Thursday, March 22, 2018

Congress must stop Trump from firing Mueller -- March 22, 2018 column


Why does he act so guilty? What does he have to hide? What does Vladimir Putin have on him?

Those are questions being raised by Republicans as well as Democrats as President Donald Trump seems poised to end special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian tampering in the 2016 election. 

“When you are innocent . . . act like it,” Rep. Trey Gowdy, Republican of South Carolina, urged the president Sunday on “Fox News Sunday.”

“If you’ve done nothing wrong, you should want the investigation to be as fulsome and thorough as possible,” said Gowdy, a member of the House Intelligence Committee.  

Sen. Lindsey Graham warned firing Mueller would “probably” be an impeachable offense. Graham should know. He was one of the House managers of the impeachment case against President Bill Clinton in 1998. 

If Trump were to fire Mueller, “I can’t see it being anything other than a corrupt purpose,” Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said Tuesday on the Hugh Hewitt radio show.

Sen. John McCain, Republican of Arizona, tweeted: “Special Counsel Mueller has served our country with honesty and integrity. It is critical he be allowed to complete a thorough investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election – unimpeded.”

Fine words. Now it’s time for Congress to pass stalled legislation to protect the work of special counsels, including Mueller.

Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee voted Thursday to release, after classified material is redacted, their report that there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians, a finding they announced March 13. Democrats on the committee strongly oppose release, saying Republicans ended the investigation prematurely.

Until now, many GOP members of Congress have said legislation to protect special counsels was unnecessary because Trump would never fire Mueller.

But Trump is reshaping his legal team, hiring Joseph diGenova, a former U.S. attorney who claims the FBI and Justice Department framed Trump. And last weekend Trump launched tweets attacking Mueller personally.

“The Mueller probe should never have been started in that there was no collusion and there was no crime,” he tweeted. The Mueller probe is “a total WITCH HUNT with massive conflicts of interest!”

John Dowd, Trump’s personal attorney, said Saturday it was time to shut down the Mueller probe, although he later claimed he was only speaking for himself. He resigned Thursday, reportedly because Trump was ignoring his advice.

White House lawyer Ty Cobb said in a statement Sunday: “The White House yet again confirms that the president is not considering or discussing the firing” of Mueller.

But Trump’s calling out Mueller by name was a barrage too far. The timing was also suspect, coming just after Mueller reportedly subpoenaed financial records of the Trump Organization.

“Unfortunately, the statements and actions from the president and his lawyer over the weekend have led me to believe that the special counsel is now at real, immediate risk of being removed, and I believe the Senate needs to pass legislation to ensure that does not happen,” Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat and cosponsor of a bipartisan bill with Sen. Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican, said Monday.

The Special Counsel Integrity Act would create a judicial review process to prevent the removal of special counsels without good cause.

Another bill, the Special Counsel Independence Protection Act, would permit the firing of a special counsel only if a federal court found “misconduct, dereliction of duty, incapacity, conflict of interest, or other good cause for removal.”

Introduced by Graham in the Senate, it has three Democratic cosponsors, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.

Companion bills for both bills have been introduced in the House. One bill by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Democrat of Texas, has 130 cosponsors, all Democrats, including Reps. A. Donald McEachin and Don Beyer of Virginia.

The bills had hearings in the respective Judiciary committees but are stalled.

Trump seems eager to shut Mueller down or at least to discredit his findings. Republicans as well as Democrats say Mueller should be allowed to complete his investigation.

Members of Congress must do their work so Mueller can do his.

© 2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Women artists still neglected -- March 15, 2018 column


Can you name five women artists? Off the top of your head. No Googling.

Take your time. I’ll wait.

If you found the question tougher than you expected, as I did, we’re not alone. When the National Museum of Women in the Arts hit the streets of Washington and asked people to name five, a common response was, “Um.” Most people couldn’t.

The museum launched the challenge March 1 for Women’s History Month. Now in its third year, the #5WomenArtists social media campaign aims to make people aware of gender inequality in the art world.

