For the Birds

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I have never really understood the purpose of Twitter. Communicate an idea in 140 characters or less. But why?

Sure, I can see the allure of posting pithy sayings that get a lot of likes. I can pat myself on the back for my cleverness, but that sense of self-congratulation doesn’t last. I can also see that Twitter might be a good space in which to vent, to spew out into the Twitterverse one’s anger or discontent.

But to me, the Twitter world creates more harm than good. Look at our current president. He spend hours rage-tweeting and creating angst. What is our Commander in Chief doing ranting through the night and revealing an enraged, bullying, and narcissistic personality to the entire world? And for Trump, the now-280 character limit doesn’t really work. Instead, he posts a diatribe through a series of tweets. If only the Unabomber and Son of Sam had had Twitter!

These days, Twitter wars erupt over all kinds of minutiae. Celebrities get into vicious spats, and we’ve even seen all-out fights over which chicken sandwich is the best. Even more dangerous, world leaders have taken to Twitter and nearly incited real wars. Whether it was Turkey vs. Greece or Israel and Pakistan getting into it, the war of words can come dangerously close to a war with real weapons. And, of course, our fearless leader takes to Twitter routinely to threaten friends and foes alike. His recent tweets threatening to decimate Iranian cultural sites caused an uproar. Sad when the U.S. president has to be scolded for publicly threatening to flout the rules of the Geneva Convention.

Twitter may have been the perfect commercial enterprise for the sound bite generation. But it is a poor substitute for reasoned discourse and general civility. This #NeverTrumper pledges to be a #NeverTweeter. Care to join me?

 

The Age of Disinformation

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Recently on Facebook, I started seeing stories purporting that arsonists had started the wildfires that have engulfed huge swaths of land in dry, brittle Australia. I soon learned that the stories were false, an attempt to dissuade the public from thinking that this latest catastrophe had anything to do with global warming.

We live in an age where the risk of disinformation is extremely high. During the 2016 presidential election, there was a preposterous yet widely reported story that Hillary Clinton was among a cabal of evil pedophiles running a ring inside a D.C. area pizza place. The story reminded me of a plot line from the TV series Homeland, in which a Russian operative doctors a photo of a survivalist’s wounded young son to imply that the son had bled out alone in a hospital emergency room. Posting the photo was an attempt to destabilize the the US government.

In real life, there have been recent instances of such doctoring for political reasons. One shows former President Barack Obama shaking hands with Iranian president Rouhani, a man Obama had never actually met. Then there was the video doctored to make it seem as if Nancy Pelosi was slurring her words. And Democratic presidential hopefuls such as Joe Biden were falsely depicted as racist through the editing of video clips.

Social media giants like Facebook are making some effort to identify and take down fake news that appears on their sites. But the magnitude of the problem and the free speech issues involved make it difficult, if not impossible, to monitor all this disinformation. It is a great threat to our democracy if we cannot tell truth from propaganda.

The internet has in many ways been a democratizing force on the dissemination of information. No longer does one have to have the connection to a publisher or media network in order to express ideas or bring important stories to light. But the danger in its “no holds barred” format is that the internet has become increasingly like a Wild West of competing ideologies and agendas.

As we gear up for the Democratic primaries and the November election, we Americans need to take seriously our responsibility to be informed citizens. We need to consider the sources we credit and sometimes (as in the “Pizzagate” case) just use common sense to be critical consumers of news and other media.

Most of all, every American needs to be engaged in meaningful thought and research about the important issues of the day. Every American needs to be determined to vote for the candidates they feel most closely share their positions and values. Let’s go into the 2020 election year with open eyes and analytical minds in order to ferret out truth from falsehood. Only then will our democratic republic continue to thrive and prosper.

Time to Tell Trump: “You’re Fired!”

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The House vote to impeach President Donald Trump was as inevitable as the likelihood that the Senate will fail to remove him from office. In fact, many critics reasoned that it was a waste of time, and possibly damaging for Democrats, to go through  with impeachment when it would not lead to Trump’s ouster. Yet impeaching Donald Trump was simply the right thing to do.

Before the 2016 presidential election, suspicions swirled around Trump and his cronies, whose meetings with Russian officials appeared inappropriate if not conspiratorial. And indeed, special prosecutor Robert Mueller found evidence that Russia had interfered with the U.S. election – and not to help Hillary Clinton. Since taking office, President Trump has done nothing to distance himself from the dictatorial Vladimir Putin and many things to indicate a predilection toward helping Putin advance his territorial ambitions.

