Gianforte avoids jail time for assaulting reporter, now supports free press

Greg Gianforte cuts a promo for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

On Monday, Gallatin County Justice Court sentenced Greg Gianforte to 40 hours of community service for assaulting Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs. Judge Rick West also ordered the representative-elect to complete 20 hours of anger management classes. Gianforte has pled guilty, apologized to Jacobs, and pledged to donate $50,000 to Committee to Protect Journalists. In court, he described the assault as follows: “I grabbed his wrist. A scuffle ensued, and he was injured, as I understand it.”

That’s accurate, I guess, but it is phrased in a way that minimizes his responsibility. A “scuffle ensued” when Gianforte attacked Jacobs. “He was injured” by Gianforte. It is good that the representative-elect understands that, since he is the one who did it. This statement suggests that Gianforte has learned his lesson, and the lesson is that he can assault a reporter and suffer no meaningful consequences for his actions.

His party has learned a lesson, too. According to McClatchy, Republicans across the country are planning to make 2018 a “referendum on the media” by “embracing conflict with local and national journalists, taking them on to show Republicans voters that they, just like the president, are battling a biased press corps out to destroy them.” That’s exciting. I think it’s a stretch to say a biased press corps is out to destroy Republican voters, though. The problem with this strategy is that it assumes voters also view press coverage as an obstacle to their agenda, when the press is how voters learn what politicians are up to.

Here’s a timely example of how the press and voters are actually on the same side. In the hours after Gianforte assaulted Jacobs, his campaign released a statement claiming that the “liberal journalist” grabbed Gianforte and caused them both to fall. That wasn’t true. Gianforte threw Jacobs to the ground and punched him. The accurate version of events only came out because a Fox News crew was in the room at the time. Through his spokesman, Shane Scanlon, Gianforte lied to voters. He then refused to speak to reporters for the next 24 hours, throughout election day, evidently hoping his campaign’s false statement would hold up long enough for Montanans to vote.

Never forget that Rep. Gianforte’s endgame was to get elected based on false information. He lied to voters and stonewalled the press. There is no reason to believe he thinks we are all in this together against the fake news. He is the fake news. You can read all about in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent. We’ll be back tomorrow with Friday links!

What’s between cultural appropriation and cultural segregation?

A viewer and “Open Casket” by Dana Schutz—photo by Johannes Schmitt-Tegge

Writer and ethicist Kenan Malik has written an editorial for the Times titled In Defense of Cultural Appropriation, but he spends less time defending appropriation than critiquing how we address it. He opens by discussing Hal Niedzviecki, who resigned from the Canadian Writers’ Union magazine Write after publishing a column “defending the right of white authors to create characters from minority or indigenous backgrounds.” The outcry, particularly on social media, was intense. Malik mentions another editor, Jonathan Kay of The Walrus, who was “compelled” to resign after merely tweeting in support of Niedzviecki. These examples imply that we are way too worked up about cultural appropriation, partly because we cannot agree what it is.

Malik’s example of an editor who was pilloried for suggesting that authors should write about people from other ethnic and cultural backgrounds certainly looks like moralism run amok. But he leaves out some  important details, including that Niedzviecki wrote his editorial for an issue of Write devoted to indigenous authors. In this context, his call for writers to “relentlessly explore the lives of people who aren’t like you [and] win the Appropriation Prize” reads like a defense of white authorship. It constitutes fair warning to anyone who would interrogate the idea of cultural appropriation: be careful not to argue for privilege in disguise.

Still, I think most people would agree that white authors should write nonwhite characters. It would be racist if they didn’t. But anyone who has read a book before knows authors routinely screw up when they try to write other races, often in ways that reinforce prejudice. We don’t want to say white writers should only write about white people, but we also don’t want to say that every white depiction of nonwhite cultures is just fine. When does art that reflects modern cultural pluralism become cultural appropriation?

What we need here is a definition. Malik cites Susan Scafidi’s claim that cultural appropriation means “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.” This definition introduces the fairly obvious question of who could give such permission. If I wrote a letter to Al Sharpton asking permission to write about a black man, A) that would be racist and B) his permission would not be meaningful. No individual can license a culture. Scafidi’s definition of appropriation seems more useful as a negative: Although no one can give permission to use a culture, pretty much anyone can deny permission to use a culture. Cultural appropriation happens when an artist evokes culture in a way that pisses someone off.

That actually seems like a pretty good rule of thumb. If your depiction of another culture has angered someone who identifies with that culture, you probably screwed up. Still, we can’t adopt the idea that cultural appropriation is whatever anyone says it is. We want to be able distinguish between obvious instances of appropriation, like Katy Perry in a geisha costume, and claims of appropriation that might not be made in good faith, such as the Oberlin students who called appropriation on a bad banh mi in their cafeteria.

