Saturday, July 24, 2010

Bradley Manning: The Questions Far Outnumber the Answers

In this iteration of my blogging life, I have posted 25 essays; over on the Curmudgeon Central Facebook page, I’ve posted 70 links (17 of them to this blog). In that time, no one really disagreed (publicly) with me except around the edges. I take this as more of a bad thing than a good one. My purpose in writing these pieces isn’t to be affirmed (although that’s nice, and I thank those of you who have offered your approbation): it’s to engage in a conversation about what I perceive to be significant issues of our day.

So I was actually pleased when one reader, a friend and former student, took issue with me yesterday over a post to the Facebook page. I had linked this article on the website of an organization called Courage to Resist. The piece concerns Pvt. Bradley Manning, who is apparently now being held more or less in isolation, charged with having turned over to WikiLeaks the now-notorious video subsequently titled “Collateral Murder.” My commentary on the video itself can be found here.

Anyway, this particular reader wrote, reasonably enough, that “When you sign with the military; you agree to the uniform code. When you sign to that, you have to align with all military actions. Justified or not…. that kind of behavior will infect the code.” He also took issue (as do I) with Courage to Resist’s slogan, “Support the troops who refuse to fight.” It is a little disingenuous to voluntarily join the armed forces and then come to a crisis of conscience over the fact that armies kill people. On the other hand, to suggest that many enlistees are provided with misleading if not outright fabricated information about what their military lives and duties will be (nothing in writing, of course) is merely to acknowledge reality. We could go around and around on this for days, and it’s really just a side issue. So let’s move on.

Be it noted, then, that all I did was post the link and note Pvt. Manning’s arrest, his apparent inability to access civilian counsel, and the (as far as I’m concerned) indisputable fact that the center-piece crime with which he is charged is an act of whistle-blowing. I made then, and make now, no determination of whether Pvt. Manning’s alleged actions were—or ought to be—legal or even ethical. Importantly, however, I do insist that “legal” and “ethical” are separate categories; in cases like this one, especially, it is possible to be the latter without being the former.

Many readers of this blog will know that this spring I taught a topics course on the American theatre and the Vietnam War. One of the texts we used was The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, Daniel Berrigan’s adaptation of actual court transcripts in one of the most seminal anti-war protests of the Vietnam era. The eponymous nine protesters destroyed several boxes of draft records with homemade napalm, then stood in a circle, singing, calmly waiting for the police to arrive. They offered nothing like a traditional defense in court, merely pointing out the potential conflicts of interest of an obviously stacked jury and seizing every opportunity to make the case about the war instead of about their own actions. They were convicted, of course—there could be no doubt about their guilt in legal terms—but they became heroes to millions of people in the process.

Does Pvt. Manning belong in that same category? Frankly, it’s very hard to say. There are far more questions than answers. If the reporting of the Washington Post’s Ellen Nakashima is to be believed, Pvt. Manning was, and probably still is, a very messed-up young man. Nakashima's lead paragraph describes a 22-year-old soldier who “had just gone through a breakup. He had been demoted a rank in the Army after striking a fellow soldier. He felt he had no future, and yet he thought that by sharing classified information about his government's foreign policy, he might ‘actually change something.’” If that’s an accurate description, his actions were more desperate than heroic, more Scooter Libby outing Valerie Plame than Daniel Ellsberg (to whom some have compared Manning) releasing the Pentagon Papers.

But there is much in this story that just doesn’t make sense, at least yet. The best reporting I’ve seen on the issue is the lengthy and detailed essay by Glenn Greenwald at Greenwald’s analysis is filtered through a reliably progressive lens, to be sure, but he’s clearly done the work: his documentation is, by contemporary journalistic standards, a thing to behold.

What seems clear is that Pvt. Manning admitted to (“took credit for”? “claimed responsibility for”?) not only the release of the 2007 video, but of another similar video from Afghanistan and of some 260,000 diplomatic cables. The exact nature of the charges against him is not entirely clear, at least to me, but surely they’re linked to some broadly-construed concept of “national security,” a descriptor so flexible in application that it means anything from “the continued existence of the republic is legitimately at risk” to “this has the potential to be mildly embarrassing to someone with some clout.” See, for example, the brouhaha over the release of information regarding warrantless wiretaps in the Bush administration: to hear the Dick Cheneys of the world tell it, the threat to the American citizenry wasn’t that our government was eavesdropping on our private conversations without as much as probable cause, it was that we knew they were doing it.

Greenwald identifies a number of, shall we say, anomalies in the story as presented to us:
Why would a 22-year-old Private in Iraq have unfettered access to 250,000 pages of diplomatic cables so sensitive that they “could do serious damage to national security?” Why would he contact a total stranger, whom he randomly found from a Twitter search, in order to “quickly” confess to acts that he knew could send him to prison for a very long time, perhaps his whole life? And why would he choose to confess over the Internet, in an unsecured, international AOL IM chat, given the obvious ease with which that could be preserved, intercepted or otherwise surveilled? These are the actions of someone either unbelievably reckless or actually eager to be caught.

In fact, the first question that comes to my mind isn’t why Manning did this, but if he did. Perhaps it is plausible that he had access to the materials he describes. Perhaps he really did find a somewhat less than reputable pseudo-journalist via Twitter and offer him his confession—in a fit of remorse? or of braggadocio? Perhaps Adrian Lamo, the “journalist” in question, really didn’t offer him confidentiality and really did fear for the safety of American citizens when he went scurrying off to nark on Pvt. Manning. But it strikes me as equally plausible that Manning had nothing to do with the release of the video(s), that the cables were never released at all, and that the claims of responsibility are more a cry for help than either a baring of the soul or an assertion of existential heroism. Voluntary false confessions are a fact of judicial life, and while I’m not a psychologist, it strikes me that Manning’s mental and emotional profile would bear considerable resemblance to those of people who do falsely confess.

Given the Army’s secrecy, we’re unlikely to find out much more about this case. All of which means that we don’t know if Pvt. Manning in fact did what he claims to have done, and, if he did, what his motives were either in the commission or in the confession. With so many facts unresolved, our own prejudices and predilections will inevitably fill the void. Pvt. Manning will therefore likely be, in different people’s eyes, a hero, a traitor, a victim, or just a pitiable young man, possibly forever. Who knows? Maybe one of those descriptions might even be accurate.

The Pentagon's Unspeakable Priorities

Two days, two stories about the Pentagon and sexuality. One of them is about perverts. The other one is about gay people.

Yesterday, Lt. Dan Choi, who majored in Arabic and environmental engineering at West Point and served as an infantry officer in Iraq (gee, we wouldn’t have any use in the military for credentials like that, would we?) was officially discharged under the provisions of the inane “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy” that President Clinton was chicken-shit enough to sign into law in 1993, and which President Obama has, with nearly as much moral cowardice, allowed to not only stay on the books, but be enforced. (For the record, the catch-phrase is inaccurate, as a number of servicemen and –women didn’t “tell” until they were outed by civilians and subsequently… erm… asked.)

Of course, the Pentagon took nearly a year and a half since Lt. Choi came out on the Rachel Maddow Show last March. Since then, through his leadership role in Knights Out, an organization for gay and lesbian West Point alumni, and through a host of speeches and acts of civil disobedience, Lt. Choi has become something of a poster child for the movement to overturn DADT. It is also worth noticing that, in the interim, Lt. Choi continued to serve, and to do so while being completely honest about his sexual preference. He has said repeatedly that his coming out of the closet has had no effect on his relationship with his comrades-in-arms. While I am not so naïve as to believe that claim simply because he makes it, I do find it more than a little significant that I can find literally no evidence—or even assertion—to the contrary.

Anyway, despite tens of thousands of signatures on petitions, despite the Commander-in-Chief’s claim that he seeks to overturn DADT (with the support of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Bush-appointed Secretary of Defense), and after (obviously) months of dithering, the Army finally made it official and discharged Lt. Choi. Apparently they had sent a letter to his father’s address some time ago, but father and son are estranged, so the first Lt. Choi heard of the final decision came by telephone yesterday.

Lt.—now Mr.—Choi is clearly an intelligent and articulate young man. He’ll be fine. So will the overwhelming majority of the other soldiers (and sailors, Marines, etc.) whose services are lost to the country’s military because a gaggle of old male Republicans, led by Hypocrite-in-Chief John McCain (who assured us he’d be guided by “our military leaders” with respect to DADT… until, of course, they no longer supported his paranoia and prejudice), are homophobic bigots and Barack Obama doesn’t have the stones to tell them where they can shove their hatefulness. Don’t give me surveys. Don’t give me excuses. Don’t give me “after the Army has had a chance to review the proposal.” Give me the best people we can get. Now. And it strikes me that, given the way the world looks today, a fit, intelligent, experienced, respected Arabic-speaker might just be an asset.

The other Pentagon news is just downright creepy. According to Brian Bender of the Boston Globe,
Federal investigators have identified several dozen Pentagon officials and contractors with high-level security clearances who allegedly purchased and downloaded child pornography, including an undisclosed number who used their government computers to obtain the illegal material, according to investigative reports.
Bender continues,
the fact that offenders include people with access to government secrets puts national security agencies “at risk of blackmail, bribery, and threats, especially since these individuals typically have access to military installations,” according to one report by the Defense Criminal Investigative Service from late 2009.
So what we’re talking about here has broader ramifications than just a sordid tale of a little cadre of pervs getting their jollies with kiddie porn, which is disgusting enough. This is actually a national security issue. (One might note, sardonically, that DADT creates similar security issues: soldiers who stand to lose their jobs if their sexual preferences are revealed are certainly more susceptible to blackmail than those whose jobs are not thus jeopardized.)

There have apparently been a number of arrests and at least some prosecutions as a result of an investigation by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency which began in 2006. These were all kept quiet, of course, because we wouldn’t want the populace to know how their tax dollars were being spent, now would we? Among those found to have purchased child pornography: two contractors with top secret clearances at the National Security Agency, a contractor at the National Reconnaissance Office (they’re the spy satellite people), a contractor at Edwards Air Force Base (where weapons testing takes place), and a program manager at the Defense Advanced Research Programs Agency (which develops secret weapons and technologies). It is not clear that the DARPA manager had child pornography per se, but there was “[a] large amount of pornography… including images that appeared to be of children” on his office computer.

What is especially disturbing about this is that many of these people just get shuffled to a different office, à la pedophile priests. One contractor admitted in an interview to renew his security clearance that he watched child pornography at least twice a week on his home computer. So that got him prosecuted, right? Nope. Well, at least he lost his job, though? Nope. He got transferred to a field office; an agency spokesperson “could not immediately say whether the particular contractor was still working for the organization.”

Am I the only one absolutely incensed by this? Literally thousands of servicemen and –women have been discharged under DADT for telling the truth about themselves: that they are gay. They don’t need to have ever engaged in gay sex, or to have hit on a fellow soldier, or to have done literally anything to disturb the smooth operation of their unit. Just to be gay is enough to get you discharged. By contrast, engage in the illegal as well as despicable practice of buying and viewing child pornography on a government computer, open yourself up to “blackmail, bribery, and threats,” and chances are you won’t even lose your security clearance.

The late, great George Carlin’s description of “military intelligence” as an oxymoron has never rung truer.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Global Warming, the Charlie James Syndrome, and a Very, Very, Very Big Number

Ever since I was a little kid, I have been aware of what I refer to as the Charlie James Syndrome. My father, although he grew up in New England, was a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals. He started following the “Gashouse Gang” of the 1930s, and remained a loyal Cardinals supporter until the day he died.

I, on the other hand, followed the utterly hapless New York Mets. So it was that one day late in the 1963 season, my Dad and I were listening to a Mets-Cardinals game on the radio (we didn’t have a TV). Despite my loyalties to the Mets, I was aware that the Cardinals were in a pennant race (they ended up in second place, 6 games behind the Dodgers), whereas the Mets finished 15 games out of 9th place in a 10-team league. So my loyalties were divided.

Anyway, on that particular day a journeyman outfielder for the Cardinals named Charlie James hit two home runs, giving St. Louis its margin of victory. In that same game, Stan “The Man” Musial, a future Hall-of-Famer, went something like 0-for-5 with three strikeouts. “Clearly,” thought I, roughly a week or so from my 8th birthday, “Charlie James is a vastly superior baseball player to this Musial guy my Dad keeps talking about.” Needless to say, he wasn’t. James’s career OPS (On-Base Percentage Plus Slugging Average) was .652. Musial’s lifetime OPS was .976; even in 1963, when he was 42 years old and James had the best year of his career, Musial was still the better hitter by a .729-.697 margin.

But on that one particular September day in 1963, Charlie James sure had a better game than Stan Musial did. For some reason, that game stuck in my mind, and it has become an important memory—not merely because a little boy got to share a baseball game broadcast with his Dad, but for the lesson of Charlie James. It wasn’t too long before I realized that anomalies happen, but that doesn’t make picking Stan Musial instead of Charlie James a bad idea.

So with all the hoo-ha about climate change, I have remained ever-so-slightly skeptical. True, I trust scientists more than I trust politicians, and I have found the protestations of the right more than a little foam-flecked. But the fact that the arguments being adduced against the whole idea of climate change aren’t convincing doesn’t mean that those in favor of the theory are much better.

And, of course, there is ample anecdotal evidence that the doomsayers are exaggerating. All of us have a friend in northern climes who jokes about having to shovel 14” of global warming in the winter. I just returned from Ireland, where the reason we couldn’t go inside Thoor Ballylee, W.B. Yeats’s tower, was that the coldest winter in nearly a half a century had led to flood damage that hadn’t been cleaned up yet.

Both sides of the debate are guilty of selective interpretation of evidence. Some readers will recall the O.J. Simpson trial, in which prosecutors made a big show of making the defendant try on a pair of gloves, ready to strut their stuff when one more nail was added to Simpson’s coffin. Of course, the gloves were too small, leaving the prosecutors scrambling to babble—accurately but with palpable desperation—that, reasonably, the gloves would have shrunk because of the exposure to blood. But all Johnny Cochran needed was one little chink in the armor; when, with rhetorical flourish, he proclaimed, “If the gloves don’t fit, you must acquit,” the trial was effectively over.

I am always reminded of that when I see someone claiming that, for example, an increase in snowfall is actually attributable to global warming. I follow the scientific explanation, and it makes sense, but there’s still that nagging feeling that I’m buying into a scam. So what would be a statistic that would prove unequivocally that global warming is a real and present danger?

How about this, from the official National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) report on the Global State of the Climate:
June was the fourth consecutive month that was the warmest on record for the combined global land and surface temperatures (March, April, and May were also the warmest). This was the 304th consecutive month with a combined global land and surface temperature above the 20th century average. The last month with below average temperatures was February 1985.
I first saw this passage, by the way, on the Guardian’s website. [N.B. I find it interesting that the mainstream US media—even such “liberal” bastions as MSNBC and the Washington Post—ignore the most significant statistic of the story; I can’t find the story at all on the New York Times website.] OK, let’s look at that 304 consecutive month number. Logically, there’s a 50-50 chance that each month will be warmer than or cooler than the 20th century average. So, the odds of having 304 straight months above that average based purely on chance are 1 in 2 to the 304th power, or roughly 1 in 3.25 times 10 to the 91st power. That is, 1 in 32,500,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. Those strike me as rather long odds. You know the expression “one in a million”? The odds of 27 consecutive months being above the 20th century average are less than one in a million. That gives you a rough idea of what 304 would be.

Or look at it this way: Charlie James hit a homer about every 48.5 at bats. 304 consecutive months isn’t James homering twice in one game: it’s his hitting a home run in 53 consecutive at bats. (The major league record is 4.)

Now, global warming deniers… you were saying?

Friday, July 16, 2010

The GOP and Unemployment

Chances are, you wouldn’t be reading this blog if you didn’t make at least some attempt to keep up with the news. It’s likely, then, that you’ve already heard, or at least heard about, Senator Jon Kyl’s latest attempt to wrest the coveted title of Arizona Wackadoodle of the Year from the stiff competition presented by Jan Brewer. I’m talking, of course, about that moment when Chris Wallace of Fox News Sunday lapsed briefly into journalistic mode and actually asked a tough question of a Republican.

Noting the Republican opposition to expending unemployment coverage to millions of Americans currently out of work is grounded in a pious concern for deficit reduction, that increased expenditures must be counter-acted by concomitant cuts elsewhere, Wallace wanted to know what was going to be cut in order to accommodate the extension of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. We’ll forgo the enumeration of the obvious evasions and outright misrepresentation in Kyl’s response, and concentrate on a single sequence near the end of the interview (it starts at about the 6:23 marker on the linked video):
Wallace: How are you going to pay the $678 billion just on the tax cuts for people… making more than $200,000 a year?

Kyl: You should never raise taxes in order to cut taxes. Surely Congress has the authority, and it would be right… if you decide we want to cut taxes to spur the economy, not to have to raise taxes in order to offset those costs. You do need to offset the costs of increased spending, and that’s what Republicans object to, but you should never have to offset the costs of a deliberate decision to reduce tax rates on Americans.
Really. He said that. You see, reducing taxes on rich people without either cutting spending or finding alternative sources of income doesn’t add to the deficit. Providing a little more safety net to people thrown out of work by a recession caused largely if not exclusively by those same fat-cats whose tax breaks Kyl is defending: that increases the deficit, and therefore cannot be allowed. I should also note here that pre-emptive wars in West Asia and preventing the government from making the people responsible for the worst single man-made ecological disaster of all time pay the full cost of cleaning up their mess (the part you can put a price-tag on, at least): no effect on the deficit whatsoever. These statements are true in the parallel universe in which up is down, black is white, and Jon Kyl has an IQ above room temperature. In Celsius.

Kyl’s inanity was, if nothing else, good business for left-leaning bloggers and commentators. Rachel Maddow’s evisceration of Kyl’s argument may be taken as exemplary. Maddow pointed out that the deficit is indeed a function both of money coming into the system and money going out. I’m not sure her gin-and-tonic (without the gin part) metaphor was as effective as it was snarky, but her analysis is cogent and persuasive.

But there are still some things unsaid. First is the unchallenged assertion that tax cuts for the wealthy in fact “spur the economy.” This has been Republican gospel since the Reagan administration, which, of course, doesn’t come close to making it true. An article by John Tamny on—hardly a socialist bastion!—points out that “the top income tax rate was 91% in the 1950s, but the S&P 500 rose 245%. On the other hand, the combined federal tax on income and investment during the presidency of George W. Bush was lower than at any time post-World War II. Despite the relatively low tax burden, the S&P fell 36% on Bush's watch.” Wow, how bad must the rest of Bush's economic policy have been if all those “stimulative” tax cuts produced those results?!?

Indeed, there are those who argue that the effect of such cuts is so stimulative that revenues actually increase. While this theory isn’t quite as preposterous as it might seem on its face, it’s still kind of a reach: the logical extension of this line of reasoning, after all, is to say that the way to maximize government revenue is to eliminate taxes altogether. More to the point, recent history simply puts the lie to this canard: Reagan cuts taxes, revenue plummets; Clinton introduces targeted tax increases, revenue increases; Bush II cuts taxes, revenue sinks like a stone.

Here's a graph based on Congressional Budget Office numbers, demonstrating this fact. (I pulled this from a web post entitled "Do Tax Cuts Increase Revenue" by Robert Ricketts, who holds an endowed chair in taxation at the Rawls College of Business at Texas Tech University.) It is worth noting here that this chart shows both income and outlay numbers as a percentage of GDP, not in dollars per se. This formulation makes sense to me; more importantly, it obviously makes sense to someone with a lot better credentials in this area than either my own or (I strongly suspect) those of the overwhelming majority of people likely to be reading this essay.

Moreover, helping the wealthy in particular is as macroeconomically problematic as it is ethically bankrupt. In an ideal world in which rich people see themselves as part of a larger society, perhaps, the whole “trickle down” concept might work. Might I humbly suggest, however, that fundamental amorality and the sense of entitlement evinced by the good folks at Goldman Sachs or BP doesn't suggest that they're much interested in anyone but themselves? Use their extra liquidity to help the economy? Why would they want to do that when there's an offshore account with their name on it?

In contrast, the further down the economic ladder one finds oneself, the more likely one is to want to spend rather than save the extra cash a tax cut might precipitate. And while Republicans would have us believe that jobs are created by the sainted owners of Small Business, Inc., the fact of the matter is that demand for goods and services really drives the economy. If everyday people want to buy more widgets and have the wherewithal to do so, that creates jobs: for the widget-makers, the construction workers who expand the plant, the truckers who schlep the widgets from the factory to the store, the gas station operators who supply the fuel for those trucks, and on and on. Saving, though often an admirable thing to do, doesn't do that.

We might also note this graph, showing that since the Johnson administration, every Democratic president has increased revenue more than spending, and every Republican president has increased spending more than revenue. Thus, debt as a percentage of GDP declined fairly steadily after World War II... until it spiked under Presidents Reagan and Bush I. It then fell again during the Clinton administration, only to start climbing again during Bush II. So all this concern for the deficit is, to be kind, rather a new-found creed for Republicans.

But, really, this blog isn't about Republican hypocrisy on the deficit. That point has been made repeatedly by many people with far better economic credentials than mine. Curiously, neither the Corporate Media nor even the Democratic Party seems particularly interested in disseminating this data, but it's readily available. What I want to discuss is a different kind of radical inconsistency in Republican rhetoric. I hasten to note that some of the opinions expressed below are espoused by only a handful of Republicans, but 1). they're either former leaders of the party, elected officials, or the party nominee for significant state or federal office and 2). their positions have not—as far as I have been able to determine, at least—been repudiated by party leaders in either sense of that term (i.e., by Michael Steele on the one hand, or John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, et al., on the other).

I refer here to the practice of demonizing the unemployed. The most recent round of this process can probably be traced to this February, with Senator Jim Bunning's absurd but effective one-man crusade against extending unemployment benefits. To be fair, Bunning's opposition was at least initially advanced on prodecural grounds: that such a bill shouldn't have been presented for unanimous consent. To say that I don't understand the arcane rules whereby a single Senator (other than the majority leader, perhaps) can hold up important legislation is to err on the side of understatement. But it's equally true that I fail to comprehend how the Democratic leadership lacks the political will and/or parliamentary expertise to circumvent the obstructionist tactics of a single crackpot.

Anyway, while as far as I can determine Bunning made no assertion that the unemployed deserve what they get, his defenders did. Our friend Jon Kyl suggested on the Senate floor in early March, for example, that “continuing to pay people unemployment compensation is a disincentive for them to seek new work.” He does immediately claim that “I'm sure most of them would like work, and probably have tried to seek it.” A couple days later, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay included no such qualifiers. Here's part of his exchange with CNN's Candy Crowley on State of the Union.
CROWLEY: ...people are unemployed because they want to be?

DELAY: Well, it is the truth. And people in the real world know it.
Most recently, Tom Corbett, the Republican nominee for governor of Pennsylvania, told radio reporter Scott Detrow that “The jobs are there. But if we keep extending unemployment, people are going to sit there and—I’ve literally had construction companies tell me, I can’t get people to come back to work until… they say, I’ll come back to work when unemployment runs out.”

And then, of course, there's Sharron Angle, who is running against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Here's my personal favorite sequence from her interview with John Ralston of Face to Face:
RALSTON: You think that a bunch of people are sitting out there saying, “You know what, this is great! I got my unemployment check coming in, I'm not going to go out and look for a job?”

ANGLE: No, they're not.

RALSTON: But that's what you're implying.

ANGLE: It's not what I'm implying. What I'm implying is that there are some jobs out there that are available. Because they have to enter at a lower grade and they cannot keep their unemployment they have to make a choice. We're making them make a choice between unemployment benefits and going back to work and working up through the ranks of that job and actually building up a good wage again and building up some seniority in that job. And what we need to do is make that unemployment benefit go down, not just completely remove the safety net from them while they go out and look for a job.

RALSTON: So you're saying if people lose their jobs through no fault of their own, as many have during this recession, Sharron Angle's solution is to cut their unemployment benefits so low so they're somehow gonna go out and find jobs that don't exist? How does that make any sense?

ANGLE: There are jobs that do exist. That's what we're saying, is that there are jobs. But those are entry-level jobs.
First off, of course, unemployment benefits are already indeed only a percentage—usually about half—of what a worker could make at a job in his or her trade. So Angle really has no idea what she's talking about. Moreover, her solution to the problem is to take that unemployed accountant or dental hygienist or machinist and make 'em work at Mickey D's. If they apply themselves, they might make assistant manager in only a few months.

By now, you'll have spotted a trend. In what is becoming, apparently, mainstream Republican thinking, the real reason we shouldn't extend unemployment benefits isn't really the deficit at all. It's that the unemployed are lazy, unmotivated, and probably unethical: cut their benefits and they'll find a job fast enough.

Be it understood: I have no doubt that there are those who really are lazy bums, who scam the system, who remain out of work not because they'll make as much on unemployment as on the job, but because the difference between a paycheck and an unemployment check might be small enough to make staying out of work more attractive. But surely these people are a small minority, and the overwhelming majority of people currently out of work are in fact trying desperately to find employment: indeed, according to a very interesting article by Heather Boushey, Christine Riordan, and Luke Reidenbach, writing for the Center for American Progress and the National Employment Law Project:
At the end of May, nearly half of those unemployed (46 percent) have been out of work and actively seeking a job for at least six months, a post-World War II record high. Currently, there are nearly five workers actively searching for work for every job available, compared to just one and a half job searchers per job opening before the Great Recession began.
That people would prefer to seek employment in a field for which they have training and experience—provided that their skills are both current and relevant—doesn't strike me as an unreasonable desire. Perhaps some additional safeguards against abuse might be appropriate (I'm not necessary advocating this; I just don't know), but the whole foundation of unemployment compensation is that the only people receiving it are those who have been part of the work force but for reasons beyond their control are temporarily out of a job. That the current economic malaise means that more people are in this situation longer strikes me as self-evident.

Yet the entire Republican Party seems to be gravitating en masse towards this curious and frankly rather distasteful blame-the-victim mentality. It is long overdue for the leaders of the GOP to go on the record to suggest that Americans currently out of work are, as a group, neither unmotivated nor unethical: and that means a frank repudiation of the likes of Kyl, DeLay, Corbett and Angle. If the RNC and the minority leaders of the two houses won't do so out of ethical necessity, then they should do so out of self-interest. After all, if the unemployment numbers are created by sluggishness not in the economy but in the workforce, they can't very well be blamed on Obama and the Democrats, can they?

Be it noted: I am not so naïve as to think that the GOP won't try to have it both ways, but they'll sacrifice any credibility they might have had. Or such, at least, is the consummation devoutly to be wished.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

A brief look at three recent stories...

OK, so I lied. I truly intended to write about the nexus of theatre and social work, as I said on the Curmudgeon Central Facebook page. (And I will, soon.) But then three different stories worthy of comment all broke within a few hours. The timing of one, the announcement of where LeBron James will play next year, was planned. The other two—Federal Judge Joseph L. Tauro’s pair of decisions regarding the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), and the verdict in the Johannes Mehserle trial—simply happened when they happened. So here are three slightly shorter than normal commentaries which add up to one slightly longer than normal essay.

Let’s start with what might turn into one of the most significant civil liberties stories in some time. Federal Judge Joseph L. Tauro’s decisions in two cases regarding the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) certainly give some hope for those seeking marriage equality, despite the almost inevitable appeal (and probable victory) by the Obama administration, which is in the difficult position of being duty-bound to fight to uphold a statute they don’t believe in. Tauro’s ruling in the case brought by Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley has no immediate or direct effect on states which forbid same-sex marriage, but rather it suggests that in states in which gay marriage is permitted, all marriage benefits, including those under the auspices of the federal government, must be afforded to any couple which meets that state’s legal requirements for marriage. What would happen to a couple legally married in one state and subsequently denied benefits in a state in which same-sex marriage is not permissible remains unclear, at least to me.

Tauro’s citation of the 10th Amendment, which the right wing so often invokes as a rationale to oppose, say, a federal health care system, to argue that Massachusetts rather than Congress has the right to define marriage within the commonwealth, makes for a delicious irony. But it’s not yet clear that this isn’t a double-edged sword: it would, for example, re-affirm the constitutionality of other states’ bans on same-sex marriage. Law professor/blogger Steven L. Taylor makes this point, predicting that appeals to the full faith and credit (Article 4) and equal protection clauses (14th Amendment) have better long-term prospects.

The more important and potentially precedent-setting decision came in the other case, one filed by Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, a New England–based advocacy organization. Here, equal protection guarantees, rather than states’ rights, was at the center of the opinion. The states’ rights argument is still there—“the passage of DOMA marks the first time that the federal government has ever attempted to legislatively mandate a uniform federal definition of marriage—or any other core concept of domestic relations, for that matter” and “the federal government nonetheless recognizes any heterosexual marriage, which a couple has validly entered pursuant to the laws of the state that issued the license”—but the decision is grounded firmly in more ethical than purely legalistic terms.

Here’s the meat of Tauro’s rationale: “Congress undertook this classification for the one purpose that lies entirely outside of legislative bounds, to disadvantage a group of which it disapproves. And such a classification, the Constitution clearly will not permit.” And then we get the big guns: “where, as here, ‘there is no reason to believe that the disadvantaged class is different, in relevant respects’ from a similarly situated class, this court may conclude that it is only irrational prejudice that motivates the challenged classification. As irrational prejudice plainly never constitutes a legitimate government interest, this court must hold that Section 3 of DOMA as applied to Plaintiffs violates the equal protection principles embodied in the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution.” (emphasis in original) I find it interesting that Tauro cites the implicit guarantee of equal protection in the 5th Amendment rather than the explicit statement in the 14th. His point is valid either way, of course.

I imagine there are those who are already frothing at the mouth that their irrational prejudice is described as irrational prejudice, but the appeal to equal protection—to fundamental fairness, in other words—would seem to have at least some hope of long-term resonance. Nonetheless, I confess I’m tempted to agree with blogger and law professor Jack M. Balkin, who knows a lot more about these things than I do: “Whether one likes it or not—and I do not—Judge Tauro is way ahead of the national consensus on the the equal protection issue. I personally think that discrimination against gays and lesbians is irrational, but a federal district court judge—who must obey existing precedents, and who is overseen by a federal judiciary and a Supreme Court constituted as they currently are—is in a very different position than I am.”

About the 10th amendment argument, Balkin writes: “To be sure, there is something delightfully playful and perverse about the two opinions when you read them. Judge Tauro uses the Tenth Amendment—much beloved by conservatives— to strike down another law much beloved by conservatives—DOMA. There is a kind of clever, ‘gotcha’ element to this logic. It is as if he’s saying: ‘You want the Tenth Amendment? I'll give you the Tenth Amendment!’ But in the long run, this sort of argument, clever as it is, is not going to work.” Balkin concludes: “I believe that the civil rights of gays and lesbians will someday be vindicated by legislatures and courts. But not in this way.” The good news and the bad news is that he’s probably correct.

Ultimately, getting it right is important. Grounding a legal argument in legitimate constitutional terms not only makes for better law, it also pre-empts ring-wing arguments about judicial activism. They’ll still ululate, of course; it would be nice if they didn’t have a point. But there’s also a pragmatic issue. Rights are being denied right now, and there’s part of me that wants to leave the niceties until later and get the policy right absolutely as soon as possible. Ultimately, though, I’d prefer that the courts do what they’re supposed to do: rule purely on the basis of constitutional authority. Of course, I can say that in part because my own marriage and the benefits thereunto appertaining are not being threatened by “irrational prejudice.”

Johannes Mehserle and Oscar Grant
The other really significant story that broke Thursday afternoon was the verdict in the murder trial of former Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officer Johannes Mehserle. Mehserle was filmed (by several different people from various angles) on January 1, 2009, firing a fatal shot into Oscar Grant III, who was face-down on the ground with another cop’s knee on his neck at the time. The scenario has a grim familiarity: white cop kills young black male, concocts a totally implausible defense, and is pretty much exonerated by an all-white jury in a totally different jurisdiction. True, he was convicted—the MSNBC headline reads “Mehserle Verdict: Guilty.” That’s technically true, of course, but guilty of what? The jury rejected 2nd-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter charges, settling instead on involuntary manslaughter. In other words, “Oops.”

And we wonder why so many members of minority populations (black, gay, Hispanic…)—hell, people in general—don’t trust the police. The reason is that some idiot cop shot an unarmed man in front of dozens of witnesses and several cameras and, despite the overwhelming, obvious, video evidence and eye-witness testimony that there was nothing whatsoever involuntary about his action, essentially got away with it. (He can petition for probation alone as his punishment.) If you’ve met a dozen cops in your lifetime, the odds are overwhelming that you’ve met one who went into police work not to serve the community but to strut around with a sidearm and act important.

It would be silly to say that all (or even most) cops are racist, testosterone-overdosed jackasses. It would be equally silly to deny that some are. Be it noted: the truly bad cop here may well be Tony Pirone, described by Julianne Hing of as “the true villain of the night.” It may well be that Mehserle just panicked (which doesn’t mean he shouldn’t have been convicted of voluntary manslaughter, at least), whereas Pirone is the sort of arrogant prick who likes to prance around threatening people, swearing at them, and generally giving everyone else in uniform a bad name. It was Pirone’s swaggering and violence that appear to have escalated what could otherwise have been a controlled situation. Will Pirone face as much as a reprimand? Are you kidding?

That said, it was Mehserle who pulled the trigger, and his story that he didn’t really mean to shoot Grant, that he thought he was reaching for his Taser, is, well, laughable—or it would be if this transparent fabrication hadn’t worked. Mehserle admitted in cross-examination that he had used his Taser to intimidate Grant and other suspects in an alleged fight—the reason the cops were called out to begin with. Moreover, as multiple videos show, there was no reason to Tase Grant in the first place, so even in the frankly unlikely event Mehserle were telling the truth, he’d still have used excessive force.

Also, of course, his Taser was on the other side of his body from his pistol: we’re talking about reaching for it with your other hand. How likely was he to have made that mistake and not discovered it until Grant was dead or dying? If you answered “about as likely as Sarah Palin’s being Rachel Maddow’s next guest host,” you win. Mehserle never claimed at the scene that the shooting was an accident. He tried out the line that he thought Grant was reaching for a gun, but 1). he knew better, and 2). he didn’t follow procedures if he thought that was true. He showed no signs of contrition until he cried under cross-examination. There are more holes in his testimony than in the Detroit Lions’ defense.

And yet… he was all but acquitted. I wish I could figure out why. Unwillingness to believe that a cop would behave the way Mehserle obviously did behave? Fear? If so, of what? Racial animus? Really? All I know is that these people apparently have a lot to answer for. I don’t hold them responsible for the rioting after the verdict was announced (most of the protests were peaceful, but some weren’t). As usual, there are conflicting claims about who—protesters or police—instigated the violence. I do hold that jury culpable, however, for the next case like this one. They had a chance to at least send a message to the next Johannes Mehserle and indeed to the next Tony Pirone. They missed that train.

LeBron James
Last, and most definitely least, of these stories is the fact that LeBron James will be “taking [his] talents to South Beach” for the foreseeable future, i.e., he’s leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers to join the Miami Heat. When he first entered the NBA straight out of a northeastern Ohio high school, James looked to be just what Cleveland needed to give the city its first championship in any major sport in 40+ years. It was a “local kid makes good” story. James was a little brash, but he seemed willing to play for the good of the team, and the fact that he comported himself off the court like the stereotype of a teen-aged multi-millionaire was mitigated if not excused by the fact that many lesser athletes behaved far worse.

But all that changed. James became a two-time league MVP, a “superstar” with all the gazillion endorsement deals that entailed. And somewhere along the way he started believing his own hype. He yammered about how he had “spoiled” Cleveland with the quality of his play. Really? How many championships did you deliver, LBJ? Clevelanders would trade all the MVP awards in creation for a single championship. The fact that you wouldn’t doesn’t change this fact.

And, while he is unquestionably an outstanding athlete, he just flat gets outplayed (or matched by those of considerably lesser talent) when it matters most. My favorite basketball statistic is what has come to be called the “Larry Bird formula” because Bird contributed in such a wide variety of ways: it is an attempt to view, in a single number, a player’s contributions to his team’s success. There are several variations on this theme. Here’s mine: Add points, rebounds, assists, blocked shots, and steals. Subtract turnovers, fouls, and missed shots of any kind (you’re not helping your team if it takes you 25 shots to get your 20 points). Take that number and divide it by minutes played. Multiply by 1000 to eliminate the decimal point. A good score, one you’d expect consistently from a star player, is 500. A really good game, the kind you’d expect not infrequently from a superstar, is 750. A put-the-team-on-his-back-and-carry-them number is 1000.

James played very well in the Cavs’ two wins against Boston in the playoffs: 837 in game 1, 1128 in game 3. But he managed only a 326 when Boston tied the series in game 4, and, in the embarrassing blowout home loss (game 5) that really decided the series, he got a 214. The other Cavs forward, Antoine Jamison, got better numbers in both those games. In games 4 and 5, the pivotal sequence in the series, James shot 31% from the field, including 0-for-9 from 3-point range, and had 10 turnovers. Real superstars play at their best when the team needs them most, and they’re consistently good or better. James? Nope. Equally importantly, what separates James from the legitimate greats is that he doesn’t really raise the level of play of his teammates. And despite his obvious physical attributes, he is only an average defender: there’s a lot more to playing D than steals and rebounds.

Why did Boston beat Cleveland this year? Well, there was excellent team play, an inspired performance by Rajon Rondo… and two days off by the Cavs’ alleged superstar. No, not off days; days off. As John Krolik writes, “LeBron James was supposed to be the next golden boy of the NBA. He will never be that player, and that would have been true regardless of what team LeBron decided to go to. LeBron James, Golden Boy died the moment LeBron lost to the Celtics in this year's playoffs. The decision LeBron made on Thursday night was nothing more than LeBron's acknowledgement of that reality.”

Will the Cavs miss him? Of course. He’s a very good player, capable of great things, and the team was built around him, so both offensive and defensive strategies (and perhaps some other personnel) will have to be adjusted. But the prediction of a friend that they’ll go 7-75 next year is wildly exaggerated. And while the Heat will have three first-line players—James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade—they’ll have contracts (and egos) to match. Of the three, only Wade has ever spent any time not being the undisputed star of his team—back when Shaquille O’Neal’s skills were just beginning to decline. There’s one ball. And with all that money going to three players, the salary cap means that the supporting cast will be comprised almost exclusively of journeymen. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see the Heat watching next year’s finals from their respective living rooms. I confess that I would rejoice in any final featuring neither the Heat nor the Lakers.

One last thing on this topic. There is something more than a little disturbing about all the grand-standing: “the King” (who’s never had a crown) “holding court” as teams came begging hat in hand, the hour-long special on ESPN—how self-important can you get? (On the other hand, what does it say for the integrity of ESPN that they’d go along with this farce?) LBJ’s childishness, however, was surpassed by the petulance of Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, who wasted no time posting on the Cavs’ official website an open letter trashing the guy he had just been fawning over, describing a “narcissistic, self-promotional build-up,” a “cowardly betrayal,” a “shameful display of selfishness and betrayal,” a “heartless and callous action.” He followed up his missive with an interview with the AP, claiming that James “quit” in the Boston series. The fact that he’s right doesn’t change the fact that it’s a rather unseemly display. (The promise to bring a championship to Cleveland before Miami gets one is at least intriguing.) Ultimately, it’s all about one rich guy getting miffed at another rich guy.

We get it, boys. You’re both multi-millionaires, and you think that all you need to do is stamp your feet and you’ll get what you want. You think your shit don’t stink. You’re wrong, as usual. Please, both of you, STFU.

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Lessons of Easter Week, 1916

One cannot spend any time in Dublin, certainly not on the kind of Study Abroad trip from which I have just returned, without being reminded of the Easter Rising of 1916. It gets discussed extensively on the Historical Walking Tour and at Kilmainham Gaol. The train stations—Heuston, Connolly, Pearse—are named after leaders of the rebellion. Bullet holes from the conflict are still visible in the columns in front of the General Post Office. The W.B. Yeats exhibit at the National Library shows what the city looked like after an English battleship had shelled O’Connell Street that week. The only full statue in the city to a specific woman known to have actually existed (as opposed to Queen Maeve or Molly Malone) is dedicated to the Countess Constance Markievicz, whose sex alone prevented her from being executed in the Rising’s aftermath. There are Easter Week-specific tours of the city. And on and on.

Of course, the Easter Rising ultimately failed. There was no lasting Irish Republic established that week, and everyday Irish men and women were lukewarm at best towards the insurrection. But the rhetoric of Pádraig Pearse at the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa less than a year earlier proved prophetic: “Life springs from death: and from the graves of patriot men and women spring living nations. The Defenders of this Realm have worked well in secret and in the open. They think that they have purchased half of us and intimidated the other half. They think that they have foreseen everything, think that they have provided against everything; but the fools, the fools, the fools! — they have left us our Fenian dead, and, while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.” Pearse and fourteen others faced firing squads at Dublin's Kilmainham Gaol after the Rising, and three others were either executed outside Dublin or died on a hunger strike in prison, but it was only a few years later that there really was an Irish Free State. Significantly, however, neither the establishment of the Free State nor even the declaration of the Republic (as distinct from a dominion) of Ireland hold anything close to the hold on the public imagination as do the events of Easter 1916.

W.B. Yeats was to write in one of his most famous poems,” Easter, 1916,” written five years after the events he describes, “MacDonagh and MacBride / And Connolly and Pearse / Now and in time to be, / Wherever green is worn, / Are changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born.” But there’s a sense in which Yeats had it wrong: it wasn’t so much Easter Week itself which was transformative, although those events are certainly not to be ignored. Rather, it was the tone-deaf over-reaction of the English authorities to what had transpired that inexorably changed public opinion. Whereas early on the general populace blamed the Republicans for catalyzing the destruction perpetrated by the British, that attitude dissipated in the wake of the ongoing series of executions. It seemed a little barbaric that the English provided emergency medical assistance to James Connolly so he wouldn't die before they had a chance to kill him. Moreover, the killings or long-term internments of a number of nationalists who had little if any connection to the Rising suggested that the British authorities were more interested in a show of force than in justice.

Not included in the list of those executed, for example, were Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, a pacifist who was outspoken in his opposition to the tactics (though not the goals) of the rebels, and two pro-British journalists, Thomas Dixon and Patrick McIntyre. Still, all three were arrested, unarmed and unresisting, and ultimately shot to death by British soldiers. It didn’t help that the officer in charge, although indeed arrested for murder, was able to successfully plead insanity (battle fatigue), and ultimately retired at 40 with a full pension. England also extended martial law long after there was any real unrest in Ireland.

As a result of all this, the Irish people in general became considerably more radicalized, more impatient, more willing to employ violence rather than more peaceable means to achieve their ends. The moderate Irish Parliamentary Party, which held 68 parliamentary seats at the time of the Rising, managed to retain only seven in the December 1918 by-election. By contrast, Sinn Féin, which had held only six seats in the spring of 1916, re-organized under Éamon de Valera (who escaped execution after the Rising only because he was American-born) and promised to employ “every means available to render impotent the power of England to hold Ireland in subjection.” Although as an organization Sinn Féin had not been directly involved in the Rising, a good number of its members had been, and they had the best name recognition among the nationalist groups. The result was an over 12-fold increase in their parliamentary representation after the 1918 elections: to 73 seats.

We could tease out some of the nuances and discuss Sinn Féin’s subsequent tactics, but this isn’t a history lesson; it’s a political blog. So what is the real point of recounting history of nearly a century ago? Simply this: there was a lesson to be learned here. To repeat: the Irish people weren’t on the side of the radicals until the English arrogantly over-reacted. I can find literally no one, from Irish historians to the BBC, who disagrees with this assessment. Yet these simple lessons—even people who disagree with you will respect you if you act justly, and moderates will become extremists if you don’t—seem to have been particularly difficult for the politically and militarily powerful to learn. The English couldn’t wrap their heads around it in the wake of Bloody Sunday, taking some 38 years to finally, a little over a fortnight ago, admit that the victims (13 dead, as many more seriously injured) of those horrible events in Derry in 1972, had done nothing to deserve their fate. The IRA certainly got a lot of recruits from those who had seen what happened to peaceful protesters.

This kind of obliviousness, however, is not a peculiarly English phenomenon. We Americans have gotten very good at it, especially recently. With few exceptions, world opinion was overwhelmingly sympathetic to this country after the events of September 11, 2001. Then came the invasion of Iraq, a country which had precisely bupkis to do with 9/11. Then there was Abu Ghraib. And Guantanamo. And waterboarding. More importantly, there were the obviously disingenuous denials. And, suddening, a good share of the Islamic world, people who had been neutral towards the US or even leaning a little towards friendship, started viewing American foreign policy—Bush’s, Obama’s, it doesn’t matter—in Western Asia as arrogant, imperialistic, and unjust… and not without reason.

Now comes a report that the Fourth Estate, once charged with a primary role in speaking truth to power, has been abrogating that responsibility: the following is from the abstract of a study by Harvard students:

“From the early 1930s until the modern story broke in 2004, the newspapers that covered waterboarding almost uniformly called the practice torture or implied it was torture: The New York Times characterized it thus in 81.5% (44 of 54) of articles on the subject and The Los Angeles Times did so in 96.3% of articles (26 of 27). By contrast, from 2002‐2008, the studied newspapers almost never referred to waterboarding as torture. The New York Times called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture in just 2 of 143 articles (1.4%). The Los Angeles Times did so in 4.8% of articles (3 of 63). The Wall Street Journal characterized the practice as torture in just 1 of 63 articles (1.6%). USA Today never called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture. In addition, the newspapers are much more likely to call waterboarding torture if a country other than the United States is the perpetrator. In The New York Times, 85.8% of articles (28 of 33) that dealt with a country other than the United States using waterboarding called it torture or implied it was torture while only 7.69% (16 of 208) did so when the United States was responsible. The Los Angeles Times characterized the practice as torture in 91.3% of articles (21 of 23) when another country was the violator, but in only 11.4% of articles (9 of 79) when the United States was the perpetrator.”

That I have no use for cowardly journalism is hardly a news flash; that it appears that many elite media institutions have completely caved on any kind of pursuit of objective reality falls under that ever-widening category of “I hate it when I’m right.” Anything the lunatic right challenges, no matter how frivolous the protestations, becomes “controversial,” and that means shying away from accurate terms in favor of euphemisms. The defenders of the duly constituted Iraqi government became “insurgents”; the civil war there couldn’t be called a civil war; prisoners of war would be subject to the Geneva Conventions, so those folks became “captured enemy combatants”; waterboarding, which had been a classic example of torture for generations, was now simply an “enhanced interrogation technique.” If this is what we get from the so-called left-wing media, then what hope have we?

More to the point, everyone smarter than Liz Cheney, and that’s damned near everybody, knows that this is all a steaming pile of bullshit. And, as Watergate taught us, the cover-up is often worse than the crime. Denying the facts was hard enough a generation ago; in the internet age, it’s a virtual impossibility, although there are plenty of folks, especially but by no means exclusively on the political right, who are willing to give it a try.

Maybe, however, we should learn the lessons of the Easter Rising and its aftermath: that making martyrs of those willing to be martyred is seldom a good idea; that avoiding responsibility can last only so long; that people are ultimately smart enough not to be distracted by legalistic niceties, especially when those lawyerly phrases ring immediately hollow to any reasonably intelligent 12-year-old. If what we want to do is to “win the hearts and minds” of the Islamic world, we need to change course in a big old hurry. If we want to continue to be the world’s greatest recruiter of al-Qaida operatives, we need only proceed down the path we’re on. After all, it worked so well for the British in 1916.