Monday, August 26, 2013

Nostalgia for the Future

The future ain't what it used to be.

--attributed to Yogi Berra

This week everybody was talking about the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream Speech"

and just how much has or hasn't changed since then.

Nobody who was alive in 1963 (I was six) can honestly say that nothing has changed. In the white working class where I grew up, white supremacy -- the idea that whites are inherently superior and ought to be superior under the law -- was a mainstream position. Supremacists didn't sneak around and use code words and build camps out in the woods, they announced their ideas openly (saying "nigger" if they wanted to) and were included in respectable conversations.

So yes, things have changed. But changed a half-century worth? That's a more dismal question. It's like re-reading the science fiction of the era. By now we were supposed to have flying cars, Moon colonies, limitless energy, and maybe even teleporters or time machines. I like smart phones and a black president and all, but 2013 was supposed to be the effing FUTURE. Anything was supposed to be possible.

It sure doesn't feel like anything is possible.

and the school shooting that didn't happen

Antoinette Tuff showed that sometimes a bad guy with a gun can be stopped by a compassionate woman without one.

and the violence in Egypt and Syria

Speaking of dismal, the maps in some of my grade-school textbooks still showed Egypt and Syria as the United Arab Republic. In four years we'll have the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War (which kept 10-year-old me glued to the TV during a sick day). Who thought we'd be here?

This week brought new reports of the Assad regime using chemical weapons. After the Bush administration's shenanigans about Iraq's WMDs, you always have to look for independent sources on stuff like this. So here's what Nobel-prize-winning Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) says:
Three hospitals in Syria's Damascus governorate that are supported by the international medical humanitarian organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) have reported to MSF that they received approximately 3,600 patients displaying neurotoxic symptoms in less than three hours on the morning of Wednesday, August 21, 2013. Of those patients, 355 reportedly died.

... “MSF can neither scientifically confirm the cause of these symptoms nor establish who is responsible for the attack,” said Dr Janssens. “However, the reported symptoms of the patients, in addition to the epidemiological pattern of the events—characterised by the massive influx of patients in a short period of time, the origin of the patients, and the contamination of medical and first aid workers—strongly indicate mass exposure to a neurotoxic agent. This would constitute a violation of international humanitarian law, which absolutely prohibits the use of chemical and biological weapons.”

President Obama has promised a "serious response", and now we're left to wonder what consequences America can inflict without doing our interests more harm than good.

In yesterday's NYT, strategist Edward Luttwak (never a bleeding heart) claimed that victory by either the Iran-backed regime or the jihadist rebels would be bad for the United States. So:
Maintaining a stalemate should be America’s objective. And the only possible method for achieving this is to arm the rebels when it seems that Mr. Assad’s forces are ascendant and to stop supplying the rebels if they actually seem to be winning.


As for Egypt, I recommend reading "Egypt in Crisis: Ten Observations" by University of Illinois Professor Feisal G. Mohamed. The gist: Egypt's military is a vast institution with no foreign enemy to fight, so it's mainly interested in extending its own power. There's not much hope of balancing that power until the Islamists and the democrats come together in a movement that genuinely feels both Islamic and democratic. So far that's not happening.

and what to do about Russia's anti-gay laws

Dan Savage says boycott Russian vodka, but Villanova's Mark Lawrence Schrad says not to. Since I never drink vodka no one can tell whether I'm boycotting or not. So I don't find either choice very satisfying.

The bigger question is how to handle the Winter Olympics, which will start in February in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. If you are gay or just in the habit of correcting people who say incredibly ignorant things about homosexuality, it's really not safe to go to Russia now. Legally, "propaganda of homosexualism to minors" (i.e., tweeting that gays and lesbians are people just like you and me) can get a foreigner fined, deported, or jailed for up to 15 days. And then there's the illegal stuff. PolicyMic reports:
Against this backdrop, violent attacks on gays or “suspect gays” are becoming commonplace.

If gay athletes (or reporters or fans) aren't safe at the Olympics, or if they're safe only as long as they keep their mouths shut, why are we sending any people there at all?

