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Bowie’s absurd world.

Most people know Sisyphus, condemned by the gods to ceaselessly push a boulder up a mountain only for it to roll back down, as a symbol of utter futility. But what they often forget is that Camus, who more than any other figure popularized the myth of Sisyphus, viewed his condition as the ideal one. Stripped of all illusions, freed from hope, constantly aware of the pointlessness of his task, Sisyphus is the absurd hero, for whom “the struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.”

Simon Critchley’s Bowie contains an insightful chapter on “the majesty of the absurd” in Bowie’s work, which amounts to a celebration of a godless world where man can write his own fate as freely as he creates a new persona. Its essence is rebellion—against taboos, against lies, against death. It animates his last video for “Lazarus,” in which Bowie writhes on a hospital bed before slipping into a closet, back to the darkness from whence he came. This is the “staggering evidence of man’s sole dignity,” as Camus wrote: “the dogged revolt against his condition, perseverance in an effort considered sterile.”

It is not only in the face of death that our absurd condition becomes apparent. There are times when the veil of illusion lifts, our vain hopes burn away like mist in the mocking dawn of reality, and a kind of torpor settles in. But it also comes with a sense of liberation, which is one of the reasons I started work today with a smile on my face.

June 20, 2018

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The Trump administration is jailing babies.

On Tuesday, new evidence emerged that the migrant children being separated from their parents at the border could be as young as three months old. “Trump administration officials have been sending babies and other young children forcibly separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border to at least three ‘tender age’ shelters in South Texas,” The Associated Press reported. “Lawyers and medical providers who have visited the Rio Grande Valley shelters described play rooms of crying preschool-age children in crisis. The government also plans to open a fourth shelter to house hundreds of young migrant children in Houston, where city leaders denounced the move Tuesday.”

Aside from “tender age” shelters the other euphemism used by government officials to describe these holding pens is “permanent unaccompanied alien children program facilities.”

The Associated Press reporting was reinforced by a statement from Agustin V. Arbulu, Executive Director of Michigan Department of Civil Rights, that very young children ensnared in the policy were being sent to Michigan. “This week, I have been in touch with various agencies and organizations working with these vulnerable children,” Arbulu wrote. “We have received reports and are very concerned that the children arriving here are much younger than those who have been transported here in the past. Some of the children are infants as young as three months of age and are completely unable to advocate for themselves.”

The two reports reinforce the fact that the Trump administration is creating a situation that is causing unfathomable and far-reaching harm.


Corey Lewandowski’s “womp womp” moment distills Trumpian cruelty.

On Tuesday, Mexico’s Foreign Affairs Secretary Luis Videgaray told the press that a ten year old girl with Down syndrome was  border crosses who was separated from her mother at the border as a result of President Donald Trump’s zero-tolerance policy. Democratic Party strategist Zac Petkanas raised the case on Fox News in a debate with Corey Lewandowski, former campaign manager to Donald Trump.

Lewandowski responded by going “womp, womp” and rolling his eyes. 

“Did you just say ‘womp, womp’ to a 10-year-old with Down syndrome separated from her mother?” Petkanas asked. The conversation quickly devolved into a the two men furiously talking over each other. 

In his obdurate cruelty in sticking to the party line of the moment as well as his childish reliance on sound effects, Lewandowski became the perfect emblem of Trump’s immigration policy. If anyone wants a few seconds that capture the essence of the Trump administration’s pigheadedness all they need to do is watch this exchange.

Lewandowski was fired from the Trump campaign after manhandling a reporter in 2016. But he remains a hanger on in the Trump circle, one of the cronies the president calls and relies on as a advocates on cable news. Lewandowski is also, as William Kristol of the Weekly Standard notes, a well-connected GOP consultant:

Lewandowski can’t be dismissed as a fringe figure. Rather, as in the “womp womp” moment, he’s a representative figure of the presidency and its driving impulses of gratuitous meanness. 

June 19, 2018

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The New Yorker offers up a sex-drenched Incredibles 2 review.

