Tuesday, January 31, 2012

An autobiographical argument for the rule of law

What if the United States had treated the challenge posed by terrorism that aimed to kill its citizens indiscriminately as a criminal problem rather than an occasion for fear-mongering, chest thumping, war-making, and expansion of executive power? FBI agent Ali H. Soufan, along with Daniel Freedman, has published a professional counter-terrorism specialist's account of how bureaucrats, jealous spooks, and ultimately our highest authorities chose courses that continue to subvert our best interests and ideals in The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War against al-Qaeda.

Soufan is an Arab American born in Lebanon who applied to become an FBI agent on a bet with college friends. None of them imagined the Bureau would want a foreign born native Arabic speaker. But in the mid-1990s, it did and the new special agent was assigned to the New York office. Like many immigrants, he especially valued our historic freedoms:

While the Constitution and the Pledge of Allegiance may perhaps seem largely symbolic to many Americans, to those of us who have have lived with alternatives, they are filled with meaning. I know that the protections offered therein are very necessary.

He also was fascinated by exotic figures he had learned about from reading Arabic language newspapers; while still in college he made a sort of hobby following the activities of a Saudi millionaire named Osama bin Laden. While still an FBI trainee he wrote a memo about bin Laden's declaration of war against the United States and was transferred into the New York taskforce that had worked on the 1993 bombing in the World Trade Center underground garage. When al-Qaeda bombed U.S. embassies in Nigeria and Tanzania in 1998, he was among the New York team that digested the work of on-the-ground investigators. Later he was sent to Yemen to investigate the 2000 bombing of the U.S. destroyer Cole. That investigation led to the FBI becoming aware that a clandestine meeting had taken place in Malaysia involving only partially known persons and possible plots. Despite repeated requests, they were unable to get the CIA to share what they knew of this; in hindsight Souffan claims that if bureaucratic rivalries and suspicions had been overcome, the 9/11 plot probably would have been foiled. When he first learned, while still in Yemen, of the 9/11 attacks, his reaction was to sit in the lavatory and vomit, so sure was he that if information had been shared, all those people would have lived.

After 9/ll, as one of the U.S. government's few Arabic speakers, an experienced interrogator, and an expert on al-Qaeda, Souffan was a busy guy indeed, debriefing the numerous men seized in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the hunt for terrorist plotters. Because he understood the intricacies of their organization and could imagine the mindset of those prisoners who turned out to be members of the group (many were just innocents who had been in the wrong place at the wrong time), Souffan reports he repeatedly won admissions and genuine information. He always sought practical intelligence that would enable the U.S. government to foil any plans and also built legally viable cases again conspirators that could be used to convict them in court.

This kind of legal case-building rapidly came to be treated as foot-dragging by the higher ups in the Bush administration who became enamored of crack-pot ideas spun by contract psychologists of breaking the captives through coercion. Holding suspects in freezing cold rooms, led to locking them in stress positions while bombarding them with noise, led to water-boarding -- and the prisoners stopped providing any meaningful information, no matter how much they jabbered. Souffan maintains that al-Qaeda prepared its adherents to expect truly grotesque tortures from Middle Eastern dictatorships: rape by dogs for example. No wonder the modulated torments so favored by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld only led them to lie and/or clam up. And the torture "techniques" rapidly spread from Guantanamo to Iraq and Abu Ghraib, helping to ensure the failure of our rulers' Mesopotamian adventure. Souffan and the bureau eventually walked out, refusing to adopt the new torture practices, and thus depriving the anti-terrorism effort of the people who had the most knowledge of and experience with actual threats. The book makes it abundantly clear that some in the CIA and the Bush Administration hated Souffan for blowing the whistle on intelligence failures -- and for having been better at protecting U.S. citizens than they were.

The story of all this drama as Souffan tells it is actually pretty dry. It's easy to get overwhelmed by the volume of unfamiliar names and their complex connections. He's building a case here in this book and that object determines its structure, even when he shares memories of the anger and frustration he felt over his own government's many missteps and misdeeds.

As the book was ready to go to press, already cleared of classified and confidential information by the FBI, the CIA weighed in with demands for Souffan to excise additional material. Rather than hold up publication, his publisher went ahead and released the book with the contested bits printed but blacked out. Souffan claims that the material the CIA forbade is either already in the public domain, unclassified, or improperly classified to prevent Agency embarrassment. Some of the redactions are transparently absurd. For example, they made him black out one sentence of a nationally televised exchange with Senator Lindsay Graham. If complaints through FBI channels don't relieve him of these CIA requirements, he knows his preferred remedy.

…if they fail in their duty, I plan to compel disclosure of the redacted information through legal means.

Once again Souffan is painstakingly building his case, placing his faith in the law.

This book is not light or even gripping reading. Rather it is a very dry, detailed, and workmanlike narrative of one man's experience in the United States' shameful lost decade post 9/11. That's probably what we should hope for from a law enforcement officer, not bombast, speculation, or posturing.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Upside down goose on the loose?

No, this photo is not a clever use of Photoshop. Geese and other birds really do sometimes fly upside down in order to brake when landing.

Here's a slow motion video of such a flight:

During flight, geese can twist their necks to flip their bodies upside down, while keeping their heads upright.

Now amateur videographers Hans de Koning and Lodewijk van Eekhout have captured the first slow-mo video of the manoeuvre, winning a prize in a competition organised by the Flight Artists group at Wageningen University. Known as whiffling, the move is often performed before landing as a means of braking. Upside down wings generate more drag causing a goose to slow down quickly, just like what happens when a plane is inverted during flight. 

New Scientist

Ain't reality grand?
I'm pooped today. More thoughtful blogging will resume tomorrow, I hope.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Is this any way to run an empire?

It's gotten harder and harder for even its advocates to explain a purpose or rationale for the continuing U.S. war in Afghanistan. As with the festering sore of our gulag-that-can't-be-closed at Guantanamo, it seems one reason U.S. troops are still mired over there is that we have a lot of prisoners we can't figure out what to do with.

Under George W. Bush, the prison at Bagram was a central node in the network of "black sites" where U.S. intelligence personnel held suspected terrorists. Obama came into office calling for closure of such secret prisons where both the local Afghan authorities and the International Committee of the Red Cross were excluded -- and where abuse, murder and torture have been documented. NATO allies with forces in Afghanistan also called for the closing of Bagram. And Afghans demanded that they should take over the prisoners. But the Afghan prison system is notoriously corrupt and also itself a site of torture. So U.S. hold on the Bagram prison and the prisoners continues.

The Obama administration did proscribe a procedure -- it can hardly be called a hearing or a court-- for determining which prisoners should remain locked away.

