Category Archives: Culture

Nature v. Nurture

This century has not been kind to the American system of justice.  It has been accused of being two-tiered.  At times, it defies logic, as in the case of Kyle Rittenhouse.  Yesterday, we learned that “law and order” is not the only American value which is applied depending on who you are, not what you do.

Case in point, Senator Tom Cotton (MAGA-Arkansas).  On May 10, 2023, Cotton introduced the Campus Free Speech Restoration Act, which according to his accompanying press release, “protects the First Amendment rights of students at public universities from unconstitutional speech codes and so-called free speech zones.”  Among the provisions of the proposed legislation are (again from his press release):

  • Prohibit public colleges from restricting free speech and expression on campus.
  • Create a cause of action in federal court for the Attorney General or other parties to challenge restrictions on speech and expression on campus.
  • Make sure the requirements of the Act do not apply to colleges and universities controlled by religious institutions.

Okay, the First Amendment promotes free expression.  And anyone violating another’s right to free expression should be subject to due process for alleged violations.  But seriously Senator, if a student at Notre Dame University accuses the head football coach of being an overpaid incompetent, you’re okay if the Board of Trustees determines such blasphemy is punishable by suspension or expulsion.  But religious exemptions for rules that apply to everyone else is a matter for a different day.

Why?  Because yesterday the distinguished gentleman* from Arkansas took a quite different approach when it came to protesters in four U.S. cities who blocked highways to express their disapproval of what they believe is a disproportionate Israeli response to October 7 and support for a Palestinian State.

You have to get to these criminals early.  If something like this happened in Arkansas on a bridge there, let’s say there would be an awful lot of wet criminals tossed overboard, not by law enforcement, but by people whose road they were blocking.  If they glued their hands to car or pavement, well, pretty painful to have their skin ripped off, but I think that’s the way we would handle it in Arkansas.  And I’d encourage people anywhere, who get stuck behind criminals like this who are trying to block traffic, to take matters into their own hands.  It’s time to put an end to this nonsense.

Now I understand people might get upset when a protest inconveniences them.  But in the MAGA universe, peaceful protesters are “criminals,” and violent protesters on January 6th are “patriots” and “hostages.”  And where was Tom Cotton when New Jersey authorities shut down the George Washington Bridge to punish Fort Lee mayor Mike Sokolich for not supporting Governor Chris Christie’s bid for reelection?  Or when neo-Nazis blocked downtown streets in Nashville?  Or when “The People’s Convoy” blocked access to Washington, D.C. to protest COVID-19 restrictions? In other words, when Tom Cotton encourages people to attack protesters, he makes a clear distinction between “my people” and “you people.”

And so much for due process.  Cotton might as well have been one of the faux federales in John Huston’s  1927 film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, “We don’t need no stinking charges.  Or stinking trials. Or stinking judges and juries.”  Just imagine if pro-Israel Christian nationalists were blocking a roadway in Dearborn, Michigan preventing the city’s large Muslim population from access to their mosque.  Does anyone believe Cotton would approve of Muslim vigilantes tossing them over the Miller-Rotunda Bridge?

All of this aside, I once again was struck by an observation by Joe Scarborough.  He prefaced his comment by acknowledging his personal friendship with Tom Cotton’s parents before adding, “I know they did not raise him to be like this.”  Based on that information, it is highly unlikely the senator’s warped perspective on American justice is attributable to familial DNA.  Which brings me back to the title of today’s post.  How many Americans, who 10 years ago would be appalled by Cotton’s call for vigilante violence, now support his message and might even participate in the equivalent of modern day lynchings?

This November was already a choice between clear alternatives.  Democracy v. Autocracy.  Allegiance to the Constitution v. Personality Cult.  National Security through Global Alliances v. Isolationism.  As someone who believes in the adage, “Children are not born with hate; someone teaches us to hate,” I now attribute a propensity toward political violence as largely a question of environment, an environment normalized by the MAGA Party.  So add one more item to the list of choices.  Due Process v. Vigilantism.  One presidential candidate calls for retribution and beating the hell out of people.  The other tells us, “We can be better than that.”

Given the choice between “Rip their skin off” or “That’s not who we are,”  I trust most Americans will eventually opt to be members of Team Better Than That.

