Saturday, July 31, 2010

The ADL, Ilario Pentano, the Ground Zero mosque, and what it means to be an American

A few years ago, a friend of mine -- an editor, only about 10 years older than I, a man of some Italian lineage -- looked ahead to the 2008 elections and declared, flatly, that Barack Obama would never be president.

"Nobody becomes president whose last name ends in a vowel," he said.

The remark struck me, because I wasn't really used to thinking of my friend in ethnic terms.(He'd was a little over-rhapsodic about "The Sopranos," but then again, what man wasn't?) But my friend was heir to a not-so-distant history, the son of a family that -- thanks to its Mediterranean origins -- had just a few decades previous been considered not-quite-fully American. By 2005 or 2006, whenever I had that discussion with my friend, those days seemed past -- but he still felt it in his bones.

I thought about my friend last night, when I read the New York Times' story about how the Anti-Defamation League has decided to oppose the Cordoba House, better known as the Ground Zero mosque. I was already saddened by the turn of events when I stopped, gobstruck, by the Times' pullback to a national overview of the story.

In North Carolina, Ilario Pantano, a former Marine and a Republican candidate for Congress, has also campaigned on the issue, and says it is stirring voters in his rural district, some 600 miles away from ground zero.

A few days ago, at a roadside pizza shop in the small town of Salemburg, he attacked the proposal before an enthusiastic crowd of hog farmers and military veterans.

“Uniformly, there was disgust and disdain in the room for the idea,” Mr. Pantano said.

Ilario Pantano? That's a name with lots and lots of vowels! He's the son of an Italian immigrant, and he grew up in Hell's Kitchen, New York! Now yes, he's a Marine -- one with a controversial history -- but does anybody think that Ilario Pentano would've stood a chance in hell of being elected to Congress in, say, 1960? From North Carolina?

I don't mean to pick on my Tarheel friends. The North Carolina of 2010 is different from the North Carolina of 1960. That's at least partly because the America of 2010 is different from the America of 1960. (Or the America, say, of 1941.) Italian Americans -- except, maybe, for the ones on "Jersey Shore" -- aren't really seen as "others" anymore. The emphasis, for people who aren't Italian-American, is a little less "Italian" and a little more "American." Both sides have benefited from the exchange, I think. But it's not been that long since Ilario Pantano would've been seen as not-quite-American. He, at least, has reaped the rewards of an America that has broadened its mind about who gets to be in the club of "real Americans."

And he's using those rewards ... to try to keep other people out of the club.

The Anti-Defamation League fares much, much worse in this comparison, of course, because its whole reason for existing was to fight for the right of Jewish-Americans to live fully as Americans. And now it, too, has seen fit to try to keep other people out of the club.

Here, astonishingly, is the "about" section at the ADL's website:

The Anti-Defamation League was founded in 1913 "to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all." Now the nation's premier civil rights/human relations agency, ADL fights anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry, defends democratic ideals and protects civil rights for all.

A leader in the development of materials, programs and services, ADL builds bridges of communication, understanding and respect among diverse groups, carrying out its mission through a network of 30 Regional and Satellite Offices in the United States and abroad.

The parts in bold? Those words can no longer be considered true in any meaningful sense. They are, in fact, a lie. It hurts me to say so.

The people who oppose Cordoba House -- the people who, somewhat gleefully, would have America march off in a "clash of the civilizations" against the Muslim religion -- would have us believe that Islam, and Muslims, are a monolith. That the most extreme interpretations of that faith are, in fact, the only legitimate interpretations. That Osama bin Laden is no different from Feisal Abdul Rauf is no different from my halal butcher down the street.

But that's untrue. It's pernicious nonsense. And given five minutes of honest, empathetic thinking, most Americans would have to concede the actual truth: That it's complicated. That there are a few real violent nutjobs, like Osama and Al Qaeda, and a few more not-violent-but-still-kinda-asshole-types who want their religion to rule the rest of us -- and a whole lot more people who have faith, who wrestle with its demands, and just try to live each day as best their conscience allows.

Which is no different, really from the rest of America. Or the rest of humanity.

Listen: a terrible wound was inflicted upon America on 9/11. I know: I saw the wreckage of the towers myself and smelled the smoke. I visited the field in rural Pennsylvania where Flight 93 crashed. These experiences marked me and changed my life.

But we betray our values, deeply and perhaps irreparably, if we hold all Muslims culpable for the acts of a few. This moment is a crucible. I really believe that, 20 years from now, a few people will be pround of having been on the right side of this issue -- and the few people who still stand up then for today's discrimination will be viewed much like Ann Coulter defending McCarthyism today: as embarrassments.

The history of America encompasses many stories, many narratives, but one of them is this: the ever-expanding notion of what it means to be American. Ilario Pentano is, I believe, aware of this story. The folks at the ADL certainly are. We are always proud when those definitions expand -- and always ashamed, even if it takes a few years, when they contract. This can be a moment when we choose to be proud before posterity. I sincerely hope it is.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Cordoba House mosque, Ground Zero, and all you religious people trying to run my life

That's the topic of my Scripps Howard column with Ben Boychuk this week. Since you already got most of my take in blog form last week, let me do something different and focus on Ben's take.

An excerpt:

Now let's contrast Washington with Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam behind the Cordoba House project who wrote a fascinating book in 2004 called "What's Right with Islam Is What's Right with America." In it, Rauf casually argues that the U.S. Constitution and the core principles of Islamic law (sharia) are not in conflict at all and, indeed, the "American political structure is sharia-compliant."

"Islamic law and American democratic principles have many things in common," Rauf wrote, stressing that sharia's support for "political justice" and "economic justice ... for the weak and impoverished" "sounds suspiciously like the Declaration of Independence."

To the casual reader, maybe. Fact is, sharia doesn't recognize the separation of church and state, has a medieval understanding of equal rights and sanctions treating Christians and Jews as second-class citizens who must pay a tax to receive Muslim protection. In other words, to "demean themselves as good citizens" in a "sharia-compliant" America is something very different from what George Washington would have understood.

I'll sum up, at the risk of oversimplifying: Muslims -- at least the Muslims involved in Cordoba House -- think that society should be run according to Islamic precepts. And my response is: Of course they do!

To my liberal, agnostic eyes, though, that doesn't appear all that different from, well, any other religious group -- or, admittedly, that different from secularists who'd like to get through the political day without having to argue against somebody else's faith. There are very few people who think that society shouldn't be run according to their particular view of the universe.

Let's take the Southern Baptists. Here are some excerpts from a resolution "on political engagement" members of the convention approved in 2008:

WHEREAS, Christians acting as the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matthew 5:13-16) have a responsibility to engage their culture, including participating in the political process; and

WHEREAS, Candidates for political office seek the endorsement of Christians for their candidacies; and

WHEREAS, Christians exercising their rights as responsible citizens may choose to endorse candidates for political office as part of the exercise of their engagement of culture; and

WHEREAS, Christians should seek to apply their spiritual and moral values to the political process rather than politicize the church;


now, therefore, be it

RESOLVED, That we urge Christians to engage the culture through discipleship within the churches and through participation in the democratic public policy and political process in order to help fulfill the kingdom mandate taught in the Bible and expressed in the Baptist Faith and Message “to bring industry, government, and society as a whole under the sway of the principles of righteousness, truth, and brotherly love,” while always protecting freedom of conscience; and be it further

RESOLVED, That we encourage our churches regularly to teach and preach biblical truth on moral issues and to urge their members to vote according to their beliefs, convictions, and values; and be it further

RESOLVED, That we call on candidates for political office to endorse the Judeo-Christian beliefs, convictions, and values upon which society should rest.

Now, see, I find that last part alarming -- the Constitution pretty clearly states there should be "no religious test" for public office, but the Southern Baptist Convention believes candidates should have to pass the test anyway. They may not be at odds with the letter of the law, but it's certainly against the spirit. And the Southern Baptist Convention does this all the time, letting officials know they don't want gay people to serve in the military or have marriage rights or even have the right to hold a job! Baptists aren't just stating personal preferences: They're stating that American society should be run along Southern Baptist lines.

