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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Clarence Thomas Must Resign

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

Utah Republican Orrin Hatch called “bullcrap” on Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown last week. The Senate Finance Committee lion tore into Brown for “spewing” that the Republican tax plan to transfer a trillion dollars to the rich was in reality a Republican tax plan to transfer a trillion dollars to the rich.

I got my first dose of Hatch during the wall-to-wall coverage of the confirmation of Clarence Thomas, George H.W. Bush’s Supreme Court nominee. Hatch was the Republicans’ designated questioner of Anita Hill. She was called to testify because she’d told the FBI that Thomas had sexually harassed her 10 years earlier, when he was her boss at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Department of Education.

Sitting behind her were her mother, Erma (“who is going to be celebrating her 80th birthday”); her father, Albert; her sisters, Elreathea, Jo Ann, Coleen and Joyce; and her brother, Ray. No way she was going to lie to the committee, or to us, in front of them.

Hill testified that Thomas had repeatedly asked her out, and that she repeatedly refused. So he demeaned her. He told her someone had once “put a pubic hair” on his Coke can. He said porn star Long Dong Silver had nothing on him in the endowment department.

Hatch called her charges “contrived” and “sick.” He claimed she’d stolen them. The pubic hair, she’d taken from page 70 of “The Exorcist.” Long Dong Silver, she’d lifted from a Kansas sexual harassment case.

Hill agreed to a polygraph test, and passed. Thomas refused. He called the hearings a “high-tech lynching for uppity blacks.”

It was painful to watch Hatch slime Hill. Women who’d also been sexually harassed found in the hearings no reason to be less fearful of telling their stories. Nor, later, could they take comfort in how Bill Clinton’s accusers were reviled. Or Bill O’Reilly’s. Or Roger Ailes’s.

But something changed. The tipping point may have been Donald Trump bragging to Billy Bush about assaulting women. Sixteen of his victims had the courage to say he’d harassed or groped them.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Trump’s escape from accountability for that predation contributed to the decisions by Harvey Weinstein’s victims to talk on the record to Jodi Kantor and her New York Times colleagues and to Ronan Farrow at the New Yorker. Before long, more than 80 women attested to Weinstein’s assaults as far back as 1990.

Then nine women gave the Washington Post detailed accounts of Alabama Republican senatorial candidate Roy Moore’s history of pedophilia and abuse. They knew the blowback would be brutal. They did it anyway.

Still, Moore won’t quit. Why would he? Kay Ivey, Alabama’s Republican governor, says she’ll vote for him even though she believes his accusers. Better to elect a pedophile than a Democrat who’d vote against a Supreme Court nominee who’d overturn Roe v Wade.

Now Senator Al Franken is in the crosshairs. The Minnesota Democrat offered an apology to Leann Tweeden for “completely inappropriate” behavior in 2006, which she accepted, and he asked for an ethics investigation of the incident. Calls for his resignation illustrate the fallacy of false equivalence; they’re the witch-hunt Trump claimed had victimized him.

Hill was a thoroughly credible witness. Thomas has no stronger case for his innocence than do Trump, Moore or Weinstein. Pressed to defend Trump’s sexual improprieties, his press secretary said the American people “spoke very loud and clear when they elected this president.” No to put too fine a point on it, but she’s spewing bullcrap. Elections don’t decide culpability.

In the wake of the Hill/Thomas hearings, a record-breaking 117 women made it onto the federal ticket in the 1992 election. The 24 women elected to the House that year was the largest number in any single House election, and the three elected to the Senate tripled the number of women senators.

That sharp uptick didn’t persist. If you think that today’s 80% male Congress isn’t good enough, check out Project 100, which is working to elect 100 progressive women to Congress by 2020, the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote. Full disclosure: my daughter is a co-founder. As her dad, and as the onetime speechwriter for the first presidential candidate to pick a woman as his running mate, you can imagine how proud of her I am. And how hopeful she and her young teammates make me feel.

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

 

Why America Is Desperately Trying to Understand The Vegas Shooter’s Motives

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

Means, motive, opportunity. For detectives, nailing down those is the perp trifecta.

In Las Vegas, the forensic postmortem on the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history stands at two out of three. Means? Check. Opportunity? Check. But unless new evidence turns up, the killer’s motive is a black box.

A missing motive is worse than frustrating. It disrupts the moral order. When humans act, in Coleridge’s phrase, with “motiveless malignity,” our wisdom traditions, the stories we typically soothe ourselves with, are disturbingly ineffectual. Not knowing why the cipher on the 32nd floor did what he did, not knowing why god did what god did, upends our beliefs about luck, meaning, evil, justice—the stuff of life and death.

