Passing judgement is easy

woman-caught-in-adultery John Martin Borg 2002

This Easter weekend I’ve been reflecting on one of Jesus’s best known soundbites: “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” [King James Version] Here it is with more context and a modern tongue; Matthew 7:1-5, New American Standard Bible:

“Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”

We all know that we are living in a divided nation and you are probably sick of hearing about it but nothing is going to get any better if we don’t face this reality head on and ask, “What am I doing to fan the flames or allow them to burn brighter? Am I self-righteously obsessed with other people’s stumbles while failing to see that I am lying flat on my face?”

It was a small news story this past last week that got me thinking about our current judgmental divide and how fitting Jesus’s words still are. The partisan bomb throws on both sides are fundamentally the same. Both value allegiance to their own team far more than they care about honestly pursuing the truth and both condemn us all to a never-ending game of insults, gotcha moments, and hyperbolic overreach. Yet both are convinced that it is, “the other guy,” with the speck in his eye, who is the problem.

Jeff Sessions

On April 11, 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions made a speech along the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona where he went after MS-13 and other drug smuggling, human trafficking, extremely violent cartels. A copy of his prepared remarks was released beforehand which include this passage:

“Let’s stop here for a minute. When we talk about MS-13 and other cartels, what do we mean? We mean criminal organizations that turn cities and suburbs into warzones, that rape and kill innocent citizens and who profit by smuggling poison and other human beings across our borders. Depravity and violence are their calling cards, including brutal machete attacks and beheadings.”

“It is here, on this sliver of land, where we first take our stand against this filth.”

Personally, and I’m sure I’m not alone on this, I don’t have a problem with extremely violent criminals such as these being referred to as, “filth,” but I can see where someone of Latin American heritage might ask the reasonable question, “Does Sessions refer to all organized crime figures as filth or just ones from south of the border?” Some people, however, went much further than this and assumed that Sessions was talking about immigrants in general. Professor of International Politics and book Author Daniel Drezner, who also writes for the Washington Post, tweeted:

daniel w drezner tweet1

Such a foul mouthed, kneejerk reaction from a presumably serious professional only serves to promote more extremism in others. Here’s one brief exchange out of the hundreds of comments under Drezner’s post:

comments to drezner

Presumably, the very unclassy, OAF, agrees that calling illegal immigrants filth (if that had happened) would be wrong. Yet s/he is fine passing the same blanket misjudgement on the majority of Republicans. Not to be outdone by this left wing idiocy, presumed right winger Alexis Pace goes into the standard, idiotic line, that all left-leaning Americans are in league with the enemies of America. But I only came across these remarks later, when I put some time into researching this story.

My first exposure to this matter was from a post on my LinkedIn newsfeed, which brought me to an article on the Yellowhammer website, written by Jacob Bunn. It was published on April 12 and titled, “Reporters are cleaning the egg off of their faces after pushing a FALSE accusation about Jeff Sessions.” I hadn’t heard of Yellowhammer before that but if this piece is any indication of the overall product, they are part of the reactionary right and very bias-driven. For starters, consider the title again. Is it necessary to put “FALSE” in capital letters, or to describe the reporters in question as, “pushing,” this falsehood? The impression readers are meant to form, even before they know anything about the facts, is that someone deliberately lied about Sessions and failed to get away with it.

Bunn begins his piece by asking, “Are accuracy and context not taught at journalism schools today?” and then goes on to be inaccurate, with questionable context. He complains that, “Drezner falsely accused Attorney General Jeff Sessions of calling illegal immigrants “filth.” And, Vox writer Matthew Yglesias tweeted that Sessions was talking about Latin-American immigrants.” I’m not sure what exactly Yglesias’ tweet said, since he seems to have later deleted it, but the overall speech was about criminal immigration from Latin-America (The Justice Department transcrip is titled, “Attorney General Jeff Sessions Delivers Remarks Announcing the Department of Justice’s Renewed Commitment to Criminal Immigration Enforcement”) so Yglesias may not have been completely off the mark to note, “that Sessions was talking about Latin-American immigrants,” in the speech.

