What I missed while I was in West Virginia

Well, I spent the last week road tripping to West Virginia on business, and I came back to find that the United States is the closest it’s been to nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis more than five decades ago.

For the record, it was my first time in West Virginia, and while I try hard not to stereotype, everybody there looked exactly like I expected them to. Lots of flannel shirts and trucker hats. The only disappointment was that people weren’t walking down the streets wearing coal miner uniforms.

But I can safely say that I didn’t meet a single unkind person in my brief time in the state. The more I travel south, the more I can confirm that southern hospitality is indeed a real thing.

IMG_3451

They don’t call West Virginia the Mountain State for nothing

Now I can cross West Virginia off my travel bucket list … said no one ever.

And while being surrounded my mountains affords you a certain feeling of detachment that lets you distance yourself from the rest of the world, I did still try to keep up with the news. Turns out a lot happened while I was away.

As we all know, North Korea is a rogue nation that is recklessly building up its nuclear arsenal. Their government is a true dictatorship to the core, with a history of starving and imprisoning its people for even the tamest of offenses. Simple accommodations like electricity and television in homes are scarce, bordering on nonexistent.

And led by such an unstable figure such as 33-year-old Kim Jong-un, the situation obviously requires a great deal of subtlety and diplomacy to avoid setting off a domino effect that ends with nuclear catastrophe.

So naturally, Donald Trump is the perfect man for the job! Subtlety and diplomacy just happen to be his strong points.

North Korean officials have publicly stated that any threats to their nation would be met with a nuclear strike. They may be bluffing. But that’s not something I want to find out, and it’s hard to feel comfortable when we have nearly as unpredictable of a leader making our decisions.

Kim Jong-un

Sound bites like “the era of strategic patience is over” may sound good on TV, but could realistically have devastating effects. Pretending you’re sending a naval armada may look tough, but in reality, it’s the nuclear equivalent of lighting a match in a tinderbox.

I always figured that one day this blog would end because I became too busy or too lazy, and not because of nuclear extinction. So we’ll see.

What else happened last week? Well, Arkansas, still embattled in legal wrangling over their 10-day execution fest, was able to go through with one execution of African-American prisoner and convicted murderer Ledell Lee, after the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to let it happen. A double execution is also planned for Monday night.

Which means that Neil Gorsuch’s first decision as a Supreme Court Justice was to kill a black man.

Sounds about right.

But by far the biggest news that happened over the last several days is the French French electionspresidential election. The nation picked its top two candidates on Sunday, choosing centrist Emmanuel Macron and right-wing sensationalist and known Muslim hater Marine La Pen, who will now compete in a runoff next month in what is set to be a major turning point in the history of Europe.

Political experts foresaw this as a watershed election not only for France, but the entire continent and the future of the European Union. And now, the French people have a choice to do what the United Kingdom and United States failed to do – reject populism and xenophobia and join together behind a more unifying force.

This upcoming vote deserves a lot more attention, and I’ll devote a post to it in the near future in lieu of making this one too much of a currents event overload.

Bearing that in mind, I fortunately was unable to even touch on Bill O’Reilly!

Pun absolutely and horribly intended.

General rule of thumb: don’t compare the Holocaust to anything

It’s been about a week since I discussed politics, and since then, the entire world has basically changed course.

And that’s not really much of an exaggeration.

Early last week, the world was exposed to shocking visceral images of incapacitated children, poisoned by sarin gas in what appears to have been a chemical weapons attack by the authoritarian Syrian government led by President Bashar al-Assad. The use of chemical weapons is not only outlawed by the United Nations, but also in an agreement between Syria, Russia, and the U.S. in 2013 after the country used chemical weapons against its people the first time.

In response to the horrific attack, President Trump – who categorically denounced any type of intervention in Syria four years ago – launched a surprise missile attack on a Syrian air base.

Russia, who has helped prop up the Assad regime during the country’s six-year civil war to protect its own interests in the region, condemned the attack.

The United States, in turn, accused Russia of covering up the Syrian government’s role in the attack. And this was all on the eve of Thursday’s meeting between Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Vladimir Putin, which, until the two finally sat down, no one was sure was actually going to happen.

And just like that, the Trump-Putin bromance has finally come to an end.

Sean Spicer

While many have praised Trump for his decisive action, others have been critical of his spontaneous action that in all likelihood was taken without an overall strategic plan. Others say it’s a smokescreen to distract us from discussing U.S.-Russia collusion.

