Bending the Knee for America And Not Against: An Answer to Quin Hillyer

This is a response to Quin Hillyer, a contributing editor for National Review and a senior editor for the American Spectator, who has tagged the NFL protests “disgusting.”

Dear Quin,

The protesting NFL players are not insulting America. They are patriots, trying to correct a wrong and encourage America to live up to its ideals. And if we are anything, we are a country deeply based on noble ideals, which marks us out as a nation, as does our ever present determination to try to live up to those ideals.

The players are using the opportunity given them to make the most effective public protest they can about the racial inequality harming our country — and in particular the series of high-profile fatal shootings of black men by especially violent police officers.

Maybe we should rehearse some facts here.

Obviously, it isn’t only black men who are being killed. And one can quibble about the comparative numbers — with neither side of that argument helped by the risible data-collection of the FBI. But there are plenty of serious studies around to suggest that unarmed black males stand a greater chance of being shot dead than unarmed whites.

One study — by a professor at the University of California, Davis — found “evidence of a significant bias in the killing of unarmed black Americans relative to unarmed white Americans, in that the probability of being black, unarmed, and shot by police is about 3.49 times the probability of being white, unarmed, and shot by police on average.” The study found also “no relationship between county-level racial bias in police shootings and crime rates (even race-specific crime rates).”

In short, the difference can’t be explained by the level of local criminality.

A detailed analysis by the Washington Post found that, “when factoring in threat level, black Americans who are fatally shot by police are, in fact, less likely to be posing an imminent lethal threat to the officers at the moment they are killed than white Americans fatally shot by police.”

And across the board there’s evidence of racial bias in policing. For example, a Department of Justice inquiry found in Ferguson, Missouri, “a pattern or practice of unlawful conduct…that violates the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, and federal statutory law.” The investigation noted: “Officers expect and demand compliance even when they lack legal authority… They are inclined to interpret the exercise of free-speech rights as unlawful disobedience, innocent movements as physical threats, indications of mental or physical illness as belligerence.” And the inquiry found the police department saw the black population as a revenue stream in terms of fines that could be imposed.

There are several studies around suggesting that blacks and Latino drivers are more likely — on average twice as likely — to be stopped by police, even though on the whole contraband is more likely to be found in cars driven by whites.

Of course, more whites are killed by police than blacks, a reflection of the different population sizes. And we should be as appalled by the loss of white lives as much as black ones. (I do not understand how the fatal shooting of anyone who is unarmed can be justified. In the event a police officer feels his life threatened in a fist fight or by someone armed with a knife, the shot should be to a leg or arm, not to torso or targeting the head. We should expect and demand a high level of professionalism from all our police officers.)

But because of the differences in policing, as studies show consistently, black athletes are justified in singling out police brutality towards African-Americans. And that becomes even more justified when it is placed in the context of racial inequality generally. You write on your blog this: “This nation of ours has provided more freedom, more dignity, and more material benefits to its citizens, and has given more of its blood and treasure for the sake of others, than any nation on Earth.”

Indeed so. I am not an accidental American, but an American by deliberate choice — a naturalized one who came not to escape persecution but to embrace an idea. But America isn’t perfect and your narrative leaves out the bad, including enslavement. We are still working through the consequences of that ugly part of our history — and the protests of the NFL players are just one of the consequences.

You write: “There are right ways and wrong ways to protest. Respectful ways, and obnoxious ways.” But I see nothing obnoxious about the way the athletes are protesting.

The disgusting NFL protesters

What I do see is sorrow and dignity.

They bend the knee for America; not against it.

They ask in their silent protest for America to be better. They do not punch the air with a clenched fist. They do not burn the flag or stomp on it. They bend a knee towards it, asking for change.

What would be the right way to protest? Where it can’t be seen? Where it would have less effect? They protest in the most public way they can, hoping to prompt change, to shake the conscience of a nation. Yes, it is uncomfortable. Protest isn’t meant to be easy or non-controversial; it is meant to challenge. And they are challenging us to improve as did the civil rights protesters before them — their demonstrations were also awkward, irritating, and at first for a majority of white Americans infuriating and wrong.

