Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Obama ends 2014 on a surprisingly high note

For all the talk of lame duck and the walloping Democrats took at the polls in November, the year 2014 is ending on a high note for President Obama -- because of his own actions.

First, his signature major legislation, the Affordable Care Act, has been a success beyond expectations on multiple counts -- numbers of people enrolled, cost of premiums, and overall declining increase in cost of medical care in general.

He has formally ended our war in Afghanistan, leaving behind only 13,500 troops to train and support the Afghan military.

News of the economy and job growth are the best since the 2008 recession, with Wall Street and the stock market at record highs, even though middle income families and Main Street still lag behind.

In the last two months, President Obama -- freed from any political considerations for Democrats in conservative states -- has been acting boldly.   In the last few weeks he has:

1.  Secured a historic climate treaty with China.

2.  Taken executive action to drastically reduce deportations of undocumented immigrants -- the most significant move on immigration reform possible, short of congressional action.

3.  Announced an opening up of diplomatic ties with Cuba.   He cannot removed the embargo without congress, but there is much he can do, and he will.    Further, the simple logic cannot really be argued with:    When you've been doing something for 50 years that hasn't worked, it's time to try something different.    Marco Rubio hurt himself and his presidential chances by arguing with that.

This new boldness is reflected in an increase in his approval ratings.    We can speculate that, if he had done this before November, Democrats might have done better in the elections.   We can't know that.   Let's be glad he's doing it now.

Happy New Year.


Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Mayor de Blasio and the NYPD

Tension between New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and some of the New York police officers has reached crisis level, with one union police union spokesman laying the blame for the assassination deaths of two police officers at the mayor's feet.

What is this about?   Superficially it seems to be that police officers feel that the mayor sided with those protesting the killing of a black man  by a police officer and should have backed the police instead.    Any time an officer is killed in the line of duty, the police close ranks and give him a hero's honor;  nothing negative can be said.  

Because the deranged man who killed these two officers himself justified it as payback for the police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and other black men -- these two completely different categories of public tragedy have become intermixed and confused.

Nevertheless, it has resulted in a general feeling that, if you continue to protest the unjustified killing of Brown and Garner and others, it's showing disloyalty and disrespect for police officers at a time when two of them have lost their lives simply because they are police officers.  In fact, Mayor de Blasio called for a suspension of protests until after the funerals.

 But inevitably, the mayor is in the middle and under attack from both sides.    Protestors were unhappy that he asked them to suspend their public protests until after the funerals.   A police union official has spoken very harshly against the mayor for remarks he made before this happened, in which he seemed to be agreeing that young black men had to be very careful not to provoke violent responses from the police.

Now we have the spectacle of uniformed police officers standing outside the church during the funeral of their comrade and turning their backs to the mayor as he delivers his eulogy.    And, when de Blasio spoke at the police academy graduation, some of the graduates booed him.

De Blasio's appointed Police Commissioner William Bratton is in the middle and trying to hold them together.   He said in a news interview that he "does not condone" that behavior.  Personally, I think he needs to go further.

Just as our federal government puts civilians in control of our military, so do cities put our civilian elected officials in charge of the police department.    Mayor de Blasio is, in effect, the commander in chief of the New York Police Department.    To show such disrespect is never warranted and borders on insubordination;  and that is especially true in this case, because the mayor has done everything he could and should have done to show his own grief over these losses and to support the police force at this difficult time.

No, the difference goes back way before any of this -- to a basic philosophical difference in how he thinks about policing policy and in how he views diversity, inclusiveness, authority, and cooperation.     As discussed by "liamcdg" on Daily Kos, de Blasio first spoke about the non-indictment of the police officer who killed Eric Garner with a chokehold on a Staten Island street:
"Emphasizing his multiracial family and personalizing issues of social and economic inequality has allowed him to capture the support of an Obama-esque coalition of people who never had access to the halls of power.   Like Obama, he projects a masculinity that is empathic and introspective -- anathema to the patriarchal attitudes that dominate hierarchal institutions like the police.
"When Mayor de Blasio first spoke about the non-indictment of the police officer who killed Eric Garner, he placed the case in a personal context:
'Chirlane and I have had to talk to [their high school aged son] Dante for years about the dangers that he may face. A good young man, law-abiding young man who would never think to do anything wrong. And yet, because of a history that still hangs over us, the dangers he may face, we've had to literally train him—as families have all over this city for decades—in how to take special care in any encounter he has with the police officers who are there to protect him..'"
Now, President Obama had said something very similar acknowledging the increased risk that young black men face in being stopped by police;   this is a national phenomenon and is backed up by statistics.   But the New York police union took great offense and provided members with a form letter of protest to send to the mayor, asking that, if they were killed in the line of duty, that the mayor and his wife not attend their funerals, saying they felt he had thrown them "under the bus." 

Frankly, I think this police union and those officers who booed or turned their backs on their commander in chief are the ones who are out of order.    First, like the president, the mayor is facing a reality of shootings of young, unarmed, black men that seem unnecessary, resulting only from the escalation of some minor offense into a killing.   Second, the mayor has a philosophical difference with how policing should be approached -- for one thing, he got rid of the "stop and frisk" policy.    And it is his job to set the tone and to hire a commissioner who can implement his policies.    Of course, he cannot change an entire policing practice in a short time, but having public displays of disrespect for the commander in chief is not appropriate.   I think it deserves something more than the commissioner simply "not condoning" such display while in uniform.