But this, without a doubt, begins a new chapter in our country’s role in the Middle East, as well as our relations with Russia. We knew Trump’s footprint would be left on the geopolitical landscape. This is it. And now we see where we go from here.

Unbelievably, these seismic events were still outshadowed this week by the incomprehensible remarks by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who, without any provocation, essentially downplayed Adolf Hitler’s cruelty and rewrote history to pretend like he never gassed and murdered more than six million Jews.

The statements were made during a White House press briefing, which drew audible gasps from reporters in attendance, and led to Spicer issuing an apologetic statement afterwards. But the outcry over his remarks was so great that he appeared on camera on CNN to issue a further apology later in the day. He then spent all of Wednesday on an apology tour.

Oh, Sean. I mean, the man has the hardest job in the world, being forced to justify the nonsensical actions, statements and tweets of Donald Trump to the press. But watching him try to back away from his own words was like watching a trainwreck in action.

Adding insult to injury, he referred to Nazi death camps as “Holocaust centers,” as if they were some type of museum, and misstated the name of the Syrian president.

And on top of that, he said it during Passover.

It’s pretty much common sense. Whether you’re talking to a friend, a colleague, your pet dog, or especially the entire national press corps, do not draw comparisons to the Holocaust. And don’t show sympathy for Adolf Hitler.

It’s pretty much the basic rule of humanity.

Melissa McCarthy … you’re up.

O Brother, Where Art Thou Civil Liberties?

Some of President Obama’s most well-known accomplishments are also his most controversial. At least depending on who you ask.

To Democrats, the Affordable Care Act is a historic leap forward towards universal health care, and a saving grace for the sick and the poor.

To Republicans, the Affordable Care Act is the American version of the Final Solution.

Then there’s the Iran nuclear deal. From one perspective, the years-long negotiations represent an unprecedented diplomatic effort to curb a global threat while avoiding violent confrontation.

Donald Trump called it “the worst deal ever negotiated.”

This is the case with every president there’s ever been. At the time, people on both sides of the ideological aisle view everything through completely different lenses, and thus have varying opinions. Even Abraham Lincoln was heavily derided during his presidency.

It’s also why it takes decades to determine a president’s legacy. Because that is when we will have the appropriate data available to analyze the tangible consequences and ramifications that resulted from their actions.

So while we can certainly laud the manner and conduct in which Obama handled himself during his eight years in his office, and how well he represented our country on a global stage, any firm declarations of Obama’s presidential legacy from a legislative perspective are highly premature.

That all being said, if there’s one thing Obama tried to do that we can assess right now, it was his attempt to protect the civil liberties of all Americans.

Sessions

Ensuring civil liberties has a been more than a century-old quest for America. It was almost exactly 100 years after Lincoln freed the slaves when the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson was forced to pass the Civil Rights and Act and the Voting Rights Act to guarantee that black people enjoyed the same privileges as white people under the law.

100 years.

Progress in America has always been met with instant resistance. The slaves are freed? OK, here are the Jim Crow laws. Blacks can vote? OK, but here’s a poll tax.

Even this very decade, the Supreme Court nullified parts of the Voting Rights Act, lifting a clause that prevented southern states with a history of racial discrimination from passing restrictive voter laws. Shortly after, these states began passing strict voter ID laws, which disproportionately affects black voters.

Under Obama, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division spent significant time devoted towards investigating police departments in cities that faced severe racial unrest, like in Chicago, Baltimore and Ferguson, and determined that they employed a culture of systematic discrimination.

Following these studies, the department worked with the cities on plans for reform.

And now, under Attorney General Jeff Sessions – who has a long history of disregarding civil rights – the Justice Department has asked for a review of federal agreements with these law enforcement agencies, signaling that it may seek to reverse many, if not all, of the decrees made by Obama’s justice department.

This is as clear of a signal that we have seen that this administration is indifferent towards protecting our nation’s most vulnerable and historically disenfranchised citizens.

The political news since Trump took office has been a mess. There’s so much noise coming from all directions, and it’s easy – and understandable – to remain willfully ignorant and just ignore all that’s happening. And I honestly don’t blame anyone for that. Life is complicated already without outside interference.

