Al Franken Is Putting His Self-Interest Over Everything He Claims Is Important

If Senator Al Franken left the U.S. Senate in the wake of his sexual harassment admission, Governor Mark Dayton would be able to appoint a replacement.  Many speculate that he might name his Lieutenant Governor, Tina Smith, a respected, thoughtful leader who would likely be a very capable candidate in a November 2018 special election.  There are also other excellent choices Dayton could make.

As a result, Al Franken and Minnesota DFLers need to be asking themselves some important questions.

Who would have more moral standing to hold sexual harassers and abusers like Roy Moore and Donald Trump accountable, and send a clear signal that sexual harassment will no longer be tolerated?

Who would be a more credible and persuasive advocate for progressive causes?

Who would be a more respected representative of Minnesotans’ interests, opinions, and values?

Who would be a better role model for Minnesota’s young men and women?

Who would be more re-electable in 2020, and more likely to help Democrats stop Minnesota’s Senate seat from going to a Trumpublican?

What Al Franken did is less egregious than what Moore and Trump did, so he may be able to hold onto his job, even after a long and humiliating Senate Ethics Committee investigation that will further cement this incident in the public mind. But just because he can hold on to his job doesn’t mean that he should.

Note:  The day after this post was written, Senator Franken resigned, proving this post’s headline wrong.  In his resignation speech, Senator Franken said: “Minnesotans deserve a senator who can focus with all her energy on addressing the challenges they face every day.  I of all people am aware that there is some irony in the fact that I am leaving while a man who has bragged on tape about his history of sexual assault sits in the Oval Office and a man who has repeatedly preyed on young girls is running for Senate with full support of his party.”

Garrison Keillor v. Minnesota … “Public” … Radio

As further proof that my cynicism knows no depths, let me assert that based on decades of experience, it is my belief that when it comes to personnel issues, by gargantuan enterprises like NBC/Comcast or merely big ones like Minnesota Public Radio … “It’s Money That Matters” as Randy Newman once sang.

In the matter of its summary execution of Garrison Keillor and the scrubbing of all mention and residue of him from their archives, MPR, Minnesota’s “listener-supported” PUBLIC radio “service” is staying very much in character.

The number of people who have tried to play not just media reporter but media critic in the Twin Cities don’t amount to even a handful. But for years I was one of them, and until the current management of the Star Tribune, no organization in town was more walled off, impenetrable and resistant to potentially negative inquiry than MPR. The joke among those of us who tried over the years was that you were more likely to get a full and forthright comment out of the CIA than MPR.

Despite “Public” being a central part of its name and identity, MPR has always conducted itself as the most private of media entities. By contrast, as I’ve often said, Stanley Hubbard, who truly is a “private” owner of television and radio stations, was routinely willing to take a phone call and offer some kind of an explanation for his internal controversy of the moment. With MPR, at best you were lucky to get a turgid, opaque statement from their PR desk.

(The level of fear that permeated MPR’s newsroom staff was frankly remarkable. MPR laid off a group of people a couple of years ago. Only two of the laid-off responded to requests for an entirely off-the-record, not-for-attribution conversation about what happened … and then only to plead not to ever be contacted again.)

In this Keillor situation what leaps out at me is that the only story of an offense, such as it is, comes from Garrison himself. This is the odd business of his hand slipping up a distraught employee’s bare back. In fairness, MPR may be protecting themselves and Keillor from far … far … more unsavory behavior. But we will never know, unless Keillor decides to lay it all out for his fans and the general public, something at the moment he is saying he doesn’t care to do.

In Sunday’s Star Tribune we had this all too familiar line: “MPR’s director of communications, Angie Andresen, said Friday that her organization would like to share more information, but to do so would be a breach of confidentiality that might deter potential victims or witnesses of abuse from coming forward.”

At that, the treadworn cynic in me screams, “Bullshit.”

Since MPR never shares information about anything with even the most remote potential to injure its reputation and impact its revenue stream, it is fair to conclude that it is MPR not any victimized woman who is enforcing this cone of confidentiality. Other media organizations — CBS with Charlie Rose, NBC with Matt Lauer — have seized on high-profile offenses to encourage other women on the staff and in the culture at large to come forward and speak up. The encouragement to women to tell the sordid stories is at the essence of this moment.

MPR is, as usual, taking the opposite approach. “Public” is for them is a branding scheme with no concurrent obligation to transparency.

I’ve told a few people that I’d be fascinated to get a full picture of MPR’s financial relationship with Keillor prior to this reputational guillotining. Nothing of course could be more horrifying to MPR’s executive offices. This is after all the organization that fought tooth and nail the disclosure of founder/CEO Bill Kling’s salary, firing off letters demanding the firing of reporters reckless enough to ask so basic a question of … a public organization.

With that in mind, it is easy, even logical to believe that MPR seized on the opportunity of some kind of impropriety involving Keillor and a woman/women to invoke a morals clause immediately and completely voiding contract(s) with him. Contracts it has monitored carefully and come to regard as no longer beneficial to their revenue stream.

As the saying goes, “Every crisis is an opportunity.”

I strongly suspect NBC/Comcast executives carefully assessed the financial impact of wiping $20-$35 million of Matt Lauer’s salary off the books and concluded “The Today Show” will survive just fine with Savannah Guthrie and (my bet) Willie Geist on the set fawning over pop stars and offering shopping tips.

As for Keillor, can we all acknowledge he is not an average guy, much less a “normal” human being? A bit like Bob Dylan, Garrison long ago began protecting his talent and productivity by interacting with the quotidian universe solely on his terms, as much as possible. You simply can’t be as productive as people like those two have been and deal hour by hour with the numbing, insipid bullshit of daily life. Hell, Keillor’s even said he’s autistic to some degree. So when he then says he’s remarkably awkward in personal encounters, I believe him.

Could he have had an affair with a staffer? I suppose. But even that seems a stretch. What’s inconceivable though is going all Harvey Weinstein or even pulling a Matt Lauer button-under-the-desk and sex toy routine. But in the absence of actual transparency — from an organization that explicitly demands it of the public subjects of its news gathering — everyone’s imagination is free to run wild.

Personally, I hope Keillor reconsiders his decision not to say more about what’s gone down. As a gifted writer, and just as importantly as a humorist, not mention at age 75 with the bulk of he career behind him, Keillor could help turn this current dialogue down a more nuanced, balanced path.

A path that would include the purely monetary pressures that invariably apply in high-profile matters like this.

 

 

 

Al Franken and Our Paris-in-the-Terror Moment

Image result for paris in the terrorThe set of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” will never be confused with The Algonquin Round Table. If for no other reason than Dorothy Parker would never allow Joe [Scarborough] to bloviate on as long and as loudly as he so often does. But the show’s cast of supporting characters — plenty of New York Times and Washington Post reporters and columnists — is bona fide, and given a topic in her wheelhouse, in this case th gross sexual misbehavior by men, soon-to-be Mrs. Joe, Mika Brzezinski, (a.k.a. “Mika-Boo”) is a force of nature.

And Mika the Force is all over our “me too” moment. Amid much high dudgeon about sexual harassment she has also been pushing the nuancy questions of proportionate punishment and “What do we do with the apologies?” This isn’t to say Brzezinski is the first to pose these questions, only that she’s making a persistent point of them.

And that it directly affects Al Franken.

Even following the latest accusation of … butt-palming … at the State Fair, liberal women are having a hard time lumping Franken in with Harvey Weinstein and Roy Moore. For her part, (as a very committed feminist and liberal), Brzezinski is conceding her tribal affinities, while arguing that if this “moment” is going to accomplish something of lasting value, every woman has to have the right to speak and every offender should suffer or at least endure some measure of punishment. But, that said … butt palming/patting/caressing is not in the same universe as rape or pedophilia.

What Mika-Boo hasn’t yet gotten into in this Paris-in-the-Terror moment for men, is the twisty down side to a flat-out, unequivocal “believe the women” episode.

Some of us are old enough to remember the truly bizarre (and remarkably under-examined) frenzy over satanic sexual abuse, murder and mutilation of very young children in schools and day care centers in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Sociologically and psychologically, it was a mind-boggler.

Here in Minnesota the focus was in Scott County. A zealous prosecutor, Kathleen Morris — like prosecutors in the McMartin Pre-School case in California and the Little Rascals Day Care case in North Carolina — insisted the public at large had a moral obligation to “believe the children”. (BTW: The PBS series on the latter case, “Innocence Lost” remains one of the most riveting documentaries I have ever seen. If you want a case study in tribal psychosis, there it is.) Eventually, after millions in court costs and the total ruination of reputations and lives, all of the cases fell apart and the frenzy subsided.

The media took the “believe the children” bait, big time.

My point is that in those environments it was difficult-to-impossible to not “believe the children” just as, for progressive liberals and Al Franken in particular it is not functionally,  socially possible to “believe the women” in this environment.

For example: Even if Franken knew for certain the tongue-in-the-mouth business with Leeann Tweeden was a “bit” or that the butt-caressing at the State Far never happened … he can’t in effect call either of the women liars by saying so. That simply isn’t allowed under the rules of this “cultural moment”. Not for liberals anyway. Conservatives, especially Donald Trump and Roy Moore, are free to condemn all female accusers as liars (and in Trump’s case argue that none of them were good-looking enough to warrant his attention, and then threaten to sue them).

It’s a liberal dilemma … and one that is ripe for exploitation.