“What the detective story is about,” said P.D. James, the queen of crime fiction, “is not murder but the restoration of order.”

Las Vegas was, devastatingly, not fiction, but it was and is a detective story. It came to us labeled as news, but we experienced it as narrative. It was visual, visceral, violent and shamefully riveting. It also illustrates James’ aphorism: The murderer may be dead, but absent a motive, we’re stuck in a random cosmos, where horrors like this can happen to anyone.

Why did he do it? Was he a psychopath, driven by demons, severed from reality? No one who knew him saw it coming. If he could snap like that, who’s next?

Was it for fame? Revenge? Was he abused? Or was it political? Did he hate us for our freedom? He left no note, no manifesto, no trail of terror—no reason, until his blaze of barbarity, for us to call him other instead of brother.

Or did he do it, like a madman out of Dostoevsky, to demonstrate that god is dead?

“I was agnostic going into that concert,” Taylor Benge, 21, his and his sister’s clothes covered in other people’s blood, told CNN, “and I’m a firm believer in god now, ’cause there’s no way that all of that happened, and that I made it, and I was blessed enough to still be here alive talking to you today.”

The terror of that night is unimaginable. Like all Americans, I mourn the victims, and the survivors’ courage and generosity take my breath away. Yet—with respect—I wrestle with the idea of a god who blessed Taylor Benge enough, but who also made the monster of the Mandalay Bay. If the Benges’ survival is attributable to a god’s benevolence, could the 58 killed, the more than 500 injured and the shooter who rained grief and death on them be chalked up to a god’s negligence, perversity or impotence?

Any restoration of order is tentative, because our human hands have enough free will to fail us. But to inhabit a world where arbitrary carnage is inevitable: that’s a lousy story to have to tell our tribe about the nature of existence.

It limits god’s love. It imagines that god has abandoned us. It prompts some of us to source evil to an origin beyond god’s reach, to a Satan or an evil eye. It moves others to conflate mysticism with wishful thinking. It’s what led Gloucester, in “King Lear,” to drag our deities down to earth: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.”

Taylor Benge experienced his survival as Ggod’s grace. To interpret it instead as luck: that’s living life on the volcano’s edge. I’ve been there. It’s intolerable.

On the cover of the Wall Street Journal on October 6, there appeared a three-column image of a page from the 1970 Francis Polytechnic High School yearbook, above the headline, “The Life of a Mass Shooter.” To protect student privacy, all pictures but one were pixelated. The exception was a photo of the murderer as a junior. Pleasant face, healthy head of hair. Normal-looking kid. In hindsight, uncanny and haunting. But no warning—no horns. The Journal’s reporters found nothing in his life that fits a mass killer’s profile. His final act might as well have fallen from the sky.

The mass murder case is closed. The murderer of order, though, remains at large. Our life stories now include his story. Like it or not, his motiveless malignity points a bullet at our dreams of an unconditionally lovable god.

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

How To Protect Yourself From Surplus Trump Stress

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

In the contest between crisis and calm, oy has an edge over om. Case in point: Just as I was giving meditation another try to take my mind off Donald Trump, the North Korea fire-and-fury horror show broke out, and Trump’s itchy finger on the locked and loaded nuclear trigger made my strategy for sanity look awfully iffy.

Even so, I’d rather be triggered to think about the risks of nuclear weapons, which don’t distract me nearly as much as they should, than be trolled by whatever random trash talk Trump tweeted 10 minutes ago.

Meditation is all about letting go of your thoughts. That’s hard enough to do for any of us whose attention is the plaything of stress about work and money, love and sex, sickness and sadness, not to mention unwanted desires, unbidden memories, undone to-do lists and other anxieties ad infinitum. Which is to say, just trying to kiss your ordinary, everyday thoughts goodbye is hard enough for all of us.

Now add all-Trump-all-the-time media to the mix, and the stress makes my head want to explode. Within hours of his nuclear saber-rattling, not only did he refuse to call out white supremacists, neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan by name, he located them among “many sides,” setting up a moral equivalence between those thugs and the peaceful marchers protesting those hate groups in Charlottesville, Va. His fake moral leadership 48 hours late only underscored how morally shrunken his own instincts are. What fresh hell is next? Each day’s news rubs our faces in how corrupt, deranged, deceitful, ignorant, impulsive and unfit for office the president is.

