Monday, January 26, 2015

Prosperity Rises

There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous, their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it.

-- William Jennings Bryan, "Cross of Gold" (1896)

This week's featured post is "Liberal Islam: Is it real? Is it Islam?"

This week everybody was talking about the State of the Union

This was the first SOTU of what I've been calling the Aw-Fukkit Phase of the Obama presidency, when he might as well say what he thinks because there are no more elections to position himself for.

If you haven't seen the speech, the best place to watch is on the White House web site, where you get supporting slides like the one on the right. Also, for the first time in history the White House openly leaked the text of their own speech, so you could read along with the President if you wanted.

"Tonight we turn the page" was a polite way of saying: "I've finally cleaned up enough of Bush's mess that there's room for me to have my own vision." Obama supported that view by telling the story of his administration's mess-cleaning-up accomplishments: unemployment is finally lower than before the 2008 financial crisis; troop levels in Iraq/Afghanistan are down from 180K to 15K; high-school graduation rates are up; oil imports and the price of gas are down (a wrinkle there: gas prices are down from their pre-crisis levels; during the crisis the price got down to $1.61 because nobody was buying); and deficits are down.

State of the Union addresses always have an element of symbolism. This time, Obama framed his speech around a letter he got from a woman in Minnesota, whose family went through hard times during the Great Recession, but stuck together, worked hard, studied hard, and bounced back. Opponents like to imply that Obama only represents unemployed inner-city black single mothers or irresponsible sluts who need abortions so that they can stay promiscuous and child-free, so it was artful to frame the speech around a Midwestern white couple working two jobs and raising kids born in wedlock.

We are a strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, very hard times. America, Rebekah and Ben’s story is our story. They represent the millions who have worked hard, and scrimped, and sacrificed, and retooled.

He referred to his policies as "middle-class economics", implying a contrast with Republican trickle-down economics, which he did not name.

At every step, we were told our goals were misguided or too ambitious; that we would crush jobs and explode deficits. Instead, we’ve seen the fastest economic growth in over a decade, our deficits cut by two-thirds, a stock market that has doubled, and health care inflation at its lowest rate in fifty years. So the verdict is clear. Middle-class economics works.

The speech alluded to specific proposals but deferred the details, which started rolling out later in the week. They include proposals to promote and subsidize child care for working parents, to make two years of community college free, to give new tax breaks to middle-class families, and to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil drilling.

Probably Congress will ignore all these proposals. But they will put Republicans on the spot, at a time when some of them seemed to expect Obama to ask, "How high do you want me to jump?"

and "no-go zones"

Inside the conservative news bubble, lots of nonsense goes unchallenged, like ObamaCare's "death panels", or the "stand down order" that supposedly prevented a rescue mission to Benghazi. So I was not particularly shocked when I heard that Fox News was helping spread the bizarre dystopian fantasy that there were "no-go zones" in Europe that non-Muslims have to stay out of, including the entire city of Birmingham, England, and certain well-delineated neighborhoods of Paris.

There is, of course, nothing to support any of this. British Prime Minister David Cameron treated the claims with the disdain they deserve:
I thought it must be April Fools Day. This guy is clearly a complete idiot.

and the Mayor of Paris is threatening to sue. But that didn't prevent Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal repeating those claims at a speech in London:
It is startling to think that any country would allow, even unofficially, for a so-called 'no-go zone.' The idea that a free country would allow for specific areas of its country to operate in an autonomous way that is not free and is in direct opposition to its laws is hard to fathom.

and then blamed "the liberal media" for pointing out that he was just making stuff up.

For once, Fox News apologized for its "error". (Personally, I don't think Fox actually tries to get the news right, so wouldn't call it an "error", though I believe they do feel bad about getting caught.) The apology (and not the original claim) shocked Jon Stewart, who asked:
What did they say that was so much wronger than usual?

The tiny kernel of truth behind the Shariah-in-the-UK claim is outlined in this BBC article. If all parties agree, civil cases can be tried before Sharia councils. Similar to binding mediation in this country, the system is voluntary and does not apply to criminal cases.

and abortion

This abortion-and-rape thing, it's a constant problem for the GOP. The pro-life base believes that a newly fertilized ovum has a soul (which isn't Biblical, and on its Protestant side is a purely political doctrine that has no theological history at all), so a fetus conceived by rape has as much right to life as anybody else. But in front of the general public, passing a law that makes rape a viable male reproductive strategy is political suicide. So anti-abortion laws need some kind of rape exception.

But that raises the question: What kind of rape? And what kind of evidence should a woman claiming the exception need to present? If just saying you were raped is good enough, then we're back to abortion on demand, because, you know, bitches be lyin' about stuff like that. Ask Bill Cosby.

So this week the new Republican Congress was all set to pass a nationwide ban on abortions after 20 weeks (on the pseudo-scientific theory that 20 weeks is the threshold for a fetus feeling pain). But the supporting coalition ruptured on the exact wording of the rape exception: To claim it, a woman would have to have previously reported the rape to the police. Congresswoman Renee Ellmers objected to that requirement enough to remove herself as a sponsor. Reportedly, other Republican congresswomen also objected, and the House leadership was not willing to pass the bill without sufficient female cover.

The pro-life crowd then went apeshit, abusing Ellmers (previously a far-right-winger in good standing, one of Sarah Palin's "Momma grizzlies") in such misogynistic terms that even a liberal like Joan Walsh felt obligated to defend her.