*”Distinguished gentleman” is Congressional parlance for “son of a bitch.”

For what it’s worth.

Groundhog Daze

The title of today’s post is derived from waking up every morning to some unprecedented statement or action by Donald Trump which, in a different environment, would disqualify any other candidate for president of the United States.  I call it the “All You Need to Know” syndrome.  This morning there are more examples to add to the list.

Last night, at what the Washington Post called a “historic” event, two ex-presidents joined the incumbent at a Radio City Music Hall, star-studded gala that raised a record $26 million dollars in support of Joe Biden’s re-election and Democratic majorities in the House and Senate.  There were three takeaways from this event, two of which are being widely reported.

#1.  This morning, Jamie Harrison, chairman of the Democratic National Committee pointed out “every penny is being spent on opening field offices to register new voters and to make sure they show up on election day.” He felt no need to explicitly add, “In contrast to the Republican National Committee…”  This is one case where, by simply reporting facts about the Trump takeover of the RNC and the distribution of “campaign” donations, print and broadcast news is carrying this water for the Biden campaign.

#2. Mark Leibovich, staff writer at The Atlantic, reminded “Morning Joe” viewers that “while Biden was flanked by the two living, two-term, former Democratic presidents, Donald Trump stands alone on the stage.”  In other words, do not hold your breath waiting for a GOP fundraiser featuring Trump and George W. Bush.  Scarborough jumped in and added, neither would you see a former Republican vice-president (including Trump’s own), presidential nominee or vice-presidential nominee, with of course the exception of Sarah Palin.  Leibovich added two more categories to the list, former Speakers of the House John Boehner and Paul Ryan or soon to be former Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.  In this game of “Can You Top This,” Scarborough completed the tabulation with Trump’s three secretaries of defense, two secretaries of state, first two chiefs of staff, etc.

The one that everyone missed, which in hindsight may prove to be the most important, was the pro-Palestinian protests outside the event and an interruption of Biden’s and Barack Obama’s comments about the Israel/Gaza conflict.  This “all you need to know” moment required an observer to read between the lines.  It seems Palestinian sympathizers have regularly appeared at almost every Democratic rally or event since the beginning of primary season.  On January 31, Ed Pilkington of The Guardian reported, “This month all of Biden’s big set-piece speeches marking the launch of his re-election campaign have been disrupted by pro-Palestinian protests.”  To be fair, the same did happen at one Nikki Haley rally.  On February 1, Filip Timotija of The Hill led his coverage of a Haley event with the following.  “A small group of protesters interrupted the former governor’s campaign event in Columbia, S.C., with chants of “Free, Free Palestine,” before some of them were escorted out of the event.” 

However, when I Goggled, “pro-Palestinian protests at Trump events,” the search produced more articles about last night’s fundraiser or other confrontations with Biden or his surrogates.  At the bottom of the web page, there was a report attributed to New Hampshire Public Radio about protesters outside a Trump appearance at the University of New Hampshire.  The demonstration was organized by UNH’s Palestinian Solidarity Group which implored both Biden and Trump to end what they believe to be “genocide” of Palestinian civilians.  When asked why she was there, protest organizer Adeena Ahsan, a UNH graduate student told NHPR reporter Sarah Gibson “they weren’t just protesting the current and former presidents’ foreign policy positions. They also wanted to push back on their school’s decision to give Trump a platform.”  She added, “We think it’s insane that we are paying for this, not the city of Durham, not Trump’s campaign up front — our tuition is going towards this.”

There may be a lot of reasons Palestinian supporters do not have the same presence at Trump or GOP rallies as similar Democratic events.  Maybe, they believe that Biden, the current president, can do more for their cause than a mere candidate.  Maybe, they think the Biden administration is more receptive to their concerns about a humanitarian crisis in Gaza.  But there is one more big difference, which is all you need to know.

When the protesters interrupted President Biden at last night’s Radio City Music Hall event, he replied, “That’s alright, let them go. … there are too many innocent victims, Israeli and Palestinian.”  Obama used the disruption as a teaching moment about the job of being president.

