Stop these Caitlyn Jenner rumors: Spreading gossip on transgender people’s struggles endangers lives

Caitlyn Jenner

Caitlyn Jenner (Credit: Reuters/Carlo Allegri)

As a Kardashian, Caitlyn Jenner must be used to tabloid rumors by now. A report that began circulating over the weekend, however, upped the ante on Internet gossip: Writer Ian Halperin claimed that the former Olympian, who came out as transgender in an interview with Diane Sawyer last year, is experiencing “sex change regret.”

Halperin, author of “Kardashian Dynasty: The Controversial Rise of America’s Royal Family,” an unauthorized biography on the reality TV clan, told The Wrap that transitioning has “been very hard” for Jenner. Halperin continued, “She’s thrilled she has raised awareness about how transgender people have long been discriminated against but I think there’s a chance she’ll de-transition in the next couple years.” That claim, which was based on “whispers,” would trickle its way onto the Washington Post, Fox News, CBS News, and even the New York Times. As a kicker, there’s now a story on a site called Report Quickly, which bills itself as “a combination of real shocking news and satire news”—with no visible differentiation between the two—that claims she was getting her “man parts back.” 

The “detransitioning” claims were quickly debunked by Jenner’s rep, who told the New York Daily News: “Not worth commenting on such an idiotic report. Of course it’s not true.” Her friend, New York Times writer Jennifer Finney Boylan, further responded in an op-ed for The Advocate. “[R]egret over coming out?” Boylan wrote. “Not a chance. If there’s one constant in Caitlyn’s life since last spring, it’s been a sense of joy at having finally found the courage to be herself.” As Boylan explained, Halperin never actually met with Caitlyn Jenner to confirm the accusations before speaking to The Wrap, nor did the publication reach out to Jenner’s camp about it.

There are some who would suggest that by aligning herself with the most ubiquitous reality TV dynasty in the history of the medium, Jenner asked for this. But Jenner, contrary to popular belief, isn’t “just another tabloid figure.” No matter what you personally think about her, Jenner’s public transition and how we report on it matters greatly to the vast community she represents. Statistics show that the overwhelmingly vast majority of those who do transition lead healthier, happier lives because of it, but others may choose to reverse the process. While detransitioning is exceedingly uncommon, the media fascination doesn’t help those who may be struggling with their transition—for any number of valid reasons. What we need is a culture that supports transgender people, not one that spreads shameful gossip to tear them down.

For those unfamiliar with the subject, you might be wondering how many trans folks actually “detransition.” While people like Caitlyn Jenner have increased the visibility of transgender people in the media, the trans community remains a population that’s vastly under-researched in academic circles. That means hard numbers on the subject are difficult to come by, but as the research that does exist suggests, the rate of postoperative “surgical regret” is extremely low. “Virtually every modern study puts it below 4 percent, and most estimate it to be between 1 and 2 percent,” the Huffington Post’s Brynn Tannehill reports. This is much lower than a 2014 poll from The British Association of Aesthetic and Plastic Surgeons showing that two-thirds of all cosmetic surgery patients regretted going under the knife.

Nonetheless, stories on trans people choosing to “detransition” are vastly overreported by the press. After coming out as transgender, Walt Heyer would change his driver’s license, birth certificate, and legal documents before realizing that womanhood was not right for him. Heyer has since spent his career using his isolated experience as confirmation that being transgender is a fraud and transitioning simply doesn’t work, reporting on the small number of cases that confirm his bias. In an interview with CNN last year, the author compared Jenner’s coming out to a night of heavy drinking. “It’s sort of like, you know, going down to the bar and you’re having a good time and you drink it up good and then, you know, you wake up with a hangover,” Meyer claimed.

In a personal essay, he further attacks the notion that being transgender is a valid identity. “Changing genders is short-term gain with long-term pain,” he writes. “Its consequences include early mortality, regret, mental illness, and suicide.” Heyer is correct that there is an “alarmingly” high rate of suicide among transgender people: As USA Today reports, 41 percent will attempt to take their own life. In 2014, a trans high school student, 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn, reminded the public of these grave realities. “The life I would’ve lived isn’t worth living… because I’m transgender,” she wrote in a Tumblr post. What Heyer doesn’t understand, however, is that these tragic incidents have little to do with “sex-change regret” or whether being transgender is the right decision. It’s about the lack of social and medical support people like Leelah Alcorn too often face.

More simply put, it’s not being transgender that’s the problem—it’s how society continues to treat trans people. According to statistics from UCLA’s Williams Institute, 90 percent of transgender folks have been harassed in the workplace. Currently, you can still be fired in 32 states for being trans, and the fear of being let go because of your gender identity is not a passive one. A separate report from the Center for American Progress indicates that 26 percent of trans people have been terminated due to their trans status. Facing the specter of joblessness, many transgender people may choose not to disclose their identity in the office.

Without federal workplace protections for trans people, the rate of poverty, unemployment, and displacement in the trans community is incredibly high, particularly among people of color. According to the Human Rights Campaign, transgender people are disproportionately likely to be jobless: In 2013, 14 percent of trans people reported lacking stable income, as compared to seven percent of the general population. A 2015 report from the Movement Advancement Project and Center for American Progress also indicated that transgender people were four times more likely than their cisgender (or non-trans) counterparts to make less than $10,000 a year (which, for reference, comes out to under $27 a day). Further studies indicate that 1 in 5 homeless people are trans.

Even though celebrities like actress Laverne Cox, punk singer Laura Jane Grace, and author Janet Mock have helped start a national conversation on trans identities, there’s still so much work that needs to be done. Transgender people face an extraordinarily high rate of violence in their daily lives, with a record number of trans women murdered in 2015; that rate hasn’t slowed down this year. Other trans folks may lack acceptance from friends, relatives, and family members or struggle to find gender-affirming care from medical providers. Although Medicare changed its policy on funding transition-related surgery in 2014, Mississippi passed a law in April making it legal for doctors to refuse transgender people treatment, should they cite religious objections.

In a cultural climate that remains hostile to trans people, it’s completely understandable that any person might have difficulty coming out, even someone as rich and powerful as Caitlyn Jenner. Jennifer Finney Boylan explains that Jenner’s transition has been hard. But the things that have made the process the hardest are the things that make transitioning stressful for just about everyone: “the abandonment by friends, uncertainty about the future, [and] the fear that she might make the life of her family more difficult.” Since the Diane Sawyer interview, numerous reports have suggested that Jenner is now estranged from various members of her famous clan. “Sex change regret” might not be common, but these kinds of family tensions absolutely are.

Sure, some might choose to detransition, but many may make the decision to begin the process again when the time is right. This shouldn’t be taken as a sign that transgender people are fickle flip-floppers or that a trans woman might wake up one day and realize, “Oh gee, I guess I really am a man after all.” That’s not really how it works. Instead, what we need to be focusing on is combating the pervasive transphobia that forces people back into the closet. This is the exact same fear that makes some feel as though being affirmed as the fullest version of themselves isn’t a realistic possibility. We need to recognize that detransitioning is the symptom, not the cause.

In her farewell note, Leelah Alcorn called upon all of us to “fix society” and make it better for transgender people everywhere. It’s time to listen.

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The yelling and fighting at Saturday’s Democratic convention was reminiscent of a Trump rally

DEM 2016-NEVADA

Thousands of people gather at the Paris casino in Las Vegas for the Nevada State Democratic Convention on Saturday, May 14, 2016. They are picking delegates to send to the national convention in July. (AP Photo/Michelle Rindels) (Credit: AP)

Nevada’s Democratic convention included a fight, pleads for recounts and a lot of boos — and this was not a Donald Trump rally. The atmosphere got tense as Sanders supporters were outraged that Bernie did not win the most delegates.

Watch our video for all the sights and sounds from Las Vegas.

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Donald Trump is not an LGBT-friendly candidate: His presidency would be a disaster for human rights

Donald Trump

Donald Trump (Credit: AP/Carlos Osorio)

Donald Trump has an answer to the right-wing debate over where transgender people should be able to go pee: Leave it up to the states to decide.

The billionaire CEO, who is currently the last man standing in the GOP presidential race, told ABC that trans equality is a “states’ rights issue.” In a Friday interview, Trump was asked about a pending statement from the Obama administration that will urge schools and universities to allow trans students to use the facilities that most closely correspond with their gender identity. The federal government will reportedly outline this stance in a 25-page document that, according to the New York Times, will be sent directly to public school administrators. Trump responded that he doesn’t believe top-down action on the issue is required. “Well, I believe it should be states’ rights, and I think the state should make the decision,” he said.

Donald Trump has long been applauded for a relative centrist stance on trans issues, especially in contrast to the other Republicans who, until recently, were running against him. Sen. Ted Cruz has long been an outspoken opponent of LGBT rights. During his presidential campaign, Cruz came out swinging against the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision on marriage equality, which made same-sex unions legal in all 50 states, and said he would not endorse it, calling the ruling “disastrous,” “tragic,” and “fundamentally illegitimate.” Cruz has taken issue with gay pride parades and has said that providing affirming bathroom access for trans people “opens the door for predators,” even though numerous research studies have proven that assertion to be a myth.

