Melania sues a blogger: the Trumps, libel laws, and the media

February 21, 2017

First Lady Melania Trump sued a Maryland blogger for $150 million for libel, and he reportedly settled by paying her a “substantial sum.” Such cases are commonly settled because a court fight is so costly. The blogger had suggested that Mrs. Trump had once been a paid “escort,” which he conceded was unsubstantiated. Other similar suits remain pending.

images(When I looked online for a photo — whoah! More of a first lady than we’re accustomed to seeing. I chose one of more tasteful pictures, at left.)

President Trump, hyper-allergic to criticism, has long called for changing libel laws to make suing easier. He is probably thinking of the British system, where the defendant has the burden of proof. This is a huge scandal, and has made Britain a mecca for shameful libel suits. Like Holocaust denier David Irving suing an author who wrote of his historical distortions, putting her through hell to defend herself in court (depicted in the recent film Denial).

Trump also probably wants to change the Times v. Sullivan doctrine. That was a 1964 Supreme Court decision saying that when someone criticizes a public official in the performance of their duties, a libel suit must prove not just falsity but actual malice and reckless disregard for truth.

images-1This makes it very hard for politicians to sue, and is a major bulwark against their abuse of libel laws.* Which is a very real problem in other countries. Singapore’s late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was notorious for using libel suits to persecute political opponents who criticized him, sometimes bankrupting them in the process.

Donald Trump too is notorious for litigiousness; he’s been involved in at least three thousand lawsuits. He wants looser libel laws so he can sue even more people. But it’s also part of his bigger project to destroy the American news media as an independent information source that holds people like him accountable for lies and misdeeds. He has already succeeded partway, his constant baseless attacks having damaged mainstream media’s credibility in the minds of many people.

images-2It’s sickening when the biggest liar in political history calls the press dishonest, “the enemy of the American people.” To the contrary, it’s Trump’s vile rhetoric that’s dishonest and a real danger to America. This is how dictators start. Democracy needs a robust free media to expose lies, corruption, and bungling. Now more than ever, with this egregious presidency!

Getting back to Melania, her feeling hurt by that blog might be understandable. Except that when you enter the White House, especially in today’s febrile political climate, you have to expect a certain amount of garbage thrown at you. images-3The Obamas certainly endured a lot of that (notably from Mr. Donald J. Trump, loudmouth of lying “birtherism”). But the Obamas didn’t go around suing folks. It’s unbecoming for a first family; and frightening to use that power to intimidate critics. America is not Singapore.

Meantime, remember Trump’s press conference claiming to separate himself from his businesses? With all those piles of suppposed documents? Yet another Trump fraud. I wish someone had had the balls to go up and look inside those folders. unknownBut the performance at least showed recognition that exploiting the oval office for private profit is totally inappropriate (if not criminal).

Mrs. Trump, in contrast however, appears unashamed about aiming to cash in on her public position. Her lawsuit claimed that the blogger damaged her potential for anticipated “multimillion dollar business relationships” and other “major business opportunities” expected from her first ladyship. The breathtaking frankness, at least, is refreshing.

Let them sue me for this blog.

unknown-1* Times v. Sullivan saved the posterior of yours truly, sued for $1.5 million for libel in 1973 when I authored a critical book about Albany’s political machine.

Selling girls in Afghanistan

February 19, 2017

You’re a thirteen year old girl, in Afghanistan, when your father sells you to a warlord as his fourth wife; with two of your sisters thrown into the deal, for his henchmen. (One soon burns herself to death.)

unknownThis is The Pearl That Broke its Shell, a 2014 novel by Nadia Hashimi. I’ve written before about how such “traditional” culture blights male-female relations, reviewing Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns. At least the guy in that book was almost a human being, almost trying.

Pearl tells the stories of Rahima, the thirteen year old, and her great-great-grandmother Shekiba. Here’s something I learned about: Rahima spent some time as “Rahim,” a bacha posh, a girl living as a boy. This is not a transgender thing. Rather, it’s to evade all the societal restrictions on girls, and people wink at it. Thus “Rahim” could go to the market alone and haggle with vendors, thus helping her mother.

