Sunday, May 17, 2015

Sunday Reading

Not In Service — Gillian B. White in The Atlantic on how our public transportation system advances inequality.

Transportation is about more than just moving people from point A to point B. It’s also a system that can either limit or expand the opportunities available to people based on where they live. In many cities, the areas with the shoddiest access to public transit are the most impoverished—and the lack of investment leaves many Americans without easy access to jobs, goods, and services.

To be certain, the aging and inadequate transportation infrastructure is an issue for Americans up and down the economic ladder. Throughout the country highways are crumbling, bridges are in need of repair, and railways remain inadequate. Improvement to public transportation—buses, trains, and safer routes for bicycles—is something that just about everyone who lives in a major metropolitan area has on their wish list. But there’s a difference between preference and necessity: “Public transportation is desired by many but is even more important for lower-income people who can’t afford cars,” says Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a professor at Harvard University and author of a new book Move: Putting America’s Infrastructure Back in the Lead.

“Without really good public transportation, it’s very difficult to deal with inequality,” Kanter said. Access to just about everything associated with upward mobility and economic progress—jobs, quality food, and goods (at reasonable prices), healthcare, and schooling— relies on the ability to get around in an efficient way, and for an affordable price. A recent study from Harvard found that geographic mobility was indeed linked to economic mobility, and a 2014 study from NYU found a link between poor public-transit access and higher rates of unemployment and decreased income in New York City.

Access to good transit is not merely a question of a system’s geographic reach but also the cost to ride—and the latter is becoming an issue more and more. In the past five years many metro areas including New York, Portland, and St. Louis have seen fare hikes that place additional strain on low-income households. Recent additions to public transportation options, like bike share, should—in theory—make getting around easier and cheaper. But as it’s widely been noted, these programs tend to place their kiosks, at least at first, in more affluent neighborhoods. They also require credit cards for rental, which leaves out poorer populations who tend to not have access to such financial instruments. A recent survey of bike share users in Washington D.C., for example, found that ridership wasn’t particularly reflective of the city’s population: The city has a population that is about 50 percent black but the study found that bike-share ridership was made of up of mostly young, white males, and more than 50 percent of those using the region’s bike share system had incomes of $100,000 or more.

That leaves most low-income households to rely on older transportation methods—and therein lies the problem…

Did George W. Bush Create ISIS? — Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker digs into the quagmire.

The exchange started like this: at the end of Jeb Bush’s town-hall meeting in Reno, Nevada, on Wednesday, a college student named Ivy Ziedrich stood up and said that she had heard Bush blame the growth of ISIS on President Obama, in particular on his decision to withdraw American troops from Iraq in 2011. The origins of ISIS, Ziedrich said, lay in the decision by Bush’s brother, in 2003, to disband the Iraqi Army following the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s government.

“It was when thirty thousand individuals who were part of the Iraqi military were forced out—they had no employment, they had no income, and they were left with access to all of the same arms and weapons.… Your brother created ISIS,’’ she said.

“All right,” Bush said. “Is that a question?”

“You don’t need to be pedantic to me, sir,” she said.

“Pedantic? Wow,” Bush said.

Ziedrich finally came forth with her query: “Why are you saying that ISIS was created by us not having a presence in the Middle East when it’s pointless wars, where we send young American men to die for the idea of American exceptionalism? Why are you spouting nationalist rhetoric to get us involved in more wars?”

Jeb replied by repeating his earlier criticism of President Obama: that Iraq had been stable until American troops had departed. “When we left Iraq, security had been arranged,” Bush said. The removal of American troops had created a security vacuum that ISIS exploited. “The result was the opposite occurred. Immediately, that void was filled.”

“Your brother created ISIS” is the kind of sound bite that grabs our attention, because it’s obviously false yet oddly rings true. Bush didn’t like it: he offered a retort and then left the stage. Meanwhile, Ziedrich had started a conversation that rippled across Twitter, Facebook, and any number of American dinner tables. Who is actually right?

Here is what happened: In 2003, the U.S. military, on orders of President Bush, invaded Iraq, and nineteen days later threw out Saddam’s government. A few days after that, President Bush or someone in his Administration decreed the dissolution of the Iraqi Army. This decision didn’t throw “thirty thousand individuals” out of a job, as Ziedrich said—the number was closer to ten times that. Overnight, at least two hundred and fifty thousand Iraqi men—armed, angry, and with military training—were suddenly humiliated and out of work.

This was probably the single most catastrophic decision of the American venture in Iraq. In a stroke, the Administration helped enable the creation of the Iraqi insurgency. Bush Administration officials involved in the decision—like Paul Bremer and Walter Slocombe—argued that they were effectively ratifying the reality that the Iraqi Army had already disintegrated.

This was manifestly not true. I talked to American military commanders who told me that leaders of entire Iraqi divisions (a division has roughly ten thousand troops) had come to them for instructions and expressed a willingness to coöperate. In fact, many American commanders argued vehemently at the time that the Iraqi military should be kept intact—that disbanding it would turn too many angry young men against the United States. But the Bush White House went ahead.

Many of those suddenly unemployed Iraqi soldiers took up arms against the United States. We’ll never know for sure how many Iraqis would have stayed in the Iraqi Army—and stayed peaceful—had it remained intact. But the evidence is overwhelming that former Iraqi soldiers formed the foundation of the insurgency.

On this point, although she understated the numbers, Ziedrich was exactly right. But how did the dissolution of the Iraqi Army lead to the creation of ISIS?

During the course of the war, Al Qaeda in Iraq grew to be the most powerful wing of the insurgency, as well as the most violent and the most psychotic. They drove truck bombs into mosques and weddings and beheaded their prisoners. But, by the time the last American soldiers had departed, in 2011, the Islamic State of Iraq, as it was then calling itself, was in a state of near-total defeat. The combination of the Iraqi-led “awakening,” along with persistent American pressure, had decimated the group and pushed them into a handful of enclaves.

Indeed, by 2011 the situation in Iraq—as former Governor Bush said—was relatively stable. “Relatively” is the key word here. Iraq was still a violent place, but nowhere near as violent as it had been. The Iraqi government was being run by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a fervent Al Qaeda foe and ostensible American ally.

But, as the last Americans left Iraq, there came the great uprising in Syria that pitted the country’s vast Sunni majority against the ruthless regime of Bashar al-Assad. Syria quickly dissolved into anarchy. Desperate and seeing an opportunity, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, dispatched a handful of soldiers to Syria, where, in a matter of months, they had gathered an army of followers and had begun attacking the Assad regime. Suddenly, Baghdadi’s group—which had been staggering toward the grave only months before—was regaining strength. In 2013, the I.S.I. became the Islamic State of Iraq in Syria. ISIS was born…

The First Lawful Same-Sex Marriage in America — Erick Eckholm in The New York Times finds the couple that did it in 1971.

MINNEAPOLIS — Long before the fight over same-sex marriage began in earnest, long before gay couples began lining up for marriage licenses, Jack Baker and Michael McConnell decided to wed.

The year was 1967. Homosexuality was still classified as a disorder, sodomy was illegal in nearly every state, and most gay men and lesbians lived in fearful secrecy.

But from the age of 14, eyeing young men in his father’s barbershop, Mr. McConnell dreamed of living “happily ever after” with a partner.

So when Mr. Baker proposed moving in together, Mr. McConnell challenged him. “If we’re going to do this,” he replied, “you have to find a way for us to get married.”

Mr. Baker remembers his initial reaction: “I had never heard of such a thing.”

He enrolled in law school to try to make it happen.

In 1970, in Minneapolis, Mr. Baker and Mr. McConnell became the first same-sex couple known to apply for a marriage license. Turned down by Hennepin County, they fought to the United States Supreme Court, where they lost their case in a one-sentence dismissal that has reverberated in federal courts and played an indirect role in pushing same-sex marriage to the high court this year.

The couple, though, did not give up. With some sleight of hand involving a legal change to a gender-neutral name, they obtained a marriage license in another county, and in 1971, in white bell-bottom pantsuits and macramé headbands, they exchanged vows before a Methodist pastor and a dozen guests in a friend’s apartment. Their three-tiered wedding cake was topped by two plastic grooms, which a friend supplied by splitting two bride-and-groom figurines.

Ever since, they have maintained that theirs was the country’s first lawful same-sex wedding. The state and federal governments have yet to grant recognition, but the pastor, Roger W. Lynn, 76, calls theirs “one of my more successful marriages.”

“They are still happily married, and they love each other,” Mr. Lynn said.

The couple, now in their early 70s, spoke this month in a rare interview in the house they share here, nearly half a century after they joined their lives and earned a place in the history of gay rights, helping to make Minnesota an early center of gay activism.

Mr. Baker said he was proud that the Supreme Court this year heard the very same constitutional arguments of equal protection and due process that he had identified as a law student in 1970.

In 2013, when the Minnesota Legislature authorized same-sex marriage and a state senator announced, “Today, love wins,” Mr. McConnell watched, enthralled, from the gallery. But the couple did not join the rush for an undisputed license.

“No,” Mr. Baker said, pounding an oak table in their living room. “To reapply now becomes an admission that what we did was not legal, and I will never admit that.”

Doonesbury — Sign me up.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Sunday Reading

Self-Destruct Sequence — Andrew O’Hehir in Salon on how the GOP will wipe itself out.

Through the magical kismet produced by blending their stupidity with Netanyahu’s, the GOP has managed to make the leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran look reasonable, which is quite a feat. In fact, Iranian officials are behaving more reasonably than their histrionic enemies on the Israeli and American right, as virtually the entire world has noticed. One should never treat nuclear weapons lightly, and an agreement to restrict them is always a good thing. But I have never felt remotely convinced by the argument that a nuclear-armed Iran will lead to the end of the world, or the destruction of Israel.

North Korea has the Bomb (despite our repeated efforts to stop them). Pakistan has the Bomb (ditto). Those places are several orders of magnitude crazier and less stable than Iran, a nation that has been incrementally if unsteadily moving toward more democracy and more engagement with the outside world over the last two decades. To offer the obvious rebuttal, Israel has had a nuclear weapons program since the mid-1960s, one of the most poorly kept secrets in world affairs. (There are two known gag orders that prevent U.S. officials from discussing Israel’s nukes, an especially bizarre symptom of the Frankenstein-monster relationship between the two nations.) Facing an Israeli arsenal variously estimated at 75 to 400 nuclear warheads, the Iranians would literally have to be insane and suicidal to launch a first strike. You don’t need to endorse Iran’s recent actions in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere to conclude that they appear calculated and strategic, and reflect no such apocalyptic delusions.

That may seem like an inflammatory side argument, but it’s important because the real current of delusional, apocalyptic thinking is not found in Tehran. All those dire pronouncements made by Likudniks and Republicans about how a nuclear-armed Iran will bring the end of civilization are a form of psychological displacement. They have almost nothing to do with Iran or civilization, and everything to do with the Republican Party’s continuing decline and the perilous, self-inflicted predicament that Israel now faces. If the American right and the Israeli right had sealed their love with a suicide pact, vowing to destroy each other so they can be together in the hereafter, they could hardly be fulfilling it more perfectly.

Cuba WiFi — Matt Schiavenza in The Atlantic logs into the internet in Havana.

It’s an image that’s familiar around the world: A group of young people, glued to their laptops or smart phones, lounging around a public space and taking advantage of free, wireless Internet. But in Cuba, this scene is far from ordinary. When the famed artist Kcho provided wi-fi at his cultural center some weeks ago, he established the first such venue in the country’s history. Now, in a rapidly changing Cuba, milestones like this have become more commonplace.

To its beneficiaries, free wi-fi is about more than gaining access to computer games and social media.  It also involves establishing contact with the outside world. One 20-year-old at the cultural center was using wi-fi to chat with his father, who lives in the United States.

“Thanks to this service I can talk to him,” the man, Adonis Ortiz, told the Washington Post.

These unprecedented commercial ties—some bank restrictions are also being lifted—have outpaced the political reconciliation between the two countries. The U.S. government still enforces a trade embargo of Cuba, and the two have yet to open embassies in their respective capitals. Nevertheless, President Obama and his Cuban counterpart, Raul Castro, are scheduled to meet at the Summit of the Americas next month in Panama City.

Three months after President Obama announced that the U.S. and Cuba would normalize relations, the island’s long period of isolation appears to be coming to an end—and telecommunications is just one dimension of the change. On Saturday, a group of 80 civic and business leaders will travel from New Orleans to Havana to attend a conference, marking the first direct flight between the two cities in 57 years. And next week, a New York-based tour operator will launch a weekly charter flight between the Cuban capital and New York’s JFK airport.

Still, Cuba’s antiquated communications infrastructure presents an obstacle to economic development. In anticipation of restored U.S-Cuban ties, Havana is seeking billions of dollars in foreign direct investment across a range of sectors, but the lack of IT resources hampers these relationships. Nine out of 10 Cubans lack access to a mobile phone, and Internet connections are slow and subject to government censorship. State-run Internet cafes in the country charge $4.50 an hour for online access, a huge sum where the average monthly salary is about $20. Broadband Internet connections in Cuban homes are virtually unheard of.

The transition to a modern, Internet-driven economy won’t happen overnight. Nor is it certain to force political change.

The Instrument Has Yet To Be Invented — Andy Borowitz tries to measure Congress’s approval rating.

WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report) – After a challenging week for the legislative body, the approval rating of the United States Congress has shrunk to a point where it is no longer detectable by the technology currently available, a leading pollster said on Friday.

Davis Logsdon, who heads the highly regarded Opinion Research Institute at the University of Minnesota, said that his polling unit has developed highly sensitive measurement technology in recent years to gauge Congress’s popularity as it fell into the single digits, but added that “as of this week, Congress is basically flatlining.”

“At the beginning of the week, you could still see a slight flicker of approval for Congress,” he said. “Then—bam!—the lights went out.”

Logsdon said, however, that people should resist drawing the conclusion that Congress’s approval rating now stands at zero. “They may have support in the range of .0001 per cent or, say, .0000001 per cent,” he said. “Our equipment just isn’t advanced enough to measure it.”

Doonesbury — The fog of memory.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Sunday Reading

Rather than post three or so articles of interest from the past week, today I’m posting the link to the Jon Swift Memorial Roundup 2014 and let you see what some of the best bloggers out there chose for their best posts of the year.

Welcome to a tradition started by the late Jon Swift/Al Weisel, who left behind some excellent satire, but was also a nice guy and a strong supporter of small blogs. As Lance Mannion put it in 2010:

Jon Swift - Al WeiselOur late and much missed comrade in blogging, journalist and writer Al Weisel, revered and admired across the bandwidth as the “reasonable conservative” blogger Modest Jon Swift, was a champion of the lesser known and little known bloggers working tirelessly in the shadows . . .One of his projects was a year-end Blogger Round Up. Al/Jon asked bloggers far and wide, famous and in- and not at all, to submit a link to their favorite post of the past twelve months and then he sorted, compiled, blurbed, hyperlinked and posted them on his popular blog. His round-ups presented readers with a huge banquet table of links to work many of has had missed the first time around and brought those bloggers traffic and, more important, new readers they wouldn’t have otherwise enjoyed.

It may not have been the most heroic endeavor, but it was kind and generous and a lot of us owe our continued presence in the blogging biz to Al.


As in Jon/Al’s 2008 roundup, submissions are listed roughly in the order they were received. As he wrote in that post:

I’m sure you’ll be interested in seeing what your favorite bloggers think were their best posts of the year, but be sure to also visit some blogs you’ve never read before and leave a nice comment if you like what you see or, if you must, a polite demurral if you do not.

There are many fine examples of good writing to be found in the Roundup by bloggers you will recognize, and many you will not.  I encourage you to browse through the selections.  You will find my entry in there as well.

Doonesbury — No joke.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Sunday Reading

That Was The Week — Charlie Pierce sums it up.

Someone I know, and whose insights I trust beyond anyone else’s, said that, in terms of sheer news, this week was like no week she’d seen since 1968. The more I thought of it, the more I realized that she was right. The only thing that made this week different than that particularly horrible, but news-bloat of a year is that we did not have a major assassination, just an armed assault on the Canadian parliament, panic over an epidemic disease that is not remotely epidemic here, and another school shooting to top the whole thing off, all in the superheated context of an important midterm election. What’s even more sobering is how tightly all of these things are wound together in one complex knot of fear and confusion and doubt.

