Witnessing history

January 13, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

Every age has its historic moments.

Ours:

The 9/11/01 attacks and brutal amputation of Manhattan’s skyline
One of the most destructive tsunamis ever recorded (Indian Ocean)
One of the deadliest earthquakes ever recorded (Haiti)
One of the worst environmental disasters of all time (Gulf spill)
The virtual drowning of a major U.S. city (New Orleans/Katrina)
The near-drowning of a major U.S. city (New York/Sandy)
Japan’s monster earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster
The emergence – and denial – of the greatest man-made threat to human life (climate change)
The Middle East and North Africa uprisings

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Occupy Wall Street versus Tea Party: a video comparison

October 4, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

As OWS defies the skeptics and gains national traction, I figured it would be worth contrasting these interviews, the latter of which were conducted during Glenn Beck’s “Restore Honor” rally:

OCCUPY WALL STREET

RESTORE HONOR/TEA PARTY

Vindicated by new polls, progressive bloggers and activists will determine President Obama’s political fate

September 6, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

The defining conflict of the Obama presidency is not between the White House and Republicans. It’s not between the White House and the Tea Party. It’s between President Obama and the left, specifically between Obama and progressive opinion-makers and online activists.

It’s no coincidence that the angriest barbs from this White House have been directed at the netroots. And it’s no surprise that the media and political establishment – along with a vitriolic cadre of Obama supporters – are mortified by the principled left, simultaneously dismissing them as bit players and accusing them of being ingrates who are damaging Obama’s reelection prospects (hint: you can’t be both).

I’ve repeated a version of this thesis for years: a handful of influential progressive opinion-makers are canaries in the coal mine, propounding and presaging views and arguments later adopted by rank and file Democrats.

It’s been that way since the dawn of the blogosphere and has only been magnified with Twitter and other online platforms. Just as the netroots laid the groundwork for the eventual downfall of the Bush presidency, the sharp, insistent, principled critiques of President Obama emanating from the left on civil liberties, women’s reproductive rights, gay rights, the environment, secrecy, executive power, the economy, war, among other issues, have had a profoundly outsized effect on perceptions of this president.

Recent polls (including Gallup, which shows a double-digit decline among liberals) indicate significant erosion of support for Obama among groups who propelled him to victory in 2008, reinforcing the idea that reality is catching up with netroots criticism. This crumbling of support is typically attributed by pundits to the poor economy, but the problem is more complicated: it’s the poor economy coupled with the sense (fair or unfair) that Barack Obama has no convictions, no moral center, nothing for which he will take an unwavering stand.

That perception of a lack of  convictions can’t be attributed solely to attacks from the right, since they can be discounted as partisan. It’s when the left makes that argument that conventional wisdom congeals.

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GOP radicals and the end of American exceptionalism

August 9, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Last November, Karen Tumulty wrote an interesting article titled American exceptionalism: an old idea and a new political battle:

[T]he idea that the United States is inherently superior to the world’s other nations has become the battle cry from a new front in the ongoing culture wars. Lately, it seems to be on the lips of just about every Republican who is giving any thought to running for president in 2012.

The proposition of American exceptionalism, which goes at least as far back as the writing of French aristocrat and historian Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s, asserts that this country has a unique character. It is also rooted in religious belief. A recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution found that 58 percent of Americans agreed with the statement: “God has granted America a special role in human history.

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Are rightwing bloggers to blame for the Norway massacre?

July 25, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

In an article titled Killings in Norway Spotlight Anti-Muslim Thought in U.S., the New York Times highlights the connection between Anders Behring Breivik and American bloggers:

The man accused of the killing spree in Norway was deeply influenced by a small group of American bloggers and writers who have warned for years about the threat from Islam, lacing his 1,500-page manifesto with quotations from them…

His manifesto, which denounced Norwegian politicians as failing to defend the country from Islamic influence, quoted Robert Spencer, who operates the Jihad Watch Web site, 64 times, and cited other Western writers who shared his view that Muslim immigrants pose a grave danger to Western culture.

Mr. Breivik frequently cited another blog, Atlas Shrugs, and recommended the Gates of Vienna among Web sites. Pamela Geller, an outspoken critic of Islam who runs Atlas Shrugs, wrote on her blog Sunday that any assertion that she or other antijihad writers bore any responsibility for Mr. Breivik’s actions was “ridiculous.”

Much as I find Geller’s writing execrable, the primary responsibility for the slaughter in Norway rests with the cowardly killer and not the hate-mongers he quotes in his pathetic manifesto.

That’s not to say that there are no consequences for spewing a constant stream of hatred and intolerance.