The Daily Kos writer goes on:
"What is needed is a cultural shift in how we understand law enforcement. Police officers must be people who understand that they are agents of the people and work for our elected officials, not against them. Mayor de Blasio has, willingly or otherwise, become an icon for these efforts. And that's why he has drawn the wrath of those invested in upholding the status quo."
The deranged killer who sought his own personal vendetta against white police officers unfortunately made things much worse for the reasonable protestors and for ultimate reform of police work.   His action only tilted this argument toward the police's position to the extent that it tends to stifle any serious discussion of the real issues of how black youth are treated differently by the police.   I'm sure that is not what the killer intended


Monday, December 29, 2014

End of U.S. war in Afghan . . . . Who knew?

On Sunday, December 28, 2014, the U.S. war in Afghanistan formally came to an end with the ceremonial lowering of the green-and-white flag of the the International Security Assistance Force and the raising of the flag of a new international mission called "Resolute Support."

Only a small, invited audience was present . . . for the formal end to the longest war in our nation's history.  The occasion recalled nothing quite so much as the ending of T. S. Eliot's poem, The Hollow Men: "This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper."

No parades down 5th avenue, no home town salutes to the conquering heroes.   No big-font newspaper headlines.  What is there to celebrate?    That it didn't end worse than it did?

Thirteen years of sacrifices of our men and women in uniform, thirteen years of a huge drain on our treasury -- and still Afghanistan's own military cannot hold off the Taliban and Al Qaeda in its own country without major assistance from others, mainly us, the U.S.

Our new mission will provide training and support for Afghanistan's military through a residual force of some 13,500 NATO troops, about 80% of which will be Americans.  In addition to the training, NATO forces will engage in counter-terrorism operations as well as air support for the Afghan military.

Flash back to 2001, before we began our military attack on Afghanistan.   I floated the question:    What if, instead of bombs, we dropped food, medical supplies, and other things the Afghan people need?   What if we captured the hearts and minds of the Afghan people, instead of inciting their enmity?

Now, 13 years later, I can't help but wonder:   What if that is what we had done.   Would things have been worse?   Maybe better?


Sunday, December 28, 2014

Ted Cruz's Obamacare nightmare coming true

From Jonathan Chait's article in New York magazine, "Ted Cruz's Obamacare Nightmare Comes to Life:"

"In the summer of 2013, with the Affordable Care Act about to begin enrolling its first customers in the new health-care exchanges, Ted Cruz warned Republicans that they were facing one final chance to kill the law. Once Americans had grown accustomed to the sweet comfort of affordable health insurance, Cruz foresaw, they would never give it up. . . .   

"Cruz may have been completely misguided in his belief that this logic dictated that Republicans instigate a government shutdown, but on the political economy of Obamacare, he was completely right. Indications of Cruz’s prescience are popping up everywhere.

". . . .  Unpopular Pennsylvania Republican Governor Tom Corbett recently agreed to accept Medicaid expansion.   Four more Republican governors — in Tennessee, Utah, Indiana, and Wyoming — have taken steps toward following suit. In Washington, the river of attacks against Obamacare issuing from Republicans has slowed to a trickle. . . .  

". . . the anti-Obamacare community fixated on a final hope: that consumers looking to enroll this fall for next year would encounter soaring premiums. Not only has the hoped-for premium shock failed to materialize, . . .  In a market where annual large price hikes have occurred for decades, the result is almost unfathomably positive. . . . 

". . . the next Republican candidate will be running in an environment where repealing the law would create millions and millions of now-identifiable victims. Since the start of the year, Obamacare has gone from a weakness Republicans were salivating at the chance to exploit to an issue they no longer want to talk about. Two years from now, matters could be worse still."

My prediction is that in the 2016 presidential campaign, it won't even be called "Obamacare" anymore, and it will not be a viable campaign issue -- unless the Supreme Court screws things up with this challenge before them about the supplements.   If they do rule those illegal, then my guess is that it will be Republican governors who previously refused to set up state exchanges, who will be scrambling to do so, in order for their citizens to continue to get health coverage -- which, under such a SCOTUS ruling, would require states to set up their own exchanges in order for their citizens to get subsidies.

Won't that be a hoot?


Saturday, December 27, 2014

Because Dick Cheney says so, that's why

For another point of view on whether Dick Cheney should face prosecution, here is Andrew Sullivan, former editor of The New Republic, now writing his own blog on "The Dish."  Here he is responding to Cheney's last tv interview, which came after the release of the Senate Committee report on CIA and torture:

"His interview last night is worth revisiting . . . .   [He is] clearly rattled. He is used to proclaiming categorical truths about things he knows will never be made public. He is used to invoking what he says he knows from secret intelligence without any possibility of being contradicted. This interview is the first time he has made statements about torture that can be fact-checked by the record. And, he is proven to be a liar . . .  .

