Tuesday, February 12, 2019

61st Annual Grammy Awards (National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, CBS-TV, aired live February 10, 2019)

by MARK GABRISH CONLAN

Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched the 61st annual Grammy Awards two nights ago, a musical spectacular I make a point of watching every year, and there had been the usual controversies swirling around it even before it happened. Some major artists who were invited to perform, including Ariana Grande and Kendrick Lamar (though I regard Kendrick Lamar’s “music” as total shit, even more obnoxious than the common run of most rap, and especially annoying in that his records are so overproduced you can’t even make out what he’s saying — and one would think in rap, which has embraced only words and rhythm and thrown out melody, harmony and all the other traditional aspects of music, the sine qua non would be that at least you should be able to hear the words!), declined. That meant I didn’t have to endure either one of Lamar’s repulsive production numbers in the show itself or the reviewers afterwards inexplicably hailing it as the greatest thing on the program, whereas my reaction to Lamar’s uncool extravaganzae in 2016 and 2018 was just to hold my nose and wait for them to be over. (The 2016 one was especially sickening because it was slotted right after a remote telecast from New York of the Hamilton cast on Broadway doing that show’s opening number, and just as Lin-Manuel Miranda and his crew had convinced me that rap can be beautiful and even moving, and express a higher artistic purpose, on came Kendrick Lamar to remind me of the garbage rap usually is.)
Ariana Grande — who I must confess I wasn’t all that interested in until her concert in Manchester was attacked by a terrorist bomber who killed 23 people, and she responded with real class by scheduling another concert in Manchester, a benefit for the families of the victims, and not only was it telecast internationally but she ended it with a beautiful rendition of “Over the Rainbow” — clashed with Grammy telecast producer Ken Ehrlich because he wanted her to perform a song off her last album, the one that was in Grammy contention, and she wanted to sing something from her new album, which is being released this week. The show that did air began with a hugely overproduced version of a song called “My Heart Is In Havana” (at least I think that’s what the title was: most of the songs weren’t announced) by a cast of “B”-listers including J Bolian (no period after the initial), Camila Cabello, Arturo Sandoval (the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie discovered in Havana in the early 1980’s and sponsored his immigration), Ricky Martin (the most famous person in this cast, at least to me, though his 15 minutes expired years ago) and a rapper called Young Thug (whenever anyone asks me why I don’t like rap, one of the reasons I give is the extensive glamorization of crime that runs through most of the genre and leads to performers taking street names like “Young Thug,” as if being a young thug is something to be proud of). It was a loud, obnoxious, messy and way overproduced number and a bad omen for what was to come — though I did like the extra in the number who was holding a newspaper that said on its big headline, “Build Bridges, Not Walls.”
There wasn’t much of the overt politicizing that we’ve seen on other awards shows, but there was enough to indicate that the music community — or at least that part of it that gets nominated for Grammy Awards — is part of the half of America that rejects Trump and everything he stands for. The point was also made by the surprising appearance of Michelle Obama on stage next to host Alicia Keys — and I liked the fact that an actual musician was hosting the Grammys instead of a comedian peppering the ceremony with bad jokes — though the former First Lady wasn’t introduced. She was just standing on stage in a black leather pantsuit (not the way we’re used to seeing her dressed) and looking like yet another Black soul diva up for an award, and Keys’ costumes were even sillier. Just about everything she wore showed as much of her breasts as they could get away with on network television and looked like a “wardrobe malfunction” waiting to happen.
Next up on the entertainment program — Ken Ehrlich has gone so far in reinventing the Grammys as a musical variety show (with all too little variety — just about all the music last night was in the dance-pop genre that has become the default popular music of today; there were a couple of rappers but none of the brief acknowledgments of classical and jazz that used to turn up on previous Grammy shows) that only nine awards were actually presented during the program — was a song by Shawn Mendes, the Canadian singer of Portuguese ancestry who’s apparently (at least according to Charles, who’s read quite a few tweets about him from young Queer men) become something of a sex symbol in the Gay male community even though he’s either not Gay or not “out.” (Troye Sivan, who is both Gay and “out” and is a similar “type,” both physically and musically, to Mendes would seem a better candidate for this sort of adulation among young Gay men.) I thought the song was called “Help Me” but according to its Wikipedia page its real title is “In My Blood,” and it was genuinely moving for the first chorus — in which Mendes simply sang and played piano — but became just another slice of power-pop once he brought in a band for the rest of the song, albeit with an unusually sensitive lyric that chronicles Mendes’ own struggles with anxiety.
Next up was “Rainbow” by Kacey Musgraves, a country artist who would go on to win Album of the Year; I liked the song but it was pretty much your standard smiling-through-adversity number and didn’t sound really special to me. Things got better, though, with the next number by Janelle Monáe from an album called Dirty Computer; the song she was performing appeared to be called “That’s Just the Way You Make Me Feel” and from the rather jerky motions she and her chorus line did to it — as well as her opening the song playing electric guitar as well as singing, though she quickly ditched the instrument — it seemed like she was trying to reinvent herself as a female version of Prince. Then someone called Past Malone came out with the Red Hot Chili Peppers — whose lead singer, Anthony Kiedis, is getting to be just a bit too old for the shirtless bit — doing something it was hard to tell whether it was one song, two or three; the titles I scribbled down as my guesses as to what the songs were called were “Don’t Count on Me to Explain” and “Dark Necessities.”
Things started looking up with the next segment, an awesome tribute to Dolly Parton with an all-star country cast featuring Maren Morris (a great singer who’d be the perfect choice to play Janis Joplin in a biopic if anyone would cast her in it while she’s still young enough for the role), Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry (whose voice was surprisingly soulful), Kacey Musgraves and the band Little Big Town. The medley focused on Parton’s late-1970’s crossover hits — “Here You Come Again,” “Jolene” and “Nine to Five” — though it also included a song that appeared to be called “Look at Mother Nature On the Run in the 21st Century” and a new song called “My Red Shoes” that’s sort of a follow-up to Parton’s mega-hit “Coat of Many Colors” — once again she’s flashing back to an impoverished childhood when she was teased for something she wore that wasn’t shiny or new. This number reached exalted status when the singers were joined onstage by … Dolly Parton herself. Most of these medleys feature the honoree sitting in the audience looking nervous while others cavort on stage to her songs. Not this one: Dolly came out onstage, and from the moment she walked out there, opened her mouth and revealed a voice that’s held up spectacularly well, she took over and never let go. It was an exalting moment — I dashed to my computer during the next commercial break and posted to Facebook how much I’d liked it.
Fortunately, the next number was not the anticlimax it could have been: it was the modern-day R&B singer H.E.R. Her real name is Gabriella “Gabi” Wilson, she’s part Black and part Filipina, she’s from the San Francisco Bay Area (as am I!) and she released her first single at age 14 in 2014 under her real name before adopting H.E.R. as a stage name. It’s supposedly an acronym for “Having Everything Revealed,” but it’s pronounced simply “Her.” By any name she’s a quite remarkable singer, a descendant of Odetta, Joan Armatrading and Tracy Chapman among Black women singers with deep contralto voices and powerful deliveries; her song was “Caught Between Your Love and a Hard Place” and reflects a dilemma often faced by women these days and frequently dramatized in their songs: stay with a man and accept being diminished and not allowed to be yourself in the relationship, or be single and accept loneliness as the price of independence and freedom. The song was a bit overarranged and it was hard to make out some of the lyrics, but it didn’t matter because what you could hear of the words, and H.E.R.’s impassioned delivery of them, were powerful and emotionally moving.
The next performer was rapper Cardi B — her name looks like a weight-loss plan involving both diet and exercise — making little impression on me, which given how much I actively dislike most rap (if Big Brother ever puts me into Room 101 he could do worse than feed me an incessant playlist of rap “songs”) is actually an improvement. After that came the host herself, Alicia Keys, doing a medley of songs she said she wished she could have written herself — starting with an instrumental version of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer,” then segueing into “Killing Me Softly with His Song,” “I Want You to Forget Me,” “Unforgettable” (fortunately she resisted the temptation to have Nat “King” Cole’s and Natalie Cole’s voices spliced in to change the song from a “ghost duet” to a “ghost trio”), “I Can Use Somebody,” “My Feelings,” “That Thing,” and closing with a song she actually did write, the surprisingly somber “New York.” (Most songs about New York are openly celebratory — Bernstein’s “New York, New York,” Kander and Ebb’s “Theme from New York, New York,” Billy Joel’s “New  York State of Mind” — so Keys’ was a surprise, though it worked beautifully when she performed it at the end of the benefit for Hurricane Sandy relief in December 2012.)
