Twenty years and a day

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Colorado’s state flower, the Rocky Mountain columbine

There was a time when people used to say things like “I never thought something like this could happen here.”

Big news was something that happened somewhere else. We’d read about it in newspapers and magazines. We’d hear about it on the radio. We’d see it on the evening news, or sometimes, via the dreaded “We interrupt this program…”

When the Columbine High School shootings occurred on April 20, 1999, I was living in South Denver and working in suburban Englewood, about 12 miles from Columbine. I learned about what was happening that Tuesday afternoon by word of mouth from coworkers. I soon learned that some of my colleagues were parents of Columbine students.

Still, somehow, it seemed far away.

The next morning I had my first cup of coffee in front of the television. I watched one of the network morning programs that was broadcasting live from Columbine. Parents and students were being interviewed in the falling snow. I looked out the window over my shoulder and saw snow falling.

Suddenly it was all too close, too real, too awful.

And in the twenty years and a day since Columbine, too common.

This past Monday, as the twenty year anniversary of Columbine approached, a troubled young woman “infatuated with Columbine” flew from Florida to Colorado and bought a shotgun, setting off an intense search, school lockouts and school closures. Wednesday morning the body of 18-year old Sol Pais would be found near a foot trail at the base of Mount Evans. The young woman had apparently killed herself before the world ever took note of her despair, and without her knowing that she was the subject of great concern.

We must be careful not to give in to the same sort of hopelessness.

School shootings and other mass shootings which were once rare and seemingly far away have become dreadfully commonplace and disturbingly close. While I still lived in Colorado there would be other mass shootings, most notoriously the Aurora theater shootings of July 20, 2012. I woke up to that news from my clock radio, thinking, in my semi-asleep state, that I’d misheard. A dozen people killed and scores wounded in an overnight shooting in Aurora? Nah, that can’t be right.

There would be other school shootings, such as the one that occurred at Arapahoe High School in December 2013. One random victim died from her injuries, along with the shooter, who killed himself.

And there would be church shootings, such as one that occurred literally next door to an office in Aurora where I was doing some volunteer political party work on a Sunday in April 2012. That particular shooting got relatively little coverage, in spite of it being ended by a good guy with a gun — an off-duty Denver police officer. You’d think that the good-guy-with-a-gun folks might have promoted the story, but maybe they prefer stories about an average Joe good guy with a gun.

Being in the vicinity of so much gun violence isn’t a function of having lived in metropolitan Denver, Colorado, it’s a function of living in modern day America. It can happen here, anywhere, anytime.

I won’t go into a long harangue about the statistics of gun violence in the United States. Suffice it to say that since Columbine, the numbers have gone up. Way up. One of the things that’s commonly overlooked, however, is that most gun deaths in the USA — more than half, almost 24,000 people in 2017 — are suicides.

People are killing other people, but more often they are killing themselves. Guns and ammunition are readily available, legally or otherwise, virtually on demand to virtually anybody.

Guns and ammo aren’t the only problem, of course, and it’s damn hard to make headway in this realm. That doesn’t mean we should stop trying.

 

What the blank?

Mueller Report
A screen grab of the Mueller Report (Dylan Moriarty/The Wall Street Journal)

Nothing to see here. Or is there?

The Mueller report went public today, sort of. The “lightly redacted” 448-page report by the special counsel was released to the public, preceded by a press conference by Attorney General William Barr.

Barr continued to spin the report as he did in his March 24 summary as being more favorable toward the President than a less devoted reader might conclude. In the redacted report itself the public finally saw the rest of two statements that Barr had selectively quoted in his summary last month (see “It’s like a mini-election” for more on Barr’s prior statement).

Barr seems to me far more dedicated to clearing the President of any legal entanglements and empowering the executive branch than pursuing foreign election interference or maintaining constitutional checks and balances.