Now, before I wander off into the bat[bleep] conspiracy phase of this screed, let me issue the disclaimer that: The United States has always been exceptional in the long march of human nature, in that unlike every other culture on the planet, here in the USA malicious adversaries have never ever concocted a plan to destroy a political opponent through nefarious means. That sort of thing only happens someplace else.

Personally, I don’t find it unimaginable that people like Roger Stone, Steve Bannon and the toxic-but-well funded netherworld of Breitbart and the Mercers might find a way to, shall we say, “encourage” women like Ms. Tweeden and the State Fair victim to come forward with stories (and photographs) deeply damaging to a politician enjoying high regard as a clever, mediagenic assailant of their pet policies and personalities.

I know how insane that sounds. It’s real Elvis-stepped-off-the-UFO stuff. But I’m simply saying I can imagine it. (And yes, I’m taking medication to treat the hallucinations.)

Also, as we collectively try to come up with the appropriate scale to judge all the misbehaviors being tossed up, let me suggest that abuse and harassment stories coming through some form of professional vetting — like the editing pipeline of a major news organization — strike me as having more credibility than just someone holding a press conference.

Big news organizations have reputations to protect and don’t like getting sued. But no nationally renown public figure, of the progressive political persuasion, is in any position to denounce much less sue one poor woman recovering, like Ms. Tweeden and the young lady at the Fair, from the terrible, psychological scarring of sexual abuse.

Voters Need To Fire The Creeps

We’ve learned a lot of grotesque things in recent weeks.  Minnesota U.S. Senator Al Franken will do anything to get a laugh, including humiliating women. Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore is a serial pedophile predator who should have been prosecuted before the statute of limitations ran out. Minnesota Representative Dan Schoen and Senator Tony Cornish continually go way over the flirt-harassment line, and it’s not close. President Donald Trump has admitted on videotape to sexually assaulting women, and at least 16 women have gone on the record to assure us that what the President told Billy Bush is true.

So enough with the political noise.  Enough “if the allegations are true” games.  Enough “what about others in the other party?” What these men did was unacceptable.

I obviously can’t control the outcomes of these controversies.  But if I could, this is what I would wish for all of them: None of them would resign under pressure from party leaders. All of them would be voted out.

Clearly, if they do resign before their next election, that’s better than them retaining their power.  But if I could wave a magic wand, I don’t want the final chapter on these men’s history to be “resigned under pressure from party leaders.” I want it to be “rejected by the voters.”

Here is why:  If it’s the former, there will be many Americans who blame the spineless, “politically correct” party elites who forced the resignation. If it’s the latter, it will be much more clear that the community-at-large rejects sexual harassment and assault. That’s what we need to stigmatize this behavior and make it less prevalent.

I understand why party leaders call for these men to resign. To give them the benefit of the doubt, they’re showing that they take the issue seriously. To look at it more cynically, they need to replace their damaged political goods with a more electable candidate so they can retain power for themselves. Whatever their motivation, I’m glad they’re doing it, because it helps to spotlight and denormalize the behavior.

But I don’t want party elites to end these political careers. I want the larger “us” to do that. We’re a democracy. Voters need to step up and do our job. We need to overcome our tribal instincts and vote these guys out. We should replace them with more women. We should send a clear signal to political leaders that creepiness and criminality are electorally toxic, so parties will start nominating better people.

Like a lot of men, I’m not all that comfortable speaking out on this topic. Men who are self-aware and honest know that we’re all part of the sickness we’re reading about on the front pages.

Though we continually assure ourselves that we’re “way better than most,” we also know we’re far from perfect. Maybe we’ve told a joke that we understand in retrospect made women uncomfortable. Maybe we’ve confused objectification with flattery. Maybe we haven’t always controlled our eyeballs. Maybe in the exclusive company of men, we didn’t have the courage to speak out about comments that embolden harassers. Maybe we haven’t called out peers who went over the line in our presence.

So I’m not coming at this from a holier than thou perspective.  We all need to improve. We all need to own this and fix this. Seeing the community at large — masses of fed up voters — reject this behavior will do more to hasten the improvement process than seeing them forced out by a handful of party elites scrambling to cover their asses.

Al Franken, Come On Down.

And now it’s Al Franken’s turn. While he has, first and foremost apologized, then asked for an investigation of himself and promised to cooperate, the chips are still going to have to fall where they may, regardless of his advocacy for issues vital to women and liberals. It’s the new normal. It’s a fact of life we’re all going to have to get accustomed to. If you’ve behaved like a pig, (although in this case not criminally so), chances are good you’re going to get outed.

Having met and interviewed Franken a number of times I can’t say that I, like Claude Rains in “Casablanca” (which I saw again last night at the Icon Theaters in St. Louis Park) am “shocked, shocked” to hear that Al the celebrity behaved badly.

This situation strikes me as very similar to the actor Richard Dreyfuss, who after being accused last week issued a statement saying:

“I want to try to tell you the complicated truth. At the height of my fame in the late 1970s I became an asshole–the kind of performative masculine man my father had modeled for me to be. I lived by the motto, ‘If you don’t flirt, you die’. And flirt I did. I flirted with all women, be they actresses, producers, or 80-year-old grandmothers. I even flirted with those who were out of bounds, like the wives of some of my best friends, which especially revolts me. I disrespected myself, and I disrespected them, and ignored my own ethics, which I regret more deeply than I can express. During those years I was swept up in a world of celebrity and drugs – which are not excuses, just truths. Since then I have had to redefine what it means to be a man, and an ethical man. I think every man on Earth has or will have to grapple with this question. But I am not an assaulter.”

Franken may not have had the same cachet with “all women” as an Oscar-winning actor, but the “asshole” part may well apply. A constant with a lot of the characters outed to date is a sense of being drunk on fame and power, of being transported by manic ego to a realm of impunity for behavior unconditionally unacceptable to others. (Although, lord knows, millions of common guys have pulled the same stunts).

Comparisons are already being made to liberal women’s regard for Bill Clinton, who was without question a reckless womanizer. At Vox, Matt Yglesias goes on at length about why Clinton should have resigned following disclosure of the Monica Lewinsky affair. But he didn’t and he wasn’t forced to because a majority of Americans, not just liberals, made a value judgment that he was doing more good for them than bad, and that the Lewinsky thing was the sordid culmination of a decade-long witch hunt by opponents who had no better option to offer.

Clinton’s um, “interaction”, with Lewinsky was wrong by every measure, and despite leaving office with a higher approval rating than (St.) Ronnie Reagan, Clinton and Hillary have paid quite a high reputational price for it. But … unlike Roy Moore, Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump … even Lewinsky describes their fling as “consensual” and in no way (that we know) did Clinton require sex as a ticket to employment or advancement. So it is with most of the other ladies he is known to have cavorted with in his drunk-on-fame binge.

The episode with Juanita Broaddrick, which she describes as rape, has always been clouded by her way-too tight association/exploitation by the same semi-deranged Clinton-haters who tried to convince us a money-losing Arkansas land deal was a Constitutional crisis. But that isn’t to say it didn’t happen. (This one is an example of a “consider the source” accuser.)

The point, with reference to Al Franken and liberals, is that we are now in an era when what was once secret is being laid out on the table for all to see and judge. I’ve voted for Franken twice, because he votes my interests, which I’ve always thought is the best reason to vote for anyone, not because I liked him personally. And if a full investigation concludes that this supposedly semi-comic groping kissing business was the full extent of this incident I’m inclined to vote for him again.

More to the point, the revelation about Franken, (and we already know about his coke-snorting days), comes in the early moments this “cultural moment.” There’s a lot more to come. You can feel it. And we’re seeing quite a range of skeezy behavior. Some far … far … more ugly than others.

I’ve been trying to imagine the frantic contacts and the amount of hush money that must be changing hands right this moment in every industry from Hollywood to Silicon Valley to to Detroit to Capitol Hill as famous men with a whole lot to lose, (think Bill O’Reilly’s $32 million), buy off the victims of their years of being an asshole.

 

Bad Boys, Dumb Boys, Roy Moore and our “Cultural Moment”

Is there a male alive today who doesn’t cringe at every new revelation of sexual misbehavior? God we look bad. Whether blatantly criminal, like Harvey Weinstein and Roy Moore, or farcically oafish, like GOP Rep. Tony Cornish here in Minnesota, the male “brand” is taking a brutal beating in this “cultural moment.”

And for the (very) most part that’s a good thing. We’re witnessing an astonishing outing of perverts, boors and dorks. It’s a comeuppance that is generations-to-centuries overdue. As I’ve said before, since we live under the minority rule of gun fetishists, we’re not going to do anything about our weekly assault rifle slaughters, so maybe all this attention being paid to male sexual/ego dysfunction will accomplish something positive.  (Clearly, the gun slaughter thing has been reduced to: A week of news coverage, “thoughts and prayers” and “let’s move on”.)

Having become a fan of Yuval Harari’s books on human evolution, I’ve been wondering how much of this predatory sexual behavior is a modern invention? And by “modern” I mean post-agricultural revolution?

Did adult males in our hunter-gatherer days lurk malevolently around adolescent girls — like a pervy Fred Flintstone at the Bedrock Mall — and force themselves on them against their will? Was violent rape a common occurrence?  Did sexual fantasies of power and domination control male behavior? Sexual interaction between males and females of “breeding age” was common. We know that. But what about the violence part? The literature I’ve seen recently is mixed, but trending to the belief that this twisted, contorted notion of male dominance is yet another example of a large percentage of the human population — most notably the males — failing to adapt to the exponential increase in population, competition and discordant cultural messages.

