July 2018 Archives

Leo Vidal's speculation that Trump is terrified at the possibility of Cohen singing to the feds. Vidal provides "five reasons, with brief explanations of why each one is really bad news for the president:"

1. Cohen apparently made illegal payments on Trump's behalf.

Not only did Cohen pay off Stormy Daniels (and possibly other women that Donald Trump had sex with) but he also is being investigated for bank fraud and wire fraud. As Trump's "fixer" Cohen was at the center of and a participant in many of Trump's crimes and indiscretions.

2. Cohen kept a lot of evidence.

This is really, really, really bad news. Cohen apparently recorded all of his conversations, and the FBI has all of them. He also kept every piece of paper, and the FBI has over a million documents they obtained by raiding Cohen.

3. Cohen can't be pardoned.

The State of New York does not need any federal charges to put Cohen (and perhaps Trump) in jail for the rest of his life. And as we all know, a president has no authority to pardon a criminal convicted of state crimes. Bye, Bye Michael.

4. Cohen dealt with Russia during the campaign.

The evidence that the FBI obtained from raiding Cohen may be enough by itself to prove collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.

5. Cohen may have collected bribes after Trump's election.

Michael Cohen is at fault for the crimes he committed, and he knows he can't blame anyone else, including Donald Trump, for what he did. But he also is smart enough to know that there is only one way out for him: to fully cooperate with federal and state prosecutors to receive leniency in charges and in sentencing.

In light of the Stephanopoulos interview, Jon Chait wonders in the pages of New York magazine, "What would it mean for Trump if Cohen turns on him? The short answer is, it would be extremely bad."

TCJ's obituary of Ellison by Michael Dean is worth reading, especially for the introduction:

Harlan Ellison made enemies. He made them with gleeful abandon. He also made loyal friends, fans and acolytes, but the only person who comes to mind who was capable of making enemies as blithely as Ellison did is Gary Groth. Ellison and the TCJ publisher were friends and then they were, almost inevitably, enemies. Not just winking frenemies, but mutually contemptuous, financial-life-threatening legal opponents. Now the time has come for one enemy-maker to publish the obituary of its enemy-making enemy. So it's understandable if readers may expect a less than reverential remembrance here.

Ellison's relationship to comics is examined here:

Ellison is known primarily for his work in science fiction (or speculative fiction, as he preferred to call it), including the Star Trek episode "The City on the Edge of Forever", the novella and movie A Boy and His Dog, and his editing of two Dangerous Visions anthologies. But though he scarcely wrote any comics stories, he has long been embraced by the comics community as a kindred spirit, a challenge to the hidebound, compromised conventions of traditional entertainment. Comics fans identified with his attitude, his wide knowledge of comics mythology, and his strongly held opinions, perhaps because when it came to comics he was more fan than pro. He loved comics and he was iconoclastic enough to liberate the form from its cultural ghetto, granting comics the same respect and high standards he accorded more mainstream literature.

Dean notes Ellison's departure from the literary scene:

Beginning around 1975, Ellison all but ceased to be a working writer, becoming instead a re-packager, an introducer, a creative consultant, a master of ceremonies, a cameo voice in video games and animated TV shows, a guest of honor, a website commenter, and a lawsuit filer. The first half of his career alone, however, was fertile enough to leave most other professional biographies green with envy. Ellison had written so many stories, novels, screenplays, teleplays, movie and television reviews and essays, won so many awards and assaulted so many publishers, critics, professors and Hollywood producers in such a short period of time, that an early burnout would seem to have been inevitable. His persona -- the young, vital, aesthetically righteous punk who did not hesitate to kick the ass of the stodgy, greedy entertainment establishment was so indelible, that it was hard to imagine Harlan Ellison as an old man.

He mentions the 2008 documentary, Harlan Ellison: Dreams with Sharp Teeth, which I have yet to see, and describes Ellison as "both charming and cruelly un-charming:"

Between 1956 and 1976, he went through four wives before marrying Susan Toth in 1986. That partnership lasted the rest of his life. But he was still capable, while onstage at the 2006 Hugo Awards ceremony, of grabbing author Connie Willis' breast and detonating a divisive controversy among fans.