I see some polls out this week suggest a majority of Americans think professional athletes should stand for the national anthem, although the numbers supporting the NFL players are slowly rising, apparently. The majorities against the bending of the knee are not as big as those against the civil rights protests of the 1960s. And I am heartened by that — because on the whole I believe that too many white Americans resent black protest as a whole, almost regardless of the cause. That is another, alas, consequence of an American past we need to do much more to overcome.

But the President has chosen another road. I fear you make light of his outburst that has highlighted these protests. “And even if some supposed leader goes overboard in criticism in terms of what he says and how he says it, that doesn’t make the protests any more justifiable.”

Trump isn’t just any leader (I am curious about your word “supposed” here, mind you), he is the President of the United States. And so his words have added significance — they can help heal or harm, calm or provoke. It strikes me a national tragedy that the bully pulpit, which many presidents regardless of party affiliation have used to try to unite, is being turned into a bully’s pulpit, used to divide and inflame, both as a distraction from legislative failures and to pander to a base.

In fact, by singling out NFL players and calling them SOBs for exercising their free speech rights, he has indeed made the protests more justifiable for two reasons. First, because as President he has failed to heed — even hear — their request for the address of their grievances; that should sadden all of us, because if our fellow Americans are hurting, we should embrace their right to be heard; and, second, he has attacked their free-speech rights, making it essential, I think, for all Americans to bend the knee for America.

I do understand some veterans see these protests as an insult to the flag they fought for and their comrades died for — others, I have spoken with, don’t. But surely it behoves us to listen to these protests, to understand their roots in our history, to avoid the use of inflammatory language such as SOBs. Our goal surely is to live up to our motto E pluribus unum.

Rewarding Friends and Businesses

The conflicts of interests just keep coming. Yesterday, Trump signed yet another executive starting his administration’s bid to overhaul Dodd-Frank. Of course, an overhaul is needed.

But take just these two paragraphs as reported accurately by the Washington Post:

“We expect to be cutting a lot out of Dodd-Frank,” Trump said during a meeting with business leaders Friday morning. “Because frankly, I have so many people, friends of mine, that had nice businesses, they just can’t borrow money . . . because the banks just won’t let them borrow because of the rules and regulations in Dodd- Frank…

During the meeting with more than a dozen chief executives, Trump noted that there were several bankers in the room, including Larry Fink, chief executive of the huge investment firm BlackRock. “Larry’s got a lot of my money, and I have to tell you, he got me great returns,” Trump said to laughs in the room.

The Other Foot

Now the shoe Is on the other foot. One of the most depressing characteristics of the hyper-partisanship of Washington is observing how parties and ideologues so easily switch their arguments depending on who’s in power.

A cable signed by a thousand State Department employees pushing back against President Donald Trump’s executive order freezing refugee admissions and banning citizens from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States has incurred the wrath of Republican lawmakers.

The cable — along with the the refusal of the now sacked acting attorney general Sally Yates to defend the executive order — prompted a stern condemnation from Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), chairman of the House Rules Committee.

“When someone works full time for the government, it should be no surprise to them that they serve at the pleasure of the [president],”he told The Hill newspaper. “I’m not interested in politics by an agency employee,” he added.

(In fact, Sessions is wrong when it comes to the vast majority of the federal government’s 2.1 million employees — career civil servants do not serve at the pleasure of the president).

On Thursday, Robert Moffit, senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, told Breitbart News Daily that for civil servants who wish to oppose or obstruct Trump, “The right thing to do if you cannot carry out the policies of a democratically elected president, the right and honorable thing for you to do is what people do all the time when they’re in jobs that they’re being asked to do things that they conscientiously object to – and that is resign. That is a very honorable thing to do.”

But cast your mind back to May 2015 when the Heritage Foundation was mounting a different argument about the rights as well as duties of public servants. The Daily Signal, the conservative think tank’s media arm, posted a commentary written by Ryan Anderson, a public policy research fellow at Heritage, headlined: “Civil Servants Have Rights, Too. Government Should Respect Them.”

In the commentary, Anderson defended a religious exemption law passed by North Carolina’s legislature aimed at protecting magistrates who object to solemnizing ceremonies for same-sex marriages and clerks who object to issuing same-sex marriage licenses. The law allows magistrates or clerks to recuse themselves.

Anderson described the law as “good public policy,” arguing, “Government employees have rights, and those rights should be protected.”

