Posts © 2011-2012 by Gerald G. Day







Monday, December 31, 2018


December 30, 2018
     The Supreme Court’s decision in Heller v. District of Columbia did much to encourage pro-gun forces, less by its holding than by its loose language concerning gun rights and its rewriting of the Second Amendment to explain away the reference to militias.  Sometimes lost in general discussion of the case on both sides of the issue are qualifications and limitations in the opinion which may have left some doors ajar.  Gun-control forces should push those doors open.  In that spirit, last month Washington voters approved — 59.35% voting in favor — Initiative 1639, entitled The Public Safety and Semiautomatic Assault Rifle Act.[63]1   It amends the existing law on firearms, RCW 9.41.[64]2  How do the initiative’s provisions fare when compared to the language in Heller?  In addition, does existing law raise questions? [65]3

Dealers.
     The Supreme Court’s opinion stated that “nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on . . . laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms” Existing law, as modified by I-1639, imposes such limits, described below.
     Initially, it complies with Heller’s reference to commercial sale of arms by limiting its restrictions on sale to “dealers.”  That term is defined in existing law as follows: “ ‘Dealer’ means a person engaged in the business of selling firearms at wholesale or retail who has, or is required to have, a federal firearms license under 18 U.S.C. Sec. 923(a).”  One who is not required to be so licensed is not a dealer “if that person makes only occasional sales, exchanges, or purchases of firearms for the enhancement of a personal collection or for a hobby, or sells all or part of his or her personal collection of firearms.”  Dealers are subject to rules which include background checks; more on that later.
     There should be no Heller problem in imposing limitations on sales by dealers, but existing RCW 9.41.113 extends the requirement of background checks to all “firearm sales or transfers, in whole or part in this state including without limitation a sale or transfer where either the purchaser or seller or transferee or transferor is in Washington . . . unless specifically exempted by state or federal law.”  This includes “sales and transfers through a licensed dealer, at gun shows, online, and between unlicensed persons.”  If neither party is a licensed dealer, “the parties to the transaction shall complete the sale or transfer through a licensed dealer as follows:
(a) The seller or transferor shall deliver the firearm to a licensed dealer to process the sale or transfer as if it is selling or transferring the firearm from its inventory to the purchaser . . .”
(b) . . .the licensed dealer shall comply with all requirements of federal and state law that would apply if the licensed dealer were selling or transferring the firearm from its inventory to the purchaser or transferee, including but not limited to conducting a background check on the prospective purchaser or transferee . .  . and complying with the specific requirements and restrictions on semiautomatic assault rifles in this act. 
The last phrase is added by I-1639. 
     In effect, a private transaction is converted into a commercial one by involving a dealer. There is a long list of exceptions; even so, this extension to private transfers presses the limits of Heller’s concessions.

Background checks; waiting periods.
     RCW 9.41.092, as modified by I-1639, provides:
(1) Except as otherwise provided in this chapter and except for semiautomatic assault rifles under subsection (2) of this section, a licensed dealer may not deliver any firearm to a purchaser or transferee until the earlier of:
(a) The results of all required background checks are known and the purchaser or transferee (I) is not prohibited from owning or possessing a firearm under federal or state law and (ii) does not have a voluntary waiver of firearm rights currently in effect; or
(b) Ten business days have elapsed from the date the licensed dealer requested the background check. However, for sales and transfers of pistols if the purchaser or transferee does not have a valid permanent Washington driver's license or state identification card or has not been a resident of the state for the previous consecutive ninety days, then the time period in this subsection shall be extended from ten business days to sixty days.
(2) Except as otherwise provided in this chapter, a licensed dealer may not deliver a semiautomatic assault rifle to a purchaser or transferee until ten business days have elapsed from the date of the purchase application or, in the case of a transfer, ten business days have elapsed from the date a background check is initiated.
The additions by I-1639 are underlined.  It isn’t obvious why, in the case of purchase, the SAR may be delivered ten days after the purchase application, but in the case of a transfer — and for other firearms —  time runs from the background check application.

Semiautomatic assault rifles.
     All references to SARs below were added by the Initiative.  It defines such a weapon as follows: " ‘Semiautomatic assault rifle’ means any rifle which utilizes a portion of the energy of a firing cartridge to extract the fired cartridge case and chamber the next round, and which requires a separate pull of the trigger to fire each cartridge.”
     Parsing Heller on this category of weapons is difficult, because the majority opinion is internally inconsistent on whether the Second Amendment covers only weapons in existence in the Seventeenth Century.  I-1639 depends for its survival on the more restrictive interpretation, which is the one the opinion seemed to settle on: “We also recognize another important limitation on the right to keep and carry arms. [United States v.] Miller said, as we have explained, that the sorts of weapons protected were those ‘in common use at the time’.  We think that limitation is fairly supported by the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of ‘dangerous and unusual weapons.’ "  Assault rifles clearly were not in use then and are dangerous, if not, unfortunately, uncommon. 
     That a modern militia would use modern weapons does not change the interpretation: “It may be objected that if weapons that are most useful in military service — M-16 rifles and the like – may be banned, then the Second Amendment right is completely detached from the prefatory clause [the reference to militias]. But as we have said, the conception of the militia at the time of the Second Amendment's ratification was the body of all citizens capable of military service, who would bring the sorts of lawful weapons that they possessed at home to militia duty.” 
     It could be argued that the Court’s comment is limited to the M-16, and that an SAR is a less  dangerous weapon. That would seem to be a strained interpretation, but, as with much of Heller, who knows what that passage means or may mean in the future?        Several decisions since McDonald have upheld bans on assault rifles.  In Friedman v. Highland Park, 784 F.3d 406 (2015), the plaintiff challenged a city ordinance in Illinois which banned manufacturing, selling or possessing semiautomatic firearms.  The lower courts upheld the ordinance and the Supreme Court declined review.  New York State Rifle & Pistol Ass'n, Inc. v. Cuomo, 804 F.3d 242 (2015), upheld New York and Connecticut laws prohibiting possession of semiautomatic assault weapons.  In Kolbe v. Hogan, 849 F. 3d 114 (2017), the court held that a Maryland ban on assault long guns, i.e., most semi-automatic rifles, is valid, as they are like M-16s.  The Supreme Court declined review.  In a second round of Heller v. District of Columbia , the Court of Appeals upheld a District law banning semi-automatic rifles.  (Judge, now Justice, Kavanaugh dissented in part because those guns differ from M-16s.  He also emphasized their widespread use).
     If SARs may be banned, surely they may be regulated; the Initiative does so.  I-1639 modifies a provision applicable to pistols; the existing text, RCW 9.41.090, is as follows:
In addition to the other requirements of this chapter [RCW 9.41], no dealer may deliver a pistol to the purchaser thereof until:
(a) The purchaser produces a valid concealed pistol license and the dealer has recorded the purchaser's name, license number, and issuing agency . . . .
(b) The dealer is notified in writing by . . . the chief of police or the sheriff of the jurisdiction in which the purchaser resides that the purchaser is eligible to possess a pistol . . . . or
(c) The requirements or time periods in RCW 9.41.092 have been satisfied.
As noted above, RCW 9.41.092 sets the waiting period at ten days in most cases.  That may interfere with the background-check mechanism.  However, there seems to be concern that any waiting period may offend Heller’s version of the Second Amendment.
     The Initiative adds this:  
In addition to the other requirements of this chapter, no dealer may deliver a semiautomatic assault rifle to the purchaser thereof until:
(a) The purchaser provides proof that he or she has completed a recognized firearm safety training program within the last five years that, at a minimum, includes instruction on: (i) Basic firearms safety rules; (ii) Firearms and children, including secure gun storage and talking to children about gun safety; (iii) Firearms and suicide prevention; (iv) Secure gun storage to prevent unauthorized access and use; (v) Safe handling of firearms; and (vi) State and federal firearms laws, including prohibited firearms transfers.
As with pistols, there is a requirement of a background check and a time limit, corresponding to subsections (b) and (c) above, including the reference to RCW 9.41.092. 

Safe storage.
     This is the trickiest issue.     Safe storage of guns in the home often is suggested as way of preventing gun deaths.  Accordingly, I-1639 requires that an application to purchase a firearm contain this clause:
CAUTION: The presence of a firearm in the home has been associated with an increased risk of death to self and others, including an increased risk of suicide, death during domestic violence incidents, and unintentional deaths to children and others.
 That advice is useful but, of course, it may be ignored.  Something to encourage compliance is needed, but disabling a gun from immediate use is the one type of gun-control law specifically addressed by Heller.  It held that “the District's . . . prohibition against rendering any lawful firearm in the home operable for the purpose of immediate self-defense” violates the Second Amendment.   That would preclude safe-storage laws which require gun owners to lock up their guns or provide trigger locks as impediments to immediate use.  However, the drafters of the initiative may have found a way around the problem. 
     They got off to a bad start in the preamble by seeming to mandate safe storage.  The Initiative is described as “AN ACT Relating to increasing public safety by implementing firearm safety measures, including requiring . . . secure gun storage for all firearms. . . .”  Later, it states: “Secure gun storage requirements for all firearms will increase public safety by helping ensure that children and other prohibited persons do not inappropriately gain access to firearms . . .” 
     However, in the operative sections, it takes a different, prudent approach.  Instead of requiring safe storage, the new law creates penalties for allowing a gun to be used in a way that harms another:  “Nothing in this section mandates how or where a firearm must be stored.” However: “A person who stores or leaves a firearm in a location where the person knows, or reasonably should know, that a prohibited person may gain access to the firearm . . .[i]s guilty of community endangerment due to unsafe storage of a firearm. . . .”  The degree of the offense depends on the use of the gun; one is guilty in the first degree if the “prohibited person” uses the firearm to cause personal injury or death. 
     There is no offense if: “ The firearm was in secure gun storage, or secured with a trigger lock or similar device that is designed to prevent the unauthorized use or discharge of the firearm . . .”   This strongly encourages safe storage — by penalizing its absence if harm results —  without mandating it.  Further, there is no liability, even if the gun was not safely stored, if  the prohibited person “obtains, or obtains and discharges, the firearm in a lawful act of self-defense . . . .”  Together, those exceptions satisfy Heller.  Actually, the second exception is broader than the Heller rule, which referred to self defense “in the home.”  
     Another provision further limits the reach of the law.  The “prohibited person” whose access to the gun may create liability is defined as “a person who is prohibited from possessing a firearm under state or federal law.”  It isn’t clear, to me at least, why liability, subject to the stated exceptions, doesn’t extend to any and all who appropriate the original possessor’s firearm.  Perhaps the argument is that a non-prohibited person could have obtained a gun lawfully elsewhere.
    In order to further encourage safe storage, the Initiative provides: “When selling or transferring any firearm, every dealer shall offer to sell or give the purchaser or transferee a secure gun storage device, or a trigger lock or similar device that is designed to prevent the unauthorized use or discharge of the firearm.”  In addition, “Every store, shop, or sales outlet where firearms are sold, that is registered as a dealer in firearms with the department of licensing, shall conspicuously post, in a prominent location” a sign stating  (in large type)         Warning: you may face criminal prosecution if you store or leave an unsecured firearm where a person who is prohibited from possessing firearms can and does obtain possession.”  In addition, upon the sale or transfer of a firearm, the dealer shall deliver a copy of that warning.
     Apart from the limited definition of “prohibited person” this seems to be as close as a jurisdiction can come to requiring safe storage without running afoul of the Court’s peculiar views on the Second Amendment. 

Age limits.
     Purchase of pistols and SARs and possession thereof, with exceptions and no little confusion, is limited to those who are at least twenty-one.  As to purchase, the Initiative provides: “A person under twenty-one years of age may not purchase a pistol or semiautomatic assault rifle, and except as otherwise provided in this chapter, no person may sell or transfer a semiautomatic assault rifle to a person under twenty-one years of age.”(emphasis added)  Why may a pistol be transferred to a young person who may not purchase it?
     The rules regarding possession, are, to say the least, complex with again, a distinction between weapons. 
[A] person at least eighteen years of age, but less than twenty-one years of age, may possess a pistol only: (a) In the person's place of abode; (b) At the person's fixed place of business; or (c) On real property under his or her control. 
That is existing law; the Initiative applies those permissions to SARs and, as to them, adds:
(d) For the specific purpose of (i) moving to a new place of abode; (ii) traveling between the person's place of abode and real property under his or her control; or (iii) selling or transferring the firearm in accordance with the requirements of this chapter; provided that in all of these situations the semiautomatic assault rifle is unloaded and either in secure gun storage or secured with a trigger lock or similar device that is designed to prevent the unauthorized use or discharge of the firearm.
The rationale for different rules for pistols and SARs isn’t obvious.
     I-1639 clearly is a step in the right direction, and seems to have finessed Heller on safe storage.  There should be more such efforts. 
     Lawmaking by initiative becomes necessary in the absence of action by the State Legislature, but 1639 illustrates the problem inherent in the initiative process.  It is long, complicated, containing more provisions than I have discussed, and is written in formal legislative style — confusing enough even to those used to it — with many subsections and references to existing law.  The likelihood that anyone who voted for or against fully understood it is minimal.

______________________

63. For simplicity, I have referred to semiautomatic assault rifles as SARs.

64.
The new law takes effect on July 1, 2019, except for the age limitations, which become effective January 1.

65. Heller was extended to the states in McDonald v. Chicago.


Tuesday, December 4, 2018


December 4, 2018
 George H.W. Bush died on Friday.  His passing reminds us that there was a time when a Republican President was a decent man, knowledgeable about and experienced in government, and when the United States was not an object of puzzlement and derision.  His note to Bill Clinton, after losing the 1992 election to him — “Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you” — epitomizes his distance from the current incumbent, who can’t stop trashing Hillary. 
 He served his country in many ways.  Sadly, his party has ceased to serve — or, at times, even recognize — the country’s interests.  Its  support for the buffoon who is degrading the office Bush held is not entirely surprising, as the degenerate condition of the Republican Party made a Trump presidency possible. 
 A number of conservative commentators have rebelled against Trump and what the Party has become.  One is Jennifer Rubin, the prolific columnist for The Washington Post:
Trump’s performance also revealed the degree to which the right has become intellectually corrupt but also bereft of anything resembling traditional values or simple decency. . . . In sum, Trump represents a party that now embraces (or is resigned to) intellectual rot and moral nihilism.[60]
Again: “After one has tried for a decent interval to admonish and reform the GOP, isn’t the only course, if one wishes to preserve one’s own sense of decency and honor, to resign from and disassociate oneself from the GOP?”[61]
Another new critic is Max Boot, who has, indeed, abandoned the Republican Party, which he  describes as having fallen into the hands of “neocons.”  He redefines that term as “neo-Confederates:”
It is hard to remember that Republicans were once the Party of Lincoln. . . . [L]eaders such as George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney had been trying to appeal to minority and moderate voters. But with his pandering to white grievances, Trump has abetted the rise of the neo-Confederates.[62]
Perhaps some day Trump will go so far down the road to inept authoritarianism, or his misdeeds will become so obvious, that Republicans in Congress will desert him and move in a new direction.  A slightly positive sign is the preliminary vote in the Senate to withdraw support for Saudi Arabia’s attacks on Yemen, partly a reaction to Trump’s support of the Crown Prince even after the Khashoggi murder.
President Bush said in his speech accepting the nomination in 1988, “I want a kinder and gentler nation.”  In his inaugural address, Bush spoke of “a thousand points of light, of all the community organizations that are spread like stars throughout the Nation, doing good.” Trump mocked both expressions, a perfect reflection of the distance between the two occupants of the Oval Office, and the distance the presidency, the GOP and the country have fallen.

_______________________

60.
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/opinions/wp/2018/10/17/trumprevels-in-his-ignorance-and-reveals-his-cowardice/?utm_term=.277cf6b551dd

61.
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/opinions/wp/2018/12/03/bush-41-resigned-from-the-nra-shouldnt-decent-americans-quit-the-gop/?utm_term=.f34ee75e66f3&wpisrc=nl_popns& wpmm=1

62.
 https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-gop-is-now-the-party-of-neo-confederates/2018/11/25/d5d9dd88-f109-11e8-bc79-68604ed88993_story.html?utm_term= .5d5f72fe4aa2


Saturday, November 10, 2018


November 9, 2018
Bob Woodward’s latest book, Fear, essentially is a history of the late stages of the Trump campaign and the first year or so of his administration.  It is packed with quotes, suggesting considerable access to the players, but its narrative is so unstructured that, as I read it, it seemed not to have any overriding theme.  However, the author had suggested two. 
One, set forth in the Prologue, is this: “The . . . United States in 2017 was tethered to the words and actions of an emotionally overwrought, mercurial and unpredictable leader.  Members of the staff had joined to purposefully block some of what they believed were the president’s most dangerous impulses. It was a nervous breakdown of the executive power of the most powerful country in the world.”[56]  The story supports that summary; among other protective acts, aides surreptitiously removed papers from Trump’s desk to prevent his signing them.  I suppose that I didn’t recognize that as a significant thread because the portraits of Trump, and to some degree of the chaos in the White House, were familiar. 
The other theme, reflected in the title, appears on another introductory page.  It is a comment by Trump in an interview with the author in March, 2016: “Real power is — I don’t even want to use the word — fear.”[57]  No context is given.
Possibly Trump avoids the phrase, but the author did not.  In a passage referring to “private advice to a friend who had acknowledged some bad behavior toward women,”  Trump is quoted:  “You’ve got to deny, deny, deny and push back on these women. If you admit to anything and any culpability, then you’re dead. . . .  You showed weakness, You’ve got to be strong. You’ve got to be aggressive. You’ve got to deny anything that’s said about you.”[58]3  Woodward prefaced that quote with this anticipatory restatement: “Real power is fear. It’s all about strength.  Never show weakness. You’ve always got to be strong. Don’t be bullied.” Presumably he was summarizing Trump’s attitude, but the reference to fear doesn’t fit.  The quote is clear enough; the gloss wasn’t necessary, except to fit the story into the second theme.
That passage is part of a short, separate section which begins with a discussion of the relationship between Trump and his wife, and which is sandwiched between discussions of the Mueller investigation and tariffs.  That is typical of the episodic nature of the narrative.
Mr. Woodward inserted “Real power is fear” at two later points, one referring to Trump’s  threats, in business deals, to walk away, but applying it to NAFTA negotiations, the other concerning relations with North Korea.[59]  As with the reference to fear above, these are the author’s comments, not statements by Trump.  Again, they don’t quite fit the context, so they seemed to me to be an overreach. 
However, Trump’s behavior during the runup to the midterms demonstrates that Fear is Power indeed is his guiding motto.  Facing a possible blue wave, he resorted to fearmongering about immigrants, hoping to frighten undecided voters into opting for safety. 
In the process, he may have convinced the faithful that his bluster is a mark of strength, but the Trump quote in the “private advice” passage reveals that he is a weak man trying to look strong.  Although on television he could shout “you’re fired,” he often cannot fire real people face to face. He scatters insults constantly, but whines about ill-treatment if criticized.   
Rather than making America great again, in his meeting with Putin Trump was weak and made the country look weak.  Most recently he has done both by appearing to be so frightened of a distant caravan of refugees that the Army must be called out.
Fear is an appropriate title in another way.  From the beginning, Trump has been afraid of disclosure.   That has become worse with the election of a Democratic House.  Firing Jeff Sessions and replacing him with an apparently more pliable acting AG is a result of Trump’s fear of the Mueller investigation.  Probably there will be more such signs.

_____________________
<br>56. p. xxii

57. p. xiii per the index, actually unnumbered

58. p. 175

59.
pp.274-75, 300


Sunday, October 28, 2018


October 27, 2018
There is a long tradition of  endorsement of candidates by newspapers; The Seattle  Times is no exception.  It is, perhaps, a bit more smug about its wisdom in such matters than some. The Times editorial page advised us on October 21 that it is time to vote, and “The editorial board is here to help.”  The implication is that the board sees political issues more clearly than most voters.  One of the endorsements puts that in doubt: the choice of Dino Rossi, Republican, over Kim Schrier, Democrat, for Congress in the Eighth District.
This is not an ordinary election; the country is in danger from an incompetent, unstable President, who is aided and abetted by the Republican Congress.  The Times is not entirely unaware of the problem. “We have frequently expressed grave concerns in editorials about President Donald Trump’s divisiveness and policies on everything from immigration to tariffs to environmental rollbacks.”  That’s too mild a critique, but it shows some perception.  However, the board then negated its insight: “But Congress needs more people like Rossi, a pragmatic lawmaker with a demonstrated record of working across the aisle with Democrats for solutions that work for the greater good.” 
Even assuming the description of Rossi’s record to be accurate, their choice makes no sense.  What is needed is a Democratic House which will exercise some control over the resentful, vindictive adolescent in the White House.  The editorial board is dimly aware of that as well — “Schrier embodies the national effort to take back Congress from the Republicans as a check on the president” —  but isn’t able to see the logic in that position.
In defending its choice, the Times resorts to the everyone’s-to-blame excuse: “Yes, Trump needs to be checked. But the fighting and the divisiveness has led to a hopelessly dysfunctional Congress, where people fight over issues, not push for solutions.”  It takes a remarkable level of self-deception to suggest that resisting bad policies is divisiveness, that issues don’t matter, that somehow the GOP Congress would be reasonable if only asked nicely, that voting for a Republican is going to lead to checking Trump.
Voting a straight— Democratic — ticket may seem unsophisticated, but this is a year when it is the only responsible choice.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018


October 23, 2018
     The Kavanaugh hearings provided another illustration, as if one were needed, of the  fact that one-party, authoritarian rule need not be conducted by smart, clever people.  The hearings demonstrated Kavanaugh’s emotional unfitness and political bias and raised serious questions about prior behavior, but lost him no Republican votes.  The FBI investigation was a farce, too brief to be helpful; many records regarding his government service were withheld.   He was going to be confirmed no matter how bad he or the process looked.  None of that took much intelligence.
     Senator Grassley, in complaining that not everyone agreed with the Party’s choice, revealed that he isn’t altogether sure what is meant by the expression “the fix is in.”  Referring to Democrats’ opposition to Kavanaugh, he  declared that “the fix was in from the beginning.” Apparently he meant that their opposition had formed early.  Resisting a nomination hardly is “fixing” it. 
     However, the restructuring of the Court was, indeed, fixed.  Republicans were determined to have a reactionary Justice; to that end they refused to consider Obama’s nominee to replace Scalia, and rushed to confirm Kavanaugh.  The fix definitely was in, and confused rhetoric by one of the fixers won’t change that.  Semantic diversion wasn’t the most notable aspect of the performance by Senate Republicans regarding the nomination.  Consider the hypocrisy.  After declining even to hold hearings on Merrick Garland in 2016, and after serious questions were raised regarding Kavanaugh’s suitability, they pretended shock at the opposition by Democrats and women’s groups, accusing the latter of being paid performers.  They even had the wimpish gall to complain of being harassed.
     Donald Trump, the leader of a Party increasingly trending in the direction of authoritarianism is, to put it kindly, not very intelligent.  In more normal times, that would be a disadvantage.  Nor so now.  “In the right-wing bubble, where ignorance in service of tribalism is no sin, Trump faces no ridicule or serious opposition.”[55]1 
     The tendency of Republicans to stretch the truth in aid of their agenda is based on the assumption that the voters are ignorant.  That explains Mitch McConnell’s claim that the cure for the budget deficit is “entitlement reform, and we’re talking about Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid;” he assumes that no one will remember the massive tax cut. 
     That tendency is exacerbated by the example of their leader.  Trump has left behind mere disregard for facts, such as evidence of human sources of global warming.  Recently he’s gone into all-out fantasy mode, accusing Democrats of planning to give cars to illegal immigrants, claiming that “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners” have joined the refugee caravan in Mexico, and citing non-existent riots in sanctuary cities.
     Trump clearly has neither shame nor any principle other than self-aggrandizement.  It’s sad, to say nothing of dangerous, that a grand old party has adopted the same character.  
_____________________

55. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/opinions/wp/2018/10/17/trump-revels-in-his- ignorance-and-reveals-his-cowardice/?utm_term=.277cf6b551dd



Sunday, October 7, 2018

October 6, 2018

        Oh, why can't the English learn to —
        set a good example to people whose
        English is painful to your ears?
        The Scots and the Irish leave you close to tears.
        There even are places where English completely disappears.
        — In America, they haven't used it for years! [51]
           
    If he were among us today, Henry Higgins would be even more appalled at the state of American English.  Slang always has been used, but once it knew its place and wasn’t the standard language of people who should speak and write well, such as journalists and authors.  
    The internet, not surprisingly, is a major source of the decline.  Now on many web sites a failure is a fail, an indication is a tell, a question is an ask, an appearance or situation is a look.   The Daily Beast informed us that “CIA Analyst Turned Candidate Fears She’ll Get Doxxed Next.”  That word refers, apparently, to “the practice of revealing another person’s personal information on the Internet.” [52]  “Monica Lewinsky to Talk Bill Clinton Affair in New Series.” Presumably she will talk about it.  The New York Times was doubly in the new style with this announcement: “New read: This October, learn how to talk money.”
    “Narc” no longer is merely a noun referring to a drug-enforcement officer; now it’s a verb, as in “a hotline with which to narc on their neighbors.”  The new definition: “The act of turning someone into law enforcement or authority figures” not, apparently, limited to drug issues.
    Publications, like the Times, which should know better are not immune; the New York Review of Books listed an article entitled “The Priesthood of the Big Crazy” and, on NYR Daily, one captioned “The Flynn Tapes: a New Tell.”
    One of the benefits, if it can be so termed, of making up words is that they are undefined, so may be used in different and contradictory senses.  Take “woke” as an example.  The Washington Post headlined a story about Colin Kaepernick and shoes thus: “Nike isn’t trying to be ‘woke.’ It’s trying to sell shoes,” and in the body of the article observed, “But my sneakers, ultimately, cannot be woke. They’re just fabric.”  The Urban Dictionary tells us: “Being Woke means being aware. . . Knowing what[‘]s going on in the community.”  However, the word may be used derisively, as we’ll see below. 
    Crude language is more common; here’s an example from a political campaign email: “Mike DeWine[‘s] lying about Rich’s record of standing up for women really pisses me off.”  (The bad word there didn’t pass my spell-checker; it’s so behind the times).
    Creators of crossword puzzles use slang, or attempt to be clever in clues and answers such as:
        clue                                   answer [53]
        swell                                       fab
        many a time suck                app
        lay about? no, u-turn          act
        gimme a break                      yeesh
    A recent book, which is a strong critique of Trump and contemporary Republicans — and contains a few insightful criticisms of Democrats — is, unfortunately, also an extended display of the decline of language.  Everything Trump Touches Dies, by Rick Wilson, is subtitled A Republican Strategist Gets Real About the Worst President Ever.  That discloses the viewpoint, which is distinctive and significant: the author is a committed conservative who has helped to elect Republicans, so his opinion of Trump is free of any liberal bias.  I found the book interesting and useful but annoying to read.
    The basic style is breezy and slangy; some of the slang seems made up on the spot, but some mirrors the internet style.  Few things merely are stated; they are dressed up in rhetorical flourishes which become tiresome.  Here’s an illustrative sentence: “From Masters of the Trump Universe to disgraced, unemployed, and unemployable laughingstock is a bad look on anyone, but the personnel meat-grinder of this White House has those of us on the outside looking at them with a weapons-grade case of schadenfreude.” “Look” is used there in the internet mode, and again here:  “It turned out that Kelly’s account was itself a lie. It wasn’t a good look.”
    Wilson also follows the trend in the use of “tell”:  “It should have been a tell that some of the values our military holds dear today. . . . got lost somewhere along the way in the belly of the Trump beast.”     
    Inventive grammar abounds.  Regarding the Trump base: “it’s almost a moral imperative to slap the stupid out of them.” An adjective masquerades as a noun.  Regarding political attacks: “the Clintons . . . are a magnet for this kind of cray”  Apparently cray means crazy; an invented adjective is used as a noun.  Wandering parts of speech is another internet-English characteristic.
    We return to “woke”: “Hannity’s populist woke workin’ man shtick rings a bit hollow. . . .;”  Of the various definitions of “woke,” this appears to fit: “A person who pretends to be of greater intelligence than he or she in fact is.”  
    Here’s a mystery: “Breitbart had long relied on  . . sweet, sweet chunks of quan from Robert Mercer . . .” I couldn’t get a clue from the Urban Dictionary; none of its definitions of “quan” make any sense here.
    Although it would be difficult to stand out in this medley, one theme does: the repeated use of crude language. “His first budget was received even by many of Trump’s fans in Congress with the same delight as one might experience on finding a turd in a punchbowl.”  “It was an early tell for Washington observers that the Trump White House was going to turn into a five-alarm shitshow. . . .”  Sexual innuendo is one of Wilson’s favorite attack modes.  I won’t give any examples as they all refer to known individuals who, whatever their demerits, don’t deserve repetition of his comments.
    Oddly, the author offers, with no sense of irony, comments on others’ diction and grammar:  “Trumpism exists in the shallow end of the rhetorical pool.”  ”Trump’s raging, vulgarian, insult-comic shtick wore thin. . . .”  “The Word-Finder Republicans aren’t making arguments; they’re just venting, pecking like chickens for tiny fragments of snark, hoping to sound witty without possessing even he slightest wit.”
    True, Mr. Wilson does not rely exclusively on slang and faux-words.  Every now and then, he offers an elegant, sometimes obscure, word or foreign phrase, such as risible, semiotics, Sisyphean, ichor, Ancien Régime, mirabile dictu and sine qua non.  He refers to Hobbes and quotes Kant.  Most of the book, though, features the cutely coarse style, which he employs even in describing himself: “Hell, if you’ve ever seen me on television, you know that I’m an equal opportunity asshole who doesn’t mind mixing it up.”  That stance, he seems to think, is the way politics always has been.  “This tradition of hot rhetoric in politics stretches back to the founding Fathers, who could name-call, smear, and drop ye olde oppo like champions.” [54]  (“Oppo” here may mean opposition research). 
    Politics is combative, and rough language isn’t anything new, but this goes a bit far.  A reader might be excused for dismissing this book as not worthy of notice as commentary.  It is notable, though, as a 311-page contribution to the debasement of political discourse and of language in general.

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51. My Fair Lady, “Why Can’t the English”

52. All definitions here of pseudo-speech are from the Urban Dictionary,  https://www.urbandictionary.com/.                                           

53. From The Seattle Times

54. p.91

Saturday, September 8, 2018


September 8, 2018
On September 6, The New York Times opinion page carried a column by an  anonymous “senior official in the Trump administration,” which denounces the President as an individual, and bewails his negative effect.  “The root of the problem is the president’s amorality. Anyone who works with him knows he is not moored to any discernible first principles that guide his decision making.” His “leadership style . . . is impetuous, adversarial, petty and ineffective.”
However, the author and others are ever vigilant: “The erratic behavior would be more concerning if it weren’t for unsung heroes in and around the White House. Some of his aides have been cast as villains by the media. But in private, they have gone to great lengths to keep bad decisions contained to the West Wing, though they are clearly not always successful.”
Reactions have included speculation as to the identity of the author; a rush by members of the Trump administration to deny being that person and to denounce such disloyal tactics; discussion of whether the Times editorial page staff should have published the column without demanding that the author identify himself; and speculation as to what the Times news department will do if it discovers his identity. 
The content of the column has received less attention, partly because its comments on Trump’s limited ability and erratic behavior are old news.  The one item attracting comment is its claim that insiders, including the author, have conspired to prevent Trump from making egregious mistakes. 
Many have commented that the author, rather than hiding behind anonymity, should have signed the article and then resigned, either as an admission of guilt or as a protest. However, that would not serve the author’s aims.  The column inadvertently reveals that the senior official is sticking with Trump, despite his incompetence and the danger of disastrous acts, because he can be used.
The most important aspect of the article is the agenda the author wishes to protect and advance.  He wraps it in a few clichés: “We want the administration to succeed and think that many of its policies have already made America safer and more prosperous.”  He concedes that “the president shows little affinity for ideals long espoused by conservatives: “free minds, free markets and free people,” and Trump is “anti-trade.”  However, there are “bright spots that the near-ceaseless negative coverage of the administration fails to capture: effective deregulation, historic tax reform, a more robust military and more.”  To   further such policies, the author will rely on his and others’ skill — and luck —to restrain the idiot. 
If Trump is as much a menace as the author states, and that seems clear, then the proper move is to initiate action under the Twenty-fifth Amendment.  He has rejected that because it would cause a constitutional crisis, as if having as President an unstable adolescent with autocratic tendencies, whose election was supported clandestinely by a foreign power, were not. Very well, resign in protest and go public.  No; tax cuts for the rich, freedom to pollute and throwing more money at the fiscally irresponsible military are too important.
That’s what is wrong about the column and the author’s program: risking disaster to protect a reactionary agenda.  The Times shouldn’t have given that an implied endorsement.

Thursday, August 30, 2018


August 30, 2018
     Donald Trump is a bad joke as a President, which raises a fundamental question: how did we get stuck with him?  He was chosen by our odd, anti-democratic electoral system, having lost the popular vote by over 2.8 million votes.  However, he drew almost 63 million votes, more than any presidential candidate other than Barack Obama.  Much of what is known about him now was known in 2016, so why did so many vote for him?  Looking at it from the other side, why do so many still support him?  
     Let’s deal with the electoral system first.  The Constitution provides for the process in Article II, Section 1.  Each State has “a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of  Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress.”  As all but two states [44] award all of their electoral votes to the popular winner in that state, the system is a hybrid of a popular vote within a state and a final, weighted, vote by states, the latter element being a relic of the Eighteenth Century.   Twice in a period of sixteen years we have “elected” the candidate the people rejected.[45]
     The odds of amending the Constitution to eliminate this procedure are slim.  A somewhat better chance is offered by the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, an agreement between states to award their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote.  It has been enacted by states possessing 172 of the necessary 270 electoral votes.[46]
     The popularity question is less easily answered.  The rabid crowds at Trump’s rallies are not a true picture of his supporters, as they certainly are the most disaffected, least informed and most easily misled.  However, we can’t get away from the fact that 80% of Republicans state their approval of him in poll after poll.
     Trump sometimes is described as a populist, an oddity for one who lost the popular vote, and his agenda clearly is tilted toward the wealthy and powerful, so he’s not a populist in terms of policy.  Enthusiastic support is understandable from those benefitted by tax cuts and deregulation, but the reason for support by ordinary folk is less obvious.  One factor is simply party loyalty, a powerful impulse in a time of polarization, but there is more to it: a mood of resentment, rebellion and reaction, one facet of which is white nationalism.  
     Less than six years ago we reelected a black semi-liberal by a margin of almost five million votes; has the electorate changed radically in that time?   About eight million more people voted in 2016 than in 2012, but that is only the sixth-highest increase by percentage between presidential years since 1964, and it isn’t likely that all the new voters were reactionaries. 
     There is an argument, widely accepted, that “Trump Democrats,” those who voted for Obama but switched to Trump, were his key to success.  However, that doesn’t seem to stand up to scrutiny; as Dana Milbank put it in a recent column, “The number of Obama-to-Trump voters turns out to be smaller than thought.  And those Obama voters who did switch to Trump were largely Republican voters to start with. The aberration wasn’t their votes for Trump but their votes for Obama.”[47]
     The  theory that it was the working class that elected Trump founders, at least in part, on the definition of “working class,” those without a college degree; some very wealthy people lack those degrees. Income is a more significant index; “approximately three-quarters of Trump voters were from households earning more than the national median income. . . ." [48]
     There isn’t much doubt that the culture has worsened, so in that sense the people have changed for the worse.  However, the tie between that and voting patterns isn’t clear and, again, Obama was reelected in 2012.     Whatever change there may have been in the voting public since then, the more serious problem is that, in different ways, the parties have changed, not for the better, and those changes have led to the election of, and support for, Trump. 
     Democrats are viewed, with some justice, as wedded to an agenda which is foreign, in a cultural sense, elitist, and more concerned about minorities than the people in general.  Also, while trending to the left culturally, the Party has, in an odd exercise in cognitive confusion, become more conservative economically, becoming so cozy with business and finance as to present little reason to vote for Democrats on pocketbook issues.         
     Republicans have embraced, made peace with, or in some cases unintentionally reenforced the worst attitudes and arguments on the right.  An example of the last is given in a recent book by a Republican campaign strategist:  “After the 2010 elections, we learned to motivate and activate Tea Party voters. . . .”  Unfortunately, they were waiting, not for “a conservative revolution,” but  for ”a strongman, a caudillo, a Saddam.”[49]
     The Party’s unwillingness to oppose Trump encourages his base to believe he is doing the right things.  If Republicans refuse to accept facts, such as the evidence of climate change, and attack the media, it’s not surprising if many people believe nonsense and ignore the evidence of Trump’s unfitness for office.
     Republicans have claimed, for decades, that Democrats aren’t real Americans.  However, now they have help: the proliferation of right-wing television and internet commentary, spreading misinformation, recycling absurd conspiracy theories.  Fox News has been around since the Nineties, but it has become more rigidly biased.  Before “Hannity,” there was, until January, 2009, “Hannity and Colmes,” in which the latter made some attempt to put forth a liberal view.  Now Fox is a Trump echo chamber, and evangelical leaders, abandoning all concern about personal morals, lend support.    
     Although the culture is coarsening and people are less well educated politically, those are long-term trends.  The people haven’t undergone a radical, recent change and there is nothing new about the selfish rich, the bigoted or the foolish.   Properly guided, the majority can act rationally, but those with influence, political and otherwise, have led many of them down the wrong path, or have failed to lead at all.  The result is Trumpism.  The familiar King James version of Proverbs 29:18 tells us: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”  A more apt translation is found in the American Standard Version: “Where there is no vision, the people cast off restraint.”
     The bad joke is still President, doing harm while his Party looks the other way and his legions applaud, but some encouragement might be taken from Proverbs 29:16: “When the wicked are in authority, transgression increases, but the righteous will look upon their downfall.”[50]

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44.
Maine and Nebraska award two electoral votes to the statewide winner, and one to each winner in a congressional district.

45. 
There is a more extended discussion of such elections prior to 2016 in my note of January 14, 2013.

46.
https://www.nationalpopularvote.com/

47.
https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/theres-no-such-thing-as-a-trump-democrat/2017/08/04/0d5d06bc-7920-11e7-8f39-eeb7d3a2d304_story.html?utm_term=.ab8e5f0d619e

48.
http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/blaming_working_class_for_trump_is_myth_that_
suits _ruling_class_20170707

49.
Rick Wilson, Everything Trump Touches Dies, p. 104

50.
Revised Standard Version; New Revised Standard