Saturday, May 25, 2013

Obama, the anti-war president

Calling Obama an anti-war president may seem a bit of a stretch, given the recent wide-spread criticism of his sanctioning killing of American citizens by drones in Pakistan and Yemen.

But remember that he voted against going to war in Iraq.   He inherited two ongoing wars, as well as the George W. Bush "War on Terror."    Thursday, President Obama laid out his reasoning for ending, not only the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the war on terror as well.

In doing so, constitutional law professor Obama also taught us a civics lesson about war powers and the presidency and about our need for security balanced with our desire for privacy.

This was a major speech that should go down in history as one of his best.   The part I want to focus on is the war question.   Here are the president words on this:

All these issues remind us that the choices we make about war can impact – in sometimes unintended ways – the openness and freedom on which our way of life depends. And that is why I intend to engage Congress about the existing Authorization to Use Military Force, or AUMF, to determine how we can continue to fight terrorists without keeping America on a perpetual war-time footing.

The AUMF is now nearly twelve years old. The Afghan War is coming to an end. Core al Qaeda is a shell of its former self. Groups like AQAP must be dealt with, but in the years to come, not every collection of thugs that labels themselves al Qaeda will pose a credible threat to the United States. Unless we discipline our thinking and our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight, or continue to grant Presidents unbound powers more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation states. So I look forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s mandate. And I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further. Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.
He is calling for an end to the "war on terror," saying that we cannot continue to think in terms of being at war.   As this point was condensed in a discussion of the speech on Chris Hayes' new show that night:
     "Wars have beginnings and ends.    When the conflict becomes endless, it ceases to be war and becomes something else."
We will continue to deal with acts of terror with increasingly effective counter-terror tactics.   But we need to think of our country as moving back to the position were were in before 9/11.

I think the president was less bold in this assertion than he could have been and than I wish he had been;  but, given the hawkishness of most of his Republican opposition -- and the political necessity of getting the repeal of AUMF through Congress -- it was courageous of him to even address the possibility.


Thursday, May 23, 2013

Half-empty . . . or half-full?

The Boy Scouts of America has voted to change a long-standing policy of barring gay boys from participating as members.   Needless to say, it has also barred gay scout leaders.

The outcome of the vote was that, by a vote of 61-38, the National Council will now allow gay boys to be Scouts -- up until age 18.  At that point, because they cannot become adult leaders, they will have to leave the BSA.

Some predict that this will lead to further decline of the organization.  Some say they should have gone all the way and removed any restrictions on sexual orientation.

I agree with that as the goalBut I differ in tactics, as I have often in the past on issues of changing discrimination policies against GLBT individuals and groups.

Progress that has been made has been the result of compromise, of small gains leading to bigger gains, and of steady movement in one direction.   My guiding priniciple in such matters has been:   "When someone is moving in the right direction, stop kicking them."

I'd say let's praise the BSA for this courageous move, against much opposition from within its ranks.   The rest is a matter of education and further cultural change so that parents will come to trust their young boys to gay counselors for overnight trips and as role models.

This is not a defeat but an important step toward the inevitable ideal of equality.   Let's give the National Council of the BSA some credit for not trying to push its membership organization so fast that it loses the opportunity to change into a vital, welcoming organization not only for all boys but for all qualified men as counselors as well.

You and I -- the "you' being my assumption of who my readers are -- know that being gay does not make you a pedophile, that gay men can be just as committed to the protection of young boys as straight men, and that a homophobic scout master is not such a good role model after all.   But "they" don't necessarily know that.   They may think the opposite and only want to protect their own sons.   Give them a little time to learn.  Let's encourage the BSA to continue to consider the issue of some day accepting gay leaders.  

The ongoing educational progress will come largely from these now openly gay scouts themselves.   As they become valued and respected Eagle Scouts, it will become obvious how ludicrous it would then be to kick them out and say they are no longer welcome.   But give the BSA members some time to absorb this change.

One important point to ask them to consider is:  What is the message to the gay boys that you now accept when you say they will not be fit to be leaders themselves some day?  And that will be even more effective when it's about specific outstanding individuals, rather than an abstract possibility.


Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The "good" pope

I'm beginning to like this new pope, Francis.

His appeal to me began when he rejected some of the traditional papal luxury, opulence, and privilege and opted instead for a simple life that emphasizes humility and service.

Now he has acknowledged that one can be a non-believer yet be considered a good person based on doing good deeds.   Here's how Reuter's news service put it:
Atheists should be seen as good people if they do good, Pope Francis said on Wednesday in his latest urging that people of all religions - or no religion - work together.

The leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics made his comments in the homily of his morning Mass in his residence, a daily event where he speaks without prepared comments.

He told the story of a Catholic who asked a priest if even atheists had been redeemed by Jesus.

"Even them, everyone," the pope answered, according to Vatican Radio. "We all have the duty to do good," he said.

"Just do good and we'll find a meeting point," the pope said in a hypothetical conversation in which someone told a priest: "But I don't believe. I'm an atheist."

Francis's reaching out to atheists and people who belong to no religion is a marked contrast to the attitude of former Pope Benedict, who sometimes left non-Catholics feeling that he saw them as second-class believers.
This is a man who, I feel sure, would not condemn the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS in Africa, as he predecessor did.


Twists and turns

Oklahoma has just suffered one of the deadliest tornadoes in U. S. history, completely abolishing whole tracts of houses, flattening whole communities, two schools, and killing at least, many of them children in their schools.

Last year, Oklahoma's two Republican senators, Jim Inhofe and Tom Coburn voted against the relief bill for Sandy Hook hurricane relief.    They had also voted earlier to cut funding for FEMA.

