Sunday, April 17, 2016

Sunday Reading

One Of The Greats — Jim Nelson in GQ on the legacy of Barack Obama.

Something is dawning on us—it’s almost too soon for us to admit, but it’s there, a half-considered thought only now blooming in our brains. Maybe we dismiss it with one of those quick cognitive fly swats. Nah, too early to say or I hate that guy. But the truth is coming, and it sounds like this: Barack Obama will be inducted into the league of Great Presidents.

Wait. One of the Greatest? you ask, your thumb emoticon poised to turn up or down on me. The guy haters love to hate with their very best hate game? Like 20-Dollar Bill great? Like Mount Rushmore great?

Yep. (We just won’t build Mount Rushmores anymore.) In so many ways, Obama was better than we imagined, better than the body politic deserved, and far, far better than his enemies will ever concede, but the great thing about being great is that the verdict of enemies doesn’t matter.

In fact, and I say this as a Bill Clinton fan, I now feel certain that, in the coming decades, Obama’s star will rise higher than Clinton’s, and he’ll replace Bill in the public mind as the Greatest Democrat since FDR.

This has to do with the nature of Obama’s leadership, which is to play to legacy (and Clinton’s impulse, which is to play to the room). Bill Clinton will long be revered because he’s charismatic, presided over an economic revival, and changed and elevated the view of the Democratic Party. Barack Obama will long be revered because he’s charismatic, presided over an economic revival, and changed and elevated the view of the presidency. He’s simply bigger than Bill.

More to the point, Obama’s legacy is the sort that gets canonized. Because the first rule of Hall of Fame-dom: The times have to suck for the president not to. Civil wars, World Wars, depressions and recessions. You got to have ’em if you wanna be great. That’s why we rate the Washingtons, Lincolns, and Roosevelts over That Fat Guy with the Walrus Mustache. Like Obama, these Great Men were dealt sucky hands, won big, and left the country better off than it was before.

But it’s also why we downgrade the Jimmy Carters and Herbert Hoovers. Were they as bad in real time as we remember them in history? Probably not. But they were dealt sucky hands, only played one round, and left the country feeling worse off. Legacy Game over. (Hoover reminds me more and more of Donald Trump! Elected with little political experience, Hoover was a rich bastard whose central theme was that government was wasteful. His answer to the Great Depression was to start a trade war and build a massive project called the Hoover Dam. The dam turned out to be a giant wall that did not stop or solve larger problems. Déjà vu, thy name is Trump Wall!)

Obama has a few other edges in the long haul of history, beyond specific hurrah moments like Obamacare, rescuing the economy, and making America way more bi-curious. Being the first black president of course secures a certain legacy. But what now feels distinctly possible is that, just as Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed, over time he may be judged less for the color of his skin than for the content of his character. That character came across every time haters or Trumpers or birthers tried to pull him down into the mud or question his American-ness. He just flew above it all. And, luckily, he took most of us with him. He was the Leader not only of our country but of our mood and disposition, which is harder to rule. At a time when we became more polarized, our discourse pettier and more poisoned, Obama always came across as the Adult in the Room, the one we wanted to be and follow.

Ironically, one of the lock-ins to his Hall of Fame Greatness was originally supposed to be his Achilles’ heel, the shallow thing critics loved to smear him with: his eloquence, his “reliance” on speeches and teleprompters (Sarah Palin once famously screeched, “Mr. President…step away from the teleprompter and do your job!” while herself reading from a teleprompter), as if addressing the country as a whole, trying to unify or inspire people, were a superficial thing. But pivotal words at pivotal moments are not only how we come to admire great leaders, it’s the primary way we remember them. The first thing most people can recall about Lincoln? The Gettysburg Address. FDR? Fireside chats. George Washington? His amazing Snapchats. (George was first with everything.)

With Obama, each thoughtful step of the way, from his soaring acceptance speech (“The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep…”) to his epic speeches on race and religion, his responses to the shootings in Tucson and Newtown, the killing of Osama bin Laden, the opening of Cuba (“Todos somos Americanos!”), and countless other momentous occasions, he knew how to speak to our better angels at a time when it was hard to locate any angels.

Lastly, there’s the arc of history, bound to bend downward. As our unity becomes more frayed, more tenuous, and the ability for any politician to get anything done more unlikely, the job of president will become less LBJ tactical and less FDR big-dealer. The job will largely be to preside. To unify where and however we can. In this way, too, Obama pointed the way forward.

It may be hard to imagine now, but in the face of rising chaos, we’ll crave unity all the more, and in future years whoever can speak most convincingly of unity will rise to the top. (It’s also hard to imagine many beating Obama at the game.) This year’s carnival election, with Trump as a kind of debauched circus barker, only makes the distinction clearer. The absurdity and car-crash spectacle of it all have already lent Obama an out-of-time quality, as if he were a creature from another, loftier century. Whatever happens next, I feel this in my bones: We’ll look back at history, hopefully when we’re zooming down the Barack Obama Hyperloop Transport System, and think: That man was rare. And we were damn lucky to have him.

Hail New Columbia — Clare Foran in The Atlantic looks at the case for Washington, D.C. statehood.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser is working to breathe life into a longstanding, but controversial, effort to convert the nation’s capital into America’s 51st state.

The mayor ​doubled down on the fight for D.C. statehood on Friday, pledging on Twitter to introduce legislation that would put statehood on the ballot in November 2016. Bowser also called for a citywide vote on the matter at a gathering of Democratic and civil rights leaders and D.C. residents, The Washington Post reports, an event that took place at around the same time that protesters were descending on D.C. to rally for statehood.

It’s practically an official District of Columbia past time to lament the fact that residents of the nation’s capital pay taxes but lack full voting representation in Congress. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s delegate to Congress, is barred from voting on final passage of legislation. The somewhat odd state of affairs is a sore subject. License plates in the District defiantly read “Taxation Without Representation.”Advocates for statehood have been kicking around ideas to achieve their aim for years. Supporters have even proposed naming the 51st state, if it ever comes into existence, “New Columbia.”

The statehood fight highlights some of the disparities and apparent contradictions of the nation’s capital. D.C. plays host to the country’s powerful political elite. It is also a city where many residents live in abject poverty, and where the divide between the haves and the have-nots is stark, and often overlooked by the political class. For statehood supporters, the fact that D.C. residents lack a voice in Congress on par with residents of states across the country is an egregious embodiment of that disparity. Nevertheless, the renewed push for D.C. statehood will undoubtedly be an uphill battle, and one that likely puts the Democratic mayor on a collision course with Republican congressional leaders.

Congressional Republicans tend to bristle at the notion that the District of Columbia should become the 51st state. Conservative critics often invoke the Constitution to make their claim. “Voting Representation for the District of Columbia: Violating the Framers’ Vision and Constitutional Commands,” reads the title of a legal memorandum published in 2009 by the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation. Since D.C. is a liberal stronghold, if it were to achieve statehood that could also help Democrats consolidate power in Congress.

Aides for Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did not immediately return requests for comment.

The mayor appears to be setting an ambitious statehood agenda, championing a plan to achieve greater fiscal independence from Congress for the nation’s capital as well. The wonky fiscal plan would, the Post writes, amount to a “declaration of independence by the District of Columbia” and stand as a “clear challenge to the ‘absolute supremacy’ that Congress has wielded over the District since it was created in 1790.”

The future of the fight is unclear, and it could fail to gain much traction. But the mayor’s efforts are sure to raise the profile of the issue even if they ultimately fall short of transforming D.C. into the 51st state . The campaign might also endear Bowser to D.C. residents who seem to be increasingly in favor of statehood. A Post poll released last year found that: “Nearly 3 in 4 residents say they are upset that the District has no voting representation in Congress, and about half describe themselves as ‘very upset’ over the absence.” For now, the more immediate question is how far the mayor is willing to take the fight, and how forceful the pushback will be.

Remember Ben Carson? — Andy Borowitz in The New Yorker.

WEST PALM BEACH (Satire from The Borowitz Report)—Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon, stirred controversy on Thursday by saying in a televised interview that he had no recollection of running for President of the United States.

Appearing on the Fox News Channel, Dr. Carson responded to host Sean Hannity’s question about his ten-month-long candidacy by saying, “I do not recall any of that occurring.”

“I’ve been told that I did it, but I find it impossible to believe,” he said. “I don’t think I’d forget a thing like that.”

Dr. Carson said he had seen photographs and videos of him campaigning for the Republican nomination but called them “the work of an evil person who is really good at PhotoShop and whatnot.”

He said he did not know who would create such an elaborate hoax to convince him that he had run for President “when I clearly did not,” but he speculated about the person’s motives.

“Someone is trying to mess with my mind,” he said. “And when I find out who is doing that I will make them pay dearly.”

While Carson insisted that “there is no way I ran for President,” he did not rule out running for the Republican nomination in the future.

“I think I’d be really good at it,” he said.

Doonesbury — “Words, words, mere words.”

