Monday, April 13, 2009

Still in the Dark

The very word "secrecy" is repugnant in a free and open society. -- John F. Kennedy

In this week's Sift:

  • Obama Disappoints on Secrecy. In two important cases, he has reaffirmed Bush's precedents rather than rejecting them.
  • The Gathering Storm of Conservative Victimhood. A new ad shows how the Religious Right plans to oppose gay rights going forward. But the "rights" they claim to be losing were already rejected in Greensboro in 1960.
  • Untruth and Consequences. If you report the truth and it sets off some violent whacko, that's not your fault. But if you set off the crazies by making stuff up, then maybe it is your fault.
  • Short Notes. Why Palin will never be president. Ted's still got it at Fenway. Will Franken ever get to occupy the senate seat he won? It's official: protesters aren't terrorists. My limited sympathy for Ted Stevens. Tracking the decline of newspapers. How other countries handle criminal leaders. And the ultimate small car from GM and Segway.

Obama Disappoints on Secrecy

The wars and the economy get all the headlines, but an equally important issue President Obama has inherited is executive power. The Bush administration put forward two principles (I'm stating them in my own words, but I believe I'm doing it fairly) that may sound reasonable individually, but taken together are very dangerous:

  • By making the president commander-in-chief, the Constitution gives him the power to conduct a war without interference from the other branches of government.
  • It is up to the president to decide (again without interference) what situations are part of an ongoing war.

Taken together, these principles imply that in wartime (and Congress has at least recognized and accepted that we are at war, even if war has never been formally declared), the president has unchecked power whenever he decides that he has unchecked power. It's a roadmap for dictatorship, no matter whether the president is a Republican or a Democrat.

Many of us have hoped that President Obama would announce a new doctrine of executive power, one that would consign the Bush ideas to a "bad old days" that should never return. (Of course, the ultimate way to reject the Bush/Cheney power claim is to prosecute Bush and Cheney for war crimes. Future presidents would have to take account of that.) He hasn't done so yet, and that has left us trying to read the tea leaves whenever he makes any decision related to executive power.

One recent leaf comes from the warrantless wiretapping issue. The Bush administration, with help from key Democrats in Congress, had managed to close off nearly every avenue for investigating this program, which on the face of it appears to be illegal. The one remaining chink in the program's armor was a lawsuit that the Electronic Frontier Foundation had filed against the NSA. Raw Story reports:

In their filing Friday, the Justice Department argued that the case should be dismissed because information surrounding the program was a “state secret” and therefore couldn’t be litigated or discussed. It also proposed that the government was protected by “sovereign immunity” under federal wiretapping statutes and the Patriot Act, arguing that the United States could only face lawsuits if they willfully elected to disclose intelligence obtained by wiretapping.

So Obama is not only trying to close the final door on accountability for illegal wiretapping, he is doing so by invoking the state secrets privilege, something he criticized the Bush administration for abusing.

Another tea leaf is the administration's effort to make the Baghram prison in Afghanistan the same kind of legal black hole as Guantanamo was under Bush -- a place where suspects can be detained without any oversight or hearing.

During the Bush administration, some on the Right thought that executive power was purely a partisan issue, and that the Left would rally around a liberal president who made the same claims. It's not happening. On both Baghram and state secrets, Glenn Greenwald having the kind of reaction that got him the nickname Glenzilla . Keith Olbermann is having a fit (video, transcript) as well. They're not alone.

I'm sure Glenn and Keith and all the other liberal bloggers and pundits want to root for Obama, and everyone realizes that he is juggling a lot of important issues right now. But a Democratic Congress failed in its duty to impeach Bush when he broke the law. If a Democratic president now fails to reverse his policies, the effect will be a permanent change in the relationship between the branches of government. It's not enough for Obama to try to use the Bush powers responsibly. If he leaves them intact, some future president will use them irresponsibly.

OK, here's one good tea leaf to read: CIA Director Leon Panetta says the secret prisons have been shut down.
And not everybody reads the tea leaves the same way. See Obama supporters here and here.

The Gathering Storm of Conservative Victimhood

One of the few conservative successes in 2008 was Proposition 8, which made same-sex marriage illegal again in California. They did it with a change of tactics, which they are now trying to take national. The first tactic against same-sex marriage was to laugh it off -- the idea was absurd; people proposing it couldn't be serious.

When it started becoming reality in places like Massachusetts (then Connecticut, Iowa, and now Vermont -- by an act of the legislature, unprompted by the courts), the second tactic was apocalyptic: "The family as it has been known for more than five millennia will crumble," prophesied James Dobson in 2004, "presaging the fall of Western civilization itself."

