Mick Mulvaney tries to sell Trump’s draconian budget cuts as an act of “compassion” for the rich — and even Republicans don’t buy it

Mick Mulvaney

Mick Mulvaney (Credit: AP/Andrew Harnik)

The White House delivered President Donald Trump’s first full budget to Congress on Tuesday, and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) director Mick Mulvaney promptly tried to spin $4.1 trillion in proposed cuts to social services as an act of “compassion” for wealthy taxpayers. Yet Mulvaney, a former South Carolina congressman, apparently has little sway over his old Republican colleagues in the Senate, as many of them came out swinging against Trump’s budget proposal only hours later.

“Terrible,” is how Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham described Trump’s proposed 2018 federal budget to reporters on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. The sales pitch Mulvaney provided at a White House press briefing earlier evidently did little to impress his fellow South Carolina Republican, as Graham went on to blast Trump’s proposed 29 percent decrease in funding to the State Department and USAID as “a lot of Benghazis in the making if we actually implemented the State Department cuts.” When Mulvaney first floated the idea of such cuts in March, GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said a budget that slashes State Department funds by one-third is unlikely to pass in his chamber.

At the White House on Tuesday, Mulvaney continued to push Trump’s proposal by asking lawmakers to look “at the budget through the eyes of the taxpayer” instead of those who receive benefits from federal programs. The $4.1 trillion in cuts disproportionately impact Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. However, it would not be compassionate to ask working families to pay the taxes to fund those expenditures, Mulvaney argued.

“We’re no longer going to measure compassion by the number of programs or the number of people on those programs, but by the number of people we help get off of those programs,” Mulvaney said on Tuesday. “We’re not going to measure compassion by the amount of money that we spend, but by the number of people that we help.”

Defending $190 billion in cuts to food stamps and $72 billion from Social Security disability payments — an apparent violation of Trump’s campaign promise to not touch Social Security — Mulvaney argued: “That is how you can help people take charge of their own lives again.”

“If I can look you in the eye and say I’m going to take this money from you so I can help this injured vet, I can do that in good conscience,” he said. “I am a lot less comfortable to the point of not wanting to look you in the eye and say, ‘Look, I need to take this money from you to give to this person over here who really isn’t disabled but is getting a disabled benefit or this person over here who is supposed to use the money to go to school but isn’t actually going.”

Talk of which disabled Americans are deserving, however, didn’t go far to sell a number of Republicans in Congress.

Nevada Republican Sen. Dean Heller blasted Trump’s budget proposal as “anti-Nevada,” citing its drastic cuts to Medicaid and important public lands programs in the state.  As The Hill reported, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, also said he continues “to oppose this budget’s proposed elimination of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.”

That Mulvaney’s spin to sell draconian cuts to lifeline services for millions of vulnerable Americans in favor of “compassion” for wealthy taxpayers fell flat even with Republicans on the Hill is a sure sign that Trump’s budget blueprint will largely be ignored by the GOP-controlled Congress. After all, compassionate conservatism fell out of favor with Republicans after George W. Bush’s ran up a massive deficit while in office. The White House may have a better chance sticking to Trump’s more traditional sales pitch for “the biggest tax cut in history.”

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Frontline’s “Bannon’s War”: An efficient examination of the philosophy steering the White House

Steve Bannon

Steve Bannon (Credit: PBS)

There may be no figure more polarizing, frightening and bewildering than White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, a man who makes George W. Bush’s former chief of staff, Karl Rove, seem about as harmful as a zit. If this comparison seems facetious, chalk it up to the aftereffects of watching “Bannon’s War,” documentarian Michael Kirk’s latest effort for “Frontline” that premiers Tuesday at 10 p.m. on PBS member stations and online.

Nothing in this “Frontline” version of Bannon’s biography affords a glimpse of humanity or warmth in the man, and perhaps that is for the best. Instead “Bannon’s War” shows its subject as the polarizing, intelligent and power-driven figure that he is.

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In “Frontline” fashion, it does this without explicitly saying so. Former Breitbart News employees, journalists from The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The New York Times and The New Yorker, as well as Bannon’s former writing partner and ex-friend Julia Jones are among the interviewees who build a case that invites people to come to that conclusion themselves.

That is, assuming the viewer isn’t a ticket holder on the Trump Express.

How fairly “Frontline” treats Bannon and whether this Kirk-directed episode is terrifying or validating is matter of perspective. Kirk and his co-writer Michael Wiser tacitly acknowledge this in the cold open before the credits roll by returning to the furor surrounding Donald Trump’s signing of the first executive order barring the U.S. entry of travelers from predominately Muslim countries. To those resisting Trump’s agenda, the 9th Circuit Court’s halt on the executive order was seen as their first victory.

Bannon also viewed this protest spike as proof that “shock and awe” tactics could win, in that it sent a signal to Trump’s base that the president wasn’t merely spouting xenophobic and racist rhetoric on the campaign trail to get their vote. “Bannon thinks, ‘This is great. We’re killing it. We’re winning. We’re doing everything that we said we would,’” former Breitbart spokesman Kurt Bardella says in the film. “‘We are beating down the establishment and the liberals into submission. We are literally making America great again.’”

Kirk’s list of Frontline projects includes the quadrennial election specials known as “The Choice” as well as the two-night, four-hour miniseries “Divided States of America” that debuted 48 hours before Trump’s inauguration.

“Bannon’s War” feels frugal in comparison to these efforts, clocking in at just under 55 minutes. But the installment moves with efficient speed as well, spending minimal time chronicling Bannon’s early years and affording a relatively slender view of his tenure on Wall Street and in Hollywood, where he built his personal wealth.

Much has been written about Bannon’s early obsession with warfare and nationalist foreign policy. Kirk and Wiser’s script doesn’t dive into this aspect of the man, choosing instead to devote the bulk of the show to illustrating the ways he applied this personal paradigm to shape Breitbart News into a propaganda machine for the far right.