Not only does everything seem to be going all to hell at once, and in every direction, all of it seems to have caught our ameliorating institutions flatfooted. The media is struggling to keep up, where it is not trying to multi-task panic across a number of platforms. The president seems preternaturally calm, considering what’s going on, and considering the very real possibility that he will spend the last two years of his term with a hostile — and not altogether rational — Congress at his throat. For itself, the present Congress continues to be stuck firmly in the bog that the 2010 midterms created for it, when the country got together and elected the worst Congress in the history of the Republic. Most of them will get re-elected. Again.

For example, and as an illustration of how all of these things are tangled up with each other, I was thinking just this morning, “Gee golly gosh, what this whole Ebola thing needs is the reasoned input of Darrell Issa and the calming influence of the United States House of Representatives.” The Lord is good. The Lord provides.

“I think we all know that the system is not yet refined to where we could say it is working properly…When the head of the C.D.C. says you can’t get it with somebody on the bus next to you, that’s just not true,” Mr. Issa said, adding that a person carrying the virus could transmit it on public transportation by vomiting on another passenger.:

And then there was Trey Gowdy, who’s supposed to be pumping hot air into the Benghazi, Benghazi!, BENGHAZI! balloon, but who took off his kangaroo suit for the afternoon and favored us with his Sam Drucker imitation.

“Why in the world did the president pick a dadgum lawyer?” Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-South Carolina, asked at the hearing, pointing out that Klain doesn’t have a background in communicable disease, infectious disease, or West Africa. “If this were an outbreak of people who don’t have wills in West Africa, or if this were an outbreak on contested elections in West Africa, then I’d say yeah, go hire Mr. Klain,” Gowdy continued. “But it’s not. It’s a medical crisis.”

Oh, put a sock in it, Gomer. Like you wouldn’t be saying the same damn thing if the president had put Hippocrates in charge. Would you like a list of highly qualified people whom the president has sent up into the monkeyhouse whom you and the other goobers wouldn’t confirm. Wait a second. I’ll get back to you after this Jason Chaffetz guy finishes his remarks.

“Why not have the surgeon general head this up?” Chaffetz asked in a Wednesday appearance on Fox News. “I think that’s a very legitimate question. At least you have somebody who has a medical background whose been confirmed by the United States Senate…It begs the question, what does the surgeon general do? Why aren’t we empowering that person?”

And we arrive, finally, at the deepest part of the tangle. We don’t have a Surgeon General at the moment. The president sent up Dr.Vivek Murthy as his nominee for the post almost a year ago. Murthy’s credentials are impeccable, Gomer. The reason he hasn’t been confirmed is that Murthy has been outspoken on the obvious fact that firearms in this country are a public health issue. Whereupon the National Rifle Association announced that it would be “scoring” the vote on Murthy’s confirmation, which was enough to scare the Congress into putting the nomination on ice. And, by the way, the only senator who has admitted putting a “hold” on Murthy’s nomination is Senator Aqua Buddha, the brogressive hero from Kentucky and The Most Interesting Man In Politics (tm/Time, Inc.).

“In his efforts to curtail Second Amendment rights, Dr. Murthy has continually referred to guns as a public health issue on par with heart disease and has diminished the role of mental health in gun violence,” wrote Paul in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “As a physician, I am deeply concerned that he has advocated that doctors use their position of trust to ask patients, including minors, details about gun ownership in the home… Dr. Murthy has disqualified himself from being Surgeon General because of his intent to use that position to launch an attack on Americans’ right to own a firearm under the guise of a public health and safety campaign.”

So we don’t have a Surgeon General at the time of Ebola because of the NRA, which has dedicated itself to making sure that there are enough guns floating around so that Jaylin Fryberg could get his hands on one and shoot up a cafeteria.

Several students identified the shooter as Jaylen Fryberg. Jarron Webb, 15, said the shooter was angry at a girl who would not date him, and that the girl was one of the people shot.  He said he believes one of the victims was his friend since kindergarten. Freshmen Brandon Carr, 15, and Kobe Baumann, 14, said they were just outside the cafeteria when the shooting happened. “We started hearing these loud banging noises, like someone hitting a trash can,” Carr said. They heard screaming and yelling. “Once I knew it was gunshots, we just booked it,” Carr said. They eventually joined about two dozen kids inside of a classroom with police and FBI. Police told them to stay in there. “Everybody in the classroom was just freaking out crying,” Carr said. Eventually, they were told they could leave, and were loaded onto buses.

Isn’t it wonderful when news stories sing in harmony?

Doonesbury — Your ad here.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sunday Reading

The Body In The Street — Charles P. Pierce on the symbol that Michael Brown’s remains became.

I keep coming back to what seems to me to be the most inhumane thing of all, the inhumane thing that happened before the rage began to rise, and before the backlash began to build, and before the cameras and television lights, and before the tear gas and the stun grenades and the chants and the prayers. I keep coming back to the one image that was there before the international event began, before it became a television show and a symbol in flames and something beyond what it was in the first place. I keep coming back to one simple moment, one ghastly fact. One image, from which all the other images have flowed.

They left the body in the street.

Dictators leave bodies in the street.

Petty local satraps leave bodies in the street.

Warlords leave bodies in the street.

A police officer shot Michael Brown to death. And they left his body in the street. For four hours. Bodies do not lie in the street for four hours. Not in an advanced society. Bodies lie in the street for four hours in small countries where they have perpetual civil war. Bodies lie in the street for four hours on back roads where people fight over the bare necessities of simple living, where they fight over food and water and small, useless parcels of land. Bodies lie in the street for four hours in places in which poor people fight as proxies for rich people in distant places, where they fight as proxies for the men who dig out the diamonds, or who drill out the oil, or who set ancient tribal grudges aflame for modern imperial purposes that are as far from the original grudges as bullets are from bows. Those are the places where they leave bodies in the street, as object lessons, or to make a point, or because there isn’t the money to take the bodies away and bury them, or because nobody gives a damn whether they are there or not. Those are the places where they leave bodies in the street.


The story now seems to be about the “healing process” going on in Ferguson. The nights are quieter. The National Guard has pulled out. Some of the reporters have moved on to other things. There will be a funeral on Monday for the boy whose body was left in the street. It will be a dignified spectacle and it will be terrific television and it will be said to be “healing” the wounded place. Meanwhile, there are other people finding their healing in many different ways.

I support officer Wilson and he did a great job removing an unnecessary thing from the public.

An unnecessary thing.

The body they left in the street.

The body that, in so many ways, is still in the street.

An unnecessary thing.

The body they left in the street. For four hours. Ferguson, Missouri was a place where they left a body in the street. For four hours. And the rage rose, and the backlash built, and the cameras arrived, and so did the cops, and the thing became something beyond what it was in the first place. And, in a very real way, in the streets of Ferguson, the body was still in the street. What kind of place leaves the body of a boy in the street? What kind of country does that?

The Tale of the Trolls — Sara Scribner on the age of internet rage.

A young poet, enough of a rising star to be profiled in the New York Times Magazine, posts a poem called “The Rape Joke.” It begins, “The rape joke is that you were 19 years old. The rape joke is that he was your boyfriend.” It is about as intense and intimate as an online post can get. In the magazine article, the poet’s mother reads the poem, but it is the comment thread that makes the mother cry. “Do you see what these people were saying about you?” her mother asked. “Mom, it’s O.K.,” the writer, Patricia Lockwood, said. “It’s just the Internet.”

Internet cruelty is nothing new. It might only surprise children and the uninitiated, who dip into the public sphere for the first time and are shocked by what comes back at them. But Lockwood’s response reveals a generational shift. Her mother calls the commentators “people.” Lockwood identifies them as “the Internet,” a strange hybrid of human and computer, innately vicious but also ubiquitous, phenomena to be ignored.

Others have a more difficult time ignoring it. After reaching out to her father’s mourning fans, Robin Williams’ daughter Zelda became a target of sadistic trolls — piling trauma upon trauma. She closed her Instagram account and shut down her Twitter feed. A budding journalist who had just had one of her first stories posted on her university newspaper’s website was so stunned by the comments that she decided to find another line of work. A young writer in New York City who was photographed trying to make ends meet by hauling his typewriter to the High Line and busking stories was savaged online. (He ended up writing an article about his ordeal called “I Am an Object of Internet Ridicule, Ask Me Anything.”) Journalist Amanda Hess, who wrote one of the most talked-about stories of this year on women and the Internet, relates getting this comment to one of her pieces: “Amanda, I’ll fucking rape you. How does that feel?”

The list of examples seems endless, and there doesn’t seem to be a single space online that is free from overblown antagonistic invective. Once, when speaking to an almost impossibly sweet colleague, I voiced some concerns about my son’s eating habits. She told me to post on an online forum for moms. Seemed like a good idea at the time. The flowing curlicues and sweet-pea-pink background of the site’s design must have lulled me into some kind of trance, so the vitriol that came back was a shock. Internet moms are angry, too, real angry. And they just hate you.

Although the initial promise of the Internet was that it was a noncommercial, alternative space where anyone could have a public forum, there is clearly something about the structure of the Internet and what happens to people when they are using a computer that taps into something deep, dark, completely judgmental and furious. The worry is that the fury will reshape our online world. Will the Internet become a nasty, brutish place where only the bullies can find a voice? Is there a chance for civility and free speech online?

Summer Camp — Kim Severson goes to Dollywood, the Southern amusement park that’s a little bit country and a little bit gay.

At Dollywood, the place on a Venn diagram where gay camp and Southern camp overlap, cinnamon rolls might be the great equalizer.

They’re more loaf than roll, really. You find them at the Grist Mill, a working water-powered replica of an old country mill inside the wildly popular theme park. Workers cut deep slashes into small loaves of bread dough and toss them into pans of cinnamon and sugar, then bake them; the crusty top gives way to soft, sugary canyons inside.

On a recent Saturday, the women behind the counter sold about 1,200 of them — including one to me — at $5.99 a pop. A little plastic cup of white frosting was a dollar extra, which I gladly paid.

The hot loaves of sin are not for the gluten-free, nor for those who might select their food based on where it came from. But there didn’t seem to be many of those people moving through one of the park’s most popular food venues.

There were, however, large groups of Southern Baptists who showed up in matching T-shirts that proclaimed their church affiliations. There were exhausted families from North Carolina trying to get grandma out of the wilting heat. There were rowdy college students from Ohio on a summer road trip, and a single mom from Georgia looking to entertain her young son.

And then there was us, a middle-aged lesbian couple in expensive yet practical footwear who traveled from Atlanta to see if we could find the campy gay undercurrent that runs through Dollywood, arguably the most culturally conservative amusement park in the country. (It is hard to imagine Disney, for example, selling a purse with a pocket for a concealed weapon or leather Bible covers.)

In a lot of ways, we were just like the rest of the nearly three million people who make their way to the foothills of the Smoky Mountains about 30 miles east of Knoxville each year. We wanted to dip into the unapologetic mix of corn pone, roller coasters and celebrity that is Ms. Parton’s very lucrative Appalachian Southern fantasy.

It is hard to dislike Ms. Parton, who grew up in a family of 12 children a few miles from here in conditions so poor her father paid for her birth with a bag of grain. She left for Nashville the day after she graduated from high school and this year celebrates her 50th year in the business. She is a smart and driven businesswoman and has dedicated herself to helping the poor region she grew up in. Opening the lucrative Dollywood was part of that mission; it’s now the largest employer in Sevier County.

That Dolly Parton, 68, is also a gay icon would probably be news to many of the guests in cargo shorts and tennis shoes who wait patiently in line each day until “The Star Spangled Banner” is sung and the park opens. But for the rest of us, it is not.

Doonesbury — Phone messages.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sunday Reading

The Roots of Ferguson — William Powell in The Atlantic says that the history of racial profiling in the Missouri town is the problem.

The civic infrastructure of Ferguson has not kept pace with its shifting demographics. In 1990, the town was three-quarters white. Twenty years later, white people made up only 30 percent of the population.

Now, Ferguson’s population is two-thirds black. Its more-than-50-person police force includes just three black officers. In 2013, black people accounted for 86 percent of all traffic stops and 92 percent of searches and arrests.

Ferguson’s figures are not much different than many municipalities in the St. Louis area—and they’re actually better than the statewide average. But residents say profiling in the city is severe.

Anthony Johnson lives in the Canfield Green Apartments, where Mike Brown lived and where he was gunned down in the street. Tattooed below Johnson’s right eye is a pair of tear drops, a tribute to his parents. His father was shot and killed when he was 10. His mom died in a car accident on Mother’s Day. Standing on the lawn of the apartment complex, he said police harassment is a regular part of life here. Cops often stop him on the street and ask where he’s going. Sometimes, they’ll pick him up by mistake, looking for a different black man. He knows not to walk around the neighborhood after a certain time at night, to avoid being stopped, interrogated, and asked for identification. “Why should I have to show ID if I’m just walking down the street?” he asked. “It just don’t make no sense. It’s sad that it took an incident like this to shed some light on the Ferguson police.”

One particularly appalling incident came in 2009, when Ferguson police picked up a 52-year-old named Henry Davis, as recently reported by The Daily Beast. He was arrested by mistake. The warrant had been for another man with the same last name. But rather than police setting him free, Davis was charged with “property damage” because he had bled on an officer’s uniform.


At a recent community forum, Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson acknowledged that problem, saying his department is working on the issue. It’s a vicious cycle, he said: People get a few traffic tickets and can’t afford to pay the fines; eventually a warrant is issued and an arrest is made; a court date is missed, and on and on…

Grazida King came to Thursday’s march with his two sons, ages 9 and 11. He wanted to prove that protests can be peaceful and show his boys that it’s important to stand up for your beliefs. “I’ve been profiled before,” he says. “We call it driving while black, just pulled over for no apparent reason.” He worries about his sons having the same problem. He tries to raise them the right way, but feels like he shouldn’t have to train his children on how to avoid being harassed by police.

In addressing the crowd, even Johnson, the highway patrol captain, said he knows how it feels to be profiled. “When I was 18, I knew there were times when I was driving in my car and had to turn around,” he says. “It needs to change. It’s gotta change today.”

Trust-Busting — Thomas Frank has some suggestions for President Obama on how to wreck the GOP.  One of them is going after big monopolies.

Once upon a time, monopoly and oligopoly were illegal in America. Our ancestors believed, correctly, that concentrated economic power was incompatible with democracy in all sorts of ways. (Antitrust expert Barry Lynn and I talked this over for Salon readers a few weeks ago.) Since the days of Ronald Reagan, however, every succeeding administration has chosen to enforce the antitrust laws only if the monopoly or oligopoly in question threatened to cause big price increases for consumers — and sometimes not even then. This has come to mean that nearly all mergers and takeovers are permitted, and that achieving monopoly has once again become the obvious strategic objective of every would-be business leader.

The consequences of this policy shift have been huge, both in our everyday economic lives—where we face off against unchallengeable power everywhere from beer to bookselling—and the gradual fraying of society. Unrestrained corporate power naturally yields unrestrained wealth for corporate leaders and their Wall Street backers. In a recent essay in Harper’s Magazine about inequality (once Obama’s favorite subject), the economist Joseph Stiglitz declared monopoly to be one of the main culprits:

“The most successful ‘entrepreneurs’ have figured out how to create barriers to competition, behind which they can earn huge profits. It is not a surprise that the world’s richest person, Bill Gates, earned his fortune through a company that has engaged in anticompetitive practices in Europe, America, and Asia. Nor that the world’s second richest, Carlos Slim, made his fortune by taking advantage of a poorly designed privatization process, creating a virtual monopoly in Mexico’s telecom industry. . . .”

Barack Obama could change the entire thing—could bend the inequality curve itself—merely by deciding to enforce the nation’s antitrust laws in the same way that administrations before Reagan did. The laws themselves were written a century ago, so our current, useless Congress would have no say in the matter.

