In battling the federal monolith, the lower courts may be our only recourse

Anita Brody’s résumé is impressive but not unusual: Wellesley College, Columbia Law School, deputy assistant attorney general in New York, Court of Common Pleas in Philadelphia.

In 1991 President George H. W. Bush nominated Ms. Brody to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. She was confirmed by the United States Senate on September 2, 1992.

Had it not been for the NFL, Ms. Brody, now 82, would have lived out her term in relative obscurity; but when a group of former pro football players borrowed money at exorbitant interest rates against what they anticipated would be their NFL concussion settlements, the judge rendered her decision: she voided all contracts with lenders who were supposed to be repaid when the players received cash awards for their severe neurological and cognitive problems.

The ruling made sense to her: players suffering cognitive problems to begin with could not be expected to grasp all the ramifications of the lending agreement. (Some of the interest rates approached 50%.) Thousands of former players are involved in this suit, though not all of them needed to borrow money to pursue the case.

The decision marks a rare victory for the “little guy.” (Yes these were big NFL little guys, but the term still obtains.)

From the moment Trump’s first travel ban was overturned by a lower court, we’ve come to learn that our salvation in this era of a Washington monolith and its bullying authority may rest exclusively with lower courts, with local government, and with each other’s sense of fairness. Now states are obeying the Paris Agreement and cities are sheltering immigrants. It may be a while before we can vote the real scoundrels out of the nation’s capital, but we can always fight them at some level.

As with every story, feel-good or not, there’s more to this—some players are still wading through forests of red tape—but Judge Brody’s decision provides at least a scintilla of hope in an often hopeless time.

 

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He’d of helped build up the country.” Yet another American tragedy

Near the end of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby there’s a particularly poignant moment when the title character’s father arrives for Gatsby’s funeral. The atmosphere is grim—a drizzly day on Long Island—and for all Gatsby’s wealth and fame, the attendance is sparse. As readers we are surprised he even has a father—Gatsby, the man who appears to have sprung full-blown from nowhere, and then disappears just as quickly.

Mr. Gatz (for that’s the name that transmuted into Gatsby) is intensely proud of his son, and even boasts of that almost obsessiveness that drove the young man, the Franklin-esque approach to self-improvement in every detail of his life. Gatz summarizes:

“He had a big future before him, you know. He was only a young man but he had a lot of brain power here.”

And then:

“If he’d of lived he’d of been a great man. A man like James J. Hill. He’d of helped build up the country.”

Henry C. Gatz was not wrong about his son, but he was unaware of Gatsby’s moral weakness—that one insurmountable flaw—that rendered all superficial opinions worthless.

And so it is today.

Gatsby and Al Franken share only their association with Minnesota, but most of us were wrong about Franken also.

Not that he could not have done great things, even “build up the country,” even (and his history shows it) have made America a better place for women. But none of that counts because, on his way to improving women’s situations, he made it worse for some of them. As progressive as he is, as much as his philosophy aligns with ours, he has to go.

Believe me, I see the gross unfairness—that while Franken is castigated by his own party, Donald Trump, whose serial abuse is the stuff of legend, sits smugly in the White House untouched by the same rules that bring down everyone else. I feel the outrage of Mitch McConnell calling for Franken’s resignation while supporting a Republican pedophile who will foul McConnell’s own senate.

None of this is fair to Al Franken, but it may just be right anyway. Not only today in the current atmosphere, but right.

None of this “unvictimizes” the victims, but doing nothing victimizes them further.

No reader comes away from The Great Gatsby without a feeling of inequity: the promising Gatsby is dead, as is the hapless Myrtle Wilson and her chivalric but misguided husband, while the dissolute and unprincipled Tom and Daisy Buchanan continue on to their next debacle, unconcerned about the ashes they’ve left in their wake. The reader wishes it would all even out, but it doesn’t.

It may not even out this time either, certainly not for Al Franken. Yes, history will look more kindly upon him than upon Trump and Moore; after all, Franken has admitted his abuse and apologized for it.

But as with Gatsby, whatever light the future shines on him, the present cannot save him.

 

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Neil Young, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Alabama—forty years later

In the decades-long musical debate between Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd, I’ve decided at last to support Mr. Young.

It wasn’t an easy decision. Neil Young can be a little preachy at times, even presumptuous. But usually he’s on target regarding social issues, and I think this is (was) one of those good calls.

Young’s 1972 “Southern Man” was released seven years before Roy Moore decided pedophilia might be an interesting career choice. I don’t believe that Mr. Young had ever heard of Roy Moore, but he was aware of the American South which, a century after the end of the Civil War, tenaciously held on to Jim Crow and the belief that the Confederacy was poised for a comeback, this despite recent legislation empowering black citizens and rendering segregation illegal.

“Southern Man” became Mr. Young’s commentary on how the white South had built its wealth on the backs of slaves, and served as invitation to Southerners to progress into the twentieth century:

I saw cotton
and I saw black
Tall white mansions
and little shacks.
Southern man
when will you
pay them back?
I heard screamin’
and bullwhips cracking
How long? How long?

Apparently Southerners weren’t all that interested in obeying Mr. Young’s schedule, especially the band Lynyrd Skynyrd. They answered “Southern Man” (along with Young’s equally critical “Alabama”) with a rejoinder of their own, “Sweet Home, Alabama.” That was 1974, five years before Roy Moore…well, you know.

Lynyrd Skynyrd’s lyrics (written by two men from Florida and one from California) are best summarized in this passage:

Well I heard mister Young sing about her
Well, I heard ole Neil put her down
Well, I hope Neil Young will remember
A Southern man don’t need him around anyhow

and even more telling:

In Birmingham they love the governor (boo, boo, boo)
Now we all did what we could do
Now Watergate does not bother me
Does your conscience bother you?
Tell the truth


Over the weekend Trump threw his support to Roy Moore, the RNC decided to fund Moore’s Senatorial campaign, and Mitch McConnell said he wasn’t quite so sure he believed the women anymore. Over the past two weeks the news cycle has all but silenced Leigh Corfman—the fourteen year-old that Moore “liked,”—and relegated all the other accusers to footnotes. And we, as usual, are letting it happen.

Leigh Corfman was in elementary school when Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd began their debate. She probably didn’t realize the songs were about her, if she realized their existence at all. But if Roy Moore defeats Doug Jones next week—and it seems increasingly likely that he will—then the forty-five intervening years will have counted for nothing in that state; and victims like Leigh Corfman will not end the abuse but simply be a name on a list that will continue to grow.

I side with Neil Young, but Lynyrd Skynyrd gets the trophy. Award ceremony: December 12th in Montgomery. Wear your flag.

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They held fast…until they didn’t.


And McConnell kind of believes the women.


Why are Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and John McCain taking the blame for the recent tax vote? How long do we expect them to stand tall while the rest of the party shrinks into the Lilliputians we have always expected them to be?

That wasn’t exactly a rhetorical question. Actually I expected those three to stand tall once more. Since they didn’t, they now reside in the pantheon of self-serving suck-ups, licking the thousand-dollar Gucci boots of the filthy rich who alone will benefit from this TrumpTax debacle.

But though their spiritual leader might be the president, their temporal leader is Mitch McConnell. And though he may have had, as a secondary purpose, to give his president a victory, his major goal has always been to impose the effete Republican standby claptrap we’ve heard for forty years: make the rich richer and they’ll share with us.

No they won’t. Make the rich richer and the money will be split between their shareholders and their families. Workers’ wages will not rise, not even if there’s more work.

But this tax bill extends well beyond 1040s and trickle-down economics. In order to pass it, these weasels slipped in a good deal of misery for the average American:

It ends the Affordable Care Act mandate. Ten to 15 million Americans will lose health insurance during the next ten years.

It allows oil drilling in Alaska. Natural Resources Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, drafted the language. Yes, that Lisa Murkowski.

It allows prospective parents to shelter money in a college fund for a child in utero. No big deal? Yes it is: it’s an easy step from there to declaring that same fetus a child. Just a little candy for the evangelicals who got their serial sex-abuser into the White House but think abortion is really bad.

Speaking of which, churches may now engage in political activity without jeopardizing their tax status.

Most economists claim TrumpTax is a hoax, but when everything goes to hell in three or four years and the government needs cash, expect cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and every beneficial social program you can think of.

This—and more—is what Mitch McConnell has won for us. And in case you haven’t noticed, he’s “come around” on Roy Moore also, having modified his “I believe the women” to “Let the people of Alabama make the call.” It’s the Pontius Pilate approach to decision-making, though I doubt if McConnell’s hands will ever come clean after Moore wins. And how could he not win? We’re talking about Alabama.

So yes, be disappointed in the heretofore sensible Republican Three, but in this Congress and in this country, tribalism will win out every time, even when the chief is an idiot.

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Dumb-down Friday and the TrumpTax Bill

It’s complicated.

Usually when someone says that to me, it’s a signal to shut up and ask no more questions.

So let me say right off the bat—this is not complicated.

Three months before the 2016 presidential election, a New York Times videographer recorded the voices and actions of supporters at several Trump rallies. The result was ugly but illuminating. This is the third time I’ve included the disturbing video in an article, and as with the other times I will warn you that it is uncensored, vulgar, and repulsive. It will remind you of what you probably envision Nazi Germany to have been like during the rise of Hitler.

But this is not about Hitler or any other well-worn though obvious historical references. Not directly. This is about TrumpTax and the sworn goal of the Republican party to keep America stupid. The bill is anti-science and anti-education in one neat package. It’s win-win for losers.

Here’s how it works in the case of one Dacen Waters. He’s in his his fourth year of pursuing a doctorate in physics at Carnegie Mellon University. He receives an annual stipend of just under $30,000 and a $43,000 tuition waver, Under the new tax plan, tuition that universities waive in exchange for working on campus as researchers and teaching assistants would be deemed taxable income. The result? Mr. Waters would incur a $7,000 tax increase, an eventuality, he says, that would force him out of school.*

“It’s pretty unheard-of to do anything in physics [without a] doctoral degree,” he said.

But of course, the current anti-intellectual and anti-scientific Republican ethos has no room for advances in physics, let alone some sheepskin that looks pretty on a wall. The party of coal, of deregulating pesticides, of the already leaky Keystone Pipeline, of lowering automobile mileage requirements, and of demolishing the EPA already knows everything. Further research and discovery are nice and all that, and the Republicans might even utter lip service about a cancer cure, but they already have enough knowledge to take us through the 19th and 20th centuries…and that should suffice.

That video again—the iconic young man in the blue t-shirt, the Islamophobe in the black. Contrast those two with Dacen Waters—a young man pursuing an advanced degree from a prestigious university. Of course we’ve known for years what Trump’s base looks like, sounds like, and thinks like. It’s disheartening though to see so many other Republicans—many of them educated, bright, and sensible—selling out to the same false god.

There remains, even now, a chance to make things better, and some of the Republican senators have in fact balked at this tuition measure; but in the end there is little hope that these objections will prevent passage—will keep us from (in an utter  perversion of Fitzgerald’s beautiful wording) being borne back ceaselessly into the past.

*New York Times, November 15, 2017

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Two cautionary tales for the price of one. (Actually, for the price of none.)

There are two articles you should read today if you are able to access them.

The first, a straight news story from the Washington Post, makes me proud to be a subscriber (if only online) but also reinforces my belief that we need to support responsible journalism in all its forms—especially in the age of Trump, who has never hidden his desire to squelch all of it.

The second, an op-ed piece from Bari Weiss of the New York Times, deals with a concern we discussed at home few weeks ago when the sexual harassment charges began to cascade down. I remembered the “Believe the Children” hysteria of the late 1980s and how the false accusations had left the world a more dangerous place for children. The recent attempt to vilify the Post with a false accusation about Roy Moore will occur in some form again—there will be, as Ms. Weis says, a “Rolling Stone moment,” and people like Moore and Trump and other serial abusers will exploit it as proof that women alleging harassment, stalking, groping, even pedophilia and rape, are liars.

We all have to be ready.

 

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From now on, let’s call evangelicals what they really are…

…and what they are is becoming clearer as we approach December 12 and the Alabama Senate election.

Not that we didn’t already have a pretty good idea of what the religious right actually is: a fundamentalist, illiberal, basically white, and scary-as-all-hell arm of the Republican Party. You can accuse me of painting with too broad a brush, but I could use a roller in this case and it wouldn’t make any difference.

I could even use a spray gun if voters insist on saying loudly and proudly that they’ll be voting for an accused rapist and serial abuser. I didn’t make them say it, but they said it. (Do they know he was also a mall fugitive?)

Obviously, tribal politics has supplanted scripture among these evangelicals. Anyone but a democrat—okay, I get that part. But Anyone but a democrat including grown men who seek sex from fourteen year-old children is a little more problematic for most right-minded adults.

Evangelicals then: Tribalism. and politics. Not religion.

Now consider this little tidbit as the Republican tax bill nears a vote.

A 1954 law bans churches and other nonprofit groups from engaging in political activity. The law is 63 years old, and right-wing religious groups have been fighting it for 62.9 years. Now, in the reign of Trump, Moore, and others who traffic in misaligned libidos, these groups may have a chance to turn churches into a well-funded political force: by some estimates close to $2 billion could end up in church coffers, and the leaders would have the legal right to spend it on whatever rapist or child abuser they wanted—provided it was not a Democrat. I wouldn’t think women or citizens of color would benefit from their funding either.

Those of us who still advocate for that quaint notion of separating church and state oppose this, but upon further review, maybe it’s time to end the hypocrisy. Let’s call all those religious leaders and their followers, all of whom seem so forgiving of Trump, Moore, et al. what they really are: Republicans. But let’s also designate them a bona fide political party with a platform and a nominating committee and a convention and the name of their choosing. Oh, and a color: they could be the white states on election night.

Of course this is the last thing that the actual Republican party, what remains of it, would want to see. The splintering would virtually assure there’d never be another Republican president—not without a subsequent purge and the re-establishment of the center. That damage might take a generation to repair.

But at least we could stop listening to Democrats like me whining about the hypocrisy of the evangelicals. They’re not hypocrites: they’re just the party faithful.

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