It’s embarrassing to realize how few women artists’ names leap to mind – after Georgia O’Keeffe, of course – but it’s not entirely our fault. Women are often the subject of art in museums but rarely the creators.     

As the provocative poster by Guerrilla Girls, a group of anonymous feminist art activists, reads: “Do women have to be naked to get into U.S. museums?”

In 1989, women artists were less than 5 percent of the artists but more than 85 percent 
of the nudes in the modern art sections of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Surely, you say, things are better now. Nope. In 2011, women artists were less than 4 percent of the artists and 76 percent of the nudes in the modern art sections at the Met, the group reported.

If you look at a work of art in the National Gallery of Art, there’s only a 4 percent chance it was created by a woman, say researchers at the data analysis firm Priceonomics, who pored over the gallery’s online collection of nearly 100,000 works.

Male dominance on museum walls reflects when the art works were created, Priceonomics says, explaining that more than 70 percent of the art at the National Gallery was created before 1950 and only 4 percent since 1990, when gender parity was first achieved among debut artists.

The women’s museum sprang from another simple, but rarely asked, question: Where are all the women artists?

Wilhelmina Cole Holladay, now 95, and her late husband, Wallace, started  collecting art by women in the 1960s, opened their Georgetown home for art tours and then founded the private, nonprofit museum a few blocks from the White House.

Its collection of more than 5,000 pieces from the 16th century to the present includes work by Louise Bourgeois, Mary Cassatt, Judy Chicago, Frida Kahlo and Amy Sherald, whose portrait of Michelle Obama was recently unveiled at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.

When the women’s museum opened in 1987, some women artists weren’t keen on being pigeon-holed by gender, and some critics panned it.

“A virtuous bore,” sniped critic Robert Hughes in Time magazine. He dismissed the museum as “a grimly sentimental waste of money, an idea whose time is gone” and predicted it would soon be irrelevant.

Except that it wasn’t.

Women artists are still exceptional, a nice way of saying neglected. But that’s changing. Millions saw the Google doodle on March 8, International Women’s Day, featuring 12 female artists.

Last year, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy, one of the world’s oldest and most famous museums, had its first exhibition of work by Plautilla Nelli, a 16th century nun considered the first woman Florentine painter. The Uffizi promises more exhibitions of art by lost women artists.

Rediscovering and restoring women’s art in Florence is the inspiring mission of American Jane Fortune – sometimes called Indiana Jane – and the Advancing Women Artists Foundation she founded.

Closer to home, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts had an exhibition of “Women Artists and Abstract Expressionism” from May 2016 to January 2017. You can find an audio tour on the museum’s website that features 16 of the nearly 300 women artists in its collection.

The #MeToo movement has raised consciousness, as we used to say, about the need for women’s perspective in all aspects of society, including the art world. But what action can we take?

Ask museums and galleries to exhibit more women artists. Praise exhibitions that strive for gender equity, criticize those that fall short. Share your enthusiasm with the staff and on social media, the women’s museum suggests.

And, of course, buy artwork by women.

Next year we’ll see if we can name five women artists without an “Um.” 

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Women in Hollywood lead charge for visibility -- March 8, 2018 column


With two words, Frances McDormand proposed a brilliant strategy to bring more women and minorities to the silver screen.

“I have two words to leave with you tonight, ladies and gentlemen: inclusion rider,” McDormand said Sunday as she accepted the Oscar for best actress in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”

And so America learned a clunky legalese phrase that could change movies forever. Google and the Merriam-Webster dictionary site lit up with searches for inclusion and rider.

By putting an inclusion rider in their contracts, A-list actors, directors or producers could ensure women, racial minorities, disabled people and members of the LGBT community are hired for speaking roles and on set. McDormand said she’d heard of the concept only a week earlier.

“You can ask for and/or demand at least 50 percent diversity in not only the casting, but also the crew,” she told reporters backstage after the Oscars ceremony. “The fact that I learned that after 35 years in the film business – we aren’t going back.” 

The pace of change surrounding the #MeToo movement is quickening. As recently as January, actors and others wearing all black at the Golden Globes to protest sexual harassment seemed a bold statement. A symbolic show of solidarity is nice, but . . .  

