Saturday, March 8, 2014

Court jesters are the ones who tell the truth

I've often held up the comedians, John Stewart and Steve Colbert in particular, as the real truth-tellers in our nation.   Today Ann Coulter told the CPAC convention exactly why they should oppose immigration reformIt would help the Democrats.

Now, granted, she put it differently:   She accused the Democrats of wanting reform "because they need 30 million more votes."

Well, if that's a bad reason for the Democrats to want reform, isn't it an equally bad reason for Republicans to oppose it?


Oscar voters sometimes vote on films they chose not to see

It was expected to be a very close contest between "Gravity" and "12 Years a Slave" for the Best Picture Oscar.   "12 Years a Slave" won, and it was widely believed that the vote was very close, although the count is never released by the independent accounting firm that compiles the votes from Academy members.

Since that vote, a news story has circulated quoting several voting members who said they voted for the film without actually having watched it.   They cited reasons of repugnance at watching the depiction of  citing reasons such as not liking to watch suchviolence or the inhumane and immoral treatment of fellow human beings.  Some critics implied that they either should have watched it, or else not voted in that category.  I have mixed feelings about that.  I also decided not to see the film, because I did not want to experience that cruel treatment of human beingsbut I also read enough to convince me that it was a great film that I would have voted for.  In contrast, "Gravity" was a marvel of technical sophistication and suspense, but not a great film.

In this case, it seems that those members voted for the film and also would have voted for it if they had seen it.   So I see no problem there.

On the other hand, in 2005 the vote for Best Picture was also assumed to be very close when "Crash" suprisingly won over "Brokeback Mountain."    Again, several voting members (some quite notable) said they had refused to see "Brokeback Mountain" because of the homosexual content -- and they voted against it for that same reason.

This film, more than anything I have seen before, is likely to change people's minds to a more empathic feeling for gay people and, specifically, their forming stable, long-term relationships.   That capacity to change attitudes is part of what made it a great film.    My article on "The Significance of 'Brokeback Mountain'" has just been published in the Journal of Gay and Lesbian Mental Health (2014, issue #1).   My thesis is that the film's ability to engender empathy in the audience is what made it so significant.

So, to have people vote against it out of negative feelings, without giving it a chance to change their attitudes, seems wrong.   Of course, I know you can't have rules that say you can vote without seeing the film if you're going to vote for it, but not if you're going to vote against it.  But "Brokeback Mountain" should have won in 2005.


Friday, March 7, 2014

A new low #2 -- it's really about voting rights

It turns out there's more to the Debo Adegbile rejection than just the cop killer story.   I always learn important things when I watch the MSNBC news show of Chris Hayes.

The focus of the opposition was on the meme of "coddling cop killer."   Fox News had been hammering on this for a month, with commentators denouncing Debo with name-calling;   even, as Chris pointed out, frequently talking about Debo the civil rights lawyer but showing pictures of the convicted man in prison -- so that the impression came to be that Debo was this thug in prison -- instead of the best civil rights lawyer in the country, the one who could legitimately be called this generation's Thurgood Marshall.

The cop-killer meme was the emotional tactic to defeat the nomination.   But the real motive was to prevent such an effective man from occupying the Civil Rights office in the Department of Justice.

Why?   Since the Supreme Court gutted the provision of the Civil Rights Act, instead of automatic prescreening of changes in voting laws in certain states, it requires a very aggressive DoJ to take the states to court.   It's part of the Republican plan to suppress the vote.  Pass these restrictive laws and then prevent the nomination of an effect person to oversee the division that would go after those laws in court.

It's all about suppressing the vote.    Painting Adegbile as a cop-killer coddler was the dirty trick tactic of poisoning his name so he would be rejected.   And underneath it all is the dirty secret that Republicans know they cannot win unless they convince the voters that black is white, and suppress the vote any way they can, and pour obscene amounts of money from wealthy donors into negative tv ads.