Surprised? You shouldn’t be. Barr had telegraphed his view of presidential powers and his willingness to carry water for Donald Trump before Trump nominated him or the Republican-controlled Senate confirmed him. Everybody knew, or should have known, that Barr was going to act as Trump’s defense lawyer, not the people’s chief law enforcement officer.

What was blanked out of Mueller’s report? Your guess is as good as mine.

I’m not one of those who believes that absolute transparency is a good thing or that any secrecy is inherently bad. Government needs the ability to do some things in secret, or it cannot function. HOWEVER, there needs to be oversight, or government cannot be trusted.

Congress needs the unredacted report.

Whatever conclusions Mr. Barr has reached about whether criminal charges could be brought against a sitting president, or whether such charges could be proven, it is not the Attorney General’s role to decide whether a president has committed an impeachable offense. The constitutional power of impeachment resides in the House of Representatives and the power to remove from office or acquit resides in the Senate. The chief justice of the Supreme Court presides over the impeachment of a president, and the vice president gets no vote.

Without knowing the full contents of the Mueller report, it is impossible for anyone to offer an informed opinion about whether the President’s actions warrant impeachment. Congress needs to be able to make an informed decision and Congress alone has the constitutional authority.

The executive branch cannot shield a president from investigation by Congress. I can live without knowing every word that was blanked out of Mueller’s report, but the House Judiciary Committee cannot.

Barr needs to provide the unredacted Mueller report to Congress, like, yesterday.

Change the channel

There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about. — Oscar Wilde

After about five weeks on Twitter, I realized the feed was making me nuts.

I had followed people I liked, mostly political and media figures. A few people (very few, as it happens) followed me. I followed more people. I clicked like. I tweeted and retweeted and commented. I got followed by strangers, mostly bots or trolls or people with something to sell, and blocked them.

So I did a reset. I stopped following — unfollowed — everyone. I deleted some of my tweets and retweets. I built a much smaller list of people to follow.

And the Twitter feed was still maddening.

No, it’s not because people weren’t talking about me. It’s because what they were talking about, incessantly, was Donald Trump.

I blamed @realDonaldTrump.

So, I blocked him.

My Twitter feed got better. A lot better. Things improved enough that I could finally see the problem for what it is. As awful as Trump’s tweets are — and they are bad — they are merely the messages. What makes Trump’s tweets so pernicious is the delivery system: the messengers — Trump’s Twitter followers.

As of this writing, @realDonaldTrump has 59.7 MILLION Twitter followers.

That’s 59.7 million Twitter users who signed up to read any utterance that makes its way from the very stable genius to a smart phone and around the world in an instant. Read, retweet, comment, repeat.

There is no way for an ordinary person to know how many of Trump’s Twitter followers voted for him or consider themselves Trump supporters. Journalists, politicians, and millions of non-supporters follow the president’s Twitter account because of the office, not the person in it. Many openly criticize Trump. They stand in opposition to much of what he stands for. Yet they — we — regularly retweet and comment on his tweets.

How many of those comments and retweets are, in turn, commented upon and retweeted? We see a response we like and retweet it, often along with the original tweet or a quote from it. This is the nature of a social media echo chamber.

Twitter users are being used to amplify and distribute messages even if they disagree with them.

How bad is this problem? If you’re on Twitter, look around you. Look at your feed. Look at the news and opinion sources you follow online, on cable, over the airwaves or in print. Trump’s tweets are everywhere.

Sean Spicer, when asked in June 2017 if Trump’s tweets were considered official statements, answered “The president is president of the United States, so they are considered official statements by the president of the United States.”

Who has the ability to send a tweet that is supposedly an official communication from the president of the United States? What if the sender of a @realDonaldTrump tweet is not really Donald Trump? Who else has access to Trump’s Twitter account and how do we know for certain who is talking?

These are not merely hypothetical questions. Trump’s personal lawyer, John Dowd, claimed in December 2017 that he, not the President, had dictated a tweet that said Trump “had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the Vice President and the FBI.” Who really authored the tweet and who sent it?

