Poetry’s Place

In the language of poetry, where every word is weighed, nothing is usual or normal. Not a single stone and not a single cloud above it. Not a single day and not a single night after it. And above all, not a single existence, not anyone’s existence in this world.
– Wislawa Szymborska, in her Nobel Lecture, 1996

 

“Trump News” is Very Bad News

When Trump speaks of “Trump News,” he’s not necessarily generalizing. He may have a specific [fake] news source in mind.

Trump’s latest Tweeting kerfuffle arose yesterday (August 28), when he unleashed an irate claim that Google, Facebook, and Twitter share a clear and horrifying left-wing bias. He is certain this is true because a Google search for “Trump news” takes him only to leftie sites like, you know, CNN, never to conservative web sites. Wanting to check this claim, I also googled “Trump News.” Among the first sites to pop up was Trump’s own twitter account. The next was CNN, followed immediately by Fox News. Any bias at Google seems less than glaring. But, even though Google was the primary target of our President’s wrath, I decided to soldier on.

I found that Ask.com’s first selection is Wikipedia’s biography of Trump, followed by Fox and then the Washington Post. So, no obvious Marxist bias there either.

The algorithms at duckduckgo and Bing, while offering several of the same sites as Google and ask.com, did lead to a little greater variety, and among their top listed sites was, lo-and-behold, “trump.news.” (That, bizarrely enough, is the full URL. No dot com. Not dot org. Have I passed through a mysterious portal to the dark web?)

Check out trump.news if you want to be better acquainted with the true wingnuts of the MAGA gang. And, after taking a look, think about how many people have discovered this site only because Trump’s tweet inspired searches, like mine, using the exact phrase “Trump News.” Conspiracy theories abound on the site, but there is no “About,” no “Who We Are,” on its menu. In fact, the top bar contains no menu at all, and scrolling to the bottom also reveals no information about who is responsible for the site and what its mission might be. Those who do scroll down will merely learn that “Trump.News is a fact-based public education website published by Trump News Features, LLC.” (I haven’t been able to confirm it with web searches, but that LLC sure does sound like one of Trump’s myriad limited liability companies.)

This lack of transparency, this failure or refusal of the site’s makers to step out from behind the curtain of their wizardry, is likely one reason that Google’s algorithm does not honor trump.news with a top listing. Google has reduced the power of an “exact match domain” relative to other criteria. This means that, even if such a site’s name perfectly corresponds with the wording of a search entry, it will not rise to the top of the search results because Google does not want to give an edge to “low-quality sites” that have been named, as if by design, to draw hits from the unsuspecting, many of whom won’t recognize the flimsiness of the site they have found. trump.news is that kind of web site.

Its stories—and there are so many of them, each one crazier than the last—are written by “News Editors” or by Mike Adams or J.D. Heyes.

Adams, more googling reveals, is a controversial “conservative journalist,” respected by some and despised by others for his reporting on health and nutrition issues. A well-documented story at The Genetic Literacy Project reports that “Adams tried to cleanse his original NaturalNews.com post calling for the killing of scientists and journalists [Yikes!] and is now blocking access to the Monsanto Collaborators site, which he claims was actually set up by Monsanto and its supporters to discredit him and other anti-GMO activists, but the truth is out [Adams really is the site’s editor] and the damage has been done…The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, besieged by complaints from targets and the science and journalism communities, immediately launched an investigation of Adams and the site, with Adams facing possible felony charges of inciting violence.”

Wikipedia tells us Adams is also a professor at UNC Wilmington, where his career has been strikingly checkered; he had to sue the university for anti-Christian bias in order to earn a promotion in 2007. Oh…And he writes for The Daily Wire.

J.D. Heyes, on his page at muckrack.com, introduces himself this way: “Sr. Correspondent, newstarget.com; Editor, thenationalsentinel.com; Combat vet OEF; #MAGA; ‘Merica 1st; no prisoners.” And here’s the headline for his first story at that site: “Democrats push to drop nationwide voting age to 16, because young people are so much easier to brainwash at government-run schools.” Read thenationalsentinal.com if you can bear it.

