Beauty and the Beasts

When I started to read The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – and Us, by Yale’s Coe Professor of Ornithology, Richard Prum, I had limited expectations. At 540 pages of text, not to mention many pages of endnotes as are common in serious books like this, it was an imposing undertaking. I believed it would help me understand some things I’ve puzzled over, but I largely overlooked the “and Us” part of the subtitle. That was a mistake, though a serendipitous one.

Much of the book is devoted to explaining the concept of mate choice based on aesthetic factors (“beauty” and the animal response to it) as opposed to the historically dominant theory that all evolved traits are driven by adaptive-to-environment considerations of Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” idea. Common understanding to the contrary notwithstanding, Darwin’s “fittest” concept does not refer to conditioning but to adaptation to environmental factors that will determine the reproductive success of individuals and thus the success, or not, of the species. Darwin’s theories have, or course, been written about in countless volumes.

Prum makes the case that Darwin, after publishing On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, had a second big idea that has been largely ignored in the evolutionary sciences. It was set out in Darwin’s second great work: The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex.

I am not going to try here to set out the details of the argument Prum makes, but, as he describes it: “In Descent, Darwin presented his hypothesis that female sexual autonomy – the taste for the beautiful – is an independent and transformative evolutionary force in the history of life.” Evolution at 28. This gave rise to a major conflict in evolutionary biology, leading to the wholesale rejection of the idea that “sexual selection” based on aesthetic factors had any role in evolution beyond that of “natural selection.”

Prum’s work is devoted to exploding that approach and to restoring sexual selection as a parallel and independent force in evolution with extraordinary effects. He explains the idea of “coevolution” in which certain preferences alter the behavior of the opposite sex in dramatic ways so that the two forces, beauty that serves no other “fitness” purpose, and the response to it, evolve together with each influencing the other over evolutionary time. To illuminate this idea, Prum focuses on the lekking behavior of manakins (I had never heard of them) and the extraordinary behaviors of the bowerbirds.

Leks are areas in forest, typically, where male manakins gather in what appear to be coordinated, or at least cooperative, arrangements to participate in competitive displays for the favor of females. This bizarre scheme is driven, Prum argues, by the preferences of females who have, over evolutionary time, rejected the more typical male forms of sexual display and conflict, including the violence often associated with that competition. He discusses at length the fraught situation of sexual violence among ducks and some of the evolutionary changes in the physical structure of female ducks to fend off the otherwise extreme aggressive behavior that sometimes leads to the injury and even death of the targeted female.

Bowerbirds, on the other hand, construct elaborate structures, sometimes a yard wide, in which the inner areas are laid out, by the male, in a manner that enables the female to visit the bower and watch the male perform his often-elaborate mating display while being protected from sudden sexual assault by the male.

Prum’s idea is that the sexual preferences of the female birds have led to the coevolution of changes in male bird behavior that enhance female sexual autonomy. Females in this bird world are the driving force for changes in sexual behavior among males that don’t seem to be explainable any other way. Male displays, including the extraordinarily colorful plumage and means of pre-mating displays, are not, Prum argues, honest indicators of the genetic superiority of the individual birds and thus females do not select mates based on “beliefs” that the chosen male has superior genes that will lead to more successful chicks who will spread the female’s genes even further by being more attractive to males in the future.

Now to the really powerful idea. In the later chapters, Prum turns to the question of human sexual behavior that seems to have no role in enhancing reproductive success. If, for example, male-male sexual preferences have no contribution to reproductive success, how did evolution produce them? Such same-sex preferences are very widespread throughout world populations and across vast stretches of time, at least the time from which we have some record evidence. The same questions arise regarding female-female sexual attraction.

This is a question of enormous social importance because so many people appear to believe that sexual preference and/or sexual identity is a simple “choice” that individuals make. Further, they believe that same-sex preferences are “abnormal” precisely because they deviate from the generally accepted “wisdom” that sexual preference has one purpose only: reproductive success and enhancement of downstream genetic progression.

I pause here to note that Prum himself admits that some of his ideas are speculative and difficult to prove, but he marshals considerable evidence and coherent reasoning from known facts to support those speculations. He at least offers plausible explanations where the alternatives seem singularly weak.

I propose that cultural ideologies of male power, sexual domination, and social hierarchy – that is, patriarchy – developed to reassert male control over fertilization, reproduction, and parental investment as countermeasures to the evolutionary expansion of female sexual autonomy. The result is a new, human sexual conflict arms race being waged through the mechanisms of culture. [italics in original] [Evolution at 551]

…. It is not an accident that patriarchal ideologies are focused so intently on the control of female sexuality and reproduction and also on the condemnation and prohibition of same-sex behavior. Female sexual autonomy and same-sex behavior have both evolved to be disruptive to male hierarchical power and control. These disruptive effects were likely the driving force behind the cultural invention and maintenance of the patriarchy itself.

