Tuesday, August 18, 2015

10 Honest Answers to 10 Less-Than-Honest Questions

Bernie Sanders demonstrating his unelectability
Last week, someone named Cara Harris published an article that is depressing in its predictability. Like Barney Frank before her, she would really, really appreciate it if we would all accept the inevitability of a Hillary Clinton candidacy.

Her essay, titled “Ten honest questions I’d like every Bernie Sanders supporter to answer,” consists—as might be expected from a Hillary fan—of ten considerably-less-than-honest-and-actually-rather-smug questions directed at those audacious enough to think that someone with actual ideas and a reputation for integrity might be preferable to someone who meets neither of those criteria. (See, Cara, Curmie can be a condescending asshole, too, but tries to confine such manifestations to a specific individual who richly deserves it.)

Allow me, then, to answer those questions.
1. If Elizabeth Warren were in the race, most of you would be supporting her instead. If neither Warren nor Bernie were in the race, most of you would be supporting Martin O’Malley despite knowing nothing about him. How are we supposed to take your endorsement of Bernie seriously when you appear to be simply backing him because he’s not Hillary?
First off, how fucking dare you tell me whom I’d support in a hypothetical situation? Had Elizabeth Warren run, then the chances are that Bernie would not have done so. If both were in the race, however, I’d still be supporting Bernie. Secondly, yes, I’d vote for virtually any Democrat (and probably a Republican or two) over Hillary. But I’d suggest that the problem isn’t with the “seriousness” of my support for Senator Sanders, but with your candidate.
2. Do you honestly believe that Bernie would do well with foreign policy? Do you think he’d really be able to get congressmen of either party to vote for any of his initiatives once they see that he’s not willing to compromise even a little? Are you envisioning a scenario in which President Bernie would be able to get anything accomplished at all? Even his most prominent supporters like Noam Chomsky have acknowledged he would get nothing done in office. Are you so enamored with the very idea of a protest candidate winning, you wouldn’t care that he’d be ineffective?
Yes, I do. And I see no evidence that Senator Sanders is unwilling to compromise. He does have core beliefs on policy issues, whereas Senator Clinton’s only readily apparent core belief is her narcissism, but that’s a different matter. And sorry, Noam Chomsky isn’t a “most prominent supporter,” just someone who sees Sanders as a “thorn in the side of the Clinton machine, which is not a bad thing.” Chomsky is more of a pessimist than Sanders; they agree on the substance, but Chomsky thinks it’s already too late. Let’s find out, rather than conceding defeat to the oligarchs. And yes, I’d rather have a President Sanders who might not make things better than a President Clinton who would almost certainly make things worse.
3. Are you unable to understand national polls, or do you just like to ignore them because they reveal that your guy is losing by thirty-eight points within his own party?
So I shouldn’t support the candidate of my choice because he’s currently behind? Oh, and by the way, it’s currently more like 32 points, down from pretty close to twice that in June. In the words of the great modern philosopher Satchel Paige, “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” Right now, that “something” has #FeeltheBern on its t-shirt.
4. Are you under the impression that the people showing up to Bernie’s rallies each get more than one vote? Is that how you think he closes the gap? Or have you intentionally saturated yourself so thoroughly with people voting for your guy that you’ve honestly forgotten the vast majority of the nation says they favor someone else?
Nope. Have you forgotten that not a single person has actually voted yet? Or that eight years ago right now the “experts” were all predicting with great confidence that the ’08 election would be a showdown between Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani? Funny, I don’t remember that election. And while we’re on the subject, have you forgotten that the corporate interests bankrolling Hillary’s campaign don’t get multiple votes, either? Money does matter; votes matter more.
5. Do you understand that Bernie’s refusal to take traditional SuperPAC money means that even if he did get the nomination, he’d be outspent ten to one by his republican opponent? Are you aware that moderates and undecideds make their decisions based primarily on television ads, which are the most expensive part of any campaign? Do you get that nearly every ad would be for the republican? Do you get that he’d almost certainly lose? Would you really rather Bernie get the nomination and lose, than Hillary get the nomination and win? Because that’s how it looks to the rest of us.
Nice try. Care to provide any evidence of that rather scurrilous assertion about moderates and independents? And, should Bernie win the nomination, the campaign funds will be there; they just won’t be dark money. Also, of course, such an eventuality would mean that he’d already proven his ability to win against an establishment (read: corporate) candidate funded largely by SuperPacs. Moreover, every poll (example here) in swing states shows Bernie doing essentially the same as or better than Hillary against the leading GOP contenders.