But let's not pick on merely the examples I find objectionable. Let's take a look at a rather more liberal church, one whose beliefs are somewhat closer to my own: The Episcopal Church of America. Here's a list of legislation passed by church leaders at their 2009 convention -- there's a condemnation of "first strike" military action, a condemnation of the invasion of Iraq and America's "sin committed in Iraq," and even a call to end the U.S. embargo in Cuba. Episcopalians, in other words, want the United States to run its foreign policy along lines acceptable to a branch of the Church of England!

How crazy is that?

Well, it's both kinda crazy and not-so-crazy. It is -- again from my agnostic eyes -- a little weird that we let our speculations about the possibility of a divine entity who may or may not exist guide how we organize our society. But in my warmer, wiser moments, I realize that politics are an expression of values -- and that an invidual's values are shaped by their religion, or shape the religion itself.

On the other hand: America's about as secular as it ever has been in its history. And it's still pretty religious. Somehow, we've survived pretty well without becoming a theocracy and without banning Bibles from public streets. So maybe it's ok if I recognize that the tensions exist, but that they haven't overwhelmed our system. Southern Baptists surely have an influence on our governance, but they don't out-and-out run things. What's more, Southern Baptists have attempted to influence and shape American governance in a decidedly conservative way -- and yet there's never been any serious effort, that I know of, to deny them their First Amendment rights of worship. Why would we treat Muslims differently?

Most of us in this country are Christians and Americans and find ways to meld those two identities without threatening the good order of society -- and in lots of cases, society even benefits. And so it is, I believe, with the vast majority of American Muslims.

What's interesting to me, finally, is that my friend Ben and many other conservatives are so opposed to the possible rise of sharia law to dominate and shape America -- nevermind that Islam's numbers are too few to ever really permit that to happen, nevermind there's already a few mosques in New York -- that they seemingly don't have any real confidence in Amerca's ability to shape Islam right back. You know who actually has that confidence? The people behind the Cordoba House proposal in New York.

With the flexibility permitted by America’s religious freedom and openness, American Muslims can catalyze innovations in the global process of ijtihad (Islamic legal interpretation)just as American Jews and Christians birthed new developments in their faiths. They represent the diversity championed by both their own religious history and the heritage of the country in which they reside, positioning them uniquely to reach out to other Muslims and Americans and thus help close the gap in understanding.

Well, yeah. But if we throw up our hands in fear when somebody wants to build a mosque -- or if, worse, we act contrary to our own laws and values and decide not to let the mosque be built -- well, then, we may well blow that opportunity.

Ben closed his portion of the column with these words: "Let us give bigotry no sanction -- and be ever watchful of those who would exploit American openness and freedom to do just that." I couldn't agree more. And I'd add a second statement: "Let us give bigotry no sanction -- and be ever watchful of those who would end American openness and freedom to do just that." And that's the problem posed by those who would refuse the construction of a mosque near Ground Zero. Right now, it's a greater threat than any posed by a hypothetical imposition of sharia law on American citizens.

I still don't believe the Tea Party: Eavesdropping edition

I've long believed the Tea Party phenomenon is mostly about sore loserdom -- the people who've been taking to the streets and raising hell at Congressional town meetings these last 18 months say they're alarmed at deficits and runaway government spending. But they were nowhere to be found while those same things were getting started under George W. Bush.

The complaints of Tea Parties have, generally, fallen under the rubric of "tyranny." The Obama Administration is infringing on our freedoms, it is said, to a degree unimaginable outside of historically extreme circumstances. But really, I don't believe the Tea Partiers on this front, either. Why? Well, let's look at today's Washington Post:

The Obama administration is seeking to make it easier for the FBI to compel companies to turn over records of an individual's Internet activity without a court order if agents deem the information relevant to a terrorism or intelligence investigation.

Critics say its effect would be to greatly expand the amount and type of personal data the government can obtain without a court order. "You're bringing a big category of data -- records reflecting who someone is communicating with in the digital world, Web browsing history and potentially location information -- outside of judicial review," said Michael Sussmann, a Justice Department lawyer under President Bill Clinton who now represents Internet and other firms.

I get -- even if I don't agree -- why Hayek-loving Tea Party folks think, say, slightly higher tax rates are a harbinger of a coming Orwellian world. What I don't get is their silence on the ability of government to reach into your private communications with fewer and fewer restrictions. (Read this for even more scariness.)

It could be that we'll suddenly see a spate of Tea Party criticism on this front -- but again, it'll be coming from people who were silent on this same subject during the Bush years. If they speak up now, they're hypocrites. And if they don't speak up now, well, they're hypocrites. Or maybe just extremely misguided: tyranny is not limited to merely economic matters, but our Tea Party friends don't seem to know that.

The shame of it is, if Tea Partiers accused the Obama Administration of enabling tyranny in this matter, I'd agree with them. As Kevin Drum posted: You know, if I'd wanted Dick Cheney as president I would have just voted for him."

In any case, it all boils down to this: I still don't believe the Tea Party.

UPDATE: Glenn Greenwald points out an ACLU report showing the Obama Administration is preserving the Bush Administration's worst civil liberties abuses. (Sigh.) Is Ralph Nader running in 2012?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Tom Corbett still really thinks that unemployed people are lazy

Looks like Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Corbett has decided to double-down on the "unemployed people are lazy" theme in fairly cowardly fashion:

Speaking to reporters after a campaign stop in Delaware County, the Republican nominee for governor noted that newspapers across the state are carrying line after line of help-wanted ads.

"Are there jobs out there? . . . How would you interpret that?" he asked.

Corbett reported seeing one newspaper page that he said promised thousands of jobs listings in print and online.

"You guys asked me if there are jobs out there," he said to a pair of reporters. "If I am a common citizen, the average citizen, and I look at a newspaper . . . and I see jobs - what's the answer to that question."

Asked if he was implying that the unemployed were not taking advantage of these listings, he said no-adamantly no-he wasn't saying that.

But he clearly is saying that. And he's being a punk by not owning up to the clear implications of his statement.

Now: Corbett has spent his career bouncing in and out of employment by the state of Pennsylvania; he's an attorney by profession, so I'm going to hazard a guess that he's rarely, if ever, had to seek a job by going through the classifieds of his local paper. It's not like turning on a water faucet -- hey, there's water! It's a more difficult and tedious process than that: You look for jobs that seem to match your skills and experience -- and, if you're lucky, your interests -- and then you further weigh if the jobs in question can provide enough income to sustain you and your family.

By the time you've gone through that process, there are -- for many people -- rather fewer than "thousands" of jobs available.

Corbett, like many other people, ignore the math: Nationwide right now, there are five job seekers for every job opening. Even if there are thousands of classified ads, there are tens of thousands of people who need jobs. Corbett's a smart guy with lots of information resources at his disposal; he could know this if he wanted to. Maybe he does. But he's choosing to judge the state of the Pennsylvania economy based on anecdotal evidence.

There is a long tradition, of course, of Republicans stirring popular anger among the "haves" against the "have nots." Does the phrase "welfare queens" ring any bells? Right now, there are more have-nots than there've been for a long time -- and their ranks include a lot more of the "haves" than there used to be. The GOP is doubling down on its rhetoric, though. And it makes you wonder: Who will they turn to for votes when there are more have-nots than haves?

This is why I won't read the Philadelphia Inquirer in print

At right is today's front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer. It's a demonstration of why -- much as I'd like to support local journalism -- I can't bring myself to subscribe to this paper in print.

The big main story? The one that occupies the two-thirds of the space above the "fold" and is thus the main selling point to buy the paper off the rack?

It's a two-day-old story.

And it was written by the Los Angeles Times.

The first issue is one that print newspapers will always deal with. They simply can't hit the news with the same speed as the web. (The story broke late enough Sunday that the Inky, apparently, couldn't or didn't get it on Monday's front page.) And the Inky's editors, in all fairness, went with a story that analyzes the fallout from the WikiLeaks document dump instead of reporting it as "new" news.

The second issue, though, goes to the heart of the Inky's problems. It used to be one of the newspapers of national record, with bureaus and reporters around the world. It's not that paper anymore. But it still plays at being that paper, which is why readers -- and potential readers -- are treated to front-page stories from the Los Angeles Times. Which, given 21st century technology, they easily could've read ... in the Los Angeles Times.

How would I have designed today's front page differently? Tough to say. But the Inky needs a different organizing principle. It's a Philly-Philly suburbs-South Jersey paper, and that's what it ought to look like -- not like a warmed-over New York Times. Switch up the sections -- the front page and everything in the front section should be local stuff (except in extreme 9/11-style "great moments of history" situations) and all that wire copy describing stuff going on in places that aren't Philadelphia should be relegated to the second section.

