So 11/9 Happened

I’m sitting here at 2:00 AM and I should probably go to bed. But that’s not what’s happening. I can’t go to bed right now, because my country apparently just elected Donald Trump to be its next president. A lot of things are running through my head and if I don’t let them out, they’re going to keep me up all night.

The smug, self-satisfied part of me wants to say that I called this. As soon as Trump began his inexplicable ascendancy, I feared that the Democrats would go through with their coronation of Hillary Clinton. She was the wrong candidate to run against Trump. In fact, she may have been the only wrong candidate to run against Trump, and the DNC paving the way for her candidacy just made it easier for a wannabe fascist who stumbled past a field of terrible Republican candidates to somehow rise to the highest office in the country.

It’s not that I hate Hillary Clinton. She’s a centrist Democrat and by-and-large, that is fine with me. I want better, but I’m also the worst kind of pragmatic voter who still feels pretty good about supporting Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, despite his many disappointments. The problem with Hillary Clinton is that she is an avatar of literally everything the American Electorate is mad about in The Year of Our Lord 2016. She is the ultimate political insider, to the point where she has actually lived in the White House. She was a candidate who personally took thousands in speaking fees from Goldman Sachs, a company that has become literally synonymous with economic corruption. And she is tied, fairly or not, to the trade deals that wrecked certain parts of midwestern industrial America, disappointing healthcare reform, backroom deals, and spectacularly disastrous foreign policy in the middle-east. Her vote for Iraq War II and subsequent support for Libyan intervention during her time as Secretary of State is almost comical in hindsight. The world (rightfully) mocked Trump when he called Clinton “the founder of ISIS” but the metaphorical sentiment isn’t out of place. Even though I agree with her general aims, and understand how she was fooled into supporting some real bad shit in the middle-east, the chaos there still has her fingerprints all over it.

And there was no legitimate attempt to distance Clinton from her foreign policy sins. Over the last few months, her campaign crowed about the endorsement of Henry Kissinger and Colin Powell, who are best known for orchestrating the illegitimate bombing and/or invasion of foreign countries. I have no idea why anyone would want to tie themself to those two men but, hey, whatever, you can’t turn down the endorsement of a respected war criminal.

Despite all this, the Democrats nevertheless rolled out the red carpet for her nomination, and didn’t invite any serious contenders to the primary election. Joe Biden didn’t run, though that may have been for personal reasons. Elizabeth Warren, my personal choice if I’d been given free reign of D-leaning politicians, didn’t step up. Cory Booker didn’t run, and neither did any number of potential nominees, because after 2008 this was Clinton’s year. Everyone got out of her way. Except, of course, for a Senator who didn’t even identify as a Democrat. A 75 year old Jewish Socialist who couldn’t always be bothered to comb his hair. Bernie Sanders didn’t back down, even though his campaign initially felt like a vanity/publicity stunt. He managed to get votes. He won states. Against all odds, he actually made the primary a little difficult for Hillary Clinton–a former senator, secretary of state, and first lady who was (is) eminently qualified and comfortably centrist.

For some reason, this didn’t give the establishment pause. Even though maybe–just maybe–they should have seen a pattern. Eight years ago, an African American named Barack Hussein Obama managed to defeat the (also at the time) eminently qualified Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. And history almost repeated itself, with yet another remarkably sincere, progressive candidate who (on his face) should have had no chance to win. But, whatever, it was Clinton’s turn. She worked hard and she deserved the nomination and she got it.

This became increasingly concerning as we all realized Donald Trump would be the Republican nominee. Unlike the other R candidates, he managed to gin up an outsider persona and was able to position himself as the anti-establishment messiah to a bunch of people who were really quite frustrated with the establishment. This should have given Democrats pause, especially when their out-of-nowhere insurgent challenger was even more of an anti-establishment reformer. But, whatever, once again it was Clinton’s turn. She worked hard and she deserved the nomination and she got it.