Hillary has huge negatives, and they’re not going away just by wishing. Bernie is less well known, meaning there’s more of an upside, and a recent poll in swing states has him the only candidate in either party to be in positive territory in terms of positives vs. negatives. Hillary is losing by more than the margin of error to all of the most likely GOP candidates in virtually every contested state; Bernie couldn’t do any worse. Finally, “he can’t win” is a familiar motif in Clinton campaigns: they clung to it as their last hope as Barack Obama took the nomination seven years ago, too. He did OK in the general.
6. Why do you spend more time pushing crazy lies about Hillary than you do talking up Bernie’s ideas? Bernie himself has made it clear that he thinks highly of Hillary, and he scolds any reporters who try to get him to trash her. If you’re primarily supporting him because you think lowly of her, have you considered the extent of the disconnect between you and your candidate? Has it occurred to you that if Bernie heard you talking about Hillary the way you talk about her, he’d angrily tell you off?
What “lies” would those be? That she is beloved of Wall Street (to the tune of millions of dollars of funding)? That she refuses to state actual policies on a host of issues, and that when she does, they’re something Bernie said earlier? That her response to her multitudinous scandals has always been to act guilty while bellowing her innocence? That she ran a far more vicious and indeed racist campaign against Obama than either McCain or Romney did (does anyone but Curmie remember the conflation of “hard-working Americans” with “white Americans”?)? That she is perfectly capable of gross prevarication if it serves her short-term self-interest (and even if it doesn’t)? All those are true. I don’t know if Senator Sanders actually likes her or not; could be he’s just being polite. Nor do I care. And anyone who votes for or against a candidate based on what supporters say or do rather than on what the candidate says and does: this person is an idiot.
7. Do you really think that Bernie’s strong showing in New Hampshire, a tiny state five minutes from where he lives, where he’s been locally popular for decades, is representative of the nation? Do you really think that New Hampshire’s four electoral votes will make a difference in this primary? And again, do you not know how to read national polls, or do you just like ignoring them because those polls reveal that your guy’s candidacy is already finished?
Well, I’ve lived in New Hampshire, and I know that its proximity to Vermont is far more geographical than ideological. No, I don’t think it’s representative of the nation. But I do think that a win in New Hampshire, however much the corporate media tries to spin it as you just did, would legitimize the Sanders campaign and that we’d see a nation-wide bounce for his candidacy. I’m not predicting a win; I’m saying we should see who gets the most votes.

No, I don’t think “New Hampshire’s four electoral votes will make a difference in this primary,” largely because electoral votes have nothing to do with the primaries. Did you go to Sarah Palin High School, or what? Might New Hampshire make a difference in the general? It could. And if you think Sanders’s “candidacy is already finished,” then you’re an utter moron, no matter how condescendingly you strut your ignorance. Are you sure you’re supporting Hillary and not Michele Bachmann, because that comment is just nuts.
8. Do you get that you’re supporting Bernie for essentially the same reason that conservatives are supporting Donald Trump? Do you realize that both men are basing their campaigns entirely on “government sucks, the system sucks, both parties suck, politicians are idiots and a trained rat could do better, and I’m just that trained rat.” Do you not understand the parallels between your desire to stomp your feet at Bernie’s generic indignance [sic.], and conservatives’s [sic.] desire to stomp their feet at Trump’s generic indignance? Does that not embarrass you?
So… someone who has spent a quarter century in politics thinks “government sucks” because some jackass with a laptop says so? Bernie’s “indignance” (the actual word is “indignation,” incidentally) is anything but generic. It is indeed far more specific than any of the equivocating pabulum Hillary has spewed over the past few weeks. And I’m not stomping my feet. I confess to being a little embarrassed, however: that you and I are apparently members of the same political party.
9. Most of you supporting Bernie are also fans of Obama. Seeing how Obama has all but endorsed Hillary, and how Obama sees her as his natural successor, don’t you find it odd that you’re instead rooting against her – even as you still try to take credit for supporting Obama? How does that make you any different from the republicans who try to take credit for Obama’s accomplishments while insisting he should be replaced by republican?
First off, I’m not a “[fan] of Obama.” I was, and I voted for him twice, but I think he’s been a disappointment. His education policy is horrendous, his foreign policy feckless, his ethics questionable at best. His signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act, is a step in the right direction, but it’s also a nightmare of impenetrable bureaucracy. And, by the way, do you have the slightest whiff of evidence to support your allegation that he’s supporting Hillary per se, anyway?
10. And the only question that truly matters: when Hillary becomes the democratic party nominee, will you pout and stay home on election day and hand the nation back to the republicans? Or will you show up and vote for Hillary because you know she’s the far better of the two candidates? While none of us understand why you’re supporting a less-qualified protest candidate whose ideas aren’t realistic and who can’t win anyway, we’re really only going to judge you based on what you do on election day. So when it’s Hillary vs Jeb TrumpCruz, what’s it going to be?
If Hillary is the Democratic nominee, the chances are very good that I’ll vote for her, but that’s a function of the clown car that is the GOP field, not of Hillary’s candidacy. There are a couple of second-tier Republican candidates I’d consider, but envisioning another Scalia on SCOTUS will probably swing me back to the Dems. I’m not sitting out, and my third- (and fourth- and fifth-) party days are over.

