Saturday, January 9, 2016

Dog whistles and bullhorns

According to my favorite Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist, Jay Bookman, the difference between the dog whistle and the bullhorn in the Republican Party is Donald Trump.   The message is not that different, just the decibels of the delivery.   Here's Jay:
"Donald Trump is a symptom, not a cause, of the intellectual rot within the Republican Party.  Put another way, he's what the doctors would call an 'opportunistic infection,' a malady that couldn't take hold in a healthy host but that thrives in a host with an already weakened immune system.

"Marco Rubio, the great slight hope of the waning Republican establishment, offered confirmation of that diagnosis this week in his remarks to an American Legion group in New Hampshire.   'It's now abundantly clear,' Rubio said.  'Barack Obama has deliberately weakened America.'

"Think about that.  Rubio wasn't arguing that Obama's policies had been flawed, leaving the country weakened as a result.   He was claiming intent.  He was going to motive.  Rubio explicitly argued that the twice-elected president of the United States, our commander in chief, set out to deliberately weaken the country becasue he believes it is a force for evil in the world."
Bookman goes on to elaborate on how we've always had fringe people who say such things.
"Rubio, on the other hand, is a leading presidential candidate, someone viewed as the probable champion of his party's mainstream.   As his example demonstrates, once your party deems it acceptable to spread such nonsense by dog whistle, you have no standing to complain when someone like Trump barges in and does so via bullhorn."
Bookman then talks about how corrosive such allegations are to our system of democratic government, which is "founded on mutual trust;  without it, the Constitution is a dead letter."   Politicans will always disagree and fight.
"However, once one party succumbs to the notion that the other is guilty of treachery, of actively trying to undermine the whole country, as Rubio implies, the system cannot function.  In such an environment, the compromise that fuels a constitutional republic becomes redefined as collaboration with the enemy.   Faith in the system disappears;  radical responses are legitimized and gunmen start taking over government buildings.

"Once unleashed, such an attitude is hard to contain.  The old-school elements within the Republican Party that still appreciate the danger -- Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Lindsey Graham, etc. -- have lost the will or capability to corral it, and the likes of Rubio have surrendered to it.   If it is to be consigned once again to the fringes, where it belongs, the American voter will have to resoundingly reject it."
*     *     *     *     *
I think Bookman has this exactly right.   This attitude was evident on the day Barack Obama took office in January 2009, when Mitch McConnell proclaimed on the Senate floor that the aim of the Republicans would be to see that Obama was a one-term president.    Where has a political party's senate leader so blatantly put partisan politics ahead of the basic functioning of our government and done so much harm to the American people in the process?   Ted Cruz would be even worse, having already taken pride in shutting down the government and threatening to do it again -- until his own party rose up against him.

Even McConnell was still open, occasionally, to compromise.   But the backlash against any softening of that by the Republicans led to the uncompromising crowd that swept into congress since then, demanding that McConnell and Boehner carry out that vendetta.

When they failed to get what they wanted, then we get the Republican base angry at the Republican establishment.    And then we get politicians like Trump and Cruz, willing to promise them that they will make things right.   That is what we're seeing in this GOP primary:   the revolt of the Republican base against the Republican establishment and their candidates.    Trump fans the flames, Cruz plays the game, and Rubio seems to feel he has no choice but to jump on the bandwagon.

Will the voters catch on -- and reject these snake oil salesmen?   If not, then the Republican voters will have been lied to once again by their own party, promising what cannot be delivered -- and in the process wrecking any functioning government.


PS:   A great wordsmith at play almost slips by in the third paragraph above:   "Marco Rubio, the great slight hope of the waning Republican establishment. . . "     A play on "the Great White Hope."

Friday, January 8, 2016

Ammon Bundy tries to provoke a fight with the feds, but the government is just waiting him out.

Photo of Ammon Bundy by Associated Press.

Here is the rather pathetic tale of the quixotic quest of Ammon Bundy from Utah, who has assembled a small ragtag bunch of guys with guns to takeover a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon.   The quest is another in the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion of Western ranchers in conflict the federal government over control of land and resources in the western states. 

