Author Archives: weeklysift

Doug Muder is a former mathematician who now writes about politics and religion. He is a frequent contributor to UU World.

Survival and Democracy

I have not yet heard … a persuasive vision of how Israel survives as a democracy and a Jewish state at peace with its neighbors in the absence of a peace deal with the Palestinians and a two-state solution. Nobody has presented me a credible scenario.

President Barack Obama

This week everybody was talking about Netanyahu’s re-election

What that means is the subject of this week’s featured post “What Just Happened?“. My main take-away from the election is that the problem in Israel isn’t Netanyahu, it’s the electorate.

One of the things I don’t discuss in that article is the early exit polls, which predicted a much closer election. Whenever that happens, suspicious people start charging fraud. In this case, though, it looks like late-and-early voters just voted differently than mid-day voters.

Now, a surge just before polls close is sometimes evidence of a different kind of fraud, but I haven’t seen any supporting evidence for that. In the U.S., you’d be talking about the difference between people who have day jobs and the rest of us. But in Israel, Election Day is a national holiday, so that’s not it.

I wouldn’t jump to conclusions here. If something is actually wrong, Israelis will probably figure it out for themselves.

and debates about the budget

It will be interesting to see whether Republicans in Congress can agree with themselves on next year’s budget; then we can worry about whether Democrats will filibuster or Obama will veto.

The basic political problem of the budget is that Americans grossly overestimate how much the government spends on things they don’t like. So cutting government spending sounds good in the abstract, but the vast majority of federal spending goes for stuff that is widely popular, like defense, Social Security, Medicare, unemployment compensation, and highway construction. A lot of the rest is spent on stuff that is useful and necessary: air traffic control, disaster relief, disease control, food safety, and so on. You may not think about it very often, but as soon as somebody dies of Ebola or a batch of tainted food hits the market, everybody wonders why the government doesn’t have this under control already.

What’s left is mostly spent on poor kids and poor sick people. When it’s made clear what a spending cut will do, in terms of kids going hungry and sick people dying, cutting there isn’t all that popular either.

So if you want to make major cuts, the best way to do it is to hide what you’re cutting. The two main tricks for doing this are the block grant and the magic asterisk. The proposed Republican budget (which achieves balance by 2025) has both.

The magic asterisk is an unspecified $1.1 trillion cut over ten years in “Other Mandatory” spending. The WaPo’s Wonkblog explains:

Other than health care and Social Security, mandatory spending includes a range of programs such as food stamps, disability payments for veterans, the earned income tax credit, and Pell grants for college students. The budget document did not specify which would be cut.

So if you’re a disabled veteran wondering if this means you’re going to be cut off — or anybody else who might be affected — your Republican congressman can assure you: “No, we meant other Other Mandatory spending.” He can say that to everybody.

The problem with magic-asterisk budgeting is that when it comes time to pass an appropriations bill, the Republicans will discover they can’t: They never really agreed on specific spending cuts, they just agreed on the abstract idea of spending cuts.

Block grants just push the sleight-of-hand down to the states. Ezra Klein explains:

A block grant takes money the federal government is already spending on a program and gives it to the states to administer — usually with fewer rules and conditions. That’s it. The hope is that states will use the money more efficiently. But block grants can cost more, cost the same, or cost less than the funding mechanisms they replace. Block grants change how money is spent, not necessarily how much money is spent.

… There’s nothing magic about block grants that makes Medicaid cost $700 billion less; it just sounds better to say you’re going to save money by block-granting Medicaid and food stamps then by cutting hundreds of billions of dollars from Medicaid and food stamps.

The reason these kinds of tricks are necessary is that the federal budget is generally money well spent. If there were trillions budgeted for bridges to nowhere, Republicans wouldn’t have to hide what they’re cutting.

and I finally got around to paying attention to Hillary’s emails

I’ve had trouble getting interested in this story, because I know lots of people in Clinton’s generation who think email is magic. They use their mail app and something happens; they can’t be bothered with what it is. Colin Powell also used a private email account to do business as Secretary of State, because, well, who knows why? He didn’t think his email was broken when he became Secretary, so he didn’t fix it.

Nobody really cares about government email archives unless some other story makes them care. If you’re a Benghazi conspiracy theorist, for example, the fact that there might be a hidden trove of conspiratorial Clinton emails somewhere is a big deal; it keeps your fantasies alive. But none of those people were going to vote for Clinton anyway.

Another reason people might care is if Hillary were running as some squeaky-clean good-government reformer. Then the idea that she might have cut a corner somewhere would spoil the image she’s trying to project. But that image was never going to work anyway, and Clinton surely knew that already.

So there’s the possibility that the email story might feed into some other story later, and that people might care about it then. But until then, it’s no big deal.

What the story does point out, though, is the risk of Democrats putting all their eggs in the Clinton basket so early in the process. If tomorrow Jeb Bush were caught in a tryst with an underage boy, Republicans would shake their heads sadly and move on to the next candidate. But if some scandal or unexpected medical problem put Hillary out of the race, Democrats would be scrambling.

and you also might be interested in …

Alternet points out one thing that’s wrong with our national discussion of education policy: Often nobody in the room is an actual educator. No teachers, no principals, no education researchers, no professors of education — just “individuals from influential right-wing think tanks, with little to no scholarly work or graduate-level degree work in education.”

That’s not just on TV, it’s in fairly highbrow publications like The Economist. So that’s something to keep in mind the next time you watch or read a piece about how our education system needs to be completely re-organized: Is there any reason to believe that these people know what they’re talking about? Are the people presented as “experts” any more knowledgeable than someone you might meet at a bar?


While we’re on the subject, ThinkProgress observes that “Every Claim In This Ted Cruz Statement Is Completely False“. The statement is about the Common Core education standards, which Cruz says he will “repeal every word” of.

When someone asked his office what that could possibly mean, since Common Core is not a law and so can’t be “repealed”, a Cruz spokesperson said:

Common Core is a federally created curriculum that the state’s ‘Race to the Top’ grants are tied to,” offered Catherine Frazier, a spokeswoman for Cruz. “So if the state does not adopt the standards, it gives up the grant money. But since the federal government created this mess, there should be a way to undo it.

And that’s the statement that is completely false. CC is not federally created, it’s not a curriculum, Race to the Top didn’t tie grants to it, and since the grants are almost all spent already anyway, there can’t be any penalty for a state to un-adopt the standards if it wants to.

But if none of the claims are true, they’re all “truthy” to Cruz’s right-wing target audience. So I’m sure he’ll keep repeating them.


Still on education: Remember Dave Brat, the Tea Party insurgent who upset Eric Cantor in a primary? He’s in Congress now, and he says education funding isn’t necessary, because “Socrates trained Plato on a rock.

Aside from just being false — Plato was a aristocrat, and had a lot of expensive teachers before Socrates — Brat’s remark is evidence of a serious problem in his thinking: Are we just trying to train a handful of aristocratic geniuses, or do we want to have an educated society? Or does he think we could hire a Socrates for every child in America? If we could, maybe we could teach them on rocks.


Proof the NFL concussion problem is considered serious: 24-year-old Chris Borland, who was a well-regarded rookie linebacker for the 49ers last season, announced his retirement. He’s had only one concussion, described as “minor”, but: “From what I’ve researched and what I’ve experienced, I don’t think it’s worth the risk.”

He’s worked most of his young life to achieve his dream of playing in the NFL, and now he’s in a position to make millions. But it’s not worth the risk.

and let’s close with a moment of Zen

What Just Happened?

Prime Minister Netanyahu trashed President Obama, the peace process, and Israeli Arabs — and made a startling political comeback. Maybe it’s time Americans recognized that Israel has changed.


During George W. Bush’s first term, a lot of thoughtful foreign observers felt sorry for America and its good-hearted citizens. A fluke in our electoral system had allowed Bush to take office even though Al Gore had gotten more votes. Once in power, Bush turned out to be a radical conservative rather than the like-father-like-son moderate many voters had expected.

And now America wasn’t acting like itself at all: It was trumping up bogus reasons to start wars, creating a “law-free zone” in Guantanamo, torturing prisoners caught on the battlefield, and even imprisoning American citizens indefinitely without trials. How sad it must be for the peace-and-freedom-loving people of America, sympathetic foreigners thought, to see what was happening to their country.

Then we re-elected him.

Around the world, the shock of 2004 was the realization that the problem wasn’t him, it was us. Americans, or at least a majority of the Americans willing and able to get out and vote, liked this kind of government. Who could predict what we might do next? [see endnote 1]

That’s what came to my mind Tuesday when Benjamin Netanyahu was re-elected prime minister of Israel.

The spirit of 67. Like a lot of Americans (and in spite of my criticisms of Israeli policy on this blog) I have a deep and irrational affection for Israel. In June of 1967, I was an impressionable ten-year-old stuck inside with a cold and nothing to watch on TV but the Six Day War that was pre-empting all other programming. I was completely sucked in by the David-and-Goliath narrative all three networks presented as tiny Israel thrashed its much larger neighbors. What better fantasies could a housebound Midwestern Lutheran boy ask for than to be an Israeli tank commander kicking up sand in the Sinai, or a pilot screaming over the horizon and striking terror into Egyptian or Jordanian troops? [2]

In the decades that followed, Israelis were easy to identify with: They looked like us and dressed like us and talked like us. All the Israeli leaders who showed up on TV spoke marvelous English. They seemed so polished compared to Yassar Arafat, who always looked dusky and unshaven and foreign. Israel’s armed forces fought like ours, with tech and air power and a high value on each soldiers’ life. Their parliamentary system was more like the British, but that was OK too; it still had campaigns and elections and courts that enforced basic rights.