Finally, I went to Facebook, searched again for Trump News, and quickly arrived at this FB page for the same brand of maniacal hysteria I had already found at the trump.news site. Once again, the “About” and “Information” links on the Facebook page offer no insight into who has brought it into our lives.

I don’t know that Trump had trump.news in mind when he tweeted this morning. I cannot prove that Google’s algorithm doesn’t weed out far right web sites by design, even though I believe the weirdest of alt-right sites have earned their low status in good search engines, and I’m perfectly happy not to have the most wacko of leftist sites pop up in my quick searches. I also don’t put it past the President to conspire to turn the nation towards one more nest of absurd conspiracy theorists in order to feed and possibly extend his ardent base.

And, like Daniel Dale in the Toronto Star, I am confident that when Trump claims, with no supporting evidence, that 96% of sites arising from a Google search for “trump news” represent the views of “National left-wing media,” he is simply revealing his panic about finding that real, documented, professional news sites appear first, with alt-right ranters lagging far behind. Want to know why “bad news” dominates any search for news about you, Mr. President. It’s because all the news really is terribly, terribly bad.

Am I a Feminist?

 In a recent New York Times column, “The Problem With ‘Feminist’ Men,” Jill Filipovic examines the distressing case of New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, arguing that women have to be wary of men who seem almost too eager to proclaim their feminist bona fides. She suggest that men like Schneiderman and Harvey Weinstein use their entree into feminist worlds in order to get into strong women’s pants, often in order to abuse and debase them.

It’s a chilling idea. It’s also a shame that she has these two (and others) to justify her theory. Late in her essay, she writes, “Of course we want men to champion women’s rights, and we shouldn’t look skeptically on the men who stand up for all of us,” but at that point, the acknowledgement seems tepid. She has already given us plenty of reason to fear there may be a dire wolf lurking within any man dressed in self-righteous feminism.

The column inspired over five hundred eighty comments, many debating what constitutes a true feminist in the first place, and some actually suggesting that Schneiderman might be considered one, despite the behavior he’s charged with, given his good work in support of women’s issues. Another commenter, Kevin A. of Los Angeles, asks whether “feminism [is] becoming so much about identity…that it has become more of a naive philosophical bender about epistemological access rather than a basic civil rights issue that can be universally understood, fought for and enacted?”

I think I understand this, if I’m right in my reading of “epistemological access.” Because epistemology is the study or attempt to understand what it means to “know” something, I think the phrase has to do with who has sufficient knowledge of feminism to claim the status of feminist. In other words, can anyone who has never experienced life as a woman, possibly claim membership in the feminist movement? It seems that Kevin A. wants to move beyond (or back from) quibbling over that abstract question to say that any man who fully advocates and fights for women’s civil rights has earned the title “feminist.”

But I’m not sure the question is a mere quibble. When my daughter came home from college wearing a shirt that announced, “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like,” I was very proud. But I didn’t ask her to get me one. Similarly, I, an aging white man, own a Black Lives Matter tee shirt, but I’ve never worn it (though I might if I were marching in a civil rights demonstration). I may claim to be a white, male ally to those fighting against their own oppression, but I am not eager to suggest that I truly share in their knowledge of  that oppression.

Filipovic clearly distrusts some men who assert their “feminism” too adamantly, but perhaps she agrees with Kevin A that the label raises questions of merely abstract semantics. I’m sure she places the word feminist in quotation marks in her column’s title because she’s being sarcastic about particular men who claim the label for themselves, but perhaps she quotes the word because it has no shared definition.

In any case, I think the quotation marks do suggest both the sarcasm and the lack of clear meaning. The Weinstein and Schneiderman cases make the word empty, even phony, if not downright threatening, as Filipovic suggests. And for decades now, feminism has meant radically different things to different people, even as the first wave has given way to the second wave of feminism and beyond. So does feminism mean simply a belief in the legal and social equality of women with men? Or does it suggest bra burners ablaze with misandry? For at least twenty years, large numbers of girls in my high school classes—all of whom believe in women’s equality and empowerment—have been wary of calling themselves feminists because they think it suggests a contempt for all men and all brands of masculinity.

