Sunday, March 23, 2014

Sunday Reading

Supreme Being — Ta-Nehisi Coates on why progressives misunderstand the role of white supremacy in America’s history and present.

​Arguing that poor black people are not “holding up their end of the bargain,” or that they are in need of moral instruction is an old and dubious tradition in America. There is a conservative and a liberal rendition of this tradition. The conservative version eliminates white supremacy as a factor and leaves the question of the culture’s origin ominously unanswered. This version can never be regarded seriously. Life is short. Black life is shorter.

On y va.

The liberal version of the cultural argument points to “a tangle of pathologies” haunting black America born of oppression. This argument—which Barack Obama embraces—is more sincere, honest, and seductive. Chait helpfully summarizes:

The argument is that structural conditions shape culture, and culture, in turn, can take on a life of its own independent of the forces that created it. It would be bizarre to imagine that centuries of slavery, followed by systematic terrorism, segregation, discrimination, a legacy wealth gap, and so on did not leave a cultural residue that itself became an impediment to success.

The “structural conditions” Chait outlines above can be summed up under the phrase “white supremacy.” I have spent the past two days searching for an era when black culture could be said to be “independent” of white supremacy. I have not found one. Certainly the antebellum period, when one third of all enslaved black people found themselves on the auction block, is not such an era. And surely we would not consider postbellum America, when freedpeople were regularly subjected to terrorism, to be such an era….

Beyond Hobby Lobby — Stephanie Mencimer at Mother Jones takes a look at what the implications of the Supreme Court case concerning Obamacare vs. corporate religious freedom could mean for other interpretations of the law and Constitution.

…Of course, the case isn’t just about Hobby Lobby. The Supreme Court is using it to address dozens of similar lawsuits by other companies that, unlike Hobby Lobby, object to all forms of contraception. But the inconvenient set of facts here are just one reason why the case hasn’t garnered a lot of support outside the evangelical community. Many religious people are uneasy with the idea of corporations being equated with a spiritual institution. At a recent forum on the case sponsored by the American Constitution Society, the Mormon legal scholar Frederick Gedicks, from Brigham Young University, said he was offended by the notion that selling glue and crepe paper was equivalent to his religious practice. “I’m a religious person, and I think my tradition is a little different from an arts and craft store,” he said.

Women’s groups fear a ruling that would gut the ACA’s contraceptive mandate. The business community, meanwhile, doesn’t want to see the court rule that a corporation is no different from its owners because it would open up CEOs and board members to lawsuits that corporate law now protects them from, upending a century’s worth of established legal precedent.

No one seems to really have a sense of how the court might rule. On one side, court watchers have speculated that with six Catholics on the bench, Hobby Lobby has a decent shot of prevailing. But then again, one of those Catholics, Chief Justice John Roberts, is also sensitive to the interests of corporate America. He seems unlikely to do anything that might disrupt the orderly conduct of business in this country and make the US Chamber of Commerce unhappy, as a victory for Hobby Lobby could. Scalia is an ardent abortion foe, but his view of Native American peyote users might incline him to find for the government.

Finding a reasonable way out of this case won’t be easy. The litany of bad outcomes has some legal scholars rooting for what might be called “the Lederman solution“—a punt. Georgetown law professor Martin Lederman has suggested that the lower courts have misread the contraceptive-mandate cases by assuming firms such as Hobby Lobby have only two choices: provide birth control coverage or pay huge fines to avoid violating their religious beliefs. He argues that while the ACA requires individuals to purchase health insurance, it doesn’t require employers to provide it. If companies choose to do so then the insurance companies must cover contraception without co-pays. Hobby Lobby and the other companies currently suing the Obama administration can resolve their problems by simply jettisoning their health insurance plans and letting their employees purchase coverage through the exchanges.

An employer that drops its health plan would have to pay a tax to help subsidize its employees’ coverage obtained through the exchange or Medicaid, but this option is actually far cheaper than providing health insurance. And if a company doesn’t even have to provide insurance, much less a plan that covers contraception, Hobby Lobby doesn’t have much of a case that the ACA burdens its free exercise of religion…..

Mark Twain, Stand-Up Comic — In an excerpt from The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature, Ben Tarnoff tells how Samuel L. Clemens, the writer that defined American literature, became Mark Twain.

…On the evening of October 2, 1866, the Academy of Music swelled to capacity. From the footlights to the family circle, the house was packed. “It is perhaps fortunate that the King of Hawaii did not arrive in time to attend,” cracked a journalist, “for unless he had gone early he must have been turned away.” The fashionable men and women of “the regular opera ‘set’ ” turned out in full. The wife of the current California governor, Mrs. Frederick Low, sat in a box. Even Harte came to show his support. He arrived with “a big claque,” an observer later recalled, almost certainly with Stoddard in tow.

At eight o’clock, the crowd started stomping its feet. When Twain appeared in the wings, they broke into thunderous applause. He ambled forward with a lurching, graceless gait, his hands thrust in his pockets. “I was in the middle of the stage,” he recalled, “staring at a sea of faces, bewildered by the fierce glare of the lights, and quaking in every limb with a terror that seemed like to take my life away.” For several moments he stood silently staring, as the energy in the house ripened to an unbearable pitch. Then the words came: slow and deliberate, quirky and crude—the voice of the frontier, drawing its listeners under.

