Get on the Cannabus

I did not smoke pot this past April 20.  Truth be told, I haven’t smoked pot at all since the summer of 2010—and only a handful of times before that.  I don’t say this to impress you.  Were a joint to spontaneously appear in front of me, I’d likely grab it faster than Donald Trump grabs a Filet-o-Fish (and to greater effect).

I first encountered (read: inhaled) marijuana during my freshman year of college—specifically, in my dorm’s communal bathroom on Good Friday—because some guy down the hall had a secret stash and I happened to be idling nearby.  While I wouldn’t call that evening life-changing—if memory serves, it consisted mainly of eating a family-sized bag of Doritos and avoiding eye contact with the RA—it set the template for every weed-smoking episode that followed:  I didn’t actively seek it out, but when the opportunity presented itself—invariably through some vague acquaintance whom I’d probably never see again—I didn’t put up much resistance.  Following years of curiosity—and all the hysterical anti-drug propaganda that went with it—I wanted to understand what the fuss was about, and I was seldom disappointed with the result.

That was then—a blessedly distant world of prohibition in which to get high was to put oneself at the mercy of the American legal system—a risk that, as with underage drinking, undoubtedly added to the allure and pleasure of the overall experience.  (White privilege probably helped, too.)

In the intervening years, however, something rather strange has happened:  Marijuana has become legal.  As of this writing, nine states and the District of Columbia have OK’d the personal recreational use of the cannabis plant in all its forms, while another 20 states have sanctioned it for medicinal purposes—a gateway maneuver if I ever saw one.

Among the nine-and-a-half states that have gone whole hog on the pot question is my home commonwealth of Massachusetts, whose voters approved a pro-pot ballot referendum on November 8, 2016—an admittedly ironic day for such a liberal, forward-thinking decision.

Strictly-speaking, marijuana became legal in Massachusetts less than six weeks after Election Day, with residents allowed to grow, possess and consume small amounts of the substance to their hearts’ desire in the privacy of their own homes.  However, government bureaucracy being what it is, it will not be until July 1—fully 20 months after the vote—that recreational pot shops will open their doors and, for the first time, their products will be commercially available to those, like me, who have been largely cut off from the cannabis black market up to now.

Of course, the $1 billion question is whether the normalization of weed will turn me—and, in time, the entire state—into a lazy-eyed smokestack who spends all day listening to Pink Floyd and giggling at the wallpaper.  Whether ease of access will translate into frequency of use, and all the productivity-depleting horrors that supposedly follow.

Having never tended my own private marijuana nursery, I cannot know that answer for sure until the magic hour arrives.  However, my hunch is that very little will change in my consumption habits overall, and I would wager the same about most of the fellow inhabitants of my state.

How so?  First, because, as a rule, the per-serving market rate for legal weed tends to exceed that of alcohol—already the far more entertaining of the two drugs—and I am nothing if not a cheap date.  Second—and speaking of booze—I can’t help but notice that, pound-for-pound, I imbibed a lot more liquor before turning 21 than after.  As enjoyable as moderate drinking can and will always be, once all the legal barriers fell—once I could walk into a package store without a fake ID and emerge with a six-pack of Sam Adams unmolested—the temptation to overindulge was just never the same.  Call me an old fogy, but I find that spending the majority of one’s Sunday hunched over a toilet bowl isn’t nearly as fun at age 30 as it is at 18, 19 or 20.

The dirty little secret about drugs—as with pretty much everything—is that nothing dulls the appetite like legalization, and the most surefire way to create a culture of addicts is to take their favorite product away from them.  History is littered with examples of this very phenomenon—not least in the United States between 1920 and 1933—although my personal favorite is the observation made in the 1990s to Salman Rushdie—then under fatwa for writing The Satanic Verses—that “in Egypt, your book is totally banned—totally banned!—but everyone has read it.”