The legendary film critic Pauline Kael once wanted to review the porn movie Deep Throat for The New Yorker. Her prudish editor William Shawn nixed the idea. The New Yorker has become a less uptight magazine now, so Kael’s successor Anthony Lane is not afraid to let readers know that the children’s cartoon Incredibles 2 is arousing:

Take your seat at any early-evening screening of “Incredibles 2” in the coming days, listen carefully, and you may just hear a shifty sound, as of parents squirming awkwardly beside their enraptured offspring. And why, kids? Because Mommy just leaned over to Daddy and whispered, “Is it just me, or does Mrs. Incredible kind of look like Anastasia in ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’? You know, the girl in the Red Room, with the whips and all?” And Daddy just rested his cooling soda firmly in his lap and, like Mr. Incredible, tried very hard to think of algebra. As for how Daddy will react later on, during the scene in which Helen and the husky-voiced Evelyn unwind and simply talk, woman to woman, I hate to think, but watch out for flying popcorn.

To be fair, Lane is trying, however ineptly, to make a decent point. Comic book art has gotten porn-y in the last two decades, something reflected in the impossible fantasy anatomy given to the women in Incredibles 2.

Still, Twitter had a field day with Lane’s comments:

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How much credit should we give Trump for not annexing Austria?

On Monday night, Fox News’ Laura Ingraham asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions about the comparisons some lawmakers were drawing between the Trump administration’s policy of family separation at the border and Nazi Germany’s treatment of minorities. “It’s a real exaggeration,” Sessions responded. “In Nazi Germany, they were keeping the Jews from leaving the country but this is a serious matter.” Sessions was wrong on his own terms, as Ezra Klein of Vox noted.

“In October 1938, before the Nazis had developed the plan for the Holocaust, the German government expelled roughly 17,000 Jews with Polish citizenship living in Germany,” Klein wrote. “At this point, the Nazis hadn’t yet figured out what they wanted to do to their Jewish population and were exploring mass expulsions as an option.” Nazi deportation policy involved breaking up families.

But beyond the historical error, the striking thing about Sessions’s defense was how narrowly it was cast. Whether they are appropriate or not, Nazi analogies rest on broad similarities of motive (racism) and practice (cruelty) rather than detailed concerns about specific tactics.

But Sessions is far from alone in basing the defense of President Donald Trump’s actions on a niggling argument about specific details. “President Trump is not gassing children!” radio host Todd Starnes argued on Tuesday. “President Trump is not loading up train cars with illegal alien children and sending them to the death camps.”

The implicit argument here is that if Trump doesn’t mirror Nazi Germany in every detail, there is no analogy to be made. The next step is to give Trump credit for not invading Poland or trying to commit full-scale genocide against Jews and Roma in Eastern Europe.

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Meanwhile, Trump’s cabinet is corruption central.

Amid the furor over the family separation policy, new scandals continue surface about President Donald Trump’s cabinet. These stories deserve to be flagged lest they get lost in the avalanche of breaking news that defines the Trump era.

Forbes reports that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, despite promising to divest his holdings continued to in 2017 to have stake “in companies co-owned by the Chinese government, a shipping firm tied to Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, a Cypriot bank reportedly caught up in the Robert Mueller investigation and a huge player in an industry Ross is now investigating. It’s hard to imagine a more radioactive portfolio for a cabinet member.”

Even more remarkably, upon getting word of Forbes investigation, Ross shorted a stock that was likely to sink in value once the report went public. In effect, Ross used pending news of his own dubious investments as an opportunity for insider trading.

Nor is Ross the only cabinet member under a cloud of suspicion. Politico reports that a “foundation established by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and headed by his wife is playing a key role in a real-estate deal backed by the chairman of Halliburton, the oil-services giant that stands to benefit from any of the Interior Department’s decisions to open public lands for oil exploration or change standards for drilling.”

Ross and Zinke join the growing list of White House officials, including the President and members of his family, who deserve to be investigated for financial impropriety. Unfortunately, as long as the Republicans control Congress, such investigations are not on the table.


The Koch brothers know how to play the long game to change America.

