Saturday, December 14, 2019

Saturday Morning Male Beauty

Britain’s Ominous Portent for Democrats

Some would argue that one cannot draw parallels between the politics of the United Kingdom and the United States. Different facts and circumstances apply the argument goes, yet I believe there are parallels that need to be heeded, especially since the motivations of the pro-Brexit forces in the UK and Trump's base are very similar.  What are these? First, there is an abiding hatred of foreigners and non-whites.  Second, there is a contempt for globalization and those they consider the elite - often those who are educated and take a more progressive view.  Third, there is a misguided desire to restore a past that can never be recreated.  The age of the globe circling British Empire will never return, nor will the 1950's America and the white privilege that it embodied.  Given these and other parallels, a column in the New York Times argues that the disaster suffered by the Labor Party in the UK ought to be a wake up call for U.S. Democrats, especially those on the far left of the party.  Will they get the message, probably not, especially among Sanders and Warren supporters.  Here are column highlights:   
When Britain flummoxed and flabbergasted the world by voting in 2016 to leave the European Union, it seemed like a one-off: An unexpected gamble by a normally prudent country, but nothing that signified a profound shift beyond the United Kingdom and Europe.
Donald Trump’s election a few months later proved otherwise. Brexit was a portent, not a fluke. The British electorate may have been incautious, but it was ahead of the trend. The desire, however misplaced or ugly, to “take back” control of a country from supercilious political elites was a global phenomenon, not a local event.
Don’t think it can’t happen again, in much the same way.
That’s a lesson Democrats ought to draw, quickly and clearly, from the thumping victory Boris Johnson won for the Conservative Party on Thursday. As recently as September, some left-wing pundits and politicians were glibly writing off Johnson as a “failed prime minister,” peddling a “fantasy” of a renegotiated Brexit and facing “political disgrace” after losing his majority in Parliament.
Today, . . . . the Tories have their largest majority since 1987, and Labour has sustained its worst defeat since 1935.
How did he do this? In four ways, each of which has parallels with Trump.
First, Johnson was fortunate in his political foes. He ran against the most avowedly leftist frontbench the Labour Party has put forward since the early 1980s. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn proudly calls himself a “socialist.” He rails against a “rigged system” that supposedly exists for the benefit of a handful of billionaires. His campaign promised free college, dramatic increases in health spending, a hike in the minimum wage, massive infrastructure spending, new taxes on the rich, and a “new green deal.”
Sound familiar? It’s the Warren-Sanders manifesto, only with £ rather than $ signs attached.
Second, Johnson was forward looking. He ran as the candidate of Brexit — not, as Theresa May had, as its reluctant and dutiful custodian, but as its persevering and happy warrior. Brexit wasn’t just about unyoking the U.K. from the E.U. It was also a statement of British self-belief, self-reliance and capacity for self-rule.
If impeachment — which I support as a matter of constitutional duty but fear on political grounds — winds up helping Trump get re-elected, it will be for similar reasons. That is, Democrats got so wrapped up in trying to bring the president down by legal and legislative means that they forgot to bring him down by ordinary political ones. The main job of any competent opposition is to fight the next election, not relitigate the past.
Third, Johnson was attuned to the moment. The prime minister is an ideological opportunist, not a purist. This upsets his critics on the right, who dislike some of his big-spending promises. And it confirms the view of his critics on the left, who see his political plasticity as being of a piece with his moral plasticity.
What matters more is relatability, reliability and results. Does the candidate get people like me? Will he keep his political promises? And has he achieved something that directly and tangibly benefits me?
This is Trump’s calling card, as it is Johnson’s. Are there equivalent figures on the left in the U.S. or U.K. willing to shake free from their party’s increasingly tightfitting, ideological straitjackets?
Finally, Johnson has benefited from critics whose mode of analysis is that anything and everything he does is dumb, dishonest, wretched and ruinous. Lately, they warn that he will bring about the end of the country itself. Similarly in the United States, some anti-Trump pundits have been forecasting economic decline and doom for three years straight as the economy continues to grow and unemployment plummets.
Bad things can — and, inevitably, will — happen. In the meantime, what we have is a trans-Atlantic case of boys crying wolf. Does it ever occur to the critics that, by constantly inferring or predicting the worst about either man, they make their less-than-worst moments look good, and their good ones seem positively great?
Like Johnson, Trump is a formidable incumbent. To oppose him with Corbynite candidates and progressive primal screams is to ensure his re-election.

To me, much to the likely screams of left wing Democrats, I suspect the columnist is right on target. 