Ammon's father, Cliven Bundy, created a similar standoff in Utah over refusing to pay grazing fees for his cattle on federal lands.   That almost flared up into an armed confrontation.   This time, the government is wisely just asking them to leave and then waiting them out.  Here's the tale, as reported by Rolling Stone magazine's Tim Dickinson.

*     *     *     *     *
"The armed standoff in remote southeast Oregon, where white militants led by the Bundy clan have taken over federal buildings at a wildlife refuge, isn't going according to plan.

"The would-be insurrectionists are undermanned, undersupplied and exhausted. [They've been there less than a week. RR]  They've been unable to provoke the confrontation with federal agents that they chest-thumpingly declared themselves willing to die in. And they've found themselves roundly mocked on social media as 'Yee-hawdists' in the service of 'Y'all Qaeda' . . . . 

"Taking up arms against the federal government is no laughing matter, of course. And if the militants were black, brown or Muslim, they'd likely be dead by now. But for a group of heavily armed Christian white dudes play-acting at revolution, things could hardly be going worse.

"On Monday night, in fact, one Bundy brother told Oregon Public Broadcasting the militiamen might be willing to move along now — if the community requests it: 'This is their county – we can't be here and force this on them,' Ryan Bundy said. 'If they don't want to retrieve their rights, and if the county people tell us to leave, we'll leave.'

"How did the Bundy plan for revolution go sideways? The troubled evolution of the plot can be traced via Ammon Bundy's social media presence.

"December 29.  The grand scheme to take a 'hard stand' against federal 'tyranny' took shape in the days after Christmas. In a video posted December 29, Ammon Bundy, son of the infamous deadbeat rancher Cliven, decried the 'tremendous abuses' faced by a pair of Oregon cattlemen convicted of arson by the federal government. 'We have to say that either we're OK with these gross, blatant violations of the constitution… or we make a stand,' Bundy declared.

"That's when Bundy, fighting tears, issued a call to action to his family's militant, anti-government supporters: 'I'm asking you — and you know who you are: You that came, and you that felt to come, to the Bundy Ranch — I'm asking you to come to Burns [Oregon] on January 2, to make a stand.'

"December 31.  Almost from the beginning, there were warning signs that this plot wasn't gelling, because of internal strife in the 'patriot' community. In his next video, posted on New Year's Eve, a nervous looking Ammon Bundy calls out to militia members across the country. He pleads with them to flout the orders of militia leaders who, he reveals, had been calling for a 'stand down' — instead of a standoff — in Oregon.

"Looking into the camera lens, Bundy says: 'I am wanting to talk to the individual, to the patriot. This is not the time to stand down,' he says, 'It's time to stand up. And come to Harney County. We need your help. And we're asking for it. No matter what your leader says… you need to get to Burns on the 2nd.'

"January 2.  Bundy did find followers, including men like John Ritzheimer, the Arizona man who organized the gun-toting protest of the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix last October.  Ritzheimer ventured to Oregon and declared himself, in a goodbye video to his family, '100 percent willing to lay my life down to fight against tyranny in this country.'

"Seizing an unoccupied federal complex wasn't the tricky part. Following a demonstration on the streets of Burns on Saturday, January 2, the Bundy militiamen drove 30 miles south to execute their takeover of the compound at the federal Malheur National Wildlife Refugewhich was closed for the weekend, and to which somehow they had obtained a full set of keys. . . . 

"In the immediate aftermath of the Saturday takeover, Bundy talked a big game: 'We're planning on staying here for years, absolutely,' he said. 'This is not a decision we've made at the last minute.'

"The militants also told reporters that their numbers were legion — as many as 150. Oddly, however, Bundy also issued a call for backup: 'Those who... feel the need to stand, we're asking them to come. We have a facility that we can house them in. We need you to come and be unified with us so we can be protected,' he said.

"January 3.  By light of day it becomes clear the militants' manpower was greatly exaggerated: Credible estimates from visitors to the complex put their number at fewer than two dozen, and perhaps as low as 15 men. And this skeleton crew is clearly struggling to secure the sprawling complex in the bitter cold of the Oregon high desert, where temperatures drop into the single digits at night.

