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Gaza, as seen from a distance

Last week I punted on the Israel/Gaza situation, because what I was reading contained more noise and spin than information and insight, and I didn’t want to make that situation worse. This week I can do a little better.

Immediate causes. ThinkProgress provides a timeline tracing the back-and-forth escalation that began with the disappearance (on June 12) of three Israeli teens who later (June 30) were found dead. Israel blamed Hamas, whose leaders didn’t claim responsibility (as they usually do; Hamas’ leadership constantly battles the perception that it’s toothless against Israel), and began arresting Hamas leaders and their associates in the West Bank, including some released in a previous deal. Hamas saw the kidnapping as a pretext for Israel to renege on that deal, and fired (mostly ineffective) rockets from Gaza in protest.

From there things escalated as they so often do. Israeli troops entered Gaza Thursday night.

A different angle on the immediate causes of the conflict comes from Nathan Thrall’s op-ed in the NYT. Since 2007, the limited autonomy that Israel allows Palestinians has been split between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank. But Hamas has fallen on hard times recently because of the rapidly diminishing value of its alliances. You can think of Hamas as the Palestinian franchise of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Egyptian franchise controlled that country for about a year between the fall of the Mubarak government in 2011 and the subsequent military coup, but is now struggling to survive a major crackdown. The Assad regime in Syria was another Hamas ally, but it is now focused on its own problems. Iran’s aid has also diminished.

So in June Hamas was driven to reconcile with Fatah, more or less turning Gaza over to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, but leaving its 43,000 civil servants in place. Currently, none of those people is being paid, mostly for reasons having to do with Israel and the United States. (Qatar is willing to pay them until something else can be worked out, but that solution is being blocked.) The other thing Hamas hoped to accomplish by getting itself out of the governance business was that Egypt might re-open its border with Gaza, which would be a big deal in the Gazan economy. That’s not happening either.

So Hamas wants:

  • Israeli troops out of Gaza.
  • End the recent Israeli crackdown on Hamas’ people and release the ones who had nothing to do with the kidnapping.
  • Get the Gaza civil servants paid somehow.
  • Open Gaza’s Egyptian border.

Israel wants Hamas to stop firing rockets into Israel and to stop kidnapping/murder operations in Israel. (The rockets don’t seem to be doing a whole lot of harm, but it’s the principle of the thing.) I’m not sure what Egypt’s military government wants.

This is where the topsy-turvy logic of the situation comes into play: A ceasefire doesn’t get Hamas most of what it wants — which is why it rejected an Egyptian proposal — but all Hamas has to threaten Israel with at the moment (beyond those pinprick rockets) is bad publicity. The more Gazan civilians die, the more support builds for boycotts of Israel and divestment from companies that do business with Israel. It’s like: “If you don’t give us what we want, you’ll have to kill more of us, and then you’ll be sorry.”

In the long run, how does this end? Whenever the Israel/Palestine conflict flares up, it’s easy to get lost in arguments about the most recent actions of each side; whether what one side just did justifies what the other just did, and so forth. I think it’s important to keep pulling back to the big question: How does this conflict end? I can only see four outcomes:

  1. Two states. Some border line is agreed upon between Israel and Palestine, and they become two independent countries with full sovereignty.
  2. One state with democracy. The Palestinians are made full citizens of a unified state. Given demographic trends, they are eventually the majority.
  3. It never ends. The Palestinians remain a subject population ruled or otherwise dominated by Israel. Israelis continue to be targets of terrorist resistance.
  4. Ethnic cleansing. Israel kills or expels large numbers of Palestinians (or otherwise induces them to emigrate), leaving behind a Greater Israel with a clear and sustainable Jewish majority.

It’s important to realize that anyone who finds both (1) and (2) unacceptable is de facto advocating (3) or (4), because those are the only choices.

Some Israelis seem to believe in an outcome (3A), in which the Israeli occupation continues, but the Palestinians are so beaten down that they submit peacefully. I’m pretty sure that’s a fantasy. I don’t know what level of oppression would be necessary to make (3A) happen (if it’s possible at all), but everything that the Russians have been willing to unleash on the Chechens has been insufficient. Israelis need to take that example seriously: They’d need a strongman stronger than Putin to make (3A) work.

Another version of (3A) is: Palestinians end all resistance for a long enough time that Israelis feel safe, and then Israel will consider what rights the Palestinians should have. That’s another fantasy. Nothing in the history of Israel’s dealings with the Palestinians entitles them to that level of trust. In fact, I don’t trust the Israelis that far, and I’ve got no skin in the game at all. I believe that once the terrorist threat subsided, Israel would forget about the Palestinians until the violence restarted, and then claim all over again that no deal can be reached until the violence stops.

So I repeat: The four outcomes listed above are the only ones.

With that in mind, it’s discouraging to read the recent remarks by Prime Minister Netanyahu.

I think the Israeli people understand now what I always say: that there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan.

That eliminates (1). (2) is obviously unthinkable to anyone who values Israel’s identity as a Jewish state. So this goes on forever or there’s ethnic cleansing.

Moral calculus. A lot of the media back-and-forth concerns the morality of the two sides. The argument comes down to: Hamas targets civilians while Israel takes steps to avoid killing civilians, but Israel’s weapons are so much more effective that they end up killing far more civilians than Hamas does, on the order of hundreds to one.

Another reason for the disparity is that Israel prioritizes civil defense, while Hamas puts military targets in civilian areas and doesn’t even build bomb shelters. As Netanyahu put it on Fox News:

Here’s the difference between us. We are using missile defense to protect our civilians, and they’re using their civilians to protect their missiles.

Charles Krauthammer quoted that line in a WaPo column called “Moral Clarity in Gaza“.

Personally, I see this less as a moral difference between the two sides than a difference in their tactical situations. Gaza has no way to stop the Israeli attack by force. Israel will stop when the number of dead civilians creates enough international pressure. So Gazan civil defense would just enable the Israeli attacks to go on longer, with the same eventual body count. What’s Hamas’ motivation to go that route?

And that brings me to a moral principle that I think deserves more attention: Asymmetric warfare is morally asymmetric. In other words: If you are so much more powerful than your adversaries that your decisions create the gameboard and dictate the moves available to the players, then your actions have to be judged differently. You bear responsibility for the shape of the game itself, and not just for the moves you make.

Friendly frustration. Even pro-Israel commentators at some level realize the tactical and strategic realities. Krauthammer writes:

[Hamas rocket fire] makes no sense. Unless you understand, as Tuesday’s Post editorial explained, that the whole point is to draw Israeli counterfire.

Taken for granted here is that the Israelis are helpless in the face of this masterful strategy: They must fire back, even if that’s what Hamas wants. Perversely, Krauthammer presents Hamas as the player powerful enough to have choices, while Israel is driven by necessity.

Friends of Israel more in touch with reality are frustrated by the Netanyahu government’s lack of vision. Fred Kaplan describes the short-term logic of invading Gaza, but then laments:

The Israeli government seems to have forgotten how to think strategically; at the very least, they have a self-destructive tendency to overplay their hands. … Until this conflict with Gaza, Israel had been enjoying a level of security it hadn’t seen in many years. Terrorist attacks from the West Bank are all but nonexistent. Its enemies to the north—Syria, Hezbollah, and a gaggle of Islamist terrorist movements—are embroiled in their own wars with one another. Egypt is once again in the firm grip of a military government committed to putting down the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies (including Hamas). Iran has—at least for now—frozen its nuclear program, as a result of negotiations led by the Obama administration. … Instead of capitalizing on Israel’s unusually strong strategic position, Netanyahu risks squandering it—destroying what little support he has in the West and making it hard for Arab governments that share his interests (Egypt, Jordan, and, even now, the Palestinian Authority) to sustain their tacit alliances.

At The Jewish Daily Forward, J. J. Goldberg marked yesterday as the moment when the tide turned against Israel. After initially receiving a certain amount of international support — or at least seeing Hamas condemned in equal-or-worse terms

What happened next was something that’s happened over and over in Israel’s military operations in recent years: The government overestimated the depth of its international support and decided to broaden the scope of the operation. … The sympathy Israel won because of the kidnapping and shelling is melting before our eyes. Until the weekend, protests of Israel’s actions were limited to street demonstrations by leftists and Muslims in various cities around the world, with almost no governmental backing. Now governments are starting to switch sides. … Many Israelis will argue in the next few days that the mounting international criticism is hypocritical, that Israel has a right to defend itself and that the fast growing civilian toll is entirely Hamas’ fault. Whatever the merits of the arguments, they have lost their audience.

