Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Communism FAIL

Yes, kids, that's an Aston Martin DB9 - which, according to Motor Trend, will put you out $186,000 and change. Workers of the world, unite... pooling your money is the only way you'd be able to afford one of those things.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Aden Comfort

As if killing 49 innocent Yemeni civilians wasn't bad enough from both a strategic and moral perspective, Joe Lieberman now wants us to bomb the entire damn country. Because if there's anything better than fighting two wars at once, it's fighting three wars at once.

Nigerian Scam

Bollocks to the song quotes for a while.

Here's a few thoughts on the recent terrorfail over the Christmas holiday...

- Terrorists are stupid. Apparently this guy thought that attaching an incendiary device - not an explosive, mind you, but an incendiary device, which is something that just makes fire - to his underpants was going to take down a plane. It's not. Only thing it'll do is catch your crotch on fire. Because it's a freaking incendiary device. Word has it this guy was an engineer... obviously a bad one.

- A commenter/contributor at the excellent conservablog Common Sense Political Thought points me to this interesting profile of the mad Nigerian bomber. Of note: the guy's own father had reported him to the authorities, and he was on a terror watch list. And he was allowed to fly to the U.S. why? We'll keep Cat Stevens out, but not a guy whose own father thinks he's a terrorist? What's wrong with this picture? Also, I thought the Department of Homeland Security and the new Directorate of National Intelligence were supposed to facilitate such information sharing. Looks like information sharing is just as bad as it used to be before 9/11. Speaking of the DHS being useless...

- The airplane security people have apparently decided that now everyone needs to stay in their seats for the last hour of a flight. Remember, the fire was set by a guy who was sitting down at the time. The TSA thinks this will help because... um... um... um... what the fuck are they thinking? See, this is the problem with the "OMG THE GOVERNMENT HAS TO DO SOMETHING" attitude. It leads to this kind of naked showmanship on the part of the bureaucracy that doesn't actually do anything and makes our lives that much more miserable. Better intelligence gathering and sharing is the only effective way to fight terrorism, people. All the rest is just window dressing. Yes, that includes wars and drone attacks on so-called "leaders."

(Sidebar: does anyone think that attacking so-called "al-Qaeda leaders" - and killing civilians in the process - would actually do any good? al-Qaeda is an amorphous group full of loosely affiliated individuals. Terrorists for al-Qaeda aren't foot soldiers being directed by some shadowy organization but individuals who are seeking help in carrying out their nefarious plans. Even killing bin Laden or Zawahiri won't stop Joey Jihad from trying to kill us. We ought to be concentrating on making sure the Muslim world produces more people who view America as benign and less Joey Jihads. And killing civilians is absolutely NOT the way to do that.)

In other news:

- The length of this list ought to be a comfort to anyone nursing a little Islamophobia.

- It's A Wonderful Iranian Life.

- Here's the news article for that last item. One wonders where all the conservatives' green website themes went. Perhaps showing solidarity with Muslims being abused by the Iranian regime is less politically correct right after a (poorly) attempted terror attack?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Thought About the Army

Still working on that Hanukkah post. Yes, I know the holiday is over. I'll post something on it later, maybe during that other holiday that celebrates the birth of that false messiah :-P

Anyway, I'm noticing that the health care debate has kinda drowned out every other important issue out there. I don't think that's a good thing. For example, if we all weren't obsessed with the health care endgame (with good reason, to some extent) then someone besides Matt Taibbi and Winslow Wheeler would have noticed this:
Unlike the HASC and SASC (House and Senate armed services committees), the appropriations porkers have not changed their squiggly little tails; they have continued to raid the Military Personnel and O&M accounts to pay for their pork.

What I see is the following:

  • $1.9 billion in gross reductions to the Military Personnel (pay) account based on the arbitrary justification that there was need for an "undistributed adjustment," or in some cases "reimbursables."

  • $2.1 billion in net reductions from the O&M account in the base bill; $1.4 billion of that reduction was based on phony justifications (indirectly based on some flimsy GAO analysis never made public), such as "historic underexecution." (If you want to review my analysis of this flimsy GAO analysis , see it at http://www.cdi.org/friendlyversion/printversion.cfm?documentID=4535.)

  • The House and Senate Appropriations Committees also raided the direct war fighting O&M account in Title IX of the bill by $1.5 billion.

  • Total O&M raids, thus, amount to $3.6 billion.

  • Taxpayers for Common Sense tallied up the 1,720 earmarks in the bill costing $4.2 billion, but as TCS stated, that's just the earmarks they will admit to. Not counted in that tally are the 10 C-17s for $2.5 billion, nine F-18s for a half a billion dollars (in the war funding part of the bill), plus the added $465 million for the GE engine, plus ???

    Taibbi explains:
    What most people don’t understand about earmarks is that they are not achieved by simply adding to the top number for the whole federal budget. Earmarks have to come out of the approved number for that particular appropriations bill. So if you want a highway earmark, the money has to come out of some other highway program.

    In the defense bill, it usually works like this: Congress sticks in a few extra airplanes or ships as a handout to this or that member, usually in exchange for his vote somewhere else on some other issue. To pay for those earmarks, the favored targets for cutting are usually two parts of the defense bill: Personnel (i.e. military pay) and Operations and Maintenance (which includes such things as body armor, equipment, food, training, and fuel). Those of you who wondered over the years how it could be that soldiers in Iraq could somehow be left without body armor, well, here’s your explanation. They usually took the armor off those kids in order to pay off some congressman with an extra helicopter or two.

    Okay, so we're cutting the money we have available for soldiers' pay and basic equipment so we can pay for a bunch of pet projects for fancy weaponry we won't be using anytime soon because we're in a freaking asymmetrical war with a bunch of people who live in caves and hide out among civilians in towns. And if that's not enough, might I remind you of the massive fraud that occurs every day in defense contracts. Throw in the scandals around veterans' health care, including the Walter Reed debacle a few years ago, and it's absolutely disgusting the way the people in power (of whatever party) treat our troops. These men and women are putting their lives on the line for us, and you'd be forgiven for thinking Congress and the contractors treat them like they're a nothing more than a nuisance.

    What gets me is this. Our Congress and the contractors we entrust with some important logistical tasks for our armed forces are systematically stealing from our troops, which affects morale and readiness. I agree with Taibbi - where are the flag-waving, supposedly armed forces-loving conservatives on this? You'd think the people who are so cavalier with accusations of treason that they'd accuse people who oppose a war of it would certainly throw such terms around when it comes to actively picking the pockets of our soldiers and preventing needed supplies from reaching the front lines. Maybe it's so far under the radar that most conservatives simply don't notice it (though Taxpayers for Common Sense, a conservative group, apparently caught it)? Whatever it is, I'd hope things like this would catch fire if we weren't all concentrating all our energy on health care. But I'm not going to hold my breath.

    Friday, December 11, 2009

    A Game of Give and Take

    There's a fascinating Supreme Court case on the horizon now. The Court recently approved cert for Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, a case that deals with whether a public university - in this case, the University of California's Hastings School of Law - can require a student group to accept all students who wish to join as a requirement of receiving funding from the school. The Ninth Circuit recently ruled that Hastings can enforce its policy if the group in question is receiving student funding. A similar case in the Seventh Circuit involving Southern Illinois University's law school went the exact opposite way. This split essentially forced the Supremes' hand.

    In both cases, the CLS is seeking the right to deny membership - or at least leadership positions - to gay students who don't conform to their view of Christianity. Both universities do not allow such discrimination from their student groups.

    There are a bunch of legal issues to deal with in this case. The CLS claims that the school is infringing on their First Amendment right to free association. But the CLS' position is somewhat convoluted - they think that the school's anti-bias regulation is okay, but they want an exception for religious groups. Hastings, unsurprisingly, sees that as giving religious groups special treatment - which would be strictly forbidden, of course.

    Public universities are clearly required to extend First Amendment protections to all their students. Realistically, we're talking about whether any student groups - founded and administered by students - can choose to discriminate and still receive funding. (Note that the group's right to meet under its own terms is not at issue here. The funding is the issue.) CLS points out that the Court, in the 1972 case Healy v. James, ruled that refusing to recognize a student group was a violation of the group's First Amendment rights (ironically, the student group in question in Healy was the antiwar group Students for a Democratic Society, making this perhaps the only time in recorded history conservatives have ever supported SDS).

    On top of this are the myriad anti-discrimination laws that put the University in kind of a catch-22. On one hand, their policies say that they can't allow discrimination against gay people, so they can't fund CLS. But they can't discriminate against a group for its religious beliefs, so they have to fund CLS. Without Court guidance, then, they're stuck in permanent Vizzini mode, clearly unable to choose either glass of wine.

    Predictably, Americans United is stumping for the universities here, arguing that colleges should have the right to refuse public subsidies to groups that discriminate. Brayton disagrees, saying that groups' right to self-determination and free association ought to be preserved.

