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Biden Goes to Town

Joe Biden could definitely stand to connect a bit better with the American people right now. His approval ratings are down into the mid-40s, and he has an infrastructure bill to sell that you might have heard about. So, when CNN called and invited him to hold a town hall, he showed up with bells on.

Biden took a total of nine questions from audience members. Fox Victims, Fox News Channel, is already whining that seven of the nine came from Democrats, while only two came from Republicans. Wonder what the totals would have been if Donald Trump had seen fit to hold a town hall while he was in office? In any event, the big story of the night is that the President—who previously had done his negotiating behind the scenes—spent an awful lot of time talking about Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D?-AZ), and how very hard he's trying to work with them, and how sad he and his wife Jill were when free community college had to be dropped from the reconciliation bill, and how he sure hopes that the senators get on board. CNN might as well have flashed the phone numbers for Manchin's and Sinema's offices on screen, along with an exhortation to "CALL NOW!"

Beyond that, Biden took questions on the Southern border (he will pay a visit when he has time), supply chain issues (he's willing to deploy the National Guard to save Christmas, which has "Hallmark movie" written all over it), and how high the highest tax rates should be (not too high, but higher than they are now).

What's making headlines, however, beyond the Manchin-Sinema arm-twisting, is his remarks on the filibuster. The President said he can't make a move on this front right now, for fear of losing three votes on the infrastructure bill (it's not clear who the third is, maybe Jon Tester, D-MT?), but that:

It used to be the filibuster the way it worked and we have ten times as many more than that, times the filibuster has been used since 1978, it used to be you had to stand on the floor and exhaust everything you had and when you gave up the floor and someone else sought the floor, they had to talk until they finished. You're only allowed to do it a second time. After that, it's over. You vote. Someone moves for the vote. I propose we bring that back now, immediately.

This is pretty far from his position—or, at least, his publicly stated position—6 months ago.

Biden also apologized for commenting on the Steve Bannon situation last week, and during the segment on COVID-19, encouraged people who are facing mental health symptoms to seek treatment. "A broken spirit is no different than a broken arm," he decreed. "Get the help." So that's a dash of humility and a dash of empathy. Just a couple of reminders that there is a new sheriff in the White House. (Z)

Bannon Held in Contempt defines "contemptible" as "deserving of or held in contempt." Well, as of Thursday, Steve Bannon has been held in contempt by the House of Representatives, and he definitely deserved it. So, you can now call him "contemptible" without being guilty of bias or judgment. It's now objectively true.

When it was time to vote whether to allow a contempt vote, the tally was 221-205, with the 221 including all the Democrats plus Reps. Liz Cheney (R-WY) and Adam Kinzinger (R-IL). When the actual vote was held, another seven Republicans crossed the aisle: Peter Meijer and Fred Upton (MI), Anthony Gonzalez (OH), John Katko (NY), Jaime Herrera Beutler (WA), Nancy Mace (SC) and Brian Fitzpatrick (PA). Mace and Fitzpatrick were the only Republican members, among the nine, to vote for contempt charges without having voted to impeach Donald Trump in January.

The hot potato now lands in the lap of AG Merrick Garland who, as chance would have it, was on the Hill on Thursday for an oversight hearing before the House Judiciary Committee. He was characteristically cautious, and in his opening statement decreed: "The essence of the rule of law is that like cases are treated alike. That there not be one rule for Democrats and another for Republicans; one rule for friends, another for foes." Inasmuch as Garland has thus far handled Donald Trump with kid gloves, and has even had his department defend Trump in the defamation suit brought by E. Jean Carroll, he seems to have thus far lived up to his own standards.

And what was his reward for trying to keep things straight and narrow? He was absolutely savaged by all the showmen on the Committee. The Republicans there zeroed in on a memo that Garland issued on Oct. 4 in which he lamented the nastiness taking place at schools and at school board meetings, and instructed the FBI to "facilitate the discussion of strategies for addressing threats against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff, [so as to] open dedicated lines of communication for threat reporting, assessment, and response." With Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) taking the lead, the Republican members accused Garland of encouraging people to "snitch" on parents (because of the threat reporting), of self-dealing (because his son-in-law's company makes educational materials), and of being a communist (because don't know).