Despite the near ubiquity of male culture dominance, this view implies that patriarchy is not inevitable, and it does not constitute human biological “destiny” (whatever that is). Patriarchy is a product not of our evolutionary history nor of human biology per se but of human culture. [Evolution at 552]

And, finally,

If patriarchy is part of a cultural sexual conflict arms race, then we should predict the emergence of cultural countermeasures to reassert and preserve female sexual and social autonomy, and so they have…. Although it took thousands of years to happen, the results of these efforts – legal recognition of women’s suffrage, universal human rights, and the abolition of legal slavery – are demonstrations that it is possible to dismantle deeply ingrained components of patriarchy that are often, still, considered as biologically “natural.” [Evolution at 553]

That brings me to the subject I was planning to write about some time ago and expected to place in my other blog, AutumnInNewYork.net: Gay Pride Day events in New York City on June 30. We decided to skip the main parade and attend the Reclaim Pride spinoff that ended on the Great Lawn in Central Park just to see what was going on. The conflict between the main group and the Reclaim folks likely has multiple sources into which I have no experience or insights and therefore will not try to discuss. The people behind the Queer Liberation March and Rally, https://reclaimpridenyc.org/, had a lot to say. Much anger was expressed by speakers, not only at the takeover of the main event by corporate “sponsors” but also at the police. It seemed clear that there is much work to be done before something resembling peace can be achieved between the gay community and local law enforcement.

One thing that interested me was what I will call the flamboyance of most of the participants. To be clear, I use that term in its non-pejorative sense of “the tendency to attract attention because of one’s exuberance, confidence, and stylishness” and “the quality of being bright, colorful, and very noticeable.” [Google Dictionary] The photographs below show this quite clearly. My first thought was “why do this when it attracts the attention of both anti-gay people and the police who, according to the attendees, treat them very badly?”

Then, it occurred to me (and this thought is reinforced by Prum’s analysis) they may be signaling that they are members of, belong to, have a place in, a particular group with whom they identify in a deep way. The often dramatic, in -your-face flamboyance is not a way of saying “hit me.” It’s a way of saying “respect me — I am who I am. If I’m comfortable with it, why can’t you be also?” Faced with society’s rejection in many cases, they are responding with countermeasures that reject the “you don’t belong” or “there’s something wrong with you” mentality of much of society here and elsewhere. The same evolutionary forces that are at work against the patriarchy and in support of female sexual autonomy are well-aligned with the gay movement and in the end will, inevitably, prevail.

It’s the Guns – It’s Always Been About the Guns

The New York Times ran a frontpage article today entitled “Many Gunmen in Mass Shootings Share a Hate Toward Women.” https://nyti.ms/2MTr2JC Curiously, the online version of the article appears under U.S. News near the bottom of the NYT website.

The article cites multiple incidents in which the shooter, through personal conduct and in online writings, had shown hostility toward women, often because the shooter’s sexual aspirations had been repeatedly spurned. A number of the men were described as “incels,” which in current parlance stands for ‘involuntarily celibate.’

The suggestion that male frustration with females is the root of the mass killings, which have sometimes involved female relatives or romantic targets of the shooter, rings true. This idea is, of course, part of the more general idea that “mental health” is the root of the massacre-by-automatic-weapon-fire phenomenon that uniquely afflicts the United States. The putative president of the United States has adopted the NRA-sponsored idea of “mental health is the real problem, not the guns.” Mental health is a convenient explanation for the gun lobby since it aligns cognitively with our intuition that anyone who would shoot groups of strangers, often including children, must be nuts. These acts are not those of “normal” people. And so on. And on.

The mental health “explanation” also aligns well with what is often regarded as the central organizing principle of the American brand of democracy and way of life: capitalism and free markets. That principle tells us that we should be able to offer for sale and, as consumers, should be free to buy whatever we want. Our wants do not have to be explained or justified to anyone. That’s how the capitalist system and “free society” work together to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number. So the theory goes.

Of course, our society has long recognized that capitalism must sometimes be limited because some people are dishonest and misrepresent to a gullible public the properties of products and services they offer. Other people are simply careless or disinterested in the implications of what they do that could harm people or the planet. Companies that pollute the air and water are good examples where regulation is generally accepted as necessary, at least prior to the election of Donald Trump.

Look at any road and you’ll see the results of the intersection of capitalism and regulation. Automobiles are generally regarded as essential for the majority of the population to conduct their lives as they prefer. But we also recognize that automobiles are dangerous. They kill and maim people. So, we regulate them in multiple ways. They have to meet some semblance of limitations on air pollution, rules on the shatter resistance of windshields, air bag specifications and so on. AND, of particular relevance here, society demands limits on who can operate an automobile. You must have a license. As far as I am aware, every jurisdiction in America limits access to driver’s licenses to people of a certain age who have done at least some study and passed a driving test to show at least minimal skills at handling a dangerous instrument. No rational person sees these requirements as an inappropriate limitation on the “right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” which are “inalienable rights” stated in the Declaration of Independence. In order to operate even a small aircraft, one must have a pilot license. These rules are not seen as an infringement of the right to travel.