"He doesn’t address the mountain of evidence. He is simply ruling it out of bounds – after admitting he hasn’t even read it! . . . .  He merely invokes other CIA official denials as an authority – when they too are charged with war crimes. That’s like a gangster claiming he is innocent on the basis of his gang-members’ testimony. He blusters on. In a court of law, his performance would be, quite simply, risible as an act of self-defense. It becomes some primal scream version ofBecause I said it worked! . . . "

Citing transcript evidence that, rather than torture being used as a last resort, Sullivan continues:

    "In fact, it is prima facie evidence that torture was used as a first resort, and it was a first resort because Cheney already knew it was the only way to get intelligence. How he knew we don’t know. No one in professional interrogation believed or believes it. So you have clear evidence that the decision to torture was taken early on – and nothing was allowed to stand in its way. This was an ideological decisionnot a policy judgment based on evidence. . . .  

   "What we have here is a staggering thing: the second highest official in a democracy, proud and unrepentant of war crimes targeted at hundreds of prisoners, equating every single one of the prisoners – including those who were victims of mistaken identity, including American citizens reading satirical websites, including countless who had nothing to do with any attacks on the US at all – with the nineteen plotters of one terror attack. We have a man who, upon being presented with a meticulous set of documents and facts, brags of not reading them and who continues to say things that are definitively disproved in the report by CIA documents themselves.

   "This is a man who not only broke the law and the basic norms of Western civilization, but who celebrates that. If this man is not brought to justice, the whole idea of justice in this country is a joke."

Part of me feels the same way toward Dick Cheney.   And yet I'm not sure it is the best way to set the record straight -- because any attempt to hold Cheney legally accountable will be fought tooth and top defense lawyer nail, and we would probably never get a clear verdict.  

I'd still settle for a clear, unimpeachable record of what happened (building on this important report that Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) bulldogged into the light of day.   It is based on actual documents (emails, written reports) rather than on personal testimony    Cheney criticizes it for that:    "They didn't even interview a single person that was involved."    No, but they read the email of those people written contemporaneously, which is probably closer to revealing the truth.


Friday, December 26, 2014

New York Times Editorial Board calls for special prosecutor on torture

A lead editorial in the New York Times  on Monday, Dec. 21, 2014, called for President Obama to appoint a  special prosecutor to investigate the CIA interrogation and torture situation, in the wake of the revelations that survived the redactions insisted upon by the CIA of the Summary Report of the Senate Select Commmittee on Intelligence.

The editorial reads, in part:
"No amount of legal pretzel logic can justify the behavior detailed in the [Senate Intelligence Committee] report. Indeed, it is impossible to read it and conclude that no one can be held accountable. At the very least, Mr. Obama needs to authorize a full and independent criminal investigation. . . . 

"The question everyone will want answered, of course, is: Who should be held accountable? That will depend on what an investigation finds, . . .  But any credible investigation should include former Vice President Dick Cheney; Mr. Cheney’s chief of staff, David Addington; the former C.I.A. director George Tenet; and John Yoo and Jay Bybee, the Office of Legal Counsel lawyers who drafted what became known as the torture memos. . . .
"Starting a criminal investigation is not about payback; it is about ensuring that this never happens again and regaining the moral credibility to rebuke torture by other governments. Because of the Senate’s report, we now know the distance officials in the executive branch went to rationalize, and conceal, the crimes they wanted to commit. The question is whether the nation will stand by and allow the perpetrators of torture to have perpetual immunity for their actions."
Strong stuff from arguably the most respected newspaper in the country.   But it makes a good argument.

I think the same could be achieved, with less opposition, however, by a Truth and Reconciliation process similar to what Nelson Mandela and Bishop Tutu set up in South Africa.    It was agreed ahead of time that there would be no punishment for anyone in exchange for people giving a full disclosure of what was actually done.   In that way, the truth would be aired and put into the record under cooperation from those who would otherwise hide behind the best legal defense money could buy. 

The important thing, here so many years later, is that the truth be revealed and generally agreed upon, so that it can stand as a deterrent to it ever happening again.    I feel a strong contempt for Dick Cheney but no particular desire to see him go to prison.   What I want is for him to come clean and admit the truth, which should include acknowledging that it was torture, that it was morally and legally wrong, and that it didn't make anything better, only worse.   If we could get that out of him -- or, even if he would never admit it, to have the record so clear that everyone in the future could see the truth -- and that would be enough.


Thursday, December 25, 2014


Our American entrepreneurial obsession has turned Christmas into a business of selling and buying, and the idea of giving gets lost.

I stumbled across this quotation yesterday from Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century American philosopher, poet, and essayist.  And -- it happens -- the man my father and I, through him, were named for.   We are Ralph Emerson Roughton, Sr. and Jr.   So I always pay attention when one of his quotations floats across my screen.

But this one is particularly apt for this season where giving has been swamped and lost underneath the load of the commerce of selling and buying.

“Rings and jewels are not gifts, but apologies for gifts. 
The only gift is a portion of thyself." 
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson  


A pause for peace

Christmas Day has different meanings for different people.   Whether it's deeply felt hope and joy from a particular religious promise of a savior -- or the hope and joy anticipating spring that arose from the original secular winter solstice festival -- it is a time when we could all pause and contemplate peace and hope for a better tomorrow.

Like the German and British soldiers on the battlefields of World War I, who observed a spontaneous truce on Christmas Day, let's put aside all our differences and declare a day of peace . . .  just for today . . . at least.   

It was exactly 100 years ago today, December 25, 1914, that the fighting stopped at dawn.   Soldiers from both sides cautiously came out of the trenches and crossed the "no man's land" to shake hands,   share cigarettes and coffee, and in some places to play soccer with their enemies.   It was an incredible event that lasted throughout the day.