In other words, Trump’s Twitter followers may be reading and repeating the work of a ghost writer.

Or, potentially, a hacker.

What if Trump’s phone or Twitter account gets hacked? They must be among the most high profile hacking targets on the planet. A Chinese national was arrested last month after allegedly lying her way into Mar-a-Lago while toting a bunch of electronics gear. Was she a spy? We must assume that people are trying to hack the Donald’s accounts.

There was a hope at one time, however naive, that social media companies might stop the president of the United States from abusing their services. There are terms of service, after all, which supposedly govern what users can and cannot do. The Twitter Rules, for example, explicitly state “You may not make specific threats of violence or wish for the serious physical harm, death, or disease of an individual or group of people.”

What about tweeting incendiary comments and videos about, well, virtually anyone? Or threatening an entire country with nuclear annihilation, as Trump did in January 2018 when he tweeted about his bigger and more powerful nuclear button? Twitter does not enforce its terms of service where Trump is concerned. The company pays lip service to the idea of labeling tweets that violate the terms, and it does remove disputed content (such as Trump’s new campaign ad, which allegedly used copyrighted material without permission), but Trump is still tweeting at will.

The system is being gamed. We are being played and we have to stop playing along. We are being used to promote someone else’s narrative and distract from issues which urgently need attention. We are wearing ourselves and each other out, trying to get the most likes and retweets, and carrying water for someone else in the process.

Last Sunday, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg* appeared on Meet the Press and encouraged Americans to “envision the world as it’ll be in 2054… and just change the channel from this mesmerizing horror show that’s going on in Washington right now.”

Last night Buttigieg tweeted The president today made America smaller. It is not enough to condemn him; we must model something better.”

Indeed, we need to change the channel. Stop following Trump’s tweets; ignore them. Twitter will not disable Trump’s account, but there is no reason any individual cannot block it. Block @realDonaldTrump. Block the accounts of his promoters and enablers. We need to stop paying so much attention to those folks and stop talking about them.

Let them know what Oscar Wilde meant.


*Buttigieg is expected to formally announce his candidacy for president on Sunday April 14 in South Bend.

A short adventure in misinformation and bias online

Yesterday I saw a tweet that included a video clip of Donald Trump allegedly calling people animals. The tweet itself read @realDonaldTrump on people asking for asylum “These aren’t people. These are animals.”

The undated video clip from C-SPAN was 47 seconds long, but I didn’t bother to listen to it at the time.

I told my wife later in the evening that the President was saying asylum seekers were not people, but animals.

Later still, I read a rebuttal of the original tweet, retweeted without comment by Denver TV journalist Kyle Clark:

I followed the link to Snopes, determined that I’d been played, and gave my wife an update. My confirmation bias had gotten the better of me.

But the story isn’t over just yet…

My Twitter feed told me which presidential candidate had referenced the misleading tweet: it was U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY):

I don’t actually follow Senator Gillibrand on Twitter, but I follow others who follow her and, well, this is how Twitter works. You follow somebody who follows somebody and the next thing you know you’re being misled.

Thinking that Senator Gillibrand herself might have been misled, I posted a comment:

As of this writing my comment has been liked 60 times, commented upon, and retweeted — entirely by total strangers, mostly Trump enthusiasts, and many Snopes critics.

So far I haven’t seen any correction by the candidate. I have no idea whether the man who started the whole thing knows or cares that his original tweet was seriously misleading.

The takeaways? The adage “consider the source” is especially relevant online, where we often don’t know sources, much less their credentials or motives. I’m also challenged to face my own biases and the human tendency to favor information that supports what I already believe or have heard before.

A year away from Facebook

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“You like me! You really, really like me!” One of Facebook’s more transparent attempts at emotional manipulationp last year had the unintended effect of helping me decide to leave.

