Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Ella At 100

I would so much rather talk about Ella Fitzgerald's 100 years (she was born on April 25, 1917) than Donald Trump's 100 days. The rap on Ella was that she couldn't sing the blues.  Maybe not, but she was probably the greatest interpreter of what has come to be known as the Great American Songbook.

Here's some proof:

This is what I wrote about Ella a while back when I was doing profiles of fifty jazz albums:
The Songbook series of recordings is essential listening; her live albums are remarkable, especially the classic Ella in Berlin, and the albums in which she is paired with Louis Armstrong are fun.  But when I feel like listening to Ella, my go-to album is Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie.  In a small combo setting (piano, guitar, bass, drums), she swings, scats, and settles down for some lovely ballads too.  Highlights include, but are definitely not limited to, A Night in Tunisia, Stella By Starlight, Jersey Bounce and The Music Goes Round and Round.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Free Speech At Berkeley

"Freedom of speech is something that represents the very dignity of what a human being is. If you cannot speak... I mean, that's what marks us off. That's what marks us off from the stones and the stars. You can speak freely. It is almost impossible for me to describe. It is the thing that marks us as just below the angels. I don't want to push this beyond where it should be pushed, but I feel it."  -- Mario Savio
I must admit that I love living in my protective, progressive bubble in Berkeley where the political spectrum runs from far left to left. Sure, we have our share of bullying, misogyny and bigotry. And we suffer from plenty of the other problems that plague the country, from vast income disparity to intractable homelessness.  But I would venture to say that compared to most communities in America, we are far more more welcoming of those who are marginalized by society due to gender identity, race, religion and ethnicity, and immigration status.  I am proud to be raising my children in such a community of tolerance and respect. 

But it has been much more challenging to teach -- or model -- tolerance of and respect for those who have opposing political views.  When the president is a dangerously unhinged, ignorant bigot, should we tolerate those who speak out in support of his presidency and respect those who endorse his more hateful positions?  Should we at least support their right to speak?  What if the speech is likely to incite intolerance or violence?  Where does political speech end and hate speech begin?

In fraught times like these, one would look to the University of California at Berkeley, a beacon of intellectual rigor, progressive thought, and free speech for answers.  Right?

A Republican group on campus invited Ann Coulter to speak next week.  Now, you could not pay me enough money to listen to Ann Coulter.  I'd rather guzzle antifreeze.  She spews provocative, hateful, ignorant right-wing nonsense designed to appeal to narrow-minded people who have far less education than UC Berkeley students.  But if some misguided young conservatives want to have her speak, then let her speak. 

The University first decided to shut her down.  Cal officials were apparently concerned with safety and security after the violence last Saturday in downtown Berkeley when residents were deprived of buying organic produce from the farmers' market, whose locale was overtaken by a pointless confrontation between alt-right dead-enders and anarchists with nothing better to do.

Officials also had in mind the violence that occurred in February when those same (non-student) anarchists disrupted the speech of Milo Yiannopolos, who had been invited by the same group of college Republicans that have invited Coulter. 

There is certainly a question whether provocative right wing figures are being invited on campus not to speak but to provoke the predictable outrage and overreaction from outside groups, so that "liberal Berkeley" can then be blamed for intolerance when either the speech is cancelled or violence breaks out.  Even if true, the answer isn't to shut down the speeches but to take measures to ensure a peaceful outcome. 

With plenty of advance notice, it is hard to imagine why the University couldn't impose the necessary restrictions and security to permit Coulter to speak -- like keeping out people dressed head to toe in black who are armed with Molotov cocktails.

And, indeed, Berkeley has reversed itself and decided to let Coulter speak after all on alternate date.  That's good news for the principle of free speech.  It is bad news for those who have to listen to her.  But, as Robert Reich, who is a Berkeley professor put it, "How can students understand the vapidity of Coulter’s arguments without being allowed to hear her make them, and question her about them?"

Update:  Coulter apparently has found the University's conditions for her appearance unacceptable and is insisting on speaking as originally scheduled.  Her refusal to consider that the University may have legitimate concerns about the safety of its students suggests that she is more interested in creating a spectacle than making a speech.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Passover And The Plague Of Trump

Three thousand years of beautiful tradition, from Moses to Sandy Koufax.  -- The Big Lebowski
Passover is a celebration of the liberation of the Jewish people from Egypt three thousand years ago. We've been telling and re-telling the story ever since -- and it continues to resonate with us because, as Jews do, we ask questions, and then struggle to answer them as we try to connect the ancient story to our lives, our experiences and the society we live in today. Critically, our story is a universal story of liberation that not only reminds us that Jews were not always free but challenges us to recognize that others here and throughout the world have also suffered from and continue to struggle against oppression in its many forms.  This is their story too.

Some, like Schmuel Rosen, who wrote a recent op-ed in the New York Times, believe that the Passover Seder shouldn't be politicized -- that bringing contemporary politics into the mix of ritual and tradition trivializes this sacred festival.  But I don't see how we can meaningfully celebrate our story of freedom and redemption without reflecting on today's impediments to social justice. 

