Current Affairs – US
The appearance of angry demonstrations in many US cities is no surprise to me. The peaceful protests from several years ago against entrenched and endemic racism were contemptuously dismissed at the time (see Kaepernick, Colin). So now the disaffected have moved beyond peaceful and passive demonstrations.
There is a lot of evidence that agents provocateurs are operating within demonstrations. This is SOP for fascists, it is one of the standard tactics from their playbook, going back to Germany in the 1930s.
Media members are being caught in the crossfire all over the place, but when you have a supine, non-inquiring media that insists on perpetuating a clearly false “both sides”narrative, and which refuses to take the correct action when confronted by a President who routinely dismisses them as enemies of the people, this is the logical end result. The media becomes a target for law enforcement, just like the demonstrators. The media, in a broader sense, have been demonstrating so far in 2020 that they have learned nothing from 2016. As Jay Rosen keeps pointing out, they are using a broken playbook for dealing with Donald Trump.
The Dallas County Covid-19 new cases trend is now upwards,following a decline in the number of new cases for over a week. I predicted this, but it is not good to see. I have not looked at the trend in other counties. I still worry about rural counties, which have limited to non-existent medical treatment capacity for people who become very ill. And many of those rural folks, here in Texas, are not going to be insured against medical costs.
This is the rate of increase graph for Covid-19 cases for Dallas County. As you can see, the rate of increase has plateaued in the last 4 days at around 250 new cases a day.
I expect this rate to jump at the end of this week or the beginning of next week as the effect of the loosening of lockdown and stay-at-home works its way through into infection rates. The only way that we will not have a steep increase will be if a significant percentage of the population is already infected with Covid-19. This is possible, but since testing is confined to people suspected of having the virus, and no generalized testing of the population is being conducted, no information exists to determine the current general level of infection.
Karen Sehlke was a married woman living in Harris County, Texas, most of which is part of the Greater Houston city area.
She entered the news in early April 2020. A Facebook post supposedly posted by her, where she ranted against the stay-at-home rules, and made comments dismissive of Covid, was posted on the wider internet by people essentially saying “Gee, look at this wackadoodle”. The posting soon became a bit of an internet pile-on, as numerous internet news outlets re-posted all or part of the story, with sometimes blunt commentary.
The reason was obvious. In the last week of March, friends of Sehlke had posted that she was sick and had been admitted to hospital. Further postings and commentary seemed to suggest that she had been diagnosed with Covid-19.
On April 2nd, announcements appeared on Facebook that Karen Sehlke had passed away. Initial announcements seemed to suggest that she had died of complications caused by Covid-19.
A GoFundMe appeal was launched by one of her friends, ostensibly to pay expenses associated with her death and to help her family. The fund swiftly collected nearly $36,000 dollars in donations, at which point it was closed.
Needless to say, the news that a person who had ranted dismissively about Covid-19 had apparently died of the virus ignited a firestorm of commentary, ranging across the spectrum from sadness, through schadenfreude, to smugness, and into the spectrum of crowing “the sniveling hypocrite deserved it”. In other words, a lot of people came out to comment.
However, the question soon began to be asked; was the original posting by Karen Sehlke actually a real artifact on the internet, or had it been invented by mischief-makers? In other words, was there a post hoc effort under way to create a nice story about a hypocritical person being horrifically terminated by the very virus that they had sarcistically minimized? A modern morality tale that could be used for months as a “Har Har Har, that’s what happens to stupid people” teaching aid?
The question was being asked by fact-checking websites on the internet. It was also asked of me by a commenter at NextDoor when I posted the story from a social media platform. He was an ex-journalist, and pointed out that not everything on the internet is correct, factual or well-researched. He seemed somewhat skeptical of the veracity of the story.
So, in the interests, not of defending my posting, but ensuring its veracity, I set to work to try to find out.
My efforts led me down a couple of blind alleys, and down the path of researching a more cynical hypothesis.
Looking at the possibilities, it seemed there were quite a few. In the interests of not converting this into a novel, here are the main ones:
- Karen Sehlke did post the comments attributed to her, and she contracted Covid-19 and died of the virus in the first week of April 2020.
- Karen Sehlke never posted the comments attributed to her, but she did die of Covid-19 in the first week of April 2020.