If mortal enemies bent on killing each other just the day before -- and again in the days after -- can do it, can we not bridge our divisions, American against American, for a day or two . . . or maybe more?  


Here is a video put together by students at Brigham Young University to commemorate that Christmas Truce in Flanders Field in 1914.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Racial profiling by police is real

We cannot let the very legitimate protest movement calling for police accountability and reform get lost in the outrage over the slaughter of two New York police officers by a mad man.     That is a horrible end for two good men taking a break from work.   It adds to the real risk that police officers face as part of their work.

But it has happened before, and it will happen again.   And it has nothing to do with the other problem of what appears to be an epidemic of unnecessary killings by police officers of unarmed young black men.

The racial profiling, the biased assumptions about criminal intent and violent potential are real, and this has been confirmed by a survey done by Reuter's News Service, as written byMichelle Conlin:
"Reuters interviewed 25 African American male officers on the NYPD, 15 of whom are retired and 10 of whom are still serving. All but one said that, when off duty and out of uniform, they had been victims of racial profiling, which refers to using race or ethnicity as grounds for suspecting someone of having committed a crime.

"The officers said this included being pulled over for no reason, having their heads slammed against their cars, getting guns brandished in their faces, being thrown into prison vans and experiencing stop and frisks while shopping. The majority of the officers said they had been pulled over multiple times while driving. Five had had guns pulled on them. . . .

"The black officers interviewed said they had been racially profiled by white officers exclusively, and about one third said they made some form of complaint to a supervisor.
All but one said their supervisors either dismissed the complaints or retaliated against them by denying them overtime, choice assignments, or promotions. The remaining officers who made no complaints said they refrained from doing so either because they feared retribution or because they saw racial profiling as part of the system."
 All right, Giuliani and the police union, what about this?   The NYPD and the policeman's union both declined to comment to Reuter's about the article.


"Killer cops" and "Kill a cop" are VERY different. Don't conflate them.

Let's get one thing very clear:   The brutal, assassination of two New York City police officers last weekend by a mentally disturbed man with a long record of arrests, who first killed his ex-girlfriend before turning on the cops, is a completely separate issue from the non-violent protests against excessive use of police force against unarmed, young black men.

Unfortunately, both sane elected officials and rabble-rouser nuts are mixing up the two.   Those who want to call off the protest rallies mean well and want to show respect for the officers' families.   But they need to use the teaching moment to clarify that the issues are quite different and may co-exist -- even while asking for a moratorium to show respect.

Once again, we need to turn to the comedians for the truth.   Here's Jon Stewart:

So much wiser than loud-mouth ex-mayor Rudy Giuliani, who blabbed on Fox News that “We’ve had four months of propaganda, starting with the president, that everybody should hate the police.”   Which is totally false, of course.   Obama said exactly the opposite.

Other conservative politicians have made similar -- or worse -- comments, such as former Rep. Joe Walsh (R-IL) saying that de Blasio, Eric Holder, and President Obama “have the blood of those two NYPD cops . . . on their hands.”

A spokesman for one of the police unions also spoke of "blood on the hands" starting at the steps to City Hall.    Others blamed the demonstrators protesting police killings of unarmed young black men.

Not content to just talk about it, a Fox affiliate in Baltimore, WBFF, Fox 45, wanted to run a story portraying these protests as "kill a cop" rallies.    The problem was that they couldn't find any videos or anyone to back that up.    So they manufactured one -- starting with footage from a CSPAN video of the Washington D.C. rally -- which they edited to make it sound like the people are chanting "kill a cop."

This was quickly exposed as a fake, but not until WBFF-Fox had shown the tape several times, with one of their reporters solemnly referring to the protest march as referring to "cop killing."   Then they play the video of people chanting:

"We won't stop.
"We can't stop.
"So kill a cop."

Here is what the unedited CSPAN video shows people actually chanting:  

"We won’t stop.
"We can’t stop. 
"Until the killer cops
"Are in cell blocks.”
The further irony is that the woman leading the chant in the real video is Tawanda Jones, the sister of a Baltimore man who was killed by police while in their custody last year.

Once the false account had been exposed, WBFF pretended that it was just an honest misunderstanding of what people were chanting and apologized to Ms. Jones for the "mistake."    I have not seen what WBFF aired, but from the description on several sites, there is no way this is simply a mistake.   The tape shown on air has definitely been edited, compared to the full tape from CSPAN.

Contrary to the way WBFF portrayed Tawanda Jones as the "kill a cop" chant-leader, ever since her brother's death in 2013, she has been holding weekly nonviolent days of action to call for justice and accountability in the Baltimore Police Department.    Far from wanting to kill cops, she feels the urgent need for accountable cops.  Here is what she said:   "You'd have to be an idiot -- someone that hates -- to say 'kill somebody,' especially some cops that I need to protect my family.""We need the cops. My community needs the cops." 

Maybe we should stick with the comedians.   Fox News and its affiliate stations can't be trusted to tell us the truth.


Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Truth-telling through comedy

Our best truth-tellers are our comedians:   Mark Twain, Jon Stewart, Steve Colbert.

And this, from "The Vent," an Atlanta Journal-Constitution feature that allows readers to send in very short, pithy bits of wisdom, outrage, silliness -- and truth. 