Trump’s recent statement, however, shows that he’s no LGBT rights hero, either, and he needs to stop being patted on the back for being slightly less terrible than other Republicans on the issue. In truth, there’s absolutely nothing moderate about his so-called support for the trans community, which he has already walked back once. By supporting the forced deportation of millions of undocumented workers across the U.S., his policies will also affect trans immigrants, many of which are already vulnerable to mistreatment. His presidency would be bad for queer Latinos, queer Muslims, and every other marginalized community in the United States. Whether you’re a person of color or literally anyone else who isn’t a wealthy, loud-mouthed businessman, Donald Trump is not your friend.

Trump’s Friday statement would be a huge step backwards from his earlier condemnation of legislation like House Bill 2 if he hadn’t already taken a step back. On March 23, North Carolina pushed through legislation that forces its trans residents to use the bathroom that corresponds with the sex they were assigned at birth, not their gender identity. During an April town hall event on NBC’s “Today” show, Trump argued that HB 2 is simply unnecessary. “There have been very few complaints the way it is,” he said. “People go. They use the bathroom that they feel is appropriate. There has been so little trouble.” He was right: There’s never been a single reported case of a trans person harming someone else in a public restroom.

In response, Ted Cruz quickly lashed out at Trump for his stance on the issue, saying that his opinions make him “no different from politically correct leftist elites.” Cruz continued, “Today, he joined them in calling for grown men to be allowed to use little girls’ public restrooms. As the dad of young daughters, I dread what this will mean for our daughters—and for our sisters and our wives. It is a reckless policy that will endanger our loved ones.” Trump, rather than standing his ground, would take a different tack—later the very same day. In an interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity, Trump said: “I think that local communities and states should make the decision. And I feel very strongly about that. The federal government should not be involved.”

His Friday statement is, more or less, the same argument spiced up with a bit of old-school racism. The phrase “states’ rights” is an oft-employed code word used in defense of racist policies; it was, in particular, a favorite term of Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Davis claimed that the issue of slavery should be decided by individual states, not through federal government interference, such as in a February 1860 resolution presented to the Senate. It argued that the “union of these States rests on the equality of rights and privileges among its members.” The states’ rights argument has since been used to oppose marriage equality (including in a pre-emptive Senate bill introduced by Ted Cruz in February 2015, in anticipation of the SCOTUS ruling) and also trotted out by Cruz during a March GOP debate when asked about same-sex adoptions.

Donald Trump isn’t just engaging in dog-whistle politics. The CEO is also illustrating the fact that he’s not nearly as liberal on LGBT issues as he is often credited to be. Last year, MSNBC’s Emma Margolin called Trump “the most LGBT-friendly Republican running for president.” Back in 2000, the candidate notably supported nondiscrimination protections for LGBT workers, even if it meant updating federal policy on the issue. “[A]mending the Civil Rights Act would grant the same protection to gay people that we give to other Americans—it’s only fair,” he told The Advocate. Even today, that’s a sadly progressive stance: Currently, just 19 states—as well as Washington D.C.—have laws on the books that prevent workers from being fired on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

His support of workplace protections, however, masks the fact that a Trump presidency would be a disaster for LGBT people. Although Donald Trump claimed in 2013 that he was “evolving” on the issue of marriage equality—like President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have—that has not been the case. Following the SCOTUS ruling Obergefell v. Hodges last year, he tweeted that legalizing same-sex unions was a mistake, one he blamed on the Bush family. “Once again the Bush appointed Supreme Court Justice John Roberts has let us down,” Trump said. “Jeb pushed him hard! Remember!” Since then, Trump has further upheld his support for “traditional marriage.”

That might suggest that his opposition to the freedom to marry for all couples is passive. It is not. As the Huffington Post’s Michelangelo Signorile pointed out, Trump has repeatedly hinted that if he were in the White House, he would work to appoint Supreme Court justices that would nullify same-sex marriage rights. Speaking with David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network, Trump had a message for right-wing evangelicals concerned that he wouldn’t take action to overturn the ruling: “Trust me.” He further told Fox News on the subject: “If I’m elected, I would be very strong in putting certain judges on the bench that I think maybe could change things, but they have a long way to go.”

His stance on marriage equality is only part of the issue with a Trump presidency. While Donald Trump’s campaign has largely singled out Latinos and Muslims as wedge issues, these populations also intersect with the LGBT community. Queer people are often portrayed in film and television as being white, but LGBT folks are every race, ethnicity, and religion. A 2013 report from UCLA’s Williams Institute estimated that 1.2 million Latino adults in the United States identify as part of the vast queer alphabet. While LGBT Muslims might struggle for visibility and acceptance, they are part of a vibrant, growing community—with increasing numbers of people coming out every year. This is the same emerging population Trump has suggested be listed in a national database to keep tabs on them.

Since announcing his candidacy for the president last July, Donald Trump has referred to Latino immigrants as “ criminals, drug dealers, [and] rapists.” He has further promised to expel 11 million undocumented workers from the United States, many of which are be queer-identified. In addition, LGBT immigrants—specifically transgender women—face some of the harshest treatment of any detainees in detention centers. Often housed in the general population with men, they face extremely high rates of abuse and even sexual assault. Donald Trump’s policies are bad for all Latinos and Muslims, but it’s trans women who will likely experience the most significant violence in Immigration and Customs Enforcement lockups.

The truth is that as long as Donald Trump’s hate-filled agenda continues to give a platform to white supremacists and bigots, his campaign will provide a safe haven for all forms of discrimination. When Trump won the South Carolina primary in February, research from the Public Policy Polling showed that a third of those who supported him also favored blocking LGBT immigrants from entering the U.S. As The Advocate pointed out, that figure was “nearly twice the percentage of supporters of any other Republican candidate.” For reference, only 17 percent of those who backed Sen. Marco Rubio in the S.C. primary agreed with that same statement.

Trump’s recent stance on “states’ rights” might shock those who believe him to be the lesser evil when it comes to LGBT equality, but make no mistake—his policies are pretty evil.

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Secrets of the “Exile” sessions: Drugs, sex and madness as the Rolling Stones took over France

Rolling Stones

Mick Taylor, Mick Jagger, and Charlie Watts pose during a press conference in Paris, France in 1970. (Credit: AP)

When did Keith Richards take his first hit of heroin?

Even he doesn’t know.

He says it was probably an accident, that he mistook a line of smack for a line of blow at a party at the rag end of the decade. It was everywhere. Cheap, nearly impossible to avoid, an unintended consequence of the Vietnam War. When we opened a channel to South- east Asia, soldiers flowed out and china white flowed in.

Heroin had been a passion of Keith’s heroes—black blues players who’d chased the high until they lost everything. If you’re of a certain temperament, you do things you know are bad for you because without the experience, you can’t emulate the art. To make music with the depth of the masters, Keith had to experience what they experienced, had to touch the seafloor, where the pearl is buried in the muck. When he speaks about his junkie years—“I know the angle,” he told Zigzag magazine in 1980, “waiting for the man, sitting in some goddamn basement waiting for some creep to come, with four other guys sniveling, puking and retching around”—it’s not without a certain pride. Fame removed Keith from the kind of suffering that stands behind the Delta blues. He’d never know cotton shacks or rent parties. He sought that crucial authenticity in debauchery instead.

Heroin was in part Keith’s response to Altamont. He reeled from riot to stupor. He loved how it made him feel—how it answered every question, removed every obligation, annihilated every stare. (“I never liked being famous,” he said.“I could face people a lot easier on the stuff.”) Like prime rib with cabernet sauvignon or creeper weed with high school, junk went perfectly with that bleak, washed-out moment. Vietnam, the streets filled with psychotic vets, LSD cut with strychnine, Richard Nixon in the White House. The shift from the sixties to the seventies was the shift from LSD to heroin. LSD was aspirational. Heroin was nihilistic. The promise of hippie epiphany was gone; only the high remained. Keith came to personify that—the oldest young man in the world; stand him up and watch him play; shoot him up and watch him die.

*

The Stones were in the same condition as the culture, having come to realize, despite all their hit records and sold-out shows, that they were essentially broke. When they asked Allen Klein for more of what they assumed was their money, he sent it grudgingly, in dribs and drabs. Jagger finally reached out to his friend Christopher Gibbs, the art dealer, who put him in touch with the private London banker Prince Rupert Loewenstein. At first glance, Loewenstein, a prematurely middle-aged aristocrat who spoke with a slight German accent, seemed an unlikely partner for the Stones. “My tastes . . . leaned towards Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms,” Loewenstein writes in his memoir.“The name of the [Stones] meant virtually nothing to me at the time, but I asked my wife to tell me about them. She gave me a briefing and my curiosity was tickled.

“Mick slipped into the room, wearing a green tweed suit,” Loewenstein goes on.“We sat and talked for an hour or so. It was a good, long chat. His manner was careful. The essence of what he told me was,‘I have no money. None of us have any money.’ Given the success of the Stones, he could not understand why none of the money they were expecting was even trickling down to the band members.”

It took Loewenstein eighteen months to untangle the contracts and deals. He explained the problem to the band in 1970: Klein advised you to incorporate in the United States for tax purposes; as this new company was given the same name as your British concern— Nanker Phelge (named after their old Edith Grove housemate)— you’ve assumed it’s the same company; it’s not. The American Nanker Phelge is owned by Allen Klein; you are his employees. Royalties, publishing fees—all of it belongs to Klein, who can pay you as he sees fit. This also gives Klein ownership of just about every one of your songs. “They were completely in the hands of a man who was like an old-fashioned Indian moneylender,” Loewenstein writes, “who takes everything and only releases to others a tiny sliver of income, before tax.”