I want to re-iterate: I agree that Clinton worked hard. I agree that she was qualified. I don’t hate her or despise her or anything. Her warhawking scares the hell out of me, but I find it better than anything the Republicans have offered and, without any reservations, I voted for her about 14 hours ago. I wanted her to win. I was #WithHer. But I was still afraid, because she was still a hard sell. I’m a pragmatist who will choose the lesser evil when offered, but I know that’s not true of every voter.

Trump’s entire appeal was disruption. He is not a politician. He is not polished. He is not controlled. He is chaos laid bare across the political world and if he will not remake what we hate, he will destroy it. A majority (god damn it) of Americans didn’t vote for him because of his experience or his policy credentials, but for the lack thereof. They believe the country and the government have failed them and breaking everything is at least halfway to fixing everything. Clinton, of all people, had no answer to this. If she was not the architect of everything they hated, she was the steward. She had no response to him but to call him vulgar. That was true, but (once again) her unique position made that argument fall flat. I hate hate hate to taint Hillary with her husband’s sins, but when her surrogates said “we can’t put a man accused of sexual assault in the White House”, it was impossible to forget we did exactly that 24 years ago with Bill Clinton. Was that Hillary’s fault? No. But she was uniquely unable to weaponize the most viscerally disgusting part of Donald Trump against him.

I don’t want to spend this entire post hating on Hillary, because that’s not fair. In any other year, she was a fine candidate. Too conservative in general and probably a little Nixonian with the paranoia, but impeccably qualified. She would have been a tick to the right from Obama, which is bad but not the disaster we’re currently staring down. I wanted Warren, then I wanted Sanders, but I would have settled with Hillary (but with the caveat I’d be criticizing any kind of warhawk foreign policy). Clinton’s not entirely to blame here.

And I don’t want to downplay the effect misogyny had here. A very qualified woman lost to a man who was (probably) running his campaign as either a publicity stunt or a joke. That’s fucking terrible. We’ll never know exactly the effects of misogyny on the race (almost all demographics shockingly tilted more towards Trump than Romney in 2012) but I won’t pretend they aren’t there. Does Clinton win if she’s a man? Hell if I know. Given how she entered national politics, that’s literally an unanswerable question in our timeline. But I wager she does a little better, at the least. That sucks, because “a little better” probably prevents President Donald Trump.

What do I do with any of this? I don’t even know. By plowing ahead with a nomination-by-default, he Democrats stumbled into a trap the Republicans accidentally set by running their own terrible primary and letting a reality TV show host participate. Now the US is looking at its own Silvio Berlusconi and wondering what went wrong. I don’t have an answer to that, but I suspect it originates back when the democrats decided to hold an inauguration rather than a primary.

 

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Brian Williams, Lies, and Memory

I don’t often write about being a lawyer. There are good reasons for that: pesky things like attorney-client privilege, ethical duties, and–perhaps most importantly–there’ls nothing interesting about what I do. Now, I’m not one of the really boring lawyers: transactional attorneys who draft contracts and wills and… Well, I’m not even sure what they do to fill their days. I work in litigation, which means I actually am in the courtroom a fair amount, and I do get to argue at hearings and take testimony. But it’s still completely boring 99 percent of the time. I don’t want to write about boring things.

Today, though, I thought I’d further dilute my brand by discussing a few things I’ve learned at the cost of wearing a tie every day.

Earlier this week, Brian Williams, who is best known for his cameos on the hit sitcom 30 Rock, recanted an oft-repeated story of his: that he was in a helicopter that was shot down in Iraq. Turns out that some other folks who were in that helicopter got sick of hearing the story and finally decided to call him out on it. Williams was actually in a different helicopter nearby. That helicopter did have to land when the other one was shot down, but that’s a little less dramatic than the story Williams was telling.

In admitting his fault, Williams claimed that the stress and confusion of the moment, compounded by watching footage later, caused him to remember the events differently than they actually occurred. On its face, that sounds ridiculous. But it seems very familiar.

