Thursday, February 22, 2018

Students Lobby For Gun Control - Republicans Hatch A Conspiracy

Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel visits 15 YO
Florida shooting survivor Anthony Borges on Sunday 
Today marks one week since 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz left 17 students and faculty members dead during a deadly shooting rampage - one of 34 mass shootings in the United States in 2018.

While it's been seven days since Cruz fired more than a 100 rounds into classrooms and hallways in Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, today marks a monumental shift in the polarizing debate over gun control in America.

For most Americans who listened to some of the emotionally-wrenching testimony and comments earlier today at the White House in what was described as a listening session, it was hard not be affected by their words and the emotion in their voices.


With Republican lawmakers on the national and state level being eviscerated by mainstream popular opinion during the past week because of their willingness to place their slavish obedience to NRA gun money and archaic interpretations of the 2nd Amendment over public safety and reason, GOP leaders were forced to do something Wednesday they rarely do.

Listen to advocates of gun control as well as some of the victims and relatives of victims of the epic gun violence (there were 15,593 gun deaths in America in 2017) that is ripping this country apart.

If you didn't get a chance to hear the anguish and anger of Andrew Pollack, the only parent of one of the 17 killed in Parkland, Florida to attend the White House event earlier yesterday, take a couple minutes to check out Julie Hirschfeld Davis' New York Times article and watch the 27-second clip of him laying Trump out, or read his comments.

Pollack, whose daughter Meadow was one of the 17 killed last Wednesday, asked the question that so many different Americans of different ages, backgrounds, ethnicities and faiths have wanted to ask some of the Republican politicians who now control all three branches of the federal government:

"How many schools, how many children have to get shot?"


Thousands of students rallied outside the state
capitol building in Tallahassee, Florida
18-year-old Samuel Zeif, a student who survived the shooting last week but lost his best friend, asked Trump how it was that someone can still just basically walk into a store in Florida and purchase an AR-15 after the deaths in Columbine and Sandy Hook.

He's one of many Marjory Stoneman Douglas HS students who have appeared on mainstream national news outlets or social media to express outrage and dismay over notoriously lax gun laws.


Intentionally-watered down Florida gun control laws that gave us "Stand Your Ground"  and allowed a disturbed individual like Nikolas Cruz to purchase an AR-15, large amounts of ammunition and tactical vests without any red flags popping up.

According to a source that spoke with CNN, investigators say that Cruz purchased at least 10 different rifles; but his adopted parents claim there was nothing unusual about his behavior.

Sadly what's not unusual is the reaction of many conservative far-right extremists, who've taken to social media in droves to denounce the MSDHS students as part of some kind of liberal plot to strip away the rights of gun owners.

It's actually remarkable to watch the loony "pizza-gate" faction of the right-wing conspiracy troll movement become enraged by high school students who just survived the 9th worst mass shooting in U.S. history exercising their 1st Amendment right to free speech.

Remember, these are the same folks who fetishize the 2nd Amendment as if it was hewn into rock by a deity that sanctions the slaughter of thousands of Americans each year.

Republican Florida political aide Ben Kelly fired
for forwarding right-wing conspiracy theories 
Don't think that kind of right-wing nutbaggery was limited to anonymous trolls hanging around in the murky corners of Reddit conservative conspiracy porn pages either.

As Tampa Bay Times reporter Alex Leary reported yesterday, Benjamin Kelly, the district secretary for Republican Florida state legislator Shawn Harrison, was fired after he claimed that MSDHS students Emma Gonzales and David Hogg were not students at the school but "actors that travel to various crisis when they happen." 

Both students, survivors of the shooting, have appeared on TV frequently in the past few days calling for stiffer gun control laws.

So trolls started the rumor that they were actors paid by left-wing gun control advocates and immediately started demonizing them - sound like a familiar tactic?

Frankly that's is right down there with Alex Jones' wacky claims that the Sandy Hook massacre was staged.

If you can stomach it, check out Travis Andrews and Samantha Schmidt's Washington Post article (reprinted in the Chicago Tribune), which offers a sampling of the right-wing sleaze bag all stars who came out of the woodwork to fan the flames of fake conservative conspiracy theories.

Dinesh D'Souza kibittzing with Steve Bannon
Including ex-Fox News serial sexual harasser Bill O'Reilly and the fake-Christian conservative adulterer Dinesh D'Souza.

Whose windbag conservative pseudo-intellectualism has long since been relegated to the fringes of the Republican Party.

Why would a guy with a life-long Ronald Regan fetish take to social media to dance by the fire of a loony 3rd rate conspiracy theory?

Now that there's no Obama for D'Souza to bash, perhaps he was desperate to kick up a fuss and earn some street cred with the Trump-happy alt-right movement that ironically sees him as a dark-skinned foreign threat.

D'Souza had the gall to to use his Twitter account to mock MSDHS high school students who travelled to the Florida state capitol building to spend the day furiously lobbying over 70 different state lawmakers to enact stiffer gun control laws.

In an effort to show who's the adult and who's the child, when the Florida state House voted down a measure to debate a bill that would ban assault weapons, D'Souza gleefully mocked the high school students who had the guts to try and influence the political process. 

Sadly, these shameless conservative attacks on these high school students (who have the nerve not to want to be shot and killed in their own school because of shitty gun control laws) were not to promote a rational policy position or anything, or offer substantive debate on the merits of the 2nd Amendment.

No, it was just to try and paint high school students who witnessed 17 classmates gunned down in cold blood in the halls of their school seven days ago as liars and opportunists.

Ladies and gents, I give you the modern Republican Party; whose tone-deaf actions in Florida over the past couple days probably just recruited a whole new generation of Democrats.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Playing Politics With American Lives

Ghanian immigrant Emmanuel Mensah died saving
four people from a fire in the Bronx in December
Yesterday 23-year-old Private First Class Emmanuel Mensah, a legal permanent resident from the west African nation of Ghana, was laid to rest after a funeral at Our Lady of Mount Caramel Catholic Church in Belmont, NY.

