Saturday, December 01, 2018

More Saturday Male Beauty

Why Leaving the Catholic Church the Moral Thing to Do

I left the Catholic Church in early 2002 in the wake of the sex abuse scandal explosion in the Archdiocese of Boston.  I had not been a casual Catholic.  I had been an altar boy for 10 years and was involved in the Knights of Columbus and achieved the 4th Degree.  But on finding that bishops, cardinals - and yes, popes - had known of the abuse of children and youths for decades (if not centuries) and viewed it as no big deal but for the bad PR for the Church.  With three children of my own, I cannot comprehend the callousness of the celibate, self-centered, power hungry clergy to whom the rape and molestation of children and youths was no big deal.   Yes, coming out as gay was an added reason to leave a gay-hating church, but ultimately I believed it was the only moral thing to do.  Over time, the balance of my family has followed suit. An opinion piece in The Week by a recent refugee from the Catholic Church lats out this moral argument.  Here are excerpts:

Three months ago, I announced I was leaving the Catholic Church. My reason was that the latest revelations in the church's interminable sex abuse scandal had revealed "a repulsive institution — or at least one permeated by repulsive human beings who reward one another for repulsive acts, all the while deigning to lecture the world about its sin." Let's just say subsequent events haven't led me to regret the decision.
That would include Wednesday's news that the offices of the cardinal-archbishop of Galveston-Houston, who also happens to serve as president of the United States Catholic bishops' conference, were raided by "dozens of local and federal law enforcement officers … looking for evidence in a clergy sexual abuse case." A couple of weeks ago, the story was the Vatican's decision to nix plans by the American bishops to devise some kind of response to the scandal — on the grounds that it's mostly just a conspiracy drummed up by troublemaking right-wing clerics and laypeople. A week or a month from now, the story is bound to be something arising from the dozen or so investigations underway by the Justice Department and attorneys general around the country.
It's hardly surprising that writers deeply devoted to the Catholic Church would reject the reasons for my decision to leave the church. . . . . As I say, the response was unsurprising, even perfectly understandable. Though I do wonder whether any of these apologists for the church quite grasps why I left the church — and why so many others are likely to make the same move over the coming months and years.
The Catholic Church does make extraordinarily high claims for itself — not that its priests and bishops and cardinals and popes are angels but that the church as an institution is, of all the churches that follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, the one most fully and rightly ordered through time.
If I may be permitted some speculation of my own — this time of a psychological variety — I'd like to suggest that those objecting to the departure of fellow Catholics from the church may be moved to express those objections because they recognize how weak and frankly unpersuasive such ecclesiological claims really are. They are really arguing with themselves, in other words, trying to muster reasons to continue affirming something that, at a certain level, they fully recognize to be just a few millimeters away from outright absurdity.
What's absurd? The claim that, of all the Christian churches, the Roman church is the very best, the truest of all, the one most fully and rightly ordered through time. That would be not only the church of the great diabolical popes of the past (like John XII and Alexander VI and Boniface VIII and Leo X), but also the church that in recent decades has seen literally thousands of priests in countries across the globe accused of sexually abusing children — 271 of them in the archdiocese of Boston alone — with untold numbers of bishops covering it up year after year after year. The number is untold, by the way, because we are still nowhere near knowing just how many members of the Catholic hierarchy around the world — all the way up to popes themselves — knew exactly what was happening and responded like self-protective bureaucrats and PR flacks out to protect a corporate brand from bad press.
It's become commonplace for Catholic laypeople to ask themselves why the clergy has responded in the way it has to the scandal — how Pope John Paul II (along with Neuhaus) could have turned a blind eye to the myriad abuses committed by Marcial Maciel Degollado; how Archbishop Cardinal Bernard Francis Law could have been rewarded with a cushy sinecure at the Vatican as his "punishment" for basically overseeing a decades-long child-rape gang in Boston; and how Theodore McCarrick could have been promoted to one of the most powerful and prestigious positions in the Catholic Church in the United States after decades of alleged sexual predation with the full knowledge of (once again) untold numbers of priests, bishops, and possibly popes.
The behavior is only mysterious if you assume that anyone in their place would respond the way you and I would: with revulsion. But it isn't mysterious at all if you assume what should be obvious by now to everyone: They just didn't think it was such a big deal. Judging by the current stance of the Vatican to the pope's pesky American critics, the character of that response hasn't changed one bit down through the years.
[T]o believe that this particular church, of all the Christian churches in the world, is the one most fully and rightly ordered through time, over and above all of the others? You can't possibly be serious.
To react with anger and incredulity to this suggestion isn't to display unrealistically high hopes or expectations about the church. It's to respond reasonably to a claim that the church makes about itself — a claim that is flatly implausible on its face.
And that, my former fellow Catholic communicants, is why I have left the church — and why I fully expect quite a lot of the rest of you to be joining me in my unregretted exodus very soon.
Decent and moral people should want nothing to do with this corrupt and disgusting institution.

The Fruits of Trump’s Racist Policies

The Trump/Pence regime has been a nightmare for all minorities as it has openly embraced religious extremist, white nationalists and some of the ugliest white supremacists.  But Blacks - followed by Hispanics - have suffered the most as FBI and other statistics have demonstrated.  Hate crimes have soared with the targets being most often targeted due to their race.  Meanwhile, anti-Semitic hate crimes has soared by 60%.  At the same time the Trump/Pence regime has waged a war against the LGBT community and argued that firing LGBT employees is perfectly legal.  In short, hate, division and violence are the fruits of Trump's - and Pence's - racist policies.  A column in the Washington Post looks at this reality as well as the threat Trump's judicial nominees pose to civil rights.  Thankfully, one racist nominee, Thomas Farr, was rejected by the U.S. Senate thanks to the vote of the lone black Republican senator.  Here are column highlights:

Back in September 2016, eight weeks before Election Day, I wrote these words about Donald Trump:
“Repulsive though he is, nominee Trump’s character defects aren’t what make him a threat. What does sicken and alarm, and what ought to concentrate African American minds, is the thought of Trump with the powers of the presidency in his hands. Therein lies the danger.”
I admit that, at the time, I did not fully appreciate just how damaging and degrading a Trump presidency could become. Trump’s two years of shameless and cynical exploitation of fears and anxieties within the ranks of his white base of support, and his unprincipled governance, have left this country more fractured along racial lines than at any time since the civil rights revolution.
Shootings, bombings and other acts of violence motivated by right-wing political ideologies are nothing new, according to a Post analysis of global terrorism data. But it found that “violence by white supremacists and other far-right attackers has been on the rise since Barack Obama’s presidency — and has surged since President Trump took office.”
The FBI’s report released this month revealed that hate crimes had jumped an astonishing 17 percent from 2016 to 2017. And the targets? Sixty percent of the victims were selected because of their race, ethnicity or ancestry. More than 20 percent were targeted because of their religion.
The ADL reported an increase of nearly 60 percent in anti-Semitic incidents between 2016 and 2017. . . . . the Trump effect has taken on a life of its own, spreading a meanness and animosity once confined to the environs of the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Councils that peppered the South.
The hard evidence of Trump’s hostility toward people of color abounds — his actions against south-of-the-border immigrants, his hostile treatment of black women and disparagement of black and brown men, references to Haiti and African nations as “shithole countries.”
And it’s being demonstrated through his federal judicial appointments. Trump’s racial animosity can’t get anymore obvious than his choice of Thomas Farr to be a district court judge in North Carolina.
Farr is well known for his work as a lawyer defending a 2013 North Carolina voter ID law ruled discriminatory against African Americans. The federal appeals court that struck down the law called it “the most restrictive voting law North Carolina has seen since the era of Jim Crow,” saying it targeted black voters “with almost surgical precision” because the forms of voter identification North Carolina deemed acceptable were ones disproportionately used by white people.
D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) and two other members of the Congressional Black Caucus wrote in a letter last year to the Senate Judiciary Committee opposing Farr’s nomination that “it is no exaggeration to say that had the White House deliberately sought to identify an attorney in North Carolina with a more hostile record on African-American voting rights and workers’ rights than Thomas Farr, it could hardly have done so.”
There it is. Trump knew what he was doing, and what the nation would be getting, when he chose to put Thomas Farr on the federal bench — a voter suppression advocate after Trump’s own heart.
Trump’s selection of Farr was so odious that South Carolina’s Tim Scott, a lone black Republican senator with unquestioned loyalty to conservative dogma, finally had to break ranks and declare his opposition to Farr’s nomination. Scott’s courageous decision will almost certainly doom Farr’s chance for a federal judgeship.
But it’s not likely to quench Trump’s thirst for actions that fall within the purview of his discriminatory values. Watch out: He has yet to name a permanent replacement for fired attorney general Jeff Sessions.
That is the danger of Donald Trump with presidential power in his hands. A lesson now being learned the hard way.
Be very afraid. And do not fool yourself that Mike Pence would be any better should Trump be forced from office.  

Saturday Morning Male Beauty

George H.W. Bush Dead at 94 - Reflections of a Former Republican

George H.W. Bush died yesterday at the age  of at 94.  Like all all previous presidents, Mr. Bush looks better and better in retrospect as the regime of Der Trumpenführer continues to be increasingly defined by corruption, possible treason, and crudeness and boorishness.  Yes, Bush made many mistakes, foolishly embraced Lee Atwater's racist smear of Michael Dukakis,  and failed to be able to convince voters that he deserved re-election in 1992,  Yet, he had class and integrity again, especially in contrast to the current occupant of the White House.  He valued science, knowledge and embodied what the Republican Party once was before the open ascendancy of the Christofascists and white supremacists within the party.  Like Bush the party he led is dead and gone.  The New York Times looks at Bush.  Here are excerpts:

Historians will measure the presidency of George H.W. Bush in familiar ways — by how well or poorly he managed the major domestic and international challenges of his time, his leadership qualities, the moral and social legacies he left for future generations.
Yet, at the moment of his passing, it is difficult not to take note of the profound differences between the 41st president of the United States and the current occupant of the White House, Donald Trump. Beyond a desire to be president — Mr. Bush was more competitive and ambitious than his self-effacing personality sometimes suggested — there is almost nothing in common: the one gracious and modest, the other rude and vain; the one prudent, the other brash; the one steady, the other unmoored.
Mr. Bush’s death on Friday is also a moment to recall a less quarrelsome political order, when relations with traditional allies were more cordial than combative, when government attracted people of talent and integrity for whom public service offered a purpose higher than self-enrichment, when the Republican Party, though slowly slipping into the tentacles of zealots like Newt Gingrich, still offered room for people with pragmatic policies and sensible dispositions.
Fingers pointed in every direction after his defeat [by Bill Clinton] — a deteriorating economy, a divisive convention in Houston, a disjointed campaign. But one big reason for Mr. Bush’s precipitous fall was Mr. Bush himself, chiefly his inability to convince Americans that he understood the depth of their fears or could summon up a coherent plan for addressing them.
A Times editorial after his defeat called Mr. Bush “an incomplete president” — good at some things but clumsy at others. Fate had dealt him one of the strongest hands in foreign affairs ever awarded a new president, and for the most part he played that hand cleverly and energetically. But when it came time to rescue a depressed nation, he had little to offer, either spiritually or in terms of coherent policy. With the economy in decline in the winter of 1992, he told a New Hampshire audience, as if reading from a cue card, “Message: I care.” That very formulation, a bit precious and patronizing under the circumstances, fell well short of the kind of the emotional jolt the moment called for. His opponent, Mr. Clinton, found a much more resonant message: “I feel your pain.”
Mr. Bush’s political persona was no less baffling. . . . . often in the heat of combat, Mr. Bush’s good manners and amiable disposition gave way to bombast and shrill exploitation of fears of race and crime. His 1988 campaign infamously strove to tie his opponent, Michael Dukakis, to an African-American named Willie Horton who committed rape after being released on a weekend furlough program — an effort for which Mr. Bush’s attack-dog campaign manager, Lee Atwater, later apologized.
So hapless was Mr. Bush’s last year in office that it was easy to overlook his early successes. He began smartly, moving quickly to end the ideological combat of the Reagan years, broke cleanly on environmental issues with his indifferent predecessor — the upgrade of the nation’s clean air laws was a major achievement — faced up to the savings and loan scandal and offered creative approaches to the debt of developing nations, especially in Latin America.
 Foreign policy was Mr. Bush’s great strength, and of his diplomatic contributions, two stand out. One was to keep America and the Soviet Union moving forward along a path to peace charted by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, a path that in time led to the reunification of Germany, the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and, more broadly, the end of nearly a half-century of Cold War. His second big achievement was the skillful orchestration over many months of a collective global response to Iraq’s aggression in the Persian Gulf. A war that began on January 17, 1991, was over in weeks, with Saddam Hussein’s air force neutralized and his ground troops on the run. Some critics have said that Mr. Hussein would not have been so bold as to invade Kuwait had Washington not shamelessly cultivated him over the years; others faulted Mr. Bush for not pushing Mr. Hussein all the way back to Baghdad and removing him from power. Such a course, Mr. Bush said later, would have “incurred incalculable human and political costs … We would have been forced to occupy Baghdad and, in effect, rule Iraq.” Which is exactly what his son, George W. Bush, a less cautious man, set out to do 12 years later — with disastrous results. Perhaps, in a second term, Mr. Bush might have found a clearer sense of direction on domestic issues. We will never know. But if he is measured by his leadership and choices on the global stage, historians will almost certainly treat him more kindly than the voters did in 1992.

