Daines says flag is a symbol but burning it is not expression

Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) at the roast of Green Goblin

Ours is a lively time for federal government. Just this morning, Republicans in the Senate released a health care bill they’ve been crafting for weeks. We’ve withdrawn from the Paris climate accords. According to the president, who is admittedly not a reliable source, the president is under investigation by special prosecutor. Now seems like a particularly thrilling moment to be a US senator. With a seat in that chamber, a person could shape history. In unrelated news, Sen. Steve Daines, Republican of Montana, has proposed a constitutional amendment to prohibit flag burning.

On Flag Day, his office issued a press release touting his plan to “give Congress the authority to prohibit burning of the American flag.” It included approving reactions form the Montana Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion on behalf of the Citizens Flag Alliance and, on the left, prominent American civil rights lawyer Alan Dershowitz the American Legion of Montana. Although the amendment looks like a slam dunk among Eisenhower-era social organizations, its reception in the press was more mixed. Here’s Jesse Chaney of the Helena Independent Record, on the campaign’s opinion about whether this isn’t the first restriction on free expression in American history:

Daines’ staff said the senator does not consider flag desecration to be a form of peaceful expression. They said his amendment would not limit anyone’s right to expression, but [would] distinguish flag desecration as conduct not protected by the Constitution. The senator’s staff noted that Congress already bans many other forms of conduct through criminal law.

I checked with a lawyer, and that last part is right: criminal law does ban many forms of conduct. But all expression is a form of conduct. It’s a subcategory. Daines’s argument is like saying, “That’s not a square; it’s a rhombus.” What distinguishes expression as a particular type of conduct is its symbolic meaning. Speaking aloud is conduct, but it is the symbolic content of the noise that we endeavor to keep free. And Sen. Daines himself calls the flag a symbol twice in the second paragraph of his press release. Quote:

The American flag has been a symbol of hope and freedom for centuries and ought to be respected. Our nation’s flag must be set apart as a protected symbol worthy of honor.

It’s almost like his argument has no underlying logical framework at all. Maybe it sounds better in the original Goblish. You can read many such cheap cracks and appeals to internal coherence in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent.

We will not be back tomorrow with Friday links. We will be driving to a wedding in Washington state, and the following week we’ll be in New York City with our girlfriend. There will be no Combat! blog from Monday, June 26th through Wednesday, July 5th, so that I can work on the goddamn novel and still have time to see the sights. Is this the longest vacation Combat! blog has taken in its nine-year tradition of existence? Yes it is. Will we all be okay? Probably. What am I, a futurologist?

John Osoff ran an ad that was just him leaning on a desk tweeting

You lost me.

Democrat Jon Ossoff has lost the most expensive race for a House seat in US history. Republican Karen Handel beat him by pert near four points, becoming the new representative of Georgia’s sixth congressional district and shattering Democrats’ hope of retaking the House with the aid of a fortunate meteor strike. This election was not very important. To hear FiveThirtyEight and various other pundits tell it, it wasn’t even good for a bellwether. The only thing we can say conclusively is that it occasioned the spending of more money—about $55 million, by the Times’s count—than was ever before spent on a congressional race.

Was it worth it? Not for Democrats, who only managed to wedge another loss for low-agenda centrism into their electoral postseason. I hesitate to say it was worth it for Republicans, either. They squeezed donors tightly to increase by one their majority in a chamber that seats 435. But at least a shitload of consultants got paid—and in an off year, no less. Say what you will about the Democrats’ recent streak of expensive moral victories; at least it’s funded commercials like this:

I’m no veteran campaign operative, but I think the idea for this advertisement was actually an idea for some tweets. What does this message gain from becoming a video? Maybe the campaign wanted to reach voters who watch television instead of using the internet but still admire people who stare numbly at their phones. Perhaps their research found that voters in GA-6 liked Jon Ossoff but wanted him to more strongly resemble a two-episode character on Veep. Or maybe the old ad-budget pie got sliced up in a way that left an off piece.

But wait, you say, ever on the lookout for opportunities to be charitable, this looks like B-roll footage. Maybe this ad was made from the kind of bland, soundless footage campaigns release publicly so that unaffiliated groups can use it in their own spots. The whole tweeting conceit is probably just a clever workaround. But no, the last frames inform us that the ad was paid for by Jon Ossoff for Congress and, almost as improbably, approved by Jon Ossoff.

It’s easy to second-guess the Democratic Party lately, and I think now is a good time to remember that no one else has demonstrated any better understanding of how to beat Republican candidates. But ads like this one explore the limits of campaigning without a strong policy agenda. To a lot of viewers, this is footage of a bland corporate type promising not to be Donald Trump. That doesn’t offer much to voters who worry that bland corporate types are running the country into the ground—a description that covers a substantial portion of the electorate, plus many of the people who hold themselves outside it. It’s funny how limp Democratic messaging has become. But only for a second, and then I get scared.

