Saturday, February 22, 2014

Putin's scorecard: some wins, 2 big losses

Vladimir Putin is ambitious and ruthless.   As President of Russia -- but also as a former KGB officer during the old communist regime -- Putin seems to be pulling Russia back into a more rigid, autocratic police state.    The recent anti-gay legislation is one example.

Putin lobbied hard and won the Olympics for Sachi in 2014.   This was part of a plan to renew the image of Russia as a can-do nation, one with athletic prowess as well as geo-political power.

There have been some notable Olympic wins for the Russians.   This week, Russia and the U. S. have been shifting back and forth in 1st and 2nd place for total number of medals won.   They won big victories in ice skating:   gold in both team figure skating and ladies singles figure skating.

But they lost the one that was by far the most important to them.   Finland eliminated Russia in ice hockey even before the semi-finals.   This was a big blow.

Now it seems the latest developments in Ukraine represent a defeat for Putin as well.  He had been trying to pull Ukraine away from the West and closer in trade and political alliances with Russia;  but a sizable portion of the Ukranian people wanted to align with the European Union.

On the eve of joining the EU, President Yanukovich suddenly announced they would not but instead would renew trade agreements with Russia.   He was being portrayed as a puppet of Putin who was pulling the strings.  This led to street protests that have grown increasingly violent.

The latest announcement is calling it a coup.   The Ukraine parliament voted yesterday to oust President Yanukovich and to hold new elections in May.    The former President Yulia Tymoshenko has been released from hospital, where she was being held as a (political) prisoner on trumped up charges.

There is some question about who the protesters are, and therefore whether the U. S. should back them.   But this latest development where Parliament has acted seems reassuring, at least in my uninformed view.

My main point, however, is not in doubt:   This has to be seen as a defeat for Putin, along with Russia's ice hockey team not even making it to the semi-finals.    Remember it was an adage bandied about:   "If we win the hockey gold, nothing else will matter.   If we lose, nothing else will matter."

Still, (fingers crossed for a few more days) the games have mostly gone off well, except for the temperatures being too warm and melting the snow.  And, most important, there have been no terrorist attacks -- so far.    That's got to be a boost for Russia and for Putin -- but Ukraine and hockey keep it from being the triumph they wanted.


Friday, February 21, 2014

" Take that, you Arizona bigots !!! "

Both legislative bodies in Arizona have passed a bill that would allow business owners to deny service to gays and lesbians, among others, on the grounds of religious freedom for the business owners.

The pious claim of those sponsoring the bill is to protect religious freedom.   But everybody knows, of course, that the real motive is to allow anybody in the wedding business to choose not to provide services for gay weddings.

At least one business is getting back at the legislators.  Rocco's Little Chicago Pizzeria has posted the following sign in its window:
"We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service to Arizona Legislators"
So there !!   Take that, you bigots.


King family fight #2

I'm better informed than I was when I wrote the last blog about the King siblings squabbling over whether to auction off their father's bible and his Nobel Peace medal.

The brothers had filed a suit for the court to order sister Bernice to turn over these two valuable items to the King Estate.  I learned that the three siblings are the sole trustees of the Estate, and they had voted 2 to 1 in favor of selling -- with sister Bernice casting the no vote.

So legally they are within their right.  Bernice is not exactly denying the legalityshe's just holding out for a moral solution that seems right.

I think the judge's decision was Solomonic in its wisdom:  Bernice is to turn the items over to the estate;  and he ordered that the estate place them in a safety deposit box with the judge holding all the keys to the box while they enter a period of negotiation to arrive at a solution.

I don't know details of the finances of the King Estate, but these should be the last two assets sold if it's necessary to sell assets.   Martin Luther King, Jr. is such an icon to this country and to the global non-violent approach to social change that these highly symbolic items should not just go on the commercial market.

