Friday, September 28, 2018

Dear FBI: Check July 1 At Timmy's House

Yesterday's hearings were remarkable. The Republicans want a conservative on the court, they want to get him (and it will be a "him") appointed while they have the majority to do it, and they don't care if he is a low-life criminal pig.

A woman claimed she had been sexually assaulted by their alcoholic nominee. Oddly, I mean, bizarrely -- there is not a word that expresses how weird and out-of-normal this was -- Republican Senators decided not to question the assault victim themselves, but brought in Rachel Mitchell, a prosecutor from Arizona who specializes in sex crimes. The questioning of the assault victim went in five-minute turns; a Republican represented by the prosecutor, then a Democrat speaking for himself or herself, and so on.

A prosecutor's job is to convict the bad guy. They want the criminal to confess on the stand, or they want to box him in logically until it is obvious to judge and jury that he did it. It is not the prosecutor's job to show that the victim is lying or otherwise make the defendant look innocent, which is what the Republicans wanted in this case. And, actually, the prosecutor's questioning did not cast any doubt on the victim Dr. Christine Blasey Ford's story. Ford was an extremely believable witness, in fact, nobody could listen to her testimony and decide she was lying. She is not a political person, she is a meek professor who has carried a terrible secret around for thirty-six years. She is very sure Kavanaugh is the assailant, and you knew, listening to her, watching her, that she is telling the truth. He did it.

This happened.

The prosecutor was not so flattering with Kavanaugh. He had brought some calendars he kept from his high school days, hoping to show that he was too busy with wholesome things to have assaulted a girl at a party. But, you know, that's not how prosecutors work.

Dr. Ford had said that she had been at a small party with Kavanaugh, his friend Mark Judge, someone named "PJ," and another boy, plus her friend Leland. There may have been others, but it was a small gathering, more of a get-together than a party.

From The Post:
Rachel Mitchell, hired by the Republican majority of the Senate Judiciary Committee to navigate the questioning of Kavanaugh and Ford, pointed to one particular calendar entry that got some attention after the calendars came out. It read:

Tobin’s House — Workout / Go to Timmy’s for Skis w/ Judge, Tom, PJ, Bernie, Squi

The reference to “skis” is apparently to “brewskis,” or beers. The entry was July 1, a Thursday. Mitchell asked him about it.
MITCHELL: The entry says, and I quote, go to ‘Timmy’s for skis with Judge, Tom, P.J. Bernie and ... Squi?’

KAVANAUGH: Squi. It’s a nickname.

MITCHELL: To what does this refer, and to whom?

KAVANAUGH: [after explaining the “Tobin’s House” part] It looks like we went over to Timmy’s. You want to know their last names, too? I’m happy to do it.

MITCHELL: If you could just identify: Is ‘Judge’ Mark Judge?

KAVANAUGH: It is. It’s Tim Gaudette, Mark Judge, Tom Kaine, P.J. Smyth, Bernie McCarthy, Chris Garrett.
Notice two things here. First, that “Squi” was in attendance at the party — someone who, we learned thanks to Mitchell’s questioning of Ford, was going out with Ford over the course of that summer. Second, notice those two other attendees, one of whom Mitchell highlighted: Mark Judge and P.J. Smyth.

Mitchell’s questioning continued.
MITCHELL: Did you in your calendar routinely document social gatherings like house parties or gatherings of friends in your calendar?

KAVANAUGH: Yes, it certainly appears that way, that’s what I was doing in the summer of 1982. You can see that reflected on several of the-- several of the entries.

MITCHELL: If a gathering like Dr. Ford has described had occurred, would you have documented that?

KAVANAUGH: Yes, because I documented everything, those kinds of events, even small get-togethers. August 7 is another good example where I documented a small get-together that summer. So yes.
During her testimony, Ford made clear that the event at which she says she was assaulted was a casual get-together before the others (who were older than her and had a later curfew) went to other, bigger parties. Kavanaugh says that the gathering at Timmy’s on July 1 was essentially that.
Immediately after that exchange, the Republican committee chair called a break, and the prosecutor was fired. She sat in her chair but did not ask any more questions.

Like many people in the country, I followed along on Twitter as I watched the hearings, getting reactions, seeing what people noticed that I might have missed. When the committee came back and the Republicans began handling their own interrogations, a lawyer who uses the handle "@emptywheel" tweeted: "I conclude from the GOP firing the sex crimes prosecutor that on July 1 Ford was sexually assaulted." I will note that I follow @emptywheel because she is usually right.