73 year-old man “lands in coma” after “encounter” with Missoula police

Justice

Last month, Missoula police responded to a complaint that a man on Higgins Avenue was shining a flashlight in the eyes of passing drivers. That man was 73 year-old James Smith. Commuters may know him as the guy who sits in his yard with a heart-shaped box during rush hour. According to police affidavits, Smith hit two officers with his flashlight when they arrived at his home on May 20. After he was detained, he tried to kick and trip them. Two days later, his daughter got a call informing her that he was in a coma. Here’s Dylan Kato at the Missoulian:

Stephanie Smith, of Allentown, Pennsylvania, said that in addition to the coma, her father sustained a skull fracture, multiple facial fractures, a concussion, respiratory failure, bruised ribs, organ damage, bruising and other injuries from the incident. While he was sometimes confused or disoriented before the incident, Smith said these symptoms, as well as amnesia, have become more prominent since he was hospitalized.

What happened between when Smith was arrested and when he was hospitalized with multiple head traumas is not stated. Who can say what put this 73 year-old man in a coma? It’s a stone-cold whodunnit, as far as the Missoulian is concerned.

The reticence starts with the headline: “State investigates Missoula police after encounter lands 73-year-old man in coma.” Whatever happened was not a beating or even an arrest. It was an encounter, and it “landed” Smith in a coma the same way Bugs Bunny’s hijinks land him in trouble. “Lands” is an odd choice of verb that reflects this headline’s desire to allege as little as possible. The pathological refusal to say anyone did anything continues in the opening paragraphs:

The Montana Department of Justice is conducting a use-of-force review after an incident involving the Missoula Police Department in May ended with a 73-year-old man hospitalized in a coma. James Smith spent several days in Providence St. Patrick Hospital before he was committed involuntarily to the Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs. He was released to his daughter following a court hearing May 30.

That doesn’t even say who released him, much less how he got into that coma. It was an “incident involving the Missoula Police Department,” and it “ended” with Smith near death, but beyond that we cannot say. Maybe he fell down the stairs ten times before a metal press closed on his head.

Kato has a good reason to write this way. The matter is still under investigation, and a newspaper must be careful never to blame people for things they might not have done. The passive voice is a way to maintain a scrupulous objectivity. But it can also disconnect the facts of a story so thoroughly as to distort it. When Markus Kaarma was charged with murder after shooting a teenager in his garage, the Missoulian did not report that an incident involving him ended with a 17 year-old exchange student bleeding to death. We reserve such conspicuously softened language for the police.

Reporting potential instances of police brutality as vague situations that just happened is an industry-wide habit. It reflects a journalism that has become too deferential to police. On the cops-and-crime beat, the prohibition against attributing fault to cops is so powerful as to outweigh the prohibition against the passive voice, leading otherwise strong writers into paragraphs like this:

Missoula police Detective Capt. Mike Colyer said on May 24 that he was called to the scene shortly after 2:30 a.m. on May 20. He confirmed that Smith had been hospitalized after being detained, and that due to the potential use-of-force issue, the department followed best practices and asked the Justice Department’s Division of Criminal Investigation to conduct an independent review.

Smith has been hospitalized and detained, but for what and by whom go unstated. The injuries that put him in a coma are a “potential use-of-force issue,” reinforcing the vagueness of the passive voice with some old-fashioned Orwellian euphemism. One of the paragraph’s only active verbs pops up to shine a favorable light on the police department, which “followed best practices” by asking for an independent review [of how two of its officers put an elderly man in a coma.]

I want to emphasize that this style of writing is not Kato’s invention or even his choice. He’s following standard practices in daily news reporting, and wisely so. He’s working with limited information, and he doesn’t want to smear two good cops if there is somehow an innocent explanation for all this. Neither does he want to get his paper sued. He’s got editors combing his copy to make sure that doesn’t happen, while on the other end he’s got to worry about access. If cops think he wrote a hit piece on other cops, his job as a reporter gets a lot harder. I don’t want to blame Kato for having to work under these pressures. But I do want to draw attention to the system that pressures him, and the way news reporting bends over backwards to say nothing critical of the police.

Maybe it’s not just reporters, though. Perhaps the most heartbreaking part of this story comes at the end, when Kato paraphrases Smith’s daughter and her husband:

They reinforced that they appreciate the help they have received from the police department, as well as lawyers in the Missoula County Attorney’s Office and the Office of the State Public Defender, since they arrived in Missoula. “The people that we dealt with are very nice, including the detective and evidence people. Over all this we do support law enforcement, we understand that they put their lives in harm’s way,” Jones said.

