Wrong Robert Lee

I have somewhat mixed feelings about the current debate over the removal of confederate statues. I see the point of the defenders that they reflect pride and history. And I am against vigilantes pulling them down on their own. But I also see the point of the critics: that these statues were mostly erected in the 1920’s and 1950’s, when America was undergoing spasms of racial strife. Some — like the Battle of Liberty Place Monument — were specifically erected as an act of defiance against the federal government by racists. I probably end up where Radley Balko is: preferring they be moved from places of honor to museums or parks where their context can be given. But I certainly see the other side of this debate and don’t think it is entirely defined by racist shitheads.

The question always gets asked: where do you draw the line? Should statues of Jefferson and Washington come down, too? But first of all, you’ve already drawn a line. I doubt that anyone would want statues of Che or Mao or Stalin or Hitler in a places of honor. If you favor keeping the current confederate statues up, you’re just drawing the line behind Jeff Davis rather than in front of him. Second, line-drawing is what we do in politics. We say that consensual sex is OK, but non-consensual is not. We say that killing someone in self-defense is OK, but murder is not. We draw lines constantly. And I see no reason why we can’t at least debate where the line gets drawn on statues. Agreeing with the Lefty Kooks on one thing does not mean you have to agree with them on everything. There’s no law of nature or politics requiring that we let this be a slippery slope.

For example

On Tuesday night, [ESPN] confirmed that its management moved an Asian-American announcer, Robert Lee, off the University of Virginia’s home opener football game “simply because of the coincidence of his name.”

Earlier Tuesday, a source had told CNN that Lee was abruptly switched to the Youngstown versus Pitt game. He had recently been promoted by ESPN, so the switch was a sensitive matter.

News of the decision follows the violence that broke out earlier this month at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, protesting plans to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. The night before the deadly violence, white nationalists marched across the UVA campus, carrying torches and chanting racist slogans.

This is … ridiculous. And I’m sure the network realized it about ten seconds into the ensuing uproar. There is a valid debate to be had over Robert E. Lee’s character and legacy. I can see why some people might be offended by venerating the man who fought for slavery. But, Christ, his name is not kryptonite to black people. Just hearing that name, or someone with a similar name, is not going to make them weep. Removing him isn’t going to ease racial tension by one iota. And while the debate over the confederacy’s legacy is an interesting one, it is not the most important race issue we face right now.

How Cool Is This?

One of the most memorable scenes in the movie “Jaws” was when Quint, after comparing battle scars with Hooper (what guy is not proud of his body scars?), recounts his personal survival tale in the sinking of the USS Indianapolis (you can find that scene on youtube), chilling.

Most guys are familiar with the USS Indianapolis story, a remarkable story. After a top secret mission to deliver the unassembled parts of the atomic bomb to the island of Tinian (The American airfield where it was loaded onto a B-29 superfortress and dropped on Japan), it was later torpedoed on return to the Philippines. Sinking in 12 minutes, most survivors did not have life jackets. 5 days later what was left of the survivors were rescued by a spotter plane who by blind luck was in the area.

About 5 years ago I read In Harms Way, not only a must read for any history buff, but a book that will honestly scare the bejesus out of you and keep you up at night.

So it was with great interest that I read just the other day that the USS Indianapolis has at last been found;

300 sailors are still entombed in the wreckage. I suspect that the ship will be given the grace and respect afforded to others, like the USS Arizona but it will be interesting to see what film footage the finders can capture as they explore the wreckage.

As an aside, about 10 years ago I read the biography of Admiral Ernest King, the alter ego of George Marshall, but on the Navy side. A real SOB, it was his call to court martial the ships captain (The only captain in WW2 court martial-led for losing his ship). He wanted this guy so bad that he had aides fly to Japan, find the Japanese captain of the submarine that sank the ship, fly him to Pearl, and testify. But this backfired when the sub captain testified that the weather conditions were ideal, there was nothing the ship commander could do, and it was an impossibility to miss the shot.

Sadly, the ship captain received a constant barrage of letters from loved ones who died, blaming him for the deaths, and he took his own life in 1968.