To be honest, it’s unlikely I’ll be smoking cannabis ever again—even after July 1.  Having never learned to roll a joint properly and not wanting to set off smoke alarms in my own house, my pot consumption, such as it is, will almost surely come in edible form, be it candy, chocolate or whatever else the kids are cooking up these days.  While I understand the pitfalls of ingesting marijuana-laced baked goods for the first time—elucidated most memorably by Maureen Dowd in a 2014 New York Times column—the notion of sucking smoke deep into my lungs has struck me as an increasingly unappetizing means of getting high when biting into a slightly odd-tasting cookie will produce more-or-less the same result.

But that’s just me.

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Trump Goes to Korea

So what happens if Donald Trump solves North Korea?  What happens if the economy continues to hum along without crashing?  What happens if Robert Mueller’s investigation returns no smoking gun?

What happens, in other words, if Donald Trump wins?  And what happens—heaven forbid!—if America wins along with him?

It’s a thought few liberals have deigned to contemplate seriously for any length of time, having convinced themselves Trump is the most singularly bumbling, ineffectual chief executive in recent decades—a man whose modus operandi remains (to quote Benjamin Wittes) “malevolence tempered by incompetence.”

After 15 months on the job, the incompetence speaks for itself—on a daily basis, in increasingly jaw-dropping ways—as, for that matter, does the malevolence, be it through Trump’s contempt for institutions like the press and the Justice Department or through executive actions against Muslims, immigrants or planet Earth itself.

What the left (and much of the right) hasn’t counted on, however, is the prospect that, in between all the bloopers, boners and practical jokes, Trump would stumble his way into some genuine achievements, succeeding both despite and because of the character traits that made him so undesirable—and unelectable—in the first place.

It’s easy enough to call President Trump a liar and a crook—not to mention an adulterer, a racist and a third-rate conman.  Just ask Michelle Wolf.

Far more compelling than Trump’s obvious faults are his less-than-obvious strengths, of which the most pertinent—at the moment, anyway—is his ability to so freak out America’s enemies that they decide bargaining with him might be preferable to war.

Such appears to be the case with Kim Jong-un, the murderous dictator of North Korea who surprised just about everybody this month by meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, during which the two leaders floated the idea of formally ending the Korean War, among other extremely promising developments.

This came shortly after Kim’s equally-surprising overture to Trump, who, with nary a moment’s hesitation, agreed to a similarly bilateral summit at some point in the near future, presumably to reconcile Kim’s nuclear ambitions with Trump’s threats to obliterate North Korea—“with fire and fury like the world has never seen”—should those ambitions be realized.

At this tentative juncture, we cannot help but wonder:  Did Trump’s bluster lure Kim to the negotiating table, as no previous U.S. strategy did?  Was this all a modern-day version of Richard Nixon’s “madman theory” at work—an elaborate game of “good cop, bad cop” with Trump playing both roles?  Will these extraordinary meetings produce a durable, long-term settlement that all sides can live with?  And if so, will Trump deserve credit as a great—albeit unorthodox—statesman and peacemaker?

Admittedly, by asking these sorts of questions, we are anticipating future events that may never materialize, with a cockeyed optimism that may be entirely without merit.  Amidst all the positive activity on the Korean Peninsula, we should never forget Donald Trump’s bottomless, lifelong capacity to get in his own way, coupled with his rank inexperience in all manner of foreign policy.  And that’s before factoring in Kim Jong-un, who presumably has his own nefarious agenda and may well be playing Trump and Moon for fools.

And yet—and yet, I say!—there has undoubtedly been enough forward movement with North Korea to give us a modicum of hope that a nuclear exchange is not the imminent danger it was during, say, the summer of 2017.  We owe it to ourselves—and to civilization as a whole—to root for some kind of accommodation that averts war and establishes a relatively stable relationship between the Kim regime and the rest of the world.  I haven’t the slightest idea what that deal might look like—nor, it would appear, does anyone else—but then history often hinges on moments that seem impossible until they suddenly become inevitable.  Just ask President Hillary Clinton.

Supposing the Korean standoff ends well and Trump emerges as the grand dealmaker he’s always claimed himself to be, what, pray tell, are American liberals to do with themselves?  More broadly, what would a truly empowered—and truly successful—President Trump mean for America as a whole?

Most likely, in my estimation, it would mean Nixon 2.0.:  A profound scumbag who, through luck and pluck, lodges several major policy breakthroughs but nonetheless remains a scumbag and is eventually brought down by the weight of his own corruption.