It does look like they almost beat her father to death, though. I was going to say that we give police too much deference. We heap praise on them whenever they become vulnerable to criticism, so that the more evidently awful things they do, the more we announce our support. That was going to be my conclusion. But if this woman doesn’t agree, who would?

Erick Erickson: Let’s consider secession

Erick Erickson considers Lipitor.

Over at his blog The Resurgent, Erick Erickson has published an essay titled Let’s Consider Secession. He doesn’t specify who “us” is. Neither does he acknowledge the disaster that unfolded last time someone had this idea. This document is not a plan or even a call to make a plan to secede. It seems like Erickson’s main goal is to be provocative. His first paragraph supports this hypothesis:

This past week has made me realize the situation in this country is unlikely to get better. We have 320 million people who hate each other and the left shows no signs of toning down rhetoric after last week’s mass assassination attempt. If anything, too many of them regret there were no deaths.

Sounds measured to me. I agree that even one person regretting no one died in last week’s shooting at a Republican baseball practice would be too many, but show me the person who said that. This claim prepares us for Erickson’s subsequent arguments that Nazism was a leftist ideology, Margaret Sanger was the “patron saint of dead kids,” and that progressives are saying Steve Scalise deserved it. He tops this outrage sundae with the big red cherry that “the political left is becoming the American ISIS.”

It’s true the DSA has taken control of several cities, and Bernie Sanders did behead that reporter. Still, it feels like Erickson is indulging in hyperbole here. It’s almost as though he built his career on inflammatory statements that thrill his fans, provoke his critics and just barely wink at the possibility it’s all an act, some species of political kayfabe.

Yet one detects a note of genuine sadness. Erickson argues that the present system is unjust, particularly in the areas of gay marriage and abortion, but that’s not his reason we should dissolve the Union. It’s that we all hate each other. He starts by literally saying that—“We have 320 million people who hate each other,” he writes, apparently counting babies—and, 700 words later, winds up here:

I am no longer an optimist about the future of this country. This past week has shown there is no incentive for the better angels of ourselves to rise. Both sides are out for blood. The only way to calm the situation is for us to part ways.

He fits in a lot of crazy bluster along the way, repeatedly referring to abortion as “killing kids” and claiming that Saul Alinsky dedicated his book to Satan, but it’s not the romp that a gratuitous call for secession ought to be. It’s more like an exasperated sigh. Erick Erickson is sad, and not in the objective way, like you want. He’s sad as the subject of his own experience as a person who is starting to feel like American democracy has broken down. In this way, is he completely different from the rest of us?

Maybe we should never pay attention to anything Erickson says or does. He is not a serious thinker. Although he has become well known, I’m not sure we can say he is influential. But we can say that he is a bomb-thrower, a purveyor of outrageous claims and terrible accusations. If he thinks politics have gotten out of hand…well, I don’t know that it’s serious. I’m certain I disagree with his historical claims and his bizarro “both sides do it” take wherein Republicans are becoming as bad as the real source of incivility in American politics, the Democrats. None of that makes any goddamn sense at all. But as I reject him out of hand, I am pained by just a sliver of agreement. I guess I am sad and worried, too.

Trump on Twitter: I am being investigated

Three-dimensional chess

I’ve spent the last several hours writing blurbs for the Indy’s upcoming Best of Missoula issue, and boy are my arms…glib. Remember yesterday, when I said there would be Friday links? I’ve got some bad news, champ. Fortunately for us, the president is refreshing the news cycle so rapidly there’s no time to look back on the week that was. This morning, he took to Twitter for this quasi-official statement:

I worry that the bizarre content of this tweet will distract from the bizarre punctuation. The president who has spent the last few weeks trying to get various members of the Department of Justice to say that he is not being investigated is, apparently, being investigated. While attempting to defend himself, he became the first person to reveal that publicly. He also thinks Witch Hunt is a title, like Duck Hunt.

This behavior is very much like that of a character in comedy. First he becomes monomaniacally dedicated to a goal—in this case, getting the word out that he is not under investigation. Then his efforts to pursue that goal bring about the opposite result—in this case, telling the world that he is under investigation. It’s times like this I’m glad there’s nothing funny about his speech patterns, or the president would seem ridiculous.

Or perhaps this is a genius gambit! Maybe, at the moment when it most appears that Trump doesn’t want people to think he is being investigated, he tells everyone he is being investigated to deprive his enemies of the opportunity to tell us themselves. It is a plan fiendish in its intricacies. Surely it is the work of a mastermind—the kind of mastermind who uses his inherited wealth to rise to the presidency and then, like a phoenix, fails at literally everything else he attempts. You’ve fooled us again, President Trump. We almost thought you were incompetent, for a second.