Here is where the “Frontline” episode energizes its premise — as it talks about the bombastic Andrew Breitbart joining forces with “bookish Bannon,” showing archival footage of the two cavorting in front of a frat house with Breitbart bragging about past exploits.

Bannon infused the site with funds from wealthy conservatives such as the Mercer family, and after Andrew Breitbart’s death Bannon went on to use the site to promote the agenda of Citizens United chairman David Bossie and boost the careers of then-senator Jeff Sessions and Sessions’ former communications director Stephen Miller.

But it was only when Donald Trump emerged to run for president that Bannon saw what one interviewee termed as a “vehicle for his perspectives.” Those views crystallized in Trump’s inauguration speech which, as Jones observes, may have been in the president’s hands but was pure Bannon. “The line about carnage in America, I think that was Steve,” she says. “Every now and again I hear things and I go, ‘OK, that’s Steve.’”

“Bannon’s War” adheres to the “Frontline” model of lining up recent coverage to recapitulate what we already know in a linear pass. Here the element of what we may not realize may be even more important. By training its focus on the strategy that goes into creating the barrage of frightening headlines, the hour provides a cogent glimpse at Bannon’s scorched-earth philosophy.

“There’s an almost fetishistic desire to blow everything up,” says Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday, referring to Bannon’s post-9/11 Ronald Reagan film “In the Face of Evil,” which she also describes as “apocalyptic” and “febrile.”

“Bannon’s War” is not without its frustrations, but a portion of that can’t be helped by Kirk or Wiser. Specifically former Breitbart staffer Bardella and former editor-at-large Ben Shapiro simultaneously lend crucial insight into Bannon’s thought process while taking stances that smack of disingenuousness.

Referring to his decision to quit Breitbart News in 2016 as did several other longtime staffers, Shapiro explains, “When a news outlet decides that it is more important to maintain close ties with a particular candidate or politician than it is to maintain the integrity of their journalists, that’s no longer a journalistic organization. It is a propaganda platform.”

This only makes sense if one views most of what Breitbart did before, including its friendly coverage of certain Republican politicians and lobbying organizations and vilification of minorities and civil rights organizations, as being something other than propaganda.

Nevertheless, Shapiro’s and Bardella’s insights and others help “Bannon’s War” explain why Bannon continues to wield influence in the White House and with Trump’s supporters and slice through reports that the chief strategist has fallen out of favor with Trump and could be on his way out of the White House.

Visuals from Trump’s journey to and from a rally in Pennsylvania, marking his first 100 days in office, indicate otherwise. “Bannon’s War” closes with these images, perhaps doubling as a warning. Alarming though that may be, Kirk’s decision to end the hour here signals that this story is far from over. Perversely it may also make a viewer anxious to see which political developments inspire the filmmaker’s next sobering work.

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Roger Moore wasn’t a good Bond, but he was my Bond

Roger Moore

Roger Moore (Credit: AP)

Not only did the man in the fancy getup on my TV have a sleek miniature plane that I instantly wanted, he flew it straight through an aircraft hanger and smirked as the heat-seeking missile chasing him blew it up with all his enemies inside. I was too young to understand who those enemies were or even fully comprehend the notion of death, but those were minor details.

In the next scene, the man parked his little plane at a gas station, asking the attendant to, “fill ‘er up, please,” as if it were nothing. To me, it was kind of everything.

News broke today that Sir Roger Moore, who portrayed that man on my TV screen across seven films and 12 years, died at the age of 89 after, “a short but brave battle with cancer,” as family members said in a statement. It didn’t come as much of a surprise to those who follow film news — certainly, many of the publications that ran obituaries this morning had them at the ready.

These tributes described Moore’s James Bond as “comic,” “playful,” “winking” and employ similar maybe less generous terms that pointed at the actor’s less-than-serious, less-than-intimidating take on the role. Underneath all these generally polite, loving tributes and reports, however, lies the now-uncomfortable, opinion that many of us have held for years: Moore just wasn’t a very “good” Bond.

Raffish, charming and, any way you cut it, entertaining, Moore stood atop an era that saw Bond evolve from the sharp, desirable killer Sean Connery helped create into an amiable, somewhat prettified comic character. The difference between his first, often grim Bond film, “Live and Let Die,” and his final, frankly bonkers outing, “A View to a Kill,” shows the transformation of Bond from a merciless clandestine operative to a genteel superhero in linen pants. He became a celebrity spy in a world profoundly sillier than that of Connery’s character (and Connery’s was pretty silly.)  

There was good reason for it. Grim, murderous determination was never the mannered, polite Moore’s strong suit. While a certain amount of anger always boiled under Connery’s Bond (even while he was offering a warm smirk or a devilish raised eyebrow), Moore often came across as peevish whenever he tried to channel the same rage.

Though not to the manner born (his father was a police officer and he attended state-supported schools), Moore performed Bond, and his entire life for that matter, with a certain gentlemanly aristocracy. Light touches and restrained, ironic humor were his forte. Rather than force him into the mold Connery left behind, his producers allowed him to tack the Bond franchise toward his strengths.

The results were, in their time, positive. Working with three directors (Guy Hamilton, Lewis Gilbert and John Glen) over seven films, Moore offered the approachable, lovable Bond that audiences of the 1970s and ’80s seemed to want. With the world swinging back and forth between harsh realities — Vietnam, financial crises, the enduring threat of nuclear war — it’s hard to condemn viewers for responding to an easy, breezy hero who had more high-tech toys than face-to-face kills, who seemed more a playboy tourist than a driven spy. This Bond, remember, had sex in space.

When we look back in hindsight, however, Moore’s Bond appears more cheesy than cutting, more campy than genuinely thrilling. Pages could be filled with Moore corniest antics, but perhaps this scene when Bond escapes pursuers in a hovercraft gondola, causing a bird to do a double take, is all we need.

