April 14, 2017

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The Broken Grace of Leonard Cohen (Paul DeCamp, April 13, 2017, mARTIN mARTY cENTER)

 Editor's Note: The deaths of David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, and Chuck Berry; the awarding of the Nobel Prize to Bob Dylan; the public feud between then-President-elect Trump and the cast and creators of Hamilton; and other recent events have all served to underscore the significance of music in our public life. Today's issue is the first installment in a new series from Sightings, featuring contributions from a mix of scholars and performing artists, on the manifold ways in which popular music and religion intersect. [...]

Cohen's iconic song "Hallelujah" was recently identified as a "secular hymn" in a Journal of Media and Religion article coauthored by three communications scholars at Brigham Young University: professors Steven R. Thomsen and Quint Randle and master's student Matthew Lewis. "While nonreligious in nature or intent," they write, "the secular hymn is a pop song that allows the listener to experience the numinous by creating an affective state that parallels a spiritual or religious state of mind." [...]

Literature and music can often be interpreted as having religious modes, as well as themes and issues considered "theological," but Cohen regularly tapped the well of religion with a seriousness of purpose that few popular artists before him or after could match. He engaged the divine throughout his career, at a time when the power of faith had arguably been diminished by the despair of Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and Vietnam. Cohen was raised in Judaism by parents who told him he was a direct descendent of the high priest Aaron. He was also an ordained Zen monk, an appreciator of Christianity and Gnosticism, and a reader of Hindu philosophy. Among his peers, Cohen's religiosity made him somewhat of an anomaly. He exhibited a rare spiritual seeking that could not be reduced to mundane curiosity or fashionable affect, and he undertook this journey with the severity of a scholar, but went beyond pure theology.

Among his greatest feats was the constant placement of irony and cynicism (defining features of his cultural moment) in tension with a deep and abiding sense of awe. His poetic sense was profoundly Jewish, and therefore biblical. His work feels very old, but always, at the same time, very new. It is steeped in the lyricism of the Psalms as well as the folk revival of the 1960s, drawing as much from the Hebrew prophets as from Bob Dylan; in the process, he closed the distance between the two: a holy irreverence tempered by measured faith.

Another tension, that between the sensuous and the ascetic, was also a hallmark of Cohen's career. His narrators often found themselves faced with women who were repositories of wisdom and mercy. Sex was spiritual incarnation, and there was salvation to be had in the flesh. But while a sensualist, Cohen was also wont to seek mortification as a Zen disciple. For six years he lived atop Mount Baldy with his roshi just outside Los Angeles, where he was said to keep a menorah in his cabin near the zendo. Once asked by an interviewer whether he was religious, Cohen simply replied: "I am religious in that I know the difference between grace and guilt."

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The cooling of Donald Trump's Islamo-scepticism (Erasmus, Apr 14th 2017, tHE eCONOMIST)

[P]erhaps the most tangible symptom of a mood change is the administration's decision, after intense internal debate, not to designate the global Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation: a move that would have complicated America's diplomatic relations with several countries and would have threatened the existence of some advocacy groups within the United States.

Senator Ted Cruz, the devout Baptist and Republican presidential candidate, was among the strongest advocates of this designation; it would also be warmly welcomed by the government of Egypt which wrested power from a Brotherhood-influenced administration in 2013. But the Trump team clearly listened to advice from other quarters, including American diplomats and intelligence officers who know the Middle East, and the governments of Morocco, Tunisia and above all Jordan.

What all these informants told the administration is that the Brotherhood isn't a monolith. It can evolve in a more liberal-democratic direction, as did the Ennahda party in Tunisia, and even within one country, it can morph into several different phenomena, as happened in Jordan. A catchall demonisation might actually arrest this possibility, according to most pundits on Islam.

"All the professional advice was against the Brotherhood's designation [as terrorist]," says Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow of the Brookings Institution think-tank. Mr Hamid reports that many in Washington, DC have become less hostile to his way of thinking, which holds that Islam is more prone to theocratic tendencies than other faiths, but argues that the West should accept this and work for gradual change rather than slamming the door in Islam's face.