Senator Lindsey Graham then told the Family Research Council that "I'm going to need your help to find a way out of this definitional problem of rape." But the whole point of "defining" rape is so that anti-abortion bureaucrats can tell a woman that she's wrong about having been raped. I don't see any nice way to do that.

but I wish more people were talking about addiction

Johann Hari has a fascinating article up at Huffington Post, "The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think." Most theories of addiction blame either the addictive nature of the drugs themselves, biological propensities in the addicts, or moral weakness.

Some early experiments put a rat in a cage with two choices of water, a pure source and one laced with an addictive drug like cocaine. Most of the tested rats became addicts, and some killed themselves with overdoses. Eventually, though, researcher Bruce Alexander wondered whether the problem wasn't the drug so much as being alone in a cage. So he created Rat Park, as utopian a rat community as he could imagine, except for the fact that it also has one pure and one drug-tainted water source.

The happy rats of Rat Park consumed about 1/4th as much of the drug as the bored and lonely rats, and none of them OD'd. What's more, moving addicted rats from isolation to Rat Park often enabled them to kick the habit.

Hari compares this experiment to the real-life experience of American G.I.s, many of whom were heroin addicts in Vietnam, but didn't bring their addiction home. Professor Alexander argues: "It's not you, it's your cage."

and you also might be interested in ...

If you're wondering why the price of gas is suddenly so low, Daniel Yergin's analysis is as convincing as any.

The only people who should be talking about 2016 this early are the comedians who make fun of people talking about 2016 this early. Andy Borowitz posted to Facebook:
Mental Health Professionals Report Alarming Increase in People Who Believe They Could Be President

And Jon Stewart commented on Mitt Romney's hints that he might run again.
Quit being a nomination hog, Mitt. There's a lot of people who deserve the chance to lose a presidential race.

Gun rights for black people continue to be mostly theoretical. Tuesday, a 62-year-old black man with a concealed-carry permit was tackled as he entered a WalMart by a white man yelling "He's got a gun!" Afterward, a police spokesman cautioned vigilantes to "make sure there's a good reason" before tackling gun owners. Just seeing an armed black man turns out not to be a good enough reason.

A few weeks ago I used torture as an example of how conservatives will intentionally break a word they don't like through intentional misuse. Well, now they're working on breaking theocracy. How else to interpret this exchange between Mike Huckabee and televangelist James Robison?
HUCKABEE: Now I'm not saying that a person should run [for president] and say, "Let's have a theocracy", because I don't think we should.

ROBISON: It's ridiculous.

HUCKABEE: No, that's not what even our [garbled] want.

ROBISON: We have a theocracy right now. It's a secular theocracy.

HUCKABEE: That's it. It's a humanistic, secular, atheistic [theocracy], even antagonistic toward Christian faith.

Yep, secular theocracy is the new liberal fascism. If the common usage of theocracy can be stretched to include "humanistic, secular, atheistic" versions, then for all practical purposes the word will stop meaning anything at all. And that would suit Robison and Huckabee just fine.

and let's close with something amusing

It's another year's worth of Bad Lip Reading the NFL.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Unreasonable Debts

St. Peter don't you call me, 'cause I can't go.
I owe my soul to the company store.

-- "16 Tons", usually attributed to Merle Travis

This week's featured post is "Can We Overthrow the Creditocracy?"

Thanks to the Diary of Mindless Minions number 2703 blog, who named Maria Popova and me as "Two People Who Make the Internet Better".

If trends hold, "Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party" will get its 200,000th page view this week.

This week everybody was talking about terrorist plots in Europe

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in France, Belgian police launched a series of raids on suspected terrorists, including one at Verviers that resulted in a firefight with men described as "extremely well armed".

What seems to be different in the current European terrorist threat is that it's a mixture of foreign-based and home-grown. Belgium turns out to have a comparatively large number of residents who either are fighting in Syria or have fought and come home. They're Belgians, but their Syrian war connections give them access to heavy weapons and training in how to use them. Across Europe, we're talking about maybe 5,000 people, 300 or so from Belgium.

and here, sort of

Twenty-year-old Christopher Lee Cornell from Ohio was arrested Wednesday for planning to kill people at the U.S. Capitol. Allegedly, his plan was to set off pipe bombs in or near the Capitol, and then shoot people as they evacuated.

Cornell apparently came to the attention of the FBI months ago for making pro-ISIS statements through social media. He devised his plan in discussions with an FBI informant, and was arrested when he bought two assault rifles. That was the first physical manifestation of his plan. He hadn't yet bought any materials to make the pipe bombs, and was thinking he might hit the Capitol next December. According to the L. A. Times:
He was charged with the attempted killing of a U.S. government officer and possession of a firearm in furtherance of an attempted crime of violence.

I have mixed feelings about this news. On the one hand, it's great that Cornell was stopped before he could kill anybody. On the other, it points out the unsettling vagueness of our anti-terrorism laws. Think about it: What did Cornell do, exactly? He had a violent fantasy, "plotted" (i.e., talked big to somebody he thought would be impressed) with an FBI informant, and bought two legal firearms.

For this, he gets national TV coverage and is known far and wide as a dangerous terrorist. Having been a young man myself once, I'm not sure this example is going to discourage would-be imitators.

These kinds of crimes carry very real sentences. Rezwan Ferdaus of Massachusetts is serving 17 years for a 2011 plan to attack the Capitol with radio-controlled airplanes. Again, he conspired only with the FBI. He was arrested when he took delivery of "grenades, six machine guns and what he believed was 24 pounds of C-4 explosive" from his FBI "partners". Not only was no actual high explosive involved, it's not clear he would have known how to get any without the FBI's help.

