Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Trump and GOP to America: Democracy is Overrated!

You might have heard that Republicans voted to break 200 years of Senate tradition a couple of weeks ago and changed the rules that uphold our democratic process—simply because Trump’s right-wing Supreme Court Nomination Neil Gorsuch was unable to meet the 60-vote threshold necessary to confirm him. That same Neil Gorsuch, a friend of business and enemy of the vast majority of Americans, used his first act in his new position to allow Arkansas to go forward with an 11-day killing spree in a state that hasn’t executed anyone since 2005; against the advice of advocates across the political spectrum.

It was just the latest example of Republicans placing party over country and Trump over the American people. Apparently, Trump and the GOP are unmoved by the 7 in 10 Americans who opposed a rule change, the over one million citizens who signed petitions to block Gorsuch and the thousands of letters and calls poured into Republican offices (Vox). It didn't matter to them that their constituents took to the streets and passionately rallied in opposition to a Supreme Court nominee that is a threat to our rights.

The most damning example of the GOP’s aversion to the central tenets of democracy is a strategy they have employed since the 1990s, blocking as much of the Democratic agenda as possible when they are out of power, using that gridlock to then win midterm elections (where the GOP generally outperforms its returns in presidential-year elections) and then pushes through their agenda whenever they have the majority. This was true with much of what George Bush did after “winning” the 2000 election, aided by 9/11, and is starting to happen with Trump, though his general

Equally troubling to the future of the country is the advanced gerrymandering the GOP has engaged in for the past couple of decades, seeking to gain dramatic advantages in the electoral map while undermining the minority vote and, by extension, the general will of the people. This effort has only accelerated in recent years and even with some judicial setbacks, they continue to dominate state government and will use that power to skew the political map as much as possible. The simple reality is that Republicans can’t win in a lot of places unless they stack the decks to help them do so, and they are increasingly good at stacking those decks.

A third major area where our democracy is being challenged relates back to Thomas Jefferson and his contention that democracy fails if the populace is not both educated and informed. The “fake news” trend, while not new, has accelerated to the point that the entire Trump administration feels little compunction about lying as the major mode of communication. A new Salon article, in fact, argues they take great pleasure in their constant stream of lies to the media and have no plans to slow down. In an interview just last week, Trump again felt the inconvenient truths are best combatted with outright lies, delivered without even a scintilla of compunction. Of course, most troubling of all is the Russian story that just won’t go away, as hard as some conservative representatives try to quash it.  

Fourth is the continued efforts to undermine the minority vote, with Trump’s fallacious claims of millions of illegal votes tallied in the election emboldening Republicans across the country to institute new voter ID and other requirements that will suppress the democratic vote (as with Iowa  just last week). Republicans have known for some time that they can only win elections if they stop enough people from voting and that was again true this year, when the Democrats won more votes in the Senate, House of Representatives and, of course, Presidential races only to lose all three. Beyond the growing critiques of the Electoral College, which has allowed Republicans to win two races where they lost the popular vote in the past 16 years (and win the popular vote only once since 1988), and the gerrymandering discussed above, is the ways the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has been undermined by recent Supreme Court decisions that appear to have < suppressed minority votes > beyond what the popular press reports. As to those claims of illegal voting, North Carolina might serve as a great example of how absurd the charges are, as the State Board of Elections did an extensive, objective audit of the 2016 Election. What did they find? Of the 4.8 million votes counted, exactly one would have been dismissed with the voter ID law State Republicans have been pushing for years (and only failed because it was overturned by a federal appeals court, who said it targeted black voters with “almost surgical precision.”).

And this leads to the final major way that Republicans have undermined popular sovereignty and the will of the people, very effectively utilizing the judiciary to push and solidify their agenda. The seeds of this strategy go back over a century, when the corporation first gained citizen rights. Yet is the 2010 Citizen United decision that has served them so well, their only loss since its inception being the 2012 victory for Obama. In every other election at the local, state and national level, they have made gains, including the victory of a jackass over a flawed, but much more capable alternative. Spending on elections has skyrocketed in the wake of that absurd decision and the super rich like the Koch brothers are not only starting grassroots movements like the Tea Party, but spending big in local races that all but guarantee victory. The record of the two Supreme Court Justices of George Bush and of Gorsuch indicate a turn toward corporate interests that is terrifying to the general public and includes consummate efforts to undermine democracy and labor power at every turn.