In high school, I had friends who had been to Israel, and others who wanted to go. They made it sound like such a magical place. Of the Arab countries, only Egypt piqued my interest, and then only the remnants of its dead civilization. Present-day Cairo or Baghdad or Damascus held no similar allure.

Through the 1980s, I paid little attention to the Palestinians. Sinai had gone back to Egypt in the prototype land-for-peace swap, and no doubt the West Bank would eventually be part of some similar deal. It was taking longer than I’d expected, and I wasn’t sure what to make of the new and expanding Jewish settlements [3], but peace seemed to be in everyone’s long-term interest, so I had little doubt it would eventually happen.

Since the 1990s, though, I’ve been increasingly bothered by the situation in the West Bank and Gaza. Even appreciating the complexities involved in resolving the problem, it’s hard for me to get past a basic sense of wrongness: This can’t go on. Something has to be done.

Israeli conscience. My main solace these last few decades has been that a lot of Israelis feel that same wrongness. For example, one chapter of Ari Shavit’s recent book My Promised Land discusses his military service as a guard at the Gaza Beach detention camp in 1991, and how he and his fellow soldiers struggled to cope. They know there is no real comparison between Israel and Nazi Germany — for starters, Israel isn’t out to annihilate the Palestinians — but they can’t help but feel the resonances.

And even N., who harbors strong right-wing views, grumbles to anyone who will listen that the place resembles a concentration camp. M. explains with a thin smile that he has accumulated so many days of reserve duty during the intifada that soon they will promote him to a senior Gestapo official.

I, too, who have always abhorred the analogy, who have always argued bitterly with anyone who so much as hinted at it, can no longer stop myself. The associations are too strong. They well up when I see a man from Pen Number 1 call through the fence to a man from Pen Number 2 to show him a picture of his daughter. They well up when a youngster who has just been arrested awaits my orders with a mixture of submission and panic and quiet pride. They well up when I glance at myself in the mirror, shocked to see myself here, a jailer in this ghastly prison. And when I see the thousand or so humans around me, locked up in pens, in cages. …

What makes this camp tick is the division of labor. The division makes it possible for evil to take place apparently without evil people. This is how it works: The people who vote for Israel’s right-wing parties are not evil; they do not round up youngsters in the middle of the night. And the ministers who represent the right-wing voters in the government are not evil; they don’t hit boys in the stomach with their own fists. And the army’s chief of staff is not evil; he carries out what a legitimate, elected government obliges him to carry out. And the commander of the internment facility is not evil — he is doing the best he can under impossible circumstances. And the interrogators — well, after all, they are doing their job. And it is, they are told, impossible to govern the occupied territories unless they do all this. As for the jailers, most of them are not evil, either. They only want to leave all this behind and get back home.

Yet in some mysterious way, all these nonevil people manage together to produce a result that is evil indeed.

Shavit is the great-grandson of one of the original British Zionists, and in his own way remains a Zionist, loyal to his great-grandfather’s Jewish humanism. (In an earlier chapter, he retraces his ancestor’s tour and tries to imagine what he saw and what he was thinking. [4]) He believes the Occupation is a cancer on the original Zionist vision, and it needs to end — not just for the sake of the Arabs, but also for the sake of the Jews.

But he is optimistic. The Zionist story, as Shavit tells it, has always balanced the need for the Jews to survive as a people with their need to survive as a moral people. The current moral challenge is nothing fundamentally new, and Zionists will figure it out as they always have.

The tension Shavit feels between morality and survival reminds me of a famous quote from Thomas Jefferson, who late in his life hoped for the eventual end of slavery but (fearing a race war if the slaves were freed) saw no practical way to bring it about:

We have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.

I really want to believe Shavit, and to believe in the ability of Israelis like him to meet their moral challenge and shape a just future. But the politics of the Netanyahu era are hard to reconcile with his hopeful vision. And Jefferson’s Virginians never did figure out how to end slavery, did they?

Against democracy. Israelis deal with the contradiction between the Occupation and Israel’s traditional democratic values in two opposite ways: Some, like Shavit, come back from military duty with a determination that the Occupation must end. Others return with a weakened commitment to democracy, an attitude that is sometimes called “bringing the Occupation home”. It is psychologically difficult to serve in the territories, treating Palestinian Arabs as a subject population full of terrorists, and then in civilian life to see Israeli Arabs as fellow citizens with rights. Even Israeli Jews who oppose the Occupation can come to seem like a dangerous fifth column.

To appreciate the full anti-democratic ugliness of the Netanyahu era, read Max Blumenthal’s Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel. Blumenthal is a secular American Jew, the son of the former Clinton adviser Sidney Blumenthal. Like Shavit, Blumenthal mostly tells stories rather than argues. But the stories he tells come from the kind of Israelis you don’t usually see on CNN: Arabs and left-wing Jews, as well as members of the openly racist parties to Netanyahu’s right. [5]

Americans typically only notice Israel’s foreign policy, but Blumenthal calls attention to disturbing domestic laws that get little coverage in the American media. For example, the government has tried in a variety of ways to make it difficult for Israeli Arabs and their Jewish sympathizers to commemorate the Nakba, a day of mourning for the Palestinians driven from their homes in the Israeli War of Independence in 1948. [6]

On the Israeli left, there is an effort to boycott products made in the West Bank settlements they consider illegal. But a 2011 law makes promoting such a boycott a civil offense. Simply saying “I think people shouldn’t buy West Bank settlement products” in public could land you in court. Wikipedia summarizes:

The law states that individuals or organizations who publicize a call for an economic, cultural or academic boycott against a person or entity merely because of its affiliation to the State of Israel and/or to an Israeli institute and/or to a specific region under Israeli control, [my italics] may be sued civilly, in tort, by a party claiming that it might be damaged by such a boycott. The law also allows Israeli authorities to deny benefits from individuals or organizations – such as tax exemptions or participation in government contracts – if they have publicized a call to boycott and/or if they have obligated to participate in a boycott.

Some Israelis are ignoring the law and daring the government to enforce it, including the Hebrew-language Facebook page “Sue me, I’m boycotting settlement products.”

Most disturbing of all is a Netanyahu-supported and cabinet-approved bill that is still awaiting a final vote in the Knesset: the Nation-State Law, which would end the principle — often ignored by the government, but still occasionally invoked by the Supreme Court — that all Israeli citizens are equal under the law. Haaretz summarizes:

The legislation, which was originally drafted by right-wing MK Ze’ev Elkin (Likud), is an attempt to resolve the tension between the country’s dual Jewish and democratic character, as enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.

It does that by defining Jewishness as the default nature of the state in any instance, legal or legislative, in which the state’s Jewishness and its democratic aspirations clash.

In December, Bernard Avishai put the issues bluntly in The New Yorker:

[T]his bill is about writing into the law old Zionist provisions that have morphed into racist and theocratic practices. It will make judicial correctives nearly impossible. … If it comes to an election, it will be best for democratic forces to unify, not only around what Israel does, but what Israel is. Israelis not in the thrall of settler fanaticism need to decide whether they want to be part of the democratic Western world or not. The Jewish nation-state law puts the choice starkly: a globalist Hebrew republic or a little Jewish Pakistan.

Conflict over this bill is part of what led Netanyahu to call for the recent elections. But contrary to his hopes for a clearer mandate, late polls indicated his party might control only 20 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, and that a more liberal coalition might get first crack at forming a new government by controlling 24 seats. [7]

Americans are used to political campaigns ending on a Mom-and-apple-pie note. No matter how radical his positions might be, a candidate closes with an appeal to the center, and attempts to prove to late-deciding voters that he’s not as scary has he’s been made out to be.

Facing defeat, Netanyahu did the exact opposite; he embraced more firmly the ugly side of right-wing politics. He came to America to rally Republicans in Congress against President Obama; he reversed his support for a two-state peace settlement with the Palestinians (and then flipped back after the election), leaving the world to wonder whether he has any plan for peace at all [8]; he warned the public of the “danger” posed by Arab voters “streaming in huge quantities to the polling stations“, i.e., using their legal rights as Israeli citizens; and he charged that a left-wing government might “follow orders” from the international community rather than defend Israel.

And it worked. In a stunning comeback, his party took 30 seats in the Knesset, which (combined with the vote for other right-wing parties) grants him another term as prime minister. During that term, he will know he owes his office to anti-Arab, anti-peace, anti-international-community, anti-democratic rhetoric.

What this means for Americans. There is still a large bloc of reasonable, humanistic, democracy-valuing, peace-loving Israelis. They are the ones that Americans are more likely to know: more likely to visit this country, more likely to write books published in English, more likely to appear on American TV, and so on. Similarly, Americans who visit Israel will probably spend most of their time inside a bubble of humanistic and democratic sensibility; their academic or business contacts will be largely drawn from educated, well-traveled classes where people yearn for “a globalist Hebrew republic” rather than “a little Jewish Pakistan”. [9]

But what this election should teach us is that those people are not the majority. The problem in Israel isn’t Netanyahu, it’s the electorate. That problem is not going away; it’s getting worse. Israel is drifting away from peace and democracy, with no turnaround in sight. [10]

Americans need to face that reality, and re-evaluate our policies in response to it. We can no longer blindly support the Israeli government, hoping that someday it will produce an Anwar Sadat, or even another Yitzhak Rabin or Shimon Peres. Those days are over in Israel.