The DoJ needs Debo Adegbile.   The American people need Debo Adegbile.    Democracy needs Debo Adegbile.   We cannot afford to let such uniquely qualified people be rejected for such base reasons.   It is about race.  And it is about political dirty tricks.


A new low in senate confirmation denials -- and it was bipartisan

A new low was reached on Wednesday when seven Democrats joined every Republican to block the nomination of Debo Adegbile to head the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, a post that has been vacant since last year.  Adegbile is considered the top civil rights lawyer in the country -- this generation's Thurgood Marshall.  He has argued two cases before the Supreme Court.   There is no one more qualified to fill this important position.

Clearly, the opposition is based on his having been associated with getting the death sentence of a cop killer commuted to life in prison.   The case was tried some 30 years ago, but Adegbile's involvement began only in 2012 when he became head of the NAACP's Legal Defense and Education Fund.

The NAACP decision to represent the convicted man in his appeal to get the death sentence commuted was made before Adegbile took the job.   It was one of the cases he inherited.   To be clear, Adegbile did not attempt to get the conviction overturned, only to commute the death sentence.  And it was eventually successful.    The court agreed that the instructions to the jury were unconstitutional.   So it was right that his death sentence should not have stood.

Now, in effect, then the Senate has said that a lawyer providing legal representation for someone, who stirs too much enmity in the public, can be denied an important position in our government because of that.   This despite the accepted principle that anyone sentenced to death deserves the right to have that sentence reviewed on appeal -- and to have legal representation in that appeal.

This is but one more chipping away at our democracy, one of the tenets of which is that everyone is guaranteed a fair trial, which necessarily includes legal representation.    It is accepted in legal circles -- and in government circles -- that providing legal representation does not imply that you condone the actions of your client.   If it did, who would ever represent murderers and child abusers?   That would undermine democracy.

No, this is purely political.  And it raises the question of whether it is also racial?   It involves a black convict, an African-American organization, and a black nominee for the Civil Rights division.    Would there be same prejudice against defending a cop killer, if they were all white?

Shame on those senators who cast their votes our of cowardice -- out of fear that the right wing will punish them -- and the lack of trust in the voters to know the difference.   It didn't deter John Adams, one of the revered Founders Fathers, who defended British soldiers who had killed Americans.   It didn't derail the confirmation of Chief Justice John Roberts, who once did pro bono work to defend one of the worst mass murderers in Florida history.

Is race involved?   Roberts is a white Republican, nominated by a white Republican president.   Democratic Adegbile had a Nigerian father and he was nominated by a Democratic president who had a Kenyan father.   The nomination was for the top civil rights position in the Justice Department (more about this in a later post).

This is a dangerous precedent, and another step down, for one of the worst Congresses in the history of our country.  Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) said this marked the lowest point of his long tenure [30 years] in the senate.

Debo Adegbile -- along with Harry Reed, the Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, President Obama and his administration -- knew before the vote that the nomination would be defeated.   It was Adegbile's own decision to go forward, to force the debate and vote in the Senate.

Adegbile said"I'm 47 years old. ... I've spent all my life trying to do the right thing.  I didn't step into a courtroom for this man. I didn't write a word for the briefs for this man. ... I've done nothing wrong. I think if I'm going to be voted down, it's a good time to start a discussion on civil rights in America."

Reid praised Adegbile's courageous decision -- which stands in stark contrast to the cowards who voted against him, either out of prejudice or out of pure political fear.


Thursday, March 6, 2014

Ukraine and Russia

I just saw an interview by Chris Hayes with Nina Kruschevna, a professor at the New School in New York.    She happens to be the granddaughter of Nikita Kruschev who gave Crimea to Ukraine;  but that does not indicate her views on the situation.

She was a delightful guest, highly articulate and knowledgeable.   It is her view that the realignment of Crimea with Russia is "a done deal."   She acknowledges that there is an effective propaganda campaign coming from Russia, along with an overthrow of the Crimean Parliament and installing a new body, which immediately voted unanimously to join Russia and to schedule a referndum for the people to vote on it.

