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Clinton tour on hold, Hillary goes to India for wedding celebration

Last week I wrote about the dismal ticket sales and very small audience attendance in response to Hillary and Bill Clinton’s road tour. I have a bit of an update now as things have gone from bad to worse for the once popular Democrat couple.

The funeral service for President George H.W. Bush on December 5 in Washington, D.C. provided cover for the Clintons to cancel their date in Houston for December 4, though there would have been plenty of time to do both if they so chose. As I previously wrote, ticket sales were extremely slow and then word came that the tickets being sold had been discounted up to 90% of the original price. Ouch. Hillary (or her staff) tweeted out that she and Bill look forward to coming to Houston in the near future.

Now it is reported that “An Evening with the Clintons” tickets are being sold on Groupon for $35.00 each. What a deal! That Groupon deal, by the way, is for an evening in Los Angeles. Wow. Even the liberal haven of L.A. seems to be over Bill and Hill.

For their May 19 show at The Forum in Inglewood, California, – which seats more than 17,000 – tickets usually priced at $77 are now going for $35, with $120 tickets discounted to $50, and $175 seats down to $72.

Despite the site telling customers that ‘tickets are selling fast!’ with ‘limited time remaining,’ it appears that less than 450 discounted tickets have actually been sold

A Groupon deal for the Clinton’s talk is for the liberal stronghold of Los Angeles where one would imagine the political power couple should be able to pull in the numbers.

Where’s Barbra Streisand when they need her? The tour is now on what is being described as a holiday break. The next listed date on the tour schedule is in April 2019 so that is one long holiday. I won’t be surprised if the Houston date isn’t re-scheduled at all and the tour quietly fades away. It seems hard to justify continuing on if so few tickets can be sold, regardless of the city and venue. Remember, all of the cities on this tour were specifically chosen because they were viewed as Democrat-friendly cities.

So, I was a bit surprised to find a story yesterday that reported the sighting of Hillary Clinton in India for a wedding celebration. The wedding is a merger of the two wealthiest families in India so it quickly made sense to me that Hillary would be attending. Bill is not with her on the trip.

Hillary Clinton was spotted in Udaipur, India, on Saturday with other guests attending celebrations ahead of the wedding for the daughter of India’s wealthiest businessman.

Clinton arrived to attend pre-wedding celebrations for Isha Ambani, daughter of Reliance Industries chairman Mukesh Ambani, Reuters reports. The wedding ceremony is Wednesday in Mumbai.

The star-studded engagement ceremony was slated to include private concerts by singers Beyonce and John Legend, and is reportedly being referred to locally as “the big, fat Indian wedding.”

Meanwhile, when the funeral service for President Bush in Washington, D.C. was announced, another former First Lady announced her tour was being changed to accommodate the timetable. Michelle Obama tweeted that she would be re-scheduling her book tour stops in Paris and Berlin in order to attend the Bush service.

It should be noted that Michelle Obama’s book tour is going in the opposite direction of the Clinton tour. Celebrities are joining her on stage and her ticket sales are strong, despite the high prices. Her book, “Becoming” is wildly popular, according to sales reports. The publisher reports 2 million books sold in the first 15 days of sales. Some are considered bundled sales, sure, but still. That’s a lot of books.

Perhaps “An Evening with the Clintons” will prove to be the swan song for the pair. Both possess giant egos and will not exit the stage willingly. Maybe a lack of monetary reward will help them move off into their retirement years.

Congress in no rush to hold themselves accountable for sexual harassment payments

Do you recall, back during the initial rush of the #MeToo moment, when we discovered that legislators in the House and Senate had slush funds available to pay for the silence of sexual harassment accusers? There was a general uproar over that and we were assured that the members were going to get right to work on cleaning up their act. Good times, my friends. But what happened to that project?

As it turns out, not much. There were proposals written, and the House actually passed a bill, but when it hit the Senate, nobody could ever seem to agree on the details. And now, with the lame duck session drawing to a close, we don’t seem to be much closer to a final bill being passed. (Boston Globe)

Lawmakers are scrambling to finish a long-promised deal to tackle sexual harassment on Capitol Hill — over a year after a series of harassment scandals forced several members of Congress to resign.