Mensah was a decorated member of the Army National Guard who died on the night of December 28th after repeatedly going back into a raging fire in a Bronx building to save four people.

Started by a child playing with a gas stove, it was the deadliest New York fire in 25 years, a blaze that eventually killed 13 people.

Mensah, who was visiting relatives on the first floor of the building when the fire broke out, could have easily saved himself.

But he went back into the burning building three separate times to rescue others, and eventually collapsed and died of smoke inhalation on the fourth floor of the building while trying to save a fifth person.

He was posthumously awarded the New York State Medal of Valor and the Soldier's Medal - the U.S. Army's highest honor awarded for bravery in non-combat. 

As Rich Shapiro reported for the NY Daily News on Saturday, during his eulogy Cardinal Timothy Dolan observed: 

"In the selfless valor, the instinctive willingness to sacrifice and give his all, Emmanuel was God with us, reminding us of the most noble calling of the human person, to give ourselves in sacrifice and love to others." 

Mensah's courage stands in stark contrast to the Trump administration's almost ceaseless attempts to vilify immigrants to the United States, legal or undocumented, who happen to be people of color, Hispanic or Muslims.

Young immigrants rallying for DACA
Trump's strange near-obsession with trying to unravel the achievements of the Obama administration, regardless of the impact on the American people, the economy, the environment or the nation's reputation overseas, is well documented.

But his poorly-thought out decision to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy last fall was a misguided and reactionary move to eliminate a fragile but logical temporary fix to the larger immigration issue - one that wasn't perfect, but it worked.

By taking a wrecking ball to DACA, Trump sought to fire up his primary base of support, working class white people who'd been left dismayed and marginalized by an increasingly globalized economy.

Angry people left on the fringes of a shrinking middle-class devastated by a brutal combination of the Great Recession, the mortgage housing crisis, stagnant wages and a decades-long trend of U.S. corporations shifting manufacturing jobs (and the huge range of jobs and small businesses that supported that manufacturing) to overseas countries to take advantage of cheaper labor, favorable tax loopholes and more lax labor laws.

Think about those large numbers of understandably frustrated working class whites who came out in droves in 2015 and 2016 during the presidential campaign to collectively vent their pent up anger at Trump rallies.

People who spent their hard-earned money on Trump's red "Make America Great Again" hats, and cheered as they bought into Trump's con-game that all their problems could be conveniently laid at the feet of legal and undocumented immigrants.

Was it easier for Trump supporters to vent their
fury against immigrants instead of bankers?
You never saw really saw those red-state Trump supporters coming out in the streets to protest the Wall Street con artists, greedy bankers, insurance giants and corrupt rating agencies that conspired to reap trillions of dollars in profits after systematically slicing people's mortgages up into risky financial products before crashing the economy.

Do you recall seeing crowds of Trump supporters marching in the streets or outside the offices of AIG, Goldman-Sachs, Bank of America or Chase?


In fact, Fox News, the primary news source for those Trump's supporters, like other major media outlets, tended to dismiss and even mock the grassroots Occupy Wall Street protests that broke out in 2011 - and as Brian Stelter observed in a 11/20/11 New York Times article, mainstream media analysis as a whole tended to ignore the deeper substantive issues behind the movement.

But five years later, those same Trump supporters were quick to agree when "Mr. Art of the Deal" insisted that immigrants were to blame for all their woes and that building a big-ass wall along the southern border with Mexico would make everything better.

Fast forward to September, 2017.

With his oft-repeated campaign promise that Mexico would pay for the wall now exposed as one of his many lies, and the Republican-controlled Congress nowhere near green-lighting funding to build it, an increasingly frustrated Trump turned his notoriously short attention span to lower hanging fruit on the political tree.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announcing that
DACA is being rescinded in September, 2017  
In an example of poorly-thought out political strategy colored by overt ethnic and racial bias, the Trump administration thought that by rescinding DACA, he could take a swipe at Obama and reassure his impatient base that he was taking aim at hard-working immigrants.

And also absolve himself of any responsibility for the gargantuan bureaucratic mess he made by simply shifting the blame for it onto Congress.

Trump had Attorney General Jeff Sessions announce it on 9/5/17.

So think about that, Trump revokes DACA under the justification that Obama creating it was an overreach of executive authority.

Then he "gives" Congress six months to pass legislation to enact a more permanent fix for one of the most pressing immigration problems that Obama created DACA to address - because Congress had refused to do anything about it for years.

As a reminder of just  how absurd that is, remember that back in June of 2012, after more than ten years of Congress bickering over how to pass legislation that would offer undocumented immigrants a legal pathway to citizenship, President Obama took action.

With a Republican-controlled House of Representatives dominated by a right-wing "Freedom Caucus" that had pledged to oppose anything that he proposed, because well, the president was black, Obama issued an executive order creating DACA.

President Obama announcing the creating of DACA
back in June of 2012
DACA was intended for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as young children by their parents.

Only those without felonies or serious misdemeanors on their records would be eligible - and as a condition of the program, every two years they would have to have their DACA status renewed.

The only thing DACA does is defer deportation and grant recipients a work permit so they can show up for work (and contribute taxes to the U.S. economy) without fear of being deported.

Despite Republican hysteria over the program, only about 800,000 immigrants were enrolled in DACA as of 2017 - that's 800,000 people out of an approximate total U.S. population of 326,766,748 people.

That's 0.11% of the U.S. population.

Where DACA is concerned, Trump and some of the Republican politicians who currently control the legislative process want to have their political cake and eat it too.

Trump rescinded DACA, then gave the Republican-controlled Congress six months to pass legislation they've been unable or unwilling to pass for almost two decades.

So either Trump is delusional and has no idea how the legislative process actually functions, or he knows it's unlikely Congress can get it's shit together and send a workable bill to the president's desk to be signed into law. 