Posted by orrinj at 7:13 PM


For Trump, a Steep Learning Curve Leads to Policy Reversals (PETER BAKER, APRIL 13, 2017, NY Times)

For President Trump, the road to changing his mind on China included a discussion with corporate executives in the State Dining Room of the White House in February. When the conversation turned to China's currency, the executives had a simple message for the president: You're wrong.

Mr. Trump had long insisted that China was devaluing its currency and should be punished, but the executives pushed back and told him Beijing had actually stopped. And while Mr. Trump at first resisted -- as late as this month calling the Chinese "world champions" of currency manipulation -- after many talks like the one in February he reversed himself, declaring this week that "they're not currency manipulators" after all.

For any new occupant of the White House, the early months are like a graduate seminar in policy crammed into every half-hour meeting. What made sense on the campaign trail may have little bearing on reality in the Oval Office, and the education of a president can be rocky even for former governors or senators. For Mr. Trump, the first president in American history never to have served in government or the military, the learning curve is especially steep. [...]

So much of this is new to Mr. Trump that only after he publicly accused Mr. Obama of having wiretapped his telephones last year did he ask aides how the system of obtaining eavesdropping warrants from a special foreign intelligence court worked.

Posted by orrinj at 7:04 PM


The Case for Placebo Politics (JASON WILLICK, 4/14/17, American Interest)

Last month in these pages, Tyler Cowen coined the term "placebo President" to describe the possibility that Donald Trump would largely fail to achieve the radically populist policy objectives he campaigned on but maintain the support of his white working class base by symbolically affirming their dignity and cultural status--offering his supporters "a public voice and the illusion of more control without the control itself." [...]

Educated people often imagine that politics is, or should be, a coolly rational exercise in distributing resources and regulating institutions to create the best possible outcomes for the greatest number of people. But it is not, and has never been. Contests over status and claims to representation are always lurking below the surface. As Walter Russell Mead observed during the primary, Trump's appeal flows from his pattern of behavior as much as his policy priorities. "By flouting PC norms, reducing opponents and journalists to sputtering outrage as he trashes the conventions of political discourse, and dismissing his critics with airy put-downs, he is living the life that--at least some of the time--a lot of people wish they had either the courage or the resources to live." This is at the core of Cowen's idea of a placebo presidency: telegraphing cultural solidarity with a constituency that feels belittled and disrespected, in part merely by infuriating their ostensible social adversaries.

The degree of adoration a certain kind of liberal heaped on President Obama also reflected, in part, a similar kind of placebo effect.

There are so few differences between major parties at the End of History that only the theatrics really matter in terms of pure politics.

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Cohen-Watnick reportedly retrieved the documents from a classified CIA terminal in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House and gave them to Nunes, a California Republican who had been a member of Trump's transition team. They were intended to prove that former President Barack Obama was "wire tapping" Trump during the 2016 campaign. The documents did no such thing, other members of the panel concluded after studying them. What they actually showed is that U.S. intelligence agencies did have Trump's associates on their radar--but only because they were tracking Russian agents.

The incident triggered a House Ethics Committee probe into Nunes and forced him to recuse himself from his own panel's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections. But it also prompted questions from longtime intelligence officials about how Cohen-Watnick, a 30-year-old with apparently only a single, allegedly trouble-filled, junior-level tour of duty with the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) in Afghanistan on his résumé, managed to secure one of the most consequential jobs in the White House: coordinating all of the U.S. intelligence community's operations with the Oval Office and Congress. In less than a year, Cohen-Watnick had been raised from the equivalent rank of an army captain to a three-star general.

"He makes sure they carry out the president's agenda," says a former White House National Security Council official, who, like every intelligence source consulted by Newsweek, declined to be identified discussing such sensitive issues. And that agenda, the president and his men have made clear, is to whittle down the power of the CIA.

How this young man amassed such influence mystifies longtime intelligence officials. How he hung on to his job after Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, successor to fired White House national security adviser Michael Flynn, reportedly tried to oust him following the Nunes affair is another part of the puzzle. [...]