I think about the traps that such confusion creates for those students and for many other women. Must a feminist woman pursue an independent career, or is OK to stay home with kids? (Though I love and married a professional woman, I’m fine with women, and men, who choose the homemaking role.) Is a love of so-called girly things, of perhaps dressing in skin-tight sheaths and spiked heels, a way of contributing to the objectification of women, or does it merely constitute one way a woman is entitled to be, the male gaze be damned? (Though I’m an aging quasi-hippy who prefers the natural look, I’m in the latter camp on that one.) Is it all right to dress and adorn oneself in hopes of turning men’s heads, or is such a choice a betrayal of sisterhood? (And as for men, is it all right to turn one’s head?)

I don’t think the confusion will end very soon. I think the Weinsteins and Schneidermans of the world make the problem much worse. But if terminology must remain problematic, I still think a few feminist standards are pretty clear, and very necessary.

  • Women and men should earn equal pay for equal work.
  • Every profession should be equally open to all genders (and yes, although it’s a recent discovery for me, I think there are more than two).
  • Every school and every work place should be free of sexual harassment and of any suggestion that flirting with the boss is a requirement for advancement.
  • While no man should be condemned for such harassment without solid evidence of guilt, those who accuse men must be taken seriously.
  • There is of course a place for flirtation, but none of us has the right to ogle, wolf-whistle, or otherwise announce how turned on we are by others passing by, sharing an office, or sharing a drink.
  • Victims of harassment or rape should never be accused of having “asked for it,” no matter how they dressed or how flirtatiously they behaved.
  • Any sexual acts or relations must be consensual—and adults should have the freedom to consent.

As for integrating all clubs, classes, activities, and sports teams, I’m not ready to write a rule. I think it’s fine for men to seek each others’ company without the other sex elbowing in, and I think the same goes for women, even though I personally never want women left out of anything I do.

So, am I a feminist? I guess I don’t really need to know.

Rex Tillerson, Cowpoke Diplomat

In an interview with 60 Minutes, aired on February 18, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told Margaret Brennan that he is guided by “The Code of the West,” the rules and sensibility that he was raised on in North Texas. Tillerson explained the code by saying that “as the West was unfolding there wasn’t a lot of law enforcement. And people basically relied upon each other’s word. And ‘My word is my bond.’ And I’ve used that throughout my life as well…And then a lotta the Code of the West was people were very loyal to their organizations. And the phrase, ‘Riding for the brand’ is a phrase that’s always stuck with me…[and that meant] when a cowboy signed on to a ranch or– or to that organization, he was committed to that organization.”

Now there’s a lot to admire in this code. Who faults straightforwardness, clarity, and honesty? Who derides those who keep their word? And besides, Tillerson delivers his earthy sermonette with a gentle drawl and thoughtful mien that only deepens our sense that he’s a regular Atticus Finch, committed to his ethics and devoted to his commitments.

Brennan, perhaps struck by the soft-spoken dignity of the Secretary of State (and perhaps not), was moved to know what brand Tillerson was “riding for.” He replied, “The State Department of the United States government. The American people are my brand.”

I am in part willing to believe this. Tillerson does saddle up for the State Department when he pursues some diplomatic inroads with North Korea, albeit somewhat haltingly, despite the President’s tweet insisting that such efforts with Little Rocket Man are a waste of Tillerson’s time. And he does carry himself like one of the adults in the Oval Nursery, which does some service to “his brand,” the American people.

But other parts of me ain’t buying it at all.

There is plentiful reason to think that the U.S. Department of State is not his brand. A great deal of media attention (including this from The Guardian) makes it clear that, just as Scott Pruitt has signed on to head the EPA in order to neuter it, Rex Tillerson is overseeing a diminishment of State. Acknowledging a slashing of the department’s budget, he insists that addressing and reducing conflicts around the world will lead to great financial savings for the U.S., but there is no evidence that Trump is reducing our international commitment, nor that he is not increasing the potential for new and fearsome conflicts, especially with North Korea and Iran but conceivably with Turkey and in the Arabian Peninsula.