For seventy-five minutes, they laughed, clapped, and cheered. A “brilliant success,” raved the next day’s Evening Bulletin. Twain met the demands of a “serious” lecture by covering the islands’ economy, politics, history—yet he deftly interwove these with a current of comic tension that kept his audience on a hair trigger, primed to ignite at any moment. An absurdity might slip discreetly into the stream of his story, and then another, sparking laughter that rose and crested just as he suddenly shifted gears, delivering a passage of such heartfelt eloquence that the house fell solemn and silent. This was more than humor: it was “word painting,” said a reporter, a tapestry of anecdotes and images recorded by Twain’s all-seeing eye. He didn’t just make people laugh. As with “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog,” he brought a faraway place to life.

Ever since Twain first began writing, he had tried to give his words the flavor of living speech. Dashes, italics, phonetically transcribed dialect—these were meant to make readers hear a speaker’s special vibrations, the glottal tics of different tongues. Onstage, he could do this directly, breaking free of the filter that confined his written voice. He could feel out his audience, refine his rhythms. Unlike the spiritualists, suffragists, and fake scientists then sweeping lyceum halls across the country, he didn’t declaim in the usual authoritative style. He took a more intimate tone. He wanted to connect. He gazed at people’s faces. He played with his hair, kneaded his hands. He looked nervous, and dressed carelessly. He wasn’t a smooth performer, and this was the key to his peculiar charm. He didn’t hold himself apart; he talked plainly, unpretentiously. He brought people inside the joke. He made them feel like he belonged to them.

Doonesbury — Speak to me.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Lost and Found

History takes a beating at Fox News.

Fox News host Bill Hemmer on Wednesday referenced a peculiar hoax in order to help explain just how long it might take to find the missing Malaysian Airlines jet.

“So what it took us what 100 years to find the Titanic? It took us 2,000 years to find Noah’s Ark. Do we ever find flight 370?” Hemmer asked his guest, aviation attorney Salvatore Lagonia.

Lagonia didn’t seem to think it would take that long.

“Oh, I think we find flight 370 much sooner than those two things, thank God,” Lagonia said. “Until then, it’s the greatest reality show in the world.”

Some claim they found remnants of Noah’s Ark in Turkey, however that has been debunked by multiple scientists.

Well, first, it didn’t take 100 years to “find” the Titanic.  It took 73 years (1912-1985), and it wasn’t really lost in the first place; we knew approximately where it was the whole time.  It took that long to develop a submersible that could go down to 12,000 feet underwater.

Second, no one’s ever found Noah’s Ark because it’s a fable.  It’s like saying “Well, it took 2,000 years for Gollum to find the One Ring.”  So unless Mr. Hemmer was being clever with his metaphors, he should stick to reporting about the latest unicorn sightings.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Recent Unpleasantness

According to Andrew Napolitano at Fox News, the Civil War could have been avoided if Abraham Lincoln hadn’t been such a bloodthirsty tightwad and tyrant.

“Slavery was dying a natural death all over the Western world. Instead of allowing it to die or helping it to die or even purchasing the slaves and then freeing them, which would have cost a lot less money than the Civil War cost, Lincoln set about in the most murderous war in American history,” Napolitano said.

I guess the GOP isn’t the Party of Lincoln any more.

Over to you, Jon Stewart.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Spying Old Style

Aside from the latest 1959 cars cruising through Havana, the Cuban government still has connections to the Cold War.

Sixteen years after the arrests in Miami of five Cuban spies who got their secret orders by short wave transmissions, Havana is still using a system that fell out of favor in the cloak-and-dagger world with the end of the Cold War.

There are many more modern and efficient ways of communicating secrets by using satellites, burst transmissions, one-time emails and other means, said Chris Simmons, a retired Pentagon counter-intelligence officer who specialized on Cuban affairs.

“But these Cuban transmissions may be for old spies, dinosaurs who have been listening to (short wave) for so long, long term agents, that they are comfortable with it and don’t want or need a change,” Simmons added.

Along with plotting big trouble for Rocky and Bullwinkle, one message told the spy to stop by the Studebaker dealership to pick up some tubes for his radio.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Friday, January 31, 2014

History Channel

Steve Benen has a good look at the Republicans’ myopic view of what previous presidents have done with executive orders.

…Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) insisted that when it comes to executive orders, Obama should follow the examples set by Reagan and Clinton. McConnell is completely unaware of the fact that among presidents in the latter half of the 20th century, Reagan and Clinton issued more executive orders than any other presidents – and far more than Obama.

What I suspect many on the right have done is start with an ideologically satisfying premise – Obama is a radical, power-hungry, extremist dictator – and then work backwards in the hopes of bolstering the thesis.

But the endeavor clearly isn’t going well, largely because conservative activists and lawmakers don’t understand history as well as they think they do.

“Can you believe Obama is issuing executive orders?” Well, yes, every president has issued executive orders, and Obama has issued fewer than any in over a century.

“Can you believe Obama has relied on czars?” Well, sure, most all recent presidents have had czars and no one considered it controversial until 2009.

“Can you believe Obama’s health care policy forces consumers to buy something?” Actually, the practice goes back to George Washington.

“Can you believe Obama has made recess appointments?” Yep, because every modern president has made recess appointments.

“Can you believe Obama has decided not to defend certain federal laws against court challenges?” Sure, but most modern presidents have done the same thing.

If Republicans had criticized any of these previous presidents for the same reasons, their complaints would be more persuasive now. But as it stands, it just seems as if Obama’s critics don’t know what they’re talking about.

