Never two without three

After two misadventures, my husband’s Italian mother used to say, “Non c’è due senza tre.”

The trio of mishaps began last night before dinner.

I tried to slice an onion with a mandolin, but the onion rings kept slipping around. Inefficient. So I sliced thinly by hand, slowly and carefully not to cut myself, though not without knocking over a glass of water by my elbow. Spilled water is a nuisance, but it is easily taken care of.

I proceeded to sauté the onion with garlic and rosemary, adding 2 pounds of coarsely chopped tomatoes and some anchovies when the onions were really limp. As the tomatoes softened and lost their shape, I added the pork chops that I had previously seared. Then I put the whole heavy mess into the oven — a really hot oven. A few minutes later, when the meat should have been cooked through, I opened the oven door to check.

My oven is about 30 years old and I live very close to the sea, so the salt air and the humidity have wreaked their havoc. The shelves don’t slide easily and the door sticks, requiring a mighty heave. The saucepan was really heavy and my arm is still weak, not fully recovered from surgery. I had a hard time grasping the single handle of the very hot and large sauté pan and could barely lift it. Moving it to the counter proved to be too much. The pan slipped in my grip and slopped half the meal on the counter, to the floor and everything in between. The cleanup was … well, extensive. Meanwhile, the meat stayed in the sizzling pan.

By the time I finally served dinner, the sauce was still delicious, but the chops were overcooked. And then my husband said, “Non c’è due senza tre.”

Superstition. The rest of the evening was unremarkable.

The next morning, everything seem to be going well. Pretty well, that is, until I tried to join my Zoom partner. The URL stayed stuck and nothing happened. I left the desktop computer, which is often slow, and went downstairs to my laptop, but that didn’t work either. I resorted to the cell phone, and when my call wouldn’t go through, I tried texting. No dice. By that time, it finally dawned on me that the wireless was not connecting.

I decided to wait it out with the distraction of a good read. Sometimes it behooves us to acknowledge and yield to force majeur.

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No celebrations

Fourth of July Solitary bonfire

On Independence Day we should be celebrating the American spirit that strove to cast off burdensome chains and gave birth to a new country unlike any that came before. But not this year.

This year there are no spectacular fireworks, no beach parties, no barbecues— nothing to mark what many fear may be the last gasp of American democracy. Will the American electorate succeed in loosening Trump’s chokehold on us and the traditions we hold most dear? Will the deadly Coronavirus wring the life out of hundreds of thousands more?

We can’t breathe!

The plague can’t last forever, but the devastation Trump has wrought will be difficult, if not impossible, to repair. His Administration has snuffed out the beacon of hope that the world used to covet, sullied our ideals and accelerated the despoliation of the planet. We have become the home of the incarcerated, the tortured, the hungry and the sick.

We are teetering on the cusp of an inflection point— we can continue our decline into ignominy or aspire to revive and finally realize the ideals of Jeffersonian democracy. 

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America has a death wish

How else to explain that at least 40 percent of Americans are comfortable not wearing masks, blithely attempting to return to life as it was before the pandemic invaded the nation? Is it possible they don’t understand that the Coronavirus spreads when people are close together, especially in enclosed spaces? That wearing face masks inhibits some of that contagion? That close to 120,000 Americans (that we know of) have already died from Covid-19, that the virus is still raging and infections are spiking in states that ignore the warnings of scientists?

Most Americans can’t afford to get sick. They cannot pay for the hospitals, doctors and medicines that serious illnesses require. Do they know that the U.S. is the only one of 33 developed countries that lacks universal healthcare?

Almost a third of Americans own guns, an average of three each. Over 50 percent of suicides in 2018 were executed with firearms. Though “mass shooting” is variously defined, in 2019, there were 417 mass shootings in the US, more than the number of days in a year. According to the Small Arms Survey of 2017, U.S. Civilians have more firearms per capita than any other country, double the rate of its closest competitor. Assault weapons, designed for the military to kill enemy combatants efficiently, are wielded by civilians and enable domestic terrorism.

Some American cities, like Detroit, poison their inhabitants with contaminated water. Some burn coal, polluting the air with asthma-producing fumes. They allowed government to dismantle the regulations that protected drinking water and the air we breathe.

It is time— past time— to resuscitate the life force that gave rise to American ingenuity and determination. To revive the love of knowledge and respect for science that empowered earlier generations to reach the moon and ours to sequence the human genome. We must rebuild the institutions that made the American experiment the envy of the world.

Image credit: oNline Web Fonts

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It Matters, 7 o’clock cheering

Andy Newman, New York Times

I left the city a few weeks ago to eke out the shelter-in-place mandate where I can take long walks without wearing a mask or having to worry much about social distancing. Far from the city, it’s easy to maintain a safe distance from the few people I encounter outdoors.

Though I realize how lucky I am to be able to do this, I miss the city, especially at 7 p.m. I used to set the alarm for 6:55 every evening so we wouldn’t accidentally miss the time when New York opens its windows to cheer, clap and crash pots and pans. We thank and show our appreciation to health care workers and all the others who risk their lives to perform the essential services that make it possible for the rest of us to quarantine ourselves safely at home.

CIMEDICALCENTER.org

Even though we could barely hear or see our neighbors from the 35th floor, we joined the chorus in the hope that the intended audience would feel our support and recognition of their selfless service.

My alarm still rings daily to remind me that it is 7:00 and New York is cheering. But now, even farther away from neighbors who could hear and be heard, I give thanks in silence.

Tonight I read a post on the Upper West Side Nextdoor blog that affected me deeply. I still have tears in my eyes. I hope Julie Brickman won’t mind that I repost it here:

Tonight, as I was standing at my open balcony window at 7 o’clock, clapping and cheering as the health care workers returned home from their long 12-hour shifts, risking their lives to save ours, a young man in shorts stopped to talk to me. My balcony is only one story up and the window is 8-feet high and leads onto a little Juliet balcony, so everyone can see me there; sometimes people shout something from their cars or give me thumbs up in return.

But tonight, this young man left me in tears.

“I think I’m one of the people this is for,” he said. “And I want to tell you how much it means to me.”

I was stunned. So little to give for all that he’s doing, and yet I can’t stop crying. I wish I could tell him how deep is the gratitude in my heart to see such dedication and bravery at a time when there is so much else that I won’t name, because I’m not going to stain the wonder of this moment, of seeing the kind of humanity I have admired and respected all my life, standing in front of me and speaking with heartfelt gratitude about the decency he feels coming from all of us, locked down in this “joyless” city, yet showing up from our diverse solitudes to cheer those who are using their skills, energy, heart and moral courage on our behalf.

I thought it was worth sharing with all of you who are cheering too.

Yes, there is decency out there. Yes, I had the chance to see it tonight. Yes, it made a difference.

It made me believe in the long arc again; of justice or “what love looks like in public,” and especially of goodness. It made me believe we will survive this and create, if not a better world, at least a decent one again.

All I want to say is: Bless this health care worker who spoke out. Bless everyone who is helping get us through. Bless Upper West Siders and New Yorkers and everyone suffering through this lonely pandemic. May you stay well, safe, happy and find your own ways to give to our community following in the spirit of this amazing young man.

Like Julie, I want to believe that after Covid-19 the world will be better: more just, harmonious and cleaner. Looking beyond the catastrophe in Washington, it’s easy to find generosity and selflessness. Look no further than the Pennsylvania workers who volunteered to labor round the clock in 12-hour shifts for a month at their factory. Without ever going home, they slept on makeshift beds and produced millions of pounds of PPE materials, uncontaminated by the virus.

Self-sacrifice and the American can-do spirit are alive and well.

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Killing the virus, Trump style

Donald Trump is the object of ridicule, not only in the United States, but internationally. After the President mused about taking household disinfectants internally, Twitter exploded. Almost immediately, medical doctors and the makers of cleaning products and disinfectants hastened to refute Trump’s suggestions and warn people not to believe the President’s theories.

