Friday, May 19, 2017

Use bipartisan energy to rein in power

Sci-fi author David Brin suggests that both U.S. political parties seize the general opportunity of the moment to institute more checks and balances on the president. Why use up political capital merely exchanging the 45th president for his vice president, Mike Pence?

Specifically, in his Facebook post, Brin proposes enabling a way to delay military orders and send them for congressional committee review; allowing for “the other party” to make the president's appointments for one afternoon a week; and creating a bipartisan "Fact Checking Institute."

During his campaign for office, the 45th president selected Mike Pence to be his vice president "as impeachment insurance," in Brin's analysis. In other words, Brin believes that Pence will also pose significant troubles for Democrats and their agenda, and that Trump "knew what he was doing" in picking Pence to discourage opponents from bringing down Trump.

Some of David Brin's popular books:

Thursday, May 4, 2017

The 2017 persecution of gay men in Chechnya

Čeština: Nebeská etapa, 2007. Art by Eugene Ivanov. Creative Commons license, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Eugene_Ivanov_800.jpg

Gay men in Chechnya already had to use assumed names to meet at cafes, but today Chechnyan police agents are leading sting operations in which they conduct online chats with gay men, arrange in-person meetings, then ambush, kidnap, and torture them and force them to inform on other gay men. A possible triggering event for the violence:

"The crackdown began after GayRussia, a rights group based in Moscow, applied for permits for gay pride parades in the Caucasus region, prompting counterprotests by religious groups, the men said. In Chechnya, it became something even worse — a mass 'prophylactic' cleansing of homosexuals, the security service agents told the gay men as they rounded them up."

The persecution was first reported on April 1, 2017 by the newspaper Novaya Gazeta as having resulted in over 100 arrests and three deaths up to that point.

In response to these reports, the press secretary for Chechnya's leader Ramzan A. Kadyrov essentially affirmed his support for the policy of killing gay men without directly admitting to it. "If there were such people in Chechnya," the press secretary said, "law-enforcement agencies wouldn’t need to have anything to do with them because their relatives would send them somewhere from which there is no returning."

Of the three reported fatalities, one was due to torture and the other two were victims of so-called "honor killings" by family members after they were released. Tanya Lokshina, the Russia Program Director for Human Rights Watch said that, in Chechnya, "victims of torture and other horrific abuses refrain from seeking justice or withdraw their complaints as a result of threats, including death threats and threats of retaliation against family members."

On April 13, the Geneva-based office of the U.N. Commissioner for Human Rights said that Russia should "put an end to the persecution of people perceived to be gay or bisexual." On April 15, former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said: "The United States must lead the way to demand an end to these egregious violations of human rights." On April 18, a CNN video interviewed one man whose face and voice were blurred to protect his identity. On April 19, Putin said the claim of the pogrom was "libelous," and the next day, Putin's spokesman maintained that Russia had found no evidence of arrests in Chechnya.

Andrew E. Kramer interviewed several men for his article "'They Starve You. They Shock You': Inside the Anti-Gay Pogrom in Chechnya." Published in the New York Times on April 21, it provides disturbing details. One man in his 20s reported that he was brought to an apartment where five other gay men had already been brought for the same reason and that his assailants "strapped him to a chair, attached electrical wires to his hands with alligator clips and began an interrogation." The men were held for up to several weeks.

On April 21, Sir Alan Duncan, Britain's deputy to Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, told the House of Commons that "sources have said that he [Kadyrov] wants the [LGBT] community eliminated by the start of Ramadan." Ramadan begins on May 26 this year. Duncan also said that he and British Embassy representatives had spoken to the Russian government about the persecution.

On May 2, Lewis Corner wrote for GayTimes that a man had told France 24 News: "They tell the parents to kill their child. They say ‘Either you do it, or we will.'" On May 3, Will Stroude wrote for Attitude "that the families of those imprisoned are eventually summoned to the prison, where they are tasked with carrying out their own relative’s execution" in the account of a victim who spoke to France 24. Stroude wrote that Novaya Gazeta had increased its fatality count to over 30 men "executed by the authorities or their own families".

Stroude wrote:

"Russia has faced increasingly loud calls from the international community to bring an end to the violence, and while a Russia Foreign Affairs minister confirmed to Yahoo News’s Katie Couric last week that an investigation into the situation was currently taking place, she was reluctant to comment on the matter further."

Assistance

Emergency legal and travel assistance is coordinated in Russia by the Moscow Community Center, the Russian LGBT Network, and by Canada-based Rainbow Railroad that says it is working with the Russian LGBT Network. The head of LGBT-Set-Russia has been quoted in the news regarding the need for such assistance. Amnesty International UK has petitions called "Chechnya: Stop Abducting and Killing Gay Men" with over 170,000 signatures and Protect Journalists Who Revealed Abuse of Gay Men in Chechnya with 30,000 signatures as of May 4.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Quotes on lying

Robert A. Burton:

"As a lifelong poker player, I have spent considerable time developing a winning strategy, yet I am not a great player. I have long suspected a variety of flaws, but haven't figured out a clear solution. With the recent popularity of televised poker tournaments where the viewers can see the players' hole cards at the start of each hand, the problem has become transparent. The players with the best overall results are those who aggressively make selective large bluffs, a style with which I have never been entirely comfortable.

* * *

Trying to figure out what the other players have turns out to be of less value than just making the large bluff periodically."

Thomas S. Szasz:

It [the term "lying"] comes into play only when the assumption is made that the communicants have pledged themselves to truthfulness. Thus, the term "lying" can be used meaningfully only in situations in which the rules of the game prescribe truthfulness. This is often assumed in everyday human relationships, and especially in those which are emotionally close, such as in marriage and friendship. Perjury is a special kind of lying, committed in a court of law by a person giving testimony. Here the rules of the game are explicitly formulated; lying (perjury) is punishable by legally enforced sanctions.”

Lisa Kogan:

"Honesty is a delightful policy, but I'm here to tell you that without at least a few lies, Thanksgiving with the family would be a thing of the past, first dates would end faster than you can dismiss your biological clock with a jaunty "Que sera, sera... ," every political figure who intentionally linked Iraq with Osama bin Laden would be forced to resign in disgrace, and any number of plastic surgeons throughout the greater Los Angeles area would end their lives in the gutter holding large cardboard signs that read WILL BOTOX FOR FOOD.

* * * 

To this day, Julia believes that Toys "R" Us is only open when my parents visit Manhattan; the shelves are stocked as Grandma and Grandpa's plane touches down and the doors to the store lock as soon as they head back to Detroit.

Here is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth: My name is Lisa, and I am a liar, though a good marketing consultant could probably finesse the word into something a bit more palatable: "Reality Stylist" might be good, or "Pinocchiotologist" could work. My mother insists that, at the end of the day, what I am is a storyteller — and she might have a point.

Joan Didion says that "we tell ourselves stories in order to live." I think that's right. Forget what I tell cabdrivers for sport or dental hygienists for spin control or "Bambi" readers for peace of mind. It's the lies we tell ourselves that determine the particular arc of our stories."

M. Veera Pandiyan:

Liars, it seems, are wired differently from the rest of us. On the average they have between 22% and 26% more prefrontal white matter and 14% less grey matter.

The study by Dr Yaling Yang, from the psychology department of the USC, and psychology professor Dr Adrian Raine, who is now at University of Pennsylvania, used Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to explore differences in brains among pathological liars, anti-social disorder personalities and those who were normal.

According to Dr Raine, more white matter provided liars with the tools necessary to master the complex art of deceit.

“Pathological liars can’t always tell truth from falsehood and contradict themselves in interviews. They are very brazen in terms of their manner, but very cool when talking about this.”

“Lying takes a lot of effort. It’s almost mind reading. You have to be able to understand the mindset of the other person.

“You also have to suppress your emotions or regulate them because you don’t want to appear nervous. There’s quite a lot to do there. You’ve got to suppress the truth,” Dr Raine was quoted as saying in a USC article after the study was published.

He said the more “networking” there was in the prefrontal cortex, the more the person had an upper hand in lying, adding that their verbal skills were higher and that they had a natural advantage.

In normal people, the grey matter helps to keep the impulse to lie in check. With the surplus of white matter and a deficit of grey matter, liars have more tools to lie and fewer moral restraints than normal people.

Sources

Robert A. Burton. On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2008. pp. 112-113.

