Thursday, December 31, 2015

A Crisis of Confidence in Our Criminal Justice System

I mentioned the other day that the most deeply troubling take-away for me after watching the Netflix documentary series "Making a Murderer" was the inability of our criminal justice system to correct mistakes and hold members of that system accountable. We've seen the same thing happen in many of the cases of police shootings - most recently in Cleveland with the shooting of 12 year-old Tamir Rice. The whole "bad apple" defense falls apart when the system does everything in its power to cover up for the corruption of those bad apples.

I've heard some comparisons lately to another recent movie - Spotlight - about the journalists who were responsible for uncovering Boston's sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. The parallel that has been drawn is about the lengths those journalists at the Boston Globe had to go to in order to get the Church (and community) to admit that it had a problem. Simple proof wasn't enough. The evidence had to be overwhelmingly conclusive. In the process, the Church invited it's own crisis of confidence.

Ta Nehisi-Coates sees the same thing happening to law enforcement right now.
When policing is delegitimized, when it becomes an occupying force, the community suffers. The neighbor-on-neighbor violence in Chicago, and in black communities around the country, is not an optical illusion. Policing is (one) part of the solution to that violence. But if citizens don’t trust officers, then policing can’t actually work. And in Chicago, it is very hard to muster reasons for trust.

When Bettie Jones’s brother displays zero confidence in an investigation into the killing of his sister, he is not being cynical. He is shrewdly observing a government that executed a young man and sought to hide that fact from citizens. He is intelligently assessing a local government which, for two decades, ran a torture ring. What we have made of our police departments America, what we have ordered them to do, is a direct challenge to any usable definition of democracy. A state that allows its agents to kill, to beat, to tase, without any real sanction, has ceased to govern and has commenced to simply rule.
The extent to which you see things as seriously as Coates is probably directly proportional to the degree to which you have been victimized by one of the various ways that corruption has been manifested in different parts of the country. But it seems clear to me that many of the institutions of our criminal justice system are responding to the concerns in much the same way that the Catholic Church tried to deny and cover up the incidents of sexual abuse among priests. We can't afford that kind of crisis of confidence in this system.

If you think that this is merely a problem that affects people of color in urban areas, the story of Steven Avery in Making a Murderer should disabuse you of that. But here's another tell-tale sign of that lack of confidence in the system...and one that reaches a more positive conclusion, perhaps for the wrong reason. The editors of the Dallas Morning News report that Texans seem to be losing their appetite for the death penalty.
“People have become a lot more aware of some of the critical problems that persistently affect capital cases,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment. “Probably the most significant issue is questions of innocence.”...

Confidence in the system’s integrity is waning. It should only follow that support for the death penalty follows suit.
What should also follow suit is that we take a good hard look at the system's lack of integrity and do something about it. That starts with admitting that there is a problem.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

15 Photos of POTUS in 2015

White House photographer Pete Souza has posted his annual collection of favorite photos for 2015. I've chosen 15 to post here because I found them to be either somber reminders, historical moments or just simply too adorable (with an admitted emphasis on the latter). Enjoy!

Republicans Want Revenge

If you're a Democrat who occasionally talks to Republicans, you might have heard this response when you point to the ridiculous charges that have been waged against President Obama: "Democrats did the same thing to George W. Bush when he was president."

What can ring true about a statement like that is that a lot of Democrats thought that things like invading a country based on lies, sanctioning the use of torture, and skirting Constitutional processes by setting up a prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba were actions that are antithetical to our values as Americans. Now listen to how Frank Luntz describes what Trump supporters think about President Obama:
...just about all of them think he does not reflect the values the country was built upon.
For those of you who think I've lost my mind by making that comparison, stick with me. I have a bigger point that I want to make beyond a question of whose argument is more grounded in reality.

It is true that liberals/Democrats were incredibly angry at the direction George W. Bush took this country. And so it is interesting to note who they looked to for leadership to change all that. They picked this guy:

Regardless of how you feel about the "values" that are/are not being threatened today, it is crystal clear that the direction Republicans are going these days with their anger is the opposite. As Luntz says, "Trump voters are not just angry - they want revenge."

The anger these voters are feeling goes to something a lot deeper than what Luntz suggests with this:
His [Trump's] support denotes an abiding distrust in — and disrespect for — the governing elite. These individuals do not like being told by Washington or Wall Street what is best for them, do not like the direction America is headed in, and disdain President Barack Obama and his (perceived) circle of self-righteous, tone-deaf governing partisans.
That pretty well captures how a lot of Democrats felt after the Bush/Cheney era. But it does very little to explain why so many Republicans are thrilled with Donald Trump's ravings against Mexicans, Muslims, women, African Americans, etc. Nope...there is something much deeper at work here. I described it as a world view in its death throes.

So the next time a Republican tells you that their reaction to 8 years of a Democratic president is no different than yours was to 8 years of a Republican president, remind them of how differently Democrats handled that anger. They're looking for revenge. We elected the guy who reminded us about "e pluribus unum."

The 2016 Senate Race

Leading up to the 2014 midterms, almost everyone acknowledged that the deck was stacked in favor of Republicans. That was especially true in Senate races where Democrats from some swing and red states who had been swept into office in the 2008 election of President Obama came up for re-election.

Going into the 2016 election, all that has been reversed. This time the odds favor Democrats. That becomes obvious when we take a look at Hotline's list of the of the 12 Senate seats most likely to flip. Keep in mind that these are listed in order of those most likely to flip party control.

1. Illinois - Mark Kirk (R)
2. Wisconsin - Ron Johnson (R)
3. New Hampshire - Kelly Ayotte (R)
4. Florida - Open (Marco Rubio -R)
5. Pennsylvania - Pat Toomey (R)
6. Ohio - Rob Portman (R)
7. Nevada - Open (Harry Reid - D)
8. Colorado - Michael Bennet (D)
9. Missouri - Roy Blunt (R)
10. North Carolina - Richard Burr (R)
11. Arizona - John McCain (R)
12. Indiana - Open (Dan Coats - R)

The first thing that strikes me from this list is that you have to get to number 7 before you find a possibility for a Senate seat to flip from Democrat to Republican. And there are only two of those on this list of twelve.

Secondly, the party that wins six of these twelve seats will likely control the Senate (depending on whether a Republican or Democrat is elected president). Since the overwhelming majority of these vulnerable seats are Republican, Democrats have many more chances to make that happen.

Finally, six of the incumbent Republicans (plus Marco Rubio) were elected to the Senate for the first time in the 2010 midterms when turnout was lower than during presidential elections and there was a wave of Republican revolt enflamed by the Tea Partiers. The larger 2016 electorate will test their staying power.

Of course, when discussing control of the Senate it is always important to remember that these days, having a majority means being able to name the Majority Leader and committee chairs. As long as the bar is set at a supermajority of 60 votes to actually pass legislation, the victory is limited. But right now, the odds of a limited victory in 2016 heavily favor the Democrats.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

A Bad Day for Republican Lies

Traveling with Chris Christie in Iowa today, here's part of Zeke Miller's report:
That's pretty bad timing for Christie given recent events.

As I mentioned yesterday, Iraqi forces are in the final stages of retaking the city of Ramadi from ISIS with assistance from U.S. air power. Today, Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi was actually able to visit the city.

