Sunday, March 31, 2019

The Matrix Still Has Us, Morpheus

Just saying, ten years ago the xkcd comic ran a comic freaking out about how The Matrix was ten years ago...

Meaning we're now at the TWENTY YEAR MARK about freaking out over The Matrix.

Yeah, I know. I've been freaking out about getting old ever since they cast Winona Ryder to be Spock's Mom in the Star Trek reboot. Stay with me on this though...

Looking back, I remember 1999 being a big year because of something else: the long-awaited return of the Star Wars storyarc that Lucas had promised during the original trilogy. The Phantom Menace's release was such a big deal an entire webpage was created - (no longer valid, it's been outpaced by so many other sites especially YouTube and IMDB) - to report on the release and keep track of the building hype. Everything else that movie year paled in comparison: Austin Powers sequel? Pfft. This weird cult movie making waves on the 'Net called Blair Witch Project? Please. Bruce Willis in some psychological thriller called The Sixth Sense? Who's even directing that thing...!

So there's a level of irony here that the most anticipated movie of that year turned out to be the bigger dud. For all the advancements Lucas made in digital effects directing, Phantom Menace was just... meh, lacking any kind of reason or narrative focus fans were expecting.

It's been twenty years, Bilbo, it still hurts...!

Anyway, I vaguely remember the trailer for this Matrix film. Starring an actor I had grown up to - Keanu Reeves, from my high school/college years of Bill & Ted movies and then the surprisingly good Speed action flick - this Matrix thingee looked like some sort of computer heist / spy thriller that somehow involved giant spider robots. Yeah, it didn't make sense to me. I doubt the studio releasing it knew either 'cause they dumped it in the early April schedule before all the summer blockbusters were due to come out.

But as a Keanu fan, and with little else to do back then - my social life then and now was/is meager - on my day off from work I went to the Sawgrass multiplex in Broward County and caught an early screening (I was in the habit of trying to avoid the crowds).

And about two and a half hours later I stumbled back out into the bright sun of South Florida. I pulled out round sunglasses and slid them onto my face as I slow-walked to the nearest Burlington Coat Factory. I found a trenchcoat, paid for it with a credit card, alerting the computer overlords of my rebellion, and wore that thing back out to the heated parking lot where I sweated ten pounds off driving back to my apartment to play the PvP mods on Quake II until I became like Neo.

Okay. I might not have played Quake II. I was terrible at PvP. But the rest of it is real. I TOOK THE RED PILL, PEOPLE.

Even as I was watching it, I could tell the plot was a pretty straightforward "Hero Becomes Messiah" story. But the details of the thing were astounding. The filmmakers - at the time the Wachowski brothers - employed a mashup of cultural archetypes, ranging from Asian anime and kung-fu elements to Western shootouts and explosive overkill. The story blurred the line between Christian (Gnostic, which was probably the first time most people even heard of it) and Buddhist philosophies: "The Matrix is run by a set of rules." "Stop trying to hit me and hit me." "There is no spoon." There had been earlier movies that questioned the very nature of reality itself - Dark City had a similar vein and even shared the same sets - but The Matrix was the one that did so with a deep understanding of what had to be real and what wasn't. It's been called the best cyberpunk movie ever made, considering earlier attempts like Johnny Mnemotic (hi, Keanu again!) never tried to go as in-depth to cyber-reality as the Matrix did.

The movie was unafraid to create a universe that for all intents was a graphics-intensive computer game. The Matrix established in film how a Massive Multiplayer Online universe could actually work. (Ironically, a Matrix MMO game that came out after the third movie ended up too buggy and shut down in 2009) Using a revolutionary filming technique that became known as "Bullet Time," the camera itself did not remain static in a scene, it could move and rotate during a fight in-progress to make the fight more intense. Much in the way a gamer's POV moved during the FPS, or how it would float above a fight during a PvP death-match, the camera was now closer to the action than ever before.

Just the opening sequence of Agents attempting to capture Trinity, with unknowing human cops trying to arrest her only to face a computer expert who "cracked" the cheat codes to the Matrix, was a mind-blowing moment. A woman (Carrie Anne Moss) in an all-leather cat-thief outfit suddenly turned into a lethal gravity-defying assassin, pulling stunts that looked done real-world. Except for the moment where she jumps up, pauses while the camera repositions itself, and finishes off her flying kick move that sends the unlucky cop into the far wall. There had never been anything like that on film before.

From that point on, the Matrix was the defining film in a year - 1999 - crammed with them. It didn't do more than just revolutionize visual effects and cinematography, it changed storytelling. It challenged the Hero narrative (while, yes, sticking to the Campbellian template). It added a diverse cast of supporting characters (Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus leading a multicultural crew fighting the machines) and mixed in Eastern themes that most Western audiences rarely saw. The movie not only questioned the defined role of the hero - the machine Agents constantly call the hero "Mr. Anderson" as an insult, leading him to declare "My name... is NEO." - it questioned self-identity (are you an office drone or a superhero?), it questioned gender roles and gender itself (a funny but overlooked moment is when Neo meets Trinity - with a men's haircut and lack of feminine markers - for the first time: "I thought Trinity was a guy." "Most guys do.")

