An occasional blog about populist politics and popular music, not necessarily at the same time.
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Sunday, February 6, 2022
Speaking of Which
Once again, I had kept a few articles in tabs that I felt like commenting on, then made a round of my usual sources and found a few more.
I'm about half way through Barbara Walter's How Civil Wars Start, and How to Stop Them. Too early to say much, other than that her structure make sense, and her evidence of how other civil wars developed is persuasive. That even includes characterizing social media (Facebook in particular) as "the accelerant" -- a position I've been reluctant to endorse. It's easy enough to see that there are forces on the right that want to spark a civil war. And it's certain that said forces will resort to terrorism if they don't get their way. On the other hand, like most of the left, I trust the system to be resilient enough to curtail their offenses. I never for a moment thought that the Jan. 6 mob would succeed. But then I also wasn't shocked that they would try. Their character has been clear for years now -- certainly going back to the "Tea Party" reaction to Obama in 2009. The people most deeply offended by the mob are the ones who were most naive about them, and more generally about Trump and the Republicans, in the first place.
The question as to whether the left will fight back should the right seize power is moot at present, but should be considered by establishment powers as a risk should they be tempted to throw in with the Trump mob (as some have already done). The Weimar German ruling class thought they could control Hitler, but he eventually brought them to destruction. (The German people survived, albeit at great loss, but the aristocratic class of the Reichs didn't.) The basic fact is that it's very hard to sustain dictatorial rule indefinitely, and not very difficult to disrupt it. While in some ways the tools of repression have advanced, they still depend on popular acquiescence, which is hard to maintain when it violates people's innate sense of justice. In the long run this limits what either right or left can do politically -- not that I worry about the left, as we are motivated primarily by out sense of justice.
As I was trying to wrap this up, I ran across this tweet thread from Steve M. @nomoremister:
I ran across a piece (or two or three) on this and decided not to bother, as jerks will be jerks, and that's about all I have to say about vaccine and mask mandates and the jerks who whine about them. I happen to be related to a Trumpy trucker who was very psyched by this, but a commenter dampened his enthusiasm by pointing out that states have laws designed to prevent truck convoys -- otherwise they'd basically turn into rolling traffic jams -- so it couldn't happen here. But yeah, as a piece of political theater, this is right up the Republicans' alley, and harder for Democrats to laugh at than their yacht parades. And now Steve M. has a longer piece on this: The Canadian Truck Blockade Is Coming to America in Less Than a Month.
Coronavirus in the US: Latest Map and Case Count: Case counts are down 57% over 14 days, which still puts them higher than they ever were before Dec. 31, 2021. Hospitalized is down 228%, but deaths are up 21%, to 2,597 (pushing the total to 901,009), which is more than there ever were except for the January 2021 peak. The regional map shows most improvement from northeast Ohio and Maryland to Maine, except for middle Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, the worst spots (aside from Alaska) are the belt from Oklahoma to the Carolinas, extending NE to West Virginia and SE to Florida. Unvaccinated remain 20X more likely to die than vaccinated. Also note: US Has Far Higher Covid Death Rate Than Other Wealthy Countries. The charts also show that the margin is widening, and that this can be attributed to lower vaccination rates. For more on this, see David Wallace-Wells: Why Are So Many Americans Still Dying of COVID?.
Barbara Caress: The Dark History of Medicare Privatization: This is mostly about "Medicare Advantage" ("a costly, unaccountable cash cow for private insurance companies that is swallowing traditional Medicare"), but it remind me that one problem with selling Medicare-for-All is that Medicare as currently constituted still leaves a lot to be desired. This is less of a problem for Bernie Sanders, as his bill seeks not just to extend Medicare but to fix most of its limitations, but it does make it harder to sell to people who don't know any better. As for the privatization schemes, I would have thought that their utter failure to deliver cost savings would have discredited them by now, but evidently they've become powerful profit centers: largely as government has increased their subsidies, even as they profit from shifting liabilities, both by cherry-picking patients and by denying more of their claims.
