Monday, May 31, 2010

Notes for the Crew

There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth. We are all crew. -- Marshall McLuhan
In this week's Sift:
  • Notes on the Oil Spill. First BP lied about how much oil was leaking into the Gulf of Mexico. Now it's lying about what's making the clean-up workers sick.
  • Notes on Race. You don't actually have to hate anybody to be a racist. Just systematically short-changing them is enough.
  • Other Short Notes. Safety problems in biotech. Closing in on DADT repeal. Palin has the First Amendment backward. Hotter than 98. Rand Paul vs. the 14th Amendment. The $100,000 infield. What if Juliet had a sassy gay friend? And more.

Notes on the Oil Spill
BP continues to try stuff that continues not to work. The only plan that seems guaranteed to work is to drill a relief well, which won't be ready until August.

Meanwhile, the disregard of safety that got BP into this mess is still operating. Now BP is trying to deny the risks to clean-up workers, with the result that many are getting sick. McClatchy reports:
Little-noticed data posted on BP's website and the Deepwater Horizon site show that 32 air samples taken near workers have indicated the presence of butoxyethanol, a component listed as present in an oil spill dispersant used by BP, known as Corexit. The Environmental Protection Agency considers it toxic.
BP is not supplying masks for its clean-up workers, in spite of Corexit's manufacturer's warning that people should "avoid breathing vapor". According to CNN, Clint Guidry, president of the Louisiana Shrimpers Association, charges that BP has been threatening workers who speak out about health concerns. "Some of our men asked, and they were told they'd be fired if they wore masks." (Wild speculation on my part: Public relations? Was BP afraid that TV images of guys wearing masks would scare the public?)

BP CEO Tony Hayward offers an alternative explanation: "Food poisoning is clearly a big issue." CNN quotes this scoffing response from a professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health: "Headaches, shortness of breath, nosebleeds -- there's nothing there that suggests foodborne illness. I don't know what these people have, but it sounds more like a respiratory illness." In short: They didn't eat something bad, they breathed something bad.

I'm going to speculate here and connect some dots: If the problem is toxic fumes produced by the Corexit/oil combination, and if the oil keeps flowing until August, then it's not just going to affect clean-up workers. Ordinary people who live in coastal cities are going to start showing the same symptoms. That's even more lawsuit bait, and so BP is going to deny the issue as long as possible.

If you want to see the blueprint for this kind of denial, look back at my review of David Michaels' book Doubt is Their Product: How Industry's Assault on Science Threatens Your Health. Risking people's lives for profit is standard operating procedure. It's what corporations do.

I continue to be impressed by the foul-mouthed but right-to-the-point coverage from Daily Kos' Fishgrease, who claims to have spent 30 years in oil and gas exploration and production. In this post, he explains why the Top Kill failure was obvious after 3 hours, even though BP took days to admit it.
Newsweek describes the BP/government efforts to limit press access to damaged sites.

This sums up the state of journalism: All the best interviews are done by comedians. I link to Jon Stewart all the time, but here Bill Mahr talks to Phillippe Cousteau (grandson of Jacques) after his dive into the oil slick. Cousteau comments on the environmental costs that are regularly passed on to the government and the general public:
Socialism ... that word gets thrown around a lot. Well we as taxpayers in this country are subsidizing major businesses that are making billions and billions of dollars every quarter ... They never really pay the full cost of their product. We end up paying for that. And that's the problem.
Susan Shaw, director of the Marine Environmental Research Institute, also dove into the slick, and described it for the New York Times
Only a few meters down, the nutrient-rich water became murky, but it was possible to make out tiny wisps of phytoplankton, zooplankton and shrimp enveloped in dark oily droplets. These are essential food sources for fish like the herring I could see feeding with gaping mouths on the oil and dispersant. Dispersants break up the oil into smaller pieces that then sink in the water, forming poisonous droplets — which fish can easily mistake for food.

... The timing for exposure to these chemicals could not be worse. Herring and other small fish hatch in the spring, and the larvae are especially vulnerable. As they die, disaster looms for the larger predator fish, as well as dolphins and whales. ... In a short time, the predator fish will either starve or sicken and die from eating highly contaminated forage fish.

It's hard to assess the political impact the oil spill will have. On the one hand, it is a disaster on Obama's watch and so far there has seemed to be little he could do about it. (Much of the political criticism has centered on imagery: He should look more involved. He should do more to show the people of the Gulf states how much he cares.) He looks weak and ineffective, which is never good for a president.

But the political opportunity is to run to President Obama's left, not his right. Deep Horizon is yet another example of the bankruptcy of the pro-corporate, the-market-will-take-care-of-everything philosophy that has dominated our government since Ronald Reagan.

The reason Obama is weak is because the government has let this aspect of disaster-response be privatized. The expertise to cap leaking wells is in the oil industry, not in government. So Americans are finding out what it's like to depend on a corporation -- a foreign corporation no less -- when catastrophe strikes. And they don't like it.

NYT columnist Bob Herbert brings that message home. He ridicules President Obama's admission that he was wrong "in my belief that the oil companies had their act together when it came to worst-case scenarios." How could any intelligent person, Herbert wonders, have believed that?
Haven’t we just seen how the giant financial firms almost destroyed the American economy? Wasn’t it just a few weeks before this hideous Deepwater Horizon disaster that a devastating mine explosion in West Virginia — at a mine run by a company with its own hideous safety record — killed 29 coal miners and ripped the heart out of yet another hard-working local community?The idea of relying on the assurances of these corporate predators that they are looking out for the safety of their workers and the health of surrounding communities and the environment is beyond absurd.

... President Obama spoke critically a couple of weeks ago about the “cozy relationship” between the oil companies and the federal government. It’s not just a cozy relationship. It’s an unholy alliance. And that alliance includes not just the oil companies but the entire spectrum of giant corporations that have used vast wealth to turn democratically elected officials into handmaidens, thus undermining not just the day-to-day interests of the people but the very essence of democracy itself.

... The U.S. will never get its act together until we develop the courage and the will to crack down hard on these giant corporations. They need to be tamed, closely monitored and regulated, and constrained in ways that no longer allow them to trample the best interests of the American people.
The instant reaction of Republican politicians and conservative pundits was to minimize the spill and close ranks around BP. If the public decides it wants to "crack down hard" on "corporate predators", it's not going to trust Republicans to carry out that mission.

This week's find is The Bobblespeak Translations, which claims to translate TV-talking-head-speak into real English -- or at least humorous English. Its translation of Sunday's Meet the Press has David Brooks saying:
This disaster proves that conservatives are right - there are limits to what government can do to fix the disasters caused by conservatives.

Notes on Race
Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul has inspired some interesting discussion about race on the lefty blogs. Last week, if you remember, Paul touched off a firestorm by saying that he opposed the part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that interfered with a private business' right to deny service to anyone they didn't want to serve. He denounced racial segregation and said he wouldn't patronize a business that practiced it, but he didn't think stopping private-market segregation was the government's job.

Looking back at the 60s, there's been an attempt on the Right to build a wall between the Dixiecrat segregationists (many of whom were Democrats like George Wallace or Democrats-turned-Republican like Strom Thurmond) and principled conservatives like Barry Goldwater, who had a position similar to Rand Paul's. Jamelle Boule blows this up by posting an actual race-baiting Goldwater poster.

The whole I'm-not-a-racist-but line of thought is misguided, because racism isn't just a personal issue, it's a systematic issue. Suppose I run a classy restaurant in the Jim Crow South, and I have nothing against blacks personally, but I don't let them in because they're poor and uneducated and don't know how to behave in a classy restaurant. Well, if my picture of the blacks in my town is accurate, that begs the question: Why are they poor and uneducated and uncouth? Isn't that the result of systematic racism, and aren't I supporting that system by keeping blacks out of my restaurant? OK, maybe I'm not doing it out of hate, but how much difference does that make?