There are good journalists working at the Inquirer. I don't mean to diss them. But the changes I'm describing probably should've happened five years ago. At least. New ownership is in place. It's time to make the Inky more relevant to the communities it covers, and the front page is the best place to start.

Dennis Prager: Liberals hate conservatives

National Review's Dennis Prager departs from dispensing invaluable marriage advice to offer similarly valuable insight into human nature. Liberals, he says, hate conservatives.

Granting the exceptions that all generalizations allow for, conservatives believe that those on the left are wrong, while those on the left believe that those on the right are bad.

I'll grant that there are lots and lots of liberals who feel this way. But Prager's blithe dismissal of similar phenomena on the right suggests he's not dealing with the issue honestly. Because there's lots of conservatives who think that liberals are evil. For example: I was attending a conservative evangelical Mennonite college in 1992 when Bill Clinton was elected president. I was one of the few students to openly support Clinton for president that year; many of my fellow students and faculty warned of literally Biblical, literally Apocalyptic consequences if he attained office. (The night of the election, a student in my dormitory openly wished for Clinton's assassination; I chalk that up more to immaturity than any actual desire.) This was not -- and is not, I think -- a narrowly held view. The whole existence of the "religious right" -- which a not-insignificant part of the conservative coalition -- is predicated on a Manichean view of the world: There's not really a distinction to be made in these circles (Prager's opinions aside) between "wrong" and "evil."

Prager might respond by saying that he's speaking only of "elite liberal journalists," and that "elite conservative journalists" don't demonstrate this behavior. But, uh, Andy McCarthy is making a career right now out of his belief that liberals and terrorist Muslims "are working together to sabotage America." Dinesh D'Souza took a different route, writing a whole (widely panned) book about how the 9/11 attacks were a response to American decadence unleashed by the left. The whole Tea Party movement is predicated on the idea that Barack Obama is a budding tyrant -- a belief promoted by, um, the conservative media. These are not the words and ideas of people who think the left is merely wrong; they're born out of a clear belief that liberals, if not inherently evil, at least act in evil ways.

More Prager:

Second, when you don’t confront real evil, you hate those who do. You can see this on almost any school playground. The kid who confronts the school bully is often resented more than the bully. Whether out of guilt over their own cowardice or out of fear that the one who confronted the bully will provoke the bully to lash out more, those who refuse to confront the bully often resent the one who does.

This analogy makes. no. sense. People LOVE the guys who stand up to the bullies -- in almost every case, almost without exception. That's why liberals and conservatives alike are fans of "Star Wars" "Karate Kid" "My Bodyguard" and virtually every great movie that features a confrontation between powerful evil and underdog good guys. It's the ultimate bully versus the standup guy scenario.

Where liberals might differ from conservatives is discerning who is a bully and how to deal with them. Liberals haven't always been right on this score, but neither have conservatives. And I'll go ahead and say this: Almost all of populist politics -- whether practiced by the left or the right -- can be boiled down to a powerful cultural desire to stand up to bullies.

In any case, Prager's argument is silly. It suggests that he doesn't actually know that many people on the left -- and, weirdly, maybe not that many people on the right.

Andy McCarthy in a nutshell

Abigail Thernstrom of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, replying to Andy McCarthy in National Review today:
McCarthy’s screed falls far short of reasonable disagreement, offering superheated and sarcastic rhetoric where evidence and logical analysis are needed.
Sounds about right.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Trig Truther Theory: Why I'm Giving Up on Andrew Sullivan

Here's what we've always known about Andrew Sullivan, blogger: He's smart, but he's also passionate, contrarian, paranoid and reckless. On his best days, that's made him an entertaining -- if sometimes annoying -- read. (And important: His work on the Bush Administration's torture policies was crucial.) On his worst days as a blogger (we'll put aside his career as an editor) it's led him down the path of outright calumny.

But I've kept reading. Why? In part because he's just about the biggest thing going in the political blogosphere. His traffic, it's well known, forms the cornerstone that keeps other very smart blogs alive at The Atlantic's website. He's a one-man industry. In recent years, he's added staff that allowed him to function as a kind of meta-blogger -- he didn't necessarily comment on every story or debate out there, but at the very least he would point you to the most important debates happening elsewhere on the web.

I think, though, that it is finally time for me to stop reading Andrew Sullivan. His pursuit of the "truth" about Trig Palin's parentage has gone from weird to boring to, now, simply embarrassing.

It was Sullivan's self-righteous reply to guest-blogger Dave Weigel, I think, that finally broke me of the Sullivan habit. Here's the critical bit.

We journalists are and should remain the lowest of the low life forms in a political democracy. We should not be hobnobbing with the powerful, let alone bragging about it, and begging for scooplets to get Politico-style pageview moolah. We should not be garnering our reputations and angling to get on cable or playing water-slides with the people we cover.

We should be asking the most uncomfortable questions of the many frauds and phonies and charlatans who are in public office - and enjoy being despised by the legions of true-believers who actually credit the endless bullshit shoveled out into the public by frauds like Palin.

Broadly speaking, there's nothing to quibble with here. More narrowly, though, Sullivan is adopting the pose of disingenuous conspiracy mongers everywhere -- from 9/11 truthers on back through the decades -- and it goes something like this: "I'm not saying (preposterous statement here). I'm just asking questions!"

There is, however, asking questions and asking questions. I get that Sullivan believes his questions about whether Trig Palin is really Sarah Palin's son could, supposedly, be easily answered if she'd just release her medical records. I get that she's not done that. And I get that Sullivan believes there are enough inconsistencies about Palin's birth story -- how her water broke in Texas, and how she flew back to Alaska to give birth -- that warrant questioning.

At this point, though, it is fairly obvious that final answers won't be forthcoming. That doesn't necessarily mean that Sullivan should stop asking -- but in the manner of conspiracy theorists everywhere, his constant repetition of questions without obtaining new or satisfactory has crossed the line from mere question-asking into outright advocacy of a theory. The questions become, themselves, the evidence. Sullivan obviously doesn't believe this -- he's doing journalism, after all! -- but that doesn't change the reality of it.

This wouldn't be so troublesome, I suppose, except that Sullivan's characteristic self-righteousness causes him to castigate other journalists who believe their energies are better spent elsewhere. Journalists don't want to look like fools for pursuing a line of questioning that they (rightly) suspect they'll never prove, and he treats them with contempt. It's all a little embarrassing and painful to read Sullivan assault them. It feels, in fact, like following a distant relative's descent into madness -- in real time.

And to what end? If Sullivan is right and Sarah Palin faked her pregnancy to raise her grandchild as her own -- well, so what? Though some of the story might've played out in public, it's essentially a private affair. The things that Sarah Palin believes and wants to do this country are bad enough. Focus on them, instead of unprovable theories that raise more doubt in the public mind about the questioner than the object of the questions.

Andrew Sullivan has every right to keep pursuing this story. But I can't imagine it's worth my time as a reader to follow his futile pursuit. I'm removing his feed from my RSS feeder. I can find crazy elsewhere.

Yes to birthright citizenship

That's the topic of my Scripps Howard column with Ben Boychuk. My take:

What does the 14th Amendment really mean with regard to "birthright citizenship?" Tough to say. Even the men who wrote and passed the amendment in 1868 weren't in full agreement on that point.

The amendment says that "all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof" are citizens." But the legislative debate over that language was fierce - some senators argued it surely didn't mean that children of American Indians or gypsies or Chinese would be granted the same citizenship as white people.

Other senators - notably John Conness of California - believed otherwise.

"The children of all parentage whatever, born in California, should be regarded and treated as citizens of the United States, entitled to equal civil rights with other citizens," Conness said.

The debate continues today. But birthright citizenship - a long American tradition - should continue.

Why? For one thing, it's a matter of simple humanity. Denying citizenship to a child born here would inevitably mean that millions of young people - after having lived here their entire lives, and thus American to the bone - would someday be deported to "home" countries and cultures alien to them. They would be paying a penalty for their parents' crimes. That's just cruel.

What's more, ending birthright citizenship could prove burdensome to all Americans. Other than your birth certificate-assuming you were born here-what proof do you possess that you're an American citizen? Until now, that is all that's been needed. The potential for bureaucratic mischief is enormous.

