Monday, September 10, 2018

Kavanaugh's tell

Politics is public poker and one of the highest-stakes games around is the contention over U.S. Supreme Court nominees.

Which is why we shouldn’t look to last week's hearings with Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh for any statements of principles or glosses on his legal thinking. Rather, his testimony shows the way he plays the game. And that he has a tell.

For the most part, Kavanaugh’s cogent and articulate. He speaks in complete sentences, and, when asked, backs up his decisions with thorough discussions of law and policy, even under hostile questioning.

Here’s Kavanaugh, answering a tough question from Sen. Cory Booker (day 2 hearing,, starting around 10:33:52) about his current thoughts about something he said in an interview in 1999: that racial discrimination would essentially disappear in 10 or 20 years.

I think that was, uh, Senator, an aspirational comment, and one, uh, that, uh, to your point, of course I’ve said in my decisions, as you and I have discussed, that, uh, the march for racial equality is not finished and we still have a lot of work to do as a country and as a people on that.

Booker followed pointedly, asking what could conceivably have motivated him to say that, particularly as the 90s were noted for growing racial inequities, as evidenced by, say, the massive increase in the incarceration rate of African Americans. And here's where Kavanaugh gave a one-word answer that seemed like an improvised moment of brilliance:


His tell crops up when he’s drawn outside the ambit of the law. That’s when he starts talking like he’s “mentally retarded” and “couldn’t even be a one-person country lawyer down in Alabama.”

Take, for instance, when Sen. Kamala Harris asked a series of questions that spiraled around whether he had ever talked with anyone, and more specifically with anyone from Kasowitz, Benson & Torres, the firm run by Marc Kasowitz, President Trump’s personal lawyer, about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

Here’s what Kavanaugh said (same link as previous, starting at approx. 11:45:15, with ellipses for moments when Sen. Harris interrupted with follow-ups):

Well, it’s, uh, in the news every day, I … Uh, with other judges, I know…. Ah. … Well, I’m not remembering, but if you have something you wanna … I said I, Kazowitz? Spensen? … Well, is there a person you’re talking about?... I need to know the, um, I’m not sure I know everyone who works at that law firm. … I don’t think I, I’m not remembering but I’m happy to be refreshed or if you wanna tell me who you’re thinking of that worked … I don’t know … I’m not sure I. Do I? I’m just trying to think: do I know anyone who works at that firm? I might know. Maybe. … I would like to know the person you’re thinking of cause what if there’s … I have, I’m not going to go … I don’t know everyone who works at that law firm, Senator …. So you said Bob Mueller or, so have I ever had a discussion about Bob Mueller. I used to work in the administration with Bob Mueller. … I’m sure I’ve talked to fellow judges. … About Bob Mueller? … But … The fact that it’s ongoing. It’s a topic in the news every day. I’m. I’ve talked to. It’s. I’ve talked to fellow judges about it. It’s in our court. It’s in the courthouse in uh the District of Columbia. So I guess, uh, the answer to that is yes. So the answer is yes. … You asked me that. I need to know who works there. … Well actually I can’t. I …. Because I don’t know who works there. … Right. I’d be surprised. But I don’t know anyone, I don’t know if the. I don’t know everyone that works at that law firm. So I just want to be careful because your question was and/or, so I want to be very literal. … I’m not remembering anything like that but I wanna know a roster of people and I wanna know more. …. Well, I said I don’t remember anything like that.

And here’s what he said to Sen. Patrick Leahy, when asked about his receipt of emails from a Republican staffer who had infiltrated an online directory of more than 4,000 Democratic party documents – Leahy called that staffer a mole -- during Kavanaugh’s tenure as staff secretary for President George W. Bush (1:54:40):

I don’t recall the reference to a mole, uh, which sounds highly specific, but certainly it is common – again, the people behind ya can probably refer to this – but it’s common, I think, for everyone to talk to each other, at times, and share information. At least this was my experience, this is 20 years ago almost, where you would talk to people on the committee … I don’t re … uh … I’m not gonna rule anything out, Senator, uh, but if I did I wouldn’t have thought that anything other, I wouldn’t have thought that the literal, uh, meaning of that.

“I don’t live in a bubble,” Kavanaugh told Sen. Dianne Feinstein (49:55), when asked about Roe v. Wade and reproductive rights. “I understand—I live in the real world.”

But that’s not really true. Brett Kavanaugh’s bubble is inside the beltway, where he has lived and worked for most of his life, and is further enclosed by the rarified world of constitutional exegesis. Whenever a Senator asked what he felt, what he believed, where his passions were, Kavanaugh responded with fulsome analyses of Supreme Court cases and decisions he had issued as a judge.

I suppose that legal analysis can serve as a calming retreat from the messiness of our hyper-gesticulating world. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to pretend that the law is inherently evenhanded and that its arc, too, bends towards justice. Because the arc only bends when judges are human beings and understand the cases before them as involving real human beings and real human consequences.

