Browsings — September 12, 2018, 5:44 pm

“Open Letter to Senate Judiciary Committee”

Just as the framers of the Constitution had no way of conceiving of a gun like the AR-15, it’s also unlikely they could’ve imagined that the average American lifespan would become so long—or that nominating Supreme Court justices would become so coveted an opportunity by the executive branch. Even when Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement was merely hypothetical, the White House had publicly named Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh a possible replacement. Given his response to a question about a particular Supreme Court decision in the January-February 1999 issue of Washington Lawyer, it’s easy to see why he would be of interest to the Trump Administration: “[United States v.] Nixon took away the power of the president to control information in the executive branch by holding that the courts had power and jurisdiction to order the president to disclose information in response to a subpoena sought by a subordinate executive branch official.” Yet after Kavanaugh’s nomination, there has been little resistance from the commentariat—with the New York Times, Boston Globe, and Los Angeles Times each only publishing one op-ed opposing his confirmation. As protests against Kavanaugh have taken place inside the chambers of Congress and online, United Progressives took a very different tack, purchasing an advertisement in the print edition of the Washington Post. When reached for comment, Steve Clapp, their co-founder, wrote:

“I’ve been a progressive for fifty years. I fought (that’s what protests were then) in the streets of Oakland, San Francisco, Palo Alto, and London against involuntary conscription (the draft), against the longest war in American history and for setting standards of what chemicals and pollutants could be put in the air, the water and land … I’ve interacted with progressives at all levels throughout the years, meeting with some of the national leaders. And though I support Our Revolution, DFA action, Indivisible, Justice Democrats, and Color of Change, and interact with them on social media, I have no official relationship with them. Like the Sixties, progressive action mounted from every corner of the country with individuals and groups initiating their own actions to deal with this historical moment calls for all hands on deck. That’s true grassroots action and pure politics addressing a serious present need—there are no rules, you just do it. The seriousness of the swing vote turning to a consistent fifth vote to roll back all of the social and political progress of the last seventy years is why I wrote the letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee. There is an absence of leadership and a clear path forward in this historical moment where a monumental decision is being made while there has effectively been a coup in the executive branch of government. We actually don’t know who is running the United States government. I believe that’s why President Obama came loose and jumped into the fight. With the president under criminal investigation and people in and out of his own administration attesting that he is not mentally fit to discharge the duties of his office, measured leaders should not be taking monumental decisions based on the recommendations of this unstable and perhaps unlawful president. It’s a violation of congressional responsibility, and it is being conducted unlawfully and should be postponed until the new Congress has been seated, and the issue of whether the president is fit to legitimately exercise the duties of his office has been resolved.”

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December 2018


Combustion Engines·

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On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
Rebirth of a Nation·

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Donald Trump’s presidency signals a profound but inchoate realignment of American politics. On the one hand, his administration may represent the consolidation of minority control by a Republican-dominated Senate under the leadership of a president who came to office after losing the popular vote by almost 3 million ballots. Such an imbalance of power could lead to a second civil war—indeed, the nation’s first and only great fraternal conflagration was sparked off in part for precisely this reason. On the other hand, Trump’s reign may be merely an interregnum, in which the old white power structure of the Republican Party is dying and a new oppositional coalition struggles to be born.

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Over the past three years, the city of South Tucson, Arizona, a largely Latino enclave nestled inside metropolitan Tucson, came close to abolishing its fire and police departments. It did sell off the library and cut back fire-truck crews from four to three people—whereupon two thirds of the fire department quit—and slashed the police force to just sixteen employees. “We’re a small city, just one square mile, surrounded by a larger city,” the finance director, Lourdes Aguirre, explained to me. “We have small-town dollars and big-city problems.”

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The Tragedy of Ted Cruz·

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When I saw Ted Cruz speak, in early August, it was at Underwood’s Cafeteria in Brownwood. He was on a weeklong swing through rural central Texas, hitting small towns and military bases that ensured him friendly, if not always entirely enthusiastic, crowds. In Brownwood, some in the audience of two hundred were still nibbling on peach cobbler as Cruz began with an anecdote about his win in a charity basketball game against ABC’s late-night host Jimmy Kimmel. They rewarded him with smug chuckles when he pointed out that “Hollywood celebrities” would be hurting over the defeat “for the next fifty years.” His pitch for votes was still an off-the-rack Tea Party platform, complete with warnings about the menace of creeping progressivism, delivered at a slightly mechanical pace but with lots of punch. The woman next to me remarked, “This is the fire in the gut! Like he had the first time!” referring to Cruz’s successful long-shot run in the 2011 Texas Republican Senate primary. And it’s true—the speech was exactly like one Cruz would have delivered in 2011, right down to one specific detail: he never mentioned Donald Trump by name.

Cruz recited almost verbatim the same things Trump lists as the administration’s accomplishments: the new tax legislation, reduced African-American unemployment, repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, and Neil Gorsuch’s appointment to the Supreme Court. But, in a mirror image of those in the #Resistance who refuse to ennoble Trump with the title “president,” Cruz only called him that.

Photograph of Ted Cruz © Ben Helton (detail)
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e is a nondescript man.

I’d never used that adjective about a client. Not until this one. My seventeenth. He’d requested an evening time and came Tuesdays at six-thirty. For months he didn’t tell me what he did.

The first session I said what I often said to begin: How can I help you?

I still think of what I do as a helping profession. And I liked the way the phrase echoed down my years; in my first job I’d been a salesgirl at a department store counter.

I want to work on my marriage, he said. I’m the problem.

His complaint was familiar. But I preferred a self-critical patient to a blamer.

It’s me, he said. My wife is a thoroughly good person.

Yawn, I thought, but said, Tell me more.

I don’t feel what I should for her.

What do you feel?

Photograph © Joseph S. Giacalone (detail)

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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