One of the realities of the presidency is that the world has a lot of joy and beauty, but it also has a lot of tragedy and cruelty,  I think people understandably oftentimes want to feel a certain surety in terms of how those decisions are made. But a president doesn’t have that luxury.

When he was again interrupted, Obama drew the comparison that exemplifies the choice we have this November.

No, no listen. You can’t just talk and not listen. … That’s what the other side does. And it is possible for us to understand that it is possible to have moral clarity and have deeply held beliefs, but still recognize that the world is complicated and it is hard to solve these problems.

We do not have to imagine how Trump would respond to these protesters.  We have his record.  “Can’t you just shoot them?  Just shoot them in the legs or something?” he asked former Defense Secretary Mark Esper on the occasion of Black Lives Matters protests in front of the White House.  In July 2017, in a speech to Long Island law enforcement officials, Trump said, “Please don’t be too nice,” implying he approved of roughing up suspects during arrests.  In August 2020 he considered sending the National Guard to Portland, Oregon to quell protests, stating, “We could fix Portland in, I would say, 45 minutes.”

Why do Palestinian supporters show up at Democratic and not Republican events?  They know they may be removed from the venue or lectured to by a former president.  They also know they will leave the event alive and unharmed.  Would they be as sure of that same outcome at a Trump rally when he is only a candidate?  Do they think a negative outcome will be less likely if he once again controls the departments of defense, homeland security and justice?  That is all they need to remember when they vote this fall.

For what it’s worth.

Naked Bias

A former president of the United States daily rants about being the victim of a two-tiered system of justice and selective prosecution.  There is one way to find out whether there is any truth to his claim.  Employ the “Sesame Street” learning technique, “Which one is not like the other?”  Here are the options.

  • On August 27, 2018, a jury found comedian Bill Cosby guilty of drugging and molesting Andrea Constand.  The former University of Arizona basketball star was represented by Gloria Allred, known for a series of high profile cases, many of which involved protection of women’s rights.
  • On January 26, 2024, a jury ordered Donald Trump to pay journalist and former Vanity Fair advice columnist E. Jean Carroll $88.3 million for continuing to call her a liar after another jury found Trump liable for sexual assault and defamation.  Carroll was represented by the New York firm of Kaplan Hecker & Fink.  Lead counsel Roberta Kaplan is described by the Washington Post as “a brash and original strategist, with neither a gift for patience nor silence, a crusader for underdogs who has won almost every legal accolade imaginable.”
  • On October 15, 2018, U.S. District Judge James Otero dismissed a defamation suit against Trump by adult film star Stormy Daniels.  On April 4, 2023, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Daniels to reimburse Trump for $121,000 in legal fees associated with the 2018 case.  In 2018, Daniels was represented by Michael Avenatti who is currently serving a 14-year prison sentence for fraud and embezzlement involving clients including Daniels and Nike.

If you guessed the outlier was the case involving Stormy Daniels you would be correct.  Carroll and Constand had the best legal counsel money could buy.  In contrast, as Daniels testified in Avenatti’s federal fraud trial she hired him because “other lawyers were afraid. I was out of options.”  There is one other difference.  Cosby was accused of criminal behavior.  The Carroll and Daniels cases involved only liability and civil penalties.  Therefore, we need to review the basis on which these two outcomes diverged in order to understand how Daniels was also the victim of “naked bias.”

In her closing argument on behalf of Carroll, Kaplan include the following:

Donald Trump is prepared to use his wealth and power to defame people whenever he wants. He ignored the last verdict as if it had never happened.  While Donald Trump may not care about the law, while he certainly doesn’t care about the truth, he does care about money.  [A large punitive award] is the only way to give Ms. Carroll a chance at a normal life again where she is not regularly bullied and humiliated by one of the most powerful men on the planet.

In Daniels’ case, U.S. District Judge James Otero dismissed the charge that Trump defamed Daniels when he tweeted she had lied in 2011 about being threatened not to go public with the story of her sexual encounter with the future president.  In his ruling, Otero referred to the Tweet as “rhetorical hyperbole normally associated with politics and public discourse in the United States.”  He called the lawsuit “a fishing expedition” and declared that Daniels had “failed to show that Trump acted with actual malice or reckless disregard for the truth.”