Meta-discussion. In some ways as interesting as the discussion itself is the meta-discussion about how to discuss such a divisive topic, where the sides are dug in so deeply and so many of the arguments rehearsed and ready to pull off the shelf. Also at The Jewish Daily Forward, Jay Michelson posts “5 Ways To Turn Down the Social Media Flame“. He’s basically rediscovering the three principles of Quaker discussions: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? And he asks:

If a bunch of privileged Americans with so little at personal stake can’t internalize the importance of multiple narratives, how do we expect Israelis and Palestinians — both of whom are living under threat of imminent death, while I sit behind a screen in Brooklyn — to do better?

And the blog This is Not Jewish gives instructions on “How to Criticize Israel Without Being Anti-Semitic“. Knowing how off-base the line “Democrats think anybody who criticizes Obama is racist” is, I was ready to be skeptical of “Jews think anybody who criticizes Israel is anti-Semitic.” In each case, it’s easy to be a lot more racially or ethnically offensive than you realize, and so get hit with criticism that you deserve, but think you don’t deserve. (“What I meant …” is not a defense. And anything that includes the phrase “if I offended anybody” is not an apology.)

Many of the tips are common sense, if you stop to think about it (i.e., don’t appeal to stereotypes). But I had never made the connection between labeling Israel-supporting Jews as “bloodthirsty” and the pogrom-causing blood libel, in which Jews are accused of literally drinking the blood of sacrificed Christian children. I don’t believe I’ve ever violated that rule, but duh, why didn’t I see that? Also be careful about equating Jews, Israelis, and Zionists, who are three different groups of people.

And finally, it’s crazy to hold your local Jewish community responsible for whatever Israel might be doing. (Just like it was crazy to hold your local Muslims responsible for 9-11.) As John Lloyd points out:

There’s a very large, and often very rich, Russian community in London – and there are no attacks on Russians or their mansions, restaurants or churches because of the Russian seizure of Crimea and sponsorship of uprisings in eastern Ukraine.

All four of my grandparents were German-Americans during the World Wars. None of that was our fault, and I’m willing to let Americans of all other ethnicities make similar claims.

There’s Something About Todd

I strongly advise you not to read this post. Your browser has a Back button. Use it.

I don’t know what it is about Todd Akin.

The whole point of the Weekly Sift is to filter the junk and hype out of the news so that you only read stuff that is worth your attention. But success in that venture depends on my ability to leave something alone once I’ve determined that it’s not worth either your time or mine.

Todd Akin is not worth your time or mine. So you shouldn’t read this post and I certainly shouldn’t be writing it. And yet, I can’t seem to ignore him. I suppose it’s that infuriating combination of ignorance, self-righteousness, and self-assurance. So many intelligent, thoughtful people could be interviewed on TV, but aren’t. And yet, there’s Todd Akin, displayed in my living room! And why am I writing about him? I’m just making it worse.

But I can’t stop myself, so let’s get this over with: In interviews promoting his new book — which I refuse to link to; I still have that much control — he says he knows what he did wrong in his “legitimate rape” interview: It was just a bad choice of words. He should have said “legitimate case of rape” instead, because then the liberal media couldn’t have slandered him by making it sound like he thought a rape could be legitimate.

Let’s plug that into the transcript and see how it plays:

CHARLES JACO: So if an abortion can be considered in the case of, say, a tubal pregnancy or something like that, what about in the case of rape? Should it be legal or not?

REP. TODD AKIN: Well, you know, people always want to try and make that as one of those things: “Well, how do you—how do you slice this particularly tough sort of ethical question?” It seems to me, first of all, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate [case of] rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something. You know, I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.

Well, the insensitivity is unchanged: Raped women aren’t real people who deserve our compassion, they’re just a “tough sort of ethical question” that tricky interviewers use to try to trip Akin up — like “Can God make a rock so big He can’t lift it?” or something. And after this tough question gets sorted out by the higher mind, it really just comes down to who to punish — the rapist or the fetus. The woman is a bystander.

The junk science about female physiology is still there; two years later, and he still hasn’t educated himself. And he’s still implying that only violent rape really counts. (What about roofies? Even in Akin’s alternate universe, would an unconscious woman’s body “shut that whole thing down”?)

Most importantly, he’s still saying that women who claim they got pregnant from a rape are probably lying, because “that’s really rare” in “a legitimate [case of] rape”.

So no, I don’t think he fixed anything.

Here’s what’s reprehensible about Todd Akin, and it’s got nothing to do with his choice of words: Even given two years to think about it, he still believes in a legal system in which rape is a viable male reproductive strategy. (They’ll put you in jail if they catch you — and if the woman can prove she didn’t consent — but the law will force your victims to bear your children, so your genes will live on.) He believes in that system so strongly that he’s willing to seek out junk science to justify it.

I’m going to stop writing now. To everyone who made it this far: I’m sorry. I really am. Try to do something more worthwhile with the rest of your day.

Boehner’s Lawsuit and Palin’s “25 Impeachable Offenses”

I could almost feel sorry for John Boehner, if he hadn’t played such a big role in creating his own problems. As Speaker of the House, he is simultaneously

  • one of the most powerful figures in the United States government, answerable to History and to Peter Parker’s uncle: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
  • leader of a majority caucus that wants the United States to become ungovernable, believing that the American people will blame the ensuing chaos on a president the caucus hates.
  • responsible for keeping that caucus in the majority, while knowing that they are delusional and the American people will blame them if they cause disasters too obviously.

To succeed, he needs his caucus to stay in the majority, continue as leader of that caucus, and not sink the country. It’s an impossible job, and it can’t end well for him. But for some reason he loves it and wants to hang on to it. So he is constantly running out in front of the mob so that he can claim to be leading it, hoping that he can divert it from its most destructive (and self-destructive) goals.

That’s why he has to pretend to believe in hare-brained schemes like the government shutdown, so that he’ll be in a position raise the debt ceiling at the last minute and avoid an international economic disaster. He has to tolerate obstruction of government programs the country wants – the Highway Trust Fund is about to run out of money, a threat that combines job destruction with potholes and unsafe bridges; tens of thousands of refugee kids are piling up at the border unprocessed, the Senate worked out a bipartisan immigration compromise Boehner can’t even bring to a vote; and couldn’t the minimum wage go up just a little? — so that he can maybe save a few of them eventually.

The lawsuit. And now he has to sue the President, because otherwise the lunatics he leads will start an impeachment process that will probably be even less popular and less grounded in reality than their last presidential impeachment. They’ll do it right before an election, focusing the public’s attention on what a bad idea it was to give the Republican Party any role in governing the country.

He has to sue the President, even though Obama is begging him to do it. Obama is going all over the country, cracking jokes at Boehner’s expense. He just went to Texas, and said:

You hear some of them … “Sue him! Impeach him!” Really? Really? For what? You’re going to sue me for doing my job?”

Obama loved it. The crowd loved it. It looked great on TV. Every presidential action the House Republicans want to sue or impeach Obama for points to an issue where the real problem is inaction by the Republican House. And Obama’s not up for re-election; they are. No wonder he loves to talk about it.

Now, I don’t know which things they find most offensive — me helping to create jobs, or me raising wages, or me easing the student loan burdens, or me making sure women can find out whether they’re getting paid the same as men for doing the same job. I don’t know which of these actions really bug them.

But Boehner has to do it, because this is where the rhetoric that bounces around in the right-wing echo chamber leads. For five years, Republicans have been telling their base that Obama is “lawless” and his rule is “tyranny“. He “ignores the Constitution” and “makes up his own laws“.

The importance of vagueness. Like most extreme rhetoric, this talk works best when it’s vague, a lesson Republicans keep learning (and forgetting) when it comes to spending: Railing about “government waste” and promising to cut “trillions” from the budget are great applause lines. But when you have to make those cuts specific, hungry people don’t eat, old people pay more for medical care, construction workers lose their jobs, contaminated food gets past the inspectors … and it all becomes a lot less popular. That’s because the notion that we spend trillions building bridges to nowhere, feeding able-bodied people who could easily get jobs, and dishing out foreign aid to countries that hate us is a delusion. If you take big whacks at the federal budget, you’re going to end up making life considerably harder for people a lot like yourself.