As Jonathan Chait points out, "this would not be such a problem if the sitting president did not bear such an uncanny resemblance to a villain from a traditional Jewish narrative. Like the Pharaoh, Trump is a builder fond of exploitative labor practices and an arch-nationalist, with a nasty habit of making deals then welching on his side of the bargain."

Or if the Trump Administration didn't continue to use language familiar to Holocaust deniers and white nationalists.  Just today, on the second day of Passover, press secretary Sean Spicer, decided to compare Hitler favorably to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, claiming that even Hitler didn't use chemical weapons. First of all, it is never a good idea to compare Hitler favorably to anyone --  and especially on a sacred Jewish holiday.  Then there's the inconvenient fact that the lethal ingredient that killed millions of Jews in what Spicer later referred to as "Holocaust Centers" was a chemical -- Zyklon B, to be exact.  Oy.

Trump is a plague on this country and on the world.  He rose to political power by scapegoating and demonizing Mexicans and Muslims, he has surrounded himself with racists and anti-Semites, and he is pursuing policies that will cause fear and hardship to the most marginalized and vulnerable in our society.

If Passover isn't a time for speaking out against injustice and calling out today's tyrants and their enablers, then, to paraphrase that great Jewish scholar Alvy Singer, "what's the point?"

Friday, March 31, 2017

Time Begins On Opening Day

You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball, and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.  -- Jim Bouton
As the vulgar talking yam occupying the White House seeks to delegitimize truth, justice and the American Way, it is critical that we #resist by protesting, mobilizing and organizing.  We must insist on truth and push relentlessly for justice, but we also can't forget to celebrate the American Way -- by which I mean reveling in those profoundly American institutions that cannot be tainted by that malevolent shit-gibbon who is befouling just about everything else.  For me those sacred institutions include jazzmovies and, of course, baseball. 

Thomas Boswell, the long-time sportswriter for the Washington Post, wrote a timeless piece collected in a book of the same name, Why Time Begins On Opening Day, published in 1984.  Boswell muses on the "resolute grasp" that baseball maintains for so many of us" and why our "affection for the game has held steady for decades, maybe even grown with age."  He asks what baseball is doing among our other "first-rate passions."  And, indeed, when one looks over the posts on this blog, it could seem incongruous to have baseball pieces interrupting the rants on politics and pleas for social justice. 

Boswell explains that "in contrast to the unwieldy world which we hold in common, baseball offers a kingdom built to human scale.  Its problems and questions are exactly our size.  Here we may come when we feel a need for a rooted point of reference."  It is not that baseball is an escape from reality, "it's merely one of our many refuges within the real where we try to create a sense of order on our own terms." 

This refuge has never seemed more urgent than this season. What Boswell wrote more than thirty years ago speaks volumes today:  "Born to an age where horror has become commonplace, where tragedy has, by its monotonous repetition, become a parody of sorrow, we need to fence off a few parks where humans try to be fair, where skill has some hope of reward, where absurdity has a harder time than usual getting a ticket."

As Boswell points out, baseball "offers us pleasure and insight at so many levels and in so many forms."  There is history -- an "annual chapter each year since 1869."  At the ballpark itself there is "living theater and physical poetry."  And perhaps, "baseball gives us more pleasure, more gentle unobtrusive sustenance, away from the park than it does inside it," pouring over box scores, crunching statistics, debating players and teams with our cohorts, and watching games and highlights on tv.  "The ways that baseball insinuates itself into the empty corner, cheering up the odd hour, are almost too ingrained to notice."

Opening day is just about here.  Play ball!

Friday, March 24, 2017

November Horror Leads To March Madness

The FBI is investigating a sitting president to determine whether his campaign colluded with Russia  in the 2016 election.  As CNN reported, U.S. officials have indicated that "associates of President Donald Trump communicated with suspected Russian operatives to possibly coordinate the release of information damaging to Hillary Clinton's campaign."  Have we become so inured to the day-to-day craziness of the Trump Administration that this isn't an earth-shattering revelation? 

Then there is the pervasiveness of Trump's conflicts of interest, which is also staggering.  A recent report by Public Citizen detailed how: Trump has failed to isolate himself from the management of the Trump Organization;  the company has, contrary to Trump's assurances, continued to pursue new foreign deals; Trump has not, as promised, donated profits from his Washington D.C. hotel to the U.S. Treasury; and he has failed to appoint an independent ethics officer for the company.  It concluded that Trump has "pursued policies that boost the financial interests of contributors, friends, and family" and "with the conflicts of interest unchecked, the Trump administration is well on its way to becoming the most scandal-ridden administration in history."

Trump's lies have become so commonplace that they barely register.  He tweets absurdities and the media dispels them and moves on.  But then came his claim that President Obama wiretapped his phones which, with or without scare quotes, is not just a blatant lie but a libelous one -- one that he still refuses to acknowledge is false despite the categorical statements from the intelligence community.

