A to-do list

I had a post ready to go about how America lost the election last night, the polls were garbage, blah blah blah. I got it wrong. I was cautiously optimistic going into the election, but it turned out even that was way off the mark. But enough other people already are working through their five stages of grief, however, that I don’t think we gain anything if I keep repeating what everyone already knows. I’m going to try and look to the future here and try to wrest a few positive outcomes from this debacle.

Most important, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. That denies any talk of a “mandate” for Trump. He’s inherited a divided country, divided worse than before, I’m afraid, and he’s going to have to be really non-Trump-like if he has any intention of building national unity. (To be frank, I doubt he gave it any thought before his handlers put his acceptance speech in front of his nose, but if there’s one true thing about Trump, it’s that being without any moral center means he’s quite adept at playing new roles; consistency is not something that holds him back.) Yes, a Republican-controlled Congress and, likely, Supreme Court mean he’ll be able to ram a lot of unpleasantness through and into law. This will not win him new supporters, and I predict will serve to energize opposition to him. The 2018 midterm campaign starts now.

The Democratic Party now needs to conduct its own autopsy, and unlike the post-Romney Republicans, follow its advice. The party has for too long taken far too many interest groups for granted, and the surge of white working class people (men, mostly, but women too) to the polls points to a truism that the party has long denied: the transformation of our economy has brutalized those communities, and we’ve been far too willing to offer panaceas of free trade and job retraining for those hollowed-out small towns whose only employers are now Wal-Mart and the local meth and heroin dealers. The Democratic Party needs to return to its working class roots, abandon the empty rhetoric of the new world order, and look at what can be done to turn those communities around. Trump has shown you can’t ignore them, and while I seriously doubt anything will change in those communities — he doesn’t care about anything that doesn’t directly benefit his wallet or his dick — the fact that they fell for his long con is a testament to their desperation. They need solutions, and the Democrats haven’t been offering any lately.

The Democratic Party also needs to wholeheartedly embrace its progressive wing — Clinton was, if anything, a centrist policy wonk, and that doesn’t play on TV, and it was easy to paint her in broad strokes when all she wanted to talk about were the nuances of child health care. Progressivism is what got us out of the Great Depression by building this nation’s infrastructure, and our infrastructure really needs improving right now. Progressivism was also what was slowly turning the tide for millions of people in the last eight years, not least through the Affordable Care Act. Now those gains will be reversed, in all likelihood. But the nation was its strongest thanks to Roosevelt’s progressivism. We should not be afraid of that legacy.a

We have to look locally for change. Across the U.S., far too many people vote only once every four years when the TV cameras are on. The midterms are only two years off, and the off-year local elections are right around the corner. But one of the most significant stories of early 21st Century politics is how the Republicans used statehouse victories across the country to control the redistricting process, giving them an almost permanent majority of safe seats in the House of Representatives. We need to undo that process, and that challenge starts now. It should have started a long time ago, especially in those states like North Carolina, Ohio and Michigan. But now the Democrats have to build on whatever momentum they can. Even so, it’s virtually impossible for Democrats to re-take the House at any time before 2022. It’s a long, hard road ahead, folks.

Speaking of local measures: I am a straight white man living in a blue state. I’ll probably be OK. Most of those of us in blue states now have our governors and legislatures as a bulwark against an imperial federal government. Yes, the economy will likely suffer — state governments get a lot of funding from the federal government, and a party completely contemptuous of governing now controls the purse strings across the board. The rural and Rust Belt states that voted for Trump are going to suffer more. He ain’t going to bring the factory jobs back. Abandoning free trade agreements will hurt farmers everywhere. Trickle-down economics doesn’t work, and the likely doubling down on corporate tax cuts and eliminating regulations as a substitute for governing means we are going to wind up in another recession. It’s one thing for us blue-state liberals to work hard and fight to maintain our own relatively privileged position. It’s quite another to do so for the red states. And while today appears dark and the temptation will be to tell everyone to fuck off, the United States of America is still one country, and our fortunes are very much tied together still. It is more important now for us to continue to work hard to make this country better, not by caving in to bad policies or standing by while our leaders embark on yet another foreign war borne out of a personal vendetta.

We cannot stand by.

There’s going to be a lot of suffering. Trump has energized the darkest elements of our society. Women, people of color, queer people, minorities of all stripes are going to be on the receiving end of this reassertion of white male privilege, and those of us who have allied ourselves to their causes need to stand firm. Abroad, this move is only going to embolden the dictators like Putin in Russia and Xi in China (and we can almost guarantee that Russia will invade the Baltic states within a year, probably permanently breaking the NATO alliance). The Islamic State just won their biggest recruiting gambit ever. We need to push past that and keep fighting for this country. If Trump withdraws us from the world as he’s threatened to, then it’s all the more important that we work to try and hold the line. The world still needs us.

Onward.

About that alien radio signal…

It isn’t.

But, seriously, that alien signal…

Nope.

OK.

Well…

SEEEE???!

No. Seriously. That so-called “alien” radio signal is, by pretty much every measure available, a big nothingburger with extra nothingsauce.

So in case you’ve missed it, this little story came out the other day: the discovery of an extremely strong radio signal coming from a relatively nearby star system. Cool.

Now before we go too deep into alien territory here, there’s a few important caveats to dispense with.

  1. Said signal was detected once, at 6:01 p.m., on May 15, 2015, from a telescope in Zelenchukskaya, Karachay-Cherkess Republic, Russia. (Why the Russians sat on it for more than a year, we don’t know, and that’s neither here nor there.) The key to these strange signals is to see if they were detected elsewhere as well, to make sure the signal isn’t the product of a mechanical fault in the telescope and/or a mischievous post-grad having a little fun at the scientists’ expense, and if they repeat. Neither of these things has happened.
  2. The other thing that isn’t known is if this signal actually came from this star system, or if in fact it came from much farther away and was only bent on a path to Earth by the gravitational pull of the star, a process called gravitational lensing. Or if it originated closer in, say from a passing satellite, or from a software error in the telescope.

So, yeah. Let’s cool it with the alien stuff. Unless you’re a science and science fiction geek like me and like to tease out these ideas to their logical extremes.

With those caveats out of the way, here’s the cool stuff.

  1. The star system that is the purported signal, HD164595 in the constellation Hercules, is only 94 light years away. It’s still a long ways off, considering that the closest star, Proxima Centauri, is still about four light years off, and impossible for us to reach with any of our current technology. But on a galactic scale, it’s right next door. You can even see it with binoculars if you know where to look.
  2. HD164595 is pretty similar to our own sun: Its mass is 99 percent of ours, it has a similar spectral type (meaning, the kind and type of radiation it puts out, which provides a clue to its composition), and it’s about 6.3 billion years old, which is a bit older than our own sun’s 4.5 billion, and would be pleasing news to those who favor a slow form of evolutionary development of life that assumes it would take a world like Earth around a star like the Sun a similar amount of time to develop life forms intelligent enough and curious enough to wonder about who else might be out there. In that context: 6.3 billion years may be plenty of time for a really advanced civilization to develop.
  3. The star is already known to have at least one planet, a “warm Neptune” gas giant in a tight orbit around the parent (its year is 40 days long, less than half of Mercury’s). This may or may not be the source of the signal, but it tells us that HD164595 is, like many other stars with planets found in the past several years, further evidence that planets are pretty common in the universe.