Jump to June 2016, and Walter Russell Mead writing in the conservative American Interest, had no difficulty refraining from lambasting 51 diplomats for signing a cable roundly criticizing Barack Obama’s Syria policy. In fact he greeted the dissent as “a massive demonstration of the State Department’s lack of confidence in a policy that will be a stain on this administration’s legacy.”

And he added: “Never has a President’s policy had so much pushback from his own high officials and appointees. Never has a President defied so much evidence to insist on the unique cerebral brilliance of a policy in ruins.”

No demands for resignations there — or anxiety about civil servants opposing publicly a president’s policy.

Promoting Excellence In Journalism?

Two weeks ago I sent to the Columbia Journalism Review a rebuttal to a defense written by the magazine’s managing editor Vanessa Gezari of Buzzfeed’s decision to post the so-called Steele dossier, the collection of un-vetted memos making lurid allegations about Donald Trump. The magazine accepted the submission but a fortnight on the editors still have not posted my response. So I have decide to post it here. I think the arguments I make are important in the debate underway among journalists about how we should be covering Trump. Please see another post of mine on this issue here.

Anyway here is a link to Vanessa Gezari’s article.

And here is my response:

Vanessa Gezari’s arguments supporting Buzzfeed’s publication of the questionable dossier on Donald Trump strike me as Jesuitical and they are a sad reflection of where we are as a profession these days. I find it troubling that they should be mounted by the managing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, which markets itself as “Encouraging excellence in journalism.”

I don’t see how CJR’s managing editor is promoting excellence in jo,urnalism by endorsing the publication of material of this huge scope that was not verified and that those who posted it apparently harbored doubts about as to its veracity.

Gezari seems to be arguing — in fact is — that it is okay to take a punt to see what happens, to see if any leads are generated — even if people are smeared as a result.

By that standard we should all shove up stuff on the internet to see what works or doesn’t, even if we have major doubts about the veracity of what we have just posted, just to see what gives. I sense underpinning her piece is a belief that the allegations must largely be true about Trump.

When something looks too good, it might well be the case that it is! In short, it might not be true. And as journalists we have a responsibility to try to get as close to the truth as possible, before we decide to publish.

Gezari argues: “But did reporters independently verify all the allegations against Hillary Clinton and her allies contained in the emails released by WikiLeaks?” No, they didn’t, but it was Wikileaks — not a bona fide news organization — that published the material. Once in the public realm, news outlets had no choice but follow the story.

Gezari seems to think that media outlets were just sitting on the dossier. Many weren’t. They were working to try to prove the allegations or to knock them down. Yes, that takes time — as she notes investigations can take months and sometimes years. Although in this case I doubt it would have taken years. Premature publication has screwed up quite a lot of journalists who have been working on the dossier and complicated efforts to get the backstory on the dossier.

The dossier is full of contradictions and basic factual errors — as I noted in an opinion article for The Hill and as Andrei Soldatov did in a piece for the Guardian. Perversely, the Guardian chose to headline Andrei’s article a tad misleadingly, “The leaked Trump-Russia dossier rings frighteningly true.” In fact, he was casting grave doubts about the material.

Some errors in the dossier are so basic that they cast huge doubt on the skills of Christopher Steele, the former British MI6 agent responsible for preparing the memos. Let me give you a few instances. The misspelling of “Alpha” for “Alfa” in reference to one the most important banks in Russia. The wrong FSB department when it comes to eavesdropping or cyber investigations. The naming of an official as having been tasked to deal with the U.S. election who was actually tasked with the Russian elections and, anyway, moved from Vladimir Putin’s office to the State Duma in October.
Why didn’t Steele notice these errors? Why didn’t Buzzfeed? Or if they did, whey did they carry on and post the document in its entirety?

And then we have unexplained and troubling contradictions, such as the material on Trump’s business deals in Russia, or rather the lack of them. In one memo it is stated: “The Kremlin cultivation operation on Trump also had comprised offering him various lucrative real estate development business deals in Russia, especially in relation to the ongoing 2018 World Cup soccer tournament. However, so far from reasons unknown Trump had not taken up any of them.”

But in another memo we get this: “Regarding Trump’s claimed minimal investment profile in Russia, a separate source with direct knowledge said this had not been for want of trying. Trump’s previous efforts had included exploring the real estate sector in St. Petersburg as well as Moscow.”