Just some other thoughts to throw out there: As noted earlier, I had a pretty good idea how the movie would play out once the plot got going (when Morpheus' crew unplugs Neo from the Matrix). While the filmmakers seem to make a big deal about the Oracle "not what we were expecting," I actually knew enough by 1999 about such archetypes - we call them tropes now - to expect the Oracle (Gloria Foster) to be a wise elder woman baking cookies in her kitchen. Still, I loved Foster's performance for the human grace it added to the story.

I'm not the only one being nostalgic for this: Other places are writing up their favorite moments and remembrances. As David Sims notes in that Atlantic review:

Watching today, Neo seems like the poster boy for a disaffected Generation X, a non-conformist who escapes his dull life as a cubicle drone to become a god. (In fact, one of The Matrix’s closest thematic companions from the fertile cinema du 1999 is probably Mike Judge’s Office Space—another sad ballad about humans being swallowed whole by faceless corporations, though Judge’s film has a few more jokes...)

There's some things to be said about the sequel films, which felt inevitable when the original Matrix became such a huge hit - it was arguably the best reason to start buying into the newly-introduced DVD discs (the tech came out in 1995), improving its revenue pull for the studio - but now is not the time to get into those arguments.

In terms of anniversaries, it may be time to look back at a lot of other movies that came out in 1999 - yes, I'm sure I'll talk about Phantom Menace when the time is right - and marvel at how we were poised in that moment to break free of the standard blockbuster formats of film watching (and film making). But for now...


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...Dammit, Dark Computer Overlords, do NOT tell people my online gamer name...!

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Quick Notes About a Short Letter

As noted earlier, Mueller had completed his report and handed it in to the Department of Justice, putting it in the hands of an Attorney General - nowadays William Barr - who has the authority to release the report - at least to Congress - for public review.

Instead he sent out a four-page letter. (via Lawfare)

According to Barr's letter:

  • Mueller found that Russia did act to interfere with the 2016 elections, but the investigation could not find trump's campaign "conspired or coordinated" with the Russian government.

I just look at that June 2016 meeting at trump Tower and say bullshit to that. I look at 30 years of history with trump and Russia and say bullshit to that.

  • Mueller looked into trump's firing of FBI Director Comey as possibly related to obstructing any investigation into Mike Flynn, and "did not draw a conclusion... as to whether the examined conduct constituted obstruction."

In other words, Mueller and others at the DoJ refused to overrule the standing rule of indicting sitting Presidents. FUCK THAT. "He may or may not have broken the law... It does not exonerate him"? What a goddamn wishy-washy stance to take on criminal acts. This isn't about exonerating trump: This should have been about holding people accountable to the Law.

  • Barr notes that he is "mindful" of the public interest in the scandals and a desire to read the entire report. But there is no sign he is releasing the full report, he's making noises about dribbling parts of it out, pieces at a time.


Release the Mueller Report, Barr.

Get the Mueller Report and make it public, Congress.

And to the trumpsters out there cheering and clapping and pissing at all the libtards who were hoping for justice here: trump's cronies still broke laws and 17 of them are seeing jail time. Your boy trump is not some GODDAMN SAVIOR, he's a GODDAMN CROOK.

Brexit Madness Overdrive

I had a boss once who kept warning me "Madness is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result." I have to admit I didn't even see what it was I was doing wrong and what I needed to change, but I understand what she was talking about.

That noted, I look at the United Kingdom right now and (via Joshua Alvarez at the Washington Monthly):

(Prime Minister Theresa) May is expected to put her negotiated deal up for a third vote this week. But even that faces its own legal hurdle. On Monday, House of Commons Speaker John Bercow ruled out a third vote on May’s deal, citing a procedural rule prohibiting the same question from being repeatedly brought forward during the same parliamentary session. No word yet on how May will overcome that, but let’s assume that the vote will happen. Almost certainly, the deal will be rejected again.
On March 13, Parliament twice voted (in a non-binding way) that the UK should not leave the EU without an agreement. Amid the din of Parliament’s Hamlet-like indecisiveness, Donald Tusk’s January tweet has a ghostly echo: “If a deal is impossible, and no one wants no deal, then who will finally have the courage to say what the only positive solution is?”

What we're seeing is a Conservative Party that has spent decades hating being a part of the EU but had really no plan on how to reasonably exit that economic cooperative, but they HATE the EU so much they can't admit they've painted themselves into a corner and are stuck in Suicide Over The White Cliffs Of Dover Mode. They want Brexit but they can't deal.

This is what blind partisanship looks like, by the way. A more pragmatic leadership would have had something in fucking place for all this shit before they voted for the damn thing.

But now the British Parliament is stuck with an April 12th deadline - they were able to deal for an extension from March 29, but the EU wants England to make up its damn mind before their own membership elections - and they are down to two options. Take May's terrible Brexit deal that the hardliners see as too Soft and the Remainers see as too Hard, or settle for a No-Deal Brexit that pretty much blows up every aspect of the UK economy, kills the peace deal between Ireland and Northern Ireland, and essentially ships off more than ONE TRILLION British Pounds off-shore permanently.

Meanwhile, the streets of London filled up with a million (maybe two mill) residents protesting the Tories' effort to Leave, demanding a second referendum - because 1) they were lied to by Farage and the other Leave advocates 2) no one realized what the real consequences would be until it started happening and most Brits don't like it now - and for Parliament to just cancel the Article 50 altogether.