- Karen Sehlke died in the first week of April 2020, but died from another disease or problem, not Covid-19.
- Karen Sehlke did not die, was still alive, and the entire story was a heist to gain money by faking a death and running a GoFundMe campaign on the back of it.
- Karen Sehlke was not a real person, and the rest of (4).
Yes, I know. (4) seems overtly cynical. But there are plenty of instances of GoFundMe campaigns that ranged from misleading to deceitful. So I thought I owed it to myself to look at whether that was a possibility.
As for (5), well, when cats run Facebook and Twitter and Instagram accounts, and people routinely operate under false IDs all over the internet, it has to be considered.
So, I began looking into the possible scenarios. Let’s go in reverse.
Q5. Is/was Karen Sehlke a real person?
The answer appears to be Yes. Apart from her Facebook page, which was a fairly typical “Texas married suburban woman with children” page, she also has a LinkedIn profile here. The picture on the profile is a match for images from her Facebook page, and the rest of the profile information appears to match her name, age, location and occupation.
Q4. Did a Karen Sehlke die in early April in the Houston area?
This is the question to which I was unsure of the answer for a lengthy period of time. There can be a lag of up to a week or more before a death notice appears in the local media in Texas. Most commonly, a funeral home posts an obituary online on their website. If the person is a well-known community figure, local media may precede that with the news of the person’s death and a written obituary.
I monitored the local funeral home websites in and around Houston to see if a death notice appeared. It took nearly 2 weeks, but finally this death notice appeared. Yes, it looks like a match for Karen Sehlke.
So hypotheses 5 and 4 can be disposed of.
So now we get to the most interesting questions: did Karen Sehlke die of Covid-19 complications, and did she really post the rant attributed to her on Facebook?
Here is part 1 of the rant, snapshotted into a Twitter posting:
And here is part 2:
A couple of fact-check websites have taken a run at trying to determine whether Karen Sehlke actually created and published this rant attributed to her on Facebook.
Snopes took a run at it. Now, normally I have a lot of time for Snopes. They do investigate questions in some depth. So I was eager to read their analysis.
The article states that Karen Sehlke did die (seemingly) from Covid, and that a message stating that she had been diagnosed with Covid had been posted on Facebook by a family friend.
Snopes dug into the question of the authenticity of her supposed Facebook rant, and found that it appeared to date from March 13th, but…it had been written by somebody else.
Which leads to the obvious question: If the text actually appeared on Karen Sehlke’s Facebook page or wall, HOW did it appear? Did Sehlke herself re-post it, either with or without comment? Did somebody post it(or a link to it) on a comment thread on her Facebook page?
Snopes provides no insight on this topic, and it seems that nobody else has tried to analyze the posting in that way and context either. Since the posting has now disappeared, further analysis may be impossible.
The bottom line question: Was I, like a lot of other people, fooled by the easy-to-like Karen Sehlke tragi-comedy story?
The short answer: I still do not know. Most of the story appears to be well-established. That Karen Sehlke was a real person who tragically contracted Covid-19, and died from complications, seems to be a fact. She was not the author of the posting generally attributed to her, but whether she re-posted it (almost word for word) because she agreed with it, or whether a friend posted it and she left it on her page because she agreed with it, is not clear. It is not possible to establish with certainty whether she posted it herself in mid-March 2020, effectively agreeing with its contents.
Which leaves me frustrated.
Many years ago, when I was on one of my periodic rants about the general level of economic and political literacy in electorates, the person I was talking to remarked “you don’t seem to think much of the intelligence of electorates do you?”
He was dismayed when I cheerfully said “No I don’t”.
More recently, my sister, exasperated that I thought the decision by the UK electorate to Leave the EU was one of the stupidest decisions ever made by an electorate, said to me “so are you saying that all the Leave voters were wrong?” She was further dismayed when I said Yes.
Both of those responses are examples (if any were needed ) that my chances of being elected to political office in any current Western political system are somewhere between zero and none.
Yes, I am not impressed by the decision-making capabilities of electorates. They have shown for a long long time that they are quite capable of making bad decisions, both for their own interests, and those of the country they live in, if they are convinced by a combination of media blitzing, bullshit masquerading as fact, and men and women in sharp suits talking in resonant well-modulated voices.