But what's the alternative? Given the huge logistics that surround an Olympics, moving the Games somewhere else really isn't feasible. I also hate the idea of boycotting the Winter Olympics, since that affects mainly athletes, most of whom only get one shot at an Olympic medal during their prime.

The only satisfactory outcome I can imagine is a massive protest. Individual protests (as when Tommy Smith and John Carlos gave a black power salute from the medalists' podium in Mexico City in 1968) would be welcome, but I hope the entire U.S. delegation plans something together. Sneak a rainbow flag into the opening ceremonies. Attach a rainbow-flag patch to the standard uniform. Make a statement for freedom.

and that photographer in New Mexico

You may have missed this, but the religious right is going nuts (read the 3300+ comments at National Review) over a straightforward ruling the New Mexico Supreme Court made Thursday.

A New Mexico photographer refused to shoot a lesbian commitment ceremony, saying that she photographed only "traditional weddings". This is a fairly obvious violation of New Mexico's Human Rights Act, which states:
It is an unlawful discriminatory practice for: [skip over paragraphs A-E]

F. any person in any public accommodation to make a distinction, directly or indirectly, in offering or refusing to offer its services, facilities, accommodations or goods to any person because of race, religion, color, national origin, ancestry, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, spousal affiliation or physical or mental handicap

The Court's ruling isn't long (30 pages including a concurrence) because the law is so clear. Justice Bosson's concurring opinion addresses the "religious freedom" issue directly:
In a constitutional form of government, personal, religious, and moral beliefs, when acted upon to the detriment of someone else’s rights, have constitutional limits. One is free to believe, think and speak as one’s conscience, or God, dictates. But when actions, even religiously inspired, conflict with other constitutionally protected rights—in Loving [i.e., Loving v Virginia, the case that established the right to interracial marriage] the right to be free from invidious racial discrimination—then there must be some accommodation. ... [The photographer's] refusal to do business with the same-sex couple in this case, no matter how religiously inspired, was an affront to the legal rights of that couple, the right granted them under New Mexico law to engage in the commercial marketplace free from discrimination.

As I have stated on this blog many times, the principle is simple: When you open your business to the public, you have to serve the whole public. You don't get to decide who is or isn't included in "the public".

and Private Manning

Wednesday, Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison for releasing a vast cache of secret documents through WikiLeaks, including hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables. He'll be eligible for parole in ten years.

Manning's case (like that of Edward Snowden and Vietnam-era whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg) raises the fundamental conflict of a system that keeps so many secrets:
  • The system can't survive if every individual makes his or her own judgments about what secrets to keep.
  • At some point, you have to make your own judgments.

It's the nature of secrecy that a person's pledge to keep secrets is never really an informed choice. Only after you start learning secrets do you understand what your pledge means. Sometimes you sign up for a secret-keeping position because you believe you're fighting for the good guys, but after you start learning secrets you come to believe that you're fighting for the bad guys. Or you sign up to keep secrets from the enemy, and end up keeping them from your own people.

Then what?

That said, I only have a limited amount of sympathy for Manning, because he could not possibly have read all the material he released or thought carefully about the consequences of releasing it -- something I believe every responsible whistleblower ought to do.

Finally, I know that some people will consider this simplistic and naive, but the best solution to the whistleblower problem is to keep fewer secrets and do fewer morally objectionable things. The more nasty secrets our government has, the more likely it is that somebody on the inside will grow a conscience and tell the world.

Another twist in the Manning story was his announcement Thursday that he wants to be considered a woman and addressed as Chelsea. Manning wants to undergo hormone therapy, which is not part of the healthcare provided by military prisons.

A person's gotta do what a person's gotta do, but I consider this twist unfortunate, because a story that connects whistleblowers and the transgendered isn't going to help either group. National Review has already published the predictable they're-just-delusional article about the transgendered (and ThinkProgress responded). I'm sure somebody is already writing a trangendered-people-can't-be-trusted-with-secrets article and a whistleblowers-are-mentally-ill article.

and what voters are telling Congress

Nothing I've heard in the last two weeks has changed my belief that we're heading towards a major budget crisis, either when the new fiscal year starts in October or when we hit the debt ceiling in November. The gist of the conversation between the Republican leadership and their conservative base during the August recess -- which I detail in How Republican Congressmen Spent Their Summer Vacation -- has been the leaders' warning that shutting down the government to stop ObamaCare is a doomed strategy, and the base responding "So?"

The Far Right really wants to see a Charge of the Light Brigade, and they may get it.

and you also might be interested in ...

I've been working on an article summarizing what we now know about the NSA's domestic spying. The story has been a bit hard to follow, since startling revelations are usually followed by the release of details that make the revealed program look a bit less startling, and then later we find out there's a loophole in those details or another program entirely that is even worse. And so on.

Space considerations are pushing that article off to next week's Sift. In the meantime I'll leave you with TPM's summary.

The scariest story I saw this week was Bloomberg's "China Coal-Fired Economy Dying of Thirst as Mines Lack Water".
About half of China’s rivers have dried up since 1990 and those that remain are mostly contaminated. Without enough water, coal can’t be mined, new power stations can’t run and the economy can’t grow. At least 80 percent of the nation’s coal comes from regions where the United Nations says water supplies are either “stressed” or in “absolute scarcity.”

... Severe water pollution affects 75 percent of China’s rivers and lakes and 28 percent are unsuitable even for agricultural use, according to the 2012 book “China’s Environmental Challenges,” by Judith Shapiro, director of the Masters program in Natural Resources and Sustainable Development at the School of International Service at American University in Washington.

Slate's David Weigel coins the perfect phrase to describe right-wing talking heads' repeated attempts to equate some black-on-white crime with Trayvon Martin's shooting: "the search for the Bizarro Travyon". The latest attempt fails for the same reason all the others did: The Martin story was never about white-on-black crime, it was about official indifference to black victims.
[U]ntil some white teen is killed and the killer walks for 40-odd days before being charged, the search for a Bizarro Trayvon will be fruitless.

Media Matters notes the difference between Obama-birtherism and Ted-Cruz-birtherism:
Absent from Hannity's attack on "the left" was any specific example of a high-profile liberal or Democrat who has actually questioned Cruz's eligibility. That differentiates Cruz birtherism from Obama birtherism, which has adherents in the House Republican caucus, was endorsed by Hannity's Fox News colleagues, and became an absurd national spectacle in early 2011 owing to the incessant agitating of fake Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

The two strains also differ in that no one doubts Cruz's U.S. citizenship or his place of birth, while the animating principle of Obama birthers is that Obama is lying about where he was born and engaged in a decades-long conspiracy to falsify documents to that effect.

Finally, let's close with something optimistic

OK, at least the Future gave us this much: The actual home office is even cooler than Walter Cronkite's 1967 vision of it.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Word and Deed

No Sift next week. Next new articles: August 26.

It is in our deeds and not our words that our religion must be read.

-- Thomas Jefferson

This week everybody was talking about the Washington Post

The Graham family, which has owned the paper since God-knows-when and was in charge when the Post overthrew Nixon single-handedly, sold out to Amazon's founder Jeff Bezos.

Maybe Bezos has some amazing plan to bring the Post into the 21st century, or maybe newspapers are like baseball teams used to be -- toys for rich guys. But guess what? For once I agree with Ross Douthat: When the internet took off, the Post had a chance to become the national site for politics. Politico was built by ex-WaPo people, who could have built it inside WaPo, if management had more vision.

and President Obama finally addressed the NSA issue, sort of

Long story made short: If you think the NSA collecting everyone's data is basically a good idea, but you worry about rogue agents misusing it, what Obama laid out should reassure you a little. If you think the government just shouldn't be collecting this much information in the first place, he conceded nothing. "It's not enough for me, as president to have confidence in these programs. The American people need to have confidence in them as well."

and the Senate is talking about filibuster reform again

Last month a deal to approve several of President Obama's appointees to posts in his administration avoided a showdown over the filibuster. Now the issue is the three vacancies on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, the most significant of the nation's appellate courts.

The court currently has four judges appointed by Republican presidents and four appointed by Democrats, with the seniority of the Republican judges tilting the balance towards conservatives. The issue resembles what Senate Republicans were doing when they pledged to filibuster any appointee to head the Consumer Financial Protection Board: Traditionally, an appointment was filibustered only for objections to the particular nominee, but Republicans have decided that the D.C. court is over-staffed and intend to filibuster any nominee to the three empty seats. (No one suggested the court was over-staffed when Bush was president.)

Republicans have proposed a bill to cut the number of judges on the court from 11 to 8, and thus eliminate the vacancies. That's a completely legitimate use of congressional power, but they don't have the votes to pass it. So they're using the filibuster to achieve what they can't achieve through the democratic process.

Harry Reid is threatening to change the rules on the filibuster if the Republicans don't back down. They yielded last month. You'd think they wouldn't restart the confrontation if they didn't have a different strategy this time, but who knows?

and the Republicans in Congress went home to consult their base

Last week I speculated that divisions in the Republican House caucus might make it impossible to pass the appropriation bills necessary to keep the government running into FY2014, which starts October 1. This week Republican congresspeople have been home for the August recess and talking to their constituents.

Groups like FreedomWorks are trying to rally the base around far-right strategies like shutting down the government unless Democrats agree to defund Obamacare. To an extent, that's working, but other citizens are showing up at town hall meetings as well. This North Carolinian puts Rep. Patrick McHenry on the spot about voting to repeal a plan that will make it possible for him to get healthcare despite his pre-existing conditions -- and the crowd cheers him.

Other conservative congressfolks are being reminded just out wacky their base is ... and demonstrating how afraid they are to defend reality from the lunatic fringe.

In this video, Rep. Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma has to deal with a Birther who wants to talk about "Obama's identification fraud", i.e., he's not really an American. Mullin can't just say "no, ma'am" like John McCain did in 2008, because that would require backbone. So he tries to redirect the conversation onto tactics, saying "We lost that argument November 6" while making sure that his constituents know "I'm not defending this guy" and "I believe what you're saying." (Congressman Mullin's people later claimed he "misspoke" in saying that he agreed with Birtherism, as if "I believe what you're saying" were a tricky phrase he didn't know how to use properly.)

Same guy: He's sure he saw food stamp fraud, because a couple using them were in good shape and had nice work-out clothes. I'm not sure what Mullin thinks happens when you lose your job. Nobody re-possesses your closet, and it can take a while to get depressed enough to let yourself slide out of shape. But your income may fall into food-stamp territory anyway.

And still others are actively pushing the wackiness. Rep. Steve King told a family-values conference:
when you profess the things that we believe in, and you're a 501(c)3 and you're afraid of the IRS, just go ahead and defy the IRS on that.

Notice: The IRS doesn't stop anybody from professing the things they believe in, just from financing that professing with tax-free donations. So King isn't invoking a "higher law", he's invoking a higher tax code. Our text this morning is from the book of Foundations, chapter 3, beginning with the 14th verse: "And then he said unto them ..."

and we're discovering that 2014 isn't going to be a replay of 2010

Ever since November, people of all partisan loyalties have been invoking this analogy: 2012 was like 2008 (Obama wins by inspiring a large turnout of minorities and young people), so 2014 will be like 2010 (an older, whiter electorate will be fed up with liberal over-reach and vote in a bunch of Republicans).

The 2010 replay was supposed to start with a remarkable coincidence: Just as Massachusetts needed a special Senate election to replace Ted Kennedy in 2009, it needed another one to replace John Kerry in 2013. But Gabriel Gomez couldn't pull off another Scott Brown upset, so the Democrats held Kerry's seat.

And the August congressional recess was beginning of the Tea Party wave in 2009, as organized chaos broke out in the townhall meetings of Democrats all over the country. This year, though, it's the Republican townhalls that seem more chaotic. And the "liberal overreach" story of 2010 has become the "conservative obstruction" story of 2014.

That's not to say that the Republicans won't pick up seats in 2014; the second mid-term is typically difficult for a two-term administration. But if that happens, it will be via a different story than the Tea Party tidal wave of 2010.

