Thursday, April 14, 2016

Short Takes

Two Russian attack planes buzzed a U.S. Navy destroyer in the Baltic.

Verizon workers on the East Coast go on strike.

Five big banks failed to meet government criterion for security against failure.

Louisiana governor reinstates LGBT protections in the state.

Seriously?  Denny Hastert’s lawyers say he “doesn’t remember” an alleged sexual encounter with a 17-year-old wrestler.

The Tigers beat the Pirates 7-3 thanks to a grand slam by Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Sunday Reading

Using the Force — Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker on what a new authorization for military force is worth.

The 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists passed with overwhelming support: only one member of Congress (Barbara Lee of California) voted against it. From a layman’s perspective, its language is fairly restrictive. The President was authorized  “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”

President George W. Bush used the resolution to justify military action against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. (He obtained separate authorization for the war in Iraq in 2002.) Obama expanded the war and used the resolution to justify military action against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. But when the Arab Spring drew the United States into a new set of military interventions in the Middle East, the 2001 resolution’s authority was far less applicable. Obama did not try to use the resolution to justify the war in Libya. (He used a different, though still dubious, argument.) When the President considered striking Syria in 2013, he made no attempt to lean on the 2001 law, and was prepared to seek a new congressional authorization.

But, last September, when Obama and his lawyers sought justification for the war against ISIS, they made a decision that will haunt them in the coming congressional debate. The White House argued that the conflict was not a ground war but, rather, a “counterterrorism campaign,” and as such did not require the authorization of war powers. The White House further argued that a war against ISIS would be justified by the 2001 resolution because ISIS is “affiliated” or “associated” with Al Qaeda—never mind that the two groups are now in conflict with each other and that there is no provision in the resolution covering affiliated or associated groups. At the time, many legal scholars argued that this was a ridiculous reading of the 2001 law, but there was little appetite in Congress to debate the issue during the midterm campaign.

These legalistic contortions now have enormous ramifications. As Ackerman notes, even if Congress passes a new, restrictive resolution against ISIS, a new President could always fall back on the unchallenged Obama position of 2014 and insist that the 2001 resolution is sufficient to justify some further campaign. In other words, Obama and his lawyers have made the 2001 resolution so elastic that, unless it is modified or rescinded, it presents an open invitation for abuse to any future Commander-in-Chief.

This issue does not seem to have sunk in yet with many on the right and the left flanks of Congress, who so far have been focussed on tweaking Obama’s proposal. But, as the debate unfolds over the next month, Obama’s prior use of the 2001 authorization is sure to become a major issue, especially among doves in both parties. Last year, Republican Senator Rand Paul, another likely Presidential contender, who is deeply skeptical about any military engagement, drafted a highly restrictive resolution authorizing force against ISIS which incorporated the repeal of the 2001 authorization. On the left, grassroots groups like, which today came out against Obama’s proposed resolution, are citing the failure to rescind the 2001 resolution as the basis for their current opposition.

In his submission to Congress this week, Obama said that he wants to revisit the 2001 resolution—just not now. But, by using the expansive Bush-era law to justify the war against ISIS last fall, he has left Congress with no choice but to review it within the confines of the current debate. As long as the 2001 resolution is still in effect, none of the limits contained in a new ISIS-specific war resolution will matter.

Why We Need Net Neutrality — Mychal Denzel Smith at The Nation explains how the internet saved free speech.

Net neutrality scored a big win recently when Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler changed course on the issue and put forth, in his words, “the strongest open Internet protections ever proposed by the FCC.” The plan calls for reclassification of the Internet under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934, such that the Internet would be regulated as a public utility, much like telecom services. This would prevent broadband companies from potentially charging websites for better, faster uploading and access, setting up a two-tiered Internet in which larger sites with the ability to pay these fees come to dominate the information we all have access to. Considering the odds (Wheeler is a former lobbyist for the cable-TV and wireless industries, while Comcast, Verizon, AT&T and others spent over $75 million last year lobbying on the issue), Wheeler’s decision to support an open Internet is more than welcome, if not a little shocking.

It also couldn’t have come at a better time in US history. The idea of fast and slow lanes on the Internet based on a company’s ability to pay for the service would further already entrenched inequalities. But also, given how crucial the Internet has been to political activism for this generation, an open Internet is vital for organizing efforts around the most important issues of our time.