That surplus stress we’re under, the Trump news mental health penalty, piled on top of life’s usual worries and distractions, has hijacked my mindful attention, and maybe yours, since the election. Meditating regularly — not sporadically, as I’d lapsed into doing — seemed my best shot at escaping its clutches, short of moving to an ashram or bingeing on “The Bachelor.” But only a handful of days into resuming a daily meditation practice — boom! Armageddon is on the table and the end is nigh. Even for just 20 minutes at a time, try letting go of a thought like that.

The bright side, if there is one: The game of nuclear chicken Trump is playing with Kim Jong-un, despite its toll on our national nerves and its disruption of my try at zen, offers a teachable moment about something we’d all rather not think about.

When I was growing up, I was so crushed when my father showed little enthusiasm for building a cinder block fallout shelter in our cellar that I wrote to the Civil Defense Administration and received the how-to instructions in a self-addressed stamped envelope. His objection was cost, my father said; it’d be money down the drain, spent to protect us from something that was never going to happen.

Looking back, I suspect cost was a proxy for denial. Who could handle the truth about nuclear war? Our saltine-stocked refuge would have been incinerated instantly, along with our family, our house and every other family and house in Newark. Accepting the folly of protecting us from a Soviet H-bomb also would have required admitting the dementia of the duck-and-cover air raid drills my brother and I, like kids across the country, practiced at school.

Today, nine nations possess a total of nearly 15,000 nuclear weapons; the United States and Russia account for 93 percent of them. Protecting ourselves from them is as quaint a pipe dream now as it was during the Cold War. The consequence of those stockpiles: Three risks haunt the earth, and they might get the attention from us they deserve if denial weren’t our default way to deal with them.

The first risk is nuclear terrorism. The collapse of the Soviet Union created a black market in fissile material. Bomb blueprints are posted on the internet. The technology to build a bomb can be had for a few hundred thousand dollars. In former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry’s nightmare, one nuclear weapon detonated on a truck in the heart of Washington, D.C., coupled with nationwide panic sparked by terrorist threats of more bombs in more cities, would bring America to its knees within days.

The second risk is a false alarm, like a spurious warning of an incoming missile attack, which would activate a launch-on-warning counterattack by the (un)attacked nation and a retaliatory barrage by the other. This is not a hypothetical example. In 1980, an alarm at the Pentagon’s Raven Rock Mountain command post in Pennsylvania warned that Soviet submarines had launched 2,200 nuclear missiles toward the U.S. It was caused by a malfunctioning computer chip that cost 46 cents. But no one knew that until only seconds before President Jimmy Carter would have ordered a massive counterstrike. Luck is not a plan.

The third risk is ego. Reckless leaders make escalating threats, masculine identity disorders run rampant, some accident happens — and the adults in the room are powerless to prevent a temper tantrum from blundering the world into millions of casualties. Macho histrionics get airtime and grab headlines, but what really warrants attention, expertise and public support today is the quiet, patient, backroom zen of negotiation, diplomacy and statesmanship.

Ironic, isn’t it, that what we most need now is for the art of the deal to trump Trump.

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

How Long Will Trump’s New Right-Hand Man Last? Place Your Bets

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

 

John F. Kelly’s front-stabbing Donald Trump’s new White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci only hours after Trump named the four-star Marine general his chief of staff was a sublime first move. But unlike Ivanka or Jared Kushner, Trump isn’t Dad to Kelly. How long can it be before Kelly’s service doesn’t pleasure the president anymore?

Kelly is a patriot and an honorable man. Yes, I’ve opposed some of the Trump administration policies Kelly has carried out as homeland security secretary, like the Muslim travel ban and the reranking of deportation priorities to include offenses like DUIs, but I opposed some of Barack Obama’s deportation policies, too. What I fault Kelly’s Cabinet stint for is enforcement rigidity, not xenophobia, demagoguery or constitutional recklessness.

But President Donald Trump is a poster boy for those failings, a hothead who fouls his office, flouts the law and endangers our nation. Duty may have motivated Kelly to say yes to Trump’s West Wing summons, but he’s about to find that deceit, disarray, and derangement are daily specials at the White House mess.

Kelly’s patriotism inevitably will come into conflict with Trump’s narcissism. His loyalty to the country will be tested by the fools he’ll have to suffer, the lies he’ll have to defend and the monarch he’ll soon discover is mad. Not angry mad, though Trump is that, too, but mad mad, King George mad, “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” mad.