The people who want to end birthright citizenship would be in the business of telling many Americans they aren't really Americans after all. That would be ugly, divisive and unnecessary. There are better ways to address the issue of illegal immigration.

What I didn't say (for space reasons) is that for more than a century, Americans have lived under the common understanding that -- generally speaking -- to be born here is to be a citizen here. Anti-immigration crusaders who want to challenge that understanding of the 14th Amendment, it seems, are trying to remake American custom without remaking the American law it springs from. (There's no movement afoot, really, to amend the amendment -- only to reinterpret it.) Given continuing complaints from conservatives about "judicial activism," this seems a wee hypocritical.

In any case, the column brought me this e-mail from a Florida reader:

Since the squabble over Passports for the Iroquois LACROSSE TEAM. Would they be a separate nation, the Iroquois Nation and NOT US citizens (by birth) since they consider themselves NOT under the jurisdiction of the United States?

It would seem that since they feel they are not under the jurisdiction of the US according to treaty, they must APPLY for US citizenship.

Without going into details of the Iroquois passport dispute, I'll just note that the 14th Amendment was actually constructed to exclude American Indians from automatic citizenship -- if you delve into the debate that took place at the time, it's apparent that the arguments then against birthright citizenship in the 14th Amendment were explicitly racist -- but that the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 means that American Indians do have that citizenship. If they want it.

In any case, I can imagine that the Iroquois and other native tribes might also be against a policy that lets the children and further descendants of European immigrants claim citizenship here. I can't say I'd blame them.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

WikiLeaks and Afghanistan: Why were civilian casualties kept secret?

Quite coincidentally, I posted earlier today on why it's important to keep civilian casualties low in the Afghanistan conflict -- even if the result is that American troops sometimes find themselves more endangered than their weaponry suggests they need to be.

Now The Guardian goes into some detail about how the deaths of civilians in Afghanistan has been more widespread than reported:

The logs detail, in sometimes harrowing vignettes, the toll on civilians exacted by coalition forces: events termed "blue on white" in military jargon. The logs reveal 144 such incidents.

Some of these casualties come from the controversial air strikes that have led to Afghan government protests, but a large number of previously unknown incidents also appear to be the result of troops shooting unarmed drivers or motorcyclists out of a determination to protect themselves from suicide bombers.

At least 195 civilians are admitted to have been killed and 174 wounded in total, but this is likely to be an underestimate as many disputed incidents are omitted from the daily snapshots reported by troops on the ground and then collated, sometimes erratically, by military intelligence analysts.

Bloody errors at civilians' expense, as recorded in the logs, include the day French troops strafed a bus full of children in 2008, wounding eight. A US patrol similarly machine-gunned a bus, wounding or killing 15 of its passengers, and in 2007 Polish troops mortared a village, killing a wedding party including a pregnant woman, in an apparent revenge attack.

Horrifying stuff. But the question it raises for me is: Why were these civilian deaths kept secret? And who were they kept secret from?

Well, they're obviously documented in military memoranda, so -- broadly speaking -- it doesn't sound like these were snafus committed by lower-ranking personnel and concealed from superiors. And one assumes -- again, generally speaking -- that Afghans understood their wives and sons and cousins had died as the result of coalition military action.

Who does that leave in the dark? You and me.

There's 90,000 documents in this dump. That means it is inevitable that there's stuff in there that many, maybe most of us, will wish had not seen the light of day because of its potential for use against U.S. and coalition troops. But I suspect -- as is often the case -- we'll find that lots of stuff that was classified from public view was done so more out of convenience (at best) or out of a desire to keep the public in the dark about the details of the war (at worst). The government's tendency is to make information secret far beyond the bounds of necessity. The citizenry, I suspect, will be better served because it is allowed to know the stuff that was formerly secret.

WikiLeaks and the Afghanistan War: First Thoughts

I obviously haven't had time to go through the 90,000 Afghan war documents that WikiLeaks dumped on the public today, so I'll have to rely for now on the New York Times' overview:

As the new American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David H. Petraeus, tries to reverse the lagging war effort, the documents sketch a war hamstrung by an Afghan government, police force and army of questionable loyalty and competence, and by a Pakistani military that appears at best uncooperative and at worst to work from the shadows as an unspoken ally of the very insurgent forces the American-led coalition is trying to defeat.

Let's take that piece-by-piece. The war, the Times says, is hamstrung by...

* The Afghan government. We knew that.

* The Afghan police force. We knew that.

* The Afghan army "of questionable loyalty and competence." We knew that.

* And a Pakistani military that might be an "unspoken ally" of the anti-American insurgent forces. We knew that.

Again, these are initial impressions, but at first glance the "revelations" seem mostly marginal. The mass of documents -- along with the showy way they came to light -- might refocus the public's attention into asking a good question: Why the hell are we still there? The Obama Administration's blustery response -- along with other notable problems in the war effort -- aren't doing much to engender confidence in staying the course.

Civilian deaths, rules of engagement and the war in Afghanistan

It's become something of a meme among portions of the right (and in the military) in recent months that American troops in Afghanistan aren't really allowed to defend themselves, and that those troops are thus more exposed to danger than they should have to. It's an argument that ignores, completely, one of the central points of counterinsurgency doctrine: The people of a country are the "battlefield" that is to be won -- and if you kill innocent civilians, you're probably losing that battlefield.

Via BBC, proof of the concept:

The authors of the report by the Massachusetts-based National Bureau of Economic Research say they analysed 15 months of data on military clashes and incidents totalling more than 4,000 civilian deaths in a number of Afghan regions in the period ending on 1 April.

They say that in areas where two civilians were killed or injured by Nato's International Security Assistance Force (Isaf), there were on average an extra six violent incidents between insurgents and US-led troops in the following six weeks.

The report concludes that civilian deaths frequently motivate villagers to join the ranks of insurgents.

"In Afghanistan, when Isaf units kill civilians, this increases the number of willing combatants, leading to an increase in insurgent attacks."

Now you could argue that counterinsurgency doctrine is predicated on American adventurism abroad, that it involves us remaking nations that we shouldn't be spending blood and treasure trying to remake. I might not give you much of an argument back.

But: If you're going to fight a "long war" like Iraq or Afghanistan, counterinsurgency warfware probably gives you your best chance to succeed in some fashion. But that requires doing just about everything to minimize civilian casualties. Short-term, that definitely means your troops will expose themselves to more danger in order to save the civilians. Long-term, though, your chances of winning succeed -- and your odds of survival also increase. It's counterintuitive, sure, but it's not rocket science.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Andy McCarthy: War is peace, up is down, Islam is no religion

Andy McCarthy has a beaut at The Corner today:

The Ground Zero mosque project is not about religious tolerance. We permit thousands of mosques in our country, and Islam is not a religion. Islam is an ideology that has some spiritual elements, but strives for authoritarian control of every aspect of human life — social, political, and economic.

Get that? Islam is not a religion. That's probably a surprise to the people who pray five times a day.

But you know what? Even if you grant McCarthy his outlook -- even if you believe that Islam is an ideology -- guess what? Still protected by the First Amendment.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Marc Thiessen lies about defense spending "cuts"

This is a theme that gets repeated a lot, but I'll pick on Marc Thiessen for repeating it. Here he is at The Corner today:

The New York Times has a front-page story today on the growing momentum on Capitol Hill to cut defense spending. It is not surprising that in an age when the Democrats are showering money on almost every domestic initiative known to man, the one area they would seek spending cuts is the defense budget.

But Thiessen is lying. Let's look at the New York Times story for an explaination:

Mr. Gates is calling for the Pentagon’s budget to keep growing in the long run at 1 percent a year after inflation, plus the costs of the war. It has averaged an inflation-adjusted growth rate of 7 percent a year over the last decade (nearly 12 percent a year without adjusting for inflation), including the costs of the wars. So far, Mr. Obama has asked Congress for an increase in total spending next year of 2.2 percent, to $708 billion — 6.1 percent higher than the peak under the Bush administration.

Get that: The Pentagon budget isn't going down. It's just not going to go up much, much faster than the rate of inflation. Instead, if the president and Robert Gates have their way, the budget will grow only slightly faster than the rate of inflation. That's still growth. And given that the United States is still spending as much as the rest of the world, combined, on its military -- well, that hardly represents a shirking of the "common defense" that Thiessen makes it out to be.

