmental malfeasance is an attack on America, after more than a year of literally attacking America by claiming our free press is an enemy of the people, by attempts to discredit our electoral system, and by facilitating the gutting of public education – that might be Trump’s most blatant gaslighting yet. To the extent Trumpists buy it, they endanger us all, especially themselves.  
In the meantime, here’s some advice for liberals who excitedly comment on various online fora: stop with the prematurely gleeful ejaculations. Stop predicting impeachment if Democrats regain control of Congress. Let facts play out first. Even if there are theres there, impeachment is a long shot, and not something any of us on either side ought to want to see become a purely political process. Besides which, behind Trump is dangerously theocratic, failed governor Mike Pence. 
The electoral objective in November is restraining a Party bent on undemocratic entrenchment, no matter the damage to our institutions, while enriching itself and its bankrollers at the expense of the general welfare. If enlightened voters achieve that, dayenu. I’m unaware of any Democratic candidates running on ex-ante promises of impeachment. The truth is out there. We can wait.
[Image source]

Friday, April 6, 2018

Our Gullibility Crisis

Tomorrow's newspaper column, today:
We’ve just survived another April Fools’ Day, when people question what they see online and on TV. 
Once a year isn’t enough. Skepticism ought to be Point A for everyone, always. Having a president who lies constantly is a serious problem; worse is the fact that his supporters don’t care. But even after Trump’s hopefully brief time in office, his and his party’s threatening legacy will remain: our crisis of gullibility. 
It’s plausible the Republic will survive Trump and his weak-kneed, bought-off Congress; especially if this year’s election reflects an awakening to the danger we face. In question, however, is long-term sustainability with a significant portion of the electorate increasingly unable, unwilling, or uninterested in separating truth from fiction. Not by accident, the answer begins to sound like “no.”  
Born in the brain of Steve Bannon, bankrolled by the right-wing billionaire Mercer family, Cambridge Analytica is the final horseman of the information apocalypse, joining Fox “news,” right-wing radio screamers, and Russian troll farms. Trumpets are sounding, to ears that are deaf.  
Cambridge Analytica, as everyone but Fox viewers knows by now, is an offshoot of the shady SCL group, a British outfit engaged by various autocrats and militaries around the world to produce psychological warfare against enemies and to bend elections. Having started technologically early in the game, their methods were variably effective. By the time Bannon saw the potential of mining social media, though, things had changed dramatically. 
C.A. set up a shell corporation in Delaware, continuing to work overseas, digging up information on tens of millions of people via Facebook loopholes, computing their hot-buttons and vulnerabilities, and targeting them with massive amounts of specifically-curated disinformation. Their management is on record gloating that it didn’t matter whether their offal was true; just that it was believed. Sexual blackmail was a tool, too. 
It’s worth knowing they were hired in the U.S. only by right-wing players, including Trump’s campaign and his newly-announced, Fox-featured National Security Adviser. “Crooked Hillary” was their invention. Made people forget who the real crook was, didn’t it?  
The effectiveness of such efforts is undeniable: bogus stories spread like oil-slicks, about Obama, the Clintons, their foundations; belief by the befuddled that Trump has never lied, has fulfilled each of his campaign promises; that he turned around a wrecked economy; that millions voted illegally for Hillary Clinton. The legality of Cambridge Analytica’s methods is in dispute, as is its impact on the election. (A just-published study suggested fake news influenced enough voting behavior to have changed the outcome.) To be determined is the connection, if any, between Bannon’s baby and Russia; it’s noteworthy, meanwhile, that Russia seems to have had the same targeting information and tools as C.A., and that C.A. has offices in Russia.  
There’s a psychological phenomenon known as “the backfire effect”: the tendency of some people, when shown data disproving a preferred belief, to believe it even more strongly. Though not confined to a single demographic, studies show prominence among self-identified conservatives, a convenient fact for exploitation by “truth doesn’t matter” political purveyors. (Liberals’ information-processing deficits seem mostly to revolve around “alternative” medicine, anti-vaccination, and anti-GMO nonsense. Bad enough; but at least it doesn’t elect autocrats, kakistocrats, and theocrats.)  
When I respond to false memes by providing a reputable source and indisputable facts, liberal senders acknowledge and rescind it, embarrassed. Unfailingly, Trumpists reject the source as fake, out of hand, never addressing the information provided. That’s an ominous difference. Given enough people behaving this way, democracy fails.  
The counter to the gullibility crisis is to maintain skepticism, to retain and protect the means for separating truth from falsehood. Everywhere -- in the White House, Congress, on the air, online -- we see coordinated efforts against doing so. 
Surpassing Russia and right-wing media, Trump has become the alpha purveyor of fake news. (Recent example: his attack on Amazon was lies piled on falsehoods.) His definition, though, is news he doesn’t like, and he’s made that the touchstone for his acolytes. The notion that CNN, NBC, The New York Times and Washington Post are fakery while Fox and Sinclair are sooth is laughable. And deeply dangerous.  
Recognizing their disadvantage on the issues, Trump-likes have, for years, created in their base a penchant for fake news and a disdain for accurate reporting. Democracy’s last line of defense is education. 
Enter Betsy Devos.
[Image source]

