Monday, June 27, 2016

Game of Thrones - Season Six

The sixth season of Game of Thrones was a Fourth of July fireworks display that began with the resurrection of Jon Snow and culminated with Cersei Lannister executing an “inside job” terrorist attack on the capital that destroyed her enemies and inadvertently elevated her to the Iron Throne. It was a lot to absorb. The show has always been ambitious, but this season embraced its cinematic tendencies and turned the dial up to eleven: Dothraki leaders burned alive, a set piece battle outside Winterfell with bodies piled thirty deep, Dany’s dragons unleashing hell on the Masters seeking to reclaim Meereen and of course, the poignant end for Hodor – one of, if not the most haunting image in a series rich in them.

The show has never shied away from spectacle, whether it was lopping off Ned Stark’s head, the weddings-cum-assassinations in Red and Purple, or the battles in Blackwater Bay or Hardhome, shit is always real in Westeros, but with the show pivoting towards its final bow, the immediacy of each new plot twist has become more acute. And while many of the jaw dropping moments from earlier seasons were known to book readers ahead of time, freed from George R.R. Martin’s text and perhaps nodding to fan criticism, the show runners made female empowerment the dominant theme this season. It was not just the ascendance of Cersei to the Iron Throne or Dany’s voyage to begin her invasion of Westeros, it was 10-year old Lady Lyanna Mormont flashing more swag than Kanye, Ellaria Sand burying a knife in Prince Doran’s heart, Yara Greyjoy refusing to accept the usurpation of her claim to the Salt Throne, Sansa Stark calling in the Knights of the Vale to steal victory from the jaws of defeat, Arya Stark embracing the lessons of cold-blooded assassination but in service of her own vendettas, and Brienne continuing to swing the biggest sword in the Seven Kingdoms. In season six, sisters were truly doing it for themselves.   

For a show that prides itself on spectacle, this season was exemplified by the many great conversations that, to borrow from Tyrion, took place in elegant (and not-so elegant) rooms. From Jorah and Dany’s parting to Brienne and Jamie’s reunion, the emotional high notes abounded. And this is where fans are truly rewarded. Sansa and Jon’s reunion is colored by regret and the deep scars we have seen each suffer. Lady Olenna’s dismissiveness of Cersei as she watches King’s Landing consumed by the High Sparrow’s strict orthodoxy is wrapped around a history that includes the former hatching a plot that resulted in the murder of the latter’s son and would end with the latter annihilating the former’s son and grandchildren in an explosion of wildfire. Having invested so much time into the cultivation of these characters, the small two-person scenes that dotted this season oftentimes packed more wallop than the grandest CGI display.

Of course, any show completing its sixth season will inevitably attract naysayers. Indeed, thought pieces suggested Battle of the Bastards was the show’s “jump the shark” moment for the apostasy of giving fans what they wanted – the brutal death of a vicious character and a victory for the good guys. And there may be something to be said for diminishing returns from constantly upping the ante, but do not tell me for one second you did not stare at the screen blankly as Tommen took a header out his window even as the flames rose from the destroyed Sept of Baelor.  Any TV show closer to its end than its beginning will inevitably find its universe shrinking; it is a simple matter of arithmetic. There is only so much time left to tell the rest of the story and like chess, the sport Game of Thrones is often compared to, there are fewer (but more important) pieces on the board at the end than the beginning.

Those chess pieces are now clearly established. Cersei is the queen of a rapidly sinking ship. She has alienated her house’s allies, all of her children are dead, and judging from Jamie’s look as she is crowned, may have lost him as well. Jon is “King in the North,” but it was Sansa who saved his skin and Littlefinger looms ominously in the background. Lastly, the idea of Dany as some sort of Westerosi Barack Obama bringing together a disparate coalition under a “Yes, We Can” umbrella is contra the show’s history but also contains an interesting piece of irony. The Mother of Dragons has now merged forces of the Dornish and the Dothraki, the Iron Born and the Unsullied, all in the name of taking down the Lannisters, yet her closest advisor is the brother of the current occupant of the Iron Throne. The kingdom has been in an almost perpetual state of war since the series’ inception, which makes Dany’s vision of a world left better upon her death both refreshing and a bit naive. After meeting Tyrion and musing about the various houses jockeying for power, Dany says that she does not want to stop the wheel, she wants to break the wheel; but restoring her family to power will merely reinvent it.