    My gut instinct is to side with Brayton and CLS here. It's important to note that the university isn't doing the discriminating here - the students are. These are essentially private clubs and the members of these clubs ought to have the right to admit who they want and keep out who they want. As for the funding issue, I'm hesitant to allow universities to deny funding based on the ideology of a particular student group. As Brayton points out:
    I agree that this means some students are compelled to support clubs that won't admit them, I just don't think this is a big deal. In fact, it's true of any student club that is based on a common set of ideas. By the usual funding arrangements for student groups -- usually a small amount of money is given to each club out of student activity fees or some other similar fund -- Democratic students are "compelled" to support Republican student groups and vice versa; white students are "compelled" to support Hispanic and Asian student groups; anti-environmentalists are "compelled" to support student environmental clubs; and so forth.

    All student groups that are formed on the basis of a common set of beliefs -- whether they advocate environmentalism, a political party, an ideological position like Students Against Sweatshops, etc -- are allowed to restrict their membership to those who share those beliefs. I see no reason to treat religious students groups any differently.
    The best policy, of course, would be to abolish activity fees for the students and have students donate to the groups they wish to support. If the university does choose to do the disbursing itself, though, the next best solution is one that ideally disburses funds based on need alone, and not based on ideology. That said, I don't necessarily blame the university for pursuing this litigation - they'll lose, but the Court ruling will give the University the plausible deniability it needs to say "we're not supporting discrimination, the Court made us do it."

    One interesting note, though. The conservative position boils down to this: ideological restrictions on money disbursement are wrong. Put differently, you can't complain if money goes to things with which you don't agree. If followed consistently, doesn't that position completely nuke the motivation behind amendments currently in Congress that would deny federal funding to anyone who buys an insurance plan that covers abortion?

    Thursday, December 10, 2009

    My Old School

    Hooray for my old high school, which just got another #1 ranking from a meaningless "top high schools" list!

    Although personally, I went for the sports.

    Wednesday, December 09, 2009

    Hanukkah, O Hanukkah

    So Hanukkah, everyone's favorite exceedingly minor Jewish holiday, is coming up (I'll be doing a fun little history post on Hanukkah during the holiday). Which means it's time to bust out the tunes. Pardon me for saying, though, but the stable of Hanukkah songs is getting a bit... stale. There's the Adam Sandler songs, of course, and Peter Yarrow's classic "Light One Candle," but that's about it for Hanukkah songs this century.

    What's that you say? You want a Hanukkah song written by the Mormon senior senator from Utah, put to music written by a Jewish writer of contemporary Christian music, and sung by a Syrian woman from Indiana? I got that right here:

    Eight Days of Hanukkah from Tablet Magazine on Vimeo.

    Surprisingly, it's not half bad. Read the story behind the video here - it's actually really interesting. The Legend of Orrin Hatch grows.

    The comments are kinda entertaining. Special shout-out to the guy who dyslexically made reference to the "LSD Church." Mormons - man, y'all didn't tell me you took hallucinogens at church!

    Or perhaps you'd like some sexy R&B music that'll get you in the mood to light the candles and "fry up some latkes," if you know what I mean? Well, wait no longer:

    Sadly missing: "I'll rock you for ages, baby." Or "I know how to make your dreidel spin." Or... OK, I'll stop.

    Friday, December 04, 2009

    Dirty Laundry

    Anybody else read about this:
    The testy exchange was sparked by [American Urban Radio reporter April] Ryan's insistent questioning of White House social secretary Desiree Rogers' role at the recent state dinner, which has been in the headlines because of the fallout from Tareq and Michaele Salahi's "party crashing."

    Ryan claimed that there have been whispers around Washington insinuating that Rogers had overstepped the traditional role of her title at the event to become the "belle of the ball," thus "overshadowing the first lady." Frustrated by Ryan's tabloid-y line of questioning, Gibbs instructed her to "calm down" and to take a deep breath," adding "I do this with my son and that's what happens."

    As the press corps cringed, murmured and chuckled at Gibbs' chastising, Ryan shot back: "Don't play with me."
    and think of this (fast-forward to 1:45)?

    In Gibbs' defense, I totally agree with him and think dispensing with Ryan in that way was completely appropriate. But I'm not a press secretary.

    Wednesday, December 02, 2009

    Everything You Know Is Wrong

    In the words of Mike, zuh?
    First, though, [former TV personality Lou] Dobbs is working to repair what a spokesman conceded is a glaring flaw: His reputation for antipathy toward Latino immigrants. In a little-noticed interview Friday, Mr. Dobbs told Spanish-language network Telemundo he now supports a plan to legalize millions of undocumented workers, a stance he long lambasted as an unfair "amnesty."
    OK, what? Word has it that Dobbs wants to run for the Senate in New Jersey, which would involve his campaigning against the Senate's lone Hispanic member, Robert Menendez (D), but wow. Talk about a transparently political 180. This is a guy who was accusing illegal Latino immigrants of spreading crime and leprosy everywhere they went barely three months ago, and now he's a champion of a path to legalization for millions of undocumented workers? WTF?

    Lovers in a Dangerous Time, Part 2

    I've blogged previously about an odious new proposed law in Uganda that would make Idi Amin proud. It would provide for the execution of all gay people with AIDS and place anyone who supports gay rights or refuses to turn over a gay person to the authorities behind bars. The bill, despite its obvious insanity, has the apparent support of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and thus seems likely to pass. What I didn't note were some American connections that the bill has that are downright chilling.

    David Bahati, the bill's main sponsor, is (according to Jeff Sharlet) a member of the Family, a fundamentalist group most famous for evangelizing to American politicians. It counts North Carolina representatives Heath Shuler and Mike McIntyre (both Democrats) among its members, as well as anti-abortion amendment guy Bart Stupak. The Family has also had connections with Museveni in the past. It's unclear whether the Americans who run the Family are supporting Museveni and Bahati in their ridiculousness; in fact, I doubt it. It is, however, worth noting that the ideologies that support this insane bill are influenced by American conservative evangelicalism, and as such, it falls to American conservative evangelicals to denounce the legislation since doing so might actually have an effect.

    I currently have no idea whether or not most of the American conservative evangelical movement's leaders have even been confronted with this legislation and forced to take a stand on it. One conservative evangelical leader has, though: Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren. When asked about the law - Warren is fairly involved in Uganda - he replied in a disappointing manner that generally implies his desire to remain neutral on the issue:
    The fundamental dignity of every person, our right to be free, and the freedom to make moral choices are gifts endowed by God, our creator. However, it is not my personal calling as a pastor in America to comment or interfere in the political process of other nations.
    You can't comment? A mass murder is about to take place in a country you're deeply involved in and you can't be bothered to comment about it? Indifference in the face of mass murder is a sin, of course, but it's not as bad as tacit approval. If Warren had been actively opposed to other mass murders overseas but not this one, then we'd have an issue.

    Oh, wait, what's that, Twitter?

    Mmmhmmm. So it's horrible, HORRIBLE, that Christians are being killed overseas*, but when it's happening to gays? Can't comment. I now have no respect for Rick Warren. This attitude of "I'll only comment on genocide committed against my particular identity group" is dangerous and what enables genocides to occur.

    *Of course, I am just as opposed to people killing Christians because they're Christian as I am to people killing gays because they're gay. Warren's right on the spirit of this tweet - genocide committed against Christians doesn't get anywhere near the press it deserves in this country outside of evangelical circles. However, he's wrong on the substance - many non-Christian human rights groups speak out against such killings daily. Governments that encourage the slaughter of Christians should be criticized too, and I doubt Warren would have any qualms about doing so.

    Send Lawyers, Guns, and Money

    Last night I watched Obama's speech on Afghanistan (at a bar... yes, the bar I was at played Obama's speech on their big projector TV. It's that kind of place). Seems like everyone's talking about that 18-month deadline, especially conservatives who are busy with their "OMG it's a road map for the Taliban!!!!1!1!1" bullshit.

    Here's the thing about that deadline, though - it's not going to be a hard-and-fast limit. Does anyone seriously think that Obama's going to start pulling troops out if we're making progress against the Taliban and another few months will make us safer? I doubt it. Obama's already proven with the health care thing that deadlines are more suggestions to him. Why should this be any different?

    What the deadline does, however, is signal to the Afghan people that we're not there indefinitely. That's a good move, in my opinion. We've been there for eight years, and no doubt Obama realizes that some of the increase in support for the Taliban comes from the worry that America is intending to be an occupying power. Obama said as much during the speech, telling Afghans that we're there to be their friends, not their patrons.

    Greenwald fleshes out this idea a little bit more, saying that it's a good thing that Obama didn't try to turn this into some humanitarian issue and instead kept the focus on our narrow interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan. While there are many of us who might want to see Afghanistan become a beacon of human rights, I don't think we can force that on them by the use of military force. Afghans recognize that sort of rhetoric as empty and as justification for overstaying our welcome. We could say "spread human rights to Afghans" but the Afghans would just hear "subjugate and occupy Afghanistan."

    So now the Afghans know that we're not there on some ill-defined humanitarian mission and that we'll be out as soon as we've neutralized the Taliban and al-Qaeda. McChrystal has the surge he needs to get the job done. Americans have a clear objective and an assurance that the whole thing will be over soon. Obama chose the best of a bunch of bad options here.