But this is the reality of what is actually happening. Real people are being impacted, and the strides we’ve made as nation for more than a century are being roadblocked.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Mr. Gorsuch goes to Washington

It was below freezing temperatures one January evening in 2009 in Illinois when a man named Alphonse Maddin, driving a truck attached to a trailer for TransAm Trucking, found himself stranded shortly before midnight.

It turned out his truck was fine, but the trailer’s brake stopped working, and thus couldn’t be towed along. Upon returning to his truck, the heat also wasn’t functioning.

Maddin notified TransAm, which told him to wait for help. He did. Hours passed, and Maddin fell asleep. When he awoke, he felt numbness in his torso and feet. He called TransAM again, which told him to keep waiting, or to drag the trailer on its frozen brakes.

Not long after, Maddin, fearing for his life, unhitched the trailer and took off. Assistance eventually arrived and the trailer was recovered.

Maddin was fired for disobeying orders.

He later sued the company, under a statute by the Department of Labor that says employees do not have to operate their vehicle if they have reasonable apprehension about a serious injury.

TransAm contended that Maddin was not protected by this statute because he did, in fact, operate his vehicle.

An independent arbiter ruled in Maddin’s favor that the dismissal was illegal. Appeals ensued, and an appellate court of three judges backed the arbiter’s decision, ruling 2-1 in favor of Maddin.

The one man who ruled in favor of TransAm?

Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch.

Neil Gorsuch hearing

Now I’m not telling you this story to make you mad, or to confirm anyone’s worst fear about this judge who has been previously hailed for his conservative rulings.

In fact, I was out sick from work today, and watched a significant chunk of Gorsuch’s hearing before the Senate. From what I saw, I don’t think anybody could have watched the proceedings and thought that he is anything but an extremely intelligent man.

He clearly takes his job as an interpreter of the law very seriously, and was very disciplined in his responses to not indicate that he would have any premeditated ideological leanings.

So if he was conning us, then he sure fooled me.

Some of the highlights included his statement that “No man is above the law,” when asked about potential presidential overreach; and when asked how he would have responded if Trump asked him to reverse Roe vs. Wade (which legalized abortion nationally), he said “I would have walked out the door.”

But the reason I shared that story in the beginning is because it is clear that Gorsuch interprets rules and the law literally, regardless of morality. And that is a good or bad thing, depending on how you choose to perceive it.

In his minority opinion, Gorsuch agreed that since Maddin did indeed operate his vehicle, he lost protection under the Department of Labor statute, because that is exactly how it is worded.

Gorsuch will almost certainly be confirmed. And people can take heart in knowing that he is a competent judge who understands that the law exists to hold everybody in this country accountable, no matter how powerful or influential they are.

But his tenure as a justice of our nation’s highest court will always be questioned, because of the circumstances in which he eventually obtained the seat, and because of the character of the man who selected him.

Never forget Merrick Garland. (Odds say we all forget by June).

And if you’re thinking that there’s no way I watched an entire day of of Supreme Court hearings and was not once tempted to run out to Taco Bell to get a Taco Supreme… then you’d be 100 percent right.

The head-scratching ‘controversy’ over Beauty and the Beast’s openly gay character

James Comey speaks.

Speak again bright angel. For thou art as glorious to this night, being o’er my head, as is a wingèd messenger of heaven, unto the white, upturnèd, wondering eyes.

Last time James Comey opened his mouth to the public, his words resulted in a Donald Trump presidency.

This time, Comey’s appearance before Congress places a major cloud of suspicion over our current president.

But it’s important to understand exactly where we go from here. This investigation may take months — if not years — to complete. Until then, we won’t categorically know if Trump or his allies are guilty of any type of collusion. And I say that knowing full well that Republican officials had no problem declaring Hillary Clinton “guilty” before having any semblance of evidence of quid pro quo between the State Department and donors to her foundation.

James Comey

What these remarkable statements by Comey do accomplish in the short term, however, is putting a fracture into Donald Trump’s integrity.

Trump has lied, and lied, and lied some more, and until now it’s done nothing to weaken his power or influence. For months, he denied that he has anything to do with Russia.

Well, this isn’t coming from journalists anymore. It’s not from pundits or Democratic lawmakers. This is the director of the FBI. One can hope that today’s events give people a greater appreciation of the type of man our president is.

Stay tuned.

Now let’s discuss something that is the complete opposite of a scandal. Beauty and the Beast.

The film, starring Emma Watson as Belle and Dan Stevens and Beast, broke the opening weekend box office record for the month of March this past weekend, grossing $170 million domestically.