And as we saw again today, there's his remarkable lack of understanding of politics and policy that has resulted in the collapse of three main pillars of his campaign -- that he would build a wall Mexico would pay for, that he would install a Muslim travel ban, and that he would repeal and replace Obamacare. 

Oh, and Trump has not only failed to fill an unprecedented number of administrative posts, he has surrounded himself with white nationalists.  This includes the Attorney General, who may have committed perjury during his confirmation hearing when he failed to disclose his contacts with . . . the Russians.


For Republicans, the game plan is clear.  As always, party over country.  Derail the investigation into what should alarm all Americans, not just Democrats -- Russian meddling in our elections and the Trump campaign's role.  Ignore Trump's financial self-dealing and global business entanglements that strongly suggest the President of the United States has divided loyalties.  Minimize the lies, the corruption, the incompetence and the mental instability.  For the Republican Party it is all about ensuring that a right wing nominee is appointed to the Supreme Court, gutting environmental and workplace regulations and Wall Street oversight for the benefit of big business, and passing tax cuts for the wealthy funded by the removal of the safety net for the less privileged.  And doing so before the presidency implodes. 

The critical job for Democrats is to resist -- to refuse to cooperate while the very legitimacy of the presidency is in serious question; to raise the issue of conflicts and demand Trump's tax returns and financial disclosures before considering any policy initiative or nomination; to filibuster the current Supreme Court nominee because a president who is under an FBI investigation should not be allowed to select a lifetime-appointed justice -- especially when the seat was stolen from the Democrats by a cynical and unprecedented power play.

The astonishing failure of the repeal of Obamacare has exposed deep fissures within the Republican Party and Trump's complete inability to navigate the complexity of the political process.  But that doesn't mean the Republicans won't keep their eyes on what they prize -- unfettered corporate power and tax reform, with a side of social conservatism -- and so Democrats better gird themselves for the next round.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Hearings To Appoint A Supreme Court Justice Must Be Postponed While There Is A Cancer On The Presidency

FBI Director James Comey, testifying before the House Intelligence Committee, acknowledged the existence of what the Washington Post described as "a counterintelligence investigation into the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 election," that "extends to the nature of any links between Trump campaign associates and the Russian government."  Comey stated, according to the Post, that the investigation "is also exploring whether there was any coordination between the campaign and the Kremlin, and 'whether any crimes were committed.'” 

There are plenty of reasons why the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch should be blocked.  But rising to the top of the list is the fact that the very legitimacy of the president who nominated him is currently being investigated.

At the end of January 1973, a month into Richard Nixon's second term in office, two officials of his re-election committee (CREEP) were found guilty of conspiracy, burglary and bugging the Democratic Party’s headquarters at the Watergate office complex.  Others had already pleaded guilty.  A week later, in early February, the Senate established a Select Committee to investigate what had become a full-blown scandal. Nixon's top aides, H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman resigned in April, and the Senate's televised hearings began in May.  The rest is history. 

There would not be a Supreme Court vacancy during Nixon's truncated second term and so the issue of confirming a Supreme Court justice during this constitutional crisis never came up.  But imagine if it had.  Do you think there is even the remotest possibility that the Senate would have simply gone ahead and held confirmation hearings as if there weren't "a cancer on the presidency," as Nixon's former counsel John Dean put it?

Here we are just a couple of months into Tweetledrumpf's™ term, and with each passing day the malignancy that plagues his presidency continues to metastasize. The list of his campaign officials that had contact with Russia while Russia was actively interfering with the election continues to grow, as does the administration's attempts to dissemble and distract.

We already have had one senior official -- the National Security Advisor -- resign, and another -- the Attorney General -- recuse himself (and should resign) for lying about their communications with Moscow.  The facts continue to pile up that suggest Trump's campaign actively colluded with Russia or at least gave its blessing.  Either way, this is a political scandal that, as Dan Rather argued last month, may ultimately rival Watergate:
Watergate is the biggest political scandal of my lifetime, until maybe now. It was the closest we came to a debilitating constitutional crisis, until maybe now.  On a 10 scale of armageddon for our form of government, I would put Watergate at a 9.  This Russia scandal is currently somewhere around a 5 or 6, in my opinion, but it is cascading in intensity seemingly by the hour. And we may look back and see, in the end, that it is at least as big as Watergate. It may become the measure by which all future scandals are judged. It has all the necessary ingredients, and that is chilling.
Indeed, Rep. Jackie Speier, a Democratic member of the Intelligence Committee, stated today:  "This is as big if not bigger than Watergate”-- the committee has “circumstantial evidence of an entire web that Putin put in place ensnaring many of the people who now have very respected positions within the U.S. cabinet.”

And so it is more imperative than ever that the hearings be postponed and that Democrats use every  procedural weapon in their arsenal to fight, delay, block, obstruct and oppose Trump's nominee to replace the late Justice Scalia on the Supreme Court.