I asked Barry Lynn what this would look like. “The administration can begin tomorrow to attempt to enforce antitrust law exactly as the Johnson Administration enforced it in 1967,” he wrote me. Obama and Co. would encounter obstacles here and there, of course—the companies singled out by the Justice Department would fight like hell, for example. But there would be little the House of Representatives could do to stop the administration, Lynn says, short of “cutting off funds for enforcement or declaring monopoly legal.” Either of which would, of course, be fatal to the right.

“There’s nothing here,” Lynn concluded, “that a bit of courage, combined with a bit of smarts, wouldn’t fix.”

For Obama to launch a FDR-style crusade against economic feudalism would push just about everything short of war off the front pages and would also put the GOP in the uncomfortable position of defending monopoly power. It would also remind voters of the original, more hopeful Obama crusade of 2008, when the Senator from Illinois traveled the country promising to restore competition to agricultural markets—back before he decided to just drop the whole thing.

Lastly, a fight against our modern-day octopi might put small-business people, the right’s most motivated constituency these days, back onto the political fence. Antitrust is their issue, after all: let’s see them get out and work their butts off for Boehner when he’s standing tall for the multinational that just drove them out of business.

Ridiculous — Jonathan Chait says the indictment of Rick Perry will go nowhere.

I do not have a fancy law degree from Harvard or Yale or, for that matter, anywhere. I am but a humble country blogger. And yet, having read the indictment, legal training of any kind seems unnecessary to grasp its flimsiness.

Perry stands accused of violating two laws. One is a statute defining as an offense “misus[ing] government property, services, personnel, or any other thing of value belonging to the government that has come into the public servant’s custody or possession by virtue of the public servant’s office or employment.” The veto threat, according to the prosecutor, amounted to a “misuse.” Why? That is hard to say.

The other statute prohibits anybody in government from “influenc[ing] or attempt[ing] to influence a public servant in a specific exercise of his official power or a specific performance of his official duty or influenc[ing] or attempt[ing] to influence a public servant to violate the public servant’s known legal duty.”

But that statute also specifically exempts “an official action taken by the member of the governing body.” The prosecutors claim that, while vetoing the bill may be an official action, threatening a veto is not. Of course the threat of the veto is an integral part of its function. The legislature can hardly negotiate with the governor if he won’t tell them in advance what he plans to veto. This is why, when you say the word “veto,” the next word that springs to mind is “threat.” That’s how vetoes work.

The theory behind the indictment is flexible enough that almost any kind of political conflict could be defined as a “misuse” of power or “coercion” of one’s opponents. To describe the indictment as “frivolous” gives it far more credence than it deserves. Perry may not be much smarter than a ham sandwich, but he is exactly as guilty as one.

Doonesbury — Rough life.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Sunday Reading

Vacation time warrants vacation reading.

Pebble Beach — Leo Levine at the New York Times on the ultimate car show and auction.

1969 Mustang - Pebble Beach 08-10-14

1969 FORD MUSTANG BOSS 429 (Russo & Steele, no estimate)

MAX MUSCLE: The 375-horsepower Boss 429 peaked around $450,000 at the top of the market in 2007. With the recent sale of a Plymouth Hemi ’Cuda convertible for $3.8 million, the best muscle cars seems to be back near their prerecession highs.

The annual celebration of the automobile on the Monterey Peninsula of California, a vintage-car enthusiast’s version of the Academy Awards, hits the starter button this week.

By the time it concludes with the Pebble Beach Concours d’Élégance next Sunday, records are expected to be set for practically everything that requires payment, be it a hot dog, a hotel room or a Ferrari. And as usual, reports of unimaginable prices for rare vehicles will obscure the fact that among all the glitter and precious metal there is much to see and do where admission is free.

The seed from which all this grew was planted in 1950, when a few dozen sports-car drivers raced on a makeshift road circuit through the Del Monte Forest, and about 30 owners of new cars organized a show, given the French appellation of concours, on the lawn next to the Pebble Beach Golf Links.

That was 64 years ago. This year there will be 10 concours of one sort or another, including Saturday’s Concorso Italiano at Fort Ord, expected to draw more than 1,000 entries; no less than six auctions, which market experts project will realize sales of more than $400 million; and a variety of events like Gordon McCall’s Motorworks Revival, a Wednesday evening social at the Monterey Jet Center. Admission is $325, limited to 3,000 guests.

High on the no-cost list is the Thursday morning Pebble Beach Tour d’Élégance, which typically includes about 150 of the 220 cars entered in Sunday’s headline concours. Intended to show that these cars are not just for exhibition, this year’s tour will cover about 80 miles, starting at 8 a.m. in the Del Monte Forest and stopping in Carmel for lunch before returning to the starting area. The opportunity to see some of the world’s great classic automobiles, at times with the Pacific Ocean as a background, can be a thrilling experience.

Admission is free for Tuesday’s kickoff, the Concours on the Avenue in Carmel, expected to draw some 200 entries. Other free events include Wednesday’s Little Car Show on Lighthouse Avenue in Pacific Grove; Friday’s Porsche Werks Reunion at the Rancho Canada Golf Club on Carmel Valley Road and the Legends of the Autobahn gathering at the Nicklaus Club-Monterey.

One of the week’s regular curtain raisers, running Tuesday and Wednesday, is the automobilia exposition at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Seaside, just off the Pacific Coast Highway. On offer are posters, badges, paintings and automotive memorabilia. Admission is $15 for one day, $20 for both. The Pebble Beach RetroAuto, where admission is free, runs Tuesday through Saturday at the Spanish Bay Hotel in Pebble Beach.

The largest crowds, as usual, will be at the Laguna Seca road circuit, where some 550 entries will be participating in a series of races Saturday and Sunday. No big-name racecar drivers will be competing, but there will be many great cars.

Other high-dollar events include Friday’s The Quail, at Quail Lodge in Carmel Valley. This is a concours with attendance limited to 4,000 and is sold out at $400 per person. The price includes parking, lunch, drinks, souvenirs and the accompanying feeling of well-being. Admission to the Pebble Beach concours is $275 in advance, $300 at the gate.

These numbers, however, don’t compare with what is expected at the various auctions. Favored to bring the highest bid of the week is a Ferrari 250 GTO to be sold by Bonhams on Thursday, with predictions of a hammer price that will be $40 million or more.

Doonesbury — Next question.

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.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sunday Reading

Compassionate Conservatism 2.0 — Peter Beinart in The Atlantic on why GOP attempts to make nice never really work.

In the late 1990s, after Bill Clinton campaigned for reelection against the Gingrich Congress’s assault on government spending, George W. Bush decided that he too would make congressional Republicans his foil. In September 1999, when GOP budget hawks tried to cut the earned-income tax credit, the Texas governor declared, “I don’t think they ought to balance their budget on the backs of the poor.”

Now the same pattern is repeating itself. In 2012, Mitt Romney boasted that he was “severely conservative.” He chose Paul Ryan as his running mate in large measure to mobilize Republicans who loved Ryan’s assault on the welfare state. But Romney and Ryan lost in part because Barack Obama, like Clinton before him, scared Americans about the GOP’s assault on government. Moreover, as in the late 1990s, the budget deficit is going down.

As a result, potential GOP presidential candidates are falling over one another to run as Bush did in 2000: as compassionate conservatives. Rand Paul is arguing for shorter prison sentences. Republican Governors John Kasich and Mike Pence are expanding Medicaid. Marco Rubio recently said it was time for Republicans to stop trying to balance “the budget by saving money on safety-net programs.” Even budget cutter extraordinaire, Paul Ryan, wants to “remove it [the fight against poverty] from the old-fashioned budget fight.”

It’s easy to see why compassionate conservatism is back. It’s harder to see it helping Republicans all that much.

First, it didn’t even help Bush all that much. Let’s remember, he won less than 48 percent of the vote in 2000. Between them, Al Gore and Ralph Nader won more than 51 percent. Exit polls that year found that of the 10 qualities Bush voters cited as reasons for voting for him, “cares about people like me” was number seven. In 2004, pollsters asked the question differently. As Ben Domenech has noted, Bush won only 24 percent of voters who said their top priority was a candidate who “cares about people.” He won only 23 percent of voters who said their biggest concern was health care. That’s better than Mitt Romney, who won only 18 percent of voters who prioritized “car[ing] about people.” But it’s exactly the same as John McCain’s percentage in 2008. And on health care—a key domestic-policy issue on which Republicans want to show they’re not hard-hearted—Bush in 2004 did slightly worse than McCain and Romney.

The big reason Bush won in 2004 isn’t because he wowed voters with his compassion. It’s because he won 86 percent of those who said their number one concern was “terrorism” and 80 percent of those who prioritized “moral values.” Since then, national security has faded as a political issue and the GOP’s historic advantage on it has disappeared. Something similar has happened on the culture war, which has shifted in the Democrats’ direction because gay marriage—which Bush won votes for opposing in 2004—is now far more popular.

If the first problem with running as a compassionate conservative is that it didn’t work so effectively for George W. Bush, the second is that being seen as compassionate is probably harder for a Republican today. Suspicion of the GOP among key demographic groups is greater, and the Republican base is less tolerant of reaching out to them. When Bush was president, the leaders of both parties opposed gay marriage. Now it’s a partisan issue, which makes it harder for a Republican candidate to win LGBT votes, at least without provoking a rebellion among the GOP’s Christian conservative base.

Paul Ryan 2.0 — Charles P. Pierce on the rehabilitation of the studmuffin with the balance sheets.

On Thursday, the zombie-eyed granny starver from the state of Wisconsin went to the American Enterprise Institute — and there’s one of your tells right there — to reboot his public image as a serious man of serious ideas. This image took quite a beating over the past decades as he produced budget after budget that were economically illiterate and politically suicidal. Then he ran for vice-president with G.I. Luvmoney at the top of the ticket, and Joe Biden laughed at him, and that was pretty much that. Since then, Ryan has been fashioning an entirely new persona for himself as the Republican who cares about the poor. On Thursday, he announced his new anti-poverty initiative. It has been received fairly well. Ezra Klein has at least one foot back on the Paul Ryan Is A Serious Thinker bandwagon.

Ryan is, at heart, more interested in reforming government programs than in simply cutting them. When deficits exploded after the financial crisis he used deficit-reducing budgets as the vehicle for far-reaching reforms. Now that deficits are lower and poverty is more salient, he’s using poverty as a vehicle for far-reaching reforms. The constant thread in Ryan’s career isn’t his concern for budgets but his efforts to overhaul the safety net.

And I am the Tsar of all the Russias.

On his electric teevee show, Lawrence O’Donnell found 101 different ways to talk about what “a good start” this plan is. (Ryan himself is hedging, calling the plan a “discussion draft.” Guess who’s leading the discussion?) There are ideas within the stated plan to which I have no objection: the expanded Earned Income Tax Credit, prison reform, etc. There is also one major and insurmountable flaw in the plan, and that is that Paul Ryan is a consummate charlatan, the fact that he has discovered a new formula for snake oil notwithstanding.

One must never forget when discussing anything Paul Ryan says about economics that he fundamentally does not believe that the care of the poor and the sick is a legitimate function of government. This belief is theological. It is the basis for his entire political career. And it has not changed. This is a philosophy he developed while going to high school and college on my dime and yours through Social Security survivor benefits, and you’re welcome again, dickhead. Anybody who thinks Paul Ryan has “changed” in any substantive way should not be allowed out in public without a minder. In this recent scam, the tells are scattered everywhere, and they are obvious, and you don’t even have to know that the more “compassionate” of his proposals don’t have fk all chance of getting through the monkeyhouse Congress in which he is a leader. He knows that, too.

Carter 2.0 — Sheryl Gay Stolberg in the New York Times profiles Jason Carter, running for governor of Georgia.

Like many candidates, Jason Carter, the Democratic nominee for governor in Georgia, is courting the Jewish vote. But when Mr. Carter, a state senator, declared his “powerful connection” to Israel, it was more than a campaign sound bite.

It was a not-so-subtle attempt to distance himself from a man he has loved and admired since boyhood: his grandfather, former President Jimmy Carter.

The former president’s views on Israel are not the only ones to make his grandson squirm. Of the elder Carter’s call to ban the death penalty, his grandson said, “I love my grandfather, but we disagree.” And when grandfather Carter offered to attend a campaign rally in Albany, Ga., not far from here, his grandson politely asked him to stay home.

“He wanted the people of southwest Georgia to see that he was a man of his own,” the former president said in an interview in his office, in a house where his mother, Lillian, once lived. Referring to his wife, he added, “He didn’t want the attention to be focused on me and Rosalynn.”

So it goes in what may be the nation’s most awkward legacy campaign.

Political families — from the Roosevelts to the Kennedys, Bushes and Clintons — have long been a part of American politics. And they are not new in Georgia, where Michelle Nunn, the Democratic nominee for Senate, is running for a seat her father, Sam, once held against a Republican, David Perdue, whose cousin was governor. Mr. Carter’s bid to unseat Gov. Nathan Deal, the Republican incumbent, is testing the strength and durability of the Carter name in Georgia, a red state that Democrats hope to turn blue.

But it is also a test of something more: a deep bond between a 38-year-old grandson and an 89-year-old grandfather who, in the words of Roy E. Barnes, Georgia’s last Democratic governor, “would walk on fire to help get Jason elected.”

The elder Mr. Carter and his wife, regarded in the family as its sharpest political mind, have plunged into their grandson’s campaign. Mr. Carter has offered so much unsolicited advice (“Some of it is his famous micromanaging,” Senator Carter said) that strategists now include him on their daily email updates, even if some of his counsel seems dated.

“He got elected governor of Georgia by shaking 600,000 hands,” the younger Mr. Carter said. “That’s what he would tell you: ‘You’ve got to go to the grocery store and shake everybody’s hand.’ ”

The former president said he had helped vet campaign strategists by examining “their credentials,” sent to him by his grandson. The elder Carters have also been aggressive fund-raisers, headlining events in New York, Washington and Los Angeles — as well as a $20,000-a-couple weekend here in Plains last month, which included a church service and a personal tour of the former president’s boyhood farm, now a national historic site.

Such leveraging of his former office has prompted Republican attacks. “Follow the money: President Carter a cash cow,” the Deal campaign declared in an email missive.

At that, Senator Carter grew testy. “My grandfather gets attacked all the time by all different kinds of people, and he’s over it,” he said. “The judgment that he is looking for is not from my political opponents or his political opponents or even anyone else. The judgment he is awaiting is one that he is very comfortable with.”

Analysts call the race a tossup. Mr. Deal, 71, a former congressman elected governor in 2010, is on the defensive over a string of ethics questions, and his approval ratings are below 50 percent. Though Mr. Deal has more cash on hand — $2.6 million to Mr. Carter’s $1.8 million — Mr. Carter outraised the governor from April to June. Polls show them running essentially even.

Doonesbury — JFGI.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Sunday Reading

I Can’t Believe It’s Not Buffer — Charles P. Pierce on the Supreme Court’s ruling and free speech.

A year ago this week, Wendy Davis rose in the Texas legislature, and she talked for a very long time in order to delay passage of a preposterously restrictive law aimed at preventing women from exercising their constitutional right to make their own medical decisions. This made Davis a national celebrity. This made Davis a (so far pretty inept, alas) candidate for governor in Texas. The problem is that history guarantees nobody a happy ending. The bill not only eventually passed, but also became a model for, and an inspiration to, anti-choice state legislatures all across the country to the point that, in Mississippi, there’s only one clinic left that offers abortion services, and there are only six such clinics left in Texas, all of which are imperlied when the law goes into effect in September, and there is not a single clinic in Texas west of San Antonio, which is a considerable hunk of Texas. So yesterday’s decision by the Supreme Court that struck down a law here in the Commonwealth (God save it!) that enforced a 35-foot “buffer zone” around women’s health-care clinics probably won’t have much of an effect on the states that passed such laws. Soon, there aren’t going to be any clinics in those states anyway. What will the “sidewalk counselors” do then?

I don’t even want to think about it.

In general, I’m with Scott Lemieux.  This is a bad decision that is redeemed only by the fact that it’s not a horrible decision. The Hill decision is largely intact. However, the worst thing about it is the fact that (again) members of the current Supreme Court seem not to live in the same political reality as the rest of us. The situation outside the clinics up here was really a terrible one before the law was enacted in 2007, and that was the case even if you didn’t count John Salvi’s murderous rampage in 1994. This was not gentle little Eleanor McCullen out there “counseling” women. This was bullying and hectoring and, occasionally, assault and vandalism. However, the Court seems to believe that McCullen is the rule and not the exception.