David Dayen/Rakeen Mabud: How We Broke the Supply Chain: "Ramp[ant outsourcing, financialization, monopolization, deregulation, and just-in-time logistics are the culprits." Or, more plainly, short term profits. Moreover, the people who broke it all profit both when their system works and when it doesn't. "Corporate profit margins are at their highest level in 70 years," "a little bit of inflation is always good in our business," and "inflation is being enhanced by exploitation, with companies seeing a 'once-in-a-generation opportunity' to raise prices." You might also take a look at Dayen's December, 2021 article: The Inflation-Fighting Bill You Don't Know About: "An overwhelmingly bipartisan effort would finally crack down on the ocean shipping cartel." Also Robert Kuttner: The Supply Chain Mess, which points out how "Biden is finding creative ways to get things unstuck." These are much more sensible reforms, much better targeted to the real problems, than the Fed's classic solution for inflation, which is to lay people off to reduce demand (while giving loaners a windfall, further suppressing demand by increasing debt).
Neel Dhanesha: Paleontologists study the past. This one has a warning for the future. Interview with Thomas Halliday, author of Otherlands: A Journey Through Earth's Extinct Worlds. I went through a period where most of what I read was books on paleontology and geology: John McPhee and Stephen Jay Gould were the "gateway drugs" but I got to the point where I could read pretty technical textbooks. After my first wife died, I found the idea of deep time comforting. But I moved on to other sciences in the 1990, and returned to politics and economics after 2001, so I haven't kept up -- other than the occasional paleoclimatology take on climate change. This book looks like an effort to systematize what scientists know about earth history for a readership accustomed to crisis and catastrophe. What's hard to tell at this distance is whether this record will calm or alarm current readers. But one thing you can bet on is that uniformitarianism, a doctrine that was just beginning to crack back when I was reading, is giving way to a new catastrophism, just right for the times. I may have to check this out.
Sean Illing: Why good messaging won't save Democrats: "Dan Pfeiffer on the Democratic brand and how to revive it." Another frustrating klatch on "why we suck so bad." For instance, Pfeiffer says: "I think we've spent too much time demonizing Fox News for its propaganda. There's this visceral reaction from a lot of people in our donor community. They don't want to be labeled propagandists in that way." Fox News is the single most important cog in the Republican machine, making sure that all the faithful have the right spin on all that matters. You don't have to demonize it to expose what they're doing, but you can't just ignore it because criticizing it makes "Democratic billionaires" uncomfortable. He goes on to complain that "the biggest problem with the [Terry] McAuliffe campaign was that it treated voters like idiots." I don't know where he got that analysis from, but sounds like Fox News. One of the main things they do is pounce on any blip to present it as a deep, unforgivable insult to their viewers (who often are idiots, and proud of it).
Murtaza Hussain: Killing of ISIS Leader Shows That US Forever Wars Will Never End: Biden probably sees this as his "Bin Laden killing" moment, still stuck in the mindset that trophy murders are a viable war metric, except that with US troops gone from Afghanistan and Iraq, all this really does is remind people that the US military is still engaged in dark, unreported corners, and hasn't learned much of anything from two decades of failures. We should remember that wars only end with armistice agreements. The US refusal to admit defeat and learn to work with de facto regimes in Syria and Afghanistan is pure spite, resolving nothing, continuing a long series of grudges, going back to North Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, Iran, and Iraq. Also see Fred Kaplan: Are We Winning Yet? "The big, often unaddressed question is how effective these operations are . . . The answer, it turns out, is that, most of the time, they're not very effective after all."
Umair Irfan: Will climate change melt the Winter Olympics? "It will be hard to host the Winter Games when winter isn't cold." It's been pretty cold here the last couple days, but it was over 50F less than a week ago, and will be again less than a week hence, so Wichita isn't much of a place for winter sports. (Of course, it never was a candidate, not so much because it didn't get cold as for lack of mountains.) Even now, Beijing looks like a pretty iffy proposition, with all skiing events dependent on artificial snow. There's a chart here that projects that only 5 (of 15) possible sites will be reliably cold in the 2080s (with Beijing and Vancouver, among recent sites, not even making the chart). Of course, they could consider more reliably colder spots, like Thule, Fairbanks, or Murmansk, but the main determinants of late seem to have been money and vanity.