Then it was time for another country segment, Dan and Shea doing a duet on a song called “Tequila” — not the classic early-1960’s instrumental by the Champs but a vocal number which is pretty typical of the drowning-my-sorrows-in-alcohol sub-genre of country music but at least has the novelty of the substance being something more outré than the usual beer or whiskey. The next showcase was a tribute to Diana Ross on her 75th birthday, looking  utterly stunning — though she trotted her nine-year-old grandson out to introduce her and one wonders why she made the poor kid wear his hair in a big Afro that made him resemble Michael Jackson at his age (remember that Jackson’s first album was called Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5). She did two of the sappiest songs she ever did as a solo artist, “The Best Years of My Life” and “Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand,” but her voice was as spectacular as ever (between her and Parton this show was a great advertisement for properly trained septuagenarian singers) and so were her looks.
Next up was Lady Gaga doing a solo version of her song “Shallow,” co-written with Bradley Cooper for their film together, the umpteenth remake of A Star Is Born (it’s actually the fourth version — fifth if you count the predecessor, 1932’s What Price Hollywood? with Constance Bennett and Lowell Sherman; the other “official” A Star Is Borns are the 1937 with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, the 1954 with Judy Garland and James Mason, and the 1976 with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, though imdb.com lists three others: a 1960 Korean film, a Filipino version from 1973 — shot in Tagalog — and a 2010 music documentary from Hungary), and nominated for the Academy Award for Best Song (an honor the big songs from the Garland and Streisand versions — “The Man That Got Away” and “Evergreen,” respectively — both won). Gaga’s voice showed off her soul chops and her remarkable ability to sing virtually anything — if she’s announced as Brünnhilde in a new production of Der Ring des Nibelungen I won’t dismiss it out of hand — and if anything the song sounded better as a solo than it did with Cooper’s non-voice croaking out a duet part.  Then came another medley with Travis Scott, Philip Begley and Earlyne Wright doing three songs that weren’t familiar to me — my guesses at the titles were “Trouble,” “Flight Path” and “The Party Never Ends.”
Then came what became the most controversial number on the show, a 75th anniversary tribute to Motown Records which began with Motown veteran Smokey Robinson and Alicia Keys warbling a bit of his old hit “Tracks of My Tears,” but went downhill from there. It was billed as a number involving Robinson, Black neo-soul singer Ne-Yo (his name keeps fooling me — I expect him to be a rapper, but he isn’t, thank goodness) and Jennifer Lopez, Instead Ne-Yo got crowded out of the picture and it turned into a pyrotechnic feature for Lopez, one of those annoying personalities I can’t stand (I’ve seen her on TV twice performing her preposterous song “Jenny on the Block,” which attempts despite all evidence to convince us that despite her riches and fame she’s still the plain ol’ girl from the streets of the barrio where she grew up). She’s a good, if aggressively acrobatic, dancer, though her movements had little to do with the tight precision choreography of the original Motown acts (taught them by the man Motown founder Berry Gordy — still alive and in the audience for this — hired for that purpose, the great Black tap dancer “Honi” Coles) and the song choices — “Tracks of My Tears,” “Dancing in the Streets,” “Please, Mr. Postman,” “Money (That’s What I Want)” (interesting that the Grammys’ Motown tribute featured two songs in a row that the Beatles covered), “Do You Love Me?,” “Save It, Baby,” “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” “War,” “I’m Taking Love” and “For You” — were good except they ignored a lot of Motown’s legacy and in particular omitted completely probably the two most creative artists who ever worked for the label, Stevie Wonder and the late Marvin Gaye.
Part of the controversy centered around the way the tribute to Motown was built around a non-Black artist — though at least Lopez is a person of color and Robinson made the rather lame statement in her defense that “Motown made music for everybody” — but what really put me off about the number was the sheer over-the-topness of it, with Lopez flipping herself around in space and more fireworks going off behind her than were probably set off by everybody who did fireworks on the last Fourth of July. Fortunately, the show got better and finished strong: the next performer was Brandi Carlile (she doesn’t use the silent “s” that’s usually part of that name — maybe she decided it was redundant, the way Barbra Streisand was originally named with the normal spelling of “Barbara” but decided the middle “a” was redundant), who along with H.E.R. turned in the most wrenching performance of the evening by a current artist. Her song was called “The Joke,” and it was similarly themed to H.E.R.’s number: a woman declares her determination to leave a man who constantly belittled her and does so with her head held high and tells him that the joke’s on him now. It’s a great message and fortunately Carlile wrote a great song around it — and in this era of collaborative songwriting I give her a lot of points for writing “The Joke” and the rest of the album it’s on, By the Way, I Forgive You, all by herself.
Afterwards a new Black R&B duo, Chloe x Halle (that’s how it’s officially spelled!), did a duet on the old Roberta Flack/Donny Hathaway hit “Where Is the Love?” that was quite impassioned and just as good as the original — though the song takes on a quite different affect when performed by two women instead of a man and a woman — it seems odd that Donny Hathaway’s daughter Lalah wasn’t invited to perform her late dad’s big hit (or anything else on the program — maybe they should have given her the Motown tribute — even though she’s a recording artist in her own right and she was nominated in the R&B categories). After that came one of the highlights of the program, St. Vincent and Dua Lipa — those are both individuals, not groups — looking so much alike they could have done the mirror scene from the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup — doing a medley of two songs apparently called “Bright Seduction” and “One Kiss Is All It Takes.” Dua Lipa won for Best New Artist, and while I’d rather have seen that award go to H.E.R. (but then H.E.R. has been recording since 2014 and so calling her a “new artist” is a bit of Grammy Newspeak) or Chloe x Halle, she’s clearly a formidable talent and I look forward to hearing more from her.
The closing number was an inevitable tribute to the late Aretha Franklin and was done the way the Motown tribute should have been: three Black singers with Aretha-esque voices, Yolanda Adams, Andra Day and Fantasia, and just one song, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” a superb performance that showed off both Aretha’s gospel roots (the song was written for her by Carole King and her then-husband Gerry Goffin, and in an interview just after Aretha’s death King recalled that as soon as Goffin came home with the news that they had been hired to write a song for Aretha Franklin the first thing King did was go to her piano and start hammering out gospel chords) and the way her style has been extended into the future. The show ended with the announcements of Record (i.e., one song — what they used to call a “single”) and Album of the Year: the Record of the Year was “This Is America,” a politically themed rap number by Black TV comedian Donald Glover (no relation to Danny, as far as I know) performing under the name “Childish Gambino” (and once again, a rap artist shows the basically anti-social and pro-crime nature of the form by taking a stage name from one of the five New York-based crime families that historically ruled the U.S. Mafia), and the Album of the Year was Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour.
That was a bit disappointing — if the Grammy voters had wanted to give the big award to a country album it should have been Brandi Carlile’s! — but it’s not a bad choice, and while for years the Los Angeles Times has been bitching that the Grammys have never given Album of the Year to a rap record, that’s just fine by me! The Grammy Awards were a rather lumbering spectacle — even with Ken Ehrlich cutting the number of awards actually given out during the telecast to just nine, the show overstayed its official 2 ½-hour running time by 13 minutes and seemed to go on forever — but there were enough exalting performances both by veterans (Dolly Parton and Diana Ross) and relative newbies (particularly Brandi Carlile and H.E.R.) to make this show “special” and one of the best Grammy programs in recent years. If nothing else, the 2019 Grammy Awards show documented how much women have taken over the top of today’s music scene both creatively and commercially: not only did a woman win Album of the Year but women dominated the musical program as well as the awards themselves. Maybe the U.S. isn’t ready for a woman President, but it is ready for powerful women’s voices to sing to us and make us feel their music and their inspirations!