Thomas S. Szasz. The Myth of Mental Illness: Foundations of a Theory of Personal Conduct. New York: Delta, 1961. p. 246.

"Lies are good for family and friends." Lisa Kogan. Oprah.com.  Sept. 5, 2008.

 

"Inside the Lying Brain." M. Veera Pandiyan. The Star (Malaysia). Aug. 28, 2008.

Quotes on perception and interpretation

Sen. J. William Fulbright:

“...people in different societies look at the same facts and "see" different things, that what they see, or think they see, is largely determined by what they expect to see.

The point is illustrated by an experiment in which a psychologist had two groups of schoolteachers, one Mexican, the other American, look into a device that simultaneously showed a picture of a bullfighter to one eye and a picture of a baseball player to the other. When asked what they had seen, most of the Mexicans said they had seen a bullfighter and most of the Americans said that they had seen a baseball player. Obviously, what each individual saw had a great deal to do with whether he was a Mexican or an American.”

Steven Lukes:

“He recalled James Thurber's encouraging thoughts about the strange pleasure of going blind. As one's eyesight fails, the role of the external world in fixing what one sees declines while that of interpretation increases, so you only have to be optimistic for women to be attractive, buildings to be elegant, the sun to shine.”

Tom Hayden:

"As Fritjof Capra pointed out in The Tao of Physics, the intellect in such Asian philosophy is a means to clear the way for the direct mystical experience of oneness, not a tool for endless filing of data."

Gary Zukav:

"During the Lebanese civil war, a story goes, a visiting American was stopped by a group of masked gunmen. One wrong word could cost him his life.
'Are you Christian or Moslem?' they asked.
'I am a tourist!' he cried.
The way that we pose our questions often illusorily limits our responses."

Sources

Sen. J. William Fulbright. The Arrogance of Power. New York: Vintage Books, 1966. p. 176.

Steven Lukes. The Curious Enlightenment of Professor Caritat. London, New York: Verso, 1995, reprinted 2000. p 2.

Tom Hayden. The Lost Gospel of the Earth: A Call for Renewing Nature, Spirit, and Politics. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1996. p. 169.

Gary Zukav. The Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1979. p. 286.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Quotes on time as illusion

Lee Smolin:

"Is the flow of time something real, or might our sense of time passing be just an illusion that hides the fact that what is real is only a vast collection of moments?"

Robert Lanza, author of the book Biocentrism which lays out his theory of everything:

"But if you remove everything from space, what's left? Nothing. The same applies for time — you can't put it in a jar. You can't see through the bone surrounding your brain (everything you experience is information in your mind). Biocentrism tells us space and time aren't objects — they're the mind's tools for putting everything together."

William Poundstone:

"If you are sure that time is not running backward, ask yourself how you know this. You probably cite your memories of the past. It is now 1988. You have memories of experiences in 1987, 1986, 1985, etc.; you do not have memories of 1989, 1990, etc. But you would, for the moment, have the memories you do whether time was going forward or backward from 1988. The question is whether the moving finger of time adds to or deletes from this stock of memories. There is no way of telling!"

Nancy S. Atlas:

”Holidays, albeit imposed by man, provide us with the framework and opportunity to honor the individuals and the events that have shaped our lives, and might otherwise be taken for granted. Although the scheduling of leisure time might appear to be rigid and confining, it actually has a salubrious effect, as it relieves anxiety and reassures us that our goals can be met and our needs can be satisfied. Structuring time assuages the 'ought to' syndrome and sets the stage for 'free time' to be really free.”

Matthew May:

”Still, customers visiting FAVI are often astounded at what they perceive to be a total lack of control. A favorite story Jean-François tells involves a customer’s site inspection at FAVI: ‘They asked to audit our procedures,’ he says. ‘They were not pleased because we had no measurement system for tracking late orders—nothing in place, no plan, no process, no structure in case of delay. They are a customer for over ten years, so I say, ‘In that time, have we ever been late?’ They say, ‘No.’ I say, ‘Have we ever been early?’ They say again, ‘No.’ And so I ask them why they want me to measure things that do not exist.’ Good point.”

Douwe Draaisma:

"In 1997, the psychologists Crawley and Pring performed an experiment in which the estimated time interval was compared precisely with the real time interval. They drew up a list of events that anyone in Britain even vaguely familiar with the news was bound to remember. ... The earliest event was the Queen's Silver Jubilee (1977); the most recent the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989). Next, Crawley and Pring asked their experimental subjects to give as nearly as possible the year and the month in which these events had occurred. The answers revealed an interesting difference to do with the subjects' age. Experimental subjects of middle age (between thirty-five and fifty years old) dated the events too recently, thus confirming the telescopy found in earlier experiments. But older subjects (on average aged about seventy) placed the events too far back in time. I was as if they had turned the telescope round, thus extending the interval.

'This can help to explain why time seems to fly by as we grow older', wrote Crawley and Pring. The underlying idea is probably that time in the subjectively longer period must have gone by more quickly. This conclusion shows how difficult it is to interpret the results of research on time perception. For something can also be said for the opposite conclusion. It is precisely those who think something happened three years ago when in fact it was five, who will exclaim, 'Gosh, how time flies.' The speeding up of the years seems to be due to telescopy rather than to reverse telescopy. Crawley and Pring's theory can only be saved by the assumption of a reverse connection between the overestimate of the duration of a period of time and its subjective tempo. That does indeed manifest itself with the quickened pace of a week on holiday, which upon one's return home seems longer than an ordinary week. However, in that case, both telescopy and reverse telescopy will make us feel that time is rushing past, and that robs them of any explanatory value."

Sources

Lee Smolin, quoted by Ray Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence. New York: Penguin Group, 1999. p 25.

"What Happens When You Die? Evidence Suggests Time Simply Reboots." Robert Lanza, M.D. June 10, 2010. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-lanza/what-happens-when-you-die_b_596600.html Accessed June 12, 2010.

William Poundstone. Labyrinths of Reason: Paradox, Puzzles and the Frailty of Knowledge. New York: Anchor Books, 1988. p. 66.

"The Structuring of Time." Nancy S. Atlas. Jewish Reporter (Massachusetts), February 2003.

Matthew E. May, In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing. New York: Broadway Books, 2009. pp. 128-129.

Douwe Draaisma. Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older: How Memory Shapes Our Past. (2001) Translated by Arnold and Erica Pomerans in 2004. Cambridge University Press, 2005. pp 216-217.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

'From Enemy to Asset: Israel’s Moment of Regional Opportunity'

J Street national conference, Washington, D.C., Feb. 26, 2017

The panel "From Enemy to Asset: Israel’s Moment of Regional Opportunity" was moderated by Attila Somfalvi, Political Analyst.

The three panelists:

Member of Knesset Akram Hasson, Kulanu Party
Brigadier General (Ret.) Israela Oron, Former Deputy National Security Advisor, Israel’s National Security Council
Nadav Tamir, Director of International and Government Affairs, Peres and Associates Global Consulting

How should Israel approach peacemaking in the broader Middle East?

Should Israel first speak to other Arab countries about regional politics (as PM Netanyahu says he wants to do), or should Israel first speak to the Palestinians directly? Hasson said it is necessary to speak with the Palestinians directly and not assume that other nations will take the lead. Oron, by contrast, said that Israel shares security concerns with Arab countries that are moderate on these issues like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and "the marriage can happen only when they can bring the bride. The bride is the Palestinians." Tamir said "I don't think the Arabs will move without the Palestinians and I don't think the Palestinians will move without the Arabs. That's why I think it has to be synchronized."

Tamir said he preferred to refer to Israel as "the homeland for the Jewish people" because it is more welcoming and potentially inclusive of non-Jews than the term "Jewish state."

Tamir said in response to an audience question about the importance of promoting dialogue at the grassroots level: "I totally agree with you. It's not enough to do peace from the top-down; you have to do peace from the bottom-up." He also said he believes that the people will support a two-state solution if politicians lead the way.

Who should take responsibility for the past? For the future? Israelis, Palestinians, Americans?

In response to Somfalvi's question about whether it's appropriate to "blame the Palestinians" and ask for "concessions" from them, Oron conceded that "the Palestinians have a very fair share" of blame for the failure of negotiations. Hasson acknowledged that Palestinians have not been able to stop the tide of extremism among young people, and he also pointed the finger back at Israel. He said that Abu Mazen personally told him that his hands were politically tied as long as Palestinians continued to see Israeli military presence in Area A and Israeli construction in the West Bank. Oron said, "They are not in the position to cut deals with the Israelis" in part because they have a difficult economic condition and their leader Abu Mazen is not very powerful.