It certainly has a nice, odd symmetry to it:  Nixon goes to China, Trump goes to Korea.  Nixon is investigated for covering up interference in a presidential election, Trump is investigated for the same.  Nixon is forced to resign after the discovery of incriminating tape recordings.  And Trump…well, we’ll always have Twitter.

The essential thing, in any case, is to keep a sufficiently open mind to be able to hold two opposing ideas in your head at the same time—in this case, the idea that Donald Trump is both a wretched human being and, potentially—indeed, perhaps only on this one occasion—the right man in the right place at the right time.

In other words, we must be prepared to give credit where credit is due, knowing all the while there will always be a fresh new pile of blame just around the corner.

Caught With His Pants Down

What if the president just told the truth about Stormy Daniels?

Daniels—as possibly you’ve heard—is the porn star who claims to have had a sexual encounter with Donald Trump in 2006 and been paid $130,000 in hush money by Trump’s lawyer shortly before the 2016 election.

While Daniels maintained her silence through the campaign and the first year of Trump’s presidency, she has been singing like a canary as of late, divulging enough details about their Lake Tahoe tryst to keep comedy writers busy for months and provoking a rare silence from the perpetually pugilistic commander-in-chief.  Curiously, Trump hasn’t tweeted a single word about this story since it first broke on January 12.

Naturally, the president’s press secretary and legal team have disputed Daniels’s account on Trump’s behalf, claiming the alleged affair didn’t occur, while admitting the $130,000 payment—and an accompanying nondisclosure agreement—did.  The two parties have been suing each other ever since.

Legal maneuverings aside, deep down, every American knows Stormy Daniels is telling the truth.  First, because presidential candidates tend not to pay beautiful women six figures for sex they did not have.  Second, because the particulars of Daniels’s chronicle bear striking similarities to those of Karen McDougal, the Playboy model who has asserted a yearlong affair with Trump around the same time as Daniels’s.

Finally—and, by far, most importantly—we believe Trump had sex with a porn star one year into his third marriage because that’s exactly the sort of thing he would do.  There is nothing we have gleaned from his character—or his public statements—that is inconsistent with anything Daniels told Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes last Sunday night, and in other interviews.  For his entire adult life—from “best sex I’ve ever had” to “grab ’em by the pussy”—Trump has proudly branded himself a boorish horndog of the highest order, and we have no reason to believe he has reformed himself since becoming the most powerful man on Earth.

So why not say so?  If you’re Trump, why go through the charade of pretending Daniels is part of some nefarious conspiracy—or is simply a lone wolf liar—when the truth is so much easier—and so much cheaper—to come by?  With Robert Mueller on the march and all the usual chaos enveloping the West Wing on a daily basis, is Stormy Daniels really a battle worth fighting—and, presumably, losing?

It was almost exactly 20 years ago when another skirt-chasing president stood in front of a phalanx of TV cameras and categorically denied accusations of a sexual dalliance with a White House intern.  Seven months—and several million dollars in legal fees—later, Bill Clinton reappeared in a prime time address to admit that, in fact, he’d been lying the whole time and Monica Lewinsky was telling the truth.  Whoops.

What prodded Clinton’s belated confession, you’ll recall, was not a sudden attack of conscience or a pang of moral responsibility as leader of the free world.  Rather, it was a grand jury deposition and a stained blue dress—two factors he was too arrogant to anticipate but which eventually proved a near-existential threat to his presidency.  He’d been caught with his hand in the cookie jar with no good options for getting it out, and in the meantime, the entire country had to endure a full year of pointless political melodrama—complete with a special prosecutor—culminating in an equally pointless impeachment from which both Clinton and his antagonists emerged thoroughly embarrassed and without anything positive to show for it.

And all rooted in a single presidential lie that didn’t need to be told in the first place.

Is this the future Donald Trump wants for himself?  Does he believe he can improvise his way through this crisis as he has with every crisis that has come before?  Has he convinced himself that by telling a bald-faced lie with enough frequency, he can bend reality to his will and carry a hefty minority of the public along with him, up to and including re-election in 2020?