Ed Kilgore: Trump's Long Campaign to Steal the Presidency: A Timeline: "The insurrection was a complex, yearslong plot, not a one-day event. And it isn't over." Starts in 2016 with Trump's complaints about counting votes, asserting his claim that he would have won the popular vote but for the crooked system, then the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, which Kris Kobach led into oblivion. One could go back even further, and add a great many details. I'm not sure when Republicans first realized they could game the system, working it to advantage, but it certainly goes back as far as when Trump prankster Roger Stone apprenticed under Nixon. But they've become increasingly brazen about it of late, mostly because they've proven it works, and they haven't been held accountable. Republicans routinely win more House and Senate seats than their voting share, and that's sometimes been enough to tilt control of Congress. Four presidential elections went to losers of the popular vote, and all have been Republicans: two back in the 19th century as black people were being disenfranchised, and two in recent history (Bush in 2000 and Trump in 2016, the latter losing by three million votes). Those "wins" enabled the aggressive implementation of an unpopular right-wing political agenda, leading to endless war, greater inequality, and two major recessions. This was happening before Trump started his 2016 campaign, but Trump's unique contribution was his utterly shameless attack on the already hollow institutions of democracy. And the assault continues, as every Republican-controlled state has moved to make it harder to vote, and in several cases to exert greater political control over how votes are to be counted. Democrats have tried to respond by waxing eloquent over defending the traditional institutions of American democracy, but in looking only at the latest offenses, they've tended to overlook the real rot at the heart of politics: money. Their myopia over money can be explained by that fact that several successful Democrats (e.g., Obama and the Clintons) have excelled at raising money -- but fatally compromised their administrations in its pursuit, leaving theadbare legacies. This allows Republicans to attack Democrats for corruption and ineffectiveness, while offering more of the same, more shamelessly craven. As Republicans have normalized anti-democratic beliefs, they've freed themselves from having to pretend that they care about voters, leaving themselves exhilaratingly free to indulge their fantasies and prejudices. We should be clear that unless they are stopped, their victory will not merely spell the end of quaint institutions Americans have long taken pride in, but the very notion of "government of, by, and for the people."
Caroline Kitchener: Republican-led states rush to pass antiabortion bills before Supreme Court rules on Roe: "Lawmakers in at least 29 states, anticipating a new legal landscape, have filed measures to restrict abortion."
Eric Levitz: No, Democrats and Republicans Aren't Equally Anti-Democratic: This is framed as a response to a Ross Douthat column, which sought to muddy the waters by contending that "the modern Republican Party is also the heir to a strong pro-democracy impulse" and that "contemporary liberalism is fundamentally miscast as a defender of popular self-rule." This is at best shallow contrarianism rooted in rather dated sleight of hand. Sure, Nixon imagined a "silent majority," but he didn't exactly trust them to run the country. Rather, he connived to trick them into backing his own presidency, in the most blatant model of mass manipulation of the time, a practice all subsequent Republican leaders have followed. And sure, the idea of "liberal elites" has a long pedigree, at least to FDR's "brain trust" and JFK's "best and brightest." But even at their most paternalistic and condescending, the latter have always embraced the notion of a public interest, and sought to make government work more effectively for virtually everyone. Republicans disposed of such notions no later than the 1980s, substituting the creed that only self-interested individuals exist, that they are in competition, and that politics is a means for advancing the interests of some people (supporters of the Republican Party) against the rest. If playing on popular prejudices helps the GOP gain power, so much the better, Same for lying, cheating, stealing -- their manifesto reduced to three plain words. But parties are not fixed ideologies. They represent shifting alliances, and the period of elite domination of the Democratic Party seems to be if not ending at least opening up, mostly because the "New Democrat" faction failed on two major counts: to deliver programs much needed to help the party base, and to effectively counter Republican schemes. (It's possible that elite domination of the GOP is also waning as the Party sinks ever deeper into Trumpian incoherency, but thus far that has had little practical effect.) Despite Douthat's best efforts, the increasing dispute over the very essence of democracy is helping to divide the parties and clarify their differences, as Democrats realize they need to reform themselves to become more credible and effective defenders of democracy. Also:
Anatol Lieven: Leaked drafts of NATO, US responses to Russia are surprisingly revealing: I said most of what I have to say on Ukraine and NATO in my January 27 piece, NATO Pushes Its Logic (and Luck). The main thing I would like to add is more detail on how the current threat was almost totally orchestrated by the US and UK through a series of "intelligence" leaks meant to embarrass and corner Putin. (I can hear Robert Sherrill from his grave intoning "military intelligence is to intelligence as military music is to music.") Since I wrote my review, nothing on the Russian side has escalated other than rhetoric at the UN, although on the US end we've seen a steady series of reports on arms and/or troops moving closer to the conflict zone, while Ukrainian citizens have been training in the latest tactics for fighting guerrilla warfare. Presumably that's being advertised as a deterrent, but the appearance of an armed (most likely right-wing) militia in Eastern Europe is never a good sign. Lieven's uncovered a few leaks of his own, which help separate the posturing from the real concerns. Not least, they show how the US is orchestrating NATO ("you should talk to the organ grinder, not his monkey"). But they also show an easily solvable problem, as long as cooler heads don't allow themselves to be painted into a corner. Also on Ukraine:
Carlos Lozada: How Trump's political style smothered the last substance left in the GOP: A review of this week's big Trump book, Jeremy W Peters' Insurgency: How Republicans Lost Their Party and Got Everything They Ever Wanted. Of course, the rot predates Trump, which is why the party was ready to embrace him. It occurred to me in reading this that the real architect of Trumpism was Roger Ailes, and Trump was just the actor picked to fill the part. One interesting point here is the update to the Republican three-legged party model: social conservatives, economic conservatives, and national defense, to which is added "stylistic conservatives": "voters cared just as much, if not more, about the way a candidate talked as they did about what specific issues the candidate supported. The more aggressive, unfiltered, and politically incorrect, the better." They saw transgressive speech as a sign of commitment, candor, and integrity, and Trump delivered. I got a sense of déjà vu here, recalling other conservatives that put style -- latent and in some cases actual violence -- above all else. They called themselves Fascists, and would have been disappointed in Trump (the epitome of "all hat and no cattle"), but proto-fascists these days delighted in Trump, and thanks to Fox News they lived in their own bubble world.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: My Young Mind Was Disturbed by a Book. It Changed My Life. A personal response to the recent spate of book banning (e.g., Maus in Tennessee). I'm old enough to recall a time when lots of books were banned. I know that as a teenager I often refused "required" readings (Huckleberry Finn was one -- I especially hated the misspellings meant to be colloquial), and sought out "banned" ones (mostly because I grew up with a severe deficit of info on sex and drugs). Maybe banning works for some people, but it's mostly about parents and self-important guardians feeling morally superior -- which they rarely are.
Ashley Parker, et al: 'He never stopped ripping things up': Inside Trump's relentless document destruction habits: "Trup's shredding of paper in the White House was far more widespread and indiscriminate than previously known and -- despite multiple admonishments -- extended throughout his presidency." I doubt this qualifies as a shocking revelation or as one of the grosser malfeasances of Trump's presidency, but in its extreme pettiness it reveals most clearly Trump's imperious conceit of being above and beyond the law. Might as well hang more Trump outrage here:
Trita Parsi: Washington ignores Amnesty Israel 'apartheid' report at its peril: "Not holding partners to account for human rights abuses makes them burdens rather than assets to the US." This is, of course, standard operating procedure: cite the reports of Amnesty International and other human rights organizations that criticize countries you hold grudges against, while ignoring the same sources on "allies" -- the simplest definition of which is nations which buy US military arms. (By the way, it's increasingly obvious that the US military-industrial complex has become, as Tom Engelhart put it, "a scam operation." See William Hartung: Mission (Im)possible -- and You're Paying for It.)
Heather Cox Richardson: January 27, 2022: Seems like this should have a better title, like "The Best Economic Growth Since 1984." Of course, like 1984, the upsurge in 2021 has more than a little to do with the depression of the previous year (years for 1984). But while the 1984 growth, fueled by tax cuts and deficit spending, petered out as wages fell flat and the newly-deregulated savings and loans went bust, Biden's focus on infrastructure and labor development augurs well for the future (and would even more so if more of the program got passed).
Joshua Rothman: Can science fiction wake us up to our climate reality? A profile of Kim Stanley Robinson, author of many books, recently The Ministry for the Future on how responsible citizens (and a few eco-terrorists) solved the climate change crisis, with a new book (The High Sierra: A Love Story) coming out this summer.