Tamir said that he preferred to avoid the "blame game." "I think all of us should do our work and then we can move forward. I actually think the project of Zionism was to make the Jewish people not the object of history but the subject of history...People in J Street have to work on the American scene." Hasson said, "I know Kerry spoke with Abu Mazen, and when he came to speak with Netanyahu, everything broke. For that reason, the game must start on our field."

Why is it important?

Tamir said, "If we cannot create a two-state solution, it's the end of Zionism. For me, there is nothing more important in my professional life." Oron said, "Basically, we are occupying millions of Palestinians and they don't have their own state...We are in a one-state for the last fifty years. The question is how can we make it more like a two-state, because the one-state is the end of the Zionist dream." The ideal would be to live in harmony with everyone in a single state, but "unfortunately, it's not practical."

A peace deal also has implications for Israel's reputation. Hasson said he believes that great leaders around the world will be reluctant to develop a relationship with Israel "without a solution for the Palestinians."


This panel was held Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017 at 3:15 p.m. Official panel description from the conference program:

"For decades, the Arab world cited the very existence of the state of Israel as the region’s number one problem. Yet over the past decade, the regional dynamics have shifted dramatically. The Arab world’s list of strategic challenges today is topped by Iran, extremism and the economic challenge posed by a massive generation of young people lacking economic opportunity and hope. Rather than being seen as a central threat, Israel today is perceived by regional players as a potentially key asset in addressing these challenges. Join us in exploring the opportunities and challenges Israel faces at this historic inflection point and whether, for Israel to take advantage of these strategic opportunities, it must first resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

'A Security-Driven, Two-State Process'

J Street national conference, Washington, D.C., Feb. 26, 2017

The panel "A Security-Driven, Two-State Process" was presented by Israel Policy Forum, chaired by Dr. Michael Koplow, Policy Director, Israel Policy Forum, and moderated by Ilan Goldenberg, Senior Fellow, Center for a New American Security.

Introductory remarks

Ilan Goldenberg, Senior Fellow, Center for a New American Security demonstrated an outline of a "final security system." The purpose is to show the public what it would look like, to assist future negotiators, and to set the goal so it is possible to take steps to reach it. A key parameter is placing some limit on Israel's military presence in the West Bank while still upholding Israel's right of its own national defense. It is also important to establish timetables, or at least to establish rules for ongoing collaboration on how to schedule implementation of each step of the agreement.

The three panelists:

Rolly Gueron, Ret. Mossad Division Chief: How to get from the "status quo" to a "permanent status agreement"? Avoid ideology and pursue "a constructive dialogue with reality." First, it is important to address security issues. Taking a long-term view, this means, in part, addressing the difficult conditions under which many people grow up. There is a three-fold proposal of "security measures," "civil-economic measures," and "policy clarifications." The goal is a Zionist state that is both Jewish and democratic, and any means to that end is "welcomed." The two-state solution is one possible means to that end. It is not itself an end.

MK Omer Bar Lev, Zionist Union: An agreement may need to deal with Gaza first and then deal with the West Bank. Today Hamas has a single leader; whether that is convenient for Israel can be debated. Most Israelis do not trust that they have a partner for peace. The international community also needs to be convinced that Israel "does not want to rule the Palestinians." He prefers the slogan: "Israel should be a secure democratic state with a clear Jewish majority." In the first stage of separating the Israeli and Palestinian states, there would be certain key steps, such as Israel ceasing to build in contested areas and Palestinians taking responsibility for governance in areas previously under Israel control.

Brigadier General (ret.) Israela Oron, Former Deputy National Security Advisor, Israel’s National Security Council: "The 'security argument' is used all the time in order to make the peace plan fail. It's not as if we don't have serious concerns about security." However, "Israel really enjoys a very good period of security. We really don't have serious security issues that we cannot really deal with." She said, "A temporary plan that is dealing only with the current situation, from my point of view, doesn't give a serious answer....We cannot talk about security plans disconnected from a peace plan." There are many needs, such as a neutral third party involved in policing a future arrangement, but this in itself is not a sufficient plan.

Panelists' remarks in response to audience questions at the microphone

Bar Lev: There needs to be an ongoing process of convincing everyone involved that it is possible and progressing toward a two-state solution. Leaders need to demonstrate that it can be achieved without any negative impact on security. "We can and should begin a two-state solution today."

Gueron: Israel should suggest economic measures to improve life in East Jerusalem. No more radical steps are likely right now. "Any radical step in Jerusalem, by the way, can bring about hell."

Gueron: "I don't think it's fair to compare the Israeli extremists and the Palestinian extremists. These are different volumes and, I would say, different atrocities." "There is no ultimate solution to extremism...and nobody is immune to extremism." The first step is separation. Israelis and Palestinians cannot live "inside one another."

Bar Lev: If everyone in Jerusalem is allowed to vote, "we'll have a Palestinian mayor in Jerusalem." The borders of Jerusalem were drawn hastily after the '67 war. "It's not [merely] a stigma, it's true: We are occupying the West Bank."

Gueron: "Politics of morality in the Middle East do not work...Obviously, it's not moral to occupy territories, but it's not moral for a nation to commit suicide."

Oron: "I don't know of any polite way to characterize what's going on in the West Bank other than 'occupation, occupation, occupation.'"

More detailed security plans

Available at TwoStateSecurity.org


This panel was held Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017 at 1:45 p.m. Official panel description from the conference program:

"Engage with top Israeli and American security experts as they address Israel’s security needs, including the preservation of a two-state solution. Come hear about two complementary plans designed to ensure Israel’s security needs are met through a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Commanders for Israel’s Security (CIS), a non-partisan movement comprised of former senior Israeli security officials, will discuss “Security First,” a plan to improve Israel’s security and international standing that preserves conditions for a two-state agreement. The Center for a New American Security (CNAS) will then present “Security System for the Two-State Solution.” Join us to hear and discuss responses to the plans from veteran senior Israeli security and policy officials."

'Jerusalem 2017: Crisis and Opportunity'

J Street national conference, Washington, D.C., Feb. 26, 2017

The panel "Jerusalem 2017: Crisis and Opportunity" was presented by the organization Ir Amim. The session was livestreamed at conference.jstreet.org.

Introductory remarks

The three panelists:

Hillel Schenker, Co-Editor, Palestine-Israel Journal: He has a "utopian" vision of Tel Aviv as the capital of Israel, and though it may not be achievable, he believes that "all three faiths should play a role" in shaping Israel's future. "The great advantage of Tel Aviv is that it has no holy sites to argue over," he said. He divides his time between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem were there is more religious conflict. "Today, most Israelis do not go to East Jerusalem."

Yudith Oppenheimer, Executive Director, Ir Amim: The Palestine-Israel Journal and Ir Amim have a joint project for young people called "Empowering East and West Jerusalem." About 40 percent of Jerusalem's residents are not citizens of Israel. People are aware that the prospects for a two-state solution are dimming, which is unfortunate because "any other option is not a resolution" to the conflict. She says that her utopian vision is different from Schenker's: "In my dream, Jerusalem is given back to its residents" and the city's future is worked out on a grassroots level.

Ziad Abu Zayyad, Co-Editor, Palestine-Israel Journal: It's necessary to recognize that Jerusalem is important for Arabs (Christians and Muslims alike) and for Israelis. Unfortunately, Israeli policy aims to convert Jerusalem into a Jewish city, with "complete denial" of Arab rights that has included demolishing Arab houses. "The Israelis make a big mistake if they underestimate the importance of Jerusalem to the Arabs, and the Arabs make the same mistake if they underestimate the importance of Jerusalem to the Jews and to the Israelis." He is worried about the possibility of Jerusalem as an "international city" which he thinks will open it up to lawlessness. He wants the residents of Jerusalem to come up with their own solutions.

Panelists' remarks in response to audience questions at the microphone

Abu Zayyad: "I am in favor of building bridges, not walls. The wall is separating the Arabs from the Arabs." His own village has been split in two by the wall, preventing commerce even between two areas that are both within East Jerusalem. "This wall is a segregation wall. It's claimed to be for security, but it's not possible."