I think most decent people would happily exchange Bush for the current foul and toxic occupant of the White House.  RIP.

Friday, November 30, 2018

More Friday Male Beauty

How Pastors, Not Politicians, Turned the Republican Party Racist

I grew up Republican and was a member of the City Committee of the Republican Party of Virginia Beach for eight years.  During that period, I viewed Republicans for the most part as "the good guys."  But something changed over the years and I have always credited the GOP's decline into a party of extremism and racism to directly correlate with the rise of the Christofascists in the party.  As the Christofascists infiltrated the party, moderates and I would argue sane people not motivated by simple greed (the true motivation for the worship of tax cuts) and racism and/or religious extremism fled the party.  A friend and former classmate recently linked to a lengthy piece in Forbes written by a former Republican that focuses mostly on the South but lays out how pastors, especially Southern Baptist pastors, were key to the transformation of the GOP and accomplished the "Southern Strategy" that Richard Nixon and his strategist, Lee Atwater envisioned.  Here in Virginia, The Family Foundation in alliance with Jerry Fallwell and now his son and Pat Robertson and his minions have played a major behind the scenes role in turning the Virginia GOP into a neo-Confederate party where racism is no longer disguised and is synonymous with calls for "religious liberty.  Take the time to read the entire piece.  Here are article highlights: 