They must do this not only because Republicans, by refusing to hold hearings and vote on President Obama's mainstream-to-a-fault nomination of Merrick Garland, stole a Supreme Court vacancy to which they are not entitled -- although ensuring that Republicans are not rewarded for their unprecedented obstruction would also be compelling reason enough.  (See Republicans Can Go Bork Themselves)

They must do this not only because Trump's nominee, Neil Gorsuch, according to The New York Times and various legal analysts, is similar but actually to the right of Justice Scalia in terms of judicial philosophy, putting him well outside the mainstream -- although ensuring the Supreme Court doesn't cement another right wing majority for a generation or two would be compelling reason enough.  (See Filibuster or Bust)

They also must do this because, as Dahlia Lithwick and Sonja West put it, "if the Trump victory were even somewhat abetted by shady ties to the Russians, everything he does as president is of questionable legitimacy."  And the process for appointing a Supreme Court justice who has the potential to change the balance of the Court -- and impact fundamental rights and remedies -- for decades should not be undertaken in the midst of what is quickly becoming a constitutional crisis.  Indeed, as Lithwick/West continue, "once a Supreme Court appointment is done, it cannot be undone. And the damage won’t stop with Trump’s judicial nominee: Having one justice serve under a cloud of doubt also threatens to harm the entire court."  And so, "until the presidency is no longer under a cloud, there can be no hearings, and there can be no votes."

Friday, March 17, 2017

Trump, Like Reagan, Hopes To Slam The Courthouse Door In Poor People's Faces

"We promote what Thomas Jefferson described as "the most sacred of the duties of government," which is "to provide equal and impartial justice to all its citizens." And we do it at a cost that amounts to less than one one-hundredth of 1 percent of the federal budget." -- John Levi, Chairman of the Board of LSC
My first job as a lawyer, over 30 years ago, was in a legal aid office.  I'm extremely proud of the important work we did on miniscule salaries and limited resources.  Our clients were people of limited financial means who sought help navigating the legal system against well-heeled landlords, unyielding government bureaucrats and abusive spouses.  We prevented many of them from being evicted or from living in sub-standard housing, helped them obtain government benefits they had been unfairly denied, and protected them from dangerous domestic situations through restraining orders. 

In those days, the Reagan Administration was aggressively seeking to eliminate the Legal Services Corporation altogether.  While these efforts failed, Reagan did succeed in slashing funds, resulting in the layoffs of 1800 lawyers, and placing on LSC's board of directors members who were ideologically opposed to federally subsidized legal services for the poor. 

Legal services came under assault again during the Clinton Administration, when the Republicans in Congress sought to cut funds and limit the cases LSC-funded legal aid offices could take.  One would think, given that Hillary Clinton had been a former chair of the LSC board, that defending legal aid would be somewhat of a priority.   But, as part of comprehensive welfare reform, Clinton signed off on restrictions to legal aid lawyers, which included prohibiting LSC-funded agencies from taking part in class action lawsuits -- in other words, offices that received LSC funds could only assist individuals and not bring or join cases that might impact underlying unfair policies and could have benefitted groups of low income people.

And, with every administration since, legal services funding has been subject to budget cuts that reduce the ability of legal aid offices to serve the low-income families who need assistance.  Last year's budget was merely $385 million  a year.  Its request for 2017 is $502 million.  But as the President of the American Bar Association (ABA) points out, "more than 30 cost-benefit studies all show that legal aid delivers far more in benefits than it costs. If veterans become homeless, or disaster victims cannot rebuild, their costs to society are significantly more."

But now comes the Trump Administration that, like Reagan's, proposes to eliminate the program altogether.

The ABA issued a statement condemning the proposal that would slam the courthouse door "in the faces of millions of Americans, denying them equal access to justice."  It noted some of LSC's worthy services include "securing housing for veterans, protecting seniors from scams, delivering legal services to rural areas, protecting victims of domestic abuse and helping disaster survivors."  It noted that "their offices are in every congressional district and they help almost 1.9 million people annually."

As Don Saunders, vice-president of civil legal services at the National Legal Aid and Defender Association states, “LSC forms the backbone of the civil justice system in the United States that serves low- and moderate-income people” and that “without the federal support . . . you will see veterans and victims of domestic violence, victims of natural disasters, seniors – a growing population with tremendous legal needs. You will see greatly reduced resources available to make critical legal needs across the United States.”

Yet one more thing to reach out to your Congresspersons about.  For lawyers, here's a link to the ABA's website that lets you fill out a form and send a card to Congress: www.DefendLegalAid.org

Thursday, March 16, 2017

You Can Fool 40% Of The People All Of The Time

"The reality is that if Congress were to accept these numbers — which it can’t possibly do — America would be made dumber, dirtier, hungrier and sicker. -- Eugene Robinson
What is so striking about the roll out of Trump budget is not that it is designed to provide massive tax cuts for the wealthy and a big boost in military spending.  Or that this is to be paid for by substantial cuts in services that are vital to the well-being of the less privileged and by the gutting of programs that are essential to such things as keeping our water clean and our air less polluted.  None of this should be surprising.  It has been the Republican game plan since at least the Reagan Era. 