Although I have no knowledge at all of their motives, the only possible redeeming motive would be if someone wants to buy them and then donate them back to either the estate -- or, given the apparent greed of the brothers -- to some other institution that would make them part of some permanent public display, like the Smithsonian Institute or the upcoming Civil Rights Museum.

The thought of some greedy private individual owning and hoarding Martin Luther King's Nobel Peace medal is simply unacceptable in a civilized world.

The public outcry suggests that the world learned King's message better than did his own two sonsBut then we never know the private conflicts behind public behavior:   perhaps this is the revenge of sons who got less from their father than the world did.


Thursday, February 20, 2014

King family fight

On the way out of town for a couple of days, but here's what I'm thinking about and didn't have time to write yet:   the three survivng children of Martin and Coretta King are back in court, yet again in a squabble over who controls the legacy and the assets of the King estate.

This time it's Martin III siding with brother Dexter, in the controversy over his wanting to sell at auction their father's Nobel Peace Prize medal and his Bible.   Both of these might be considered sacred relics by some, including sister Bernice who had possession.    But now a judge has ordered her to turn them over to the King estate until they can work out an agreement between them.

More about this later.   It just seems such a shame that the legacy of one of the most noble and courageous men in our nation's history would be tarnished by his own offspring.   

I'll write more about this later.


Tuesday, February 18, 2014

"House of Cards" . . . how far from reality?

The second season of Netflix's hit show, "House of Cards," has been released, and it's even more shocking than the first.    Kevin Spacey portrays, first, a powerful congressional leader who then manipulates his way into becoming vice president.    The show is all about behind the scenes power that grows progressively more violent, starting with arm twisting and influence trading but extending to extortion, corruption, and even murder.

It's powerful political drama, and the suspense is addicting.  Netflix releases the whole season at one time, so it's tempting to binge watch the whole 24 segments in a few days -- as I'm doing,

Is this what it's really like in Washington?   Are the stories put out by press agents mere window dressing to conceal evil and betrayal of the public's trust?  It's hard not to think of Shakespeare's "Richard III" when watching, especially given Kevin Spacey's bold star turn in that play in both London and New York a few years ago.

Most likely there is truth being told, just hopefully not this extreme.   But maybe more than we would think.   Star Kevin Spacey told George Stephanopolis on ABC's "This Week that, when he listens to the evening news, he thinks "our stories are really not that crazy.   They're really not."

There was even a joke about President Obama having "Frank Underwood envy," meaning the "ruthless efficiency" that the tv character can use to get things done.   I should add that this was said before the new season was released which ups the level of actual criminal behavior in the Capitol and the White House.


Monday, February 17, 2014

Zimmerman and Dunn in Florida

Once again, Florida's Stand Your Ground Law most likely influenced the jury decision in a murder trial of a white man for killing an unarmed black youth.

George Zimmerman, the self-styled "neighborhood watch captain," was ostensibly protecting his residential community from a black teenager whose behavior he thought was suspicious.  In fact, Trayvon Martin was heading home from the convenience store to the condo where he was staying with his father, carrying only a soda and a bag of candy.

The jury acquitted Zimmerman of all charges, because he convinced the jury that he felt his life was in danger.

The case of Michael Dunn in Jacksonville just ended in a jury verdict of guilty of three counts of attempted murder and a mistrial on the stronger charge of murder.   He will get up to 60 years in jail on the attempted murder charges.

More importantly, unlike Zimmerman, he can be tried again for the murder charge because he was not acquitted.    The jury could not agree on either murder, a lesser manslaughter charge, or acquittal.   So it was a mistrial and can be redone with a different jury.

Both of these cases, however, show the dangers of Stand Your Ground Laws.  At least as written in Florida's law, a person has only to prove that he had a reasonable fear that his life was in danger.    He has no obligation to withdraw if possible.   He doesn't even have to be protecting his own home or property.   He can simply be in a public place and feel threatened -- then pull out his gun and shoot.   That's what Michael Dunn did.

