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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  Biden Fires Architect of the Capitol
      •  White House: These UFOs Are Not Aliens
      •  Wheels of Justice Turn A Little Bit More for Trump
      •  M&M's Saga Reaches Its Conclusion
      •  Book 'em, Ronno
      •  Who Needs Child Labor Laws?

Biden Fires Architect of the Capitol

It was a slow news day yesterday. As in, molasses slow. Three-toed sloth slow. Donald Trump trying to solve a crossword puzzle slow. You can tell because the hands-down, no questions about it, 1A story everywhere was Joe Biden's firing of Architect of the Capitol Brett Blanton.

The Architect of the Capitol (AOC) is the 2,400-person agency responsible for facilities management at the U.S. Capitol complex. The person who heads up that agency is also called the Architect of the Capitol. In other words, the AOC leads the AOC. Although one might expect the folks who work for this agency to be under the purview of Congress, the AOC is an executive agency, and the AOC is a presidential appointee, and so the buck stops with whomever is in the White House.

In the case of Blanton, he was appointed to a 10-year term as AOC by Donald Trump. And, not long after taking his office, Blanton began to abuse the privilege. An October report from the AOC Office of the Inspector General (or, if you prefer, the AOCOIG) found that Blanton misused official vehicles for personal purposes, that he misspent hundreds of thousands of dollars in government funds, that he and his wife led private tours of the Capitol that created the "appearance of impropriety," and that on at least one occasion, he represented himself as a police officer. While the AOC is an ex oficio member of the board that oversees the Capitol Police, the holder of that office is not themselves a cop.

In any event, the recommendation of the AOCOIG was that Blanton should be cashiered, which is appropriate because AOCOIG descrambles to "Go" and "Ciao," so that's "get lost" in two languages. Why it took so long to act on a report that was issued nearly 6 months ago, we do not know, but partisans on both sides of the aisle wanted Blanton gone. So, it was an easy call for the President. Now, he gets to talk about how he has no tolerance for corruption, while House Republicans are talking about (really!) how they managed to bring down AOC. This is not the AOC they most want to destroy, but beggars can't be choosers.

Is there any larger significance to this story—which, again, got front-page attention from pretty much everyone? We can see at least one. Take a guess how many people have served as AOC (the architect job, not the congresswoman from New York) since the modern version of the office was established in 1851 (a.k.a., 174 years ago). Go ahead and ponder it; we'll wait. The answer appears in the next paragraph.

Before we tell you, we'll note that while the architect is appointed to a 10-year term these days, it hasn't always been that way. Further, even in the 10-year-term era, it has been possible for the AOC to be renewed for another 10 years. And so, the result is that Blanton is only the ninth person to hold the job since a year when Abraham Lincoln was just a little-known former congressman from Illinois, photography was less than 30 years old, the transcontinental railroad was still 20 years away, Vincent Van Gogh had just turned 2, and the first edition of Moby-Dick was hot off the presses.

Put another way, the average AOC has served a little less than 20 years. And none had failed to make it to at least 10 years, before Blanton. Point is, this is not a hard job to fill with a competent person. And yet, the Trump administration couldn't even clear that very low bar. It's just a reminder of how godawful the 45th president and his administration were at vetting candidates for appointments and at finding people who are, you know, not sleazy. (Z)

White House: These UFOs Are Not Aliens

Continuing with the "slow news day" theme, the second biggest story of the day related to the ongoing, and increasingly epic, saga of all the myriad objects that are apparently hovering in the air above North America. Specifically, the White House found it necessary to clarify that whatever these objects are (the administration has been somewhat vague on that point), they are not transporting extraterrestrial life forms.

It does not, in our view, reflect well on the American people that this clarification was necessary. It is highly probable that intelligent life exists somewhere in the universe beyond planet Earth. It is highly improbable that the laws of physics will be tamed in such a manner that those beings can visit us, or that we can visit them (sorry, Zefram Cochrane!). And if E.T./Spock/ALF/Klaatu/Superman somehow have overcome that little problem, it seems rather improbable that they would, upon arrival, switch from their warp-speed high-tech spaceships into clumsy, barely controllable floating deathtraps. Of course, once the Biden administration issued the "they're not aliens" clarification, many conspiracy-minded folks online responded with various versions of "well, of course the President is going to deny it."

