Saturday, February 28, 2015

Odds & Ends

I'm going to do something a little different today. That's because if you watched any of the speakers at CPAC, you might be tempted to think that ISIS is marching across the Middle East and is about to reach our shores. Of course that's not true. So I'm going to highlight some things that have been written recently and suggest that you read them to get a more accurate view of what's going on.

Zack Beauchamp writes: ISIS is Losing
If you want to understand what's happening in the Middle East today, you need to appreciate one fundamental fact: ISIS is losing its war for the Middle East.

This may seem hard to believe: in Iraq and Syria, the group still holds a stretch of territory larger than the United Kingdom, manned by a steady stream of foreign fighters. Fighters pledging themselves to ISIS recently executed 21 Christians in Libya.

It's certainly true that ISIS remains a terrible and urgent threat to the Middle East. The group is not on the verge of defeat, nor is its total destruction guaranteed. But, after months of ISIS expansion and victories, the group is now being beaten back. It is losing territory in the places that matter. Coalition airstrikes have hamstrung its ability to wage offensive war, and it has no friends to turn to for help. Its governance model is unsustainable and risks collapse in the long run.

Unless ISIS starts adapting, there's a very good chance its so-called caliphate is going to fall apart.
From The Australian, we learn that the Islamic State is being hit by desertions and disgust at their brutality.
Islamic State is facing increasing public disobedience and a ­rising numbers of defections, ­according to sources in two cities in Iraq and Syria.

They offered similar claims of morale falling and of defections among Islamic State fighters in Mosul and Raqqa, and told of ­displays of disaffection and resistance, and of rising incidences of corruption among officials.
Miriam Karolyn writes: Islamic State Under Pressure as Kurds Seize Syrian Town.
Kurdish forces dealt a blow to Islamic State by capturing an important town on Friday in the latest stage of a powerful offensive in northeast Syria, a Kurdish militia spokesman said.

Islamic State has been forced into retreat across parts of the strategic region, a land bridge between territory it controls in Syria and Iraq, even as its fighters have mounted new raids this week on Assyrian Christian villages, abducting more than 200 people.

The capture of Tel Hamis was announced by the Kurdish YPG militia and confirmed by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the country's civil war.
John Simpson also reports that - at least in Baghdad - ISIS is Losing.
After 12 years in which the worst of any range of possibilities usually came about, it does feel as though Iraq could at long last be starting to turn the corner. That is certainly what people here in Baghdad, probably the most pessimistic city on earth, are now allowing themselves to hope. If it turns out to be true, they will deserve it more than just about any other group of people on earth.
Both the Pentagon and the Iraqi government have been saying that the coalition will mount an assault to re-take the city of Mosul from ISIS this spring. But Nancy Youssef reports that those plans have changed.
The U.S. military’s goal to retake Iraq’s second largest city from the self-proclaimed Islamic State has been pushed back several months at least, defense officials told The Daily Beast. That’s a major shift for the Pentagon, which recently announced that the first major ground offensive in the war against ISIS could come in the next few weeks.

Defense officials once hoped that Iraqi troops could move into Mosul by the Spring and reclaim the city from ISIS. Now, those officials say, Fall is more realistic. And even that date was tenuous.

“It is an Iraqi decision but we don’t want to do anything until they are ready and can win decisively,” a military official explained to the Daily Beast. “They cannot now.”
And now, to end the day's blogging, let's switch gears. A week ago today the world of jazz lost one of it's great performers - Clark Terry. In addition to being a jazz trumpet master, Terry devoted much of his life to mentoring other musicians. One of his earliest mentees, Quincy Jones, made a documentary film about Terry's relationship with his last mentee, Justin Kauflin, titled Keep On Keepin' On. As the extra-terrestrial mentor Yoda would say: Watch this film you should.

Department of Education Fires Repo Man Contractors for College Loans

Back in 2012, Stephen Burd broke a story in the Washington Monthly about the predatory "repo man" tactics used by some of the contractors working for the Department of Education to collect payments on college loans.
Gregory McNeil, 49, is living out his days at a veterans home in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His room is so cramped he can barely fit his twin bed, dresser, and the computer desk he had to sneak in because it was against regulations. His only income comes from the Social Security disability payments he began receiving last year after undergoing quadruple-bypass heart surgery. These payments go directly to the veterans home, which then gives him $100 a month for his expenses. McNeil fears that if he leaves the home, the government will seize a portion of his Social Security to pay off the federal student loan he defaulted on two decades ago. “This veterans home may become my financial prison,” he says. “And this is no way to live.”

McNeil’s fears are well grounded. For years, private collection companies acting under contract with the U.S. Department of Education have hounded him. The government garnisheed his wages for a time, and threatened to sue him. He says he always wanted to repay, but has never had the income he would need. Meanwhile, interest continues to accrue on his debt, and has already tripled the amount he owes.
Yeah, the idea of going after a veteran's Social Security payments after he just underwent quadruple bypass heart surgery is NOT a good look for the Department of Education. But that's what their contractors were doing.

Burd specifically singled out one company.
One of the most aggressive loan-collection firms is Pioneer Credit Recovery, a subsidiary of student loan giant Sallie Mae. Consumer Web sites are full of complaints about the company’s practices. Meanwhile, former Pioneer collectors recently told Bloomberg Businessweek that the company has a “boiler room” culture, where low-paid workers are richly rewarded for squeezing the most money they possibly can out of defaulted borrowers. Those who miss their targets are under constant threat of losing their jobs. “When you’re making eight bucks an hour, it’s all about the bonuses,” said a former Pioneer employee who worked at the collection agency from 2004 to 2007.
Yesterday, the Department of Education finally cut ties with these contractors.
The U.S. Department of Education, under fire for its lackluster oversight of student loan contractors, said Friday it will terminate its relationship with five debt collectors after accusing them of misleading distressed borrowers at "unacceptably high rates."

The surprise announcement follows years of complaints about allegedly illegal debt-collection practices by Education Department contractors, the department's seeming lack of interest in ensuring that borrowers are treated fairly, and the relative opacity of the entire operation.

The most prominent of the debt collectors, Pioneer Credit Recovery, is owned by Navient Corp., the student loan giant formerly known as Sallie Mae. Pioneer, under investigation by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, generated $127 million from the contract over the past two years, according to its annual report to investors on Friday. It has worked for the Education Department since 1997.
That's a great first step. But you'll want to read Stephen Burd's whole article to hear about a more comprehensive approach that would solve this problem for the 7 million Americans who are currently affected.

One final note, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was created specifically to tackle these kinds of issues. Note their involvement in taking complaints, filing reports and investigating abusers.   This is exactly why it is such an important component of the Dodd/Frank reforms.

The Scott Walker Antidote: Minnesota

With the Iowa caucus still 11 months away, the media has become obsessed with the candidacy of Scott Walker. Perhaps it's just a coincidence, but in the midst of all that, a few good reporters are taking a look at flyover country and finding out that Wisconsin's next door neighbor provides a great antidote to his policy claims.

Up here in the tundra, that comparison started a while ago. In 2013, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published an article reminding us that when it comes to population, commerce and politics, Minnesota and Wisconsin have an awful lot in common. But something drastically changed after the 2010 election.
Wisconsin has been cutting taxes, curbing unions, expanding private school vouchers and rejecting hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding.

Minnesota has been raising taxes, empowering unions, legalizing same-sex marriage and embracing Obamacare.

Wisconsin is getting its most conservative governance in decades. Minnesota is getting its most liberal governance in decades.

In their underlying political makeup, they may be as similar as any two states in America.