Kavanaugh’s tell emerges when he’s nudged out of his bland world of legal cycles and epicycles. That’s what seems to have happened, for instance, when Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime died in the Parkland mass shooting in February, came forward to shake his hand. Kavanaugh – whether he was ushered away or didn’t recall who Guttenberg was or simply wanted to make the most of his break – didn’t take up Guttenberg’s proffer. For sure, Guttenberg had already revealed that he was against Kavanaugh’s nomination. Both Kavanaugh and his minders undoubtedly understood that if he clasped Guttenberg’s hand, if he acknowledged Guttenberg’s loss, it would become the day’s viral image. The presence of this grieving victim threatened to wrench him out of his secure moot court bubble.

Kavanaugh’s tell comes at those moments like this, when his legal exertions fall away and the real world -- beyond the beltway and the comfortable confines of the court -- threatens to enter. It makes you wonder just what he finds so scary about life here on the outside.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Let's Put Schools in Guns

Betsy DeVos has it backwards.

DeVos, President Trump's Secretary of Education, has signaled that her department is considering allocating grant money for schools to purchase guns so they can arm teachers and other school employees.

Rather, she should consider the opposite: we should be putting schools in guns.

That’s right: a mini-curriculum with every firearm. Collect them all: Berettas will come with American and European History handbooks. Smith & Wesson will tutor French and Spanish. Sturm, Ruger and SIG Sauer will handle the STEM subjects – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. And you can pick up all these self-improvement courses at your friendly local firearm dealer, reseller, or gun show.

This is a proposal that could unite the congress in bipartisan action and bring the NRA and teachers’ unions across America closer together.

Creation of these mini-courses would, of course, be out-sourced to experienced educators – like the appropriately named mercenary outfit Academi (once called Blackwater, it was – NO COLLUSION – founded by DeVos’s brother, Erik Prince.) The big defense contractors – Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, and the others – will undoubtedly line up for some money (to be honest, they've already written the book on this practice). Rudy Giuliani will pen a crash-course on the philosophy of law (strange factoid: try saying “Truth isn’t truth” ten times fast. I guarantee that by the time you’re done you’ll sound as addled as the former New York City Mayor.) American Media head David Pecker will write an instructional manual on the ins and outs of Catch-and-Kill, immunity deals, and other stormy issues of journalistic ethics.

And hey, it'd be great if Ryan Zinke’s old high school football buddy, who’s reviewing scientific papers about climate change for the Department of the Interior though he has no expertise in the subject, would be willing to moonlight for the Department of Education, too.

Of course the gun companies would want a piece of the educational action as well. Instead of being known for mass casualties, Bushmaster could become famous for its texts on Mass Media. Colt would be better known for foreign language learning than for its infamous .45. And the Brownells, owners of a major Iowa gun supplies store, could sleep more peacefully at night knowing that they are funding fine arts education as well as dealing firearms and their accoutrements.

Heck, Bernie Sanders could join the party, too. He's been running around the country since before the 2016 election promoting his plan for free tuition for American colleges. With the Schools-In-Guns Initiative for National Training (SIGINT), this would be a natural, as the Education Department could set aside funds so a full set of college course handguns, rifles, and semi-automatics would be given FREE to every American who hits the age of 18 (those over 18 can enroll in the SIGINT continuing education package.)

Already, $1 billion's been allocated through the Every Student Succeeds Act. Now, this program will be renamed the Guns and Rifles Impress as Fine Teachers act (GRIFT). Imagine how much money the tea-party and anti-deep-state conservatives in Congress will ante up when the National Rifle Association starts pushing for GRIFT, to bring more money to schools. Surely, that's a public option everyone can get behind.

SIGINT and GRIFT funding would also guarantee that all schools that want them (this would be a prerequisite for receiving SIGINT or GRIFT monies) would install a firing range.

This would create an opportunity for a new progressive moment in education because SIGINT/GRIFT funding would bring an end to stigmatizing realities like detention and study hall. In SIGINT/GRIFT schools, students who misbehave or are antisocial would be sentenced to hours at home on the range -- the shooting range -- with drill sergeants organized along principles of instruction and mentoring designed by famed NYU professor Avital Ronell. Upon graduation, in addition to a diploma, all students would receive an official SIGINT I Attended School in the U.S. and Avoided Getting Shot T-shirt and a GRIFT lapel pin -- all ABSOLUTELY FREE.

The Schools-in-Guns Initiative for National Training can guarantee one thing for sure: it will provide a better education than Trump University ever did. 

So whaddaya say, America? Every firearm a mini-school! Every box of ammo a lesson plan! Every assault weapon an advanced degree! Every bump-stock a teaching moment! The future of our children depends on it.