Thursday, July 22, 2010


Four years ago today, we got married. In some ways it was a mere formality -- an excuse for getting dishes and coffee makers -- because we'd already been each other's family since, well, less than a month after we'd met. But this is a good date for remembering, and for letting the rest of you know what she means to me.

Coincidentally -- at least, I think coincidentally -- the last four years have been the most tulmutuous of my life. Jobs have changed, cities have changed, we became parents and, well, almost none of it has been easy.

But she has made it easier. She's been unwavering in her support, determined and optimistic when my confidence failed, a cheerleader -- but also completely willing to challenge me when I say something stupid. She likes watching silly Asian action flicks with me, and we enjoy going to art exhibits and the orchestra together. She's my friend, but she really is -- in ways I never dreamed -- a real partner.

She's also an amazing mother. It delights me to watch my wife and my son play with each other, and if I'm occasionally jealous that she gets far more of his affectionate moments than I do, well, I know she deserves them: She's worked much harder than I have at parenting.

I'll never forget the morning I woke up after Tobias was born. He'd arrived after midnight, and after processing and various other requirements, we didn't get to fall asleep in the hospital room until some hours later. I woke to hear Jo talking to our son -- and her voice was so cheerful, so loving, that I almost cried. I already knew I loved my wife; to hear her loving our child revealed to me that there was an extra chamber in my heart that I'd previously never known about.

I've also been privileged to become part of her family. They have been remarkably supportive and optimistic on my behalf, too, when times were rough. I've been humbled by the love they've extended to me. And I confess I don't always understand it.

Nor, frankly, do I understand why she loves me. But it seems she does, and shows it to me all the time. I often wonder what she gets out of our relationship. But I try not to ask the question as often as I think it. I'll have to live with the mystery. All I know is this: She does love me. It humbles me, and it emboldens me, and it makes my life better.

I love you too, Jo.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Netflix Queue: 'Die Hard: With A Vengeance' is almost a better movie than you think

If "Die Hard: With A Vengeance" had been a standalone movie, instead of the third installment in a franchise...

...and if it had been made in 1975 instead of 1995...

...and if its second-half hadn't been overstuffed with the cliched tropes of 1990s overstuffed action movies...

...then the movie might be fondly remembered as a great heist movie instead of a middling entry in the Bruce Willis/Samuel Jackson oeuvre, one that's not all-that-remembered and even less-watched today.

But it's shocking how close the movie comes to a kind of "Taking of Pelham One Two Three" (the original) Hollywood greatness. (Here's a synopsis if you need a refresher.) In some respects, it's the best of the "Die Hard" bunch.


* For one thing, the movie stands alone in its real-world texturing. Whereas the first installment took place in a generic LA office building and the second in a generic airport, much of DHWAV is identifiably set on the streets -- and parks, in a somewhat famous race-against-the-clock scene -- in New York City. I'm a sucker for on-location shooting with a minimum of green-screen or CGI; I like my gritty cop movies to be, well, gritty. When the fourth installment came around a few years ago, it had ballooned into CGI ludicrousness -- Bruce Willis on the back of a Harrier jump jet? Really?* -- but this installment was firmly planted in a recognizable reality.

(*No, not really. That's a similar scene in "True Lies." In the last "Die Hard" film, though, Willis does take out a jump jet that's after him. And it's still ludicrous.)

* Before he meets John McClane, Samuel L. Jackson's character -- Zeus -- is established about as deftly as Hollywood can in the span of 90 seconds to two minutes. Two young boys bring a stolen stereo into Zeus' pawn shop and we quickly learn that A) he's no dummy, B) he keeps a watchful eye out in the community, C) he's a strong advocate of education as empowerment and D) he's got a little black power thing going on. Here, in exactly 20 lines, is the exchange that tells us everything we need to know about Zeus:

Zeus: Now, where you goin'?
Dexter: School.
Zeus: Why?
Raymond: To get educated.
Zeus: *Why*?
Dexter: So we can go to college.
Zeus: And why is that important?
Dexter: To get es-pect.
Zeus: RE-spect. Now, who's the bad guys?
Dexter: Guys who sell drugs.
Raymond: Guys who have guns.
Zeus: And who's the good guys?
Dexter: We're the good guys.
Zeus: Who's gonna help you?
Raymond: Nobody.
Zeus: *So who's gonna help you*?
Dexter: We're gonna help ourselves.
Zeus: And who do we not want to help us?
Dexter, Raymond: White people.
Zeus: That's right. Now get on outta here. Go to school.

Is that an archetype? Sure. But it's an expertly drawn archetype.

* If the movie had been made in 1975, too, the racial interaction between McClane and Zeus would maybe go down a little better. Both because, oddly, that era would've treated the subject with a little more frankness -- and it's "we all get along when we work together" ending wouldn't have seemed quite as suspect as it did 20 years later. As it is, there are too many scenes like this:

John McClane: I'll put my foot up your ass, you dumb, mother...
Zeus: Say it! Say it!
John McClane: What?
Zeus: You were gonna call me a nigger, weren't you?
John McClane: No I wasn't!
Zeus: Yes you were! What were you gonna call me?
John McClane: Asshole! How's that, asshole!

It's weird, too, that the movie makes racism seem to be, well, almost entirely Samuel L. Jackson's problem. The white people are all cool! It's the black people who just don't want to get along with their constant prickliness! Maybe the screenwriters felt they needed to get the mismatched-buddy-cop-movie tension going on -- say like "Lethal Weapon." This wasn't an effective way to do it.

* And like I said earlier, the movie -- full of riddles and puns and a heist for McClane and Zeus to solve -- is great fun until it's time to wrap things up. Things get generic: We see run-of-the-mill action, and our first shots of obvious green screen and CGI. A potentially great movie goes off track. And the ending ends up being an noisy bit of violence with some dumb macho wordplay. Unmemorable.

The shame of it is, this was almost the ending:

It's imperfect. Sure, there's a bit of "Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!" going on here. But a quiet ending to a big Bruce Willis action flick goes against the grain, no? And the game-playing more neatly fits the riddles-and-quizzes action that dominated the rest of the movie.

One more note: It's impossible to watch a movie made before 2001 lightly. There are bombs going off in Manhattan, and scared people fleeing explosions -- and the World Trade Center in the background. It's difficult not to feel an ache.

Oh well. "Die Hard: With A Vengeance" had it within its grasp to be great. It got halfway there. And because of that, it's a better movie than you remember.

Sarah Palin, the Ground Zero mosque and the American presidency

More than most American leaders who might run for president someday, Sarah Palin has made a career of dividing "us" and "them." Most famously, she spent parts of the 2008 dismissing her opponents and their allies as residing somewhere outside the "real America" -- and while she apologized for it, her constant grievance-mongering suggests she sees the world, and this country, mostly in terms of its divisions.

Don't get me wrong: Other leaders can be "divisive." Palin is different: The divisions animate her.

I mention all of this because of a recent posting to her Facebook page, which features this title: "An Intolerable Mistake on Hallowed Ground." She is, of course, talking about the proposed mosque to be located 600 feet or so from Ground Zero in New York.

I agree with the sister of one of the 9/11 victims (and a New York resident) who said: “This is a place which is 600 feet from where almost 3,000 people were torn to pieces by Islamic extremists. I think that it is incredibly insensitive and audacious really for them to build a mosque, not only on that site, but to do it specifically so that they could be in proximity to where that atrocity happened.”

Palin cites a specific person associated with the proposed mosque whose statements about 9/11, she judges, are insufficiently sympathetic to the victims. But her concerns aren't quite so nuanced or specific -- witness this Tweet which asked all "peace-seeking Muslims" to avoid the provocation.

But it wasn't "peace-seeking Muslims" who flew the planes into the World Trade Center. It was 19 extremists -- people whose ideology unfortunately has broader support than we'd like, but whose views do not represent the vast majority of American Muslims. The truth is that more Muslims died on 9/11 as victims of the attack than as the aggressors. By implicitly lumping them in with criminals and vile murderers, Sarah Palin is suggesting that American Muslims cannot be full citizens of this country -- that they should have the "decency" to accept a "lesser-than" status that denies them the right to practice their religion as fully as their Christian neighbors.

