Lazy Caturday Reads: Person. Woman. Man. Camera. TV.

Stressed out cat

Good Afternoon!!

The images in today’s post are from Art Pro Cats at Tumblr.com.

I know I shouldn’t be distracted by Trump’s insistent bragging about his cognitive ability, but I just can’t help it. Humor is one of the only ways I can stay sane these days. In my last post, which I mistakenly titled “Tuesday Reads,” I posted a video of Trump describing how well he did on the “test” (it’s not really a test). I don’t know if you watched it, but it’s truly bizarre how messed up this man is and how hard the Fox News interviewer works to hide his incredulity. Here’s Sarah Cooper’s take on it:

Yes, this is a distraction from Trump’s attempt to install an authoritarian dictatorship in the U.S., and his failure to protect us from the coronavirus pandemic, but I think I’m still “cognitively there” enough to both question his mental health and keep up with his authoritarian activities and his bumbling on the virus response. And shouldn’t journalists also be dealing with all of these issues? Susan Glasser at The New Yorker:

The fact that Trump is so manifestly, obviously unfit for office may be one of the most striking aspects of his Presidency, but it is one of the hardest things for journalists to write about—or would be, except that he himself keeps bringing it up. That Trump even took the cognitive test suggests that he, or his doctor, was concerned about his mental decline, as the neurologist who created it, Dr. Ziad Nasreddine, told the Washington Post this week. It’s hard to imagine a candidate in full command of his faculties who would make a point of publicly inviting comment on his mental capacity to do the job. Trump, meanwhile, is doing so in the midst of a campaign that he is already losing, at a time when polls show that a majority of voters do not think he has the “mental sharpness” to be President, as a recent ABC News/Washington Post survey put it. (It is notable in and of itself that the pollsters are even asking this question, which is hardly a routine query. Can you imagine a survey asking voters this question about Barack Obama and Mitt Romney? Or Bill Clinton or Al Gore or the George Bushes?)

Trump’s niece, Mary Trump, is out with a best-selling new book, which claims that, in addition to whatever age-related impairment he may be suffering from, the President has an undiagnosed learning disability that hampers his processing and absorption of information—another elephant in the room that is impossible to ignore when Trump visibly struggles to read written remarks, as he did several times this week. “I don’t think he’s fit for office,” Trump’s former national-security adviser, John Bolton, said while on book tour last month. “I don’t think he has the competence to carry out the job.”

Beyond these ever-harder-to-ignore questions about Trump’s basic fitness to handle the complexities of the Presidency, there is an entire public debate over his mental health. A preening narcissist in the best of times, Trump’s lifelong self-absorption, lack of empathy, chronic untruthfulness, and apparent inability to distinguish right from wrong have led hundreds of psychiatrists to break with their profession’s rule against diagnosis without examination and call Trump mentally ill.

More about Trump’s obsession with proving he’s not cognitively impaired from Jonathan Lemire at the Associated Press: Cognitive Test. Trump. Biden. Campaign. Flashpoint.

It doesn’t quite have the ring of “Morning in America” and “I Like Ike.”

But the phrase “Person. Woman. Man. Camera. TV.” is getting an unlikely moment in the spotlight as President Donald Trump has taken a detour into the politics of dementia three months before the election.

Trump, 74, attempted to demonstrate his mental fitness by reciting five words — in order, importantly — over and over in a television interview broadcast Wednesday night. The president said that collection of nouns, or ones like them, was part of a cognitive test he had aced while declaring that his likely Democratic opponent, 77-year-old Joe Biden, could not do the same.

Lemire talked to an expert about the test that Trump supposedly “aced.”:

Painting by David Martiashvili

The MoCa “is a screening test,” Galvin said. “It’s not a diagnostic test. And more importantly, it’s not an IQ test. It doesn’t tell how smart someone is. It’s designed to be a relatively easy test because what you want to do is pick up people who have problems or possible problems.”

The last questions are not the hardest for most people, and they are usually naming the day of the week, date, month, year and where the person being tested is, Galvin said. The test does not get harder as it goes along but measures different parts of cognition, like memory, attention, spatial awareness and language. Additionally, the words the president cited would not be grouped together because they are all in some way related to one another, he said.

And the real concern would be if a subject did not do well on the test.

“I think he’s thinking of it like some sort of IQ test or SAT test, something along those lines. But it’s not anything like that. It’s just basic,” said Dr. Raymond Turner, professor of neurology and director of Georgetown University’s Memory Disorders Program. “It’s kind of a low bar to jump over. It’s not necessarily something to brag about unless you are worried about decline or something.”

I don’t know about you, but I think having a “president” who acts like a confused child is a serious issue and I’m glad journalists are finally writing about it. Anyway, on to other news.

Here’s the latest on the pandemic from Reuters: U.S. records 2,600 new coronavirus cases every hour as total surpasses 4 million.

U.S. coronavirus cases topped 4 million on Thursday, with over 2,600 new cases every hour on average, the highest rate in the world, according to a Reuters tally.

Infections in the United States have rapidly accelerated since the first case was detected on Jan. 21. It took the country 98 days to reach 1 million cases. It took another 43 days to reach 2 million and then 27 days to reach 3 million. It has only taken 16 days to reach 4 million at a rate of 43 new cases a minute….

Of the 20 countries with the biggest outbreak, the United States ranks second for cases per capita, at 120 infections per 10,000 people, only exceeded by Chile.

With over 143,000 deaths, or 4.4 fatalities per 10,000 people, the United States ranks sixth globally for the highest deaths per capita. It is exceeded by the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, Chile and France.

Globally, the rate of new infections shows no sign of slowing, with the disease accelerating the fastest in the United States and South America, according to the Reuters tally, based on official reports.