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Left-Wing McCarthyism in Virginia


by MARK GABRISH CONLAN

Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

“McCarthyism” is a term of art in American politics. Coined during the ascendancy of U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) between 1950 and 1954, it originally meant targeting politicians, government officials, celebrities, educators and others with flimsy, out-of-context evidence to indicate they were either active participants in or unwitting dupes of the “international Communist conspiracy.” McCarthyism actually pre-dated McCarthy. Republican politicians had been attacking Franklin Roosevelt’s and Congressional Democrats’ New Deal programs as Communist-inspired since the late 1930’s. The end of World War II, the almost simultaneous start of the Cold War with the Soviet Union and the abrupt switch in the U.S. government’s “party line” in which the Soviets morphed from valiant wartime ally to bitter enemy of all we believed in and held dear just added fuel to the fire.
Though McCarthy died in 1957 and the “international Communist conspiracy” died with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Right-wing McCarthyism is alive and well. We saw quite a lot of it in the 2016 Presidential campaign and particularly in the conspiracy-mongering around Hillary Clinton, who was portrayed by her opponents as so unremittingly evil the Wicked Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs looked like Mother Teresa by comparison. But there is also a Left-wing McCarthyism, which uses the same tactics as the Right-wing version — conspiracy-mongering, guilt by association and reaching into the farthest-back records of their targets’ behavior to slam them no matter how remote this may be to who they are and how they behave now — and, if anything, is even less fair and more destructive to its victims than the Right-wing version.
As I write, Left-wing McCarthyism has virtually destroyed the Democratic Party in Virginia. The flame was lit, ironically enough, by a Right-wing blogger, Patrick Howley, who as a former editor and reporter for the Daily Caller and Breitbart News is the sort of person who’s keeping the flame of Right-wing McCarthyism alive. Howley was determined to find something on Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, to stop Northam’s attempt to liberalize Virginia’s ultra-strict abortion laws. Under its previous Republican government, Virginia had gone so far out of its way to stop women from having abortions that they had passed a law requiring any woman seeking an abortion to undergo an invasive transvaginal exam first. Northam was determined to end this nonsense and restore reproductive freedom to Virginia’s women — and Howley and other Right-wingers were equally anxious to find dirt on Northam and other elected Democrats to stop him.
Howley got his chance when someone — “a concerned citizen, not a political opponent,” he told Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi for a story published there (https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/a-tip-from-a-concerned-citizen-helps-a-reporter-land-the-scoop-of-a-lifetime/2019/02/03/e30762ea-2765-11e9-ad53-824486280311_story.html?noredirect=on) and in the Los Angeles Times February 3 — sent him a copy of a page from Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook, published in 1984. The page contained a photo of two figures, a young man dressed in blackface and one in a Ku Klux Klan outfit, complete with hood covering the head. The text on the page didn’t explain the context of this image or what it was intended to convey.
But it sparked precisely the reaction Howley was undoubtedly hoping for when he released it. The head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and other prominent African-American political and community leaders immediately denounced Northam as a racist and called on him to resign. So did a lot of other people, including white Democratic politicians in Virginia and nationwide. The gravamen of the charge against Northam seemed to be that posing in blackface for a college yearbook photo irrevocably marked Northam as a racist, and was so far beyond the pale that nothing he’s done in his life since could atone for it.
One Black woman on MS-NBC said that by posing for that photo, Northam had not only associated himself with but taken personal responsibility for every horrible thing that white Americans have done to African-Americans since first bringing them to this country as slaves exactly 400 years ago. Another commentator, an African-American man, compared Northam’s photo to D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, an aesthetic masterpiece (easily the finest film ever made to that time) and a political horror which portrays the Black politicians who came to power in the South during the post-Civil War Reconstruction period (1865-1877) as incompetent drunks and louts manipulated by unscrupulous white Northerners, and the Ku Klux Klan as heroes riding to the rescue of the decent (white) South and taking the votes and the guns away from the terrible Black monsters (all of whom were played, by the way, by white actors in blackface).
Northam’s response to the accusation didn’t help. At first he did the right thing: on the afternoon the scandal broke, February 1, he owned up to it and said he was “deeply sorry for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now.” The next day, though, he gave a bizarre press conference, flanked by his wife, in which he said he wasn’t either of the two people in the photo, though he said that he had worn blackface on another occasion, a party in 1984 in which he darkened his skin to participate in — and win — a Michael Jackson impersonation contest. (I couldn’t help but savor the irony that he darkened his skin to look like Michael Jackson, given Jackson’s own well-documented racial transformation in the other direction.) He even offered to show the reporters his rendition of Jackson’s famous “moonwalk” dance, until his wife blessedly talked him out of it by saying it would be “inappropriate.”

The Right Scores a Second Scalp

At the time, some of the people leading the charge against Northam — mainly the Black ones — said it didn’t matter politically if Northam resigned because there was a fine, intelligent, popular, charismatic leader in line to succeed him: Virginia’s African-American lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax. But then Right-wing blogger Patrick Howley struck again and nailed a second Virginia Democrat’s scalp to the wall. On February 4, he released another bombshell, this one attacking Fairfax and claiming that he had sexually assaulted a woman at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
“Imagine you were sexually assaulted during the DNC convention in Boston in 2004 by a campaign staffer,” said the post on Howley’s Big League Politics site, attributing the quote to the alleged victim, Scripps College professor Vanessa Tyson. “You spend the next 13 years trying to forget it ever happened. Until one day you find out he’s the Democratic candidate for statewide office in a state 3,000 miles away, and he wins that election in November 2017. Then by strange, horrible luck, it seems increasingly likely that he’ll get a VERY BIG promotion.” The Big League Politics post didn’t mention Fairfax’s name as Tyson’s assaulter, but it contained enough biographical details it wasn’t hard to figure out he was the accused.
Fairfax immediately denied the accusation, saying that he and Tyson had had sex but it was completely consensual. Tyson appeared publicly and said that when Fairfax started kissing her it was consensual, but he then forced himself on her against her will. Then another alleged victim, Meredith Watson, released a statement through an attorney that said Fairfax had out-and-out raped her when they were both students at Duke University in 2000. Unlike Tyson, Watson had contemporary corroboration for her story: Kaneedreck Adams, a neighbor of Watson’s in 2000 who told the Washington Post that Watson had disclosed the rape just after it happened. “She was upset,” Adams said. “She told me she had been raped and she named Justin.”
Coming on top of the attacks against Northam, the charges against Fairfax put the Virginia Democrats in much the same position the Republican caucus of the U.S. Senate was in when allegations of sexual assault surfaced against then-U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. The Republicans in the Senate basically rallied around Kavanaugh and voted to confirm him. But Democrats, far more reliant on the support of women and people of color than Republicans, face a very different political calculus.
As Vox reporter Anna North summed it up at the end of her February 4 article on the Fairfax scandal (https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/2/4/18210638/justin-fairfax-ralph-northam-virginia-sex-assault-allegation), “Historically, Democrats have responded far more aggressively to allegations of sexual misconduct than Republicans have. But this situation is new, and it is unclear how the party will respond. Whatever happens, however, will set a standard for how Democrats confront sexual misconduct accusations even when they come from an adversarial source — and when they concern a rising star who looked like he could help lead his party out of a crisis.”

Dems’ Virginia Success Turns to Ashes

It’s harder to dismiss the charges against Fairfax — and the calls from Virginia legislators, Democrats as well as Republicans, for him to resign (and face impeachment if he doesn’t) — as Left-wing McCarthyism as it is the ones against Northam. Northam is accused of pulling a stupid, racially insensitive prank in his college years, while Fairfax is accused of serious crimes against actual, identifiable victims. But the result could be to strip Virginia Democrats of their historic victories in the state’s last two elections and hand control of it back to the Republicans.
If both Northam and Fairfax resign or are removed from office, the third in line for the governorship of Virginia is the state’s Democratic attorney general, Mark Herring. But he has recently admitted that he donned blackface during his college years. If he goes, too — and it’s hard to believe that he can survive in office if Northam resigns for doing the same thing — the fourth in line and the person who will become Virginia governor is Kirk Cox, speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates — a Republican.
One tragedy in all this is that until the scandals broke, Virginia had been one of the Democrats’ few recent success stories in the South. In the 2016 and 2018 elections, Virginia stood out as a stark contrast to the shellacking Democrats were getting through the rest of the South. Tim Kaine easily won re-election to the U.S. Senate from Virginia even as incumbent Democratic Senators Bill Nelson in Florida and Claire McCaskill in Missouri (a state that didn’t secede during the Civil War but is still sociologically and ideologically “Southern”) were voted out of office. While Beto O’Rourke was losing his heavily hyped challenge to Texas Senator Ted Cruz by a double-digit margin and African-American Democrats Andrew Gillum and Stacey Abrams were narrowly losing their gubernatorial bids in Florida and Georgia, Virginia voters elected Democrats to statewide office and narrowed the Republican majorities in the state legislature from 2-1 to virtual ties.
Indeed, one state legislative race in Virginia was so close it literally was a tie. Kirk Cox got exactly as many votes for the Virginia House of Delegates as his Democratic opponent, and he was literally elected by the toss of a coin. Now, thanks to the Left-wing McCarthyist attacks on Democratic Governor Ralph Northam and the sexual assaults allegedly perpetrated by Democratic Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, the Republicans are likely to take over the governorship and resume control of Virginia’s entire state government. What’s more, the phrase “Virginia Democrat” is becoming a national laugh line and the prestige of the Democratic Party in Virginia has suffered a blow from which it will probably take a decade or more to recover.