Sarah Cooper (@sarahcpr), a writer and comedian, posted a video of herself mouthing Trump’s own words, in his voice, proposing to bring “the light inside the body, which you can do either through the skin or in some other way. … Sounds interesting. I see disinfectant, where it knocks it out in a minute, one minute, and is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside, or almost a cleaning.” Transcript below

The Italian Newspaper Il Corriere della Sera is one of many news media worldwide that picked up the story. “Injections of disinfectants, UV lamps to ‘dry out’ the virus: these are two of the absurd proposals advanced yesterday by the president of the United States Donald Trump during his daily Coronavirus briefing from the White House,” wrote the Corriere. In the video, the paper also focused on the speechless horror of Dr. Deborah Birx as she watched her boss promote remedies for the Coronavirus that would sicken and potentially kill anyone who heeded his remarks.

Why would any sane person consider injecting or ingesting highly toxic products?

Donald Trump is desperate. He sees his prospects for reelection rapidly decaying. He can no longer tout a strong economy and low unemployment. The economy is in tatters now, and though the stock market is recovering from a precipitous fall, the Dow Jones is still almost 6,000 points lower than its record high two months ago. Twenty-two million people are out of work, more than during the Great Depression. Trump will seize on any remedy that might end the pandemic, let people go back to work and revive the economy.  Trump’s ignorance of science is manifest. Realizing that blue states have much higher rates of infection than red states, could he be dreaming that Democrats will drink the KoolAid, die off, reduce their number, and so improve his chances in November?

Transcript of President Trump’s remarks on remedies to vanquish the Novel Coronavirus

So, supposing we hit the body with a tremendous, whether it’s ultraviolet or just very powerful light, and I think [Dr. Deborah Birx] said, that hasn’t been checked but you’re gonna test it. 

And then I said, supposing it brought the light inside the body, which you can either do either through the skin or some other way, and I think you said you’re gonna test that too, sounds interesting. 

And I then I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in one minute, and is there a way you can do something like that by injection inside, or almost a cleaning. Because you see it gets in the lungs, and it does a tremendous number on the lungs. So it’d be interesting to check that. So you’re going to have to use medical doctors, but it sounds interesting to me, so we’ll see. But the whole concept of the light, the way it goes in one minute, that’s pretty powerful.”

Politifact

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Coronavirus News

Princess Sofia of Sweden
  • Princess Sophia of Sweden became a medical assistant to aid in the fight against the novel coronavirus and is now working in a hospital, cleaning and cooking.
  • Trending on Twitter: #ObamaCommencement2020. President Barack Obama is being besieged by thousands of high school and college seniors who want him to deliver a national, online commencement address to the Class of 2020. Because of social distancing and quarantine the students will will be deprived of the traditional graduations and proms. “In an unprecedented time, it would give us great comfort to hear your voice,” tweeted high-school senior Lincoln Debenham, 17. His tweet has been liked by 218,500 and retweeted 44,400 times.

  • Respirators may not be the ideal treatment for Covid-19, as evidenced by the 80 percent mortality rate of patients on ventilators in New York City. Some doctors argue that respirators do more harm than good. The high mortality rate may also be due to the scarcity of lung specialists. It takes special training to master the subtle adjustments required. Covid-19 patients have lung damage that may not respond well to mechanical respiration. AP News
  • President Trump is encouraging resistance against quarantine and social distancing in states where his supporters have been clamoring for “liberation” from these restrictions. In a series of tweets, he also specifically names– in all caps– states with Democratic governors who want to extend these measures and delay “reopening.” The Democratic governors are heeding doctors who warn that quarantine and social distancing are resulting in fewer hospitalizations and that discontinuing them too soon will result in a new wave of infections. It seems that Trump embraces tactics that will, he believes, jumpstart the economy (to improve his chances for reelection), though they are potentially harmful to the public.

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Coronavirus: No gloom and doom here

Cuban medical team arrives in Milan

Despite the death, disease, and disruption the novel coronavirus is visiting on nations across the globe, it is also responsible for generosity and good deeds. 

International cooperation is always good news: Italians welcomed a team of 35 doctors and 15 nurses sent by Cuba to aid in the fight against the novel coronavirus that is ravaging Italy. The Cuban medics came with expertise gained in combatting ebola and other infective diseases in Africa. Three million face masks are arriving in Italy from Egypt, India, and China, which is also sending 100 ventilators. Russia expedited one million face masks and nine huge cargo planes carrying eight mobile medical teams, medical equipment and aerosol disinfection trucks. Ironic that Europe is now receiving aid from its former colonies, and Russia and China, rather than the other way round. COVID-19 has a way of turning everything on its head.

People on diverse continents are working together to fight the virus. Labs and doctors worldwide are sharing their research and results on therapies and vaccines.

COVID-19 is sparking innovation. An Italian company designed a prototype of a respirator valve in three hours. They 3-D printed 100 valves in 24 hours for a hospital at a cost of about $1.00 each, according to the BBC. Materialise, a Belgian company, is making hands-free door openers.

In the U.S., Carbon is one of the companies that uses 3-D printers to make products of diverse materials. It has now pivoted toward face masks, nasal swabs and ventilator parts. Pres. Trump gave automakers Ford, General Motors and Tesla the go-ahead to make medical supplies instead of cars.

On a local level, here in Manhattan, young people are volunteering to run errands and go shopping for anyone who fears to go out or is unable to. 

News outlets are compiling video and TV watchlists. For music lovers, the Metropolitan Opera is streaming a different opera from their HD archives each day. (To see the weekly calendar and access the opera, scroll way down the page.). The NY Public Library has a vast array of digital resources available online. It is easy to find many more institutions sharing their previously paywalled gems to help shut-ins cope with isolation. It is a good time to catch up on reading, perhaps that interesting you didn’t have to finish.

Another way of passing time is reviving old friendships, connecting with friends on your Christmas card list, the ones you never have time to speak with. Now, people are rediscovering the telephone and communicating with live voices, not dry text. Social distancing is actually making many of us more social. Parents and children now have opportunity to spend time together and listen to each other.

The most exhilarating reaction to COVID-19 that I know of is the daily concerts in Italy that ring out from windows and balconies. Italians of all ages, amateur and professional, fill the air with music. With instruments and voices, they comfort and support each other and spark joy in everyone. Their indomitable spirit encourages the rest of the afflicted world. 

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Coronavirus Dilemma

Last night I posted a commentary on the President’s unhelpful and mendacious handling of the Coronavirus crisis. I appended a list of precautions to take to protect against being infected.

If everyone were to follow my advice, the epidemic would be stopped cold. The problem is that the effect on the US economy would be equally devastating. There is a very thin line between keeping the population healthy and causing an economic disaster.

The busiest intersection in Milan at rush hour during the Coronavirus crisis.

The recommendations that regard personal hygiene should definitely be followed, but the others involve making difficult decisions. Avoiding crowds is recommended for personal safety, but if no one shops or goes to restaurants or theaters or hairdressers, those will quickly face bankruptcy, go out of business and drag their landlords and suppliers along with them. 

Contagion travels like quicksilver and the stock market reacts accordingly. Italy is a case in point. As of today, February 28, almost 900 people in Italy have tested positive since the first case was announced on Feb. 21. Almost all the cases are clustered about Milan, a major city in Lombardy, a region in the North. 

At the end of January, a Chinese tourist couple fell ill, tested positive, and was put in isolation. None of the people they had been in contact with tested positive. All flights to and from China were banned.

Then on Feb. 18, “Patient One,” a 38-year-old man, took himself to a hospital, but wasn’t tested because he hadn’t been to China. He was surrounded by other sick patients. He returned home, then back to the ER the following day because he felt worse. He was diagnosed with the Coronavirus on Feb. 20, but by then he had infected at least eight people. On Feb. 23, the Italian government cordoned off the “Red Zone,” forbidding travel in or out of the towns where the outbreak is located. Many residents were commuting to the city for work.

Though there are no known cases in Milan, the financial capital of Italy is a ghost town. The streets are deserted as anxious people stay home and workers telecommute. Schools, universities, museums, bars, restaurants, hairdressers— all closed. Most Italians are rabid soccer fans, but in the North, games are being played in empty stadia. Worried by the effect these closures are having, the authorities have declared that schools, museums and other public places will reopen on Monday, a week short of the recommended 14-day quarantine.

