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 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.