Seeing my country upended from afar, trying to process it at home

Being on the other side of the Atlantic for a presidential election so I could attend and speak at the Web Summit conference in Lisbon seemed like a swell idea. With my absentee ballot long ago cast, at best I could sing the Star-Spangled Banner with other Americans in some bar as Hillary Clinton claimed an early victory over Donald Trump (though if you’ve heard me sing, you might struggle to find the upside of that scenario); worst case, I could tweet “appreciate the congrats” sometime Wednesday.

us-passport-on-lisbon-streetThat didn’t work out. Reality punched me in the gut at 8 a.m. local time Wednesday, when I opened my laptop after four hours of nightmare-grade sleep and saw the Washington Post’s “Trump Triumphs” headline above a map of red and blue states I struggled to recognize.

Before the first talk Wednesday morning, organizer Paddy Cosgrave asked those of us in the audience to introduce ourselves to strangers nearby and say where we’d come from. On another day, I might have said “I’m from the U.S., peace be with you,” as if I were in church, but I had to go with “I’m from the United States, so I’m having a really shitty morning.” The Europeans near me could only offer versions of “I’m sorry,” as if my country had suffered a death in the family.

That day did not get much less bleak for all the people I knew in our globalist-elite bubble. In retrospect, I could have picked a better day to moderate three different panels.

“President Donald Trump” might have been a harmless comedy line in my childhood. Trump seemed a good guy when he put his own cash into an overdue renovation of the Wollman Rink in New York’s Central Park, but that sort of public-spiritedness became increasingly scarce in the decades since. And now Trump is set to become the nation’s CEO after a campaign marked by an embrace of fear, a flight from facts and a refusal of basic transparency. Humor has fled the situation.

On one level, this is like 2004, when American voters picked the wrong guy, and we paid a steep price. But George W. Bush looks like a seasoned statesman compared to Trump. And 12 years ago, we didn’t have a deluge of data points suggesting the Dems had the GOP on the run.

Seeing that running an effective campaign organization when the other side shows little sign of having any doesn’t matter, that a candidate can speak more and worse falsehoods than the other without consequence, that getting caught on tape joking about sexual assault need not hold a guy back, and that so many state poll numbers mean nothing (although Clinton’s popular-vote victory looks to be not far from nationwide polling data)… it’s taken a hammer to my belief in a rational universe. And it forces me to wonder what stories about voters’ concerns I should have read but did not.

I can’t ignore the media’s role in wasting our mental bandwidth with horse-race coverage and breathless and context-starved “reporting” about Hillary Clinton’s unwise but not illegal use of a private e-mail server as Secretary of State. I myself contributed two posts to that genre, one in March of 2015 and another in July; I wrote far more about tech-policy issues in this campaign, but I suspect those other posts drew far less attention.

faded-american-flag-close-upI would now like to think that Trump will grow in office and that he’ll quietly dump the worst of his campaign promises. I certainly wouldn’t mind him delivering on his plans to renew America’s crumbling infrastructure, the subject that led off his gracious victory speech. (The United flight attendant I chatted with during my flight home Friday was also upset about the election, but we agreed that a building binge that replaced the C/D concourse at Dulles would get our support.) I will allow for the possibility of pleasant surprises.

But I’m also 45, and I’ve seen too many elected officials disappoint me to expect that this one’s conduct in office will depart radically from his behavior as candidate. Why do we put up with two years of a presidential campaign if not to take the measure of the people in it?

In the meantime, we have the additional problem that the worst among Trump’s fans now feel more entitled to vomit their bigotry on people who don’t look or sound like me. Not having an ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or primary language on the enemies lists of “white nationalists” does not make me feel any less offended by the hatreds those cretins preach, or the president-elect’s silence about them.

What am I going to do? Work. The chance to call out abuse of power and control-freakery gets me up in the morning. If Trump’s administration puts forth policies that fall into those categories, you’ll read about them from me. If Democrats endorse them or respond with their own tech-policy control-freakery, the same applies. And if President Trump proposes laws or regulations that thwart abuse of power by the government or corporations, I won’t turn them down.

One aspect of my coverage that may very well change: I somehow doubt I’ll get invited to many White House celebrations of science and technology. Trump spent little time during the campaign talking about science and in some cases, like climate change, outright denied it. Also, this post and most of my political tweets this year may leave me in poor standing with his press people. So be it.

 

Virginia voting tip: distrust constitutional amendments

Ballots in Virginia generally stay on the simple side. There’s no raft of minor-party candidates, courtesy of strict ballot-access laws, and no long list of referenda and initiatives like California’s 17 statewide propositions. But the Commonwealth’s elections do feature one enduring oddity: constitutional amendments that leave you wondering why they must exist.