On April 1, 2018, I burned it all down. More than nine years in Mark Zuckerberg’s house of mirrors came to an end. Over 600 friends and 52,000 likes, gone. Countless thousands of posts — links, quotes, comments, photos — gone.

The long goodbye

I’d wrestled with the decision to leave. Was it me? Was it Facebook? Social media in general? Yes, yes and yes. I blogged about it. I tried to change the way I conducted myself. I blocked people and unfriended. I read more and more news and opinion about Facebook and eventually came around to the realization that we had to break up.

Once I decided to leave, I gave a couple weeks notice to my friends. I gave them the URL to my blog, sort of a digital forwarding address. Many of them already had my phone number and email address.

I downloaded my data and set about deleting content, which took days. It wasn’t truly necessary to do it that way, but I wanted to look at the giant digital scrapbook I’d built. I loved some of that stuff, perhaps a bit too much. I unfriended everybody, requested deletion of my account, turned out the lights and walked away.

Some of my friends derided people who publicly proclaimed that they were leaving Facebook like someone making a big production of leaving a party. A few people suggested it might be a mistake to leave. One said she thought I’d be giving up a platform that allowed me to reach a lot of people and that leaving would probably make no difference to Facebook. She was partly right.

It’s quite true that my leaving made no difference to Facebook. It would take a lot of people leaving to do that. And it’s true that I turned out the lights on what had become my little stage on the Internet. But was anyone really watching?

In February I read an opinion piece in the Washington Post entitled “People love Facebook so much they wouldn’t quit unless we paid them — a lot.” Reader comment sections can be digital wastelands, like any other online venue, filled with the sort of unabashed awfulness that too often finds expression on the Internet. But every now and then they contain treasures like this one:

On the other hand, I do have other friends who will *never* quit Facebook because, as far as I can tell, it gives them a sense of being the star of their own reality show — it’s an ego booster. To quit Facebook would be to them akin to canceling their own show.

“Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead…”

Facebook wasn’t just my digital scrapbook, it was my own reality show. Of course, like all reality shows, it bore only a slight resemblance to actual reality. The carefully curated lives we present on social media probably reflect how we want ourselves to look much more than who we really are.

The social validation feedback loop

In the autumn of 2017 Facebook’s first president, Sean Parker, made some remarks about Facebook and its design that are fairly chilling. Essentially, Parker says that Facebook and other such apps were intentionally built to “consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible” and that it was accomplished by giving users “a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever.” Parker goes on to explain that the good feeling causes people to contribute more content, which gets more likes and comments. “It’s a social-validation feedback loop … exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”

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Trouble in paradise: By January 2013 there were already signs of stress in my relationship with Facebook but it would be more than five years later when I finally left.

What wasn’t being discussed very much, or perhaps what most people overlooked, was the vast amount of data that was being accumulated about Facebook users and the huge potential for exploitation — by Facebook, advertisers, app developers and, well, everybody on the Internet. That realization was the last straw for me.

Do I miss it?

Yes and no. I miss interacting with my friends. My wife and I moved to a new state in 2017, which was a huge change for both of us. Working a new job was another. And leaving Facebook, in that context, was enormous.

I miss having an online scrapbook and journal, which was a big part of what Facebook was for me. I recently read that Facebook was going to start removing content after a time, which would mess with people like me and the way we use the product.

I miss the feeling that I was somehow making a difference, but I now realize the feeling was exaggerated. Some of my friends who didn’t often comment online told me in person that they used to read and enjoy my posts. But many others commented or clicked “like” a lot and I haven’t seen or heard from them at all since leaving.

I do NOT miss fighting with strangers, friends and relatives over stuff that we were never going to agree about anyway. There is still bad blood over disagreements that started online years ago.

“Was nothing real?”

Sometimes I think of The Truman Show (Wikipedia article here), which was released in 1998 and dealt with the life of a man who was adopted by a corporation prior to birth and broadcast 24/7 without his knowledge. It foreshadowed Facebook, in the sense that few of us had any idea about the extent to which we were being watched, in spite of being the stars of our own show. We were real. Sort of.