Gary Groth reminisces about the classic Harlan Ellison interview from The Comics Journal #53 (Jan 1980). (If you don't like reading pieces that long online, it was reprinted in The Comics Journal Library Vol. 6: The Writers, pp. 80-156.) Aside from some excessive flattery of Stan Lee and some probably-not-excessive vilification of Jim Warren, Ellison unleashed more than his daily quota of quotable remarks:

I swear to God, just one day I'd like to get up and not be angry. Just one goddamn day in this life I'd like to arise and not be fuckin' pissed off at the world. (p. 86)

People say, "How do you see yourself?" And I finally figured out how I see myself. I see myself as a cross between Jiminy Cricket and Zorro. That's me, man. In my wildest dreams, I see myself precisely that way. I'm able to do a lot of fighting for a lot of people because I'm known as a pain in the ass... (p. 95)

People say to me, "Well, you only do that to shock." And I say, "Absolutely. Abso-fuckin'-lutely. What did you do, come in here to sleep?" It's my intent to run around the outside of the circle like a sheepdog, as loud as I can, make as much noise as possible, and keep the sheep from being eaten by the wolves if at all possible. This may be an egomaniacal attempt on my part to rationalize and ennoble my own troublemaking, but that's what I am. I'm not even a gadfly; I'm a troublemaker. (p. 106)

I have a voracious need to know everything. I have a house with 37,000 books in it. In a given month I will read Science News, Scientific American, Playboy, Atlantic, Harper's, Time, New York, New West, American Film, Armchair Detective, TV Guide, Partisan Review, National Review, New York Review of Books, Intellectual Digest, which is no longer being published, sadly, Esquire, Omni, National Geographic, and a smattering of others. (p. 138)

Erwin Chemerinsky (author of The Conservative Assault on the Constitution) sees a new era for the Supreme Court:

The just completed Supreme Court term will come to be regarded as the beginning of a new era in constitutional history: a time of a very activist Court that aggressively follows the conservative political agenda. This term was the most conservative since October 1935, when the Supreme Court repeatedly declared unconstitutional key New Deal laws. The 2017-2018 term was a year filled with cases of unusual importance, and the conservative position prevailed in almost every case.

"One measure of this term's conservatism," Chemerinsky writes, "is found by looking at the 5-4 decisions:"

There were 19 5-4 rulings out of 63 decisions. Justice Anthony Kennedy voted with Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch in 14 of them. He voted with the liberal justices--Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonya Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan--zero times. A year ago, in the ideologically divided cases, Kennedy was with the liberals 57 percent of the time. Two years ago, Kennedy was the key vote to uphold the University of Texas's affirmative action program and to strike down key provisions of Texas's restrictive abortion law.

Chemerinsky observes that "this term, where Kennedy always voted with the conservatives, is the harbinger of what is to come," and his departure from the bench "means that this type of conservative judicial activism will be here for a long time:"

Richard Nixon got to pick four justices in the first two years of his presidency, between 1969 and 1971. This ended the liberal era and the Court moved sharply to the right. I think we will come to see that era lasting from 1969 to 2017. [...]

But this era is now over. No longer is there a Stevens or Souter, let alone a Powell or O'Connor or Kennedy to join the liberals. Instead of Powell or O'Connor or Kennedy being the "median justice" ideologically, it is John Roberts who is the ideological middle of the Court. Roberts is much more conservative than Kennedy on the most high-profile and controversial issues. The chief justice wrote a vehement dissent from the Supreme Court decision in 2015, Obergefell v. Hodges, which declared unconstitutional state laws prohibiting same-sex marriage. It is the only dissent that he has read from the bench since joining the Court in 2005. Roberts has voted to uphold every regulation of abortion that has come before him. He is emphatic that all forms of affirmative action are unconstitutional.

"What will it mean," Chemerinsky asks, "to have five very conservative justices whose jurisprudence is based on the Republican platform?"

I have no doubt that there will be five votes to overrule Roe v. Wade, five votes to declare all forms of affirmative action unconstitutional, five votes to eliminate the exclusionary rule as a remedy when police violate the Constitution.

We have seen the beginning of a new era of right-wing judicial activism on the Court, and it is going to be with us for years to come.

Jeremy Sherman explains how the Right uses trinketing as a psychological trick to galvanize its base:

True righteousness, like true bravery or true love, will cost you. You have to put risky, expensive effort into it or else it's just lip service. We each have limited effort to expend. How we expend it is the true expression of our priorities. [...]

But between true righteousness and mere lip-service there's a bargain alternative: Token righteousness. Pick some easy, trivial issue and crusade on it pretending that it's the highest priority, the most epic concern. With token righteousness, you can pose as if your bravely, lovingly saving the world without having to prioritize the truly daunting threats to it.

"You can collect a whole charm bracelet of trinket issues," he writes, "to make yourself feel like you're covering all the marks of righteousness:"

Here's one for justice, one for care, one for compassion, one for bravery. Collect enough and you can pretend you're world-encompassing.