Today, Sen. Inhofe was singing a different tune:   Federal aid for Oklahoma will be "totally different," he said.   How so, different?   Well, according to him, the Sandy Hook aid bill was a "slush fund" that people were taking advantage of.

Sen. Coburn is still insisting that funds for Oklohoma will have to be offset by spending cuts somewhere else.   Do you guys get it, now that it's in your own back yard?   If you hadn't cut FEMA, the money would be there for this Oklahoma disaster.   It's called planning and budgeting for contingencies so you don't have to scrounge for funds in the middle of a disaster.

But notice that neither is against Oklahoma receiving the help.  It's different when it's affecting the people who can vote you out of office.

Yes, it is.


PS:   A later bulletin in the news says that FEMA has plenty of money on hand to help with the Oklahoma disaster.   Despite the Oklahoma senators' opposition, a disaster relief bill was passed to keep FEMA funded and ready to help.    So now that they're willing to take the money for the voters who keep them in office, will they agree to the next funding bill to replenish the money for others?

Monday, May 20, 2013

IRS targets more Democrats

Number-crunching genius Nate Silver has explored the question of whether the IRS selectively targets conservative individuals, as well as conservative 301(c)(4) organizations.   Peggy Noonan, writing in the Wall Street Journal had claimed this to be the case; and she cites four conservatives she knows who were audited.

Silver explains that because of the large number of IRS audits -- approximately 1.5 million a year -- there will always be hundreds of thousands of both conservatives and liberals.   "This is exactly what you would expect in a country where there are 1.5 million audits every year."  You can't just round up a few anecdotes among your conservative friends who were audited and, solely on that basis, claim that they go after conservatives more often. 

It's true that wealthy Americans are more likely to have their tax returns audited, because their returns are complicated and they have more opportunities for loopholes and tax evasion.

It's also true that those with no income at all or those who took the earned income tax credit are also more likely to be audited, presumably because the IRS wants to make sure the non-income status seems legitimate.   These would tend to be more liberal.

Silver has made some estimates based on aggregate numbers released by the IRS, in conjunction with exit polls in the 2012 presidential race, and has come up with these estimates:

Estimated number of audits of 2012 individual returns:
          Romney voters who were audited:   380,000
          Obama voters who were audited:    480,000
Peggy Noonan is a great wordsmith, but a lousy statistician.   Round 1 goes to Nate Silver.


Sunday, May 19, 2013

Another flip-flop toward sanity

In just a few days, we've had the new pope reversing the emphasis from the strict theology of his predecessor (see prior post today) to the social justice gospel.   And now three more reversals from Republicans.   Could this be a salutary trend?    Recognition that conservatives have gone too far?   Or maybe fear of backlash from sane people?

Here they are, for what they're worth;  whether it's a trend, or simply moments of sanity in a sea of unreason, remains to be seen.

1.   Governor Nathan Deal (R-GA) warned Georgia Republicans that the state cannot continue to bombard Washington with demands for spending cuts at the same time that we continue to request, and receive, vital financial support from the federal government.   The amount of federal assistance Georgia has received has alctually increased during this recession and has plugged gaps in state spending on education, Medicaid, and construction projects.

2.  Chairman of the House Oversight Committee that has been holding hearings on the Benghazi pseudo-scandal, Darrell Issa (R-CA), said this about the IRS targeting conservative groups for extra scrutiny of their tax exempt status:
" . . .  you don't accuse the IRS until you've had a nonpartisan, deep look." 
Notably, his subcommittee did not wait for the facts before going ballistic and holding circus hearings on the Benghazi episode -- which ironically is the least possible scandal of them all.

3.  In discussing the wiretaps on AP reporters, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) seemed to be (maybe?  almost?) siding with President Obama.  On "Meet the Press" this morning he declined to criticize the president and said:
"Actually, I do think these national security leaks are very important and it looks to me like this is an investigation that needs to happen because national security leaks, of course, can get our agents overseas killed."
Is it an epidemic of sanity?    Or is it just politics, as usual?   Might it have anything to do with the fact that a just-released CNN poll show that this rash of "scandals" has had absolutely zero effect on President Obama's approval ratings?   And the 2014 election is rapidly approaching.


A pope for the poor people

What a difference.

A few years ago, I created a bit of a stir -- including a letter from the head of the Catholic League -- when I published an op-ed piece in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that was criticial of Pope Benedict's statements that the use of condoms in Africa increased the spread of AIDS.

Put in his own context, he was saying that -- relative to abstinence or monogamy with an uninfected partner -- relying on condoms resulted in more cases of AIDS.  But he ignored the reality:  Those choices may be the ideal, but in the real world people do have sex, and AIDS cases were rampant in Africa, particularly.  It seemed a particularly bad time for him to be preaching against the evil of birth control.

Benedict was also the pope who chastised the American nuns and took over the leadership of their organization because they spent too much time helping the poor and sick and not enough working against abortion and gay marriage.

Now we have Pope Francis making statements like this:
"Today, and it breaks my heart to say it, finding a homeless person who has died of cold, is not news. Today, the news is scandals, that is news, but the many children who don't have food - that's not news. This is grave. We can't rest easy while things are this way. . . . 

"We cannot become starched Christians, too polite, who speak of theology calmly over tea. We have to become courageous Christians and seek out those (who need help most). . . .

"If investments in banks fall, it is a tragedy and people say 'what are we going to do?' but if people die of hunger, have nothing to eat or suffer from poor health, that's nothing. This is our crisis today. A Church that is poor and for the poor has to fight this mentality."
Now this is a pope I can respect.   He sounds more like the one who spoke similar words more than 2100 years ago.