As Masha Green warned before Trump even took office, the seeds of autocracy are already present in the U.S. and, most clearly, in the movement Trump leads. The playbook we have seen in the past includes the following elements, which we see beginning to take shape in just the first 100 or so days of the Trump Administration: 1. Use racial/religious animus to cultivate a scapegoat mentality that defers responsibility from those causing economic decline (namely corporations and the one percent our president is an ardent member of), 2. Create a corporate state where the differentiation between government and corporate interests become almost indiscernible (see his cabinet selections so far), 3. Discredit the mainstream media, allowing propaganda to build a mythological reality that serves the leadership and that same corporate state (just check out Trump’s twitter account, or read the news on any given day), 4. Cultivate militarism as ideology, picking fights everywhere to build up a massive military and then use it whenever possible (see the hotspots that could very well lead to World War III under Trump’s watch), and 5. Build a government that serves your interests more than those of the people (too many to mention here, but here are two examples from just today: Emoluments and Gift to Kids).

The Trump presidency has been a disaster and sideshow of missteps and failures so far, but that neither means that he has not had some success in pushing his radical agenda   or that more will not follow. Dramatic tax reform could be on the way, Obamacare is still not safe, the environment is in real trouble at a time when we might be approaching the tipping point to global destruction, war seems more likely with each passing day, corporate interests are trumping the publics in multivariate ways and Trump and his family appear to be enriching themselves on our tab while doing little to keep the promises they made during the campaign (thank god, with many).

In considering the future of our democracy and the long, arduous task to save it from the iniquitous grasp of the GOP and corporate forces that would like to replace it, Green’s six points seem particularly important. To reiterate them here: 1. Believe the autocrat (a point the mainstream media has failed to do from the beginning of his political ascendancy), 2. Do not be taken in by small signs of normality (again, the mainstream media is guilty of this on several occasions since November already), 3. Institutions will not save you (see #1 and #2 above), 4. Be outraged (the good news in this story so far, as the people are making sure their voices are being heard and it’s having an effect), 5. Don’t make compromises (so far the rather craven Democratic Party has largely followed this advice, even as they fail to acknowledge the failings of their leadership and the DLC/Neoliberal model), and 6. Remember the future. We should be emboldened by the resistance so far, but must be vigilant for the entire four years of what one hopes is a one-term president. But we must be equally vigilant against a party who has abandoned any real dedication to the central tenets of democracy and their role in preserving both it and the will of the people. Democracy only works when people fight for it and the threat of its demise is currently staring us in the face.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Arsenal on to FA Cup Final After 2-1 Victory Over City

A victory at Wembley today does not save the Gunner’s season and the Top 4 still looks a big ask at this point, but coming back from a goal down to win and giving Wenger a shot at a record seventh FA Cup victory will certainly up the mood at the Emirates, while their neighbors to the North now know their manager will end the season without a trophy for the first time in his career. Three thoughts on the two FA Cup semis and the remainder of Arsenal’s season:

1. Wenger Tinkering Paying Dividends
For only the second time since 1997, Arsenal again played three at the back, turning both games into hard-fought 2-1 wins, though the first, over bottom dwelling Middlesboro last Monday was not the best preview for what the Gunners accomplished today. A rather cagey first half saw City dominate possession to the tune of 60 percent and offered them the better chances, with Cech saving well from a Silva header and then his 22nd minute replacement spraying the ball just wide. However, they were unable to break through an Arsenal side sitting back and absorbing pressure more than at any time in recent memory. Holding, in particular, acquitted himself well, with Koscielny and Gabriel putting in good shifts in the back three formation.

Arsenal had few chances going forward in the first half and were lucky to enter the break at parity, particularly as Ox appeared to clip the foot of Aguero in the box, though Arsenal had a couple of decent penalty claims themselves called off across the two halves and extra time. After the break, Wenger appeared to wake up his underperforming squad, as they were soon on the front foot, with Chamberlain providing the impetus and a high press paying dividends. And yet just as they seemed poised to take the lead, Ramsey gave the ball away on the edge of the City box and a beautiful pass set Aguero free on goal. He outpaced Monreal easily and then chipped over a passive Cech. With the way the season has been going, one would not be labeled cynical to assume the Gunners were done.

Arsenal kept the momentum going that they had established for much of the second half and equalized nine minutes later, when a strong run down the right channel by Ox left him free to send in a perfect cross that flew over the head of Giroud but right into the path of the charging Monreal, who right footed his volley below the left foot of Bravo. Arsenal were suddenly in the ascendancy and looked in a position to take the lead, though squandered efforts by Ozil and Giroud made the last few minutes of regulation time nervy, particularly when Toure’s shot was fingertipped to the post by Cech and then Fernandinho headed the ball hard into the post. But City were beginning to tire and Arsenal looked the fresher side in extra time.