Candace Rondeaux of the International Crisis Group described actual workings of this legal mirage recently.

As part of its new detainee policy, the Obama administration launched a process in which a review board of three military officers hears evidence to determine whether a Bagram detainee is a supporter or member of the Taliban, al Qaeda, or another insurgent group. Detainees are allowed to attend unclassified portions of their hearings. They are also assigned personal representatives, U.S. military officials who are responsible for assisting detainees with presenting their cases.

When I visited Bagram last November, Colonel Peter Masciola, head of the legal operations directorate there, described this to me as a “meaningful opportunity to counter claims in an administrative procedure.” The hearings, however, fall far short of international legal standards. Detainees are still barred from reviewing classified evidence or from listening to classified testimony in their cases, which largely consists of hearsay evidence of the detainee’s alleged terrorist connections. Personal representatives assigned to detainees are allowed to see the classified evidence but not share it, and since these representatives are not lawyers, there is no way for detainees to challenge their inability to review classified evidence. This is a clear violation of international law on fair trial standards. But by providing a hearing that mimics a regular court procedure, the White House has been able to airbrush these concerns out of the picture.

In the classification-obsessed culture of the U.S. military, the simplest details about a detainee’s capture are often classified. Since the U.S. military also limits the information it shares with the Afghan government, Afghan judges and prosecutors are also barred from reviewing all the evidence in cases that are transferred to them under the Bagram transition agreement.

[The military] has generally solved this problem by either delaying the transfer of detainee cases or, sometimes, by handing over virtually empty case files to Afghan authorities. As a result, Afghan judges have thrown out dozens of cases because of a lack of evidence.

That's not satisfactory to the U.S. Therefore our military won't hand over many of the prisoners to the Afghans. Therefore Bagram must remain a U.S.-run prison for the foreseeable future. Therefore the war must go on. And therefore proud Afghans fume and individual prisoners are denied any resolution of their status.

Is this any way to run an empire?

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Spring must be on its way

san bruno heath.jpg
The heath is blooming on San Bruno Mountain.

Saturday scenes and scenery: from the SAFE California campaign

I'm off to Los Angeles today for my work, organizing to put an initiative to end death sentences in California on the November 2012 ballot.

These pictures show some of the people I have the privilege to work with. Many are from the Dr. Martin Luther King day holiday when volunteers attended over 30 events statewide and collected thousands of signatures to qualify our measure.

Californians: we need help, lots of it. Visit SAFE California today and sign up.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Seen in the 'hood ... a laughing matter

Somehow I don't think this would have been parked happily on a foggy Mission District street in the early years of the last decade. But apparently some of us have regained our sense of humor post 9/11.

At the Bomb Truck website, I found this:

Organic Vegan Handmade Pops. We are like the Willy Wonkas of gourmet pops. Inspired by mom and pop shops,hole in the walls, neighborhood ice cream trucks, and childhood memories.

Our comparative equanimity is not universal.

A FedEx driver was delivering a package to an Army base in Utah when someone asked what it was. The driver replied it was probably a bomb. Military police evacuated more than 2,200 people, and prosecutors have charged the driver with making a threat of terrorism.


And a federal court still thinks is within the law for security authorities to order a citizen locked up as an "enemy combatant," drive the guy crazy, and only then put him into the federal court system on vague charges. That would be Jose Padilla. Padilla's lawyer, Ben Wizner, said of the decision

the appeals court “handed the government a blank check to commit any abuse in the name of national security, even the brutal torture of a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil.

“This immunity is not only anathema to a democracy governed by laws, but contrary to history’s lesson that in times of fear our values are a strength, not a hindrance,” said Wizner, litigation director for the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project.

Appropriately, there's not a lot of humor in that conclusion.

Not their grandmothers' electorate

Apparently tonight the participants in the latest Republican clown show debate bumbled and stumbled around over which presidential hopeful would be more eager to deport undocumented grandmothers. No kidding.

It's not surprising that the essential futility of these guys comes out in Florida over immigration issues. The Republican party has had a good long run since Richard Nixon at being the bastion of frustrated white resentment, but their country is not the country we live in, in many places today and everywhere going forward. The country is changing.

Florida is one of the places where demographic shift is happening fast. According to the 2010 census, Florida's is about 58 percent white, 22 percent Hispanic/Latino of any race, and 16 percent Black. Unlike any other group of Latinos in the United States, Florida's Cuban immigrants tend to be Republicans, but these days they are more and more balanced out by Democratic-leaning Puerto Ricans, Mexican Americans and others from countries to the south.

Contemporary Republicans have nothing much to say to Latinos, aside from anti-Castro Cubans. Their white base won't let them deal sensibly with the fact of 11 million people who live here without papers. So we get the kind of nonsense Mitt and Newt traded tonight.

In the Boston Review, Stephen Ansolabehere pointed out some less obvious ways the electorate is changing that bode ill for Republicans:

Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Mississippi, and other states have recently enacted measures calling for stricter enforcement of existing immigration laws. Some of these measures even aim to deny birthright citizenship to U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants. These initiatives, overwhelmingly supported by Republicans, drive Hispanics to vote increasingly for the Democratic Party.

… Most of the demographic change in the American electorate today comes not from waves of new immigration but from the echoes of past immigration: the children of immigrants and their children. Nationwide roughly 21 percent of white citizens are under eighteen years old, compared to 44 percent of Hispanic citizens. Over the coming decade, aging alone will increase the number of Hispanics who are eligible to vote by 25 percent.

Hispanic voters will continue to emerge in Texas, California, and other states where Hispanics have long been gaining in numbers. But the tide of Hispanic citizens is rising in some surprising places as well. The states with the highest percentage of Hispanic citizens under eighteen years old are North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, and South Carolina.

And closing the borders will not appreciably affect the increasing numbers of Hispanics and Hispanic voters in the United States for a simple reason: the Hispanic population is already sizable and has a much higher birth rate than the white population. The policies that the parties pursue now on immigration, education, and other matters that particularly affect Hispanics will define electoral politics for generations to come.

Today Markos Moulitas of Daily Kos, himself of Greek-Salvadoran ancestry and so quintessentially a modern citizen of the U.S., mocked the idea that Republicans were going to pick up Latino votes.

Latinos may be disappointed in the lack of progress on immigration reform the last few years. But they saw who voted against the DREAM Act in Congress, and they see who is still campaigning against the DREAM Act. They see who is demagoguing Mexico and kowtowing to the notorious Latino-hating Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and they see who is passing anti-immigrant laws in places like Arizona and Alabama. They know that Romney wants to make things so miserable for undocumented immigrants that they "self-deport."