Nowhere is this more true than with the #BlackLivesMatter movement. The name itself took off as a hashtag on Twitter and was able to spread quickly in the wake of the not-guilty verdict handed down to George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, and again when Michael Brown was killed by Police Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. The latter event in particular serves as a case study of just how important the Internet and social media have become to organizing. Brown’s death was first reported by residents of Ferguson who took to Twitter to describe the scene as it unfolded. In the four and a half hours in which Brown’s body lay in the street, more tweets poured in and more people from the St. Louis area traveled to Ferguson. From there, a protest movement was born.

“If we don’t have access to open Internet, and we don’t have net neutrality, then it limits the ability for black people to save themselves,” Dante Barry, director of Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, told the Huffington Post. Indeed, the issue is so crucial to the work groups like Million Hoodies is doing that a delegation of organizers went to Washington, DC, in January to meet with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, as well as a commissioner and staffers from the FCC, to speak to them directly about why their support for net neutrality matters. Among those they visited was Representative John Lewis from Georgia, a civil-rights-movement veteran. After their meeting, Lewis said on Facebook: “If we had the technology, if we had the Internet during the movement, we could have done more, much more, to bring people together from all around the country, to organize and work together to build the beloved community. That is why it is so important for us to protect the Internet. Every voice matters, and we cannot let the interests of profit silence the voices of those pursuing human dignity.”

An open Internet that is accessible to all people has become critical to the maintenance of democracy, and, as such, it should remain a level field where voices previously marginalized can find strength and solidarity.

Laugh Track — Oliver Morrison in The Atlantic explains why there’s no right-wing equivalent to Jon Stewart.

Political humor, in particular, might have an inherently liberal bias. Alison Dagnes spent years looking into this question for her 2012 book A Conservative Walks Into a Bar. She spoke to dozens of working comedians who self-identified as liberals, and as many who identified as conservatives as she could find. One of the reasons she posits for a lack of conservative satire is that the genre has always been aimed at taking down the powerful, from the Revolutionary War through Vietnam and 9/11. “Conservatism supports institutions and satire aims to knock these institutions down a peg,” she wrote.

Theorists have been trying to explain humor as far back as Plato. The ancient Greek philosopher said humor got its power from the pleasure people get when they feel superior over others, laughing at their foibles and flaws. Freud saw it as a cathartic release from society’s repressions, thus explaining all our sex and fart jokes. And Hegel saw it as reconciling two normally incongruous spheres of meaning—i.e., showing a football player in a cheerleading outfit or putting a cat in human clothes.

Peter McGraw, an associate professor at the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business, has argued for what he calls the “benign-violation theory” of humor. McGraw believes that humor results from violating social norms or by violating a particular person or group. But it only becomes funny when it’s placed in a second context that clearly signals the violation is harmless or benign. In other words, if someone falls down the stairs, it will only be really funny if that person doesn’t get hurt.


This struggle to thrive in a particular genre isn’t exclusive to conservatives and satire. At the end of the 1990s, when Jon Stewart took over The Daily Show, conservatives dominated one form of entertainment media: talk radio. Liberals have never managed to equal conservatives’ success in that arena. The Air America network—whose talent included Rachel Maddow, as well as Saturday Night Live alumnus and future Senator Al Franken—filed for bankruptcy at the beginning of 2010. Even MSNBC has never been able to attract as large an audience as Fox News, the televised version of conservative talk radio.

Could it be that American political satire is biased toward liberals in the same way that American political talk radio is biased toward conservatives? Dannagal Young, an assistant professor of communications at the University of Delaware, was looking into the lack of conservative comedians when she noticed studies that found liberals and conservatives seemed to have different aesthetic tastes. Conservatives seemed to prefer stories with clear-cut endings. Liberals, on the other hand, had more tolerance for a story like public radio’s Serial, which ends with some uncertainty and ambiguity.

Young began to wonder whether this might explain why liberals were attracted in greater numbers to TV shows that employ irony. Stephen Colbert, for example, may say that he’s looking forward to the sunny weather that global warming will bring, and the audience members know this isn’t what he really means. But they have to wonder: Is he making fun of the kind of conservative who would say something so egregious? Or is he making fun of arrogant liberals who think that conservatives hold such extreme views?

