Unfair media treatment 

A few minutes ago I got this bit of breaking news on my phone:


I’m not trying to argue that you’re not being treated unfairly by the media, but I figured I should list the US presidents who probably could make a similar claim that the press and/or their political enemies treated them unfairly:

  1. George Washington
  2. John Adams
  3. Thomas Jefferson
  4. James Madison
  5. James Monroe
  6. John Quincy Adams
  7. Andrew Jackson
  8. Martin Van Buren
  9. William Henry Harrison
  10. John Tyler
  11. James Polk
  12. Zachary Taylor
  13. Millard Fillmore
  14. Franklin Pierce
  15. James Buchanan
  16. Abraham Lincoln
  17. Andrew Johnson
  18. Ulysses Grant
  19. Rutherford B Hayes
  20. James Garfield
  21. Chester Arthur
  22. Grover Cleveland 
  23. Benjamin Harrison
  24. Grover Cleveland, again
  25. William McKinley
  26. Theodore Roosevelt 
  27. William Howard Taft
  28. Woodrow Wilson
  29. Warren Harding
  30. Calvin Coolidge
  31. Herbert Hoover
  32. Franklin D Roosevelt 
  33. Harry Truman
  34. Dwight D Eisenhower 
  35. John F Kennedy
  36. Lyndon B Johnson
  37. Richard Nixon
  38. Gerald Ford
  39. Jimmy Carter
  40. Ronald Reagan
  41. George H W Bush
  42. Bill Clinton
  43. George W Bush
  44. Barack Obama

I’m pretty sure this is an exhaustive list as of the present point in history and I neither left anyone out nor included someone who doesn’t belong.  

Profiles in … something

The popular TV show The Twilight Zone has seen multiple reboots since it first went off the air in 1964.   I’ve been thinking a good deal about one particular tale from the mid-1980s reboot.  “Profile in Silver” envisions a world where time travel is possible, and a “field historian” named Joseph Fitzgerald from about 200 years in the future is observing the events of the presidency of his ancestor, President John F Kennedy.  

The episode begins with Dr. Fitzgerald giving a lecture at Harvard on November 21, 1963 and he gets a visit from one of his colleagues from the future.   He expresses the great existential crisis of every field journalist: why must he only be observer and not participant?  She tries to talk him out of going to Dallas the following day but he’ll have none of it.   

In what appears to be an unplanned moment, he trains his camera on the open window in the book repository, sees Lee Harvey Oswald leaning out with his rifle, and panics.  He calls out to the president to duck, and effectively saves the president’s life.   How Gov. Connally didn’t get hurt, isn’t answered.  

This seriously damages the fabric of time.   As history tries to restore the original trends, first a tornado touches down in Dallas but when that doesn’t work, Nikita Khrushchev is assassinated, and his successor seizes West Berlin.  As the history computer analyzes all possible outcomes from this turn of events, the world would be completely annihilated within a century.  The only solution is for the Kennedy presidency to end as history originally intended.  Of course, this is The Twilight Zone, so there’s a twist at the end.  I won’t reveal the twist but you can watch the episode below.  

There’s a scene in this show where JFK and Dr. Fitzgerald are aboard Air Force One, and Kennedy talks about how maybe his father might have been wrong about the importance of power.   “No one man should have that kind of power.   No man should have to have it.”

There is no question that Donald Trump has long had a love affair with power, and this goes back to long before he announced his candidacy for president in June, 2015.   Recall that this isn’t the first time he sought the presidency: back in 2000, he sought the nomination on the Reform Party ticket.  (Side note: I admit to being surprised that the party still actively maintains its website…)

They say that power corrupts and that absolute power corrupts absolutely.   There’s a truth to that, but part of the problem is that once people get a taste of power, they tend to want more and more.  Someone with such blatantly narcissistic tendencies like Donald Trump would fall into this trap more quickly than the average person.  (Note that I’m not holding myself to a higher standard here.  If I were given more power than I could handle, I doubt I’d be any less vulnerable to its appeal…)

During one of the Republican debates last year, Trump all but admitted his corruption, albeit from a different angle than where he currently resides.  As his opponents, most notably Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, tried to illustrate that he’s not a true republican, they pointed out that he had invited Bill and Hillary Clinton to his wedding.   He shrugged off the charges, pointing out that he would do things like that to gain favors.  Nothing necessarily illegal about it but telling all the same.  