So with all of that, this is definitely a star that warrants further attention. It’s cool stuff. It’s almost as cool as the recent discovery that a planet orbits Proxima Centauri, the closest star to Earth, in the “Goldilocks zone,” where water could exist in liquid form (assuming the planet had the right sort of atmosphere and a few other conditions).  That’s the one to watch. Really. It’s a lot closer, and we know there’s a planet there. Next step is to work out a way to determine if it has an atmosphere, probably by visually imaging it in some fashion. (Such as was done in another example here.)

So…

itsaliens

Let’s play with this a bit, just for shits and giggles. What if it is aliens?

The scientists who did the number crunching on this calculated that the signal has a wavelength of 2.7 cm (about 11.1 GHz, up in the microwave range and well above anything we use for radio or communications). On the overall electromagnetic spectrum, it’s on the long-wavelength, low-energy end of radio waves, rather than the short-wavelength, high-energy end that includes X-rays and gamma rays. So it’s kind of in the area where we’d think to look for extraterrestrial signals.

The pros think a good place to look for those signals is in the 18-21 cm range, the so-called “waterhole” because interstellar hydrogen emits radiation at about 1.4 GHz, which has a wavelength of 21 cm, and the hyroxyl ion does the same at about 1.7 GHz, with an 18-cm wavelength. The two together give you water, which, the thought goes, an intelligent water-based life form (like us) would recognize as significant and therefore would use those frequencies if they wanted to reach out across the cosmos to contact us with a kind of interstellar shorthand.

But because the radio pulse from HD164595 was in the long-wavelength, low-energy part of the spectrum, it takes a lot of energy to send it across 94 light years at such a strength; more than we have on Earth, in total. The SETI types use the Kardashev scale to classify possible civilizations. A Type I civilization would be able to harness the entire energy output of its planet for communications. A Type II civilization would be able to use the entire energy output of its star. (By comparison, we’re not even on the scale, since we can’t even get together to agree that burning carbon is bad for us, much less harness all of the power on Earth to send a signal into space.)

So if the HD164595-ians had aimed their signal straight at Earth, that would imply they’re at least at the Type I level. If the aliens had broadcast it in all directions (like most broadcast radio towers), they’d have to be at Type II. One estimate of the energy required for that signal is 100 billion billion watts, more than all of the sun’s energy hitting the Earth. The signal is that strong.

Where does this leave us? With this calculus: if the signal comes from an alien civilization (and that’s a big if), that civilization is at a level of development that’s way way way above us. Since we can’t really send a signal back to them at the same level, it might be a safe assumption that they don’t know we’re here, and this was a Type II broadcast signal.

It could be cool to have some super-highly advanced aliens in our neighborhood, a science fiction dream come true.

But here’s the potential rub. Among the myriad possible solutions to the famed Fermi Paradox (the one that asks the question, “If alien life is a natural occurrence in the universe, given the billions upon billions of suns out there, where is everybody?”) there are what I call the “scary” answers. Such as: aliens don’t contact us because it’s the nature of intelligent life to destroy itself, or that communicating with other civilizations is just plain dangerous.

The Scottish writer Iain M. Banks once made an interesting point about the computer game Civilization, in which you build a civilization up from the Stone Age to the Space Age. I’m a fan of the game too, and I’ve also experienced what Banks termed the “outside context problem”: you could be happily cruising along through the medieval or renaissance period, developing your nation at a pace, when suddenly someone shows up on your shores in a battleship, and proceeds to stomp you like the insects you are. As Banks wrote in his novel Excession, “An Outside Context Problem was the sort of thing most civilisations encountered just once, and which they tended to encounter rather in the same way a sentence encountered a full stop.”

Banks’ novel was set the far future, but you only have to look at our own history to see that such events never turn out well for the less-advanced. The history of colonization of the western hemisphere was only the most egregious example: the Native Americans were slaughtered and displaced by the European colonists. Same with the Africans, who were also kidnapped and sent to the New World as slaves. It’s sad to say this, but neither of those peoples never really had a fighting chance against the firearms and organized armies and diseases of the Europeans.

Even among more closely “matched” civilizations, conflict is almost inevitable, with clear winners and losers, even if the losers are just the civilian populations and not the governments involved in prosecuting those wars.

With our hypothetical little green friends out in HD164595, there’s an order of magnitude (or more) difference between our two levels of civilization. We might not want to let them know we’re here, just to be on the safe side, at least until we know more. We wouldn’t survive an encounter unchanged unless they adhere to some kind of altruistic Star Trek-style Prime Directive. (Given our own history, such a code may be required in order for a civilization to even advance to that level.)

This is also my pet peeve about alien-invasion movies in which the plucky humans fight off the bug-eyed monsters with little more than a few rusty fighter planes and/or a clever computer virus. Please: if the aliens were advanced enough to cross all that distance to reach us, you can bet they’d have better defenses than last year’s Norton AntiVirus update. They could sit out in the asteroid belt and throw rocks at us until the crust of the Earth turns to lava and the best we’d be able to do is send a tiny space probe out to say hi to them that will get there a few years after we’ve all been incinerated.

That could be paranoid thinking, and maybe humans are uniquely violent in the universe. I’m not sure what the probabilistic odds are on that, since we have no one else to compare ourselves with.

The writer in me (and science fiction geek) likes to tease out these scenarios. The idea that there might even be aliens out there fascinates me.

That said, we’ve seen radio-frequency anomalies before. The classic SETI “Wow!” signal, detected in 1977, has never really been explained, but is widely believed to have been a natural phenomenon, possibly caused by a comet. It’s also never been repeated.

There have been other, weaker anomalous signals as well, none of which has amounted to anything. They’re still cool though, which is why people keep looking. If nothing else, we keep learning new things, and maybe even we’ll learn if anyone else really is out there.

 

Assassination territory

The other day I was at work and got tapped to contribute to a big story we’ve been following: the shooting at a house party that killed three teenagers and wounded a fourth by another teen in a jealous rage.

We’d just received transcripts and CDs of audio recordings of 911 calls and police and paramedics’ radio chatter from that night. There were hours of recordings, not very well indexed, so we split them up at random and transcribed. I got what turned out to be the first paramedics’ conversations as they arrived on the scene and started finding the victims, first the wounded teen, then the first dead one, then the others.