"When I bring my gun to the library 
do I need to bring my silencer?"

Think about it.


Another Bah, Humbug moment

My inner curmudgeon was aroused recently by the latest iteration of the annoying question from a restaurant host, as I waited to be seated:   "Just one?"
Yes, I live alone;  and, not liking the bother of cooking for one person, I wind up eating many evening meals in neighborhood restaurants -- alone.   Not fancy dining;  just a quick dinner in a neighborhood cafe or fast food restaurant.

Almost invariably I get some version of the question:  "Just one?"  Often it's indirect:   "Would you like to sit at the bar?," meaning obviously you'd like to watch the game on television since you're alone -- even when I'm obviously carrying a book or newspaper.

Last night was particularly grating:   The Applebee host, who might be described as "having a bit of attitude," greeted my entrance with a studied nonchalance: "Just you?"

My annoyed reply, I'm afraid, sailed completely past this person's limited awareness:   "Yep, ju-u-u-st me."

I grumped silently through my dinner, debating whether and with what tone to say something on the way out.   But in the end, I didn't address the problem, because I was pretty sure this slender, young African-American of rather ambiguous gender presentation is a person in male to female transition.    She's probably had way too many disapproving looks and snide comments -- and probably had sized me up as another disapproving old, white Republican guy, a good bet in my neighborhood.

(Anyone observing me drive up, however, and seeing both the 2008 and 2012 Obama bumper stickers, would know better) 

So I said nothing, except to respond blandly to her "goodbye" on my way out.    That incident was complicated, but I wish whoever trains these staff would tell them that people dining alone don't like to have it announced to everyone in hearing distance.  I don't mind dining alone;  in fact I often prefer it, and I never lack for something interesting to read.   What I do mind is the implication that being alone means I must be lonely.

No, what I really am most annoyed by is the assumption, because I am a guy, that I would rather watch professional football.   If Applebee's can hire a trans person, why can't they get over the stereotype that any man alone must prefer the bar and football to a quiet booth and the book he brought to read?

Bah humbug. . . . .   Or, am I over-reacting?


Monday, December 22, 2014

Elian Gonzalez at 21. Recalling the 1999 dramatic, Cuban-American showdown over one small boy

Relations between the United States and Cuba have had several dramatic highs since the revolution of 1959:  the missile crisis, the Bay of Pigs -- and the saga of six year old Elian Gonzalez, who became a political pawn between the Cuban-American community in Florida and the U. S. government, as well as between factions of Elian's divided family.

The fight over Elian's custody became emblematic of the fight between Cuban-American exiles in Miami and what they regarded as repressive governments, both in Cuba and now in the United States.   There was even a movement from right-wing U.S. politicians to try to have congress pass a law bestowing U. S. citizenship on Elian so he could stay here.

Here's a summary of the situation:    In November 1999, Elian's mother brought him along as she and 12 other Cubans tried to flee for asylum in the U.S. in a small aluminum boat with a faulty engine, unsuited for the journey.   Her estranged husband, Elian's father, stayed in Cuba.   The engine failed, the boat sank, and only Elian and two others survived.  They were rescued and brought to the U.S.    Elian's mother drowned.

The U.S. Immigration Service released Elian to his paternal great-uncle who lived in Miami.   And thus began a seven month-long legal battle, front page news stories, political posturing, a dramatic middle of the night raid by armed agents personally ordered by Attorney General Janet Reno, and an ultimate decision by the U. S. Court of Appeals that the Miami relatives did not have standing to apply for asylum for Elian and that he must be returned to the custody of his Cuban father.

Elian's father was flown to the U.S. for a reunion with his son at Andrews Air Force Base;  but the Miami relatives still tried to block his leaving the country by insisting that he could not leave until he had had an asylum hearing.   After appeals and a refusal of the Supreme Court to intervene, the U. S. Circuit Court decision prevailed:    Elian's father was his rightful  custodian and thus only he could apply for asylum for his son.   Thus in May 2000, it was finally resolved and Elian and his father returned to Cuba to a hero's welcome.

It was even regarded by many as a triumph of the Communist country over the United States, and a picture was released showing young Elian in the Youth Pioneer uniform of Cuba's communist youth league.   In addition to the family loss, the anti-Castro, anti-Communist relatives in Miami, remained convinced that wrong had been done, that Castro took their property and their freedom in Cuba;  and now he had taken their child.  The volatile issue still reverberates politically as a rallying cry among the older Cuban-American community in Florida.

On the other hand, one could say that this was a good example of democracy and respect for human rights prevailing and that it was the values of the U. S. democracy that returned Elian to his rightful guardian, his own father.    If the situation were reversed, would the Castro regime have returned Elian to an American father in the U.S.?  And wouldn't we have thought they should, even if he had relatives in Cuba that wanted to keep him there?

That is a point that is rarely mentioned in the debate about what happened in 1999, although our Department of Justice did stick to the principles of our constitution and bill of rights, even as it applied to a foreign national -- and a minor at that.

It was one of the top media stories -- front page and lead-off story on nightly TV from November 1999 to May of 2000.    Most dramatic of all was the pre-dawn, Easter Eve raid on the Miami relatives' home to forcibly extract Elian from their claim on him and return him to his father.