Check out the crowds:

I have no seen comparable marchers demanding the UK continue its Leave course. I found this, from a planned march a week ago for a "Leave Means Leave" movement but look at it, there are more cops than marchers at one point:

May might not even last until April 12 (via Dan Sabbagh at the Guardian):

With the prime minister preparing to meet a group of senior Tory rebels at her Chequers country retreat, the chancellor told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday that Conservative colleagues were “very frustrated” and “desperate to find a way forward.”
But as two ministers who had been named as possible interim successors, Michael Gove and David Lidington, played down speculation about the prime minister’s future, Hammond said that talk of pushing May out was “frankly self-indulgent at this time.”
The chancellor – who had been named as one of a group plotting to force her out in a crunch cabinet meeting on Monday – refused to be drawn on whether his colleagues had approached him asking him to intervene...
Cabinet anxieties about May and her ability to maintain control of the stalled Brexit process remain acute, with few in Westminster believing she can get a revised version of her deal through the Commons in the coming days.
Duncan Smith said the idea of a coup “would be unacceptable to my colleagues” and accused cabinet members of breaching collective responsibility by briefing against May...

At this point, let's be honest Tories. YOU dug this hole for yourselves. Your leadership in Cameron recklessly put up an ill-thought referendum without putting any safeguards in place should it pass, and now you're all in cleanup mode... but instead of cleaning up you're digging deeper. There's your sign of madness, Britons.

Blowing up Parliament - no, not like Fawkes! - is the only sane move to make right now. Either admit Brexit is a bad idea and cancel it and deal with the wrath of your (shrinking) Leave constituency, or plunge your whole island kingdom into chaos and economic failure.

Either way, you're fucked Tories. At least take the hit so your people won't have to.

Friday, March 22, 2019

We'll Get the Mueller Report When We Get There. And We're Kinda Almost There.

Just when I was planning a blog entry on trump's meltdown this week over John McCain, THIS drops on us all (via the New York Times):

The special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, has delivered a report on his inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 election to Attorney General William P. Barr, according to the Justice Department, bringing to an apparent close an investigation that has consumed the nation and cast a shadow over President Trump for nearly two years.
Mr. Barr will decide how much of the report to share with Congress and, by extension, the American public. The House voted unanimously in March on a nonbinding resolution to make public the report’s findings, an indication of the deep support within both parties to air whatever evidence prosecutors uncovered.

As of right now, we the public don't know yet, so there's still tons of speculation about what's in it. Back to the NYT:

Since Mr. Mueller’s appointment in May 2017, his team has focused on how Russian operatives sought to sway the outcome of the 2016 presidential race and whether anyone tied to the Trump campaign, wittingly or unwittingly, cooperated with them. While the inquiry, started months earlier by the F.B.I., unearthed a far-ranging Russian influence operation, no public evidence has emerged that the president or his aides illegally assisted it.

The nerve-wracking thing about this all: There are still key figures from trump's 2016 campaign - above all his family members like donnie junior and son-in-law Jared - who had documented interactions with Russians who likely talked about (and maybe acted on) deals that led to a foreign power interfering with our elections... and there are no signs of them getting hit with indictments about those acts... Or even indictments trying to lie to investigators the way the ones already pleading out have done. Those reports about junior facing indictments? Where the hell did those go? This feels incomplete...

Back to the article:

Nonetheless, the damage to Mr. Trump and those in his circle has been extensive. A half-dozen former Trump aides have been indicted or convicted of crimes, mostly for lying to federal investigators or Congress. Others remain under investigation in cases that Mr. Mueller’s office handed off to federal prosecutors in New York and elsewhere. Dozens of Russian intelligence officers or citizens, along with three Russian companies, were charged in cases that are likely to languish in court because the defendants cannot be extradited to the United States.
Even though Mr. Mueller’s report is complete, some aspects of his inquiry remain active and may be overseen by the same prosecutors once they are reassigned to their old jobs within the Justice Department. For instance, recently filed court documents suggest that investigators are still examining why the former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort turned over campaign polling data in 2016 to a Russian associate whom prosecutors said was tied to Russian intelligence...

This is a key point. Mueller's investigation had multiple parts to it - there were actually TWO grand juries, one focusing on Russia's interactions with trump and another focusing on Russia's breaches of our nation's security - and one thing he's done has been to farm out parts of his case loads to other federal DoJ offices (for example, the Cohen mess getting sent to the SDNY). It is still likely Mueller will pass along findings encouraging indictments on criminal matters he himself couldn't issue (as his scope was limited to catching liars interfering with his probes).

I'd been keeping up with Emptywheel when it comes to Mueller's investigation, so lemme head over there and...

Update: DOJ is now saying that there are no outstanding indictments, and no more expected.

Well, fuck.

I'll wait for the full release... IF it gets released. If AG Barr or trump's White House blocks the report going public, better raise hell until they do.

Update (3/24): Barr hasn't released the full report, just his 4-page letter summarizing the full report. FFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFfffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu---

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Full-out Florida Failure: 2019 Republican Asshat Edition

Jesus, my crazy-ass state of Florida is going for the goddamn hat trick this week.

Part One: The Florida Legislature is looking to deny the popular voter referendum to allow non-violent felons who've served their time to automatically regain their right as citizens to vote, by adding a rule requiring them to pay off any fines and fees they still owe before they can vote. Jesus.

