Archive

March 25th, 2016

How O.J. Simpson led to candidate Trump

    It is a strikingly appropriate that FX is running its surprisingly gripping true-crime series "The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story" during the presidential campaign of Donald Trump.

    How are they related? Let me count the ways.

    Trials, like political campaigns, are contests between dueling narratives. The side with the best story wins, says the Johnnie Cochran character in the FX show. (Cochrane was the defense attorney who masterminded Simpson's acquittal.) His teammate, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, expands on that axiom:

    "Look at what the culture is becoming," he tells his students as they watch the trial on live television. "The media, people -- they want narrative too. But they want it to be entertainment. And what's out in the world osmoses back into the courtroom, sequester be damned. If there's gonna be a media circus, you better well be the ringmaster."

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Belgium, my country, has been living in denial

    There was a time when Belgium was at Europe's vanguard. It was the second country in the world to industrialize, the founder of art deco and surrealism, and a producer of Nobel scientists who discovered -- among other things -- the God particle.

    I was born and bred in this country, but I fear we are now trailblazing a much less positive path for Europe.

    Although Islamic State has claimed responsibility for Tuesday's terrorist attacks in Brussels, they were also symptoms of a profoundly Belgian failure. The institutions of a well-policed and efficiently governed state have been evaporating for decades.

    Belgium has been torn by the demands of its warring Flemish- and French-speaking communities. At the same time it has been squeezed by an ambitious European project that subsidized and empowered the country's regions at the expense of the state. Belgian institutions were left hollowed out, impotent to address the strains of immigration and incompetent to penetrate a rising extremist threat.

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China's enormous trash problem has a fiery solution

    Shenzhen, China's high-tech boomtown, sprang a surprise on its 12 million-plus residents last week. Construction has begun on three giant, state-of-the-art incinerators to handle the heaving tide of trash that the city tosses out daily. One of the mega-burners -- resembling an American-style football dome -- will be the world's largest waste-to-energy plant when it opens in 2018.

    Far from being ominous, however, that giant burner is good news for Shenzhen -- and for the environment.

    Thirty years ago, with middle-class consumers still rare, China didn't have to contend with the large volume of trash that affluent societies generate. But like so much else in China, garbage has changed, and in a big way. Today, China throws out more stuff by weight than the U.S., making it the world's biggest trash generator. By 2025, the World Bank estimates it will toss out 1.4 million tons of garbage a day -- nearly tripling its current rate.

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'Zootopia' and the limits of the Obama presidency

    Nothing in the promotions for "Zootopia" suggested that Disney's latest animated movie planned to tackle the policing and criminal justice issues that have become one of the most significant subjects in American politics. But since the sprightly movie about a bunny, Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), who dreams of becoming a police officer, arrived in theaters on March 4, it's made almost $600 million internationally and sparked vigorous conversations, an impressive performance for an explicitly political movie.

    "Zootopia" follows Judy as she gets her dream job in the big city and makes friends with Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a fox she pops for a scam and then turns into an informant. But when Judy and Nick discover that a number of predator animals have reverted to their hunting ways and are attacking mammals, Judy ends up suggesting that they're inherently violent, setting off a panic in Zootopia. The characters may be adorable animated animals, but the movie's metaphor is refreshingly direct.

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Can Kasich save the GOP?

    As establishment Republicans look to an elusive stop-Trump effort to salvage their party from self-destruction, circumstances have suddenly handed them their best and perhaps only viable vehicle in Gov. John Kasich of Ohio.

    The twice-elected governor and former 18-year congressman, after months of obscurity among the pack of 17 GOP presidential candidates, has emerged after beating Trump in the Ohio primary as one of only two barriers to the New Yorker's nomination.

    With Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, an unvarnished tea party conservative deeply despised in the Senate as the alternative, Kasich as a more moderate conservative is the establishment's more acceptable hope to avoid the Trump takeover.