It’s breathtaking, and Trump is responsible for all this sickness and death. It didn’t have to be this way.

Meanwhile, the rich are getting richer on the backs of sick and dying Americans. The New York Times: Corporate Insiders Pocket $1 Billion in Rush for Coronavirus Vaccine.

On June 26, a small South San Francisco company called Vaxart made a surprise announcement: A coronavirus vaccine it was working on had been selected by the U.S. government to be part of Operation Warp Speed, the flagship federal initiative to quickly develop drugs to combat Covid-19.

Vaxart’s shares soared. Company insiders, who weeks earlier had received stock options worth a few million dollars, saw the value of those awards increase sixfold. And a hedge fund that partly controlled the company walked away with more than $200 million in instant profits.

The race is on to develop a coronavirus vaccine, and some companies and investors are betting that the winners stand to earn vast profits from selling hundreds of millions — or even billions — of doses to a desperate public.

“Hello” Acrylic painting on Canvas by Victoria Coleman

Across the pharmaceutical and medical industries, senior executives and board members are capitalizing on that dynamic.

They are making millions of dollars after announcing positive developments, including support from the government, in their efforts to fight Covid-19. After such announcements, insiders from at least 11 companies — most of them smaller firms whose fortunes often hinge on the success or failure of a single drug — have sold shares worth well over $1 billion since March, according to figures compiled for The New York Times by Equilar, a data provider.

In some cases, company insiders are profiting from regularly scheduled compensation or automatic stock trades. But in other situations, senior officials appear to be pouncing on opportunities to cash out while their stock prices are sky high. And some companies have awarded stock options to executives shortly before market-moving announcements about their vaccine progress.

Read more at the NYT link.

The battle between Federal agents and protesters continues in Portland. The New York Times: Federal Agents Push Into Portland Streets, Stretching Limits of Their Authority.

PORTLAND, Ore. — After flooding the streets around the federal courthouse in Portland with tear gas during Friday’s early morning hours, dozens of federal officers in camouflage and tactical gear stood in formation around the front of the building.

Then, as one protester blared a soundtrack of “The Imperial March,” the officers started advancing. Through the acrid haze, they continued to fire flash grenades and welt-inducing marble-size balls filled with caustic chemicals. They moved down Main Street and continued up the hill, where one of the agents announced over a loudspeaker: “This is an unlawful assembly.”

By the time the security forces halted their advance, the federal courthouse they had been sent to protect was out of sight — two blocks behind them.

The aggressive incursion of federal officers into Portland has been stretching the legal limits of federal law enforcement, as agents with batons and riot gear range deep into the streets of a city whose leadership has made it clear they are not welcome.

“I think it’s absolutely improper,” Oregon’s attorney general, Ellen Rosenblum, said in an interview on Friday. “It’s absolutely beyond their authority.”

The state lost its bid on Friday for a restraining order against four federal agencies on the grounds that the state attorney general lacked standing, but several other challenges are still making their way through the courts.

I’ll end with this sobering piece from opinion columnist Roger Cohen at The New York Times: American Catastrophe Through German Eyes.

PARIS — No people has found the American lurch toward authoritarianism under President Trump more alarming than the Germans. For postwar Germany, the United States was savior, protector and liberal democratic model. Now, Germans, in shock, speak of the “American catastrophe.”

A recent cover of the weekly magazine Der Spiegel portrays Trump in the Oval Office holding a lighted match, with a country ablaze visible through his window. The headline: “Der Feuerteufel,” or, literally, “the Fire Devil.”

Germans have a particular relationship to fire. The Reichstag fire of 1933 enabled Hitler and the Nazis to scrap the fragile Weimar democracy that had brought them to power. Hitler’s murderous fantasies could now become reality. War, Auschwitz and the German catastrophe followed….

Michael Steinberg, a professor of history at Brown University and the former president of the American Academy in Berlin, wrote to me this week:

“The American catastrophe seems to get worse every day, but the events in Portland have particularly alarmed me as a kind of strategic experiment for fascism. The playbook from the German fall of democracy in 1933 seems well in place, including rogue military factions, the destabilization of cities, etc.”

Steinberg continued, “The basic comparison involves racism as a political strategy: a racist imaginary of a pure homeland, with cities demonized as places of decadence.”

Trump provokes outrage in a cascade designed to blunt alarm. He deadens reactions through volume and repetition. But something about the recent use of unmarked cars and camouflage-clad federal agents without clear identifying insignia detaining protesters shattered any inclination to shrug.

From the deployment of those federal units in Portland, Oregon’s largest city, where protesters have been demanding racial justice and police accountability, it’s not a huge leap to the use of paramilitaries (like the German Freikorps in the 1920s) to buttress a “Law and Order” campaign. The Freikorps battled communists. Today, Trump claims to battle “anarchists,” “terrorists” and violent leftists. It’s the leitmotif of his quest for a second term.

Take care of yourselves Sky Dancers, and enjoy the weekend as best you can.


Thursday Reads: Obedience to Authority and Impeachment

Good Morning!!

I haven’t been able to watch much of the impeachment debate last night and today. I just can’t stand to listen to the Republicans shouting nonsense over and over again. Why have these people willingly submitted to an ignorant, dementia-riddled, narcissistic authoritarian “president?” Are we really going to allow our country to become a dictatorship because these cowards refuse to stand up to a pathetic man like Trump? Are there really no Republicans with the courage to defend the Constitution? What is wrong with these people?