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Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Book Review - We Were Feminists Once

If there is one thing I have learned in my 45 years, it is that I do not understand women very well. So I came to Andi Zeisler’s We Were Feminists Once openly, objectively, and with interest in understanding more about a concept (feminism) with which I am barely familiar. I really enjoyed this book even though I realized how much I take for granted. I grew up around strong, independent women, and was taught, mentored, and supervised by them too. In college and law school, women were well-represented, and I have worked with and for women my entire professional career. I even live in one of the few states that offers paid family leave. I never sat in a Women’s Studies class or considered my role in the patriarchy, so I took for granted much of what Zeisler writes about.

Her thesis is that feminism, a concept that centers around actual equality – in wages, treatment, respect, and representation in business, politics, and culture – has largely been appropriated by consumerism. That flashing shiny objects of female empowerment through the lens of marketing, advertising, and celebrity worship has distracted women (and men, but more on us later) from the harder, less sexy work of securing reproductive rights, health care, equal pay and much more. When the battles being waged in popular culture focus on pubic hair, panty lines, and periods the battle has already been lost.

To those who study or came to this book with foreknowledge, I suppose much of what is contained between its covers is axiomatic. Marketing campaigns by brands like Dove and Cover Girl encourage women to love themselves for who they are while selling them products to hide, mask, or minimize the physical imperfections society tells them to. Listicles on the Internet whittle down “feminism” into lowest common denominator chunks while legislatures across the country restrict access to abortion or refuse to close yawning pay gaps. Celebrities are recruited into campaigns that encourage women to know their value, but the conferences and events held to promote this message are typically warmed over networking opportunities whose cost prices out the very people they want to help. And of course, the ever present existence of social media bombards women with ideas about who and what they should be – invariably, an ideal that all but the most accomplished and self-assured fall short of.  

It is a damning (and depressing) indictment. While it is not unique for movements to be appropriated for commercial gains (surely, sales of flannel shirts spiked in the early 1990s and the hippie movement in Haight-Ashbury was quickly co-opted to sell Volkswagens), Zeisler’s frustration comes through loud and clear because the stakes are so high. It is not just societal norms that feminism struggles against, it is the backlash from other women that invariably crops up as each wave of feminism crests against that stubborn wall of cultural resistance. In this way, feminism gets muddied up in battles between stay-at-home and working mothers, the back-and-forth on Facebook that defends or attacks choices women make where the most heated debate is among women themselves, and right-wing voices that long for a simpler time when women knew their role (servile, subservient, and silent).   

Of course, this does not even take into account the insult to injury suffered by women outside traditional cultural messaging. To be a Latina, African-American, queer, or bisexual woman, is to often suffer a double dose of marginalization. Whether it is being erased out of what society defines as normative or having your race or sexual orientation be treated as a point of derision or hatred, the challenges are even greater for these women.

The one group missing from much of this discussion is men. While we make a few cameo appearances in predictable places like how pornography has warped the male view of intimacy and the disgraceful treatment of Anita Hill, to dismiss the ability of men to be partners and champions for feminism seems like a lost opportunity, particularly if you are interested, as Zeisler appears to be, in making meaningful public policy changes.

Zeisler is remarkably well-read and her book is heavy with references to books, essays, and writers who have shaped feminism for nearly fifty years. She comes to her subject with honesty and a conversational writing style that easily moves the reader along. I would suggest Zeisler have a chat with her fact checker though, because there were two whoppers I noticed (political in nature, naturally). The first identified Bob Dole and not George H.W. Bush as Bill Clinton’s opponent in the 1992 Presidential race (p. 173) and the other lopped off a term of office for Barbara Boxer, who won a fourth term to the U.S. Senate in 2010, not a third (p. 213).  