"By Sunday night a visibly exhausted Ammon Bundy made a new call for reinforcement, invoking his divine inspiration: 'I know that what we did is right. I know the Lord is involved, and I know that we're going to see great things come from this,' Bundy said. 'But we need you. We need you,' he pleaded. 'We have a group of wonderful people here that are strong. We've got good numbers. But there is a lot to do, and we will eventually get tired if we do not have help. We also need more of a defense.  Need to make sure that there is enough people here that nobody comes down upon us — and that is a very real reality right now. So we need you to come and we need you be part of this.'

"January 4.  The militant's preparedness for an as-long-as-it-takes standoff was similarly laughable. By Monday, it was clear the militants were under-resourced, and hungry. Supporters put out a call online to send 'supplies and snacks'. . . . 

"As the standoff has dragged on, the federal government seems content to let the militants freeze in isolation — and tire of their make-believe revolution.

"Even once-reliably anti-government Republicans are turning their backs: Ted Cruz, who once sympathized with Cliven Bundy's stand against the Obama administration's 'jackboot authoritarianism,' has called on Bundy's sons to 'stand down.'

"The Harney County Sheriff released a statement saying flatly: 'It's time for you to leave our community.'   [The latest is that yesterday the sheriff offered to escort them safely out of the county.   So far Bundy has not accepted the offer. RR]

"Even the wife of one of the two local ranchers — for whose honor and justice the militants claim to be ready to lay down their lives — has been throwing shade: 'I don't really know the purpose of the guys who are out there,' she told Oregon Public Broadcasting.

"Instead of building the fearsome anti-government insurgency of their fever dreams, the hungry, dirty, exhausted Bundy militants are looking more and more like the Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight. Here's hoping they have the sense to lay down their weapons before their true marksmanship is tested."

*     *     *     *     *
The sad fact is that the Bundy's quest is real, and it's not getting a fair hearing because of this ill-conceived and ill-planned debacle.    I don't mean that these guys' paranoid hatred of the government's alledged "jackbooted authoritarianism" is valid.  But the federal governement does own vast lands in the West, and the question is whether the states and local governments should have more say in how the land is used, whether for grazing cattle, exploration for resources, or development -- or to continue being preserved as national parks and protected wildernesses.   Of course, I'm in favor of saving as much land as possible for the latter.   But the fact is that, in some Western states, the federal government owns more than half of the land in the state.

It's not that the feds took over people's land.   This is land that was acquired by our government in the expansion of our country westward.    Various programs for land grants and homesteading led to private ownership by individuals.  Should that still be possible, as opposed to the feds renting it out for grazing or mining?

So there is a legitimate argument to be made.   But this isn't the way to go about it:  going to another state to pick a fight that local people weren't interested in themselves.  It has only made the Bundy crowd a laughing stock, even among conservatives who may agree with them.  And it's going to be hard for these macho men to back down and just go home -- without some display of toughness and willingness to die for a lost cause.

It's not over yet, but it's clear that we're not going to have the fight Ammon Bundy wanted.   Kudos to the cool heads in the federal government for just waiting them out and refusing to be drawn into an armed confrontation.


Thursday, January 7, 2016

Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore does it again

Alabama's Supreme Court Chief Justice, Roy Moore, already had a dubious claim to fame.  In 2003, when he previously served as Chief Justice, he commissioned and installed in the Alabama Judiciary Building a two and one-half ton granite monument inscribed with the Ten Commandments.    A legal battle ensued, a federal judge ordered him to remove the monument.  Moore refused, and then the Alabama Court of the Judiciary stepped in and removed Moore from office.

Moore then twice ran for governor and lost.   In 2011 he ran again for Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice -- and won.   So, not to be outdone by his previous defiance as the state's chief judge, he has come up with another act of defiance.

It began following the U. S. Supreme Court decision last June to overturn bans on same-sex marriage in Michigan, Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee.   SCOTUS chose to hear those four appeals, because they were all from the 8th Circuit and represented the only controversy on the issue at the appeals court level.    All the other circuit appeals have resulted in bans being overturned.   And it is widely accepted that SCOTUS' ruling applies to all 50 states, not just the four states whose cases were heard.