Yesterday, I came across an article in Scientific American Mind that is highly relevant to these questions. I’m sure you remember the famous experiment by social psychologist Stanley Milgrim that demonstrated that most people will obey an authority figure even if it requires them to physically hurt other human beings. Here’s a brief video explaining the experiment:

 

Rethinking the Infamous Milgram Experiment in Authoritarian Times, by Jacob M. Appel

In brief, Milgram, at the time a 26-year-old assistant professor at Yale University, recruited subjects to participate “in a study of memory and learning,” which entailed administering an associative learning task to another subject (actually an accomplice in the study) and then administering painful shocks of substantially higher voltage for each incorrect answer. The purported goal was to study human obedience in the wake of the atrocities of Nazi Germany when, as Milgram described it, “millions of innocent persons were systematically slaughtered on command.” The results proved “surprising” in “the sheer strength of obedient tendencies”; in this first reported experiment, 26 of 40 American subjects shocked the victims at the highest level. Twenty variations with more than 600 additional subjects yielded similar outcomes…..

But what should the takeaway be from Milgram’s research? For more than a half century, investigators—most prominently Thomas Blass—have sought to explain why Milgram’s subjects proved so obedient. Although correlates have been found with personality, internal versus external locus of control, underlying belief systems and situational factors, no answer has proven entirely satisfactory.

Instead, the public is generally left with Milgram’s own impression as explained in his book Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View (1974): “Tyrannies are perpetuated by diffident men who do not possess the courage to act out their beliefs.” Or, even more broadly, in the subtitle of his Harper’s article from the previous year: “A social psychologist’s experiments show that most people will hurt their fellows rather than disobey an authority.”

But some participants in Milgram’s study did refuse to obey.

Blass has noted that there must be “individual differences in obedience … because in most obedience studies, given the same stimulus situation, one finds both obedience and disobedience taking place.” In other words, some people do disobey. Some of Milgram’s subjects did defy the experimenter. Like Jan Rensaleer, a Dutch immigrant who responded to the experiment’s warning that he had no other choice to continue at 255 volts with the following memorable declaration:

“I do have a choice. Why don’t I have a choice? I came here on my own free will. I thought I could help in a research project. But if I have to hurt somebody to do that, or if I was in his place, too, I wouldn’t stay there. I can’t continue. I’m very sorry. I think I’ve gone too far already, probably.”

In some cases, the subject stood up during the experiment and walked away.

So maybe it is a mistake to view Milgram’s work as an “obedience experiment”—although he clearly did. Maybe what he actually conducted was a disobedience experiment, showing that some people will not follow orders no matter how strong the social pressure.

They are out there, waiting the moment when history calls upon them to disobey. We should not lose sight of them in the weeds of social psychology. They are Stanley Milgram’s unheralded legacy—and we may even stand among them.

Will any Republicans find the will to disobey Trump and McConnell? What will we do when the time comes for us fight back against the growing authoritarianism in our government and its institutions?

Here’s the latest on impeachment:

CNN: McConnell will move to acquit Trump if he’s impeached, not merely dismiss charges, 2 Republican senators say.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is expected to hold a final vote to acquit President Donald Trump, should he be impeached, when a majority of senators believe his trial has run its course instead of holding a vote on dismissing the articles of impeachment, two Republican senators told CNN on Wednesday.

Republicans want to have a vote on acquittal — to clear the President of the charges against him — not simply rely on a 51-vote threshold procedural motion to dismiss the hotly disputed case.

The Constitution mandates 67 votes are required to convict the President and remove him from office, a barrier widely considered too high to be reached in this case.

One vote McConnell can’t rely on is that of Vice President Mike Pence, who has “no role in impeachment,” according to a GOP leadership aide, despite being president of the Senate with the mandate to break ties….

McConnell hinted at this strategy when he spoke to reporters on Tuesday and said the Senate would have two choices after hearing opening arguments from the House impeachment managers and the President’s defense counsel.

“It could go down the path of calling witnesses and basically having another trial or it could decide — and again, 51 members could make that decision — that they’ve heard enough and believe they know what would happen and could move to vote on the two articles of impeachment,” he said. “Those are the options. No decisions have been made yet.”

The Washington Post: Senate Republicans look to hold short impeachment trial despite Trump’s desire for an aggressive defense.

Senate Republicans are coalescing around a strategy of holding a short impeachment trial early next year that would include no witnesses, a plan that could clash with President Trump’s desire to stage a public defense of his actions toward Ukraine that would include testimony the White House believes would damage its political rivals.

Several GOP senators on Wednesday said it would be better to limit the trial and quickly vote to acquit Trump, rather than engage in what could become a political circus.

“I would say I don’t think the appetite is real high for turning this into a prolonged spectacle,” Senate Majority Whip John Thune (S.D.), the chamber’s ­second-ranking Republican, told The Washington Post on Wednesday when asked whether Trump will get the witnesses he wants in an impeachment trial. “Members want to deal with the arguments, hear the case and hopefully reach a conclusion.”

The emerging Senate GOP plan would provide sufficient time, possibly two weeks, for both the House impeachment managers and Trump’s attorneys to make their arguments before a vote on the president’s fate, according to 13 senators and aides familiar with the discussions, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private talks.

Most notably, a quick, clean trial is broadly perceived to be the preference of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who wants to minimize political distractions in an election year during which Republicans will be working to protect their slim majority in the chamber.

The tension now is over whether to allow witnesses who could turn the trial into an even more contentious affair.

But a lot can happen in two weeks. How will the public react to a sham trial? How horrible will Trump’s behavior become? McConnell has a problem:

McConnell is not sure Republicans have enough votes to only call Trump’s preferred list, the person said. Any agreement to call a witness would require 51 votes, and if Democratic votes were needed to end an impasse among Republicans, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) would demand his own list of witnesses as part of any compromise.

Under McConnell’s thinking, this could possibly mean calling Vice President Pence and top White House aides, such as acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, to testify.