“White Democrats will desert their party in droves the minute it becomes a black party.” Kevin Phillips, The Emerging Republican Majority, 1969.
Thirty years ago, archconservative Rick Perry was a Democrat and liberal icon Elizabeth Warren was a Republican. Back then there were a few Republican Congressmen and Senators from Southern states, but state and local politics in the South was still dominated by Democrats. By 2014 that had changed entirely as the last of the Deep South states completed their transition from single-party Democratic rule to single party rule under Republicans. The flight of the Dixiecrats was complete.
Reasons for the switch are not so hard to understand. . . . . Southern anger over the Democratic Party’s embrace of civil rights reforms was no secret and no surprise.
While the “why” behind the flight of the Dixiecrats is obvious, the “how” is more difficult to establish, shrouded in myths and half-truths. Analysts often explain the great exodus of Southern conservatives from the Democratic Party by referencing the Southern Strategy, a cynical campaign ploy supposedly executed by Richard Nixon in his ’68 and ’72 Presidential campaigns, but that explanation falls flat.
Crediting the Nixon campaign with the flight of Southern conservatives from the Democratic Party dismisses the role Southerners themselves played in that transformation. In fact, Republicans had very little organizational infrastructure on the ground in the South before 1980, . . . The flight of the Dixiecrats was ultimately conceived, planned, and executed by Southerners themselves, largely independent of, and sometimes at odds with, existing Republican leadership. It was a move that had less to do with politicos than with pastors. Southern churches, warped by generations of theological evolution necessary to accommodate slavery and segregation, were all too willing to offer their political assistance to a white nationalist program. Southern religious institutions would lead a wave of political activism that helped keep white nationalism alive inside an increasingly unfriendly national climate. Forget about Goldwater, Nixon or Reagan. No one played as much of a role in turning the South red as the leaders of the Southern Baptist Church. There is still today a Southern Baptist Church. More than a century and a half after the Civil War, and decades after the Methodists and Presbyterians reunited with their Yankee neighbors, America’s largest denomination remains defined, right down to the name over the door, by an 1845 split over slavery.
Spirituality may be personal, but organized religion, like race, is a cultural construct. When you’ve lost the ability to mobilize supporters based on race, religion will serve as a capable proxy. What was lost under the banner of “segregation forever” has been tenuously preserved through a continuing “culture war.” A fight for white nationalism and white cultural supremacy has in some ways been more successful after its transformation into an expressly religious, rather than merely racist crusade.
So long as pastors or priests (or in this case, televangelists) are willing to apply their theological creativity to serve political demands, religious institutions can be bent to advance any policy goal. With remarkably little prodding, Christian churches in Germany fanned the flames for Hitler. The Southern Baptist Church was organized specifically to protect slavery and white supremacy from the influence of their brethren in the North, a role that has never ceased to distort its identity, beliefs and practices.
At that time [1956], there may have been no more influential figure in the Southern Baptist Convention than W.A. Criswell, the pastor of the enormous First Baptist Church in Dallas.
At a convention in South Carolina, Criswell turned his popular fire and brimstone style on the “blasphemous and unbiblical” agitators who threatened the Southern way of life. Beyond all the boilerplate racist invective, Criswell outlined an eerily prescient rhetorical stance, a framework capable of outlasting Jim Crow. In a passage that managed to avoid explicit racism, he described what would become the primary political weapon of the culture wars:
Don’t force me by law, by statute, by Supreme Court decision…to cross over in those intimate things where I don’t want to go. Let me build my life. Let me have my church. Let me have my school. Let me have my friends. Let me have my home. Let me have my family. And what you give to me, give to every man in America and keep it like our glorious forefathers made – a land of the free and the home of the brave.
Long after the battle over whites’ only bathrooms had been lost, evangelical communities in Houston or Charlotte can continue the war over a “bathroom bill” using a rhetorical structure Criswell and others built. He had constructed a strangely circular, quasi-libertarian argument in which a right to oppress others becomes a fundamental right born of a religious imperative, protected by the First Amendment.
Criswell’s bizarre formula, as it metastasized and took hold elsewhere, could allow white nationalists to continue their campaign as a “culture war” long after the battle to protect segregated institutions had been lost.
Southern Baptists remained at the vanguard of the fight to preserve Jim Crow until the fight was lost.
Evangelical resistance to the civil rights movement was not uniform, but dissent was rare and muted. Southern Baptist superstar Billy Graham was cautiously sympathetic to King. . . . . However, in public Graham was careful to keep a safe distance and avoided the kind of open displays of sympathy for civil rights that might have complicated his career.
In 1968, the Southern Baptist Convention formally endorsed desegregation. That same year, in a remarkably passive-aggressive counter to their apparent concession on civil rights, they elected W.A. Criswell to lead the denomination.
Defeated and demoralized, segregationists in the 1970’s faced a frustrating problem – how to rebuild a white nationalist political program without using the discredited rhetoric of race. Religion would provide them their answer. Armed with the superficially race-neutral rhetorical formula Criswell had described, prominent Southern Baptist ministers like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson would emerge to take up the fight. All they needed was a spark to light a new wave of political activism.
In 1967, Mississippi began offering tuition grants to white students allowing them to attend private segregated schools. A federal court struck down the move two years later, . . . . It was the status of these schools, a growing source of church recruitment and revenue, that finally stirred the grassroots to action. Televangelist Jerry Falwell would unite with a broader group of politically connected conservatives to form the Moral Majority in 1979. His partner in the effort, Paul Weyrich, made clear that it was the schools issue that launched the organization, an emphasis reflected in chain events across the 1980 Presidential campaign.
The rise of the religious right is usually credited to abortion activism, but few evangelicals cared about the subject in the 70’s.
In August of 1980, Criswell and other Southern Baptist leaders hosted Republican Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan for a rally in Dallas. Reagan in his speech never used the word “abortion,” but he enthusiastically and explicitly supported the ministers’ position on protecting private religious schools. That was what they needed to hear.
Evangelical ministers, previously reluctant to lend their pulpits to political activists, launched a massive wave of activism in Southern pews in support of the Reagan campaign. The new President would not forget their support. Less than a year into his Administration, Reagan officials pressed the IRS to drop its campaign to desegregate private schools.
For decades, men like [Lee] Atwater had been searching for the perfect “abstract” phrasing, a magic political dog whistle that could communicate that “N…r, n…r” message behind a veneer of respectable language.
It was religious leaders in the South who solved the puzzle on Republicans’ behalf, converting white angst over lost cultural supremacy into a fresh language of piety and “religious liberty.” Southern conservatives discovered that they could preserve white nationalism through a proxy fight for Christian Nationalism. They came to recognize that a weak, largely empty Republican grassroots structure in the South was ripe for takeover and colonization. . . . Religious nationalists began to purge traditional Republicans from the region’s few GOP institutions.
Russell Moore became the President of the Southern Baptist Convention’s social outreach arm in 2013. In that capacity, he began to challenge many of the darker elements of the church’s history. From a post in the church traditionally dedicated to hand-wringing over gay rights and dirty movies, Moore criticized those who stirred up hatred against refugees and ignored matters of racial justice. He drew sharp criticism when he denounced the Confederate Flag, explaining, “The cross and the Confederate flag cannot co-exist without one setting the other on fire.”
The real fury came when Moore applied to Donald Trump the same standard of conduct Baptists had demanded of Bill Clinton.
As religious leaders lined up solidly behind Trump last fall, Moore commented, "The religious right turns out to be the people the religious right warned us about."
Today, W.A. Criswell’s Dallas megachurch is pastored by Robert Jeffress, who has remained faithful to the most bigoted strains of the olde tyme religion.
Billy Graham’s son, Franklin, retooled the ministry he inherited, turning it into something a civil rights era segregationist could love without reservation. Graham, who earns more than $800,000 a year as the head of his inherited charity, has made anti-Muslim rhetoric a centerpiece of his public profile and ministry.
Jerry Falwell's son also inherited the family business, serving now as president of his father's university. His support for Trump is less surprising than Graham's, and far less of a departure from his father's work. Falwell spoke in support of Trump at the Republican National Convention.
Public perception that a “Southern strategy” conceived and initiated by clever Republicans turned the South red is worse than false. By deflecting responsibility onto some shadowy “other” it blocks us from reckoning with the past or changing our future. History is a powerful tide, especially when it runs unseen and concealed. A refusal to honestly confront our past leaves us to repeat our mistakes over and over again.
No one needs to say “N..r, n..r” anymore. With help from evangelical pastors, this new generation of politicians has found a new political party and a fresh language with which to stir old grievances and feed their power. By merely refining their rhetoric and activating evangelical congregations, a new generation of Southern conservatives grow ever closer to winning a fight their forebears once thought was lost.
Not surprisingly, a recent survey found that a majority of evangelicals admit to being racists.  "Religious liberty" today equates with a right to discriminate against gays but also ultimately to discriminate against blacks, one of the bedrocks of the Southern Baptist Church and its allied evangelical churches. As has been the case through so much of history, organized religion is a pervasive evil.  Hopefully, with the flight of younger generations from religion  over time its toxic power will die in America.

