Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Guy Behind The Guy: An Appreciation of Davos Seaworth

The big personalities of Westeros have entourages that would make Ari Gold blush - the lords and ladies that flit around what has become a revolving door of rulers can be dizzying, but there is one constant companion any good king or queen needs, and that is a “hand” - a first-among-equals advisor who (in theory) can give their ruler the unvarnished truth and wise counsel while executing their superior’s orders. Tyrion Lannister is clever and Qyburn is sadistic, but give me Davos Seaworth, the Onion Knight himself, any day of the week and twice on Sunday. 

Sure, Davos is a flirt (looking at you Missandei), has a good heart (RIP the Princess Shireen) and he may come from nothing and have a Flea Bottom accent, but for my money, he embodies the qualities a good hand should have - he is loyal to those he serves, he has a strong moral compass, and he sees the big picture. At three critical points during Game of Thrones it is this last quality that served Davos’s superiors well:

First, it was Stannis, on the balls of his ass after getting (literally) blown out of the water at the Battle of Blackwater Bay. His army in tatters and his dream of ruling the Seven Kingdoms all but snuffed out, Stannis and Davos make a journey to the Iron Bank in Braavos. Their goal? Get a line of credit from the stoic bankers to buy an army of sell swords for a second shot at glory. Things do not go so well for Stannis. First, he is left cooling his heels for hours, growing more and more impatient, then, when he is granted an audience, the money lenders are quick to dismiss his request. 

When all appears lost, and Stannis is about to sulk away, Davos steps up. He appeals to the bankers’ logic and reason even though he himself is uneducated and barely literate. Davos understands that the Iron Bank is most concerned with making wise “investments” (or “bets” as Cersei would call them in Season 7) and in framing the ongoing battle as one between a child king (Tommen) of questionable parentage (elliptically referencing the incestuous consummation that produced him) and an experienced military leader with a much stronger claim to the throne (as the brother of the deceased King Robert), Davos’s pitch carries the day. The pair walk out of Braavos with the money they need to make another run at King’s Landing.

Next, after Stannis’s defeat, Davos latches on to the Starks, traveling with them through the North in an effort to form an army that will retake Winterfell. Jon and Sansa are flummoxed and shot down by the brassy leader of Bear Island, ten-year-old Lyanna Mormont, who has no time (or fucks to give) for their sycophantry or bald appeals for fealty. It is only when Davos steps up (again, when it appears all is lost), that the worm turns. First, he relates to Lyanna, expressing empathy for her situation as a young ruler at a time of war. He then tells his own story of being a crabber’s son now addressing a leader of a “noble house.” His flattery is not forced, rather, he is acknowledging the difficult position a young girl has been placed in. Once he has established her trust (“go on, Sir Davos”), he makes his appeal, connecting her own family and the Starks, the threat of the Night King and the need to unite the North (which, incidentally, requires removing Ramsey) to prepare for the larger battle. Again, he prevails and 62 hearty Mormonts (along with their precocious ruler) come to Jon and Sansa’s aid.

Finally, Davos returns to Dragonstone, this time at Jon’s side, not Stannis’s, to meet Queen Daenerys, whose dragons the men are quite interested in appropriating to fight the White Walkers. Of course, Dany is more interested in Jon’s submission and acknowledgment of her claim as the rightful Queen of the Seven Kingdoms. Jon is not a man of many words and his hair-on-fire warnings about the Night King (about whom Dany knows nothing) are falling on deaf ears even as she is flaunting the symbols of her power - the great throne room they address her in, the dragons that swoop over the island, and the Dothraki killers who serve at her command. 

Here again, Davos has an intuitive sense of the room, turning Dany’s words back on her to underscore the similarities between her and Jon. She birthed dragons and brought the Dothraki across the sea, he united the Wildlings and the North men. She is queen by birthright, he is king because a lot of “hard sons of bitches” chose him as their leader. His praise of Jon is matter-of-fact but it has its intended effect - a first meeting that looked to be spiraling toward disaster is instead converted into something approaching grudging respect, as Dany sends Davos and Jon off to quarters with baths drawn and meals on delivery. 


Davos may not be great at rolling off titles, but he has a fingertip feel for what strings to pull at what moment to diffuse a situation, which makes him a very valuable person to have standing next to you. 

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Saturday, August 5, 2017

Book Review - Mid-Life Ex-Wife

What does a hot mess look like at fifty? It is not pretty. Stella Grey’s Mid-Life Ex-Wife is equal parts car crash and page turner as she plumbs the depths of Internet dating for women of a certain age. Grey is brassy, a quick wit and unafraid to share intimate details better left unmentioned (I really didn’t need to know about the date that got interrupted because she had diarrhea or her less-than-Penthouse-Forum-quality cyber and phone sex sessions), but too often leans into the darker parts of her persona - her insecurities, bitterness, and frustration, to make her memoir a rewarding use of your time. 

The absence of levity to cut the acidity of Grey’s dating struggles is the book’s main failing. As a meditation on being thrust into singledom in middle age, there was an interesting story to tell, like the complex web of norms that now attend texting, email, and first dates, and this information occasionally leaks out, but mostly, Grey is pissy - she gets pissy with guys who call her out for lying about her age, she gets pissy with guys who call her out for her weight, she gets pissy with guys who do not respond to her advances, and she gets pissy with guys who do, but then decide not to pursue her further. In Grey’s world, the villains are the men rejecting her, either because they are trolling for shinier, younger (less cynical) versions of her or miss her unique charms. In this, her lament becomes the fun house mirror version of “nice guys” complaining women are not interested in them. 