I am not immune to the irony that the Supreme Court has a buffer zone, but that your average Planned Parenthood clinic doesn’t, at least not on a public sidewalk. (If I read the Court’s decision correctly, PP would be well advised to place all its clinics in strip malls, which are largely private space.) I’d say the Court struck a balance on this issue, too. But, damn, there’s that pesky reality again. It’s not like the people against whom the buffer zone was directed have a track record of respecting the distinction between public and private space. These are the people who stalk — and, yes, shoot — doctors in their own homes. In fact, I’m very concerned about this decision in the context of our newly expressed affection for our firearms. What if the sidewalk counselors decide to open-carry? And, conversely, what if a woman in Florida, attempting to enter a clinic, feels threatened by the spittle-fringed howling of the protesters? Can she Stand Her Ground and just Zimmerman the lot of them with an AR-15? Inquiring minds want to know.

There is a legitimate free-speech issue here. That’s why I have a very real touch of sympathy for the unanimous majority on the Court here. That it is inconsistently applied — Are we still going to have “free speech zones” at political conventions? — and that it reflects an airless view of the law outside of a real-world context are its major flaws, and they are going to become even more obvious as the effects of the decision start being felt around the country. That puts the onus on local police and local prosecutors. Trespassing is still trespassing. Assault is still assault. Vandalism is still vandalism. Being a public nuisance is still being a public nuisance. Disorderly conduct is still disorderly conduct. If these crimes are being committed in our communities, it doesn’t matter that they’re being committed by people with rosaries entwined in their fingers. The police and the local prosecutors still work for us. We have to make them do their jobs.

The Glass Closet — James B. Stewart at the New York Times profiles John Browne, former CEO of BP, and the perils of being openly gay high up in the corporate world.

In 2007, John Browne, Lord Browne of Madingley, resigned as chief executive of the British oil giant BP after being outed as gay by the tabloid The Mail on Sunday: “The True story about Lord Browne — by ex-rent boy lover.”

Mr. Browne said then, “I have always regarded my sexuality as a personal matter,” tacitly confirming that he was gay.

Now, he has written a candid and unsparing book about his tortured life as a closeted gay chief executive, “The Glass Closet: Why Coming Out Is Good for Business.” He thus becomes the first current or former chief executive of a major publicly traded corporation to acknowledge that he is gay.

After being outed, Mr. Browne was under no illusions he’d ever be chairman or chief executive of another publicly traded company. “To a headhunter I would have been seen as ‘controversial,’ too hot to handle,” he writes. “Sadly, there were some people, mostly from the business world, who never again displayed any warmth to me.”

Such attitudes may help explain why there are no publicly gay chief executives at any Fortune 500 company, according to Richard Zweigenhaft, co-author of “Diversity in the Power Elite” and a psychology professor at Guilford College in North Carolina.

That’s not to say there haven’t been any gay chief executives at major corporations — Mr. Browne is unique only because he was outed — and there are gay chief executives today, some of whom lead relatively open lives. But thus far, none have been willing to publicly acknowledge being gay. I reached out to several of them for this article, and all refused to be identified.

That makes the corporate corner suite one of the last frontiers for gay civil rights, now that even a professional football draft pick, Michael Sam, has publicly acknowledged being gay.

This seems especially baffling given recent advances in gay civil rights. And corporate chief executives are ostensibly evaluated by objective measures of financial performance, which should render their sexual orientation irrelevant.

But conforming to social norms has long been an unspoken requirement for the top jobs at public corporations. And even for gay people who have managed to get there, coming out publicly violates a norm that chief executives don’t court personal publicity or raise issues that might distract from the company’s business. “There may be what’s known as ‘pioneer fear,’ ” said Kenji Yoshino, professor of constitutional law at New York University and co-author of “Uncovering Talent, a New Model for Inclusion.” “No one wants to be first, with some asterisk after their name.”

Professor Zweigenhaft added that chief executives typically don’t have the personality of civil rights trail blazers. “The kind of person who becomes a C.E.O. isn’t going to surprise the board by coming out in The New York Times,” he said.

Although women and blacks are more visible, they face similar pressures in the executive suite. “Corporate boards tend to be older, white, male and conservative, and they want C.E.O.s they feel comfortable with,” Professor Zweigenhaft said. “Women who make it to the top need to show they can be one of the guys. African-Americans can’t seem threatening. You’re not going to find Jesse Jackson on any Fortune 500 boards.”

Mr. Browne says it was his efforts to conform to the homophobia he confronted — “my overwhelming desire to conceal my sexual orientation,” as he puts it — that led to his undoing. Like anyone leading a secret life, he was vulnerable to blackmail, and his former lover, a 23-year-old escort he’d met via the Internet, sold his story to a tabloid after their relationship ended and Mr. Browne stopped sending him money.

“My greatest regret in life is that I wasn’t honest while I was chief executive,” he told me recently over coffee in New York, where he was promoting his book. “I led a great company for many years, and not to let people see who I was, was a big error. People need to see role models. I could have left BP in a very different way.”

The Curious Friendship of T.S. Eliot and Groucho Marx — Lee Siegel in The New Yorker on the correspondence between them.

In 1961, when the literati were still marvelling over Arthur Miller’s marriage to Marilyn Monroe, and before high and low culture had so thoroughly merged, the idea of a relationship between Groucho Marx and T. S. Eliot would have been the stuff of a never-to-be-written proto-postmodernist novel. But here was Eliot, writing to Groucho to ask him to send along a different photograph than the official studio shot that Groucho had first mailed. Eliot wanted one with Groucho sporting his famous mustache and holding his signature cigar. But Groucho waited almost two years before sending it. Growing impatient, Eliot pointedly wrote to Groucho, in February, 1963, that “your portrait is framed on my office mantelpiece, but I have to point you out to my visitors as nobody recognizes you without the cigar and rolling eyes.” Perhaps Groucho had sensed all along a belittling sentiment behind Eliot’s request for the in-character photograph; nevertheless, he put one in the mail shortly thereafter.

Though Eliot was considered the reigning poet of the English-speaking world, and Groucho his counterpart in the world of comedy—celebrated by the likes of Antonin Artaud—each man seemed to provoke in the other a desire to conceal an essential liability. Eliot seems to have wanted Groucho to consider him a warm, ordinary guy and not the type of stiff, repressed person who disdained from a great height “free-thinking Jews.” He can’t quite bring it off—his acquired British self-deprecation stumbles into an American boorishness. On the eve of Groucho’s visit to London, Eliot wrote, “The picture of you in the newspapers saying that … you have come to London to see me has greatly enhanced my credit in the neighbourhood, and particularly with the greengrocer across the street. Obviously I am now someone of importance.”

Compared to the buried anxieties that Eliot stirred in Groucho, though, Eliot’s strenuous bonhomie seemed like the height of social tact. The font of Groucho’s and the Marx Brothers’ humor was an unabashed insolence toward wealth and privilege. Born at the turn of the century to an actress mother and a layabout father in Manhattan’s Yorkville neighborhood, the brothers turned the tumult of their hardscrabble origins into a universal reproach to the rigidity of social class. The encounter with Eliot brought out Groucho’s characteristic tendency to hide his embarrassment about his origins by pushing them in his audience’s face.

The Marx Brothers were hypersensitive to the slightest prerogatives of power; a person in authority had only to raise a finger to turn them hysterical and abusive. “I decided what the hell,” Groucho said once. “I’ll give the big shots the same Groucho they saw onstage—impudent, irascible, iconoclastic.” They fought with studio bosses and alienated directors and comedy writers. The humorist S. J. Perelman found the brothers to be “megalomaniacs to a degree which is impossible to describe.” There was a tremendous release in watching them utter and enact taboos in the face of power and privilege. That sense of liberation—of something unthinkable and impossible being deliciously actualized—is what makes even their less funny movies enthralling.

But underneath the compulsive truth-telling onstage there was a tremendous insecurity, which often expressed itself through acerbic joking about sex and sexuality. When Groucho appeared on an episode of William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line,” in 1967, an enmity sprang up between the two men almost immediately, with Groucho characteristically going on the attack the minute he perceived Buckley’s air of privilege and authority. At one point, as Buckley was trying to expose Groucho as a hypocrite for not voting for F.D.R. in 1944, Groucho turned suddenly to the moderator and said, of Buckley, “Do you know that he blushes? And he’s constantly blushing. He’s like a young girl. This is a permanent blush, I think.” The Marxes’ preternatural vulnerability to power and authority made them reach for their genitals the moment they ran up against the slightest impediment to their freedom. What Artaud, with a kind of condescending credulity, perceived as the brothers “brimming with confidence and manifestly ready to do battle with the rest of the world” was really a manic compulsion.

The same impulse to unman a social or cultural threat gambols across Groucho’s exchanges with Eliot. “Why you haven’t been offered the lead in some sexy movies I can only attribute to the stupidity of casting directors,” wrote the movie star to the rather dour literary man. Recommending his autobiography “Memoirs of a Mangy Lover,” Groucho wrote, “If you are in a sexy mood the night you read it, it may stimulate you beyond recognition and rekindle memories that you haven’t recalled in years.” He concluded another letter by writing, “My best to you and your lovely wife, whoever she may be.”

Doonesbury — Living large.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Sunday Reading

Ending Fifty Years of Silence — Ellen Ann Fentress writes in The Atlantic about a town coming to terms with its past.

Leroy Clemons grew up in Philadelphia, the east Mississippi town synonymous with the covered-up murders and burials of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, three young civil-rights workers, as Freedom Summer began. He was two that year. “The only thing people knew about Philadelphia, Mississippi, was those murders, and they knew more about it than we did,” Clemons, now 52, recalled of the post-1964 years of his childhood. As a teenager, he quietly began reading books on the crime. He was astounded to see recognizable names—including then-deputy sheriff and Klansman Cecil Price, who pulled the trio over in his patrol car and deposited them at their Klan execution site—and to learn about the role these local adults had played. “I was reading about the fathers of some of the people I was friends with,” said Clemons, who is black. “Even Cecil Price himself. I had no idea. They were always nice. Always. I have no memories of them speaking disrespectfully, ever.” Nothing changed publicly. The subject remained taboo.

In the late 1980s, white Philadelphia native Dick Molpus, scion of a leading lumber family in the town, was Mississippi’s elected secretary of state. In 1989, for the quarter-century anniversary of the murders, he organized a public apology on behalf of his hometown. He received a share of praise but angry letters and telephone threats as well. “Do you have to hack off every white person in the state?” asked his weary political adviser. The aide wasn’t far off target: When Molpus ran for governor in 1995, he lost not just statewide but even in his home county. It was almost a decade longer—at a 40-year anniversary ceremony of contrition in 2004 attended by family members of the murdered young men—when the town of Philadelphia’s finally reached the moment of collective exhale. To the exact day 12 months later, the accused mastermind Edgar Ray Killen, then 80, was convicted and sentenced to three consecutive 20-year sentences.

Last year, the white-majority town of Philadelphia reelected James Young, its first black mayor, to a second term. As for Clemons, he volunteers to take anyone interested on a step-by-step car tour of the sites tied to the June 21, 1964, murders, a local-history version of the Stations of the Cross. The day I took the tour, we tracked the tragic chronology at six stops inside the city limits and out into the hilly country two-lanes of Neshoba County, where Schwerner, 24, Chaney, 21, and Goodman, 20, were executed on Rock Cut Road. Clemons makes use of new anecdotes he collected at the Neshoba County Courthouse at Killen’s trial. In the hallway, a number of locals took Clemons aside and shared long-repressed personal experiences related to the event. He has also been struck by other information that has newly come to light, such as a recent Jackson newspaper story on how it was likely a black Philadelphia man—a childhood friend of then-sheriff Lawrence Rainey—who alerted Price to the activists’ arrival when their blue Ford Fairlane station wagon cruised into town on that Sunday. (Clarion Ledger reporter Jerry Mitchell’s story drew on old FBI documents.)

Clemons believes Philadelphia’s task today is “the hard conversation about race.” That prospect is still not totally tension-free, according to Vivienne Davis, whom I met just off Philadelphia’s postcard-perfect town square, at a furniture store-turned-cafe. She and her husband Wayne settled near town after retiring, drawn to the area by Mr. Davis’s childhood memories of summer visits from Chicago to his Mississippi grandfather’s farm. Ms. Davis, 61, had no previous connection to Mississippi before she moved here recently from Colorado. She notices that local whites will ask if she lived in Philadelphia during the 1960s, and visibly relax when they hear she did not. “There are a lot of white people who want to talk about it, but they don’t like to talk to people about it who were here. It’s an open wound,” she said. “Because we’re not from here, I think people are more comfortable bringing it up.”


Collective generational memory is just as human a response as is defensiveness. Sociologists hold that each generation frames the world through shared, collective memories of events that occurred during their transition from childhood to adulthood. Howard Schuman, a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Michigan, formulated the “critical-years hypothesis” to explore the way each generation frames the world through its particular set of memories.

During the civil-rights era, adults’ denial and silence stemmed from fear and trauma, Schuman told me. “People alive at the time may have denied it and tried not to be aware of it,” he told me. “Collective forgetting is the opposite of collective memory.” Those of us undergoing the crucial transition from adolescence at the time were stamped by the explosive silence around us, which articulated more than words ever could about closed ranks and paralyzing fear. That era still shapes us, a heartbeat that persists, then and now, consciously noted or not.

How ENDA Still Allows Discrimination — Tobias Barrington Wolff in The Nation.

In 1974, when Representative Bella Abzug first introduced legislation to protect LGBT workers, her starting point was to extend the protections that already exist in the 1964 Civil Rights Act to LGBT people. The bill died in committee. Despite all the energy of the early gay rights movement, legislators were not yet ready to get behind such a clear and simple approach to LGBT equality. And so things got more complicated.

In an attempt to advance workplace protections, proposed legislation was loaded up with all kinds of appeasements. Employment benefits like insurance and retirement, which most couples take for granted, were carved out of the bill. Insulting language prohibiting any “quotas” of gay people was introduced. The early legislation had never explicitly included transgender people or protection for gender identity, and in 2007, those measures were debated—and deliberately excluded. The list goes on. When you are fighting for survival, as LGBT people were throughout this period, you come to accept many compromises that look shocking in hindsight. The different versions of ENDA reflected that grim reality.

It took years of hard work to jettison all the resulting dross from ENDA. Now, finally, only one piece of flotsam is left in the statute: a provision called the “religious exemption.” Among federal anti-discrimination laws, it is unique to ENDA. And that is the very reason that it must be stricken.

At issue is when religious organizations should get special exemptions from civil rights laws. Should they be allowed to discriminate in some circumstances when other employers cannot? One could take a range of approaches to this question. On one end, there is the view that the only special exemption should be the one that the Constitution actually requires: that churches and religious organizations remain free to choose ministers and other employees with ministerial duties free from any interference from government. On the other end, we have recently seen legislation like Arizona’s SB1062 that would create exceedingly broad religious exemptions that would even apply to for-profit businesses. Somewhere in the middle, one could argue that special exemptions should be limited to religious organizations, but that those organizations should be allowed to discriminate in both religious and non-religious jobs, like administrative and maintenance staff.

Whatever approach one takes, there is one principle that must always be respected: these exemptions must be defined in the same way for everyone. We cannot have one approach to religious exemptions for discrimination based on gender or disability and a different approach for discrimination based on race or sexual orientation. To do so would be to accept the idea that some types of equality are inherently at odds with religion. That dangerous argument has been misused many times in our history. The unequal treatment of women, racial segregation, even slavery itself—all have been justified by religious doctrine.

Federal law currently rejects the idea that there is some inherent connection between discrimination and religious belief. The only religious exemption contained in federal anti-discrimination law is a provision that is limited to the issue of religion itself. It allows religious organizations to maintain a workplace of co-religionists—to hire only people who share their religious background. No other forms of discrimination based on religious belief are permitted.