Friday, December 13, 2019

Friday Morning Male Beauty

How Democracies Die

History tells us that individuals and nations often do not make good decisions and live to regret mistakes in judgment.  The election in Britain yesterday may be one such example as that nation appears hell bent now to leave the European Union thereby setting the stage from new efforts in Scotland to break away and perhaps even Northern Ireland to follow suit. England may revel in it xenophobia and go it along attitude now, but down the it may be a different tale.  History also tells us that democracies die often not just because of the rise of a strong man, but also because too many citizens and allow it to happen.  The end of democracies from as far back as the death of the Roman Republic also lays blame for the decline of democratic rule on politicians willing to sell their souls in order to cling to personal power - at least in the short term - with little or care for the nation's or their constituents long term future.  We are now witnessing such conduct by most elected Republicans in America. Like the English, many Americans may come to long regret their shortsightedness of today in the light of a far worse tomorrow.  A column in the New York Times makes this case and urges one to not give up the resistance.  Here are highlights:  
The despair felt by climate scientists and environmentalists watching helplessly as something precious and irreplaceable is destroyed is sometimes described as “climate grief.”
Lately, I think I’m experiencing democracy grief. For anyone who was, like me, born after the civil rights movement finally made democracy in America real, liberal democracy has always been part of the climate, as easy to take for granted as clean air or the changing of the seasons. When I contemplate the sort of illiberal oligarchy that would await my children should Donald Trump win another term, the scale of the loss feels so vast that I can barely process it.
After Trump’s election, a number of historians and political scientists rushed out with books explaining, as one title put it, “How Democracies Die.” In the years since, it’s breathtaking how much is dead already. Though the president will almost certainly be impeached for extorting Ukraine to aid his re-election, he is equally certain to be acquitted in the Senate, a tacit confirmation that he is, indeed, above the law. His attorney general is a shameless partisan enforcer. Professional civil servants are purged, replaced by apparatchiks. The courts are filling up with young, hard-right ideologues. One recently confirmed judge, 40-year-old Steven Menashi, has written approvingly of ethnonationalism.
In “How Democracies Die,” Professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt of Harvard describe how, in failing democracies, “the referees of the democratic game were brought over to the government’s side, providing the incumbent with both a shield against constitutional challenges and a powerful — and ‘legal’ — weapon with which to assault its opponents.” This is happening before our eyes.

In The Washington Post, Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush and a Never Trump conservative, described his spiritual struggle against feelings of political desperation: “Sustaining this type of distressed uncertainty for long periods, I can attest, is like putting arsenic in your saltshaker.”
I reached out to a number of therapists, who said they’re seeing this politically induced misery in their patients. . . . . Karen Starr, a psychologist who practices in Manhattan and on Long Island, some of her patients were “in a state of alarm,” but that’s changed into “more of a chronic feeling that’s bordering on despair.” Among those most affected, she said, are the Holocaust survivors she sees. “It’s about this general feeling that the institutions that we rely on to protect us from a dangerous individual might fail,” she said.
Trump, she said, has made bigotry more open and acceptable, something her patients feel in their daily lives. “When you’re dealing with people of color’s mental health, systemic racism is a big part of that,” she said.
Obviously, this is hardly the first time that America has failed to live up to its ideals. But the ideals themselves used to be a nearly universal lodestar. The civil rights movement, and freedom movements that came after it, succeeded because the country could be shamed by the distance between its democratic promises and its reality. That is no longer true.
Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans are often incredulous seeing the party of Ronald Reagan allied with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, but the truth is, there’s no reason they should be in conflict. The enmity between America and Russia was ideological. First it was liberal democracy versus communism. Then it was liberal democracy versus authoritarian kleptocracy.
But Trump’s political movement is pro-authoritarian and pro-oligarch. It has no interest in preserving pluralism, free and fair elections or any version of the rule of law that applies to the powerful as well as the powerless. It’s contemptuous of the notion of America as a lofty idea rather than a blood-and-soil nation.
The nemeses of the Trumpist movement are liberals — in both the classical and American sense of the world — not America’s traditional geopolitical foes. This is something new in our lifetime.
Thus we have a total breakdown in epistemological solidarity. In the impeachment committee hearings, Republicans insist with a straight face that Trump was deeply concerned about corruption in Ukraine. Republican Senators like Ted Cruz of Texas, who is smart enough to know better, repeat Russian propaganda accusing Ukraine of interfering in the 2016 election. The Department of Justice’s Inspector General report refutes years of Republican deep state conspiracy theories about an F.B.I. plot to subvert Trump’s campaign, and it makes no difference whatsoever to the promoters of those theories, who pronounce themselves totally vindicated.
But despair is worth discussing, because it’s something that organizers and Democratic candidates should be addressing head on. Left to fester, it can lead to apathy and withdrawal. Channeled properly, it can fuel an uprising. I was relieved to hear that despite her sometimes overwhelming sense of civic sadness, Landsman’s activism hasn’t let up. She’s been spending a bit less than 20 hours a week on political organizing, and expects to go back to 40 or more after the holidays. “The only other option is to quit, and accept it, and I’m not ready to go there yet,” she said. Democracy grief isn’t like regular grief. Acceptance isn’t how you move on from it. Acceptance is itself a kind of death.
I for one will not quite.  I fear too much for the future of my children and grandchildren if Trumpism and Republican treason is left unopposed.  Thankfully, at least for the next two years, Virginia is poised to do its part to oppose Trump/Republican misrule.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Republican Climate Denial Is Even Scarier Than Trumpism