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Friday, January 15, 2016

Short Takes

ISIS claims credit for the attack in Jakarta that killed seven.

President Obama took his SOTU tour to Louisiana.

Anglicans suspend entire U.S. Episcopal church over marriage equality.

Goldman Sachs to pay $5 billion in mortgage settlement.

The Oscar nominations were announced.

Tropical Update: A hurricane in January?  I blame Al Gore.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Leave Them Wanting More

So I ended up watching the whole SOTU speech, which means I will probably yawn my way through work today.  No matter; it was a great speech and the reason I couldn’t turn it off was because I, well, I couldn’t turn it off.

President Obama, as promised, did not present a list of what he wanted Congress to do in his final year.  He knew from both history and practical experience that it would be a waste of a good speech if he did.  So he told them basically what he’d already done, how well the country was doing, and at almost every turn, repudiated the negative and hostile world that the Republican candidates — with one in particular in mind — were presenting as the future.  He was deft, humorous when he needed to be (best zinger of the night was the one about Sputnik vis a vis climate change), serious at the right moments, and overall exactly spot on about the mood of the country and what he tried to do about it.  He candidly admitted where he thought he came up short, but blamed no one else for his own failings.

As I watched the speech, I was hearkening back to the speech that Mr. Obama gave at the Democratic convention in 2004 in Boston that first brought him to national attention.  It was lofty, inspiring, and, like every great performer — and I mean that in the best possible way — left us wanting more as he exited the stage.  Reading some of the splutterings of the GOP, it seems as if the president hit his marks flawlessly.

Well done, Mr. President.  Bravo.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

State of the Union

I’ll watch as much as I can, but I can’t promise I’ll stay awake through the whole thing.  That’s no knock against President Obama, but when you get up when I do, sleep doesn’t take No for an answer.

I have no plans to live-blog, Tweet, live-post in Facebook, or gossip on the phone, so I’ll wrap up in the morning.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Sunday Reading

Ten Days in June — David Remmick in The New Yorker on the days that changed America.

What a series of days in American life, full of savage mayhem, uncommon forgiveness, resistance to forgiveness, furious debate, mourning, and, finally, justice and grace. As President Obama led thousands of mourners in Charleston, South Carolina, in “Amazing Grace,” I thought about late 2013 and early 2014. Obama’s Presidency was surely dwindling, if not finished. His mood was sombre, philosophical—which is good if you are a philosopher; if not, not.

Obama described himself to me then in terms of his limits—as “a relay swimmer in a river full of rapids, and that river is history.” More than a few columnists believed that Obama was now resigned to small victories, at best. But pause to think of what has happened, the scale of recent events.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court (despite an apocalyptic dissent about “pure applesauce” and “interpretive jiggery-pokery” by Justice Scalia) put an end to years of court cases and congressional attacks against the Affordable Care Act, which means that millions of Americans will no longer live in a state of perpetual anxiety about health costs.

On Friday, the Supreme Court (despite a curiously ill-informed dissent about Kalahari, Aztec, and Han mating rites by Chief Justice Roberts) legalized same-sex marriage nationally—a colossal (and joyous) landmark moment in the liberation of gay men and lesbians.

Meanwhile, throughout the South, governors and legislatures are beginning to lower the racist banner of the Confederate flag. Cruelty on a horrific scale—slaughter committed in the name of racism and its symbols—has made all talk about the valuable “heritage” of such symbols absurd to all but a very few. The endlessly revived “conversation about race” shows signs of turning into something more serious—a debate about institutional racism, and about inequities in the criminal-justice system, in incarceration, in employment, in education. The more Obama leads on this, the more he sheds his tendency toward caution—his deep concern that he will alienate as many as he inspires—the better. The eulogy in Charleston, where he spoke as freely, and as emotionally, as he ever has about race during his Presidency, is a sign, I think—I hope—that he is prepared, between now and his last day in office, to seize the opportunity.

Finally, in recent months Obama has also, through executive action, made solid gains on immigration, wage discrimination, climate change, and foreign-policy issues, including an opening, after more than a half century of Cold War and embargo, to Cuba. These accomplishments—and potential accomplishments, like a rigorous, well-regulated nuclear arrangement with Iran—will help shape the coming election. In no small measure, Obama, and what he has achieved, will determine the parameters of the debate.

The Next Battle: “Religious Liberty” — Zoë Carpenter in The Nation on the next tactic the Religious Right will use to oppress the gay community.

As a jubilant crowd at the Supreme Court celebrated Friday’s 5-4 ruling that same-sex couples have a right to marry, moans of impotent fury emanated from conservatives in and out of the Court. “The Supreme Court of the United States has descended from the disciplined legal reasoning of John Marshall and Joseph Story to the mystical aphorisms of the fortune cookie,” Justice Antonin Scalia fumed in his dissenting opinion. In his own dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas argued that the Court should not worry about human dignity: “Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved,” he wrote. Justice Samuel Alito, also dissenting, fretted that homophobes now “will risk being labeled as bigots.”

Among the field of Republican presidential candidates, the responses ranged from outrage to resignation; none embraced the ruling. Some were quick to throw red meat to the conservative base, ignoring yet another thing the GOP supposedly learned after getting crushed in 2012. But a few of the more serious candidates, who have read the polls and know that aggressive opposition to gay marriage spells trouble in a general election, tried to shift the focus to one of the next issues in the marriage debate, which Nan Hunter explores in detail here—the attempt to frame discrimination as the exercise of “religious liberty.”

“This decision will pave the way for an all out assault against the religious freedom rights of Christians who disagree with this decision,” squawked Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who recently issued an executive order designed to shield business owners who discriminate against same-sex couples. “The government should not force those who have sincerely held religious beliefs about marriage to participate in these ceremonies,” he argued in his statement.

Though his take was cautious, former Florida governor Jeb Bush also highlighted religious-freedom protections. “Guided by my faith, I believe in traditional marriage. I believe the Supreme Court should have allowed the states to make this decision,” Bush said. “In a country as diverse as ours, good people who have opposing views should be able to live side by side. It is now crucial that as a country we protect religious freedom and the right of conscience and also not discriminate.”

Florida Senator Marco Rubio was somewhat resigned. “I believe that marriage, as the key to strong family life, is the most important institution in our society and should be between one man and one woman.… While I disagree with this decision, we live in a republic and must abide by the law.”

But Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker urged opponents of gay marriage to keep fighting. “I believe this Supreme Court decision is a grave mistake,” he said. “As a result of this decision, the only alternative left for the American people is to support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to reaffirm the ability of the states to continue to define marriage.”

Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum were predictably affronted. Huckabee declared that he would “not acquiesce to an imperial court any more than our Founders acquiesced to an imperial British monarch. We must resist and reject judicial tyranny, not retreat.” Santorum blasted the Court majority for “decid[ing] to redefine the foundational unit that binds together our society without public debate or input.”

[…]

As with the Court’s decision upholding the Affordable Care Act, the ruling against gay-marriage bans is really a win for Republican candidates. They can use it to direct attention to the 2016 election, as Rubio, Walker, and former Texas governor Rick Perry did. “As we look ahead,” Rubio said, “it must be a priority of the next president to nominate judges and justices committed to applying the Constitution as written and originally understood.” Perry promised, “as president, I would appoint strict Constitutional conservatives who will apply the law as written.” And by taking the basic marriage question off the table, the Court offered candidates an exit from a debate they can’t win. As to who will actually take it—ask the nearest hippie.

Two Friends — Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi talk to Dave Itzkoff of the New York Times about gay pride.

Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi 06-27-15When Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi come sailing down Fifth Avenue in convertibles at the Gay Pride March on Sunday, they will not only be grand marshals at the annual event but also first-time attendees.

So on Thursday morning, these revered British actors, who appear together in the PBS sitcom “Vicious,” were wondering what awaited them beyond an afternoon of waving to fans and onlookers.

“I’m just a sponge for anything that might happen,” said Mr. Jacobi, the soft-spoken star of “I, Claudius” and countless stage productions.

Mr. McKellen, the “Lord of the Rings” and “X-Men” star, whose utterances are either deeply serious or extremely arch, opted for the second. “You may be in for a very, very happy weekend,” he replied.

On a visit to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center in the West Village, these two performers, who are both 76 and are gay, had come for a quick education on New York’s Pride events and their significance to the city on a weekend following the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling on same-sex marriage. (At this year’s 46th parade, Mr. Jacobi and Mr. McKellen share grand marshal duties with the artist J. Christopher Neal and Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera, a Ugandan activist.)

Along the way, they revisited their personal histories and reflected on the progress they had seen in their often parallel lives.

Even if his and Mr. Jacobi’s principal goal in participating in the parade was simply to have “a lovely time,” Mr. McKellen said that their mere presence in it, as living links between a less progressive era and the present day, made a statement of its own.

“That’s what we’re doing by being here and waving,” he said. “We don’t have to be reading out a long list of demands.”

The two friends, who play a longtime gay couple on “Vicious,” first met as students at the University of Cambridge in the 1950s, where they bonded over their interests in acting, their working-class backgrounds and their sexuality.