But one is being governed like South Carolina, the other like Vermont.
In a true testament to the idea that "every vote matters," here is a summary of what spurred the different path each state would take:
In Wisconsin, Republicans captured the governor's office (Scott Walker) and both chambers of the Legislature in the GOP wave of 2010. Thanks to that unified control, Republicans were able to pass a hugely favorable redistricting plan that helped ensure the party's legislative majorities in 2012 in an otherwise poor election for the GOP.

In Minnesota, Republicans also took over both chambers of the Legislature in the 2010 conservative wave. But the party fell four-tenths of a percentage point short of winning a three-way race for governor. Democrat Mark Dayton's razor-thin victory with less than 44% of the vote resulted in divided government, which resulted in a fairly neutral, court-approved redistricting plan. And that helped make it possible for Minnesota Democrats to retake the Legislature in the more favorable election climate of 2012.
I mentioned a while ago that Larry Jacobs had suggested in 2013 that this divergence of such similar states could provide a laboratory for measuring the outcomes of liberal and conservative policies. Recently Patrick Caldwell and Carl Gibson seemed to have noticed as well.

Caldwell focused on the fact that - unlike Scott Walker - Gov. Mark Dayton is an "unnatural" politician.
For a man who has won a competitive US Senate race and secured his second term as governor in November, Mark Dayton is a terrible retail politician. "He's very shy and he's an introvert," Ken Martin, the chair of the state party and a friend of Dayton's, told me unprompted earlier this month. "He's not a typical, backslapping politician," Martin continued. "He's not very articulate; he's kind of jerky," Tom Bakk, the Democratic Senate majority leader, says of his ally's style. When Dayton first ran for his current job, in 2010, The New Republic dubbed him "Eeyore for Governor."
Nevertheless, Dayton managed to get the job done.
Think of Dayton as Scott Walker's mirror image. With the help of GOP-controlled legislatures, Walker and other Republican governors, such as Kansas' Sam Brownback, have passed wish lists of conservative policies and touted their states as laboratories that demonstrate the benefits of conservative governance. Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, has parlayed that hype into a potential 2016 presidential run. And across the border in Minnesota, Dayton seized a brief moment of unified Democratic control to create the liberal alternative to Walker's Wisconsin—a blue-state laboratory for demonstrating the potential of liberal policies. Dayton didn't "set out" with the objective of one-upping Walker in mind, he told me after the Eagan event. But "the contrast," he notes, is obvious.

Over the past several years, Minnesota has become a testing ground for a litany of policies Democrats hope to enact nationally: legalizing same-sex marriage, making it easier to vote, boosting primary education spending, instituting all-day kindergarten, expanding unionization, freezing college tuition, increasing the minimum wage, and passing new laws requiring equal pay for women. To pay for it all, Dayton pushed a sharp increase on taxes for the top 2 percent—one of the largest hikes in state history. Republicans went berserk, warning that businesses would flee the state and take jobs with them.

The disaster Dayton's GOP rivals predicted never happened. Two years after the tax hike, Minnesota's economy is booming. The state added 172,000 jobs during Dayton's first four years in office. Its 3.6 percent unemployment rate is among the lowest in the country (Wisconsin's is 5.2 percent), and the Twin Cities have the lowest unemployment rate of any major metropolitan area. Under Dayton, Minnesota has consistently been in the top tier of states for GDP growth. Median incomes are $8,000 higher than the national average. In 2014, Minnesota led the nation in economic confidence, according to Gallup.
I would simply add that recently Gov. Walker announced that Wisconsin will have to skip a $108 million debt payment due to his budget shortfall, while yesterday Minnesota's state budget office announced a projected $1.8 billion surplus (up $832 million since their last projection in November).

Gibson provides some of the same data and then tells us how this happened in Minnesota.
Gov. Dayton didn't accomplish all of these reforms by shrewdly manipulating people -- this article describes Dayton's astonishing lack of charisma and articulateness. He isn't a class warrior driven by a desire to get back at the 1 percent -- Dayton is a billionaire heir to the Target fortune. It wasn't just a majority in the legislature that forced him to do it -- Dayton had to work with a Republican-controlled legislature for his first two years in office. And unlike his Republican neighbor to the east, Gov. Dayton didn't assert his will over an unwilling populace by creating obstacles between the people and the vote -- Dayton actually created an online voter registration system, making it easier than ever for people to register to vote.

The reason Gov. Dayton was able to radically transform Minnesota's economy into one of the best in the nation is simple arithmetic. Raising taxes on those who can afford to pay more will turn a deficit into a surplus. Raising the minimum wage will increase the median income. And in a state where education is a budget priority and economic growth is one of the highest in the nation, it only makes sense that more businesses would stay.

It's official -- trickle-down economics is bunk. Minnesota has proven it once and for all. If you believe otherwise, you are wrong.
So my question for all the media and Republicans who are fawning over Scott Walker is...if he's all that, why is Mark Dayton's Minnesota beating him on every conceivable measure?

Of course the answer is that Dayton has clearly proved that - when all the hype is over - Democratic policies work.

A House Divided

The plan was to force President Obama to either sign a bill repealing his executive actions on immigration or veto it and shut down the Department of Homeland Security. But things didn't work out that way.

Senator McConnell couldn't get the 6/7 Democratic votes he needed to pass a bill that paired funding for DHS to repealing the President's immigration actions and Speaker Boehner was unwilling to pass a stand-alone funding bill with primarily Democratic votes. So we got a one week reprieve before we do this all over again.

The good news is that we found out that neither Republican leader is willing to follow through with their threats to blow up hostages in order to force Democrats to give them what they want. So at some point, they'll pass a bill that funds DHS.

Here's the bad news:
After the Republicans gained control of the Senate and increased their margins in the House in the November elections, both Mr. Boehner and Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, promised to reverse Congress’s pattern of hurtling from crisis to crisis, even over matters like appropriations that were once relatively routine.

But in their first big test, the Republican leaders often seemed to be working from different playbooks, at times verging on hostility, with each saying it was time for the other chamber to act.

The funding stalemate bodes poorly for any larger policy accomplishments this year, leaving lawmakers pessimistic that the 114th Congress will be able to work in a bipartisan fashion on more complicated issues.

The Office of Management and Budget has said that a vote to increase the nation’s debt limit will be necessary by mid- to late summer, and lawmakers were also hoping to take up trade policy, as well as at least a modest overhaul of the nation’s tax code — undertakings that now look increasingly imperiled.
When you've spent the last six years convincing your base that your opponent is a tyrant who is out to destroy the country and that his party's agenda is the tool by which he will do that, its pretty hard to actually govern in a system that is designed to require compromise.

I wouldn't say that any of that is a big surprise to those of us who have been paying attention. But what is surprising - and will be worth paying attention to over the next few months - is the apparent hostility between McConnell and Boehner. I don't think anyone saw that coming. But it does suggest that there is more than one fault line in this divided house.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Be Prepared for Bibi

In a couple of days, our news media is going to be consumed with what Prime Minister Netanyahu said to Congress about a possible deal with Iran to stop them from developing nuclear weapons. As a reminder, Netanyahu has said that he "will do everything and will take any action to foil this bad and dangerous agreement."