Living on the sea coast in Southeastern Virginia, one is very conscious of the ocean and sea level - and the rising sea levels.  Places such as Norfolk, Virginia, and Miami, Florida, now somewhat regularly experience street flood at high tide on clear sunny days.  Add a severe northeaster or a hurricane to the mix ad the problems skyrocket. One need not be an oceanographer or climate expert to notice that something is indeed happening. Yet, Republicans representing not only coastal areas threatened by rising sea levels but also mid-west regions suffering from significant changes in weather patterns (and the adverse impact of Trump's trade wars) refuse to utter the words "climate change" or, if they do, it is only in the context of claiming it is a hoax alternately being pushed by scientists with an agenda or, if one believes Der Trumpenführer, China.  In the process, they are threatening both America's log term security but also that of the entire world. A column in the New York Times looks at the corruption and dangerous nature of the GOP in its current form.  Here are excepts:
The most terrifying aspect of the U.S. political drama isn’t the revelation that [Trump] the president has abused his power for personal gain. If you didn’t see that coming from the day Donald Trump was elected, you weren’t paying attention.
No, the real revelation has been the utter depravity of the Republican Party. Essentially every elected or appointed official in that party has chosen to defend Trump by buying into crazy, debunked conspiracy theories. That is, one of America’s two major parties is beyond redemption; given that, it’s hard to see how democracy can long endure, even if Trump is defeated.
However, the scariest reporting I’ve seen recently has been about science, not politics. A new federal report finds that climate change in the Arctic is accelerating, matching what used to be considered worst-case scenarios. And there are indications that Arctic warming may be turning into a self-reinforcing spiral, as the thawing tundra itself releases vast quantities of greenhouse gases.
Catastrophic sea-level rise, heat waves that make major population centers uninhabitable, and more are now looking more likely than not, and sooner rather than later.
Why, after all, has the world failed to take action on climate . . . .  one factor stands out above all others: the fanatical opposition of America’s Republicans, who are the world’s only major climate-denialist party. Because of this opposition, the United States hasn’t just failed to provide the kind of leadership that would have been essential to global action, it has become a force against action.
[C]limate denial was in many ways the crucible for Trumpism. Long before the cries of “fake news,” Republicans were refusing to accept science that contradicted their prejudices. Long before Republicans began attributing every negative development to the machinations of the “deep state,” they were insisting that global warming was a gigantic hoax perpetrated by a vast global cabal of corrupt scientists.
[S]ome of those responsible for these abuses are now ensconced in the Trump administration. Notably, Ken Cuccinelli, who as attorney general of Virginia engaged in a long witch-hunt against the climate scientist Michael Mann, is now at the Department of Homeland Security, where he pushes anti-immigrant policies with, as The Times reports, “little concern for legal restraints.”
But why have Republicans become the party of climate doom? Money is an important part of the answer: In the current cycle Republicans have received 97 percent of political contributions from the coal industry, 88 percent from oil and gas.
However, I don’t believe that it’s just about the money. My sense is that right-wingers believe, probably correctly, that there’s a sort of halo effect surrounding any form of public action. Once you accept that we need policies to protect the environment, you’re more likely to accept the idea that we should have policies to ensure access to health care, child care, and more. So the government must be prevented from doing anything good, lest it legitimize a broader progressive agenda.
[I]t takes a special kind of depravity to respond to those incentives by denying facts, embracing insane conspiracy theories and putting the very future of civilization at risk.
Unfortunately, that kind of depravity isn’t just present in the modern Republican Party, it has effectively taken over the whole institution. There used to be at least some Republicans with principles; . . . But those people have either experienced total moral collapse (hello, Senator Graham) or left the party.
The only way that either American democracy or a livable planet can survive is if the Republican Party as it now exists is effectively dismantled and replaced with something better — maybe with a party that has the same name, but completely different values. This may sound like an impossible dream. But it’s the only hope we have.