Certainly this (often accidental) tendency toward self-parody deflates the legacy of the Moore years in the eyes of modern audiences. But it’s more than that. As the films went on, the actor’s inability to perform decent action sequences (or even a plausible fist fight) became obvious. Never an intimating or athletic figure, Moore soldiered on as Bond well into his late 50s, his diminishing physical prowess becoming more and more apparent. 

Age also played a large part in Moore’s dubious status as a sex symbol. Unquestionably a beautiful actor, Moore had the misfortune of starting the role at 45, an age when many men are considered past their sexual prime. This, coupled with the low, low ages of his romantic leads tended to point at either of two things: a lack of potency or predatory behavior. Sometimes, his affairs with women seemed laughable. Sometimes, they seemed awkwardly paternalistic. (Moore often recounted that he decided to retire from Bond roles when he discovered that the mother of his romantic partner in “A View to a Kill” was younger than he was.) Whatever the case, Moore’s version of Bond was simply not the sexual dynamo that Connery’s was.

After he left the role in 1986, Moore cast a shadow over the role almost as long as Connery’s. Each successive actor who stepped into the super spy’s shoes was hailed as a return to Bond’s roots, a necessary refresh of a character that had become a cartoon. It has taken three subsequent Bonds — the flinty Timothy Dalton, the professional Pierce Brosnan and the moody Daniel Craig — to make Bond dangerous and truly exciting again. Though there have been notable stumbles along the way, the Bond franchise is now healthier and more profitable than at any time in his cinematic history.

I know all this — and, yet, Moore is my Bond.

Just as he was for many of my fellow members of Generation X (and I would assume for many millennials as well), Moore was my first experience with the character. As I said, I first encountered the spy with the best toys in the opening moments of 1983’s “Octopussy” and then followed him through “View to a Kill” and his back catalog (1981’s “For Your Eyes Only” became a personal favorite).

This was all much to the consternation of my boomer parents, for whom Connery was the one and only.

What they and Moore’s latter-day detractors miss is this: All the weaknesses, all the faults in Moore’s Bond mentioned above are exactly what made his take on the character so approachable and digestible for people of my age and generation. Connery’s murderous cocksman was far too adult and far too moody for us.

The cheap, creaky thrills of “Moonraker” and “The Spy Who Loved Me” may disappoint the more discerning and advanced audiences of today who’ve grown up with 2002’s kinetic, technical “The Bourne Identity” or the mature sexuality that Daniel Craig displayed in 2006’s “Casino Royale.” But in our youth, I and many viewers like me needed the playful, relatively safe trickster that Moore offered. The death didn’t seem real. The sexual stakes — insofar as we understood them — were low. The dialogue was breezy and the toys were eye-catching. Through all this and more, Moore offered a loopy, only somewhat louche tour of the world of adult pleasures we had yet to imagine. For that, we needed a cartoon as our guide.

Though the producers behind the Bond franchise have honored Moore’s work at times, they’ve also spent over 30 years taking pains to separate themselves from it. Even when Brosnan para-surfed down the face of a tsunami, they cast themselves through repeated statements as providing a solid, action-packed grounding that would preserve the franchise’s future from the creeping obsolesce that Moore’s legacy seemed to entail. They should have been more thankful.

In Moore, producers had the perfect post-Connery placeholder, the perfect gateway Bond — a debonaire, fatal Mr. Rogers who would go on to collect hundreds of thousands of viewers too young to actually see his work in theaters and turn them into lifelong Bond fans. Perhaps even more so than Connery, Moore secured the super spy’s future and, for that, he’ll always be my Bond.

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This “Master of None” episode teaches a master class in empathy

Master of None

“Master of None” (Credit: Netflix)

I finally got around to watching the second season of Aziz Ansari’s Netflix original series “Master of None.” Ansari has a gift: He’s one of those guys who is funny just because. Not to take away from his writing or the work he puts into his routines, but the dude makes me laugh just by opening his mouth, and that’s what happened as I watched episode after episode after episode.

The show tackles racially awkward situations and explores the pitfalls of dating, art and social media, and you don’t have to have seen the first season to fully appreciate the new episodes. Many of the episodes throughout this season deliver a very important and very simple theme missing from many of today’s other hit shows — the importance of being considerate.

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There are examples all throughout the second season, but I’d like focus on episode 6, “New York, I Love You,” which also happens to be my favorite. It starts with Aziz’s character Dev, along with his two best friends Arnold and Denise, walking down the street discussing a new film. The trio crosses paths with a doorman, and the perspective instantly switches to his.

We viewers get to see how hard he works, how underappreciated he is, and the loads of racism piled on him daily by the residents of the building, all while he’s expected to be perfect at his job. The doorman has a brief exchange with a joyous co-worker, who walks out of the building and into a corner store, where there’s a cashier who is deaf and lost in her iPhone like the rest of us. Again, the theme of respecting another person’s individual journey comes in. The sound completely stops when the episode shifts to her perspective. (I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to check the volume on my TV.)

It’s brilliant — the lack of sound forces the viewer to pay attention and focus on her. You can’t check your phone while watching or you’ll miss the witty dialogue that “Master of None” has mastered (no pun intended). The cashier isn’t concerned about her hearing or stressing the fact that she’s deaf, like an after-school special might. She’s living her life. The young woman leaves work, meets a friend for coffee and gets into an argument with her over clothes, and then joins her boyfriend to do some shopping — and they fight privately (so they think) in public about their sex life.

The last New Yorker we meet is an African taxi driver and a few of his friends who also work as cabbies. Two white women who only talk about grain — like the rest of the white women in New York, according to the cab driver — get into his car and spoil the ending of a movie he wanted to see all week. “They act as if cab drivers don’t go to the movies,” he tells a friend. We get to see what his day is like, which was interesting to me as a person who jumps in dozens of cabs in New York throughout the month and doesn’t really say anything except “Hello,” “Right here is cool” and “Have a great day.” I’ve never had a relationship with a cab driver and felt embarrassed to be shocked at his American experience.