While Brennan did not raise these issues, she did get to another heart of the miserable matter: There are still 41 U.S. embassies without ambassadors. How are we pursuing diplomacy in the hottest spots in the world when we do not have an ambassador in South Korea or Saudi Arabia? Tillerson admitted this was an issue but also insisted that “it’s just the nature of the process itself” that makes appointments so difficult. He did not explain why it has been so much less difficult with past administrations nor why Trump has not even made appointments to so many of those empty posts. But Tillerson keeps riding for the Trump brand because the President, he says, is “the decider.”

In concluding the interview, Tillerson finished as a whimsically grinning Sam Eliot might wrap up any well-narrated western, saying, “I’m here to serve my country. I committed to this president. My word is my bond. I ride for this brand. That’s why I’m here. And nothin’ anybody else says is gonna change that.” And so he asserts his nobility while failing even to acknowledge an essential understanding of adult life: there are times when you can’t be simultaneously loyal to your boss and to the good of the company. Trump always looks for men (and an occasional woman) to be loyal to him—not to the country, the Constitution, or the laws, but to him. Which means Tillerson may be just another perfect Trump man.

Possibly the most striking example, at least in this interview, of this misplaced loyalty—and of Tillerson’s failure to behave like the bullshit-free cowpoke he claims to be—arose when Brennan asked him why he continues neither to confirm nor deny that he did, in front of several other White House officials, call the President a moron. With the hint of a sneer, Tillerson called the question “very old” before going on to insist that he isn’t interested in the kind of “silly” talk that is so sadly all the rage in Washington. When Brennan repeated the question, Tillerson said, “I have answered the question.” Asked again, he said, “I won’t dignify the question…[pause]…I have answered the question.”

No he hasn’t. Nor has he really explained why he won’t. Hell, he could at least say, “I have to stick with ‘no comment’ on this one. I’m going to keep my private conversations private.” That would have some dignity. There is much less dignity in insisting that only “silly” gossips care whether so powerful a cabinet member considers his President an idiot. Also, there are other and much more dignified responses to Brennan’s perfectly appropriate question. He could have said, “It was a heated moment. I don’t recall exactly how I expressed my regrettable flash of frustration, but I know it did not represent my real judgment of the President.” That, of course, might be a lie. It’s possible he never did call Trump a moron. But why would he, while “riding for his brand,” not be comfortable explaining that? Or maybe he did spurt out the insult, and maybe it did reflect his real judgment. And if that’s the case, then we have to ask why he would sign on to such an outfit in the first place, or stick with one that proved to be so moronic.

Nothing in the code says a cowboy can’t quit.

 

One GOP Lie About Our Government’s Shutdown

This morning, Mike Mulvaney, the Trump administration’s budget director and a former member of the House of Representatives, explained why it was OK for Republicans to vote against the 2013 Continuing Resolution (CR) while Democrats are now obstructionist to cast a similar vote. The distinction, he claimed, is that he and other conservative Republicans voted against the CR because it contained funding for the ACA, an act which they vehemently opposed. Today, all but five Democrats voted against the CR even though they support everything in the bill: continuing government funding, renewal of the CHIP program, and a delay in some specific government funding.

Mulvaney is a very articulate, impressive debater and must be very convincing to many, many people. The trouble with his argument, however, is that it’s a crock. Here, Wikepedia explains how the the issue of the ACA was part of the 2013 CR only because Republicans insisted upon it.