Bunn invites his readers to look at “the actual transcript of the remarks prepared for Sessions,” but if you follow his, “actual,” link (preserved in the previous quote), you will end up at another tweeter exchange where people were debating what Sessions said and what he meant by it, in the overall context of immigration. Then Bunn makes the extraordinary claim that, “Nowhere in those prepared remarks does Sessions call immigrants or anyone else “filth.” How dare he actually want to put an end to all of those horrible, criminal activities?” Anyone familiar with proper English knows that criminal activities are not, “filth.” Murder is not filth. Rape is not filth. A murder is filth. A rapist is filth. The only way to reasonably interpret Sessions’ prepared remarks is to admit that criminals are being called filth; not crimes. Like his counterparts on the other side, who want to see racism in anything Sessions might say, Bunn wants to deny logic so he can pretend that the people he is critiquing are opposed to fighting crime.

As it turns out, Sessions chose not to deliver the “filth” line, which makes me think that he too understood it could be questionably interpreted. Bunn, however doesn’t see it that way. Instead, he says, “To add insult to injury for some overeager journos, the line that was so bothersome was in his prepared remarks but not actually spoken by Sessions, according to Buzzfeed’s Adrian Carrasquillo.” How does this, “add insult to injury?” How does it help Bunn’s case that Session chose to skip this bothersome line? I really don’t understand.

At the very end of the piece Bunn finally gets to the metaphorical, “egg,” that reports are presumed to be cleaning off their faces, noting that, “Drezner did return to apologize for having too quick of a trigger, so kudos to him, even though the damage has already been done. Still no apology or correction from Yglesias. Better luck next time, lamestreams.” Wow. Just, Wow. Drezner’s follow-up tweet was posted just under an hour and a half after he first made his mistaken claim. I don’t see how Bunn has proved that any level of damage was already done, nor has he proved that Drezner was actively pushing something he knew to be, “FALSE.”

daniel w drezner tweet2.png

As for Yglesias, he too made a follow-up tweet the next day, right around the same time that Bunn posted his article:

Matthew Yglesias tweet.png

Why Bunn could not find this tweet or update his own article since then to discuss it in anyway is debatable but I suspect that he wanted to paint Yglesias as unapologetic and thoughtless, so why bother to put any thought into it? I would even go so far as to conjecture that Bunn’s main objective in writing his misleading article was simply to use that childish closing line, taunting the, “lamestream,” media. Because this is the kind of red meat that his audience is hungry for. A fact reflected in the comments on Bunn’s piece:

yellowhammer comments

Lest I be accused of spending too much time focused on the overreaching right, let us return to the contorted left, where Gabe Ortiz wrote a piece entitled, “‘We take our stand against this filth:’ Sessions speech goes full-on white nationalist,” for the Daily Kos. That’s full-on demagoguery.

“Our side is good, just, noble, and true, while those people are enemies of America, no matter what the facts are.” This is the unspoken mantra I see playing out daily on the right and the left; thousands, tens of thousands, millions of times, over and over again. Judge, judge, judge the presumed guilty so that we might imagine we are innocent. Will we never learn?

I almost feel sorry for Sean Spicer

Amid the vast amount of and reasonable questions and valid criticisms of President Trump there is, naturally, a spattering of self-righteous childishness from high profile figures like Madonna and unknown vandals in the streets. Trump Supporters can easily point to these people as representative of, “The Left,” thus insulating themselves from genuinely considering any anti-Trump messages. The latest outrage, and it really is an outrage, was a Tweet from SNL writer Katie Rich, who attacked Trump’s 10 year old son, Barron. Many on the right saw this as typical of, “Liberals.” Siraj Hashmi at RedAlertPolitics.com was quick to frame the story that way and attack the hipocracy of those who, “spent 8 years protecting Obama daughters,” but are presumably fine with Ms. Rich’s comment.

