The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

The American Republic

I'm sure I must have read this when it came out, but I have just (re-?)read Andrew Sullivan's 2019 essay "Our Caesar," just to refresh my sadness at the parallels between early-21st-century America and early-2nd-century-BCE Rome:

It’s impossible to review the demise of the Roman Republic and not be struck by the parallel dynamics in America in 2019. We now live, as the Romans did, in an economy of massive wealth increasingly monopolized by the very rich, in which the whole notion of principled public service has been eclipsed by the pursuit of private wealth and reality-show fame. Cynicism about the system is endemic, as in Rome. The concept of public service has evaporated as swiftly as trust in government had collapsed. When the republican virtues of a Robert Mueller collided this year with the populist pathologies of Donald Trump, we saw how easily a culture that gave us Cicero could turn into a culture that gave us Caesar.

Some argue that although the president has obviously attempted to break the law many times and lies with pathological abandon, he still hasn’t openly defied a court order, suspended an election, or authorized something as lawless as torture. He talks and walks like a dictator, but in practice, his incompetence and inability to focus or plan or even read saves us. That, it seems to me, misses three things. The first is the president’s rhetoric. What happened to the Roman republic was a slow slide into public illegitimacy, intensified by the way in which elites played by the rules only when it suited them and broke precedents and norms when it came to defending their own interests, complaining loudly when others did the same.

If republican virtues and liberal democratic values are a forest of traditions and norms, Trump has created a vast and expanding clearing. What Rome’s experience definitively shows is that once this space is cleared, even if it is not immediately filled, some day it will be. Someone shrewder, more ruthless, focused, and competent, can easily exploit the wider vista for authoritarianism. Or Trump himself, more liberated than ever in a second term, huffing the fumes of his own power, could cross a Rubicon for which he has prepared us all.

It took about 200 years and unending civil war for the Roman Republic to become the Roman Empire. How much time have we got?

Thursday evening post

Some stories in the news this week:

Finally, the House Oversight and Reform Committee advanced DC statehood legislation. The full house may even pass the DC Admission Act next week.

The overlap between stupid and criminal

Boy, did we get a clown car full of them today. Let's start with Joel Greenberg, the dingus whose bad behavior got US Representative Matt Gaetz (R-FL) caught up in a sex-trafficking investigation:

Records and interviews detailed a litany of accusations: Mr. Greenberg strutted into work with a pistol on his hip in a state that does not allow guns to be openly carried. He spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to create no-show jobs for a relative and some of his groomsmen. He tried to talk his way out of a traffic ticket, asking a police officer for “professional courtesy.” He played police officer himself, putting a flashing light on his car to pull over a woman and accuse her of speeding. He published an anti-Muslim Facebook post. He solicited help to hack critics on the county commission.

Stalking a rival candidate got him arrested. Federal agents looking into the matter found at least five fake IDs in his wallet and backpack, and kept digging.

Their inquiry culminated in 33 federal charges against Mr. Greenberg, 36, including sex trafficking of a minor, bribery, fraud and stalking — and led to a mushrooming political scandal that burst into national news in recent days and ensnared Mr. Gaetz, who is a close ally of President Donald J. Trump, and other influential Florida Republicans, with the investigation continuing.

I mean, of course they live in Florida.

Moving on, local restaurant Tank Noodle must pay back a $150,000 pandemic grant to the state because of previous bad behavior:

Tank Noodle will have to return the $150,000 business interruption grant it received from the state of Illinois last year. The popular Vietnamese restaurant at 4953 N. Broadway violated the terms of the state grant program by running afoul of federal labor laws, said Lauren Huffman, spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO).

The mandate to return the grant money comes weeks after Tank Noodle also was forced to pay almost $700,000 in back wages to employees it didn’t adequately compensate, federal investigators found as part of a two-year investigation.

Tank Noodle withheld pay and used illegal employment practices for 60 of its employees, a labor department investigation concluded. In addition to making servers work for tips, a violation of federal work laws, the investigation also found Tank Noddle shorted servers when the business pooled tips and divided the money among all staff, including management.

The restaurant drew ire from customers after its owners attended a Jan. 6 rally in support of former President Donald Trump that ended in the storming of the U.S. Capitol.

Former customers, I should say. The stretch of Argyle Street they anchor has about 15 Vietnamese restaurants that not only serve better food than Tank Noodle, but also don't steal from their employees.

Finally, the Brennan Center has taken notice of 361 proposals in 47 states designed to limit voting participation:

These measures have begun to be enacted. Five restrictive bills have already been signed into law. In addition, at least 55 restrictive bills in 24 states are moving through legislatures: 29 have passed at least one chamber, while another 26 have had some sort of committee action (e.g., a hearing, an amendment, or a committee vote).