It’s almost impossible to navigate the strait between the Scylla of economic wreckage and the Charybdis of a decimated populace. It took less than a week for the paralysis in the industrial North of Italy to bring the third-largest economy of the Eurozone to the brink of recession. Worldwide, panic and the pandemic have caused the disruption of supply chains, postponement of travel plans and cancellation of major events, bringing the global wipeout to $6 trillion.

And yet, most people have no reason to panic if they wash their hands frequently and keep their distance from people with respiratory disease. Even if they do contract COVID-19, healthy people seem to recover without ill effects.

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Combatting the Coronavirus

Credit: Scientific Animations

Knowledgable health officials are telling us that a Coronavirus epidemic will not spare the US. It’s a question of when it will arrive, not if. They warn that we must not lose any more time in preparing for the onslaught of the disease.

[Update: scroll to end for tips on how to protect yourself]

As of now, we are grievously unprepared. We don’t have enough hospital beds to accommodate both the predicted large numbers of victims and the patients hospitalized for the usual reasons. We don’t have nearly enough masks and other gear to protect health workers constantly exposed to the disease; we lack testing kits to identify and confirm infection. These are indispensable for preventing or at least limiting the spread of COVID-19, as the new Coronavirus is now called. 

There has been no concerted effort to remedy these and other deficiencies because two years ago Trump fired the global disease expert and eliminated the agency established by President Obama to deal with domestic epidemics and global pandemics. (Trump thought emergency preparation was a waste of money because without an epidemic, there would be nothing to do.) The President defunded the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), stripping away the infrastructure we now desperately need to deal with the crisis.

Instead, Trump assured Americans in a press conference on February 26 that he and his administration are doing a “great job” and have the situation completely under control. There are only 15 cases, he asserted, and there will soon be zero as those people recover. Actually, there were 59 cases in the US (now 60). Trump preferred not to count the 44 Americans  infected with or exposed to the Coronavirus who were airlifted home from Asia. Despite the insistence of the CDC that they be isolated, the Trump political appointees with no medical expertise had them travel in the same plane with their healthy comrades. Even worse, A whistleblower today revealed that the personnel sent to welcome the 14 persons in quarantine were not trained or equipped with protective gear. Moreover, after being exposed to the virus, they went their separate ways across the country, possibly exposing an unknown number of other people.

As of today, 49 countries have reported more than 82,000 cases and more than 2,800 deaths from the disease. But Trump denies we have an imminent crisis, controverting the scientists’ warning that we cannot avoid the certainty of an epidemic.

Trump believes that his reelection depends on the continuing record-breaking climb of the stock market. The market has been tanking for six consecutive days since February 20, significantly eroding the gains of the Trump years. The decline is a reaction to the virus and its adverse effect on the global economy, but Trump blamed it on the Democrats’ debate (which took place on February 25, after four days of market free fall) and the media, which he accuses of exaggerating the seriousness of the situation.

To combat the horrible truths that emerge each day, as we learn of more cases in more places, Trump has decreed that the CDC and other medical authorities cannot advise and update the public without first submitting their comments to the vice president for his approval. From now on, with the experts muzzled, we’ll have to depend on leaks and sharp reporting to find out what is really going on. Shades of Stalin, as democratic norms continue to be shattered and totalitarian constraints and restrictions inexorably replace them. 

People, products, food and disease-causing micro-organisms traverse the globe in unprecedented numbers and historic speed. When they were free to share their concerns, professional medics warned us to prepare by readying hospitals, testing and stocking medical supplies. But how can individuals prepare? What should we do? The recommendations for avoiding contagion are mostly common sense procedures, no different from what we already know. 

  • First of all, prepare, don’t panic. Healthy people experience what will feel like a cold or the flu. Children don’t seem to be affected. Seniors, however, are at risk, especially if they have chronic conditions like diabetes.
  • Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly, especially after touching handrails, doorknobs, elevator buttons, gym equipment— anything that others touch. Wash before eating and after using the bathroom. Use soap and hot water and scrub for at least 20 seconds: between the fingers, backs of the hands, under the nails. This video demonstrates the technique advocated by the World Health Organization as the best way to wash your hands. (It’s a little more complicated than what you’re used to.)
  • Don’t touch your face! Most of us do it all the time, but infection enters easily through mouth, eyes and nose.
  • For now, stop shaking hands.
  • Avoid touching handrails, doorknobs, etc. away from home.
  • Carry alcohol-based (at least 60 percent alcohol) hand sanitizer to use when soap and water aren’t feasible.
  • Keep your distance (six feet, if possible) from anyone who is coughing or sneezing.
  • Get a flu shot.
  • Avoid crowds. It follows that you should avoid public transportation whenever possible. Also sport events, theaters, conferences.
  • Keep a 90-day supply of your medications on hand.
  • Work from home if you can.
  • Stock your cupboard in case you have to stay home.
  • Avoid spreading your own germs:
  • Sneeze or cough into your elbow.
  • Stay home if you don’t feel well and see a doctor.

If you manage to follow these tips, you and your family will probably stay healthy. At least you won’t regret not taking the recommended precautions.

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Why Valentine’s Day?

It’s not just a Hallmark holiday: it commemorates a bishop of the 3rd century named Valentine. Hearts and flowers came later.

According to one story, Valentine was under house arrest in the home of a Roman judge. The judge challenged the Christian to prove the validity of his faith, bringing out his blind daughter, Julia. Valentine laid his hands on her and implored God to save the girl (and him). When he removed his hands, Julia’s vision was restored. Amazed by the miracle, the judge and all his household converted to Christianity. He broke all his idols and freed all the Christians in jail. 

Another account relates that Valentine continued to evangelize. He married Christian couples, which allowed the men to avoid conscription in the imperial army. To remind these men of their vows, Saint Valentine is said to have given them hearts he cut from parchment, which may explain the hearts of Valentine’s Day. 

Valentine supposedly wore a purple amethyst ring, as did other Christian bishops. He had an image of Cupid, a pagan god, engraved on it. Romans recognized the god of love and would ask him to marry them. (Probably because of the association of amethysts with Saint Valentine, the gem has become the birthstone of February, and is thought to attract love.)

Claudius, the emperor, was not pleased. He had Valentine brought to Rome, but he took a liking to the bishop, at least until Valentine tried to convert him. Claudius refused and condemned Valentine to death. On February 14, 269, he was stoned (or beaten with clubs) and then beheaded when the torture didn’t kill him. More than two centuries later, Pope Gelasius declared a feast day on that date. But sadly, it was downhill from there. Since 1969, inclusion in local liturgical calendars became optional.

Before his execution, some say Valentine wrote a note to Julia, the judge’s daughter, and signed it “from your Valentine,” a possible origin of Valentine notes and cards. Oh, and if you’d like to see what’s left of his head, his alleged skull is crowned with flowers and exhibited in a Roman basilica. Other relics are scattered throughout Europe.

Some say that Geoffrey Chaucer was responsible for the association of romance and St. Valentine. Chaucer wrote the Parlement of Foules on the first anniversary of the engagement of Richard II to Anne of Bohemia. The poem contains the lines, “For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.” But the royal engagement was on May 3, also the day another Valentine (of Genoa) died. So who knows? It’s impossible to know how much is fantasy and what part of the legend reflects historical fact. Indeed, there were actually as many as 12 St. Valentines.

By the 18th century in England, the 14th of February had evolved into an occasion when partners expressed their love for each other with flowers, chocolate, and other gifts. And in the 19th century, the sending of Valentine’s cards had become so popular that they began to be mass produced, especially in America and Europe.

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A Valentine Lament

Oh, silly, solemn, lovesick Muse
Wherefore do you wander
Without giving me cues?
You must come forthwith, help me ponder and conjure
Not fish stew or cabbage or salamander
But tremors of passion and amorous rhymes.
Inspire my thoughts for St. Valentine’s.
Wooing, cooing, and otherwise doing
Cupid’s work with his confounded arrow
That pierces the heart deep into the marrow.
A wound that won't heal
No more than boys’ lust for an automobile.
Love conquers all,
Virgil famously said.
Caesar won Gaul,
Anne Boleyn lost her head.
For lack of a son
“Now you’re done!”
Henry said.
Muse, I don't hear you
Hope you don’t have the flu.
I'm not calling Euterpe, Thalia or Terpsichore,
No, Erato’s my lady, named for Eros, not war.
Love and love poems fall in your bailiwick
So fly to me, Precious. It’s urgent, be quick!
Of arms and the man I’m not singing tonight
Paradise is still Lost— it is nowhere in sight.
To Goethe and Dante, Mallarmé and Shakespeare
You whispered and murmured softly in the ear
So succor me now, lend me words I can pen
Please don’t forsake me, help me scribble again.
My love, how to praise him,
How to describe
The joys of our journey I want to transcribe.

