Archive

December 25th

How Republics End

    Many people are reacting to rise of Trumpism and nativist movements in Europe by reading history — specifically, the history of the 1930s. And they are right to do so. It takes willful blindness not to see the parallels between the rise of fascism and our current political nightmare.

    But the ‘30s isn’t the only era with lessons to teach us. Lately I’ve been reading a lot about the ancient world. Initially, I have to admit, I was doing it for entertainment and as a refuge from news that gets worse with each passing day. But I couldn’t help noticing the contemporary resonances of some Roman history — specifically, the tale of how the Roman Republic fell.

    Here’s what I learned: republican institutions don’t protect against tyranny when powerful people start defying political norms. And tyranny, when it comes, can flourish even while maintaining a republican facade.

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As Trump era nears, is the media ready for the challenge?

    With Donald Trump's presidency at hand, the news-media landscape is unlike anything we've seen before.

    Consider:

    --Breitbart News, which championed Trump as it catered to its white-nationalist readers, is expanding into France and Germany, even as its former chairman, Steve Bannon, has the future president's ear as his chief strategist.

    --America's newspapers are reeling from suddenly steeper declines in the print advertising that keeps them afloat. Journalistic talent is oozing out of newsroom doors as companies cut expenses.

    --Cable TV, so important to Trump's rise, seems torn between two personalities: one driven by ratings and profit, the other by its responsibility to inform the public.

    --Traditional powerhouses including the New York Times and The Washington Post are beefing up their White House and government coverage, as if girding for battle, while one of the best of the digital investigative outfits, ProPublica, expands into the Midwest.

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December 24th

Trump: The Russian Poodle

    In 1972, President Richard Nixon’s White House dispatched burglars to bug Democratic Party offices. That Watergate burglary and related “dirty tricks,” such as releasing mice at a Democratic press conference and paying a woman to strip naked and shout her love for a Democratic candidate, nauseated Americans — and impelled some of us kids at the time to pursue journalism.

    Now in 2016 we have a political scandal that in some respects is even more staggering. Russian agents apparently broke into the Democrats’ digital offices and tried to change the election outcome. President Barack Obama on Friday suggested that this was probably directed by Russia’s president, saying, “Not much happens in Russia without Vladimir Putin.”

    In Watergate, the break-in didn’t affect the outcome of the election. In 2016, we don’t know for sure. There were other factors, but it’s possible that Russia’s theft and release of the emails provided the margin for Donald Trump’s victory.

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This, Is The United States Of America?

    Just when we think it can't get any worse the President Elect drops another bomb in naming nominees for the government that he will head.

    If ever there were a time for a responsible Senate this is it. Where, oh where, are the cool heads?

    Day by day there are new revelations of possible fraud in our election of November 2016. We have long suspected the Russian government under Trump's friend Putin had a hand in the hacking of Clinton's and the Democratic Party's computers. More credible evidence keeps reaching the light of day. It is now sufficient to stir some interest from House Speaker Ryan and Senate Majority Leader McConnell, probably the two most powerful persons with any power to slow down this runaway train called the Trump Administration.

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We're really bad at judging risk to kids. We're really good at judging parents.

    Kim Brooks was preparing to fly home with her two children, ages 4 and 1, after visiting her parents in 2012. She needed to replace a pair of headphones - crucial equipment for keeping her 4-year-old son occupied during the 2 1/ 2 -hour flight. As she left her parents' house for the quick errand, her son asked to come along.

    But when they got to the store, he refused to get out of the car, where he was playing on an iPad. Brooks faced a choice familiar to all parents. Option 1: Take away the iPad and force the kid out of the car and into the store. He was tired, hungry and out of his routine from visiting Grandma, Brooks later told us, so this would probably cause a monster tantrum as he was physically dragged through the parking lot, the electronics aisle and the checkout line. An errand she could finish in less than five minutes would become a 20-minute horror show. Option 2: Let him stay in the locked car and play on his iPad. It was a cool day, the car was parked right in front of the store, he couldn't go anywhere, and she'd be right back. Brooks, rationally, did just that. She completed her errand, and they returned to her parents' house and then flew home without incident.