"It's telling that the right chose to call being anti-abortion being pro-life," he points out, "as though protecting fertilized eggs is all it takes to protect life:"

That's the point. Armed with their mighty trinket charm bracelet, they never have to think beyond their trivial causes. They use their trinkets to pivot debate. You bring up a priority and they shake their wrists at you at you saying "yeah, but what about this?!" pointing to one of their misplaced token priorities. [...]

They don't have the moral equivalent of legal standing on most of these issues. They're not directly or indirectly oppressed by any of the threats they jingle. They have to exaggerate the threat to them personally to gain any credibility. That's why you get this perverse argument that their right to not be offended is a higher priority than a gay person's right to marry.

"Trinketing is a powerful way to galvanize the right's token righteousness," he concludes, "even if it has nothing to do with addressing the world's true woes."

George Stephanopoulos' interview with Michal Cohen is filled with portent:

Michael Cohen -- President Donald Trump's longtime personal attorney and a former executive vice president at the Trump Organization -- has always insisted he would remain loyal to the president.

He was the fix-it guy, the pit bull so fiercely protective of his boss that he'd once described himself as "the guy who would take a bullet" for the president.

But in his first in-depth interview since the FBI raided his office and homes in April, Cohen strongly signaled his willingness to cooperate with special counsel Robert Mueller and federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York -- even if that puts President Trump in jeopardy.

"My wife, my daughter and my son have my first loyalty and always will," Cohen told me. "I put family and country first."

"When I asked Cohen how he might respond if the president or his legal team come after him -- to try and discredit him and the work he did for Mr. Trump over the last decade -- he sat up straight," writes Stephanopoulos. "His voice gained strength:"

"I will not be a punching bag as part of anyone's defense strategy," he said emphatically. "I am not a villain of this story, and I will not allow others to try to depict me that way."

To speculate on the question will he flip on Trump?, Crooks & Liars shares some optimistic tweets; cross your fingers, everyone!

Harlan Ellison, whose death at age 84 seems both surprising and long expected [remember his assertions back in 2010 that "I'm dying"?], is eulogized by TNR's Jeet Heer:

Despite the many awards for his science fiction and fantasy stories, his reputation suffered, particularly towards the end of his life, from his mercurial and sometimes violent temper, which led to transgressive and criminal behavior. In 2006, he humiliated the writer Connie Willis by groping her breast on stage during the Hugo Awards. Ellison claimed this act was a joke and apologized but it fit in with a larger pattern of boundary-crossing that he boasted of in other contexts.

"Ellison's violence and sexual assault tainted his reputation while still alive," writes Heer, "and they continue to raise questions about how to evaluate his work:"

To be sure, even in his best work, Ellison was a limited writer with a narrow emotional and tonal range. He could do rage, terror, alienation very well, with hectoring and loud stories that mirrored the 1960s countercultural rage at the establishment. But there was little in Ellison's work of empathy, friendship or love. He had no gift for conveying delicate shades of feeling.

"Ellison's quarrelsome personality clouded his reputation," Heer concludes, and "His personal violence remains unforgivable." Mark Evanier concurs, and presents not an exculpatory story--as if such a thing were possible--but a delightful one instead. (It might even inspire you to re-read "Repent, Harlequin!" with a new appreciation.) As Evanier observes, "there might have been a few wrong lessons to learn from the man:"

More serious was his occasional inability to meet deadlines. He turned his chronic tardiness in everyday life into one of his better stories, "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman." It's a fascinating work because he seems to have tried to take every rule of Good Writing he could think of, violate it and still wind up with Good Writing. I know some disagree but I kind of think he made it.

being super

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Brian Andersen asks at The Advocate, what's so queer about Supergirl?

Supergirl has it all, she just needed that one special story to really cement her gay icon status; that one tale that will forever help to define her and the important role she plays in our superhero pop culture world. Enter: Supergirl: Being Super.

"Supergirl: Being Super," writes Andersen, "is the perfect modern allegory for queer youth:"

Supergirl is forced to hide a huge part of herself to avoid exposing herself; she has to play a part to show that she isn't as different. Supergirl if forced to swallow her light, her uniqueness, from the rest of her friends on Earth so that she can survive high school. What queer person can't relate to that?

The book is brave and smart because it deviates from the past Supergirl stories by providing readers with the most defining version of the character without all the continuity baggage (...). Supergirl: Being Super is, as Tamaki puts it, "purely her own origin story" outside of Superman. The Man of Steel isn't even featured throughout the comic (except for one page that I won't spoil). Supergirl: Being Super serves as a thoroughly important love letter to her legendary status while taking the time to explore an entirely new defining story meant to explore the girl behind the super.