Friday, March 30, 2018

End Times

My next newspaper column:
That reactions from Ammo-Americans to the March for Our Lives would be fast and furious was predictable. Less so was how dumb, distasteful, and desperate they were. 
The guerdon for dumbness goes to Rick “Don’t google me surname, bro” Santorum, who, after sneering that the kids were asking “others” to solve their problems (it’d take more than one column to unpack that lunacy), suggested learning CPR would be a better use of their time. As an experienced trauma surgeon, let me point out that CPR is for cardiac arrest. If your heart stops after being shot, it’s because you’ve bled out or because your brain died. Attempting to revive an empty heart or a dead brain with chest compression is useless. (Somewhere in there is a metaphor for our times.) It’d have been more fitting had he suggested embalming.  
An NRA spokesdunce dismissed the children by pointing out that no one would even know their names if their classmates hadn’t died. Right. And a firefighter who rescued a family from a burning building wouldn’t be considered a hero if it hadn’t been on fire. 
Aptly dubbed a stupid person’s idea of what a smart person sounds like, Newt Gingrich declared the most salient takeaway from the march is to learn who paid for it. The left can’t govern, he said, but they sure can organize marches. (The simpering “can’t govern” would need a five-column response.) He chose not to mention that the Tea Party movement was birthed on Wall Street, disguised as grass roots, and underwritten by anti-tax billionaires. Of course people gave money to the marchers and to their cause! In what way is that inconsistent with democracy? How does it devalue the message, which, in contrast to the Tea Party, began at the bottom and worked its way up?  
As expected, there were those who called the students Nazis. Or Communists (C’mon, people, read some political science. Make a decision.) Blameless pundits denounced “politicization.” Well, yes, demanding legislative action is “political.” So is demanding no action. 
Stop badmouthing the NRA, they were warned. Then, because it’s become the preferred method of discourse by a certain stratum of Trumpists, there were death threats. And we heard condescending assertions that the students need to read the Constitution. But, in fact, it seems they have. Which brings us to the heart of it. 
First, some facts:  
Barely over twenty-percent of Americans own guns. Nearly half are in the hands of only three percent of us. The vast majority of Americans (including NRA members) favor the regulations advocated by the March for Our Lives students. There’s approximately unanimous approval for stronger background checks, with almost as much support for preventing dangerous people from acquiring guns, and for raising the age of purchase. By electoral standards, it’s even a landslide for banning military-style weapons. 
Here’s another fact, one that our friends of Foxotrumpian persuasion have come strenuously to renounce: we live in a democracy. Those poll numbers speak loudly of a failed one. Ignoring the incontestable will of the people it represents, Congress kowtows to the payola provided by the NRA and gun manufacturers, and to their gerrymandered, rabid, minority base. 
It’s worth recalling that until recently it was settled law that the Second Amendment didn’t confer absolute rights of gun ownership to private citizens. Ignored by Cammo-Americans and NRA spokeshorribles is that Scalia’s ruling allowed for regulation, including concealed carry, safe-zones, and military-style weapons. What’s being demanded is already constitutional.   
The kids understand our Constitution. They know it’s within our power to restore truly representative democracy by electing a new, responsive Congress. Behind the heated, dishonest, dangerous rhetoric of right-wing derogation of the marchers is the same realization, and they’re desperately resisting. But demographics don’t care. They ain’t going back.  
End times are approaching for Regressive, White, Male, Theocratic, political dominion. Among right-wing shibboleths destined for eventual rejection is the fetishizing of guns; understanding the Constitution means recognizing the possibility of repealing or revising the Second Amendment. The marchers do. RWMT politicians do, too. If they’re unable to legislate away fair elections before change arrives, they, like Saddam burning his oil fields when he knew he’d lost, seem intent on trashing the place on their way out. 
Which also explains their eagerness to boost pollution, reduce healthcare access, and crush the dreams of the poor. 
[Image source]