To her credit, Grey shows the seductiveness and the limitation of online dating. The computer screen (and to a lesser degree the mobile phone) is Grey’s security blanket but over and over she foists herself on her own electronic petard. Offered the opportunity to meet men in real life, she gets annoyed if they won’t engage in lengthy pre-meeting email exchanges. On the other hand, she relishes the safety and sterility of electronic back and forth while cringing at the face-to-face experience. It is almost like she wants to fail or, possibly, fears the rejection she experiences on at least one occasion when flirty online exchanges fizzle in real life due (according to her) to her intended’s disappointment in her appearance. 

Of course, Grey turns a blind eye to the shortcomings others may see - she unabashedly drinks excessively, rarely mentions anything approaching exercise, and leans into the same type of criticism of physical appearance in others she bemoans when applied to her. But those are straw men (or is it straw women?) arguments that are easy for her to knock down but do not offer much in the way of insight. And the black box of how her own marriage ended, under what circumstances, and what emotional fall out she experienced is largely missing - yet it is unquestionably a HUGE piece of the puzzle and its absence makes the book’s center seem particularly hollow.

In a moment of introspection, she refers to herself as a “sad middle-aged woman who had the temerity to need love.” And there it is - and if there was more of this vulnerability and less a screed against men she puts into one of two buckets — men who want a no hassle relationship or men who consume too much pornography — perhaps I would have felt more sympathetic toward her cause. Instead, it is page after page of pointless message arguments with strangers over whether to swap surnames or phone numbers when she can not even get to a first meeting and feels far more comfortable with electronic pen pals. Grey directs her blame outward to men who do not fancy her but at the same time does little to indicate personal growth. 

Long into the book she begins chatting with a man named Andrew who she meets at a coffee shop and immediately invests in - practicing salsa dancing in her home (he mentioned he likes it), researching the local gym he attends, and parsing his comments with the skill of a Talmudic scholar, only to find out that he does not even know her name and their interactions, pregnant with potential to her, are just a time waster for him while he avoids doing work. It is heart breaking but also head shaking. Grey engages in the type of behavior that were she a man we would immediately read as creepy, desperate, and possibly a bit stalkerish, but we are supposed to find this quirky, endearing, and normal? 

And just when all hope seems lost, when Grey is in the process of deleting her fourteen (!) dating website profiles, “Edward” pops up on one of the sites, they fall in love and live happily ever after. I shit you not. If it all seems too pat, too convenient, too made-for-Hollywood, you would not be alone in that assessment. After all, the blurb on the cover touts this dumpster fire as a “Bridget Jones For The Internet Age.” What good would publishing such a book be if the heroine ended up drowning her sorrows at the bottom of a wine bottle? And the happily-ever-after ending also puts the bulk of the book in a much different light. Instead of it standing as a cautionary tale about attempting to date in middle age, with all the associated pitfalls and disappointments, Mid-Life becomes a story of perseverance and faith, that you too can find love (just around the corner in fact!) if you are willing to muddle through myriad bad dates, rookie mistakes, and your own insecurities. I’m not buying it, am glad I didn’t (I checked it out for free from my public library), and neither should you. 


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Thursday, August 3, 2017

Varys -- Double Agent?

HBO wrapped the sixth season of Game of Thrones with a commanding image of Daenerys, her retinue of advisors and a massive armada steaming for Westeros. It was an impressive sight made all the more so by an alliance cemented by Varys in the waning moments of The Winds of Winter that brought the Dornish and the Queen of Thorns (House Tyrell) into the fold.

But what if instead of collecting what passes for a Westerosi version of the super friends, Varys was actually engaging in a deeper game on behalf of Queen Cersei? Judging from the first three episodes of Season Seven, the possibility of a mole within Dany’s circle may be the Occam’s Razor for why she is now, as The Ringer crew put it, in danger of becoming GoT’s 2016 Golden State Warriors – blowing a 3-1 lead to an inferior opponent.

Consider Dany’s military plan to conquer Westeros. It called for the siege of King’s Landing by the Dornish and Tyrells, with the Unsullied storming Casterly Rock to cut off a potential route of retreat for the Lannister army. It all made sense until Euron destroyed Dany’s fleet and captured Ellaria and Yara, Cersei sacrificed Casterly Rock (strategically unimportant) and moved her troops on Highgarden instead, not only snuffing out the Tyrell army but looting its gold to pay off the throne’s debt to the Iron Bank.

While it is possible that Jaime and Euron are military geniuses and Tyrion a fool, in this show, so pregnant with deceit and double-dealing, Varys’s position within Dany’s small council points to a different solution. After all, if Varys was working for Cersei, she could not ask for anything more than having all her enemies huddled under one tent to then be picked off one by one with inside intel on their military plans. Not only would the destruction of old houses allow her to insert new leadership beholden to her (see, Randall Tarly) but would make her rule unquestioned, with no enemies (or dragons) to deal with.

Dany sensed this in her tense back-and-forth with Varys, ticking off his prior betrayals and putting to him the question of why she should trust him. His “I choose you” declaration sounded sincere but for a show that fetishizes the idea of a man’s “word” having great value, the successful players of the game deftly sense when their allegiance should sway in order to move up the ladder. Indeed, with Little Finger ensconced in Winterfell with the Knights of the Vale at his command and always one for a heel turn when it suits his purposes, he could deliver Sansa to Cersei and be richly rewarded even as Jon is now marooned at Dragonstone – the walls of the Resistance could crumble before they even had a chance to form.