“Witnesses would be a double-edged sword,” Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) said.

So McConnell will probably try to avoid calling witnesses? Will there be public outrage? I don’t know. I guess we are going to find out.

More reads, links only:

Kurt Bardella at NBC News: House Republicans’ Trump impeachment strategy was simple: Distract, deceive and yell.

EJ Dionne at The Washington Post: Our country is accepting the unacceptable.

Jonathan Bernstein at Bloomberg: Abuse of Power? Republicans Seem OK With It.

CNN: FBI agents warn of ‘chilling effect’ from Trump and Barr attacks.

The Washington Post: Eric Holder: William Barr is unfit to be attorney general.

Bloomberg: Giuliani Ally Parnas Got $1 Million From Russia, U.S. Says.

Emma Green at The Atlantic: American Jews Are Terrified.

The Daily Beast: Ukrainians: Trump Just Sent Us ‘a Terrible Signal’

Anne Applebaum at The Atlantic: The False Romance of Russia. American conservatives who find themselves identifying with Putin’s regime refuse to see the country for what it actually is.

John F. Harris at Politico: What if Trump weren’t nuts?


Lazy Saturday Reads: Are There Really Any “Adults” In The Trump Administration?

Trump with so-called “adults”

Good Morning!!

Now that we know that one of the so-called “adults” in the White House day care center–John Kelly–is just another Trump clone with slightly better language skills, what do we do now? Are the other so-called “adults” in the administration–Mattis and McMaster–also “fake” adults (to use the word that Trump claims he “invented?” I have to believe that no one is going to “save” us from Trump.

If there are any “adults” in the day care center that is the WH, they’re not paying attention to what the baby-man is doing this morning.

Even worse than attacking a member of the House of Representatives, Trump retweeted an account that claimed that the family of fallen soldier La David Johnson has “colluded w extremist Dems to politicize death of Army hero.”

Oh, and have you heard that we’re not allowed to question the word of “the generals” even when they are caught in transparent lies?

The Washington Post: Video shows Kelly made inaccurate claims about lawmaker in feud over Trump’s condolence call.

The White House’s aggressive effort to discredit a congresswoman from Florida who criticized President Trump over a military condolence call ran into a new set of problems Friday when a video emerged showing that the chief of staff had made false claims about her.

It marked the fifth day of a controversy that has raged since Trump attempted to deflect criticism of his handling of the deaths of four service members in an ambush in Niger. The ensuing debate has focused on attacks against Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D) that have proved to be inaccurate but that the White House has refused to back away from, with the latest episode ensnaring Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, a decorated retired Marine general.

From left, John Kelly, James Mattis, and four other Marine four-star generals.

The escalating political mud fight has overshadowed the grief of Myeshia Johnson and the heroism of her dead husband, Sgt. La David Johnson, who gave his life for his country.

Trump aides Friday stood by Kelly’s contention that Wilson had boasted about her role in winning funding for a federal building, even after video of her remarks emerged and showed that he was wrong.

But if you’re a journalist, don’t even think about questioning anything Kelly says or does. Washington Post: Sarah Huckabee Sanders to reporter: How dare you challenge one of our generals?

…reporters were primed on Friday afternoon to take up the matter with White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. What of this discrepancy? Will Kelly amend the record?

That’s what CBS News correspondent Chip Reid did. After he teed up the topic, Reid and Sanders had this exchange:

Can he come out here and talk to us about this at some point?

Sanders: I think he’s addressed that pretty thoroughly yesterday.

Reid: He was wrong yesterday in talking about getting the money. The money was … before she came into Congress.

Sanders: If you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that’s something highly inappropriate.

This is coming from an underling of the fellow who once said, “I know more about ISIS than the generals do. Believe me.”

Chip Reid

Both Trump and Kelly owe apologies to Rep. Wilson and the Johnson family.

Trump also claimed that he had contacted every family who had lost a loved one on his watch, but that was a lie too. Roll Call reports: Exclusive: Pentagon Document Contradicts Trump’s Gold Star Claims.

In the hours after President Donald Trump said on an Oct. 17 radio broadcast that he had contacted nearly every family that had lost a military servicemember this year, the White House was hustling to learn from the Pentagon the identities and contact information for those families, according to an internal Defense Department email.

The email exchange, which has not been previously reported, shows that senior White House aides were aware on the day the president made the statement that it was not accurate — but that they should try to make it accurate as soon as possible, given the gathering controversy.

Not only had the president not contacted virtually all the families of military personnel killed this year, the White House did not even have an up-to-date list of those who had been killed.

The exchange between the White House and the Defense secretary’s office occurred about 5 p.m. on Oct. 17. The White House asked the Pentagon for information about surviving family members of all servicemembers killed after Trump’s inauguration so that the president could be sure to contact all of them.

Capt. Hallock Mohler, the executive secretary to Defense Secretary James Mattis, provided the White House with information in the 5 p.m. email about how each servicemember had died and the identity of his or her survivors, including phone numbers.

Click on the link to read the rest. Two more articles you might want to check out:

The New Yorker: John Kelly and the Language of the Military Coup, by Masha Gessen.

Vox: John Kelly has become a field commander in Trump’s culture war.

Sgt. Byron Black, Sgt. La David Johnson, Sgt. Dustin Wright, and Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson

Lost in all the fuss over condolence calls and letters is the fact that the question Trump was asked in his Monday press conference was about why, after 12 days, he had not commented on the Niger ambush that cost the lives of four green berets. What are Trump and “the generals” hiding?

NBC News: Niger Ambush Came After ‘Massive Intelligence Failure,’ Source Says.