President Obama may be starting to figure that out. If he takes any action based on that new understanding, he will come under a blistering attack from our own right wing. The rest of us will need to have his back.


[1] That’s my explanation for those huge and adoring crowds Barack Obama drew across Europe during his candidacy in 2008. It wasn’t his personal charisma or even the inspiring symbolism of a black president. Europeans looked at Obama’s popularity and hoped: “Maybe the most powerful nation on Earth isn’t crazy.”

[2] I remember a joke from that war: An Egyptian commander sees an Israeli soldier stick his head out from behind a dune, and sends five men after him. None come back. Then he sends twenty men, and none of them come back either. Finally he sends a hundred men. An hour later, one badly wounded soldier crawls back to report. “It was ambush,” he says. “There were two of them.”

[3] I am careful not to use Jewish and Israeli interchangeably, and in this case Jewish is the more appropriate term. Arab citizens of Israel typically are not welcome in the West Bank settlements, even ones their taxes helped build. According to the Jerusalem Post, “Few, if any Arabs live in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and a surge of violence in recent months has persuaded some to leave those in east Jerusalem.”

The right of Israeli Arabs to live in certain parts of Israel is also controversial.

[4] If I met Shavit, I’m sure we’d find a lot to argue about. But he has written a really good book. It is not an argument, but a series of historical vignettes of the Zionist movement. (HBO is about to make it into a movie.) As Palestinian author Sami al Jundi recognized in The Hour of Sunlight, the way to bridge a divide is not to convince opponents with your arguments, but to engage them with your stories.

[5] In his closing chapter, Blumenthal spends time with young leftist Israeli Jews who can no longer live in Israel freely or in good conscience. He finds an active community of Israeli expatriates in — of all places — Berlin.

A more nuanced but equally disturbing account of Israeli society is a review of Goliath by anthropologist (and self-described “nice Jewish girl”) Callie Madhof.

Even though for ten months, I hadn’t expressed a single political opinion, I had also not hidden the fact that I’m not afraid of Palestinians or Palestinian towns and cities. Even in my role as a researcher, by simply being open to visiting and speaking to Palestinians, I had marked myself as leftist. In Israel, a lack of racist paranoia is in itself a political position.

These are the parts of Israel that most American Jews don’t see, and most Israeli Jews don’t see anything wrong with. As a book about Israelis, Goliath runs up against the problem that the reality it depicts is beyond a large portion of its potential readership’s imagination. Whereas Israel’s liberal critics ask what went wrong, or how we can salvage the Zionist dream, Blumenthal’s critique cuts deeper, settling in the rifts of contemporary Israeli society and following the politics of apartheid to their terrible conclusion. His is not a picture of a polarized society, but one that is frighteningly cohesive, as it moves ever closer to fascism.

[6] The closest American parallel would be the celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day in place of Columbus Day. In the U.S. this can be controversial, but is considered a clear expression of free speech. I can’t imagine Congress passing a law to harass such celebrations.

[7] Forming a 61-vote majority is even harder than it looks, because no Arab party has ever been included in a governing coalition, forcing would-be prime ministers to cobble together super-majorities of the primarily Jewish parties. (That’s what has given those tiny religious parties their clout through the years.) The Joint Arab List captured 14 seats Tuesday.

[8] Marc Schulman commented in the Times of Israel:

[W]e have always claimed that the Palestinians were the ones who were guilty of saying one thing in Arabic to their home audience, and something different on the international stage. Now … our Prime Minister has been caught brazenly doing the same thing.

My reading of Netanyahu’s support for a two-state peace plan is similar to my reading of his support for a “better deal” with Iran: He is always available to accept his enemies’ surrender, but has no interest in finding a mutually acceptable compromise.

[9] Imagine coming to America and visiting only Berkeley or Wall Street. You might go home thinking of the Tea Party as a noisy rabble that wiser heads will easily handle.

[10] Optimists will point out that the United States rejected Bushism in 2008. But that reversal did not come from any new understanding, it resulted from external shocks: the Iraq War turning into a disaster and the economy collapsing. To hope for a similar Israeli turnaround means hoping for similar external shocks.

The Monday Morning Teaser

For the last six months or so, my background reading project has been about the disturbing below-American-radar changes that have been happening in Israel during the last few decades. In my files I have a long shapeless “Israel’s Identity Crisis” article that is far from ready for public consumption. But I was able to pull together some of those thoughts this week to discuss the significance for myself and for Americans in general of how Prime Minister Netanyahu’s turn-to-the-dark-side saved his political career. He trashed Obama, the peace process, and Israel’s Arab citizens — and the voters loved it.

I’m still debating on the title, which currently is “What Just Happened?”. This is the kind of article where every sentence has to be phrased just right, so even though it seems complete I probably won’t get it out until 9 or 10.

The weekly summary will probably be later than usual, maybe noon or one.

Dangerous Things

They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but it’s not one half so bad as a lot of ignorance.

Terry Pratchett

This week’s featured post is “The Other Half of American History“, in which I review Edward Baptist’s amazing recent book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.

This week everybody was talking about a letter to Iran

Forty-seven Republican senators signed an open letter to the leaders of Iran, advising them on American governance, so that they won’t be fooled into making a peace agreement with our wily President Obama. Exactly why they felt it necessary to advise Iran is not clear. Maybe they’re angling for contracts with the Iranians after they retire from the Senate and achieve their dream of becoming high-rolling lobbyists.

OK, that was snarky of me. It was obvious why they wrote: They want the Iranians to walk away from the proposed deal — the end of negotiations would be “a feature, not a bug” according to the letter’s author — so that we can have another Middle Eastern war, this time with a country three times the size of Iraq and much more spirited. It’ll be great: The Iranian people will greet us as liberators, just like the Iraqis did.

Still too snarky. Conservative WaPo columnist Michael Gerson, while recognizing that the letter had “all the gravity and deliberation of a blog posting” and “raises questions about the Republican majority’s capacity to govern”, tried to put the best face on the 47’s motives and goals: Yes, they want the current negotiations to fail. But

The alternative to a bad nuclear deal is not war; it is strong sanctions and covert actions to limit Iranian capacities until the regime falls (as it came close to doing in 2009) or demonstrates behavior change in a variety of areas.

A more realistic assessment — illustrated by the history of our failure to keep North Korea from getting the bomb — comes from Foreign Policy’s Jeffrey Lewis: The “better deal” in which all of Iran’s centrifuge’s go silent

is a fantasy, a unicorn, the futile pursuit of which ends with a half-assed airstrike against Iran, a region in flames, and eventually an Iranian nuclear weapon. … A Republican administration, if given a chance, would negotiate exactly the same agreement that this administration is negotiating, with all its flaws and shortcomings.  … The outlines of any deal with Iran are largely determined by the relative power of the parties — how advanced Iran’s nuclear programs are, what U.S. military options look like, the vitality of the sanctions regime, etc. — not the personal qualities of the presidents we elect. You can believe that George W. Bush’s flinty gaze would have stared down Hassan Rouhani or that Ali Khamenei will understand that Barack Obama is a transformational figure of historic importance. You can believe those things, but you’d be an idiot.

The idea that the Iranian government might fall soon, or that it came close to falling in 2009, is highly speculative — especially when you put it together with American or Israeli attacks, covert or otherwise. Given the Iranian history of British colonialism and American interference, any direct foreign intervention will cause the Iranian people to rally around their government, the same way Americans rallied around President George W. I-Lost-the-Popular-Vote Bush after 9-11.


The Nation’s William Greider asks the obvious question you seldom hear: What about Israel’s nukes? Israel has never admitted having the bomb, but it is widely believed to have hundreds of nuclear warheads. Nobody knows for sure, because Israel submits to no international inspections.

I asked another friend (a well-informed journalist sympathetic to the Palestinian cause) why reporters don’t talk about the Israeli bomb. “Groupthink,” he said. “It’s almost as though Israel gets a bye from the media.”

The Iranians, he added, have raised the issue of the Israeli bomb many times in the past, but their complaints were generally ignored in the Western press.

The Iranian people may not like the sanctions Iran’s nuclear program has led to, but the premise of the sanctions — that Iran achieving parity with Israel is unthinkable — has to rub them the wrong way. If the Iranian government is seen standing up for the principle that Iran is a nation equal to any other nation, that’s got to raise its popularity, not invite a revolution.


There’s been much online discussion about whether the senators’ letter violates the Logan Act of 1799, which bans Americans from undermining government policy through “correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof”.

As satisfying as it may be to yell “Treason!” or imagine Mitch McConnell doing a perp walk, HuffPost’s Monica Bauer describes Logan Act talk as “click bait for liberals” rather than a serious matter, and MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell rejects the Act as “unenforceable because it is obviously unconstitutional and absurd on its face”.

I have to agree. The Adams administration had a penchant for restrictions on its citizens’ freedom of speech. The Logan Act is of a piece with the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts. Obama is right not to try to enforce it.


But even if it’s not treason or otherwise illegal, the letter is unpatriotic. The signers hate Obama more than they love America.