These were audio recordings, so I could only imagine the visual scene before the medic’s eyes, but I could tell that, behind the clipped professionalism in the medic’s voice, there was real emotion being kept in check when he reported, “Updated victim count, three black.”

After several hours of this — most of the rest was pretty mundane staging and traffic instructions and calls for chaplains to help the survivors — I took off the headphones, wrote up my little bit for the next day’s paper, and proceeded to look on the internet in an effort to clear my head before I went to work on the next thing.

And I learned that Donald Trump had pretty much suggested someone should assassinate Hillary Clinton, or perhaps just a federal judge or two she might appoint.

I’ve long since grown tired of Donald Trump and his continuing to ratchet up inflammatory speech and fly even further off the handle the lower his polls dip. After each Monday outburst, followed by two or three days of doubling down, then trying to spin it, then to blame it on Hillary Clinton or President Obama or the media… it’s gets tiresome and boring. Until the next week. What’s then: “Ya know, sharia law isn’t all that bad, because it’ll keep… well, some women… I have lots of women friends, all the best most beautiful women, right? Believe me, they all love me. I’m great with the women. But there’s a problem, right?”

I exaggerate, but only because he hasn’t called for instituting religious law as the law of the land yet. Ask me in a week or two.

But back to the point: we’ve crossed a line here.

Read that again. I said “we” have crossed a line. Not “he.” But he certainly did, too. That’s not debatable, and the Secret Service agrees.

The reason I say that is because, as appalling as it is that a candidate for president is hinting at the murder of his opponent —

Excuse me. This is for every one who just held up their finger and said, “But he was joking,” or “He was talking about encouraging gun owners to vote,” or “He was referring to the power of using their voting power to deter regulations.” Please. Everyone in that room knew exactly what he meant when he said it. Nothing else matters. Now let me continue.

— the murder of his opponent, we have some culpability for mainstreaming this kind of behavior. Yes, Donald Trump is the end result of three decades of Republicans combining their race-based divide-and-conquer electoral strategy with scorched-earth delegitimization of anyone else’s claim to power. But if it weren’t Trump, it would have been someone else emerging from that fetid swamp.

Trump may be unique in his combination of charisma and thorough derangement — history does not look favorably on those kinds of people when they obtain power, and many people suffer horribly because of them — but he is a weed that sprouted from well-fertilized soil.

Our responsibility for this comes from allowing this soil to be fertilized.

I take my job as a journalist seriously, but I am also a harsh critic of the failings of my profession. We’re the only profession specifically called out for protection in the Constitution, but, as they say, there are some implied responsibilities that go along with that, chief among them that we should help our readers (and viewers and listeners) make better sense of the world.

Let’s get a few things straight here, to put this in the proper context, because when people talk about “the media” (or “the mainstream media” or the “media elite”) they’re usually bringing to it a fair amount of political baggage. When I’m using it, I’m referring to those people who practice journalism. And that means a few specific things:

Journalists research and report the facts by going to the best sources available. That means they don’t retweet others and call it a day. They don’t write opinion pieces with nothing to back up their claims, without clearly labeling it as such (such as this very piece on my personal blog). It means if someone said or did something newsworthy (or even trivial, if we’re going to report it), they check it out with witnesses, video, public records requests of emails and transcripts and other documentation — anything that gets closer to the truth. They don’t give credence to sources that aren’t in a position to have authority on a subject, they don’t traffic in hearsay, and they don’t use weasely language to try and get around a less-than-airtight story, such as, “People have been saying…” or “It is widely believed…” If you can’t put a name to it, you haven’t got the goods.

Journalists do their utmost to be accurate. When they make an error, they admit it, they correct it, and they don’t repeat the error again. Some journalists let their egos get in the way of admitting when they screw up. This is an on-the-job failure. The reporter has a job to do and his or her ego isn’t relevant to it.

Journalists must be fair. This is a loaded word, and its meaning often gets confused with that of “balanced” (wonder where that comes from?) But let’s go to Webster. Here’s the most applicable definition of the word:

6a :  marked by impartiality and honesty :  free from self-interest, prejudice, or favoritism <a very fair person to do business with> b (1) :  conforming with the established rules :  allowed (2) :  consonant with merit or importance :  due <a fair share> c :  open to legitimate pursuit, attack, or ridicule <fair game>

OK, but what does that mean for journalism? It means you don’t take sides in your reporting, for one. I’ve interviewed plenty of people I’ve personally disagreed with, and I’ve always striven to not just quote them correctly and represent their views accurately, but also that their comments are taken in the appropriate context. Journalists aren’t supposed to have visible political views — and their reporting should absolutely reflect that — but personally? I don’t care who knows that I’m a political liberal. I do care that people believe I have the professional integrity to do my job and that my personal views don’t affect how I do it.

But look at section (b) in the definition above. Fairness also means conforming to established rules and being consonant with merit or importance. That means that we journalists have to recognize that we don’t work in a vacuum. Context matters. We play by the rules (we do not intentionally misquote you) but also we are not going to stay quiet if you violate the rules (you claim we misquoted you when we did not). Being a journalist does not mean we are not allowed to defend the integrity of our work when we know it (by virtue of evidence, sourcing and so forth) to be true.

Section (b) also tells us that we should give each side what it’s worth. This is where people confuse “fair” with “balanced”: One word says you must treat all sides equally, the other says you must make a judgment call as to the worth of each sides. Coupled with definition (a), which compels honesty, this leaves us with a conflict. How are we to honestly judge the merits of each argument, in order to render a fair reporting of such.

Here are two hypothetical examples.

  1. Person A, who advocates lower taxes, claims lower taxes for businesses help them grow. Person B, who advocates raising taxes, claims many big businesses do not pay their fair share in taxes.
  2. Person C, who represents a civil rights organization, says a new law unfairly targets minorities for discrimination in voting. Person D, who represents a white supremacist organization, says the new law is just fine, and in fact should be stronger.

In the first example, neither of these statements has any inherent moral advantage over the other, and absent hard, verifiable data that proves or disproves one or the other side, there’s no real reason to give more merit to one rather than the other.

In the second example, one of the positions clearly is untenable. Person D’s position is worth less, not because of the details in the law (absent having the law in front of us to judge the language for ourselves), but because of who Person D is. Context matters. And in this case, the context is that we live in a country where voting is a Constitutional right (15th, 19th, 24th and 26th Amendments, most importantly) and that efforts to restrict citizens from voting by race, sex, religion, age (if they’re above 18) or financial wherewithal are unconstitutional, and people with a demonstrated intent of denying people those rights necessarily need to get called out on it. We don’t report from a civil rights rally and then say, “And now let’s see what the Klan has to say about this.” There are some things which are outside the bounds of acceptability, and those things are determined by the society we live in, the laws we abide by, and the Constitution that gives us certain rights.