A senior congressional aide who has been briefed on the deaths of four U.S. servicemen in Niger says the ambush by militants stemmed in part from a “massive intelligence failure.” [….]

The aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly, said the House and Senate armed services committees have questions about the scope of the U.S. mission in Niger, and whether the Pentagon is properly supporting the troops on the ground there.

There was no U.S. overhead surveillance of the mission, he said, and no American quick-reaction force available to rescue the troops if things went wrong. If it weren’t for the arrival of French fighter jets, he said, things could have been much worse for the Americans….

The aide said questions are being asked about whether the U.S. soldiers were intentionally delayed in the village they were visiting. He said they began pursuing some men on motorcycles, who lured them into a complex ambush. The enemy force had “technical” vehicles — light, improvised military vehicles — and rocket-propelled grenades, the official said.

After the rescue when it became clear that one soldier was missing, “movements and actions to try and find him and bring him back were considered. They just were not postured properly [to get him].” The body of Sgt. La David Johnson was not recovered until nearly 48 hours after the Oct. 4 attack.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis answers a question about the ambush of U.S. troops in Niger before a meeting with Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman at the Pentagon, Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

LA Times: Pentagon investigating troubling questions after deadly Niger ambush.

Defense Secretary James N. Mattis, troubled by a lack of information two weeks after an ambush on a special operations patrol in Niger left four U.S. soldiers dead, is demanding a timeline of what is known about the attack, as a team of investigators sent to West Africa begins its work.

The growing list of unanswered questions and inability to construct a precise account of the Oct. 4 incident have exacerbated a public relations nightmare for the White House, which is embroiled in controversy over President Trump’s belated and seemingly clumsy response this week to console grieving military families….

The attack, apparently carried out by militants affiliated with Islamic State, was the deadliest since Trump took office, yet the U.S. military’s Africa Command still does not have a clear “story board” of facts that commanders usually gather swiftly after deadly incidents. That has senior Pentagon officials and lawmakers suggesting incompetence.

The questions arising from the incident, particularly about the availability of additional military support to the patrol, echo those raised in the aftermath of the 2012 Benghazi attack in Libya, which resulted in the deaths of four people: U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, foreign service information officer Sean Smith, and CIA contractors Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said on Thursday that getting to the bottom of what happened may require subpoenas.

Read more at the LA Times.

The most concerning questions are about what happened to Sgt. La David Johnson. Why wasn’t he picked up with the rest of the dead and injured? Was he alive when he was abandoned on the ground? CNN: Missing soldier found nearly a mile from Niger ambush, officials say.

The Pentagon is still looking at the exact circumstances of how and when Johnson became separated from the 12-member team as they were ambushed by 50 ISIS fighters but is emphasizing that the search for Johnson began immediately and dozens of US forces were quickly moved to Niger’s capital Niamey to be ready to go into the field, which some did.
Joint Staff Director Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie told reporters on Thursday that US, French and Nigerien forces “never left the battlefield” until Johnson was found.
The entire Green Beret-led team has been interviewed about when they last saw Johnson, officials said.
Johnson’s body was recovered in a remote area of the northwestern African country by Nigerien troops nearly 48 hours after he was discovered to be missing in the wake of the attack, according to US officials….
There have been reports that some type of tracking beacon was emitting a signal possibly from Johnson. On Friday, officials said this is a detail they are still trying to verify — it could have been one of the vehicles tracking devices that was emitting the signal.
We need to know Johnson’s cause of death and why Mrs. Johnson was told she could not have an open casket funeral or see her husband’s body. What happened to him? Was his body mutilated? We need answers, “the generals” had better get them make them public.
I’ll end with this post from October 15 at Forward.com: There Are No Adults In The White House. Worse, There Are No Mensches, by Robert Zaretsky.

…there may well be adults in attendance, at least if you define adulthood as James Mann did in the New York Review of Books this month. In an article entitled “The Adults in the Room,” Mann argues that adulthood used to be a matter of policies and process in our nation’s capital. Adults pursued moderate and middle of the road goals, and practiced pragmatic and reasonable methods to achieve them, per Mann. But all that changed since November 2016.

Trump’s rise to power has transmogrified the meaning of adulthood, says Mann. It is no longer the stuff of policy, but instead of personality (or, indeed, of psychosis). The adults in the room are now expected, in Mann’s words, “to preserve a modicum of stability within the administration.” How do they do this? By “cleaning up” the presidential messes, he writes, as well as by sending “signals that they are trying to keep Trump from veering off course.” And should all of these efforts fail? Well, according to Mann, the adults in the room will act on their adultness by leaving the room. “They simply distance themselves from his tirades.”

But what the Trump Administration is really missing is not adults so much as mensches. For cleaning up Trump’s messes and explaining away his tirades may be the acts of an adult, but they are not the actions of a mensch.

“The key to being a real mensch is character, rectitude, dignity, a sense of what is right, responsible, decorous,” writes Leo Rosten in The Joys of Yiddish.

What do you think? What other stories are you following today?

Monday Reads

Good Morning!

The post World War 2 era led to the birth of a lot of new democracies as the colonial era started to wind down in earnest. European countries couldn’t rebuild and fund empires.  One of the most fascinating things to me about the current state of things in the world is that many places where democracy seemed well-rooted are plotting a path to return of autocratic forms of government. It hasn’t been that long since the USSR and its satellites broke up into many little experiments in democracy either.  What makes some countries shrug their collective shoulders and go back to strong men?

DIYARBAKIR, TURKEY – MARCH 27: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan greets crowd during a local election rally organized by the ruling Justice and Development Party in Diyarbakir, Turkey, on March 27, 2014. (Photo by Kayhan Ozer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

At some point, you have to question which institutions have failed a country’s people but it’s undoubtedly an interplay of many. Turkey’s decline has many lessons for us. The similarities between Kremlin Caligula and Erdogan are eerie.  That’s why I decided to write about it today.