As Young noticed, this is a kind of ambiguity that liberals tend to find more satisfying and culturally familiar than conservatives do. In fact, a study out of Ohio State University found that a surprising number of conservatives who were shown Colbert clips were oblivious to the fact that he was joking.

Doonesbury — Dream big.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Military Force

President Obama wants the authority to take us to war against ISIS, and he’s asking Congress for it.

The proposed legislation Mr. Obama sent to Capitol Hill would impose a three-year limit on American action that has been conducted largely from the air and, while allowing Special Operations commandos and other limited missions, would rule out sustained, large-scale ground combat. It would also finally repeal the expansive 2002 congressional measure that authorized President George W. Bush’s war in Iraq.

But even as Mr. Obama proposed some handcuffs on his power, he left behind the key to those shackles should he or his successor decide they are too confining. While his draft resolution would rescind the 2002 authority, it would leave in place a separate measure passed by Congress in 2001 authorizing the president to conduct a global war against Al Qaeda and its affiliates. With that still the law of the land, Mr. Obama and the next president would retain wide latitude to order military operations in the name of fighting terrorism.

This is where we say “well, at least it’s not an all-out declaration with boots on the ground and ‘either you’re with us or against us’ painted on the sides of the tanks,” but still, no thanks for small favors.

This is the “lessons learned” AUMF to replace the one we shouldn’t have had in the first place because it led to this one.  There’s no doubt that without the one in 2001 there wouldn’t be an ISIS today, or if there was, they would be as powerful as the Brownie troop down the block.

I appreciate Mr. Obama’s ambivalence about taking us to war; would that more presidents and yappers in Congress felt that way throughout history.  I also appreciate that fact that he has put an expiration date on it, but we all know full well that those are often seen just as suggestions.  The next president — whoever she is — will tell us they have plenty of reasons to ask for yet more war.

Short Takes

President Obama asked Congress for an AUMF against ISIS.

The U.S. and Britain abruptly closed their embassies in Yemen.

GOP Senator says it’s time to give up the fight on immigration.

Diplomats are trying to work out a peace agreement for Ukraine.

North Carolina man held in killing of three Muslim students.

CBS News correspondent Bob Simon, 73, killed in a car accident in New York City.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Short Takes

Ukraine — Russia rattles the sabre.

Turkey — Three American sailors were assaulted by a nationalist group; minor injuries.

Climate change deal with China has implications for 2016.

South Carolina joins the ranks as yet another judge overturns the state’s ban on marriage equality.

Health officials reassess Ebola strategy.

Window washers rescued from the new World Trade Center.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Short Takes

NATO: Russian military opens fire in Ukraine.

Calm settles over Ferguson.

Russian aid trucks begin to leave Ukraine.

More flash floods and mudslides in Washington state.

Tropical Update: Invest 96L has potential.

No, it’s not a football score: The Tigers lost to the Twins 20-6.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Short Takes

Radar signals from Malaysia MH370 baffle investigators.

At least four people were killed in a building explosion and collapse in Harlem.

President Obama vows retaliation if Russia annexes Crimea.

Israel hits Gaza with airstrikes after being hit with rockets.

4.4 earthquake hits central California.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Do What?

Michael Cohen at The Guardian:

In the days since Vladimir Putin sent Russian troops into the Crimea, it has been amateur hour back in Washington.

I don’t mean Barack Obama. He’s doing pretty much everything he can, with what are a very limited set of policy options at his disposal. No, I’m talking about the people who won’t stop weighing in on Obama’s lack of “action” in the Ukraine. Indeed, the sea of foreign policy punditry – already shark-infested – has reached new lows in fear-mongering, exaggerated doom-saying and a stunning inability to place global events in any rational historical context.

This would be a useful moment for Americans to have informed reporters, scholars and leaders explaining a crisis rapidly unfolding half a world away. Instead, we’ve already got all the usual suspect arguments…

What I’d like to know from Lindsey Graham, John McCain, John Bolton, and all of the fogbrains at Fox News is what they expect President Obama to do?  (Well, I know what McCain and Bolton want to do, and that would require hazmat suits.)  Sitting in a TV studio like a potted plant yelling “Do something!” is not a foreign policy.