There may be disappointment in Obama and the Democratic Party among Latinos, but … there is zero opening for Republicans with this key, growing, demographic.

Note to discouraged white progressives: people of color have a lot of experience with making disheartening lesser evil choices. For most of U.S. history, that's all that was on offer -- none of the available politicians really represented them. Grown ups make the best of bad choices -- and then know that political participation doesn't end when the election is over. Why sometimes, people have to go on to Occupy ...

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Gay marriage is coming to Washington State

It looks as if Washington State is going to win marriage equality by legislative enactment. They've counted the votes and the governor says she'll sign the bill. Of course there are naysayers:

"It's not done. In fact, it's just started," said Joseph Backholm, executive director of the Family Policy Institute of Washington, vowing that legalization of same-sex marriage would end in a referendum challenge.

LGBT people haven't done so well at winning these kind of state ballot measures; in both Maine and California, marriage victories were overturned by voters. But I wouldn't be surprised if Washington voters turn back marriage opponents in a November vote; among other strengths, they can count major state businesses like Starbucks and Microsoft in the pro-marriage equality camp. And the northwest has an honorable history of winning electoral fights over gay rights

A Washington vote to uphold a gay marriage law would repeat one of the great early successes of the LGBT rights movement. Thanks to the movie Milk, there's some historical memory of the 1978 defeat of a California initiative that would have fired out lesbian and gay teachers and silenced their supporters. But the same year, Seattle voters rejected an attempt to repeal their local ordinance that protected lesbians and gays against employment and housing discrimination. History Link tells the story.

On November 7, 1978, Seattle voters rejected Initiative 13 decisively, by nearly two to one. Initiative 13 would have repealed city ordinances protecting employment and housing rights for gays and lesbians. Also, it would have dissolved the City of Seattle's Office of Women's Rights.

The initiative was sponsored by Save Our Moral Ethics (SOME) and by Seattle Police Officers Dennis Falk and David Estes. Opposition was led by the Committee to Retain Fair Employment (CRFE) chaired by Charles Brydon and directed by Jill Shropp. Other groups opposed the measure as well.
Seattle was one of the first large American cities to enact specific civil rights protections prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Employment rights of sexual minorities were affirmed in 1973, and the City broadened its housing laws in 1975. [The reforms] ... generated little controversy at the time of their adoption.

…CRFE was organized as a broad coalition of civil rights groups, religious moderates, and political liberals. Initiative 13 was also vocally opposed by more radical gay and lesbian groups, but CRFE raised the largest war chest and was able to broadcast radio and television messages. Its campaign focused on the theme "Your Privacy is at Stake," arguing that Initiative 13 exposed all citizens, straight and otherwise, to intrusive background checks by employers and landlords.

Early, unofficial vote counts showed Initiative 13 defeated, with a vote of 59,797 (37 percent) in favor to 101,809 (63 percent) opposed. Also on November 8, 1978, California voters rejected the "Briggs Initiative," which sought to curtail the civil rights of gays and lesbians in that state. …

Good friends of mine lived through the campaign adhering to "more radical" opposing positions; in fact two poured donated blood on the office of proponents and served local jail time for this act of uncivil though nonviolent disobedience.

As a political campaigner, I'm interested in lessons collected in oral histories of the victory. The Seattle Committee Against Thirteen and Women against Thirteen (SCAT/WAT) was a "more radical" group that wanted to talk about a lot more than generic privacy rights. Jan Denali explained

What I was mostly involved with was the canvassing project, which was a joint project of SCAT/WAT. ... That was the door-to-door stuff. We were big on education. ... We prioritized the city by precinct, you know, going for the swing precincts: who do you have a prayer of convincing? And running amazing orientation sessions to go out and canvass the city on the issue and being very educational about it. So that was what I did. ...

To be addressing the issue straightforward ... to be able to stand there in front of somebody and have a conversation ... and we had all this stuff about de-briefing and teamwork because you’d get icky stuff too and how to deflect that, and it was all just so completely empowering.

In the struggle for full gay rights, there simply is no doubt that repeated exposure to the humanity of ordinary gay people -- those face to face meetings that may begin in ignorance and prejudice but lead to mutual tolerance -- are what has turned the tide in our favor. We are everywhere and the end of the world (or of the family or heterosexual marriage or whatever) hasn't come. That approach worked on a citywide basis (alongside a more conventional electoral effort) as far back as 1978. It obviously works better in smaller settings and when the heat behind the issue hasn't been driven up too high by demagoguery. It probably takes a mix of campaign styles to win, but I have little doubt that victories that push back bigotry that are won with a strong component of public education are durable, in fact likely to be permanent. That 1978 campaign, super-heated and fraught as it was, laid the groundwork for marriage equality in Washington State this year.
"No on 13" from Out History.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Warming Wednesdays: How about that State of the Union speech?

I was working last night, so not paying attention in real time to the Prez' big annual visit to Congress. Later I scanned the text for what he had to say about global warming. As I try to remind myself every Wednesday amid all the political noise and flapdoodle, none of this is going to matter much if we allow our economic system to make the planet unsurvivable.

A search on "climate" reveals that Obama did mention it.

The differences in this chamber may be too deep right now to pass a comprehensive plan to fight climate change. 

I guess saying that gridlock rules is better than saying nothing. But I think I've got a right to be disappointed in the people who rule us and in the ordinary people (too many of us) who put them in office.

Every year around the time of these speeches, pundits bloviate about whether what a president comes up with matters. This year it has been fashionable to say the President Obama was delivering the long form of his re-election stump speech or that nothing ever changed because of what was in a presidential speech. Presidential jawboning runs into the checks and balances in the system and we shouldn't expect anything to come of it ...

But did anything ever change because of what was not in a presidential speech? If our more rational political figures never speak honestly about human-induced global warming and our less rational ones denounce the concept and scientific understanding itself, is it any wonder that a huge fraction of the U.S. population denies climate change is happening?

The most intriguing bit of pre-speech punditry I ran across was from Steve Benen:

… if you want to know what Obama’s prepared to fight for, look no further than what he has to say tonight.

Really? Only time will tell.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Culture of death on the way out?

Tis the season when opposing marchers mark the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in the United States. People who want to re-criminalize abortion marched in Washington -- USA Today reported their story:

We live in a culture of death," said [Ryan] Phillips, a high school senior who says he has attended the march 10 years in a row. "We'd like that to end."

This assumption is exactly the sort of thinking professor Steven Pinker tries to dispel in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. The data say we emphatically do not live in a culture of death, says Pinker. In fact, all over the world, people are expanding our solicitude for lives that would once have been socially discounted.