Friday, March 23, 2018

Time To Stop Fiddling While It Burns

My upcoming newspaper column:
“It’s a great day for democracy,” proclaimed Donald Trump after pressuring Jeff Sessions to fire Deputy FBI Director McCabe (who, coincidentally, had authorized an FBI investigation into Sessions’ possible perjury). Autocracy, yes. Authoritarianism, sure. But democracy died a little more that day, its agonal moan inaudible only to people sharing Trump’s disdain for constitutional governance and the institutions that protect it. 
Knowing of his lying, cheating, business failures, threats, lawsuits, vulgarity, and aggressive ignorance, millions voted for him anyway. That millions of those see his current behavior and still rationalize support is incomprehensible. Surely the remarkable last two weeks have been dispositive even for the most calcified of the Foxified. Right?  
In time, we’ll see the DOJ report, and perhaps we’ll be able to judge its significance. For now, I’m with McCabe. (He is, after all, like Comey, Mueller, and Rosenstein, a Republican.) Either way, Trump’s vainglorious, lie-filled gloating afterward confirms the firing wasn’t about the report, but about discrediting the investigations.  
And what of “the best people” Trump promised? We’ve just learned Ben “Gifted Hands” Carson, whose home features a portrait of himself with Jesus, lied about his expensive office furniture. Plenty of Trump’s other cabinet officers have been lying and/or misusing our tax dollars, too; but Ben drips with smug self-righteousness. Also disclosed: his information officer, along with another HUD liar, appears to have a side-business scamming Christians
Then there was the coincident Betsy Devos interview, in which she confirmed her qualification for being Secretary of Education consists of having donated $200 million to Republicans.  
Within the same span, Trump’s trusted “body man” was escorted out of the White House so fast he could take nothing with him, on charges of “serious financial crimes.” Before the taint was dry, Trump hired him as senior reelection campaign adviser. From criminal expulsion to inner Trumpworld. Thoughts, “values” voters?  
After announcing plans to meet with North Korea’s Kim, Trump bragged about lying to Canada’s Trudeau. Flat made stuff up, he preened. Presented with truth, he proudly pronounced it pabulum, which explains his devotion from Trumpists. But what must Kim think of negotiating nukes with a man who boasts of lying to national leaders, and of not knowing what he’s talking about? Spider. Fly.  
Speaking of which, we were shown Trump State TV’s reactions to his plans, juxtaposed with their fair and balanced reactions when Obama said he’d do the same. Hypocrisy? Business model. If Trump manages meaningful, verifiable agreements with NoKo, I’ll praise him. Until then, though, count me among those who, seeing with whom he surrounds himself, find it unlikely. But he’s sending Ivanka, so... 
Meanwhile, it’s just been revealed her husband, trusted adviser Jared, repeatedly falsified paperwork with NYC housing authority when he bought buildings, greasing millions in profit. America’s freshest face.  
In the same timespan came the firing of Tillerson, after he agreed Russia was behind the London poisoning. After that, Russian state TV announced “Trump is still ours.” And after that, Trump obsequiously congratulated their murderous dictator for winning a fake election. Lap, meet dog.  
Within the past two weeks, we also learned what a sham the oxymoronic “House Intelligence” Committee investigation was: if you don’t look, you don’t find. Another: if you deny a relationship with a porn star but threaten suing for $20 million for breaking an agreement not to talk about it, does a bear? More: the RNC spent north of $120K at Trump properties in February alone. And: rule-of-law-loving Pennsylvania Republicans moved to impeach judges who rejected unconstitutional redistricting.  
Topping it off, if you’re aware of Cambridge Analytica and aren’t concerned, you’re their victim whether you recognize it or not. 
It’s been a boggling, enlightening two weeks. Those who insist it’s fake news are beyond salvation; but despite representing a minority of voters, people just like them are in charge. Not knowing what else to do, I give money, near and far. All liberals who can, and all self-respecting conservatives ought to, also. Kim Schrier. Randy Bryce. Conor Lamb. Beto O’Rourke. Find others. Trumpism threatens our democracy, demanding that truly patriotic Republicans stand up to him by crossing party lines. 
Preserving democracy requires advocating for those who value it, and acting against those who don’t. Unsurprisingly, the latter are largely Trumpists. Choose America over party, conservatives, in this critical, defining time. You won’t be alone.
[Image source]

Friday, March 16, 2018

Nooger. A Word.