In 2014, Obama fired Flynn, and since then administration officials have dumped on him in the press. But the surprise election of Trump in November 2016 gave Flynn a chance for redemption--and revenge. With his rising prominence in the Trump campaign, Flynn's adversaries recycled stories about his DIA ouster, but now there were also questions about Kremlin-financed trips to Moscow and ties to Turkish lobbyists. And Flynn was swimming in ever deeper conspiracy waters, now with activists who alleged that the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooter did not act alone, and that Hillary Clinton's campaign manager John Podesta was involved in a pedophile ring run beneath a Washington, D.C., family restaurant. Cohen-Watnick joined him in the so-called "Pizzagate" fray, tweeting about "Podesta's obsession with the occult." In another tweet, he referenced "the disgusting and potentially criminal behavior of the Clinton crime syndicate."

In January, Cohen-Watnick swept into office with Flynn and other associates from Gaffney's circle, including Bannon, Conway and Sebastian Gorka, another anti-Muslim hard-liner with ties to a Hungarian Nazi party. Meanwhile, Cohen-Watnick was getting married to a woman who, like Flynn and several other Trump aides, had ties to Russia. Rebecca Miller, four years younger than Cohen-Watnick, had worked on the Russian account in the D.C. office of Ketchum, the global powerhouse lobbying and public relations firm, according to her mother, Victoria Fraser, head of Washington University's Department of Medicine in St. Louis. During a 2014 event at the State Historical Society of Missouri, Fraser said her daughter's "big challenges right now are, Ketchum is responsible for providing PR and marketing to try to make Russia look better, which is particularly difficult when they're invading other countries and when Putin is somewhat out of control." Ketchum took a public relations blow when ProPublica reported that it had "placed pro-Russia op-eds in American publications by businesspeople and others without disclosing the role of the Russian government." The following year, it drew flak for placing an op-ed purporting to be written by Russian President Vladimir Putin in The New York Times arguing that Syrian rebels, not President Bashar al-Assad, were responsible for chemical attacks on civilians. According to a Ketchum spokesperson, Miller's work on the Russia account ended in September 2012. The company severed its ties with the Russian Federation in March 2015.

Cohen-Watnick and his wife have been reluctant to acknowledge anything about their professional lives or their history together. On November 11, 2016, the Ohr Kodesh Congregation, a conservative synagogue in Chevy Chase, held a kiddush, or small social ceremony, in honor of their "upcoming marriage." But despite prominent parents on both sides of the aisle, there is no account of their marriage in either The Washington Post or St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Miller's hometown newspaper. Nor do multiple search engines reveal a marriage license for the couple, who married in November 2016. In addition, records searches do not show them living together in Chevy Chase or another residence Cohen-Watnick claims in Miami. (According to Florida voting records, Cohen-Watnick is registered in Miami as a Republican "Hispanic male.") The White House has refused to release even a thumbnail biography of its senior director for intelligence at the National Security Council.

He's a ghost. And he seems to like it that way. "Ezra is really a big fan of covert-y action stuff," an official who worked with him at the NSC told The Washington Post, after "several current American officials" fingered Cohen-Watnick as one of two Trump aides who accessed those top-secret surveillance files for Nunes.

Long before that incident, though, veteran national security officials were astounded by the appointment of such a junior man as senior NSC adviser for intelligence issues. Among his predecessors were people who had deep familiarity with clandestine operations, such as future CIA Directors Robert Gates and George Tenet (who had previously been chief of staff on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence). In that job, says a former high-ranking intelligence official, you "need experience, not family connections."

"No one at his level could have possibly had the experience to be made senior director for intelligence programs--no way, no how," says Daniel Benjamin, an NSC staffer in the Bill Clinton administration who later became the State Department's top counterterrorism official. "So the fact that he got that job and that CIA, which usually controls that billet, was so eager to move him out, tells you a lot about the oddity of the situation," Benjamin tells Newsweek.