Widely accepted, that is, except in Justice Roy Moore's narrow world inhabited by the likes of Kim Davis and her supporters.   Soon after the SCOTUS decision last June, Moore refused to order county clerks in Alabama to issue same-sex licenses to gay couples, although most did.

Now Moore has issued an administrative order barring state judges from issuing the licenses, claiming that SCOTUS' decision struck down marriage bans only in the four states named in the suits.    His order referred to the "confusion and uncertainty" about the ruling and referenced the jailing of Kim Davis as an example.

Like his soul-mates Kim Davis, who refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses in a Kentucky county, and the Bundy crowd occupying a federal building in Oregon to demand that national park land be returned to local control, Moore seems not to accept federal courts and federal laws as superceding state courts and laws.  Moore claims, somewhat blithely, that the Alabama Supreme Court's interpretation of the SCOTUS decision on marriage equality is "yet to be determined."

Is that absurd claim clear?   He wants Alabama's court to "interpret" a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court?  It's questionable whether Moore really thinks he has a case;  perhaps he's just grandstanding again.  What he thinks he can wring out of this is very murky indeed.

We shall see.   Once upon a time, federal marshals were sent to enforce a U.S. Supreme Court decision requiring the integration of pubic schools.   Will we see the same thing happening on gay marriage?    Would this be the 2016 latest version of a "shotgun wedding?


Wednesday, January 6, 2016

If an armed guard had been on duty at this church, would this man have been shot?

OK.   This is one anecdote, and maybe police officers perform similar acts of courage like this every day without resort to their guns -- and we just don't hear about them.  Good news is so often not treated as news.   If so, then police departments should start letting us know.   It would be the best antidote to the increasing cynicism about fairness in our justice system.

But let's take this inspiring anecdote and instructive lesson just as it was reported by Leslie Salzillo on Daily Kos:

"Minutes before the clock struck midnight and most of the country was about to ring in the New Year, a church congregation in Fayetteville, North Carolina, faced a horrifying scare after a 57-year-old man walked into the church armed with a rifle and ammo clip.  

"Pastor Larry Wright, who is also a Fayetteville city councilman, was giving a sermon to 60 members of adults and children, when he noticed a man enter the church holding a rifle in the air. Wright left the podium and confronted the stranger and convinced him to disarm. Nate Rogers with WNCN news reports:  
He said, ‘I came here with some terrible things on my mind, I was going to do some bad things’,” Pastor Wright told WNCN.
"Church members started screaming, and some ran for the exit. But what happened next is stunning.

Wright says the man calmly shared he’d been previously hurt by the church, recently released from prison and was also a veteran.  He then asked for prayers.  Wright took the gun away and called for other men to come and embrace the suspect.
"The man fell to his knees and cried. . . .  Police lead the man away after the service, did not charge him, and at this time, the man is receiving treatment at a local facility."

*     *     *
We've been saturated lately by news stories about excessive police use of their guns -- with no apparent effort to handle "a man with a gun" any way except by shooting him, even when it was a 12 year old boy with a toy gun.   In contrast is this story of a courageous pastor reaching out to a disturbed man with a gun and preventing a double tragedy to his congregation and to the man himself.   Everyone is fortunate that there was no armed guard on duty, and the pastor himself handled the situation.

Maybe we need less police training in the use of guns and more in a pastoral approach to disturbed people.   You know the old adage:

If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.


Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Gov. Deal backs down

On Monday, Gov. Nathan Deal (R-GA) rescinded his executive order of some weeks ago in which he ordered all state agencies not to participate in federal efforts to resettle Syrian refugees in the state of Georgia (i.e., no food stamps or other assistance).

After warnings from the federal government, which has sole authority over refugee settlement, and after an opinion by Georgia's Attorney General Sam Olens that the governor did not have the authority, Gov. Deal issued his one-sentence order that rescinded his earlier executive action.

Nathan Deal has been wrong again and again, but it's usually been errors in judgment driven by his conservative political ideology,  as well as a major breach of common sense and humantarian sensibilityThis time he was wrong on a matter of the law as well.