What now?

I blog, which means I can take the time to write something longer than a few sentences and explore subjects in greater depth. It’s harder writing this way, but also more rewarding in a way that is not directly tied to a “social validation feedback loop.”

I’ve also been on Twitter for about a month. Not sure how I feel about that. Twitter seems built for people who are already famous to interact with their fans in a somewhat controlled environment. I’m not famous, so I have very few followers, and don’t get tons of feedback. In a way, Twitter may be a bit more honest than Facebook, because I don’t get an overblown sense of my own influence. Also, I don’t share much personal information there.

Would I ever go back to Facebook?

It might be fun to create some alter ego, but I don’t need Facebook for that, and I have no desire to be under relentless surveillance for someone else’s profit.

Get in the game or go home

Joe Biden is getting an awful lot of mulligans this week.

Don’t like golf? Me either. How about baseball? Biden is swinging at everything and hitting fouls — in batting practice. This guy is not even a declared candidate yet.

Last week a woman stepped forward to publicly accuse Biden of getting uncomfortably close at a campaign event in 2014. Then another woman. And so on.

Biden issued a statement. Then a video. And Friday he made his first public appearance since the complaints started and he joked about hugging a man and touching a child.

Joe Biden has said that he gets it but he doesn’t seem to get it at all.

I’ve said before and will say again that I don’t think Biden should run. I take no pleasure in the current (sad) state of affairs and cannot pretend that I foresaw this particular problem. I don’t and didn’t.

I’ve said that I like Joe Biden, but right now he doesn’t seem like a very likeable guy.

Biden still has supporters and defenders. But his support seems to be narrowing and his defenders more circumspect.

I don’t have a lot of answers about Biden, but I have a ton of questions:

  • Why is Joe Biden still an undeclared candidate? This seems like a very odd strategy to me. The declared candidates for the Democratic nomination for president in 2020 are numerous and diverse. They’re smart and capable. They’re experienced. And they’re out there campaigning, raising money (in several cases, LOTS of it), building organizations… Why is Biden waiting? Or, worded a bit differently, what is he waiting for? It would be pure speculation, but…
    • Is Biden ambivalent about running? Does he actually WANT this?
    • Is there a health issue?
    • Trouble raising money or hiring staff?
  • How did Biden seem to get blindsided with complaints about his in-person conduct? Are we really expected to believe that everybody was OK with this stuff? Nobody ever voiced any complaints or said “I’m not OK with this”? Nobody (such as a friend, colleague or staffer) said “You know, you really need to stop doing that”?
  • Did Biden miss the emergence of the #MeToo movement? Did he fail to make the connection to his own behavior, especially around women and girls? Does he feel untouchable? Like nothing can happen to him? We all know that guy.
  • Who is advising Biden and what are they telling him? Is he taking the advice or flying by the seat of his pants? If it’s the former, he needs new advisers. If it’s the latter, we need a new candidate. Biden’s written statement was bad and the video is in some ways worse — the sound is awful and Biden sounds and looks old and feeble. Sorry, it’s true. Are the people around Biden giving it to him straight? Do they know what they’re talking about?
  • Is Biden’s candidacy good for the Democratic Party and the prospects for Democrats winning back the White House and the Senate?
  • If Biden were to drop out of the race, where would his support go?

I see the statements that Biden’s friends and supporters are making publicly and I have some problems with a lot of it. For one thing, it’s OK to disagree. We need to be open to examination and criticism because it’s going to happen whether anybody likes it or not. Nobody is crucifying Joe Biden, as was asserted by one well known never-Trumper this week.