Assuming that you, like us, have naively swallowed the White House's narrative that these are not spacemen or spacewomen, then it does leave open the question of what is going on here with all these floating objects. There would seem to be three basic possibilities:

  1. This has been going on for a long time, but nobody noticed/cared until the Chinese balloon was sighted
  2. This has been going on for a long time, but the technology to notice it was not available until recently
  3. This is a new development, and speaks to some sort of organized plan or plot that's underway

Of course, it could be a combination of these things. Maybe there are lots of floating objects up there, but the Chinese decided to up the ante by deploying a particularly large and particularly mysterious one guaranteed to draw attention. They surely know that Americans are prone to paranoia and overreaction when these things happen, and it is very possible that Xi Jinping is sitting back with his popcorn right now and enjoying the show that his balloon unleashed.

It could be a good thing that this problem, such as it is, is getting attention before one or more bad actors floats one or more really bad things over the United States. That said, the U.S. cannot scramble F-22s every time a blip shows up on someone's radar. Someone is going to have to figure out, pretty soon, how to separate the legitimate threats (which are presumably very small in number) from the stuff that's no big deal. Fortunately, in view of the item above this one, the person who is going to have to solve that problem is an appointee of Joe Biden, and not of Donald Trump. (Z)

Wheels of Justice Turn A Little Bit More for Trump

As long as we are on the subject of Donald Trump, let us note that there have been a couple of developments when it comes to his various legal entanglements.

First, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney announced yesterday that he is ordering the release of a portion of the Georgia grand jury report on alleged 2020 election crimes. Most of the report will remain under wraps, but on Thursday the intro, conclusion, and a section about potential false statements made to the grand jury will be made public. We haven't got the faintest idea what is contained within these documents, of course, but we have a sneaking suspicion we'll have an item about it on Friday.

Meanwhile, last Friday, we noted the subpoena that special counsel Jack Smith sent to Mike Pence, inviting the former VP to sit down for a nice chat, perhaps over tea and crumpets. However, there was also a second subpoena that was not publicly known until the weekend. This subpoena forced Team Trump to surrender an empty folder, spotted at Mar-a-Lago, labeled "Classified Evening Briefing."

An empty folder might seem like a relative triviality, but there's more substance here than it may seem. The incident makes clear at least three things:

  1. The Special Counsel is leaving no stone unturned
  2. Trump is still withholding materials he should have surrendered
  3. The Special Counsel is growing weary of Trump's nonsense, and is resorting to court orders rather than negotiations with Trump, et al.

Trump has faced off against a very large number of lawyers in his day, but, to his very likely detriment, he hasn't faced someone like Jack Smith.

Clearly, the denouement, both in Georgia and in Washington, is not at hand yet. But it's getting closer. And it will be very interesting to see what the Thursday release adds to the story. (Z)

M&M's Saga Reaches Its Conclusion

When looking for the politics angle to this weekend's Super Bowl, one might consider the back-and-forth between Joe Biden and Fox, wherein the President backed out of a scheduled interview because Fox wanted (rather insultingly) to push the interview to their streaming service Fox Soul. In case you are among the 98% of Americans who have never heard of it, that is apparently Fox's product for its vast Black audience. Seriously. Fox not only has that channel, but they named it "Soul." That's about a half-step up from calling it "Fox Jive" or "Fox Ebonics."

Another possible storyline, also involving clueless white people, involves ESPN anchor Chris Berman, whose prime is so far in the rear-view mirror that it's no longer even visible anymore. Every NFL fan on the planet already knew that this was the first Super Bowl to feature two Black starting quarterbacks. So, Berman decided that his contribution to the conversation would be to note how apropos it was that the game was being played on Abraham Lincoln's birthday. Because, as every Civil War historian knows, the first thing Lincoln said upon signing the Emancipation Proclamation was "Hot damn! I have just laid the groundwork for a helluva Super Bowl matchup one of these days."

Turning to the commercials, quite a few folks are writing about the two Jesus ads. They are part of a campaign being conducted under the slogan "He Gets Us" (see a selection of the ads here). The slickly produced ads are deliberately vague about who exactly is funding them, and are meant to win young people over to the banner of Christianity by portraying Jesus as cool, personable, and progressive. He probably was most/all of those things, but young people are not stupid, and are pretty good at spotting phoniness a mile away. In particular, they notice instantly when the ads sneak in right-wing buzzwords like "cancel culture." And indeed, it turns out that the commercials are the work of a shadowy evangelical group with close ties to anti-LGBTQ causes. It would seem that "He" gets "us" as long as "we" are not gay.