    One more thing on the war: quit calling Afghanistan "Obama's war." He inherited this war from Bush. It's not "Obama's war" any more than Vietnam was Nixon's war or Korea was Eisenhower's war. It's a bullshit meme and it needs to stop.

    In other news...

    - The War on Hanukkah is back. Why do these people hate Hanukkah so much, not to mention New Year's Day?

    - New York is debating and voting on marriage equality. If it's passed, citizen initiatives cannot overturn it. More on that as it happens.

    - Tiger Woods did something. No one actually cares except the news networks, who apparently don't want to actually go out and look for real news.

    - World Cup draw is Friday. Again, more on that as it occurs.

    - Swiss voters, apparently trying to do an impression of a hyper-douchey HOA, voted to ban minarets from the entire country. Next on the ballot - pink flamingoes. Or maybe they could join us North Carolinians and ban clotheslines.

    If you hear the phrase "Should the government ban..." and your default response isn't to scream NO! at the top of your lungs, I'm in favor of banning you from voting. Sure, some bans can actually do some good, but banning should be reserved for cases when the safety and liberty of others is seriously, and involuntarily, put at risk. No other situations warrant a ban.

    Tuesday, November 24, 2009

    A Thought

    Regarding newly-minted conservative community organizer Glenn Beck's 100-year plan for America:

    If five-year plans are bad, aren't 100-year plans 20 times as bad? So is Beck 20 times worse than a communist?

    Now I'm not saying I believe this or anything. But isn't it interesting?

    Jon Stewart's Beck parody here. Worth a click if you haven't seen it yet.

    Monday, November 23, 2009

    Happy With No Teeth

    The Get Off My Lawn Lobby strikes again, this time wanting to ban the hallucinogenic herb Salvia just because... well, the reasons they present aren't exactly coherent. So I'll just assume it's because it's weird and new and icky and anything weird and new and icky must be banned.

    It's this same stupid mentality that we should ban everything we find bizarre or distasteful or offensive, and - yes - in my experience, it's mostly held by old people. New rule: a ban cannot go into effect unless over 50% of those aged 18-29 support the ban, and if 50% of those aged 18-29 support removing a ban, it's gone. Old people have no right to control the behavior of young adults.

    You See Dimensions in Two

    The New York Times reveals that Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) claims that in 2007, the Catholic bishop of Providence, Thomas Tobin, told priests under his authority to not administer communion to Kennedy. Tobin doesn't remember barring priests from administering communion, but says that Kennedy shouldn't be taking it. Tobin claims that Kennedy's geographical quasi-excommunication is related to his support for abortion rights.

    I used to be bothered by this sort of thing, but as of now, I have no opinion one way or another on whether it's right or wrong for a Catholic bishop or priest to deny communion to someone because of their political beliefs. I'm not Catholic, and I don't come from a religious tradition that values hierarchy, so the whole thing is just kinda weird to me. But just to make sure Tobin's acting in earnest here, let's check on a few facts. The diocese of Providence consists of the state of Rhode Island, which sends four people to national office - Kennedy, Rep. James Langevin, and Sens. Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse. Whitehouse is Episcopalian, but Langevin and Reed are both Catholics, neither of which appear to have been denied communion or chewed out by Tobin. Langevin is legitimately pro-life, but Reed? The Wikioracle speaks:
    He is strongly pro-choice, and he has rejected proposals to limit late-term abortion, such procedures from occurring on military installations, and the ability of minors to cross state lines to obtain abortions.
    Tweeeeeet! Inconsistent application of principles, Bishop Tobin of the Church. Fifteen yard penalty, replay third mass. Whatever this fight is about, it's clear that there's one thing it's definitely not about - abortion.

    The Times article has an interesting passage that might tell us why:
    Their dispute began in October when Kennedy criticized the nation's Catholic bishops for threatening to oppose an overhaul of the nation's health care system unless lawmakers included tighter restrictions on abortion, which have since been added to the House version of the bill. Tobin said he felt Kennedy made an unprovoked attack on the church and demanded an apology.

    Since then, their feud has played out in public. Tobin, who has said he might have gone into politics were he not ordained, has written sharp public letters questioning Kennedy's faith and saying his position is scandalous and unacceptable to the church. Kennedy has said his disagreement with the church hierarchy does not make him any less of a Catholic.

    Two weeks ago, after a planned meeting between the two fell through, Kennedy said he wanted to stop discussing his faith in public. But then he told The Providence Journal in a story published Sunday that Tobin instructed him not to receive Communion. He also claimed the bishop had told diocesan priests not to give him Communion.
    Ah. So Kennedy started a food fight with Tobin, and Tobin's escalating it. A lay Catholic is challenging the Church hierarchy, and the bishop feels the need to put him in his place. How quaint, in that 13th-century sort of way.

    I don't know that I would completely rule out the ambition of Tobin here though. Tobin claims in the article that he would have run for political office if he hadn't gone into the clergy. Seems to me that Tobin is understandably distraught that Catholic clergymen have been left behind by the political Christianity that has been ascendant in the past few decades. By engaging in a highly public culture-war fight with a high-profile liberal, he's aspiring to a more powerful role for himself and his fellow clergymen in a culture war debate that has so far been dominated by Protestant clergy and lay Christians.

    (I have no evidence for that assertion, of course, so it's kind of a Glenn Beck-style "isn't it interesting" conjecture. Take this theory with a grain of salt - or a whole shaker.)

    Question for y'all, though - is there any inconsistency in kicking someone out for voting in favor of abortion rights but not for supporting other political positions that the Church opposes?

    Thursday, November 19, 2009

    What Is It Good For?

    The NY Times quotes Orrin Hatch on health care:
    Republicans have vowed to fight the legislation at every turn, saying it represents a dangerous expansion in the role of government that would increase taxes and insurance costs for millions of people. “It’s going to be a holy war,” said Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah.
    Oh, Orrin. You especially should know that there's already one Holy War scheduled for this month. There can't be two holy wars in such a short period of time - it'd just be unseemly. Perhaps a "holy police action"?

    Wednesday, November 18, 2009

    Say It Right...

    One more quick moment of hilarity: according to the literal wording of Texas' anti-gay marriage amendment, there's no such thing as marriage in Texas, period. Of course no court would ever actually read the amendment that way, its intent being pretty crystal-clear... but it's still really, really funny.

    It's All In Your Head

    Here's another story I missed this weekend. Several anti-gay preachers decided to attempt to get arrested by... preaching on the corner of 10th and Pennsylvania. The predictable failarity ensued.

    Turns out, if you want to perpetrate an act of civil disobedience, you have to do something illegal. And preaching on a street corner isn't illegal! Imagine that - in America, it's legal to say something on a street corner! It's almost as if there's some bedrock Constitutional concept that allows people to speak freely, some sort of "free speech" thing...

    The preachers were trying to protest the new hate crimes law, which puts the preachers in a bind vis-a-vis their attempt at civil disobedience. See, the point of civil disobedience is to protest an unjust law by breaking that law and portraying yourself as a sympathetic lawbreaker. But to break the hate crimes law, the preachers would have had to commit an actual hate crime - like beating up a gay guy while screaming Bible verses at him or something. Which, yeah, doesn't exactly make you sympathetic. Future conservative preachers, perhaps, might want to learn the law before they try to challenge it.

    Bonus fail points: at one point toward the end of the event, the podium got hijacked by some of the pro-gay rights counterprotesters. So not only did the preachers completely misunderstand the law and fail at getting arrested, they gave their opponents a soapbox while they were at it.

    Bonuser bonus fail points: Oh, and the guy they hired to do the sound donated the fee for the podium to the gay rights activists. So not only did they fail at getting arrested, not only did they give gay rights activists a platform to speak, but they also paid gay rights activists for the opportunity to do so. (Dayenu?)

    Facepalms all around.

    And a link to the video for the song mentioned in the post title, featuring Martin Sheen as an eccentric preacher.

    Tuesday, November 17, 2009

    And I Confess, I Shiver

    A few things apparently happened during my blog hiatus. Let's take a look-see:

    - Seems our Attorney General has decided to give Khalid Sheikh Mohammed his day in court. Standard supporters and critics apply. Supporters claimed victory for the rule of law, critics stammered something about "but... but... but he's a terrorist!" You can guess which side I'm on here, though I don't think it was anything remotely resembling a victory for the "rule of law." As Adam Serwer points out, there's no chance KSM will ever be released. Remember, Obama has a three-tiered system* in place wherein the outcome is predetermined and the process is chosen based on that outcome. Holder wouldn't be trying this case in a civilian court if that trial wouldn't certainly result in a conviction. It's a slam dunk, and not a George Tenet one either.

    The point is this. Conservatives have long accused liberals of treating terrorism as a law-enforcement issue, an accusation at which liberals have historically shuddered. But my response has always been "why is that a bad thing?" Terrorism, even at its absolute worst, is a large organized crime syndicate. The only difference between John Gotti and Osama bin Laden is one of degree. Crimes committed by al-Qaeda may be gruesome, but they're still crimes and should be treated as such. We don't need all this extralegal scaffolding that has been in place over the past eight years. We have a legal system that is pretty damn good at putting people in jail - why not use it?