I have to believe that Kelly has a tipping point, and that resignation on principle is an option he’d consider. By principle, I don’t mean what forced Sean Spicer and Reince Priebus off the island: losing a cockfight to Scaramucci. I mean what Trump’s national security adviser, Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, wrote about in “Dereliction of Duty”: the crime of enabling a president to con the country. That book is about the complicity in high places that mired us in war in Vietnam, but it’s equally relevant to our current quagmire. It may be too much to dream that one fine day, McMaster and Kelly, disgusted by their boss, will walk, but it just may take something that big to awaken some more grown-ups in Trump’s party to their responsibility.

“We could use more loyalty, I’ll tell you that,” Trump told the Boy Scout Jamboree on July 24, in between inviting the Scouts to boo Barack Obama, boo Hillary Clinton and imagine the sexual opportunities a multimillionaire’s yacht could provide. You might think Attorney General Jeff Sessions — the first sitting U.S. senator to endorse him — could be called a Trump loyalist, but when Sessions refused Trump’s demand to fire Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating him, Trump redefined the L word. “He was a senator,” Trump told The Wall Street Journal last week. “He looks at 40,000 people [at campaign rallies] and he probably says, ‘What do I have to lose?’ And he endorsed me. … So it’s not like a great loyal thing about the endorsement.”

When Trump says “loyalty,” he means what he demanded from FBI Director James Comey: not a pledge of allegiance to the rule of law, but an oath of omerta to the Don. When Comey broke that oath — he refused to kill the FBI’s probe of former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s ties to Russia — Trump fired Comey. Kelly has to know it’s only a matter of time until Trump tests him thuggishly, too.

When that happens, another former military man, Sen. John McCain, might inspire Kelly’s next move. I hope Kelly doesn’t mirror the McCain, who endorsed Trump in the Arizona primary to save his own political skin, even after Trump said McCain was “not a war hero. … He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.” (Trump didn’t add that McCain — putting loyalty to his fellow POWs ahead of his own freedom — refused early release from the North Vietnamese because his father was an admiral). Instead, I hope Kelly emulates the McCain who, together with Sens. Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski — no matter how hard Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Vice President Mike Pence and Trump banged the hammer of Republican loyalty — voted a disgraceful health care bill down to defeat.

When Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who replaced Spicer as press secretary, was asked whether Sessions was on his way out, she replied with a common phrase about political appointees: “We all serve at the pleasure of the president.” Sessions, who was traveling to El Salvador while Scaramucci was trashing Steve Bannon in anatomically taxing terms, used the same words Sanders did when an AP reporter asked if he were going to quit: “I serve at the pleasure of the president.”

Two things about that idiom give me the willies. One is its feudal echo of fealty pledges. I am your obedient servant, m’lord. My loyalty is unwavering. Do with me as you wish. Something more like “at-will employee” is better suited to a democracy. It conveys the idea — they don’t need a substantive reason to let me go — but without the crypto-royalist servility.

The other thing about serving at the pleasure of the president, which didn’t give me the creeps until the present president, is its whiff of sadomasochism. Trump gets pleasure from humiliating people. Bullying turns him on. And his victims get off on their bondage. Sure, if you get power, you cling to it. But ambition alone can’t explain Spicer’s appetite for daily mortification, or the pornography of Scaramucci’s Trump-worship.

Trump has made loyalty kinky. That could be cool on Craigslist, and it may fly at Trump Tower, but the last time I looked, there’s no S&M in POTUS.

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

 

Muslim, Jewish, Christian: The Problem Is That Trump ‘Tolerance’ Treats Every Belief As Equally Meaningless

Reprinted with permission from Alternet.

Post-truth POTUS turns out to be perfect casting for tackling the One True Religion problem.

Even if it were someone else, not Donald Trump, pulling the planet’s attention to the world’s three Abrahamic religions; if it were Barack Obama or George W. Bush, say, or even Eleanor Roosevelt, making an ecumenical pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, Israel and Vatican City, the trouble with tolerance would still be a burr under the interfaith saddle.

Pluralism is the euphemism for how we manage the mess made when the worshippers of different gods maintain that theirs is the One and only God, and when sectarian worshippers of the same God claim that their way of worship is the one and only Way.

We contend with this dilemma, as we do with other discomfiting realities, like earthquakes, mortality and incipient male-pattern baldness, by denying it. Pluralism whistles past the graveyard of religious persecutions, inquisitions, pogroms, coerced conversions, civil wars, crusades and genocide. Instead of dealing forthrightly with doctrinal warfare, we acclaim mutual respect a common value, and we declare religious diversity a feature of civilization, not a bug that’s infested human history.