Now we have clear evidence that the president used his office to extort political dirt on a Democratic rival from the government of Ukraine, even going so far as to withhold military assistance from a country that is struggling to resist Russian hegemony. As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi points out, Trump’s actions are not only unacceptable in a democracy, his clear preference for helping Russia is a threat to national security. Just yesterday The Daily Beast reported that “the Trump administration is quietly fighting a new package of sanctions on Russia.” (“Trump Administration Battles New Sanctions on Russia,” Betsy Swan, The Daily Beast, Dec. 18, 2019)

While it’s unlikely we will see an early exit from Donald Trump, it’s important to take a stand against his unconscionable and dangerous behavior. The House of Representatives did just that in voting to impeach. And I hope this stain on his presidency convinces voters in 2020 to tell the reality TV president, “You’re fired.”

Ignore the Clowns in the Center Ring

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Every day, the Trump circus provides some new craven and offensive remarks that send the media a-Twitter. Today’s insults were directed against a decorated war hero and his uniform of all things. Cue the outrage and opposing memes reminding America that President Bone Spurs and his sons have done exactly zero to be of service to our country – including and especially throughout their disastrous stint in the White House.

Never mind that any self-respecting 10-year-old playground bully wouldn’t lower himself to the level of these “burns.” Democrats have to come out angrily denouncing the comments, and the statements themselves take on a new life on Facebook, Twitter, the news etc.

I have news for everyone. This is exactly the intent of Trump’s constant barrage of attacks on Twitter, in speeches, and at his omnipresent political rallies. He wants to distract the American people from the reality of what is proceeding in Congress these days as dignified and credible witness after witness testifies that our president used the power of his office to extract political dirt on his likely opponent in the 2020 race.

I’m not saying we should excuse or ever get used to the leader of our nation reducing individuals to dismissive nicknames, mocking their looks, manner and dress, or questioning their patriotism. But at this stage, our main goal should be focusing on Trump’s misdeeds, of which there are many, and keeping his actions as president the focus of our criticism.

It is quite clear that not only did Trump ask for help from Ukraine to discredit Joe Biden, but he withheld military aid from an ally that is currently besieged by the object of Trump’s main bromance: Vladimir Putin. If, prior to 2016, you had asked people to imagine Republicans standing by silently while a U.S. president praised a Russian leader and simultaneously maligned distinguished members of our own military, most people would think you were either crazy or a Hollywood screen writer.

Let’s stop feeding our narcissistic leader the attention and even outrage he so obviously craves. Ignore the side show and focus on the main events: the current impeachment hearings and the next presidential election. The only way to make the circus leave town is to get rid of the man in the center ring.

Dystopian Lit Is Giving Me Nightmares

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I have been reading a lot of fiction lately about a future dystopian United States – from the vampiric world of Justin Cronin’s Passage trilogy to Octavia Butler’s nightmare Parables to Margaret Atwood’s scary land of Gilead in The Testaments, a sequel to the acclaimed work The Handmaid’s Tale. And I’ve got to say, I’m feeling more than a little unsettled.

You see, the worlds created by these masterly writers seem all too close to current realities. One of the themes that runs throughout dystopian fiction is that of an Earth ravaged by human excess and the resultant climate change. While many deny the existence of man-made climate change for political reasons, there is little doubt that the Earth is warming and that this warming is already causing sea levels to rise, Arctic and Antarctic ice to melt, and weather-related devastation in the form of high category hurricanes and arid lands being ravaged by wildfires.

Another theme of dystopian fiction is that of totalitarianism taking hold. In Margaret Atwood’s two books about the fictional land of Gilead, an ultra right wing faction has seized the White House, suspended the Constitution, and created a total police state. In Butler’s book The Parable of the Talents, a presidential hopeful promises to restore order to a lawless and broken country through heavy-handed means, including lynchings and burnings. Most ominous to me in reading Butler’s novel is this politician promising to “make America great again,” a slogan we have heard only too often in recent history. Yet Butler wrote The Parable of the Talents in 1998.

That’s what is so scary to me about dystopian fiction. Writers such as Butler and Atwood seem frighteningly prescient in their imaginings of future worlds. In some of Atwood’s other novels, pigs are implanted with human brain tissue, drones are used to spy on citizens, and for-profit prisons make ordinary people’s lives a living nightmare. None of these imagined realities seems out of the realm of plausibility.

In times of fear and stress, people are often willing to suspend their own freedoms in order to be protected. We saw this immediately after 9/11 when the Patriot Act was passed with little political opposition. We now allow agents of the federal government to search our possessions, x-ray our persons, and deny our right to carry particular nonlethal items just in order to board a plane. Technological innovations of the past two decades have also threatened to destroy our privacy in ways reminiscent of Big Brother in George Orwell’s classic 1984.

