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Archive for August 2016

Imagining American Studies

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I went out looking to see what college students are studying. I chose the University of Texas, whose students are sufficiently educated to walk around in public carrying dildos; besides, as a Texas taxpayer, I have some skin in the game here. I visited the American Studies course offerings, where I found courses on American history, and also courses like these:

AMS 311S • America’s Reality TV

30545 • Kantor, Julie
Meets MWF 2:00PM-3:00PM BUR 436A

Reality Television is the most ubiquitous and popular programming on American Television, garnering 50 percent of prime time viewers in 2013. Though most Americans claim hatred of reality shows, the influence of the programming and its reflection of American culture is undeniable; the shows’ mediated narratives reverberate with American’s desires, fears, and showcase our discourses and discursive production. Through the study of reality television, we can understand ideals and forms of American citizenship, race, gender, sexuality and class. This class will use a variety of disciplines, including American studies, media studies, anthropology, sociology, psychoanalysis, and theoretical lenses, such as affect, performance, and Foulcauldian genealogy to unpack the narratives produced by and around these shows. The class will look at a variety of reality programs, including makeover, identity-based (i.e. The Real Housewives, Shahs of Sunset), competition, and therapeutic shows (Hoarders, Intervention, Couples Therapy) to ask questions about American social life and culture. This class will also explore realms of culture and life where we can follow the bleed over of reality television; that these reality stars’ real lives are continually followed on and off the shows speaks to cultural obsessions and fixations that are a part of the reality of American lives.

This is porn. Students can watch reality TV and then come to class and signal their virtues by unpacking the narratives with the appropriate attitude of Foulcaudian disdain.

AMS 311S • Imagining Public Education

30565 • Pinkston, Caroline
Meets MWF 1:00PM-2:00PM BUR 436A

The last sixty years have been a remarkable and tumultuous period for American public education. From the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision to desegregate schools to the more recent controversies over charter schools and high-stakes testing, public education has spent much of the last half-century right in the middle of national debates about equality, justice, and democracy. A recurring narrative in these debates is that our public schools are failing, and that fixing them is crucial to solving other longstanding issues of poverty and racial injustice.

Where does this narrative come from?  What stories and images contribute to the way we understand the importance of public schooling and its apparent failures? What’s at stake when we imagine a “failing” public school – or, for that matter, a successful one?

This course will examine contesting representations of public school in American culture from the 1960’s to the present day.  This will not be a course in the history American education. Our main purpose, instead, will be to investigate cultural perceptions of the state of public education, in pop culture, in the news, and beyond. What’s the relationship between the stories we tell about public education, the policy that determines what happens in schools, and broader cultural anxieties about race, childhood, and social justice? We will consider sources including film and television, policy briefs & journalism, nonfiction texts & memoir, children’s literature & school curriculum.

Well, then a course in the history of American education is a necessary prerequisite, to provide some context for evaluating the various cultural perceptions rather than simply cataloging them and engaging in bull sessions about them.

AMS 321 • Bad Lang: Race, Class, Gender

30640 • Garza, Thomas
Meets MW 11:30AM-1:00PM CLA 0.126
(also listed as C L 323, LIN 350, MAS 374, REE 325, WGS 340)

Maledicta: (Latin. n., pl. maledictum, sg.), curse words, insults; profane language of all kinds.

When is a word “bad”? Why can one person use a “bad” word with impunity, and another cannot? What marks such usage as acceptable or not?  How do race, socioeconomic class, and gender play into the use of “bad” language in the US? This course undertakes the examination of modern usage of language that has been designated as “bad” through social convention. Usage of forms of obscenities and profanity in popular usage will be examined in an attempt to come to an understanding of how the products of US popular culture portray maledicta in situational contexts. Through an examination of various texts culled from print, film, and music, participants will study the context and use of “bad” language and attempt to determine the underlying principles that dictate its affect and determine its impact on the audience. Though the majority of texts and usage will be taken from English-language sources, several non-English examples of maledicta from Mexican Spanish and Russian will also be examined for contrast and comparison.

NB: This course examines texts that contain usage of obscenities, profanity, and offensive language. Students who do not wish to be exposed to such language in use should not sign up for this course.

From this you make a living?