Which brings me to the recent firing of FBI director James Comey.   Let me make it clear that the president has the right to fire the FBI director at any time and for any reason.   Based upon that fact alone, this is neither an abuse of power nor a constitutional crisis.  

Or at least it ought not be either of those things.  After all, Bill Clinton fired director William Sessions a few months into his first term and nobody batted an eye over it.  

But it’s clear that this is a function of all of the negative trappings of power.   Comey had just requested more funds and personnel to investigate reports of collusion between the Trump campaign and a foreign power, Russia.   I suppose it’s possible that these facts are unrelated and that the real reason for Comey’s dismissal is as the White House said: the way he mishandled the reporting of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server.   Then again, it’s also possible that Gary Larson got it right in his old Far Side cartoon when he explained how the dinosaurs became extinct.

The congressional investigation into the Trump-Russia affair doesn’t seem to have much in the way of force.  With the status of the FBI investigation up in the air now that Comey’s gone, we should really consider an independent investigation.  

Oh, and it needs a flashy name, too.  May I suggest Russi-a-Lago?
Profile In Silver

Marching again

It’s weird what and who you think about when certain conditions are right.  I’ve been thinking about Mr. Hanlon, who was my physics teacher my junior year of high school.  

I cannot understate the damage he did to my overall intellectual growth and natural curiosity.  He was the reason why I didn’t take a science senior year of high school.  

On the first day of class, he walked in and asked us why we were all taking physics.  The simple answer to this question was that it was next in line after biology (freshman year) and chemistry (sophomore year).  His response to being told this?  “Wrong!  Physics is everything!”

In fairness to Mr. Hanlon, there’s nothing wrong with being enthusiastic about science (or whichever field a teacher teaches).  What he didn’t seem to understand is that the students who don’t share his enthusiasm need to appreciate the topic on their own terms in their own time.  

That’s not what he did, though.  He had a way of talking down to students like me who had the aptitude but not the interest.  He had the misfortune of timing being a teacher of mine after I had just come home from Penn State’s Summer Intensive Language Institute where I learned German and realized that I wanted to study languages.  

I acknowledge having the aptitude.  There was one lab report, for example, where he came out and shook my hand in front of the whole class because what I’d written was more or less what he wanted to see.  I had let other people copy my report and I guess they went a little too far in paraphrasing what I had written.  

But as the year went on, he made his opinion clear: I’d be wasting my life if I didn’t declare that I wanted to be either a physicist or engineer.  At one point, I got so pissed off at his attitude that I wrote a lab report up in French.  (For reference, I learned then that the French word for “wave” is “vague”.  He made a lame joke about the repeated use of this word in my report before he gave me an A on it.)

In college, I took my mandatory “hard” sciences, and studied the science of linguistics, which started to rekindle things but it wasn’t until my kids were born, that I started to read scientific books again.  Thanks to George Hrab’s podcast, I discovered the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe. And now I am a booster for science.  

Keep in mind that I don’t like most science fiction because they still skimp too much on character development, and I can’t imagine starting to watch TV shows like Star Trek, Dr. Who, or CSI    

I don’t know what happened to Mr. Hanlon.  If he’s still alive, though, I imagine that he might have been marching this past weekend at one of the many rallies in the March for Science.   

I did just that this past weekend in Washington, DC.  It’s unfortunate that it was needed, but the anti-science attitude of much of the federal government, needs to be called out and put right.  There are stories that allege that Donald Trump was shaken by it.   I hope they’re true and that he might change things for the better.  Stopping climate change is the most important issue we’re facing.  That’s only one thing, though.  

We need to follow the evidence in public policy, pure and simple.  And if the current administration and the current congress refuse to do so, they need to be voted out and replaced by people who will.  

Who knew?

I’ve written before about how I like to read the writings of those with whom I disagree.  I actually started doing this in the late 90s when a friend of mine told me about the “review” of the South Park movie on a fundamentalist Christian movie review site called CAPAlert.  In casual conversation, I would describe it as a family filmgoer guide (like what you see in many newspapers to help parents understand, beyond the ratings, whether a movie is appropriate for young children), on steroids and with a fundamentalist Christian spin.  To the point that the Star Wars series is inappropriate because it embraces a religion that doesn’t have Jesus.   