Obviously it's called "politics" for a reason, but it's getting pretty tiresome watching the Republican-controlled House and Senate ping-pong back and forth over granting the so-called Dreamers a proper pathway to citizenship.
GOP Senators James Lankford (OK) & Tom Cotton
(AK) discussing an immigration bill last Monday
Last week two different versions of bills that would have granted a pathway to citizenship were both voted down in the Senate by margins well below the 60 votes that would have been needed to pass them.

One of the bills would have granted about 1.8 million Dreamers a 10 to 15-year process for citizenship and a staggering $25 billion for Trump's long-coveted wall.

The bills failed to pass the Senate because the White House has signaled that Trump will veto any bill that doesn't contain money to fund his wall.

And by now it's clear that most Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate think such a wall is a total waste of taxpayer money.

Many experts, including researchers and small business owners who live and work along the border areas where the wall would be constructed agree isn't feasible, appropriate for the environment, or needed for a variety of reasons.

Including the simple fact that undocumented migration from Mexico has been shrinking steadily since 2007 according to data from the Pew Research Center.

Left in the middle of all this are millions of undocumented immigrants, of which the Dreamers in the DACA program make up only a small percentage.

Frankly I'm not sure I really like the term "Dreamer" because it comes from the Dream Act which was originally proposed by Congress 17 years ago back in 2001 - calling people Dreamers associates them with Congress' failure to pass comprehensive immigration legislation.

To me, slapping a label on thousands of people who were either born in, or brought here to the United States at an early age by parents who came here as undocumented immigrants, tends to have the effect of making it easier to dehumanize them.

Soldiers carry Pfc. Emmanuel Mensah's casket
after his funeral service in the Bronx on Saturday 
Something that Trump seems to relish and obsess over, like when he made headlines back in December by calling African and South American countries "shitholes" during a meeting at the White House.

Crudely parroting his white supremacist senior adviser Stephen Miller by wondering aloud to shocked Congressional attendees why the U.S. should accept immigrants from those countries.

Immigrants like Pfc. Emmanuel Mensah, who gave his life to save his fellow Americans.

Like it or not, by definition these individuals are Americans, people who live and attend school or work here in the United State - some have even served (or are serving) in the U.S. military.

It's not my job to decide these things, but as an average reasonable-minded American, as far as I'm concerned if you sign up to serve in the military, you're automatically a U.S. citizen.

Maybe the term of service would have to be a little longer than two years in the same sense that graduates of the Naval Academy or West Point must serve a minimum of five years after graduating, but serving Uncle Sam makes you an American in my book - period.

Regardless it's past time Congress stepped up to the plate to pass comprehensive legislation, they've been talking about it for more than twenty years.

Maybe, as some members of Congress have suggested, they need to do this in steps and first pass a clean DACA bill as a first step - there's bipartisan support to make that happen.

However they do it, it's not fair for Trump to hold up DACA legislation because he wants money for his ill-advised pet wall project.

Undocumented immigrants have been a part of the fabric of this nation since it was founded, it's about time Congress start dealing with it like informed adults.

And it's past time that Trump stops playing politics with American lives.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Waiting For Republicans - The Slaughter Continues

Accused killer Nikolas Cruz at his arraignment
Trump's live comments on Thursday in the wake of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida seemed like more of the same old useless bunk that most Republican politicians repeat in the wake of the numerous mass shootings that now take place with alarming regularity in America.

Republican lawmakers have controlled the House of Representatives for seven years, and they haven't passed a single piece of legislation that would help to curb the epidemic of gun violence in America.

Not one single law. Not so much as a single bill. Nothing.

Instead of the action outraged Americans from all all over the country are demanding, all we're getting from apathetic Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill is that contrived, mournful shaking of their heads and collective shrugging of their shoulders - like they have no power to do anything.

It's as if they're channeling the characters Vladimir and Estragon, from the influential post-WWII play written by Samuel Beckett back in 1948, Waiting For Godot, wringing their hands in hopeless despair repeating the phrase "Nothing to be done!"

Instead of waiting for Godot, Republican lawmakers, already nervous about the upcoming midterm elections in November, are awkwardly doing the bidding of the National Rifle Association and waiting for the outrage over 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz gunning down 17 innocent people in a Florida High School (with an AR-15 assault rifle he purchased legally) to simply go away.

What's interesting is that both Trump and his sycophant Attorney General-lackey Jeff Sessions both tossed around tough-talking dog-whistle phrases about "having the back of law enforcement" during the 2016 presidential campaign and the subsequent shaky first year in office.

Frequently vilifying President Obama while presenting themselves as saviors of law enforcement.

Trump endorsing police brutality in front of members
of the Long Island PD back in July, 2017
One of Sessions' very first policy statements after his nomination to head the Justice Department was passed by the Senate was to reverse the many consent agreements between the DOJ and local police departments.

Police departments across the country in places like Chicago, Baltimore and Ferguson with proven histories of racially-biased policing practices.

Many cops favored those DOJ consent decrees to enact long-needed reforms.

Even though the DOJ itself had spent time and money compiling data showing that such decrees were needed to reestablish trust between local police departments and the communities they serve, Sessions' bizarre rationale for revoking them was that reversing these agreements, drafted under the Obama administration when Eric Holder was attorney general, would actually make it easier for members of local law enforcement to do their jobs.

As if police departments being held to the standards spelled out in the Constitution was some kind of annoying burden imposed on cops by President Obama out of spite.

Last July, Fake President travelled out to Long Island, New York to trumpet his supposed adoration of cops to try and bolster public support for his irrational xenophobic hatred of immigrants by trying to link them to the El Salvadoran gang MS-13.

Remember Trump standing in front of members of the Long Island Police Department and basically endorsing the use of excessive physical force against suspects in custody?

Trump and Sessions were both big on painting themselves as big supporters of cops and "law and order" as a convenient dog-whistle policy stance to rally their base of hyper-conservative supporters.

But as far as gun control is concerned, are they really supporting members of law enforcement, or the National Rifle Association's pro-gun industry agenda?