And while unsatisfying to those who see Cersei as a cruel and evil woman, it would not be at all inconsistent with either the show or the books’ idea that “good” men and women do not always triumph in this world. Indeed, it is often those who are willing to assert their power, regardless of who is killed in service of the wielding of that power, that triumph. Of course, this could also just be a massive head fake to stretch the drama, this is television after all.


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Friday, July 28, 2017

John McCain Is No Savior

In the wake of the Republicans' failure to repeal and replace Obamacare, the media has found its one true hero - their decades-long man crush, John McCain. And while it is true that McCain was one of three Republican Senators who voted with the entire Democratic caucus to tank the so-called "skinny repeal" that represented the last ditch effort to pass something, ANYTHING Republicans could point to as dismantling  the Affordable Care Act, the media’s reflexive fellating of McCain was as predictable as it was misguided.

Of course, as a former flyboy, McCain knew how to milk the drama for all it was worth - ambling onto the Senate floor, gesturing to be recognized, and uttering a single syllable, "no,” as his mic drop moment.

Reporters could not get enough of this - the return of the maverick, blah blah blah, but while McCain did show some political courage, can we not lose sight of several underreported truths?

1. McCain himself helped create this imbroglio by (more drama!) flying back to DC from Arizona to cast a vote that opened debate in the first place. Had he not done this (or voted not to open debate) the rest of the episode never would have happened.

2. The relentless pressure by activists had far more to do with all of the Senate efforts being struck down than anything McCain did after not only voting to open debate but then voting in favor of certain options that other Republicans helped vote down. 

3. Why is the media bending over backwards to laud three Republican Senators, representing less than 10% of their caucus, for voting to NOT strip 16 million people of health insurance? This is a profile in courage? Perhaps some rethinking of how public policy is reported is also in order.

4. Another Senator is battling cancer. Her name is Maisie Hirono, and, unlike McCain, never wavered in her desire to protect access to health insurance for her fellow Americans. 

5. Read McCain's statement released after "skinny repeal" went down. Here’s part of what he had to say:

“I’ve stated time and time again that one of the major failures of Obamacare was that it was rammed through Congress by Democrats on a strict-party line basis (ed. note: that’s a lie) without a single Republican vote. We should not make the mistakes of the past that has led to Obamacare’s collapse, (ed. note: also a lie) including in my home state of Arizona where premiums are skyrocketing (ed. note: one more lie) and health care providers are fleeing the marketplace.”

He also said his goal is to “repeal and replace” Obamacare. This is the hero? Three lies in two sentences from a guy who was given the chance to work with Democrats in 2009 and 2010 but refused to do so? Who has had the better part of seven years to float his own ideas but has remained silent? Seriously?

This is all on top of the fact that McCain, whose health insurance is as gold-plated as it gets and who has been in Congress for more than 30 years, was even opening the door to the possibility that a law would be enacted taking health insurance away from people who are not like him (i.e., a multi-millionaire member of Congress with access to the best health care money can buy), will now be lost to the memory hole of history. It should not. What modicum of political courage he exercised very early Friday morning should not excuse what he did to help instigate the drama or take away from the people who worked far harder than he did to block this dangerous action from going forward.


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Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Joe, Mika & Donald, the Worst Threesome Ever

The eye rolls start early and do not end until Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, the protagonists of Olivia Nuzzi’s cover story for the current issue of New York magazine, get engaged in the South of France (the affianced’s struggle to tend to her pets with the enormous engagement ring dangling off her ring finger, is, as the kids say, so real). That our lovebirds host a cable news program consumed and obsessed over by the Beltway caste, is largely why several thousand words and a glossy cover photo are given over to them. Oh, and the fact that they are in a fake love/hate relationship with our media overlord Donald Trump does not hurt when it comes to moving magazines and generating buzz among the people who Joe and Mika rub elbows with summering in Nantucket. 

For people who claim not to like each other, the trio seem to spend a lot of time together. Reading through Nuzzi’s piece you will shake your head at the number of private meetings, lunches and calls Trump has with his erstwhile foes. The idea that Scarborough and Brzezinski are somehow foils for Trump is belied by the fact that their access to him remained significant even past his inauguration and extended to visits at the White House and calls between Trump and “Morning” Joe. These tete-a-tetes, which supposedly ended when Trump complained of the coverage he was receiving, gloss over the good times, like when a hot mic caught Trump during a commercial break at a town hall Joe and Mika hosted confirming that the questions they would ask would be of the softball variety or the time the couple spent with the candidate watching the New Hampshire primary returns. 

That is to say, there is more high school drama than a Judy Blume book, but it is all ruse, precisely the type of faux-feud that made a modern-day carnival barker named Vince McMahon a multi-millionaire in the pro wrestling industry and was documented without irony in Mark Leibovich’s seminal book on the fakery of D.C., This Town. Nuzzi mines the trio’s most recent spat, where Trump lashed out at Mika’s cosmetic surgery (it turns out the debate is over what she had done, not whether she had anything done, a sort of fourth-wall breaking point where a person on TV cops to what any casual viewer can tell - that many people appearing on our screen have had “work done”) with the chattering class rising as one in her defense. Nuzzi’s portrayal of Brzezinski is mostly sympathetic. Mika, of the “Know Your Value” campaign, can be both vulnerable and empowered by sloughing off Trump’s taunts, but it is hard to well up much sympathy for her victimhood when she spent much of the campaign expressing her dismay at Hillary Clinton’s nomination. Trump is a distant presence, not quoted for the article but having people in his camp offer rebuttals that essentially boil down to Joe’s jealousy that Trump became President when he had aspirations of higher office and Mika’s displeasure that the self-awareness that once softened Trump’s bombast has dried up. 