Let's quote from that Miami Herald article by Lawrence Mower:

Voting along party lines, Republicans advanced the bill, which would require felons to pay back all court fees and costs before being eligible to vote, even if those costs are not handed down by a judge as part of the person’s sentence.
That standard goes beyond the restoration system before Amendment 4 passed in November, which only required someone pay back restitution to a victim before applying to have their civil rights restored...
Yet the House bill serves the same purpose as the voter suppression tactics of the past, said Neil Volz, political director for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which advocated and helped draft Amendment 4.
“We’re opposed to restricting voting rights,” Volz said. “And this bill does that...”
Kara Gross, legislative director and senior policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, which also helped draft Amendment 4, said Monday that the House bill is too restrictive.
“It will inevitably prevent individuals from voting based on the size of the person’s bank account,” Gross said. “Those who have the financial means will vote, and those who can’t, won’t...”

That is exactly it. Considering some fines and fees go into the thousands of dollars, how many ex-felons do you think have that amount of money to take care of these bills right away? How many of them are going to have to work off those debts for five, ten, maybe twenty years?

What the Lege wants to pass is a goddamn poll tax that punishes the poor. Fuck the GOP legislators.

Part Two: The Florida Legislature is looking to pass a bill that not only would allow the religiously offended to ban books they don't like from schools - by giving them the ability to go past the county school boards' advisory staffs and appeal to the more tone-deaf state agencies - but also make it a Third Degree felony for ANYONE buying a "pornographic" or "inappropriate" book. That sound you heard was a hundred thousand families spitting their coffee out while letting their kids read "The Sneetches" (yes, Dr. Seuss has been banned) for the nineteenth time. You will be amazed how quickly the wingnuts' list of banned books will go from 100 to 100-Thousand. JESUS.

I can quote from other sources but let's go with myself: I work as a librarian and I know how to handle Challenged/Banned Books. The rules should be A) a person can challenge a book's place in the collection, B) there is a defense and debate about the book's value towards education or learning reading skills, C) the book can either return to the collection with complaint noted, the book can be placed elsewhere in the collection - usually in the adult reading away from the children's section - or the book can be removed if it fails to meet "community standards" (i.e. if it's a book with clear offensive or obscene elements, also known as the "I know it when I see it" Rule).

Most libraries are aware and sensitive to the needs of their readers and usually do a good job of handling challenged works. However, you still get those (cough Bible-humping Evangelicals cough) who are offended by things that by modern standards are mild or inoffensive or by rational measures not offensive at all. (we're talking about a group of people who are offended by everything on a library shelf and insist on ONE BOOK ONLY for everyone to read)

What this bill is going to do is take away the local control of the county school boards - and libraries - and drag them up to the state level where the politicians are less attuned to community standards and more attuned to the Christian groups screaming loudest into their ears. As a result, the school libraries - and then the public libraries - are going to see half their shelves cleared out all because the Christianists disagree with Ray Bradbury, Judy Blume, and the entire 500 Dewey Decimals (yes, say goodbye to all pure sciences books covering evolution, climatology, astronomy and even MATH). For starters.

Part Three: The Florida Legislature is about to pass an anti-Sanctuary City bill that would compel cities, counties and their law enforcement agencies to assist federal authorities with the feds' pursuit of an aggressive - and inhumane - anti-immigration policy that can well violate a ton of residents (even legal ones) of their civil liberties. JESUS CHRIST.

Anyone remember how that Fugitive Slave Act worked back in the 1850s?! Say hello to Slave Act 2.0. where every local agency along with our Sheriff offices - like say Child and Family Services - will be compelled to hand every Latino family over to ICE. Don't think I'm exaggerating.

Never mind DeSantis' signing of allowing medical marijuana. He's about to sign at least three bills - if they pass the Lege - that will severely curtain our citizen's rights to vote, read, and live.

This is why I've been screaming for ten-plus years on this blog for my fellow Floridians to stop voting Republican. And now they've been in office long enough that they're emboldened to dig even deeper into our lives and ruin us all.

There are days I hate living in this state.

These are the days I need to stand up and fight.

Call your legislators. Be polite but tell them - especially the Republicans - to not fuck with us.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

The Racist War Ratchets Up a Notch

I posted just last month how the more violently unhinged of trump's truest believers are ready to pull the trigger in his honor.

Just this weekend, the white supremacist violence went global when an angry White Man from Australia went on a mass shooting rampage across two Muslim mosques in Christchurch New Zealand, killing 50 (so far) and leaving tens more wounded some in critical condition.

I will not name the SOB here because the murdering bastard livestreamed his shooting to social media, submitted his racist manifesto to news outlets before he opened fire, and wants recognition as a goddamned hero to 'his people' hoping to become the spark to start the wingnut riots against The Dreaded Other.

Still, we know what he did. We know about the lives he took. Because he bought into the rhetoric that Muslims and non-Whites are conspiring to "replace" us all. Because he followed in the footsteps of the Norway mass shooter (I am not naming him either).

Because the bastard took his cues from donald trump (link to Yahoo News UK):

The suspected gunman who killed dozens of people in New Zealand is an Australian ‘racist eco-fascist’ who posted a 74-page manifesto online before the shootings and described Donald Trump as a “symbol of white supremacy.”
The man, who identified himself in a livestream of the massacre as (redacted), said he was motivated by far-right extremism he saw in the United States to carry out the attack at Al Noor Mosque...
He also goes on to rail against mass immigration and said he views Donald Trump as a “symbol of renewed white identity...”
The manifesto said he carried out the attack “to show the invaders that our lands will never be their lands, our homeland are our own and that, as long as a white man still lives, they will NEVER conquer our lands and they will never replace our people...”