This program is absolutely imperative for restoring America's competitiveness in the world. After all, in the factories, fields and farms that some politicians and many newspapers seem to think are the only places that make up real America, schooling has long been less important than shooting. SIGINT and GRIFT will restore the link between these two American values.

And remember our catchy new slogan: Guns don't kill people. Schools do.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

The Electric Kool-Aid Dickless Fuck, 2

When Tom Wolfe died, in mid-May, I grabbed From Bauhaus to Our House from my shelf.

I had managed to avoid it when it came out in 1981. I was a community organizer then, and, though I was interested in writing and had read some of Wolfe’s stuff (I had soared through The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and jetted through The Right Stuff), I cared about issues that affected poor people not about the built form of luxury towers. And when it came to New Journalism, I relied more on Joan Didion and Norman Mailer and Terry Southern and Gay Talese and Hunter S. Thompson  than I did on Wolfe.

When I plunged into From Bauhaus last month, the first thing that struck me was how thin it was: 111 pages packed with more literary references and art history exegeses than most textbooks. Wolfe, I realized, was an erudite dude. And, of course, the book pops with Wolfe's trademark exuberant and unapologetic use of exclamation points and his lust for the best non-egotistical one-letter word in the language -- the gaping vowel O.

Still, the biggest surprise in reading From Bauhaus to Our House thirty-seven years after it was published was to discover that the book’s dominant metaphor is buttfucking.

Wolfe never describes anal reaming outright. As with The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test before it, there are no penises present. But after you hit the ass sex for the first time almost halfway through, it becomes the book’s refrain, a leering chant from a cracked Greek chorus.

It first arrives on page 51: diminutive Louis Kahn – Wolfe savages him as “always having a little cigar of unfortunate hue in his mouth” – hammered Yale University's big wigs so hard that they “yielded to the destiny of architecture and took it like a man.” And Wolfe gives the line a second coming in the very next sentence: “Administrators, directors, boards of trustees, municipal committees, and executive officers have been taking it like men ever since.”

Ten pages later the anal image rises again: “Eventually, everyone gave up and learned, like the haute bourgeoisie above him, to take it like a man.”

And, just to make it clear that he’s talking about getting fucked up the ass, and not verbal abuse or getting slapped or any of the infinite number of other ways one can be demeaned, Wolfe trots the image out again on the next page: “And the mightiest of the mighty learned to take it like a man. Not even the bottom dogs, those on welfare, trapped in the projects, have taken it so supinely.”

You know, on your back, legs in the air.

Indeed, buttfucking is the climax, the denouement of the book. The chorus razzes shrilly, knowingly, conclusively, in the very last line of text: "And the client still took it like a man.”

Perhaps this frenzy of dickless buttfucking was what got the critics excited. Perhaps that’s what The Wall Street Journal implied when it said From Bauhaus “squeezed a funny tale out of glass and stone.” Perhaps it’s what New York Magazine meant when it saluted the book as “a search-and-destroy mission.” Perhaps it’s what People Magazine was thinking of when it called Wolfe’s opus “marvelously right.”

I mean, there's an undeniable thrill in tucking references to a taboo subject into a mass-market read. I know this first-hand: years back, I was hired to ghost-write part of a marketing textbook, and I remember being ridiculously elated that I managed to shovel the phrase “the only thing that matters is what’s between the buns” into a mortuary-worthy anecdote about rival ad campaigns by burger chains.

But, in hindsight, From Bauhaus is mostly a missed opportunity. Wolfe remains right – star architects are dicks, I'm sure, and their clients are, for the most part, cucks – but, in his pursuit of booty-sex, Wolfe neglected a larger and more important theme that was emerging just as he was writing. A new building called Trump Tower was rising on Fifth Avenue in New York City. This structure was well under way when Wolfe published the 2-part essay that became the book in Harpers in the summer of 1981. The design (by Der Scutt) was known: gaudy as hell, skinned in bronzed reflective glass with little outright ornamentation but cut on one corner like an over-wrought piece of jewelry to present 28 facets to the avenue. At its base, an ostentatious atrium draped in rose/peach/mango marble.

This fool's gold plinth was not the work of some recumbent corporate board being schtupped by a stumpy architect. Rather, it was being built, as most buildings are these days, by a developer, who used the form prescribed by modernism to fulfill a much more basic urge: the desire to maximize value. 

Form follows function after all. But function, to a developer, is eternally the same: to use the full zoning envelope, to get bonuses to build even bigger, to create the most buildable, rentable, saleable square feet possible, and to get a tax break to make it all even more obscenely profitable.

What Wolfe missed, in his derisive envisioning of the haute booboisie with their heinies on public display, is that it's no longer the client who is being fucked up the ass. It's all of us. From Bauhaus to Our House, but with an unintentional new meaning.