Pretty much every culture war issue can be broken down to a diminishment of the archetypal male role. Our big muscle skill set began to be less important to species survival when we stopped having to spear and wrestle mastodons to the ground. Likewise the need for us males to spread our seed to as many females as possible has been making less and less sense species survival-wise since we settled down to farming and began producing more off-spring than we could feed.

A friend the other day mentioned he was called into a faculty meeting at the college where he teaches. The topic? You guessed it. Sexual harassment in the work place, (and by extension everywhere else.) He correctly saw his role at that meeting as, “Shut up and listen.” The women had plenty of venting to do, and this is their time to do it. No mansplaining required or allowed. (It’s fascinating to see the level of passion coming from media women on political chat shows. They are truly seizing the moment to clue — men — into all the crap they’ve been putting up with since junior high but until now have quarantined to lunches with their girlfriends.)

There’s a worry among the usual retrograde types — Sean Hannity, Alabama Republicans, etc. — that not only are fine Suth’n gentlemen like Roy Moore being tarred without a trial — but every male is now going to be treated like a criminal pervert.

That of course is part and parcel of the usual hysteria from the perpetually aggrieved, a description the Trumpist right wears round their necks like a medieval scapular. With male attention — sought an unsought — playing as large a role in women’s lives as it does (the reverse being at least as true for men), I’m not too concerned “the gals” will have a hard time making out the qualitative difference between getting raped (Harvey Weinsten), preyed upon and groped (Roy Moore and Donald Trump), being shocked and disgusted (Louis CK), inappropriately seduced and abandoned (Bill Clinton), aggravated and annoyed (Tony Cornish) or semi-amused and filled with pity at the average guy’s generally clueless and clumsy come ons.

Women have made a science of male behavior. Think of us as simple, one-cell/one track paramecium being observed under a microscope. The Harveys and Roys and Louis of the world are no surprise to them. All that’s going on now is that evolution has ticked up a notch to where (western) women can say out loud and with less fear of male repercussion what they’ve been saying to each other for, mm, several thousand years.

 

 

The Edina Resistance and Katherine Kersten

Judging by the interest in what would normally be a sleepy school board election, The Resistance is alive and fired up in leafy Edina. The town is slathered with yard signs. It isn’t just that there are 12 people running for four seats. It’s also the clear reaction to former Strib columnist Katherine Kersten and a suddenly reinvigorated Center of the American Experiment (CAE).

The latter used to be a deeply ingrown redoubt for what passed for the intellectual right in Minnesota. (It’s run out of Golden Valley.) For years the leader was an amiable guy named Mitch Pearlstein, the sort of character you could have a pleasant and even entertaining lunch with and not feel like you’d been exposed to some mutant toxin. The CAE brought in speakers and held luncheons and generally maintained boiler pressure for the usual conservative shibboleths like “smaller government” and climate change denial.

But as American conservatism began walking further and further out on the plank of talk radio nuttery, the CAE began losing what relevance it had. I mean … eight years of ruinous, disastrous, freedom-sapping Barack Obama rule! This aggression can not stand, man! Whether Pearlstein grew tired of that shtick or simply too old, I don’t know. But roughly a year ago he was replaced by John Hinderaker, best known as the most incendiary (i.e. unhinged) of the attorneys fueling the nationally popular Powerline blog. (The Strib ran a perfunctorily bland PR piece shortly after he took over.)

Hinderaker will forever be remembered for this 2005 commentary on George W. Bush, “It must be very strange to be President Bush. A man of extraordinary vision and brilliance approaching to genius, he can’t get anyone to notice. He is like a great painter or musician who is ahead of his time, and who unveils one masterpiece after another to a reception that, when not bored, is hostile.” It was typical of both his depth and his lick spittle approach to conservative power centers.

Which is why a lot of people, me among them, suspect Hinderaker tapped some very (very) rich vein of cash to infuse the CAE with enough money to choke Edina mailboxes last month with a remarkably polished magazine, “Thinking Minnesota”, driven by a cover story from Ms. Kersten on “racial identity activists” polluting the traditional curriculum of Edina’s public schools. It was an academic gloss on nakedly distasteful racial fear mongering.

No matter how much Kersten, the CAE and establishment Republicans (most of whom have their toes curled at the very edge of the talk radio, race-baiting plank) try to “intellectualize” and legitimize her message, the fact remains that the targets of her animus are invariably organizations and people with increasing racial and cultural diversity. Rethinking hoary white traditions and encouraging racial/cultural acceptance is like a dagger to her ideological heart.

As everyone watching politics since Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” knows, modern Republican antipathy toward racial and cultural diversity is also a key tactical strategy in suppressing Democratic votes. (Here’s another Strib piece, reporting on the effects of Kersten’s persistent, dog-with-a-bone attacks on a Muslim-oriented St. Paul charter school.)

Anyway, pretty much everywhere you go in unequivocally first world Edina these days people are talking … school board elections. The “Thinking Minnesota” mailing, coupled with a Kersten commentary published by the Strib has given my well-bred, well-educated, upscale neighbors, (I’m none of that), an amphetamine-like injection of resistance/activist zeal. The field of 12 candidates has been parsed down to pro-Kersten and well, “[bleep] Kersten and the horses she rode in on”.

As I say, I don’t know where Hinderaker got the money. Lord knows there are enough well-heeled metro area Republicans to goose the CAE’s prospects. (Climate change denying will always get you a check from Stanley Hubbard.)  Or it could be, as conspiracy-minded liberals like me prefer to think, an example of the Koch brothers tossing the Minnesota bums a dime to both shore up “traditional thinking” on the school board and prep the landscape to reelect Third District Congressman Erik Paulsen. Paulsen being a legislative lightweight ripe for plucking if the Democrats can coalesce around a viable opponent. (“Adult spirits” heir Dean Phillips would seem to have the best shot.)

Defeat of the “Kersten slate” of school board candidates should rightly spook Paulsen.

Down around the bottom line is this: Edina has changed. Once a reliable fortress of white entitlement, the city, while still very (very) white is home to enough brain power and conscience to be disquieted-to-horrified by the corruption and bigotry of the Trump regime and the various apparatuses — (eg: the CAE) — that promoted his pyrrhic victory.

The resistance is lined up for lattes and scones at Patisserie Margo and is saying, “No way! Not here!”

 

When Manafort Met Trump.

I would love to have been in the meeting where Paul Manafort pitched his services to Donald Trump. What those two grifters saw in each other may be the wet kiss that seals both of their fates.

The suspicion today, before the inevitable avalanche of more damning details, is that Manafort was in hock to Russian paymasters — i.e. oligarch/gangsters — and badly needed to “get whole” ASAP. We know that almost immediately after getting the job to run Trump’s campaign he uses that very phrase in a correspondence seeking ideas about how to monetize his new presidential candidate connection.

But come on! The guy, who has been a DC system parasite for over 30 years, with a career of shady deals in his treadworn baggage, has no concern about walking into the spotlight of a presidential campaign? No concerns that at long, long last the Justice department or US Attorney or someone will take a more focused look at what he’s been up to or … what he will now do to win an election?

Talking Points’ Josh Marshall speculates that Manafort was so desperate to resolve his debt(s) to Oleg Deripaska (and likely others) that he decided the lesser risk was in the spotlight working for Trump. As we know, Manafort, a character who regards every breath he takes as an opportunity to make a buck off someone, worked for free.

Now that’s a motivated employee.

Says Marshall in the context of Manafort suddenly increasing his value to the Russians, “… spies look for people who are crooked and people who are desperate. Manafort looks like he was both.”

So what did Trump see in Manafort? We’re told they were well acquainted with each other, but not close. Besides a relationship with (yet another career long grifter) Roger Stone, the one thing they absolutely had in common, and which I suspect they knew about each other, were long-term relationships with Russians laundering money, in Trump’s case through wildly over-priced purchases of Trump real estate.

But what does Manafort promise to deliver? As of yesterday we now know Team Trump was being baited with the prospect of Hillary e-mails as far back as March, months before they eventually dropped, (within hours of the Access Hollywood tape.) Did Manafort promise to make that delivery happen? Did he convince Trump that he knew the right people to make it happen? Had he heard offers of cooperation from the Russian hacking operation? Did Trump see in him, a veteran grifter, a guy who could weaponize such information and not screw up?

We know that Manafort had some kind of role in dropping that plank about arming Ukrainians against the Russians. That move — though symbolic — had to have impressed Russians watching to see what they might get for their money, or at least their continued patience until Manafort delivered the money he owed.

But now that he’s under house arrest, with no chance of repaying whatever he owes Deripaska (and other Russian mobsters) how does Manafort see a way to defeat these first charges, much less all the others very likely to come down thanks to George Papadopoulos’ guilty plea, and “proactive cooperation”, (i.e. wearing a wire to talk to campaign and White House supervisors)? Russian oligarchs with millions in property all over Western Europe and the United States have to see a Manafort under arrest as worse than useless to them. If he starts singing, aggressive US attorneys (if there are any left after the Trump purge) will be delighted to move on those empty $5 million condos glutting markets in New York, London, San Francisco and everywhere else.