    It's a fear thing, of course, and that fear arises from not putting terrorism in perspective as a threat. Loose nukes? Huge threat. Nuclear proliferation? Also bad. Terrorism? In the grand scheme of things, not so much. Relying on intel and policework to build cases against terrorist conspiracies and put them behind bars doesn't come with a huge cost. Working outside our legal system does, however, as Johann Hari documents.

    That said, creating a section of federal crimes known as terrorism isn't wholly illegitimate. The motivation behind al-Qaeda attacks does make them more potentially disruptive to society than your average St. Valentine's Day Massacre. It's the same idea behind hate-crimes legislation - think of terrorism as a hate crime against Americans. (Which is why it cracks me up when conservatives support massive federal programs to fight terrorism and then balk at hate crimes legislation. It's the same thing, people.)

    Anyway, the KSM trial is about perception. Hari reports - and numerous other studies concur here - that one of the things that makes jihadists give up the fight is learning that, shockingly, Americans aren't out to get them. Treating KSM as a criminal instead of as some Muslim warrior that we have to fight a "war" against is important in that regard. So Obama's walking a tightrope - he doesn't want freaked-out Americans thinking he's going to let potentially violent people go, and he doesn't want potential jihadists thinking that America's fighting a war on Muslims. Thus the KSM trial - it's a show with a guaranteed outcome designed to encourage jihadists to give up the fight and undermine jihadist recruitment efforts.

    Instant update: This guy says basically what I said about conservatives and terrorism, he's just a hell of a lot meaner and more sarcastic about it.

    - From The Times of London on Obama's visit to China:
    It appeared that only the party faithful were allowed to raise their hands, since most questions came from members of the Communist Youth League. However, one of the thousands that had been posted online was put by the US Ambassador, Jon Huntsman. Did Mr Obama know, he asked, about the “Great Firewall of China” — the blocks that China’s censors impose on internet traffic to separate the country’s 350 million web users from content deemed inappropriate?

    Mr Obama seized his chance. “I have always been a strong supporter of open internet use. I am a big supporter of non-censorship,” he said, adding that a free flow of information was a source of strength.


    China’s propaganda tsars may have been displeased with Mr Obama’s comments: they relegated coverage of his first full day in China to the sixth item, some 20 minutes into the half-hour evening news programme, and then devoted less than 60 seconds to his arrival.
    And from the AP wire via Yahoo:
    BEIJING – President Barack Obama is pushing China on human rights, telling President Hu Jintao the U.S. believes all men and woman [sic] have "certain fundamental rights."
    Obama met with his counterpart during two meetings Tuesday and pushed for improved treatment of Chinese ethnic and religious minorities. Obama said they agreed to continue the discussion in a session scheduled for early next year.
    A little tweak on human rights? Not bad. Not a full-throated blaze-of-glory denunciation, but a minor diplomatic fuck-you nonetheless. Good stuff.

    - Doug Hoffman, the loser of the NY-23 special election back in November, is doing his best Al Gore impression. Manbearpig will soon have two stalkers.

    - Apparently Carrie Prejean made a solo sex tape and her d-bag boyfriend released it to the media. I don't agree with Prejean a lot, but dude, you have to be kind of a dick to take a very private, very personal tape someone made just for you and make it public. Jeff Fecke calls it sexual assault, and Amanda Marcotte agrees (relating another story of naughty picture madness from Indiana while she's at it). While there's certainly nothing legally that can be done, morally Fecke and Marcotte are right on. Prejean, presumably, didn't want the entirety of America to watch her get herself off. This guy is essentially forcing Prejean to engage in an act of public sexuality in order to humiliate and intimidate her. From a moral perspective, if that's not sexual assault, I don't know what is. (Remember, sexual assault is more about exerting power over someone than it is about the actual sex.)

    So that's all the stuff I would have posted on if I had been around this week. And major kudos to anyone who remembers the song in the post title.

    *There's also a "three-tiered system" for distributing alcohol in place in most states that causes ridiculous distortions in the market for no apparent reason but to enrich alcohol distributors. Can we all just consign "three-tiered system" to the "Phrases That Set Off Automatic Alarms" dustbin where "five-year plan" now resides and be done with it?

    Wednesday, November 11, 2009

    All's Quiet on the Front

    I'm heading to Nashville for a conference through Friday, so not a lot of blogging until then. Two quick November 11-related things:

    1) Happy Veterans' Day. I guess it was observed on the 9th this year, but it has historically been on the 11th for a reason and I'm stubborn. So thanks to all the veterans and current servicemen and women out there who stumble across this blog (and to all those who don't, for that matter).

    2) And we remember the day, 81 years ago at 11 AM, when the guns fell silent, putting an end to one of the dumbest wars in world history.

    Monday, November 09, 2009

    Crumblin' Down

    20 years ago today...

    Anyway, here's an article Balko linked to claiming that totalitarian communism killed 100,000,000 people over the course of the last century, mainly through forced-labor camps but also through massacres, genocide, and famine. Worth remembering.

    Obligatory Jesus Jones link here.

    Update: Just for Mike, here's the Scorpions.

    Sunday, November 08, 2009

    The Kids Are Alright

    Remember that survey from a while back that claimed that Oklahoma high school seniors are Teh Stoopid? The one that claimed that only 23 percent of them could name George Washington as the first president? Well, Nate Silver's been on the case, and has apparently discovered that the pollster, Strategic Vision LLC, was just making shit up.

    According to Oklahoma Rep. Ed Cannaday, he administered the exam to every high school in his rural eastern Oklahoma district, and the results were much, much better than the ones Strategic Vision reported. The number of students who could identify America's first president is 98%, not 23%. Only two questions - the number of judges on the Supreme Court, and the length of senators' terms - got correct responses from under 70% of students.

    I can't remember if I posted on this or not, but this is the kind of story that gets around the blogosphere and can really do some damage. People read this and it fits into a narrative of how kids are getting dumber and less politically involved, that our country's going to shit, etc etc. The truth is that kids aren't stupid, that for the most part they are informed and capable citizens.

    What confuses me is why Strategic Vision would make up those numbers. The poll, it seems, was commissioned by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, who Silver describes as a "conservative-leaning think tank." But it seems to me that liberals have more of an interest in such numbers than conservatives, since such a poll could easily be used to justify increased government spending on education. Why would conservatives want a poll that shows that high school seniors are leaving schools without any knowledge? How do the results of this poll help conservatives? Silver doesn't explain this - I wish he would, because I'm at a loss.

    Update: A commenter on the FiveThirtyEight thread, who works as the communications director for the Oklahoma Democratic Party, explains:
    There has been an ongoing Republican-led legislative fight to dismantle public schools and essentially create a charter school system instead. Pushing the notion that public schools are failing would help their misguided argument. I still don't doubt that certain GOP legislators will quote the SV results on the floor next session, sadly.
    That's certainly plausible - these results would seem to suggest that the schools are failing. But the results could easily be interpreted as an impetus to support increased funding for public schools. So these data, in and of themselves, aren't uniquely useful to conservatives if that's the case.

    Note that I doubt OCPA is responsible for cooking the data. SV probably wanted numbers that would play well so OCPA would come back to them for other results. Note also that Cannaday is a Democrat - if the bizarre nature of OK politics means that conservatives want bad numbers while liberals want good ones, Cannaday's survey numbers might be a bit on the high side. Wouldn't explain the entire discrepancy, of course, but Cannaday's numbers might be a little high.

    Don't Whisper Prayers

    Thomas Friedman has a new column out, and he actually says something intelligent. I won't bother trying to quote it, because Friedman's, er, unique writing style makes quoting him comprehensibly all but impossible, but the gist of it is this: Israelis and Palestinians don't want peace. Let's stop trying to impose it on them.

    This is interesting coming from the generally interventionist Friedman. It is, perhaps, a lesson taken from Iraq - you can't impose your will on an entire population unless most of that population really wants what you're providing. It ought to be clear to most observers that neither Israelis or Palestinians want peace. Sure, they talk a good game, but in the end something else is always more important. Israelis want a good chunk of the West Bank more than they want peace. Palestinians want part of Jerusalem and a right of return for their refugees before they want peace. Peace simply won't happen unless that becomes both sides' first priority. Israel will have to give up its settlements. Palestinians will have to lay down their rockets and learn to share. We can't do that for them.

    Two other commentators, Glenn Greenwald and Joe Klein, go further. Both the liberal Greenwald and the moderate Klein think that the U.S. ought to put a hold on "all economic and military aid to Israel" (Klein's words) until the Israelis want peace. This wouldn't be a bad idea if we weren't also helping Palestinians. Or Egypt. Or Jordan. Or... you get my drift.

    But if we keep our aid open, what's our leverage? Aren't we enabling both sides to keep the status quo in place by sending them money and, in Israel's case, guns? It's a sticky wicket for sure, and there's no good answer.

