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Go ahead, Democrats. Support transgender bathrooms.

A frequent criticism of liberals, who are in introspection mode after last November’s elections, is that they are “obsessive on issues like gender identity,” as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair put it in his recent New York Times op-ed. Speaking to a former Hillary Clinton spokeswoman in late November, CNN’s Chris Cuomo said, “The criticism of your party is you’re talking about which bathroom to use, you know, more than what jobs people have in the middle class.” Then in January he raised the issue again, asking Bernie Sanders what he’d tell voters who see Democrats as “more concerned with what bathroom people go into [than] how they earn a living.”

Set aside the question of whether it would be craven and immoral for Democrats to tone down their advocacy for this oppressed group. Those tempted by the perception of political expediency should take a look at new polling out Friday from the Public Religion Research Institute. “A majority (53 percent) of Americans oppose laws that would require transgender people to use bathrooms that correspond to their sex at birth rather than their current gender identity,” according to the survey. That includes a “majority of independents (57 percent) and nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of Democrats.”

This polling suggesting that the bathroom issue is not a massive political problem for progressives. And it’s likely the numbers will move in an even more positive direction as more Americans become exposed transgender people, both in the culture at large and in their own lives. If anything, the PRRI survey is a reminder that social conservatives are out of step with most Americans on a host of issues.

May 25, 2018

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Was Harvey Weinstein sending a message with the books he carried to his arrest?

Entering a New York City police station where he charged with rape, the disgraced Hollywood producer lugged three books. Two of them have been identified: Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution by Todd S. Purdum and Elia Kazan: A Biography by Richard Schickel. The third, lacking any text on its leather-bound cover, might be a journal.

Time magazine notes the Schickel’s book might relate to Weinstein’s current situation since Kazan is “among the most well-known examples of a top Hollywood figure whose behavior toward others in the industry turned him into a persona non grata.” Speaking to Le HuffPost (the French version of HuffPost), Louis Jublin, a French public relations expert, said, “He wants to show nevertheless... that he will always remain connected to the 7th art [cinema], whatever happens. It may also be an opportunity to say that in the end, like Kazan, we will remember his works and not his passage to court.”

Twitter was abuzz with speculation about whether Weinstein was sending a message with his choice of books:

A more sinister explanation is that Weinstein is trying to suggest to anyone who wants to testify against him that he, like Kazan during the anti-Communist witch hunts of the 1950s, has information that could hurt them and is willing to use it to protect himself.

Whatever his motives, having your books show up as props in Weinstein’s rape case is not publicity any author would want.

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Trump can’t quit Kim Jong Un.

A day after cancelling the June 12 summit with North Korea via an oddly personal letter, President Donald Trump has announced that he might meet with Kim after all. “We’ll see what happens,” he said. “It could even be the 12th.” He added, “We’re talking to them now. They very much want to do it. We’d like to do it. We’ll see what happens.” Trump reportedly liked the conciliatory statement that North Korea offered after his letter.

This is more or less exactly what Jon Wolfsthal, in an essay yesterday for The New Republic, predicted would happen:

Trump’s letter in fact could be read as a relatively transparent attempt to play hard to get, telling Kim he wants the summit more than Trump does. But make no mistake: Trump wants the meeting to happen very badly, and may well be back.

It’s always nice to have called it. But that doesn’t make these wild day-to-day swings any less unsettling to those who may be a little less blasé than President Trump about nuclear dictatorships. Asked whether Kim was playing him, Trump’s offered a dictum for our time. “Everybody plays games,” he said. “You know that.”

May 24, 2018

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Trump’s pardon of Jack Johnson is rife with ironies.

Johnson, who became the first black world heavyweight boxing champion in 1908, was a prime example of how sports are intertwined with racism in the U.S. His victory came as a shock to white Americans. Cynical promoters exploited the backlash by casting a series of challengers as “the Great White Hope.” Johnson’s matches became arenas of racial combat, often leading to outside-the-ring violence when white boxing fans rioted after his victories.