If American Studies is meant to encompass contemporary as well as historical subject matter, I fail to see how it can be complete without understanding the area that is central to most Americans’ lives: working. In this light, I have some courses I would like to see offered that may deepen the students’ practical understanding of contemporary America:

AMS 330 • Crap Jobs

Students will work in retail and experience a rotating shift schedule, and will be expected to move their other commitments around to meet the demands of their assigned shifts. Students will interact with the public, reporting to sets of assistant managers with a variety of skill levels in management and personal interaction. The student must be employed at the job at the end of the term to receive a passing grade.

AMS 340 • The Job Site

Summer only

Students will work directly with skilled tradespeople in an open-air job site under the hot Texas sun. Students will experience the culture of the job site, where they will be outnumbered by people who do this for a living, and learn how the tradespeople transmit, uphold and enforce their cultural and behavioral norms on newcomers.The student must be employed at the job at the end of the term to receive a passing grade, and the workers will be aware of this.

Courses such as this might cause college students to learn a new meaning of the word privileged: being in college, you are privileged to have options other than these to look forward to for the rest of your life.

 

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Written by srojak

August 28, 2016 at 11:50 am

What Do Russians Want?

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It is clear that Americans and Russians attempting to understand each other on their own respective terms is a counterproductive effort, destined to lead to misunderstanding, misinterpretation and suspicion. Exhibit A is provided by Igor Panarin, a former KGB colonel who went on to be a political scientist and who has been predicting a US breakup since 1998. In 2008, he projected that in two years the US would split apart along these lines:

Igor Panarin's projected map of 2010 United States territory. From WSJ.

Igor Panarin’s projected map of 2010 United States territory. From WSJ.

My point here is not that this did not happen or that there are not tremendous unresolved political conflicts within the United States — although, from even a 2012 vantage point, the thought of the Eastern Seaboard joining the European Union is a bit of a hoot. What I want to draw attention to is that Panarin saw the conflicts playing out in terms that Russians would well understand:

Mr. Panarin posits, in brief, that mass immigration, economic decline, and moral degradation will trigger a civil war next fall and the collapse of the dollar.
— Andrew Osborn, “As if Things Weren’t Bad Enough, Russian Professor Predicts End of U.S. “, Wall Street Journal, 29 Dec 2008 (the map is from the same source).

To give Panarin his due, mass immigration has become a political flashpoint this year, and parts of the country are experiencing economic decline. However, these parts are in the same states as other parts of the country that are doing relatively well. The divisions we are seeing are not along geographic lines.

I also believe there will ultimately be trouble for the dollar, but do not see the consequences playing out in sectional terms. Panarin had an understanding of the political forces at work, but viewed them through the lens of Russian political thought to make his predictions.

We also make mistakes when we look at the people of a country like Russia in American terms. Russians have different political traditions and expectations than we do. How are we as citizens to find out how to look at the world like Russians?

It is not practical for us to travel to Russia and interview a statistically significant sample of Russians, and even if we could, their political heritage would not necessarily lead them to be honest with us. Meanwhile, we have the advice of self-styled Russia experts such as Stephen Cohen, whom we know we can’t trust. It also doesn’t help that an estimated 56% of us have no plans to leave our home state, let alone visit another country. So what’s a citizen with a life and a day job to do?

Certainly, Russians do not have group minds any more than Americans do. There were 143.5 million people in Russia as of 2013, before the annexation of the Crimea added almost 3 million more people. Nevertheless, there are themes in the political currents of any country, and one has to be able to generalize somewhat in order to have a basis for understanding.

We can start by learning history and listening to actual Russians.

Snapshots of History

When times are bad, Russians say, “Things could be worse.” Often they have been.

Russia and the Ukraine were overrun by Mongols between 1237 and 1240. For the next 140 years, Russia was essentially a colony of the Mongol-Tartars. Russian princes who failed to produce enough wealth to satisfy their Tartar overlords would get a summons to the seat of the Golden Horde at Sarai; it was usually a one-way trip.

The Muscovite house of Rurik lead the reclamation of Russia from the Tartars. Ivan III (“the Great”) married a niece of the last Byzantine Emperor, and after the fall of Constantinople Moscow claimed to be the world capital of the Greek Orthodox church. There were continued Tsarist claims to be the Third Rome, after Rome itself and Constantinople.