There is an underlying separation-of-powers issue about whether this agreement ought to be a treaty and require ratification by the Senate, rather than an executive agreement that does not. But it isn’t the constitutional crisis Republicans like to claim. Presidents of both parties sign executive agreements. They aren’t enforceable by the courts, as a treaty would be under Article VI of the Constitution. But presidents are highly motivated to keep their predecessors’ agreements to maintain the credibility of their own agreements.

By impugning executive agreements in general, Republicans continue down the path towards making the United States ungovernable that I talked about two weeks ago.

The Yalta agreement on the re-organization of Europe after World War II is an example of a far-reaching commitment that was made without Senate ratification. Watching FDR balance the constitutional issues in his post-Yalta message to Congress is instructive: He affirms that the U.N. charter, whose general outlines the Yalta agreement affects, will have to be ratified by the Senate. But other aspects of Yalta are not submitted for ratification.

and reactions in Ferguson

It’s been fascinating to watch Ferguson react to the Justice Department’s scathing assessment of its police and courts (which I described last week). Both the city manager and the police chief have resigned, but the mayor is determined to hang on. He isn’t even convinced the city has a serious problem:

The report stated there was probable cause to believe the police and court routinely violate people’s civil rights. But, Knowles said, “that’s not proof.” He added that “there is probably another side to all of these stories.”

But we don’t know that side yet because it’s so hard for white mayors and policemen to get their stories out in our black-dominated culture, I suppose.


Similarly, National Review assures us that the problem in Ferguson is “predatory government”, not racism. It’s just kind of a coincidence that predatory government happens to show up and be tolerated in a majority-black community with a white power structure.


They charged a guy with shooting two policemen during a protest in Ferguson Thursday. He has a great defense: He claims he was shooting at somebody else.

Notice one key difference between shootings like this and the shootings police do: No major figure is stepping up to say that the victims had it coming.

and a racist frat incident in Oklahoma

University of Oklahoma’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon frat got in deep trouble after a video surfaced of the brothers singing on a bus:

There will never be a nigger SAE.
There will never be a nigger SAE.
You can hang them from a tree,
but they’ll never sign with me.
There will never be a nigger SAE.

The guys on the bus seem to know the words, so you’ve got to figure this wasn’t the song’s world premiere. After the video went viral, University President David Boren closed the house and expelled the two students identified as leading the singing.

National SAE back-pedaled as fast as it could, saying it has “zero-tolerance for any kind of discrimination” and claiming that 20% of its national membership is non-Caucasian. It’s also been editing its history page to play down its origin as a Confederate frat. According to an earlier version of the page:

The fraternity had fewer than 400 members when the Civil War began. Of those, 369 went to war for the Confederate States and seven for the Union Army. Seventy-four members of the fraternity lost their lives in the war.

Think Progress lists previous race-related incidents involving SAE, including

In 2009, Valdosta State University in Georgia hosted a community forum on “Heritage, Hate or Fear?” that was inspired by the university’s SAE chapter’s practice of flying a Confederate Flag on its front lawn.

The Oklahoma State University SAE chapter is taking flack for a Confederate flag posted on a member’s wall in such a way as to be visible from the street.

So it sounds to me like this isn’t just two guys. SAE’s Confederate heritage is more than a historical footnote. It’s part of the frat’s “charm” and attracts a certain element.


There’s a side issue here about the media, which gives me an opening to discuss my policy on The Weekly Sift. This CBS/AP article refers to SAE members “engaging in a racist chant” but doesn’t say what the chant was, a practice I’ve noticed on several news outlets. Others refuse to print or say nigger, replacing it with references to “the N-word” or “n****r”.

I first had to decide whether to use nigger in my writing in 2007, when I was still posting as Pericles on Daily Kos. My policy — which applies not just to nigger, but to bitch, faggot, or any other epithet — is to ask myself this question: If I replace the word with a euphemism, who am I protecting?

My 2007 post described the racial atmosphere of my 1960s working-class childhood. Saying something like “We used the N-word” would have protected myself more than the fragile sensibilities of my readers. I mean, Jackie Chan used the N-word in Rush Hour; it was hilarious. But my truth was much starker: We told nigger jokes. Saying anything less would just give my readers room to imagine that what I did really wasn’t that bad.

Same thing here. Describing the video in some oblique way just protects the frat boys. A “racist chant” could be eeny-meeny or some other childish thing where the racism isn’t the point. Describing the incident that way opens the possibility that “racist” might be nothing more than some journalist’s debatable interpretation. So I think you have to print it the way they sang it.

and you also might be interested in …

Rest in peace, Terry Pratchett. Most obituaries highlight his Discworld series, which is tremendously amusing. But my personal favorite Pratchett novel isn’t set on Discworld, it’s Good Omens, his collaboration with Neil Gaiman about the coming of the Antichrist. (Well, there is one Discworld connection: Discworld’s Death character shows up as one of the Four Bikers of the Apocalypse.) Imagine if Left Behind was short, clever, and had a sense of humor.


Israel holds elections tomorrow, and it’s anybody’s guess who will win. It’s a parliamentary system, so we might not know right away. Even if Netanyahu’s party isn’t the top vote-getter, he still might wind up as the leader of a majority coalition.

Paul Krugman points out that internal economics may play a bigger role than the Palestinian or Iranian issues Americans are focused on. He references an amazing statistic:

According to the Bank of Israel, roughly 20 families control companies that account for half the total value of Israel’s stock market.

and let’s close with a moment I’m sorry I missed

As spring approaches, let’s remember that winter hasn’t been all bad. Like this massive snowball fight in downtown Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

The Other Half of American History

Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told


In the U.S. history I learned in school, slavery is a MacGuffin. Two powerful groups of white men spend a century struggling over it, but what the slaves actually do never seems all that important.

That’s why people who don’t like to talk about slavery can claim that the struggle was about something else entirely: Tariffs or states rights or simple regional rivalry make great substitute MacGuffins, because the conflict is all that matters. From three-fifths and the Missouri Compromise and bleeding Kansas all the way to Fort Sumter, Gettysburg, and Appomattox, African slavery is just a plot device that gives white men something to fight over. So if you want to swap in some other plot device, feel free.

The postmodern focus on diversity and multiculturalism has added sidebars to that story: Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, or a day in the life of a slave. And who was this Dred Scott that so many white lawyers argued about? Such human-interest features add emotional depth, if you’re into that kind of thing. But the real history of American history is still driven by white men: Thomas Jefferson, Henry Clay, William Lloyd Garrison, John Brown, John Calhoun, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, Jefferson Davis, Abraham Lincoln, and John Wilkes Booth.

Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism turns that approach upside-down. In his telling, slavery is the story of America. The Pilgrims’ search for religious freedom or the injustice of taxation without representation — those might make good human-interest sidebars. But the spread of English-speaking people across North America is fundamentally about profit, and the profit comes from two primary sources: land stolen from Indians and labor stolen from Africans. Bringing those two together opened a spigot of wealth that white men struggled to control. In that story, the experience of the African slaves — how they lived, the work they did, the culture they built, and how they eventually got their story out — is key. It is a story of progress but not of triumph, and the story continues to this day.

Slave Capitalism. In addition to shifting the focus to slaves [see endnote 1], Baptist fixes another mistake: We tell the triumph of the industrial North and the end of institutionalized slavery as if it were the inevitable result of the inexorable forces of progress. In that version, Southern slave society represents the last gasp of dying feudalism, while the rising tide of capitalism and freedom propels the North.

But in Baptist’s telling, the South is every bit as capitalistic as the North. To Baptist, capitalism is just a way of managing property, and property can be whatever society wants it to be. Today, property can be a copyright, a trademark, or a slice of radio spectrum. Then, property could be people. [2] Capitalism doesn’t care.

Southern slaves were managed capitalistically, not feudally. Feudalism stratifies society, but each stratum is a community that has its rights and duties. Serfs live in serf families, who intermarry with other serf families on land that has been their home for generations. Serf communities may not have much military power compared to their lords, but by appealing to tradition and communal judgment, they can exercise considerable moral force. Serfs might be bound to the land, but neither they nor the land are property in the capitalistic sense; both are entangled by moral obligations that capitalism doesn’t recognize. [3]

In the old slave country of the Chesapeake, slavery could occasionally resemble feudalism, as master families and slave families lived side-by-side for generations. But Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina — the tobacco country — saturated with slaves early. From the Revolution onward, slaves were an increasingly important cash export, whose price fluctuated with the price of cotton. They might be raised in families and communities, but they were sold as individuals — ripped away from their wives, their husbands, their children, their parents — to wherever the frontier of the cotton country happened to be: first Georgia, then Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and finally Texas.

On the cotton frontier, slaves were simply chattel. They had no families or communities — at least not until later — and could be worked without regard to any moral judgments or human rights. Depending on market conditions, they might be expensive to replace. But they were all replaceable for a price.

Slave efficiency. One of the inevitable-triumph-of-the-North myths is that slavery was inefficient. The idea that free labor is vigorous and creative while slave labor is lazy and stupid was originally British propaganda. Britain banned slavery in 1833, as the rising political power of the working class made the dignity of labor a key talking point. Northern abolitionists picked up the British line, which was then adopted by Union propagandists and eventually by post-Civil-War historians.

It’s not true, and Baptist has the numbers to prove it.

In terms of cotton-bales-per-worker, no system of free labor (prior to the invention of the mechanical cotton-picker in the 1930s) ever matched the slave-labor system of the 1850s. What’s more, cotton productivity was rising at the beginning of the Civil War. It had been rising for decades at a rate of around 2% per year. That’s comparable to the rate of increase in the textile industry of Britain and the North, where machine power was replacing human power.

