Political correctness begets social reciprocity

It’s a sure sign of the weakness of any ideology when its partisans’ best hope for defining themselves is to rail against all those things which they think they are not. As the last refuge of the insecure, building strawmen to burn at least allows someone the pretense of a worldview without the usual difficulty of enduring critical thought. As ever, it’s easier to lob bombs than to build. It’s no surprise then that the ill-defined and conveniently flexible concept of “political correctness” continues as the target of choice for any right-wing commentator who wishes to signal their political virtue by taking aim at fantasies.

To hear them tell it, by its existence alone political correctness has kept terrorists in business, the economy sluggish, crime rates high, and is further responsible for any other ills you may wish to lay at its feet. It is, in its omnipresence, the ‘but-for’ causality of every bad outcome. This last Sunday on Fox and Friends,  fault was again found in the idea of political correctness, apparently because it restrains us from herding people into camps according to their religion or torturing anyone we judge suspicious (or brown) enough.

That Nigel Farage and James Mitchell (and their hosts who failed to challenge them) think that it is merely an aversion to voicing controversial ideas which restrains right-minded people from torturing or arbitrarily imprisoning others exposes the rot in their minds. Their version of political correctness has nothing to do with Overton windows or reclaiming ground for debate. They reject it not out of principle, but because they don’t particularly care for anything beyond triumphing over opposition. Struggle for its own sake. Winning for its own sake.

James Mitchell is, after all, a torturer, and that is a profession open only to those who can cherish action alone, who can think that the good is in doing, not in what is done. What he values is so much less important to him than what he opposes, and in that vein his version of political correctness is a forever accessible slate upon which he can project his latest oppositional ambition. One day if he wishes to feel particularly manly he might decry political correctness as the spawn of effete modernity, and so doing he will construct his own masculinity. Or, as he did last Sunday, he might criticise political correctness as the tool of cowards who are too weak to make real decisions, and thereby attempt to justify the enormity of his own choices. This spectral version of political correctness is therefore the vehicle de rigueur through which lackeys like James Mitchell can claim virtues which they never possessed by declaring themselves enemies to villains which never existed.

It’s tribalism in its basest form, and it’s nothing particularly new. As Edward Said described the phenomenon, “often the sense in which someone feels himself to be not-foreign is based on a very unrigorous idea of what is ‘out there,’ beyond one’s own territory.” Sometimes if you don’t know who you are yourself, it might seem sufficient to know who you are not. And, to the benefit of Nigel Farage and James Mitchell, the idea that your opposition exists only on an ethical plane entirely separate from your own makes the contemplation of atrocities such as internment and torture trivial rather than momentous.

The ideology on display last Sunday was that of us and them, such that us is valuable precisely and only because us is not them. How easy it therefore is to pretend to serious concern and solemnly intone that “the calls for internment will grow,” as if those calls arise passively from the aether. And, how much easier it is to denounce the still faceless interloper political correctness so that one’s own ambition — torture — need not be defended.

That small minded mentality, however, is amazingly short sighted. Though they seek to ingratiate their complaint against political correctness into the mainstream by presenting it as a criticism of liberal frivolity, their actual intent strikes much deeper. They do not seek dialogue so much as license. They do not seek debate, but rather they hope to simply end it in their favor.

Their complaint is not about political correctness at all, at least not in the sense that most would understand the term. When they complain that it is merely political correctness which has left our societies vulnerable to attack, they are taking aim at the traditions which guard against the bestial impulses of frightened people. For a given value of security a closed society will always be safer than an open one, so long as you are willing to cast aside the freedom to live, think and feel without the consent of domineering authority.

Nigel Farage and James Mitchell’s real complaint is not with overzealous college students who rile themselves up whenever provocateurs come through on the lecture circuit. In nodding towards internment, and in accepting torture, those two stand squarely against the hard won ideals which hold that all humans are created equal, and that all humans share an inherent dignity which can never be rightly transgressed. In opposition to that ideal, they seem to accept strength alone as an absolute good, and so doing they cast aside the foundational democratic philosophy which allows the world to be seen as more than a competition for scant resources and space. They forget the value of political reciprocity, and the rule of law.

And, James Mitchell, who made his money inventing new ways to make people scream, forgets that it is those ideals which shelter him from a world where he might die as he lived.

Russia shot down a passenger jet

On 17 July 2014 a missile struck the regularly scheduled Malaysian Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur causing it to crash. All 298 passengers and crew perished. There were no survivors. The missile which destroyed the plane was launched from a Russian BuK air-defense system positioned somewhere near the village Snizhne in rebel controlled Ukraine. The crew which served the BuK were at least trained by Russians, and possibly Russian themselves. The rebels who held the territory that the missile was fired from were led by Russian intelligence officers. When they were hard pressed they were aided by regular Russian army units that crossed the border to reinforce them. And, after it completed its deadly work, the carriage upon which the missile was conveyed returned to Russia.

The entire effort leading up to and following the destruction of Malaysian Airlines flight Mh17 was orchestrated by Russia as part of their continuing policy of aggression towards their neighbors. For years the Russian government has been operating by the principle that the strong deserve to dominate the weak, and that strength is best expressed through the application of violence. Upon these principles they set out to annex the Crimea and sow war in the Donbass region of Ukraine. Mh17 was not an intentional target, but its destruction and the murder of all those on-board was the natural consequence of a duplicitous foreign policy that seeks national advantage no matter the cost to others.

That day when they destroyed the Malaysian Airlines flight, Russia’s rebel proxies actually found cause to celebrate. They had only just received their advanced new weapon from across the border, and they were excited to put it to use. Without much indigenous support or an air force of their own, the Russian-backed militias in the Donbass had been increasingly hard-pressed trying to hold the territory that they had staked out as Novorossiyan. However, the addition of new anti-aircraft missile systems to their arsenal promised to even the odds. They had even succeeded in downing a Ukrainian military transport plane just prior to their destruction of the civilian airliner.

As such they thought that they’d struck proverbial gold. In the days just before they shot down the Mh17 flight a rebel affiliated social media account posted photos of the BuK as a sort of warning to their Ukrainian opponents. Soon after it was targeted, Igor Girkin neé Strelkov — a local commander and agent of the Russian intelligence services — attached videos of smoke billowing from the crash site to a triumphant post on social media so as to claim victory over what he thought was an An-26 transport plane like the one that they had previously destroyed. He wrote “we warned them not to fly through our airspace.” Hours later he deleted the post.

