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Insanity Writ Large

Well, we’ve had another school massacre, this time in Florida, and the gun reform issue is back in the news.

The high school protesters have been impressively sincere and articulate, but other than that, not much about this round of the debate is fresh or notable. Same song, 30th verse.

My opinion on this subject doesn’t count for much, but I’ll express it anyway.

Clearly, the US needs to put more restrictions on guns and gun ownership. We’re killing each other at record rates. Nothing gets done about it because the conservatives, malignant as always, block every reform effort, however modest. Because freedom.

For me, this is easy. We can reduce the numbers of gun deaths quickly and significantly. Other countries have done it.

I favor vigorous reforms to the gun laws for two reasons. First, it’s the right and rational thing to do.

And second, I simply don’t like guns. I have no use for them, don’t want to be around them. To my mind, firearms have no redeeming qualities except as necessary tools for police and soldiers in their official capacities. This isn’t the frontier anymore.

Further, I have no sympathy for gun lovers — be they hunters, collectors, or people trying to compensate for a personal shortcoming — because guns are too dangerous to be so easily obtained, brandished, and used.

My common sense tells me to avoid things that imperil me and others when I have no legitimate need for those things.

As a civilian in America in 2018, I have no reason to possess dynamite, nitro, TNT, nerve gas, cyanide, Samurai swords, or firearms. Especially when the restrictions on possessing and using them are so feeble.

It should be an easy call. My access to dangerous stuff should be either denied or severely restricted to protect me and the people around me.

Nationally, we regulate motor vehicles quite effectively, to the detriment of virtually no one. Couldn’t we manage firearms in a similar way?

At this point, gun people trot out the Second Amendment.

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Dreadful syntax, archaic (227 years old), and vague enough to allow a range of interpretations.

One interpretation is that the Second Amendment was ratified so we can protect ourselves in case of a coup or an outbreak of sinister government trickery.

Another take: it was added to secure the Virginia vote in the ratification process, because well-regulated militias kept the slaves under control.

(The founders were accustomed to having, and comfortable with, separate state militias. There was no such thing as a national army until after the US was created. Actually, many of the founders opposed forming a standing national army.)

To my mind, the Second Amendment refers to arming police and soldiers, not to allowing every bonehead with a manhood problem to amass an arsenal.

Well, that’s a bit unfair. Not all boneheads have a manhood problem.

The Supreme Court, I realize, has ruled that the Second Amendment allows civilians to own guns. But the court also made clear that limits and regulations on firearms are acceptable.

The fact is, most Americans live in a bubble regarding this issue. People tend to pay attention to what goes on in the US, but they don’t understand, and usually don’t care, what happens in the rest of the world.

That’s a mistake. Understanding what happens elsewhere is important. Facts can contradict predetermined beliefs, and reality can be unsettling and annoying, but we need the context.

Let me lay some statistics on you.

———

In 2016, the American Journal of Medicine looked at total gun deaths in the world’s 23 highest-income nations during 2010. It found that 82 percent of the gun deaths occurred in the US.

The US had half the population of the other 22 countries combined, yet our gun-related murder rate was 25 times higher.

Of those 23 high-income nations, the US had the highest firearm homicide rate, the highest firearm suicide rate, and the highest total firearm death rate.

In 2010 in those 23 countries overall:

— Of the total gun deaths of people 14 and under, 91 percent happened in the US.

— Of the total gun deaths of people ages 15-24, 92 percent happened in the US.

— Of the total gun deaths of women, 90 percent happened in the US.

———

According to statistics, Norwegian police drew their weapons 42 times during 2014. Of those 42 incidents, two shots were fired, and no one was hit.

We don’t know how many shots were fired by American police officers in 2014, because, incredibly, keeping the stats is prohibited by federal law; however, we know that police shot and killed 632 people that year.

But Norway is a tiny country compared to the US. Consider how we compared to the UK.

In the UK, population 65 million, 51 gun homicides occurred in 2014. In the US, population 318 million, 8,124 gun homicides occurred in 2014.

In other words, while the US population is roughly six times that of the UK, we experienced 160 times as many gun homicides.

According to the World Health Organization, Americans are 50 times more likely than citizens of the UK to be shot to death.

———

More random facts to contemplate…

— Compared to the rest of the world, Americans are 10 times more likely to be killed by a gun and six times more likely to be killed accidentally by a gun.

— The US has more firearms per capita than any other country in the world.

— 31 percent of global mass shootings occur in the US.

— In 2007, it was estimated that 650 million guns were owned by civilians worldwide. Americans, accounting for five percent of the world population, owned 48 percent of those guns.

— Since the 2012 shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, 1,600 more mass shootings (those involving four or more fatalities) have occurred in the US, resulting in 1,800 dead and 6,400 wounded.

— Annually, about 100,000 Americans are shot, and 30,000 are killed. Two-thirds of the gun deaths are suicides.

— 400,000 guns are stolen each year in the US.

— A 2015 survey found that about 50 percent of US gun owners possess just one or two guns, and 14 percent have between eight and 140 guns. That 14 percent, amounting to three percent of the US population, owns half of all the civilian firearms in America.

