Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Hillary Clinton Is Not The Lesser Of Two Evils

Of the most frustrating caricatures of Hillary Clinton, the idea that progressives should vote for her simply because she is the “lesser of two evils” is among the most disappointing (and inaccurate). The vast right-wing conspiracy has effectively portrayed her as Machiavelli in heels for more than 25 years, but anyone who has been watching, really watching the Democratic National Convention, much less taken the time to look into the work Hillary has done on behalf of others for the past 40 years, should know better.

During the DNC, I have been particularly struck by the testimonials provided by Anastasia Somoza and Ryan Moore, two Americans with disabilities. Each spoke of meeting Hillary as children and at events that many politicians simply use as photo ops to make them look good. But not Hillary. She befriended these young people whose struggles are far greater than most of us can imagine, not because it helped her politically, but because she cared. Hillary’s work to pass legislation to help children secure health care, traveling to poor areas to fight housing discrimination, and tireless advocacy for women’s rights are foursquare with progressive ideals that many of us share. 

Hillary does not have her husband’s natural political gifts or President Obama’s unparalleled ability to lift people through his words, but instead of lauding her for the strengths she possesses – of inclusion, collaboration, and yes, listening – the media focus invariably lands on the skills she does not have, not the ones she does. Make no mistake, this has been an editorial decision that dates back decades to when she had the temerity to defend her right to have a career and not be a homemaker and has carried on from one generation of reporters to the next, who lean into the idea that she is an insular paranoid distrusted by Americans. 

That she now has to “reintroduce” herself to a populace the media claims does not know the “real” Hillary is an indictment of their choices from 1991 to the present. Her biography has been out there for any reporter interested in learning it. Her speeches as First Lady show a woman who was well ahead of her time in advocating for causes that are now considered mainstream. Her time as Secretary of State is now chronicled in the release of more than 30,000 emails that show her granular level concern for everything from delivering clean water to tiny African villages to getting an Illinois small business’s gefilte fish delivered to Israel. 

For the media to portray a vote for Hillary as some sort of hold-your-nose moment for Democrats, Sanders supporters or anyone else insults her decades-long commitment to others. She is a hard-working woman who has spent the better part of her adult life advocating on behalf of many whose voices are rarely heard in our democracy. That her work has often been behind the scenes and she has not tried to brag about her accomplishments shows a humility and selflessness journalists claim they want in politicians but penalize them for showing. The person she is running against is a know-nothing charlatan who has spent much of his adult life using others for his personal gain. There are clear differences between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, but the lesser of two evils is not one of them.

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Saturday, July 23, 2016

Trump Had A Terrible Convention And It Won't Matter

If you are a Republican hoping the Trump for President campaign would get its shit together, your just-concluded convention must have left you wanting. The week started with Trump’s campaign chairman dissing the Governor of Ohio and ended with the candidate reviving conspiracy theories about Ted Cruz’s father being involved in the JFK assassination. In between, Trump’s wife was accused of plagiarism, Ben Carson suggested Hillary Clinton consulted with Lucifer, and Antonio Sabato, Jr. called the President a Muslim. Through it all, the animating emotion was rage, the favored chant a full-throated “LOCK HER UP” in reference to Hillary Clinton, egged on and abetted by prominent Republicans like Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani.

Once upon a time, Republicans leavened their fear-mongering with a patina of sunny optimism. Homages to lower taxes, less regulation, and a strong military could be relied upon to make their message go down smoothly. Reagan’s “Morning in America” and George H.W. Bush’s “Thousand Points of Light” have descended into Trump’s paranoid imagery of a country fraying at the seams. 

From the inner cities in the 1960s to the Soviet Union in the 1980s and terrorists in the 2000s, there was always some “other” to fear, but that has curdled into a sense of white grievance that now vilifies immigrants, people protesting police shootings, and of course, the twin evils of maybe-not-born-in-America Barack Obama and she-belongs-in-prison Hillary Clinton. Trump’s ranting acceptance speech - clocking in at 75 minutes, had the feel of a tinpot dictator, not a serious candidate for elective office, much less the highest one in the land. 

