A Course Everyone Should Take

Students often come to college with their own set of impressions about the people in the world around them, whether they’ve ever personally interacted with those people or not.  That’s not a criticism of college students, it’s a reality of modern life.  We all live in our own little worlds, and we form impressions about what others might be like based on the news that we allow to filter into our bubbles.

img_20180526_130448But what if people tried to get out of their bubbles and actually meet some of the people they’ve formed impressions about, to see what their lives are like and experience their worlds?  That’s what the Harvard Institute of Politics tried to accomplish with something called the Main Street Project.  The goal was to get Harvard students, most of whom hailed from the coasts, out into places in flyover country where they could meet real people who live and work in the heartland.  The group of students visited towns in western Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, saw people working at their jobs, and went to the restaurants where the locals go.  They stayed in bed and breakfasts owned by locals, traveled in a van, and took the back roads.  In the process, they even met a few Trump voters and went to a gun range where women were engaged in some vigorous target practice.

As one of the organizers wrote:  “Even though these kids had almost all been raised in the United States, our journey sometimes felt like an anthropology course, as though they were seeing the rest of the country for the first time.”  The students admitted that they “had been fed a steady diet of stereotypes about small towns and their folk: “backwards,” “no longer useful,” “un- or under-educated,” “angry and filled with a trace of bigotry” were all phrases that came up.”  But as they traveled through places like Youngstown, Ohio, meeting good people who were living happy, productive lives, the students saw the stereotypes break apart.

None of the students got course credit or a grade for participating in the Main Street Project, but they did get an education.  One of the student organizers said:  “The best way to blow apart a stereotype is to challenge it” — and he is right.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone, regardless of their age, had a similar opportunity to meet people and challenge some of the stereotypes that we all carry around?

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Political Propriety

The Tony Awards broadcast was last night.  Actor Robert DeNiro, who appeared to talk about Bruce Springsteen, thought it was appropriate to come out, pump his arms in the air, and say “F*** Trump.”  Twice.

DeNiro then received a standing ovation from those in attendance.

1528693568996It’s just another example of how our national political discourse has run totally off the rails, and people have lost their minds.  We’ve got a President whose unseemly tweets and unusual behavior push the envelope in one direction, and the people who ardently oppose him are pushing the envelope in the opposite direction.  When somebody decides the time is right to appear on a live broadcast that is supposed to be celebrating American theater and start dropping f-bombs, though, we’ve reached a new low.  And when the high-brow, tuxedo-clad audience decides that the appropriate response to the vulgarity is to give the speaker a standing ovation, we’ve reached a lower point still.

DeNiro’s comments couldn’t have come as a surprise.  He’s launched into profanity-laced tirades about President Trump before, including when he introduced Meryl Streep at a different awards ceremony earlier this year.  Did the Tony Awards decision-makers think DeNiro had mended his ways, or did they think, instead, that having the unpredictable — or, perhaps, entirely predictable — DeNiro on as part of the broadcast might just result in an incident exactly like what actually happened, that would help to get the Tony Awards program a little more attention and more news coverage?

I don’t have a problem with people opposing or criticizing President Trump — obviously. But name-calling and profanity aren’t exactly calculated to persuade people about the wrong-headedness of President Trump’s policies, or conduct.  Instead, it just looks like a classless, desperate bid to get some attention that isn’t going to persuade anybody about anything — except, perhaps, that the people who think launching a few f-bombs on a live broadcast, and the people who reacted with a standing ovation, have lost their minds.

Is it too much to expect a little reasoned discourse, and some political propriety?  These days, is it too much to hope that people can refrain from using the Queen Mother of Curses in connection with the President on a live television broadcast?  Apparently so.

Winging It

The on-again, off-again, on-again summit meeting with North Korea is set to occur next Tuesday in Singapore.  Yesterday, President Trump confirmed reports that he’s not exactly cramming and burning the midnight oil to prepare for the meeting.

5e6mikironhllmggtkqbd54s4i“I don’t think I have to prepare very much. It’s about attitude,” he said. “I think I’ve been prepared for this summit for a long time, as has the other side.”  President Trump, who says the meeting won’t just be a “photo op” and may be the first of several meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, added:  “I think I’m very well prepared.”

The President believes that his tough language about North Korea and Kim has been a key factor in bringing North Korea to the table.  He uses the phrase “maximum pressure” to describe his approach to the country that has long been an international pariah, and said: “If you hear me using the term ‘maximum pressure,’ you’ll know the negotiations didn’t go very well.”  Nevertheless, President Trump predicts that the summit meeting will be a “great success.”

A year and a half into the Trump presidency, we’ve long since realized that President Trump isn’t like most people, who would never dream of going into an important meeting with an isolated, notoriously unpredictable country that feels like an international outcast and has been working to develop a nuclear weapons program to attract attention, put its neighbors on edge, and give it a louder voice in the world.  But President Trump is matching, and maybe even exceeding, North Korea in the unpredictability department, having first abruptly cancelled the summit, then determined that it is back on again.

So, is President Trump just supremely self-confident about everything he does, including meeting foreign dictators who have virtually no relations with other countries?  Or, does the President think that saying he hasn’t been spending much time hitting the briefing books helps to set the framework for the negotiations and gives him an advantage of sorts?  Is the statement that the summit is about “attitude” supposed to convey that the United States doesn’t think there’s much to discuss at this point beyond getting North Korea to end its nuclear program?  Or is it to communicate to North Korea that it isn’t really important enough to demand a big chunk of the President’s time?  Or is the plan to make Kim feel overconfident that he’ll be able to pull a fast one on a negotiator who admittedly hasn’t tried to master the details?  Or, is there some other, deep, Art of the Deal-type negotiation game afoot?

With President Trump, you never know.  But hey — what could go wrong?

Living In Fleecetown

Pagedale, Missouri is a suburb of St. Louis that covers about one square mile of area and has a population of 3,300 people. With a territory and population that small, how can a municipality generate sufficient revenue to provide city services?  According to a consent decree entered in federal court, Pagedale’s evident solution to the revenue problem was to fleece its own residents through a system of citations for claimed “nuisances” or code violations.

555fd681c467f-imageTo people other than the residents of Pagedale, the kinds of violations that were the subject of citations seem pretty comical.  According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, there were prohibitions against sagging pants, walking on the left side of a crosswalk, walking in a roadway if a sidewalk is nearby, or barbecuing in your front yard (unless it’s a national holiday), as well as bans on dish antennas, basketball hoops, volleyball nets, swimming or wading pools or other recreational equipment in the front of a house.  Having mismatched curtains or a hole in a window screen also could be cited for code violations and produce fines.

But for the residents of Pagedale, it was no laughing matter.  In 2014, Pagedale handed out 2,555 citations for such offenses — a 500 percent increase from 2010.  In some years, proceeds from the fines assessed for the violations generated a quarter of the city budget.  And in the meantime, residents were saddled with debt trying to keep up with the citations and fines.

Why did Pagedale resort to fleecing its own residents?  According to the Post-Dispatch, what happened “was that Pagedale, along with some other municipalities, began raising money from non-traffic cases because of a Missouri law that caps the amount of revenue municipalities can collect from traffic fines.”  In short, towns that used to be speed traps looked inward and decided poor residents would have to make up the revenue shortfall.

What does it tell you about “public servants” that, rather than cutting municipal budgets or developing legitimate alternative sources of revenue, they would prey on the people they are supposed to be serving?  It tells you that, in some places at least, the concept of government has become perverted, and municipal employees are more interested in preserving their own jobs and paydays than in furthering the public good.

The Post-Dispatch gets it right when it says:  “Municipalities that cannot deliver services without preying on citizens should be dissolved.”   That seems like a rule that is so basic that it doesn’t need to be expressed — but evidently not.  Have we really reached the point where we need to set rules against predatory practices by local governments against their own citizens?

Lament Of The “Govsters”

The Washington Post recently published a piece written by a D.C. resident about how Washington, D.C. has now become a “cool” city.  It is one of the finest examples of the “inside the Beltway” mentality ever penned and includes some great passages, like this one:

“Much of Washington in 2018 arguably has more in common with the country’s hippest neighborhoods — Williamsburg in New York, Silver Lake in Los Angeles, the Inner Mission in San Francisco — than it does with the less cool cities of middle America.”

Hey, on behalf of everyone in “middle America,” thanks!  And then there’s this classic:

tmg-facebook_social“Like all hip cities, contemporary Washington combines cool with a distinctive local flavor. New York is where cool meets money, Los Angeles is where cool meets beauty, San Francisco is where cool meets technology — and Washington is where cool meets government. That combination has created a class of people unique in American history. If the late 1990s and 2000s produced the hipster as a new type of cool in some of America’s more stylish cities, the more recent past has produced Washington’s version of it: the govster — a person who is able to enjoy the benefits of living in a cool city while also working for the federal government or somehow exercising influence over the direction of national politics.”

Wait a second — this writer thinks hipsters are cool, rather than an unending subject of mockery and derision?  And he so aspires to hipster status that he actually wants to give a special, hipster-knockoff name to Washington, D.C. residents?  That’s pretty telling.  And notwithstanding the writer’s claim to cool status, the name “govster” isn’t exactly a cool name, is it?  It’s like the “Family Truckster” vehicle that Clark Griswold drove in the first Vacation movie.  The writer has somehow coined a term that manages to be both clunky and pretentious at the same time, just like a lot of the program ideas and acronyms that the people working in D.C. regularly develop.

But don’t worry — the “govster” who wrote the article is motivated by altruistic purposes. He’s worried that Washington, D.C. may have become too cool for the poor, benighted hayseeds in the flyover country:

“Life in the capital may be good for the govster, but is it good for the country? Cool cities, after all, thrive precisely because they offer what the rest of the country cannot. Yet capitals have different purposes. If the government is to be of the people and for the people, then the capital must be able to relate to the people — and the people to the capital. A dynamic country may need a little cool in its capital; but have things in Washington gone too far? The question is as old as the republic, and arguably more important than ever.”

I have no objection to having a little pride in your city; I fully admit to being a booster of Columbus.  And when Kish and I lived in D.C. we enjoyed it.  But the notion that people in D.C., like the guy who wrote this article, now think that Washington, D.C. is just too cool for the rest of the United States is deeply disturbing.  It’s bad enough that those of us out in the country at large have had to deal with the stupid power games and pointless political machinations of the politicos in D.C.  Now we also have to grapple with the knowledge that the laws, regulations, and other governmental initiatives imposed upon us are being administered by “govsters”:  “a person who is able to enjoy the benefits of living in a cool city while also working for the federal government or somehow exercising influence over the direction of national politics.”

I shudder to think of it.

Public/Private

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who had been a vocal proponent of the “Me too” movement and had been investigating the activities of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, resigned on Monday, hours after he was accused of physically assaulting four women.

7-schneiderman-w710-h473Two of the women who spoke on the record said Schneiderman hit them without their consent and that they had had to seek medical treatment for being slapped and choked.  One woman, who was born in Sri Lanka, said Schneiderman called her his “brown slave,” choked her, beat her, and spat at her.

In response to the allegations, Schneiderman said that “[i]n the privacy of intimate relationships, I have engaged in role-playing and other consensual sexual activity.”  Schneiderman’s resignation statement, given several hours after the story broke, said:  “While these allegations are unrelated to my professional conduct or the operations of the office, they will effectively prevent me from leading the office’s work at this critical time.”  New York’s Governor, Andrew Cuomo, who had called for Schneiderman’s resignation, stated:  “Given the damning pattern of facts and corroboration laid out in the article, I do not believe it is possible for Eric Schneiderman to continue to serve.”  Schneiderman is now being investigated by the Manhattan district attorney’s office.

Schneiderman’s resignation statement raises an increasingly common question about where to draw the line between public and private when you are talking about public officials.  He claims that the allegations are “unrelated” to his “professional conduct” or the operations of the New York Attorney General’s office — but if the allegations of the four women are determined by investigators to be true and Schneiderman is prosecuted for the physical assaults, that’s obviously not accurate.  As a baseline, the “professional conduct” of an Attorney General should include not engaging in criminal activity.

But what if Schneiderman’s depiction of the circumstances are credited, and his violent interaction with the women was part of “role-playing and other consensual sexual activity”?  If, hypothetically, two consenting adults choose to engage in such conduct, and one of them is a high-ranking public official, does the public have a right to know about it?  It’s an exercise in line-drawing, and part of the evaluation has to consider whether public officials have a right to enjoy some kind of privacy in their personal lives — and, more broadly, whether imposing a rule that says every aspect of an individual’s personal and family life is fair game will discourage people from seeking office in the first place.

These are tough questions, but in my view there are some lines that can be drawn.  If a public official is engaging in conduct that indicates that they have an interest in acting out violent and demeaning fantasies, I want to know about it and factor it into my decision-making on whether they should be serving the public trust.

What Should The WHCA Do?

Every year, it seems, something happens at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner that is controversial, but this year’s dinner took the cake.  The combination of non-attendance by President Trump, who skipped the dinner for the second straight year after years in which other Presidents typically attended, and a crude stand-up routine by comedian Michelle Wolf that has been strongly criticized by people from across the political spectrum, has a lot of people talking about whether the dinner should be changed — or should occur at all.

180430_michelle_wolf_white_house_staff_roastMuch of the controversy was caused by Wolf’s routine, which launched a lot of insults at members of the Trump Administration, including some mean-spirited comments about high-profile women in the Administration like White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.  Many people found Wolf’s performance offensive.  I’m not familiar with Wolf, but the reports of some of her “jokes” at the dinner suggests that she goes in for cheap jibs, often about physical appearance, rather than a leave ’em rolling in the aisles standup routine.  Insults about people’s looks aren’t exactly the highest form of wit.

And, Wolf’s comments put the assembled black-tie glitterati of the journalism community in the uncomfortable position of listening to an invited performer crassly describe the President’s daughter, for example, as “as helpful to women as an empty box of tampons” — which isn’t exactly calculated to enhance the perceptions of many Americans about the objectivity of the White House press corps.  In an era in which the President routinely tweets about alleged “fake news” and claimed media bias, the Wolf performance at the WHCA dinner seems like a self-inflicted wound, calculated to reveal that the press is, in fact, highly partisan.

This year’s dinner has been viewed by many as such a disaster that it’s provoking some soul-searching within the WHCA about how the dinner should be changed — and whether it should occur at all.  After all, does the press corps really need to be seen rubbing elbows with the President and other high-ranking politicos, or would it be better to hold itself apart from the people it is supposed to be covering?

Why not just end the dinner?  As is true of so many things these days, it comes down to money.  The WHCA dinner is by far the biggest fundraiser for that organization, which then uses the funds to advocate for journalists.  The incoming president of the WHCA says the revenue generated by the event “keeps our association running” — and supporters of the event question whether big media groups will buy expensive tables for a more low-key function that actually focuses on journalism, rather than politicized comedy.

I think the WHCA serves an important function, and I recognize that money is important, so the annual dinner probably is here to stay — at least, until people stop coming.  But I think the WHCA needs to start self-editing a bit more, and thinking about the reputation of journalists everywhere when they are deciding who should speak at the dinner, and what kinds of things should be said.