The same goes for the Second Amendment, by the way, but again: context. Read the whole amendment and frame your debate from there. The assault weapons ban that Congress let expire was not found to be unconstitutional, or abridging of anyone’s rights. As with voting, there’s a line to be drawn where someone’s rights can or cannot be abridged, but only within certain boundaries. Race-based voter disenfranchisement is as unconstitutional as saying a person is prohibited from carrying any kind of weapon for self-defense in any scenario. We attach conditions to these: Felons cannot vote, nor can they own or buy guns;  part of the punishment felons suffer for having violated our social contract is that certain of their rights are abridged. We could change both restrictions tomorrow without changing the Constitution, so even those laws are not inviolate. But the point is, we currently have a system that allows two seemingly contradictory legal points to stand. Where do you draw the line on the Second Amendment? Maybe that line is between handguns and AR-15s, maybe it’s between semi-automatics and full automatics — already illegal, by the way — or maybe it’s between modern firearms and flintlocks, or between Alaska and the lower 48. Those are all valid debate points well within the confines of the Constitution.

So when I say that fairness is not the same thing as balance, and that often the two are at odds with each other, it’s about considering where the boundaries of acceptable debate are, and weighing positions against each other if they’re within the boundaries, or if they’re outside, weighing them against the boundaries themselves.

That also brings me back to where I started, where a political candidate can wink-wink obliquely call for someone to shoot his rival OR MAYBE NOT WHO KNOWS? and we in the media, and in the rest of society, can just brush this off as yet more he-said-she-said. “Tell me, Mrs. Clinton, what do you think about being targeted for assassination?”

That’s pretty much where we are now. The media has become so inured to despicable behavior this year that calling for someone to be killed is just a little bit more shocking than tossing a baby out of a rally, which is just a little bit more shocking than implying that a Gold Star parent is a terrorist… let’s now see what the other side says, shall we?

Add to this the journalism profession’s hypersensitivity to being seen as having a liberal bias, and quite a few of my fellow reporters are hesitant to call the play as they see it: out of bounds. It’s a pre-emptive way to dodge a political attack that is inconsistent with the values of the profession.

But let’s do this one thing, and restore a bit of fairness to these proceedings.

  • It is not fair that, when a candidate blatantly lies (not “misspeaks” or “dissembles”) about things that have been demonstrated to be true without any doubt, we should let the lie stand without pointing out the lie immediately, or as soon as possible so that the context of the correction is not lost with the passage of time in a hyper-accelerated media environment.

Some journalists are now doing this, and providing real-time fact-checking to compensate for a political candidate to whom the facts are irrelevant. Case in point: “Hillary Clinton wants to eliminate the Second Amendment.” Fact: There is no evidence of this. No video, no speech. She has not said so, nor has she hinted at it. Gun control does not mean the Second Amendment must be overturned (see above), and in fact the two can co-exist quite comfortably. But we in the media have neglected our duty to the people we are supposed to be helping make sense of everything. People are free to form their own opinions no matter what the local paper says, but if we’re not at least saying, “This is demonstrably false, and now I’ll demonstrate why,” we’re not doing our job.

  • It is also not fair that comments that come from outside the bounds of our social contract — overthrowing the democratically-elected government to establish a Communist people’s republic, say — should be given as much weight as those that come from inside the bounds: Let’s raise taxes to pay for more social services. Context matters here, too. Back in the days of the Soviet Union, calls for democratic elections were likewise outside the bounds of their social contract, as was the case in many police states. We might have hailed those calls for elections from our standpoint here in the West, but are we taking Pravda to task for not encouraging democratic reforms?

To clarify: journalism in the Soviet Union was not the same as it is or has ever been in the United States. Newspapers were deemed to be the mouthpiece of the government and the Communist Party, full stop. If you bucked the system, you found yourself in jail and the newspaper shut down. This is not to excuse that. A critic might accuse me of imposing a degree of moral relativism here, and they would be correct: Judging another system by the standards or our own (and vice-versa) is necessarily not a fair assessment in either context. But that same moral relativism also allows us to take a broader contextual look. Let’s say we’re not talking about our Constitution-protected free press, but rather human rights, among which are freedom of expression. The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights is one such venue in which, morally, the U.S.’s free press is weighed more heavily than the Soviet Union’s state-controlled press (see Article 19). It’s not the same as the First Amendment, but it provides the moral authority and a wider context in which to make that moral argument. Increase the context widely enough and who knows? Perhaps the United States would be found wanting for not guaranteeing paid vacation for every worker. It’s all relative, as they say, but if you know what context you’re working in, that is fine. Back to the main point.

  • It is also not fair that we do not consider and relay the context in which we are operating when we make moral decisions about what we cover and why we do it. Why are we, as journalists, not pointing out that what Trump is doing is considered outside the bounds of decent behavior and is quite possibly a danger to the republic? Some of us are. Not nearly enough, in my (admittedly, see above) biased opinion.

Several years ago, Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” to mean “facts that just feel right.” Colbert is a comedian and a masterful satirist, and he was clearly sending up then-President George W. Bush, who had a, let’s say, rather uncomplicated view of the world. But Colbert was also sending up the media who played along with Bush, and allowed him to make unsubstantiated claims about (for example) weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, because really: are we going to believe Saddam Hussein, who everyone knew was an evil psychopath, or our own president, a bit dull-witted, but kind of funny about it and goshdarnit, he’s one of us?

It wasn’t just about Bush. We’re seeing, in this late period of the 2016 presidential campaign, the resurrection of 25 years of shit that the Republicans have been flinging at the Clintons from the day Bill took office in order to see what would stick so they could delegitimize this interloper from the sticks of Arkansas who had the gall to win the election. We’ve internalized it, and we drop phrases like “the Whitewater scandal” or “Clinton’s impeachment” without stopping to look at and explain what that actually entailed. And by “we,” I mean we in the media as well.

Is there media bias? Yes. The bias isn’t necessarily liberal (like many individual reporters are) or conservative (like many media executives and owners are). It’s toward uncritical acceptance of aberrant behavior (I was alive at and remember a time when we didn’t have mass shootings every week — this week’s work, by the way, is the second local mass shooting I’ve worked on in the past three years, and I’m not even on the crime desk — and when presidential candidates didn’t threaten their opponents) and the unwillingness to ask uncomfortable questions that might make our jobs harder and expose us to criticism from people who don’t want to understand truth in context, or worse, whose interests lie in undermining it.

So now we’re in assassination territory. Here’s the context: Four of our 44 presidents have been assassinated while in office. Attempts have been made on at least seven sitting presidents (including Lincoln, eight months before his actual assassination), not counting plots foiled in advance (three of the five attempts on Obama’s life), attempts that didn’t put the president’s life in imminent danger (Nixon in 1972 and 1974), attempts on the president’s life while traveling abroad (Hoover in Argentina, Bush in Kuwait), or when the would-be assassin changed his mind before making the attempt (Kennedy in 1960).