Of course, he's already guilty of lacking common sense and humantarian sensibility in refusing to expand Medicaid -- that would help hundreds of thousands of Georgians get health care and bring in huge amounts of federal money, create jobs, etc.


Race matters: What if Tamir Rice had been white? What if the "affluenza" teen had been black?

Tamir Rice was a 12 year old black boy, playing in the park with a toy gunHe did not kill anybody, but the police shot him dead on the spot.

Ethan Couch was a 16 year old white boy, drunk as a skunk while driving his car.   He crashed into a group of people and killed four of them.   He got probation -- which he and his mother then violated by fleeing to Mexico.

Part of Ethan's defense included a psychologist testifying that he suffered from "affluenza," a made-up 'diagnosis' to support the claim that he had grown up too affluent and too spoiled to have developed a sense of responsibility for his actions.

In other words, the police shot the innocent black boythe guilty white boy got 'excused.'

Can any sane person honestly believe that race had nothing to do with this starkly different outcome of these two boys' lives?

There's more.   In the first place, someone observing Tamir playing in the park called the police, no doubt because he was black.   If he had been a white 12 year old playing in the park, would anyone have:  (1) Been scared of him?   (2) Assumed he was older and more dangerous than he was?   (3) Been as careless in transmitting info to the police officers?   (4) Been so ready to shoot on arrival?

And in the courtroom:   Can any sane person honestly imagine that a black boy from a poor family, who lived in a neighborhood where violence was common, where expectations were high that he would spend some of his life in jail, simply because he was black -- can anyone imagine that some smart, pricey lawyer would invent an absurd diagnostic term to excuse his irresponsible behavior, like the "affluenza" that was applied to Ethan Counch?   In short, can you imagine an argument for "depriva-fluenza?"

If he had been white, would the police have driven the squad  car right up to the figure in the park and been so ready to shoot him even before the car came to a stop?

No, I'm not saying this is only about race.    The way the prosecutor handled the case was clearly prejudicial toward a non-indictment.   But was that because Tamir was black and the two officers involved were white?    Or was is because it was police officers who did the shooting, and they almost never get charged with a crime?

There are two major problems in this:   (1) race and (2) police accountability for excessive use of force.   Both are major problems that must be faced.   The explosion of cell phone videos is increasingly forcing the latter problem to be addressed.   It's shocking to realize the low bar set by the Supreme Court that lets officers go free.   All they have to claim is that it was reasonable to fear for their lives.   But that has fostered a shoot first mentality rather than training for skills in defusing a situation or talking down a distraught person with a gun. 


Monday, January 4, 2016

Dire predictions if Obama was re-elected in 2012 -- how those things turned out

During the 2012 re-election campaign, Republicans made some dire predictions about what would happen if Barack Obama was given a second term.    Here are four big ones, compiled by Judd Legum for ThinkProgress blog.

1.  Gas prices would soar.   Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) predicted $6.60 per gallon.   Newt Gingrich, running for the GOP nomination, said Obama's energy policies would pump prices to $10 a gallon -- and promised to get the cost down to $2.50 if we elected him.   Ha.   Ha.    I think on my last fill-up, I paid $1.93.   And this is despite the "Obama policies" of rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline, more EPA regulation, and limited drilling on public land.

2.  Umemployment would be stuck at over 8%.    That year, 2012, it had been between 8.1% and 8.3% all year.    Instead the national rate is 5%, and since January 2013 over 7.8 million new jobs have been created. 

3.  The stock market would crash.   Some experts said the stock market would drop at least 20%.   Despite a downturn in 2015, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (one of the standard indexes) is up 27% compared with what it was when Obama was re-elected.

4,  The entire economy was supposed to crash, according to conservative pundits.   Rush Limbaugh predicted "the country's economy is going to collapse if Obama is re-elected."   He also predicted that California would declare bankruptcy;  instead it currently has a $4 billion budget surplus.  The U. S. economy is growing at a respectable rate of 3.9% in the second quarter and 2% in the third quarter of 2015.

Nevertheless, wage growth has remained flat, and income inequality has only gotten worse.   Both of those, however, are more the result of Republican policies of tax cuts for the wealthy, slashing of public sector jobs, and refusal to raise minimum wages.    If given a freer hand by congress, Obama would have done the opposite, and those numbers would be going the other way as well.