Russia was remote and religiously disconnected from Roman Catholic Europe. The Renaissance hardly touched Russia. Western ideas such as, “treat your fellow man as an end and not a means,” never got wide circulation. Serfdom was only abolished in 1861 by Tsar Alexander II, who received his thanks twenty years later by being assassinated.

Lest you think that Byzantium is some minor cultural influence on Russia, it is, in fact, rather key. Byzantine cultural influences, which came along with Orthodox Christianity, first through Crimea (the birthplace of Christianity in Russia), then through the Russian capital Kiev (the same Kiev that is now the capital of Ukraine), allowed Russia to leapfrog across a millennium or so of cultural development. Such influences include the opaque and ponderously bureaucratic nature of Russian governance, which the westerners, who love transparency (if only in others) find so unnerving, along with many other things.
— Dmitry Orlov, “Peculiarities of Russian National Character” (http://cluborlov.blogspot.com/2015/08/peculiarities-of-russian-national.html)

Because Russian political development missed out completely on the evolution from divine right of kings to constitutional monarchy the way Britain did, intellectual dissent developed differently as well. The well-meaning sons of the nobility who came back from study in nineteenth-century France were returning to a nation with a much more feudal starting point than the nations in Europe where they obtained their ideas. You could call the nation they were returning to “pre-Hobbesian”: the surrender of individual freedom to obtain security and order was not a rationally chosen social contract, but the condition of humanity ordained by God and instinctively preferred by any decent man. In effect, these intellectuals were attempting what we now call “nation-building” in their own country, attempting to leap from the high Middle Ages into the modern world. Where intellectuals in Britain or France might have sought greater autonomy for citizens within existing political frameworks, in Russia the development was more toward anarchism.

Russian society before World War I was very rigid, hierarchical and authoritarian.

Until Peter the Great, Russian officials were paid no salaries. They were expected to “feed themselves from official business.” And when the Marquis de Custine traveled through Russia in 1839, he encountered a member of the czarist aristocracy who said, “They tell me that in France, at present, the highest noble can be put in prison for a debt of two hundred francs; this is revolting. How different from our country! There is not in all Russia a tradesman who would dare to refuse us credit for an unlimited period.”
— P. J. O’Rourke, Eat the Rich (1998), p. 144.

All the Russian Tsars and Tsarinas remembered as “The Great” imposed themselves on the nation by force. Most of them also won wars. It is very unhealthy for a Russian government to lose a war. Nicholas II suffered a humiliating defeat by the Japanese in 1905 and was forced to accept a Parliament, called the Duma. He lost to the Germans in 1917, and paid for it with his life. From Peter the Great through Joseph Stalin to Mikhail Gorbachev, Russian regimes take action not because they want to provide their citizens with a better life, but because they don’t want to be militarily defeated by nations that can outproduce and outspend them.

The documentary War of the Century records a highly illustrative incident. In late August 1944 the Red Army crossed from the Soviet Union into Romania. Eastern Romania was hardly a wealthy area, but the Red Army soldiers saw houses with furniture and mirrors and thought, “This is where the rich people live!” Most of the soldiers had no such conditions at home. They shot up the villages and sacked the houses.

.. the Russian reaction to terrorist attacks, which is, typically, “They can’t kill us all.”
— Dmitry Orlov, The Five Stages of Collapse, p. 148.

Because the Russians have low expectations of life, their worlds are less likely to be thrown out of kilter when trouble strikes. Americans seem to believe that, if something bad happens, it is someone else’s fault and that someone else should be prosecuted, tortured or at least professionally ruined. Russians are used to having bad things happen, and are prepared to ride them out. Things could always be worse.

Government

Since the New Deal, we have become used to taking our problems to the government. In most of the world, including Russia, you stay away from the government or you will have more problems.

Taxation is the price which we pay for civilization, for our social, civil and political institutions, for the security of life and property, and without which, we must resort to the law of force.
—  Special Committee Report to the Governor of Vermont, 1852.

Most Russians would spit their vodka across the room if they heard somebody say that. They live under the law of force most of the time, and they expect to. Much as they did in the time of the Golden Horde, Russians see taxes as tribute and government as a racket.