Both sides spurned a couple of quality chances before a free kick from Ozil on the right found its way to the head of Koscielny, who cushioned it forward to Welbeck, on for Giroud in the 83rd minute. For not the first time in the game, Welbeck scuffed the effort, but pushed the ball slightly forward to Sanchez, who made no mistake from six yards out. Arsenal finally had their first lead of the match and held on for the victory. Ox was the clear man of the match and Welbeck, while missing three quality chances in his 30 or so minutes on the pitch, brought a renewed energy to the side. One would be remiss not to give Wenger some credit, though, as his 3-4-2-1 formation ultimately played dividends as he is one game from a record seventh FA Cup victory.

2. City Limping Toward Finish Line
One season will not take away the luster surrounding Guardiola as one of the best managers in the world, but questions must start to be asked after he failed to win the Champions League with an excellent Bayern side, twice dumped ignominiously at the semifinal stage by rampant Spanish sides, and now leads City toward nothing more than a Top 4 finish, assuming they retain the spot they now occupy. That is no certainly with the Manchester Derby Thursday and United and Arsenal both potentially breathing down their neck for that final spot.

City dominated the early exchanges and possession throughout the first half, but they lacked fluency for much of the game and one could rightly argue Wenger actually outcoached the Catalunyan for the second time in his career. Aguero did open the scoring and City had plenty of chances to make it two or three, but something seems a little stale with the side at the moment, though losing Silva in the 22nd minute to injury certainly didn’t help things. Aguero can score from anywhere and is arguably the best finisher in the league, but he was largely starved of service throughout the game, with Sane failing to perform at the level we have seen from him in other games. The same can be said of Sterling and a defense that continues to look lost on set pieces and when pressed high up the pitch. Kompany acquitted himself well upon his return, but was surrounded by players that kept leaving Gunners open, with Holding in a great position to give Arsenal the lead even before Sanchez became the hero of the afternoon.

The question for City is where do they go from here. They will need to stay motivated simply to keep that Top 4 place, though they still look a good bet, with Liverpool the most likely to drop out if United or Arsenal can finish strong, but their aging stars need to be replaced if they are to play the game the way Guardiola wants. The first step to patching that up is to replace Bravo, who again looked less than stellar, a few mistakes almost gifting the Gunners a goal. They also need to firm up their back line, with Kompany too often injured, Otamendi never reaching the heights of his time in Spain and fullbacks who all seem a little past their prime. In midfield, De Bruyne still has incredible vision and talent, but has seemed to take a few steps backwards in productivity after a bright start to life in City, while the wingers are up and down, with Navas never really showing himself as a top player in the league.

A final issue might solve itself when the season ends, that of Yaya Toure. While he had some bright moments throughout the match, including a couple of storming runs and the volleyed shot that Cech just touched into the bar, he seemed lost at times, particularly as Arsenal picked up the pace, and was sometimes left standing still or jogging aimlessly as the action pulsated around him. The exciting youngster Jesus will be back in the fold next season and City still have the offensive power to match anyone in the league, but they will have to sort out their midfield and defense if Guardiola is to bring them back to the summit of the league and on to the great heights expected in Europe. For now, Guardiola is finding what many new managers to the league have in the past, that English football’s relative parity takes a toll over the course of a long season.

3. Chelsea Stampede Tottenham Side That Looked Better for Long Stretches
As an Arsenal fan, you will never see me shedding tears when the Spurs lose, but one cannot help but feel a little bad for a side that continues to fall short when the pressure rises. After fading in the title race last season, crushed by a resilient Chelsea side that drew late to seal the miracle championship for Leicester and being dumped out of the Champions League in the Group Stage, thoughts of an FA Cup run must have stirred the hearts of Tottenham fans hungry for silverware – any silverware. Yet even as they close in on Chelsea in the league, an impressive performance came to naught in the end, the 4-2 final scoreline certainly

Tottenham looked the better side for much of the match, but Chelsea took their chances while the Spurs missed far too many. Chelsea started the better side, opening the scoring in the 5th minute with William, preferred to Hazard by Conte, scoring yet another free kick, slotting across the goal past Lloris. Harry Kane equalized on 18 minutes, moments after a corner kept in by the Spurs. Tottenham dominated much of the rest of the first half, but a silly foul by Son Heung-Min of Hazard in the box, going to the ground far too early, allowed Chelsea to jump back ahead right before the halftime whistle. The Spurs looked the brighter side through the early stretches of the second half and finally made it count, equalizing in the 52nd minute, as Della Alli finished a perfect cross from Erickson powerfully across goal from Courtois. Tottenham looked the more likely, before Hazard finished off a Chelsea corner with a cleverly placed ball across goal from about 18 yards out. Five minutes later Matic launched a stunner from outside the box that flew into the left corner with such speed Lloris barely moved.