Jagger was humiliated, ashamed. Here was the smartest rocker, the LSE student, being taken in a game of three-card monte. “There was one frightening incident in the Savoy Hotel when Mick started screaming at Klein who darted out of the room and ran down the corridor with Mick in hot pursuit,” Loewenstein writes.“I had to stop him and say,‘You cannot risk laying a hand on Klein.’”

Loewenstein proposed a two-step course of action. One: the Stones immediately sever all ties with Klein. The second step had to do with Inland Revenue, as the British equivalent of the IRS was then called. As Klein had cashed checks from Decca, he never withheld or paid the band’s taxes. The musicians had accrued a tremendous debt as a result. Not only were they broke, they were in danger of being sued. What’s more, the Stones’ earnings—on paper—put them in the top bracket, which in Britain at the time meant paying a marginal income tax rate of up to 98 percent. In other words, the government would take almost everything you made over a certain amount. This made it nearly impossible for the Stones to earn enough money to ever satisfy Inland Revenue. If they wanted to live safely in England, they’d have to move somewhere with a less punishing structure, then make enough money to square themselves. The term for this is “tax exile.”

“My advice is contained in four words,” Loewenstein told Jagger. ‘Drop Klein and out.’”

The Stones broke with Klein in December 1970, then sued for $29.2 million. A settlement for $2 million was reached in 1972, though litigation carried on for years.

As for exile, Loewenstein suggested France. The prince, who had pull with Parisian officials, was able to arrange a deal: the Stones agreed to stay in the country for at least twelve months and spend at least £150,000 per year; in return, no additional taxes would be levied by the French government. Band members began leaving England in the spring of 1971.

Keith and Anita quit heroin before they went into exile. They did it to avoid certain hassles. Being addicted means having to carry drugs, hook up with local dealers—expose yourself in a million dangerous ways. Keith kicked first. Vomited and wept; wept and prayed. He was clear-eyed when he arrived at Gatwick Airport in April 1971, twenty-seven years old, the coolest person walking the planet other than Elvis and Brando, but Elvis and Brando were past their prime, slouching toward late afternoon, whereas Keith was at his apex. In photos taken that day, he has the look of a man used to being looked at. The sharp angles and rock star lines that would later characterize his face had not yet hardened. He carried his son, Marlon. Anita was in London, in the midst of withdrawal. She would join Keith and Marlon in France as soon as she was clean.

A house had been selected for the family in Villefranche-sur-Mer, a port on the Côte d’Azur. Fleetingly small, bathed in boredom and sunlight. Nothing is happening. Nothing has happened, or will ever happen. Exactly what Keith required. I visited the town shortly before my mother died—checked in to a hotel on the harbor, talked to strangers, walked. The ancient streets are steep and shaded by plane trees. There are alleys and storefronts and wine shops that reek of time. In the summer, the squares are picked clean by le sirocco, a wind that originates in the Sahara and covers the rooftops in fine red sand. What you feel in Villefranche is not the Stones but their absence. The world’s most powerful rock ’n’ roll energy had once concentrated here, but that was decades ago. The bars where the boys once drank as the sun went down are long gone. What remains is the silence that you hear as you sit alone in a hotel room after the last song has played.

I hailed a taxi in front of my hotel and asked the driver to take me to the house where Keith and Anita once lived. He had no idea what I was talking about, so I asked him to take me to the house where the Stones recorded Exile on Main Street. Still no idea. So I told him about the summer of ’71, the mansion in the hills, the drugs and the songs. He said “Oui, oui” but still did not know, so I just gave him the address: no. 10, avenue Louise Bordes.

The road wound around the shore and began to climb. The trees made a canopy overhead, a tunnel of leaves. The driver hit the brakes and pointed. There was a steel gate and, hundreds of yards beyond it, a house. I got out and stood before the closed gate, hands on the bars, studying the lawn and fountain, the complicated roof and chimneys, the windows, the front steps, the door. I closed my eyes and could actually feel the warm air turning into a groove, the lyrics drifting across the sky in cartoon bubbles. Then, just as I was about to lose myself entirely, the driver honked.“My boo-boo, monsieur,” he said.“I have you at the wrong address.”

I burned with shame as we went a quarter mile up the road. I got out timidly, but this time certain that I was in the right place. There were the street number and the nameplate. Grand houses, like racehorses, have names. Mick’s country estate was Stargroves. Elvis lived at Graceland. The house in Villefranche is Nellcôte, a mansion in the European style, with porticos, columns, and gardens. I stood with my face to the gate. It was no longer magic I felt, but yearning. I longed to go inside and poke around. As the driver shouted “Non, non,” I climbed the fence and dropped down hard on the other side. I stood there for a long time, listening for alarms and dogs. I’d read that Nellcôte had been purchased by a Russian oligarch. I pictured a goon named Boris, a cell in a provincial jail, the sheriff ’s wife serving me foie gras and Beaujolais.

I walked up the long drive, knocked on the door. Nothing. I looked around the gardens and gates, then lost courage. The driver cursed me when I got back, but in words I couldn’t understand anyway. Besides, I was proud of my transgression. That’s rock ’n’ roll, baby. And I’d gotten a lovely unobstructed view of the house. So I didn’t get inside. So what? I already had a good idea of the interior. The grand staircase, the living room, the balcony that overlooked Cap Ferrat. It had all been described to me in great detail by June Shelley, who, in those crucial months in the early seventies, served the Stones as a girl Friday. She’d been an actress and the wife of the folk legend Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, but was beached on the coast when her (second) husband spotted the ad in the International Herald Tribune. “Wanted. For English organization in the South of France, bilingual, organized woman, salary plus expenses, 25–35 years of age.”

Shelley was interviewed by Jo Bergman, the Stones’ manager, then taken to the mansion.“I confessed on the way that I didn’t know all their names,” Shelley told me.“I knew Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. But I didn’t know the others. So Jo ran them down. She said,‘Bill Wyman, bass player, Renaissance man; moody, doesn’t speak much. Charlie Watts, drummer, blah-blah-blah.’ She described them each in a few words. ‘Mick Taylor, new kid; this will be his first album with the boys. He looks like an angel with blue eyes, round face, blond hair, and worships Keith.’ When we pulled into the garden at Villa Nellcôte, I knew everyone immediately from her description. Bill, Charlie, and Mick Taylor were sitting on the steps. It was like the circus had come to town; there were people everywhere, dogs and kids, trucks, men moving things around. Jo says,‘Hi, guys, this is June, she’s going to be your new assistant.’ They nod, and we go inside.

“What a crazy wonderful house,” Shelley went on.“You went into a long hallway and there were rooms right and left. An old-fashioned kitchen and an old-fashioned study, a partially finished basement that we later fixed up so they could record.”

Nellcôte was built in the 1800s for a British admiral, who spent many melancholic years there studying the horizon through a telescope. The Germans took possession during the Second World War. According to Richards, it served as a Gestapo headquarters. The basement was the setting of unspeakable horrors, which gave the house an appropriate sheen of menace. Dominique Tarlé, a photographer who stayed in the house that summer, spoke of exploring the basement with a friend and finding“a box down there with a big swastika on it, full of injection phials. They all contained morphine. It was very old, of course, and our first reaction was,‘If Keith had found this box . . . ’ So one night we carried it to the end of the garden and threw it into the sea.”

Richards rented Nellcôte for $2,400 a week. He kept on the old staff, including an Austrian maid and a cook affectionately known as Fat Jacques, who was fired that summer for reasons too fraught and nefarious to get into. The first floor became a kind of salon, with musicians crashed in every corner. The second floor remained off-limits, the private preserve of Keith, Anita, and Marlon. Even Jagger didn’t go up.

*

The other band members were scattered across France. Bill Wyman rented a house near the sea. Charlie Watts was in the countryside. Jagger had settled in Paris, where he took on the life of the jet-set party boy. Reeling from the breakup with Marianne Faithfull, he was seen in all the gossips, whispering in the corner of every party, confiding his pain to every beautiful woman. He’d had a torrid affair with Marsha Hunt, the devastatingly beautiful black singer and model who’d become famous in the London company of Hair. That’s her, with towering Afro, on the playbill. The Stones had asked Hunt to pose for “Honky Tonk Women,” but she refused, later telling The Philadelphia Inquirer that she “did not want to look like [she’d] just been had by all the Rolling Stones.” Jagger followed with phone calls, which turned into illicit hotel meetings. In her autobiography, Hunt claims that she was the inspiration for “Brown Sugar.” In November 1970, she gave birth to Jagger’s first child, a daughter, Karis. As in a story from the Bible, this love child, at first rejected, would later become a great solace and balm for her father in his old age.

It was at a party in Paris in 1970 that Jagger met Bianca Pérez-Mora Macias, the daughter, depending on the conversation, of a plantation owner or a diplomat or a wealthy businessman from Nicaragua. She was young but refused to be fixed to an exact number. Here was a rich girl so dismissive of rock ’n’ roll that Jagger could not help but be entranced. Friends claimed that they looked like doppelgangers, twins. That Mick’s love for Bianca was a kind of self-love. Bianca got pregnant early in 1971, and just like that, Mick was sending out wedding invitations. The ceremony was in St. Tropez that spring, soon after the band arrived in France. It was the celebrity clusterfuck of the season. Helicopters buzzed the beach as the paparazzi closed in. Mick chartered a plane to fly his friends from London.“If that plane went down, you would have lost twenty years of popular music,” Anna Menzies, who worked for the Stones and was on the plane, told me. “Bobby Keys was on that flight, Jim Price, Paul McCartney with Ringo. Keith Moon. Peter Frampton, Robert Fraser, Eric Clapton. There was so much booze the plane could’ve flown without fuel!”