There is some fundamental math to back up my cynicism. Starting with the reality that 50% of the population, by definition, is of below-average intelligence.
Then there is everyday evidence. Like the evidence in this thread about the voters in Missouri.
Despite deteriorating metrics of economic and medical health, electors are electing the same people over and over again.
Now, before people accuse me of “picking on the heartland” or some such, let me point out that I am not that much more impressed by voters in other states. California, for example, voted for the infamous Proposition 13 in the 1970s, which has led to endemic property tax distortions in the state. Effectively, many electors voted themselves a perpetual property tax break. The continual move towards deciding major strategy directions in governance by voter propositions has led to a situation in California where the Governor of the state is actually not in control of most of the state budget. Around 1/3 of it is mandated by propositions, 1/3 is controlled by Federal mandates, and the remaining 1/3 is controlled by the legislatures. This, of course, creates the paradox where the legislators have less and less power to effect change, which in turn pisses off the voters, who vote for yet more Propositions, which in turn restrict what politicians can do…you can see where that is headed. It is actually direct democracy by stealth, and I am not a fan of direct democracy, especially after watching the unhinged way in which many Americans behaved and talked after 9/11. An electorate in charge of the political process at that point in time would probably have nuked the 4th amendment, and destroyed the 1st and 5th Amendments. (We got the PATRIOT Act instead, which is bad, but not THAT bad).
The tendency of electors to vote against their own best interests is one of the paradoxes of modern Western democracy. However, when you analyze it through the lens of human psychology, the underlying reasoning becomes more apparent. Most of the people voting non-sensibly are frightened by something. Fear is a great motivator, but not necessarily for good decisions or actions. (Neither is anger, another voting motivator).
The most sensible explanation I ever read about voting patterns in poor states started by pointing out that the people at the bottom, such as the long-term unemployed and people on welfare, seldom vote. They are already alienated from the political system. The trope peddled by the GOP that the Democratic Party is supported by the non-working spongers (or skivers as they call them in the UK) is total bullshit. But it sure does sound good to the people on the next rung up the ladder, who are insecure and worried that they will fall down into that zone. Those frightened people vote in large numbers.
In an ideal world, voters would vote in a visionary fashion not based on reflexive responses to fear or self-interest. Alas, I now understand that this is unlikely in the current political climate. We will see a lot more Missouri-type trainwrecks unfold in the next few years.
As a naturalized American citizen, I may have been way too complacent and entitled about my status.
It is clear, based on recently revealed information from FOIA requests, that ICE is very keen to investigate naturalized US citizens in order to discover any possible grounds for stripping them of their citizenship, which will, in many cases, result in their deportation back to…well, who knows where.
I suddenly have this feeling that, in practical terms, I am not a real American. The unadulterated glee with which many of my fellow Americans are greeting efforts to demonize, marginalize and expel people Not Like Them is forcing me to consider the possibility that I may be living in a society that suffers from a pathological weakness, namely a willingness to be led down the path of exclusionary nativism, to fascism and beyond.
In summary, I am wondering if this is a place where I am going to be happy to spend the rest of my life.
1. The Trump decision to help out ZTE
People on the internets are to varying degrees stunned by the decision of Donald Trump to suddenly decide to work with China to get failed Telco ZTE back into business.
This is no suprise.
Donald Trump wants a summit with North Korea.
North Korea is a client state of China, which supports it economically, and is seen by China as a buffer state between itself and South Korea.
There is no way that North Korea will attend a summit with the United States without the tacit approval of China.
China is playing a beautiful game of quid pro quo. Trump wants the prestige of a summit (and by the way, apart from releasing 3 US citizens, 2 of whom were detained since Donald Trump became POTUS, North Korea has made NO concessions whatsoever to the United States so far), but in order to get a summit, he has to give China something in return. China, as it tends to do, has driven a hard bargain, and is attempting to humiliate Trump along the way, to put him in a still weaker position where he needs a Big Win from the summit, and will make further concessions to North Korea and China to get that Big Win.
This is China playing chess while Donald Trump golfs.