Posted by orrinj at 4:11 PM


What may save Cuba from hunger? GMOs (REV. BEN JOHNSON • April 14, 2017, Acton)

Cuban officials have announced the island is turning to genetically modified organisms (GMO) to help feed its increasingly hungry population. Hunger is spreading in Cuba, something officials ascribe to higher levels of tourism. Tourists can afford to pay more for food, so they outbid the native population. The New York Times wrote that food insecurity is "upsetting the very promise of Fidel Castro's Cuba" (though, in their defense, his reign owed much to their coverage).

Posted by orrinj at 10:40 AM


Kremlin furious at Eurovision dropping Russia over Ukraine spat (AFP April 14, 2017)

A decision by the organizers of the Eurovision Song Contest to drop Russia from this year's contest following a spat with Ukraine was roundly denounced by Moscow on Friday.

Posted by orrinj at 8:07 AM


Trump's Jewish 'Globalist' Battles Bannon for White House Influence (Josh Nathan-Kazis, April 14, 2017, The Forward)

"Gary Cohn would be too liberal for the Obama administration," former Trump advisor Sam Nunberg told Yahoo News. "I don't know what he's doing in a Republican White House," Nunberg said, voicing the sentiment, widely held in pro-Trump circles, that Cohn is an odd match for the expectations set by the Trump regime.

Axios reported earlier this week that Bannon's supporters call Cohn "Globalist Gary" behind his back, and when texting, refer to him with a globe emoji.

Hired to run the National Economic Council, Cohn's brief appears to have expanded rapidly. He appeared in a photo released by the White House of Trump watching last week's Syria strike from Mar-a-Lago alongside his top advisors. And a string of policy switcheroos that Trump announced in mid-April, in which the president appeared to backtrack on a series of long-held positions, have been taken as another sign of the growing influence of Cohn and his allies.

Cohn's White House clique of wealthy Jewish New Yorkers, alternatively referred to in press accounts as the "Wall Street wing" of the administration or, more simply, as "the Democrats", includes Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner and his daughter Ivanka Trump.

Another ally, Dina Powell, is a fellow Goldman Sachs alumna who now serves on the National Security Council.

Their opponent is Bannon, the nationalist ideologue and former CEO of Breitbart News. Though he, too, once worked at Goldman Sachs, Bannon now defines himself in opposition to the elite internationalism that the firm has come to represent.

...between his father and his daughter.

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Why Trump is beating a hasty retreat from populism (Noah Millman, April 14, 2017, The Week)

Instead of scrapping NAFTA, they are merely looking for minor adjustments. Instead of showing China who's boss, they have retreated on Taiwan, and are promising a far more favorable stance on trade in exchange for whatever help China might offer on North Korea -- while telegraphing that they know help is bound to be limited. Most dramatically, Trump reversed the overwhelming thrust of his campaign with respect to foreign policy, ordering an attack on Syria and welcoming Montenegro into NATO, saying that the Atlantic alliance is "no longer obsolete." Even if advisor Steve Bannon doesn't lose his job, evidence of his influence is at this point distinctly thin.

But why is Trump beating this retreat? It's not because his new course is more popular. The effort to repeal ObamaCare failed spectacularly in large part because the proposed replacement was obviously inferior, and was wildly unpopular with virtually the entire public. But there is no popular movement clamoring for intervention in Syria, or for the defense of Montenegro. And while the politics of trade are exceedingly complex, with big losers inevitable even if there are also big winners, a committed administration could surely build a case and a constituency for a new trade paradigm. Instead, Trump is rapidly bargaining away his entire agenda. [...]

America's military supremacy is arguably unprecedented in world history. The U.S. dollar remains the world's reserve currency. For all the hand-wringing about the decline of American manufacturing, we remain fully capable of producing the vast majority of our strategic materials, and we are more energy independent than we have been in over a generation. 

Because, as the final para begins to say, his entire agenda was wrong--whether due to dishonesty or ignorance matters little now.

Posted by orrinj at 5:18 AM


Trump's Flip-Flops On Economics Move Policies Toward The Status Quo (John Ydstie, 4/14/17, NPR)

From Chinese currency manipulation to his choice to head the Federal Reserve, Trump contradicted statements he'd made during the presidential campaign.

In doing so, Trump is departing from some of the radical changes he promised, and moving toward the positions of his predecessors.