Oppenheimer: "We see the problems getting more and more extreme, and the methods used against the residents of East Jerusalem is getting harsher and harsher. The house demolition doubled itself this year."

Schenker: It might be productive to have two American embassies, one in West Jerusalem for Israel and one in East Jerusalem for the Palestinians, but just having one American embassy in Jerusalem would be problematic.

Abu Zayyad: Some Arabs build without a permit because they are expensive and difficult to get. Housing is needed because the population is growing. They take a risk that their houses will be demolished.

Oppenheimer: The status of Palestinians in East Jerusalem needs an answer, as well as the "democratic challenge" that their collective existence poses to Israeli society. "Government is involved in all level of life in East Jerusalem, so to create that dual system so that they can take part, so-called, in municipal elections, which has very limited effect on their life, and not take part in national elections — that is a situation rejected by the Palestinians and with very good cause."

Abu Zayyad: "Jerusalem is the heart of the conflict. There will never be any Palestinian state without Jerusalem. There will be no Palestinian leader who will dare to sign any agreement without Jerusalem." He says he, personally, is too afraid to travel to West Jerusalem anymore. There are some attacks by Jews against Arabs. "The situation is not normal."

Oppenheimer: A new generation of children in Jerusalem is growing up in poverty. Today Jerusalem needs not only the value of "humanism" but also that of "pragmatism."

Oppenheimer: "We share the vision of an open city."

Abu Zayyad: "Our politics are poisoning our life." It is a dream, but it's not realistic, to have Israeli-Palestinian youth integration. The youth project referred to on this panel "is a drop in that ocean." Many Palestinians are "offended" by the idea of "normalizing relations with the occupation."

Schenker: His "realistic" vision for Jerusalem is a city that serves as the capital of two states.


This panel was held Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017 at 12:15 p.m. Official panel description from the conference program:

"Jerusalem is constantly in the news, usually with headlines about violence and tension between Israelis and Palestinians. Talk of unilaterally moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem has sparked concern of adding fuel to the flames. The future of Jerusalem is one of the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and determining its future will be one of the most daunting tasks in achieving a negotiated peace. Join two Jerusalem-based NGOs, Ir Amim and the Palestine-Israel Journal, to discuss the possibilities and learn about their work together to empower Jerusalem’s youth."

'Daylight to No Daylight: Switching Gears on US-Israel Relations'

J Street national conference, Washington, D.C., Feb. 26, 2017

The panel "Daylight to No Daylight: Switching Gears on US-Israel Relations" was moderated by Noa Landau, editor for Haaretz English Edition.

Introductory remarks

The three panelists:

Ambassador Alon Pinkas, Former Israeli Consul General to New York: "There are two ways of looking at this [U.S.-Israel] relationship: One is that it has been normalized, which is something that we should take as a positive. It is no longer unique, it is just a very strong alliance, and every time there's friction, we shouldn't panic and assume that the sky is falling. The other approach is more ominous....it is that the United States is in the process of reprioritizing its foreign policy interests" and is deprioritizing the Middle East.

Ilan Goldenberg, Senior Fellow, Center for a New American Security: He noted that there are still some key leadership roles in the new U.S. administration for which no one has been nominated. Furthermore, the Trump administration isn't following a normal process of listening to advisors and then making an executive decision in favor of a single clear policy and sticking to it. "There's no clarity what's it's going to mean for Israel." Although "part of me takes comfort in the dysfunctionality and their inability to get things done, if you really oppose some of the initiatives," he said he worries about what will happen when the next crisis is not internally manufactured but rather external: "What happens when there's a real shock to the system?"

Khaled Elgindy, Fellow, Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution: He noted a "lack of clarity" on the new U.S. administration's policy about settlements and a two-state solution. He mentioned Trump's comment about his willingness to go with either one state or two states, depending on what the parties want — that is, what Netanyahu wants. "I'm not sure he's [Trump is] entirely aware of what he's deferring to."

Further discussion

Pinkas: On the subject of David Friedman, who has been nominated to become the U.S. ambassador to Israel: "I would not ascribe too much importance to Mr. Friedman's views" in favor of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. He believes Friedman "confuses two simple things": He will be "the American ambassador to Israel, not the West Bank's ambassador to Washington. And the sooner he realizes this...the better for everyone.

Elgindy: "During the Reagan area, there was this notion of 'strategic convergence'" about cooperation between powers...It didn't really work then and I think it's unlikely to succeed now. Arab states are not going to go along with the idea of bypassing the Palestinians." They're "going to make their views known wherever they differ." He also said that, whereas President Obama contacted Palestinian leadership on one of his first days in office, now, under the Trump administration, he fears that now "we deal with the Palestinian leadership on a purely utilitarian basis" when it is relevant to security issues.

Goldenberg: Trump's statement on settlements encourages Israel to expand any settlement that they already have, which will make it harder to eventually move people out of the settlements in the service of a two-state solution, although "to his credit," Trump expressed opposition to new settlements. "Who's driving policy is still a little bit unclear." He also said that the Trump administration's comment that "Iran is on notice" is acceptable, but that it's important to know what one means by that and to have a plan for consequences when the line is crossed. Many Iranians already believe that they got the short end of the stick on the nuclear deal with the U.S., and Trump's "provocative" comments in this regard may not help international relations.

Pinkas: "There won't be a deal — not to disappoint anyone here, not because of Donald Trump. There won't be a deal because if you look at it historically — since 1967 in fact — or since the Oslo agreement was signed not far from here in 1993, the one enduring thing that Israelis and Palestinians always had in common and always stood side by side about is that it's always the Americans' fault. It's always the President's fault." He called this "an abundance of excuses". "There is nothing that Donald Trump can do [for peace in the Middle East] that John Kerry didn't try to do," or that Bill Clinton or George H.W. Bush before him didn't try to do. Furthermore, he says the Israeli-U.S. relationship is "unnatural," not part of the essential order of things, and thus may become obsolete: "Our shared values exist, but the relationship that emerged and grew into an alliance is a Cold War thing." The U.S. has decreasing interest in the Middle East in part because the U.S. is approaching "energy independence." "We know what a two-state solution is going to look like," but the Israeli and Palestinian parties don't seem "willing, capable or intent on doing anything to get there." The U.S. can do little in this situation.

Goldenberg: Netanyahu rejected a regional peace plan; the coalition government he built does not support it. Netanyahu is not likely to change his efforts in this regard.

Elgindy: "I was betting against the Kerry negotiations." He said he thought they had "almost no chance of success" in part because Israel "was occupying the other party that it is talking to." He added: "The United States has a responsibility in those repeated failures because they have not played the role of a mediator in trying to somehow level the playing field."

Panelists' remarks in response to audience questions at the microphone

Elgindy: The United States hasn't accepted the concept of "Palestinian agency," treating them as an "object" in the peace talks and "punishing them for going to the U.N. He said: "Once Palestinians put their own house in order, that in itself is proof that they are a partner."

Pinkas: "Israel needs to think hard, and do everything it can, to maintain" its unique diplomatic relationship with the US. "From an American point of view, this has become...an issue in the sense that...from an American point of view, how does it differ from relations with Great Britain, or France, or Canada?" The peace process needs to be the central issue. "If our [Israel's] only added value" to the United States is a partner in the war on terrorism, it's no longer unique. Trump could easily lose his patience.

Goldenberg: He worked for Kerry and he believes that the importance of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal was a "deep personal belief" for Kerry. "It is a holy grail in some ways. It's the diplomatic holy grail."

Pinkas: "The Trump administration could conceivably be one of the first ones that will not care about this."

Pinkas: It is "silliness" only held by the Israeli government that peace can be achieved while "bypassing the Palestinians." There is a possibility that "the two-state model cannot be preserved," but while "there are many flaws in it, I see more flaws by burying it."

Elgindy: "The real test of when a two-state solution is not feasible is when one or more of the parties do not want it anymore." The "fragile and precarious" political consensus (by Israeli politicians, not necessarily by the Israeli public) in favor of the two-state solution "has collapsed" in Israel. In the United States, language in favor of it has been "expunged" from the platform of "the Republican party that controls both houses of Congress and the White House...If nobody wants two states, you're throwing a party for people who don't show up, essentially."

