Week's End Thoughts & Reflections, August 4, 2018



Resist Trump Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Kevin Williamson and I come at the social, political, cultural, intellectual beast from wildly different perspectives. Where we take our stands on particular issues is often a reflection of this. Maybe that is why he writes for National Review and I write for a few readers who find their way to Portable Bohemia and little magazines and journals scattered across the aether where my poems may be found.

We seem to share a contrarian streak that puts us on the same page from time to time, as happened this week with l'affaire Sarah Jeong. Maybe you have heard about it. Jeong is a South Korean-born journalist raised in the US who attended Harvard Law School, has written for The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and the New York Times Magazine, and was a reporter for the Vox Media site The Verge. She was recently hired by the New York Times editorial board to work on technology issues. Controversy ensued when it came to light that a few years ago Jeong responded to Twitter creeps with tweets insulting and denigrating white people, zeroing in on white males.

Quelle horreur. Speaking as a white male, I am devastated. My self-image is shattered, my rights trampled on. The psychic distress that has been inflicted rendered me barely capable of dragging myself out of bed this morning. Ah, but I digress.

Charges of liberal hypocrisy and demands that Jeong be fired erupted from all the usual suspects. The editors of The Verge sprang to her defense, labeling the abusive backlash dishonest and outrageous (A note from the editorial leadership of The Verge, August 2, 2018).

I am not familiar with Jeong's work. The offending tweets I saw quoted in articles about the affair are not exactly displays of wit and wisdom. They are juvenile, sophomoric, and dumb, less than impressive; in other words, pretty standard Twitter fare. Her apologia, that she thought she was trolling back the trolls in a satirical vein and now believes that was a mistake, is so-so at best but could be genuine. I can accept it while wishing for better.

Zack Beauchamp at Vox weighed in on behalf of his former colleage (In defense of Sarah Jeong, August 3, 2018). Some points are well taken. Others are more problematic than Beauchamp seems to think. They invite critique that is unfortunately beyond the scope of this post.

Kevin Williamson, who was the subject of a similar uproar over his hiring and firing by The Atlantic earlier this year (Week's End Thoughts & Reflections, April 7, 2018), made this response to the social-media campaign that sometimes invoked his name "seeking to have her fired from the position in response to some odious and boneheaded tweets that might be summarized as 'Derka derka white people'":

I am agnostic on the question of whom the New York Times hires and why.... I assume that the editors of the Times knew exactly who and what Jeong was when they hired her. If not, then it isn’t Jeong who needs to be fired — it’s the negligent people who hired her.

If, on the other hand, the Times is more or less satisfied with Jeong, then it should resist the social-media mob campaign to have her dismissed. It is up to institutions to hold the line against mass hysteria and the mob mentality of social media....

I’ve heard some people on the right say, "If Kevin Williamson has to get fired by the Atlantic, then Sarah Jeong has to get fired by the New York Times." The Times can hire and fire whomever it likes—but not in my name. I’m sure that many of the people invoking my experience are well-meaning friends, but I’ll thank them to leave me out of this.

I am with Kevin Williamson across the board here. This stuff is beyond silly. It does not matter whether the social-media mob howls from the left or from the right. The Times, the Atlantic, and the National Review all have the right to hire and fire whomever they like. This includes Times op-ed columnist Bret Stephens, with whom I am more often than not in profound disagreement, and Sarah Jeong.

It so happens that over the past week or so three major league baseball players in their mid 20s have come under fire for boneheaded racist and homophobic remarks they posted on social media while in their teens. What relevance this has to anything and why it should be news is beyond my modest intellectual capacity to discern. There seems to be something of an industry, flourishing on the left and gleefully taken up by the right when opportunity arises, devoted to digging up muck and putting it to misuse in campaigns where a rigid, puritanical, I am tempted to say neo-Stalinist chunk of the left seeks to impose ideological purity and a revanchist, vindictive, I am tempted to say neofascist chunk of the of right smears their counterparts with charges of hypocrisy and other offenses.

I am also tempted to say that we should leave them to screech and spew venom at each other across the great divide. Let them wallow in Twitter's snake pit. That might be the high road. As we approach the close of the second decade of the 21st century, it would also amount to an abdication of personal integrity and social responsibility. It is up to each of us, not just the New York Times and other institutions, to hold the line against mass hysteria and the mob mentality of social media. Precisely how we are to do this is a challenge for which I have no great proposals. As with resistance to the Trump regime, we must try to find our way.

What is it with QAnon? Suddenly this nest of conspiracy mongering that reads like something out of a Thomas Pynchon novel is the subject of major media blather, e.g., PBS (How the false, fringe ‘QAnon’ conspiracy theory aims to protect Trump, PBS Newshour, August 1, 2018) and The Guardian (Julia Carrie Wong, What is QAnon? Explaining the bizarre rightwing conspiracy theory, July 30, 2018). The likes of former baseball pitcher Curt Schilling and celebrity Roseanne Barr are followers. Enough said.