There are, of course, a multitude of other examples in which society generally insists on regulation of some kind to protect the public from the potential harm arising from the use of certain instrumentalities. Fireworks are one. Raising livestock and burning trash in urban environments are others, among many such examples.

Interestingly, no sane person argues that “cars don’t kill people, people kill people” so let’s stop intruding on car ownership and operation by regulating who can use them. No rational person argues that operation of any automotive vehicle by anyone at any time of their choosing should be permitted.

The gun lobby will no doubt reply that “no one has proposed taking away everyone’s car but that’s what the gun regulations threaten to do to our guns.” Add to that the “slippery slope” argument – first you’ll take the automatic weapons, then you’ll use that to justify taking others, and so on until we have full confiscation in violation of the Second Amendment.” Perfect.

Well, not quite. In fact, we have already taken away certain “freedoms” regarding automobiles – it is generally not permitted to drive Formula One racing cars on the public roadways. Those cars were designed for one thing only – to go as fast possible in a controlled track or road-race environment. Racing on the streets in fact is broadly prohibited by speed limits.

To return this to guns, I am aware of no one who seriously advocates confiscation of all guns. What is being advocated is that certain types of guns be removed from civilian society. The objective is to prevent or at least limit severely the use in civil society of automatic-fire weapons designed and intended for use by military forces in combat. It is these instruments of death that are the primary tool of the mass shooter and ending access to them should go a long way to reducing the lethality of attacks against the civilian population by disaffected people.

The gun lobby will retort that it is impossible to eliminate all the automatic-fire weapons. That is another way of saying, let’s let the impossible goal of the perfect defeat the achievement of the good. It’s a phony argument whose real purpose is to retain the status quo. The gun lobby doesn’t really care how many Americans are killed or maimed as long as their agenda is protected. For the rest of us, it is critical not to be misled by the suggestion that “mental health” is the real problem. As the NYT article noted near the end, “Misogyny – or other types of hatred – is not necessarily a diagnosable mental illness.” Quoting the vice chair of community psychiatry at the University of California, Davis,

what ties together many of the perpetrators is “tis entitlement, this envy of others, this feeling that they deserve something that the world is not giving them. And they are angry at others that they see are getting it.”

In the end, we simply must recognize that the gun lobby position can never, and should never, be implemented. Doing so would entail the largest intervention into the personal lives and mental states of literally millions of Americans. Does the NRA really want the government interrogating and testing the mental state of everyone that someone reports as “angry,” or “hostile,” or “isolated?” How would this work? Is that the kind of society we want to live in? It’s irony beyond understanding that the NRA’s supporters, including the Republican president, purport to be behind a regime that would create the conditions of Orwell’s 1984 in our lifetime, with the government probing into everyone’s private life for signs of disaffection that could lead to mass murder. This is unimaginable but the necessary outcome of the “mental health is the problem” argument.

The common denominator is the guns. Stripped of access to automatic-fire weapons, unstable individuals may well seek other ways to fulfill their angry impulses, but inevitably the death toll will be reduced, more will be detected in the planning stages and lives thus will be saved. We can’t prevent every angry individual from carrying out his disturbed grievances but we can make it a lot harder and limit the potential damage. What we must not do is buy into the argument that the if we can’t be perfect, we can’t be better either.

Don’t Be Fooled by Republican Talk of Serious Gun Control Legislation

The New York Times has published an article entitled “Trump Weighs New Stance on Guns as Pressure Mounts After Shootings.” The article suggests that the “divisive politics of gun control appeared to be in flux” because, wait for it, “Trump explored whether to back expanded background checks” and Mitch McConnell said he was “open to considering” expanded background checks. So, “exploring” and “open to considering.” We have been here before. And before. And before.

To be fair to the authors of the NYT article, the next paragraph goes on to admit,” It is not clear that either the president or Mr. McConnell will embrace such legislation, which both of them have opposed in the past and which would have to overcome opposition from the National Rifle Association and other powerful conservative constituencies.”

There is nothing new here. We’ve seen it all before, followed by the equivocating, delays and then … nothing. It’s not a question of “clear” or “not clear.” McConnell has refused to call the Senate back into session in August, saying that doing so would just lead to legislators making political points and nothing substantive would happen. We’re being played. Pure and simple.

I am sitting before a TV watching an NRA member on CNN equivocate when asked a direct question about banning assault rifles, arguing that we need to deal with the “easy” issues and the most popular solutions, like background checks, first. She believes that because the claimed Second Amendment “right” to own guns of one’s choosing is the preeminent concern, we should address “crime control” rather than “gun control.” For her, the Second Amendment comes first and lives of innocent people come second because, in part, she believes background checks and “red light laws” can solve most of the problems by themselves and virtually overnight. And blah, blah, blah. Talking the good talk while making it clear that she can use clichés (enough is enough) as well as the next person, but really doesn’t think this is a big deal.