“A ‘funding-gap’ was created when the two chambers of Congress failed to agree to an appropriations continuing resolution. The Republican-led House of Representatives, in part encouraged by conservative senators such as Ted Cruz[5] and conservative groups such as Heritage Action,[6][7][8] offered several continuing resolutions with language delaying or defunding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (commonly known as ‘Obamacare’). The Democratic-led Senate passed several amended continuing resolutions for maintaining funding at then-current sequestration levels with no additional conditions. Political fights over this and other issues between the House on one side and President Barack Obama and the Senate on the other led to a budget impasse which threatened massive disruption.[9][10][11]

“The deadlock centered on the Continuing Appropriations Resolution, 2014, which was passed by the House of Representatives on September 20, 2013.[12] The Senate stripped the bill of the measures related to the Affordable Care Act, and passed it in revised form on September 27, 2013.[12] The [GOP controlled] House reinstated the Senate-removed measures, and passed it again in the early morning hours on September 29.[12] The Senate declined to pass the bill with measures to delay the Affordable Care Act, and the two legislative houses did not develop a compromise bill by the end of September 30, 2013, causing the federal government to shut down due to a lack of appropriated funds at the start of the new 2014 federal fiscal year.”

It was conservative Republicans like Mike Mulvaney, a Tea Party firebrand, that inserted the anti-ACA language in an attempt to cripple Obamacare, which had already been law for over three years. Today, Mulvaney joins the chorus that claims only the Democrats have ever held up a Continuing Resolution for reasons “unrelated” to the immediate budgetary issues.

None of this means that I’m convinced the Democrats are politically astute to be blocking the present CR. It does mean, though, that I remain sickened by the White House’s ongoing pattern of lying about and demonizing their opposition. Nor do I forgive Trump for failing to negotiate in good faith to assure the Dreamers a secure place here in the United States, the only country they have ever really known.

Passing Away

I just finished watching Sister Act 2, an unimportant movie filled with engaging music. Whoopi Goldberg, Lauren Hill, and Ryan Toby kick song-and-dance ass, and there’s no reason not to love the tunes’ exuberance, even while looking askance at the sentimental nonsense of the plot. Part of my problem is that I don’t know whether just the music or also the sentimentality has left me suddenly close to open weeping.

I don’t think of myself as terribly vulnerable or emotionally repressed, but it seems I’m a raw nerve. Maybe I’m just attuned to the emotional power of music. Maybe I’m out of touch with my own heart and mind.

For the last two days, Jean and I have hauled furniture from her family home to her brother’s house in Weston, our nephew’s temporary apartment in New Haven, our son and his girlfriend’s loft in Brooklyn, our own house in Norwalk, and city dumps in both New York and Connecticut. I’m exhausted. And I’m terribly aware that we are shutting down the house that Jean grew up in, the house her father and his family built by hand, the house that was home to all of them and all their friends and neighbors and eventual sons-in-law and thirteen grandchildren. It has been a joyous house and my second home.

And last night I got in touch with M______ to see if he and A_____ are up for a visit. I’m glad they are—despite the prognosis and the chemo. My old, close friend is dying. I don’t think about it all day, every day, but when I think about it, clouds and sleet fill my chest.

And also, although she seems well out of danger now, for the last year one of my closest teaching friends has suffered, when much too young and with a five-year-old to raise and cherish, from the effort of kicking stage-4 breast cancer out of her life.

Today I told Jean that it’s clear the problem of friends’ dying will be with us the rest of our lives. She nodded.

Only pain and suffering, extreme hate and love, would really matter much, would evoke sudden, fierce emotions, if it weren’t for mortality. Knowing we will die, and perhaps soon, each joy is tainted and made precious by the knowledge of its passing.

For most of my life, I have feared old age, especially since watching my mother crumble under the weight of alzheimer’s. When I was thirteen or fourteen, my parents were concerned about my discomfort around old and feeble people, a discomfort I largely outgrew. But I still have a dread of being old and feeble myself. Nonetheless, for most of my life I have felt free of any fear of death. An agnostic who leans strongly towards atheism, I remember arguing with a friend about having no fear of death because endless, dreamless sleep and angst-free oblivion could do me no harm. He found such nullity more terrible. He actually preferred the possibility of Hell to disappearance and the soulless existence it implies.

Nowadays, I feel his point. And I may need to reflect on this much more.