“We are much closer than we’ve ever been, and we are aiming to be in the end-of-the-year [legislative] package,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, a leader on the Senate’s version of the bill, last week. “People really want to get it done.”

Under the current rules, members of Congress have been able to use taxpayer dollars for settlements stemming from sexual harassment allegations.

Klobuchar makes it sound as if they’re close to the finish line, but are they really? The House passed legislation back in February (unanimously!) that would make members personally liable for such payments in cases of both sexual harassment and discrimination complaints, end the slush fund and introduce more transparency. But somehow the Senate couldn’t seem to agree to it.

The Senate version of the bill only holds members liable for harassment claims, not discrimination. And the transparency issue seems to be a bit more cloudy. Thus far, all Mitch McConnell has said is the same statement he released a few months ago, saying the Senate would “pass something” by the end of the year. Meanwhile, the two chambers are now looking at passing separate bills having different standards for the House and Senate.

How was this ever viewed as anything but a layup? If there are credible accusations against the members by their staffers that either discrimination or sexual harassment are going on, that is of automatic interest to the voting public. If hush money is being paid to the accusers on the taxpayers’ dime, the level of interest and need for transparency shoots through the roof. Who precisely is holding up that vote in the Senate?

Assuming they get something either shoehorned into the final appropriations bill or pushed forward on a standalone vote, they have to know that everyone is going to be watching and counting up the names on each side. In the current climate around the nation, voting against such accountability measures should be an automatic trigger for a primary challenge in the next available election. The fact that the House bill didn’t immediately pass in the Senate and land on the President’s desk is a low point in an already dubious public record on this issue.

NFL week 14 open thread

Jazz: Well, that wasn’t the best week of prognostication ever… by a long shot. Speaking of long shots, I picked a few upsets last week and virtually none of them came through for me. I went 3-4, bringing my season record up to 53-38. Still a fair bit above .500, but we’re not out of the woods yet. The only bright news of the week was that the Jets played just about the best they have since week four or so. The bad news was that it was still not quite enough to beat the Titans.

Ed: Remember when we complained when the first couple of weeks produced tie games? I think Jazz and I have set a new record for tied weeks. I also went 3-4 and now have a 49/42 record for the season, with only four weeks to go. The Steelers’ late fade cost me a game, plus my upset picks only ended up upsetting yours truly. Gonna start looking for Hail Mary picks now …

Jazz: The Jets travel to Buffalo to face their divisional rivals, the Bills (1:00 pm, CBS). When you’re coming into a game as the underdog by a field goal against the Bills, something has definitely gone awry. New York has the honor of currently holding the title of worst offense inside the red zone in the entire league. But as I mentioned above, the Jets looked really good last week. Not good enough to beat the Titans, but that performance would probably have taken down the Bills. I’m going to cross my fingers and say they can do that twice in a row. Jets win 20-13. The Steelers are out west to visit the not so red hot Raiders in Oakland (4:25 pm, FOX). Playing a 2-10 team is just what Pittsburgh needs right now because the Ravens have basically pulled even with them in the AFC North. (The Steelers are technically ahead of them in the standings thanks to having one fewer loss, courtesy of their draw.) The Steelers should deliver a solid, 31-13 win over the Raiders while the Ravens have a tough match against the Chiefs. The Vikings are playing the Seahawks in Seattle in the Monday night game (Monday, 8:15 pm, ESPN) and this one will have big wildcard implications. Unfortunately for Minnesota, they currently have one of the worst rushing games in the league and Seattle’s pass defense is playing tough. Particularly since the game is being held in the Earthquake Dome, I’m going to take the Seahawks, 27-21.

