"Concerned only with endings. A life desires closure."
Asymmetry and whataboutism have become our politics. It brings us all down.
This week’s soundtrack: The Body - “Nothing Stirs” (Feat. Lingua Ignota)
This week saw the escalation of a story involving President Joe Biden and classified documents. The timing is nearly perfect, as it lines up with the new Congress and comes a few months after Biden’s predecessor in the office, Donald Trump, was found to have mishandled classified documents and fought with the National Archives and Records Administration (the agency who actually has the rights to those documents) for months about it.
Like many things involving our politics currently, two things can be true at once. Yes, President Biden ran afoul of the law by mishandling classified documents from his vice presidency and, yes, this is very bad. But, also: This doesn’t absolve Trump of his crimes, as he has claimed in his and his supporters’ “everyone does it!” comments
To that end, this incident is another in the files of the moving window of acceptability within our politics that is so noxious and such a hallmark of recent tribalistic politics. The latter – the moving of the window of discourse – has so infected our political culture that it almost seems unreal.
I’m reminded of the arguments I had with online Democrats/resistance idiots about Biden’s Cabinet choices during the 20-21 transition. My concerns were (and are) about the revolving-door nature of a lot of the Biden picks and their ethics concerns within. In his time out of government, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken worked in, essentially, a black box consultancy firm that may or may not have worked with foreign governments, potentially presenting major conflicts of interests. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was on the board of Raytheon, one of the Pentagon’s major contractors. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was a lobbyist-but-not-lobbyist for the dairy industry in his time outside of government, an industry that USDA regulates. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, while running for president, took campaign money from the industries and industry players that he now regulates. Ethics seem to take a backseat to convenience or preference or politics or whoever the president likes personally.
To point these issues out is as simple as the sun rising each morning; if we want ethical government, we need to drive these sorts of conflicts out of the executive branch. With respect to the above men, there are definitely other people without those conflicts who can do those jobs as well as they do.
What do online Democrats/resistance types say when I say bring these conflicts up? “Trump.” Of course.
Because, ultimately, therein lies the problem. They’re not wrong to point out that Trump’s Cabinet was worse, ethically! Mark Esper wasn’t on Raytheon’s board before he was Secretary of the Army and then SecDef, he was Raytheon’s vice president of government relations (aka the head lobbyist). Rex Tillerson had no government experience before being Secretary of State, but was rather the CEO of ExxonMobil (which certainly made odious agreements with plenty of foreign governments in his time there). Education Department chief Betsy DeVos was a board member of various “school choice” think tanks orgs. HHS chief Alex Azar spent some of his time in between government stints as… a pharmaceutical executive, bringing up the question as to whether he ever cared about anything in that job as much as he cared about big pharma profits. And on and on.
The point is that the window of discourse (I’m straining not to use the term “Overton Window” because Overton himself was a libertarian doofus) has so moved that everything gets compared to Trump and his administration. I’ve got complicated feelings about moral relativism, but those feelings do not apply to government ethics. They’re cut-and-dry, so if the baseline is Trump and his entourage, we’re already screwed.
We saw this, ex post facto, with Hillary Clinton and the similarly odious “but her emails” discourse. Ian Milhiser, this week, ran that up the flagpole again, which is not just stupid, but another instance of gross moral relativism. As someone who covered it while it happened, let me say that Clinton broke a bunch of rules about transparency and had a slew of weak excuses to defend herself. Milhiser might be more nuanced than he’s letting on (because, yes, I’ve plenty of criticism of the 2016 election coverage), but “but her emails” shit relies almost entirely on the idea that Clinton either didn’t do anything wrong or that it was a – in the parlance of basketball – ticky tack foul.
(And, again, to make it clear: This is not to say that two things can’t be true at once. Yes, Clinton’s flouting of public records rules and her potential conflicts at the Clinton Global Initiative w/r/t Gulf States are problems. No, that doesn’t mean that voters shouldn’t have dinged her for a man who will likely go down as the worst and most corrupt president in American history, a thing that we all knew was going to happen.)
Since Trump’s election and his whole crew’s various ethical messes, this comes up again. Ivanka Trump used private email as a White House employee for official business, her husband used encrypted third-party messaging (WhatsApp) that entirely skirted transparency while a White House employee for official business and who knows what the big guy did to cover things up (we know that he definitely flushed papers down the toilet and tore up official documents). But that – especially ex post facto – doesn’t absolve Clinton.
We see that now with Biden, as well. The Hunter Biden story, such as it is, is not nothing. Bill Clinton’s brother got a lot of scrutiny for far less, as did Jimmy Carter’s brother. Family conflicts of interest are not nothing; being adjacent to these ethics problems can ensnare people. But the Trump administration, his fake blind trust, the potential for bribery re: the hotel, the relationships with foreign governments with which he had real estate deals, the Hatch Act, etc… has made it so that the comparison point becomes ridiculous.
Essentially, that’s where we are with Biden and classified documents. The Justice Department named a special counsel last week (rightfully, I’d say) to deal with Biden’s mishandling of classified information, just as it did for Trump. It’s asymmetrical between Trump and everyone – a “handful of documents v. boxes”, in this case, but it’s “mountains of problems against one or two” in every other case – thereby moving the window of acceptability. It makes it easy to both-sides a bunch of bullshit for Trump’s party and that, my friends, is why you’re gonna get sick of the Hunter Biden story and the Biden classified documents story over the next two years. The House GOP is going to go rabid over this stuff.
Lulu is the first smart bulldog who has been in my life. One of the things that can be both a blessing and a curse with a smart dog is that they recognize patterns. It makes Lulu easy to teach behaviors (if you’re consistent) and it also makes me realize the weird ticks I have (how I end phone calls with my mom, for example. Lulu, very early, learned that cadence and now gets excited when she hears me do it).
But, it also means they learn things like what my car looks like and a stubborn bulldog can get a little headstrong about certain things. Lulu loves going for rides in my car, so this week, on one of our evening walks, she stood by my car and insisted we go for a ride. I did not budge (I cannot give her everything that she wants, after all), but it made for a pretty stupid standoff.
And, in honor of the University of Georgia Bulldogs winning the NCAA football champions, here’s a bulldog with a nerf football.
This week was one of my favorite weeks of shows in recent memory and I want to put forward two (three, technically) highlights:
We did our first Adam and Ross Analyze the News show (I am bad at naming things, so that’s a work in progress) this week about Mayor Muriel Bowser’s demand that the White House shit or get off the pot regarding telework and the feds that work in downtown D.C. Despite my antipathy toward our mayor, I like to think I was pretty professional and the listeners really loved the show, as it was our biggest show this month so far.
Also, Dr. Lisa Parshall came on the show to talk about the new edition of her book and what has changed since it was released in 2020. I love talking about this stuff, so we put it into two shows that ran this week. As you may have noticed, some of last week’s newsletter came from ideas that came up during our discussion.
A Recommendation: The Full Breadth of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Writings
I’m hesitant to go deep on this because I’m not well-versed in all of King’s work, but I do want my voice to the chorus of people who selectively pick and choose from his mountains of writings and speeches. “I Have a Dream” is not the only thing he created and it should be noted that a lot of people lauding him today would’ve hated him in 1965 (if only for his views on capitalism, voting rights, etc.). The Letter From Birmingham Jail is the one that I start with, but the full breadth of his work is something to behold.
And I’ll end with one thing: nonviolence doesn’t mean convenience. Most of the protests in which he was involved were specifically provocative.