After the Giffords shooting, I wrote about eliminationism on the right. My focus was on the invective directed by rightwingers at the left, but it also applies to anti-Muslim bigotry rampant on a number of conservative sites…

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Axiom: When Republicans are elected, women pay the price

June 3, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

This New York Times editorial (When States Punish Women) gets it right:

Just since April, six states — Indiana, Virginia, Nebraska, Idaho, Oklahoma and Kansas — have enacted laws banning insurance coverage of abortion in the health insurance exchanges created as part of federal health care reform, bringing the total to 14 states. Two states — Arizona and Texas — joined three others in making ultrasounds mandatory for women seeking to terminate pregnancies. Bills expected to be signed soon by Florida’s Republican governor, Rick Scott, contain both types of provisions.

Many of these fresh attacks on reproductive rights, not surprisingly, have come in states where the midterm elections left Republicans in charge of both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s mansion.

The shameless attack on women’s rights is an inevitable consequence of the GOP’s electoral victories:

Using small-government, libertarian rhetoric, the Tea Party ushered in a new crop of Republican leaders under the banner of fiscal responsibility. But the aggressive antichoice legislation coming from the new GOP majority in the House makes perfectly clear that belt-tightening deficit reduction is entirely compatible with an older social agenda committed to pushing American women out of the public sphere.

These initiatives are well coordinated and poised to make an enormous impact on women’s lives. House Republicans, joined by ten Democrats, passed Mike Pence’s bill to eliminate federal funding for Planned Parenthood, which in addition to pregnancy termination provides basic reproductive healthcare, STD testing, birth control and cancer screenings to millions of American women. The Republican Party has also proposed eliminating more than $1 billion from Head Start’s budget. As a result, 157,000 children may go without preschool care.

Meanwhile, the South Dakota legislature has considered a bill justifying homicide in the case of imminent harm to a fetus, a law that critics believe may in effect legalize the murder of abortion providers. Republicans in Arizona have proposed different birth certificates for children born to women who are not US citizens in order to nullify the birthright citizenship established by the Fourteenth Amendment. And Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is poised to eliminate most of the collective bargaining rights of public employees, including nurses, teachers and other pink-collar workers who are disproportionately women.

These numbers tell the story:

It’s almost an unbe­liev­able fig­ure — 916. That’s the amount of leg­is­la­tion that has been intro­duced so far this year, in an attempt to reg­u­late a woman’s repro­duc­tive sys­tem, and we’re only in April.

This infor­ma­tion comes from a report by The Guttmacher Insti­tute, and it finds that 49 states have con­tributed to this num­ber with var­i­ous bills geared towards reg­u­lat­ing Abor­tions and a woman’s right to choose. The report states that in 15 states, the fol­low­ing mea­sures became law:

  • expand the pre-abortion wait­ing period require­ment in South Dakota to make it more oner­ous than that in any other state, by extend­ing the time from 24 hours to 72 hours and requir­ing women to obtain coun­sel­ing from a cri­sis preg­nancy cen­ter in the interim;
  • expand the abor­tion coun­sel­ing require­ment in South Dakota to man­date that coun­sel­ing be pro­vided in-person by the physi­cian who will per­form the abor­tion and that coun­sel­ing include infor­ma­tion pub­lished after 1972 on all the risk fac­tors related to abor­tion com­pli­ca­tions, even if the data are sci­en­tif­i­cally flawed;
  • require the health depart­ments in Utah and Vir­ginia to develop new reg­u­la­tions gov­ern­ing abor­tion clinics;
  • revise the Utah abor­tion refusal clause to allow any hos­pi­tal employee to refuse to “par­tic­i­pate in any way” in an abortion;
  • limit abor­tion cov­er­age in all pri­vate health plans in Utah, includ­ing plans that will be offered in the state’s health exchange; and
  • revise the Mis­sis­sippi sex edu­ca­tion law to require all school dis­tricts to pro­vide abstinence-only sex edu­ca­tion while per­mit­ting dis­cus­sion of con­tra­cep­tion only with prior approval from the state.

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Epic irony: Mideast moves forward while America moves backward

February 23, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

The contrast between events in the Middle East and the political reality here in America is striking: as the people of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere rise by the millions to protest injustice, and as governments from Jordan to Syria see the writing on the wall, the United States gives power to a political movement bent on reversing generations of progress.

The GOP and Tea Party, drifting ever rightward, want to strip away health coverage, undermine faith in science, deny the overwhelming consensus on the mortal threat of climate change, give tax breaks to the rich, increase record wealth disparities, abolish women’s reproductive rights, defund public radio, gut gun laws, curtail gay rights, inject religion into government, and much more.