Following Otero’s ruling, Avenatti tweeted, “Trump’s contrary claims are as deceptive as his claims about the inauguration attendance.”  Clever, but not the fact based-response one would imagine if Roberta Kaplan or Gloria Allred were representing his client.

Much of the discussion about a two-tiered system of justice centers on money and power.  In this case, I believe it rests largely on the profession of the plaintiff.  Carroll was a respected journalist.  Constand, at the time of her assault, was director of operations for the Temple University women’s basketball team.  Stormy Daniels was a porn star.  That should not make a difference.  Of the three plaintiffs, Daniels may have paid the highest price.  Because she feared for the safety of her young daughter, she gave full custody to her ex-husband.  That fear was based largely on the threat she reported in 2011 in which the stranger who approached her car warned her, “Oh it’s a beautiful little girl, would be a shame if something happened to her mom. Forget about this story, leave Mr. Trump alone.”  Which is more credible?  The threat never happened.  Or a mother was willing to give up rights to her only child because she was honestly afraid and did not want her daughter to be collateral damage if someone tried to permanently silence her.

My question.  Beginning April 15, Donald Trump will face a jury of his peers who will decide if, in fact, he had a sexual encounter with Daniels and paid her to keep it quiet.  If he is found guilty, will the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals apologize to Daniels and reverse the 2023 order for her to pay Trump’s legal expenses.  Contrary to Judge Otero’s finding, it would be clear Trump “…acted with malice [AND] with reckless disregard for the truth.”

For what it’s worth.

The Fringe on Top

The ghost of Yogi Berra spoke to me this morning.  “It’s déjà vu all over again,”  he said.  He was referring to the student protests on college campuses in support of a ceasefire in the Israel/Hamas war.  He continued, “I’m surprised, you of all people, have not made this connection.  You were there.”

Berra was, of course, reminding me of the student protests against the war in Vietnam at my alma mater, the University of Virginia.  Not only was I there, I was an active participant.  My fraternity brother Jeffrey Kirsch summed it up best in a 50th anniversary retrospective in Virginia Magazine. “It was like a cultural train running through the University.  There was this awaking and outpouring of emotions and progressive instincts.”

The early days of the anti-movement at UVA were peaceful.  They consisted of teach-ins and student gathering, including a concert in the Old Cabell Hall lecture room, the same 850 seat auditorium where I attended Economics 101.  I helped organized the concert and even performed, choosing two songs I hoped would generate dialogue about a misguided policy in Southeast Asia.  “The Age of Aquarius” from the musical Hair and Simon and Garfunkel’s “A Poem on the Underground Wall.”

Protest movements are never  monolithic.  For every Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Council there is a Bobby Seale and the Black Panthers.  In 1969, UVA students who favored a more militant approach to opposing the war formed the Radical Student Union.  In hopes of stemming a shift he feared might become more extreme and even violent, another one of my fraternity brothers Robert Rosen led what became known as the Student Coalition, bringing together liberals, antiwar radicals and fraternity leaders.  A third fraternity brother Joel Gardner, who today is among the most conservative advocates of the free speech movement at UVA, writes in his memoir about the effort to keep the more extreme elements of the antiwar movement from hi-jacking growing sentiment against the war and other progressive causes including the lack of racial diversity on campus.

The key was to forcefully demonstrate that the forthcoming actions of the coalition did not represent the ideas of wide-eyed radicals and agitators, and that support for stronger actions to address the issues at the University was widespread.

Two events demonstrated how quickly the complexion of a peaceful protest movement can change.  First, President Richard Nixon’s announcement U.S. troops had been deployed in Cambodia followed by the killing of four students and wounding of nine others by Ohio National Guard troops at Kent State University.  Kirsch, who now served as a president of the Virginia Progressive Party, organized a fundraiser featuring Chicago Seven defendant Jerry Rubin and his attorney William Kunstler.  What Kirsch originally envisioned as a “classroom sized presentation,” was moved to University Hall, the indoor athletic arena, to accommodate the 9,000 students from UVA and surrounding universities who came to hear them speak.