The theme from Love Story played as Mick and Bianca walked down the aisle. A reception was held at Café des Arts. It was a rage. Can till can’t. As on the last day. Jagger had hired a reggae band called the Rudies, but everyone got up and jammed. Jade Jagger was born a few months later. Asked to explain the baby’s name, Mick told a reporter, “Because she is very precious and quite, quite perfect.” Mick and Bianca divorced in 1979. I won’t go into that relationship further, because it just makes me sad. Suffice it to say, the marriage is credited with inspiring the great Stones song “Beast of Burden.”

*

Keith and Anita were soon back on heroin. It started with a male nurse who shot Keith up with morphine after a go-kart wreck in which Richards, racing his friend Tommy Weber at a nearby track, flipped his vehicle, chewing his back into hamburger. Appetite whetted, Keith began looking for still more relief—it’s a story hauntingly told by Robert Greenfield in Exile on Main Street: A Season in Hell with the Rolling Stones. One afternoon, Jean de Breteuil, a notorious drug dealer known, because of his suspenders, as Johnny Braces, showed up at Nellcôte. He handed Keith a woman’s compact filled with astonishingly pure heroin. Richards passed out as soon as he snorted it. When he came to, he said he wanted more—a lot more.

By June, life at the house had settled into a strange junkie rhythm. Most days began at two or three in the afternoon. Keith would wake up, yawn, stretch, hack up phlegm, swallow whiskey, reach for pills. He started with Mandrax, a downer that shoehorned him into consciousness. It was a hot summer, often above a hundred degrees. Anita was pregnant. Keith shot up before his afternoon breakfast and did not make his first appearance downstairs until five or six, a gray smack-filled ghost. He spent hours listening to music or playing. At nine, he would go to the basement to work. Like an Arab trader, he slept all morning and crossed the desert at night. He emerged at dawn. If the weather was good, everyone followed him down to the dock, where he kept a speedboat, the Mandrax II. He stood at the wheel as the coast unspooled, crossing the border into Italy, where he’d tie up at a pier and stumble up stone stairs to a bistro for eggs and kippered herring, or pancakes with strong black coffee.

Marlon was eighteen months old. Keith was far older, but a heroin addict is a baby. It’s all about bodily functions and human needs. You cry when you’re hungry. You sleep if you can. You live desperately from feeding to feeding. In this way, Keith and Marlon fell into lockstep, the addict and the kid playing on the beach.

*

Nellcôte in 1971 was like Paris in the twenties. The biggest stars and brightest lights of rock ’n’ roll came to pay tribute, get loaded, and play. People felt compelled not merely to visit but to party, measuring themselves against Keith. Like dancing with the bear, or staying up with the adults, or drinking with the corner boys. Eric Clapton got lost in the house, only to be discovered hours later, passed out with a needle in his arm. John Lennon, visiting with Yoko Ono, vomited in the hall and had to be taken away.

*

Gram Parsons turned up with his girlfriend, Gretchen. He was out of sorts, experiencing a kind of interregnum between lives. His band had broken up; his music was in a state of transition. At Nellcôte, Richards and Parsons resumed the work they’d begun years before, playing their way deep into the roots of American music. It went on for days and days, Gram, twenty-four years old, long-limbed and fine-featured but not quite handsome, sitting beside Keith on the piano bench. Their relationship was intense, mysterious. They connected spiritually as well as musically, loved each other sober and loved each other high. “We’d come down off the stuff and sit at a piano for three days in agony, just trying to take our minds off it, arguing about whether the chord change on ‘I Fall to Pieces’ should be a minor or a major,” Richards said later. If you have one friend like that in your entire life, you’re lucky.

History has been kind to Gram Parsons—the importance of his legacy revealed only in the fullness of time. The tone he worked on at Nellcôte with Keith, the perfect B-minor twang that can be heard on Exile on Main Street, inspired some of the great pop artists of later eras. The Jayhawks, Wilco, Beck—I hear Gram whenever I turn on my stereo. The mood was contagious. Jagger caught it like a cold. “Mick and Gram never clicked, mainly because the Stones are such a tribal thing,” Richards explained.“At the same time, Mick was listening to what Gram was doing. Mick’s got ears. Sometimes, when we were making Exile on Main Street, the three of us would be plonking away on Hank Williams songs while waiting for the rest of the band to arrive.” The country tunes that distinguish the Stones— “Dead Flowers,” “Sweet Virginia”—wouldn’t exist as they do if not for Parsons, who, like any third man, is there even when he can’t be seen.

The Stones, then in the process of signing a distribution deal with Ahmet Ertegun and Atlantic Records, needed to make a follow-up to Sticky Fingers. They’d gone into exile with several cuts in the can, leftovers from previous sessions—some recorded at Olympic, some recorded at Stargroves, Mick’s country house. France was scouted for studios, but in the end, unable to find a place that could accommodate Keith’s junkie needs, they decided to record at Nellcôte. Sidemen, engineers, and producers began turning up in June 1971. Ian Stewart drove the Stones’ mobile unit—a recording studio built in the back of a truck—over from England. Parked in the driveway, it was connected via snaking cables to the cellar, which had been insulated, amped, and otherwise made ready, though it was an awkward space. “[The cellar] had been a torture chamber during World War II,” sound engineer Andy Johns told Goldmine magazine.“I didn’t notice until we’d been there for a while that the floor heating vents in the hallway were shaped like swastikas. Gold swastikas. And I said to Keith, ‘ What the fuck is that?’ ‘Oh, I never told you? This was [Gestapo] headquarters.’”

The cellar was a honeycomb of enclosures. As the sessions progressed, the musicians spread out in search of the best sound. In the end, each was like a monk in a cell, connected by technology. Richards and Wyman were in one room, but Watts was by himself and Taylor was under the stairs. Pianist Nicky Hopkins was at the end of one hall and the brass section was at the end of another. “It was a catacomb,” sax player Bobby Keys told me, “dark and creepy. Me and Jim Price—Jim played trumpet—set up far away from the other guys. We couldn’t see anyone. It was fucked up, man.”

Together and alone—the human condition.

The real work began in July. Historians mark it as July 6, but it was messier than that. There was no clean beginning to Exile, or end. It never stopped and never started, but simply emerged out of the everyday routine. It was punishingly hot in the cellar. The musicians played without shirts or shoes. Among the famous images of the sessions is Bobby Keys in a bathing suit, blasting away on his sax. The names of the songs—“Ventilator Blues,”“Turd on the Run”—were inspired by the conditions, as was the album’s working title: Tropical Disease. The Stones might hone a single song for several nights. Some of the best—“Let It Loose,”“Soul Survivor”—emerged from a free-for-all, a seemingly pointless jam, out of which, after hours of nothing much, a melody would appear, shining and new. On outtakes, you can hear Jagger quieting everyone at the key moment: “All right, all right, here we go.” As in life, the music came faster than the words. Now and then, Jagger stood before a microphone, grunting as the groove took shape—vowel sounds that slowly formed into phrases. On one occasion, they employed a modernist technique, the cutout method used by William S. Burroughs. Richards clipped bits of text from newspapers and dropped them into a hat. Selecting at random, Jagger and Richards assembled the lyric of “Casino Boogie”:

Dietrich movies
close up boogies

The record came into focus the same way: slowly, over weeks, along a path determined by metaphysical forces, chaos, noise, and beauty netted via a never-to-be-repeated process. They called it Exile on Main Street—Main Street being a pet name for the French Riviera as well as an invocation of that small-town American nowhere that gave the world all this music.

Excerpted from the Book “The Sun & the Moon & the Rolling Stones” by Rich Cohen. Copyright © 2016 by Tough Jews, Inc. Published by Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

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Ayn Rand goes to “Silicon Valley”: The farcical libertarian world of Mike Judge, where corporations are the new soul-crushing villains

"Silicon Valley," Ayn Rand

“Silicon Valley,” Ayn Rand (Credit: HBO/AP)

Two weeks ago, “Silicon Valley” aired a scene that I haven’t been able to get out of my head since. Though it rather unforgettably features two horses engaged in the very loud, wet, and physical act of mating, that’s not exactly what ended up staying with me about it. Instead, it’s the conversation happening between the owner of the mare, a tech company CEO, and his irritating employee, who just happens to be that same company’s founder. Over the past two seasons, “Silicon Valley” has told the story of how awkward-but-brilliant programmer Richard (Thomas Middleditch) created a game-changing data compression algorithm and made it, with fits and starts, into its own company. But at the end of season two, the board of directors in the company he created fired him, wholesale, because he was a pretty shoddy CEO. And in his place they installed Jack (Stephen Tobolowsky), a non-coding business savant a generation older than Richard and his core group of founding employees. (Richard gets to stay on as head of tech.)

Within the span of just one episode (“Two In A Box”), Jack neatly dismantles Richard’s vision—going so far, in a “Monty Python”-esque farcical move, to “pivot” the company from user-facing machine-learning cloud-computing algorithm to B2B, security-focused, literal “metal fucking box.” Richard watches the sales team’s soft-focus promotional video for said metal box—“a rhetorical example of a bad idea”—with waves of disbelief washing over his face, and then in a fit of rage, leaps out of the conference room and into his car, to find Jack wherever he is.