You say Bernie’s less qualified, that his ideas aren’t realistic, and that he can’t win. That sounds suspiciously like the litany leveled against then-Senator Obama eight years ago. Funny thing, that. Of course Sanders is a far better-qualified candidate than Obama was in ’08 (or than Clinton is now, for that matter); his ideas just sound radical because they aren’t politics-as-usual (you’re free to identify which of his policies isn’t “realistic” and explain your rationale); the chances of the two candidates’ winning the general election, having become the nominee, are virtually identical.

The only real argument adduced here on Secretary Clinton’s behalf is inevitability. Actually allowing the voters to decide is contrary to your plan.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Case of the Paranoid President

To say that Curmie is way behind on his writing is like saying Donald Trump has a high opinion of himself. I keep a log of links to news stories that I might like to turn into blog pieces someday: my current backlog is 92 stories, just on education, from calendar year 2015 (there are almost exactly the same number of stories about topics other than education). Part of the problem is that it’s been a particularly busy summer—work-related trips to London, Kent (Ohio), and Montreal totaled well over a month away from home, plus writing a conference paper that turned out to be more work than initially suspected, preparing for a larger-than-normal production this fall… well, you get the idea. But part of the problem is simply that with so many things to write about, Curmie dithers about what topic to choose, then watches Netflix instead of writing about anything.

Today, therefore, represents an attempt, however feeble, to break out of that rut. With so many potential Curmie contenders to choose from, it’s time to just pick one—not necessarily the most egregious, but the one that interests me most today—and go with it. So today I write about a story from May (it found its way into the popular press in June).

Margaret B. Lee: A Curmie contender, and a strong one.
It seems that Oakton Community College President Margaret B. (Peg) Lee was retiring after three decades of service to the Des Plaines, IL, institution, and the college held a reception in her honor. So far, so good, right? Well, a couple of days after the April 25 “gala,” a former adjunct named Chester Kulis copied Lee on an e-mail sent to adjunct instructors. Titled “MAY DAY—The Antidote to the Peg Lee Gala,” the offending missive consisted of a single sentence: “Have a happy MAY DAY when workers across the world celebrate their struggle for union rights and remember the Haymarket riot in Chicago.” [Curmie’s note: overview of the events of the Haymarket riot here.]

Chester Kulis: Not advocating violence.
Kulis, a long-time member of faculty unions, was miffed that Lee had not re-appointed him (and some 50 other adjuncts) after the school was hit with a $150,000 fine in the wake of a recently-adopted state law which imposes significant financial penalties on any institution which hires officially retired state employees who are paid (by that institution and any others, apparently) a total of more than 40% of their salary in their highest-paid year of employment by the state.  (A revision of the statute, which would exempt retirees receiving less than a $10,000 annual pension, has been proposed, but as far as I can tell not passed into law.)

OCC spokeswoman Janet Spector Bishop was certainly correct in arguing “We’re a public entity. We can’t be spending taxpayer dollars on financial penalties we can avoid.” Her ensuing sentence, however, is no more than equivocation: “It’s not the choice we wanted to make, but we do need to comply with the law.” No one suggested that non-compliance was an option, but there are plenty of ways of ensuring legalities without summarily firing a considerable number of presumably valuable adjunct faculty. Such solutions would require both thought and work, however, and Lee’s administration seemed uninterested in either.

So let us stipulate a few things. 1). The law was well-intentioned but had some unanticipated and negative side effects. 2). The Oakton administration’s solution was pragmatic but lazy and pedagogically silly. 3). Adjunct faculty are probably the most exploited and under-appreciated group of professionals in the country. 4). Kulis is a whiner, and copying the e-mail to Lee was a little boorish.