Your assignment - should you chose to accept it - is to inform yourself about what some experts have said in support of the current negotiations and potential agreement. My purpose is to provide you with that information. So here you go:

Paul Pillar: Get Over It: There's No Better Deal on Iran's Nuclear Program

Robert Einhorn: Deterring an Iranian Nuclear Breakout

David Ignatius: A Compelling Argument on Iran

William Perry, Sean O'Keefe, Adm. James Stavridis and Joe Reeder: Let's Make the Deal With Iran

Jeffrey Simpson: An Iran Opportunity Not to Be Missed

And finally, I'll close with what Jeffrey Goldberg wrote this week.
But let's look at what would happen if Netanyahu "wins" this battle. [Martin] Indyk lays out a depressing scenario:

"What happens if the president succeeds in doing a deal despite the speech of the prime minister?" he asks. "Instead of the United States and Israel talking about ways to provide strategic reassurance to Israel, there’s going to be an ongoing fight over this deal. And what if the prime minister then succeeds in killing the deal? How will the president relate to the destruction of one of his signature policy initiatives? And if the sanctions then collapse, as seems likely, and Iran continues moving towards a nuclear weapon, how does the prime minister propose to stop Iran? He will certainly manage in the process to create the impression that he wants the United States to go to war with Iran."
The common theme in all the articles above is that - while the deal that emerges is not likely to be perfect - it will be far superior to any alternative that is actually possible. The bar Netanyahu wants to set is impossible and would leave war as the only option - which is 100% unacceptable. That's why Ignatius says that these are "the most important diplomatic negotiations of the last several decades."

Quick Take

I have a hard time with the idea of conservatives having anything to say about what we teach our children about history when they can't even remember what was going on 6 years ago.

Exhibit A: Here's Sarah Palin yesterday at CPAC:
Now, in ’09 when Obama took over the war on terror, Islamists were in retreat and al Qaeda was a broken force.
I'd venture a guess that Ms. Palin has totally forgotten what happened on May 2, 2011. I also suspect she has no idea who these guys are, what they had planned, or how/when they met their fateful end.

Breakdown Dead Ahead

Don't ask me how, but I've been privy to private communication from Majority Leader McConnell to Speaker Boehner today about DHS funding.


Thursday, February 26, 2015

One Young Man's Story of Being an ISIS Recruit

The right wingers have decided to make State Department Spokesperson Marie Harf their punching bag for saying that we can't kill our way out of the threat of terrorism.

As she attempted to clarify in that interview, what she was addressing was how we reach the young (mostly) men who are attracted to the cause of ISIS.

To put a face on what she's talking about, John Simpson wrote about his experience of watching the interrogation of a 17 year old ISIS recruit who was captured before he completed a suicide bomb mission at a Shia mosque in Baghdad.
His name was Zakariya al-Rawi, and his story was sad and squalid. He had run away from home after rowing with his parents and gone to a nearby town that was occupied by Islamic State. An IS loudspeaker van drove up and down the streets constantly, calling on people to volunteer to serve Islam. That filled Zakariya with a new sense of purpose. He joined up, together with friends.

The recruiters gave him some basic military training but it is clear what they wanted: suicide fodder. They must have detected his weakness of character, his uncertainties, his innocence, and they started to work on him, telling him that Shia Muslims were heretics who had to be extirpated, the enemies of Sunni Muslims like Zakariya and his friends. He believed them.

“They promised me I’d go straight to heaven, without being judged.”

You didn’t ask them why, if being a suicide bomber was so wonderful, they didn’t want to do it themselves?


Were you scared?

“Yes, very.”

How old were the others who decided to volunteer?

“Most of them were like me, or younger.”

How young?

“Fourteen, 15, 16.”

I asked him what his father and mother would have thought about what he had become. Tears came to his eyes: he suddenly stopped being a terrorist. Now, he was just a kid who had upset his parents and didn’t know how to get home.

His IS minders took him to Baghdad, put him up at a safe house, and taught him how to use an explosive vest. He had to keep his thumb on the trigger of the bomb. Directly he raised it, the bomb would go off. And at that instant, they said, without needing to go through the process of having his life and actions judged, he would find himself in paradise. It might not have been particularly good theology, but it worked.

They gave him a pistol, in case the guards at the Shia mosque tried to stop him. He was to shoot them, then run over to where the crowd of worshippers was thickest and detonate the bomb.

You were fully prepared to kill women and children, as well as men? I asked.

“Yes, sir.”

His voice was scarcely audible now and the tears were running unchecked down his face. His eyes were fixed on his manacled hands and he spoke in whispers.

Why are you crying?

“Because I’m so sorry for all this.”

You’re ashamed of what you were going to do?

“Yes, sir.”
That's just one young man's story. We know from the videos ISIS has made that he is not representative of some (most?) members of that group.

But when we talk about young 14, 15, 16, 17 year olds being recruited to be fodder in these death games, its important to keep this kind of story in mind because "in the Arab countries’ populations, young people are the fastest growing segment, some 60% of the population is under 25 years old, making this one of the most youthful regions in the world." There is the potential for a steady stream of young recruits just like Zakariya al-Rawi. That's exactly who Ms. Harf was talking about.

Liberia Says "Thank You"

Republicans are attempting to spread a meme about how President Obama has lost the trust and confidence of our friends around the globe. It's a blatant lie.

As one small refutation of that nonsense, today Liberia's President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf expressed her country's gratitude for the role the United States played in combating ebola.
Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf paid emotional tribute to the American people on Thursday as the United States formally wound up its successful five-month mission to combat the west African nation's Ebola outbreak.

With Liberia now in recovery from the worst outbreak of the deadly virus in history, the visiting Sirleaf thanked the United States for coming to the region's aid in its hour of need.

"America responded, you did not run from Liberia," Sirleaf told US lawmakers in Washington, expressing the "profound gratitude" of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.
The American public has moved on from the hysteria created by the ebola epidemic only a few months ago. So this kind of news won't get much attention. But if anyone is looking for a reason to be proud of our country and this President, there you have it!

Republicans Assume Obama Has a Plan to Save Us from Them

We're a little less than two months into this new Congress and it's already pretty clear that Republicans are much more adept at obstruction as a minority than they are at governing as a majority. But things are actually worse than we think when they have to resort to claiming that President Obama must have a secret plan to protect Americans from the stuff they're trying blow up.
Some Republicans say they simply do not believe that the Obama administration isn’t developing a fallback plan in case the Supreme Court dismantles a piece of the healthcare law this summer...

Both parties have repeatedly said that a plaintiff victory in the case could cause massive damage to ObamaCare, perhaps even crippling the law.

With such high stakes, Republicans say the administration must be crafting a plan to avert disaster.
So let's get this straight. Republicans crafted this ridiculous lawsuit that some of their own plaintiffs don't support in order to decimate Obamacare and take healthcare away from millions of Americans. But they're just sure that - if they win - President Obama has a secret plan to clean up the mess they made.

Remember...these are the same folks that go around claiming that Barack Obama doesn't love America. That's today's Republican Party for ya folks.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

What's Next for the Keystone Pipeline

Rebecca Leber is right. Environmental groups who are opposed to the Keystone Pipeline are being premature in celebrating President Obama's veto yesterday.
Obama has long objected to Republicans circumventing a normal federal review process to determine the environmental and economic impact of the pipeline. His argument for the veto all along has been about process—not about the ecological merits of not building the pipeline, as some environmentalists claim. Even if Obama sounded skeptical of pro-Keystone arguments, he's made it clear that his veto is only to stop Republicans from overstepping their congressional authority.
What Leber failed to do, however, was to outline where we are in that process the President's veto was meant to protect. So here's a summary:
  1. In January 2014 the State Department issued a report on the pipeline. 
  2. The State Department then asked for comments on the report from the Departments of Defense, Justice, Interior, Commerce, Transportation, Energy, Homeland Security and the E.P.A.
  3. Earlier this month, DoD, Interior and  E.P.A. released their comments. It is unclear whether the other departments have responded.
  4. Once that information has been compiled and studied, Sec. of State John Kerry will make a recommendation to President Obama on whether or not to approve the pipeline.
  5. President Obama will make a decision on whether or not to approve the pipeline.
Even among those who recognize that the President's veto yesterday is not the end of this story, almost no one is noting step #4 above. President Obama will likely approve whatever Sec. Kerry recommends. Need I remind anyone of John Kerry's commitment to addressing climate change? Nuff said.  