So why doesn’t any of this matter? It is really quite simple. Any Republican running for President starts off with 102 electoral votes from states they have won in the past six elections, 56 from states they have won five of the last six elections, and about 40% of the vote. The GOP has suffered four major landslide defeats in the last six elections, yet only George H.W. Bush failed to cross that minimum threshold and that was because Ross Perot, a third-party candidate, got 19% of the vote. Bob Dole (also hindered by Perot’s presence), John McCain, and Mitt Romney were all crushed, but they received 41%, 46%, and 47% respectively, of the popular vote. 

Trump’s problem is that securing the other 10% necessary to win the Presidency is both hard and expensive and he has not shown an inclination to do the work or raise and spend the money necessary to win. He is woefully ill-informed about the basics of governing, has no use for the analytics and get-out-the-vote effort that is needed on Election Day and is late to the game in fundraising. The Republican National Convention exposed the amateur-hour level of his organization and major donors are not opening their wallets as they have in previous years. Instead, he is relying on Twitter and appearing on cable TV to make up for his unwillingness (or inability) to generate the money needed to run a legitimate campaign for President. 

But again, none of this really matters because the race will be close simply because the electorate is not what it was in 1964, 1972, or even 1984 when huge swaths of one party’s voters abandoned ship and voted the other way. In 2008, the conditions for a Democratic landslide were about as favorable as they will ever be: the economy was in free fall, we were involved in two unpopular wars, and George W. Bush’s favorability rating hovered in the 20s. And even with that, McCain still scratched out 173 electoral votes and 46% of the vote. It was not a close race, but it was not the 49 state landslide that both Nixon and Reagan won or LBJ’s 44 state romp. 

What we will get for the next 100 days or so is an odd, mutually beneficial arrangement. Trump will pretend he is running an actual campaign for President even though he has none of the basic building blocks to do so and the press will pretend he has a serious chance of winning because to do otherwise would both expose his fraud, drain the contest of any suspense and destroy ratings. Enjoy!

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Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Hillary & Her Damn Emails

The collective media narrative is that FBI Director James Comey did severe political damage to Hillary Clinton in his public statements explaining why he and his investigators unanimously recommended against pursuing charges against the former Secretary of State. According to the media, his public statement on July 5th contradicted a number of Mrs. Clinton’s claims and he then provided hours of testimony on Capitol Hill two days later which made her look even worse.

The confluence of politics and the law is a tricky one - optics matter more in the former, facts in the latter. But what the media owes the public is accuracy and conflating Comey’s statements with the idea that Mrs. Clinton’s actions reinforce the belief she is untrustworthy is an editorial decision divorced from the facts in this case. Members of the media like to hide behind the idea that they are simply reporting on what polling or interviews with the public tell them, but this excuses their own responsibility for shaping that narrative.

Comey’s most sensational claim was that classified emails – that were classified at the time they were sent of received – were found on Clinton’s email server. This seemed to contradict Mrs. Clinton’s statement that she neither sent nor received classified email. Here is what Comey said:

From the group of 30,000 e-mails returned to the State Department, 110 e-mails in 52 e-mail chains have been determined by the owning agency to contain classified information at the time they were sent or received. Eight of those chains contained information that was Top Secret at the time they were sent; 36 chains contained Secret information at the time; and eight contained Confidential information, which is the lowest level of classification …

Separately, it is important to say something about the marking of classified information. Only a very small number of the e-mails containing classified information bore markings indicating the presence of classified information. But even if information is not marked “classified” in an e-mail, participants who know or should know that the subject matter is classified are still obligated to protect it.

Seems pretty scandalous right? But Comey was being a bit of a slippery lawyer. The “very small number” of email that were marked classified at the time turned out to be three – yes, three. Not three thousand, or three hundred, or even thirty, but three. In other words, one one-hundredth of one percent (.01%) of the roughly 30,000 email the FBI reviewed were marked as classified. It was not until two days later at Comey’s Congressional hearing, that we learned the rest of the story:

In short, contrary to State Department policy, which connotes an email’s classification in the header, here, the markings were buried somewhere in the email strings where they could have easily been missed. More importantly, it turned out these three email were improperly marked – a fact shared by the State Department within hours of Comey’s press conference.

So, none of the three email Comey mentioned in his press conference turned out to be classified. But what about the 110 emails that were classified at the time, of which eight were top secret? Again, the colloquy is helpful. None of those email bore markings showing they were classified. In other words, the State Department did not think these email were classified at the time, it was the FBI’s call after-the-fact. As Comey conceded, absent some notation in the heading of an email that the subject matter is classified, the recipient of the email could reasonably conclude it was not classified.

In any event, those eight email (out of 30,000) that were top secret? Seven had to do with drone strikes in countries where their leaders demand plausible deniability yet everyone knows attacks occur (e.g., Pakistan and Yemen). The other email was a run-of-the-mill description of a conversation with the President of Malawi. Yes, Malawi, a country few people even know exists and even fewer could find on a map.

In sum, the “small number” of email that bore classified markings were all in error and none of the other 110 email had markings. Of the eight (out of 30,000) supposedly “top secret” email, seven were on a subject widely reported on but kept secret solely to protect our allies and the eighth had notes on a conversation with a leader of a country no one has even heard of.

The other Comey statement getting a lot of attention is this one:

Secretary Clinton used several different servers and administrators of those servers during her four years at the State Department, and used numerous mobile devices to view and send e-mail on that personal domain. 

This comment seems to contradict one by Secretary Clinton that she used only one device. But here’s the thing. Comey never explained what he meant by “numerous devices.” Apple now has a program that lets you upgrade your iPhone every year. Are you using “multiple devices” when you go from the iPhone 6 to the iPhone 7? It may be that Comey and Clinton are both telling the truth in that she perceived swapping out her phones as using “one device” and he interprets that same action as using “numerous devices.” Is this really grounds for a perjury investigation?

This was bad enough, but Comey layered his own opinions (a real no no for an investigator and something, as a former U.S. Attorney, he should know better than doing) and speculation. There were two particularly egregious examples:

Given that combination of factors, we assess it is possible that hostile actors gained access to Secretary Clinton’s personal e-mail account.

Here, he engages in rank speculation without any factual support, a cardinal sin that any first-year law student would know not to do.

Although we did not find clear evidence that Secretary Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws governing the handling of classified information, there is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.

This little nugget ended up being one of Comey’s most quoted lines, but aside from suffering from the same opinion testimony any good prosecutor would know to avoid, taken together with the context of the rest of his statement, it is also untrue. As Comey would later admit, none of the email he considered classified were designated as such at the time and without the markings, a person could infer they were not confidential. So how is it that Secretary Clinton was “extremely careless” when less than 1% of her email were classified (not that she would have known that, as per Comey’s own statement!) and the three (out of 30,000) that had markings turned out not be classified at all. It does not make sense and it also supports Hillary’s statement that she neither received nor sent classified information – the documents Comey said were classified at the time either bore no markings to show that they were or had markings, but turned out not be classified at all.

For Comey, this whole episode is a perfect illustration of why prosecutors typically do not make statements when charges are not filed. We are all entitled to the presumption of innocence and that right is even greater when a criminal investigation concludes without evidence sufficient to charge us with a crime. When a prosecutor decides instead to inject his own opinion it denigrates an innocent person’s reputation for reasons that have nothing to do with a legal determination of their guilt or innocence.

For reporters, this is another in a long litany of examples this campaign season where they went with the sizzle instead of the steak. All of the information I wrote about above was readily available to them if they were doing their jobs and putting this type of context into their stories. Instead, as is more and more common these days, they skipped right past the facts and ran right for the political angle that reinforced their preferred narrative.

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Monday, July 11, 2016

Book Review - Seinfeldia

For a show about nothing, Seinfeld left a huge mark on television and popular culture. Its most memorable lines have been woven into our lexicon, the show’s sarcastic worldview is now omnipresent, and reruns continue airing more than eighteen years since the series finale. The only surprising part of Seinfeldia, Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s love letter to Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer is that it took so long for someone to write a book about what remains one of television’s defining comedies. Armstrong writes with the passion of a super fan and the granularity of a Talmudic scholar. The book is littered with nuggets of trivia and an insider’s description of how television shows are made.