Many opponents of legalized abortion predicted that acceptance of the practice would cheapen human life and put society on a slippery slope toward infanticide, euthanasia of the handicapped, a devaluation of the lives of children, and eventually widespread murder and genocide. Today we can say with confidence that that has not happened. Though abortion has been available in most of the Northern Hemisphere for decades, no country has allowed the deadline for abortions during pregnancy to creep steadily forward into legal infanticide, nor has the availability of abortion prepared the ground for euthanasia of disabled children. Between the time when abortion was made widely available and today, the rate of every category of violence has gone down, and, as we shall see, the valuation of the lives of children has shot up.

Opponents of abortion may see the decline in every form of violence but the killing of fetuses as a stunning case of moral hypocrisy. But there is another explanation for the discrepancy. Modern sensibilities have increasingly conceived moral worth in terms of consciousness, particularly the ability to suffer and flourish, and have identified consciousness with the activity of the brain. ... The change is a part of the turning away from religion and custom and toward science and secular philosophy as a source of moral illumination. ... The vast majority of abortions are carried out well before the milestone of having a functioning brain, and thus are safely conceptualized, according to this understanding of the worth of human life, as fundamentally different from infanticide and other forms of violence.

At the same time, we might expect a general distaste for the destruction of any kind of living thing to turn people away from abortion even when they don't equate it with murder. And that indeed has happened. It's a little-known fact that rates of abortion are falling throughout the world. ...abortions have also become less common in China, the United States, and the Asian and Islamic countries in which they are legal. Only in India and Western Europe did abortion rates fail to decline, and those are the regions where the rates were lowest to begin with.

Meanwhile, people more fixated on the flourishing of living women and families than on the fetus point out hard facts about abortion in the United States today. This video clip is unusually straight forward in explaining why some women continue to need legal abortion and how society could affirm women's humanity and autonomy, if we really wanted living women and children to thrive.

Well worth watching.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Adam Smith, Romney's taxes, and Republican rage

Yesterday I wrote a small note about Newt winning South Carolina by stoking racial resentment -- and my friend Rain left a comment to the effect that Mitt Romney disturbed her the most of the lot.

… I've come to see Romney [as] the scariest …His economic record for what he has helped do to our country is part of the total destruction they have plotted on the Middle Class. …Think about Romney and his taxes where he is trying to not reveal what he has been paying which is probably considerably under 15%. What kind of human being would run for the highest office in the land, would be doing such things probably up until recently, and still say he could be for the every guy. I think I'd rather have my sleaze up front and visible so at least we are forewarned.

There's something to that.

I have my own mantra along those lines: I'd rather have my fascists -- power-hungry stokers of hate -- be greedy and venal rather than charismatic true believers. And though all these guys are appealing to the worst in a section of U.S. citizens -- the section that fears and hates gays, uppity women, people of color and civilizing restraint in human life -- so far at least they all seem just self-seeking liars, not ideologues of hate.

In the wake of his South Carolina defeat, Mitt says he is going to release some abbreviated set of his tax returns. Somehow I don't expect this will appear to most of us as full disclosure; the whole point of rich people's tax returns is to make them seem less rich and hence less liable to taxes. They have armies of accountants and lawyers to make stuff up for that purpose.

The Romney tax return furor reminded me of some fascinating quotes from the oft-cited 18th century father of modern "free market" economics Adam Smith that I grabbed along with commentary from Berkeley professor Bradford DeLong. In the era of the founding of modern economies, economists had to be psychologists as well as numbers and stats guys. Smith mused on why the great masses of people don't feel more resentment of the rich. Here's DeLong's explanation with Smith's words inset.

The first reason applies to the idle rich. According to Smith:

A stranger to human nature, who saw the indifference of men about the misery of their inferiors, and the regret and indignation which they feel for the misfortunes and sufferings of those above them, would be apt to imagine, that pain must be more agonizing, and the convulsions of death more terrible to persons of higher rank, than to those of meaner stations...
We feel this, Smith believes, because we naturally sympathize with others (if he were writing today, he would surely invoke “mirror neurons”). And the more pleasant our thoughts about individuals or groups are, the more we tend to sympathize with them. The fact that the lifestyles of the rich and famous “seem almost the abstract idea of a perfect and happy state” leads us to “pity…that anything should spoil and corrupt so agreeable a situation! We could even wish them immortal...”

The second reason applies to the hard-working rich, the type of person who:
… devotes himself forever to the pursuit of wealth and greatness....With the most unrelenting industry he labors night and day....serves those whom he hates, and is obsequious to those whom he despises....[I]n the last dregs of life, his body wasted with toil and diseases, his mind galled and ruffled by the memory of a thousand injuries and disappointments....he begins at last to find that wealth and greatness are mere trinkets of frivolous utility.... Power and riches....keep off the summer shower, not the winter storm, but leave him always as much, and sometimes more exposed than before, to anxiety, to fear, and to sorrow; to diseases, to danger, and to death...
In short, on the one hand, we don’t wish to disrupt the perfect felicity of the lifestyles of the rich and famous; on the other hand, we don’t wish to add to the burdens of those who have spent their most precious possession – their time and energy – pursuing baubles. These two arguments are not consistent, but that does not matter. They both have a purchase on our thinking.

Mitt is appealing to the enduring hold of these attitudes -- to whatever residue of (mostly unearned) sympathy for and respect for the work (also usually unmerited) attaches to the rich. But he's finding unexpected resistance in a era in which rawer, uglier resentments are trumping such civil emotions. So he has to simulate a hater and though he can mouth the words, he comes across as inauthentic, a rich boy playing a brawler's game. Newt is more the real thing: vicious, grandiose and ready to kick his opponent when when he's down. And that's what a section of the electorate wants against President Obama, someone who can strike out against the Black usurper with the smooth tongue.

Adam Smith's observations seem to derive from a more civilized context than our current election.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Newt and South Carolinians show Steven Pinker wrong ...

These days I'm immersed in Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker's enormous and fascinating The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. I'm nowhere near ready to write anything thoughtful about the book as whole; getting there may take several weeks more digestion.

But yesterday was not the best day to read the section on what Pinker calls "the rights revolution," to assimilate in his assertion that most racism in contemporary U.S. culture is a a thing of the past. Here's a sample:

The stigmatizing of any attitude that smacks of the dehumanization or demonization of minority groups extends well beyond the polling numbers. It has transformed Western culture, government, sports, and everyday life. … Derogatory racial and ethnic jokes, offensive terms for minority groups, and naive musings about innate racial differences have become taboo in mainstream forums and have ended the careers of several politicians and media figures. Of course, plenty of vicious racism can still be found in the cesspools of the Internet and at the fringes of the political right, but a sharp line divides it from mainstream culture and politics. … The campaign to extirpate any precursor to attitudes that could lead to racial violence has defined the bounds of the thinkable and sayable. …

Apparently not if you are Newt Gingrich and the place is South Carolina.