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The first video from the crash site itself shows rebels arriving with the expectation that they would find military wreckage. Behind the camera someone is on the phone with his commander to confirm that he’s reached the site but, confused by what he sees, he asks if there isn’t another plane. He states that it’s a civilian passenger plane that he’s seeing and the call ends. Off camera other rebels question whether this could be a plane other than the one they shot down. At first they rationalize that it’s a fighter, a Sukhoi as the Su-series fighters are called, but as their confusion deepens they wonder aloud whether there must have been multiple planes shot down. Once it becomes clear that there was only the one, and that it was a civilian passenger jet, they begin searching through luggage, hiding identifying features, and attempting to locate the black box, all as a part of an effort to cover up their crime.

Despite claiming that they had nothing to hide, the rebels then made every effort to hide the site from public scrutiny. In the days after the crash the international investigators that arrived to conduct autopsies and examine the wreckage were blocked by tens of heavily armed and masked rebels. After a tense standoff they were driven away by the apparent rebel commander as he fired warning shots around them. Even when investigators managed to gain nominal freedom to come and go as they needed they were often hindered by periodic fighting or by simple refusal to allow them to pass checkpoints.

Though the black box flight recorder was found at most three days after the plane went down, it was not handed over to Malaysian authorities until two days after that. In the interim, the Ukrainian intelligence services were conducting an investigation of their own. Beginning the day of the crash, they intercepted a number of phone calls between rebel commanders and their subordinates, the dialogue of which betrays the high level of coordination between the rebels on the ground and their controllers in Moscow.

The first is a conversation between the former Soviet soldier Igor Bezler and his Russian handler Colonel Vasyl Mykolaiovych Geranin. Calling just thirty minutes after the crash, Bezler informs Colonel Geranin that Igor Strelkov’s group had shot down a plane. Still under the impression that it was a military flight, he is directed to find the pilots. At about the same time two other rebels identified only by their nicknames discuss what’s just happened, and one relates his conclusion that “we are completely sure that it was a civilian plane.” The other wants to know if there were any weapons found. No, is the response. Any identifying documents? Yes, but only those of civilians.

An hour later, a different militant makes contact with Nikolai Ivanovich Kozitsyn — an ataman of the Russian Don Cossacks and a commander among the rebel forces. Kozitsyn is told that it was a civilian plane that was destroyed, that “there are a whole lot of bodies of women and children,” and that his Cossacks are conducting further searches. The man who called him then recalls that Russian television was reporting that it was a Ukrainian An-26 transport plane like Igor Strelkov had supposed, but that Malaysian Airlines was clearly written on the fuselage. Kozitsyn’s response is that the shootdown was nonetheless justified, because “they were bringing spies” and he wonders rhetorically “why the hell were they flying? There is a war going on.”

The next days that followed were then suffused by a certain urgency on the rebels’ part to control as much evidence as possible so as to dictate the narrative about what occurred. Because it was impossible for them to claim that the Mh17 flight was a legitimate target, their hope lay in disguising their responsibility by obfuscating the situation through lies and misdirection. It was to this end that Alexander Khodakovsky, an associate of Igor Strelkov, was on the phone on 18 July.

In conversations recorded by the Ukrainian Security Service, he discusses the need to secure the crash site and the evidence therein with a number of other rebels. He specifically asks after “the black boxes,” and insists that they be found urgently because “Moscow asks where the boxes are.” In a second call he then emphasizes that “our friends from high above are very much interested in the fate of the ‘black boxes,’” and clarifies that he means “people from Moscow.” Speed is needed, he warns, so that they don’t fall into someone else’s hands since “all those people that are coming, [the investigators from] the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and so on.” Finally he calls the first number back and answers a question about what to do with something that’s been found: a “satellite navigation block” as it’s described. He answers “hide it anyways, who knows how they [the black boxes] are disguised.”

Despite this attempt at deception, Alexander Khodakovsky was not always so circumspect. Five days after he made the intercepted phone calls, he sat down to interview with Reuters and acknowledged that the rebel groups possessed a weapon of the same type that destroyed the airliner. In contradictory arguments he at once faulted Ukraine for the tragedy by saying that they knew the rebels had been reinforced with air defense systems and therefore provoked the destruction of the civilian airliner by continuing to bomb rebel positions regardless, while also claiming that the rebels’ BuK missile system had been far away in Luhansk on the day of the crash. However, because his admission that the rebels possessed a BuK contradicted the Kremlin party line that no such weapons were present in the Ukraine, Alexander Khodakovsky attempted to retract his statement and name Reuters as liars. Reuters then released an audio recording of the interview that confirmed the truth of their reporting.

Against the mounting evidence that it was their rebels who had destroyed the airplane, Russia’s response was to turn again towards the familiar practice of lying. Immediately after the destruction of Mh17, Vladimir Putin made a statement blaming Ukraine for the tragedy by saying that “without doubt the government of the territory on which it happened bears responsibility” — totally neglecting to mention that Ukraine did not control the territory because of the Russian backed insurgency. For months afterwards, and unto this day, the Kremlin has maintained that Ukraine was somehow responsible for destroying Mh17. When asked to provide evidence of their claims Russia has declined. They have instead chosen to present a cavalcade of fanciful alternative theories.

For years the Russian government has even been unwilling to concede that it was a surface launched missile which brought the plane down. In a press conference on 21 July, the head of the Main Operations Directorate of Russia’s military forces Lieutenant-General Andrey Kartopolov claimed that a Ukrainian Su-25 fighter was flying near Mh17 at the same time and at the same height. This claim was made despite the fact that the Su-25 has an operational ceiling of 7,000 meters when lightly loaded and Mh17 was flying at its cruising altitude of 10,000 meters.

Months later the Russian state even went to the trouble of staging a televised farce wherein a supposed witness to Ukrainian machinations appeared on camera with a disguised face and distorted voice to claim that he had seen a Su-25 take off from Aviatorske airport the day of the crash. This effort, disseminated through the state controlled Moscow media, followed an earlier, even more ridiculous production when Channel One broadcast poorly photoshopped satellite photos of a fighter jet closing to within hundreds of meters of the Mh17 flight in order to engage it with cannons. The images were intended to support Russia’s claim that the plane had been destroyed from the air.