    So maybe Friedman's right - the best thing to do is simply to disengage from the whole thing. Stop making trips over there, stop making proclamations that aren't listened to by anyone, stop trying to force peace. If there are complaints, don't try to settle them, and if there's violence, don't intervene. Clearly, taking the direct approach isn't working.

    Friday, November 06, 2009

    Everybody Knows...


    I spend a lot of time on this blog whining about stupid people. Well, point taken, xkcd. Stupid people have been around since the beginning of time, and panicking about their effect on our society is just as dumb as panicking over what the queers are doing to our soil. That's not to say we shouldn't call out idiots or make fun of them when they do stupid crap - just that we shouldn't infer that we're somehow getting collectively dumber as a result. We're as stupid as we've ever been, folks, and we'll be stupid tomorrow. So let's just enjoy the ride.

    "More harm has been done by people panicked over societal decline than societal decline ever did." Words well worth remembering.

    A Sick and Twisted Game

    By now we've all read about the shootings at Fort Hood, where a deranged Army psychiatrist - apparently in need of psychiatric help himself - shot up an Army readiness center, killing 13 before he was shot himself. (The shooter remains alive in a civilian hospital in Killeen.)

    Of course, the shooter's religion has set a few wingnut blogs all atwitter - professional green-baiter Donald Douglas is hardly able to contain his excitement at the prospect of another Moooooooslim terror attack.

    Blaming the shooter's religion - by all accounts, he was a devout Muslim who prayed damn near every day - is convenient, but probably not particularly instructive. In fact, this WaPo profile of the shooter reveals that there are other things to blame that make just as much sense as blaming his religion. For example:
    Hasan was born in Arlington
    He's from Arlington. The Virginia Tech shooter was from Centreville. That's it - Northern Virginians are all murderous maniacs. Stop me before I shoot someone, readers!

    Or maybe it was Obama's fault?
    Lee told Fox News that Hasan "was hoping that President Obama would pull troops out. . . . When things weren't going that way, he became more agitated, more frustrated with the conflicts over there. . . . He made his views well known about how he felt about the U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan."
    See? Obama killed those troops. I just knew it.

    And, well, we Washington-area natives blame everything else on Dan Snyder, might as well blame this on him too:
    Hasan is an avid Redskins fan. "That was his main entertainment," his aunt said. "He was not a movie watcher. He worked hard and had been studying for years. He buried himself in his work."
    If only Snyder had drafted decent offensive linemen and a receiver, the shooter wouldn't have been so depressed...

    Truth is, of course, none of those things make any sense. A more comprehensive reading of the Post's profile gives us a picture of someone who was deeply disturbed, a smart but isolated, depressed, and fragile man, scarred by the stress of his job, who couldn't deal with the added stress of his impending deployment, and just snapped. In short, he bears more resemblance to Eric Harris than to Mohammed Atta.

    Anyway, let's pause a moment to remember those who died in the massacre. You expect danger abroad when you're a soldier. You don't expect it at home, on a heavily guarded base, from someone who wears your own uniform.


    Also, let's give a warm ONAF round of applause to the Fort Hood civilian policewoman, Sgt. Kimberly Munley, who ran into the readiness center and took down the shooter despite having been shot herself. In the process, she saved heaven only knows how many lives. And an extra round of applause to the soldiers who immediately began tending to their wounded comrades after the shooting was over. Heroes, all.


    (Wow, second Unexpectedly Sober reference in a week. WTF?)

    Wednesday, November 04, 2009

    Ignorance Is Your New Best Friend

    Election hangover time. Here's a few thoughts on last night's vote-o-rama. Nate Silver does some good analysis here, so if you want some intelligent thoughts, make with the clicky. But for you who set sail with the Good Ship Rant, we'll start south and move up:

    Virginia: McDonnell won, and won big here. No surprises - Creigh Deeds' campaign was so weak and so negative that one could be forgiven for thinking that this guy was the actual candidate. And as much as was made of McDonnell's woman-hating graduate thesis, he actually ran as more center-right than anything - or at least he kept his distance most of the far-right national luminaries like Sarah Palin. And the people who actually turned out to vote were a conservative lot - according to Silver, they voted for McCain 51-42. Anyway, this continues a bizarre trend in Virginia politics - the party controlling the White House has lost every governor's race in my lifetime (1977 was the last time it didn't happen). I don't want to dismiss the role of Virginia's fierce regional rivalries in this result either - McDonnell, from Fairfax, was probably thought of by a lot of Northern Virginia voters as better on NoVa issues than Deeds, who hails from Appalachia.

    New Jersey: This douchebag-turd sandwich challenge went to Republican Chris Christie, a moderate who defeated one of the most reviled governors in the country, Democrat Jon Corzine. Corzine had a perception of sleaziness that wasn't helped by the fact that his former employer, Goldman Sachs, isn't exactly at an acme of popularity right now. Christie, whose reputation as a corruption-buster was called into question in past weeks, was just better enough to win. Independent Chris Daggett was a non-factor. This reminds me of nothing more than the last time a Republican Christie won the NJ governorship - Christie Todd Whitman, back in 1993.

    NY-23: The North Country gets its first Democratic representative since... since... hell, I don't know if anyone can remember the last time a Democrat won up there. Bill Owens was the beneficiary of a civil war among conservatives so fierce that when Republican Dede Scozzafava dropped out last weekend, she actually endorsed Owens instead of Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman. A sizeable chunk of Scozzafava's voters appear to have followed her, which is what drove Owens to victory. It's tempting to look at this race as a rebuke to far-right conservatives, but I don't think we can discount a major factor - the sheer incompetence of Doug Hoffman. An MSNBC reporter last night said that not only did Hoffman go into an interview with NY-23's largest newspaper not realizing that Ft. Drum was the district's largest employer and that he'd be responsible for fighting to keep its funding if he won, he seemingly went into the interview not knowing what Ft. Drum was. When there's a one-on-one battle between a guy who knows the district and a guy who doesn't, always bet on the former even if his party hasn't won a race there since God-knows-when.

    Oh, and is there any doubt that Scozzafava runs away with this race if not for Hoffman's presence? It's a district tailor-made for moderate Republicans.

    Maine: In by far the most depressing result of the night, Maine voters chose to take away gay people's right to enter into a legal contract with one another by a 52-48 margin. I was crunching some numbers on this race last night and I noted a couple of bizarre trends. One was that the vote had a distinct urban-rural split. Portland and environs generally held to their liberal lean; the numbers from Portland basically track those of Obama last year. However, the rural areas were a disaster. In Caribou, a town in the sparsely populated northern reaches of the state, Obama won 56-44 last year - but voted to overturn gay marriage 72-28.

    Second is that conservatives were far more motivated than liberals (again). Raw numbers for the anti-marriage voters generally tracked McCain's raw numbers for the state - remarkable for an off-year election - while pro-marriage numbers were well below Obama's numbers last year. For the life of me, I can't understand why conservatives are so motivated on an issue that doesn't affect them at all, but there you go.

    Anyway, I see two, and only two, ways forward for marriage equality from here. One is to wait until all the old people die off. Opposition to gay marriage is generally driven by cranky meddlesome old people who think they know everything (what I call the Get Off My Lawn Lobby) - young people are generally okay with the idea. The other is to figure out what's causing so many people to think that gay marriage actually affects them. I read an article a while back (I can't find the link for the life of me) that argued that the main problem with democracy was that it's trivially simple for the majority to take away rights from minorities, because they have the numbers. I don't think we can blame widespread malice for the failure of marriage equality in Maine and California though - in my experience, most people don't just to want to take away rights from others out of spite, especially when they're not affected by the decision one way or the other. So people must be convinced that they are affected by marriage equality - but how? How do straight people conceivably think that two gay guys signing a legal contract actually affects them? Answer that riddle and a strategy for achieving full legal rights for gay couples will emerge.

    Finally, a fun conservative contradiction: why are conservatives so in favor of the right to free contract when it comes to businesses and employment but not when it comes to personal matters?

    Update: Just checked the census data for Maine - it was projected to be the third oldest state by 2010, behind only Florida and West Virginia. As I noted, there's a huge generation gap on this issue, which put equality deep in the hole in Maine before the fight even began...

    Assorted other issues: It wasn't all bad news for our LGBT brothers and sisters - Washington voters approved full legal rights for same-sex couples, and the city of Kalamazoo, MI passed its anti-discrimination ordinance.

    Democrat John Garamendi, to no one's surprise, beat Republican David Harmer to become CA-10's new congresscritter, replacing Democrat Ellen Tauscher.

    And if you like gambling, you have a new vacation spot... Toledo. Yes, Ohio voters approved a measure that would allow one - and only one - casino in each of Ohio's four largest cities (Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Toledo). Only one casino per city? Isn't basically granting a monopoly on gambling to one company asking for trouble? Why not just make gambling legal and allow cities to decide whether or not they want casinos, and how many they want? Just a ton of weirdness all around there.

    Tuesday, November 03, 2009

    What You Want Said, It Ain't Clear

    In which I offer an extremely tepid defense of Virginia Foxx.