———

We all have beliefs and belief systems that we champion. On issues large and small, we instinctively take the side that makes us feel good about ourselves — makes us feel respected for our values, maybe accepted by a group we admire.

Some people share their feelings freely, some keep it to themselves, but the behavior is natural and universal.

When you do it right, it’s a healthy thing. When you engage your brain, apply your common sense, fire up your BS detector, and come to conclusions that are reasonable, honest, helpful, and fair, good for you.

But it isn’t healthy when you do it wrong. When you let the talking heads do your thinking for you. Or fall for propaganda. Or buy into conspiracy theories. Or accept the notion that entire groups, mostly people who don’t look like you, are a threat.

If you want to feel good about yourself, try using your intellect — your advanced reasoning abilities as a homo sapien — to decide where you stand.

If you want respect, earn it. Stop going with your gut and your reptilian brain. Break from the herd.

You might see that guns and gun ownership can to be regulated in rational ways for the public good, while affecting you virtually not at all.

You might realize that evil forces are not plotting to confiscate your guns.

You might conclude that, when a country has 90 guns for every 100 citizens, and even minor safeguards are stonewalled, that is insanity writ large.

SP-1

Student protests-2

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A Few Observations

A few observations of a sociopolitical nature…

A Fine Mess

Well, this is a fine mess the country is in, owing to the fact that great numbers of us (specifically, the political conservatives) are being played for suckers and are too bone-headed to realize it.

Let me put it another way.

The USA — the government, the private sector, and most of American society — is effectively run by, is under the thumb of, a rich and privileged mini-minority that has a lock on power. Look around. The wealthy own or control virtually everything. If you’re one of the elites, or are essential to them, you’ve got it made.

The same evolution happened in Russia after the fall of the USSR, but much more rapidly. Russia is now fully controlled by Putin and the Oligarchs. The occasional minor protests are of no consequence.

In the U.S., the transition happened slowly over many decades. The purpose, of course, was to amass wealth and power. The methodology: systematically vilifying certain people and groups — people not like you — and blaming them for your problems.

To make that happen, it was necessary to make the concept of compassion for others, and of using the resources of government to benefit everyone, seem weak and wasteful and stupid. Anti-American.

Think of the rich and powerful as an overlord class. They remain in charge by artfully keep the rabble — people like you and me — distracted and off balance. Fear-mongering is their tactic of choice. It works really well.

Joe Average in Rustbelt, Indiana, is told that he struggles and has a crappy job because black and brown people flood into the country illegally, joining those lazy welfare freeloaders, and they all get preferential treatment from the bleeding-heart liberals.

Joe is too busy hating on black people, brown people, and Democrats to ask why his wealthy employer can’t forego a teeny slice of the profits to pay him a living wage.

The truth is, the members of the rabble class could undo this preposterous situation in one election cycle. But there are too many Joes out there, perpetually seething with anger about illegals, welfare queens, and lib-tards.

Oil and Wealth

About a year ago, I wrote a post about how U.S. sanctions against Russia are blocking a giant oil deal between ExxonMobil and the Russian oil company Rosneft.

In spite of the fact that Donald Trump is now President (!!?), the sanctions are still in place. The latest:

— ExxonMobil asked for a waiver of the sanctions, hoping Trump would go along. He did not, probably because of the heat he is taking about his long-time personal and business ties to the Russian government, Russian banks, and Russian gangsters.

— Congress passed a bill that not only imposes additional sanctions, but also limits the President’s power to lift them. That was a shocker. Trump grumbled bigly, but he signed the bill.

Encouraging, yes, but hardly the end of the story. Not when a deal reportedly worth $500 billion is on the line. Russia and ExxonMobil will never give up and move on. Not ever.

So, if the sanctions eventually are lifted and drilling begins in the North Sea, what will be the consequences?

— All the bad actors with a stake in this are personally enriched and their power further strengthened.

— Russia gets away with invading and assimilating Crimea, which is, like, you know, legally a part of Ukraine.

— The world’s addiction to oil is prolonged for a few more generations.

— Cronyism seems more inevitable, more normal, more futile to resist.

— The gap between the haves and the have-nots widens further. This at a time when eight grotesquely rich men possess as much wealth as the poorest half of the world. Think of it as a scale being balanced with eight people on one side and 3.8 billion people on the other.

Thumping Trump

When the Orange Vulgarian first took office, his relationship with Putin was cozy to a creepy degree. But it didn’t last. Putin thought he was buying a compliant President. He expected the sanctions to be gone by now, and it hasn’t happened.

Trump turned out to be unpredictable and difficult to manage. He is vain, vindictive, and volatile. He shoots from the hip. Smart? Gifted? No, just a con artist, forever winging it, living in the moment.

It seems curious that Putin has not yet exacted his revenge, even though Trump has failed and displeased him in a major way. Why he hasn’t is anyone’s guess, but you can bet it will happen eventually.