The only things distinctive about him are corruption, incompetence and racism.

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Filing Taxes in Japan Is a Breeze. Why Not Here? (T.R. REID, APRIL 14, 2017, NY Times)

When I told my friend Togo Shigehiko in Tokyo that Americans spend hours or days each spring gathering records and filling out tax forms, he was incredulous. "Why would anybody want to do that?" he asked.

What's going on in these countries -- and in many other developed democracies -- is that government computers handle the tedious chore of filling out your tax return. The system is called "pre-filled forms," or "pre-populated returns." The taxpayer just has to check the numbers. If the agency got something wrong, there's a mechanism for appeal.

Our own Internal Revenue Service could do the same for tens of millions of taxpayers. For most families, the I.R.S. already knows all the numbers -- wages, dividends and interest received, capital gains, mortgage interest paid, taxes withheld -- that we are required to enter on Form 1040.

The I.R.S. sends out a letter called a CP2000 Notice by the millions every year. This is the form that says: You entered $4,311 on Line 9b, but the reports we have on file say the figure should have been $4,756. I get these letters now and then -- the revenue service is always right -- and it makes me mad. If the government already has all this stuff, why did I have to spend hours digging through receipts and statements and 1099 forms to report what the I.R.S. already knows?

Questions like that have prompted some members of Congress -- including Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon; Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts; and Dan Coats, a former Republican senator from Indiana -- to champion pre-filled forms. But their bills never went anywhere because the tax-preparation industry lobbies strenuously against them. The "Tax Complexity Lobby," as it has been called, includes big national preparers like H & R Block and tax-prep software companies.

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French farmer transforms wheat field into gigantic 'HELP' plea to candidates (AFP, 14 April 2017)

A French farmer has mown the word "HELP" in giant letters into his wheat field, hoping to push presidential candidates to address the crisis in France's agricultural sector.

"Political leaders do not listen to us," the 63-year-old farmer, Jacques Fortin, 63, told AFP on Thursday. "They're deaf to our anger. I hope they're not blind and will read this message of despair." [...]
He said his message was a "collective SOS, expressed on behalf of all farmers".

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"The Moab is just a shock wave," says [Mark Cancian, Senior Advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies]. A shock wave so big that it would cover 150 meters.

Generating a wave that big requires a bomb that's proportionally massive. It weighs over 11 tons, and has to be hauled by a cargo plane, and dropped directly above its target, though it has GPS guidance like a Jdam. It drops from the cargo plane using a parachute, and explodes just before impact. Odd-looking fins ring its tail, which help it hit its target and also slow the bomb down as it falls. This is to buy people in the plane enough time to get away.

"If it blows up too quickly, it'll take the aircraft down with it," says Cancian.

The Moab has been a known part of the US arsenal--and was even at one point suggested as a solution to the Gulf oil spill--but its nearly two-decade dormancy to this point has a surprisingly straightforward explanation.

"It's a particular type of bomb best for a particular type of target. So you need that match," says military expert and author Peter Singer. From what the government has revealed about today's mission, Singer says that match fit.

Jdams won't work to get into deep tunnels, because the fragmentary material they shoot out stops at the first twist the tunnel takes. To avoid them, combatants just need to go deeper into the tunnel. Bombs designed specifically to penetrate underground pose similar problems. Though effective when targeting individual below-ground targets, they struggle with crippling long, winding networks. That's where a massive concussive bomb has the advantage: Its blast can turn corners, and push all the way to the furthest reaches of a cave.

"We made Moab for this kind of target," says Cancian. "My guess is that we just didn't know where these tunnels were before."

Deploying the Moab in nearly any other situation also presents some insurmountable drawbacks. Its sheer size means only certain aircraft can deploy it. Plus its large blast range makes it inefficient for targeted mission. But by far the biggest impediment to using it more often is the risk to civilian life.

"These caves I'm assuming are out in the mountains, in a very uninhabited spot, so you're not as worried about civilians. But to drop something like this in Mosul, you'd level half the city," says Cancian. That kind of fallout likely explains why the Moab sat out the heaviest fighting of the Iraq war.