Central authority, in the form of security, regulatory and judicial bureaucracies, then tends to become the most effective protection racket available. As long as it remains powerful enough to suppress its competitors, it can keep random, opportunistic violence in check at the expense of perpetuating a system of organized, legally enshrined violence. In recognition of this, even those whose fortunes are continually eroded by central authority come to support it, because they come to see the alternative as being even worse.
— Orlov, The Five Stages of Collapse, p. 173.

What the Russians want out of a government is the best bargain: the most benefits for the least amount of tribute. A government that imposes violence on its own people but cannot hold its own with other governments is a travesty, unworthy of respect.

Russians would burst out laughing at a bumper sticker that said, “He who dies with the most toys wins.” They live in a world where stronger people can take away your toys any time they want.

Consider the romanticism around the memory of Stalin. Who would want that? Well, imagine your parents made it through the Stalin regime without having been slung into a concentration camp (no mean feat). You grew up in a nation that had defeated the Germans (with material assistance from the Americans, sure, but you did the bleeding) and asserted its parity with the United States. Since 1990, everything seems to have fallen apart. Drunken gangsters rule the streets of Moscow, the economy is shrinking and the West wants to push your country around. Wouldn’t the Stalin era seem like a period of national greatness to you?

Moral Degeneracy

Periodically, as exemplified in the Panarin pronouncement, Russians in positions of authority will make references to “moral degeneracy.” They do this in the expectation that this will be understood and resonate with the Russian people who are their audience. If you want to understand Russia, you have to get your mind around this.

Because of Russia’s history as an intellectually isolated nation, disconnected from European political and social developments, there is very limited support for the idea of personal autonomy, which is essentially an Enlightenment innovation. It is not your life to live as you want, unless you want to exclude yourself from the community and die an early death. If you’re going to live among other people and be able to rely upon them for protection against the various social predators roaming the landscape, then they have to be able to rely upon you as well. If you are going to reject community norms, the community can reject you, and watch how long you last on your own.

To Russians, individualism in general is a moral degeneracy. The biological purpose of predators is to cull the herd of the weak, and inability to function as a part of a community, performing one’s responsibilities to the community in exchange for mutual protection, is seen as a weakness. Many Russians do not want such weak people around, seeing them as parasites, and applaud efforts by the state to squash them.

After the suffering of many years of violence and oppression, the human soul longs for things higher, warmer, and purer than those offered by today’s mass living habits, introduced by the revolting invasion of publicity, by TV stupor, and by intolerable music.
— Aleksandr Solzenitsyn, 1978 Harvard commencement speech (http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/alexandersolzhenitsynharvard.htm).

Even Solzenitsyn did not understand the West. He, like many outside the West looked at the randomness of Western society and saw only weakness. How could there be strength in a society in which people were free to do anything they wanted, to chase after nothing higher than their own happiness?

This means that the mistake must be at the root, at the very basis of human thinking in the past centuries. I refer to the prevailing Western view of the world which was first born during the Renaissance and found its political expression from the period of the Enlightenment. It became the basis for government and social science and could be defined as rationalistic humanism or humanistic autonomy: the proclaimed and enforced autonomy of man from any higher force above him. It could also be called anthropocentricity, with man seen as the center of everything that exists.
— Solzhenitsyn, 1978.

I am rather partial to individualism and autonomy myself, but this is not about me or us. This is about Russians. If we are to understand them, we must do so on Russian terms.

Dmitry Orlov is a follower of Prince Pyotor Kropotkin, who is remembered as an anarchist. However, he did not advocate individualism, but only absence of central control. In this anarchism, the communities would be free to self-organize and barter without interference from a higher authority (including the authority to coin money). Do not confuse this with some kind of radical libertarianism, which would make no sense in Russia. Orlov went so far as to present a “human relationship guide pyramid,” which he describes as analogous to the food pyramid.

Healthy and unhealthy human relationship pyramids, from Dmitry Orlov.

Healthy and unhealthy human relationship pyramids, from Dmitry Orlov.