And then, as has been noticed, let’s not forget Gen. Flynn, about whom nothing was said yesterday. If Mueller kept Papadopoulos’s guilty plea under wraps for months, fair speculation says he’s got something similar going with Flynn.

 

 

 

 

What Did Bill O’Reilly Do to Give a Woman a $32 Million Pay-Off?

Let’s imagine for a moment what you would have to have done to pay another person $32 million to go away and forget the whole thing? I don’t know what it was, and Bill O’Reilly, as usual, is screaming “bull[bleep]” and claiming that he is the real victim. But if a pig like Harvey Weinstein was in the habit of tossing $150,000 of chicken feed to shut up women he sexually harassed, it’s reasonable to think O’Reilly is into “either a dead girl or a live boy” territory.

Says Debra Katz, a D.C. attorney in a Huffington Post story this morning,

” ‘This is unprecedented’, she said. ‘It’s a shocking figure’. The settlement, Katz said, indicates that O’Reilly ‘felt extremely exposed’. ‘There was obviously strong and compelling evidence that had to be of a very embarrassing nature that he did not want to become public, and that’s why he’s paying this extraordinary sum’, she said. ‘You don’t pay a $32 million settlement if you’ve engaged in no wrongdoing’.”

The astonishing boorish-to-criminal behavior of guys like O’Reilly and his boss Roger Ailes, a mob of other Fox executives, Weinstein, movie director James Toback, Bill Cosby, Roman Polanski and on and on (and on and on) may actually have ignited something that produces real change … just when you thought progress and improvement were quaint notions held only by sweet nattering aunts. The #metoo movement has the feel of a cathartic event that if it doesn’t put an end to O’Reilly/Weinstein-ism, (of course it won’t), will at least continue to embolden women (and their lawyers) to drop the hammer more often than they have in the past.

I mean, when the astonishing machine gun slaughter of 58 people at a music concert In Las Vegas rates only a week’s worth of attention, because no one expects anything to change, the power of so many women collectively calling out the arrogant, diseased-by-power dudes who regularly make their lives miserable seems a far better bet for forward movement.

But back to O’Reilly, and the toxic, consistently misogynistic culture promoted in the right-wing media environment. $32 million is the kind of money you pay to someone who has the kind of irrefutable proof of behavior so heinous it guarantees your existential ruin. Not murder, and maybe not actual rape, but … well there was the, um, unusual mention of O’Reilly sending the woman in question gay pornography. I have no statistics on how many desperate guys get anywhere with the women of their desires by impressing them with their gay porn collection, but I’m thinking it’s in the low single digits.

Bill O’Reilly unmasked as a bona fide bi-sexual/closeted gay predator would be really … really … tough on the macho, “No Spin” branding campaign, wouldn’t it?

Josh Harkinson at Mother Jones wrote a fascinating piece last winter that bored into the psychology of the target audience for FoxNews, O’Reilly and Trump. (A comment on Weinstein in a moment.)

“Revelations of Trump’s sexist comments and his bragging about grabbing women’s genitals only helped forge stronger ties between the racist and sexist wings of the alt-right. After the bombshell revelation of the Access Hollywood tape, Spencer said it was ‘ridiculous’ and ‘puritanical’ to call Trump’s behavior sexual assault, adding, ‘At some part of every woman’s soul, they want to be taken by a strong man’. Far-right blogger RamZPaul responded to the Trump tape by saying, ‘Girls really don’t mind guys that like pussies, they just hate guys who are pussies’.”

His colleague, Kevin Drum, quoted that graph and reacted to it saying,

“A big chunk of the alt-right is populated by social misfits who have been repeatedly rejected by women and are bitter about it. This makes them suckers for leaders who assure them they aren’t misfits. What’s really happening—and this can be a very beguiling story—is that women toy with them and laugh at them as part of a deliberate ploy to emasculate strong men and keep them from their rightful leadership positions. Because of this, a bitter resentment of women runs through almost every strain of the alt-right.

“I don’t know if the alt-right is a truly important new development or just a passing fad—a new name for a lot of the same old resentments that have been around forever. But to the extent the alt-right is important, it’s worth knowing how central this particularly toxic brand of sexism is to the whole movement—even if it doesn’t often get a lot attention. This is also why it’s not right to simply call them racists or neo-Nazis. A lot of them are indeed that, but they’re so, so much more.”

Hollywood’s Weinstein problem is bad. The movie/TV industry in general has too few qualms about relating masculinity to violence and selling sexual stereotypes marinated in a lot of pretty juvenile male fantasies. #metoo will have a tougher time adjusting corporate/studio calculations of “what the public wants”. But I’ll bet gross-pig behavior will get more immediate and louder blowback than before.

But toxic masculinity — based on victimhood, grievance and domination — is a staple of The O’Reilly Diet Plan. A staple so lucrative and satisfying Bill-O and “scores” of other boys at FoxNews apparently became addicted to it.

Which leads me to Steve Bannon. Given everything we know about this manifestly damaged, bitter personality, how long do you think before we find out what or who was dissolved in acid in his hot tub in Florida?

Bonus link: A (possibly bogus) site claims Bannon’s joint, (supposedly occupied by his third ex) was used to cook meth and shoot porn videos.

You want to say, “That’s crazy.” But with this crowd everything is plausible.

 

How About We Shift the Harvey Weinstein Discussion Up a Notch?

Even driving around the canyons and hollows of the Rocky Mountains as we were last week, it was impossible to avoid the Harvey Weinstein story. Every local TV station and newspaper had something on him, because after all, celebrity and sex are a sweet spot of American culture. (If there was a way to roll football and shopping into the story the rest of the planet could have exploded and no one would have noticed.)

Having put in several years of service observing the folkways of Hollywood, I too am engrossed with the sheer horror of Harvey. But, having seen the system up closer than many and having interviewed celebrities like Melanie Griffith and Lauren Hutton, to name only two, who were remarkably frank about their career strategies, I’m still left with the feeling that there’s another facet of this outrage that isn’t out on the table for indignant dissection.

It’s been noted that the Hollywood casting couch is such a hoary cliché the fact so many supposedly worldly media types are treating the Weinstein episode as a surprise is in fact the biggest surprise of all. I mean, what world have they been living in? As everyone who follows the movie industry knows, legendary tycoons like Jack Warner,  Louis B. Mayer and Sam Spiegel essentially operated harems of aspiring actresses for their personal amusements. Fat, piggy Harvey was merely following a well established tradition.

I’m with the skeptics who find it impossible to believe that savvy operators like former Disney chief Jeff Katzenberg, a friend and business confidante of Weinstein’s for 30 years, knew nothing of Harvey’s open secret of a reputation. Likewise, the pro forma notes of dismay sounded by people ranging from George Clooney, Matt Damon and even Barack Obama ring a little hollow. Anyone successful in any business is also in the business of knowing. The question here is what did they accept as a cost of doing business?

Which is close to the discussion that isn’t (currently) being had. And it’s this: For all the women who were rightfully, legitimately horrified at what Weinstein put them through, he wouldn’t have kept at it for 30 years or more if there weren’t at least an equal number of other women who wrote off submitting to Harvey as a cost of doing business. Which isn’t to say they weren’t disgusted by the sight of him and with themselves for going along with it. But if the legal issue is consent they — who we may never hear from — consented to a long-accepted Hollywood tradition.

Like a lot of businesses, Hollywood is a highly transactional environment. You have something he wants. He wants something you have. You make a deal. A deal horrifying to puritans and god-fearing protestants in Peoria, but damn close to normal in an industry where sex or at least sex appeal is the commodity that delivers the cash.

Part of the fascination with Harvey Weinstein is that the guy is in visual terms, central casting’s idea of a repulsive pig. The sort of guy few if any women would give a second look, if it weren’t for the fact he could put them in the movies. I can’t help but wonder how reaction to the story might be different if Weinstein looked like Ben Affleck? (In that context it’s hard to imagine Affleck having to resort to the bathrobe and massage shtick time after time.)

Point being, while Weinstein is a caricature of a disgusting dilemma — “Do I do it to get it over with? Or do I scream and run for the door?” — hundreds of other producers, directors, agents and other purveyors of influence and dreams look like they could model of GQ. The calculation over sullying your self-respect for career advancement becomes a bit different when the “predator’s” appearance doesn’t disgust you.

I’m hoping the discussion turns to what a lot of people — not just attractive young women — submit to, in terms of gross violations of traditional ethics and standards of behavior just to move a step up the career ladder. Such submission doesn’t have to mean snogging a porker like Harvey Weinstein. It could be as utterly routine as shutting up and being “a good team player” when every red light and alarm in your conscience is screaming that the boss or company you’re working for is engaged in legal or moral fraud. (Take, for example, the thousands of Wells Fargo employees who consented to the big bank’s series of outrageous frauds. Or take Enron, or Countrywide Financial, and on and on)

The current “me too” movement is a unique and valuable response to sexual harassment and assault. There are Harvey Weinsteins in every company from Main Street to Wall Street, and no woman should be required to weigh her option whether to submit to lechery or not. But while we’re at it, can we talk just a little, amongst ourselves, about how often ordinary people, us “little people”, are required to violate our basic ethical standards just to keep that next check coming?

 

And We Expect What from Las Vegas?

One night a couple of years ago, while taking a short cut across the Las Vegas Strip, I was stopped at a police road block. At least a dozen cops and a half-dozen police cruisers had cordoned off the side street and were supervising eight or nine semis maneuvering to unload at the freight dock of some large building.