Thursday Morning Male Beauty

Joe Biden's Ukraine and Age Problems

Like I suspect many, I have real concerns over Joe Biden's age not to mention my fears that he is not up to defeating Donald Trump - the same fears apply to Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.  Add to this Biden's Ukraine/Hunter Biden problem that one article in New York Magazine notes will become the equivalent of Hillary Clinton's email server if Biden wins the Democrat nomination.  Biden has now compounded his age problem by indicating that he would be a one term president should he win the 2020 election. A second piece in New York Magazine looks at this problem and argues that if Biden himself has worries about his age, then so should the rest of us. All of this suggests that the Democrats need to desperately find a candidate who isn't too old, yet who can beat Trump in the critical handful of Mid-West states that will likely decide the 2020 election in the Electoral College (a system that needs to be abolished in my view since it failed it purpose by not refusing to certify Trump in 2016).  First highlights from the piece on Biden's Ukraine/Hunter Biden problem:  
In the waning years of the Obama administration, Hunter Biden, whose life was in a downward spiral, took a job with the Ukrainian energy company Burisma, which was transparently attempting to gain influence with Hunter’s father. The maneuver was unsuccessful for Burisma (which received no favorable treatment from the vice-president), fairly successful for Hunter (who received a hefty paycheck for minimal work), and has left a residue of low-grade sleaze that Joe Biden’s campaign has proven unable to scrape away. The dilemma this poses for Biden, and his party, is what — if anything — they can do about this problem.
So far, Biden’s responses to questioning on his son’s role, which range from challenging his interlocutor to a push-up contest to trailing off awkwardly, have hardly allayed the concern. But it’s difficult to think of a better response, since a true answer is extremely difficult for a politician to communicate. And the true answer is: Yeah, I screwed up, but it’s actually not that big of a deal.
Biden’s error is that he created what used to be called “the appearance of impropriety,” a phrase that was common back before actual impropriety rendered it into a quaint anachronism. The appearance of impropriety is that Hunter Biden made money from Burisma, a Ukrainian firm, at a time when Joe Biden was directing the administration’s Ukraine policy, creating the appearance that Burisma bought Joe Biden’s favor. Indeed, President Trump has relentlessly charged that Burisma did in fact buy Biden’s favor. This is false.
His [Biden’s] error was allowing his son to cash in on the false perception that he could sell access to his father. And by all accounts, Biden was too distracted by his job and distraught by the death of his other son to intervene in Hunter’s actions. It’s not nothing, but it is a small thing.
Democrats have bitter experience with this sort of flaw. Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of State is an eerily similar precursor. It was a small error borne of neglect . . . . And Trump turned the small error into a gigantic scandal, accusing her of heinous crimes and ludicrously insisting she ought to be imprisoned over them.
The email scandal was not just a Fox News narrative. It dominated mainstream news coverage of Clinton’s campaign, because it was a real issue, albeit a small one. Mainstream reporters made a historic blunder by devoting far more attention to the email issue than it deserved, but this is an inevitable result of the incentive system in the mainstream press, which prioritizes critical coverage over passive transmission of a candidate’s chosen message.
[O]ne of the retrospective ironies of the email scandal is that even by the narrow standards of handling government information security, ignoring every other avenue of potential misconduct, Clinton was the superior candidate. Trump’s administration has committed numerous security mishaps. As Philip Bump noted in March, the ranks of Trump officials who used private email to conduct official business include Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, Stephen Miller, Gary Cohn, Steve Bannon, K.T. McFarland, and Reince Priebus. Since then, Nikki Haley has been found to have done the same.
Reporters aren’t going to stop asking Biden tough questions about a legitimate ethical shortcoming just because his opponent’s sins dwarf Biden’s a thousandfold. Clinton’s example suggests that an apology wouldn’t do Biden much good. Maybe the solution is not to nominate Biden at all — though that strategy assumes Democrats can find somebody so pure nothing in their past can be turned into a Clinton email or Burisma level story.
We are hurtling toward a recurrence of the 2016 nightmare.
The second piece looks at Biden's age problem.  Here are highlights:
Joe Biden’s top political priority is to make Joe Biden a one-term president.
The 77-year-old Democratic front-runner has reportedly informed his closest advisers that if he is elected in 2020, he will not seek reelection in 2024. As Politico reports: According to four people who regularly talk to Biden, all of whom asked for anonymity to discuss internal campaign matters, it is virtually inconceivable that he will run for re-election in 2024, when he would be the first octogenarian president.
Some in the Democratic front-runner’s camp believe his limited ambitions are an asset worth advertising. After all, younger voters have evinced little enthusiasm for Biden, with only 11 percent of Democrats under 35 backing him in a recent Quinnipiac poll. Perhaps Biden would be best able to unite his party by selling himself as a kind of rusty old wedge for prying Donald Trump from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: In this economy, the only thing that can stop a bad old white man with a penchant for incoherent rambling is a mediocre old white man with a penchant for incoherent rambling. But don’t worry — Great Uncle Joe won’t linger too long after solving the White House’s pest problem.
This pitch has its attractions, though its appeal is somewhat contingent upon the identity of Biden’s heir apparent. And the moment he actually names a specific individual, the gambit becomes less broadly appealing. But even if we stipulate that Biden’s plans for an early retirement would mitigate millennial dissatisfaction with his nomination, those plans would still do more to indict his candidacy than enhance it.
In the immediate term, leaking word that you expect to be unable or unwilling to fulfill the duties of the presidency in five years raises the question of how you can be sure you’ll be up to the job in four. Which is to say, by letting his plans slip to Politico, Biden’s campaign has accentuated the candidate’s core weakness: that he is 77, but doesn’t sound a day over 86.
If Biden wins the nomination, he will have to combat the perception that his age has rendered him unfit (or, in our spritely 73-year-old president’s phrasing, too “sleepy”) for the presidency. That’s going to be harder to do when you’ve already signaled that you’re so concerned about your own stamina, you’ve resigned yourself to being a lame-duck president from the day you take office.
Given the Democratic Party’s myriad alternative options, picking a 2020 standard-bearer who won’t run in 2024 would be the opposite of pragmatic. It would needlessly increase the GOP’s chances of reclaiming the White House after a short hiatus.
Biden has built up a lot of goodwill among Democratic voters. And as of this writing, he appears well on his way to winning the party’s nomination. But if he knows he doesn’t have eight years of public service left in him, he should do the right thing for his party and country and stop trying to serve four.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

America Starts to Feel a Little More Soviet

NYC's St. George Ukrainian Catholic Church.
Many historians and columnists - as well as this blog - have lamented the drift of America towards an authoritarian regime where actions once expected only from dictatorships and the so-called banana republics of the past are now common place among the Trump/Pence regime and Republican sycophants. America's decline is being noticed abroad as well where other NATO leaders whisper about Trump - America's version of Kim Jong-un. It is also being noticed by those who immigrated to America seeking a better life and a political system that supposedly held to ideals embodied in the U.S. Constitution who now, as noted in a piece in The Atlantic, feel as if they are witnessing a Soviet/Putin form of corrupt authoritarian rule.   The world is watching to see if Congress steps up to defend America's supposed ideals by impeaching and removing Trump from office or if we are witnessing the first major step in the death of the American republic.  Here are excerpts from the Atlantic piece: 