Beating up on Black reporter Juan Williams for challenging him to disavow the racism embedded in his attacks Barack Obama -- a Kenyan socialist food stamp president according to Newt -- and trumpeting the attacks just won the former House Speaker a nice popular vote victory. And this came even at the end of a week in which one of his ex-wive's claimed he'd demanded an open marriage while already carrying on an affair with wife number three. Newt is riding high. Apparently in his victory speech, he announced

I articulate the deepest held values of the American people.

Let's hope not.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Bathrooms are where our evolutionary ancestry shows

This clip starts slowly, but it is worth watching.

It's a big privilege if you never have to think about the bathroom.

I'm nearly 65 years old -- and white -- and it still happens to me.

We seem driven to instantly categorize the gender of people we meet. I guess that once had a sort of evolutionary value, having the question "can I make babies with this one?" at the top of our consciousness. And for women, it also had (sometimes has) safety implications -- unknown males are more likely to be dangerous than other females.

Please, if you are a woman and perceive a person whose gender seems in doubt in a women's bathroom, look again before you shriek. You might simply be seeing a person whose way of presenting herself is different from your expectations.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Friday cat blogging: in which an unexpected visitor moves in

It began last Tuesday morning, as I began to gather up my things to go to work. I had the sense of a presence at my feet. Odd that -- our last, much loved, cat had left this world in November -- was this a ghost?

1cat in house!.jpg
It was not. She wandered about, marking the doors and furniture, as if she owned the place. We had never seen her before. We think she'd slipped in when I brought in laundry.

2fixed stare!.jpg
Not wishing to be inhospitable, we accepted her right to be with us, though we were concerned that her regular humans might miss her. We put up flyers around the neighborhood. For two days, no one called.

3settled in on petitions close!.jpg
She showed herself a discerning feline. Like Turtle (pictured at the link), she took to sleeping on my SAFE California Act petitions. Apparently cats want to end death sentences by ballot initiative -- or just like all the paper the campaign generates.

On Thursday, we had our visitor checked for an implanted microchip and learned that her people had filed a "Lost Cat" report. We took her home, sad to see her go. Her name is Pune and she's a well traveled beast, having previously lived in India, Namibia and Germany. We enjoyed her visit.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The United States' internal migrants

I loved this book. Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration makes the case that Southern black migrants from the rural U.S. South to the urban North between 1914 and the late 1960s should be seen as following an immigrant path just as much as various Europeans or Latinos from south of the border. They were escaping privation and oppression in the Jim Crow states of the old Confederacy; they flocked to hard and sometimes humiliating conditions in their new homes; and they gradually made their peace and their places in their new homes.

Of course they were also different from other migrants to this new world, since their slave ancestors had often arrived before most of their white neighbors and even been the first builders of cities that became their new homes.

Wilkerson follows the story of three individuals: Dr. Robert Joseph Pershing Foster who escaped rural Louisiana, first to join the Black bourgeoisie in Atlanta as a Morehouse man, then to Los Angeles to play the part of the jaunty high roller he'd aspired to be; George Swanson Starling who escaped lynching in the Florida orange groves to become a railway porter who raised a family in New York City; and Ida Mae Brandon Gladney who left sharecropping in Mississippi to raise a family in industrial segregated slums in Chicago. Wilkerson's telling of the life stories of these representative figures is vivid, personal, and utterly gripping.
A few years back I was hired to write a paper for a think tank that was interested in how new immigrant populations might come into their own as participants in the political process in their new country. I wish I'd had Wilkerson's book then -- her description of how Ida Mae Brandon Gladney became a voter in Chicago is exactly what my research and experience tells me is needed to get newcomers involved.

Ida Mae didn't know what was at stake, but suddenly everyone around her was talking about something she'd never heard of back in Mississippi. The precinct captain for her area, a Mr. Tibbs, had been out in the neighborhood rousing the people to register for the upcoming election. She had seen him and gotten the slip his workers handed out and was curious about all the commotion.

Back home, no one dared talk about such things. She couldn't vote in Mississippi. She never knew where the polls were in Chickasaw County. … Nobody she knew had even tried to vote. Nobody made note of election day whenever it came. It was as if there were an invisible world of voting and elections going on about its business without her.

Now it was 1940, and she was in Chicago. All around her were new arrivals like herself who had never voted before and were just getting the hang of elections after a lifetime of being excluded. Suddenly, the very party and the very apparatus that was ready to kill them if they tried to vote in the South was searching them out and all but carrying them to the polls. To the Democrats in the North, each new arrival from the South was a potential new vote in their column. …

Chicago was a Democratic town, and the Democrats had the means to make the most of this gift to the party. They were counting on the goodwill Roosevelt had engendered among colored people with his New Deal initiatives. Still, the precinct captains took no chances. They went door-to-door to talk up the New Deal and to register the people. They asked them about their kids and jobs and convinced them that the Democrats in the North were different from those in the South. They printed up party slates and passed out palm cards- --political crib notes that would fit in the palm of the hand -- so the people would know whom to vote for when they got inside the booth.

On election day, Ida Mae walked up to the fire station around the corner from her flat at Thirty-sixth and Wabash to vote for the first time in her life. The sidewalks were teeming with volunteers to usher neophytes into the station and to the correct sign-in tables. Inside, election judges, clerks, a policeman or two monitored the proceedings.

Ida Mae was not certain what to do. She had never touched an election ballot. She walked in, and a lady came over and directed her to where she should go. Ida Mae stepped inside a polling booth for the first time in her life and drew the curtain behind her. She unfolded the palm card she had been given and tried to remember what the lady had told her about how to punch in her choices for president of the United States and other political offices. It was the first time she would ever have a say in such things.

…What was unthinkable in Mississippi would eventually become so much a part of life in Chicago that Mr. Tibbs would ask Ida Mae to volunteer at the polls the next time. She had a pleasant disposition, and Mr. Tibbs put her to work helping other people learn how to vote. She would stand outside the firehouse, directing newcomers who were clutching their palm cards and looking as puzzled as she had been her first time at the polls.

…'The ballots cast by Ida Mae and other colored migrants up from the South were enough to help give Roosevelt the two percent margin of victory he needed to carry the state of Illinois and, by extension, the United States -- to return him to the White House.