Take a look at the detailed list of IACP Policy Priorities For the 115th Congress as clearly spelled out by the International Association of Chiefs of Police founded back in 1893.

Under the section titled "Reduce Firearms Violence and Target Illegal Guns", the IACP states that "A comprehensive approach is needed in order to prevent further gun violence in our communities."

Among the actions steps listed:

"Support legislation that expands background checks, and require background checks for all firearms purchases."   

And "Oppose any legislation that would limit or reduce the ability of U.S. law enforcement agencies to combat the sale of illegal guns."


It's hard to sift through the scores of scandals, firings and tweets, but try and flash back to Trump's first days in office.

One of the very first bills that he signed into law within the first thirty days of his inauguration last February was an NRA-backed law that rolled back an executive order signed by President Obama that would have made it harder for Americans with mental illnesses or those deemed unfit to handle their own finances who receive Social Security checks to obtain firearms.

As Ali Vitali reported for NBC News last February, "President Barack Obama recommended the now-nullified regulation in a 2013 memo following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School which left 20 first graders and six others dead. The measure sought to block some people with severe mental health problems from buying guns."

Yet yesterday, a subdued, almost monotone Trump, obviously reading off a teleprompter, somberly invoked "mental illness" as the culprit in the shooting deaths of 17 innocent people by Nikolas Cruz in Florida.

He didn't even mention the words "gun laws" - like the AR-15 (pictured above) with it's rapid-fire technology and high capacity magazines had nothing to do with it.

In that same NRA-approved statement, Trump made a bunch of totally half-ass empty promises to work with members of federal, state and local officials to tackle the problem of mental illness, blah-blah, blah.

Terrified students comfort one another after being
released from Marjory Stoneman Douglas HS 
What a bunch of contrived, hypocritical horse shit.

Trump is the same spineless clown who's spent three years working with heartless right-wing Republican zealots in congress to vilify and repeal the Affordable Care Act - which mandated that insurance companies provide access to treatment for mental health conditions

Frankly I find it an insult that Trump had the nerve to try and use a press conference to reassure terrified students and teachers in schools across the U.S. that he's working to keep them safe.

Since his inauguration, when he ranted incoherently about "carnage" in America, he's shown himself to be nothing but an ignorant lackey of the NRA lobbyists who pumped millions into his presidential campaign.

Apparently the same K-Street gun lobby bozos who draft the text of his comments whenever another mass shooting takes place - so a contrite Trump can place the blame not on the almost unrestricted access to firearms, but on mental illness. "Nothing to be done!"

As if the guns used in these mass shootings are somehow like an innocent bystander that had nothing to do with anything.

To paraphrase some of the thousands of comments I've read on social media in the past 48 hours, there's no sense even waiting for Republican legislators in Congress to draft laws that would prevent a white supremacist like Nikolas Cruz from walking into a store and buying an AR-15 and a bunch of ammo.

MSD High School assistant football coach Aaron
Feis who died shielding students from gunfire
Thanks to Republican state legislators and the NRA, any 18-year-old in Florida can buy an AR-15 - it's perfectly legal - they can't buy a bottle of vodka but they can purchase the undisputed weapon of choice for mass shooters.

27 people (including shooter Adam Lanza) died at Sandy Hook Elementary and in Newton, Connecticut on December 14, 2012, Republicans who controlled the House did nothing.

49 people were killed on June 12, 2016 when Omar Siddiqui Mateen went on a shooting spree at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

Republicans who controlled the House offered "prayers" but did nothing to pass a law restricting firearms access.

58 were killed and almost 500 injured back on October 1, 2017 when Stephen Paddock began firing on concertgoers from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino.

In response the Republicans who control the House, the federal legislative body tasked by the U.S. Constitution with writing laws to protect the American people, did nothing.

The only way to mobilize and follow the recommendations of organizations like the International Association of Chiefs of Police to enact reasonable restrictions on dangerous firearms like the AR-15 and components like bump stocks and high-capacity magazines is to be registered to vote in November.

When those who are feeling powerless right now will be empowered to tell lawmakers who've done nothing in the face of the unprecedented gun violence happening in American schools, churches, malls, businesses, streets, concerts and homes, exactly what you think about their apathy, silence and prayers.

In the meantime, just remember there's so sense in waiting for Republican legislators who control which bills get to the floor to be debated or voted on to act.

That's like Waiting For Godot - they'll never show up.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Ugliness in Mendham, NJ - Rick Blood Resigns

Ex-Deputy Mayor Rick Blood faces criticism after
a Mendham Township Committee meeting Monday
It's not easy to be constantly reminded of the insidious trail of slime left behind by the Trump campaign and his subsequent so-called presidency like some kind of toxic hate-filled slug that's dragged it's ugly carcass across the American landscape.

(No offense to actual slugs.)

Garden State politicians, from former Republican governor Chris Christie, to current Democratic U.S. Senator Corey Booker often cite the fact that my current home state of New Jersey is one of the most diverse states in America.

But as an ugly incident in Mendham Township, NJ on Sunday night reminds us, that doesn't make it some kind of Utopia.

Mendham, the home of former NJ governor Chris Christie, is a heavily-Republican suburban community in Morris County - the stronghold of the New Jersey Tea Party base, the latest Census data breaks Mendham demographics down to 85% white, 12% foreign-born and 1% African-American.

As William Westhoven reported in an article for the Daily Record early Tuesday morning, Mendham Township Deputy Mayor Rick Blood (pictured above) resigned in a special closed session at the end of heated 3-hour Mendham Township Committee meeting on Monday evening.

The meeting was dominated by calls for Blood's removal from office in the wake of his decision to post a bizarre, xenophobic, hate-filled article that compared immigrants to "rabid, messy, mean raccoons" on his Facebook page on Sunday night - he tried to delete the post but it's already gone viral.

Anti-racist protesters address the Mendham Township
meeting Monday night
According to Westhoven's article the vile racist rant is apparently something that has been passed back and forth between Trump supporters since 2016.