Walk down a barely marked stairway into a basement in New York’s East Village on a Sunday morning, and you may find yourself in a hub of Ukrainian American life. Members of the vast Ukrainian diaspora regularly gather here, at a church-run restaurant called Streecha, trading the latest on Ukrainian politics over plates of pierogi and bowls of borscht. As formal impeachment hearings against President Donald Trump were finally getting under way recently, several of the patrons here told me that America had lately been feeling more like home—and not in a good way.
Diplomats and officials as prominent as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have attempted to revive Ronald Reagan–style rhetoric about America’s role as the world’s foremost defender of liberty and freedom, including signaling support for Ukrainian self-determination. Meanwhile, [Trump] the president and his associates appear to be more invested in courting power and personal gain, from Trump’s cozy press conferences with Russian President Vladimir Putin to his attempt to get the Ukrainian government to investigate the family of former Vice President Joe Biden.
The Ukrainians I met here weren’t surprised by this Trumpian mode of politics, in part because it’s very similar to the status quo in the part of the world they come from. The impeachment inquiry is a test not just of Trump’s character, but of the country’s: Is a pitch for America’s exceptionalism still plausible, or is corruption the only true universal principle any government will ever embrace?
“I used to think that American politicians and politics is much more nice than Ukrainian,” Natalie, a short, chatty woman who gave her age as “in her 30s or 40s,” told me. “Come on. It’s even worse.” . . . . The United States government is just as corrupt as Ukraine’s, Natalie said, comparing political leaders here to squabbling seventh graders. This realization has been disappointing, she said, because she is an American by choice: She came to the U.S. a little less than a decade ago, after feeling pushed out of Ukraine by instability and lack of opportunity.
[Trump’s] The president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and his business associates have come under fire for trying to coordinate a Ukrainian investigation into the Bidens. And Trump, of course, is now the subject of an impeachment inquiry focused on his apparent attempt to pressure Ukrianian President Volodymyr Zelensky into a similar investigation.
As this unlikely series of events has unfolded, Trump and his allies have taken to casually demonizing Ukraine as suspicious and untrustworthy, calling back to Cold War–era stereotypes of Soviet spies and no-goodniks. Leaders ranging from Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana to [Trump] the president himself have promoted the false claim that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. (Kennedy later walked back his statement.)
The portrait of his [Trump’s] behavior that has emerged in news reports and congressional testimony is one of using his office for personal gain: He sought to leverage military aid to a vulnerable ally in order to damage a major political opponent. This move had real consequences for Ukraine, where millions of people are currently living under Russian occupation in the eastern part of the country and soldiers fighting Russian troops are underarmed and strapped for resources. The message of his actions was clear, said Natalie, the woman I met at Streecha: “Trump has no idea where is Ukraine, what is Ukraine, and what’s going on in Ukraine.”
Iwan Kinal, a 35-year-old who grew up in New Jersey and wore a furry black Cossack hat as we stood outside St. George Ukrainian Catholic Church in the cold, told me he’s a lifelong Republican and even likes some of Trump’s policies. But he’s been disturbed to hear the president echo what he described as Russian propaganda about Crimea, Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula, which Russia seized in 2014. “I’m disappointed in his treatment and his opinion of Ukraine from the start,” Kinal said of Trump.
As the impeachment inquiry and other investigations have revealed, Russian propaganda has in fact infiltrated American political discourse, sometimes at the very highest levels of government. Fiona Hill, who served for two years on Trump’s National Security Council, said during November’s impeachment hearings that members of the House Intelligence Committee itself were perpetrating “a fictional narrative” created by Russian security services that Russia did not, in fact, interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and that Ukraine may have done so instead. The truth has become subservient to political expediency, and the American government has become a little more similar to any other strongman regime.
Just as Ukraine has long been a football in Russia’s regional schemes, it has now become a Rorschach test in America’s partisan feuds, consequences be damned. “Ukrainian people have been dying for five years in that territory, and they still do,” said Natalie, referring to the Donbas region, where Ukraine is attempting to fight off a Russian incursion. But in America, all that seems to matter are politicians’ personal fortunes and the next domestic elections, reminiscent of so many strongman regimes. As people die in her home country, Natalie said, all of this “is just a game, unfortunately.”
An irony is that the church referenced in the article is where my father was baptized.  His parents fled Austria-Hungry shortly before WWI and settled in New York City.  My paternal grand parents fled a monarchy for political freedom.  Now, I find myself living in a country drifting towards Trump's self-styled monarchy if Congress fails to act and stop the cancer.

Wednesday Male Beauty

William Barr Needs to Be Removed from Office

The Attorney General of the United States ("AG") is supposed to be the nation's top lawyer and is supposed to oversee the Department of Justice and by extension the FBI -  all for the goal of furthering the protection and interests of the American public. Unfortunately, the current AG, William Barr ( a bloated toad, in my view), has perverted his office and is now serving as the attorney of Donald Trump and conducting investigation that further Trump's interest even as he denigrates and attacks the FBI and spins untruths. It's the type of behavior one expects in authoritarian regimes such as Putin's Russia, not the behavior of an AG seeking to uphold his or her oath of office.  Columns in both the Washington Post and the New York Times make the case for Barr's removal and detail his departure from the duties he should be performing.  The Post column says this: 
[Trump’s] his most senior aides have done him no favors by acting as accelerators rather than brakes on his unconscionable conduct.
Three senior officials, in particular, could have tried to dissuade [Trump] the president from misusing his office for personal gain, but there is no evidence that they ever attempted to do so. History will record their names along with Trump’s in the annals of ignominy. [Trump's] The president’s principal accomplices in his brazen assault on the rule of law are Vice President Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Attorney General William P. Barr.
The attorney general has already misled the country about the findings of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation by falsely claiming that the president had been absolved of collusion and obstruction of justice. Barr then refused to investigate complaints that a crime had been committed during Trump’s call with Zelensky. Now, he is flying around the world to pressure allies to cooperate with his politically motivated probe designed to show that the investigation of Trump’s ties to Russia was actually a “witch hunt” by the so-called deep state — just as Trump claims. Barr’s highly improper requests have stirred a backlash in Italy, Australia and Britain — close allies that have no desire to be thrust into U.S. domestic politics.