Perhaps he has, and perhaps he can.  Certainly Trump has proved more adept at conning his way up the success ladder than any political figure of our time.

And yet the world of depositions—where “truthful exaggeration” is called “perjury”—is different from the world of electoral politics, as Bill Clinton so salaciously discovered in 1998.  Trump, who has been involved in more than 3,500 lawsuits, presumably understands this distinction and, for all his supposed mental depreciation, possesses the wherewithal to find an escape hatch before this particular legal squabble reaches the point of no return.

Here’s a scenario for you:  Trump calls a press conference sometime in the near future and says to the American public, “It’s true that I had sexual relations with Stormy Daniels in 2006, and that my attorney paid her $130,000 to keep quiet.  I’d like to apologize to Melania for breaking the bonds of our marriage, and to the public for setting a poor example for our children.  I will try to be a better man and a better husband in the future, and will not waste the public’s time with petty litigation with Ms. Daniels, to whom I also apologize and wish all the best in her future endeavors.  I hope the American people can forgive me, and that we can now move on to the important business of making America great again.”

Does Donald Trump have it in him to make such a statement and mean it?  Isn’t it pretty to think so?

Dizzy Miss Lizzy

Senator Elizabeth Warren is one of the most indispensable voices in American politics today.  She should not run for president in 2020.

Why not?  Reasons enough, my friends.

Reason No. 1:  While she is a highly effective member of the U.S. Senate (if such a thing can be measured), Warren’s experience as an executive lies somewhere between negligible and non-existent.

Reason No. 2:  As a genuine populist hero of the left, Senator Warren is structurally incapable of appealing to a broad cross-section of the American public, as presidents are generally expected to do.

Reason No. 3:  Outside the liberal enclaves that comprise her natural constituency, Warren tends to come across as a wild-eyed wackadoodle whose entire public persona consists of two or three basic—and borderline radical—talking points from which she rarely, if ever, deviates.

And most importantly, reason No. 4:  The “Pocahontas” thing.

In isolation, none of these would-be drawbacks would be enough to disqualify Warren from seeking and/or attaining high office.  Certainly, they didn’t stop the 44 individuals who have thus far succeeded in doing both.

However, the same cannot be said when all of the above occur simultaneously in a single person, and in the senior senator from Massachusetts, that’s exactly what they do.

Put simply, Elizabeth Warren will never be elected president, and the American left might as well accept this fact now.  Trust me:  It will be a lot more painful on the night of November 3, 2020.

Admittedly, if you take Senator Warren at her word, she will not be a candidate in the first place.  In one interview after another, Warren has asserted, in no uncertain terms, that she is interested only in getting re-elected to the Senate this fall, and has given no serious thought to what she might do with herself thereafter.

Of course, no one believes a word of this—nor, to be fair, should Warren be expected to say anything different until her current race is behind her.  As ever, actions speak louder than denials, and the clearest indication to date that Warren is, indeed, gunning for the White House occurred on Valentine’s Day, when she addressed the National Congress of American Indians in Washington, D.C., where she passionately reasserted her conviction that she herself descends from Native American stock.

Why would a mere senator—one who will barely face an opponent this November—feel the need to defend her identity in this manner?  No doubt there were several motivations—pride and family honor chief among them—but the most self-evident to any politically-minded observer must be the fact that President Trump has for months attempted to smear and discredit Warren by repeatedly referring to her as “Pocahontas.”

The basis of this nickname—as a majority of the public probably still doesn’t understand—is the curious gulf between Warren’s certainty about her Native American heritage and the lack of concrete genealogical evidence to support it—a discrepancy that was exasperated last weekend when Warren declined to submit to a DNA test that would presumably resolve the issue once and for all.  Asked by Chuck Todd for an explanation, Warren responded, “Look, I know who I am.”

What she means—as Massachusetts learned in 2012, when she was first elected senator—is that she spent the entirety of her Oklahoma childhood hearing stories from her parents about their family’s Cherokee roots—stories that turned out to be mostly (if not entirely) false, but which Warren took at face value, because why on Earth shouldn’t she?

Years later, still believing this, Warren listed herself as a “minority” in the Association of American Law Schools directory, while Harvard Law School singled her out as an example of ethnic diversity among its faculty.  (At most, Warren is 1/32 Cherokee.)  On the other hand, Warren did not mention her supposed Native blood on her college applications, nor is there any evidence that her would-be minority status resulted in preferential treatment at any point in her academic or professional career.

Taking all of these little contradictions together, does “Look, I know who I am” strike you as an answer that will withstand an 18-month presidential campaign against Donald Trump?  I’d certainly appreciate a clarification or two, and I’ve been in her fan club since Day 1.

What we have here—albeit in embryonic form—is Hillary’s Emails 2.0.  That is, an ostensibly meaningless issue that is blown utterly and inexplicably out of proportion—by Republicans and the media alike—and which slowly but surely immolates the candidacy of the person in question, resulting in four years of President Donald Trump.

Like Hillary Clinton’s email problem, Elizabeth Warren’s “Pocahontas” problem will persist and metastasize as Election Day grows ever-closer, overshadowing every other consideration and rendering her ultimately unelectable.  If Clinton proved an easy target for Russia-based fake news, just imagine what those hackers will do with Warren.

And as with Clinton, the criticisms will not be entirely wrong.  Remember:  When Hillary was ground down by accusations that she had used a private e-mail server for official government business, the point wasn’t that she’d violated some obscure federal rule.  The point was that Hillary couldn’t bring herself to admit she’d done something wrong until it was too late, thereby reinforcing her public perception as a duplicitous, untrustworthy crook.

Elizabeth Warren—someone who, by and large, has cultivated a reputation for frankness and candor on most subjects—can scarcely afford to be seen as evasive and deceitful about her own past.  By dilly-dallying around the truth of her genealogy—by not clearly saying, “I honestly believed something about myself that might not actually be true”—she risks falling into precisely that trap.  If she can’t sell herself to the American public, how on Earth can she sell them higher taxes or single-payer healthcare?

Liberals can argue all they want that “Pocahontas”-gate is a BS issue that is too silly and insignificant to become a determining factor in the primaries and/or general election in 2020.  That, as a candidate, Warren will rise or fall on the strength of her ideas in contrast to President Trump’s.  That, no matter what her contested family history says her about character, she couldn’t possibly be seen as a greater evil than Trump in the morals department.

That’s what we believed about Hillary in 2016, and look how well that went.

A Grand Compromise

Last Wednesday, a 19-year-old lunatic opened fire at a Florida high school, killing 17 students and teachers and wounding several others.  This Valentine’s Day massacre was the 30th mass shooting in the United States so far this year, and the most deadly.

As our fellow citizens raced into their predicable opinion bubbles, ruminating on how to properly react to yet another instance of pointless American carnage, one sentiment struck me with particular force:  “If you oppose gun control, you can’t call yourself pro-life.”

On the one hand, an assertion like that speaks for itself.  Guns equal death; therefore, to foster life, eliminate the guns.  Surely the “pro-life” movement, whose entire platform is based on protecting the young and vulnerable, can appreciate this as well as anyone.

And yet, unfortunately, the world is more complicated than that, if only because of the apparently intractable politics that have enabled America to become the most trigger-happy advanced nation on Earth.  Even when overwhelming majorities of the public support certain basic changes to who gets to own deadly weapons in this country—and who doesn’t—the financial tyranny of the NRA over our elected officials guarantees a bloody status quo on guns for many years to come.

Into this breach, I offer a modest proposal:  Repeal the Second Amendment once and for all, and in exchange, allow the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade.

That’s right:  I’m suggesting a good old-fashioned trade-off whereby two groups claiming the mantle of “pro-life” can put their money where their mouth is, and two major issues can be addressed in one fell swoop.

Obtuse as it may sound, there is a certain symmetry in tethering gun rights to abortion rights.  After all, both are rooted in core constitutional principles—the former in the aforementioned Second Amendment; the latter in the Fourteenth.  Both involve the direct, deliberate taking of human life, sometimes for morally dubious reasons.  Both provoke deep, painful and ultimately irresolvable debates about what it means to be a free American.  Finally, both hinge on the question of federalism and what it would mean, practically-speaking, if we were to radically decentralize certain rights we have heretofore regarded as (to coin a phrase) inalienable.

