Saturday, December 26, 2015

If you want the truth, listen to the comedians

Jon Stewart's replacement on "The Daily Show," Trevor Noah, nailed it on Donald Trump's call to ban all Muslims from the country.   Trump didn't back down, but he later modified that statement by adding:   "until we can figure out what is going on."   Still . . .

Here's Trevor Noah's response:
"Take a second to think about what he said here. Republican presidential frontrunner Donald J. Trump wants to ban every single person from the world's second largest religion from entering the United States of America.   Every doctor, every scientist, and even Zayn Malik. You really want to piss off One Direction fans?  You want a real insurgency on your hands?  [For those who don't know, One Direction is a wildly popular boy band.] 

"Here's the thing about Donald Trump: Everybody has the right to be crazy. What worries me is that people are following the crazy. . . .  The worst part about this whole situation is that Donald Trump is a problem, but he's not the problem. There are people who already hold these views . . . .  Donald Trump, the frontrunner of a major political party, has basically given them permission to shed their shame and say these things out loud."
In the effective way of making the point by satire, Noah then brought in his "senior political correspondent," comedian Hasan Minhaj, who satirically agreed with Trump about banning Muslim's from the U.S.  But his reasoning was that we should not admit Muslims, because "the United States is not a safe place for Muslims right now. . . .  "One-third of a major political party in America is backing a racist maniac. This place is scary right now."
*     *     *
How right they are.   Trump -- and the mentality he gives a giant megaphone to -- are making American unsafe for Muslims.   They are also making America unsafe from the radical terrorists who use Trump's anti-Muslim words as a recruiting tool.

And he increasingly looks like the likely nominee for the Republican presidential nomination.  How can this be?


Friday, December 25, 2015

The Christmas Truce of 1914: Unthinkable today?

Last year, on the 100th anniversary of the "Christmas Truce of 1914," Time magazine published a story about that World War I pause in fighting.   Reflecting on the state of the world today, one wonders if such a thing could happen now.

From Time magazne, Dec. 24, 2014: "Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce of 1914," by Naina Baiekal: 
"On a crisp, clear morning 100 years ago, thousands of British, Belgian and French soldiers put down their rifles, stepped out of their trenches and spent Christmas mingling with their German enemies along the Western front. In the hundred years since, the event has been seen as a kind of miracle, a rare moment of peace just a few months into a war that would eventually claim over 15 million lives. . . ."
The idea had been suggested by the pope, but it was officially rejected by the commanders.   Yet, somehow, the troops themselves initiated the truce on their own. 
"To this day historians continue to disagree over the specifics: no one knows where it began or how it spread . . . .  [S]ome two-thirds of troopsabout 100,000 people are believed to have participated in the legendary truce. 

"Most accounts suggest the truce began with carol singing [by German soldiers] from the trenches on Christmas Eve . . . .  The next morning . . . .  allied soldiers came out warily to greet them. . . .  Over the course of the day, troops exchanged gifts of cigarettes, food, buttons and hats. The Christmas truce also allowed both sides to finally bury their dead comrades, whose bodies had lain for weeks on 'no man’s land,' the ground between opposing trenches. . . . 

"And of course, it was only ever a truce, not peace. Hostilities returned . . . . for many at the time, the story of the Christmas truce was not an example of chivalry in the depths of war, but rather a tale of subversion: when the men on the ground decided they were not fighting the same war as their superiors. . . .  Indeed, one British soldier, speaking in 1930, said:  '. . . if we had been left to ourselves, there would never have been another shot fired."
*     *     *
This 1914 story reminds me of the poetry of Wilfred Owen, the British poet who was killed in battle in France one week before the 1918 armistice.   Unlike poets who glorified the heroes, Owen wrote of "the pity of war" and the tragedy of such human loss.  His poetry was immortalized in Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem," one of the most poignant arias being a duet between tenor and baritone soloists, representing a British and a German soldier who meet in the afterlife and sing, together, of their battle, ending with:  "I am the enemy you killed, my friend. . . ."   And then the consoling, beatific line that is repeated, again and again, shifting back and forth between tenor and baritone:  "Let us sleep now . . . let us sleep now."

This Christmas Truce occurred in 1914, before the United States entered the war;   so we were not part of that Christmas Truce.   War today, 100 years later, is very different.    It's unlikely such a thing could happen at the ground level.    But let us take heart.    It has mostly been flying under the news radar, but high level talks are being held now about a cease fire in Syria.

It's too complex a geopolitical situation for the simplistic answers being brayed about by Republican candidates, any of whom would only make a terrible situation even worse with their febrile apocalypticism, to use Josh Marshall's felicitous phrase.

With a heavy heart lacking much optimism, my Christmas wish this year would be for a lasting truce and, eventually, peace.


Thursday, December 24, 2015

Denmark's democratic socialism works, and people are happy -- because they trust each other

This DailyKos article, about what it's like to live in Denmark with its democratic socialist government, was written by Nancy Graham Holm, an American who has lived there since 1991.   It's an informative piece for those who think Bernie Sanders' democratic socialism is more radical than it actually is.