Even Kirsch, who introduced Rubin and Kunstler, remembers his own trepidation as both speakers urged the audience to “liberate the president’s house.”  Immediately following their remarks, Kirsch rushed to Carr’s Hill, the president’s residence, to warn Edgar Shannon of what was about to happen.  In the 50th anniversary retrospective, Ernie Gates writes:

Out front, Kirsch faced the mob he had unintentionally helped to create. “People were inflamed,” he says. “I felt like it was my fault. It was my event.” A megaphone amplifying his words, Kirsch addressed the crowd. “I said, ‘This is not the right tactic. We should be going after a target that is more associated with the war effort—we should take the Navy ROTC building.’ I didn’t want to burn down Maury Hall—I was trying to protect Shannon and his family.”

And to the ROTC building they went, occupying it again and declaring it “Freedom Hall.” A photo from that night shows a scorched mattress that had been dragged from the building’s basement, possibly a remnant of an attempt to follow through on the cries of “Burn it down.” The smoke, however, eventually forced the protesters to abandon the building.

The next morning, all the news reports and images focused on the incident at the Navy ROTC building.  In a New York minute, the extremist fringe of the anti-war movement fractured a coalition, three years in the making.

I share this story in such detail because the same forces seem to be at play on college campuses today.  When I see peaceful student protests calling for a ceasefire in the Israel/Hama conflict and humanitarian aid to civilians, I do not believe the overwhelming majority are calling for the destruction of Israel nor do I believe they hold American Jews responsible for what strike so many as counterproductive policies of the Netanyahu government.  At UVA, a majority of students voted in favor of a resolution demanding the university divest its endowment funds in companies doing business with Israel.  The text is similar to a 1987 resolution in response to apartheid in South Africa.  The resolution did not include antisemitic language or call for the dissolution of Israel.  It only addressed government policies believed to be contrary to the rights and aspirations of Palestinians.

Unfortunately, there is an extreme fringe of the pro-Palestinian movement on campus that has threatened Jewish students and vandalized property.  Concerned parents of Jewish students believe President James Ryan has not done enough to protect their children.  Some are demanding he resign.  And once again, when the fringe elements of a social movement, regardless of the cause, make the headlines (i.e. get top billing), it only detracts from the greater purpose.

Which begs the question, where are leaders of the pro-Palestinian student movement, who like Jeffrey Kirsch acknowledge their role, even if unintentional, in creating a hostile atmosphere and say, “This is not the right tactic.”

For what it’s worth.

The Broken Mirror

Two events in the last 48 hours make it clear, the motto for the MAGA-verse should be, “Don’t watch what we say, watch what we say!”  (No, that is not a typo.)

Event #1:  A remote segment during Friday night’s edition of Jimmy Kimmel Live consisting of interviews with three South Carolina Trump supporters.  Here are excerpts from “Debate and Switch.”  The interview starts by asking each if they would mind if she asks them about things that Joe Biden has said or done.

Interviewer:  What did you think when Joe Biden suggested that Covid could be cured by shining a bright light inside the body?
Trumpster #1:  It is very sad that Joe Biden is clearly a dementia patient.
Interviewer:  I’m so sorry.  I got my notes mixed up.  Can we start all over?
Trumpster #1: Okay.
Interviewer:  What did you think when Donald Trump suggested that Covid could be cured by shining a bright light inside the body?
Trumpster #1:  It depends on what that technology is.

Interviewer:  There are accusations Joe Biden cheated on his wife with a porn star after his son was born, and there’s actually a paper trail showing he paid the sex worker $130,000 to keep quiet about it.
Trumpster #2:   Who did that?  Joe Biden?
Interviewer:  Joe Biden.
Trumpster #2:  And he was making less than $100,000 a year at that time as a senator.  How does he do that?
Interviewer: You tell me.  Would you vote for someone who did that?
Trumpster #2:  Of course not.
Interviewer.  So Trump did do that.
Trumpster #2:  Trump had a fling with Stormy Daniels.
Interviewer:  And paid her $130,000.
Trumpster #2:  And paid her hush money.
Interviewer:  Yes, and you’re voting for him.
Trumpster #2:  I am.  My father had affairs too and I still respect him.