So which is it? He tried to secure business deals and failed, or was offered lucrative deals but for unknown reasons didn’t take them up.

Such factual errors and contradictions should have stopped Buzzfeed from posting the dossier. They did discourage others.

But then the media world seems to be divided into three groups now.

One group comprises those who hate Trump so much, they can and will believe anything of him. They have relatives on the other side of the aisle — those who hate Hillary Clinton so much they can and will believe anything of her — even that she has been overseeing a human trafficking operation! Then we have the group whose members love Trump and so won’t believe anything bad about him, even when verified.

And then there are the poor sane souls in the middle, who might love or hate Trump, or even be indifferent to him, but who hold fast to professional standards and try to base their articles on facts.

Can I Get Two Alternative Facts For Price of One?

I am in Europe — well Britain and technically still Europe for two more years — and so have only just caught up with the Meet the Press interview today where trump aide Kellyanne Conway says Sean Spicer, the new White House press secretary, was merely offering “alternative facts.”

I am really looking forward to moving forward with Trump press officers at State, the NSC and Pentagon to ask them to supply me with some “alternative facts.” What am I meant to ask? Is this a fact or an alternative fact? Which one should I consider more truthful — the fact or the alternative fact? Could you give me several alternative facts and can I pick the alternative fact I should use? Can I get two alternative facts for the price of one?

Iraq Here We Come?

What on earth are we meant to make of this aside by Donald Trump in his speech yesterday at the CIA’s Langley headquarters? At one point, he said we “should have kept the oil” after invading Iraq. “Maybe we’ll have another chance,” he added.

He said the same thing a few times on the campaign trail and failed to take on board the criticism that sucking up all of the country’s underground reserves and transporting the oil would amount to an engineering and logistical non-starter. Aside from that it would breach international law and would make an enemy of a government that is meant to be an ally.

Right of Reply?

Pretty disgusted with the Columbia Journalism Review. More than a week ago I wrote a rebuttal to a piece written by the managing editor in which she argued Buzzfeed was right to post the Steele dossier. They accepted my rebuttal but still have not posted it more than a week later.

As friends here know, I am no Trump advocate but I am reporter who believes in some fundamental standards of the profession, which I think Buzzfeed broke. I remain very suspicious of the Steele dossier.

Yesterday, I was with a serving British intelligence officer, who said to me that he was having trouble squaring with what he knows about Steele and his past professionalism with a dossier that is “dubious.” It isn’t the job of journalists to post material like this without some serious verification, at least in part. “Gossip” was a word the intelligence official used when discussing the dossier. We need to be copper-bottomed.

I wrote about the Steele Dossier marker this month for The Hill. The article is here.

Trump Era: Devaluation of News

I was asked today on Facebook by my friend Michael McDowell, a former BBC and Canadian Broadcasting Corp. reporter this: “Jamie, what is your position on the Times, Post (not WSJ yet), and other major prof. journalism orgs. actually calling Trump’s or Spicer’s or Conway’s lies, actually using that word, depending. Or false, or innacurate, etc. It has certainly been stepped up in recent days, esp. re. the claims on the numbers at the rallies.”

My response: “When the camp Trump comes out with a demonstrably untrue statement, that should be highlighted, but in news sections it should, I feel, be countered not by the reportorial voice but by another authority. So on the issue of Metro ridership, why not use a statement on the actual numbers from the transit authority? When Trump says he has not been feuding with the CIA, why not run what he has said in the past and what intelligence officials have said? In the more opinionated venues, the standards are different.”

It strikes me that the Washington Post and NYT are allowing themselves to be rattled into making a strategic error. At the same time, they are lowering their own professional standards. I can’t recall them handling any previous U.S. or foreign leader this way. Let the facts speak for themselves — reportorial claims of lies aren’t even necessary. But by opting for this approach they are devaluing their reporting and placing themselves on a par with Fox News. That is undermining their reportorial authority.

When it comes to opinion or pieces in opinionated news sites like the Daily Beast or Buzzfeed, the standards are different.

Thoughts on Trump and Putin

Hard to plot how Donald Trump will act on the World stage. His campaign trail pronouncements were often vague, frequently contradictory and lacked substance, leaving many in the U.S. and abroad left to speculate about what exactly his defense and foreign policies will look like. There are divisions within his own national security team.