Pinkas: He doesn't see "seriousness" in the Trump administration on foreign policy issues in comparison to past presidents. In response to someone who asked what news stories he thinks the concerned public should focus on ("What are we missing?" the audience member asked), Pinkas said: "Oh, you're not missing anything. The abundance of bad news is such that you don't know where to start. You're not missing anything because right now it's like a hiatus of sorts. Right now, everyone is trying to figure out what this administration is about. And it's not just the policies. They're trying to figure out whether they [the Trump administration] carry the credibility" of previous administrations. It's "an administration that begins with a credibility problem. Let's wait and see."

Goldenberg: He said that "the members of the Knesset are still two-staters." Polled support for a two-state solution jumps when the question specifies a situation in which the other side agrees to the deal.

Pinkas: "All in all, American public opinion is pro-Israeli but there are cracks in this support for a variety of reasons." This is happening among American Jews due to how non-Orthodoxy is treated in Israel, and the American public in general is "fatigued" by involvement in foreign conflicts that aren't perceived to serve American interests.

Elgindy: Post-9/11 "polarization" continues. The far right sees a dualistic "battle" between good and evil, while the far left "questions Israel's role in the region".


This panel was held Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017 at 10:45 a.m. Official panel description from the conference program:

"American policy toward Israel appears set to undergo one of its biggest shifts in recent memory. President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry focused on resolving Middle East conflicts diplomatically — whether with Iran or between Israel and the Palestinians. Their view was that the US-Israel relationship did not require full and constant alignment on views and policy. The new administration — symbolized by the President’s choice of David Friedman as Ambassador to Israel — has signaled a clear intent to reverse course. It has de-emphasized pursuit of the two-state solution and re-surfaced the principle that there should be “no daylight” between the US and Israel. It may well take action that — intentionally or not — undercuts the Iran nuclear agreement. Join our panel of experts in exploring what this rapid shift means for Israel, for the region and for American interests."

'Between the Lines: Deciphering a New US Approach to the Broader Middle East'

J Street national conference, Washington, D.C., Feb. 26, 2017

The panel "Between the Lines: Deciphering a New US Approach to the Broader Middle East" was moderated by Nahal Toosi, Foreign Affairs Correspondent for POLITICO.

Introductory remarks

The three panelists:

MK Akram Hasson, Kulanu Party: "It's very hard to have only two states. I believe that we need three states because Hamas will not accept any relation between Israelis and the Palestinians."

Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen, Director, Arab-Israeli Conflict Program, United States Institute of Peace: "We've had a long history of administrations getting involved in this conflict with the best of intentions and then getting stuck." She said, "There is a body of 'lessons learned' out there." The new U.S. president goes back and forth on whether he endorses a two-state or a one-state solution, perhaps based in part on what he thinks the parties want. "If you want to look at what the parties would actually be able to agree to," there is a "consistent shared vision" of a two-state solution.

Barbara Slavin, Acting Director, Future of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council: Iran's nuclear deal with the United States produced with the Obama administration doesn't forbid Iran from launching ballistic missiles, although there is a separate agreement that addresses this. This nuclear policy has not yet changed significantly since the transition from the Obama administration one month ago. However, the Trump administration's travel ban "disproportionately affected Iranians," approximately 30,000 of whom visit the United States every year for reasons like academic study and family visits. "Donald Trump is fulfilling their worst expectations about how he would treat the Iranian people (as opposed to the Iranian government)."

Further discussion

Hasson alleged, although he acknowledged that it may come as a "surprise" to many in the room, that Iran sends fighters to the Syrian civil war and supports Daesh (ISIS). "We know about many acts and agreements under the table that Iran did." Slavin responded: "I think Iran benefits in some ways from the existence of Daesh...but to say that Iran is directly supporting Daesh I think is a step too far.

Kurtzer-Ellenbogen said that "the idea of a regional approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a new one."

Hasson, who said he was a member of Likud for 22 years until 2006 and that he has spoken with the Palestinian leader Abu Mazen, said, "I am sure that Israel must lead that [i.e. the two-state solution], because we are a very strong country." He liked the policies of previous Israeli PMs Sharon and Olmert, but has reservations about the current PM Netanyahu. "Our prime minister says every day that he has no partner on the Palestinian side." Hasson believes that the Palestinian leader Abu Mazen's problem is that "he has no strong Palestinian leaders with him."

In response to Toosi's question, "What does everything that happened since Trump won mean for Bashar al-Assad and the civil war in Syria?", Hasson said that he expects that Syria will split into two countries. It will be "impossible," he said, for Syrians to reconcile and live in the country the way it was before. Slavin acknowledged that Trump's alleged "secret plan" for Syria is still unknown. "Once Raqqa falls, I don't know what Trump's interests in Syria will be." She added, "This is probably one of the first priorities for H. R. McMaster, the new [U.S.] security advisor." She anticipated a "de facto" division of Syria into "dispersed" areas after the fall of Raqqa. "Assad in the long term I think is untenable. The man is a brute."

In response to Toosi's question about whether leaders have to "hedge their bets" in preparation for the new U.S. president's unpredictability, Kurtzer-Ellenbogen said it's unhelpful "to try to analyze every tweet in terms of its implications for policy" and that countries generally don't "know or feel secure" about what the U.S. president will do. Hasson said "I like" his unpredictability and expressed a desire to allow the president some time to reveal and implement his policies. "Maybe he has a new policy that we don't know. Maybe it will work very good."

Slavin spoke of the potential danger of Iranian nuclear escalation and said "I agree with Akram [Hasson] that many of those actions have been destabilizing." She perceives an increased risk of "actual hostilities as opposed to verbal hostilities."

Panelists' remarks in response to written audience questions read by the moderator

Kurtzer-Ellenbogen: "I think we should still be looking toward the Arab Peace Initiative, and looking to it not just as a static document" but as a starting point for new discussions by Middle Eastern countries.

Slavin: "I think it's very encouraging that he [John Bolton] has not been chosen for a major role" in the new U.S. administration. She said that "Trump is not a regime-changer" and that his exclusion from a major role is "a rare bright spot."

Kurtzer-Ellenbogen: "I unfortunately don't share the optimism that the war in Syria will end soon...If we get to a point of stabilization...then, with Syria being there, right on the border, it would have a key role to play" in any Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but she thinks it will be a long time before Syria is ready to do this.

Hasson: "We see what happened in Iraq, Sudan, Syria and all these countries. It doesn't give big hope for our future." He indicated a preference for incremental change in human rights. "To take care of human rights in the Arab countries, it's not something very simple." He said that attempts for immediate change sometimes backfire. Of the current president of Egypt, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Hasson said: "We must give him big support and give him the time to succeed."

Slavin: The upcoming Iranian elections are unpredictable. An American return to the Bush-era "'axis of evil' rhetoric...always helps the hardliners." She suspects that President Hassan Rouhani will not be reelected because "I think it's in the Iranian interest to show a reasonable face to the world when the United States is showing one that isn't very reasonable."

Last question: What would you say to Trump?

Kurtzer-Ellenbogen: She said she would advise the U.S. administration to listen to its allies and "don't throw out the baby with the bathwater...There are things to be learned from past administrations: mistakes and successes. Radical change is not always the best approach, especially with foreign policy."
Hasson: "I need to see you like a father for everybody around the world."
Slavin: "Don't reinstate the travel ban...The Iranian people are not your enemy."


This panel was held Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017 at 9 a.m. Official panel description from the conference program:

"For several years now, US policy in the Middle East has been caught between a crying need for American leadership and an American desire to disengage. The new president faces tough policy choices — on Syria, Iraq, Iran and more — all made more difficult by some of his rhetoric and his desire to reset relations with other global powers. How this administration decides to wield US power in the region will have significant impact on both American and Israeli security. Join us for an exploration of the opportunities and pitfalls as the United States navigates a path forward through the intertwined and often contradictory geopolitics of the Middle East."

Saturday, February 11, 2017

I still don't know why you voted for him (response to op-ed)

Dear Chicago Tribune,

Help me understand why this was a publishable op-ed. I can't believe the amount of miscounsel that was given in fewer than 500 words. At least I got a new manifesto out of my repeated attempts to process it.

“Commentary: I am a deplorable, and I'm happy I voted for Trump,” by Jeff Bust, Chicago Tribune, Feb. 3, 2017.

To the writer:

I don’t get tired of sharing ideas about values. Clearly some values are still relevant to you, too, because you are writing op-eds about them. I'm sorry you are "weary" almost before you've picked up the pen. If you continue to insist that your subject matter isn't important, you can stop writing and I'll stop reading.

When I vote, my motivation is not to privately feel good about my vote. My motivation is to point toward policies that I think will actually help others. When others protest the policies I like, I don’t see that as an attempt to make me feel bad about my vote. Protests usually aim to fix the problems we have right now with our government and prevent bad policy. Even if some protesters do want to shame me, and if they succeed, it doesn’t matter very much, since my goal is not to feel good about a vote I’ve already cast but rather to find new ways to help people and continue making the country a good place to live. If I decide I've made a political mistake, I can move on and move forward. It isn't essential for me to feel good about a past vote, and I'm not under the illusion that ossifying smugness for its own sake would help me or anyone else in the event that my political beliefs were criticized.

It isn't clear to me why you voted for someone you say you don't like, why you are happy at having done so, and how this specific, peculiar happiness helps you or anyone else. You say you wanted a president who does something. All presidents do something. You could have voted for a candidate you liked. If you would like to see a different kind of candidate, you can say what that person would be like.

Your voice has always counted. It counts even when you don’t win. You are not entitled to get your way all the time. You are still significant when someone else gets their way. It doesn’t especially impress me that you personally prefer to express your political opinion without costumes or signs; if you were more of an oddball, your beliefs would still matter the same amount to me.

You are the only one who sees the way things really are? How did you arrive at that vision?

I don’t think we need to balance the budget before we engage in debate about values. I think we need values to determine how to balance the budget. I think the values need to be "living": adjustable and debatable. We can, at the same time, philosophize and pay our bills; indeed, we must. Neither philosophy nor the budget is ever completed. Anything we put off until these magna opera are completed will never see daylight in our lifetimes.

Why the gratuitous adjective "dorm-room" before "debates on philosophy and injustice"? Why "empty" before "values-centered debates"? If philosophy were really so juvenile and empty, why would you want to engage in it ever, even as a secondary interest on that far-off day when the budget is finally balanced?

Very few are idlers by ideology; most value the concept of work. If you perceive that others find fault with you for having a job, you might want to examine where that perception is coming from.

Very few are ascetics; most value some degree of comfort. If you perceive that others find fault with you for seeking comfort, you might want to examine if they really object to what they see as excess, especially at others’ expense.

Very few lecture others about insensitivity for no reason. If people routinely tell you how insensitive you are, maybe there’s something to be learned there.

Nearly everyone works in some capacity, inside or outside the home, and even those who don’t work still worry about who will pay for what needs to be done. It is important to think about who foots the bill, yet I am skeptical that you really only consent to activities that you can pay for all by yourself. Many expenses are collective; someone paid for the road on which you walk, bike, or drive. The fact that we have government debt for you to complain about suggests that something got bought that you did not pay for. And what if you could no longer work or if you could no longer earn or save at your current level? How would you make decisions then? How would you value yourself? How would you expect others to value you?

For similar reasons, one should less readily judge immigrants (or anyone) according to their economic contributions. First, why should anyone base the welcoming and acceptance of any other human being in any significant measure according to whether they can work and pay taxes? Some people are disabled. Some people contribute by methods that do not involve money — they are caregivers or artists or simply fine people who happen not to have jobs. Second, I thought you lived your life based on "what I can pay for," so why do you care if immigrants make economic contributions? To whom should they contribute except themselves? Is it the case that you want them to contribute to you, but you don't want to contribute to them? Third, if you expect someone to make significant material contributions to the country, are you prepared to grant them the right to vote?

You suggest that government overspending is worse than all other value failures combined: arrogance, carelessness, overcompetition, insensitivity. I disagree. Spending money is not the worst evil. Money exists to be spent. It is instrumentally useful in the service of values. If there are credible proposals to help remedy the consequences of racism past and present and if those proposals require spending some money, surely this is one of the best uses of money one can dream up.

You say that no one has a right to send a financial bill to future generations, but you suggest it's perfectly all right to leave them with a climate change problem, due to your "practical sense of priority." Certain facts and values can present an argument that future generations will need a planet that is livable for humans and other forms of life more than they will need money. If the planet's natural environment is disregulated, money can't easily fix the issue. Global warming needs to be a high priority for practical reasons. If others criticize you for deprioritizing it, maybe it’s not for the abstract reason that they see you as putting practicality or frugality over ideals but because they think you have your facts wrong about the relevance of climate change.

And on a practical level, we do have to bill future generations for something, because that is the way financing works in the actual world right now. We bill the future. We don't have its consent. We can pay off some the debt that previous generations left us with and we can be judicious about the causes for which we want to bill the future, but charging nothing whatsoever is probably not a realistic option. Also, because future generations by definition cannot weigh in yet, we don't know for a fact whether they would consent to or even prefer us to rack up some bills on their behalf. They might want us to pay (or force them to pay) to prevent another kind of problem for them. They don't exist yet so we can't ask them. We may not have the right to make choices that affect others now and in the future, but we are nonetheless inescapably faced with that reality and those decisions.

No one can erase or redo history. No one can give a personal mea culpa for something that happened before they were born. To be anti-racist is not to attempt those things that are impossible on principle. It is simply to care about people today, to acknowledge history as needed, and to try to move forward together, making the most of the resources we have.

It is not obvious that your taxes are used to "make...speeches and buy votes." You have to build a case for that and explain what you mean. Neither is it clear whether you object to all government-funded healthcare, since you say that you support abortion rights and that you merely oppose the idea that you would have to pay for anyone's abortion. Presumably, you also oppose the idea that you would have to pay for anyone else's child and that child's healthcare for years to come, since money, not anti-abortion principle, is the driver here.

It is not obvious why being an “intellectual," an “organizer," or a philosopher (“professional value arbitrator”) is a bad thing. All of these skills are useful for writing coherent op-eds. "Tree huggers," literally environmentalists who protest in trees, have never run the show in Washington and you have nothing to fear from them at this time.

I didn't call you deplorable. You said "I am deplorable."

Thank you for explaining what your vote meant to you.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

A new presidential directive to 'go shopping'

Today one might feel sentimental about the speeches given by then-President George W. Bush in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. On Sept. 20, he addressed the nation:

"Americans are asking: What is expected of us? I ask you to live your lives, and hug your children. I know many citizens have fears tonight, and I ask you to be calm and resolute, even in the face of a continuing threat...I ask your continued participation and confidence in the American economy. Terrorists attacked a symbol of American prosperity. They did not touch its source. America is successful because of the hard work, and creativity, and enterprise of our people. These were the true strengths of our economy before September 11th, and they are our strengths today."

Again, on Sept. 27:

"When they struck, they wanted to create an atmosphere of fear. And one of the great goals of this nation's war is to restore public confidence in the airline industry. It's to tell the traveling public: Get on board. Do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America's great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed."

In such a moment of crisis and confusion, many people craved greater moral leadership or more explicit instructions on what they could do to help others, and thus Bush was roundly mocked for having told the nation to "go shopping," as his words were commonly paraphrased.

But probably no president has ever told the nation to go shopping the way Donald Trump has just done.

Donald Trump with his daughter Ivanka at a campaign rally in New Hampshire, ahead of the February 2016 New Hampshire primaries. Creative Commons 2.0. Wikimedia Commons.

In early February 2017, Ivanka Trump's clothing line was dropped by Nordstrom while other stores like TJX Companies and Belk have said they will scale back their promotions of the line. Ivanka's father tweeted on Feb. 8: "My daughter Ivanka has been treated so unfairly by @Nordstrom." This was retweeted by @POTUS, the Twitter account of the office of the President. The next morning, the president's counselor Kellyanne Conway spoke from the White House to the Fox & Friends television show: “Go buy Ivanka’s stuff, is what I would tell you. I hate shopping, but I am going to go get some myself today. This is just — it’s a wonderful line, I own some of it, I’m just gonna give a free commercial here, go buy it today, you can buy it online.”

Laurel Raymond explained that Conway's comments "appear to violate federal ethics law, which prohibits the endorsement of products by federal officials." Jill Disis quoted Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) in his letter to the House Oversight Committee chair: "This appears to be a textbook violation of government ethics laws and regulations enacted to prevent the abuse of an employee's government position."

White House press secretary Sean Spicer said the use of @POTUS was appropriate:

"This is less about his family's business, and an attack on his daughter. He ran for president, he won, he's leading this country. I think for people to take out their concern for his actions or executive orders on members of his family, he has every right to stand up for his family and applaud their business activities, their success. When it comes to his family, I think he's been very clear about what they've accomplished. And for someone to take out their concern for his policies on a family member of his is just not acceptable, and the president has every right as a father to stand up for them."

As for Conway's comments, Spicer said she was "counseled on that subject, and that's it."

Disis quoted the opinion of Larry Noble, general counsel of the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center: "He [the president] should not be promoting his daughter's line, he should not be attacking a company that has business dealings with his daughter, and it just shows the massive amount of problems we have with his business holdings and his family's business holdings."

If there were a crisis, what would we be asked to buy then?

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

False claims by the Trump administration

Fake protests, journalists suppressing info about terrorism, a rising murder rate...and other things that aren't happening.

..........

Americans paid to protest?

Jen Hayden wrote:

"Republican Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner casually mentioned he believed the people turning up at his office and Colorado-area protests were 'paid protesters.' So did a Tennessee state senator, who provided evidence that was easily debunked and became an internet joke.

Now the White House itself is latching on to the laughable and insulting notion that these massive protests are the result of 'professional paid protesters.' This must be the largest top secret jobs program in the history of the world."

"Totally detached from reality, White House spokesman says protesters are 'paid professionals'," Jen Hayden, Daily Kos, Feb. 6, 2017.

..........

Terrorist attacks 'not even being reported'?

The president told military leaders at U.S. Central Command on Feb. 6: "All over Europe, it’s happening. It’s gotten to a point where it’s not even being reported. And in many cases the very, very dishonest press doesn’t want to report it. They have their reasons, and you understand that.” Press secretary Sean Spicer said, “We’ll provide a list later" and then produced a typo-ridden list of 78 incidents 'executed or inspired' by IS over the previous two years.

The BBC had this response:

"Before the list was published, press secretary Sean Spicer said there were 'several instances' of attacks that had not gained sufficient media coverage (without specifying which fell into that category).

We have reproduced the list below, explaining in each case what happened and whether we reported on it.

Just because the BBC covered an attack does not mean that incident was not under-reported, although it is unclear whether Mr Trump was referring to US or global news organisations.

Some terrorist incidents do get more coverage than others, a point hotly debated on social media."

Of the large number of attacks worldwide, Philip Bump wrote in the Washington Post: "Not every one of those attacks made your local nightly newscast. But filtering what to cover is very different than suppressing information."

"White House struggles to defend Trump’s allegations of a cover-up," Steve Benen, MSNBC, Feb. 7, 2017.

"Trump says terror attacks 'under-reported': Is that true?" BBC, Feb. 7, 2017.

"President Trump is now speculating that the media is covering up terrorist attacks," Philip Bump, Washington Post, Feb. 6, 2017.

..........

Such as the Bowling Green Massacre?

On Jan. 29, Kellyanne Conway mentioned “the Bowling Green attack on our brave soldiers” to TMZ and “the Bowling Green massacre” to Cosmopolitan. Ben Mathis-Lilley explained that "what Conway was (sort of) referring to was the 2011 arrest in Bowling Green, Kentucky, of two Iraqi men who were caught in an FBI sting operation trying to send money and weapons to al-Qaida in Iraq, the group that became ISIS. Both men admitted to having used IEDs against U.S. troops in Iraq before they were admitted to the U.S. as refugees. They were both sentenced to long prison terms." On Feb. 2, she mentioned 'the masterminds behind the Bowling Green massacre' to MSNBC and was widely mocked for it. Philip Bump said that the laughter was "an undue amount, given the likelihood that her comments were a mistake rather than an intentional lie. Trump’s comments [about the media suppressing information about terrorist attacks] are of an entirely different order and magnitude."

"Conway Had Mentioned Imaginary Bowling Green Attack Twice Before She 'Misspoke' About It on MSNBC," Ben Mathis-Lilley, Slate, Feb. 6, 2017.

"President Trump is now speculating that the media is covering up terrorist attacks," Philip Bump, Washington Post, Feb. 6, 2017.

..........

Murder rate higher than ever?

On Feb. 7, the president told sheriffs from the National Sheriffs Association that “the murder rate in our country is the highest it’s been in 47 years” and said that reporters weren't covering this problem. Tom Jackman pointed out that the opposite is actually true; the rate is "almost at its lowest point" for that time period, according to FBI data, which shows that the murder rate is "less than half the murder rate of 1980."

On Feb. 8, Sen. Rick Santorum told CNN host Poppy Harlow that he agreed with the president's general concern about urban violence, despite not having facts to support it. "I’m not going to defend Donald Trump’s recitation of the facts," Santorum said. "I think Trump speaks more from emotional and how he’s feeling than he does necessarily being bound by all the facts. That’s one of his characteristics. It’s not a strong one, it’s not one that helps him in the debate."

"Trump makes false statement about U.S. murder rate to sheriffs’ group," Tom Jackman, Washington Post, Feb. 7, 2017.

..........

Sam Waterston wrote for the Washington Post on Jan. 31:

"The great issue of today is lying — constant lying in public. Lying is the ally of faction [i.e. partisanship] and, since President Donald Trump's rise to power, it is the greater danger. Yes, the word is lying — not negotiation, salesmanship, bluster, attention-getting, delusion, deception, braggadocio, exaggeration, bullying, alternative facts or any other euphemism. Once, President John F. Kennedy could say that our national problems were no longer ideological but technical. Lying on a grand scale has reversed that.

* * *

By the frequency of his lying, Trump has revealed a truth we have avoided confronting: Like partisanship, regular and habitual lying is an existential threat to us, to our institutions, our memories, our understanding of now and of the future, to the great American democratic experiment, and to the planet. It blurs the truth, subverts trust, interferes with thought, and destroys clarity. It drives us to distraction."

Thursday, February 2, 2017

So-called 'religious freedom' order would allow discrimination based on sexuality and gender

On Jan. 30, 2017, LGBTQ Nation claimed several anonymous sources were reporting a proposed executive order by the Trump administration that "will allow for discrimination in a number of areas, including employment, social services, business, and adoption." White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, asked that same day by a reporter if an executive order to curtail LGBT rights would be forthcoming, said only, “I’m not getting ahead of the executive orders that we may or may not issue...we have nothing on that front now.” Deputy Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham reiterated his position, writing that "we don’t want to get ahead of the EO/As [executive orders and actions] that are coming, but that isn’t the plan at this time."

It wasn't true. There was indeed a plan in the works. Two days later, a draft of just such an executive order was leaked to the press. It is four pages long, anonymously written, and titled “Establishing a Government-Wide Initiative to Respect Religious Freedom.” The misnomer "religious freedom" here means that people who claim certain religious beliefs, beliefs that just so happen to be common tamong conservative Christians, would be legally free to express their disapproval of others' sexuality by discriminating against them. According to the proposed executive order, the following "religious" beliefs would be protected when they are expressed in words, actions, or refusals: “that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman, sexual relations are properly reserved for such a marriage, male and female and their equivalents refer to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy, physiology, or genetics at or before birth, and that human life begins at conception and merits protection at all stages of life.” Individuals and organizations employed by the federal government would have such beliefs "reasonably accomodate[d]" within the scope of their federal employment assignment, and federal agencies could not subject them to any "adverse action" in response to such beliefs expressed outside of the scope of their assignment. Additionally, the status of religious organizations — here defined to include "closely held for-profit corporations, operated for a religious purpose, even if its purpose is not exclusively religious" — must not be in any way "disadvantage[d]" in response to such beliefs.

“We do not have plans to sign anything at this time," White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told ABC News on Feb. 1. This is, of course, the same White House that had just denied that the proposal existed at all. A White House official acknowledged on Feb. 2 that hundreds of potential executive orders have been drafted and that this is indeed one of them.

Sarah Posner wrote for The Nation: "The breadth of the draft order, which legal experts described as 'sweeping' and 'staggering,' may exceed the authority of the executive branch if enacted. It also, by extending some of its protections to one particular set of religious beliefs, would risk violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution."

Sources

“Sources: Trump executive order allowing anti-LGBTQ discrimination is coming soon,” Jeff Taylor, Jan. 30, 2017.

" White House says anti-LGBTQ executive order ‘not the plan at this time’," Jeff Taylor, LGBTQ Nation, Jan. 30, 2017.

