Comic: PPE-Ticket

July 13, 2020 Comics, Featured Comments (0) 248

Yes, Walt Disney World in Orlando opened to the public again this past weekend–the same weekend the state of Florida announced a record 15,300 new cases of Covid-19 in a single day. Who is going to Disney World in the midst of a raging pandemic? You can call it stupid, you might even call it sociopathic, but I guess even when there’s a killer pandemic, you just gotta get your Dole Whip on.

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Comic: Serf and TERF

July 7, 2020 Comics, Featured, Politics / Religion Comments (0) 276

If you don’t get it, here’s a good place to start.

I would consider myself a free speech absolutist, but I rarely use that term because most “free speech absolutists” don’t actually care about free speech — what they want is to stop hearing criticism from others for the things they say, which is the opposite of free speech.

When you are a worldwide celebrity with more money than god, accusing everyday Twitter users of “canceling” you — and worse, quote-tweeting them so your legions of fans will descend on them with death threats and harassment — is not defending your own free speech. It’s silencing others.

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HBO’s Game of Thrones: Bran is not the Night King, he’s the Old Gods.

April 18, 2019 Featured, Science Fiction & Fantasy Comments (0) 138

My standard Game of Thrones warning applies here: I am playing fast and loose with spoilers from the books, the TV series, and all tangential materials including interviews with George R. R. Martin. Consider yourself warned: The night is dark and full of spoilers.

As the end of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” draws near, fan theories are flying faster than ever. Heck, I’ve even tossed a few out myself. One I’m seeing more frequently, however, is that “Bran is the Night King.” The case for this theory typically centers on his ability to exist in many different times (an ability I do think will be important to the story’s end) but I’m not a subscriber. It makes little sense to the narrative–Bran has already watched the creation of the Night King, after all–but more importantly, the Three-Eyed Raven outright told Bran he’ll never walk again. The Night King walks. So, debunked.

Another theory says “The Night King is a Targaryen.” This one also makes little sense, especially since Targaryens didn’t exist in Westeros when the Night King was created. The “evidence” for this theory is pretty much just that the Night King rides a dragon–something only Targaryens can do. But I’m confident the Night King’s ability to ride his undead dragon is due to his command over dead things–and to the core ability behind much of Westeros’s magic: The ability to warg.

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Freedom Caucasus

July 20, 2018 Featured, Politics / Religion Comments (0) 134

It was March of 2015 when Maria Butina emailed David Keene to say the time was right for Russia to build constructive relationships with the Republican Party. This was three months before Donald Trump entered the race for President, a year before he won a primary and became a political contender. Antonin Scalia had eleven months to live, and Bernie Sanders had been in the race almost a month. Gallup and CNN both put the Democrats and Hillary Clinton slightly ahead in early election polls–but Butina informed Keene that the Republicans would likely control the U.S. government after the 2016 Election.

Butina is the Russian spy indicted on Monday by Robert Mueller. Her mentor and handler, Aleksandr Torshin, is a Russian politician with close personal ties to Vladimir Putin. Keene is an American, a highly influential Republican political operative who worked on the campaigns of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, and Mitt Romney. When Butina and Keene first met, in 2013, he was President of the NRA, and that is how the two agreed to build Russian influence: The NRA plays a central place and influence in the Republican Party, Butina wrote in March of 2015.

Photo of David Keene speaking at podium

David Keene, former NRA President, believed to be “Person 1” in the Butina filing (Image from Wikimedia)

By October of 2016, Keene bragged to a friend that he had established a “VERY private line of communication between the Kremlin and key Republican leaders through, of all conduits, the NRA.”

These are among the most remarkable revelations in the affidavit unsealed on Monday, when Butina was arrested. The affidavit itself anonymizes the names of Keene, the Republican Party, and the NRA, but it’s not hard for anyone with Google — or even a basic knowledge of American politics — to connect the dots. While the prevailing narrative among left-leaning Americans today is “Trump is in bed with Russia,” the truth is much more troubling: Russian influence on the Republican Party far predates Trump.

The secret hand of Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin did not rise to power through open conquest. In his youth, he was known for keeping a low profile, staying in the background and navigating relationships. His first presidency was a surprise to the world, as Boris Yeltsin resigned without warning and made Putin — appointed by Yeltsin as Prime Minister only four months prior, after one year heading the FSB — President. Then he pardoned Yeltsin, grating the former President immunity from any investigation.

In the two decades since, Putin has moved from elected official to autocrat, and shifted Russia from democracy to dictatorship, not through blunt force but through subterfuge and influence. He built close relationships with Russia’s powerful oligarchs, eliminated critics through assassination and imprisonment, secured electoral victories through fraud, and built what’s been described as a “death cult” of Russian identity, playing on nationalism and white supremacy.

When Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, they did not send armies marching across the border in uniform. Instead, Russian soldiers disguised themselves as Ukrainian separatists, and even as the world saw through the ruse, Putin insisted the conflict in Crimea was a civil war, not an invasion. A few months later, Russian hackers would have handed the Ukrainian presidency to far-right candidate Dmytro Yarosh (who actually received 1% of the vote) if election observers had not noticed the hack in time.

Russian soldiers, bearing no official markings, guarding a seized Ukrainian base in Crimea in March of 2014. Image via Wikimedia.

Russian soldiers, bearing no official markings, guarding a seized Ukrainian base in Crimea in March of 2014. Image via Wikimedia.

In short, Putin might be a sort of 21st century Littlefinger, seeking power through back-channels and recognizing the opportunities presented by corporatism, wealth consolidation, technology, and worldwide white nationalism. In the US, these ingredients opened an opportunity for partnership with the Republican Party, which even Butina recognized had long been antagonistic toward Russia.

The American Insurgency

The idea of an conservative alliance between Russia and the United States predates Trump and Butina. Pat Buchanan, whose hard-right nationalism has barely marginalized him within his party, has long advocated a strong partnership between the two nations, and has long admired Putin. In 2008, with Russian forces occupying the independent nation of Georgia, Buchanan suggested the US join the conflict on Russia’s side. In 2014, after Russia invaded Ukraine, Buchanan said that “God is on Russia’s side,” referring to Putin’s Russia as the “third Rome,” defending Christian values against the “Gomorrah” of Western culture.

This theory comes not only from Buchanan, but often from far-right white nationalists, who view “European culture” as something that must be protected against “invasion” from the outside. Such views, always a factor in Republican rhetoric, came to the fore following the election of Barack Obama.

The reaction of many white conservatives following the election of America’s first Black President was less that of a minority party, and more like that of an insurgency against a hostile occupation. Sales of firearms skyrocketed, as NRA President Wayne LaPierre stood at podium after podium claiming Obama, who took no action to limit gun sales, was a secret tyrant. Conspiracy theories abounded, to the point where Texas Governor Greg Abbott mobilized the state’s national guard against a simple military training exercise. Far-right Americans were further mobilized by expanded rights for LGBTQ Americans, and by grassroots movements like Black Lives Matter.

One could argue the rage and fear from America’s far-right walked us right into Putin’s hands. A Reuters poll in March of 2015, around the same time Maria Butina emailed David Keene about a Russian-Republican alliance, showed that a third of Republicans viewed Barack Obama as a greater threat to the United States than Vladimir Putin.

And so Putin set about courting Republicans. In March of 2015, in an email titled “Your Path Forward,” Keene provided her with a list of officials, media personalities, and politicians with whom she should meet. This list was not included in the affidavit, so the names on it are unknown. In February of 2016, Butina and Torshin attended the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC, an important event attended by many elected officials, including — usually — the U.S. President, and organized by The Fellowship, AKA “The Family,” a secretive Christian organization active in international politics.

In March of that year, Butina exchanged emails with Keene and another American, named in the affidavit as “Person 2” about setting up dinners in Washington later that year with high-level officials. Though also anonymized, Person 2 is believed to be Paul Erickson, a long-time Republican activist who worked on the campaigns of Pat Buchanan and Mitt Romney, and who claimed after Donald Trump’s election to be on his transition team. In an email between Butina and this person in March of 2016, Butina refers to Torshin’s “desire in our Russian-American project,” and that “all we needed is <<yes>> from Putin’s side.”

Alabama Senator Richard Shelby speaking into a microphone

Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) who arranged and led the July 2018 visit by eight US Senators to Russia, was a top recipient of NRA dollars toward the 2016 Election. (DoD Image, Public Domain)

GOP: Grand Old Party? Or Generous Oligarch Putin?

In August of 2016, Butina entered the U.S. on a student visa, apparently to pursue the strategy developed in cooperation with Keene, Torshin, and other US and Russian officials. We do not know all the details of Russian entanglements with the Republican party; we don’t know the list of people Keene provided for Butina to meet, and we don’t know who she met. We don’t know who attended the dinners she arranged, and we don’t know the identity of the anonymous “Political Candidate” with whom she had a private meeting at the NRA’s annual members meeting in 2015.

We know that Congressman Dana Rohrabacher set up an August 2015 visit to Russia, where he met with an unnamed Russian official generally believed to be Torshin. Rohrabacher has long shown an affinity for Russia, such that Republican Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy once privately joked, “There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump.”

We know that eight Republican Senators spent their Fourth of July break on a strange trip to Russia, where they met with the foreign minister and parliamentarians, and hoped to meet with Putin himself. The Senators claimed they were there to deliver a message that the U.S. would take a hard line with Russia, but this newly revealed information should call that claim into question.

