Saturday, July 6, 2013

Whither Snowden?

Here's the situation that Edward Snowden finds himself in, as of Saturday evening EST.

He is confined in the no-man's-land of the arrival section of a Moscow airport.   This area contains a hotel for passengers who are simply changing planes to go on to other countries, so they do not actually have to enter Russia.

Russia has claimed that, since he has not yet entered Russian territory, they have no jurisdiction.  They have said they would grant him asylum, but only on condition that he does not release any more documents that would cause a problem for the U. S.  He then withdrew his application for asylum in Russia.

The U. S. has revoked his passport, so he cannot leave the airport, or even enter Russian space, without some sort of official travel documents or asylum papers from another country.

Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua have all said they would grant him asylum, but none has said whether they would help him get there.  They might insist that he get there on his own and then apply for asylum.

So there must be some (in)tense negotiations going on behind the scenes.   Undoubtedly, the U. S. is playing a role in influencing other countries, which apparently is what caused Spain, Portugal, and Italy to deny the Bolivian president's plane permission to fly over their airspace on the way home from a meeting in Moscow (based on the suspicion that Snowden might be on the plane).

A hero to many, a traitor to others, it's not yet clear how history will judge Snowden and his supposed act of conscience.

Civil disobedience has a long and honored tradition in this country:   From our revolutionary forebears who won our independence from England in a full scale war, to Henry David Thoreau protesting poll taxes in 19th century New England, to the abolitionists, to Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights demonstrations , to Daniel Ellsburg and the Pentagon Papers -- we would not be where we are today as a nation without them.

One can argue that our government's surveillance power over its citizens has gotten out of hand, and Snowden has certainly exposed the extent of that, as well as the degree to which we spy on even our allied governments.   They, in turn, do the same of us, if they can.

But doesn't one have to draw a line when it comes to exposing the secrets of national security operations that arguably has already made it more difficult to defend us from terrorists?

I don't pretend to know the answers, or even to have a clear opinion.   It could be a teachable moment in our collective civic education.   Unfortunately, our short attention spans and our media's desperate search for sensational news stories to fill the airtime are carrying it to the lowest common denominator.   As usual.


Friday, July 5, 2013

The sex abuse scandal and Cardinal Dolan

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York would probably have been voted Mr. Congeniality at the gathering of cardinals to elect a new pope last spring -- if they had such a title.  Naturally outgoing, gregarious, basking in the spotlight, and easily wearing the mantle of leadership (perhaps too easily and self-promoting, IMHO) -- and, from what I saw and read, a bit over the top in his public persona.   He might not fancy Benedict's custom made ruby shoes;  but he would find his own sartorial signature.   The trappings of the heirarchy seem to appeal to him, in contrast to the new Pope Francis.

Once mentioned as a possible long-shot choice for pope, that possibility cooled with news that, just before he left for Rome and the papal conclave, he had been deposed about his handling of abuse cases and the diocese's finances in 2007 when he was head of the Milwaukee Archdiocese.

In recent years, Cardinal Dolan has expressed his personal outrage at the harm done to the abused children and pledged to help the church and the victims heal.   Many had regarded him as the healing leader they needed, now in his role as cardinal and president of the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Dolan had previously scoffed at charges that he tried to shield church assets from victims' lawsuits, calling the allegations "marlarkey" and "groundless gossip" on his blog.  But files have now been released by the current archbishop of Milwaukee in connection with diocese bankruptcy proceedings that began in 2011.

The files contain a 2007 letter from then Archbishop Dolan to the Vatican requesting permission to transfer $57 million in church funds into a cemetery trust fund.  His letter explained that this would provide "an improved protection of these funds from any legal claim and liability."   The Vatican quickly approved the transfer.  So, Dolan had previously denied this emphatically, and now there is a letter of proof he was behind it.

On another occasion in 2003, he wrote to then Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict), who was head of the Vatican office handling the abuse cases, saying:  "As victims organize and become more public, the potential for true scandal is very real."   Excuse me:   the scandal was already there;  is was the exposure of the scandal that became very real.

At least he was right about it hurting the church.   But his tone puts him on the wrong side.  And now the files show that he has also lied about his involvement in shielding church funds.   By the way, this all came out because the diocese is in bankruptcy proceedings, and victims making claims have demanded release of documents about "protected" church funds hidden in places like the cemetery trust.

