Sunday, February 28, 2021

"Don't Be Late for Your Life"

I thought I'd take a bit of a break from politics today to share some things I've learned in life, particularly how I've experienced a change in perspective as I've grown older.

In the 40 years after I graduated from college, I spent my professional life working with children, youth and families who were struggling. I knew it was my calling, even though the introvert in me dreamed of trees, as Mary Oliver wrote.

There is a thing in me that dreamed of trees,
A quiet house, some green and modest acres
A little way from every troubling town,
A little way from factories, schools, laments.
I would have time, I thought, and time to spare,
With only streams and birds for company,
To build out of my life a few wild stanzas.
And then it came to me, that so was death,
A little way away from everywhere.

There is a thing in me still dreams of trees.
But let it go. Homesick for moderation,
Half the world’s artists shrink or fall away.
If any find solution, let him tell it.
Meanwhile I bend my heart toward lamentation
Where, as the times implore our true involvement,
The blades of every crisis point the way.

I would it were not so, but so it is.

Who ever made music of a mild day?

As I've grown older, I still feel the need to have at least some impact on the lamentations of the world, which is why I continue to write here for the few people who have been kind enough to listen. But a quietness has settled in and I no longer feel the need to climb any ladders of ambition or prove anything to anyone—including myself. 

Instead, the calling I feel these days was captured by this excerpt from the book, Beauty: The Invisible Embrace, by John O'Donohue.
When the mind is festering with trouble or the heart torn, we can find healing among the silence of mountains or fields, or listen to the simple, steadying rhythm of waves. The slowness and stillness gradually takes us over. Our breathing deepens and our hearts calm and our hungers relent. When serenity is restored, new perspectives open to us and difficulty can begin to seem like an invitation to new growth.

This invitation to friendship with nature does of course entail a willingness to be alone out there. Yet this aloneness is anything but lonely. Solitude gradually clarifies the heart until a true tranquility is reached. The irony is that at the heart of that aloneness you feel intimately connected with the world. Indeed, the beauty of nature is often the wisest balm for it gently relieves and releases the caged mind.

So I've found myself some trees...and water...and solitude...and space that is a little way away from everywhere. 

My plan these days is to explore the kind of serenity with nature that O'Donohue wrote about. That is what's right for me at this stage of my life. 

I certainly won't claim that my path is the one everyone should follow. But as a culture, we really haven't done enough to explore how our perspectives change at different stages of life. What I'm learning is that the longings of my soul these days are very different than they were in my 20s, 30s, 40s, and even 50s. As O'Donohue wrote elsewhere, it is important that we pay attention to those longings.

Give yourself time to make a prayer that will become the prayer of your soul. Listen to the voices of longing in your soul. Listen to your hungers. Give attention to the unexpected that lives around the rim of your life. Listen to your memory and to the inrush of your future, to the voices of those near you and those you have lost. Out of all of that attention to your soul, make a prayer that is big enough for your wild soul, yet tender enough for your shy and awkward vulnerability; that has enough healing to gain the ointment of divine forgiveness for your wounds; enough truth and vigour to challenge your blindness and complacency; enough graciousness and vision to mirror your immortal beauty. Write a prayer that is worthy of the destiny to which you have been called.

Or as Mary Chapin Carpenter sang, "don't be late for your life."

Friday, February 26, 2021

Republicans Are Rejecting Democracy Because They Lost the Battle of Ideas

Last September, Bill Kristol posited that American conservatism died in 2020.

Modern American conservatism was born in 1955, peaked in full flower in the 1980s, and then aged, mostly gracefully, for three decades. Until it could easily, if suddenly, be pushed aside in its dotage—forced, or induced, to surrender to its younger and stronger, if disreputable, distant relative.

In sum: 2020 was the year in which American conservatism as we have known it for three generations was weighed in the balance, and found wanting.

You don't have to agree with Kristol about much of anything to see that he has a point. We might quibble, however, about the timing. As Jonathan Chait suggested, the conservatism that is dying is the one that's been focused on rolling back the New Deal. I could provide you will all kinds of historical references to the battle Republicans have waged against the New Deal. But instead, I'll simply share one of my favorite video clips, in which Ann Coulter says that, if she could be a person from history, she'd chose to be FDR and NOT introduce the New Deal. You'll love Al Franken's response.

For decades now, the central disagreement between Democrats and Republicans has been about the size and role of the federal government. When it comes to domestic politics, the GOP has promoted tax cuts in order to "starve the beast" and deregulation. In that way, Donald Trump fit right in with the classic Republican agenda. But no one paid much attention because the central theme of his message was nativism fueled by fear-mongering. That has now become the central theme of the Republican Party.

I've been suggesting for a while that, at this point, Republicans don't actually have an agenda other than grievance politics. But as Democrats prepare to vote on a COVID stimulus package, something interesting is happening.
  1. Senator Mitt Romney has proposed a universal child allowance,
  2. Senators Tom Cotton and Mitt Romney have proposed raising the minimum wage to $10/hr, and
  3. Senator Josh Hawley has proposed a three-year program that would increase worker wages in 2021, paid by taxpayers rather than employers.
Romney's universal child allowance has shifted a debate that used to take place between Democrats and Republicans to one that is happening within the GOP. Senators Rubio and Lee objected based on this argument:
We have long said that the Child Tax Credit must be further increased to help working families. In the current pandemic relief bill under consideration, we would support increasing the Child Tax Credit to $3,500, and $4,500 for young children.

However, we do not support turning the Child Tax Credit into what has been called a ‘child allowance,’ paid out as a universal basic income to all parents. That is not tax relief for working parents; it is welfare assistance.

In other words, Rubio and Lee are making a classic Republican argument: tax cuts are good and welfare is bad. 

Since Romney, Cotton, and Hawley don't have the votes to actually pass their proposals, the most likely rationale for them is to distract Democrats from being unified in their support of the COVID stimulus package. But it is still significant that they are putting alternatives forward that are basically Democratic-lite ideas. 

That is a far cry from how Republicans responded to former President Obama's stimulus proposal to address the Great Recession, as Chait points out.
During the Obama administration, Republicans embraced perhaps their purest anti–New Deal fundamentalism. Conservative members of Congress insisted Roosevelt’s policies had lengthened the Depression, and insisted only immediate spending cuts would restore the economy to health.

When it comes to actual policies being put forward by the two parties, we are witnessing a significant shift. Democratic policies are not only overwhelmingly popular with voters, they have been demonstrated to work. On the other hand, the Republican policies of trickle-down economics and deregulation have been a colossal failure, but conservatives haven't come up with a reasonable alternative. They're stuck arguing among themselves about whether to return to those failed policies or embrace a Democratic-lite alternative. 

In the meantime, what Republicans have to replace a policy agenda are anti-democratic means to maintain power: voter suppression, gerrymandering, etc. In many ways they are conceding that they lost the battle of ideas. That's the good news. The bad news is that David Frum's prediction is coming true. He once wrote that, "If conservatives become convinced that they cannot win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism. They will reject democracy.”

Bill Kristol isn't the only one pontificating about whether or not conservatism is dead. There's a lot of chatter about where the Republican Party goes post-Trump. But to me, there are two clear paths they have to chose from: (1) develop policy proposals that will work and appeal to the majority of voters, or (2) reject democracy. For right now, the GOP has gone all-in on #2. 