“We knew we were both gay,” Mr. Jacobi said, “but we didn’t call it gay.” Euphemisms like “camp” and “queer” were the norm, they explained, at a time when homosexuality was still illegal in Britain.

Both men went on to illustrious stage and screen careers, to play Richard III and King Lear, and to receive knighthoods — “We’re pretty much the same person,” Mr. McKellen joked.

Unlike their industry forebears, who they said never acknowledged even to confidants that they were gay or bisexual, Mr. McKellen and Mr. Jacobi said actors of their generation could be open about their sexuality with friends and colleagues.

Yet Mr. McKellen did not come out publicly until 1988, at age 49, during a radio broadcast in which he and the conservative journalist Peregrine Worsthorne debated Britain’s so-called Section 28 legislation, which forbade authorities from “promoting homosexuality.”

As Mr. McKellen recalled it, “When he said something particularly nasty about gay people, I said I’m one of them myself.”

Mr. Jacobi, by his own reckoning, did not come out at all. “I kind of oozed out,” he said with a laugh.

While still in college, Mr. Jacobi said he told his mother he was gay, and her reaction was, “Oh, all boys go through this phase.”

Doonesbury — Regrets?

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Short Takes

President Obama laid out a big agenda in the SOTU.  Video.

ISIS released a video of two Japanese hostages and demanded ransom.

The presidential palace in Yemen is under rebel control.

Pipeline break leaks thousands of gallons of crude oil into the Yellowstone River in Montana.

Paris mayor plans to sue Fox News for “inaccurate” reporting.

Report: 11 footballs underinflated in Patriots’ game.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Rite of No Passage

Tonight’s the annual ritual of the president coming to the Capitol to deliver the annual address.  It’s a big production number, and we all pretty much know how it goes: the president will make a few self-deprecating jokes, he’ll point out a guest in the audience, and then he’ll propose a list of ideas and policies that will get polite applause, and then we’ll all go watch the talking heads until the Republican rebuttal comes along.

Nothing will happen with the president’s plans, by the way, especially with this Congress.  They decided six years ago today that they wouldn’t do anything that President Obama asked for and that’s not going to change now that the Republicans are in the majority.

So why does he bother to ask for higher taxes on the rich, tax cuts for the middle class, infrastructure repair, and other dream ticket items for the Democrats?  He knows none of them will pass.  And doesn’t he know that even if the GOP agreed with some of the items — who can argue with free college? — they wouldn’t touch them because they’re proposed by That Man.

I think there are two reasons why President Obama is going to come out with a big list of to-do’s for the Congress that won’t go anywhere.  It will show the audience — the ones not in the chamber — that he’s still got game and ideas, and he’s not about to give up, and that he’s not going to sign whatever cockamamie stuff the Republicans have cooked up.  Oh, the president may talk nice about working with the Republicans, but they won’t work with him and so there you have it.  We’re back to the way it’s been for six years as of today.

Enjoy the show.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Sunday Reading

Vamos á Cuba? — How the restoration of diplomatic relations will change travel plans.  Vauhini Vara in The New Yorker looks at one travel agency that already goes there.

Cuba PosterOn Wednesday morning, Tom Popper was driving to work at InsightCuba, the travel organization that he runs out of New Rochelle, New York, when he heard a familiar name on the radio. Alan Gross, the American contractor for U.S.A.I.D. who had been imprisoned in Cuba for five years, had been released and was on a flight home. “I kind of forgot I was in the car,” Popper said. “All of a sudden, I saw myself veering off to the shoulder.” Popper, who is forty-seven years old, makes his living helping Americans travel to Cuba without running afoul of the law. His organization is one of a small number that are authorized by the U.S. government, through Treasury Department licenses, to do so. For months, he and his colleagues had speculated that the Obama Administration would loosen travel restrictions on Americans going to Cuba—an idea that Popper has supported—but they knew that Gross’s imprisonment had been an impediment.

So, when Popper heard about the release, his thoughts had turned to what it could mean for InsightCuba. He straightened the car and got himself to work. Once there, he tried calling the Treasury Department and the State Department, but he couldn’t get through to anyone who could tell him more. Finally, he turned on the TV and, at noon, got the next round of news like everyone else. In an address from the White House, Obama announced that, after more than fifty years of tension, the United States and Cuba were reëstablishing diplomatic relations. The new measures would include the easing of some restrictions on commerce and travel. For years, anyone who wanted to go to Cuba had to be travelling for one of several specific reasons. Some of these purposes, like visiting close relatives or doing academic research, were covered by a “general” license that let people travel without having to fill out a special application. But others, like going on educational trips to promote “people-to-people contact” among Americans and Cubans—the category under which organizations like InsightCuba set up many of their trips—required case-by-case approval by the Treasury Department, which could be an onerous process and needed to be conducted by approved tour organizers. (One organizer of people-to-people trips, Friendly Planet, notes on its Web site that travellers should keep a journal as a record of their travels in Cuba and retain it for five years as “proof of the educational nature of your trip.”) Under the new rules, people will still have to travel for one of twelve pre-approved purposes, but these, including educational trips, will all be covered by general licenses. It’s unclear exactly what this will mean for travellers—the Obama Administration has said that it will be weeks before the details become available—but Popper and others expect that, at the very least, it will open up travel to Cuba to more Americans.

He’s Ready to Rumble — Charlie Pierce on the re-energized Barack Obama.

If, in 2008, you walked through the Iowa snows, or knocked on doors in New Hampshire, or caucused in Nevada, or drove the old folks to the polls in Ohio, the guy from today was the one you did all that for and more. In his year-end press conference Friday afternoon, the president turned in a bravura performance, a master class in cool. He laid Sony out flat, and did so by summoning up the fact that they ran the Boston Marathon again this year, even though there were people who were killed at that event in 2013 by actual bombs. (Sorry, Sony, but George Clooney, the Official Movie Star Of Esquire: The Magazine — non-Charlize Theron Division — is absolutely right.) And, just for fun, he did the worst thing you can do to lunatic bullies like the current regime in North Korea. He mocked them, directly and loudly.

“It says something interesting about North Korea that they decided to stage an all-out assault because of a satirical movie starring Seth Rogen…I love Seth. And I love James (Franco). But the notion that that this was a threat to them” was ridiculous.

I think it’s time now to enlist the president into Team America: World Police.

He is not spoiling for a fight come January, but he is clearly anticipating one. He minced no words reminding people of how he came to issue his executive order on immigration. (Hint: It’s a word that begins with “ob” and ends with “struction.”) He told the incoming Republican majority that, if he has to adjust to them, then they have to adjust to him as well, and that he knows where in the drawer the veto stamp is.

“There’s a very simple solution, and that’s pass bills and work with me to make sure I’m willing to sign those bills…Because both sides are going to have to compromise. On most issues, in order for their initiatives to become law, I’m going to have to sign off, and that means they have to take into account the issues that I care about, just as I’m going have to take into account the issues that they care about.”

Translation: don’t bring that weak shit in my kitchen. President Mutombo!

It seemed to me, anyway, that the president was liberated, not so much by the fact that he doesn’t have to run again, or by the clarifying event of Republican congressional majority throughout the last two years of his presidency, but by the fact that he doesn’t have to tailor his remarks to a Democratic Senatorial majority that depended on the likes of Mark Begich or Mary Landrieu. And nowhere was this more clear, and nowhere was his newfound confidence more clear, than in his answer on the future of that Republican fetish object, the Keystone XL pipeline, the continent-spanning death funnel that would bring the world’s dirtiest fossil fuel down through the agricultural heartland of the United States from the environmental dead zone of northern Alberta. He still could swing the other way on this issue, but today, he made it clear that the death-funnel’s benefits belong to foreigners, and that its benefits to people in this country were, as he said, “nominal.” I suspect that he will veto the bill that Mitch McConnell says will be the first one to come out of the newly refurbished monkeyhouse come January.

Let’s Go Galt at the Movies — Mallory Ortberg on how Ayn Rand would review favorite movies for children.

“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”

An industrious young woman neglects to charge for her housekeeping services and is rightly exploited for her naïveté. She dies without ever having sought her own happiness as the highest moral aim. I did not finish watching this movie, finding it impossible to sympathize with the main character. —No stars.

“Bambi”

The biggest and the strongest are the fittest to rule. This is the way things have always been. —Four stars.

“Old Yeller”

A farm animal ceases to be useful and is disposed of humanely. A valuable lesson for children. —Four stars.

“Lady and the Tramp”

A ridiculous movie. What could a restaurant owner possibly have to gain by giving away a perfectly good meal to dogs, when he could sell it at a reasonable price to human beings? A dog cannot pay for spaghetti, and payment is the only honest way to express appreciation for value. —One star.

“101 Dalmatians”

A wealthy woman attempts to do her impoverished school friend Anita a favor by purchasing some of her many dogs and putting them to sensible use. Her generosity is repulsed at every turn, and Anita foolishly and irresponsibly begins acquiring even more animals, none of which are used to make a practical winter coat. Altruism is pointless. So are dogs. A cat is a far more sensible pet. A cat is objectively valuable. —No stars.