The thing about a crisis like this is that there is very little that the United States or any outside force can do that would improve the situation, and this kind of macho bullshit just makes these folks look like warmongering fools… which I grant you for some like Mr. Bolton is not that far a hike.

You don’t have to listen to the “do something” crowd. These are the same people who brought you the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other greatest hits. These are armchair “experts” convinced that every international problem is a vital interest of the US; that the maintenance of “credibility” and “strength” is essential, and that any demonstration of “weakness” is a slippery slope to global anarchy and American obsolescence; and that being wrong and/or needlessly alarmist never loses one a seat at the table.

The funny thing is, these are often the same people who bemoan the lack of public support for a more muscular American foreign policy. Gee, I wonder why.

Exactly.  It might have something to do with the planes unloading the long boxes at Dover and the stone markers in quiet fields across the country that were made possible because someone decided to “do something.”

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Water’s Edge

It used to be a political nicety that folks in the opposition party didn’t attack a president’s foreign policy or trash it in front of others when they were overseas.  It was even considered to be gauche to do it in public in the middle of a crisis.  That kind of diplomatic unity was expected: “We all support our troops” kind of thing.

We heard that all the time during the Reagan administration: you were a traitor if you dared to suggest that sending Marines to Lebanon was not a good idea.  They were heroes.  It was altogether different when the Republicans went after Bill Clinton for engaging with Kosovo, although they certainly got honked off when Democrats ventured to suggest that invading Iraq was not in our best interest.  Now, apparently, it’s a lost art.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) on Sunday said that President Obama has not signaled enough strength in approaching Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Well, number one, stop going on television and trying to threaten thugs and dictators. It is not your strong suit,” Graham said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “Every time the president goes on national television and threatens Putin or anyone like Putin, everybody’s eyes roll, including mine. We have a weak and indecisive president that invites aggression. President Obama needs to do something.”

Graham stressed that the U.S. needs to act now.

Mr. Graham does not volunteer as to what our next course of action should be.  Why should he?  War is always easy when you’re heckling from the cheap seats.

(PS: Does anyone else find it funny that Lindsey Graham should be telling anyone how to be butch?)

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Short Takes

The U.S. and allies express hope for Syrian peace conference.

The September jobs report was anemic.

Wildfires move close to Sydney, Australia.

Two human rights groups criticize U.S. drone program.

Yet again — Child in Texas kills himself playing with gun.

Word of warning — anonymous tweeting from the White House can get you fired.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Vladimir Putin Op-Eds The New York Times

Russian President Vladimir Putin has some thoughts on Syria.

My working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust. I appreciate this. I carefully studied his address to the nation on Tuesday. And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.

Nothing like getting a lecture on democracy and God from a former operative of the KGB.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Hold That Thought

President Obama’s speech last night on the possible attack on Syria was couched in moral terms, basically saying that the last thing he wanted to do was send missiles flying into Damascus, but he believed that America and America alone had both the obligation and authority to do so.  As such, he portrayed us as both reluctant — reminding us that he campaigned as the anti-war candidate in 2008 — but devastating: “America doesn’t do pinpricks.”

The whole speech became more a discussion of possibilities rather than necessities thanks to the news that was breaking all day: there might be an agreement brokered by Russia for Syria to get rid of its stockpile of chemical weapons and for Syria to sign on to the convention that banned such weapons.  The diplomacy is still going on, and while we don’t yet have a celebratory signing ceremony planned on the White House lawn, things look a lot more hopeful than they did a week ago.  And the fact that he delivered the speech from the East Room rather than the Oval Office was encouraging: presidents never deliver bad news from the East Room.

Congress heaved a huge sigh of relief.  With the diplomacy underway, the hot potato the president handed them last week cooled off: the vote on the resolution has been postponed pending the outcome of the talks.  Now they no longer have to put up or shut up.  It also gave Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) the all-clear to finally say something about Syria — he’d been holding back because his instinctive rah-rah for war was being outweighed by his instinct for survival in his Senate race.  The Tea Party is vehemently against the idea of an attack because The Black Guy is for it, and Mr. McConnell faces a primary challenge back home.  Now he can be true to his pandering, and he unloaded on the president, going Rand Paul on him and sounding like the true toady to the nutsery that he has to be to stay alive politically.