Perhaps recognizing that the absurdity of this first claim could not be sustained, Lieutenant-General Kartopolov also presented satellite photos which supposedly showed Ukrainian BuKs in a position from which they could have fired upon the flight. This was done in order to insinuate that it was in fact the Ukrainian state which had targeted a civilian plane in their own attempt to discredit their rebel opponents.

However, the supplied satellite evidence was a complete fabrication, as was the radar evidence which accompanied it. The Bellingcat team of investigative journalists conducted an independent forensic examination of the supplied images, and after they commissioned satellite time of their own they were able to prove that Russia’s images were not taken on the claimed dates and were also otherwise digitally altered. Discrepancies include parked vehicles inexplicably changing position, as well as major differences in local geography and vegetation to the point that the Russian Ministry of Defence’s imagery can be confirmed to have been taken before July 2nd — weeks before Mh17 was destroyed.

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That the Russian state would attempt such a blatant deception is unfortunately unsurprising. Obstinate refusal to deal with the world truthfully is their foreign policy. Always some other explanation, always someone else to blame. In Crimea, for example, the Russian annexation was preceded by the sudden appearance of hundreds of armed soldiers in green uniforms without insignia. They arrived by helicopter and with heavy weapons including armored personnel carriers, and they immediately moved to seize the regional parliament building as well as airports in the vicinity of Simferopol. They were also curiously mute, and they resisted speaking with any media.

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The mysterious “little green men,” pictured without insignia. More reporting from Simon Ostrovsky, the BBC, and Steven Pifer with The Brookings Institute.

Given their equipment and coordinated action as well as their apparent objectives, it was clear from the beginning that these soldiers were Russian. Nonetheless Russia denied any knowledge or connection to them, instead choosing to characterize them as local patriots who rose up of their own accord while miraculously armed to the teeth. At a press conference in Madrid on 5 March 2014, the Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said that “these are self-defense forces, which were created by the population of Crimea, we do not give them any orders, they receive no orders from us.” Variations of that sentiment were repeated for months as Russia continued to deny against all evidence that they had had anything to do with the Crimea’s annexation. Then, a year later Vladimir Putin abruptly admitted that the so-called “little green men” had “of course” been “our servicemen.”

It’s also quite typical that the Russian organs of state were making contradictory claims simultaneously as Lieutenant-General Kartopolov did when he said that he had evidence that the Mh17 flight was destroyed by a Ukrainian jet but also a Ukrainian surface to air missile. Their preferred method of argumentation is in the gish-gallop style. There is no regard for the truth of the matter (since truth was never the objective) nor even for consistency or plausibility (because convincing someone is a happy accident rather than a goal). Rather, the aim is to simply flood out genuine interest with a wave of confusing claims, and to make so many so quickly that refutations can never keep up or be heard above the din.

The goal of these trolls is not to elevate the Russian narrative to the level of legitimate discussion. To do so in an impossibility. Rather, they intend to sow confusion so as to erode trust in the very notion of truth itself. Dissension, division, doubt. Those are their goals, and their tools are coordinated mass media campaigns, the only purpose of which is to cheapen public discourse and faith in institutions by brazenly repeating pernicious lies.

In St. Petersburg, Russia, there is a cold faced concrete building where this worked is carried out. Known as ‘The Agency,’ it is a workplace of sorts, but what it produces is purely ethereal. Hundreds of employees sit down every day to flood social media and search engines with pre-planned propaganda. One day it is invented stories about fascist coups in Kiev, the next brings lies about fake terror attacks in the United States, or stories intended to stoke racial and political tension. Although one story may be contradicted by the next, it doesn’t matter so long as the contradictions serve to stoke fear and distrust. Because the Russian state operates according by the capricious rules of deceit, and because they are unwilling to engage faithfully with the international community, they must employ these underhanded tactics. Their goal, again, is not to disguise their own faults. Instead they serve the pretense that everyone else is just as bad.

If but the world could live in peace, with no greed nor hunger; a brotherhood of man with nothing to kill or die for, then we would have no need for governments or the politicians that populate them. If we could all just get along, then it would be so easy to come together and agree about the shape of the world and what its future should be. Of course peace is the outcome that anyone with an interest in justice and human rights should hope for. No one can be blamed for that ambition. However, whatever utopian hopes we might harbor, they must always be tempered by the reality of the world. As has been the case since time immemorial, bad actors abound, and they conduct their business with ill-intent and through duplicitous means. The government of Russia, and Vladimir Putin specifically, will never be peaceful partners until they themselves embrace the concept of peace.

President Donald Trump does not want to admit as much. He speaks disinterestedly about his relationship with Russia and Putin as if it were a trifling thing, and he bats away questions about their conduct as unworthy. Despite bragging in the past that he had a great relationship with Vladimir Putin, and despite populating his campaign and government with similarly associated figures like Carter Page, Michael Flynn, and Paul Manafort, he and his representatives have lied that they have no connection whatsoever to Russia or its government.

They’re also lying to themselves about, or at least are ambivalent to, the danger that Russia’s behavior poses. Their disregard for the Ukraine and the Baltic states only invites further Russian aggression. The excuse they offer; that it’s not the United States’ business to care, reads like a transcript from prior centuries when European powers were carving the world into spheres of influence. The thought was that there would be room enough for all the so-called great powers to exercise their might without intruding upon the others. It was false then as it is now. Their arrogance supposed that by inherent right some nations should dominate others, and that aggressive war was a legitimate tool of diplomacy.

Ultimately, because the European powers accepted war as just another transaction between states, their international system was doomed to end in calamity. By tolerating the principle of conquest in some places in hope of detente in others, the Europe neglected the difficult process of building the sort of robust international system that can sustain negotiated settlements. Instead, they favored one that operated on expediency. The tacit agreements and secret alliances that were made to secure temporary power in an ever shifting web of obligation fostered rivalries and distrust which collapsed into disaster on the battlefields of the First World War. Though Gavirio Princip’s assassins were the match which sparked the flame, Europe was already a roiling cauldron of international discontent, and it was made that way by the fact that the powers of the time had gotten used to exercising violence to get their way.