Vegas hosts a non-stop run of trade shows, but come on! Maybe you need two cops to hold back traffic for a couple of minutes. What’s this all about?

As the huge trucks slowly angled into the docks I craned my neck over to passenger’s side to see where exactly they were going. The Sands Expo Center. And below it a banner announcing the “36th Annual SHOT Show”, the world’s biggest gun and ammo show, a production of The National Shooting Sports Foundation, a “gun enthusiasts” organization based, very ironically, in Newtown, CT.

The Vegas cops were there to protect a convoy of semis [which came across what public highway with how much protection?] loaded with hundreds-to-thousands of guns and rounds of ammunition.

There is no reason to believe this week’s epic mass slaughter — again, very ironically, at a country music concert in Las Vegas — will have any effect at all on the dwindling percentage of Americans feverishly clinging to the Second Amendment as the most vital of all the words of the U.S. Constitution. As statistics tell us, while each year there are fewer Americans owning guns, those that do, like Stephen Paddock, the Vegas shooter, as with an addict, are stockpiling both guns and ammo, with eight being the current average number of guns in their personal arsenals. [As the link above notes, 3% of America’s “gun enthusiasts” own 50% of the weapons. Paddock owned over 40.]

Discussions about the fragile psychology of these “gun enthusiasts”, (the polite description often used by the non-partisan press), have proven pointless. The credible accusation that someone, mostly white males, stockpiling an arsenal in their demonstrably peaceful suburbs and out on their ranches, has serious masculinity insecurity issues only increases their conviction that they and their “way of life” are under attack. At which point, their paranoia spiking,  they rush out and buy more guns and bullets.

In a country now more heavily armed per capita than [bleeping] Yemen, and far more than any other place on the planet, there isn’t a flicker of hope that any significant gun regulation will come out of this week’s massacre. We all remember that the response of the Republican congress to the Newtown slaughter was to further weaken gun laws. [Here’s another useful set of stats, if, as The Dude says, you’re not into that whole brevity thing.]]

In a rational environment, there would at the very least be a terrorist watch list-like data base of people buying up multiple numbers of guns and the thousands of rounds of ammo so many of these killers manage to acquire. [A $5 tax per bullet might slow things down a bit, too.] There would also be a rational acceptance of the fact that — if getting killed by a psychopath is something you worry about — the chances of that guy being a middle-aged-to-older white guy far exceeds the likelihood of him being a muslim. [As close as we’re likely to get to a definitive comparison, over the 10 years from 2005 to 2015, there were  71 deaths on American soil due to “terrorism” and over 301,000 to “normal” gun violence. Remind yourself of that the next time the news kids go berserk over a “terror link.”]

But we left “rational” behind generations ago. A huge part of the American myth — powerfully abetted by pop culture — is that our “freedoms” were born out of and sustained by firepower and that male potency is directly linked, infused if you will, with threats and displays of violence. Never mind every statistic available proving that we are living in one of the least violent and threatening periods of human existence.

If there is a glimmer of hope anywhere it may be in the Supreme Court’s decision on Wisconsin’s gerry-mandering. If the court at long, long last concurs that congressional districts designed to sustain a particular party affiliation is, you know, not what the Founding Fathers had in mind, it would mean that rural politicians would have to appeal to someone other than the reddest meat of their pro-Second Amendment constituency. It might well mean that the NRA’s choke-chain on every Republican and all but a couple of Blue Dog Democrats, like Minnesota Collin Peterson, would show a little slack.

But the psycho-sensory effect of a loaded gun in the hand of a guy with a weak sense of his masculinity is so powerful it truly is a primal, primary motivation in his life.

Good luck changing that.

Why Not Regulate Guns Just As We Already Regulate A Similarly Dangerous Hunk of Steel?

Imagine that you turned on the news today to learn that Group A of politicians was accusing Group B of politicians of plotting to confiscate all automobiles.  As evidence, Group A was noting that Group B supports requiring users of vehicles to be licensed, registered and of sound, mind and body, and opposes the use of armored tanks or monster trucks on community roadways.  In that news story, imagine that Group A is insisting that no vehicle regulations be used.  After all, they claim, any regulation would be equivalent to, or would surely lead to, confiscation of all vehicles.

We would think Group A was delusional, even though we all adore cars and are vehemently opposed to them being confiscated. But that, my friends, is the world in which we are living, when it comes to gun control.

Almost every debate about responsible gun control regulation is dodged by gun advocates. Instead of debating proposed gun regulations on the merits, gun advocates instead claim that the mere mention of a gun regulation constitutes ipso facto evidence that guns are about to be confiscated. That ridiculous assertion has been trotted out there for decades, despite the fact that gun confiscation has never even been proposed by a mainstream politician, much less come close to being enacted.

Obama_gun_control_confiscation_memeGun advocates promised President Obama would be a gun confiscator, and they rushed out to buy stockpiles of weapons and ammunition.  To no sane person’s surprise, it never happened, even in the first two years of his presidency when Obama’s party controlled the House, Senate and White House.  It was never even proposed.

Obviously, no one is going to confiscate guns, because there is no political support in America for confiscating guns. It hasn’t happened, and it’s just not going to happen.  We need to put those confiscation delusions to rest before America can have a reasonable debate about how to responsibly regulate guns.

A Familiar Regulatory Framework

How should America regulate guns?  My approach is simple: Let’s regulate guns similarly to how we regulate cars and trucks. Both motor vehicles and guns are hunks of steel that pose relatively little public danger when used

Think about it:  Both motor vehicles and guns are hunks of steel that pose relatively little public danger when used responsibly, but are extraordinarily dangerous when used irresponsibly. For that reason, society keeps motor vehicles legal, but we regulate them to reduce the risk of harm.  Therefore, we should regulate guns just as we regulate motor vehicles:

  • Users should be licensed.
  • Users should have to pass a basic safety-related test in order to get a license.
  • Users who are not physically or mentally equipped to safely operate the equipment should not be licensed to do so.
  • There should be rules for safe use of the equipment.
  • Users who don’t use the equipment responsibly should lose their license.
  • Each piece of equipment should be registered.
  • Equipment registration data and user licensure data should be readily available to law enforcement officials to help them enforce laws.
  • The equipment should be able to be used in many parts of the community, but not in all parts of the community.
  • The equipment should be required to have locking devices to help the user secure it from theft and use by minors and other unlicensed citizens.
  • The equipment should be required to have reasonable safety features.
  • The equipment makers should be held liable for failure to produce safe equipment, just as every other manufacturer is.
  • Types of equipment that are unnecessarily dangerous to the community shouldn’t legal.

That’s what American society does with cars and trucks, with relatively few complaints or abuses, and that’s what we should do with guns.

Would applying the motor vehicle regulatory model to guns stop every accidental shooting, murder, mass murder, and suicide? Of course not. Just as regulated motor vehicles still are dangerous, regulated guns would still be plenty dangerous. But just as motor vehicle regulations limit the harm caused by cars and trucks in society, gun regulations would limit the harm caused by guns in society.  It would make a difference.  It would make things less bad.

So let’s have an honest debate about that familiar and successful regulatory model.  And for once, let’s have the debate without getting side-tracked by ridiculous delusions of confiscation.

Note:  In the wake of yesterday’s horrific and all too familiar shootings in Las Vegas, this is a Wry Wrerun.  A very similar version was originally posted in October of 2015.

“The Vietnam War” and A Flood of Memories

Watching Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s “The Vietnam War” unleashes a torrent of memories, few of them good. Despite the moral cover offered by the likes of Ronald Reagan a decade after the fall of Saigon, there was never anything “noble” about “the cause”. The mission of Vietnam was ignorant and ignoble and it’s execution begat an apocalyptic disaster.

People too young to remember the era first hand must have a hard time applying any kind of comparison. At its worst — which it was for nearly 10 years — Vietnam was the equivalent of a Hurricane Harvey/Irma/Maria disaster hitting every week for years in terms of expense, only worse because it was compounded by another 300–500 American deaths each week, with all the grief, rage and polarization that induced. In the midst of it Vietnam felt like a catastrophe without end.

Thinking about it again 50 years later sets the mind off in a dozen directions, most with institutional deceit at their hub.

As a generally credulous teenager in far off, all-white, small town America for half of the Vietnam years, what was etched most into my consciousness, my routine valuations and assessments of American life, was a deep skepticism of authoritarian belief systems. For me (and millions of others) Vietnam was a horrifying example of the steep and frequently cataclysmic effect of blindly submitting to “established order.” By “authoritarian” I mean the subservient end of the process, where “average citizens”, i.e. “the led” embrace and accede to the direction of what passes for our ruling class.

At one point in “The Vietnam War” a field commander gets emotional talking about the world’s greatest fighting men, young Americans who, he says, are great soldiers because they can be trained to follow commands without question, to always do what needs to be done. No one questions the value of such training/indoctrination in a combat situation where Job #1 is staying alive. But that same unquestioning reverence for authority, the willingness to be led anywhere, is also what commits an entire culture — American, Vietnamese, “radical Islamic”, North Korean — to homicidal disasters.