“Mary Poppins”

A woman takes a job with a wealthy family without asking for money in exchange for her services. An absurd premise. Later, her employer leaves a lucrative career in banking in order to play a children’s game. —No stars.

Doonesbury — Get the hook.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Not A Tough Call

We all get it that there are times when a president feels that he has to stay on the sidelines in a national debate, especially when it is over something that happened in the past or a previous administration.  President Obama has decided to stay out of the one now going on about the C.I.A. torture.

That debate put Mr. Obama between two allies: the close adviser and former aide he installed as director of the C.I.A. versus Democrats on the Intelligence Committee and the liberal base that backs their findings. Instead, the president hoped to convince the public that the issue has now been confronted and resolved since he signed an order barring the controversial interrogation techniques shortly after taking office in January 2009.

“He’s between a rock and a hard place,” said Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at the Fordham University School of Law. “The intelligence agency has become the lead agency in national security, and therefore he’s beholden to it, and there’s no getting around that. It’s much bigger than before 9/11. It’s not just about Brennan.”

Indeed, in a written statement and a pair of television interviews after the report was released on Tuesday, Mr. Obama stressed his respect for the “patriots” of the C.I.A. who worked to guard the nation in an uncertain and dangerous period, even as he concluded that the methods they used “did significant damage to America’s standing in the world.”

While that frustrated critics of the C.I.A. who wanted a more unambiguous condemnation of torture and its architects, others said his comments struck a reasonable middle ground. “They seemed measured and responsible,” said Cesar Conda, an adviser to Republicans like former Vice President Dick Cheney and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. “He’s walking a fine line between his base and his duties as commander in chief.”

Okay, when he’s getting approval from Republicans for holding back on commentary, he’s got a problem.

This is not the time for political considerations or worrying about fee-fees.  These were huge crimes committed by people who worked for the United States government.  They need to be held accountable, but even more than that, we need to hear from the President of the United States that that sort of activity will never happen again and the perpetrators will be punished.

This is something he should lose his legendary cool over.  So why doesn’t he?

HT to NTodd.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Sunday Reading

Micromanager In Chief — David Rohde and Warren Strobel in The Atlantic review President Obama’s management of national security.

This account of Obama’s national-security decision-making is based on interviews with more than 30 current and former U.S. government officials, who have served both Democratic and Republican administrations going back to President Richard Nixon.

In some ways, Obama’s closer control and the frequent marginalization of the State and Defense departments continues a trend begun under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. But under Obama, the centralization has gone further. It was the White House, not the Pentagon, that decided to send two additional Special Operations troops to Yemen. The White House, not the State Department, now oversees many details of U.S. embassy security—a reaction to Republican attacks over the lethal 2012 assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. A decision to extend $10 million in non-lethal aid to Ukraine also required White House vetting and approval.

On weightier issues, major decisions sometimes catch senior Cabinet officers unawares. One former senior U.S. official said Obama’s 2011 decision to abandon difficult troop negotiations with Baghdad and remove the last U.S. soldiers from Iraq surprised the Pentagon and was known only by the president and a small circle of aides.

The president, initially perceived as one of the greatest communicators of his generation, is now viewed as having done a poor job of defining and defending his foreign policy, polls indicate. A majority of Americans—54 percent—disapprove of Obama’s foreign-policy performance, according to Reuters/Ipsos polling. That’s one of the lowest ratings of his presidency.

Rhodes, one of Obama’s longest-serving national-security aides, says a series of complex world crises, not policy mistakes, has driven down the president’s approval numbers. More broadly, he says, Obama has been right to be deliberative in the wake of costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “What he’s always said is that if there’s a threat against us, we will act,” Rhodes said. “But when it comes to shaping events in cultures that are foreign to the United States we have to have some degree of realism.”

Obama has had notable national-security successes. His record of protecting U.S. territory from attack remains largely unblemished. Current and former officials praise his policy on nuclear talks with Iran as clear and consistent. He is building a coalition against Islamic State that includes Arab nations participating in airstrikes with the United States, Britain, France, and others.

And while past presidents faced grave dangers, most notably the possibility of Cold War Armageddon, for Obama the world is very different. The decisions he must make on using U.S. military force have multiplied. This reality, supporters say, is overlooked by detractors.

Obama has launched a humanitarian military intervention in Libya; overseen counterterrorism operations in Pakistan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere; moved to end his predecessor’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; wrestled with lethal threats to U.S. hostages and diplomatic posts; and sent the American military to West Africa to help tackle the Ebola virus and search for kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls.

Current and former officials say the globalized world of Twitter and 24/7 news creates an expectation at home and abroad that the United States will quickly take a position on any foreign-policy issue. The demand for instant American positions—and American leadership—can be overwhelming.

“One of the biggest problems in Washington,” said retired General James Jones, who was Obama’s national security advisor from 2009 to 2010, “is to find the time to think strategically, not tactically. You’d wake up and there would be a new crisis and you’d be scrambling to deal with them.”

The Perils of Rick Scott — Charlie Pierce on the governor’s race down here.

As if the biggest Medicare fraud case in history didn’t tip us off already, Florida Governor Rick Scott is little more than Florida Man writ large and dressed better. Those who are aware of all Internet traditions know that Florida Man is profoundly self-explanatory. You say Florida Man, and your companion knows that all manner of hullabaloo and shenanigans are likely to follow, from a bank robbery to a busload of nuns fed to the burgeoning python community in the Everglades. Florida Man. To paraphrase Sherlock Holmes’s assessment of Dr. Watson, Florida man is the stormy petrel of criminal crazy. And, while Governor Batboy is Florida Man in a fine suit, in his heart, and increasingly in the public mind, he is running out his backdoor, barefoot, his mullet flapping in the breeze, with half the local sheriff’s department and a film crew from Cops in pursuit, while the local DA wonders about the human heads in the icebox.

Or something.

Florida’s Sunshine Laws — and yes, Florida, we see what you did there — require that state officials must disclose completely any assets worth more than $1000. A lawsuit filed by George Sheldon, a Democratic candidate for attorney-general, charges that Scott has played fast and loose with this constitutional requirement. (Back in the 1970’s, then-governor Reubin Askew fought hard and won a battle to include these disclosure rules as an amendment to the Florida constitution. Askew’s cause was helped immeasurably by the fact that he pitched his amendment immediately after three elected cabinet members and three justices of the Florida Supreme Court all resigned behind allegations of corruption. So, yeah, they’re quite serious about it.) In addition, a recent joint investigation by the Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times has raised questions about whether or not Scott is hiding his money through creative accounting and bookkeeping legerdemain.

The governor, for instance, does not disclose the entire value of assets that reside in different trust and partnership accounts and for which he’s listed in federal records as the “beneficial owner,” according to an extensive Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times review of hundreds of federal and state documents filed in Florida, Washington, Connecticut, Texas, Nevada and Illinois. The documents also show: Information about Scott’s income and investments provided on state disclosure forms differ from financial information he furnished to the IRS and the Securities and Exchange Commission; the various Scott family investment trusts and partnerships often act in tandem with his blind trust and involve Scott’s long-time financial advisors – raising questions about how independent the trust is from the governor; between 2009 and 2013, the income reported on the governor’s state financial disclosure and the income reported to the IRS differed each year, fluctuating as much as $41 million in a single year.

That’s a helluva fluctuation right there. I wish I could fluctuate on that level. So do many other people. Then there’s this Solantic thing, a health care delivery concern from which Scott derived much of his considerable fortune. When he ran for governor, in order to avoid regulatory conflicts of interest, Scott put the Solantic assets into a revocable — important adjective alert! — trust named after his wife. Except, of course, Scott was out there again, fluctuating so uncontrollably that he apparently couldn’t avoid those pesky conflicts of interest.

Federal documents submitted to the SEC in other transactions show the governor was the trust’s “beneficial owner” and therefore had a major say over its assets. Still, after Scott transferred the money to a trust to which he retained control, he said that he had nothing to do with Solantic any longer. “I’m not involved in that company,” Scott said on March 29, 2011, while at the same time he huddled with his attorneys and helped negotiate the sale to a private-equity firm with which he had done business in the past. Two weeks later, he announced the pending sale. He said at the time that he had sold it for less than $62 million.

I have very little sympathy for the electorate on this one. Florida voters allowed this guy to buy his way into office knowing that he’d presided over a company that had paid $1.7 billion in fines to settle a massive Medicare fraud case, one that arose from the kind of double-bookkeeping that the Herald and the Times imply is going on now with Scott’s treatment of his assets. Scott has maintained for years that he was unaware that his old company was on the fiddle. His former accountant, who became the primary whistleblower in the fraud case, says otherwise, and continues to say so to this day. Scott’s in a life-and-death situation for re-election against Charlie Crist, the former Republican who is now a Democrat. I suspect all this will come up when they debate.