But Boehner can’t stay vague forever. When Republican leaders encourage delusional rhetoric about the horrible things Obama and his government have done, eventually the people who believe them are going to ask what they’re doing about it. And the true answer, “I’m raising a bunch of money from suckers like you” is not going to cut it. Sadly, though, actually doing something will force Obama’s critics to be embarrassingly specific. They can’t just sue or impeach Obama for “Benghazi” or “making a mockery of the Constitution”; they’ll have to point to actual events that break actual laws. And then there will be a public hearing where they’ll be expected to offer evidence that these events happened somewhere other than in their fevered imaginations.

What’s worse, everybody will be watching, not just the Republican base. It has all the makings of an embarrassing disaster.

Boehner, naturally, wants to put that off as long as possible. That’s why he floated the lawsuit idea and let it hang in the air for two weeks before saying what it would be about. It’s like walking into a lawyer’s office and announcing, “I’m going to sue that guy!” and when the lawyer asks “For what?” you answer “Give me two weeks and I’ll think of something.”

Eventually he had to announce something, so Thursday he did (though there’s still no text of the proposed complaint). The draft resolution authorizing the suit says

[T]he Speaker may initiate or intervene in one or more civil actions on behalf of the House of Representatives … with respect to implementation of (including a failure to implement) any provision of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act

That’s still pretty vague, but in a statement Boehner fleshed it out a little:

In 2013, the president changed the health care law without a vote of Congress, effectively creating his own law by literally waiving the employer mandate and the penalties for failing to comply with it.

So that’s the President’s foremost tyrannical act: He delayed implementation of the employer mandate, one of the provisions of the ACA Republicans hate most. The New Republic‘s Brian Beutler described Boehner’s announcement as “a faceplant”:

Today’s story is that the GOP has spent weeks and weeks accusing Obama of unbridled lawlessness, when they didn’t really have the goods.

MaddowBlog‘s Steve Benen goes into more detail: Almost certainly, a federal judge will rule that the House doesn’t have standing to sue. (They’re not the ones being hurt, if anybody is. And if they’re serious, they have the impeachment power and don’t need the courts.) If the merits of the suit are heard and Boehner would happen to win, “the result might very well be the implementation of a policy Republicans don’t like”, unless the case lasted long enough that it had been implemented by then anyway. And implementation would be good for House Republicans because …

Remember, for GOP lawmakers, effective public policy wasn’t part of the equation. The GOP’s priority was failure – they wanted the system not to work. If the employer mandate would have made life difficult for the private sector, then Republicans desperately wanted it to happen so that it would hurt the economy, anger the public, and make the ACA more unpopular, causing a political nightmare for the president.

It’s part of that break-the-country-so-the-president-gets-blamed strategy, which worked so well during the government shutdown. And it makes such a good talking point: I’m suing to force the President to do something I think is bad for the country, because the way that he did what I think is good for the country was tyrannical. Voters love inside-the-Beltway process arguments like that.

Impeachment. But at least Boehner is heading off talk about impeachment. Or is he? Tuesday, Sarah Palin went to the heart of the echo chamber,, and wrote “It’s time to impeach President Obama“. Impeach him because “Opening our borders to a flood of illegal immigrants is deliberate.” (Picture turning that conspiracy theory into an Article of Impeachment and offering evidence to support it on national TV.) But that’s not all Palin has:

President Obama’s rewarding of lawlessness, including his own, is the foundational problem here. It’s not going to get better, and in fact irreparable harm can be done in this lame-duck term as he continues to make up his own laws as he goes along, and, mark my words, will next meddle in the U.S. Court System with appointments that will forever change the basic interpretation of our Constitution’s role in protecting our rights.

Unless impeached immediately, Obama will “meddle in the U. S. Court System” by doing his job under Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution to “appoint ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, judges of the Supreme Court, and all other officers of the United States, whose appointments are not herein otherwise provided for”. No wonder she concludes:

The many impeachable offenses of Barack Obama can no longer be ignored. If after all this he’s not impeachable, then no one is.

Thursday, she elaborated on Sean Hannity’s show and wrote a second column for Fox.

A little less talk, a lot more action. When we see even GOP lawmakers who are recognizing and proclaiming Obama’s violation of the Constitution and then ignoring that Constitution and the power they have to impeach — it gets kind of frustrating for the American people.

Or at least for the segment of the American people who aren’t in on the scam and take yakkers like Palin seriously. But let’s talk more about impeachable offenses:

He has allowed his subordinates and he himself to fraud the American people on these programs, these policies, that he has promised will work or not impact debt or deficit. These have been lies by our president. Yes, those are impeachable offenses.

Remember, the Constitution defines impeachable offenses as “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors”, not “being too optimistic about your proposals”. But don’t worry, Palin has consulted “experts”.

Experts, attorneys, they have a list of at least 25 impeachable offenses.

Now we’re getting somewhere. Surely, every web site that mentions Palin’s call for impeachment (especially her own web site or her Fox or Breitbart columns) will link to that list so we can examine it. Because nobody would just throw a number out there to make herself sound smart, or to create the vague idea that there are specifics somewhere, even though I don’t have time to go into them right now. Otherwise, the 25 impeachable offenses would be like Senator Joe McCarthy’s famous list of Communists in the State Department, which started out at 205 and at various other times was 57 or 81 or ten names long. As reports: “In fact, McCarthy never produced any solid evidence that there was even one communist in the State Department.”

25 “impeachable” offenses. It wasn’t on or or any other obvious place, but eventually I found the list. It seems to come from a report by the Committee for Justice, which in turn relies on a memo written by nine Republican state attorneys general in 2010. The CFJ was originally an astroturf organization created to support President Bush’s most conservative judicial nominees, though apparently it has found new justifications for its existence over the last five years.

I can see why nobody links to the list: It’s rhetoric, not law, and many of its points depend on “facts” that only exist in the conservative echo chamber.* Like #1:

Obama Administration uses IRS to target conservative, Christian and pro-Israel organizations, donors, and citizens.

Darrell Issa has been investigating this to death for more than a year and so far has come up with exactly nothing: no conservative groups were harmed, no IRS political motives have been found, and no communication channel with the White House has been identified. #5 is about Obama’s

21 separate Executive Orders that attack and undermine your Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.

You can contemplate these nefarious orders in all their bureaucratic horror here. In #7:

Obama forced ObamaCare on an unwilling public through bribery and lying about its cost.

and also by passing it through the independently elected Congress, which did its own cost estimates. And apparently no one has ever before added a special provision to a bill to get a key senator’s vote. (The allegedly suspect provision didn’t survive into the final bill.)

#8 goes all the way back to Operation Fast & Furious.

Investigators suspect that Fast & Furious was an effort by the Obama Administration to discredit lawful gun ownership in America by purposefully creating gun crimes, thus inducing public outcry for gun control.

“Investigators” like Rush Limbaugh and the NRA, but nobody remotely knowledgeable or reputable. And notice, they don’t even claim to have evidence, they just “suspect”. Congress should impeach Obama because the NRA suspects he did something wrong.

It goes on like that. These are the “expert” specifics behind Palin’s vague impeachment rhetoric. No wonder the Republican chair of the Judiciary Committee said this Sunday:

The Constitution is very clear as to what constitutes grounds for impeachment of the president of the United States. He has not committed the kind of criminal acts that call for that.

Other lists of offenses. South Dakota’s GOP convention passed an impeachment resolution that listed other things, like Obama trading Guantanamo detainees to get Sergeant Bergdahl back from the Taliban or allowing the EPA regulating carbon emissions as the Supreme Court has ruled that the Clean Air Act instructs it to do.

Ted Cruz has put out his own list. He doesn’t mention impeachment, but simply points to “abuses of power”. Cruz’ list has more than 40 entries of similar quality to other lists. For example, President Obama has

Extended federal marriage benefits by recognizing, under federal law, same-sex marriages created in a state that allows same-sex marriage even if the couple is living in a state that doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage.

In other words, Obama is obeying the Constitution’s requirement to give full faith and credit to the”public acts, records, and judicial proceedings” of the states, even ones that allow same-sex marriage. He

Ordered Boeing to fire 1,000 employees in South Carolina and shut down a new factory because it was non-union.

