DeSantis' Dumpster Fire of Democracy, Trump’s Woes Worsen, James Dolan Bans Lawyers from Knicks Games, M. Night's Disaster of a Movie, and More
My thoughts on the top--and top-ish--stories in this week's political, sports, and pop culture news.
So much to talk about. Let’s get to it.
Politics: DeSantis Is Dreaming of a White Florida
The Dumpster Fire of Democracy That Is Florida
Here’s a quick round-up of Florida spearheading the drive to become all that Americans loathe: excessive government interference with personal choices, curtailing free speech, promoting racism, undermining justice. Every article is a frontal assault on the U.S. Constitution. Yup, old times there are not forgotten.
Ron DeSantis and the New Campus Free Speech Crisis (Daily Beast)
SUMMARY: “On Tuesday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced a broad outline of legislation that would enact the most draconian restrictions on public higher education institutions in the United States.
“Among its many pernicious features, the proposal would hand control of the core curricula at Florida’s universities to a single system-wide board appointed by the governor; ban critical race theory (CRT) and diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives (DEI) at universities by legislative fiat; and give boards of trustees unchecked power to hire and fire faculty, effectively ending tenure protections.
“It would also unilaterally rewrite universities’ mission statements and force colleges to deprioritize majors deemed to further a ‘political agenda.’ And it would ‘overhaul and restructure’ New College of Florida, whose new board of trustees, stacked by DeSantis with out-of-state conservative pundits, on Tuesday fired the college president and replaced her with a political ally of the governor.”
MY TAKE: What’s happening right now in Republican education “reform” across the country is one of the most important—and damaging—issues facing the country. It is no exaggeration to say that the kinds of learning restrictions and dumbing-down efforts of the courses that they are instituting is reminiscent of the Salem witch trials, Nazi Germany, and Maoist China’s reeducation policies. This is the opposite of what education is about.
Take a look at what happens when politicians try to groom party members instead of thinkers:
The Wyoming legislature tried to defund the University of Wyoming’s gender studies program.
Louisiana, Texas, North Dakota, Iowa, and Mississippi are all attempting to restrict or eliminate faculty tenure.
And, of course, whatever the hell is going on in Florida as DeSantis inflicts death by a thousand paper cuts, so we can all watch their educational system bleed out.
Tenure is an easy target because many people don’t understand why it’s so important that a faculty member can’t be fired unless there is strong professional justification. Tenure encourages academic freedom, protecting teachers from politicians who don’t like what’s being taught when it conflicts with their beliefs, politics, or religion, and they want to fire that teacher.
Many students can’t afford to travel out of state or go to expensive private schools, so these students are left with what is becoming watered-down state schools run by hall monitors rather than educators. To them, higher education is just a sausage machine designed to produce only students who think like them—and vote Republican.
Ron DeSantis announces plan to block DEI programs in state colleges (The Guardian)
SUMMARY: Florida governor Ron DeSantis announced plans this week to block state colleges from having programs on diversity, equity and inclusion, and critical race theory in his latest attack on Black and LGBTQ+ people in the public education system.
MY TAKE: DeSantis has made a clear pronouncement regarding who he thinks the enemy is: all marginalized people, especially Blacks and LGBTQ+. We do not want the people who reject diversity, equity and inclusion deciding the future of America, a country founded on principles of diversity, equity and inclusion.
Florida athletes could be required to submit their menstrual history to schools (The Seattle Times)
SUMMARY: “A proposed draft of a physical education form in Florida could require all high school student athletes to disclose information regarding their menstrual history — a move that’s already drawing pushback from opponents who say the measure would harm students.
“The draft — published last month by the Florida High School Athletic Association, a group that oversees interscholastic athletic programs across the state — proposes making currently optional questions regarding a student’s menstrual cycle mandatory, as reported by the Palm Beach Post.
The form, if approved, would ask students if they’ve had a menstrual cycle, and if so, at what age they had their first menstrual period, their most recent menstrual period and “how many periods [the student has] had in the past 12 months.”
The questions have appeared in the state’s athletics participation form for more than two decades, but have been optional.