Right now, though, I simply don’t think I’m the proverbial atheist in a foxhole. At 66 and having had a few health scares, I can see my death in the near distance, but it’s not imminent. I feel well and look forward to travel and weddings and celebrations that I have every expectation of getting to enjoy. But the health scares—along with the hair loss and the aching joints and a tendency to slip into napping during free afternoons—do tell me I’m not the robust youth I used to be.

And so mortality haunts the back of my mind and sometimes asks for attention, as it has today, as I write this reflection about slipping into tears while watching a hackneyed movie.

Lara Trump’s “Real News”

Screen Shot 2017-08-02 at 4.01.44 PM.pngLara Trump, former producer at “Inside Edition” and also wife to the hapless younger son from President Trump’s first marriage, has created a weekly “real news” program on Facebook. Her explicit purpose is to bring viewers the good news of the good things done by her father-in-law’s administration each week. You can find her latest report, which clocks in at well under three minutes, here.

Almost every story that she reports, after suggesting they have not been covered in “the fake news,” had reached me already through the mainstream media, and most of my sources are the ones Trump derides most: The NY Times, Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC, CBS, and NPR. (I don’t think Trump ever mentions The New Yorker or The Nation.)

First, she speaks of the president’s contributing his first quarter salary to the Parks Department, his second to the Department of Education. (Yes, I knew this already.) She does not acknowledge the fact that Trump’s policies, as implemented by these two departments’ secretaries, are designed to reverse the mission—indeed, the very purpose—of each department. It’s also worth noting that 25% of the president’s $400,000 salary is, trust me, significantly less than the $9.2 billion that he has cut from the Department of Education.

Next she touts “Jobs, jobs, jobs.” And she isn’t wrong. (I know, because my fake news sources have already reported on this.) The unemployment rate really has been falling since Trump was elected—just as it did throughout the last several years of the Obama administration. It isn’t particularly fair to suggest that Trump somehow created that trend or can take credit for it, though I’m certainly glad he hasn’t reversed it. And when she cites Foxconn’s promise to create 13,000 new American jobs by moving some manufacturing to Wisconsin, she doesn’t also mention that Foxconn has reneged on such promises in the past. Nor does she seem aware that Foxconn is a tremendously controversial Taiwanese corporation that has even been charged with running sweatshops so severe that they drive some employees to suicide. And she fails to mention the fact that Wisconsin has offered Foxconn $3 billion in tax breaks and exemption from several environmental regulations in order to deserve the corporation’s largesse.

Ms. Trump also celebrates the muscular stock market. I guess it’s true. I already knew that the Dow was rising. I don’t know why—but then I never have understood Wall Street. What she calls a “booming economy” could be a result of renewed consumer confidence (which apparently is on the rise) or of big time investor’s confidence that corporations, banks, and the 1% in general are sure to keep on thriving under this administration. Lara Trump doesn’t mention either possibility, simply letting “booming” speak for itself. Nor does she consider how clearly this boom is merely a whimper for the middle and working class workers whose wages and salaries have been frozen or declining for decades.

Ms Trump’s pro-Trump reporting then moves on to praise the administration’s respect for men and women in uniform. This week the president awarded the Medal for Valor to the officers who brought down the shooter at the Republican baseball practice; he met with veterans in Ohio; and Vice-President Spence visited wounded soldiers at Walter Reed. There is certainly nothing wrong with any of these events, and all have been reported by the mass media. They are also very typical of what any administration is expected to do. They are good things, but hardly exceptional.

As for her delight in Trump’s speech to police officers and ICE officials on Long Island, she’s correct that it was the president’s way of announcing his ongoing commitment to cracking down on gang violence, such as the perfectly righteous arrests of MS-13 members out in Nassau County. She doesn’t mention (as the mainstream media certainly has) that this particular speech was laced with Trump’s urging the gathered officers to “get rough” with suspects they arrest, which comments were met with cheers from many of the men and women in blue in his audience, and met with shock and even derision from police officers and union officials following the speech—a speech that might have been even worse than his address to the national Boy Scout Jamboree, except that this time he was addressing adults, who should have known better.

Kinda like Lara Trump.