Monday, July 27, 2015

Stretching the Possible

For too long our leaders have used politics as the art of the possible. And the challenge now is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible, possible.
-- Hillary Rodham, Wellesley commencement speech (1969)
This week's featured post is: "The 2016 Stump Speeches: Hillary Clinton".

This week everybody was talking about Sandra Bland

Unsurprisingly, Larry Wilmore has it right: We don't know why Bland wound up dead -- so far the evidence seems to back the original story of suicide, which raises the next question of what happened to her in jail -- but we have the dashcam video of the arrest, and it's messed up.

The video validates a lot of what the black community has believed about the recent series of high-profile black deaths at-the-hands-of or in-the-custody-of police: While Sandra isn't as meek and mild as she might be, it is the officer who consistently escalates the situation, until he is waving a taser in the face of a woman who is doing nothing more threatening than sitting in her car, smoking a cigarette, and asking why she's being detained. As Wilmore points out: It is the officer who is supposed to be the professional. He is the one who sees this situation every day, and whose behavior should be judged by a higher standard.

The question everyone ought to be asking is: How typical is this behavior among police in general, and particularly among police dealing with black people? Salon's Brittney Cooper writes:
On three occasions I have given “attitude” to police, asked questions about unfair harassment and citations, and let the officers know that I didn’t agree with how they were doing their jobs. I have never threatened an officer or refused an order. But I have vigorously exercised my right to ask questions and to challenge improper shows of force.
I have had the police threaten to billyclub me, write unfair tickets, and otherwise make public spaces less safe, rather than more safe, for me to inhabit, all out of a clear lust for power. On the wrong day, I could have been Sandra Bland.
... Black people, of every station, live everyday just one police encounter from the grave. Looking back over my encounters with police, it’s truly a wonder that I’m still in the land of the living.
Am I supposed to be grateful for that? Are we supposed to be grateful each and every time the police don’t kill us?
There is a way that white people in particular treat Black people, as though we should be grateful to them — grateful for jobs in their institutions, grateful to live in their neighborhoods, grateful that they aren’t as racist as their parents and grandparents, grateful that they pay us any attention, grateful that they acknowledge our humanity (on the rare occasions when they do), grateful that they don’t use their formidable power to take our lives.
Everyone melted at the quick forgiveness that relatives of his victims offered to Dylan Roof. But Sandra's mom reacted with the kind of anger I think most of us would feel: "Once I put this baby in the ground, I'm ready. This means war."

When violence broke out in Ferguson and Baltimore, many whites were mystified. They could get a clue from the season opener of AMC's Hell on Wheels, particularly the scene where ex-slave-owner Cullen Bohannon warns his bosses on the railroad that the abuse of the Chinese workers will lead to trouble. "Sooner or later," he says, "a beat dog's gonna bite."

and Clinton's emails

What initially looked like a smoking gun now looks gross journalistic incompetence on the part of The New York Times. This is kind of typical. For decades, opposition research has generated a continual haze of mistrust around Hillary, but when you look back at the accusations after they've been investigated, there's nothing there.

a Louisiana shooting and new details in the Chattanooga shooting

These days you can't tell the mass shootings without a scorecard. The Chattanooga shooting is confusing the media, because the shooter is a Muslim, but he fits the disturbed-young-man frame more than the ISIS-inspired-terrorist frame.

Thursday we had another theater shooting, this one in Lafayette, Louisiana. Governor Jindal said that "now is not the time" to discuss gun control, and Donald Trump assured the public that "this has nothing to do with guns".

and Medicare

Jeb Bush has his brother's knack for mis-turning a phrase, so he drew a lot of attention when he called for "phasing out" Medicare. He walked that back a little, but Paul Waldman pulls the context together on WaPo's Plum Line blog.

Bush's choice of words made headlines, but his likely position is in the Republican mainstream: Medicare's costs are going out of control, so it will eventually be bankrupt. So it needs to be replaced with a cost-controlled voucher plan like the one Paul Ryan proposed a few years ago.

Waldman makes two important points: First, that while Republicans use cost as an argument to do away with Medicare as we know it, they oppose any attempt to control costs within Medicare.
For instance, they’re adamantly opposed to comparative effectiveness research, which involves looking at competing treatments and seeing which ones actually work better.
Also, private insurance has far higher overhead costs than Medicare, so privatization would push costs up, not down. Government could save money for itself by limiting the size of the voucher, but that would just shift the higher costs to the individual.

Kevin Drum points out that under the most recent projections, it wouldn't really be that hard to maintain both Social Security and Medicare as they currently exist.
So this is what Jeb is saying: Right now the federal government spends about 20 percent of GDP. We can't afford to increase that to 23 percent of GDP over the next 30 years.
That would—what? I don't even know what the story is here. Turn us into Greece? Require us to tax millionaires so highly they all give up and go Galt? Deprive Wall Street of lots of pension income they can use to blow up the world again?
Beats me. This whole thing is ridiculous. Over the next 30 years, we need to increase spending by 1 percent of GDP per decade. That's it.
Jeb is absolutely right that liberals won't "join the conversation" about gutting Medicare. Because it's just not necessary.

and Planned Parenthood

You may have missed this if you restrict your attention to legitimate news sources, but it's been echoing all over Fox News and the rest of the conservative bubble: Not just one, but two (!) highly-edited hidden-camera videos supposedly show Planned Parenthood officials haggling to sell organs from aborted fetuses. In response, Republicans in Congress and on the campaign trail are calling for investigations and cutting off any federal funds that go to Planned Parenthood. (It's already true that none of those funds pay for abortions. Vox details where the money goes.)

In short, it's the James O'Keefe ACORN sting all over again. In those more innocent days, O'Keefe's video steamrolled Congress into defunding the community-organizing group ACORN, effectively destroying it. Only later did anybody ask "What are we really seeing here?", examine the unedited footage, and figure out that it was all a con. (O'Keefe wound up paying a $100K settlement to an ACORN employee he smeared.)

Observing the effectiveness of the tactic, Rachel Maddow wondered: "Who do you think is next on their list?" Well, now we know: Planned Parenthood.

Background: A woman who has an abortion can decide to donate the fetus to science, and the scientific groups that study those fetuses can reimburse the costs involved in preserving and delivering the fetuses to their labs. That's all legal and well understood in the medical research community.

So anti-choice activists created a front group, the Center for Medical Progress, which registered with the IRS as something they aren't: a "biomedicine charity". In that guise, they talked to Planned Parenthood about obtaining tissue from aborted fetuses. The conversations were secretly video-taped -- which also appears to be illegal -- and the CMP actor manipulated the conversation into areas that could be re-edited to look like the Planned Parenthood officials were trying to make a profit by selling body parts. (One part that got edited out was the Planned Parenthood official saying, "nobody should be 'selling' tissue. That's just not the goal here.")

Meanwhile, the reason Republicans in Congress were able to jump on the video so quickly is that some of them had seen it weeks in advance. But none of them alerted the appropriate authorities or called for an investigation until the first video was made public. In other words, their behavior was consistent with people participating in a propaganda exercise, not an investigation of any actual law-breaking. When questioned, Rep. Tim Murphy responded like this:
Asked afterward why he and others waited until this week to take action, Murphy struggled for an answer before abruptly ending the interview with CQ Roll Call, saying he should not be quoted and remarking, “This interview didn’t happen.”

and Trump vs. McCain

It's very tacky to disparage somebody's military service, particularly when it involved physical suffering and loss. But let's put this in context.
The NYT's Timothy Egan has the GOP's overall hypocrisy nailed:
Trump is a byproduct of all the toxic elements Republicans have thrown into their brew over the last decade or so — from birtherism to race-based hatred of immigrants, from nihilists who shut down government to elected officials who shout “You lie!” at their commander in chief. It was fine when all this crossing-of-the-line was directed at President Obama or other Democrats. But now that the ugliness is intramural, Trump has forced party leaders to decry something they have not only tolerated, but encouraged.
Trump is not some aberration, he represents the current moral state of the Republican Party. They have no cause for complaint.

and you also might be interested in ...

You'll never guess what's happening as the EPA's new rules to reduce the carbon emissions of power plants get closer to implementation: The disaster predicted by Republicans is nowhere on the horizon, not even in Mitch McConnell's Kentucky. The WaPo reports:
But despite dire warnings and harsh political rhetoric, many states are already on track to meet their targets, even before the EPA formally announces them, interviews and independent studies show.
And Kevin Drum draws the lesson:
Whenever a new environmental regulation gets proposed, there's one thing you can count on: the affected industry will start cranking out research showing that the cost of compliance is so astronomical that it will put them out of business. It happens every time. Then, when the new regs take effect anyway, guess what? It turns out they aren't really all that expensive after all. The country gets cleaner and the economy keeps humming along normally. Hard to believe, no?
The point of regulation is to reduce what economists call externalities: real costs that the market economy ignores because they aren't borne by either the buyer or the seller. Carbon emissions are a classic example: If burning coal in Kentucky causes a hurricane in New Jersey, the market doesn't care. So the apparent "cheapness" of that coal-fired electricity doesn't reflect reality; it's an illusion of the market economy. That's why talk about the "cost" of regulation is usually off-base. When you look at the whole picture, good regulations don't cost money, they save money.

It turns out there's a downside to the computerization of cars. In Wired, Andy Greenberg reports on an experiment "Hackers Remotely Kill a Jeep on the Highway -- With Me in It".

John Kasich and Jeb Bush represent the "moderate" Republican view of climate change: It's happening, but we shouldn't do anything about it. The rhetoric softens, but the plan remains the same.

and let's close with something I wish I'd thought of

Under the right circumstances, even a little white ball can play classical music.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Short Supply

By easing tensions with Cuba and now Iran, President Obama is “recklessly squandering America’s precious supply of enemies,” the leader of a conservative think tank said on Tuesday.

This week's featured articles are "Trump is the New Palin" and "So What About Polygamy Anyway?". The previous featured post "You Don't Have Hate Anybody to be a Bigot" has sprinted out to become the third most popular post in Sift history, with over 90K views in its first two weeks. It's been creeping up on 100K in a Zeno-like fashion.

This week everybody was talking about the deal to limit Iran's nuclear program

The criticisms of the deal are all basically of the form: "I would have dictated harsher terms to Iran." The problem is that sovereign nations don't let you dictate terms to them. If you want that kind of power, you'll have to win it in war. Unless and until you do that, you'll have to accept outcomes less appealing than the ones you would have dictated.

So the right question isn't: "Does this agreement give us everything we want?" but "Is there any better alternative?" The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg -- in a roundtable with David Frum and Peter Beinart -- summarizes:
I put great stock—sorry, David—in the argument that opponents of this deal should be forced to come up with a better alternative. I haven’t come up with anything. I do think, in the absence of a deal, we would be looking at an Iran soon at the threshold, or at a military operation to delay the moment when Iran could cross the threshold. (Delay, not defeat, because three things would happen in the event of an American military strike: Sanctions would crumble; Russia would become Iran’s partner; and the ayatollahs would have their predicate to justify a rush to the bomb. Only more bombing could stop them, and then, of course, we would be talking about a never-ending regional war.)
To me, it looks like the Obama administration has threaded a very difficult needle: The only reason we were able to get any concessions at all from Iran was that the administration -- thanks, Secretary Clinton -- assembled a global coalition around a tough set of economic sanctions. Russia and China were not excited about joining that coalition, and even our NATO allies are not as gung-ho against Iran as we are. But the sanctions held long enough to get Iran to the negotiating table, where they have agreed to hamstring their own nuclear program for 10-20 years.

Critics of the deal (like David Frum) effortlessly project those sanctions (or possibly harsher ones) indefinitely into the future, and argue that Iran should have paid a higher price to end them. But support for the sanctions could have lapsed in any number of ways, and then we'd be nowhere.

The NYT had a good explanation of which issues the negotiations hung on, and how they were resolved.

and the Greek crisis

Greek banks are open again, sort of. But it's not over.

and another shooting

This one in Chattanooga.

and (believe it or not) still the Confederate flag

The KKK rallied in front of the South Carolina Capitol Saturday to make the point that "the Confederate flag does not represent hate". At least that's what I think the guy making gorilla noises at the black protesters was trying to say. (Don't ask me; I don't speak Gorilla.)

The flag issue showed up in a different way in the House of Representatives. Democrats had attached an amendment to the bill funding the Interior Department next year, saying that the Confederate flag would not be flown over federal cemeteries. Republicans were going to try to reverse that amendment, and then John Boehner -- realizing that the Confederate flag is not the hill he wants his party to die on --  decided to pull the bill off the floor instead.

This may not sound like a big deal, but it throws a monkey wrench in Republican plans for another government shutdown come October. Now that they control both houses of Congress, they were able to pass a budget that Democrats hate. The plan was to follow with the 10-12 appropriation bills that fund the government, daring President Obama to veto them. They believe this will put them in a stronger position for a shutdown than they were in 2013, when the House and Senate couldn't agree.

But the Interior bill was one of those appropriations, and if they can't pass it, the plan starts to come  apart. In particular, it shows a weakness that will probably undo other appropriation bills: Trying to pass bills with no Democratic support only works if the Republicans are united, and so small numbers of Republican congressmen can hold out for concessions like defending the Confederate flag.

Historian Douglas Blackmon explodes all the "heritage" myths about the Confederate flag:
No, the seeming immovability of that symbol over the past half century has been about something very different from an appreciation of actual history.  The modern resurrection and defense of the flag was wholly a product of the civil rights struggles since the 1950s, and the need for a rallying point for defenders of segregation and apologists for white discrimination and white privilege.  The flag wasn’t even flying in most southern states until the 1960s, and then it was hoisted with the explicit intention of telling the rest of the country, finally emerging from its own racial dark ages, to go to hell. And wherever that flag was invoked, it was accompanied in those days by explicit defenses of the most virulent racism and ethnic hate.

but I was thinking about the revolving door

The "revolving door" refers to people who work in industries regulated by the government, leave to take a job as a regulator, then return to the industry at a high pay rate. It's a time-honored tradition in this country, and it sucks, whether it's practiced by Republicans or Democrats.

The latest high-profile example of the revolving door is former Attorney General Eric Holder, who returned to his partnership at the law firm Covington and Burling. Matt Taibbi sums up in a Rolling Stone article brilliantly titled "Eric Holder, Wall Street Double Agent, Comes in from the Cold"
Here's a man who just spent six years handing out soft-touch settlements to practically every Too Big to Fail bank in the world. Now he returns to a firm that represents many of those same companies: Morgan Stanley, Wells Fargo, Chase, Bank of America and Citigroup, to name a few.
Collectively, the decisions he made while in office saved those firms a sum that is impossible to calculate with exactitude. But even going by the massive rises in share price observed after he handed out these deals, his service was certainly worth many billions of dollars to Wall Street.
Even if you give Holder the benefit of the doubt and assume that all of his decisions as Attorney General were made in good faith, by going back to work for Wall Street he has undermined the public's confidence in the government, and shown all future prosecutors which side their bread is buttered on.

and Bernie Sanders

Here's the worrisome thing about Sanders as a presidential candidate: When he faces hostility, he gets preachy. He talks louder and talks down to the audience. As quickly as he can, he goes back to his talking points. For example, look at his presentation at the Netroots Nation conference this week.

Read Eclectablog's account:
At times he plunged on, talking over the protesters as if they weren’t there. While he is largely a supporter of civil rights and is, in general, right on the issues of the Black Lives Matter movement, he came across as a self-important know-it-all who has better things to do than to listen to uppity black kids who are disrupting HIS speech. In the end, he took off his microphone and left the stage without as much as a wave to the audience.
For the record, I disagree with the tactic of trying to shout speakers down, so I don't support the audience interruptions. I also agree with the talking points Sanders is trying to get back to.

But recall how skillful politicians like Bill Clinton or Barack Obama have handled situations like this. You're never going to satisfy the kind of people who come prepared to shout you down, but at the same time you want the people who agree with the shouters to feel like you at least heard their concern and want to respond to it.

Sanders doesn't communicate that. And that lack of skill is especially going to hurt him when he reaches out to the black and Hispanic communities, as he must if he's going to mount a serious threat to Hillary Clinton. (It will also hurt him in debates, if an opponent can taunt him into exposing his preachy side.) Blacks in particular will be watching how he interacts, not just listening to what he says. It's not going to be enough to quote proposals from his platform, no matter how good they might be. He'll need to get across that he respects the non-white communities and is listening to what they say, even when he disagrees.

When I saw him in Portsmouth in May, the room was enthusiastically on Sanders' side, so his argumentative side didn't show. But look at this clip from a townhall meeting that went off the rails last summer.

Here's an issue (Israel/Palestine) where I disagree with Sanders, and I come away feeling that he didn't hear the audience concerns at all. Their rudeness made him mad, so he talked louder and talked down. ("As some of you may have noticed, there's a group called ISIS." Really, Bernie? That had completely gotten past me. Thanks for pointing that out.)

A skillful politician understands that he's not just arguing with the people who are shouting at him; he's talking to the whole world, including people who agree with the shouters even if they deplore the rudeness. Sanders doesn't seem to get that.

So while I agree with Sanders on most issues, and I want somebody to put progressive economics on the 2016 agenda, I question whether he has the skills to run a successful presidential campaign. I'm leaning towards voting for him in the New Hampshire primary, because the early primaries are the time to be idealistic and issue-oriented. But if I were a delegate to the Democratic Convention next summer, I think I'd prefer Clinton, because she'll run a better general-election campaign. I'm not willing to go down to defeat just to maintain ideological purity. The damage that a Republican president could do in four years -- to ObamaCare, to the Iran deal, to immigration reform, to the Supreme Court -- is too great.

you also might be interested in ...

The real news: Bloom County is back.

Don't miss John Metta's essay "I, Racist".
White people and Black people are not having a discussion about race. Black people, thinking as a group, are talking about living in a racist system. White people, thinking as individuals, refuse to talk about “I, racist” and instead protect their own individual and personal goodness. In doing so, they reject the existence of racism.
But arguing about personal non-racism is missing the point.
Despite what the Charleston Massacre makes things look like, people are dying not because individuals are racist, but because individuals are helping support a racist system by wanting to protect their own non-racist self beliefs.

Is this the year when ObamaCare rates sky-rocket? A lot of people want to convince you that it is, but probably not. By and large, rates will increase, but by modest amounts.

By a 4-2 vote, the Wisconsin Supreme Court has ended an investigation into Scott Walker breaking election laws during his 2012 recall election. TPM explains why this is such a disturbing precedent.
Collectively, those four justices have thus far received just under $6 million from Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, and about $2 million from Wisconsin Club for Growth – the two groups being investigated for wrongdoing and who, along with the Walker campaign, launched the case against their prosecution.
The groups helped pick the judges. Then one of the groups was allowed to rewrite the state’s rules so those judges could sit on cases where they are a party. Then the groups persuaded those judges to shut down an investigation into whether they broke campaign finance laws by declaring those laws unconstitutional.

and let's close with a prank

What's in a single letter, anyway?

Monday, July 6, 2015

Divine Intentions

No Sift next week. The next new Weekly Sift articles will appear July 20.
Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And, but for the interference with his arrangement, there would be no cause for such marriage. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.
-- Judge Leon M. Bazile (1965)
denying the motion of Richard and Mildred Loving
to vacate their conviction for miscegenation

If Chief Justice Warren and his associates had known God’s word and had desired to do the Lord’s will, I am quite confident that the 1954 decision would never have been made. The facilities should be separate. When God has drawn the line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line.
-- Rev. Jerry Falwell
"Segregation or Integration: Which?" (1958)

Savannah Guthrie: If a state clerk refused to issue a marriage license to an interracial couple, would you agree with that too?
Ted Cruz: There's no religious backing for that.
-- The Today Show, 6-29-2015
Today's featured post "You Don't Have to Hate Anybody to be a Bigot" puts those quotes in their proper context.

It's kind of ridiculous what's been happening to this blog's traffic. The Sift had 228K views in June, compared to 13K last June and 215K in all of 2013. Runs like this always end eventually, but usually traffic recedes to a higher plateau than before. I hope some fraction of the new readers become regulars.

This week everybody was still reacting to marriage equality

I discussed this to a certain extent in the featured post. But Mike Huckabee's op-ed deserves some further attention. This is how the Huckabee administration will respond to the "religious freedom" issues raised by the same-sex marriage decision. (I use the scare quotes because the traditional meaning of religious freedom is very different than what Huckabee has in mind. He's practicing a kind of Newspeak.)

The whole piece is full of Religious-Right jargon, so I may have to decrypt it in some future Sift.

I have a certain respect for the Tennessee clerks who resigned rather than issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. If your conscience won't let you do your job, resign in protest. There's a fine tradition there. Imagine if, say, Colin Powell had resigned as Secretary of State rather than take the Bush administration's bogus case for invading Iraq to the UN. Resigning in protest makes much more sense to me than the Texas clerks who want to keep their jobs, but not do them.

That said, I hope Decatur County replaces its clerks with people who want to serve the whole public, rather than just the people they approve of.

and talking about Greece

Greece soundly defeated a referendum to accept the new bailout package offered by the European Commission, European Central Bank, and International Monetary Fund (collectively known as "the Troika"). Nobody really knows what happens now: Will the Greek banking system collapse? Will some new deal get negotiated? Will Greece end up abandoning the euro? I could speculate, but The Guardian and The Atlantic probably speculate better.

As for how the euro figures in the development of the crisis, this Vox video explains it pretty well.

Remember a few years ago, when some people still didn't realize that President Obama was shrinking the deficit he inherited, and Tea Partiers were predicting a Greece-like debt crisis for the U.S.? With a few more years of perspective, it's clear that there is a lesson for the U.S. in the Greek experience, but it's the exact opposite of the one the Tea Party wanted to teach us: Keynes was right. When you get into a deep recession, the government needs to spend more, not less.

Recessions always balloon the deficit: Tax revenues go down and safety-net payments go up. Governments can react in two ways:
  • austerity: Cut government spending wherever possible to get the deficit back under control.
  • stimulus: Increase government spending to get the economy moving again.
In their responses to the deep 2007-2008 recession, the world's advanced economies created an accidental macro-economic experiment: In spite of intense Republican opposition, America went for stimulus, while Europe chose austerity. Within Europe, the healthier economies like Germany, France, and the UK had their austerity moderated by democratic opposition. But Italy, Spain, and Portugal had credit problems, so they had to ignore popular opposition and impose the harsher austerity bond markets demanded. Greece was in a class by itself: Needing bailout money from the Troika, it had to take the extremely harsh terms the Troika imposed.

Here's what happened:

The U.S. came out of the recession fastest, followed by the European countries that practiced moderate austerity, followed by the harsh-austerity countries, with Greece trailing far behind. (The graph would show a more dramatic U.S. advantage if the base point were the start of the recession rather than 2010. Ireland and Germany are only slightly behind the U.S. at the end of the graph, but they were far above us at the beginning of the recession.)

The Troika-imposed austerity was supposed to close the Greek government's deficit, restore market confidence in Greek debt, and cause a rebound in the Greek economy (through a macro-economic mechanism Paul Krugman calls "the Confidence Fairy"). Instead, it accelerated the deflationary cycle, shrunk the economy further, and increased the deficit -- which of course required more budget cuts.
Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz comments:
The disparity between what the Troika thought would happen and what has emerged has been striking -- and not because Greece didn't do what it was supposed to, but because it did, and the models were very, very flawed.
University of Maryland economist Peter Morici agrees:
Already, the Troika, ... has imposed five years of budget cuts, higher taxes and labor market adjustments. The Greeks have endured a 25- percent contraction in GDP, 25-percent cut in private-sector wages and 25 percent unemployment.
Greece's debt-to-GDP ratio has soared to 180 percent from 130 percent of GDP, and that is an impossible burden to repay. ... Another round of austerity would only further pummel the Greek economy, and impose economic deprivation that European leaders should be ashamed to engineer.
So, has the Tea Party learned anything from this? Don't be silly; their economics is faith-based, not evidence-based. In his announcement speech, Bobby Jindal promised:
I will grow the private sector economy by shrinking the size, scope, and reach of the federal government
Jindal, in other words, wants to go the way of Greece.

and still the Confederate flag and racism

It's hard to satirize some people. In an effort to defend the idea that the Confederate flag is a symbol of Southern heritage rather than hate, the KKK is having a rally at the South Carolina capitol.


This week I noticed video-journalist AJ+ for the first time. In this piece, she wanders through South Carolina asking people about racism.

Bianca Campbell makes Georgia's open-carry law real, describing her recent trip to the bookstore.
The idea of openly carrying a gun to protect myself has never been a realistic option—only when I’m imagining myself as Storm from X-Men dismantling oppressive systems with Black feminist thunderstorms and a small silver glock just in case. In reality, if the cops saw me with a gun, a bag of Skittles, or even a loosey cigarette, they would probably shoot me and ask questions about my permit later. [my note: She's only slightly exaggerating what you can see in this video.] As a Jamaican-American whose parents had to navigate the country’s unjust immigration system, I’ve almost always known that papers and permits don’t save dark-skinned people.
And so now, Georgia’s open carry policy, the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and the whole foundation of America’s justice system works as it was always intended: allowing certain people to feel safe at the expense of others existing in fear. I was without arms and face-to-face with a man who may or may not have wanted to kill meand a man who had the freedom to make that decision without repercussions.

Here's how to show that Negro president that whites are still on top in Tennessee:

and the unending tide of Republican presidential candidates

Chris Christie announced. Donald Trump surged in the polls after describing Mexican immigrants as "rapists".

President Obama was in La Crosse  this week, and he previewed how an anti-Scott-Walker general-election campaign might go:
We've seen what happens when top-down economics meets the real world. We've got proof right here in Wisconsin. There was a statewide fair-pay law that was repealed. The right to organize and bargain collectively was attacked. Per-student education funding was cut. Your minimum wage has been stuck in place. Meanwhile, corporations and the most fortunate few have been on the receiving end of hundreds of millions of dollars in new tax cuts over the past four years...
What happens when we try middle-class economics? Just across the river, it's a pretty interesting experiment. In Minnesota, they asked the top two percent to pay a little bit more. They invested in things that help everybody succeed, like all-day kindergarten and financial aid for college students. They took action to raise their minimum wage and they passed an equal pay law. They protected workers' rights. They expanded Medicaid to cover more people.
Now, according to Republican theory, all those steps would've been bad for the economy, but Minnesota's unemployment rate is lower than Wisconsin's. Minnesota's median income is around $9,000 higher.

and Bernie Sanders

Bernie continues to draw huge crowds and rise in the polls, but 538's Harry Enten and The Hill's Eddie Zipperer do their best to throw cold water on the Sanders surge. They do make a few good points:
  • In national polls, Sanders is still way behind, and most of his recent rise mostly comes from consolidating the left, not making inroads on Clinton supporters. When you take Elizabeth Warren out of a poll -- as most have done by now -- Sanders' support increases without hurting Hillary.
  • In New Hampshire polls, the ones that have Sanders within striking distance of Clinton usually list Joe Biden as a candidate, which splits the establishment vote. If you assume Biden isn't running -- which seems likely -- Clinton's lead increases.
  • Sanders has yet to draw much black and Hispanic support. Non-white voters aren't a big factor in New Hampshire and Iowa, but they are a huge chunk of the Democratic coalition nationally.
That third point is interesting. As a group, minority voters are highly pragmatic. They have a long, sad history with guys they never heard of (especially white guys) saying stuff that sounds good. So they tend to stick with candidates they know and have come to trust.

In hindsight, we think of Obama as naturally being the favorite-son black candidate, and he did eventually get enthusiastic black support. But in the 2008 cycle blacks were slow to get on board. (Obama's earliest supporters were young whites who resented Clinton's vote to authorize the Iraq War.) He had to prove himself as a viable candidate with white voters before many blacks would take him seriously. Hispanics got behind him even later.

Sanders has a good record on racial issues, but he represents an overwhelmingly white state and (whether the perception is fair or not) is not the first person you think of when you remember important civil rights battles. The non-white vote is not lost to him, but he will have to work to win it.

That said, I have to shake my head at how much effort pundits devote to discounting Sanders. Networks give serious attention to Republican longshots like Santorum or Perry, but can't seem to mention Sanders without pointing out that he can't possibly win. As someone -- I thought Andy Borowitz, but now I can't Google up a reference -- put it:
Someone needs to tell the millions of people about to vote for Bernie Sanders that no one is going to vote for him.
And when somebody does notice the Sanders phenomenon, the narrative usually then shifts to "Is Hillary screwing up?" not "What is Sanders saying to raise such enthusiasm?"

and religion

Interesting article on ISIS and Islam:
Dalia Mogahed suggested that the relationship between Islamic texts and ISIS’s brutality is actually the reverse of what both ISIS and many of its enemies claim. It’s not, she said, the group’s interpretation of Islamic texts that drives its brutality—it’s the group’s desired brutality driving its interpretation of the texts. “We start at the violence we want to conduct, and we convince ourselves that this is the correct way to interpret the texts,” she said.
That's long been my theory about American social conservatives and Christianity. The political positions come first, and they drive the Biblical interpretation. I mean, why take literally some obscure Leviticus text condemning homosexuality but not "Sell your possessions and give to the poor"?

I have ambivalent feelings about Bill Maher, particularly when he talks religion. But when he's right, he's right. In this video, he wants to know why the Democratic Party or the "liberal media" get all the credit for heaping scorn on Christianity, when he's the only one actually doing it.

And here, Maher points to the House vote to let meat companies refuse to tell us what country their meat comes from. Bill combines the two goals of "erasing meat labels and repealing the estate tax" into a single slogan for the Republican Party: "Eat shit and die."
Here's a package of underpants. There's a label on it, tells you where it's from: Honduras. ... Here's a pound of ground beef (or whatever). Where did it come from? Fuck You is where it came from. ... Shouldn't you be able to know that? Next time you hear Republicans say they want to "protect" you from "burdensome regulations", this is what they mean. But this isn't really de-regulation; this is reverse regulation. Regulations are supposed to protect people from corporations, not corporations from people.

and let's close with a visual pun

Monday, June 29, 2015

Crumbling Shackles

The human imagination stubbornly refuses to die. And the moment any significant number of people simultaneously shake off the shackles that have been placed on that collective imagination, even our most deeply inculcated assumptions about what is and is not politically possible have been known to crumble overnight.
-- David Graeber, The Democracy Project (2013)

Both the country and the Sift had an amazing week. What was amazing for the country is outlined below. As for the Sift, it had the most page views of any week ever -- more than 150K -- led by a surge of interest in last August's post "Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party". (Being extensively quoted at FireDogLake may have had something to do with that.) That article got more than 120K views this week, rocketing past "The Distress of the Privileged" to become the most popular post in Weekly Sift history. (Between them, those two posts account for slightly over half of the traffic since the Sift moved to WordPress in 2011.)

This week everybody was talking about the Supreme Court

Thursday, the Court refused to gut ObamaCare, and Friday it legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. I broke off one piece of my Court analysis into its own article: "Two Cheers for Justice Kennedy". Gay-rights advocates loved the rhetoric in Kennedy's majority opinion, but his reasoning was mushy and convoluted. He provided justification for the criticism that he was redefining marriage according to his own values, and he didn't establish a more general gay-rights precedent that was there for the taking in some of the lower-court rulings.

Roberts and polygamy. I was a little surprised that Chief Justice Roberts went for the polygamy cheap shot.
One immediate question invited by the majority's position is whether States may retain the definition of marriage as a union of two people. Although the majority randomly inserts the adjective "two" in various places, it offers no reason at all why the two-person element of the core definition of marriage may be preserved while the man-woman element may not. Indeed, from the standpoint of history and tradition, a leap from opposite-sex marriage to same-sex marriage is much greater than one from a two-person union to plural unions, which have deep roots in some cultures around the world. If the majority is willing to take the big leap, it is hard to see how it can say no to the shorter one.
If you've lived anywhere that allows same-sex marriage, you've seen that it's barely a leap at all. All the legal structure remains exactly the same, you just allow more people to access it. Polygamy OTOH opens up all kinds of complications, like: How does family health insurance work if you can add as many people to your family as you want? They may not be insuperable difficulties, but there's some thinking to be done.

But what really amazed me was that Roberts learned nothing from Justice Scalia's dissent in Lawrence, the case that threw out laws criminalizing sodomy in 2003. Scalia made a reduction-to-absurdity argument, claiming that the Court's reasoning would lead to same-sex marriage; since that would clearly be absurd, the Lawrence ruling must be absurd also. But instead, his dissent has been quoted again and again in subsequent years, making Scalia the inadvertent prophet of marriage equality.I don't expect to see legal polygamy anytime soon. But if it does happen, Roberts will be its inadvertent prophet.

Obamacare. For the second time -- the first was three years ago -- the Supreme Court refused to kill ObamaCare, with Chief Justice Roberts writing the opinion once again. This time he had Justice Kennedy with him, adding to the four liberals (Ginsburg, Breyer, Kagan, and Sotomayor) to make a 6-3 decision. The far-right faction of the Court (Thomas, Alito, Scalia) united around a dissent written by Scalia in his trademark everyone-who-disagrees-with-me-is-an-idiot style (maybe best rendered as an emo song).

[BTW: I'll take some credit for being right about the outcome. When I examined this case last summer, I wrote: "I don’t think they’ll overturn the subsidies. The Roberts Court practices conservative activism, but prefers to do it by stealth. ... I can imagine Thomas, Alito, and Scalia going that way, but Roberts and Kennedy will be reluctant."]

Like the previous legal attack on ObamaCare, this one was basically absurd. (In the 2012 case, a new legal theory was invented precisely for the purpose of killing ObamaCare, and got four justices to endorse it. Salon's Andrew Koppelman wrote: "The constitutional limits that the bill supposedly disregarded could not have been anticipated because they did not exist while the bill was being written." In fact, it got five justices: Roberts endorsed the theory, but re-interpreted the Affordable Care Act to avoid applying it.)

This challenge was more of a legal "gotcha" attack, claiming that the way one sentence was worded, the law didn't mean what everyone involved in the legislative process thought it meant and intended it to mean. As I explained last summer, the sentence establishing the subsidies to help people pay for health insurance refers to "exchanges established by the State", while 33 states let the federal government set up a healthcare exchange for them. So the plaintiffs in King v Burwell argued that the subsidies weren't valid in those states. As Roberts observed in his opinion, this would likely have started a "death spiral" of health insurance in the federal-exchange states: Without the subsidies, the individual mandate wouldn't apply to a large number of people, who then would wait until they got sick to get insurance. Insurance companies would raise their rates to compensate, pushing even more people out of the market, and so on.

According to former Republican Senator Olympia Snowe, who was lobbied heavily by the administration but ultimately voted against the ACA, the interpretation pushed by the plaintiffs was "never part of our conversations at any point". She attributed the disputed sentence to "inadvertent language".

Back when we had white presidents, Congress handled this kind of thing without getting the courts involved. It's not at all unusual to discover after a law is passed that some part of it isn't worded quite right. But these drafting errors are just fixed by new legislation, which usually passes without noticeable opposition. (No one has come up with an example of a major pre-Obama law that got skewered because of inadvertent language.) Similarly, it's typical for a complicated piece of legislation to need minor fixes to its procedures, and Congress used to simply recognize that the fixes made the law better, rather than seeing this as a chance to refight the original battle and scuttle everything.

But in Obama Era, Republicans in Congress practice an unprecedented scorched-earth opposition, and have abandoned all previous standards of fair play. So there is no chance of getting amending legislation passed. (This is also why Obama has had to do so much through executive order. No matter how sensible a procedural change is, Congress will not pass it. Obamacare delenda est!) So the law Congress originally passed is the one the Court has to work with. Like Obama, the Court had to decide whether to take on a larger role to compensate for Congressional dysfunction.

Fortunately, Roberts and Kennedy did the sensible thing. Looking at the option of canceling the subsidies in 33 states and throwing their insurance markets into chaos, Roberts wrote: "It is implausible that Congress meant the Act to operate in this manner."

And it is. No one who voted for the law has come forward saying s/he thought it meant what the plaintiffs claimed. And when the state legislatures were deciding whether or not to create healthcare exchanges, nobody argued that they were risking their citizens' subsidies.

Roberts' interpretation has an added bonus: One way the case could have come out (the way one of the appeals courts ruled) is that the sentence in question is "ambiguous", and so the Court would defer to the IRS' interpretation. But that would allow the next president to order the IRS to interpret the law differently. By finding on his own authority that the sentence means what the Obama administration has been saying, Roberts avoided that scenario.

So maybe now we can just let the law operate as intended. It seems to be doing pretty well.

and symbols of the Confederacy


When I wrote "Please Take Down Your Confederate Flag" last week, I had no idea how suddenly the ground would shift. I expected South Carolina's Republican majority to rally around that flag, leading to further protests like flag-burnings.

Well, within hours after I expressed that expectation, not only did Governor Haley ask the legislature to remove the flag from the capitol grounds, but a groundswell began to remove Confederate symbols across the South. Alabama Governor Bentley removed Confederate flags from a memorial on his state capitol's grounds. Tennessee started talking about removing the bust of KKK Grand Wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest from its capitol. Mitch McConnell called for moving the statue of Jefferson Davis in Kentucky's capitol to a museum. Several governors said they'd eliminate the option of putting a Confederate flag emblem on state license plates. Statues people had been walking past obliviously for decades suddenly became issues in places like St. Louis and Kansas City.

On Facebook and various other forums, I've been amazed how quickly Confederate defenders jump to charges of "banning" Confederate symbols, which I don't think anybody is asking for, and which would violate the Constitution anyway. What we're asking is that governments stop endorsing the Confederacy, and that individuals and private institutions that endorse the Confederacy face criticism. It's your First Amendment right to fly any flag or put up any statue you want, but it's my First Amendment right to point out that you're promoting and celebrating racism.

The encouraging thing is how quickly the country seems to have lost patience with the mythology of the Confederacy's noble Lost Cause. President Obama summed it up in his eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney
Removing the flag from this state’s capitol would not be an act of political correctness; it would not be an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers.  It would simply be an acknowledgment that the cause for which they fought -- the cause of slavery -- was wrong -- (applause) -- the imposition of Jim Crow after the Civil War, the resistance to civil rights for all people was wrong.  (Applause.) It would be one step in an honest accounting of America’s history; a modest but meaningful balm for so many unhealed wounds.
The Confederacy fought to keep millions of African-Americans in slavery. There was no nobility to that cause. It was immoral and does not deserve to be remembered kindly or proudly. For decades, American leaders have tip-toed around those truths for fear of offending white Southerners -- that's the real political correctness in this issue. Maybe that's over.

As for what to replace those Confederate monuments with: There's a real shortage of monuments to the hundreds of thousands of slaves who escaped their masters and joined the army of the United States. No doubt every Confederate State has such a black hero. You can impugn the motives of many of the Northerners who fought, but these Southern blacks were the real freedom fighters of the Civil War.

Let's not overestimate the importance of these symbolic moves. But they seemed impossible just a few weeks ago. As David Graeber has said (see quote above), political common sense can change very suddenly. It gives me hope for issues that seem hopelessly jammed today, like serious action on climate change.

and you also might be interested in ...

I mentioned Obama's Charleston eulogy above. If you haven't seen the whole thing [transcript, video] you should.

It's really hard to imagine how Obama could have picked up all that Christian theology at his madrassa in Indonesia. But seriously, I think people who assume authentic Christianity belongs to conservatives will be stunned.

I'll be interested to see if we hear more of this change: Where presidents have been ending their speeches with "God bless America", Obama ended this one with: "May God continue to shed His grace on the United States of America." It is a more humble usage, less amenable to American exceptionalism.

Ted Cruz is calling for Texas clerks to express their "religious freedom" by not processing marriage licenses for same-sex couples. Hmmm. Would he support a clerk expressing his religious freedom by refusing to process gun-owner licenses?

Now that they're not allowed to discriminate against gays, at least two Alabama counties have stopped issuing marriage licenses entirely. Good luck with that. I'm sure this principled civil disobedience will bring gay rights advocates to their knees. Personally, I am quivering at the thought that opposite-sex Alabama couples who can't get married will blame me rather than their local officials.

I have already expressed my sympathy with the Bernie Sanders campaign. But if you are tempted to forward some of those anti-Hillary social media messages, you might want to explore where they come from. You might be carrying water for some right-wing group that is trying to turn Democrats against each other.

and let's close with a inter-species musical jam

Who knew elephants could boogie? Actually, elephant intelligence is remarkable, and ought to be studied further. For example, elephants are one of the few species that can recognize their own reflections in a mirror. Unfortunately, elephant labs tend to be rather expensive, so for the foreseeable future we'll understand white rats a whole lot better.

Here's a question somebody ought to know the answer to: If elephants have a sense of rhythm, does that mean they'll get in step with each other on long migrations?

Monday, June 22, 2015

Perhaps Mentally Ill

A black shooter is a thug, a Muslim is a terrorist, and a white attacker is perhaps mentally ill.
-- an unidentified interviewer for RT network's "In the Now"

Now is the time for mourning and for healing. But let's be clear. At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn't happen in other places with this kind of frequency.
This week's featured post is "Please Take Down Your Confederate Flag". But last August's "Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party" is also topical again; it had picked up more than 20K new hits between the Charleston shooting and 9:30 this morning, making it the second Weekly Sift post to go over a quarter million page views.

This week everybody was talking about the terrorist attack in South Carolina

But not everybody was calling it that. Since the shooter was a white supremacist and his victims were not whites, the incident was usually referred to as a tragedy, i.e., one of those bad things that happens now and then that nobody can do anything about. Rick Perry even called it an "accident". (I discussed this phenomenon after the 2012 Sikh Temple shooting in "White Right-Wing Christian Terrorist".)

An interviewer at RT put it like this:
A black shooter is a thug, a Muslim is a terrorist and a white attacker is perhaps mentally ill.
If the subject weren't so serious, it would have been comical to watch Republicans and their right-wing media allies struggle against the notion -- obvious from the beginning to anybody without ideological blinders -- that this was a racial attack. Multiple talking heads on Fox News tried to spin the shooting as an attack on Christians, because the imaginary persecution of American Christians fits within the boundaries the Fox fantasy world, while the very real persecution of blacks doesn't. (Larry Wilmore collected the clips and added appropriately amazed commentary. Media Matters gives the chronology, showing that witness accounts of the shooter's racist statements were already public before Fox' Christian-persecution spin.)

Lindsey Graham and Rick Santorum played along with that farce. (Jeb Bush merely professed ignorance: "I don't know what was on the mind or the heart of the man who committed these atrocious crimes." -- as if he shooter hadn't announced what was on his mind.) Fox trotted out a black minister, Bishop E. W. Jackson, to make the Christian-persecution case, not bothering to mention that he is also a Republican politician. Wilmore was not impressed: "Black don't distract," he said. He also ridiculed Jackson's statement that the shooter "didn't choose a bar, he didn't choose a basketball court, he chose a church", suggesting that Jackson could also have listed "a chitlin farm" or "a watermelon stand" as stereotypic places where blacks congregate.

In a particularly Orwellian editorial, The Wall Street Journal saw the shooting as a chance to congratulate America on its racial progress: Unlike after the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, authorities in Charleston are not conspiring to help the perpetrator get away.
The universal condemnation of the murders at the Emanuel AME Church and Dylann Roof’s quick capture by the combined efforts of local, state and federal police is a world away from what President Obama recalled as “a dark part of our history.” Today the system and philosophy of institutionalized racism identified by Dr. King no longer exists.
In a different context, Wilmore recently introduced The Nightly Show's "Extremely Low Bar Award". This looks like another strong candidate: Our law enforcement system is no longer conspiring with white-supremacist terrorists, so we must have this racism thing just about knocked. It makes me proud to be an American.

The New Republic's Jeet Heer also looked back to the Birmingham bombing, but pointed out that the conservative media's response then was very similar to the denial of white racism we're seeing today. He quotes a National Review editorial from 1963:
The fiend who set off the bomb does not have the sympathy of the white population in the South; in fact, he set back the cause of the white people there so dramatically as to raise the question whether in fact the explosion was the act of a provocateur—of a Communist, or of a crazed Negro.
And the significance of this particular church to a white supremacist couldn't be clearer: One of the oldest black churches in America, Emanuel AME was founded by (among others) Denmark Vesey, who was hanged for leading a failed slave revolt in 1822.

Discussion of the Confederate flag that still flies in front of the South Carolina state capitol, and can't even be lowered to half-mast without an act of the legislature, is a topic I pushed into its own article. My main point there is that a symbol like the Confederate flag is so powerful that your personal intentions in displaying it don't matter: It means what it means. Maybe you associate it with country music and good barbeque and The Dukes of Hazzard, but that just doesn't matter. It is the flag of slavery and Jim Crow and the KKK and lynchings and Dylann Roof. You can't make that stuff go away.

Finally, there's the frequent statement -- based on more-or-less nothing -- that Dylann Roof was a "loner" or a "lone wolf". We now have what appears to be his manifesto, and it's filled with standard white-supremacist rhetoric and references. We still don't know whether he met other white supremacists face-to-face or had any help planning his attack. But he clearly was plugged in to that network, through the internet at the very least.

Make the parallel to Muslim terrorists and ISIS. If a Muslim shooter had been browsing ISIS web sites and wrote a manifesto full of ISIS rhetoric, would we see him as a loner, or think of him as part of ISIS? Those same Republican politicians -- Lindsey Graham, for example -- who cast Roof as a disturbed loner would be demanding that a similar Muslim be grilled hard (and maybe even tortured) to identify his contacts in the movement.

and the Pope's global-warming encyclical

Charleston dominated my attention this week, so I still haven't finished reading Laudato Si or given its message the attention it deserves. Next week.

I do want to make two strategic observations that explain why I think this is a big deal:
  • Climate-change denial is geared towards confusing people about science; it's not well set up to oppose a religious movement that defends God's creation. Scientists are well-known evolution-pushing liberals who are easy to cast as part of a global socialist conspiracy. A diverse consortium of religious leaders is harder to tar with that charge, and fossil-fuel conservatives look ridiculous when they try.
  • What we've seen in regard to both women-in-the-clergy and gay rights is that no Christian denomination wants to be the most liberal group to defend a benighted conservative position. When the Congregationalists turn, that puts pressure on the Episcopalians, and when they turn the onus shifts to the Methodists, and then the Presbyterians, and so on. The Catholic Church has been the only denomination big enough to resist that kind of pressure, and now that it has taken a strong position calling for action against climate change, there's no telling where the dominoes stop falling. American Christianity might wind up speaking with a fairly united voice on this issue.

BTW: NOAA's May statistics still have 2015 on its way towards being the hottest year on record, replacing last year.

and still more presidential candidates


Jeb Bush's announcement was an anti-climax, because he's so clearly been running for months now. And I'm left with the question: What issues will he run on? His positions on immigration and education are unpopular with the Republican base. I have heard no specific suggestions for how he would fight ISIS or terrorism in general differently than President Obama. I really don't think his blaming Obama for "the biggest debt ever" will stick, given that Obama has drastically reduced the deficit he inherited from Jeb's brother.

I'll get to his speech eventually in my 2016 series, probably after I do Hillary's, but my immediate reaction is surprise at how little is in there. There are hints of a tax plan, hints of increased defense spending, but the only number in the speech is his goal of 4% annual GDP growth. Increased growth would be good -- I wonder why nobody ever thought of that before.

Jeb didn't stay in the news very long, though, because the next day Donald Trump announced his candidacy with a rambling speech that sounded like the kind of thing you'd hear from the guy on the next stool at your favorite bar. Digby warns us that we have to take the Donald seriously. But the comedians had a different reaction: Jon Stewart looked to Heaven and said "Thank you." Larry Wilmore unwrapped Trump's candidacy as a gift from the Comedy Gods.

Here's what's going to be amazing once the debates start in August: All the minor candidates are going to be looking to make headlines by saying something outrageous, but how are they going to compete with Trump? What will they have to say?

In the 2012 cycle, the crowd reactions were bad publicity for the GOP as a whole: They booed a soldier calling in from Iraq because he was gay. They cheered the idea of letting somebody without health insurance die. What is the audience going to do when Trump says that Mexican immigrants are rapists? Or voices one of his other incredible opinions? The general public may get a chance to see just how far around the bend the Republican base really is, and how every single one of the candidates panders to that insanity.

I loved Jamelle Bouie's take on Hillary Clinton: She was a nerd before it was cool, and her public-image ambiguity stems from trying not to look like the geeky policy wonk she really is. He thinks she should "go full nerd" and be herself.

and Rachel Dolezal

I am still trying to fathom the depth of the public reaction to Rachel Dolezal, the woman who was born to white parents and raised as a white girl, but at some point in adulthood began presenting herself as black, and eventually became president of the Seattle chapter of the NAACP.

In part, the story attracts attention because of its man-bites-dog character. Light-skinned blacks have been passing as white in America since colonial times, as I discussed last year in a review of Daniel Sharfstein's The Invisible Line. (One member of a black-turned-white family Sharfstein researched was a Confederate officer during the Civil War and a Louisiana senator afterward.) But passing in the other direction is not something you hear about very often.

But even that doesn't explain the urgency with which writers of all racial and political identities have been addressing this topic, as if Dolezal's situation demanded our immediate action. I suppose if I were connected to the Seattle NAACP, I'd have a responsibility to form an opinion about Dolezal.

And I can imagine that I might feel conned if I belonged to the constituency of the Seattle NAACP, and counted on it to represent my interests. I might believe that I had at least deserved the chance to know the details of Dolezal's claim to a black identity before she was hired, so that I could decide for myself how confident I felt in her ability to represent me.

But that doesn't make it a national issue either.

A lot of the ink spilled about Dolezal concerned what her kind of "transracialism" says about transgenderism, which was still on everybody's mind after the Caitlyn Jenner story broke a few weeks ago. But the parallel between Dolezal and Jenner escapes me. Jenner broke the story herself, and all she asks of us is that we let her live her life (and maybe watch her TV show). What if Dolezal had done likewise? She might have said, "Hey, everybody, for a long time now I've been thinking of myself as black. So I'm going to darken my skin and frizz my hair and try to live in the black community as a black." And then everybody could do what they wish with that information.

I don't see anything to object to in that scenario.

The transgendered community is already discussing how they feel about Jenner's celebrity, which will likely offer her a de facto spokesperson role, if she wants one. But to make the case similar to Dolezal, Jenner would have to be angling for a role not just as spokesperson for the transgendered, but for women. I see no sign of that at all.

If you do feel compelled to form an opinion about Dolezal, here's an interesting thought experiment: What if one of her parents had crossed the racial line in the other direction? Then Dolezal would be reclaiming some forgotten black grandparent, but her life might have been almost exactly the same. She might have been raised as a white girl by parents everyone believed to be white, and have had all the same experiences, giving her no additional insight into the black experience in America. Intuitively, it seems like the grandparent would make her claim to blackness more authentic. But why? Is it really just genes?

In the section above, I was using a couple of abstract principles that someday I'll have to flesh out on my philosophical/religious blog, where I post far less frequently. First, judgment is not an end in itself. Judgment is a tool for guiding action. If you can't foresee playing a role in some relevant decision-making process, then you don't really need to have an opinion, and there's no inherent virtue in forming one. Sometimes thinking a case through is a worthwhile exercise that sharpens your mind. But it can also be a way to avoid other topics that really do demand your judgment. (On my Facebook news feed, I found it instructive how fast discussion of Dolezal dried up as soon as the Charleston shooting gave us a serious racial issue to think about.)

Second, the standards of judgment should serve the purposes of judgment. Just as judgment is not an end in itself, high standards are not ends in themselves either. So the answer to the question: "Do I believe Dolezal is really black?" depends on why I need to know. If it's up to me to decide whether she gets some kind of affirmative action benefit, then I'd set a fairly high standard, and would probably say no. But if I'm her neighbor, and the question is whether I'm going to accept her for what she aspires to be, then I'd apply a lower standard and probably say yes.

And finally, if you go full Zen on the topic, all our identities are false. We talk about "true" and "false" identities, as if we were dealing with a binary category. But authenticity is a continuum like anything else. (That was the philosophical theme of my Jenner article.) Anybody's identity is only authentic up to a point.

All of which reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience:
The first thing the intellect does with an object is to class it along with something else. But any object that is infinitely important to us and awakens our devotion feels to us also as if it must be sui generis and unique. Probably a crab would be filled with a sense of personal outrage if it could hear us class it without ado or apology as a crustacean, and thus dispose of it. "I am no such thing," it would say; "I am MYSELF, MYSELF alone."
I can't help wondering what James' crab voice sounded like when he gave the original lecture in Edinburgh in 1901.

and let's close with something cute

It's been a tough week. We need this.