I’m not certain what the essential roots of the authoritarian mindset are. In the film we meet West Pointer Matt Harrison, raised in a military family with an unequivocal alpha father. “Duty” and “honor” were staples of his family psychology. An apex of Americanism. (The film introduces us to Harrison in the company of two other West Point classmates. The cream of young American manhood. The three arrive in Vietnam simultaneously and barely a week later the other two are dead, zipped up and carted away in body bags, after an ambush on a classically absurd “search and destroy” mission.)

Domineering, ethics-shaping fathers are no doubt a powerful influence in the authoritarian makeup. But so to is the group think of immediate culture, that is to say the people you go to school with, do business with and need to count on as compatriots to achieve happiness in life. As the film tells us, through surviving veterans and a precious few of the ruling bureaucrats of the era, “courage” in the early to middle years of Vietnam was defined by skepticism-free, unquestioning acceptance. Doing “your duty.” “Cowardice” was defined by expressing empirical doubt about what Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara and all the other (all white, all-male) leadership group was selling.

Only in the late Sixties, with weekly death tolls hitting 200–400 did the general authoritarian impulse abate enough to create a cultural mass sufficient enough that doubters and objectors had protection from blowback from “the silent majority.”

As depressing as it is to relive the emotions of those years, Burns and Novick are fully aware of how this same reptilian, atavistic, authoritarian mentality infects society today.

I often take (negligible) comfort in the high likelihood that credulous group-think is an aspect of our ongoing evolutionary process. Instinctual group-think impulses saved man-apes on the African savanna, neanderthals in northern Europe and fledgling humanoids everywhere from predator attack for millions of years. Independent thinking was a recipe for shunning if not death. It stands to reason we haven’t lost that go-with-group instinct in the blink of the evolutionary eye that we’ve been (sort of) fully conscious.

But evolution has proceeded. We are now a couple important rungs up the ladder of full(er) awareness. In evolutionary math terms the experience of Vietnam, with its catastrophic levels of misguidance and deceit maybe the overall percentage of independent cognition ticked up 5 to 10%.

If we survive our technological infancy, maybe in  a few hundred years we’ll reach a tipping point where rational thought is the controlling norm. The hope is that then we’ll understand that the predators we most need to protect ourselves against are the people exploiting our “patriotic” impulses to attack someone else.

 

One Fool’s Experience with Delta/American Express’s “Platinum” Customer Service

Please allow me to vent.

I don’t write this because it is unique in any way. Precisely the opposite. What follows below is the kind of stuff every American consumer deals with on a regular basis … if, like me, they’re foolish enough to put up a fight.

To keep a long-ish story as short as possible, the saga begins last June at the Fox Car Rental desk in Las Vegas. Because I’m a cheap bastard I reserved a car at Fox’s “airport location” completely based on price. Their’s was cheaper than Budget, Hertz, etc. Was I happy to discover that Fox’ “airport location” is not one but two shuttle bus rides and a half an hour away from the airport and that the building itself is a chaotic, dirty mess? No.

Likewise, was I in any way amused to be told I was free to wait there amid a scene out of “A Bad Day in Karachi” for “two or three hours” for a car to become available? Or that I had to compete with two other guys, one at each shoulder, barking at the same beleaguered clerk about the fact that they didn’t have their reserved vehicles either? Not so much.

But my Cheap-O-Dar began blinking bright red when I noticed a $150 deposit added to the quoted bill. Did I believe the tiny, tired, bird-like little woman/clerk when she said, “It’s just routine. It comes off when you bring the car back.” Not really.

Flashing forward: I returned the car as scheduled, a week later, on July 6 to be exact, took an Uber to the airport and flew home.

A few weeks later I check, just to make sure you know, that funky $150 “deposit” has been lifted from my American Express bill. Shocker: It hasn’t. Getting anyone at Fox Car Rental on the phone proves futile, so I call American Express, issuer of my all-powerful, all-servicing Delta Airlines Platinum American Express card, and tell them this is wrong and I’m disputing the charge. The representative is very business-like and puts a stop on the charge and promises an investigation.

“Damn straight!”, I say to myself, pleased that my $195 a year annual fee for the (let me repeat and foreshadow) Delta-American Express Platinum Card buys me such powerful and efficient representation. Fox Car Rental, you have screwed with the wrong dude!

A couple more weeks pass and I get a letter from (Delta-American Express Platinum, Inc.) informing me that their investigation has been completed and the charge will be returned to my account. In other words, pay the $150.

Now the fun begins. I call (Delta) American Express and essentially ask, “WTF?” On what grounds is American Express upholding this charge? Well, odd that I should ask that.

Without offering any details about who (if anyone) they spoke with at Fox, the AmEx rep goes into a long explanation of AmEx’s policy regarding collision claims. Point being they completely misunderstood/botched the reason for the dispute. This has nothing to with collision claims. Apologetic, they vow to redouble their thoroughness, power and efficiency and really, truly get to the bottom of things … this time.

Again hearing nothing for a while, I call AmEx back to inquire on their progress. And lo! There has been some! Fox has refunded $82 and change. Huh? Is there an explanation for why that amount and not the rest? Uh, no. AmEx has no information of contact between them and Fox. Do I want to dispute the $64? The underlying tenor of my response was, “[Bleep] yeah!.” AmEx again promises a thorough, powerful and efficient investigation.

Now, much like my wife and everyone saner than me, (which is pretty much everyone), you’re probably saying, “For chrissake. Forget it. It’s just $64.” But — you guessed it — it’s not the money so much as … the principle of the thing. Companies like Fox calculate they can get away with this stuff 95% of the time. Sane people will let them have the money simply because it isn’t worth their time to fight it. But this a form of moral consumer jihad I’m waging! Infidels and non-believers need to STFU.

What further fuels my crazed zealot-like focus is the reading of a handful of consumer complaint websites on Fox Car Rental and the innumerable ways they have jacked other customers around with that $150 deposit. I hate to accuse an American corporation of a routine, institutionalized scam, but there, I just did. If half of the on-line complaints (most very detailed) are true, I’ve got lots of company complaining about pretty much the same thing.

Getting the distinct feeling that my $195 annual fee (for unparalleled customer service) isn’t buying me quite the power and efficiency I had hoped for, I try again to contact someone — anyone at Fox. And I succeed! An actual person answering an actual phone, who actually tells me the $64 is for an extra day’s rental, since I returned the car on the 7th of July, not the 6th as I promised. Telling her that that would be really tough to do since I was home in Minnesota on the 7th, and had been for a day, means nothing to her. In classic corporate fashion, it’s not up to the company to prove they’re right, it’s up to me — the customer — to prove they’re wrong.

Back to (Delta) AmEx. They have requested a copy of my original rental agreement with Fox, but (you guessed it) as yet have no new information on the dispute. Well, I tell them, I do. (Because I made a phone call.) I tell them what Fox is claiming about the extra day and that to resolve this thing — powerfully and efficiently — AmEx should go get a copy of my boarding pass for the July 6 Delta flight and slap it in Fox’ nefarious little faces.

So now. Are you ready for some true inter-corporate comedy? The (last of several) AmEx customer service reps tells me they can’t do that. You see, they have no real connection to Delta Airlines. Firewall. In my best interests. Customer privacy protection and all that.

Again, my exact line wasn’t, “Are you [bleeping] kidding me?” but that’s what I was thinking. “Right on the card it says Delta SkyMiles American Express, and you’re telling  you have no access to Delta Airlines and no way to get something as simple as a copy of a boarding pass? And if you can’t get it, who can?

I already knew the answer to that one. Once again, as a key component in the Delta/American Express Platinum customer service protocol, I the customer, would be the one doing the leg work in settling this dispute for AmEx … on my behalf.

I call Delta customer service. There’s a four-hour long queue. They finally call back.

The lady is very polite and friendly. She commiserates about Fox’s scummy business practices and assures me that at the moment she doesn’t have access to flight records. (“It’s so far back” — not quite two and a half months). But, as a valued customer,  I am able to write to a Delta archive department in Atlanta … via snail mail … and ask them to retrieve a copy of the boarding pass … after paying Delta … $20. It’s another customer service thing, you understand.

Feeling pretty woozy at this point, I ask why I don’t see any record of the trip to Vegas, coming or going, on my Delta SkyMiles account? I mean if I did I could just kick that over to my high-powered AmEx investigators.  The friendly, polite customer service rep tells me that’s because I failed to … manually enter my SkyMiles number. (I’ve had the card just over a year.)

“What?!”, I blurble. “I bought the ticket on the Delta site with the Delta SkyMiles American Express Platinum card which has all of my information from my SkyMiles account number to, [bleep] I don’t know, how often I floss my teeth. What’s the possible point of not automatically entering the SkyMiles number when I’m buying a Delta plane ticket for myself?”

The response is deep scripted gibberish about what if I wasn’t who I said I was? What if I was instead, “Ted Green”, buying a ticket?” In other words, yet another customer service in the name of “customer privacy”. It’s entirely for me own good.

Or perhaps, I tell her, is it because Delta’s bean counters have run a few numbers and calculated how many fewer travel awards they’ll have to pay out to eligible customers if X% of those customers fail to manually enter their SkyMiles data? Shall we, mam, freely speculate on possible “savings” and enhancement of shareholder value?

“Oh, no! I assure you that’s not the reason.”

Of course not. Delta’s only responsibility is to serve.

Bottom line as of today. There is no resolution to this titanic struggle. Delta wants a fee for providing a simple service and AmEx is continuing to, well, they’re continuing to continue, by doing what, I have no idea.

