Trump goes to war against government-subsidized media

Photo (cc) 2006 by Melissa Gira.

What if President Trump actually had the power to do something about journalism that he doesn’t like? Unfortunately, we already know the answer. A number of media organizations operate under government auspices, and until recently they’ve enjoyed a well-deserved reputation for independence and truth-telling. Now, though, they are in danger of being dismantled or turned into organs of Trumpist propaganda.

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A new treatment for dwarfism brings us closer to the end of genetic diversity

Back when I was researching “Little People,” my 2003 book about dwarfism, the only treatment for achondroplasia — the most common form of dwarfism — was painful, dangerous limb-lengthening surgery. Understandably, very few people opted for such a drastic treatment, and families whose children had such surgery (it doesn’t work well on adults) were thought to have insufficient “dwarf pride.”

Now an actual treatment for achondroplasia is on the horizon. The New York Times reports that a drug called vosoritide seems to target the genetic anomaly that stops the long bones of the arms and legs from growing. Since that anomaly also causes spinal and respiratory problems, the treatment could prove to be a real breakthrough in improving people’s quality of life.

One of the main themes of “Little People” is the social and cultural meaning of difference — whether we are as comfortable with it as we claim to be, and if we’d eliminate it if we could. At the time, the main threat to dwarfism, and all kinds of genetic differences, was the rise of cheap, routine in-utero genetic-screening tests. Now that an actual treatment for achondroplasia is upon us, the calculation has changed considerably. As the Times’ Serena Solomon writes:

Vosoritide, said Mark Povinelli, the L.P.A.’s [Little People of America’s] president, “is one of the most divisive things that we’ve come across in our 63-year existence.”

The organization does not endorse specific treatments, but encourages members to consider more than height in medical decisions. “We want to show that you can have a completely fulfilling life without having to worry about growth velocity,” said Mr. Povinelli, calling fixations on height a societal issue.

Unlike limb-lengthening surgery, if vosoritide proves to be safe, effective and affordable, I suspect most average-size couples who have a child with achondroplasia will opt for the treatment. Drugs available for several decades have all but eliminated dwarfism caused by hormonal deficiencies, and I can’t imagine why achondroplasia would be any different. We would have chosen it for our adult daughter, Becky, who has achondroplasia.

Doctors are not going to educate new parents about dwarf pride or the advantages of diversity. Instead, they’re going to tell them about a treatment. This not an unalloyed good, but it is reality.

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Would a normal president have made a difference in preventing COVID deaths?

This Ross Douthat column gets at something I’ve found myself wondering: How many lives could have been saved in the United States if a normal president had been in the White House?

A Columbia study showed that 36,000 people would not have died if the shutdown had started a week earlier, and 54,000 if it had started two weeks earlier. But might they have died later on during the summer surge?

The real problem has been Trump’s complete lack of seriousness and empathy. Maybe the death toll wouldn’t be all that different. But we wouldn’t feel completely abandoned.

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It’s time for Trump’s off-the-record enablers to step out from the shadows

Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic posted a blockbuster Thursday evening, reporting that President Donald Trump has repeatedly disparaged those who died in war as “losers” and “suckers.”

But the story probably won’t have the devastating effect that it should because Goldberg’s sources refused to go on the record. I’m outraged, as I have been many times over the past four years, at the gutlessness of these insiders and former insiders, who privately express their disgust with Trump while acting as his enablers.

Yes, attaching their names to this report would subject them to withering criticism and possibly even place them in danger. But the country is in danger, too. It’s time to step up.

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The Ed Markey I know

Sen. Ed Markey at a rally for the Green New Deal. Photo (cc) 2019 by Victoria Pickering.

Now that U.S. Ed Markey has survived a Democracy primary challenge by U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy, I want to offer a few observations. I didn’t say much during the campaign because I’ve never met Kennedy, and because it didn’t strike me that the outcome would make much difference in terms of policy. Kennedy probably would have made a perfectly fine senator. But, like many liberals and progressives, I didn’t think his decision to run against Markey made much sense except in terms of sheer personal ambition and a cynical calculation that the Kennedy name was all he needed.

I covered Markey for The Daily Times Chronicle of Woburn back in the 1980s, including his toughest re-election fight, in 1984. That’s when Markey decided to run for the Senate following Paul Tsongas’ announcement that he would be leaving because of ill health. At the last minute, though, Markey got cold feet, pulled out and announced he’d run for re-election to the House instead. Most of the Democrats who were running for Markey’s seat immediately dropped out. But Sam Rotondi, a state senator from Winchester, decided to stay in. (John Kerry won the Senate seat, by the way.)

Rotondi ran a spirited race, but the power of incumbency and Markey’s considerable skills as a politician were too much to overcome. You may have heard that the COVID pandemic put Kennedy at a disadvantage since he’s a better retail politician than Markey. That’s ridiculous. Markey is an excellent one-on-one campaigner and, at 74, his energy seems to be undiminished. And his rapport with young voters, always strong, may have been the difference.