The current draft of ENDA violates this important principle. It contains a broad religious exemption that takes protections away from LGBT people—and only from them. If you are a maintenance worker at a religious organization, you cannot be fired for being white or a woman, but if ENDA is not fixed, you could be fired for being gay. This anomaly is left over from an earlier time when our society was still clawing its way toward the understanding that equal means equal. If that detritus were included in the law, then ENDA would stand for the intolerable idea that equal treatment of LGBT people is inherently incompatible with religious belief. We are long past the point where it is acceptable for Congress to endorse such polarizing stereotypes. This last vestige of appeasement from an earlier time must now be removed from ENDA.

Andy Borowitz — Iraq Unites.

BAGHDAD (The Borowitz Report)—In a development that offers a faint glimmer of hope for Iraq, both Sunnis and Shiites are finding common ground in the view that former Vice-President Dick Cheney seriously needs to shut up.

In the days following the publication, this week, of a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece about Iraq that Cheney wrote with his daughter Liz, hatred of the former Vice-President has, to the surprise of many, become the first thing that Sunnis and Shiites have agreed upon in centuries.

Iraqi observers in recent days have reported seeing both Sunnis and Shiites reading the Cheneys’ op-ed then tearing it to shreds in a rage.

“Cheney is an ass!” a Sunni merchant reportedly exclaimed in a Baghdad market on Thursday, to the resounding cheers of several Shiites nearby.

“Historically, it’s been challenging to find anything that Sunnis and Shiites agree on,” said Sabah al-Alousi, a history professor at the University of Baghdad. “That’s why their apparent consensus that Dick Cheney needs to shut the hell up is so significant.”

Visiting Baghdad on Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry said that the joint Sunni-Shiite calls for Dick Cheney to shut his pie hole were a cause for optimism.

“If Dick Cheney winds up being the one thing that brings Sunnis and Shiites together, the United States owes him a debt of thanks,” he said, adding that the two sects’ view of the former Vice-President was also shared by the Kurds.

Doonesbury — Nine out of ten doctors recommend…

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Sunday Reading

Still Running Things — Thomas Frank in Salon on why the 1% are still in charge.

The big news after President Obama’s State of the Union address in January was that he didn’t really talk about the issues of inequality that everyone expected him to talk about. Instead, he shifted the “conversation,” as we call it, toward the subject of opportunity. He shied away from the extremely disturbing fact that when you work these days only your boss prospers, and brought us back to the infinitely less disturbing fact that sometimes poor people do get ahead despite it all. In a clever oratorical maneuver, Obama illustrated this comforting idea by referencing the success stories of both himself—“the son of a single mom”—and his arch-foe, Republican House Speaker John Boehner—“the son of a barkeep.” He spoke of building “new ladders of opportunity into the middle class,” a phrase that has become a trademark for his administration.

The problem, as Obama summed it up, is that Americans have ceased to believe they can rise from the ranks. “Opportunity is who we are,” he said. “And the defining project of our generation must be to restore that promise.”

The switcheroo was subtle, but if you’ve been paying attention you couldn’t miss it: These were almost precisely the words Obama had used the month before (“The defining challenge of our time”) to describe inequality itself.

Well, the Democratic apparat heard it, and as one body did they sway and swoon. This was a move of statesmanlike genius, they said. “Opportunity” and social mobility are what Americans have always liked to hear about, they declared; “inequality” sounds like a demand for entitlements—or something much worse. “What you want to do is focus on the aspirational side of this,” said Paul Begala in a typical remark, “lifting people up, not on just complaining about a lack of fairness or inequality.”

If you’re in the right mood, you might well agree with him. In the distant past, “opportunity” used to be something of a liberal buzzword, a way of selling welfare-state inventions of every description. The reason was simple: true equality of opportunity is not possible without achieving, well, greater equality, period. If we’re really serious about opportunity—if we’re going to ensure that every poor kid has a chance in life that is the equal of every rich kid—it’s going to require a gigantic investment in public schools, in housing, in food stamps, in infrastructure, in public projects of every description. It will necessarily mean taking on the broader problem of the One Percent along the way.

But that was what the word meant long ago. It’s different today. When people talk about opportunity nowadays, they’re often not trying to refine the debate over inequality, they’re trying to negate it. The social function of mobility-talk is usually to excuse inequality, not to change it; to persuade us that the system we have now is fair and even natural—or that it can be made so with a few more charter schools or student loans or something. Because everyone has a chance at making it into the One Percent, this version of “opportunity” tells us, there’s nothing wrong with letting the One Percent hog every dish at the banquet.

The well-known libertarian economist Tyler Cowen, for example, writes in his new book “Average is Over” that we increasingly inhabit a “hyper-meritocracy” in which “top earners” take home more than ever before because, duh, they’ve got the right skills and hence they deserve to take home more than top earners ever have before. The future might look bleak for less-than-top people like you, but if you fall off the ladder of opportunity there’s only one answer: Get used to it.

Kids These Days — Yiren Lu in the New York Times Magazine on how Silicon Valley how technology is dealing with the generation gap.

The Cisco Meraki office in Mission Bay, San Francisco, is 40 paces from the water, and just as nice as Google’s. On a clear winter day in late December, I sat in one of its conference rooms with a company spokeswoman on my right and Sanjit Biswas on my left, peering out through floor-to-ceiling glass. On the other side: brightly patterned furniture, murals and paneled wood, a well-stocked cafeteria, a deck with spectacular views of the bay. Twelve months earlier, in a deal meant to bring fresh edge to Cisco, the networking behemoth bought Meraki from Biswas and two co-founders for $1.2 billion. Now they were making good on their promise — starting with the décor.

Like Cisco, Meraki makes networking equipment — routers, wireless devices and the software to manage them, the sorts of products that even by tech standards have always been a little short on glamour. When Biswas and his co-founders left their graduate programs at M.I.T. in 2006 to work full time on Meraki — the name comes from a Greek word that means creating something with passion — they had few start-up competitors among their peers, who were making Twitter knockoffs. Six years later, their company had become a formidable player in the midsize router market. In a field notorious for opaque technical standards, Meraki emphasized simplicity and ease of use, while also managing to tick a lot of boxes on any Web 2.0 checklist: cloud-based, scalable, mobile-friendly. “They’re buzzwords,” Biswas said. “But they’re also true.” You don’t need a SWAT team of technicians to set up a Meraki router; the system is intuitive and well designed, qualities that are especially appealing to a company like Cisco, which has dominated networking for three decades but has struggled in recent years to maintain its air of leading-edge inevitability.

The same dynamic is playing out throughout Silicon Valley, as companies like Intel post disappointing earnings reports and others like Snapchat turn down billion-dollar offers. The rapid consumer-ification of tech, led by Facebook and Google, has created a deep rift between old and new, hardware and software, enterprise companies that sell to other businesses and consumer companies that sell directly to the masses. On their face, these cleavages seem to be part of the natural order. As Biswas pointed out, “There has always been a constant churn of new companies coming in, old companies dying out.”

But the churn feels more problematic now, in part because it deprives the new guard as well as the old — and by extension, it deprives us all. In pursuing the latest and the coolest, young engineers ignore opportunities in less-sexy areas of tech like semiconductors, data storage and networking, the products that form the foundation on which all of Web 2.0 rests. Without a good router to provide reliable Wi-Fi, your Dropbox file-sharing application is not going to sync; without Nvidia’s graphics processing unit, your BuzzFeed GIF is not going to make anyone laugh. The talent — and there’s a ton of it — flowing into Silicon Valley cares little about improving these infrastructural elements. What they care about is coming up with more web apps.

Feed Us — Andy Borowitz on President Obama’s latest outrage.

Washington (The Borowitz Report) — President Obama has sparked outrage in Congress and renewed calls for his impeachment by signing a daring Presidential memorandum that would pay workers enough to eat.

The memorandum, which is based on the President’s view that people should be paid for the hours they actually work, is shaping up as one of the most controversial and incendiary actions of his Presidency.

House Republican leaders held a press conference this morning to warn Obama that, by advancing his agenda of paying people for the work they do, he is “playing with political fire.”

“A Presidential memorandum is a powerful tool and should be used sparingly,” said House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). “It is not a vehicle for this President to enact his pet theories about people earning enough to survive.”

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Virginia) concurred, telling reporters, “With one stroke of the pen, President Obama is removing the single greatest incentive for work: hunger.”

“Apparently, President Obama needs a lesson in American history,” he said. “Hunger built the railroads. Hunger picked the crops. When the American people learn more about this action of the President’s, they will see it for what it is: a hunger-killer.”

Doonesbury — Downgrading upgrading.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Sunday Reading

Leftovers — Dave Weigel in Slate on the state of conservatism in America.

Poor Rick Santorum. On Friday, the probably 2016 presidential candidate whom the media isn’t quite sure how to cover gave a well-received, condensed version of a speech he’s been giving to Republican groups. Its theme: Republicans should not, could not simply talk about “job creators” and who “built that” business. They needed a positive economic agenda; they needed to realize that government had the power to organize and persuade, just as anti-smoking laws cut down the numbers of smokers to unthinkable lows.

And then Sarah Palin closed out the conference by telling “beltway Republicans” (like her 2008 ticket partner John McCain) to back off of immigration reform because “that victory you won in 2010? You didn’t build that!”

Palin’s speech was a pretty typical collection of memes, alliterative insults, and sentence fragmentation, but the one thing that stuck with me was her endorsement of the theory that Ted Cruz’s demand that the CR not include funding for Obamacare was itself the reason that Obamacare had become unpopular. Also, that Cruz had acted on this demand with a “filibuster.’ To every pollster and (cough) beltway Republican, the two-week government shutdown was an obvious and predictable disaster, a real-time bailout of the Democrats that distracted from the absolute nadir of’s problems and gave the president a poll boost, and to everyone familiar with Senate rules, Cruz’s marathon speech was not actually a filibuster.

It does not matter. On the activist right, the reality is closer to what Palin said.

Climb Down From the Cross — From AlterNet, an excerpt from Robert Boston’s new book on the Christian right’s persecution complex.

Certain words should not be tossed around lightly. Persecution is one of those words.

Religious Right leaders and their followers often claim that they are being persecuted in the United States. They should watch their words carefully. Their claims are offensive; they don’t know the first thing about persecution.

One doesn’t have to look far to find examples of real religious persecution in the world. In some countries, people can be imprisoned, beaten, or even killed because of what they believe. Certain religious groups are illegal and denied the right to meet. This is real persecution. By contrast, being offended because a clerk in a discount store said “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” pales. Only the most confused mind would equate the two.

Far from being persecuted, houses of worship and the religious denominations that sponsor them enjoy great liberty in America. Their activities are subjected to very little government regulation. They are often exempt from laws that other groups must follow. The government bends over backward to avoid interfering in the internal matters of religious groups and does so only in the most extreme cases.

What the Religious Right labels “persecution” is something else entirely: it is the natural pushback that occurs when any one sectarian group goes too far in trying to control the lives of others. Americans are more than happy to allow religious organizations to tend to their own matters and make their own decisions about internal governance. When those religious groups overstep their bounds and demand that people who don’t even subscribe to their beliefs follow their rigid theology, that is another matter entirely.

Take Off — Bryce Covert in The Nation advocates for taking August off.

By now you have definitely seen it: the Cadillac ad for its first hybrid car that has a hard on for America’s work ethic. “Other countries,” actor Neal McDonough says while strutting through his perfectly landscaped yard alongside his in-ground pool, “they work, they stroll home, they stop by the café, they take August off. Off.” Quelle horreur! And he explains that Americans, from Bill Gates to Ali, aren’t like that. “We’re crazy, driven, hard-working believers,” he says. And he implies we do it for the glory, but also for the stuff, like a luxury car: the latter is “the upside of only taking two weeks off in August.”

But McDonough, or this hyper-capitalist alter ego, is dead wrong. Americans should absolutely take August off. It will, in fact, lead to more stuff—among other things.

Americans don’t take August off, but most people probably don’t even take two weeks during that month. Twenty rich countries have a national guarantee that workers can get some vacation time. Thirteen also make sure workers get at least a few paid holidays off. The United States, on the other hand, is the only advanced economy in the world that doesn’t have either requirement. About a quarter of Americans don’t have any paid vacation or holidays at all, a share that is growing—although I would guess that the luxury-product-buying, power-suit-wearing character McDonough plays in the commercial does get paid vacation time, as these benefits are disproportionately the purview of the rich. The average American worker gets about ten days of paid vacation and six paid holidays a year—that’s just over two weeks every year—which is less than the minimum required in nearly every other country. And of those who get paid vacation, they leave more than three days, on average, unused.

We also don’t ensure that workers can take other kinds of paid time off, like sick days or family leave or even a weekend. And we certainly aren’t slacking in the hours we work each week, either: we’re number eleven out of thirty-three developed countries for weekly hours worked.

What are all of these hours getting us? Certainly, we are one of the richest countries in the world. But all this time spent on the job without taking some time off to decompress isn’t necessarily why. It can be incredibly counterproductive. Henry Ford’s famous 1920s revelation that shortening the working day and the workweek would lead to better productivity is still true.

Doonesbury — Light up.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Sunday Reading

It’s Over — Josh Marshall thinks the fight against marriage equality is over.

Since the Supreme Court ruling in June, the writing has been on the wall for banning of marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples in the United States. Since June the number of states with marriage equality has jumped from 12 to 18. But last week’s lower court decisions in Utah and Ohio leave little doubt that the political fight over gay marriage is now essentially over and that gay marriage will be the law of the land in every state in the country in the pretty near future.

The fact that gay and lesbian couples are now lining up to get married in Utah of all places – arguably the most conservative state in the country – might tell you this on a symbolic level. But the logic that points to the end of the political fight over gay marriage is more concrete, specific and undeniable.

Utah, rightly, got the most attention. But there were two cases last week. The other one in Ohio dealt with a much narrower question: whether the state had to recognize gay marriages in the issuance of death certificates. But both cases rested on the same essential premise: that if the federal government can’t discriminate against gay couples, states – by definition – cannot either.

As Judge Timothy Black put it in the Ohio case: “The question presented is whether a state can do what the federal government cannot — i.e., discriminate against same-sex couples … simply because the majority of the voters don’t like homosexuality (or at least didn’t in 2004). Under the Constitution of the United States, the answer is no.”

Both judges, perhaps with an element of trolling or humor, cited Justice Scalia’s furious dissent in United States v Windsor, in which he claimed that the Court’s decision to overturn DOMA would lead logically and inevitably to overturning every state gay marriage ban in the country.

Now, this might all be written off as the work of two federal trial judges. But the tell is in the response of the 10th Circuit, one of the country’s more conservative. When Utah appealed to the 10th Circuit to block further gay marriages until its appeal could be heard on the merits, the judges said no. Because the two standards for such a denial are ‘irreparable harm’ and likelihood to prevail on appeal, the appellate judges – one Bush appointee, one Obama appointee – seemed to be hinting that Utah is likelihood to lose.

In other words, the inexorable Scalia logic appears clear to them too.


In pretty short order, the Supreme Court will be forced to revisit the issue. And their logic in the Windsor case will join forces with the march of public opinion to make it almost impossible for them not to issue a broad ruling which invalidates every gay marriage ban in country.

I think everybody, on each side of the issue, has realized for the past two or three years that it is only a matter of time until this happens. But the decade or so of different policies from state to state now appears quite unlikely. I don’t want to end without noting that a lot of lawyering remains to be done. Nothing is ever certain. And even when it’s all but certain it’s still not easy. But I see little way to look at the last week and not conclude that gay marriage will be the law of the land in every state in the country in the near future. Probably during the Obama presidency and maybe sooner still.

Out For A Cruz — Dave Weigel in Democracy looks at the Tea Party’s plan to make Ted Cruz the 2016 nominee of the GOP.

It was in Iowa last summer, two-and-a-half years before the 2016 presidential caucuses, that conservatives first pitched me on President Ted Cruz. The first-term Texas senator was in the state to rally for the defunding of the Affordable Care Act. His venue was the annual gathering of the FAMiLY Leader, a social conservative coalition; its president, Bob Vander Plaats, happened to endorse the winners in the last two Iowa caucuses, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum. The enthusiasm for a Cruz run filled the room like the sound from a Marshall stack.