That leads us to the horse-fucking. Jack has paid $150,000 for his mare to be covered by this thoroughbred stallion, and as he watches over the two horses sealing the deal, Richard emerges on the scene. With the backdrop of urgent neighing and gushing fluid, both distracting and carnal, Richard tells Jack that he believes this is a product that can both help the world and make a billion dollars. Jack responds, with the sweetest tones of dulcet encouragement: “Richard, I don’t think you understand what the product is. The product isn’t the platform. And the product isn’t your algorithm. And it’s not even your software. Do you know what Pied Piper’s product is, Richard?”

Richard, torn between encouragement and frustration, thinks he knows the answer. “Is it me?” he stammers, pointing to his chest, just above his heart.

Jack practically yelps. “Oh God no. How could it possibly be you? You got fired! Pied Piper’s product is its stock! And whatever makes the value of that stock go up? That is what we are going to make.”

The moment is, quite possibly, the most distilled critique of tech, capitalism, and the American way that I’ve seen—a combination of brutal physical comedy, as Middleditch and Toblowsky are conversing next to a real pair of mating horses, and unvarnished, clear-eyed awareness of how idiotic the type of capitalism we live in truly is, all the way down to its core. Adam McKay’s Oscar-winning “The Big Short” laid bare corporate human recklessness and the greed of playing markets like video games; Judge’s slacker comedy “Office Space” revealed the moral bankruptcy at the core of any regional manager’s bureaucracy. “Silicon Valley” marries the two with the particular brand of do-gooding, disrupting, one-percenter technobabble that has profound effects on our lives from an insular system in a rarefied community with bizarre, meaningless rules.

It was not obvious, at first, that this was what “Silicon Valley” was going to be. Unlike “Veep,” the show’s sister comedy on HBO, “Silicon Valley” is not purely satire. “Veep”’s delivery is joke-driven and cutting, an array of sharp zingers and takedowns deployed one after another, usually from one character to another. “Silicon Valley” is sharp, but its critiques are by and large embedded in the structure of the show. In last week’s episode, for example, “Meinertzhagen’s Haversack,” the protagonists embark on an elaborate plan to circumvent Jack’s authority. But in the final scene, Richard trips over a hose and scatters his top-secret, to-be-shredded plans in plain view of the entire office. This is less a punchline and more a gut-punch; it is not the characters that are funny, it is that all of humanity’s efforts boil down to nothing.

Which is why it’s taken me, at least, all the way to the third season to fully appreciate the dysfunctional atmosphere of the show’s rendition of the tech scene, which is where the show almost entirely derives its humor. From the animated opening credits that depict a San Francisco overrun with logos—which a Bay Area resident would tell you is not so different from what has really happened to that city—to the banal, khakis-and-polos-based wardrobe of the leads, “Silicon Valley” is steeped in its target’s culture. In “Veep,” you get the impression that though all the leads hate themselves, they force themselves through the motions of politics, either because they’re narcissists or masochists. In “Silicon Valley,” the leads are just embracing the madness.

And upon closer examination, especially if you’re not in a tech-adjacent industry, the circus of Silicon Valley really does seem like madness: Surface-level progressive values about identity combined with a ruthless opposition to labor laws and inconvenient community ordinances. Tech billionaires have actually drunk the Kool-aid in believing that creating cell phone apps makes the world a better place; mid-level programmers really did mourn Steve Jobs as if he was a fallen god. The tech industry is so insular and airless that its “thought leaders” are high on their own supply of hot air (produced largely through TED talks, natch).

Given how much is theorized about libertarian values taking hold on real-life Silicon Valley—with arguments both for and against the influence of the original thinkfluencer, Ayn Rand—it is intriguing that Mike Judge, the creator and co-showrunner of “Silicon Valley,” is widely believed to be either conservative or libertarian. (The important thing, as these articles suggest, is that he is not just another Hollywood Liberal.) He has not described himself as either on the record, but in an oft-cited sit-down interview with InfoWars, the site reports:

Judge told Alex Jones that his parents raised him to be a liberal but he doesn’t feel comfortable describing himself as a Democrat or a Republican because the two extremes of partisanship resemble a “religion”. Judge added that he had become “interested in smaller government kind of thinking” since he began building his own projects and was getting “penalized left and right” by the system as a result.

The best example of this scorched-earth cynicism, to the politically minded viewer, is not his seminal MTV classic “Beavis And Butt-Head” or the cult hit “Office Space”; it’s the 2006 film “Idiocracy,” which is back on people’s brains following Donald Trump’s rise to the top of the Republican party. It’s a comedy Judge thought of, he tells the Verge, while waiting in line for the spinning teacups at Disneyland. Two women in dispute over their place in line engaged in a no-holds-barred, “cussing” argument in front of their children. He wondered if the future would not be more progressive, à la Stanley Kubrick’s sleek “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but less. What follows is a story where, one thousand years into the future, only the stupidest people have chosen to reproduce, thus populating the planet with increasing levels of idiocy. To quote Matt Nowak at Gizmodo:

What’s so wrong with this thinking? Unlike other films that satirize the media and the soul-crushing consequences of sensationalized entertainment … “Idiocracy” lays the blame at the feet of an undeserved target (the poor) while implicitly advocating a terrible solution (eugenics). The movie’s underlying premise is a fundamentally dangerous and backwards way to understand the world.

I wouldn’t go so far as Nowak does, but Judge’s vision is unsettling for its breathtaking lack of idealism—its lack of investment in the future of the human race, really. Rather than use idiocy as a call for greater understanding, awareness, or compassion, Judge is content with unleashing cynicism without obvious recourse. “Office Space”’s solution is literally to burn it all down (via carefully cheating it, in the process); “Idiocracy” presents a world where it already is burnt down, more or less.

Which is to say—whether or not Mike Judge is a libertarian, he does appear to have created a libertarian body of work. Except that instead of government intervention, his bugbear is mindless corporate bureaucracy; not exactly Ayn Rand, but echoing her vilifications of mediocrity and communitarianism. In “Office Space,” Judge himself played the chain restaurant manager who demanded more “flair” from Jennifer Aniston’s character; the reflexive response that, well actually, “the Nazis had pieces of flair that they made the Jews wear,” is probably the most kneejerk anti-establishment statement in history (and also very funny). “Beavis And Butt-Head” is essentially a show about two idiot teenagers mocking the very institution that puts them on the air, via shit-talking music videos and making long allusions to the word “fire.”

The individual is always in conflict with the institution, and in this case, the institution can be government regulation—witness “Silicon Valley”’s ongoing plot about how San Francisco housing laws make it very difficult to evict a freeloader—but is much more often the wheels of the capitalist machine, which tend to satisfy the individual self-interest of one guy all the way at the top and leaves pretty much everyone else in the dust. In “Silicon Valley,” an original idea—the beautiful algorithm for Richard’s company, Pied Piper—is constantly under assault by rapacious investors, billionaires in pursuit of an iota of authentic vision.

Yes, of course: A strict Randian interpretation would argue that Judge’s vilified corporate culture isn’t the unadulterated laissez-faire capitalism that Rand so stridently argued for as morally just. But given how rapacious (and Rand-studying) a company like Uber is, for example, that interpretation holds less water. For what it’s worth, “Silicon Valley” also pokes fun at the Howard Roark-esque individualists tortured by the brilliance of their own vision; Gavin Belson (Matt Ross) is a pitch-perfect parody of the modern-day Roark, right down to the nonsensical philosophy, narcissism, and performed heavy burden of “innovation.” In “Atlas Shrugged,” the top industrialists of the nation, fatigued by the labor of making tons of money providing infrastructure to everyone else, leave the nation entirely to seclude themselves somewhere in the mountains. “Silicon Valley” is a farce of that same plot; the “innovators” that run an important technological infrastructure seclude themselves to a specific part of the world to brood over their many woes. Rand wrings her hands at their absence from our world; Judge’s “Silicon Valley,” meanwhile, revels in how idiotic they are, when they are all condensed to just one spot.

Judge’s ethos—developed over time, borrowing from libertarianism and anarchism and the purely id sense of what makes his friends laugh—is perfect for the idiocy of the tech industry. The show observes this entire scene, from Silicon Valley’s most progressive elements to its most conservative, with an equally jaundiced eye; this is why I can write a piece lauding the way “Silicon Valley” entered the conversation about women in tech, and the Federalist can write a piece, as if this is a good thing, calling it “HBO’s Most Subversively Conservative Show.” It’s sort of both, because it’s sort of neither. It’s mostly just cynical, about other people and also ourselves.

And if “Veep”’s cynicism is a call to arms—because after all, those elected officials are paid through our tax dollars—“Silicon Valley”’s cynicism is the kind of lie-down-on-the-floor-in-despair comedy of the pawns who are at the mercy of an industry they have no voice in. It doesn’t matter how much users complain, there’s always another Facebook redesign around the corner.

In the best of Judge’s work, he’s been able to capture how the most disaffected of us really speak and feel, whether that was the office drone exploding in anger at the copier/printer, the waitress at the TGI Friday’s encouraged to produce more “flair,” or the slacker teenage boys talking shit about music videos all day. The protagonists of Judge’s work are smarter than their positions require, but still hapless. And there’s a certain kind of compassion for the neediest there, one that Rand never could produce in her blinding understanding of human selfishness. Whatever Judge’s brand of cynicism roots its politics in, on those days where you feel the semi-anarchic rage of being just another cog in the machine, it is helpful to know that someone out there really and truly gets it.