CAPAlert has been dormant for more than four years now.   Stepping in to take its place is a website called Movieguide.   Apart from being a bit more generous in its assessments of movies (any movie with a clearly defined hero, is a metaphor for Jesus by their standards) it seems a decent heir apparent to CAPAlert.   

One thing that Movieguide does, that CAPAlert didn’t, is write essays regarding other matters of pop culture.  Such was the case when they wrote a short article on a recent instagram feud between Candace Cameron Bure, former child star from the TV show Full House and sister to the comparably insane Kirk Cameron, and drag queen Bianca Del Rio.  

The exchange went like this: Bure posted a picture of herself wearing a t-shirt that reads NOT TODAY SATAN.  Del Rio, who first used that phrase in a public setting, responded politely (if moderately sarcastically) by saying “If only, this homophobic, republican knew….”

Bure went on the defensive and questioned Del Rio for being “so nasty to me”.  She went on a tirade about how “loving Jesus” doesn’t automatically imply “hat[ing] gay people” (typical for people of this ilk.   She doesn’t hate them.  She just thinks that they’re just second class citizens and don’t deserve equal rights…) and accusing Del Rio for sending others to her page with equally hateful messages.  

Movieguide was effusive in its praise of her response.  I’m sure that some people were less polite than Del Rio in their comments but that goes with the territory of being famous and expressing an opinion.   Don’t you just love that they hate political correctness up until the point when someone makes a comment that they personally consider offensive?

All of that said, it’s good to know that both Bure and Movieguide are in agreement that calling someone a “republican” is apparently an insult.   

A good thing about the Trump presidency

In the movie JFK, Kevin Costner plays Jim Garrison, the real-life lawyer who brought the only criminal case to trial in the assassination of our 35th president (and namesake of the movie).  While the movie’s faults are legion (not the least of which is the credibility it lent to some of the more absurd conspiracy theories about the assassination), there’s an interesting — and valid — point made when Costner gives his closing argument in the trial: the moment you have two or more people involved in something, that is by definition a conspiracy.  

When you look around in today’s media-saturated world, conspiracy theories abound.  By the expansive definition of “conspiracy” used in the movie, conspiracies absolutely do exist.  I’m not trying to make an argument that the official version of any event is necessarily the whole truth, and I readily concede that there are times when skepticism of the official version (or at least portions of the official version) of events is absolutely warranted.  

Modern conspiracy theories generally involve arguing that some group of powerful, wealthy, connected people with a vested interest in covering up the “truth” put out an official story that we shouldn’t believe.   The motivations of the conspirators — depending upon the event — range from maintaining the status quo or upending some rule they don’t like.  The conspiracy theorists argue that mass shootings, for example, are really just false flags planted to get people motivated enough to allow the government to take away guns from law abiding citizens while the anti-vaccination movement maintains that they’re being silenced because too many people (pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies, doctors and nurses) make too much money off of the vaccines to look at the supposedly harmful side effects truthfully.  

I’ll grant you that the proponents of the conspiracy theories about mass shootings and vaccinations are quite harmful.  There are no shortage of stories from either survivors or grieving families of the deceased who have found themselves being harassed and threatened by people who believe that their trauma is just an act.   The health risks of vaccines are minimal compared to the overall health benefits of those same vaccines.  (And I’m saying that knowing that I can’t rule out the possibility that my father might be alive today had he not gotten a particular vaccine about 2.5 years before he died.  But that’s the stuff of another entry.  

I’ll even concede that some conspiracy theories can be tempting.  When George W Bush ascended to the presidency in 2001, he definitely wanted to help rehabilitate his father’s legacy as presidency and taking out Saddam Hussein was definitely a part of that agenda.  The September 11 attacks provided more than enough popular support for that goal.   (And, when you consider that there were nineteen hijackers, that definitely meets the definition of “conspiracy” from the Oliver Stone movie.)  That doesn’t mean Bush (or any other member of the US government at any level) was in on it.  