David Siders/Natalie Allison: Trump's 'circular firing squad' threatens GOP midterm gains: Well, one hopes, but censoring Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger doesn't really rise to the metaphor here. As purges go, they're a mere drop in the bucket, and you don't have to be Joe Stalin to understand that their example will help keep many more others in line. The days of Reagan's "11th commandment" ("never speak ill of a fellow Republican") are long gone, as the powers in the party, perhaps just in fear of mass ferment at the party base, have decided the most important thing is to maintain message discipline, driving the Party ever farther to the right. Sure, that could, in theory, turn into a suicide pact, but they've already managed to push it so far without feeling major repercussions it's hard to see why this one little step should make any difference. Also see:
Margaret Sullivan: Jeff Zucker's legacy is defined by his promotion of Donald Trump. The disgraced CNN President resigned last week, though not for the sensationalist idolatry that promoted Trump as a ratings bonanza even before Fox started sucking up to him. Also: Alex Shephard: Jeff Zucker Was the Most Craven TV Executive of the Trump Era.
Adriana Usero: How an out-of-context Jen Psaki clip led to days of Fox coverage. The point here isn't just that Fox distorts and lies. It also defends itself relentlessly by portraying any attempt to point out its lies and distortions as a scurrilous attack on Fox and their viewers. The first order result is that Fox viewers are trained to never believe anything they hear from mainstream media. The second order result is that no one should ever trust anything that Fox broadcasts. This credibility gap is the purest driver of polarization today.
David Von Drehle: George Packer's opus on Afghanistan is a scorching indictment of Biden: Review of Packer's essay in The Atlantic (which, behind a paywall, I haven't read). Packer was an early promoter of Bush's war in Iraq (which he later regretted), and now seems to have been even fonder of Obama's "the right war" in Afghanistan. Packer's opening line line was more balanced: "It took four presidencies for America to finish abandoning Afghanistan." (Actually, it took eight, starting with Jimmy Carter's decision to bankroll a "holy war" there.) Biden was the only one who got us out, and this is the thanks he gets? Sure, it wasn't pretty, and some part of that was because Biden tried to keep up the pretense that US intervention in Afghanistan had some redeeming virtue, but in the end he knew what he had to do, and did it. I'd call that courage. And I'd add that Packer has squandered whatever good will he earned from second-guessing himself on Iraq. He remains a soppy, fair-weather imperialist to the end.
Laura Vozzella: Youngkin campaign attacks high school student on Twitter. Big man, the governor.
Jenny Gross/Neil Vigdor: ABC Suspends Whoopi Goldberg Over Holocaust Comments: File this under "much ado about nothing." As usual, one has to wade through a lot of posturing to find the actual "wrong and hurtful comments." The first here was that Goldberg "said the Holocaust was about 'man's inhumanity to man' and 'not about race.'" Her first point was a little wishy-washy but plainly correct, so what's the problem? The second was technically wrong, but it turns on how one understands race. It is unlikely that any Nazis in the 1930s doubted that Jews belonged a different and inferior race. But is it really fair to fault an American black woman for race is about white-over-black instead? She made that clear when she added, "This is white people doing it to white people, so y'all going to fight among yourselves." OK, that wasn't helpful, but does her "wrong and hurtful comments" really just turn on identifying Jews as white? While Jews have been significantly more likely than Christian whites have been to recognize racism as a wrong and to support equal rights for all -- and have thereby become targets of white supremacists -- they've never had the same "skin in the game" as black people. But nowhere here is Goldberg denying or belittling the Holocaust. So why jump all over her? It's hard not to see this as a power grab, an effort to control language for political gain. That Goldberg was suspended, even after a full apology, suggests that the power is working. I could add that the reason it works is because the argument is structured in such a way that if you question it in any way, all you're doing is exposing yourself as an anti-semite.