Nuzzi also slips on her kid gloves when it comes to the origins of the couple’s romance. And perhaps this is understandable. After all, Scarborough made his bones as an impeachment manager in the 1990s and Brzezinski gives a version of having caused “pain in her marriage” that it does not take a genius to understand what she is implying. But instead of focusing on the murky backstory, the couple instead lean on the idea of mid-life crisis adjacent. Scarborough hits fifty and realizes he needs to spend the rest of his life with Mika and Mika has a lightning bolt moment (the inference being while still married to someone else) that leads her into Scarborough’s arms. The heart wants what the heart wants, or something. 

And I am no judge of others’ fidelity, but laden throughout the article is the kind of hypocrisy that comes from people who had multiple marriages but made their bones judging others (Scarborough) and claim to lobby for women’s rights while genuflecting before Trump (Brzezinski) that makes people who don’t earn their living making millions on television disdain. Anonymous sources quoted in the article highlight the artifice of the “Acela Corridor” political and journalist class, but when you get a fawning cover story in one of the few magazines that matters anymore, do you really care if you are called on your bullshit? 

If it is true that “where you sit is where you stand” things are unlikely to change. Trump is portrayed as rubbing the couple’s nose in shit over the trappings of his office and Joe and Mika are comfortably ensconced in a lifestyle fit for the 1% with multiple houses and an amen corner of politicians and famous-as-journalists (a great turn of phrase Nuzzi uses early in the piece) guests eager to kiss their asses for three hours each weekday. Left unsaid (not that it needed to be) is that this is all mutually beneficial. Trump uses Joe and Mika as avatars of “fake media” and the more he attacks the couple, the higher their ratings go. 


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Sunday, July 9, 2017

Book Review - In Search of the Lost Chord

It has been said that history is written by the winners, but one massive exception to that rule is the hagiography associated with the hippie movement of the 1960s. And I do not say that lightly — as someone who followed the Grateful Dead in the 80s and 90s and believes in social justice and equality — the idea that peaceniks were a failure is not a conclusion I come to lightly or happily, but in reading Danny Goldberg’s In Search of The Lost Chord a gauzy, Pollyanna-ish remembering of the 1967 Summer of Love,  much of the falsity of what we have come to think of and know about that time in our country’s history is exposed as more pipe dream than reality. 

The saying “If you remember the 60s, you probably weren’t there,” is a ha-ha shorthand for an era of peace, love, and lots of drugs, but the goals of the movement - ending the Vietnam War while striving for social, racial, and gender equality - have a shaky track record. Goldberg has his rose-colored glasses firmly in place and as a 101-level survey of the time when our country metaphorically went from black and white to technicolor, when the Beatles went from lovable mop tops to auteurs who created Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, and the promise of JFK dissolved in the rice fields of Southeast Asia, the reader is well-served. 

Goldberg has all kinds of interesting little nuggets about the musicians, intellectuals, and scenes spread throughout the country and across the pond into London that formed the backbone of the hippie aesthetic. The people and their mission were both loosely affiliated and at times at odds with one another (the battle between San Francisco bands who eyed L.A.-based producers of the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival with antipathy is nicely sketched) and the push and pull between them is palpable. There is struggle for authenticity, of leadership (or if there should even be leadership), and defining goals and objectives that help explain why “the hippie idea” quickly became a spent force.

Even as the embryonic stage of the movement was gathering force, its limitations were already being exposed. In early 1967, hippie leaders convened in San Francisco, debating, among other things, what it meant to “tune in, turn on, and drop out.” The author of that quote, Timothy Leary, was challenged by the beat poet and nascent hippie icon Allen Ginsburg, who asked: “what can I drop out of?” Leary retorted, “Your teaching at Cal (the University of California-Berkeley).” Ginsburg demurred, stating simply, “But I need the money.” And while Leary was wildly off base when he predicted deer would graze in New York City within 40 years, he was unintentionally spot on when he observed that “If Pepsi-Cola can be marketed around the world, so can hippie ideas.” The only thing he was missing was the fact that it would be used by Coca-Cola and not Pepsi-Cola in service of selling the soda not the ideas.  

Ultimately, many of the broad societal goals the hippies sought to achieve were unrealized. The massive rallies against the Vietnam War failed to end it; indeed, the war escalated and expanded into other countries after the protest movement gained speed. Far from being repudiated, Nixon tapped into the “silent majority” of Americans to win the Presidency in 1968 and one of the largest landslide reelections four years later. 

In the inner cities, from Watts in 1965 to Newark in 1967 and other cities in between and beyond, rioting exacerbated white flight to the suburbs, resulting in de facto segregation that would last for decades. Indeed, comments Goldberg discusses from a report issued by the Kerner Commission (a group commissioned by LBJ to study the underlying causes of these urban riots)  in 1968 could have just as easily been written today. Goldberg notes, “the main conclusion was that the riots resulted from black frustration at the lack of economic opportunity” and recommended things like “more diversity on police forces, stronger employment programs, and the creation of housing opportunities in the suburbs . . .” Sound familiar? 