One question that came up during Ford's testimony regarded the timing of the incident. She thought it was the summer of 1982, because she did not drive yet, but she did not have a way to be sure. The one thing she remembered was that she saw Mark Judge working at the Potomac Safeway six to eight eight weeks later. So, as she noted, if we could find out when Judge worked there, we could identify the approximate date of the attack. IRS records and employment records were suggested.

Again, from another article in The Post:
There’s a better source, as it turns out: Judge’s book, “Wasted: Tales of a Gen X Drunk,” published in 1997.

In one passage, beginning on Page 92, Judge describes his time working at a grocery store in the context of his drinking problem. Emphasis added.
It was the summer before senior year, and by now, even though I wasn’t drinking every day, I was completely hooked. Going a week without getting drunk was unthinkable. I was spending between four and seven nights with the gang, either at a party or at O’Rourke’s.
Elsewhere in the book, Judge describes one of his acquaintances at the time, someone named “Bart O’Kavanaugh,” who vomited in a car after a party.

Judge continues. Emphasis again added.
Of course, alcoholics also get into all kinds of trouble because of their drinking. When they supersede their own tolerance, they suffer catastrophic hangovers. These can make getting through the day an Olympic event. This was never more evident to me than when, to raise money for football camp, I spent a few weeks working as a bag boy at the local supermarket.

My job was simple. People would leave their grocery baskets against a rail in front of the store, then pull their cars around. I would then sling their groceries in the car, sometimes get a small tip, and then wait for the next car...
Judge graduated in 1983, so this would be the summer of 1982. The Post shows Kavanaugh's August 1982 calendar with "FOOTBALL CAMP" running from August 22nd into September. Judge was working at the grocery store six to eight weeks after July 1, consistent with Ford's testimony and Kavanaugh's own calendar.

So a person trying to figure out what happened would easily form a hypothesis that Bret Kavanaugh sexually attacked Christine Blasey Ford at Timmy Gaudette's house on July 1, 1982. People present who could be interviewed about the crime include "PJ," "Squi," and Mark Judge, plus others mentioned on the calendar who seemed to stay in the background. Ford's friend Leland says she does not remember that particular party, but she believes Ford. There seem to be other issues with Leland, health issues. She has not said the assault didn't happen, or that the charges are false, as Kavanaugh repeatedly stated in the hearing. She just doesn't remember that one night when nothing unusual happened to her.

Since there was no commotion except in one upstairs bedroom, it is likely that nobody who was at that party remembers anything about it, especially those who were blackout drunk. But you can ask. Maybe somebody remembers something. It seems possible that Kavanaugh and Mark Judge remember something and will lie about it. Hopefully FBI interrogators have ways to deal with that. But as drunk as they were it is possible the boys didn't even remember the incident an hour later. This is an old case but sometimes good investigating solves those, along with good luck.

The prosecutor followed her nose to that July 1 date, and then Kavanaugh tried to lead her to an August date -- he read off all the names, all girls it sounded like -- and then there was a break. And then the Republicans decided not to use her any more. There was no explanation, no discussion about it, they just let the prosecutor sit there while they asked their own questions. This was a bizarre change of strategy but they pulled it off without attracting much comment, making sure that their preferred nominee was not literally prosecuted on the stand by the literal prosecutor they themselves had literally chosen to handle the questioning. Good ol' boy back-slapping was the order of the day.

Let's make it clear. Kavanaugh is a drunk, and has been since he was a teenager. He drinks too much and if he says he never forgets anything that happened he is either deluded or is lying. That doesn't make him an unusually bad guy but it is not what we want on the Supreme Court.

The most generous interpretation of the facts as we have them now is that Kavanaugh and Judge were drunk beyond the point of having good judgment, and perhaps beyond the point of remembering later. They dragged Ford into the bedroom and assaulted her, perhaps thinking it was a "game" or that it was funny, and when she got away they forgot what had happened, they rejoined the party, she quietly said she had to leave, and nobody paid any attention. From her point of view, she was nearly raped and nearly killed -- she felt that that was a possibility when Kavanaugh covered her mouth and nose. To the drunk boys it was just a prank, they were just having fun, but the girl was terrorized. They forgot about it, but it was a turning point for her that had consequences through her whole life.

I will not pontificate about white privilege, sexism, sexual violence, or even alcohol, here. You will see plenty of that. Kavanaugh is a pig. He is everything men in our society should not be, I don't need to explain that.