Dunn had stopped at a convenience store for his girl friend to make a purchase.  He was parked next to a car with four African-American young men playing loud rap music on the car radio.   He told them to turn it down.   They "mouthed off" back at him, and he claims that one of them lifted up what he thought was a shotgun.

Dunn fired several shots into the car, killing one of them.  He continued firing at the car, even as they were driving away -- a total of 10 bullets into the car.   He and his girl friend then went to their motel and ordered in pizza.  She testified that he did not tell her about the "shotgun" nor did he call the police.   He did not report the incident to the police until the next day when they tracked him down and arrested him.   And, by the way, there was no shotgun.

Doesn't sound much like the behavior of a man who was legitimately fearing for his life.   Why not call the police?    Why not mention the shotgun to the girl friend?

Many people, myself included, feel that justice was not served by the acquittal of George Zimmerman -- but at the same time we recognize that the jury had little choice but to convict him, given the law, the judge's instructions, and Zimmerman's testimony and injuries to suggest that Martin was on top of him pounding his head into the pavement.

The question really came down to thisZimmerman's life may have been in danger at the moment he pulled his gun and shot Martin.   But Zimmerman initiated the threats and the attacks by stalking an unarmed young man and making him feel his life was threatened.   Did not he have a right to defend himself?    Do the Stand Your Ground Laws not also apply to the Trayvon Martins -- the unarmed, young black men whose lives are in danger from the likes of George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn?

Even with the same law, however, it should be fairly easy to get a conviction at least for manslaughter against Dunn.   He was clearly the aggressor with no valid reason to have shot and killed one man and continued firing even as the car sped away.   
If the jury convicted him of attempted murder of the three who were not killed, why wouldn't he be guilty of murder of the one he did kill in that same action and those same bullets?
The bottom line:   these Stand Your Grounds Laws are a malicious excuse for vigilante type mayhem -- which, along with the number of guns being carried, are taking us back to the lawless vigilantism of the Wild, Wild, West.


Sunday, February 16, 2014

The raceway to marriage equality

The pathway raceway to marriage equality is moving at a totally unanticipated speed.  At the end of 2012, same-sex marriage was legal in 8 states and the District of Columbia.  It was eight years to go from the first, Massachusetts in 2004, to Maine, the last one in 2012.

One year later, at the end of 2013, that number had leaped forward to 17, plus D.C.   In addition, a federal judge ruled in 2013 that Utah's ban on same-sex marriage violated the U.S. Constitution.   It is on appeal and, if upheld would make 18, plus. C.

Adding up the state populations of those 18, plus D.C., puts the proportion of U. S. citizens who now live in jurisdictions that guarantee marriage equality at 39%.

But already in 2014, we have three other states in the same category as Utah:  Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Virginia, where a federal judge has over-turned a state law, but that ruling is stayed pending further ruling by Appeals Courts.

Beyond the statistics, this is important:   The 2013 U. S. Supreme Court decision  in the Windsor case ruled DOMA to be in violation of the U. S. Constitution.   Justice Anthony Kennedy's majority opinion was a bit ambiguous (perhaps intentionally so) in its basis both in federalism and equal protection.  In effect he wrote that states with different laws regarding marriage resulted in inequality of protection of rights and liberty.

Most people assumed that it was the federalism aspect that would be used in future cases;  but in the subsequent rulings -- in Utah, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and just a few days ago Virginia -- the federal judges have used the equal protection justification as their basis for over-turning state laws.    This is a more sweeping violation of personal rights basis and likely to lead more quickly to all states' laws falling.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out as the cases move upward through the Appeals Court -- and ultimately far faster than anticipated -- back to SCOTUS.    At that point, there will probably be a sweeping decision that will invalidate any and all state laws that ban same-sex marriage.


PS:  If   UT, OK, KY, and VA are upheld on appeal, then 44.5% of the population will live in marriage equality jurisdictions -- getting pretty close to the magic 50% mark.    Add to that the public's attitude now consistently being over 50% and the final equality can't be far off.