    Foxx is the representative from North Carolina's 5th District, a rather heavily Republican part of the state that includes the suburbs of Winston-Salem and some of the hinterlands in the state's northwest corner. She has a tendency to say some, well, nutty things, like when she called the Matthew Shepard murder a "hoax." She's a few donuts short of a dozen, to be sure. But the latest Foxxism to draw left-wing ire isn't really all that nutty, considering:
    And I believe the greatest fear that we all should have to our freedom comes from this room — this very room — and what may happen later this week in terms of a tax increase bill masquerading as a health care bill. I believe we have more to fear from the potential of that bill passing than we do from any terrorist right now in any country.
    OK, let's get the crappy stuff out of the way. Needless fearmongering? Check. Exaggeration of a threat? Check. Gratuitous invocation of terrorism? Check.

    But let's parse a little further and see if she isn't on to something here. The conservative view of the health-care reform package is that it'll create a massive entitlement program that will end up destroying us budget-wise. That'll force us to either raise taxes or go even further in hock to China. Also, conservatives believe that higher taxes will seriously injure our already fragile economy. Put it all together, and conservatives view this health-care reform bill as a serious threat to our country's economic well-being. We can argue about whether or not conservatives are right to fear reform, but for now let's accept that fear for what it is.

    (As an aside, my opinion is that the budget concerns are legitimate, but the taxation concerns are not, so if the cost of health care reform rises too much we can raise taxes without really hurting the economy. But that's off topic, and I can post on that later if anyone's interested.)

    But note Foxx's comparison to terrorism. She says that the consequences of health care reform - prolonged economic sluggishness and higher taxes - are worse than terrorism. In saying this, she's doing something quite welcome - she's tacitly admitting that terrorism isn't really an existential or serious threat to Americans' well-being. And in that sense, she's right. Botched health-care reform that seriously injures our economy is more worth fearing than terrorism, because terrorism isn't really worth fearing that much anyway.

    (Another aside: Foxx's ideological opponents could also point out that abdicating health care reform is a worse mistake than giving up the fight against terrorism, for much the same reason.)

    So let's look past the bombast of Ms. Foxx's statement and recognize that the main thrust of the statement is correct. The debate over health care reform is a far more consequential struggle than our "war on terror" against al-Qaeda; it will certainly have a greater overall impact on our lives than any terrorist could possibly have. Now that's not to say this is what Foxx meant when she was saying what she said - it's more likely that she was just trying to score cheap rhetorical points by invoking everyone's favorite bogeyman than it is that she actually views the terrorism threat soberly and rationally. But even the blind mouse finds the cheese sometimes.

    Friday, October 30, 2009

    And Your Bill of Rights Is Gone

    (Yeah, I know that song quote will be known to, like, three people. Sue me.)

    Hey, did you ever wonder what our kids are being taught about the Bill of Rights? And did you ever wonder what that means about how our kids understand state power? Well, wonder no more.

    A parent in the Garland, TX school district (it's really weird to me when entities smaller than counties have their own school districts, but whatever) posts this disturbing list of what the Bill of Rights looks like after run through a shredder of a 6th-grade history textbook. It's pretty hilarious and awful at the same time.

    The parent concentrates mostly on the severe bastardization of the Second Amendment - "We can get permission to own weapons to protect ourselves" - and he's right that it's probably the worst bastardization of the bunch. I mean, that's not even close to what the amendment says. "Get permission?" Don't you mean that the government has extremely limited - if any - power to regulate gun ownership.

    But the Fifth and Tenth are pretty awful, too. The bastardization of the Fifth Amendment completely ignores the due process clause and the whole "public use" clause that leads to eminent domain law. The Tenth Amendment fails to recognize the "or to the people" bit at the end, instead saying that states can do anything that the federal government can't, which of course isn't necessarily true. (They screw up the Third pretty bad too, but who cares about the Third Amendment anyway?). And it hedges the Fourth Amendment in a way that the Amendment itself doesn't by saying that police "usually" need permission to search our homes.

    Paging James Loewen...

    There seems to be a bit of a pro-government control bias here. Each of these oversimplifications makes it look like the government has more power than the Constitution actually gives it. You don't need permission to own a gun - you always have the right to own a gun, and the government can't regulate that power too much. Government can't take away your property without paying you for it, and government can't throw you in jail unless they hold a fair trial and convict you first, but you'd never know that from reading this summary. The states and the federal government both have to abdicate a good deal of their power to the people, but from the summary of the Tenth Amendment, you'd never know that either.

    Is it any wonder why violations of civil liberties are so often overlooked by most Americans? They're taught from an early age that government has far more power than it actually should have. Say the government violates someone's due process rights in a terrorism case. How many people who learned the Bill of Rights from this summary are going to know that the government is doing something unconstitutional? And how many are going to call the government on it instead of simply saying "oh, they're trying to keep us safe, carry on"?

    It behooves us to teach our children the actual Constitution, no matter how difficult or awkward we might find it to be. People can have different interpretations of it, and that's okay... but we ought to at least all start from the same facts, right?

    Wednesday, October 28, 2009

    A Big Ol' Pile of Them Bones

    Balko's latest Reason.com post highlights an Institute for Justice campaign to overturn a law against compensating bone marrow donors.

    Now I've thought for a while, and I see no reason why this law exists in the first place. Anyone know why a hospital paying a potential bone marrow donor is against the law, especially if donors are in short supply in the first place? I don't think the legal case has that much merit - I don't see a constitutional prohibition against this law, and just because a law is dumb doesn't make it unconstitutional - but it is a dumb law that someone needs to repeal.

    Tuesday, October 27, 2009

    Political Football

    Breaking off the music quote thing because this title works too well.

    By now, we've all heard the story of Rush Limbaugh's failed bid to help take over the St. Louis Rams. Conservatives have tried to spin it as some sort of bias against conservatism in the NFL - as if 32 rich old white guys who once let notoriously bigoted asshat George Preston Marshall own a team could somehow have it in for right-wingers - and liberals have tried to claim a victory for race relations in sports (in a league that still has to require its teams to interview one minority candidate for its coaching jobs, lest all the coaches be white).

    You're both wrong. It was a business decision. Dave Checketts, the leader of the group seeking to take over the Rams, needed money. Limbaugh has gobs of it and is from the vague St. Louis area. Makes sense. But when Checketts saw the backlash, what he saw weren't pangs of guilt over associating with a supposed racist. He saw dollar signs flying away. He saw good players refusing to play for his team because of their perception of its ownership. He saw liberal fans (probably a good chunk of St. Louis' fan base) refusing to give money to the team because of Limbaugh. And Checketts realized that he could make more money without Limbaugh than he could with him aboard. Simple as that. We can argue until the cows come home about whether Limbaugh is really racist or whether it's fair to view him as such, but it doesn't matter. In the end, the road from sports to politics runs only one way - high-profile political figures simply aren't going to fly in a business that, by its nature, has to accommodate people from all over the political spectrum. It simply wouldn't do to have half your fan base hate the owner of the team.

    Which brings us to our second item today, which is Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder's evolution from incompetent to evil. My beloved 'Skins are already in the aforementioned unenviable situation, except instead of having half the fan base hate the owner, in this case it's more like 75-80%. Many (myself included) blame Snyder and his organization's mismanagement of the team for the fact that the 'Skins haven't won the NFC East since 1999 - all three other teams have won at least once since then - and haven't hosted a playoff game since '99 as well, one of the longest droughts in the NFL. (In fact, when Dan Brown's most recent novel, set in Washington, came out, the D.C. sports community widely lampooned it for being set on a day when the Redskins were playing a playoff game at home. We can deal with the crazy conspiracy theory stuff, but a 'Skins home playoff game? That's too much to believe.)

    Anyway, such dissatisfaction among sports fans - ever the expressive lot - are bound to lead to shenanigans at games. Signs, T-shirts, and chants decrying Snyder's ownership have begun to proliferate at 'Skins home games. So what's Snyder's reaction? He bans all signs, and has security throw out people who have the temerity to bring signs critical of Snyder. Mr. Irrelevant has one over-the-top example (bonus: fans chanting "Free Speech!" as he's being escorted out - does this happen in other cities?). Dan Steinberg has a few others.

    Snyder's weak reasoning for banning signs is that they could cause injury and obstruct others' views - but if those were really reasons for banning signs it would have been done long ago. Furthermore, Steinberg's chatters report that security threw people out for chanting and wearing T-shirts. Deadspin has more if you trust them. Anecdata isn't the most trustworthy thing in the world, but it does point to a culture of discouraging dissent that Snyder has instituted at FedEx Field. If it sounds dictatorial to you, you're not the only one - The New Yorker's Steve Coll compares Snyder's reign to Zimbabwe.

    Snyder, of course, can do what he wants with his property. But it does seem to suggest something that's occurring to a greater extent in our culture. Our public figures are unwilling, for the most part, to listen to people who criticize them. Admitting error has become a sign of weakness rather than of strength, and so people like Snyder who want to continue to appear "strong" can't change course. The only option, in their mind, is to control the message, and that means crackdowns on dissent in the stands.