What it was not, however, was threatening. Nonetheless, he received an indignant case-and-desist letter from one Philip H. Gerner III, one of the college’s attorneys. He wrote: “Your reference to ‘remember the Haymarket riot’ was clearly threatening the president that you could resort to violence against the president and the college campus. Threats of violence are not First Amendment protected free speech.”

Two points: First, Lee doesn’t get off the hook. Yes, it’s the lawyers who look like buffoons, taking an OBVIOUSLY non-threatening comment which was merely copied to Lee as “clearly threatening.” BULLSHIT. But it was Lee’s own paranoid delusions that spurred the response, or the lawyers would never have heard of the e-mail to begin with.

Second, Kulis’s e-mail, read as if grammar matters (and it sure as hell does to Curmie), does not call on the recipients to “remember the Haymarket Riot” à la the Alamo or the Maine, but rather points out that May Day is traditionally associated not merely with a celebration of the labor movement, but also with a commemoration of the Haymarket riots of May 4, 1886. Of course, if you don’t believe in the Oxford comma, you might read those last six words as hortatory rather than a second predicate clause with the same subject: “workers celebrate… and remember.” But, even if that’s how you read it, so what?

It takes a particularly feverish mind to extrapolate a threat out of that phrase. Kulis is absolutely right to declare that “I would put it this way. No one who read this email, with the exception of Peg Lee and her attorneys, thought there was any violent intent.” Curmie would phrase it differently: “no sane person could read violent intent into this e-mail.”

FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), an organization that’s a little too libertarian even for Curmie’s taste but is unquestionably a net positive force, weighed in on May 22:
In declaring Kulis’s email a threat of violence and ordering him to cease and desist from sending similar messages, OCC and its attorney have ignored clear legal precedent, violated Kulis’s rights, and deeply chilled expression on campus. OCC must immediately retract the cease and desist letter and respect the First Amendment rights of faculty members who criticize the college’s administration or its policies….

Kulis’s brief email is entirely protected by the First Amendment, and the charge that it was “clearly threatening” to anyone in the OCC community is without merit and wholly detached from our legal system’s understanding of what constitutes a true threat. OCC must immediately rescind its cease and desist letter and threats of further action against Kulis—its only acceptable option as a public institution bound by the First Amendment….

FIRE asks that OCC immediately reassure Kulis that his First Amendment rights are respected on campus, rescind its cease and desist letter against him, and make clear to OCC faculty that they will not face backlash from OCC’s administration if they criticize the college, its administration, or its practices, as is their fundamental right.
This prompted a different idiot lawyer from Robbins Schwartz, this time Catherine R. Locallo, to respond rather huffily that of course President Lee’s irrational delusions were completely appropriate. The letter even bases a good deal of its rationale on the idea that Lee thought the letter was addressed to her alone, since it was sent to an “undisclosed recipient” list, cc’d to Lee. (Because if I’m sending you a private e-mail, Gentle Reader, I make sure there’s a blank list of undisclosed recipients and you’re only copied on the message intended for you alone.) Wow.

FIRE naturally jumped all over this inanity. Ari Cohn responded,
Colleges and universities are bending over backwards to label benign, constitutionally protected speech as ‘violent’ or ‘threatening.’ While sometimes administrators act out of an overabundance of caution, other times it’s clear they are playing on our basest fears to justify censoring speech with which they simply disagree. In either case, the censorship cannot stand at a public college bound by the First Amendment, nor in any environment that claims to be committed to the marketplace of ideas.
Amen to that.

This one is a slam-dunk. Lee’s administration is loath to spend public money on… you know… frivolous stuff like the best available faculty, but I’m willing to bet that high-priced Chicago law firm ran up some billable hours strutting around proclaiming that an utterly unsupportable claim was actually valid. Moreover, the cease-and-desist letter didn’t arrive until after the anniversary of the Haymarket riot, by which time Kulis’s alleged violence would, logically, have already taken place. Of course, anything approaching rationality is apparently in rather short supply both in the OCC administration building and at the headquarters of Robbins and Schwartz, whose denizens would be walking lawyer jokes, except that they aren’t funny.

The good news is that Lee will no longer be in charge of Oakton Community College. If she was ever fit for the job, she certainly isn’t now. It would be especially sad if Lee had been an outstanding leader for 30 years, only to have her legacy reduced to this sorry incident.  But that’s what happens when your lawyers are interested in their bottom line rather than your reputation (or theirs).