Interesting tidbits from this well-sourced Wikipedia article: Obama has been targeted in five separate attempts, and Bill Clinton  four times. Lincoln was targeted three times, the third time being successful.

In short: 11 out of 44 is a 25 percent assassination attempt rate against a sitting president over the entire history of the United States. That is a really high rate of political violence for a developed country. That’s a rate you’d more expect in a banana republic that has a coup d’etat every decade or so.

The cynical thing to say is, “Hey, so this is normal, right? What Trump said isn’t all that big a deal!”

The fair thing to say, however, is this: It’s way outside the bounds. This isn’t a joke, and we should seriously question the morality and intentions of those who say it is.

Memorial Day, 2016

I spent today at work covering a Memorial Day ceremony and fell into talking with a couple of Air Force vets about their experience in Vietnam. That got me thinking about the vets in my own family: Air Force, Navy, Marines and Army going all the way back to the Revolutionary War (hello, Moses Winters!). Along the way, two of them died in uniform (that I know of; there may have been more in previous centuries). We still have some in the younger generations in the services, but not as many as were in the older generations.

Then there’s this: 1.2 million U.S. service members have died in wartime since the founding of the republic. Their stories stopped then, ended by a bullet or a bombshell or bacteria or just bad luck, but the end result is the same: Here ended a life. Yet many more people survived war than died in it, and those survivors carried their memories forward.

Old soldiers don’t necessarily fade away, they just begin to look like everyone else, perhaps with better posture. But they’ve all got stories, and most of those never get told unless you ask them. They may not want to tell them — that’s understandable. But I’m willing to guess that many never get asked.

There was an essay I read and posted here some time ago about how it seems the “thank-you-for-your-service” line has become almost a reflex, a politeness that may be sincerely felt, yet still glosses over the myriad experiences our men and women in uniform have. I’ve heard it delivered one-to-one and also over a p.a. system: “We’ll now board active duty members of our military. Thank you for your service.” OK. That’s a nice gesture, but that’s kind of missing the point in some ways. People don’t join the service to get priority boarding at the airport.

I think the way to avoid that problem is to actively seek out and hear those service members’ stories, understand what exactly it is you’re thanking them for, and what they did for the sake of all the rest of us. I admit I’m a bit prejudiced in this regard: I tell stories for a living and I come from a family with a lot of military experience. But the thing that drives me most in telling stories — of all kinds, whether they’re about the military or schoolkids or animals or anything else — is getting at what is “true” about them: not just getting the facts right (although that’s important too), but knowing how to best understand the experiences of others and render them into words so that others might also understand them in the same manner.

From a writer’s perspective, these are the tools of the trade: setting a scene, developing mood and so on. The end result is about putting your reader or listener into another place and time and helping them understand what others have seen and heard.
I never piloted a helicopter, got shot out of the sky, felt terror in a foxhole or gotten doused with defoliant in the jungle, but I’ve known people who have. And while Memorial Day is about remembering the fallen, and I’m talking about people who are still with us, I think hearing the stories of the living is another way of honoring those who gave their lives in the service of the country. The fallen aren’t here to tell their own stories any more, but others can still carry those stories forward. It’s incumbent on all of us to listen.

Delegate math after New York

I’ve been kind of geeking out a bit on this, during a year when many people (including a couple candidates) seem to be waking up to the idea that we don’t actually pick our political candidates by direct popular vote.
It’s also the first year in modern times when the actual delegate count is becoming a real issue, for both parties. (I’ll say, if you’re at all interested in this, fivethirtyeight.com has been doing real-time delegate tracking with each primary; worth a look). It’s rather interesting, and there’s lots of little details that get overlooked.
For example: I haven’t seen anyone point out the fact that Ted Cruz will not win a majority of delegates in the primaries. No way, no-how. The die was cast when the fly named Ted Cruz met the windshield named New York Values. If he’d pulled his head out of his ass long enough to consider that he might need some of those New York delegates later on, he might have decided not to take a trip down Dogwhistle Lane. But that implies careful consideration and a deft political touch. He ain’t deft. The human version of a Reddit troll got pwned.
Here’s the math: There are 2,472 total delegates on the Republican side, so a candidate needs the magic number of 1,237 to secure an outright majority in advance of the convention, when those delegates are required to vote with the way their state went (“pledged delegates”). Trump has 846 to date. Cruz has 544. Kasich has 149. There are 674 delegates still at large. Trump could get above 1,237, but only on June 7, the last day of the Republican primaries, when California and its 172 delegates goes to the polls. Cruz… can’t. 544+674=1,218, or 19 delegates shy of the majority. He could win every single delegate in every race from here on out and it won’t be enough. And given recent trends, he’s unlikely to get anything other than a token minority of delegates.
So therefore Cruz has only one strategy left: stop Trump from getting to 1,237, forcing a contested convention and then trying to wrest delegates away on second or subsequent rounds of voting, when those pledged delegates will be free to vote for whoever they want. And Cruz has played a very good game of working state parties and conventions to make sure that HIS supporters get appointed delegates to the national convention.
It sounds far-fetched, and maybe it is (considering Trump’s implicit warnings of rioting should he not win). But consider this: Cruz has 544 delegates, Kasich has 149, and Rubio (remember him?) has 172, who are STILL going to vote for Rubio at the convention, or for whoever Rubio decides they should support. Taken together, the three other Republicans have 865 delegates… 19 more than Trump. So this game isn’t over yet. States to watch, with big delegate counts: Pennsylvania on April 26 (71), Indiana on May 3 (57), and on June 7: California (172) and New Jersey (51), the latter of which is one of those winner-take-all states. There are a few smaller winner-take-all states left too, but I’d guess Nebraska (with 36) is the one Cruz is most likely to take, it being somewhat Bible-Beltish, if not properly within said belt. Indiana might also be fertile territory for Cruz, but Hoosiers award their delegates in a mix of proportional representation and other factors, so it’s unlikely Cruz will win all 57.
On the Democratic side, it is a different kind of race: The magic number to hit to clinch the nomination is 2,025. Clinton has 1,444, Sanders has 1,207, and there are 1,400 delegates still in play in the upcoming primaries. Both candidates have been playing up some rather “non-voting” issues to try and sway the race, Clinton acting as if she’s already won, Sanders as if she’s doing something underhanded to steal it. Neither is true. There’s plenty of room: Clinton theoretically could clinch it on May 17 when Oregon and Kentucky vote, and Sanders could clinch it on June 7, with California, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, South Dakota, and North Dakota vote.
However, because the Democratic Party allots delegates proportionally, it’s unlikely either candidate will clinch it until June 7, and maybe little ol’ Washington D.C.’s 20 delegates will actually matter for once on June 14.
What is also true is that Bernie still has an uphill battle: he needs to win 819 delegates, or 58.5 percent of all remaining delegates, while Clinton needs just 582, or 41.6 percent. In other words, Bernie needs to win big from here on out. Each race that isn’t a win by 58-42 raises his must-win threshold on each race afterward. Looked at another way, Clinton could lose every state here on out, and as long as they’re not blowout losses, she’ll still win it.
Looking at the states still in play, I’m guessing Bernie will find most fertile territory in West Virginia on May 10 (29 delegates at stake), Oregon on May 17 (61 delegates), and on June 7, Montana (21), South Dakota (20) and North Dakota (18). Given the trend so far, it will be difficult for him in many of those to crack 58 percent (or whatever his new threshold will be next week when a slew of Clinton-friendly states vote. Oregon should be fun.
A word about superdelegates: there are 712 of them, most pledged to Clinton, but they’re free to vote however. Most are elected officials already, so they’re likely to remain pledged to the likely winner, no matter who that is, because they WILL be watching the political weathervane. Therefore I don’t think they’ll necessarily play the role of spoilers that the Sanders campaign fears; Clinton (or Sanders) could win the race without them. This is the first time since the party created the superdelegates (as a hedge against populist candidates like Sanders, naturally) that they’ve appeared to be in play. But they’re politicians. They risk blowback if they don’t follow the popular vote, at least nationally if not in their own states. It is possible they could split the vote (along state lines, for example) and push BOTH candidates above the 2,026 threshold. I don’t think the overall race will be close enough that, even if they do split the vote, that it would alter the outcome. They’re each individuals, they each can vote however they want, and it’s not a violation of any rule that they can do that, if it it does the unthinkable and hands the nomination to someone winning the smaller number of delegates in the primaries. It’s a sucky system, in my personal opinion, and Democrats should ditch superdelegates (just as the Republicans wish they had something like that to stop Trump), but it’s the system the party adopted.
One final note: except for a few states which have open primaries, the primaries are a creation of the political parties. There’s nothing in the Constitution that tells parties how to run primaries (there’s nothing that says there should be only two parties either, but that’s another issue), and the two parties have the ability to set their own rules (and both parties have deferred a lot of that to their state committees, creating the hodgepodge system we have now). If those rules are followed, winning still winning, no matter how odious it is, even if Cruz surreptitiously plants delegates at the convention to swing the vote his way after the first round, or if the Democratic superdelegates band together to turn a Clinton loss into a win. I don’t like it, and this year, more than any in my lifetime, all these tiny little nuances and rules suddenly matter a great deal. But it’s the only deck we have to play with, Sanders’ “political revolution” not withstanding. So I’m not going to get too worked up over the result of the primaries (either of them). I’m looking at November.