So, with all the handwringing, all we really have from the leadership of the Executive Branch and the Senate are posturing. The NRA has already declared the prospect of enhanced background checks “dead on arrival.” If history is any guide, and it usually is, the NRA resistance will strike terror in the hearts and minds of Republicans. According to a report from Politico, Sen John Barasso has basically said “forget about it.” Barasso is more concerned about “constitutional rights” than the deaths of hundreds of citizens at the hands of, usually, young white men armed with military grade, automatic-fire rifles.

The authors of the NYT article make much of Republicans beginning to support so-called “red-flag” legislation that “would make it easier to seize firearms from people deemed dangerous.” Imagine what is going to ensue if the federal government passes a law that permits the seizure of weapons from people “deemed dangerous.” How does the process of “deeming” occur? How many lawsuits and appeals will be filed and how many years will pass before even that most obvious of solutions can actually have an effect while free access to military grade weapons continues?

The real deal here is revealed by Trump’s recent Twitter activity saying he had been “speaking to the NRA, and others, so that their very strong views can be fully represented and respected.” Read between the lines. When Trump refers to NRA’s “very strong views” that must be “respected,” he is sending the message that, as usual, NRA will prevail and nothing meaningful will be enacted on his watch.

The NYT article reports that Trump is behaving like he always does, chaotically flailing in all directions with no intention to achieve an outcome.

“In private conversations, Mr. Trump has offered different ideas for what action on gun safety might look like. With some advisers, he has said he thinks he can get something done through executive action. With others, he has said he prefers legislation. With still others, he has said he would like a political concession in exchange for doing so. And he has insisted that he would be able to convince his most ardent supporters who favor gun rights that the moment for a change has arrived.”

McConnell, ever the reliable toady for Trump, said that Trump “very much open to this discussion.” History teaches that Trump is open about many things until he’s not. Nothing he says about gun control can be trusted. Nothing. He talks a lot, then usually does nothing, certainly nothing that he believes the NRA and his political base of ultra-conservative white men would oppose. Consider that Trump, quietly for him, reversed President Obama’s executive order allowing Social Security records to be used to identify people with mental health issues that would prevent their owning guns. Is it plausible to believe that Trump, who has the empathic level of a rattlesnake, has changed his view that the so-called right-to-keep-and-bear-arms prevails over everything?

Be aware also that, as the NYT reported,

“Part of the challenge for lawmakers seeking action is that the White House is divided — as is often the case. The hard-liners and Mr. Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., who is close to pro-gun activists, are uneasy about angering the president’s heavily white and rural base by pursuing gun control measures ahead of 2020.”

Based on the reports of unidentified “Republican officials,” the NYT reports that Ivanka Trump has been “aggressively lobbying the president to take action.” You will have to look long and hard to find any evidence that Ivanka’s “lobbying,” hard or otherwise, has materially influenced he father’s agenda on anything. The greater truth is here:

“Regardless, senators of both parties are deeply skeptical that Mr. McConnell will bring any sort of gun control measure to the floor unless the president demands it.”

“There’s no way Republicans are voting for a background check bill unless Trump comes out in favor of it for more than a couple of hours,” said Senator Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut, recalling that Mr. Trump also voiced support for strengthened background checks following the massacre in Parkland, Fla. “I’ve been to this rodeo before.”

And this is the final reality:

“On Thursday, more than 200 mayors, including the mayors of Dayton and El Paso, signed a letter demanding that Mr. McConnell bring the Senate back from its August recess to consider the House-passed legislation. “There’s no sense that the gun that the shooter used in Dayton — it was completely legal, he broke no laws to get it here,” said Mayor Nan Whaley of Dayton. “And so here we sit, nine dead and 27 injured in Dayton. All we’re asking is for Congress to do its job.”

Don’t count on it.

Sean Hannity’s America –Apocalypse Here

This blog post was originally intended to be a satirical sendup of Sean Hannity’s televised statement set out below:

“I’d like to see the perimeter of every school in American surrounded, secured by retired police…military …. Add a metal detector …. have one armed guard on every floor of every school, all over every mall, the perimeter and inside every hall of every mall.”

[Sean Hannity, Fox News, following the Dayton and El Paso slaughters]

I was dissuaded by the better judgment of my wife that this was not a time for comedic treatments of the horrors of gun massacres even if satirically directed at people like Hannity.

I will therefore just address the Hannity prescription for solving the gun problem directly. It is a gun problem despite all the Republican/NRA/Trump blather about mental health, video games and all the other excuses. Other countries have all those same activities/conditions in one form or another but only in the United States are high-capacity, military-grade weapons freely available to almost everyone and only in the U.S. are the slaughters of multiple people a daily occurrence. Guns are the root of the problem, regardless of the motivation behind the people who use them to massacre innocent people. Sane or insane, angry or delusional, hurt, frustrated, whatever the “inspiration,” the fact remains that without high-capacity magazines and weapons capable of automatic fire, the death toll would be dramatically reduced.