One fatal flaw of modern conspiracy theories, is the size and scope of the hypothesized conspiracy itself.   As more people are “in the know” about the truth, the harder it becomes to conceal it.   There is, for example, an entire industry dedicated to revealing rumors about the next big product releases from Apple despite the company’s best efforts to keep their product plans quiet.  And Apple’s stock price is at least partially dependent upon those rumors.  

Which brings me to the train wreck that is the White House under Donald Trump.  I think there are fewer leaks in the lean-tos built by the contestants on the TV show Survivor than there are in this administration.   And Trump isn’t exactly wrong for not appreciating the fact that the press is getting information not necessarily intended for public consumption.  There’s even a recent story in The Onion that’s poking fun at the leaks.  

The issues Trump is facing in maintaining an efficient, smoothly working operation are identical to any issues that a sufficiently wide-ranging conspiracy would have to deal with.   Keeping people silent, especially when they don’t have some massive motivation to be quiet, is quite difficult if not impossible.   

I’m not seeing much coming out of the White House that I can honestly say is a good thing.  But the more I think about it, maybe the leaks should help us put to rest the notion that these conspiracy theories are anything other than an occasionally amusing distraction

I have even less respect for Trump now

On January 29, 2017, a mere nine days into the nascent administration of Donald Trump, a US Special Operations force carried out a raid on the village of Yakla in the nation of Yemen.

While all of the details of this raid will be the stuff of investigations that, if they’ve even begun, certainly haven’t been completed. But here’s what we do know:

The initial groundwork for the raid was started during the Obama administration but Obama himself never greenlighted the mission. Donald Trump did that.

One US Navy SEAL, Senior Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens, was killed in the raid, as were some number of civilians. The number of civilians killed, depending on which reports you might read, ranges from the low teens to as many as 25.

Very little, if any, intelligence was gained from the mission.

To his credit, Donald Trump was present when Owens’s body was returned to the states and to offer condolences to his family.

Now let me make it clear that any number of factors can lead to the success or failure of any given mission, most of which are outside of the control of anyone who’s not on the ground in the middle of the mission. I’ve seen some articles from the fringe political left refer to Trump as a “murderer” because of the results of this raid. If I’m being at my most polite, this characterization is grossly inaccurate.

But there’s plenty of fallout from this raid that should fall squarely on Trump’s shoulders. First and foremost is the fact that he tried to shift the blame for the raid first to Ex-President Obama and then to the generals who oversaw it. I’m sorry, Mr. Trump, but you authorized the raid and therefore it’s up to you to accept the consequences, good or bad. By trying to deflect the blame, Trump has turned this mission into more of a news item than it needed to be.

The President of the United States is often called upon to make extremely difficult decisions. This particular decision involved him serving as Commander in Chief of our Armed Forces but not all decisions need to involve that particular responsibility. Some decisions prove, in hindsight to be good decisions while others prove to be, um, not so good. (And, as I’ve written before, it’s not always immediately obvious whether it was a good decision.).

I would argue that, with regard to this particular decision, Trump was lucky in that he received near-immediate feedback that caution would have been the more advisable path. Someone with good leadership skills would have taken this miscue as cause for introspection, reflection, and a changing of tactics for the next time a similar decision might be warranted.

Last night (February 28, 2017), President Trump gave an address before a joint session of congress. It had its high moments and low moments, to be sure, but the lowest moment of the night was when he called out Carryn Owens, the widow of the slain SEAL from that mission. It was arguably two minutes of the most uncomfortable television I’ve ever watched.

I don’t blame anyone who gave her a standing ovation, but she clearly was still grieving over her loss, and rightly so. What I saw was someone whose wounds from a traumatic event were still fresh, praying for strength, crying. I don’t know what was going through her head and whether or not she appreciated this gesture, but when Trump doubled down and claimed the raid to be a success despite the casualties, it was clear that he learned nothing from this basic lesson in on-the-job training for the presidency.

If I were Mrs. Owens or any other member of Ryan Owens’s family, I’d be furious at being used as a prop in his speech, his totally misguided attempts to defend the indefensible. And I do question if we’d even know about this raid had Owens not died.

I don’t know if this raid would have come out differently if Trump had waited longer before authorizing it. I don’t know if I’d be writing this blog post if either Owens, or the Yemeni civilians, or both, had survived. It’s a lot harder to get a learning experience from having made a successful decision.