Imagine if Obama did something really outrageous, like selling weapons to a sworn enemy of the United States in order to finance an illegal war in Central America. Now that would be worthy of screams about “tyranny,” “extra-constitutional abuses,” and “contempt for the norms of our democracy.”

It wasn’t that long ago — ten years or less — that the Republicans were all hailing the unitary executive theory of governance embodied in the benevolent leadership of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, telling us that if Congress wouldn’t act to save America from terrorism and the Radical Homosexual Agenda, then the president would, and more power to him.  Not only that, he’d be derelict in his duty if he had to wait around for Congress to get their collective shit together.

It’s not that the Republicans have forgotten history; I’m sure most of the whiners know exactly what went on before Barack Obama was sworn in.  It’s just that they don’t believe anyone else other than them should be in charge.  Ever.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Sunday Reading

The Brittle Grip, Part 2 — Josh Marshall on why the wealthy feel so threatened.

If you’ve been in the media slipstream today you know the outrage and mockery directed at Tom Perkins, one of the world’s wealthiest and most successful Silicon Valley venture capitalists, for an oped he wrote in the Wall Street Journalcomparing the rising critique of income inequality and “the 1%” to Kristallnacht. Just so we’re all on the same page, Kristallnacht (“the night of shattered glass”) was essentially the opening act of Hitler’s Final Solution. It took place on November 9th and 10th, 1938. This claim manages simultaneously to be so logically ridiculous and morally hideous that Perkins deserves every bit of abuse he’s already receiving.

But I think we’re missing the point if we see this as the gaffe of one aging, coddled jerk. Because it’s only a more extreme and preposterous version of beliefs that have become increasingly widespread in the wealthiest sectors of American society, especially since 2008 and the twin events of the global financial crisis and the election of Barack Obama.

Let me state the phenomenon as clearly as possible: The extremely wealthy are objectively far wealthier, far more politically powerful and find a far more indulgent political class than at any time in almost a century – at least. And yet at the same time they palpably feel more isolated, abused and powerless than at any time over the same period and sense some genuine peril to the whole mix of privileges, power and wealth they hold.

There is a disconnect there that is so massive and glaring that it demands some sociocultural explanation. I’ve written about this before. But I confess not terribly well because I’ve found it a difficult issue to get my arms fully around and to reorient my focus on day to day events to the longer horizon. But I do think it’s one of the core political and economic issues of our time and deserves real explanation.

I first started noticing this when I saw several years ago that many of the wealthiest people in the country, especially people in financial services, not only didn’t support Obama (not terribly surprising) but had a real and palpable sense that he was out to get them. This was hard to reconcile with the fact that Obama, along with President Bush, had pushed through a series of very unpopular laws and programs and fixes that had not only stabilized global capitalism, saved Wall Street but saved the personal fortunes (and perhaps even the personal liberty) of the people who were turning so acidly against him. Indeed, through the critical years of 2009, 10 and 11 he was serving as what amounted to Wall Street’s personal heat shield, absorbing as political damage the public revulsion at the bailout policies that had kept Wall Street whole.

Let’s start by stipulating that no one expects the extremely wealthy to react happily to mounting discussion of wealth and income inequality or left-wing diatribes about “the 1%.” But again, the reaction is extreme and excessive and frequently runs into less comical versions of Perkins’ screed, with weird fears of persecution and threat from the folks who quite truly rule the roost.

Read the whole article.

The Republicans Could Still Win — Molly Ball at The Atlantic reports that for all their gaffes and failed re-branding, they can still win elections.

The members of the Republican National Committee gathered in Washington this week. On Thursday, Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and former presidential candidate, was the featured speaker. “The Democrats,” Huckabee declared, “want to insult the women of America by making them believe that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them a prescription each month for birth control, because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government.”

The creepy, condescending-uncle image, the retrograde attitude toward sex: Huckabee managed to illustrate exactly the phenomenon he was trying to decry, the perception that Republicans don’t know how to talk to or about women. Democrats were gleeful. Within hours, liberal groups had bombarded reporters with outraged statements, the White House press secretary had called the remark “offensive,” and MSNBC was playing the clip over and over (chyron: “HUCKED UP”). “If this is the GOP rebrand a year later, then all they’ve gotten is a year older,” gloated the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

The “rebrand” Wasserman Schultz referenced was undertaken when Republicans, smarting from the loss of the presidential election, embarked on a course of soul-searching. A report commissioned by the RNC, the Growth and Opportunity Project, would soon deliver the bitter verdict that the party was widely viewed as a bunch of “stuffy old men,” and that major changes in orientation, rhetoric, and tactics would be needed if the GOP ever wanted to win another presidential election. (Sample: “There is growing unrest within the community of Republican women frustrated by the Party’s negative image among women …. Our candidates, spokespeople and staff need to use language that addresses concerns that are on women’s minds in order to let them know we are fighting for them.”)

But while Democrats fixate on what they consider the GOP’s failed makeover, Republicans have moved on. The delegates at Thursday’s RNC meeting weren’t brooding over the party’s lack of reorientation. They were getting upbeat briefings about how far the party has come in the past year and how bright the future looks. As Massachusetts Republican committeeman Ron Kaufman told me, the time for “painful self-examination” has passed. “Now we’re implementing it, and it’s going to pay off. Everything couldn’t be better right now for us.”