But, she says, in addition to this propaganda, there is strong desire -- perhaps 60% -- in the Crimean people to return to the Russian affiliation.    She further says that they may work out some face-saving cover story so that it nominally remains in Ukraine, but the Russian troops will remain.

She says that the EU and US State Department efforts to declare this a violation of Ukrainian sovereignty are the wrong focus.   They should accept the fact that Crimea is moving toward Russia and work out an arrangement that appeases Putin so that he does not then feel compelled to try to do the same with the rest of the Eastern Ukraine region.

In other words, according to Kruschevna, if Western diplomats try to prevent Putin from drawing Crimea back into his orbit, he may feel forced to foment unrest and destabilization in the rest of the Russian-speaking eastern region of Ukrain, leading to partition of the country.  Better to let Crimea go than to risk that.   She thinks that Putin does not really want the rest because of the serious economic problems.  

But, for Putin, Crimea is the prize.  It is a resort area and it contains the Russian naval base.  It is also a matter of pride since it is historically part of Russia -- and would be still if Kruschev had not given it to Ukraine.

This is a different point of view, a different understanding of where the people of Crimea really stand.   Yes, the demonstrations are whipped up by the Russians;  but they also express the wishes of the majority of Crimeans.

Stay tuned.   Thanks to Chris Hayes for coming up with this guest who is presenting a different view than I've heard otherwise.  She struck me as both knowledgeable and practical.



House Republicans have now made it an even 50.    Fifty votes to overturn, defund, limit, or delay the implementation of Obamacare.

Fifty futile votes to destroy a program that is working for the American people.   All that time wasted, knowing that the bills would not pass the Senate, or would be vetoed by the president if they did.

Meanwhile, the Republicans cannot bring themselves to pass legislation to extend unemployment insurance, raise the minimum wage, or reform immigration laws -- all of which are vitally needed by large numbers of Americans.

Apparently Republicans see those in need as "the 47%" who gobble up a few crumbs from the tables of the 1%.

Some priorities !!


Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Junk science in the courtroom

Nothing has brought home the dangers of having "junk science" presented as evidence in our courts of law than the current case in Michigan where the state is defending its ban on gay marriage.   The particular point here is that the state has based much of its case on the claim that children are harmed by having gay parents.

The star "expert witness" for the state was Sociologist Mark Regnerus, who has become the darling of the anti-gay forces -- religious conservatives, National Organization for Marriage, Family Research Council -- you know, that ilk.

The outrageous thing is that the Regnerus study has been thoroughly discredited by reputable scientists.  In response, the journal that published the Regnerus study had an outside group audit their paper review process.  They concluded that it should never have been published because of serious medthodological flaws, because its claims are not supported by the data, and because the author failed to honestly disclose the connections to funding from the Witherspoon Institute, a religious conservative organization.

Not only did Witherspoon give Regnerus a grant to do the study, but they advised him on what they were looking for and consulted with him during the study.  In addition, all three of the peer reviewers who recommended publication to the journal have connections with Witherspoon.

In short, it was a study designed to get a certain result, paid for and directed by a religious conservative organization, which also seems to have had a special inside track to get the report published in the jiournal Social Science Research.  The head of the audit committee told The Chronicle of Higher Education (the academic world's chief news publication) that Regnerus' study was "bullshit."

This all happened in 2012-13.  And yet, in 2014 the state of Michigan had Regnerus as its star witness in a most important case.    Why do they do this?    Because it is the only recent study that supposedly shows what the anti-gay marriage group wants to hear.  The over-whelming evidence is hundreds of studies that show same sex couples are just as good as parents as opposite-sex parents.

Here's the important thing about this Michigan use of Regnerus, however.   In all previous cases, his study has been cited in briefs filed with the case.   In Michigan, Regnerus himself took the stand and was cross-examined by an attorney who understood that it was junk.