When it comes to Syria, the Obama administration engaged largely in hand-wringing over how to help rebel militias oust Bashar al-Assad. A shift in priority to battling the Islamic State terror group resulted in the reduction of support for rebel groups that weren’t prepared to prioritize the fight against the jihadists over their aim to topple Assad first and then deal with Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and his followers.

The Assad horse has now bolted, thanks to Russia’s decisive military intervention. With the retaking of eastern Aleppo, Assad’s survival is assured. The announcement today by Russian officials of the start of a military drawdown in Syria is a sign of Moscow’s confidence. Moscow has achieved its main goal — namely to save the Assad regime.

How the conflict will end finally is largely going to be decided by Russia, Turkey and Iran — something I have been arguing for months. Moscow and Ankara engineered the latest ceasefire, which despite violations by Assad forces in the Damascus suburbs and parts of Homs and Hama is largely holding. The rebels are now controlled by Turkey, which can strangle them by stopping arms supplies crossing the border. The U.S. has been sidelined and there are no signs that a President Trump will want to change that — he has been critical of the U.S. getting involved in regime change and for him too IS is the priority.

We could well see greater cooperation unfold quickly between the Trump administration and Moscow in the fight against the jihadists. Such cooperation would help further Trump’s stated aim of improving relations with Russia.

In terms of the battle against the Islamic State, the jihadists have mounted a creative and stubborn resistance. In Mosul Iraqi progress is very slow and the jihadists won’t be ejected likely for months from their last major urban stronghold in Iraq.

In Syria, an offensive is yet to be launched on Raqqa, although bombing runs by the U.S.-led coalition have increased greatly in the last week. On Thursday there were 23 coalition air strikes in Syria and just 6 in Iraq.

The question remains who will be the ground force used to retake Raqqa? Turkey is opposed to the Kurds being in the vanguard and the Arab militias that are part of the Syrian Democratic Forces are not up to the task.

Like Mosul, the offensive on Raqqa will prove long and arduous. With the defeat of IS being one of his few clearly stated policy aims, Trump is likely to grow frustrated with the slow progress in Mosul and Raqqa. To speed things up, I think it likely he will decide to deploy more U.S. military advisers and to increase the rate and intensity of airstrikes, probably with less concern about civilian casualties.

And no doubt Russia will offer help with joint airstrikes. (Recently the IS-held town of al-Bab saw Russian warplanes joining Turkish ones in bombing IS positions in the town.)

Syria-based cooperation between a Trump-era Washington and Moscow will likely start the reset in U.S.-Russia relations. But that reset could easily be derailed — and not just from the political fallout from the Russian election hacking.

With an Assad victory, Russia has reasserted itself in the Middle East. It will become more influential, more important across the Middle East as a whole. It seems unlikely that Trump will want to challenge Russia’s growing clout in the region. But for how long? U.S. and Russian interests in the region don’t mirror each other.

Putin will no doubt push quickly for a change in U.S. policy towards Ukraine. Trump may not be able to deliver on that — a push for an end to Ukraine-related sanctions will prompt a fierce push-back from influential GOP senators like John McCain and from some key NATO allies. That could lead to an unraveling of the Trump-Putin reset.

Another fly in the ointment comes with a resurgent Iran, currently a Russia ally. Assad’s survival strengthens Iran and its sidekick Hezbollah, alarming Gulf allies and Israel. Will Putin dump Tehran to maintain good relations with Trump?

Is There A Western Strategy For Libya?

From my VOA article August 5

“Some analysts worry that the current mainly covert military involvement of Western countries against IS [Islamic State] in Libya is adding to the chaos in the strife-torn country because the U.S., Britain, France and Italy are assisting opposing political alliances.

In the U.S. case, the airstrikes targeting IS extremists in Sirte this week have been supporting militias mainly from the western Libyan town of Misrata currently loyal to the GNA[ Government of National Accord] . British commandos have also been assisting Misratan militiamen against IS.

But France and Italy, as well as Egypt, have been working with the forces of General Khalifa Haftar, the military commander of a government in the east, one of the two rival governments the GNA was meant to have replaced in December.’

You can read the full article here