Fear Factor — Michael Specter in The New Yorker on the hysteria over Ebola in America.

Fear is not a weakness; it’s how people respond to danger. Unless it is calibrated properly, however, fear quickly turns into panic, and panic moves faster than any virus. Diseases that get the most attention and cause the greatest anxiety are rarely those which claim the most lives. Malaria, tuberculosis, and H.I.V. have killed hundreds of thousands of people this year. Fewer than a thousand people died in the 2003 SARS epidemic, but a report by the National Academy of Sciences notes that its cost to the global economy—not only in medical expenditures but in lost trade, productivity, and investment—was almost forty billion dollars.

At least four thousand people have already died of Ebola, the economic impact of the epidemic has been calamitous, and every day the numbers get worse. But we need to stop acting as if the tragedy unfolding in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone could happen here on anything like the same scale. There will be more cases of Ebola in the United States, but unless something remarkably unlikely develops, such as a mutation that makes it easier for the virus to spread, the epidemic can be stopped. Ebola is difficult to contract, and although viruses mutate constantly, once they are established in humans they do not generally alter their mode of transmission.

That message is not getting through. According to a Harris poll taken just before Duncan’s diagnosis, forty per cent of Americans believed that Ebola represented a major or a moderate threat to public health in the United States. Thirty-seven per cent thought that the H1N1 influenza epidemic of 2009 posed a similar threat. The two outbreaks are not comparable. H1N1 infected about twenty per cent of the world’s population, including sixty million Americans. A catastrophe was averted owing solely to a biological fluke: the death rate of those infected was unusually low—there were more than twelve thousand fatalities in the U.S., but that is far fewer than die from the flu in most years.

Our response to pandemics—whether SARS, avian influenza, MERS, or Ebola—has become predictable. First, there is the panic. Then, as the pandemic ebbs, we forget. We can’t afford to do either. This epidemic won’t be over soon, but that is even more reason to focus on what works. Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone all need more money, more health-care workers, and more troops to help coördinate relief efforts. In the short term, the only way to halt the epidemic is with better infection-control measures. In Senegal and Nigeria, two countries where poverty and health problems are pervasive, the most basic such measures—contact tracing, quarantine, and proper protections for health workers—seem to have had a positive effect. (Part of the success in Nigeria is also due to the fact that officials made an enormous effort to keep the virus out of Lagos, a city of twenty million people.)

We also need to take better advantage of our scientific tools. Advances in molecular and synthetic biology have begun to provide a sophisticated understanding of the genetic composition of viruses. We are increasingly able to make vaccines by assembling synthetic proteins as if they were molecular Legos. Rob Carlson, the author of “Biology Is Technology,” who has written widely about genetic engineering and vaccine development, says, “We could have pushed the development of a synthetic Ebola vaccine a decade ago. We had the skills, but we chose not to pursue it. Why? Because we weren’t the people getting sick.” One day, a virus that matches our sense of doom may come along. Until then, we will need to rely on data and evidence—not theatrics or fear.

Doonesbury — The best-laid plans.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Law That Dare Not Speak Its Name

It never ceases to amaze me how the American electorate can consistently vote against their own self-interest and for people who are basically out to scare and scam them with the full knowledge of what is being done to them.  Thomas Frank wrote about this in What’s the Matter with Kansas? in 2004, but he might as well have been writing about Kentucky in 2014.

From Amy Goodnough at The New York Times:

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The Affordable Care Act allowed Robin Evans, an eBay warehouse packer earning $9 an hour, to sign up for Medicaid this year. She is being treated for high blood pressure and Graves’ disease, an autoimmune disorder, after years of going uninsured and rarely seeing doctors.

“I’m tickled to death with it,” Ms. Evans, 49, said of her new coverage as she walked around the Kentucky State Fair recently with her daughter, who also qualified for Medicaid under the law. “It’s helped me out a bunch.”

But Ms. Evans scowled at the mention of President Obama — “Nobody don’t care for nobody no more, and I think he’s got a lot to do with that,” she explained — and said she would vote this fall for Senator Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican and minority leader, who is fond of saying the health care law should be “pulled out root and branch.”

Ms. Evans said she did not want the law repealed but had too many overall reservations about Democrats to switch her vote. “Born and raised Republican,” she said of herself. “I ain’t planning on changing now.”

Not to be too harsh on Ms. Evans, but without Obamacare, she would probably be dead and buried as a Republican a lot sooner than later.

There are plenty of anecdotal stories about people who hate something based on perception but then find out all along they actually like it when they try it.  It’s known in some places as the “you’re soaking in it” paradox drawn from the classic Palmolive dish soap commercials with Madge the manicurist.

This leaves the Democrats with their own paradox: how to campaign on a law that they voted for and is growing in popularity without saying that they voted for it or calling it Obamacare because of the unpopularity of the name.  Republicans were saying that no Democrat is running a campaign ad saying they supported Obamacare, and that is technically true, but at least one Democrat in a tight race — Mark Pryor in Arkansas — is touting his support of the law without calling it Obamacare.

In a new ad, Pryor sits with his father, former Sen. David Pryor, and proudly says he “helped pass a law that prevents insurance companies from canceling your policy if you get sick, or deny coverage for preexisting conditions.”

Notably, Pryor doesn’t use the words “Obamacare” or “Affordable Care Act.” But he talks up one of the centerpieces of the law — rules prohibiting insurance companies from discriminating against sick people — and invokes his past struggles with cancer.

It would be easy to dismiss the people who love their new healthcare but hate the man who proposed it as ignorant racists who are under the thrall of the GOP and Fox News spell of hating anything associated with That Man.  There is an element of truth to that in some quarters, but it isn’t the only reason.  New ideas, especially those that have a bearing on something as personal as healthcare, go beyond the logical thinking process and trigger the lizard brain run-and-hide response.  Changing healthcare is not the same thing as changing your cell phone calling plan (although there are those who do make as big a deal as possible out of that).  Simply put, we humans don’t like change and will go to great lengths, even if it causes pain or money, to maintain the status quo inside the comfort zone.

I don’t blame the Democrats for being skittish about campaigning on Obamacare.  They don’t want to change the status quo either.  Their problem is that they have yet to figure out a way to get the people to vote in favor of their own self-interest without resorting to the proven method that has worked for the Republicans: greed, fear, and loathing of abstract ideas like marriage equality, black people voting, and health insurance that actually saves money and lives.

Friday, September 12, 2014

No Moore, Please

I spend a lot of time here pointing and mocking the silly and derpy things that conservatives and wingnuts do and say, but it’s also necessary to remind ourselves that there are people on the left who say and do silly and derpy things, too.

Take Michael Moore.  Please.  The gadfly filmmaker was interviewed by the Hollywood Reporter about his hit Roger and Me which took a look at the destruction of the auto industry and decided it was as good a time as any to tell us how disappointed he is with President Obama.

I think Obama sadly has been, you know, has done many, many good things, but he has also been a huge disappointment. And I really feel like — I wish someone would say to him — maybe I’ll say it in case he’s watching.

[…]

When the history is written of this era, this is how you’ll be remembered: ‘He was the first black president.’ Okay, not a bad accomplishment, but that’s it. That’s it, Mr. Obama. A hundred years from now, ‘he was the first black American that got elected president.’ And that’s it. Eight years of your life and that’s what people are got to remember. Boy, I got a feeling, know you, that you’d probably wish you were remembered for a few other things, a few other things you could’ve done.

I suppose I could haul out the list of accomplishments that President Obama has done from genuine health care insurance reform to the end of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the end of the Defense of Marriage Act; bringing back the economy from the worst recession in 85 years to job growth and low inflation; reforming the college loan system and instituting consumer protection laws; yeah, I could list all of those and add that he did it all while facing a storm of opposition from the Republican leaders who were drawing up their plans to stop everything he wanted to do before the inauguration parade was over on January 20, 2009, not to mention the blatant racism displayed by some of the more crass members of the opposition and a cable news network.  But Michael Moore is disappointed, so it all means nothing.

You know what, Michael?  We’ve all had our disappointments.  That list of accomplishments could be a lot longer, I’m sure, and I know a number of progressives who think that Barack Obama is far too establishment and cozy with the intelligence agencies and Wall Street robber barons.  But let’s also face reality.  No president is ever going to accomplish everything they set out to do, especially when there are some things that you expect him to do that were never promised in the first place.

It’s also a tad ironic that Mr. Moore, who became famous for chronicling the decline of the auto industry, would be so dismissive of the administration that basically saved it from total collapse.  Why doesn’t he make a movie about that?

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Taking It To Them

My initial reaction to President Obama’s speech about the threat of ISIS… or ISIL… or IS… is that it was not a call to all-out war and boogedy-boogedy they’re-coming-here jingoism.  For those who complained about him not having a strategy (which was a mis-hear on their part because he was talking about having a strategy to take the issue to Congress, which is like trying to give a bath to a bobcat), he laid out a four-point plan to defeat the threat and hope that they don’t do a whack-a-mole number someplace else, like in Libya or Egypt.  And then he went off on what sounded like a pep-talk to the team at half-time when they’re down a couple of touchdowns and really need to hear from the coach that yes, America, you’re the greatest.