Holm acknowledges that a small homogenous nation like Denmark is very different from our sprawling mega-country with 50 times as many people of diverse ethnic, religious, and economic status.   But she tells us why she likes it and feels fortunate to live there.

"First, I like Danish egalitarianism. . . . "  [As Jonathan Haidt writes in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (2013)] ". . . liberals need to feel equal to everybody while conservatives need to feel superior to at least a few. This makes Denmark a perfect fit for American social liberals and a frustrating - even exasperating - experience for Americans who identify as conservative.

"Personally, I like how Danes value work and workers. They seem to understand that nothing is produced or accomplished in society without labor and they honor rank and file workers just as much as managers. . . .  

"Union membership is not compulsory in Denmark yet 80% of people with jobs . . . are members of a labor union . . . [C]ollective bargaining . . . is the heart and soul of their economic egalitarianism.   Without government interference, it is the employees and employers that negotiate salary, vacation, sick leave and maternity/paternity leave. Women cannot lose their jobs because of pregnancy and all pregnant women are entitled to paid-leave one month prior to giving birth and up to one year afterward. Professional childcare exists so that women can participate in the economy. All children are guaranteed a place in a nursery until elementary school, subsidized through taxation.

"Everybody – skilled and unskilled – is formally trained in Denmark. There seems to be an 'education' for just about everything, including the execution of retail sales in department stores. Workers are entitled to upgrade their skills through courses . . . [often] on company time.  If you lose your job, unemployment insurance protects you, giving you enough to stay inside the economic system; enough to keep you from losing your home to the bank; enough to buy groceries and prescription medicines; enough to live with dignity while you search for a new job. Losing your job in Denmark is inconvenient but not a disaster.

"Work/play balance is a Danish value and people who excessively work are not admired but considered anti-social and unhealthy. Normally, everybody works 37 hours a week and gets 5-6 weeks of paid vacation in a calendar year. If you change employers, you are entitled to carry your vacation time with you.

"Health care is pre-paid through taxation. . . . [People can] pick their own physician . . . .  [D]iagnostic tests, treatments and surgery are free of extra charge and the costs of medicines are subsidized to make them affordable. . . .

"Democratic socialism is not communism. It is merely a pooling of resources to share the nation’s wealth among its citizens. Democratic socialism means that the decision makers are democratic; transparent; accessible . . . .

"Members of Parliament are not professional politicians but ordinary people: librarians, teachers, dentists, building contractors, accountants, journalists, etc. . . .  What impresses me most about Danish political campaigns is the prohibition of television ads . . . .  [T]he campaign period is short, not years but a matter of weeks.

"Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Danish democracy is that registering to vote is not necessary. All citizens over the age of 18 automatically receive a ballot through the postal service at their home address. Voting is not compulsory, but in national elections close to 80% of all elligible voters do.

"As an American, I know Denmark’s system is not applicable to the USA. Democratic socialism could only happen in Denmark because the population was homogenous with a high concentration of trust. America was founded by immigrants...from all over... folks who’ve had trust issues with ”government” from the beginning. . . .  Danes do not see 'the government' as an adversary but as a mirror. The Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches are fellow citizens working on their behalf.

"This is what makes Denmark (and Scandinavia) different. People trust one another. The challenge is to retain this trust in a society that is no longer homogenous."
*     *     *
Egalitarianism, trust, cooperation.    What a contrast to what we're hearing in our political debates.    Of course, all these benefits mean high taxes;   but the people could change it if they wanted to -- and apparently they like it this way.    Denmark is regularly listed as one of the countries where people are the happiest.


Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Why don't we worry about our young men being "radicalized" by our culture of gun violence?

Jeff Lahm, in a letter to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, raises a good question concerning "radicalization," prompted by early reports that the male San Bernadino shooter had been radicalized during a visit to Saudi Arabia.   Of course, later evidence obtained from phone and computer records showed that he had been well along into the process before he made that trip.

But the question for us Americans remains, as Jeff Lahm wrote:
"If we believe that people can be radicalized by a few months in the Middle East, then we must believe that our own children can become radicalized to gun violence by watching television shows and movies that glamorize guns and shooting people.

"Our children and disillusioned youth spend their entire lives learning via television that brandishing guns and shooting people is sexy, fun and a legitimate method of problem solving.   Some normal looking young white man will likely commit the next non-terrorist related mass murder.   In the aftermath, I hope Americans will demand to know how he was radicalized to gun violence, and not just where he found the gun."


Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Top hawk drops out

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who never got above 3% in the polls and has hovered at 1% or less for a while now, has dropped out of the Republican primary race.

This crowded field has lost its most ardent military hawk -- and, otherwise, one of the moderates, especially on immigration reform.


Who lies the most among presidential candidates?

A while back the New York Times ran an article from PolitiFact's Angie Drobnic Holan on the fact-checked record of presidential candidates, plus a few other politicians.   PolitiFact had compiled statistics of the statements they had checked since 2007 and rated according to True, Mostly True, Half True/Half False, Mostly False, False, and Pants on Fire -- the latter category reserved for a particularly egregious or pernicious lie.