Erato, your silence is hard to endure,
No lyrical stanza, no euphonious verse
You’re wayward and fickle
You’re being perverse.
Alas, you have failed me,
I don’t sense you near.
Too late for this Valentine,
Hope to see you next year.

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L’État C’est Moi: I am the State

photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

If Donald Trump has learned anything in his three years in the White House, it is that the president has awesome power. 

Trump may not have read the Constitution, but he now knows that Article 2 defines the executive branch of government. According to Trump, “I have in Article 2 the right to do whatever I want as president.”

Of course he doesn’t, but if the Senate doesn’t remove him from office, what little restraint he may have experienced will evaporate and he will accelerate the erosion of the pillars of  American democracy. 

Trump would have recognized a soulmate in Richard Nixon. He also believed that “When the President does it, that means that it is not illegal.” But 1974 seems eons ago, a time when Republicans and Democrats recognized the danger of an out-of-control president and joined forces to oust him.

Yesterday Trump’s lawyer affirmed that Donald Trump could do nothing illegal as president. The man who defended O.J. Simpson put forth a terrifying argument in Trump’s defense. Alan Dershowitz asserted, “If a president does something which he believes will help him get elected, in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in an impeachment.” 

Dershowitz argues that a president can do whatever believes is for the public good. If the president believes, as Trump does, that he is the best president ever, then his election is necessary and justifies whatever it takes to achieve that end. Asking foreign governments to discredit his adversary, hacking the election, disseminating disinformation, rigging the voting machines, disenfranchising g/.roups known to vote Democratic— all of these and more are permissible. Trump has invited China, as well as Russia, to help re-elect him.

Dershowitz may have done irreparable harm, especially if Republican senators acquit the President. He has legitimized autocracy. 

Louis XIV

Trump reminds me of Louis XIV of France. He ruled as an absolute monarch, believing that what was good for him was good for France. “L’état c’est moi,” he said famously. Louis believed in the divine right of kings, much as Trump believes in Article II. Trump loves to live lavishly surrounded by gold furnishings, and Louis built the sumptuous palace of Versailles for his royal residence. Several decades after his death, his heirs and the rest of the French nobility succumbed to the guillotine and the French Revolution. France was never the same.

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Trump defensive strategy: delay, delay, delay

John R. Bolton

John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, has indicated that he would testify in the impeachment hearing — BUT — he wants a judge to decide if he can continue to ignore the Judiciary Committee’s invitation to testify, as the president has ordered, or whether, as a former employee of the White House, he is not subject to the executive order.

Initially, I thought Bolton’s request for a judicial determination was a strictly CYA maneuver. But now his lawyer’s hint on Friday that Bolton knows about “many relevant meetings and conversations” that the House committee doesn’t suggests something more. The intimation that Bolton could supply new evidence is meant to be tantalizing. If the Democrats bite the bait by acceding to his request and taking him to court to force him to testify before the committee, the momentum of the hearings will be lost.

Delay only helps Trump.  The longer the impeachment inquiry drags on, the greater the chance that public interest in the eventual impeachment will subside. No one wants the impeachment to drag into a presidential year, and the first primary is only two and a half months away. The candidates for the nomination need to direct their attention to their campaigns. They can’t afford to be distracted by the impeachment.

Democrats already have all the evidence they need to impeach Trump, But Bolton’s position in the White House places him closer to the president than any of the other witnesses so far. His testimony would certainly be valuable to the Democrats and difficult for the Republicans to impugn.

Democrats must resist Republican attempts to bog down and obstruct the hearings by assailing the process, smearing the witnesses, and using the courts to delay unimpeachable testimony that will likely damn the president.

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Eyes on the Chief Justice

Will John Roberts defend the scofflaw Donald Trump, who boasts of being able to shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue with impunity? We shall soon find out. 

Dahlia Lithwick, who writes about courts and the law for Slate Magazine, discusses the multiple lawsuits headed for the Supreme Court that will directly impact Trump’s fate, if not determine it. Federal and district courts have stymied Trump’s attempts to shield his tax returns from public scrutiny, to direct his cronies and White House staff (past and present) from testifying in the current impeachment inquiry, and to keep evidence presented to the Mueller grand jury inaccessible to the committees conducting the impeachment inquiry. Trump has appealed all these cases, and now the only place left for them to go is the Supreme Court.

Lithwick explains how the actions of the Chief Justice will affect the course and outcome of the impeachment inquiry. Roberts may agree to put the cases affecting the president on the docket this term, but the decisions would likely not come down until late spring, too late for an impeachment proceeding to use the testimony of key witnesses and critical evidence gathered by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. A delay will be of great advantage to Trump. But if Roberts decides to let the rulings of the lower courts stand, he would in effect be ruling against Trump. If the Supreme Court takes up the cases, the delay will slow down the Democrats’ momentum, adversely affecting their ability to influence public opinion, a critical factor in impeachment.

Will Roberts, now the swing vote on the Court, support Trump’s defiance of court orders and subpoenas? Will he support Trump’s assertion assertion of complete presidential immunity, not only from being indicted, but even from being investigated? With unlimited executive power, the president is personally above the law and free to countermand or defy established federal law and historical custom. The judiciary and the legislature are subservient to the imperial presidency, not co-equal as defined by the Constitution. Trump’s impeachment is about much more than the fate of his presidency. It is about the authority of the Constitution and the survival of American democracy.

At least once the Chief Justice ruled against the Republicans, when he found a way to keep Obamacare from foundering. He apparently understood that the Affordable Healthcare Act  was benefitting millions, and that they would not look kindly on Republicans who would take it away just as they had begun to have the ability to obtain medical care previously denied them.

I believe John Roberts cares about his legacy and the integrity of the Court. We’ll soon know if I am right.

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Beauty Ablaze

Credit…Kyle Grillot for The New York Times

California is burning with no end in sight. People are dying, houses are blackened hulks, forests are decimated — Why? Why is the Golden State an inferno with flames incinerating homes and trees in hills and valleys?

Several factors come into play, but all are linked to climate change. Global warming in California has resulted in shorter winters and reduced snowpack. The fire season starts earlier and ends later each year. With warmer spring and summer temperatures, drought is inevitable. Starved of moisture, vegetation and the soil are desiccated by the dry, intense heat. Undergrowth in the forests becomes abundant kindling that can ignite spontaneously, and the trees, stressed by extreme heat and lack of water, are unable to withstand the flames.

The Santa Ana winds rush from high pressure areas in the mountains to lower pressure at the coast. Channeled through mountain passes and canyons, their velocity accelerates, and the lower pressure compresses, warms and dries them out. The winds augment the parching of extreme heat and drought. Once the underbrush ignites, the wind propels and nourishes the wildfire, easily driving it across thousands of acres.

Though wildfires are a natural part of California’s bioregion, the fire season is an estimated 75 days longer now. The trends of rising temperatures and decreasing rainfall are expected to continue, and wildfires will keep pace. Each year during this decade has experienced a more destructive fire season, and there is no reason, given the paucity of effort in capping or lowering emissions, to expect deviation from this ominous trajectory.

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Flooded future

Flooding in Jakarta, Indonesia, February 2017. Source: World Meteorological Organization / Flickr

An alarming, just published, report from Climate Central warns that flooding projected across the globe by 2050 will be far worse than previously thought. The areas affected are mostly in Asia, where millions live on or near the coast. Flooding by seawater implies not only inundation of homes, but the salting of cultivated fields. Worldwide, chronic floods will endanger 300 million people. By the end of this century, the high tide line will be permanently higher than the land where 200 million people now work, farm, and call home.