At any rate, we have now gone from an imminent danger and imminent attack to a fall-back of letting diplomacy do its work.  It could take weeks or even months to get the arrangements in place, and Assad could set up any number of roadblocks, real or contrived, before the weapons — which until yesterday he denied even having — are under international control and then destroyed.  It reminds one of the Cuban missile crisis: the bad guys never really acknowledged that they were doing anything wrong, but they promised never to do it again in exchange for a face-saving climb-down from World War III.  And President Obama’s reluctant warrior portrayal — don’t make me attack you — and turning the speech from a “we start bombing in five minutes” to a treatise on why we should be the moral compass of the world is, at the least, a hopeful sign.  We can now talk about that rather than watch grainy Youtube footage of smoke rising from the landing site of a Cruise missile.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A Way Out?

An answer to a question at a news conference may provide the way off of the limb for the U.S. and Syria.

Russia and Syria embraced Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s suggestion Monday that the Syrian government could avert a U.S. attack by placing its chemical weapons under international control, upending the Obama administration’s efforts to sharpen its case for military action.

U.S. officials said Kerry’s comment, made in response to a question at a news conference in London, was not intended to be a diplomatic opening. But Kerry’s Russian and Syrian counterparts quickly followed up, and the idea drew immediate interest internationally and from top Democrats in Washington.

By the end of the day, President Obama conceded that the idea of monitoring and ultimately destroying Syria’s arsenal “could potentially be a significant breakthrough.” The Senate postponed a vote scheduled for Wednesday on whether to back a proposed punitive strike.

“I think you have to take it with a grain of salt, initially,” Obama said in an interview with NBC that was among several he gave Monday in pursuit of public backing for a military strike in response to an alleged Aug. 21 gas attack on Syrian civilians.

“We are going to run this to ground,” Obama said. “We’re going to make sure that we see how serious these proposals are.”

The president plans to address the nation Tuesday evening in a speech originally planned to be the capstone of a newly focused moral and political case to rally a skeptical public and reluctant lawmakers.

The timing of the new proposal was awkward and its apparent genesis perhaps more so.

It began when Kerry was asked early Monday whether Assad could avoid a U.S. attack.

“Sure. He could turn over every bit of his weapons to the international community within the next week, without delay,” Kerry responded with a shrug. “But he isn’t about to.”

As Kerry flew back to Washington to help lobby lawmakers, he received a midair call from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who said he had heard the secretary’s remarks and was about to make a public announcement.

The statement in Moscow came before Kerry landed.

“We are calling on the Syrian authorities [to] not only agree on putting chemical weapons storages under international control but also for its further destruction and then joining the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons,” Lavrov said, adding, “We have passed our offer to [Syrian Foreign Minister] Walid al-Moualem and hope to receive a fast and positive answer.”

Moualem, who was in Moscow meeting with Lavrov, followed with a statement that his government “welcomes Russia’s initiative, based on the Syrian government’s care about the lives of our people and security of our country.”

Although Syrian President Bashar al-Assad denies having a stockpile of the widely banned weapons, the idea of international control also quickly gained traction among diplomats and at least some senior Democrats whose support Obama seeks for a show of force.

If this works — and it’s still in the works — it could provide a non-lethal solution for everyone.  Syria doesn’t get bombed, Congress is off the hook, diplomacy works, and everybody gets to save a little face.

Keep your fingers crossed, and maybe the speech tonight will be an announcement that everybody’s all going to get along and there’s no need to launch an attack.

Hope springs eternal.

Short Takes

President Obama supports plan for Syria to give up control of chemical weapons.

It’s Election Day in New York City.

Museum finds a new Van Gogh painting.

R.I.P. Cal Worthington, L.A. car dealer with crazy ads.

Tropical Update: We now have TS Humberto way out east in the Atlantic, and TS Gabrielle is still churning out there.

The Tigers lost to the White Sox 5-1.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Reining Them In

Putting aside the pros and cons of attacking Syria, a lot of people — and by that I mean the various and sun-dried pundits inside the Beltway — seem to be worried about what it will mean for the future of the presidency of Barack Obama and anyone else who should come after.

Frankly, it’s a silly argument to make, especially if you think that political considerations have always been in the mix when an administration decides to go to war, and this administration is no different.  More’s the pity; there’s not a lot of attention paid to the actual consequences of unloading the 82nd Airborne on a country or the aftereffects on the soldiers and the families.  But that’s usually left to the next guy.