Now, encouraging signs suggest symbolism may lead to solutions to promote women in the movie business.

Brie Larson, who won best actress for her role in the 2015 film, “Room,” tweeted: “I’m committed to the Inclusion Rider. Who’s with me?”

There is pushback, of course. 

“We’re not so big on doing everything through agreements,” said Netflix CEO Reed Hastings.

The “epidemic of invisibility” of women in films has raged for more than half a century, says Stacy L. Smith, who came up with the inclusion rider concept in 2014.

Smith, director of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at the University of Southern California, has studied gender inequality in more than 900 popular films. She found women still are only about 31 percent of the speaking characters.

A typical feature film has 40 to 45 speaking characters, but only eight to 10 are actually relevant to the story, she said in a 2016 TED talk, adding there’s no reason the remaining characters can’t reflect the world being depicted.

Smith also urges studio executives to adopt the NFL’s Rooney Rule in considering directors. The Rooney Rule -- named for the late Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney -- requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate for each coach and general manager job. It’s become a model for other industries, and while it has its share of critics, it does get members of minorities into the rooms where decisions are made.

Women are woefully behind in other areas of movie-making. In 2017, women were just 18 percent of all the directors, writers, producers, executive producers and cinematographers working on the top 250 domestic grossing films, reports Martha M. Lauzen of Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. That figure was virtually unchanged since 1998.

The more women directors, writers and producers, the more the movies will depict life from a woman’s perspective. That’s important because stories on screen not only entertain us but also help form our view of the world -- often for the worst when it comes to gratuitous violence and mayhem, but that’s a topic for another day.

Sometimes change takes place one on one. Actress Jessica Chastain, nominated for two Academy Awards, is a vocal critic of the pay gap between men and women in Hollywood. She learned from Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer about the chasm in pay between white and black actresses.

Spencer credits Chastain with helping her get a pay raise five times Spencer’s usual salary for the holiday comedy they’re currently making together.

Each of us also has a role to play in promoting the inclusion of unrepresented groups in the movies. We can look for and buy tickets to movies with women stars, directors, writers and diverse casts. We can tell our friends and post on social media.

Who’s with me?

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

On Stateline: #MeToo Movement Fuels a 1970s Comeback: The ERA

#MeToo Movement Fuels a 1970s Comeback: The ERA

  • March 01, 2018
  • By Marsha Mercer
Stateline March1
Supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment hold a sign as they are introduced in the gallery of the Virginia House earlier this month. The fight for the constitutional amendment is drawing momentum from the 2016 election and the #MeToo movement.
Steve Helber/The Associated Press
Scott Surovell was a baby in a stroller when his mother took him to hearings on the Equal Rights Amendment in the early 1970s, and growing up, he often heard stories about the need for the ERA.
Now a Democratic state senator in Virginia, the 46-year-old has introduced a bill to ratify the ERA for the last six years, three when he was a member of the Virginia House and three in the Senate. Surovell has fallen short every time — most recently Feb. 9, when House and Senate committees quashed it. The Republican committee chairmen said floor votes were improper because the time limit for ratification set by Congress expired in 1982.
This year’s loss came despite a spirited demonstration by more than a hundred supporters in the Capitol, who sang “We Shall Overcome” and shouted “Shame! Shame!”
Many Americans either think the ERA is already part of the U.S. Constitution or that it has gone the way of John Travolta’s white leisure suit in “Saturday Night Fever.” But the fight goes on, and it is drawing fresh momentum from the 2016 election and the #MeToo movement.
The Constitution says an amendment must be approved by three-fourths of the states. But it does not mention a deadline, so supporters argue that Congress can extend the 1982 ERA deadline again, or waive it. The 27th Amendment on congressional pay raises, for example, was ratified 203 years after Congress proposed it.
Nevada last March became the 36th state to approve the ERA, meaning that supporters need only two more states to reach the 38 required for ratification. Before Nevada, the last state to ratify had been Indiana in 1977.
“The votes have all been hair-breadth losses — until Nevada,” said Roberta W. Francis, ERA education consultant for the Alice Paul Institute, a nonprofit in New Jersey that advocates for women. “This is a time when there’s a lot more energy under the ERA.”
Besides Nevada and Virginia, the states that did not ratify by the 1982 deadline are: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Utah.
Stateline March1
Equal Rights Amendment supporters voice their disapproval of the Florida Senate’s defeat of an ERA ratification bill in 1982.
The Associated Press
Twenty-three states have added equal rights amendments to their state constitutions, mostly during the years the national ERA effort was moribund. Oregon added an equal rights guarantee to its Constitution in 2014, and legislators in Delaware and Vermont are working on state ERAs this year.
“We’re seeing a sea change where it’s becoming much harder to deny the truths of women’s voices,” said Georgia state Sen. Nan Orrock, a Democrat who has worked to ratify the ERA during 31 years in the Legislature. “There’s a palpable sense of women on the move.”