The Times column examines the ways in which Barr is damaging the FBI and law enforcement in general and causing damage that will out last his tenure.  He needs to be removed from office.  Here are column highlights: 
Donald Trump famously said that he could shoot somebody in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not “lose any voters.” I don’t know about that. But I’m confident that he wouldn’t lose Bill Barr.
Execution privilege, Barr would probably call it. He’d release a statement or hold a news conference to say that Trump had a spastic trigger finger or was triggered by Adam Schiff or was set up by those dastardly Ukrainians, who are never up to any good. Such is the magnitude of Barr’s servility, the doggedness of his deference. He’s [Trump's] the president’s moral launderer. Trump does evil, and Barr washes him clean.
As attorney general, he’s supposed to be the nation’s lawyer. But he has bought into the autocratic delusion that Trump equals America, that national interest and presidential prerogative are inextricably intertwined. So he’s Trump’s advocate, come hell or high crimes, as surely as Pat Cipollone or Rudy Giuliani is.
On Monday, showing fresh contempt for the people who work under him in the Justice Department, Barr renounced a determination by the department’s inspector general that the F.B.I.’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia was legitimate and that anti-Trump bias was not its animating force. He did this instantly. And then, on Tuesday, did it again, with even less subtlety and more sanctimony. . . . He was dismissing the whole effort as rotten. It was an eerie echo of his efforts last spring, when he sought to neuter Robert Mueller’s findings about the Trump campaign’s openness to Russian help and the president’s attempts to obstruct justice. But what of the Constitution? What of common decency? Barr isn’t concerning himself with those. To appreciate his perspective, you must travel back two months, to the University of Notre Dame, where he delivered a speech that garnered some headlines but not nearly enough of them. You should note his remarks’ obsession with morality and you should try not to laugh, the same way you stifle chuckles when you’re reminded that Mike Pompeo is a putatively worshipful Christian and you try to square that with how he abetted the persecution of Marie Yovanovitch, leaves his State Department charges twisting in the wind and genuflects before a false prophet. In Trump he trusts.
You should dwell on the part of Barr’s jeremiad where he says that “men are subject to powerful passions and appetites and, if unrestrained, are capable of ruthlessly riding roughshod over their neighbors and the community.” Ruthless? Roughshod? That’s Trump in an alliterative nutshell, but Barr seemed to be perversely oblivious to that.
All these supposedly godly men — Barr, Pompeo, Mike Pence, Ben Carson, Rick Perry and more — cluster around such a demonstrably godless one. They rationalize that Trump’s indulgence of certain religious factions absolves him of his sins. Barr is the principal agent of that absolution. [I]f Barr could dig out his conscience from under all those layers of ego, he’d see that the rapacious individual in direst need of restraint is the one he’s letting roam free.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

More Tuesday Male Beauty

I'd definitely buy the razor if he came with it.

Federal Court Blocks Trump Plan to Spend Military Funds on Border Wall

Those of us who took "government" and "civics" courses in high school - back in the "olden days" in the view of some - learned that Congress enacts the laws and authorizes federal government spending and that the president and the rest of the executive branch are tasked with implementing those laws and implementing the spending enacted by Congress. Apparently, either Der Trumpenführer missed out on those classes or, more likely, he views himself as above the law - a monarch, perhaps.  El Paso County in Texas sued to block Trumps effort to divert $3.6 billion in funding allocated by Congress for military construction and projects to build his ridiculous wall (which where constructed is being regularly shown to to not be able to keep refugees out).  Today, a federal court - the other co-equal branch of the federal government - ruled the action was illegal and granted a permanent injunction to block the misapplication of the Congress' allocated funds.   The racist Trump/Pence regime will likely appeal, but the higher courts ought to affirm the district court ruling if they apply the law and do not improperly play politics. The Washington Post has details:
A federal judge in El Paso on Tuesday blocked the Trump administration’s plan to pay for border barrier construction with $3.6 billion in military funds, ruling that the administration does not have the authority to divert money appropriated by Congress for a different purpose.
The Trump administration was planning to use those funds to build 175 miles of steel barriers, and the court’s permanent injunction is a setback for Trump’s pledge to erect 450 linear miles of fencing by the end of next year.
District Court Judge David Briones, a Bill Clinton appointee, said in his ruling that the administration’s attempt to reprogram military construction funds by emergency proclamation was unlawful and that the plaintiffs in the case were entitled to a permanent injunction halting the government.
[T]he ruling affects roughly one-third of the money the president plans to spend on his signature project. Briones’s decision does not apply to other money available to the administration, including reprogrammed military counternarcotics funds.
The ruling marked the first instance of a local jurisdiction successfully suing to block construction of Trump’s border barrier.
El Paso County, one of the two plaintiffs in the suit, had argued that the new barrier was unwanted by the community and would inflict permanent harm on its reputation as a welcoming, cross-border place.
Kristy Parker, an attorney with the nonprofit group Protect Democracy who represented the plaintiffs, said the decision means [Trump] the president cannot spend money on the project that wasn’t authorized by Congress.
“The president can’t use the National Emergencies Act to override a congressional appropriations decision,” Parker said. “That specifically means he cannot use funds appropriated for military construction and divert it for use to build border barriers.”
Kudos to the federal judge.