The other day my daughter asked me if I thought it would be possible for the United States to become a totalitarian state. I told her that the Constitution is only a document. It takes the will of the people and their leaders in government to assure that it is enforced. Today we are seeing individuals in the executive and legislative branches of our government refuse to abide by the norms and stipulations of that document. To my mind, it is not that far-fetched to imagine a group like the “Sons of Jacob” in The Testaments overtaking our democracy and turning it into a dictatorship.

Perhaps I should start reading other types of fiction for a while. These dystopian novels are giving me waking nightmares.

Retire the Prosperity Gospel

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Sunday seems a good day on which to reflect upon matters of faith, especially when the local paper reports that Donald Trump has invited televangelist Paula White to become a member of his administration. White is a proponent of the so-called prosperity gospel, a disturbing interpretation of the Bible that insists God rewards true believers with material wealth and even good health. The prosperity gospel is especially popular in the televangelism arena because it helps the Joel Osteens of the world get rich on the backs of people desperate for hope and relief from their own difficulties.

Mainstream Christians reject the tenets of this belief system. It is absurdly in conflict with a suffering savior who died on the cross for our sins, who emptied himself and became a servant in order to save our souls.

Today’s gospel at Mass concerned the diminutive tax collector Zacchaeus. Inspired by Jesus singling him out on his visit to the town of Jericho, Zacchaeus declares, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” (Luke 19:8) In other words, salvation does not come to believers when they amass great wealth by exploiting others. It comes when they give freely of themselves, imitating the life and mission of Christ.

Evangelical leaders like Osteen and White cherry pick verses from the Bible to shore up their own grasping ambitions. And it’s not hard to see why the grasping, greedy Trump would find this “gospel” appealing. What bothers me is that there has been no objection on the part of the Christian Right to Trump’s embrace of what many view as heretical beliefs.

The prosperity gospel is insidious because it implies that if you are poor or a victim of cancer or other serious illness, it’s due to your own lack of faith. If you were more of a believer and gave more of your hard-earned cash to support Joel Osteen’s teeth whitening treatments, you’d surely be doing better.

I can’t really think of anything more reprehensible than twisting the divinely inspired words of God to one’s own ends. I wish more Christians would speak out against such fraud and let the true message of the gospel shine forth.

Trump’s Naked Ambition

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When are the people surrounding Donald Trump going to acknowledge that the emperor has no clothes? That was my thought when I saw a Washington Post story about the president ranting during a Cabinet meeting about the impeachment “witch hunt” and the “phony emoluments clause” in the Constitution that seeks to prevent His Orange-ness from profiting off of the presidency. Like deer caught in the headlights, these hapless dupes just sat there as Trump raved.

The silence of White House officials and Republicans on Capitol Hill serves only to embolden Trump. He has blatantly admitted to demanding a quid pro quo from the Ukrainian president in order to damage a political rival. Back at the onset of the Mueller investigation, he was quoted as saying, “Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my Presidency. I’m fucked.” (If only!) In light of the recent revelations about his attempts to get Ukraine to help his political fortunes, does anyone actually doubt that Trump attempted to get Russia to help him back in 2016?

Mueller’s circumspect conclusions gave Trump the sense that he was untouchable. Despite Mueller’s refusal to acquit him of obstruction of justice charges, he claimed total vindication. Now that he’s been caught with his hand in the cookie jar, it’s obvious that the man will do anything to further his own fortunes and self-aggrandizement.

From the start of his presidency, Trump has financially profited from his office. All his weekend trips to Mar a Lago put money in his pocket at taxpayer expense. His hotel in Washington D.C. has hosted countless delegations doing business with the government. And it becomes clearer by the day that his foreign policy revolves around relationships that will personally benefit him: his support of Saudi Arabia despite the state-sanctioned killing of an American journalist, and more recently, his withdrawal of troops in Syria to appease Turkish president Recep Erdogan.

Voters should have known better than to elect a man who refused to reveal his tax returns during the election. There is one person at the center of Donald Trump’s mind: himself.

Tulsi Gabbard recently compared Hillary Clinton to the Wizard of Oz. But that comparison is much more apt for Trump, a man of flim flam and bombastic  rhetoric. The only difference is that with Trump, there is no curtain. His naked ambition, his narcissism, and his spite are on display for all to see.

It’s time for Republicans to take the veil from their eyes, unite with Democrats, and do something about this disastrously unfit president.