At any rate, there’s a lot of faux hand-wringing over what a No vote will do for the image of President Obama.  E.J. Dionne has gone so far as to say it will “incapacitate the president for three long years.”  But if history is any guide, presidents who have lost votes on key issues in Congress have lived to fight another day and done pretty well after.  Bill Clinton survived impeachment, and even George W. Bush managed to eke out a second term after his attempt to turn Social Security over to Wall Street died a quick and merciless death.  And those guys had it easy compared to what President Obama has faced from a Republican Party that has objected to everything he’s done and threatened impeachment over his choice of breakfast cereal.

But what about on the international stage?  What kind of leadership will we show the world if Congress says No?  Well, it may surprise you to know that we’re not the only country in the world that has both the moral standing to condemn Syria’s government for its actions, nor are we the only country with the capability to do something about it.  It can’t and it shouldn’t always be us.

This is not meant as giving Assad a free pass to go ahead and commit genocide because the United States is reluctant to launch a Cruise missile.  But a lot of our allies remain to be convinced; they’ve been down this road with us before and they know what perils it brings.  Kevin Drum sums it up well:

As for America’s ability to act in the world, I really doubt that this vote will be taken as much of a precedent. But if it were, the precedent it sets would be simple: the United States won’t undertake military action unless it’s so plainly justified that both parties are willing to support it. That would frankly be no bad thing. Unfortunately, once they get in office American presidents of both parties seem to find no end of wars to fight overseas. Reining them in a bit would be commendable.


Short Takes

Nobody seemed to notice or care that Syria was getting chemical weapons.

U.S.: Proven link of Assad to gas attack missing.

Italian reporter held in Syria has been freed.

NAACP President Ben Jealous will leave his job this year.

Tropical Update: One of those disturbances is now TD 9.

Serena Williams won the U.S. Open tennis.

The Tigers fall to K.C. again 5-2.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Sunday Reading

The Best Result From Congress — James Fallows in The Atlantic articulates why Congress should vote No on going to Syria.

One week ago at exactly this time — it seems like a year — the political world was on waning-moments countdown for the expected U.S. strike on Syria. Then about an hour later, President Obama took the surprising and highly welcome step of saying he would request approval from Congress.

Let me spell out what was implicit in the items I was putting up just before and after the President’s decision. You can find them all collected here, including the one by William Polk that continues to get a lot of attention. In the past few days, like my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates (and for the same reason, the nightmare of actual article-writing), I’ve mainly been off line. Here is how things look to me a week further on:

  1. Obama’s decision to involve Congress is the one clearly positive result of the horrific Syrian civil war. Whatever the reasons for his decision, it will help redress the decades-long distortion in executive and legislative power over military action.
  2. If I had a vote in Congress, I would vote No. I wasn’t sure of that a week ago, as I’ll explain below. But it is how I feel now because of this next reason #3.
  3. The President and many of his supporters have made an ironclad case that something should be done about the disasters and atrocities in Syria. But they have barely even tried to make a case that the right something is U.S. airstrikes without broad international support. Thus:
  4. Obama himself should hope that the Congress turns him down. A No vote would offer a legitimate if temporarily “humiliating” way out of what is looking more and more like an inexplicable strategic mistake.

Now the details.

On why Obama’s decision was so valuable: I gave part of my explanation nine days ago. Garrett Epps explained the legal and historical reasoning around the same time. Zachary Karabell talked about the (wholesome) political implications yesterday. Many others have stressed the same thing. Overall: since at least the Vietnam era, people on all sides of American politics have lamented the seemingly unstoppable rise of an Imperial Presidency. Obama may not have had this in mind a month ago or even a week ago, but his decision will help brake (and break) that trend.

On why I was ready to hear his case, once he decided to make it to Congress: I had obviously been skeptical of unilateral military involvement Syria. A week ago we were headed toward action that was unilateral in two ways. One was the absence of UN, NATO, EU, UK, or other broad alliances that have been amassed for nearly all modern military strikes. The other was the domestic unilateralism of Obama’s deciding this all on his own.