Ed: Buffalo has a stingy defense whose biggest vulnerability is the team’s offense. They’re playing at home against a team whose offense is almost as bad and whose defense barely qualifies as mediocre. Bills win 26-20. The Steelers get the one soft game left on their schedule in the nick of time, but they’d better learn to play four quarters of football in Oakland. Otherwise, this season may well end up getting lost. Pittsburgh bounces back for a 31-17 win. Seattle’s playing at home and they’re on a three-game win streak. Minnesota’s lost three of their last five, but all against top teams, too. Still, the Seahawks should be able to win at home, 30-24.

Jazz: Here are four more games which will hopefully be at least mildly interesting.

  • Ravens at Chiefs (1:00 pm, CBS) – Picking this game mostly for the importance it holds in the AFC North race. The Chiefs have been hot all season and they’ve put almost 150 more points on the board than the Ravens. They’re a solid six-point favorite for a reason, so I’ll try to bring a little Christmas cheer to Ed’s day and take Kansas City 30-21.
  • Colts at Texans (1:00 pm, CBS) – If the Texans can win this one they will almost have their division locked up unless the Titans win out and Houston collapses. But you can never write Andrew Luck off. This one might be both high scoring and close, but I’ll go with the Texans at home 24-21.
  • Lions at Cardinals (4:25 pm, FOX) – Neither of these teams are in contention at this point, but they’ve both been so unpredictable that it should be fun to watch. (Can you believe the Cardinals beat the Packers?) Somehow I don’t see the Cardinals pulling off that sort of magic two weeks in a row, however. Give me the Lions 17-10.
  • Rams at Bears (8:20 pm, NBC) – The Rams almost have their division locked up but the surprising Bears still have work to do if they want a guaranteed spot in the postseason. Los Angeles is better on paper, but Chicago has the tougher line. I think this one will be close, but the Rams have a little bit of an edge. I’ll take Los Angeles 31-28 in what might be one of the best games of the week.

Ed:

  • Ravens at Chiefs (1:00 pm, CBS) – The Ravens look better the last couple of games, but not that much better. The defenses will matter more, but Patrick Mahomes will endure in a 31-17 win.
  • Colts at Texans (1:00 pm, CBS) – Ya gotta respect the streak. Houston’s won nine in a row, a streak that started in Indianapolis. The Colts won five in a row before laying the goose egg in Jacksonville last week, and botching their clock management at the end of the game. Should be a good game, but expect the Texans to top the Colts, 28-24.
  • Lions at Cardinals (4:25 pm, FOX) – The Lions are 1-4 on the road, while the Cardinals are, um … 1-5 at home. Arizona is dead last on offense, and only ranked 17th on defense. Remember when I said I need a Hail Mary pick or two? Let’s make this one of them by picking Arizona in a 24-21 shocker over Detroit.
  • Rams at Bears (8:20 pm, NBC) – You know, Chicago’s scoring 28 points per game and their defense is much tougher than the Rams’. It’s only 11th against the pass, but it’s #2 against the rush, and the rush sets up the Rams’ offense. I don’t think it’s a Hail Mary pick to choose Da Bears, even if it is an upset pick, in a 30-24 edge-of-your-seat game.

Be prepared … for joy: Sunday reflection

This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 3:1–6:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert. John went throughout the whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah: A voice of one crying out in the desert: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

“Be prepared,” the brilliant satirist Tom Lehrer sang, “that’s the Boy Scouts’ marching song.” Granted, the rest of the song is hardly a theological foundation for Advent, as anyone who’s listened to Lehrer before could guess even without hearing it. It’s a funny goof on scouting and on the life that scouts might encounter not long after their days in the group are over. An even more ominous song of the same title comes from Disney’s The Lion King, in which the evil Scar plots the assassination of his brother the king. In the film, the performance comes complete with an allusion to Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda. Yeesh.

If you have to choose between the two Be Prepareds, go with Lehrer’s version. You’re welcome.

Basically, we prepare for many things in life, with many different purposes and ends. Most of our preparations are not of Scar’s variety, of course, but for much more mundane tasks. We prepare food for dinner as a routine matter; we prepare our taxes ahead of time to ensure compliance. We make plans to meet with friends and family, we put in reservations for flights, and we often plan our children’s spare time to the minute to ensure that they have no spare time at all.