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Donald Trump is a serial liar. More upsetting is that no one seems to care

Donald Trump

Donald Trump (Credit: Reuters/Carlo Allegri)

Donald Trump is a serial liar. Okay, to be a bit less Trumpian about it, he has trouble with the truth. If you look at Politifact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning site that examines candidates’ pronouncements for accuracy, 76 percent of Trump’s statements are rated either “mostly false,” “false,” or “pants on fire,” which is to say off-the-charts false. By comparison, Hillary Clinton’s total is 29 percent.

But if Trump doesn’t cotton much to the truth, he doesn’t seem to cotton much to his own ideas, either. He waffles, flip-flops and obfuscates, sometimes changing positions from one press appearance to the next, as Peter Alexander reported on NBC Nightly News this past Monday — a rare television news critique of Trump.

I say “rare” because most of the time, as Glenn Kessler noted in The Washington Post this week, MSM — the mainstream media —  just sit back and let Trump unleash his whoppers without any pushback, even as they criticize his manners and attitude.

In an ordinary political season, perhaps Trump would be under fire for his habitual untruths, like the one that Ted Cruz’s father might have been involved with Lee Harvey Oswald. This time around, though, neither the media nor the public — least of all his supporters — seem to care. Which leads to the inescapable conclusion that these days, as far as our political discourse goes, truth, logic, reason and consistency don’t seem to count for very much.

The question is why.

One simple explanation is that Trump has changed the rules. He is not a politician but a provocateur, and he isn’t held to the same standards as Clinton or Bernie Sanders or even Cruz, all of whom actually have policies. For Trump, policies are beside the point.

… Truth, logic, reason and consistency don’t seem to count for very much. The question is why.

Another explanation is that long before Trump, social scientists observed that truth matters less to people than reinforcement, and that most of us have the ability to reformulate misstatements into truth so long as they conform to our own biases. We believe what we believe, and we are not changing even in the face of opposing facts (without this capacity for self-deception there would be no Fox News).

There is, however, another and even more terrifying explanation as to why the truth doesn’t seem to matter. It has less to do with Trump or our own proclivities to reshape reality than it has to do with infotainment — with the idea that a lot of information isn’t primarily about education or elevation, where truth matters, but entertainment, where it doesn’t. You might call it “the Winchell Effect.”

Walter Winchell, about whom I wrote a 1994 biography, was a hugely popular New York-based gossip columnist for the Hearst newspaper chain and an equally popular radio personality, although saying that is a little like saying that Michael Jordan was a basketball player. Winchell was the gossip columnist, with an estimated daily audience of 50 million. He practically invented the form, and the form was a long chain of snippets — rumor, prediction, innuendo — racing down the page, separated by ellipses.

Some of these snippets were scarcely more than a noun, a verb and an object: Mr. So-and-so is “that way” about Miss So-and-so. Does her husband know? In this way, Winchell became not only the minimalist master of gossip but also, quite possibly, the first tweeter – before Twitter.

If you are wondering how this is relevant to the 2016 campaign, in time Winchell turned his roving eye from entertainment to politics, deploying exactly the same arsenal to the latter as he had to the former. Thus did gossip leap the tracks from Hollywood and Broadway to Washington. In this, Winchell’s approach was a precursor of modern election coverage. He was obsessed with letting readers in on what was going to happen — the clairvoyance of rumor — rather than with what was happening or what it actually meant. That is, he was a horse-race handicapper long before horse-race coverage became the dominant form of political journalism.

One prominent example: At the behest of the White House, Winchell spent months floating trial balloons for Franklin D. Roosevelt and his ambitions for a third term. Basically, it was presidentially endorsed gossip.

But Winchell’s influence didn’t stop at conflating entertainment with politics — and this is where the indifference to truth comes in. Winchell reported dozens of tidbits of gossip each day. Presumably, that’s why people read him or listened to him on the radio; they wanted to be ahead of the curve. But the vast majority of these tidbits were unverifiable, and nearly half of the flashes that were verifiable turned out to be false, according to a survey conducted for a six-part New Yorker profile of Winchell by St. Clair McKelway. Since there was always a passel of new scoops every day, no one seemed to notice — or care — that he was usually wrong.

One can only assume this was because readers seemed to relish the excitement of the “news” more than they desired its accuracy. Or, to put it another way, gossip was entertainment, not information. Thus the Winchell Effect.

The Winchell Effect is alive and well in today’s politics in two respects. First, candidates can get away with saying pretty much anything they want without being held accountable so long as what they say is entertaining and so long as they keep the comments coming. Trump has been the major beneficiary of this disinclination by the MSM to examine statements. The blast of his utterances always supersedes their substance. And the MSM plays along.

To wit: Trump announced his tax plan way back in September 2015. With kudos to the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, which did look at his plan, it is just this week that most of the MSM are getting around to examining it — even as he changes it. (I may have missed it, but I still have yet to see a single story delving into Trump’s tax policies on the network news.)

The blast of his utterances always supersedes their substance. And the MSM plays along.

Perhaps better late than never, but the fact that he could throw out wild schemes involving trillions of dollars without the media feeling the need to vet them means that primary voters had no way to understand his tax plan and see its flaws. Of course, from the MSM’s perspective, analyzing a plan would be tackling policy, not providing entertainment. And make no mistake, the candidate and the mainstream media are in the entertainment business.

And that is the second way in which the Winchell Effect changes our politics. If candidates are not accountable, neither are the political media. Like Winchell, they are not only besotted with strategies, polls, predictions, and — in the case of a few cable networks — wild, unverifiable charges, they are, like Winchell, seldom challenged when they get it all wrong.

They were wrong about Trump not being a serious candidate. They were wrong about Jeb Bush’s and Marco Rubio’s chances to get the nomination. They were wrong about the likelihood of a contested GOP convention. Since they won’t call one another out, no one calls them out. In effect, they are implicated in the Winchell Effect as much as Trump is, which may be one reason why they don’t challenge him. Neither Trump nor the press has to be right. They just have to keep ginning up the excitement.

What this means is that our politics is no longer politics in the traditional sense of policy and governance. It is, as most of us realize, a show, a game, an ongoing reality TV saga. This is nothing new. The media have been bored with policy for a long time and have been pressing the horse-race narrative over real reporting for just as long. And when they do discuss policy, as The Huffington Post’s Jason Linkins observed, in a typically smart piece, they are likely to prefer the windy, absurd generalities of a Trump to the wonky policies of a Clinton. It makes better copy, and it has the added benefit that it doesn’t require any fact-checking.

Trump is the fullest flower of a non-political politics and the fullest product of the Winchell Effect. With their mutual lack of interest in the truth, Trump and the MSM deserve one another — a synergy of the showman and the gossip columnists. But do wedeserve them? Only if we allow our politics to become a way of amusing ourselves rather than the way to select a leader.

Meanwhile, Trump and the MSM will keep the misinformation coming, on the sadly correct assumption that many of us don’t really care about facts so long as we are being titillated.

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Americans need to pay attention to the U.K.: The relationship between the next prez and future prime minister is critical

Theresa May, Boris Johnson

Theresa May, Boris Johnson (Credit: Reuters/Stefan Wermuth/Peter Nicholls)

Here’s a quick breakdown of the current state of U.K. politics. In the U.K. as in the U.S., until there are significant changes, only one of two parties is realistically going to be elected to govern. Unlike in the U.S., however, smaller opposition parties in the U.K. can receive so substantial an amount of the vote that it may knock one of the two ‘main parties’ out of the running. And right now, the Labour party is the one taking the biggest hit. In 2015, with the Scottish National Party, UK Independence Party and the Green party increasingly taking many left and working-class votes that might once have gone to Labour, the Conservative party returned to power with its first majority in almost two decades.

Now, it’s been said, David Cameron’s government is using its powers to try and render the Labour party “completely dead” as a viable opposition, namely by wiping millions of (largely Labour) voters off the electoral register, redrawing the voting map and attempting to cut off funding to the party. Add in the most biased and right-wing media in Europe and a new Labour leader that’s wildly unpopular nationally, and you’re looking at the likelihood of the British electorate keeping it a Conservative PM until at least 2025. This is important to understand, because it means that whoever succeeds David Cameron could help shape both Britain and US-UK relations for potentially the next decade or more.

For six years, the ties shared by David Cameron and Barack Obama have been – if you’re to believe the official line – strong. It was said earlier this year that the PM “has been as close a partner” as Obama has had during his presidency, indicating that the “special relationship,” first enjoyed by Winston Churchill and Harry Truman some seven decades ago, remains intact. By the end of 2016, however, the dynamic will have changed. There will be a new president, and depending on the outcome of the EU referendum and rising divisions within the Conservative party, there might be a new Prime Minister as well.

It’s deemed likely at this point that Hillary Clinton will be the next POTUS, but there are currently two main contenders to take over from Cameron as PM, and their success could depend entirely on whether Britain votes to Leave or Remain in the European Union on June 23. (Currently, according to the most recent poll, voters are split literally 50/50.) Heading up the Remain camp is Cameron favourite George Osborne, the Chancellor who vowed to erase the national debt but, in administering austerity measures and making sweetheart deals with corporations, has actually doubled it to £1.56 trillion and driven up poverty and homelessness in the process. Campaigning to Leave is Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London who once conspired to have a journalist beaten up and thinks nothing of calling black people “picaninnies” with “watermelon smiles.”