As for the varieties of irreligious experience, contemporary pluralism treats nonbelievers as all in the family. Diversity extends the same welcome to atheists and agnostics that it does to everyone else. Ditto for anyone who identifies as spiritual but not religious. God is great, God is dead, God is nature, God’s a metaphor, God is you, God is me, God’s a mystery, God is now: Pluralism wraps its arms around interpretations like those with no less graciousness than it affords to God is Yahweh, God is Christ, God is Allah.

That message is beautiful, incoherent and very American. It’s the least bad answer to the tension between religions and democracy. It’s what we want our culture to depict and our politics to project – a supremely inclusive message to a world of warring faiths.

Saudi Arabia, whose Wahhabi Salafists finance Sunni warfare on Shia Muslims, is an ironic choice for President Trump to declare that his visit to “many of the holiest places in the three Abrahamic faiths” was a journey in the spirit of “tolerance and respect for followers of all faiths.” Trump himself is an improbable carrier of that message. He is the candidate who said, “I think Islam hates us”; who ran on a Muslim ban; whose simulation of Christian piety was a transparent hustle for the evangelical vote. The only One he worships is himself. Hypocrisy scarcely begins to describe his speechwriters’ paean to our kinship as children of Abraham; gall, cynicism and arrogance come to mind as well.

But one thing inadvertently equips Trump to reconcile the professions of unique truthfulness by incompatible religions: his utter indifference to the truth. Trump wouldn’t recognize a contradiction if it bit him on the butt. A fact isn’t a fact to him; it’s just a gambit, an alternative to consider. “Believe me” means “true”; “false” means “true”; “fake” means mean. Welcome to the epistemological fun house. Have a tremendous day.

If nothing is truly true, then there’s nothing to crown as the one true religion. Tolerance treats every belief as equally valid; Trump treats every belief as equally meaningless. Pluralism ties itself into pretzels trying to accommodate conflicting prophets and reconcile competing prophecies. But if prophecies are just fake news, interfaith dialogue is interfake dialogue, and the ultimate consequence of ultimate tolerance – hey, anything goes – isn’t a catastrophe, it’s Access Hollywood.

There’s a kernel of self-deception at the core of pluralism: For the sake of peaceful co-existence, we con ourselves into thinking that the truths that matter most to us don’t much matter at all. Trump, con to his core, flips that: Thinking that anything matters is the mark of a mark. Doctrine is for dummies; nihilism is bliss. Kumbaya, folks.

To solve the pluralism puzzle, there’s an alternative to Trump’s know-nothingism that appeals to me. Ken Wilber, whose work synthesizes wisdom traditions, calls it the search for the greatest common denominators, for the highest common factors, across all theologies and thought systems. For instance, the golden rule, do unto others, Kant’s categorical imperative, John Rawls’ veil of ignorance: whatever you call it, acting from that principle is what so many religions and moral philosophies exhort us to do, irrespective of their Gods or stories or paradigms. Instead of merely tolerating one another’s differences, we can actively discover ourselves in each other’s mirrors.

The Abraham narrative, which comes to me from the Hebrew Bible, has always troubled me. I know there’s commentary that makes it less fearsome than I find it, but I’m stuck in its literal meaning. When God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, it strikes me as a cruel test of Abraham’s absolute obedience – and a warning that any failure of mine to obey the letter of God’s laws could be fatal.

I’m not comforted that I share this origin story with the other Abrahamic religions. It makes me wonder if fundamentalism – fanaticism – is what we really have in common. I’d rather connect with my spiritual cousins through Adam. His story puts the knowledge of good and evil in human hands. That got him exiled from the garden. But no one turned life after Eden into life after truth.

 

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

This article was made possible by the readers and supporters of AlterNet.

This Passover, I’m Setting Myself Free From Technology

Reprinted with permission from Alternet.

The people, the food and the storytelling are what I love most about the Passover seder I go to, but I also really like the updates to the ritual. We spill drops of wine as we name the ten Biblical plagues, but we count off ten modern plagues as well, like hunger and terrorism. Traditional symbols are on the table, like horseradish for the bitterness of slavery and salt water for tears, but there’s also an orange, an innovation from the 1970s, standing for feminism and against homophobia. (An orange? Seriously? There’s a story.)

I’m especially partial to this twist: We sing Avadim Hayinu, “Once were slaves in Egypt,” but we also ask the question I began with, as a metaphor, and in the present tense. The Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, is derived from m’tzarim, meaning “narrow straits,” a tight place. In the story the Book of Exodus tells, the enslaved Jews are liberated from Egypt. Our seder asks us, What pharaoh owns you? What tightness binds you? What constriction do you need to free yourself from?