Just How Bad Is Blackface, Anyway?

One of the key elements of the Left-wing McCarthyist attack on Ralph Northam is an hysterical, ahistorical condemnation of the whole idea of blackface. Northam’s critics are speaking and acting as if Northam actually joined the Ku Klux Klan or led a lynch mob. To understand what blackface really means you have to look at it in historical context. It was part of a wide variety of ethnic stereotypes comedians and entertainers in the U.S. trafficked in from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries. Look at the products of classic Hollywood and you will see comedians who specialized in playing stereotyped Germans, stereotyped Swedes, stereotyped Irishmen, stereotyped Jews and stereotyped Blacks.
The Marx Brothers began their careers playing ethnic stereotypes: Groucho was the “comic Jew,” Chico the “comic Italian” and Harpo, until he gradually got fewer and fewer lines of dialogue until he stopped speaking on stage at all, was “Patsy Brannigan,” the “comic Irishman.” Since the Marx Brothers actually were Jewish, modern audiences watching their movies tend to regard Groucho as the most “authentic” of them — but the people who went to their vaudeville appearances, their Broadway musicals and the initial releases of their movies saw Groucho as just another ethnic comedian playing a Jew.
There’s evidence that at least some blackface performers regarded their work as a genuine, heartfelt tribute to authentic Black music and culture. One of the most interesting documents of this is the 1934 film Wonder Bar, in which Al Jolson — whose star power and status as the first person who played the lead in a successful sound film kept blackface and the minstrel-show tradition it sprang out of going for about two generations after it would have otherwise died out — has two large production numbers.
On his whiteface number, “Vive la France” (the film is set in Paris and casts Jolson as an American entertainer who owns a nightclub there), Jolson sings in a high, rather whiny tenor with a fast, irritating vibrato. On his blackface number, “Going to Heaven on a Mule,” he drops his register, sings from the chest instead of the throat, slows his vibrato and achieves a sound surprisingly like that of the genuinely African-American concert singers and Broadway performers of the time. The number itself, directed by Busby Berkeley, is a conglomeration of just about every racist stereotype you can imagine (which probably kept this film from being revived in the early 1970’s with Berkeley’s other major films), but Jolson’s sincerity and soul transcend the minstrelsy conventions and are genuinely moving.
But McCarthyism of both the Right and the Left has a total disregard for historical context. If we consider it wrong today, it must always have been wrong. In a recent Los Angeles Times article on the problems various potential Democratic Presidential candidates are having with the “#MeToo” movement (https://www.latimes.com/politics/la-na-pol-me-too-presidential-campaign-20190210-story.html), Nan Whaley, mayor of Dayton, Ohio and a long-standing Democratic Party activist, is quoted as saying, “I think what has been acceptable in the past is not going to be acceptable in this cycle. And you’re seeing that bear out.”
Another characteristic of both Right-wing and Left-wing McCarthyism is its reluctance to consider a person’s total historical record. To a McCarthyite, on either end of the ideological spectrum, you are the worst thing you ever did — forever. Local Democratic party organizations throughout the U.S. used to hold major fundraisers on what was called “Jefferson-Jackson Day.” No more: the two founders of the modern-day Democratic Party have both been ruled out of its pantheon, Thomas Jefferson because he was a slaveowner and Andrew Jackson because he not only was a slaveowner but pursued a genocidal policy against Native Americans.
The fact that Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, with its flat-out statement that “all men are created equal” and are entitled to the “unalienable rights” of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” has been flushed down an Orwellian “memory hole” by the Left’s modern-day McCarthyites. More sophisticated historians might look at Jefferson’s ownership of slaves and participation in the plantation system that exploited them as signs of his human complexity and his inability, all too typical of our species, to live up to his noblest ideals in his personal life.
They might also look at the positive aspects of Jackson’s record, including his fierce opposition to secession (Donald Trump made an arguable case when he said that if Jackson had been around in the 1850’s there might not have been a civil war) and his attack on the Bank of the United States, a leftover from Alexander Hamilton’s desire to put Northern financiers in charge of the American economy forever. (The Bank of the United States got effectively revived in 1913 with the creation of the Federal Reserve, which subcontracted America’s monetary policy to the financial elites who make it up.) But they don’t because to a McCarthyite, Right or Left, you are the worst thing you’ve ever done and nothing else matters.
Yet another problem with Left-wing McCarthyism, even more than the Right-wing variety, is a bizarre lack of concern with the aftermath of bringing down elected Democrats and allowing Republicans to take power. Do the people who are working so hard to drive Ralph Northam out of office really think that the cause of African-Americans in Virginia will be better off if Republican Kirk Cox becomes the state’s governor? Or, more likely, do they care?
San Diegans have an object lesson in what happens when Democrats gang up on a Democratic politician and force him out of office so he can be replaced by a Republican. In 2013 newly elected Mayor Bob Filner, the first Democrat to be Mayor of San Diego in 20 years, was brought down by a coalition of Democratic activists concerned about his lewd and salacious comments towards women in his office. They eventually got rid of Filner and forced a special election to replace him — which was won easily by moderate Republican Kevin Faulconer.
Had the parties been reversed — had Filner been San Diego’s first Republican Mayor in 20 years — the Republicans would have rallied around him as they did nationally around Brett Kavanaugh (and Clarence Thomas before him), and he’d probably still be in office. But Filner had the bad luck to be a Democrat, a member of the party crucially dependent on the votes of women and people of color to make up for their ongoing disadvantage among white men, and therefore he had to be sacrificed — as did U.S. Senator Al Franken (D-Minnesota), New York governors Elliot Spitzer and Eric Schneiderman, and other politicians who have, justly or unjustly, run afoul of the Democrats’ sex police.
At least Filner was held to account in 2013 for things he actually did in 2013. Ralph Northam is the victim of a concerted campaign by fellow Democrats to push him out of office over things he did 35 years ago. But that’s yet another aspect of both Right-wing and Left-wing McCarthyism: not only are you the worst thing you’ve ever done, you’re the worst thing you’ve ever done no matter how long ago it was or how much you’ve changed since. The folks leading the charge against Northam are utterly uninterested in how he’s grown or changed, or whether the ambiguous photo in that medical-school yearbook (even if he’s in it we don’t know whether he’s the figure in blackface or the figure in the Klan hood) reflects how he feels about racial issues now.
In 2017 Northam was forthright in his denunciation of the racist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville and said that white supremacy had no place in his home state. That was a highly gutsy move for a candidate who was running as a moderate and hoping to peel off some crossover Republican votes in his campaign. It was also just two years ago. Reason and good sense would suggest that the Northam of 2017, the one who denounced the violent white supremacists in Charlottesville, is more likely to be the Northam of today than the Northam of 1984 who blacked himself up for a Michael Jackson impersonation contest and put a stupidly insensitive, racist photo on his college yearbook page.
But McCarthyism, on either side of the ideological aisle, has nothing to do with reason. The Right-wing McCarthyites, including McCarthy himself and the members of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, didn’t just ask people if they were Communists. They said, “Are you now or have you ever been … .” What’s more, they didn’t just ask people if they were or ever had been Communists, they asked them about a whole variety of progressive and liberal organizations and movements because their real intent was to destroy America’s progressive and liberal political ideologies by associating them with our Cold War enemy, Communism in general and the Soviet Union in particular.