What is striking is how, together with the Trump(Don't)Care health plan, it doesn't pretend to be anything but a giveaway to the rich and a devastating blow to low-income Americans, especially the working poor in rural and rust belt America that Trump championed before he was elected.  In addition to the 24 million who may lose their health insurance, Trump envisions cutting or eliminating programs that help heat homes, feed the poor, sick and elderly, assist with job training, education and legal services, and provide affordable housing. 

Some of the cuts seem to be the product of nothing but gratuitous cruelty.  Who can object to Meals on Wheels, for fuck sake. Or the Low Income Heating Assistance Program, which helps pay for energy costs and to repair broken heaters?  How about the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children?   Or the Senior Community Service Employment Program, which helps find work for low-income folks that are 55 and older?  

Apparently, Trump and his Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney object because as Mulvaney told reporters today, "we can't spend money on programs just because they sound good."  He actually said that Meals on Wheels is "not showing any results" and that there is "no evidence" that a program to help kids who don't get fed at home so they do better in school does that. 

Trump conceded, in a shockingly honest colloquy with the vile Tucker Carlson, that one of the "centerpieces" of the health care plan is a tax cut that would "primarily benefit people making over $250,000 a year" while those that voted for him in "middle class and working class counties, would do far less well under this bill than the counties that voted for Hillary, the more affluent counties."

During the campaign, Trump said that he wouldn't lose voters if he stood in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shot somebody.  Tragically, he was probably right.  But that was a campaign where, with his snake oil salesman persona, he could effectively promise anything.  Now that he is president and is supposed to at least pretend to deliver the snake oil, it is remarkable how little he cares about doing so -- or about even appearing to do so. 

Trump must still believe that his supporters -- roughly 40% of Americans -- will remain loyal as long as he blames Obama for their hardships and promises to keep them safe from Muslim terrorists and Mexican job stealers.  The big question is whether he is still right.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Just Because You're Paranoid . . .

That was quite a tweetstorm last night, even by Trump standards.  He went after the Terminator again, trashing Arnold Schwarzenegger for leaving the Apprentice, claiming he didn't leave voluntarily but was fired for "his bad (pathetic) ratings."   Oh, and he also had a few choice words for Barack Obama -- accusing him of tapping Trump's phones during the "sacred election process."   Ah yes, that sacred election process.  Trump claimed this was something he "just found out" --  purportedly from a Briebart news article -- and that Obama was a "bad (or sick) guy," a nefarious combination of Nixon and McCarthy.  But, don't worry, Trump assured us:  "nothing found" -- even though Trump could not possibly know that.

Given the shady collection of characters with substantial ties to Russia inhabiting Trump Tower, it shouldn't be at all surprising there would be government surveillance, including wire-tapping, in the building.  As for such taps, and whether Trump's own phones were tapped, there is a legal procedure, put in place after Watergate, in which intelligence agencies would have to obtain a warrant from the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court) after demonstrating probable cause that the "target of the surveillance is a foreign power or agent of a foreign power."  

So, either Trump is a paranoid fool who is parroting fake news with an outrageous accusation against a former president (sick)  or he is trying to distract the public from focusing on the increasingly tantalizing scandal surrounding his administration (pathetic) or Trump's connections with Russia were substantial enough to demonstrate probable cause for a FISA warrant (bad).  Or maybe all three. 

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

First They Came For The Umpires . . .

First they came for the umpires (with instant replay), and I did not speak out
Then they came for the slide at home (and then at second), and I did not speak out
Then they came for the intentional walk ...
After the pitcher fires a third strike to retire the batter, with less than two out and no one on base, the catcher reflexively whips the ball to the third baseman, who tosses its to the second baseman, who flips it to the shortstop, who throws it back to the pitcher.  After an out is made at first base, with less than two out and no one on base, the first baseman starts a counterclockwise version.  This is a time-honored exercise known as throwing the ball "around the horn" -- a reference to sailing around South America's Cape Horn.  It is one of those classic baseball rituals that little leaguers have been imitating for generations. 

But it is rather superfluous and eliminating it could shave minutes off every game.  So, look out. 

Until this season, when a manager decided to intentionally walk a batter, he would signal with four fingers.  The catcher would then stand up, extend his glove hand and receive four slowly tossed outside pitches in a row.  The batter would drop his bat and trot to first base.  Another rather quaint ritual -- one that rarely but memorably would go awry when the pitcher threw wildly or the batter reached out and hit the ball. 

No longer.  Starting this year, intentional walks will be issued automatically.  It will save seconds, perhaps a couple of minutes a game.

The geniuses running Major League Baseball are trying to remove its idiosyncratic charms under the guise of speeding its pace.  But eliminating the intentional walk does not measurably impact the pace of the game.  And, besides, there's nothing wrong with the pace of the game (except perhaps too many conferences at the pitching mound and too many pitching changes).