From Brussels comes news that authorities were able to stop a terror attack.
In a series of raids on Sunday and Monday around Brussels, the surrounding Flemish-speaking region of Brabant, and the city of Li├Ęge, the authorities found Islamic State propaganda and military-style hardware and computer equipment in the homes of the two suspects.

Investigators say they believe that the two suspects being held “were possibly planning” and “had the intention to carry out” terrorist attacks on Brussels’s city center “in the same style” as the coordinated series of attacks in Paris on Nov. 13, a spokesman for the federal prosecutor’s office said.
And in other news...
"Over the past month, we've killed 10 ISIL leadership figures with targeted air strikes, including several external attack planners, some of whom are linked to the Paris attacks," said U.S. Army Colonel Steve Warren, a spokesman for the U.S.-led military campaign against Islamic State, also known by the acronym ISIL. "Others had designs on further attacking the West."

One of those killed was Abdul Qader Hakim, who facilitated the militants' external operations and had links to the Paris attack network, Warren said. He was killed in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on Dec. 26.

A coalition air strike on Dec. 24 in Syria killed Charaffe al Mouadan, a Syria-based Islamic State member with a direct link to Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected ringleader of the coordinated bombings and shootings in Paris on Nov. 13 which killed 130 people, Warren said. Mouadan was actively planning further attacks against the West, he said.
To pile on just a bit, remember how the Republicans have been insisting that Iran will never really comply with the agreement reached this year about stopping their attempts to gain nuclear weapons? turns out they were wrong about that one too.
A Russian ship left Iran on Monday carrying almost all of Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium, fulfilling a major step in the nuclear deal struck last summer and, for the first time in nearly a decade, apparently leaving Iran with too little fuel to manufacture a nuclear weapon.
Perhaps the problem for Gov. Christie is that he's been so busy on the campaign trail that "he doesn't have the first idea" of what the President is actually doing to keep us safe.

Ya think? Nah, me either.

It is just a really bad day to be in the business of spreading these kinds of lies.

Rubio as Computer Algorithm

I remember a few months ago watching Bret Baier interview Marco Rubio on Fox News and being impressed with how articulate he was. It represented a dramatic improvement from that time Rubio fumbled so badly in his role of providing the Republican response to President Obama's 2013 State of the Union Speech. My thought was..."he's been practicing." And immediately it dawned on me that perhaps that was how he was spending all the time he took off from casting votes in the Senate.

The problem for Rubio is that rehearsed answers don't always cut it. That's what Erik Eisele noticed when the candidate sat down for an interview with staff from New Hampshire's Conway Daily Sun.
In New Hampshire we’re lucky. We guard the frontline of presidential politics. Every four years the candidates come, wave after wave, to sit and discuss the issues, to interview for the job. It’s a democratic utopia, a dreamland for reporters, where the action is.

But it’s a weird place too. It’s a place where you interact on a human level with people more prepared to address a television camera. It’s like they train to address crowds from podiums and lose the ability to engage a room of a dozen.

That was Rubio. We had roughly 20 minutes with him on Monday, and in that time he talked about ISIS, the economy, his political record and his background. But it was like watching a computer algorithm designed to cover talking points. He said a lot, but at the same time said nothing. It was like someone wound him up, pointed him towards the doors and pushed play. If there was a human side to senator, a soul, it didn’t come across through.
Ouch!! That one hurt.

To be fair, I'm sure that Rubio has a soul. It's just that he can't afford for any of us "rubes" to see it and still expect to win the presidency. But if he were to win the nomination (a yuuuge "if" right now), the algorithm will break down at some point in the process and his soul will be on display for all to see. That's what happened when Romney's true self broke through and he shouted angrily that "corporations are people!" Or when, thinking he was behind closed doors with his buddies, he talked about the 47% of us who are losers that only want free stuff. Yep, that's exactly what awaits Rubio if he gets the nomination.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Why You Should Watch "Making a Murderer"

Last week I started seeing people rave (mostly on twitter) about the new Netflix series "Making a Murderer." So over the weekend, I decided to watch it. The story is as gripping as everyone claimed it was. But it stirred something deep inside of me that I can't shake. As someone else put it, "This is the worst indictment of the criminal justice system in America that I’ve ever seen."

While I promise not to give away too many spoilers about the story, it takes place far away from hotbed urban areas like Ferguson, Baltimore, Cleveland, etc. where we've watched battles about our criminal justice system play out recently. The setting is a small town in eastern Wisconsin on the shores of Lake Michigan. The people who are "othered" by the system aren't African American - but poor (mostly uneducated) working class white people.

The series begins with the release of Steven Avery from prison after serving 18 years for a crime he did not commit. As proceedings begin for a civil law suit he filed against the local authorities who framed him for that, he is arrested for murder. The filmmakers use local news footage, videotape of interrogations and court proceedings as well as interviews with the people involved to walk you through the process of how the case unfolds. There is one jaw-dropping moment after another, like when the chief prosecutor - during closing arguments - says that "reasonable doubt is for innocent people."

In the end, there are big questions that remain about who actually committed the murder. But there is no question that what you have witnessed is law enforcement officers were caught planting evidence and lying in court, the most egregious use of interrogation of a minor that I have ever seen, a prosecutor who plays the media by victimizing a teenage relative of Avery's to set up a jury that will be conducive to his case, a court-appointed defense attorney who sells out his client to do the bidding of the prosecutor and an entire system that - at every turn - works to protect itself from accountability.

It is that last bit that is the most disturbing and the hardest to shake. I've had the pleasure in my career to work with some of the best and brightest people in law enforcement and criminal justice. So I am aware that the entire system is not as corrupt everywhere as the one depicted in this series. But - just as we have often seen with the police killings of unarmed black men - when the system fails to correct itself, then the problem goes from one of being about "bad apples" to an indictment of the whole process. What cannot be tolerated is that all of those things I described above happened...and no one payed any consequences.

The other part of watching this series that is hard to take is that I don't really know what to do with my anger. So I'm writing about it in hopes that more people will inform themselves by watching it. Honestly...I'm hoping that enough people learn about what these people did so that the officers, prosecutors and others depicted in the series have a hard time showing their faces in public. Until we can come up with a system that holds them accountable, public shame is not a bad alternative.

The Role of Black Women in the Democratic Party

We're hearing a lot these days about the angry white base of the Republican Party. Beyond analysis of this group as the core of support for presidential candidates like Donald Trump, there are people who suggest that Democrats (like President Obama) need to reach out to them either to calm the waters of our political divide or as people who might be lured back into the Democratic Party.

There are occasions when people also refer to the base of the Democratic Party. Often it is assumed that this group is made up of the most liberal activists  - in this election cycle, Bernie Sanders supporters.

But take a moment to look at some of the data in a report about a group that doesn't get much attention in our political discussions these days: The Status of Black Women in American Politics.

First of all, the number of black women who turn out to vote is higher than any other demographic group - 70% in 2012. That number has been rising since 1996, so it is more than a response to the candidacy of Barack Obama. And no group votes more consistently Democratic than black women. Here are the figures since 1992:

1992 Bill Clinton - 87%
1996 Bill Clinton - 89%
2000 Al Gore - 94%
2004 John Kerry - 90%
2008 Barack Obama - 96%
2012 Barack Obama - 96%

As a comparison, in the above elections no Democratic candidate got more than 48% of the vote from white women.