There was a time when the sky seemed to be the limit for Markey. He was a leader in the nuclear-freeze movement of the 1980s, which sought to pressure the Reagan administration to negotiate a no-more-nuclear-weapons deal with the Soviet Union. Some people even talked about him as a future presidential candidate. But his decision to stay in the House in 1984 led to a lowering of his profile, although he continued to be a hard-working legislator in both the House and later the Senate. By the time Kennedy jumped in, Markey was kind of an after-thought, and the challenge forced him not to redefine himself, as lazy pundit spin would have it, but to remind voters of who he is.

The one development in the Markey-Kennedy campaign that didn’t fit what I know about Markey was when the parents of Danroy “DJ” Henry Jr. accused him of acting indifferently — even using the term “colored” — at a meeting over the 2010 killing of their son by a white police officer. There was certainly no reason to doubt the Henrys’  account, and I thought it might be the beginning of the end for Markey. For some reason, though, it seemed to have little or no effect.

What did have an effect, in my opinion, was Kennedy’s indefensible decision to attack Markey because internet trolls were saying hateful things about the Kennedys. I was stunned when Kennedy rolled that out at the third debate, and Markey seemed stunned, too. But Kennedy doubled down on it during the final days of the campaign. It came across as desperate, especially when Kennedy and his supporters also cried foul at Markey’s ad that mildly and humorously played off an old John F. Kennedy quote by saying, “With all due respect, it’s time to start asking what your country can do for you.” Given the events of the past four years, JFK would probably agree.

I found it interesting that Kennedy, who’d built a reputation for not relying on his family’s name, went all in and clung to Camelot like a life raft once it became clear that his campaign was in trouble. Unfortunately for him, the number of elderly voters who have side-by-side portraits of Pope John and JFK in their homes is considerably smaller than it used to be.

Frankly, Joe Kennedy never struck me as someone who’s comfortable in his own skin. He has much to contribute — but maybe he ought to consider whether elective office is really the right place for him to make that contribution.

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We need ranked-choice voting — and this November we can make it happen

GBH News graphic by Kaitlyn Locke.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Here we go again.

As of Wednesday morning, it was still unclear who had won the Democratic primary in the Fourth Congressional District. In a field of nine candidates, including two who had dropped out before the primary, Jesse Mermell was running ahead of Jake Auchincloss by the razor-thin margin of 22.4% to 22.3%. One thing we can be sure of, though, is that whoever is nominated in the race to succeed U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy will have received far fewer than a majority of the votes.

That also happened two years ago in the Third Congressional District, when Lori Trahan edged out Dan Koh in a 10-candidate Democratic primary. Trahan received 21.7% to Koh’s 21.5%, which was enough to propel her to victory that November against token Republican and independent opposition. This time around, Trahan, now the incumbent congresswoman, ran unopposed in the primary.

This is no way to run a democracy. Elections that produce winners lacking majority support fail to reflect the will of the voters. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

One solution would be to have a runoff election between the top two finishers. That’s the way they do it in some states, and it would be preferable to what we have currently in Massachusetts. But that’s expensive and time-consuming. Even then, it looks like Mermell and Auchincloss together will receive less than 50%, as was the case with Trahan and Koh in 2018 — which means that a majority of Democratic voters wanted someone else.

That’s why ranked-choice voting — also known as the instant runoff — is a better solution. And it’s on the ballot this fall. If Question 2 is approved, the system would go into effect in 2022, covering most state and federal offices but exempting presidential and local elections.

Here’s how ranked-choice voting works. Let’s say five candidates are running. You can vote for one, just as you do now. Or you can designate a second choice and, if you like, keep right on going from one to five in order of preference. It’s entirely up to you.

If no one wins a majority, the fifth-place finisher would be eliminated, and the second choices of voters who supported that candidate would be awarded among the remaining candidates. The instant runoff continues until someone emerges with a majority. Third-place (or lower) votes would be counted if more rounds are needed to produce a majority winner. (For more information about ranked-choice voting, visit Yes on 2.)

This accomplishes two things. First, it eliminates the possibility that a minority winner might be someone who is loathed by voters who backed other candidates. Instead, the winner will be someone who had broad enough support to have been the second or third choice of many voters. Second, it eliminates gamesmanship at the polls. No longer would voters have an incentive to pick someone who isn’t their top choice in order to block someone else. Instead, they could rank their favorite first and their backup second.

The bane of this sort of strategic voting — or, rather, non-strategic voting — is why Maine adopted ranked choice in 2018. The bombastic Republican Paul LePage was elected governor in 2010 and 2014, each time with less than a majority, because a strong independent candidate split the anti-LePage vote with the Democratic nominee. Given what a polarizing figure LePage was, it seems likely that most independent voters would have picked the Democrat as their second choice (and vice versa), thus reflecting the will of the majority that someone other than LePage serve as governor.