    His impressive legislative record as a budget-balancer and deficit hawk in Congress, replicated in Columbus, offers a sharp contrast to Trump's total inexperience in government at any level, and he offers the additional virtue of being a positive and unifying campaigner.

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A world-champion bully

    By now, many people who remain haunted by the horrific slaughter of protesters in 1989 in Tiananmen Square have expressed shock and disgust at Donald Trump's outrageous characterization of that tragic event. During the March 10 Republican presidential debate, Trump said that it was "a strong, powerful government that [reacted] with strength. And then they kept down the riot." Though he hastened to add that he wasn't "endorsing" the crackdown, it was too late: In one breath, he both smeared the students' peaceful protest as a "riot" and characterized their murder as an illustration of "strong" leadership.

    Even Trump's most outlandish and crudest previous exclamations did not prepare us for such an astonishing mischaracterization of the Tiananmen massacre, which has become the iconic symbol of China's brutal repression of its people. The Tiananmen demonstrations lasted from April 15 to June 4, 1989. Millions of Chinese citizens participated in many cities, as the protest grew spontaneously. Participants organized peacefully and sought dialogue with senior officials. The social order of Beijing was functioning well. But it all ended with a massacre ordered by Chinese leaders.

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Three candidates, three faces of Republicanism

    As campaign strategists feverishly draw up battle plans for the next round of Republican primaries, and party chieftains discuss solutions to a possible deadlock, voters can be grateful. In contrast with the last several presidential nomination contests, this cycle is giving Republican voters clear and bold choices.

    The three surviving candidates all have strong personalities and distinctive campaign styles. They also offer strikingly different yet coherent world views that draw on the party's history and traditions. Each presents a different face of Republicanism.

    Begin with the front-runner, Donald Trump. Though he is depicted as an interloper -- not a "true" conservative -- his pitch would have sounded familiar to Republicans in an earlier time. Tune out the bluster and bravado, and you'll hear the clarion strains of Fortress America nationalism that defined the party from the late 19th century up through the Great Depression.

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A case that puts religious liberty at risk

    Zubik v. Burwell is the Supreme Court's name for the set of cases more often identified with the Little Sisters of the Poor, a religious order that is also a party to the case. I filed an amicus brief in Zubik on behalf of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. I had never before filed a brief in support of the government in a case about the free exercise of religion.

    The facts in this case, which will be argued Wednesday, are complicated. The Affordable Care Act requires insurance plans to cover contraception without imposing deductibles or requiring co-payments. But Catholic institutions object to providing contraception, and many conservatives of other faiths object to providing emergency contraception, which they plausibly view as sometimes causing very early abortions.

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Shameless attempts to use the Brussels attacks

    Brussels has been struck by a multi-bomb terrorist attack and there will be legitimate questions in the coming days about the effectiveness of Belgium's police and counter-terrorism operations, as well as airport security in general.

    These events, though, invariably also get used for political purposes to draw conclusions that have no relevance whatsoever. This shameless bandwagon was already starting to roll within hours of the attacks, so here is a brief hall of shame, together with rebuttals that shouldn't be needed, but for some reason are.

    - Fallacy: This argues for Brexit.

    Mike Hookem, spokesman for the United Kingdom Independence Party, lost no time before on the attacks whose conclusion was that Schengen, Europe's passport-free travel zone, was at fault:

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Yes, I love puns. Stop saying it's a disease.

    Lately, I have been receiving not-so-subtle signals from everyone who has ever met me: they have finally discovered what ails me.

    I am an incorrigible punster. "Incorrigible" is one of those words that you never use to describe something that brings the people around you pleasure. Nobody is an "incorrigible" giver of thoughtful gifts, or an "incorrigible" gourmet chef. "Incorrigible" is for punsters and people who make elbow farts.

    I thought puns were a sign of a love of language. I love language, even punctuation. (What happens when you forget punctuation? I'll be ill.) No pun is beneath me.

    But now it turns out they're also a symptom of brain damage.

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