Since the end of the Second World War, however, the world has at least expressed an ambition to be better. The first charge of indictment at Nuremburg was not crimes against humanity, but rather belligerence in war. Having witnessed the carnage that had thus far marked the 20th century, the countries of the world resolved to see an end to it. At least in rhetoric, if not always in action, the world has vowed that each nation shall have the right to decide their own destinies so long as they do not trespass against another.

There is no claim here that modern diplomacy is perfect by comparison to the past. As Donald Trump would no doubt be happy to point out, the United States has all too often acted as an imperfect advocate for justice, peace, and equality. The same can be said about any country in the world. It should come as no surprise that politicians might say one thing while doing another, especially if they think it’ll advance the national interest. To acknowledge our own deficiencies is not, however, a concession of the real differences between governments as defined by the intent, scale, and outcome of the actions they take.

The argument otherwise, that there are no differences, is just a frustrating repetition of the argumentative whataboutism that’s long been the Kremlin’s favored tool for obfuscating fault and spreading doubt. Has Russia done wrong? Who are you to say! You are not perfect yourself! Under the baleful gaze of whataboutism, criticism is a thing left only for saints. The whataboutist would have you solve all the world’s ills before permitting you to comment on them.

And it’s there that Donald Trump’s recent remarks are most troubling. If Putin is a killer, he says, then so are Americans. Unilateral moral disarmament in a single sentence. As Jake Sullivan writes in Foreignpolicy, “America isn’t perfect, but it is principled. We care about freedom and equality and decency. We (mostly) try to do the right thing — and when we don’t, Americans hold their country to account.” In other words, we aspire. Donald Trump though, which his happy acceptance of false equivalencies, would sooner let us fester. His attitude is indifference, and it is born somewhere between disbelief that anything we do really matters at all, and a cynical detachment from the struggles of daily life such that can only be possessed by the obscenely rich.

Though it might wound his ego to admit it, Donald Trump must recognize that our rivalry with Russia is not merely political. They have shown active disdain for even the principle of peace. They have lied without fear, because they don’t care if they’re believed. The kleptocratic regime which has taken over their state operates according to principles that are incompatible with the trust that is necessary for the negotiation that Donald Trump prides himself on. What, after all, is the point of concluding treaties and agreements which the other side feels no obligation to honor? Why will appeasement serve us now, when it has always failed in the past? Affability is not a virtue. Vigilance is.

Lock him up!

Adapted from Michael Flynn’s remarks at the RNC.

I’m here tonight as a determined American who loves our country, and my message to you is very clear: wake up America!

There is no substitute for American leadership and exceptionalism. America should not fear our enemies. In fact, we should clearly defined our enemies. Face them head on, and defeat those that seek to threaten our country and our way of life.

Tonight we stand together as proud patriots who deeply love our country and believe in the principles of freedom, democracy, liberty, and fidelity. This is about this country. This is about the future of our children.

We know that America, our nation, is the greatest country in the history of the world,  and that there can never be a substitute for America, and let us sustain the conviction that our country holds a unique place and role in American history. American exceptionalism must never fade.

But now, it is up to us  and you cannot sit this administration out. I stand with you as a citizen and as a patriot, but most importantly, as an American. I stand to tell you that the destructive pattern of putting the interest of other nations ahead of our own will must come to an end.

From this day forward, we must stand tougher and stronger together with an unrelenting goal to seek the truth wherever it may lead, and to never be satisfied with reckless rhetoric from a Trump clone like Michael Flynn.

We must draw from a rich foundation of our founding father’s fight for democracy and lead our friends and allies with more determination than ever before, with conviction in our investigative agencies that pierces through the ideology of any people or any nation that attacks America, America’s way of life, and our proud heritage of honesty and courage.

Tonight, American stands as one; with strength and confidence to overcome the last month of the Trump administration failures. Bumbling indecisiveness, willful ignorance, and total incompetence have challenged the very heart and soul of every American and single-handedly fostered continued mayhem, murder, and destruction throughout the world and on our neighborhoods and streets.

On this day, we start the beginning of a new American century, a time that we turn our heads forward with persistent and relentless focus on protecting our communities, our families and our country by holding individuals accountable for their actions — equally and fairly.

Our new American century does not risk its future on mindless partisan loyalty and senseless tribalism. It is time to recognize our obligation to lead the world with unwavering integrity, renewed strength, and if Congress does its job, we will make America great again!

The Trump-Flynn duo has failed our country by defying America’s exceptionalism and betraying our nation’s history and our Founding Fathers’ revolution. A commander-in-chief does not allow foreign spies to peer into our nation’s secrets. America does not roll over for anyone. We are tired of Trump’s empty speeches and his ranting on Twitter. This has caused the world to have no respect for America’s word.

Let me be clear. Appeasement towards Russia is not a strategy for curbing their aggression as Trump and Flynn would like us to believe. Allowing them to hack our election and place agents within the West Wing will not end the attacks on this country. On the contrary, it simply emboldens the kleptocrats and prolongs their dominion.

Under Donald Trump we have no strategy to protect the country, and so long as Michael Flynn, Carter Page and Paul Manafort continue to influence him, it’ll be more of the same. I am infuriated when I say that our president does not recognize the invasion of the Crimea. I’m certain that we cannot stand strong in this struggle unless we are free to call  foreign meddling by its name: Russian aggression!

Because of Donald Trump’s ill-advised actions, the world has lost faith in American leadership while the threats are mounting. A complete lack of American readiness to face intrusions against our electoral system. Untold cyber threats. Demoralized allies around the world. Growing nuclear capability in China and North Korea, and loss of respect and confidence around the globe.

We have become the best enemies and the worst friends.

These next four years will be consumed by the perils that we now face. The Trump-Flynn list of failed policies goes on and on. We need a commander-in-chief who understands the challenges and is willing to meet them head on.

Our adversaries must never again mock American will power to challenge them, and we must never give them a reason to doubt our resolve to win.

The most damaging example of the President’s failure to understand the consequences of putting political expediency ahead of national security is the placement of a Russia stooge – Michael Flynn – on the National Security Council.