It is particularly troubling to hear Republicans argue that we need to solve mental health problems in the U.S. first. Virtually everyone would agree that’s a worthy goal, but even if a national program of some type were adequately funded and initiated tomorrow, the problems of mental health are not going to be resolved in any foreseeable time frame. To argue, therefore, that “solving mental health” is the way to end gun violence is to argue for a solution that has no realistic chance to change the death toll any time soon. This argument, like the “restore God to his/her rightful place in society” is a prescription for failure, a program to do nothing while the slaughter continues unabated.

Now let’s look more closely at Hannity’s “solution.” Even though it is so stupid as to defy comprehension, it deserves some attention because Hannity enjoys a national audience from his perch atop the parrot house known as Fox News. Many people actually believe what Hannity says and are incapable, it seems, of thinking through the implications of his commentary.

Stop for a moment then and picture in your mind the school nearest to where you live. Now imagine that the school entry doors are set up like the security areas at the airport. This would be necessary because most of the students typically arrive at the same time to start classes every day. The security system therefore must be prepared to handle a large volume of kids with backpacks, book bags, jackets in winter, and so on, just like at the airport. Hannity’s proposal thus requires x-ray scanners, metal detectors and the security machinery used at airports where similar circumstances prevail.

Moreover, we know from occasional incidents at airports that metal detectors inside the building would not stop an incursion by a student armed with an automatic rifle and willing to sacrifice himself for whatever “cause” is motivating his killer impulses. Therefore, to achieve Hannity’s “solution,” security must be moved out from the school building to the perimeter of the school property. This would keep a shooter as far away from the cover of the school building as possible.

Of course, in both urban and suburban environments, this “solution” would push the security perimeter into the surrounding neighborhood, with untold disruptions to the comings and goings of the people who live or work there. To meet the threat of a shooter with an assault rifle, the people manning these security positions would have to be armed and equipped with bullet-resistant vests.

The space between the security “gates” would, of course, have to be closed off so that no one could evade security by simply going around the gates. Razor-wire coils might work. How is that going to go over in the neighborhood?  Moreover, a secondary armed force would be necessary in case someone did find a way into the protected zone. Since Hannity also proposed having armed security on each floor of a school, perhaps those folks could stand watch during the entry period in the morning. But they would actually have to be looking out for incursions all day long, because the reality of school life is that some kids arrive at odd hours, due to medical appointments, cars that don’t start or other interruptions to planned living. At the end of the day, the school would have to be “swept” by the security force to be sure no one remained inside.

I could go on with this, but I think the implications of the Hannity proposal for school security are obvious, unworkable and absurd. His suggestion to convert schools and malls into war zones is just another Fox News attempt to inflame the Trump right-wing political base with a simplistic approach that, upon even mild reflection, cannot possibly accomplish the job for which it is allegedly intended.

It’s actually a good way to complete the destruction of the public-school system that the Trump administration has been working to undermine through the policies of Betsy Devos and, while they’re at it, to destroy the economics of the shopping malls that already face enormous challenges from Internet competition. Maybe in the end all the right wingers want to do is replace all the civilian jobs with retired police and military armed with weapons of war, spending all day waiting for some fool to challenge them. The cost of this would be staggering and the impact on education stultifying. But the National Rifle Association will be happy and, therefore, so will the Republican leadership in Congress that toes the NRA line. If the Republican leadership has rejected Hannity’s insanity, I haven’t seen it.

Hannity’s vision of an America of armed camps we once called ‘schools’ and ‘malls’ should repulse every true American. That vision is not patriotism. It’s the kind of world envisioned by the likes of Adolf Hitler. And, apparently, also by Donald Trump.

Dogs & Cats Squabbling in the Alley

Warning: This post contains profanity.

Why profanity, you may ask? Because I am so damned angry, I can hardly speak. I watched a small portion of the second half of the second round of the Democratic candidates’ “debate” the other night. Have these people learned nothing? Some of them have been “successful” politicians for years. What makes them think that when asked for their views of a competitor’s “health plan,” on national television, the best response is to attack the other person’s competency at health mathematics, ignorance of health policy and general untrustworthiness? The first rule of media training is not to answer the bad question, but instead answer the question whose answer you want to deliver. When and if the questioner accuses you of not answering because you didn’t say what was wrong with Candidate A’s position, you answer with a second version of the original answer until they give up. The questioner may be unhappy but the audience will have heard your real message – twice or more!

Instead, given the chance to fight with each other or speak about principles to the voting public, the candidates chose to attack each other. Seriously? This is the best you can do? You let the moderators drive you like a herd of sheep into fighting and snarling at each other, hoping the media will give you a good “score” the next day. Look at the results. It didn’t work and it likely never will.