No Compassion, No Redemption

Indeed, one crucial difference between Right-wing and Left-wing McCarthyism actually makes Left-wing McCarthyism look worse. Right-wing McCarthyites, perhaps influenced by the Christian religious doctrine of sin and redemption, at least offered its victims a way out. Just as Jesus Christ told the woman taken in adultery, after he saved her from being stoned by the mob, “Go and sin no more,” Right-wing McCarthyites offered an elaborate ritual for its victims to escape its clutches and go on about their careers.
The ritual was humiliating. It involved not only accepting a public shaming but feeding the McCarthyites more victims by “naming names,” denouncing your friends and others who’d been in those dreaded liberal, progressive or Communist movements with you. Victims of the Hollywood blacklist had to appear before a number of highly placed figures in the Right-wing movement — newspaper columnists Sidney Skolsky and Westbrook Pegler, actor John Wayne, director Cecil B. DeMille, labor leader Roy Brewer (who as head of the motion picture projectionists’ union was the key figure who enforced the blacklist by ordering his members to refuse to show any film made with blacklisted talent) — and grovel enough until these people were convinced of the sincerity of their repentance.
The victims also had to give up any involvement in liberal politics, no matter how innocuous they would have seemed by today’s standards. If they pledged to donate in the future only to health charities and other innocuous causes, that was one step on the road to redemption. If they flipped their political views 180° and re-invented themselves as born-again Right-wingers, that was even better. The process of political rehabilitation for a blacklisted actor, writer, director, educator, businessman or clergy member was arduous and humiliating, but at least it existed.
The Left-wing McCarthyites of today offer no such process of rehabilitation. To them, there is no sin and redemption — there is only sin. People who have offended against today’s codes of conduct, no matter how far back it happened, are to be shamed, anathematized and driven from public life forever. When Kevin Spacey was revealed to have made unwanted sexual advances to aspiring males (one good thing the #MeToo movement has done is expose that the casting couch victimizes men as well as women), he was cut out of an already completed film, The Richest Man in the World, and replaced with another actor.
Movie stars and production officials who have attempted comebacks after falling from grace due to allegations of sexual harassment and assault have been ridiculed back onto the sidelines. They have also been the subject of calls from progressive organizations for the banning of their work. I have been sent e-mails asking me to sign petitions urging Spotify and other music streaming services to eliminate R. Kelly’s records from their playlists because of the allegations of child molestation against him. I’ve also been asked to sign a petition to the producers of the upcoming film Red Sonja to fire the film’s director, Bryan Singer, because he, like Spacey, has been accused of unwanted sexual advances towards young men trying to make it in the business.
I have refused to sign any such petitions because to me they are all too reminiscent of the tactics Right-wingers in the 1940’s and 1950’s used against progressive entertainers. If these people have committed actual crimes, they should be prosecuted. If their actions don’t rise to the level of prosecutable offenses but you disapprove of them on moral grounds, you can punish them by refusing to see Bryan Singer’s movies or buy (or stream) R. Kelly’s records. But I think it’s just as wrong for the Left to try to make certain people unemployable because of actions that now seem politically or socially unacceptable as it was for the Right to do that in the original McCarthy era.
Another tactic of both Right and Left McCarthyites is their utter lack of a sense of proportion. When the U.S. Senate was debating Al Franken’s fate, and his defenders were saying that all he had done to his alleged victims was put his arms around them and kiss them — whereas people like Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein were credibly accused of sexual assault and, in some cases, out and out rape — Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) made a statement that the mere act of saying there should be distinctions made between levels of sexual misconduct was itself sexist and reprehensible.
The Los Angeles Times article cited above about Democratic Presidential candidates’ struggles in the “#MeToo” era to deal with their pasts offers plenty of examples of Left-wing McCarthyism. One of the interviewees, Sarah Slaman, an activist in Texas who worked for Bernie Sanders’ campaign in 2016 but since turned against him because she felt he had been too dismissive of women’s complaints of sexual harassment from some of his male staffers, said that despite Sanders’ recent apologies “I don’t think that Sen. Sanders has changed much of his mindset.”
Another interviewee, National Organization for Women president Traci Van Pelt, said of former vice-president Joe Biden, “It’s hard for me to forgive him” for having chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991 when it considered Clarence Thomas’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court and dismissed allegations of sexual harassment against him by his former staff member Anita Hill. Van Pelt was asked if Biden’s sponsorship and success in pushing the Violence Against Women Act through Congress in 1994 mitigated his record in the Thomas hearings. Her answer was basically no: “He’s done a lot of good with the Violence Against Women Act, there’s no question of that. But I just think maybe it’s time for new thinking.”
Another potential Democratic Presidential candidate, U.S. Senator Kamala Harris (D-California), is facing a scandal the Sacramento Bee broke last December over her former staff member Justin Wallace’s record of sexually harassing women in the workplace. Wallace’s assistant Danielle Hartley sued him and the state over Wallace’s alleged treatment of her. Harris publicly insisted that she didn’t know anything about Wallace’s actions until the Bee reported them: “It was a very painful experience to know that something can happen in one’s office — of almost 5,000 people, granted, but I didn’t know about it. That being said, I take full responsibility for anything that has happened in my office.”
It’s typical of the left-wing McCarthyite mind-set that Harris’s aggressive questioning of U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh over the allegations of sexual assault against him in his confirmation hearings is not being treated by Democratic activists and the media as a sign that her mind has changed or that having harbored a sexual harasser in her own office might have increased her awareness on the issue. Instead, she’s being denounced as a hypocrite. A Sacramento Bee editorial called Harris’s denial “far-fetched” and added that if it’s true, she “isn’t a terribly good manager.”
Larry Gerston, a political scientist at San Jose State, was one of the people interviewed for the Los Angeles Times article. He said that Harris, like Sanders and Biden, are being judged by today’s standards for behavior that occurred years or even decades ago. “It’s very hard for those folks to go back and undo what they did at a time when it wasn’t viewed as terrible as it is now,” he said.
The history of the original McCarthyist period offers some lessons the Left should be learning right now. Liberal Congressmembers and Senators who offered “compromise” measures against politically repressive legislation being pushed by Right-wing McCarthyites often found their proposals didn’t replace the original bills but just got added to them, making them even more repressive. Much of American political history consists of the Left pioneering strategies and tactics that the Right then adopts and uses against them. No matter what the motives of the Left-wing McCarthyites, their attempts to shame fellow liberals and progressives as secretly racist, sexist or not aggressive enough in their defenses of women and people of color are likely to backfire. The shame game is one the Right is simply better at than the Left.
Besides, as American liberals, progressives and Leftists fight each other and have nasty public spats over who’s the “purest” of them all, it will be the Right who triumphs. It’s an odd quirk of modern American politics that Democrats seem more obsessed than Republicans with the personal qualities of those they nominate and attempt to elect, while the Republicans — supposedly the party of evangelical Christians and their “family values” — couldn’t care less. Republicans keep their eyes on the ideological prize, voting for people (including Donald Trump) who promise them results — especially appointing Right-wing judges who will end all this “dangerous liberal nonsense” about women, people of color, and Queer people having rights.
Democrats need to learn to be a little less principled and a little more practical. They have to start asking themselves, before they launch McCarthyite jihads against elected officials like Ralph Northam over 35-year-old yearbook photos, if the causes they believe in — particularly civil rights for people of color and protection of women against sexual harassment and assault — really will fare better if they drive flawed Democrats out of office and replace them with ideologically driven Right-wing Republicans.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Robert Kuttner: Starbucks CEO May Run for President

I’m sharing this e-mail I recently got from American Prospect editor Robert Kuttner warning that Starbucks’ founding CEO, Howard Schultz, may run for President in 2020 as an independent on a socially liberal, economically libertarian platform. Kuttner is worried both that he’ll take enough votes from the Democratic nominee to re-elect Trump as a minority President and that Schultz will win himself and pursue his Right-wing economic agenda, including opposition to minimum wage increases, from the White House. Be warned!