Now, just to give a brief summary of the issue:  Regnerus claims that he evaluated the long-term emotional well-being of children of "same-sex parents" and found that they did not do as well as children reared by their biological parents.   But in fact, he did not evaluate children raised by same-sex parents.   Out of his study sample of 248, he found only two who had been raised by a stable same-sex couple.    All the rest of his sample were products of male-female couples in which one parent also had same-sex experiences that the kids knew about.

What this means is that Regnerus was comparing the effect of stable families with the effect of broken or troubled families.    It says nothing about the relative merits of stable same-sex couples as parents vs stable opposite-sex couples as parents, because he didn't have the same-sex couples to study.  In effect, he is comparing apples and oranges.

Under cross-examination, Regnerus acknowledged that his study is not conclusive and could not really make the claim that he does.   But he still believes what he believes, and he thinks that it would be shown by a study that did include same-sex parents.

Now that his study has been aired in court by a knowledgeable attorney, what really matters is what the judge believes.  Fortunately, it doesn't take a scientist to know that this is junk . . .  or, in the words of the journal audit committee's chairman,  "bullshit."


Tuesday, March 4, 2014

A couple of things I learned about Ukraine

Listening to Rachel Maddow on MSNBC last night, I learned a couple of things that bear on this Ukraine-Russia situation.

1.  Crimea was part of Russia until 1954, when then Premier of Russia, Nikita Kruschev decided to give Crimea to Ukraine.   Of course, both Ukraine and Russia were part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, so at that time it perhaps didn't make as much difference as it does today which part of the USSR Crimea belonged to.

2.  More important than that, however, is the Budapest Agreement signed in 1994.   With the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine became independent.   It also contained a large portion of the Soviet's nuclear weapons, which was a cause of great concern in the free world.

The Budapest Agreement was worked out whereby Ukraine agreed to give up or destroy it's nuclear weapons in exchange for an agreement, signed by the U. S., Great Britain, Russia, and Ukraine, that all parties would respect the boundaries and territorial integrity of Ukraine.

What is a little less clear, at least to me at this point, is whether the Agreement also obligated the other signatories to defend Ukraine if any of the others violated those boundaries.

It could not be clearer that Russia has violated this agreement.   Does the agreement also call upon us to defend Ukraine?   And would that include military defense?   Which would mean war, if Russia didn't back down?


Russia and the U.S. #2: But why?

Here's the question:   Why is it our place to do something about Russia invading Ukraine?  Why isn't it at least the European Union's place -- if anyone's, other than Russia and Ukraine? 
This whole unrest in Ukraine flared up when their President Yanukovich cancelled the plans to have stronger ties with the EU and turned instead to Russia.  That's what led to the demonstrations and the ultimate overthrow of Yanukovich -- which led him to ask Russia to intervene in Ukraine.

So, yes, we have interests in having more countries operate as democracies;  and, yes, we want to stand up for equal rights and political freedom.   But Ukraine is far more important to Europe than it is to us.    Why shouldn't they be the ones taking the lead in the world's response?


Monday, March 3, 2014

Russia and the U.S.

There seems little doubt, outside Russia that is, that their invasion of Ukraine violates international law and multiple treaties and agreements.   Both President Obama and Chancellor Angela Merkle of Germany have talked directly with President Putin and told him that.

Secretary of State John Kerry said on CBS's "Face the Nation" Sunday:  "You just don't in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pre-text."

Careful there, Mr. Kerry.   It's been proven that the Bush administration convinced the U. S. to invade Iraq on what turned out to be the "trumped up pre-text" of non-existent weapons of mass destruction.   And that was in the 21st century !!!!

Perhaps we should keep a touch of historical humility here.

Russia has the pretext that there is a sizable portion of Russian citizens who live in what is now Eastern Ukraine and Crimea, who feel threatened by what they consider an illegal take-over of the government by Europe-leaning leaders, who will weaken Ukraine's ties with Russia.