My next newspaper column:

Like coal ash, Trumpic horrors keep fouling the waters; but here’s a note from my surgery days anyway:
It’s said medical students learn over twelve thousand new words. Some I enjoyed just for the saying: Inspissated. Radiculopathy. Tachyarrhythmia. Intussusception. Pancreaticoduodenectomy. Bezoar.
Bee-zore. For fun, say it like "air-ball" at a basketball game. (Digression: It's been shown that the chant is always in the same pitch, the same notes on the scale. F - D, matter of fact.) 
There’s also a more esoteric lexicon: words or terms that bubbled into the vernacular unofficially but have become universally understood within various medical sub-cultures: gomer, Q-sign, lipstick sign, chandelier sign (definitions on request). One of my favorites has it all: nice sound, excellent meaning, and, in my case, a connection to a beloved mentor. The word is “nooger.” 
In “Cutting Remarks,” my book about surgical training, I described learning to dissect through distorted, inflamed tissues, calling the method "delicate brutality." (Too late, I realized that would have been a better title for the book.) Central to the technique is the ability to nooger; namely, judiciously insinuating a finger into a scary space, wiggling, pinching, until you find a way through without poking a hole into something important. 
Noogering can be done with other blunt instruments: a sucker, closed scissors, a blunt clamp, often along with the finger. Indeed, it requires a combination of delicacy and brutality, plus some sort of either learned or innate sense of touch; of tissue turgor (there's another good word: turgor) and confidence of anatomy. If you can't tell where a thing is, you need to be fairly confident in where it isn't.  
Not all surgeons need to nooger. Orthopods and neurosurgeons don't. Bone isn't noogerable, and brain, well... But a general surgeon incapable of noogering is bound for trouble. In a situation demanding it -- precarious as it usually is -- I'd rather do it myself than try to tell someone else how. Bad noogering can lead to death, or something a lot like it. 
Among my favorite characters from training was the chief cardiac surgery resident, a gangly, good-humored, soft-spoken, slow-walking but fast-thinking southern boy, Joe (full name: Joe) Utley. In stark contrast to the other men populating that department -- who were volatile, egomaniacal, crazy, nasty, or pretty much any combination of those characteristics -- Joe was laid-back, engaging, and highly talented. He told dumb jokes, quoted lines from movies, played the flugelhorn while wearing a sombrero, and treated me -- his over-worked intern -- with respect and caring; although, it could be argued, having an intern and his girlfriend (now wife) over and subjecting them to the horn and the hat was anything but respectful. 
I loved the guy. (Joe died not long ago. I sent a copy of my book, in which he played a prominent role, to his wife; she wrote back that she knew he'd have loved it, and she could imagine him laughing out loud while reading it. That made me feel good.) 
In connecting a person to a heart-lung machine, it's necessary to control blood returning to the heart via the venae cavae. That requires (did then, anyway) slinging the veins in a sort of noose around the tubes inside. That necessitates dissecting within the pericardium, behind those delicate structures, completely encircling them. Joe had a favorite instrument for the job, a very large clamp with a curved and bluntly-rounded tip. This he referred to as a "Giant Noogerer." 
Open heart surgery has a certain drama, and, in those relatively early days on the time-line, tension compounded by lengthiness. But as an intern on the service, because there was always lots to do, stretching into sleeplessness, time in the cardiac room was -- depending on who was in charge -- often unpleasant. With no opportunity to do anything but stand there and answer gotcha-questions from the chief of service, the hours dragged the day's work further into the night.  
Except with Joe. I found myself looking forward each time, as the moment approached, to hearing him ask for the tool. "Giant noogerer," he'd say, hand out, and it always arrived with no need for clarification. With his Carolina accent, it sounded like "jahnt nurgrer." In his hands, it was a delicate instrument; on his lips, though, it sounded like something you’d find deep in the Everglades, at night. 
[Image source]

Friday, March 9, 2018

Trying To Catch Up

My next newspaper column:

Allocated only around 700 words once a week, I’m always playing catch-up. So here’s a time- and space-limited selection of mentionables from an endlessly accruing heap of Trumpworld items that should concern all Americans. Confirmatory links provided on request.