The Tapped blog makes a similar point about a New York governor's task force studying police-on-police mistaken-identity shootings. The task force found that non-white officers were the victims in a vast majority of cases, but its vice-chair said "That's not the same as racism."

In other words, police are more likely to shoot off-duty black officers because of unconscious assumptions about blacks, rather than because of conscious racial hatred. But that's not "racism". It's a weird restriction of the usage of the term. Police officers are dead because they're not white. That's racism.

Jacob Weisberg draws a regional distinction between Republicans in various parts of the country, particularly the Goldwater-style Western Republicans (who are driven by anti-government economic theories) and the Wallace-style Southern Republicans (driven by race, religion, and social issues).

But Booman doesn't buy it. He sees little difference between Western Mormons and Southern Baptists on social issues. And white anxiety in the West may focus on Latinos rather than blacks, but it's still white anxiety.
So, what we're seeing now isn't a shift of influence in the GOP from the South to the West so much as Southification of the West. They're not only becoming the hub of a new racial politics, but they're growing more culturally conservative as well.

If you want to get publicity and make a name for yourself in a 3-way race, pander to bigots. That's what Tim Cahill has decided to do in the Massachusetts governor's race, where he's running as an independent and is far behind incumbent Governor Deval Patrick and Republican challenger Charlie Baker.

When he heard that Gov. Patrick had met amicably with a Muslim group and endorsed cultural sensitivity training for police, Cahill released a statement talking about terrorism and "political correctness run amok". The statement artfully invokes bigoted ideas without repeating them, juxtaposing phrases without actually connecting them.

So, for example, Cahill jumps easily from "Muslim" to "car bombing". (Imagine using Timothy McVeigh to justify suspicion of all Christians.) He mentions his support for Arizona's immigration law right after "families living legally in Massachusetts are hurting" -- as if it were obvious that illegal immigrants (and not, say, Goldman Sachs) were hurting those families. Cahill's statement says:
I fully support equal protection under the law for every American, regardless of race or creed, but ...

The overwhelming majority of Muslim-Americans are peaceable people who love this land, but ...
Does it matter what comes after but? I don't think it does. If you need a but, you don't "fully support" anything.
Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King is also making the Hispanic/Muslim connection. Mexicans, Pakistanis -- maybe there's one big brown-people conspiracy or something.

Other Short Notes
OK, we've seen what happens when the government gets lax in regulating offshore oil wells. Now let's think about biotech labs. Don't we want to get government off the back of our biotech researchers, and let the market protect us?

The Israeli pirate attack seems to be getting remarkably little coverage so far. Ordinarily I'd leave this to next week because I don't understand it yet. But I'm amazed this isn't getting the 24/7 treatment.

Don't Ask Don't Tell might be in its last year. The House passed a repeal this week, and the Senate got a similar provision through the Armed Services Committee. The repeal wouldn't take effect until the Pentagon completes its report (due December 1), and President Obama, Secretary Gate, and Joint Chiefs Chair Mike McMullen would all have to certify that repeal would not harm military readiness or effectiveness. So it's not a done deal, and who knows what will happen if there are Republican gains in November? But it's progress.

Meanwhile, the usual rabble-rousers are wracking their brains to make up scary stories about gays serving openly in the military. As if nobody had ever tried this before. Israel and all NATO countries other than us and Turkey allow gays and lesbians to serve openly. None reports the imaginative problems anticipated by the Family Research Council.

If Sarah Palin ever has to face real questioning, I hope someone asks what she thinks "freedom of the press" means. A week ago in Idaho, she repeated a claim she made during the 2008 campaign, that media attacks on conservatives like her are "a violation of press freedom". She appears to believe that the First Amendment protects politicians (or at least Sarah Palin) from journalists, not journalists from politicians.

Journalism, by the way, is what her college degree is in. She should know this stuff.

One of the staples of global-warming denial is to say that warming stopped in 1998. This lie is spun around a nugget of truth: 1998 was a spike in the temperature graph, much warmer than either 1997 or 1999. The overall warming trend didn't catch up to it until (by some measures) 2005.

Well, so far 2010 is beating both 1998 and 2005. NOAA says:
January-April 2010 global average temperatures were the warmest on record.
So we may soon be free from the 1998 canard. Sort of. Random variation will probably cause 2011 to be cooler than 2010 (though warmer than, say, 2008 or 2009). And then we'll hear again that global warming has stopped.
Florida Republican Rep. Connie Mack IV (son of congressman Connie Mack III and great-grandson of legendary baseball manager Connie Mack) explained in the WaPo why conservatives should oppose Arizona's immigration law:
Our Constitution protects individual freedoms and liberties. Nowhere does this document speak of protecting the majority over the minority. Anger about the economy, increased crime and security concerns are fueling this law, not constitutional principles.

Speaking of Connie Mack, If you want to understand just how much baseball has changed in the last hundred years, recall that Mack's 1910 championship-winning Philadelphia Athletics team was famous for its $100,000 infield -- including third baseman Home Run Baker, who hit less than 100 home runs in his 15-year Hall-of-Fame career.

Speaking of Arizona, consider what might happen if police make mistakes. Here's a case in Illinois where a U.S. citizen born in Puerto Rico was nearly deported to Mexico.

And speaking of the Constitution, Rand Paul only supports it when it says stuff he likes. He told an interviewer for RT (a Russian TV network) that we should stop granting citizenship to babies whose parents are here illegally. This puts him on the same page as the 90 Republicans who have sponsored the Birthright Citizenship Act. (Like so many Republican bills -- the Healthy Forests Initiative to increase logging and Clear Skies Act to loosen pollution limits come to mind -- it does the opposite of what the title suggests: It takes away some babies' birthright citizenship.)

The bill contradicts the 14th amendment, which says:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.

But that's just the Constitution. Who cares about that?

And while we're at it, who cares about facts? Paul said: "We're the only country I know that allows people to come in illegally, have a baby, and then that baby becomes a citizen." Deoliver47 points out that Paul is referring to the legal concept called jus soli, literally right of soil. Wikipedia lists 34 nations that practice jus soli. But other than the United States, they're all barbarous places like Canada. I'm not surprised Rand Paul hasn't heard of them.

Republicans want a special prosecutor to investigate a report that President Obama offered Joe Sestak a job in the administration if he wouldn't run against Senator Arlen Specter. (Sestak did run and beat Specter in last week's Democratic primary.) Even if everything claimed is true -- and it seems not to be -- it's hard to see what the legal or moral issue is. Offering a congressman a job in exchange for voting a particular way could be bribery, depending on how explicit the quid-pro-quo is. But Sestak was making a decision about a career move, not a bill in Congress; if Obama offered him a different career move, what's the problem?

What this does show, though, is that if the Republicans get control of Congress in 2010, it's going to be the Clinton administration all over again, with endless investigations and one attempt after another to trump up a scandal.

Republicans have often used the phrase "criminalizing politics" to describe any attempt to enforce the laws broken by the Bush administration. But unlike the Bush cases, this is a clear example of criminalizing politics. There is no broken law, only ordinary political deal-making.

Just for fun: Second City Theatre demonstrates how tragedy could have been averted if only Shakespeare's female characters -- Ophelia, Juliet, Desdemona -- had had a sassy gay friend to tell them what's what.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Simple Diagnosis

Political extremism involves two prime ingredients: an excessively simple diagnosis of the world's ills, and a conviction that there are identifiable villains back of it all. 
-- John W. Gardner
In this week's Sift:
  • Crazy is Too Easy. It's easy to write stories about how crazy and stupid the Tea-Party types are. But working-class whites really do have reason to be angry, and progressives haven't done much to focus that anger where it really belongs.
  • What About November? Why I've been ignoring the fall elections, and why I think panic is unwarranted.
  • How the EPA Can Punish BP. BP was already in trouble before Deepwater Horizon. If it gets serious, the EPA can make big trouble for the oil giant.
  • The Sift Bookshelf: Democracy, Inc. An insightful but annoying book that I read so you don't have to.
  • Short Notes. That Obama joke is a real killer. A congressman makes an abstinence video with his mistress. Texas rejects the common good. Leave your chicken suit at home when you go to the polls. Drawing Muhammad Ali. Arizona tourism commercials. And you'll never watch Star Wars again without thinking of this video.