Trump’s Press Conference

I can not respond to that disgrace any better than Charles Krauthammer did:

I never thought I would see an American President fumble a response to Nazis. But here we are.

One of the biggest problems with Trump is that he has fucks like Bannon, Gorka and Miller whispering into his ear that the racists who marched through Charlottesville are his base, the people who got him elected. They are not. The White Supremacists managed to gather less people than would show up for a National March against Mayonnaise. Even that lunatic Farrakhan managed to get a thousand times as many for his Million Man March. They are a fringe. They are less than a percent of the people who voted for Trump. But Trump he been persuaded that they are the bulk of the GOP.

Charlottesville

This is a bit personal for me. I went to graduate school at the University of Virginia. Charlottesville is a great college town. I spent six of the happiest years of my life there. I met my wife there. I made lifelong friends there. I started my career as an astronomer there. It’s one of the few cities I would consider moving to from my current digs.

So to see a bunch of alt-right white-supremacist clowns walking around with tiki torches and chanting racist and anti-Semitic slogans hurts. I absolutely support their right to free speech, of course. If people hold vile views, I want them to publicly own it. As fellow UVa Astronomy alum Phil Plait put it:

The proximate cause was Charlottesville’s decision to sell off some confederate monuments, part of a national movement to get rid of such monuments. While I am very attentive to history, I’m also aware that most of these monuments were erected as protests against the Civil Rights movement. So I’m not opposed to seeing them go.

Things got worse this afternoon. After counter-protests and some violent clashes caused the alt-right rally to break up, someone drove a car into the crowd. I won’t embed the video, but it’s easy to find. It looks deliberate to me. And if so, it was an act of terrorism. And I hope they throw the book at the piece of garbage who did it.

I suppose we should take some comfort in that The National Rally for Racist Pieces of Shit only managed to get a few hundred of these dopes. But that’s cold comfort when I see people being mowed down on a street I once walked down in a happy daze because a pretty girl had gone out on a date with me. Any Nazis are too many Nazis.

Update: A good and balanced first hand account.

On the Brink

Hmmm:

North Korea’s military is “examining the operational plan” to strike areas around Guam with medium-to-long-range strategic ballistic missiles, state-run news agency KCNA said early Wednesday local time.

Specifically, the statement mentioned a potential strike on “Andersen Air Force Base in which the US strategic bombers, which get on the nerves of the DPRK and threaten and blackmail it through their frequent visits to the sky above south Korea, are stationed and to send a serious warning signal to the US.”
Guam’s Office of Civil Defense issued a statement Wednesday saying there was no imminent threat to the safety of the US territory’s residents and visitors. Around 160,000 people live on Guam, including thousands of US troops.

The immediate cause of this appears to have been Trump’s statement that if the Norks continued to threaten the US, they would “face fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

There are several things to unroll here in the building tension with North Korea. North Korea has nukes, but it’s not clear that they can mate them to missiles (yet). If a conventional military engagement occurred, we could easily beat them. But the cost would be catastrophic — most likely Seoul bombarded with one of the largest artillery actions in history. Thousands, maybe tens of thousands dead and one of the world’s economic powerhouses reduced to rubble. Not to mention the potential of an engagement with China.

The X-factor, of course, is our own nuclear weapons which Trump has single and unconstrained control over. And Trump is showing, every day, that everything we feared about his temperament is correct. Rick Wilson:

Some presidents meet crisis with resolve and discipline. Some have a team of serious, capable advisers who bring knowledge, focus, and insight into complex regions and actors. Some have guts. Some have intellectual horsepower and mental bandwidth. Some understand people and power.

What we know of Donald Trump is that he lacks all of these characteristics, and while some of his advisers have shining parts, he ignores those who offer him counsel on how to behave, govern, and lead as a president. The Scaramucci sideshow was one more example of how deeply unready Trump is for a real crisis and how at risk our nation is because the president is temperamentally (and, let’s be real, mentally) unfit to serve. Donald Trump the television character—decisive, worldly, smart, and always in control—is precisely the opposite of Donald Trump the man. The real Donald Trump is moody, needy, shallow, and impulsive.