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Moving the Goal Posts on a Iranian Nuclear Agreement (updated)

The good news is that signs are pointing to the very real possibility that an agreement will be reached in the negotiations with Iran over nuclear weapons by the deadline this coming Sunday (see update below).

The bad news is that one of those signs is that some people are trying to move the goalposts for what the agreement should accomplish. Exhibit A: Eli Lake and Josh Rogin.
For anyone hoping a nuclear deal with Iran might stop the Tehran government from destabilizing the Middle East or free its political prisoners, the Obama administration has some bad news: It's just an arms control agreement.

As details of a proposed pact leaked out of the Geneva talks Monday, administration officials told us they will ask the world to judge any final nuclear agreement on the technical aspects only, not on whether the deal will spur Iranian reform.
Excuse me...when did anyone in the Obama administration or any of the other 5 nations participating in these negotiations suggest that the goal was to "spur Iranian reform?" It has seemed perfectly clear to most of us that these efforts were about getting Iran to give up their quest for nuclear weapons. Just in case anyone harbors doubts about that, I would suggest you read the very extensive and thorough interview Jeffrey Goldberg had with President Obama about it two years ago.

Truth be told, this is exactly why Bibi Netanyahu and the American neocons are so dead set against these negotiations. They are not interested in Iran voluntarily giving up their nuclear weapons. The bottom line is that they won't be satisfied with anything short of regime change in Iran. What boggles the mind is that forcing regime change is exactly what got us here in the first place. People who don't lust for war and domination are smart enough to know that.

UPDATE: I have been assuming the deadline for a broad political agreement in these negotiations was March 1, 2015 based on articles like this. But apparently I've been wrong. According to more recent reports, the deadline is March 31, 2015. I apologize for that error.

Dale Hansen Does It Again

Do you remember Dale Hansen? He's the Texas sports reporter who's commentary defending Michael Sam went viral last year.

Well...he's at it again. Take a look.

Here's another big shout-out to Dale. More of this please.

Quick Take

I see that Spencer Ackerman has a big story up at the Guardian about a prison in Chicago that he describes as using many of the same tactics that were employed by the "war on terror."

While I applaud this kind of expose' about our criminal justice system, his inference that this kind of thing is happening because these practices were somehow invented by the war on terror is completely ahistorical.

I remember that there were people who, when the topic of the day was the treatment of Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning, tried to point out that this was not a singular occurrence - that it happened in U.S. prisons all the time.

This has been a consistent issue with our current crop of young poutrage reporters. I'm not sure why they need to pretend like what they uncover is something new rather than the continuation of a historical pattern.

President Obama's Impact on Racism

In many ways that picture captures how the presidency of Barack Obama has changed the country. Young black boys growing up in this era have a different perception of what is possible in their lives. And every day children of other races and genders are presented with an alternative to the image of the "angry black man" that has been so embedded in our culture. We should never underestimate the power of that shift.

But what about the rest of us? A lot of pundits suggest that the presidency of Barack Obama has polarized the racial divide in this country. And there's some truth to that. At no point in my adult life has race been more front and center as an issue than its been over the last 6 years. And so the question becomes whether this President has moved us forward or backwards when it comes to the racial divide in this country.

From the 1970's through the early 2000's, most white people could simply ignore the question of racism. There were times it came out of the woodwork and surprised us - like the reaction to the verdict in the O.J. Simpson trail and the Rodney King beating, verdict and riots. But the former was more of a curiosity and the latter didn't really affect our lives. If we were successfully able to segregate ourselves from the every day lives of black/brown people, we could reach the conclusion that the Civil Rights Movement had tackled that problem and it was time to move on. When it came to politics, that included both white conservatives and liberals.

Then we elected our first black president. The reaction to that has led someone like Ezra Klein to write about Obama Derangement Syndrome.
Obama Derangement Syndrome is different. It isn't so much paranoia about President Obama's policies as it is paranoia about the man himself — that he is, in some fundamental way, different, foreign, untrustworthy, even traitorous. What's odd is that it is attached to a president whose presidency has been, in almost every respect, conventionally liberal.
You can almost hear the wheels turning in Klein's head asking, "WTH is going on here?!" He can only come to one conclusion.
But then, that's why Obama Derangement Syndrome is different than Bush Derangement Syndrome: it's not really about Obama's presidency. It's about Obama himself. It's about his blackness, his father's foreignness, his strange name, his radical pastor. Obama's presidency is in many ways ordinary, but the feelings it evokes are not. There is something about seeing Obama in the White House that deeply unsettles his critics. Obama Derangement Syndrome rationalizes those feelings.
Now, I don't know that much about Klein's personal life other than that he's young, smart, liberal and wonky. So I don't want to make this all about him. But for the cohort he represents, it's obviously pretty difficult to continue to ignore the reality of racism in this country as we watch the reaction to this President.

And so I am reminded once again of what Derrick Jensen wrote in The Culture of Make Believe.
Several times I have commented that hatred felt long and deeply enough no longer feels like hatred, but more like tradition, economics, religion, what have you. It is when those traditions are challenged, when the entitlement is threatened, when the masks of religion, economics, and so on are pulled away that hate transforms from its more seemingly sophisticated, "normal," chronic state—where those exploited are looked down upon, or despised—to a more acute and obvious manifestation. Hate becomes more perceptible when it is no longer normalized.

Another way to say all of this is that if the rhetoric of superiority works to maintain the entitlement, hatred and direct physical force remains underground. But when that rhetoric begins to fail, force and hatred waits in the wings, ready to explode.
The presidency of Barack Obama has threatened the normalization of racism that allowed too many white people in this country to ignore it for the last 40 years. It's now out in the open and it's time for us to reckon with it. Aside from any other policies this President has implemented, that is the legacy he offers to us.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Jay Smooth on Learning the Craft of Being Good

It's all well and good to point fingers at someone who said/did something racist/sexist/homophobic, etc. But Jay Smooth suggests that each of us has to work daily at the craft of being good. This is just what I needed to hear today. So I thought I'd share it with you.

Some Real Journalism About ISIS

While the American media is currently obsessed with whether or not Barack Obama loves America or is a Christian because he won't use the right words to describe terrorists, apparently the President's strategy to develop a global alliance to "degrade and ultimately destroy" ISIS is showing signs of success.

Zach Beauchamp makes a pretty comprehensive argument about why ISIS is Losing.
If you want to understand what's happening in the Middle East today, you need to appreciate one fundamental fact: ISIS is losing its war for the Middle East.

This may seem hard to believe: in Iraq and Syria, the group still holds a stretch of territory larger than the United Kingdom, manned by a steady stream of foreign fighters. Fighters pledging themselves to ISIS recently executed 21 Christians in Libya.

It's certainly true that ISIS remains a terrible and urgent threat to the Middle East. The group is not on the verge of defeat, nor is its total destruction guaranteed. But, after months of ISIS expansion and victories, the group is now being beaten back. It is losing territory in the places that matter. Coalition airstrikes have hamstrung its ability to wage offensive war, and it has no friends to turn to for help. Its governance model is unsustainable and risks collapse in the long run.

Unless ISIS starts adapting, there's a very good chance its so-called caliphate is going to fall apart.
And apparently you have to read the Australian press to learn that the Islamic State is being hit by desertions and disgust at their brutality.
Islamic State is facing increasing public disobedience and a ­rising numbers of defections, ­according to sources in two cities in Iraq and Syria.

They offered similar claims of morale falling and of defections among Islamic State fighters in Mosul and Raqqa, and told of ­displays of disaffection and resistance, and of rising incidences of corruption among officials.
Meanwhile, some American pundits provide us with nothing more than the need for dick-swinging contests with ISIS because they can't be bothered to educate themselves about what is actually going on in the Middle East.

If you want to know when I get embarrassed by America - that kind of nonsense from people like Chris Matthews embarrasses me.

In addition to the fact that the kind of reporting above provides us with important information, what we can learn from these two pieces of journalism is that we don't need to get caught up in the media's version of the hysteria du jour. Whether its the obsession with people like Giuliani or Matthew's dick-swinging fantasies, its all a distraction.

I'd like to give my shout-out today to Zach Beachamp at Vox and Tom Coghlan at The Australian for some actual journalism.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Juan Williams Ignores Systemic/Structural Racism

In case you ever had any questions about how Fox News tolerated Juan Williams as their token black commentator, your answer can be found in what Williams wrote in a WSJ editorial titled: America's Most Influential Thinker on Race.

Let's take this a step at a time. First of all, the person Williams is referring to is Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Secondly, the use of the word "influential" can be taken to mean influential in a good way or a bad way. Williams suggests it in a good way.

Now...the reaction Williams notes from a lot of people is to simply call Thomas - and Williams by this association - an "Uncle Tom." I totally understand that response. When I was reading this article I had to stop several times as my blood boiled. But I think its also important to take this kind of argument apart and demonstrate why it is so wrong. So I'm going to give it a go.

Williams uses Thomas' words to suggest that government policies that attempt to alleviate the effects of racism are actually based on an assumption of African American inferiority. For example:
“After all, if separation itself is a harm, and if integration therefore is the only way that blacks can receive a proper education, then there must be something inferior about blacks,” he wrote in his concurring opinion in Missouri v. Jenkins (1995). “Under this theory, segregation injures blacks because blacks, when left on their own, cannot achieve. To my way of thinking that conclusion is the result of a jurisprudence based upon a theory of black inferiority.”
Its almost as if Thomas and Williams never heard of things like separate and unequalredlining, or sundown towns. That speaks to the heart of what both men completely ignore...the reality of systemic and/or structural racism. When we confront the reality of disparities for black people in everything from education to poverty to housing to health to criminal justice, we are left with a question of why those disparities persist. We can answer that question in one of three ways:
  1. Black people are inherently inferior
  2. The remedies to racial bias create the disparities
  3. Systemic/Structural racism creates the disparities
People like Charles Murray in The Bell Curve have actually attempted to suggest that #1 is the answer. But both science and morality have caused most of us to reject it outright.

The second answer became the foundation of much of Nixon's "Southern Strategy" (IOW, a way for people to deny their racism was fueled by #1 above). We see it today when people like Rep. Paul Ryan suggest that there is a "cultural" problem in inner cities (i.e., with black/brown people) and when President Reagan coined the term "welfare queens" or Mike Huckabee talks about "roach motels."

Never mind that the majority of people who receive government benefits are white (significantly more than their percentage in the general population), this becomes an excuse to blame people of color for the disparities. It also totally ignores that those disparities were both present and significantly worse before the government began intervening. As just one example, we now have our first Latino Supreme Court Justice who graduated summa cum laude from Yale Law School precisely because of Affirmative Action. If policies like that were the problem rather that the solution, Sonia Sotomayor would be trapped in her own inferiority.

And so, we're left with systemic/structural racism. There have literally been books written about that one, but it basically comes down to the way in which white supremacy has been structurally built into our educational, housing, health and criminal justice systems. The disparities of federal sentencing guidelines on crack/cocaine (or even the whole "war on drugs") are but one example of how racism is baked into the cake of our criminal justice system. Contrary to what people like Williams and Thomas suggest, government policies and programs designed to remedy and/or compensate for those systemic issues are what they are so casually dismissing.

I'd suggest to Juan Williams that he needs to go elsewhere to find America's most influential thinker on race. He could start by listening to Jay Smooth.

Wrong Question!

This is not likely to happen again, but this one time I happen to agree with Scott Walker. Apparently Dan Balz and Robert Costa thought it was appropriate to ask him whether or not he thinks President Obama is a Christian. I suspect Walker was lying when he said he didn't know because he'd never read anything about that. But he went on to challenge the reporters for asking the question in the first place.
Walker said such questions from reporters are reflective of a broader problem in the nation’s political-media culture, which he described as fixated on issues that are not relevant to most Americans.

“To me, this is a classic example of why people hate Washington and, increasingly, they dislike the press,” he said. “The things they care about don’t even remotely come close to what you’re asking about.”
He's right. But I'd take it a step or two farther than Walker did. Its a "gotcha" question designed to stir up hysteria on both sides. And it worked.

As I've written about before, President Obama has been very open in talking about his Christian faith. That's his choice. But Christian fundamentalists have injected into our political discourse this notion that its appropriate to judge people based on their definition of what it means to be a Christian. That goes against what Jesus taught about judging others - which would lead us to leave it up to the individual to define whether or not they call themselves "Christian."

Balz and Costa bought into the notion that its appropriate to judge someone else by asking Walker to comment on the President's faith. WRONG!!!!

This kind of questioning also subtly reinforces the idea that only Christians are allowed to be President of the United States. Supporters of President Obama suddenly feel the need to defend the fact that he is a Christian because the implication is that something would be wrong if he were not. It feels a lot like the need to defend people who are accused of being gay. To state the truth in those situations (i.e., "I am a Christian" or "I am heterosexual") comes off sounding defensive - as if there was something wrong with being non-Christian or gay.

And so this morning John Favreau nailed it on twitter by reminding us of what Colin Powell said about all this nonsense back in 2008.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Why Does Barack Obama Love America?

While most Republicans are either keeping mum on Rudy Giuliani's remarks about President Obama or are doing their best to distance themselves from them, Kevin Williamson at the National Review goes all-in on defending him with an article titled: Rudy is Right.

In reading Williamson, I got stuck on this paragraph:
Does Barack Obama like America? The people around him certainly seem to have their reservations. Michelle Obama said — twice, at separate campaign events — that her husband’s ascending to the presidency meant that “for the first time in my adult lifetime, I’m really proud of my country.” She was in her mid 40s at the time, her “adult lifetime” having spanned decades during which she could not be “really proud” of her country. Barack Obama spent years in the Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s church as the churchman fulminated: “God Damn America!” The Reverend Wright’s infamous “God Damn America!” sermon charges the country with a litany of abuses: slavery, mistreatment of the Indians, “treating citizens as less than human,” etc. A less raving version of the same indictment can be found in the president’s own speeches and books.
What grabbed me was to wonder what about this country would make a black woman who's ancestors were slaves and had to flee the south due to Jim Crow proud. And why the history Rev. Wright describes would lead a black/brown person to say anything other than "God Damn America!" Perhaps the racism of people like Giuliani and Williamson is actually rooted in exactly that kind of unconscious projection. They know how horribly this country has treated people of color and can't imagine themselves being patriotic under those circumstances.

And so I decided to remind myself of one of the times when Barack Obama grounded his agenda as President into his own description of what makes the United States exceptional. Here are some excerpts from his 2012 Inaugural Address:
Each time we gather to inaugurate a President we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution. We affirm the promise of our democracy. We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names. What makes us exceptional -- what makes us American -- is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Today we continue a never-ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth...

We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths –- that all of us are created equal –- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.

It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law –- for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well. Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote. Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity -- until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country. Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia, to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for and cherished and always safe from harm.

That is our generation’s task -- to make these words, these rights, these values of life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness real for every American.
For those whose equality was guaranteed at this country's birth rather than through subsequent struggles, the commitment to continue the process of perfecting our union is something that can only be grasped via empathy. Those who lack that skill can't understand what makes a man like Barack Obama love America.

Things In D.C. Are Going to Get Real Interesting Real Fast

In case you didn't notice, Congress has been in recess over the last week. In the meantime, things got pretty ugly out there. But if you recall, just before they left, the consensus was that the new Republican Congress was failing because they couldn't seem to come up with a bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security. We haven't heard much about that over the last few days as Republicans went on a rampage of accusing President Obama of "not being one of us." But all of that is going to change next week. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker John Boehner have until next Friday to come up with a solution to the DHS funding issue.

A look at the calendar suggests that Republican leadership is going to have their hands full just as that deadline approaches. For example, later this week CPAC will be having their annual convention with headline speakers like Sarah Palin and Sen. Ted Cruz. That will give the lunatic "shut it all down" caucus a pretty big platform from which to attack the RINO's who need a compromise to get this thing resolved.

Also on the horizon, Speaker Boehner has PM Netanyahu scheduled to address Congress on March 3rd, just 4 days after that deadline hits. Something I hadn't noticed before is that the first deadline for the negotiations with Iran comes on Sunday, March 1st. That means that if the negotiations are successful, an overall political framework for an agreement will be announced 2 days before Netanyahu's speech (negotiators have until July 1st to reach agreement on the technical details) and 2 days after the deadline to approve DHS funding.

These are the things that will dominate the headlines over the next two weeks.

Meanwhile, just to make things even more interesting, today President Obama dedicated his weekly address to the issue of fast-track authority for trade agreements like the Trans Pacific Partnership.

The President basically echoed what he said during his interview with Matt Yglesias. But as that issue comes to the fore, it likely means that Republicans will be working with him and the poutragers on the left will resurface all their accusations about how this President sold us out to the plutocrats.

So hold onto your hat folks. The next couple of weeks are going to get VERY interesting!! Pretty soon everyone will have forgotten about poor old Giuliani.

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Cuteness Factor

A little something to hopefully brighten your day.

World News Videos | US News Videos

The GOP's Obsession With Words

I am truly fascinated with the GOP's obsession with words over actions. It actually goes back much further than the recent nonsense about what President Obama calls the members of ISIS.

Does anyone  remember this?

Even people who acknowledge George Bush's failings point to that as one of the great moments of his presidency. But by 2002, here's what he said at a press conference.
Asked about the hunt for Bin Laden at a March, 2002 press conference, Bush said, “I truly am not that concerned about him. I am deeply concerned about Iraq.” “I really just don’t spend that much time on him, to be honest with you,” Bush added.
By that time, President Bush wanted to invade Iraq and wasn't that interested in the "people who knocked these buildings down." That task was left to President Obama.

Ten years after 9/11 came the attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi. Republicans immediately became obsessed with whether or not President Obama had called the perpetrators "terrorists." It has never mattered much to them that - under this President's leadership - the U.S. captured the mastermind of that attack.

And now, Republicans have convinced themselves that President Obama doesn't take the threat from ISIS seriously because he won't call them "Islamic terrorists." Peggy Noonan attempts to make a case for why that is important. She draws her case mostly from an article by Graeme Wood in The Atlantic titled: What ISIS Really Wants. But when Noonan is done quoting what Wood says about the religious beliefs of ISIS, she turns to what he has to say about how to defeat them.
A U.S. invasion and occupation, Mr. Wood argues, would be a propaganda victory for them, because they’ve long said the U.S. has always intended to embark on a modern-day crusade against Islam. And if a U.S. ground invasion launched and failed, it would be a disaster.

The best of bad options, Mr. Wood believes, is to “slowly bleed” ISIS through air strikes and proxy warfare. The Kurds and the Shiites cannot vanquish them, but they can “keep the Islamic State from fulfilling its duty to expand.” That would make it look less like “the conquering state of the Prophet Muhammed.” As time passed ISIS could “stagnate” and begin to sink. Word of its cruelties would spread; it could become another failed state.
Hmmm...that sounds exactly like President Obama's "degrade and destroy" strategy.

Noonan simply ignores all that and - in the end - seems to suggest that we should be respectful of ISIS.
It is, ironically, disrespectful not to name what they are, and what they are about.
Talk about PC madness!!!!

I have to admit that when I approach all of this from a logical standpoint, my head starts spinning. That's when I know it's time to leave the logic aside and go in search of root causes.

Of course part of this is fueled by those who want to suggest that because President Obama doesn't use the words they prefer - he's not one of us. That ignites the underlying racist fears of the GOP base.

But it also feeds into the desire for a "holy war" of Christianity vs Islam - the very same thing ISIS wants. That is exactly why President Obama's words of caution at the National Prayer Breakfast were so important - and why his refusal to buy into this dangerous language is exactly the right call.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Jeb Bush: "Holy Schnikes"

Yesterday afternoon I decided to watch Jeb Bush's speech on foreign policy. To say I was shocked might be an overstatement. But I was really surprised. That's because I also watched his speech on domestic issues in San Francisco a few weeks ago and came away impressed...assuming he was going to be the Republican candidate to beat. During that speech, Jeb was polished, articulate and self-confident. But as many people have pointed out, yesterday he was a mess.

I don't know what to make of Jeb's performance yesterday. It could be that he just had a bad day. But it reminded me of something Matt Yglesias wrote in reaction to Jeb's speech in Detroit: Jeb Bush sounds like he's running for Mayor of America.
Launching his not-quite-a-presidential-campaign in Detroit this week, Jeb Bush delivered what I think would be an incredible speech for a job that doesn't actually exist. Call it "Mayor of America."

What Jeb didn't do was offer a speech that suggests he'd be a good president, or is even aware of what the president's job is.
It could be that in his heart of hearts, Jeb is someone who gets into the policy wonkishness of local/state issues, but assumes his family legacy requires that he run for president (the problem with dynasties in a nutshell). That ambivalence was on display at the end of the question-and-answer session when the topic of rouge states acquiring nuclear weapons came up. Here's Jeb's response:
Look, this is a – the more I get into this stuff, there are some things you just go, you know, holy schnikes.
It's OK to be overwhelmed by difficult foreign policy issues. It's just not OK to run for president when you feel that way.

It's Getting Ugly Out There

If you are feeling a bit of "deja vu" all over again, there's a reason. Six years ago we heard a lot of talk from the right wing about birth certificates, Kenyan socialists, and a presidential candidate who "palled around with terrorists." You remember all that, don't you?

While that kind of talk never really disappeared, it did eventually give way to other forms of hysteria - mostly about jobs, the economy, the federal deficit, the scourge of Obamacare, and unconstitutional executive actions (with a little Ebola thrown in there).

But lately the whole zeitgeist of right wing talking points has gone back to the more familiar territory of the 2008 election. That's why yesterday I wrote about Franklin Graham's outrageous lies about President Obama - summed up by "He only knows Islam."

Later in the day, Rudy Giuliani threw this one into the mix:
I do not believe, and I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe that the president loves America. He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.
Of course much of the right wing hysteria over the last couple of days has been directed at State Department Spokesperson Marie Harf for saying that "we can't kill our way out of this war" - the exact same thing that George W. Bush and Mitt Romney said.

And finally, that leads us to Bill O'Reilly's assertion that its time for the "holy war" that President Obama refuses to declare.
The holy war begins…. The holy war is here. And unfortunately it seems the President of United States will be the last one to acknowledge it…. President Obama needs to lead – needs to lead the world in this holy war.
If you haven't gotten the picture yet, here's what it boils down to: "The Islamic extremists are at our doors and President Obama won't stop them because he's not one of us - he's one of them!"

With all that hysteria lathered up, I figure that it's a good time to take a step back and think about what has the right wingers in such a state. Scroll back up to my second paragraph and you'll get a clue. The economic recovery seems to finally be in full swing, the federal deficit is plummeting, and Obamacare is a raging success by almost any measure. Add to that the fact that the new Republican Congress is failing miserably and you start to get the picture.

I'm not a conspiracy theorist so I don't think this is a coordinated strategy. If it was, you'd have to admit that fear-mongering about a President that is sympathetic to the terrorists at our door at the same time that you are threatening to shut down funding for the Department of Homeland Security would be a colossally stupid strategy.

What is happening here is more like the spread of a contagion. As the dying beast runs out of weapons with which to strike back, it is reverting to base instincts. And those are primarily related to their racist fears. So its getting really ugly out there.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

"Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that."

This story provided just the boost I needed today.
A group of young Norwegian Muslims plans to create a human ring around Oslo’s synagogue following the Shabat celebration this Saturday, in a gesture they are calling a ’Peace Ring’.

Hajrad Arshad, the event’s 17-year-old organiser, told Norway’s state broadcaster NRK that the group aimed to “extinguish the prejudices people have against Jews and against Muslims”...

Ervin Kohn, the leader of Oslo’s Jewish community welcomed the initiative.

"What they are communicating is that if anyone wants to do anything against Jews in Norway, they have to go through us first, and I think that is very positive,” he said...

Arshad and her six co-organisers, who are part of a Facebook discussion forum called Urett Avsløres or Injustice Revealed, have already got more than 450 people signed up to attend.

“Islam is about protecting our brothers and sisters, regardless of which religion they belong to,” the event page reads. “Islam is about rising above hate and never sinking to the same level as the haters. Islam is about defending each other.”
My reaction to this amazingly beautiful show of solidarity was to remember these wise words:
The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral,
begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.
Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.
Through violence you may murder the liar,
but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.
Through violence you may murder the hater,
but you do not murder hate.
In fact, violence merely increases hate.
So it goes.
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness:
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
This morning I was asking myself what it would take to heal the ugly racial divide in this country. Dr. King has had the answer all's all about the light.

Franklin Graham's Outrageous Lies About President Obama

Growing up in a Christian fundamentalist family and church, I learned to have a great deal of respect for Billy Graham. Even after my religious views evolved, I maintained that respect. As someone who was invited to provide spiritual counsel to both Republican and Democratic presidents, he always seemed to understand that the separation of church and state was as important to the church as it was to the state.

That is why I've been so baffled at the way his son Franklin has veered from that course. But I was downright disturbed by what he had to say on Greta Vansusteren's show last night.

Some people have focused on the initial part of the interview where he basically invites ISIS members to convert to Christianity. While probably pointless, it doesn't bother me. It was what he said at the end that was so disturbing.
The President, his entire life, his whole influence has been Islam. His mother was married to a Muslim. His father's a Muslim. Then she married a man from Indonesia. He was raised in Indonesia, went to Islamic schools. I assume she was a Muslim. So his whole life - his experiences - have been surrounded by Islam. He only knows Islam.
In trying to understand why Graham would say all that, we only have two options: (1) he is completely ignorant of what Barack Obama has written and said about his life (as well as the historical record) or, (2) he's blatantly lying for propaganda purposes.

Long before he entered politics, Barack Obama wrote Dreams From My Father that went into a lot of detail about his family's religious beliefs as well as his own. And he's talked about it openly ever since. As a summary, here's what then-State Senator Obama told Cathleen Falsani when she interviewed him about his faith in 2004.
I draw from the Christian faith.
 On the other hand, I was born in Hawaii where obviously there are a lot of Eastern influences.
 I lived in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, between the ages of six and 10. 
My father was from Kenya, and although he was probably most accurately labeled an agnostic, his father was Muslim.

I was raised more by my mother and my mother was Christian...

My grandparents who were from small towns in Kansas. My grandmother was Methodist. My grandfather was Baptist. This was at a time when I think the Methodists felt slightly superior to the Baptists. And by the time I was born, they were, I think, my grandparents had joined a Universalist church.

So, my mother, who I think had as much influence on my values as anybody, was not someone who wore her religion on her sleeve. We’d go to church for Easter. She wasn’t a church lady.

As I said, we moved to Indonesia. She remarried an Indonesian who wasn’t particularly, he wasn’t a practicing Muslim. I went to a Catholic school in a Muslim country. So I was studying the Bible and catechisms by day, and at night you’d hear the prayer call.

So I don’t think as a child we were, or I had a structured religious education. But my mother was deeply spiritual person, and would spend a lot of time talking about values and give me books about the world’s religions, and talk to me about them.
Of course he goes on in that interview to talk about his own "born again" experience while working with church groups as a community organizer in Chicago. But none of that is a new story. It's been told over and over again. So it's hard to imagine how Graham could be completely ignorant of it all.

If Mr. Graham wants to suggest that Barack Obama (and various biographers) are lying about his faith and family background, that would at least be more honest than to simply assert that "he only knows Islam."

In the end, what Graham said is outrageous. It has nothing to do with expressing disagreement with President Obama over how to respond to ISIS. I'd also assert that it has nothing to do with Christianity or Islam. It's an ugly attempt to smear President Obama as sympathetic to terrorists.

This is no different than the racist lies that spawned the whole birth certificate nonsense. Most of us thought we'd gotten beyond all that. At least partially due to his father's legacy, a lot of evangelical/fundamentalist Christians will buy in to Franklin's lies.

While I continue to try to maintain my optimism that this country can heal these racist divides, today is one of those days that I begin to wonder what it's going to take for that to happen.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Photo of the Day: NASA Masterpiece

This one is off-the-charts:
A not-so-long time from now in a planetary orbit not far away, a team of astronauts will head to the International Space Station. NASA just revealed the official poster for Expedition 45, and it is a Star Wars-themed masterpiece...Each astronaut has a differently hued lightsaber. There's a satellite that looks deceivingly like an X-Wing with its S-foils in attack position. And that eerily familiar object next to Scott Kelly's head... that's no moon.

What Will Defeat ISIS

I see that Marie Harf, deputy spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State, is experiencing quite the backlash from conservatives for suggesting that - when it comes to ISIS - "We cannot kill our way out of this war. We need in the medium to longer term to go after the root causes that leads people to join these groups." Of course, that kind of thinking is anathema to the fear, anger and need for revenge that is invoked so often in this country.

But my question is always - what is the end goal of all the killing that is usually offered as the alternative? Certainly we can interrupt the advancement of a group like ISIS and protect more people from being victims of their barbarism. But as President George W. Bush found out - there will be no "Mission Accomplished" moment when ISIS leaders formally "surrender" and the threat is eliminated.

That's why President Obama said this during his interview with Matt Yglesias:
But this is going to be a generational challenge in the Muslim world and the Middle East that not only the United States but everybody's going to have to deal with. And we're going to have to have some humility in recognizing that we don't have the option of simply invading every country where disorder breaks out. And that to some degree, the people of these countries are going to have to, you know, find their own way. And we can help them but we can't do it for them.
It strikes me that this is a lesson the United States has had trouble learning over the last 60 years. Its why the President often talks about the need for a new set of tools to deal with the challenges of the 21st Century. During WWII, the American military helped defeat dictators who not only oppressed their own people, but sought to expand their power beyond their own borders.

But following that victory, we became embroiled in conflicts on the side of dictators who were fending off challenges as their own citizens sought to throw off the yoke of tyranny that was often the legacy of colonialism. Those efforts didn't end so well because people who are willing to fight and die for their own emancipation are not likely to "surrender."

In one of the most important speeches of his Presidency, Barack Obama addressed this shift in his remarks to the young people of Europe almost a year ago.
Throughout human history, societies have grappled with fundamental questions of how to organize themselves, the proper relationship between the individual and the state, the best means to resolve inevitable conflicts between states. And it was here in Europe, through centuries of struggle -- through war and Enlightenment, repression and revolution -- that a particular set of ideals began to emerge: The belief that through conscience and free will, each of us has the right to live as we choose. The belief that power is derived from the consent of the governed, and that laws and institutions should be established to protect that understanding. And those ideas eventually inspired a band of colonialists across an ocean, and they wrote them into the founding documents that still guide America today, including the simple truth that all men -- and women -- are created equal.

But those ideals have also been tested -- here in Europe and around the world. Those ideals have often been threatened by an older, more traditional view of power. This alternative vision argues that ordinary men and women are too small-minded to govern their own affairs, that order and progress can only come when individuals surrender their rights to an all-powerful sovereign.
In his interview with Yglesias, the President noted that the older, most traditional view of power is giving way to the reality that power is derived from the consent of the governed.
I am a firm believer that particularly in this modern internet age, the capacity of the old-style authoritarian government to sustain itself and to thrive just is going to continue to weaken. It's going to continue to crumble that model. My argument to any partner that we have is that you are better off if you've got a strong civil society and you've got democratic legitimacy and you are respectful of human rights.
Going back to his speech in Brussels, President Obama pointed out how this has played out recently around the globe.
Indeed, the ideals that came to define our alliance also inspired movements across the globe among those very people, ironically, who had too often been denied their full rights by Western powers. After the Second World War, people from Africa to India threw off the yoke of colonialism to secure their independence. In the United States, citizens took freedom rides and endured beatings to put an end to segregation and to secure their civil rights. As the Iron Curtain fell here in Europe, the iron fist of apartheid was unclenched, and Nelson Mandela emerged upright, proud, from prison to lead a multiracial democracy. Latin American nations rejected dictatorship and built new democracies, and Asian nations showed that development and democracy could go hand in hand.
It is exactly the same kind of movement that was unleashed by the Arab Spring. What we are witnessing is an attempt to exploit that movement by sectarian extremists. That is why Harf is exactly right in saying that the answer ultimately will come from addressing the root causes. The disorder caused by throwing off the shackles of dictators needs to be met with the development of strong civil societies with democratic legitimacy and respect for human rights. That is ultimately what will defeat ISIS.

Here's how the President ended his remarks in Brussels:
I believe that if we hold firm to our principles, and are willing to back our beliefs with courage and resolve, then hope will ultimately overcome fear, and freedom will continue to triumph over tyranny -- because that is what forever stirs in the human heart.
P.S. These are the same lessons that Putin will need to learn in the Ukraine and Netanyahu will need to learn in the Middle East (especially with regards to the occupation of Palestinian territories).

Monday, February 16, 2015

Are We Heading Back Into a "Global War on Terror?"

In a way, Paul Waldman is correct in saying that - with ISIS - we're seeing the re-emergence of the "global war on terror." For the last three years I've been hopeful that the Obama presidency would mean an end to this indefinite war. It's now clear that is not likely to happen. But Waldman needlessly ramps up the rhetoric by implying that this one will resemble the one waged by the Bush/Cheney administration.

For starters, we're not seeing torture employed or "enemy combatants" sent to Gitmo. But the big difference is that we're not hearing lies about the need to invade the wrong country. The "regime change" that was necessary for Iraq to effectively fight back against ISIS was done via diplomacy rather than "shock and awe."

Another big difference is that this time there really is a "coalition of the willing." Much of that is a result of the fact that Muslim countries in the Middle East are significantly more threatened by ISIS than we are. Just recently Jordan, UAE, Egypt and Libya either joined the battle or stepped up their efforts due to atrocities committed by ISIS. That is an affirmation of how President Obama described the situation.
But this is going to be a generational challenge in the Muslim world and the Middle East that not only the United States but everybody's going to have to deal with. And we're going to have to have some humility in recognizing that we don't have the option of simply invading every country where disorder breaks out. And that to some degree, the people of these countries are going to have to, you know, find their own way. And we can help them but we can't do it for them.
In the end, Waldman acknowledges that a return to the "global war on terror" of the past will be more of a possibility if our next president is a Republican.
So as much as anything this debate [about the AUMF against ISIS] is about what powers the next president will have. Republicans pushing for a more expansive authorization are hoping that president will be a Republican, and that this resolution can be a tool for him to renew the Global War on Terror to all its former glory. Which could happen whether a resolution passes or not.
With that perspective in mind, I'd say that whether or not we return to the Bush/Cheney "global war on terror" is a question that American voters will decide in 2016 rather than Congress this session. As the saying goes...ELECTIONS MATTER!!!

Netanyahu Should be Shunned

I don't need to hear any of this mess about how there's some false equivalency of "both sides" in terms of the widening gap in PM Netanyahu's relationship with President Obama. It's pretty clear what's going on here.

I'll just remind you that last week Netanyahu said this publicly in reference to the current negotiations with Iran about their development of nuclear weapons:
We will do everything and will take any action to foil this bad and dangerous agreement.
So this shouldn't surprise us:
The decision to reduce the exchange of sensitive information about the Iran talks was prompted by concerns that Netanyahu’s office had given Israeli journalists sensitive details of the U.S. position.
What appears to be happening is that one of the actions Netanyahu has taken in an attempt to foil an agreement is that he has leaked misleading information about the contents of a potential deal to Israeli journalists. When he has as much as embraced a "by any means necessary" to ensure the failure of negotiations, I suspect this is just the beginning.

That's why anyone who is interested in avoiding a war with Iran over nuclear weapons should be shunning Netanyahu as a pariah instead of suggesting that Congress and the American people need to hear what he has to say.

What If McConnell Can't Lead?

Last week the Wall Street Journal editorial page critiqued this Republican Congress. But they're hardly the only ones. Here's a look at a few others:

Daniel Newhouser at the National Journal writes: So Far, a Congress About Nothing.

Michael Memoli and Lisa Mascaro at the LA Times write: Republican Majorities Struggle to Get Congress Working.

Even Chuck Todd seems to have accurately grasped what's going on.
In our experience, there's a simple rule to follow to make sense of any shutdown showdown: The side that's divided usually loses. And Republicans are the ones who are divided in the battle over funding the Department of Homeland Security -- over whether or not to include riders overturning Obama's executive actions on immigration...

Playing politics with security is always problematic. But it's doubly problematic when your party is divided.
It would be nice if a few of these pundits reflected just a bit on the fact that too many of them assumed that if President Obama simply invited Republicans over for tea or did more arm-twisting or used the bully pulpit more often, those recalcitrant Republicans would have gotten in line. When leadership of their own party can't make that happen, it is pretty absurd to think the President could have had any more success.

We've seen this movie before. For four years we watched as Speaker Boehner failed to get his troops in line. Over and over Congress careened towards a cliff before finally recognizing that compromise with Democrats is the only way to avoid disaster. It's been pretty clear to a lot of us for a while now that Speaker Boehner can't lead. And yet the Green Lanternism of What if Obama Can't Lead? prevailed.

Now that Republicans also control the Senate, all eyes should be on Majority Leader McConnell. The question of the day is whether or not the architect of total obstruction can actually lead. So far I'm not impressed.

The root of the problem is a theology that enables sexual abuse

As someone who was raised in a white evangelical Christian family and church, it deeply saddens me every time we hear that another leader o...