If you want the nomination and the presidency, you must be the master of your own fate. You don’t let yourself be driven into a beat-down over arcane details, cost estimates, on and on, when your real message is (1) what needs to be fixed, (2) the principled approach you will take to fixing it, and (3) why you’re the best person to fix it.

I’m not making this up. Joe Biden comes onto the stage, crowded with people who have less-than-zero chance of being the nominee, and the front-runners all decide, “we better bring Joe down a peg or two, so let’s all attack Joe.” That way, the reasoning must go, if he does down, we must go up. WTF people! You had this extraordinary opportunity to speak directly to the Democratic primary voting population, among others including likely swingable voters not dedicated to vote Democratic but willing to do so in the right circumstance. And you fought like drunks over the last stale bottle of beer. Your anxiety levels were so high that many key points were flubbed and what should have been easy statements of where you stand and “who you are” sounded more like Donald Trump trying to pronounce any word of more than two syllables

Why the hell do you let the media people force you into attacking each other rather than addressing yourselves clearly and coherently to the voters who are watching? If you are a serious contender for the nomination, you should, by now, have thought through the messaging that you want to present to the voters about what you stand for. Do you really think you are communicating effectively by swatting at each other over the obscure details of his/her health plan versus your health plan? If you plan to support “Medicare For All,” you should by now have a maximum 2-minute cold-hard, easy-as-saying-your-name explanation in plain English as to why that is the best approach going forward and one for which you would fight as president. The real audience is in front of you and out beyond the cameras, not on the stage with you.

The media people, many of whom played a prominent, if indirect, role in getting Trump elected president, must be laughing themselves silly. It was so easy to disrupt the flow of ideas and provoke attacks that they didn’t have to make much effort. And because the candidates took the bait, much of what they should have said was cut off by the moderators as the candidates struggled to get back on message. Trump must have loved watching it.

The fate of our democratic form of government is on the line here. If the people on the stage polling negligible levels of support and with marginal funding really care about this country, they would remove themselves from the race right now. If they think a “Trump-like miracle” is going to come out of the sky and make them the nominee, they are seriously deluded. They are being played by the media and are apparently all too happy to be pawns for whatever reasons, I don’t know. The stakes are too high for this self-aggrandizing activity. It’s time to clear a path for the main horses in the race to have room to run, and, as I have tried to argue, the coherence to learn how to speak to the voters directly, clearly and in terms they can understand and about concerns that really matter to them. WAKE UP BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE!!

Footnote: This post is not intended to endorse any candidate. I am not there yet. I only know that Donald Trump, the dangerous fool and traitor who now sits in the White House, must not be re-elected.

Have We No Decency? A Response to President Trump

The following statement was published on July 30, 2019 by the Washington National Cathedral. I reprint it here in its entirety with permission. There is nothing I can add to it except to say that it is past time for the rest of the true religious community to stand up and be counted on the issues addressed in this statement.

“The escalation of racialized rhetoric from the President of the United States has evoked responses from all sides of the political spectrum. On one side, African American leaders have led the way in rightfully expressing outrage. On the other, those aligned with the President seek to downplay the racial overtones of his attacks, or remain silent.

As faith leaders who serve at Washington National Cathedral ¬– the sacred space where America gathers at moments of national significance – we feel compelled to ask: After two years of President Trump’s words and actions, when will Americans have enough?

As Americans, we have had such moments before, and as a people we have acted. Events of the last week call to mind a similarly dark period in our history:

“Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. … You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?”

That was U.S. Army attorney Joseph Welch on June 9, 1954, when he confronted Senator Joseph McCarthy before a live television audience, effectively ending McCarthy’s notorious hold on the nation. Until then, under the guise of ridding the country of Communist infiltration, McCarthy had free rein to say and do whatever he wished. With unbridled speech, he stoked the fears of an anxious nation with lies; destroyed the careers of countless Americans; and bullied into submissive silence anyone who dared criticize him.

In retrospect, it’s clear that Welch’s question was directed less toward McCarthy and more to the nation as a whole. Had Americans had enough? Where was our sense of decency?

We have come to accept a level of insult and abuse in political discourse that violates each person’s sacred identity as a child of God. We have come to accept as normal a steady stream of language and accusations coming from the highest office in the land that plays to racist elements in society.

This week, President Trump crossed another threshold. Not only did he insult a leader in the fight for racial justice and equality for all persons; not only did he savage the nations from which immigrants to this country have come; but now he has condemned the residents of an entire American city. Where will he go from here?

Make no mistake about it, words matter. And, Mr. Trump’s words are dangerous.

These words are more than a “dog-whistle.” When such violent dehumanizing words come from the President of the United States, they are a clarion call, and give cover, to white supremacists who consider people of color a sub-human “infestation” in America. They serve as a call to action from those people to keep America great by ridding it of such infestation. Violent words lead to violent actions.

When does silence become complicity? What will it take for us all to say, with one voice, that we have had enough? The question is less about the president’s sense of decency, but of ours.