But some people are choosing to talk about the fact that the movie includes Disney’s first explicitly gay character. 

A drive-in movie theater in Alabama is refusing to show the movie, and even some countries are considering boycotting it.

Now, before we go ahead and hold all Republicans, conservatives and Catholics responsible for this nonsense, let’s remember that not every one feels the same way as the people who own this Alabama drive-in. Indeed, the Christian Post seriously questioned the backlash.

But it’s even more nauseating to hear about the opposition to the character when you consider its genesis.

Josh gad BatB

The original Beauty and the Beast, the animated classic that everyone loves, was co-composed by a gay man, Howard Ashman, as he was dying with AIDS. Ashman’s friends have publicly stated that the Beast and his “sickness” was intended by Ashman as a direct metaphor for the AIDS epidemic that began decimating America in the ’80s.

Ashman died in 1991, the same year Beauty and the Beast was released.

So if you liked the original movie — which you’re lying if you don’t — then you should know that it wouldn’t exist without a gay man. Neither would the Little Mermaid, for that matter, which Ashman also composed. Oh, and he also had posthumous song credits on this smaller, low-budget animated film called Aladdin.

More of a Lion King fan? Elton John says hi.

The more recent Beauty and the Beast is directed by Tom Condon, who is gay. And people speculate that his decision to make a character gay was in direct homage to Ashman.

Given that history, criticizing Beauty and the Beast for having a gay character is no different than criticizing more than two decades of artistic innovation that led to so many of the joys present in today’s culture as well as in all mediums of entertainment. It’s equal to criticizing the person responsible for enriching millions of childhoods.

And for what it’s worth, Ewan McGregor, who plays the candlestick Lumiere in the film, also thinks the controversy is stupid. 

It’s easy to hate something.

What’s harder is to take the time to understand why.

One can choose to be close-minded and let things that conflict with your archaic worldview cause you to be angry. Or, you can be open-minded and accepting and happy.

To the former, there’s plenty of room at the table to join us.

Be our guest.

The good, the bad and the ugly Republican healthcare bill

As most of you know, Republican lawmakers finally took the first step in fulfilling their near decade-long promise to repeal and replace Obamacare last week by introducing their own alternative legislation, the American Health Care Act, which would reshape healthcare access throughout the country.

Most notably, the bill would eliminate the Obamacare mandate that all Americans have healthcare, or pay a penalty.

The mandate – while unpopular – has been repeatedly deemed necessary by economists and health care experts, noting that for healthcare to actually be affordable, a bounty of young, healthy people needed to be buying insurance to offset the costs of all the sick people, whom, historically, pay the highest prices for their extensive health coverage needs, and thus are the most expensive to insure.

The national mood towards Obamacare has changed drastically since its implementation several years ago, holding true to the adage — you don’t know what you’ve got until its gone.

An awakening has suddenly blossomed among the public of the imminent consequences of repealing Obamacare: the loss of health coverage for tens of millions of Americans who gained eligibility under the law, thanks to Medicaid expansion and the qualification that young adults can stay on their parents’ plan up to age 27, in addition to the aforementioned mandate.

Paul Ryan AHCA

As a result, thousands of constituents have stormed their representatives’ offices to demand they vote against an Obamacare repeal, among many other things. Survivors of various health issues have publicly stated that they wouldn’t be alive today without Obamacare.

And yet, Republicans, pressed on, culminating with this new bill introduced last week. But despite the party’s tough rhetoric, the bill contains some remarkable concessions, maintaining many provisions of Obamacare – a clear testament to the fact that America is now too deep in healthcare reform to turn back now.

Following its introduction, Donald Trump lauded the bill as the fulfillment of his campaign promise to replace Obamacare, while throwing continuous jabs at the “imploding” state of his predecessor’s signature legislative accomplishment.

Barely minutes later, conservative Republican lawmakers held a press conference to denounce the bill, calling it Obamacare 2.0, and saying it doesn’t accomplish their desire of a full, categorical repeal.

And moderate Republicans from swing states are concerned that their constituents will turn against them if they endorse the bill.

Democrats, naturally, are united against the bill. As are nearly every professional medical agency.

US President Barack Obama gives a thumbs

Upon further analysis of the bill, it became apparent that the AHCA is basically a major tax cut for wealthy Americans disguised as a healthcare bill.