The upshot is that no matter how hard Garland attempts to make the DoJ seem dispassionate and nonpartisan, that ship has already sailed with the Trumpublicans. He could tell them that the sky is blue, and they would wonder what he has against red skies, and whether or not he also hates red states, and why he's pretending to be against "red" since red is the color of communism, and everyone knows he's a red commie pinko.

Meanwhile, op-eds from Slate's Jeremy Stahl and former federal prosecutor Ankush Khardori (writing for Politico) both make the argument that in adopting a fair/balanced/evenhanded approach, Garland may be guilty of a different sort of bias. Just as people shouldn't be prosecuted for their political beliefs, both authors write, they also shouldn't be given a free pass because of their political beliefs. In dealing so gently with the insurrectionists and their leaders, he could be sending the message that people are allowed to break the law if punishing them would be unpopular.

In short, Garland's current approach does not seem to be working very well. And now that he's got the Bannon question to deal with, he's going to have to think long and hard about how he wants to proceed. If that is not enough, he probably needs to decide in the next week or so. Oh well, if you can't stand the heat, as they say, then don't be in the kitchen. (Z)

Social Media News, Part I: TRUTH

Everyone has been expecting this for years, and now it's (apparently) happening. Donald Trump announced, late Wednesday, that he will be launching his own social media platform, called TRUTH Social, and a streaming service called TMTG+.

Assuming that the prototype images are accurate, then TRUTH will have a very familiar look:

The release says 'follow the truth'
at the top, and then shows an iPhone where someone is using the TRUTH app. It has a background image, a profile picture in
a circle, the username, the user's handle, a bio, a location, a tally of followers, and a list of tweets.

For those who are not clear what they are looking at, here is what the Twitter app looks like:

It's exactly the same.

As you can see, Team Trump ain't exactly revolutionizing the game. That said, messages sent through the Trump service will be known as TRUTHS and Re-TRUTHS, and not tweets and re-tweets, so that's completely different, right? Meanwhile, Trump acolyte Jason Miller, who went all-in on GETTR, must be feeling like a real chump right now. Yesterday, he dejectedly declared that he and Trump may not be working together anymore, but "I'm still his number one wingman."

As to TMTG+, that stands for Trump Media & Technology Group Plus, since that is the company behind this new venture (guess who is president and CEO?). Reportedly, the platform will be a one-stop source "for 'non-woke' entertainment programming, news, podcasts, and more." When Trump first ran for president in 2016, people (including us) thought that a Trump-branded media network was his endgame, so the only surprise here is that it took as long as it did.

Of the two ventures, TMTG+ has far and away the better chance of succeeding. The streaming marketplace is jam-packed right now, but if the people who are actually running the service manage to get Trump to focus long enough to produce 3-5 rambling hours of podcasts a week, that would be a draw. If they are willing to spend some coin, they might plausibly poach a few stars from other platforms and services. Alternatively, they could just wait until conservatives get themselves fired from their current jobs and then snap them up. Former WSU coach Nick Rolovich is now available to do a sports show, and ESPN personality Sage Steele is likely to be available soon if he needs a co-host.

As to TRUTH, that has "epic failure" written all over it. All of the other attempts to launch a right-wing Twitter have gone nowhere—Gab, Parler, GETTR, etc. There is extremely limited value in being part of a platform that has limited reach, and where the audience is almost entirely an echo chamber. Further, a wild, wild west approach inevitably attracts a bunch of parodists and a bunch of truly awful people, forcing the platform to start cracking down, deleting content, suspending users, etc. And if you are willing to accept that sort of moderation, as a user, then would you rather be on a service that has hundreds of millions of users, or one that has hundreds of users?