But that message is less and less effective as it becomes clear that Massachusetts families are doing no worse than any others -- better than Bible Belt families, by most statistics. Boston continues to be a center of civilization. Entire countries -- Canada, for example -- have married Adam to Steve with no sign of apocalypse.

Worse (from the Right's point of view), the public is beginning to sympathize with same-sex couples, to see them as real people trying live their lives rather than as monsters intent on seeding moral chaos. The Courage Campaign's "Don't Divorce Us" video was a powerful weapon against Proposition 8.

And so we're into the third round of tactics: claiming victimhood. This approach asserts that protecting gay rights means taking rights away from conservative Christians. Salon reports on a new ad called "The Gathering Storm" full of that-ain't-right sound bites that don't stand up to scrutiny.

For example, one of the characters in "The Gathering Storm" says: "I am a New Jersey church group punished by the government because we can't support same-sex marriage."

Not exactly. You should smell something fishy right away, because New Jersey doesn't have same-sex marriage. The reference is to a the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, a Methodist group in New Jersey. The LA Times explains that the OGCMA
owned seaside land that included a boardwalk pavilion. It obtained an exemption from state property tax for the land on the grounds that it was open for public use and access. Events such as weddings -- of any religion -- could be held in the pavilion by reservation. But when a lesbian couple sought to book the pavilion for a commitment ceremony, the nonprofit balked, saying this went against its religious beliefs. The court ruled against the nonprofit, not because gay rights trump religious rights but because public land has to be open to everyone or it's not public.
Most of the claims along these lines are similar. The "right" being violated is like the "right" of the Greensboro Woolworths not to serve blacks at its lunch counter. Like Woolworths in 1960, the Religious Right is arguing that it can define "the public" in such a way that some group is not part of it.


Stanley Fish asks nails this one: "When a professional hangs out his shingle doesn’t he offer his services and skills to the public and not just to members of it who share his morality?"

And so I say an equal "no" to the professional photographer who won't work at a same-sex reception, the marriage counselor who won't help same-sex couples stay together, and the fertility doctor who won't help lesbians get pregnant. You don't get to define the public. That "right" can't be taken away from you because it was never a right to begin with.

Untruth and Consequences

It's tempting to point to all the recent shootings as evidence for my past claim that we're going to see an upswing in right-wing violence. But it's not quite that simple: Of the recent incidents, only Richard Poplawski's shooting of three Pittsburgh police officers seems to be politically motivated. Poplawski was a heavily armed 22-year-old white supremacist who believed all sorts of conspiracy theories. Comments Gary Kamiya at Salon:

Poplawski's black-helicopter and anti-Semitic ravings put him at the outer edge of the right. But his paranoid fear that Obama was going to take away his AK-47 is mainstream among conservatives. That fear, fomented by the NRA and echoed by right-wing commentators from Lou Dobbs to Limbaugh, is ubiquitous online.

A lot of conclusions might be drawn here, but this is the one that strikes me: There are consequences to making stuff up and promoting it to the public as if it were true.

In any well-informed free society, you have to live with the possibility that some nutcase might have an extreme reaction to the news. If a Poplawski sees a headline about our trillion-dollar deficit and decides he has to kill somebody, what can you do (other than try to give our officials good security)? We do have a trillion-dollar deficit, and people should know about it.

But a considerable effort goes into manufacturing hysteria on the right, by pushing stories that have no basis in fact. Such as, Obama is going to: And not that he could do it or might do it or we're afraid he'll do it -- he's doing it. If you're going to stop him you have to act now.

In addition to the Obama myths are the nefarious activities attributed to liberal groups like ACORN, which was the object of vote fraud smears during the 2008 campaign, and is part of the "rig the census" charge. (ACORN is one of 250 groups helping the government recruit the 1.4 million temporary workers the census needs.) Did you know that ACORN is going to get $4 billion from the stimulus bill? (Nope.) Or that ACORN is sending in undercover agents to disrupt the conservative "tea party" protests? (Nuh-uh. If you don't know what a tea party protest is, you're in the same boat as ACORN's leaders.)

These imaginary stories are then fanned with inflamed rhetoric about taking back America and revolution. Congresswoman Michelle Bachman: "There is no free country for us to repair to. That's why it's up to us now." Glenn Beck: Obama is a "bloodsucker" and can only be stopped with "a stake through the heart".

None of these Republican politicians and conservative media celebrities is saying "go shoot somebody". Driving a stake through Obama's heart is -- you knew this, right? -- a metaphor. And talk about poisoning Justice Stevens was "just a joke". But they have to know that the right-wing fringe includes a lot of Richard Poplawskis and James Adkissons and Timothy McVeighs. (The Left has its own nutcases, but ours are more likely to hit you with a cruciatus curse than to blow you away with an AK-47.) It's not hard to guess what such people will do when they swallow what they're being fed.