The camera follows him home where he lives with several friends and they prepare for a night out dancing, only to be shunned at club door by an overly judgmental bouncer, a gatekeeper in New York’s cheesy nightclub culture. After the rejection, the guys are quickly hustled by a shady promoter who preys on their ignorance, smelling that they had money and a lack of understanding of how the game works.

The episode ends on a happy note. I don’t want to spoil the ending like the women in the cab did; however, I do want to shed more light on the show’s theme and show how easy it is to lift your head up from your phone, acknowledge another person in public and just simply be nice.

I was headed home to Baltimore from New York the other day and saw family of three. They appeared to be Indian. I’m guessing it was a mom, a dad and their daughter who looked to be about “college age.” The mother and daughter were sitting down next to a Paul Ryan lookalike who had a life-size book bag in the empty seat next to him. The father stood. He probably wanted to sit next to his family. The train station was crowded and there weren’t many available seats, especially three in a row. The mother got up, placed a water bottle in her chair and went to look around for more seats as another guy with eyes locked on his phone’s screen slid into the woman’s seat and sat on her water bottle without asking if the seat was taken or not. The daughter looked frustrated but was maybe too shy to tell him the seat was already taken. Her parents walked back over, looked at him and remained silent.

“Aye, Slim,” I said. “You are sitting in their seat and blocking their water bottle.”

He popped up, apologized to me, looked the family up and down, apologized to me again and kept walking. The father turned his head in another direction as the mother grabbed her water bottle and reclaimed her chair. The daughter nodded and sent a thank-you wave in my direction.

I don’t think I’m a hero; I wasn’t looking for a parade in response. I’m just happy that I had the opportunity to be considerate to this set of strangers. If more of us did so, the world would be a better place. That was the message I received from “Master of None.” Great art inspires.

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“The rainbow flag is the new Confederate flag”: GOP group behind Target boycott compares gay rights to “slavery”

One of America’s loudest anti-LGBT hate groups is at it again.

The American Family Association, which led a boycott of Target after the big-box chain came out in support of trans equality in 2016, referred to LGBT rights as “slavery” in a blog post about a Kentucky court case. The case, which was decided in an appellate court earlier this month, determined whether a Christian t-shirt manufacturer discriminated against the Gay and Lesbian Services Organization (GSO), a Lexington-based LGBT group who was turned away by the shop. Blaine Adamson, the owner of Frankfort’s Hands On Originals, said that printing apparel for a local pride event would violate his religious beliefs.

The Kentucky Court of Appeals ruled in Adamson’s favor, finding a 2-1 decision that he had the right to refuse service to the organization based on his sincerely held religious beliefs. “The right of free speech does not guarantee to any person the right to use someone else’s property,” wrote Judge Joy Kramer. “The ‘conduct’ Hands On Originals chose not to promote was pure speech.”

Groups like Breitbart called the decision, which will likely be appealed, a victory in the battle over “religious liberty.” But the AFA took it much, much further: In a blog post, president Bryan Fischer compared LGBT rights groups to the Confederacy.

“For a man to be compelled under threat of punishment to perform work against his will is slavery,” said Fischer, who has claimed that homosexuals were behind the Holocaust. “The reality is that the LGBT lobby is the reincarnation of some of the worst elements of the mindless prejudice of the Old South in its irrational venom toward people (Christians) who are not like them. The rainbow flag is the new Confederate flag. It is as much a symbol of bigotry as that flag ever was in the minds of the left.

“Bottom line: In Frankfort, Kentucky, homosexual activists tried to reintroduce slavery to the Deep South,” he concluded. “They failed in the attempt.”

Fischer, who has also advocated that LGBT people be subjected to the death penalty, has a long history of using his organization to push false, incendiary propaganda. The AFA, which has been designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, has claimed that God will use the “pagan armies” of the Islamic State “to discipline the United States for our debauchery.” Fischer has also proposed building an “underground railroad” to take the children of same-sex couples away from their parents and has compared homosexuality to bestiality, incest, polygamy, and pedophilia.

But the most persistent myth pushed by the AFA is that the group felled the giants of pro-gay activism by chopping Target’s profits at the knees.

The group famously led a demonstration against the popular retailer last year after Target announced that it would allow transgender customers to use the restroom of their choice at the company’s 1,800 locations. That decision was made in the wake of North Carolina’s House Bill 2, the controversial 2016 law which forced trans people in the state to use restrooms that correspond with the sex they were assigned at birth. After more 1.5 million people signed an AFA petition claiming that they would take their business elsewhere, the anti-LGBT group took credit for Target’s stumbling stock prices.

The store has, indeed, fallen on hard times in the past year, but to claim that the AFA protest is the cause amounts to a generous helping of wishful thinking on the part of a fringe group that desperately wants to believe it’s relevant.

Target’s stocks have fallen 32 percent since announcing its trans-inclusive policy in April 2016, but the timing was largely incidental. Last year was an abysmal one for retailers across the United States. Referred to as the “Mall Meltdown,” stores like HHGregg, Sears, American Apparel, Wet Seal, Payless ShoeSource, BCBG, and Wet Seal filed for bankruptcy, unable to compete with the industry-shattering success of Amazon. Macy’s and J.C. Penney shuttered hundreds of stores as shopping increasingly moves to digital platforms.

For AFA to say that a crumbling business model is its handiwork would be like claiming to control the weather, and arguably, Target has fared a lot better than its competitors.

Anti-LGBT groups have continued to take aim at Target in order to reverse engineer a teachable moment, even despite the obviousness of their fallacious thinking. After the store recently unveiled its Pride month apparel, Peter Sprigg, senior fellow for policy studies with the right-wing Family Research Council, said in a statement, “I would think Target would have learned their lesson about participating in aggressive LGBT activism from the backlash they received from their open bathroom policy last year.”

But a bunch of hullabaloo over some rainbow displays hasn’t hurt Target. The business, which has been investing greater resources in online shopping, has rebounded this year, outpacing analyst expectations. Target has announced that it will spend $7 billion in the next three years to revamp its stores and stay afloat in the digital economy.

If the AFA is founded on lies and hate, the reality is that the Target boycott has never been all that effective. When Faith2Action, a right-wing group located in Washington D.C., announced a nationwide protest of the trans-inclusive policy in May 2016, the organization hoped to “bankrupt the bullies at Target.” The turnout was unimpressive, to say the least. Only a handful of store locations had people show up at all, and you could count the number of attendees on your hands and feet. At a demonstration in Lubbock, TX, not a single person was in attendance, leading the local radio station to call the protest a “bust.”

Even the AFA’s much lauded petition has likely been inflated. ThinkProgress pointed out that signees can attach their name to the boycott multiple times, meaning that highly motivated bigots could account for hundreds of tallies.

Fischer and his cohorts might get to claim temporary victory over the “slavedrivers” of the liberal left in the Kentucky court case, but there’s a reason that the AFA is so excited about this win: The culture war has slipped through their Bible-stained fingers. After calling for a boycott of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” over its inclusion of a gay character, the film has managed to make nearly $500 million in the United States.The live-action remake has hauled in $1.2 billion globally. Like all their efforts, the protest was sound and bigotry, signifying nothing.

Fischer and the AFA can keep their Christian t-shirts. They’ll need them to wipe up their tears.

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At least 19 fatalities confirmed at Ariana Grande concert explosion in U.K.

Ariana Grande

(Photo by Scott Roth/Invision/AP, File) (Credit: Scott Roth/invision/AP)

Fans of pop star Ariana Grande ran screaming to the exits after an explosion went off inside a concert held in Manchester, England.

The Greater Manchester Police Department confirmed via its official Twitter account that at least 19 fatalities had been observed on the scene. Police officials urged area residents to stay away from the Manchester Arena, the site of the explosion.

Several armed police officers were filmed patrolling the area around the stadium facility.

According to one concertgoer who was interviewed afterward, event staffers originally told attendees that the explosive sound was a balloon:

Multiple British news sources have reported that the explosion happened outside of the venue. Police also engaged in a controlled explosion of what looked like a suspicious package but was actually some abandoned clothing.

(This is a breaking story and has been updated several times.)

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Why the “Conceptual Penis” hoax was a bust: It only reveals the lack of skepticism among skeptics

Young Boy Yells At Another

(Credit: Getty/Andrew Rich)

Have you ever witnessed a prank gone wrong? If not, here you go: This is precisely what happened when a philosopher and mathematician, Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay, respectively, published an intentionally incoherent fake paper titled “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct” in a journal called Cogent Social Sciences.

In an article simultaneously published in the magazine Skeptic, this project was loudly advertised as a “hoax on gender studies.” It primarily aimed to expose what the authors presume to be the nonsensical absurdity of gender studies, an interdisciplinary field that attempts to understand gender identity and how these identities play out in society.

Yet Boghossian and Lindsay’s prank article unambiguously failed to do this and ultimately may have harmed the skeptic community. First, the open-access journal that published their article requests that authors pay to publish. In the case of Cogent Social Sciences, the recommended fee is a whopping $1,350. I have affirmed that Boghossian and Lindsay were, for unknown reasons, asked to pay less than half of this, namely $625, but the journal apparently never got around to actually requesting the money — leading Boghossian to repeatedly declare on social media that he and his colleague were paid “nada” for the article, which taken out of context is patently misleading.

It is, of course, in the pecuniary interest of pay-to-publish journals to accept papers regardless of quality. In fact terrible articles that should have never passed peer review are published in these journals all the time. Case in point: a 2009 fake scientific article written using nonsense-generating software ended up in the pay-to-publish, open-access, peer-reviewed publication called the Open Information Science Journal. One of the co-authors said he was curious whether the publisher would “accept a completely nonsensical manuscript if the authors were willing to pay” — and pay he (almost) did, to the tune of $800.

In another experiment, John Bohannon of Science magazine submitted 304 versions of a fake scientific paper to open-access journals, including some associated with highly respectable publishing companies. He used a fake name attached to a fake institution and managed to get the paper, which had flaws that anyone with a high-school diploma should have been able to detect, accepted to more than half the journals. In Bohannon’s words:

Acceptance was the norm, not the exception. The paper was accepted by journals hosted by industry titans Sage and Elsevier. The paper was accepted by journals published by prestigious academic institutions such as Kobe University in Japan. It was accepted by scholarly society journals. It was even accepted by journals for which the paper’s topic was utterly inappropriate, such as the Journal of Experimental & Clinical Assisted Reproduction.

This reveals just how problematic the pay-to-publish model can be, even tainting the peer-review process — which in the best of circumstances can be flawed. But the fact that Bohannon got the phony paper published is not an indictment of science itself. Why would it be? To show that the intellectual values of a field are fundamentally flawed, one would need to publish in the best journals of that field and trick genuine experts into believing the hoax is a non-hoax. That was what mathematician and physicist Alan Sokal did in the notorious “Sokal affair,” which attempted to unveil the obscurantist vacuity of some postmodern theory.

Still, even Sokal himself was rather nuanced about the implications of his experiment, saying, “From the mere fact of publication of my parody I think that not much can be deduced. It doesn’t prove that the whole field of cultural studies, or cultural studies of science — much less sociology of science — is nonsense. Nor does it prove that the intellectual standards in these fields are generally lax.”

Boghossian and Lindsay are sadly not so nuanced in their claims. Instead, they take their hoax article to expose the entire field of gender studies as an intellectual scam. So, too, does the public intellectual Michael Shermer, the editor in chief of Skeptic. In a rather un-skeptical foreword to Boghossian and Lindsay’s article — subtitled “a Sokal-style hoax on gender studies” — Shermer wrote:

Every once in awhile it is necessary and desirable to expose extreme ideologies for what they are by carrying out their arguments and rhetoric to their logical and absurd conclusion, which is why we are proud to publish this expose [sic] of a hoaxed article published in a peer-reviewed article today.