Crazy is Too Easy
To hear the Bush administration tell it, all of America's foreign enemies were insane. Bin Laden was insane. Saddam was insane. Ahmadinejad was insane. Kim Jong-il was insane. (OK, maybe I'll give them that one.) The administration's domestic opponents weren't quite in that class, but they weren't rational either: They were Bush-haters; blind irrational hatred, naturally, being the only reason someone would fail to see the brilliance of President W.

The Progressive's Chip Berlet wonders if we on the Left might be making the same mistake with the Tea Partiers. His analysis is also psychological, but not so binary as sane/crazy.
It helps to recognize that much of what steams the tea bag contingent is legitimate. They see their jobs vanish in front of their eyes as Wall Street gets trillions. They see their wages stagnate. They worry that their children will be even less well off than they are. They sense that Washington doesn’t really care about them. On top of that, many are distraught about seeing their sons and daughters coming home in wheelchairs or body bags.
Mixed in with the legitimate fear and rage are darker forces: racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and a predisposition to believe in conspiracy theories. Those influences could rise to dominance and the whole thing could turn into a theocratic white-supremacist movement. But it doesn't have to go that way.

The problem (as Berlet sees it) is that no one else is channeling the legitimate part of the tea-party anger. The Obama administration has not embraced any radical rhetoric, and the Democrats in Congress are almost as far in the pocket of corporate lobbyists as Republicans are. Criticism from the Left has been muted, barely audible in the rural working-class areas where the Tea Party finds its audience. 

As a result, either potential tea-partiers have no explanation for their situation (it "just happened" or maybe it's due to unstoppable abstract forces like globalization) or they embrace destructive right-wing explanations (illegal aliens stole our jobs; Obama is part of a socialist plot to wreck America intentionally; all our tax money gets spent on illegal aliens or blacks who don't want to work; God has turned his back on our country because of abortion and gay marriage).

Calling these explanations "crazy" isn't going to stop them as long as they are the only explanations out there.
We need to be wary of the way centrists in both the Republican and Democratic Parties distort and confine the political dialogue. In their model, they are a noble and heroic center defending society from the “extremists” of the left and right. ... The application of “centrist-extremist” theory reinforces an elitist view of democracy and suggests that only certain people are capable of participation in “serious” policy debates. It also implies that policy debates confined only to ideas validated by the political “center” should be taken seriously in civil society.
Berlet wants to "rebuild militant progressive movements and raise a ruckus." (He's not very specific, but I picture the trust-busters and union-organizers of the early 20th century.) There's a story to be told about corporate profiteering and the corruption of our government by big-business money. A lot of people currently attracted to the Tea Party might find that story persuasive.

What About November?
For months we've been hearing about how the Democrats are going to get massacred in the November elections. The Scott Brown election was supposedly a harbinger of Democratic doom. (But the Democrats' special-election victory in the solidly Republican 23rd congressional district of New York is rarely mentioned.) The Tea Party rallies made good photo opportunities for the story that the voters are mad as hell at the Democrats and are going to turn them out of office at the first opportunity.

I've been ignoring that story for several reasons. First, I think the horse-race aspect of American politics gets too much coverage already. We have elections for the sake of issues, not issues for the sake of elections. So during the health care debate I wanted to talk about the proposals and what they would do, not about how the issue would affect elections a year or more away.

Second, a lot can change in a year. After Desert Storm the first President Bush looked invincible, but he lost anyway. The Brown election came at a low point for Democrats: The economy was still losing jobs, and you could say anything about health care reform because it wasn't done yet. By November we'll have seen a lot more health care stories like this one. ("Now he's finding out just how critical the new law will be to his family.") Democrats will point to accomplishments like financial reform, and voters may feel more optimistic about the economy. Plus, Republican energy policy -- and the larger Republican point that corporations don't need to be regulated -- is going to be a hard sell after the BP oil spill.

Third, most of the predictions of Republican gains are based on the "generic Congressional ballot" polls rather than on specific candidates running on specific issues in specific districts. And I think such polls paper over very important splits in the Republican/conservative electorate. Rand Paul's tough week points out the difficult transition from a Republican primary -- where everyone gets their facts from Fox News and candidates compete to see who can be the most radically conservative -- to the general election. Come fall, Democratic candidates will have an easier time capturing all the "generic Democrat" votes in their districts than Republicans will capturing "generic Republican" votes. 

Finally, voter dissatisfaction with Democrats and the Democratic congressional leadership hasn't created any corresponding surge of positive feeling for Republicans. (Every now and then a conservative suggests that the public is going to start missing President Bush, but so far there's no sign of it.) The number of Americans identifying themselves as Republicans is virtually unchanged since the 2008 election, when they lost handily.

The first serious evidence of how the fall elections will go was Tuesday's special election to replace the late Congressman Murtha of Pennsylvania. The district had been held by a Democrat for years, but President Obama has a low approval rating there. Pre-election polling made the race look close, but it wasn't. Democrat Mark Critz won 53-45.

Putting that all together, I'll make these predictions:
  • Democrats will lose seats in both the House and Senate, but will keep control of both houses. This is not uncommon for a mid-term election when one party controls both Congress and the presidency. The Democrats won some pretty unlikely districts in 2006 and 2008. They're due to lose a few of them back.
  • While there is an anti-incumbent feeling that will hurt the Democrats, the damage will be limited. Voters may be wishing for an ideal alternative to their Democratic congressman. But when they get into the voting booth, the only actual alternative will be a Republican far to the right of the Republicans they remember.
  • Unlike 1994, Republicans have not come up with any clear message beyond "no". (How's that "drill, baby, drill" thing working out for you?) If that's still true in November, even Republicans who win new seats this year will be vulnerable in 2012.

Rand Paul's opponent, Democrat Jack Conway, looks pretty good in this interview. A blind blogger answers Paul's objections to the Americans With Disabilities Act.

A side issue in generic Congressional ballot polls is that one organization -- Rasmussen -- gets results that bear no resemblance to anyone else's. Open Left has the graphs, which it annotates like this:
Rasmussen shows a clear, simple narrative of Democrats going from popular to unpopular, with a very modest reversal of late, with Republicans in virtual mirror image, while other pollsters show a much more nuanced picture, sometimes even showing both parties moving together, and with Democrats only briefly falling below Republicans in March and April.
Historically, Rasmussen has been a reliable polling outfit, and we can't be sure they're wrong until we can check against real elections. (So far that hasn't happened, which Kos thinks is suspicious.) But even Nate Silver can't figure out what is different about Rasmussen, and if you ignore the Rasmussen polls, the Democrats look to be doing much better.

How the EPA Can Punish BP
If you're wondering what can be done to BP in response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, ProPublica's Abrahm Lustgarten has the answer: debarment. The EPA can bar BP from receiving any U. S. government contracts or doing any drilling on public lands or waters, "a move that would ultimately cost the company billions in revenue".

Debarment is a possible response to a pattern of corporate misconduct and "an attitude of non-compliance". The EPA was already negotiating with BP about changing its ways in response to past incidents, including a refinery explosion in Texas and a pipeline spill in Alaska -- both of which seem to have been caused by BP's attempts to save money by cutting corners on safety. Whole or partial debarment was the EPA's stick in these talks.
According to e-mails obtained by ProPublica and several people close to the government's investigation, the company rejected some of the basic settlement conditions proposed by the EPA -- including who would police the progress -- and took a confrontational approach with debarment officials.
The article claims that the EPA has now broken off talks with BP pending an investigation of Deepwater Horizon.
as more information emerges about the causes of the accident there -- about faulty blowout preventers and hasty orders to skip key steps and tests that could have prevented a blowout -- the more the emerging story begins to echo the narrative of BP's other disasters. That, Meunier said, could leave the EPA with little choice as it considers how "a corporate attitude of non-compliance" should affect the prospect of the company's debarment going forward.