Actually the NLRB did that — because Boeing was breaking the labor laws the NLRB is supposed to enforce — as Cruz’ own reference says. Obama appoints members to the Board, but doesn’t control it.

There’s a lot of stuff like that. It will stir your blood if you’re a Fox-News-watching conservative. But the two-thirds of the country that doesn’t identify as conservative is going to wonder what the fuss is about and why Congress is doing this rather than raising the minimum wage or creating jobs or passing immigration reform or doing something about those refugee kids on our doorstep.

President Obama would love to see those baseless impeachment hearings happen before the fall election. John Boehner would hate it.

* I sympathize with one point: #21, the “kill list” of American citizens who can be targeted by drones or military raids. It actually exists and violates those citizens’ due process rights. But impeachment is a premature remedy, because Congress has done absolutely nothing to protest — and it probably can’t, given that the kill list is one of those War on Terror programs many Republicans like. Impeachment shouldn’t be Congress’ first option; first they could try a joint resolution denouncing the kill list, or a law specifically making it illegal. If they can’t pass that much, they’ve got no business proceeding to impeachment.



How Threatening is the Hobby Lobby Decision?

The Court’s five male Catholic justices outvoted its three Jews and lone female Catholic. Is that a problem?

It is easy to be confused by the commentary on the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling that Hobby Lobby and Conestoga are exempt from the contraception mandate of the Affordable Care Act. The ruling, say some, is narrow; it will affect only a handful of business-owners in a more-or-less identical situation, and their female workers’ coverage will not suffer. No, say others, the consequences of the ruling are sweeping; it puts all workers’ health coverage at the mercy of whatever religions their employers’ corporations decide to adopt, and could have further consequences unrelated to healthcare.

Each of those views is right in its way. Justice Alito’s majority opinion emphasizes its limitations; cases that seem analogous cases, he says several times, may turn out differently. An important point in Alito’s argument is that the government might easily achieve its purpose — covering contraceptive care for women whose employers have religious objections — by pushing the small expense of the coverage back on the insurance companies, as it already does for some religious organizations like churches, hospitals, and colleges. Such a simple fix is probably unavailable if companies object to covering vaccines or blood transfusions, much less seeking exemptions from civil rights laws.

But Justice Ginsberg was not comforted by Alito’s assurances of what may or might happen. Analogous cases may turn out differently, but they might not. Countless numbers of them will work their way through the system for years to come, creating unnecessary chaos as lower courts explore the consequences of Alito’s new interpretations of religious liberty and corporate law.

And who knows? The Court has committed itself to nothing, so maybe those cases will lead to new sweeping rulings by the Court’s increasingly activist conservative (and male Catholic) majority. The government’s “easy” fix to the contraception mandate is itself challenged in a case that the Court will probably hear next year; immediately after the Hobby Lobby ruling, the Court issued an emergency order demonstrating that it takes that case seriously.

What does the ruling say? Here’s the full opinion of the Court — Alito’s 49-page ruling and Ginsberg’s 35-page dissent, plus a few paragraphs from other justices. Law professor Eugene Volokh summarized Alito’s ruling in 900 words, and Ezra Klein got it down to three sentences:

  1. A federal law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was written to protect individuals’ religious freedoms — and on Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled that, under RFRA, corporations count as people: their religious freedoms also get protection.

  2. The requirement to cover contraception violated RFRA because it mandated that businesses “engage in conduct that seriously violates their sincere religious belief that life begins at conception.”

  3. If the federal government wanted to increase access to birth control — which they argued was the point of this requirement — the Court thinks it could do it in ways that didn’t violate religious freedom, like taking on the task of distributing contraceptives itself.

Alito clearly thinks (or wants us to think) that his ruling is narrowly targeted:

This decision concerns only the contraceptive mandate and should not be understood to hold that all insurance-coverage mandates, e.g., for vaccinations or blood transfusions, must necessarily fall if they conflict with an employer’s religious beliefs. Nor does it provide a shield for employers who might cloak illegal discrimination as a religious practice.

But Ginsberg’s dissent begins:

In a decision of startling breadth, the Court holds that commercial enterprises, including corporations, along with partnerships and sole proprietorships, can opt out of any law (saving only tax laws) they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs.

And later she explains:

Although the Court attempts to cabin its language to closely held corporations, its logic extends to corporations of any size, public or private. Little doubt that RFRA claims will proliferate, for the Court’s expansive notion of corporate personhood—combined with its other errors in construing RFRA—invites for-profit entities to seek religion-based exemptions from regulations they deem offensive to their faith.

Ginsberg sees four dangerous new principles in Alito’s ruling:

  • Originally, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 was meant to restore an interpretation of the First Amendment’s free-exercise clause that the Supreme Court backed away from in 1990. Alito has cut the RFRA loose from history of First Amendment interpretation, giving future Courts broad license to expand the notion of religious liberty.
  • Alito has granted RFRA rights to for-profit corporations, extending the legal fiction of corporate personhood into a previously unexplored realm, and blowing away the long-observed distinction between for-profit corporations and specifically religious organizations (like churches) created to serve their members.
  • The meaning of a “substantial burden” on religious liberty has been significantly weakened and made subjective.
  • The “corporate veil” — the legal separation between corporations and their shareholders — has been turned into a one-way gate. The rights of the shareholders now flow through to the corporation, but the debts, crimes, and responsibilities of the corporation still don’t flow back to the shareholders.

Let’s take those one by one.

The RFRA goes beyond any previous history of First Amendment interpretation.

For decades, the Court applied what it called the Sherbert test to First Amendment, religious-liberty-infringement cases: A law could require a person to violate his/her religion — say, by working on the Sabbath — only if the law was the least restrictive way to achieve a compelling government interest. But in 1990 it backed away from that principle in the Smith decision: If a law had a larger purpose and didn’t specifically target a religion, it didn’t have to be quite so accommodating.

Congress then passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to reinstate the Sherbert Test by statute. That’s what the law says and that’s how it has been interpreted. But you can’t justify the Hobby Lobby decision from the pre-Smith precedents, because you run into the 1982 Lee decision, concerning whether an Amish employer had to pay Social Security taxes:

Congress and the courts have been sensitive to the needs flowing from the Free Exercise Clause, but every person cannot be shielded from all the burdens incident to exercising every aspect of the right to practice religious beliefs. When followers of a particular sect enter into commercial activity as a matter of choice, the limits they accept on their own conduct as a matter of conscience and faith are not to be superimposed on the statutory schemes which are binding on others in that activity. Granting an exemption from social security taxes to an employer operates to impose the employer’s religious faith on the employees.

Alito doesn’t answer Lee, he just blows it away:

By enacting RFRA, Congress went far beyond what this Court has held is constitutionally required.

In other words, in spite of its name the RFRA doesn’t “restore” anything; it’s a revolutionary assertion of new religious rights unrelated to the First Amendment. How far do those new rights go? Alito doesn’t say. A more detailed analysis of this issue is in Slate. Daily Kos’ Armando has an interesting response: If the RFRA really does mean what Alito claims, then the RFRA itself is an unconstitutional establishment of religion.

The RFRA extends to for-profit corporations.

The RFRA uses the word person and doesn’t define it, so Alito argues that the definition must come from the Dictionary Act of 1871, which says

the words ‘person’ and ‘whoever’ include corporations, companies, associations, firms, partnerships, societies, and joint stock companies, as well as individuals.

Worship of Mammon

(If the Dictionary Act rings a bell in your head, here’s where you’ve heard of it before: The way the Defense of Marriage Act affected thousands of laws in one swoop was by amending the Dictionary Act’s definition of marriage.) But Ginsberg points out that the Dictionary Act “controls only where context does not indicate otherwise.” Since “the exercise of religion is characteristic of natural persons, not artificial legal entities” the context of a law concerning the exercise of religion already excludes corporations.

Alito wants to claim his ruling only applies to “closely-held corporations”, but that’s not what the Dictionary Act says. If Bank of America wants to admit that it worships Mammon — a religion at least as old and popular as Christianity — it can claim free-exercise rights.

Alito’s reasoning has already had one very unintended consequence: A Guantanamo detainee was previously denied protection of the RFRA, because a court decided that the meaning of “person” in his case was not the Dictionary Act definition. Now that the Supreme Court has gone on record saying the “person” in the RFRA has the Dictionary Act meaning, he is claiming his case should be re-considered.