JANUARY 28, 2019
Kuttner on TAP
We Need Howard Schultz to Run for President Like Starbucks Needs Cockroaches. It was inevitable that some socially liberal, economically center-right billionaire would run for president. So Howard Schultz, former CEO of Starbucks, has nominated himself.
This is sheer poison. His story, that voters are hungering for a moderate who can solve problems, is malarkey. Here’s what Schultz told The New York Times:
“We have a broken political system with both parties basically in business to preserve their own ideology without a recognition and responsibility to represent the interests of the American people,” Mr. Schultz said in the interview.
“Republicans and Democrats alike—who no longer see themselves as part of the far extreme of the far right and the far left—are looking for a home.”
No, Howard, we don’t have a “broken political system.” We do have a broken economic system.
Politically, we have wall-to-wall Republican obstruction. And after three Democratic administrations that were far too Wall Street-afflicted, we are finally recovering a Democratic Party committed to working to benefit regular Americans.
Schultz could really screw that up. He is a social liberal who opposed Seattle’s $15 minimum wage—just what we don’t need. The political problem is that lots of suburban moderates, who defected to the Democrats in 2018 out of disgust with Trump, could vote for a guy like Schultz. And in a three-way, Trump could even get re-elected.
There is a long and depressing history of independents running as spoilers. The only time it broke to the advantage of the Democrats was in 1992, when the whacko H. Ross Perot took more votes from George H.W. Bush and helped Bill Clinton get elected with just 43 percent of the popular vote. In 2020, it would help Trump, because his hard-core 35 percent is not going to defect to support a Seattle latte billionaire.
There is already some chatter on social media about a Starbucks boycott. I’m not sure that would do the trick—he’s no longer CEO—but a billionaire centrist proposing to save America from Trump is the last thing America needs in 2020.

Starbucks has a history of creating demands for products that consumers didn't know they needed. They should gag on this one. ~ ROBERT KUTTNER

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Shutdown Chicken II: Trump Swerves

by MARK GABRISH CONLAN

Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Well, the game of “shutdown chicken” in Washington, D.C. — and the collateral damage throughout the U.S. as airports closed, planes deliberately slowed down so they wouldn’t crash into each other, the FBI had to hold back on drug enforcement because they didn’t have the money with which to buy drugs from major dealers so they could arrest them, and the members of the Border Patrol — the agency that’s actually supposed to secure the U.S.-Mexico border and stanch the alleged overflow “caravans” that are, at least in the minds of President Trump and his most fervent supporters, trying to crash it — weren’t getting paid is over. And, much to the surprise of a lot of people (including me), it was Donald Trump, not Nancy Pelosi, who swerved his car and therefore avoided a crash at the last minute at the risk of looking like the “chicken” and losing the game.
Not that President Trump is done with his threats to hold the entire U.S. government — and the population it serves — hostage over his mad plan to build the monument to himself he calls “The Wall” (always in caps in his tweets). When he made his capitulation statement on the morning of Friday, January 25 he talked for about half a minute about his promise to sign a continuing resolution to reopen the government for three weeks without any guarantee of funding for the Wall — not the $25 billion he asked for in the last budget, when Republicans still controlled both houses of Congress; not the $5.7 billion he had named as his bottom-line figure for this budget. To use a Spanish word that would particularly irk him in this context, nada.
Then he went into a 20-minute rant that was sort of an extended jam on the White House Oval Office TV speech he had made during the shutdown to try to gin up public support for it, including horror stories about drug smugglers and human traffickers driving up and down the border, past the official ports of entry (which actually are the ones most real-life drug smugglers use, as House Speaker Pelosi and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer mentioned in their immediate response), until they find the place the existing fence stops and turn either right or left to enter the U.S. and start raping women and knocking off cops. Delivering this by-now tiresome spiel, Trump came off like Mick Jagger singing “Satisfaction” for the 5,000th time and sounding as bored with it as the rest of us.
Trump climaxed his jam-band freakout with the threat that if the House-Senate conference committee currently meeting to reconcile the differences between the Homeland Security budget passed by the Senate (which includes wall money) and the House (which doesn’t) doesn’t advance a recommendation that has the Wall in it, he’ll either shut down the government again (not likely, given the egg he’s got on his face now for shutting down the government for 35 days and then reopening it on the same deal he could have had with no shutdown at all) or will declare a “state of emergency” that will allegedly give him the power to raid other government budgets and build the wall whether Congress approves funding for it or not.
The “state of emergency” declaration no doubt appeals to Trump’s well-documented hatred of democracy and his fond wish that he could be an authoritarian dictator like his mentors and role models — Vladimir Putin of Russia, Xi Jiaoping of China, Kim Jong Un of North Korea, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Victor Orbán of Hungary et al. In the later stages of the shutdown the Trump administration announced plans for his second summit with Kim Jong Un, and I could readily imagine Kim asking Trump in private, “Why do you put up with this damned Pelosi woman? Why don’t you just have her killed? That’s what I would do!”
But — at least so far, with a lot of judges in the federal courts appointed either by Democratic or reality-based Republican Presidents rather than Trump and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell in his quest to pack not only the Supreme Court but the federal court system in general — there are enough federal judges who take their oath to the Constitution seriously that a “state of emergency” declaration would probably be held up in court for at least two years. No doubt the Supreme Court, ruled by five hard-Right justices (two of them Trump appointees bulldozed through the Senate by McConnell’s scorched-earth tactics) will rule in Trump’s favor if they ever get the case, as they did on the Muslim travel ban and the ban on Transgender people in the military — but it’ll take time for the cases to work their way up to the Supremes, and hopefully in two years Trump will no longer be President and our long national nightmare will be over.
That’s why Trump behaved the way he did during the shutdown. He didn’t really want to declare the “state of emergency”; he wanted to scare the Democrats into thinking he’d do so in order to get them to issue the humiliating capitulation and decide $5.7 billion for a useless boondoggle was worth it to get the government reopened and its employees on salary again. Instead it was Trump who caved — leading Ann Coulter, one of the troika (along with Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham) who talked Trump out of signing the continuing resolution to keep the government open last December and into shutting it down instead, to tweet, “Good news for George Herbert Walker Bush: As of today, he is no longer the biggest wimp ever to serve as President of the United States.”
Why? Because it didn’t escape Trump’s notice that, while both the bills to end the shutdown Mitch McConnell finally let the Senate vote on Thursday, January 24 — the Democrats’, which didn’t fund the wall; and Trump’s, which did — lost (thanks to the ridiculous 60-vote threshold for the Senate to pass most legislation, established by the loathsome “virtual filibuster”), the Democrats’ lost by fewer votes. Six Republicans crossed party lines to vote for the Democratic bill (versus only one Democrat, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who voted for Trump’s), and it would only have taken seven more to pass the bill and seven more than that to override if Trump vetoed it.
Trump probably also got the message loud and clear that McConnell was having a harder and harder time holding the Senate Republicans in line on the shutdown votes. Word leaked to the media that at one meeting of the Senate Republican Caucus, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin had almost come to blows with McConnell as he asked, “Why are we doing this?” McConnell supposedly replied, “Do you think I like this?” Republican Senators running for re-election in 2020 in states Trump barely carried (like Wisconsin) didn’t like the idea that their Democratic opponents might be playing back video of Trump enthusiastically endorsing the shutdown, and they themselves enthusiastically endorsing Trump, in their TV commercials and online posts in the campaign.
But I suspect what really went haywire for the Republicans is that on Friday morning, January 25, the shutdown finally started to affect the 1 percent in real and measurable ways. They obviously didn’t care whether it affect anyone else, as witness the bizarre advice that kept coming from Trump and his Cabinet officials and staff on how the federal workers should cope with being forced to work, but not being paid, during the shutdown. Trump himself said they should make “arrangements” with their grocers to get food on credit — as if most Americans still stopped at tiny neighbor-owned grocery stores whose proprietors knew them personally.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross — known as the “King of Bankruptcies” because in his previous career running a hedge fund he made money for himself and his investors by buying troubled companies that had been driven into bankruptcy (often by the mismanagement of previous hedge-fund managers and so-called “activist investors” who routinely loot and destroy valuable, functioning businesses to steal their assets and make themselves richer) — told the government workers they should take out personal loans. He ignored not only the difference between his multibillionaire self, who can call his friendly bankers anytime and get a bridge loan to shore up his cash flow, and the rest of us, but also the general investment advice noted by David Lazarus in the Los Angeles Times that when you’re in financial trouble the last thing you should do is take out loans.
There were other similar statements from Trump economic advisors, including one who said the unpaid federal workers should look upon the shutdown as a “vacation” (actually for at least half of them it was the opposite of a vacation — instead of not having to work but still getting paid, they weren’t getting paid but still had to work), that made Marie Antoinette sound like an Occupy speaker by comparison. Not that Trump would have minded that. He’s enough of both a narcissist and a sadist that he enjoys inflicting pain on other people as long as he doesn’t have to suffer any himself.
Trump clearly agrees with George Orwell’s definition of “power” as “the ability to make others suffer/” In 1990 he said nice things about the Chinese government which had just ordered their troops to fire on peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing: “When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength. Our country is right now perceived as weak ... as being spit on by the rest of the world.” (Playboy, March 1990, https://www.playboy.com/read/playboy-interview-donald-trump-1990.)
Former Daily Show host Jon Stewart has described Trump’s attitude towards other people as “gleeful cruelty,” and those who claim that Trump “lacks empathy” are missing the point. Trump is proud of having no empathy. He regards compassion as a vice, not a virtue, a pitfall he is determined to avoid with constant projection of “strength” and “toughness.” So the more sob stories that appeared in the media about laid-off or unpaid government workers having to choose between rent and food, rent and health care for their kids, rent and chemo for themselves, the prouder Trump was of causing pain to people who, in Right-wing mythology, are losers who only take government jobs because they don’t have the appetite for risk and the skills they need to succeed in the private sector. Besides, making people work for him without paying them was part of Trump’s private-sector business model, too.
What I think made Trump cave was that the shutdown was finally starting to harm his good buddies in the 1 percent. The morning of Friday, January 25, LaGuardia Airport in New York City — the one usually used by business travelers along the East Coast, and not coincidentally the one at which Trump’s own private airliner is berthed — shut down for an hour because so many air traffic controllers, tired of working long hours with no pay, had “called in sick.” The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was calling airlines to tell their pilots to fly slower in order to minimize the risk of midair collisions between planes — which air traffic controllers are there to prevent.
All of a sudden the shutdown wasn’t just harming government workers (who will get back pay for their time off the payroll), private-sector contractors who do business with the government (who won’t get back pay, and many of whom may go out of business because of it), and the people newly elected Utah Senator Mitt Romney dissed during his 2012 Presidential campaign as “dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.” Now it was hitting Trump’s peers, the people who are rich and “important” enough that their jobs (such as they are) depend on regular access to safe air travel.
Indeed, it’s ironic that many of the people who suffered most during the shutdown are the very people Trump said he was doing it for. As I pointed out on my Facebook page shortly after the shutdown started, Trump said he was doing it for “border security” and yet he was blocking payment for the Border Patrol, the people who actually provide border security. (He then added insult to injury by appearing on TV with Border Patrol officials and saying the vast majority of Border Patrol agents were supporting him despite the money he was literally taking out of their pockets.) The President of a party which continually disses the public sector and exalts private business staged a shutdown that hurt private contractors doing government business (who won’t get back pay) even more than actual federal employees (who will).
The lessons the government shutdown should teach the American people include: 1) Don’t trust a super-rich man to call himself “the people’s friend.” When push comes to shove, he’s for his own class’s interests, not yours. 2) Experience matters, even in politics. Both Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi are 70-something, but Pelosi has been in politics virtually her whole adult life. She knows how the game is played far better than Trump does or ever will. 3) The federal government is yours. It doesn’t belong to the politicians holding office at any moment, or their parties, or some mythical “deep state” of the Right or what I call the “deep ruling class” of the Left. It belongs to us, and it’s our responsibility to keep it working for us by voting for people who are competent to administer it and dedicated to a conception of the public good — and by staying in the streets to keep our politicians accountable and make sure they actually deliver on what they told us they would do.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Shutdown Chicken