If the powers that be really want to speed things up they could shorten the time between innings, but that would cut into advertising profits.  Or they could also do away with instant replay -- an ill-advised technical innovation designed to bring more precision and less human error but which results in momentum-crushing delays.

Streamlining baseball to accommodate purportedly impatient, distractible millennials will not magically bring more fans to the ballpark. Making the game more robotic by removing the game's traditional quirks is self-defeating.  We need to stop tinkering and have faith that baseball is just fine the way it is.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Put A Lid On The Basket Of Deplorable Supporters

Depending on the poll, there are between 38-42% of the American people who still approve of the vulgar talking yam.  This is roughly the same percentage of Americans who don't believe in evolution, by the way.  These stalwarts are getting a lot of attention in the media -- earnest perspectives about why their views have not changed after a month of madness (it's not because they are ignorant racists, of course) and what it would take to persuade them to become part of the resistance.  But I don't care what they think, why they think it, or whether their feelings are hurt by liberal outrage.  And I especially don't care about what Democrats can do to win them over -- which is nothing.

These are people who voted for Trump despite the fact that he rose to political prominence by promoting the racist birther lie about Obama -- and then lied about it.  Despite the fact that he was caught on videotape bragging about sexually assaulting women -- after which victims of his predatory behavior came forward.  Despite the fact that his campaign was designed to appeal to a white America purportedly under siege by Muslim terrorists, Mexican rapists and African American gangbangers.  Despite the fact that he claimed that climate change is a hoax.  Despite the fact that he refused to divulge his tax returns or disclose the extent and nature of his business empire.   Despite the fact that his business practices were demonstrably fraudulent.  And despite the fact that he was remarkably ignorant and incurious about every aspect of governance.

These are people who continue to support him after he retained an avowed white nationalist and anti-semite as his chief advisor.  After he put forward a grossly unqualified and conflicted collection of cabinet nominees.  After he restocked the swamp with Goldman Sachs alumni and issued orders to gut Wall Street regulations and oversight.  After he refused to divest from his business empire while he and his family exploit his presidency for financial gain.  After he issued an ill-conceived unconstitutional order aimed at banning Muslims from entering the country and then sought to delegitimize the judiciary branch for checking his power.  After evidence mounts about his connections to Russia and his campaign's collusion in skewing the election.  After he decried every negative story as fake news and attacked the media as the enemy of the people while blithely lying several times every day.  After relentless tweets that strongly suggest he is mentally unstable and unfit for the office.  And after he has presided over a month of absolute chaos and craziness.

These are the people we should listen to, empathize with, and try to reach?  I hardly think so.

Last week two esteemed New York Times columnists wrote about what to do about these folks.  Nicholas Kristof wrote that we shouldn't stereotype Trump supporters as misogynist bigots and that by demonizing them we not only become intolerant like Trump but, more importantly, "it’s hard to win over voters whom you’re insulting" 

Fine. We don't need to stereotype or demonize Trump supporters.  And I will readily concede they are not all ignorant racists who long for a white Christian nation (although they have no problem supporting a president who is).  But we don't need to spend any time courting them either.

Charles Blow, on the other hand, has "no patience for liberal talk of reaching out to Trump voters."   He wrote that "there is no more a compromise point with those who accept, promote and defend bigotry, misogyny and xenophobia than there is a designation of 'almost pregnant.'”  Blow concludes that "Trump is a cancer on this country and resistance is the remedy. The Trump phenomenon is devoid of compassion, and we must be closed to compromise."

I'm firmly with Team Blow.

Democrats need to focus on winning the mid-term elections and to do that they need to tap into the anger and the passion of liberals and progressives who are protesting and organizing, who are packing town halls and jamming Congressional phone lines.  The worst thing Democrats can do is to alienate their base and quash the energy of the grassroots by trying to appeal to voters who, at least for now, are simply not reachable.

As Paul Waldman stated in the Washington Post:
If Democrats want to win in 2018, they need to highlight the things that will get their own voters as worked up about Trump as possible: his scary appointees, his retrograde executive actions, his constant lies, his self-dealing and corruption, and the tremendous damage he and Republicans in Congress are preparing to do. In other words, Democrats need to be as partisan as possible, and forget about "reaching out."
Trying to convince Trump supporters (who have not voted for Democrats since before the Reagan Era) that he is a lying, corrupt, ignorant danger to democracy and to the world -- and that the Democrats have their back -- won't be any more successful than trying to convince them about evolution.  So, enough of the heart-warming stories about those non-racist Trump supporters in the heartland of America who just want to be understood.  Let's save our compassion for those who will really need it.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Baseball Is The Perfect Game

My heart skips a beat every time I enter a ballpark and see the perfect symmetry of the infield diamond enveloped by the wide swath of green outfield grass.  I love the meandering pace of the game, the sport's connection to its own and this country's history, the contrasting forces of power and precision, the strategy and the statistics, and the fact that the game has room not only for the pure athleticism of Yoenis Cespedis but also for the phenomenon that is 43-year old, 285-pound Bartolo Colon. 

