The Sorensen Monologues

Shooter Stupidity

After years and years of drawing cartoons about mass shootings, I’m finding it increasingly challenging to say anything new. How many times can you say that our gun laws are insane and the Republicans are awash in NRA blood money? Or that Trump’s racist rhetoric is inciting violence? What I tried to do here was put this rhetoric in the mouth of a mass shooter to show the self-evident absurdity of his worldview but also the overlap between the right’s now-mainstream white supremacist discourse and violent neo-Nazi ideology. It’s not even a stretch, as the El Paso shooter referred to a “Hispanic invasion” and wanting to “send them back.” And it’s not just Trump. Media Matters has a roundup of the fear-mongering language increasingly used by right-wing fundraising efforts and media personalities.

I also wanted to demonstrate the ridiculousness of the argument that these ideas are somehow not racist, as many Republicans seem to think. They’ve completely redefined the meaning of racism.

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Warning Signs

Getting somewhat lost in the shuffle of Trump’s racist tweets (which obviously require a response) is the breathtaking assault on fair elections that has even graver implications for civil rights. Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick has a good rundown on the recent Supreme Court decision that the federal courts cannot address grossly distorted electoral maps. As she notes:

To be sure both sides gerrymander for their own ends as these cases show, but Republicans have been able to do it better and more in recent years. In 2010, the Republicans took control of most swing states and took power in ways that they have been able to maintain through much of this decade. The decision to sit this one out so that the court can appear magisterial is a decision to help one party, just as eviscerating the Voting Rights Act and blessing voter ID laws have been.

Then we have the underreported detail of the Russians penetrating our voting systems in apparently all 50 states with the capacity to change votes. I mean, how much coverage did Hillary’s emails get compared to this? And now Mitch McConnell won’t fund a bipartisan election security bill. Don’t forget that the Trump administration has eliminated the position of Obama’s cybersecurity coordinator, who first noted that the Russians had targeted all 50 states. Good thing we have a conspiracy-spewing wackadoo nominated to take over national intelligence.

The Republican racism quiz

This past week, we’ve seen the amazing redefinition of racism to mean “criticism of Trump by four Congresswomen of color.” On the heels of his infamous rally in which the crowd chanted “SEND HER BACK!” about Ilhan Omar, Trump tweeted “The ‘Squad’ is a very Racist group of troublemakers who are young, inexperienced, and not very smart.”  So now we have two contradictory arguments from Republicans when they commit acts of bigotry. There is no racism and progressives throw around that word too much — and when they do, they are being racist. (Not only that, but “Racist” with a random capital “R” as is Trump’s wont). It’s illogical, but we are post-logic now, so it’s all good.

For a discussion of the difference between Obama’s questionable immigration policies and Trump’s despicable immigration policies, see this Vox article.

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First They Came For The Tofu Dogs…

As plant-derived meat products gain in popularity, Big Meat is fighting back with labeling laws such as the one passed in Mississippi. Vox has a good summary:

The state now bans plant-based meat providers from using labels like “veggie burger” or “vegan hot dog” on their products. Such labels are potentially punishable with jail time. Words like “burger” and “hot dog” would be permitted only for products from slaughtered livestock. Proponents claim the law is necessary to avoid confusing consumers — but given that the phrase “veggie burger” hasn’t been especially confusing for consumers this whole time, it certainly seems more like an effort to keep alternatives to meat away from shoppers.

According to this Memphis news station, the state is also banning the terms “meatless meatballs” and “vegan bacon.” I regret that I found this source too late to include any meatball jokes in the cartoon. I especially loved the response from the Mississippi Agriculture and Commerce Commissioner to charges of anti-competitive protectionism of the meat industry:

“That’s hogwash,” said Mississippi Agriculture and Commerce Commissioner Andy Gipson. “What prompted this movement is that consumers of Mississippi have been crying out confused about what’s on the shelf. Is this meat? Or is this not meat?”

Yes, he actually used the word “hogwash.” Also, I think he’s insulting the intelligence of Mississippians more than he intends to here. I have a hard time envisioning many people looking at a package labeled “Meatless Veggie Burgers” and crying out in despair “BUT IS IT MEAT???”

I find the right’s obsession with meat culturally fascinating. When it made the news a few months ago that cattle farming is contributing massively to climate change, Fox and other outlets went bonkers with fear-stoking about “the libs wanting to take away your hamburgers.” The alt-right regularly insults lefty men as “soy boys” (never mind the fact that soy protein is excellent for building muscle mass). Meat is so heavily gendered and semiotically rich, there’s so much to unpack!