We cannot continue down this path. More lives are at stake. Our way of life is in jeopardy, our very existence is threatened. What keeps me up at night is the sobering realization that evil exists. The subversion of our democratic system by foreign powers should keep us all up at night.

We must take seriously the possibility that these enemies have place agents in the highest offices of our government, and intend to use them. That is a very serious issue. We must understand and define our enemies if we intend to defeat them. Americans deserve no less.

Because Trump chose to conceal the actions of foreign leaders like Vladimir Putin and groups like the hacking collective Cozy Bear, Americans are at a loss to fully understand the enormous threat they pose against us. Now is the time for a leader that is honest and strong, a leader who will stand up for America and make absolutely clear that if you cross their path, you will pay the price.

We do not need a weak, spineless president who is more concerned about tweeting than protecting Americans. We do not need a reckless National Security Advisor who believes he is above the law.

Lock him up!

That is right. That’s right. Lock him up!

I have called on Michael Flynn to admit his crimes, because he has put our nation’s security at extremely high risk through his duplicitous scheming with Russia.

Lock him up!

And you know why I say that? Because if I, a guy who knows his business, if I did a 10th of what he did, I would be in jail today!

Lock him up!

So, traitor Flynn, leave this country now.

He needs to go.

Mother Night, and other late night tales

When are we supposed to believe that people mean what they say? As children we’re taught to value trust and honesty, so idealism answers ‘always.’ Lived experience, however, dictates that not everyone learned the same lessons, so prudence retorts ‘sometimes.’ And, when strangers promise paradise, suspicion shouts ‘never!’ Over time it becomes easier to pick out a lie than it is to recognize the truth.

We are told by turns that, while one should never look a gift horse in the mouth, neither is there any such thing as a free lunch. Those who are fooled once are ceded no right to complain, while those who would fool twice are for naught but disdain. When strangers come bearing gifts  they merit suspicion, lest we go the way of the Trojans, and in so many small ways our language and our culture equips us for cynicism. We are, by training, inculcated against charlatans who seek advantage by flattery and deceit. Our watchwords are set against those who overpromise and underdeliver.

But what about the brazen thief? What about the swindler who will pick your pocket while bragging to your face about his skill?

The platitude of the last election was that Donald Trump’s supporters took him seriously, but not literally, whereas his opponents took him literally, but not seriously. So it went that they were comfortable with the exaggerations and the bluster because they recognized it for what it was. And when alarm was raised about the same subjects, the warnings were dismissed as the hysterical reaction of detractors who were clinically missing the point.

To a degree that was true. Donald Trump’s supporters knew that they weren’t going to get everything he promised, and telling them so made no difference. In electing a dealmaker they expected prevarication alongside negotiation. But, while they were right to deride the left for misunderstanding his appeal, the problem is mirrored. They also misunderstood his danger. They did not take what he meant literally seriously.

Besides promising rejuvenation and renewal, Donald Trump promised woe. He promised vengeance in place of justice and belligerence in place of sobriety, and it was not bluster.

We were, I think, ill-prepared to react to honesty. Where we might otherwise see through false promises which are made to disguise ill-intent, the same malevolence expressed openly and without shame is not taken seriously. Donald Trump constantly outdid himself in extremism, but for each statement the rebutting refrain was that it was a mistake to believe him.

There is no longer any excuse for not taking him at his word. Whatever his innermost thoughts might be, whatever his secret intentions, whether he was always in earnest or only sometimes, Maya Angelou’s advice rings true: “when people show you who they are, believe them.”

By words and by actions, Donald Trump has demonstrated only a casual regard for human life. He has shown that he takes it as just another bargaining chip: to be spent when necessary. In his rush to halt the imagined danger of terrorists entering our country among refugees, he sowed enormous harm by separating families, rousting people from their homes, and even in some cases preventing them access to medical care.

His response, expressed through his surrogates, was dismissive. Those lives disrupted were merely inconveniences. And to him, it’s true.

Far beyond that though, he has also promised torture, plunder, and murder. Take out their families, he said. Extract an eye for an eye. Anything that they do shall be permitted to us, and more besides. Casting morality out, he has vowed that his only guide will be satisfaction of the basest human instinct for raw revenge.

Those closest to him carry the same attitude. Michael Flynn is proud of his Islamophobia, as he believes his fear is not only rational, but will aid in the “world war” that he plans to fight against a religion. The same is true of Stephen Bannon, who casts refugees and immigrants in the same racist light that permitted the imprisonment of thousands of American citizens of Japanese descent on the pretense that they constituted a “fifth column.” He too relishes the thought of global war against an essentialized Muslim enemy.

This last weekend an American raid in Yemen left tens of civilians dead, including an eight year old American girl. Sean Spicer, confronted by his boss’ stated preference for murdering civilians when they’re found in the vicinity of terrorists, could offer only weak deflections from the question at hand: was it an example of Trump living up to his promises?

The Trump administration exists as a prolonged provocation, and as such the things they do are too easily dismissed as idle threats, simple lies, or posturing. But, threats remain idle only so long as their agents lack power, and now that he has realized the power to make them good, Donald Trump is proving his honesty.

When someone promises harm, take them in deadly earnest.

Parallax and exclusive facts

Parallax describes the phenomenon by which the perceived position of an object differs depending on the perspective of the viewer. Mostly it crops up when discussing astronomy, because the principle assists scientists in determining the position or course of distant extra-terrestrial objects. Lately, however, it could as well be an analogy for our political system.

This last weekend, when Kellyanne Conway endorsed “alternative facts,” she was defending a sort of parallax. In the face of photographic evidence, she was insisting that truth depended on the viewer’s perspective. Under different circumstances there’s actually a reasonable argument to be made there, at least insofar as people’s opinions on ethics, mores, and broader policy judgements are attached to the unknowable minutiae of lived experiences which form individual worldviews.

It is true, for example, that police disproportionately victimize minority populations, just as it is true that police do their best at a difficult job without any particular malice. That both can be true reflects the nature of truth: it is interpretive. Regarding the debate about police in American society, there are facts enough to support many different opinions, and the view that any individual hews too will depend upon which facts they value. If two opposing sides attempt to debate each other without first recognizing the perspective that makes those two statements true to the other, then they won’t get very far at all.