“‘This is clearly an effort to further stigmatize and demonize transgender people in sports (and) meant to further exclude people who aren’t assigned female at birth in girls sports,’ said Maxx Fenning, president of PRISM, a South Florida nonprofit organization that provides sexual health information to LGBTQ+ youth. ‘Beyond that, I think there’s concern among LGBTQ+ and non-LGBTQ+ [students] alike. This is an extremely invasive mode of gleaning into someone’s reproductive history, which is especially dangerous in this post-Roe world we live in.’”
MY TAKE: One has to wonder why conservatives who complain that their phone can track them don’t have the same outrage about intrusive mandatory questions from the government. Does their defense of constitutional rights to privacy stop when they don’t like the people whose rights are being violated? It’s crucial that they understand that if one group’s rights can be violated, then anyone’s can.
Florida bill would let judges override juries and impose death penalty (yahoo! sports)
SUMMARY: “Florida could soon be the only state where a judge could override a jury’s recommendation for a life sentence and give the death penalty instead, under proposed legislation to recraft Florida’s capital punishment system.
“…The language is nearly identical to Florida’s previous statute, which allowed judicial override until 2016, when the Legislature reworked the statute following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said judges had too much power, instead of juries, when it came to the death penalty.
“Along with opening the door for judicial override again, the bill proposes doing away with requiring unanimous jury verdicts for a death penalty sentence, lowering the threshold to an 8-4 majority.”
MY TAKE: Florida Republicans have a problem: the pesky juries just don’t want to execute enough people. So, these dedicated lawmakers decided to remove the hairball clogging the drain of justice by making the jury less consequential. They are clearly hoping that the Trump-stacked Supreme Court will support this execution of constitutional rights.
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Politics: The Trump of It All
The Snail Trail That Trump Has Left Us With
Trump is like an inflatable Halloween ghost on someone’s yard that has deflated into a giant plastic puddle. It still haunts us, but only as an annoying mess we have to clean up.
And that mess is significant. It reaches into all aspects of the government, especially the U.S. Supreme Court, which he stacked with activist conservatives. But he’s also left a legacy of alleged criminal behavior—from rape to insurrection—that has launched multiple federal and state investigations. Yet, having defiled the office of the presidency, he is running again.
Trump’s main political function now is as a CSI blue light in a cheap motel revealing unseen evidence. Anyone who supports him is illuminated as a sketchy stain on the defiled duvet of democracy.
Trump Likened to Mob Boss John Gotti in Ex-Prosecutor’s New Book (The New York Times)
SUMMARY: “Donald J. Trump grew his business, fortune and fame ‘through a pattern of criminal activity,’ according to a new book by a veteran prosecutor, who reveals that the Manhattan district attorney’s office once considered charging the former president with racketeering, a law often used against the Mafia.
“The prosecutor, Mark F. Pomerantz, resigned in protest early last year after the newly elected district attorney, Alvin L. Bragg, decided not to seek an indictment of Mr. Trump at that time. By then, the inquiry was more narrowly focused on whether the former president had fraudulently inflated the value of his assets to secure loans.
“But for months beforehand, Mr. Pomerantz had mapped out a wide-ranging possible case against the former president under the state racketeering law, according to the soon-to-be published book, ‘People vs. Donald Trump.’ That broader approach was based on the theory that Mr. Trump had presided over a corrupt business empire for years, a previously unreported aspect of the long-running inquiry.
“Mr. Pomerantz and his colleagues cast a wide net, examining a host of Trump enterprises — including Trump University, his for-profit real estate education venture, and his family charitable foundation.”
MY TAKE: In the usual attempt to intimidate, Trump attorneys have threatened legal action, though they have no grounds. That’s why Trump has recently been admonished by judges for his frivolous and unmerited lawsuits (“'Profound abuse': Judge disciplines pro-Trump lawyers over election lawsuit” Reuters; “Trump in Even More Legal Hot Water After Lying to Judge” The Daily Beast).
There are no accusations of wrong-doing toward the prosecutors pursuing the case, just differences of opinion about how to proceed and whether or not there was enough evidence to win the case (which Pomerantz put at 70%).
Fortunately, others are doggedly following Trump’s slimy snail trail of malicious and criminal behavior. We can only hope it will all conclude with a resounding civics lesson for our school children that no one is above the law. However, such teaching might be censored in conservative states where they wish to protect their students from facts.