Scandals abound here.   The shocking frequency of sexual abuse of children and teens;  the shocking cover-up to protect offending priests more than victims;  the relative indifference by many of the church leaders that the expose has revealed.

Add to that:   Not just the transfer of funds into a cemetery trust in order to shield them from lawsuits, but the very fact that the church had $57 million that they could spare and hide in a trust fund.

These same guys in the Vatican thought that the American nuns were getting out of hand with their selfless service to the poor and the sick -- instead of joining picket lines at abortion clinics or railing against gay marriage.   So the Vatican put a priest in charge of their organization to try to rein them in on the social service front.   Don't trust those soft-hearted women;   the men -- especially those cloistered in the Vatican -- they know best.

So which is a better example and a better image for the church:    (1)  A nun, dressed in her simple black habit, serving up soup to homeless families at a church kitchen?   or (2) Pope Benedict in his gold-embroidered costume, his funny hat, and his Ruby Red slippers riding around in his bullet-proof pope-mobile?   To appropriate a phrase from the fundamentalist protestants:   "Which would Jesus do?"

I think the new pope Francis knows the answer to that.  In must a few months as pope, he has gone a long way to distance himself and his position from all those old privileges and trappings of the papacy.   Like the American nuns, he takes his commitment to a life of service seriously.  Now that I can admire.


Thursday, July 4, 2013

Rejoicing in the streets of Egypt #2

A "Letter from Cairo," written by Victor Willi who is a Fellow of the World Economic Forum, gives a perspective on why the people turned against President Morsi and demanded his ouster.
". . . Morsi had to leave, since he has failed on every front during his short-lived presidency. It was not primarily about his economic failures . . .  The primary reason was that the president of Egypt was loyal to his clan, the Muslim Brotherhood, before he was loyal to his country. This became ever more evident throughout the year.

"The race to the bottom started in November 22, 2012, when he issued a presidential Constitutional Declaration, putting himself over and above the law. Since then, his regime systematically imprisoned and tortured opposition figures; his flacks repeatedly tried to put a ban on any sort of freedom of speech . . .;  he and his clan of Brothers pushed a constitution through the Shura Council, a constitution that made the president immune from any sort of criticism; he exerted repeated efforts to undermine the judiciary system; he even included Hamas, a Palestinian national organization, into the Egyptian governmental system; and he tried to undermine the state by replacing national and provincial leaders with Muslim Brotherhood apparatchiks. . . .

"The clearest indication for the president's failure and total lack of understanding what is happening in his own country was his speech two days ago. Once again it showed the Brotherhood's limited understanding of democracy, which is restricted to the mechanics of voting, elections and ballot boxes, while showing precious little appreciation for the values that make up the essence of a democracy, such as the rule of law, citizenship, equality and human rights . . . ."
This clears up some confusion for me, wondering how the people could have cheered his election just over a year ago, and now demand his ouster.   It also makes me more hopeful, because this seems like a continuation of the revolution -- to correct a mistake -- rather than disgruntled masses too impatient to wait for the change they want.

If the military lives up to its promise of truly being disinterested in ruling and does bow out as soon as a stable civilian government can be established -- then this might turn out to be a necessary and a good corrective step.


Rejoicing in the streets of Egypt

At this point, Egyptian President Morsi has been ousted by the military, the constitution has been suspended temporarily, and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court has been temporarily installed as acting president until new elections can be held.

Millions of people rejoiced, hoping that mistakes in their fledgling democracy can be corrected with a better constitution and new leadership.  At first Morsi seemed like a good guy who was not going to govern as a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood.   But as time went on, he became more and more authoritarian;   problems weren't being solved;   the economy was sinking.    The new democratic government was a failure, leading to massive protests in the streets.

I'm cautiously optimistic.   The military didn't just come in and take over in a military coupMillions of people in the streets were asking the military to intervene.   They ousted Morsi and installed a civilian, techocratic government, and announced that early elections will be held, and that an amended constitution will be written. 