We don’t always put effort into preparation. Sometimes we dispense with preparation altogether in order to enjoy the extemporaneous approach. Most often, we procrastinate, or at least I do, as my wife can tell you in chapter and verse. Rather than prepare properly, we put it off to the last minute and then rush to cover for our own failures. The result is often a mediocre effort, with misunderstandings and new problems which require even more effort to resolve.

And so it is with people of God. The entire arc of salvation can be encapsulated in those two words: Be prepared. When Adam and Eve left Eden after their rebellion, God told them to prepare themselves and their descendants to do battle with the serpent. When Moses led Israel out of Egypt, the Lord gave them the Ten Commandments by which to live in order to prepare themselves to be a nation of priests in the Promised Land. The prophets existed to tell the Israelites to prepare themselves for disaster if they did not put their trust in the Lord, lessons which the Israelites learned the hard way over and over again.

Today’s readings emphasize preparation as we begin our Advent season, but in this context to prepare ourselves for joy in the Lord. In the midst of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem, Baruch tells the city to shed “your robe of mourning and misery,” and to “put on the splendor of glory from God forever.” As the city was falling and the first temple doomed to destruction, Baruch reminded Jerusalem that “God is leading Israel in joy by the light of his glory,” regardless of what might be happening in the moment. The people of Judah needed to prepare themselves to remain faithful to the Lord even in their tribulation, and if they did, the Lord would lead them out of the darkness and into glory — which happened 70 years later.

By the time of our Gospel reading, the Israelites had fallen back into darkness, this time from the Roman occupation. John, the cousin of Jesus, went into the desert region around the Jordan River performing baptisms and prophesying the coming of the Messiah. The baptisms themselves were a form of preparation, of cleansing sin to prepare to greet the Son of God when He came. John the Baptist quoted both Isaiah and Baruch in urging people to prepare themselves for His coming:

“Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

John’s call rings out to this day. “Be Prepared” is not just the Boy Scouts’ marching song; it’s the marching song of Christians everywhere. The season of Advent reminds us of the anticipation of the coming of the Messiah, but it also reminds us to prepare ourselves — ourselves — for His arrival. It is intended to give us the same urgency as John the Baptist communicated to the Israelites in the desert, the same way that Moses urged his flock to prepare themselves by receiving the Ten Commandments in their hearts. The time is now, not some distant moment which we can safely put off and procrastinate in our preparations. And this is not about preparing a meal, or a play date, or financial matters. It’s about forming ourselves to the will of the Lord, as Christ Himself exemplified, and putting aside all of the temptations that distract us from that purpose.

And as Baruch instructs us, that preparation should come in joy and total commitment, as we trust in the Lord to deliver us to salvation. If you’re looking for a song to get you in the mood, Godspell’s “Prepare Ye” might be your best bet. Although I do like me some Lehrer, too …

The front-page image is a detail from “The Sermon of St. John the Baptist” by Bernardo Strozzi, c. 1644, on display at the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Via Wikimedia Commons

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.

May’s Brexit deal is going down in flames… and she might follow it

Back around Thanksgiving, Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May was putting a sunny face on the “final” Brexit deal she had managed to push through the European Union Parliament, saying she was confident that she could get it approved back home and bring an end to this tumultuous process. Unfortunately, she seemed to be very nearly the only one expressing such a positive view. The British press was quick to jump on the fact Parliament was almost uniformly against it, though for differing reasons. The Remain contingent wasn’t about to approve any deal because they don’t want to leave the EU. But the Brexiteers didn’t like it either because they felt they were giving up too much while getting little in return.

For their part, the EU wasn’t doing much to help. They gave tentative approval to the deal, but then turned around and released a court finding saying that Britain could back out of Brexit entirely if they wished and they didn’t even need the Union’s approval. May has had a couple of weeks now to make her case, and rather than gathering the votes she needs, it now looks like the upcoming vote in Parliament later this month will go against her… badly. On top of that, her own cabinet is wavering on the idea of a new Brexit referendum, with a number of them walking off the job. (The Guardian)

A deep cabinet split has opened up over whether Theresa May should back a second referendum in a final attempt to end the political deadlock over Brexit, as senior Conservatives predicted on Saturday night that her blueprint for leaving the EU was heading for a crushing House of Commons defeat.