To me, the really shocking thing is the complicity of the Republican Senators. One by one they went around the dais sympathizing with this poor guy and complaining about the Democrats. Did you see Lindsey Graham's emotional outbreak? Wow. Not one of them doubted the assault victim's testimony, oh they complained about the timing of it and some gaps in her memory but there was no real question about it -- she was telling the truth. And if she was telling the truth, then he was lying. Maybe he doesn't remember, but that doesn't make him innocent. I do not think the "I was too drunk to remember" defense is really what we want in a Supreme Court justice, is it? Kavanaugh is a pig. You know it and I know it. But he's their man and they will stand behind him, no matter what. And you know what that makes them.

The Republicans want a win here. They denied Obama's nominee a hearing, because they want to stack the Court with conservatives. A guy Kavanaugh's age could serve for thirty or forty years if his liver holds out. And to get the win they would let this criminal go without an investigation, they would protect him in order to see that their so-called values are over-represented on the Court -- and this hearing gives you a very good idea what those values are.

And don't forget, other women have stories to tell. Julie Swetnick's is especially horrifying.

Will they get away with this? Probably. Looks now like the FBI will have a week to look into the accusation. You can't be optimistic about finding new facts thirty-six years later, but it's better than nothing.

It is hard to post on this topic because the news is breaking every few minutes. The Judiciary Committee has made a decision but as I post this the President has not yet given the FBI their assignment. No details are very clear about how this will proceed but I think the post as written above will continue to prove accurate even if things change.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

The Bladensburg Peace Cross

Occasionally we come to a point where you have to ask yourself whether you really do support the Constitution of the United States of America, or whether you think it just introduces a bunch of rules and head-in-the-clouds ideas that should be ignored or undermined.

And so we have the Bladensburg Peace Cross, a very large cross commemorating the sacrifices of forty-nine Prince George's County men who gave their lives in World War I. The forty-foot high cross was erected in 1925 and is a local landmark; it sits on a third of an acre of land owned by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, in the median of the intersection of Bladensburg Road and Baltimore Avenue in the suburb of Bladensburg, northeast of DC in PG County, near Hyattsville.

The Post oversimplifies a bit, but ... here's the problem:
A federal appeals court ruling on a challenge brought by atheists has said the Peace Cross is an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion and told a state commission that maintains the cross on public land to remove it, reshape or reassign its ownership. A World War I cross under siege
In 2015 a federal court ruled that because the purpose of the cross was not fundamentally religious, it did not violate the Constitutional provision that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” The American Humanist Association appealed the ruling, and this week the Supreme Court will decide whether to take on the case.

It is not quite correct to call the American Humanist Association "atheists." The group's web site describes humanism as encompassing a "variety of nontheistic views (atheism, agnosticism, rationalism, naturalism, secularism, and so forth) while adding the important element of a comprehensive worldview and set of ethical values -- values that are grounded in the philosophy of the Enlightenment, informed by scientific knowledge, and driven by a desire to meet the needs of people in the here and now."

While many of them might not specifically call themselves "humanists," surveys show that about a fifth to a third of the American population do not have a religious affiliation. This proportion has been growing steadily since the 1990's. Most of these people believe in a higher power or spiritual force, they just don't accept the teachings of any particular religion. On the other hand, about three-fourths of Americans identify themselves as Christian with less than two-thirds belonging to a church congregation.

A symbol such as the Peace Cross creates a sort of dilemma for patriotic Christians; while they themselves may find the symbol to be consistent with their personal beliefs, their commitment to the Constitution and to the comon good of the country leads them to conclude that such a symbol should not be placed on government-owned land. As the humanists point out in their complaint, "[One of the plaintiffs ] believes that the Bladensburg Cross associates a Christian religious symbol with the State and gives the impression that the State supports and approves of Christianity, as opposed to other religions, and that the state may even prefer Christians and Christianity over other religions."

This is of course obvious.

It would be easy, though intellectually dishonest, to typify this dispute as if one side was less patriotic or less spiritual than the other, or as if one side values the sacrifices of fallen soldiers more than another. I don't see anything on the humanists' web site that says they are pacifists, or are opposed to traditional American values in any way, there is nothing here about honoring servicemen. The situation brings into focus a very specific violation of a very specific requirement of the Constitution, which is the founding document of the principles and laws upon which our civil society depends. The question is simple: do you support the Constitution, or not?