As one commentator on MSNBC said, the people in the streets today are the same people who were rejoicing when Morsi was elected a year ago.   But his increasingly autocratic rule, exclusionary clauses in the constitution, and the increasing power of the Muslim Brotherhood were what they were against.    It was also emphaiszed by an academic Egypt expert that this is not an anti-Islamic crowd;  it is an anti-Morsi, anti-Muslim Brotherhood protest.

All signs suggest also that the military does not want to rule the country.  That's good;  they didn't do such a good job when they tried a year and a half ago before the elections.  But they can provide stability;  and the hope is that the temporary technocratic government will start solving problems, set up a group to draft a new constitution, and plan for early elections to be held.

However this turns out, it does seem strange that the first ever democratically elected president of Egypt has been overthrown after a year in office by the people calling on the military to oust him, so they can elect someone else.

That doesn't sound like democracy.   But, when you look at what's happening, it seems like maybe it's the right thing to do at this point.   It's not easy to set up a democratic government in a country without the tradition or the institutions or the people with experience from grass-roots democracy to advance to leadership positions.  But what a precedent to be setting.

To be way too flip about it, but it's a good analogy:   the people have asked (and gotten) a mulligan -- a golf term that means you get a do-over when your first shot is especially bad or there was some good excuse, like a tree in the way.    It's more used among amateurs;  not in tournaments.     But let's face it:   the Egyptians are amateurs when it comes to democracy.  This is their first full-scale attempt.

So what's the U. S. people's excuse?   We've been practicing it for over 125 years.   Why can't we get it right?


Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Justic Ginsburg was right

In her strong dissent to SCOTUS's gutting the Voting Rights Act last week, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote:
"Throwing out [part of the VRA] when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like thowing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet."
What a beautiful metaphor  !!   And how right on target she was.

Republicans are losing no time proving her right.   Freed from the pre-clearance to change voting laws, some states are rushing to enact, or add to, measures to suppress voting by groups that favor Democrats.    It's not just the Old South;  it's Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida

They have four kinds of "remedies" to the non-existent "voter fraud" -- which itself is a fraudulent claim.

The four remedies are:  (1)  voter ID, (2) no Sunday voting, (3) no same day registration, and (4) redrawing voting district maps.

They can't even come up with some half-plausible rationale, so they keep repeating "voter fraud," which has been shown again and again to be virtually non-existent at the polls -- all the while blithely ignoring the real voting fraud problem in absentee ballot voting.

Right now, I am feeling envious of the Egyptian people.   Their new government wasn't representing them and wasn't working -- so they managed to get it ousted and will have new elections.


Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Time for "Aunt Minnie" to go

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) now has a Democratic opponent in his 2014 re-election race:  Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.

She is an attorney, a member of a respected Kentucky Democratic political family, who in 2011 defeated a Republican incumbant for the Secretary of State position with 60% of the vote in a red state.   Currently, she and McConnell are rated a toss-up.

McConnell is said to be the most unpopular senate incumbant in the country.   A stunning 62% of Kentuckians disapprove of his performance, with only 35% approving.  Only 28% of registered voters say they will vote for him.

Mitch Mcconnell

That will likely change.  He's a crafty (and mean) campaigner, as seen in his dirty smears of potential candidate Ashley Judd before she had even decided whether to run (already bringing out her history of psychiatric treatment for depression).   Although Judd had name recognition outside Kentucky, among local voters Lundergan Grimes is probably a better candidate.

Wouldn't it be sweet to see that chinless wonder get his walking papers !!!   And to have a Kentucky seat flip from Repub to Dem !!!


Monday, July 1, 2013

Prelude to further change ?

Pundits across the political spectrum are predicting that the SCOTUS decisions on marriage equality (DOMA overturned and Prop8 dismissed) can only be a way station on the way to striking down all states laws banning same-sex marriage.  The liberals hope that's true;  the conservatives fear that it is.

Liberal AJC columnist Jay Bookman wrote about this today.   Justice Anthony Kennedy's majority opinion was based on the equal protection clause -- that is, the federal government may no longer treat legally married,  same-sex couples differently from opposite-sex couples in all of the benefits and privileges provided by the federal government.