As a wife, Rahima was strictly confined in the warlord’s house and her role consisted of household chores, sexual servitude, and taking beatings. The only difference from being in prison was child-bearing. So maybe the better analogy is to slavery.

unknown-1Being a warlord with four wives might sound like a cool gig. Would I want it? No thanks. And a Henny Youngman joke is not coming here. When I compare the deep, warm, human relationship I have with my (one) wife against the cold, harsh, inhumane ones portrayed in these books, I weep with gratitude for our culture and what it gives us – and I weep for people in societies like Afghanistan’s, who don’t even know what they’re missing.

One thing missing is romance and seduction. Being a sexual object is a wife’s duty. Thus, her own sexuality is no part of the equation. It was striking that the lone male character in Pearl portrayed with a modicum of humanity nevertheless, when deflowering his new wife Shekiba, did it with no preliminaries. Not even an explanation to soften what was about to happen (and it didn’t take long). Whatever word Afghans use for this act, it cannot rightly translate as “lovemaking,” and sounds about as much fun as Trump’s pussy grabbing. Again , no thanks.

Hirsi Ali

Hirsi Ali

I think often of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s memoir Infidel, talking of her arrival in the Netherlands as a refugee, after life in various Muslim countries. It was like landing on a different planet. Very quickly her eyes were opened to this being a good society, that enables people to live good lives. Much unlike her own past homes.

As for Rahima, her warlord hubby develops buyer’s remorse, and spots another chick he fancies; but a Muslim can’t have more than four wives. images-2Rahima realizes this does not bode well for her. She is disposable, literally; can be simply killed to reopen the fourth-wife slot, and nobody would do a thing. But there’s a happy ending; Rahima manages to escape to a women’s shelter in Kabul.

Unfortunately most Afghanis have no escape route.

Democrats versus Trumplicans

February 15, 2017

I’ve been writing a lot about politics because we’re in a seminal crisis.

1024x1024There’s been much discussion on how to respond. The post-inaugural women’s marches and other protests were great; I cheered them on; I joined an airport protest myself.

But the kinds of issues most such protests have emphasized (refugees, reproductive rights, gay rights, equality, climate change, etc.) do not resonate with Middle America. As David Brooks has written, “The crucial problems today concern the way technology and globalization are decimating jobs and tearing the social fabric; the way migration is redefining nation states; the way the post-World War II order is increasingly being rejected as a means to keep the peace.” You’re not relevant if you’re not engaging with these critical issues.

unknownDonald Trump does, with a full-throated brutalist economic (and barely veiled ethnic) nationalism. “America first” is a crude hammer blow. Pink hats aren’t much of an answer.

That’s why Democrats lost the last election. The stereotype used to be that they were the party of working people; Republicans the party of the rich. Demographically at least that was somewhat true. But no longer. Today Democrats are the party of effete urban intellectuals and minorities. Yet they still feel an entitlement to working class votes. They’re forever whining about folks voting against their economic interests. Democrats don’t understand people voting their values rather than interests. (And often don’t understand economics besides.)

images-1True, Clinton did win the popular vote – by dint of huge majorities in California, New York and Massachusetts. But the electoral college was specifically designed so that big states don’t rule and, unfair or not, we’re stuck with it.

Democrats know they must reconnect with the wayward rustbelt blue collar types. But no real strategy has emerged. They remain flummoxed. They take heart that millions who voted for Trump had actually previously voted for Obama. However, since then something has changed.

The Trump campaign was not just a symptom of that change, but a catalyst. It opened a Pandora’s box. It gutted what had been a generally accepted civic compact about the basis on which our politics is conducted. The conditions that induced a lot of those past Obama votes ceased to exist. imagesWhy eat your vegetables when cake and candy are now on offer? Trump gave many people a type of voting opportunity they’d never had before.

And though some of us are horrified by Trump’s doings, his voters are mostly ecstatic. They feel they’re getting – at long last – exactly what they voted for, and what they want. It’s a Grand Folly, immensely harmful, to them most of all, but trying to convince them is futile. unknown-1They tune out hectoring voices. Virtually every newspaper in the country condemned Trump. That was unprecedented. And had no effect.

Democrats live not just in different locales, but on a different planet. The country is so polarized that the two camps won’t listen to each other. That’s how Trump gets away with monumental contempt for truth, ethics, and decency.

unknown-2Republicans, having drunk the Trump Kool-Aid, are now drunk on power, giving vent to every nasty tendency that lurked in their darker recesses. As witness their idiotic vote to silence Elizabeth Warren, which any reasonable person must abhor.