How did the Southern slavers achieve that astounding managerial feat? Did they have cotton-picking research institutes and extension services that trained slaves in the latest methods? No. They set individualized measurable daily production goals for each slave, and whipped slaves who didn’t meet them. Then they ratcheted up those goals year by year.

The slavers themselves had no idea how the slaves managed to meet the goals as often as they did; most slavers couldn’t have picked cotton efficiently if their lives depended on it. But the threat of daily whipping inspired the slaves’ ingenuity, and compassion led them to teach each other their best techniques. [4]

So no: purely economic considerations wouldn’t have ended slavery at least until the 1930s. And even then, the produce-or-be-whipped motivation system might have performed well in factories, mines, and the kind of crop-picking-by-hand that undocumented immigrant workers still do. Even today, any workplace where produce-or-be-fired is the motivating principle might work more efficiently under produce-or-be-whipped slavery. [5]

The Hidden Connections. Making slavery a MacGuffin and the slave experience a sidebar leads to a one-damn-thing-after-another telling of even the white half of American history. But Baptist’s approach restores the hidden connections between events, and creates a more unified tapestry. I’ll just give just two out of many possible examples: Haiti and Texas.

Haiti. In the usual telling, the Haitian Slave Revolt is only significant because it stokes Southern planters’ fears of a slave revolt in the United States. It’s not directly connected to any other important event, so unless you look it up, it’s hard to remember exactly when it happened.

But Baptiste situates it like this: Before its revolution, sugar-producing Haiti was France’s most profitable New World colony, with exports outstripping all of Britain’s American colonies put together.

The French Revolution created an opening for the Haitian slaves to revolt, and after Napoleon came to power, recapturing Haiti was key to his North American plans. The wealth of Haiti together with the strategic domination of New Orleans over the trade of the Mississippi watershed would be the basis for the expansion of French power throughout the vast-but-untapped Louisiana Territory. Perhaps France might even push the fledgling United States back from the eastern side of the Mississippi.

So Napoleon dispatched two armies: one to recapture Haiti and the other to base itself in New Orleans and prepare for expansion. But when the Haitians defeated the first army, the second was diverted to reinforce it. It was also lost. That massive failure convinced Napoleon to abandon the New World and sell Louisiana to President Jefferson.

So the next time you hear about Americans helping Haiti in some way, don’t think of it as charity. Think of it as repaying a significant debt.

Texas. In the Alamo Myth, the Texas Revolution is a battle for freedom against the imperial domination of Mexico. But actually, the 1824 constitution established after the Mexican revolution from Spain did away with slavery. The Southern slavers who had emigrated to Texas came up with a variety of dodges to keep their slaves, and figured Mexico City was far away. But when Mexico eventually began moving to enforce the ban, slave-holding Texans organized resistance, eventually declaring independence in 1836. So the Alamo really was a battle for freedom, but Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett were on the anti-freedom side.

Around the same time, President Jackson was fulfilling two of his major goals: Getting rid of the Second Bank of the United States and ejecting Indian tribes to the far side of the Mississippi. Removing the Indians opened up large regions for new cotton plantations in Alabama and Mississippi, while getting rid of the central bank initiated a free-wheeling period of American finance.

The result was a slave bubble, much like the recent real-estate bubble. Newly chartered Southern banks sold bonds in Europe collateralized by the mortgages they held — slave mortgages rather than home mortgages — and lent money to virtually any white man with a plan to buy slaves, clear former Indian land purchased cheaply from the government, and plant cotton. When the price of slaves sky-rocketed, that just made them more valuable collateral for bigger mortgages and more mortgage-backed bonds — just like houses in 2007.

Predictably, the world economy couldn’t absorb the sudden increase in cotton production, and falling cotton prices started the Panic of 1837 (conveniently after Jackson had left office). Suddenly, everybody wanted to sell assets for cash, banks were going under, mortgage-backed bonds were in default (leaving state governments on the hook), and lots of would-be cotton magnates had negative net worth. But unlike the houses of 2008, the slaves of 1837 were mobile. And there was Texas, an independent pro-slavery republic where the bankers couldn’t chase you down. All across the south, re-possessing bankers often found nothing but empty buildings and a sign saying “Gone to Texas”.

So the new Texas settlers had stolen black labor twice: once from the blacks themselves, and a second time from the banks and European investors who held mortgages on them.

Continuing illusions. The way we tell our national story affects the way we think about ourselves and our future. It remains far too easy to romanticize the antebellum South, and to replace the brutal abuse of an entire people with a few air-brushed memories of white slavers’ affection for their nannies or valets. (I would tear down every Civil War monument in the South. No one who fought for the slave empire is a hero.)

It is too easy to give the North credit for black freedom, ignoring the slave-trade profits, the Northern land speculators who helped slavery expand, the cheap cotton that made the fortunes of the New England mills, and the markets that Southern wealth created for fledgling Northern industries. Ignoring the African role in the origins of all American wealth makes today’s impoverished blacks seem ungrateful for their food stamps and welfare checks.

And it is too easy to see capitalism simply as a modernizing, beneficent force, rather than an amoral machine that will process whatever assumptions are fed into it. Without the balancing force of democratic government, and without an electorate guided by compassion, justice, and other humane yearnings, capitalism will monetize all values and turn everything into property — including human beings.

Once people are property, they will be used like property — until some political process makes the abuse stop.


[1] In talking about slaves, I’m doing Baptist an injustice, because his terminology reverses the usual objectifications. Instead of slaves, he says enslaved people. It is their masters he de-personalizes as enslavers. He also rarely refers to the slaves’ workplaces as plantations, a word that evokes images of fair Southern belles or genteel men in white suits having drinks on the veranda. Instead, he talks about forced labor camps, presaging Nazi concentration camps and Soviet gulags.

[2] One of the creepiest things in the surviving letters of Jefferson Davis is the way he used the phrase my people. Today, my people are my community, the humans I identify with. But Davis used my people in sentences with my horses or my cattle.

[3] A big chunk of Marx’ Capital describes how the English lower classes suffered as feudal land gradually evolved into capitalistic property.

[4] It’s no coincidence that set-high-goals-and-punish-failure is still a favored policy of the American Right, and that the Right’s center of power is the white population of the old cotton country. See, for example, President Bush’s No Child Left Behind education policy.

[5] In Slavery By Another Name, Douglas Blackmon described how phony vagrancy laws created slave-like prison labor that was used in mines and factories throughout the South until World War II. I reviewed his book in “Slavery Lasted Until Pearl Harbor“.

The Monday Morning Teaser

For a current-events blog, The Weekly Sift focuses an unusual amount of its attention on the past. That’s because I believe American history is often mistold and misunderstood, leaving most Americans with a false image of who we are and where our current problems come from.

This is especially true with regard to race, slavery, and the Civil War. Three of the Sift’s most popular posts retell the post-Civil-War history of America: “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party“, “A Short History of White Racism in the Two-Party System“, and “Slavery Lasted Until Pearl Harbor“.
 This week I push back into the pre-Civil-War period with a review of Edward Baptist’s recent book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.

In the usual high-school U.S. history class, slavery is what Alfred Hitchcock used to call a MacGuffin: something for the characters to compete over that has no real significance otherwise. (The Maltese Falcon, for example). From the Constitutional Convention to the Civil War, white politicians come up with all kinds of plots to increase or diminish slavery, but what the slaves actually do is only discussed in sidebars, if at all. So, for example, “Dred Scott” is a story about the Supreme Court, not about Dred Scott. Even abolitionism is mainly the story of William Lloyd Garrison and Harriet Beecher Stowe, with African Americans making only cameo appearances.

Baptist turns all that upside-down, and tells the Washington-to-Lincoln history of America as the story of slaves and their enslavers: How the work of slaves built the wealth of America, and how the battle to control those slaves and that wealth structured America. Telling the story that way, it turns out, connects all kinds of episodes that seem like a random list of stuff-that-happened in the usual telling.

I figure to have that post out by nine. The weekly summary (let’s say around 11) will talk about the Republican senators’ letter to Iran; the resignations, protests, and shootings that resulted from the Justice Department’s report on Ferguson; the racist-frat flap at University of Oklahoma; and a few other things, including the death of Terry Pratchett.

Money and Motion

What was the law, when bright shiny money was in sight?
Money make the train go.

– Charley Barbour,
quoted in The American Slave, a Composite Autobiography

This week’s featured post is “Justice in Ferguson“.

This week everybody was talking about Ferguson again

The Justice Department published two reports Wednesday, one about the Michael Brown shooting and the other about the Ferguson Police Department. I discuss them in detail in “Justice in Ferguson“, but the short version is that Darren Wilson’s story is plausible and he shouldn’t be indicted, while the FPD is a predatory institution that needs drastic reform.

and Selma

Tens of thousands of people marched across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama to mark the 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery marches that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

President Obama’s speech was a marvelous expression of the liberal vision of America.

It’s the idea held by generations of citizens who believed that America is a constant work in progress; who believed that loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths. It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what is right, to shake up the status quo. … That’s what it means to love America. That’s what it means to believe in America. That’s what it means when we say America is exceptional. … That’s what America is. Not stock photos or airbrushed history, or feeble attempts to define some of us as more American than others. We respect the past, but we don’t pine for the past. We don’t fear the future; we grab for it. America is not some fragile thing.