Meanwhile, I'm continuing the conversation on race

with "Acting white isn't really a racial issue". In some settings, black students who succeed in school are accused (mainly by other black students) of "acting white". It turns out that something similar happens among working-class white students, where it doesn't have a racial name.

The Daily Show is also continuing the conversation on race, with mixed results.

I can't tell if this is fake outrage or if conservatives are really this clueless, but they're pushing the story of three black 15-year-olds beating up a 13-year-old white as proving the "hypocrisy" of the black activists who organized protests about the Trayvon Martin case. Media Matters reports:
Since Wednesday, nearly half a dozen Fox programs have dedicated airtime to questioning why civil right leaders, specifically Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, have yet to make public statements on the case. ... Sean Hannity complained "the people that commented so often on the Trayvon Martin case, I haven't heard a word out of them about this video." His guest Michelle Malkin agreed.

As if the whole point of the Martin case was just white-on-black crime. Unlike in Martin's shooting, in this case the authorities immediately took the crime seriously and the perpetrators have been arrested -- so the system is working fine and there's no need for public protests from Jackson and Sharpton or anyone else. MM elaborates:
In the month since the attack, no one has excused the actions of the attackers, no one has suggested the victim deserved a beating, no one has rooted through social media accounts in an attempt to blame the victim, and no one suggested that he had it coming because of his choice of clothing. Conservatives engaged in all of these actions during the 46 days between the killing of Trayvon Martin and the arrest of George Zimmerman.

and you also might be interested in ...

Another example proving that you can't solve a problem when you don't admit it exists: Republicans deny they have a sexism problem and say the War on Women is just a liberal slander. So why shouldn't a Republican PAC raise money with a "Slap Hillary" game? Slapping a woman to shut her up ... why should that remind anybody of anything creepy?

Who really suffers from religious discrimination in the military? Humanists.

A follow-up to my July "Keeping the Con in Conservatism" post: In the first half of 2013, Michele Bachmann's PAC spent a quarter million dollars on legal fees, and $400 supporting candidates.

You know who's worried about global warming? Insurance companies. They're also not too keen on insuring schools that arm their teachers.

It makes great rhetoric to say that climate change is a big socialist conspiracy or that more guns make us all safer, but when you have to put your money on the line, you end up having to deal with reality.

This is incredibly cool: Drinking water out of thin air.

and let's end with something fun

Monday, August 5, 2013


Jurisdictions covered by the preclearance requirement continued to submit, in large numbers, proposed changes to voting laws that the Attorney General declined to ap­prove, auguring that barriers to minority voting would quickly resurface were the preclearance remedy elimi­nated.

-- Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
dissenting opinion in Shelby County v. Holder
June 25, 2013

I didn't want to be right, but sadly I am.

-- Ruth Bader Ginsburg
interview with Associated Press
July 24, 2013

This week the conversation about race continued

CNN’s Don Lemon did a “No Talking Points” segment whose final bottom-of-the-screen admonitions was “Black people. Clean up your act!” In response, hip-hop activist Jay Smooth schooled him:

There are two types of advice that people usually give. There’s advice that you give to try and help someone with their problems, and then there’s advice that you give to help yourself feel better about not knowing how to help them with their problems. And the difference is all in the context.

The specifics of Lemon’s eat-your-vegetables guidance is unobjectionable, from “Pull up your pants” to “Just because you can have a baby, it doesn’t mean you should.” But in the context of a black man speaking to CNN’s mostly white audience at a time when white people are blaming black culture for Trayvon Martin’s death and refusing delivery on any talk of systemic racism, Jay Smooth is right: “His advice was f**king terrible.”

No doubt black culture could improve, just as white culture could improve. But white people are looking for ways to ignore or wash their hands of the systemic racism in the justice system. Don Lemon gave them one.

The comment thread on last week’s Sadly, the national conversation on race has to start here is worth a look.

Best thing I ran into this week: Peggy McIntosh’s TED talk “How Studying Privilege Systems Can Strengthen Compassion”. Terrible title, but an excellent message, not just about recognizing white privilege, but moving forward from there without getting trapped in liberal guilt.

And lots of people were talking about the increasing chaos in Congress

Another one of the basic, didn’t-used-to-be-controversial appropriations bills failed this week, and Congress took its summer recess with no plan for getting back on track. Increasingly it’s looking like the House might shut down the government in October, not because that’s part of somebody’s hardline negotiating strategy, but because the Republican majority is too fractured to pass anything. I flesh out that scenario in Chaos in Congress.

and the Ariel Castro sentence

The man who kidnapped three Cleveland women and kept them as sex slaves for years got life without parole plus a thousand years. Some radioactive waste doesn’t have to be held that long.

But we should be keeping tabs on voting rights

which I do this week in Voting Rights one month after Shelby.

and you also might be interested in …

This guy is likely to be the Republican candidate for Congress in my district. ObamaCare “is a law as destructive to personal and individual liberty as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.” Sometimes I think the whole point of Tea Party rhetoric is to screw discourse up so badly that there’s no chance of reasoning together about our common problems.

The issue isn’t even whether corporations have freedom of religion. It’s whether their God is bigger than your God.

Every time it starts to sound like the NSA’s spying might be adequately controlled, something else comes out.

If it seems like the Republican Party is more anti-environment than it used to be, that’s because it is. Four former Republican EPA chiefs just called for action on climate change. If any Republican leaders in Congress or potential Republican presidential candidates have signed on to their program, I haven’t heard about it.

Google’s support for anti-science Senator James Inhofe is hurting their image:

The WSJ and New York Sun worry that women want Janet Yellin to become Fed chair just because she’s a woman.

Jonathan Chait points out what ought to be obvious: Women are used to being told that men would like to appoint women to powerful positions, but can’t find any who are qualified. (Finding that elusive qualified female was why Mitt Romney needed his “binders full of women”.) But now that the obvious and most qualified person is a woman, men seem to be saying “Not so fast.” That’s the source of the conflict, not “liberal diversity police”.

Here‘s Allison Lundergan Grimes’ announcement of her Kentucky senate campaign. Tough, charming, young, female, with real Kentucky roots – I think I’d be scared if I were Mitch McConnell and had to defend my role in creating the logjam in Washington. Recent polls show a tight race, if Mitch can make it past the Tea Party in his primary.

Lauren Green’s interview with author Reza Aslan – where she seemed dumbfounded by the notion that a scholar who practices Islam might write a book about Jesus – has been touted as possibly “the single most cringe-worthy, embarrassing interview” in the history of Fox News. (But Salon points out that there’s a lot of competition for that honor.)

Even if Aslan were writing as a Muslim rather than as a scholar, a Muslim writing about Jesus is no more suspicious than a Christian writing about Moses. Muslims revere Jesus as a forerunner of Mohammad – much as Christians revere Moses, the central figure of Judaism.

To me, this is all about projection. Right-wing Christians are quick to assume that a Muslim writing about Jesus must be doing a hit piece, because they have done so many hit pieceson Mohammad since 9–11.

With all the hoopla, you’d think they were revealing the 12th Imam, not the 12th Doctor Who.

The problem with laws that allow journalists not to reveal their sources is that “journalist” has no obvious definition.

Columbia Journalism Review does a retrospective on media coverage of the IRS scandal-that-wasn’t.

That big peak on the left is all the it-looks-really-bad speculation early in the story, and that flat-lining to the right is the non-coverage as the facts came out and showed that nothing really bad actually happened. Maddowblog’s Steve Benen sums up:

It’s tempting to chalk this up to human nature – there’s a major event, and everyone pays attention, but as time passes, our attention wanes and we lose interest. It happens all the time, and it’s understandable.

I’d argue, however, that what happened with the IRS story is something slightly different. … Outlets didn’t move on when nothing happened; outlets instead made a conscious decision not to report when all kinds of things happened – things that made the story itself appear baseless. In other words, in this case, the media only cared about the allegations from Republicans, not the evidence that proved those allegations false.

Let’s end with something fun: bears pole-dancing

Those motion-sensitive cameras out in the woods are recording some amusing things.