For me, the very fact of going to Congress made the plan presumptively more legitimate. If we went ahead, it would be a national decision, not one man’s choice. A broader and more systematic U.S. process might in turn attract wider allied backing — which in its turn could mark any action as a defense of truly international, not just American, norms. And the need to testify and debate in Congress, even this madhouse Congress, would ensure that basic questions about evidence, plans, and contingencies got asked and (presumably) answered. Therefore I thought a week ago that after hearing a case made, in these legitimizing circumstances, I could imagine being convinced that Congress should offer the support that the president, to his credit, had requested rather than assumed. Overall, we might have a least-worst outcome: bipartisan agreement, American leadership, reinforcement of the anti-chemical norm.

On why I would now vote No:  From what I can tell, approximately 100% of the pro-strike arguments have been devoted to proving what no one contests. Namely, that hideous events are underway in Syria, that someone (and most likely Assad) has criminally and horrifically gassed civilians, and that something should be done to reduce the ongoing carnage and punish the war crimes. And approximately 0% of the argument has addressed the main anti-strike concern: whether U.S. military action, minus broad support, any formal international approval, or any clear definition of goal, strategy, or success, is an effective response.

For instance, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, with whom I usually agree, argues powerfullysomething should be done to and for Syria. His case for missile strikes is that they “just might, at the margins, make a modest difference.” If anyone has seen a defense that says, “These steps, in this way, match means to objective, and have the following path to success,” please let me know.

There is such a thing as too much caution in committing force, often known as McClellanism after the reluctant-warrior Union commander at the start of the Civil War. (Leading of course to the famous line attributed to Lincoln, “If General McClellan does not want to use the army, I would like to borrow it for a time.”) And nations, like individuals, predictably over-learn the lessons of their most recent mistakes.

But even if the Iraq-war disaster had not happened, even if the tiny handful of Americans who are in the military had not been worn out through a decade-plus of nonstop deployments, any decision about use of force should be accompanied by answers to these most basic questions:

– What, exactly, is its goal?

– How will we know if our plan has succeeded or failed?

– What happens after we make our first move? In this case, suppose the Assad regime, or Iran, or Russia, responds in a way we don’t anticipate. What second- and third-round moves are we allowing for?

– Is our choice really as stark as turning our back, or sending in bombs?

Many past items have gone into one or more of these questions. For instance, on basic questions, please check out this. Maybe Obama and his team have answers. If so, he had better start sharing them. For now he has not come close to making the case that, while “something” should be done, this is the right something. As the young Obama himself said so memorably 11 years ago, “What I am opposed to is dumb wars.”

“They Ripped Him Apart” — From Pauls Toutonghi in Salon, searching for answers in a gay teen’s suicide.  A long read but very well worth it.

On the afternoon of Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013, Jadin Bell—the only openly gay student at La Grande High School, in La Grande, Ore.—left his home, on foot, in 20-degree weather. He walked down Walnut Street to the campus of Central Elementary—past the empty bike racks, past four leafless cherry trees and a single, white-barked birch. He sent a text message to his friend, Tara, telling her where to find his suicide note. Then he climbed onto the school’s playground equipment. He hanged himself with a length of rope. He was fifteen years old.

Doctors later told the family that the rope had deprived Jadin of oxygen for roughly nine minutes—nine minutes before a passing stranger had seen him, and taken him down, and begun to administer CPR. Those nine minutes, while not immediately fatal, had been enough to shut down all activity in his brain. Though paramedics had restored his heartbeat during the flight to Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland, Jadin never regained consciousness. On January 29, his parents, Joe Bell and Lola Lathrop, made the decision to take him off of life support.

“He was having seizures at that point,” Bell later told me. “It made it so he didn’t suffer anymore.”

Still, Jadin lived for five days without food or water. In La Grande, the small logging town in eastern Oregon’s Union County, 200 residents held a candlelight vigil at the library. At a school assembly, students shared stories about Jadin and sang—with a soft, tremulous cadence—“Lean on Me.” Details of Jadin’s story filtered out through the media. He’d been taunted and harassed by his peers—both in person and on social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram—because of his sexuality. “He was different from the mainstream,” said family friend Bud Hill, “and they tend to pick on the different ones.”

When he finally died on Feb. 3, Jadin’s suicide became part of the nation’s ongoing dialogue about bullying. Salon wrote an article about him, as did the Huffington Post. Nationally syndicated sex advice columnist Dan Savage reiterated his call for parents to home-school their gay teenagers, if home schooling was what the teens, themselves, requested, “because you don’t want to find out the abuse was more than your kid could bear when it’s too fucking late to do anything about it.”