These dire predictions result from the discovery that coastal elevations are actually lower than previously estimated; hence more vulnerable to flooding, inundation and the contamination of freshwater. In fact, the incursions of saltwater could make the land uninhabitable even before it disappears under the sea.

The previous estimates of land elevation were calculated using data produced by satellite photography, which sees the tops of trees and buildings, thus overestimating the elevation of the land. The problem is particularly acute in areas of dense forest and close clusters of buildings. More accurate means of measurement, using lasers and overflights, are expensive and consequently not widely used.

Cities on the world’s coasts are the most densely populated areas on the planet, and most of them have low elevations. The older elevation estimates have been found to be too high on an average of approximately six to eight feet, which is the same as or even more than the highest sea level rise projections for all of the 21st century. The elevations of some American cities, including New York, Miami and Boston, were overestimated by an average of 15.5 feet.

As we now know, the rise in sea level occurs when the combustion of fossil fuels and other emissions caused by human activity pollute the atmosphere. The planet grows warmer, causing glaciers and ice sheets to melt and flow into the oceans. The increased volume of water raises the level of the sea.

The estimates of the number of people who will lose their farms and homes to floods of saltwater are based on moderate emissions cuts mandated by the Paris climate accords. (We are not currently meeting those goals.) If pollution and the subsequent greenhouse gases continue to increase, by the end of the century chronic flooding and permanent inundation will imperil the land that shelters and feeds 640 million people living now (actually more; based on 2010 data), close to 10 percent of the global population. Ironically, the people most likely to suffer are the ones least responsible for polluting emissions.

The United States is already experiencing the predicted effects of global warming. Hurricane Harvey caused epic flooding in Houston; diseases once confined to the tropics are increasingly occurring in the temperate zone; extreme heat is responsible for a sharp increase in deaths in Nevada and Arizona; wildfires are consuming California . . .

The loss of land and the resulting migration of climate refugees will surely give rise to humanitarian crises of unprecedented severity and have devastating effects on the world economy. Other aspects of global warming like drought and extreme heat will also have catastrophic consequences. All living creatures, from plants to insects, fish, birds and humans will have to flee their habitats and invade others. Some will survive; many won’t.

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Impeach him. Now.

No, I’m not talking about impeaching President Trump. That is a knotty decision with excellent philosophical and legal arguments on one side and valid political and practical ones on the other.

AG William Barr

No, I’m talking about the prime law enforcement officer of the United States, William Barr, the Attorney General. He lied to the American public and apparently committed perjury when testifying to Congress. These are crimes that call out for impeachment, unless Barr resigns immediately.

Special Counsel Robert S. MuellerPhoto credit: USAToday

On April 10, Barr was asked in a Senate hearing whether Special Counsel Robert Mueller agreed with his summary of the results of Mueller’s investigation and his conclusions. Barr testified before the Senate that he didn’t know. That statement was not truthful. We now know that Mueller had written to Barr on March 27, three days after Barr had released his “summary,” that he did not agree with Barr’s conclusions. Mueller wrote to Barr that his memo “did not fully capture the context, nature and substance” of the probe and the Report.

Barr misrepresented both sections of the Mueller Report. In the second section, Mueller clearly documented 10 instances of Trump’s obstruction of justice. If anyone but the president had committed even one of these acts, (s)he would have been indicted. Mueller specifically said in the Report that he could not directly accuse the president of a crime because the Department of Justice has ruled that a sitting president cannot be indicted.

[W]e determined not to apply an approach that could potentially result in a judgment that the President committed crimes…. Fairness concerns counseled against potentially reaching that judgment when no charges can be brought.

“Accordingly,” Mueller wrote, “while this report does not conclude the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” In his four-page memo, Barr directly contradicted Mueller on that point, saying that Mueller had not been influenced in any way by that DOJ ruling. Even more significantly, Barr wrote that there was evidence both for and against obstruction in the Report, but he had determined that there was no obstruction, thus giving Trump the pretext to proclaim, falsely, again and again, “No collusion, no obstruction.”

Mueller also condemned the delayed release of the Report, which allowed the misinformation that Barr had propagated to marinate and solidify in the minds of the public. In his letter to Barr, Mueller complained that

There’s now public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation. This threatens to undermine a central purpose for which the Department of Justice appointed the Special Counsel, which is to assure full public confidence in the outcomes of the investigations.”

And by extension, to undermine public confidence in the Department of Justice itself and the rule of law.

The Russian connections with the Trump campaign are covered in the first section of the Report. Though there were many of these, Mueller was not able to prove conspiracy between the campaign and Russia. Collusion is not a legal term. Barr elided the distinction between collusion and conspiracy. He ignored the ongoing investigation of Roger Stone, who was trafficking in stolen documents with Wikileaks and the Russians. It’s possible Stone can’t be successfully prosecuted under the current statute, because our laws outdated: they don’t account for digital documents.

With his letter Mueller included redacted introductions and executive summaries from the Report that he and his staff had written for Barr to release to the public. Barr did no such thing. He had said publicly that he “was not interested” in releasing summaries of the Report, that he didn’t want to release it piecemeal.

Can there be any doubt that the Attorney General has violated the sacred trust placed in him by covering up the President’s crimes and deceiving the American public? William Barr cannot be trusted to oversee the remaining prosecutions (redacted) in the Mueller Report nor those that will arise from the corruption of Trump and his family.

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May 1, 2019 · 2:09 AM

Plus ça change . . .

Having barely finished writing a review of First: Sandra Day O’Connor An Intimate Portrait of the First Woman Supreme Court Justice by Evan Thomas, the advancement of women’s rights was on my mind.

O’Connor, raised on a remote cattle ranch in the Arizona desert, finished her undergraduate studies and earned her law degree at Stanford University in six years, graduated third in her class and was only 22 years old! A newly-minted lawyer with that record could expect to find a good job at a prestigious law firm, right? Wrong. It was 1952, and no established law firm would hire a woman lawyer.

Determined to work in the profession she had prepared for, O’Connor opened her own firm with another woman, setting up shop in a mall. Later, she found work in the government, and later still, using her shrewd political skills and aided by powerful contacts, she was appointed to fill a vacant seat in the state senate. Within three years, she became the first woman ever to be majority leader in a state senate. It didn’t take long before she ascended to the U.S. Supreme Court as the first woman justice.

At the Court, O’Connor voted mostly with the conservatives during her first decade, satisfied with incrementally advancing the cause of women. With the passage of time, however, she began tacking to the left. Though a conservative, she evolved to occupy the space between conservatives and liberals, becoming the swing vote that determined the outcome in 330 cases, often championing the rights of women, children, gays and minorities.

O’Connor’s frustration at still not being able to land the job she wanted as a lawyer even 12 years after her graduation in 1964 came to mind when I saw this tweet by @sarahoconnor, a reporter for the Financial Times:

In 2019. Still blind. Or worse.


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Bring on the Mueller Report

Please, Counselor Mueller, show us your report
Barr’s letter is duller and much, much too short.

  For months we’ve been waiting,
  we’re all speculating.
  Now Barr's arrogating
  the right to decide, even hide,
  the fruits of your labors
  —This we can't abide!



Barr’s stalling,
stonewalling,
appalling!
We need to see what you wrote.
Barr's conclusions are spurious,
they make us furious.
His excuses won’t float.

Now
Subpoenas are flying,
There'll be no denying.
Nadler is on it, Schiff and Cummings too--

Show us, show us, show us what is true!

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The unbearable mystery of Mueller

Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller
Photo credit: USAToday

For almost two years Democrats waited with apprehension and Republicans with dread for Special Counsel Robert Mueller to conclude his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. When the day finally came, Attorney General William Barr received the report. Two days later, he summarized the conclusions in a four-page letter. Republicans were elated, Democrats were stunned, and the president was jubilant.

Barr wrote that Mueller found neither Trump nor members of his campaign had conspired with the Russians. 

But the other charge, obstruction of justice, remained unresolved. Mueller wrote

while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him [emphasis mine]. 

Whereupon Barr took it upon himself, in consultation with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, to go where the Mueller Report had not. He concluded that President Trump had not obstructed justice, despite Mueller’s refusal to exonerate him. 

Why did Special Counsel Mueller decide not to decide? Prosecutors normally prosecute.

