Sunday, July 31, 2011

Sunday Reading

Holy Wars — The latest boogedy-boogedy about Others is being orchestrated by a lawyer in Brooklyn.

A confluence of factors has fueled the anti-Shariah movement, most notably the controversy over the proposed Islamic center near ground zero in New York, concerns about homegrown terrorism and the rise of the Tea Party. But the campaign’s air of grass-roots spontaneity, which has been carefully promoted by advocates, shrouds its more deliberate origins.

In fact, it is the product of an orchestrated drive that began five years ago in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in the office of a little-known lawyer, David Yerushalmi, a 56-year-old Hasidic Jew with a history of controversial statements about race, immigration and Islam. Despite his lack of formal training in Islamic law, Mr. Yerushalmi has come to exercise a striking influence over American public discourse about Shariah.

Working with a cadre of conservative public-policy institutes and former military and intelligence officials, Mr. Yerushalmi has written privately financed reports, filed lawsuits against the government and drafted the model legislation that recently swept through the country — all with the effect of casting Shariah as one of the greatest threats to American freedom since the cold war.

The message has caught on. Among those now echoing Mr. Yerushalmi’s views are prominent Washington figures like R. James Woolsey, a former director of the C.I.A., and the Republican presidential candidates Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann, who this month signed a pledge to reject Islamic law, likening it to “totalitarian control.”

Yet, for all its fervor, the movement is arguably directed at a problem more imagined than real. Even its leaders concede that American Muslims are not coalescing en masse to advance Islamic law. Instead, they say, Muslims could eventually gain the kind of foothold seen in Europe, where multicultural policies have allowed for what critics contend is an overaccommodation of Islamic law.

Isn’t it ironic that a Hasidic Jewish lawyer, in concert with evangelical Christians, would be whooping up a holy war against Muslims? Cue the music: “What a day, what a day for an auto da fe…”

More below the fold.

Leonard Pitts, Jr. on losing the War on Drugs.

There was a quake last week, but you likely didn’t feel it.

See, this particular quake was not of the Earth, involved no shifting of the planetary crust. No, what shifted was a paradigm, and the implications are hopeful and profound.

On Tuesday, you see, the NAACP passed a resolution calling for an end to the War on Drugs.

Said NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous in a written statement, “These flawed drug policies that have been mostly enforced in African-American communities must be stopped and replaced with evidence-based practices that address the root causes of drug use and abuse in America.”

Here’s why this matters. Or, more to the point, why it matters more than if such a statement came from Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton. The NAACP is not just the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization. It is also its most conservative.

That word is used here not in the modern sense of tea party antics or Fox “News” rantings but, rather, in the original sense, denoting a propensity toward caution and a distrust of the bold, the risky, the new. And that’s the NAACP all over.


By now, two things should be neon obvious where the drug war is concerned.

The first is that it failed. Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, an advocacy group, reports that after 40 million arrests and a trillion dollars spent to fight drug use, the number of those who have used drugs is up 2,800 percent since 1970.

The second is that it has come down like a hammer on the African-American community while leaving the white community, which does most of the buying, selling and using of drugs in this country, unscathed. The Sentencing Project, another advocacy group, reports that while two-thirds of regular crack users are white or Latino, better than 80 percent of those sentenced in federal court for crack-related crimes are black. That is absurd, obscene and unjust.

It is time to concede what has long been apparent: you cannot jail people out of wanting what they want. But, you just might be able to treat and educate them to that purpose. Granted, that will require a paradigm shift some of us will find difficult to get our heads around.

But if the NAACP can do it, you and I have no excuse.

U-Turn at Chrysler — How Fiat saved the American car company.

In what surely ranks as one of the most remarkable turnarounds in the annals of American business history, this week Chrysler reported adjusted net income of $181 million and a 30 percent rise in revenue, to $13.7 billion, even in a still-soft global car market. Its June sales jumped 30 percent from the previous year, its 15th consecutive month of increases. Its market share has grown to 10.6 percent, from under 6 percent. Chrysler repaid its outstanding government loans in May, six years ahead of schedule, and last week Fiat paid $500 million for the Treasury’s remaining 6 percent stake in the company. The American government has recouped $11.2 billion of its $12.5 billion investment in Chrysler, and would probably have made a profit had it held the debt to maturity. Meanwhile, Chrysler employs 56,000 people and has added 9,000 jobs since the bailout.

“This is an amazing success story,” the assistant secretary of the Treasury, Timothy Massad, told me this week. “We’ve fully exited Chrysler at a very small loss. When you look at the options we had, they were very stark: provide assistance or face the immediate liquidation of the company. That would have been disastrous in the context of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.”

How did Fiat do it after so many had failed? Mr. Kelleher [a Chrysler dealer from Pennsylvania] said the first months were frightening. Fiat and Chrysler’s chief executive, Sergio Marchionne, “stopped the rebates, stopped the bad loans. We felt the change immediately.” Chrysler’s market share plunged. But Mr. Kelleher said he felt better after he met the new chief executive at Mr. Marchionne’s first dealer meeting in Orlando, Fla., in early 2010. A native of Abruzzo, Italy, whose family moved to Canada when he was 14, Mr. Marchionne speaks fluent English and Italian. “He has a presence. He looks like a kindly grandfather, but he has a grip that will take your hand off,” Mr. Kelleher said. Mr. Marchionne immediately put his stamp on new models. At the Orlando meeting, he reviewed plans for a revamped Sebring. “I’m not going to allow you to sell this,” he bluntly told the dealers, according to Mr. Kelleher. The Jeep Grand Cherokee “was on the drawing board, but Marchionne changed the car dramatically. He knew it was a good product, but it wasn’t up to his standards,” especially the plastic-laden interior, Mr. Kelleher said. At its debut last fall, the revamped model drew strong reviews and was an immediate hit. New quality controls cut customer complaints in half from the previous model. “We started to take off right then,” Mr. Kelleher said.

After the meeting, the Sebring got a new engine, a new suspension, a new transmission and a new interior. About the only thing that survived was the chassis. It also got a new name, the Chrysler 200, and Mr. Marchionne made the bold but controversial decision, criticized by some Republicans in Congress, to spend $2 million for a commercial in January’s Super Bowl.

The day of the game, Mr. Kelleher was attending a dealer convention in St. Louis, where dealers were clamoring for a glimpse of the ad. Chrysler leadership finally agreed on condition of confidentiality. A few hours before kickoff, the dealers watched as a camera panned through the industrial ruins of Detroit to the ominous pulse of “Lose Yourself” by the rapper and native son, Eminem.

And then there’s the new version of the Fiat 500, the ubiquitous cinquecento that many tourists may remember dodging during their first trip to Italy back in the 1960’s and ’70’s. No matter what you may think of the looks of the car, it’s good to see Chrysler back and on its feet.

Doonesbury — A message to parents.