There is no other word for this but terrorism.

And there are no words for how trump responded to the reports... where he dismissed the rise of racist violence and then echoed the exact messages that the goddamned shooter believed in (via The Week):

Hours later, a shockingly similar phrase came from the president. Trump, after vetoing a bill that would've blocked his national emergency declaration to access border wall funding, briefly condemned the shooting before pivoting back to border talk. There are "crimes of all kinds coming through our southern border," Trump said, adding that "people hate the word 'invasion,' but that's what it is..."

trump knows. the hate-filled bastard knows his words are triggering the fearful among his fanbase.

And he knows his fanbase is ready to go on a warpath on his command (via Chait at New York):

...The specifics of the riff don’t vary much. Trump laments that his opponents are treating him unfairly, praises the toughness and strength of his supporters — a category that combines the police, military, and Bikers for Trump, which he apparently views as a Brownshirt-like militia — and a prediction that his supporters will at some point end their restraint.
He does it again in a new interview with Breitbart:
I actually think that the people on the right are tougher, but they don’t play it tougher. Okay? I can tell you I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump – I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough — until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad...

You can argue just how far into our legal systems trump's corruption has gotten, and you can look at the demographics to see just how many trumpshirts will rise up should he face indictment or impeachment (despite Pelosi's comments, that's still on the table). trump may have gotten 62 million voters, but how many of them are actively armed and ready to go on any warpath?

Most Americans, despite our passions or politics, are not easily stirred into protest or violence. Most Americans just want to do their thing, raise their kids, find a good vacation spot, and not get bothered.

trump may be a sitting President Loser of the Popular Vote, but he still doesn't carry the direct power to control/order State, County or City law enforcement to his whims. He may think he has support of the police (at least their politically biased unions) and the military (at least some bomb-em-all generals) but current reporting suggests the hater White Nationalists types are one out of four among the troops. Yes, that still sounds scary - one-in-four - but there's three-in-four in our military who aren't assholes. If the armed forces split, the non-racists will outnumber (and swarm quickly over) the racists.

The wingnuts always assume their numbers are greater than they really are: When those jerks took over the national park in Oregon they sent out a call for support likely hoping for mass uprisings... and got joke supplies mailed to them instead (about three or four other militias in small numbers ever showed). We're talking about the same White Pride people who keep turning on each other out of greed and stupidity.

If trump does call for an uprising among the White Supremacists, the likely turnout will be mostly the neo-Nazi pro-Confederate militias dotted across the landscape... of about 20-30 wingnuts apiece who'll run into actual police and National Guard deployed by Governors of even Red States who'll realize this Second Civil War will end badly for themselves.

That's the good news if trump ever tries to go this far.

Here's the bad news: Far Right violence has still increased over the last three years, showing the willingness of how destructive the racists can get.

And we've seen how much violence just even one person can commit when dedicated to their cause. One wingnut carrying an AR-15 and enough ammo can wipe out entire city blocks before the cops can respond and stop him.

All it takes is just one gunman to throw a city - a nation - into chaos and pain.

And we're already seeing it here in the U.S. The mass shooter at Squirrel Hill just last year. The would-be mass shooter working at the Coast Guard HQ. The mad bomber of Broward County. There are more. Gods help us, too many more.

And all it takes is one. All it takes is one wingnut hanging on trump's every tweet.

And trump knows it.

I doubt trump will win this fight: he and his have proven they can't win on their own (he needed help from Russia to cheat his way to victory in 2016 damn them). The wingnuts following his every lead can easily turn on each other as much as they'll turn on regular Americans.

But this is going to get bloody. It's too late to say otherwise. The wingnuts have been chomping at the bit for decades waiting for their goddamned race war. And trump's the last one in high enough political office to let them unleash their hell on the rest of us.

Stay safe. Stay alert.

The calls for violence are coming from within the White House.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Ides of March 2019: Tired Of This

You know there's so much crazy shit happening in the world right now, who gives a rat's ass about the Romans right now. Take your Fasces and shove em up your... what's the Latin word for 'buttocks' again? Clunes? Okay, we're going with Clunes.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Everything That's Wrong With Justice In America (w/Updates)

Update: once again, glad to see everyone visiting from Mike's Blog Round Up at Crooks & Liars, thanks again Batocchio! By the by, in terms of updating we should be getting Manafort's second sentence hearing in front of Judge Jackson today, so keep an eye on this site for further updates that are below!

So, still reeling a bit from the ruling last week by one of the judges overseeing Paul Manafort's fate. The immediate reaction I and others following the trial(s) of Manafort's crimes had when we heard Judge Ellis' sentencing the convicted felon to 47 months (with 9 months accrued meaning an even shorter sentence) fell between "stunned" and "outraged."

It's taken a day or two to recover from the anger of what seems an unjust ruling - that Manafort, found guilty of bank fraud and other frauds to the tune of millions of dollars was getting a shorter sentence than people getting 20 years for possessing a $20 bag of pot - to try and gain a better perspective.