He’s not wrong. Without changing a thing, Republicans are very well positioned for the midterm elections this year and even for the 2016 presidential election. As the University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato recently noted, Republicans are almost guaranteed to keep the House of Representatives in November; they have about a 50-50 chance of taking the majority in the U.S. Senate; and they are likely to keep their majority of the nation’s governor’s mansions. The erosion of public trust in Obama and Democrats spurred by the botched introduction of the healthcare exchanges continues to reverberate in public polling of contests up and down the ballot, erasing the public-opinion edge Democrats gained from the government shutdown and tilting more and more contests in the GOP’s favor, according to Sabato, who on Thursday revised his ratings of three Senate contests, tilting all of them more toward Republicans.

One Word, 6 Million Times — Jodi Rudoren tells of a book that memorializes the Holocaust.

Jews - 6 million 01-26-14There is no plot to speak of, and the characters are woefully undeveloped. On the upside, it can be a quick read — especially considering its 1,250 pages.

The book, more art than literature, consists of the single word “Jew,” in tiny type, printed six million times to signify the number of Jews killed during the Holocaust. It is meant as a kind of coffee-table monument of memory, a conversation starter and thought provoker.

“When you look at this at a distance, you can’t tell whether it’s upside down or right side up, you can’t tell what’s here; it looks like a pattern,” said Phil Chernofsky, the author, though that term may be something of a stretch. “That’s how the Nazis viewed their victims: These are not individuals, these are not people, these are just a mass we have to exterminate.

“Now get closer, put on your reading glasses, and pick a ‘Jew,’ ” Mr. Chernofsky continued. “That Jew could be you. Next to him is your brother. Oh, look, your uncles and aunts and cousins and your whole extended family. A row, a line, those are your classmates. Now you get lost in a kind of meditative state where you look at one word, ‘Jew,’ you look at one Jew, you focus on it and then your mind starts to go because who is he, where did he live, what did he want to do when he grew up?”

The concept is not entirely original. More than a decade ago, eighth graders in a small Tennessee town set out to collect six million paper clips, as chronicled in a 2004 documentary. The anonymity of victims and the scale of the destruction is also expressed in the seemingly endless piles of shoes and eyeglasses on exhibit at former death camps in Eastern Europe.

Now Gefen Publishing, a Jerusalem company, imagines this book, titled “And Every Single One Was Someone,” making a similar statement in every church and synagogue, school and library.

While many Jewish leaders in the United States have embraced the book, some Holocaust educators consider it a gimmick. It takes the opposite tack of a multimillion-dollar effort over many years by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and museum here, that has so far documented the identities of 4.3 million Jewish victims. These fill the monumental “Book of Names,” 6 1/2 feet tall and 46 feet in circumference, which was unveiled last summer at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

“We have no doubt that this is the right way to deal with the issue,” said Avner Shalev, Yad Vashem’s director. “We understand that human life, human beings, individuals are at the center of our research and education. This is the reason we are investing so much in trying to retrieve every single human being, his name, and details about his life.”

Mr. Shalev declined to address the new book directly, but said dismissively, “Every year we have 6,000 books published about the Shoah,” using the Hebrew term for the Holocaust.

The book’s backers do not deny its gimmickry — Mr. Chernofsky used the Yiddish word “shtick” — but see it as a powerful one.

Ilan Greenfield, Gefen’s chief executive, noted that there is a blank line on the title page where people can dedicate each book, perhaps to a survivor like his mother-in-law.“Almost everyone who looks at the book cannot stop flipping the pages,” he said. “Even after they’ve looked at 10 pages and they know they’re only going to see the same word, they keep flipping.”

Doonesbury — Change of plans.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther KingToday is the federal holiday set aside to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday.

For me, growing up as a white kid in a middle-class suburb in the Midwest in the 1960′s, Dr. King’s legacy would seem to have a minimum impact; after all, what he was fighting for didn’t affect me directly in any way.  But my parents always taught me that anyone oppressed in our society was wrong, and that in some way it did affect me.  This became much more apparent as I grew up and saw how the nation treated its black citizens; those grainy images on TV and in the paper of water-hoses turned on the Freedom Marchers in Alabama showed me how much hatred could be turned on people who were simply asking for their due in a country that promised it to them.  And when I came out as a gay man, I became much more aware of it when I applied the same standards to society in their treatment of gays and lesbians.

Perhaps the greatest impression that Dr. King had on me was his unswerving dedication to non-violence in his pursuit of civil rights.  He withstood taunts, provocations, and rank invasions of his privacy and his life at the hands of racists, hate-mongers, and the federal government, yet he never raised a hand in anger against anyone.  He deplored the idea of an eye for an eye, and he knew that responding in kind would only set back the cause.  I was also impressed that his spirituality and faith were his armor and his shield, not his weapon, and he never tried to force his religion on anyone else.  The supreme irony was that he died at the hands of violence, much like his role model, Mahatma Gandhi.

There’s a question in the minds of a lot of people of how to celebrate a federal holiday for a civil rights leader. Isn’t there supposed to be a ritual or a ceremony we’re supposed to perform to mark the occasion?  But how do you signify in one day or in one action what Dr. King stood for, lived for, and died for?  Last August marked the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech.  That marked a moment; a milestone.  Today is supposed to honor the man and what he stood for and tried to make us all become: full citizens with all the rights and responsibilities of citizenship; something that is with us all day, every day.