“Before, there was never a mixture of the limited-government, fire-breathing prophet with a Christian conservative, moral-based guy,” said Jamie Johnson, a Republican Party activist who’d backed Santorum in 2012. “When the conservative base of the Republican Party has a David, to use a biblical analogy—when they have their David, it’s obvious who their David is—it doesn’t matter where the money is. Ted Cruz is the only guy who fits that bill.”

Johnson’s comment stuck with me because I heard so many versions of it, from so many Iowans. The conservative base of the Republican Party takes no responsibility for the party’s 2012 defeat. It takes no responsibility for the 2008 loss, either. In its telling, the base was too slow to pick its champion. Its vote was split, coalescing too late behind one candidate—Huckabee in 2008, Santorum in 2012. So the Republican establishment force-fed it two “electable” candidates named John McCain and Mitt Romney. This is the ur-myth of the modern GOP; it will scare the base into organizing more adeptly than it’s ever done before. Since the rise of party primaries and binding caucuses, only twice—1964 and 1980—has the conservative base overcome the party “establishment.” Ronald Reagan was a two-time loser (he ran briefly in 1968 in addition to 1976) before he won; and when Barry Goldwater triumphed, only 16 states held true primaries. There’s no precedent for a true conservative insurgent taking the nomination in the modern age of drawn-out, expensive ballot contests.

But there are cracks in the dam. Mitt Romney, a runner-up in the 2008 contest, faced an incredibly weak 2012 field. That didn’t stop him from becoming the first Republican to lose the South Carolina primary on the way to nomination, losing “conservative” voters—two-thirds of that state’s electorate—by 21 points. It didn’t stop him from having to fight a month-long mop-up operation against Santorum, who won more states than Romney in the South and nearly won in the Midwest, where he was outspent nearly 5-to-1, even before PAC money was counted. The weakest insurgent candidate in memory actually won 11 state contests, four more than John McCain won in his still-celebrated 2000 run against George W. Bush.


So, how does the Tea Party win the nomination? It copies, as best it can, the model Indiana conservatives used in 2012. Burned by 2010, when a messy Senate primary produced a moderate candidate, Indiana’s Tea Party organizations united under the banner of Hoosiers for A Conservative Senate. They cleared the boards for Richard Mourdock, who went on to obliterate Senator Richard Lugar in the primary (although he lost the general). In 2015 and 2016, the Tea Party would need to copy this as best it can in a rolling primary system, minimizing possible spoilers and locating a white knight. It might take until South Carolina or Florida, but if only one candidate is left by then—a Ted Cruz, a Rand Paul, a Scott Walker—he’d be in a stronger position than any insurgent since Ronald Reagan in 1976.

If It Quacks…. — Andy Borowitz satirizes the suspension of the Duck Dynasty dude.

WASHINGTON ()—Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia lashed out at the cable network A&E today, calling its decision to suspend Phil Robertson, the star of the TV series “Duck Dynasty,” unconstitutional, and demanding that it be overturned at once.

Speaking at a press conference with fellow Justice Clarence Thomas, a visibly angry Scalia told reporters that Robertson was “exercising his First Amendment right to express an opinion—an opinion, I might add, that many other great Americans agree with.”

He warned that the suspension of the “Duck” star would have a “chilling effect” on freedom of speech in America: “If Phil Robertson can be muzzled for expressing this perfectly legitimate view, what’s to prevent the same thing from happening to, say, a Justice of the Supreme Court?”

He added that, while he was a huge “Duck Dynasty” fan who never misses an episode, his objection to Mr. Robertson’s suspension was “purely on Constitutional grounds.”

Declaring that A&E’s decision “will not stand,” Justice Scalia said he would ask the Supreme Court to meet in an emergency session to overturn it: “This offensive decision by A&E is a clear violation of the Constitution, and I’m not the only one on the Court who feels that way. Right, Clarence?”

Justice Thomas had no comment.

Update: A&E has reinstated their star.  Money talks.

Doonesbury — Dream of Fields.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Sunday Reading

Phil Robertson’s America — Ta-Nehisi Coates on the world as seen by Duck Dynasty.

I’ve yet to take in an episode of Duck Dynasty. I hear it’s a fine show, anchored by a humorous and good-natured family of proud Americans. I try to be good natured, and I have been told that I can appreciate a good joke. I am also a proud American. With so much in common, it seems natural that I take some interest in the views of my brethren on the history of the only country any of us can ever truly call home:

I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field …. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word! … Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.

That is Robertson responding to a reporter’s question about life in Louisiana, before the civil-rights movement. I am sure Robertson did see plenty of black people who were singing and happy. And I am also sure that very few black people approached Robertson to complain about “doggone white people.”


That is because governance in Phil Robertson’s Louisiana was premised on terrorism. As late as 1890, the majority of people in Louisiana were black. As late as 1902, they still lived under threat of slavery through debt peonage and the convict-lease system. Virtually all of them were pilfered of their vote and their tax dollars. Plunder and second slavery were enforced by violence, as when the besiegers of Colfax massacred 50 black freedmen with rifles and cannon and tossed their bodies into a river. Even today the Colfax Massacre is honored in Louisiana as the rightful “end of carpetbag misrule.”

The black people who Phil Robertson knew were warred upon. If they valued their lives, and the lives of their families, the last thing they would have done was voiced a complaint about “white people” to a man like Robertson. Ignorance is no great sin and one can forgive the good-natured white person for not knowing how all that cannibal sausage was truly made. But having been presented with a set of facts, Robertson’s response is to cite “welfare” and “entitlement” as the true culprits.

The belief that black people were at their best when they were being hunted down like dogs for the sin of insisting on citizenship is a persistent strain of thought in this country. This belief reflects the inability to cope with an America that is, at least rhetorically, committed to equality. One can clearly see the line from this kind of thinking to a rejection of the civil-rights movement of our age:

Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men,” [Robertson] says. Then he paraphrases Corinthians: “Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.

This is not just ignorance; it is a willful retreat into myth. And we must have the intellectual courage and moral strength to follow the myth through. If swindlers, goat-fuckers, and gay men are really all the same—disinherited from the kingdom of God—why not treat them the same? How does one argue that a man who is disfavored by the Discerner of All Things, should not be shamed, should not jeered, should not be stoned, should not be lynched in the street?

Further retreat into the inanity of loving the sinner but hating the sin—a standard that would clean The Wise Helmsman himself—will not do. Actual history shows that humans are not so discriminating. Black people were once thought to be sinners. We were rewarded with a species of love that bore an odd resemblance to hate. One need not be oversensitive to be concerned about Phil Robertson’s thoughts on gay sex. One simply need be a student of American history.

It’s An Outrage — In a new book The Outrage Industry, Jeffrey M. Barry and Sarah Sobieraj examine the growth of right-wing journalism and how it went out of control.

Fire and brimstone political inflammation was first brought to mainstream American media by a Catholic priest, Charles Coughlin, who captured the rapt attention of an estimated third of the country during his radio show’s peak in the 1930s. Remarks such as “When we get through with the Jews in America, they’ll think the treatment they received in Germany was nothing” remind us that the vitriolic personalities we know today are not the first of their kind. And yet, Coughlin’s work came long before outrage could be understood as a genre.

For his time, Coughlin was more aberration than exemplar. American mass media have not always delivered an abundance of such voices. The new popularity of today’s outrageous political personalities comes in the wake of a golden age of journalism when the most visible voices in political television were known for their sobriety rather than their sensationalism. In the 1960s and 1970s political information was dominated by the three broadcast networks and the leading newspapers, especially the New York Times and the Washington Post, which reached new heights in the quality and depth of reporting. Although news gathering by such organizations today is undertaken with leaner staffs and budgets than in the 1980s, the spirit of the work done in large conventional news organizations creates a product that remains profoundly different from the political information circulated by the colorful giants of political opinion media.

It may seem unfair to draw this contrast—there is, after all, an important, if blurry, distinction between news and opinion and people certainly still get news from traditional news organizations. Access to conventional political reporting has become ever easier in the Internet era and more people today read content produced in a newspaper newsroom than at any time in American history. But political news and commentary must be discussed side-by-side as both make up vital pieces of our broader political curriculum via the media, and the information, arguments, and stories presented in both venues work their way into public political discourse, becoming part of the cultural landscape even for those who do not tune in directly.

Political news and commentary were born and remain in dialogue with one another. While it is not necessary to revisit the entire history of American journalism, we see the history of network news as a particularly important point of reference for placing contemporary political commentary in context. Unlike early American newspapers, which were born teeming with opinion and persuasive content (having pre-dated our socially constructed notions of journalistic objectivity and, indeed, pre-dated even our notion of journalism), broadcast news was mindfully presented as unbiased from the outset. This attempted objectivity had little to do with the new medium but rather reflected a complex history of postwar anxieties about the use of newspapers as political tools. Journalists and editors began to frame their profession in general, and news products in particular, as objective in order to build their credibility. This commitment to neutrality was then canonized through the growing ranks of journalism schools, professional associations, and awards, most notably, the Pulitzer Prize. In the process, value-neutrality became not only the hallmark of high-quality news but also a requirement for ethical reporting. This objectivity imperative transferred to both radio and television news.

Carl Hiaasen — Silent Flight

An absolutely true news item: The Federal Communications Commission is considering a rule change that could allow airline passengers to use their cellphones during flights.

Good morning, everybody, and welcome to Jet Miserable. Please take your seats as quickly as possible so we can close the cabin doors and be on our way.

I see that many of you are already taking advantage of our nonstop cellphone connectivity, but please give me your full attention for a few moments.

Hello? Hey, look this way! See my arms waving?

Ok, I’ll crank the volume and try again: YO, MOTORMOUTHS! LISTEN UP!

That’s better, thanks.

While major airlines such as Delta, JetBlue and Southwest have decided to remain cellphone-free, we here at Jet Miserable have dedicated ourselves to you, the obnoxiously talkative traveler.

Please hang up and take a break — HEY, PADRE, THAT MEANS YOU! TELL THE ARCHBISHOP YOU’LL CALL HIM BACK! — while I review the new safety procedures and regulations.

If for some reason the plane loses cabin pressure, an oxygen mask will automatically drop from a compartment above your seat. Before strapping on the mask, you must first stop talking and put down your cellphone.

Let me repeat: The oxygen mask is not designed to fit over your mouth, nose AND phone. If you’re traveling with children, gently pry their phones away from their faces before attaching the breathing masks.

In the event of an emergency that requires a water landing, let me remind you that your cellphone is not a flotation device. I don’t care if you spent $79 on a waterproof case — let it go, people, and use the seat cushion.

As a convenience, Jet Miserable has divided the cabin into separate sections, according to the various ways our passengers like to use their cell phones. Please check your boarding passes now to make sure you’re seated in the right place.

Rows 25 to 30 are reserved for those needing a little extra privacy, such as dope dealers, Ponzi schemers, mob bosses, undercover cops and anyone who’s in the middle of breaking up with somebody else.

Rows 20 to 25 are designated for our anxious flyers who are constantly on the phone with incredibly tolerant family members. If you check the seat pockets on those rows, you’ll find reassuring statistics about the safety of air travel, along with some useful tips on the appropriate dosages of your favorite sedatives.

If you’ve flown with Jet Miserable before, you know that the middle section of the aircraft, Rows 10-20, is always set aside for our loudest, rudest, most unbearable passengers.

I can say that over the intercom because they’re all babbling on their phones again, totally ignoring me.

Doonesbury — Not ready.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Sunday Reading

Apartheid’s Defenders — The passing of Nelson Mandela reminded Ta-Nehisi Coates of the shameful role American conservatives played in keeping apartheid in place.

For many years, a large swath of this country failed Nelson Mandela, failed its own alleged morality, and failed the majority of people living in South Africa. We have some experience with this. Still, it’s easy to forget William F. Buckley—intellectual founder of the modern right—effectively worked as a press agent for apartheid:

Buckley was actively courted by Chiang Kai-Shek’s Taiwan, Franco’s Spain, South Africa, Rhodesia and Portugal’s African colonies, and went on expenses-paid trips trips to some of these countries.

When he returned from Mozambique in 1962, Buckley wrote a column describing the backwardness of the African population over which Portugal ruled, “The more serene element in Africa tends to believe that rampant African nationalism is self-discrediting, and that therefore the time is bound to come when America, and the West … will depart from our dogmatic anti-Colonialism and realize what is the nature of the beast.”

In the fall of 1962, during a visit to South Africa, arranged by the Information Ministry, Buckley wrote that South African apartheid “has evolved into a serious program designed to cope with a melodramatic dilemma on whose solution hangs, quite literally, the question of life or death for the white man in South Africa.”

Buckley’s racket as an American paid propagandist for white supremacy would be repeated over the years in conservative circles. As Sam Kleiner demonstrates in Foreign Policy, apartheid would ultimately draw some of America’s most celebrated conservatives into its orbit. The roster includes Grover Norquist, Jack Abramoff, Jesse Helms, and Senator Jeff Flake. Jerry Falwell denounced Desmond Tutu as a “phony” and led a “reinvestment” campaign during the 1980s. At the late hour of 1993, Pat Robertson opined, “I know we don’t like apartheid, but the blacks in South Africa, in Soweto, don’t have it all that bad.”

Not all prominent conservatives were so dishonorable. When Congress overrode President Ronald Reagan’s veto of sanctions of South Africa, Mitch McConnell, for instance, was forthright—”I think he is wrong … We have waited long enough for him to come on board.” When Falwell embarrassed himself by condemning Tutu, some Republican senators denounced him.

But the overall failure of American conservatives to forthrightly deal with South Africa’s white-supremacist regime, coming so soon after their failure to deal with the white-supremacist regime in their own country, is part of their heritage, and thus part of our heritage. When you see a Tea Party protestor waving the flag of slavery in front of the home of the first black president, understand that this instinct has been cultivated. It is still, at this very hour, being cultivated.

Road Trip Through Wingnutistan — Eric Lutz at Salon took to the road to visit the places that elected Michele Bachmann and Paul Ryan.

Driving gives a person plenty of time to think about what they believe in.

I believe, for one, in compromise. I believe liberals and conservatives agree on more than we realize, and that much of today’s hyper-partisanship stems from our having retreated into the comfort of our own camps, where if we’re liberal we can watch MSNBC or if we’re conservative we can watch Fox, and each listen all day to opinions we already agree with. I believe that, for the most part, people are good and want what’s best for the country we all love, but have different approaches to solving our most complex problems, that we would find common ground through respectful, sober discussion. I believe getting out of our comfort zones, and not just dismissing the other side as evil or crazy, would move the country forward.

But what if the other side doesn’t want to compromise? What if they’ve actually campaigned on a refusal to compromise? And what if someone’s views aren’t just different than yours, but abhorrent, or just plain silly?

This is what I decided to call the Bachmann Conundrum.

Michele Bachmann, since her election to Congress in 2006, has been a greatest-hits collection of outrageous right-wing talking points. She doesn’t believe in global warming, arguing that carbon dioxide is a “harmless gas.” She also shamelessly traffics in race-tinged paranoia: In 2008, she was concerned then-candidate Barack Obama “may have anti-American views”; and in 2012, she suggested that the Muslim Brotherhood had begun a “deep penetration into the halls of our United States government.” And of course, she’s a career homophobe, terming homosexuality “personal enslavement” and “sexual anarchy.”

Where do you start coming to a compromise with someone who believes homosexuality is a disorder and opposed anti-bullying legislation on the grounds that there have always been bullies and to legislate against it would force “boys to be girls”?

That’s the Bachmann Conundrum.

* * *

Minnesota’s 6th Congressional District covers the northern suburbs of the Twin Cities. The district is upwards of 95 percent white and largely middle- to upper-middle class. If you’ve seen a suburb you’ve seen these. Historic downtowns surrounded by a sprawl of car dealerships, office parks, malls. Target, Wal-Mart, K-Mart – the same stores as Wisconsin and Illinois, and everywhere else for that matter. Stately old houses, ugly cookie-cutter subdivisions. Nothing particularly mesmerizing about them.

Bachmann’s district office is in her hometown of Anoka, about half an hour north of Minneapolis.  People here, like everywhere I visit during the course of the trip, tend not to volunteer their deepest-held political opinions to random passersby, such as myself, in the middle of their daily routines.

I meet both Republicans and Democrats, and ask general questions about their views on national politics. Sample response: “They all need to grow up.”