2. Yet more Trump support buyer’s remorse
So, once again, we hear whiny businesspeople lamenting “when I voted for Donald Trump, I expected him to screw over The Undeserving Folks. Not good honest Deserving folks like me and my buddies”. This time, Maryland crab fishermen are discovering that when you start to look like a country stuffed full of assholes who don’t want to accept or hire immigrants to do dirty low-wage jobs..well, you have a shortage of people willing to do those jobs.
"It's not right."
The owner of a Maryland crab processor who voted for Trump is upset over a shortage of seasonal immigrant labor.
"Trump can fix it with his pen." https://t.co/6LrWWY9pPF
— Nick Timiraos (@NickTimiraos) May 11, 2018
This should be, to those of us not blinded by partisan mind-distortion, blindingly obvious. Yet the Trump supporters suddenly sound like all of their critical evaluation faculties went AWOL at voting time, and now they are only just realizing that Donald Trump is a venal, self-interested asshole who doesn’t on a human level give a damn about anybody else.
Well, congratulations guys, but you’re a bit slow on the up-take. Now you need to start eating some crow. Right now I have empathy for these folks, but absolutely no sympathy. They should have known what and who they were voting for, and if they did not, well, time to wise up and learn how to engage in due diligence next time round.
3. The bizarre lack of personal responsibility of snowflake authoritarians
Bari Weiss is being dragged on the internets over an article that she wrote that essentially claims that abuse of self-identified conservatives by liberals resulted in a number of them deciding to become Trump supporters.
This idea is intellectually risible. If somebody freely and voluntarily decides to support an asshole, they don’t get to blame other people for making them vote for the asshole. This is a total negation of the entire dictum of personal responsibility that I constantly have to read and listen to from conservatives
Weiss may well be correct that some Trump supporters decided to support Trump because those mean Liberals hurt their feelings. However, as one commenter said, if “abuse” from liberals made them vote for Trump, they were most of the way towards that decision anyway. It’s also not a good look for people when they can be that easily persuaded to vote for an asshole. It makes them look weak, gullible and easily led. So Weiss’s article, which might be read as a logical explanation by some, is in fact a tacit admission that many conservatives are indeed, as I suspected, thin-skinned credulous fools.
4. Another Texas school district scandal (surprise, surprise)
The Katy ISD has a scandal with its superintendent, who was accused (among other things) of bullying.
The school district, unsurprisingly, has decided to get rid of the superintendent, but, lacking the willingness or ability to terminate for cause, it instead has negotiated that he will leave in January 2019 with a payoff of $750k.
At the same time, the district, not content with throwing good money at a departing employee, is also funding lawyers to see if critics of the school district can be charged with defamation.
Apart from the reality that, as a practical matter, it is extremely difficult to prove defamation in the USA, Katy ISD may end up spending a lot more money than it intended. Texas has a robust anti-SLAPP statute, and any defendants may not only apply for dismissal, but may also file under that anti-SLAPP statute to recover costs and lawyers fees.
I have no idea why Katy ISD thinks this sort of officially-sanctioned chickenshit move is a good idea.
5. Mooslems? Antifa? Nope, just another collection of Very Fine People
Another day, another SovCit conviction…the biggest threat from domestic terrorism is angry, twisted white folks.
When we are faced with the obvious signs of malfeasance by high elected officials in the USA, people often assert that ultimately the malfeasance will be ended and the bad actors punished. The normal approach is some variant of “well, Nixon lost his job over Watergate, so the system corrects itself”.
This is all fine and uplifting, but the reality is somewhat different. For every Watergate, there are multiple scandals where perpetrators not only go unpunished, but they are actually rewarded for their bad behavior.
The story is well-known by now. Oliver North, working in the Reagan administration, discovered that on one side of the world were a group of people with missiles but no money. On the other side of the globe were another group of people with money but no missiles. They wanted to buy missiles.
So, in the grand tradition of American entrepreneuralism, North brought the two sides together (totally covertly) and SHAZAM! a deal was done, and both parties were happy.
The fact that North should not even have been dealing with either group, since it was official US policy to not deal with them, was ignored totally. Plus the deal was illegal on multiple different levels.