Meanwhile (and Obama referred to this) the achievements of fifty years ago are threatened. The Supreme Court has gutted the enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act and the Republican Congress continues to refuse to fix it. The hole that the Court blew in the VRA has invited voter suppression of all sorts.

and Netanyahu vs. Iran

The politics of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to Congress has been widely discussed, both here and in Israel. But reading the text, I found myself thinking more about the content: Is he right about Iran?

Some of what he had to say was obviously exaggerated. Like this:

In the Middle East, Iran now dominates four capitals, Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa. And if Iran’s aggression is left unchecked more will surely follow.

Juan Cole examines this claim capital-by-capital, but the gist is that Iran has given material support to factions in local conflicts that it did not start. (In Baghdad, we started it.) Those factions have been successful in varying degrees, but in none of the four cases has there been anything like an Iranian conquest or occupation, nor is there likely to be. Iran is playing the Great Game, just as we are and Israel is.

A more interesting notion lies in the background of Netanyahu’s remarks, and in most neo-con discussion of Iran: the idea that an Iranian bomb would be uniquely horrible, because Iran’s nature as an Islamic Republic makes it immune to the kind of deterrence that kept the Soviet Union in check. In this telling of the story, Iran’s leadership is motivated by an apocalyptic theology that would happily use nukes against Israel and glory in the ensuing end-of-the-world destruction when Israel retaliated with the nukes it has never admitted it has.

Having discussed just two weeks ago how another force in the region — ISIL — is motivated by apocalyptic theology, I can’t just reject this argument as absurd. But is it true? Is Iran essentially a nation-sized suicide bomber?

Other people have studied this question, and the answer seems to be no. Back in 2011, Matthew Duss wrote “The Martyr State Myth” for Foreign Policy.

The “martyr state” myth is based upon two flawed assumptions. First, that the Islamic Republic of Iran has been uniquely willing to endure the deaths of its own citizens in order to achieve its policy goals. Second, that the Iranian Shiite regime’s End Times theology actually induces it to trigger a conflagration.

Quoting previous studies, he finds that Iran’s willingness to sacrifice its citizens pales in comparison to the Soviet and Chinese regimes that were deterred by retaliation, and that claims of the Iranian regime’s desire for martyrdom

are unsupported by anything like evidence, but rather have achieved the status of conventional wisdom simply by repetition.

Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did like to talk in apocalyptic terms, but he

  • is not president any more
  • didn’t have control of Iranian military policy when he was president
  • was criticized for his apocalypticism by the ruling imams.

By contrast, Iran’s Supreme Leader is in no particular hurry to be Supreme Leader of a pile of rubble.

and the Supreme Court looking at ObamaCare again

The oral arguments in King vs. Burwell have begun. The case hangs on one sentence in the Affordable Care Act, which (if interpreted without reference to anything outside that sentence) would mean that ObamaCare subsidies could only go to people in states that had their own ObamaCare exchanges, rather people living in states whose exchanges were set up by the federal government.

There has been a certain absurdity to the case from the beginning, since there is ample evidence that no one in Congress intended that result. So the plaintiff’s arguments have all been a little like “You didn’t say ‘Simon says’.”

The Obama administration’s counter-argument is that the executive branch has a responsibility to interpret laws in ways that work, rather than in ways that don’t work, so the IRS has acted correctly in interpreting the law as it has. The precedents seem to be on its side, and I don’t believe this case would ever have reached the Supreme Court without a number of activist conservative judges seeking to repeal laws they don’t like.

The big thing we’ve learned from the justices’ questioning is that there is a conservative reason reject the case, hinted at by Justice Kennedy and drawn out further by Justice Sotomayor: Congress may not have had the power to pass the law as the conservative activist judges have been interpreting it, at least not under a conservative interpretation of the relationship between the federal government and the states.

If the law really did only subsidize people on exchanges states set up, that would be a substantial penalty to states that refused to set up their own exchanges. That kind of monetary pressure (to set up state exchanges) was precisely why (when ObamaCare reached the Court in 2012) the Court threw out the provisions of the law that pushed the states to expand Medicaid.

The legal principle Chief Justice Roberts invoked when he cast the deciding vote to save ObamaCare in 2012 was that the courts have to presume that Congress intended to pass laws that are constitutional. So if one interpretation of a law makes it constitutional and another unconstitutional, courts should favor the constitutional interpretation.

and you also might be interested in …

Correction: Last week I identified FBI agents as potential victims of a Homeland Security shutdown. As a commenter pointed out, the FBI isn’t in DHS, it’s in the Department of Justice.

Meanwhile, Speaker Boehner relented and allowed the House to vote on a clean bill to fund DHS through September. It passed, as it would have weeks ago, without any sturm und drang. The problem for Boehner was that his caucus wanted to continue holding the country’s security hostage: Republicans voted against the clean funding bill 167-75.

Vox added this example to its list of “every major crisis or near-crisis that’s been resolved by Boehner giving up on conservatives and passing a bill with Democratic support.”


Next up: the debt limit. Mitch McConnell says it will pass, but he also says:

We’ll figure some way to handle that and hopefully it might carry some other important legislation that we can agree on in connection with it.

In other words, there’s going to be another hostage crisis. You can replace “other important legislation” with “list of demands”.

I could repeat everything I said last week about Republican governance, but I think I’ll just link to it.


Jonathan Waldman in the NYT says “Don’t Kill Keystone XL, Regulate It“.

“Pipelines are the safest way to move oil,” he says, and they could be made better if regulators insisted on the best technology. I have no argument with that. But he takes one thing as given:

[B]locking [the pipeline] won’t actually prevent Canada from extracting its tar sands oil. Ours is an energy-thirsty world, and when demand eventually drives up the price of oil, out it will come.

I’m not willing to grant that. Canada is going to extract some of its tar sands oil. How much it makes sense to extract at a given oil-price depends on transportation costs, which depends on infrastructure like Keystone XL. And alternative fuels are competitive enough to keep the price of oil from going to infinity.


An incident at UCLA has raised discussion about anti-semitism on campus. Anti-semitism in America is a tricky thing to measure and document, because American Jews tend to be above average in many kinds of achievement and representation. It also gets tied up with political opinions about Israel and America’s support of Israel.

I’ve been mostly silent about anti-semitism not because I’ve decided it doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter, but because I don’t have a good handle on it. I’m still thinking and reading, so maybe that will change.


A fifth-grade teacher in Chicago writes a letter of apology to her students before inflicting on them the latest round of standardized tests.

I do not agree that these tests will tell me what I really need to know about you as a learner or as a human being. I do not agree that these tests will make me a better teacher. I do not agree that these tests will improve our schools. I do not agree that you need to sit in front of a computer for over five hours in order for the government to find out what you know and what you can do. I do not agree that you should not have a choice in how you are able to show all of the things that you are capable of doing. I do not agree that in order for the state to know that I am doing my job that you have to suffer through tests that could quite possibly ruin much of the hard work that we have done together in building your confidence this year and in helping you to see yourselves as readers and writers. I do not agree with these tests.

and let’s close with something amusing

I believe no dogs were harmed in the making of “12 Dogs Who Really Didn’t Expect the Snow to Be This Deep“.

Justice In Ferguson

Darren Wilson gets off, but the Ferguson police and courts don’t.


Through the late summer and into the fall, no issue in America was more polarizing than the shooting of Michael Brown and the demonstrations of public anger that it sparked. Objective reality seemed to have vanished. The “facts” you saw or believed or told other people depended almost entirely on your prior commitments, what news sources you trusted, and who your friends were.

In Ferguson’s African-American community, everybody knew somebody who knew somebody who had seen Brown gunned down in cold blood, his hands up, trying to surrender. Meanwhile the police (and later the prosecutor) were doing Darren Wilson’s public relations, selectively leaking whatever evidence supported Wilson’s story or made Michael Brown look like a thug.

When the prosecutor organized a defense of Wilson in front of the grand jury, the result — no indictment — seemed predetermined and changed very few minds. If you had believed Wilson from the start, you felt vindicated. But if not, the Brown’s murder was just one more example of police misconduct swept under the rug.

The federal Department of Justice was uniquely situated to bridge the gap. It had the direct access to the witnesses and evidence that the community lacked, and the desire to find the truth that the police and prosecutor seemed to lack.

Wednesday, the Department of Justice released two reports, one specifically about the Brown shooting and the other examining the general state of policing in Ferguson. Taken as a whole, the two reports fit the narrative of neither side. But I heard a convincing ring of truth in them.

Policing in Ferguson. You get the clearest picture if you read the general report first, because the community’s response to the Brown shooting makes no sense until you understand its long-term relationship to the FPD.

The essence of the problem in Ferguson can be summarized in one sentence:

Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs.

In other words, the City of Ferguson relies on fines for a major portion of its revenue. It regularly budgets for fines to increase, and it pressures the police department to meet its budget goals by finding more offenses it can cite citizens for. Its municipal court is an opaque, inflexible system that is hard to navigate, particularly if you are poor and/or lack transportation.

As a result, a minor initial offense can snowball into an endless and expensive series of interactions if a citizen fails to appear in court when expected (whether notification of a court date has been received or not) or fails to pay the full fine assessed (regardless of the citizen’s ability to pay).

In short, the Ferguson justice system is predatory and the citizens are the prey.