1.  In the White House, Jared Kushner negotiated around $500 million in personal loans from American banks. Shortly after Qatar denied a similar request, Kushner enabled a Saudi Arabia/UAE blockade against that anti-ISIS partner. 
2.  An indispensable article by Jane Mayer, providing revelatory, non-Foxolimjonesified background on Chris Steele and his “dossier,” and what the FBI did and didn’t do, almost parenthetically includes a claim that Russia vetoed Mitt Romney as Secretary of State, preferring someone more likely to end Obama’s sanctions. (Okay, hereIf Trump isn’t fully in Putin’s pocket, he’s half-asset. 
3. Of $120 million budgeted to fight Russian election interference, our State Department has spent none. Of the assigned analysts, none speaks Russian. 
4. Whatever one thinks about tariffs, it’s consumers who pay for a trade war. Reports say Trump’s half-baked plan followed a fit of (stable genius) rage.
5. Shortly before Trump’s announcement, his pal, billionaire Carl Icahn, unloaded $30 million of stock in steel-dependent companies. 
6. Trump took, and, from the Foxified, received credit for the economy since inauguration day. Now, having added $1.5 trillion to this year’s deficit and more trillions to future debt, he’s earned it. His simple-minded tariff misconceptions will cost jobs in addition to money. Even cowardly Paul Ryan was appalled by Trump’s impulsive plans. Chief economic adviser Gary “Tax-cuts-for-the-rich” Cohn resigned over them. Trump’s support of Nazis didn’t do it for him. This did.
7.  Devin Nunes, who pushed a pile of prevarication in his “memo,” evidently leaked classified information to Fox “news.” Then he called Stephen Colbert a danger to America.
8. First-Amendment-loving, small-government-pushing, free-market Republicans in Georgia would use public law to punish Delta Airlines, a private corporation, for charging NRA members what they charge everyone else.
9. Reversing Obama rules on coal ash, Trump has greenlighted pollution of America’s drinking water.
10. Ben Carson, after approving massive cuts in HUD’s budget and saying public housing shouldn’t be “too cozy,” got caught buying a $31K table for his office, and giving no-bid contracts to family members. Ryan Zinke’s and Scott Pruitt’s personal use of tax money makes Carson look cheap, though. So does Pruitt’s graft. Nearly the whole cabinet’s, in fact. Only the best people.
11. Contrary to Zinke’s lies, emails show shrinking Bear’s Ears Monument was about oil and coal.
12. Speaking of falsehoods, after promising the opposite, Trump cut Medicare and Medicaid significantly. Social Security looks to be next. And elephants. People actually believed his lies. Mysteriously, many still do. 
13. Trump joked Fox “news” is the “fourth branch of government.” Later, praised China’s Xi for becoming leader for life. Said he might try it. It was a joke, too. They were, right? Jokes?
14. There are laws against appointing relatives to positions of power by federal government officials. Same with using one’s position for self-enrichment. Now we know why. What we don’t know is why Congress no longer cares.
15. People still apoplectic over Hillary Clinton’s carelessness with emails are silent about Trump’s with security clearances for his White House enablers. (Irony: I needed top-secret clearance for some of what I did in Vietnam. It was delayed because I’d studied Russian and traveled the USSR in college.) 
16. Putin displays an animation of Russia’s “unstoppable” new missiles hitting Florida. Trump’s response: silence. Maybe he expects a Mar-a-Lago tax write-off. He did attack Alec Baldwin right after, though, so there’s that. 
17. Benefitting his admired dictators, Trump is undoing Ronald Reagan’s “Infrastructure of Democracy” around the world.
18. NRA made a deeply disgusting ad against critics.
19. Red states don’t like liberals voting.
20. Drip, drop, tick, tock.

For these things, concern ought to be universal. Mistaking cri de coeur for partisanship, people email me criticizing my tone, claiming they’re “reasonable” NRA members, or “thoughtful” conservatives, so I should be nicer. Time for those good folks to act on their professed moderation. Relieved as I am to learn of their unhappiness with Trump and/or NRA leadership, when I ask if they’ve sent complaints their way, too, none have. Maybe they’re planning to show their displeasure by their votes.

A guy can dream.

(Not in the column, but to be emailed to anyone who requests them, here's the list of links promised above, which I'm too tired to have hot-linked for the blog. Impressive work on my part, though, eh?) 

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