For me, it’s having the memories of what it used to be like and seeing what it has become for all of us that don’t take our civil rights for granted, which should be all of us, and being both grateful that we have come as far as we have and humbled to know how much further we still have to go.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Benghazi Report

The Senate Intelligence Committee released their report on the attack on Benghazi.  They criticized everyone, including the State Department, the CIA, and the Defense Department, basically saying that Libya was a post-revolutionary mess.

The Republicans are seizing on the conclusion that the attacks were “preventable,” crowing over this as if this seals the end of Hillary Clinton’s hopes for the White House in 2016 because she was the Secretary of State at the time.

I’m no military strategist or anything of the sort, but haven’t we all learned that just about every surprise attack in the history of modern warfare was “preventable”?  Didn’t we have clues to the Japanese intentions on Pearl Harbor in 1941, or the Vietcong’s plans for Tet in 1968?  Oh, and what about the memo to President Bush in August 2001 that noted “bin Laden determined to strike within U.S.”?  Yes, hindsight is great if you’re focusing on someone else’s hind end.

I’m not trying to pull a Benghazi deflection on the Benghazi report; if the attack was preventable and people didn’t do their jobs, then they should be held accountable.  And as Bryan at Why Now? points out, there’s also the role that Congress played in not providing adequate funding for the security at the embassy.  But then since this report came from the Senate, they are, by necessity, blameless in all of this.

This report will now, as Charlie Pierce notes, deteriorate into a political skunk fight between the bug-eyed on the right (Gohmert, Bachmann, and Steve King), and the infantile obsession the Villagers have for the freak show that heralds a presidential campaign.  And none of that is preventable.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Catching Up

A couple of news items that came across the wires in the last couple of days might be of interest.

First, Britain tries to make up for a terrible wrong.

LONDON (AP) — Britain has tried to make good by one of its most famous sons, posthumously pardoning Alan Turing for a gay sex conviction which tarnished the brilliant career of the code breaker credited with helping win the war against Nazi Germany and laying the foundation for the computer age.

One author said he hoped Tuesday’s symbolic act — the famous mathematician committed suicide more than 50 years ago — would send a message to countries such as India and Russia, where gays can still be prosecuted for expressing their sexuality.

Others say the pardon doesn’t go far enough, noting that thousands of others shared in Turing’s humiliation in the years during which Britain criminalized homosexual behavior.

For lawmaker Iain Stewart, one of many who campaigned for the pardon, the act helped right a massive wrong.

“He helped preserve our liberty,” Stewart told The Associated Press. “We owed it to him in recognition of what he did for the country — and indeed the free world — that his name should be cleared.”

Not to be churlish or anything about the British authorities trying to right a massive wrong nearly 60 years after Mr. Turing committed suicide, but as I noted over at Rubber Hose, “posthumous pardons are like funerals: only the living appreciate them, and it’s an attempt to alleviate the guilt of having treated the person so rottenly during their life. In other words, cold comfort to the dead, and a free pass to those who hurt them in life.”

I wonder how much further along we’d have come in the digital age had Mr. Turing been allowed to continue his work with no regard to his private life.  More importantly, how much better his life would have been.

And somewhat related, the state of Utah is scrambling to try to put out the fire started last weekend when a judge ruled that the ban on same-sex marriage in the state violated the Constitution and hundreds of couples flocked to county clerk offices to get marriage licenses.

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that gay marriages can continue in Utah, denying a request from the state to halt same-sex weddings that have been occurring at a rapid rate since last week.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ rejection of Utah’s request for an emergency stay marks yet another legal setback for the state. The same federal judge who ruled that Utah’s same-sex marriage ban violates gay and lesbian couples’ rights previously denied the state’s request to halt the marriages.

The appeals court said in its short ruling that a decision to put gay marriage on hold was not warranted, but said it put the case on the fast track for a full appeal of the ruling.

Utah’s last chance to temporarily stop the marriages would be the U.S. Supreme Court. That’s what the Utah Attorney General’s Office is prepared to do, said spokesman Ryan Bruckman. “We’re disappointed in the ruling, but we just have to take it to the next level,” Bruckman said.

The cat, as they say, is out of the bag.  It’s going to be very hard to stop the flood, and the justice who oversees the 10th U.S. Circuit is Sonia Sotomayor.  She can either issue a ruling or turn it over to the whole court for them to rule.  No matter what, a whole lotta couples in Utah are getting licenses and getting married.

By the way, who knew that there were that many same-sex couples in Utah?

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

One Christmas Eve

Forty-five years ago tonight — December 24, 1968 — the crew of Apollo 8 saw things that no human being had ever seen before with their own eyes, including the far side of the moon and the earth rising over the lunar horizon.  So it’s understandable that the moment called for a little reading of some pleasant poetry from a book called Genesis.

HT to NTodd.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Sunday Reading

The Return of the Welfare Queen — Beth Reinhard in The Atlantic reports that Republicans are bringing back the stereotypes of poor people on assistance and inciting class warfare.  Ironically, some of their staunchest supporters of the tactic are living on government assistance as their sole source of income.

The mythical welfare queen was accused of driving a Cadillac and pumping out babies to keep the government checks coming; under the “food-stamp president,” as Republican Newt Gingrich dubbed Obama, she (or he) nets free healthcare and expensive shellfish.

“Newscasts tell stories of young surfers who aren’t working but cash their food stamps in for lobster,” wrote Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy in a memo before the House vote, referring to a California beach bum who flaunted his food-stamp-financed lifestyle on Fox News. “Costing taxpayers $80 billion a year, middle-class families struggling to make ends meet themselves foot the bill for a program that has gone well beyond a safety net for children, seniors, and the disabled.”