In terms of cost per time spent, I’m pretty sure I’m deep into deficit spending. My only satisfaction to date is a perverse one. Namely, the chronicling of a not at all unusual episode of the American hospitality/service/finance industry, which as we all know is out there every day building consumer trust through customer service … powerfully and efficiently.

 

 

 

 

Minnesota Legislators Turn To GoFundMe To Pay Bills

Saint Paul. MN — Ronald “Bud” Carlson, a 68-year old veteran of the Minnesota Senate (R-Lake City), desperately needed a new power tie for an American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) annual meeting at a Trump Hotel in Las Vegas last week. But he didn’t have the money to pay for the Stefano Ricci one he needed.

“A lobbyist asked if it was the same red power tie I wore last year,” said Carlson. “It was obviously one of the most profoundly humiliating moments of my life.”

Meanwhile, Becca Nowakowski-Alexopoulos, a 38-year old member of the Minnesota House (DLF-Minneapolis), is weeks behind in her regular contributions to a climate change nonprofit organization, donations which she makes to offset the carbon emitted during her regular plane trips to climate change conferences.

“It’s certainly not a coincidence that hurricanes started devastating vulnerable socioeconomic populations after my carbon offset contributions had to stop,” noted an emotional Nowakowski-Alexopoulos.

Carlson and Nowakowski-Alexopoulos are just two of the many legislators courageously struggling to continue their public service careers in the wake of Governor Mark Dayton’s controversial line-item veto of funding for the Minnesota Legislature. The State Supreme Court recently issued a convoluted non-ruling ruling to avoid resolving the constitutional crisis, instead ordering the Governor and Legislature to work with a mediator and “figure it out yourself.”

But in a heartwarming moment of bipartisan cooperation, Carlson and Nowakowski-Alexopoulos, who are often bitter enemies during legislative debates, have been collaborating to solicit contributions via the crowdfunding website GoFundMe.com.

Their hope is that crowdfunding, the raising of small donations from large numbers of people via the Internet, will help them and their colleagues survive until the bitter impasse with Governor Dayton can be resolved.  An estimated $34 billion was raised via crowdfunding in 2015.

“Minnesotans have been truly amazing, sharing their stories of our legislative heroism at #MNlegStrong and digging deep to prove how much they value us,” said Nowakowski-Alexopoulos.

Over the past month, $200,035.73 has been raised, including $100,000 from ALEC and $100,000 from the AFL-CIO. Carlson and Nowakowski-Alexopoulos have recently brought in a second Minnesota Supreme Court-appointed mediator to resolve irreconcilable differences about how to distribute the funds among the 201 legislators and their staffs.

Ta-Nehisi Coates v. George Packer. The Good Fight.

A pet idea I’ve never let go of is, “Your Debate of the Week”. It would be a televised (or streamed) clash of ideas that would largely prohibit politicians, at least until they’ve retired and can say something candid and provocative.

The concept is pretty obvious. Get a climate scientist, (or even our own Paul Douglas), and a denier, turn the camera on and give them 90 minutes to thrust and parry. Likewise, two economists arguing over the hoary, time-refuted notion that corporate tax cuts (excuse me, “reform”) will — this time — translate into good-paying middle-class jobs and raise all boats.

Or, to exploit the most relevant topic currently trending in the elite media micro-verse, Ta-Nehisi Coates and George Packer breaking down the concept of white supremacy and how it explains Donald Trump in the White House.

Coates, now a contributor for Atlantic magazine, is by my estimate and quite a few others, the most eloquent and cogent writer going on the topic of America’s “great shame”. He may be The Intellectual of the Moment. He writes with remarkable precision and passion, which is (a lot) different from just being angry, although god knows he’s that, too. Packer, who is often featured in The New Yorker, (I mentioned the “elite” thing, right?) also authored a terrific book, “The Unwinding”, on how easily America could lose/is losing its moral bearings and spiral(ing) into complete dysfunction.

Coates and Packer are now engaged in a very interesting and very valuable debate — accented by respect, accusation and counter-charge — on what IMHO is the critical factor in the control slack-jawed stupidity has over the once-exceptional US of A.

Coates has a new book out, a section of which is excerpted in the current issue of The Atlantic. Titled “The First White President”, Coates makes several highly relevant, provocative points, among them that Trump owes his ascension to white reaction to Barack Obama’s successful presidency. Namely, the need to refute it, dismantle it and redefine it for history in order to protect the foundering entitlement of white Americans.

But he also argues, as he has often before, that American journalists are complicit in this supremacy narrative either through laziness, cultural blinders or professional group-think, which in practice aren’t all that different. Coates has made a (deserved) name for himself by pushing themes that would produce high anxiety acid reflux in the editors of the average newspaper editorial page.

Face it, much of what passes as “robust” opinion exchange today is really little more than highly moderated/modulated, widely-accepted wonkery. The stuff of snoozy, homogenized, self-satisfied seminars. (In local terms I describe this edge-less, bland, vanilla exchange of conventional rhetoric as The Tom Horner – Tim Penny Paradigm. Authoritative-sounding arguments that turn no new ground or risk any significant blowback. ) By stark contrast, the quality Coates’ brings to a vitally important issue is fueled by the combination of his life experience, his scholarship and his willingness to take the fight to otherwise sacred cows, such as his journalistic peers.

In his “First White President” piece Coates, writes at length and without flattery about liberal politicians’ and journalists’ constant preference to view the Trump phenomenon as a “class” issue and his election as due to the “frustrations of blue-collar whites”, otherwise known as “the left behind”. (I suspect Coates is no fan of J.D. Vance’s “Hillybilly Elegy”.)

Coates says, “One can, to some extent, understand politicians’ embracing a self-serving identity politics. Candidates for high office, such as Sanders, have to cobble together a coalition. The white working class is seen, understandably, as a large cache of potential votes, and capturing these votes requires eliding uncomfortable truths. But journalists have no such excuse.”

Soon thereafter he turns to Mr. Packer.  “White tribalism haunts even more-nuanced writers. George Packer’s New Yorker essay ‘The Unconnected’ is a lengthy plea for liberals to focus more on the white working class, a population that ‘has succumbed to the ills that used to be associated with the black urban ‘underclass’. Packer believes that these ills, and the Democratic Party’s failure to respond to them, explain much of Trump’s rise. Packer offers no opinion polls to weigh white workers’ views on ‘elites’, much less their views on racism. He offers no sense of how their views and their relationship to Trump differ from other workers’ and other whites.”

Thankfully for us, George Packer is not defenseless and sees value in a clash of ideas with someone of Coates’ caliber.

In a response, in The Atlantic, Packer writes, “There’s a lot to admire in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new essay. It’s one of those pieces that grabs you with its first paragraph and never lets go. The argument keeps gathering force, building on the striking imagery (“Trump cracked the glowing amulet open”) and the caustic scouring of the polemics (opioids are treated as a sickness, crack was punished as a crime), to the very end. At its heart is the undeniable truth that racism remains fundamental in American politics.”

He agrees with much of Coates’ essential premise. “At the heart of American politics there is racism. But it’s not alone—there’s also greed, and broken communities, and partisan hatred, and ignorance. Any writer who wants to understand American politics has to find a way into the minds of Trump voters. Any progressive politician who wants to gain power has to find common interests with some of them, without waiting for the day of reckoning first to scourge white Americans of their original sin. This effort is one of the essential tasks of politics.”

But then he drops his hammer. “When you construct an entire teleology on one cause—even a cause as powerful and abiding as white racism—you face the temptation to leave out anything that complicates the thesis. So Coates minimizes sexism—Trump’s disgusting language and the visceral hatred of many of his supporters for Hillary Clinton—background noise. He downplays xenophobia, even though foreigners were far more often the objects of Trump’s divisive rhetoric and policy proposals than black Americans. (Of all his insults, the only one Trump felt obliged to withdraw was his original foray into birtherism.) Coates doesn’t try to explain why, at one point in the campaign, a plurality of Republicans supported Ben Carson over the other nine candidates, all white. He omits the weird statistic that slightly more black and Latino voters and slightly fewer whites went for Trump than for Mitt Romney. He doesn’t even mention the estimated eight and a half million Americans who voted for President Obama and then for Trump—even though they made the difference. No need to track the descending nihilism of the Republican Party. The urban-rural divide is a sham.”

The palpable sexism involved in the loathing of Hillary Clinton by conservatives and a certain strata of liberals is a fascinating reality that suggests Coates should consider appending the word “male” to his “white supremacy” references.

I could go on (and on). But my points are these:

1: In the event you were looking for one, this is a distinctly valuable and enlightening debate, both because of the fundamental issues and the lucidity of the intellects involved.

2: And yet it is pretty much sequestered in the (elite) liberal-intellectual thought arena. (Try imagining any of the current crop of conservative thought-leaders/provocateurs, your Ann Coulters, Sean Hannitys or Laura Ingrahams daring to get into the ring with Mr. Coates.) Coates did make an appearance on Chris Hayes’ MSNBC show last week, and it was striking to see how much more animated and intellectually invigorated Hayes was talking to Coates than the usual partisan pundits.

Our rancid polemical air would be cleaner and healthier to breathe if debates of this quality were given a more prominent platform by … the mainstream media.

 

 

Colin Kaepernick, the Vikings and the NFL’s Political Blacklisting

The NFL continually promotes itself as a meritocracy, a place where the most meritorious players make the teams and racial, ethnicity and socioeconomic status are irrelevant. They say it’s about performance, period.