President Obama's new opening to Cuba made me think about Elian's story and wonder what has happened to him.   He is now 21 years old.    He has kept a low profile, mostly staying out of the news.   CNN did a story on him one year ago, when he traveled abroad with a delegation to a meeting in Ecuador of the World Festival of Youth and Students.   He was described as a military cadet studying industrial engineering.   He is quoted as saying he is happy to be in Cuba and expressed his admiration for Fidel Castro who took a personal interest in him and visited him every year on his birthday.


Sunday, December 21, 2014

Clearing up the thing about Ferguson witness #40

On 12/17/14, I entered a correction to my post "More doubt cast on Ferguson grand jury decision."   I had confused the two witnesses #10 and #40 as the one that DA McCulloch cited in his press conference summary of the case.  It was #10 he highlighted.

Nevertheless, witness #40 has been the witness most often cited on conservative media, because her testimony is the one most consistent with Officer Wilson's own account.   Now we know the reason for the congruence.   Witness #40, now identified as Sandy McElroy, seems to have made up her story after Wilson's account was leaked to the media, in order to bolster his defense.

Here's how Daily Kos writer Shaun King describes it:
" . . .  Not only did Sandy McElroy testify before the grand jury twice, she was allowed to show what she claimed was her journal from the day Mike Brown was killed. . . .  In the transcript . . . .  members [of the grand jury] are recorded as actually stating that they believe she's telling the truth.

"What's clear now, and what was actually clear to the FBI and the prosecutors before she ever testified, is that Sandy McElroy wasn't anywhere near Canfield Drive the day Mike Brown was killed and made her entire story up. Not only that, but Sandy McElroy was on record with the St. Louis police as having lied and concocted fanciful stories in other murder cases in which she falsely claimed to be a witness.

"Her inclusion in the grand jury pool of witnesses poisoned the well . . . .  

". . . .  in the aftermath of Mike Brown's death, she regularly posted comments on various social networks showing her affection for Darren Wilson weeks and weeks before she ever claimed to be a witness.

"The FBI, in their interrogation of Sandy McElroy, completely tore apart her story and proved that she never drove onto Canfield Drive . . . .  couldn't find one person or photo or message before or after the event to confirm that she was ever there. . . . 
"Here's the thing, though. When Sandy McElroy was called before the grand jury, she had already been thoroughly discredited by the FBI . . . .  That she was allowed to testify before the grand jury on two different dates and produce fake evidence on her second trip is a scandal of epic proportions. That her testimony has become so popular among conservatives says as much about them as it does about Sandy McElroy."
What possible motive could DA McCulloch have had to produce such a travesty of the grand jury process -- except to make it so confusing to the grand jury that they couldn't possibly put together a coherent enough explanation to indict Darren Wilson?

McCulloch told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch yesterday that:  "Clearly some [witnesses] were not telling the truth."   But, he said, he wanted "anyone who claimed to have witnessed anything. . . presented to the grand jury," and that he didn't have regrets about calling non-credible witnesses.

Why bother to investigate a murder?    Why pay prosecutors?   Why not just hold an open town hall meeting and let anyone who wants to come and testify, lie, whatever . . . ?    Isn't our criminal justice system supposed to include some expertise from the prosecutors?  Isn't the process supposed to benefit from that?

This is beyond strange . . .  and it is completely indefensible for a public prosecutor.    One legal expert said on MSNBC Friday night that it goes beyond questionable strategy and, depending on what McCulloch knew about witness #40 and when he knew it, could actually constitute ethical or even criminal charges against McCulloch.   Well, obviously he knew she was lying before he allowed her to testify, and then called her back a second time.

There are remedies.   The governor could step in and appoint a special prosecutor.   The Department of Justice could bring a federal case.    It cannot be allowed to just rest on the colossal poor judgment of Bob McCulloch.


Saturday, December 20, 2014

Add Florida to marriage equality states

The United States Supreme Court has refused to stop same-sex marriages in Florida, thus opening the door to licenses being issued on January 5th.

A U. S. District Court judge had ruled that the Forida ban on same-sex marriage violates the U. S. Constitution's equal protection clause, but had put a stay on implementation of his ruling pending appeal.

That stay has now been lifted.   The ruling on merits of the case could still be over-turned, but that is very unlikely.    With a growing number of states where SCOTUS has refused to step in, it seems inevitable that their ultimate decision on marriage equality will be to make it legal in all states.


Jeb Bush -- hypocrisy already showing

Jeb Bush has just stepped onto a fast-moving express train  -- probably at serious risk for whip-lash injury.

Tuesday:   Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush announces that he is going to explore the possibility of running for president in 2016, making him a likely opponent of Hillary Clinton.     Bush has always made a point to court the support of the Cuban-American community in South Florida as a major political base.   He once gave a speech to one of their groups exclaiming that we shouldn't even consider lifting the embargo of Cuba, we should increase it.

Wednesday:   President Obama announced his plan to establish diplomatic relations with Cuba and to work with congress to remove the embargo.   Within hours, Jeb Bush had condemned the decision, saying these "heinous Castro brothers" are being rewarded for being tyrannical dictators, and it is another example of Obama's wrong-headedness and excessive reach.