ProPublica's Gulf Oil Spill site is a good way to stay on top of the story. This is true of a lot of stories that play out over time, like, say, the financial bailout or the stimulus.

ProPublica describes itself as "an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest." A 2010 Pulitzer winner, it is supported by the Sandler Foundation and accepts donations online.

The Sift Bookshelf: Democracy, Inc. by Sheldon Wolin
Usually my book reviews are meant to tempt you into reading the book. But even though this book is very insightful and I agree with most of its conclusions, it's written in a style I find annoying. (Wolin does too much preaching to the choir and loves the sound of his own rhetoric. I would have appreciated more step-by-step arguments, simply stated and tied to supporting examples.) So I'm going to tell you the most worthwhile things I learned from this book, with the idea that you don't have to read it now. 

Democracy, Inc. is about "managed democracy" -- a system in which the people don't really rule, but instead legitimize their leaders' decisions through elections.
[T]he citizenry ... has been replaced by the "electorate," that is, by voters who acquire a political life at election time. During the intervals between elections the political existence of the citizenry is relegated to a shadow-citizenship of virtual participation. Instead of participating in power, the virtual citizen is invited to have "opinions": measurable responses to questions predesigned to elicit them.
This is an important distinction, and I think the best way to understand it is to think about the role of secrecy and lying. In an actual democracy, secrecy and lying should be steadfastly avoided: How can the people rule well unless they understand what's going on? But in managed democracy an elite class decides what the government should do and then "sells" that program to the public. As in any kind of selling, omission and deception are two of the best tools.

Think about how the Iraq War was sold back in 2002-2003. There were at least five independent justifications for the war, each specious in its own way. (They attacked us first on 9-11. Saddam's WMDs were a threat to us. Saddam was an ally of Bin Laden. Saddam oppressed his own people*. Iraq could be a showcase democracy for the region.) If a customer voter wasn't buying one argument, the salesman public official would just switch to the next one. [*Saddam did oppress his own people, but that's not why we invaded. Other dictators were equally oppressive without provoking American intervention.]

The other important idea in this book is the contradiction between Empire and Democracy. I think a lot of us have an intuition about that, but Wolin nails it down very clearly.

We hear a lot about the moral justification for democracy. (As the Declaration of Independence puts it, "Governments ... [derive] their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed.") But democracy has a practical justification as well: The people who use and pay for government services are in the best position to judge how well the government is working. The best judges and overseers of a city's transit system, for example, are the people who have to get to work every morning.

Democracy makes sense because it asks the people about their own business: their communities, their roads, their jobs, their kids' educations, their food, their health care, their safety, their retirement security, and so on. Of course We the People should be making those decisions -- we know that stuff.

Now think about the Iraq War again. The American people were asked to decide how Iraq should be governed. We voted for candidates who said things that sounded good, but what did any of us really know about governing Iraq? It wasn't our business. 

The more a nation is focused on Empire -- on shaping the lives of people who aren't its citizens -- the less sense democracy makes. This senselessness weakens democracy top-to-bottom: Deep down, the people know that they're voting on things they don't understand, so they start to lose faith in themselves as decision-makers. Similarly, leaders and opinion-makers come to look at the people as an ignorant rabble to be manipulated. 

Once those attitudes get started, they spread. Soon, the same techniques that manipulated the people into invading Iraq are being used to bail out Wall Street or to drill, baby, drill. During the long health care debate, most of the pro-reform effort was spent not advocating policy, but simply beating back falsehoods like death panels.

The best reason that America should disentangle itself from an imperial agenda is that it will destroy democracy here just as it did in Athens and Rome. To survive through the centuries, government of the People needs to stay humble and restrain itself to the People's business.

Short Notes
Just a joke: A bar in West Allis, Wisconsin burned President Obama in effigy. An Alabama geometry teacher used a fantasized Obama assassination as a lesson in angles and parallel lines. And a former Washington Times bureau chief being interviewed on Fox said "Osama" when she meant "Obama" -- and then, catching herself, joked about bumping off "both, if we could."

Not a joke: Prior to his scandal-driven resignation, Indiana Republican Congressman Mark Souder used to keep his constituents informed by recording a series of "Congressional Update" videos in which he was interviewed by staffer Tracy Jackson. In this video, Souder promotes abstinence sex education programs. The punch line: Jackson turns out to have been Souder's mistress. Yep, his mistress was interviewing him about abstinence.

Personal responsibility is a standard conservative theme, but when something happens to one of their own it's never really anyone's fault. The CEO of Concerned Women for America had this to say about Souder: "If Mark Souder is capable of sexual misconduct, it could happen to anyone."

The Texas Board of Education passed its controversial new social-studies curriculum standards. Among other changes, they removed the phrase "responsibility for the common good" from the first-grade definition of good citizenship . The Wall Street Journal explains:
Board member Don McLeroy, who leads the most conservative bloc on the board, said that "responsibility for the common good" does not belong in the standards because it is "a liberal notion" that edges toward communist philosophy.

Election officials in Nevada rule that wearing a chicken suit into a polling place is illegal electioneering.

More from Texas: If you have a permit to carry a concealed weapon, you can take it right into the Capitol with you. The metal detectors are only there to catch the people without permits.

Greg Epstein reports an uplifting ending to an otherwise depressing story: In response to the threats Comedy Central got for the South Park episode that included the prophet Muhammad, May 20 somehow got designated as "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day". The idea, apparently, was to draw stick figures of the prophet (which Muslims consider offensive) on sidewalks all over the country.

It's hard to pick a side in a conflict like this. It would be like protesting the Catholic Church's child-abuse scandal with an "Everybody Urinate on a Crucifix Day". In other words, it's a legal, attention-grabbing affront to many people who probably agreed with the protestors on the original issue. 

Well, at the University of Wisconsin the Muslim Students Association decided not to fight or censor the drawings, but to use their own freedom of expression to embellish them. So stick figures labeled "Muhammad" had stick-figure boxing gloves drawn around their hands, turning them into "Muhammad Ali".

Mother Jones lays out the corrupt relationship between right-wing talk-radio hosts like Glenn Beck and Goldline, the hard-sell high-markup marketer of gold coins that supports their shows and pays them to be spokesmen.
Video humor from The Partisans: A fake commercial for TLC's "Sarah Palin's Alaska". And not just one, but two fake commercials for the Arizona Tourism Office.

Too cool not to mention: Jeff Hays wanted friends to know that he's going to be a Dad. So he announced it by re-making the climax of Star Wars. The twins will not be named Luke and Leia.

I review three books about death and the afterlife in the current issue of UU World.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Days of Our Lives

The same law that prohibits the government from declaring a National Day of Prayer also prohibits it from declaring a National Day of Blasphemy. 
In this week's Sift:
  • The Disruption Strategy: Unacknowledged Bipartisan Continuity. If neo-conservatives want to make Bush's anti-terrorism policies into an unassailable bipartisan consensus, all they have to do is acknowledge President Obama as one of their own. The fact that they aren't tells me that they're more concerned about two-party politics than about defending America.
  • Cutting Through the Nonsense About Kagan. It would be nice if we could evaluate Elena Kagan on her actual virtues and vices. So far it doesn't seem to be happening.
  • Pray for Separation of Church and State. Church-and-state law is usually defined by cases that are more symbolic than consequential. The latest concerns the National Day of Prayer, which you just missed.
  • Short Notes. Arizona's non-existent immigrant crime wave. Nazi Tourette Syndrome. The political consequences of Neanderthal DNA. E coli conservatives and Jack Bauer Republicans. The morality of corporations. And more.