Modern day religious extremism ventures into politics disguised as upholding traditional culture and values. Patriotism and nationalism appeal to many. The next thing you know is there is no culture but state-approved culture. Turkey has realigned itself. It looked to the West for most of the 20th Century.  It now looks backward in time.  Many of the same warning signals are present within the US so a good look at Turkey is necessary. Foreign Policy argues that “Recep Tayyip Erdogan didn’t just win his constitutional referendum — he permanently closed a chapter of his country’s modern history.”

Why are the world’s democracies facing such threat to modernity?  Why place so much power in an executive branch?

Whether they understood it or not, when Turks voted “Yes”, they were registering their opposition to the Teşkilât-ı Esasîye Kanunu and the version of modernity that Ataturk imagined and represented. Though the opposition is still disputing the final vote tallies, the Turkish public seems to have given Erdogan and the AKP license to reorganize the Turkish state and in the process raze the values on which it was built. Even if they are demoralized in their defeat, Erdogan’s project will arouse significant resistance among the various “No” camps. The predictable result will be the continuation of the purge that has been going on since even before last July’s failed coup including more arrests and the additional delegitimization of Erdogan’s parliamentary opposition. All of this will further destabilize Turkish politics.

Turkey’s Islamists have long venerated the Ottoman period. In doing so, they implicitly expressed thinly veiled contempt for the Turkish Republic. For Necmettin Erbakan, who led the movement from the late 1960s to the emergence of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in August 2001, the republic represented cultural abnegation and repressive secularism in service of what he believed was Ataturk’s misbegotten ideas that the country could be made Western and the West would accept it. Rather, he saw Turkey’s natural place not at NATO’s headquarters in Brussels but as a leader of the Muslim world, whose partners should be Pakistan, Malaysia, Egypt, Iran, and Indonesia.

When Erbakan’s protégés — among them Erdogan and former President Abdullah Gul — broke with him and created the AKP, they jettisoned the anti-Western rhetoric of the old guard, committed themselves to advancing Turkey’s European Union candidacy, and consciously crafted an image of themselves as the Muslim analogues to Europe’s Christian Democrats. Even so, they retained traditional Islamist ideas about the role of Turkey in the Middle East and the wider Muslim world.

Thinkers within the AKP — notably former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu — harbored reservations about the compatibility of Western political and social institutions with their predominantly Muslim society. But the AKP leadership never acted upon this idea, choosing instead to undermine aspects of Ataturk’s legacy within the framework of the republic. That is no longer the case.

The AKP and supporters of the “yes” vote argue that the criticism of the constitutional amendments was unfair. They point out that the changes do not undermine a popularly elected parliament and president as well as an independent (at least formally) judiciary. This is all true, but it is also an exceedingly narrow description of the political system that Erdogan envisions. Rather, the powers that would be afforded to the executive presidency are vast, including the ability to appoint judges without input from parliament, issue decrees with the force of law, and dissolve parliament. The president would also have the sole prerogative over all senior appointments in the bureaucracy and exercise exclusive control of the armed forces. The amendments obviate the need for the post of prime minister, which would be abolished. The Grand National Assembly does retain some oversight and legislative powers, but if the president and the majority are from the same political party, the power of the presidency will be unconstrained. With massive imbalances and virtually no checks on the head of state, who will now also be the head of government, the constitutional amendments render the Law on Fundamental Organization and all subsequent efforts to emulate the organizational principles of a modern state moot.

There is an uptick in groups of voters drawn to authoritarianism.  This is not what I expected when I watched the “Arab Spring” unfold on Twitter.  Donald Trump is not what I expected after Barrack Obama.  There appears to be a group of people that just love themselves better in the comfort of old school religion and backwoods bullies.  Each follower of the world’s largest religions needs to discern a difference between being a person of faith and blindly following your religion over a precipice and into slavery.  It always begins with a purge of intellectuals, scientists, and scholars.

It has been painful for me to witness the immense disappointment of Turkish intellectuals, resilient by tradition, and mainly left-leaning. All I could hear by phone or on social media was tormented despair – a crushing sense of defeat. What united all those in academia and the media or in NGOs, regardless of their political stripes, was that they had hoped for democratic change under the AKP.

Many of them had given credit to the party, and its early pledges and steps towards an order where the sharing of power would break the vicious circle of the republic. They wanted to believe in human rights, freedom and an end to the decades-long Kurdish conflict. But the deliberate reversal of democratisation left all of them feeling they had been duped.

This conclusion became undeniable when last summer’s attempted coup – the details of which are still unclear – led to an immense purge. Given this mood of despair and the sense of defeat, we should expect another exodus of fine human resources in the coming months and years.

Journalists – such as me, abroad, or at home – will find themselves challenged even more after the referendum. Coverage of corruption will be a daredevil act, severe measures against critical journalism will continue and the remaining resistance of media proprietors will vanish.

The Turkish media will begin to resemble those of the Central Asian republics, where only mouthpieces for those in power are allowed to exist. Inevitably, these conditions will shift the epicentre of independent journalism to outside the borders of Turkey. My colleagues have already realised that their dreams of a dignified fourth estate were nothing but an illusion.

“At the end of the day, Erdoğan is simply replacing one form of authoritarianism with another,” wrote Cook.

“The Turkish republic has always been flawed, but it always contained the aspiration that – against the backdrop of the principles to which successive constitutions claimed fidelity – it could become a democracy. Erdoğan’s new Turkey closes off that prospect.”