Thursday:   BuzzFeed investigative journalist revealed that for years, Jeb Bush has served as a highly paid adviser ($1 million per year) to Barclay's Bank of London which does business in Cuba -- illegally and in defiance of the embargo.    During the time of Bush's work for Barclay's, the bank has paid a $300 million fine for violating the embargo and sanctions against several countries, including Cuba.   Bush must have known about this.

Thursday evening:   Before the sun had even set on that news, Bush had announced that he would be leaving the Barclay bank in two weeks.   Even without Jeb Bush in the middle of a changing Cuban-American community that is surprisingly divided according to age brackets when it comes to Cuba, Obama's move was a political gift to Hillary Clinton.   It gives her a clear position in opposition to the policy Bush formed a decade ago when supporting Cuban-Americans was politically smart.   Now, 50 years later, with changing ages comes changed feelings about the homeland.   It's not even homeland for the younger generation.

This is what makes politics so interesting:   There's always something.   In a Clinton-Bush match-up, Bush would have seemed to have an advantage, having been  popular governor of Florida for eight years.    Now it looks as though Jeb Bush will represent the old guard among Cuban-Americans, and Hillary Clinton will have the opportunity to attract the younger, more progressive voters.


Friday, December 19, 2014

"Gone With the Wind" -- racism and changing times

There is no doubt:   "Gone With the Wind" was a novel and a film about racism, about the relationships between slaves and slave-owners, and about the civil war that resulted from a deeply divided nation's inability to agree that the profoundly moral wrongness of slavery must outweigh the economic claims for the entrenched system of cheap labor for Southern states. 

Such questions are beyond the scope of this brief blog today, which concerns the more mundane question of racism in the distribution and showing of the film.   In this 75th anniversary year of the film's premier, Emory University film studies professor Matthew Bernstein has extensively researched the files of the film's producer David O. Selznick.

Atlanta's mayor, William B. Hartsfield, was instrumental in getting the world premier to be held in Atlanta on December 15, 1939.   The opening followed three days of festivities, a grand parade of the stars down Peachtree Street, an antebellum costume ball, and a state holiday declared by the governor.

Bernstein also found letters and telegrams in Selznick's files that revealed the racial tensions between Selznick and the Atlanta officials, who had decreed that none of the black actors -- including Hattie McDaniel who later won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress -- would be invited to the premier.

Selznick, himself Jewish and mindful of the persecution of minorities, tried in vain to persuade Atlanta officials to include them -- but he finally dropped his protest after learning that Georgia's Jim Crow laws would prevent the black actors from being seated with the rest of the cast or included in any official social events.   Clark Gable was ready to boycott the premier, but Hattie McDaniel convinced him to attend.   She did later attend the West Coast premier in Los Angeles.

But here is the small detail that stands out today in all of its instructive irony about how the times have changed the racial climate.

The black actors could not be invited to attend as equals in Atlanta, but this did not stop local African-Americans from appearing at some of the events -- as entertainers.    According to Bernstein, "One of the most fascinating things about the festivities is that Martin Luther King, Jr., when he was 10 years old, actually appeared on stage at a charity ball dressed as a slave in front of a mock-up of Tara singing with the Ebenezer Baptist Church choir."   This has been confirmed by a spokesman for the King Center.

The irony:   24 years later (January 27, 1964) and Mayor Iran Allen had succeeded Hartsfield as mayor of Atlanta in 1962.   Allen was a champion for civil rights, having "white" and "colored" signs removed from City Hall on his first day in office and desegregating the building's cafeteria.    When Martin Luther King, Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the mayor helped organize a 1,500 person, bi-racial banquet to honor King and then persuaded business leaders to attend.   It was a turning point in race relations in Atlanta.

From playing a little black slave boy in a pageant glorifying The Old South at age 10 to being the honoree at a bi-racial banquet -- in the same city -- to honor him as a Nobel Peace Prize winner is quite a long journey in a short time.   A journey for the city of Atlanta, but also for the King family and the Ebeneezer Church that participated in an enactment of slavery in such an event in the first place.


Thursday, December 18, 2014

Another bold Obama move: recognizing Cuba

Jubilant Republicans basking in their November win seem to have expected President Obama to bow to them as conquering heroes and do their bidding.    He's doing anything but that.   First, his bold executive action on deportations infuriated them -- but left them sputtering ineffectively with no real strategy to stop him that wouldn't backfire on them politically.

Now he has followed that with another bold move that begins a process of recognizing Cuba diplomatically for the first time in about 60 years -- or, as the president put it:   “Neither the American nor Cuban people are well-served by a rigid policy that took place before most of us were born."

The long process to normalizing relations began with an exchange of prisoners and will proceed with "steps to increase travel, commerce and the flow of information to and from Cuba."   In addition, following a 45 minute telephone conversation with Cuban President Raul Castro, Mr. Obama said that he is instructing Secretary of State John Kerry to begin discussions to re-establish diplomatic relations.

Lifting the embargo, however, will require an act of congress, which put it into law in 1996.   A Republican controlled congress is unlikely to do that -- even though it is now desired by a slight majority even of Cuban-Americans.    The older ones still oppose it, but younger ones overwhelmingly favor normalizing relations.

The Anti-Castro Cuban and Cuban-Americans have used their considerable political power to resist just such a move for decades.    Sen. Marco Rubio criticized the actions, calling the prisoner exchange "a very dangerous precedent" and the normalization of relations "absurd."  Rubio added that "This is going to do absolutely nothing to further human rights and democracy in Cuba . . . .  but it potentially goes a long way in providing the economic lift that the Castro regime needs to become permanent fixtures in Cuba for generations to come."