But, perhaps you say that the issue for Democrats these days isn't presidential elections, but midterms and off-year elections. The report points to the following example:
In the 2013 gubernatorial election in Virginia, 91% of Black women voters voted for Democratic winner Terry McCauliffe, while 54% of non- Hispanic White women voters voted for Republican Ken Cuccinelli.
Some may suggest that this base of the Democratic Party doesn't need to be catered to because they have no other place to go in our two-party system. There is some truth in that. Given the current status of the Republican Party, it is clear that they have no interest in wooing black women into their ranks. But when it comes to the future of the Democratic Party, it's important to keep this in mind:
Finally, Black women represent a significant portion of the Rising American Electorate (RAE), an estimated 115 million eligible voters – and nearly half of the electorate – composed of unmarried women, people of color, and people under 30 years old. Black women sit at the intersection of these groups, representing just over half of the 26.9 million eligible Black voters and 19% of all eligible unmarried women voters (Lake, Ulibarri, and Treptow 2013). They also represent the most active and dependable contingent of the RAE, contributing to its growing influence and playing an essential role in building coalitions across RAE groups to influence electoral outcomes in future races.
Beyond all that, it is interesting to notice which groups in our political system continue to draw our attention and which ones are too often ignored. Black women are playing an increasingly active role lately in the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Democrats who ignore that do so at their own peril.

Friday, December 25, 2015

What Really Matters

One of my Christmas traditions for the last few years has been to spend some time contemplating what "kid oakland" wrote 11 years ago about the historical Jesus, whose birth so many of us celebrate today.
Let me tell you something about the Jesus that I know.
He was a real man. Born in a poor region to working poor parents. He loved learning, he loved his mother and his father.
But he left them and spent his life with the poor, the outcast, the rejected, the defiled, the sick, the sinners, the bedraggled, the bereft, the self-hating, the lonely, the banished, the foul, the miserable, the desperate and finally, those sick with their own power.
He did this, not because of his ideology or his creed. He did this not because of his doctrine. He did this, quite simply, because he loved them. He preferred them.
Because of the events of the last few months, this year I also want to reflect on what Kareem Abdul-Jabar wrote recently: My Very Muslim Christmas.
Although I am Muslim, I have a deep affection and respect for Christmas. Affection because I was raised Catholic and the holiday season is a nostalgic hug as comforting as a warm crackling fire and hot apple cider. Respect because praising the significance of the birth of Jesus is an important part of the Muslim faith...
Christmas time is a wave of good cheer that washes over most people, regardless of their religious affiliations or lack of one. It’s the time when we imagine the best person we could be—and then try to be that person...We feel good knowing that such a kind and gentle person lurks within us. And each year we try to coax that lovely person to stay a little longer past the season. Because without that person, baby, it’s cold outside.
However, recent events, from terrorist attacks to police killings of unarmed African Americans, have heightened public awareness that America is in the midst of an identity crisis. On the one hand, Americans see themselves as the great international melting pot that welcomes huddled masses of all religions and ethnic backgrounds. On the other hand, they’re terrified that too much diversity mixed in the pot will dilute our white Christian majority. The resulting American stew might be a little darker in appearance and a little less likely to display a nativity scene at Christmas...
The speed of change is disorienting for many Americans and makes them fearful that someday they, too, will be marginalized. This fear is, in part, behind the rising anti-Muslim sentiment in the country....
This campaign against Muslim Americans spits in the face of everything Christmas stands for. Peace on Earth. Good will toward others. Being the best person we can be...
Muslims, Christians and Jews worship the same God, just in different ways. Those differences can make each group wary of the other, until they realize that a fundamental teaching in all three religions is to co-exist in peace with others. True, we can all dig into each other’s holy texts for isolated quotes that seem to contradict this, and we can all air each other’s historical dirty laundry when each acted contrary to this teaching. But Christmas reminds us all that what really matters is how we behave here and now toward each other.
In the end, Kareem's message takes us back to the same one we hear when we look at the actual life that Jesus led. Hmmm...maybe there's something to all that.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Is Karl Rove Kidding? He Can't Be Serious!

Karl Rove has taken to the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal to do what Karl Rove does best - projection.

The man who rightfully earned the nickname, "Bush's Brain" (as in George W. Bush), is all a-flutter about remarks President Obama made to Steve Inkeep about ISIS. And so the advisor to the president who destabilized the Middle East by invading a country that had no weapons of mass destruction under the illusion that we would be greeted with hearts and flowers, accuses the current occupant of the White House of lacking foresight.
The Obama administration seems clueless about ISIS’ catastrophic potential and has no long-term strategy to bend events to America’s benefit.
Does this statement by Rove remind you of anything we've heard before?
Whenever events undermine his view of the world, he has the habit of retreating to an alternate reality. Mr. Obama is a man with an uncommonly rigid, anti-empirical mind.
Back in 2004, Ron Suskind wrote the definitive article about Dubya's "faith-based presidency." Included was a quote from an aide that everyone understands to have been Karl Rove.
The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."'d that "create your own reality" work out for you, Karl?

But he ends the article with a real doosey:
Because of his lack of vision, the mop-up operation his [Obama's] successor will face is unlike any in living memory.
You mean like the mop-up operation President Obama faced with the mess your boss left - including 2 wars and the greatest recession since the Great Depression?

Karl Rove has become a comical figure. That's all there is to it.

Getting Beyond the Racism That Divides Us

Issac Bailey has written that President Obama is the person who should reach out to angry white Trump supporters.
There is only one person who can unite the country again, and he works in the White House. Yes, President Barack Obama—ironically, the man who is the personification of the fear Trump is exploiting—is the one in the best position to quell the anger being stirred up.

This is not something the president can do from the Oval Office, or from a stage. What he needs to do is use the power of the office in a different way, one that matches the ruthless effectiveness of a demagogue with a private jet. Obama needs to go on a listening tour of white America—to connect, in person, with Americans he has either been unable or unwilling to reach during his seven years in office.
As I read this article, I tried to get beyond my initial reaction that Bailey was simply making another Green Lanternism argument. That's because, as I've written before, I've been closely watching Barack Obama for over seven years and I think he would at least stop and listen to this advice.

While it has mostly gone unheeded, the President has reached out to angry white Americans on several occasions (much to the chagrin of a lot of Black academics and political leaders). For example, if we go back to his famous speech on racism in 2008 during the whole Jeremiah Wright controversy, he spent quite a bit of time affirming the reasons why a lot of white people are angry.
Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience - as far as they're concerned, no one's handed them anything, they've built it from scratch. They've worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. 
But ultimately, to judge the value of Bailey's suggestion, there needs to be some indication that it would actually work to "unite the country once again." The first error Bailey makes is to assume that we were ever united in the first place. It's not like we used to be a racism-free country until all of the sudden Barack Obama came along. Bailey knows that. And he accurately described what's going on in his very first paragraph.
...we are fast becoming a nation in which minorities make up a majority of the population. As a result, tens of millions of white Americans, accustomed for so long to having all the benefits of being the majority, are scared out of their minds—and it is this fear that Trump is exploiting so effectively.
Bailey's point is that this fear needs to be the President.
Let them see their president. Let them speak directly to their president. Let them shout, cuss, fuss and unload if that’s what they need to do. Because no matter how you slice it, the country they’ve long known is dying, and a new one is taking shape. Obama’s presence in the White House, while heartening to many, is the tip of the spear to those fretful about what’s to come.
But the question is: does that help? This kind of thing stems from a myth that has developed in our culture that airing negative feelings makes them magically go away. It's not true. And it is especially not true in large groups where people feed off of each other.