Newspaper ad for 2016 Virginia constitutional amendmentsOver more than 20 years of voting here, I’ve seen these constitutional questions fall into two categories: grandstanding exercises in cementing existing laws, or unavoidable workarounds for the constitution’s micro-managing minutiae.

This year’s two amendments ably represent each genre.

Question 1 would enshrine “right to work” provisions–as in, a union can’t make you pay its dues if it represents workers in your workplace–that have spent decades facing no serious challenge.

This Republican-backed measure is a fundamentally unserious provision, as Brian Schoeneman ably argues at the conservative blog Bearing Drift: “There is no need to lard up the Virginia Constitution with policy provisions that are not fundamental to the running of the government.”

On the other hand, it’s arguably no worse than the right to hunt and fish that is now enshrined in the constitution. (I voted against that amendment but gladly voted for its sponsor–Democratic state senator Creigh Deeds, who has since endured more than any of us should have to bear–when he ran for governor and lost in 2009.) And it doesn’t stain the state’s honor like 2006’s gay-marriage ban, which statehouse Republicans apparently want to keep out of spite even after the Supreme Court has consigned it to oblivion.

Question 2 would allow localities to grant a property-tax exemption to the surviving, not-remarried spouses of police, firefighters and other first responders killed in the line of duty. That seems both an eminently fair thing to do and something that shouldn’t require a constitutional amendment to enact.

But the Virginia constitution is nothing if not specific. It nears 25,000 words–compared to that, Apple’s roughly 6,700-word iTunes Store terms-of-service document represents Hemingway-esque brevity–and refuses few invitations to plunge into the weeds. Sample quotes:

“town” means any existing town or an incorporated community within one or more counties which became a town before noon, July one, nineteen hundred seventy-one, as provided by law or which has within defined boundaries a population of 1,000 or more and which has become a town as provided by law

No rights of a city or town in and to its waterfront, wharf property, public landings, wharves, docks, streets, avenues, parks, bridges, or other public places, or its gas, water, or electric works shall be sold except by an ordinance or resolution passed by a recorded affirmative vote of three-fourths of all members elected to the governing body.

Seriously, what justifies that kind of a control-freak constitution?

We’re nearing 50 years since the adoption of a new constitution in 1971–an overdue remedy for 1902’s racist relic. I would like to see the state start from scratch and then stick to the basics. But when I look at the nonsense that goes on in Richmond, I have zero trust in the ability of the folks there to get this right. My reluctant hope is that we have many more years of silly constitutional questions.

My advice under those conditions: Keep voting no unless the amendment in question would allow something that normal constitutions don’t forbid in the first place–in which case, vote yes and feel dirty afterwards.

Sparring with a 3-million-plus-follower Twitter account

I expected angry feedback to Wednesday’s post about WikiLeaks and its increasing recklessness, but I didn’t know how that would play out. The @WikiLeaks Twitter account has 3.33 million followers and a history of jabbing at critics, and the story of WikiLeaks posting a trove of Democratic National Committee e-mails–with zero attempt to blank out personal data like Social Security numbers–intersected with the angst of Bernie Sanders fans who are themselves not known for social-media silence.

WikiLeaks Twitter interactionThe WikiLeaks account quickly took exception to my post (and supportive tweets) in responses ranging from boastful–“The Hill, Gawker and others published alleged DNC docouments months ago. Only WikiLeaks had impact.”–to dorm-room BS–“Sure. Anyone who exposes the estabishment by telling you the truth is not your friend. We got it.”

Many of those three-million-plus followers then started liking and retweeting those tweets. I’m not used to seeing my notifications fill left-to-right from so many people clicking on the same tweet.

My new interlocutors came from different places. Some were hardcore WikiLeaks defenders. Some backed Donald Trump and so were in favor of anything making Democrats’ lives more difficult. Some were Bernie Sanders fans convinced that the DNC had stolen the election from him, despite the absence of proof.

(Sorry, Bernie fans: The Democratic Party–especially the woefully-mismanaged DNC–is nowhere near organized to pull that off. Also, you might want to think about where your militant confusion of a party bureaucracy’s dislike of your candidate with “rigging an election” might end up taking you.)

I tried to reply to the tweets directed at me but soon lost count, leading to me feeling I was reliving Seinfeld’s “jerk store” episode when I saw rebuttal-worthy material half a day too late.

But I did not have to answer any hateful crap attacking my gender, race, ethnicity or religion. Every time that happens, I think I’m playing this game with a WHT PRVLG cheat code.

After a day of this amusement, it was nice to see Edward Snowden come to the same basic conclusion as me and then get his own moralizing response.

