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Jeff Sessions Then and Now

Jeff Sessions Then and Now

Remember nine years ago, when the auto industry was teetering on the brink of disaster? The housing bubble had burst, credit evaporated, and nobody was buying cars. Years of poor decision-making made the American automakers particularly vulnerable, so their execs headed to Washington to seek a bailout.

Part of that process was to appear before congressional panels so representatives and senators could ask appropriate questions like: “Why should we trust you?”

Our current attorney general, Jeff Sessions, was a senator from Alabama at that time, and he was among those who grilled the execs. I remember Sessions being particularly aggressive. I didn’t feel bad for the execs (after all, they were responsible).

But Sessions was so … vengeful — as if he had bought a Cadillac Cimarron back in the day and was still bitter about it. He seemed not to care that without a bailout the entire American auto industry would very likely collapse (and a good chunk of our manufacturing capabilities with it).

Cut to this week: Sessions appeared again before a congressional panel as attorney general and was exactly the sort of hostile testifier he would have eviscerated when he was the senator asking the questions. Not remembering, mis-remembering, truthful remembering but not actually how it happened. Which is it, Jeff?

At best, it’s just hypocritical behavior on Sessions’ part. At worst, he’s being a bully — abusing power when he has the opportunity and hiding behind it when he feels threatened.

No, wait, I can think of one thing worse: He’s the dang attorney general of the United States! If there is one position that Americans need as an honest advocate, it’s attorney general. And Sessions is acting with all the integrity of a 1978 Dodge Aspen.

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Veterans Day

Veterans Day

The vast majority of us Americans have no direct ties to our military. Most of us have not served in the armed services. There are lots of reasons for this, but it’s mostly because service is voluntary and has been for over 40 years.

It’s something of a symbiotic relationship: Sometimes beneficial — generally citizens in the military are those who want to be in the military, and those who don’t want to be are free to pursue other goals. But other times it feels as if those in the military are doing all the sacrificing.

Veterans Day is November 11 and annually brings this awkwardness into relief. Honoring our soldiers, supporting our troops is often just lip service. We genuflect out of habit. It is marketed to us. It gives politicians and grandstanders a guaranteed ovation line.

Perhaps a better way for us civilians to honor the sacrifices of those who serve is to take better care of what the troops are protecting. If they are the defenders, then shouldn’t the rest of us, at the very least, be proper caretakers?

This past week there were a couple of cautionary stories. From Flint and the ongoing water disaster, there have been court hearings concerning the spike in deaths from Legionnaires’ disease and potential mishandling by state officials. In Rockford near Grand Rapids, residents are grappling with water contamination from industrial sludge dumps.

This isn’t right. Freedom is of no use to you if you’re poisoned to death. We need to be better stewards of our freedom.

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Fake News Flu

Fake News Flu

There was a story from the Detroit Free Press this week about an Oakland Country judge getting death threats over recent rulings.

The cases involved divorced parents and their disagreements over whether to vaccinate their children. Oakland County Circuit Judge Karen McDonald ordered a 9-year-old boy to be vaccinated in one case and questioned the qualifications of an anti-vaccination witness in another.

A couple things about this caught my attention.

First, it seemed a pretty good example of how the dangers of fake news transcends politics. As Google, Twitter and Facebook testified before Congress this week on Russian meddling in the 2016 election, the issue of deliberately misleading stories on social media may seem to have only right vs. left implications. But misinformation can also lead to ugly family issues and death threats (not to mention a potential public health crisis).

Second, the truth matters more than opinion. My wife and I had our kids at home — natural births with a midwife instead of in a hospital — so we are a bit predisposed to be skeptical of traditional medical conventions. And earlier in the decade when stories questioning vaccination safety broke, we were definitely drawn to them. But science and accurate reporting has proven the overwhelming advantages of vaccinations.

In that spirit, I feel the need to acknowledge the technical inaccuracy in the cartoon. A vaccine is generally something that’s given to prevent illness, not treat it. Of course I noticed this approximately three seconds after I finished the drawing. But then I should also make clear that I’m an editorial cartoonist, which is not the same thing as a reporting journalist. My job is occasionally helpful; a fact-based journalist is absolutely vital.

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Bullying Prevention Visit to Michigan

Bullying Prevention Visit to Michigan

Okay, let’s get this out of the way. The first five reasons that come to mind demonstrating why the President is the opposite of what his wife is advocating:

If you are so inclined, feel free to mince, dice, and misdirect. Go ahead and deny. Get your White House Press Secretary on. But we all know the truth, and I’m pretty sure the first lady knows it too.

Which is maybe the most unfortunate thing here.

The message Mrs. Trump delivered on Monday to the 6th graders at Orchard Lake Middle School in West Bloomfield is so, so important: inclusion, integrity, kindness, leadership. I’m willing to believe the First Lady is sincere. It’s the persistently contrary behavior of her husband that creates a mixed message.