The report illustrates with many examples — most taken from the FPD’s own files — the following series of abuses:

  • Police regularly stop citizens without probable cause of any wrong-doing.
  • They demand that citizens submit to unjustified searches of their persons or vehicles.
  • Refusal of unlawful commands or attempts to claim constitutional rights are met with punitive arrests and/or violence.
  • While in custody, citizens are controlled by violence and threats of violence. For example, protesting the basis of an arrest, passively refusing to cooperate, or verbally abusing an officer frequently results in being shot with a taser.
  • The FPD ignores its own system for tracking officers’ use of force. When supervisors do submit a report on a use of force, typically only the arrest report written by the officer in question is consulted, even if that report contains internal contradictions.
  • Complaints from the public are discouraged, are frequently ignored, and can result in punitive investigations of the complaining citizens.
  • Officers are rated and promoted based largely on their “productivity”, i.e., the number of revenue-producing citations they write. Citizen complaints or repeated use of force does not significantly affect an officer’s career.

The damage done by a rogue police force can be mitigated by the courts, if the courts are motivated to pursue justice. However,

The Ferguson municipal court handles most charges brought by FPD, and does so not with the primary goal of administering justice or protecting the rights of the accused, but of maximizing revenue.

The municipal court, in other words, is part of the predatory system.

Racism. The report describes a general pattern of abusing the powerless, with sections on the mentally ill or mentally handicapped (whose inability to comprehend or respond to police commands is often taken as resistance and met with violence), and students (the officers assigned to Ferguson high schools escalate situations towards arrests — more revenue! — rather than trying to establish and maintain peace).

But the largest of these sections focuses on racism. The FPD, the city government, and the municipal court are overwhelming staffed by whites, in a city that is two-thirds black. Blacks are disproportionately the prey of the municipal justice system, and the more extreme the police action, the more likely the victim is to be black. For example,

The department’s own records demonstrate that, as with other types of force, canine officers use dogs out of proportion to the threat posed by the people they encounter, leaving serious puncture wounds to nonviolent offenders, some of them children. Furthermore, in every canine bite incident for which racial information is available, the subject was African American. This disparity, in combination with the decision to deploy canines in circumstances with a seemingly low objective threat, suggests that race may play an impermissible role in officers’ decisions to deploy canines.

The more an officer’s discretion is involved in an arrest, the more likely the arrested citizen is black. For example,

With respect to speeding offenses for all roads, African Americans account for 72% of citations based on radar or laser, but 80% of citations based on other or unspecified methods. Thus, as evaluated by radar, African Americans violate the law at lower rates than as evaluated by FPD officers.

Another factor was the practice of police and court employees “fixing” traffic tickets and other municipal citations for friends and relatives. Given the racial composition of the city’s staff, the recipients of these favors were probably overwhelmingly white.

In addition to statistics, the report culled a number of racist emails from the police and court systems. Like:

A November 2008 email stated that President Barack Obama would not be President for very long because “what black man holds a steady job for four years.”

Justice Department investigators could find no record of recipients objecting to such emails or of superiors reprimanding the senders. Often such offensive jokes were forwarded to others.

Reading the report, I was left with an impression not of Klan-like, get-the-niggers racism, but of widespread racial stereotyping that affected decisions at all levels. Being a young black male was in itself seen as probable cause of wrong-doing that police should look into. Uncooperative blacks were seen as inherently violent and dangerous, justifying police violence to control them. Violence directed at blacks was considered a less serious matter than similar incidents against whites* would be. The overall predatory nature of the system was more easily ignored or rationalized because its victims were mostly black.

Michael Brown. When Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown in broad daylight on a city street in front of many witnesses, the African-American community saw a chance for some good to come of this tragedy: Maybe finally the police had done something so outrageous that it couldn’t be covered up. Maybe finally the world would have to notice the abusive system they lived in, and a policeman would have to pay.

It is no wonder, then, that the community was quick to believe the worst about Darren Wilson. Accounts in which he gunned down Brown for no real reason fit very well with the accounts they heard every day from their friends and neighbors: of dogs set on young blacks for no real reason, or tasers used when blacks mouthed off or just didn’t move fast enough to suit police.

Likewise, it is no wonder that witnesses saw what they expected to see, that they exaggerated what they did see, or that they stayed away from TV cameras if what they saw supported Wilson’s account.

The Justice Department’s report on the Brown shooting recommends no charges against Darren Wilson. It goes through the evidence in great detail, and concludes not that everything happened the way Wilson said, but that it could have happened that way. (In Mythbusters terms, Wilson’s story is “plausible”.)

Wilson’s account goes like this: He tried to stop Brown on suspicion of a petty theft (of a handful of small cigars from a convenience store). Brown punched him and reached into his vehicle to struggle for Wilson’s gun. Wilson fired the gun once while inside the car, causing Brown to run away. Wilson pursued, and Brown turned to charge him. Wilson started shooting again, but Brown did not stop until Wilson had fired the fatal shot to the top of Brown’s head.

None of the physical evidence contradicts that story. Some eye-witness testimony supports it. The testimony that contradicts Wilson would not impress a jury, because there are no witnesses who

  • contradict Wilson
  • tell a story consistent with the physical evidence
  • have told the same story consistently to all investigators.

So the Justice Department concludes that prosecuting Wilson would be a waste of time.

The separate accounts of the various witnesses paint a picture of more than just the Brown shooting: a community that wants this shooting to be what it needs rather than what the incident was. Again and again, witnesses against Wilson confess that they have mixed the part of the event they saw with what they have heard on the street. Witnesses supporting Wilson are reluctant to come forward, either because they want Wilson convicted or because they don’t want to be known in the community as the witness who got Wilson off. Some just don’t talk and we don’t know why.

Putting the two reports together, I am left with questions about Wilson, even if I know that I couldn’t vote to convict him. Was killing Brown really necessary, or was it the kind of punitive violence that is endemic in the FPD? To what extent was Wilson worried about his own safety, and to what extent was he just angry that Brown disrespected his authority? (For example, Wilson explains why he reached for his gun rather than his taser during the struggle in his SUV. He doesn’t explain why — given a brief period of time to collect himself before pursuing Brown — he didn’t switch weapons.) Was it really necessary to keep firing, or did the stereotype of the unstoppable black beast affect Wilson’s decision? (Wilson’s choice of words — comparing Brown to a demon — suggests it did.)

I’ll never know for sure. But I couldn’t convict Wilson just on my questions. He should go free.

Justice. In the end, although the Justice Department hasn’t given the black citizens of Ferguson Darren Wilson’s scalp, it has given them what they really need: Exposure of the corrupt and predatory system they live under, and some hope of relief.

Friday, Attorney General Holder pledged that the Justice Department is “prepared to use all the power that we have … to ensure that the situation changes.”

Asked if that included dismantling the Ferguson Police Department, Holder said, “If that’s what’s necessary, we’re prepared to do that.”

Sunday’s NYT illustrated all the ways that Ferguson is not unique, particularly in St. Louis County, but also in communities across the country. There are other predatory police-and-court systems out there. Those towns and cities will be watching Ferguson closely. If the DoJ follows through, the effects could ripple across the nation.

That may not be the conclusion that either side was asking for, but it may be the best ending this tragic story could have received.


* For contrast, consider this:

In one 2012 incident, for example, officers reported responding to a fight in progress at a local bar that involved white suspects. Officers reported encountering “40-50 people actively fighting, throwing bottles and glasses, as well as chairs.” The report noted that “one subject had his ear bitten off.” While the responding officers reported using force, they only used “minimal baton and flashlight strikes as well as fists, muscling techniques and knee strikes.” While the report states that “due to the amount of subjects fighting, no physical arrests were possible,” it notes also that four subjects were brought to the station for “safekeeping.”

The Monday Morning Teaser

The featured article this week is about Ferguson. The feds released two reports based on their investigations — one about the Michael Brown shooting and another about the general state of policing in Ferguson. The short version: Darren Wilson gets off but the FPD doesn’t.

My conclusion after reading both is that overall this is a good ending to a tragic story. The point of the Ferguson protests was never just the Brown shooting; the Brown shooting was supposed to be an egregious example of a larger problem.

In the weekly summary: The Selma anniversary. Was Netanyahu right about Iran? New hope in the ObamaCare case before the Supreme Court. And some dogs in very deep snow.

I’m still on the road and my internet connection is acting flaky this morning, so I hesitate to make predictions about when either post will appear.

Partisans

We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.

– Thomas Jefferson,
First Inaugural Address (1801)

There is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America.

– Barack Obama
Keynote Address to the Democratic National Convention” (2004)

This week’s featured post is “The Myth of Republican Governance“. The big issues in this week’s summary have all come up (and been discussed in detail) before, so I’m going to linking to a lot of previous Sift articles.

This week everybody was talking about funding Homeland Security

Late Friday night, Congress avoided a shutdown of the Homeland Security Department by passing a one-week continuing resolution. So we get to do the whole thing over again this week.

As in previous shutdown confrontations, the Senate passed a “clean” bill funding DHS for the rest of the fiscal year (through September), without attaching any riders rolling back President Obama’s executive actions on immigration. The Senate bill almost undoubtedly would have passed in the House, ending the crisis, had Speaker Boehner allowed it to come to the floor. According to CNN, doing so might have sparked House conservatives to oust him as Speaker, but National Journal says no.