There can be no question that a forty-foot cross on government land in the middle of a busy intersection is a violation of the Establishment Clause, and I doubt that anyone is going to try to argue that. The cross is a Christian symbol, it has Christian wording on it and Christian services have been held there. I don't recall that the New Testament has any special comment about the mortality of soldiers, but the symbol of the cross suggests that the citizens hope that the soldiers who died in war will go to heaven and enjoy a Christian afterlife. There is no argument to be made that the humanists have misinterpreted this.

The question simply forces a choice. Are we as a nation committed to following the framework of the Constitution, or are we not? The Establishment Clause, and its counterpart the Free Exercise Clause, are clearly the result of some hard thinking and debate by the Framers. Though most of them went to church on Sunday and many would be described as Christians, they realized the danger that religion could have if it were able to insinuate itself into the processes of government. When they added a Bill of Rights to the Constitution, this was put into the very first amendment. There are lots of countries where religion is central to the government, and while it might work here and there it is intentionally and explicitly not the way we do it here. The ideal we call "freedom" or "liberty" is at the core of our understanding of what it means to be Americans. Our freedom is constantly under threat, and that threat almost always comes from within our borders.

Seems like there are two obvious solutions to this problem with the Bladensburg Peace Cross. They could knock it down, or they could transfer its ownership away from the state. There have been some legal ambiguities in the past about who actually owned that land, settled in 1960 with a judgment that the state of Maryland owned it. The cross was conceived and implemented by the American Legion, and they still have an interest in it. Why not give it to them, sell it for a dollar or something? I'm sure volunteers could work to keep the monument in good shape.

The humanists are not complaining because there is a cross. Clearly there are religious symbols everywhere you go, and religious expression is protected by the Constitution -- just not religious expression by government. Humanists don't care if people are religious. They are complaining because the state of Maryland is making a statement that favors one particular religion, in violation of the First Amendment.

There is a uniquely poignant irony in commemorating the lives of men who died to preserve our freedom as written into the Constitution by erecting a monument that violates that freedom.

No facts are under dispute. The cross is just what the Constitution forbids. Until now people have been willing to look the other way, but now the court will almost certainly be forced to rule that the law is being violated. Because it is.

I am hoping the American people are smart enough to work out a solution here. Everybody supports a monument honoring fallen soldiers. And even humanists can live with a big cross in the median, it doesn't hurt them in any way. The Constitution is a good idea and should not be treated like an imposition or an obstacle. The First Amendment is truly a cornerstone of our society which has offered Americans the freedom that makes this country what it is. You don't want to blow it off here.

I am hoping that the state and the citizens figure out a way to sell that little patch of land to a private investor. This cross is a prominent feature of the local landscape, with deep significance in respecting those who have lost their lives in service to their country. But it does violate the Constitution, when it is owned by the state.

This could become another polarizing moment in our turbulent time, and it probably will. Or it could become an occasion for people to work together, to see if there isn't a way we can make a small adjustment that lets the people of Bladensburg keep their monument.

Sunday, September 09, 2018

Trolls All the Way Down

Trump is a troll. Everybody understands that. He doesn't stand for anything, he just wants attention. His followers are trolls. They don't have constructive ideas, they criticize decent things and support mean and stupid things, all with the intent of getting attention by offending liberals. Their philosophy, their system of beliefs, is "owning the libs," period. It's like a two-year-old with his tantrums, where the whole point is to get attention without earning it.

Running a country is, actually, hard. There are a lot of details to keep straight, promises to keep, deals to negotiate, allies to cooperate with and enemies to oppose and no clear distinction between them. There is no set of rules for new situations, and almost nothing will be universally agreeable. When you run a country you have to consider the facts and your goals, get advice from experts, weigh the advice against your own principles, you have to consider short-term effects as well as building a strategy into the future. It is just hard, that's all there is to it. It requires rigor.

On the other hand, complaining about how someone else runs the country is super-easy. Anytime the leader does something, your reaction can be that what he or she did was wrong. There is always -- not figuratively, but literally, always -- another way to do things, and you can always make the alternative sound like the better way. Especially if you only talk to people who agree with you.

Most people don't have what it takes to deal with the details, the compromises, the short- and long-term views of a decision. It is too hard. There are very few people with the brains, willpower, and charisma to run a country. It is not a criticism of anyone, to say that running a country is too hard for them -- I sure couldn't do it.