However, when it comes to one’s perception of complex issues, acknowledging that individual experience can act as a hand on the scale of truthfulness does not amount to surrendering the possibility of objective fact. It’s just that there are very few important issues which can be decided by fact alone, since facts are not arranged by nature to suit our analytical needs. They don’t spring from nothing ready for use.

Rather, those facts that we apply to most important discussions are those which we searched for. They are those which were discovered with purpose in mind, even if they do not always conform to the assumptions which motivated the search. It is, after all, impossible to discover or catalogue every fact that ever was, so it is necessary instead to prioritize depending on individual interest. Overtime every individual will compile a core of facts that they think are more important than others, and they will use those facts as the referent by which they most often make decisions. Invariably that same core of facts will also be different by degrees, whether large or small, from every other similarly compiled grouping, and it is that difference which accounts for the diversity of individual worldviews.

In turn, the thing which keeps all these different, personal compilations of facts from spinning into mutually incomprehensible chaos is the ill-defined concept of reasonability. Underlying it is the idea that are some facts which are so apparent, and so widely accepted, that we can simply assume every reasonable person (or at least a substantial portion of humanity) has incorporated them into their worldview. The blueness of our sky, the necessity of food and water, the observable action of gravity, the inexorable passage of time. These are the most basic facts which, along with uncountable others, form the shared reality which enables the mutual understanding from which conversation can begin. In short, our ability to engage with each other depends on trusting that the person across the table is there in good faith.

What’s so insidious about Kellyanne Conway’s lies, and those of Sean Spicer and Reince Priebus as well, is that they are actively seeking to erode the mutual trust which binds us. They seek, instead, to challenge the shared reality through which conversant of radically different backgrounds are able to engage each other. We’ve seen this before, to a degree, in American politics. The assault on the science of climate change at times bordered on the absurd, as the denunciations thereof constantly shifted rhetorical focus whenever previous positions were made untenable by the weight of newly discovered data. But, even then, at least there was some credence given to the validity of facts in themselves. Those who argued against the science of climate change did so by cherry picking and abusing facts, but so doing they at least acknowledged the primacy of the same.

On the other hand, when they defended the lie that his inauguration was the most viewed of all time, Donald Trump’s sycophants transcended proof. When Shaun Spicer said that Donald Trump drew “the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe,” when Kellyanne Conway defended the lie as “alternative facts”, and when Reince Priebus tried to shift the conversation away from the patent lie towards “honesty in media,” they did so as a declaration that it is not the interpretations of facts which are partisan, but the facts themselves. They would have their audience believe that what someone says is of lesser importance compared to who says it. They would have their audience believe that the truth within a message is derived from the speaker, rather than from the message itself. They would make themselves prophets, should we allow them.

The size of crowds is not an important subject, but it is also not one in which there is room for the studied disagreements that attach to more complex issues. It is in fact known how large the inaugural crowd was, and it was not large at all. What might once have been pedantry therefore now seems necessary, as it is newly apparent that even basic facts require active defense, lest facts themselves fall by the wayside. And, for that reason, we turn again to parallax.

The photo taken of Trump’s inauguration crowd from atop the Washington Monument looks different than the one Sean Spicer presented to the press because it was taken from a different perspective. It was not doctored, and contrary to conspiratorial claims, it was not taken at a different time.

Seen from directly above, the Washington Mall is a little more than two kilometers of flat land stretching between the Capitol Building in the East to the Washington Monument in the West. If you were to stand on the Capitol steps and look towards the distant monument, you would see a series of pathways and streets which cross the grass lawn, each about 200 meters apart.

However, because of the nature of perspective, the paths which are most distant appear to be closer together than the paths which are nearest, despite being relatively evenly spaced. This is due to the way in which humans perceive depth. Even perfectly parallel lines will appear to converge on a single vanishing point if they are sufficiently long, despite remaining the same distance apart. Therefore, while the space they occupy remains constant, the apparent space between them decreases with distance.

Anyone who has watched football will have seen this phenomenon in action when the referees are trying to determine whether the ball crossed the first down line or not. If the runner is being filmed running toward the camera, then they will appear to be closer to the line to gain than if they are running away from the camera.
[Click here for a breakdown of the Ohio State-Michigan 4th and 1 spot which demonstrates this concept.]
Another famous example is that of “The Tackle,” when Kevin Dyson of the Tennessee Titans was brought down one yard short of the end-zone on the final play of the game. Depending on what angle you look at the play from, he will appear to have been further away or closer to his goal.

down-at-the-1

Or, if you want to observe the phenomenon in real time, you need only walk out to a long, straight street on level ground, or else find a railway and stare down it. The width of the street remains constant, as does the distance between the rails, but the parallel lines will appear to converge upon a single point as they approach the horizon.

And then, if on that same road there are many cars, the cars that are furthest away will appear to be bunched closer together. This happens not only because they occupy an apparently smaller space due to distance, but also because the cars that are nearer to the point of view will partly occlude those cars behind them, thereby creating an apparent bunching effect.

All this effort to explain that depth perception exists. It is an explanation that is so boring and obvious that it would be unnecessary and even burdensome were it not for the fact that representatives of the most powerful official in the world have been insisting that the laws of physics serve partisan masters. It was a disagreement with reality itself which propelled Sean Spicer behind that podium so that he could hector the press for reporting facts.

Absent any real argument, he brought a photo with him which actually distorts reality. It’s taken from the perspective of the Capitol building with a wide angle lens which serves to enhance the foreground and blur the background. It does not, however, show the crowd size that Trump’s ego requires.

The far better, more representative photo is that which was taken from atop the Washington Monument. It’s better not only because it is taken with a lens that lends less spatial distortion, but also because photos which are taken from higher angles have better fields of view, and are therefore less prone to problems of perceiving the number of clustered objects.

A comparison of the available photos absolutely refutes the most common lies about the inaugural crowd size.

They are as follow:

1. The crowd reached all the way back to the Washington Monument.

2. The shot from on top the Washington Monument is not representative of the crowd at the time when Trump was speaking.

To demonstrate this, I have marked static reference points in the multiple photos so that they can be easily compared. Throughout the crowd, there are tall speaker towers which are visible every 100 meters or so, and there are a number of distinct tents that are easily visible from both angles.