UPDATE: At The Bulwark, Richard North Patterson writes that Biden "wants to do to Ronald Reagan's governing philosophy what Reagan did to FDR's."

As David Leonhardt has noted, since 1933 GDP under Democratic presidents has grown at nearly twice the rate as under Republican. Observes Leonhardt: “Democrats have been more willing to heed economic and historical lessons about what policies actually strengthen the economy, while Republicans have often clung to theories that they want to believe—like the supposedly magical power of tax cuts and deregulation.” In sum, the Reagan paradigm has outlived its time. The question becomes how best to replace it...

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Biden Prioritizes Child Welfare in Immigration Policy

When it was reported that the Biden administration was re-opening a shelter for migrant teens in Texas, there were those (like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez) who suggested that this president's response to children at the border was no different than Trump's. But nothing could be further from the truth. 

The first thing to keep in mind is how the previous administration used and abused migrant children. When it came to their family separation policy, in which children were literally ripped from the arms of their parents and warehoused in cages, cruelty was the point. It has now been documented that the policy was adopted as a deterrent to discourage asylum seekers from coming to this country in the first place—which is illegal. As Rep. Lauren Underwood demonstrated when she questioned former DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen during a committee hearing, the administration ignored the fact that they were creating long-term mental and physical harm to these children by separating them from their parents.

But that isn't the only way the Trump administration abused migrant children. For example, they waived background checks on staff working at the shelters, which amounted to putting out a "pedophiles wanted" sign at every facility. So it should come as no surprise that this happened:

Thousands of accusations of sexual abuse and harassment of migrant children in government-funded shelters were made over the past four years, including scores directed against adult staff members, according to federal data released Tuesday. The cases include allegations of inappropriate touching, staff members allegedly watching minors while they bathed and showing pornographic videos to minors.

So how does the Biden administration's approach to migrant children stack up against all of that? The first thing to note is that the shelter in Texas is for 13-17 year-olds who arrive at the border unaccompanied. There is no family separation involved. That could be the end of the story. But there's more.

The number of unaccompanied children being detained at the border has actually gone up slightly. That is because the administration also reversed some of Trump’s expulsion practices by accepting them into the country while they await asylum hearings. The process of finding homes for these children as they await their day in court has been complicated by the coronavirus pandemic. While detaining these children in shelters is not ideal, alternatives are few and far between. 

As we all should know by now, cleaning up all of the messes created by the Trump administration will take time. That is especially true when it comes to the way our entire immigration system was corrupted. But we can learn a lot about Biden's goals for that by examining what has been included in his proposal for immigration reform. The Young Center for Immigrant Children's Rights highlighted a key provision that has mostly gone unnoticed.

For the first time in our nation’s history, federal legislation would require immigration officials at the border to consider the best interests of the child in their decisions...The bill would also require training for all DHS personnel who may come into contact with children and ensure licensed medical and child welfare professionals at the border. In direct response to the prior administration’s unprecedented, illegal, and cruel policy of separating families to deter migration, the bill prohibits immigration officials from separating children from their parents for the purpose of enforcing immigration law. The bill would also take steps toward a more equitable and just immigration system by ensuring every child placed in adversarial deportation proceedings has an attorney.

That strikes me as a BFD (as Biden might say) for two reasons. The first is that it makes passage of immigration reform by congress even more important. Codifying those priorities into law would be a significant step forward. But secondly, while we await passage of the bill, those provisions are a clear statement about the Biden administration's approach to child migrants. Placing their best interests at the heart of how immigration officials handle these issues at the border is a necessary and significant shift in priorities.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Fox News Says We Shouldn't Believe Tucker Carlson

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump's bagman—Michael Cohen—paid off Stormy Daniels to keep her quiet about sexual encounters with his boss. Karen McDougal took a similar story to the National Enquirer, which paid her $150,000 and then spiked the story, as they had promised Trump they would do. 

Two years later, Tucker Carlson claimed that Trump was the victim of extortion by these two women.

Carlson first told viewers, "Remember the facts of the story. These are undisputed."...

He then proceeded to say, "Two women approach Donald Trump and threaten to ruin his career and humiliate his family if he doesn't give them money. Now that sounds like a classic case of extortion."

Carlson's so-called "facts" were a lie. McDougal never approached Trump. She claims that "she feared word of the affair would leak out during the campaign anyway and she preferred to be the one to tell the story."

McDougal proceeded to sue Carlson for falsely accusing her of the crime of extortion. Fox News lawyers employed an interesting defense.

Just read U.S. District Judge Mary Kay Vyskocil's opinion, leaning heavily on the arguments of Fox's lawyers: The "'general tenor' of the show should then inform a viewer that [Carlson] is not 'stating actual facts' about the topics he discusses and is instead engaging in 'exaggeration' and 'non-literal commentary.' "

She wrote: "Fox persuasively argues, that given Mr. Carlson's reputation, any reasonable viewer 'arrive[s] with an appropriate amount of skepticism' about the statement he makes."...

In written briefs, [Carlson's lawyers] cited previous rulings to argue Carlson's words were "loose, figurative or hyperbolic." They took note of a nonjournalist's use of the word "extort," which proved nondefamatory because it was mere "rhetorical hyperbole, a vigorous epithet."

The Fox News lawyers were basically saying that anyone who believes what Carlson says is not a "reasonable viewer," which is quite an indictment of all of the people who've made his show number one in the Fox News lineup. 

I'm also struck by all the verbiage used to avoid saying that Carlson lies, such as "exaggeration," "non-literal commentary," and "rhetorical hyperbole." But then, we've gotten used to that in the era of Trumpism. Remember Kellyanne Conway's "alternative facts?" We were also cautioned to not take what Trump said "literally."

What all of this demonstrates is that the people at Fox News are not only lying—they've openly admitted that they're lying. That is an even worse indictment than the one that can be leveled against the people we might call "true believers." In the end, people like Carlson are playing their audience for fools and fueling the divisive politics that is threatening our democracy, as Kevin Drum noted.

Fox News—not social media, not think tanks—is the primal source of racism, xenophobia, polarization, and reckless lying in American media. Until we somehow put a stop to this, it will be hard to ever recover the country we used to have. Not a perfect country by any stretch, but at least one where we all had a roughly similar idea of what was true and were willing to talk openly about it. Rupert Murdoch has earned billions of dollars for destroying American politics, and he’ll keep doing it until the money hose goes away.
We should all take the lawyers at Fox News seriously when they say that we'd be fools to believe what Tucker Carlson says. 

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Rest in Peace, Sister Dianna Ortiz

I went to bed with a heavy heart last night after learning that Sister Dianna Ortiz died on Friday from cancer at the age of 62. Her story is one that every American should know.

In 1987, at the age of 29, Ortiz went to a remote village in the Guatemalan highlands to teach Mayan children to read. Two years later, she was abducted by police officers who took her to a secret prison at a police academy in Guatemala City where she was repeatedly gang-raped and brutally tortured. You can read Ortiz's account of what happened here, but be warned, it is more horrific than you can imagine. 

Unlike the thousands of Guatemalans that "disappeared" back then, Ortiz lived to tell her story. 

As a U.S. citizen, I had another advantage: I could, in relative safety, reveal afterwards the details of what happened to me in those twenty-four hours. One of those details: an American was in charge of my torturers.

I remember the moment he removed my blindfold. I asked him, "Are you an American?" In poor Spanish and with a heavy American accent, he answered me with a question: "Why do you want to know?" Moments before, after the torturers had blindfolded me again and were getting ready to rape me again, they had called out in Spanish: "Hey, Alejandro, come and have some fun!"

And a voice had responded "Shit!" in perfect American English with no trace of an accent. It was the voice of the tall, fair-skinned man beside me. After swearing, he’d switched to a halting Spanish. "Idiots!" he said. "She’s a North American nun." He added that my disappearance had been made public, and he ran them out of the room.

Ortiz was never able to prove that the man in charge of her torturers was an American. But from what we know about U.S. history in Guatemala, her story is plausible.

We have to go back to 1951, when Jacobo Arbenz became the second democratically elected president of Guatemala. He initiated land reforms which granted property to landless peasants. That didn't sit well with the United Fruit Company, which had close ties to Eisenhower's White House. Under the guise of fighting communism, the United States planned and funded a coup, installing Carlos Castillo Armas as the military dictator. He was followed by a series of right-wing military dictators backed by the U.S., setting up a civil war in Guatemala that lasted from 1960 to 1996. The results were horrific.

With the 1996 signing of a peace accord between the Guatemalan military and leftist guerrillas, the Latin American Cold War finally came to an end – in the same place it had begun – making Guatemala’s the longest and most lethal of the hemisphere’s civil wars. Some 200,000 men, women and children were dead, virtually all at the hands of the military: more than were killed in Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Brazil, Nicaragua and El Salvador combined.

One of those dictators was Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt. In 2013, a Guatemalan court found him guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity. Here is how Corey Robin described what was going on in 1982.

On 5 December 1982, Ronald Reagan met the Guatemalan president, Efraín Ríos Montt, in Honduras. It was a useful meeting for Reagan. ‘Well, I learned a lot,’ he told reporters on Air Force One. ‘You’d be surprised. They’re all individual countries.’ It was also a useful meeting for Ríos Montt. Reagan declared him ‘a man of great personal integrity . . . totally dedicated to democracy’, and claimed that the Guatemalan strongman was getting ‘a bum rap’ from human rights organisations for his military’s campaign against leftist guerrillas. The next day, one of Guatemala’s elite platoons entered a jungle village called Las Dos Erres and killed 162 of its inhabitants, 67 of them children. Soldiers grabbed babies and toddlers by their legs, swung them in the air, and smashed their heads against a wall. Older children and adults were forced to kneel at the edge of a well, where a single blow from a sledgehammer sent them plummeting below. The platoon then raped a selection of women and girls it had saved for last, pummelling their stomachs in order to force the pregnant among them to miscarry. They tossed the women into the well and filled it with dirt, burying an unlucky few alive. The only traces of the bodies later visitors would find were blood on the walls and placentas and umbilical cords on the ground.

That is why, when I read that Rep. Jamie Raskin was giving speeches to denounce Reagan's involvement in Latin America while he was a student at Harvard, I knew that his roots as a progressive ran deep. But Reagan wasn't just slapping Montt on the back and calling him a good guy, he was sending millions of dollars to Guatemala to support the military that was committing these atrocities. But thanks to Sister Dianna Ortiz, we know it was much worse than that. Here's how she describes part of her ongoing search for justice.

In 1996, I held a five-week vigil before the White House, asking for the declassification of all U.S. government documents related to human rights abuses in Guatemala since 1954, including documents on my own case. A few days into my vigil, I was granted a meeting with First Lady Hillary Clinton. Mrs. Clinton admitted what no other U.S. government official had dared to concede during my seven-year search for the truth behind my abduction and torture in Guatemala: she said it was possible that the American in charge of my Guatemalan torturers was a "past or present employee of a U.S. agency."

One of the most significant, but unheralded accomplishments of the Clinton administration was the declassification of thousands of documents related to the involvement of the CIA and military intelligence in Latin America during the Cold War. Here's some of what we learned:

U.S. Army intelligence manuals used to train Latin American military officers at an Army school from 1982 to 1991 advocated executions, torture, blackmail and other forms of coercion against insurgents, Pentagon documents released yesterday show.

Used in courses at the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas, the manual says that to recruit and control informants, counterintelligence agents could use “fear, payment of bounties for enemy dead, beatings, false imprisonment, executions and the use of truth serum,” according to a secret Defense Department summary of the manuals compiled during a 1992 investigation of the instructional material and also released yesterday.

The Army School of the Americas, long located in Panama by moved in 1984 to Fort Benning, Ga., has trained nearly 60,000 military and police officers from Latin America and the United States since 1946.

Its graduates have included some of the region’s most notorious human rights abusers, among them Roberto D’Aubuisson, the leader of El Salvador’s right-wing death squads; 19 Salvadoran soldiers linked to the 1989 assassination of six Jesuit priests; Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, the deposed Panamanian strongman; six Peruvian officers linked to killings of students and a professor; and Col. Julio Roberto Alpirez, a Guatemalan officer implicated in the death of an American innkeeper living in Guatemala and to the death of a leftist guerrilla married to an American lawyer.

Years later it was Yale history professor Greg Grandin who connected the dots between George W. Bush's "war on terror" and these activities in Latin America. 

In fact, it was in Latin America that the CIA and U.S. military intelligence agents, working closely with local allies, first helped put into place the unholy trinity of government-sponsored terrorism now on display in Iraq and elsewhere: death squads, disappearances and torture.

It's also worth noting that the torture of Sister Ortiz happened on George H.W. Bush's watch, the president who had previously served as CIA director. Here's how she described the response of the U.S. embassy in Guatemala at the time.

Only one week after my abduction, before any true investigation had been conducted, the U.S. ambassador suggested that I was a political strategist and had staged my own kidnapping to secure a cutoff of U.S. military aid to Guatemala.

Two months later, after a U.S. doctor had counted 111 cigarette burns on my back alone, the story changed. In January 1990, the Guatemalan defense minister publicly announced that I was a lesbian and had staged my abduction to cover up a tryst. The minister of the interior echoed this statement and then said he had heard it first from the U.S. embassy. According to a congressional aide, the political affairs officer at the U.S. embassy, Lew Anselem, was indeed spreading the same rumor.

In the presence of Ambassador Thomas Stroock, this same human rights officer told a delegation of religious men and women concerned about my case that he was "tired of these lesbian nuns coming down to Guatemala." The story would undergo other permutations. According to the Guatemalan press, the ambassador came up with another version: he told the Guatemalan defense minister that I was not abducted and tortured but simply "had problems with [my] nerves."

Ortiz spent the rest of her life not only seeking justice, but working with other victims of torture to find a modicum of healing. I've watched a few videos of her telling this story and her pain in relating these events years later remained absolutely palpable.  

That is why I love the picture of her up above. Looking at it I can imagine that, perhaps in her death, Sister Dianna might have finally found some peace. At least...that is my hope.

Monday, February 22, 2021

For Decades, the GOP Has Been the Party of Voter Suppression

Speaking to a gathering of religious conservatives just prior to the 1980 presidential election, Paul Weyrich—who has been referred to as the founding father of the conservative movement—said the quiet parts out loud. 

Weyrich was actually telling the truth when he said that, in this country's history, elections have never been won my a majority of people. Extending the franchise to women and people of color has been a long, hard struggle. Weyrich was also right when he suggested that, when it comes to Republicans, "our leverage in elections goes up as the voting populace goes down."

That is why, for at least four decades, the GOP has been the party of voter suppression. It didn't start with Trump's claims about voter fraud in the 2016 election or the "Big Lie" about the 2020 election being stolen from him. 

For example, President Nixon nominated William Rehnquist to the Supreme Court. During his confirmation hearings, questions arose about his political efforts in Arizona.
From 1960 to 1964, Rehnquist directed “ballot security” operations for the Republican Party in Phoenix, known as “Operation Eagle Eye,” which was designed to challenge the eligibility of Democratic voters at the polls. 

Rehnquist went on to vote against efforts to enhance voting rights and was eventually nominated to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court by President Reagan. To fill the opening created by that promotion, Reagan nominated Antonin Scalia, who argued vigorously against the Voting Rights Act, suggesting that it amounted to a "racial entitlement." 

Reagan also put William Bradford Reynolds, who had spent most of his career in commercial litigation, in charge of DOJ's Civil Rights Division. Reynolds believed that “government-imposed discrimination” had created “a kind of racial spoils system in America” favoring historically disadvantaged minorities over whites. Obviously, he didn't have much interest in protecting the voting rights of those racial minorities. 

George W. Bush's nominees to the Supreme Court were Chief Justice John Roberts (who clerked for Rehnquist and worked for Reynolds) and Samuel Alito—both of whom voted to gut Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder. But perhaps even more importantly, it was during the Bush presidency that the work of the Voting Section of the Civil Rights Division was literally turned on its head. Here is what Joseph Rich, head of the section from 1999 to 2005 wrote about that.

From 2001 to 2006, no voting discrimination cases were brought on behalf of African American or Native American voters. U.S. attorneys were told instead to give priority to voter fraud cases, which, when coupled with the strong support for voter ID laws, indicated an intent to depress voter turnout in minority and poor communities.

In other words, the unit that was tasked with enforcing the Voting Rights Act was literally transformed into an effort to depress voter turnout. 

That is why it should come as no surprise that voter suppression continues to be a central focus for the Republican Party. As Amy Gardner reports, "GOP state lawmakers across the country have proposed a flurry of voting restrictions." Those efforts will likely be funded by the dark money Leonard Leo is amassing for co-called "conservative causes." Kelly Loeffler, the billionaire who lost the Georgia Senate runoff election to Raphael Warnock, has promised to ramp up voter suppression efforts in her state. As Greg Bluestein reports, she "aims to push conservative electoral policies as state lawmakers weigh a range of new voting restrictions after the GOP defeats."

None of this is new for the Republican Party. It's merely becoming more desperate. While they fail to put forward an agenda other than white grievance, the GOP will try to maintain power by doing everything they can to stop the opposition from voting. Jim Sciutto is right when he says that "voting restrictions will be the story of the 2022 election and beyond."

Democrats have several huge issues on their plates: the pandemic and its effect on the economy, climate change, immigration reform, infrastructure, etc. But in order to address those challenges in the long term, nothing is more important than the electoral and voting reforms included in the For the People Act. Securing our democracy via the protection of voting rights has to be a major priority. 

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Why the Pot Is Lying About the Kettle Being Black

When former President Obama nominated Judge Merrick Garland to a seat on the Supreme Court, a group called the Judicial Crisis Network (JCN) spent $7 million to support McConnell in refusing to even hold hearings. Their message was, "let the people decide."


As Jay Michaelson wrote at the time, the whole campaign was ironic in that JCN was using dark money to keep an Obama nominee from being confirmed.
“Let the people decide” is the refrain of Republicans opposed to holding hearings for Supreme Court nominee Judge Merrick Garland, but they’re being bankrolled by an anonymous collection of billionaires—1 percenters so cowardly that they’re hiding behind tax laws to avoid revealing their identities.
Four years later, when Justice Ginsburg died less than two months before a presidential election, JCN did a complete reversal, pushing for the immediate confirmation of Trump's nominee—Amy Coney Barrett. That should give you some idea about the organization's lack of integrity. 

But as Garland now faces confirmation hearings on his nomination to be Biden's attorney general, JCN isn't directly attacking him. Instead, their CEO, Carrie Severino, has identified 10 questions Garland should face during the hearings, all aimed a demonizing the woman Biden nominated to be associate attorney general (the number three spot at the Justice Department) - Vanita Gupta. 

But that is just part of the assault JCN is waging against Gupta. Severino is going on right-wing networks to attack her and the organization recently released this ad calling Gupta "dangerous."

The ad contains three lies, which Ryan Reilly debunked.
As Politico reported, the article the Judicial Crisis Network ad cites to support its claim that Gupta favors defunding police “does not actually say that she favors defunding the police.” The claim that Gupta wants to “reduce sentences for white supremacists” comes as a voiceover atop an image of Dylann Roof ― the white supremacist killer whose prosecution Gupta oversaw while at the Justice Department. (The ad cites a letter ― sent by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights to Biden more than a month after Gupta took leave from the organization because of her nomination ― that calls for Biden to commute all federal death sentences. Such a commutation would “reduce” Roof’s penalty insomuch as it would condemn him to a natural death behind bars rather than death by lethal injection.) And her statement last summer that “COVID-19 is killing people in federal prison who could be released” is one that even former Attorney General William Barr would agree with.

But here's the real kicker. Severino and JCN are working with Heritage Action and Americans for Public Trust (all three dark money groups) to claim that Biden's nominees are payback to dark money groups for helping him get elected.

This would be the ultimate example of the pot calling the kettle black - if the kettle was, indeed, black. But it's not. To understand, it's helpful to know a bit about Gupta's background. After graduating from New York University School of Law, she worked for both the ACLU and served as Assistant Counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Then, in 2014, Obama appointed her to be Acting Director of the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice. With the election of Donald Trump, Gupta left DOJ and became CEO of the Leadership Council on Civil and Human Rights. Since that organization isn't as well known as the ACLU or the NAACP, here is a summary about them from their web site.
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights is a coalition charged by its diverse membership of more than 200 national organizations to promote and protect the civil and human rights of all persons in the United States. Through advocacy and outreach to targeted constituencies, The Leadership Conference works toward the goal of a more open and just society – an America as good as its ideals.

The Leadership Conference is a 501(c)(4) organization that engages in legislative advocacy. It was founded in 1950 and has coordinated national lobbying efforts on behalf of every major civil rights law since 1957.
The Leadership Conference qualifies as a "dark money" organization based on its designation for tax purposes. But according to Open Secrets, it didn't report any outside spending in the 2020 election. Individual members or employees did, however, donate a whopping $4,829 directly to Joe Biden's campaign. In other words, JCN isn't just lying about Gupta's positions, they're lying when they suggest that her nomination as assistant attorney general is based on some kind of "pay for play" scheme. 

Whenever I see this kind of blatant hypocrisy on the right, I am reminded of a column Steve Benen wrote back in 2011 titled, "Karl Rove and the affection for projection." He wrote that "More than anyone I’ve ever seen or heard of, Rove identifies some of his own ugliest, most malicious, most pernicious qualities, and then projects them onto those he hates most." Benen ended that piece by writing that "A lesser hack might find it difficult to launch political attacks that are ironic, wrong, hypocritical, and examples of projection, all at the same time, but Rove is a rare talent."

At the time, I doubt that Benen had heard of Carrie Severino or her accomplices at the Judicial Crisis Network, who could certainly give Rove a run for his money. But two recent events have exposed that organization to a bit of sunlight. The first came from Robert O'Harrow Jr. and Shawn Boburg of the Washington Post. They did an in-depth expose on the dark money groups assembled by Leonard Leo during his time at the Federalist Society. At the heart of those efforts is the Judicial Crisis Network.  Second came a presentation by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse during the confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett. He documented the three legs of the effort operating behind the scenes to remake the federal judiciary.

1. The Federalist Society - which screens and selects extremist judges,
2. The Judicial Crisis Network - which promotes the nominees, and
3. The myriad of organizations that file both court cases and amicus briefs to tell the judges what to do.

Whitehouse went on to explain that dark money from the same groups funded all three efforts. 

Perhaps as a result of being so blatantly exposed, Leonard Leo resigned from his position at the Federalist Society (although he remains as co-chair of the board) and rebranded the former CRC Strategies—which had handled all of the media campaigns for Leo's myriad of dark money groups—to become CRC Advisors. As Leo told Jonathan Swan, it "will funnel big money and expertise across the conservative movement." 

But if, as Deep Throat so famously counseled, you want to "follow the money," Leo has ensured that will be impossible to do. First of all, the funding for their efforts originates with dark money groups like Donors Trust. Secondly, as Swan reported, "Mueller and Leo say they plan to work with two existing non-profit groups, which will be rebranded as the Concord Fund and the 85 Fund, to funnel tens of millions of dollars into conservative fights around the country." Just try and follow the bouncing ball about those two nonprofits in this report from Open Secrets and the Guardian (emphasis mine).
In December, the Judicial Education Project formally changed its legal name to The 85 Fund, a group Leo backed to funnel “tens of millions” of dollars into conservative causes, according to Axios. The Honest Elections Project is merely a fictitious name — an alias — the fund legally adopted in February. The change was nearly indiscernible because The 85 Fund registered two other legal aliases on the same day, including the Judicial Education Project, its old name. The legal maneuver allows it to operate under four different names with little public disclosure that it is the same group...

There is a lot of overlap between the Honest Elections Project and the Judicial Crisis Network. Both groups share personnel, including Carrie Severino, the influential president of the Judicial Crisis Network...The Judicial Crisis Network also rebranded in recent months, changing its name in December 2019 to The Concord Fund. The Fund then registered Judicial Crisis Network, its old name, as an alias.

The Honest Elections Project, which has been spreading lies about voter fraud in order to make the case for voter suppression, is also the Judicial Education Project and The 85 Fund. Whatever name they use, that organization is connected via Severino to the Judicial Crisis Network, or the Concord Fund. 

With that information, we can finally connect the dots between the Judicial Crisis Network and Vanita Gupta. During her time as CEO of the Leadership Conference, Gupta prioritized lobbying for H.R. 1—otherwise know as the For the People Act—which would expand voting rights, election security, and campaign finance reform. That is precisely why she is being demonized by these right-wing groups. If confirmed, she is likely to go head-to-head with them on the issue of voting rights. 

Karl Rove might actually be envious of the ability of Leo and Severino to "launch attacks that are ironic, wrong, hypocritical, and examples of projection, all at the same time." 

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Both Sides DON'T Do It

While Sen. Ted Cruz was hopping off to Mexico for a family vacation, here's what a couple of real leaders were doing to address the crisis in Texas.

Just sayin... 

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Dear Texans: A Little Socialism Wouldn't Be Such a Bad Thing

That image became one of my favorite memes when Republicans once again got obsessed with accusing Democrats of being "socialists" during the 2020 election—especially as someone who lives in the tundra, otherwise known as Minnesota. 

But with the brutal weather that is crippling so much of the country this week, an awful lot of people in red America are learning the hard way about the role of government in helping us survive when mother nature unleashes her fury. Nowhere is that more true than Texas, where blackouts have left many without power and heat.

While Governor Abbot is intent on blaming frozen wind turbines, the actual culprit is a bill that was signed back in 1999 by none other than former Governor George W. Bush that deregulated the electricity market. 

As everyone scrambles to point fingers about the current crisis, lets go back to an article written by Loren Steffy at Texas Monthly in 2014. Apparently this isn't the first time the state has experienced blackouts as a result of extreme weather.
Just after seven a.m. on January 6, as Texans awakened to one of the coldest mornings in years, an email and social media alert went out from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas: “Reduce electric use now. Risk of power outages exist throughout Texas. Power warning in effect.” The last time a hard freeze gripped Texas so tightly, in February 2011, power blackouts rolled across much of the state as ERCOT, which operates the state’s power grid, struggled to meet the demand. Then, just as in January, power plants unexpectedly went offline when the state needed them most. This time blackouts were averted, but barely.

This isn’t the free-market wonderland that lawmakers envisioned back in 1999 when they voted to deregulate electricity, turning most of the state’s power system over to private companies. That decision, which was helped along by some arm-twisting from Houston’s Enron Corporation, was supposed to result in a robust market, thriving with competition, which would drive down prices for consumers, unleash a host of twenty-first-century innovations, and boost reliability by encouraging newer—and greener—generating plants...“Competition in the electric industry will benefit Texans by reducing monthly rates and offering consumers more choices about the power they use,” said a euphoric Governor George W. Bush.

First of all, Bush's promise of lower monthly rates didn't turn out to be true. According to a 2014 report by the Texas Coalition for Affordable Power (TCAP), "deregulation cost Texans about $22 billion from 2002 to 2012. And residents in the deregulated market pay prices that are considerably higher than those who live in parts of the state that are still regulated." There are several complicated reasons for those increased costs. But one of them is especially pernicious. With profit as the only goal for a deregulated industry, the possibility of gaming the system was unleashed.

On a typical day, power on the wholesale market sells for between $30 and $100 per megawatt hour. But during January’s cold snap, prices spiked to $5,000. At times like that, generators make big money, which creates an incentive to withhold power from the market. “They know if they hold back and get into real shortages, they will reap tremendous rewards,” Hirs says. Electricity traders have raised questions about suspicious activity that suggests withholding has been going on, but no one has proved anything. What we do know is that the free market isn’t responding the way the architects of deregulation expected. The market doesn’t care if your AC isn’t running in August.

But deregulation didn't just cost Texans money. Steffly goes on to describe how the break-up of electricity monopolies—a major part of the deregulation process—created a far more complicated system for the state to oversee. It also failed to provide incentives for building backup plants to be used during times of peak usage. Both of those are major contributors to the current spate of blackouts that are happening across the state.

What we are witnessing in Texas is yet another example of how the Republican agenda has always been built on lies. Deregulation doesn't unleash the power of competition and reduce costs. Much like their tax cuts, those who benefit are the wealthy, while the rest of us pay the price. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Dear Media: Stop Giving Extremists a Platform to Spread Their Lies

Now that Trump's impeachment trial is over, we can expect right-wing media to go back to fear-mongering about President Biden's immigration plan—which includes a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. 

As the debate heats up, one of the issues we'll face is that national media organizations continue to quote anti-immigrant extremists groups in their coverage, as Courtney Hagel documented.

In their coverage of the plans, some national and media outlets have irresponsibly turned to the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), two extremist organizations that the Southern Poverty Law Center deems hate groups. Both organizations were founded by John Tanton, a white nationalist and eugenicist who created a network of anti-immigrant groups and has expressed an explicit desire to keep the U.S. a majority-white country through limiting immigration...[W]hile CIS claims to be “pro-immigrant,” the think tank has a decades long history of circulating white nationalist, anti-immigrant, and anti-Semitic writers in its newsletters, and the organization has been repeatedly called out for its extremism.

We can now add the Washington Monthly to the list of news organizations that have relied on misinformation from the Center for Immigration Studies. They have published an article by Elaine Shannon titled, "Hope and Chaos on the Border." Here's the opening:

It’s Joe Biden’s border crisis now...

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials reported Thursday that they had expelled, detained, or arrested 78,323 migrants last month, up six percent from December and more than double the number in January 2020. Nearly 6,000 of the migrants intercepted by border officers trying to slip the border last month were unaccompanied children.

“It looks like we’re at the beginning of a bona fide migrant crisis like 2019,” said Todd Bensman, an Austin-based senior national security fellow with the conservative Center for Immigration Studies

The lead-up to quoting Bensman from CIS about a "migrant crisis" is to present numbers from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. So it's important to take a look at those. Shannon uses the numbers for January because that is the last month for which they are available. But keep in mind that Biden was only president for the last eleven days of that month. That negates the tag line to her piece, which reads: "Since Biden has become president, there’s been a surge of migrants trying to enter America." But its even worse than that. The trend line for an upsurge in border contacts started last April, as this chart demonstrates.

But the numbers shared in Shannon's piece are deceptive for another reason, as Julia Ainsley reports:
[I]n the past increases in immigration have occurred around U.S. elections and transitions of power. There was a spike in migration in late 2016 and early 2017, just before Trump took office, and caravans from Central America arrived in southern California in 2018, around the mid-term elections.
Nevertheless, according to Bensman, this is all part of something he refers to as the "Biden effect" because "nearly all the migrants he has interviewed along the routes from Central America and Mexico were ecstatic about the president’s campaign promises to reform the U.S. immigration system." That is what passes for investigative reporting on the part of CIS staff, I guess.

Shannon actually quotes Bensman several more times, including his warnings about terrorists from Iran crossing the southern border and an influx of drugs like fentanyl. She goes on to predict that "one indirect consequence of the migrant surge may be spiraling overdose deaths."

All of this sounds like a segment you might hear on Tucker Carlson's show. That's what happens when you give anti-immigrant extremists a platform. They give you lies and fear-mongering. We get enough of that from right-wing sites. 

There Is No GOP Alternative to Trumpism

Ron Brownstein asks a pertinent question: "Is the GOP's extremist wing now too big to fail?" To answer that question, he cites polling data indicating that 75 percent of Republicans want a big future role for Trump in the party. Even more disturbing is that a majority of Republicans (55%) "support the use of force as a way to arrest the decline of the traditional American way of life." That confirms what Doug Muder wrote about the resurgence of the confederate mindset.

The essence of the Confederate worldview is that the democratic process cannot legitimately change the established social order, and so all forms of legal and illegal resistance are justified when it tries…

The Confederate sees a divinely ordained way things are supposed to be, and defends it at all costs. No process, no matter how orderly or democratic, can justify fundamental change.

If our democracy is to survive, that wing of the Republican Party must be defeated. 

While we focus a lot on who the insurgents are and what they want, precious little attention has been paid to what constitutes a conservative alternative. I would suggest that, at least at this point, there isn't one. To demonstrate, we might consider what Minority Leader McConnell actually stands for—other than tax cuts for the wealthy and retaining power. The answer: nothing.

Republican consultant Stuart Stevens captured the problem with his book titled, "It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump." During an interview with David Corn, here is what he said:

[Stevens] once believed in GOP ideals and ideas. Now he saw it all as a huge con...In these pages, Stevens self-flagellates, calling himself a “fool” for his decades of believing—and lying to himself—that the Republican Party was based on “a core set of values.”...

“The Republican Party has been a cartel,” Stevens said excitedly. “And no one asks a cartel, ‘What’s your ideological purpose?’ You don’t ask OPEC, ‘What’s your ideology?’ You don’t ask a drug gang, ‘What’s your program?’ The Republicans exist for the pursuit of power for no purpose.”

He huffed that the Republican Party had not merely drifted away from its core positions, as sometimes occurs with political parties...You have to ask, ‘Does someone abandon deeply held beliefs in three or four years?’ No. It means you didn’t ever hold them.”

Back in 2011, David Roberts presciently wrote that Republicans had become the "post-truth party." about cutting the deficit even as they slash taxes on the rich and launch unfunded wars. They talk about free markets even as they subsidize fossil fuels. They talk about American exceptionalism even as they protect fossil-fuel incumbents and fight research and infrastructure investments.

In short, Republicans have mastered post-truth politics. They’ve realized that their rhetoric doesn’t have to bear any connection to their policy agenda.

When it comes to the party that billed itself as "fiscally conservative," we now know that they never really cared about budget deficits and that the whole notion of "trickle down" economics was a sham that simply funneled money to the wealthy. Even most of the party faithful have now abandoned the kind of military adventurism that led to the invasion of Iraq because it was a total fiasco. Finally, the party that claimed to support "family values" embraced a twice-divorced man who bragged about "grabbing p*ssy." 

So what remains of a conservative agenda to build on? NeverTrumper Jennifer Rubin suggested that it's time to junk the entire GOP and start from scratch. But it's interesting to note what she offers as an alternative: "responsible internationalism; free trade and robust immigration; tolerance and the rule of law; and market economics with an ample safety net." While we can quibble around the edges of that agenda, it is basically the Democratic platform. 

It should come as no surprise that Republicans embraced a "liar-in-chief" when the entire enterprise was built on lies designed to accomplish nothing but maintain power for no purpose. That is why there is no real GOP alternative to Trumpism.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Contrary to Manchin's Claims, the Filibuster is McConnell's Tool to Deepen Partisanship

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) has made it clear that he will not support the elimination of the filibuster. His stated reason is that the Senate is "the most deliberative body in the world" and that maintaining the filibuster promotes bipartisanship. But the facts show that just the opposite is the case.

The first thing to note is that, even the threat of a filibuster keeps bills from reaching the Senate floor.  Adam Jentleson, author of "Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate and the Crippling of American Democracy" explained how that happens.

Senate leadership sends a bill around and asks whether anyone has plans to filibuster. "Literally any staff member can reply to that email" to say their bosses object, Jentleson said. "And it's that single email that today raises the threshold of whatever bill is at stake from a simple majority to a supermajority."

When Manchin refers to the Senate as "the most deliberative body in the world," he's referring to a bygone era. Bills that never come to the floor aren't deliberated. They just die. 

As Alex Tausanovitch and Sam Berger note, the filibuster has two purposes: it allows the Senate minority to (1) prevent their opponents from passing bills that they do not like or, (2) force the majority to negotiate changes. Manchin is right that, in the past, it was used to force negotiations. But more recent history demonstrates that it has primarily been used to prevent the opposition from passing bills. To demonstrate, here is how use of the filibuster has grown:

While consistently on the rise, the huge spike happened during Obama's presidency. As Michael Grunwald documented in his book The New New Deal, the calculation made by the Republicans was that Obama had promised bipartisanship. The one tool they could use to make him appear to be a failure was the filibuster, which was used to obstruct—in unison—anything he attempted to accomplish. The talking point they wanted was to be able to say that "The only thing bipartisan was the opposition."

Writing in 2011, former Republican operative Mike Lofgren added that Republicans had an interest in ensuring that the Senate couldn't govern.
A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress’s generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner.
Lest anyone think that strategy is a thing of the past, Minority Leader McConnell promised that if a Democrat was elected president in 2020, he would return to using the filibuster to obstruct the governing process. 

By refusing to consider the elimination of the filibuster, Manchin is giving McConnell the tool he needs to do the same thing to Biden that he did to Obama: use the filibuster to sabotage the reputation of "the most deliberative body in the world" and deepen the partisan divide. 

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Why Black History Month Is Important for White People

It is only recently that I learned about the 1910 massacre in Slocum, Texas—which happened less that 100 miles from the place I was born. 

“Men were going about killing Negroes as fast as they could find them, and, so far as I was able to ascertain, without any real cause,” then-Anderson County Sheriff William Black told The New York Times in 1910. “I don’t know how many there were in the mob, but there may have been 200 or 300. Some of them cut telephone wires. They hunted the Negroes down like sheep.”...

The massacre went on into the next day, and official reports named eight victims of the incident, including Larkin and Holley, though law enforcement suspected more had been killed, their bodies said to be buried in an unmarked mass grave somewhere in Slocum...

The grand jury indicted seven men with 22 counts of murder, but the case didn’t make it far after it was transferred to Harris County, where it was ignored. And that’s how the Slocum Massacre has been treated over the course of more than a hundred years—as an unspoken and largely forgotten part of the town’s history.

Telling those "unspoken" stories is what makes Black History Month so important. 

But comedian Amber Ruffin had a unique response to the people who complain about a month dedicated to Black history by asking why we don't have a white history month. She said: "bring it on."

To apply Ruffin's suggestion to the Slocum massacre is to recognize that it is also white history. As Sheriff Black reported at the time,  200 to 300 white people went on a killing spree, hunting "Negroes down like sheep."

For those of us who are white, that is the more difficult part of this history to grapple with, because it's OUR history. The truth is that grieving the loss of Black lives is more palatable than reckoning with the fact that it was our people who did the killing. 

One of the ways we hide from that truth is by inserting "white saviors" into the stories about the struggle for civil rights in this country. That was the basis for the critique of the book and movie "The Help." The heroine, "Skeeter" Phelan, is a white woman, who provides all of us with the ability to identify with her, rather than the majority of white women who degraded and abused their Black maids.

The result of not acknowledging this white history is that it keeps repeating itself, as Aaron Morrison noted in an article titled, "A race war evident long before the Capitol siege."

Today’s battles in the race war are waged by legions of white people in the thrall of stereotypes, lies and conspiracy theories that don’t just exist for recluses on some dark corner of the internet.

People like the murderer who fatally shot nine Black parishioners at a church in South Carolina, telling detectives that Black people were taking over the country and raping white women. And the shooter who killed 23 and wounded 23 others at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas — targeting Mexicans, authorities say, because he believed they were invading the country to vote for Democrats.

And the riotous mob, rife with white supremacists, that bought in when Trump and others insisted falsely that the presidential election was stolen, mostly in areas where people of color live and vote.

For a very long time, civil rights leaders, historians and experts on extremism say, many white Americans and elected leaders have failed to acknowledge that this war of white aggression was real, even as the bodies of innocent people piled up.

When we avoid acknowledging that white supremacy is our history because it makes us feel guilty and ashamed, we also avoid taking responsibility for addressing the problem. 

Even though I grew up less than 100 miles from where the Slocum massacre took place, I never heard a peep about it until I was in my so-called "golden years." But learning about it informs me about my own history and why white people took such pains to keep it a secret. In other words, it's part of my race story. That is precisely why Black History Month is so important for white people. 

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Thought for the Day: On Being Radical

The Moral Clarity of Rep. Jamie Raskin

I hadn't heard of Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) until his son committed suicide and he and his wife wrote a heart-wrenching editorial about their son. Eight days later, Speaker Nancy Pelosi named Raskin to be the lead impeachment manager for the Senate trial of Donald Trump. 

We've all watched Raskin and his associates do a magnificent job of documenting why the former president should be found guilty of inciting the riot that took place on January 6. As a result, a lot of us are learning about a man who is one of the most progressive Democrats in the House. 

Raskin comes from a long line of progressive Democrats. His grandfather, Samuel Bellman, was Minnesota’s first Jewish state legislator, elected in 1935. His father, Marcus Raskin, was a young aide in the John F. Kennedy White House, but left to form the Institute for Policy Studies over his objections to the war in Vietnam. In 1971, Marcus Raskin received the Pentagon Papers from Daniel Ellsberg and put him in touch with New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan.

Bill McKibben writes that the first time he met Jamie Raskin was when the two of them were students at Harvard. Raskin had just given a rousing speech against the Reagan Administration’s involvement in Central America. Today's liberals have all but forgotten that, under the cover of fighting the so-called "Cold War," the U.S. engaged in both committing and supporting atrocities all over Central and South America. Fighting against that was a central focus for progressives back in those days. 

As many of us have learned during the Senate impeachment trial, Raskin taught constitutional law at  American University Washington College of Law for over 25 years. One of his students was Stacey Plaskett, who has done an outstanding job as one of the House managers of the impeachment trial. 

In 2006, Raskin was elected to the Maryland state senate, where he fought to repeal the death penalty, sponsored the first bill in the country for the National Popular Vote, championed efforts to reform marijuana laws, and helped lead the fight to legalize same-sex marriage in Maryland. During a committee hearing on marriage equality, Raskin responded to an opposing lawmaker with one of his most famous quotes: "Senator, when you took your oath of office, you placed your hand on the Bible and swore to uphold the Constitution. You did not place your hand on the Constitution and swear to uphold the Bible."

Raskin was diagnosed and treated for colon cancer in 2010. He said that the experience taught him the difference between misfortune and injustice.

“Any of us could be assigned such a verdict on any particular day,” he said. “If you experience such a misfortune and you get such a diagnosis and you can’t get health care, because you love the wrong person or you lost your job or you’re not working or you’re too poor, that’s not a misfortune, that’s an injustice because we can do something about that.”

In 2016, Raskin was elected to represent Maryland's 9th congressional district. Here is an example of the platform he proposed.

A longtime resident of ultra-progressive Takoma Park, Raskin has proposed a national commission to develop legislation “to liberate the American underclass from the interlocking problems of inadequate education and bad health care, environmental racism, unemployment, economic exploitation, and mass incarceration.”

Once elected to Congress, Raskin joined three other Democrats (Jared Huffman, Jerry McNerney, and Dan Kildee) to form the Freethought Caucus, with the goal of "pushing public policy formed on the basis of reason, science, and moral values," promoting the "separation of church and state."

During a 2018 interview with the Guardian, Raskin explained why he wasn't interested in moving to the center in order to advance his political career.

It’s not my ambition to be in the political centre, which blows around with the wind. It’s my ambition to be in the moral centre and that’s why I call myself a progressive because I think our job is to find what’s right, the best that we can, and then bring the political centre to us and that’s what makes politics interesting and meaningful.

Obviously, Raskin walks his talk:

Sen. James Brochin of Baltimore County, one of the Maryland Senate’s most right-leaning Democrats, said Raskin’s “gentle and persistent” advocacy got him to change his position on same-sex marriage.

“He spent two years working on me,” Brochin said. “He’s got an incredible amount of decency.”

I am not particularly fond of political labels, but nevertheless, tend to refer to myself as a pragmatic progressive. For me, that has always meant grounding policy proposals in reason, science, and morality—or doing what's right, the best we can. That is why I'm proud to be a member of a party that elects people like Jamie Raskin. 

When we talk about progressives these days, it is often in reference to elected officials like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But behind the scenes are people like Jamie Raskin, who don't typically garner as much media attention. That's why I'd like to send out a special "thank you" to Speaker Nancy Pelosi for choosing him to be the lead House impeachment manager—giving us the opportunity to learn more about one of the outstanding members of our party. Raskin's moral clarity is at the center of what it means to be progressive.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Why Are Christian Evangelicals So Vulnerable to Authoritarian Con Artists?

Last May many Christian evangelicals mourned the loss of someone you probably never heard of: Ravi Zacharias. He had founded Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM), a $36 million global ministry dedicated to something called "Christian apologetics." As Trump's former press secretary Kayleigh McEnany explained at his passing, it is a branch of theology that equips Christians with arguments that allow them to avoid having to "check your brain at the door" because it provides an intellectual foundation for everything they believe.

The fundamentalist Christian community in which I grew up was steeped in apologetics. That put us at odds with the charismatic movement, which places more emphasis on feelings and emotional expression. In the 1970s, the most well-known Christian apologist was Francis Schaeffer, who believed that an intellectual approach to faith could answer the questions of the age. Perhaps more than any modern-day theologian, Schaeffer is responsible for launching the merger of religious and political identities among Christian nationalists.

While not as overtly political, those are the shoes Zacharias began to fill. In doing so, he became a beloved figure among Christian evangelicals. Speakers at his memorial service last May included former Vice President Mike Pence and Tim Tebow. Pence noted that, while Billy Graham was the greatest evangelist of the 20th century, Zacharias was the greatest apologist of this century. 

But three years prior to his death, some warning signs began to emerge indicating that Zacharias wasn't the man so many people thought he was. He was accused of misrepresenting his academic credentials and a woman alleged that he had used his mentor relationship with her to pressure her into texting him nude photos of herself. That case was eventually settled, with both sides signing non-disclosure agreements, but not until Zacharias and his organization had vehemently denied the claims. At the time, Zacharias said that he had "never engaged in any inappropriate behavior at any time" and that he had observed what became known as the "Billy Graham rule, " saying that "I have long made it my practice not to be alone with a woman other than Margie [his wife] and our daughters—not in a car, a restaurant, or anywhere else."

That was a lie. Christianity Today explained what happened after his death.

The secret of Zacharias’s abuse started to unravel the day of his funeral in May 2020. One of the massage therapists he groped, masturbated in front of, and asked for sexually explicit images watched in shock as the apologist was honored and celebrated on a livestream...

Has no one come forward? she thought. No one?

She worried about other women who might be out there, hurting...

The woman googled “Ravi Zacharias sex scandal” and found the blog RaviWatch, run by Steve Baughman, an atheist who had been tracking and reporting on Zacharias’s “fishy claims” since 2015. Baughman blogged on Zacharias’s false statements about academic credentials, the sexting allegations, and the subsequent lawsuit. When the woman read about what happened to Lori Anne Thompson, she recognized what had happened to that woman was what had happened to her.

As far as she could tell, this atheist blogger was the only one who cared that Zacharias had sexually abused people and gotten away with it. She reached out to Baughman and then eventually spoke to Christianity Today about Zacharias’s spas, the women who worked there, and the abuse that happened behind closed doors.

As a result of those allegations, RZIM hired a law firm to investigate the claims. On Thursday, they released a damning report.

A 12-page report released Thursday by Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) confirms abuse by Zacharias at day spas he owned in Atlanta and uncovers five additional victims in the US, as well as evidence of sexual abuse in Thailand, India, and Malaysia.

Even a limited review of Zacharias’s old devices revealed contacts for more than 200 massage therapists in the US and Asia and hundreds of images of young women, including some that showed the women naked. Zacharias solicited and received photos until a few months before his death in May 2020 at age 74.

Zacharias used tens of thousands of dollars of ministry funds dedicated to a “humanitarian effort” to pay four massage therapists, providing them housing, schooling, and monthly support for extended periods of time, according to investigators.

One woman told the investigators that “after he arranged for the ministry to provide her with financial support, he required sex from her.” She called it rape.

She said Zacharias “made her pray with him to thank God for the ‘opportunity’ they both received” and, as with other victims, “called her his ‘reward’ for living a life of service to God,” the report says. Zacharias warned the woman—a fellow believer—if she ever spoke out against him, she would be responsible for millions of souls lost when his reputation was damaged.
Zacharias now joins a long list of Christian leaders and pastors who have engaged in sexually inappropriate behavior and abuse. As documented by the Houston Chronicle, that kind of behavior isn't limited to the Catholic Church, but runs rampant in Protestant churches as well. 

Reading the stories about Zacharias, several things surfaced to explain the pattern. As you can see from what he told a victim in the quote above,  Zacharias viewed these sexual exploits as a reward for his service to God. In other words, he exhibited a form of sociopathy that assumed he was somehow "special" and that the morals he preached about didn't apply to him. 

According to the recently released report, Zacharias not only lied, but went to great lengths to hide his behavior.
The investigation confirmed that Zacharias lied about not being alone with a woman other than his wife or daughters. He also maintained multiple phones at all times, kept them on a different wireless plan than RZIM, and never used the wireless network at the office. Zacharias said this was for security, but it ensured his communication could not be monitored.

For years, that kind of subterfuge worked. That is because, as one of Zacharias's colleagues put it, "The culture of RZIM is adulation and unquestioning loyalty. You praise Ravi all the time and never hold him accountable.”

A statement from RZIM on the release of this report confirms that cult of personality.

We regret that we allowed our misplaced trust in Ravi to result in him having less oversight and accountability than would have been wise and loving. We also regret the ways that many of us have publicly extolled Ravi’s character and the impact this will have had on victims of his abuse. We now know our words have been hurtful, and that causes us deep sorrow. Moreover, in the wake of the accusations brought against Ravi by the Thompsons in 2017, we communicated our confidence in Ravi’s denial of these accusations, and others trusted Ravi because they trusted us.

Even before this story emerged, I had been thinking a lot about what makes Christian evangelicals so vulnerable to authoritarian con artists. For me, that is a deep question and I'm only beginning to scratch the surface of answering it. But I remembered a hymn we sang in church a lot while I was growing up: "Trust and Obey."

Here's the fourth verse and chorus:

But we never can prove
The delights of His love,
Until all on the altar we lay;
For the favor He shows,
And the joy He bestows,
Are for them who will trust and obey.

Trust and obey,
For there’s no other way
To be happy in Jesus,
But to trust and obey.

How evangelicals hear those words is in the context of the teaching that all human beings are inherently sinful. So they must lay their own identity on the alter to trust and obey God. In practical terms, what that means is to trust and obey those they believe are speaking for God. That is how a cult of personality is born and the kind of sociopathy exhibited by Zacharias in unleashed.

"With fear for our democracy, I dissent."

My title is how Justice Sonia Sotomayor concluded her dissenting opinion to the Supreme Court case granting presidents criminal immunity for...