Just as in this country’s election in 2016, Erdoğan won a slim victory.  That’s not stopping him from sweeping reforms that are way out of line with progress and modernity.

An emboldened Recep Tayyip Erdogan followed his win in a referendum that ratified the supremacy of his rule by taking aim at political opponents at home and abroad.

At his victory speech late on Sunday, supporters chanted that he should bring back the death penalty — a move that would finish off Turkey’s bid to join the European Union — and Erdogan warned opponents not to bother challenging the legitimacy of his win. He told them to prepare for the biggest overhaul of Turkey’s system of governance ever, one that will result in him having even fewer checks on his already considerable power.

“Today, Turkey has made a historic decision,” he said. “We will change gears and continue along our course more quickly.” The lira surged as much as 2.5 percent against the dollar in early trading on Monday in Istanbul before gains moderated.

The success of a package of 18 changes to the constitution was narrow, with about 51.4 percent of Turks approving it. It came at the end of a divisive two-month campaign during which Erdogan accused opponents of the vote of supporting “terrorists” and denounced as Nazi-like the decision of some EU countries to bar his ministers from lobbying the diaspora.

“The referendum campaign was dominated by strongly anti-Western rhetoric and repeated promises to bring back the death penalty,” said Inan Demir, an economist at Nomura Holdings Inc. in London. “One hopes that this rhetoric will be tempered now that the vote is over,” but recent steps by the Turkish government do“not bode well for the hoped-for moderation in international relations.”

I’m not the only one curious about this trend toward dilution of democracy in Western nations. There’s actually quite a bit discussion on the topic out there today.

Now that two obese men with bad hair and nuclear weapons didn’t end the world over the weekend, let’s talk about Turkey. Maybe keeping up with the former focal point of the Ottoman empire hasn’t been on the top of your to-do list. All well and good. But you may want to know they voted to weaken or even obliterate—depending on who you ask—their democracy over the weekend.

So what does this referendum of theirs mean? Only give the Turkish president hitherto unprecedented control over the executive, legislative and judicial branches. Now that the Turks have voted “Yes” to these constitutional reforms, they’re signing up for a form of government in which parliament’s monitoring of the executive branch is removed from the constitution and the judiciary is even weaker and less independent than it already was beforehand.

It’s a complex case though. Turkey’s government is different than America’s and, in some ways, they’re actually embracing a system more similar to the one US citizens are used to. The main transition is one from a parliamentary democracy to a presidential one, albeit a strongly authoritative one. Traditionally, the Turkish president is more figurehead than enforcer. They’re intended to be more Queen Elizabeth than Vladimir Putin or even Donald Trump.

As head of state, they act as the public face of the country, acting in times of emergency but largely delegating the business of lawmaking and government-running to their appointed prime minister. Until April 16, 2017, the president was mandated to cut ties from his party and maintain a largely neutral and apolitical stance, regardless of personal attachments or viewpoints. Now the office of prime minister is kaput and the president will have way more control over all branches of government. Parliament will still make laws and the judiciary will still try cases. But they’ll do little else and even those duties are capable of being bypassed by the president pretty easily.

The changes don’t go into effect until 2019 but when they do, the Turkish president can pass decrees as effective and codified as any parliamentary law, dissolve parliament, call for new elections, set the budget, declare a state of emergency, make unilateral national security decisions, appoint and remove all VPs and ministry heads at their own discretion and more. Don’t worry! If the president does something illegal, they can still be investigated if there’s a simple majority in parliament and a 60% vote to be tried then convicted by presidentially appointed judges.

And it’s so completely unconcerning the person who’ll most likely have all this unchecked executive power in 2019 is current president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Just think of his inspirational and relatable backstory—he sold lemonade as a teenager in a rough part of town, played soccer for a while and wrote, and directed and starred in a play called Maskomya about how Freemasonry, Communism and Judaism are evil forces hellbent on destroying the world. Presidents: they’re just like us!

Yes, well much of this sounds eerily familiar doesn’t it?  Liz Cookman has argued that Turkey could be our future under Kremlin Caligula assuming the FBI and Eric Schneiderman don’t catch up with so many of his thugs that Congress has to act.  There are some frightening similarities.

Trump has voiced his support for the use of torture. And his similarities with the Turkish leader do not end there. Both use a rhetoric of patriotism to the point of nationalism, are vocal against abortion and are infamous for their tendency to objectify women and misunderstand feminism. They have both granted their sons-in-law important positions and both have a particularly thin skin when it comes to criticism, especially when it comes from comedians and journalists.

Erdoğan and Trump have publicly supported each other’s stance on the media in the past. Anyone who has spent time in Turkey will recognise Trump’s denouncement of negative coverage in outlets such as the New York Times as “fake news”. They will be familiar with headlines such as the one that appeared in far-right outlet Brietbart (whose founding member Steve Bannon is Trump’s chief strategist), used in relation to the protests in the US on Saturday – “Terror-tied group Cair causes chaos, promoting protests and lawsuits as Trump protects nation”. This is pure Erdoğan territory – denouncing opposition by associating it with terror while glorifying the strong leader. Turkey is the home of “alternative facts”.

A country that makes the media the enemy is a country where people are too easily manipulated by those in power. Journalists in Turkey, unless they work for organisations that toe the official government line on events, constantly wobble on a tightrope between reporting what’s going on and not reporting enough to get arrested. Even foreign journalists self-censor, double-check for unintended “insults” that could land them in trouble. They flinch when the doorbell rings unexpectedly, and wonder every time they go abroad whether they will be allowed back in the country.

We need to stand up against the vilification of the free press in the US now before it goes too far. Erdoğan is no longer good for Turkey, just like Trump is no good for America. They are changing the identities of their countries.

Not only English writers but French journalists notice the similarities.