I’m writing this before the first night of Passover, so this is a prediction, but a safe one: I’ll be amazed if there’s anyone at our seder who won’t have a little Egypt in their pocket or purse. Everyone will of course silence their ringers, but I’d be surprised if a few of us don’t manage to sneak a peek at our screens; if many of us won’t be fighting a compulsion to do that several times an hour; and if most of us, in the moments between seder and meal, don’t check out what came in while we were asking why this night is different from all other nights.

On all other nights, there are smartphones on the table.

I’ll admit it: I’m rarely without my iPhone, even for a few minutes (you know: in case of an emergency, or my kids are trying to reach me, or I don’t want the plumber to go to voicemail). Some studies say that on average, people check their phones every six-and-a-half minutes150 times a day; some say – yikes – as many as 2,617 times a day. Whatever my own number is, it’s bound to be embarrassing. Like most people, I can rattle off one reason after another to excuse that frequency. It’s for work. It’s for news. It’s for stoking my civic outrage at you know who. It’s for Yelp or Uber or Google or Netflix. It’s for weather, scores, maps, directions, texting, posting, liking, Skyping, tweeting, eating, friending, mating. It’s for playing games, taking pictures, getting a jump on my email, working out to my playlists, killing time while I’m riding an elevator, standing in line, waiting for the water to boil.

This is madness.

We’re as adept at justifying being phone junkies as addicts are at rationalizing their habit. We’re hooked on stimulation, on that spike of happy that hits our neurons when a NEW! NOW! NEXT! attracts our attention. Boredom terrifies us; to endure it without our iBlow would be like going cold turkey ten times as hour. But as MIT professor Sherry Turkle says, there’s a downside to calling our dependence on digital devices an addiction. It implies that our behavior is personal weakness, that it’s futile to resist. What needs our attention isn’t the cause of what ails us, but its toll on our wellness. What wants therapy is how our gizmos narrow the rest of our lives – how, as Turkle writes in “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age,” they constrict “our capacity to be alone and together,” how they contract “our ability to understand others and be heard.”

Turkle identifies a crisis of solitude and a crisis of empathy in our lives. “As we struggle to truly pay attention to ourselves,” to experience boredom and anxiety and the “rich, messy and demanding” feelings inherent in human relationships, “we struggle to pay attention to each other.” The more time we spend online, or itching to be online, the less time for “the risks of face-to-face conversation. But it’s there that empathy is born and intimacy thrives…. It’s often when we stumble, or struggle for our words, or are silent, that we reveal ourselves most to each other and to ourselves.”

Turkle is no Luddite. She describes the moment when, very nervous, about to give the first talk of a book tour, setting her iPhone on the podium to start a timer, she got a text from her daughter: “Mom, you will rock this.” Yes, the message was digitally delivered. But that didn’t undo its affect or its effect. “It was like a kiss.”

We need an intervention. We need to practice undivided attention – to each other, in conversation, and to ourselves, in solitude. “We don’t have to give up our phones,” she says, “but we have to use them more deliberately, …by working to protect sacred places, spaces without technology, in our everyday lives.”

Our madness is recent. The iPhone is just 10 years old. Still, that’s long enough for me to want a new ringtone: “Let my people go.”

This article was made possible by the readers and supporters of AlterNet.

What Happens To A Country Whose Leader Can’t Say ‘I’m Sorry’

Reprinted with permission from Alternet.

 

“I blame myself—it was my fault, and I take full responsibility for it,” Donald Trump never said, not once in his entire life.

Here’s what else the president didn’t say about the rout and ruin of repeal and replace: “I was clueless about health care policy. Instead of reading my briefing books or even my own bill, I played golf. I bullshitted my way through every meeting and phone call. And when it was explained to me that this dumpster fire of a bill would break my promise that everybody’s going to be taken care of much better than they are now, which was a huge applause line by the way, I threw my own voters under the bus.”

In the wake of his Waterloo, instead of manning up, Trump blamed Democrats for not voting to strip health insurance from 24 million people, not voting to cut Medicaid by $880 billion in order to cut taxes by $883 billion and not voting to obliterate the signature legislative accomplishment of the Barack Obama years.

“Look,” he complained with crocodile bafflement to the New York Times, “we got no Democratic votes. We got none, zero.” Yet Trump and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan had not asked a single Democrat what it would take to get them to support a health care bill. “The good news,” Trump said, seeing the sunny side of the catastrophe he predicts is coming, is that the Democrats “now own Obamacare.” Don’t blame me—it’ll be their fault when it explodes, not mine.