That's still how coming into the process works today, now with new arrivals more than internal migrants. I've organized voter registration at new citizen swearing in ceremonies, sent multilingual canvassers out to immigrant neighborhoods, tried to establish the habits of participation that make for full incorporation in our electoral system. I find that older African Americans, the children of the Great Migration that Wilkerson chronicles, still place a special value on their right and duty to vote.
I did come away from this wonderful book with one quibble. Wilkerson does a good job at making clear the differences between the experience of white southern and eastern European newcomers and blacks who were part of the Great Migration.

On the face of it, they were sociologically alike, mostly landless rural people, put upon by the landed upper classes or harsh autocratic regimes, seeking freedom and autonomy in the northern factory cities of the United States.

But as they made their way into the economies of Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee, and other receiving cities, their fortunes diverged. Both groups found themselves ridiculed for their folk ways and accents and suffered backward assumptions about their abilities and intelligence. But with the stroke of a pen, many eastern and southern Europeans and their children could wipe away their ethnicities -- and those limiting assumptions -- by adopting Anglo-Saxon surnames and melting into the world of the more privileged native-born whites. … A name change would have had no effect in masking the ethnicity of black migrants like Ida Mae, George, and Robert. It would have been superfluous, given that their surnames, often inherited from the masters of their forebears, were already Anglo-Saxon. They did not have the option of choosing for themselves a more favored identity. …

And so their experiences came to seem unrecognizable to too many of each set of people.

Wilkerson repeats several times that, because the war prevented cross-ocean travel, World War I (1914-18) opened industrial jobs to black migrants that previously would have been filled with Europeans. But she never discusses the fact that opportunities in factory labor for poor Europeans might have revived after that war if the United States had not adopted extremely restrictive immigration laws in the 1920s. The demand for industrial labor continued as industries expanded -- the hardest and dirtiest of the new jobs became the domain of southern black migrants. The shape of the Great Migration almost certainly was influenced by restrictionist and nativist policies that (probably inadvertently) benefited African Americans.
Isabel Wilkerson has written a book that should be read in every school in this country if we are to aspire to know who we are. It probably won't be. In our "post-racial" era, we mostly don't want to know.

But I suspect generations of African Americans will periodically rediscover this book and see in it their own almost forgotten family histories. I certainly hope that is true.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

It's the free web against SOPA today


According to Gizmodo, the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act means

If the government decides any part of [your] site infringes on copyright and proves it in court? Poof. Your digital life is gone, and you can't get it back.

Yes, just the sort of thing that invites abuse.

Wikipedia, BoingBoing, WordPress, TwitPic and Craigslist are blacked out today in protest. Let your Congresscritters know that you care ...


Annals of the anthropocene: Putting us in our place

The History of Earth As A Clock


Via Do Humans Matter.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Mitt Romney: straightest straight man to run for president recently

Lee Siegel's opinion piece on how Mitt Rommey "is the whitest white man to run for president in recent memory" has been rattling around in my brain for several days now. Time to get some thoughts out.

Siegel explains his observation:

I’m referring to the countless subtle and not-so-subtle ways he telegraphs to a certain type of voter that he is the cultural alternative to America’s first black president. It is a whiteness grounded in a retro vision of the country, one of white picket fences and stay-at-home moms and fathers unashamed of working hard for corporate America.

… he offers to [some] people the white solution to the problem of a black president. I am sure that Mr. Romney is not a racist. But I am also sure that, for the many Americans who find the thought of a black president unbearable, he is an ideal candidate.

This rings true, but I think there is even more going on there. Romney feels to me like the straightest candidate for president we're had in a long time. I mean straightest not in the contemporary sense of heterosexual, but in the old 60s youth culture sense, as not "with it," a fuddy-duddy, out of touch with the animating currents in the country's life.

It takes some doing to think back to a candidate who was as straight in this sense as Romney. John McCain's sole attractive attribute, his POW history, set him apart from such ordinariness. George W.'s drinking history as well as his cowboy pose also cut him off from the storybook conventionality of the truly straight. Recent Democrats have tried to avoid being labelled straight: John Kerry to escape being held elite and effete; Bill Clinton because seeming a charming scoundrel offered his best path to the country's heart. Tipper Gore's crusade against pop music lyrics might have carried Al Gore far into straightness if he hadn't insisted on embracing science, whether in climate studies or through the internet.

The last set of passably straight presidential candidates we've had were Michael Dukakis and George H.W. Bush, though the latter was running a con to disguise a complex establishment pedigree more substantial than John Kerry's. And Dukakis was a Greek, after all ...

Part of Romney's straightness involves living aloof from simple fact that this is not a white people's country anymore -- we come in many colors and the country works best when all of us (including white folks) value some historic traditions while being enriched by our neighbor's differences. Romney thinks he can stigmatize blacks as dependent on food stamps and Spanish speakers as mere illegals and not alienate all those of us including whites who live in a more culturally rich environment. He's got many of us wrong in that.

Romney is also straight in that he implicitly presents himself as the embodiment of perfect patriarchy and hetero-normativity. No deviations here from the fairy tale image of this perfect 50s family.

The Siegel piece was illustrated with this:

It reminded me of this from Chief Justice John Roberts' introduction to the nation:

Evidently there's some part of our population which revels in images of Barbie and Ken doll-like perfection in their rulers.

But really, the 50s are so over. They weren't really so wonderful as Romney-ites remember them being. They were a lousy time for people of color, until folks got uppity and started demanding respect and even sitting in. Many women felt themselves trapped in suburban nuclear family tableaux and ran for the exits when birth control, access to more jobs, and no fault divorce finally gave them an out.Why even queers first organized in that dreary decade!

Earth to Mitt: that world is gone. We certainly miss the prosperity that being the only power left standing at the end of World War II gave us, but that's gone for good. This has to be a more complicated, more subtle, and more diverse country. Nostalgia just won't serve though we've got a political party devoted to little else, plus a dose of free-floating resentment and envy of those of their fellow citizens who've managed to make peace with changes. Even in a recession, it is hard to believe a majority of us want to remain chained to a world that never was. The 2012 election may tell.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Vets for Peace counter hate at home

On the holiday celebrating the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it seems appropriate to highlight citizens of the United States standing up for our better natures. Here's a story from Lowell, Massachusetts reported by MSNBC.

A group of veterans held an “eat-in” at an immigrant-owned restaurant to show support for the eatery after a man threw a 20-pound building stone through the front window, frightening the family and raising fears that they were the target of a hate crime.

Some 40 to 50 vets -- from World War II, Vietnam, the Korean war and the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq -- turned up at the Babylon Restaurant in downtown Lowell, Mass., on Tuesday night.