Well, not quite. Judy Woodruff took up the subject with David Brooks and Ezra Klein on yesterday's PBS Newshour. Brooks and Klein are both good on this, with Klein in particular making some great observations. Conspiracy theories are nothing new. We had the John Birch Society in the 1960s charging that the civil rights movement was not just infiltrated by communists but was itself a communist creation. In the Clinton era there was widespread belief that the Clintons killed Vince Foster and were running cocaine out of Arkansas. The internet and social media ramp it all up to a level we did not see in the past.

Klein points out that conspiracy mongering usually comes from people who are out of power. Trump and his supporters act like an out-of-power group even though he is the president and Republicans control both houses of Congress and many state governments. I think this is in part because Trump is frustrated by constitutional limits on presidential power. He wants to be a strongman. There is paranoia about the deep state and, in Klein's words, "alienation from a government that they actually have some degree of authority over. And that’s a weird piece of it that could lead it to go in unusual directions."

For the record, I began making notes about QAnon early in the week, before it exploded on the scene. Just saying.

The Trump regime's zero tolerance policy continues to rack up outrageous misconduct with reports about the forcible drugging of migrant children without consent (U.S. centers force migrant children to take drugs: lawsuit, Reuters, June 20, 2018; Alex Johnson, Judge orders many migrant children removed from Texas facility said to use psychotropic drugs, NBC News, July 30, 2018) and sexual abuse of children in detention (Topher Sanders and Michael Grabel, Worker Charged With Sexually Molesting Eight Children at Immigrant Shelter, Pro Publica, August 2, 2018). Then there is the Justice Department's contention, rejected by the judge in the case, that the American Civil Liberties Union "should use its 'considerable resources' to locate the parents" who have yet to be reunited with their children (Ted Hesson, Judge: Trump administration has 'sole burden' to locate migrant parents separated from children, Politico, August 3, 2018).

And Russia. The president's national security team came together on Thursday to warn about ongoing Russian interference in U.S. elections (Mike Allen, A "pervasive" new worry for campaigns, Axios, August 3, 2018):

  • "In regards to Russian involvement in the midterm elections, we ontinue to see a pervasive messaging campaign by Russia to try to weaken and divide the United States." —Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats

  • "Our democracy itself is in the crosshairs."—Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen

  • "Just last week, ... we disseminated a list to our state and local law enforcement partners of various foreign influence indicators for them to be on the lookout for—things like malicious cyber activity, social abnormalities, and foreign propaganda activities." —FBI Director Christopher Wray

Meantime, on the same day, the President told the crowd at a rally in Pennsylvania (Eli Watkins, Trump slams 'Russian hoax' hours after administration says Russia is meddling in midterms, CNN, August 3, 2018):

In Helsinki, I had a great meeting with Putin. We discussed everything. ... We got along really well. By the way, that's a good thing, not a bad thing. Now we're being hindered by the Russian hoax -- it's a hoax, OK?

I have to plug yet another interesting column from Michael Tomasky. Tomasky disputes the common wisdom that Republican policies are better for the economy. To the contrary, he argues, "The economy does better under Democratic presidents. Indeed, it does a lot better—so much better that economists are almost kind of confused by it." (Dems Are Better for the Economy. Why Won’t They Say So?, The Daily Beast, August 3, 2018).

Let's close on a lighter note...of sorts...young Mariia Butina. The alleged agent's tradecraft left something to be desired:

On at least two separate occasions she got drunk and spoke openly about her contacts within the Russian government, even acknowledging that Russian intelligence services were involved with the gun rights group she ran in Moscow. Twice, classmates [at American University] reported her actions to law enforcement because they found her comments so alarming, sources said. (Sara Murray, Alleged Russian agent's infiltration of GOP circles anything but subtle, CNN, August 2, 2018).

I guess John John Le Carré isn't required reading for Russian spies.

Ordinarily I believe that elections have consequences and the Senate should not reject a president's nominees other than in exceptional circumstances. Brett Kavanaugh's record is so problematic on so many issues that I have come to think his nomination for the Supreme Court rises to that level. It's not just about Roe v. Wade.

I urge readers who have friends or family in swing states, e.g., Maine, Alaska, West Virginia, North Dakota, Indiana, North Dakota, to urge them to contact their senators to express opposition to Kavanaugh's nomination. If you live in a state like Oregon, you can contact your senators to express support of their attempts to ensure that Kavanaugh's full record sees the light of day. This may amount to no more than a futile gesture. Once again, it is what we can do. See Indivisible Oregon's call to action for talking points.

Keep the faith.

#CurrentAffairs

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David Matthews

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