Wednesday, July 31, 2013

To Be Clear: Unpatriotic

It's almost an unwritten agreement.  Republicans accuse Democrats of being unpatriotic; Republicans accuse Democrats of lacking compassion. Republicans accuse Democrats of spending other peoples' money; Democrats accuse Republicans of intolerance toward minorities.  There are, of course, exceptions such as Rush Limbaugh, who accuses Democrats of everything and anything.

There is a method to the madness.  It's hard, for an independent, somewhat unfocused voter to believe Republicans want to boost the deficit (though, evidence demonstrates, they do) or that Democrats don't like blacks, Hispanics, Asians,or American Indians/native Americans/indigenous peoples.  Nor are they likely to believe Democrats lack compassion or Republicans lack patriotism. But the last, at least with three, they do.

Congressional Republicans stood (or sat) as one against  the Affordable Care Act.  But then, they oppose anything recommended by the President and the legislation is obviously imperfect.  Politics, it was commonly stated decades ago, stops at the water's edge, and health care is a domestic matter.   Similarly, the 40-plus votes taken by House Republicans to repeal the ACA can be understood as an extension of their opposition to health care reform or as posturing to assure the popular base that they're on their side.  In either case, the GOP is the loyal opposition and the congressional party may legitimately (though, in this case, not justifiably) block legislation proposed by the majority party.

Americans have not been fully informed about Obamacare.  In May, reported the NYT's Jackie Calmes, New York Representative Steve Israel lamented "there's clearly some concern" among Democrats that their constituents don't have all the facts on how health care reform will work.   In April, the Kaiser Foundation had found that 41% of the public was unsure whether the ACA remained the law of the land or believed either the Supreme Court or Congress had overturned it.

So as Israel, also head of the House Democrats' campaign committee, recommended, the Administration started the process of getting the word out about the rights of Americans under the ACA.   The New Republic's Jonathan Cohn remarked approximately six weeks ago

Last week, as word spread that the Obama Administration had approached professional sports leagues about forging a similar partnership, GOP leaders warned the leagues to stay away. “It is difficult for us to remember another occasion when [a] major sports league took public sides in such a highly polarized public debate,” Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn, the highest ranking Republicans in the Senate, wrote in a letter on Friday. Among other things, they noted, Democrats had used “legislative gimmicks” to enact the law—an apparent reference to the Democrats’ use of budget reconciliation process in order to overcome a Republican filibuster in the Senate.

The letter came one day after Congressman Steve Scalise, head of the Republican Study Committee, sent a similar letter of his own. That missive, sent to the NBA and NFL, predicted that Obamacare would have a “devastating impact on your fans and business partners across the country” and warned the leagues not to do the administration’s “dirty work for them.”

Apparently, the GOP assault had the desired effect.  Soon afterward, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello wrote in an e-mail "We have responded to the letters we received from members of Congress to inform them we currently have no plans to engage in this area and have had no substantive contact with the administration about [the health-care law’s] implementation."

"Substantive contact" sounds a little like "it depends on what the meaning of  'is' is.   In June, according to this report, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen had Sebelius told reporters "We're having active discussions right now with a variety of sports affiliates" about paid advertising and partnerships to increase enrollment in the exchanges.

In May, NFL analyst Mike Florio had written

From Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford, who derailed the effort to upgrade Sun Life Stadium, to Arizona Senator John McCain, who wants to outlaw blackouts at publicly-funded stadium, and now to Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, who wants to remove the NFL’s tax-exempt status, a trio of Republican politicians have been putting the screws to pro football.

The NFL was apparently intimidated.  But while Weatherford, McCain, and Coburn are acting legitimately in their attempt as legislators to influence policy. McConnell, Cornyn, and Scalise are not.   The Affordable Care and Patient Protection Act is not a proposal made by the President nor primarily a campaign issue.  It is the law of the land, having been passed by both chambers of Congress and signed by a duly elected (or re-elected) President Obama. Members of Congress are all too anxious to tout the benefits to their constituents as a whole of their legislative initiatives, or to named individuals of special efforts made in their behalf.   Keeping their constituents informed of the progress of Obamacare and purging their ignorance of the law's provisions is a prime responsibility of federal legislators.

Blocking the attempt by the Obama Administration to keep American citizens informed is, well, unpatriotic.   Before the NFL's decision, Cohn noted

I know: Republican opposition to the law hardly qualifies as news and neither does the effort to undermine it. But the language of the letters reveals a great deal about GOP values. When did publicizing insurance options become “dirty work”? How is helping people to access public services “politically charged”? And if it sounds na├»ve to expect more cooperation from an opposition party, contrast this Republican behavior with the way Democrats responded to the Medicare drug benefiit as the Bush Administration prepared for its launch eight years ago.

Like today's Repubicans, Democrats had strong and genuine objections about the substance of what became known as Part D. Democrats had wanted the government to run the drug program directly, just like it administers doctor and hospital insurance. Instead, Bush and his allies had crafted a program that relied exclusively on private insurers to deliver the benefits, while preventing the government from using its purchasing power to reduce prices. Part D was also pure deficit spending: Neither the Bush Administration nor its congressional allies made even a pretense of trying to pay for it with revenue or offsetting cuts. Note the contrast with the Affordable Care Act—which, according to the Congressional Budget Office, is actually reducing the deficit. 

As for legislative tactics, Republicans today are angry that Democrats used the budget reconciliation process. But there's nothing illegitimate about using the reconciliation process for a bill that reduces the deficit, particularly if it's necessary to stop a determined minority from blocking a majority vote. You can't offer similar justifications for what the architects of Part D did in 2003, as they were trying to craft and pass their bill. At one point, a senior Bush Administration official actuallythreatened to fire a government actuary, because the actuary had delivered an unfavorable cost estimate. An inspector general later concluded the Bush official could have been subject to disciplinary action, if only that official hadn't already left office to become a lobbyist.

The final vote on Part D was equally notorious for its shenanigans. House Republican leaders, struggling to build a majority, had to extend voting by an unprecedented three hours. It wasn't pretty and Tom Delay, who was House Majority Leader at the time, eventually received a “public admonishment” from the House Ethics Committee for his actions during those waning hours. (The Committee found that DeLay had offered political favors so that then-Rep. Nick Smith of Michigan would change his vote. Many close observers, including my former colleague Timothy Noah, think the evidence suggests DeLay offered an actual bribe, in the form of $100,000 in campaign contributions for Smith's son, who was then running for Congress. DeLay denied this.)

In short, Democrats had plenty of good reasons to be angry about Part D. Democrats never tried to undermine the law’s implementation—a point Norm Ornstein, the political scientist at the American Enterprise Institute, made via e-mail:

Democrats were furious with how the Medicare prescription drug bill passed. But once it was law, they weren't going to punish needy seniors to sabotage Bush's accomplishment. It is remarkable to use threats of congressional power to intimidate sports organizations so that people who need insurance or need help knowing what is available to them will suffer by being kept in the dark. Stick it to millions so you can stick it to the president? That is statesmanship? No, it is cruel and outrageous.

When Minority Leader Mitch McConnell bragged early in the Obama administration the "single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president," he laid bare his determination to sabotage the President of the United States.  Now, it is clear he- and at least two other Republicans- are anxious to sabotage the American people.

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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

On Topic And Off Base

Maureen Dowd was described by a reviewer/admirer shortly after she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1999 (for her articles on Clinton/Lewinsky, of course) as "fully in tune with the political and cultural moment."

That was meant, sadly, as a compliment.  This past Monday, the Daily Howler's Bob Somerby found that, having received the award for several columns about sex,  Dowd followed up in 1999 with column after column about nothing.  In May, former White House spokesman Robert Gibbs on Morning Joe remarked “I don’t read Dowd," pointing out "largely because it’s sort of largely the same column for the last, like, eight years." It has kept her in a most prestigious position, on the op-ed page of The New York Times.  

Fox News, a frequent (and justified) object of scorn on MSNBC, has been particularly bashed the past few days for an interview conducted by backbencher Lauren Green with religion scholar Reza Aslan.  Green obviously was peturbed because Aslan is a Muslim who has written a book about Jesus Christ. Summarizing his professional credentials, Aslan noted he "has been studying the origins of Christianity for two decades" and "also just happens to be a Muslim."

It's a lesson Dowd ought to learn.  Dowd, who has been having fun with Anthony Weiner- as she once did with Bill Clinton- turned to the New York mayoral candidate's wife, Huma Abedin, as she once did Monica Lewinsky.  She writes

When you puzzle over why the elegant Huma Abedin is propping up the eel-like Anthony Weiner, you must remember one thing: Huma was raised in Saudi Arabia, where women are treated worse by men than anywhere else on the planet.

Comparatively speaking, the pol from Queens probably seems like a prince. 

Ha! So funny.  Except that we know little about Huma Abedin's faith, except that she is of parents who are Muslim and apparently has not converted.  Judging from Dowd's article, she knows a little less than a little about whether Abedin is observant, completely secular, or something in between.    The columnist appears, as the religious editor of The Huffington Post implies, either of the latter two. But we don't know.

It would be useful information if, as with Dowd, one is little concerned about stop-and-frisk, food bans, education, or other issues in determining who might become mayor of the financial capital of the world. But then, as one Wonkette blogger comments, "reading Maureen Dowd is like paying one of the Mean Girls to write columns for you forever and ever."

Dowd's interest is less policy than sex, and she seems unaware that not all Muslims march in lockstep with the dictates of their religion. The range of diversity in adherence to the precepts of a faith among individuals who have the same religious background is common most places, and especially in this nation.  Otherwise, Mitt Romney and Kyrsten Sinema, and Steny Hoyer and Mitch McConnell would be theological twins.

Dowd dangerously leaves room to speculate on Huma Abedin's place of birth, just as some of those alleging President Obama is a Muslim subtly (or not so subtly) suggests that he may be a foreigner.   Although raised in Saudi Arabia, the 37-year-old Abedin was born in Michigan and has lived since she was 18 in the U.S.A., which appears to suit her just fine. And that ought to count for more than cheap shots about being raised in an Arabic country.

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Monday, July 29, 2013

Not Really Surprising

Eric Boehlert of Media Matters comments

So much for having a national conversation about race.

Conservative commentators claimed they'd welcome an honest discussion about the thorny issue in the wake of the George Zimmerman verdict. But within moments last week of President Obama offering up his personal reflection about the trial and how the killing of Trayvon Martin had been viewed within the African-American community, right-wing voices responded with almost feral anger and resentment.

Among those most incensed by Obama's thoughtful reflections was Jennifer Rubin, who writes for the Washington Post. She called Obama's comments "disgusting." Furious at America's first black president for discussing the topic of race following a passionate trial verdict (he's "not a good person," Rubin stressed), the columnist lashed out at Obama for addressing a problem she claimed is no longer even relevant to the American experience.

Lamenting that Obama's won't allow people "get out of this racial archaeology," Rubin claimed Americans are "held prisoners forever in a past that most Americans have never personally experienced." (Fact: "Most Americans" haven't personally experienced anti-Semitism, but that doesn't stop Rubin from crusading  against what she sees as outbreaks of it.)

Rather than addressing the substance of Obama's comments about how "the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn't go away," Rubin simply dismissed the idea that racial prejudice has to be talked about, let alone discouraged, anymore. Like Prohibition and the Red Scare, racism apparently represents a distant chapter in America's past.

Rubin is hardly alone in her proud and public denial.

Boehlert adds "That right-wing refutation has been found on the fringes of the conservative movement for years, if not decades."   But, to be honest (has anyone ever uttered "to be dishonest"?), it reached its apex in the months following the 2008 presidential election.

It was a ludicrous claim, of course, that the election of Senator Obama as president proved the United States is not racist.  Obama had run a splendid campaign, employing techniques unavailable before the explosion of computer technology and rise of social media.   He raised more money than any political campaign in world history and applied the funds to maximum effect.   He ran as a Democrat after eight years of a very unpopular Repub presidency.  His opponent, though arguably the strongest the GOP could have put up, was a cold war warrior offered just as Americans had become fed up with foreign entanglements, especially of the sort which costs American lives.  Senator McCain had no expertise in the area of economics or business, fields which loomed huge in the financial collapse.

And he selected as his running mate an individual who convinced voters she was unqualified to be vice-president, especially a heartbeat away from an office which would have been held by a 72-year-old man far from his physical prime.   Obama, by contrast, had selected a wise Washington hand who filled in quite nicely the gaps in the resume of the Illinois Senator.

And then- miraculously- Barack Obama won!   Before the polls closed, a presidential scholar at the finest college in the world stated

We won't know for years to come, but the potential is that 2008 is a realigning election, measured not only in voter registration rolls but in how we see ourselves. And if a new president can foster and begin to break down that 50-50 mutually suspicious, if not hostile, climate that we have grown up with in this country in the last couple of presidencies, we can become an even larger and less polarized country, defined less by our differences and more by our common needs...

A little more modestly, we read in The Washington Post

Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois was elected the nation's 44th president yesterday, riding a reformist message of change and an inspirational exhortation of hope to become the first African American to ascend to the White House...The historic Election Day brought millions of new and sometimes tearful voters, long lines at polling places nationwide, and celebrations on street corners and in front of the White House.

Brian Williams announced (video below) the victory as "There will be young children in the White House for the first time since the Kennedy generation. An African-American has broken the barrier as old as the Republic... a seismic shift in American politics."

Williams has proven himself an empty suit. But the president-elect himself channeled the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who stated "I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land."  Obama told more than 125,000 enthused supporters who had gathered in Chicago's Grant Park

If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer. The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you: We as a people will get there.

Four-and-a-half years later, Barack Obama has been re-elected, and we're shocked- shocked!- that (some) conservatives have jumped to the conclusion that racism is so 2007 or that discrimination has been vanquished.  In 2008 they heard the election of Barack Obama would be "historic" and then were assured the incoming president would lead us through the Red Sea to the land of Canaan.

It has not happened, not in the least, as the reactions of Jennifer Rubin, John Nolte, and a few others to President Obama's mild reaction to the Zimmerman verdict indicate.   As wrong as they are, the seeds of their ignorance were sown several years ago when a campaign was sold as the means to stop the rise of the oceans and heal the planet.

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Sunday, July 28, 2013

Immigratin Misdirection

The debate over comprehensive immigration reform is proving a bonanza for biased polls (and, even if not, it gives me an opportunity to type "bonanza" for the first time).   On July 9, Public Policy Polling released results of a survey, one of which questions actually asked

Do you support or oppose an immigration reform plan that ensures undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S. pay a penalty, learn English, pass a criminal background check, pay taxes, and wait a minimum of thirteen years before they can be eligible for citizenship?

Mickey Kaus argues the penalty can be waived; immigrants need not learn English but only enroll in a course; resources are inadequate for genuine background checks; back taxes must be paid only if the IRS already had assessed the taxes. Byron York notes that most agricultural workers and some beneficiaries of the Dream Act would not have to wait a full thirteen years to be eligible for citizenship.

PPP might have compared results had it asked a similarly unbalanced question:  "Do you support or oppose an immigration scheme that allows individuals who have entered the country illegally to be given priority over those who have been admitted legally?  Neither would have been very enlightening about public sentiment toward immigration but at least would have dramatized the importance of strategic wording to elicit the desired response.

It seems this was not an isolated poll.  Comes now a Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey asking

Thinking about immigration…If Congress is unable to come to agreement on an immigration bill before the end of its current term who do you think will be most to blame -- (RANDOMIZE) the Republicans in Congress, the Democrats in Congress, or President Obama?

This was not preceded by a question asking respondents if they believe Congress should come to an agreement on an immigration bill, let alone whether they approve of the one being considered by Congress. It was not preceded by any question about immigration, instead prompted by an assumption that respondents of course supported the pending immigration bill.  After all, who wouldn't be?

The results:  44% blame "the Republicans in Congress," 14% "the Democrats in Congress," 21% "President Obama," 11% "all equally to blame," and 10% were "not sure."   By now, you're probably wondering: who are these 35% (over one-third!) who would blame Democrats- and can I sell them that proverbial beachfront property in Arizona?  Except they probably are not- couldn't be- so misinformed, but rather probably are opponents of comprehensive immigration reform who rightly blame Democrats for pushing it.

That would be akin to a protest vote- but we'll never know because the question was so thoroughly misguided.  It may be unsurprising in a poll co-sponsored by The Wall Street Journal, whose editors came out in favor of the legislation approved by the Senate, recommending

if the House doesn't want to take up the entire bill that recently passed the Senate, it can still consider and pass the parts that are pro-growth and that most Republicans support.

These include a provision to allow foreign graduates of U.S. schools with science, math and technology degrees to stay in America if they have a job offer. Even Mitt Romney supported this one. Another provision would double the number of H-1B visas for skilled immigrants, while a third would allow visas to those who will start businesses and invest in America.

And in case readers aren't convinced of the WSJ's motives, the editors recommended "opening more paths for legal immigrants to meet U.S. labor demand."  So the next time you meet a college graduate who is unemployed, working part-time, serving a paid or unpaid internship, or cheerily exclaiming "welcome to WalMart," remember to tell her how lazy she must be because the Wall Street Journal says we need more workers because there are too many jobs around.

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Saturday, July 27, 2013

And Eventually, We'll Line Up Behind Him

Chairperson Ben Bernanke is leaving the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve, and President Obama has a decision to make.   A  letter circulated among Senate Democrats (and posted by Greg Sargent) reads, "Few individuals have more influence upon the United States economy than the Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System."  Few would argue, though "few" might more accurately yield to "no one."

The letter initiated with Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, urging the President to appoint the Fed's current vice-chairperson, Jessica Yellen, as Bernanke's replacement.  Yellen has "an impeccable resume; as an academic, as a member of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, as Chief Executive of a Regional Federal Reserve Bank, and Vice Chair of the Board of Governors."

Ezra Klein observes that Larry Summers, however, is very popular with individuals who have "worked or fundraised at high levels in Democratic administrations."  But David Dayen reminisces

In the 1990s, Summers and then-Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin led the effort to stop Brooksley Born from regulating derivatives, precisely the financial instruments that magnified the housing bubble and accelerated the financial collapse. Under his watch as treasury secretary, Congress eliminated Glass-Steagall’s firewall between commercial and investment banks, legalizing the merger of Citigroup (where Rubin would serve as director, senior counsel and Board Chairman). He further oversaw passage of the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, which banned all regulation of derivatives, even from state anti-gambling laws. Even Bill Clinton has apologized for deregulation of the riskiest sector in finance; Summers has not. Even well after the crisis, in 2011, Summers pronounced himself “more cautious than many about constraining financial innovation,” a not-so-thinly veiled code for encouraging a return to casino activity on Wall Street.

Following government service, Summers served a short stint as president of Harvard University, where he distinguished himself with a risky investment strategy and offensive remarks about roughly half the population. After he left in 2005, he minimized the threat of a housing bubble at almost the identical time Yellen would state

Certainly, analyses do indicate that house prices are abnormally high—that there is a “bubble” element, even accounting for factors that would support high house prices, such as low mortgage interest rates. So a reversal is certainly a possibility. Moreover, even the portion of house prices that is explained by low mortgage rates is at risk.

Yellen is widely viewed as someone with a particularly strong relationship with the Federal Open Markets Committee and has promoted the value of better communications at the Fed, considered a vitally important facet of its leadership. While Summers lacks support, as Klein maintains, in the economics blogosphere, he has one critical booster- President Barack Obama- who "really likes Summers" and is "surrounded by Summer's longtime colleagues and friends."  

The good ol-boy network is gearing up.  Former FDIC head Sheila Bair writes

The "whispering" campaign against her among industry types has been deafening. "Doesn't understand markets." Translation: She may not bail us out if we get into trouble again. "Not assertive enough." Translation: She won't stand up for us against the populists who want more regulation. "Lacks gravitas." Translation: She doesn't show up very often in the financial media. (Rest assured that if she were more vocal, they would accuse her of not being a "team player.")

Thus far, the names of the Senators who have signed Sherrod Brown's letter have not been made public but, Sargent maintains, "the fact that a third of Senate Dems is backing her should theoretically make it harder for the White House to pass her over."  And Paul Krugman, who supports Yellen but finds Summers acceptable, concludes " if the final choice isn’t Janet Yellen, I think the president is going to have to offer a very good explanation of why not, or face a lot of grief from people who want to think the best of his administration."

Really, now.   If the choice is not Yellin, Democrats will, after some initial grumbling, back President Obama's choice.    On June 27, the Senate cast its most important vote- on cloture- on the comprehensive immigration reform bill, strongly supported by the President.  All 54 members of the Democratic caucus voted to cut off debate and move the bill to a final vote.  Then the Senate approved the legislation itself with all 54 members of the Obama caucus voting in favor.  

When the President appoints someone as Chairman of the Federal Reserve, after a decent interval allowing Senate Democrats to express publicly their conscience, all or virtually all of them will vote to support their President. They will do so because, hey, we just have to support the guy who is criticized as Muslim and foreign and socialist and all that.

This impulse parallels the support among Democratic politicians- and especially among independent-minded Americans- for retaining Bill Clinton as president amid the overreach by Repub politicians and Kenneth Starr over l'affaire Lewinsky.  Similarly (and with less cause) Democrats now have ostensibly decided that, conservative talk show hosts and others on the far right cannot get their way with outrageous, nonsensical claims.   And so, we'll rally around the flag yet again for a center-right president we're deathly worried would otherwise fail to achieve his agenda and be viewed a failure.

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Friday, July 26, 2013

"Drug Mules?" Why, The Nerve!

Ha! Ha! We all laughed. It was quite amusing.  The Huffington Post reports

Three undocumented immigrants delivered cantaloupes to Rep. Steve King's (R-Iowa) office Thursday and called for his removal from the House Judiciary Committee after the lawmaker insisted that many Dreamers are involved in the drug trade.

"For everyone who's a valedictorian, there's another 100 out there that weigh 130 pounds and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they're hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert,"King recently told Newsmax, referring to undocumented young people known as Dreamers. "Those people would be legalized with the same act."

Maricela Aguilar, a 22-year-old organizer for Dreamer group United We Dream, said that King was trying to "give this narrative of us being criminals and bad people, when we're not." Aguilar is a graduate student at Brandeis University in Massachusetts and said that she was in the top 10 percent of her graduating class in high school.

The Dreamers delivered two cantaloupes to King's staffers, but were not able to speak with the congressman because he was in a meeting. King's office did not respond to a request for comment.

But you knew about King's statement, so offensive it was denounced even by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor ( "inexcusable") and by Speaker Boehner, who said it "does not reflect the values of the American people or the Republican Party."   (Boehner wisely did not admit the sentiments were less ridiculous than the values of the Republican Party.)   Joe Scarborough labeled the comments "inexcusable" and Jim Vandehei, executive editor of Politico, wrote "It's these guys that say these crazy things that are routinely getting picked up and have us talking about it, have other people talking about it, and it defines down the Republican Party."

The "extreme" or "crazy" or "irresponsible and reprehensible" (as described by Idaho Representative Paul Labrador of Idaho) characterizations appeared not to refer to King's charge that illegal immigrants are bringing huge amounts of grass across the border but instead to his reprehensible description of a set of human beings.  But when Labrador maintained the remarks were "out of touch with the conference," he reflected the widespread belief in his party that King was out of line and threatened to damage further the reputation of the party among Hispanics.

It's never good to compare a portion of the anatomy of an entire group of people to cantelope or other, less delicious, food. (Although calling one's spouse "honey" is quite acceptable. Go figure.)  Labeling them "drug mules" can bring only widespread refutation, condemnation, and shunning.

Not always.  Steve King is a pariah among Democrats, a large swath of independents and of the mainstream media, and- if we are to believe their wails of outrage- a few Republicans.  But if King were located much further east, were much larger, represented an entire state, and terrible at his job, perhaps the reaction would be different:

A day ahead of school budget elections statewide, Gov. Chris Christie today escalated his war of words with the state teachers' union, accusing union representatives of "using the students like drug mules" to carry information about whether their parents planned to vote.

Christie cited what he called a "mandatory" homework assignment instructing children in the Monroe Township School District to interview their parents about whether and why they would vote on Tuesday. 

"These are the typical kind of scare tactics that they involve themselves in," Christie said about the 200,000-member New Jersey Education Association, which has been critical of his proposed $820 million cut in school aid. "Scaring students in the classroom, scaring parents with the notes home in the bookbags, and the mandatory 'Project Democracy Homework' asking your parents about what they're going to do in the school board election, and reporting back to your teachers union representatives, using the students like drug mules to carry information back to the classroom, is reprehensible."

Steve Wollmer, a spokesman for the NJEA, said a third-grade teacher in Monroe distributed the homework as part of a civics lesson on voter participation, and it had nothing to do with how parents would vote.

"It's just astounding that a governor who just spent a week telling people how to vote would be upset at a teacher for just wondering if people are going to vote," Wollmer said.

A U.S. Representative claims with questionable evidence that illegal immigrants are drug mules.  A state governor claims public school students have been turned into drug mules by their teachers.  The former politician is excoriated; the latter becomes the favorite Republican of the traditional media. of many Independents and Democrats, and of MSNBC.

Blame Christie-love.  Or recognize that insulting illegal immigrants is far more dangerous politically in this neo-liberal age than demeaning public school students and teachers.  Your mileage will vary.  Either way, however, the double standard is remarkable and as outrageous as Steve King's remarks themselves are.

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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Say It Five Times Fast:  "Black-On-Black Crime"

Rapping with conservative talk show host Steve Malzberg on July 19, Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin commented

It is just mind-boggling and, first of all, he doesn’t address the issue of black-on-black crime which is much larger, as you know, and much more of an endemic problem, and he doesn’t comment on every black kid that shoots another black kid.  Why is that? He is only interested in cases that can bring up the race issue? What about the number of black kids that are killed every week, every month in Chicago?

Whenever the topic of guns comes up, conservatives shout "Chicago!" In some cases, as in this, if the subject of guns does not come up, conservatives shout Chicago!"  It's good messaging because the right knows neither Obama nor Democrats will call their bluff.

But the Chicago Police Department traced the origins of 50,000 firearms it recovered from 2001 through March 2012 and, as The New York Times graphically displayed, it found more than half came from other states.  They came from places in which firearms in the hands of civilians are viewed more favorably than they are by, for instance, the Chicago Police Department, the Los Angeles Police Department, or the Philadelphia Police Department.  The origin of the weaponry cries out for national gun control but conservatives are deaf to the carnage those weapons bring to urban America.

Chicago makes an effective whipping boy, especially because the President hails from there and Obama is Rubin's primary target.    She claims he "doesn't comment on every black kid that shoots another black kid. Why is that? He is only interested in cases that can bring up the race issue?"

Why, indeed?  This is apparently a mystery worthy of John Grisham or Arthur Conan Doyle.  Or it could be the more than a thousand people who marched into Manhattan's Times Square July 14 chanting "Justice for! Travon Martin!:  Or the 700 protesters chanting "No Justice, No Peace" in Philadelphia.  Or the protesters in Miami, San Francisco, the District of Columbia, or elsewhere.  It was a pretty big elephant in the room to ignore, and that was before outpouring of the disaffected last weekend.

Unable to resist the fashionable cliche of the moment, Rubin contends the President "doesn't address the issue of black-on-black crime."  She didn't notice him say

Now, this isn't to say that the African American community is naive about the fact that African American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system; that they’re disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence. It’s not to make excuses for that fact -- although black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context.

Again, for conservatives out there:   African-American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system (and are) disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence. The President's is one of the few voices to utter those words, as he is to point out that street crimes "are issues of state and local government, the criminal code. And law enforcement is traditionally done at the state and local levels, not at the federal levels."

But for many on the right, it's not the issue of blacks as offenders or as victims which draws their interest. It's the phrase "black-on-black crime."   Addressing the disproportionate rate of incarceration among blacks, Digby remarked Monday "It has been so touching to see so many Real Americans express their deep concern about what they like to call 'black on black' crime in recent days. Their compassion for their African American brothers and sisters is truly moving."

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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

David Sirota Connects The Dots

The Daily Show's John Oliver on bankruptcy in Detroit (video, below):

But this bankruptcy still came as a surprise, especially since the city recently hired Kevin Orr as emergency manager to avoid this very situation... Yes, that does seem a little suspect. I mean, a bankruptcy lawyer that you hired suggests declaring bankruptcy. It's a little like hiring a demolitions expert to re-shingle your roof.

Not a surprise, especially because Michigan Public Act 4, under which the emergency manager was hired, gives the emergency manager widespread authority, including the right to sell off city assets and to renegotiate labor contracts.  But not, not oddly, to raise taxes.

Instead Detroit, as mandated by state law, cut taxes for both residents and non-residents, in return for which Lansing promised it revenue sharing.  The state did not keep up its end of the bargain.  Yet, that should not have mattered because, as we all know, cutting taxes revs up an economy, increases tax revenues, and puts smiles on the faces of children everywhere.   Alas, it did not turn out that way.

That has not stopped conservatives from blaming the declaration of bankruptcy on liberalism.  Blowhard-in-Chief Rush Limbaugh yesterday remarked Detroit is

the biggest city in the United States to ever go bankrupt.  And why?  Two things, that are actually under the same umbrella:  unions and unchecked liberalism have led to the bankruptcy of Detroit...

And now those very benefits have killed the city of their birth, the birth of the health care benefit.  I mean, the chickens have come home to roost, in the famous words of Reverend Wright.  Is that not something?  The city where health care benefits were created have been brought down, essentially, by health care benefits and pensions and unions.

That, of course, is (to use the technical term) balderdash.  We all understand the impact of the decline of the American automobile industry on the fortunes of Michigan's largest city, once the bastion of the American middle class which is so loathed by Limbaugh and some fellow conservatives.  Less well understood is the role of "free" trade upon the auto industry.David Sirota explains

Detroit isn’t just any old city — it happens to be the biggest population center in the state hit the hardest by the right’s corporate-written trade agenda. Indeed, according to the Economic Policy Institute, the state lost more jobs than any other from NAFTA (43,600, or 1 percent of its total job base) and lost another 79,500 jobs thanks to the China PNTR deal. And that’s just two of many such trade pacts. Add to this the city’s disproportionate reliance on American auto companies which made a series of horrific business decisions, and Detroit is a microcosmic cautionary tale about what happens when large corporations are allowed to write macro economic policy and dictate the economic future of an entire city.

If told, this cautionary tale would likely spark a discussion about revising current trade deals, regulations, public investment and industrial policy in general. That is, it would spark precisely the discussion that the conservative movement and the corporations that fund politicians don’t want America to have. So the right works to make sure that discussion is short circuited by a narrative that focuses the Detroit story primarily on taxes and public pensions.

Money can be found by those who want to find it.  The same state government which appointed an emergency manager it expected to declare bankruptcy set up the Detroit Development Authority, which is tapping $283 million in property tax funds to help finance a new arena for the National Hockey League's Detroit Red Wings.  Sirota describes

... a straightforward conservative formula: the right blames state and municipal budget problems exclusively on public employees’ retirement benefits, often underfunding those public pensions for years. The money raided from those pension funds is then used to enact expensive tax cuts and corporate welfare programs. After years of robbing those pension funds to pay for such giveaways, a crisis inevitably hits, and workers’ pension benefits are blamed — and then slashed. Meanwhile, the massive tax cuts and corporate subsidies are preserved, because we are led to believe they had nothing to do with the crisis. Ultimately, the extra monies taken from retirees are then often plowed into even more tax cuts and more corporate subsidies.

We’ve seen this trick in states all over America lately.

Yes, yes we have.  Sirota mentions Rhode Island and Kentucky, though regrettably, not New Jersey, in which MSNBC's favorite governor and GOP presidential hopeful Chris Christie has raised the tactic to an art form.

There have been, obviously, other factors in Detroit's decline.  The 1967 racial riot, white flight, inept and corrupt local politicians, and sprawl have all played major roles. Still, as Sirota notes, the failure to consider "current trade deals, regulations, public investment and industrial policy in general... plays into the right’s push to enact ever more regressive tax cuts, protect endless corporate welfare and legislate new reductions in workers’ guaranteed pensions."   And that, he recognizes, is no accident.


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Monday, July 22, 2013

Cuomo Doing Stand-Up

Ha! Ha! We all laughed.

Politico reports Andrew Cuomo

says the comeback candidacies of disgraced New York politicians Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer are all part of New York’s “charm.”

“It’s part of the charm of New York, you know. We tend to have the eccentric, we tend to have the entertaining, and this is a little political theater. I think that’s all people think of it,” Cuomo, who has made ethics reform a top priority in Albany, told CBS’s Jan Crawford in an interview aired Monday.

Crawford asked Cuomo, who was in the Adirondacks for a white-water rafting event to showcase tourism in all parts of New York, if the pair’s bid for office was good for the state.

“Everyone knows New York has great theater also, right?” Cuomo said. “It is great theater. It’s great political theater.”

Cuomo, whose name has been floated for 2016, also said he was “not at all” thinking about running for president.

Wink, wink or as The Daily Beast's Dan Gross puts it, "Cue the tabloid jokes about Spitzer’s self-immolation in a prostitution scandal."  But Gross explains

New York City, along with New York State and many other jurisdictions, engages in the practice of putting crucial financial and money-management decisions in the hands of elected officials, rather than in the hands of career bureaucrats. And because of the city’s size and financial heft, there’s a lot at stake. The comptroller oversees the city’s five public-employee pension funds, which combined have about $140 billion in assets and manage money on behalf of 237,000 retirees and 344,000 employees of the city and related entities. The comptroller also helps deal with bond issuance. New York City has about $41 billion in general-obligation debt outstanding. In 2012, the city issued $8.1 billion in new-money bonds, and sold another $6.6 billion in bonds to refinance existing debt at lower interest rates.

The stakes are extremely high. The costs of poor management in these areas are massive, for all taxpayers. The potential for corruption and debacles is pervasive. Municipal finance has historically been a cesspool of conflicts of interest—investment firms help fund the campaigns of officials who dole out underwriting assignments, and the revolving door swivels rapidly. Money-management assignments are often doled out less on merit and more on personal connections. Wall Street firms have routinely sold financial products and investment strategies to unsophisticated city and state money managers that wind up causing big losses for the taxpayers. Alabama’s largest county effectively filed for bankruptcy after having engaged in a complex derivatives transaction with JPMorgan Chase.

And so the sort of person you’d want in the post is somebody who knows Wall Street inside and out, who can see through the conflicts of interest and b.s. that Wall Street firms peddle, whom Wall Street regards as someone to fear rather than a mark, and who has sufficient financial resources that he or she won’t be tempted to dole out favors to money managers in exchange for the prospect of lucrative post-government employment.

Spitzer fits those requirements perfectly. 

The Comptroller of the City of New York does not directly control the $140 billion in assets in the city's five public-employee pension funds; the city contracts management of the assets to outside investment management firms.  Nevertheless, in the words of the current comptroller, the office does "develop overall investment policies, standards and guidelines."Spitzer himself has remarked

Imagine if the pension funds and endowments that own much of the equity in our financial services companies demanded that those companies revisit the way mortgages were marketed to those without adequate skills to understand the products they were being sold. Management would have to change the way things were done.

Alternatively, a comptroller could be irresistibly tempted to make a major, yet less dramatic, reform. Early in July, Kevin Roose noted that each of the pension funds is run independently and  

each pays its own consultants, hires its own investment managers, and sits under its own board of trustees. There are about 60 trustees between the five pension funds and few professional investors among them

Since all the pensions share a goal of maximizing returns, a much better solution would be to consolidate all five agencies under one roof, hire a world-class team of investors to invest the entire pool of money, and cut out a bunch of costs and red tape. Being a single $140 billion pension fund network, rather than a group of five smaller funds, would harness advantages of scale and allow the fund to negotiate for better fee arrangements with private-equity firms and other outside investors. And it would make it possible to attract investing pros to run the fund, rather than boards made up of union representatives and political appointees.

But that would slash the power of the office.  A day earlier, Roose and Dan Amira had suggested the former state attorney general and governor would as comptroller

be able to flex that moral muscle in any number of other situations. He could declare, for example, that the city would no longer invest in funds that owned shares of tobacco companies, casinos, or food chains that used GMOs. These powers have always existed among managers of large pension funds, but they're rarely used. Spitzer, though, seems to relish the chance to bring them back into vogue. The size of New York's pensions means that it "owns the market," he said in another interview with WNYC this morning.

Spitzer could also bring back some of his old prosecutorial zeal, going after corporate executives and boards when they screw up. Interest-rate-rigging banks, crooked consultants, overpaid chieftains like Spitzer's old nemesis Richard Grasso — all of these types could come under the comptroller's microscope. Again, these powers have long existed but rarely been exercised effectively.

Before Spitzer does anything, he would have to survive against Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer a primary whose victor would win the general election.   But whomever wins, there is  a great deal at stake in this race and Eliot Spitzer's candidacy is nothing if not intriguing.  The candidacy- and the race- deserve far more than a patronizing remark about "great political theater" from the state's governor.

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Sunday, July 21, 2013

Some Journalists Uninterested In Those Better Angels

Analyzing President Obama's statement (transcript here, from The Huffington Post) Friday about you-know-what, Slate's John Dickerson recognizes

The moment was carefully orchestrated, which is also signature Obama. The Friday afternoon surprise appearance put this weekend’s marches in context, but it also downplayed the pomp of the moment. This was not a Presidential Speech on Race. The president was not trying to lecture anyone. He was trying to explain, maybe even nudge. Everything—his words, the forum, his manner—were designed to take the air out of the supercharged moment. For a president whose leadership and powers are constantly questioned, he was doing what he had come to office promising to do: help one part of America relate to another part of America.

This middle-of-the-road President is dramatically different than the community organizer who served in the Illinois State Senate, the U.S. Senate, and campaigned for president against Hillary Clinton.   But he always has taken pains not to divide Americans, and his remarks last week ought to become a classic.

Dickerson noted that "context"- mentioned four times- and balance are two of the favorite themes of this President and wrote

In an attempt to keep the message balanced, he also testified to the truth that African-American men are disproportionately linked to the criminal justice system and also "somebody like Trayvon Martin was probably, statistically, more likely to be shot by a peer than he was by somebody else."  As he called for "soul-searching" from all of us, he told African Americans that they needed to deal with the violence in their own communities.

It is fashionable for conservatives and even some moderates and liberals to point to "black-on-black" crime. It is not fashionable, and is at best barely acceptable, to point out, as Obama did, "African American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system; that they’re disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence."

Perhaps only a black President is able to mention that, which would say a whole lot about race in America. But if liberals particularly are loathe to acknowledge the truth about crime rates in the U.S.A., conservatives never have acknowledged

It’s not to make excuses for that fact -- although black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context. They understand that some of the violence that takes place in poor black neighborhoods around the country is born out of a very violent past in this country, and that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history.

In recent years, even most liberals- with apologies to Cornel West and Tavis Smiley- say little about the impact of poverty and dysfunction in the black community.   It might make their corporate benefactors uneasy and allow the mainstream media to brand them big-spending liberals. Can't have that.

Nearing the end of his statement, the President recommended "And those of us in authority should be doing everything we can to encourage the better angels of our nature, as opposed to using these episodes to heighten divisions. "

One can only hope that his message of unity and encouragement of "the better angels of our nature" will have an effect upon some of his strongest supporters, including Washington Post correspondent Jonathan Capeheart, who on Friday wrote

a young man named Alex Fraser took to Facebook a few hours after the verdict was read to pen a most extraordinary open letter to the killer of Trayvon Martin. I first heard about it this morning when Steve Harvey read it on his radio show. It is short, but its power lies in the ironic twist of fate for Zimmerman that Fraser highlights.

Dear George Zimmerman,

For the rest of your life you are now going to feel what its like to be a black man in America.

You will feel people stare at you. Judging you for what you think are unfair reasons. You will lose out on getting jobs for something you feel is outside of your control. You will believe yourself to be an upstanding citizen and wonder why people choose to not see that. 

People will cross the street when they see you coming. They will call you hurtful names. It will drive you so insane some days that you'll want to scream at the top of your lungs. But you will have to wake up the next day, put on firm look and push through life.

I bet you never thought that by shooting a black male you'd end up inheriting all of his struggles.

Enjoy your "freedom."


A black male who could've been Trayvon Martin

Yes, because spitefulness is such a positive emotion, one sure to bring people together.  It is, further, a heck of a way to convince authorities that Zimmerman's permit to carry a concealed weapon be revoked.   And if it has any power, it's the power of someone rebuking a president who, for all his faults, really does want this to be one nation, indivisible.

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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Conversation That Hasn't Started

A great writer, Salon's Alex Pareene, writes a vicious and disappointingly reasoned article accusing Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen of all manner of racial prejudice.  He argues

The occasion of this week’s installment of “Richard Cohen explains why black men should be treated as second-class citizens for the safety of us all, which is to say rich old white men” is the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin. Cohen is very sorry that Martin is dead due to Zimmerman incorrectly assuming him to be a criminal of some sort based solely on Martin’s demographic profile — in other words, Cohen is sorry that Martin is dead because of racial profiling — but on the other hand, Cohen argues, racial profiling is correct and necessary because black people are scary, at least when they wear certain things.

Uh, no.  If you read more carefully (not difficult) than did Pareene, you will read

Where is the politician who will own up to the painful complexity of the problem and acknowledge the widespread fear of crime committed by young black males? This does not mean that raw racism has disappeared, and some judgments are not the product of invidious stereotyping. It does mean, though, that the public knows young black males commit a disproportionate amount of crime. 

And then you will read "After all, if young black males are your shooters, then it ought to be young black males whom the police stop and frisk."  And then you will read "If I were a young black male and were stopped just on account of my appearance, I would feel violated."

If you believe, as Pareene seems to, that there is no difference between black people (as in Cohen thinks "black people are scary") and young black males, consider whether there is a difference between white people and young white males.   The youth and gender make a difference- including as to incidence of crime- with Caucasians, and it would be a major upset if it made no difference among blacks, Hispanics, Asians, or any other racial or ethnic group.

Remarks about Trayvon Martin and Barack Obama aside, Cohen falls short when he maintains

The problems of the black underclass are hardly new. They are surely the product of slavery, the subsequent Jim Crow era and the tenacious persistence of racism. They will be solved someday, but not probably with any existing programs. For want of a better word, the problem is cultural, and it will be solved when the culture, somehow, is changed.

Pareene sarcastically paraphrases Cohen as "Whoops, we created a huge impoverished underclass. There is probably nothing we can do for them now, and they scare me, so they should work on fixing their 'culture.'” Enactment of legislation tends to focus the mind, and people often do not change behavior until persuaded by the force of law, as the history of civil rights legislation demonstrates. Pining for a change in culture removes from government, and the people upon whom its legitimacy rests, the responsibility to alleviate the factors which divide individuals on the basis of race, gender, class, or any other classification.

Pareene notes Cohen "keeps claiming that no one in America is willing to broach the topic of Black Criminals." (Note the capitalization there, a clever and disingenuous implication that Cohen has suggested something dark and institutionalized of blacks.)  And in fact, Cohen does observe "crime where it intersects with race is given the silent treatment," to which Pareene can only snark "and, obviously, the nightly news has no ingrained bias in favor of fear-mongering and sensationalist coverage of crime."

But fear-mongering and sensationalizing crime has no more to do with analysis where crime intersects with race any more than coverage of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West represents a report about the increase of inter-racial marriage in the U.S.A. or coverage of Natalie Portman  is equal to analysis of out-of-wedlock births.    Mention the issues racial disparity in the criminal justice system (or gun violence), conservatives almost reflexively respond "Chicago;" mention urban crime to progressives, "whites" are charged with racism, sexual profiling, or fear of blacks.   Hispanics, Asians, and other ethnic groups escape blame.  Cohen, Pareene contends, is "speaking for rich old white men" and "addressing the fears of white people like Richard Cohen."   Perhaps Hispanics, Asians, and other ethnic groups are unconcerned about street crime, or their motives are beyond reproach.

The national discussion about race is not just beyond the horizon.    Four years ago, Attorney General Eric Holder observed "Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot in things racial, we have always been, and we, I believe, continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards." That was accurate then and remains so, as the response to Richard Cohen demonstrates.

There will be no blogging here for several days.  Please return on Monday, July 22 for scintillating and incisive commentary.  Or for whatever appears.

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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Fevered Complaints

Go ahead- just try.  Try to satisfy the right wing.

On Sunday afternoon, Barack Obama issued the following statement:

The death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy. Not just for his family, or for any one community, but for America. I know this case has elicited strong passions. And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher. But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken. I now ask every American to respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son. And as we do, we should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to widen the circle of compassion and understanding in our own communities. We should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to stem the tide of gun violence that claims too many lives across this country on a daily basis. We should ask ourselves, as individuals and as a society, how we can prevent future tragedies like this. As citizens, that’s a job for all of us. That’s the way to honor Trayvon Martin.

Millions of Americans attributed George Zimmerman's actions to racial profiling and/or racism and demonstrations broke out in major cities throughout the United States.  Many people contended that the nation's entire criminal justice system hinged on race and that animus toward blacksstill saturates the country and its white citizens.  And our first black President merely asks that we honor a deceased teenager with compassion, understanding, and attention to reducing deaths by firearm.

And the right wing couldn't take it. A Daily Caller blogger sarcastically responds "Now we’re getting down to it. Gun control. A Hispanic guy shot a black guy who was beating his head against the sidewalk, so let’s grab up all the guns. Let’s keep people from being able to defend their own lives."  Breitbart implies that the speech was characterized by a "push for gun control laws.  "One at writes rhetorically "So much for respecting the juries verdict. So let’s get this correct, Barack Obama wants to honor Trayvon Martin with gun control?"

Uh, no, he doesn't.  At least as far as we know, he doesn't want us to do any more than to "ask ourselves if we're doing all we can to stem the tide of gun violence that claims too many lives across this country on a daily basis." But If conservatives believe that the only way to cut down on "the tide of gun violence that claims too many lives" is through gun control, so be it.  With few of them ever having acknowledged the role of poverty, joblessness, food inadequacy, discrimination, or environmental factors, a recognition of the importance of national gun control measures is a major step forward. (Obviously, they believe no such thing or perhaps would never admit to recognizing the value of sensible firearm regulation.)

The day after the President's statement, Attorney General Eric Holder spoke (transcript here) at the annual convention of Delta Sigma Theta, a black sorority, where he stated

Of course, as this celebration unfolds, we are also mindful of the pain felt by our nation surrounding the tragic, unnecessary shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida last year – and the state trial that reached its conclusion over the weekend.  As parents, as engaged citizens, and as leaders who stand vigilant against violence in communities across the country, the Deltas are deeply, and rightly, concerned about this case.  The Justice Department shares your concern – I share your concern – and, as we first acknowledged last spring, we have opened an investigation into the matter.

Independent of the legal determination that will be made, I believe that this tragedy provides yet another opportunity for our nation to speak honestly about the complicated and emotionally-charged issues that this case has raised.  We must not – as we have too often in the past – let this opportunity pass.   I hope that we will approach this necessarily difficult dialogue with the same dignity that those who have lost the most, Trayvon’s parents, have demonstrated throughout the last year – and especially over the past few days.  They suffered a pain that no parent should have to endure – and one that I, as a father, cannot begin to conceive.  Even as we embrace their example and hold them in our prayers, we must not forego this opportunity to better understand one another and to make better this nation we cherish.

Moreover, I want to assure you that the Department will continue to act in a manner that is consistent with the facts and the law.  We are committed to standing with the people of Sanford, with the individuals and families affected by this incident, and with our state and local partners in order to alleviate tensions, address community concerns, and promote healing.  We are determined to meet division and confusion with understanding and compassion – and also with truth.  We are resolved, as you are, to combat violence involving or directed at young people, to prevent future tragedies and to deal with the underlying attitudes, mistaken beliefs and stereotypes that serve as the basis for these too common incidents.  And we will never stop working to ensure that – in every case, in every circumstance, and in every community – justice must be done.

Early the following morning, the editors of National Review Online posted a commentary arguing the Attorney General and President Obama

want to fuel the narrative of ever-simmering American racism. Holder made that clear in a speech on Monday at Howard University’s Delta Sigma Theta sorority, claiming — in a less overtly offensive tone than in his 2009 “nation of cowards” speech — that the shooting of Martin presented an opportunity “to speak honestly about the complicated and emotionally charged issues that this case has raised.”

There is nothing less honest than exploiting the Martin family’s tragedy, injecting racism where it has no place, and leaving Zimmerman to twist in the legal wind under the guise of vindicating “civil rights.” Nonetheless, the administration wants its narrative, so it will need to keep its base’s passions inflamed.

No, no, they really did.   The Attorney General says "I believe that this tragedy provides yet another opportunity for our nation to speak honestly about the complicated and emotionally-charged issues that this case has raised."  And one of the most prominent- at one time the most prominent- voices of American conservatism charges Holder with "injecting racism where it has no place."

Here is where the progressive is to say "of course racism played a major role in the failure of the criminal justice system to hold Zimmerman responsible for brazenly, without cause and with malice, shooting to death Trayvon Martin."  But hold on:  Eric Holder did not go even that far.  He did refer to "underlying attitudes, mistaken beliefs and stereotypes" but, oddly, the NRO missed that.  Instead the editors noted the A.G. urged people "to speak honestly about the complicated and emotionally charged issues that this case has raised" and weirdly termed it an effort "to keep its base's passions inflamed."

The passions of the base are inflamed by charges of "racism" or "racial profiling," as even Rush Limbaugh seems to understand when he remarks "The left has begun to talk about 'profiling' here, not racism."  The base is not inflamed by an exhortation to discussion, such as made by Holder.

The response of the criminal justice system in Florida to the killing of Trayvon Martin was not all about race, and probably not primarily about race.  But it was somewhat about race.  The elephant in the room may be ugly and may even smell, but it is there nonetheless and won't go away when we pretend it's not there.

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Monday, July 15, 2013

Race Fixation

The acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin has inspired commentary throughout the punditocracy, including much that is very bad coming from otherwise sane and sober people.

And thus we have Tavis Smiley, a proud liberal and advocate for the poor who, in that capacity, has mustered the courage some progressives lack and criticized, as appropriate, President Obama.  On Sunday's This Week (transcript here) with George Stephanopoulos, Smiley remarked

In just a matter of weeks in this nation we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and that wonderful brilliant speech by Dr. King, "I Have a Dream." In that speech you will recall the one line that we all seem to know, not much else, but we know that one line. "I want my children to one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."

George Zimmerman knew nothing of Trayvon Martin's character. All he saw was his color. Something is wrong in this nation. Fifty years after the March on Washington, while the Voting Rights Act is being gutted, speaking of the Justice Department, what they'll do about that perhaps, something is wrong when adults can racially profile children.

Trayvon Martin was a child, racially profiled and gunned down in...
Turnabout, I guess, is fair play, and the defense endeavored to paint Trayvon Martin as a threatening young man.  And, in fact, at age 17, Martin was not an adult. But he also was not a "child," which the Free Dictionary defines as "a person 14 years and under. A 'child' should be distinguished from a 'minor' who is anyone under 18 in almost all states."Martin was a teenager and minor. He was not a child.  Certainly, Zimmerman "knew nothing of Trayvon Martin's character." As a watch captain in a neighborhood on edge, Zimmerman was suspicious of the young man precisely because he was unknown in the gated community.

Presumably, Martin was "racially profiled" and would not have drawn Zimmerman's attention had he not been black, notwithstanding the tension  prevailing in Twin Lakes.  But he is even less likely to have been profiled by Zimmerman had he not been male or not been young.     Martin fit the stereotype of the individual-  young, black, and male whom residents of the community believed most responsible for recent criminal events.   He fit the stereotype also of the individual most likely to commit offenses in black neighborhoods.  Once, the suffering black communities suffered at the hands of young, male thugs piqued the interest of liberals, who recognized in the examination an opportunity for positive change.  Alas, such concern these days is passe.

Though such interest no longer in vogue, it is common to play the race card while claiming pure motives of your own.   So we find Tavis Smiley invoking the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, adamant that individuals "not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."    Then Smiley, putting forth no evidence or line of reasoning, says "all he (Zimmerman) saw was his color" and consequently the victim was "racially profiled and gunned down."   Smiley implies race doesn't matter to him anymore than to Dr. King, after which he  proves otherwise.

Smiley's skill at strategic communication extends beyond referring to the victim as a "child." There is nothing more likely to incite the ire of whites than to accuse the whole country of or all non-blacks of "racism."   Accusing a whole swatch of individuals or a nation of 300 million+ is acceptable but the word "racism" must be assiduously avoided..   So we have Tavis Smiley describing the verdict as "just another piece of evidence of the incontrovertible contempt that this nation often shows and displays for black men."  No charge of racism is made, only that of an "incontrovertible contempt" displayed not by Zimmerman, the defense attorneys, the jury, or the Florida penal system.  His condemnation is not directed toward an individual, a small group, or a state, which might have provoked the fashionable demand for apology.   Instead, the criticism applies to everyone, for it is "this nation.".  No stereotyping there.

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Sunday, July 14, 2013

All Race, All The Time

Charles Peters, closing out an angry, profane rant about the acquittal of George Zimmerman, finally got it right at the end when he quotes John Dos Passos:  "All right. We are two nations."

Of course, that nation isn't just white and black, or white and minority, or white and "people of color."  It is more complicated than that, as recognized by a presidential candidate five years ago who urged "Do not turn away from these great struggles before us. Do not give up on the causes that we have fought for. Do not walk away from what's possible, because it's time for all of us, all of us together, to make the two Americas one."

In retrospect, that candidate never had a chance, given that he was competing, as someone strategically disadvantaged by race and gender, against two candidates, either of whom was out to make history.   And, against all odds, he wasn't dividing the nation strictly by race.

Obviously, race is virtually nowhere in American society irrelevant, and the criminal justice system is no exception, though attorneys from both the state and the defendant last night told us otherwise. Nonetheless, Peters seems quite obsessed when he writes  

Some night very soon, if he so chooses, George Zimmerman can load his piece, tuck it into the back of his pants, climb into his SUV, and drive around Sanford, Florida looking for a_ _ _ _ _ _ _ and _ _ _ _ _ _ _ punks who are walking through neighborhoods where he, George Zimmerman, defender of law and order, doesn't think they belong. He can drive around Sanford, Florida and check out anyone who is dressed in such a manner as might frighten the average citizen who has been fed a daily diet of "Scary Black Kids" by their local news and by their favorite radio personalities, and who is dressed in such a manner as might seem inappropriate to their surroundings as determined by George Zimmerman, crimebuster. He can drive around Sanford, Florida until he spots an a_ _ _ _ _ _ or a f_ _ _ _ _ _  punk and then he can get out of his SUV, his piece tucked into the back of his pants, and he can stalk the a_ _ _ _ _ _ or the f_ _ _ _ _ _ punk, the one who is in the wrong neighborhood, or who is dressed inappropriately, at least according to George Zimmerman, protector of peace. If the a_ _ _ _ _ _, or the f_ _ _ _ _ _ punk, turns around and objects to being stalked -- or, worse, if the a_ _ _ _ _ _ , or the f_ _ _ _ _ _ punk, decides physically to confront the person stalking him -- then George Zimmerman can whip out the piece from the back of his pants and shoot the a_ _ _ _ _ _, or the f_ _ _ _ _ _ punk, dead right there on the spot. This can happen tonight. That is now possible. Hunting licenses are now available and it's open season on a_ _ _ _ _ _ _, f_ _ _ _ _ _ punks, and kids who wear hoodies at night in neighborhoods where they do not belong, at least according to George Zimmerman, defender of law and order, crimebuster, and protector of the peace, because that is what American society has told George Zimmerman, and all the rest of us, is the just outcome of what happened on one dark and rainy night in February of 2012

Peters, in full hysterical mode, spelled out the full profanity in each case.   But both the virulence and the misguided nature (to be probed in a later post) of much of the response demonstrates how difficult it will be "to make the two Americas one."   We ought, furthermore, to recall the context of the encounter, described a month after the shooting by Amy Green in The Daily Beast:  

In attempting to understand Zimmerman’s actions, much attention has been called to the fact that Martin was black, and to the frequency with which Zimmerman, who is half-white and half-Hispanic, called police in the years leading up to the shooting. Twin Lakes is almost 50 percent white, with Hispanic and African-American populations of about 20 percent each.

Conversations with several residents, however, suggest that Zimmerman’s calls reflect a wider feeling of concern and distrust in the community. For years, Twin Lakes residents had been on edge—demonstrated by their decision last September to start a neighborhood-watch organization, which was initiated by Zimmerman himself. The burglary of Olivia Bertalan’s home was just one of at least eight reported over the previous 14 months—several of which, neighbors said, involved young black men. On Feb. 26, the odds were stacked against Martin: he was a young black man in a neighborhood that was feeling besieged by crime and blaming it—fairly or not—on people who looked like him.

Three weeks before Martin’s death another Twin Lakes resident arrived home to discover a kitchen window open and a laptop and gold necklaces missing. Two witnesses said they saw a young black man standing nearby, but they did not see the man break into the home, according to a police report. One witness said he believed it was the same man who had stolen his bike. The next day officers responding to a call confronted three black men and one white man on bikes near the neighborhood. The same witnesses identified one of the men as the same man they saw near the burglarized home. The officers found the laptop in the man's backpack.

Last July a rental car was stolen from one townhome along with the car keys, which were inside on a dining room table. The resident awoke in the morning to discover her sliding glass door open. The car was eventually found abandoned. In August a PlayStation and videogames were stolen from another townhome. In September someone vandalized a townhome under construction. In December someone broke into a foreclosed townhome, stopped up a toilet and started the water running. According to a police report, the water flooded the bedroom and caused drywall in the garage to collapse.

During the months before he shot Martin, Zimmerman called police about once a month, said Kim Cannaday, spokeswoman for the Seminole County Sheriff's Office. He called about suspicious-looking people in the neighborhood, many whom, like Martin, he identified as black. Zimmerman also called to report a neighbor's garage door open and children playing in the street, asking that he remain anonymous so as not to offend other neighbors.

In all, police have records of 46 calls from Zimmerman since 2004, both to 911 and a nonemergency number, sometimes for reasons as mundane as reporting a pothole blocking a road, as he did in 2005. The sheriff’s office released the records after Sanford police detectives requested them as part of the investigation into Martin’s death, Cannaday said.

Cannaday said he did not believe that the number of calls Zimmerman made to police was itself concerning.

"I would not consider it excessive," Cannaday said. "That's typically what we encourage, is if anyone in the community sees something out of the ordinary, concerning, or suspicious, we would want for them to call."

Olivia Bertalan said it was George Zimmerman's wife, in fact, who helped her to identify the burglar who stole her laptop. Bertalan didn't know Zimmerman well, but said he was helpful and "sweet" after the crime, inviting her to call them anytime if she felt afraid or needed anything.

Officers eventually identified the person who burglarized Bertalan's home as a neighbor. He was arrested but released because, as Bertalan understood it, he was a minor. Both he and the other man were black, according to the police report.

After the crime, Bertalan said, she was afraid to come home and find things missing. She and her husband got a dog, as advised by police.

"There was definitely a sense of fear in the neighborhood after all of this started happening, and it just kept on happening. It wasn't just a one-time thing. It was every week," she said. "Our next-door neighbor actually said if someone came into his yard he would shoot him. If someone came into his house he would shoot him. Everyone felt afraid and scared."

The crime and fear surrounding it do not justify the horrific killing of February 26, 2012, nor do they indicate whether George Zimmerman was in fact guilty of second degree murder or manslaughter.   But neither does Peters' remark that   

Zimmerman could have been back, standing his post, watching for a_ _ _ _ _ _ _ and f_ _ _ _ _ _  punks, the very next night, according to the original assessment made by local law enforcement. Instead, people who filled George Zimmerman's fevered definition of a_ _ _ _ _ _ _ and f_ _ _ _ _ _ punks roamed free, wearing their hoodies at will.

Ultimately, George Zimmerman was to have been found guilty or not guilty according to the law of the state of Florida which, unfortunately, is confusing, a factor which seems to have escaped almost everyone's attention (though not hers).  He could not be let off on basis of the fear sweeping the neighborhood, though it provides a glimpse into motivation.  Nor should he have been convicted on the basis of perceived (and unproven) racist inclinations, his interest in police work, or hoodie-phobia.

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