But amazingly there are millions of people who think it is easy to run a country. They don't just have opinions, they actually believe that their ideas are better than those of people who have all the details and understand the implications of every choice option. Their wisdom is never put to the test, so it cannot be validated or disproven. You can say, "We should blow the crap out of ISIS and get it over with," and nobody can prove you wrong, especially when they have no idea what groups are involved, how paramilitary forces are integrated with civilian populations, what local public opinion is in the Middle East, which groups are on our side and which oppose us. You can say, "This president is a coward who is afraid to hurt ISIS's feelings by bombing a few of them," and nobody can prove you wrong. You can say, "This president is actually a Muslim who is on the side of the terrorists against the USA." Nobody else sitting at the bar knows if that is true or not; they are a bunch of losers, too, and don't know how to look something up. So -- maybe it is true.

When Obama was president, Trump criticized him for everything. Great example -- he complained on Twitter about Obama playing golf twenty-seven times. Well, Obama did play golf sometimes, and, once it was pointed out, it might look like he was goofing off instead of working for the taxpayers. Something like Twitter is perfect for this because you can just post a statement without elaboration or explanation. Typical Obama-era Trump tweet: "@BarackObama plays golf to escape work while America goes down the drain." It was easy to say that Obama should get off the golf course and get back to work, and hard to prove that Trump was wrong. Of course the president should work harder and play less.

But obviously Trump cannot live up to this standard. He golfs a lot more than Obama ever did. He has made many objectively terrible policy choices, has offended friends and romanced those who would harm us, appointed the worst people to important positions, profits unapologetically from his position in government. It is a lefty Twitter cliche, whenever Trump does something, to bring back the tweet where he criticized Obama for doing exactly the same thing. I mean: exactly the same thing. But he will tell you, he is doing a great job. And he even still has some Republican fans who agree with that. Lindsey Graham, for one.

Liberals are annoying because they believe that governing is complex and they believe that you have to follow orderly, if sometimes inefficient, processes to reach big goals. Conservatives believe that you should "just do it," a conclusion that follows from the belief that running a government is easier than it looks (this is why they love to talk about "small government"). Liberals are also annoying because of their fancy head-in-the-clouds ideas about equality and fairness and following the Constitution, which only make sense when you realize that liberals hate America. Also they tend not to like ignorant people. Therefore the highest form of pleasure is to annoy liberals.

The easiest way to annoy liberals is to say something stupid and act like you're serious. Say, "The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive." Suggest that there should be more guns in schools. Pretend the Second Amendment is the most important part of the Constitution, and that the flag has blue stripes. Assert that immigrants bring an increase in crime. The stupider the better. And act like you're serious about it.

The great thing about this is that it's so easy. You don't even have to read the news or find out the facts. You already believe that government is rigged and politicians are bought off, and so it doesn't matter how stupid your ideas are, government is just going to do what it's going to do anyway. And the media are in on it, so you don't know what to believe. Conservative troll behavior is based on impotence, on nihilism, they know that nothing they do matters so for kicks they do the dumbest stuff they can think of. Then they can laugh at those suckers who take things seriously.

This all went off the rails in 2016. When Obama was president, and when Hillary was running, the trolls started making up stupid stuff like never before. Even Democrats felt that Hillary might be "untrustworthy," because of ... well there were just a lot of questions. Maybe she had not committed a few of those murders, but still... there were so many. And those emails. And she coughed, see, she's dying. Obama was dignified, poised, intelligent, all the things that conservatives hate in a black person, and so it became a sort of game to make up the craziest stories about him and pretend you believed them. And then you realized other people actually did believe them, and you started believing them yourself.

Next thing you know, enough people believed enough crazy stuff and the US elected a troll for president. It was supposed to be a joke but at the last minute the states stayed red and Trump won. All he knew how to do was complain. He was totally unprepared to govern, and did not have any interest in it.

So he has turned his presidency into the grandest trolling operation ever. He offends liberals every day, enriching himself and his friends, breaking the law left and right and then just not enforcing it. He treats our government like reality TV, which liberals don't even watch and don't understand -- they find it annoying: perfect. (Literally, Kardashians in the White House.)

Trolls are losers, by definition, they are the ones that the world has left behind. They have no power because they don't have any ideas of their own. Their deepest motivation is to feel sorry for themselves, and they try to get even with the world by offending people who are not losers. They call liberals "the elite," and love to suck them into a nonsensical argument, because the troll has no commitment to facts or logic. It is fun to offend liberals, because they think they are better than conservatives, because they foolishly do believe that government is important and also they naively rely on, you know, facts and logic.

But this only works if the trolls are losers. Once they win, they are the ones who get criticized, they are the ones who have to come up with the ideas, and they are not capable of that. A lot of people are going to spend a lot of time in prison at this rate, they are simply in over their heads.