Something else that worries me a lot is seeing comparisons to Trump and Trump’s worst behavior. Does it matter that Trump did something worse than Joe Biden is accused of doing so far? At this point, we’re not comparing Joe Biden to Donald Trump, we’re comparing him to every Democrat we might nominate to run for president in 2020. There’s a big difference. We’re trying to SELECT a candidate right now. Later, we’re going to try to ELECT our candidate. Yes, we can and should consider whether and how we might get someone elected, but at this stage we’re trying to find somebody we really WANT to elect.

The 2020 campaign season is long but it has already started and these are the majors.

Joe Biden needs to get in the game or step aside.

PS: There’s a reason they call it hardball.

Try not to do that next time

My brother-in-law is an elementary school music teacher. Early in his teaching career, students made thank-you notes at the end of the school year to show appreciation for their teachers. One of the notes stood out for the message inside.

Feedback: You made some mistakes. Try not to do that next time.

Right now Joe Biden is getting some “feedback” about his treatment of women after two of them came forward with stories of uncomfortably close encounters with the former VP.

I’ve already said that I do not think Joe Biden should run for the presidency, so this is not about that. Biden might well decide to run, get the nomination, win the general election and become president. I am notoriously bad about predicting these things, so I won’t. I just don’t think Biden should run.

Biden’s response to the first accuser, in the form of a written statement posted by a spokesman Sunday morning, looks like this:

You made a few mistakes, Joe. Let’s take it apart.

“In my many years on the campaign trail and in public life…” So far so good…

“I have offered countless handshakes…” Offering a handshake is a pretty straightforward gesture: one simply extents a hand. Rejecting the offer is equally straightforward: one does not return the gesture.

“…hugs…” Hugs are another matter. How do you know if someone wants a hug? Do you ask? If you guess at it, you’re already on shaky ground.

“…expressions of affection, support and comfort.” These can take a wide range of forms, which may or may not be welcomed or appropriate.

“Never — not once — did I believe I acted inappropriately.” Hold on. Never? Not once? No one ever said or did anything to make you believe you acted inappropriately? Never, even in hindsight, did you consider that you might have screwed up? I find this remarkable, which is to say very hard for me to believe.

And why, by the way, are we talking about what you believe instead of what you allegedly did?

“If it is suggested I did so, I will listen respectfully.” In disbelief, apparently.

“But it was never my intention.” And that’s not an apology. Nor is it an excuse. All sorts of things happen in life that were unintended. People never intended to have a traffic accident, am I right? That’s why we call them accidents. And while a prosecutor might have to show intent to get a conviction in some criminal cases, intent has no bearing on whether something happened. Actions have consequences, but talking about intentions shifts the focus and misses the point.*

“I may not recall these moments the same way, and I may be surprised at what I hear.” You may not even believe your ears. Wait, didn’t we cover this already?

“But we have arrived at an important time when women feel they can and should relate their experiences, and men should pay attention. And I will.” Yes, “What Women Feel,” by Joseph R. Biden, Jr. Thank you, Joe. How about attending to the experiences that Lucy Flores and Amy Lappos have now related?

“I will also remain the strongest advocate I can be for the rights of women.” Big strong man to the rescue.

“I will fight to build on the work I’ve done in my career to end violence against women…” Good.

“…and ensure women are treated with the equality they deserve.” This rings hollow, because there are so many images and so much video of you interacting with women and girls very differently than you do with males.

“I will continue to surround myself with trusted women advisers…” We’ll call them Joe’s Girls. Or something. Still working on that.

“…who challenge me to see different perspectives than my own.” Did any of these trusted women advisors see this statement before you released it? If so, they’re not challenging you hard enough.

“And I will continue to speak out on these vitally-important issues…” Without addressing specific allegations made against me…

“…where there is much more progress to be made…” Such as equal pay, reproductive freedom, equal representation (wait, maybe don’t mention that)…

“…and crucial fights that must be waged and won.” By me, as your next president.

Hugs to all…


*Biden’s intentions aren’t the issue, as eloquently explained by Washington Post editorial writer Molly Roberts here: It doesn’t matter what Joe Biden meant to do.