Gender equality would make important advances with the passage of Title IX and a dawning awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace, but the Equal Rights Amendment ran aground in the late 1970s while equal pay and fiery debates between women who opt for careers over home making have stoked many a book, thought piece, and online battle five decades after seminal works by Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem reached a mass audience. 

But Goldberg has little time to consider the shortcomings of the movement, he is too busy ruminating on his own experiences and that is understandable. An era that coined the term “free love” and had reporters avoiding drinks offered to them for fear they were dosed with LSD was surely a good time, but the lament that the “chord” was lost is overwrought. As Joan Didion is quoted as saying at the time, “we were seeing the desperate attempt of a handful of pathetically unequipped children to create a community in a vacuum.” 

What we are left with is a Madison Avenue-invented nostalgia that attempts to short hand the hippie movement via tie-dye t-shirts and VW buses, fossilized classic rock acts and advertisements that take what were once clarion calls for rebellion that are now used in service of selling investment accounts and Cadillacs. Of course, this should not be surprising, the ideals that animated Baby Boomers in the late 1960s transformed into a “greed is good” ethos by the time they hit their 30s and 40s. Indeed, once in power, what defines the Baby Boomer generation is a massive redistribution of wealth upward at the same time massive borrowing has taken place to finance it. Having railed against the establishment, Boomers not only became the establishment, but looted the bank and will leave the rest of us to pay the bill. 


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Tuesday, July 4, 2017

This Is Not How A Presidency Ends

When Frank Rich was at the New York Times he was the best columnist in America. Now that he is at New York magazine, he is the best long form essayist in America. He is a superior writer whose gifts extend to placing contemporary political events into historical context and he writes with precision and insight that is rare among his peers. His cover story for New York entitled “How A Presidency Ends” is certainly eye-catching, but his thesis, which is that Trump’s disregard for basic political norms and the rule of law will create a critical mass so great Republicans in Congress will eventually toss their leader overboard in order to secure their own political survival, is unrealistic.

Rich connects many dots between Nixon and Trump’s behavior. It is entirely possible that like Nixon, Trump will be undone by a cover-up (firing Jim Comey to snuff out the FBI’s investigation into Russia and potential ties to the Trump campaign) and not a crime. And there is a lot of smoke around Trump’s actions toward Comey, no more damning than the fact that two of the meetings Trump held with Comey look suspicious — the first was held the day after Acting Attorney General Sally Yates advised White House Counsel Don McGahn that Michael Flynn had been compromised and the second took place the day after Flynn resigned as National Security Adviser. In the former meeting, Trump supposedly asked for Comey’s loyalty and in the latter, that he drop the investigation into Flynn. 

But that is public record and while a few Republicans harrumphed over the timing of Comey’s dismissal, none suggested this rose to an impeachable offense. And short of evidence being produced showing Trump directing or being involved in Russia’s hacking of the DNC and Clinton Chairman John Podesta’s email accounts (a la Nixon’s recorded direction to cover-up Watergate) there is no chance a majority of Republicans in the House, much less two-thirds of Senators would remove Trump from office. 

But there is a larger divergence between Nixon and Trump that eludes Rich’s usually scrupulous eye. Trump’s crude attacks on the press are an uglier version of Agnew’s “nattering nabobs of negativity,” and the amen corner both he and Nixon preached to has an ingrained suspicion of and disdain for east coast elites at the New York Times and Washington Post. But unlike Nixon’s time, when right wing media was still in its embryonic phase, Trump is buttressed by a legion of genefluctors from Fox News to online Reddit trolls who protect him. 

He and his communications team have effectively neutered the White House press corps by limiting on-air press briefings, seeding the press room with more right wing voices, and keeping their boss away from anyone but sympathetic journalists in the Fox News-iverse for interviews. Trump has only conducted one solo press conference since being inaugurated and shows no signs of caring that he is stiff arming the press. When he needs to get his message out, he can always pick up the phone and call one of his preferred reporters (Bob Costa or Maggie Haberman) who will dutifully act as stenographer and put his words and thoughts on the front page of their respective papers. 

The spread of right wing media outlets also serves to discredit so-called mainstream media outlets who do themselves no favors when they have to retract salacious stories (as CNN did recently) and inoculate Trump among the faithful by throwing out red herrings like pointing out that lawyers working with Special Counsel Robert Mueller have made political donations to Democrats. They also serve to solidify antipathy toward the same elites Nixon railed against and rile up the base so they do not rest on their laurels, as Democrats did in both 2010 and 2014. 

This accrues to the benefit of Republicans on Capitol Hill. Not only is the party more conservative (and largely purged whatever moderates it once had), but state legislatures effectively gerrymandered Congressional districts in 2010 to such an extreme that in 2012, Democratic candidates in the House of Representatives won 1.2 million more overall votes than their Republican opponents yet that only translated into an eight vote swing, well short of what was needed to put Nancy Pelosi back in the Speaker’s chair. In 2016, Hillary Clinton bested Donald Trump by more than 3 million votes but House Democrats only picked up six seats. 

And while it is true that there are twenty or so congressional districts that elected a House Republican while going for Hillary Clinton, voters have yet to reach a tipping point where Republican candidates have to fear being associated with Trump. Further, the 2018 Senate map is challenging for Democrats, who will probably lose a few of their 48 member caucus because unlike the apathy shown by Democrats in recent off-year elections, the few races held this year suggest Republican enthusiasm is close enough to the Democrats to protect their turf. 