The meaning of “substantial burden” was weakened.

ObamaCare didn’t require the owners of Hobby Lobby to use, manufacture, distribute, or even necessarily buy contraceptives. They were merely required to provide health insurance that would cover contraceptives if the employees decided to use them. If Hobby Lobby employees agreed with the owners’ scruples, no violation of those scruples would take place.

Ginsberg did not find this burden “substantial”.

It is doubtful that Congress, when it specified that burdens must be “substantial,” had in mind a linkage thus interrupted by independent decisionmakers (the woman and her health counselor) standing between the challenged government action and the religious exercise claimed to be infringed.

But Alito did:

The belief of the Hahns and Greens implicates a difficult and important question of religion and moral philosophy, namely, the circumstances under which it is immoral for a person to perform an act that is innocent in itself but that has the effect of enabling or facilitating the commission of an immoral act by another. It is not for the Court to say that the religious beliefs of the plaintiffs are mistaken or unreasonable.

But surely any clever person can find a link of some sort between whatever they don’t want to do and the commission of some act they consider immoral by someone else. Alito is encouraging Christians to develop hyper-sensitive consciences that will then allow them to control or mistreat others in the name of religious liberty, a pattern I described last summer in “Religious ‘Freedom’ Means Christian Passive-Aggressive Domination“.

I focus on Christians here for a very good reason: Given that this principle will produce complete anarchy if generally applied, it won’t be generally applied. Contrary to Alito’s assertion, judges will have to decide whether the chains of moral logic people assert are reasonable or not. For example, elsewhere in his opinion he brushes off the objection that corporations will claim religious benefits to increase their profits:

To qualify for RFRA’s protection, an asserted belief must be “sincere”; a corporation’s pretextual assertion of a religious belief in order to obtain an exemption for financial reasons would fail.

But how would it fail, if “it is not for the Court to say” whether asserted religious beliefs are unreasonable? If Randism is repackaged as a free-market-worshipping religion, won’t any regulation infringe on it? Who could claim that Koch Industries is “insincere” in its Randism?

In practice, a belief will seem reasonable if a judge agrees with it. That’s what happened in this case: Five male Catholic judges ruled that Catholic moral principles trump women’s rights. Three Jews and a female Catholic disagreed.

The nature of corporations was re-imagined.


By incorporating a business, however, an individual separates herself from the entity and escapes personal responsibility for the entity’s obligations. One might ask why the separation should hold only when it serves the interest of those who control the corporation.

Alito brushes away this separateness:

A corporation is simply a form of organization used by human beings to achieve desired ends. An established body of law specifies the rights and obligations of the people (including shareholders, officers, and employees) who are associated with a corporation in one way or another. When rights, whether constitutional or statutory, are extended to corporations, the purpose is to protect the rights of these people.

Alito waves his hand at employees, but his ruling only applies to owners, i.e., rich people. So in Alito’s reading of corporate law, corporations protect rich people’s rights while shielding them from responsibilities. It is a way to write inequality into the law.

friend-of-the-court brief written by “forty-four law professors whose research and teaching focus primarily on corporate and securities law and criminal law as applied to corporations” says Alito’s “established body of law” doesn’t work the way he says, and that making it work that way will open “a Pandora’s box”.

The first principle of corporate law is that for-profit corporations are entities that possess legal interests and a legal identity of their own—one separate and distinct from their shareholders. … [T]he most compelling reasons for a small business to incorporate is so that its shareholders can acquire the protection of the corporate veil. … Allowing a corporation, through either shareholder vote or board resolution, to take on and assert the religious beliefs of its shareholders in order to avoid having to comply with a generally-applicable law with a secular purpose is fundamentally at odds with the entire concept of incorporation. Creating such an unprecedented and idiosyncratic tear in the corporate veil would also carry with it unintended consequences, many of which are not easily foreseen.

The brief spells out some of the foreseeable consequences: battles between shareholders (perhaps spilling into court) about a corporation’s religious identity, weakening of the shareholders’ shielding against the debts and/or crimes of the corporation, corporations whose religious identities exempt them from certain laws might obtain advantages over their competitors, minority shareholders might sue a management that refused to take on an advantageous religious identity (because it failed to maximize profit), and many more. They conclude:

Rather than open up such a Pandora’s box, the Court should simply follow well-established principles of corporate law and hold that a corporation cannot, through the expedient of a shareholder vote or a board resolution, take on the religious identity of its shareholders.

Conclusion: The Box is Open.

More cases are already in the pipeline, cases that object to all forms of contraception, not just the four Hobby Lobby’s owners view as abortion-causing. One objects to paying for “related education and counseling”, so even seeing your doctor to discuss contraceptive options might be out. Religious employers are already asking to be exempt from rules about hiring gays and lesbians. Photographers and bakers want to be free to reject same-sex marriage clients. Beyond that, who can say what plans are being hatched in religious-right think tanks or corporate law offices?

The Court did not endorse these claims in advance, but it laid out sweeping new principles and did not provide any tests to limit them.


Actually, David IS Goliath

Powerful forces aligned behind Dave Brat and against Eric Cantor

When previously unknown Dave Brat beat House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the Republican primary Tuesday, pundits struggled in vain to find appropriate historical parallels. In America, majority leaders just do not lose primaries … until now.

Since then, the conventional-wisdom storyline has been David vs. Goliath: A grass-roots candidate with virtually no resources overthrew one of the most powerful insiders in the country. But that’s not exactly true; the more accurate story is that one branch of the Billionaire Party had an unexpected victory over the other branch.

Let’s start with the David. The quick description says Brat is an economics professor from Randolph Macon College in Ashland, VA. That’s true, but there’s more to that story. Brat is director of the BB&T Moral Foundations of Capitalism Program at RMC, one of those ethically suspect programs where billionaires pay a university to teach a particular point of view; in this case, that free-market capitalism is morally superior to all other systems.

Probably, Brat genuinely believes this Randish philosophy. And propagandizing students with his personal opinions makes Brat no worse than professors of many other viewpoints. But unlike those other professors, Brat is paid not to change his mind. He may be a genuine proselyte, but he’s also a hired shill.

Other shills hired by the same people are the stars of right-wing talk radio. As Politico has reported, talk radio runs on a political version of payola:

A POLITICO review of filings with the Internal Revenue Service and Federal Election Commission, as well as interviews and reviews of radio shows, found that conservative groups spent nearly $22 million to broker and pay for involved advertising relationships known as sponsorships with a handful of influential talkers including [Glenn] Beck, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Mark Levin and Rush Limbaugh between the first talk radio deals in 2008 and the end of 2012. Since then, the sponsorship deals have grown more lucrative and tea party-oriented, with legacy groups like The Heritage Foundation ending their sponsorships and groups like the Tea Party Patriots placing big ad buys.

Dick Armey has described the system — known as “embedded media”– more bluntly:

The arrangement was simply FreedomWorks paid Glenn Beck money and Glenn Beck said nice things about FreedomWorks on the air.

Brat spent only $200K or so on his campaign (compared with $5 million by Cantor). But (in what the NYT calls “a unique and potent alignment of influential voices in conservative media”) he got the kind of support money supposedly can’t buy from talk-radio personalities like Ingraham and Levin. Not only did they talk him up regularly on their shows (and dis Cantor), but Ingraham lent her star-power to a Brat rally. Thom Hartmann refers to this arrangement as a “dark money machine” and says:

Once you’ve realized that David Brat wasn’t just some random college professor but was actually the hand-picked candidate of the libertarian billionaire class and its army of talk radio hosts, it’s easy to see another one of the major reasons Eric Cantor lost. We’re living in a brave new world of dark money politics, and in this day and age, doing what Eric Cantor did – hanging out with the Chamber of Commerce, K Street, and Wall Street – only gets you so far. If you want to win these days, you need to win the support of the Kochs, their libertarian billionaire friends, and their allies in the talk radio world.

So while Cantor spent more-or-less transparently — receiving contributions and then buying ads — money got spent invisibly around Brat: The Koch-supported candidate got pushed by talk radio personalities who have sweetheart deals with Koch-funded groups.

That’s not exactly grass roots.

The other misperception about the Brat/Cantor race is that it was all about immigration, where (despite blocking House consideration of the bipartisan Senate immigration bill) Cantor was painted as pro-amnesty. That dynamic was certainly part of the campaign, but if you have a half-hour to burn, it’s worth listening to Brat’s stump speech.