Sunday, January 3, 2016

Update on Mideast madness

Update from the New York Times on the Saudi Arabia execution: 

Saudia Arabia, which has a Sunni monarchy, and Iran, which is ruled by Shi'ite clerics, have a long standing animosity that is seen as both a religious sectarian conflict as well as a struggle over political/economic dominance in the region.

The Saudi government's execution of an important leader of the small minority of Shi'ia in its country is playing out on the world stage as a major provocation, leading to attacksd on Saudi embassies, especially in Tehran.   Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei had on his web site a photo of a supposed Saudi executioner alongside a photo of an ISIS executioner, with the question of "Is there any difference?" 
"Despite the rhetoric, however, the Iranians seemed to be taking steps to prevent the dispute from escalating further. Forty Iranians were arrested on Saturday night for the violence — a sign that the authorities were trying to keep public outrage from getting out of control." 
Hassan Rouhani, Iran's elected president, condemned the execution but also deplored the violent response in Iran, saying that rogue groups committing illegal actions damages the reputation of Iran.

The U.N. high commissioner of human rights, issued a rebuke of Saudi Arabia, expressing concern over the surge in Saudi executions.   The U.N. secretary general, the U. S. and the European Union have all condemned the execution of Sheikh Himr who, according to Ayatollah Khamenei "neither encouraged people to take armed action nor engaged in secret plotting" but was merely openly criticizing the Saudis and promoting his religious values of virtue.

I'm going out on a limb and suggest that the agreement with Iran over its nuclear future is partly responsible for this measured reaction from the rulers of Iran.   It can't hurt for them to have learned that they can rejoin the world of nations, and even gain the upper hand diplomatically and in reputation, by exercising responsible behavior in a crisis.   At this point, the Saudis look like the bad guys, the Iranians the good guys.


Afternoon Update:   Saudi Arabia has now severed relations with Iran and given their diplomatic representatives 48 hours to leave the country.   The Saudi government said that it could not allow Iran to breach the security of its country, referring to the protesters in Iran breaking into the Saudi embassy.     This raises the Mideast crisis another notch.   It is the cooperation of these two countries that could most help in the struggle against ISIS.

The Saudis just threw gasoline on Middle East fires

Saudi Arabia has executed 47 prisoners, including the outspoken and influential Shiite cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, who has been highly critical of the ruling dynasty and was recognized as the leader of the young Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia.  This has ignited protests and attacks on Saudi embassies in the Middle East, especially in Tehran where protesters set fire and ransacked the Saudi embassy. 

The official explanation is that 43 of the 47 were Sunni jihadists rebels, some of them members of al Queda and 4 were Shi'ites who had attacked Saudi police.  But Human Rights Watch's director, Sarah Leah Whitson, said that "Regardless of the crimes allegedly committed, executing prisoners in mass only further stains Saudi Arabia's troubling human rights record." 

Executing 43 Sunni rebels was apparently meant to show that this was about getting rid of threats to overthrow the government, not a Sunni./Shi'ia sectarian killing.    But other Shi'ia nations are not going to see it that way, when the only person of note was the Shi'ia cleric who is widely seen as the inspirational leader of the Shi'ia minority in Saudi Arabia.  It's reminiscent of the Romans crucifying two petty thieves alongside Jesus, trying to minimize the importance of this inspiring enemy of the ruling powers.

In addition to everything else, this puts further strain on the United States in the delicate negotiations to get a coalition -- some enemies of each other -- to fight ISIS in Syria and Iraq.  Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally, is a current member of the United Nations Human Rights Council and usually has the support of the United States and the United Kingdom in that body.   Now its Shi'ia critics, chiefly Iran, are saying there is no difference between beheadings by ISIS and beheadings by the Saudi government.

It further complicates the Middle East tinder box that Saudi Arabia is a mostly Sunni nation (85-90%) needed to help counter the impression that fighting the Sunni ISIS is a sectarian war between Sunni and Shi'ia divisions of Islam.   Now how do we get both (Sunni) Saudi Arabia and (Shi'ia) Iran to join in the fight and cooperate?