I’ve been a fan of ranked-choice voting since 2000, when Ralph Nader’s independent candidacy may very well have cost Al Gore the election and handed the presidency to George W. Bush. As I wrote for The Boston Phoenix at the time, if you make the reasonable assumption that most Nader voters would have ranked Gore second, Gore would have taken Florida and thus the White House.

The question now is whether Question 2 will pass muster with voters in Massachusetts. It’s got a lot of support. According to State House News Service, all but one Democratic candidate in the Fourth Congressional District, including Mermell and Auchincloss, said they supported ranked choice.

Moreover, a recent poll by WBUR and the MassINC Polling Group showed that respondents were evenly split on the measure — but that among those who said they understood ranked choice “very well,” 52% were in favor and 37% were against. With two months to go before the November election, proponents have a chance to win over skeptics.

Of course, the power of inertia is difficult to overcome. Ranked-choice voting isn’t as simple as the system we have now, and there’s a lot to be said for simplicity. But elections should reflect the will of the voters as closely as possible. Ranked choice does that. Which is why I’m voting “yes” on Question 2.

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Yes, the Electoral College really is an 18th-century artifact of racism

In which I take issue with Jennifer Braceras’ column in The Boston Globe about the Electoral College. Twitter thread here.

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Album #8: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken’

During a long reporting trip to Washington and Baltimore in 2002, I began listening to WAMU, which at that time played a lot of bluegrass — not the sort of thing I normally liked (or so I thought). But as I was driving around from interview to interview, I started to enjoy what I was listening to. After I got back home, I started listening to the WAMU internet stream on occasion.

That led me to check out  the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1972 album “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” a 38-song compilation starring some of the great bluegrass and old-time country stars of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. As this Wikipedia article explains, many of these folks’ careers were on the decline, supplanted by the slick Nashville sound that eventually morphed into (God help us) contemporary country music. By contrast, there is a real sense of authenticity to “Circle,” an album of traditional music about God, death and heartbreak, with a backdrop of virtuoso playing by guitarist Doc Watson, banjo player Earl Scruggs and fiddler Vassar Clements. Many of the songs are instrumentals, and the musicianship is so stunning that it sounds like bebop from an alternate universe.

The album cover is a real period piece, depicting the American and Confederate flags and a picture of an unnamed military officer. Obviously that would never fly today. But in the ’70s, there was still quite a bit of Confederate nostalgia infecting the culture, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band — a country-rock band from Southern California — was not immune. Around the same time, the Band was recording “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” an ode to the Confederacy that was an enormous hit for Joan Baez, just to give you an idea of how pervasive it was.

Of all the guest stars on “Circle,” my two favorites are Mother Maybelle Carter, from the original Carter Family, and Roy Acuff, who leads on two of the strangest, most intense songs on the album. “The Precious Jewel,” which Acuff wrote, is a weeper about a young love who’s gone on to her reward in heaven. “Wreck on the Highway,” written by Dorsey Dixon, and first recorded by Acuff in 1942, is even wilder. Here’s a taste:

There was whiskey and blood all together
Mixed with glass where they lay
Death played her hand in destruction
But I didn’t hear nobody pray

Acuff’s singing is a revelation — a ragged, full-throated yowl that stands in contrast to the polite vocalizing on most of the album. Bruce Springsteen was so impressed by “Wreck on the Highway” that he wrote a completely different song by the same name — one of his finest, which captures the bleakness of its predecessor if not its weird mixture of piety and violence.

Maybelle Carter was a member of the first and second iterations of the Carter Family as well as the mother of June Carter Cash. She’s the only woman on the album, and her participation gives the entire project the feel of a last roundup. She takes the lead on “Keep on the Sunny Side,” “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes,” “Wildwood Flower” and, of course, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” She also plays autoharp, which isn’t something you hear much of these days.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band itself pretty much disappears on “Circle,” providing little more than some background accompaniment. They released a second volume in 1989 that fails to recapture the magic despite the presence of Johnny Cash and John Prine. A third, released in 2002, is better, and features the likes of Alison Krauss, Willie Nelson, Iris DeMent, Emmylou Harris, June Carter Cash, Johnny Cash and Dwight Yoakam as well as old standbys Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs and Jimmy Martin.

Oh, and you can still listen to Bluegrass Country. I had it tuned in Sunday morning, when they played several hours of gospel music by the Stanley Brothers.

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A crazy story about a fake poll in the Markey-Kennedy Senate race

This story from Elections Today about a fake poll showing Joe Kennedy with a substantial lead over Ed Markey is just nuts. Was it a “social experiment”? Was the Kennedy campaign involved in any way? I really hope someone gets to the bottom of this.

In case you were wondering, three non-fake polls show Markey with a healthy lead in the Democratic Senate primary.

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