Meantime a Democratic party that continues moving left and nominates a Sanders or Warren (or, God forbid, Cuomo) type, and talks about gender and climate and complicated government programs, and whines about the rich, will not win against a Trump who grabs his voters by their pussy and they like it.

Yet his core support is still a minority, and some voters at least are persuadable. Brooks again: “If the anti-Trump forces are to have a chance, they have to offer a better nationalism, with diversity cohering around a mission, building a nation that balances the dynamism of capitalism with morality.”

It’s not an easy sound-bite case to make, it takes vision and courage, but it’s the right path. It’s centered upon the fundamental principles of freedom, openness, and global engagement that I have enunciated, that have in fact given us a more peaceful and more prosperous world, with more people thriving, than ever before. Today all that’s endangered as never before.

Republicans have abandoned those principles, that they used to stand for (and America used to stand for) – leaving vacant a vast territory of what ought to be the country’s natural and sensible political center. Democrats should move smartly to occupy that territory.

unknown-3But they still don’t seem to get it. I cannot yet join them. I’ll give up arguing for a third party; if we didn’t get one in 2016, we never will. However, I still have hope that America will ultimately weary of, and prove itself better than, the Trump horrorshow.

My Valentine’s Day poem

February 14, 2017

Microsoft Word - LOVE POEMS cover copy.docxMy wife being a poet, I’ve been writing poems for her for occasions like Valentine’s Day, birthdays, etc. (I published a little book of them.) When she was learning Spanish, I wrote some in Spanish, which I’d studied in high school. Lately she’s been learning German, so I thought I should write her Valentine’s Day poem in that language. The only problem was that I never studied it.

However, my mother was born in Germany, and I got some familial German exposure – mainly hearing her daily two-hour telephone debates with her mother (always on the same subject, “whether Lotte has been a good daughter”). Also, I’m a coin dealer, and buy a lot from big German auctions, whose catalogs of course use the language.

imagesSo I decided to try writing a poem, with my very limited vocabulary. Actually, it almost wrote itself – with just a bit of help from Google Translate (very handy; you can use it to translate my poem). One word I made up (Germans like long combination words):

Ein Valentinstaggedicht

In unserer welt
Von sturm und drang,
Mit einem weissen haus
Wo wohnt ein
Du bist mein fels
Mein leuchtendes licht,
imagesMeine wunderbare frau;
Ich liebe dich


The Time Lords and the Leap Second

February 11, 2017

images-1My previous partner used to call me “The Time Lord” (taken from Dr. Who). Because I was a stickler for punctuality. When I was an administrative law judge, and a hearing was scheduled for 10:00, it started at 10:00 – not 10:01. (Except once or twice when I overslept.)

As you may know, a “day” is from one sunrise to another; the year has 365 days, the time it takes for the Earth to circle the Sun. Except that it actually takes 365-1/4 days. unknown-2So we have leap years. Except that it doesn’t take exactly 365-1/4 days either. So we omit the extra leap day once every 100 years. Except for every fourth century, when we don’t. This keeps things just about right.

Our “hour” is based on dividing by 24 the planet’s rotation time. The hour, minute, and second, are as long as they are simply so that 60x60x24 equals one day, with no need for any fudge factor, like with leap years. However, here too there’s a wee problem. The rotation is slowing! It actually now takes a teensy bit more than 24 hours. The discrepancy wasn’t noticed until we started measuring time with super-accurate atomic clocks.

The world actually does have Time Lords. You’ve heard of “Greenwich mean time?” That refers to all clocks being set by reference to a master clock in Greenwich, England. images-2This system’s superintendents are the Time Lords (so to speak). It’s one o’clock when they say it’s one o’clock. And to keep time absolutely accurate, since 1972 they’ve inserted, every other year or so, an extra second into the year, based on their calibration of the Earth’s current rotation time.*

A one-second adjustment might seem like no big deal. But whereas, in past epochs, people were content merely to tell time roughly by hours, lacking timepieces capable of greater accuracy, today’s world runs on global time synchronicity down to the millisecond. And it’s actually important that the exact time in New York matches the exact time in Tokyo.