Conservative rhetoric says they are “defending the Constitution” by trying to reverse President Obama’s “lawless” re-prioritization of  immigration enforcement. In fact, the administration studied the legal limits of executive action and made a strong case that it was staying within them, as I outlined in November. The rhetoric is another example of what I described in “A Conservative-to-English Lexicon“:

Like the Bible, [the Constitution] means whatever conservatives want it to mean, regardless of its actual text.

Conservatives jurisdiction-shopped to find a federal judge who agrees with them, so there is an injunction temporarily halting Obama’s executive actions. Slate‘s Eric Posner gives it “little chance of withstanding appeal“. If conservatives truly believed their rhetoric about constitutionality, they could let the conservative majority on the Supreme Court handle it.

and Net Neutrality

A little over a year ago, the headlines were saying that net neutrality was dead, killed by an appeals-court ruling. If you read the ruling, though, things still seemed up in the air. As I wrote at the time:

The gist of the court ruling is that the FCC has classified cable companies as information-services providers, but that its net-neutrality rules regulate them like telecommunications carriers. So the FCC’s net-neutrality rules can’t stand. But — and this is the observation that snatches victory from the jaws of defeat — it’s totally within the FCC’s current powers and mandate to just reclassify the cable companies.

So net neutrality is dead. But if the FCC wants to revive it, all they have to do is issue new rules.

And that’s what they just did: reclassified internet providers as utilities, like the telephone companies. Now, I don’t want to minimize how courageous that was, given the amount of money and influence Verizon and Comcast have been throwing around. But it was always within the FCC’s power.

So now we have net neutrality rules again, and the same court decision that threw out the old rules defends the new ones. The non-profit Mozilla Foundation celebrates “a major victory for the open web“, and Ezra Klein explains what that means:

and the Keystone Pipeline

President Obama vetoed a bill that would have given the government’s go-ahead to the Keystone Pipeline, but he did it on procedural grounds:

Through this bill, the United States Congress attempts to circumvent longstanding and proven processes for determining whether or not building and operating a cross-border pipeline serves the national interest.

So don’t get excited that Obama has finally taken a stand on the pipeline; he hasn’t. He’s just said it shouldn’t be approved this way.

My position on the pipeline hasn’t changed since I wrote “A Hotter Planet is in the Pipeline” two years ago: We can’t burn all the fossil fuels without doing catastrophic damage to the climate, so some will have to stay in the ground. The tar sands whose product Keystone would transport are good candidates.


The case for Keystone revolves around the number of jobs it would create. Estimates vary, but the important thing to realize is that the vast majority would be temporary construction jobs that might last six months to a year, plus some other jobs for people providing services to those temporary workers (who would probably eat a lot of Big Macs before they moved on). Politifact assessed Van Jones’ claim that the pipeline would provide only 35 permanent jobs, and judged it to be true.

On the other hand, the risk of oil spills and groundwater contamination will be permanent, as well as the environmental damage from the carbon released.


The hardest thing to assess about projects like this are the net effects. For example, in the absence of a pipeline, probably less oil will be recovered from those fields to begin with. (The last oil produced from a field is typically the most expensive; whether it gets pumped out at all depends partly on transportation costs.) That’s how the pipeline relates to leaving oil in the ground.

But the oil that is recovered will be transported some other way. Those other ways have their own environmental downsides, and their own employment upsides. The 35 long-term pipeline jobs might be outweighed by the lost railroad and trucking jobs, making the pipeline a net job destroyer. But it’s also hard to guess how many train-car accidents a pipeline would prevent, and what their environmental impact would be.


In a sane world, you could imagine a deal that allowed everyone to save face: Keystone in exchange for environmental concessions elsewhere. Michael Bloomberg outlines one deal. May Boeve explains why it would be a bad deal. But neither has an answer for the “sane world” problem.

and Netanyahu’s speech

It’s happening today, maybe as you read this. Vox gives the background.

and Bill O’Reilly

Bill O’Reilly’s defining characteristic is his lack of self-awareness. He stands in his yard and throws stones without ever noticing the glass house behind him.

So when NBC’s news anchor Brian Williams got into trouble for telling tall tales about his past reporting experiences, O’Reilly pounced, misrepresenting Williams’ exaggerations as being part of his live reporting, and implying that Williams was reporting falsely for ideological purposes:

When hard news people deceive their viewers and readers to advance a political agenda, that’s when the nation gets hurt.

[To be fair, O’Reilly didn’t make the Williams-is-a-lying-ideologue charge in so many words. He just segued directly from this abstract statement to the Williams scandal, as if the two had something to do with each other.]

Well, it turns out that O’Reilly also tells tall tales about his past reporting. The biggest exaggeration concerns a demonstration in Buenos Aires in 1982, when Argentines were upset by their government’s surrender in the Falklands War. Nobody else considered the demonstrations that big a deal; fellow CBS reporter Eric Engberg described is as “the chummiest riot anyone had ever covered”. But O’Reilly has described Buenos Aires as “a war zone”, and often uses that mischaracterization to justify claiming that he has “been there” in combat. His specific retrospective claims about that day — that police fired live ammunition into the crowd and killed many people — are contradicted by the news coverage at the time and by the accounts of everyone else who was there.

But of course O’Reilly is not going to admit — or even recognize —  that he did anything wrong, or that he did precisely what he condemned Williams for doing. Instead, he claims that evidence supports him (when in fact it does no such thing), and that the issue is not his personal dishonesty, but an attack on all of Fox News because “Fox gives voice to conservatives and traditional people”. That makes it an us-against-them issue, not a Bill-is-a-serial-liar issue, so it calls threats and intimidation against journalists who try to investigate.

And of course Fox News is going to stand by him rather than suspend him as NBC did Williams. Columbia Journalism Review draws the obvious conclusion:

Fox has made clear that it doesn’t see itself bound by the same rules of public accountability it calls on other news organizations to uphold.

And that, in turn, demonstrates an even more general principle: Moral standards are just lower on the Right. To give a second example: Eliot Spitzer’s upward-trending political career ended within days after it came out that he had seen a prostitute. A similar scandal was just a blip for David Vitter, who continued in the Senate and was re-elected. And there is no liberal-media-star parallel to Rush Limbaugh’s drug history.


Once the idea got broached that O’Reilly makes exaggerated claims, other examples have followed: hearing the gunshot when a JFK-assassination witness committed suicide, and seeing the execution-style murders of Salvadoran nuns.

and you also might be interested in …

RIP, Leonard Nimoy. May your legacy live long and prosper.

Also dead this week: Earl Lloyd, basketball’s Jackie Robinson.


Thursday, Senator Inhofe (R-Exxon-Mobil) proved global warming is a myth by throwing a snowball while speaking to the Senate. Vox described it as “the dumbest thing that happened on the Senate floor today” and performed the thankless task of explaining rationally why Inhofe is wrong.

Sometimes these kinds of incidents make me mad, but this time I’m just embarrassed. This is the Senate of the United States of America. My country has put complete idiots in positions of power.


The American Family Association has created a “Bigotry Map” to identify “groups and organizations that openly display bigotry toward the Christian faith.” The icons mark atheist groups, humanist groups, “anti-Christian” groups, and “Homosexual agenda” groups.

This is just a screen capture. The original is much fancier, allowing you to zoom in or out and click on icons to identify the groups closest to you. (I’m right between Lowell Atheists and GLSEN New Hampshire. AFA seem to have missed the Concord Area Humanists; I’m sure my friends on the steering committee will be miffed.)

Friendly Atheist comments:

Not a single one of the atheist/Humanist/LGBT rights groups that I can see on the map have ever supported violent acts or taking away rights from Christians. They’ve always been on the side of tolerance and inclusivity. They want non-Christian beliefs to be treated by the government the same way Christianity is treated, with no group getting special privilege.

This is how desperate right-wing groups are to show the fictional marginalization of Christians. They think criticism is the same as bigotry. They think neutrality is the enemy.

The map is also an example of privileged distress: As a group becomes less dominant and has less power to lord it over others, that slippage feels like persecution. I mean, imagine if the government starts to treat Jesus’ birthday with the same respect it shows to, say, Buddha’s or Krishna’s. What’s next? Death camps?


Evangelist Franklin Graham, Billy’s son, says on Fox News that the White House (along with several unspecified European governments) has been “infiltrated by Muslims”. But he can’t name any.


Every year around this time, Pastor Kenneth Swanson’s 2012 radio rant against buying Girl Scout cookies (because he claims the Scouts promote lesbianism) shows up in my Facebook news feed. This year, it got me wondering what Rev. Swanson has been up to lately.

On Feb. 20, he interviewed Rev. Marion Clark, whose new book The Problem of Good: when the world seems fine without God explores the disturbing conundrum that non-Christians aren’t constantly doing evil, and may even be nice people.

SWANSON: There are a lot of unbelievers — neighbors, co-workers — they’re nice. They’re nice people. How do you explain that, Marion?

CLARK: Well, that was the question that really troubled me. And I’ll say that the problem of good, which you’re talking about, troubled me more than the problem of evil. Evil exists; it’s out there. But what kept tripping me up were my nice neighbors, nice family members, people who — I would hate to say it — were nicer than I was. And yet they were unregenerate. And how could that be?

How indeed? It’s like seeing the inverted image of Greg Epstein’s Good Without God.


Gerrymandering explained:


Male privilege explained:

And a young man explains men’s responsibility for preventing sexual assault.

and let’s close with something funny

Australian comic Jim Jefferies on gun control.

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