To be sure, it will be interesting to see how Zeisler’s critique holds up. At the same time popular culture is pressing forward with the type of marketed feminism she disdains (the female-led reboot of the iconic Ghostbusters franchise, the ascendency of female characters on Game of Thrones) we also stand on the brink of electing our first female President. Time will tell whether having a President Hillary Clinton will result in some of the changes Zeisler desires, but it is surely more consequential than whether Danaerys takes over the Seven Kingdoms.

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Friday, June 17, 2016

Bernie Goes Bust

While his colleagues in the Senate were dominating the news cycle with a poignant and powerful filibuster in support of strong gun control measures, Bernie Sanders was holed up in Vermont, polishing remarks he delivered to supporters on Thursday night. The speech itself was familiar. A greatest hits of Bernie’s preferred policy positions and a call to arms for his people to get involved in the political process at every level of government. But for a guy who boasted of his online fundraising prowess and unexpected success during the primaries, his 23-minute speech landed with a thud. Although more than one million people registered for the online stream, at its peak, a mere 218,000 people viewed it and cable news quickly cut away as it became clear he was giving a glorified stump speech lacking a concession to Hillary Clinton.

The past few weeks have been unkind to the 74-year old democratic socialist. After camping out in California for weeks on end in the hope of winning that state’s primary, he got stomped, book ending a day that began with a 30-point blowout in New Jersey and the media’s designation of Clinton as the party’s presumptive nominee. Since then, Sanders has been further marginalized. A meeting with President Obama was quickly overshadowed by the President, Vice President, and Senator Warren’s endorsement of Clinton. As the nation reeled over the mass murder in Orlando, Sanders chose that time to issue his set of demands to the Democrats, including the removal of DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Instead of supporting his “fellow” Democrats during the aforementioned filibuster, Sanders skipped it. And through it all, he has refused to concede even as the few supporters he had in Congress abandoned ship.

All of these events would have been enough to shrink whatever leverage Sanders had before his crushing loss in California, but Donald Trump’s implosion has worsened his situation. As Trump has become unmoored – lashing out at a federal judge, claiming the President was somehow complicit in the Orlando attack, accusing soldiers of theft in Iraq – and polling shows a consolidation of Democratic support for Clinton and a steady erosion of Republican support for Trump, it is becoming clear that Sanders’s blessing is not nearly as important as it looked to be just a few weeks ago. Clinton now has a posse that includes a fired up (and very popular) Barack Obama, working class hero Joe Biden, progressive champion Elizabeth Warren, her husband (and still-popular ex-President) Bill Clinton, and whoever she selects as her running mate to eviscerate Trump and rally Democrats, Independents and sane Republicans. Bernie’s support would be helpful, but no longer appears necessary.

Sanders played a weak hand hoping to maximize his return, but he pushed too hard. Instead of quitting while he was ahead, he went all in and lost. Voting ended in California 10 days ago (no mention of Bernie’s 60 point loss in Washington, D.C. earlier this week is needed) and Sanders has shown no sign of getting with the program. He could have giving a gracious concession speech, pledged his full support to Clinton and called on his voters to do the same, all of which would have enhanced his standing in the party. But he did nothing of the sort.

This is telling. For whatever lip service Sanders pays to being a Democrat, his actions tell a much different story. He has now spoken publicly, and with meaningful media attention, three times without so much as gracious and heartfelt congratulations to Clinton or an acknowledgment that the campaign is over. On the most important topic of the day, when his voice could have added weight to Senator Chris Murphy’s filibuster, Sanders was AWOL. What we have seen instead is a refusal to admit defeat, a self-righteousness bordering on narcissism, and a delusional belief that a guy who registered as a Democrat for political expediency now thinks he can tell his newfound party what to do.

When Sanders does not get all he wants, or is denied things he thinks he is owed, do not be surprised when he takes his toys and goes home, which is fine by me. His allegiance to the party was only as strong as his potential to win the nomination. With that gone, and with his endorsers abandoning him, I fully expect Sanders to revert back to being an independent – which is what he has been in his heart the whole time.