What form will it take? How will Putin thump Trump? He has plenty of choices. We learn more every day about Trump’s personal and financial peccadilloes and indiscretions. They range from embarrassing to unethical to illegal — and more revelations are on the way. When Putin strikes, expect it to be inspired and devastating.

Trump’s tendency to admire dictators was always unsettling, but it’s especially so in the case of Putin. Putin is not the legendary evil-genius-master-politician that some people claim, but he is powerful, calculating, ambitious, and ruthless.

Clearly, Russia isn’t enough for him. He dreams of expansion — putting the old Soviet Union back together, and then some. He sees himself as Vladimir the Great.

That’s why the infatuation with Putin by a lightweight, thin-skinned amateur like Trump is scary.

Consequences

A point about where recent phenomena such as the election of Trump and the Brexit vote could lead us.

The wretched masses of the world have a boiling point. As their numbers grow, as their situations worsen, as they watch the rich get richer, they will become steadily more restless, angry, and defiant. When people become so desperate that they react in protest, consequences such as Trump and Brexit are no surprise.

But those in power have boiling points, too. Eventually, any government or regime will retaliate to protect itself and its interests. It will proclaim that the rule of law must prevail. Civil disorder can’t be tolerated. Send in the troops.

That scenario usually ends in one of two ways.

In one, “the people” somehow prevail, boot out the ruling class, and, nobly and piously, set about trying to create a social system equitable to all. Usually, the experiment devolves to rancorous infighting and disintegrates in chaos. Down through history, not an uncommon occurrence.

In the other, an autocracy or oligarchy prevails, with the leadership even more powerful and more deeply entrenched. Also a regular occurrence throughout history.

If you can see a just or happy ending to any of this, I would love to hear your story.

Trump at work

 

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This is important. Probably not a watershed moment, but a big deal nonetheless.

I’m referring to the tide of women coming forward to report past instances of well-known men in business, politics, entertainment, and the media using their power to intimidate, harass, or assault them. Women are emboldened, and they are seizing the moment.

In our hearts, we know that most of the stories, probably all of them, are true. It’s a man’s world, and this is what some men do — what some men always have done.

Entrepreneur Malcolm Forbes said, “You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.” (His use of man undoubtedly means person.)

Forbes framed the point positively, referring to behavior that reveals good character. Well, it’s equally clear that men preying on women is revealing of poor character.

And character certainly is the issue here.

Most likely, none of these revelations will do much to change the behavior of the non-famous predators among us — the countless anonymous bullies and abusers who make life miserable for girlfriends, spouses, and employees.

What’s happening to Weinstein et al is progress. But is it seismic? I doubt it.

Still, it’s refreshing. And, as new names and charges surface and more melodrama is uncorked, all thoughts should turn to Donald Trump, the orange vulgarian, who has been accused of sexual predation for decades.

Trump’s deplorable character and lack of integrity are glaringly obvious, but most Republicans give him a pass. To them, he is Teflon Donald.

This is appalling, but no surprise. To the occupants of the right-wing fact-free zone, Trump is simply their guy. Go, team. To some supporters, he is innocent. To others, his behavior doesn’t matter. Either way, their fall-back position is that Trump’s accusers are liars. Better yet, paid liars.

It’s a sorry spectacle. Regardless of anyone’s perceived grievances, no matter how conservatives rationalize it, to vote for and stand by such a flawed, disreputable, unqualified person is indefensible.

Years ago, when writer Harry Hurt III was doing research for his 1993 book “Lost Tycoon: The Many Lives of Donald J. Trump,” he obtained a copy of the sworn divorce deposition of Trump’s first wife, Ivana. In the deposition, Ivana claimed that in 1989, Trump “violently raped” her.

According to Hurt’s book, Trump had undergone a scalp reduction procedure to eliminate a bald spot, using a plastic surgeon recommended by Ivana. The procedure was unexpectedly painful. Hurt wrote that, in a rage, Trump tore out a handful of Ivana’s hair and forced himself on her sexually.

By the time Hurt’s book was released, Trump’s legal team had done its work. The book publisher had agreed to paste a special statement from Ivana inside every copy. The statement confirmed her claim of rape, but not in “a literal or criminal sense.” The statement read, “As a woman, I felt violated.”

Hurt contends that Ivana agreed to add the statement in exchange for finalizing the divorce settlement. She reportedly received $14 million.

According to government records, when Trump was deposed during the divorce proceedings and Ivana’s lawyers questioned him about reports of his history of adulterous relationships, he invoked his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination 100 times.

Over the years, a parade of women has come forward to accuse Trump of varying degrees of sexual advances and assaults. After some relatively easy Googling, I came up with this list.

———

Jill Harth, who worked with Trump in 1996 on a beauty pageant in Atlantic City, claimed Trump groped her under a table at a business dinner. Later, she said, he cornered her and kissed her while she was “desperately protesting.” She filed a sexual harassment suit that accused Trump of attempted rape, but, as part of the legal maneuvering, withdrew that specific claim.

Natasha Stoynoff, a writer for People Magazine, said that when she interviewed Trump at Mar-a-Lago in 2005, he pushed her against a wall, held her there, and forcibly kissed her as she struggled. She said Trump told her they were going to have an affair. She said the attack ended when a butler entered the room.