Oliver North testified (or more correctly, gave limited testimony and then invoked his 5th Amendment right to non-self-incrimination dozens of times) to Congress, under an immunity deal. He was subsequently charged with felonies, tried and found guilty. However, since he had been granted a level of immunity in negotiations with the government over his testimony on the affair, his felony conviction was overturned on appeal.
North then ran for the Senate in 1994 as a GOP candidate for Virginia. Not only did the party eagerly embrace him, he came close to winning the election.
Were it not for the presence of a moderate Republican candidate on the ballot, who won 11% of the vote, North might well have won the election. North was, and still is, seen by many GOP partisans as a hero, penalized by spineless wimps and liberals for Doing What Was Best For America. The fact that, by his own admission, he broke the law and was unrepentant, is seen as a feature, not a bug. Most of the money he raised in his 1994 campaign came from small donors, a powerful illustration that the appeal of authoritarians to the GOP base is a long-standing one, not just a recent affectation.
Now, just in the last couple of days, North has been appointed to be the Chairman of the National Rifle Association. His status as a hero of illegal covert operations has once again catapulted him to a top public role.
Time and time again we see perpetrators of malfeasance suffering either no negative consequences, or at best suffering temporary negative consequences. This is important, since is a significant contributor to a pervasive cynicism about societal and political leaders. This cynicism in turn results in two negative behaviors (1) withdrawal from the political process and voting (2) a willingness to embrace any political candidate who is able to plausibly and superficially pass as an “insurgent” or “outsider” (which, in most cases is on a par with saying “I’m telling the truth, you can trust me”) and who promises to “turn the place upside down”, “drain the swamp” etc. Both of those behaviors, added together, resulted in the election of Donald Trump.
When I arrived in the USA in 1994, I soon discovered that in Texas, just about every school district sooner or later has a scandal break out. (In the case of the Dallas Independent School District, a scandal has appeared like clockwork every 2 or 3 years. Like this one from 2017).
Browsing on the Internets the other day, I found that this might also be true in college sports coaching. There are literally dozens of Google entries documenting how fired coaches all over the country have been suing colleges for being dismissed.
Some of the lawsuits are whistleblower/retaliation lawsuits, basically alleging that the university or college was guilty of Title XI violations, and retaliated against coaches for identifying the violations. A number of female coaches in sports such as softball and basketball also sued colleges for sexual discrimination and/or harassment.
Needless to say, in the grand tradition of civil lawsuiting, nearly all of the cases were settled out of court, with the colleges in question paying sums of money (in some cases, large sums of money) but admitting to no wrongdoing or malfeasance.
One lawsuit that caught my eye was a settlement announced recently between San Diego State University and Beth Burns, who had been the university’s female basketball coach until she was terminated in 2013. Burns was forced at the time to retire with 4 years and $880k left on her contract. The college claimed she was effectively dismissed because of workplace violence, and was given the option to retire, which she accepted. Burns claimed in turn that she had been forced to retire mainly because she had been vocally complaining about the under-funding of female sports at SDSU compared to male sports.
The final settlement announcement was bizarre, for this line from the university’s statement:
“This is a situation where, although we are very confident of our chances on appeal, we decided to reach a settlement and move on. It’s a compromise. It’s something where clearly coach Burns is ready to put this behind her and we’re ready to move forward as well.”
The use of the word compromise is the side-splitter. Burns originally sued the college to be awarded $880k, the amount still owed under her contract, plus lawyers fees. The university low-balled her, so Burns filed a whistleblower lawsuit which went to a jury trial, where she was awarded $3.2m plus costs and fees in 2016.
The final bill to the university is therefore in excess of $4m. That is a compromise? Somebody at SDSU should have been terminated for incompetence for agreeing to actions and tactics that converted a liability that could have been less than $1m into a final cost of more than $4m.
Just to add insult to injury, the university also had to pay over $150k in damages to the assistant coach who was alleged to be the victim of the incident that led to Burns’ leaving SDSU.
However, this may be part of a pattern. This is at least the third lawsuit settled by SDSU in the last 12 years involving female coaches who sued the university. This article documents 2 previous lawsuits filed by departed coaches, both settled by the university. One starts to wonder if SDSU has a systemic problem in this area.
For sure, problem or no problem, it is costing the university and its insurers a lot of money.