One might argue that Trump & Co. will somehow do better than the others who have launched Twitter clones. Maybe so, but that does not mean that success will be in the offing. Further, the early returns suggest that, as you might guess, the people who are building TRUTH have no idea what they are doing. The platform has been accessible, off and on, for a few days, and even though today is just Friday, it has already been hacked and abused six ways to Sunday. There was nothing stopping people from signing up for accounts with handles like donaldjtrump or mikepence, with the former quickly acquiring a profile picture that showed a defecating pig. There were security holes large enough to sail the Titanic through, and it's clear that the source code is just a reheated version of Mastodon, which is free software for people who want to run social-networking sites. Either the Trump Media & Technology Group is trying to do things on the cheap, or they couldn't find anyone to hire who has the faintest clue about how to build a social media site from the ground up.

At the moment, TRUTH is supposed to have a soft launch next month, and a full launch in February. We'll see if that actually happens, or if Trump loses interest before that. If it does launch (and our guess is that it will), then we'll see how long the former president uses it before he realizes he's not going to be reaching tens of millions of adoring followers. Probably his best-case scenario is that a bunch of reporters sign up and follow him, and it becomes a slightly more efficient way to send out the press releases he's been relying on since Twitter booted him. (Z)

Social Media News, Part II: LIES

Ok, not everything on Facebook is a lie, just a lot of it. In any event, sometime next week, the social media giant is going to change its name. Not the name of its best-known product, but instead the name of the parent company that owns not only Facebook, but also Instagram, WhatsApp, and Oculus, among others. Reportedly, the announcement will come either on Monday or Thursday, and the choice of name is not yet official, because CEO Mark Zuckerberg is still weighing several options.

The stated purpose of the name change is to reorient the company away from social media and toward "the metaverse." Zuckerberg, who has become a Dahar master of corporate-speak, explained that "we will effectively transition from people seeing us as primarily being a social media company to being a metaverse company." The obvious success story here is Apple, which switched to that name from "Apple Computer" a few years back. The point there was to make clear to everyone that their primary business was no longer desktop computers. And indeed, their biggest seller right now is...air buds. Instagram is already driving profits more than Facebook is, and Oculus (VR) could also be a big deal. So, some rebranding, for the sake of investors, makes sense.

Another likely goal is to escape some of the negative attention that Facebook has gotten recently. It's not a coincidence that the announcement is coming next week, when a whole bunch of critical-of-Facebook articles are set to be published, and whistleblower Frances Haugen will be testifying on Capitol Hill again. Because of the clear goal of avoiding some bad publicity, there has been much mockery of the name change on social media and on late-night TV, with Stephen Colbert lapping the field. His suggestions for the new name: Pinsurrectionist, DikTok, Aunt Brenda's Three-Paragraph Rant-a-torium, Best Fun Times America Website and the Washington Football Team.

In the end, unlike Apple circa 2014, Facebook has a pretty serious PR problem that isn't going to be resolved by putting a little lipstick on a pig. Users are unhappy, investors are unhappy, advertisers are unhappy, and politicians are unhappy. They might weather the storm, but that's what Ma Bell said, too. At very least, the company probably needs to get serious about fixing the obvious problems with its signature products. Beyond that, there is the question of whether Zuckerberg is the right person to lead the company into its next era. (Z)

The Proof Is in the Pudding, Part I: Kyrsten Sinema

For quite a while now, we've guessed that Kyrsten Sinema, who has done a near-180 from her early days as a fire-breathing left-wing activist, was hurting herself with the people who got her elected to the Senate in the first place. Polls back that up, as she's doing much worse among Democrats, approval-wise, than Joe Biden or her fellow Arizona senator Mark Kelly (D).

Yesterday, we got a bit more evidence, as five veterans who were serving on Sinema's board of policy advisers announced their resignations, effective Wednesday. In the joint letter of resignation, the quintet pulled no punches:

You have become one of the principal obstacles to progress, answering to big donors rather than your own people... We shouldn't have to buy representation from you, and your failure to stand by your people and see their urgent needs is alarming. We do not know who has your ear, but it clearly isn't us or your constituents. We no longer feel you are aligned with our values, and we cannot in good faith continue to serve on your council.

But then again, who listens to what veterans think, right? Certainly not American voters, what with their propensity for fetishizing the military. Sinema had no response to the resignations, other than to thank the five for their service to her, and to the country.