Adding to a mounting sense of constitutional crisis ahead of Tuesday’s crucial parliamentary vote, No 10 is braced for more resignations of ministers and aides who want another referendum, or who believe May’s deal fails to deliver on Brexit. Will Quince, the Colchester MP and aide to the defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, quit his post on Saturday night in protest at the Brexit deal.

Cabinet ministers have told the Observer that attempts to convince May to delay the vote to avoid one of the largest and most humiliating defeats in recent parliamentary history had not been heeded. This was despite what they saw as a clear danger that such a result could provoke a leadership challenge and split the party irrevocably.

When May first brought this deal home from Brussels, I reasoned that she did have at least one reasonable chance to come away with a win. The clock is running out and, while many of the Tories don’t like the details, she was likely correct in saying that this was their last chance for a deal of any kind. Also, a second referendum vote would either produce a loss which scraps Brexit entirely or another narrow win leaving them right where they are now.

Unfortunately, rather than trying to forge new alliances and smooth the waters, May has taken a hardline stance right from the start, effectively telling Parliament (and her own cabinet) that it was her way or the highway. Now it looks like a vast number of the PMs are opting for the highway.

If this vote proceeds in the House of Commons and May loses in a landslide, there will likely be a leadership challenge. That might involve a split inside her own party, and the next vote could see her out of office with Labour taking back control. At that point, all bets are off as to whether there will be either a No Deal Brexit or even no Brexit at all.

How did it get to this point? Well, Brexit was never the overwhelming will of the people. They only won by a slim majority. And the people were voting on an idea rather than a well-defined plan. The devil was always going to be in the details and now that devil is knocking at the Tories’ door.

Russia and the “deep fake” videos

Foreign election meddling is back in the news again as we grind our way into the thick of the 2020 election cycle. As you might expect, the fingers are pointing at Russia in general and Vladimir Putin in particular. But this time around they allegedly won’t just be setting up bogus Twitter and Facebook accounts to rile people up with red herring stories. The Russians are supposedly working on “deep fake” videos which can make pretty much any politician say and do whatever you like. (Washington Times)

U.S. leaders say Vladimir Putin used a familiar cyber playbook to “muck around” in the midterm elections last month, but intelligence officials and key lawmakers believe a much more sinister, potentially devastating threat lies just down the road — one that represents an attack on reality itself.

Policy insiders and senators of both parties believe the Russian president or other actors hostile to the U.S. will rely on “deep fakes” to throw the 2020 presidential election cycle into chaos, taking their campaign to influence American voters and destabilize society to a new level.

The eerie process, which relies on cutting-edge, deep-learning algorithm technology, produces high-quality audio and video of individuals saying things they never said or doing things they never did.

My first question was whether or not anyone with even a room temperature IQ is going to be fooled by a fake video of a presidential candidate. Turns out I’m well behind the times on this one. The software to create deep fakes is everywhere and people can master the required skills fairly easily. You can probably guess where this software first sprang up, right? It came from the pornography industry, where people were putting the faces of famous people on the bodies of porn actors.

So how good are these videos? Gizmodo did a deep dive on deep fakes last summer. This short video shows you how even free software packages can make the transformation happen.

That’s kind of scary, but this should still be fairly easy to shoot down, right? All of this technology relies on having a real source video to work from. If you see a video popping up of one of the candidates saying something completely shocking or out of character, your first instinct should probably be to point it out and question its authenticity. And given how the technology works, the perpetrators have to be working from a real, original video to produce the fake. If you can find the original video, the hoax is exposed.

Can this type of scheme actually be used to tamper with our elections? I suppose there are deep corners of social media where some people will believe anything they see if it supports their preconceived notions, and such things might be passed around in email chains. But I would certainly hope that they’re not going to make it into mainstream reporting.