by MARK GABRISH CONLAN

Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

In the game of “chicken,” two people — usually teenage boys with more testosterone than brains — face off at opposite ends of a deserted road, start their cars and literally drive at each other. If they’re lucky, one of them, the “chicken,” swerves his car out of the way of the other before they crash, with the “winner” who didn’t swerve getting to keep both cars. If they’re not so lucky, they crash into each other and end up dead or severely injured.
The current partial shutdown of the U.S. government, which as I write this (Wednesday, January 23) is at 33 days and counting, is like a game of “chicken” between President Donald Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. It really began in early December, after the midterm elections that gave the Democrats control of half of Congress but before the January 3 date set for the new House of Representatives actually to convene. President Trump called Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, the leader of the Democratic minority in the U.S. Senate, to his office and, with TV cameras in the room, loudly and seemingly proudly proclaimed that he was “glad” to shut down the government if that’s what it took to get $5.7 billion dollars to build a wall across the U.S.-Mexico border.
Trump promised that he wouldn’t blame the shutdown, if it came to pass, on the Democrats — a promise that, like most of Trump’s promises, he quickly broke. It seemed for a few days as if a shutdown could be at least temporarily averted when the U.S. Senate passed, 100 to zero, a bill to keep the government open for three months while the two big parties continued negotiations over how to secure the border and whether to build a wall. The House, still in Republican hands, balked and instead passed a bill to keep the government open that included the wall money. Trump, who had promised to sign the Senate bill if the House passed it and sent it to his desk, then reneged after a firestorm of criticism from Right-wing media figures Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham accused him of selling out his political base and winning no concessions from the Democrats in exchange.
It didn’t help that the shutdown broke just as Congress was recessing for the holidays and its members were flying home. Washington usually shuts down voluntarily for Christmas and New Year’s, and 2018 was no exception. At one point Mitch McConnell, Senate majority leader, threatened to invoke the “nuclear option” and end the two centuries-old tradition of the Senate filibuster so he could pass the House bill, including the wall funding, with the 51-member (now 53-member since the Republicans gained two Senate seats in the 2018 election — which is why I called it “not a blue wave so much as a blue ripple”) Republican Senate majority. But he didn’t; instead he waited until the Democrats took over the House on schedule January 3 and announced that he would not allow the Senate to vote on any bill until he had a signed, sealed and delivered pledge that Trump would allow it to become law.
The shutdown has ground on since then. Over 800,000 federal workers have so far missed two paychecks. FBI agents are organizing food drives for other FBI agents. Trump’s budget director said that the workers should look on it as “a vacation” even though they’re not getting vacation pay, and about half of them — people like Border Patrol agents and Transportation Security Agency airport screeners — have been deemed “essential,” meaning at least in theory that the government can force them to continue to work but doesn’t have to pay them. To me that sounds an awful lot like the “involuntary servitude” the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was supposed to have banned, along with slavery — and indeed I’ve seen one report that a group of “essential” federal workers were planning to sue the government for their money on precisely that ground.
It became pretty obvious early on in the issue discussions that the shutdown was over quite a lot more than a policy dispute over how to secure the U.S.-Mexico border. Trump made the promise to build a wall across the entire 2,000-mile border a centerpiece of his campaign, and it’s now become not only a symbol of the kind of America he wants — deeply suspicious of outsiders, as economically, militarily and politically self-sufficient as possible, and governed by white men with women and people of color “knowing their place” — but a monument to himself, the last and greatest Trump real-estate development. As for the Democrats, it’s become about ego for them, too; in her first public statements after the Democrats retook the House and elected Pelosi Speaker for the second time, Pelosi called Trump’s wall an “immorality.”
That was an awfully high card for Pelosi to play that early in the game. Political issues usually can be negotiated and compromised; moral issues can’t. That’s why the U.S. Civil War happened; both sides were convinced that they had the moral high ground. As U.S. President-elect Abraham Lincoln wrote to Alexander Stephens, later vice-president of the Confederacy, in December 1860, “You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted.” More recently we’ve seen activists on both sides of the moral, political and social divides in this country invoke basic moral principles — the Left in the 1960’s in favor of civil rights and against the war in Viet Nam, the Right more recently in opposition to abortion and Queer rights.
By calling Trump’s border wall not merely bad policy — an ineffective boondoggle that will not solve the problems of undocumented immigration, crime and drugs Trump says it will — but “an immorality,” Pelosi staked out a position as intractable and uncompromisable as Trump. And so far she’s been able to keep the House Democrats in line with her. The conventional wisdom is that she’s “winning” the political battle over Trump because polls show a majority of respondents blaming the Republicans in general and Trump in particular for the shutdown.
But what if that changes? If the shutdown goes on for much longer, and the media are filled with more and more horror stories of federal workers having to sacrifice their homes, their children’s health care, and ultimately even their lives (one recent report described a woman who has to choose between paying her rent and paying for her cancer chemotherapy), the U.S. population is likely to shift to blaming both sides for the shutdown and demanding that they reach some sort of compromise before their two cars crash into each other and damage not only themselves but millions of Americans who elected a government to work together and get things done for them, not call each other names and engage in petty squabbles reminiscent of grade-schoolers fighting in a schoolyard during recess.
Indeed, Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats got a big fat warning in a recent Civiqs poll showing Pelosi’s favorability rating as 35 percent favorable to 50 percent unfavorable. Trump, in the same poll, did even worse, but that shouldn’t give Pelosi and the Democrats much comfort. When the Democrats won back control of the House in the midterms, the question many pundits were raising was what would they do with it. Would they pass a series of bills to guarantee and improve people’s access to health care — the biggest issue on which they won — and institute other party priorities like infrastructure and a significant response to global climate change? Or would they spend most of their time launching investigations into the endemic corruption of the Trump administration?
Thanks to the shutdown, Democrats have been able to do neither. As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist who won her House seat by beating a top member of the Democratic House leadership in a primary, told Stephen Colbert on January 22, neither she nor any other of the House’s new members have ever served during a period in which the government wasn’t shut down. In that sense the Republicans have already “won” the shutdown; they still control 2 ½ branches of the federal government (the Presidency, the Senate and the Supreme Court) and they’ve been able to neutralize their opposition in the one-half of one branch of government they don’t still command.
It has taken a full month for any hints that either party might be willing to be the first to swerve in this bizarre game of political “chicken.” On January 21 President Trump offered a so-called compromise by which in exchange for his $5.7 billion in wall funding he’d guarantee three years’ protection for the so-called “Dreamers,” children born outside the U.S. who were brought here by their undocumented immigrant parents. The Democrats were already skeptical when Trump made the announcement — they were hoping that the courts, who have already put on hold Trump’s cancellation of the Delayed Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program former President Barack Obama put in place by executive order, would finally force Trump to abide by Obama’s program — and vice-president Mike Pence replied that even if the DACA recipients win in the lower courts, the Republican-packed U.S. Supreme Court is likely to do Trump’s bidding and declare the program unconstitutional.