Of course, we’ll never find out the exact answer to that question, since neither the Second Amendment nor Roe v. Wade will be disappearing any time in the foreseeable future—a fact that leaves me half-relieved and half-depressed (not necessarily in that order).

All the same, having witnessed lawmakers’ shameful abdication of leadership in the teeth of one heinous—and utterly preventable—mass shooting after another, I have reached the dispiriting conclusion that our national epidemic of gun violence will never abate unless and until we decide, as a people, that there shouldn’t be a right to bear arms in the first place.  While such seemingly obvious fixes as an assault weapons ban or robust background checks would undoubtedly save countless lives, neither addresses the fundamental collective psychosis that is Americans’ fetishization of hand-held killing machines, for which the Second Amendment provides both legal and cultural cover.

Were I to become king, I would gut the Second Amendment tomorrow and hurl every firearm into a volcano.  However, since I am not king and we live in a republic, I recognize that, one way or another, effecting truly transformational gun reform will come at a price—and a painful one at that.  In a country with such wildly divergent views of liberty and freedom and right and wrong, no major ideological settlement can be made cleanly or simply:  There must be a fight, and both sides must be prepared to give at least as much as they are hoping to take.

It’s hard to believe today, but this was something that America used to be able to accomplish.  Indeed, look closely enough and you’ll notice a large chunk of modern American life came about through incongruous—if not outright ludicrous—grand compromises, many of them sealed in proverbial smoke-filled rooms or around dinner tables in between bottles of Port.  Think Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton agreeing to establish a national bank in exchange for moving the capital from New York to Virginia.  Or the Compromise of 1850, which gave us the horrid Fugitive Slave Act, but also California.  (The former was eventually repealed.  The latter, not yet.)  Or the fact that the Constitutional Convention itself gifted us a bicameral legislature, with one house favoring small states and the other favoring large ones.

That was then.  Now, of course, we are represented by a Congress that can’t seem to pass laws everyone likes, let alone ones that divide America straight down the middle.  Because our body politic has become so irretrievably tribal—so blindingly partisan, so stubbornly zero-sum—the very notion of compromise has increasingly been conflated with weakness, capitulation and ideological selling-out, rather than for what it actually is:  the only known way to run a goddamned country.

Hence the rank impossibility of a comprehensive immigration deal—something that could be resolved in an hour if Democrats merely agreed to fund a wall along the Mexican border.  Hence the absence of a plan to strengthen Obamacare, which the GOP prefers to cripple out of spite than make work for its own constituents.

Our leaders would rather get nothing than give their opponents anything, and we are all living with the consequences.  It would be a terribly unfair quandary for this great country to find itself in, except for the pesky fact that every one of those representatives was democratically elected by us, the people.  This is what we wanted, folks, and the madness will continue until we choose—say, on November 6—to make it stop.

The Skater and the Veep

Poor Mike Pence.  He says something mean about gay people one time, and now he has to hear about it for the rest of his life.

Did I say “one time”?  Sorry, I meant “for his entire political career.”

How anti-gay is the vice president of the United States?  Well, anti-gay enough as Indiana governor to sign and promote that state’s “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” which licensed businesses to deny service to LGBT customers.  Anti-gay enough as a member of Congress to vote against the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and the Matthew Shepard Hates Crimes Act.  Anti-gay enough to proclaim that “homosexuality is incompatible with military service” and that federal HIV funding should be re-routed to organizations that “provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior,” whatever the hell that means.  Anti-gay enough, in any case, to compel his current boss, Donald Trump, to joke in a private meeting, “He wants to hang them all!”

To be fair, when Pence first ran for office in the year 2000, it was de rigueur for a Republican to hold aggressively negative views about homosexuality without worrying about political blowback down the line.  This was an epoch, after all, when same-sex marriage was illegal in all 50 states and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was considered a net plus for gay civil rights.