Friday Morning Male Beauty

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Pence Lies and Refuses to Utter 'Gay' at World AIDS Day Event

Over the last 20 years or more, a parade of closeted self-loathing gays - almost all Republicans (think Ed Schrock, Larry Craig, Dennis Hastert, etc. - have pushed an anti-gay agenda in the apparent belief that it (i) provides camouflage to the outside world of their inner most thoughts/longings, and (ii) somehow dispels the reality of their true sexual orientation.  All of which brings me to Mike Pence, a man who displays every stereotype of these  disturbed individuals.  Today is World AIDS Day and for the second year in a row, Der Trumpenführer delegated Pence as his representative at the White House's World HIV/AIDS Day event.  Not surprisingly, Pence could not even bring himself to utter the word "gay."  Worse yet, Pence lied profusely about the Trump/Pence regime record on fighting AIDS/HIV.  Rather than bringing a "new and renewed American commitment to the fight against HIV/AIDS here and around the world," the Trump/Pence regime has been slashing funding to AIDS/HIV programs and diverting funding to finance the brutal family separations programs along the Texas border. The Advocate looks at Pence's disingenuous lies:
For the second year in a row, homophobic vice president Mike Pence refused to acknowledge the LGBTQ community in his remarks during the White House's World HIV/AIDS Day event. And as the Democratic National Committee highlighted, Pence also lied repeatedly during his remarks.
Pence — previously faulted with exacerbating an HIV crisis by opposing a needle exchange program when he was Indiana's governor — claimed the Trump administration was doing all it could to battle the scourge of HIV.
"Let me bring greetings from a friend of mine who is a leader committed to the health and well-being of the American people, and has brought new and renewed American commitment to the fight against HIV/AIDS here and around the world," Pence said . . . . "I bring greetings from the 45th President of the United States of America, President Donald Trump."
In fact, Trump repeatedly cut funds for HIV prevention and treatment and diverted money from the Ryan White HIV/AIDS program to fund his family separation policy at the U.S./Mexico border. Trump also infamously fired the entire 16-member Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS and has yet to restaff the group. Trump has also derailed a national HIV strategy by refusing to appoint anyone to lead the White House Office of National AIDS Policy. Trump also announced a "Deploy or Get Out" rule, which could translate to HIV-positive service members kicked out of the military.
Without irony, Pency also honored the 15th anniversary of PEPFAR (President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief), which works to address AIDS in developing nations, mostly in Africa. Pence's boss cut funding for PEPFAR; The Daily Beast reported those cuts could lead to the deaths of 300,000 people a year.

Trump Is Compromised by Russia

Today has been a busy news day in the context of the Russiagate investigation ranging from a new plea deal by Michael Cohen, this time in the realm of the Russiagate investigation and Cohen's testimony at hearings before Congress, and what appear to be increasingly desperate lies from Der Trumpenführer himself,  Meanwhile, the Feds have raided the office of Trump's former tax attorney and Germany has raided the offices of Deutsche Bank, the last bank that was willing to make loans for Trump projects (former Justice Anthony Kennedy's son over saw the bank's real estate lending).  These raids may be unrelated and coincidentally happened on the same day as Cohen's new guilty plea.  Nonetheless, some commentators have even indicated that in retrospect today might indeed be looked back upon as the beginning of the end of Trump's time in the White House.  Trump will not go down quietly and one big worry is to what extent he is willing to do severe damage to the nation as he desperately tries to save himself.  Here are highlights from a column in the New York Times
One of the chief questions in the Trump-Russia scandal has been whether Vladimir Putin has leverage over the president of the United States, and, if so, what that leverage looks like. The significance of the fabled “pee tape,” after all, is not that it would reveal Donald Trump to be a pervert bent on defiling the place where Barack Obama slept. Rather, the tape matters because, if real, it would show the president to be vulnerable to Russian blackmail.
That’s also why evidence of Trump’s business involvement with Russia would be significant, as Trump himself acknowledged shortly before his inauguration, when he tweeted, “Russia has never tried to use leverage over me. I HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA — NO DEALS, NO LOANS, NO NOTHING!”
We still don’t know for certain if Russia has used leverage over Trump. But there should no longer be any doubt that Russia has leverage over him.
On Thursday morning, Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen — the former executive vice president of the Trump Organization — pleaded guilty to making false statements to Congress about efforts to build a Trump-branded property in Moscow that extended into the 2016 presidential campaign.
In an August 2017 letter to the House and Senate intelligence committees, Cohen said that the Moscow project ended in January 2016. He claimed not to recall contacts with Russian government officials about a potential deal. Cohen told Congress that he spoke about the project with Trump — identified as “Individual 1” in the criminal information document that Robert Mueller, the special counsel, filed on Thursday — only three times. He said he never briefed Trump’s family.
According to Mueller’s filing, all of this was false. Efforts to obtain Russian government approval for a Trump-branded development in Moscow went on until “approximately June 2016,” after Trump had effectively secured the Republican nomination for president. Cohen, Mueller’s document said, “discussed the status and progress of the Moscow project with Individual 1” more than three times. He also “briefed family members of Individual 1 within the company about the project.”
In January 2016, according to Mueller’s document, Cohen had a 20-minute conversation with the assistant to a Russian official in which he sought Russia’s help moving the project forward. The next day, Felix Sater, a Trump associate identified in the court filing as “Individual 2,” wrote Cohen to tell him he’d heard from Putin’s office. Cohen made plans to travel to Russia, calling them off only on June 14, which happened to be the day that The Washington Post first reported that Russian government hackers had penetrated Democratic National Committee computers. At one point, Cohen and Sater were also coordinating with figures in Moscow about a potential Trump visit in connection with the project.
So we now know that Trump lied to the American people about at least one part of his business relationship with Russia, a geopolitical foe that interfered in our election process on his behalf.
In a Jan. 11, 2017, news conference, Trump said that the “closest I came to Russia” was in selling a Palm Beach mansion to a Russian oligarch in 2008. While we’re just learning precisely how dishonest this was, Putin has known it all along. That means that throughout Trump’s campaign and presidency, Putin has had the power to plunge him into political crisis.
“If the Russians are aware that senior American officials are publicly stating things that are not true, it’s a counterintelligence nightmare,” Adam Schiff, the California Democrat in line to take over the House Intelligence Committee, told me.
Speaking to reporters before flying to Argentina on Thursday, Trump justified his pursuit of a Moscow project this way: “There was a good chance that I wouldn’t have won, in which case I would have gotten back into the business, and why should I lose lots of opportunities?” This could be read as a confession of motive. In the 2016 campaign, Russia wanted to humiliate Hillary Clinton and delegitimize America’s election. Trump wanted help building his brand.