For this article Holan provided a summary score and ranking, as follows.   The numbers are the percent of each person's controversial answers that PolitiFact rated Mostly False or worse . . . i.e. a measure of that person's "dishonesty" -- or perhaps ignorance, in some cases.  It does not include last week's debates.  To be clear, and fair, PolitiFact does not check every statement a candidate makes -- just ones that are questioned.   Nevertheless, the ranking is very telling.

84%   Ben Carson
76%   Donald Trump
66%   Ted Cruz
59%   Dick Cheney
55%   Rick Santorum
50%   Carly Fiorino
40%   Marco Rubio
34%   Lindsey Graham
32%   Chris Christie
32%   Rand Paul
32%   Joe Biden
32%   Jeb Bush
28%   Bernie Sanders
28%   Hillary Clinton
26%   Barack Obama
25%   Martin O'Malley
24%   Bill Clinton

I took it a step further and calculated the average scores according to political party affiliation.   Republicans 50.9, Democrats 27.1.


Monday, December 21, 2015

Shutting down reader-comment section -- for now

To readers of ShrinkRap:
     On a temporary basis, this blog will no longer be accepting comments in an effort to deal with a spam problem that is generating hundreds of generic "comments," apparently trolling for responses to build up their own blog traffic.    To those who might have a genuine comment about something I have written, I apologize.   This will not affect anyone's ability to read the blog, and I will put up a note when I am able to reopen the comments section. 


Fact-checking debate moderator on health costs

Martha Raddatz, one of the moderators for the Democratic debate Saturday night, is a very savvy foreign correspondent and has spent a lot of time in the Middle East.   So I'll give her a slight pass on not being up to par on health care costs.   But her question had a false premise that implied Obamacare was responsible for rising health care costs.   And that simply is not true.   Here's her question: 
"Secretary Clinton, the Department of Health and Human Services says more than 17 million Americans who were not insured now have health coverage because of Obamacare. But for Americans who already had health insurance the cost has gone up 27 percent in the last five years while deductibles are up 67 percent, health care costs are rising faster than many Americans can manage.She then asked how Clinton would fix the law. 
Let's bring a little reality here.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Democratic debate #3.

First, let me join the chorus of complaints against the Democratic National Committee for scheduling a debate on Saturday night before Christmas.   So I taped the debate and will be watching -- and commenting -- later.   But I did spot this quote from Josh Marshall of TPM, who was live-blogging the debate:

"The debate over foreign policy in this debate is bracingly, frighteningly substantive. The contrast between this conversation and that from the Republican debate is simply amazing. It's not even a matter of thinking the Democratic approaches are better than the Republicans' (though obviously I believe they are); but here you have a conversation based more on factual information than a kind of febrile apocalypticism."

So, is this what the DNC is trying to hide from the public?    How does this help the Democratic party, by hiding such a superior level of debate on a Saturday night?


[Added after watching my recording of the debate:   Not much to add to Josh Marshall's succinct summary above.   There are some significant differences among the three, but they all seem minor in contrast to the Republicans' . . . I can't think of a better term than "febrile apocalypticism."]

Good news #17: Spending bill, good compromise

From Elizabeth Warren:

"With a must-pass spending bill on the table, the Wall Street banks came at us in full force but we fought them back!  Yesterday, Congress passed another spending bill without a single provision to materially weaken the rules on Wall Street. No gutting the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. No tying the hands of the cops who police the big banks. No delay of a new conflict-of-interest rule for retirement advisers.

"And we did it while permanently expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit to keep more than 50 million Americans – including 25 million children – from seeing sharp cuts in their income, and preventing many of them from falling into poverty. That’s an enormous victory for opportunity in America.  (And we got an extra $2 billion for NIH – a down payment on a healthier future.)

"Don’t get me wrong – this budget deal was a compromise, and it’s got some really nasty stuff in it. I strongly oppose lifting the ban on exporting crude oil. I’m deeply concerned that the cybersecurity language threatens key privacy protections for Americans. And I gag when I think about the billions of dollars in tax breaks going to giant corporations.

"But I’m a realist: With a Republican-controlled Senate, a Republican-controlled House, and an army of Wall Street lobbyists spending zillions of dollars to target Dodd-Frank and the Consumer Agency, stopping these guys from rolling back financial reform is a big deal. . . .

"Sure, this isn’t over. The Wall Street banks will be back, and they will swing a lot of weight. And now we’ve got more work to do on climate change, privacy, and corporate taxes. But when naysayers claim that it’s impossible to change Washington and that we can’t beat powerful lobbyists, remember what you accomplished this week. We’ve proven that when we stand up and fight for America’s values, we can win."
*     *     *
Brava! to Elizabeth Warren and other liberals in congress who were able to get this pretty-good bipartisan, compromise spending bill through a Republican-controlled congress.  President Obama is reportedly satisfied and will sign it -- so that we won't be faced with shutting down the government again until next fall.

I also want to say that Paul Ryan seems to have brought in a little more cooperative atmosphere and some genuine bipartisanship.