Nevada Surprise

The federal ERA’s main provision states that “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex.”
An ERA was first introduced in Congress in 1923, and Congress approved it in 1972, sending it to the states for ratification with a deadline of 1979, and extending it in 1978, to 1982.
In the current Congress, U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, and U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, have proposed removing the deadline, allowing the ERA to become part of the Constitution as soon as a 38th state ratifies it. U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat, would start over with new language in a “fresh start” amendment.
One question mark is how to count the five states — Nebraska, Tennessee, Idaho, Kentucky and South Dakota — that later rescinded their ratifications. Courts have not ruled whether rescission is lawful.
In Nevada, the ERA’s prospects were bleak until just recently. Democratic Nevada state Sen. Pat Spearman got nowhere when she pushed for ERA ratification in 2015.
“People would tell me it was nothing more than a stunt, it didn’t mean anything, and we shouldn’t be wasting people’s time,” she said.
But when Democrats won control of the Nevada Legislature in 2016, Spearman saw her chance. Another advantage: Female lawmakers now make up about 40 percent of the Nevada Legislature, as much as any state.
Last March, the Nevada Senate passed the measure 13-8, with all Democrats and one Republican female senator voting in favor. In the Nevada Assembly, the vote was 28-14, again with all Democrats and one Republican woman voting for passage.
“If you had called me in mid-2016, I would not have said Nevada would ratify,” said Bettina Hager, Washington, D.C., director of the ERA Coalition and Fund for Women’s Equality, an advocacy group.
“What happened was everything was lined up,” Hager said. “You need three things to be in play: a strong lead sponsor, advocates working on the ground, and the makeup of the Legislature. Nobody was expecting it to go that well.”

Illinois as Epicenter

Illinois, long the epicenter of the Stop ERA movement, is poised to be a battleground once again.
State Sen. Heather Steans, a Democrat, said a number of Republicans who support the ERA but fear a challenge from the right have told her privately they will vote for it in April, after the March 20 primary.
Pro-ERA groups have formed a coalition that is sponsoring screenings around the state of a documentary about women, “Equal Means Equal.”
Michelle Fadeley, the Illinois chapter president for the National Organization for Women, said for the last six months she has been speaking at least four times a month to large audiences at screenings. “We are highly hopeful it’s going to happen this year in Illinois.”
Stateline March1
Phyllis Schlafly, leader of the effort to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment, in 1976.
The Associated Press
Phyllis Schlafly, who was born in St. Louis and lived in Alton, Illinois, was the face of the national fight against the ERA during the 1970s and early ’80s. Schlafly argued that the amendment would lead to coed bathrooms, require women to be drafted into the military and taxpayers to pay for abortions, among other things.
Over the years, the kinds of changes in society Schlafly warned about have come to pass — without the ERA. Same-sex marriage and adoption by gay couples are legal, women voluntarily serve in combat, and mothers can be required to pay child support.
Schlafly died in 2016 at 92, but the Eagle Forum she founded continues the fight, using many of her arguments. 
“You could compel women to be drafted and put into combat,” said Elise Bouc, chairwoman of Stop ERA Illinois. “Now they have a choice, but they’d have to be drafted in equal ratios to men and placed in equal ratios in front-line combat.”
The Catholic Conference of Illinois, which lobbies on behalf of church members in the state Capitol, also plans to oppose the ERA, said Bob Gilligan, conference executive director. The conference did not take a stand the last two legislative sessions, when it was focused on tax issues involving church schools.
“This issue has been around since 1972, and many believe the clock has expired with the time allotted to pass the ERA,” Gilligan said. “We’re also opposed because the language should more accurately reflect current issues.” He said his group is worried that courts might use the ERA to mandate publicly funded abortions, or force Catholic hospitals to perform gender reassignment surgeries.  