The Disruption Strategy: Unacknowledged Bipartisan Continuity
Here's something David Frum said on CNN in the wake of the failed Times Square bombing:
If you look at the period from 1990 to 2001, each terrorist plot (even the ones that are defeated) is more sophisticated, more elaborate -- more people, more moving parts -- than the one before. Since 9-11, each plot: less sophisticated, fewer moving parts, until finally you're in a situation where people make bad bombs because they can't communicate. This is what success in the War on Terror looks like. 
In other words: As long as people hate us, some of them will try to do us harm. But if we have good intelligence, good surveillance, and take action against terrorist safe havens and training grounds whenever we find them, they won't be able to put together the kind of big, complicated plots that might actually work on a 9-11 scale. 

If I wanted to, I could argue. (Occasionally some of those small plots are going to do serious damage, a la Timothy McVeigh. And we shouldn't gloss over the why-do-they-hate-us question.) But instead I'll point this out: Frum is an intelligent person making a legitimate point about the security policy of the United States. He sees things from a conservative point of view. But given that ideological perspective, he's commenting fairly and honestly.

We used to have this kind of discussion all the time during the Cold War. Hawks and doves would argue about whether we needed more weapons or less, about whether arms control treaties could work, and about how (or whether) to fight some particular war like Vietnam or Korea. But the mainstream of both parties recognized some common ideas: 
  • President Truman had put forward a strategy of "Containment" against the Soviet Union, and all presidents after him were carrying it out in one form or another. (The goal of Containment -- collapse of the Soviet empire from within, no American attack needed -- was achieved during the presidency of the first President Bush. That success came from 40 years of consistent policy by four Democratic presidents and five Republicans.)
  • Containment required that we maintain a credible nuclear deterrent and a military force capable of responding to Soviet attack wherever it might occur.
  • We were not going to start World War III on our own. (In an Eisenhower-era policy known as massive retaliation we threatened to escalate any Soviet attack to nuclear war, but even this was a reactive stance rather than an aggressive one.)
For 40 years, through nine administrations, that was gospel.

If you listen to mainstream Republican rhetoric today, you would never guess that we are seeing a similar continuity in policy from Bush to Obama. President Obama has taken the edge off of some of the Bush administration's worst excesses -- black sites, torture, and so on -- and does not have such an in-your-face attitude towards international organizations and other countries in general. But by and large he has continued the Bush anti-terrorism strategy that we might call Disruption. Under Obama we are:
  • winding down the Iraq War along the lines already mapped out under Bush
  • escalating in Afghanistan
  • continuing Predator drone strikes against suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda havens in Pakistan
  • defending internal spying and surveillance practices widely considered unconstitutional prior to the Bush administration
The friendlier face Obama presents to the outside world can be seen as an attempt to do Disruption better: to get more international cooperation (especially in Muslim countries) in tracking terrorist plots and in disrupting their communications and financing.

Conservatives should be happier about all this continuity than I am. They might react to it by breathing a sigh of relief and touting the successes of the bipartisan Disruption strategy, as Frum is doing. That's what they would do, in fact, if they took the War on Terror seriously and cared about our strategy for fighting it. Recognizing Disruption as a bipartisan strategy would cement it in place and make it very hard to dislodge in the future. If you're a patriotic American who really believes that Disruption is the right strategy for protecting our country, then establishing Disruption as a bipartisan consensus should be your goal.

But a comment like Frum's is actually quite rare, and that points to a darker truth: Most Republicans don't really believe their own rhetoric about the War on Terror being a "generational conflict" or an existential struggle. Terrorism is just another chip in the poker game of politics. If claiming that Obama has drastically reversed Bush's strategy allows them to paint Democrats as weak, if it sets them up to benefit politically in case of a successful terrorist attack -- well then that's what they're going to do. That's far more important than cementing in place the policy that they believe to be correct.

Cutting Through the Nonsense About Kagan
Ultimately, the public discussion about Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan is going to revolve around a few key points, and it would be nice if those points were actually true and pertinent. So while there will be plenty of time to consider what kind of judge Kagan will be, I'm going to start by shooting down nonsensical and irrelevant points about her.

Is she gay? The right answer is: Who cares? Did anybody discuss John Roberts' sex life? Or his ethnicity, like we discussed Sotomayor's? We never talk about how being a straight white male will affect a guy's jurisprudence, because straight white males are "normal". 

Unfortunately, though, some people do care about Kagan's sexual preference, and they're going to interpret a who-cares answer as a yes. So we have to talk about it. But I don't want to concede that the question has any relevance to whether she'll be a good judge.

The evidence that Kagan is a lesbian boils down to: She's a middle-aged woman who has never been married and she looks kind of butch. For some people, I guess, that's enough. Of course it's also possible that her career path hasn't left her a lot of time for relationships, her power and intellect intimidate potential dates, and she doesn't have the movie-star looks that would motivate a man to overcome those two obstacles. You choose.

For what it's worth, anonymous Kagan friends have told Politico that she's straight. And anonymous friends would never lie, so ... it really doesn't mean anything, does it?

Is she anti-military? Supposedly Kagan banned military recruiting at Harvard Law School while she was dean there.

The real story was told in the Wall Street Journal by Kagan's predecessor Robert Clark: Harvard Law School and the military judge advocate generals have been doing a symbolic dance since 1979, when HLS instituted a non-discrimination policy. Any employer who wants to use HLS's Office of Career Services has to sign a non-discrimination statement, which the Pentagon can't do because of don't-ask-don't-tell. 

The JAG recruiters have never been banned from campus, and have continued to recruit via work-arounds like using facilities of the HLS Veterans' Association rather than the OCS. 

In 2002 (just before Kagan's term as dean), the Pentagon threatened to cancel all of Harvard University's military funding (hundreds of millions of dollars) unless they were granted an exception from HLS's non-discrimination policy. HLS caved. "Virtually all law schools affiliated with large universities did the same," Clark writes.

In 2004, the law that allowed the Pentagon to make its threat was ruled unconstitutional by a federal appeals court. In response, Dean Kagan rolled HLS' policy back to what it had been before 2002. A semester later the Supreme Court reversed the appeals court, and Kagan reinstated the military's exemption from the non-discrimination policy.

In short, this is a long-standing institutional tug-of-war between many major law schools and the Pentagon, not Kagan grinding some personal anti-military gay-rights ax. She briefly stood up for her institution's rights while she was dean. No students were affected and military recruiting was not impaired.

Is she "Obama's Harriet Miers"? Conservatives shot this bullet already against Sotomayor, but here we go again. I love Jon Stewart's reaction:
It's like no matter what happens during the Obama administration, there's the perfect Bush f**k-up for the occasion.
Harriet Miers was President Bush's failed Supreme Court nominee in 2005. She had been Bush's personal lawyer, and much of her resume consisted of jobs Bush appointed her to as he rose up the political ladder. So the Miers comparison combines two criticisms: That Kagan isn't qualified for the Supreme Court and that she's too close to President Obama.

The not-qualified complaint arises mainly because she hasn't been a judge before. This is a little unusual in recent decades (the typical nominee is an appellate judge), but not altogether strange. Recent Chief Justices William Rehnquist and Earl Warren had never been judges before joining the court, and neither had the first great chief justice, John Marshall. Kagan's main qualifications are her academic career and government work in the Clinton and Obama administrations. She clerked for Justice Thurgood Marshall. 

It's also worth pointing out that Kagan would have had ten years of experience as an appellate judge by now (President Clinton nominated her in 1999), but Republican Senator Orrin Hatch refused to hold hearings on her nomination.

The too-close complaint arises mainly because the top level of legal scholarship is a small world. Kagan and Obama were colleagues at the University of Chicago Law School from 1991-1995. They both graduated from Harvard Law School, but didn't attend at the same time. She's currently Obama's solicitor general. Obviously, her 1999 nomination as appellate judge and her appointment as dean of Harvard Law had nothing to do with Obama.