Spurs sniffed a couple more chances but the match was already lost and, unless Chelsea continue to falter down the stretch, their most likely path to silverware. Pochettino has made this North London outfit one of the best in the entire league and they are young and hungry, but questions loom about keeping their stars for the long term, particularly if the trophy case continues to sit barren of fresh entries. Injuries played their part this season, especially early, but Tottenham can look to a couple of results that might ultimately cost them the title and ask serious questions about their capitulation in the Group Stage of the Champions League. The clock is ticking, but time is still on their side, as much as I hate to admit it.

4. Around the Horn
A costly loss for Liverpool at home to the giant killing Crystal Palace (2-1) has opened up the Top Four race even more, though the loss of both Ibrahimovic and Rojo in their tight quarterfinal Europa League tie might cost United the opportunity to snatch that spot. They did the job today, winning 2-0 over lowly Burnley, but might have lost a third key player in the process, with Pogba limping off late. With the Manchester Derby looming Thursday, the big beneficiary of recent results and injuries could be Arsenal, who might just sneak back into the Top 4 if they can finish strong, though an undefeated final seven league games, including against Everton and United, might be the only path back.

Meanwhile, at the bottom of the table, Swansea and Hull both won, along with Bournemouth and Crystal (who are now up to 12th, after victories over Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool in one season for the first time in their history). Sunderland and Middlesbrough both seem done and dusted, particularly after the latter lost Saturday, but one could argue four sides are still in the mix for that final relegation play. Swansea currently occupy that spot, after their resurgence under Clement cooled at the same time Hull were gaining steam, but are only two points behind the Tigers, three behind Burnley and another from last season’s champions (though they have two games in hand on all three). Hull’s last four are at Southampton, home vs. Sunderland, at a hot Crystal Palace and then hosting Tottenham. Swansea arguably have a tougher run-in, visiting United and Sunderland, while hosting Everton and West Brom. And Burnley also face Crystal, on the road, along with a free scoring Bournemouth, while inviting West Brom and West Ham Turf Moor. Looking across those fixtures, it could well be Burnley that fall back into the bottom three, though Swansea have work to do to escape the drop.  

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Capitulation: Arsenal Fall 3-0 to Crystal Palace

Arsenal’s season has gone from crisis to downright catastrophe after a humiliating 3-0 loss at Selhurst Park Monday evening. It was the fifth loss in their last eight league games, the first time they have lost four straight away league games under Wenger and the furthest they have been behind Tottenham (14 points) since 1963. Even more troubling, they are closer to Crystal Palace in 16th than Chelsea in first in terms of points earned this season. Three thoughts on a season on the brink:

1. Wenger Continues to Hem and Haw
According to multiple sources, Wenger has a contract awaiting his signature to extend his stay for two more torturous years. Yet is there any way we can envision the fans being happy with him at the helm after the displays we have seen over the past three months? Not only did the loss put their Top 4 ambitions in serious doubt, now sitting seven points behind fourth place City, but it comes with the strong possibility of losing our two best players come season’s end.  

Wenger seemed to have rebuilt the team over the past few seasons, challenging for the title last season and finishing in second place for the first time in a decade. They lost the season opener this campaign and then went on a long 19-game unbeaten streak before two losses in a week in mid-December seemed to start a slow downward spiral that has only accelerated as the months have passed. One can understand losses to Liverpool and Chelsea and a draw with Man City, in line with Wenger’s rather awful record against the rest of the Top 4 over the past decade, but a 3-3 draw with Bournemouth, 2-1 loss to Watford, 3-1 defeat by West Brom and then 3-0 loss to Crystal? All within this calendar year? And coupled with the 10-2 aggregate defeat to Bayern in the Champions League? Or the fact that our defense has ceded three or more goals in six of their last twelve games in all competitions, and two or more in 11 of their last 21? A defensive record like that seems more in line with a midtable side than one vying for titles.

How low can the expectations at Arsenal now go before they finally make the move that should have occurred at least two seasons ago? Wenger might well carry on, but if he does leave, who would want the job? There were rumors of Allegra or Tuchel, among others, but I wonder if any of them would still be interested without Champions League football on offer and no sense that a quick turnaround is in the offing. Some will blame injuries, or the poor performance of the players on the pitch, but isn’t that the job of the manager? Why have so few of the youngsters he has cultivated over recent years lived up to their potential, including Wilshere, Walcott, Gibbs, Ramsey or Ox? Why has a losing mentality again taken hold of the club after a long unbeaten streak? Why is every season like a remake of Groundhog’s Day without any happy ending? And why has Wenger refused to put Sanchez back through the middle, where he thrived during the first half of the campaign?