Immigration certainly comes up, along with the I-can’t-believe-he’s-an-economist explanation that cheap labor from immigrants is to blame for the slow growth in jobs. (Cheap unskilled immigrant labor might lower the wages of unskilled jobs, but basic supply-and-demand says that lowering wages would increase the number of such jobs. Since the number of people employed only recently got back to pre-recession levels, immigrant competition can’t be the main reason the job market is so tough.) But Brat’s indictment of Cantor runs much deeper: He’s the Chamber-of-Commerce candidate, while Brat is running against TARP and bailouts and all the other ways that government fixes the game in favor of big business.

If he’s elected, we’ll see if anything comes from that populist rhetoric, or if Brat only implements the cut-spending-on-the-poor and let-corporations-pollute aspects of Randism.

Thomas Frank, whose What’s the Matter With Kansas? detailed the conservative bait-and-switch between populist social-issue rhetoric and cut-taxes-on-the-rich votes in Congress, is skeptical. Yesterday in Salon, he wrote:

The clash of idealism and sellout are how conservatives always perceive their movement, and what happened to Eric Cantor is a slightly more spectacular version of what often happens to GOP brass. That right-wing leaders are seduced by Washington D.C., and that they will inevitably betray the market-minded rank-and-file, are fixed ideas in the Republican mind, certainties as definite as are its convictions that tax cuts will cure any economic problem and that liberals are soft on whoever the national enemy happens to be.

Which is not to say that such betrayals don’t really happen. But Frank finds their inevitability not in universal human corruptibility, but in the fundamental tenets of conservatism itself: Anyone who believes the free market should control all aspects of life will eventually sell his vote to the highest bidder.

So the cycle goes on, uprising after uprising, an eternal populist revolt against leaders who never produce and problems that never get solved. Somehow, the free-market utopia that all the primary voters believe in never arrives, no matter how many privatizations and tax cuts the Republicans try. And so they seek out someone even purer, someone even more fanatical. They drag the country into another debt-ceiling fight, and this time, they say, they really mean it! But what never occurs to them is that maybe it’s their ideals themselves that are the problem.

Iraq is Still Broken, We Still Can’t Fix It

Was our mistake pulling out, or invading in the first place?

The fall of Mosul to Sunni extremists has put Iraq back in the headlines, pulling it out of the memory hole where it had been since American troops left in 2011.

Pundits and politicians have responded in two ways. If you were for the war, Mosul’s fall shows that President Obama was wrong to pull our troops out before the Iraqi government was established well enough to stand on its own; we should at least send in air strikes or possibly even return with soldiers.

If you were against the war, the fact the nearly nine years of American occupation could come unraveled so quickly — that the Iraqi army we spent so much time and money on “standing up” so that ours could “stand down” abandoned its weapons and ran in the face of a smaller, less well equipped enemy — underlines what a huge blunder it was to invade the country in the first place; re-entering the war would just repeat that mistake.

I stand by the position I took in August, 2005 in a Daily Kos piece called “Cut and Run“. (Two months later I would start the blog that eventually morphed into The Weekly Sift.)

We all know the rhetoric against an immediate pull-out: We can’t cut and run. We have to stay until the job is finished. Otherwise our 1800-and-counting dead soldiers will have died in vain. We have to stay until we fix all the things we’ve broken.

Eventually, though, those who understand that the invasion was a mistake will have to face a second hard truth: We’re not fixing anything by staying. Whether we leave in a week or a year or in twenty years, Iraq will be a broken country. The only difference is this: Will 1,800 soldiers have died in vain, or thousands more? … We can leave Iraq now, or we can leave after our losses have grown. That is the only choice we have.

If we had cut and run in 2005, Iraq would probably have devolved into sectarian civil war. So instead, we stayed another 6+ years, spent additional hundreds of billions, killed a lot Iraqis, and got another two-and-a-half thousand of our own troops killed … and Iraq has devolved into a sectarian civil war.

But putting hindsight and I-told-you-sos aside, what is happening now and what is likely to happen in the future? All through the Iraq War, Juan Cole (a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Michigan) has provided clear insight. Now he sees Iraq in sectarian (rather than national) terms. The national army commanded by the Shiite-dominated government has proven itself useless at defending its Sunni-dominated territory against a Sunni insurgency. The only effective fighting forces are the sectarian militias: The Kurdish Pesh Merga is defending Kirkuk, and the Shiite militias are rising to defend Baghdad (which is largely Shiite after the 2006-2008 civil war pushed out many of its Sunnis). If the national army holds together at all, it will probably do so as a Shiite force. Prime Minister Maliki’s

inability to reach out to Sunni Arabs made plausible what the entire Iraqi parliament rejected when it came out, the Biden plan for the partition of the country.

This time, though, eastern Syria is part of the Sunni partition, leaving an Alawite state in the west.

Neocons argue that we can’t allow such a Sunni state, particularly one controlled by ISIS, because it will lead to another 9/11 — as if there have been no terrorist training camps in the world since we invaded Afghanistan, and as if Afghanistan was the only place 9/11 could have been prevented.

More realistically, we can’t prevent terrorists from training. We can’t even prevent them from training in America, as our home-grown right-wing militias do. And yet, we have managed to prevent any 9/11-scale attacks on U.S. soil for the last dozen years. The existence of terrorist safe havens is bad, but not nearly so bad that we need to control the world to keep ourselves safe. Attacking any region that threatens to become a terrorist haven is a recipe for constant warfare, which in the long run may create more America-hating terrorists than it kills.

The Sunni lines also fail to include either of Iraq’s large oil fields: the southern one around Basra and the northern one around Kirkuk. That’s one reason the partition plan never took off: Sunnis knew they were drawing the short straw.

Here’s the most annoying aspect of the current discussion of Iraq: The media treats as experts the same people who were so horribly wrong about Iraq before we invaded. Surely they proved in 2002 that they are not Iraq experts.

Arguing against the points they make only legitimizes their “expertise”. The only proper response to them is Ygritte’s line from Game of Thrones: “You know nothing, Jon Snow.” If neocons want to convince me that re-engaging in Iraq is a good idea, let them send out a spokesman who at least understands what a bad idea the invasion was to begin with.

On Thursday, during a segment in which she pointed out the similarities to the way the large American-equipped South Vietnamese army dissolved in 1975, Rachel Maddow targeted one of the most discredited of the “Iraq experts”: Kenneth Pollack, who Maddow describes as “the captain of Team Wrong in 2002″. Pollack’s book The Threatening Storm: the case for invading Iraq, which came out a month before the invasion and re-packaged many of the points he had been making in op-eds all through 2002, gave spectacularly bad advice about more-or-less everything. This, for example:

Those who would argue that the United States would inevitably become the target of unhappy Iraqis generally also assume that the Iraqi population would be hostile to U.S. forces from the outset. However, the best evidence we have suggests that the Iraqi people would be pleased to be liberated.

So don’t worry about those unhappy Iraqis, they’ll welcome us like the Munchkins welcomed Dorothy.

But that didn’t stop the NYT from quoting Pollack Wednesday without mention of his abysmal record. This is yet an aspect of the problem Chris Hayes pointed out in Twilight of the Elites: There is no accountability in the expert class. No matter how many times you are wrong, you are still an expert. That’s why I support James Poniewozik’s proposal:

Rule: where available, all 2014 Iraq punditry must be accompanied by link(s) to the author’s 2002/3 Iraq punditry.

Here is one of Juan Cole’s last pre-invasion posts: “It Appears To Be Case That Iraq Simply has no nuclear weapons program“. From there you can easily get to the rest of his 2003 archives.

This Is How It Ends

The anger directed at Bowe Bergdahl only makes sense if you remember what the War on Terror was supposed to be.

From this distance, it is hard to recall the heady days at the beginning of the Afghan War. Americans had been stunned on 9/11, and for some time afterwards we felt uncertain and sad. “Why do they hate us?” we asked. But then the rage came and blew our depression away. President Bush didn’t start that process, but he channeled it like this:

Our grief has turned to anger and anger to resolution. Whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.

We were furious, certain of the righteousness of our anger, and confident in our power to exact revenge. No other cocktail of emotions is quite so invigorating.