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Follow me on Twitter at @JenSorensen

Populism vs. Populism

I’ve been wanting to talk about the word “populism” for a while, as it’s been abused so much in political discourse lately that it has become meaningless and, I would argue, misleading. The term has always been a bit nebulous — a positive interpretation is “ordinary people vs. the powers that be” or “the grassroots.” A less charitable usage is “politicians pandering to the masses” or “rabble-rousing,” which is in itself an implicit critique of democracy’s potential excesses — giving the people what they want without regard to the soundness of the policy.

Nowadays, the term is used routinely by journalists to refer to two movements that are pretty much opposites; it has become an empty word that lets journalists off the hook from actually having to describe the content of the political movements to which they are referring. Trump (and Bannon and other right-wing authoritarian leaders around the world) is often referred to as a “populist” because he displays faux concern for the working class and a resentment of science and education, but his policies are in fact grotesquely elitist. If by “populist” we mean whipping up resentment against immigrants and people of color, then we should say that. Otherwise, “populism” is just a lazy euphemism for racism.

Put another way, “populism” has become a tool for false equivalence between corrupt oligarchs and progressive leaders who operate in the traditions of enlightened democracy.

It’s Okay if You’re a Republican!

Back in the early aughts, the term “IOKIYAR” — It’s OK If You’re A Republican — was thrown around a bit in progressive quarters online, but I rarely see it anymore. IOKIYAR referred to the double standard by which Democrats and Republicans are judged in the media and the court of public opinion. In short, Republicans can simply get away with stuff that Dems can’t. Consider it a “boys will be boys” approach to politics (the dynamic is, in fact, heavily gendered). Repubs gonna Repub. What are you gonna do? God forbid Hillary Clinton risk national security with a private email server. But Mitch McConnell blocking cybersecurity bills to prevent election hacking in 2020? Whatevs.

For more on the election security issue, this Vox article provides a summary. If you missed E. Jean Carroll’s sexual assault allegation against Trump (corroborated by two other journalists), that’s here. And the video clip of Oregon State Senator Brian Boquist threatening police is here. I didn’t have enough space to mention right-wing militias shutting down the Oregon Capitol with violent threats, but that happened too. IOKIYAROWWG! (It’s OK if You’re a Republican — or a Wingnut With Guns!)

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The House Is Too Damn Big

This was inspired by a Wall Street Journal article that was published in March, but for some reason went viral over the weekend. The article specifically discusses multi-million dollar dream homes in the Sunbelt that aren’t selling:

For their retirement in a suburb of Asheville, N.C., Ben and Valentina Bethell spent about $3.5 million in 2009 to build their dream home: a roughly 7,500-square-foot, European-style house with a commanding view of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The Bethells said they love the home but it now feels too big, especially since their adult son visits only about once a year.

“It now feels too big.” WHO COULD HAVE KNOWN? Meanwhile, an entire generation stuck with student loan debt, capricious contract work, and sky-high real estate prices, can’t afford to buy at all. And the minimum wage remains $7.25/hr, where it was last set a decade ago.

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Base-less Strategy

To be clear, I’m talking about the party leadership here and not the candidates themselves, many of whom are doing a good job of articulating a progressive vision. Last week we learned that Washington Gov. Jay Inslee had requested a debate devoted to the issue of climate change. The DNC said no, with the bizarre excuse that a president must be able to “multitask” (with a focused debate apparently being an example of not multitasking). To make matters worse, the DNC threatened to punish candidates who did engage in such a debate. According to Inslee, “they explained that if we participated in anyone else’s climate debate, we will not be invited to future debates. This is deeply disappointing.”

I can see the argument that many Americans have been so deluged with BS from right-wing media about the climate crisis that there is some risk of alienating those voters, but I don’t think we’re going to move forward in any meaningful way by kowtowing to disinformation and self-censoring; that’s a short-sighted approach. The DNC’s plan to punish candidates who do participate in a climate debate is just beyond stupid. I thought some of the animus directed at the DNC in 2016 was a bit conspiratorial and overblown, but now they’re practically begging the party faithful to loathe them.

My motivation here is not to create a destructive circular firing squad, but to criticize these bad ideas in the hope that the leadership will improve. It seems some strategists are only capable of perceiving the risk of alienating hypothetical swing voters, but ignore the great risk of alienating the base. You don’t win elections with milquetoast waffling. And if the planet is to survive, we’re going to have to talk about it.