In 1912, Johnson was convicted of violating the Mann Act because he had dated a white woman; he fled to Europe and lived in exile for years before returning to the U.S. in 1920 to serve his sentence. On Thursday, President Donald Trump pardoned him. The New York Times reports:

The president called Johnson “a truly great fighter, had a tough life,” but served 10 months in federal prison “for what many view as a racially-motivated injustice.” Mr. Trump said the conviction took place during a “period of tremendous racial tension in the United States.”

The push for Johnson’s pardon had been going on for many decades. President Barack Obama resisted on procedural grounds—posthumous pardons are rare, and this one had not been cleared by the Department of Justice—but also because Johnson was accused of physical assaulting women.

Merits aside, Trump’s pardon of Jackson is curious given that the president is a cultural heir of those who exploited Johnson. In 2005, Trump proposed to NBC a season of The Apprentice pitting a white team against a black one. “It would be nine blacks against nine whites,” Trump explained in an interview. As a politician, Trump has continued the American tradition of attacking black athletes to stoke racial conflict. On Wednesday, he said of NFL players who don’t stand for the national anthem, “Maybe you shouldn’t be in the country.”

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Commentary still can’t forgive Philip Roth.

The writer, who died Tuesday at 85, had a checkered history with America’s foremost Jewish literary magazine. Commentary published his first story for a national outlet, “You Can’t Tell A Man By the Song He Sings,” in 1957, and continued to publish him for years, including two of his most important essays: “Writing About Jews” and “Writing American Fiction,” both manifestos detailing his literary agenda.

But starting in the late 1960s, the writer and the magazine took different paths. With his career-making novel Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), Roth emerged as a savagely funny satirist of American mores and celebrator of the male libido. The novel appeared at the very same time that Commentary, under the editorship of Norman Podhoretz, moved politically to the right. In a wounding polemic, Irving Howe attacked Roth for his vulgarity. Roth responded by satirizing Howe and the magazine as stuffy hypocrites in his 1983 novel The Anatomy Lesson.

Not even Roth’s death has ended the feud. On a Commentary podcast on Wednesday, editor John Podhoretz continued the war that his father had launched. He lambasted Roth’s essay “Writing American Fiction” as “one of the most sheerly anti-American, violently anti-American things ever written.” Aside from American Pastoral, which Podhoretz reads as a defense of bourgeois life, he has little use for Roth. “There is nothing in his books about love,” he said. “He did not really know much about ordinary life, he never had a job, he never had a marriage, he didn’t have children.... Love was something that was clearly totally absent from his life.”

In fact, Roth was twice married, worked as a teacher, and had many friendships and relationships. His books are filled with loving portraits of his parents and his brother. Not that a novelist needs either marriage or children to be great: Jane Austen and Flannery O’Connor, both better writers than Roth, died unmarried and childless.

As for Roth’s supposed anti-Americanism, Zadie Smith was closer to the mark when she wrote in The New Yorker that “Roth was an unusually patriotic writer, but his love for his country never outweighed or obscured his curiosity about it. He always wanted to know America, in its beauty and its utter brutality, and to see it in the round: the noble ideals, the bloody reality.”

Podhoretz’s conflation of criticism of America with anti-Americanism is fitting, though, since that was one the main reasons Commentary and Roth parted ways. It’s just a shame that Roth is no longer around to satirize a second Podhoretz.

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Trump’s letter to Kim Jong Un reads like a conscious uncoupling.

Sixteen months into Donald Trump’s presidency, picking at his writing and speaking style feels old: Much ink, Google confirms, has already been spilled on the president’s tone, which is more energetic and informal (critics might say more puerile) than previous presidents’. But Trump’s latest composition, released Thursday, has real import: a letter to Korean leader Kim Jong Un canceling their upcoming summit in Singapore.

Trump’s letter is remarkably personal. Comparable statements from previous administrations have employed a combination of first-person plural, with the “we” usually representing the administration, and the distant third person. When the Obama White House cancelled a meeting with Putin in 2013, its statement never addressed anyone in the Russian government by name. We value the achievements made with Russia in the President’s first term,” it read. “However, given our lack of progress ... we have informed the Russian Government that we believe it would be more constructive to postpone the summit.