For us, while all three of the above storylines are interesting, the most notable politics-related story of all involves M&M's. Readers will recall that, three weeks ago, Fox entertainer Tucker Carlson soiled himself over the fact that the M&M/Mars Company had changed the designs of their cartoon spokespeople to be a shade more inclusive. In response, M&M/Mars announced that they were benching the animated M&M's, and were replacing them, for the time being, with comedian Maya Rudolph.

The ad that aired during the Super Bowl was an attempt to be surreal. The bit was that either Rudolph, or M&M/Mars, or both, have gone off the deep end. And so, Rudolph "announced" that the name of the candy was being changed to Ma-Yas, that her face would be painted on all of the candies henceforth, and that the recipe was being altered such that each M&M would contain clam pieces. At the end of the Super Bowl, sanity "miraculously" returned, and M&M/Mars ran a 15-second spot announcing that Rudolph had been cashiered, and that the animated M&M's were back to serving as spokespeople (spokescandies? spokeschocolates? spokeswokes?).

As anyone who has come within a country mile of commercial production knows, it takes forever to get all the details in place. Contracts have to be signed. Sets have to be built. Clearances have to be cleared. Filming has to take place. Then there's editing, color correction, sound production, and all kinds of other stuff. There is no way that M&M/Mars could pull a spot together in the roughly three weeks between Carlson's meltdown (Jan. 23) and the Super Bowl (Feb. 12).

That leaves us with exactly two possibilities: (1) M&M/Mars played Carlson, and other right-wing culture warriors, like a fiddle, or (2) Carlson is on the M&M/Mars payroll, and was compensated by them for his faux outrage. Readers can decide for themselves which explanation they find more plausible. (Z)

Book 'em, Ronno

Since we're on the subject of the culture wars, let's continue with a look at recent news out of Florida, specifically on the book front. PEN America is an anti-censorship group focused on keeping books of all stripes accessible. The organization just released a list of 176 books that have been pulled from the shelves of schools in one Florida county (Duval), at least temporarily. Here are some of the titles, along with a guess as to what the problem is:

  • Chik Chak Shabbat: This is about a Jewish woman who cooks food for her diverse neighborhood. One day, when she gets sick, the neighborhood pitches in to cook the shabbat meal in her place. It would seem that different races and cultures working together is too "political" for Florida schoolkids. It is possible that the fact that the community is helping a Jew is also a problem.

  • Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story: Another one about non-Western-European people cooking non-Western-European foods. Nobody better show these schoolkids the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi; it could well drive them to a life of depravity and despair.

  • Love to Mamá: A Tribute To Mothers: Nothing is more American than mom, apple pie and baseball, right? Well, unless mom is Latina, it would seem.

  • Henry Aaron's Dream: Speaking of baseball, the only possible issue here is that the book briefly mentions that Aaron had to overcome racism in order to play baseball. The same is true of The Hero Two Doors Down: Based on the True Story of Friendship between a Boy and a Baseball Legend, about Jackie Robinson, and Roberto Clemente: Pride of the Pittsburgh Pirates, which are also on the banned list.

  • The Gift of Ramadan: One word: Muslims.

  • Never Say a Mean Word Again: A Tale from Medieval Spain: This one has a Jew and a Muslim forming an unlikely friendship. Can't have that, obviously.

  • And Still the Turtle Watched: No, the turtle is not a peeping Tom. Or a peeping Mitch. The book is pro-environment.

  • The Berenstain Bears and the Big Question: Readers may know that the hundreds-of-volumes Berenstain Bears series is full of references to Christian themes. In this one, the "Big Question" is about the nature of God. We don't know if the book was yanked to show that the censors are "being fair" or if it was yanked because it's not Jesus-y enough (or not Jesus-y in the right way).

  • Carter Reads the Newspaper: "Carter" is Carter Woodson, the father of Black History Month. You can see the issue.

  • Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop: The Sanitation Strike of 1968: Black agitators and labor activism? Please.

  • Julián Is a Mermaid: Julián is both a Latino and a young boy who questions his gender identity. In this case, two strikes and you're out.