Nashville, Tennessee won’t be getting a better transit system with light-rail trains and more buses thanks to the efforts of Charles and David Koch. As The New York Times reports, the super rich Koch brothers, via their Americans for Prosperity front group, have launched effective, tech-savvy campaigns all over America to thwart public transit initiatives.

Using data to target voters who distrust big government and an army of canvassers, Americans for Prosperity has been inventive in turning the public against mass transit. “In Little Rock, Americans for Prosperity made more than 39,000 calls and knocked on nearly 5,000 doors to fight a proposed sales-tax increase worth $18 million to fund a bus and trolley network,” The New York Times notes. “In Utah, it handed out $50 gift cards at a grocery store, an amount it said represented what a proposed sales tax increase to fund transit would cost county residents per year.”

The Kochs are motivated by a mixture of ideology (public transit is socialistic) and self-interest (they are heavily invested in fossil fuel extraction and automobile production). But the efforts of Americans for Prosperity testify to something more than the Kochs’ commitment to standard conservative politics.

The Kochs aren’t just right-wing billionaires, but men who think about politics in big, broad, and far-reaching ways. They have money to burn (Charles Koch is the ninth richest man in the world) and have decided to spend it on changing the direction of American politics at every level, from municipal to federal. Liberal billionaires, by contrast, prefer to focus either on winning national elections or global health policy (as with Bill and Melinda Gates’ campaign to end malaria).

There’s no real counterpart on the left of billionaires so committed to an ideological vision of America that they are willing to take up every small fight they on issues like municipal transit. The ambition of the Kochs is what sets them apart and allows them to keep winning small battles that could, in time, add up to a total victory.

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Xenophobia, rather than polling numbers, may best explain this immigration policy.

The White House is standing firm on the policy of separating families at the border despite the fierce backlash it has produced. McKay Coppins of The Atlantic, who has written an extensive profile of the chief architect of the policy Stephen Miller, argues that the motivating force behind the administration’s hard-line stance is politics. In Miller’s view of the electoral landscape, the president is winning anytime the country is focused on immigration—polls and bad headlines be damned,” Coppins contends.

In a Tuesday morning tweet, Trump seemed to be acting on Miller’s advocacy of making immigration a wedge issue against Democrats:

Trump and Miller might think this is smart politics but The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board strongly disagrees. In a Tuesday editorial they warn that the GOP’s “internal feuding over immigration that is fast becoming an election-year nightmare over separating immigrant children from their parents.” FiveThirtyEight shares this assessment, noting that the family separation policy “is generating widespread opposition, even from people who have traditionally been allies of the president. It has forced the administration to defend an approach that polls terribly and results in images of children in cages and accounts of breastfeeding kids being taken away from their mothers.” FiveThirtyEight then draws the reasonable inference: “It seems like bad politics.”

It’s a mistake, though, to look at the Trump White House’s actions through the narrow prism of electoral politics. Figures like Trump Miller have genuine ideological convictions, which also shape what they think a winning political strategy should be.

Vox writer Matt Yglesias offers a clear cut way to think about this issue:

If we appreciate that Trump and Miller are racists, then it becomes much more obvious why they are trying to build a political coalition around demonizing and punishing immigrants. After all, there are many strategies to build a political coalition, so the choice of xenophobia isn’t driven purely by electoral calculations.

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Donald Trump’s crackdown on immigration is just warming up.

Even as the White House’s policy of separating families crossing the border is facing intense political opposition, including a rising chorus of dissent in President Donald Trump’s own party, the commander in chief is reportedly set on provoking more immigration fights. Trump and his staff believe that immigration is the issue most likely to excite the Republican base for the fall midterms.

To score some wins that they can earn goodwill from that base, Trump has tasked his policy adviser Stephen Miller, perhaps the foremost anti-immigration advocate in the administration, to come up with quick policies that can be enacted. As Politico reports, the proposals Miller is putting forward include “tightening rules on student visas and exchange programs; limiting visas for temporary agricultural workers; making it harder for legal immigrants who have applied for any welfare programs to obtain residency; and collecting biometric data from visitors from certain countries.”

Trump’s desire to put all his political eggs in the the basket of anti-immigration policy rests on the fact that he has precious little else to run on. His major legislative achievement, the tax cut, still doesn’t poll well. Trump himself has had great success with immigrant-bashing in the one election season he ran as a candidate, 2016.