And we were not just powerful, we were great and beneficent. In our majesty, we would grant freedom and democracy to lesser peoples who might never achieve such good fortune on their own. Not just in Afghanistan, where the attack against us had been planned, but in Iraq, and perhaps later in Iran and Syria and even eventually in Saudi Arabia and the oil emirates. We were the avatars of the great goddess Liberty and no one could stand in our way.


Tell me how this ends,” said General David Petraeus, then a mere division commander, as his unit crossed into Iraq. He was wise and experienced enough to know that no amount of shock and awe was going make Jeffersonianism break out across the Middle East, so something else had to happen. But what?

Now we know. We spent trillions of dollars, lost thousands of American lives, and killed tens or maybe hundreds of thousands of Afghanis and Iraqis. And in the end we are leaving — without a parade, without a “thank you”, leaving a legacy of weak governments still beset by insurgents. Most likely, those governments will either get stronger until they rival the tyrannical ones we overthrew, or they will perish and be replaced by something tougher.

Not what we pictured, is it? Our recessional might be Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?

Anyway, this is how it ends: We leave. We leave on a date circled on someone’s calendar, a day that no doubt will look just like the day before or the day after. We leave, not because we have finished something or accomplished something, but just because it’s time. We left Iraq that way on December 18, 2011. Our combat mission ends in Afghanistan at the end of this year, and all our troops are supposed to be out by the end of 2016. President Obama said:

Americans have learned that it’s harder to end wars than it is to begin them. Yet this is how wars end in the 21st century.

Could we stay longer? Maybe. Probably, if we wanted to badly enough. But how long? Until we accomplish … what? If there’s no what, then that future date is just another circle on a calendar. If then, why not now? Why not a long time ago?

So this is how it ends. We give back their people, they give back the one guy of ours they still have, because … what else are you going to do? Keep them forever? Why?

It feels crappy, doesn’t it? If you think dispassionately enough about it, you’ll realize that it was always going to feel crappy eventually, because … how else could it come out? Our Liberty-avatar high was bound to crash. What were we going to do? Slay the dragon? Marry the princess? What? But as long as we stayed, as long as we kept it all going, we didn’t have to think about that. We could keep pretending we were on our way to somewhere, keep imagining that someday soon we would feel again the way we felt back in those let’s-roll rid-the-world-of-evil days at the end of 2001.

My best advice for how to deal with that crappy feeling is just to let it run its course. Embrace the suck, as the soldiers used to say. Emotions are like water; if you just let them wash over you, before long they drip off and head for the nearest drain (rather than mounting up behind a dam and sooner or later devastating everything in their path). Let this one wash over, and eventually, we’ll feel something else. Maybe the next wave will motivate us to do something constructive and realistic that we can all be proud of some day.

It could happen. Really.

Or we could try some hair of the dog. Get angry again. Get angry at the president who set the clock that is running out, because he wouldn’t let us push this crappy feeling any further off into the future. Get angry at the deal to return that last prisoner. Get angry at the prisoner himself, because this is all his fault really.

Isn’t it? It feels like it must be. If not for him … something, I don’t know. Fill in the blank. It’s got to be his fault because I know it isn’t mine. I didn’t do anything. I was a perfectly marvelous avatar of Liberty and it felt great. Why did it have to end?

I don’t how else to make sense of the fury that has been directed at Bowe Bergdahl and his family this past week. You can say “It’s politics”, but that just shifts the question rather than answering it. Why does the politics work this way? Sure, Republicans are always looking for something they can pin on Obama (and if you can work the word impeachment into the conversation, so much the better), but how did they know this would do such a good job of firing up their base?

Just a few months ago, the conservative base was demanding that President Obama get Bergdahl back. Vox noticed this pattern:

[J]ust before Bergdahl was released, conservatives on Twitter loved to blast Obama for not freeing Bergdahl. There was even a whole meme on conservative Twitter saying Bergdahl was “abandoned by this administration.” But all of a sudden after Bergdahl was released, these people changed their tune.

Numerous congresspeople have had to scrub their Twitter-feeds to remove the evidence that they briefly thought getting an American POW back was a good thing. Most obviously, John McCain has turned on a dime from saying that he could approve the deal that had been on the table for months — Bergdahl for precisely these five named guys — to denouncing the deal after President Obama made it. He’s not alone. The most you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up reversal came from Oliver North of Iran/Contra fame; nobody’s allowed to negotiate with the bad guys but Ollie and his boss Ronny, I guess.

Steve Benen, Jean MacKenzie, and Hesiod have done a good job of taking down most outrageous talking points about Bergdahl.

  • Bergdahl is not a deserter. He seems to have been AWOL when captured, but he had wandered away from his base before and come back. Five years imprisonment with the Taliban is far greater punishment than a soldier typically gets for temporarily going AWOL.
  • He isn’t anti-American. Before coming to Afghanistan, he had been idealistic about how our military was “helping” the Afghan people. The realities of the war, the dysfunctionality of his unit, and the attitudes of his fellow soldiers towards the Afghanis disillusioned and disgusted him (and may explain why some of those soldiers are trashing him now). That’s where those out-of-context quotes about being “ashamed to be an American” come from. A longer quote: “These people need help, yet what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid, that they have no idea how to live.” If that’s disloyalty, then a sizable chunk of the American public is disloyal, including me and probably most of my readers.
  • He didn’t get other soldiers killed. Men did die while on patrol, and Bergdahl was one of the things they were supposed to be looking for. But the NYT quotes an informed officer: “Look, it’s not like these soldiers would have been sitting around their base.”
  • He wasn’t turned. He even escaped once for a while.

Many of the talking points about the five men Bergdahl was exchanged for are equally ridiculous. Vox and CNN have more details, but here’s the gist.

  • They’re not terrorists. One downside of framing post-9/11 military operations as a “War on Terror” is that we started reflexively labeling all our enemies “terrorists” and equating them with the 9/11 hijackers. But at the time we invaded Afghanistan, the Taliban was a government fighting an insurgency. These men were involved in that government or that war. Granted, the Taliban was a horrible government and the tactics (on both sides) in that pre-9/11 civil war were reprehensible. So no one denies that some of the five are bad men — or at least they were 12 years ago. But to the extent that the word terrorist still means anything other than “enemy of America”, they were not terrorists. They weren’t even enemies of America until we invaded their country.
  • They’re not supermen. TV series like 24 and Homeland have created the myth of the Terrorist Superman: an unkillable mastermind who sees everything, has agents everywhere, and is always plotting ten moves ahead. But even in their prime, none of these guys were superhuman. And whatever they once were, they have been completely out of the loop for 12 years. A lot of the people they worked with and trusted are probably dead. No doubt they have symbolic value for the Taliban, but their military significance is questionable. Think about Mafiosi who get out after long prison terms, a situation that occurred more than once on The Sopranos. The gang celebrates their return, but doesn’t necessarily have a place for them now. And an imprisoned Mafioso isn’t nearly as cut off as these guys have been.

Finally, there’s the question of whether or not releasing the five detainees from Guantanamo broke the law — a decision Bergdahl himself had no part in. And the answer is: It’s a complex legal issue in which both parties justify themselves by switching the positions they held during the Bush administration. Adam Serwer describes the situation in detail.

To make a long story short: Ever since the Constitution divided responsibility for war and foreign policy between them, the President and Congress have been tussling over the boundary. Congress occasionally passes laws that limit the President’s power to do something-or-other, and presidents routinely claim these laws are unconstitutional. The War Powers Act is the prime example. Since 1973, when it passed over President Nixon’s veto, both branches have avoided a test case that the Supreme Court would have to rule on. Presidents have mostly complied with the Act, but always with the proviso that they were doing so as a courtesy; no president of either party has acknowledged the Act’s constitutionality. For its part, Congress has never tried to force a president to pull out troops he had committed.

So Section 1035 of the 493-page National Defense Authorization Act of 2014 regulates transfers from Guantanamo, and says:

The Secretary of Defense shall notify the appropriate committees of Congress of a determination of the Secretary under subsection (a) or (b) not later than 30 days before the transfer or release of the individual under such subsection.

President Obama signed the NDAA — the Pentagon would have gone unfunded if he had vetoed it — but attached a Bush-like signing statement.