During the same timeframe, pro-voter legislators, often in the very same state houses, are pushing back, seeking to make permanent the changes that led to the biggest voter turnout in over a century. In a different set of 47 states, 843 bills with expansive provisions have been introduced in a different set of 47 states (up from 704 bills as of February 19, 2021). Of these, nine expansive bills have been signed into law. In addition, at least 112 bills with expansive provisions are moving in 31 states: 9 have passed both chambers and are awaiting signature (including a bill to restore voting rights in Washington), 41 have passed one chamber, and 62 have had some sort of committee action.

I'll comb through some of those later. Now, I have a meeting, following which Cassie has to go to the dog park. Really, she has to, or I'll lose my mind with her nudging me.

Reactionaries

Today's Republican Party has gone so far from an actual policy-making political entity that one wonders if they see their own self-owns. Right now, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has said so many nonsensical things about President Biden's key proposals that I have trouble taking him seriously.

OK, I have more trouble lately.

As Paul Krugman pointed out this week, Republicans oppose Biden's proposals because they don't want him to succeed. But this strategy has run into the reality of 75% of their own voters supporting the recovery plan passed in January and the infrastructure bill proposed late last month.

And now they're all a-twitter about vaccine passports.

It's sad watching the Party of Lincoln implode. They could pull out of their death spiral, the way we did in the late 1980s, but right now I'm not optimistic. In the past, parties that have reinvented themselves have done so through popular policy initiatives: the Democrats with civil rights, the Republicans with anti-trust law. The parties that have died failed to say what they stood for, only what they stood against: the Federalists (against the expansion of civil rights in the 1790s), the Know-Nothings (against the expansion of civil rights in the 1850s), the Whigs (against the Know-Nothings in the 1850s, but apparently against themselves as well).

You can see this most clearly in the Republican Party's anger at corporations who have come out against Republican voting suppression laws. Republicans love corporate involvement in politics most of the time, because corporations love right-wing governments most of the time—but in this case, companies have realized the GOP are on the wrong side of history. Josh Marshall made a good argument (paywalled) that corporations take the future into account, and the future doesn't look like the modern GOP's imagined past. So they're making low-cost efforts to ensure the young people who will buy things for the next 60 years don't hate them. The old people who don't buy things now, let alone for the next 10 or 20 years, don't influence profits quite as much.

I want a real opposition party, one with real ideas, not this clown show of right-wing anti-populism that hasn't had a serious policy proposal in 30 years.

Alexandra Petri on Matt Gaetz

Humorist Alexandra Petri didn't write a humor column today:

There are several details of the Matt Gaetz story that keep sticking in my head, but the one that sticks in it most is the report that the Florida Republican used to wander around and show his colleagues nude photos of people he had slept with.

I keep coming back to the detail in CNN’s report that this wasn’t something Matt Gaetz did a single time, but repeatedly. Because if it happened more than once — if it happened twice, even — that is because the first time went better than it should have.

To me, this is something you do, ideally, zero times.

So I am not writing this for Matt Gaetz. I am talking to the person who was on the receiving end. The person who was presented with this behavior and had a choice of how to respond. I am talking to the person without whose chuckle or back-slap this situation would, perhaps, have been just a little less bad.

This is a plea for those small awkward no’s. The moment will inevitably come for you to offer one. And when I think of how much difference could be made by just one person, one guy in a locker room, or around a campfire, or even on the floor of Congress, saying, uncomfortably, “What?” or “Why would you show someone that?” — sometimes I want to chew glass. It is a small favor to ask. But it could reshape this whole place, if it happened enough.

She's right. When confronted with an asshole, sometimes you need to tell him he's being one.

What I'm reading today

A few articles caught my attention this week:

Also, I'm just making a note to myself of Yuriy Ivon's rundown on Microsoft Azure Cosmos DB, because I'm using it a lot more than I have in the past.

It's Monday again

In case you needed proof that the world didn't suddenly become an Enlightenment paradise on January 20th, I give you:

You will be happy to know, however, that Egypt has passed its 400-meter kidney stone.

The world keeps turning

Even though my life for the past week has revolved around a happy, energetic ball of fur, the rest of the world has continued as if Cassie doesn't matter:

And if you still haven't seen our spring concert, you still can. Don't miss it!

Those were the days...

This photo came up in my Facebook memories this morning:

This struck me for a few reasons. First, as I noted when I posted it on Facebook the morning of 13 March 2017, we hadn't gotten any snow for almost three months that winter. No snow in January; no snow in February; no snow the first 12 days of March; then this crap.

Second, four years later, Metra still hasn't finished constructing the new inbound platform at the Ravenswood station. Construction began in 2014. Then it stopped, partially because they needed to build a new inbound track between the new outbound track and the old inbound track, which meant they had to replace all the inbound bridges from Grace to Winnemac. But all of that construction halted in early 2015 when then-governor Bruce Rauner (R-of course) stopped spending state money. So we've had to endure five winters from the inbound platform's projected completion in fall 2015 until now out of an ideological tantrum by one of the best examples of how business CEOs make terrible politicians. Construction finally resumed, uncoincidentally just after governor JB Pritzker (D) took office, and we should have a new platform this summer.