Revealed: Trump secretly donated $1m to discredited Arizona election ‘audit’ (The Guardian)
SUMMARY: “…The identity of one of the largest benefactors behind the discredited review of Arizona’s vote count has been shrouded in secrecy. Now the Guardian can reveal that the person who partially bankrolled the failed attempt to prove that the election was stolen from Trump was … Trump.
“An analysis by the watchdog group Documented has traced funding for the Arizona audit back to Trump’s Save America Pac. The group tracked the cash as it passed from Trump’s fund through an allied conservative group, and from there to a shell company which in turn handed the money to contractors and individuals involved in the Arizona audit."
“…The purported investigation was suffused with wild conspiracy theories, including the claim that bamboo fibers found in ballot sheets proved they had been printed in Asia. The review was decried even by local Republicans as a ‘grift disguised as an audit.’”
MY TAKE: Without an honest voting system, you might as well shout your political opinions into your open refrigerator. Honest Arizonians—Republicans, Democrats, and Independents—should all be livid at the attempts to undermine their election process by anyone, let alone a former president of the Unites States.
Bill Gates, the Republican vice-chair of the Maricopa county board of supervisors at the time of the private audit, admitted he was “disappointed, but not surprised” that Trump had helped finance the audit. He explained that Arizona law forbids electoral candidates from funding vote recounts, which instead have to be financed with taxpayer dollars. Technically, the Cyber Ninjas review was not a recount, though it served a similar purpose. Gates pointed out that “at the very least, it is highly hypocritical for the Arizona state senate to have allowed the audit to be funded in this fashion.”
If this what their legislators are endorsing, hypocrisy is the least of Arizona’s problems.
RELATED: “Donald Trump Jr.'s Solution To Chinese Balloon Is Deservedly Mocked” (The Huffington Post)
MY TAKE: Speaking of snail trails, Don Trump Jr. just suggested the people of Montana go outside and fire their guns at a Chinese surveillance balloon. Problems: 1. The balloon’s altitude is 60,000 feet (commercial airlines usually fly at 33,000 to 42,000 feet. A bullet wouldn’t come close. 2. However, that bullet would come back to earth again, possibly injuring or killing people. Interesting fact: according to one study, the mortality rate of people hit by celebratory gunfire is higher than for all gunshot wounds, partially because 77% of the people hit by falling bullets were hit in the head. 3. Even if people with guns could shoot it down, there’s no way to control where it falls. On houses? Malls? Schools?
This is the guy who hopes to follow his father into politics.
Kareem’s Video Break
This made me laugh—as much from the reporter’s delighted giggle as from the elephant’s actions.
Sports: The Arrogance of Ownership
James Dolan Threatens to Ban Alcohol at MSG in Bizarre Interview (Newsweek)
SUMMARY: “…[Madison Square Garden (MSG) CEO James] Dolan, who also owns the Rangers and New York Knicks, appeared in an interview on WNYW on Thursday and addressed a variety of topics. His ongoing lawsuits and how he's handling those lawsuits—by banning any attorneys involved in the firms suing MSG from entering the venue through facial recognition software—dominated much of the conversation.
“In addition to going after the lawyers suing MSG, Dolan also plans to one-up the New York State Liquor Authority (SLA) after a complaint was filed with the authority. The SLA issues licenses for the sale of alcoholic beverages.
“The lawsuit began after shareholders protested a 2021 merger between MSG Networks and MSG Entertainment. Later, lawyers involved in the lawsuit learned that they were banned from entering the New York City venue until after the lawsuits were complete.”
MY TAKE: There are two issues here: 1. using facial recognition technology to single out for punishment people who have not committed a crime, and 2. the right to ban someone you don’t like from a public venue. This second issue isn’t just about a few individuals. New York attorney general Letitia James claimed potentially “thousands of lawyers” from as many as 90 firms are blacklisted by Dolan. In a letter to Dolan, James warned that the ban could violate anti-discrimination laws and has the potential of dissuading lawyers from taking on cases such as sexual harassment or job discrimination claims against the company.