The base of my pyramid, representing a royal share of a healthy human interaction diet, is made up of family, extended family, clan or tribe — those people who are closest to you, and whom you have known all your life (or all of their life if they are younger). These are your people — those before whom you have irrevocable obligations, who you can trust completely and will support, defend and protect unconditionally as a matter of family honor. This is the context in which all of the most important social interactions, such as nurturing, social grooming, teaching and learning, take place. Next, a somewhat smaller slice is made up by friends and allies — those people with whom you are united by bonds of friendship or solemn promise, but who are not your people. Next, an even smaller sliver is made up of strangers: those with whom you are drawn together, not through blood relations or personal allegiance but through accident or necessity or fleeting circumstance. While accident and necessity are to be avoided, a fleeting circumstance such as hosting a performance by an itinerant musician may be pleasant, but it cannot be prioritized above the needs of those who are not strangers.
— Orlov, The Five Stages of Collapse, pp. 85-86.

Note well: family are “your people — those before whom you have irrevocable obligations …” To think that you have no irrevocable obligations is, in this view, moral degeneracy and will lead to expulsion, oppression and a lonely death.

Over the past five years, there has been a lot of hand-wringing among the chattering classes in the West about illiberal democracy. Many Russians see little to recommend liberalism as it has come to be understood, only offering alienation, isolation and moral degeneracy.

Written by srojak

August 14, 2016 at 11:03 pm

For What Office Is Hillary Clinton Running?

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I watched the acceptance speeches of both candidates at their respective conventions. Hillary Clinton’s speech was not as scary as the speech given by The Ego That Ate Cleveland. Still, there were several disturbing themes in her speech that ought to give us pause.

Clinton’s speech laid out a deeply considered program for a priest-king. I though we were electing a President, a chief executive whose function is to execute the will of Congress. There is a substantial separation between the two.

Michael Wolff, writing in The Hollywood Reporter, summarized the speech this way:

Her speech, proper homework for anyone actually paying attention, proposed that the nation elect her because she was a good person, one without a clear point of view other than an eagerness to help: a do-gooder good at do-gooding.

Wolff is right about the homework, so let’s dig in. All quotes are from Clinton’s speech, as rendered by this link from the Los Angeles Times.

Lauren Manning, who stood here with such grace and power, was gravely injured on 9/11. It was the thought of her, and Debbie St. John, and John Dolan and Joe Sweeney, and all the victims and survivors, that kept me working as hard as I could in the Senate on behalf of 9/11 families, and our first responders who got sick from their time at Ground Zero.

In this campaign, I’ve met so many people who motivate me to keep fighting for change. And, with your help, I will carry all of your voices and stories with me to the White House.

I have been back and forth through Article II of the Constitution, and I just can’t find the part that says that the actions of the President should be informed by the thought of various citizens she personally knows who have encountered hardships. What about the people whose hardships are not known to the President? Shall we have National Appeal Day, during which we all present our pleas for executive relief?

At my first full-time software development job, the VP of Development liked people with whom she had a bond and looked out for them. Just coming in, doing your job quietly and going home was the road to ruin. She used such people like tools. The key was to be a person with real needs to her. She could make that work in a shop of about ten people; it is completely unworkable in a nation of 300+ million. Yet I thought of this model of executive behavior often while listening to Clinton speak.

My primary mission as President will be to create more opportunity and more good jobs with rising wages right here in the United States… From my first day in office to my last! Especially in places that for too long have been left out and left behind.

In my first 100 days, we will work with both parties to pass the biggest investment in new, good-paying jobs since World War II.  Jobs in manufacturing, clean energy, technology and innovation, small business, and infrastructure.

Since government is not a wealth-producing entity, what devices would be available to Clinton to create jobs? What are they going to be manufacturing and innovating?

Nevertheless, her ability to spend the money is going to be sharply circumscribed. She still wants affordable health care for everybody. And, to top it off:

If you believe we should expand Social Security and protect a woman’s right to make her own health care decisions… join us.

We’re not just going to protect Social Security; we’re going to expand it. Call and raise! So after all those entitlement sweets are handed out, there won’t be any room for stimulus spending.

Bernie Sanders and I will work together to make college tuition-free for the middle class and debt-free for all! We will also liberate millions of people who already have student debt.

So the people who are never going to go to college and whose kids are never going to go to college are going to pay more for other people’s kids to go to college? Yeah, that will be a hit with the Trumpkins.