The facts defy the stereotypes. The largest group of food-stamp recipients is white; 45 percent of all beneficiaries are children; and most people eligible for Medicaid are families with children in which at least one person in the household has a job. But pitting makers against takers is simply smart, hardball politics for some Republicans. McConnell, Cassidy, and Ernst all face GOP primaries that will be largely decided by a mostly white conservative base that hates the welfare state.

[...]

To understand Kentucky’s conflicted relationship with the federal government, 50 years after hosting President Lyndon Johnson’s launch of the “War on Poverty,” is to meet Terry Rupe. The 63-year-old widower can’t remember the last time he voted for a Democrat, and he’s got nothing nice to say about Obama. He’s also never had health insurance, although he started working at age 9. Since his wife’s death four years ago, he’s been taking care of their 40-year-old, severely disabled daughter full time. She gets Medicaid and Medicare assistance.

“I don’t have any use for the federal government,” Rupe said, even though his household’s $13,000 yearly income comes exclusively from Washington. “It’s a bunch of liars, crooks, and thieves, and they’ve never done anything for me. I’m not ungrateful, but I don’t have much faith in this healthcare law. Do I think it’s going to work? No. Do I think it’s going to bankrupt the country? Yes.”

Rupe sounds like he could be standing on a soapbox at a Tea Party rally, but he happens to be sitting in a back room at the Family Health Centers’ largest clinic in Louisville—signing up for Medicaid. Rupe, who is white, insists that illegal immigrants from Mexico and Africa get more government assistance than he does. (Illegal immigrants do not, in fact, qualify for Medicaid or coverage under the Affordable Care Act.)

He’s not alone in thinking this way. A majority of whites believe the healthcare law will make things worse for them and their families, according to a United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll.

“President Obama’s idea is taking from the working people to give to the people who won’t take care of themselves. It’s redistribution of wealth,” Rupe said. “I’ve always taken care of myself. You got these young girls who go out and get pregnant and then they get $1,500 a month for having a kid, so they have two.”

On the other side of town, Adele Anderson was signing up for Medicaid at a public library. The white, middle-aged woman makes $10 an hour as a child-care provider; she also gets $86 a month in food stamps. She was unaware that Republicans voted to cut $40 billion over 10 years from what’s called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. “Democrats are too liberal,” Anderson said. “They just want to give handouts.”

The disdain she and Rupe show toward living on the government dole at the very moment they are doing just that is typical in a state that distrusts Washington as much as it needs federal help.

How The N.R.A. Does It — Robert Draper in The New York Times magazine on the power of the gun lobby.

To get to Joe Manchin’s private office in the Hart Senate Office Building, you first pass through a lobby where you encounter a small bronze statue of an Old West lawman holding a firearm — an award given to Manchin several years ago by a chapter of the National Rifle Association for his unswerving defense of gun rights. Then you turn down a hallway, past several framed photographs of children who were victims of the massacre a year ago at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The combination of the bronze rifleman in the lobby and the young faces on the wall suggests a particular viewpoint — I stand with gun lovers; I stand with victims of gun violence — that qualifies, in Washington anyway, as being nuanced, which is to say politically ill advised if not suicidal.

Even sitting behind his stately wooden desk in a suit and tie, Manchin, who is 66, possesses the craggy appearance of a small-town sheriff. As he proclaimed to me one morning in September, “I enjoy my guns, and my family enjoys their guns.” And indeed, Manchin, a conservative Democrat from West Virginia, won election to the U.S. Senate in 2010 partly on the strength of a memorable TV ad depicting him firing a bullet through President Obama’s cap-and-trade bill that had been anathema to coal miners in his state. But Manchin’s outlook changed the day he came back from a hunting trip last December, having learned of the 20 children and six adults slaughtered at Sandy Hook. That unique horror motivated him in a way that other recent mass shootings in Tucson and Aurora, Colo., had not.

“To sit here and do nothing, I could’ve done that all day long,” Manchin said. “Let this be the happy retirement home.” Instead, for the first time in his 30-year political career, he acted against the N.R.A.’s wishes. He introduced legislation that would require universal background checks for commercial sales. Background checks have been federally mandated for firearm purchases from licensed dealers since 1994. The bill would have extended them to gun shows and all Internet sales. Manchin was aware that universal background checks would not have prevented the Newtown killings, because the shooter, Adam Lanza, used firearms that were legally purchased by his mother. Nonetheless, a confluence of factors at the time favored his efforts: a newly re-elected Democratic president personally stung by the gun tragedies that took place on his watch; a fractious and self-doubting Republican Party; the seemingly bottomless financial resources of the New York mayor and ardent gun-control advocate Michael Bloomberg, whose alliance of more than a thousand mayors throughout the United States, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, would sponsor an aggressive wave of TV ads; and the forceful but sympathetic lobbying presence of Gabrielle Giffords, the former congresswoman who had been shot in the head in Tucson, along with the voices of the Newtown parents whose children were killed. Given this climate and the overwhelming public support for universal background checks, even the N.R.A. was braced for the passage of some version of Manchin’s gun-control bill.