Of course, both sides want to believe that their side is full of noble warriors fighting for Truth, Justice, and the American Way, while the other side is a festering pile of rude and disdainful rubbish. And both sides look for the most offensive, stupid, and/or inaccurate things they can find on the other side in order to judge them by it. Intellectually honest people, however, should not fall into this trap. Ms. Rich’s poor choice is not political proof of anything fundamental to, “The Left,” or,”Liberals,” just as GOP Congressional Staffer Elizabeth Lauten’s belittling of Malia and Sasha Obama and Rightwing Talkshow Host Rush Limbaugh’s comparison of 12 year old Chelsea Clinton to a dog were not political proof of anything fundamental to, “The Right,” or, “Conservatives,” when those things happened.

Which brings me to the point that I set out to talk about. Did you catch this moment of frustration from White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer yesterday? The relevant part is about 1 minute 52 seconds into this clip:

I almost feel sorry for him. I’m sure it is, “demoralizing,” and, “frustrating,” to listen to the constant drumbeat of a press corps that is largely negative and, sometimes, unfairly so. I agree that many members of the media, if not most, are looking to, “undermine [Trump’s] credibility,” and there is a, “constant theme,” here at a level we have, “never seen,” before. But I can’t help thinking of that famous phrase from Galatians 6:7, “A man reaps what he sows.”

Sean Spicer chose to work for Trump, a compulsive liar with little regard for facts or manners. A man who seems to believe that any and all poor behavior can be brushed aside by simply saying, “I’m not politically correct.” A man who looks to the most wild claims he finds on the Internet or in the tabloids first and readily rejects anything that does not fit into his predetermined conclusions, no matter how well documented it is.

You want to talk about undermining a President’s credibility? Who lead the racist birther charge for years (Yes, years!) claiming President Obama was not a real American? I’ll tell you who. The same man who took out a full page in four major New York City newspapers in 1989, calling for a return of the death penalty in response to the Central Park Five (five young men of color accused of and later falsely convicted of raping a white woman jogging in Central Park). The same man that refuses to accept the innocence of the Central Park Five, to this day, and has no sympathy for the 40 years of combined time they spent behind bars for a crime that did not commit. The same man who thinks it’s okay to mock the disabled, then lies and says he never did that. The same man who likes to brag about molesting woman, then lies and says he never said that. The same man who attacked a Gold Star Family and all POWs, despite his own record of multiple deferments to dodge the draft during the Vietnam War, and his own inability to understand the meaning of the word, “sacrifice.” The same man who can’t seem to control himself enough to avoid a 3am tweetstorm against a former beauty pageant contestant. Who thinks women should be valued based on their looks and ridiculed for having a menstrual cycle.

If I were to judge Sean Spicer simply on his tone in yesterday’s press conference I would feel very sorry for him and I would predict that he’s not going to last long in this job. But we should to look at the larger context and the kind of climate that his boss has set for us all. A meaner, less, “politically correct,”environment in which everyone gets their own, “alternative facts,” and anything goes so long as you win. Trump has come a long way with this worldview. It’s got him all the way to the White House. Now you expect that it’s not going to be used by reporters and others to get him out of the White House? Get real, Spicer. You ain’t seen nothin yet.

It ain’t just a river in Africa

There was a tweet I saw a couple months ago when Trump won the Republican nomination that made me laugh but now haunts me. If you’ve seen the Netflix show, Stranger Things, you’ll understand. “This is the Upside Down and We Are Barbara. We Are Barbara!”

this-is-the-upside-down-and-we-are-babara

If you don’t get it, think of it this way. We are all partying on the Titanic and the iceberg just scraped by. We have no idea what we are in for.