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Twitter for Introverts

To my Twitter friends who tweet a lot: I’m not talking about you! I mean, not really. What inspired this cartoon is this tendency for Twitter to constantly show me tweets by certain people I don’t follow (through retweets and trending topics), while almost never showing tweets from less-active people I actually do follow. Generally speaking, I find the quiet folks in the latter group far more interesting than the first, which tends to be dominated by mediocre media people. Oftentimes the humans I find the most fascinating — like Alison Bechdel — barely tweet at all. I realize I can manage what I see through the mute button and lists, but the fact remains that Twitter algorithms rely on engagements, which create a self-reinforcing cycle that elevates high-volume opinion-spewers. (Implicit bias also plays a role in who gets retweeted, as well as a certain degree of NY-DC media insularity.)

Twitter is, unfortunately, the space where professional visibility happens nowadays. I can’t change that, but at least I can fantasize about a different kind of public commons where quiet people RULE.

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Fake Facebook Videos Throughout History

As most people have heard, a slowed-down video of Nancy Pelosi that made her appear drunk or mentally troubled went viral recently. The White House, in what appears to have been a coordinated effort, promulgated the smear that Pelosi was losing her marbles. Facebook refused to remove the video, claiming they’d reduced its distribution, but according to the Root it was still getting comments from confused viewers, and failed to have any fact-checker warnings.

This goes beyond merely inaccurate spin or false “reporting.” Seeing is believing, and manipulated video is about bending reality itself. While the Pelosi video alteration was relatively low-tech, the technology of “deep fakes” — digitally-constructed fake video — is improving, and almost certainly will pose grave Orwellian challenges in the future. Samantha Bee did a good segment on deep fakes for the “Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner” special. It’s worth watching if you want to learn more.

A number of well-meaning people have suggested that it’s not Facebook’s job to remove such content, and who’s to say what is true or false, and there is no absolute rule that would apply to everything, so therefore we can do nothing. This just shows how much norms have been eviscerated. Facebook is a media company profiting off of news delivery. This is a high-profile case of disinformation and character assassination with major political import. You do what any ethical news outlet would do. You apply basic journalistic principles and remove it! Facebook removes plenty of content all the time (let’s just say it has a complicated relationship with the female breast), so it’s not like they don’t interfere already.

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Fantasy Joe Biden

OK, so I did give in to the temptation to make a Game of Thrones reference. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the show, Arya Stark has shape-shifting capabilities and, to put it gently, does not suffer fools. I like the idea of Arya taking over Biden for a while. The thing is, I didn’t want to imply that she’d killed Biden, so I had to explain that somehow, and, well, if you look at photos, the man clearly has had some work done. I don’t actually hate Biden, but I do think he’s the wrong candidate for this moment, and his propensity for saying gratuitously stupid things (such as having no empathy for an entire generation saddled with crushing student loan debt in a time of record inequality while facing insane housing costs and apocalyptic climate change) is worrisome. I get that some voters like happy talk about working together with Republicans, but I don’t think this sets us up well for standing up to the revolutionary assault on democracy currently being waged by the GOP.

If Biden becomes the nominee, there will be a time to rally around him — but right now I think it’s useful to examine the candidates’ shortcomings. I criticize not to destroy, but in the hopes that his campaign will do better. Otherwise, this country is toast.

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End Of The Roe

Several states are now passing radical anti-abortion laws, with the express goal of taking the fight all the way to a sympathetically pre-modern Supreme Court. Alabama is on the verge of enacting a near-total ban with no exceptions for rape and incest. Yesterday, SCOTUS issued an ominous ruling against stare decisis that many legal experts are saying lays the groundwork for overturning Roe.

How did we get here? Partly, I would argue, from reproductive justice being continually marginalized as “not hard news” — unlike, say, tariffs! (Incidentally, I’ve seen a couple terrible political cartoons now depicting trade war with China as an earth-scorching Game of Thrones dragon. I don’t care how much fun it is to draw dragons, I promise I will never do that to you.) Also, some of us were VERY, VERY WORRIED about the Supreme Court in 2016, predicting that this was going to happen, and it felt like those warnings were met with a collective shrug. I think many people still underestimate the dark times ahead. Seriously, working on this cartoon gave me the creeps.

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Jen Sorensen is a nationally-published political cartoonist. She is a 2017 Pulitzer finalist and recipient of the 2014 Herblock Prize and a 2013 Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award.