Trump blamed Republicans, too. The morning of Friday, March 24, when the bill was still in play, he tweeted that if the Freedom Caucus stops his plan, they would be allowing Planned Parenthood to continue. That afternoon, amid the wreckage, Trump told the Washington Post’s Robert Costa he was just an innocent bystander. “There are years of problems, great hatred and distrust” in the Republican Party, “and, you know, I came into the middle of it.”

White House aides, bravely speaking without attribution, blamed Ryan for snookering the rookie-in-chief into tackling Obamacare before tax reform. Trump himself told Costa, “I don’t blame Paul.” He repeated it: “I don’t blame Paul.” Then again: “I don’t blame Paul at all.”

The laddie doth protest too much, methinks. By tweet time Saturday morning, clairvoyantly touting Jeanine Pirro’s Saturday night Fox News show, Trump had found a surrogate to stick the knife in Ryan without his fingerprints on it. “This is not on President Trump,” Pirro said, avowing that “no one expected a businessman,” a “complete outsider,” to understand “the complicated ins and outs of Washington.” No, it’s on Ryan, she said. Ryan must step down.

Blame precedes politics. In Western civilization’s genesis story, Adam blamed Eve for tempting him, and he blamed God for Eve. But America’s genesis story contains a noble, if apocryphal, counter-narrative: When George Washington’s father asked him who chopped down the cherry tree, the future father of his country didn’t blame someone else—he copped to it. That’s the legacy Harry Truman claimed when he put “The buck stops here” sign on his Oval Office desk.

But Trump is the consummate blame artist, a buck-passer on a sociopathic scale. He kicked off his campaign by blaming Mexico for sending us rapists and stealing our jobs. He blamed Hillary Clinton for founding the birther movement. He blamed President Obama for founding ISIS. He blamed Obama’s Labor Department for publishing a “phony” unemployment rate. He blamed 3 million illegal voters for his losing the popular vote to Clinton. He blamed the botched raid in Yemen on U.S. generals. When U.S. District Judge James Robart ruled against his Muslim travel ban, he blamed Robart for future terrorism: “If something happens, blame him and the court system.” He blamed “fake news” for treating Michael Flynn, “a wonderful man” he had fired as his national security adviser, “very, very unfairly.” He blamed Obama for wiretapping Trump Tower. He made his spokesman blame British intelligence for carrying that out. When GCHQ called that a crock, Trump played artful dodger: “All we did was quote … a very talented lawyer on Fox. And so you shouldn’t be talking to me, you should be talking to Fox.”

Obamacare is imperfect but fixable. But Trump wants to bomb it, not improve it. He wants to light the fuse and then blame Democrats for exploding it. Trump could shore up the insurance exchanges that cover 10 million Americans by marketing them when enrollment opens again in November—but I bet he won’t. He could instruct government lawyers to appeal a lawsuit halting federal subsidies for co-payments and deductibles of low-income enrollees that House Republicans won last year—but I bet he won’t. On the other hand, he has the power to narrow the essential benefits Obamacare requires insurers to provide by, say, limiting prescription drug coverage and lowering the number of visits allowed for mental health treatment or physical therapy—and I bet he will.

Will Trump get away with it? He’s spent a lifetime banging his highchair and blaming the dog for his mess. No wonder he calls the free press fake news; no wonder he calls citizen activists paid protesters. You call someone who gets away with blaming others “unaccountable.” You know what the antonym of that is? Impeachable.

 

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Do The CIA Revelations Mean Trump Will Be Putin’s Puppet?

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet. 

In 1964, when Barry Goldwater ran against Lyndon Johnson, a man named John A. Stormer self-published a book called None Dare Call It Treason. It accused America’s left-leaning elites of paving the way for a Soviet victory in the Cold War. The book sold seven million copies, but Johnson crushed Goldwater in the election.

Now that the CIA has determined that the Russians intervened in the presidential election to help Trump win, the Cold War politics of left and right have been flipped. If Stormer rewrote his book for 2016, its thesis might go like this:

Beware of Donald Trump. Witlessly or willfully, he’s doing the Kremlin’s bidding. Anyone who enables him—on his payroll or in the press, by sucking up or by silence, out of good will or cowardice—is Vladimir Putin’s useful idiot. This is a national emergency, and treating it like normal is criminally negligent of our duty to American democracy.

Trump as traitor: I can just imagine the reaction from the Tower penthouse. Lying media. Paranoid hyperbole. Partisan libel. Sour grapes. A pathetic bid for clicks. A desperate assault on the will of the people. Sad! (Note to Tweeter-in-Chief: You’re welcome.)