Does she disrespect the Constitution? The most inept criticism of Kagan came from the Republican National Committee and specifically from its chairman Michael Steele.  An RNC memo wondered if Kagan still agreed with a Thurgood Marshall statement that the original Constitution was "defective".  An embarrassed Republican blogger wrote: "But of course the answer should be, yes." It's hard to argue that allowing slavery or restricting the vote to men (exactly what Marshall was referring to) weren't defects.

Pray For the Separation of Church and State
Whether you pray every day or not at all, I'll bet you missed the National Day of Prayer on May 6. It was established by Congress in 1952, is proclaimed annually by the President, and has been celebrated on the first Thursday of May since 1988.

Ostensibly a non-sectarian holiday like Thanksgiving (there's no reason you can't thank Allah or the Great Mother for your blessings, or even just be vaguely grateful to no one in particular), in practice the NDoP belongs to the Religious Right. The self-appointed National Day of Prayer Task Force is co-located with Focus on the Family and is headed by James Dobson's wife Shirley. If you aren't plugged in to the Religious Right, May 6 probably went by without you even noticing.

In short, the NDoP is just the kind of no-big-deal event out of which case law is made. The Freedom From Religion Foundation has sued to have it declared an unconstitutional establishment of religion, and in April they won at the district level. Judge Barbara Crabb enjoined President Obama from proclaiming the NDoP, but stayed the enforcement of her ruling pending appeal.

Judge Crabb's ruling is a good primer on church/state law. The First Amendment's phrase establishment of religion sounds clear until you try to apply it. Not even the Founders agreed on what it meant. (President Washington proclaimed Thanksgiving in 1789, but President Jefferson refused on constitutional grounds in 1801.) So the Supreme Court has struggled over the years to come up with more transparent tests.

Three tests are relevant here. First, whether or not a law benefits or harms religion, is it motivated by a secular purpose? My favorite example (which no one ever uses, for some reason) is military chaplaincy. The government pays ministers to perform religious rituals for our soldiers, but the practice passes constitutional muster because it has benefits for the military, namely recruiting and morale. (If joining the military meant giving up the rituals of your religion, a lot of people just wouldn't do it.)

Second, does the law divide citizens into insiders and outsiders? Justice O'Connor put it like this in 1989:
government cannot endorse the religious practices and beliefs of some citizens without sending a clear message to nonadherents that they are outsiders or less than full members of the political community.
So imagine being a Hindu mother battling your Christian ex-husband for custody of the children. You walk into court and see a cross hanging on the wall behind the judge. How confident are you that you're going to get a fair hearing?

And finally, is the government unnecessarily taking sides in a religious controversy? This is the argument I think should ultimately prevail (but so far hasn't) in the Pledge of Allegiance case: Why does the government need to state a position on the existence of God?

According to Judge Crabb, the NDoP fails all these tests: Its primary purpose is to promote religion, it tells the non-religious that they are second-class citizens, and it unnecessarily embroils the government in religious controversy.

To me it comes down to this: Plenty of special days are recognized without the government's help. (I haven't found any presidential proclamation of Valentine's Day, for example.) If the National Day of Prayer Task Force wants to make its own proclamation, it can. What does government involvement add?

As far as I can see, it only adds what Justice O'Connor said the government shouldn't be doing: sorting the citizenry into insiders and outsiders.

This is how you run for governor in an Alabama Republican primary these days: An attack ad implied that candidate Bradley Byrne supported evolution and questioned the Bible. So Byrne issued a statement to set the record straight:
I believe the Bible is the Word of God and that every single word of it is true. ... My faith is at the center of my life and my belief in Jesus Christ as my personal savior and Lord guides my every action. ... [T]he record clearly shows that I fought to ensure the teaching of creationism in our school text books.

This week's discovery is the Texas Freedom Network, which bills itself as "a mainstream voice to counter the religious right". Their blog, the TFN Insider, has stories like Is the Religious Right Shilling for Big Oil?, which critiques an example of
how the religious right uses its influence with people of faith to lobby for powerful economic interests associated with the political right. Instead of a story told ”from a biblical perspective,” we get a propaganda piece from the perspective of oil companies opposed to regulations that might hurt their profits.
TFN also issues reports like Just Say Don't Know about the misinformation and ineffectiveness of Texas' abstinence-only sex education. TFN is also my best source of information on the right-wing attempts to distort the Texas public school curriculum.

Short Notes
The sympathetic view of Arizona's draconian immigration law says that they had to do something about a sudden increase gang-related crime spilling over from Mexico. (I've passed on that justification myself.) But the statistics don't support that story:
Media reports on the supposed crime wave ... are held together with a string of conditional statements --"seems as though," "might indicate." Few contain police data, which is continuously available to those seeking public information. Barely any reports present the ample countervailing evidence that the United States has yet to be substantially affected by Mexican drug violence.
Among the law's critics you'll find the Phoenix chief of police.

Glenn Beck has ridiculed people who compare Arizona to Nazi Germany. So the Daily Show's Lewis Black compiled Beck's references to Nazism
This is a guy who uses more swastika props and video of the Nuremberg rallies than the History Channel. ... Glenn Beck has Nazi Tourette's: My goodness this is delicious. HITLER! That's a very nice tie you're wearing Jon. GOEBBELS!

Biologists have sequenced enough DNA to conclude that Neanderthals must have interbred with humans emigrating out of Africa.

You know what has to come next: White supremacists will portray the Neanderthals as a lost Hyperborean civilization, too generous and trusting to handle the barbarians coming out of Africa, and surviving just long enough to pass their brainy, high-culture DNA down to Europeans and Asians. The movie script almost writes itself. Overnight, Neanderthal becomes a compliment.
Daily Kos' Fishgrease gives a foul-mouthed but informative primer on those inflatable lines that are supposed to stop the oil slick. And a sequel.
Rachel Maddow made a good point Friday: As we talk about the ever-growing oil spill and the malfeasance that caused it, we shouldn't fall into the trap of characterizing BP, Transocean, and Halliburton as "bad" corporations. They are just corporations, doing what corporations do when governments let them: cutting corners and making private profit out of public risk.
A corporation is not a person. A corporation is not moral or immoral. A corporation is by design a device that is created by humans ... and its purpose is to seek profit. ... If you want [corporations] to not do those things, you have to stop them.

Rick Perlstein connects anti-government-regulation ideology to our food-safety problems and simultaneously coins a great phrase: e-coli conservatives.
Another great phrase: The Daily Beast tells us about the Jack Bauer Republicans -- two Iraq veterans who parlayed their records of detainee abuse into nominations for congress.
Over the last month the Democrats have been sneaking up in polls of the "generic Congressional ballot". The most recent TPM average has them ever-so-slightly ahead for the first time since November.
Maine, the last remaining habitat of moderate Republican senators, just had its Republican Party platform re-written along the lines of the Tea Party. Oh, and the conventioneers stole a poster from a middle-school classroom because it was too liberal.
Jon Stewart thinks the phrase "the American people" is so overused that it has become meaningless.

Monday, May 3, 2010

What Goes Without Saying


People will do anything, no matter how stupid, in order to avoid facing their own souls. -- Carl Jung

In this week's Sift:
  • The Thing Behind the Thing. Lying behind the issues we argue about are the issues we take for granted. When those get challenged, things get ugly.
  • Oil Spill. It's too soon to say much about the spill other than: Nobody had a plan for this.
  • Guest Workers. If we need workers, why can't we just let people immigrate normally, become citizens someday, and vote?
  • Chickens for Check-ups. Sue Lowden's idea is silly even without the chickens.
  • Short Notes. The economy muddles along. Nova's "Mind Over Money". How lobbyists corrupt government. Covering Virginia's racy state seal. A survey of crazy state legislation. Soldiers go GaGa. And more.

The Thing Behind the Thing
Politics is like marriage in some ways.