Temple Taggart McDowell, the 1997 Miss Utah USA, said Trump twice kissed her on the mouth, aggressively and without warning. She said a pageant chaperone advised her never to be alone with Trump.

Rachel Crooks, a receptionist for a real estate company in Trump Tower, said she introduced herself to Trump outside an elevator in 2005. She said Trump held her hand, kissed her cheek, and, quickly and unexpectedly, kissed her on the mouth.

Jessica Leeds, a saleswoman for a paper company, said Trump sat beside her on an airline flight in the mid-1980s. During the flight, Leeds said, he lifted the armrest, grabbed her breasts, and tried to put his hand up her skirt. “He was like an octopus,” she said.

Mindy McGillivray said Trump came up behind her and grabbed her buttocks at Mar-a-Lago while she was working there as a photographer’s assistant in 2003..

Kristin Anderson, a restaurant hostess, said Trump put his hand under her skirt and touched her crotch. The incident happened in the early 1990s on a couch in a crowded night club.

Summer Zervos, a former “Apprentice” contestant, said she met with Trump in his office in 2007 to discuss job opportunities. She said he forcibly kissed her and grabbed her breasts as she tried to push him away. She filed a lawsuit.

Jennifer Murphy, also a former “Apprentice” contestant, said Trump walked her to the elevator after an interview in 2005 and, instead of hugging her as she expected, leaned forward and kissed her on the mouth.

Cathy Heller said she was introduced to Trump at a brunch in the late 1990s. When she extended her hand, he pulled her toward him and tried to kiss her on the mouth. She said she turned her head and pulled away, and he grew angry and said, “Oh, come on!”

Karena Virginia, a yoga instructor, said she was waiting for a cab in New York City in 1998 when Trump walked by with a group of men. She said he told the men, “Look at those legs.” She said he approached her and grabbed her right arm, touching her breast in the process. She said Trump asked, “Don’t you know who I am?”

Jessica Drake, described as a sex educator and a former porn star, said Trump grabbed her and kissed her “without asking permission” at a golf tournament in Lake Tahoe in 2006. She also said Trump offered her $10,000 and the use of a private plane if she would come to his room and later go to a party with him.

Ninni Laaksonen, a former Miss Finland, said Trump grabbed her buttocks while photos were being taken of Trump and a group of beauty pageant contestants in New York in 2006.

Cassandra Searles, a participant in the 2013 Miss USA Pageant, said Trump “lined us up so he could get a closer look at his property.”

Kelsey Wheeler, another 2013 pageant participant, said Trump made them pose for uncomfortable photos with visiting businessmen.

Samantha Holvey, also a pageant participant, said Trump personally inspected each girl backstage, “from head to toe, like we were just meat.” She also recalled private parties where the contestants had to mingle with “old, rich, drunk guys ogling all over us.”

Rowanne Brewer Lane, an aspiring model, said Trump took her by the hand at a Mar-a-Lago pool party in 1990, led her upstairs, and gave her a bikini to put on. When they returned to the party, he said to the group, “That is a stunning Trump girl, isn’t it?”

Mariah Billado, a contestant in the 1997 Miss Teen USA Pageant, said Trump walked into their dressing room while many of the teens were undressed and said, “Don’t worry, ladies, I’ve seen it all before.”

Victoria Hughes, who was 19 during the 1997 Miss Teen USA Pageant, confirmed that Trump entered the dressing room unannounced while they were changing clothes. She said the youngest contestant in the room was 15.

Bridget Sullivan, a contestant in the 2000 Miss USA Pageant, said Trump entered the dressing room when “we were all naked.”

Tasha Dixon, a contestant in the 2001 Miss Teen USA Pageant, said Trump once walked unannounced into the dressing room. “There was no second to put a robe on or anything,” she said. “Some girls were topless. Other girls were naked.”

———

Of that list of 21 women, the first 13 accuse Trump of being a sexual predator. The last eight accuse him of being an obnoxious creep.

Is this a complete list of the women Trump has assaulted or intimidated? I find that inconceivable.

Ironically, after I spent time assembling the above info, the Washington Post published a nice summary that would have saved me the trouble. The Post listed not only the women and their stories, but also the names and accounts of corroborating witnesses — friends and associates of the accusers in whom they confided soon after their encounters with Trump.

As you know, Trump has flatly denied all such accusations. He claims the women are lying. But, at the same time, his trademark boasting confirms some of the women’s stories.

In 2005, on The Howard Stern Show, Trump bragged about going into pageant dressing rooms without warning.

He told Stern, “No men are anywhere, and I’m allowed to go in because I’m the owner of the pageant, and therefore I’m inspecting it. ‘Is everybody okay?’ You know, they’re standing there with no clothes. ‘Is everybody okay?’ And you see these incredible-looking women, and so I sort of get away with things like that.”

Then there is the infamous “Access Hollywood” video, in which Trump proudly admitted that predatory behavior toward women is his modus operandi.