Elections calculus, Trumpism

Color me surprised. Bernie Sanders’ win in Washington, Alaska and Hawaii yesterday was surprising in its scope (I’d have thought a closer victory, similar to what he pulled off in Michigan). It puts Bernie in play for the nomination for the first time, really. (It hasn’t really been the case beforehand because Bernie’s path to the nomination has always been uphill running backward, at best. Now at least he’s facing the right direction, so to speak.)

It isn’t over yet, and technically, the nomination is still Hillary Clinton’s to lose. (And she could well do it, too, through some ham-fisted gaffe of her own making that just pisses off a certain segment of the Democratic voting bloc at just the wrong time.) The numbers still favor Hillary: if you’re tracking delegates, Sanders’ sweep was a big help: According to Fivethirtyeight.com, he needed 81 delegates from of Washington, Alaska and Hawaii in order to still be “on track” (as in, not keep falling further behind.). Sanders won 98, and his campaign is now trying to persuade Washington’s 17 superdelegates, most of whom have endorsed Clinton, to feel the Bern. In yesterday’s contests, Clinton won just 32 delegates, and needed 61 to stay on track.

And yet, these victories are all relative. Hillary is still ahead in the delegate count, and is in fact ahead of the curve; she’s still on a path to lock this up by the June 7 California primary, if not sooner. Bernie can still win, but it probably won’t happen until the very last minute: June 7 at the earliest, and who knows? Maybe tiny Washington, D.C.’s 20 delegates up for grabs one week later will come into play for the first time ever. Because every race on the Democratic side awards its delegates proportionally the guiding rule in all this is that for Bernie to win, he needs to win big every time. He hasn’t done that so far, and he’s fallen behind. Even narrow victories mean he’s just falling behind a bit slower than before. Saturday’s victories were a bit of a change, but he’s yet to show he can sustain it in states that aren’t largely white in their demographic makeup. With big multiethnic states like New York and California still on tap — and they’re holding primaries, which tend to favor more centrist candidates, not caucuses, which draw out the activist element in both parties — it’s still uphill all the way for Bernie.

As the campaign gets hotter and nastier, there’s a different calculus at work. I’m see two possible calculations to consider, and I honestly don’t know which one is correct. Is A>B? Or is B>A? Wherein A = Aghast Republicans Who Remember Eisenhower and Goldwater and Can’t Believe This Is the Best We Can Do and therefore will stay home or secretly vote Democratic come November, and B = Berniacs in a Righteous Snit Who Ragequit the Election Because There’s No Difference Between Shillary and the Rethuglicans and the Country Needs to be Taught a Lesson, and therefore will stay home or secretly vote Republican come November.

That assumes that Clinton ultimately prevails on the Democratic side. If Sanders wins, I see a slightly different equation: B = Bourgeois Moderate and Working Class Democrats Scared of Change who stay home (and maybe switch sides, but that would only be in the case of white male Democrats, mostly).

But on the Republican side, it’s Trump all the way. The party brass may be clutching their pearls and diligently planning out how mathematically they will unite around some unidentified moderate candidate to deny Trump the nomination. But while they’re huddled over their calculators and smelling salts, Trump is driving over and past them in an Abrams tank. His momentum slipped a little in the last couple races as the party got a little more scared, but not enough to fundamentally change the overall vector of the race.

The GOP could do one of two things at this point. One is they stage a coup at the convention, abandoning any kind of lip service to the democratic process to ensure that Trump is not the nominee (and therefore almost surely triggering a third-party Trump spite-run, which would completely splinter the party, possibly for good). The more likely alternative is that the party leaders will make peace with their inner fascists, swallow their vomit and pull the lever for a candidate they all secretly hope dies the moment after he is sworn in.

Given how toxic some of the Sanders politicking has become (and some Berniacs have been mumbling they’d rather see the country flushed down the Trump toilet than hand the White House to a warmongering scandal-prone conservative-in-sheep’s-clothing), I suspect the equation at work is B>A, because (1) Berniacs already are threatening to quit, and a certain subset of them will probably follow through because they truly believe some of the attacks they’re pushing against Hillary (even if they originated in the Republican playbook), and (2) Republicans making peace with their inner fascists isn’t that much of a stretch these days, since their politics over the past 30+ years has been precisely what Trump has been advocating: protecting rich white male privilege and making sure the takers don’t get uppity, keeping (or kicking) out the unwashed Mexicans, Muslims, and other swarthy foreigners coming to America to blow us up, take our white-collar jobs, or both, and so on. It’s the politics of self-entitlement from a party that perennially tries to cast that term on the opposing side.