Targeting scientists, academics, public broadcasters, unions, health care providers and women, among others, they willfully misinterpret the Constitution to make specious arguments in favor of reactionary policies and are whipped into a frenzy by millionaire radio and TV blatherers, whose sole mission is to demonize liberals and liberalism — to the point of inciting violence against them.

Democratic leaders, obsessed with wooing “independent” voters, and captives of a toxic Beltway mindset, barely make a stand in the face of this all-out assault.

If we fail to see the irony of a Mideast marching into the future while America races into the past, we will pay the price.

UPDATE: The GOP’s mission to deny women’s reproductive rights/freedom is exemplified by this:

One hundred members of Congress (so far) have cosponsored a bill introduced by far right Congressman Joe Pitts (R-PA) called the “Protect Life Act.” They want to “protect life” so much that they have written into the bill a new amendment that would override the requirement that emergency room doctors save every patient, regardless of status or ability to pay.  The law would carve out an exception for pregnant women; doctors and hospitals will be allowed to let pregnant women die if interventions to save them will kill the fetus.

Heinous beyond words.

UPDATE II: More disturbing examples of America’s reverse trajectory…

First:

Georgia State Rep. Bobby Franklin has introduced a 10-page bill that would criminalize some miscarriages, and make abortion in Georgia completely illegal and punishable by death. Basically, it’s everything an “pro-life” activist could want aside from making all women who’ve had abortions wear big red “A”s on their chests.

Second:

For nearly a year, Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, Virginia’s crusading Republican attorney general, has waged a one-man war on the theory of man-made global warming. Invoking his subpoena powers, he has sought to force the University of Virginia to turn over the files of a prominent climatology professor, asserting that his research may be marred by fraud. The university is battling the move in the courts. Now his allegations of manipulated data and scientific fraud are resonating in Congress, where Republican leaders face an influx of new members, many of them Tea Party stalwarts like Mr. Cuccinelli, eager to inveigh against the body of research linking man-made emissions to warming.

Third:

In 2010, for the first time in 15 years, more bank branches closed than opened across the United States. An analysis of government data shows, however, that even as banks shut branches in poorer areas, they continued to expand in wealthier ones, despite decades of government regulations requiring financial institutions to meet the credit needs of poor and middle-class neighborhoods.

We are not worthy of you, Zahra Baker

February 21, 2011 by · 4 Comments 

In a post titled The most important person in the world, I argued that we are only as strong, powerful and important as the weakest link in the human chain. When a little girl is gang-raped, when a child wastes away from preventable hunger, when a woman dies needlessly in childbirth, when a little boy suffers from a preventable disease, we are all weakened, our worth diminished. The highest moral calling is to give to others, to extend a hand to those who need one. The most important person in the world is the one who most needs our compassion, care and generosity, the person who enables us to improve ourselves by helping them, who gives us value because we value them.

Which brings me to the soul-shattering story of Zahra Baker, whose time on earth is unlike anything most humans will ever encounter or endure:

A prosthetic leg thought to be that of missing 10-year-old Zahra Baker has been found in a brushy area off a North Carolina road, Chief Tom Adkins of the Hickory, North Carolina, police said Wednesday. Adkins said that the prosthetic leg is “consistent with” that of Zahra, a freckle-faced youngster who lost her leg to bone cancer at age 5 and developed lung cancer a few years later. The disappearance of Zahra, who had persevered through numerous health battles and wore hearing aids, has made international news. … Family members and neighbors have told reporters that Zahra’s stepmother abused her.

The depth of suffering contained in that paragraph defies comprehension. How can such a beautiful soul be put through so much pain? How can we go about our ordinary lives while such mortal agony takes place around us?

I know there’s no answer.

And I know we’re not worthy of you, Zahra Baker.

UPDATE: From CNN-

Elisa Baker, the stepmother of 10-year-old Zahra Baker, was indicted Monday on second-degree murder charges in the girl’s death, a Catawba County, North Carolina, court clerk told CNN.

“The defendant had a history and pattern of physical, verbal and psychological abuse of the victim,” the indictment said. The indictment described Zahra as “very young, physically infirm, or handicapped.” The girl lost part of her left leg at age 5 and lost hearing in both ears while being treated for cancer.

“The defendant took advantage of a position of trust or confidence, including a domestic relationship, to commit the offense,” the indictment said.