Sometimes, I get distracted by the accumulating evidence that Trump has been doing business for years with Putin and his Russian oligarch/mobster friends — which, now that Trump is President, falls somewhere between disqualifying and treasonous.

I get distracted, and I tend to focus on other matters — not just Trump’s ties to Russia, but the blatant conflicts of interest, the reckless foreign policy, the terrible people who surround him, and the damage inflicted by the loony-tunes Republicans now in charge.

I shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that, simply as a human being, Trump is loathsome, amoral, and wildly unfit to be President.

Because, fundamentally, Trump’s character — his appalling lack of positive character traits — explains everything else.

Miss USA

Trump 1998

 

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We don’t rely on American banks. We have all the funding we need out of Russia.”

— Eric Trump, 2014

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For a host of obvious reasons, most Americans did not vote for Donald Trump in the 2016 election.

Of course they didn’t. Nobody with their wits about them would want such a flawed person, who has dangerous connections to our enemies, to lead the country.

But, astonishingly, enough people voted for him, in just the right places, to give him an Electoral College victory.

Why? The reasons varied.

Some did it because Trump was the Republican nominee, and they are loyal to the Republican team, no matter how far the party descends into fantasy, delusion, and paranoia.

Some did it because of the vague notion that Trump would “shake things up in Washington.” Nothing gets done anyway. Maybe a trainwreck is what we need.

Some did it to give a middle finger to the snooty, holier-than-thou liberals — those annoying left-wingers they perceive, sometimes correctly, to be looking down on working-class conservatives.

Some did it because they hate the lazy, whiny black and brown people who get a free ride from government, at the expense of hard-working, God-fearing, patriotic white people who just can’t get a break.

Some did it because they were taught to loathe Hillary Clinton by people they watch and listen to — you know, like Fox News, Limbaugh, Beck, and all those right-wing televangelists.

I get all that. Intellectually, I understand the motivations, as naive and wrong-headed as they are.

Still, it baffles me that all those Trump voters, knowing about the guy’s character, his history, his ties to foreign adversaries, his conflicts of interest — knowing all that, they were willing to risk the safety, security, and well-being of the country for reasons that are, frankly, trivial and infantile.

And risk it they did. They saddled us with a president who, in the eyes of the rest of the world, is a dangerously unpredictable buffoon.

They saddled us with someone erratic and impulsive enough to pick a fight with a madman like Kim Jong Un. The two of them are playing nuclear chicken, and if you aren’t frightened by that, you need to pay attention.

They saddled us with a man who is beholden to an unknown degree to Vladimir Putin, the evil little despot who single-handedly dragged the world back into a Cold War.

Eventually, I expect, proof will surface that Russian money has bailed out Trump and his businesses multiple times, starting back in the 1990s.

I expect we’ll discover that Trump is indebted to Putin, the oligarchs, and the banks they control, not just for coming to his aid when he needed it financially, but for stacking the deck by meddling in America’s campaign and elections.

There are rumors that Russia has dirt on Trump for unsavory personal behavior. They’re only rumors. They could be false, they could be exaggerated.

But if they’re even partly true, Trump knows the Russians could damage him, or at least embarrass him, by releasing the evidence. If that’s so, he is bought and paid for.

———

In case you missed it, Trump got 63 percent of the votes of white men and 53 percent of the votes of white women.

The white male vote isn’t too surprising, but the white female vote certainly is. 53 percent of white women voted for one of the most infamous misogynists on the national stage. Unbelievable.

For all of his adult life, Trump has disparaged, objectified, and leered at women as a matter of routine. Probably, in his mind, this makes him manly and clever.

In a rational world, his record of shameful behavior towards women automatically would have doomed his chances with woman voters.

When the “Access Hollywood” video came out before the election, in which Trump made his infamous grab-’em-by-the-private-parts remarks, I was convinced his campaign was over. I couldn’t see how any woman could vote for him after that.

By all rights, that incident should have sent Trump back to private life in disgrace. It should have guaranteed that no self-respecting female would dream of voting for him.

But 53 percent of white women voted for him anyway.

It appears that my confidence in the wisdom and maturity of the electorate was sadly misplaced.

AH video

 

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Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”

— Donald Trump, Jr., 2008

———

In the waning months of 1991, the Soviet Union officially disbanded. Collapsed. Imploded. Over the years, a myth has taken shape among conservatives that Ronald Reagan, that clever rascal, tricked the USSR into bankrupting itself.

He did no such thing. The Soviet Union fell apart because half its member states were in open rebellion and others were poised to follow. The empire was too sprawling and unwieldy to control. The handwriting was on the wall.

The Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, understood that the end was inevitable. Ultimately, he did the world a favor, declared that the USSR was no more, and went home to his native Russia.

In place of the former Soviet Union were 15 independent countries. By far the largest and most influential was the Russian Federation, which took home most of the nukes.

Print

Gorbachev didn’t last long as President of the new Russia. He was succeeded by Boris Yeltsin, a construction worker who rose through the ranks as a Communist Party loyalist. Yeltsin was mediocre and crude, but he garnered a reputation as a maverick and a straight-talking man of the people.

