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.

One bark on “Sunday Reading

  1. Re: Laugh track. Conservatives don’t do well with nuance and ambiguity. A lot of humor has those characteristics. Actually, conservative humor is at a level with that of a 12 year old boy. Think 3 Stooges, slapstick, and potty jokes!

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