This raped, dead girl is your sister

February 4, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Read this story and imagine you’re reading about your sister – because you are:

A 14-year-old Bangladeshi girl allegedly raped by a much older cousin has died after being publicly flogged for adultery, media reports said. Hena Begum was sentenced to receive 100 lashes by a village council made up of elders and Muslim clerics in the district of Shariatpur, about 35 miles from the capital, Dhaka, the BBC said today. She endured about 80 lashes before collapsing Monday, according to The Daily Star, a Bangladeshi newspaper. Her family took her to a hospital, where she died.

Family members said Hena was raped by a 40-year-old married cousin, The Daily Star said. The man’s family beat up the teen, then accused of her adultery, the newspaper said. The very next day, she was sentenced to the flogging in a fatwa, or religious ruling, issued by the village council under Islamic Shariah law, the BBC said.

Lest anyone think that this is isolated to one religion, one culture or one region, read this.

I’ve said it before and I’ll repeat it: the wholesale oppression of women is the single greatest travesty of our time. Each of the victims is  your sister and my sister, not a statistic, not a stranger, but a fellow human with hopes, dreams and feelings. It shatters me that anyone has to experience what Hena went through. We MUST find a way to stop it.

On Egypt, Twitter missteps from the White House to Kenneth Cole

February 3, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

In the cacophony of Egypt-related commentary on Twitter, a couple of incidents illustrate the pitfalls of communicating publicly on social networks.

On January 29th, while the entire world was watching the historic events in Egypt, this Twitter exchange took place:

WH Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer (official account): @dcfooter on the road is tough, but Nova is very beatable

Pfeiffer: Tough game on the road, but Nova is very beatable if the guards shoot well RT@pfeiffer44 gtown-nova. What’s your confidence level?

Nic Lott: @pfeiffer44 How about more tweets on issues of the nation and world since this is a WH twitter account. Turmoil in Middle East. Not sports.

Pfeiffer: @niclott fair point. We are carefully monitoring. Pls see this video of POTUS talking about egypt last night http://bit.ly/ecz1Xo 9:25 AM Jan 29th via web in reply to niclott

After reading the back and forth, I gave credit to Pfeiffer for responding in real time and quickly pivoting to Egypt.

Similarly, on the White House Twitter account (@WhiteHouse), three wildly incongruous tweets appeared on February 2 as Egypt exploded:

Gibbs: “US deplores and condemns the violence that is taking place in Egypt… repeat our strong call for restraint” http://wh.gov/cJu 12:15 PM Feb 2nd via web

Congrats to the winners of Cabinet meeting jeopardy: @LauraKMM @gravitas28 @Only4RM @Diament_OU, others we missed 12:13 PM Feb 2nd via web

Photo of the Day contest: Name 4 Cabinet members pictured here. Bonus for 5. Prize: not much. (credit: @petesouza) http://twitpic.com/3vsscd 11:28 AM Feb 2nd via Twitpic

Far from politics, Kenneth Cole waded into a firestorm with a tweet that made light of the events in Egypt. Cole posted this apology on Facebook:

I apologize to everyone who was offended by my insensitive tweet about the situation in Egypt. I’ve dedicated my life to raising awareness about serious social issues, and in hindsight my attempt at humor regarding a nation liberating themselves against oppression was poorly timed and absolutely inappropriate.

Kenneth Cole, Chairman and Chief Creative Officer

I asked fellow Twitter users how they felt about the fluffy White House tweets. Some said it was meaningless and critics should lighten up, others disagreed:

jentwats it’s disgusting

eclexia Utter callous stupidity

jbuford Light-hearted tweets coming from the WH are jarring and incongruous

This raises a much larger question – one of the most profound and intractable problems we face as humans, namely, how to balance pleasure with sensitivity to others’ pain, how to enjoy life in the midst of unfathomable sadness. There is no easy answer. It’s the perennial problem of how much to give of ourselves and how often. Should we plunk down $100 on a nice meal when kids are starving around the world? How about having a $20 meal and donating the rest to feed several families? Should we laugh and joke and smile at the exact moment that little girls are being raped with broken bottles? Is it fair? Is it right?

Our general impulse is to say that it’s a matter of degree, that there is infinite anguish on this planet and we can’t survive if we internalize all of it, nor can we spend all our time suffering over the suffering of others. If we sacrifice and help to a reasonable extent it’s the most we can do. Perhaps. Perhaps not.

As I said, there’s no answer. We each find our own equilibrium. Some do nothing, some dedicate their entire lives to the cause of helping others in need.

In the end, at the very least, we should appreciate the pain that’s all around us. Even if we don’t devote every waking moment to alleviating it, let’s not exacerbate it by turning a blind eye.

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