And there is one other thing progressives and liberals need to be wary of. Just as right wing media has hustled conservatives with fevered dreams of faked birth certificates and nefarious dealings in backwoods Arkansas, progressives need to be attuned to, and temper, expectations that Trump’s departure from the White House will be forced. Hashtag 25th-the-45th all you want, the similarities between Watergate and whatever is going on with Trump only stretch so far. And this is not to suggest Rich is a charlatan — far from it; however, the reality is that today’s GOP is a far cry from its 1974 iteration. For all the hand wringing about Trump’s tweets, his attacks on the media, and general disdain for political norms and the rule of law, these are precisely the things his most ardent supporters like about him and unless and until Republican voters indicate they will punish their Congressional representatives for it, Trump is not going anywhere.


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Saturday, June 24, 2017

Book Review - The Only Language They Understand

Fifty years and nine U.S. Presidents after Israel crushed its Arab enemies in the Six-Day War, resolution of the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians is not close at hand. The corpus dissecting this dispute is already voluminous and to that pile we now add Nathan Thrall’s The Only Language The Understand a jeremiad directed largely at Israel with a central argument (Israeli and Palestinian concessions only occur under pressure from the U.S.) that is iffy at best.

Thrall’s book is an odd duck. His position that Israel must be brought to heel via heavy-handed U.S. negotiating tactics has some historical support. In 1956, 1974, 1977, and 1991, Presidents of both parties used a variety of sticks (and no carrots) to obtain Israeli compliance for everything from withdrawal after the 1956 War to opening talks in Madrid that led (indirectly) to the Oslo Accord two years later. On the other hand, Thrall laments what he sees as America’s default strategy — kowtowing to Israeli while demanding concessions from the Palestinians. At the same time, Thrall argues, Palestinian positions have weakened over time through the application of force against it (he largely dismisses the decades-long terrorist activities of groups like the PLO, PLFP, and more recently, Hamas).

For seventy or so pages, Thrall pushes his position with confidence and persuasive power. However, after laying out his argument in the book’s extended first chapter, the remainder of the book is a series of non-sequential essays previously published on a variety of topics central to the region’s long-standing dispute. Readers weave through recent battles fought in Gaza, and are taken back in time to the Oslo Accords and their aftermath. 

It is enough to give you whiplash. By the time Thrall gets back to his thesis, he undermines it entirely by pointing out a basic reality of American politics — no matter how “pro-Palestinian” an American president is perceived to be (and the right falsely castigated Obama as such throughout his eight years in office) or attempts to exert even modest pressure on the Israelis, a solid, bipartisan majority in Congress will rise to Israel’s defense. 

Short of the type of international opprobrium levied at apartheid-era South Africa that reached a critical mass in the mid-1980s (and even so, without U.S. support), there is far less leverage to exert over Israel than in the past, and that is because the Israel of 2017 is not just a military power, but an economic one as well - more technologically advanced than almost any other country on earth, exporting its ideas as well as its material across the globe, and expanding its diplomatic reach with countries and regions of the world as a backstop against possible repercussions attendant to its failure to negotiate a peace deal with the Palestinians. 

Moreover, one of the unintended consequences of our invasion of Iraq in 2003 has been the rise of Iran as a regional power and the resulting partnership of necessity between Israel and its Sunni neighbors. As Thrall notes, intelligence sharing between Israel and Sunni-led Saudi Arabia exists (albeit largely unspoken) as Shia Iran has extended its reach into Iraq and moved into Syria to prop up Assad.

Thrall’s bias is apparent and not hidden. If blame is to assigned, his finger invariably points to Israel. He argues that Palestinians are put in the position of sacrificing a tangible goal (statehood on most of the land Israel has occupied since 1967) for intangible concessions (the moral concession of acknowledging Israel as a Jewish state and disclaiming rights to land promised it in 1947.) However, the same argument could be made on the other side - Israel is sacrificing something tangible (land and security via the creation of a Palestinian state on either side of its borders) for something intangible (assurances that such an agreement will result in peace, and not afford Palestine the time needed to build a military to start another war.) He also gives short shrift to the variety of proposals Israeli leaders have put forward from Camp David to Taba to Annapolis only to have them rebuffed by Palestinian leadership without meaningful alternatives. 

Thrall is also unduly sympathetic toward Hamas - gliding past its terrorist activities and military tactics of kidnapping Israelis soldiers to extract bargains from Israel or its cynical placement of armaments in schools and hospitals - putting Israel in the impossible position of choosing to ignore the existence of these weapons or risk killing innocent people Hamas has put in harm’s way. That Hamas garners popular support is itself an indicator that Palestinians are uninterested in a legitimate peace deal, but Thrall has no time for moral equivalence, for him, Israel holds all the cards and thus, if not all, than certainly the lion’s share, of moral failing. 

Curiously, the reader will search The Only Language They Understand in vein for Thrall’s ideas on how to break this gridlock. And that is unsurprising. Ultimately, there is a Kabuki theater about all of this. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators know each other well and mingle and socialize behind closed doors (and off the record) when the inevitable new push for a peace deal comes from America. Their positions are as scripted as a professional wrestling match and each has incentives to feign interest in accommodation without getting any closer to a deal. For Israel, it delays any international attempts to force its hand (such as the so-called “boycott, divest, and sanctions” movement) while ensuring a steady flow of military aid and political cover from the U.S. For the Palestinian leadership, they receive sympathy in Western Europe and aid packages that forestall economic collapse. And if the feints toward compromise do not work, each side knows that they can just wait out foreign powers whose attention wanes or is diverted to other matters.


Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy and read Israelis-on-one-side-Palestinians-on-the-other peace proposal here: http://scarylawyerguy.blogspot.com/2011/10/30-second-solution-to-middle-east-peace.html?m=0 







Sunday, June 18, 2017

Book Review - Word By Word

One hundred twenty eight pages into Kory Stamper’s winning book Word by Word a footnote is dropped defining “desert” in the sense (definition) of “just deserts.” Reading this passage before bed, I wondered if I was letting my eyes droop - was this some inside joke? Did Stamper intentionally misspell “desserts” to see if readers were paying attention? Did this slip past the book’s editor? Was I missing something? Of course, I had the luxury of typing “just deserts” into Google and discovered that this idiom, which means “getting what one deserves,” dates to the 1300s and has retained its unconventional spelling even in modern day. Lesson learned. And I suspect that the Venn diagram of people who are drawn to reading about how dictionaries are produced, what lexicographers do, and how challenging a job it is to simply define a word (see above) and are inclined to look up terms like “just deserts” while reading Word by Word is a near complete circle. 

Stamper, a lexicographer (“writer of dictionaries”) with Merriam-Webster, is a wonderful guide for those who love the English language. There is, as expected, a liberal sprinkling of fifty-cent words like defenestration and foofaraw, but Kemper also leavens her writing with equal good humor and the strategically placed swear word. Although she is at pains to lament her (and her colleagues’) general introversion, she is a sharp wit whose writing leaps off the page. To take one example, Stamper recounts a disagreement she had with a co-worker regarding the definition of the word “outershell.” She had defined the word as “a protective covering.” Her co-worker edited it to read “a protective outer covering.” She protested - you do not use the word to define the word and besides, by using “covering” the implication was clear that one thing was outside the other. But, he protested, the word being defined is not “outer” but “outershell,” so the “don’t use a word to define a word” rule did not apply. Her response:

I was perturbed. “Covering,” to me, already conveys outside-ness, not inside-ness. It is covering something; there is something inside it; it is outside the thing it is covering. Q.E. Motherfucking D. (emphasis in the original)

I mean, how great is that? At another turn, she laments the cottage industry of amateur lexicographers who are trying their hand at defining words as they come into popular use. In a discussion of the word “hella,” she poo poos a t-shirt with the word and several definitions (“an excessive amount,” “large quantity,” “more than above what is necessary”) by asking rhetorically, “Dude, do you even English?” Here, the amateur was too-cute-by-half and should have stuck to hella’s colloquial usage as “very” or “extremely.” (“This is a hella good book review, Scary Lawyer Guy.” “Thanks, reader.”)

The book can feel dense at times (I got a bit lost in the chapter on phonetic pronunciation, and the granular detail on different squiggly lines used in the editorial process still eludes me) but I suspect that the self-selecting group of people who are passionate about the English language and the words that make it up will not mind. In all of this wonderful detail is the type of behind-the-scenes information that leads people to fall down rabbit holes of research into the origins of words like “posh” (apocryphally noted as an acronym for “port side out, starboard side home” to indicate first-class passage on ships of yesteryear), “cop” (constable on patrol), and “Boston marriage” (a long-term love affair between two women). 

The irony is that at a time when more words are being “created” than ever before, the industry is, like many others consumed by the Internet, if not dying, than certainly limping along. Where at one point updates were produced every few years (and truly seminal works like the Third International spawned took more than 20 years and spawned books of their own (see, The Story of A’int)), now, online dictionaries have sprouted to further reduce profit margins even as lexicographers are needed more than ever. As Stamper notes, terms like “on fleek” and “mansplaining” arose out of nowhere and quickly became integral to the lexicon (the former is credited to a sixteen-year-old who used it in a six second video in June 2014 and by November of that year 10 percent of google searches were for that term, the latter spawning its own sub-industry of “-splaining” offshoots.)

Stamper is also here to slay a few shibboleths - do feel free to end your sentences with a preposition and reconsider your knee jerk rejection of irregardless. Do you furrow your brow at the death of proper English at the hands of millennials and smart phones? Reconsider your opprobrium; OMG is found in the private letters of Winston Churchill from almost one hundred years ago. Word nerds will relish Kemper’s deft hand in parsing “phonemic” and “phonetic” in a chapter on pronunciation and experience a tinge of jealousy that jobs exist that do not require any contact or communication with other human beings (Stamper paints a picture not unlike the coding hive on Silicon Valley but instead of 1s and 0s, Stamper and her team spend their days diagraming sentences and coming up with just the right way to describe the word measly.) 

Ultimately, Stamper sums up my feeling about Word By Word better than I can. In the chapter discussing the wonderful tradition at Merriam-Webster of giving written responses to all questions posed by readers, she notes: “It’s an even rarer thing to love words and find a group of other people who not only love them as much as you do, but also know a lot about them . . .” I could not agree more.



Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 


Saturday, June 17, 2017

Giants Stadium - 6/17/91

When I walked (stumbled?) out of RFK Stadium on July 12, 1990, my mind was fully blown. The three hours I had just spent having my brain bent by the Grateful Dead had far less to do with anything I inhaled or imbibed and far more to do with the sheer brilliance of their performance, capped by a near 25-minute Dark Star that left me scrambling to pick my jaw up off the ground. That show was its own capper to a near year-long run of excellence I had witnessed, from East Rutherford, New Jersey and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania the previous October to Landover, Maryland four short months before, the Dead were in peak form.