Stuck in the ’70s?

But some legal scholars have the opposite worry: that the 1970s ERA isn’t expansive enough.
“My idea for the ERA today is we should not be stuck in the 1970s,” said Julie C. Suk, professor at Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, who has studied equal rights measures around the world.
“We need to start thinking about remaining inequalities — persistent pay inequity, lack of accommodation for pregnancies, and lack of paid parental leave,” she said. “Will the ERA help us solve these problems or stand in our way?”
The current ERA language prohibits discrimination by states and the federal government but not corporations. Judges could decide what the amendment covers, Suk said, adding that for judges to understand the amendment’s intent, supporters need to be loud.
In Virginia, Surovell is planning his strategy for next year.
“I’m going to find a Republican chief sponsor,” he said, noting that the ERA has bipartisan support in the General Assembly, and two Republicans on the Senate Rules Committee voted in favor.
“All politicians — Republican and Democrat — need to be aware that women are very upset right now with what’s going on in Washington,” Surovell said. “They’re looking for an affirmative story.”

Trump takes unexpected turn as gun control president -- March 1, 2018 column


Call Ripley.

Even in this wildly unpredictable White House, President Donald Trump’s call for  “beautiful” and “comprehensive” gun control was a Believe It or Not! moment.

“I think it’s time that a president stepped up,” Trump declared Wednesday at a televised meeting on school safety with members of Congress at the White House.

“We want to pass something great, and to me the something great has to be where we prevent it from happening again,” he said.

It is the mass shooting of children in American schools.

The Feb. 14 massacre of 17 students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, could be a tipping point in the long-stalled gun control movement. Unless it isn’t.

Sadly, we’ve been here before. After 20 children and six adults were gunned down in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, President Barack Obama tried to expand background checks to all gun purchases, among other measures.

The National Rifle Association resisted, congressional Republicans and some Democrats balked, and nothing changed.

This time, though, while politicians talk, big business is taking action.    

Dick’s Sporting Goods and Walmart announced Wednesday they will no longer sell firearms to anyone under 21. Dick’s will no longer sell assault-style rifles, a move Walmart made in 2015.

“Thoughts and prayers are not enough,” Dick’s Sporting Goods Chairman and CEO Edward W. Stack said.


Walmart said in a statement: “Our heritage as a company has always been in serving sportsmen and hunters, and we will continue to do so in a responsible way.”

Many familiar brands, including Avis, Hertz, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines, have dropped NRA discount programs.

“The loss of a discount will neither scare nor distract one single NRA member,” the NRA said in a defiant statement.

The Florida shooter had bought a shotgun at Dick’s last November. The gun was not used in the school massacre; he used an AR-15, a semiautomatic. “But it could have been,” Stack wrote.

A troubled 18-year-old in Vermont bought a shotgun from Dick’s Feb. 13 and had plans for “shooting up” his high school. A17-year-old girl, concerned about his threatening texts, showed her phone to a high school guidance counselor who called authorities. The would-be mass murderer has been charged and is in jail.

Trump’s relationship with the NRA, which claims 5 million members, is conflicted. In his 2000 book “The America We Deserve,” Trump wrote: “I generally oppose gun control, but I support the ban on assault weapons and I support a slightly longer waiting period to purchase a gun.”

The NRA spent an unprecedented $30 million to elect him, and he reassured NRA members at their convention last year: “I will never, ever let you down.”

There’s “no bigger fan” of the NRA than he, but “That doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything,” he said Wednesday. And he chided lawmakers for bowing to the NRA.