What actually helps people get over these kinds of feelings is to identify the real source of their anger/fear - something that Trump's style of fear-mongering is designed to misdirect - and then empower themselves to do something about it.

So the question becomes, how do people actually get beyond their racism? I think that if there was an easy answer to that one we would have solved this problem a long time ago.

Obviously President Obama is struggling with that question. In interviews with Marc Maron, Marilynne Robinson and Steve Inskeep, he kept returning to a similar theme. Instead of a focus on airing our grievances, the President talks about calling out our better natures. He continually stresses the idea that we are better people than our politics suggests. In other words, the way to deal with darkness is not to simply dwell on it - but to shine more light.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

President Obama Sends a Signal to Governors on Commutations

Last Friday I noted that President Obama had commuted the sentences of 95 federal prisoners - mostly non-violent drug offenders. It turns out that "mostly" was accurate because two of them didn't fit that description.
Carolyn Yvonne Butler of Texas, convicted of three counts of armed bank robbery and using a firearm during a violent crime, and George Andre Axam of Georgia, convicted of possessing a firearm as a felon.
Activists within the criminal justice reform movement noticed and weighed in.
“It’s a good message to send to governors across the country, given that they have similar commutation and pardon powers that could be exercised this way,” Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, told TakePart.
The reason Mauer says that is because at some point, in order to effectively deal with mass incarceration, we're going to have to deal with "violent offenders." And that is primarily an issue for the states, where their prison population is broken down like this:
Consider the nation’s largest incarcerated population, the 1,315,000 held in state prisons. Only 4 percent are there for drug possession. An additional 12 percent are incarcerated for drug sales, manufacturing, or trafficking. Eleven percent are there for public order offenses such as prostitution or drunk driving, and 19 percent for property crimes such as fraud and car theft, including some property crimes that many consider serious or violent, such as home invasion. That leaves a full 54 percent of state prisoners who are incarcerated for violent crimes, including murder, kidnapping, manslaughter, rape, sexual assault, and armed robbery.
The federal government (and the President) are somewhat limited in what they can do to address the problem of mass incarceration. That is because only 13% of those incarcerated are in federal prisons - 48% of those are drug offenders. Between the President's Clemency Initiative and the retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act, that number will be dramatically reduced in the coming year. But as the numbers above demonstrate, non-violent drug offenders are a small part of the enormous state prison population.

John Pfaff, professor of law at Fordham University School of Law, described President Obama's commutations of the sentences of Butler and Axam this way:
“The most powerful thing Obama can do is shape the national conversation,” he said. “There’s certainly no downside to Obama having done this, but more governors have to have the courage to come out and actually start commuting violent offenders’ sentences.”
In other words, President Obama has opened the door for a conversation about the much tougher issues involved in ending mass incarceration. Time for governors to step up.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Asian Influences on Our African American President

During the 2008 election, I noticed that there were a couple of reporters who were telling a story about the Obama campaign that the rest of the media pretty much ignored. They were people like Zack Exley at Huffington Post and Sean Quinn with his "On the Road" series at FiveThirtyEight. It was reporting like theirs that got me curious about this guy Barack Hussein Obama. He seemed different and it wasn't clear that the media were really capturing the story.

That curiosity continued after the election when views about President Obama hardened pretty quickly. It wasn't long before the right came to the conclusion that he was a Kenyan socialist, the mainstream media decided that he was aloof, detached and professorial, and a lot of people on the left called him weak and naive. What struck me was that so many of these conclusions sounded like pre-constructed categories in people's minds into which they slotted this newly elected president. It always seemed to me that there was more to the story than that. So I stayed curious and tried to avoid the rush to either defend or criticize.

Like Exley and Quinn, there have been a few folks that strayed away from the pre-constructed categories and have dug a bit deeper into understanding what makes this man - Barack Obama - tick. They have usually been the ones that take into account his life story and what he says about himself. For example, James Kloppenberg reviewed Obama's two books to develop his own understanding in Reading Obama.
Almost everything you need to know about Obama is there on the printed page. In contrast to the charges coming now from right and left, Obama is neither a rigid ideologue nor a spineless wimp. The Obama who wrote Dreams and Audacity stands in a long tradition of American reform, wary of absolutes and universals, and committed to a Christian tradition that prizes humility and social service over dogmatic statements of unbending principle. A child of the philosophical pragmatists William James and John Dewey, Obama distrusts pat formulas and prefers experimentation.
Of course, a lot of what Obama has written is about his struggle to construct an identity in light of his Kansan mother and Kenyan father. What I have found equally instructive have been those who recognize the Asian influence on his formative years - specifically in Indonesia. That is why I was fascinated to read an article on that topic by Edward Fox, who has studied Javanese culture for a book he wrote titled Obscure Kingdoms.

Fox talks about it being very likely that Obama adopted his calm demeanor as a result of what Javanese culture calls halus.
In Janny Scott’s biography of Obama’s mother, A Singular Woman, one of her interviewees maintains: ‘This is where Barack learnt to be cool … if you get mad and react, you lose. If you learn to laugh and take it without any reaction, you win.’...

The Javanese have a word for this kind of bearing. They call it halus...The American anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who wrote some of the most important studies of Javanese culture in English, defined halus in The Religion of Java (1976) as: "Formality of bearing, restraint of expression, and bodily self-discipline … spontaneity or naturalness of gesture or speech is fitting only for those ‘not yet Javanese’ — ie, the mad, the simple-minded, and children."
But since Fox was particularly studying Javanese rulers and kings, he takes it a step further.
Halus in a Javanese ruler is the outward sign of a visible inner harmony which gathers and concentrates power in him personally. In the West, we might call this charisma. Crucially, in the Javanese idea of kingship, the ruler does not conquer opposing political forces, but absorbs them all under himself. In the words of Anderson again, the Javanese ruler has ‘the ability to contain opposites and to absorb his adversaries’. The goal is a unity of power that spreads throughout the kingdom. 
Perhaps that is why some people see Obama's approach as one that resembles the Aikido Way.
There are no kicks and no punches within Aikido itself...Instead, there is an emphasis on blending with a partner's attack and the use of techniques to lead that attack safely to a conclusion that is good for have the chance to actually resolve the conflict rather than just winning the fight.
To the extent that Obama absorbed these Asian influences is a question that only he can answer. But they sure make sense to me when I look at his record these last 7 years.

None of that is meant to reflect on the differences people have with President Obama's policy choices. But it is a good reminder that our notions of things like strength and leadership are often rooted in Western patriarchal notions. A world that is increasingly experiencing the death of normal requires that we be more open and curious about other possibilities.

Monday, December 21, 2015

It's Not Just About Bombing ISIS

I've written previously about the strategy behind President Obama's containment policy with regards to ISIS.
Its [U.S.] containment policy, Watts explained, is designed to wall ISIS into increasingly restricted territory and letting it fail due to its own mismanagement, economic problems, and internal discord, rather than because of the actions of a foreign oppressor.
If you want to establish an Islamic caliphate in the Middle East and engage in an apocalyptic battle with the West, you need financial resources to do so. Hence, the United States has been pursuing a financial as well as military containment policy.

But those efforts won't succeed unless the countries of the world joins us in both abandoning any financial transactions with ISIS and policing private entities within their own borders who might attempt to do so. That's why, as U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power wrote, last week Treasury Secretary Jack Lew took on the role of foreign diplomat. defeat these terrorist groups -- as we must and will do -- the United Nations must reach beyond the expertise of foreign ministries, and our traditional means of countering State aggression.

Instead, we must look to the policymakers who are developing innovative tactics to fight these groups, from strengthening border security and countering violent extremism in communities to choking off various sources of ISIL's financing.

On Thursday, Secretary Lew is chairing the first-ever meeting of U.N. Security Council finance ministers to intensify international efforts on combating terrorist financing. We recognize that if we want to cut off ISIL's access to the international financial system and prevent it from raising, transferring and using funds, we need other countries on board.
That is an innovative approach to how the U.N. might function in a world of asymmetrical threats. The idea that it is not simply a place for foreign ministers to discuss state-on-state military matters, but is also a place to organize global action related to terrorism financing means that it can be a vehicle for strategies that address 21st century challenges.

I am reminded of the approach a lot of Republicans have taken to the United Nations - from former Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton's casual reference to "losing 10 stories" of their building in NYC to continuous efforts by Congressional Republicans to defund it.

What we have seen from the Obama administration is a strengthening of the United Nations (and other coalitions like NATO) as a way to establish the kinds of partnerships that are necessary to accomplish everything from a global climate accord to a plan to end the Syrian civil war to cutting off the flow of financial resources to ISIS.  

Symbolic Gestures Aren't Enough

It is only natural for political candidates to make bold statements during campaigns. That is often how you get the attention of the voting public. But as a party that claims to be reality-based, it is important for Democrats to make sure that those bold statements also happen to be true.

At Saturday night's Democratic debate, Martin O'Malley made a bold statement that is not true. While addressing Hillary Clinton about Wall Street and economic inequality, he said this:
And that's why today you still cannot support, as I do, breaking up the big banks and making sure that we pass a modern-day Glass- Steagall, like we had in late 1999, before it was repealed and led to the crash, where so many millions of families lost their jobs and their homes.
As many people - including Andrew Ross Sorkin - have pointed out, the repeal of Glass-Steagall (the Depression era law that created a firewall between investment and commercial banking) is not what led to the Great Recession.
Let’s look at the facts of the financial crisis in the context of Glass-Steagall.

The first domino to nearly topple over in the financial crisis was Bear Stearns, an investment bank that had nothing to do with commercial banking. Glass-Steagall would have been irrelevant. Then came Lehman Brothers; it too was an investment bank with no commercial banking business and therefore wouldn’t have been covered by Glass-Steagall either. After them, Merrill Lynch was next — and yep, it too was an investment bank that had nothing to do with Glass-Steagall.

Next in line was the American International Group, an insurance company that was also unrelated to Glass-Steagall. While we’re at it, we should probably throw in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which similarly, had nothing to do with Glass-Steagall.
For that article, Sorkin contacted Sen. Elizabeth Warren - one of the big proponents of reinstating Glass Steagall - to get her reaction.
In my conversation with Ms. Warren she told me that one of the reasons she’s been pushing reinstating Glass-Steagall — even if it wouldn’t have prevented the financial crisis — is that it is an easy issue for the public to understand and “you can build public attention behind.”

She added that she considers Glass-Steagall more of a symbol of what needs to happen to regulations than the specifics related to the act itself.
While we can't assume that Warren is speaking for other Democrats, that assessment might shed some light on why reinstating Glass Steagall has been something that both Sanders and O'Malley have been pushing quite a bit during this campaign. Here's something Sanders said Saturday night:
The CEOs of large multinationals may like Hillary. They ain't going to like me and Wall Street is going to like me even less.

And the reason for that is we've got to deal with the elephant in the room, which is the greed, recklessness and illegal behavior on Wall Street...

And let me be clear: While there are some great corporations creating jobs and trying to do the right thing, in my view -- and I say this very seriously -- the greed of the billionaire class, the greed of Wall Street is destroying this economy and is destroying the lives of millions of Americans.
The greed of Wall Street is still fresh in our minds since the Great Recession. But as Sanders said earlier in the debate, growing income inequality has been a fact in America for at least the last 40 years - long before the events of the financial crisis. The greed he's talking about is hardly limited to Wall Street. It is a "bug" in our capitalist system that progressives have been working to contain for decades.

As Phillip Longman pointed out in the latest edition of the Washington Monthly titled Bloom or Bust, growing income inequality also coincided with the repeal of many government efforts to restrain that greed starting back in the 1970's - like the Robinson-Patman Act, which "prevented the formation of chain stores even remotely approaching the scale and power of today’s Walmart or Amazon by cracking down on such practices as selling items below cost." That's why Paul Glastris wrote this in response:
Here’s hoping the candidates start debating Robinson-Patman as vigorously as Glass-Steagall.
When it comes to tackling the issue of income inequality, don't get fooled by symbolic gestures. And don't make the mistake of thinking that somehow Wall Street is the sole culprit whose greed must be managed.

Friday, December 18, 2015

A World View in its Death Throes

A lot of people are trying to grapple with the question of what the hell is happening to our country with the prominence of Donald Trump in the presidential primary. As I mentioned yesterday, I think Rebecca Traister articulated it very well in her article titled: The Election and the Death Throes of White Male Power.
The public spectacle of this presidential election, and the two that have preceded it, are inextricably linked to the racialized and gendered anger and violence we see around us…

Whatever their flaws, their political shortcomings, their progressive dings and dents, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton mean a lot. They represent an altered power structure and changed calculations about who in this country may lead…

This is our country in an excruciating period of change. This is the story of the slow expansion of possibility for figures who have long existed on the margins, and it is also the story of the dangerous rage those figures provoke.
But of course, this goes way beyond the leadership of an African American and a woman. What is also being challenged is the whole white patriarchal view of the world and the assumption of dominance (usually military) as a means of power and control.

Donald Trump's rhetoric has taken these assumptions out in the open after decades of lying just below the surface. We hear it from him all the time, but here's part of his closing statement at the end of Tuesday's debate.
Our country doesn't win anymore...If I'm elected president, we will win again. We will win a lot. And we're going to have a great, great country, greater than ever before.
When it comes to specifics about how he'll do that, Trump very rarely provides any. That's because he is speaking to a feeling his supporters have that neither they nor their country are dominant any more.  In their minds, everything is a zero sum game viewed through the lens of win/lose, either/or, us/them, friends/enemies.

From that perspective, something that is accomplished via partnership with the other nations of the world - like the Iran nuclear deal or the Paris climate agreement - feels like a loss. Similarly, a political party that is a coalition of people from different races, genders, religions, sexual orientations, etc., is a threat.

Along those same lines, Trump embraces a very patriarchal view of strength. Tuesday night when he was asked by a Facebook participant about his proposal to "go after" the family members of terrorists (a war crime), he responded with this:
Look, look, look. We need a toughness. We need strength. We're not respected, you know, as a nation anymore. We don't have that level of respect that we need. And if we don't get it back fast, we're just going to go weaker, weaker and just disintegrate.

We can't allow that to happen. We need strength. We don't have it.
It doesn't bother Trump at all that his approach is no different than ISIS. In his view of the world, these kinds of challenges are all about one big dick-swinging contest to see who can be the most dominant bad-ass. More importantly that kind of talk assuages the fears of his supporters who see their entire world view threatened.

The reason they feel threatened is that a different view of things like power, courage and strength is beginning to emerge. President Obama talked about those changes in his 2009 speech in Cairo.
For human history has often been a record of nations and tribes -- and, yes, religions -- subjugating one another in pursuit of their own interests. Yet in this new age, such attitudes are self-defeating. Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail. So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners to it. Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; our progress must be shared.
What we are witnessing right now - as Traister put it - is a "dangerous rage" unleashed by those who feel threatened because their entire world view in it's death throes.

A Different Kind of Courage

Much has been written lately by people who think that President Obama has done an inadequate job of calming the nation's fears. Today he takes on a very different task as the Consoler-in-Chief. On his way to the family's Christmas vacation in Hawaii, the President will stop in San Bernardino to spend some private time with the victims and families of the shootings that took place there earlier this month.

I don't expect that we'll hear much about these meetings. But they'll probably be much like the ones he held with the families of the shooting that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School three years ago. If you've never read Joshua Dubois' account of that day, here is a portion of it:
The president took a deep breath and steeled himself, and went into the first classroom. And what happened next I’ll never forget.

Person after person received an engulfing hug from our commander in chief. He’d say, “Tell me about your son. . . . Tell me about your daughter,” and then hold pictures of the lost beloved as their parents described favorite foods, television shows, and the sound of their laughter. For the younger siblings of those who had passed away—many of them two, three, or four years old, too young to understand it all—the president would grab them and toss them, laughing, up into the air, and then hand them a box of White House M&M’s, which were always kept close at hand. In each room, I saw his eyes water, but he did not break.

And then the entire scene would repeat—for hours. Over and over and over again, through well over a hundred relatives of the fallen, each one equally broken, wrecked by the loss...

And the funny thing is—President Obama has never spoken about these meetings. Yes, he addressed the shooting in Newtown and gun violence in general in a subsequent speech, but he did not speak of those private gatherings. In fact, he was nearly silent on Air Force One as we rode back to Washington, and has said very little about his time with these families since. It must have been one of the defining moments of his presidency, quiet hours in solemn classrooms, extending as much healing as was in his power to extend. But he kept it to himself—never seeking to teach a lesson based on those mournful conversations, or opening them up to public view.
There is a twisted way in which our culture often associates courage with the kind of chest-thumping we saw on the Republican debate stage Tuesday night. But that dismisses the kind that it takes to look into the eyes of a mother/father/son/daughter/husband/wife who has lost a loved one to senseless violence and embrace their grief. There is a reason why most of us avoid avoid being put in a situation like that whenever possible. It's soul-piercing hard. So today I want to take a moment to think about what it says about President Obama that he would chose to go there. Beyond what he's actually done to keep us safe, that's a least as important as what he says to allay our fears.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Whose Job Is It to Call Out the Lies?

Here's a little walk down memory lane:
I’m in my mid-forties and remember well the terrorist incidents of the 1980s – the bombing of the US Embassy and the Marine Barracks in Beirut, the bombing of the US Embassy in Kuwait, the kidnapping of CIA Station Chief William Buckley, the high jacking of Kuwait Airlines Flight 221, the high jacking of TWA Flight 847, the high jacking of the Achille Lauro, the bombing of the Rome and Vienna airports, the bombing of the La Belle disco in West Berlin, and the bombing of Pan Am flight 103. It’s quite a list.
That comes from a note sent to James Fallows by someone he describes as a "current U.S. diplomat." S/he goes on to point out that all of that failed to provoke the kind of hysteria we are seeing today...which raises the obvious question: what changed? Here's how the diplomat answers it:
I think the primary explanation for the divergent attitudes of the American public is the 24-hour cable (and internet) news cycle and an opposition party (with its own supporting media/internet apparatus) that will use anything to whip up public sentiment against the incumbent President.
Fallows received that note as part of a discussion he initiated about President Obama's leadership style and whether or not he's done enough to allay the current hysteria. Obviously Daniel Drezner doesn't think so.
Now there’s been a lot of loose talk about how Trump is simply exploiting some of the less savory elements of GOP voters — but I don’t think that’s entirely fair. Indeed, it suppresses Barack Obama’s biggest foreign policy failing: his failure to make Americans feel safer...

It’s on Republicans when they make stupid or incorrect pronouncements about foreign policy and counterterrorism. But the GOP is responding to public anxiety. And that anxiety, and the failure to alleviate it, is currently on the president.
I applaud Drezner for calling out the Republicans for their "incorrect pronouncements about foreign policy and counterterrorism." But did you notice who he left out? The media.

When did it became the President's job to be the Consoler-in-Chief? As adults, it seems like that should be on each of us. But it has always been my assumption that it is the job of our free press to bring us the information we need in order to do so - not to simply fan the flames or stand idly by while politicians use lies and distortions to conjure up fear.

A couple of years ago NBC's Chuck Todd declared that it was not the media's job to correct GOP falsehoods. After getting a lot of heat for saying that, he tweeted that it was the job of the White House to do so. That strikes me as a fundamental question we need to address.

I know where I come down on that one. The role of a free press is much more than to play sportscaster to the "game" of politics. It's position was established in our Bill of Rights in order to ensure that citizens have access to the information they need to participate intelligently in our democracy. Part of that job is to call out politicians who lie and/or distort the truth for their own political gain.

Getting to the Source of the Lies

A theme emerged at Tuesday night's Republican debate that went something like this: because of political correctness, the Obama administration has failed to keep us safe from terror attacks. It was applied in reference to the shooting in San Bernardino by several candidates, including Ted Cruz.
It’s not a lack of competence that is preventing the Obama administration from stopping these attacks. It is political correctness. We didn’t monitor the Facebook posting of the female San Bernardino terrorist because the Obama DHS thought it would be inappropriate. She made a public call to jihad, and they didn’t target it.
That is the story that has become embedded over the last week in the right wing mindset. But as FBI Director James Comey said yesterday, it's not true.
So far, in this investigation we have found no evidence of posting on social media by either of them at that period in time and thereafter reflecting their commitment to jihad or to martyrdom. I’ve seen some reporting on that, and that’s a garble.
There was no major breakdown in security at DHS as a result of political correctness. It's all about a couple who were inspired by ISIS to go on a killing spree - much as Robert Lewis Dear was inspired by the anti-abortion movement and Dylann Roof was inspired by white supremacists.

But as Kevin Drum reports, there's more to the story. The question becomes: what was the source for the story about Tashfeen Malik's public Facebook postings? It was an article in the New York Times titled: U.S. Visa Process Missed San Bernardino Wife's Zealotry on Social Media. And not only that. As Drum says:
The story was written by Matt Apuzzo, Michael Schmidt, and Julia Preston.

Do those names sound familiar? They should. The first two were also the authors of July's epic fail claiming that Hillary Clinton was the target of a criminal probe over the mishandling of classified information in her private email system.
Is it merely a coincidence that these two NYT reporters have been fed stories by their sources that are fabricated lies about the dyad the Republican candidates blamed consistently with such disdain Tuesday night - Obama/Clinton? I'm not a conspiracy theorist. But you don't have to be to understand why it is important to get an answer to that question.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Republican Lies and Distortions About the Middle East

One of the reasons it is so difficult to comment on the actual content of what the Republican presidential candidates said last night is that so much of it was simply untrue. By the time you are done fact-checking, there isn't much there there.

The debate produced a lot of material for the fact-checkers to work with. But most troubling, given the topic they were focused on, was the complete lack of understanding and/or truthfulness about what is actually going on in the Middle East. A perfect example of that was the claim from Ted Cruz that the Obama administration "toppled former President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt." One can only assume that Cruz is ignorant of the whole "Arab Spring" rebellions of 2010/11 and the fact that it was the people of Egypt who forced him to step down.

For a more comprehensive review, Ishaan Tharoor has written: The Middle East dreamed up at the Republican debate doesn't really exist. He begins by talking about Cruz's proposal to "carpet bomb" ISIS.
Cruz's emphasis is on tough, withering, relentless action, but you can't bomb the Islamic State to smithereens without contemplating an enormous civilian death toll. That places Cruz in the same camp as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has for years now been bombing civilian areas in his own nation's cities with barrel bombs and other crude, indiscriminate forms of munitions...

Cruz and, to varying extents, other candidates onstage appeared to view the Middle East as a kind of set for "American Sniper" -- a woebegone place of dusty towns crawling with bad guy extremists and not much else.
It wouldn't be the first time a Republican confused the real world with the movie version.

Tharoor goes on to talk about Carson's proposal to move Syrian refugees to the Hasakah governorate in northeast Syria, which "is still a theater of war and the site of bitter clashes between Kurdish militias and the Islamic State," as well as the complex realities of working with various Kurdish parties and militias. But then he got to what I noticed in the proposals we heard last night from Kasich, Rubio and Christie.
But none of this was being deliberated in Las Vegas, of course.

Instead, there was a vague embrace of Sunni Arab elites — namely the ruling royals of countries like Jordan and Saudi Arabia — and a parallel demonization of Iran, a regional bogeyman on the other side of a sectarian divide with the Saudis.
The truth is that the neocons in the Republican Party want the United States to take sides in the centuries-old battle between the Shiites and the Sunnis in the Middle East. Specifically, they want us to take the side of the Sunni majorities in countries like Saudi Arabia against the Shiites in Iran. That means aligning with the country whose oil wealth has been used to support groups like al Qaeda and ISIS. Here is how Kasich put it last night:
Assad is aligned with Iran and Russia. The one thing we want to prevent is we want to prevent Iran being able to extend a Shia crescent all across the Middle East. Assad has got to go...

I don't want to be policeman of the world. But we can't back off of this. And let me tell you, at the end, the Saudis have agreed to put together a coalition inside of Syria to stabilize that country.

He must go. It will be a blow to Iran and Russia.
In the Republican mind, we have friends and we have enemies. Saudi Arabia - which has one of the worst human rights records in the world - is a "friend. Russia and Iran are "enemies."

That is exactly why Republicans are so vehemently opposed the the deal that was recently negotiated with Iran to stop their development of nuclear weapons. As President Obama told David Remnick prior to the conclusion of those negotiations, it sets the stage for a potential geopolitical realignment in the Middle East.
Ultimately, he envisages a new geopolitical equilibrium, one less turbulent than the current landscape of civil war, terror, and sectarian battle. “It would be profoundly in the interest of citizens throughout the region if Sunnis and Shias weren’t intent on killing each other,” he told me. “And although it would not solve the entire problem, if we were able to get Iran to operate in a responsible fashion—not funding terrorist organizations, not trying to stir up sectarian discontent in other countries, and not developing a nuclear weapon—you could see an equilibrium developing between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran in which there’s competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy warfare.
For all their bluster about the President being weak and ineffective, this is the real reason Republicans oppose his strategy in the Middle East. They can't conceptualize peace in the Middle East short of a military solution that provides a win for our friends and defeat of our enemies. In other words...forever active or proxy warfare.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

A Study in Contrasts

The message from conservative politicians, fundamentalist religious leaders and right wing media is that the world is on fire and we face an existential threat from radical Islam. When it comes to Republican presidential candidates:
Donald J. Trump, who is leading polls in the Republican presidential primary race, has called for Muslims to be blocked from entering the United States. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, another Republican candidate, has said he plans to introduce legislation barring Syrian Muslim refugees from entering the United States, and Jeb Bush, a Republican rival, has suggested that the authorities allow only Syrian Christians into the country.
As a result of all that fear mongering, we are seeing a surge in the number of hate crimes and threats against Muslim Americans.

Meanwhile, today President Obama spoke at the naturalization service for 31 new Americans who hail from 25 different countries at the National Archives on the 224th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights. He made his position clear.

At about the 9:00 minute mark, he addresses the fact that as Americans we haven't always lived up to our ideals. As examples, he talks about slavery, the "no Irish need apply" signs that sprung up in NYC a century ago, the fact that Catholics were targeted and their loyalty questioned, the persecution of Chinese immigrants and the Japanese internment camps of WWII. He summed it up this way:
We succumbed to fear. We betrayed not only our fellow Americans, but our deepest values. It's happened before...On days like today, we need to resolve never to repeat mistakes like that again. We must resolve to always speak out against hatred and bigotry in all its forms...whether taunts against the child of an immigrant farm worker or threats against a Muslim shopkeeper.

We are Americans. Standing up for each other is what the values enshrined in the documents in this room compel us to do...especially when it's hard, especially when it's not convenient. That's when it counts. That's when it matters. Not when things are easy. But when things are hard...Being part of a democratic government is is a challenge. It's supposed to be. There's no respite from our ideals. All of us are called to live up to our expectations for ourselves, not just when it's convenient, but when it's inconvenient...when it's tough, when we're afraid.
The White House has also hosted the following meetings over the last few days:

*  Senior White House advisors met with about a dozen Muslim leaders to hear from the community about the impact of the anti-Muslim hate and violence and what the federal government can do.

* A similar meeting was held with Sikh leaders.

* A meeting is planned on Thursday for various faith and civil society leaders to discuss ways to promote religious pluralism.

Finally, Democratic members of Congress are getting involved as well. Greg Sargent reported today that DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-Chair Keith Ellison sent a joint letter out to lawmakers from both parties suggesting that they invite a Muslim-American constituent to attend the State of the Union address in January.

That is about as stark a contrast between the two parties as you are going to find - not a trace of tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum.

Would a Ted Cruz Candidacy Be Good for the Country?

In case you've forgotten, there was an insurgent vs establishment battle for the Republican presidential nomination back in 2012 too. One big difference was that Mitt Romney was clearly the establishment candidate back then. So conservative writer David Frum mapped out the four possibilities of a Romney vs Tea Party nomination and general election result.

Possibility 1: Romney is nominated, Romney is elected.

Possibility 2: Romney is nominated, Romney loses.

Possibility 3: A tea party Republican is nominated and loses.

Possibility 4: A tea party Republican is nominated and wins.

Being a good establishment conservative, Frum's preference was #1. But he described #4 as resulting in a "political and economic crisis." What is most interesting however, is how he described #3:
Yet within the disaster might lurk a silver lining. At least the GOP will get the ideological adventure out of its system. For three years, Republican activists have lived in a fantasy world in which fringe characters like Sarah Palin and Herman Cain somehow "speak for the common sense of the common people." It seems incredible that anybody could believe such a thing. It seems crazy that anyone would actually need a presidential election to disabuse them of such notions. But as Benjamin Franklin said: "Experience is a hard teacher, but fools will have no other."
Given that #2 was the eventual outcome, we never learned whether or not the insurgent right could actually learn from experience. But that is exactly what James Downie says he's hoping for this time around.
...of far greater significance is that Cruz is the one contender who understands the far right and whose conservative bona fides are impeccable. If he were to be the nominee, it would be good news for the Democrats in the short term and the country in the long term. His ideologically extreme positions would hand Hillary Clinton an edge in what the fundamentals still suggest is otherwise likely to be a close election. And a Cruz loss would be most likely to end the myth on the far right that “Republicans lose presidential elections when they don’t run far enough to the right.”...That fiction has sustained the right-wing after multiple general election losses in recent decades, convincing them to double down on extremism rather than reconsider. Such intransigence has already led to enough destructive government shutdowns and near defaults. The sooner the GOP’s rightward sprint is stopped the better; Cruz’s nomination may be the best way to do so.
I have to admit that I find the idea of this scenario intriguing. But the fundamental flaw that both Frum and Downie make is in assuming that the insurgency is fueled by the logic of electoral calculations. It is a mistake that rational people often make in trying to apply logic to behavior that is animated by fear and anger.

So no...I don't think a Ted Cruz candidacy would be good for the country in the long term. Breaking the fever of the fear and anger that fuels the insurgency is definitely something that needs to happen in order for our country to move forward. It’s hard to imagine something that would accomplish that. But I suspect that the answer lies with exposing those who exploit it for their own purposes. And that is easier said than done.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Indabas as a Tool of Partnership

Frankly, I'm still trying to wrap my head around the fact that this weekend in Paris all of the 196 nations of the world reached a consensus agreement on a plan to combat global climate change. I've been wracking my brain trying to remember when the entire world has managed to agree on anything beyond symbolic gestures. So far, I haven't come up with an example - but if you historians can think of something, let me know.

As others have noted, the work of President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry to bring China on board removed one of the major obstacles to an agreement. But have you ever worked with a group that tries to use consensus as an approach? I sure have - and even in small groups it is a painfully slow and frustrating decision-making process.

That's why I find it fascinating that French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius adopted a South African process known as "indabas" to reach consensus.
Zulu and Xhosa communities use “indabas” to give everyone equal opportunity to voice their opinions in order to work toward consensus.

They were first used in UN climate talks in Durban in 2011 when, with the talks deadlocked and the summit just minutes from collapse, the South African presidency asked the main countries to form a standing circle in the middle of hundreds of delegates and to talk directly to each other.

Instead of repeating stated positions, diplomats were encouraged to talk personally and quietly about their “red lines” and to propose solutions to each other.

By including everyone and allowing often hostile countries to speak in earshot of observers, it achieved a remarkable breakthrough within 30 minutes.
To the Western ear, that's the kind of thing we tend to write off as way too "touchy/feely" for our sensibilities. But perhaps that's the point. Maybe it's time the Western world started opening up to an approach other than the one that insists that differences are best resolved by a top-down process of dominance.

For years now I have been suggesting that President Obama's approach - especially in the field of foreign policy - was to replace our antiquated notions of the power of dominance with an exploration of the power of partnership. His efforts haven't always shown immediate success. But when he was able to convince Russia and China to join the coalition of countries imposing tough sanctions on Iran, we saw how the power of partnership brought them to the table to negotiate an agreement to get rid of their nuclear weapons.

When the entire globe comes together in partnership to tackle the issue of climate change, an enormous positive feedback loop is created. Here's how the White House press release on the Paris agreement described that:
The mitigation components of the Agreement, combined with a broad push on innovation and technology, will help significantly scale up energy investments over the coming years – investments that will accelerate cost reductions for renewable energy and other low-carbon solutions. This set of actions will create a mutually reinforcing cycle in which enhanced mitigation increases investment and enhanced investment allows additional mitigation by driving down costs.
Or as President Obama said: Success breeds success.

Now that the world has gotten a taste of what we can accomplish via partnership on this issue, one has to wonder what kind of openings that might create for success in other areas.

Republicans Play the Blame Game

When this presidential primary began, we heard from a lot of Republicans about how deep their bench was because they produced 17 candidates. At least that's the kind of thing they said when the cameras were on. There was a lot of gloating about their wealth of choices this time around.

But with talk about the possibility of using a contested convention to stop Donald Trump, at least right now we know that they're saying something very different behind closed doors. I found the conversation about all that on Morning Joe last Friday to be fascinating. The group pretty quickly dismissed the idea of a brokered convention, but they went on to try and conjure up what Reince Priebus' options might be at this point.

Let's first of all acknowledge that things like the emergence of huge super pacs after the Citizens United ruling have pretty much neutered the power of the RNC. That's exactly why there were 17 candidates in the first place. But even if there was something Priebus could do, the reality they are facing now is that taking Trump down probably means the emergence of Ted Cruz - which would be even worse news for the RNC. Marco Rubio doesn't seem to be able to gain much traction and folks are increasingly having a hard time seeing a path to victory for him. What struck me about that Morning Joe conversation was the one name that never crossed anyone's lips: Jeb Bush. That's exactly why we are increasingly hearing stories about a potential comeback from the crook and bully of New Jersey...puhleeze.

The reality is that the GOP field isn't looking so good right now. Given that, it is only natural (for Republicans) that we're beginning to hear the makings of a "blame game." Yesterday, Frank Luntz reported what he'd heard from his focus group with Trump supporters and basically blamed it all on President Obama. That's a theme that is starting to emerge. And here's how former Dubya campaign strategist Matthew Dowd put it on twitter yesterday.
I can only assume that it assuages some of their grief to equate Hillary Clinton with Trump and Cruz as a "polarizing" figure. But at some point, this "party of personal responsibility" really needs to look at themselves and realize that it was the embrace of post-policy obstruction based on fear mongering that brought them to this place. They are the ones who tilled the soil that wound up producing candidates like Trump and Cruz by abandoning any effort to develop a platform that addressed the issues we face in favor of stirring up the nativism of their base. That's why Marco Rubio had to abandon any real effort at immigration reform - opening the door for Trump's "deport em all" nonsense.

Simply pointing a finger at President Obama or Hillary Clinton to blame them isn't going to cut it. They look like four year-olds trying to take the heat off themselves by saying "S/he started it!"

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