Bad pan-Asian cuisine my be a crime against gastronomy, but I wouldn’t call it unethical. Putting zucchini in a stir fry is not wrong in the same way as dressing up as an Indian for Halloween. Implicit in our idea of cultural appropriation is that it’s bad because it hurts people. Few would argue that it’s bad because white and nonwhite cultures should stay separate. It might be appropriation when Macklemore makes terrible hip hop, but it’s not appropriation for white kids to listen to Ice Cube. Whatever value we’re trying to protect when we criticize cultural appropriation, it’s not the segregation of cultural products by race.

So what is it? Malik skirts this question and instead argues that trying to stop cultural appropriation will not meaningfully impact systemic racism. That might be true. Stopping your uncle from saying the n-word at Christmas won’t meaningfully impact systemic racism, either, but it’s nice. Malik cites the example of Elvis Presley, who became famous playing the same “race music” radio stations refused to air when Chuck Berry played it. That was surely an injustice, but stopping it wouldn’t have changed Jim Crow, Malik argues. He’s not wrong. But it does seem wrong that a white man could make a fortune playing black music when a black man could not.

We need to put our finger on what’s wrong with that, if our discussions of cultural appropriation are to have any meaning. It can’t just be that white people aren’t allowed to do black stuff. That too closely resembles the old system. Neither can we conclude that white people are allowed to do whatever, for the same reason. I find the topic of cultural appropriation endlessly interesting, because it keeps pitting contemporary values against each other.

We want to live in a plural society, where traditions from different cultures come together to create an American culture that we all own together. But we also want members of nonwhite groups to retain ownership of their own cultures, if for no other reason than that so much has been taken from them already. I don’t know how to reconcile these competing values. I suspect we will keep arguing about it.

Marijuana sales tax could swamp revenue dept. with cash

The Montana Department of Revenue (artist’s conception)

This spring, after Montana re-legalized medical marijuana, the legislature imposed a 4% sales tax. It is likely that much of the revenue from this tax will come in as cash. Because marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, banks that operate across state lines are reluctant to do business with dispensaries. Many providers can’t accept credit cards, much less set up business accounts to wire money to Helena. The question of how they will transport quarterly cash payments to the Department of Revenue has exciting security ramifications. Perhaps more exciting is the question of what Revenue will do with that cash once it comes in.

Speaking to the Billings Gazette, Deputy Director Gene Walborn predicted business as usual. He said his agency would “maybe [get] some cash counters and that kind of thing.” Revenue anticipates bringing in about $750,000. That figure is based on an estimate of 11,877 medical marijuana cardholders across the state—the average number in 2016, under the old law, when providers were limited to three customers apiece and forbidden from turning a profit.

Since I-182 lifted those restrictions, the number of cardholders has risen to 15,564. That’s a 31% increase in six months, during a period when dispensaries were just beginning to open up again. After the state’s first attempt at medical marijuana legalization, before the patient and profit limits went into effect, the number of cardholders peaked at 30,000. It seems like the Department of Revenue could get a lot more cash than it expects. Its plan to do nothing might have more to do with what’s easiest than with what conditions suggest.

In this way, Revenue is continuing a tradition. From the legalization that triggered a statewide boom in the last decade to the restrictions that abruptly shut it down in 2011, Helena has consistently done what it would about medical marijuana and considered the consequences later. You can read all about our state government’s steadfast refusal to plan ahead in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent.

While you’re there, check out this piece about the final legal bill for acquiring Mountain Water. When it first embarked on this project in 2014, the City of Missoula estimated that the legal cost of purchasing the city’s water system through eminent domain would come to $400,000. The city took ownership last Thursday, and its final legal bill was $7.4 million. That’s 19 times the original estimate. But that kind of thing happens when you’re doing business. It’s like when you buy a car for 15 grand but, after taxes and fees, the final price comes to $285,000.

In other news, my mother is in town, so this is the last Combat! blog you’re going to see until Wednesday. That’s a long time, right? I sure hope nothing happens in the news between now and then.

Eric Trump, subject of photographs

Eric Trump realizes one of the hostages is still alive.