It justifies Trump's ignorance, bigotry and hatred for immigrants by likening them to coming home and discovering a basement filled with "rabid" raccoons that can only be removed by an "exterminator".

No need to guess who the "exterminator" is.

If you're interested, Rob Jennings' NJ.com article has the text of the neo-Nazi diatribe that Blood posted to his Facebook page - which was obviously written at the height of Trump's anti-immigrant fear rallies during the 2016 presidential campaign.

I first heard about this story during a segment on the Brian Lehrer Show on Tuesday morning, and it's definitely worth a listen as Brian has Mendham Township residents call in, and he also has former "Christie Tracker" journalist Matt Katz on as well.

Katz's wife, who is Jewish, comes from the nearby town of Randolph, and he speaks to some of the anti-Semitic allegations about Mendham Township.

In fact one female caller who said she was Jewish and relocated to the area with her husband claims there's a "quiet understanding" that real estate agents won't show Mendham Township homes to prospective buyers who are Jewish, and instead try and "steer" them to nearby communities.

Another caller described the community as a "conservative cocoon", insulated from other more diverse nearby communities like Morristown.

Democratic Mendham Township Committee
member Amelia Duarte 
It's hard to unpack all that and verify such comments in such a short time, but if you read some of the comments published in the Daily Record article that Mendham Township residents gave at the meeting on Monday night it's clear that a sizable and significant portion of the population were disgusted by Rick Blood's comments, demanded his resignation and emphasized that the words in the post he shared do not represent the entire community.

After blogging about Republican efforts to unfairly rig elections on the state and local level last Friday, I think it's of interest to note that several of the 70-some attendees at the Mendham Township meeting pointed out that Rick Blood, a Republican (in case you didn't guess...) was not actually elected to be Deputy Mayor.

He was appointed to the position on the committee back in December (by a group of Republicans...) a month after loosing a race for an open committee seat to Amelia Duarte (pictured above) - a Democrat whose parents came to this country from the Dominican Republic.

So Blood basically lost a race for a seat in a heavily-Republican town to a Democrat - but Republicans simply appointed him to the committee a month later anyway - talk about sketchy Republican math.

On Monday night Duarte was the one member of the Mendham Township Committee to call on Blood to resign - a move the Republican-majority committee later agreed to in a closed session after hours of testimony by residents outraged over the comments Rick Blood posted online.

I'm not sure if I'd call that Karma, but I do think it's yet another reflection of American voter's repudiation of Trump and his divisive message of hatred, bigotry and "otherism".

Time will tell if this is a snapshot for what's in store for the upcoming mid-term elections.

But the fact remains that the majority of the 70-some residents who came out for that Mendham Township meeting on a Monday night in a heavily-Republican district (including Tamara Harris, the Democratic candidate for the NJ 11th Congressional District), overwhelmingly rejected the extremist pro-Trump claptrap that Rick Blood posted on social media.

And they called for him to be removed from his seat.

That oughta tell you something about how American voters around the country are feeling right now. 

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Jennie Willoughby & The Undiminished Truth

Israeli security experts examine the wreckage of
an Israeli F-16 that was shot down on Saturday
Last night I stopped by my local in Lawrenceville, New Jersey to have a couple drinks and pick up a six-pack before heading to dinner at a friend's house over in nearby West Windsor.

My friend Patrick made an interesting observation about Donald Trump that stuck with me.

Pat is a white, married father and small business owner in his early 60's.

He was born in Germany but has been a U.S. citizen for decades.

We often chat about history, current events and books, after I made an off-hand remark about a news item that rolled across the ticker at the bottom of the screen on one of the TV's mounted over the small bar, Patrick shook his head and lamented the fact that so much of the mainstream media's focus these days revolves around Trump.

To the degree that more important stories don't seem to get adequate coverage.

For example, earlier this morning the BBC News reported that an Israeli Air Force F-16 crashed near the Israeli town of Harduf after suffering heavy damage from Syrian anti-aircraft fire (pictured above).

According to the BBC that was the first Israeli fighter jet to crash in combat since 2006.

The warplane was attacking targets inside Syria after Israel claims an Iranian drone crossed the border between the Golan Heights region in northeastern Israel and Syria's southwestern border.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi
The Israeli jet took out the Iranian drone before being shot down, and in response to the F-16 being shot down, the Israeli's ordered another airstrike inside Syria to destroy unnamed targets.

An Iranian drone operating from Syria crossing the Israeli border is a troubling escalation in an already-tense conflict where the U.S. and Russia are just some of the players on the ground in a Syria wracked by civil war and a massive humanitarian crisis.

It was just last Saturday that David D. Kirkpatrick's New York Times article shed light on the secret alliance between Israel and Egypt that has allowed unmarked Israeli jets, helicopters and drones to carry out extensive airstrikes against jihadists loyal to the Islamic State in the northern Sinai region of Egypt.

I'm not a defense expert, but ordering airstrikes in response to a drone flying over a border strikes me as more than a bit heavy-handed - and I'm sure it has nothing to do with Israeli police announcing their intent to file corruption charges against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday...

The deadly Israeli airstrikes, more than 100 in the past two years, and the alliance between these two former foes, mark a significant shift in the complex ongoing geopolitical conflicts raging across parts of the Middle East - including Syria, Iran, Egypt and Yemen.

As Seth Harp reported in an eye-opening Rolling Stone article last fall, the U.S. military currently has thousands of personnel stationed in Syria (though they don't like to talk about it), so this escalation on the border between Israel and Syria should be getting more American media attention.

Ex-White House secretary Rob Porter handing
Trump an executive order to sign theatricaly 
But as my friend Pat lamented last night, so much of American mainstream media news coverage seems devoted to the chaos of the Trump presidency, that more important stories are relegated to the proverbial sidelines.

Trump's publicly defending ex-White House secretary Rob Porter in the wake of the latter's resignation over troubling allegations of domestic abuse from two of his ex-wives is just the latest example.