Trump’s announcement came as an open letter addressed specifically to Kim Jong Un. “We greatly appreciate your time, patience, and effort with respect to our current negotiations,” the letter politely begins, then quickly moves to the first and second person: “I was very much looking forward to being there with you. Sadly, based on the tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement, I feel it is inappropriate, at this time, to have this long-planned meeting.”

Amid the familiar saber-rattling—“You talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used”—what stands out is the intimacy. The letter reads less like a thrown gauntlet and more like a passive-aggressive celebrity statement on a bad breakup: “I felt a wonderful dialogue was building up between you and me, and ultimately, it is only that dialogue that matters. Some day, I look very much forward to meeting you.”

Long-distance relationships are tough.

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Donald Trump just pulled out of the North Korea summit.

The president on Thursday abruptly announced that he would not be participating in a planned June 12 meeting in Singapore with Kim Jong-un.

The ostensible reason for Trump’s decision to cancel the summit is the “open hostility” of North Korean officials, who have, over the past week, threatened a “nuclear showdown” with the United States and pledged that they would not fully renounce their nuclear arsenal. (It’s worth noting that the president and his allies have goaded the North Koreans by proclaiming that Libya was a model for what they hoped to accomplish with North Korea, which resulted in Libya losing its deterrent power. Muammar Gaddafi is now dead.) The decision to cancel the summit means that the two sides are back where they were a few months ago, when they were regularly threatening one another with annihilation. As Trump writes in his letter, “You talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used.”

The fact that talks won’t be taking place is, obviously, not good. Trump didn’t get much from the months-long thaw besides the return of three American hostages, and may have ended up creating a rift with the U.S.’s ally South Korea. But, given Trump’s temperament and limited understanding of international relations, a breakthrough was highly unlikely—at least in a summit between the two leaders. Trump would have found it difficult squaring his tough talk and steep demand of total nuclear disarmament with the give-and-take of diplomacy. In fact, because North Korea would never agree to give up its nukes, and because Trump has said he would accept nothing less than total disarmament, there was a good chance that the Singapore Summit would have failed, which would have raised the risks of military escalation.

There’s no magic bullet—or magic summit—that will resolve the North Korea situation. Trump has finally acknowledged that. But in Trump-ian fashion he’s done so in a way that escalates the situation and alienates our allies.

May 23, 2018

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The NFL will now punish teams if players protest racism and police brutality.

That’s the practical impact of the league’s new national anthem policy unveiled on Wednesday—a surrender to President Donald Trump and other conservatives who spent last season falsely accusing NFL players of disrespecting the military by kneeling during “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

The NFL’s rules had been ambiguously worded on whether players could be fined or disciplined for protesting during the anthem. The league’s new policy resolves that ambiguity in Trump’s favor: Players are now explicitly required to “stand and show respect” during the anthem, or else stay in the locker room during the pre-game ceremony. Fines for violating the new rules would be levied against the team itself, not individual players.

In a statement, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell offered bromides that failed to address the implications of the new policy. “The efforts by many of our players sparked awareness and action around issues of social justice that must be addressed,” he said. “The platform that we have created together is certainly unique in professional sports and quite likely in American business. We are honored to work with our players to drive progress.” That’s an audacious claim to make while instituting punishments for players who silently protest.

The new policy will likely thrill Trump, who spent last fall denouncing the protests and demanding that league owners fire anyone who took part. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’” the president told supporters at an Alabama rally last September.

No one has been fired for kneeling, but teams have used more subtle means to retaliate against protesting athletes: Former NFL players Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid have accused owners of blackballing them for their political advocacy. The NFL players’ union, which is representing both men in their arbitration cases, issued a statement today saying it wasn’t consulted about the new policy before it was announced.

May 22, 2018

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Scott Pruitt encounters his biggest security threat yet: reporters.

A female Associated Press journalist was allegedly manhandled by the Environmental Protection Agency’s chief’s security force on Tuesday while attempting to cover a national summit on drinking water contamination. According to the AP, guards stopped the journalist at a security checkpoint inside the EPA’s headquarters, and told her she wasn’t allowed at the two-day event, where Pruitt was delivering opening remarks. When the reporter asked to speak to an EPA public-affairs person, the security guards grabbed the reporter by the shoulders and shoved her forcibly out of the EPA building,” the AP reported.