Tuesday Morning Male Beauty

Pensacola Gunman Changed After Trip to Native Saudi Arabia

American foreign policy continues to be based on the fiction that Saudi Arabia and the Saudi regime are "friends" and "allies" to the United States.  Historically, the fiction traces back to one word: Oil.   America may now be much more independent from reliance on Saudi oil than once the case - America is now among the largest producers - but the nation's foreign policy has not changed.  Worse yet, the fiction ignores the reality that Saudi Arabia remains the largest financier of Islamic fundamentalism in the world.  American policy focuses on Iran as the greatest transgressor while ignoring the truth of Saudi Arabia's role in Islamic extremism.  There is a reason the vast majority of the 9-11 highjackers were Saudis.  Now, with the apparent terrorist incident at the Pensacola, Florida Naval facility, we are once again seeing the fruits of Saudi religious extremism (to say nothing of that nation's horrific human rights abuses).  A piece in the Washington Post looks at the apparent radicalization of the Pensacola gunman.  Here are excerpts:
PENSACOLA, Fla. — The Saudi air force trainee who killed three classmates at a Florida Navy base last week was a gifted student whose personality appeared to change after a trip to his native country this year, acquaintances and officials familiar with the case said Monday.
Ahmed Mohammed al-Shamrani was described as “strange” and “angry” in the weeks leading up to Friday’s shooting rampage, but schoolmates and other acquaintances said he showed no outward sign that he was preparing to open fire inside a classroom building where he had been training to become a military aviator. The shooting, which also left eight people injured, is being treated by the FBI as a possible terrorist attack.
“He looked like he was angry at the world,” said the owner of an Indian restaurant that Shamrani and several other Saudi students regularly patronized between classes. The man, like several other businesses owners, spoke on the condition that neither his name nor the restaurant’s name be revealed, citing fears of a backlash from customers. [I]nvestigators are building a profile of the gunman from interviews with dozens of acquaintances, including fellow Saudi students, as well as from a Twitter account that authorities say belonged to Shamrani. The gunman, who was shot dead by a sheriff’s deputy responding to the shooting, is thought to have written a “will” that was posted to the account a few hours before the rampage. In it, he blasts U.S. policies in Muslim countries. The document makes no references to any particular terrorist group. A Saudi government official familiar with Shamrani described the 21-year-old as “an A student” who was “well-liked and kept to himself.” The official said the Saudi government was unaware of a formal complaint filed by Shamrani in April in which he accused an instructor of humiliating him by calling him a derogatory nickname in front of other classmates. [H]is demeanor seemed to change following a recent home leave, several students said, with Shamrani becoming more withdrawn and often appearing sullen, officials familiar with the matter said. Local business owners had a similar impression. . . . . “To us, he was not normal,” the businessman said. He recalled that Shamrani stared at him and his staff in an “angry, challenging” way. But he also noted that Shamrani showed no obvious signs of religious extremism, refraining, for example, from asking if the restaurant served halal meat eaten by observant Muslims. None of the acquaintances recalled Shamrani discussing religion or politics. But FBI officials were drawing insights from the alleged gunman’s Twitter account. The typo-filled will apparently posted by Shamrani is addressed to the “American people.” The writer says he does not dislike Americans per se — “I don’t hate you because of your freedoms,” he begins — but that he hates U.S. policies that he views as anti-Muslim and “evil.” “What I see from America is the supporting of Israel, which is invasion of Muslim countries,” the letter states. “I see invasion of many countries by its troops. I see Guantánamo Bay. I see cruise missiles, cluster bombs and UAV.”
The posting has been widely circulated on Islamist websites, though no group has issued a credible claim of sponsoring or encouraging Shamrani’s actions.

Monday, December 09, 2019

More Monday Male Beauty

Inspector General: Russia Investigation Wasn’t an FBI Witch Hunt

Like Hitler and the Nazi regime, Donald Trump works to use two propaganda efforts to subvert the truth and to play to his knuckle dragging base.  One is to attack the independent media. that endeavors to report the truth regardless of whether or not it is popular with Trump and what Hillary Clinton aptly referred to as the "deplorables" in his base.  As a recent piece in the New York Times noted: Hitler and the Nazis had found the simple slogan they repeated again and again to discredit reporters: “Lügenpresse.” . . . .  which in English is “fake news.”  The other method is to promote conspiracy theories and outright lies.  One of the latter is Trump's refrain that the entire Russiagate investigation was a "witch hunt" and therefore should not be believed by his cult- like true believers. With the release of the Inspector General report, the Trump "witch hunt" mantra against the FBI suffered a major blow - much to the chagrin of Attorney General William Barr, perhaps, in my opinion, one of the most corrupt individuals to ever serve as Attorney General. A piece in New York Magazine looks at the inspector general report. Here are article excerpts:
Throughout both the Mueller and the subsequent House Intelligence Committee investigations of Trump campaign and administration dealings with foreign governments, [Trump's] the president’s allies have relentlessly promoted a counter-narrative full of lurid conspiracy theories. They all date back to an alleged “deep state” plot in 2016 to keep Trump from becoming president by using allegations allegedly planted by Hillary Clinton’s campaign to accuse his campaign of colluding with Russia.
A long-awaited Department of Justice report in response to these claims from Inspector General Michael Horowitz has largely exonerated the FBI of charges of political bias, while criticizing the reliance on the so-called Steele Dossier in the agency’s application for a wiretap on one key Trump operative, foreign-policy adviser Carter Page. Horowitz’s boss Attorney General William Barr is not happy about it, according to the Washington Examiner . . . . Barr made clear his displeasure with Monday’s report almost as soon as it came out.
While Horowitz suggested that the wiretap on Page was not properly secured, he views that sideshow as irrelevant to the bigger investigation and does not think it represents some sort of coordinated effort to invent a scandal designed to damage Trump’s campaign, as Politico explains in its takeaways from the IG report: . . . Horowitz found that the Crossfire Hurricane team — the codename agents gave to the Russia inquiry — did not receive Steele’s election reporting materials until after the investigation had already been opened using information about Papadopoulos the team received from a foreign ally.
Horowitz also found that the decision to pursue an investigation was above the pay grades of the “FBI Lovebirds” Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, the key figures in the right-wing counter-narrative whose emails to each other displayed hostility to Trump.
Horowitz will appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee later this week to discuss his findings, and you can be sure Republicans will make every effort to link his criticisms of the pre-Trump Justice Department and FBI to the “witch hunt” they are alleging during impeachment proceedings currently in the hands of the House Judiciary Committee. But it looks like slim pickings for those claiming that candidate or President Trump is an innocent victim of partisan shenanigans.