The only clunk I heard in the speech was the president trying to reassure us that this tactic of airstrikes and support for the other armies had worked well in Yemen and Somalia.  Um, we’re still sending drones to Yemen eleven years after our first attack — which supposedly killed the leaders of al-Qaeda — and still hitting targets in Somalia more that twenty years after Black Hawk Down.  So using them as selling points for this battle isn’t exactly a winner.

I am sure there will be bipartisan butt-hurt from Congress because the president isn’t asking their permission.  But given their lily-livered approach to taking on bombing in Syria last year and the perfectly cynical view of “go right ahead; we’ll be with you if it works and blame you if it doesn’t,” I can understand why the president isn’t going to wake them up from their naps.

The Republicans will snarl; I’m sure John McCain and Lindsay Graham will grumble and flounce respectively, and Ted Cruz will want to impeach the president because he didn’t address the threat of ISIS coming in through Mexico, but they would have carried on like white trash in a hurricane if he had told us that it’s Wednesday.

One other thought: President Obama promised no American combat troops will be involved.  Well, unless all the airstrikes are coming from drones, there have been and will be American combat troops involved in the fight.  The fact that they’re not “on the ground” but in the air seems a semantic point at best.  And when that first plane and crew is shot down, let’s see how long our combat troops will stay out.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Sunday Reading

Do What? — Frank Rich in New York magazine on the trigger-happy critics of President Obama’s foreign policy.

I have my share of quarrels with President Obama. And, like most other Americans, I find the beheadings of Foley and Sotloff so savage on so many different levels that I fully concede there is an ugly part of me that would like to bomb any country that harbors ISIS terrorists back into the Stone Age, as the American general Curtis LeMay, the prototype for General Jack D. Ripper in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, once proposed for North Vietnam. But Obama’s deliberateness in the face of ISIS’s provocations as well as Putin’s — his refusal to follow the trigger-happy foreign policy of the Bush-Cheney era — is to be applauded.

You will notice that the crowd of pundits and (mostly Republican) politicians insisting that Obama “do something” about these horrors never actually say what that “something” is. They offer no strategy of their own beyond an inchoate bellicosity expressed in constructions along the lines of “we must more forcefully do whatever it is that Obama is doing.” That’s because Obama is already doing the things that can be done (and that some of his critics redundantly suggest): bombing ISIS positions wherever it is feasible; searching for allies to join action that might defeat them on the ground; trying to rally Europe to tighten the economic noose on Putin and Russia. There will surely be more actions to come when America’s ducks are in a row, and if the president were to delineate them, you can be certain he’d be condemned for tipping off our enemies in advance.

Contrast his deliberateness with his critics, most of whom have in common that they were completely wrong in endorsing the disastrous Iraq War that precipitated the current crisis. Hillary Clinton, for instance, has gone on record of late saying that she, unlike Obama, would have armed moderate forces in Syria to bring down Assad. But as Thomas Friedman, these days a much-chastened Iraq War enabler, has pointed out, there’s a reason why even Israel didn’t take up that tactic: Those “moderate” forces, to the extent they could be identified, were doomed to fail, and chances are that whatever arms we got to them would have fallen into ISIS’s hands. (As indeed has been the case with armaments we bestowed upon Maliki’s Iraq government.) As John McCain chastised Obama for not doing enough to fight ISIS last month, he had the gall to brag on CNN that he had “predicted what was going to happen in Iraq.” He had indeed predicted that Iraq might be destabilized by the withdrawal of American troops, but even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and, besides, McCain is always in favor of more American troops as a one-size-fits-all panacea for international conflicts. His earlier predictions were that we would win the Iraq War “easily,” and that the Sunnis and Shia would “probably get along” in post-Saddam Iraq because there was “not a history of clashes” between them. Why in God’s name should Obama listen to him or Clinton now? Why, for that matter, do Sunday talk shows repeatedly book McCain and repeatedly fail to challenge his long record of wrong calls on the Middle East?

As a corrective, I highly recommend an essay by Michael Cohen of the Century Foundation, published last weekend in the Daily News, that lays out in detail why Obama has a strategy for ISIS, Russia, and other foreign-policy crucibles, and why most of his critics do not. It’s a much-needed blast of reality. As an aside, Cohen also raises another intriguing question: Why are politicians and pundits giving the relatively slender threat of an ISIS attack on America more weight than the “gun violence that takes the lives of an estimated 30,000 Americans every year”?

No Rational Case — Garrett Epps reviews Judge Richard Posner’s ruling in the Wisconsin and Indiana laws against marriage equality.

Competing with William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor once wrote, is an inevitably losing proposition: “Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.”

Federal District Judge Martin Feldman may feel like that luckless muleskinner today. His decision affirming a state ban on same-sex marriage appeared Wednesday. On Thursday, the Dixie Limited, in the person of Judge Richard Posner of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, ran over him going the other way.

In an opinion for a unanimous three-judge panel, Posner upheld a district-court ruling that struck down same-sex marriage bans in Indiana and Wisconsin. The opinion is a Posnerian tour de force: clear, clever, thorough, witty, and—well—odd. It replies to most of the arguments Feldman accepted, including the most important one—that the courts should defer to the political process in matters of social policy.

At this point, we know all the arguments against marriage equality: Procreation. Tradition. Morality. Caution about social change. Democratic process. Feldman’s opinion had a kind of listless, get-off-my-lawn tone. You kids and your same-sex marriage, can just count me out, he seems to be saying. Procreation, slippery slope, democratic process, can I go now?

Posner’s tone is not fatigue but Five-Hour Energy. He does not rebut arguments against same-sex marriage, but rather (to paraphrase an old Southern threat) beats them to a pulp, puts the pulp into a sack, and then beats on the sack.

[…]

Posner finds the states’ justifications so irrational that he almost becomes unhinged himself. Is the ban in place to encourage responsible procreation by heterosexuals? “Heterosexuals get drunk and pregnant, producing unwanted children; their reward is to be allowed to marry. Homosexual couples do not produce unwanted children; their reward is to be denied the right to marry. Go figure.”

Is the ban really about “procreation” at all? Posner dives deep into a truly obscure issue: Why does Indiana permit first cousins to marry, but only if they are too old to have children? Why, for that matter, does the state refuse to recognize out-of-state same-sex marriages, but does grant recognition to out-of-state marriages between cousins? “Indiana has not tried to explain to us the logic of recognizing marriages of fertile first cousins (prohibited in Indiana) that happen to be contracted in states that permit such marriages, but of refusing … to recognize same-sex marriages (also prohibited in Indiana) contracted in states that permit them.”

Opposite-sex marriage is traditional? “Tradition per se has no positive or negative significance. There are good traditions … bad traditions that are historical realities such as cannibalism, foot-binding, and suttee, and traditions that from a public-policy standpoint are neither good nor bad (such as trick-or-treating on Halloween). Tradition per se therefore cannot be a lawful ground for discrimination—regardless of the age of the tradition.”

“Caution” in allowing social change? Stubbornness is prejudice, not caution: “At the oral argument the state’s lawyer conceded that he had no knowledge of any study underway to determine the possible effects on heterosexual marriage in Wisconsin of allowing same-sex marriage.”

“Protecting” traditional marriage? “What Wisconsin has not told us is whether any heterosexuals have been harmed by same-sex marriage.”

The democratic process? “Minorities trampled on by the democratic process have recourse to the courts; the recourse is called constitutional law.”

[…]

It is a roaring steam engine of an opinion, at times exhilarating and at other times puzzling. Is it likely to change minds? No. Its flip dismissal of the political process argument makes it less persuasive than it could have been; Feldman did have a point, even if Posner (and I) think the counterargument is much stronger.

Doonesbury — The Tinder trap.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Sunday Reading

Tough Guys Don’t Win — Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker on why we don’t need a butch president.

Barack Obama is not a tough guy. Everybody rolls him. He’s a wimp, a weak sister; he won’t stand up for himself or his country. Vladimir Putin, a true tough guy, blows planes out of the air, won’t apologize, walks around half-naked. Life, it seems, is like a prison yard, and Obama cowers in a corner. “It would be a hellish thing to live with such timidity. … He’s scared of Vladimir Putin,” one Fox News contributor said about the President. But this kind of thing is not confined to the weirder fringes: Maureen Dowd pointed out a while ago that former fans of Obama “now make derogatory remarks about your manhood,” while the Wall Street Journals editorial page runs a kind of compendium of “weak sister” pieces every morning, urging the President, at one point, to make more “unambiguous threats”—making unambiguous threats evidently being the real man’s method of getting his way.