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Saturday, June 11, 2016

Hillary's Veepstakes

Now that Hillary has wrapped up the Democratic nomination for President, all eyes are turning toward who she will pick to run with her. The candidate herself has been circumspect about the kind of person she is looking for with one important caveat - that the person she picks will be qualified to be President if anything happens to her. While this may sound like typical political pablum, this might be called the “Palin Bar” because the erstwhile Alaska Governor failed to clear that basic threshold. So, with that said, let’s look at the contenders: 

The Progressive Wet Dream

The name on everyone’s lips right now is Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. She is a firebrand who has shown a real zeal for attacking Donald Trump, a hero to the progressive left who was calling out the big banks for years, came up with what would become the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and would join what would be the first-ever all-female Presidential ticket. These are not small things and, in its way, would emphasize a strength Clinton already has while checking the progressive box the media thinks Hillary needs to mollify the Sanders wing of the party. With that said, I do not think she will get the nod because most Democrats will “come home” to Clinton without her needing to spend political capital on her VP selection and the wonky succession rules if Clinton/Warren did win is a gamble Democrats may not want to take (though I do love the idea of John Kerry going back to the Senate in the special election that would be called within 160 days of Warren’s notice of resignation). 

Vice President White Guy

There is a strain of thought that Hillary should just grab a moderate white guy to stick on the ticket and help cut her deficit with male voters. Both Virginia Senators, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, hurdle the Palin Bar as former Governors of the Commonwealth and Senators of some standing (Warner is also an independently wealthy former businessman and Kaine was the chair of the Democratic National Committee). They also hail from a swing state that if Hillary can lock down, would make Trump’s already improbable path to victory that much narrower. Either of these guys is a safe option though unlikely to set progressive hearts on fire. 

The Next Generation

If Hillary is looking for sizzle, New Jersey’s junior Senator Cory Booker or former Mayor of San Antonio and current Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro are both tempting options. Either would appeal to a constituency that Hillary will need in November (Booker is African-American, Castro is Hispanic-American), both are incredibly telegenic and charismatic and both are in their 40s, which would give a nice generational boost to the ticket. But here is the thing, Castro will be 42 in November and Booker will be 47 and each has only been on the national stage for less than four years. While I have no doubt both are smarter than Sarah Palin (both went to Stanford, Booker has a law degree from Yale and was a Rhodes Scholar; Castro has a law degree from Harvard) neither has spent enough time under the hot lights. 

Bernie Lite

Anyone who thinks Hillary will pick Bernie Sanders as her running mate has spent too much time sampling legalized weed in Colorado. Instead, attention has focused on Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown. Brown would be a sop to progressives and comes from another swing state that while not essential to Hillary’s electoral college map, would, like Virginia, limit Trump’s paths to victory if she did win it. Brown is also experienced, having served in Congress since 1993 and in the Senate since 2007. One downside? Vice President Brown’s successor would be chosen by Republican Governor John Kasich, who is under no obligation to fill the seat with another Democrat. This may be subtraction by addition when every vote in the Senate will be needed in 2017. 

The Sisterhood

There are two female Senators, Missouri’s Claire McCaskill and Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar, who have also garnered attention.  Klobuchar in particular has strong progressive credentials but also had a stellar record as the District Attorney of the largest county in Minnesota. McCaskill has won statewide races in a place where Democrats do not do well and each is excellent on the mic. On the other hand, if Clinton wants to put a well-qualified woman on the ticket, why not pick Warren?

The Finalists

For my money, Clinton’s choice will come down to California Congressman Xavier Beccera and former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick. Beccera is Chair of the House Democratic Caucus (4th in the leadership structure) and has served in Congress for more than 20 years. He would be very helpful in moving legislation and would be the first Hispanic-American Vice President. He is also a progressive, which would help corral Sanders’s voters. Patrick has deep ties to the Clintons from his time as head of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division in the 1990s and he was a two-term Governor. He also has experience in the corporate world (which might work against him in today’s Democratic Party) and delivered one of the stand-out speeches at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. The national stage would not be too big for either of these men, they both add balance and value, pass the Palin Bar and would energize key Democratic constituencies. While I think a compelling case can be made for either man, Patrick’s history with the Clintons, his great oratorical chops, and governing experience give him the advantage. 