Last night, philanthropist and third-generation millionaire Eric Trump told Sean Hannity that Democrats were “not even people” to him, given the way they obstructed his father’s agenda. His Q factor remained about the same. Even if his father weren’t the most hated man in America, Eric would have a likability problem. I blame photography. For a man who has spent an inordinate amount of his life posing for pictures, Eric has a hard time looking likable on camera. For example, here he is threatening me in church:

When someone is about to take your picture, push your jaw forward and hold your lips as close together as you can without letting them touch. That conveys the most relatable human emotion, seething rage. But don’t forget to show your lighter side, too. Here’s Eric after filling his maid’s room with pigeons:

He got her good. You think this is a weird way for him to smile, but that’s because you haven’t seen the alternative. Here he is meeting you on your first day as his new maid:

I cannot overemphasize how important it is that you never be alone with two out of the three people in this picture. Here’s Eric telling a joke at your grandmother’s funeral:

He came with your cousin, even though they’ve broken up a couple of times in the last year. But what do you want her to do? He’s rich. Here he is after learning that you still have student loan debt.

That’s cool, if you don’t have the money to pay it off. He has the money to pay it off so, personally, if he had student loans, that would be bullshit. But whatever—it takes all kinds, right? Here he is just begging us to Photoshop a dick into his picture:

Even his dad is thinking about it. You don’t think Donald Trump realizes his second son is kind of gooney? The man values appearances above all else. He knows Eric is off-putting, but he loves him. He loves his giant, gummy, probably evil son. Here they are enjoying hot dogs together:

The best part is, they were free. You tell the guy you want two dogs, he passes them down, and when he asks for the money, you tell him you already paid. If he gets his manager or something, insist that he be fired. Who are they going to side with—the hot dog guy or Donald Trump and his son? The trick is to stay close to your dad. It only works if he’s rich.

When facts express identity, what happens to democracy?

You can advance two broad arguments in favor of democracy. The first is that it is morally right, either because people naturally deserve a say in what their governments do or because God likes it. The founders made such arguments in the Declaration of Independence and elsewhere. The other argument is that democracy is the best way to solve problems. Sooner or later, this argument goes, aristocracy or a dictatorship will run into competence problems. With no mechanism to hold them accountable, aristocrats and despots will do a bad job.

I find both these arguments convincing, but the second one is probably more useful. The first one requires us to agree on values—either a supreme being that has ordained democracy as the best system of government, or a compassionate humanism that makes the rights of individuals inalienable. Those values can break down. The idea that we all face collective problems, and that the collective wisdom of the American people can solve them, seems more robust.

But in order for this construction of democracy to work, we have to agree on facts. We can argue about the best way to structure the tax code, but we have to agree that the government needs money and can collect it from people. Some people might argue that the government has no right to tax people at all, but they still agree that taxation is real. Its possibility is a kind of fact. Such agreements often seem so obvious that they are tacit, but it’s also possible for them to break down. Take climate change, for example.

The New York Times published a fascinating story Sunday about the difficulties of teaching biology at a high school in Ohio, where many students regard not believing in climate change as an element of their identiy. Although they don’t know much about many subjects, they know that people like them say global warming isn’t real. As a result, rejecting classroom teaching about how carbon works or what scientists agree on has become an expression of their identities. This poses a problem, not just in high school but in American society.

In order to participate in the democratic approach to solving problems, we have to agree on certain facts, e.g. our behavior is changing the climate. But agreeing with that premise makes some people feel like their democratic agency is being denied. Denying it has become their way of asserting themselves as free citizens.

That’s Republicans’ fault. The GOP has made itself the brand of cultural refusers. Even though it advocates for traditional social values and the economic agenda of the rich, it has come to represent defiance of the mainstream. It’s a reversal of the countercultural politics of the late sixties, and it probably came about because of them. Liberals won the culture war so completely that they made conservatism cool, at least among the people who buy into it. For that bloc, right-wing politics is defiance, and any act of defiance can be right-wing politics.

Call it the politicization of identity. Gun ownership is a political statement. Driving a big truck is a political statement. Working outside or having a goatee is a political statement. In the same way that capitalism steadily commodified the 19th century, turning previously homemade products like clothes and food into consumer goods, democracy has politicized the 21st century. This process is bad, because it’s a force for reification. It makes our problems more difficult to solve, because it makes people resistant to changing their minds.

It’s one thing to change your position on an issue. It’s another to change who you are. While many of us like to imagine ourselves as independents who are at least hypothetically open to changing our minds, nobody wants their identity to be flexible. We can see this phenomenon at work in the classroom from the Times story, where rejecting scientific consensus is not about policy or reasoning but rather a way for those kids to keep it real.

There are two promises of American democracy: that we’ll decide what to do together, and that outside those decisions each of us can do what we want. What happens when believing what we want short-circuits our ability to decide together? Does democracy retain its authority when substantial portions of us simply don’t believe in science? The system has always depended on an informed citizenry. What place can it make for people who define themselves by refusing to learn?