But, back to the UK and Counterpunch.

The similarities between Erdogan and Trump are greater than they might seem, despite the very different political traditions in the US and Turkey.

The parallel lies primarily in the methods by which both men have gained power and seek to enhance it. They are populists and nationalists who demonise their enemies and see themselves as surrounded by conspiracies. Success does not sate their pursuit of more authority.

Hopes in the US that, after Trump’s election in November, he would shift from aggressive campaign mode to a more conciliatory approach have dissipated over the last two months. Towards the media his open hostility has escalated, as was shown by his abuse of reporters at his press conference this week.

Manic sensitivity to criticism is a hallmark of both men. In Trump’s case this is exemplified by his tweeted denunciation of critics such as Meryl Streep, while in Turkey 2,000 people have been charged with insulting the president. One man was tried for posting on Facebook three pictures of Gollum, the character in The Lord of the Rings, with similar facial features to pictures of Erdogan posted alongside. Of the 259 journalists in jail around the world, no less than 81 are in Turkey. American reporters may not yet face similar penalties, but they can expect intense pressure on the institutions for which they work to mute their criticisms.

Turkey and the US may have very different political landscapes, but there is a surprising degree of uniformity in the behaviour of Trump and Erdogan. The same is true of populist, nationalist, authoritarian leaders who are taking power in many different parts of the world from Hungary and Poland to the Philippines. Commentators have struggled for a phrase to describe this phenomenon, such as “the age of demagoguery”, but this refers only to one method – and that not the least important – by which such leaders gain power.

So, I’m sure this isn’t what you expected to read today.  But, it appears that my interest and concerns aren’t just wild hairs.

What’s on your reading and blogging list today?

 


Battle to Save Corporal Punishment In New Orleans Catholic School

Do you get the feeling the bad old days are coming back? U.S. economy has returned us to 1930s-style levels of unemployment, evil Republicans like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell are trying to recreate the poverty of those years by removing the social safety net, and Republicans are working as hard as they can to make sure women have no control over their bodies or their lives.

Now we have students of a Catholic school in New Orleans and their parents demanding Archbishop Gregory Aymond reverse his decision to end corporal punishment, and school alumni aresuing the educational consultant who recommended the policy change!

Can this really be the 21st Century?

From yesterday’s New Orleans Times-Picayune:

The controversy over corporal punishment at St. Augustine High School resurfaced Tuesday when several alumni sued a consultant [read the suit here (pdf)] who advised Archbishop Gregory Aymond that St. Augustine students had been injured by paddling.

The claim isn’t true, the alumni said.

For months Aymond, who as archbishop exerts some control over the Catholic school, has sought to end St. Augustine’s decades-old practice of paddling students. He has said it is not consistent with Catholic values.

But backers of corporal punishment, who include St. Augustine administrators, parents and alumni, say it is part of St. Augustine’s formula for success.

According to the story, the consultant, Monica Applewhite, convinced the Archbishop to ban paddling of students against the decision of the review committee.

In late 2009 Aymond asked Monica Applewhite, described as a educational safety consultant based in Austin, Texas, to look into discipline at St. Augustine.

As Aymond’s representative, Applewhite sat in on St. Augustine’s internal review of its corporal punishment policy. The review committee elected to continue the policy, with modifications.

But the lawsuit says that Applewhite privately advised Aymond that she learned during her inquiry that parents had taken three students to the hospital after paddling, and that others had been paddled “day after day and more than 5 or 6 times a day.”

Archbishop Aymond says he has been contacted by former students and parents of students who were injured by corporal punishment in the school. He made this statement at a news conference today:

“I feel it necessary at this time to share that since the issue of paddling at St. Augustine has become public, I have been contacted both in writing and in person by individuals and parents of individual students who were injured as a result of being paddled at school,” Aymond said in a statement. “Those who have shared this information with me have done so in confidence, but at this juncture, the public should know that my concerns over paddling at St. Augustine go beyond Dr. Applewhite’s report to first-hand accounts.”

I also want to point out that paddling at St. Augustine’s is routinely used to discipline students for such shocking infractions as “tardiness, sloppy uniform dress or other minor rules infractions.”

Frankly, I thought that corporal punishment had been eliminated in the U.S. But I was wrong. According to this report on corporal punishment research, paddling is still common in a number of states.

The US Supreme Court decided in 1977 that spanking or paddling by schools is lawful where it has not been explicitly outlawed by local authorities. It is true that the incidence of CP has declined sharply in recent years, but only 31 states (plus D.C. and Puerto Rico) have actually abolished it, either de facto or de jure. CP is still used in the other 19 states, and it remains a fairly common practice in three of them, all in the South: Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi.

It is also routine, but only in a minority of (often rural or small-town) schools, in five more southern states: Georgia, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas.

The latest states to abolish were Delaware, in 2003, after an eight-year gap in which no abolitions took place at state level; Pennsylvania, in 2005; Ohio, in 2009; and now in 2011 New Mexico (documentation in next update). The number of paddlings had already fallen to a low level in these states.

On the other hand, efforts to ban school CP by legislation have failed in 2003 in Wyoming and repeatedly in Missouri, and also in North Carolina in 2007 and Louisiana in 2009.

The New York Times had a story about corporal punishment in September 2006. This chart was published with the article.

The pattern suggests that corporal punishment is more accepted in southern states and red states. Perhaps there is something to notion that Republicans and conservatives generally tend toward authoritarianism.

In my opinion, paddling is child abuse and should be illegal. Furthermore, I think children have rights just like adults do. I guess if the Supreme Court disagrees with me, our only hope is for sanity in state legislatures. Good luck with that.

Thanks to Dakinikat for alerting me to this story.