Here in 2018?  Not so much.  Now that marriage equality is the law of the land and LGBT folk have a visible presence in virtually every facet of society (including the armed forces), Pence as vice president has become increasingly reticent to make his true feelings on this matter known.  Indeed, there may be no greater illustration of the LGBT movement’s success than the general squeamishness with which many cultural conservatives broach the subject—if they bother broaching it at all.

Unfortunately for Pence—a man who, as Andy Borowitz once quipped, “really thought he’d be president by now”—the internet has an uncanny ability to record and retain one’s every last public utterance, and gay people know an unreconstructed bigot when they see one.

So it was that Pence recently found himself in an unexpected virtual skirmish with Adam Rippon, a sassy figure skater from Scranton competing at the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.  Asked last month about possibly meeting the vice president as a member of Team USA, the openly gay Rippon tartly responded, “You mean the same Mike Pence that funded gay conversion therapy?”

“If it were before my event,” Rippon continued, “I would absolutely not go out of my way to meet somebody who […] has gone out of their way to not only show they aren’t a friend of a gay person but that they think they’re sick.  I wouldn’t go out of my way to meet somebody like that.”

Rippon is hardly the first to publicly chastise Pence for his abysmal civil rights record since he rose to become one Big Mac away from the presidency.  Shortly after the 2016 election, the entire cast of Hamilton famously implored the then-VP-elect, who was sitting mere feet away, to “uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us,” implying a profound worry that he would not.  As well, in the days before the inauguration, the streets outside Pence’s temporary D.C. residence were transformed into a raucous, glittering gay block party organized by a group called WERK for Peace—an act of trolling that, if not particularly effective, at least had a nice rhythm to it.

In the teeth of all this cultural pushback—and his own odious history—Pence has opted to seemingly take the high road as of late, either by remaining silent or affecting an air of congenial magnanimity toward his would-be antagonists.  Following the Hamilton incident, for instance, Pence assured an interviewer, “I wasn’t offended by what was said,” adding, “When we arrived we heard a few boos, and we heard some cheers.  I nudged my kids and reminded them that is what freedom sounds like.”

It was in that same spirit of ecumenicalism that Pence last week tweeted to Rippon, “I want you to know we are FOR YOU.  Don’t let fake news distract you.  I am proud of you and ALL OF OUR GREAT athletes and my only hope for you and all of #TeamUSA is to bring home the gold.  Go get ’em!”  Around this time, USA Today reported—and a Pence spokesperson oddly denied—that the vice president had attempted to arrange a meeting with Rippon to try to work out their differences, and that Rippon had rebuffed the invitation, at least until after the Olympics conclude on February 25.

Here, then, is the $64,000 question:  Should Rippon take Pence up on his (apparent) offer?  For Rippon and every other social liberal in America, is it wise to scorn the man who is second-in-line to the presidency, rather than engaging with him in good faith when the opportunity presents itself?

Bearing in mind the only truly relevant fact about Pence—that he could become the 46th chief executive at a moment’s notice—might it be strategically advantageous to call the vice president’s bluff that he values all his fellow Americans equally and—by implication—is willing to have his mind changed?

Is it possible, in other words, that some kind of summit between Pence and members of the LGBT community might eventually persuade the former—as it has already persuaded 62 percent of the public and five-ninths of the Supreme Court—that the latter is a group worthy of the rights, privileges and basic dignity afforded every other American citizen?  And might such outreach result in more favorable legislation in the years to come?

I know:  Probably not.  Surely anyone who would willingly tether himself to Donald Trump is morally suspect at best and irredeemable at worst—an assumption tragically reinforced by such disgraces as Pence’s staged walkout from an NFL game last October after several black players kneeled during the national anthem.  He may not have fully drunk the Trump Kool-Aid yet, but he certainly knows how to toe the party line.

The real question, though, is how this weird mixture of stoicism and prissiness will manifest itself if and when Pence graduates from understudy to leading man.  From the Oval Office—without a vain, impulsive man-child to answer to 24 hours a day—will he resume his former life as a crass culture warrior—Trump with a Bible and a Midwestern accent, more or less—or will he transmogrify into the restrained, even-tempered statesman he has occasionally portrayed to the world since January 2017?

We may never find out the answer to that question.  (At least not until Robert Mueller has finished his work.)  All we can reasonably hope is that his overtures of goodwill are genuine and, if so, that we will be able to summon the nerve and generosity to meet him halfway.

A Nation of Hypocrites

“I watched the Super Bowl again this year.  Why?  ’Cause I’m an idiot.”

That was Lewis Black in 2001, and the sentiment has held up well in the intervening 17 years for both America and yours truly.

As a native New Englander, I haven’t fully invested myself in a professional sporting event since the 2007 World Series—the Red Sox’s second championship in four years—and haven’t given much of a damn about the Vince Lombardi Trophy since the Patriots effectively leased the thing at the beginning of the previous decade.  To coin a phrase:  I got tired of all the winning.

All the same, I have faithfully tuned in to every minute of every Super Bowl since discovering football in the late 1990s and will probably continue tuning in for the rest of my natural life.  To be sure, like every halfway-ethical American, I have been appalled by the NFL’s ongoing complicity in the epidemic of brain damage and suicide among current, former and (presumably) future players.  Intellectually, I know full well that by watching even one NFL game per year (my current average), I make myself complicit in this monstrous conspiracy and thereby become Part of the Problem.

Yet I watch the Big Game anyway, happily and without apology.  Why?  Easy:  Because I’m a hypocrite.

Yes, I suppose I could attempt to reconcile my shameful viewing habits by whipping up some half-baked rationalization—say, about how the NFL is finally taking the concussion issue seriously, or how supporting the Super Bowl is a way to support the economy and/or the troops.

But who am I kidding?  I relish the Super Bowl because I enjoy football and all manner of grand spectacle, and if the game’s continued existence shaves a few decades off the lives of its main participants, well, who ever thought running full speed into another human being was a risk-free endeavor in the first place?

 “The test of a first-rate intelligence,” F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, “is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”  While there is nothing especially intelligent about watching professional football players pummel each other for three-and-a-half hours, the glaring contradiction of endorsing an activity you know to be despicable is perfectly emblematic of Donald Trump’s America—a culture in which no double standard is too flagrant and moral shamelessness knows no bounds.

In the age of Trump, hypocrisy is the new black.

That’s not to say that Donald Trump is necessarily to blame for this sorry state of affairs.  As with most other American flaws, the 45th president is less a cause than a symptom.  Trump may well be the single greatest hypocrite on planet Earth, but he is ultimately a mere reflection of the people who voted for him—and, equally, of those who didn’t.

Case in point:  While it’s true—as a cheeky Twitter parlor game has shown—that President Trump has said and done virtually everything he previously deplored in President Obama, who amongst us has not engaged in similarly disingenuous moral recalibrating during this abrupt shift in political leadership?

How many of us ding the president for his excessive golf habit but never gave it a second thought during the previous administration?  How many of us applaud congressional Democrats for refusing to compromise with Trump, despite spending eight years criticizing Republicans for refusing to compromise with Obama?  How many of us have condemned Trump’s history of philandering and sexual assault after excusing Bill Clinton’s for 20 years running?  How many of us were driven mad by the FBI’s investigation into Bill and Hillary’s business dealings but are delighted by its investigation into Donald’s?

Such is the corrosive effect of allowing raw political partisanship to inform one’s entire worldview—a fact Americans seem never to learn for more than a few minutes at a time.

The truth is that we are all guilty of practicing what we do not preach when it becomes convenient, and this goes far beyond party politics:  It’s also the smug environmentalists who luxuriate in 60 degree temperatures in December, or the self-proclaimed feminists who continue to patronize the work of sexually malignant artists and entrepreneurs.  It’s the health freaks who scarf burgers and brownies when no one’s looking, or the bleeding heart Robin Hoods who never seem to have spare change when they pass by a homeless person on the street.

Speaking as all of the above, I would never begrudge my fellow citizens the little duplicities that get them through their day.  When it comes to hypocrisy in 2018, the point isn’t to eradicate all of one’s moral inconsistencies.  Rather, it is to admit that those inconsistencies exist and not presume to be purer than one’s fellow man and woman.

Let him who is without hypocrisy cast the first stone.  Everyone else can watch the Super Bowl.