This latest tone-deaf gaffe has once again placed the thrice-married POTUS on the wrong side of the current #MeToo movement - not a bright move from a guy who's been accused of sexual misconduct by no less than sixteen different women.

Not only did he defend the White House keeping Porter on staff for over a year despite the fact that his domestic abuse charges kept him from passing a mandatory FBI background check, 45 also used his Twitter feed to undermine the accusations leveled against Porter as well as the #MeToo movement. 

It's hard to gauge what the 52% of white American women who voted for Trump in the 2016 presidential election thought of all this, but senior White House adviser and resident denialist Kellyanne Conway insisted that Trump "shows great compassion" for women during an interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos on This Week this morning.

Which is kind of like saying that xenophobic white supremacist White House advisor Stephen Miller shows "great compassion" for immigrants.

Was Conway suggesting Trump showed "great compassion" towards his 3rd wife Melania when he was carrying on an affair with porn star Stormy Daniels while wife # 3 was pregnant with their son Barron?

Rob Porter's ex-wife Jennie Willoughby
To her credit (and courage) Porter's ex-wife Jennie Willoughby was quick to push back publicly against Trump's defense of yet another Republican accused of sexual misconduct or domestic abuse.

Willoughby appeared on CNN to insist that despite Trump and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly publicly defending her former husband's character, Porter has some serious issues.


She also wrote a very interesting and thoughtful op-ed piece published on Time.com this morning titled, "President Trump Will Not Diminish My Truth" that is definitely worth a read.

In it Willoughby, an eloquent writer, expresses dismay at having to endure the humiliation of Trump publicly insinuating that she, and Porter's other ex-wife Colbie Holderness (whose photo of a black eye she supposedly got from Porter went public) were liars.

But she doesn't come off as being vindictive, bitter or some kind of "spurned woman" with an axe to grind as Trump and his top White House advisers have tried to paint her.

Willoughby comes of as intelligent, thoughtful and above all "woke" - she clearly knows exactly who she is and exactly what happened to her; and she makes Trump, John Kelly and Kellyanne Conway all look like insensitive, uninformed reactionary idiots for having the nerve to defend Porter as some kind of upstanding citizen who was victimized.

Seriously, click the link above and take a few minutes to read her words.

Willoughby offers some remarkable perspective on the larger issue of society's tendency to cast doubt upon those who level accusations of domestic abuse or sexual misconduct; she also expresses compassion for her ex-husband and recognition that he needs serious help.

Rob Porter's ex-wife Colbie Holderness 
"Everyone wants to talk about how Trump implied I am not to be believed. As if Trump is the model of kindness and forgiveness. As if he readily acknowledges his own shortcomings and shows empathy and concern for others. 

I forgive him. Thankfully, my strength and worth are not dependent on outside belief - the truth exists whether the president accepts it or not." 

As Willoughby writes, we as an American society are afraid of revealing unpleasant secrets that shed light on the reality of who we really are as a people - as she observes:

"It's as if we have a societal blindspot that creates an obstacle to understanding. Society as a whole doesn't acknowledge the reality of abuse."

As my friend Patrick observed last night, it's a real shame that Trump's own ignorance and personal conduct takes up as much of the media's attention as it does.

But in the same vein, as Jennie Willoughby wrote, "the truth exists", and the American media is duty-bound to report the truth of Donald Trump - if they'd done more of that in 2015 - 2016 he might not have been elected in the first place.

The sheer volume of headlines and space on Websites, television news coverage, newspapers and magazines taken up by the never-ending chaos of Trump's existence is staggering in the annals of American history - unprecedented scandal upon scandal on a scale never seen before.

If the press has to cover that non-stop until either the midterm elections or the Russia investigation brings about his removal from office - so be it.

As long as the truth that Jennie Willoughby writes about is not diminished.

Friday, February 09, 2018

Cris Dush, ALEC & Sketchy Republican Math Exposed

Got Gerrymander? PA state legislator Cris Dush
Democrat Mike Revis' defeat of a Republican challenger in Tuesday's special election for Missouri's 97th district seat for the state legislature only adds to growing conservative anxiety over the increasing likelihood of significant gains for Democrats in this fall's 2018 midterm elections.

As Matt Ygliesias reported for Vox, Revis winning the seat by a 3-point margin in a district Trump won by 28 points isn't a good sign for the GOP.

Nowhere is Republican desperation any more visible than in the battleground state of Pennsylvania, where Republican state legislator Cris Dush has been thrust into the media spotlight lately after calling for the impeachment of five of Pennsylvania's seven state supreme court justices.

All five of those justices are Democrats, and all five recently ordered Pennsylvania's Republican-majority state legislature to redraw the state's congressional map because it's so unfairly biased against Democrats that it violates the state's constitution.

As journalist Tim Darragh reported in an article for The Morning Call on Thursday, "The groundbreaking Pennsylvania Supreme Court majority opinion declaring the state congressional map unconstitutionally partisan came down to six simple words in Article 1, Section 5: 'Elections Shall Be Free and Equal.'"

The 139-page ruling handed down by the court Wednesday night gave the Pennsylvania legislature until February 15th to redraw the state's congressional map in a manner that legislators and Democratic Governor Tom Wolf can agree on - or a special master appointed by the court will redraw it in advance of the 2018 midterm elections.

Now undermining the basic principles of democracy by actively suppressing and manipulating the access to vote for those who tend to vote Democratic has become part and parcel of the Republican playbook.

The Republican congressional map drawn in 2012
when 50.5% of votes were were cast for Democrats 
So predictably, Pennsylvania Republican lawmakers freaked out when the state supreme court told them their intentionally-rigged congressional map had to be redrawn.

So just how biased is the current Pennsylvania congressional map as drawn by Republicans?

It's arguably one of the most politically-biased in the country - one intended to keep a Republican minority in control of a numerical Democratic majority.

According to the latest data from the Pennsylvania Department of State, there are 4,030,174 registered Democrats and 3,221,975 registered Republicans - so amongst those registered to vote in Pennsylvania, Democrats outnumber Republicans by 808,199.