Why do we have an education system that fails to prepare kids to be effective economic participants by the time they graduate high school? Can’t much of the undergraduate program, particularly core course materials, be moved up and taught in high school?

Come to think of it, why do we have citizens graduating high school and knowing so little about the Constitution that they don’t understand the roles of the President and Congress? I don’t believe this is what Jefferson had in mind. I am damn sure it is not what John Adams had in mind.

Why do we have kids graduating high school thinking that we can vote ourselves rich?

It’s just not right that Donald Trump can ignore his debts, but students and families can’t refinance theirs.

She has a point there.

And here’s something we don’t say often enough: College is crucial, but a four-year degree should not be the only path to a good job. We’re going to help more people learn a skill or practice a trade and make a good living doing it.

That sounds like a great idea. If she is elected President, what means does she have available to accomplish that?

In the mid-90s, the Chicago Tribune ran a series of articles about families where one of the kids wanted to learn a trade instead of going to college. There was a lot of back-and-forth discussion about the relative merits of going to college vs. learning a trade. However, to me the most important finding of the series was this: Not one family who was interviewed would allow their last names to be used in the article. So whatever came out of people’s mouths about the advantages of going into a skilled trade, it was a sufficient source of shame to the families that they didn’t want their names attached to it.

How would Hillary Clinton cause millions of Americans to reverse their attitudes? What levers would she have available to her to raise the perceived social standing of people in trades up to the level of, say, entry-level white-collar workers? Would she declare them statutorily exempt by executive order, and therefore free from having to punch a clock? If she did, what would happen to overtime for those who are presently qualifying for it?

There are an awful lot of teachers hanging around the Democratic Party. Could Clinton convince them to treat the parents in trades with the same respect as the white-collar, university educated parents? Would she even try?

I will be a President for Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. For the struggling, the striving and the successful. For those who vote for me and those who don’t. For all Americans.

If she really means this — if these are not just high-sounding empty words — here is the place to start: Understand that what you and your friends think of as justice is what many of us find to be injustice.

When I was in school, I had a classmate, Greg, who was really good at math. The only thing he was good at was math — and physics, which is basically applied math. Our Algebra 2 teacher would not give Greg the 99 he earned because, as she explained it, he didn’t work for it. He didn’t have to, and he still earned it. To the teacher, she was acting out of justice, but to us, it was injustice.

The repackaging of Hillary has been going on for some time. Apparently, we are witnessing the release of Hillary Clinton 5.0. All the Clinton loyalists want to assure us that she is sincere, earnest, well-intentioned, caring, and people-centered. Let’s believe them, because there is no risk in doing so. Believing this about her tells us nothing useful as citizens. Earnest, caring, well-intentioned people also go wrong. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

Just like in high school: what happens when the well-intentioned teacher who wants to change the world bumps up against people who just don’t see the world the way she does and don’t see the change she wants to implement as a good thing?

[Clinton’s mother] made sure I learned the words of our Methodist faith: “Do all the good you can, for all the people you can, in all the ways you can, as long as ever you can.”

Sounds great: God-fearing, moral and well-intentioned. But when you peel back the surface, you find problems. A woman cannot serve two masters: God and the State. We know the State can use its police power to compel people to do what their leaders believe they should want; this has been a driver for progressives since Herbert Croly. There are a lot of themes here that are troublesome when you peel back the smiling surface layer. The slogan “Stronger together,” for example, is disturbingly reminiscent of “Strength through unity,” a core principle of fascism.

Earnest, caring and well-intentioned are great qualifications for a priest-king. A President is not supposed to need them. A President exists to execute the will of Congress and uphold the Constitution.

And in the end, it comes down to what Donald Trump doesn’t get: that America is great – because America is good.

Does Clinton really believe that America is good? It is impossible to square that with her actions and her statements. At all evidence, America needs Hillary or America won’t do right. Without her earnest, well-intentioned hand on the tiller, the country is just going to sink into a swamp of exploitation, ignorance and injustice.

It is that moral purpose that helps her reconcile cutting any corner, because the end justifies the means. We don’t trust Hillary Clinton because she doesn’t trust us. She thinks she knows better than we what we should want for our country and has to get through this excruciating campaigning process somehow so that she can wield executive power and force her vision down our throats.

 

 

 

Written by srojak

August 7, 2016 at 11:10 am