What began as Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David’s meditation on the daily annoyances we experience and the quirks and idiosyncrasies we all share blossomed into a cultural juggernaut. The show’s brilliance goes without saying and any fan will smile inwardly as Armstrong tees up descriptions of beloved characters or episodes. But at the same time, the darker underbelly is also exposed. Writers were mined for personal stories that were turned into plot points only to be jettisoned at the end of each season like discarded pods from The Matrix, the production schedule was grueling and oftentimes chaotic, and, as the show grew in popularity, the coziness it began with gave way to a more corporate feel. 

David’s departure after the show’s seventh season left Seinfeld and a room full of twenty-something graduates of Harvard’s Lampoon to fill out the show’s last two seasons with uneven material. In its waning days, Seinfeld suffered controversy from a ham-handed plot line involving the Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York City and contract disputes that made cast members look rapacious or saintly (depending on your point of view). David returned to pen the show’s finale, but it was widely mocked, even though it hewed closely to the characters’ venality and the show’s mantra of “no hugging, no learning.” 

But in its zeal to cover the forest and the trees, Seinfeldia suffers from editorial drift. While it is interesting to note the cottage industry that has sprung up in the show’s aftermath, be it in the autograph/photo appearances still being made by bit players or the where-are-they-know types like the actress who posed as Rochelle for an eponymous movie poster, that type of ephemera is not what separates Seinfeld from other parts of our culture. After all, from Comic-Con to Lebowski Fest, passionate fan bases blend the fictional worlds of beloved characters with their real-time experiences. Far more could have been said about David’s brilliantly conceived Seinfeld reunion within the context of his own show Curb Your Enthusiasm, but instead, that decision is given about the same amount of book space as a wholly uninteresting anecdote about a beef between the purveyors of dueling Seinfeld parody Twitter accounts.

As befits a show obsessed with comic books, Seinfeldia is at its strongest when telling the show’s origin story. There, a mix of luck, fate, and talent turned an idea hatched in a New York City diner into one of the defining television shows of its era. And while we now think of the iconic “Fab Four,” Seinfeld had its own Pete Best, the drummer before The Beatles hit it big. That would be Lee Garlington, originally cast as the lead female character, but written out in favor of Julia Louis-Dreyfus when the show got a miniscule four-episode order. Actors playing both Jerry and George’s fathers were replaced as well and the real Kramer signed away the rights to use his name for practically nothing. The show also benefitted from being shepherded through the development process in NBC’s late night/specials division, which was free from many of the constraints of the prime-time programming shop. And had NBC canceled the show in its early days (executives fretted it was “too Jewish”), Fox stood ready to swoop in and pick it up. As Armstrong notes, a great what if of TV history – Seinfeld and The Simpsons could have incubated together under the Fox banner.

Armstrong’s passion for her subject is clear and she gives a wonderful behind the velvet rope peek into the show and its stars, but ultimately, Seinfeldia does not know what it wants to be. Is it a straight-forward chronology and history of the show or a meditation on its impact on popular culture? It succeeds as the former, but falls short as the latter. To take one example, Dylanologists is a book Seinfeldia aspires to be – focusing on the passion of Bob Dylan fans. It is a book in full that allows the author to stretch and weave together Dylan’s story with those of his most ardent loyalists. Here, we only get a Cliff Notes version of that phenomenon.

None of this should take away from a person’s enjoyment of this book and reliving the Junior Mint episode, Sue Ellen Mischke (the braless wonder), or the Little Kicks. Of course, if you set your DVR, you can also just watch them for yourself.