Part of the beauty of the game is how it has remained constant over time.  The basic rules are not much different from 100 years ago, the bases are still 90 feet apart, and the pitcher stands 60 feet, 6 inches from the hitter.  At the same time, each era has had its own unique issues and the game has changed to accommodate (sometimes at a criminally slow pace) social and technological changes -- often for good, sometimes for ill.

Instant replay was first used in Major League games in 2008, exclusively to review home runs.  New fangled ballparks with unusual angles and idiosyncratic seating made it much more difficult to discern with the naked eye when a ball was actually hit out of the park.  But the success of the original rule has led to the inevitable slippery slope -- expanded replay into many more areas of the game.   These rules which seek to eliminate human error are applied by human beings, resulting in ... plenty of human error.  More problematic is that exciting, close plays are immediately challenged, stopping play, upsetting the flow of the game at pivotal moments. 

Umpire Jim Joyce announced his retirement today.  He probably wished that instant replay was available on June 2, 2010, when he badly blew a call at first base, calling the runner safe on what should have been the third and final out of a perfect game pitched by Armando Galarraga.  Instant replay would have spared Joyce his place in infamy and would have elevated Galarraga to a place in history.

Still, I stand by my letter published in the New York Times on June 6, 2010:
It is unfortunate that Armando Galarraga was denied his moment in history because of a blown call.  But that is why it's called a "perfect game."  Such events are so rare because they rely not only on the pitcher's perfection, but also on the perfection from teammates, and yes, from umpires, too.  We should not lose sight of the fact that the imperfections are what make the game so perfect.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Resist Trump -- Play Ball!

As the talking orange turd that lurks in the White House seeks to delegitimize truth, justice and the American Way, it is critical that we #resist by protesting, mobilizing and organizing.  We must insist on truth and push relentlessly for justice, but we also can't forget to celebrate the American Way -- by which I mean reveling in those profoundly American institutions that cannot be tainted by that malevolent shit-gibbon who is befouling just about everything else.  For me those sacred institutions include jazzmovies and, of course, baseball. 

And so spring and Spring Training could not come too soon. 

Cue the Ken Burns music and read the next paragraph in a deep baritone voiceover.

Spring training, like spring itself, is a time of renewal and rebirth; a time when even the lowliest team has hope for the season ahead.  Critical trades over the winter have bolstered the team's weaknesses.  Players coming off injury-plagued seasons are returning in the best shape of their careers.  Hitters have corrected the flaws in their swing and pitchers have discovered devastating new pitches. 

It may be hackneyed and trite, but I buy it every year. 

As a Met fan, for most of the last decade or three, after enduring yet another dismal season filled with heartbreaking losses, underachieving performances, devastating injuries, and mind-boggling player moves or non-moves, I would nevertheless approach Spring Training with a na├»ve optimism that would endure at least until Opening Day. 

I would then delude myself through much of a hopeless baseball season that my team could pull it together and make a run for the playoffs down the stretch.  I refused to face reality until sometime in August, when forced to accept the inevitability of a losing season, I would be stuck watching a team play uninspiring baseball for the last month or so, with little to root for other than spoiling another team's playoff run and the individual achievements of favorite players.  With a team going nowhere, much of the luster and lyricism of the game was lost -- at least until the spring, when it all began again.

But the last couple of years have been different. I experienced how beautiful baseball can be when one's team is having a good year, when you get to revel in tension-filled, meaningful games in September, followed by the glorious excitement of the post-season.  In 2015, after seven straight years with a losing record, preceded by two historic collapses, which were themselves preceded by a heartbreaking playoff loss and countless other frustrating seasons, the New York Mets made it to the World Series, transforming what looked to be another dismal year of mediocrity into a joyful one filled with magical, unforgettable moments.  Last year, burdened with high expectations, the Mets came down to earth but they still managed to make it to the Wild Card game. 

The Mets return with pretty much the same team that didn't quite have it last year.  There is reason for skepticism but no room for it in springtime.   And so at least for now, the fragile arms of the hard-throwing corps of incredible young pitchers are healed.  Travis D'Arnaud, a promising catcher who lost his swing and knocked in an anemic 15 runs all year has a new batting stance.  Jay Bruce, the Reds slugger who was leading the league in RBIs when he was traded to the Mets in August only to fall victim to the all-too-common Mets Transition Disease is back (because the Mets couldn't find a trade partner) and ready to rumble.  David Wright, the all-time Met great, who missed most of the last two season to injury and has a chronic spinal condition, is in great shape.  And there's Yoenis Cespedes, literally a game-changer, who is sure to live up to the hype and the big money the Mets notoriously penny-wise owners uncharacteristically coughed up to sign him. 

If the younger players step up and the older players hang on, if the pitchers continue to blow away hitters and the manager doesn't blow a gasket, and if Yo plays like Yo can play, the Mets could have another magical year.