  • Between Us and Abuela: A Family Story from the Border: Presumably, this one would be OK if the book ended with the family on a plane to Martha's Vineyard.

  • My Two Dads and Me: You don't need us to tell you what the issue is here. My Two Moms and Me was also pulled.

  • Zen Shorts: There is one religion that might pass muster in Florida schools. And that religion ain't Zen Buddhism, nor is it Taoism, the two religions from which this book's stories are drawn.

  • Fatty Legs: As long as we're on the subject of religion, this one is about a First Nations girl in Canada who is forced to embrace Christian values. A book about imposing Christian "values" on non-Christians? The person who yanked this book wins the Irony Trophy.

  • Barbed Wire Baseball: How One Man Brought Hope to the Japanese Internment Camps of WWII: Surely you know that only the Nazis did bad things during World War II.

  • When Spring Comes to the DMZ and A Dream Come True: Coming to America from Vietnam--1975: Surely you also know that the U.S. only wins wars bigly.

We will just point out two conclusions that emerge from this exercise. The first is that, despite the claims of Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) to the contrary, his policies do not leave room for teaching some of the ugly truths of American history. It would be one thing to remove books that are unusually explicit, or gritty, or politically driven. But, for example, if you can't mention racism when telling the stories of Jackie Robinson and Henry Aaron, you can't mention racism anywhere.

The second is that the policy is working exactly as designed. It is not clear how long these books will remain banned for, or when they will return to their respective schools, if they ever do. But the fact is that there is huge risk to educators in leaving a "problem" book on the shelves—they could literally be subject to criminal prosecution (and don't you doubt that DeSantis is looking for a test case to make a show of). On the other hand, there is relatively little direct cost to educators if they yank a book or ten. So, there is enormous incentive to pull any book that isn't tame enough to be made into a Hallmark Channel movie. Too bad for kids who are of color, or gay, or trans, or Jewish/Muslim/Hindu/Buddhist, and who might like a story once in a while where they can see themselves. (Z)

Who Needs Child Labor Laws?

It is not hard, if you are a member of Congress or of a state legislature, to propose a bill. Indeed, most proposed bills are basically for show, since only a small fraction of them get considered by legislators, and an even smaller fraction actually become law. Consequently, it is not generally worthwhile to take note of particularly nutty proposals, since they will never be more than vaporware.

That said, sometimes a proposed bill is extra nutty, and yet also manages to attract some meaningful amount of support. So it is with a bill brought to our attention by reader J.S. in The Hague, Netherlands. The bill in question is Iowa S.B. 167, and it would come dangerously close to re-legalizing child labor, thus reversing one of the main accomplishments of the Progressive movement 100 years ago.

Iowa, like most states, already has limited provisions for people to work at paid jobs before they have reached adulthood. For example, 16-year-olds can work some number of hours at fast food restaurants, or as retail clerks. On the other hand, at the moment, underage Iowans cannot work at a slaugterhouse, or in demolition, or as roofers, or in mining operations. These seem sensible limitations, right?

To some Iowa Republicans, the answer to that question is "no." And so, the proposed Iowa law would make it possible for underage workers to take jobs in these, and other, restricted lines of work. All that would be required would be that employers affirm that underage workers receive "adequate supervision and training" that there be "adequate safety precautions" and that "the terms and conditions of the proposed employment will not interfere with the health, well-being or schooling of the minor enrolled in an approved program." This seems very enforceable. After all, a business would never, ever fudge the truth about how well they are treating their employees, right?

If an employer is found to have violated the laws, they would potentially be subject to a fine of up to $10,000 per employee. Of course, if the choice is between paying an adult a full-time salary, and paying a teenager peanuts and then hoping there are no fines, that's a pretty easy risk-reward analysis. Oh, and in case there's not incentive enough for employers to push their luck, the new legislation would also allow the Iowa state labor commissioner to waive the fine. It would also exempt a company from liability if one of their teenage employees was sickened, injured or killed due to the company's negligence.

The Iowa senator who sponsored this bill (Jason Schultz, R-Crawford County) and the other senators who are backing it either want to turn the clock back 100 years, or are completely in the thrall of business interests, or both. One would hope that the bill could never, ever become law, especially given the blowback it has generated. But given the number of nutters in the Iowa legislature right now, you just don't know. In any case, once again, the Trumpy wing of the Republican Party reminds us of a famous remark from Maya Angelou: "When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time." (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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