A Special Prosecutor is appointed when an important investigation demands that it be led by someone deemed to be completely independent and resistant to countervailing political winds. By not resolving the question of Trump’s obstruction of justice, Mueller obviated the purpose of having an apolitical Special Counsel. The final decision now falls to a Trump appointee, the Attorney General, or Congress, which is nothing if not political. 

Barr is hardly unbiased. Before his nomination, he wrote an unsolicited memo that called Mueller’s obstruction of justice investigation “fatally misconceived.” Barr wrote that, given the executive power inherent in the office, it is impossible for the president to obstruct justice. It was completely within Trump’s powers as head of the executive branch, Barr wrote, to ask FBI Director James Comey to go easy on then-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and fire Comey for his suggestion that the President had acted inappropriately.  

Barr believes that there cannot be obstruction without an underlying crime. Once Mueller cleared Trump of collusion, the underlying crime was gone, so ipso facto  Trump could not be obstructing justice.

It was clear early on that members of the Trump campaign had meetings with Russian nationals and tried to hide and then deny those actions. The infamous June 9, 2016, meeting in Trump Tower was one of these. It was attended by three senior members of the Trump campaign (Donald Trump Jr, son-in-law Jared Kushner and then-campaign manager Paul Manafort) and a Russian government lawyer. Trump Jr had written that he would love to receive opposition research on Hilary Clinton from the Russians. Trump and his aides concocted several stories to explain the meeting, but none of the lies was able to withstand the truth eventually uncovered by tireless journalists.

We also know that during the campaign the president was working on a lucrative business deal, the erection of a Trump Tower in Moscow. Was he compromised by his eagerness to do business with Putin? Was making lots of money the only motive for Trump’s deference to the Russians?

Did Mueller fail to draw a conclusion because it might have prejudiced ongoing investigations he had referred to other jurisdictions? Would a conclusion have contaminated the jury pool for a future grand jury?

The Democrats will have to choke on these questions and more until, if ever, the full report is released. House committees may carry on the multiple investigations they have begun. They may call Mueller to testify, despite Barr’s opposition.

But if the Dems are wise, they will concentrate on giving the voters what they want. Healthcare leads the list. Trump may have given Democrats a gift by proposing to completely repeal the ACA / Obamacare. Voters are much more interested in the bread-and-butter issues that affect them directly every day than they are in the political bickering in Washington. 

If American democracy can withstand the Trumpian onslaughts, an accurate history of the Trump era will one day be written.

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Bullets vs gender

On March 16, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) posted this inflammatory image on his Facebook page. A member of the US Congress, sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution, King implicitly endorsed a new War Between the States. Yes, you read that correctly. 

King has a long history of making provocative assertions, racial and cultural insults. He uses racist language, demeans Latinos, demonizes Muslims, and promotes neo-Nazis and white supremacists on Twitter. He has a confederate flag on his desk. Long before Trump made building a border wall, eliminating birthright citizenship and persecuting undocumented immigrants the pillars of his presidential campaign, Steve King had embraced these positions. 

In an interview with The New York Times last January, King said, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” That was the final straw. The Republican leadership had given King a by for years. It was politically expedient. The Iowan was a kingmaker. But finally those remarks cost him his committee assignments. The Republicans may have found their spines because the election was over.

The differences between Republicans and Democrats have never been so stark, the parties so hostile to each other. The country is increasingly more polarized, to an extent most reasonable non-extremists never thought possible. So much so that I am no longer sure a civil war couldn’t become a reality. We already have violence and aggression, shameful disrespect and outright hatred of the Other, i.e., people with brown skin or opposing viewpoints. Mass shootings are now commonplace.

Without a leader to show the way, but instead with a president who personifies intolerance, exacerbates ill will and incites violence, American democracy is on its way towards morphing into a repressive regime, even without a coup or an insurrection. 


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Trump’s elusive wall


Trump promoting his wall -USA Today

Donald Trump needs The Wall that he’s been hawking since he entered the presidential race, but the Democrats, led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, won’t let him have it. Like a spoiled brat who can’t get his way, the President had a tantrum. He retaliated by shutting down the government.

Donald Trump hates to admit he made a mistake. He rarely apologizes. Now he’s boxed himself in by saying he won’t reopen the government that he himself shut down unless he gets his Wall, but the Democrats are standing firmly against a wall they say would be ineffective. Negotiations are at an impasse. Trump is holding 800,000 federal workers hostage to something that began as a mnemonic device, a way to remember what he was supposed to say.

Why is Trump so enthralled by his Wall?

Before he officially became a candidate, Trump’s political advisers realized that immigration would resonate with conservatives and unemployed workers left behind in a growing economy that did not need their skills. In order to keep the easily distracted candidate on message, his handlers hit upon The Wall — a simple concept, an easy-to-remember four-letter word. It appealed to Trump the Builder — Build the Wall! — and the crowd’s enthusiastic response to the slogan converted it to a meme that has practically become a symbol for Trump himself.

The Trump Tower escalator descended with the aspiring candidate to a waiting crowd so that a beaming Trump could announce his candidacy. He described the evils he said were afflicting the country and attributed them mostly to immigrants who he said were invaders that arrived in hordes at the southern border. To stymie them Trump envisioned a “beautiful” Wall he would erect to “Make America Great Again” by walling out undesirables. America for Americans! (Never mind that America was built by immigrants and most Americans are descended from them.)

The Wall has become a convenient way for Trump to distract the country when new revelations from the Mueller investigation grab the headlines or challenge his version of events.

Now Trump has seized on the expedient of declaring a national emergency so that he will be able to use expanded executive power. The White House is looking for options like using military manpower and funds designated for other projects. The Pentagon may not look favorably on losing funds needed perhaps to build new barracks.

Democrats will lose no time before they challenge Trump in court. The president cannot overrule Congress by appropriating funds for a project it has not approved without precipitating a constitutional crisis. We are again in uncharted waters.


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Mending Wall by Ben East

Author, teacher and diplomat Ben East reflects on two dissimilar walls: one a poem by Robert Frost, the other the obsession of Donald Trump. With admiration and his permission I am reblog it below.

Only 2,000 Miles to Go

Robert Frost’s great poem, outwardly a critique on a pre-existing wall, arguably has little to do with the hypothetical wall being proffered today.

But Frost’s wall stands for so much more, and the critique applies more universally than merely to stone piled on stone. The critique can be said to include any barrier that divides us. The critique includes blind adherence to tradition. The critique marvels at the depravity and ignorance displayed by our fellow man.

I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.

Frost’s narrator, in his easy country voice, recognizes that nature itself opposes these barriers. Hunters or weather or the invisible hand of the outdoors, the ordinary stuff of time’s passage, work in concert against the wall.

The narrator resonates common sense in questioning why his neighbor would rebuild the wall between their properties. And this same good sense reveals the answer: the neighbor is an individual of dim intellect and long habits.

He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbours.”

I’ve always loved this poem. Today I love it more than ever. I hear in this lament the nation’s former poet laureate snickering at today’s gross display of race-baiting, fear-mongering, ignorance, and megalomania.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…

Mending Wall
-Robert Frost

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbour know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
“Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbours.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbours? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.” I could say “Elves” to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbours.”

_____________________________________________________

Ben East published his first novel, Two Pumps for the Body Man (New Pulp Press, 2016), as a Bush-Cheney era black comedy. Set in Saudi Arabia, Two Pumps does for American diplomacy and the War on Terror what Catch-22 did for military logic during the Second World War. 

His second novel, Patchworks (Moonshine Cove Publishing, Sept 2017), examines American gun culture in a similar light.

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Can Trump declare a state of emergency?

photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Upon reading Elizabeth Goitein’s “What the President Could Do If He Declares a State of Emergency” in The Atlantic, my dismay spurred me to write the previous post. In “Our democracy may not be as robust as we think,” I considered a few of the disasters Trump would be empowered to inflict on the American public by declaring a state of emergency.

After publishing the post, I began to read The New York Times, and almost immediately came upon Bruce Ackerman’s “No, Trump Cannot Declare an ‘Emergency’ to Build His Wall,” The title promised to contradict all I had written based on Goitein’s article.

But Ackerman’s article was nuanced.