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Monday, July 4, 2016

Book Review - Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me

Buried in the final paragraph of the penultimate chapter of his book Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me, Steven Hyden makes an interesting admission. While attempting to argue that the murders of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls had the indirect effect of reducing early deaths among other music superstars of the day, he says “Overanalyzing pop rivalries is enjoyable escapism, because most of them are harmless.” He goes on to distinguish the Pac/Biggie beef because of its tragic consequences, but that observation is true of Hyden’s pithy, but minor tome. I get what Hyden is arguing for. I’m a Deadhead who would not attend a Phish show on a dare, but his attempts to extrapolate larger societal themes from supposed rivalries between the likes of Pearl Jam and Nirvana or Taylor Swift and Kanye mostly fails to launch. 

“Rock rivalries” are often less than the sum of the imagination of the fans who get invested in them. The Beatles vs. The Rolling Stones is a rock nerd’s touchstone, but fire up the Beatles performance of “All You Need Is Love” and you will see Mick Jagger, cross-legged and swaying along with the rest of the hippies grooving out to the soundtrack for the Summer of Love. The uncut version of Pulp Fiction has Mia Wallace asking Vincent Vega whether he’s an Elvis man or a Beatles man (because you cannot be both) but that type of self-identification is facile and often untrue. Hyden makes much of the enmity Kurt Cobain felt toward Eddie Vedder, but stylistically, the differences between Nirvana and Pearl Jam were minor, and I doubt many people would refuse to listen to one band because of their devotion to the other. 

What Hyden describes as rivalries are not Hatfield and McCoy fights; rather, they are just people who make music differently. Toby Keith was not at war with The Dixie Chicks, but the artists’ music reflected differing political agendas after September 11th. That does not make them rivals, it just makes them artists with different points of view. Madonna and Cyndi Lauper were not rivals any more so than Britney Spears and Christina Aguilara were battling to avoid being dubbed the latter or desiring to be crowned the former, yet Hyden spends a chapter trying to make these connections. Madonna’s supposed passing of her torch (with lips, not hands) at the 2003 Video Music Awards is pointed to as some sort of iconic moment - the camera freezes on Spears but misses Aguilara’s lip lock entirely - but the shape shifting that Madonna pioneered and perfected eluded both younger pop stars, who neither reached the heights of Madonna’s career nor the reductive, one-hit wonder dismissiveness many have of Lauper. 

Similarly, a long jag on Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd is predicated solely on what were then perceived to be dueling diss tracks - Young, with “Alabama” and “Southern Man” and Skynyrd’s retort with “Sweet Home Alabama.” But Skynyrd’s relevance as a band died with three of its members in a plane crash in 1977 while Young went on to record dozens of albums of various musical formats (and quality) since then. Ironically, Hyden points out that Skynyrd’s original lead singer and Young were friendly and many have misinterpreted “Sweet Home” as defending Alabama, when in fact, that lyrics suggest otherwise. How this qualifies as a “rivalry” is beyond me. 

Hyden is strongest where the proof is most obvious - in grudges held by former bandmates from Van Halen to Pink Floyd. But squabbling among rock stars can only carry a book so far. David Lee Roth’s enmity toward the Van Halen brothers is as well known as the brothers’ dismissal of Michael Anthony for the high crime of playing gigs with former front man Sammy Hagar. Roger Waters and David Gilmour had a decades-long falling out but, like Roth and Van Halen, they found their way back to one another in the not too distant past (you can add Axl Rose and some of the original Guns N Roses line-up to that list as well). 

What you are then left with is stretching faux beefs, like the one between Sinead O’Connor and Miley Cyrus (seriously, does ANYONE even remember this?) into a larger point about what happens when a musician crosses an unwritten line, alienating their fans and torpedoing their career (O’Connor, by tearing up a photo of the Pope or The Dixie Chicks saying that they were embarrassed to be from the same state as President George W. Bush). But Hyden misses the mark on what could have been a different book. His knowledge of music is both granular and expansive, but instead of trying to elevate the music stylings of Prince and Michael Jackson into some meta theme, he should have just stuck with a more straight forward examination of the catalogues of the performers he writes about, discussing the strengths and weaknesses of each without trying to them into some deeper societal analogy. After all, as the saying goes, opinions are like assholes, everyone has one.

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