For example (as Michael Lewis’s book Flash Boys, about high speed trading, illuminated), it’s crucial for financial transactions that the sequence of events – purchase orders and their execution – occur unambiguously. The extra leap second throws a monkey wrench into this. It might be no problem if, when the Greenwich Time Lords insert the leap second, all clocks and computers and time-incorporating mechanisms throughout the world automatically adjust. But of course they don’t.

There have been global gabfests trying to straighten this out. A lot of people don’t like it that some self-important British nerds get to decide what time it is, and to change it on whim. But not surprisingly the Brits are extremely reluctant to let go of this vestige of the epoch when they really did rule the world.

images-4So far, no resolution has been achieved. For a Time Lord like me, it’s terrifying to think that when my watch says it’s 10:00, it may actually be 10:00:01.


* Without such adjustment, the discrepancy would cumulate, and in around 20,000 years, noon and midnight would be switched.

What “Charles” did yesterday

February 11, 2017

unknownAt yesterday’s joint news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, President Trump welcomed him to “the very famous white house.” When I mentioned this to my wife, it cracked her up as much as it did me.

Meantime, though, I was mildly surprised to hear Trump pronounce Abe’s name correctly (“AH-bay”).

But that was countered moments later when the Prime Minister remarked how previously Trump had mispronounced his name as “Abe,” as in Abe Lincoln. Followed by a riff on how great Abe Lincoln was.

unknown-1Trump is no Abe Lincoln. You might think a president, preparing to meet a foreign leader, would be sure to ask his staff how to pronounce the guy’s name. But our president believes he already knows everything. No matter how often that’s proven wrong.

The shitstorm continues

February 7, 2017

images-1In Shirley Jackson’s story “Charles,” a child returns from kindergarten each day with a new tale of outrageous misbehavior by “Charles,” the class bad boy. So I sometimes ask my wife, “Did you hear what Charles did today?” Referring, of course, to you-know-who.

On Saturday, after hearing a news report, I ran to tell her the latest: saying the injunction against his Muslim travel ban was issued by a “so-called” judge!

Meantime (trying to defend the indefensible) the administration denies it is a Muslim travel ban. Seriously? After so memorably announcing in the campaign, “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States . . . .”

Then he said the U.S. is no better than Russia with regard to political killings. Well — at least here, unlike in Russia, presidential critics suffer only childish insulting tweets. So far.

And he continues calling the press dishonest — him, the biggest liar and fraudster in political history.

And then there’s his attack on the Johnson amendment, supposedly in the name of freedom of speech and religion.

unknownNamed for Lyndon Johnson who sponsored it as a senator, the law denies tax exemption to religious outfits that endorse political candidates. This actually just clarified longstanding policy. The tax exemption for charitable, educational, and religious organizations has never applied to ones engaging in partisan politics.

This restricts no one’s freedom. Anyone is free to back any political candidate. But if you do, you’re not entitled to tax exemption. And political donations have never been tax deductible. The Johnson amendment prevents getting around that by routing a donation through a “church” which then passes it on to a candidate.

Trump’s vow to “destroy” the Johnson amendment, if successful, would open the floodgates for churches to not only engage in partisan politics, but also to launder political money to make it tax deductible.* A very bad idea.

unknown-1From a very bad man. America is full of wonderful people — how did we get this creep as president?

* I actually favor a (limited) tax credit for political contributions, as a form of public campaign finance, to combat pay-to-play culture. But that’s a very different matter.

Movie Review: “Arrival”

February 5, 2017

The film starts with a reverie about memory: how it doesn’t work the way we think.* The protagonist, Louise (Amy Adams), is given what appears to be a standard type of back-story: memories of raising her daughter, after a marital split; and the daughter’s early death. However, these memories are, indeed, not what they seem; and this eventually turns out to be key to the whole film.

images-3Soon come the aliens: 12 giant sleek spaceships landing mysteriously across the globe. Ours is in Montana. Louise is a hotshot linguist, swooped up by the military to crack the language barrier and learn why they’re here. Right away, I’m thinking: these aliens obviously have mega-advanced technology; they come seemingly wanting to communicate; but with no means for doing so? Really? However, one must suspend disbelief and accept the story’s premise.

Louise and some guys are taken inside the alien ship, where they’re subjected to the usual proctology examinations.

unknownNo, just kidding. Actually, they meet Abbott and Costello.