Interviewer:  How do you feel about Joe Biden using bone spurs to dodge the Vietnam draft?
Trumpster #3:  Joe Biden has a problem.  He isn’t an American.  He isn’t a patriot.
Interviewer:  I’m sorry, I asked you about Biden but I meant Trump.  Can I ask you the question again?
Trumpster #3:  Yes you may.
Interviewer:  How do you feel about Donald Trump using his bone spurs to dodge the Vietnam draft?
Trumpster #3:  My brother-in-law had flat feet. I’m sure you cannot go into a military zone like Vietnam with bad feet.  You just can’t do the job.  And it actually impacts the other soldiers.

To be fair, the Kimmel staffer could have spent days working on this project in order to find these three “gems.”  As we know, there are also a few nuts in every box of Cracker Jacks, even ones who would give permission for this footage to be aired on late night television.  Posthumous kudos to Andy Warhol.  It’s amazing what people will do for one minute, much less 15 minutes of fame.

Event #2:  The South Carolina GOP Primary.  Surely, most Palmetto State Trump supporters could not be this unaware.  If only there was a way to prove it.  As legendary sports reporter Warner Wolf would say, “Let’s go to the video tape.”  In this case it is National Election Pool (NEP) exit polls from yesterday’s South Carolina GOP primary.  When voters were asked about the condition of the national economy, 16 percent said it was “Good,” and 84 percent said it was “Not Good.”  They were then asked about their “family’s financial situation.”  The envelope please.

Getting Ahead/22 percent
Holding Steady/60 percent
Falling Behind/16 percent

Really?  Eight-two percent of South Carolina GOP voters are doing okay or better and yet 84 percent think the national economy is in the proverbial dumpster.  Not to mention every indicator of national economic health is performing at a record pace or trending in that direction.

This morning, not a single major newspaper or media outlet reported anything about this case of cognitive dissonance from the NEP polls.  I had to go back to last night’s MSNBC’s election night coverage to find where it appeared once on the crawl at the bottom of the screen.  None of the MSNBC commentators mentioned it during the broadcast.

This does not happen by accident.  No one wakes up one morning and says, “You know, the economy sucks but my family situation is pretty good.”  Those conclusions come from different sources.  You understand your personal financial condition through everyday experiences.  You know when you can and cannot pay the bills, even if inflation is above the target set by the Federal Reserve Bank.

Information about the national economy is provided by outsiders.  And your outside sources are a matter of choice.  I am sure if you asked the 84 percent who think the economy is “not good” where they get their news, a significant majority would be Fox News and Fox Business viewers.  I do not expect the Murdoch media empire to address this “I’m fine but…” anomaly.  Surely, someone in the “liberal press” noticed South Carolina voters were speaking out of both sides of their mouths.  Yet, they said nothing.

Is this going to convert die-hard MAGA voters?  Of course not.  But 2024 is not just about saving America from Donald Trump.  It is also a campaign to expose the irrationality underpinning the MAGA movement.  Certainly, there is someone out there who saw the Kimmel segment and thought, “I’m not that crazy, am I?”  More importantly, they should not have to depend on a late night talk show host or a Sunday morning blogger to point this out.


I rarely defend Donald Trump.  But unlike MAGA world which believes Fox News, NewsMax and OANN can do no wrong, journalistic integrity is important no matter the source.  Last night, Lawrence O’Donnell, who should know better, echoed a story going around that Trump called his wife “Mercedes” during Saturday’s speech at CPAC.  To be fair, Trump was lying about how supportive Melania has been despite the fact she has not been with him in court or on the campaign trail.  Of course, the lemmings in the audience applauded loudly.  Then Trump turned slightly to his left and said, “Mercedes, how about that?”  Even I know that the wife of CPAC president Matt Schlapp and Trump’s second White House Director of Communications is (drum roll) “Mercedes Schlapp.”  And chances were pretty good she was sitting in the front row during Trump’s speech.

I have no doubt there will be a Trump or MAGA PAC ad in which they talk about “how desperate the liberal press is.”  And O’Donnell and others handed him the ammunition to credibly do exactly that. 

Never has this Nate Silver quote been more relevant.  “Distinguishing the signal from the noise requires both scientific knowledge and self-knowledge.”

For what it’s worth.