He refers to laws that would seem to prevent the president from suspending civil liberties and imposing martial law or build his wall. The first is a provision in a statute of 1878 that expressly forbids the willful use of “any part of the Army or the Air Force to execute a law domestically” unless “authorized by the Constitution or an act of Congress.” Then he refers to another statute from 1807 that directs the secretary of defense to “ensure that any activity (including the provision of any equipment or facility or the assignment or detail of any personnel)” will “not include or permit direct participation by a member of the Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marine Corps in a search, seizure, arrest, or other similar activity … unless authorized by law.”

Would Trump respect these statutes? For that matter, is he even aware of them? Is anyone in his cabinet or on his staff sufficiently conversant with the law to attempt to curb his illegal impulses? We have seen Trump compose executive orders and issue commands without seeking legal advice, unaware that he may be violating the Constitution or the laws of the land. His M.O. is “Act first, think later (if ever).” Knowing the presidency confers great power, Trump seems to think there are no restraints. If he were to declare an emergency, there would be a delay before the courts or Congress could thwart him. 

Ackerman admits that the laws he refers to “do contain a series of carefully crafted exceptions to the general rule.” He concedes that Trump might take advantage of the exception which authorizes the military to detain suspected terrorists. That’s not a stretch, since the President has repeatedly characterized migrants who cross the border illegally as terrorists.

But Ackerman believes that “it is an unconscionable stretch to use this proviso to support using the military for operations against the desperate refugees from Central America seeking asylum in our country.” It is “unconscionable” for a moral and compassionate person, but Trump has repeatedly demonstrated that he is neither. He has already gassed them.

The National Emergencies Act “formalize[s] the power of Congress to provide certain checks and balances on the emergency powers of the President,” writes Ackerman. It gives the House the right to rescind a state of emergency declared by the president and requires the Senate to ratify within 15 days. It seems foolishly optimistic to trust that the the legislators in the current divided Congress could come together in both houses long enough to pass a resolution.

Yet, in a neat twist of logic, Ackerman argues that Congress would intervene:

Since President Trump’s “emergency” declaration would be a direct response to his failure to convince Congress that national security requires his wall, it is hard to believe that a majority of the Senate, if forced to vote, would accept his show of contempt for their authority.

Hmm. That remains to be seen.

Finally, Ackerman concedes that, despite the legal obstacles that confront him, Trump could well declare a state of emergency. “He will likely take the most irresponsible path possible, issuing his ‘national emergency’ through a tweet or a question-begging written pronunciamento.”

We have reason to be very concerned.

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Our democracy may not be as robust as we think

Imagine an internet that restricts access to certain websites, including social media platforms; search engines programmed to return only positive results to queries for “Trump”; email that is monitored, censored, even blocked. Does that sound fanciful, an impossibility in our American democracy? Perhaps. Yet the threat is real. 

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign stop in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2015. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

The current issue of The Atlantic has an alarming report written by Elizabeth Goitein, the Co-director of the Liberty and National Security program at The Brennan Center for Justice. Goitein delineates the formidable emergency powers that are available to the president during a national emergency. The article, “What the President Could Do If He Declares a State of Emergency,” is an eye-opener. Everyone should read it.

By announcing the mere threat of war, for example, the president could assume control of all communications, most likely including the internet. He could do so by invoking a law that has been on the books since 1942, when fears of invasion during World War II justified extraordinary executive power. Though it didn’t exist when the law was written, the internet today is a vital component of communications.

The Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law has tallied 123 statutory provisions that grant the president broad emergency powers the moment he declares an emergency. Moreover, the president himself may determine what constitutes an emergency, because the statutes do not define it. In addition, there is no judicial review, nor a requirement that Congress ratify the president’s appropriation of exceptional power. Though Congress could vote to end the state of emergency with a two-thirds, veto-proof majority in both houses, what are the chances of that happening today?

The Insurrection Act of 1807, modified over the years, allows the president to employ military troops to enforce the authority of the federal government in cases of lawlessness, insurrection and rebellion. Trump could deploy armed forces domestically wherever he saw fit, because the statute does not define the specific conditions that constitute an emergency. The law is vague enough that Trump could, for example, authorize tanks to patrol the streets, rounding up political protesters and undocumented migrants. President Eisenhower invoked this law in 1957 to enforce desegregation of the schools in Arkansas with federal troops.

Authoritarians routinely declare states of emergency to impose their will forcefully on their people. Trump admires tyrants like Turkey’s Erdoğan and Duterte of the Philippines — why wouldn’t he follow their examples? After all, Trump is not inhibited by respect for or even knowledge of the law or of the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.

Trump continues to attack the free press because it persists in calling him to account. The President riles up his followers and advocates the imprisonment of a political rival. He denies Muslims entry to the U.S. Clearly, Trump has no reverence for the basic freedoms of the press, speech and religion. Gotein cites Geoffrey R. Stone, a constitutional-law scholar at the University of Chicago, who observed that “It would not take much to upset the [Supreme Court’s] current understanding of the First Amendment.” 

“Indeed,” Goitein remarks wryly, “all it would take is five Supreme Court justices whose commitment to presidential power exceeds their commitment to individual liberties.”

Presidents in living memory have exercised emergency powers. Citing imminent threat to America, President Franklin Roosevelt defied the Constitution by interning U.S. citizens of Japanese descent. More recently, President George W. Bush authorized warrantless wiretapping and torture after 9/11.

In view of the latent perils to democracy that are now immediately available to President Trump, Gotein urges the American public to inform itself. We must insist that Congress repeal obsolete laws and limit the ones that contain the potential for abuse. The newly Democratic House must begin the review process in committees so that a future Democratic Senate can ratify the changes.

The time to act is now, before Trump or another president declares an emergency that gives him limitless power.

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A Blue Wave after all

img_4570.png

The immediate aftermath of the midterm elections left me uneasy, unable to fully celebrate the Democratic control of the U.S. House, despite my conviction before the election that without a Democratic victory in the House, democracy in America would surely be doomed.

The superstars, Stacy Abrams, Andrew Gillum and Beto O’Rourke were counted out as most returns were tallied on Wednesday. But high hopes dashed on Wednesday were revived by the weekend.

Andrew Gillum gave his concession speech on Thursday when it seemed he would not be Florida’s governor. But on Saturday, he took it back. Gillum and Stacy Abrams in Georgia are striving mightily against Republican opposition to have all votes counted and recounted in their races for the governor’s mansion. Both are close enough to trigger recounts. The same holds for the senate race in Florida.

As the vote counting continued, a Blue Tide began to wash over Republican-held seats, growing in size and strength. The House majority kept growing, and close races drew even closer. Democrats needed 23 seats to gain a majority in the House. As late vote counts rolled in, they garnered 32 seats, with 10 still not called.

The Blue Wave asserted itself: Democrats won 367 congressional seats— more than the Tea Party had in 2010. They flipped seven governorships, including in solid red Kansas (where they also captured a House seat). And when Florida and Georgia are finally finished counting and recounting, Democrats may gain one or two more governors.

Democrats scored trifectas — winning both houses of the state legislature and the governor — in six states: Colorado, Maine, Illinois, New York, New Mexico and Nevada. They will have full control in 13 states; the Republicans in 21.

Victories in state elections are important. State governments strongly influence health care, taxes, immigration and climate change in their states. They control redistricting, which is pivotal today, because gerrymandering currently causes Democrats to lose elections and seats, despite winning the popular vote.

Republican Martha McSally at first appeared to have won Jeff Flake’s senate seat in Arizona, but when all votes were counted a week after Election Day, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema became the first woman Arizona would send to the Senate and the first Democratic senator elected by the state in three decades.

The country moved left. Even in races the Republicans won, Democrats gained ground. As in 2016, Democrats won the popular vote. In Texas, Beto O’Rourke roused enthusiasm and came close to winning with a tremendous number of Democratic votes in a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat since Ann Richards became governor in 1991.

More reasons to celebrate the 2018 midterms:

  • Americans were more engaged than ever in the elections. They voted in record numbers, more than in any midterm since 1914.
  • They elected more than 100 women.
  • The new class of representatives is more diverse than any of its predecessors, including two Native American and two Muslim women.
  • They are young, and have lowered the average age of representatives by a decade.