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Trump and Putin, in the Barn

    I was raised in an era when we spent a lot of time worrying about Russia. That was because of communism, which was such an obsession in my Catholic school that the countries on the map were colored red (communist-controlled), pink (leaning communist) or green (safe — for now). Only the United States and Ireland were green.

    For those of us who spent our childhoods getting drilled on how to be prepared to die for our faith in the event of a communist takeover, it was a relief when the Soviet Union broke up and nobody felt obliged to worry about Moscow any more.

    But now things are getting scary. Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, bombed the hell out of Aleppo, tried to interfere with our election. He’s just the kind of person Sister Mary Ingrid warned us about. But Donald Trump adores him. You can’t get into the Trump Cabinet unless you think Putin is a great guy.

    The bromance seems to have started in 2013, when Trump was preparing to go to Moscow for the Miss Universe Pageant. He wondered — via a tweet, naturally — whether Putin would be going there, too: “If so, will he become my new best friend?”

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This is what the coming attack on climate science could look like

    My Penn State colleagues looked with horror at the police tape across my office door.

    I had been opening mail at my desk that afternoon in August 2010 when a dusting of white powder fell from the folds of a letter. I dropped the letter, held my breath and slipped out the door as swiftly as I could, shutting it behind me. First I went to the bathroom to scrub my hands. Then I called the police.

    It turned out to be only cornstarch. And it was just one in a long series of threats I've received since the late 1990s, when my research illustrated the unprecedented nature of global warming, producing an upward-trending temperature curve whose shape has been likened to a hockey stick.

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Stop playing whack-a-mole with public health

    When new parents see the words "BPA-free" on a baby bottle or sippy cup, they are meant to assume that the product is safe. This may well not be the case - quite to the contrary.

    In fact, in some cases, hormone- disrupting BPA, or bisphenol-A, has simply been swapped for a similar chemical - BPS, or bisphenol-S - that may well pose even greater dangers to child health. In this way, manufacturers have done an end run around on the much-publicized dangers of BPA without addressing the underlying problem.

    Even more disturbing: What's happened with baby products is the tip of the iceberg. It points to a phenomenon known in the world of public health as "regrettable substitution" - the cynical replacement of one harmful chemical by another equally or more harmful in a never-ending game being played with our health.

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Stereotypes are poisoning American politics

    I was born in West Virginia and spent all of 10 days there as an infant before my family moved to Ohio. Perhaps that's a license for me to say why Appalachians are poor, drink too much, and voted for Donald Trump. The best-selling and widely praised "Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis" by J.D. Vance, proceeds along those lines. But I shouldn't single out that book: Sloppy analysis of collections of people -- coastal elites, flyover America, Muslims, immigrants, people without college degrees, you name it -- has become routine. And it's killing our politics.

    Three laws guide this bogus analysis of groups. First, define the group by the outcome you are trying to explain. Second, invoke a stereotype and exaggerate it. Third, endow the group with innate permanent properties, akin to racial characteristics. Together, these errors establish a kind of collective guilt, blaming an entire ill-defined group for the failings of its individuals, even if the offenders are a tiny minority. This is both divisive and false -- and all the more toxic because of its flavor of intellectual propriety.

    Let's take each of these laws in turn.

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Something is broken at the FBI

    The more we learn about the Russian plot to sabotage Hillary Clinton's campaign and elect Donald Trump, and the failure of the FBI to adequately respond, the more shocking it gets. The former acting director of the CIA has called the Russian cyberattack "the political equivalent of 9/11." Just as after the real 9/11, we need a robust, independent investigation into what went wrong inside the government and how to better protect our country in the future.

    As the former chair of the Clinton campaign and a direct target of Russian hacking, I understand just how serious this is. So I was surprised to read in the New York Times that when the FBI discovered the Russian attack in September 2015, it failed to send even a single agent to warn senior Democratic National Committee officials. Instead, messages were left with the DNC IT "help desk." As a former head of the FBI cyber division told the Times, this is a baffling decision: "We are not talking about an office that is in the middle of the woods of Montana."

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