Finally, look at all those people! A year ago this week, those crowds thinned out to nothing. When I went into the office yesterday, four people got on the train with me. A year ago, plus or minus a few days, Ravenswood had the third-largest passenger numbers of any station on Metra.

Deaths in the news today

Three reports of deaths today, two of them institutional. First, the one with the most relevance to me personally, one of the people most responsible for my sense of humor, died yesterday at 91:

Norton Juster, the celebrated children’s author who has died at 91, stumbled into literature much as his most famous hero, Milo, stumbles into the marvelous world of wordplay and ad­ven­ture in the classic 1961 volume “The Phantom Tollbooth.” They were bored and entirely unsuspecting of the wonders that awaited them.

A budding architect with a self-confessed tendency to procrastinate, Mr. Juster was living in New York City and working — or not working — on a children’s book about cities. A Ford Foundation grant had given the project a degree of urgency. But it was not the book he wanted to write, and soon enough, he recalled years later, he was “waist-deep in stacks of 3-by-5 note cards, exhausted and dispirited.”

To pass the time, Mr. Juster began scribbling the story of Milo, a boy of about 9 or 10 years with no interest in the tedium of school or “learning to solve useless problems, or subtracting turnips from turnips, or knowing where Ethiopia is or how to spell February,” and who was as bewildered by the grown-up world as grown-ups were by him.

Only slightly less relevant to me, writer Jelani Cobb joins the crowd of people observing the death of the Republican Party:

The most widely debated political question of the moment is: What is happening to the Republicans? One answer is that the Party’s predicament might fairly be called the revenge of “the kooks.” In just four years, the G.O.P., a powerful, hundred-and-sixty-seven-year-old institution, has become the party of Donald Trump. He began his 2016 campaign by issuing racist and misogynistic salvos, and during his Presidency he gave cover to white supremacists, reactionary militia groups, and QAnon followers. Trump’s seizure of the Party’s leadership seemed a stunning achievement at first, but with time it seems more reasonable to ponder how he could possibly have failed. There were many preëxisting conditions, and Trump took advantage of them. The combination of a base stoked by a sensationalist right-wing media and the emergence of kook-adjacent figures in the so-called Gingrich Revolution, of 1994, and the Tea Party, have redefined the Party’s temper and its ideological boundaries. It is worth remembering that the first candidate to defeat Trump in a Republican primary in 2016 was Ted Cruz, who, by 2020, had long set aside his reservations about Trump, and was implicated in spurring the mob that attacked the Capitol.

One of the most telling developments of the 2020 contest was rarely discussed: in August, the Republican National Convention convened without presenting a new Party platform. The Convention was centered almost solely on Trump; the events, all of which took place at the White House, validated an increasing suspicion that Trump himself was the Republican platform. Practically speaking, the refusal to articulate concrete positions spared the Party the embarrassment of watching the President contradict them. In 2016, religious conservatives succeeded in getting an anti-pornography plank into the platform, only to be confronted by news of Trump’s extramarital affair with the adult-film performer Stormy Daniels. Now there would be no distinction between the Republican Party and the mendacity, bigotry, belligerence, misogyny, and narcissism of its singular representative.

In addition, the G.O.P.’s steady drift toward the right, from conservative to reactionary politics; its dependence on older, white voters; its reliance on right-wing media; its support for tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans; and its increasing disdain for democratic institutions and norms all portend increasing division and a diminishing pool of voters.

Large things die slowly, though, and the GOP's rot and sickness will pollute our civil discourse for years to come.

Another large, old thing that may not die for a couple more centuries has also let out a gangrenous burp this past week, when Harry Windsor and his wife Meghan unloaded on "the Firm" they recently quit. Leave it to an Irish writer (in this case Patrick Freyne) to sound exactly the right note:

Having a monarchy next door is a little like having a neighbour who’s really into clowns and has daubed their house with clown murals, displays clown dolls in each window and has an insatiable desire to hear about and discuss clown-related news stories. More specifically, for the Irish, it’s like having a neighbour who’s really into clowns and, also, your grandfather was murdered by a clown.

The most recent internecine struggle is between the royal family and a newly disentangled Prince Harry and his wife, the former actor Meghan Markle. Traditionally, us peasants would be nervously picking a side and retrieving our pikes from the thatch. Luckily, these days the pitched battles happen in television interviews.

Over the course of the interview Harry and Meghan, who are charming, clever and good at being celebrities, make the monarchy look like an archaic and endemically racist institution that has no place in the modern world. Well duh. And despite all the outrage you might read in the UK tabloids right now, they also did something else that renders everything else irrelevant: they officially launched themselves in the United States.

Harry and Meghan are ultimately going to win. Despite the tabloid frenzy, this was never the story of an ungrateful pauper being elevated by the monarchy. This was about the potential union of two great houses, the Windsors and Californian Celebrity. Only one of those things has a future, and it’s the one with the Netflix deal.

Well, OK, only one of those things has actually, permanently died. But I expect the other two will die before I do.