I say this as someone who likes Bernie Sanders, and even prefers him over Hillary Clinton: I’ve had to mute several Berniacs on social media because their constant my-way-or-blow-it-all-up moralizing is having precisely the opposite intended effect on me, and on many other would-be Bernie sympathizers, I’d wager. There’s a bit of angst on the Clinton side as well, and I think the accusations of misogyny from the Bernie camp are way overblown. But the intraparty hate is nowhere near as strident as that originating with the hardcore Berniacs, who are starting to sound like left-wing versions of Ted Cruz. I know, party unity, blah blah blah, but November matters more. We had a real bad run of things in the early 2000s when we had unthinking reactionaries running the show who didn’t care about context or planning. I’m not sure in which universe a president Trump won’t be several orders of magnitude worse than the Bush years, but it isn’t this one.

This seems like the appropriate place to point out that I did not attend Washington state’s Democratic caucuses, for two reasons. One: I’m a journalist, and caucusing is more persuasive and political than I think I should have a role in — it’s for the party insiders to argue and decide who their representative will be, and who their delegates to the convention. And two: Either Democrat is preferable to Trump, by any measure, unless your qualifications for the presidency include anger, spitefulness and capriciousness and notably don’t include things like policy knowledge, a diplomatic temperament, a track record and an understanding of history.

I like the fact that Bernie has been in the race, not for the least because he’s been holding Hillary’s feet to the fire. We wouldn’t even be having discussions about income inequality, campaign finance reform, free college education and small-s socialism (long a dirty word in both parties) without Bernie in the mix, and his success so far has shown the party establishment that they can’t take for granted progressive voters — the same ones who put Barack Obama in the White House twice. I say this even though I think that Bernie would have a hard time getting any of his policy proposals passed by a Republican obstructionist-controlled Congress, or even a Democrat-controlled Senate (it’s almost impossible that the House will flip before 2022, because most House districts are gerrymandered to be completely safe, and a majority of those are safe-Republican seats). I like Bernie because he truly is a progressive and he’s forced Hillary to pay attention to issues she probably would rather have not had to on the way to her coronation. While Hillary’s perceived hawkishness is worrisome, I think we do need an experienced foreign policy hand to counter the very real belligerence from Russia, China, North Korea and ISIS/ISIL/Da’esh.

And if the hypothetical Berniac is worried about Clintonian hawkishness, you’d think they’d be lining up behind whoever wins the Democratic nomination, because Trump is downright frightening. Josh Marshall over at Talking Points Memo points out that the overall dynamic of Trump’s campaign isn’t the words “Make America Great Again.” Those are just words. Trump’s real message is exerting dominance and taking revenge on everyone who has “laughed at” or humiliated America. He’s talked casually about using nuclear weapons to combat terrorists. “It’s payback time,” he’s said. Revenge does not make for a peaceful foreign policy, and that’s scarier than anything the Democrats could come up with.

Read the transcript of Donald Trump’s interview with the Washington Post editorial board. What comes across more than anything else is someone with no core values other than to promote himself, and who is mentally unstable to boot. He is not the kind of person that any sane individual should want anywhere near the nuclear button.

Hence my worry about the Democratic primary. Sanders decided to run as a Democrat to get access to the fundraising apparatus, true, but I also think he recognized that splitting the liberal and moderate votes in the general election would accomplish nothing except allow the Republicans to take control in November — a Republican party that, even without Trump, has been governed by its most extreme elements for the past 30 years, and shows no signs of moderating. If Hillary wins, I would hope Bernie does the game thing and during his convention speech (he’s earned that, at least, plus influence over the party platform) not just endorses Hillary, but makes a plea for his followers to join forces against the common enemy. He’s a profoundly moral person, and that can go a long way toward smoothing things over. That might not sit very well for those pursing his political revolution, but Bernie at least is smart enough to realize that there’s a lot more at stake.

(Likewise, if Bernie prevails, I fully expect the Democratic Party apparatus to line up behind him, even if a few blue dog conservative Democrats don’t like it. The alternative is Trump.)

Granted, the Berniacs are not anywhere near as scary as the Trumpshirts, who can’t have a rally without assaulting someone. It’s just a matter of time before they go all Kristallnacht on the local Democratic party offices. The Republican convention in Cleveland should be interesting to watch… from a safe distance.

I hope the Berniacs carry on their political revolution by getting involved in local politics. Third-party challenges to elite power structures seldom succeed from the top down. George Wallace in 1968 split the Republican party and convinced the racists to work in the background, not out front. H. Ross Perot in 1992 was a flash in the pan. Ralph Nader in 2000 truly was a spoiler, and he didn’t have any coattails for anyone else to ride on (and in 2004, he was a joke that no-one remembered the punch line to). Revolutions start at the bottom and rise up from within. This is how the Tea Party took over the Republican Party and remade it into an extremist organization that even now threatens to tear the country apart. It’s how a group of religious zealots took over the school system in Texas, and now dictates the content of history books used across the country. It’s also how a group of moderate-to-conservative southern Democratic governors and congressmen took control of the Democratic Party and steered it to the right in 1992 — to electoral success, granted, but at the cost of a number of policies that have proven inimical to the nation.

The ultimate prize isn’t only the White House. In fact, in this particular election cycle, taking the presidency is just a way of making sure America’s slowly healing wounds aren’t ripped open again. Since the wounds inflicted during the Bush years were pretty traumatic — unnecessary wars and tanking the world economy, for starters — that makes this a really important race.

But in order for the “political revolution” to take root, the Berniacs ought to be looking at the state legislatures, city councils, school boards and local Congressional races. Politics is a numbers game, and it’s not zero-sum except in the White House. The numbers add up over time and space, and a coalition of true progressives in positions of power across the country will have a greater impact than a single person in Washington, D.C. could have. That, more than anything, is the hope of Bernie’s revolution. He’s been calling the faithful along on his crusade, but if they don’t keep moving forward after he’s gone — or even if he succeeds — it won’t have mattered at all.

Scenes from a Quiet Hungarian Border Town

Battonya, Hungary, Sept. 5, 2015

Heavy rains before dawn broke what has been the fourth heat wave of the summer here, where temperatures stayed above 90 and often 100 degrees for seven days or more at a time.

When the weather is that hot and humid — eastern Hungary, in particular, is a large plain surrounded by mountains, and tends to trap the worst of the dog days of summer — the best one can do is stay indoors with the lights off and the shutters drawn. The worst one could do was be out working in the blistering sun.

That was until this summer, when summer, Hungarian-style, took on a new meaning, as thousands of refugees from the Middle East and Africa — mostly Syrians fleeing the bloody civil war — found themselves caught up in a web of east European nationalist politics, camped out in Budapest’s Keleti Railway Station waiting for trains to the west that the government unilaterally decided to cancel.