You know those signs, “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone”? Well, that’s true—and not true. Private businesses do have the right to refuse service—but not to anyone for any reason. Depending on state law, they cannot ban someone based on race, national origin, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or unlawful characteristics. That drive to protect our residents is what distinguishes us from some countries (“McDonald's apologizes after restaurant in China bans black people”; the McDonald’s displayed a sign that said, “black people are not allowed to enter.”)
The legality of both issues will be settled in a court of law. But it’s the court of public opinion that businesses often need to worry about. Dolan is just another of a number of rich sports team owners whose wealth has created a fog of entitled arrogance around them, insulating said owners from logic and decency. To paraphrase Jeff Goldblum's character Ian, “Your team owners were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should.”
Dolan’s whiny proclamations about being protected by the Bill of Rights don’t address his own petty vindictiveness and how that reflects on MSG and his teams, the Rangers and the Knicks. This behavior is bad for Dolan, but it’s also bad for sports.
RELATED ARTICLES: “James Dolan on Blacklisting His Enemies: I Have Rights, Too” (New York Magazine); “An NBA Owner In Spy Mode” (The Athletic)
Movies: Do Not Answer This Knock
Why M. Night Shyamalan’s Knock at the Cabin Crashes and Burns
(Spoiler Alert!!: The ending is discussed in detail.)
I usually wait to write about bad movies until the end of the year when I do a round-up of disappointing films. But Knock at the Cabin left me so disappointed, and a bit angry, that I consider it a public service to warn everyone that this may be M. Night Shyamalan’s worst, most insipid movie ever (yes, I’m including the head-scratcher The Happening and the laughably contradictory Signs). What makes it especially bad is that the film virtue-signals to be about faith when it actually insults people of faith (as well as those who aren’t).
I’m actually a fan of M. Night Shyamalan, so I was excited to see his latest, which is what makes this experience even worse. The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Split, and The Visit are terrific movies, intensely suspenseful and yet written with wit and intelligence. With the big-budget Unbreakable, he swung for the fences and caught enough of the ball to deliver a highly original and satisfying film. The Visit was a small, intimate thriller that delivered on fresh characterization and powerful suspense.
Most of Knock at the Cabin is well done. It’s a clever premise: A group of strangers show up at a cabin where two dads and their precocious daughter are vacationing. The strangers warn them that unless they agree to kill one of their family, the apocalypse will come. Intriguing. Suspenseful. I’m in.
But then things start to go wrong. It’s like being on an exciting first date that shows promise for a long-term relationship—until the end when your date says, “I have to get up early to join a Nazi rally. Wanna come?”
The first red flag is that there are many flashbacks to show the couple’s loving relationship and the adoption of their daughter. None of them are necessary because we already were onboard with them being a close family. The struggles of being a gay couple didn’t need to be shown because that’s already implied. The flashback scenes that are included are cliches we’ve seen many times before. The script didn’t have enough plot at the cabin, so they padded the story with filler, like a male model shoving a pair of socks down the front of his pants to make it look like there’s more there than there really is.
But the real hammer blow to the noggin that makes you throw up your hands in frustration and disappointment is the last fifteen to twenty minutes.
This is when the thematic dogma comes to a climax. We are meant to believe that the four strangers represent the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. That an Old Testament God demands this Abraham/Isaac act of selfless sacrifice to prove the worth of humanity’s existence or His wrath will be visited on all the world.
Let’s break that down:
The literary analysis of the Abraham and Isaac story is that, although God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son to show his faith, Abraham’s willingness to do so was enough for God and He halted the sacrifice. Apparently, the god in Shyamalan’s cosmology is more blood-thirsty. Maybe because he lacks the omniscient power to see into people’s hearts and recognize the purity of their intent, he has to see the actual gore.
People all across the world make major sacrifices for each other every hour of every day. The proof of humanity’s worth can be found everywhere. This single violent act proves nothing and, again, makes the god in the story seem incapable of seeing what’s obvious, making him not too bright.
Which brings us to wondering why humans would care what such an unloving, impotent, dumb, and cruel god wants. Why follow a tyrant except for survival? But the point of sacrifice is that survival of the temporary body is less important that survival of the immortal soul.