    (Fascinating side note - when the 'Skins played the Chiefs two weekends ago, the Kansas City Star refused to print the name of the team, which many Native Americans find offensive, referring to them instead as "the Washington football team." One advantage to the 'Skins' shittiness is that the row over the team's name hasn't been all that serious since the last Super Bowl. Once the 'Skins are healthy again, we're going to have to confront that name)

    Monday, October 26, 2009

    Lovers in a Dangerous Time

    I bitch about anti-gay rights laws in America in this space, and with good reason: I take the whole "equal protection under the laws" thing seriously. Also the Ninth Amendment.

    But you know what? We might be bad, but at least we're not Uganda, which has just introduced an anti-homosexuality bill that even one-ups the strictest reading of Leviticus. Burroway, who I linked to there, has a summary of the bill's main features here:
    The proposed bill would:

    • Reaffirm the lifetime sentence currently provided upon conviction of homosexuality, and extends the definition from sexual activity to merely “touch[ing] another person with the intention of committing the act of homosexuality.”

    • Create a new category of “aggravated homosexuality” which provides for the death penalty for “repeat offenders” and for cases where the individual is HIV-positive.

    • Criminalize all speech and peaceful assembly for those who advocate on behalf of LGBT citizens in Uganda with fines and imprisonment of between five and seven years.

    • Criminalize the act of obtaining a same-sex marriage abroad with lifetime imprisonment.

    • Add a clause which forces friends or family members to report LGBT persons to police within 24-hours of learning about that individual’s homosexuality or face fines or imprisonment of up to three years.

    • Add extra-territorial and extradition provisions, allowing Uganda to prosecute LGBT Ugandans living abroad.
    The list goes on. If it passed, it'd probably put half of Uganda behind bars.

    Of course, the chances of a Western country actually extraditing someone found guilty of Teh Ghey (or of supporting someone who has Teh Ghey) are slim to none. And I don't know what the bill's chances for passage are, considering it violates some 10 articles of Uganda's constitution. But still, the fact that someone in Uganda thinks that this bill is actually a good idea... it just boggles the mind. Even our wingnuts aren't that nutty.

    Sunday, October 25, 2009

    See The Idiot Talk

    This online column by professional idiot Bill Donohue might be the worst piece of writing ever published in America. I'd answer Donohue's arguments, but I have no idea what they are. It's like his computer got food poisoning and the Washington Post published the ensuing vomit. He apparently has a book along these lines - I'm kind of morbidly curious about it, actually.

    Mr. Donohue, I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.

    Saturday, October 24, 2009

    Down with the Sickness

    H1N1 fever is sweeping the nation, kids, and so it's time for ONAF to look at this supposedly SUPER-DEADLY DANGEROUS OUTBREAK OMG!!!11!1!!1 and see if the panic is warranted.

    First, there's not a lot of data we can go on right now. Flu season hasn't begun in earnest yet, so current infection and hospitalization rates aren't really indicative of what the final rates would be. We can, however, get a sense of how dangerous the virus is compared to the normal flu by comparing the mortality rate of H1N1 with the mortality rate of the average flu.

    The CDC, ever helpful, provides both in this web page, but of course you have to go digging for it. The normal flu, claims the CDC, kills 36,000 and hospitalizes more than 200,000. We'll assume that those who die of the flu are hospitalized first - that leads to a mortality probability of roughly 0.18 for flu infections serious enough to require hospitalization. (That number seems a bit high to me, but it's corroborated by the academic literature.)

    So what has the swine flu wrought? So far, there have been 4958 confirmed H1N1 hospitalizations in the U.S. and 292 deaths. That's a mortality probability of 0.059 - far less than the standard seasonal flu. Not all infections lead to hospitalization, of course, but it's reasonable to expect that similar symptoms would lead to hospitalization for both seasonal and H1N1 flu.

    Now I'm not prepared to say that this means the H1N1 virus is less deadly than the seasonal flu, but that appears to be the case right now. So why the disparity? The reason could be that H1N1 tends to infect younger people. For some reason, old people - those most at risk for death from the seasonal flu - aren't getting H1N1 at anywhere near the normal rate, while younger people are getting H1N1 at a higher rate than normal. Since H1N1 is infecting lower-risk populations, one would expect the mortality rate to be significantly lower.

    So why the hysteria over H1N1, if it's not any more dangerous than the seasonal flu? One reason is that it's a novel flu strain that people haven't experienced before. This means more people will get H1N1 than would normally get the seasonal flu, as natural immunities to the seasonal flu strains won't protect people against H1N1. The hysteria is certainly misplaced, but it's worth noting that because of H1N1, this flu season will probably be a bit worse than normal flu seasons. It's not a super-deadly strain of influenza, though, and fears of a 1918-style pandemic are overblown. Flu symptoms from H1N1 might be worse because of the lack of antibodies in the average person's system, but so far it won't kill you any more than season flu would.

    The final question revolves around the vaccine, and I'd like to pose a question to the commentariat here. Novartis' documentation says their H1N1 vaccine is only intended for children ages 4 and up. Is there a toddler version of the vaccine that is proven safe for little people like my daughter? Has anyone heard differently about kids under 4 not being recommended for the vaccine? Anyone know who the FDA approved it for?

    Thursday, October 22, 2009

    His Soul Is Marching On

    The story is this: a bearded religious fanatic, convinced of the righteousness of his cause, hatches a plan to violently attack all those who stand in his cause's way. He attracts several like-minded recruits, who join for a variety of reasons, and carries out a string of successful, often bloody and destructive attacks, culminating in a symbolic attack on an American landmark that is remembered for a long time thereafter.

    There are those who say it's difficult to get inside the mind of a terrorist, to understand what could possibly drive them to kill their fellow man. But if you sympathize with the story of radical abolitionist hero John Brown, whose story I just told you and whose attack on the Federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry occurred 150 years ago last week, you should find it rather easy. Brown was, after all, a terrorist... but one that, on the whole, most Americans agree with. (Southerners who still hold out in their opposition to Brown, substitute William Quantrill or John Mosby here. While both were official rebel army officers, their tactics were similar to Brown's.) Perhaps we can support Brown because history proved Brown right - the despicable institution of slavery would require widespread violence to bring down. Or perhaps it is because we know that slavery was a violent system, and using violence to bring it down was therefore justified. Or perhaps it's just because the model of non-violent resistance practiced by Gandhi and King simply hadn't been thought up yet.

    But make no mistake - were Brown alive today, he'd be considered a terrorist. (So would Mosby and Quantrill.) So when we call someone a "terrorist," we'd do well to realize that they care about whatever cause they support in the same way John Brown cared about ending slavery, and that if we're to fight them, we might want to understand what that cause is, and why people care about it so much. This isn't to say that Brown was wrong, or that the Islamic extremists are right. It's just to say that the kind of passion terrorists have for their causes isn't so foreign to us after all.

    Monday, October 19, 2009

    Don't Go Tossin' Your Stones Around

    Incidentally, since Mike's not doing it any more, I figured I'd pick up with the song lyric post title thing.

    Anyway, Greenwald reports some good news on the drug war:
    The Obama administration will not seek to arrest medical marijuana users and suppliers as long as they conform to state laws, under new policy guidelines to be sent to federal prosecutors Monday.
    This is good to hear, of course, but color me skeptical for now. This was one of Obama's campaign promises, but DEA raids on CA medical marijuana clinics have continued so far. In fact, the "as long as they conform to state laws" statement is a pernicious phrase - it means that should a marijuana clinic violate any little state regulation (and CA has a ton of 'em), the DEA can bring down its vengeance upon that clinic just like old days. It'll take a year or so of that not happening before I'm a believer.

    Greenwald points out, though, that Obama's already taking a better approach to the "war on drugs" than his predecessor - he didn't pressure Mexico out of decriminalizing minor possession crimes. On the other hand, the Democratic Congress and Obama also included the awful Byrne Grant program in the stimulus bill, so we have a bit of a mixed bag here. And the "war on drugs" goes far beyond Obama, of course - even ending the worst of the war on drugs requires a sea change in the attitudes of police forces across the country (insert obligatory Agitator plug here). And if you expect Obama and the Democrats to do the right thing and completely remove federal drug laws, you're freakin' nuts.

    One more thing: Greenwald notes the following about Obama's new drug policy:
    Just as is true for Jim Webb's brave crusade to radically revise the nation's criminal justice and drug laws, there is little political gain -- and some political risk -- in adopting a policy that can be depicted as "soft on drugs" or even "pro-marijuana."
    I disagree that there's little political gain from softening the tone of the drug war. Anti-drug war sentiment has exploded in the past few years, as more and more people become affected by the heavy-handed tactics it employs. See the outrage over the Cheye Calvo incident for proof of that.

    Most importantly, though, here's a Newsweek poll that says that 80% of Americans think marijuana should be legal for medical purposes. Aligning your policy to agree with 80% of Americans hardly carries a political risk. In fact, I think Obama could probably go further without incurring too much risk. That same poll suggests that only 21% of Americans think minor possession should be a prison-worthy offense. Abolishing federal prison sentences for drug possession would be another positive step that would carry next to no political risk.