And yet, despite disenchantment with politicians as a whole, gentle prodding frequently reveals partisan sentiments lurking below the surface.  People all seem to want the same things – fairness, stability – but often have different ideas about what those qualities entail, and what sorts of legislation can steer us there. In settings where they feel comfortable talking politics, people occasionally give off the affect of talking points. Still, most of those I encounter — say, at a gas station in Ham’s Lake, Minn. — politely inform me:

“I’d prefer not to be interviewed.”

In Anoka, folks are much more keen to discuss Halloween. The town bills itself as the “Halloween Capital of the World,” and features Halloween iconography on its permanent signage. Houses are still completely decked out nearly a week into November, which is all – needless to say – extremely cool.

Michele Bachmann, it turns out, hails from the Halloween Capital of the World.

A coffee shop owner tells me the town earned its distinction by hosting what apparently was America’s first Halloween parade in 1920. As the story goes, some local civic leaders were brainstorming a way to keep the youth of Anoka free of mischief, and decided that a structured celebration would cut down on pranks and vandalism. The strategy worked, and now the yearly celebration has grown to include two parades, a house-decorating contest, and a slew of other events relating to the holiday.

“You missed out on all the decorations,” a lady who works at the coffee shop tells me as she prepares a sandwich. Above my head, ghoulish figures are still dangling on wires from the ceiling.

“I don’t know,” I say. “Looks like you guys are still pretty good on the decorations.”

“No,” she says, looking up from the cutting board, “you missed it, believe me. This is nothing.”

Newt Gingrich Screwed Up — Tim Murphy and Tasneem Raja at Mother Jones explain how in 1995 the allegedly tech-savvy Speaker of the House killed an agency that could have guided the website through the minefield of start-up.

As the Obama administration continues to unsuck its health care website, one questions lingers: How did this important government project get so screwed up? If you ask technologist Clay Johnson, the insurance exchange’s problems began, in a way, in 1995, when “Congress decided to lobotomize itself.”

Johnson was referring to a specific action lawmakers took then: They killed a tiny federal agency called the Office of Technology Assessment. Established in 1972 as Congress’ nonpartisan in-house think tank, the OTA studied new technologies and offered recommendations on how Washington could adapt to them. But then Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) turned off its lights.

Today, members of Congress have legislative counsels to help draft laws. They have the Congressional Budget Office to analyze how much laws will cost. But they don’t have the OTA’s experts to tell them how those laws will work.

“An OTA review might have prevented some heartburn and embarrassment” associated with the rollout, argues Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), an astrophysicist who has previously introduced legislation that would resurrect the agency.

Warning Congress about problems with—and explaining them—would have been right in OTA’s wheelhouse. The office, Rep. George Brown (D-Calif.) dryly remarked in 1995, was a “defense against the dumb.” During its 24-year existence, the agency developed a reputation for sharp, foresighted analysis on the problems of the new information age: It called for a new, reinforced tanker design a decade before the Exxon-Valdez spill; emphasized the danger of fertilizer bombs 15 years before Oklahoma City; predicted in 1982 that email would render the postal service obsolete; and warned that President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (better known as “Star Wars”) would likely result in a “catastrophic failure” if it were ever used.

Analyzing health care spending was one of OTA’s specialties. One of its final reports, “Bringing Health Care Online,” published in 1995, focused on the potential (and potential for mishaps) in electronic data interchanges. “Changes in the health care delivery system, including the emergence of managed health care and integrated delivery systems, are breaking down the organizational barriers that have stood between care providers, insurers, medical researchers, and public health professionals,” the report warned.

But thanks to Gingrich and the Republican Revolution, that OTA review of potential hurdles for the Obamacare website never happened. In 1995, Gingrich set the OTA’s funding to zero—and gave the ax to similar agencies, like the General Accounting Office (which lost half its funding) and the Agency for Health Care Policy and Research (which was phased out). He told members of congress with tech questions to consult their local research universities instead.

Doonesbury — Military discipline.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Sunday Reading

A Marriage of Convenience — Peter Baker in the New York Times looks back at the relationship between George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

Bush-Cheney 10-13-13A few weeks before Barack Obama’s inauguration, Joshua Bolten invited all of his predecessors to his office in the West Wing to meet with his successor, Rahm Emanuel. Thirteen of the living 16 men to have served as chief of staff attended, including Cheney, who was Gerald Ford’s top assistant. They went around the table one by one, offering advice. When Cheney’s turn came up, a devilish look crossed his face. “Whatever you do,” he said, “make sure you’ve got the vice president under control.”

As Bush’s final days in the White House approached, he did not exactly have his vice president under control. Cheney’s lobbying campaign on behalf of Scooter Libby had become deeply disconcerting to the president. To Cheney, it was a simple matter of justice. As he saw it, Libby had been pursued by an unprincipled prosecutor bent on damaging the White House. Neither Libby nor anyone else had been charged with the actual leak that precipitated the investigation, only with not testifying truthfully about how he learned about Wilson’s identity. Years later, it would be revealed that the special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, knew from nearly the start that Richard Armitage, Colin Powell’s deputy, was the original source of the leak, not Libby. Cheney believed that Fitzgerald’s relentless investigation in spite of this fact was proof that Cheney was the real target, and that Libby was caught in the cross-fire. Libby had loyally served his country, Cheney argued, only to be made into a criminal. And Powell and Armitage stayed quiet as it happened. “The Powell-Armitage thing was such a sense of betrayal,” Cheney’s daughter Liz told me. “They sat there and watched their colleagues in the White House — Scooter and everyone else — go through the ordeal of the investigation, and all that time they both knew Armitage was the leaker.” Armitage and Powell said they were simply following investigators’ instructions to keep silent.

As Cheney pressed Bush for the pardon, the president put him off by saying he would wait to issue controversial pardons until near the end of his term, which the vice president took as an indication that Libby would be among them. Bush had already commuted Libby’s prison sentence of two and a half years after it was handed down in 2007. As a result, Libby never had to spend a minute behind bars, a decision that inflamed critics on the left, who argued that Bush was interfering with justice, and on the right, who felt he had not gone far enough in quashing a bogus prosecution.

At the time, Bush said publicly that he was not substituting his judgment for that of the jury. So how would he explain a change of mind just 18 months later? That was the argument Ed Gillespie, the president’s counselor, made to Cheney when he came to explain why he was advising Bush against a pardon. “On top of that, the lawyers are not making the case for it,” Gillespie told Cheney, referring to the White House attorneys reviewing the case for Bush. “We’ll be asked, ‘Did the lawyers recommend it?’ And if the lawyers didn’t, it’s going to be hard to justify for the president.”

Inside the Bubble — Molly Ball at The Atlantic reports that the conservatives are convinced they’re winning the shutdown battle.

Friday was a difficult day to wake up Republican in America. With the government shutdown entering its 11th day, a poll conducted by the Wall Street Journal and NBC News had definitively quashed any hopes that people might be taking the GOP’s side in the standoff. Americans blamed Republicans over the president by a 20-point margin for the shutdown; the GOP’s rating was at its lowest point in the pollster’s history. Shutting down the government to demand that the president’s unpopular health-care law be stopped had somehow made both President Obama and his health-care legislation more popular.

You might expect this news to put a damper on a roomful of conservatives. In official Washington, Republicans were in a full-on panic; commentators called the party suicidal, and lawmakers began scurrying toward a resolution to the standoff. But Senator Ted Cruz of Texas—the man whose adamant resolve and 21-hour filibuster had helped bring on the stalemate, earning him the loathing of many of his colleagues—was in a defiant mood.

Taking the stage at the Values Voter Summit, an annual gathering of religious-right activists, Cruz announced that they were winning the fight. “I am here this morning with a word of encouragement and exhortation!” Cruz said. A woman in the front row shouted a passage from Romans: “If God is with you, who can be against you?” “I receive that blessing,” Cruz said somberly.

The conventional wisdom that the battle to stop the health-care law cannot be won, to Cruz, was merely a “trick” perpetrated by the deceitful left. “Look, the Democrats are feeling the heat,” he said. Cruz has been huddling with the lower chamber’s most conservative members, urging them to pressure Speaker John Boehner, prompting some to declare him a sort of shadow speaker. “In my view, the House of Representatives needs to keep doing what it’s been doing, which is standing strong,” he said.


In between speeches, the phone number of the congressional switchboard was projected on screens at the front of the room. Attendees were encouraged to call their members of Congress and urge them to hold fast to their demands. Among audience members, there was no thought of backing down. Doing the right thing isn’t about being popular, Julie Hoffman, a 48-year-old homeschooler and pastor’s wife from Corpus Christi, Texas, told me; you have to trust in the Lord that integrity and strength will be rewarded in the end.

I asked Tony Perkins, the veteran conservative activist who heads the Family Research Council, what way out of the shutdown he would consider acceptable. He said a delay of the health-care law’s individual mandate—a proposal already rejected by the Senate and president when the House passed it—was the absolute least conservatives would settle for, and that any deal that didn’t substantially affect Obamacare would inspire a revolt. “Ted Cruz has done more to help the Republican Party, I think, than anyone in the last 10 years,” he said, by “reengaging the people Republicans need to win elections.”

Do you care about the polls showing this is hurting the Republican Party? I asked. “No,” he said. “Who are they polling? Just GOP voters? No, the general public.” And what about the schism within the GOP that has resulted? “It’s long overdue,” Perkins said. “Where did that go-along, get-along view get us? Into a mess. It’s time to challenge the status quo.”

Meet the Beetles — Maddie Oatman at Mother Jones tells about the spread of a bug that is killing the evergreen forests of Colorado.

Mummy Range 07-08-2000Since the late 1990s, mountain pine beetles have swept through millions of acres of forest in the Rockies, turning hillsides of trees a rusty red and then grey as they populate trees and kill them. In Colorado, this outbreak seems to have peaked in 2008 and 2009; but just as one species slowed, another—the spruce beetle—has picked up steam. A new University of Colorado study published in Ecology reveals how drought was the driver of the rise in spruce beetle activity and resulting tree deaths in Colorado’s high-elevation forests in recent years. The drought is in turn linked to changes in sea surface temperatures that are expected to continue for decades to come. In the long-term, such massive insect infestations could dramatically diminish North American forests’ ability to retain water and sequester carbon—meaning trees will be less effective at balancing out the human toll on the environment.

So far, fewer acres of trees have been affected by spruce beetles than mountain pine beetles, but there are more spruce forests in Colorado than Lodgepole pine, so there’s “no reason to expect the percentage mortality to be less or acreage affected to be any less” than it was for the mountain pine beetle epidemic, said Tom Veblen, coauthor of the study and a geography professor at CU.

Lead author Sarah Hart remembers flying over British Colombia in 2007 and seeing endless stretches of red trees killed by mountain pine beetles. When she moved to Colorado, a spruce beetle outbreak had started to turn heads in the area, prompting her to look deeper into its underlying causes.

To analyze what was driving the recent spruce beetle explosion, the CU researchers compiled a 300-plus-year record of past outbreaks using tree ring data and historical documents like records from surveyors in the early 1900s. Warmer temperatures allow beetles to speed up their life cycles and expand in numbers. But “it was interesting that drought was a better predictor for spruce beetle outbreaks than temperature,” said Hart. Trees have natural defenses against these beetles; for one, they expel intruders with resin. During wetter periods like 1976-1998, the CU researchers noticed, spruce beetle outbreak was minimal because trees were likely more successful in pitching the beetles out, even as the bugs prospered in the warmth. Drought appears to weaken the trees’ defenses, making even healthy-seeming spruce susceptible to beetles desperate to get inside to feast and lay eggs. Since drought is likely to linger in the Southern Rockies in the near future, conditions are ripe for the beetles to continue their reign.

Doonesbury – Comeback

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Sunday Reading

Their Pet Words — Brad Leithauser in The New Yorker tells us about some writers’ favorite words and what it tells us about them.

The word “sweet” appears eight hundred and forty times in your complete Shakespeare. Or nearly a thousand times, if you accept close variants (“out-sweeten’d,” “true-sweet,” “sweetheart”). This level of use comes as no surprise to anyone who loves the sonnets and plays: whether in moments of fondest coaxing and chiding (“When your sweet issue your sweet form should bear”) or abject anguish and empathy (“Bless thy sweet eyes—they bleed”), Shakespeare reliably repaired to a sugared lexicon. It’s similarly unsurprising to learn that “flower” and “flowers” bloom on more than a hundred occasions in E. E. Cummings’s poetry; for him, the rotation of the seasons meant that spring followed hard on the heels of spring. Likewise, one might rightly predict that within A. E. Housman’s verses “lad” and “lads” would tabulate more densely than “beauty” or “life” or even “love” or “death.” For him, “lad” was probably the richest word in the language—a modest, slender triad of letters on which he hung his deepest feelings of fascination, lust, exclusion, and (especially when regarding soldiers in uniform) envy and gratitude.

Every poet, every novelist has his or her pet words. Which words these may be dawns on you gradually as you enter the world of a new writer. The deeper you read, the more likely it is that a fresh line in effect becomes an old line, as a signature vocabulary term rings out variations on previous usages. Of course, with many major authors this process of identifying pet words can be hastened and simplified by consulting a concordance. Either way, you’ll likely discover that your author’s personal dictionary contains an abundance of amiable acquaintances, but a select few intimate friends.

I sometimes wonder what could be responsibly deduced about a poet whose work you’d never actually read—if you were supplied only with a bare-bones concordance providing tables of vocabulary frequency. A fair amount, probably. You might reasonably postulate that Housman was homosexual upon learning that “lad,” “lads,” and “man” together surface roughly two hundred times in his poetry, as opposed to something like twenty appearances of “woman,” “women,” “girl,” and “girls.” Or you might—a deeper challenge—presuppose the existence of an essential temperamental and creative schism between two giants upon learning that “tranquil” and its variants (“tranquility,” “tranquilizing,” etc.) materialize more than fifty times in Wordsworth’s poetry and about a dozen in Byron’s. Doesn’t this statistic present, in stark relief, the posed polarities of the poet as contemplative and the poet as a man of action?

At the end of the day, when darkness falls, a concordance turns out to be a sort of sky chart to the assembling night. It shows how the poet’s mind constellates. Even if we’d never read Milton, we might surmise something of his vast, magisterial temperament on being told that “law” emerges some fifty times in his complete poems. We might surmise something further on discovering that “Hell” surfaces nearly as often as “love.”

Bullies for Jesus — From James Hamblin in The Atlantic, a high school student feels the wrath of God for complaining about religion in his public school.

Earlier this year, while no one was looking, Gage Pulliam took a photo of a plaque that listed the Ten Commandments, as it hung on the wall of his Oklahoma high school’s biology classroom.

Pulliam emailed the photo, anonymously, to the Freedom From Religion Foundation. They then sent a complaint to the school district, which asked Muldrow High School to take down the plaque.

The taste of justice was, for a moment, sweet on Pulliam’s godless tongue. Until students protested . By later in the week, his peers had compiled hundreds of signatures on petitions to save the Commandments plaque. The Muldrow Ministerial Alliance began giving away shirts that bore the Ten Commandments, in support of the protest. Parents got into the fray, too. Denise Armer said taking down the plaque was “going too far … What happened to freedom of religion, and not from religion?”

The protesters began speculating as to who was responsible for the instigating photo. Speculative whispers became cries. When some of Pulliam’s friends–who were among the cohort of openly areligious students at Muldrow High–started feeling heat, Pulliam outed himself on an atheist blog. Sacrificing himself to so that he might save others, Pulliam admitted that he was the one who sent the photo.

Pulliam later said that in the wake of his confession, his mother worried for his safety. She also worried that his teachers might grade him differently. His sister, an eighth-grader, said other students wouldn’t look at her, and “in one instance she couldn’t even get a class project done because her group members refused to talk to her.” Other students “told Gage’s girlfriend that he should stay from them or else they’ll punch him.”

Pulliam’s justification for taking the photo in the first place: “I want people to know this isn’t me trying to attack religion. This is me trying to create an environment for kids where they can feel equal.”