This is something we forget. The Trump Administration is under siege during a time of peace and reasonable prosperity. But a real crisis is coming. Even if cooler heads prevail in Korea, it could be something else: a terrorist attack, an attack on an ally, a stock market crash, something. Has anything Trump has done so far made you think he’s capable of dealing with it?

For what it’s worth, I don’t know that there is a solution to the North Korean situation. But if there is one, I am not confident that we have the leadership in place to achieve it.

Behind Closed Doors

I’ve mostly ignored Trump when he whines about leaks from his Administration. I suspect half the leaks are from him anyway. But I’m forced to agree with David Frum on the new leak of transcripts of the President’s conversations with the leaders of Mexico and Australia.

Thursday’s leak to The Washington Post of President Trump’s calls with the president of Mexico and the prime minister of Australia will reverberate around the world. No leader will again speak candidly on the phone to Washington, D.C.—at least for the duration of this presidency, and perhaps for longer. If these calls can be leaked, any call can be leaked—and no leader dare say anything to the president of the United States that he or she would not wish to read in the news at home.

A lot of people are jumping up and down because Trump sounds rather foolish in the transcripts and it shows a lot of his claims about those calls to be lies. But the price of this … entertainment … is damage to our foreign relations. And it serves no actual purpose other than embarrassing Trump.

There are times when world leaders need to say things to each other in confidence; times when they need to do and say things that would be unpopular. Breaking this confidence hurts their ability to do so.

Empathy Part II: Why Trump Won

So, a few weeks ago, I wrote about how a lack of empathy has wrecked our political system. There was an aspect of political empathy, however, that didn’t fit into that post and that I wanted to riff on. It’s the role that empathy plays in the success of politicians rather than in political discourse.

One of the big realizations of 2016 for me was that issues don’t matter as much as we’d like to think. Oh, they matter … on the edges. But our politics have become so tribal that 60 million Republicans would happily vote for a big-government authoritarian and 60 million Democrats would happily vote for globalist darling of Wall Street. There is a growing body of evidence that people define themselves by their political party, not their philosophy. And when that party changes its views, they change with the party. So suddenly, Democrats favored free trade while Republicans opposed it. Democrats though Russia was the quintessence of evil while Republicans thought they were misunderstood. An amoral sexual predator became an acceptable political leader for Republicans and an amoral money grubber became an acceptable political leader for Democrats … as long as they beat the other side’s amoral pig.

But while tribalism is an appealing and glib explanation for 2016, I think there’s more to it than that. One of the things that doesn’t get talked about too much is the importance of the perception — however flawed — that a party is listening to your concerns and cares about your concerns regardless of whether or not they have a solution for them. That is, that the party shows empathy to its constituents.

Every year, African-Americans voter overwhelmingly Democratic, despite the failure of the Democratic party to deliver anything resembling prosperity. Democrats have avidly supported policies — urban renewal, the welfare state, the War on Drugs — that I believe have made things worse for black people. So why do black people vote for them? Because Democrats listen to them. Because they go to churches and local meetings and listen. And even if they don’t do anything about black people’s concerns, the fact that they are being listened to matters. Remember when Rand Paul spoke at an historically black college? The media mocked him for making a few faux pas. But the students liked it. They were happy that a Republican was trying to reach out to them. Even if they disagreed with him, the fact that he made an effort and listened to them mattered. And if the GOP continued on that effort, they would start getting black votes. Because when the GOP does not try to get black votes, that sends a message too: “We don’t give a damn about you.”

And there’s a flip side to that, one that reared it’s head strongly in 2016. Every year, pundits wonder “what’s the matter with Kansas?” — why do rural voters vote “against their economic interests”. I’ll put aside the idea that wealth redistribution and big welfare states are “in people’s interests”. The real reason that rural voters support Republicans is because Republicans listen to them and Democrats don’t. Republicans may not have solutions to the problems of rural voters. But on many rural voters’ concerns — immigration, outsourcing, drugs, etc. — Republicans listen. And listening is far more important, politically, than solving.