A hell of a way to follow up on America’s birthday

On Monday, the United States of America celebrated its 240th birthday. Things have gone pretty much downhill for us since.

American flag over Mississippi RiverTuesday, police officers in Baton Rouge shot and killed Alton Sterling outside a convenience store as bystanders Abdullah Muflahi and Arthur Reed recorded it on video.

On Wednesday, St. Anthony, Minn., police officer Jeronimo Yanez shot and killed Philando Castile in the car also occupied by his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds and his four-year-old daughter. Reynolds live-streamed the aftermath on Facebook Live.

I knew I couldn’t unsee those videos but watched them anyway. They can’t tell the whole story, but they all looked way too much like extrajudicial executions of fellow Americans who happened to be of African descent. I have grown to accept that African-Americans have sound reasons to be nervous about getting stopped by police, even as I have never worried about anything more than getting points on my car insurance.

That’s unsettling. So is the thought that the excessive use of force by a minority of police officers vastly predates the existence of technology to publicize it, the efforts of news organizations like the Washington Post to track it, and the rise of protests by people trying to make a point that shouldn’t be that debatable: Black lives matter.

Thursday night, another person decided the answer was to take an AR-15 rifle to the scene of a Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Dallas and murder as many cops as possible. This African-American–I refuse to use his name–killed officers Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Brent Thompson, and Patrick Zamarripa and injured seven others along with two civilians before the Dallas Police Department sent in a robot with a bomb (welcome to the future?) to kill him.

How could we as a country top the killings of two people almost live on camera? That was how.

None of those stories represent the nation I want to live in. Cops keep us safe–I sleep well knowing I’m not even a mile from Arlington’s police headquarters–but the rule of law is a good idea for them too. Don’t like how they do their jobs? Vote, every damn time, for leaders who will change that. Picking up a rock, a knife or a gun against people who volunteered to protect us makes you an enemy of civilization.

At least this rotten week brought two other things that do embody the United States I know. One was the sight of our daughter happily playing with day-camp classmates whose complexions cover most of the colors on the American quilt. The other came Friday, when the fifth anniversary of the final space shuttle launch reminded me that, as Anil Dash wrote, “We can do amazing things! I know because I’ve seen it with my own eyes.” Yes, we still can.

First-time reflections on Israel

I visited a new country the other week, and I didn’t even get a stamp in my passport in return.

Tel Aviv constructionIsrael had been on my list of places to visit for a long time. It’s scenery we’ve read about in the Bible, it’s a state that’s constantly in the headlines (not always in a good way), I’ve heard great things about it from friends who have traveled there, and it’s the home of a thriving tech industry.

My overdue introduction to Israel came courtesy of a trip arranged by the America-Israel Friendship League with help from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. That New York- and Tel Aviv-based non-profit invited a group of U.S. journalists and analysts to get a close-up look at Israel’s cybersecurity sector, and my editors at Yahoo Tech thought its invitation worth accepting.

My report from the trip should finally be up in a few days. Meanwhile, here are some first impressions of the nation I took too long to visit; please bear in mind that if I were terribly confident in all of these judgments, I would have tried to sell this post to a paying client.

MezzeThe food is great. A friend mentioned that he puts on a few pounds every time he visits Israel, and I must admit that I did too. Shakshuka for breakfast, the 20 different mezze at The Old Man & The Sea in Tel Aviv, the stews at Azura in Jerusalem… it was all delicious, and I didn’t even get around to sampling any of the street food.

Tel Aviv has neat architecture: I’d read that before about this city’s stock of Bauhaus buildings and believe it now. I wish I’d had more time to wander around (see also my comment on street food).

Ideological violence is not a far-off thing. Here, many politicians compete to show who can be more freaked out over the specter of terrorists showing up at their front door. In Israel, attacks on civilians are not a hypothetical risk–one happened at a grocery store in a West Bank settlement the week I was there, and the newspapers also carried numerous stories about the recent surge of stabbings of Israelis by Palestinians.

Israel is more diverse than it gets credit for. After a meeting with a cybersecurity professor at Tel Aviv University, we came downstairs to find the building’s lobby crowded with Muslim students wearing headscarves (which, it later hit me, would have been illegal in France). The next day, a quick tour of Jerusalem brought us to the Western Wall plaza as new soldiers in the Israeli Defense Forces prepared for their swearing-in ceremony there, and I was struck by how many of them were the product of the Ethiopian aliyah.

Western WallJerusalem is humbling and unsettling. Thousands of years of history intersect with the Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths in the Old City of Jerusalem, and standing in the middle of it left me feeling profoundly humbled. I expected that, but I did not expect to see so many IDF soldiers and police walking around with automatic weapons. It wasn’t just me who found that unsettling; one U.S. veteran in our group did not appreciate seeing one man casually hold a rifle pointed outward at a crowd. Another uneasy sight: the bomb-disposal containers we spotted.