    And here's another thing. Check this chart on drug use from the head drug warriors at the ONDCP. The key stat: over half of people aged 18-35 have used illegal drugs. Almost a third of those aged 18-25 have gotten high in the past year. Remember, Obama won the White House with roughly 2-1 support from young voters. Not only have most young people used drugs (weird that I'm in the minority here), but most of the data I've seen suggest that young people are far more likely to support legalization of marijuana than older voters. Roughly half of voters under 45 support legalization, and while I haven't seen any numbers, my guess would be that support for legalization would float around 60% for the 18-29 set. Obama will need to keep his margin among young voters if he is to win in 2012. Adopting policies that are popular with young voters is hardly a bad strategy for him.

    Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight makes much the same point I'm making, though he notes even higher numbers for marijuana usage among the aging-hippie generation.

    (Weird statistical issue, though: according to Rasmussen, men actually favor legalization while women are heavily opposed. Why the gender gap? And does the gender gap exist among younger voters, or is it just prim-and-proper old Phyllis Schlafly types dragging the numbers with them? Marijuana polls need to have better demographic info...)

    (Update 10/20: Gallup reports that the gender gap has closed. Also, a majority of Americans under 50 support legalizing marijuana outright. It's only the Get Off My Lawn Lobby holding us back here.)

    Friday, October 16, 2009

    You Live Inside Your Jesus Dream

    The stupid. It burns.

    OK, first off: that wasn't an ox, it was a cow. Second, that's one big fucking rat. Ben, watch out, apparently rats are HUGE in Georgia. Third, I think the ox caused that house fire and the tornado... and if not, he certainly wasn't doing shit to stop them. Fourth, I'm all for taking money from the Georgia Department of Insurance, but I definitely don't want to be crushed by freakishly large C-notes in the process, thank you. And finally, I think every conservative stereotype is there - the inexplicable reference to Hollywood and France, the completely random Reagasm, the veiled Confederate flag fellating... it's all there.

    Dumb? Yes. But you'll be saying "King Roy. Thuuuuuh raat" and cracking up inexplicably for the rest of the day. Trust me.

    Kudos to anyone who makes sense of the post title, by the way.

    Monday, October 12, 2009

    I'm Not A Team Player

    WARNING: May contain unhinged rant.

    OK, can we call it quits with the "team politics" bullshit now? I'm sick of it.

    You know what I'm talking about. People who treat politics as if you're part of some "team," and if anyone on your team does ANYTHING you have to defend them and if anyone on the other team does ANYTHING you have to criticize them. Oh, and if someone criticizes someone on your team? They're the fucking devil.

    Look, Obama didn't deserve the Nobel Prize based on his past accomplishments. Let's face it - he doesn't have that many "past accomplishments." Getting new equitable rules for equal-pay lawsuits is something, but it ain't worth the Nobel. Escalating the war in Afghanistan and continuing policies of indefinite extralegal detention sure as hell shouldn't be winning anyone a "Peace" prize. (Then again, launching terrorist intifadas shouldn't be winning people peace prizes, but Arafat got one anyway, so there ya go.) The Nobel committee gave Obama the prize in order to encourage him to pursue peace, which is cool and I understand that, but criticism of the prize is valid. Most liberals may not agree with the criticism, and that's cool too, but that doesn't make critics like the fucking Taliban and Hamas.

    Oh, and on gay rights? Sorry, Obama, but you're chickenshit. There, I said it. You're completely chickenshit. You too, Sen. Reid and Speaker Pelosi. Chickenshit, all of you. I want "don't ask, don't tell" repealed and I want it done yesterday. Of course, the White House thinks I'm just part of some "internet fringe" for saying that. How dare you criticize the President, Jeff! You're a liberal, Jeff! You don't understand, Jeff! Bullshit. I can count. And 75% ain't "fringe". Three in four Americans want DADT out. According to Rep. Baldwin (D-WI), 89% think LGBT people shouldn't be discriminated against in the workplace. Hell, even 57% of Americans support legal recognition for gay couples! You think that's "fringe"? That the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and DADT repeal have to wait because of the "challenges of governing a closely divided country?" Bullshit. You're chicken, and I'm calling you out on it, and if you don't like it go suck on a lemon. If you don't believe in gay rights, you shoulda said so during the campaign.

    Guess what? There's more than one proper way to be liberal. The DNC isn't some square-dance caller telling us all what liberals are supposed to think. I'm going to think my fellow liberals are wrong a fairly good chunk of the time. And guess what? I'm gonna say so. And you know what else? A lot of the time, when I do say so, I'll be agreeing with a few conservatives. It's called "mature political dialogue," people. Chances are, even you, Mr. Anonymous White House Official, have disagreements with Obama and Pelosi and Reid sometimes. It's okay.

    This whole thing is getting out of hand. You're either a Socialist Health-Care Rationer or you Want People To Die Quickly. You're either a Terrorist Sympathizer or a Child-Killing Warmonger. This is Karl Rove bullshit. I expect it out of the Republicans. I expected better out of the Democrats. Guess the Democratic leadership thinks they should be out there playing a game of political football against the Republicans. Fine, get out there and beat each other up. The rest of us are going to just hope someone actually starts acting like an adult around here.

    OK, I'm done.

    Monday Morning Movie Thoughts

    I went to see Capitalism: A Love Story, and like most of Michael Moore's movies, it proposes a lot of questions and leaves little in the way of answers. This is not a bad thing, mind you - expecting all the answers to our economic and social ills to come out of a two-hour movie is foolhardy. But Moore has the balls to challenge a lot of our sacred cows on economic policy, and these are worth musing about here.

    I don't post on economic issues here a lot, not because I don't think they're important, but because I don't know a whole lot about them. I went on a mini-rant on economic policy in response to Balko once, but that's about it.

    So here are some ill-formed questions that came out of the movie with me, and that perhaps people with better economic knowledge can answer...

    - People on the right throw around the term "socialism" as if it's a proven evil. If it's socialism, it's necessarily bad. Well, is socialism necessarily a bad thing? Why? What about capitalism makes it better than socialism?

    - Let's say our current employment climate continues. If I reach the point where I'm reasonably wealthy, and could provide for my daughter's well-being and my own with the wealth I had accrued to that point, would it be ethical for me to continue working no matter what age I'm at, and whether or not I enjoyed my job? And what's the point in working more than you need to in order to live comfortably?

    - Is it better to rely on a system of charity to help the poor or compel rich people to help the poor? I'm reminded of a Jewish rabbinical story I once heard. Two men of equal means come upon a beggar in the street. One is not compelled (in this case, by his religion) to give anything, yet out of his sense of compassion, he gives $5. The other is repulsed by the beggar, but because his religion demands it, he grudgingly gives $10. Who has done the better deed? The rabbis said the guy who gave the most money, of course - his heart will catch up, but in the meantime, more good is being done. So is compelling the rich to help the poor (via taxation) more ethical than removing all compulsion and expecting altruism to do the trick?

    - Moore claims the solution to our economic problems is to "destroy" capitalism. But he spends half the movie criticizing a cozy relationship between Capitol Hill and the banks that doesn't resemble actual capitalism at all. If we destroy the corporatist mentality in Congress, would capitalism lead to the negative things we liberals associate with it? On the other hand, is the capitalist ideal even possible, or will capitalism always breed corporatism? And because ideal anything is impossible, aren't some regulations necessary for the proper functioning of a real-life capitalist marketplace?

    Jibber jabber.

    Monday, October 05, 2009

    Iran's "President" Tallit-Weaver

    There are some bizarre news stories out there, but this one, if not a hoax, takes the cake:
    A photograph of the Iranian president holding up his identity card during elections in March 2008 clearly shows his family has Jewish roots.

    A close-up of the document reveals he was previously known as Sabourjian – a Jewish name meaning cloth weaver.
    "Sabour" is the Persian word for the Jewish prayer shawl better known by its Hebrew name tallit.

    So A-Train (S-Train? Let's call him that from now on) has Jewish roots, though his family converted when he was four, so he likely has little recollection of his Judaism? Guess no one has asked him if he's circumcised, then? Color me skeptical for now - I feel like this is the kind of thing that someone would have noticed before. If it's true, though, one of global politics' weirdest characters has gotten even weirder...

    Update: Looks like the skeptic in me was right - while A-Train's family did change their name, the change has more to do with upward social mobility in Tehran and less to do with a family disguising its supposed heathen past. His mother is believed to be a direct descendant of Muhammad, which means she's probably not Jewish. And Sabourjian is most likely a name derived from a peasant cloth-spinner, which is not really a Jewish name.

    Incidentally, now we have a Christian head-of-state falsely accused of being a Muslim, and a Muslim head-of-state falsely accused of being Jewish. Now we need someone to try to prove that Netanyahu's a Christian. You know, just to complete the cycle.

    Update link from this Twitter user who, like me, tweets about soccer and politics a lot.