The Al-Zubaydi family, who came to the U.S. in October 2010 from Uzbekistan, opened Babylon about seven months ago. Like other immigrants, they were simply trying to make their way in their new American home, said Patrick Scanlon, a Vietnam veteran and local coordinator of Veterans for Peace.

…About 50 Iraqi families live in Lowell, said Scanlon. He noted other attacks on Iraqis, including a man who had two rocks thrown through his windows and a woman wearing a head covering being called "terrorist" by a man as she walked home from a supermarket.

…Leyla Al-Zubaydi said the family also doesn't believe it was a random attack. She said the family was trying to recover after such a scary episode, but the outpouring of support from the veterans renewed their confidence in the local community.

Read the whole thing.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

How about those 49ers?

You probably have to have been a long time fan to appreciate what the local gladiators' return to respectability means to many in this city. For about 20 years we could count on knowing, however dreary or wrong-headed the nation's direction seemed, the boys would make the playoffs, have a strong showing, even go on to the Super Bowl. The team had an enthusiastic, if legally compromised, owner who made sure they got what they needed. Then, after a Louisiana bribery and gambling scandal, Eddie DeBartolo had to cede control to his respectable corporate sister -- and the 49ers sank into mediocrity.

Now they seem to be back. Fans will remain anxious for a long time -- will the current young DeBartolo screw it up again? Can Coach Harbaugh continue to get miracles out of a quarterback that everyone else had given up on? Only time will tell, but for this week, it's a great time to be a fan.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Saturday scenes and scenery: Mono Lake park saved

tufas and sky2!
Sometimes good things happen. I've written previously about the folly and shame of chipping away at California's tax shortfall by closing state parks.

tufa reflctions
In December, the Mono Lake Tufa State Nature Reserve received a reprieve. Mono Lake is a vast volcanic basin east of the Sierras whose alkaline waters "grow" the strange calcium-carbonate castles named "tufas."

tufa in dusk!
Seeing them makes you wonder if you've landed on the moon. Good for California and the lake's local champions for stopping the drive to close the park and let this unique environment decay.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Friday cat blogging: a feline campaign contribution

Turtle is guarding a stack of petitions for the SAFE California Act, a proposed initiative which will shut down death row and replace the death penalty with life without parole. We are currently collecting 750000 signatures to put it on the ballot. Her person toils on the campaign; Turtle superintends. Since I too am working on the campaign and we are coming down to crunch time, I see a lot of Turtle's person, maybe sometimes more than Turtle does.

This weekend we'll be honoring Dr. King by collecting signatures at holiday events. Californians, click this SAFE California link to find out more or get involved.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Another point about drifting toward a visible war on Iran …

If President Obama wants to get re-elected, preventing such a war will do him a lot more good than kowtowing to the Israel lobby. Consider this from Jared Bernstein.

* A $10 increase in the cost of oil leads to about 25 cents more per gallon at the pump. 
*Every extra penny at the pump takes around a billion dollars from disposable income for other consumption.   
*That same $10 increase, if sustained for a year, shaves about 0.25 basis points (one-quarter of a percentage point) off of real GDP growth.
*Adding rules of thumb, for each percentage point that real GDP grows below trend, with trend around 2.5%, the unemployment rate goes up a half a percentage point.

How would Iran respond to further threats on its economy or attacks on its facilities? Most likely by disrupting or cutting back on the availability of the most valuable resource it has controls. This isn't highbrow game theory; it is just common sense.

A cutback in world oil supply would raise prices which would stall or crash the U.S. economy. That would probably get us Mitt Romney as President and he has pretty much vowed that he'll attack Iran rather let that country develop a nuclear weapon. Not a good result for either the United States or Iran, but one which the power players seem determined to edge up to.

Is war on Iran the next course?

Has anyone noticed that the U.S. seems to be drifting toward an open war on Iran? It seems that any such thing should be getting a little more public discussion than we've seen recently -- instead we have the Mitt, Newt and Ron show to distract us.

Today's news was that someone had blown up (yet another) Iranian nuclear scientist in his home city. Iran blames Israel and the United States. The U.S. State Department says the equivalent of "not us." But it's an open secret that we're involved, along with Israel, in secret hostilities, trying to force Iran's rulers to back off nuclear development.

Like the drone strikes that the Obama administration has embraced as a core tactic against Al Qaeda, the multifaceted covert campaign against Iran has appeared to offer an alternative to war. But at most it has slowed, not halted, Iran’s enrichment of uranium, a potential fuel for a nuclear weapon. And some skeptics believe that it may harden Iran’s resolve or set a dangerous precedent for a strategy that could be used against the United States and its allies.

Well, yeah -- how would we like it if a foreign government was assassinating U.S. scientists with only the most minimal pretense of denial? Somehow I think we'd scream bloody murder about "terrorism" -- and most likely retaliate.

It's seldom mentioned that our own spooks don't believe that Iran is committed to a bomb. Just last week the Secretary of Defense said as much.

In saying that the United States did not have any evidence that Iran was seeking to develop a nuclear weapon, Mr. Panetta was hewing closely to the conclusions the often fractious American intelligence agencies agreed upon in 2007 and again in 2010. Two National Intelligence Estimates, designed to reflect the consensus of the intelligence community, concluded that Iranian leaders had made no political decision yet to build an actual weapon. Instead, they described a series of steps that would take Iran right up to that line — and position it to assemble a weapon fairly quickly if a decision to do so were made.

Iran's rulers believe, realistically, that they are under permanent threat from aggressive enemies who employ terrorism against them. It shouldn't be surprising that they want the option of building a weapon that seemingly automatically makes the impoverished and dysfunctional (think North Korea and Pakistan) able to thumb their noses at real powers. Here's Tony Karon blogging for Time on what drives Iranian decisions:

For a relatively weak state (Fareed Zakaria once noted in response to the ”its 1938 and Iran is Nazi Germany” hysteria touted by some, that by measure of the global military balance of 1938 Iran would be the equivalent of Rumania) and a state ideologically at odds with far more powerful enemies, nuclear weapons … provide a gold-plated insurance policy. … [T]he fate of leaders like Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi who gave up their own nuclear programs speaks for itself.

Yet our rulers slouch toward war. Republicans posture, ignoring the lessons of their last set of failed Middle Eastern adventures and trying to force the administration into an ever more bellicose posture. The administration seems to have allowed itself to be boxed in by its domestic enemies and the Israel lobby into proving, again, that it can be tough. A couple of seasoned diplomats, William H. Luers and Thomas R. Pickering, recently described what passes for "thinking" in Washington.

