Tuesday, June 29, 2010

More Supreme Court Hackery

The Supreme Court, in a 6-3 decision, recently decided to decimate the First Amendment in order to give a big fat present to the terror fearmongers. The case in question was whether the government's "material support" law, which forbids Americans from giving money, "training," or "expert advice and assistance" to organizations that are deemed to be "terrorist organizations" by the federal government, is Constitutional. Stevens joined the Court's right-wingers in saying they were - Breyer dissented, joined by Ginsburg and Sotomayor. The case is Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project.

To his credit, Roberts' opinion does say that advocating for said groups was Constitutionally protected, but that the law doesn't forbid that. Even if we take him at his word, though, the decision is still odious. The main reason, of course, is that the decision to designate some group as a "terrorist group" has little to no check on it. The Law.com article I linked claims that the Tamil Tigers and the Kurdistan Workers' Party were designated as terrorist groups "by Madeleine Albright," who - it must be noted - was not elected by anyone. I don't know whether representatives of the Tigers or the KKP were allowed to challenge such a designation, but such an extralegal process doesn't seem like it has an appeals process. And keep in mind that the abuse of such a list is not far-fetched; the African National Congress (the party of Nelson Mandela and current ruling party in South Africa) was up until very recently on the list. Which would mean that, had the ANC not been removed from the list in 2008, the US men's soccer team could have been arrested for participating in the World Cup (which aids the South African government).

Absurd, right? But even if we trust the State Department to choose the right organizations to list as "terrorist groups," and even if we think providing aid to their violent activities is wrong, we still have a problem, and the problem is this - most terrorist groups aren't solely violent. Many, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, have significant humanitarian components that operate separately from their blow-shit-up components. The law, and the ruling upholding the law, hinges on the idea that aiding the legal activities of these organizations is also to aid their illegal, vile activities.

You'll recognize in here the same conservative argument about abortion funding that came up during the health care debate. Opponents of abortion criticized federal subsidies for health insurance on the grounds that giving a woman a subsidy for non-abortion-inclusive health coverage and allowing her to buy her own abortion coverage separately would be essentially the same as giving a direct subsidy for abortion coverage. The idea is that aid is fungible - you give money but you can't control where it goes. Aid to one part of an organization frees up money for use in another.

And here's where I call "hack" on the Court's conservatives (or at least three of them), because they ruled the exact opposite in the 1997 case Agostini v. Felton. Agostini allowed government employees to teach in religious schools as long as they were involved solely in secular instruction. (The opinion is here). Agostini is also generally read to approve funding for religious organizations that use the money for non-religious, secular purposes. And that's where the hackery comes in - according to Scalia, Thomas, and Kennedy, aid is not fungible when it is going to fund part of a religious organization, but it is fungible when it is going to fund part of a terrorist organization. And if they truly believe what they ruled in Agostini, they would have to allow funding and assistance to the humanitarian portions of a terrorist organization, because that aid isn't going toward illegal activity.

The only way to square that circle is to determine that "material support" isn't constitutionally protected speech or free association, and so government can put whatever restrictions it wants on it. But here, again, the conservatives have undermined themselves rather recently. The Citizens United decision, among other things, upheld the idea that monetary donations are protected under the First Amendment free speech clause, and on the winning side of that decision were Scalia, Thomas, and Kennedy (along with Roberts and Alito, who did not participate in Agostini and so escape the "hack" label for now).

So when Jeff Sessions rants about "judges who use their power to redefine the meaning of the words of our Constitution and laws in ways that, not surprisingly, have the result of advancing the judge’s preferred social policies for the country," it's fair to ask who he's really describing here.

One final Supreme Court note - the Court issued a decision in the Christian Legal Society v. Hastings case, where a student group ran afoul of a public university's non-discrimination policy and was thus denied funding. They themselves sued the university on the grounds that they were being discriminated against on the basis of a religion. An unsuprising 5-4 majority ruled that the group was not owed funding and recognition by the university (though clearly they could continue to exist as a group). I discussed this case briefly in a previous post and sided with the student group; it's a complex, difficult case, though, and I'm not too upset about the decision going one way or the other.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Get Rid Of Slimy huckabeeS

When I made the assertion that opposition to gay marriage comes from people saying "eww, icky," I got a lot of opposition from Matt. Well, Matt, here's well-known gay marriage opponent Mike Huckabee basically saying his opposition to gay marriage is because it's icky.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

World Cup Time!

The World Cup starts tomorrow, and with that I figured I'd put in my two cents worth as to who's going to get out of their groups and who's going to win. I'll get back to politics later.

Group A: South Africa, France, Mexico, Uruguay

Flip a coin. Seriously, any one of these teams could advance or crash and burn. South Africa isn't good, but they're about where we were in 1994 when we hosted the Cup - and we advanced. They have a true world-class star in Everton's Steven Pienaar and, oh yeah, home field advantage. They won't be driven nuts by those beehive-sounding vuvuzelas at least. Thierry Henry, er, handed France their qualification, but they still have a pretty talented team (and a crazy coach who uses astrology to choose his team. You think I'm kidding). Uruguay's an odd team - Nate Silver ranks them ninth while FIFA puts them at 16th. Diego Forlan can score, and they have a solid defense. Mexico's fun to watch, and fun to hate, and also kinda young (Cuauhtemoc Blanco notwithstanding). They had some hiccups in qualifying but went on a tear towards the end. I'll pick Uruguay and South Africa for the hell of it, but I really have no idea.

Group B: Argentina, Greece, Nigeria, South Korea

I don't think the madness of Maradona is enough to keep a completely loaded Argentina team from reaching the knockout stages, especially against this motley group of contenders, so they're in. As far as the others are concerned? You can never count out Greece, but I don't think you're getting out of this group unless you score some goals and Greece just doesn't like doing that. South Korea is Greece's polar opposite - 10 men in front of the ball? - but you have to play defense too and they're just too vulnerable on the counter. So that leaves gloriously inconsistent Nigeria as my second choice.

Group C: England, USA, Slovenia, Algeria

You're not going to find a group more clear-cut than this one. England and USA both have legitimate teams, while Slovenia and Algeria are both deeply flawed. That having been said, both the US and England have histories of crapping the bed when it matters most, so if one of them goes wonky Slovenia could make some waves. But I'll be safe and pick the obvious advancers here: USA and England.

Group D: Germany, Australia, Ghana, Serbia

Ah, another flip-a-coin group. Serbia's got a hell of a back line, but I have no idea who's going to be scoring the goals. Ghana just lost Michael Essien, which is a huge loss for them and puts a giant hole in their midfield. The Socceroos don't have a lot of scoring threats either outside of Tim Cahill, so they'll need to defend well - and the Americans just tore huge holes in their defense in a friendly. So that leaves a questionable but talented Germany team as the likely leader, but who goes after? I'll go with the surprise here: Australia gets just enough from Cahill to advance from an offensively challenged group.

Group E: Cameroon, Denmark, Netherlands, Japan

Even without Arjen Robben, the Dutch have enough firepower to run roughshod over this group. Remember, they don't usually crap out until the knockout stages. By then the mutual loathing between Wesley Sneijder and Robin van Persie will boil over, and if there's any karma in the world leg-breaking fucker Nigel de Jong will be laid up in a Johannesburg hospital. While I shouldn't count out Nicklas Bendtner and the Danes, I think the tear Samuel Eto'o has been on the last few years will give Cameroon just enough to advance. (Don't discount Alexander Song's contribution either.) I doubt Japan will do much here.

Group F: Italy, Paraguay, New Zealand, Slovakia

I would have picked the creaking, offense-challenged Italian grass-diving squad to lose in a first-round upset if I could find a team in their group that could beat them. Sadly, they're up against offense-challenged Paraguay, the weakest team in the tournament in New Zealand (who I half expect to say "fuck it" halfway through Match 2 and pick up the ball and start playing rugby), and the half of the former Czechoslovakia that no one knows anything about. Paraguay performed well enough in South American qualifying to make me a believer, but look for a surprise showing from Slovakia who qualified well in Europe.

Group G: Brazil, Ivory Coast, Portugal, North Korea

Poor North Korea. Ok, no, not really. But you really do have to wonder how their national media are gonna spin getting stuck with teams ranked first (Brazil), seventh (Portugal), and 14th (Cote d'Ivoire), and likely getting their asses kicked in all three matches. Brazil doesn't play the joga bonito anymore, opting for a rough counterattacking style, but they're still really good and have enough going forward between Kaka and Luis Fabiano to beat anyone. Portugal and Ivory Coast are both dealing with injuries - Portugal to midfielder Nani, Ivory Coast to striker and national savior Didier Drogba. Drogba's going to try to be a badass and come back from his injury in time to play, so I'll pick Ivory Coast in a surprise over Portugal. If Drogba doesn't come back - or comes back and is ineffective - forget I wrote this.

Group H: Spain, Chile, Honduras, Switzerland

This group is pretty clear cut. Barcelona Plus Fernando Torres Spain is too stacked not to win this group - soon-to-be-former Arsenal superstar Cesc Fabregas doesn't even start, that's how stacked Spain is. Zonal Marking tabs Chile as the most tactically interesting team here, and that's enough for me. Switzerland and Honduras both lost key players to injury - Frei for the Swiss, Palacios and Costly for the Catrachos - and I just don't see enough depth behind them to beat out the Chileans for that second spot.

So that's all I got. I'll be back after group play to predict a winner.

Just for fun, an oldie but goodie:

BP Spills Coffee

Here's a hilarious video about what happens when BP spills coffee. Vanderbilt people will recognize former Tonguencheek/Patron Saints member Zhubin Parang about halfway through.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Mosque of Amontillado

Is there any reason for anyone to oppose the proposed Islamic center in downtown Manhattan besides naked bigotry?

The shenanigans over the mural in Prescott, AZ have gotten all of the bigotry headlines, perhaps because it's so obvious as to be just painful. But I think the business going on in New York right now is more important and more disturbing.

Look at these protests again. They're occurring not in some backwater but in the most cosmopolitan city in America. It's not like New Yorkers have never seen a Muslim before. They probably pass hundreds of Muslims on the way to work every day. And yet, here are some of the things people say against this project:
I don't think that they would build a German cultural center right near Auschwitz. Just because you're looking at what happened to the people that died there. That's all that should be focused on.
How is this not bigotry? This buffoon is basically blaming all Muslims for what happened on 9/11 - it's stereotyping and hatred of the outsider at its very worst.

Claiming that a mosque shouldn't be built close to the site of the 9/11 attacks is bigotry, pure and simple. You're taking the responsibility for the attack off the 20 or so dumbshits who hijacked those planes and putting it on all Muslims, and that's just not right.


That having been said, I want to add this. Being a bigot doesn't necessarily make you a bad person - just a flawed one. And we're all flawed. We may not recognize what we feel as bigotry even when it is. The best we can do is recognize that implicit hatred for an outsider group is wrong and rectify it once that feeling is identified within us. The sort of bigotry on display here doesn't remind me of the Klan or the Aryan Nations or something - rather, it reminds me of Bob Hoskins' character in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? A cartoon killed his brother, so he misguidedly directs his rage at all cartoons. But "cartoons" didn't kill his brother, a single cartoon did. He's not a bad person (clearly) but he is a bigot. And that's okay - we don't hate or even dislike Eddie Valiant, we just wish he didn't hate cartoons so much because it's clearly irrational. So it is with these New Yorkers who oppose this mosque. We don't dislike these guys - we just wish they didn't hate Muslims so much. "Muslims" in general didn't blow up the WTC - 20 idiot Muslims did.

And that's perhaps what makes this story more important than the hateful bigotry on display in Prescott. While we have trouble identifying with racists like Steve Blair, the New Yorker protestors display the kind of bigotry we could easily imagine falling into ourselves under the right circumstances. We may never turn into Steve Blair, but tragedy and a healthy dose of very human irrationality could easily turn us into the people protesting this mosque. Throw in a group of people that exists outside the mainstream and makes an easy target, and presto. We need to discuss events like the mosque protests - and call them out for what they are - because we know we're susceptible to the same urges. The only thing preventing us from becoming bigots ourselves is consistently telling ourselves that such bigotry is wrong.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Glad You Could Join Us

I haven't posted on the Gaza flotilla mess yet because I'm kind of still processing it. There are so many different competing descriptions of what happened that I needed some time to settle on a narrative that I think makes sense. So here's my thoughts.

- There weren't weapons or rockets or anything of the sort on those boats. Those were aid boats. After all, don't you think Israel would have crowed about it to high heaven if there had been terrorist supplies on board? Israel's silence as to what they found on those vessels speaks volumes. Those were aid boats, Israel knows they screwed up in attacking them, and now they're trying some CYA maneuvers that aren't working anywhere outside here.

- As such, the video showing people on board the ships attacking Israeli commandos has to be taken with a grain of salt. This kinda reminds me of a Cory Maye-type situation here. If you had a bunch of military-looking people descending on you and a piece of rubber hose happened to be nearby, don't you just start hacking away?

- That having been said, the justified attacks on Israel's conduct in the raid have been laced with a ton of overwrought language. And yes, it reeks of anti-Semitism (ahem, Helen Thomas). Michael Chabon has the best response yet, pointing out that Israel, like every other nation, acts stupidly and irresponsibly from time to time, so it's stupid to hold them to a higher standard. I think this misses a little - if Israel wishes to be considered a Jewish state, it should conduct itself with Jewish morality, which most certainly doesn't include treating others as second-class citizens no matter what. But it also points out a lot of the hypocrisy at work here. Gazans aren't poor pathetic blameless victims. Turkey pisses and moans, but it's not like Turkey doesn't have a skeleton or two in its closet. So while we criticize Israel, let's all be careful not to try to claim moral superiority for ourselves or our nations. Hell, I'm writing this on a computer made from materials that fund child rape in the Congo and I'm going to call myself morally superior to Bibi Netanyahu? Come on. We can criticize one another's unjust actions as equals, without the tortured "I'm-better-than-you" posturing.

This event, more than anything, is actually a hopeful signal - perhaps the Palestinian independence movement has finally decided to join us here in the modern era. In the modern era, you don't win a fight against an extremely powerful enemy by using violence, even if you have legitimate gripes (and the Palestinians certainly do). All violence does is piss the other guy off and harden his resolve. It's like punching a professional cage fighter in the stomach - sure, it feels good, but the whole thing is just gonna end with your head getting stomped on.

(A blogger from the Economist disagrees, but I don't think he makes his point particularly well. If anything, he's saying that "just enough" violence is effective, but I don't think so. The use of the makeshift weaponry just gave Israel and its blind defenders in America a chance to write the protest off as the same-old-same-old work of terrorists - and strategically speaking, the posturing of the rest of the world is all but meaningless if America bunkers in with the Israelis. The decision of the passengers to pick up weapons was the lone blemish on an otherwise brilliantly conceived confrontation. They're new at this - they'll learn.)

No, battles such as the one the Palestinians are fighting are won by non-violent direct action. Some right-wing moron said that the flotilla was just an attempt to provoke an Israeli response. To that I say - no shit, Sherlock. Of course that's what the flotilla was trying to do! The whole point of non-violent direct action is to make the other guy look bad by forcing the world to see the basic inhumanity of their actions. That's done by provoking such actions in an organized and predictable fashion. The flotilla people knew they would be boarded and probably attacked by the Israelis in the same way that voting rights marchers knew that Bull Connor would turn the fire hoses on them.

The positive PR that Palestinian activists have received from this single incident has dwarfed any positive press they've gotten in the West since 1967 - combined. If they get rid of Hamas' dippy, violent charter and dedicate themselves to peaceful non-violent confrontation, they can shine a light on a lot of other injustices that they face because of their statelessness. If the flotilla crisis is a harbinger of a new Palestinian strategy of non-violence, then that is a wonderful development indeed.

One note, though. I really hope the Palestinians don't get impatient and turn back towards violence again. They have to realize they've been idiots for the past 43 years - it's going to take some time before the rest of the world trusts that they've really given up the execrable "blow shit up" strategy and starts to listen to them.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Citibank Mullahs

Iran's mullahs are cracking down on women's clothes again. They've been arresting women for wearing their veils wrong, having too short a skirt, being too tan, or really whatever goes against their own form of "modesty." What's striking to me is their reason for doing so (besides the mistaken* notion that such dress is non-Islamic):
Iranian women are obliged by law to cover their hair and wear long coats in public. The Islamic veil protects the purity of women, preventing men from viewing them as sex symbols, clerics here say.
So the Iranian government purportedly believes that Iranian men are so horrible that even seeing a woman's hair will drive them mad with sexual desire. How odd.

Well, I'm glad we enlightened Westerners don't think the same way...
Debrahlee Lorenzana is filing a lawsuit against Citibank because they fired her, she says, for the strangest reason: she's too hot.

Her bosses told her that "as a result of the shape of her figure, such clothes were purportedly 'too distracting' for her male colleagues and supervisors to bear," she says.

Let's step back and appreciate the symmetry here. Both Iran and Citibank are enforcing their modesty codes by telling women that they have to dress modestly because men can't control their own urges. The Citibank employee's lawyer summarizes:
"It's like saying that we can't think anymore 'cause our penises are standing up—and we cannot think about you except in a sexual manner—and we can't look at you without wanting to have sexual intercourse with you. And it's up to you, gorgeous woman, to lessen your appeal so that we can focus!"
Notice how women never suffer from this supposed lack of control, even though in a corporate environment they may be surrounded by attractive men in well-tailored suits.

The logic is so backwards it barely warrants a rebuttal. If I (a straight dude) am an employee, it's my responsibility to get my job done, whether the person sitting next to me is a middle-aged balding guy or Keri Russell wearing a string bikini. If I don't get my job done it's my responsibility, not Keri Russell's for being so damn hot.

You want more? Rape apologists use the same damn excuses, saying that some women are raped because of the way they're dressed. I don't know, but I've never been to a beach where there are a lot of scantily clad women and felt the urge to just go around raping people. I might be wrong though.

Look, the "men can't control themselves" line may seem like a dig at men, but it's really an excuse to control women's actions and force them to meet with powerful men's expectations. So can we put this myth to bed already? Most people - men and women - enjoy provoking sexual desire, myself included. (Not that I'm any good at it. That reminds me, I need a haircut. And a new suit.) If we're overtaken by that desire, it's our fault, not the hottie's.

*I say "mistaken" because the dress code honored by most Muslims appears nowhere in the Qu'ran. The Qu'ran merely asks women to dress modestly and cover their breasts. The hijab and burqa are mentioned nowhere.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Richard Cohen Didn't Think This One Through

Richard Cohen from the Washington Post may have just set a new record for wackiness:
This is a good news, bad news column. The good news is that crime is again down across the nation -- in big cities, small cities, flourishing cities and cities that are not for the timid. Surprisingly, this has happened in the teeth of the Great Recession, meaning that those disposed to attribute criminality to poverty -- my view at one time -- have some strenuous rethinking to do. It could be, as conservatives have insisted all along, that crime is committed by criminals. For liberals, this is bad news indeed.
Is Cohen seriously doubting that poverty and criminality are linked? No one's saying it's the only factor, sure, but it's definitely a factor. The correlation between the two has been pretty well documented.

But anyway, let's see what Cohen's calling "bad news for liberals" here:
Probably the most surprising numbers come from Phoenix, which thought of itself as sinking in a sea of supposedly immoral and rapacious immigrants, all of them illegal and all waiting for nightfall and the chance for a nifty burglary or home invasion. If so, the crime reporting system has virtually collapsed. To the surprise no doubt of local TV news anchors, violent crime was down almost 17 percent. Back at 11.
Wait, so absolute incontrovertible proof that illegal immigrants don't bring crime with them is somehow bad news for liberals? Hell, this is such bad news I'm almost dancing a freaking jig right now. Most of the people ranting about how scary illegal immigration is are conservatives, and most of them whine about crime and mayhem illegals cause. If the numbers prove otherwise, it kind of destroys the conservative argument, doesn't it? And that's bad for liberals?

OK, so let's move on:
Whatever the reasons, it now seems fairly clear that something akin to culture and not economics is the root cause of crime. By and large everyday people do not go into a life of crime because they have been laid off or their home is worth less than their mortgage. They do something else, but whatever it is, it does not generally entail packing heat. Once this becomes an accepted truth, criminals will lose what status they still retain as victims.
First off, no one - not even those horrible, evil liberals Cohen's ranting about* - considers criminals to be "victims." Criminality as a whole may be linked with socioeconomic conditions, but individual criminals themselves? I think I speak for most liberals when I say "fuck 'em."

But let's think a little more deeply about what Cohen's saying here: culture causes criminality. Or to put it as he does at the end of his column:
But the latest crime statistics strongly suggest that bad times do not necessarily make bad people. Bad character does.
Let's accept for a moment that character and moral upbringing is at least a part of what causes people to become criminals. Crime rates are decreasing, though, right? That must mean our "culture" is becoming more moral! Our collective "character" must be getting stronger. And isn't it conservatives who are always worried about how gay people and secularity and evolution and female sexuality yadda yadda yadda are destroying America's moral values? The right-wing AFA's statement on their website, for example, rants about "the increasing ungodliness and depravity assaulting our nation." Some increasing depravity - violent crime went down!

Let's be clear. If Cohen's right - that the decline in crime rates in a recession is indicative of a link between crime and moral character - then that means our nation's increasing secularity and increasing tolerance of homosexuality are certainly not causing a decline in our moral character, and may in fact be improving it. Declining crime rates over the past 20 years are proof that things such as violent video games, gangsta rap and explicit music, increased access to pornography via the Internet, and other things conservatives love to hate are not all that bad and, in fact, might be good. Cohen's conjecture implies that the conservatives who are always concerned about moral decline are wrong (and that Munroe's Law is right). And Cohen thinks this is bad news for liberals! It's bad news for the get-off-my-lawn social conservatives (and maybe Dexter Holland), if anything.

*And considers himself one of, as well.