My prediction: Clinton/Patrick 2016. 

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Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Media Fail: California Edition

In a primary season littered with bad journalism, the California primary may take the cake. To recap: Bernie Sanders basically moved to the Golden State, campaigned there non-stop, received his typical fawning coverage based on campaign rallies he held almost exclusively on college campuses, benefitted from hours of TV time where pundits suggested he could win the state, and STILL lost to Hillary Clinton by 13 points. The morning after the election, you would barely know that the media had spent the preceding three weeks hyping his prospects or that he lost in a landslide.

Although awful, the media fail is of a piece with how they have covered the Clinton/Sanders primary race. Clinton fought Sanders with one hand tied behind her back while he swung away with both fists. Other than her (accurate) attacks on Sanders’s position on gun manufacturer liability, the Clinton team spent little time on negative campaigning against him; her Super PAC literally spent no money going after Sanders. Meanwhile, he dug in with gusto against her until the final day of the campaign.

The conventional wisdom was that Clinton supporters were not as enthusiastic as Sanders supporters. Not only was that demonstrably false, but in the place enthusiasm actually matters – the polling booth – her final margin of victory will end up being close to 4 million votes, a massive victory. That Hillary won 8 of the last 11 primaries and caucuses and 14 of the last 20 would suggest she has plenty of momentum and enthusiasm, but most of the coverage leading into California speculated about how damaging a loss there would be. When the media could not find any equivalency in delegates or votes, they tried to lean on “states won” – as if the Utah caucus was the same as prevailing in Pennsylvania, Florida or Texas – but even there, the Sanders team came up woefully short.

The kid gloves Sanders was treated with by Clinton were largely shared by a media horde that consistently drooled over his rallies but did little probing of his actual policies. What little negative press he received was of his own making – an awful editorial board meeting with the New York Daily News and his claim that Clinton was unqualified to be President – stemmed from his own lack of preparedness and tin ear. Meanwhile, in the run up to both the New York and California primaries, his campaign received oceans of positive coverage based on the size of his crowds, but when he lost each, there was little after action reporting on why that excitement did not translate into wins.

Bernie’s appeal was always based more on myth than fact. Of the 10 most populous states in the nation, Sanders only won one, and by less than two percent (Michigan). Clinton beat Sanders by more than 100,000 votes 15 times, while Sanders only bested Clinton by that margin once. Clinton’s domination was so complete there were some counties where she outpolled Sanders by a greater margin than entire states he won. In New Jersey, her margin of victory in Essex County (47,622 votes) was greater than Sanders’s victory margins in all but four states (one of which was Vermont).

But for all of this, Bernie Sanders is still getting the softball treatment. The editorial board of the New York Times thinks Hillary has to convince Bernie’s supporters she did not cheat to win and everyone in the press corps is in agreement that he deserves a wide berth to nurse his wounds even as he stubbornly claims he will soldier on, notwithstanding the clear defeat he suffered. It is fitting that the media is giving him one last parting gift – on a night when he could have shown statesmanship by conceding to Clinton, urging his supporters to vote for her, or even simply acknowledging the historic nature of her being the first woman to clinch a major party’s nomination for President, he was defiant and refused to shush his supporters who booed her name, not that you will hear much about this in the press, they are too busy hand wringing over the additional concessions that must be made to soothe his wounded ego. 

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Monday, June 6, 2016

Trump Has A SINO Problem

I will never be mistaken for President of the Chuck Todd Fan Club, but I will give the host of Meet The Press his due. Politics has a lexicon all its own and Todd recently created a worthy new entrant to that nomenclature: “SINO” – a “Supporter In Name Only” of Donald Trump. The SINO phenomenon has been seen with regularity among Washington’s political class: tepid endorsements, the he-who-must-not-be-named treatment by people like Mitch McConnell, and twisted-into-a-pretzel justifications being used by those who once deemed him a “cancer” or a “con man” for their change of heart.