But the glaring exception to the meritocracy rule is political speech.

Exercising free speech rights does seem to keep talented players off the field.  For instance, God help you if you are a player who speaks out in defense of human rights for gay people. Just ask former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe. After he advocated for gay rights, Kluwe was harassed by his coach and ultimately his NFL career ended abruptly, despite the fact that analysts say Kluwe’s statistics were some of the best in the Vikings 56-year history.

Then there’s Colin Kaepernick, who silently protested racial inequality and police brutality by taking a knee during the national anthem.  After exercising his free speech rights, Kaepernick also couldn’t get a job, despite having a better on-field performance record than half of the backup quarterbacks on NFL rosters, according to a Washington Post review.  An excerpt from the Post’s 2016  analysis:

If you look at Total Quarterback Rating (Total QBR), Kaepernick would be an upgrade over at least half of the backups in the league today, not including rookies. That list is 18 players long and includes Landry Jones, Case Keenum, Matt Barkley, Nick Foles, Scott Tolzien, Geno Smith, Paxton Lynch, Drew Stanton, Bryce Petty, Cardale Jones, Matt Schaub, Derek Anderson, Connor Cook, Brett Hundley, Ryan Mallett, Sean Mannion and Kellen Clemens. Based on down, distance and field position, he helped the 49ers score 30 more points than expected last season through his passing prowess, per ESPN Stats and Information. His 0.09 points added per pass attempt in 2016 is greater than 15 of the backup quarterbacks available or currently on a depth chart.

Kaepernick (55.2) ranked 23rd out of 30 qualified passers in 2016 QBR, placing him ahead of starters like Ryan Tannehill, Cam Newton, Carson Wentz, Eli Manning, Blake Bortles, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Case Keenum.

No one is suggesting he should be a starter in the NFL, but the numbers clearly show he would be a smart addition as a backup quarterback.

Despite these facts, this offseason the Minnesota Vikings avoided Kaepernick like he was Spergon Wynn. The same Vikings team that ran off the politically minded Kluwe wouldn’t even consider signing the politically minded Kaepernick, despite his solid body of work on the field, and a presumably modest salary requirements.

Instead, the Vikings signed Case Keenum, who is statistically inferior to Kaepernick, and Minnesota Gopher alum Mitch Leidner, a below average college player and undrafted rookie. While the hometown boy Leidner probably won’t make the team, he was given a chance. Meanwhile, a completely untested and lackluster prospect, Taylor Heinicke, will likely be named the other backup if the Vikings keep three quarterbacks.  So, Keenum, Heinike, and Leidner over Kaepernick, and 31 other teams also took a pass.  Meritocracy my ass.

The NFL is very patriotic, so it needs to save us from the Kluwes and Kaepernicks.  By the way, some of its patriotism is a profit center.   Until recently, the Pentagon was secretly paying NFL teams as much as a million dollars per game in tax dollars to hold a moment of silence to honor veterans.  What fans assumed to be the hometown team’s heartfelt gesture was actually paid patriotism — a big buck commercial to lure local kids into the military.

There is nothing more American than exercising your free speech rights to promote equality, particularly when you know it will come at a huge financial cost.  What Kluwe and Kaepernick have been doing to improve their country is far more patriotic than the NFL’s hollow Pentagon-financed pay-for-patriotism stagecraft.

The Spirit of The Village Voice is Alive and Well

Although it couldn’t have come as much of a surprise, news that the Village Voice, so long lefty hipsterdom’s bible of progressive rectitude, was no longer going to be published on paper set off a wail of laments. (Such as it is today, the Voice will still be published online.)

Certainly there’s an end-of-an-era quality to this news. But if the fear is that stories and attitudes distilled, amplified, incited by the Voice will no longer be covered, I just can’t buy that.

The Voice’s historical standing is secure. It is the first publication any informed person thinks of when they hear the phrase, “alternative press.” Loaded with a pantheon of terrific, cogent thinkers like Nat Hentoff, Robert Cristgau, Richard Goldstein, Jack Newfield, Alex Cockburn, Sylvia Plachy, Andrew Sarris, Teresa Carpenter and on and on, the Voice was irresistible reading for everyone hungry to know where the cutting edge of politics, arts and culture was in a given week.

The success of the Voice spawned a coast-to-coast legion of copycats, although few with the Voice’s social impact in their respective markets. Here in the Twin Cities several came and went. The Twin Cities Reader (where I worked) and City Pages competed for two decades, producing dozens of impressive features, hundreds of insightful reviews of film and music as well as, let’s face it, thousands of pretty junky advertiser-friendly “service journalism” plugs. (I accept my complicity.)

Point being, it wasn’t all glory.

The further point being that despite the Voice pulling down the curtain on print, the kinds and even the quality of writing on all of the Voice’s principal topics is available today in an astonishing profusion that I have to think would have gratified people like Hentoff and Jules Feiffer and Ellen Willis.

A daily mix of writing from the likes of Vox, The Daily Beast, Slate, Salon, Esquire (Charlie Pierce, baby!), Vanity Fair blended with the emboldened work of the Trump-era New York Times and Washington Post is, I’m arguing, as good and vital as anything the Voice produced.

Michael Musto — the Voice’s long time chronicler of the city’s gay scene — has a piece out (at the Daily Beast) poo-pooing the lament that all is lost. “Gay journalism” certainly is in some kind of golden age today.

He makes several interesting comments. Among them, this: “… the Voice—thanks to my then-editor, Karen Durbin–gave me the freedom to write whatever I wanted about all of that, encouraging me to explore, titillate, and go against the big guns, all while celebrating the fringe characters and underdogs of the city. I was excited and ennobled by the weekly assignment.”

The sad fact of publishing’s economic life is that that kind of freedom — to be excessive, even — grows less and less likely with the overhead of print (and absurd ROI expectations). What writer among those of us who have worked in the Twin Cities hasn’t had the experience of the editor-as-dutiful, fearful accountant carving obscure cultural references, humor, point-of-view, snark and voice out of stories about culture, both political and artistic?

“Straighter yet” becomes the order of the day when your editors are less committed to an engaging, provocative product than to protecting long-term advertising contracts?

I’d like to see an on-line collective of that kind of provocative writing here in the Twin Cities. Obviously no one is going to pay much if anything for it. But someone could do worse than aggregate these cities’ abundant blog work onto a common forum, if only to see what comes of it.

Trump’s Resignation Imminent? There’s A Logic To It.

I take this with a 50-pound block of salt. But the guy saying it has spent an unusual amount of time with Donald Trump and has insights into his, uh, business ethics and intellectual discipline unlike few others outside Trump’s immediate family.

“Art of the Deal” ghost writer, Tony Schwartz, is predicting a Trump resignation is imminent  — fueled by looming, bankrupting indictments from Robert Mueller’s investigation.

 

Skepticism is always a virtue. But given how recklessly Trump has conducted his business affairs and the vast trail he has left with Deutsche Bank, Russian banks, quasi-Russian banks in Cyprus and on and on, Mueller’s heavyweight team of financial investigators can not being having all that difficult a time building some kind of a case against him. Put another way, they may already have so many choices for indictment their biggest dilemma is picking the worst of the lot.

And remembering that Al Capone ended up at Alcatraz for tax fraud rather than garroting and machine gunning his booze-running rivals and cops, any kind of indictment that puts Trump’s “fortune” in lethal jeopardy would likely be enough for Trump to squeal like a pig and cut, you guessed it … a deal.

The New Yorker’s Adam Davidson has been doing some of the best work explaining Trump’s preposterously foul-smelling [i.e. money-laundering] deals in former Russian provinces. In his latest piece, titled “Trump’s Business of Corruption” he writes about (yet another) absurd-on-the-face-of-it Trump deal, this time in Soviet Georgia.

“I recently spoke with John Madinger, a retired U.S. Treasury official and I.R.S. special agent, who used to investigate financial crimes. He is the author of “Money Laundering: A Guide for Criminal Investigators.” When I told him what [long time Trump advisor Michael] Cohen had said to me [that Trump didn’t have any obligation to know the cash for the deal was being routed through a fraud-riddled Kazakhstan bank], he responded, “No, no, no! You’ve got to do your due diligence. You shouldn’t do a financial transaction with funds that appear to stem from unlawful activity. That’s like saying, ‘I don’t care if Pablo Escobar is my secret business partner.’ You have to care—otherwise, you’re at risk of violating laws against money laundering.”

By now Team Trump has to know what Mueller is probing hardest at, and it is almost certainly squalid crap like these cheesy Russian “deals”, all of which give Putin blackmail leverage on Trump, overt collusion or not. Moreover, as has been noted several times since the raid on Paul Manafort’s luxury condo, getting Trump’s tax returns/records requires Mueller et al meet a lower legal bar than getting a search warrant for Manafort’s property.

Point being, Schwartz is simply doing the math. Seized tax returns + heavyweight financial crimes investigators pouring over ludicrous “licensing deals” in former Russian kleptocracies + nearly total isolation from Congress and U.S. business communities after making common cause with neo-Nazis = Trump alone in a corner where even the 80% support of Republicans can’t protect either his money or prevent him from being re-branded as one of history’s most flagrant swindlers.

I also wonder how much thought Mueller is giving to Trump’s increasingly irrational mental state as that lonely spot in the corner gets tighter and darker?