As a recent father of twins, this story wouldn’t leave me alone. It lingered, with granular specificity, in the fabric of my imagination. So much of the joy of the early years of parenting, for me, was the physicality of my kids’ bodies—the way it felt to lift and to hold them, to smell the buttery scent of their skin, to pull them close against me. Now, I imagined the converse of this: Jadin’s parents, watching their son die in his bed in the pediatric ICU, beloved but unreachable, a compression bandage holding the IV in his wrist, his immobile body tucked into the starched cotton sheets of the hospital bed.

Jadin’s death opened a deep reservoir of some kind within me. Because when I was 15 years old, I, too, tried to kill myself. I, too, was a bullied teenager who was unable to fit in, anywhere. And though I survived—though it did, in fact, get better—it wasn’t linear, or quick, or predictable. It took many years for my life to improve. Today, as an adult, I still struggle to overcome the feelings that nearly killed me 20 years ago—and I live in fear of their replication, someday, in my daughter, or my son.

Florida Flails — Fred Grimm at the Miami Herald on Florida fighting yet another losing case in court.

Pam and Rick were hanging out in Tallahassee last week, putting our government priorities in order. They wondered, “What can we do to improve the lives of Floridians?”

Of course, you already know the answer. Couldn’t be more obvious. We’ll trick out 18-year-olds with handguns.

Yes, indeed. We who can not abide the notion of an 18-year-old bellying up to the bar for a Budweiser sure as hell want to spend taxpayer money to insure the same knucklehead can buy himself a Beretta.

So Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi has committed state resources to that great cause and joined yet another quixotic lawsuit, this one against the United States government. Bondi added Florida to a list of NRA subsidiary states seeking to overturn a 45-year-old federal law that forbids licensed gun dealers from selling handguns to anyone under 21.

It’s another likely loser of a case. Like Rick and Pam’s futile attempt to overturn the Affordable Health Care Act. Over the last few years, the Scott years, we’ve frittered away hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars in court defending an ideological agenda. State lawyers and pricey outside law firms have been dispatched to state and federal court to defend, without much success, the privatization of prisons, drug testing of welfare recipients, drug testing of state workers (though not state legislators or the governor) the shifting of pension costs onto state workers, and election laws designed to tamp down turnout among minority voters.

The Story of # — Keith Houston at The New Yorker explains where some of our more obscure punctuation (#, &, >, ¶) comes from.

Octothorpe (#)

01-octothrope.jpgLeft, from the pen of Isaac Newton; right, detail from Johann Conrad Barchusen’s “Pyrosophia” (1698). Courtesy the Othmer Library of Chemical History, Chemical Heritage Foundation.

The story of the hashtag begins sometime around the fourteenth century, with the introduction of the Latin abbreviation “lb,” for the Roman term libra pondo, or “pound weight.” Like many standard abbreviations of that period, “lb” was written with the addition of a horizontal bar, known as a tittle, or tilde (an example is shown above, right, in Johann Conrad Barchusen’s “Pyrosophia,” from 1698). And though printers commonly cast this barred abbreviation as a single character, it was the rushed pens of scribes that eventually produced the symbol’s modern form: hurriedly dashed off again and again, the barred “lb” mutated into the abstract #. The symbol shown here on the left, a barred “lb” rendered in Isaac Newton’s elegant scrawl, is a missing link, a now-extinct ancestor of the # that bridges the gap between the symbol’s Latin origins and its familiar modern form. Though it is now referred to by a number of different names—“hash mark,” “number sign,” and even “octothorpe,” a jokey appellation coined by engineers working on the Touch-Tone telephone keypad—the phrase “pound sign” can be traced to the symbol’s ancient origins. For just as “lb” came from libra, so the word “pound” is descended from pondo, making the # a descendent of the Roman term libra pondo in both name and appearance.

Bonus Video — If you have been paying attention to the New York City mayoral race, the one thing that stands out — so to speak — is the spectacular demise of former Rep. Anthony Weiner’s campaign.  Stateless Media put together a short documentary on how the race went from being about the issues and the state of the city to being about anything except that.

Doonesbury — Fire, dude.