Military action is becoming the seemingly fail-safe solution for the United States to deal with real and imagined security problems. The uncertain and intellectually demanding ways of diplomacy are seen as “unmanly” and tedious — likely to involve compromise or even “appeasement.” President Obama made efforts to engage Iranian leaders his first year in office but, when rebuffed, turned in a different direction. …

The slow, elusive diplomatic process to achieve U.S. objectives does not provide the sound-bite satisfaction of military threats or action. Multiple, creative efforts to engage Iran’s leaders and provide a dignified exit from the corner in which the world community has placed them could achieve more durable solutions at a far lower cost. It is a lesson that those urging military action against Iran have failed to learn.

This failure of insight would be pathetic if it weren't literally murderous. Our rulers seem to believe they can play at bluster but risk no actual consequences. But do they really have that sort of control over their adversary's reactions? Do they share their "allies" objectives? (They may not entirely; see Atlantic editor Robert Wright on why Israel wants a war.)

Do the people of the U.S. get any say in all this or will our military rain destruction on another country without any meaningful input from us? Once again, will we have to pay for our rulers' misjudgements? It's time for some citizen input on war, peace and where we are going.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Warming Wednesdays: autos arrive

Apparently we don't crave fuel efficient cars, recession or no. From the big Detroit auto show:

Hybrid sales waned as gasoline prices ebbed in 2011, declining to 2.2 percent of the market from 2.4 percent a year earlier, according to the research firm LMC Automotive. Meanwhile, sales of the Nissan Leaf electric car and the Chevrolet Volt plug-in each fell short of expectations.

Analysts do not expect the segment to grow significantly this year: the combination of gas prices below $4 a gallon and higher upfront costs for the cars is not attracting consumers.

New York Times, January 9, 2012

I find this surprising -- I see scads of hybrids here in northern California. Many people I know drive various hybrid models and love them.

And, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, new fuel economy standards that the Obama administration has negotiated with automakers will make a real dent in our climate changing carbon emissions.

Once fully implemented, the new standards will require automakers to produce vehicles that emit roughly half the global warming emissions produced by today’s new automobiles. In 2030 alone, that will keep 290 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from being released into our atmosphere annually—equivalent to taking more than 40 million of today's cars and trucks off the road for an entire year. In terms of fuel economy, the standards will cut U.S. oil consumption in 2030 by 1.5 million barrels of oil per day.

This is apparently significant. (The linked article also explains one of the life's minor mysteries: why the miles per gallon stickers on new cars bear so little relation to the kind of real life gas mileage a model gets.)

And my state of California has issued rules that go the federal rules one better. Of necessity, we've always led on trying to reduce smog. Every time I go to Los Angeles, I fantasize about how beautiful the setting would be if you could reliably see the adjacent mountains.

Amid all this auto news, a sad note: Ford is apparently discontinuing my much loved Escape Hybrid. Damn. I finally found a car that meets my main criteria: reasonably clean and efficient and something you step up into. I loathe trying to bend into a pretzel to crawl into a car. Oh well, I only bought Wowser last year and I usually drive cars for a decade or more, so who knows what they'll be offering by the time I have to replace her. All I feel sure of is that I'll still live in a society in which some kind of car is a necessity, sadly for the planet.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

One more note about New Hampshire

I love the state, but it is not much like the United States I live in. This makes it an odd place to have accreted so much influence in Presidential politics.

H/t The Monkey Cage.

New Hampshire time

If it's primary season, it's Red Arrow Diner time in Manchester, NH. In primary season, a stop here is mandatory for the contenders.

It was here, in 2010, that I first understood that President Barack Obama might be in big trouble.

When I had passed through Manchester in the winter of 2008, weeks after the "first in the nation" primary, Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama's smiling mugs were among the many photos of passing politicians on the walls.

By the summer of 2010, there were only Republicans pictured -- uh oh, recession and unemployment were taking their toll. Today, Mitt Romney appears prominently on the clip on the diner's website.

TPM created one of their 100 second video campaign summaries around Republican candidates' visits to New Hampshire diners.

Happily, the Red Arrow actually serves a very tasty and carefully cooked breakfast. This is no greasy spoon. I doubt the candidates have the energy left to enjoy eating by now.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Supremes rush toward right-wing precipice

The line in the news article was matter of fact:

… the high court ruled 5 to 4 along ideological lines …

New York Times, January 7

We live in a country in which we take for granted that judges simply implement their political views and call the result law. We once mocked countries unfortunately enough to have "judicial systems" that were routinely available for sale to the highest bidder (usually foreign companies) --we called them "Banana Republics." It gets harder and harder to see much difference between what happens in our Supreme Court and in those unfortunate environs.

Some instances from the Supreme Court::
  • Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas have openly participated in political strategy conferences sponsored by right wing billionaires.
  • Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Samuel Alito have lent themselves to fundraisers for right wing causes.
  • Perhaps most egregiously, Justice Thomas' wife was a paid lobbyist against the health care reform on which he will rule in the spring.
And we have a Chief Justice who says this is all hunky dory -- Supreme Court justices don't need to adhere to the same code of ethics that governs lesser beings on lower courts. If lower court justices engaged in such naked politicking, they'd be subject to charges under the federal judicial Code of Conduct -- though with a court like the one we have, it's hard to know whether anything would come of bringing charges.

The Alliance for Justice has produced a strong video about these issues available here.

As we advance into the 2012 political horserace season, progressives are going to be bombarded with messages that we have to get behind President Obama and other Democrats who seem hardly less bought-and-paid-for servants of the 1 percent than the Republican alternative. Exhibit A will be Justice Ruth Bader Ginzberg's upcoming 79th birthday and the danger that a court already friendly to plutocrats will become irrevocably so. Those warnings are something we probably have to heed if we want to live to fight another day. It will be nose-holding time again.

The Washington Monthly has jumped the gun on the genre with a terrific six part feature on "What if Obama loses? Imagining the consequences of a GOP victory." It's properly scary, nowhere more so than in the article about the courts. Slate reporter Dahlia Lithwick chronicles "the rise of a jurisprudence that skews pro-business, pro-life, anti-environment, and toward entangling the church with the state." The long Republican effort to make the judiciary an instrument to implement right wing policy preferences is nearly complete -- Democrats have been unfocused or just absent when it came to appointing judges who might be open to more equitable legal outcomes.

If you care about the future of abortion rights, stem cell research, worker protections, the death penalty, environmental regulation, torture, presidential power, warrantless surveillance, or any number of other issues, it’s worth recalling that the last stop on the answer to each of those matters will probably be before someone in a black robe.

Go read the whole thing. It is short and cogent.