Throughout this ridiculous election session I, along with millions of others, have been living in denial. “Trump couldn’t possibly win.” No matter how much he continued to win we kept telling ourselves this. “Surely the American people can’t be this racist, this sexist, this xenophobic, this dumb, this crazy.” Last night we found out how wrong we were.

I can only hope at this point that Trump’s actions will prove to be less radical than his rhetoric, and that the dreaded “establishment” he ran against will somehow be able to keep him in check. Neither of these possibilities seems likely at this point and I fear millions of Trump voters will soon be forced to admit that they too were living in denial about what a Trump Administration really means.

I’m still in shock but it’s being to turn to disgust. I’m upset at the poor choices the major parties gave us and the pathetic efforts of prominent Republicans and Conservatives to  do more to stop this madness. I’m also upset with myself for not doing more. Sure, I wrote and spoke out against The Donald from the start but I should have been yelling on the street corners and rooftops. I know, you’re thinking that probably wouldn’t have worked, but most everyone a year ago thought that a Trump candidacy probably wouldn’t work and look at how that turned out. A good argument can be made that Trump has proved the wisdom of the old old Spartan war cry: “He who dares, wins.” May we learn from this and prepare to fight again another day.

UPDATE:

Since writing this yesterday I have been thinking about how easy it is for people to dismiss my words as more hyperbolic rhetoric. We’ve all become so used to politicians being denounced as corrupt, immoral, evil, the worst thing since Hitler, etc., that we’ve become numb to it. Sure, he’s bad, but so is she, and it all become the same meaningless computation in which everything is equally bad. Should a candidate come along who is uniquely unqualified and dangerous this is dismissed as another, “boy who cried, wolf,” non-event.

I understand why Secretary Clinton and President Obama felt they have to play nice and tell us to give Trump a chance. They figure there is nothing to gain from harping on the problems they have identified with the man at this point but this also makes their previous words feel like just another game; just more rhetoric; just name calling, rather than reality. I was very disappointed in Mitt Romney, who correctly identified Trump as someone who should never be given power, and invoked John Adam’s famous warning that democracies die of suicide. His efforts were too little, too late, to stop the Trump Train but now they have been completely wiped out in a single tweet:

romney-trump-tweet-after-election

One statement I did find myself identifying with was Van Jones question on CNN about how we explain this to our children? He is right to call this, “a nightmare,” and not just for minorities. I too don’t know what to say to my son. Even when children are too young to understand all the horrible things that Trump has said, they still know that Trump is a bad man and bad men should not be president. I wasn’t happy when Obama won in 2008 and 2012, because I voted for the other guys, but I never bought into the denunciations that he was unAmerican or maniacal. In fact, he seems like a very good man and I was proud to tell my son, “That’s our President. And we respect the presidency.” But now, how can I point to a President Trump (the words still sounds like a bad joke), who embodies everything I do not want my son to be, who does not respect other human beings on so many levels, and tell my son to respect him?

It genuinely sickens and frightens me that a man who courted the White Nationalist (i.e. hardcore racist) vote and has excited them like no other candidate in my lifetime, was actually voted into office. Even if Trump does not live up to their expectations, what will they be inspired to do? Just look at what they are saying and ask yourself, “Why are they so happy about this election? What does it mean to them? And what will that mean for us?” I know that in his victory speech, Trump tried to play the role of unifier, but who can actually believe any of this? We all know that’s not who he is.

I realize that 99.9875% of the population is, “So over it,” and just needs to move on with their lives, but I can’t pretend that this was just another election. I think the Titanic analogy is an apt one. The Titanic was built to withstand a direct hit by an iceberg, just as our Republic was built to withstand the power-hungry machinations of a single man, but under the right (or wrong) circumstances, you never know what will happen, because these protections depend on certain assumptions about the danger at hand and Trump clearly doesn’t follow standard assumption of normal behavior. Will Trump sink the Republic and kill more than half of us? Probably not. But will he be just another president, and maybe even a good one? Certainly not. Believe me!