As leaders of faith who believe in the sacredness of every single human being, the time for silence is over. We must boldly stand witness against the bigotry, hatred, intolerance, and xenophobia that is hurled at us, especially when it comes from the highest offices of this nation. We must say that this will not be tolerated. To stay silent in the face of such rhetoric is for us to tacitly condone the violence of these words. We are compelled to take every opportunity to oppose the indecency and dehumanization that is racism, whether it comes to us through words or actions.

There is another moment in our history worth recalling. On January 21, 2017, Washington National Cathedral hosted an interfaith national prayer service, a sacred tradition to honor the peaceful transfer of political power. We prayed for the President and his young Administration to have “wisdom and grace in the exercise of their duties that they may serve all people of this nation, and promote the dignity and freedom of every person.”

That remains our prayer today for us all.

The Right Rev. Mariann Edgar BuddeBishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington
The Very Rev. Randolph Marshall HollerithDean of Washington National Cathedral
The Rev. Canon Kelly Brown DouglasCanon Theologian of Washington National Cathedral”

Source:  https://bit.ly/31dcWqp

 

Mueller Report Part II – Trump Guilty of Obstruction of Justice – F

F. The Inexplicable Treatment of Trump’s Personal Attorneys & Other Enablers

Another unexplained aspect of the Report relates to Trump’s use of his personal attorneys (never identified) to communicate with Flynn and his attorneys. Trump’s personal counsel appear a number of times in the report. II MR 121-122. A fair interpretation of this evidence is that Trump used his personal attorney to try to influence Flynn’s cooperation with the SCO, first with cajoling about how Trump cared about him, then with implied threats about Trump’s presumed anger. A further fair argument can be made that Trump’s personal counsel was a knowing participant in an obstruction effort. Why is this not at least mentioned in the Report?

The Report relegates to II MR-122, n. 839 the extraordinary decision not to try to interview Trump’s personal attorneys “because of attorney-client privilege issues.” Given the active role those lawyers played in some of Trump’s obstructive acts, it is hard to understand a decision not to try to learn something from them. Attorney-client privilege does not protect an attorney who is participating in a criminal enterprise. This is known as the crime-fraud exception to the general privilege rule. If Trump’s personal counsel were actively and knowingly participating in an attempt to obstruct justice by, for example, influencing Gen. Flynn’s testimony or by attempting to unlawfully procure the firing of the Special Counsel, the privilege likely does not apply. It is, moreover, inconceivable that Trump’s attorneys acted on their own without consulting their client. We are left to speculate as to why Mueller did not pursue this seemingly fruitful source of information.

We can’t be sure, of course, whether to credit Rick Gates assertion that Paul Manafort had talked with Trump’s personal counsel and been assured that they would be “taken care of” if they did not talk to the SCO. Mueller, however, clearly believed Gates’ account of these conversations with Manafort. II MR-123 & n. 848, 850. This is a subject that could have been pursued directly with Trump’s counsel if Mueller had been more aggressive in seeking the full body of evidence rather than simply assuming that the privilege would be upheld.

One of Trump’s personal attorneys during this period was Rudy Giuliani who gave multiple interviews in which he suggested Trump might pardon Manafort, then, following the classic Trump playbook, claimed he was misunderstood and not signaling anyone. II MR-124. This was fertile ground to discover whether Trump and Giuliani had mapped out this strategy to obtain Manafort’s silence or other forms of cooperation. A good argument could be made that Trump-Giuliani had waived the attorney-client privilege when Giuliani told the Washington Post that Trump had consulted his attorneys about granting pardons to Manafort. II MR-127. Manafort had some kind of joint defense agreement with Trump and was coordinating his Mueller interviews with Trump’s attorneys. II MR-127. That fact alone warranted taking Giuliani’s testimony under oath. It is all the more compelling because Trump publicly contradicting Giuliani’s statements. II MR-128. Instead, Mueller concludes that the evidence on Trump’s personal participation in all this was inconclusive (II MR-132), an amazing conclusion in light of his decision not to press for an interview of Giuliani and/or Trump.

Mueller digs deep to find alternative explanations for Trump’s comments about the treatment of Manafort. II MR-133. In the totality of circumstances regarding Trump’s repeated litany of claims that he and others were being treated unfairly, this is astonishing, especially considering that at times Trump claimed he knew very little about what these people did for him and the campaign. Normally you can’t have it both ways but Mueller lets Trump get away with it.

Note that there are substantial redactions in this part of the Report for Harm to an Ongoing Matter, suggesting that additional investigations have been farmed out to the US Attorneys’ offices. II MR 128-130.

Trump’s personal attorneys played a further role in Cohen’s false testimony to Congress. II MR-139. A joint defense agreement existed between Cohen and Trump plus other unnamed individuals involved in the Russia investigation. II MR-139. The identity of all the other individuals is not revealed in the Report. Why is this not addressed? The president’s personal attorney played an active role in assuring Cohen that his loyalty to Trump would be rewarded. II MR-140.