One of these, ladies and gentlemen, will likely be the next Prime Minister of the U.K. If it’s the Clinton-backing Osborne, an influence on and close ally of Cameron, working with Clinton, who apparently wishes to continue in the vein of Obama, the special relationship may remain largely unchanged. If it’s Johnson, however, that probably means the U.K. voted to leave the European Union, and the special relationship would be set to take a hit (potentially further exacerbated by the fact that Johnson has been highly critical of Clinton in the past, referring to her as a “sadistic nurse” representing “everything I came into politics to oppose”). John Major, the Tory PM prior to Cameron, has said that US-UK relations would “wither” if the British people vote Leave, while Obama has said the UK would no longer receive preferential treatment and would find itself at the “back of the queue” on trade.

Even if the U.K. votes ‘In’ on June 23, and it’s Prime Minister Osborne or another Cameronite who ends up leading the U.K. , the special relationship might be in trouble. There will still be necessary common ground between the U.S. and U.K. , in terms of intelligence sharing and more. But while the Obama administration, which Hillary Clinton has effectively promised to extend, has been courteous on the surface for the past six years, in reality Obama has been distancing himself from David Cameron and the Tory government for some time. The president has criticized Cameron and his team on defence spending and their handling of the Libya situation, while declaring that America’s strongest ally is, in fact, France, not Britain. Privately, the White House now “snickers” about the concept of the special relationship.

According to Washington, the special relationship as enjoyed by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, by Blair and Bush, is already in decline. A recent Congress memo suggested that organisations such as the G20 group have diminished the relationship’s “influence and centrality.” A vote for Brexit would undermine it further. Clinton also has her own reasons to remain cool on the current U.K. government: Back in 2010, Clinton was warned by an aide to be wary of the Conservatives, with special mention given to “Tory clown prince” Boris Johnson. Clinton’s emails also revealed that she retains close ties not with the Tories, but with the Blairite wing of the now struggling Labour party.

Ironically, the U.K.’s next PM might have a better relationship with the next POTUS if the Brexitbacking Donald Trump is the one in charge in 2017. Though it seems unlikely, Donald Trump having a clear path onto the ballot in November means there is now at least a chance he could be the 45th President. And though the challengers to Cameron’s throne have all slammed Trump in their own way – Osborne called him a peddler of “nonsense”; Johnson declared him “unfit” to be president – it’s difficult to imagine they would have a hard time working with him. Already the UK government is backpeddling on previous comments by declaring that Donald Trump “deserves respect,” and Trump, as a conservative, might make more of a natural ally to the Tory leadership than the more liberal Clinton would.

Johnson most obviously would make a good fit with the Donald. Where Osborne is hell-bent on forming close ties with Trump’s buzz-enemy China (something that has apparently already caused a rift between Cameron and the Obama administration), Johnson has been described as Britain’s Trump, a wealthy eccentric with signature whacky hairdo that, like Trump, thinks nothing of publicly making vulgar or racially insensitive remarks. He may have opposed Trump’s recent disparaging comments on the British Muslim community, but Boris like Trump has stoked the fire of anti-immigration sentiment himself. He also, like Trump, has shown a leniency towards Vladimir Putin that most Western leaders don’t seek to emulate, while often idolizing his own nation’s tricky past. It’s not hard to imagine these two would get along, both professionally and personally.

Which way would Trump and Johnson lead us? Ironically, these two isolationists could bring the U.S. and U.K. closer together again, with both nations left looking for similar-minded friends as they close doors with other former allies. This is all speculative of course. By some miracle the Labour party could resurrect itself and install Jeremy Corbyn as the PM in 2020. Perhaps both Osborne and Johnson will be outflanked by Theresa May, the ambitious current Home Secretary who wants to push through the most invasive surveillance laws in the western world (so says Snowden) and, in her quest to outlaw every ‘high’ – legal or otherwise – going, might have legally banned tea. May together with Hillary Clinton would be a landmark: the most significant leadership pairing in the Western world, 100% female for the first time in history. Such a pairing might be little more than symbolic, but increasingly it seems the “special relationship” doesn’t qualify as much else.

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Yes, my sexuality is a choice: Why I reject the “born this way” narrative

Kristen Stewart

American culture is beginning experience the ethical turn in how we understand sexuality. It was only four years ago when Cynthia Nixon was lambasted for claiming her sexuality was a choice. Today, however, more people than ever—including countless young celebrities like Kristen Stewart, Miley Cyrus, St. Vincent, and Amandla Stenberg—are refusing to pick a label when it comes to their sexuality. Refusing a label is a choice. The progressive move away from identity categories negates the need for the normative, “born this way” narrative that has been used to socially validate them. As Stewart said in a recent Variety interview,

“You don’t have to immediately know how to define yourself. . . Me not defining it right now is the whole basis of what I’m about,” she added with idiosyncratic unflappability. “If you don’t get it, I don’t have time for you.”

Adults choose who to have sex with, how to have sex, where they have sex, and the frequency with which they have sex. Libidinal desires may exist beyond our control, but we do very much have control how to act upon those desires externally in the world with other people. To put it personally: “I just don’t fall into a vagina and stay there,” is how I jokingly explain my belief that sexuality is a choice. I am drawn to women and will happily talk about scissoring and other exquisite lesbian stereotypes, for sure, but there’s not an inescapable magnetism forcing me to leech onto women.

This position flies in the face of the accepted narrative within gay circles that have adopted the phrase “born this way” for social justice and moral justification, as well as for political expediency. (Although, according to the most recent PEW Research data from 2013, I am one among the 42 percent who believe “being gay or lesbian is ‘just the way some choose to live,’” as opposed to 41 percent of those surveyed who subscribe to the “born this way” argument.) I am an atheist and harbor no religious ascetic values like shame or guilt about who I have sex with or how I have sex. In terms of American politics, because our rights and laws are predicated on socially sanctioned identities, sexuality has been conceived as an ontological trait or biological certainty. Take the relevant example of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). This federal law targeted a specific group of people. Consequently, we have had work within America’s paradigm of identity politics to prove we are collectively oppressed in order to obtain equal rights.

Despite the necessity of identity politics in procuring equal rights, I understand sexuality to be a choice through feminism. With roots in materialist, ethical and existentialist philosophies, my feminism draws from Nietzsche, Kant, Sartre and Foucault; Beauvoir, Audre Lorde, and Barbara Johnson. For existentialists like Sartre and Beauvoir, humans are free through making choices and, more importantly, through taking responsibility for those choices. “There is no trace-out path to lead man to his salvation; he must constantly invent his own path,” Sartre said in an interview in 1945. “But, to invent it, he is free, responsible, without excuse, and every hope lies within him.”

Life demands making a series of choices—not among an infinite panoply of options, but among those options determined by our socio-economic conditions. Societal constraints on women’s “sexual vocation,” as Beauvoir refers to it in “The Second Sex,” challenge their freedom. Yet, she acknowledges women’s sexual vocation is possible if she “commit[s] herself with the same decisiveness” as men do in their sexual exploits.

Beauvoir was arguably the originator of the idea that sexual liberation was integral to ending women’s oppression. In “The Second Sex,” she writes that “freedom is recognized in woman’s sexual activity.” It is through a woman’s sexual vocation that she can attain autonomy—that she can become an independent woman.

Feminism also influenced my sexuality through the interrogation of heterosexuality as a patriarchal institution. Adrienne Rich was just one of many lesbian radical feminists to decry heterosexuality as fundamental to women’s oppression. “Compulsory heterosexuality,” she contends, is not natural or a biological certainty, but rather a social construct that allows men to control women’s sexuality. Her ideas cohere with those of French lesbian feminist Monique Wittig, who, in her seminal essay “One Is Not Born a Woman,” unpacks the fallacy that heterosexuality is natural, or normal. Cultural anthropologist Gayle Rubin argues similarly in her essay “Thinking Sex,” maintaing not only that sexuality is a product of society, but that desires, even, are “constituted in the course of historically specific social practices.”

The history of heterosexuality has produced the “born this way” narrative as a consequence of situating homosexuality as deviant. Because of psychoanalysis, because of the medical institution and the subsequent policing of bodies, “the homosexual [became] a species,” to quote Foucault. Sexuality is the institutionalization of sex acts.  The homosexual is a modern invention—technically, as an identity is was created before the heterosexual. Some rationale had to be given for this deviancy, and what better way than to locate homosexuality in nature, in biology, as something God created? The justification in nature mimics that of heterosexuality. Yet, if sexuality is socially constructed and expressed through culture, then there is no norm, nor is there deviance.

Framed within recent feminist debate, this view is akin to what many call (some do so derisively) “choice feminism.” But my understanding of “choice” is not about abundance, but discrimination. To make a choice—to have sex with someone or to identify with a specific sexual orientation—entails judgement. By saying that my sexuality is a choice, I hold myself accountable for all my actions. And to make oneself accountable to both one’s self and to others in the world is, I think, the optimal form of a civic-minded ethos.

Claiming ownership of my sexuality holds me accountable for my actions—accountability is freedom. Accountability is power. It is empowering to take possession of my identity and my acts. Women break the cycle of oppression through their sexual liberation. Our power manifests through our freedom to make choices and to take responsibility for those choices. And that includes sexuality.