As President, Yeltsin was determined to transform Russia from socialism to a market economy. Throughout the 1990s, he instituted a series of radical policies designed to shock the economy and force the desired changes. Most of the industries controlled by the government were privatized.

Whereupon, the Russian economy descended into chaos. By the time a measure of stability was restored, most of Russia’s wealth — its property, transportation, media, manufacturing, mining and more — had fallen under the control of a small group of “oligarchs,” an opportunistic bunch who took advantage of the chaos to amass great wealth and power.

———

Vladimir Putin joined the KGB in 1975 and left in 1990 to transition into local politics. He excelled in that environment and worked his way up. In 1997, Yeltsin named Putin to his personal staff.

In 1998, Putin was appointed Director of the Federal Security Service, the successor to the old KGB. Yeltsin also made it clear that he wanted Putin to succeed him.

Yeltsin, who suffered from heart disease and alcoholism and faced corruption charges, resigned as President in 1999. Putin became Acting President, and he promptly signed an order declaring that no corruption charges would be pursued against Yeltsin.

Putin was elected to his first term as Russian President in 2000, and he remains in office today. He has successfully allied himself with the oligarchs, and together, they not only control Russia’s government and economy, but they also conduct business around the world with a range of corporations and countries.

Some of their business is legitimate — normal transactions as part of the world economy. But, because, Putin and the oligarchs are quite literally a gang of crooks, a large part of their financial dealings involves dirty money — their take from bribery, kickbacks, skimming, payoffs, and theft.

Accordingly, they need a regular supply of willing and seemingly honest business partners around the world for money-laundering purposes. Right now, investigations are underway to determine the connections, if any, of Donald Trump and his companies in this regard.

No one knows Putin’s net worth. However, through his ties to the oligarchs and his stakes in numerous Russian companies, he probably is a billionaire many times over. He may well be the wealthiest human ever.

In 2012, Putin was cornered into reporting his income for the first and only time. With a straight face, he claimed an annual income of $113,000. Seriously.

———

Donald Trump was in the public eye for decades before he stumbled into politics. We all were well aware of his standing as a professional showman, clown, and loudmouth.

His shtick, his role on the national stage over the years, was that of an insult comic. He reveled in being outrageous and provocative. The fact that he came across as an egotistical gasbag? No problem. That was part of the routine.

Lots of people thought Trump was entertaining, in an Archie Bunker kind of way. Others, like me, found him shallow and vulgar and tried not to think about him. Let him rant and fire people on TV. Nothing says you have to watch.

Clearly, a person of this caliber is completely unsuited to lead the country. Trump, in fact, is one of the least qualified persons of all time to serve in public office.

But here we are, well into a presidency that was destined to be a trainwreck and is fulfilling its promise every day.

The fact that Trump is an obnoxious jerk does not, of course, disqualify him from serving. Politics is heavily populated with jerks. But other factors should have disqualified him — and, I submit, still do.

Factor number one is his personal and business ties to Putin and the oligarchs. No American President should have ties of any kind to any foreign country, let alone Russia. Russia! My God!

Someday, we’ll find out the extent to which Trump and people close to him are in bed with Putin and his gangster friends. We’ll be able to see how dirty money was laundered, and by whom.

Someday, we’ll also understand the extent of Russia’s dirty-tricks campaign to help Trump win the 2016 election.

When we do, minds will be blown.

A second disqualifying factor is that Trump’s global business interests and foreign entanglements present spectacular conflicts of interest that simply are unsolvable. Already, he and his businesses are profiting greatly because he is in office.

And, sadly, even if heads eventually roll, we’ll probably never know the extent to which Trump, his family, and his cronies have cashed in.

A third factor, which is almost trivial in the overall scheme of things, is the matter of Trump’s incompetence. He isn’t capable of doing the job, isn’t interested in doing the job, and has no intention of learning to do the job.

In other words, being incompetent is his least egregious fault.

In my next post, a few words about the people who voted for Trump.

Maher board

Putin and Trump

 

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How the Game Changed

I’ve been a news junkie for, essentially, my entire life. The habit surfaced early, when I got old enough to be curious about, and have opinions about, what was going on in the world.

For a long time, I got my news from a variety of media — certain newspapers, news magazines, and news shows on radio and TV. Not that the source really mattered. In the old days, after you discounted the gossip magazines and garbage like the National Enquirer, journalism was journalism.

And I know whereof I speak. I understand the profession better than most. My college degree is in journalism. I spent most of my working life in the business.

Journalism, like science, medicine, law enforcement, and other fields, can be done properly or poorly. For decades, most American news operations performed as intended: they presented the news honestly and truthfully.

Most news organizations took pride in being non-biased. They reported the facts and told the truth, and when they found BS, they called BS.

Those were the years of the Watergate reporting, Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley, and others. Those were years when my chosen profession made me proud.

Then, the game changed. With the rise of the 24-hour news channels came the need for a faster news flow. More and more airtime on the news channels was padded with whatever worked — frivolous stories, entertainment, celebrity news. Soon, this became the norm.