Democrats were even more united against the President’s so-called “compromise” offer when they looked at the fine print in the bill and saw Trump and the anti-immigrant hardliners in his administration had sneaked in language drastically curtailing the ability of people from other countries to apply for asylum in the U.S. It called to mind a deal Trump and the Democrats almost reached last year, when in exchange for full protection, including a pathway to U.S. citizenship, for the “Dreamers” they offered Trump the full $25 billion he had estimated the border wall would cost (though undoubtedly it would go quite a bit higher — up to $100 billion — in predictable cost overruns if it were actually authorized and built). Trump sent signals he’d accept the deal and then reneged, insisting that it also contain drastic cutbacks in legal immigration.
The cutbacks in legal immigration are what Trump is really after on the issue. Like other Republicans, Trump sees that the demographic changes in the U.S. are boosting the share of the country’s population that are likely to vote Democrat: women, people of color, young people, poor people. The Republicans have responded not by trying to broaden the appeal of their party to these groups but by an extensive campaign of voter suppression, gerrymandering election districts, rigging the census so non-Republican populations will be undercounted, and pushing a revival of the 1924 immigration bill (whose supporters pushed it through Congress with openly racist arguments) that slashed legal immigration and set up a quota system that ensured most documented U.S. immigrants would come from white-majority countries.
It’s not “illegal” immigration that Trump and the Republicans hate; it’s immigration, period — especially immigration from Latin America and what Trump calls “shithole” Black-majority countries like Haiti and Nigeria. The wall proposal may have started, as some New York Times reporters have suggested, as merely a memory device invented by Trump’s campaign handlers and speechwriters to make sure he emphasized the immigration issue in all his campaign appearances. But it’s become much more than that. It’s become a symbol of the new exclusionary America he wants to build — a reversal of the Statue of Liberty and its “give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free” inscription representing the old, inclusionary America. It’s become the monument Trump wants to leave behind, the fact on the ground for which history will remember him and mark the philosophical, historical and ideological distinction between pre-Trump and post-Trump America.
And, for a man who’s been president of the United States for two years and a candidate for that office a year and a half before that but still considers himself a businessman, and thinks of the presidency largely as a way to make more money for himself and his friends, the wall is also a money-making opportunity. As a builder in New York City, Trump had to deal with the Mafia — the real one — which controls most of the contractors in the city and most of the labor unions which supposedly represent their workers. You don’t do as many real-estate deals as Trump has without cozying up to the Mob big-time. And, as Craig Unger noted in his book House of Trump, House of Putin, Trump has been in bed with the Russian Mafia at least since the 1980’s, when Russian mobsters bailed him out by buying units in New York’s Trump Tower and his other buildings as ways to launder their money.
For a man who sees everything as a profit-making opportunity, Trump is no doubt at least partly eyeing the wall as a way he can pay back all the big-money interests, including the crooks in both the Italian-American and Russian Mafias, who financed his private developments and his presidential campaign. It’s a way of making sure Trump, who’s been through at least four corporate bankruptcies, will ensure that the crooks — the sort of people who have been called “the kinds of people you cannot owe money to” — who helped him as a real-estate tycoon and who quite possibly brokered the deals between Trump’s people and the Russian government to win him the presidency in the first place — will get the largesse they’re expecting at the expense of the American taxpayer (now that it’s dawned on even Trump’s thick head that Mexico is not paying for the wall).
And there’s one other reason Trump wants the wall so badly he’s willing to sacrifice the livelihoods of millions of Americans (both the 800,000-plus federal workers who are directly affected and the hundreds of thousands of people who work for private contractors that do business with the government and are not going to be made whole, as the federal workers themselves are likely to be, once the shutdown ends) to get it funded. He wants to deal the Democrats a humiliating defeat and send the message that, no matter how the American people vote, they are going to be governed by his and the Republican Party’s priorities.
It’s not just Donald Trump. As George Packer noted in a December 14, 2018 article posted on the Web site of The Atlantic, “The Corruption of the Republican Party” (https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/12/how-did-republican-party-get-so-corrupt/578095/), the GOP as an institution has fundamentally rejected democracy in the service of an ideological agenda. When they lost gubernatorial elections in North Carolina in 2016 and Michigan and Wisconsin in 2018, the Republican legislative majorities in those states simply rewrote the laws to strip the newly elected Democratic governors of as many powers as they could. As Packer wrote:

Taking away democratic rights—extreme gerrymandering; blocking an elected president from nominating a Supreme Court justice; selectively paring voting rolls and polling places; creating spurious anti-fraud commissions; misusing the census to undercount the opposition; calling lame-duck legislative sessions to pass laws against the will of the voters—is the Republican Party’s main political strategy, and will be for years to come.
Republicans have chosen contraction and authoritarianism because, unlike the Democrats, their party isn’t a coalition of interests in search of a majority. Its character is ideological. The Republican Party we know is a product of the modern conservative movement, and that movement is a series of insurgencies against the established order.

As historian Leonard Schapiro wrote of the Bolshevik (later Communist) Party that took over in Russia after the 1917 revolution(s), today’s Republicans are “a minority determined to rule alone.” Their disinclination even to treat Democratic legislators as a legitimate opposition, let alone as equals, was shown when Trump allowed Republican Senators to hold private meetings with Attorney General nominee William Barr but said that “because of the shutdown” Democrats in the Senate would not be similarly privileged.
It’s been noted by a lot of people, including former Trump Organization executive Barbara Res, that Trump’s attitude towards deal-making — the subject of the best-selling book he wrote (or which at least was credited to him on its cover) — is not working out an arrangement that is mutually satisfactory to both. It’s using every bit of leverage he can garner to crush and humiliate his opposition totally. That is what Trump is after in the government shutdown: he wants to force the Democrats to back down on a position that’s very important both to the Democratic leaders themselves and to their political base.
And he’s likely to get his wish. Trump has one huge advantage over the Democrats: they genuinely care whether the government functions properly and whether its workers get paid. He couldn’t care less about that. The character of the Republican ideology is for a government that does as little as possible in the economic sphere — just national defense, criminal justice and a civil lawsuit system to resolve disputes between rich people — and especially doesn’t tax the rich to pay for social services for the not-rich.

As the tales of suffering among federal workers mount, as more and more Americans who don’t work for the government are also harmed by the shutdown, and as the shutdown itself looks more and more like a tit-for-tat routine (Pelosi bans Trump from delivering the State of the Union address in the House chamber, and Trump bans her from taking a fact-finding trip to Afghanistan), there will be far more pressure on the Democrats than the Republicans to end it. This is why I predict the shutdown will end with a total public victory for Trump: he’ll get his wall money, he’ll humiliate the Democrats and he will have effectively neutralized the threat a House of Representatives nominally controlled by the other party could have posed for him.