The news this morning in the national media is what may be the end to a crisis that has stretched out for several weeks, as buses pulled up to the station at 1 a.m. Sunday, filled up with refugees, and took them to the Austrian border. Cheers, jubilation, cries of “Thank you, Austria,” came from the buses as they crossed over and made their way to Germany, where they also received a similarly warm welcome.

All while the masses waited in immigration limbo in Hungary, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has been making the rounds in Brussels decrying the Muslim hordes who would overrun Christian Europe, just as the Ottomans did 500 years ago. Because somehow, that’s still relevant in the mind of a modern European nationalist, even if the rest of the world considers it to be unadulterated bullshit.

The government, led by Orbán’s nationalist right-wing party Fidesz, meanwhile has constructed a razor-wire fence along Hungary’s southern border with Serbia, imposed jail times for anyone caught climbing or breaking the fence or otherwise entering the country except at the border crossing, and otherwise trying to make life as hard and miserable on the migrants as possible, as if that would make them think twice about entering the country.

The supreme irony is that for all Orbán’s posturing about keeping the refugees out, he and his party have done everything they could to make sure the refugees, once they were in the country, couldn’t leave.

And then there’s the fact that the migrants had no desire to remain in Hungary, either. Their destination was Germany, where they have such strange things called “jobs,” “civil society,” and  “a future.” Indeed trainloads of migrants arriving in Munich have been welcomed with food, water, smiles, efficient processing of their status by officials and, most important, hope that things will now get better. How can it not, when they’ve come from a civil war zone that’s been raging for five years, or if not straight from the conflict, then from one of many refugee camps around the Middle East that are likely to turn into permanent settlements.

The roots of the crisis have been long in coming, and while the rules of the Schengen agreement that governs passport-free travel in Europe require all migrants to be registered in the country they first arrive in — namely Hungary — the fact is that Hungary’s poverty and its indifferent and corrupt bureaucracy left it unprepared for the waves of migrants arriving on its borders this summer.

Not that the crisis couldn’t be seen. Most of the domestic criticism of Orbán’s government has been their refusal to prepare for the inevitable as the migrants started showing up in the Balkans earlier in the year. Orbán and Co. would like to blame the effete liberals in Berlin and Paris for enticing all these dangerous foreigners to come into their territory. But finger-pointing at the EU for having convoluted immigration policies pales in comparison to the malign neglect shown by the government in Budapest.

The crisis least has abated for the moment, but thousands more refugees are getting ready to enter Hungary in hopes of reaching the west, and the government has threatened to detain them again.

Maybe Orbán hopes to continue to milk this humanitarian crisis for political points, to show the nation that he can be just as reactionary and thuggish as the unapologetic neo-fascists in the Jobbik party.


For the past nine days I’ve been in Battonya, a village in southeastern Hungary on the Romanian border where my in-laws live. Here, the drama played out on television. The migration route lies a few kilometers west of here, from Serbia up through Hungary to Austria. What we get is a mix of news from state-owned media, reporting nonstop about the “illegal migrants” causing chaos in Budapest — indeed, they used the word “illegal” no less than four times in five minutes during the height of the refugee standoff, to emphasize the fact that nothing good will come from their presence in Hungary, even as the government was trying to prevent them from leaving.

Cut away to one of the few independent TV networks left, and there you can see the minority opposition delivering firebrand speeches from Parliament, strong words that belie their ability to have any influence over policy in Orbán’s nascent dictatorship.

The construction of a fence across the Serbian border did cause some folks in the southeast to wonder if the refugees wouldn’t simply walk around to Romania and cross the border here. But the Romanians have thus far kept their border shut to the migrants, and that hasn’t come to pass.

Instead this town has remained its normal sleepy self, the tribulations in Budapest far away and at most subject for discussion across the breakfast table.

In another irony — there are multiple levels of irony at work in this region, where borders have a history of shifting back and forth, depending on who is in power in Budapest, Moscow or Berlin — the scene of hundreds of Syrians walking from Budapest to the Austrian border called to mind other crossings, most recently in 1989, when the Hungarian government decided to open the border to let hundreds of East Germans cross over into Austria, an action that led directly to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Warsaw Pact.

Then there was the summer of 1956, when Hungarians rose up against their Soviet occupiers in an outbreak of violence, hoping that the West would come to their aid. When the revolution failed, thousands of Hungarians fled to the west, across the border into Austria.

Indeed, most Hungarians are more charitable than their government has been, providing water and food for the refugees even while the police refused to let them board the trains to their eventual destination.

If the western border of Hungary has symbolized a gateway to freedom and prosperity, the eastern border has long held a different meaning. For Hungarians, it was the metaphorical edge of civilization (although some living west of the Danube would argue that the river, which neatly bisects the country, marks the real edge of the known world, as it did for the Roman Empire and its successor states). In 1541, the Ottoman Empire rose out of the Balkans and overran the medieval Kingdom of Hungary, starting 150 years of foreign rule. When the Habsburgs expelled the Turks, they took over, replacing Islam with Christianity but nonetheless still calling the shots from a foreign capital. When Hungary finally became independent from Austria in 1920, it was at the expense of two-thirds of its territory, and the eastern border had moved several hundred kilometers west to where it now lies about ten minutes from my in-laws’ front door.

It was the changeable nature of this border, among others that had moved over the years, that gave the Hungarians a sense of self-righteousness, and which turned out to be easily exploited by the forces of xenophobia originating in Nazi Germany. The borders moved again during the war, the spoils of collaboration, and then back again afterward. On Sept. 22, 1944, the Soviet Union crossed into Hungary here, in Battonya, to begin pushing the retreating Germans back west.

There’s still a monument to the”liberation” in town, as there are in many others across Hungary. These monuments still stir conflicting emotions here. They’re a reminder of the bad times of years past, and the worse times that came before. The war, the deportations of the Jews and German occupation was replaced by Soviet occupation and 700,000 Hungarians sent to the gulags of Siberia.

Hungarians have long internalized and gotten used to this dichotomy in their identity. It gives them a rich sense of irony and dark humor. Hungarians in general are wistful for reclaiming their lost history, whether in the form of territory redistributed to neighboring states after World War I, or the influence that came from being joined to one of the last European monarchies, or the “greatness” of the medieval kingdom that stretched from the Adriatic to the Baltic, and which ceased to exist nearly 500 years ago.

But those same Hungarians are all too aware of the law of unintended consequences. Like the current crisis, where in trying to keep the Syrians out, Viktor Orbán succeeded only in keeping them in. Despite the government’s ham-handed attempt to characterize the displaced men, women and children escaping an even worse hell back in the Middle East as Islamist sleeper agents come to undermine western civilization, average Hungarians came forward with water and food for the refugees, doing their best to make a bad situation better. It’s more the pity that their own government refuses to rise to the occasion.