Personally, I suspect that Cohen's new guilty plea and what it is revealing is only the tip of the ice berg.  Moreover, it's a safe bet that Mueller has emails, text messages, and a great deal of documentation to back up the fact that Cohen's previous false testimony was all untrue.  They may well show that Trump was deeply involved in the multiple conspiracies. 

More Thursday Male Beauty

Kansas Voters Rejected Failed GOP Tax-Cut Experiment

Brownback, architect of Kansas' disastrous tax cuts.
Since the days of Ronald Reagan, the Republican Party has pursued the myth that tax cuts "pay for themselves" and result in a surge in the economy.  It's the same myth that Republicans used in arguing to pass their 2017 Trump/GOP give away to the very wealthy and corporations. Now, the deficit has exploded and no promised surge in investment or economic growth has taken place,  Most of the tax give away went to stock by-backs and shareholders who have stockpiled the money.  This same formula was used in Kansas to disastrous results.   In the last election, voters in Kansas did the unbelievable: they elected a Democrat as governor.  A piece in The Hill looks at Kansas voters' rejection of GOP voodoo economics which ought to send a message nationally - especially when millions of taxpayers find themselves unexpectedly owing money to the IRS in April, 2019, thanks to deliberate IRS under withholding guidelines.  Here are article highlights:
Former Kansas Governor Sam Brownback’s failed “red state experiment” has truly come to an end.
In rejecting Republican gubernatorial candidate Kris Kobach, who advocated restoration of the Brownback experiment, Kansas voters on Election Day put the final nail in the coffin of what even Republican leaders had come to see as a disastrous set of tax and spending cuts that ruined the Kansas economy. 
Kansas’s 2018 election should serve as a political lesson to our national leaders, and the experience of Kansas over the past several years should serve as a policy lesson. 
In 2012 and 2013, Republican Gov. Sam Brownback signed into law the largest tax cuts in Kansas history. The top state income tax rate fell by nearly one-third and passthrough taxes that affected mainly relatively wealthy individuals were eliminated. With the decline in revenues came significant spending cuts in numerous areas. 
“Our new pro-growth tax policy,” Brownback predicted, “will be like a shot of adrenaline into the heart of the Kansas economy.” The theory, one that should sound familiar, was that cutting taxes and regulations on the wealthy would lead to greater investment and innovation, new jobs, more rapid economic growth and a stronger middle class.
Brownback also called his plan “a real live experiment.” . . . But experiments can go badly wrong, and unfortunately Kansans were guinea pigs for one of the worst. It soon became clear that the Brownback experiment had failed to deliver on his promises.
Analysis by Menzie Chinn, a professor of public affairs and economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, found that after the enactment of the tax cuts, economic growth in Kansas fell well below its pre-Brownback trend and, by the spring of 2017, the rate of job growth in Kansas was not only lower than the rates in most of its neighboring states but less than half of the national average.
Brownback’s experiment was such a failure that his party turned against him. In 2017, the Republican-dominated legislature, overriding the governor’s veto, rolled back the tax cuts.
But some were not convinced, including Kris Kobach, who made a resumption of the Brownback experiment (with even deeper spending cuts) a fundamental part of his platform in the just-ended campaign. The voters of Kansas, however, had had enough, and his advocacy of the tax and spending cuts was critical to his defeat.
The same arguments used to sell the Brownback experiment were used to sell the $1.5 trillion tax cut signed into law by President Trump last year. Most of the benefits of the cuts went to those at the top of the income spectrum.
This is reminiscent of Kansas, where the extensive cuts in everything from education, health care and transportation to agriculture and higher education dragged down the state’s economy while the money that was accruing to the rich wasn’t being used to ramp up investment. 
The reason for the failure of the Brownback experiment, and the likely failure of the Trump tax cuts, is that they didn’t account for the ways that economic inequality today obstructs, distorts and subverts the pathways to economic growth that is strong, stable and broadly shared.
They ignore extensive evidence of what — in fact — drives economic growth and stability and can deliver improvements in living standards.
Instead, they reflect supply-side economics, as trumpeted by Arthur Laffer, who was a paid consultant for the Brownback plan and a volunteer cheerleader for the Trump tax cuts. Laffer’s theory of growth has been a foundation for economic policies since the 1980s.  
There is an alternative explanation for how the economy grows. . . . . It comes from ensuring that economic inequality doesn’t subvert our institutions — undermining our democracy, our government and the way the market works to the benefit of the few at the top of the income and wealth ladders, rather than the majority.
The voters of Kansas learned a bitter lesson and made sure history did not repeat itself. Leaders in Washington need to learn that lesson and look for ways to invest in a strong middle class for sustained and balanced economic growth.
Of course, the GOP will not heed this advice.  It will be up to voters and Democrats to repair the damage.

Did the Special Counsel Mueller Set Manafort/Trump Up?

As Donald Trump increasingly appears to be committing obstruction of justice in plain view by dangling a possible pardon before Paul Manafort and likely lying in his written responses to special prosecutor Robert Mueller, some are speculating that Mueller may have planned to allow Trump and Manafort to figuratively hang themselves.  Trump is incapable of telling the truth and thinks (i) he's smarter than anyone else and (ii) thinks he's above the law.  Combine this with Manaforts sleazy history and it's a recipe for obstruction charges - not to mention additional charges against Manafort for lying to the FBI.  A piece in Vanity Fair looks at whether Mueller set this trap or if it's the natural result of two despicable and utterly dishonest men, i.e., Trump and Manafort.  Here are excerpts:

It is the kind of fine print to which lawyers devote many billable hours crafting and reviewing. Rick Gates’s plea deal with special counsel Robert Mueller includes this line: “The defendant agrees not to reveal his cooperation, or any information derived therefrom, to any third party without prior consent of the Office.” The language of Paul Manafort’s cooperation deal is almost identical—with the exception of that sentence about disclosing information to third parties. “The absence of that gag order is not an oversight,” says Katya Jestin, a former federal prosecutor. “This could be part of a larger strategic play by Mueller. Which gives this a John le Carré aspect.” 
On Monday, Mueller went to court to take the rare step of invalidating a plea deal, accusing Manafort of lying after agreeing to cooperate with the government; Manafort maintains that he told the special counsel the truth. The stunning collapse of Manafort’s deal raises a bigger and more intriguing question: who created that loophole about talking to third parties, and is it part of a sophisticated game Mueller is playing? Or did President Donald Trump just blunder into incriminating himself? The greatest likelihood is that the special counsel agreed to leave out the prohibition on talking to third parties because Manafort had little rational incentive for doing so—and could be punished for bad behavior. Indeed, Mueller is now asking the court to sentence Manafort immediately, and will probably ask for a longer prison term. Yet Mueller’s team has always thought strategically about how to deal with Trump—for instance, farming out portions of the investigation to other jurisdictions who couldn’t be shut down by [Trump] the president. Did they agree to omit the third-party clause as a way to test Manafort and Trump? The tantalizing possibility is that Trump, basing his answers on what he was hearing from Manafort, lied in those written answers and has now stumbled into strengthening the obstruction of justice case against him. “Mueller built the plea agreement to permit Kevin Downing to continue to share information with Rudy Giuliani,” says Marcy Wheeler, a national security expert who blogs under the name Emptywheel. “So in the eventuality Manafort lied and Mueller didn’t tell them what evidence they had that he was lying, then that would in a sense be negative reinforcement for Trump. He would think that he was going to get away with it, just like Manafort was.” “Andrew Weissmann is a chess player, for sure,” says Jestin, who is a former colleague of Weissmann, Mueller’s top adjutant. “So maybe that was lurking in the back of their minds: ‘Manafort doesn’t want a gag order? Fine. Let’s not give them a gag order. If they screw up, they’re facing potential obstruction.’ Sam Buell worked alongside Weissmann in 2003, constructing the government’s case against Enron. “Why was it left out of the agreement? They are so darn careful, it had to have been deliberate,” Buell says. “I’m at a loss. But nobody wants to create obstruction, especially a careful, by-the-book guy like Mueller. Obstruction is bad from the prosecutor’s standpoint. In an ideal world, you would like the president and the White House to be completely out of this: Shut up, sit on the sidelines, don’t meddle, let them do their job.”
We are a long way from an ideal world, though, and Trump is pathologically incapable of shutting up. If [Trump] the president and his former campaign manager colluded to try to deceive Mueller, Wheeler says, it’s clear where the blame belongs. “If these two men, Manafort and Trump, chose to continue to share notes through a period when they’re both being questioned by the special counsel,” she says, “and they don’t understand that Mueller isn’t telling either one of them how much evidence he has, that’s their own damn fault, not Mueller’s.

Thursday Morning Male Beauty

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Mississippi Signals the World That It Is Still Defined by Racial Bigotry

Sadly, yesterday 54% of voters in Mississippi opted to vote for Cindy Hyde-Smith, a segregationist who "joked" about attending a public lynching if invited, referred to her state's days in the Confederacy as its "best history" and attend a segregated private "academy" and enrolled her own daughter in a similar segregated school.  The message sent to the rest of America and the world was very clear: Mississippi is the home of racist, bigots and individuals who hold others who are different in contempt  - if not subjecting them to open hatred.  Not surprisingly, Hyde-Smith also opposes marriage equality and opposes same sex couples using state park facilities for commitment/marriage ceremonies. Its a continuation of Mississippi's ugly history.  A history which has condemned the state to being among the worse state in the nation in numerous rankings (see the image above).  Some states in the South - particularly Virginia - have disavowed their ugly past and are striving (at least in urban and suburban areas) to be welcoming to all citizens, regardless of race, religious faith and sexual orientation.   Why is this important?  For several reasons: (i) educated people flee backward, bigoted states and regions - look no further than Southwest Virginia - and (ii) progressive, modern businesses who want to hire the best and the brightest do not locate in backward, bigoted states and regions - e.g., Amazon's decision to locate in Northern Virginia and New York City.   A piece in the New York Times looks at the history of racism and inequality that Hyde-Smith and her supporters seek to maintain. Here are highlights:

On Tuesday, Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith won a hard-fought runoff election over her Democratic opponent, Mike Espy. That Mississippi is sending a Republican back to Washington is hardly a surprise, but Ms. Hyde-Smith gave the opposition hope in the closing weeks of the campaign as she careened from one gaffe to the next — each one emphasizing both that she was tone deaf and that she found humor in her state’s history of racial violence and voter suppression. Racist violence, segregation and voter suppression are not shared historical jokes. They are our present. Unless we change course, they will define our future. Ms. Hyde-Smith claims not to have realized there was anything wrong with what she said. She has steadfastly refused to apologize. Perhaps most important, since her comments came to light, she has yet to publicly engage in conversation with constituents of hers for whom hanging is not a joke and voting is a hard-fought, continually challenged right. During the campaign, she did not acknowledge there was even a dialogue worth having. Perhaps this is because for much of her life she has been hearing only one side of an argument and doesn’t know or care that there is a larger conversation to be had. If this is the case, it may have something to do with where Ms. Hyde-Smith went to school and where she chose to send her daughter to school. It was only a few days ago that we learned not only that Ms. Hyde-Smith had attended and graduated from a now closed, whites-only segregation academy called the Lawrence County Academy but also that she had chosen to send her daughter to Brookhaven Academy, which shared the same founding history. And as late as 2016, it had managed to maintain a strikingly white racial makeup, with one black child and five Latino children attending a school with 386 pupils in a town that is 54 percent black.
The most notable thing about the South’s segregation academies isn’t that they were racially segregated. Racially and economically segregated schools remain across all parts of the United States. What is notable is that taxpayer dollars financed these all-white schools at the cost of simultaneously creating poorly funded all-black public-school systems in the South. To put it simply, as the financial drain of taxpayer dollars from whites attending segregation academies decimated school systems educating black children, black communities, students and teachers paid a terribly high price to ensure that whites were educated with other whites.
[S]egregation academies were a private school concept adopted in Mississippi and found across the South in the decade following the Brown v. Board of Education decision. They were conceived as a way to permit white parents to avoid sending their children to schools with black students and a legal way to work around the Brown decision, which did not apply to private schools. These funding schemes were so successful that by 1970, roughly 300,000 students were enrolled in all-white private schools across 11 Southern states, and by 1974, 3,500 academies enrolled 750,000 white children. In Jackson, Miss., alone, white enrollment in the public schools fell by 12,000 students, going from representing more than half of the student body in 1969 to less than a third in 1976. That demographic shift caused a drastic reduction in the funds available to educate the predominantly black children left behind, as tax dollars earmarked for their educations followed white children both to quasi-private segregation academies or to still segregated white public schools. For their part, black parents fought back using the legal system to file hundreds of lawsuits arguing for educational access and equal funding, but many also acquiesced. Terror campaigns, both economic and physical, convinced them it was in their best interest to “choose” to stay in underfunded, segregated schools. Those who attempted to enroll in all-white public schools were subjected to numerous forms of both physical and economic intimidation — job loss, eviction, threatening phone calls and physical attacks.
That is part of the educational history of the defeated Democratic candidate in the race for the Senate in Mississippi, Mike Espy, who integrated Yazoo City High School in 1969.
Mr. Espy attended a parochial school through his first two years of high school, then it closed and he enrolled at Yazoo City High School. He was the only black student in his class and remembers having to carry a stick with him during the day to fend off the physical attacks he often faced when the teacher left the room. In 1970, he was joined by his twin sister, Althea Michelle, and 15 other black students.
Reflecting on the difference between his experience integrating a public school and that of Ms. Hyde-Smith, he said, “If the story is correct, she consciously made a decision to separate, and my parents consciously made a decision to be inclusive.”
Mr. Espy knows that racist violence is no joking matter. We know that his opponent cannot say the same.