American Muslims, in this view, aren't part of the community of Americans who mourned 9/11 -- they are more closely related to and allied with the transgressors. Not to put too fine a point on it: This isn't dissimilar from the "blood libel" that anti-Semites use to smear all Jews as killers of Jesus Christ. All bear a measure of guilt, regardless of their actions.

This is why Sarah Palin should never be our president. She simply cannot be the president of all Americans. Maybe few presidents ever are -- but they at least have the good sense to attempt it. Even George W. Bush recognized his duty in this regard.

Palin's statements on the mosque issue also point to another reason she should never be president: She cannot distinguish America's friends from its enemies. Her divisiveness would make her a poor president; her inability to make the right kinds of distinctions would make her a dangerous one.

UPDATE: Via Conor Friedersdorf's Twitter feed, this is simply ugly and evil.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Tucker Carlson's Daily Caller, and the JournoList "scandal"

So Spencer Ackerman, Michael Tomasky, Joe Conason, Chris Hayes, Katha Pollitt, Mark Schmitt and Kevin Drum are liberals who, in 2008, wanted to see Barack Obama elected president? Shocked! I am very very shocked!

Actually, I'll go ahead and say that Tucker Carlson -- the guy behind the Daily Caller -- is a liar. His headline -- "Documents show media plotting to kill stories about Rev. Jeremiah Wright" -- is wrong on two counts, and Carlson must know it: It wasn't the "media" having a discussion about the Rev. Wright story, but a group of liberal journalists who write from openly liberal perspectives. This wasn't the "straight" reporters from mainstream media outlets, it was the people who get paid to do opinionated journalism. Furthermore, from the Daily Caller's own reporting a good chunk of the people involved in the conversation argued against a response proposed by one or two members of the group. So it wasn't the "media" and they weren't "plotting."

But it's the headline, not the details, that will burn their way into the public consciousness on this story.

Maybe the least-defensible person in the story is Ackerman, who proposed going after Republicans as a bunch of racists for trying to make the Jeremiah Wright story into a brouhaha. But even he's defensible: The Daily Caller's own reporting shows that Ackerman said some Republicans -- the "non-racist" ones -- shouldn't be tarred with that brush. Whether you agree with him or not, he was being intellectually honest: He was proposing going after "racist" Republicans because he really believed they were racist.

Honestly, to these liberal eyes, there did seem to be a whiff of racism about the Jeremiah Wright scandal. Obama's opponents had failed to find a way to depict him as an angry black man, so they generated controversy out of the next best thing: He knew an angry black man. I'm not defending Wright, who has long proved himself untrustworthy, but it seemed to me at the time the point of the controversy was to render unelectable any person -- like Obama -- who had been immersed in "black culture." In retrospect, it still seems that way.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Federalist 23-29: Freedom, and the national security state

Find all my Federalist Papers blog posts here.

There's a conservative narrative of the last 100 years or so that goes something like this: America started to become a little less free -- a little less tethered to its Constitution -- about the time that Franklin D. Roosevelt took power during the Great Depression and started creating the welfare state. Every new entitlement -- "ObamaCare," say -- and every slight tax increase represents a near-tyrannical intrusion of the state into realms that should be private. Every time a Medicare check goes out, then, freedom dies a little more and somewhere in the great beyond, Friedrich Hayek sheds a tear. Or maybe Ayn Rand.

There's an alternative narrative -- one that doesn't get as much attention -- and in the last year it's been most famously advanced by onetime conservative author Garry Wills. In this reading of history, it was indeed Franklin D. Roosevelt who expanded the state at the expense of the individual -- but it wasn't Social Security that represented tyranny: It was the explosive growth of the national security state, which since World War II has granted the president ever greater -- and, seemingly, ever-more-uncheckable -- power, all in the name of protecting America from her enemies.

Which brings us back to 200 years ago, and the adoption of the Constitution. Its passage, it seems, was no sure thing, and the central issue in the debate between Federalists and Antifederalists, it seems, was freedom: What form of government would be effective, yet still allow men -- and it was men who had the freedom -- the latitude to live their lives as they pleased?

There's not much in either the Federalist or the Antifederalist papers to suggest that the welfare state was a concern in the debate over freedom. To be fair, partisans on both sides probably hadn't conceived of it. Instead, they clashed over a controversial power of the new goverment: The power to raise a standing army.

"Brutus" writing in Antifederalist 24, made the case plain:

. . . . Standing armies are dangerous to the liberties of a people. . . . [If] necessary, the truth of the position might be confirmed by the history of almost every nation in the world. A cloud of the most illustrious patriots of every age and country, where freedom has been enjoyed, might be adduced as witnesses in support of the sentiment. But I presume it would be useless, to enter into a labored argument, to prove to the people of America, a position which has so long and so generally been received by them as a kind of axiom.

This, it seems, was an argument the Federalists took seriously. Alexander Hamilton spent all of Federalist 23 through 29 defending the government's prerogative to raise a standing army. And he made some decent arguments -- pointing out, not unreasonably, that most state governments at the time were empowered to raise armies, and that furthermore the "Western frontier" of the United States, still confined to those early 13 coast-hugging colonies, was in need of defense. If an invasion came,it would already be too late to form an army to repel the attack. And in Federalist 25, he even makes the odd argument that it's safe to let the federal government raise a standing army precisely because Americans would be suspicious of infringement on their liberties:

As far as an army may be considered as a dangerous weapon of power, it had better be in those hands of which the people are most likely to be jealous than in those of which they are least likely to be jealous. For it is a truth, which the experience of ages has attested, that the people are always most in danger when the means of injuring their rights are in the possession of those of whom they entertain the least suspicion.

Hamilton's strongest argument against a standing army being used to usurp American liberties, though, comes from the structure of the government itself. The chief executive might be willing to use the army for nefarious purposes, he says, but then he'd have to contend with Congress!

Federalist 24:

the whole power of raising armies was lodged in the legislature, not in the executive; that this legislature was to be a popular body, consisting of the representatives of the people periodically elected; and that instead of the provision he had supposed in favor of standing armies, there was to be found, in respect to this object, an important qualification even of the legislative discretion, in that clause which forbids the appropriation of money for the support of an army for any longer period than two years a precaution which, upon a nearer view of it, will appear to be a great and real security against the keeping up of troops without evident necessity.

From this, we can gather a few things:

* That Hamilton didn't really forsee that the executive branch -- despite the division of powers enumerated in the Constitution -- would claim for itself practically unlimited and unilateral power over national security.

* Nor did he forsee that Congress would generally defer to the executive's assertion of authority.

* Then again, none of the folks involved really foresaw the explosive growth of a national security state that involves hundreds of thousands of people collecting snooping and spying on, well, pretty much all electronic communication on Planet Earth. Concerns about a "standing army" seem almost quaint, don't they.

One wonders what Brutus or Alexander Hamilton would've made of today's lead story in the Washington Post, and these findings:

* Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.

* An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances.

* In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings - about 17 million square feet of space.

There are reasons for all of this, of course. We want to be kept safe from the threats the world aims at us. The result is that we have a huge -- and, because it is so huge, virtually unchecked -- national security establishment that operates in the shadows, out of the public's sight. Alexander Hamilton promised us that Congress would keep the leviathan in check. It hasn't. Do you feel any more free?

Eric Cantor's piddly YouCut site proves Republicans aren't serious about cutting the deficit

Via Twitter, Peter Suderman points out that Republicans plan on campaigning this fall against the federal deficit, but have no plans to actually do anything about it if they take Congress. See Sunday's "Meet The Press" for confirmation. In response to such complaints, National Review's Robert Costa points to Eric Cantor's YouCut website, which he describes:
Cantor debuted YouCut [in May]. Its premise is simple: Each week, Americans can vote for their favorite of five potential spending cuts on the web (or via text message to 68398). Cantor works to bring the winner to the House floor. With one click, you can help to shape the House GOP agenda.

“It allows us to focus on out-of-control federal spending, the number-one issue for millions of Americans,” Cantor says. “For us, it is an unprecedented online project.”
Unprecedented? Whatever. It's also incredibly piddly and lame. Look at the current options YouCut offers for a vote.
* Eliminating unnecessary Congressional spending: Potential savings of $35 million over 10 years.

* Eliminate the "Dodd Earmark" from "ObamaCare:" Savings of $100 million over 10 years.

* Prohibiting first class subsidies on Amtrak: Potential savings of $1.2 billion over 10 years.

* Reform the Energy Star program: $655 million over 10 years.

* Prevent energy assistance payments to dead people: "Hundreds of millions of dollars" over 10 years.
Notice a common attribute? All these options are piddly rounding errors in the gargantuan federal budget, eliminating -- at most -- $120 million a year out of a $3.55 trillion budget! It's simply not a serious attempt to address budget fears; it looks a lot more like feeble, ineffective pandering. Real austerity is going to force people to give up stuff they want or like getting from government. And not just the poor, "unproductive" people. Hard, politically unpopular choices will have to be made. Republicans have never shown the ability to make those choices. Eric Cantor's "unprecedented" web site proves the point.

Today in Judeo-Christian justification: Immigration

Late in the New York Times' story about how evangelical leaders are teaming up with President Obama to reform immigration law -- including a sort of amnesty for illegal immigrants already on American soil -- we hear from Bryan Fischer of the conservative American Family Association.
Bryan Fischer, director of issue analysis for the American Family Association, a national conservative Christian organization in Tupelo, Miss., said, “What my evangelical friends are arguing is that illegal aliens should essentially be rewarded for breaking the law.

“I think it’s extremely problematic from a Judeo-Christian standpoint to grant citizenship to people whose first act on American soil was to break an American law,” said Mr. Fischer, who hosts a daily radio show on which immigration is a frequent topic.
Well, sure. It's not as though the core doctrine of Christianity involves redemption and forgiveness for a lifetime of sins. It's certainly not like Jesus told his human followers to offer forgiveness for sins "not seven times, but seventy-seven times."

Now, I'm not saying that illegal immigrants should be offered amnesty. (Although I think it makes sense, but that's not the point here.) But even though I'm agnostic these days, I have a long background in the church. And I hate to see people blithely invoke "Judeo-Christian" tradition to justify their policy preferences -- particularly when their invocation actually contradicts the religion they use as justification.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

George Will's silly plan for Republican outreach to Latinos

George Will thinks the GOP can capture some of the Latino vote by ... making Puerto Rico a state. He uses his Sunday column to profile Luis Fortuno, the Republican governor of Puerto Rico:
Conservatives need a strategy for addressing the immigration issue without alienating America's largest and most rapidly growing minority. Conservatives believe the southern border must be secured before there can be "comprehensive" immigration reform that resolves the status of the 11 million illegal immigrants. But this policy risks making Republicans seem hostile to Hispanics.

Fortuno wants Republicans to couple insistence on border enforcement with support for Puerto Rican statehood. This, he says, would resonate deeply among Hispanics nationwide.
But why would that be the case? Latinos aren't abandoning the Republican Party over concerns about the citizenship of other Latinos 1,000 miles away from U.S. shores. They're abandoning the GOP because they don't like how Republicans are treating them right here in the lower 48 states. The Arizona immigration-enforcement law, as has been much noted, makes it likely that U.S. citizens and legal immigrants of Latino descent will have to go the extra mile to literally prove themselves to police -- all by virtue of their race.

Making Puerto Rico a state doesn't address those concerns. Using the rationale offered by Will and Fortuno, it frankly smacks of a "some of my best friends are Latinos" tokenism -- we're happy to bring a majority Latino state into the union, it seems, as long as that state can only be reached by plane or boat. Such factors would probably exacerbate the GOP's image problem among Hispanics, and probably deservedly so.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Bag O' Books: "American Gods" by Neil Gaiman

Despite being very, very, very nerdy, I've never been much of a reader of fantasy books. I've got friends who are all up in Robert Jordan's house, and I feel like I should be there with them. But I'm not.

I occasionally -- thanks to the influence of my wife -- make an exception for the books of Terry Pratchett. He's an English fantasy writer, creator of the "Discworld" series of books that tell fantasy stories filtered through the lens of British humor. It works for me. And a few years ago, I greatly enjoyed "Good Omens," a novelistic collaboration about the Apocalypse from Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, who's probably better-known for his graphic novel work.

Which is why I picked up Gaiman's "American Gods" a few weeks ago. And I wish I'd enjoyed it more than I did. Which, ok, I did enjoy it a little bit. But it wasn't really absorbing. Without Pratchett's collaboration, Gaiman comes across as a very, very smart guy who's more interested in ideas than in storytelling. The end result is something cool, a bit didactic, somewhat entertaining, but never fully gripping.

Short synopsis: Our protagonist, Shadow, finishes a stint in prison only to go to work for a mysterious figure named "Wednesday." Wednesday, it turns out, is the American version of the Norse god Odin, who is rounding up all the other ancient gods brought to these shores by ancient cultures from around the world to mount a final all-consuming battle against the new gods who are displacing them in American culture -- the gods of debt, technology, credit cards and cable TV, among others.

Which gives you a taste of where "American Gods" is coming from -- a wry critique on the culture, which creates its gods in living, breathing form through the act of worship. The end battle, when it comes, doesn't really offer us insight about the critique -- it's there to round the story out. The result is a "novel of ideas" -- a term that usually describes books that are overly preachy -- that doesn't really commit to being a novel or to its own ideas.

But maybe I'm expecting too much. "American Gods" is reasonably diverting, so long as Neil Gaiman's reputation hasn't been oversold to you. And better an novel of incomplete ideas than no ideas at all.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Arizona will stop enforcing a controversial law

No, not that law:
At the first tick of the clock Friday, an array of automated cameras on Arizona freeways aimed at catching speeders were to stop clicking.

There is no glitch. The state, the first to adopt such cameras on its highways in October 2008, has become the first to pull the plug, bowing to the wishes of a vocal band of conservative activists who complained that photo enforcement intruded on privacy and was mainly designed to raise money.

It was a tumultuous, impassioned run here. A man wearing a monkey mask racked up dozens of tickets, fighting them in court, to protest the system.

Some of the loudest critics were conservatives, who organized protest groups and prodded legislators to impose restrictions on their use, arguing the cameras amounted to, as one put it, the “government spying on its citizens.”
The data suggested that the system led to a 19-percent drop in fatal collisions. But it's good that Arizona officials see the wisdom of backing away from an intrusive law that seems likely to catch and penalize a fair number of innocent people in its sweep. If only that logic were applied more widely.

It all depends on whose ox is being gored, I guess.

Once again, Andy McCarthy wants Iraqis to be grateful for being invaded

There's not a lot I'm going to say about Andy McCarthy's latest column in National Review, except that I want to note -- again -- the amazing and repugnant way he characterizes Iraqis:
When the WMD did not materialize, the result of “look forward, not back” was to portray nation-building — a goal the public never agreed to — as the dominant purpose of our prohibitively costly presence in Iraq, an ungrateful Muslim country that generally despises Americans. 
This isn't the first time that McCarthy has called Iraqis "ingrates" -- and really, there's a (can't get around this word) imperialist presumption to his attitude that's quite simply breathtaking. "You'll take our invasion -- and the years of bloody violence it unleashes -- and you'll like it!"

As McCarthy notes, we didn't actually invade Iraq in order to bestow the blessings of freedom -- even in the anger that permeated America after 9/11, there probably wouldn't have been much stomach to go nation-building for the pure and simple pleasure of nation-building. We invaded Iraq to protect ourselves. And it turns out that we were mistaken in doing so. Most folks aren't grateful to you, though, when you act in your own interests.

Don't get me wrong (it must always be said): Saddam Hussein was a bad guy. But let's try a little empathy exercise: If you were an Iraqi and had your life under a vile dictator usurped by outsiders -- who gave you years of bloody and explosive violence and public infrastructure problems, only to end up with an apparent strongman leader with ties to Iran -- how grateful would you be feeling? McCarthy, like too many of his ilk, is so proud of the efforts and sacrifices of U.S. servicemen and women that he can't even imagine why Iraqis wouldn't see it the same way. The problem isn't really one of Iraqi non-gratitude. The real problem is Andy McCarthy's chauvinism.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Why Philly?

As my wife and I have contemplated what our futures hold -- now that we're seeking ravenously after full-time employment -- we've had to figure out our priorities. And it's emerged that one of the top priorities is trying to stay in Philly. But why?

Part of it might be inertia: It's expensive and energy-consuming to move. But part of it is that we've become fond of the city. And I don't always understand that: In some ways, the two years we've spent here have been the roughest, hairiest, least-fun years of my adult life. We want to stick it out.

Again, why?

Maybe because -- despite the challenges -- there's a lot to love. I like Philly. I like Cafe Lutecia and Almaz Ethiopian restaurant and the art museum and the orchestra and Rittenhouse Square and Jafar Barron and the Monday jazz jam with Orrin Evans and Cafe L'Aube and Grace Tavern and Shakespeare in Clark Park and Skorpion and Makael and Ekta and Gusto and Paolo's and the Phillies and Andrew's Video Vault and the silly debates over the New Black Panthers and the amateur boxing gyms with "Rocky" posters and Malcolm X Park and Joseph Fox Bookshop and the library and Bill Conlin and vending cart food and not needing a car and the BoltBus and being near New York without having to pay New York prices and having my son grow up some place that isn't 90 or 95 percent white and PhillyGrrl and Brendan Skwire and the Roots and all the farmer's markets and Stu Bykofsky (but not John Yoo) and Mayor Nutter's cute way of acting angry when he knows that's what the public wants and West Philly and South Philly and Fairmount Park and the Schuykill River trail and the skyline -- oh that gorgeous skyline.

And even the Piazza. A little bit. But not the Eagles. I hate the Eagles.

Those are just my reasons. My wife could and would add a few more, I know. But those are the things I know after two quick-but-traumatic years. And I know I've only scratched the surface of what this town holds, and what it can show me. It's not "home" the way that Lawrence, Kansas used to be for me -- but I had eight years to make Lawrence my home.

I don't know if I'll have that much time here. But I kind of hope so. We'll see.

Gabriel Schoenfield, the Pentagon Papers and democratic self-governance

Gabriel Schoenfield, writing in the summer issue of National Affairs, revisits the Pentagon Papers incident and makes an extraordinary claim: Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers leaker, undermined democracy by showing the American public how their government worked.

No really:
Whatever one thinks of Ellsberg's motives — and however one might appraise the harm his actions inflicted on American foreign policy — the fact is that, at its root, Ellsberg's leak was not just an assault on orderly government. In a polity with an elected president and elected representatives, it was an assault on democratic self-governance itself.

For better or worse, the American people in the Vietnam years had elected Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon; they had acted at the ballot box to make their leadership and policy preferences clear. Yet here was a mid-level bureaucrat, elected by no one and representing no one, entrusted with secrets he had pledged to the American people to protect, abusing that trust to force his own policy preferences upon a government chosen by the people.
Here's the problem. Earlier in the piece, Schoenfield admits that the "government chosen by the people" was elected by lying to the people.
Given its size and complexity, the (Pentagon Papers) collection defies easy summary. But it did show, among other things, that officials throughout the 1960s presented the public a much rosier picture of events in Vietnam than was justified by the intelligence policymakers were receiving. The papers demonstrated, for instance, that President Johnson had every intention of beginning a bombing campaign against North Vietnam before the 1964 election, even though he strenuously denied it during the election season. They showed that American intelligence officials told the Johnson administration in advance of its 1965 escalation of the war effort that the move was not likely to succeed. And they documented how the internal justification for the war shifted over time from the containment of communism to the protection of America's own prestige abroad.
A couple of thoughts:

* Seems to me our Constitution recognizes, through creation of the judicial branch, that democratic self-governance cannot rely entirely upon elected officials to safeguard democratic self-governance. Elected officials are to be given substantial deference, of course, but that deference isn't unlimited.

* If democratic self-governance is to mean anything at all, though, it must be informed governance. The people must have a reasonable idea of what it is that elected officials are doing on their behalf. I won't argue that there's no need at all for state secrets -- but there's probably substantially less a need than what's usually invoked. Democratic self-governance does not mean, however, that people elect officials to go do the job and then close their eyes and hope for the best. As the Pentagon Papers case proves, sometimes the White House will classify information precisely in order to avoid being held accountable by voters.

It's silly to argue that Ellsburg was "forcing" a policy outcome through his leaks: As Schoenfield notes, Ellsburg wasn't an elected official -- he had no power at all to change American policy. But Ellsberg did give Americans insight into how the policy had been made, and how what they'd been told by their leaders differed from the reality of the war in Vietnam. Daniel Ellsberg, then, enabled real democratic self-governance -- he didn't short-circuit it.

The logic of our Constitution is that we can't always depend on elected officials to make correct decisions. It's up to citizens to hold them accountable. Schoenfield claims to be upholding democratic self-government, but it's hard to see how his critique does anything but enable Nixonian lawbreakers to govern in ways the people who elected them never intended.

On the value of low-skill, low-wage labor

Believe it or not, there's a lot to recommend about John Derbyshire's column today at National Review. It's ostensibly about how Obama Administration policies are drying up the number of unpaid summer internships for teenagers, but it drifts into a meditation on how -- even in these recession days -- American elites don't seem to value manual labor the way they once did. The whole thing should be read, even if you don't agree with everything. But some of Derbyshire's anecdotes rang true for me.
I have noticed that if, among 30-something colleagues, I mention one of my own school or college summer jobs — factory or construction work, dishwashing, retail sales, bartending — my colleagues will look amused, and a bit baffled. How come a guy as well-educated as Derb was shoveling concrete? Boy, he’s a real eccentric! No, I’m not. Those experiences were perfectly normal for a person of my generation. They’re just not normal any more, not for children of the American middle and upper classes.

Well, I don’t suppose anybody ever did drudge work if better options were available. Until recently, though, a great many people reconciled themselves to it: as a means to support a family, as a pathway to as much independence as their abilities would permit, and even as something in which satisfactions might be found. Remember Luke in The Thorn Birds boasting of his prowess as a sheep-shearer and sugarcane-cutter?

Nor was physical labor always thought shameful. In the older American ideal, which is now as dead as the one-room schoolhouse, physical labor was held to have a dignity to it. Even elites believed their youngsters would benefit from a taste of it. Calvin Coolidge put his 15-year-old son to work in the tobacco fields of Hatfield, Mass., as a vacation job. (When the lad happened to mention who he was, one of his co-workers said: “Gee, if the president was my father, I wouldn’t be working here.” Cal Jr.: “You would, if your father were my father.” For a comparison with the “conservative” sensibility of our own time, recall Karl Rove’s remark: “I don’t want my 17-year-old son to have to pick tomatoes.” Good heavens, Karl, of course you don’t: The poor lad might break a fingernail.)
Now Derbyshire, because he's Derbyshire, uses all this to build a case against letting immigrants into the United States to do low-wage low-skill work. I'm not entirely on board with that, but I don't think that lessens the power of these observations.

A few years ago, I became convinced that one of the problems with journalism -- and I know, there are many -- is that there are few practitioners left who have ever done anything besides journalism. The went to J-school, got an internship, got a job at a newspaper and never ever worked or had much life experience that didn't involve the business. And that opinion was confirmed in the person of Mike Shields -- probably the best of a string of great editors I've worked for. He was -- is -- a hell of a journalist, but before he got into the business he'd worked in the Navy, construction and truck-driving. (Probably more, but I'm working from memory.) He had some college under his belt, but I think he got his actual degree somewhat later in life. I don't think it's a coincidence that he had a gift for shmoozing lots of "regular folks" on his beats: farmer-legislators from western Kansas, cops hanging out at the bar, that kind of thing. He could relate to working stiffs better than the average reporter because, unlike most of them, he had been a working stiff.

That said: There's a danger in romanticizing the "dignity" of low-skill, low-wage labor too much. As noted before: I'm between full-time gigs right now. I've taken on a part-time job at a nearby coffee shop here in Philadelphia. Before I started it, I think it's fair to say I'd romanticized the idea in my head: I'll work as a barista, and have plenty of headspace left over to pursue other income and creative endeavours. But it's not like that. It's harder work than I'd realized, for one thing. And I come home from most shifts with with sore feet and an aching back. There are benefits: We're not as poor as we might be. And I've gotten to know my neighborhood much better in the last two months than I did in the nearly two years previous. What's more: It doesn't seem very "low skill" to me -- there's a million small things to know and do to keep the shop running smoothly. But: It's hard work. For pay that won't, on its own, sustain my family. I do it now because it's the right thing to do, but there's not much that's ennobling about it. That's ok. The value of work isn't and can't always about self-fulfillment. It's about survival, first.