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Everyday Life

Ben East Books

The novelist is exhausted. Whole worlds suggest themselves to her but that is all. The worlds do not appear. They do not come ready-made. They do not exist. They require focus and time and attention. The worlds must be pulled forth. Forged.

The novelist is exhausted. Characters whisper in his ear and run through caverns in his mind. They are mere glimpses, shadows that must be captured, examined, and word by word turned from slip and sliver into clay.

The novelist is exhausted. The worlds and characters must palpitate, conflict, concur, act and react, breath and bleed and weep.

The novelist is exhausted because the details that join these things require consciousness as they tarry in the unconscious, wistful faeries concealed by too much darkness or masked by the squint of too much light. The glimmer and the shadow must be shaded or lit just so.

The novelist can’t show…

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Will 2018 election results reflect the will of the people?

BallotBoxThe highly anticipated midterm elections of 2018 are less than two weeks away. There is general agreement that the election is extremely important, because the United States is at a crossroads. President Trump has snubbed traditional allies and cosied up to the usual adversaries. He has withdrawn from treaties that were painstakingly drawn up over a period of years. He has levied tariffs where once there was free trade. Until October, the stock market was soaring. Less than two weeks before the election, all the gains of 2018 have been wiped out. His tax cuts have ballooned the deficit to record-setting heights.

Democrats are hoping to regain control of Congress, but it won’t be easy, even though there are significantly more Democrats than Republicans. Republicans, however, vote in greater numbers than Democrats. Another complicating factor is that Democrats are clustered in densely populated cities while many Republicans are in sparsely populated rural areas, making a Republican vote worth significantly more than a Democratic one. For example, Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska was re-elected with 111,000 votes; Democratic Chuck Schumer of New York was re-elected with 4.8 million votes. Yet they have equal power in the Senate.

Active voter suppression has wiped Democrats off the rolls in record numbers. State legislators with Republican majorities are writing new voter ID laws with the intent to disenfranchise people of color, because they tend to vote Democratic. The Republican governor of Georgia has purged hundreds of thousands of likely Democratic voters from the rolls. Of course, it also works the other way. Republicans are vulnerable too. In Alaska, new residency rules are designed to disenfranchise the Native Americans that were crucial to Sen. Murkowski’s victory in 2012.

This tactic is not new. It was employed until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 made it illegal. But in 2013 the Supreme Court ruled in Shelby County v. Holder that the Act relied on antiquated data and struck down its most effective provisions. Within five years of that decision, close to a thousand polling places were gone, most of them in predominantly African-American counties.

Free elections are still threatened by Russian meddling. Given what we now know, it may have swung the 2016 election to Donald Trump. The U.S. intelligence services are certain that the Russians continue to interfere, trying to influence the outcome of the election.

There is another, more sinister factor to consider: election results may be skewed domestically. We have no way to guarantee the accuracy of ballot counting, because the counting is not observable. Vote counting, once done in public view, now takes place out of sight, inside of computer chips. Jonathan Simon argues forcefully that what has happened to American democracy under Donald Trump and the Republicans may have a simple explanation.

Simon believes that tampering with electronic vote counting  may account for America’s dramatic shift to the right, considering that a majority of the electorate is centrist and did not vote for Donald Trump. By computerizing the electoral process we have made it extremely easy to alter the results. It’s no longer necessary to stuff ballot boxes with paper ballots or change 10,000 votes by hand. A machine can do that efficiently in seconds. A programmer or hacker can steal the election by inserting a few lines of code into the hundreds of thousands of lines of code and achieve the desired result with minimal risk of detection.

“This amounts to a rolling coup that is transforming America while disenfranchising an unsuspecting public,” Simon writes in “Code Red: Computerized Elections and the War on American Democracy.” Simon’s declared reason for writing the book is to alert the public to what he sees as a danger to democracy and the Republic that is far greater than gerrymandering and voter suppression. He wants to spur people into action before we can no longer vote our way out.

Simon asks,

Why do we collectively and so blithely assume that hundreds of millions of votes counted in secret, on partisan-produced and -controlled equipment, will be counted honestly and that the public trust will be honored to the exclusion of any private agenda, however compelling?!

Think about it.

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Pipe bombs and the crackup of the Union

Americans awoke this morning to the news that pipe bombs had been mailed to prominent political people. Not just any politicians— no Republicans, only Democrats and Trump’s favorite targets.

In his tweets and at his rallies, Trump has threatened and vilified Hillary Clinton, leading chants to “Lock her up!” He denied Barack Obama’s legitimacy, for years insisting that he was not born in the U.S., and has been dismantling every achievement of his predecessor since his first day in office. George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist and major Democratic donor, has been accused by Trump and the Right-Wing extremists of master-minding conspiracies against the U.S. and the world order. Trump has consistently disparaged the media, in particular, the publications that have criticized him, news organs like CNN and the New York Times. George Brennan, former Director of the C.I.A., has been outspokenly critical of Trump, and the President retaliated by stripping him of his security clearance.

Except for the NY Times, all of the above were recipients of bombs sent to their homes. Brennan’s was sent to CNN offices in New York.

We have a head of state who not only condones violence, but incites it. Since the days of his campaign, when he defended and encouraged his supporters that punched protesters, promising to pay their legal bills, the rabble-rouser-in-chief continues to stoke the fury of his followers, encouraging them to ravage the foundational principles of American democracy.

The country that prided itself on being a nation of laws is devolving into the misrule of chaos and hate. Trump campaigned on a pledge to destroy the existing order, and for perhaps for the only time, he is keeping his word. Rather than Making America Great Again, Trump is presiding over the disintegration of lawful society.

The political parties no longer work to reach compromises that further the greater good. Rather, they reflect the stark division of Trumpists determined to rend the fragile fabric of democracy and their opponents who want to conserve and build on the achievements of the bold experiment started over 200 years ago.

Update: Later in the day, more bombs were discovered. They were sent to Eric Holder, Obama’s attorney general and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA).

 

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Cut Joe Manchin some slack

JoeManchinMany Democrats are excoriating  Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) for betraying Democrats by voting yes to confirm Judge Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court. Gail Collins, for example, writes in the NYTimes

Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat, didn’t care and took a dive. It’s a real shame. This is a senator whose he-man image is so critical to his identity that he always runs campaign ads in which he shoots offensive legislation with a rifle.

I admire and follow Collins, but this is just wrong-headed.

First, the easy part. Manchin is a West Virginian. Like most people in his state, Manchin believes people have a right to own and carry guns. By shooting a rifle in his campaign ads, Manchin cements his relationship with his constituents. He has, however, bucked his party by opposing legislation that would impose restrictions on automatic weapons sales and a bill that would ban high-capacity magazines.

More important is the fact that West Virginia is the state that gave Trump his greatest margin in 2016, and Manchin is up for re-election in a few weeks. He is ahead in the polls, but if he had voted against Kavanaugh, he would very likely lose his seat in November. Democrats can’t take that risk if they want to win control of the Senate. By gaining the majority, Democrats would also control all the committees. Imagine how Kavanaugh would have fared if Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) had chaired the Senate Judicial Committee with a Democratic majority. (see Only 2 Republican votes to defeat Kavanaugh?)

Once Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) announced her vote in favor of Kavanaugh, his confirmation was assured. It would have been incredibly stupid for Manchin to sacrifice himself on the altar of a lost cause.

Now that the votes are in, the issue is a little more complicated. Kavanaugh was confirmed 50-48. He had 49 Republican votes plus Manchin’s one. Two Republican senators did not vote. One was Steve Daines (R-MT). He had previously announced that he would be at his daughter’s wedding on Saturday, the day of the vote. The other senator was Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), the only Republican with the courage to buck her party. She had announced that she couldn’t support Kavanaugh. But Murkowski didn’t vote no, as expected. She didn’t vote. I suspect she didn’t want to be the deciding vote, the only Republican to vote against Kavanaugh. If Collins had voted no, Murkowski and Manchin and possibly others could have covered each other by voting no together.

As it turned out, if Manchin had voted with the Democrats, the vote would have been tied, 49-49, and Vice President Mike Pence would have broken the tie, giving Kavanaugh his confirmation. Manchin’s vote would not have made a difference.

 

 

 

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