But the problem with SINOs is that they are sort of like the sell swords on Game of Thrones – they have no loyalty to you and as soon as the worm turns, they run away. As Trump’s attacks on people based on their religion, ethnicity, and gender have intensified, he is in danger of becoming a man without a country. The SINOs who grudgingly siddled up to him are now distancing themselves.  

Consider the reaction to Trump’s inflammatory comments about Judge Gonzalo Curiel. Not only is no one in Trump’s own party rising to his defense, they are stepping over each other to criticize the real estate mogul’s comments. When Hillary Clinton dropped a foreign policy speech that peeled the paint off Trump’s spray tanned fa├žade, no one in the Republican Party rushed to his defense – there was no rapid response, no surrogates parachuting onto cable television to defend him, no point-by-point rebuttal, just Trump and a few lame tweets.  

This should surprise no one. Politicians are, if nothing else, pragmatists. As Trump’s star fades, Republicans will continue distancing themselves from him. After all, why should they lose their cushy jobs and stellar perks for a guy who will not be remembered one second after the polls close on November 8th? More importantly, why should they risk the future of their party by being associated with a man who is single-handedly alienating every voting group critical to its future; they are doing a good enough job of that without Trump’s help.

But political survival is one thing, upholding the tenets you claim to revere is another. If SINOs truly valued country over party, they would do more than issue hyperbolic press releases denouncing their own standard bearer – they would come out and renounce their support of him and confess a dirty little secret many of them have long known: far from being a Rush Limbaugh-tarred-Femi-Nazi, Hillary Clinton is a roll-up-her-sleeves policy wonk who likes to get things done. In the Senate, she helped pass bi-partisan legislation and as Secretary of State, she took an active interest in the smallest of issues, like a gefilte fish company in a Republican Congressman’s district that was having trouble getting its shipment to Israel.

Of course, the problem in admitting this fact is the electoral support that has sustained many members of Congress and the ocean of money that has flowed into political consultants’ coffers for the past 25 years would dry up immediately and the bald-faced lies that sustain the vast right-wing conspiracy against Hillary would be exposed. Instead, SINOs will retreat from the dumpster fire in order to protect themselves and prepare for battle with another President Clinton.

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Sunday, June 5, 2016


The New York Times did a nice piece of long-form (and interactive) journalism this weekend. Published on the front page of its Sunday paper and the home page of its website. the Times  reported on the 64 people shot in Chicago over Memorial Day weekend, six of whom died. While random shootings occurred, the Times points out that much of the gun violence in Chicago happens in small pockets of the city and among individuals well known to the police. So why is it that Chicago has seen the number of homicides and non-fatal shootings spike? A few pieces of information leapt out at me:

  • Of the 64 people shot, the police had previously identified 50 as having a high likelihood of shooting someone or being shot;
  • Gun possession only carries a one-year prison term in Illinois; and 
  • The clearance rate for murders is about 25 percent.

In short, you have a police force that knows most of the people at the greatest risk of shooting someone or being shot but the penalty for carrying a gun is a slap on the wrist and your chances of being arrested if you do kill someone is only one in four. There is a chicken-or-the-egg quality to some of this - is the low clearance rate due to police indifference or the failure of the community to give up its own? When the community knows murderers are rarely caught, does it encourage street justice and a lack of cooperation with police for fear of retaliation from those turned in by their neighbors? Does the perceived security of carrying a gun outweigh the risk of a year’s time in prison? Are the men and women most at-risk of being involved in gun violence being offered alternatives or do they choose “the lifestyle” freely, knowing the risks. 

Although not mentioned in the article, I suspect some of the other socio-economic metrics in these communities are also woeful - be it the unemployment rate, truancy, or the percent of high school students who graduate (or go to college). In economically depressed areas, if you have little hope or opportunity, are poorly educated, or do not expect to live past 40, how exactly do you make this stop? 

You can read the article here