The Senator has about 3 years before she has to face the voters in her state again (Arizona generally holds primaries in August). However, the ship on her new political persona has clearly sailed. She is never going to be able to regain the trust of progressive Democrats in her state, and she might even have trouble with some of the moderates. She may gain enough crossover and independent votes to make that tradeoff worthwhile, though only Democrats and unaffiliated voters can vote in Arizona primaries. Oh, and the "Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ) for Senate" movement is already gathering steam. Sinema could well become the sixth U.S. senator to be primaried in the 21st century, joining Bob Smith (2002), Joe Lieberman (2006), Lisa Murkowski and Arlen Specter (2010), and Dick Lugar (2012). (Z)

The Proof Is in the Pudding, Part II: The Supreme Court

In addition to guessing that Kyrsten Sinema was in trouble with some of the folks who elected her, we've also guessed that the Supreme Court has got some image issues right now. The fact that more than half the justices have made a major speech in the last two months insisting that of course the Court isn't governed by politics tells us that they know full well that most Americans don't believe that. And a new poll from Grinnell-Selzer confirms that nearly two-thirds of Americans think the justices' decisions are governed by politics and not the law.

To be more specific, 62% of respondents said that the political allegiance of the justices is determinative, while another 8% said they don't know. That means that only 30% of Americans think that the justices are making decisions based on the law. This holds across people of all political persuasions: 60% of Republicans, 66% of Democrats, and 63% of independents. Of course, this is just according to Ann Selzer. And what does she know about polling, really?

In the short term, there are at least five justices that have some thinking to do. The use of various maneuvers, like unsigned opinions and the midnight docket, are not helping the Court's reputation. And everyone is going to be watching to see what they do about several upcoming cases, the Mississippi and Texas abortion cases foremost among them. If one or both of those decisions comes down 6-3, or 5-4 with Chief Justice John Roberts joining the liberals, it could be the Roberts Court's Dred Scott moment. Their credibility could be shot for a generation.

In the longer term, the new poll has one other interesting tidbit: 62% of Americans (including majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents) support an end to lifetime tenure, and instead selecting the members of the court to a one-time, 15-year term. While we are not generally fans of term limits, that is because (1) it takes time to learn for someone to be an effective representative or senator and (2) people should be able to vote for the people they want as their representation, without artificial limits. However, a would-be SCOTUS justice can learn 95% of what they need to know while serving on lower courts, and they're not elected. So, these two objections don't apply. And capping the length of Supreme Court terms would certainly fix at least some of the issues with the Court. (Z)

Don't Know Much about History: The American Genocide?

Last week, we had an item about whether or not Christopher Columbus was guilty of genocide against the Native Americans. It is our view that while he did reprehensible and inhumane things, enough even to shock the sensibilities of his contemporaries, his actions do not fit the meaning of "genocide."

But what about the actions that the U.S. government took against the Native Americans? That is the question we will concern ourselves with today. To start, let us remind you of the two definitions of genocide that we included in last week's piece. The first, put to paper in 1944, comes from lawyer Raphael Lemkin, who coined the word "genocide":

New conceptions require new terms. By "genocide" we mean the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group. This new word, coined by the author to denote an old practice in its modern development, is made from the ancient Greek word genos (race, tribe) and the Latin cide (killing), thus corresponding in its formation to such words as tyrannicide, homicide, infanticide, etc. Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.

Then there is the definition included in the United Nations' Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which was adopted in 1948, and was shaped significantly by Lemkin's input:

Any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

So, that's what we're working with here. We also noted last week that the two definitions have three key components in common: (1) scope, (2) the existence of intent, and (3) the underlying motive.

Moving on to the question in the headline, we've actually already given our answer. Back in April, after Joe Biden formally acknowledged the Armenian genocide, we wrote this:

In any event, the die is cast now, and the world waits to see how much damage is done to the U.S.-Turkey relationship. On Monday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had strong words for his American counterpart, decreeing that: "The U.S. President has made baseless, unjust and untrue remarks about the sad events that took place in our geography over a century ago." He also threatened to declare that the U.S. government's treatment of the Native Americans was also a genocide. From the historian's perspective, at least, that's not much of a threat at all. Outside of what happened in California, it's probably not accurate, but maybe it will spark a conversation Americans should have had a long time ago.