Also, one of Supergirl's BFF's in the story is Dolly, a lesbian who, as Tamaki puts, is a "fierce individual who has no problem talking about her passion for women." She's out and proud in her school and unapologetically queer and unspoken. She's the gay version of Superman's pal Jimmy Olsen, only Dolly is treated as an equal.

"Tamaki is optimistic his take on Supergirl will find queer converts," concludes Andersen. "Even if you don't think Supergirl is your thing, pick it up."

BigThink's Kevin Dickinson points out that multitasking is killing your productivity. Here's the scene he sets:

You begin the project your boss wants by end of the day and put on The Office for background noise. You get a good flow going just before receiving an email, and you start to write a response, but then a coworker hails you from across the open office right when an instant message pops onto your screen with a hilarious meme, and you try to help one coworker while letting the other know you appreciate the LOLs, but then you realize you can't remember which of your 15 browser tabs were for the project and which were for the email, and now the phone is ringing.

Welcome to the modern American workday, a multitasking gauntlet from start to finish.

While managers view multitasking as a means to increase productivity, neuroscientists couldn't disagree more.

Management's view wins, of course, despite being devoid of facts. "Are you a multitasking junkie looking to sober up and de-stress?" Dickinson asks before offering a laundry list of techniques for managing multi-tasking demands--most of which you've probably seen before. "All of this," he admits, is "easier said than done:"

Focus isn't easy. Distraction is what our minds do, and it isn't helped by our always-on, instant-results culture. To implement these changes, you may need to have a difficult talk with your manager about the benefits of monotasking. But the benefits to your productivity and work-life balance will be well worth the effort.

Don't let management demand that you run the multitasking gauntlet--it's not good for anyone.

David Stuttard calls Alcibiades the Donald Trump of ancient Greece:

Privileged and narcissistic, a man who considered truth to be subjective, who casually manipulated facts to suit his own ambitious ends, who believed that the world was divided into winners and losers, and was determined to win at any cost, no matter whom he trampled on: Alcibiades was a politician for our times. And since, as George Santayana famously remarked, 'those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,' we would do well not to forget him today.

Alcibiades was born to wealthy Athenian aristocrats in the middle of the fifth century bc, his city's Golden Age. Orphaned as a child, he became ward of the powerful Pericles, and as a young man forged a close friendship with Socrates, who (it is said) saw his potential for both good and bad, and tried to steer him towards the former.

Stuttard offers more context:

Tapping into inter-generational tension, the comic dramatist, Aristophanes, raised a laugh at their expense in Clouds, imagining a debate where Honest-Argument, personified as an old-school conservative, is trumped by his smart, young, charismatic, but decidedly amoral rival, Dishonest-Argument (in today's vocabulary, "alternative truth"). While (perhaps unfairly) Aristophanes named Socrates as the quintessential sophist, he gave his pupil a dramatic pseudonym, but dropped none-too-subtle hints regarding his identity. A flamboyant young hedonist, who spent family money on racing chariots, he clearly represented Alcibiades.

"For all his statesmanship," writes Stuttard, "Alcibiades was morally a loose cannon:"

Flagrantly consorting with prostitutes nearly cost him his marriage, but it was scandal of another sort that brought him down. On the eve of the Sicilian expedition, public statues of Hermes (believed to keep the city safe) were found to have been systematically smashed. A second outrage followed: blasphemous young men were accused of profaning one of Greece's most sacred rituals. And implicated in both was Alcibiades.

It didn't end well for Alcibiades:

He found refuge in the unlikeliest of places: first with Athens's mortal enemies, the Spartans, then with Greece's mortal enemies, the Persians. Somehow through persuasiveness, charisma, and shamelessly offering to help defeat his city, Alcibiades managed to stay one step ahead in the grim game of survival. But still he wanted to bask in Athens's limelight.

Desperation at home paved the way for his return:

Riven by internal faction, defeated in war, and plunged into economic crisis, the Athenians voted to drop all charges and recall him. At last he was where he wanted to be: Commander-in-Chief, the most powerful man in Athens.

Hubris was again his downfall, as one might expect:

Once more he escaped, but time had run out for both him and his city. Athens fell, defeated by the Spartan-Persian coalition, which Alcibiades had once done so much to encourage, and in Anatolia Alcibiades was shot dead by assassins.