During the 2012 elections (when Obama won Pennsylvania), Democratic congressional candidates won 50.5% of all votes legally counted.

But back in 2011, Republicans redrew the congressional map of Pennsylvania's 18 congressional districts established after the 2010 U.S. Census - so because of that, Republicans won 72.22% of the congressional seats in 2012 even though they won 49.5% the total number of congressional votes.

Based on the numbers, that should've been more like a 50-50 split - so how does that math work?

As the majority of the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday, it doesn't.

Map showing the 68% of state legislatures currently
controlled by the Republican Party [Map NCSL]
Based on the state's population as determined by the U.S. Census, according to Wikipedia, there are currently 17 congressional representatives from Pennsylvania, 12 Republicans and 5 Democrats - one seat remains unfilled and is up for election, there should be 18.

How do Republican congressman outnumber democratic congressman by 12 - 5 when registered Democratic voters outnumber their Republican counterparts by over 800,000?

Cris Dush could probably tell you, but I doubt he would.

Especially in light of the fact that he's calling for sitting justices of the state supreme court to be impeached because they ruled that Pennsylvania Republican's rigged congressional map is illegal.

Republicans in general really don't want Americans knowing how it is that a party that is so out of touch with the mainstream controls both legislative branches of the federal government, the White House and, according to the bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) a remarkable 68 percent of state legislative chambers across the U.S. (See map above).

Normally, a conservative state legislator like Cris Dush wouldn't exactly register as a familiar household name on America's national political radar.

But the way that he and other Republican members of the Pennsylvania state legislature are digging in their heels and trying to oppose the court order to redraw the congressional map is only drawing more media attention to the length to which Republicans will go to hold on to their majority in congress.

Journalist & voting rights advocate Ari Berman
A redrawn (fair) congressional map in Pennsylvania could obviously have serious implications in the 2018 midterm elections in November.

So the Keystone state has become a focal point for national media attention on Republican gerrymandering in states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Or North Carolina, where the Supreme Court denied Republican efforts to disenfranchise black voters last May.

Journalist Ari Berman's article in the latest issue of Rolling Stone, "How The GOP Rigs Elections",
offers some intriguing insight into the Republican Party's rampant, overt and calculated interference with congressional districts, voting rolls and the use of legislative power to put up obstacles making it harder for people who tend to vote Democratic to cast votes.

In his article, Berman takes a particularly close look at the Republican's gerrymandering and voter suppression efforts in Wisconsin - the home state of House Speaker Paul Ryan.

Rather than reflect the inflated rhetoric extolling the ideals of freedom and democracy so often bandied about by Republicans like Ryan, the sketchy political rigging in Wisconsin reeks of the same kind of repressive authoritarianism Americans so often attribute to countries like North Korea, Russia and China.

During a politically-tumultuous year marked by a chaotic White House, when 33 different seats in the U.S. Senate and all 435 seats in the House of Representatives are up for election on November 6th, the repercussions of the 2018 midterm elections could have a profound impact on American society and the Trump presidency.

Bill Murray escapes with Punxsutawney Phil in
a scene from the 1993 film Groundhog Day 
So it's understandable why Cris Dush has suddenly achieved national recognition.

The married Pine Creek Township resident represents the 98% white, solidly "red" Republican 66th district in rural western Pennsylvania which includes all of Jefferson County and parts of Indiana County.

Fans of the 1993 comedy Groundhog Day might be more familiar with Jefferson County as the home of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania where actor Bill Murray played a depressed weatherman trapped in a time loop.

Punxsutawney is the town where each year a groggy groundhog named Punxsutawney Phil is hoisted aloft to great fanfare to check if he sees his shadow to herald six more weeks of winter.

Now when I think of the film Groundhog Day, I think of two things: the song "The Pennsylvania Polka" and the horror of being stuck in a time loop living the same day over and over again.

In recent days, Cris Dush's actions have reminded me of both.

Remember back in 2016 when the Republican-majority of the radically right-wing conservative Kansas state legislature tried to pass Senate Bill 439?

Republican legislator Mitch Holmes authored the overreaching legislation that proposed authorizing the legislature to be able to impeach State Supreme Court justices after the court ruled that ruinous cuts to the Kansas public school budget violated the state's constitution.

Kansas Republican legislator Mitch Holmes 
That kind of unprecedented expansion of legislative power, using oversight authority over state supreme court justices meant to be used to impeach judges who commit "high crimes and misdemeanors" to block judges from ruling on legislation that violates state law reeks of the creepy fascination with authoritarianism that Republican politicians now seem to covet.

It also reeks of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the secretive organization funded by corporations and wealthy donors that drafts "model legislation" templates for state legislators and even members of Congress to use to propose laws that make it easier for corporations to profit by undercutting or eliminating environmental laws, or dismantling unions through "right to work" laws.

Or, as in the case of Cris Dush in Pennsylvania, suppressing Democratic and progressive votes by shielding sketchy Republican math that undercuts free and fair elections from the oversight of the judiciary as mandated by the state constitution.

Fortunately, the Supreme Court has thus far refused to overrule lower court decisions in North Carolina in 2017, and last Monday in Pennsylvania, where Republicans have sought to usurp the court's authority to crack down on laws that violate "free and equal" elections.

And as Tim Darragh shrewdly observed in his article for The Morning Call on Thursday, Pennsylvania Republican legislator's efforts to impeach state supreme court justices could backfire - and pave the way for other state courts to begin to dismantle the complex trickery of unfairly-drawn political maps intended to subvert the will of the American people.

Between Cris Dush calling for the impeachment of judges he disagrees with, and the High-Chair President's absurd call to spend millions on a military parade to appease his narcissism and soothe his massive personal insecurities, reasonable mainstream Republicans really have to ask themselves two questions:

When did they allow their political party to become defined by an overtly authoritarian sense of control - and whether their embrace of a "power-at-any-cost" philosophy is helpful to American democracy.