“Barack Obama is the first female president,” The Daily Caller, a Web site co-founded by a former adviser to Dick Cheney, blared, without a trace of irony or consciousness that female might not be such a bad thing for a President to be. The Daily Caller lists seven basic “manly” traits—courage, industry, resolution, self-reliance, discipline, honor, and manliness, that last one bafflingly redundant but, hey, that’s the way men are—and shows how Obama fails in regard to each. (He’s terrified of his wife, apparently, though one would think that this is actually a classic Jimmy Stewart-style American sign of husbandliness.) Toni Morrison wrote memorably, in these pages, that Bill Clinton had become, in a symbolic sense, “our first black President”—meaning that Clinton’s perceived faults were flaws of appetite, of a kind that a racist imagination traditionally ascribed to black men. “His unpoliced sexuality became the focus of the persecution,” Morrison wrote. Obama’s perceived flaws are the ancient effeminate ones, of the kind that a bigoted tradition ascribed to women; above all, the criticism reflects the President’s unapologetic distaste for violent confrontation and for making loud threats, no matter how empty those threats may obviously be. (The joke, of course, is that, with Clinton as with Obama, the symbolic substitute may well precede the real thing.)

Obama—contemptibly, in this view—offers off-ramps in the direction of reason even when faced with the most fanatical opponents, who are bent on revenge for mysterious, sectarian motives, and yet he still tries to appease them. And that’s just the Republicans in Congress. Shouldn’t he be tougher with bad guys abroad? The curious thing, though, is how much the talk about manliness—and Obama’s lack of it—is purely and entirely about appearances. In the current crisis over the downed Malaysian plane, all the emphasis is on how it looks or how it might be made to look—far more than on American interests and much less on simple empathy for the nightmarish fate of the people on board. The tough-talkers end up grudgingly admitting that what the President has done—as earlier, with Syria—is about all that you could do, given the circumstances.  Their own solutions are either a further variant on the kinds of sanctions that are already in place—boycott the World Cup in Russia!—or else are too militarily reckless to be taken seriously. Not even John McCain actually thinks that we should start a war over whether Donetsk and Luhansk should be regarded as part of Ukraine or Russia. The tough guys basically just think that Obama should have looked scarier. The anti-effeminate have very little else to suggest by way of practical action—except making those unambiguous threats and, apparently, baring your teeth while you do.

Why does this belligerent rhetoric still stir us?  The American political historian K. A. Cuordileone wrote a good book a few years ago about the birth of this  “cult of toughness” in American foreign policy, in which she makes the point that it was essentially the invention of liberals in the Kennedy Administration—the Eisenhower and Truman people were more inclined to talk of “duty”—who wanted to curb the suspicion that liberals were inclined to be effete. What is strange, reading through her pages, is exactly how exclusively focussed on pure appearances the cult of toughness always was. All of the arguments, the ones that led to the near-apocalypse in Cuba and, later, to Vietnam, were not about calculations made of interests and utility. They were about looking manly.

[…]

This business of looking manly even developed its own theoretical rationale, the concept of “credibility”: if we are willing to act violently in pursuit of a peripheral interest, everyone can be certain that, when a vital interest is at stake, we will be still more violent. “Credibility” is defined as the willingness to kill a lot of people now for a not very good cause to assure the world that we’ll kill a lot more people if we can find a better one. This is the logic that led to wild overinvestment in peripheral struggles like Iraq, and is, in the view of many of its proponents, too subtle for the feminine mind to grasp.

“I will do such things—what they are yet I know not—but they shall be the terror of the earth.” So mad King Lear announces—and it is, as Bertrand Russell once noted, the Tough Guys’ point of view packed into a phrase. We’ll show them! Though what we’ll show them, and how we’ll show them, and to what end we’ll show them, and what we will say to the mothers of the children whose lives have been wasted in order to show them—those things remain as strangely unsayable for the serious men as they did for crazy Lear.

We don’t need tough guys. We need wise guys. We’ve tried tough guys, and it always ends in tears. Tough guys you know right away because they’re never scared of a fight. Wise guys you only know in retrospect, when you remember that they quietly walked away from the fight that now has the tough guy in a hospital. Wise women do that, too.

And No Religions Too — Katha Pollitt argues in The Nation that it’s time to repeal the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

In the not-too-distant future, it’s entirely possible that religious freedom will be the only freedom we have left—a condition for which we can blame the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. Passed practically unanimously, with support from Ted Kennedy to Orrin Hatch, the ACLU to Concerned Women for America, the bill was a response to the Supreme Court’s decision in Employment Division v. Smith. This case involved two Oregon members of the Native American Church who were denied unemployment compensation after being fired for using peyote, an illegal drug, in a religious ceremony. Justice Antonin Scalia’s majority opinion, which held that a law that applied to everyone and was not directed at religion specifically was not a violation of religious freedom, made a lot of sense to me, then and now. Why should I have to obey a law and my religious neighbor not?

RFRA, which required laws infringing on religious convictions to meet the “strict scrutiny” test, was overkill. There were other ways to protect Native Americans’ right to use peyote in religious ceremonies. The church could have asked the State Legislature for an exemption; after all, during Prohibition, the Catholic Church was allowed to use wine in the Mass. Or—but now I’m really dreaming—workers could have been given legal protection from losing their jobs for minor lawbreaking outside the workplace. I mean, peyote! Come on. But no, for some reason, there had to be a sweeping, feel-good, come-to-Jesus moment uniting left and right. “The power of God is such,” said President Clinton, “that even in the legislative process, miracles can happen.” Gag me with a spoon.

What were progressives thinking? Maybe in 1993, religion looked like a stronger progressive force than it turned out to be, or maybe freedom of religion looked like a politically neutral good thing. Two decades later, it’s clear that the main beneficiaries of RFRA are the Christian right and other religious conservatives. RFRA has given us the Hobby Lobby decision permitting religious employers to decide what kind of birth control, if any, their insurance plans will provide. It’s given us “conscience clauses,” in which medical personnel can refuse to provide women with legal medical services—culminating in the truly absurd case of Sara Hellwege, an anti-choice nurse-midwife who is suing a federally funded family planning clinic in Tampa for religious discrimination because it declined to hire her after she said she would refuse to prescribe “abortifacient contraceptives,” i.e., birth control pills. (That the pill does not cause abortion is irrelevant—this is religion we’re talking about; facts don’t matter.)

For some, RFRA doesn’t go far enough because it doesn’t apply to state law. In April, Mississippi became the nineteenth state to enact its own RFRA, which essentially legalizes discrimination against LGBT people by individuals as well as businesses, as long as the haters remember to attribute their views to God. Instead of protecting LGBT people from discrimination—a business refusing to serve them, for example—Mississippi will be siding with the bigots, just like old times. Last year, the state passed the Student Religious Liberties Act, which gives pupils the right to express themselves freely on matters of faith without consequences. Johnny can tell his classmate Jane that she’ll burn in hell because she’s a lesbian and write all his biology papers on Adam and Eve and their dinosaur pets, and the school can’t say a word about it. That would be intolerant.

In theory, everyone can play this game. In Oklahoma, Satanists are demanding a religious exemption from compulsory abortion counseling on the grounds that the false claims in the government-mandated scripts—abortion causes suicide and so on—violate their religious belief in science. In North Carolina, the United Church of Christ is suing the state, claiming that its constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage violates the right of its clergy to the free exercise of religion. “By preventing our same-sex congregants from forming their own families, the North Carolina ban on same-sex marriage burdens my ability and the ability of my congregation to form a faith community of our choosing consistent with the principles of our faith,” the Rev. Nancy Petty told Religion News Service.

But even if these cases are successful, they take us down the wrong road. People with religious objections shouldn’t have to listen to government speech. Imagine an anti-vaxxer a few years hence claiming the right not to be informed of the dangers of measles. Same-sex marriage should be legal because a clergyperson wants to perform them? What happens when a Mormon elder or a Muslim imam claims the right to express his faith by performing polygamous marriages? Even if religion were not the basically conservative social force it is in American life, expanding the religious freedom of individuals or corporations is simply not a good way to make public policy.

Doonesbury — Not funny.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Frankly Speaking

Last week Thomas Frank wrote a piece in Salon in which he went all in on calling Barack Obama a weak and gutless leader and labeling his presidency an abject failure.  The Hope and Change president promised so much and delivered so little, he didn’t stand up to the crazy Republicans when he could have and should have, and worst of all, there’s no pony with rainbow ribbons and no sprinkles on the ice cream.

Why, the visitors to his library will wonder, did the president do so little about rising inequality, the subject on which he gave so many rousing speeches? Why did he do nothing, or next to nothing, about the crazy high price of a college education, the Great Good Thing that he has said, time and again, determines our personal as well as national success? Why didn’t he propose a proper healthcare program instead of the confusing jumble we got? Why not a proper stimulus package? Why didn’t he break up the banks? Or the agribusiness giants, for that matter?

Because, to quote Elliot in E.T., this is reality.  Governing in a democracy means working with other people, people who for some reason or another — I’ll let you fill in the blanks — have no interest in a president succeeding; people who in fact were plotting against his every move before the president had spent his first night in the White House.  Add to that a well-oiled and well-funded noise machine of unprecedented lung power and a TV network that can take the smallest thing and turn it into a 24-hour breaking news blitz, and getting things done becomes a bit of a challenge.