But no version did pass. Four months after the Newtown shooting, on April 17, the bill failed to win the necessary votes to make it through the Senate. The most fearsome lobbying organization in America prevailed once again. Other victories would soon follow. On the day before I visited Manchin’s office in September, two state senators who spearheaded a recent passage of tough gun-control legislation in Colorado were recalled — another triumph for the N.R.A., despite having been outspent by Bloomberg’s group. (A third Colorado state senator who supported the bill announced her retirement last month in the face of a recall.) Not long after that, a mentally unhinged gunman at the Washington Navy Yard, less than two miles from the Senate office buildings, killed 12 employees. In his eulogy for the victims, the president noted somberly: “Once more our hearts are broken. Once more we ask why.” But few were asking why Joe Manchin or some other senator wasn’t out trying to round up more votes for his bill. If the murder of 20 schoolchildren had proved insufficient motivation to address gun violence in America, this killing was not enough to persuade anyone to take on the N.R.A. again.

“As far as putting on a full-court press, I don’t see that happening,” Manchin told me in his office. “And I don’t hear much conversation about it.” The defeat of the bill has added to the legend of the gun lobby’s brawn. Though the N.R.A.’s opponents still question whether the group is really as indomitable as it is perceived, at a certain point, political mythology engineers its own reality. One recently retired congressman from a conservative district told me, “That was the one group where I said, ‘As long as I’m in office, I’m not bucking the N.R.A.’ ”

One Country Saved Its Jews — Michael Ignatieff reviews the book Countrymen which tells how Denmark spared its Jews from the Holocaust.

When, in October 1943, the Gestapo came to round up the 7,500 Jews of Copenhagen, the Danish police did not help them to smash down the doors. The churches read letters of protest to their congregations. Neighbors helped families to flee to villages on the Baltic coast, where local people gave them shelter in churches, basements, and holiday houses and local fishermen loaded up their boats and landed them safely in neutral Sweden. Bo Lidegaard, the editor of the leading Danish newspaper Politiken, has retold this story using astonishingly vivid unpublished material from families who escaped, and the testimony of contemporary eyewitnesses, senior Danish leaders (including the king himself), and even the Germans who ordered the roundups. The result is an intensely human account of one episode in the persecution of European Jews that ended in survival.

The story may have ended well, but it is a complex tale. The central ambiguity is that the Germans warned the Jews and let most of them escape. Lidegaard claims this was because the Danes refused to help the Germans, but the causation might also have worked in the other direction. It was when the Danes realized that the Germans were letting some Jews go that they found the courage to help the rest of their Jewish community escape. Countrymen is a fascinating study in the ambiguity of virtue.

The Danes knew long before the war that their army could not resist a German invasion. Instead of overtly criticizing Hitler, the Social Democratic governments of the 1930s sought to inoculate their populations against the racist ideology next door. It was in those ominous years that the shared identity of all Danes as democratic citizens was drummed into the political culture, just in time to render most Danes deeply resistant to the Nazi claim that there existed a “Jewish problem” in Denmark. Lidegaard’s central insight is that human solidarity in crisis depended on the prior consolidation of a decent politics, on the creation of a shared political imagination. Some Danes did harbor anti-Semitic feelings, but even they understood the Jews to be members of a political community, and so any attack on them was an attack on the Danish nation as such.

Doonesbury — Home for the holidays.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Sunday Reading

Fascist Superheroes — Richard Cooper in Salon on the reality of the men of steel.

Critics tend to renounce superhero films only if they don’t like that kind of thing anyway. Everything has a political dimension, but this is all too often forgotten with superhero narratives, as defenders of the genre respond to any criticism with the fallacious standby, “What were you expecting, ‘Citizen Kane’?” The reason it’s so difficult to convince people that a superhero movie could be intelligent rather than fall back on right-wing clichés is because it’s been so rarely done: After so many movies that are clearly no more than bubble-gum, most people with a taste for proper drama understandably cut their losses and look for intelligent narrative elsewhere.

Yet the critics can’t leave them alone. It’s an unfortunate coincidence that the Marvel-led boon in comic-book movies (which had actually already gotten underway before 9/11 with “Blade” in 1998, ”X-Men” in 2000 and “Spider-Man” filmed in the summer of 2001) — should have coincided with the “War on Terror.” What has been overlooked, though, is just what a lousy metaphor superheroes are for nations. The main problem is force: sheer physical force, which lies at the heart of the superhero myth, something Steven T. Seagle observed nicely in “It’s a Bird…”, his poignant autobiographical graphic novel about his reluctance to write for a Superman comic, in which he points out that Superman triumphs by being able to move faster and hit harder than everyone else: essentially a fascist concept.

I was reminded of this by Jor-El’s speech in “Man of Steel”:

You will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.

How, though? Those watching him can’t fly, topple buildings or fire heat rays from their eyes. What else does Superman do other than these purely physical feats? The 1978 version of Jor-El warned: “It is forbidden for you to interfere with human history. Rather let your leadership stir others to.” Can you really inspire others with steel? At this point it’s interesting to reflect on the real-life leader who chose a name meaning “Man Of Steel”: Stalin.

Fascism also reduces the role of anyone who isn’t Superman to that of an adoring onlooker. Anyone who has ever daydreamed about heroic activities as a child might remember the passive role the imaginary spectators take on while you rescue them, display superpowers or battle your antagonists. As China Miéville said of Frank Miller’s earlier celebrated comic-book miniseries “The Dark Knight Returns”: “The underlying idea is that people are sheep, who need Strong Shepherds.” Throughout Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, the people for whom Batman is fighting are absent. There are some awed children, and a couple of people foolish enough to think that they could dress up as Batman, but they put in no more than fleeting appearances.