Hopefully, decent people and progressive business will take not of Mississippi's signal to them and choose to avoid the state like the plague. If this happens, the downward spiral and economic isolation of Mississippi will intensify and, hopefully, at some future day Mississippi residents will opt to throw its ugly past and people like Ms. Hyde-Smith on the trash heap.

More Wednesday Male Beauty

Foreign Dark Money Is Threatening American Elections

I close a great number of real estate transactions every year and know first hand how easily such transactions done as "cash purchases" without bank confirmation of identities could be used to launder money.  Indeed, there have been numerous stories on Russians buying Trump properties as a likely method to launder dirty money from questionable sources.   In addition, since I set up numerous limited liability companies each year, I also know that in many states - Virginia being one of them - there is no public records that identify the actual owners of the company.   All that is shown is the name of the registered agent and a physical address - which may in fact be a UPS store "office."  A piece in Politico looks at the threat foreign money routed through such entities and/or PACs' to circumvent bans on foreign campaign contributions is to the security of our election system.  Indeed, the NRA has been documented to have  received foreign funds during the 2016 election.  With corrupt politicians like Der Trumpenführer,  it is crucial that more be done to stop foreign interference in our elections by this so-called dark money.  Here are article highlights:

Whatever Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation ends up revealing about Russia’s efforts to subvert our democracy, one thing is already clear from the media attention this topic has received: America’s democratic institutions are highly vulnerable to foreign influence.
Foreign powers use three basic tools to interfere in democratic politics: cyber operations, disinformation and dark money. Thanks in part to Mueller’s indictments of members of Russia’s military intelligence agency (GRU) and the St. Petersburg troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency, we have begun to address election-related cyber attacks and foreign disinformation. But when it comes to foreign dark money – money from unknown foreign sources – we remain woefully unprepared.
The lack of transparency in our campaign finance system combined with extensive foreign money laundering creates a significant vulnerability for our democracy. We don’t know how much illicit money enters the United States from abroad or how much dark money enters American political campaigns, but in 2015, the Treasury Department estimated that $300 billion is laundered through the U.S. every year. While foreign funding of campaigns is prohibited by federal statute, the body that enforces campaign finance laws – the Federal Election Commission (FEC) – lacks both teeth and resources. Sophisticated adversaries like Russia and China know how to bypass the ban on foreign funding by exploiting loopholes in the system and using layers of proxies to mask their activities, making it difficult for the FEC, the FBI, and the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network to follow the money. One of the key loopholes is the ability of so-called super PACs to accept money from U.S. subsidiaries of foreign corporations. And while super PACs are required to file financial disclosure reports, non-profit 501(c) organizations (for example, the National Rifle Association or the U.S. Chamber of Commerce) are not. So if a foreign entity transfers money to a 501(c), that organization can in turn contribute funds to a super PAC without disclosing the foreign origin of the money.
The last time Congress took on dark money was after 9/11, in the Patriot Act, when we made it illegal for banks to be “willfully blind” to money laundering and requiring them to verify their customers’ identities. But the lack of any requirement to disclose the beneficial (i.e. “true”) ownership of limited liability companies (LLCs) makes it easy for foreign entities to establish shell companies in the United States.
Fortunately, there are steps we can take to secure our system and shine a light on these murky transactions.
In August, two dozen state attorneys general asked Congress to pass legislation to disclose the beneficial owners of LLCs. A federal solution to this issue is necessary because individual states compete for incorporation revenue and therefore have little incentive to reform on their own. In Nevada, for example, the process of registering a company has been described as “easier than getting a library card.” A federal requirement to disclose the true owners and controlling interests of LLCs would allow law enforcement to scrutinize the “ghost corporations” that pop up overnight in states like Nevada or Delaware – and that could be used to funnel dark money into our politics.
Real estate deals are also susceptible to foreign money laundering because they are largely exempt from the “know your customer” rules that apply to the banking industry.
This allows foreign entities to use shell companies to park their wealth in the United States or to channel that money to U.S. political interests (for example, by purchasing real estate at above-market prices). Implementing more comprehensive disclosure requirements in high-end real estate and prohibiting all-cash sales above certain thresholds would help create transparency in this sector.
The fact that we don’t know exactly how much foreign dark money is being channeled into U.S. politics is precisely why we need to reduce our vulnerabilities. There is ample evidence of dark money penetrating other democracies, and no reason to believe we are immune from this risk.
[W]e can’t ignore the threat posed by foreign dark money. With a new Congress about to be sworn in, there’s an opportunity to finally end the permissive environment for foreign dark money in this country. Campaign finance reform is certainly a necessary part of the solution, but so too is disclosure of beneficial ownership and greater transparency in real estate transactions. As matters of national security, these are issues that should be of interest to both Democrats and Republicans who want to reduce our vulnerability to foreign corrupt influence.