At best, I can point to Ken White's take at the Atlantic. He's broken down the reactions to Manafort's light punishment from Ellis into six coherent arguments. I am going to add my own thoughts to each:

First, there can’t be a sentence without an investigation. After 9/11, the United States Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney’s Offices that it controls shifted resources and focus from white-collar crime to drugs, guns, and immigration. In Los Angeles, the U.S. Attorney’s Office shuttered the Public Corruption and Government Fraud Section, where I served. Investigations of people like Manafort—people who have committed complex financial crimes—are time-consuming and resource-intensive. You can jail 20 drug traffickers for life with the resources it took to prosecute Manafort. America picks who goes to jail when it picks whom to investigate—which is one of the reasons so few people involved in the 2008 Wall Street debacle went to jail.

This is key. Our legal system has a finite amount of resources. It would be pretty to think every crook and questionable act can be investigated, but there's only so much our law enforcement can do at one time. I would note that we could well have chosen to investigate white collar crimes - acts of fraud that ruin thousands and cost billions (not even millions anymore) - but the lack of manpower (and lack of willpower) restricts such investigations. It's in that kind of environment the high-level crooks can raid and pillage with impunity (and kinda explains why a con artist like trump kept avoiding criminal investigations into fraud until now)...

Second, prosecutors have enormous power over who goes to jail and for how long. That power doesn’t just involve deciding who gets indicted. It involves deciding how he gets indicted. Manafort faced a recommended sentencing range of 19 to 24 years under U.S. sentencing guidelines. But that range was driven only in part by what he actually did. It was driven just as much by how the special counsel’s office chose to pursue the case—what charges it brought, what evidence it presented to Ellis, and what part of Manafort’s history it cited as “relevant conduct” at sentencing...

Manafort had committed a lot of questionable acts, but prosecutors only charged him on things they could prove in a courtroom. And even then, a jury has to accept the prosecutors' arguments (Manafort's jury in his first trial found him guilty on 8 charges out of 18, and one juror held out on the remaining 10). This is, as a side note, one of the reasons why prosecutors overcharge suspects in order to force plea deals...

Third, Congress has given Ellis the power to give people like Manafort a break, but has denied him that power when the defendant is accused of many blue-collar crimes. Last year, Ellis sentenced a 37-year-old man named Frederick Turner to 40 years in federal prison for methamphetamine distribution. He had no choice: Congress passed laws making 40 years the mandatory minimum sentence...

This is one of the points where the system itself is insane and broken: The mandatory minimums set by legislators - often pursuing their "tough on crime" and "war on drugs" election campaigns - make it difficult for judges to apply sentences that would be truthfully just. Even Ellis complained about the severity of jail time he was inflicting on Turner, and in Manafort's case where no mandatory time was required Ellis could well have wanted a more lenient punishment (the problem is Ellis is offering mercy to someone who hadn't earned it).

As White notes, there is a genuine legal distinction between what we call "Blue-Collar Crimes" - crimes committed by the poor such as robbery, burglary, drug dealing, acts of violence - and "White-Collar Crimes" - crimes committed by the wealthy or connected such as bribery, tax evasion, money laundering for drug dealers, and acts of fraud - to where we have essentially two legal systems. One for the poor and one for the rich. Guess which one profits Manafort?

Fourth, the U.S. sentencing guidelines treat some crimes more harshly than others, and though, unlike mandatory minimums, they are only recommendations, not strictures, they strongly influence judges. USA Today reported that fraud cases in Ellis’s district yielded an average sentence of 36 months, versus 66 months for firearms charges and 84 months for drug charges, all higher than the national average. Ellis announced that he was sentencing Manafort below the recommended guideline range because that range was far above what defendants received in similar cases. That is, in fact, a factor that he’s required by law to consider. Manafort’s case was arguably much more serious than others, but there’s no question that his sentencing range was atypically high for a white-collar defendant... 

This is the point where Ellis' ruling gets to be a joke. Ellis went and compared Manafort's fate to other white-collar criminals and deemed the prosecutors' recommended sentencing "too harsh". Nevermind the unique circumstances that Manafort is in, or the scale of severity Manafort's crimes are at. All Ellis is seeing is a first-time offender in his court and has decided that Manafort's "blameless life" didn't deserve any worse than the 19 1/2 years being recommended.

To quote another commentator from the Atlantic - Franklin Foer - about Judge Ellis' tone-deaf understanding, about how he looked at a decades-long criminal and still saw "a blameless life":