Those are the names they give their two alien interlocutors. Their language sounds something like whale talk. The aliens look like something aquatic too. Their written language, we’re told, does not correlate with the sounds. images-2They write by squirting stuff that resolves into circles with woolly protrusions, like smoke signals. Soon Louise has compiled a dictionary and is communicating in their own language. I felt like I missed a scene, showing just how she achieved this breakthrough.

Well, Louise is smart; but, typical for such movies, most other humans are idiots. I thought I was back in one of those 1950s space operas. After a month of nothing ostensibly happening (a month!), we see a Limbaugh-type loudmouth ranting that these aliens pose a great danger and should be attacked. (I think a lot of people would have gone a lot more haywire a lot sooner.) Then China gives the aliens a threatening ultimatum. Then people around the world trying to talk to all the ships idiotically cut off communication with each other. images-1And some trigger-happy American soldiers do attack, with the consequences you might expect. Haven’t any of these fools ever seen any of those old sci-fi movies? Don’t they know the aliens, or monsters, or whatever, are never vulnerable to our puny retro weapons?

Long story short, it won’t surprise you to learn that Louise saves the world. More: the message she finally gets from the aliens transforms all of life as we know it. She also gets the guy — but not for keeps it would seem. To explain all this would be a spoiler. But here’s a hint: it has to do with the very fabric of time itself. Her memories were not memories.

Maybe I’ve made this sound like a silly movie. It’s not. It is beautifully done, and the story arc is altogether subtle, surprising, and thought-provoking. Whether it makes coherent sense is beside the point.

*I have written about this fascinating topic — click here.

We are experiencing technical difficulties

February 3, 2017

Notice to the World:

unknownWe are currently experiencing technical difficulties. We apologize for any inconvenience. Please be patient. We hope to have normal service restored
. . . in about four years.



My wet dreams of The Gambia

February 1, 2017

As America’s president trashes a world order that has sustained peace and rising global prosperity, it is reassuring to know that progress is still nevertheless happening.

I wrote in 2013 about it happening in Africa, despite a long dire history. I mentioned South Sudan, but unfortunately, since then it’s exhibited the worst of Africa’s baleful syndromes. It’s not simply ethnic conflict; it’s stoked and exploited by individuals for the sake of their own power and enrichment, looting the state. But South Sudan is only one of more than fifty African nations; and more are climbing out of that syndrome than are falling into it.

images-1I also wrote there of Côte D’Ivoire (Ivory Coast). In 2010, President Gbagbo lost a presidential election, but refused to give up power. When I first heard that news, I said to myself, “How many will die?” The answer was in the thousands. But in the end, after a short civil war, with the help of French forces, Gbagbo was not only ousted but arrested and sent for trial to the International Criminal Court in the Hague. Now that’s progress.

More recently, President Yahya Jammeh of The Gambia (another small African nation) similarly lost an election and refused to leave. “Here we go again,” I said to myself.



Jammeh had been in power since a 1994 coup, and was not a nice man. It was actually surprising that a real election was held, in which a real opponent was tolerated, and in which votes were counted fairly. I suspect that Jammeh was actually surprised he didn’t win. Guys like that often become such narcissists with such bloated egos they imagine everyone loves them, and surround themselves with toadies who flatter those delusions (sound familiar?). Maybe Jammeh thought people actually like being tortured.

Yet, when he lost, Jammeh at first — another surprise — said he’d accept the result and even graciously congratulated the winner. But then he changed his mind; maybe because people started talking about an accounting for his past crimes. “Here we go again.”

But this is not your father’s Africa any more. In fact, neighboring African nations took a stand, saying this kind of crap would no longer be tolerated in their midst. And it was not just talk. They sent troops into The Gambia.

images-3Please linger upon this breathtaking fact. African nations sent soldiers into a neighbor country, not to pillage it, but to help enforce an election result. This is, for an idealist liberal interventionist like me, the stuff of wet dreams.

And it succeeded. Jammeh has stood down and flown out of the country into exile (taking with him millions in booty, including shipment of several posh cars). Unlike in the case of Ivory Coast, there was no bloodshed.

Note that this was not a triumph of pacifism. Nobody favors war, but a pacifist ethic doesn’t help us resolve real conflicts. Negotiation and diplomacy are all very nice; those African nations did engage in diplomacy and negotiation with Jammeh; but they backed it up with guns, and that made the difference.

A world like this is good for America’s own national interest. This is what America should be actively promoting.