 

I still think Israel is creating an existential problem for itself. A week in Israel left me as unconvinced as ever that the country’s continued habit of building settlements in the West Bank does it any long-term good. As the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg has eloquently observed, Israel cannot annex the West Bank without either betraying its own democratic principles or losing its identity as a Jewish state, and a permanent military occupation is not a solution either. The murder of civilians by Palestinians is horrible but does not justify Israel going out of its way to make any eventual peace more difficult.

 

Donald Trump supporters have some opinions

Thursday’s post at Yahoo Tech critiquing Donald Trump’s notion of “maybe, in certain areas, closing the Internet up in some way” did not go over well among Trump fans.

Trump-supporter messagesI expected as much, but I did not quite expect to see quite their rage so poorly expressed–like, for example, the fellow whose entire message consisted of a one-word subject header, “Bull,” and the “Sent from my iPhone” signature. Another disgruntled individual closed with “Your a Complete ASSHOLE.”

A few less spittle-flecked messages expressed disdain for my calling The Donald a blowhard or a loudmouth. My response: If Trump isn’t one, then those words no longer have any meaning in the English language.

Several asked why we couldn’t cut the terrorists off from the Internet when North Korea, China or Cuba maintain an iron grip on their citizens’ online access. Well, if we could exercise that level of control over Iraq and Syria, wouldn’t we already have rounded up the Daesh death cultists by now?

Finally, a few led with “you’re just a member of the liberal media.” Hoo boy, I’ve never heard that one before. I will have to warn my colleagues about this novel insult they may come across on the Internet.

On the other hand, a couple of people wrote in to say they appreciated the story. So I’ve got that going for me.

 

I would like to buy an argument: debating Syrian-refugee paranoia

I’ve spent too much time over the last five days arguing with people who have suddenly decided that Syrian refugees represent such a threat to the United States that we cannot risk admitting any of them, and it’s been wearying work on multiple levels.

First, there’s the bankruptcy of the entire argument that boiled over after the Paris attacks. All of the attackers identified so far were EU nationals, not Syrian refugees; there’s no evidence the craven death cult that has no right to call itself Islamic is even trying to hide itself among refugees fleeing it (none of the 2,200-odd Syrian refugees admitted since Sept. 11, 2001 have been arrested for plotting violent acts); getting into the U.S. as a refugee is a tedious, years-long process; getting in as a Syrian refugee involves even more screening; and said craven death cult wants us to fear Muslim foreigners, so this entire demonization of Syrian refugees fits right into their playbook.

Japanese internment memorial(Before you brush off the previous paragraph as a product of the liberal media conspiracy, please read this debunking of refugee myths by longtime Virginia Republican Brian Schoeneman.)

Then there’s trying to grasp the logic of politicians who were for Syrian refugees before they were against it and now refuse to admit any unless we can guarantee that 100 percent of them don’t embody a threat that appears to be fictional. This devotion to security at all costs would be touching if so many of these same individuals didn’t shrug away such better-documented risks as America’s current gun policy, the death toll on our roads, and global warming.

Lest the last paragraph look like a jab at Republicans, remember that this fear-mongering is a bipartisan sport: The single worst statement on the subject may have come from Roanoke, Virginia’s Democratic mayor David Bowers, who cited the 1940s imprisonment of Japanese-Americans as a reasonable precedent before apologizing two days later.

The second-most trying part of this conversation is what happens when you ask strangers how they came to this reasoning. One conversation on Twitter ended with the fellow in question asserting that “I trust 10,000 Jews before I trust 10 Muslims.” A friend of a friend on Facebook declared that “Any restrictions in Muslims would be based on the fact that they have earned it.”

It would be easy to brush off this hysteria as the product of garden-variety xenophobia and Islamophobia, but then there’s the most difficult part of the deal: Hearing from friends I know to be educated and open-minded who still think we can’t let in any Syrian refugees.

I try not to be a jerk when talking politics with pals, but I probably haven’t lived up to that standard this week. All I can say is this: If I didn’t care what you thought, I wouldn’t waste so many processor cycles trying to convince you otherwise. But I wish I did know where you’re coming from, because you’ve totally lost me on this one.

Oh, and this: If you really do want to hold up the citizens of one country or the adherents of one religion as uniquely suspect, can you please first go to D.C. and spend a few minutes contemplating the Memorial to Japanese-American Patriotism in World War II that commemorates the fear-driven imprisonment of 110,000 to 120,000 people who came from or had ancestors in the wrong country? Then ask yourself: Are you willing to make that same statement in front of this monument to our surrender to bigotry 73 years ago?