And Bookman then writes:
If the Fifth Amendment does not allow the federal government to discriminate against and demean gay couples, it stands to reason that it also bars Georgia and other states from doing so.
Now the court decision did not say this.  But think of the complexities and the evident unfairness -- just for our military personnel alone.   Let's say Sgt. Joe Jones married Mr. Steve Smith in his home state of New York, and is now stationed in Texas.   Mr. Smith, as a legal spouse, is entitled to family medical benefits, may use the base gym, shop in the commissary, their adopted son goes to a preschool on base, he gets survivor benefits -- and hundreds of others.

But Sgt. Susie Sanford, also stationed in Texas, and her partner Ms. Beverly Brown are just as committed a couple as the Jones-Smiths, and they would like to marry.   But they cannot marry in Texas because it is not legal there.   So Ms. Brown does not get medical benefits, cannot use the gym or shop on base, and their son cannot attend the base preschool.

So two U. S. soldiers stationed on the same base, and their families, are treated differently as to federal benefits, based on laws that differ from state to state.

Some will argue that giving benefits to any unmarried partner would open the door to more casual, not-really-committed, heterosexual relationships asking for benefits.   The differences is that those people could get married, whereas Sgt. Sanford and Ms. Brown cannot -- at least not in the state they currently reside in.

Conservative AJC columnist Charles Krauthammer supports allowing states to decide their own marriage laws, i.e. a federalism rationale;   but he also predicts that the equal protection reasoning in the DOMA decision will lead to a broader decision in the future that will include all states.  He writes:
If discrimination (regarding federal benefits) between a gay couple and a straight couple is prohibited in New York where gay marriage is legal, by what logic is discrimination permitted in Texas where a gay couple is prevent from marrying in the first place?
Conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, himself a scathing critic of the majority's decision, predicted long ago that this would be the result eventually.

So why didn't the majority go ahead and find all state laws banning same-sex marriage unconstitutional?   Probably because:  (1) they might not have been able to get five votes for that but could for the more limited decision;  or (2) some really believe it should be a state by state decision, a federalism position;   and/or (3) they felt it would be better to take it a step at the time and wait for further social change and further shift in public opinion -- knowing full well that there will soon be cases suing to overturn state laws based on this precedent under the equal protection clause.

Once again:   although we might like to have it all now, sometimes there is wisdom in a more gradual remedy of injustice, so that you don't get too far ahead of the people in sweeping social change.   And so that, when it does finally come, a more sweeping change will be accepted rather than evoking backlash.


Sunday, June 30, 2013

Rep. Hank Johnson: Thomas "worse than Snowden"

Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA), referring to Clarence Thomas' vote to gut the Voting Rights Act, said this about that vote:   "Comparing it to Snowden, I'd say the offense is worse."

He elaborated.   Edward Snowden's revealing NSA secrets was wrong, but he did it with the belief that what the United States government was doing is wrong.   In contrast, Clarence Thomas knows full well the consequences for black people of killing the VRAand yet he did it anyway.

Much as I abhor the stance Clarence Thomas takes on almost everything -- including the fact that he refuses to recuse himself from cases in which he obviously has a personal or financial biased interest -- I also understand that Thomas firmly believes that affirmative action is detrimental to black people.   He has said that, because he got into Yale Law School through affirmative action, that very fact makes his Yale Law diploma "worth about 15 cents."

Frankly, I think Clarence Thomas himself is the cause of the low value of his Yale Law School degree.

Others have a different take on Thomas' position, focusing on the fact that he did take advantage of affirmative action -- and then he denounced it.   Or as some wag put it:
"Clarence Thomas thinks he should be the last black man to benefit from affirmative action."
So -- which is it?   Is he a man of principle?   Or an ungrateful scourge?

I'll be charitable (although he would probably scorn that too as condescending and paternalistic):   I think Thomas is a man of strongly held principlesbut those principles are largely determined by deeply held and complex emotional conflicts about his experiences as a black man.

So does that mean he should not have been confirmed for SCOTUS?    Or, as biased as he is, does he represent a legitimate voice in our time?

If we take Thomas and Scalia at their most conservative, original-intent stance -- that Supreme Court Justices decide things strictly according to the Constitution, and emotions do not inter into decisions -- then it would seem that they would think that someone who is so driven by his emotions would be unqualified for such an important position.   But then they don't think their emotions enter into their decisions, at all.