A Princely Sum — Michael Ignatieff concludes that Machiavelli was right about politics and politicians.

Obama_and_Biden_await_updates_on_bin_LadenYou remember the photograph: President Obama hunched in a corner of the Situation Room with his national-security staff, including Hillary Clinton with a hand over her mouth, watching the live feed from the compound in Pakistan where the killing of Osama bin Laden is under way. This is a Machiavellian moment: a political leader taking the ultimate risks that go with the exercise of power, now awaiting the judgment of fate. He knows that if the mission fails, his presidency is over, while if it succeeds, no one should ever again question his willingness to risk all.

It’s a Machiavellian moment in a second sense: an instance when public necessity requires actions that private ethics and religious values might condemn as unjust and immoral. We call these moments Machiavellian because it was Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince, written in 1513, that first laid bare the moral world of politics and the gulf between private conscience and the demands of public action.

The Prince’s blunt candor has been a scandal for 500 years. The book was placed on the Papal Index of banned books in 1559, and its author was denounced on the Elizabethan stages of London as the “Evil Machiavel.” The outrage has not dimmed with time. The greatest modern conservative political theorist, Leo Strauss, taught his students at the University of Chicago in the 1950s to regard Machiavelli as “a teacher of evil.” Machiavelli’s enduring provocation is to baldly maintain that in politics, evil deeds cease to be evil if urgent public interest makes them necessary.

Strenuous efforts are being renewed in this 500th-anniversary year to draw the sting of this stark message. Four new books argue that to understand Machiavelli’s brutal candor, we need to grasp the times that made him: the tangled and violent politics of Italy between 1498, when he took office as a senior official in Florence, and 1527, when he died. Alan Ryan returns Machiavelli to his blood-soaked context, the decline and fall of the Florentine republic. Philip Bobbitt positions Machiavelli as the great theorist of the early modern state, the first thinker to understand that if power was no longer personal, no longer exercised by a medieval lord, it had to be moralized, in a new public ethic based on ragion di stato—reason of state.

Maurizio Viroli wants us to grasp that The Prince was not the cynically devious tract it seems, but rather a patriotic appeal for a redeemer politician to arise and save Italy from foreign invaders and its own shortsighted rulers. Corrado Vivanti’s learned intellectual biography reinforces Viroli’s image of Machiavelli as a misunderstood forerunner of the Italian Risorgimento, calling for the redemption of Italian republicanism four centuries before the final reunification of the Italian states.

All of these authors are at pains to stress that the “evil Machiavel” was in fact a brilliant writer, a good companion, and a passionate patriot. All stress that his ultimate ethical commitment was to the preservation of the vivere libero, the free life of the Florentine city-state and the other republics of Italy. The man himself certainly comes alive in his wonderful letter to his friend Francesco Vettori, written in 1513 after he had been thrown out of office, tossed into prison, and tortured. (Machiavelli was wrongly accused of conspiring against the Medicis, who had defeated the Florentine army and ousted the republican government the year before.) In the letter, he describes lonely days after his release from prison, hunting for birds on his small estate, drinking in the local tavern, and then coming back home at night to his study, to don the “garments of court and palace” and commune with “the venerable courts of the ancients.”

It’s True — Andy Borowitz reports that the Grand Ayatollah agreed to the nuclear deal to distract from Obamacare.

TEHRAN (The Borowitz Report)—The Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told reporters today his nation agreed to a deal on its nuclear program in the hopes that it would distract attention from the trouble-plagued rollout of Obamacare.

“It’s true, we’ve resisted any deal on nukes for over three decades,” the Ayatollah said. “But when we saw how much trouble Obama was having with his Web site, we realized it would be uncaring of us not to try to help him out.”

The Ayatollah said he was not “overly optimistic” that signing a nuclear treaty with the West would be sufficient to distract attention from the President’s Obamacare woes, but, he added, “You never know. Every little bit helps.”

He said that he and Iran’s leaders will be putting their heads together in the days and weeks ahead to see “if there’s anything else we can do to help Obama out of this health-care mess.”

“One idea we’re tossing around is to get the Iranian people to stop chanting, ‘Death to America,’ the way they have for the past thirty-four years,” he said. “At the very least, maybe dial it back until he gets that Web site straightened out.”

Doonesbury — Please hold.

Friday, November 22, 2013

A Little Night Music

Today is a convergence of history.  In addition to the death of John F. Kennedy on this date fifty years ago, writers C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley also passed away.  For those who believe, it must have been an interesting day at the Pearly Gates.

Also, one hundred years ago today, Benjamin Britten was born.  When he died in 1976, composer Arvo Pärt wrote a piece in memory of Britten.  It seems fitting for tonight.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Campaign Souvenir

My aunt, whose father was a business associate of Joseph P. Kennedy, gave me this PT-109 tie clip many years ago.  It was one of the campaign souvenirs handed out when John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, and she knew of my fondness for the late president.  I wear it every time I wear a tie.

For those of you who are too young to remember, PT-109 was the boat JFK captained while in the Pacific in World War II.  It was cut in half by a Japanese destroyer and he helped rescue his crew.  The incident served to secure war hero status for the future president and was made into a movie starring Cliff Robertson.

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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

On This Date

One hundred and fifty years ago today, President Abraham Lincoln delivered some remarks at a cemetery dedication in Pennsylvania.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

He was wrong on one point: the world did note and will long remember what he said there.