Or a means to intentionally undermine it.

Monday, February 05, 2018

The Eagles Soar & Dr. King Sells Trucks?

Eagles Quarterback Nick Foles savors the moment
As long-time Washington Redskins fan, I must admit that it felt a little weird cheering for the Philadelphia Eagles at my friend Ian's Super Bowl party last night.

Regardless of my mixed feelings, it felt pretty good seeing Philly take down the Patriots in one of the best Super Bowls ever played after assorted so-called "experts" had relegated the Eagles to underdog status throughout the playoffs.

According to Deadline.com, last night's Super Bowl ratings hit an 8-year low.

But in this age of OTT (Over The Top) streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, HBO GO, Hulu and others, I don't think it's really an accurate gauge of a Super Bowl's "success" to reduce it to some kind of calculation of audience reach.

Whatever the audience "numbers" were, hundreds of millions of people around the world watched the broadcast live, and that's saying something in this age when audiences in general are so fractured, consuming media across so many different platforms, on so many different devices and in so many different ways. 

Aside from Justin Timberlake's confusing and annoying medley of 60-second snippets of his songs during half-time which USA Today's Maeve McDermott called "a wimpy joke" (was singing a few lines from Prince's "I Would Die For You" beneath a video image of his Purple Majesty the best choice?), Super Bowl 52 was unquestionably one of the most entertaining, exciting and competitive games ever played - and that's saying a lot considering some of the classic Super Bowl finishes.

Back when I used to live in New York City and was actively pursuing acting and voice-overs as career tracks, my old voice-over teacher Stuart used to hold Super Bowl parties at his apartment populated with actors and voice-over artists and various creative types.

When the commercials came on, everyone would go silent and the volume would be turned up so everyone could see and hear the commercials because some of the people in the room were either in the commercials, were involved in casting or producing them, or their voices were being used and it was a pretty big deal in the professional sense.

Would Dr. King have wanted his words
used to sell Dodge trucks? 
We would scrutinize all the commercials for the writing, quality and appeal, and when the game came back on, the volume would be turned back down and everyone would huddle and analyze them.

Overall, my impression was that the commercials this year were pretty "average" considering the amount of money poured into creating them - none of them really blew me away. 

The only commercial I responded to emotionally was the Dodge Ram truck commercial which used a sermon by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. - and not in a good way.

In terms of age and ethnicity, my friend Ian and his girlfriend had a pretty diverse group of people at their Super Bowl party in Lawrenceville, NJ last night. 

They had three different TV's set up in different parts of their place so everyone could see the game comfortably, and I just happened to be sitting near three young African-Americans in their 20's in the basement watching the game when the Dodge commercial came on.

Now if you didn't see the commercial, it seemed to follow a visual theme that a few other commercials (including one from Budweiser) used - images of Americans helping one another in the wake of natural disasters like the hurricanes and floods that have ravaged small communities and larger cities like Houston, San Juan, PR and Miami in recent months.

But watching those images of folks lending one another a hand while the voice of Dr. King extols the virtues of service to one's fellow man while images of a Dodge pickup trucks flash across the screen just reeked of poor taste, bad timing and questionable decision-making.

Was Dr. King's mission about commercial promotion? 
And, as I've often railed about on this blog before, it demonstrates one of the downsides of the advertising industry's sketchy record of recruiting people of color. 

The fact that this commercial concept was approved, budgeted, produced and shown in front of a live audience of hundreds of millions of people is a consequence of the ad industry's lack of diversity.

It's one example of not having an African-American or person of color in the decision-making or creative process who can bring a different perspective to the table - I mean did anyone in Dodge's marketing department or in the offices of the ad agency that produced the ad raise their hand in a meeting and ask if this was an appropriate choice? 

As Sapna Mashewari observed in an article in the New York Times earlier today: 

"Adding to the disconnect, the sermon in question, delivered exactly 50 years ago, touched on the dangers of overspending on items like cars and discussed why people 'are so often taken by advertisers.'"

Sure, the intent of the commercial is obvious: associating the Dodge brand with consumers who value service to others and helping their fellow neighbors in times of crisis and need.

My guess is some creative genius in stylish $800 eyeglasses thought that a commercial using the words of Dr. King at the start of Black History Month would be a nice way to tap African-American consumers - or make white consumers feel better about buying a Dodge Ram at a time when a divisive, overt racist sits in the White House not far from white supremacist policy advisors. 

But it wasn't a good idea.

Members of the Cleveland Browns kneel during the
playing of the national anthem earlier this season 
Especially not in a year in which NFL players have made headlines for using their positions to bring attention to the epidemic of disparate use of excessive and deadly force against people of color in this country by some members of U.S. law enforcement.

Not when we have a president who dismisses countries with majority black or latino populations as "shithole countries".

After the commercial played, I took off my glasses and stared at the screen.

Slowly I turned to the group of young African-Americans who were sitting on a couch nearby me sitting in silence and asked, "Did Dodge really just use the words and voice of Dr. King to sell pickup trucks?"

They just nodded quietly, as shocked by what they'd seen as I (and millions of other people) were.

But what's done is done, and Dodge is already facing the heat for the decision - and it's too bad in a sense because the actual words and images were pretty thought-provoking and inspiring, as was the music.

If you haven't seen the commercial give it a watch before this Youtube clip is taken down and Dodge tries to shelve the commercial permanently.

As someone who used to write ad-copy, my sense is that Dodge could have pulled this commercial off using Dr. King's words if they had just stuck to the images of people helping one another - but the insertion of images of Ram pickup trucks turned it into a manipulative hustle instead of a meaningful meditation on the current state of American society under this chaotic president.

It's too bad no black advertising or marketing executive got a chance to weigh in on it before the decision was made to show it.

Access to meaningful input from a different perspective might have given Dodge pause to consider whether using the sacrosanct words of the one of the most influential civil and human rights leader in history to sell pickup trucks was appropriate.