There are no good answers to any of these questions but to say that Wenger is the primary source of blame for the current malaise in the club. He seems unable to motivate his players from week to week, fails to make the right tactical adjustments either between or within games (as Conte has on the way to the title), has not replaced the leadership of Mertesacker or Arteta since their departure (and really since Viera) and fails to find the right formula for victory more often than any other “top” manager in the world. Keeping the 67-year-old these last few seasons might actually push Arsenal into Liverpool territory, as their best players are sold and they have to find inferior replacements. The one thing Wenger has brought since the fecund eight-year spell that started his reign is continuity, getting them through the movement to the Emirates and keeping them in the Top 4. Now even that rather mediocre achievement might be lost and with it a clear path forward. One season out of the UCL might actually not be that big a deal, as United have shown by spending big and enticing stars to join the project even without the preeminent European competition on offer. But can the same be said for Arsenal? They have had trouble securing many of their targets over the past five or six years, even with perennial Champions League participation on offer.

A miracle is still possible, but more likely is an ignominious end to the career of the manager who is arguably the greatest, and most confounding, Arsenal have ever had. In his wake, years of mediocrity might be the price for sticking with him far too long.

2. Players Poor Across the Board

Arsenal were awful in all three facets of the game Monday, outplayed from back to front by every player on the pitch, save maybe Oxlade-Chamberlain, who came on for a 20 minute sting. They again bossed possession, to the tune of 72% for the game, but were outshot 17-11 (with only 3 on target to Crystal’s 6) and outfouled (11 to 10). When Townsend scored the opener in the 17th minute, after some poor defending and failing to close on the ball, Arsenal woke up but failed to make much of their possession or a few opportunities to equalize. The second half started with Crystal in the ascendancy, as the Gunners seemed bereft of ideas or energy, and doubled the lead from a thundering strike by Cabaye across goal. From there Arsenal seemed to lose any semblance of fighting spirit and the defeat was complete five minutes later when third-string keeper Martinez felled Townsend in the box, easily beaten by Milivojevic from the resultant penalty.

Hopes of a sustained renaissance from Ozil were quickly put to bed, as he failed to spark a comeback down 1-0 and was among the players who seemed to give up one of the second goal went in. Others appeared to give up from the kickoff, including Bellerin, who is on an increasingly troubling decline in form since the turn of the calendar to 2017. Paulista was nowhere to be found for the opener and out of position for the second, Mustafi continues to flounder without Koscielny by his side (and even with him there of late), Elneny and Xhaka provided little cover to the back and the front line failed to find its way around a Crystal Palace that sat back and absorbed their possession without much peril. Even Sanchez again seemed below his best, a tendency that has been underreported given his impressive statistics over the course of the entire campaign.

Most troubling might have been Walcott, who had five touches in the first half and didn’t do much better after the break, before apologizing to the fans after the game claiming Palace simply “wanted it more.” How is that even possibly after Arsenal had again put the Top Four within their own hands? Why is there no response from a team after suffering one humiliating loss after another? Where is the leadership? Where is the will to win? Maybe a complete overhaul and a few years in the European hinterlands are the only thing that can restore Arsenal to their prior glory. This bunch certainly seems unlikely to get them there any time soon.

3. Crystal Streaking Toward Safety
As pathetic as the Gunners were, one has to be impressed with Crystal Palace and the progress they have recently made under Big Sam, the man who has yet to be relegated in his career. Crystal have won five of their last six games, including the win Monday and a 2-1 victory at Stamford Bridge less than a fortnight before. They are now six points above 17th place Swansea, with a game in hand, and a full ten points above Middlesboro and Sunderland. After many thought they were going down around the turn of the year, after a torrid 2016, they have found their feet again, combining some stout defending with a strong counterattack and good play from set pieces.

In a rather ironic turn of events, Arsenal had only conceded one goal from a corner all season coming into this game, but Palace made it two on the way to their comprehensive victory. And it was the comprehensiveness of that victory that was so impressive. Against Chelsea, they battled through and took their chances; here they dominated for most of the game and absorbed the pressure for the few stretches when Arsenal did awake from their almost 90-minute slumber.

Looking at their fixture list for the rest of the season, this was an imperative three points and they are still far from safety. Among their last seven games, they still have a suddenly hot Leicester, a trip to Anfield, a visit from second place Tottenham, a trip to the Etihad and a final-day match at Old Trafford. Given that list, the home matchups against Burnley and Hull could be the key to their survival.