There was no mention of the quality of the journal or the fact that it was a pay-to-publish one. Indeed, there was no mention of the politics of publishing at all in this foreword. Here, the hoax was entirely pitched as an unveiling of the “extreme ideologies” of gender studies. Elsewhere Boghossian and Lindsay appeared to be vaguely aware that their hoax isn’t really about gender studies at all, as when Lindsay wrote:

When [a more reputable journal] rejected the paper and offered to transfer it to Cogent, we realized that there was a two-pronged opportunity here. One is to test gender studies and related fields, as indicated, and the other is to expose the problem of pay-to-publish open-access journals, which are in part largely motivated (unlike mere vanity journals) to exploit an enormous problem in the academic world at the moment: publish-or-perish atmospheres in academic departments, especially for tenure consideration. We fully realize that going with a journal like Cogent increased our probability of publication and thus muddied the waters on our point against gender studies, but to expose two problems at once . . . was too good to pass up.

Lindsay comes oh-so-close to the epiphany needed to see the fatal flaw in his and his colleague’s project: These two “prongs” aren’t merely in tension; they are inversely correlated. Publishing in Cogent doesn’t merely muddy the waters on their point against gender studies; it completely vitiates it. Cogent isn’t even about gender studies. Not a single “senior editor” of the journal has an academic background in the field. Rather, their expertise lies in (I kid you not) tourism, criminology, development planning, geography, sport management and communication sciences.

The most crucial point, therefore, is this: Submitting an article on gender studies to that particular journal and then claiming that its publication proves that gender studies is idiotic is tantamount to a creationist writing a fake article about evolutionary biology, publishing it in an unknown pay-to-publish non-biology journal (whose editorial board includes no one with expertise in evolutionary biology), and then exclaiming, “See! The entire field of evolutionary biology is complete nonsense.” This is puerile gotcha-ism that completely misses the target while simultaneously making, in the case of Boghossian and Lindsay, the skeptic community look like gullible, anti-intellectual fools.

All that being said, Boghossian and Lindsay do accomplish something notable, although not original: They show just how easy it is to get a fake paper published in a pay-to-publish journal. This is not a trivial point, although they could have saved many hours of work by randomly generating an article, as the authors above did for the Open Information Science Journal. Or they could have intentionally plagiarized an article and then submitted it. But Boghossian and Lindsay would never have done this because their real ideologically motivated target was gender studies.

But the situation is actually much worse than that: Boghossian and Lindsay likely did damage to the cultural movements that they have helped to build, namely “new atheism” and the skeptic community. As far as I can tell, neither of them knows much about gender studies, despite their confident and even haughty claims about the deep theoretical flaws of that discipline. As a skeptic myself, I am cautious about the constellation of cognitive biases to which our evolved brains are perpetually susceptible, including motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, disconfirmation bias, overconfidence and belief perseverance. That is partly why, as a general rule, if one wants to criticize a topic X, one should at the very least know enough about X to convince true experts in the relevant field that one is competent about X. This gets at what Brian Caplan calls the “ideological Turing test.” If you can’t pass this test, there’s a good chance you don’t know enough about the topic to offer a serious, one might even say cogent, critique.

Boghossian and Lindsay pretty clearly don’t pass that test. Their main claim to relevant knowledge in gender studies seems to be citations from Wikipedia and mockingly retweeting abstracts that they, as non-experts, find funny — which is rather like Sarah Palin’s mocking of scientists for studying fruit flies or claiming that Obamacare would entail “death panels.” This kind of unscholarly engagement has rather predictably led to a sizable backlash from serious scholars on social media who have noted that the skeptic community can sometimes be anything but skeptical about its own ignorance and ideological commitments.

As the historian Angus Johnston put it on Twitter, “If skepticism means anything it means skepticism about the things you WANT to be true. It’s easy to be a skeptic about others’ views.” The quick, almost reflexive reposting of this “hoax” by people like Dave Rubin, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, Christina Hoff Sommers and Melissa Chen reveals a marked lack of critical thinking about what exactly this exercise in attempted bullying proves.

If anything, the hoax reveals not the ideological dogmas of gender studies but the motivating prejudices of the authors and their mostly white, mostly male supporters against social justice — a term that simply refers to the realization of fairness and just relations among citizens of a society. This is part of a larger reaction witnessed across American culture in the past few years: a pushback against women’s rights, gender equality, racial equality and a sensitivity to the plights of marginalized peoples. It’s what got Donald Trump elected as president, and it’s what fuels the alt-right. (Notably, Breitbart News praised Boghossian and Lindsay’s hoax in a recent article.) If the authors — and the good folks at Skeptic — had thought a bit more carefully about this ruse, they might have realized that this faux paper’s publication says no more about gender studies than computer-generated papers published in scientific journals say about science.

Yet the urge to label the hoax a victory against gender studies was uncontrollable. This only reflects poorly on the intellectual honesty and thoughtfulness of those “in” on the joke — although it appears that, in the end, the joke may have been on them.

So where do we go from here? There is a way out: The authors could acknowledge that their hoax implies absolutely nothing about gender studies. It merely demonstrates that pay-to-publish journals will accept low-quality articles — a point that, as previously implied, is boringly unoriginal. Changing their views in response to facts like those mentioned above would be the ultimate confirmation of the values of skepticism, reason and epistemic humility.

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White supremacy is deadly: When will we start taking this rhetoric seriously?

Richard Collins III

Richard Collins III, Left (Credit: Facebook/Richard Collins III)

We should’ve stopped taking the poison of the white nationalist movement — the hate speech, the racist rallies — as a joke immediately. The current climate should have sparked a national emergency instead.

Wasn’t Dylan Roof, with his cowardly 2015 massacre of nine church members who invited him in to pray, enough? That crime was followed by the case in March of James Harris Jackson, who police say confessed to killing Timothy Caughman, a homeless black man with a reputation for helping people. Caughman didn’t even know that he was under attack until a knife was in him. Jackson has been charged with terrorism and second-degree murder as a hate crime.

As the media breaks its neck to paint hate crimes as the actions of troubled individuals, rather than as symptoms of the many problems in society that create, justify and co-sign these crimes, law enforcement gets away with not investigating or taking meaningful action against the many disgusting, hate-filled Facebook groups and online publications like the National Policy Institute and the Council of Conservative Citizens, the website that originally radicalized Roof. The leaders of white supremacist organizations may not be perpetrating hate crimes themselves; I believe, however, that Roof’s multiple murders, as well as other hate crimes, are a reflection of the culture and rhetoric being circulated. And as a result of our inaction, we have lost another life.

Around 3 a.m. on Saturday morning, Richard Collins III, 23, was leaving a party with some friends. While waiting for an Uber ride on the University of Maryland campus, the group was approached by Sean Christopher Urbanski, 22, according to reports. He walked toward the group and addressed Collins. “Step left, step left if you know what’s best for you,” he said.

Collins didn’t step left and was stabbed in the chest area. Collins’ friends and the Uber driver called for an ambulance but it was too late. Collins died shortly afterward.

Surveillance cameras captured footage, and witnesses have said Urbanski appeared to be intoxicated. Urbanski has been charged with first-degree murder, and authorities are investigating whether to charge him with a hate crime. As The Washington Post reported, according to campus police, Urbanski was was a member of a white supremacist Facebook group called “Alt-Reich Nation.”

Collins, on the other hand, was a second lieutenant in the Army. A senior at Bowie State University, he was set to graduate on Tuesday with a degree in business administration. But an act of violence that may have roots in the hate that is constantly ignored or downplayed by law enforcement denied him that opportunity and his family the chance to witness it.

When will we start treating white supremacy seriously and investigating these groups like the gangs they are? Is that even possible now that we have a president who surrounds himself with people like Steve Bannon, who has profited off providing a hospitable environment for white nationalist rhetoric? Today I wonder where all of the right-wing I-love-the-troops voices are — to speak up for Collins and his family. I’m not seeing much conservative commentary on his tragic incident, and I’m sure that his family could use the support.

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Growing up is hard to do: “Goth” is the Mountain Goats’ new album

The Mountain Goats

The Mountain Goats (Credit: The Mountain Goats)

It’s tricky writing songs about other bands. They Might Be Giants wrote a goofy B-side about the Replacements that works because it’s so funny. The Dead Milkmen beat them — and pretty much everybody else — with their 1988 song “Bad Party” with their not so subtle trashing of Gene Loves Jezebel. (“I can’t stand Gene Loves Jezebel/ If there’s a God in heaven/ I’m sure that band will burn in hell/ I’m gonna shoot somebody/ if they don’t stop talking about ‘East Enders’”)

If that tickled your funny bone, the Mountain Goats, on their upcoming 2017 album “Goths,” might stir a couple of guilty tears from you with their own Gene Loves Jezebel reference in album closer “Abandoned Flesh.” (“The world forgot about Gene Loves Jezebel/ When the singer went solo/ he left money on the table/ The two main guys are related/ They’re at war with each other/ Now there’s two Genes loving Jezebel”)  

The album, “Goths,” is hardly a nostalgic trip. Lead singer John Darnielle, ever the pessimist, takes a look at the ‘80s goth subculture, but rather then reliving his carefree childhood days of contrived misery and black makeup, he plays a sort of “where are they now?” with his idols of yesteryear and goth peers. For the most part, he speculates they’re in a dull and disappointing place.

On song “Andrew Eldritch is Moving Back to Leeds” he imagines the Sisters of Mercy frontman reluctantly moving back to Leeds where he’s greeted by old friends who’ve long given up on rock ‘n’ roll and any dreams they had for getting out of town. Everyone in fact has moved on, and are completely indifferent to whatever level of fame Eldritch may have scored decades earlier. (“They don’t throw him a parade/ He just comes in on the train/ One suitcase in his hand/ And an old army backpack”) Whether this is based in fact — I have no idea — is irrelevant. It’s feels plausible, and that’s the point.

Musically, the songs don’t sound goth. It’s an oddly mellow record, leaning heavily on outdated ‘80s keyboard sounds, and the occasional sprinkling of flutes and horns. It falls somewhere between a jazzy infomercial soundtrack, and the tripped-out score for a dream sequence for a low-budget ‘80s science fiction film. This was a wise choice for Darnielle. The record would have never worked if it sounded goth, as it is about all the goths that grew up and became adults doing boring adult things. You have to have some saxes if you want to convey boring adulthood.

When the album was first announced, the band made three statements about its sound. No comped vocals. No pitch correction. No guitars. Those first two seem like jokes. When has the Mountain Goats, famous for its tattered, unhinged anti-folk sound ever used pitch correction? But no guitars? That’s a change for the group. It takes some adjustment on the ears, but you find yourself warming up to it after a while. In the press release, Darnielle said working on the piano brought out his McCartneyisms in his songwriting. It also dulled some of his edge. That may or may not be a good thing.

The goth subculture that holds the album’s focus makes sense. Darnielle and company, morose as they are, seem like goth kids grown up. But just from a symbolic point of view, it’s hard to imagine a youth subculture more incompatible with adulthood than goths. It’s an album about the sad reality that for most of us, our childhood dreams are just fantasies. What better imagery to convey this than someone who is goth no more? (“However big that chorused bass may throb/ you and me, and all of us/ are going to have to find a job”)

This isn’t the darkest record Darnielle has ever written. He’s written about a couple that is perpetually on the verge of breaking up, a group of meth heads that are likely dead or in prison, and about his abusive stepfather. These are brilliant Mountain Goats, but oddly there’s something more universally sad about “Goths.” Most of us probably weren’t goths, but we’ve all experienced the bitter disappointment of growing up and having to face the harsh reality that adult life isn’t what we imagined it would be.