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“The Monkees songbook is maybe the third-best”: Peter Tork claims the bronze—right after the Beatles and the Stones

Peter Tork

Peter Tork (Credit: AP/Jeff Daly)

They may not be the young generation anymore, but the Monkees still have something to say. Their first new album in 19 years, “Good Times!,” features the legendary surviving members — Mickey Dolenz, Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork — defying the odds and offering a full plate of exuberant tunes in time for the summer. There are vintage tracks culled from the Monkees archives and composed by some of their famous collaborators from the ’60s, like Harry Nilsson (the title track), Goffin and King (“I Wasn’t Born to Follow”), Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart (“Whatever’s Right)” and Neil Diamond (“Love to Love,” which features vocals from Davy Jones, who passed away in 2012).

In addition to newly composed material by the band, the generation that grew up on MTV reruns of their classic sitcom have come out to represent for their shaggy heroes, too. Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne produces, plays bass and also contributes power-pop songwriting; songs from Rivers Cuomo, Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller, Andy Partridge and Ben Gibbard are also featured.

Peter Tork and Mickey Dolenz kick off a summer North American tour on May 18 in Ft. Myers, Florida. “Good Times!” is out May 27.

Here, Peter Tork discusses the new album, the old times, why it’s tricky to mourn Jones and who owns bragging rights to the third-best songwriting catalog of all time. (Hint: they’re not your stepping stones.)

It’s been a long time since the last studio album, “Justus.”

Almost 20 years.

And Davy passed away in 2012.

And we can’t even celebrate the anniversary every year because he died on leap year day. You know, February 29th?

But he lives on on the record. Emotionally speaking, how did you feel about going in the studio again after that?

Well, it was all right. I love to record, and get my chance to play a little banjo here and a little keyboard there and sing a little, and write a little song and sing another little song. All that stuff is right up my alley.

Are you always writing songs?

Yes. I actually wrote (this album’s) “Little Girl” back in the day as a sequel for Davy’s (Monkees 1967 classic ballad) “I Wanna Be Free.” A chance for him to sing another beach love song, and I had this idea, Davy needs another song, and lo and behold there was this song.

Did the notion to make a new record stem from the tour you did (in honor of Davy)? 

By the time the 50th anniversary was looming on the horizon, (Rhino, who are releasing “Good Times”) were delighted at the thought of kicking up a fuss about it, having a stir. And I think it was an inspired choice to get Adam Schlesinger to produce it.

Were you a fan of Fountains of Wayne and his soundtrack work?

I certainly did know “That Thing You Do,” and that’s a tremendous calling card for this kind of a project.

Adam is uncanny with pop melodies.

Yeah, that’s exactly right. So he was absolutely the man, and we’re very lucky to have had his assistance on this. Due to his exact sensibility he manages to straddle the world of the pure ’60s pop on the one hand, with the modern indie sensibilities on the other.

The vocals sound like you guys have been frozen in time.

We do. When Michael joined us on the road in 2012, it was astounding to hear that same voice do those same songs.

Did he play “Circle of Sky?” That’s my favorite Monkees song.

Yeah. But he wouldn’t do it in the same key.

Where did all the vintage “new” material come from?  The “Monkee vaults”?

Yeah, Andrew Sandoval is Mr. superfan producer. Andrew is the keeper of all things Monkee. He can tell you pretty much who played on which cut from memory, by and large.

You have some heavy songwriters here from your past.

Got the Harry Nilsson and the Jeff Barry and the Carole King, and Neil Diamond. I think we might even have a Boyce and Hart song in there.

Yes, these are the very people that wrote your eternal songs—

Yeah, all the great Monkees hits.

What about the new stuff that’s getting such attention in the press?

Well sure, Rivers Cuomo and all those other indie guys.

How do you politely say yes or no when someone comes to you and says “I wrote you a song?”

I didn’t do that. That was the Rhino guy. He was the one who said yes or no to this song, that song.

How do you in the studio make an Andy Partridge song not sound like XTC? How do you Monkee-fy it?

Well, I had never spent much time listening to those guys, so I don’t know how they sound, which means as far as I’m concerned, you just do the song directly. Here’s the lyrics, here’s the changes, here’s the key. They sent us a demo, you learn from the demo, but once you hear the demo, you say, I’ll play that bass part as well as I can; you just do the best you can. It’s just naturally going to happen that you don’t sound like them any more than necessary.

Is this designed to open up the fanbase to Weezer fans, or vice verse?

That’s a good question. It’s not that we’re trying to bring our people to them, but to bring their people to us. Obviously, if our fans become Weezer fans, we’d be delighted. Thrilled to death to be in the community.

Do you think Monkees are still living down a certain prejudice from the ’60s?  That you were pre-fabricated?  Not a “real” band?

No, I don’t. I think that has disappeared. The knives out, the prejudice, the disdain for the Monkees, that’s an old people’s trip, we’re not interested in that.

The songs have proved themselves to be among best of 20th century pop.

I actually agree, I think the Monkees songbook is maybe the third-best song book. You can’t beat Lennon/McCartney. 

So who would be number 2?

Stones, I think. They did the blues, and that counts for a ton in my world. So third, maybe? That’s not bad.

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This is one weak nominee: Hillary Clinton’s problem isn’t Bernie Sanders. It’s Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton (Credit: Reuters/Brendan McDermid)

No matter what you think about Hillary Clinton as the presidential primaries wind down, there is one undeniable fact that lingers in the background. Despite having had enormous advantages from the start of the campaign—no serious competition from within the party, solid support from national party leaders, a massive war chest and a nationwide grassroots network built over the course of decades in national politics—Clinton has struggled to put away a 74-year-old Jewish socialist who has had almost no establishment support.

Say whatever you want about Clinton’s lengthy résumé—and her credentials are indeed impressive—her performance this primary season is hardly indicative of a strong candidate.

Indeed, Clinton concedes that she’s not a natural politician, lacking the charm of her husband or the charisma of Barack Obama. But what should be troubling to those who hope to see a Democrat in the White House next year is that Clinton seems to suggest that this weakness isn’t problematic, that her résumé and policy-wonk reputation will be enough to carry her on Election Day.

Maybe. But don’t be too sure.

Look no further than the 2000 election, when another policy-wonk Democrat with little charm or charisma—Al Gore—failed to ride his impressive credentials to the White House. Gore, a two-term vice president with prior lengthy service in both the Senate and House, lost to an anti-intellectual GOP opponent with no Washington experience. Sound familiar?

Many Democrats are having difficulty accepting the fact that Clinton, despite her résumé, is a weak politician. In this state of denial, their defense of Clinton becomes aggressive, as they lash out at Bernie Sanders for staying in the race, implying that Clinton has earned the right to glide to the finish line unopposed.

A prime example of this Clinton-entitlement mentality can be found in a recent Boston Globe column by Michael A. Cohen, entitled “Bernie Sanders declares war on reality.” Cohen insists that Sanders is “illogical, self-serving, hypocritical” and “intellectually dishonest” in trying win the nomination by swaying superdelegates away from Clinton. “Instead of coming to grips with the overwhelming evidence that Democratic primary voters prefer Hillary Clinton to be the party’s 2016 presidential nominee,” Cohen writes, “Sanders continues to create his own political reality.”

Unfortunately, Cohen ignores the fact that the “overwhelming evidence” isn’t strong enough to allow Clinton to claim the nomination with pledged delegates alone. Had the evidence been so overwhelming, courting superdelegates would be irrelevant. Because Clinton has been far from dominating in the primaries and caucuses, the true “political reality” is that she will need superdelegate support to secure the nomination. Fortunately for Clinton, she appears to have the support of an overwhelming majority of superdelegates, but those allegiances can change up until the time of the convention vote, so Sanders is alive as long as the race comes down to a fight over them.

Sanders has correctly criticized the superdelegate system as undemocratic, but there is nothing hypocritical or illogical in his continuing the fight within that system. To denounce the rules of a race does not preclude a candidate from competing within those flawed rules. With party insiders having disproportionate power as superdelegates, the system tips the scales strongly in Clinton’s favor, as Cohen surely knows, yet he still cries foul at Sanders pressing on within that system.

Such specious arguments not only distract from the uncomfortable reality that Clinton is an extremely vulnerable candidate, they also fail to recognize that the Sanders campaign represents an agenda that is fundamentally different from Clinton’s. This is not a debate between two candidates with slight differences in substance or style, but of two vastly disparate philosophical views.

Even if Sanders loses the nomination contest, which at this point appears likely, he represents an egalitarian, democratic vision that is highly skeptical of corporate power and the neoliberalism that Clinton represents. This agenda has resonated, fueling a surprisingly strong campaign that has energized many, especially younger voters, and those supporters expect that their message will be carried all the way to the convention. For Sanders, stopping the fight at this point would be senseless.

Clinton herself has the tact to refrain from urging Sanders to exit. She instead is doing the smart thing by basically ignoring him and focusing on Donald Trump and the general election. Still, there can be no doubt that she would love to be in Trump’s position, having no opponents remaining with any mathematical chance of seizing the nomination.

The fact that she’s not in such a position, and that her race for the Democratic nomination continues to be pestered by an old lefty who has served three decades in politics without even registering as a Democrat, should be a grave concern for her and her supporters. Although her credentials are strong, her candidacy isn’t—and blaming that on Sanders would be nothing but a form of denial.

 

 

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