In an otherwise blameless life, Paul Manafort lobbied on behalf of the tobacco industry and wangled millions in tax breaks for corporations...
In an otherwise blameless life, he worked to keep arms flowing to the Angolan generalissimo Jonas Savimbi, a monstrous leader bankrolled by the apartheid government in South Africa. While Manafort helped portray his client as an anti-communist “freedom fighter,” Savimbi’s army planted millions of land mines in peasant fields, resulting in 15,000 amputees...
In an otherwise blameless life, Manafort was kicked out of the lobbying firm he co-founded, accused of inflating his expenses and cutting his partners out of deals...
In an otherwise blameless life, he spent a decade as the chief political adviser to a clique of former gangsters in Ukraine. This clique hoped to capture control of the state so that it could enrich itself with government contracts and privatization agreements. This was a group closely allied with the Kremlin, and Manafort masterminded its rise to power—thereby enabling Ukraine’s slide into Vladimir Putin’s orbit...
In an otherwise blameless life, he produced a public-relations campaign to convince Washington that Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was acting within his democratic rights and duties when he imprisoned his most compelling rival for power...
In an otherwise blameless life, he stood mute as Yanukovych’s police killed 130 protesters in the Maidan...
In an otherwise blameless life, he tried to use his perch atop the Trump campaign to help salvage his sorry financial situation. He installed one of his protégés as the head of the pro-Trump super PAC Rebuilding America. His friend allegedly funneled $125,000 from the super PAC to pay off one of Manafort’s nagging debts...
In an otherwise blameless life, Manafort was found guilty of tax evasion on an industrial scale. Rather than paying his fair share to help fund national defense and public health, he kept his cash in Cyprus and wired it home to buy more than $1 million in bespoke clothing...
In an otherwise blameless life, he acted with impunity, as if the laws never applied to him. When presented with a chance to show remorse to the court, he couldn’t find that sentiment within his being...

All of those acts - and more - were not sudden, or an impulse, or based on the vagaries of foolish youthful intent. It's all a track record of bad behavior that profited from other people's sufferings without care to fact or rules or human decency.

Ellis is choosing to think of Manafort as a first-time offender rather than someone who had willfully broken and ignored laws, and only got away with it for years all because Manafort lived at a level of society where accountability to the law was merely optional.

Anyway, back to White:

Fifth, money drives cases. Manafort’s criminal defense cost more than most defendants make in a lifetime. Money can’t buy freedom—Manafort’s money couldn’t save him from multiple convictions, because the federal government’s power is overwhelming even to a multimillionaire. But money buys a capable defense with the resources it needs. An extremely experienced, qualified defense team with plenty of time makes a profound difference at every stage of a case. Even when rich people get convicted, money helps get them the best plea deals, the most persuasive sentencing presentations, and often the most lenient sentences.

This is another point where the rich have it easier over the poor in our legal system. People like Manafort can afford lawyers with better resources and better experience while people who can't afford a lawyer have to rely on Public Defenders handling 65-plus cases a month and unable to even get their clients out on bail (meaning a lot of poor people are stewing in the local lockup awaiting trials that are seven months to a year down the road, if ever). Manafort by the by was out on bail before/during the trial, but then got it revoked - by the judge in his other trial, more on that later - when it turned out he was trying to witness-tamper in such a crass manner the judge had no choice but to revoke. Meanwhile, poor defendants can't even that level of mercy. Our cash bond prison system is severely broken...

Sixth, and finally, judges are human. Racism and bias of every sort play a role in the system, but it’s too simplistic to say the problem is that particular judges are racist. The problem is that judges give breaks to people with whom they can identify—people whose humanity they recognize. We’re wired to identify with people like us. Judges—particularly federal judges—tend to come from backgrounds closer to Manafort’s than to the average drug dealer’s. Even when judges are born and raised in poverty, the process of becoming a lawyer, having a career, and becoming a judge makes them inexorably more like Manafort. The system has a homogenizing effect...

Ellis didn't see a globe-spanning criminal ruining thousands of lives, he saw someone who might have been a next-door neighbor at his gated community. This is where the bias of the judge him/herself distorts the need for justice.

Each of White's points are problems we've had with our legal system for some time, decades in fact. And sadly over those decades our legislators who write the laws and the administrators who enforce the laws have done little to balance the scales between rich and poor, against the racism and sexism, towards a truly honest courtroom where there can be "justice for all".

Sending Manafort to prison for barely under 40 months - remember, he's getting reduced for time served - doesn't seem just at all.

The only thing that prevents this from being a total mockery of the law is that Manafort is facing a second courtroom sentencing involving the other crimes he's committed in THAT jurisdiction. He'd already plead out to two conspiracy charges (related to Mueller's Russian investigations) in Judge Jackson's court... but he's also pulled off a lot of dumb stunts in her courtroom to where she's not going to show him any favor at all (she is also the presiding judge of Roger "Can't Keep My Mouth Shut" Stone, and she's already had enough of his BS as is).

There is hope that Manafort will still face stronger justice for his sins.

But in the meantime, Manafort's current leniency - to where it felt like he's getting a "Get Out of Jail Free" deal - exposes a broken American legal system in worse shape than our own bridges and highways.

Everything needs fixing, America. What the hell.

Revisions to the Update (3/13/19): Welp. Judge Jackson read him the riot act... and still only added 73 months on the two counts Manafort plead to... and made 30 of those months concurrent (same time) as his existing sentence... so he's looking at a total of 7.5 years for all the crap he's pulled for two decades. Gangbangers, seriously. Stop dealing drugs and getting life sentences on that. Get into the white-collar shit that Manafort does and get out of jail in less than a decade!!!

Followup to the Revisions to the Update (ten minutes later): The New York DA - think Jack McCoy from Law & Order, except 80 percent more real and 90 percent more pissed off - dropped grand jury charges (16 of them) on Manafort for state-level crimes. Separate from the crap Manafort was charged with at the federal level - avoiding double jeopardy issues - these are still tied into a lot of the financial crimes that Manafort committed. Meaning if trump pardons him NOW for the federal prison time, Manafort can't claim Fifth Amendment protection from self-incrimination. Essentially, trump can't save his buddy from these charges.

This had to have been a land-speed record by the legal system. The DA probably wanted to make sure he could do this before trump had time to break out his pen.