Clever and hypnotic, but loyal only to himself, Alcibiades epitomized Athens. Heedless of his weaknesses, he exploited his city's failings, exacerbating fault lines for his private ends, and undermining hard-won democratic principles. To some he was a ruthless traitor, dangerously self-obsessed, a would-be tyrant (in Greek, an "unelected autocrat"). Others, swayed by his common touch, found stories of his excesses endearing. Once, when asked why he had cut off his handsome hunting dog's fine tail, he replied, "So people will be so obsessed with that, that they ignore anything worse that I might do."

The parallels to today are obvious, sad to say--though one hopes that Trump's reign will be less disastrous. Stuttard's book Nemesis: Alcibiades and the Fall of Athens has earned a spot on my TBR list.

wage theft

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Corporate wage theft is on the rise, writes Sam Pizzigati, and the practice is "thriving:"

Offenders include the predictable fly-by-night operators we would expect. But the culprits also include, as an alarming new report details, billion-dollar corporations that can clearly afford to honor their side of our core employer-employee bargain.

These companies are committing their thievery on many fronts. They're not paying employees for work performed "off the clock." They're stiffing workers on overtime and violating minimum wage laws. They're requiring employees to buy particular work clothes and not compensating them for their outlays.

"How widespread has this corporate wage theft become?" Pizzigati asks:

Grand Theft Paycheck, a landmark new study from Good Jobs First and the Jobs with Justice Education Fund, examines over 1,200 lawsuits against wage theft that groups of workers have won since 2000. Employers in these cases paid out a combined $8.8 billion in penalties.

And that total just hints at how widespread wage theft has become. Only eight states currently enforce wage theft regulations and provide data on that enforcement. Many wage theft settlements also remain confidential.

The giant U.S. corporations involved in this theft -- retailers like Walmart, telecoms like AT&T, banks like JPMorgan Chase, insurers like State Farm -- can all easily afford, as Grand Theft Paycheck puts it, "to pay their workers properly." So why don't they?

"The reasons vary," writes Pizzigati:

With a declining union presence in America's workplaces, workers have become more vulnerable. Politically motivated attacks on "regulation," meanwhile, have left many government watchdog agencies woefully underfunded.

But the biggest reason major corporations are cheating their workers remains more basic: The outrageously generous rewards that have become so commonplace in corporate America give the executives who run our top corporations an ongoing -- and almost irresistible -- incentive to behave outrageously.

To hit the corporate jackpot -- to pocket double-digit millions and more -- these execs will do most anything. They'll cook their corporate books. They'll shortchange R&D. They'll outsource and downsize. They'll cut worker pensions. They'll take reckless risks.

And, yes, they'll commit wage theft, often brazenly.

What about laws against this sort of theft?

Against these colossal millions, the threat of penalty fines for wage theft hasn't had much of a deterrent effect. Would larger fines make a difference? Would more systematic regulatory oversight reduce levels of wage theft? Would a stronger union presence discourage corporate thievery? Undoubtedly yes.

But those who run our corporations aren't going to abandon their thieving ways so long as that thievery can pay so well for them personally. Wage theft didn't start soaring in the United States until the late 1970s, the same years that eye-popping CEO pay packages became a standard fixture on the corporate scene.

Corporate execs have had, for nearly five decades now, a powerful incentive to cheat their workers: their own exorbitant pay. Let's end it.

The study "Grand Theft Paycheck: The Large Corporations Shortchanging Their Workers' Wages" (PDF) notes how widespread the problem is--they found "at least one wage theft case for 303 of the Fortune 500 companies," with corresponding penalties:

Among the dozen most penalized corporations, Walmart, with $1.4 billion in total settlements and fines, is the only retailer. Second is FedEx with $502 million.

The addendum by Adam Shah, entitled "Policy Recommendations to Combat Rampant Wage Theft," suggests that we "must build collective power for working people to ensure companies do not come up with new ways to exploit their employees:"

First, federal and state regulators should increase appropriations for wage and hour enforcement. Regulators should also use strategic enforcement and other methods to maximize impact on labor law violators in a way that builds working people's collective power, shifting workplace dynamics so fewer bosses have the ability to underpay. Second, states and localities should use California's anti-wage-theft laws as a guide to reform their own laws and to deal with the Supreme Court's recent decision to give corporations the power to ban private collective wage theft actions. Third, federal and state law must be updated for the modern workplace to ensure corporations that benefit most from wage theft are subject to penalties when caught. Fourth, working people must have the right to challenge the ultimate beneficiaries of the wage theft such as franchisors or outsourcers, not just their immediate employers. Working people organizing formally as labor unions or through more informal methods may be the best means of stopping wage theft
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