"Leaked Draft of Trump’s Religious Freedom Order Reveals Sweeping Plans to Legalize Discrimination." Sarah Posner. The Nation. Feb. 1, 2017.

"Proposed Trump Executive Order Could Curtail LGBT Rights," Rick Klein, ABC News, Feb. 1, 2017.

" Draft Of Trump ‘Religious Freedom’ Executive Order Signals Major Win For Conservative Christians," Antonia Blumberg, Huffington Post, Feb. 2, 2017.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Under Trump administration, 'We the People' White House petition website is mysteriously broken (this post contains data table)

The U.S. White House website contains a petitions section that allows anyone to create a petition and gather signatures with the goal of obtaining a response from the White House. Suddenly, since the inauguration of Donald Trump, these petitions aren't working. Bug or feature?

The rules under the Obama administration, which created the petition functionality: Once a petition is created, its creator must reach two milestones within 30 days. First, the creator is responsible for circulating it to gather the first 150 signatures, as the creator is the only one who initially has the URL of the petition. Second, after the petition has 150 signatures, it will be published to the White House petitions webpage so that anyone can find it, and, if it reaches 100,000 signatures, the White House will respond to it. All petitions expire after 30 days, meaning they will no longer be available on the White House petitions webpage and will no longer be signable even if you know the direct URL.

The site promises: “Petitions will only be removed under the Moderation Policy — no petition will be removed because of the viewpoint it expresses.” This assurance was still available as of Jan. 27, 2017, one week after Donald Trump was inaugurated as President. Nonetheless, a number of people noticed that certain petitions did not seem to be working.

For example, a petition called "Preserve the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities" was created on Jan. 21, 2017. Two days later, the Independent reported that this petition

"received hundreds of tweets from proud signees but the official count (at the time of writing) reads: '27 signed'." Jillian Steinhauer wrote for Hyperallergic on Jan. 25 that it "shows only 44 signatures, despite hundreds of people having tweeted that they signed it. Many have noticed the discrepancy, with one tweeter claiming that the petition had nearly 100,000 signatures yesterday [Jan. 24]; another says the number was originally in the tens of thousands. The other petition shows 734 signatures, a small climb from the 724 listed earlier today, but does not seem to be accurately counting those who’ve signed based on the sharing rate suggested by social media. It also appears to have been set up only after a previous petition vanished."
Update: On Jan. 28, the count was at 176 and it was visible on the White House petitions webpage. An attempt to sign it was successful, incrementing the count to 177.

Not all petitions were working as of Jan. 28, however. For example, a petition titled "End the media blackout on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)" created on Jan. 25 still displayed only 1 signer as of Jan. 28, despite repeated attempts by several people to sign it. Accordingly, it showed the counter: "Needs 99,999 signatures by February 24, 2017 to get a response from the White House." Similarly, "To explain to the American people why President Donald J. Trump is such a needy little bitch," created Jan. 23, only had 1 signature five days after its creation, despite having a link distributed in a BuzzFeed article. That, to be fair, runs afoul of the site's 'Terms of Participation' banning "Defamatory or fraudulent statements" and "Terms commonly understood to constitute profanity or abusive or degrading slurs or epithets," but that does not fully explain why the petition still exists and is simply apparently not working.

Blake Montgomery wrote for BuzzFeed: "President Obama’s administration created We The People in 2011...whether the Trump administration will respond to petitions is unconfirmed. On the day of his inauguration, Trump’s administration archived all existing petitions on the platform." In other words, the Trump administration is not accepting new signatures on any petition created during the final days of the Obama administration, and one may speculate that they may not intend to respond to any of those petitions that may have reached the 100,000-signature goal. In that article, a White House spokesperson was quoted as attributing the malfunction to a technical bug: “It’s a question of high volume at the end of the day, but the signatures are being captured. Because of high volume they’re having to change how they’re being captured.”

Under this administration, technical difficulties — or, depending on your interpretation, diminished accountability to public comment — are not limited to the petition website. "Since at least the end of the Obama administration," Tyler Pager wrote for the Boston Globe on Jan. 26, "the White House’s phone line for comments has not been taking calls. It is unclear exactly when the line was closed, and it is equally unclear when it will be back." A recorded message directs callers "to send us a comment online...or send us a message through Facebook messenger.'"

As quoted in an LA Times article about the closing of the telephone comment line on Mon. Jan. 23, the first business day after the inauguration, press assistant Giovanna Coia said, “We’re still learning how to work our computers."

Update: People were calling the Capitol about their political concerns even though they couldn't call the White House. U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) tweeted at the end of the day on Feb. 2: "The last three days have been the BUSIEST IN CAPITOL SWITCHBOARD HISTORY. By almost double."

The following table shows all available petitions on the White House website as of Friday night, Jan. 27 and continuing through Sat. morning, Jan. 28. During this brief time period (about 15 hours, overnight), only one petition newly reached the 150-signature threshhold to be published to the site. This was the "Preserve the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities" petition referenced above, suggesting that it may be necessary for the White House website to receive negative press from an internationally recognized newspaper like The Independent before any specific petition will be published. Also during this time, no petitions newly crossed the 100,000 signature threshhold. Only two had over 100,000 signatures, and both of them had been created on Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, suggesting that the new administration had not yet begun to change the way the petition site worked.

The domain WHPetitions.info, purchased in 2013, contains simple content that appears to confirm the above. It says: "Helping the White House keep its promise" and as of Jan. 28, 2017 it indicates that "0 White House petitions have met their signature thresholds". It appears that some values are supposed to auto-calculate, as suggested by what appears to be bogus output as a result of calculating with 0. "The White House has responded to 0 of them (-9223372036854775808%) with an average response time of -106752 days". The site credits Eli Dourado, whose active Twitter account identifies him as an "economist working on accelerating the pace of technological change."

Petitions on the W.H. website in late Jan. 2017
Column 1 has the petition name, Column 2 has the number of signatures as of a certain date, and Column 3 has the incremented number of signatures as of the next day
Petition title Signatures as of Fri 1/27, 8 pm ET Signatures as of Sat 1/28, 11 am ET
Immediately release Donald Trump's full tax returns, with all information needed to verify emoluments clause compliance. 391,917 404,078
Divest or put in a blind trust all of the President's business and financial assets. 121,885 126,395
Donald Trump: Resign as President of the United States in Violation of the Emoluments Clause. Release Your Tax Returns 23,163 24,417
Let American Farmers Grow Hemp Once Again to Create Jobs and Rebuild the Rural Economy 20,690 21,389
Demand Trump administration add LGBT rights, climate change, and civil rights back to list of issues on wh.gov site 4,959 6,422
Repeal the 1986 Hughes amendment 3,466 3,588
Repeal the NFA 2,876 3,143
Investigate Hillary Clinton for crimes committed against the People and Government of the United States. 1,688 1,811
Do not defund the NEA or NEH 1,027 1,128
Demand justice for international students affected by ACICS' loss of accreditation power 916 945
Arrest and detainment of singer Madonna. 605 625
Charge Madonna with Terrorist Threats against the president of the United States of America. 568 599
Issue an International Arrest Warrant for George Soros 507 545
Boost the American Economy through Climate Action 440 452
Immediately abolish the Net Worth Sweep of Fannie Mae(FNMA) and Freddie Mac(FMCC). 327 335
Restore Education as a Constitutional Right & Protect Medical Freedom 296 307
Change the law putting a financial strain on many disabled veterans 294 298
Improved Medicare for All 285 308
Pledge to continue funding the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities 252 339
Restore and maintain accurate, science-based information on climate change to the White House website. 285 306
We the decent Venezuelan people ask President Donald Trump to help recoup Venezuela's sovereignty, liberty and democracy 281 286
Call on the The Republic of Cameroon government to stop the killing and marginalization of Anglophone Cameroonians. 217 223
Reinstate Lt. Col. Terry Lakin into the U.S. Army with full rank, pay, benefits and pension immediately. 171 200
Total signatures across these 23 petitions
(Total change overnight: +21,024 signatures, or an average of 914 signatures per petition)
577,115 598,139

 

One newly published petition on the W.H. website in late Jan. 2017
Column one has the petition name, column two would represent the number of signatures as of Friday night and this column is deliberately empty because the number is not known because the petition was not yet published, and column three has the number of signatures as of the next day
Petition title Signatures as of Fri 1/27, 8 pm ET Signatures as of Sat 1/28, 11 am ET
Preserve the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities Unknown 176