“They do have great power. . . They have great power over you people. They have less power over me,” he said. “Some of you people are petrified of the NRA. You can’t be petrified.”

Trump said he wants expanded background checks and is open to raising the age for buying assault-style rifles to 21. He wants police to be able to confiscate guns from mentally ill people, although that would be constitutionally dubious.

"Take the guns first, go through due process second,” he said.

He promised an executive order to ban bump stocks, attachments that make a semi-automatic rifle act like a machine gun, and urged ending “gun free school zones” and arming school personnel.  

“I would rather have a comprehensive bill,” he said. “It would be really nice to create something that’s beautiful.”

If he actually follows through, Trump could go down in history as the president who led the nation in stopping gun violence. Or he could pivot.

In a White House meeting on immigration in January. Trump promised to sign whatever compromise Congress passed. Then the White House torpedoed bipartisan legislation.

It’s easy to imagine a repeat with guns.

The student-led #NeverAgain movement is changing the way Americans think about gun rights and the gun lobby. Corporations and consumers are finally saying “Enough” to mass killings. Bravo.

Now politicians in Washington need to conquer their fear of the NRA and act to save lives.

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Best defense against Russia's lies: `Consider the source' -- Feb. 22, 2018 column


The Russians are coming – for real. And they’ll meddle in our November elections.

After all, it worked for them in 2016.

“There should be no doubt that Russia perceives its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations,” Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, told the Senate Intelligence Committee Feb. 13.

“We expect Russia to continue using propaganda, social media, false-flag personas, sympathetic spokespeople and other means of influence to try to exacerbate social and political fissures in the United States,” Coats said.

Even President Donald Trump now concedes Russians interfered in the last presidential election, though he still cannot bring himself to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin. Authorities agree there’s no evidence vote tallies were altered, but it’s impossible to know how many minds were changed.

Russia’s goal is to sow fear, distrust, discord and divisiveness in America and elsewhere and restore Russia’s role as a world power, experts say. Russians have been successfully pushing our emotional buttons for years, using social media.

Most recently, after the massacre in Parkland, Florida, they used #guncontrolnow and #gunreformnow to stir the pot. They used similar tactics following the mass shootings in Las Vegas and Texas.

Russians began posing as Americans in social media, creating false stories and spewing tweets, in 2014. These were trial runs to see how much they could get Americans to believe, The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday after an extensive investigation.

We take the bait -- as the tale of the tainted turkey demonstrates.

Around Thanksgiving 2015, someone claiming to be Alice Norton, a 31-year-old mother of two in New York City, wrote on a cooking website forum that her whole family had gotten food poisoning from a Walmart turkey. Twitter repeated the claim thousands of time, and a news story reported 200 people were in critical condition at hospitals.

The story was a hoax. There was no such outbreak of food poisoning, the Journal reported. The claims were linked to a Kremlin propaganda agency charged with meddling in U.S. elections by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

The tainted turkey was just one of several fictitious events Russian propagandists manufactured before they moved on to support Trump and Bernie Sanders while disparaging Hillary Clinton, the Journal said.

The United States continues to be “under attack” by those who want to create cyber disruption, Coats and other intelligence officials warned. Our response?

“We’ve had more than a year to get our act together and address the threat posed by Russia and implement a strategy to deter future attacks,” Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said at the hearing. “We still do not have a plan.”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a Cyber-Digital Task Force Tuesday to study what the Justice Department is doing to combat global security threats. Interference in our elections is one priority.  

That’s good, as far as it goes.

Social media companies are shutting down Russian bots, the automated accounts that flood tweets and posts, but as soon as one account is gone, others pop up.  

If we can’t rely on the government or corporations to stop the flow of misinformation by November, if ever, what can we do?  

Three words: Consider the source.

That’s what my mother said when I was a child and a bully said or did something ugly. Consider the source means don’t pay attention to someone whose opinion doesn’t matter.

Now more than ever we need to know if the source of information is credible. Don’t rely on Wikipedia or your friends to have their facts straight.