The New York Times reported on tension between Trump and his party on this issue, with elected GOP officials wary of immigration as a midterm wedge issue. “Republicans typically handle immigration gingerly in an election year, as they try to appeal to Hispanic voters, independents and moderates across divergent districts,” the Times notes. “But with more Americans still opposing the tax measure than supporting it, Mr. Trump’s allies believe that trying to link Democrats to crimes committed by undocumented immigrants and gangs like MS-13 will do more to galvanize Republican voters and get them to the polls in November than emphasizing economic issues.”

Corey Lewandowski, the former campaign manager who still has the president’s ear, is a major advocate of this policy, telling the Times that, “If you want to get people motivated, you’ve got to give them a reason to vote. Saying ‘build the wall and stop illegals from coming in and killing American citizens’ gives them an important issue.”

While Trump in the past has shown uncanny political instincts for how the GOP thinks, it’s by no means clear that immigration will be a winning issue for the Republicans in the midterms. The congressional GOP is rightly nervous about the issue because Trump’s position is particularly unpopular among college educated suburban voters, who have been trending towards the Democratic Party in special elections.

As Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight notes, even the popularity of anti-immigration policy among Republicans is a narrow one:

Trump is trying to use the old xenophobic magic of 2016 but he might find it has lost its potency in 2018.

June 18, 2018

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We can now listen to Trump’s family separation policy.

ProPublica, a nonprofit that specializes in investigative reporting, has acquired and released an audio recording of an immigration detention center where President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy is being enacted. “The desperate sobbing of 10 Central American children, separated from their parents one day last week by immigration authorities at the border, makes for excruciating listening,” ProPublica reports. “Many of them sound like they’re crying so hard, they can barely breathe. They scream ‘Mami’ and ‘Papá’ over and over again, as if those are the only words they know.”

The audio also includes the voice of a joking Border Patrol agent. “Well, we have an orchestra here,” he says about the screaming children. “What’s missing is a conductor.”

Previously, images of caged and crying children gave a face to the story. This audio helps give it a voice as well.

Aside from the screams, the audio also includes the voice of a nine-year old girl trying to get assistance to call her aunt, whose phone number she has memorized.

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Bannonism without Bannon has triumphed in the White House.

At the beginning of the year, Steve Bannon’s political exile seemed complete. The previous summer, Bannon had been elbowed out of his job as White House adviser. Then, after revelations that he had slagged Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner as “treasonous” when talking to reporter Michael Wolff, Bannon stepped down from his position as CEO of Breitbart. Since then, Bannon has been persona non grata in the Republican world, dismissed by his former boss as “Sloppy Steve.”

But if Bannon now has no formal power, his ideas still seem to be dominant in Trump’s White House. As Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt noted in a Monday column, “Truculent, anti-immigrant nationalism; disdain for the ‘deep state’; disparaging democratic allies while celebrating dictators: These are now the pillars of President Trump’s rule. In his administration’s policy, foreign and domestic, and in the compliant Republican Party, Bannonism is ascendant.”

Bannon himself seems to be on a bit of a victory tour, giving prominent interviews, perhaps with a view toward rehabilitating himself with the president. Possibly with that goal in mind, Bannon, in a Sunday interview with ABC News, made the remarkable claim that Donald Trump has never lied:

If Bannonism continues to have a robust afterlife, it’s in part because he still has some prominent fellow travelers inside the White House pushing his agenda, figures like Stephen Miller, Julia Hahn, and Peter Navarro. But more importantly, the very scandal that got Bannon into hot water is keeping his ideas alive. Trump turned against Bannon because Bannon had suggested Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation might ensnare members of the Trump family. But as the Russia investigation heats up, Trump needs to keep the loyalty of the GOP base. Given that Trump won the GOP nomination in 2016 by distinguishing himself from mainstream Republicans, the only way to keep the GOP base happy is with the red meat of Bannonism: trade wars and immigration bashing. As his administration sinks in scandal, Trump will cling all the more tightly to Bannonism.