Monday Morning Male Beauty

U.S. In Afghanistan: At war With the Truth

A piece in the Washington Post blows the lid off the disastrous war in Afghanistan that indicates the senior American military and political official seemingly learned nothing from the Vietnam War debacle and knowingly lied to the American public.  To read the piece is disturbing and it underscores that no lessons were learned from Vietnam and underscores the reality that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it - something that is alarming in the age of Trump when Republicans appear hell bent to repeat the mistakes of Germans who allowed Hitler to rise to power. Much of the blame falls on the George W. Bush administration that began the disaster and then made things worse by invading Iraq. Following administration found themselves stuck with a debacle and no easy exit and, one suspects were mislead by military leaders who never want to admit error.  Read the entire piece.  My heart goes out to those who lost loved ones, friends or suffered injuries in a war that should have perhaps never been started. Here are excerpts:
A confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.
The documents were generated by a federal project examining the root failures of the longest armed conflict in U.S. history. They include more than 2,000 pages of previously unpublished notes of interviews with people who played a direct role in the war, from generals and diplomats to aid workers and Afghan officials.
The Post won release of the documents under the Freedom of Information Act after a three-year legal battle.
In the interviews, more than 400 insiders offered unrestrained criticism of what went wrong in Afghanistan and how the United States became mired in nearly two decades of warfare.
With a bluntness rarely expressed in public, the interviews lay bare pent-up complaints, frustrations and confessions, along with second-guessing and backbiting.
“We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations, told government interviewers in 2015. He added: “What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.”
“If the American people knew the magnitude of this dysfunction . . . 2,400 lives lost,” Lute added, blaming the deaths of U.S. military personnel on bureaucratic breakdowns among Congress, the Pentagon and the State Department. “Who will say this was in vain?”
Since 2001, more than 775,000 U.S. troops have deployed to Afghanistan, many repeatedly. Of those, 2,300 died there and 20,589 were wounded in action, according to Defense Department figures.
With most speaking on the assumption that their remarks would not become public, U.S. officials acknowledged that their warfighting strategies were fatally flawed and that Washington wasted enormous sums of money trying to remake Afghanistan into a modern nation.
The interviews also highlight the U.S. government’s botched attempts to curtail runaway corruption, build a competent Afghan army and police force, and put a dent in Afghanistan’s thriving opium trade.
Since 2001, the Defense Department, State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development have spent or appropriated between $934 billion and $978 billion, according to an inflation-adjusted estimate calculated by Neta Crawford, a political science professor and co-director of the Costs of War Project at Brown University.
Those figures do not include money spent by other agencies such as the CIA and the Department of Veterans Affairs, which is responsible for medical care for wounded veterans.
The documents also contradict a long chorus of public statements from U.S. presidents, military commanders and diplomats who assured Americans year after year that they were making progress in Afghanistan and the war was worth fighting.
Several of those interviewed described explicit and sustained efforts by the U.S. government to deliberately mislead the public. They said it was common at military headquarters in Kabul — and at the White House — to distort statistics to make it appear the United States was winning the war when that was not the case.
To augment the Lessons Learned interviews, The Post obtained hundreds of pages of previously classified memos about the Afghan war that were dictated by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld between 2001 and 2006.
Dubbed “snowflakes” by Rumsfeld and his staff, the memos are brief instructions or comments that the Pentagon boss dictated to his underlings, often several times a day.
Rumsfeld made a select number of his snowflakes public in 2011, posting them online in conjunction with his memoir, “Known and Unknown.” But most of his snowflake collection — an estimated 59,000 pages — remained secret.
With their forthright descriptions of how the United States became stuck in a faraway war, as well as the government's determination to conceal them from the public, the cache of Lessons Learned interviews broadly resembles the Pentagon Papers, the Defense Department's top-secret history of the Vietnam War.
When they were leaked in 1971, the Pentagon Papers caused a sensation by revealing the government had long misled the public about how the United States came to be embroiled in Vietnam.
The Lessons Learned interviews contain few revelations about military operations. But running throughout are torrents of criticism that refute the official narrative of the war, from its earliest days through the start of the Trump administration.
At the outset, for instance, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan had a clear, stated objective — to retaliate against al-Qaeda and prevent a repeat of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Yet the interviews show that as the war dragged on, the goals and mission kept changing and a lack of faith in the U.S. strategy took root inside the Pentagon, the White House and the State Department.
Was al-Qaeda the enemy, or the Taliban? Was Pakistan a friend or an adversary? What about the Islamic State and the bewildering array of foreign jihadists, let alone the warlords on the CIA’s payroll? According to the documents, the U.S. government never settled on an answer.
As a result, in the field, U.S. troops often couldn’t tell friend from foe.
Year after year, U.S. generals have said in public they are making steady progress on the central plank of their strategy: to train a robust Afghan army and national police force that can defend the country without foreign help.
In the Lessons Learned interviews, however, U.S. military trainers described the Afghan security forces as incompetent, unmotivated and rife with deserters. They also accused Afghan commanders of pocketing salaries — paid by U.S. taxpayers — for tens of thousands of “ghost soldiers.”
None expressed confidence that the Afghan army and police could ever fend off, much less defeat, the Taliban on their own. More than 60,000 members of Afghan security forces have been killed, a casualty rate that U.S. commanders have called unsustainable.
On Oct. 11, 2001, a few days after the United States started bombing the Taliban, a reporter asked Bush: “Can you avoid being drawn into a Vietnam-like quagmire in Afghanistan?”
“We learned some very important lessons in Vietnam,” Bush replied confidently. “People often ask me, ‘How long will this last?’ This particular battlefront will last as long as it takes to bring al-Qaeda to justice. It may happen tomorrow, it may happen a month from now, it may take a year or two. But we will prevail.”
In those early days, other U.S. leaders mocked the notion that the nightmare of Vietnam might repeat itself in Afghanistan.
The Vietnam disaster was not only repeated, but in Afghanistan has dragged on even longer. The only positive is that far fewer Americans have died, but many will bear the physical and mental health scars for the rest of their lives.