But Trump had a golden opportunity to demonstrate himself as being up to the nuances and complexities of the presidency — something I previously doubted. After all, when was the last time a new president’s decisions were tested this soon after he took the oath of office? (By comparison, September 11 happened nearly eight months into George W Bush’s presidency and the standoff with David Koresh’s Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, started a little over a month into Bill Clinton’s presidency and ended a month and a half later. Trump wasn’t even president for two whole weeks when Yakla happened.)

I may have previously doubted Trump’s fitness to be president. I don’t doubt it any more. I’m convinced that he’s unfit to be president.

Meet some low information voters

I make an active effort to see how some people whose worldview is not consistent with my own, view the world.   One website I visit with some frequency is a bulletin board called Rapture Ready, a group of evangelical Christians who look at the world and see the conditions of end times as outlined in the books of Ephesians and Revelation, thoroughly grounded in modern Christian eschatology.   They’re hyper-religious and ultra conservative, feeding each other’s fears and paranoia within the confines of their own protective bubble.  

The membership of this group is largely American, white, evangelical.   While some of them may not have supported Donald Trump from the outset, they are now almost universally supportive of him, largely due to his appointments.  
Several years ago I tried to create a profile for myself so I could troll them but I never got the promised confirmation email (to confirm that I’m neither a robot nor the victim of someone else’s spoofing campaign) so I simply didn’t make any real effort to follow up.  My original user name was a profane word in Russian but if I were to try it again, I’d likely use Matthew6-6 if it’s not taken.   If I were ever called on it, I’d simply explain that my name was Matthew and that my birthday is June 6, relying on them not knowing that particular verse of the Bible or how it basically tells them not to act the way they do…

There is a short thread on the board that I’d like to share with everyone.  In the interest of protecting people’s privacy I won’t link directly to it but it can be found in the “Breaking News and World Events” forum from the above link.   The original post is dated a little over a week ago, February 10, 2017.  I have copied all remarks verbatim.   The one link provided in the thread, I am also copying.  

Subject: Le Pen: If elected, French Jews will have to renounce Israeli citizenship

Poster 1: Le Pen: If elected, French Jews will have to renounce Israeli citizenship.

Link to Jerusalem Post article confirming same
Poster 2: a little animated icon in which one emoji is slapping another, with the label “Snap out of it”   That is what I would tell him.

Poster 1: quoting poster 2 and then issuing the correction “…her”

Poster 3: How typical of the nation of France to come up with such a ludicrous policy. However, this is exactly what you can expect from a nation without God. After all, this is the nation that held the French Revolution.

It’s obvious that neither poster 2 nor poster 3 actually read the linked article.   Had poster 2 actually read the article (or known about the election prior to it), he or she (I honestly don’t know the genders of any of the posters here…) would have known that Marine Le-Pen is a woman.  You literally need look no further than the first paragraph to know better.  

Poster 3 is the more interesting person here because of the way his or her opinion was reached.  This person excoriates the secular nature of France as a nation.  One truth about RR is their unflinching support for Israel because of its role in bringing about  the so-called end times.  

The linked article actually raises questions about the journalistic credibility of the Jerusalem Post.  The real news story is that French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le-Pen says that the only people who should have dual citizenship with France and another country, should be dual citizens with other EU countries.  By definition, that excludes Israel, and she acknowledges it as such.  

I think this is a bad idea since it drips of a modified nationalism that merely exchanges France’s borders with those of the EU, and can have horrifying implications to all immigrants in France.  

But by putting the implications in terms of Israeli citizenship rather than a greater anti-immigrant sentiment, the Post ironically risks fomenting greater anti-Semitism by claiming not that the whole policy proposal is bad, but that Jews somehow deserve preferential treatment over other non-EU members (which, let’s remember, will soon include Britain).

If either Poster 2 or Poster 3 had actually been good citizens within their worldview, they would argue not that Ms. Le-Pen’s proposal is a bad idea on its surface (as they’ve both done), but instead that there should be an exception to the policy for Israel.  

I almost want someone to let the folks at Rapture Ready know about this blog post of mine, even if it would scuttle my ability to troll them.  They claim (and try) to be informed about world events but are stuck in their own bubble and need to be broken out.