The female journalist—yet to be identified—was one of several reporters the EPA barred from attending the the National Leadership Summit on Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS), which are hazardous chemicals linked to cancer. CNN and environmental news outlet E&E News were among the banned, while The Hill, Politico, The Wall Street Journal and CBS were allowed to attend. EPA spokesperson Jahan Wilcox told The Hill this was because there was limited space for press. However, The Hill reported there were several “vacant” seats in the media pen during Pruitt’s remarks. Pruitt did not take questions after his speech.

Tuesday’s altercation may be the most high-profile security incident Pruitt has faced in his 15 months as EPA administrator. That’s saying something, considering that Pruitt insists on having a 24-hour security detail composed of 19 agents and at least 19 vehicles, costing taxpayers at least $3 million. Pruitt has repeatedly said this expense—as well as his frequent first-class travel—are necessary because he faces unprecedented security threats. Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy mocked Pruitt last week over that justification, saying, “Nobody even knows who you are.” Pruitt’s treatment of the press suggests he wants to keep it that way.

May 21, 2018

Courtesy of Muscogee (Creek) Nation

The Supreme Court takes up a case that could turn half of Oklahoma back into tribal lands.

The justices announced on Monday that they will review Royal v. Murphy, an unusual death-penalty case out of Oklahoma. At issue is whether the state had the jurisdiction to prosecute Patrick Murphy, a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, for the murder of another Creek man on what was once tribal land. (The federal government normally prosecutes serious crimes between Native Americans on tribal lands.)

Oklahoma argued in the lower courts that Congress extinguished the Creek lands when it dismantled tribal governments in the early twentieth century. But the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Murphy’s favor last summer, concluding that those lands remained legally intact because Congress had not explicitly abolished them. As I noted in March, Oklahoma warned the justices that the decision would have dramatic implications:

If the Tenth Circuit’s ruling stands, the state’s criminal jurisdiction in that territory would be reduced to minor offenses like traffic violations and crimes against non-Indians. Federal and tribal courts would take over all other cases, with serious crimes left to the federal government to investigate and prosecute. State officials cast the loss of jurisdiction in dire terms, especially if the Murphy ruling is applied to other tribes. “Stripping Oklahoma of criminal jurisdiction over all Indians in this densely populated area, or even worse, in the entire eastern half of the state, would render Oklahoma a fractured, second-class state,” Oklahoma officials told the Supreme Court.

Legal experts I spoke with downplayed the state’s grim portrayal, and Murphy’s lawyers told the justices earlier this year that the state’s “claims of mass disruption are overstated and misdirected.” States routinely hammer out agreements with tribal governments to handle criminal-jurisdiction matters, they argued, and the regulatory impact would be minimal under existing legal precedents. Oral arguments will be heard in the case after the Supreme Court reconvenes for its upcoming term this fall, and a ruling could come as soon as this winter.

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Venezuela is on the brink, and the U.S. might push it over.

President Nicolás Maduro has won a second term. The opposition boycotted the election, and turnout even in Maduro-friendly areas was quite low, according to The New York Times. Hunger, hyperinflation, and skyrocketing malaria rates can have that effect. During the campaign, turnout to rallies was reportedly boosted by food being handed out on the buses.

But neither Venezuela’s general slide into the “failed state” category nor the opposition’s accusations of vote-buying stopped Maduro from celebrating his victory Sunday night. “The opposition must leave us alone to govern,” he declared.

The big question is whether the United States—which along with the European Union, Canada, Chile, and Panama has not recognized the legitimacy of these elections—will slap new sanctions on Venezuela’s oil exports. In February, then–Secretary of State Rex Tillerson floated the idea. Current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted his thoughts on the election yesterday, omitting threats of sanctions but calling for Venezuela to free Josh Holt, a 26-year-old American held in Venezuela for two years without trial.

If the U.S. does target Venezuelan crude, the effect would likely mimic that of a sledgehammer on an already teetering three-legged chair, although whether it would actually dislodge Maduro, rather than merely crippling his people, is up for speculation.