To recognize bots, experts suggest checking an account’s bio and profile picture. If the language is odd, if you Google the image and find it all over the Internet, if the “person” tweets more than seems humanly possible – move on. Don’t share it.  

We need to cultivate more good old American skepticism. Propaganda works because it plays to our existing distrust and divisions. Recognize when you love or hate something online it may be because it confirms your bias. We all have them.

This election year, look before you retweet. Don’t be played for a sucker.

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

George Washington's rules inspire search for civility -- Feb. 15, 2018 column


In the entertaining novel, “Rules of Civility,” about 20-somethings in glamorous, 1930s New York, the enigmatic Tinker Grey keeps with him a much-underlined copy of George Washington’s rules of proper behavior.

Tinker aspires to the refined life the rules represent, though narrator Katey scoffs that the rules are “A do-it-yourself charm school. A sort of How to Win Friends and Influence People 150 years ahead of its time.”

You’ll have to read Amor Towles’s novel to see how it turns out – and you should. A welcome escape from today’s news, it was published in 2011, became a New York Times bestseller and Wall Street Journal best book of the year, and has been published in more than 15 languages.

And, besides, all 110 of Washington’s rules appear in the novel’s appendix, with the quirky spelling, punctuation and capitalization preserved. Anyone can benefit from an acquaintance with “Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation.”

Washington didn’t dream up the rules or even compile them. The Jesuits composed the rules about 1595 and they were translated into English about 1640. Washington wrote them out as a penmanship lesson before he was 16.

Biographers say Washington was self-conscious about his lack of a gentleman’s education and took the rules so seriously they helped form his character.
Many concern table manners, such as “Take no Salt or cut Bread with your Knife Greasy” (Rule 92) and some personal dress: “Wear not your Cloths, foul, unript or Dusty but See they are Brush’d once every day at least and take heed that you approach not to any Uncleaness” (51).

Others speak to personal conduct: “Associate yourself with Men of good Quality if you Esteem your own Reputation; for ‘tis better to be alone than in bad Company” (56).

And some offer sage advice on public discourse. “Let your Conversation be without Malice or Envy, for ‘tis a Sign of a Tractable and Commendable Nature: And in all Causes of Passion admit Reason to Govern” (58).

And, “Think before you Speak pronounce not imperfectly nor bring out your Words too hastily but orderly & distinctly” (73).

As we celebrate Washington’s 286th birthday on Presidents Day on Monday, more Americans lament the loss of civility.

“There is more civility in a death penalty case than there is in some congressional hearings,” Rep. Trey Gowdy, Republican of South Carolina, told Politico.

Gowdy, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and a former federal prosecutor, announced Jan. 31 he’s leaving Congress and politics after this term to return to the justice system.  

After a congressman was shot and gravely wounded last summer in Alexandria during practice for a congressional baseball game, members of Congress from both parties pledged to be more civil.

A bipartisan group of House members proposed a National Civility Day to remind people that “civility involves being nice or polite to others and treating others with respect.” The bill has gone nowhere.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, weighing in on our toxic politics, suggested a solution in a video: “We control our own actions. Let’s be more civil. Let’s improve our tone.”

Many people blame President Donald Trump and his barnyard vocabulary for the coarsening of the culture, and his insults and name-calling certainly hurt the cause of civility. Trump, as usual, blames the news media.

“I think the press makes me more uncivil than I am,” he told reporters last fall.
If Trump had read Washington’s rules, he’d know: “Use no Reproachfull Language against any one neither Curse nor Revile” (49), “Be not hasty to beleive flying Reports to the Disparagement of any” (50) and “Be not apt to relate News if you know not the truth thereof.” (79)

Anyone can read Washington’s rules on “Every action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present” (Rule 1) and “Labour to keep alive in your Breast that Little Spark of Celestial fire Called Conscience” (110) are worthy goals.

And if, while on Mount Vernon’s website, you happen onto an annoying Page Not Found 404 error, you’ll find “Rules of Civility #404: `When confronted by a missing web page do not gnash thy teeth, but rather press forward with a fine countenance towards the next available page.’”

Sound advice. Washington would approve.

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.