The article quotes an ADL spokesman as scolding Goldberg: "the Holocaust was about the Nazi's systematic annihilation of the Jewish people -- who they deemed to be an inferior race. They dehumanized them and used this racist propaganda to justify slaughtering 6 million Jews. Holocaust distortion is dangerous." The problem here is that what's presented as a correction is itself a distortion. Sure, nothing stated is wrong, but this omits mention of millions of non-Jews killed by the Nazis. When I was growing up and first learning about Nazi Germany in the 1960s, the figure commonly cited was 10 million killed in Nazi concentration camps (out of about 50 million killed in the entirety of WWII). Over the next decade or two, the non-Jews were stripped from memory and everyone started using the six million figure. This shift in focus suited Israel, which used it (and its exclusive claim to represent the Jews of Europe) to claim reparations from a repentant Germany. It also suited US Cold War aims in that it minimized the leading role the left (including communists) had played in opposing and resisting the Nazi war machine. (On the other hand, not all Americans were pleased with the ploy. By rewriting German war aims as racist instead of imperialist -- the overarching ideology that promoted and was promoted by racism -- white supremacy in the US was cast into doubt.)
None of which should deflect one from understanding that the Nazi obsession with slaughtering every Jew possible was anything but one of the world's most spectacularly evil instances of "man's inhumanity to man." Nor does the fact that Germany accelerated the extermination in the waning days of the war lessen the extreme cruelty and viciousness the Nazi regime inflicted on Jews (and all other political opponents) in the early days of the regime -- a time when conservatives in the US, UK, and elsewhere were still much enamored with Herr Hitler. (That era's conservatives were, with few if any exceptions, much given to race theories, at least those that flattered their own sense of superiority. Their racism only gradually faded well after their champion had been disgraced, and in some cases still seems to linger.)
I'd also like to add that when I started reading into the history of WWII and Nazi Germany -- one particularly eye-opening book was Simon Wiesenthal's The Murderers Among Us, but also the concentration camp plays by Peter Weiss and Rolf Hochhuth -- I was instantly struck by the parallels between Nazi racism and the racist treatment of black and native people in America (although it took me a few more years to put them into the context of European imperialism). Only much later did I discover that Hitler based his racial theories on American models -- James Q Whitman's Hitler's American Model details this -- and that he viewed his drive for "Lebensraum" in the east as inspired by America's genocidal conquest of the old west. I should also note while Israel's dominant political faction has sought to capitalize on the Holocaust -- the book here is Norman Finkelstein's The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering -- no one should use that to generalize against all Jews (or even all Israelis). The threat of anti-semitism in today's world is indeed dire, and not lessened by co-existence with numerous other hateful, demeaning, and destructive beliefs.
When I first though of writing on this, I was thinking I'd use Tim Wise: Whoopi Goldberg's Suspension Is Ridiculous as a jumping off point, but while he has a number of valid points, I searched in vain for the offending quote. It also turned out that I disagreed with his main point, summed up in the subhed: "meanwhile, Ron DeSantis is out here refusing to condemn Nazis in his own state." I'm not really offended when a head of state refuses to take a podium and condemn any citizen group, and I'd be tempted to give them more credit when the media tries to goad them into it. Of course, the problem with De Santis (and Trump, who has also refused to disparage his own Nazi supporters) is that this isn't a principle of decency with them. They're more than eager to condemn people they dislike, and they've made it clear that they can't stand vast swathes of the public, so the real question is why they seem to think that Nazis should be the exception.
I also read Aja Romano: Can Whoopi Goldberg's public history lesson actually do some good?, which makes some interesting points, and adds context, both on the long history of anti-semitism and on Goldberg's generally constructive handling of past gaffes. Still much to nitpick here. Romano frames Goldberg's comments as "indicative of a growing cultural ignorance of the Holocaust," and notes sensibly this is "in part because of the passage of time and cultural memory loss," but continues "also in part due to the blatant manipulation of World War II history by the modern white supremacist movement and other bad actors who practice Holocaust revisionism and denial." Really? I understand that some such texts exist, but does any other historian take them at all seriously? No doubt there is a lot of ignorance on the subject, given time, geography, and political blinders, but no one who actually reads up on the history doubts the scale, intention, or methods of the Holocaust. What is up for debate is how the Holocaust fits in the broader context of history. Ironically, the ones most insistent that we never forget either the Holocaust or the long and disgraceful history of anti-semitism and racism that led up to it seem to have little interest in remembering the broader context of that legacy: and not just the millions of non-Jews the Nazis also killed, but the deep history of imperialism, of war, and of conservative repression of the left -- or as Goldberg put it, "man's inhumanity to man."
PS: I thought I was done with this, but have since found more insightful commentary worth citing: