Sunday, March 29, 2015

Odds & Ends

In the event that Iran and the members of P5+1 reach a preliminary agreement on Iran's nuclear program this week, we can expect a release of sound and fury from conservatives about how it sets the world on fire. To prepare yourself for making your own determination about the value of any such agreement, Jeffrey Goldberg lists the five questions you should ask.

During the 1980's when Iran and Iraq were at war with each other, the Reagan and Bush administrations facilitated the selling of chemical agents and equipment to Iraq. Then during the first Gulf War, the U.S. bombed some of those chemical weapons facilities and more than 200,000 of our troops were exposed to nerve gas and other chemical agents. If you've ever questioned why President Obama hesitates to arm factions in the Middle East, you'll want to read the whole story by Barbara Koeppel.

One of the negative consequences to the delay in a Senate vote to confirm the nomination of Loretta Lynch as our next Attorney General is that it has given rightwing advocacy groups more time to lobby against her. It should come as no surprise to anyone that the NRA is doing just that.

Yesterday when I listed some of the recent accomplishments of the Civil Rights Division at DOJ, I left one out.
Teenagers awaiting trial on adult charges in Baltimore are being kept in solitary confinement for far too long — up to 143 days in one case, according to a highly critical review by the U.S. Justice Department's Division of Civil Rights.

Federal prosecutors say being isolated for more than a few days can damage a person's mental health — especially if it's a teenager whose brain is still developing. But teenagers accused of breaking rules inside the Baltimore City Detention Center are being isolated for 13 days on average, and in some cases, far longer.
Placing children (and yes, teenagers are children) in solitary confinement is unacceptable. End of story.

On a lighter note, here's something to look forward to this fall.
Focus Features has slated Suffragette, starring Meryl Streep, Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham Carter, for an October 23 limited release. Inspired by the early-20th century campaign for women’s right to vote, the film sports potentially awards-friendly subject matter — not to mention a certain 19-time Oscar nominee...

Director Sarah Gavron’s pic centers on Maud (Mulligan), a working wife and mother who decides she must fight for her dignity both at home and in her workplace. Realizing she is not alone, she joins with several other women in becoming an activist. Those early efforts at resistance were passive, but the suffragettes become galvanized — risking it all for the cause of women’s right.

That provides the perfect segue into the next entry in "Nancy's favorite feminist songs." This one has a definite 80's feel to it. But I still love it a lot.

The Effects of Epistemic Closure

Back in 2010, Julian Sanchez did us all a favor by defining something he called "epistemic closure."
One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. (How do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!) This epistemic closure can be a source of solidarity and energy, but it also renders the conservative media ecosystem fragile...It’s not just that any particular criticism might have to be taken seriously coming from a fellow conservative. Rather, it’s that anything that breaks down the tacit equivalence between “critic of conservatives" and “wicked liberal smear artist” undermines the effectiveness of the entire information filter.
The only information allowed inside this bubble of epistemic closure conservatives have built is that which confirms what they already believe to be true. Anything that contradicts their beliefs is written off as coming from "wicked liberal smear artists" and so, not only will it be rejected, it must be destroyed for the threat it represents.

As Sanchez points out - that creates a certain vulnerability for conservatives. What happens is that every now and then, the reality outside the bubble is simply too difficult to ignore and/or reject. We all watched as that happened to one conservative commentator after another on election night 2012. Even the Republican candidate himself was finally shaken out of his epistemic closure. Reality stepped in a provided a bitter pill for all to swallow.

But when your whole identity has been built underneath the protection of that bubble of epistemic closure, even moments like that are followed by rationalizations that breech the fabric that was torn by the intrusion of reality.

What we're witnessing right now is that Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana is experiencing just such a breach in the bubble of his own epistemic closure. He actually believed that the people of Indiana (and the country) would hail his state's adoption of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act because that's what everyone inside his bubble believes.
I spoke with Pence on the same day that thousands of people rallied at the Statehouse in opposition to the law. And the same day that Angie’s List CEO Bill Oesterle announced that his company will abandon a deal with the state and city to expand the company’s headquarters in Indianapolis because of RFRA’s passage.

Oesterle’s statement is a telling sign that the outrage over RFRA isn’t limited only to the political left. Oesterle directed Republican Mitch Daniels’ 2004 campaign for governor. And it’s a signal that the damage from the RFRA debacle could be extensive...

I asked the governor if he had anticipated the strongly negative reaction set off by the bill’s passage. His response made it clear that he and his team didn’t see it coming.

“I just can’t account for the hostility that’s been directed at our state,” he said.
Of course Gov. Pence is now backtracking on this bill and promising to clear up the "confusion" about its intent. But, just as legislators in Georgia learned this week, it is the intention of supporters of RFRA to discriminate against LGBT people. He's about to learn precisely what it means to be between a rock and a hard place.

Democrats should take note of this moment. We often give the pronouncements of those who live inside a bubble of epistemic closure too much power. As Stephen Colbert said so many years ago, "Reality has a well-known liberal bias."

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Odds & Ends

Recently I wrote about how the Obama administration has strengthened the Civil Rights Division at DOJ. This week they made some big announcements:
Yesterday Ed Kilgore wrote about the confusion Scott Walker's pronouncements have created over the use of the word "amnesty" amongst conservatives. Apparently Walker isn't the only one that has people scratching their heads over this one.
Republican presidential hopeful Ted Cruz’s office on Friday indicated the Texas senator remains open to a path to legal status for undocumented workers, putting him at odds with conservatives who deride such a position as unacceptable “amnesty.”...

The idea anyone could get to the right of Cruz on immigration, who has repeatedly threatened to shut down the government to defund Obama’s “illegal executive amnesty” might come as a surprise. But by the terms of the immigration debate set out so far, his bona fides could absolutely come into question. Many conservatives, including the leading anti-immigration groups, consider any policy that falls short of deportation “amnesty.”...

This lack of an clear definition of amnesty, beyond “thing conservatives don’t like,” can create a lot of confusion in trying to tease out candidate’s positions.
As we look toward the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris later this year, Mexico is the latest country to get on board with a plan to cap greenhouse emissions.

Astronauts Scott Kelly, Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka made it to the space station for their #YearInSpace.
The crew will support several hundred experiments in biology, biotechnology, physical science and Earth science — research that impacts life on Earth. Data and samples will be collected throughout the year from a series of studies involving Scott and his twin brother, former NASA astronaut Mark Kelly [Gabby Gifford's husband]. The studies will compare data from the genetically-identical Kelly brothers to identify any subtle changes caused by spaceflight.

Finally, I've decided to adopt a focus for my musical postings. Over the next few months I'm going to highlight some of my favorite feminist songs. Of course there will be a few obvious choices. But stick around...some may surprise you. Also, feel free to suggest what you think I should include.

For today, here is a new cover of Lesley Gore's "You Don't Own Me" by Grace (featuring G-Eazy). It's good to know that the young folks still respect this feminist anthem.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Free Eric Holder

I can't tell you how much I LOVE this!
A new fashion trend is sweeping the halls of the Justice Department for spring – “Free Eric Holder’’ wristbands, an inside joke among Attorney General Eric Holder‘s top aides and supporters about the months-long political standoff over his successor.

The black rubber bracelets were the idea of Molly Moran, a senior Justice Department official, according to people who have received them. The wristbands, like the kind people wear to support various charities or causes, started appearing on staffers’ wrists a couple weeks ago, when it became clear there was no end in sight to the standoff over the nomination of Loretta Lynch...

Staffers have paid for the bracelets with their own money – not taxpayer funds – and have talked about making Free Eric Holder T-shirts as well.

“We’re hoping for a day we don’t have to wear these bracelets anymore, even if it takes a charity album,’’ joked one.
One of the best ways to deal with the kind of insanity we're seeing from Congressional Republicans over things like the Loretta Lynch nomination is to simply point and laugh. Good job on that front Molly!

What Minnesota and California Have in Common

I've probably done enough humble-bragging about my home state of Minnesota and Governor Mark Dayton. But I did appreciate the way this visual summed it up.

I was also reminded that the two states in the country that are getting a lot of attention right now for their robust economic recovery are Minnesota and California.
For years, business lobbyists complained about what they derided as "job killer" laws that drive employers out of California.

Rival state governors, notably former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, made highly publicized visits to the Golden State in hopes of poaching jobs.

But new numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics tell a different story. Total jobs created in the 12 months ending Jan. 31 show California leading other states. California gained 498,000 new jobs, almost 30% more than the Lone Star State's total of 392,900 for the same period.
Of course these two states have almost nothing in common. But there are a couple of things that stand out. Both Governors - Mark Dayton and Jerry Brown - took office in January 2011 following Republicans who had served more than one term. They beat the odds of the 2010 midterm elections that brought in Republican Governors like Scott Walker, Rick Scott, Rick Snyder and Sam Brownback.

But what I find even more interesting is that both of these Governors are old white guy political re-treads. Perhaps that's just a meaningless coincidence. But in an era when there is a lot of focus on young up-and-coming energetic newcomers in politics, it does make me wonder if the old guys who have already been around the block once or twice might not bring something to the table that we need these days.

Just a thought...

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Two Men I Admire Most...In Conversation (updated)

As soon as I saw this, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven ;-)

Barack Obama and David Simon talked about The Wire and our failed war on drugs.

I also have to note that, in the midst of this conversation, President Obama points out something that I wrote about a few weeks ago: the fact that one of the reasons why the Labor Force Participation Rate (LFPR) remains low is that our over-incarceration during the war on drugs has produced a record number of Americans with felony records (mostly brown and black men).

UPDATE: Question: Why would President Obama do this interview now? He's laying the groundwork and setting the stage. Somethin's up.

The Lack of Consensus on GOP Foreign Policy

Over the last few elections, the centerpiece of Republican campaigns has been to blame President Obama and Democrats for the slow economic recovery from the great recession. But now that Americans are finally feeling the benefits of a stronger economy, that is going to be a tough sell.

For now, it appears that the big issue Republicans want us to all focus on for 2016 is foreign policy. Step one in that process is to convince us all that the "world is on fire" and we are threatened by "Islamic extremists." Step two is to suggest that this is all President Obama's fault and he is doing nothing to stop it.

If this were a rational approach to political differences, step three would be to promote an alternative strategy to address the problem. But other than truly deranged people like John Bolton (who actually laid out a plan for war with Iran), we get no specifics.

Unlike Republican attempts to hide their actual economic policies (see budget gimmicks), I would suggest that their lack of specifics on foreign policy has less to do with an awareness that Americans wouldn't support their proposals and more to do with the fact that there is no consensus about what an alternative strategy would be.

Right now the fear-mongering that is fueled by Obama Derangement Syndrome is playing right into the hands of the neocon interventionists. That is making life difficult for Sen. Rand Paul. As some have noted, it puts him in the position of having to decide whether or not to abandon his father's non-interventionist libertarianism and contempt for Israel.

As I have been pointing out recently though, it also puts Jeb Bush in a bit of a bind. Matt Lewis suggests that the pressure he is feeling is whether or not to align himself with his father's "realists" on foreign policy or his brother's neocons. Lewis reminds us that it wasn't just James Baker who parted ways with the latter. Back in 2002, Brent Scowcroft (national security advisor to both President's Ford and George H.W. Bush) published a prescient op-ed in the Wall Street Journal titled: Don't Attack Saddam.

Over the Bush/Cheney years, this disagreement between the neocons and the realists was mostly kept under wraps. But as I have suggested, it appears that in 2006 (when Rumsfeld was fired and Cheney sidelined), the realists staged a quiet coup and took over. The idea that Poppy Bush and his friends would sit quietly by and watch Jeb make all the same mistakes brother George did is not likely.

The truth is that, in their modern-day iterations, the lines that separate Republicans and Democrats were more clearly driven by domestic than foreign policy differences. After all, it was Kennedy who got us into the war in Vietnam, Johnson who escalated it, and Nixon who ended it. In a fascinating overview, Ronald Reagan's assistant secretary of defense Lawrence Korb has written about where there is overlap between President Obama's foreign policy and that of Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

I'm not sure that in today's political climate it is possible to have a rational discussion about what a foreign policy for the 21st century should look like. President Obama has clearly outlined his own thoughts on that and we are just now beginning to finally extricate ourselves from the mess the neocons made of things during the Bush/Cheney years. As they ramp up the fear-mongering to suggest we should repeat those mistakes, it will be interesting to watch whether or not the libertarians and realists still have a voice in the Republican Party.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

GOP Sanity? Oh No - We Can't Have That!

It's clear that the sanity expressed by Former Secretary of State James Baker on Israel and Iran that I wrote about yesterday has posed a bit of a problem for Jeb Bush. The so-called "establishment candidate" is already in trouble with the Republican base for his lackluster demonization of Common Core and his position on immigration reform. So it should come as no surprise that today the latest Bush candidate for president had to respond to Baker's speech with an op-ed in the National Review.

Jeb didn't really say anything noteworthy in his commentary. It contains all of the usual distortions about President Obama's actual positions and policies as well as being completely devoid of alternatives. But I have to say that this sentence is particularly absurd coming from someone named Bush.
And Iraq continues to fall further under Iran’s orbit — a surrender of American influence and an insult to the troops and commanders who sacrificed mightily to stabilize that country.
Of course Jeb wants us to blame that on Obama and completely forget that it was his bother's decision to force regime change in Iraq that installed a Shia government led by Iran-friendly Nouri al-Maliki - whose suppression of Sunnis is what led to the formation of ISIS in Iraq.

But nevermind...Jeb has a presidential campaign to run. Appealing to Republican sanity has become a losing proposition.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Photo of the Day: Supergirls

President Barack Obama made some waves and warned the robots at the White House Science Fair on Monday, but it was the elementary-school Supergirls who captured his science-loving heart. Wearing red capes over their Girl Scout uniforms, the 6-year-olds from Tulsa, Oklahoma, showed off a page-turning robot, made from Lego blocks and designed for use by disabled people. Later, Obama confessed he was tickled by the kids' command of techno-lingo. "This is a quote. They said, 'It's just a prototype,'" he recalled.

Let's Run the Tape Back

Last week in Cleveland, President Obama said this:
It’s important to note that at every step that we’ve taken over the past six years we were told our goals were misguided; they were too ambitious; that my administration’s policies would crush jobs and explode deficits, and destroy the economy forever. Remember that? Because sometimes we don’t do the instant replay, we don’t run the tape back, and then we end up having the same argument going forward.
The folks at NowThis pulled the tape so we could run it back.

It's a total unambiguous route for President Obama.

The Good Ol' Days When Republicans Were Capable of Sanity

I've often thought about how out of touch the George H.W. Bush administration would be with the current iteration of the Republican Party. That perspective was confirmed after reading former Secretary of State James Baker's remarks about Netanyahu. I am relieved that at least someone in the GOP is still capable of telling the truth.
Blasting “diplomatic missteps and political gamesmanship,” former Secretary of State James Baker laid in hard to the Israeli prime minister on Monday evening, criticizing him for an insufficient commitment to peace and an absolutist opposition to the Iran nuclear talks...

Baker, who was the chief diplomat for President George H.W. Bush and is now advising Jeb Bush on his presidential campaign, cited mounting frustrations with Netanyahu over the past six years — but particularly with comments he made in the closing days of last week’s election disavowing his support for a two-state solution and support for settlements strategically placed to attempt to change the borders between Israel and the West Bank...

Baker said while Netanyahu has said he’s for peace, “his actions have not matched his rhetoric.”

Some Republicans in Congress have claimed Obama has eroded American support of Israel. That’s wrong, too, Baker said.

“No one around the entire world should ever doubt America’s commitment to Israel, Not now, or at any point in the future,” he said.

“Although Netanyahu and his right-and-center coalition may oppose a two-state solution, a land-for-peace approach has long been supported by a substantial portion of the Israeli body politic, by every American [administration] since 1967 — Republican and Democratic alike — and a vast majority of nations around the world,” Baker said.

As to Netanyahu’s opposition on Iran, Baker warned against seeking only a perfect deal.

“If the only agreement is one in which there is no enrichment, then there will be no agreement,” Baker said.

After all, Baker said, no military solution could work in his assessment: an American strike would only generate more support among Iranians for the fundamentalist government, and an Israeli strike would neither be as effective nor carry American support.
In case it's been so long that you can't remember, that's what grown-up Republicans were capable of before they contracted Obama Derangement Syndrome.  It's a great example of just how far afield the current crop has gotten.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Watch This...You Must

Hat tip to my friend @AlanMandel

Blurring the Lines

Remember that time Maureen Dowd wondered why President Obama couldn't be more like the president Michael Douglas played in the movie The American President? And remember when President Obama's response was to point at her during the White House Correspondent's Dinner and laugh?

Well...I've got some material for the President's next comedy routine. Apparently the pollsters at Reuters/IPSOS have a bit too much time on their hands because they recently decided that it would be worth it to find out how President Obama's popularity stacks up against his television counterparts in pretend-world.

Seriously. I'm not talking about fake pollsters at Comedy Central. Reuters (supposedly a serious news outfit) really invested time and money to find out whether fake presidents are more popular than a real president.

I was reminded that John Stewart tends to react negatively when people compare him to real journalists. Even though he often packs more actual news into segments than the serious people do. And so I wonder when its time to start comparing journalists to comedians...even if what they produce isn't funny at all.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

"There Can Be No Democratic Jewish State Unless There Is Also a Palestinian State"

As I mentioned recently, here is something President Obama said to Jeffrey Goldberg about a year ago:
What I’ve said to him [Netanyahu] privately is the same thing that I say publicly, which is the situation will not improve or resolve itself. This is not a situation where you wait and the problem goes away. There are going to be more Palestinians, not fewer Palestinians, as time goes on. There are going to be more Arab-Israelis, not fewer Arab-Israelis, as time goes on...

I have not yet heard, however, a persuasive vision of how Israel survives as a democracy and a Jewish state at peace with its neighbors in the absence of a peace deal with the Palestinians and a two-state solution. Nobody has presented me a credible scenario.
For those who don't understand what he was talking about (i.e., Rep. Steve King), Dana Milbank makes it all perfectly and profoundly clear.
...for abandoning the idea of a Palestinian state will destroy the Jewish state just as surely, if not as swiftly, as an Iranian nuclear bomb.

This is a matter not of ideology but of arithmetic. Without a Palestinian state, Israel can be either a Jewish state or a democracy but not both. If it annexes the Palestinian territories and remains democratic, it will be split roughly evenly between Jews and Arabs; if it annexes the territories and suppresses the rights of Arabs, it ceases to be democratic... the end there can be no democratic Jewish state unless there is also a Palestinian state.
This is the reality Netanyahu (and his supporters) want to deny. Its also why his fear-mongering on election day about Arab-Israelis voting is of such great concern.

Those who want Israel to survive as a democracy and a Jewish state at peace with their neighbors have no choice but to work towards developing a two-state solution. That is exactly what President Obama will continue to do.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

GOP Projection

Sen. Marco Rubio:
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio says that if elected president, he would "absolutely" defy stalwart European allies if necessary in order to revoke an Iranian nuclear deal he might inherit from President Barack Obama.
Sen. Lindsay Graham:
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) warned Thursday that he would slash U.S. funding to the United Nations if the body decides to lift its sanctions on Iran as part of a nuclear agreement.
Sen. Tom Cotton:
Cotton, apparently unbowed by the outcry over his recent open letter to Iranian leaders, introduced a bill on Wednesday that would cut U.S. funding to countries that receive former Guantanamo detainees who are later suspected of terrorism.
Yep. These are leaders of the same Party that says President Obama has caused the United States to lose the trust and confidence of our allies. At what point have we demonstrated that about 99% of what they complain about is simply projection?