Additional Followup to the Followup to the Revisions (June 2021): Well dammit, this missed my notice but back in February 2021 the New York Supreme Court said the New York DA couldn't file those charges. Apparently, they did incur double jeopardy. Since trump pardoned Manafort towards the end of his term, this means Manafort walks away from answering for his years of fraud.


Saturday, March 02, 2019

A Betrayal We Knew Was Coming

This is what you wanted Republicans. For a party that obsessed over owning the political gravitas of foreign policy experience, you all put some of the greatest national security risks in our nation's history in the Oval Office itself (link to the New York Times on the full report by Maggie Haberman, Michael S. Schmidt, Adam Goldman and Annie Karni):

President Trump ordered his chief of staff to grant his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, a top-secret security clearance last year, overruling concerns flagged by intelligence officials and the White House’s top lawyer, four people briefed on the matter said.
Mr. Trump’s decision in May so troubled senior administration officials that at least one, the White House chief of staff at the time, John F. Kelly, wrote a contemporaneous internal memo about how he had been “ordered” to give Mr. Kushner the top-secret clearance.
The White House counsel at the time, Donald F. McGahn II, also wrote an internal memo outlining the concerns that had been raised about Mr. Kushner — including by the C.I.A. — and how Mr. McGahn had recommended that he not be given a top-secret clearance.

You may chuckle at the idea of "memo writing" as a hard-line response to interoffice shenanigans, but it's a time-honored practice in politics (as known as Cover Your Ass). Because of laws governing the archiving and storage of official memos (and unofficial communications like emails and whatnot), if you get it in writing you objected to a serious problem like say a national security risk to our nation's highest military and diplomatic secrets, then when the whole thing falls apart in the inevitable blowback you can claim you gave fair warning and avoid getting nailed to the wall as a scapegoat. You may even sometimes help prove a criminal act took place that may lead to said crooks getting handcuffed and sentenced (as long as the rest of the government does its damn job).

Back to the Times reporting:

The full scope of intelligence officials’ concerns about Mr. Kushner is not known. But the clearance had been held up in part over questions from the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. about his foreign and business contacts, including those related to Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Russia, according to multiple people familiar with the events.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Mr. Kushner was part of a group that met with a Russian lawyer who went to Trump Tower claiming to have political “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. And during the presidential transition, Mr. Kushner had a meeting with the Russian ambassador at the time, Sergey I. Kislyak, and the head of a Russian state-owned bank. When he applied for a security clearance, he did not reveal those meetings.

This was something that was out there for a long time. Since the earliest days of trump's misrule, news kept getting out that Kushner was failing to be truthful lying on his security clearance requests needed to be anywhere near his father-in-law as an adviser. He kept "omitting" (or more likely refusing to admit) various times he met with potential security risks like Russians, Chinese, more Russians, questionable businesspersons, Russians, and more.

If we can go to Nancy LeTourneau at Washington Monthly:

In a report from a year ago, the Washington Post identified some of the concerns the intelligence community had in granting a security clearance to Kushner.
Officials in at least four countries have privately discussed ways they can manipulate Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, by taking advantage of his complex business arrangements, financial difficulties and lack of foreign policy experience, according to current and former U.S. officials familiar with intelligence reports on the matter.
Among those nations discussing ways to influence Kushner to their advantage were the United Arab Emirates, China, Israel and Mexico, the current and former officials said.
It is unclear if any of those countries acted on the discussions, but Kushner’s contacts with certain foreign government officials have raised concerns inside the White House and are a reason he has been unable to obtain a permanent security clearance, the officials said.
It is very likely that intelligence officials were also concerned about several exchanges Kushner had with Russians. For example:
* In June 2016, Kushner was involved in the meeting Don, Jr. arranged with Russians at Trump Tower.
* In December 2016, Kushner met with Sergey Gorkov, the top executive of a Russian bank, who reported that they talked about “promising business lines and sectors.”
* In December 2016, Kushner met with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, who reported that they discussed setting up a secret communications channel with Moscow, using Russian diplomatic facilities in the U.S.
That only covers what we know about possible concerns the intelligence community had when it came to granting a security clearance to Kushner. But it gives you some idea why both Kelly and McGahn put their objections in writing. Nevertheless, Trump overruled them...
trump overruled them because like any crime boss, he can't operate without his closest people. And like most crime organizations, his closest people are his own family (and those married into his mob).

Outside of his own kids (and Kushner), trump truly cannot trust anybody. Without Kushner managing things for him, trump would have to rely on people with disparate agendas and differing loyalties like he had to during the early years of this shadow theater. Look at how trump's gone through half his starting Cabinet, he's on his third Chief of Staff (and Mulvaney is reportedly eyeing the exits), he's burned through Communications officials and Security Advisors, and he's overdue on firing half the Department of Justice just for shits and giggles.

trump can't trust any of them. Instead, he trusts a son-in-law who in debt to foreign powers (much like trump himself) and he trusts those foreign powers over his own NSA/FBI/CIA intel.

This is what faces our entire national security system today. They are compromised not by some angry or turned agent working in a cubicle somewhere copying files and selling them to foreigners, but by a criminal (trump) managed by those foreign powers (Russia and now we suspect others) elected by a corrupt party (Republicans) to oversee the whole damn show.

We are so very very very royally fucked.