I wonder how Rubio differentiates that from the fact that the Castro regime has been a permanent fixture in Cuba for several generations already.   Nothing we have done seems to have changed that, and I have heard no plan from Rubio that is likely to do so.  Rubio is big on bluster, calling the president's foreign policy "not just naive, but willfully ignorant of the way the world truly works."

The question for Rubio is:   Why would you expect the same policy that we have pursued -- without results -- for more than 50 years to suddenly bring results? 

Perhaps embarking on a new pathway of cooperation and friendship, as well as ending our economic, trade, and travel boycott, might help the Cuban people more than what the anti-Castro crowd has touted over the past 50 years.   If it hasn't worked in 50 years, why would another 5 or 10 be different?

By opening relations, we might even learn something about how they have developed an enviable medical care system that provides free medical care for all its citizens -- and trains so many doctors that they are now exporting doctors to other nations in Latin America and Africa.    Their medical care system outperforms our vaunted "best in the world" medical system on some important measures, including infant and maternal mortality and other preventive medicine practices.

This normalization would have happened long ago if it were not for the powerful anti-Castro lobby that has primarily supported Republicans and negatively impacted any efforts to re-establish relations.   But they have become less powerful with each generation removed from the 1950s when many Cubans fled their homeland for the U.S.

This new move by Obama was aided by the Canadian government and by Pope Francis, who wrote to both presidents Obama and Castro, encouraging them to deal with the American prisoner situation.

Sen. Rubio has it backwards.   It's time for him to recognize the reality on the ground in Cuba.    It can only benefit the Cuban people to open up to tourists and trade.    Take a lesson from China.

Bravo to President Obama for another bold action.


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

More doubt cast on Ferguson grand jury decision

[Corrected post on Wednesday evening:   Although I stand by the headline that there is plenty of doubt about the Ferguson grand jury and the process through which they did not return an indictment of Darren Wilson, the substance of the post I wrote last night conflates two different witnesses.    I was relying on an internet source, plus my memory, and "witness #10" and "witness #40" got intermixed.

It was witness #40 who wrote the journal entry and whose entire testimony seems so unreliable.   Witness #10, a male, also seemed questionable in that he changed some of the details in his testimony from one time to another.

It was #10 to whom DA McCulloch referred in his press conference summary.   I apologize for the confusion.   It doesn't change my basic point about the flawed and arguably illegal way DA McCulloch misused the grand jury process, as well as the unreliability of both witnesses #10 and #40.

However, I do endeavor to be accurate in writing this blog, and it pains me to have had misinformation posted on here for nearly 24 hours before I discovered the error.

To be specific:   both witnesses #10 and #40 were ones who said that Michael Brown was charging at the officer when the fatal shots were fired into his head.   It was #40 who wrote the journal and who gave varying reasons for driving to Ferguson that day.   There are reasons to question the reliability of both witnesses;   but it was witness #10, not #40, whom DA McCulloch singled out for mention in his summary at the press conference.

Still, he did also present #40 to the grand jury, after her tertimony and her credibility had been essentially destroyed by the federal investigators -- and he knew that.

When District Attorney Robert McCulloch held his now-infamous press conference to announce "no indictment" of police officer Darren Wilson, he emphasized the testimony of "witness #10."   

Having talked about the many contradictory accounts from other witnesses, some of which did not fit with the physical evidence, he singled out #10, whose description of Brown charging at Wilson "like a football player, head down" closely corroborated Wilson's account.

Now a report from "The Smoking Gun" is circulating that claims the testimony of witness #10 may be unreliable, perhaps even false.  She has claimed that she wrote her account in her journal just after witnessing the shooting, but this report says that she did not even mention a journal when she first spoke with police -- four weeks after the incident.   In addition, she has a history of having perviously inserted herself into another case by lying to the police, and her story about why she was in Ferguson changed.

Officers were skeptical of why a resident of St. Louis happened to be in Ferguson that morning.   At one point, she told them she had made the 30 mile trip "to better understand African-Americans."   At another time, she said she had gone to visit an old classmate in Ferguson and saw the incident when she stopped to ask directions.

In the four week period before she contacted police with her story, she had posted comments on her Facebook supportive of officer Wilson.

A cross-examining attorney would have easily destroyed the credibility of such an unreliable witness.    And yet McCulloch cites her testimony over that of other witnesses who seem far more credible -- simply because #10 corroborates Wilson's version of what happened.   This is exactly what was so wrong with this whole process.   It was not a trial, there was no judge, no adversarial attorney to challenge such questionable witnesses as a means to getting the truth.  And yet McCulloch -- displaying his pro-Wilson bias -- presents it as if it had been a trial with a verdict that cleared Wilson of wrong-doing.

The person was so right who described McCulloch's press conference as sounding like a defense attorney's summing up -- rather than the impartial report of the District Attorney.

This does not prove that Wilson should have been gound guilty.  What it does show is that there should have been a trial to resolve these and a myriad of other questions.   There is good reason why trials are set up as they are:   rules of evidence, cross-examination of witnesses by opposing attorneys, and a judge to ensure fairness and correct instructions of the law -- none of which occurred.