If the family had chosen while only seeing news reports of the pandemic and the floods, that would have been an act of faith. Faith is believing in something without sufficient evidence. Once they were shown the hundreds of planes dropping from the skies, they had pretty convincing proof that the strangers’ story was credible so they were no longer acting on faith.
If the family chooses not to kill one of their own, the world will end, but they will be left alive to wander the earth alone in a hellish landscape. For this murder to occur as an act of faith, the alternative should not have been a horrific survival, but rather a materialistic reward, like Australia survives and they would live happily there. Now their choice is about rejecting material comfort for spiritual fulfillment.
Shyamalan does not understand how stories about faith work and instead cobbles together a Frankenstein’s monster of bits and parts from religion that contradict his own mumbled themes. It’s embarrassing for him and insulting to the audience. I’m not advocating for or against stories about faith, just that when you choose to do one, do it right.
(NOTE: If you want to see how a story about faith actually works, see this entire pilot for a very funny, witty, and intelligent TV series Wonderfalls. It’s brilliant.)
Music: A Fresh Take on an Old Classic
Fred Hersch & esperanza spalding: Alive at the Village Vanguard
“But Not for Me” has been performed with heart-wrenching emotion by numerous singers from Ella Fitzgerald to Judy Garland to Elton John. Spalding’s charmingly fresh take on this classic song, accompanied by Hersch’s jaunty piano, is a lively interpretation that is defiant rather than bluesy. She even playfully questions some of the arcane lyrics to the delight of the live audience. There’s no self-pity here, just a that’s-life shrug and a tip of the hat as she skips down the street.
This is cabaret jazz at its best: intimate, improvisational, impressive.
Another bullseye, Kareem, especially your take-down of that pasty little martinet DeSantis. These alleged "conservatives" (who are conserving nothing that was ever promising about American society) drive me nuts as a retired academic: here he is banning critical race theory, about which you can be sure he knows nothing (and which doesn't exist much of anywhere outside law schools, and certainly not in secondary ed) and African American Studies in general, about which you can be sure is equally and flagrantly ignorant. I didn't think anyone could be more cynical than Trump. Now I do wonder.
Can you still teach history in Florida? If they actually taught the history of slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow, lynchings, massacres, red lining, and the treatment of Native Americans, Mexicans, Chinese, Japanese, Jews, women, and LGBTQ people - if people were taught about what actually happened, there would not be much need to teach about modern intellectual responses to that history. The blinding of Sgt. Woodard, the race riots in Tulsa, Houston, Omaha, etc., and the Strange Fruit swinging in southern trees are facts that speak for themselves. The consistent amendment of The Constitution towards progressive values and “a more perfect Union” should also be taught - our national history is not all bad and probably not any worse than most national histories. I do not feel personally guilty for atrocities that I did not commit, and I don’t think that teachers should try to guilt trip student’s over past national sins that they inherited, but did not commit. However, I want to be aware of them as they may impact my vote and/or donations to causes - and therefore have striven to educate myself instead of accepting whitewashed propaganda as history. I feel ashamed that my country has chosen to honor and elect racists, eugenicists, and other oppressors, but not personal guilt. I am proud that my country has amended some of its pernicious ways, and hopeful that it will continue to do so. If schools would teach the actual history of race at age appropriate times in public schools, the point about societal injustices could be made even without reference to CRT and other intellectual responses to that history and present. In light of the current backlash, Florida should adopt the Dragnet approach to history - “Just the facts, Ma’am”, but include the facts giving the unvarnished truth.
The gender studies issues may be trickier because reasonable can disagree about the age at which children should learn about gender issues, and how to weigh the potential conflicts between conservative religious beliefs and sexual practices, whether protecting sports competition for the genetically female is necessary and/or desirable, what the proper linguistic responses to non-binary persons ought to be, and the rights of parents to know about how their children are treated by teachers at school, etc. Those are thorny issues raising concerns about family autonomy, parental rights, children’s rights, the respect that should be given to children’s choices that may have permanent consequences, the rights of spouses who disagree on these issues with respect to their children, and religious rights. Bans are generally stupid blunt instruments, but choosing the best way forward seems complicated to me. The vanguard of the left may not have the right approach either, which can give opposed reactionaries political traction - which would be unfortunate.