There were many readers who were not happy about that. This comment gives a sense of the tone and tenor of some of the more sharply worded messages in the mailbag:

This is one of the most out-of-step, mysteriously bad comments (I had to delete more emotionally charged descriptions) I've ever seen published at your site, that I've been reading since the 2004 election...I really can't give you the benefit of the doubt on this one. Really, I don't even think I want to read your response unless you've reconsidered your position, apologize, and explain why you've done so. I have a very hard time keeping polite company with people who maintain the position you published today.

We've not had much success in life with demanding that those who disagree immediately prostrate themselves and beg forgiveness, but perhaps our experience is atypical.

In any event, here comes our long-delayed explanation of what we wrote. There are some very significant problems with trying to make the Lemkin/U.N. definitions of genocide fit what happened in the interactions between the United States government and the Natives. Here are some of the main ones:

In short, one simply cannot speak of one, comprehensive "American Genocide." To make it work, you have to twist and distort the meaning of the term in half a dozen different ways.

On the other hand, it is entirely possible to think about more specific genocides committed against indigenous groups by American governments (federal, state, local). There may not have been one big genocide, but possibly there were dozens of smaller ones. And that is where the California natives come in. They were closely enough related that it's not unreasonable to think of them as one cultural group (or a small handful of cultural groups). And when Americans arrived en masse in California, in 1848-49, their greed for gold put aside nearly all of their humanitarian impulses. Further, the state government and the national government were both under the leadership, for a decade, of people who shared a similarly negative view of the Native Americans. And so, from 1850-60, the U.S. army traveled up and down the state, engaging in "seek and destroy" missions with an eye to eliminating the native population. They were horribly, terribly, distressingly successful: A population of 150,000 individuals was reduced to 20,000 in a little over a decade.

The California genocide checks all the boxes: scope, intent to kill, and motive. It also unfolded over a short period of time, and it was conducted under government auspices. Not long before Joe Biden acknowledged the Armenian genocide, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) acknowledged the California genocide, declaring: "That's what it was, a genocide. No other way to describe it. And that's the way it needs to be described in the history books."

One can go through the U.S. government's interactions with other tribes, or tribal groups, and try to find other situations that match the definition of genocide as well as what happened in California. But, unless one makes a cultural genocide argument, it's not easy to find additional examples. Some very brutal and unpleasant things happened, but they weren't programs of mass extermination. Other incidents that were clearly genocidal include the Kalinago Genocide and the Pequot War. But those predate the formation of the U.S. government by at least a century.

In the end, why does it matter what was, and was not, a genocide? Well, it matters because Lemkin was trying to find some meaning in what had happened to his fellow Jews, and because he wanted to draw attention to (and forestall) future incidences of, in his view, the worst crime that human societies are capable of committing. If the word is stretched, and redefined, and applied to all manner of bad behavior, then it ceases to have much meaning. And that is terribly disrespectful, not only to Lemkin, but to the Jewish, Armenian, Ukrainian, and Indigenous peoples who were victimized by the ultimate crime.

This is not to downplay the Trail of Tears, or Columbus' misdeeds, or the Inquisition, or American slavery, or the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or any of the other awful chapters of U.S. and world history. To say that those things do not fit the definition of genocide doesn't mean they weren't bad. And it doesn't even mean that they were less bad than the various genocides, merely that they were bad in a different way. What this really speaks to is that language has not evolved to be able to properly describe some of these atrocities. Because "American genocide" really doesn't stand up, some scholars have been using "American holocaust." Is that better? We just don't know.

When dealing with a tricky subject like this, we'd really prefer to revise, then wait a week, then revise again, and so forth, for at least a month. But Columbus Day arrived, and with it the appropriate time to address this issue, and we just can't hold it forever. And so, it goes live. (Z)

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