But to Mr. Frank’s charges of failure after failure, let’s think about the ones he’s listed:  How does a president persuade a college or university to lower their tuition and make it affordable?  Someone’s gotta pay for it; it’s not like the alumni are going to pick up everything else after football.  What about healthcare?  Well, the “proper” way would have been a single payer plan with the government picking up the tab and raising taxes, much in the way a number of industrialized nations and Canadian provinces do it: Medicare for all.  Yeah, try and pass that; I dare you.

The same could be said about the rest of Mr. Frank’s laments: the stimulus package that was passed was done in the first moments of the Obama presidency and while we were still under the weight of the crapfest left by the previous administration.  What we got would not have passed three months later, and certainly not through a Senate that was barely under the control of the Democrats.  Break up the big banks and agribusiness?  Sure, if you don’t think anyone with any influence or money will object, go ahead.

We expect to hear this kind of whining and pearl-clutching from the Republicans; they’ve mastered the art of crocodile tears and fear-mongering even when they’re in control.  In the last thirty years they have done a fine job of making the case that no one else but a true American conservative should be running the country and then providing us with laboratory-grade examples of exactly why they shouldn’t.

The biggest failure of the Obama presidency isn’t in what it didn’t accomplish or the “tepid” answers it gave to the problems at hand.  It’s that Barack Obama believed — and probably still does — that he was facing opposition from a political party that shared his basic goal of running the country and making it better for all the citizens, not just the ones who voted for him or contributed to his campaign.  He didn’t realize that their sole purpose in life was his personal destruction.  But if a genius like Thomas Frank can’t figure that out, how could anyone else?

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Sunday Reading

Road Trip — Julie Pace of the AP in TPM on the Obama tour to bolster support.

Welcome to Barack Obama’s split-screen presidency.

On one side: a confident Obama making campaign-style stops around the country and ridiculing his political opponents to the delight of cheering supporters. On the other side: an increasingly unpopular president hobbled by gridlock on Capitol Hill and a steady stream of vexing foreign policy crises.

Obama has long sought refuge outside of Washington when his frustrations with the nation’s capital reach a boiling point. But his ability to rally public support in a way that results in progress for his legislative agenda has perhaps never been weaker than it is as he nears the midpoint of his second term.

To the White House, the take-away is that Washington — and the Republican Party in particular — is out of touch with the American people and failing to address their priorities. But to GOP leaders, Obama’s activities in a midterm election year reinforce their view of a president more focused on soaring speeches and partisan politics than on working toward compromise solutions to the nation’s problems.

Each side has at least some evidence to support their case.

Many Americans are indeed deeply frustrated with Washington’s inability to get anything done. Polls show majorities want to see action on some of Obama’s proposals, including increasing the minimum wage and overhauling the immigration system. Yet Obama’s own approval rating has fallen to the lowest levels of his presidency. And with his party at risk of losing control of the Senate, the president has ramped up his fundraising for the midterms and taken on a sharply partisan tone when voicing his frustration with Republicans.

During a speech Thursday in Austin, Texas — a Democratic enclave in a GOP-leaning state — Obama berated Republicans for, by his account, failing to act on “every serious idea” he’s put forth this year.

“The best you can say for them this year is that so far they have not shut down the government,” he said. “That’s the best you can say. But of course, it’s only July so who knows what they may cook up in the next few months.”

Egged on by a raucous and supportive crowd, Obama slipped deeper into campaign mode, leaning into the podium, responding to commentary from the audience and slipping into the familiar campaign language of his presidential bids. “Cynicism is a choice. Hope is a better choice,” he declared.

Why We’re Never Rid of Torture — Rebecca Gordon on why Dick Cheney’s America still has the capacity to do it.

Once upon a time, if a character on TV or in a movie tortured someone, it was a sure sign that he was a bad guy. Now, the torturers are the all-American heroes. From 24 to Zero Dark Thirty, it’s been the good guys who wielded the pliers and the waterboards. We’re not only living in a post-9/11 world, we’re stuck with Jack Bauer in the 25th hour.

In 2002, Cofer Black, the former Director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, told a Senate committee, “All I want to say is that there was ‘before’ 9/11 and ‘after’ 9/11. After 9/11 the gloves come off.” He wanted them to understand that Americans now live in a changed world, where, from the point of view of the national security state, anything goes. It was, as he and various top officials in the Bush administration saw it, a dangerous place in which terrorists might be lurking in any airport security line and who knew where else.

Dark-skinned foreigners promoting disturbing religions were driven to destroy us because, as President George W. Bush said more than once, “they hate our freedoms.” It was “them or us.” In such a frightening new world, we were assured, our survival depended in part on brave men and women willing to break precedent and torture some of our enemies for information that would save civilization itself. As part of a new American creed, we learned that torture was the price of security.

These were the ruling fantasies of the era, onscreen and off.  But didn’t that sorry phase of our national life end when Bush and his vice president Dick Cheney departed? Wasn’t it over once Barack Obama entered the Oval Office and issued an executive order closing the CIA black sites that the Bush administration had set up across the planet, forbidding what had euphemistically come to be called “enhanced interrogation techniques?” As it happens, no. Though it’s seldom commented upon, the infrastructure for, the capacity for, and the personnel to staff a system of institutionalized state torture remain in place, ready to bloom like a desert plant in a rain shower the next time fear shakes the United States.

There are several important reasons why the resurgence of torture remains a possibility in post-Bush America:

* Torture did not necessarily end when Obama took office.

* We have never had a full accounting of all the torture programs in the “war on terror.”

* Not one of the senior government officials responsible for activities that amounted to war crimes has been held accountable, nor were any of the actual torturers ever brought to court.

Final Notes — Everything you need to know about the World Cup final game between Argentina and Germany.  From Joe DeLessio at New York magazine.

The World Cup comes to an end this afternoon in Rio, when Germany and Argentina meet in the tournament’s final. It’s Germany’s eighth appearance in the final (they’ve won three times), and it’s the fifth time Argentina will play for the title (they’ve won twice). The game is sure to draw monster ratings, with both die-hard fans and casual observers tuning in. And so if you’re the type who only watches soccer once every four years, here’s a primer to get to ready for the big match.

How did these teams get here?
Germany went 2-0-1 in the group stage (the draw came against Ghana), then beat Algeria and France in the knockout round to advance to the semifinals. As you might have heard, they embarrassed Brazil (the favorite to win it all) in that game, defeating them 7–1, prompting a lot of sad Brazilian front pages.

[…]

Argentina, meanwhile, has won all of its games, finishing the group stage 3-0-0 before beating Switzerland and Belgium to earn a berth in the semis. They needed a penalty shootout to get past the Netherlands in the game, after neither team scored in either 90 minutes of regulation or 30 minutes of extra time.

What do I need to know about Germany?
• They’re an efficient, disciplined team that beats opponents by working as a unit. Their midfield is a major strength and a big reason they walloped Brazil in the semifinals, and Manuel Neuer is one of the best goalies in the world.

• They have the second-leading goal scorer in the entire tournament in Thomas Muller, whose five goals are behind only Colombia’s James Rodriguez’s. Those who jumped on the U.S. soccer bandwagon may recall Muller as the guy who scored for Germany in their 1–0 defeat of the Americans…

• Germany’s roster also includes Miroslav Klose, the all-time leading goal scorer in World Cup history. His goal against Brazil in the semis was the 16th of his World Cup career.

• Jurgen Klinsmann, the coach of the U.S. team, is rooting pretty hard for Germany. The German-born Klinsmann both played for and coached the country in past World Cups, and with the Americans out, he’s not hiding his rooting interests.

What do I need to know about Argentina?
• Their best player is Lionel Messi, who may also be the best player in the world. He aggressively attacks defenders, and thanks to his sick ball control skills, creates opportunities to shoot and pass. He tallied 291 goals in 201 games for his club and national teams in between the 2010 and 2014 World Cups. (The only player who comes close to that figure is Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo.) And he has four goals so far in the World Cup, tied for third most.

• Argentina, a team not necessarily known for its defense, has been incredibly tough to score on in the knockout round so far: They haven’t allowed a goal in their last three games (not counting the penalty shootout, of course). Thanks to two games that have gone into extra time, that’s 330 minutes of play in elimination games, against some of the best teams on the planet.

• Javier Mascherano — who stumbled to the field after knocking heads with an opponent against the Netherlands, and later revealed that he also “tore [his] anus” while trying to prevent a Arjen Robben goal in the same game — plans on playing in the final.

[…]

All right, just tell me who’s supposed to win.
Through the semifinal round, FiveThirtyEight put Germany’s chances of winning the World Cup at 63 percent, and Argentina’s at 37 percent. Germany are the favorites according to bookmakers, too, even though no European country has ever won a World Cup played in the Americas.

Doonesbury — Rumor has it…