As a kid in a New Jersey household where Adlai Stevenson was worshipped, I thought Stormer was a nut job, so I won’t pretend that accepting the modern inverse of his case is a no-brainer. I’m also not trying to recast my political differences with the president-elect as a national security crisis. Trump won. Elections have consequences. I get that.

I may not like it, but I’m not surprised that Trump tapped Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, a crusading climate change denier and an advocate of dismantling the Environmental Protection Agency, to run the EPA, presumably into the ground. Anyone who interpreted Al Gore’s meeting with Trump as a sign of his open-mindedness on climate change got played, just like Gore got played.

Similarly, I’m cynical, but not shocked that Trump’s picks for treasury secretary, National Economic Council and chief adviser—Steven Mnuchin, Gary Cohn and Steve Bannon—are alumni of Goldman Sachs. A billionaire managed to hijack Bernie Sanders’ indictment of Wall Street and brand Hillary Clinton as the stooge of Goldman Sachs. The success of that impersonation isn’t on Trump, it’s on us.

I’m infuriated, but not startled that Trump refuses to disclose his tax returns, divest his assets, create a credible blind trust, obey the constitutional prohibition of foreign emoluments or eliminate the conflict between fattening his family fortune and advancing American interests. That’s not draining the swamp, it’s drinking it.

It’s abysmal that Democrats didn’t have a good enough jobs message to convince enough Rust Belt voters to choose their economic alternative to Trump’s tax cuts for the rich. It’s disgraceful that the media normalized Trump, propagated his lies, monetized his notoriety and lapped up his tweet porn. It’s maddening that the Electoral College apportions ballot power inequitably. But as enervating as any of that is, none of it is as dangerous to democracy as the CIA’s finding that Putin hacked the 2016 election on Trump’s behalf. Without firing a single shot, the Kremlin is weeks away from installing its puppet in the White House.

Within days, Trump is expected to name Rex Tillerson, Exxon Mobil’s CEO, as his secretary of state. Putin bestowed the Order of Friendship, one of Russia’s highest civilian honors, on Tillerson, after Exxon signed a deal with Rosneft, the Russian government-owned oil company, to jointly explore the Black Sea and Arctic. The plan died when the U.S. and EU sanctioned Russia for annexing Crimea; Tillerson, whose Exxon shares’ value will skyrocket if sanctions are lifted, favors lifting them.

The Tillerson appointment is the latest dot in the pattern of Trump’s Putinophilia. When 17 U.S. intelligence agencies concurred that Russia was behind the hacking of Democratic emails, Trump—who’s refused most of his security briefings—rejected their conclusion, claiming at one point that it “could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds,” at another that “it could be some guy in his home in New Jersey.” I knew that Trump is a serial fat-shamer, but I didn’t know until now that being a Newarker puts me in his crosshairs, too.

It’s entirely conceivable that Russia has something on Trump. They may hold hundreds of millions of dollars of Trump debt. They may have spousally unsettling video of him—a KGB specialty, and a plausible Trump susceptibility. Surely the Kremlin has mapped his character disorder. In the third debate, when Trump said Putin had no respect for Clinton, and she shot back, “Well, that’s because he’d rather have a puppet as president,” Trump’s interruption—“No puppet, no puppet, you’re the puppet, no, you’re the puppet”—sounded like a third-grader. Actually, it was a confession, what clinicians call projective identification. Putin’s psy ops must know every such string on him to play.

Before the election, when both parties’ congressional leaders were secretly informed that Russia had its thumb on the scale for Trump, Republican leader Mitch McConnell torpedoed a bipartisan plan to decry their intervention. Now that the news is out, Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee said Sunday that the intel “should alarm every American,” and they called for a bipartisan investigation to stop “the grave threats that cyberattacks… pose to our national security.”

Trump’s response? “I think it is ridiculous. It’s just another excuse. I don’t believe it. Every week it’s another excuse. We had a massive landslide victory, as you know, in the Electoral College.”

As we don’t know. Trump’s Electoral College margin will rank 44th among the 54 presidential elections that have been held since the 12th Amendment was ratified. Nate Silver called Trump’s “landslide” claim “Orwellian.” The Washington Post gave it Four Pinocchios. Why not just call it a lie?

Trump blew off the Kremlin’s intervention in our election the way Putin denied Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. Do we call that a lie, too?

Maybe there’s a better word we should dare to use.

IMAGE: Russian President Vladimir Putin (C), Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu (L) and Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Alexander Bortnikov watch events to mark Victory Day in Sevastopol May 9, 2014. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov/File Photo