But let’s not despair that the children are confused. Middle schoolers are smarter than adults often assume. They are experts at recognizing authenticity. All the more reason that we, as adults, should hold ourselves to the standards Mrs. Trump is promoting, and expect our elected officials to do the same.

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Be a Mensch!

Be a Mensch!

It’s ironic to me that the best guidance for men (specifically men with power) comes from a 1960 film, an era when sexual predatory behavior was often encouraged if not celebrated.

In the 1960 film “The Apartment,” CC Baxter (played by Jack Lemmon) is a bright and earnest young man trying to make a success of himself at a big insurance company in New York City. Baxter is single and lives in an apartment in the city near the office, whereas the executives he works with (and is eager to impress) are married and live in the suburbs. To improve his career opportunities Baxter reluctantly lends the key to his apartment to some of these executives for trysts with women who are clearly not their wives.

His next door neighbors and the landlady assume Baxter is some sort of party boy, with the loud music and noises and constant parade of various women. He lets them think this to protect the reputations of his superiors. Baxter knows he’s being used, but he rationalizes his moral misgivings by throwing himself even harder into climbing the corporate ladder.

At work, Baxter meets and finds himself falling for a young woman, Fran Kubelik (played by Shirley MacLaine). Unfortunately, he soon discovers that Miss Kubelik is the mistress of a very high exec to whom Baxter recently started lending his apartment key. The exec is cruel and manipulative, leading Kubelik on to a point where she attempts suicide by ingesting sleeping pills.

Baxter comes home late that evening to find her passed out in his bed. At first he is furious but soon realizes the situation and rushes next door to get his neighbor who is a doctor. Dr Dreyfuss is able revive her and once she is somewhat stabilized, he tears into Baxter:

Dr. Dreyfuss: I don’t know what you did to that girl in there — and don’t tell me — but it was bound to happen, the way you carry on. Live now, pay later. Diner’s Club! Why don’t you grow up, Baxter? Be a mensch! You know what that means?

CC Baxter: I’m not sure.

Dr. Dreyfuss: A mensch — a human being!

It turns out the film’s advice is deceptively simple: No matter who you are — from an everyday Joe to a celebrated entertainer, a Hollywood mogul, or even the President of the United States — first be a mensch, a decent human being. Let’s hope we can all follow the good doctor’s advice.

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Hey, Watch the Name Calling

Hey, Watch the Name Calling

As an editorial cartoonist, I get called names all the time. Most are just garden variety insults (stupid, wimp, jerk), many are nonsensical (“Marxist Fascist” is one of my favorites), and some are ones that occasionally get close to sensitive areas (we “talentless” cartoonists actually prefer the term “artistically challenged”). What name-calling has never done is change my mind and win me over the name-caller’s side of an argument. I’m pretty sure that’s how it works for most people.

During the campaign last year when Clinton referred to Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables,” it wasn’t surprising for her to lose the support of that demographic. In fact, it became something of a rallying cry — Trump supporters proudly wearing “Deplorable” t-shirts. In a similar way, whenever Trump perceives that a woman has the audacity to slight him, he will refer to her as “nasty.” Boom, there’s the mayor of San Juan with a “Nasty” t-shirt.

I think we can all agree that name-calling is counterproductive for winning arguments. But it is oh-so-pleasing to our reptile brains, isn’t it? It feeds right into our tribal tendencies. And then along comes social media providing the easiest way ever to launch a killer burn! We don’t even have be witty ourselves — just share a pre-packaged meme. It’s a name-caller’s dream!

So I have some sympathy for Michigan State Police Director, Kriste Etue who, as the cartoon mentioned, shared that meme. Just like any of us, I’m sure she saw it, felt that rush of righteousness, click, and it was shared.

Except, of course, Col Etue is in a position of power and privilege that comes with a great deal of responsibility. She is paid well to understand the consequences of her actions as a police leader, to be able to anticipate the potential damage of her words, to know better. She failed miserably. That sure seems like a punishable offense.

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Flint Water Crisis Bad? This Is Even Worse.

This Is Even Worse

At this point another editorial cartoon about guns and gun violence (especially after a mass shooting) feels like an exercise in futility. There is the emotional tumult that fuels an enormous bonfire, and the cartoons simply get tossed in. It rages and eventually burns itself out, leaving a feeling of despair. Rinse and repeat.

I tried a different route here and attempted to add context, specifically for my fellow Michiganders. But any metaphor is imperfect. Guns aren’t just like cars or cigarettes or abortion or freedom or God or whatever. They aren’t “just like” anything. Guns are guns. Especially in America.

So I only really have one important takeaway to share. People are dying. Sometimes individually, sometimes in groups. On average, 93 Americans are killed with guns everyday. But that’s not the takeaway — the actual takeaway is this: We can in fact do something to reduce this. If we want to.