We all used to joke about Bill Clinton saying “I feel your pain”. But we shouldn’t have. That was Bill Clinton’s greatest strength as a politician. He may have been a liar with the sexual habits of a Delta Tau Chi toga party. But he was probably the best President in my lifetime at making people feel like he understood, like he knew what they were going through. And a lot of the time that’s all people want, to feel like their concerns are not just being ignored, even if they aren’t or can’t be addressed.

The 2016 election puzzled a lot of people because Donald Trump won traditional Democratic constituencies in the midwest. But it was no puzzle to me. In “Shattered”, the authors note that Clinton did not want to campaign in the Midwest because she knew her pro-trade stance was unpopular. But by not campaigning, she gave a much worse message: “I don’t give a damn about you.”

Now imagine an alternative universe where Clinton gave a series of speeches like so:

Yes, I supported NAFTA. And I still think it was a good call. On balance, it has benefited our nation immensely. But over the last two decades, we’ve found that it didn’t benefit everyone. Some communities got hit very hard by it. This is why I changed my position on TPP. Because I want to make sure that this time we get it right and we take care of the communities that will be hurt before we sign the deal.

That wouldn’t necessarily have been truthful. But if she’d given something like that speech, she’d be President today. Because even if she didn’t have a solution to the problems of unemployment, drugs and crime hitting rural communities, she’d at least have given the impression that she cared.

We know that because that’s why Trump is President. Because for all the sexism and bigotry and pussy-groping and incoherence, Trump gave the impression, in his clumsy way, that he felt people’s pain. That he was aware of how people felt about trade and immigration and crime and Washington corruption. And while his policies were nonsense and he’s doing little to help people in rural America, they voted for him because at least he seemed to give a damn, no matter authentic you think that damn was. A good politician would have torn him apart, of course. But Clinton was such a poor politician, she made Donald Trump look like the caring sympathetic one.

(As an aside, this is one of the reasons why libertarianism will always be a niche political philosophy and a big reason why it tends to be male-dominated. It is filled to the brim with theoreticians who have all the ideas in the world but little understanding of human nature.)

Empathy matters. Being listened to matters. It’s matters in our politics; it matters in our elections. And until the Democrats start to empathize with unwashed masses between the coasts, they will continue to lose elections.

The Shakeup

Plenty to write about, but little time. It’s been a crazy week for Team Trump though. First, they hired Anthony Scaramucci as communications director. Scaramucci instantly declared war on leakers, threatened to fire the entire communications staff, gave an off-color interview slamming other members of the Administration, then had a fit because a newspaper printed his on-the-record interview as well as published his financial records, which are public. Sean Spicer subsequently resigned. Then today, Trump’s Chief of Staff Prince Reibus, having been described by Scaramucci as a paranoid schizophrenic, resigned. In the meantime, we still have a lot of positions at defense and state going unfilled.

I’ll have more to say on the trans soldier ban, the failed Obamacare repeal and other things. But this Administration is devolving into a mess. It’s like Game of Thrones, only everyone is Viserys.

Now Defending Sessions

Having bashed Jeff Sessions last week, I’ll defend him this week. He was absolutely right to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. It’s something any moderately ethical AG would do. And it’s disgraceful that Trump is out there slamming his own AG for, as a far as I can tell, allowing an investigation into the President to proceed while not reviving a dead investigation of his defeated opponent.

I intensely disagree with Sessions, but he has been loyal to Trump form the beginning. This just shows, once again, that Trump loyalty only goes one way.

Sessions Embraces Thievery

Of all the appointments that Trump has made, the appointment of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General was the one I most opposed. The AG has a lot of power and Sessions’ ideas on crime are … archaic might be a generous word. He has ordered reviews of the consent decrees on troubled police departments. He wants to restore mandatory minimum drug sentences. He wants to revive DARE, one of the biggest wastes of money in the history of the Drug War. The Democrats focused on his past racism. But while I was concerned about that, I was way more concerned with his approach to law and order, one defined by more prisons, more cops, more laws, less freedom. You should read Radley Balko taking apart one of Sessions’ speeches on the Drug War, showing over and over again that Sessions is poorly informed and out of touch with what’s been going on in criminal justice reform for the last decade or so.