People tell me things that aren’t true all the time. It’s a pretty common theme of my job. Often times these untruths merely aren’t believable. Other times, they are verifiably false. Witnesses, clients, opponents… Everyone does it. I don’t believe anyone tells the truth. I don’t think I would tell the truth if asked enough questions. And it isn’t because I’m a liar. Notice, I’m not saying these people are telling me lies. They’re just telling me things that aren’t true.

They do this because they trust their memory. And I don’t blame them for it. For the most part, I trust my memory too, if only because the other option is existential terror. But while our memories are good at a lot of things, especially with the help of repetition, they are terrible storytellers.

Most of the cases I work on deal with very traumatic events that happened over a year ago. These are events that no one will ever forget–certain images, thoughts, feelings will be seared in their mind forever–but that isn’t a guarantee of how well they will be remembered. Certain details will recede, others will come to the forefront. The order of events may get jumbled up. If the event happened while they were in the middle of doing something they do every day–like crossing the street to get to work–details from other days may get mixed into the pile. But that’s not where the real damage happens.

The real damage happens when they begin to tell the story. They tell their families, they tell their doctors. And their story gets repeated back to them. Sometimes the people repeating it back tell it wrong and the person assimilates those wrong details into their own memories, then repeats it back to another person. The story grows and as it does, the story changes. But more importantly, the memory changes.

The power of suggestion is a hell of a thing and our memories aren’t nearly strong enough to resist it. The worst thing, perhaps, is that this even happens to actual liars. They start out telling something that isn’t true because it helps their case. But then they repeat it enough times, defend it and build a context around it, and pretty soon they believe it. Their memory adjusts to include the falsehood, and then they doubt that they ever intended to lie about it in the first place.
Now, the story that Brian Williams told is a pretty tall tale. He didn’t recount the events out of order, or replace a detail. He put himself on a completely different helicopter. I’m not going to say for sure whether he lied the first time he told the story, but I would be willing to bet he wasn’t lying a few years later. By that point his brain, in its neverending quest to turn observations into narratives, took the footage he watched of the other helicopter and married itself to his story.

When you think about it, this makes a lot more sense than to believe that Williams, who can’t be a total idiot, continued to tell a story he knew was a lie, that could easily be disproven by a number of people, and could destroy his career. By now, he’s really got nothing to gain from repeating the tale and everything to lose. If he knew it was a lie, why didn’t he bury it–never speak of it again. Even in the terrifying ever-connected world of the internet, the story might have mostly disappeared. No, the reason he kept repeating it was because I think it became the truth to him.

I can’t go into details, but I’ve seen this before. It can be both frustrating and terrifying, because there is no one harder to defend than someone who truthfully believes something that is plainly not true.

This is not (necessarily) a defense of Brian Williams. I have no idea why he told the story the first time. But this story is important because it is a high profile example of how shitty our memories can be, and how it’s not always our fault. It’s why an eyewitness account is often a terrible piece of evidence, especially if the person has been discussing the event with someone who might be biased. It’s why we should take come claims with a grain of salt, but also why we shouldn’t demonize people when parts of their story turn out to be untrue. They might not be lying. They might be telling their truth, and it just doesn’t line up with what actually happened.

A Blog…Take 3

So I’m not very good at blogging.

I’ve tried it a couple times already and I tend to stop posting. Don’t worry. I have excuses. The first time, I was planning on starting a blog about law school. I was advised not to do that by some of my professors. So I didn’t. The second time, on this very blog, a variety of things happened. I started writing a novel. I got a summer job that took up a ton of time. I wrote two detailed fictional posts about Cardinals pitchers getting injured. And then both of those pitchers actually got seriously injured. That wasn’t very encouraging.

But that’s all in the past. I’m going to do this again. I’m going to do it right. Baseball season is about to start. The Cardinals are shaping up to be an amusing trainwreck. Albert Pujols is entering his contract year, Lance Berkman is starting in the outfield, and the team is now home to both Ryan Theriot and Nick Punto. The only thing on the horizon for me is the bar exam and I’m going to need a break from studying. Hopefully blogging will fill that need. Who knows? Maybe this time I can make it work.

Let’s try this one more time.