In marriage, the most unbridgeable differences are the ones that go without saying -- the stuff that everybody knows, or should know; the unstated (maybe even unconscious) assumptions about how the world works. One spouse assumes that marriage leads immediately to children, the other that a long negotiation will happen first. In either case, it's just what people do; anything else would be weird. Of course Mom will live with us when she can't take care of herself any more. Of course we'll move across the country when I get that big promotion. Of course we'll buy a minivan and a house in the suburbs when the baby comes.

Of course. It goes without saying.

Politics is like that too. We have a lot of very public issues and debates going on in this country: what to do about immigration, energy, health care, unemployment, the deficit, and so on. But behind them all lurk a few issues that we don't talk about, because they just seem to be common sense. When someone disagrees with us on those underlying issues, we aren't puzzled or fascinated or motivated to gather evidence and make our case more clearly. We get mad. We feel violated. What kind of villains are we dealing with here?

This week I'm going to try to tease out a few of those issues and see how they play out in immigration and in the Tea Party. Maybe in future Sifts I'll think about how to get a conversation started.

The Law. Where does the Law get its authority?

In one view, the Law comes from Beyond. Maybe it was ordained by God. Maybe evolution has encoded it in our genes. Maybe the Universe is set up in such a way that only one kind of society really works. For whatever reason, the True Law exists in some place that we can't touch. The statutes written in our law books deserve our allegiance only to the extent that they mirror this "natural" law. Arguments about social good miss the point, because it doesn't matter who gains or loses. The Law is the Law.

In the other view, the Law is a social contract. We obey it because it protects us, and we obey the parts that work to our personal disadvantage because overall a lawful society works to everyone's advantage. Or at least it should. But if the-Law-as-a-whole works against you -- say, by making you a slave or trying to wipe out your people -- it loses its hold on you. Law-makers (and all citizens in a democracy) are obligated to offer everyone as fair a contract as possible. To the extent that the Law fails that test, it loses its authority.

That sounds very abstract, but look at illegal immigration through these two lenses. Picture a young Mexican couple living in poverty under a corrupt government, seeing no opportunity for a better life no matter how hard they work. Across some invisible line in the desert is America and all that America represents.

What's their obligation to the American law that would keep them out? If the Law is the Law, if "there is no authority except what God has established," then they become villains the instant they set foot our country. But if the Law is a social contract, when did they consent to that contract and what benefit have they ever received from it? In that view their obligations to American law begin after they get here, when the Law begins to protect and benefit them. We may choose to enforce the Law on border-jumpers for our own purposes, the same way that we might chase crows out of our corn. But the crows aren't villains; they just don't participate in the system that declares the corn to be ours.

Punishment. Conservatives believe instinctively that if something has gone wrong, someone should be punished. (Except possibly the rich.) That urge to punish after 9-11 provided the energy for our invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and it forms the resistance to "amnesty" for illegal immigrants: Illegal immigration causes problems, so we have to punish someone. I haven't seen the numbers, but I'll bet there's a huge correlation between people's opposition to amnesty and the importance of Hell in their religion.

The People. Tea Party types are constantly talking about the American People: Government should listen to the People. Government has turned its back on the People. The People need to take their country back.

But who are "the People"?

"The People" is a code whose meaning is mostly unconscious: "The People" are straight white Christians. Straight white Christians voted for McCain/Palin by a wide margin, particularly in rural areas and in the South, the center of Tea Party activity. And yet somehow they have wound up being governed by Barack Obama, who is not white and whose Christianity they find suspect.

Clearly America has ceased to be a democracy, because "the People" no longer rule.

Straight white Christians were such a large majority for so long that they got used to the idea that they are America. But they can't defend that point consciously, so they have to make up all kinds of nonsense about Obama to justify their feelings. They deny up and down that it's really about race, and most of them even believe it.

Look at the article A Stranger in Our Midst by a retired polysci professor. It appeared Thursday on a fairly popular right-wing blog and was recounted at length by Rush Limbaugh. Its tone is not angry or hateful; this is a thoughtful person trying to get to the bottom of his discontent -- and failing. He's trying to put his finger on what feels wrong about "the Obama administration and its congressional collaborators" and concludes that they feel like "a foreign occupying force". But of course "It is not about Obama's birthplace. It is not about race, either;" it's about his "outsider values".

And the evidence for these "outsider values"? The author can't bring himself to endorse the Birther nonsense outright, so he points to Obama's "hazy personal background", his "enduring friendship" with Bill Ayers, his "bowing to foreign potentates", the health-care bill that "consumes one-sixth of our GDP" and will result in a "swarm" of "recently hired IRS agents", the idea that community activism or its long-dead strategist Saul Alinsky are somehow un-American or anti-American, or that Obama has now "sided with illegal aliens over the State of Arizona". This stuff has been debunked repeatedly: It's all either made up, wildly exaggerated, similar to what previous presidents did, or just plain wacky. (Has Cuban-American Tea Party hero Marco Rubio also sided with illegal aliens against Arizona? What about Jeb Bush?)

The fact that Nancy Pelosi represents San Francisco -- rather than someplace in America -- "exacerbates the strangeness." And somehow it is Obama's personal responsibility that trust in government has been falling for decades in all industrial democracies.

Why all the nonsense, even among people who ought to know better? Obama generates these feelings because he symbolizes an unthinkable fact: In the 21st century straight white Christians (particularly in the South and in rural areas) are out of touch with America. America is now a country where racial minorities, religious minorities, feminists, gays, urban cosmopolitans, and various other once-out-of-the-mainstream groups now constitute a sizable majority. They are America now, as much as anybody is.

But that explanation is unacceptable, so there has to be another one -- anything, no matter how stupid.

Oil Spill
I'm reluctant to say much about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, because it continues to expand and we don't know how bad it will get. It's still a day-to-day story, not a weekly. TPM has a good summary of how the crisis has unfolded and collects some spectacular photos.

But already this much is becoming clear: When we drill in water this deep, we're just counting on something like this not happening. Now that it has happened, there is no plan. Even the "experts" are flying by the seat of their pants.

[Full disclosure: I own stock in Transocean, the company that leased the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig to BP. All the corporations involved are already pointing fingers at each other. Transocean built the rig, Halliburton installed it, BP operated it -- any or all of them may be at fault. In classic corporate PR style, Transocean's web site began its discussion of the 11 deaths -- including 9 Transocean employees -- like this: "Of the 126-member crew, 115 were safely evacuated."]

Best lines. Brad Johnson, on the approval of the Cape Wind offshore wind farm:
I'm worried about all those wind turbines blowing up and leaving a wind-slick on the coast of Cape Cod.
David Letterman (via Politico Playback):
The good news is that they think now that the oil spill will be diluted by the melting ice caps.
Jimmy Kimmel (also from Politico Playback):
This is exactly why I keep saying that America must end its dependence on domestic oil. ... Right? Let's just buy the stuff from countries that hate us. If it spills on them, good!
Jay Leno (also from Politico Playback):
The oil companies are promising to clean this whole mess up. And believe me, if you've ever been to a gas station restroom, you know how good they are at cleaning up messes.
Bill Mahr (at about the 1 minute mark of the first video):
I'm mad at the people who go "Drill, baby, drill." And by the way, they should turn up on the Gulf Coast and start cleaning up the birds with their "Drill, Baby, Drill" t-shirts.

Grist collects conservative comments on the spill.

Guest Workers
Now that we've started talking about comprehensive immigration reform again, the idea of a guest-worker program has resurfaced. It's usually presented as a common-sense, middle-of-the-road idea that shouldn't be controversial.

And yes, having guest workers with some legitimate legal status would be an improvement on illegal immigrants who are shut out of our legal system, can't complain if they're abused, and are afraid to seek treatment when they get sick. (Imagine if H1N1 really had been the great plague the epidemiologists are worried about. How do you vaccinate or quarantine people whose existence you can only guess at?)

But if we need more workers (which is debatable considering our unemployment rate), why shouldn't we bring in people who will become citizens eventually?

Ever since capitalism and democracy started cohabiting, capitalists have dreamed of a labor force that can't vote. That may be great for capitalism, but it's bad for democracy. Bringing people in to do our dirtiest jobs and then sending them home undermines a core American value: the dignity of work. If working to keep American society going doesn't earn you a stake in that society, then what does?

A program that brings in temporary workers only makes sense if the need for those workers is temporary. If our citizens were mobilized to fight a World-War-II type war, then I could see bringing in workers that we expected to send home when the war was over. If we needed more workers at the peak of an economic boom and we expected those jobs to go away in the next recession, then I could see temporary workers. One-of-a-kind jobs where we need to import a particular specialist for a few years, fine. But if our society has a long-term need for people to pick our vegetables, sweep our floors, watch our children, and mow our lawns, then why shouldn't those roles be filled by long-term residents who eventually become citizens and vote?

The only answer I can see is either that we don't respect those roles, or we don't respect the racial/ethnic groups who come to this country to fill those roles. Neither position is anything to be proud of.

Major newspapers apparently don't fact-check their op-eds at all these days, so you have to read them very carefully. Example: Thursday's NYT had an op-ed defending Arizona's immigration law written by Kris Kobach the former John Ashcroft aide who apparently wrote the law. The article rebutted several criticisms, including that the law "will allow police to engage in racial profiling."

No, no, no, Kobach writes.
Actually, Section 2 provides that a law enforcement official “may not solely consider race, color or national origin” in making any stops or determining immigration status.
The link goes to the text of the law. If you chase it, though, you might notice that the end of the sentence is "except to the extent allowed by the United States and Arizona constitution."

In other words, an official may consider race, color, or national origin to the full extent allowed by the state and federal constitutions. Since a mere statute can't over-rule a constitution anyway, this is as far as the Arizona legislature can possibly go to allow racial profiling, not to ban it.

Arizona swiftly passed a revision of the law -- also apparently written by Kobach -- to blunt some of the most unanswerable criticism. But it doesn't help much. For example, the word "solely" is taken out of the sentence quoted above. If the sentence had protected anybody to begin with, it would protect more people now. But, as I note above, the "except" clause at the end makes its apparent protections meaningless, then and now.

Atlantic's senior editor Ta-Nehisi Coates deserves to be quoted at length:
Defenders of the law will say that police still have to stop you for something, and they still have to "suspect" that you did something. Forgive, but I don't find that comforting. Amadou Diallo is dead because the police "suspected" he was drawing a gun. Oscar Grant is dead because the police "suspected" he needed to be tased. My old friend, Prince Jones, Howard University student and father of a baby girl, was murdered by the police in front of his daughter's home because police "suspected" he was a drug-dealer. (The cop was not kicked off the force.) Only a year ago, I was stopped in Chelsea, coming from an interview with NPR, because police "suspected" I was the Latino male who'd recently robbed someone. ... I don't want to be cheap here, but it needs to said that when you actually know decent people who are dead because of our insane drug war, your perspective on police power changes. This is a multi-million dollar lawsuit waiting to happen. Someone is going to get killed. And the fact that "the vast majority of police are awesome" will not bring them back.

Chickens For Check-Ups
Nevada senate candidate Sue Lowden has taken a lot of heat for her chickens for check-ups suggestion that you barter with your doctor, and she deserves it. But the problem with her thinking is more serious than just the ridiculous image of chickens in the doctor's office.

Let's give Lowden the full benefit of the doubt. Within a small town or a close-knit church community, maybe a doctor who knows you and understands your financial problems would give your kid a check-up in exchange for ... OK, not a chicken, but piano lessons or car repair or some other bit of barter.

So what? Healthy people paying for check-ups isn't the real problem in health care. That's not what pushes so many people into bankruptcy. The problem is how you'll pay if they find something seriously wrong with you. What are you going to barter to get kidney dialysis or chemotherapy or the 24/7 care your dad might need in the late stages of Alzheimer's?

Let's do a back-of-the-envelope maximum-cost calculation: There are about 300 million Americans. Suppose we all get a check-up every year (which we don't). Say that a simple check-up without lab tests costs $200. That's $60 billion a year. In any other context $60 billion is a lot of money, but as a nation we spend more than $2 trillion on health care each year -- more than $7,000 per person.

In other words, even if doctors would agree to make check-ups free, it wouldn't put a dent in the overall cost of health care. So even without the silly imagery, Lowden's talk about negotiating with your doctor is just a distraction. Like all the other Republican health-care "solutions", it's not on the same scale as the problem.

Here's what you're up against when you back an argument with statistics: Conservative think tanks get unlimited amounts of corporate funding to fuzz things up. For example, I just mentioned the large number of medical bankruptcies. Well, that's a myth, say researchers at the Fraser Institute and the American Enterprise Institute. If medical expenses were causing American bankruptcies, the bankruptcy rate in Canada (where they have socialized medicine) would be much lower. In fact, the Canadian bankruptcy rate in 2006 and 2007 was higher than our rate.

Take that, Obamabot socialists!

Well, not so fast. Maybe our bankruptcy rate was lower in 2006 and 2007 because we changed our laws in 2005 to make bankruptcy much harder to declare. The Rabble News Service checked, and it turns out that 2006 and 2007 were the only two recent years when Canada had a higher bankruptcy rate. For the six years before the 2005 law took effect, our rate was about 75% higher than Canada's. And by 2008, it was back to being higher.

Hmmm. I wonder why the conservative think tanks didn't notice that.

Short Notes
This good summary of where the economy is comes from The Big Picture blog. The gist: recovery, but still a spotty and sluggish one.
If you have a decent broadband connection, you can watch Nova online whenever you want. Check out their Mind Over Money episode about the role of emotion in markets. If you design the rules cleverly, people will bid $28 for a $20 bill, markets will assign a positive value to securities everybody knows are worthless, and much much more.
Matt Yglesias sums up Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson's position on financial reform:
So he wanted the same thing Berkshire wanted, and he owns shares in Berkshire, and Berkshire is located in his home state, and he filibustered the bill, but he didn’t filibuster the bill because of Berkshire’s concerns. It’s just a big coincidence. Now we’re clear.

A site worth paying attention to is the Sunlight Foundation, whose motto is "Transparency in Government". (The mission statement fleshes that out a little: "The Sunlight Foundation uses cutting-edge technology and ideas to make government transparent and accountable.") They have a blog and a press center.

Their Revolving Door From Capitol Hill to Big Banks article is worth reading. It discusses the 145 former government employees who are currently working as lobbyists for the six biggest banks. If you ever wonder why not even retiring congressmen seem to have much independence from the special interests, that's why. A congressman who plays ball can retire into a lucrative lobbying career. It's perfectly legal, because nothing so gauche as a bribe is necessary. A former colleague stops by for a chat and lets you know how well Goldman Sachs pays him to do nothing more than wander around chatting with people. You get the message.
Thanks to Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the Roman goddess on the state seal will no longer expose her breast.
Lest you think that the Arizona immigration law is an aberration: They just passed another law banning ethnic studies programs and preventing teachers with "heavy accents" from teaching English. Back in the 90s Arizona recruited a lot of Spanish-speaking teachers for bilingual education, but then in 2000 the voters passed a referendum banning bilingual ed. Now the plan seems to be to force out the teachers who managed to get absorbed into the English-only program.
And lest you think Arizona has a monopoly on crazy, TPM collects nutty legislation introduced or passed in other states. My favorites: California, Wisconsin, and North Dakota have passed laws against the forced implantation of microchips in human beings, in spite of the fact that this seems only to happen in paranoid fantasies. And in Georgia you can now carry your licensed firearms into airports, all the way up to the security check-point where the feds take over. If there's a shoot-out in front of the Cinnabon, wouldn't you hate to be left out?
Viral video: Soldiers in Afghanistan remake Lady Gaga's "Telephone" video.

You can get the Sift every week via email. Subscribe by writing to weeklysift AT