About two weeks later, I got a call at home from a friend of mine telling me that Brent Mydland had died. It was a body blow to every Deadhead. I immediately flashed to the prior summer’s shows at RFK, when, during I Will Take You Home the big screens zoomed in on Brent and the small photos of his two young daughters he kept nestled on his keyboard. What would happen now? 

In the pre-Internet age, information did not move at the speed of light. The musician asked to take Brent’s seat, Vince Welnick, was unknown to most of us (and you couldn’t pull up a Wikipedia page to find out more) and we had no idea someone far better known - Bruce Hornsby - had rebuffed the band’s request to join them full-time, but agreed to come on temporarily while Vince got his sea legs. 

And so it was, eight weeks after walking out of a sweltering RFK, I boogied into the Spectrum having no idea what to expect. I was less than floored, but understood Welnick was new and the pressure on him enormous. I missed the MSG shows that included Hornsby’s debut (and included two other standout performances - 9/19 and 9/20) but by the time Spring 1991 rolled around, I was dutifully impressed. The shows I saw at the Capital Center and particularly the three nights at the Omni in Atlanta, were intense, creative, and thoroughly enjoyable. That the band remade itself on the fly, with two new members occupying similar musical space, was a testament not just to the surviving five, but the new guys too. 

For me, the stage was set for what is, in my opinion, the best show of the post-Brent Mydland era - the June 17, 1991 performance at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. To borrow from Reggie Jackson, as the “straw that stirred the drink,” Garcia’s centrality to the quality (or lack thereof) of the Dead’s live performances cannot be overstated, and on this night, he was firing on all cylinders. Garcia is engaged and engaging from the show’s beginning - his graying hair blown back by stage fans, the band cozied into the first Eyes of the World show opener since 1975. It is possible this was done as a simple nod to the ABC broadcast recording being done of the show, but regardless, it is one of the band’s standout performances of this foundational tune.  

Unlike other shows where the band takes a few songs to get in gear, things click quickly. Thanks to the ABC recording you can see the band’s interactions and engagement with the music. Jerry’s appreciative nods in Bruce’s direction during Eyes are telling. Like a proud papa seeing his favored son succeed, Bruce’s touch-feel for the Dead’s music provided the band’s members - and particularly Garcia - with a newfound energy after Mydland’s passing. And unlike Welnick, Hornsby was confident in his ability to push the music. Part of what makes this show so special is Hornsby’s assertiveness. It is not just his and Garcia’s melodic interludes during Eyes, it is his playfulness with the music - Dark Star teases right before Masterpiece, Truckin’ and China Doll, his piano leads during the first set closer Might As Well landing like waves on the shore, his frisky Space jam as the band tuned up for the second set and his intuitive sense of transition deep into the second set from Truckin’ into New Speedway Boogie - separate this night from so many others of the post-Mydland era.  

And that is not to short change Welnick, who was being put in an impossible spot. On the one hand, he was being asked to replace the band’s longest-serving keyboardist while knowing he was (at best) the band’s second choice (behind Hornsby, who he had to play next to every night). On top of that, he was entering a world of incredibly devoted fans who were also unremitting in their criticism (the “Don’t Let Brent Sing” movement was well underway when I started touring with the Dead in 1987. After his passing, people came around to his talent. Go figure.) 

Even so, there were times on that sultry evening when he was given a chance to shine. Unlike Mydland’s bluesy growl, Welnick’s voice was more harmonious, and Hornsby wisely stepped back to give Vince opportunities during the stunning Saint of Circumstance second set opener to display both his musical and vocal chops.  At other points, like the extended Uncle John’s Band that closed out the first part of an equally extended second set, you can see the kernels of knowledge beginning to form, the muscle memory Vince was starting to develop, as he picks up hints of The Other One and Dark Star Garcia and Lesh flirt with during the meltdown jam that flows into the Drums segment. 

In all of this, there is clear joy and a desire for experimentation. The show stretches for almost three hours without feeling bloated. The nearly hour-long beginning to the second set comprised of Saint>Ship of Fools>Truckin’>New Speedway>Uncle John’s Band is both seamless in its transitions (Hornsby tries to goad the band into Dark Star again just prior to Truckin’ and gets about a minute’s worth of interest before the band abandons things) and well jammed without feeling indulgent. If that was not enough, the back end is equally muscular - with a rare (and eerie) China Doll rolling out of Space, followed by by Weir taking a double dip with a reprise of Playin’ in the Band and a set closing Sugar Magnolia that absolutely brings the house down. 

The Weight encore feels fitting. That song, performed with each band member taking a verse, is also in its way, an opportunity for them to take a small bow for what they had just produced. For those of us who cut our teeth watching Brent on the proverbial “hot seat,” it was also a chance to reflect on how far the band had come in the 11 months since his passing. Instead of curling into a shell, the band, as it had done so many times before, had, at least for a short time, reinvented itself and was stronger than ever. 

Of course, as I’ve noted before, that reinvention proved to be short-lived. The Fall 1991 tour, while ambitious in scope, failed to meet the high level of Giants Stadium or the other stand out performances during that summer in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Illinois and Bonner Springs, Kansas. Hornsby played his last show as an unofficial member in early 1992 and the quality tailed off as Garcia’s heroin addiction reared its head again and the band flagged. But on this night in New Jersey, that denouement was far off in the distance and the band played what may have been its greatest show of the era. 


Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy