Saturday, October 17, 2020

Compulsive

There's rarely a reason to read a political book about a presidential administration produced while that president is in office. Former staffers write a couple of hundred pages to say, "If only they'd have listed to me!" Others let Bob Woodward quote them, by name or otherwise, saying the same thing. Or they're about things that just happened a couple of years ago and can still be looked up.

Donald Trump's presidency provides even more incentive to avoid books supposedly detailing its inner workings, adding only to the wonder the reader must feel: If he was indeed so awful, why did you agree to work for him? It's not like he was secretly vain, pompous, boastful, etc...

Byron York's Obsession fulfills one of the few real needs for books about the Trump administration: A clear look at what the hell happened with one or another particular feature of it. York, a reporter for The Washington Examiner, traces some features of the buildup to the impeachment investigation and probe from late 2019 and early 2020 and their relationship with what's usually called "the Russia probe" connected to the investigation by Robert Mueller.

Large amounts of the book come from York's reporting on Mueller, impeachment and related matters at the time, as well as later interviews to add perspective. Since the Examiner is a conservative-leaning news outlet and York is a former staffer at National Review, one might be tempted to dismiss Obsession as a an exercise in Trump apologia. And frankly, Regnery Publishing's subtitle "Inside the Washington Establishment's Never-Ending War on Trump" doesn't help. But York outlines clearly the way some of the president's own deficiencies -- hubris, narcissism, unwillingness to believe someone else might know something he didn't -- contributed to his problems. Interviews with former staff, members of the legal team, campaign and transition team officials make clear that all too often, the president did not know what he was doing and should have listened to others who did.

On the other hand, his opponents seemed little better. Obsession's title is probably aimed at them and the way that several of the leading figures against Trump made it clear early on that they would take whatever steps and grab hold of whatever pretext presented itself to not just work against him and his policies but destroy his ability to even attempt them. Impeachment is an excellent example. Was there ever a chance that House Democrats could produce evidence that would make Senate Republicans remove a president of their own party from office? Perhaps slightly, at the beginning, but the secrecy, missteps and bungling of Reps. Adam Schiff and Jerry Nadler in their respective areas snuffed it out. It could not succeed yet extensive and expensive efforts were still poured into it, occupying both Congress and the administration while the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning to take shape in China.

York offers another example, perhaps even more telling, in his second chapter. On January 6 following a presidential election, members of Congress are sworn in for their new terms and they help certify the results of the Electoral College. Since those votes have already been sent to different federal and state officials, the certification is almost always ceremonial. But not in 2017. With then Vice-President Joe Biden presiding, Democratic Representatives rose time and time again to debate the results of the election. Well of course, one might say. There was considerable room to do so. But none of the complaints were co-signed by a Senator as they needed to be in order to be heard. In other words, none of the Representatives who rose to speak intended to legitimately object to the totals. They only want to say they were objecting, rather than directing energy and effort toward things the president might want to do that they could stop.

Reading Obsession, we watch Democratic leadership and others opposed to the president who try to bend any process at hand to the end of removing him from office, whether it has any chance of success of not and no matter what happened to that process through their efforts. It calls to mind the possibly apocryphal Vietnam-era quote about destroying a village in order to save it.

Like most books written from a point of view, Obsession tends to emphasize things that support the point and elide some of those that don't. But it still prompts a question. President Trump is cast by his opponents as a man of little character, unfit for the office he holds. They predicted before he was elected and have pointed out since then that his bad character and lack of discipline and competence would damage our political culture and possibly our republic. Whether those qualities have done so to the degree claimed may still need to be resolved, but that he has seems clear.

But as Obsession explains, what isn't clear is why the people who swear they oppose him have helped him do so.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Champeen

With the Los Angeles Lakers win in the 2020 NBA Championships, LeBron James now has his fourth title as well as fourth Finals MVP Award., reigniting talk about whether or not he or former Chicago Bulls great Michael Jordan is the GOAT or Greatest of All Time. Jordan has six rings and six Finals MVP awards, which would seem to make the answer clear.

Nay, nay, O Tolerant Reader! Arguments over matters like this are what sports fans live for, especially when the players involved never went head-to-head. Multiple controlling factors are in play, such as whether or not Jordan would have been able to dominate as he did in today's game of professional basketball, or whether James would have been able to do the same in the 1990s. James, it is pointed out, has taken three different teams to titles, whereas Jordan won only with the Bulls. Exactly wrong, scoff the MJ crowd, who suggest instead that instead creating and maintaining a decade-long dynasty was the greater task.

William C. Rhoden, writing for The Undefeated, suggests that the tag of greatest clearly belongs to James. He cites the current superstar's impressive achievements but adds in the off-court dimension, where James' activism far outshines Jordan's well-known bottom-line reticence in political matters.

Figuring out whose on-court accomplishments top the other's is an exercise left for the student, but if we're going to add in off-court factors I have to point out that Michael Jordan never held the company line on its submissive pose to the Chinese market or side-stepped his league's subservience to a genocidal regime. MJ never suggested that a tweet supporting democracy protestors in Hong Kong was "misinformed." So I'm not willing to tip the cap to Mr. James just yet.

As for my own two cents regarding on-court matters? I'll cast my vote for and leave the last word to Bill Russell:


ETA: Tolerant Readers indeed. Many typos fixed today, 10/17/20

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Perspective

So I understand the candidates for president from the two major parties held dueling town hall sessions tonight. I spent a bit of time cruising through the Natural Wonders section of Atlas Obscura and seeing some of the very weird -- and cool -- places that dot our planet.

Once again, I am victorious!

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Where We're Going, We Don't Need Roads

The Tesla Roadster that Elon Musk launched into space on a test flight of his SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket just did a flyby past Mars, complete with spacesuited mannequin behind the wheel. It's in a solar orbit that will fly past Mars and Earth both several times over the next few million years.

Musk is a weird cat and sometimes a complete jackass, but he also does some pretty cool off-the-wall stuff now and again.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Dragon Misfire

The first half of Ted Bell's Alexander Hawke series was finely written, tightly plotted spy fiction with a touch of outlandishness; a kind of millennial James Bond for the 21st century. Starting with #7,
Phantom, Bell began to lean on some of the genre's more tired tropes and spend less time making his plots fit together. He also kept going back to the well of killing whatever woman with whom Alex became involved in order to motivate the hero, a practice pop culture calls fridging. This, the 11th Hawke novel, so disposes of not one but two paramours in the course of its dual plotlines and would be given a negative star if such a rating existed. Some spoilers contained below.

While recuperating from an encounter with a vicious assassin. Alex Hawke is summoned by the Queen for the kind of discreet and ruthlessly competent service he has consistently provided in service to crown and country. But this request has a bit of a personal dimension as well, since it concerns a missing royal grandson last seen in a Bahamas nightclub owned by two notorious Chinese criminals. Though he may not be exactly 100% just yet, Hawke has enough in him to answer Her Majesty's call and woe betide any who stand in his way.

In a parallel story set during World War II, the new Chinese ambassador to the United States begins his job almost simultaneously with the Pearl Harbor attack by Japan and the declaration of war. Though he is meant to serve as a diplomat, Tiger Tang will find himself enmeshed in both British and American espionage work during the war, side by side with an Englishman named Ian Fleming and with Horatio Hawke. Their descendants will meet also, as the grandchildren of Tiger Tang own the club, Dragonfire, where the royal grandson was last seen and where Alex Hawke will begin his search.

While Bell's writing in Dragonfire is just about as good as it has ever been, it's being used in service of two barely connected plots that have only the flimsiest reason to be between the same covers. The Tiger Tang narrative is interesting enough but neither it nor the hunt for Prince Henry makes a full story and combined the seams show clearly.

In the course of his hunt Alex reconnects with China Moon, a People's Republic secret service operative whom he crossed paths with several years ago. An old romance is rekindled as her loyalty to her nation and its goals take second place to her love of Alex. But wait, you ask. As I recall, in Overkill, Alex rekindled an old affair with Sigrid Kissl -- is he two-timing her? Of course not! Bell had Sigrid Kissl killed back in chapter 6 at the hands of renegade super-assassin Shit Smith, who will not, by the way, be seen again in this book. Sigrid is not even given the courtesy of being fridged for the current narrative, only a potential future one. China Moon will herself be killed in an epilogue, with Bell doubling down on his grotesque habit of killing any woman with whom Alex grows close.

It's not common to find so many hack habits and choices in a book by an author of Bell's clearly demonstrated but pointlessly employed skill. But he's a published best-selling author and if his publisher permits he can indulge himself however he pleases.

The reader, on the other hand, is cautioned against indulging him at all.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Prediction

Way back in 1990, Calvin describes pretty much the exact reason that most political coverage and discourse today is not only awful, it makes no sense.

Friday, October 9, 2020

This Will End Well

The customer-review social media platform Yelp will now allow people to call out businesses that display racist behavior. If you have questions, that's because you have more neurons than does the Yelp "User Operations Team" that decided on this new feature.

Sure, if you read the company's post at its blog you see language that says the warning will go up in order to let people know that an accusation has been made and so there might be an influx of bad reviews by people who just want to run the business down but who have never been a customer. And you see them saying that if an alert -- helpfully colored scarlet, doncha know -- is added to the page then there will be a link to a "credible news source" that reports on it.

As Kyle Smith notes at National Review, the world of social media reviewing platforms is often less than worthless. It's not just restaurants; I listen to a dozen or so podcasts regularly and they all ask you to give them five-star reviews because anything less than a 4.8 gets overlooked.

The problem is that it's not hard to create a sensational enough claim of racist treatment that it makes headlines in "credible news sources" even though it will later turn out to be false. And the removal of Yelp's scarlet R will draw a tenth of the attention that its placement did, perhaps permanently harming the business. That might be an acceptable risk if the placement of a racism warning via Yelp did anything real to advance the cause of racial equality, but no one who doesn't work for Yelp thinks that it does.

If they're going to go through with it, though, they might need a sweeping of their own house for starters.