Despite the fact that drafts of Cohen’s false testimony to Congress were discussed with members of the Joint Defense Agreement and that false testimony to Congress under oath is a crime, Mueller did not see the drafts because of concerns about the common interest privilege. But it is not clear who raised those concerns. This is another example of Mueller seeming to act as counsel for the defense.

Perhaps because Cohen was in almost daily contact with Trump’s personal attorney about Cohen’s Congressional testimony, Mueller, in this one case, indicates an attempt was made to interview counsel. But the counsel declined, citing “potential privilege concerns.” II MR-143. What precisely those concerns were is not explained. Nor is there any indication that the SCO aggressively pursued this obviously important testimony about an agreement to suppress truthful information being sought by Congress. Who exactly is the “President’s personal counsel” that is referred here? Is it the same person throughout? Trump hired and replaced many attorneys during this time. Why does the SCO not identify these people by name?

This is not the normal or effective way to handle privilege disputes. The privilege-claiming party should be presented with the questions and compelled to explain with specificity why each question cannot be answered even in part because of privilege. Mueller may have gone through this exercise but there is no evidence of that anywhere in the Report.

Further puzzling issues arise from Mueller’s failure to pursue Robert Costello who, in the period following the raid on Cohen’s home and office, was used as a go-between connecting Giuliani and Cohen and assuring Cohen of Trump’s continued favor. II MR-146. Costello’s offering to support secret communications between the White House and Cohen appears to have been of no concern at the SCO. One question is which personal counsel to the President was assuring Cohen that if he continued lying, Trump would protect him? Why does Mueller protect the identity of President’s personal attorney engaged in a cover-up and overt acts of witness tampering/obstruction of justice?

 Beyond that, Mueller accepts that Trump’s personal counsel was working with Cohen on false testimony to Congress but does not attribute that conduct to Trump and never goes after the counsel for aiding & abetting false testimony or giving message to Cohen that he would be protected if he stuck to the party line. Why was Mueller so reticent about these compelling facts that do not appear to be disputed? Faced with an apparent conspiracy to submit false testimony to Congress, resistance by Trump & by his personal attorney (who refused to provide his version of his conversations with Cohen who was not his client and thus not covered by any plausible claim of privilege), Mueller simply assumed he couldn’t get evidence about Trump’s discussions with his personal counsel and didn’t even try to pursue this line. II MR-154. No presumption of privilege should attach to conspiracy to commit a crime. Mueller’s unwillingness to tangle with Trump’s personal attorneys is inexplicable and unconscionable malpractice. Why was Trump’s personal attorney not charged with suborning perjury in connection with Cohen’s false testimony that Trump’s personal attorney helped facilitate?

Mueller’s approach is particularly disturbing because Trump refused to answer the written questions posed to him about the Trump Tower meeting. II MR-149. What Trump did say was that he couldn’t remember his conversations with Cohen. After Cohen pled guilty to lying to Congress about the Trump Tower meeting, Trump refused to provide any more information about his role and turned sharply against Cohen. II MR-151. Thereafter, Giuliani made public statements that conflicted with what Trump was now saying, then “walked those back.” II MR-152. Mueller seems completely bamboozled by all this, unable to make the obvious conclusions.

Trump refused to clarify what Mueller calls the “seeming discrepancy” between his statements about the Trump Tower project in Russia made before and after Cohen’s guilty plea. Mueller engages repeatedly in speculation about what Trump might have meant rather than concluding that, having declined the opportunity to set the record straight, Trump should be estopped to deny the discrepancy and to deny what Cohen said was the truth eventually.

I have asked repeatedly in these evaluations of the Mueller Report why Trump’s enablers were not indicted. Mueller addresses very briefly at II MR-158 where he leaps a giant chasm of evidence to conclude that because a few of Trump’s aides refused to carry out his blatantly obstructive orders, virtually all of them were allowed to walk away unscathed, including Trump’s personal attorneys and others who, according to undisputed evidence, did carry out Trump’s orders to try to intimidate witnesses, terminate the SCO investigation and other forms of interference detailed throughout the Report. Mueller calls the “pattern” one in which Trump’s enablers resisted his obstruction directives, but the evidence adduced shows that in most cases the White House staff did exactly what Trump wanted them to do. The “pattern” is the exact opposite of Mueller’s conclusion.

The Mueller Report ends with a lengthy, lawyerly analysis of the statutory and constitutional defenses asserted by Trump’s attorneys. The analysis is unobjectionable and supports not only the conclusions Mueller did reach but re-emphasizes the lingering questions about the conclusions he declined to reach. In particular, we are left to wonder why so few of the obvious enablers of Trump’s overt obstructive acts were not held accountable. Mueller’s treatment of “presumption of privilege” issues is inexplicable, given that much of the enabling activity was in support of federal crimes. We can only hope, though likely in vain, that Congressional hearings will flesh out the hanging questions.