The Secular Student Alliance (SSA) is an educational nonprofit advocacy group. They have 393 affiliated student groups on U.S. high school and college campuses. That number has doubled in the last four years. Their stated purpose is to “organize and empower nonreligious students” and “foster successful grassroots campus groups which provide a welcoming community for secular students to discuss their views and promote their secular values.” This month they launched a program, primarily in high schools, intended to counter situations like Pulliam’s, which they say are commonplace.

The Secular Safe Zone initiative is designed to create “safe, neutral places for students to talk about their doubts without fear of religious bullying.” That’s done by recruiting “allies” and training them to recognize and respond to anti-atheist bullying. The initiative is modeled off of Gay Alliance’s LGBT Safe Zone program, which was started several years ago, in that it allows mentors at schools to explicitly demarcate spaces where “students know that bullying won’t be tolerated.”

School faculty members who affiliate with the program never have to say a thing; they hang the yellow, green, pink, and blue emblem, and students come to them.

“It’s shocking how often people tell secular students that they don’t belong in America,” Jesse Galef, communications director for the SSA told me. “Sometimes there are threats of violence against students who openly identify as atheists … We’re calling on supportive role models nationwide to stand up for these students.” That can include “teachers, guidance counselors, librarians, RAs, even chaplains, who want to create safe places for people to discuss their doubts and be open about their identities.”

A Different Party — Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein follow up their book on the dysfunction of the GOP with an assessment of where they’re going now.

A brighter future for politics and policy requires a different Republican Party, one no longer beholden to its hard right and willing to operate within the mainstream of American politics. After losing five of six presidential elections between 1968 and 1988, Democrats (thanks in large part to the Democratic Leadership Council and Bill Clinton) made a striking adjustment that put them in a position to nominate credible presidential candidates, develop center-left policies responsive to the interests of a majority of voters, and govern in a less ideological, more pragmatic, problem-solving mode. Nothing would contribute more to strengthening American democracy than Republicans going through that same experience. The initial post-2012 election assessment by the Republican National Committee took some steps toward frankly acknowledging their problems with the electorate and suggesting a course of action. However, with the striking exception of immigration policy, it moved little beyond message and process and in no way questioned the party’s absolutist position on taxes or crabbed position on the scope and size of government. That failure to move further made it even more difficult for the few problem-solving-oriented House conservatives, along with some of those in the Senate, to ignore the threat of well-financed primary challenges for apostasy from those absolutist causes.

Republicans have reason to believe the 2014 midterm elections will strengthen their position in Congress, even if they continue on the oppositionist course they set in the 112th Congress. Midterm elections usually result in losses for the president’s party, and if there is disgruntlement over continued dysfunction, voters may take it out on the perceived party in charge. But Republicans also know that there are risks associated with brinksmanship and obstruction, and they could be setting themselves up for a trouncing in 2016. Nothing concentrates the minds of politicians and their parties so much as the prospect of electoral defeat and political marginalization.

Doonesbury — Conventional wisdom.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Sunday Reading

Leonard Pitts, Jr. — Living in a time of moral cowardice.

Martin Luther King“So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., August 28, 1963

This is “tomorrow.”

Meaning that unknowable future whose unknowable difficulties Martin Luther King invoked half a century ago when he told America about his dream. If you could somehow magically bring him here, that tomorrow would likely seem miraculous to him, faced as he was with a time when segregation, police brutality, employment discrimination and voter suppression were widely and openly practiced.

Here in tomorrow, after all, the president is black. The business mogul is black. The movie star is black. The sports icon is black. The reporter, the scholar, the lawyer, the teacher, the doctor, all of them are black. And King might think for a moment that he was wrong about tomorrow and its troubles.

It would not take long for him to see the grimy truth beneath the shiny surface, to learn that the perpetual suspect is also black. As are the indigent woman, the dropout, the fatherless child, the suppressed voter, and the boy lying dead in the grass with candy and iced tea in his pocket.

King would see that for all the progress we have made, we live in a time of proud ignorance and moral cowardice wherein some white people — not all — smugly but incorrectly pronounce all racial problems solved. More galling, it is an era of such cognitive incoherence that conservatives — acolytes of the ideology against which King struggled all his life — now routinely claim ownership of his movement and kinship with his cause.

When he was under fire for questioning the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, for instance, Sen. Rand Paul wanted it known that he’d have marched with King had he been of age. And he probably believes that.

But what people like Paul fail to grasp is that the issues against which African Americans railed in 1963 were just as invisible to some of us back then as the issues of 2013 are to some of us right now. They did not see the evil of police brutality in ’63 any more than some of us can see the evil of mass incarceration now. They did not see how poll taxes rigged democracy against black people then any more than some of us can see how Voter ID laws do the same thing now.

So there’s fake courage in saying, “I would have been with Martin then.” Especially while ignoring issues that would press Martin now.

No, being there took — and still takes — real courage, beginning with the courage to do what some of us are too cowardly, hateful, stubborn or stupid to do: see what is right in front of your face.

Because when Martin Luther King said, “I have a dream,” he was not, contrary to what some of us seem to believe, calling people to co-sign some vague, airy vision of eventual utopia. No, he was calling people to work, work until “justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” This was not a sermon about the someday and the eventual. “Now is the time,” said King repeatedly. So it was. And so it is.

We live in King’s “tomorrow” and what he preached in that great rolling baritone at the temple of Lincoln 50 summers ago ought to inspire us anew in this post-Trayvon, post-Jena 6, post-Voting Rights Act, post-birther nonsense era. It ought to make us organize, agitate, educate and work with fresh determination.

It ought to challenge you to ask yourself: What have you chosen not to see? And now, having seen it, what will you do to make it right?

Because, we face tomorrows of our own.

Thankfully, we move into them with the same elusive hope — and towering dream — of which King spoke, the one that has always driven African-American people even in the valley of deepest despair.

Free at last!

Free. At last.

Also: A photo album from the March in 1963.

Software Error — Why Steve Ballmer failed at Microsoft, according to Nicholas Thompson at The New Yorker.

Windows_XP_BSODSteve Ballmer, the C.E.O. of Microsoft, finally figured out a way to make some money for himself: he quit. This morning, Ballmer announced that he will retire within the next twelve months. The company’s stock surged; Ballmer is now worth about a billion dollars more than he was on Thursday.

Ballmer is roughly the tech industry’s equivalent of Mikhail Gorbachev, without the coup and the tanks and Red Square. When he took control, in 2000, Microsoft was one of the most powerful and feared companies in the world. It had a market capitalization of around five hundred billion dollars, the highest of any company on earth. Developers referred to it as an “evil empire.” As he leaves, it’s a sprawling shadow. It still has cash—but that matters little.

What has gone wrong? For starters, Ballmer proved to be the anti-Steve Jobs. He missed every major trend in technology. His innovations alienated people. When he tried something new, like Windows Vista, the public lined up around the block to trade it in. Microsoft missed social networking. It completely misjudged the iPhone and the iPad. It embraced complexity in product design just as everyone was turning toward simplicity. It entered growing markets too late. When was the last time you used Bing? In 2000, Microsoft made most of its money selling Microsoft Office and Microsoft Windows. Today, it still makes its money that way. Ballmer’s reign has done more to defang Microsoft than the Justice Department could ever have hoped to do.

The company suffered from the classic innovator’s dilemma. It built extraordinary software that you run on your desktop. And as we moved away from our desktops and into the cloud and onto mobile devices, Microsoft trundled slowly and tentatively. It hesitated to embrace the cloud, and it hesitated to build anything that didn’t work with Windows. In 2005, it brought in a legendary coder, Ray Ozzie, to solve this problem. In 2010, he left. The company has built a technically brilliant gaming system, and the recently launched Xbox One is fully cloud-based—and almost totally separate from the parts of the company that bring in cash.

Ballmer, manic and sweat-stained once too often, failed to be a great manager, or even a tolerable one. As Kurt Eichenwald wrote, devastatingly, in Vanity Fair, the company long utilized a system called “stack rating,” whereby every member of the company was judged relative to his peers. If you worked on a team of ten, you knew that two of your colleagues would get great ratings, seven would pass, and one would fail. “Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed—every one—cited stack ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft,” Eichenwald wrote.

What comes next for Ballmer? He’s just fifty-seven, a couple years younger than Gorbachev was when he left. But I think he’ll be quiet: doing good deeds, giving away his fortune, and popping up his head from time to time. The more important question is what comes next for Microsoft—an American company, founded by a skinny nerd, that provides software used around the world. Reversing the company’s decline, in an industry that transforms itself by the day, won’t be easy; Microsoft needs someone who can attract brilliant developers as well as she anticipates trends. They need someone very different from Ballmer. In his memo to Microsoft employees, he wrote, “I cherish my Microsoft ownership, and look forward to continuing as one of Microsoft’s largest owners.” Given the size of his financial stake in the company, there’s almost no one who should want a better C.E.O. for Microsoft than Ballmer himself.

Also, see Roger Kay at Forbes.

Being Literal — Merriam-Webster caves in — figuratively — to the overuse of a word.  By Dana Coleman at Salon.

Much has been made of the use, misuse and overuse of the word “literally.”

Literally, of course, means something that is actually true: “Literally every pair of shoes I own was ruined when my apartment flooded.”

When we use words not in their normal literal meaning but in a way that makes a description more impressive or interesting, the correct word, of course, is “figuratively.”

But people increasingly use “literally” to give extreme emphasis to a statement that cannot be true, as in: “My head literally exploded when I read Merriam-Webster, among others, is now sanctioning the use of literally to mean just the opposite.”

Indeed, Ragan’s PR Daily reported last week that Webster, Macmillan Dictionary and Google have added this latter informal use of “literally” as part of the word’s official definition. The Cambridge Dictionary has also jumped on board.

How did this come to be? Mainstream use of “literally” to provide emphasis to a statement was aided in recent years, perhaps, with the help of a couple of popular sitcoms. Parks and Recreation’s Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe) extends his liberties with the word even further with his pronunciation (LIT-rally) and the frequent misuses of the word in “How I Met Your Mother” even helped inspire a drinking game. But I digress…

Webster’s first definition of literally is, “in a literal sense or matter; actually.” Its second definition is, “in effect; virtually.” In addressing this seeming contradiction, its authors comment:

“Since some people take sense 2 to be the opposition of sense 1, it has been frequently criticized as a misuse. Instead, the use is pure hyperbole intended to gain emphasis, but it often appears in contexts where no additional emphasis is necessary.”

So it’s okay to use literally to mean figuratively as long as you really, really, really need to do so? Hmph.

Doonesbury — Worthy.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Sunday Reading

Objective Evidence — Andrew Cohen of The Atlantic offers Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) proof of voter suppression.

Dear Senator Rand Paul:

If you want to be president of the United States one day, if you want more people to take you seriously as an independent thinker within the Republican Party, if you want to lead your party back to control of the Senate, or if more modestly you want simply to tether yourself to some form of reality, you are going to have to stop making false and insulting statements like you did Wednesday when you declared: “I don’t think there is objective evidence that we’re precluding African-Americans from voting any longer.”

I guess it all depends upon your definition of “objective evidence.” On the one hand, there are the factual findings about evidence and testimony contained in numerous opinions issued recently by federal judges, both Republican and Democrat, who have identified racially discriminatory voting measures. And on the other hand, there is your statement that none of this is “objective.” It’s a heavy burden you’ve given yourself, Senator — proving that something doesn’t exist when we all can see with our own eyes that it does.

Last August, for example, three federal judges struck down Texas’s photo identification law under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act because it would have led “to a regression in the position of racial minorities with respect to their effective exercise of the electoral franchise.” Those judges did find that some of the evidence presented to them was “invalid, irrelevant or unreliable” — but that was the evidence Texas offered in support of its discriminatory law. You should read this ruling before you talk about minorities and voting rights.

While you are at it, you should also read the opinion — issued almost exactly one year ago — by another panel of federal judges who determined that Florida’s partisan plan to shorten early voting days constituted evidence of racial discrimination. Or if that doesn’t rise to your level of “objective evidence” read what U.S. District Judge John D. Bates, an appointee of President George W. Bush, wrote last fall in a voting-rights challenge in South Carolina. Section 5 of the federal law, he wrote, acted as a vital deterrent forcing recalcitrant lawmakers to enact less discriminatory voting measures.

Now, you may disagree with what all of these federal judges (Republican appointees as well as Democratic ones) concluded about the discriminatory nature of these laws, after they heard sworn testimony and read the voluminous records in these cases. But you can’t say they offered “no objective evidence” for the conclusions they reached. Your conclusion, on the other hand, directly contradicts the experiences of countless citizens, in and out of the South, who have been victimized by the new generation of voter-suppression efforts.

Stupid Computers — Gary Marcus of The New Yorker on why your computer doesn’t understand you.

Hector Levesque thinks his computer is stupid—and that yours is, too. Siri and Google’s voice searches may be able to understand canned sentences like “What movies are showing near me at seven o’clock?,” but what about questions—“Can an alligator run the hundred-metre hurdles?”—that nobody has heard before? Any ordinary adult can figure that one out. (No. Alligators can’t hurdle.) But if you type the question into Google, you get information about Florida Gators track and field. Other search engines, like Wolfram Alpha, can’t answer the question, either. Watson, the computer system that won “Jeopardy!,” likely wouldn’t do much better.

In a terrific paper just presented at the premier international conference on artificial intelligence, Levesque, a University of Toronto computer scientist who studies these questions, has taken just about everyone in the field of A.I. to task. He argues that his colleagues have forgotten about the “intelligence” part of artificial intelligence.

Levesque starts with a critique of Alan Turing’s famous “Turing test,” in which a human, through a question-and-answer session, tries to distinguish machines from people. You’d think that if a machine could pass the test, we could safely conclude that the machine was intelligent. But Levesque argues that the Turing test is almost meaningless, because it is far too easy to game. Every year, a number of machines compete in the challenge for real, seeking something called the Loebner Prize. But the winners aren’t genuinely intelligent; instead, they tend to be more like parlor tricks, and they’re almost inherently deceitful. If a person asks a machine “How tall are you?” and the machine wants to win the Turing test, it has no choice but to confabulate. It has turned out, in fact, that the winners tend to use bluster and misdirection far more than anything approximating true intelligence. One program worked by pretending to be paranoid; others have done well by tossing off one-liners that distract interlocutors. The fakery involved in most efforts at beating the Turing test is emblematic: the real mission of A.I. ought to be building intelligence, not building software that is specifically tuned toward fixing some sort of arbitrary test.

Under the Gun — Alex Pareene at Salon on why John Boehner has to keep making crazy threats.

You probably read [last week] about the efforts of John Boehner and the Republican leadership in the House to convince the rank-and-file members that shutting down the government until Obamacare is defunded is a Bad Idea, and not a Brilliant Political Maneuver. Robert Costa’s account in the National Review has the basic narrative. It looks, now, like Boehner has succeeded in defusing the shutdown threat. All he had to do was promise something worse. Now we are going to not raise the debt ceiling instead.

As Jonathan Chait points out, replacing the shutdown threat with a default threat is actually much crazier and more potentially disastrous. But Boehner couldn’t get Republicans to agree to just give up on defunding Obamacare this year. He had to promise to exchange their one crazy plan to do so with another one that will go into effect later. And when it is time for that one to go into effect, he will need to find something else to distract them for a little while, until the next crazy plan is ready to go. As Brian Beutler says, we’ve seen this play out over and over again. Boehner has to promise to let Republicans do some apocalyptic thing later in order to get them to avoid doing some apocalyptic thing now. So far we’ve avoided an apocalypse.

But the people Boehner is trying to deal with here don’t see any of these threats as particularly apocalyptic. They don’t really see anything at all that might contradict their ideological stances. The House members Boehner’s trying to walk back from the ledge don’t read the Times or the Post. They don’t care what Brookings or the CBO or CRS say. They believe every “nonpartisan” or “objective” information source to be a part of the vast liberal conspiracy, and they rely for their facts and predictions strictly on sources explicitly aligned with the conservative movement. And those sources are just telling them crazy, untrue things, all the time.

That’s Boehner’s problem: He’s trying to ease his members into the real world, where defunding Obamacare is impossible as long as Obama is in the White House, and where attempts to do so via incredibly unconventional means could have disastrous consequences. What makes his job more difficult is that this reality isn’t acknowledged by most of the conservative organizations his members, and his party’s voters, exclusively follow.

Doonesbury — They need women.