I wonder how many people we could send to prison if we treated other kinds of "plots" this way. Imagine you have a bad week at work, and while you're out drinking Friday night, you blather about how you'd like to go into the office some day and shoot all the people who bug you. (I'll bet bartenders hear a lot of "plans" like this.) Suppose the guy on the next stool is a police informant, and starts asking exactly how you'd do it. A week or two later, you think it might be therapeutic to buy a gun, go to a shooting range, and imagine the target is your boss' head. As you leave the gun store, police arrest you for starting to carry out your "mass murder plot". "Police Avert Deadly Rampage" say the next morning's headlines.

In an unrelated case, an Illinois teen-ager was arrested at O'Hare Airport before boarding a plane to Turkey, where he hoped to join ISIS.

Vox reports:
Writers at Vox have indeed been bombarded with threats for our Charlie Hebdo coverage. But not one of those threats has come from a Muslim or in response to publishing anti-Islam cartoons. Revealingly, they have rather all come from non-Muslims furious at our articles criticizing Islamophobia.

and still talking about Charlie Hebdo

One of my long-term wishes (that started to come true in 2014) has been for The Weekly Sift to develop a commenting community that consistently adds value to my articles. A good example of what I have in mind is last week's "Am I Charlie? Should I Be?" While many commenters agreed with my main points, several had thoughtful disagreements concerning French language and culture, and provided links that are well worth reading.

A few French-speaking commenters -- I'm a puzzle-out-with-a-dictionary reader of French, and can't say much more than oui -- discussed the correct interpretation of cons, which Vox translated as "idiots", but seemed closer to "cunts" to me and the Saturn's Repository blog. The truth seems to be that cons is more vulgar than "idiots" but not nearly so offensive as "cunts". eganvarley and FrancoFile defended "idiots" as a translation, while SamChevre compared cons' level of vulgarity to "assholes", and Chum Joely interpreted it as "dumbasses".

The interpretation of the images in Charlie Hebdo cartoons was another point of contention. eganvarley linked to Adam Gopnik's article on Charlie. Jeremos linked to a discussion of the Boko-Haram-sex-slaves cover, velvinette to a collection of cartoons establishing Charlie's left-wing anti-racist bona fides, and orionblair to an explanation of the French context of some of the cartoons that seem most objectionable to an outsider. Several other commenters also disputed my criticism of Charlie. I apologize for not listing everyone.

Some of the articles made an analogy to this famously controversial New Yorker cover published shortly after Barack Obama had sewed up the Democratic nomination.

People who didn't know the political context -- including a lot of fairly well-informed Americans -- interpreted it as a viciously anti-Obama cover: He's dressed as a Muslim and his wife as a terrorist, while they burn an American flag in the Oval Office fireplace. But hipper viewers saw a parody of over-the-top anti-Obama rhetoric. "This is what you want us to believe? Really?" Several of the apparently racist Charlie covers similarly would be seen by in-the-know French readers as ironic critiques of their surface meanings.

While appreciating their main points, I have two quibbles with the links. First, there's a tendency to equate bigotry with the Right, and to assume that once we establish that Charlie was on the Left, we've proved it wasn't bigoted. (Talk to Alec Baldwin about that.) Similarly, being anti-racist in general doesn't inoculate you against all specific forms of bigotry. To me, the appropriate American comparison isn't the KKK, it's Bill Maher. Bill is liberal on most issues and denounces bigotry wherever he sees it; but when it comes to his own bigotry against Muslims, he just can't see it.

Second, privileged people tend to assume that when someone takes offense at what they say or do, all that really matters is their own intent. (If people think I insulted them, that's only because they're too stupid to realize I didn't. Les cons!) This is one of the defining traits of privilege: the belief that your own point of view is paramount; if other people have a different interpretation of what I say or do, they're just wrong.

But that easily assumed right-to-self-interpretation is only a dream for members of a marginalized group like French Muslims. Jamie Utt asks the right question on Everyday Feminism:
[I]n the end, what does the intent of our action really matter if our actions have the impact of furthering the marginalization or oppression of those around us?... [M]aking the conversation about intent is inherently a privileged action. The reason? It ensures that you and your identity (and intent) stay at the center of any conversation and action while the impact of your action or words on those around you is marginalized.

Reportedly, one of the reasons Dave Chappelle gave up his TV show in the middle of taping the third season (and walked away from a pile of money) was his realization that his intent didn't always define his humor. Skits that he intended to satirize racial stereotypes might reinforce them to some of his less enlightened viewers.

Now, the fact that out-of-touch foreigners like me don't appreciate the full implications of a French cartoon is no fair criticism of the cartoon. However, French Muslims did feel insulted, and brushing that off with a "They don't get it" isn't an adequate response.

But I don't want any of that criticism to cause readers to lose sight of the first point of "Am I Charlie? Should I Be?": Nothing that people say or write or draw should get them killed. Whether or not I have undermined that point also came up in the comment stream, as Dan wondered how my criticism of Charlie differed from the victim-blamers who say that a raped woman "used bad judgment". I replied:
The difference between the woman and the cartoonists is that the cartoonists knew exactly the risks they were running. The “bad judgment” comment implies the woman was foolish, while I think the Charlie cartoonists were courageous.

A better analogy would be to a soldier who volunteers to fight in what I believe is an unworthy war — but he obviously thinks it is worthy — and dies in that war. I honor his personal courage and respect his sacrifice. But if you ask me to identify with him, to say in effect “I am G. I. Joe”, then I have to ask if that means I have to support the war now. If it does, I can’t say it.

Thanks, everybody. I learned from you even when you didn't completely persuade me.

and I should be careful what I wish for

because another commenter, Lady Mockingbird, nailed me for overstating my case in last week's summary. I was summarizing James Fallows' "The Tragedy of the American Military" which makes the case (and supports it well) that in the age of a volunteer military whose members make multiple deployments to war zones, comparatively few Americans have a personal connection to our troops under fire. I overstated that point like this:
Increasingly, wars are fought either by the underclass (who need a place to start their careers and have few other options) or by men and women from families with a military tradition. Outside that small caste of military families, middle-class and upper-class voters — the people whose opinions count most in our semi-oligarchic system — can have opinions about war with no consequences, or can ignore the military altogether.

Lady M pointed out that I had no support for that "underclass" point, and she's right. So I went looking and got surprised.

The Heritage Foundation is not one of my trusted sources, but I don't have any reason to doubt that their Center for Data Analysis can do arithmetic. Their 2008 report noted that the U.S. military doesn't keep data on the economic background of recruits, but you can make inferences from their home census tracts, which are reported. Using median census-tract income as a substitute for household income, Heritage-CDA computed that the richest 20% of the country contributes 25% of recruits while the poorest quintile contributes 11%.

Now, I don't trust Heritage not to manipulate statistics, and quintiles are often used to hide the very wealthy among the upper middle class. So I still doubt that many children of the 1% are getting shot at. But even so, what I said last week is not right.

A friend pointed out in private email that my quick summary of where French police were in their pursuit of the Charlie Hebdo suspects was also muddled. Rather than list my mistakes, I'll just recommend that you go to the Wikipedia article and get the story straight.

What can I say? My final editing pass last week may have been affected by a slowly rising fever as I developed the flu. I'm fine now, so any mistakes this week are inexcusable.

and you also might be interested in ...

MLK Day: The perfect time to link back to "MLK: Sanitized for Their Protection". King was much more radical than today's media lets on.

It's official: Globally, 2014 was the hottest year on record.

Friday, it got easier to visit Cuba.

Here's a general rule about funerals that you'd think everybody would know: If you're not in the casket, the service is not about you.

We've seen that rule violated in national news stories twice recently: December 27 when police turned their backs on Mayor de Blasio's eulogy for murdered officer Raphael Ramos, and January 13, when Pastor Ray Chavez of Lakewood, Colorado's New Hope Ministries interrupted the funeral of Vanessa Collier when he found out she was a lesbian. According to The Denver Post:
The memorial could not continue, Pastor Ray Chavez said, as long as pictures of Collier with the love of her life, the spouse she shared two children with, were to be displayed.

Chavez said there could be no images of Collier with her wife, Christina. There could be no indication that Collier was gay.

Mourners picked up everything and moved the service to the funeral home's chapel. It was cramped, but there were no further interruptions.

In general, if something at a funeral offends your politics, sit quietly and bitch about it later. Or if you absolutely can't endure it, slip away discretely. Nobody came here to be your audience.

chescaleigh explains how to be an ally to a marginalized group.


Chattanooga came to my attention in a good way and a bad way this week. The good way is in this graphic of internet speeds in various cities:

Chattanooga, Kansas City, and Lafayette also have surprisingly affordable internet, compared to the relatively slow internet in the rest of America. How come? Matt Yglesias explains what these cities did right:
The American cities that are delivering best-in-the-world speeds at bargain prices are precisely the cities that aren't relying on Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, Time-Warner, etc. to run their infrastructure. In Kansas City, Google built a state-of-the-art fiber optic network largely just to prove a point. In Chattanooga and Lafayette, the government did it.

Your city could do the same, and the federal government could help by providing low-interest loans (the way it did for rural electrification in the 1930s). But Matt notes that Verizon et al. pay big bucks to lobbyists to make those policy choices impossible.

But the bad news about Chattanooga was in the talk "The State of Black Chattanooga" given recently by Tennessee State Professor Ken Chilton. If you define "college ready" as reaching the college-readiness benchmarks on all four parts of the ACT, last year zero students from two predominantly black Chattanooga high schools were college ready.

My sister, who taught in the Chattanooga public schools (and brought this article to my attention), comments that the Tennessee statewide average of 19% college-ready is nothing to brag about either. But zero -- that should make people sit up and take notice. Will they do anything?

This week I discovered Slate's "Ask a Homo" video blog. Current question: Do gay men like cat-calling? Unsurprisingly, the answer is: "It depends." But the factors that come into play are interesting.

Naturally, the question is a response to the viral video "10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman" that documented all the un-asked-for comments a conservatively dressed young woman hears just by walking silently down public sidewalks. (It has gotten over 37 million views on YouTube so far.) A lot of men responded to that video by saying they'd be happy if female strangers were constantly complimenting them and trying to strike up conversations -- which ignores the whole power-imbalance you-exist-for-my-entertainment angle.

Asking how gay men react is a different way to approach the issue. Here's another: Suppose you're a straight man and gay strangers are constantly telling you what a nice butt you have. Is your main reaction to be flattered by the compliments? What if the uninvited commenters outnumber you and are much bigger than you are?

and let's close with something awe-inspiring

From Red River, New Mexico.

Monday, January 12, 2015

True Blasphemy

No blasphemy could be more heinous than this crime, no matter what the magazine published or whom it offended. Judgment belongs to God. Those who claim to defend Islam with violence and horror are essentially asserting that God is incapable of carrying out His will and so they must act in His stead: that’s blasphemy.

-- Mir Tamim Ansary, Afghan-American novelist (2015)

This week's featured post is "Am I Charlie? Should I Be?"

This week everybody was talking about Charlie Hebdo

It's hard to believe that this has all played out since the last Sift. On Wednesday gunmen killed 12 cartoonists and other staffers at the satirical French publication Charlie Hebdo. One suspect soon gave himself up, while three others have been killed by police. One is still at large.

The attack has been linked to the killing of a French policewoman. The suspect in that case barricaded himself with hostages in a kosher supermarket. He was killed by police, and four of the hostages died.

We don't usually think of Wikipedia as a source for current events, but it is usually a good way to follow events like this, where details trickle out in no particular order and sometimes change from one day to the next. Wikipedia's continuously re-edited article on the shooting is keeping track of what we know so far.

The many reactions to the shooting are a story in themselves. The shootings appear to have been carried out by French Muslims offended by Charlie Hebdo's lampooning of Islam and Muhammad, so the news set off a lot of pre-existing opinions people have about Islam, religion in general, free speech, terrorism, how the West has been trying to fight terrorism, and so on. My own reaction is in "Am I Charlie? Should I Be?"

Well over a million people rallied for unity in Paris Sunday, and millions more across France. The BBC article on the rallies included this picture from Reims.

Adam Gopnik wrote a very thoughtful piece for BBC News, making personal connections both to one of the murdered cartoonists and to a Muslim couple he knows in Paris. This is a point frequently forgotten: When you lash out at groups (whatever the justification), you lash out at individual people, the great majority of whom don't deserve it.

Of course there are conspiracy theories attributing the killings to everyone from the CIA to Mossad. But so far they seem to be coming mainly from people who attribute everything to the CIA or Mossad. These false-flag theories claim that the purpose is to justify a new round of the War on Terror or to scuttle recent Palestinian diplomatic initiatives to Europe.

If it's a frame-up, the framers did a good job. One of the alleged killers trained with Al Qaeda in Yemen, and AP says someone in that group claims responsibility. The supermarket hostage-taker left a jihadi video.

Two theories about why this happened seem credible to me. The first is the most publicized one: This is revenge for dishonoring Muhammad. Almost certainly this is what the men doing the shooting believed.

People higher up the chain, though, may have had a more strategic motive: to further isolate European Muslims from the non-Muslim population. Juan Cole explains:
The problem for a terrorist group like al-Qaeda is that its recruitment pool is Muslims, but most Muslims are not interested in terrorism. ... But if it can get non-Muslim French to be beastly to ethnic Muslims on the grounds that they are Muslims, it can start creating a common political identity around grievance against discrimination.

If that really is the point, it might be working.

Coverage of the avenge-the-Prophet motive may be somewhat off-base. Vox claims the issue may have more to do with community identity than with any theological dogma.
[A]lthough religious identity may be the source of anger over the cartoons, that does not mean that the objections are necessarily theological. In fact, despite widespread belief to the contrary, there may be no such theological restriction at all.

The Koran does not specifically prohibit insulting the Prophet, Aslan said. Mogahed noted that there was no agreement within mainstream Islam over what constitutes blasphemy, what the response to it should be, or how it should fit within the context of freedom of speech. It would therefore be a mistake to reduce an entire cultural identity to a narrow question of religious law.

If you frame the shooters' motive as punishment of blasphemy, most Americans feel distant from it. But community identity hits closer to home. In that context, ridicule of the Prophet looks more like flag-burning. As far as I know, nobody has been killed for burning an American flag. But we have seen repeated efforts in Congress to remove freedom-of-speech protection from flag-burning, and in discussions of flag-burning, it is not unusual to hear threats of violence against the burners.

But how can I possibly compare what Muslims do to what "real Americans" do? They're completely different. Or, at least a lot of Americans seem to think so. The Public Religion Research Institute published this graphic:

One typical response to events like this massacre is: Why don't Muslims condemn terrorism? Usually this comes from outlets like Fox News, which rarely let a moderate Muslim on their airwaves anyway. (It's similar to the why-don't-black-leaders-talk-about-black-on-black-violence canard. When they do no one covers it, so you can get away with saying they don't.)

That point is completely untenable in this case, because denunciations of the killings have been coming in from Muslims around the world. Of course all the groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (which Fox's Bob Beckel said "keep their mouths shut when things happen") condemned the Charlie Hebdo massacre. But even Hamas condemned it, saying:
[D]ifferences of opinion and thought cannot justify murder.

Supporters of Al Qaeda and ISIS seem to be the only people celebrating the attack.

That didn't stop Bill Maher from claiming -- based on more-or-less nothing -- that
I know most Muslim people would not have carried out an attack like this. But here’s the important point. Hundreds of millions of them support an attack like this. They applaud an attack like this.

A related story that is getting much less coverage concerns the situation of French Jews, who have seen attacks on them -- like the killing of hostages in the kosher supermarket -- increase substantially in recent years.

I don't feel like I really understand this situation, but I believe it isn't a re-awakening of traditional Dreyfus-Affair-style French anti-Semitism. It seems more like immigrant Arabs and other Muslims are taking out their anti-Israel anger on French Jews.

But if you're under attack, the exact identity and motive of your attacker may seem less important than getting to safety. The Jewish Agency reports that
Last year, 7,000 emigrated to Israel as anti-Semitism spiked across France, ... double the previous year, making France, for the first time, the No. 1 source of immigration to Israel.

So yes, hostility to Israel motivates attacks on French Jews, whose emigration not only makes Israel stronger, but emphasizes the reason Israel exists. Strategically, this is totally backwards. If French Israel-haters really want to hurt Israel, they should do their best to make France the destination-of-choice for persecuted Jews.

but I wish more people were talking about Boko Haram

This week Boko Haram killed hundreds, maybe as many as two thousand civilians in Baga, a border town between Nigerian and Chad. It isn't drawing even a fraction of the coverage of the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris.

There's an old quote that I can't put my finger on this morning. It sounds like H. L. Mencken, but probably isn't. The gist is that the number of deaths necessary to make a headline is inversely proportional to distance. (If you know the exact quote, leave a comment.)

I would amend that to say "perceived distance". I'm thousands of miles from Paris, but I've been there and I think of Parisians as being more or less like me. By comparison, the back country of Nigeria seems infinitely far away. Hundreds or thousands of innocent people dead? Why should Americans care about that?

and the problems with our armed forces and how we use them

James Fallows has been writing about military issues in The Atlantic for decades. I've consistently found him to be reasonable and thoughtful. This month's cover article "The Tragedy of the American Military" is well worth your time.

It centers on the problems of being a "chickenhawk nation": Unlike previous generations of Americans (most of whom either fought in America's wars or had parents, siblings, or children who did) today's Americans are largely insulated from the military. Increasingly, wars are fought either by the underclass (who need a place to start their careers and have few other options) or by men and women from families with a military tradition. Outside that small caste of military families, middle-class and upper-class voters -- the people whose opinions count most in our semi-oligarchic system -- can have opinions about war with no consequences, or can ignore the military altogether.

The result is that the military and its issues play mostly a symbolic role in our politics. We "support our troops" with bumper stickers and in football halftime shows, but we don't really think that hard about where we're sending them, how we're equipping them, or what we expect them to accomplish.

One result is that we end up losing wars. Few people say this so bluntly, but Fallows thinks that if you compare our recent military operations to the objectives we had going in, the only ones that count as successes are the 1991 Gulf War and the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

I just started reading Why We Lost by retired Army General Daniel Bolger, who seems to take a similar view. That book begins like this:
I am a United States Army General, and I lost the Global War on Terrorism. It's like Alcoholics Anonymous. Step one is admitting you have a problem. Well, I have a problem. So do my peers.

You can get a taste of Bolger's viewpoint from his NPR interview in November.

Another problem Fallows identifies is that military procurement has taken on a life of its own, one centered on politics and money rather than what the Pentagon needs to carry out the mission we assign it (whatever that should be). Raising or cutting the military budget is a symbolic issue in our politics, and does not lead to a discussion of ends and means. Politically, it is easier to fund expensive Swiss-army-knife weapons that promise to harness cutting-edge technology to do everything for everybody rather than cheaper, more reliable ones designed for specific purposes using components that we know work. Fallows illustrates with the F-35 fighter:
[A] plane designed to do many contradictory things—to be strong enough to survive Navy aircraft-carrier landings, yet light and maneuverable enough to excel as an Air Force dogfighter, and meanwhile able to take off and land straight up and down, like a helicopter, to reach marines in tight combat circumstances—has unsurprisingly done none of them as well as promised.

Fallows believes that if we weren't a chickenhawk nation -- if our politically powerful classes knew that their children would be operating these systems or depending on them for battlefield support -- we would be having a different conversation with a different outcome.

and you also might be interested in ...

I continue to believe that Elizabeth Warren isn't running for president. But if she were, she would have to write a stump speech about what's wrong with America and what she wants to do about it. She gave that speech Wednesday to the AFL-CIO.

As I've pointed out before, gun rights work very differently for whites and non-whites. Vice has a fascinating article on the black version of Open Carry Texas: the Huey P. Newton Gun Club established in Dallas by the New Black Panther Party. (Also mentioned: the Indigenous People's Liberation Party, described as "young, Latino Communists".)

Predictably, Conservative Tribune, which supports gun rights in other situations, finds this group "alarming" and emphasizes that "this is neither a joke nor a 'Chappelle’s Show' sketch." Presumably, that reference to black comedian Dave Chappelle is supposed to emphasize the inherent absurdity of non-whites claiming equal Second Amendment rights.

To the extent that CT recognizes the presence of contradictions, it projects the problem onto its enemies:
while the gun rights of average Americans are under assault from the Obama administration, these guys don’t even get the slightest bit of attention.

Naturally, their article provides no facts to support the idea that the administration is treating white and black gun-owners differently in any way. CT itself is doing that, not Obama.

Ezra Klein asks an excellent question: "What would Republicans say if Mitt Romney were president and the economy was this strong?"

The 2nd Annual New Hampshire Rebellion winter walk against money in politics has started in Dixville Notch.

and let's close with an illustration of your airliner seating options

Monday, January 5, 2015

Different Races, Different Rules

I know that I cannot carry a gun in public and neither can my sons, even if it is a toy. If I lay prone on an open highway and point an assault rifle at a federal agent, my next stop would be federal custody or the nearest county morgue. Open carry laws are not meant for me. The rules are different. It’s what it means to be black in this country.

-- Goldie Taylor "What Would Happen if I Got in a White Cop's Face?"

This week's featured post: "Will Republicans Ever Have a Sister Souljah Moment?"

This week everybody was still talking about the NYPD

The NYPD's "slowdown" or "virtual work stoppage" (or whatever you want to call it) has become one of the weirder stories in some while. The New York Post says:
NYPD traffic tickets and summonses for minor offenses have dropped off by a staggering 94 percent following the execution of two cops — as officers feel betrayed by the mayor and fear for their safety. ... The Post obtained the numbers hours after revealing that cops were turning a blind eye to some minor crimes and making arrests only “when they have to” since the execution-style shootings of Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu.
Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi points out the implication: NYPD has been arresting a lot of people it didn't really have to.
So this police protest, unwittingly, is leading to the exposure of the very policies that anger so many different constituencies about modern law-enforcement tactics.

In New York, as in Ferguson and many other municipalities, police citations are a revenue source, with a sizable amount of that revenue coming from the neighborhoods that get the most policing -- poor neighborhoods. The slow-down brings that hidden regressive tax into focus.

Also, the slowdown tests the controversial "broken windows" theory of policing -- that you arrest people for minor offenses to establish public order, which in the long run prevents major crimes. If the slowdown doesn't lead to a major crime wave, then what were all those minor-offense arrests about? The Atlantic's Matt Ford:
If the NYPD can safely cut arrests by two-thirds, why haven't they done it before?

The human implications of this question are immense. Fewer arrests for minor crimes logically means fewer people behind bars for minor crimes. Poorer would-be defendants benefit the most; three-quarters of those sitting in New York jails are only there because they can't afford bail. Fewer New Yorkers will also be sent to Rikers Island, where endemic brutality against inmates has led to resignations, arrests, and an imminent federal civil-rights intervention over the past six months. A brush with the American criminal-justice system can be toxic for someone's socioeconomic and physical health.

I don't think NYPD intended their slow-down as a challenge to the way American police function, but it's turning out that way.

In general, the police-and-race issue isn't going away, no matter how much CNN would prefer to cover another lost airliner. Protests continued in various cities (including New York) on New Years Eve.

One aspect of this story is getting new attention: all the times when police confront armed and disorderly white people and somehow manage to hold their fire long enough to resolve the situation peacefully. This white woman, for example, drove around Chattanooga the day after Christmas, wearing body armor and firing a gun out the window.
Eventually, officers stopped and arrested Shields at Cloverdale Drive and Koblan Drive, near the spot where the shootings occurred and just blocks from her house. She pointed her firearm at an officer, but was taken into custody without incident or injury.

The same day in Post Falls, Idaho, two white guys in a Walmart took BB guns off the shelf and started shooting in the store. "The two suspects were taken into custody without incident."

Contrast what happened to black males John Crawford (who was killed by police because he was casually carrying a BB gun around a Walmart, threatening no one) and Tamir Rice (a 12-year-old killed by police because they thought he was older and believed his toy gun was real). In each of those cases, video shows police firing fatal shots within seconds of sighting what they thought was a gun.

The all-time champion be-understanding-to-armed-whites police incident happened in Kalamazoo back in May.
Police reports and recordings of a sometimes tense 40-minute encounter with a belligerent, rifle-toting man offers insight into how officers tried to defuse a volatile situation without infringing on his right to openly carry the gun on a city street.

If police had spent 40 minutes -- or 40 seconds -- talking to Crawford or Rice or worrying about their rights, the situations could have been easily defused.

A essay making a related point appeared Tuesday in The Daily Beast. Goldie Taylor, a black woman, looks at the photo below (from a New York protest) and muses on the question: "What Would Happen If I Got In a White Cop's Face?"
The truth is while I don’t know what she was saying, I do know this: Similar actions by a person of color, specifically a black woman like me, would likely end up with us in jail, in a hospital or who knows—like Eric Garner, on a medical examiner’s table.

I know that I cannot carry a gun in public and neither can my sons, even if it is a toy. If I lay prone on an open highway and point an assault rifle at a federal agent, my next stop would be federal custody or the nearest county morgue. Open carry laws are not meant for me. The rules are different. It’s what it means to be black in this country.

Business as usual at Fox: A local Fox station edited video of a protest so that a chant against "killer cops" became "kill a cop". When caught, the station apologized for the "error".

and the relationship between Republicans and racists

New House Majority Whip Steve Scalise has been under fire since a blogger discovered he spoke to a white supremacist group in 2002. In "Will Republicans Ever Have a Sister Souljah Moment?" I center the conversation where I think it belongs: not on whether Scalise or Republicans in general are racists, but whether racists are too big a part of the Republican base for an aspiring politician to offend.

In particular, will Republican candidates ever face the same pressure Democrats do to distance themselves from the more extreme parts of their base? (Digby calls this hippie punching, defined as "how Democrats like to debase the left in order to appeal to so-called Real Americans".) It seems unimaginable that someday a Scalise might go to a white-supremacist conference and intentionally piss them off (by, say, defending the civil rights of non-whites) in order to establish his centrist cred.

Minnesota Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar made an excellent point on Meet the Press Sunday. Republicans are rightfully worried that the Scalise flap reinforces the stereotype that Republicans have a racial problem. But the right response isn't to just denounce racism or David Duke, it's to use their congressional majority to move on civil rights issues that they claim to support (like fixing the Voting Rights Act), or to just do their jobs (like confirming Loretta Lynch as the new attorney general).

But what I'm more interested in, when always this kind of thing happens, people disown it, they say, "This was wrong," but what do we do about it?

What are the actions? I'll give you a few. The Republicans can move along on Loretta Lynch fast. She's a U.S. attorney. The nominee for attorney general. She's been vetted before. Get it done in a month. The Justice Department runs the civil rights enforcement in this country. Get the voting rights bill done.

Don' t just claim you're for civil rights. Prove it.

and recalling the best of 2014

"TPM is pleased to announce the winners of the Eighth Annual Golden Dukes recognizing the year's best purveyors of public corruption, outlandish behavior, The Crazy and betrayals of the public trust. The awards are named in honor of former Rep. Randy 'Duke' Cunningham, who epitomizes the iconic modern scandal."

Salon re-published its 10 Best Personal Essays 2014: a woman waiting to have an abortion, an American who doesn't tell anyone about being Muslim, a college guy experimenting with homosexuality, a woman saving sex for marriage, a man remembering his pederast, an ex-addict who fell in love with a death-row inmate and watched him die, a self-described "fat girl" reflecting on romance, a bomb-squad widow meeting the bomber, a card-playing foursome too poor for pop culture, and a mother who briefly left her son alone in the car.

Media Matters' "Misinformer of the Year" is George Will, who worked hard all year to deserve this honor.

Daily Kos' John Perr learned 14 things in 2014.

Time's 10 most influential photos of the year. I'll go with this one from Ferguson:

IMDB does its best-of-movies lists. Rolling Stone picks its favorite albums.

You can watch the whole year go by in 4 minutes.

Some stuff that didn't happen in 2014: crashing stock market, collapsing economy, unemployment stuck at 8%, gas at $5.45 a gallon. That's what America was supposed to look like by now if we re-elected the horrible President Obama. The same people are still out there predicting things, and being taken seriously.

but I wish more people were talking about ...

The new Republican majority in Congress is about to change the rules of the budgeting game. It's technical and sounds boring, but "dynamic scoring" is actually something ordinary people should care about.

Here's what it means. When a tax cut is proposed, the Congressional Budget Office "scores" it, to determine how much revenue the government would forgo. Naively, you might think that cutting a tax 10% would cut the revenue it generates by 10%, but actually the revenue drop is usually somewhat less, because fewer people avoid the tax. (Think about cutting the toll on a bridge. You'd collect less per car, but the number of cars crossing the bridge might go up.)

Current CBO techniques allow for that effect. But they don't allow for an article of faith within conservative circles: that a big tax cut will increase revenue by stimulating the economy. The CBO doesn't score that way, because there's little evidence that such an effect really exists, and no reliable model at all about how big it might be. The CBO is trying to make accurate predictions, not affirm conservative ideology.

That's what Republicans want to change. If they succeed, future CBO projections will show tax cuts making a much smaller hit on the deficit than will actually turn out to be the case. Worse, the change is one-sided: It would model the stimulative effect of tax cuts, but not of increased government spending. As Edward Kleinbard wrote in the NYT:

The Republicans’ interest in dynamic scoring is not the result of a million-economist march on Washington; it comes from political factions convinced that tax cuts are the panacea for all economic ills. They will use dynamic scoring to justify a tax cut that, under conventional scorekeeping, loses revenue.

When revenues do in fact decline and deficits rise, those same proponents will push for steep cuts in government insurance or investment programs, because they will claim that the models demand it. That is what lies inside the Trojan horse of dynamic scoring.

While we're on economics, Joseph Stiglitz has been talking about inequality in interviews, as well as his book The Price of Inequality (which I haven't read). He makes a distinction similar to one I've sifted before: You can get rich by producing new products that create new jobs, or you can get rich by owning fixed assets whose price goes up. One way grows the economy for everyone, while the other just gets you a bigger slice of the pie.

What's destructive in the recent bonanza for the 1% is that it's largely the unproductive kind of wealth creation, which is why the rising tide isn't lifting all boats. Stiglitz refers to this as "increased exploitation".

Maybe the least productive way to get rich is to increase your power over some part of the market, which will raise the price of your stock at the expense of your customers, workers, and the general public. Stiglitz notes that "when you look at the top [of the wealth distribution], it’s monopoly power."

and you also might be interested in ...

The New Hampshire Rebellion is doing another winter walk against money in politics from January 11 to January 21, when groups coming from three directions are supposed to converge on Concord. I'm giving serious thought to doing the Nashua-to-Merrimack segment on January 18.

Vox reminds us of the minority-rule provision built into the Constitution: Because big states and small states get the same number of senators, it turns out that the 46 Democratic senators got 20 million more votes than the 54 Republican senators.

After trouncing Jameis Winston's Florida State Seminoles 59-20 in the Rose Bowl, thus ending FSU's winning streak and putting the defending champions out of the running for a second consecutive national championship, some Oregon players taunted FSU and Winston in a unique way: They imitated FSU's native-American-inspired chant, but chanted "No means no", a reference to the sexual assault charges that Winston wriggled out of.

Bad sportsmanship? Absolutely; you don't taunt somebody you've just beaten. But this also looks like some kind of tipping point on the public perception of sexual assault.

And while we're talking about women's rights:

First Jeb Bush put a toe into the 2016 water, now Mike Huckabee. Huck was the candidate I was most afraid of in the 2012 cycle, because of his ability to sound reasonable while saying outrageous things. But I wonder if he's missed his window. Now we've got years and years of video of him taking far-out-of-the-mainstream positions. They may not hurt him in GOP primaries, but I don't think they'll play well in a general election.

Andy Borowitz is brilliant: "Jeb Bush resigns as George W. Bush's brother."

Grist points out why anti-abortion folks should love Obamacare: When the larger up-front cost is covered, more women choose less error-prone methods of contraception, and have fewer unwanted pregnancies, hence fewer abortions. That's all showing up in the statistics: The abortion rate is down, but the birth rate is not up. Fewer women are getting pregnant.

I don't expect those facts to convince anyone on the Religious Right, for a simple reason: I believe their opposition to abortion isn't fundamentally about "baby-killing" at all; it's rooted in opposition to female promiscuity. Doctrines about zygotes having souls are constructed post hoc to justify a position already held; what's really wrong with abortion is that it stops pregnancy from controlling promiscuity. So for them a plan that reduces abortions but enables female sexuality is a non-starter.

and let's close with some animal acrobatics

as conjured up by Channel 3 of France.