And just when support was sinking lower and lower, the Congressional Budget Office – which the White House was preemptively attacking – announced on Monday that the AHCA would result in the loss of health care coverage for approximately 24 million people.

In other words, it’s dead on arrival.

There’s a reason why presidents dating back to the early 1900s have tried, and failed, to implement health care reform – because it’s freaking hard. Obama got it done. It was not without criticism, but as a result, millions more people have health insurance than before he was in office.

Republicans talked themselves into this mess by promising to repeal Obamacare, and making it seem like it would be a piece of cake. They raised expectations by passing dozens of bills to repeal Obamacare over the last several years that were immediately vetoed by Obama.

And now, in control of the House, Senate and presidency, they have the opportunity to do it, and they’re realizing just how hard it is.

It’s ironic, but Obamacare may end up being the downfall of the Republican Party under Donald Trump.

But pay attention to what happens. It’s easy to observe from the sidelines, and even cheer that you are no longer penalized for failing to purchase health insurance if this bill somehow passes.

But one day, if you get sick, it could be your life that’s on the line … and what’s happening now was the signature moment that impacted that care that you will one day receive.

If you won’t care for the sick people, then maybe you’ll at least care about future sick you.

Don’t make future sick you want to punch young healthy you in the face.

If you’re tired of hating Trump all the time, direct some towards this dude from the Netherlands

On March 15, the Netherlands will hold their parliamentary elections, where they essentially elect their local representatives in government, called Members of Parliament, our version of Congress.

Unlike the United States, countries with parliamentary systems almost always have several parties to choose from, which gives residents the opportunity to have a more diverse government that better represents the will of the people.

If one political party has enough of their MPs elected to form a majority (for example, 76 representatives in a parliament of 150 seats), then they essentially control the government and their party leader likely becomes prime minister. If there’s no majority, parties form coalitions until they have one, and the leader of the party that got the most votes still usually becomes prime minister.

Normally this is all trivial stuff and few people outside the Netherlands cares what happens in their elections.

In fact, unless you’re talking about planning a trip to Amsterdam with the bros, few Americans have any interest at all in discussing the Netherlands.

But on March 15, the stakes in the Netherlands have never been higher.

AMsterdam

And that’s because the election has basically become a referendum on far-right populist ideologies that are being increasingly espoused by radically conservative politicians across the world, most notably in the U.S. by Donald Trump.

With populist movements threatening to gain influence in countries like France and Germany, the Netherlands elections are being viewed as a global bellwether of the European political temperature – especially since Netherlands is historically one of the most socially liberal countries in the world.

Their version of Donald Trump? A man by the name of Geert Wilders (last name pronounced Vilders), a bleached-blonde, slimy looking, Islam-hating, refugee-loathing agitator who has stirred the pot within his country and has had a far-reaching influence worldwide.

He’s proposed closing all mosques, banning the Qu’ran, and has called the hijab a “useless piece of cloth.” He’s also being partly funded by American conservative groups.

And as recently as a couple of weeks ago, his populist “Party of Freedom” was predicted to take the most seats in parliament in the upcoming elections. Closer to the election, the outcome looks a little murkier, but Wilders’s goal of instilling far-right ideologies into the country has already been accomplished.

Because his party is so unpopular among his fellow politicians, it’s highly unlikely that Wilders would be able to form a coalition even if his party wins the most seats, meaning he will not likely become the country’s next government chief.

Geert Wilders

But this could set the stage for far-right politics to take hold across western Europe. If Wilders reins victorious, will Marine Le Pen follow in France? Will Frauke Petry shake up Germany?

We received a sort-of heartening precursor for what’s to come when Austrians rejected a far-right candidate during their most recent elections.

But Geert Wilders isn’t comparable to Trump just because of his views, but because of his celebrity and his mannerisms. For one, he tweets a lot. And he’s often followed in public by a gaggle of reporters.

Wilders has been the subject of death threats, and as a result has lived a very isolated life where he reportedly only sees his wife a couple times a week, sleeps in a different place every night, and is under 24-hour police surveillance.

And unlike Trump, he has actually been legally charged for inciting discrimination.

On March 15 we will have a clearer answer as to whether people like Trump are the new normal.

And if that happens, threatening to leave your country may no longer be a viable option to escape populism.

Those seven planets we discovered a couple of weeks ago…

Are they inhabitable yet?