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Uniter, Not Divider — We Picked the Wrong Entertainer

Oprah the Uniter, Donald the Divider

Back in August, Oprah Winfrey traveled to Grand Rapids to be a surprise moderator for a panel discussion. Various West Michiganders had signed up to be part of a focus group about the current state of American politics. Fourteen were chosen, seven who had voted for Donald Trump in November and seven who had voted for Hilary Clinton.

The resulting piece, entitled “Divided,” aired on 60 Minutes last Sunday. If you haven’t had the opportunity to see it, I highly encourage you to do so and draw your own conclusions. For me, it was reassuring. There were plenty of heated moments to be sure, but they were worked through. Differences of opinion were given thoughtful consideration, which then gave way to what appeared to be actual communication!

Particularly compelling was one gentleman’s concern that our American experiment with respectful discussion seems to be ending (especially with all the others nodding in agreement).

This stood in stark contrast with nearly everything the President has done or said this past week. And maybe this is a good opportunity to clarify my position: I’m not a bandwagoner for disliking Mr. Trump. I’ve never liked Donald Trump. I didn’t like him as a Democrat. I don’t like him as a Republican. He is a deeply narcissistic bully, and he has demonstrated this quite consistently over a very public lifetime. I have ample evidence and every reason not to trust him. I don’t trust Donald Trump for the same reason I wouldn’t trust putting my drawing hand into a running meat grinder: I know the consequence.

There. I expressed my opinion as clearly and with as little emotion as possible. I appreciate you reading it. I did it not with any desire to convert, but simply to be heard. Thank you. I will continue to do my best to hear others. We don’t have to agree or even find common ground. But we must not dismiss. Or worse, stop talking.

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The Perfect Candidate for Governor

The Perfect Candidate for Governor

A few years ago, an episode of the TV sitcom “Parks and Recreation” featured a character, Congressman Dave Murray. He was a handsome, congenial politician who would perform perfectly everything his handlers asked of him — without question and without controversy.

Even better, when he wasn’t shaking hands or talking into a camera, he’d go off into a room and sit staring off into the distance waiting for his next assignment. The regular characters (who were from the Midwest) were aghast. But the Congressman’s Washington DC advisors didn’t care if he might in fact be a robot; he was the perfect political candidate. I thought it was a brilliant piece of political satire.

Cut to Bill Schuette announcing his run for governor of Michigan. While the Attorney General definitely has a mind of his own, his insistence on calling himself the “jobs governor” portends a candidacy where he does not plan to use it. What does “jobs governor” even mean? I don’t know, but it sounds nice, and it’s catchy. (See? He made me repeat it.)

Cut to a story on Michigan Radio last week. The Michigan Civil Rights Commission was about to adopt a proposal on allowing protections to be applied to LGBT people in sex discrimination cases. At the eleventh hour, the attorney general’s office stopped the process saying it was a matter for the Legislature (after earlier declining to offer a legal opinion). That reveals something about the character and intentions of candidate Bill Schuette.

I wouldn’t have known about this if not for Michigan Radio. Certain candidates are happy to hide in their script — journalism reveals their character and intentions. I know the fall membership drive is over, but it bears repeating: This is why we need responsible journalism. (And political satire is nice, too.)

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Amazon’s Second Headquarters. Good for Michigan?

Amazon's Second Headquarters. Good for Michigan?

The cartoon wasn’t necessarily meant as an indictment of Michigan (although our embarrassing weaknesses in education and public transportation will likely prevent us from winning the Amazon HQ2 sweepstakes). It was meant as an indictment of the United States as a whole.

Now before I end up in stump speech for some publicity-grubbing pop star running (or not running) for Senate, let me say some nice things about America. America is great. America has vast resources. America is very wealthy. America has lots of talent.

And yet we can’t seem to make a commitment these days to leverage our advantages. For example, in the few days it took to conceive and create this cartoon, protections for immigrants who are part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program have been all over the board. Is the program over? Is it not? Do we have a deal? Will there be a law? What is actually going to happen? Businesses and (more importantly) people cannot make plans in such an environment.

America is a country of immigrants. This is possibly our biggest advantage. But each time we waver, we let our unique advantage get chipped away.

Last week there was a story in the Holland Sentinel about Basel Alyasin, an immigrant who fled Syria with his family at the outbreak of the civil war in 2011.

After moving their way around the Middle East, the Alyasin family eventually made it to Grand Haven, Michigan last year. Alyasin opened an electronics repair business on Main Street in downtown Zeeland and set about living the entrepreneurial, small-business, coming-to-America dream. You know, the one that pays the taxes, creates jobs, and builds the economy.

But now the Alyasin family has decided to move to Canada. They cannot be sure of their status in the United States, so before they become more invested, they are leaving. Maybe not for a better opportunity but certainly for a better commitment.

The truth is, the chances of the second Amazon headquarters ending up in Canada are pretty slim. But the chances of the next Amazon being created in Canada (and not the United States) are getting better and better.

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