As competition in the business increased, stories were further sensationalized to attract viewers. News crawls and graphics took over the TV screen.

Then someone invented the concept of having two talking heads debate opposing views, which falsely implies that the views are of equal merit. This, too, became the norm.

While this was happening, the political right wing realized it could use a combination of advocacy journalism and propaganda to appeal to the frightened, gullible, easily-led conservative masses — and, not coincidentally, relieve them of money.

The result was Fox News. To the conservative base, Fox became, and still remains, the only source of information they trust.

Infromed

Personally, I don’t and won’t watch Fox News, which is the literal embodiment of fake news. Fox is an insult to the news profession. I deleted it from my cable lineup years ago.

Which leads me to another branch of journalistic evolution: MSNBC.

In the opinion of most people, MSNBC simply is the opposite of Fox, the voice of the lefties. And the network does, indeed, have a liberal/progressive viewpoint.

But the thing is, folks, nine times out of 10, the liberal position is factual and correct. That’s reality.

MSNBC has its faults and biases, but it practices what you learn in journalism school: report the facts, tell the truth.

Four examples easily come to mind.

(1) MSNBC reports the liberal view that human-caused global warming is a real and present threat to Planet Earth (or, more specifically, to life on Planet Earth) because 95-plus percent of scientists — scientists! — are screaming that it’s true.

Fox and the conservatives deny that global warming is real. They dismiss science and the scientists. Really? When you claim to know more than the experts, you’re either stupid, a fool, or a shill for a profitable industry that contributes to global warming.

(2) U.S. military spending is now about $600 billion annually. $600 billion is equal to the annual military spending of China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India, France, the U.K., Japan, and Germany, combined.

MSNBC and the lefties conclude, correctly, that the U.S. military budget is obscenely bloated; that we already are capable of stomping any conceivable enemy 10 times over; that those billions are largely enriching defense contractors; and that the money could be used to solve a boatload of the country’s real problems.

Fox and the conservatives claim that our military is weak and ineffective, and the need is critical to boost military spending even further. It came to them in a fever dream.

(3) Consistently, MSNBC has supported the Democratic/progressive position that Obamacare was a modest first step toward better, cheaper healthcare for everyone, and it can be made better with the proper modifications and fine-tuning.

Fox and the conservatives staked out the position that Obamacare is evil incarnate and must be summarily exorcised. It’s a convenient, knee-jerk rationale for the Republicans, some who don’t believe healthcare is a human right, some who don’t want government involved in providing healthcare, and some who oppose it because Democrats are the enemy.

(4) MSNBC reports the liberal view that the concept of “voter fraud” is a fabricated, virtually non-existent threat, because, like, you know, the actual evidence proves it.

Fox and the conservatives insist that voter fraud is real, because it gives them an excuse to suppress voter registration and voter turnout when and where it favors Democrats.

In fairness, I’ll put it this way: the progressive view isn’t correct all of the time; just most of the time. Conversely, the conservative view isn’t wrong all of the time; just most of the time.

Which leads me to CNN and the news divisions of ABC, CBS, and NBC.

For starters, I give CNN bonus points because Glenn Beck and Lou Dobbs are gone. On the other hand, CNN and the networks are straining hard to be viewed as “fair and balanced,” and they aren’t.

All four are guilty of, first, blending news and entertainment in pursuit of ratings and, second, giving bogus, laughable opinions equal airtime with the facts — with no caveat to identify the actual truth.

Their specialty, using “analysts” to discuss the news, is a joke. Professional operatives don’t analyze the news. They dissemble and distort issues in their favor, based on their chosen politics.

The only way a normal person can derive value from the input of such people is to sift through their comments, assess and weigh their prejudices, and try to separate the truth from the baloney.

If I analyze the comments of a “strategist” thusly, I may be able to discern a kernel of truth. But why should I have to do that?

This is where the news networks — all of them — fall short of practicing genuine, honest journalism. MSNBC does a reasonable job here, but the rest of them lack the will, or fortitude, to report the news honestly and factually. Instead, they present opposing political views, claim to be presenting both sides of an issue, and walk away.

Every news operation employs people who can be, if permitted, objective and professional. People who are quite capable of presenting and explaining the news with clarity and accuracy. Most of them would relish having that freedom.

Finally, a thought about public broadcasting.

Although Fox News and the conservatives have always hated PBS and NPR, and Republican lawmakers constantly scheme to defund both, public television and public radio are still alive.

PBS and NPR are still places where real reporters present real news. There is no fluff, no entertainment, no political hackery. With minor exceptions, the only analysis is done by historians. God bless public broadcasting.

And I sure wish He would get American journalism back on track, too.

Not long ago online, I found the mission statement below, dated 1963. It may be old and quaint, but the sentiment is inspiring.

Mission statement

Ironically, Milner’s newspaper is the Prince George Citizen, based in British Columbia.

 

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The Robber Baron

William Andrews Clark, Sr. (1839-1925) isn’t the best-known of the American robber barons, but he’s a classic example of men of his era who became wealthy through ingenuity and ruthlessness.