As for the fate of the country?  If we protest, organize and mobilize, and if we continue to protect our precious institutions, as the late, great Joaquin Andujar described both America and baseball "in one word:  you never know."

Friday, February 10, 2017

Lawyer Up

In Shakespeare's Henry VI, when the rogue, Dick the Butcher, says, "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers," what he is suggesting is not that lawyers are corrupt scoundrels that must be done away with.  Rather, Butcher, the henchman for the rebel leader, Jack Cade, was suggesting that Cade could become king if the lawyers -- and the rule of law -- could be swept away.

Trump, like Dick the Butcher, would like to get rid of the lawyers too -- the entire judiciary branch, if he could get away with it.  As the most litigious person ever to become president, Trump is quite familiar with the court of law -- whether suing or threatening to sue those who have had the temerity to cross him or being sued for his shady business operations.  Cases number in the thousands.  (This explains his knee-jerk tweet -- emphasis on the jerk -- after the Ninth Circuit's ruling:  "SEE YOU IN COURT")  But critically, the legal system for Trump is no longer merely a cost of doing business.  It has become an impediment to his quest for unfettered power.

Trump's puerile reaction to a federal judge's issuance of a temporary restraining order (TRO) that stopped what is euphemistically called a "travel ban" -- referring to him as a "so-called judge" and stating that he would be to blame for a terrorist attack -- showed an utter disregard for the independence of the judiciary.  This was borne out in the argument his counsel made before the Ninth Circuit in seeking a stay of the TRO -- that the president has virtually unlimited power when it came to national security decisions.  Thankfully, the court pushed back -- denying the request for a stay and rejecting the terrifying proposition that a president's “national security concerns are unreviewable, even if those actions potentially contravene constitutional rights and protections.”

With the craven Republican majority in Congress abdicating all responsibility to be a check on the executive branch, it is up to the courts -- and the lawyers bringing suits in the courts -- to confine a president who clearly has no boundaries.  And, so far, the lawyers have been heroic -- bringing over 50 lawsuits against Trump for his policies and his business practices.  There have been many challenges related to the travel ban, and others regarding the massive conflicts of interest stemming from Trump's refusal to divest himself from his business empire.  Trump has also been sued for directing the withholding of funds from sanctuary cities.  

As Trump tries to undermine every institution that gets in his way and tear down all dissent to his rule -- whether claiming that any critical news item or negative poll is fake news or trashing judges that don't rule in his favor, the Ninth Circuit's decision, refusing to reinstate the travel ban, was huge.  It was a reminder that Trump can be stopped, that there are judges with integrity who won't be bullied, and that lawyers, so often the butt of jokes -- as far back as Shakespeare -- have an essential role to play.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Democrats Must Not Normalize Trump By Opposing His Policies Only On Their Merits

Abby Something
As I argued here, the Democrats need to oppose everything Trump does in order to undermine his presidency.  Every political victory he claims bolsters his legitimacy and increases his power.  But in challenging his nominations, orders, directives and policies it is critical not only to attack them on their merits but to frame them in the context of three things:  (1) his conflicts of interest stemming from his un-divested business empire and his failure to release his federal tax returns; (2) his affinity for white supremacists including, but not limited to, his bff Steve Bannon; and (3) his relationship with his other bff, Vladimir Putin, and other Russian officials and oligarchs. 

For example, the fact that Trump will seek to roll back the protections of Dodd-Frank should certainly be challenged as an abdication of his campaign promise to protect the public against Wall Street -- and an outrageous gift to the financial industry.  But it must also be stressed that Trump is helping companies with which he has -- or may have -- a financial interest.  Democrats should be demanding disclosure of Trump's ties to every bank and investment firm that stands to benefit from Trump's proposed gutting of regulations so that the public can know whether he is acting in the best interest of the country or to line his own pockets.

The Muslim ban, limiting a federal program that counters violent extremism to only "radical Islamic extremism," and the proposal to abolish the Johnson Amendment that prevents tax-exempt religious organizations from campaigning for candidates must be opposed not only as bad policy, contrary to American values and in violation of civil rights and freedom of religion.  This must be seen in the context of Steve Bannon's stated goals that appear to include creating a White Christian Nation.  Democrats should demand that Trump explain whether he agrees with his chief strategist and, if not, why he continues to staff the White House with Bannon allies.

And Trump's belligerent conversations with foreign leaders and his disparagement of NATO and the European Union must be seen not just as foolhardy from the perspective of diplomacy and national security.  They raise serious questions about whether Trump's connections to Russia are influencing his moves on the international front -- questions that need to be raised over and over again.

Liberals and progressives have been indefatigable in taking on Trump these first couple of weeks as we are forced to play political whack-a-mole on a seemingly infinite range of issues.  It is having an impact and our leaders in Congress are definitely listening.  But it is critical that we don't end up in the usual partisan debates over policy -- debates that the media expects and that will serve to normalize the presidency.  We need to push the Democrats and the media to view Trump always through the prism of his financial self-dealing, his sympathy for white supremacy and as a Russian stooge.