I've long believed that conservatives look on the news cycle as a kind of game, where you win by getting people to believe and talk about stories that help you and hurt your opponents. But it's not a game. Untruth has consequences.
BTW, if you want to know why liberals can't discuss the teabag protests without cracking a smile, DailyKos TV explains -- with help from Sex and the City. That's why Rachel Maddow can barely keep from dissolving into laughter, while Jon Stewart just seems embarrassed by it all.
I have to give Glenn Beck this much credit: In this segment, he exercises a little quality control on the lunatic fringe. He debunks the YouTube videos claiming to show FEMA's concentration camps.
TPM readers who worked on the 2000 census are worried what might happen to census workers if they're perceived as part of some left-wing plot.
I'm convinced that there are plenty of unbalanced people who won't leave their houses to seek liberals to kill, but will kill a "radical leftist" (Steele's words) who knocks on their door in a mission to "falsify the U.S. Census and manipulate elections in their favor" (again, Steele's words).

Short Notes

Ted Kennedy doesn't walk smoothly any more, and his attempt to throw out the first pitch at Fenway Park Tuesday didn't go very far. But he's still got the Kennedy smile.
Now that we've had a count, a recount, a review by the Board of Elections, and now a ruling by a three-judge panel, is it finally time for Norm Coleman to admit that he lost the Minnesota senate race and let Al Franken take his seat? Even many conservatives are finally urging him to give up.
Matt Yglesias makes a persuasive case that car sales have to perk up soon: At the current sales rate, it would take more than 25 years to replace the cars on the road.
Peru just convicted its former president Alberto Fujimori of authorizing a death squad against the Shining Path insurgents. The court sentenced him to 25 years. Digby comments:
It's interesting, no? The people all believe he committed these crimes yet he remains popular because of his economic policies. And the legal system operates independently of all of that, pursuing the case on the merits. How novel.

On the other hand, we're doing better than Zimbabwe:
President Robert Mugabe's top lieutenants are trying to force the political opposition into granting them amnesty for their past crimes by abducting, detaining and torturing opposition officials and activists, according to senior members of Mr. Mugabe’s party.

Now that his felony convictions have been thrown out due to misconduct by the Bush Justice Department, former Republican Senator Ted Stevens is receiving an outpowering of sympathy, including Gov. Palin's call for a special election so that he can win his Senate seat back.

Everybody needs to take a breath. You know who else is free because of prosecutor misconduct? Bill Ayers. Getting off on a technicality doesn't mean you're innocent.
Speaking of Palin, lately we've been seeing the main reason why she will never be president: She doesn't have the temperament for it. National politicians need to have thick skins, and to know when a fight is beneath their dignity. Palin doesn't. That's what the Troopergate story showed: Becoming governor was just a new way to pursue a family vendetta, not a mandate to rise above it.

The recent example of this character flaw is her reaction to the media tour by Levi Johnston and his family. A savvy politician would have either ignored it or released an above-it-all statement recognizing that the Johnstons were bound to tell the story in their own way. Salon's Rebecca Traister comments:
Not Sarah Palin! No, this wizard decided the best way to tackle the (understandably irritating) problem of her loose-lipped would-have-been son-in-law was to publicly rebuke the kid, in a grandiose statement of denial and affronted morals, the weekend before the offending interview was to air, thereby ensuring that the episode of "Tyra" would become must-see television.
She struck back again after Levi told CBS that the Palins were "snobby". And now she's in a public cat-fight with a family that feels it has to deny being "white trash".
The RNC 8 are would-be protesters who face felony charges because of their "conspiracy" to "disrupt" last September's Republican Convention in Minneapolis. The good news: terrorism charges against them have been dropped. You can watch their arrest in September.
You can track the ongoing demise of the newspaper industry through the blog Paper Cuts. Salon has an article about the effort to fund investigative journalism through non-profits. It also contains this interesting observation:
Long before the current recession and radical cutbacks, many newspapers had lost their community watchdog function, no longer bothering with the expensive and time-consuming work of investigative reporting. A 2005 survey by Arizona State University of the 100 largest U.S. dailies found that 37 percent had no full-time investigative reporters, and the majority of the major dailies had two or fewer.
As if to illustrate the point, a Daily Kos post takes apart a NYT article on the well-paid global warming nay-sayer Marc Morano. After reading the Times' article, you know what lots of people claim, but no objective facts that could help you assess those claims.

If only it were someone's job to uncover those facts, or to check people's statements rather than just quote them. That would be worth paying for.

Finally, DailyKos founder Kos points out that a lot of investigative journalism gets done outside of newspapers.
GM and Segway combine on a vehicle that looks very cool, but you have to wonder about the crash tests.

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