Monday, December 20, 2010

The Persistence of Memory

A few years ago I was traveling around a small pig-farming town in Bavaria. It was a weekend and the town was strangely deserted - there was a festival in the nearby town of Rothenburg (centered, awesomely, around the legendary chugging of a very large mug of beer), and I suspect that most of the small town's 1000 or so residents were over there. Anyway, this small town had a small memorial tucked away on one of its picturesque lanes. It was a plaque, about as tall as me, with a list of names. I don't read German, but I could tell that it was commemorating the German dead in both world wars. Which made me, as a Jew, feel... well, sort of uncomfortable. I don't begrudge the German regulars their courage in death, but I had to remember that these names were of people who were fighting, essentially, to maintain their country's right to kill people like me. How much respect could I pay such a memorial? And what should I think about people who remember fondly those who would, if alive, want to see me gassed to death?

Back home in Raleigh, there's a memorial at the end of Hillsborough Street where it dead-ends into Salisbury Street at the State Capitol. It is a tall, thin structure with a soldier on top, and in large letters, plainly visible to the cars across Salisbury waiting to turn, is written the following inscription: "To Our Confederate Dead." And now, each time I pass that memorial, I wonder if Raleigh's African-American population feels the way I felt at that memorial in Germany.

150 years ago, the Civil War began. On December 20, 1860, the state of South Carolina passed its secession declaration. Four days later, the denizens of the Palmetto State explained their reasons for doing so:
For twenty-five years this agitation has been steadily increasing, until it has now secured to its aid the power of the common Government. Observing the forms of the Constitution, a sectional party has found within that Article establishing the Executive Department, the means of subverting the Constitution itself. A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that "Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free," and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.

This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.

On the 4th day of March next, this party will take possession of the Government. It has announced that the South shall be excluded from the common territory, that the judicial tribunals shall be made sectional, and that a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States.

The guaranties of the Constitution will then no longer exist; the equal rights of the States will be lost. The slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.
It is difficult for a serious student of history to deny that the direct cause of the Civil War was slavery, and the threat of its dissolution by the nascent Republican Party and its leader, Abraham Lincoln. You can claim that it was "states' rights," but it was the states' rights to allow slavery that was in question. You can claim that it was about economics, but the South's economy was based on slavery. There's just no way around it. You can claim - correctly - that the average Confederate soldier didn't give a rat's ass about slavery (only 25% of those who fought for the South came from slaveholding families), but they were led and encouraged by plantation owners and defenders of slavery.

Which puts the modern white Southerner in a tight spot. White Southerners, by and large, abhor racism and are disgusted by the idea of slavery, but have to deal with the fact that their ancestors fought and died for that very cause. Even folks like me who had nary an ancestor in the US during the Civil War but who grew up south of the Potomac have to deal with the fact that we call home a region of the country that once fought a war to keep the black man in chains, and then spent 100 years trying to reforge those chains out of laws and intimidation. And the decision that faces us is this: do we confront our history or try to rewrite it, ignore it, and hope it'll go away?

Unfortunately, anyone who has spent a lot of time down here knows which option we chose.

Southern food is famous for recipes born of necessity. Dishes like jambalaya and fried chicken arose out of the need to create good-tasting food out of whatever there was lying around, creating beauty from the unlikely, inconvenient situation of poverty. Cuisine, however, is not the only field where the Southern ability to make the best out of a bad situation surfaces. Today, of all days, a story broke which demonstrates this. Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour got caught trying to sugarcoat the White Citizens' Councils that sprung up across the South in response to integration. Barbour credits the Citizens' Council of his hometown of Yazoo City for - of all things - ensuring that school integration was done peacefully. Never mind that this integration occurred in - wait for it - 1970, no doubt having been delayed by the actions of those very Citizens' Councils.

Barbour responded via a spokesperson, who claimed in an interview with TPM's Eric Kleefeld that Barbour isn't a racist. And you know what? I believe him. I'm sure that Barbour is as non-racist as possible. But like an old-time Cajun cook, Barbour is trying to make something delicious out of a less-than-desirable list of ingredients.

And Barbour is hardly alone - witness the South Carolinians holding a "Secession Ball" this evening, complete with period costumes and a re-enactment of the signing of the Ordinance of Secession. (No word on if black attendants would be required to wear shackles.) And if you aren't familiar with the "Lost Cause" mythology, the ability of Southerners to talk about the Civil War without once mentioning slavery - well, you just don't know enough Southerners.

The question, though, is why dp this? Why do we Southerners feel the need to turn the negative parts of our history into something good? My guess is that it's a pride thing - we don't want to admit that those who came before us did something wrong, that the region of the country that we love so much might be responsible for something so unequivocally awful. So we whitewash it. We pretend it wasn't that bad. Like Barbour, we tell stories of mixed-race crowds idly listening to Martin Luther King in small Southern towns, conveniently ignoring the tensions of the era.

The truly sad part is that we don't need to do this. Because racism isn't contained completely in the South, and it never has been. Malcolm X's autobiography is filled with awful instances of racial violence; Malcolm X grew up in Michigan. The swimming pool crowd who reacted to a group of black kids like they were diseased called Pennsylvania home. The region of the country most famous now for crazy white separatists isn't the South - it's North Idaho. And the state legislator who made national headlines for comparing a bill he didn't like to a black baby wasn't Southern - he was from Utah.

And the truth is that we don't need the Civil War and the mythology of the noble rebel to feel Southern pride. We don't need to ignore the things our grandfathers did during the civil rights era. The South is the region that gave the world the blues, jazz, and rock 'n' roll; jambalaya, gumbo, barbecue (with vinegar-based sauce, thank you very much), fried chicken, and collard greens; William Faulkner and Alice Walker; Jerry Rice and Bobby Jones; Elvis Presley, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Cash, and Robert Johnson; Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Martin Luther King; and an extremely useful second-person plural pronoun that is sorely lacking in mainstream English. And that's just scratching the surface. No other region has had anywhere near as much influence on American culture as the South. To all those non-Southerners who look at Southerners as a bunch of ignorant rednecks - until your region of the country produces a nowhere-near-exhaustive list like that, y'all can shut the hell up.

The difference between the two memorials, the one in Bavaria and the one in Raleigh, is that the Bavarians don't pretend like their fight was the good fight. They have learned how to honor their dead without honoring their cause. We can do the same. We can memorialize our Confederate dead without justifying their rebellion. We don't need to pretend like the stance of Southern state governments during secession and segregation was benign concern for "states' rights." Rather, we can stand up on all of our region's other contributions to America, and be justifiably proud.

150 years ago today, the Confederate States of America was born. It is long past time to put it to bed.

I'm Wishing That He'll Go Away

The only thing that can be said about this:
The Republican who will head the House committee that oversees domestic security is planning to open a Congressional inquiry into what he calls “the radicalization” of the Muslim community when his party takes over the House next year.

Representative Peter T. King of New York, who will become the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said he was responding to what he has described as frequent concerns raised by law enforcement officials that Muslim leaders have been uncooperative in terror investigations.
is this:

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Lester Bangs Caucus

There's a new political group out there now called No Labels. They refer to themselves as putting aside hyper-partisanship in order to move the country forward. Nothing wrong with that. Compromise is a good thing. Take the tax cut package, for example. As much as I don't like the idea of extending the Bush tax cuts on the upper tax bracket, if we have to give that to get a bunch of other stuff Republicans don't want, I'll go along with it. In a country of 300 million people, you'll never get all of what you want. As long as the compromise isn't worse than the opposition's original position (and it isn't, mainly because the deficit problem requires long-term solutions that are unaffected by this short-term deal) and it's fairly even (and it is - unemployment benefit extension and a boost in other low-income tax credits offset the extension of the tax cuts for the rich), take it.

So compromise is how things get done, and a group that supports that is OK with me. Also, blind partisanship is bad news - a lot of bad policy and bad ideas are propagated out of an unwillingness to go against anyone perceived as being on the same "team." So if you want to put aside labels and have a policy discussion, cool.

And yet. Uneasiness remains.

See, the problem with being "non-ideological" is that it's impossible. We all have ideologies. No Labels, for instance, is actually rather ideological. Their statement of purpose describes what they find important:
  • Americans are entitled to a government and a political system that works – driven by shared purpose and common sense.
  • Americans deserve a government that makes the necessary choices to rein in runaway deficits, secure Social Security and Medicare, and put our country on a viable, sound path going forward. Americans support a government that works to spur employment and economic opportunity by encouraging free and open markets, tempered by sensible regulation.
  • Americans want a government that empowers people with the tools for success – from a world-class education to affordable healthcare – provided that it does so in a fiscally prudent way.
  • America should be free from discrimination and should embrace the principle of equal opportunity.
  • America must be strong and safe, ready and able to protect itself in a world of multiple dangers and uncertainties.
  • But what if you believe, like many libertarians, that Social Security and Medicare are bad programs, and that no regulation is "sensible"? What if you believe, like many leftists, that free and open markets are an invitation for corporate exploitation? What if you believe that government has no role in education or health care, or that it's more important to protect civil liberties than it is for America to be "strong and safe"? I guess "No Labels" has no use for such silliness.

    No Labels is short-circuiting our political process by assuming a consensus on our nation's direction that may or may not exist. In the name of civility and compromise, No Labels is actually treating the dissenters to their presumed consensus in the most uncivil way possible - pretending that they don't exist.

    Look, civility is great, and it should be practiced wherever possible. But this belies the fact that political issues deeply affect our lives, and as such they produce an outpouring of emotion that makes civility almost counterproductive. In the name of "civility," we ignore the passionate extremes who might have a good idea every now and then, and we temper our own impulses for fear of being ridiculed as "uncivil." And what purpose does that serve? How can we impress on someone the importance that we affix to, say, the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" or the use of the criminal justice system to try terror suspects if we're so concerned about being "civil"?

    Put differently, which is more important: being civil? Or being truthful?

    The big problem with our discourse is not that it is "uncivil." American discourse has always been kind of "uncivil," stretching all the way back to the days of Jefferson and Adams. Rather, it is that we allow lies to propagate unchecked. We have a significant portion of the population that thinks that Obama raised taxes on the middle class when, in fact, the opposite is true. And if someone attempts to call the liars on their lies, the center simply sniggers and calls the bullshit-callers "uncivil."

    So is there a better way of promoting policy debate that moves our country forward? Yes, and fellow devotees of the movie Almost Famous already know it. It's from the end of this scene:

    "Honest and unmerciful." Call me a member of the Lester Bangs caucus. Let's be passionate. Let's call the other guys out when we think they're wrong. Let's let people know when we think others want to take America in the wrong direction. Let's pursue justice tenaciously, and speak out against injustice convincingly. But let's make damn sure we're honest - both intellectually and factually - when we do so. Passion and emotion need to be backed up by facts and truth. And let's not address those who manipulate our emotions with lies and half-truths with kid gloves in the name of civility. Open, honest, no-holds-barred debate is what moves this country forward. It weeds out the weak ideas and policies based on false premises. It forms the basis of those compromises that No Labels fetishizes. If we want to be true friends to America, we need to be honest and unmerciful.

    Tuesday, December 07, 2010

    It's About Respect, People

    2010 has a lot of entries into the "Douche of the Year" contest, but Robert Stacy "The Other" McCain is making a late charge with this incredible column.

    Let's set the scene. For those of you who don't know, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is being charged in Sweden with two counts of some sexual assault-like crime. In the first case, Assange and a woman were having sex, and the condom Assange was wearing broke; when the woman asked Assange to stop, he kept going. In the second case, Assange didn't bother to wear a condom at all despite the fact that the woman expressly asked for one. Jill Filipovic of Feministe, in response, makes what should be a relatively non-controversial point:
    If you consent to having sex with someone and part of the way through you say to stop and the person you’re having sex with continues to have sex with you against your wishes, that’s rape.
    No shit, right? Kinda obvious... but apparently not to Mr. Other McCain:
    In an era when some 40% of U.S. births are to unmarried women, in a culture where “Girls Gone Wild” and “hook-ups” are normative, where threesomes, bisexual experimentation and amateur video-porn orgies have become a virtual rite of passage for many young Americans, where chlamydia and herpes are pandemic — in this era of rampant sexual decadence, I say, does Jill Filipovic (J.D., NYU) seriously expect horny strangers to negotiate consent calmly on an act-by-act basis while they’re knocking boots, making the beast with two backs, in flagrante delicto?

    Listen up, sweetheart: You buy the ticket, you take the ride.


    If you tumble into a random hook-up with no prior knowledge of the guy’s reputation and he turns out to be a selfish brute whose standard modus operandi is repulsive, dangerous or painful, in what sense are you a victim of anything except your own stupidity?

    Mr. McCain and Assange are two sides of the same coin. Both feel very little need to respect the decisions of women regarding their own bodies. Assange went ahead with whatever he wanted to do without paying any attention to what the women wanted; McCain thinks that women don't have a right to make decisions beyond a certain point. These are equally disgusting viewpoints. Assange's disrespect is likely a figment of his narcissism, so we can expect that. I'm at a loss to explain McCain, though. I have a hard time believing that, in this day and age, anyone can believe that there's a point where women lose the right to consent to sex. And I'm even more baffled that there are people out there like Mr. McCain that enjoy explicitly blaming women for their own rape.

    So it's a little startling that McCain, when he finally comes down from his victim-blaming high-horse, attempts to make something resembling a legitimate point in an update to his post:
    I am not endorsing, advocating or defending Julian Assange’s behavior. He is a bad person, what he did was clearly wrong, and whatever harm befalls him, he most certainly deserves. But Assange’s wrongs were perpetrated in an environment of casual promiscuity. It is in just such an environment that lowlifes like Assange thrive and flourish, and if we refuse to criticize promiscuity — if we never point out to women that, in sleeping around, they are playing a game in which they are vulnerable to exploitation — then we are not-so-innocent bystanders.
    Let's ignore the insulting paternalism here for a moment and address what might be the kernel of an actual reasonable thought. Perhaps McCain isn't really blaming Assange's victims here, but is rather blaming a culture of promiscuity for rape. This is an idea worth addressing, though I still think it's a wrongheaded idea.

    If we imagine a society where sex is reserved only for the most meaningful relationships, we can understand how sexual assault cases like this would be all but non-existent, since strangers wouldn't be having sex. But we cannot assume that this would eliminate sexual assault; partner rape is depressingly common. Furthermore, one could also easily imagine a culture where casual sex is the norm and where all sex is consensual and mutually wanted; one-night stands are quite often mutually wanted. So a "culture of promiscuity" clearly isn't responsible for sexual assault.

    So what is? McCain backs into the answer by using the crap "but they can't help it" defense: "in this era of rampant sexual decadence, I say, does Jill Filipovic (J.D., NYU) seriously expect horny strangers to negotiate consent calmly on an act-by-act basis while they’re knocking boots, making the beast with two backs, in flagrante delicto?" The answer, of course, is absolutely yes. I've dealt with previously. Despite all the sexual messages in our society, I somehow avoid going around raping people, and so do most of the men I know. This is because I was raised to respect women, and so were my friends.

    And that's the key. The prevalence of sexual assault against women is not correlated to the sexualization of our society; rather, it is correlated to the respect our society has for women. The lesson that Assange and McCain refuse to learn is that a woman's choice to not have sex or to stop having sex is one that must be respected if we are to consider ourselves moral beings. Furthermore, this respect cannot be conditional. If one partner doesn't want to continue having sex, the other partner should respect that and stop (regardless of whether or not he/she likes it). It really doesn't matter what happened before.

    You'd think this would be easy to grasp. Respecting the wishes of others isn't that hard. Right?

    Tuesday, November 30, 2010

    Bombin' Around the Christmas Tree

    So we've all heard about the Portland plot by now. Some crazy dude tried to blow up a Christmas tree lighting ceremony. And, of course, being a cynic, my first thought wasn't "thank heaven this plot was stopped," but rather, "this was totally a set-up by the FBI." That, in fact, is what defense attorneys are saying. And if we remember from a few years ago, the Rolling Stone reported that the FBI consistently invented terror plots in order to jail angry young Muslims.

    And there are a lot of things about this story that don't really pass the smell test, as Greenwald notes.

    It's clear that Mr. Mohamed isn't a particularly sympathetic character. Entrapment or not, if someone asks you to participate in a terror plot the answer should always be "fuck no." But was he really just going to haul off and blow stuff up if the FBI hadn't gotten involved? I mean, could a 19-year-old high-school graduate whose aspirations included a fishing job in Alaska hatch an elaborate bomb plot all on his lonesome? It requires money and know-how, two things that I doubt Mr. Mohamed really possessed.

    So it's interesting that this case formed the news backdrop when I read this Wilkinson piece over at the Economist's Democracy in America blog. Wilkinson notes that terrorism, for all our bluster about it, is exceedingly rare in this country. Indeed, a quick Wikipedia search finds that there have been 49 terror attacks or attempted attacks in the U.S. in my lifetime. And that counts each Unabomber and Eric Rudolph attack separately, it counts non-politically motivated attacks like the Beltway sniper, and it counts domestic crazy people with guns like Jim Adkisson (though interestingly, Wikipedia didn't include school shootings, which I guess it classifies separately). If we talk about terrorism the way we generally think of it - complex, politically motivated attack plots - we're talking maybe ten. And of those ten, only two - Oklahoma City and Sept. 11 - had large amounts of fatalities.

    If there were only two successful large-scale terrorist plots in the past 29 years, we can safely say that large-scale terrorism isn't particularly common in this country... but that allowing any terrorist plot to succeed is traumatic and unacceptable. So terrorism is something of an awkward law enforcement issue. It's cataclysmic but rare - so you need significant resources, but if you're just investigating already existing plots, those resources are probably lying dormant for years at a time. Leaving those resources just kinda sitting there isn't really viable politically - politicians like to see results. Which means that it's in the FBI's interest to not just pursue existing terrorists but potential terrorists as well.

    Which leads me back to the Portland case. What the FBI did with Mohamed was that they found an angry young Muslim man who they thought might turn into a terrorist one day, turned him into an active terrorist, then arrested him. The problem with this is that we don't know if Mohamed would have become a terrorist had the FBI not been involved. Sure, maybe he becomes the next Faisal Shahzad (the incompetent Times Square bomber). But maybe he grows out of it, like many angry young men, and becomes a productive member of society. Now we'll never know.

    So we're caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, we want terrorism to be investigated and thwarted. On the other hand, it's a bad idea to turn people into terrorists when they weren't terrorists already. So how do you walk that line? My answer would be to keep track of the "potential" terrorists, but not do anything until they actually show signs of wanting to start a plot. That's when you move in and arrest them. But I'm not comfortable having the FBI play the part of the precogs in "Minority Report."

    Thursday, November 04, 2010

    Some Post-Prop 19 Prohibition Thoughts

    Recently I've been reading Last Call, Daniel Okrent's excellent look at Prohibition, and the one thing that has struck me is how similar the alcohol prohibition movement is to the marijuana (and other drug) prohibition movement today. For example, both used official fake pseudoscience to make their case - the modern DARE program can be compared easily with Scientific Temperance Instruction, a pack of bullshit fed to pre-Prohibition schools that told of alcohol's many horrors in the same way the DARE program teaches kids a lot of half-truths about drug usage today. (Also, racism against blacks and Germans played a large part in Prohibition's passage, just as racism against Hispanics played a healthy role in the illegality of marijuana and racism against blacks produced the sentencing disparity between cocaine and crack.)

    What's most salient throughout the book, though, is the sheer impossibility of prohibiting the use of alcohol. In order to get Prohibition passed in the first place, Congress had to make exceptions for homemade hard ciders and wines. People were allowed to keep and consume liquor bought before January 17, 1920. Many members of Congress who voted for Prohibition were drinkers themselves. And, of course, criminal syndicates (the analogs of today's drug cartels) distributed liquor within the US rather easily. (For example, the Bronfman family of Canada, owners of the Seagram's empire, had a very profitable arrangement with mobster Meyer Lansky.) The result? If you wanted to drink, you could - in the same way that almost half of Americans have used illegal drugs.

    And if you think about it, prohibition of private behavior, especially a popular one, is a hell of a task. Government puts tons of money and effort into preventing something, only to see half of America engage in it anyway. Prohibition was beset by corrupt enforcement agencies and a general lack of concern with enforcement at the highest levels. But even with the huge enforcement apparatus set up today to combat illegal drugs - even with the erosion of civil liberties and legalized theft and activity approaching state-sponsored murder, half of Americans have used drugs.

    Laws, it is said, are a reflection of our morality. If this is so, our prohibition laws are a reflection of a very mixed morality that, in some ways, is uniquely American.

    We aspire to live lives free of vice. We idealize the rejection of intoxicants like marijuana, cocaine, even alcohol. We talk about how horrible drug use is. And so when the opportunity comes to pass laws against it, we register our disapproval with that private behavior by voting for prohibition. Yet we also understand that we live our lives in a liberal democracy, and we cherish our liberties handed down to us in the form of the Constitution and its myriad protections against government intrusion. We like our government distant, not ubiquitous - but ubiquity is necessary to truly enforce prohibition.

    So we pass these laws knowing full well that they are, for the most part, unenforceable. We give up some of our civil liberties, but never so much that the laws become viable. We look the other way as those with power and resources manipulate the system so that they get out of paying the full price for violating prohibition, allowing our laws to turn into a system of oppression against the underclasses. We have taken comfort in having our morality affirmed by laws only enforceable by oppression. Prohibition is a blanket, if you will, for our aspirational morality, protecting our vision of what a good society should look like from the harsh, cold reality of a world that never lives up to its lofty ideals.

    Eventually, we will understand that a blanket composed of SWAT teams and drug cartels and thievery and racism provides no true comfort, and we will have the courage to shed it. Medical marijuana laws were the first attempts, Prop 19 is the latest but it will not be the last. And when we do, we will realize that the harsh, cold reality isn't really as harsh and cold as it seems. The truth is that our aspirational morality will survive whether or not it is protected by the force of law. And when we come to that realization, we can give the American ideal of personal liberty the full embrace that it so richly deserves.

    Update: Jacob Sullum deals well with a similar argument.

    Wednesday, November 03, 2010

    Five Stages of Election Wednesday


    No. No no no no no. No way could Feingold lose his Senate seat. Not to this schmuck. No way. Not happening. Didn't happen. Can't happen.


    FUCK YOU, WISCONSIN. Seriously, let's kick these bastards out of the union. You heard me, cheeseheads. Get out. Go join Canada or something. This country doesn't need you. Milwaukee's beer sucks now anyway. Go away. I'm ripping a star off our flag as we speak.


    OK, how about this. I'll give you Dino Rossi and Carly Fiorina if we can put Feingold back in the Senate. That'll get you to 50-50 assuming Colorado goes to Buck. Hell, ask nicely enough and I might even give you Sharron Angle. Please? Just give me this, okay?


    Man. Congress is worthless without Feingold. Who the hell's gonna stand up for civil liberties? Now the government can just keep imprisoning people without trial and kill off our legal system in the name of a terrorism freak-out and no one's gonna stand in their way. Fuck it, there's no hope. Let's just shred the Constitution now.


    OK, so no Feingold anymore. That's okay, I guess. Maybe Leahy will grow a spine on civil liberties - he just won another six years. Maybe he'll go on the pundit circuit. They could use some good civil libertarians out there. I can't imagine he'd just disappear, right? Hey, and maybe Herb Kohl will retire rather than run for re-election in 2012, and Feingold could win his seat!

    Of course, we'd have to let Wisconsin back in the union by then. I'll think about it.

    Jesse Walker has more over at Reason (and it's odd enough that Reason is eulogizing a Democratic Senator). There are three other results I wanted to touch on briefly:

  • Prop 19's failure. That's two straight high-profile propositions you've fucked up now, California. You'll be out of the union with Wisconsin if you keep this up. Anyway, congratulations to the murderous drug cartels, who now get to keep making crazy money off Californians. You don't have to compete with legal distribution channels now. Good job.

    Oh, and to Californians who voted against Prop 19? They're the big winners in this whole thing. Hope that's what you wanted.

  • Iowa votes down their judges. Iowans have apparently decided that they know how to interpret their state's constitution better than people who have studied the law and their state's constitution for most of their professional careers, because blah blah blah GAY PEOPLE. Hey Hawkeyes - if your ban on gay marriage is unconstitutional, fucking deal with it. The more you treat it like the end of the world, the dumber you look.

    And your state borders Wisconsin. Just sayin'.

  • Oklahoma passes proposition banning Sharia law. Rumor has it they are also expected to pass a proposition banning faster-than-light travel. Sadly, the question requiring water molecules to have two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom did not gather enough signatures to make it onto the ballot.

    Oooooklahoma, where the paranoia comes sweeping down the plains. This song goes out to you, the 70% of Oklahomans that saw fit to protect yourself against a threat that exists only in the dark corners of your amygdala:

  • Monday, October 18, 2010

    Wait, They Can Do That?

    Mother Jones' Mac McClelland, who has been on top of the oil spill story from Day One, tweeted about this article detailing the possibility that BP might refuse to pay damage claims beyond $75 million. Apparently this is due to something called the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which limits damages that can be awarded due to an oil spill to that amount plus cleanup costs.

    This law is an obviously hideous idea - why anyone would want to protect someone who spilled shit-tons of oil from having to pay people whose property they fucked up is beyond me. It's like passing a law saying that if I burn down your house, I only have to pay you $50 plus whatever it costs to shovel the ashes off your lot. You say you lost $800,000 worth of assets in that fire? Sorry, dude, you get $50. Good luck with that other $799,950, though.

    But beyond the stupidity and cravenness required to pass such a law in the first place, I'd just like to ask this question: how the hell can such a law possibly be constitutional?

    Think about it this way. Say BP has been found liable for damage that results from the oil spill (not a horrible assumption here). The first ten people to sue each have $7.5 million of damage to their property. You're the 11th. Surprise - now you have no right to sue BP for destroying your property! No money left under the cap, see.

    The right to a lawsuit is never enumerated - were I a judge I would presume it to exist under the Ninth Amendment, but there lies shaky ground - but thanks to the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause, you can't grant some group of wronged property owners the right to sue BP and not grant another group of wronged property owners the right to sue BP. If you're going to let some people collect damages from BP, you can't disallow others with legitimate claims from doing the same. So restricting the 11th person from suing when you let the first 10 sue strikes me as a violation of equal protection, and I see no compelling state interest (or rational basis even, though y'all know how I feel about that standard) in protecting a private corporation from their full liability under the common law.

    So, legal eagles, how is that law justified under the Constitution?

    Friday, October 15, 2010

    A Question on Judicial Elections

    Here's an interesting nugget for you. The Iowa Supreme Court is appointed, but Iowans vote every two years on whether or not they should remain in their seats. In the wake of its groundbreaking decision that the ban on same-sex marriage in that state violated its Constitution, several judges are in danger of losing that vote, which has basically never happened before.

    That's interesting to me because I grew up in a state (Virginia) where judges are appointed (and never voted on) and currently live in a state where all judges are voted on (and never appointed). The process of electing/voting on judges really strikes me as bizarre, for reasons apparent in the Iowa vote - difficult, unpopular decisions to uphold the Constitution are often disadvantaged in favor of politically expedient decisions that may not follow the Constitution as faithfully. But appointments have their drawbacks too - it's remarkably difficult to get a runaway judge off the bench.

    I mention this because there's a difficult appellate court election here in NC this year. Incumbent judge Ann Marie Calabria has done nothing particularly wrong - she's competent, reasonable, and not corrupt - but she's also a strident conservative and a judicial passivist. She is running against Jane Gray, who would make an good judge as well but whose judicial philosophy seems more in line with mine. In a sense, it's the mirror image of the choice facing Iowa voters.

    So I have a question for you, dear readers. When is it appropriate for voters to fire an incumbent judge? When they make a decision you don't agree with? When they have a judicial philosophy you don't agree with? Or only in the case of misconduct or corruption? Or is there another standard?

    Have at it.

    Tuesday, October 12, 2010

    Another Failed Anti-Gay Marriage Argument

    Out of all the controversial and difficult political issues out there, there's only one position I am absolutely unable to understand: opposition to gay marriage. I've mentioned before that I have yet to hear an argument that makes sense to me. Matt Novak has come closest, but his argument - that male-female relationships are different because they can produce children, and thus deserve special recognition - is still incomplete (there's a "why" missing there). But I'm open to reading new arguments. You're up, Katherine Kersten from Minneapolis, MN:
    On Nov. 2, the family -- and marriage as we know it -- will be on the ballot in Minnesota.
    Aw, Christ. Two sentences in and the rhetoric's already so overheated it could fry an egg.
    Next year, Democrats will likely try to steamroll same-sex marriage through. If Dayton or Horner is elected, the governor will be on board -- perhaps even leading the charge.

    Tom Emmer takes a different stance. He's the only gubernatorial candidate who supports marriage as the union of one man and one woman, as it has existed in Western civilization for 2,000 years.
    Still overheated, but at least her facts aren't as specious as the "never before in human history" crap. Of course, marriage as an institution today would be all but unrecognizable to people from 2000 years ago.

    But that's kinda ticky-tack, so I'll let it go. Continue:
    Notice: Neither Dayton nor Horner mentions the stakeholders who have the most to win or lose in the marriage battle -- children.
    Oh, this isn't gonna be pretty.
    Though Dayton and Horner may be loath to admit it, marriage has been a male/female institution -- across the globe and throughout history -- for a simple reason, rooted in biology. Sex between men and women creates babies. It's the only kind of sex that does.
    OK, wait. You're gonna get us all panicked about the demise of Western civilization and the certain torture of children just to make Novak's argument? Granted, she's the only person other than Novak that I've heard make this argument. Maybe it's a Minnesota thing.

    Anyway, seems like a waste of a good outrage to get all worked up and then make a rather mundane argument. At least it's not crazy or idiotic, though.

    Oh, hey, wait, there's another page:
    Marriage is a "conjugal" concept, based on the sexual complementarity of men and women. It channels the powerful male/female sex drive to positive ends, to ensure that children will -- whenever possible -- have the love, support and guidance of both their mother and father. By linking fathers to their children, marriage strengthens an otherwise tenuous bond that is vital for both children's and society's well-being.
    Aaaaaaand we're off the rails.

    Hey, yo, Katherine. Single dad here. There's not a goddamn thing "tenuous" about the bond between me and my kid. I give my kid love, support, and guidance because I love her, not because of my marital status vis-a-vis her mom. And guess what? Her mother feels the same way. And there are parents of both genders who are married who could care less about their kids. The idea that the only reason men take care of kids is because they get to fuck the kids' mommy is colossally, unbelievably, and incredibly stupid.

    Oh, and do you really think it's better for a kid to have a father who doesn't love them tied to the family by marriage? Seems to me that'd create a lot more problems than it'd solve.

    But continue. Let's see how deep this rabbit hole runs.
    First, they portray the purpose of marriage as being simply to encourage, and publicly affirm, adults' "love and commitment" -- Dayton's words. If we grant this premise, it becomes a denial of "equal rights" to withhold marriage from two men or two women who care for each other. "How will my same-sex marriage hurt your marriage?" gay-marriage supporters ask. They expect the answer to be "not at all."

    But marriage is not primarily about affirming "love and commitment." Otherwise, government would regulate friendships as well as marriages. At its core, marriage is a social institution, whose public purpose is to structure male/female sexual relationships in a way that maximizes the next generation's well-being.
    Well, actually, marriage is about two people agreeing to certain property-sharing, child custody, and mutual care arrangements through a legally binding ceremony. The reasons two people get married range from "we're meant for each other" to "we want to have a family together" to "really, we're just young and impulsive." But yeah, you just go ahead and tell us what it's all about.
    But most traditional-marriage supporters don't "fear" or "hate" homosexuals. On the contrary, they invite gays to live as they please. They simply believe that every child needs and deserves a mother and a father. And they suspect that the radical redefinition of marriage will have damaging, unpredictable long-term consequences for all of society.
    I'll wait for all the sociologists and anthropologists to stop laughing.

    Still waiting.

    OK, I think we're good. Other cultures survive despite the fact that their concept of the family is radically different from just "mother, father, kids." Hell, that was only true in our culture starting about 1950 or so. Kids need a strong, loving support structure, and it really doesn't matter whether the people providing that donated a sperm or an ovum to the process or not. Two men and two women can provide just as much support to a child as an opposite-sex couple. So can a mother and grandmother, for that matter. Or a father and grandfather. Or a father and uncle. Or a mother and uncle. Or two friends.

    And as for the "damaging, unpredictable long-term consequences"? Munroe's Law.
    I've got questions for Dayton and Horner:
    This'll be good.
    If we abandon the conjugal idea of marriage -- and redefine marriage as appropriate for any two caring adults -- on what grounds can we continue to limit the institution to two people? If love and commitment are sufficient for two, why not three or more? "How does my polygamous marriage hurt your marriage?" Same-sex marriage supporters have no logical answer.
    Because you're not discriminating against anyone if you just say "this legal contract deals with property sharing between two people." There's a difference between telling some people "you can't have this contract" and limiting the number of parties that can take part in a contract, and if you don't get that difference... I can't help you.
    And how can we logically limit marriage to people in a sexual relationship? If marriage is simply about caring adults, why shouldn't a grandmother and daughter raising a child together have its benefits? Going forward, on what grounds can we discriminate against people simply because they don't have sex together?
    We don't discriminate against couples who don't have sex together now. You do realize that that's, like, 20 percent of married couples already, right? What would you prefer, a system where couples had to report each time they had sex to the government, and if it wasn't enough, their marriage would be dissolved?

    Kids, this is proof that when your teacher says there are no such things as stupid questions, they're lying.

    OK, what's the next question?
    Really? That's it? That's all you got? Kinda thought there'd be more there.

    So sorry, Ms. Kersten, you fail at arguing. Try again later, I'm sure you have it in you.

    Monday, October 11, 2010

    The Real Connection Between Glenn Beck and Islam

    Some weeks ago a nutter-butter right-winger named Byron Williams shot up a freeway in Oakland, California while ranting about wanting to destroy the ACLU and the nonprofit liberal-leaning Tides Foundation. He was likely influenced by conservative conspiracy theorists and had the altogether nutty idea that Obama and George Soros blew up the Deepwater Horizon oil rig intentionally so they could either make money or get cap-and-trade passed, or something. I dunno, it's tough to wade through that line of thought.

    Sadly, the predictable attempts to turn this whole thing against Glenn Beck followed, most notably from Dana Milbank at the Washington Post. Milbank writes:
    In August, I wrote that while it's not fair to blame Beck for violence committted by his fans, he would do well to stop encouraging extremists. Now, Williams has granted a pair of jailhouse interviews, one with the conservative and one to be published soon by the liberal group Media Matters. These recorded exchanges, which I have reviewed, show precisely why Beck is dangerous: because his is the one voice in the mass media that validates conspiracy theories held by the unstable.
    Translation: I'm not blaming Beck, but really... I'm blaming Beck.

    But something else occurs to me. Let's give Milbank's paragraph a little rewrite, eh?
    In August, I wrote that while it's not fair to blame Islam for violence committed by its fans, Muslims would do well to stop encouraging extremists... These recorded exchanges, which I have reviewed, show precisely why Islam is dangerous: because it is the one religion in the mass culture that validates conspiracy theories held by the unstable.
    I could have pulled that straight from Pam Geller's website.

    Hey, this is fun! Let's see what Media Matters' Eric Boehlert has to say:
    And thankfully, Williams wasn't able to take his place alongside a growing list of domestic, anti-government terrorists, such as the recent Pentagon shooter, the Holocaust Museum gunman, the kamikaze pilot who flew his plane into an IRS building in Austin, Texas, and the Pittsburgh cop-killer who set up an ambush because he was convinced Obama was going to take away his guns the Fort Hood shooter, the underpants bomber, and the Times Square bomber.

    All the vigilante attacks appear to have been fueled by an almost pathological hatred for the U.S. government -- the same open hatred that right-wing bloggers, AM talk radio hosts, and Fox News' lineup of anti-government prophets Muslims have been frantically fueling for the last year, pushing doomsday warnings of America's democratic demise under President Obama attacks on Islam.

    And the sad truth is we're going to see more like Byron Williams. We're going to see more attempts at vigilante violence during the Age of Obama simply because the right-wing media, lead by Beck,Muslims continue to gleefully (albeit irresponsibly) stoke dangerous fires with the kind of relentlessly incendiary rhetoric that has no match in terms of modern day, mainstream use in American politics or media.
    Try it yourself, it's really quite entertaining.

    And that is what I think we ought to remember. Blaming Beck and company (and by extension the entire populist right wing) for right-wing terrorism* is the same as blaming Islam or American Muslims for extremist Islamic terror attacks. In both cases, people seek to delegitimize an entire group because of the craziest actions of its craziest adherents. And both approaches are equally intellectually bankrupt.

    My fellow lefties don't reach the same fever pitch as the conservatives do when they rant about Muslims - we're not going to be whining that Republican Senate candidate Carly Fiorina's campaign signs should be kept off that stretch of I-580 anytime soon, after all. But the line of reasoning is the same, and just as disgusting wherever it comes from or whoever it's aimed at.

    *Let's be honest here, by any meaningful definition of the term Byron Williams is a terrorist, and a more successful one than either Faisal Shahzad or Captain Underpants since he actually did injure people.

    Friday, October 01, 2010

    Of Surveys and Religious Minorities

    I'll get to the commentary, but first, a story.

    A few years ago I was working for a state legislature campaign, and I was assigned to canvassing. My canvassing partner one day was a young woman from the Swift Creek neighborhood, which is a (proudly) unincorporated area just south of Raleigh. It was near one of the High Holidays, and so the fact came up that I was Jewish. The young woman was surprised - she had never actually met a Jew before, and knew absolutely nothing about my religion. She proceeded to ask a few questions ranging from simple theology (you don't believe in Jesus, right?) to the vaguely stereotypical (so are you all really tight with money?). But the point is: this young woman wasn't from East Bumblefuck - she had grown up in spitting distance of one of the most highly educated cities in America, and she knew nothing about Judaism.

    Hold that thought.

    Recently, the Pew Forum put out a survey of Americans' religious knowledge, and the result - that atheists and agnostics scored higher on it than anyone else - has led to predictable crowing from the atheist set. A sample, from Amanda Marcotte:
    Turns out knowing more about the actual details of religion correlates more to rejecting. Religion reminds me of those insects that have showy, beautiful colorings. It seems really beautiful, but if you examine it up close, it’s actually a big, gross insect with hairy legs and overall creepy-crawliness.
    It's a fascinating narrative, but it's not supported by the actual facts. First, the numbers - Pew reports that while atheists do have the highest score overall, at 20.9 out of 32 questions correct, Jews and Mormons are right there within statistical significance at 20.5 and 20.3, respectively. Non-LDS Christians all come in between 17.6 and 11.6, depending on the branch. Furthermore, Pew - in an epic example of "burying the lede," reports later that
    [d]ata from the survey indicate that educational attainment – how much schooling an individual has completed – is the single best predictor of religious knowledge. College graduates get nearly eight more questions right on average than do people with a high school education or less. Having taken a religion course in college is also strongly associated with higher religious knowledge.
    The more educated you are, the more knowledge you have about religions. That's so obvious that it's damn near tautological.

    But I think there's something else at work here that separates atheists, Jews, and Mormons from the mainstream Christians. The three groups listed are the only three religious minorities surveyed by Pew (they missed Muslims for some reason). Out of 26 questions that Pew classified, 12 were on Christianity and the Bible, 11 were on other religions, and 4 were on religion's role in government. A test set up thus is going to be easier for minorities to succeed on, and here's why.

    Recall my story. It's possible for a Christian in a fairly urbane area of the country to know absolutely nothing about Judaism, which is the "world religion" most known among Americans. But if you're Jewish and growing up in Raleigh, do you think there's any chance you'd grow up ignorant of the basic tenets of Christianity? Of course not. We live in a relatively Christianized culture (regardless of what blowhards like Bill O'Reilly would have you believe) where basic Christian beliefs are referenced almost daily. We basically learn about the belief in Jesus as the son of God, the story of his crucifixion, and the meaning of Christmas and Easter by osmosis by the time we reach adulthood. There's no way anyone living in America and participating fully in society would not know the basics of Christianity. Furthermore, being a religious minority makes you acutely aware of your religious identity. While most Christians have the luxury of not really thinking about religion as a differentiating tool (in the same way as white people can avoid thinking about race), Jews and atheists - and to some extent Mormons, who are Christian but often looked upon suspiciously by mainstream Christians - do not have that luxury. We're reminded that we're religious minorities every single day. As such, we're generally more keen to learn about religion since religious identity is such a huge part of the way other Americans see us.

    The numbers demonstrate both of these trends. Pew reports that of the Christian questions, Mormons and white Evangelicals performed best (7.9 and 7.3 out of 11, respectively), but Jews and atheists knew as much as the average Christian. Jews got 6.3 and atheists got 6.7, and the average among all Christians was 6.2. However, on the world religion section, Jews and atheists outperformed everyone by a landslide - 7.9 and 7.5 out of 11, respectively, compared to a Christian average of 4.7. Ouch. Mormons lagged a bit, but were still the third-highest scorers on that section - they answered 5.6 correct. That's well enough to put them in the upper echelon when combined with their superior knowledge of Christianity.

    In sum: Jews and atheists, forced every day to think about religions not their own, do better on questions about other religions. They do just as well as Christians on questions about Christianity because our culture is Christian and they learn it by default. Meanwhile, Christians, who have the luxury of being members of the dominant culture, don't do well when asked questions about religions they never have to think about unless they so desire. And this is surprising... how?

    Wednesday, September 22, 2010

    More Scalia "Originalist" Hackery

    Ben's old law school buddy Ian Millhiser reports on a special new piece of insanity from "Justice" Antonin Scalia:
    Scalia also said he doesn't believe the Constitution bans sex discrimination.

    The 14th Amendment, enacted after the Civil War in 1868, guarantees due process and equal protection and in recent years has been interpreted by courts to prohibit sex discrimination as well as racial discrimination.

    But Scalia said he believes the amendment doesn't apply to discrimination against women because that use of the measure was not intended in 1868.
    Hmm. Let's check the 14th Amendment:
    All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
    Nope, nothing about "this doesn't apply to women" in there. I call hackery.

    To his credit, Scalia said this in the context of saying that "a lot of stupid stuff is constitutional," so we can't say he's pro-sex discrimination. Rather, I think he's using his "originalism" doctrine - which says that the Constitution's meaning should be filtered through the opinions of those who approved it - to basically make stuff up in order to avoid having to address the 14th Amendment implications of a case that will likely be coming before him soon: Perry v. Schwarzenegger, the gay marriage case.

    I've written this a million times on this blog in the past few months, but you can't make the Constitution say shit it doesn't say. If the people writing the 14th Amendment wanted to exclude women, they should have written that in there. They didn't. We have to follow the plain meaning of the Amendment as written.

    Not that Scalia's the only hack who ignores the full implications of equal protection. It seems like a fairly sizable chunk of the legal profession does as well. The rational basis test is basically an excuse used by jurists to avoid having to address the fact that "equal protection" and "due process" might actually mean "equal protection" and "due process." I'm looking at the text I just quoted, and there's nothing in there that says "this shit doesn't apply if the government can come up with a good reason for why it shouldn't apply."

    But Scalia's hackery is more reprehensible. At least the "rational basis" hackery is something of a neutral legal tradition and occasionally works to protect people's due process/equal protection rights. Scalia can basically interpret the Constitution however he wants by imagining that he's in the head of some dead guy 150 years ago. This reasoning has its place, especially when there's some ambiguity in the wording of the document, but one can't directly contradict the plain meaning of the text by invoking the imagined opinions of the text's writers. That's a right that Scalia is claiming for himself here, and that's why he's a genuine problem on the Court.

    Speaking of hacks:

    Tuesday, September 21, 2010

    The Military's Precious Little Snowflakes

    There was a fascinatingly stupid article on FanHouse last week about Kiss Cams at baseball games - you know, the annoying mid-inning JumboTron stunt where ballpark operators show people they suspect to be couples on the big screen and expect them to kiss, which they do most of the time - and how gay people shouldn't be on them. His rationale wasn't that we should stigmatize gay relationships, just that he didn't want to have to deal with explaining same-sex relationships to his kid. Jon Bois over at SB Nation gives this article the epic beatdown it deserves, and I won't rehash it here except to cite a line towards the end:
    Anyway, I have this thing about spiders. They creep me out. When I have a kid, I'm going to make sure that my kid never learns that spiders exist until he or she is, say, twelve. I'm not sure exactly how I'm going to pull this off.
    The point being, of course, that gay people exist, seeing them is part of life in 21st-century America, and parents need to deal with it. In short, we can't infantilize our children by shielding them from things that might make us or them uncomfortable.

    Ironic, then, that I should read Bois' article on the same day that the Senate rejected a bid to end the military's inexcusable "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy that prevents gay and lesbian soldiers from serving openly in the military. Ironic because a Web-based sportswriter just demonstrated that he is more mature than 42* U.S. Senators.

    There are, of course, the hardcore bigots who will oppose allowing gays to go anywhere, and there's only one real response to them. But the majority of the Senators that voted against this bill aren't haters. They're nervous little nellies, eager to infantilize our troops because they, like our FanHouse friend, don't want to confront the uncomfortable-for-them reality that homosexuality exists.

    News flash: our troops aren't fragile little snowflakes who need to be protected from anything that might disturb them. Our troops are adults who are perfectly capable of doing their job and serving their country next to someone whose personal conduct meets with their disapproval. Teetotaler Baptists serve next to people who drink like fish. The pious serve next to those who curse God's name every day. If Bois' points against avoiding difficult topics make sense for our children, they absolutely make sense for people we're preparing to send into the most uncomfortable and disturbing environment imaginable: warfare.

    *43 senators voted against the bill, but Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), a supporter of the effort to repeal the policy, voted no for procedural reasons.

    Thursday, September 09, 2010

    L'shana tovah.

    May 5771 be your year.

    Wednesday, September 08, 2010

    A Nasty "Do While" Loop

    There is a cycle in politics. It goes something like this.

    1. People get really, REALLY upset over something, often at the urging of power-hungry politicians but often rightfully so.

    2. Politicians talk about the Urgent Need to Do Something about this Horrible Problem.

    3. Politicians find a symbolic scapegoat, and tell the people that they alone are responsible for Everything You're Worried About.

    4. After the thing politicians have fingered as being To Blame gets theirs, they congratulate themselves on a Job Well Done, since they've Struck a Blow against Evil.

    5. Three years later, people realize that the symbolic scapegoating didn't, actually, get rid of the problem, and may have in fact made it worse.

    6. Repeat.

    There are so many examples of this cycle it could fill books, but the one that jumps out at me most is the recent censorship-by-threat of Craigslist's "adult services" section. So let's break it down in terms of the cycle.

    People got - rightfully - upset about sex trafficking and exploitation that occur under the guise of prostitution. The solution to this problem, of course, is extremely complex, and may involve some counterintuitive measures (more on that later). But when politicians get talking about how we have to Do Something, it's easy to overlook sober analysis of facts and screw up royally.

    Enter Craigslist, our scapegoat of the day. They've played this role before, of course, so that makes them an easy target. Politicians took aim, as we can see with the letter above, blaming Craigslist for the exploitation and victimization taking place on their site. Even non-profits such as the normally good Polaris Project got into the act. Connecticut AG Richard Blumenthal, who is running for Chris Dodd's old Senate seat, congratulated himself on the results, calling it a "good first step."

    Of course, the fly in all this ointment is Step 5, where we come to the slower-than-necessary realization that all this grandstanding against Craigslist actually made enforcement of human trafficking laws more difficult. Anti-trafficking and violence activist Danah Boyd explains it all:
    It makes me scream when I think of how many resources have been used attempting to censor Craigslist instead of leveraging it as a space for effective law enforcement. During the height of the moral panic over sexual predators on MySpace, I had the fortune of spending a lot of time with a few FBI folks and talking to a whole lot of local law enforcement. I learned a scary reality about criminal activity online. Folks in law enforcement know about a lot more criminal activity than they have the time to pursue. Sure, they focus on the Big players, going after the massive collectors of child pornography who are most likely to be sex offenders than spending time on the small-time abusers. But it was the medium-time criminals that gnawed at them. They were desperate for more resources so that they could train more law enforcers, pursue more cases, and help more victims. The Internet had made it a lot easier for them to find criminals, but that didn’t make their jobs any easier because they were now aware of how many more victims they were unable to help. Most law enforcement in this area are really there because they want to help people and it kills them when they can’t help everyone.

    Boyd discusses the importance of visibility in fighting human trafficking, and that's something that I think a lot of politicians would just as soon avoid. If you increase the visibility of human trafficking, it does a lot of real-world good, because now law enforcement can find it and stop it a lot more easily. But that also lays bare to a lot of people the reality of human trafficking that's already there. But the emotional reaction to visibility is something along the lines of "GAAAAH GET RID OF IT!!!!" So politicians react by suppressing visibility - after all, that makes the problem appear to go away immediately. As a result, they successfully shut down an arena that could have been used by law enforcement to help trafficked and abused women in the sex trade. It's a sweeping-the-dust-under-the-rug solution, instead of the real solution Boyd proposes:
    Censoring Craigslist will do absolutely nothing to help those being victimized, but it will do a lot to help those profiting off of victimization. Censoring Craigslist will also create new jobs for pimps and other corrupt intermediaries, since it’ll temporarily make it a whole lot harder for individual scumbags to find clients. This will be particularly devastating for the low-end prostitutes who were using Craigslist to escape violent pimps. Keep in mind that occasionally getting beaten up by a scary john is often a whole lot more desirable for many than the regular physical, psychological, and economic abuse they receive from their pimps. So while it’ll make it temporarily harder for clients to get access to abusive services, nothing good will come out of it in the long run.

    If you want to end human trafficking, if you want to combat nonconsensual prostitution, if you care about the victims of the sex-power industry, don’t cheer Craigslist’s censorship. This did nothing to combat the cycle of abuse. What we desperately need are more resources for law enforcement to leverage the visibility of the Internet to go after the scumbags who abuse. What we desperately need are for sites like Craigslist to be encouraged to work with law enforcement and help create channels to actually help victims. What we need are innovative citizens who leverage new opportunities to devise new ways of countering abusive industries. We need to take this moment of visibility and embrace it, leverage it to create change, leverage it to help those who are victimized and lack the infrastructure to get help. What you see online should haunt you. But it should drive you to address the core problem by finding and helping victims, not looking for new ways to blindfold yourself. Please, I beg you, don’t close your eyes. We need you.
    I can't say it any better than that.

    There's a saying that talks about how emotion is the engine for politics, and rationality is the steering wheel. The political solution to this issue was all engine and no steering wheel, and now our fight against human trafficking is wrapped around a tree and needs a tow truck.

    The sad part of all this is that our political process was set up expressly to value rationality over emotionality in decision-making. The slowness of our legislative process and our justice system serve the purpose of allowing people to inspect their initial emotional response for its actual meaning, and act rationally to solve the problem that created that response. It appears, though, that we routinely elect people without the political will to act rationally. Which means, of course, that unless we listen to sober voices like Boyd's, a couple of years from now we'll be reading another story about how there's so much human trafficking online and we have to shut down so-and-so platform in order to stop it.

    Also read: Lori at Feministing's take.

    Wednesday, September 01, 2010

    OK, A Soccer Post

    When former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue was realigning the divisions in 2002 to accommodate the new team in Houston and to make the divisions make geographic sense (until that point, Atlanta was in the NFC West and Arizona in the NFC East), he made one decision that, from a geographical standpoint, was a little questionable. See, Dallas has no business being in the NFC East from a geographical standpoint. Look at a map - it's nowhere near Washington, Philadelphia, and New York. Carolina, located in Charlotte, would have been the logical choice here, and Dallas would have been moved to the new NFC South in its stead. So why didn't this happen?

    Well, could you imagine the size of the riots that Dallas and Washington fans would have staged if they had separated those two teams? I'm a lifelong Redskins fan, and the best part of being a Redskins fan is the two times a year we get to play our arch-rival Cowboys. The entire fan base goes nuts, players on both sides get pumped, and as a result, those two games are some of the most relentlessly entertaining sporting events you'll ever be a part of if you're a fan of one of the teams. If Dallas and Washington had been split up, they would have played each other about once every three years. Tagliabue would have been a moron if he had tried to pull that. So despite the geographical incongruity, Dallas remained in the East, and both fan bases got to continue their rivalry.

    Why do I bring this up? Because CONCACAF, the federation that manages World Cup qualifying for North America and the Caribbean, is about to do what Tagliabue was wise enough to avoid doing - break up its two biggest rivals by instituting a new qualifying format.

    CONCACAF is a unique region in qualifying for two reasons. One, it is dominated almost exclusively by two teams - the USA and Mexico - who have a fierce rivalry. Two, its final qualifying round was a single-group affair that placed six teams in a round-robin for three World Cup places. This meant that the US and Mexico got to face each other twice (home and away) each cycle. Which leads to pumped fan bases, players pushing themselves, and an atmosphere so special and intense that there's nothing like it almost anywhere. Read this Simmons column for an idea of how intense this rivalry is in Mexico.

    What CONCACAF wants to do is to split this final qualifying round up into two groups of four. Now everywhere else in the world, where qualifying is done by groups, the teams are seeded. Europe doesn't want Italy, France, and England all being in the same group with only one team advancing, so they separate their big powers out into different groups. There's no reason to believe CONCACAF wouldn't do the same.

    Which means Mexico and the US are all but guaranteed to be in different groups.

    Which means Mexico and the US have virtually no chance of playing each other during qualifying.

    Which really, really, really sucks for the fans.

    The CONCACAF qualifying process may have been quirky and idiosyncratic, but it was a barrel of fun for the fans. We got two games to showcase our hate against our biggest rival in an extremely meaningful game. Think Dallas-Washington in the NFC Championship - only multiply it by 10. The only place we'll get that kind of atmosphere now is in the Gold Cup, and that's only if both teams make the final of the first post-World Cup tournament. (You'll remember no one cared about the 2009 Gold Cup, since it didn't carry a berth to the Confederations Cup with it.) We didn't get that in 2007 - Panama took out Mexico in the semifinals.

    Now? We have to play a bunch of the second-tier teams, and then... that's it. No chance for glory in Azteca. No defending our home turf in Columbus. I'm sorry, but I just can't get that worked up about Costa Rica.

    What's more, rivalry games have a way of making both teams better. The effort and training that we put into big games against Mexico have been a huge boon to us as a soccer power - we've been forced to raise our game far beyond where just playing Costa Rica and Honduras could take us. That's not something you can replicate in the inevitable friendlies between the two teams.

    Is there hope? Of course. We could play Mexico in the finals of the Gold Cup next year. We could play friendlies, except add a trophy or something to make it a little more meaningful, and hope that that tradition catches on the way, say, Paul Bunyan's Axe caught on for Minnesota and Wisconsin college football fans. But it just won't be the same.

    Our soccer world just became a little bit darker, thanks to CONCACAF. Cheer us on to our rivals, indeed.

    A Little Subtle Anti-Semitism For Your Wednesday

    One of the most obnoxious habits adopted by the Christian right is the use of the term "Judeo-Christian values." It's a shout-out to the social unacceptability of Christian supremacism, at least with respect to the Jews. It's often obnoxiously linked to the blather about how the US is a "Christian nation," which by definition excludes us Jews - it's as if they're saying "it's okay, you can come too, as long as you hew to the imagined form of Jewish morals that we have laid out for you." The fact that Jewish morality and Christian morality are starkly different once you inspect them is unimportant to them - what's important is the veneer of tolerance. And occasionally, that veneer slips.

    Let's go to Hawaii, then, and check in on the culture-war shenanigans occurring in their race for Governor. Their current governor, the insanely popular Republican Linda Lingle, is term-limited. The lieutenant governor, Duke Aiona, and Democrat Mufi Hannemann are running to replace her. The head of the Republican GOP recently sent out an e-mail encouraging pastors to block Hannemann from campaigning in their churches. That's odd enough, but what's really revealing is this little tidbit:
    Aiona's campaign is "Christ's opportunity," and his election would give Hawaii the first "righteous leader" since Queen Liliuokalani, who died in 1917," Kaauwai wrote.

    That long string of "unrighteous leaders" would presumably include his own partisan Lingle. While she's nominally pro-choice, she supports a whole host of restrictions on abortion that are generally favored by pro-lifers, and since the illegality of abortion isn't going to come before a legislature anytime soon, she's functionally with the conservatives on that one. And Lingle recently vetoed a bill that would have given Hawaiian same-sex couples civil unions - not even marriage equality, mind you, but civil unions, a position so moderate that even the former governor of Utah supports it. You'd think that'd put her in the religious Right's good graces, yes? What, exactly, makes her an "unrighteous" leader?

    I'm sure you, dear astute readers, have figured out the punchline by now: Lingle is Jewish.

    It doesn't matter how much a Jew sides with conservative Christians on the issues. Jewish Republicans and conservatives will still be lumped in with the enemy when the Christian right folks talk amongst themselves. When it comes right down to it, they could give two shits about Jews. We're not "righteous," no matter how hard we try. So let's not be fooled. No matter how loudly they proclaim "Judeo-Christian" values, deep down they still don't like us. Folks like Eric Cantor and Norm Coleman would be wise to take note.

    Sunday, August 29, 2010

    In Which I Prove Glenn Beck Is Satan

    I have proof, ladies and gentlemen. (Dramatic pause, wiping tear from eye) Proof that head Tea Partier Glenn Beck is, in fact, the Devil Himself!

    "What proof could you possibly have," you ask? Well, check THIS out. Here are some important numbers:

    912, 828 - numbers pertaining to his most famous events, both rallies in Washington, D.C.
    46 - Beck's age
    12 - the number of letters in Glenn Lee Beck, his full name
    10 - the number of books Wikipedia says he has written, in part or in full
    1 - the number of divorces he's been through.

    And (912+828)*46/(12*10) - 1 = 666!

    Presumably, this means Beck will stop being Satan when he reaches his 47th birthday, since then this will add up to 679.5. But maybe that's what Satan Beck WANTS us to think.

    What? I was bored while Selah was napping. Sue me.

    Thursday, August 19, 2010

    "Feel" This

    Everything that can been written about the Park51 community center controversy has already been written, so I'll keep this short. I'm most interested not in the empty shouts of offense by the right - I've dealt with that in this space before and will not do so again. What's interesting to me is how otherwise reasonable people like Howard Dean could oppose the community center, as Greenwald notes. Greenwald received a letter from Dean in which he says the following:
    My argument is simple. This Center may be intended as a bridge or a healing gesture but it will not be perceived that way unless a dialogue with a real attempt to understand each other happens. That means the builders have to be willing to go beyond what is their right and be willing to talk about feelings whether the feelings are "justified" or not.
    And my response is this - why should we give a damn about someone's feelings if their feelings are wrong? Or as the more eloquent Greenwald puts it:
    The central question raised by this controversy is the same one raised by countless similar controversies throughout American history: whether the irrational fears and prejudices of the majority should be honored and validated or emphatically confronted.
    I described the bigotry of Park51's opponents as understandable in my previous column on the subject, but understandable bigotry is still bigotry and still wrong.

    It's time that we stopped worshipping at the altar of "feelings," as if the fact that someone feels something makes their point of view legitimate. I don't care what people feel - if their feelings are not backed up by rational observations and conclusions, they're meaningless. When the feeling in question is based on a premise that is patently untrue - in this case, the idea that Muslims, as a group, attacked the U.S. on 9/11 - I see no reason why I should respect those feelings. Mosque opponents are wrong, and they should get over it on their own damn time and not make the rest of the sane world bow to their almighty "feelings."

    What's truly odd is that conservatives are usually the ones making that argument. They're the ones usually saying, for example, that someone who "feels" racism is wrong because the statements in question are not intended as racist. (It's a misuse of the argument because the feeling in question is based on a real premise - that is, minorities are subjected to some pretty racist shit. And there are frequently some elements of ostensibly "non-racist" statements that have been used as racist statements in the past. So it's usually a lot more reasonable. But this is all beside the point, thus the parentheses.) Since when did conservatives start believing that people's feelings are sacrosanct and that we should all fall over backwards not to hurt anyone else's?

    Oh, that's right - when they can tell someone else to inconvenience themselves at the service of their own feelings.

    Truth is, feelings don't matter. The facts matter. We've been reversing this for too long.

    In other news:

    - The last combat troops pulled out of Iraq today. Not sure if that really changes a whole lot, but it's a milestone to be happy about.

    - Interesting church-state case out of the 10th Circuit today - memorial crosses along the side of the road are unconstitutional if erected by the government, in this case the Utah State Highway Patrol. I'm usually a die-hard separationist, but I'm not sure I agree with the court here. Seems to me like a memorial cross serves a legitimate secular purpose as required by the Lemon test - that purpose being memorializing a passed trooper. If there was a trooper who wasn't Christian who was memorialized in such a manner, those challenging the crosses might have a point though - at that point, the cross becomes primarily a religious symbol since it'd be a ridiculously inappropriate memorial.

    - In case you haven't heard, Pakistan is drowning. Here are some ways to help the victims. Though some Pakistanis aren't donating because the government sucks and is corrupt. Oh, and shame on the URJ for not having any links on its site. They did well for the Haiti disaster - why go silent now?Update: The URJ spokesperson sent me a nice e-mail today - they replied promptly - and noted that they weren't doing direct aid because they didn't have the resources to get directly involved in Pakistan. They are, however, collecting money for distribution to aid orgs that they trust. That's for the best - no sense in wasting money creating infrastructure when you could use someone else's existing infrastructure to spend that money helping people. It's more efficient that way.

    - There are so many reasons to love this TMBG appearance on Letterman from 1990. Is it how Letterman refers to their album as "The" Flood? Or how gloriously nerdy Flansburgh looks next to the relatively hip Linnell? Or... well, it's awesome either way.

    Wednesday, August 04, 2010

    The Constitution's There For A Reason

    OK, let me clear something up for y'all in the wake of the smackdown Judge Vaughn Walker dealt to California's Proposition 8 restricting gay marriage. Walker based his ruling on the obvious 14th Amendment grounds - the denial of marriage rights to gay couples was a violation of both equal protection and due process. The equal protection argument seems so blindingly obvious to me that I'm surprised a judge hasn't used that one yet against gay marriage bans (though it was used against the federal DOMA by a MA judge last month, though that ruling also - awesomely - referenced the conservatives' favorite amendment, Number 10). But hold this thought for a second.

    Across the country, Virginia AG/demagogue Ken Cuccinelli is clearing hurdles for his lawsuit against the individual mandate to purchase health care that was a centerpiece of the recent health care system reform bill passed back in March. I don't know about whether this case will succeed or not - my gut tells me it won't, mainly because the courts have had an insanely expansive view of the Commerce Clause over the last few decades - but the judge's ruling allowing the suit to proceed is consistent with the unique nature of a federal law requiring individuals to participate in interstate commerce.

    The point I'm trying to make is this: critics of both rulings, while hailing from opposite political poles, will make essentially the same argument. You shouldn't overturn legislative acts, they'll say. A majority of citizens or their duly elected representatives voted for it, they'll say. They'll whine about activist judges and say runaway courts are trying to ruin America.

    And they'll all be wrong.

    See, it doesn't matter if 52% of a state's citizens voted for a law. It doesn't matter if 221 Representatives and 56 Senators approved it. It doesn't matter how well it polls or how much good it does. If it violates the Constitution, it is a judge's solemn duty to invalidate the law. And this applies equally to the gay marriage bans, the federal DOMA, and the individual health care mandate.

    Whining about "activist judges" ignores one important principle - we don't live in a pure democracy. We live in a constitutional democracy, and in a constitutional democracy the majority doesn't always get its way. Those words in that constitution have to mean something. It doesn't matter how popular censorship is, say: the Constitution says you can't do it. It doesn't matter how popular gay marriage bans are, and it doesn't matter how much good can be done by an individual health care mandate. If it's unconstitutional, you can't do it.

    And guess what? Judges are better positioned to make those calls than we are. That's why we have a system that gives knowledgeable, sharp legal minds the power to compare laws to the Constitution. And if we disagree with the results of a ruling - whether it's the gay marriage ruling, the health care ruling, Citizens United, whatever - we can't be so quick to dismiss it as illegitimate. Judicial review - unfriendly folks call it "activism" - is a well-respected and perfectly legitimate power granted to judges. Rather, let's debate these rulings on the grounds they ought to be debated on - is the judge's interpretation of the Constitution correct?

    In the case of gay marriage, I think the judge is correct. You're free to disagree in the comments. But if anyone whines about "activist judges," or thinks that the outcome is less legitimate because it came from a judge instead of a vote, I'm ignoring them and so should you.

    Monday, July 26, 2010

    Immune Me, Please

    One of the best things about America is that absolutely anybody - and I mean anybody - can run for office. Including this dude. Hot Air posted a video of this guy's promo clip which sounds like someone fed a TelePrompTer word salad. But the website is even more awesome, for gems like:
    Using the Civil Right Act of 1966 for the first time in history to find out two things:

    1. why Democracy invaded the U.S. State on July 16 1866

    2stop Constitutional Right violations in our state at all cost I will tell you all this
    I would like to update the monitory car insurance to match the federal insurance act where they say if you do not know the name and address of the person who will get the check when you pay you money to your agent it is gaming and we can not gamble in Tenn, right now we are gaming

    There's only one thing to say after reading this website... God bless America.

    Wait For It... Wait For It...

    I've been in Arkansas for the weekend, so I've been in kind of a news bubble. Instead of doing the work to find out what's actually going on, I figured I'd just barf up some stuff on Shirley Sherrod and call it a post.

    I'm of two minds about this whole thing. Part of me wants to blame this whole thing on Breitbart and his fact-free smear on a low-level USDA employee, but that feels strangely insufficient. Because I also feel like this whole incident is mainly the fault of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and the Obama administration lackeys who took Breitbart at his word and fired her.

    And you know what? The more I think about it, the less I blame Breitbart. After all, why should we blame him? Because he's a sensationalist with an agenda? I hate to tell you this, you innocent reader you, but that's part of a proud journalistic tradition going back to Pulitzer and Hearst. And it's continued today not just by Breitbart but by Olbermann and O'Reilly, Hannity and Maddow. Should we blame him because he got the facts wrong? Well, even the best journalists do that - 30 years of faithful news reporting didn't prevent Dan Rather from botching a report on George W. Bush's national guard service. Viewed in isolation, this incident is little different from that one from a journalistic perspective.

    So what's the problem with Breitbart? Two things, both related:

    1) He's really, really, really bad at his job.

    2) Decision-makers and news consumers give him far more trust than he deserves.

    See, I have no problem with journalism that has an agenda. That's frequently the best kind of reporting, because it's not constrained by some imagined duty to be "even-handed." But dammit, if you're gonna be a sensationalist with an agenda, at least get your facts straight! Breitbart is now 0 for 2 on his big stories. The ACORN videos he posted have been demonstrated to be falsified by everyone from the GAO to the CA attorney general's office, and the Sherrod video was demonstrated - within hours - to be edited to give a false impression. The thing is, a talented agenda journalist would never have stooped to that level. There were plenty of skeletons in ACORN's closet that begged to be excavated, especially regarding their inner financial dealings. You didn't need the frat party pimps-'n'-hoes routine to do a good hatchet job on them. And if you're trying to make the point that the NAACP hates white people, there's gotta be a better way to do it than to smear a low-level functionary, right?

    That's what differentiates Breitbart from the people I listed earlier. They at least understand how to present existing facts in such a way that it tells the story the journalist wants to tell. Breitbart's so damn lazy that he just makes up his own facts. Which leads me to the really dangerous part, which is #2.

    Folks, Breitbart is what he is. He's not going to change. So why should anyone give him more credit than they give other sources? In this Sherrod incident, the point isn't that Breitbart falsely edited a video. He's gonna do that. The point is that otherwise respectable journalists fell all over themselves reporting this story, and otherwise respectable leaders fell all over themselves reacting to it, without bothering to consider the source of the story and giving it the double-checking it deserves. Fortunately for us, some enterprising journalists remembered the ACORN debacle and stopped the story before it got too out of hand, but by then the damage was done.

    Which is why the biggest blame has to fall on the NAACP and Vilsack for their reactions to this whole thing. Expecting Breitbart to be honest and competent is foolish. Expecting Fox News to not run with something that makes liberals look bad is also foolish. That's why the best thing to do when faced with a story as sensational as the Sherrod story is to wait on it. Withhold judgment until the story has played itself out. Had the NAACP waited twelve hours to make its statement, this whole thing wouldn't have happened.

    So the next time Breitbart says something, we should all just take a deep breath, digest the whole thing, search for context, and keep an eye out for double-checking to come in from the other side - or do it ourselves, if we have the resources. And really, the same should go for any news reports, whether they're from an incompetent like Breitbart, a respected agenda journalist like Maddow or O'Reilly, or a mainstream source like the Washington Post. (Did we learn nothing from the "Gee Dead" incident, people?)

    Good journalism starts a conversation. And who makes a decision on an issue when the conversation on it is just starting?

    Couldn't find the Blues Traveler song I wanted to post, so here's an awesome live version of my favorite song of theirs.