Clark made a fortune in mining, railroads, banking, newspapers, and other businesses. He is among the 50 richest Americans of all time, and he rose to the top by being shrewd and unscrupulous and never looking back.

Clark was born in Pennsylvania, and as a young man, briefly taught school in Iowa. In 1862, he headed west to seek his fortune mining gold.

Clark-1

William Clark (right) in Bannack, Montana, 1863.

During the Montana Gold Rush, he had modest success panning for gold. But he saw greater potential in supplying goods and services needed by the prospectors and miners.

He also began loaning money to the men of the boom towns. When a miner defaulted on a loan, Clark repossessed the man’s claim. Thus, he found himself in the mining business. Within a decade, he had expanded into smelting and transportation.

In Montana, he bought several played-out silver mines, which the owners were relieved to sell for next to nothing. He then made vast profits by mining them for copper.

At its peak, Clark’s copper mine in Jerome, Arizona, yielded some $400,000 per month. Clarkdale, Arizona, is named for him.

When he needed a watering stop on his rail line from California to Jerome, he built it next to a remote trading post in Nevada. The spot grew to become Las Vegas. Clark County, Nevada, is named for him.

By the 1890s, Clark had developed political ambitions. At a time when senators were appointed by state legislatures, he pressured Montana legislators to send him to the U.S. Senate. In 1899, they did.

But soon, proof went public that Clark had bribed many of the legislators with envelopes of thousand-dollar bills. Clark’s response: “I never bought a man who wasn’t for sale.”

Clark-2

Senator Clark speaking to a crowd in 1905.

The result of the Clark bribery scandal was the 17th Amendment, adopted in 1913, which provided for the election of senators by popular vote.

Clark has the distinction of being the first person caught using bribery to become a U.S. Senator, but, in fact, the scheme didn’t work. When the truth came out two months into his term, the Senate ejected him.

Clark promptly ran for the Senate again, supposedly without resorting to bribery this time. He secured the appointment and served in the Senate from 1901 until 1907.

In 1911, Clark moved to New York City, and he set out to build the most elaborate, most magnificent mansion money could buy. The structure was indeed elaborate, with 25 guest bedrooms, 35 rooms for servants, and all the outlandish adornments Clark could dream up. He spent several years personally massaging and revising the plans to make the building more opulent.

But when his dream house was finally completed, New York society ridiculed it mercilessly. Critics called it tacky and out of style. It was “an architectural aberration,” “inexcusable,” and “an appropriate residence for the late P. T. Barnum.” The building came to be known as “Clark’s Folly.”

Clark died in his mansion in 1925. His widow promptly sold the building and moved away. It was demolished in 1927 and replaced with a luxury apartment building.

Clark-3

“Clark’s Folly” at Fifth Avenue and East 77th Street.

William Clark was a product of America’s Gilded Age, when enterprising men took advantage of the country’s feverish expansion, wild-west mentality, and rapid industrialization to amass great wealth by any means, ethical or otherwise.

Even then, Clark was a larger-than-life villain, reviled for his shady, underhanded tactics in business and politics.

And it’s only natural to compare him to Donald Trump. The similarities between Clark and Trump in personality and behavior are striking: swaggering, self-absorbed, braggadocious, combative, ostentatious, amoral. No sense of shame or regret. Masters of conspicuous consumption.

I don’t mean to suggest that Trump is a modern-day robber baron. That would be an insult to robber barons. Trump lacks the necessary competence and focus.

In truth, Trump has more in common with P. T. Barnum, who once said, “I am a showman by profession, and all the gilding shall make nothing else of me.” That’s a perfect description of Trump, and we all know it.

But back to my comparison of Clark and Trump. The differences between the two men are interesting, too.

— Clark started with nothing and clawed his way to the top; Trump was born rich and has made a career of keeping himself in the public eye.

— Clark, probably for reasons of ego, sincerely wanted to be a U.S. Senator; Trump, I suspect, also ran for office for reasons of ego, but never thought he would be elected President. He probably longs to have his old life back.

— Clark was known for his intellect, attention to detail, and an uncanny sense of when to take a risk; Trump is known for a stunning lack of curiosity, shooting from the hip, and a history of business failures*.

In 1907, William Clark’s final year in the Senate, Mark Twain published an essay entitled “Senator Clark of Montana.” He assessed Clark this way:

He is as rotten a human being as can be found anywhere under the flag; he is a shame to the American nation, and no one has helped to send him to the Senate who did not know that his proper place was the penitentiary, with a ball and chain on his legs. To my mind he is the most disgusting creature that the republic has produced since Tweed’s time.

I wonder how Twain would assess Donald Trump.

Clark-4

William Clark, the quintessential American robber baron, and his Trumpian hair.

* Trump is now indebted, to a degree we don’t yet know, to a host of international banks and foreign interests, including a number of Russian oligarchs. Putin and the oligarchs are, in case you don’t know, literal gangsters, ruling Russia like a criminal enterprise to line their own pockets. The fact that Trump does business with them and mixes with them socially is a disgrace. There. I feel much better now.

 

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