It’s not clear just how much fame the characters in most of the songs had, only that it’s now gone, and they’re having a hard letting go. (“I don’t belong here/ Nobody wants to hear the twelve-bar blues/ from a guy in platform shoes”). It even doesn’t matter if the characters never made it. Everyone is subject to the same melancholy. You don’t matter, at least like you hoped you would. And that is at the heart of the album. The best you can hope for is to be Gene Loves Jezebel. Maybe nobody cares about them. But they did at one point — even if that means crazy punk bands make fun of you while you’re at your modest peak.

When you finish the record, it’s hard to feel good about life. Even as Darnielle attempts to shine some light on it with the closing line, it’s still just so sad: “The world will never know or understand, the suffocated splendor of the once and future goth band.”

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Anti-LGBT Republicans are blackmailing Texas into passing discriminatory bathroom law

Dan Patrick

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (Credit: AP/Eric Gay)

Dan Patrick has a warning for the Texas legislature: Pass a bathroom bill or else.

The lieutenant governor is upset that the state has yet to sign a bill into law that would prevent transgender people from using public restrooms that correspond with their gender identity. Patrick considered the passage of an anti-LGBT bill to be a top priority for this year’s legislative session, but after months of stalled efforts, time is winding down. The legislature wraps on May 31 and will not meet again until 2019. To pressure Republican legislators into beating the deadline, Patrick has threatened to call a “special session” of the legislature “again and again and again” until a bathroom bill passes.

“I want to avoid a special session, but I’m prepared to go into one,” said Patrick, who added, “Voters expected me to be bold to move this legislation forward.”

The ultimatum may have paid off: To avoid going into overtime, the Texas House passed a set of watered-down bathroom policies on Sunday. The legislation, which was attached as a rider to a completely unrelated bill, would force trans students in public schools to use facilities that align with their “biological sex.” It allows these students the option of using a single-occupancy restroom or changing area instead, but advocates warn that this so-called “compromise” singles out trans youth among their peers by marking them as “different.”

State Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston) compared the law to “separate but equal” segregation under Jim Crow. “Bathrooms divided us then, and it divides us now,” Thompson said on the House floor.

Senate Bill 2078, which was originally intended to be about “multihazard emergency operations plans,” is just the latest attempt to make Texas the next North Carolina. SB 6, another anti-LGBT bill floating the General Assembly, requires that bathroom usage in public schools and buildings operated by the state be determined by the gender listed on one’s birth certificate. This means that if a transgender woman has yet to update her documents, she would be unable to use the women’s bathroom in government buildings, libraries, or public parks.

What’s notable, though, is that SB 2078 is the first of these bills to pass the House. House Speaker Joe Straus repeatedly refused to support HB 2-style legislation, claiming that such a bill is “manufactured and unnecessary” and would harm the state’s economy. The Texas Association of Business warned that signing into law SB 6 — which is one of a number of bathroom bills floating around the legislature — could lead to billions in lost revenue for local companies.

Straus, who approved SB 2078, said that the bill will prevent “the severely negative impact” of previous bills by permitting “schools to continue to handle sensitive issues as they have been handling them.” That is far from the case: The bill would take the issue completely out of administrators’ hands by override pro-LGBT policies passed in local school districts. If a school allows its trans student population to use bathrooms that most closely correspond with their gender identity, those children would be sent back to the wrong restroom.

Given Straus’ support, SB 2078 looks like a sure thing. But even if it fails to become law, Patrick has a nuclear option at his disposal to strongarm the General Assembly into passing another bill just like it.

Only Gov. Greg Abbott has the ability to call a special session, but every year the General Assembly has to reauthorize what’s known as a “sunset safety net bill” to keep important agencies operating. As the Dallas Morning News reports, that includes the “Department of Transportation and boards that license doctors and mental health therapists.” If that bill doesn’t pass before the legislative session ends, it could cause a major shutdown of those services. The legislature would, thus, have no choice but to meet in the special session that Patrick has threatened to use to force a vote on bathroom restrictions.

Abbott has not stated whether he would support a subsequent session to pass an anti-LGBT bill.

LGBT advocates have lambasted Patrick’s actions, referring to his blackmail effort as a “temper tantrum” that would ultimately do massive harm to the state in pursuit of an extreme right-wing agenda. Deanne Cuellar, the ‎Special Projects & Communications Director for Equality Texas, said in a statement that being “transgender in Texas is hard enough without having to face public threats” from the governor’s office. Marty Rouse, National Field Director for the Human Rights Campaign, called the situation “disturbing.”

“Lawmakers should focus on the real issues, and stop using LGBTQ people as pawns to win cheap political points,” Rouse said in an email. “Politicians should focus on jobs and education, not bathrooms and discrimination.”

A legislative cabal to push through an anti-LGBT law is an echo of the passage of HB 2 one year ago. Former North Carolina governor Pat McCrory called a special session of the General Assembly last March after the Charlotte City Council passed a transgender-inclusive ordinance. That policy, which was similar to those passed in more than 200 other cities, allowed for equal access for trans people in all public accommodations; that included housing and the workplace, in addition to bathrooms. HB 2 — which struck down Charlotte’s pro-LGBT ordinance — was introduced, debated, and signed into law all within a single day.

Although McCrory was removed from office in the 2016 election due to voter backlash against the law, HB 2 effectively remains in place. The bill was repealed and replaced with a new version in March, one that retains many of the worst aspects of the prior bill.

Should the lieutenant governor use his political muscle to force through an anti-trans bathroom law, Jenny Pizer of Lambda Legal has a warning for Texas Republicans: LGBT advocates will sue. After the passage of HB 2, groups like Lambda and the American Civil Liberties Union spent a year fighting the bill in court, and those optics have had a powerful impact on North Carolina. With major companies like PayPal and Deutsche Bank pulling out of the Tar Heel State in response, analysts estimate that the backlash cost North Carolina around $80 million a month.

“If Patrick succeeds in forcing discrimination into Texas law, you can bet that Lambda Legal will be on the case before the ink is dry,” said Pizer, the LGBT organization’s Policy Director. “This targeting of LGBT people isn’t just misguided. It’s mean and profoundly harmful.”

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