The are as follow:

1: From the Inquisitor from the Capitol, facing the Washington Monument.

edited

2: CNN’s Gigapixel, taken while Trump is speaking, from the Capitol, facing the Washington Monument.

cnn-gigapixel-crop-edited

3: Through ABC, a still taken from the Washington Monument, facing the Capitol.
abc-wa-mo-edited

In each photo, I’ve marked the speaker towers by pairs, with the furthest colored a dark red. The crowd ends in front of that furthest speaker tower, and I have marked the approximate end with an orange line. In every photo it is clear that the crowd ends before the furthest speaker tower because the crowd occludes the speaker tower rather than vice versa.

The furthest television board is also marked by a yellow/green X as another landmark which is useful for orientation.

The last speaker towers, which the crowd is in front of, are still hundreds of meters away from the Washington Monument.

The photo from atop the Washington Monument is representative of the size of the crowd at the time that Trump was speaking, as evidenced by the crowd’s position relative to the furthest speaker towers.

It’s a lot of words to say something very simple, and I wish they weren’t needed.

The eternal agony of being Paul Ryan

It’s a tough job being the Republican Speaker of the House. You get all the mucky tasks. Some days it’s inveighing against Bill Clinton’s extra-marital affair while conducting one of your own behind the back of your cancer stricken wife, other days it’s standing on stage to pledge support for the man that you just described as the “textbook definition of a racist.” No doubt the position description lists “absolute spinelessness” and “grating lack of shame” as the primary qualifications.

At least in that regard, whatever mold it was that Paul Ryan formed in was built on spec. As a champion of hypocrisy and bright-eyed lying, he’s unparalleled. Just this last week, faced by a voter who earnestly wanted to know why the Republicans would repeal Obamacare without a replacement in place, Paul Ryan looked towards his roots and lied like a champion.

No, he said, the Republicans would never do that. With a smile on his face, and a sly shake of his head, Paul Ryan stared the truth down like an old-west Sheriff come out to warn wayfaring ruffians that they weren’t welcome in these parts. It’s a performance that might have fooled someone with absolutely no knowledge of American politics or recent history. Failing that, he might have put one over on an alien that is totally ignorant of how humans interact. But, lest we be drawn in ourselves, let’s examine the record.

Not twenty-four hours before Ryan’s performance, the Senate had voted to take the first step necessary for repealing Obamacare by passing their continuing resolution for next year’s budget. Alongside the humdrum of yearly outlays, the Republicans included parliamentary provisions which make it impossible for Democrats to filibuster healthcare repeal. At the same time they rejected an amendment which would prohibit cutting medicare, medicaid or social security. No matter what Ryan might say about simultaneous repeal and replacement, the fact of the matter is that repeal is ongoing while replacement remains purely within the realm of speculation.

Besides lying about the schedule for the repeal and uncertain replacement of Obamacare, Ryan also spent no small measure of time happily lying about Obamacare itself. First he said that it was a rotting edifice which is slowly decaying of its own. Were that true, Republicans could hardly be faulted for clearing away the rubble. It isn’t though. In the last year, 6.4 million newly insured Americans have signed up for health coverage through Obamacare sponsored exchanges, about a 7% increase from the previous year. In fact, the states which boasted the most new enrollments were all won by Trump. Maybe that explains Republican haste to do away with health coverage quickly, so that their voters never get to know what they’ve missed.

[read more about the impact of Obamacare here.]

Ryan then said that Obamacare was fundamentally flawed as an insurance scheme because it was facing down a “death spiral.” Perhaps an impolitic term to use in response to a man who has just survived a serious disease, but according to Ryan the term is actuarial in origin and it describes the problem that arises when healthy people are not buying into insurance pools. Because the very principle by which health insurance remains sustainable depends upon healthy people buying in at a rate that can support the expensive care of sick people, a lack of buy-in dooms any plan. That’s a truism though, and uninteresting.

Where Ryan finds his stride is in the style by which he begins with a true statement (in this case the insurance marketplace equivalent of stating that the sun is round) before skipping directly to as asinine conclusion (that Obamacare is necessarily doomed). It’s an insidious technique because the opening truism acts like the flourish of a magician’s hands. By beginning with something basically true before leaping directly to a conclusion that is only tangentially related Ryan skips straight past the argumentation that actually connects the former to the latter, perhaps hoping that we’ll fill in the blank ourselves or not notice the sleight of hand at all.

It’s a cheap trick though, and it falls apart upon examination. Leaving aside the fact that the described circumstance isn’t so much an argument against Obamacare as an argument for raising the penalty for going without insurance, Ryan’s unsaid implication that the Republican plan would solve this is an atrocious lie. The single aspect of Obamacare which has attracted the most vitriol over the last eight years was the individual mandate. Though I’m not sure if they ever settled on a point of rhetoric as to what the individual mandate actually was, from the Republican point of view it certainly lay somewhere between the imposition of dictatorial rule and wholesale gun seizures. They have promised unequivocally that whatever they cook up, there will be no requirement to buy insurance.

In other words, Ryan is arguing that Obamacare (with its individual mandate requiring everyone, including the healthy, to buy insurance) is fatally flawed because the insurance pool is too small to support those with pre-existing conditions or other expensive ailments. And, at the very same time, he is proposing an as yet undefined fix which will remove the requirement that everyone buy into an insurance pool while somehow also expanding it. His contention, apparently, is that healthy people so resent the idea of being required to buy expensive insurance that they will refuse to do so out of spite, but if given the option to buy equally expensive insurance of their own free will, they will jump at the opportunity.

No, actually he’s not saying that. Really, he’s just hoping you won’t dwell too long on the logic of it, because like any good magician he knows that the trick falls apart as soon as you’ve gotten a peek behind the curtain. It’s on this same principle that he confidently cited Washington State’s high-risk insurance pool as an example of how great Republican lead health reform would be in a world without Obamacare. He’s certain that you won’t bother to look up the fact that the same insurance pool nearly collapsed in the early 90’s as a consequence of policies that the Republicans are now touting as the “solutions” to our healthcare woes.

However, as reported by David Gutman in the Seattle Times, that early foray into Republican brand healthcare reform brought woe above all else. Much like the politics around Obamacare, this early Washington plan expanded medicare and protections for those with pre-existing conditions at the cost of mandating that every individual buy into insurance. Soon after, Republicans rode a wave of resentment to their largest state-house margin ever, in no small part because of their persistent promise to do away with the individual mandate.