Yesterday, he dropped a bombshell:

Attorney General Jeff Sessions just made it easier for police to seize cash and property from people suspected ─ but not necessarily charged with or convicted ─ of crimes.

He did it by eliminating an Obama administration directive that prevented local law enforcement from circumventing state restrictions on forfeiture of civil assets. The technique was embraced in the early years of the war on drugs, but it has since been linked to civil rights abuses: people losing cash, cars and homes without any proven link to illegal activity; police taking cash in exchange for not locking suspects up; a legal system that makes it hard for victims to get their possessions back.

Two dozen states have made it harder for authorities to take property from suspects without first securing criminal convictions. Three have outlawed it entirely, according to the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit that advocates for reform.

Multiple states — conservative states — have been reigning in asset forfeiture as abusive and unconstitutional. Police departments have been trying to bypass these rules through “adoption” — getting the federal government to nominally participate in the case so they can just take the money regardless of state law. It is a perversion of the law and abuse of state’s rights. Eric Holder put a stop to that, requiring the Feds to respect state law in the matter, one of the few things he did right. Sessions now wants to reverse that. There are a few little protections left in place — review of seizures and scrutiny of smaller amounts. But this amount to open season.

Words can not express my disgust at this. Civil asset forfeiture — in which the property is charged with a crime and its owners must prove their innocence to get it back — is a violation of our most basic constitutional rights. The IJ calls it “policing for profit” and some police departments — notably that of Tenaha Texas — have become notorious for abusing the process. It shows the duplicity of supposed federalists like Sessions that they are all about “state’s rights” when it comes to discrimination but suddenly all against them the second a state wants to shore up the basic civil liberties of its citizens.

National Review:

This is almost certainly unconstitutional, something that conservatives ought to understand instinctively. Like the Democrats’ crackpot plan to revoke the Second Amendment rights of U.S. citizens who have been neither charged with nor convicted of a crime simply for having been fingered as suspicious persons by some anonymous operative in Washington, seizing an American’s property because a police officer merely suspects that he might be a drug dealer or another species of miscreant does gross violence to the basic principle of due process. No doubt many of the men and women on the terrorism watch list are genuine bad guys, and no doubt many of those who have lost their property to asset forfeiture are peddling dope. But we are a nation of laws, which means a nation of procedural justice. If the DEA or the LAPD wants to punish a drug trafficker, then let them build a case, file charges, and see the affair through to a conviction. We have no objection to seizing the property of those convicted of drug smuggling — or of crimes related to terrorism, or many other kinds of offenses. We object, as all Americans should object, to handing out these punishments in the absence of a criminal conviction.

Conor Friedersdorf:

This was highway robbery perpetrated against American citizens by their own government. The official euphemism for the practice: “Civil-asset forfeiture.” And egregious abuses have happened in every region of the country. Over the last fifteen years, I have heard these abuses criticized by people from almost every part of the political right. The issue united conservatives at National Review and the Claremont Institute with Cato Institute libertarians and right-wing populists at Breitbart.

Conor also quote from Clarence Thomas’s scathing rejection of civil asset forfeiture, a must-read.

Ciaramella:

Lee was referring to conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ notable dissent in an asset forfeiture case this June. Thomas wrote that forfeiture operations “frequently target the poor and other groups least able to defend their interests in forfeiture proceedings.”

Data on asset forfeiture backs up what Thomas says. A Reason investigation of more than 23,000 police seizures in Cook County, Illinois over the last five years showed that Chicago’s poor neighborhoods were hit hardest by asset forfeiture. A similar investigation of Mississippi court records showed that law enforcement recorded many big hauls of cash, but the records were also littered with petty and abusive seizures.

A 2014 Washington Post investigative series found that warrantless police seizures of cash through the equitable sharing program have boomed since 9/11, hauling in $2.5 billion. Also in 2014, for the first time ever, the U.S. government seized more property from Americans than burglars did.

You can also watch John Oliver’s takedown of the practice.

If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that maybe Congress or the Court will wake up from their Constitutional stupor and put hard restraints on this abusive practice. But I prefer not to depend on that. Opposition to Sesssions’ directive should be immediate, sharp and relentless. We should not take one step back when it comes to civil asset forfeiture.