The NRA spent an unprecedented amount in the 2016 election, and not all of it on Donald Trump. Even before the revelations of the Butina affidavit, many suspected the Kremlin was using the NRA to launder contributions to American political candidates. This makes anyone who received cash from the NRA suspect — Donald Trump, yes, but also people like North Carolina Senator Richard Burr, Marco Rubio, and Roy Blunt.

Alabama Senator Richard Shelby, who organized and led that July 4 Republican field trip to Russia, received nearly $280,000 from the NRA in February of 2016, roughly a year after Butina and Keene conspired to use the NRA as a back-channel between Russia and Republicans. All combined, those eight Republicans who visited Russia in July — and hoped to meet with Putin himself — received half a million dollars ($483,589, to be precise) in NRA donations in 2016. Were they visiting to send a tough message, or to shake the hand of their campaign donor?

It’s become common, following a school shooting, for activists to respond to Republican thoughts and prayers with the amount that official accepted in NRA donations. Now those numbers may serve another metric: Just how much is that official under the influence of Vladimir Putin?

Because it’s almost certainly true that Donald Trump and the Trump family owe some allegiance to Putin. We’ve seen all the evidence, from his idiot sons bragging about Russian funding for their real estate ventures, to the President’s lying denials about Putin’s direct influence on our election. I won’t list them all here. What’s important to recognize, though, is that Putin’s influence did not begin with Trump, and it will not end with Trump.

As we learned from the Butina filing, and will likely continue to learn from Robert Mueller’s investigation, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has infiltrated the Republican Party.

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Ireland from Cork to Dublin: Day Two

July 19, 2018 Featured, Personal, Travels Comments (0) 150

My second day in Ireland with Corky was supposed to be the day she ran the Cork City Marathon. Instead, a couple of weeks before the race her doctor advised her that a nagging foot injury would need some time off, so we just watched and cheered. A shame, because pre-race scouting suggested she had a chance to win some money.

The city of Cork straddles several islands in the River Lee, in a county of the same name within the Southwestern Irish province of Munster. Unofficially known as the “Rebel City” (and County Cork as the “Rebel County”), Cork is remembered for resisting Anglicization and a strong Irish nationalism. Locals half-jokingly refer to Cork as the “real capital,” owing to the repeated English occupation of Dublin while Cork, mostly, remained Irish.

The marathon course is mostly level, winding around the city and out to nearby Lough Mahon and Cork Harbor. It saves its few hills for the space between miles 18 and 22, but as we watched near the finish, the runners looked pretty fresh. The day was perfect, clear and cool, and I know Corky was disappointed to miss out.

Photo Shoot at University College Cork

Since we weren’t running, we opted instead for drinking, touring some of the city, and shooting photos on the campus of University College Cork, just across the street from our bed and breakfast.

Built in 1845, and now part of the Irish National University system, UCC is rated as one of the top colleges in Ireland, and among the best in Europe. Graduates include famous scientists, athletes, and actors–including Fiona Shaw, who played Harry Potter’s nasty aunt Petunia in the Harry Potter films, and Paulina Novacek, the villain of Undercover Blues, an underappreciated 1993 spy comedy with some outstanding performances.

For us, it was more important that the UCC grounds are beautiful, including that classical ivy-covered gothic architecture common among European universities. Being that it was both summer and a bank holiday, the campus was very quiet, and no one objected as we brought along some cans of stout and did our best to reinforce stereotypes.

Gallery: Corky takes University College Cork

Exploring Cork and Nearly Getting Kicked Out of a Gay Bar

From UCC, we headed north, past our B&B and across the River Lee again, following a little nature path along the far shore, then back again. We wanted to explore, but didn’t want to do too much walking, with Corky nursing her injured foot and me still recovering from an ankle break in February. We stopped by churches and pubs, chatting up some of the locals and taking in sights.

Of course, as tends to happen with a stout or two (or ten), we started feeling confident, and decided to check out Chambers, one of the local gay bars. We also thought it was a good idea to order a fishbowl full of vodka. It wasn’t long before Corky had stripped down to her sports bra and unbottoned her pants, prompting the bouncer to inform me–me, not her, please note–that if she didn’t button her pants again he’d have to ask us to leave. Even in a gay bar, the Irish are still a little repressed.

Corky and I, just minutes before the bouncer told me she had to button her pants or leave.

From there, I’m going to be honest… I don’t remember a lot more of Day Two. I know we walked back to our bed and breakfast, but I can’t exactly say I remember it. At one point during our trip to Ireland, I asked a local about drunk driving laws. He told me Ireland has zero tolerance for driving with any alcohol in the blood at all, and I asked how that was compatible with a nation where drinking was such a common passtime. Simple, he explained: You always drink near home, so you can leave your car and walk.

This is a common sight in Irish men’s rooms. They call it a urinal. I call it peeing on the wall.

Gallery: Exploring Cork and Making Bad Choices

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