And this they did, while all the while promising that the more popular provisions like protections for those with pre-existing conditions would remain. But, much like Ryan and the current crop of Republicans are doing now, those Republicans were promising the stars when they knew full well that the best we were gonna get was something a little closer to Earth.

In this case, without the individual mandate local insurers had no way to keep up with the cost of caring for sick patients. The “death spiral” which Ryan predicts as the consequence of an individual mandate was in fact the result of its removal. The largest insurer in the state lost $120 million before quitting the individual policy business altogether, and within four years 17 of the 19 insurers in the state had called it quits. The next year it was no longer possible to buy individual insurance even if you wanted to.

So, whatever Ryan and the Republicans might say about health savings accounts and driving down premiums, know this: it won’t matter how much you can afford to buy when there’s nothing for sale. The Republican plan has been tried, and it failed. Repealing Obamacare without a plan in place for a robust replacement will mean higher costs. Not only increased monetary expenses coming from an uptick in emergency room visits for what could have been routine or preventable care, but also the extreme social costs that we will be burdened with by premature deaths.

Ryan, with his glimmering eyes, will tell you otherwise. Don’t believe him. He knows the truth, but, unwilling to admit that he is simply disinterested in whatever fate might befall those who cannot afford or acquire health care, Paul Ryan turns time and again to lies.

Senator Doug Ericksen is a royalist

The founding lore of the United States celebrates one moment in particular as that which first crystallized the sentiment that Americans would no longer prostrate themselves to a foreign and unrecognized power that demanded duties without acknowledging rights in return. It came in Boston, in 1773, when news was circulating that the crown had imposed yet another tax upon the colonies; this time in the form of a duty imposed on tea.

The arrangement made it impossible for American tea merchants to compete, and while it allowed the Empire’s company to sell tea at cut-rate prices, the imposition of the tax was seen as but one more act in a line of imperial dictates that had come to be perceived as intolerable.

In response to this news, the locally known rabble-rouser Samuel Adams rallied the population to mass meetings and invocations in order to build the sort of popular support that had previously halted the hated Stamp Act of 1765. In the heat of emotion, Benjamin Rush went so far as to declare that in the importation of tea lay “the seeds of slavery.”

The Royal Governor, however, proved stubborn, and admitted the tea-laden ships to harbor despite the protests of the vocal crowd. With their voices unheard, these self-named Sons of Liberty decided upon more drastic action, and in a daring morning raid they boarded the ships, commandeered their cargo, and cast it into the bay, all as part of a bold declaration that they would be ruled no more. The legend of the Boston Tea Party was born.

There’s a bit more to it though. From the perspective of power, Samuel Adams was little more than a fire-thrower at the head of a mob. After all, the price of tea had actually decreased since the imposition of the duties. From their point of view the colonial uproar had all the appearance of a childish fit.

And, in fact, the Bostonians were a mob. The earliest agitation against the tea duties were marked by public displays of violence, wherein figures of the colonial administration were burned in effigy. One meeting ended when crowd settled upon the stamp distributor Peter Oliver as the target of their ire. However, rather than dispersing to begin a campaign of nonviolent letter writing, they got together and marched over to his house where they threw rocks through the windows before breaking in to drink his liquor and smash his furniture.

Another group at another time headed to the home of William Story, a judge, where they seized his court records and fed them into a bonfire. Yet another crowd headed directly to the home of the colonial governor, Thomas Hutchinson, where they set about smashing the insides with axes and clubs. Along the way they raided the wine cellar and stole whatever money was available.

Even the tea party itself was a rowdy affair. The saboteurs disguised themselves as native Americans, perhaps in an attempt hide their identity, or else to scapegoat the native inhabitants for the wreckage they intended to undertake.

Whatever their reasons, they’re reported to have made quite an impression. The mate of the ship Dartmouth, upon which the tea was being held, recorded that the tea partiers came aboard “dressed and whooping like Indians,” and the Boston Post-Boy reported on the events as “a Number of very dark complexioned Persons (dressed like Mohawks or Indians) of grotesque Appearance” who made “a most hideous Noise” before heading to the docks.

Once onboard the ships, the actual dumping of the tea was a chaotic affair. Some of the apparently drunk participants proved as interested in outright looting as solemn protest. Others were simply caught up in the fun of it and continued whooping and hollering throughout. All told, the day ended with a bunch of apparent hooligans having raided a private ship to steal and destroy private property.

All this, in defiance of a Massachusetts law which was passed in 1753 that had prohibited “all riotous, tumultuous and disorderly Assemblies” along with the “horrid Profaneness, Impiety and other gross Immoralities” that accompanied them. Especially forbidden was the act of disguise, noted as “painted or discoloured Faces” or “having and Kind of Imagery or Pageantry for a publick Shew.” The tea partiers were not the party of law and order that day.

No doubt though that they had principle of their side, despite the roughness around the edges. Theirs was a stand against unrepresentative government. They took it upon themselves to oppose the tyranny of minority interests dictating the lives of the common man. Theirs was an act in favor of democracy.

Unfortunately, with his proposal to criminalize the act of protest as a form of “economic terrorism,” our current State Senator Doug Ericksen has put himself squarely on the side of King George III.The patent absurdity of his hyperbolic rhetoric describing  protest as “terrorism” aside, Senator Ericksen’s proposal betrays a deep-seated contempt for the (sometimes dramatic) goings on of democratic expression.

Saying so is not an endorsement of vandals or stone-throwers. Those are petty crimes which are already best dealt with in existing law; be it civil or criminal. The problem with Senator Ericksen’s legislative revanchism is that a law which condemns protest as terrorism will find no surer applications than those which advance dictatorial tyranny.

It is a price to pay of living in a free society that freedom will grate at times. Sometimes it stings. Sometimes windows are broken and tea dumped in harbors. And frankly, that’s a better result than empowering the state to clamp down upon every protest because of the actions of a minority. In such a situation popular sentiment which might once have boiled over before dissipating is left only the opportunity to build until it explodes.

Quotes and historical background sourced from Benjamin L. Carp, Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party & The Making of America (Boston: Yale University Press, 2011)