Now keep both pretexts in mind here.   I'm not saying that Putin is in the right.   I don't think we were in the right to invade Iraq either.   But before we get all high and mighty, let's keep a balanced perspective.    

Chancellor Merkle is said to have gotten Putin to agree to a dialogue with a "contact group" from the new Ukrainian government through the auspices of the Organization of Security and Cooperation of Europe. 

Let's give diplomacy and negotiation a chance.   We certainly aren't going to go to war with Russia.  Putin is not going to be swayed by denunciation, having already demonstrated by this invasion that he's willing to throw away whatever p.r. good will his $53 billion Olympics bought him.   He can veto any resolution passed by the U.N. Security Council.    Will economic or trade sanctions have an effect?   Maybe.   But there's not much else we can do unless we want to risk triggering a war.


Sunday, March 2, 2014

Ukraine, Russia #3

Journalist Julia Joffe, formerly a correspondent in Moscow, wrote this piece for The New Republic, explaining the situation in Ukraine/Crimean and Putin's motives for getting his parliament to give him permission to use force, not just in Crimea where it has a naval base, but also within the sovereign boundaries of Ukraine.

Joffee shares some "initial thoughts" about this:
Why is Putin doing this? Because he can. That's it, that's all you need to know. The situation in Kiev—in which people representing one half of the country (the Ukrainian-speaking west) took power to some extent at the expense of the Russian-speaking east—created the perfect opportunity for Moscow to divide and conquer. As soon as the revolution in Kiev happened, there was an unhappy rumbling in the Crimea, which has a large Russian population and is home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet. It was a small rumbling, but just big enough for Russia to exploit. And when such an opportunity presents itself, one would be foolish not to take it, especially if your name is Vladimir Putin.
She goes on to explain why the West misjudges Putinbecause we think in terms of Western logic.   But . . .

Russia, or, more accurately, Putin, sees the world according to his own logic, and the logic goes like this: it is better to be feared than loved, it is better to be overly strong than to risk appearing weak, and Russia was, is, and will be an empire with an eternal appetite for expansion. And it will gather whatever spurious reasons it needs to insulate itself territorially from what it still perceives to be a large and growing NATO threat. Trying to harness Russia with our own logic just makes us miss Putin's next steps. . . .

Neither America nor NATO can stop thisThey've shown they won't in Georgia, because nobody wants to start a war with nuclear-armed Russia, and rightly so. So while Washington and Brussels huff and puff about lines and sovereignty and diplomacy, Russia will do what it needs to do and there's not a thing we can do about it.

Russia's next target is eastern UkraineBecause pessimism conquers all, don't bet that Putin is going to stop once he wrests Crimea from Kiev's orbit. Eastern, Russian-speaking Ukraine—and all its heavy industry—is looking pretty good right now. And if you're thinking "Why would Putin take eastern Ukraine?," well, you haven't been reading very carefully.
Joffe seems to understand the mind of Putin better than anyone I have heard.  Let's hope President Obama and his cabinet have some others who also understand, not just the current situation, but the Russian mind-set.

One who does and who has President Obama's ear is our Russian-speaking ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul.   Unfortunately, he is just this week leaving government service to return to his academic world at Stanford.   A probing, informative interview with McFaul, by this same journalist Julia Joffe, appears in the March 3rd issue of The New Republic.

This is a very pessimistic picture that is unfolding before our eyes.   At a time when Russia's cooperation on Syria and Iran, especially, is badly needed, hostility between our two countries is escalating more than at any time since the Cold War ended.

John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and their war-mongering ilk have already started saying that President Obama is being weak, he should threaten Russia more aggressively, blah blah blah.   This is not helpful.  As former military officers, these two should know better than to openly question their commander-in-chief in such a crisis time.  As senators, they should know that diplomacy does not begin with a belligerent threat.   As politicians, they simply cannot pass up an opportunity to trash the leader of their Democratic rivals.   As citizens, they should be deeply ashamed of themselves.