Section 1035 of this Act gives the Administration additional flexibility to transfer detainees abroad by easing rigid restrictions that have hindered negotiations with foreign countries and interfered with executive branch determinations about how and where to transfer detainees. Section 1035 does not, however, eliminate all of the unwarranted limitations on foreign transfers and, in certain circumstances, would violate constitutional separation of powers principles. The executive branch must have the flexibility, among other things, to act swiftly in conducting negotiations with foreign countries regarding the circumstances of detainee transfers.

Citing a need to “act swiftly” to get this exchange done without endangering Sgt. Bergdahl, the Obama administration gave Congress only one day of notice rather than 30, having previously given Congress an “anticipatory briefing” laying out “the prospect of such an exchange”. In doing so, the administration claims to have respected the “spirit” of the law.

Jack Goldsmith, the head of the Bush Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, describes this as “quite a hard legal issue, with few real precedents.”

So Obama is definitely violating the anti-signing-statement rhetoric of his 2008 campaign. He’s being hypocritical in exactly the same way as his Republican critics who accepted Bush’s signing statements without objection and waved their hands about the President’s “Article II power” — as long as the president was somebody they liked.

Is that legalism and mutual hypocrisy what the conservative base’s man-on-the-street is fired up about? I kind of doubt it. I think they’re remembering that intoxicating post-9/11 fantasy about setting the whole world right, and wondering what became of it.

Is that all there is?

How the Fall Elections are Shaping Up for Democrats

Up until now, I’ve been ignoring the speculation about who’s going to win in the fall elections for two reasons:

  • The mainstream media already does way too much speculating. Who’s-going-to-win speculation is easier and cheaper than covering government, or figuring out whether what the candidates are saying is true, or analyzing how well their proposals mightwork. Instead, you can fill air time with wild guesses that no one takes responsibility for*. (Remember the people who on election eve in 2012 confidently predicted a Romney win? Peggy Noonan, George Will, Karl Rove, Charles Krauthammer — did the networks take any of those people out of their rolodexes, or do you still see them on TV making new baseless predictions?)
  • I expect the narrative of the race to change in ways that will make current speculation obsolete. We’ve already seen that to a certain extent. Six months ago, Republicans were expecting to win a 2010-like wave election because of what a disaster ObamaCare was turning out to be. Then the web site got fixed, people signed up, and good things started to happen. ObamaCare still isn’t getting all the credit it deserves — and may not even by fall — but unless you’re in a very red state I don’t think you can win campaign just on the awfulness of ObamaCare.

Recently, though, a friend asked a very practical question: She’s a Democrat planning to contribute some money to candidates (hardly anything on the Sheldon Adelson scale, but not nothing either), and would like it to go to the best possible place; in other words, to good candidates in tight races where a little money might make a difference. (She asked the same question in 2012; I gave her Elizabeth Warren and Tammy Baldwin. Warren’s race turned out not to be as close as I expected, but in general I’m pleased with those suggestions.)

Three elections. The first thing to realize is that the rhythm of American elections is producing three very different situations in the Senate, the House, and the governorships.

  • Senators have six-year terms, so Democrats are defending the Senate seats they won in the Obama landslide of 2008. Consequently, they have more seats at stake, and in particular they have seats to lose in red states like Arkansas and Alaska.
  • Most governors have four-year terms, so in the statehouses, the story is the exact opposite: Republicans are defending what they won in the Tea Party wave of 2010. Not only are they defending governorships in blue states like Pennsylvania and Michigan, many of their incumbents are extremists in moderate states like Wisconsin and Florida.
  • In the House, Republicans are still benefiting from the gerrymandering after the 2010 census. Democratic candidates totaled 1.3 million more votes than Republicans in 2012, but still lost the House by a wide margin. Estimates are that it would take a 4-7% national margin in the popular vote for Democrats to win the House.

In general, I would pay most attention to the Senate. Winning the House is a bridge too far, while losing the Senate is a real possibility. (At the moment, the Senate looks like a toss-up; I think the overall winds will shift a little in the Democrats favor by November.) Obviously, the governor of your own state is going to have a big effect on your life, but holding the majority of governorships is more about bragging rights than real consequences.

Sizing up the Senate. The 64 senators not up for re-election this year split into 34 Democrats** and 30 Republicans. Of the 36 seats up for grabs, currently Democrats hold 21 and Republicans 15. Nate Silver’s analysis from March is a little out of date, but Larry Sabato’s up-to-date model tells the same basic story: Each side has 48 seats it can feel some confidence in winning, so control of the Senate*** comes down to four states: Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, and North Carolina. In each of them, a Democratic incumbent is trying to hang on in a state that Obama lost in 2012.

Those four races are:

  • Alaska: Senator Mark Begich against a Republican still to be chosen, probably former attorney general Daniel Sullivan. (Though Joe Miller — the Tea Party candidate who beat Lisa Murkowski in the 2010 primary, but lost to her in the general — is making it interesting by claiming that he’s the only real climate-change denier in the race. In fact, all the Republican candidates are deniers, but Miller is the most extreme and most consistent.) A recent poll has Begich ahead of Sullivan 42-37%, but that could change if Republicans pull together after the primary.
  • Arkansas. Senator Mark Pryor against Congressman Tom Cotton. Pryor was behind, but has pulled into a slight lead by attacking Cotton’s vote in the House for the Republican Study Committee’s budget that would raise the Social Security and Medicare eligibility age to 70. That’s a big deal in the working class, where jobs aren’t easy to do after your knees start to give out, and life expectancy isn’t nearly as high as that of richer folks.
  • Louisiana. Senator Mary Landrieu against multiple Republicans, in a system where there’s a run-off if no one gets a majority. Her main opponent seems to be Congressman Bill Cassidy. Landrieu is running ahead in most polls, but below 50%.
  • North Carolina. Senator Kay Hagan against NC Speaker of the House Thom Tillis. The RCP polling average has Tillis slightly ahead, though it seems unduly influenced by an outlying result from a conservative polling group.

Of those four, the Democrat I would miss least is Landrieu, while Hagan is the one I’d miss most. Hagan’s opponent Thom Tillis is the ringleader of the North Carolina legislature’s sharp lurch to the right, which provoked the Moral Monday protests. Pretty much whatever Tea Party proposal you can think of has passed in North Carolina — voter ID, non-expansion of Medicaid, ending extended unemployment benefits, shifting money from public schools to vouchers, expanding the public places where you can carry guns … the whole deal.

Northern Democrats tend to think of southern states as lost causes, but Obama carried NC in 2008 and lost it closely in 2012. So if I had to pick one race to focus on, it would be Hagan’s.

If you want an underdog. One of the 48 seats Republicans are supposed to feel comfortable about is Mitch McConnell’s in Kentucky, though RCP rates it a toss-up and the polls are close.

But McConnell seems beatable, Alison Lundergan Grimes is a good candidate to beat him with, and if she does, that’s all anybody is going to be talking about on election night. McConnell is fumbling what was supposed to be his main issue, ObamaCare, because he doesn’t know how to handle the popularity of ObamaCare’s local manifestation, Kynect.

The one reason to avoid the Kentucky race is that the money totals are getting so high that your contribution may seem irrelevant. I’m not sure what you do with $100 million in a small market like Kentucky. Chris Cillizza reports:

As one veteran Democratic strategist noted to us, it’s possible that Kentucky radio and television stations will simply run out of inventory; there, literally, won’t be anything left to buy with all the money pouring into the state.

If that turns you away, underdog-supporters may want to look a little further south, to Michelle Nunn’s race in Georgia.

If you want a governor’s race. Maine. It’s hard to find a more extreme right-wing governor than Maine’s Paul LePage, who won in a three-way race in 2010 and may do it again.

If you want a House race.  I have a bias: My representative Ann Kuster is a top target of the Koch brothers’ Americans For Prosperity. But she’s ahead in the polls anyway. The other NH seat belongs to Carol Shea-Porter, another good candidate whose race is rated a toss-up.

* That raises the question of my own record. In April, 2012 I did my first serious look at the Obama/Romney race. I had Obama leading in electoral votes 242-206, with eight swing states worth 90. In the fall, Obama won all eight and had a 332-206 victory.

But my 2010 record wasn’t so good. I don’t think I made definite predictions, but I was late coming around to the realization that Democrats were in serious trouble.

** Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine are technically independents, but they’ve been caucusing with the Democrats.

*** In a 50-50 Senate, Joe Biden casts the deciding vote as vice president, so Democrats retain control.


#YesAllWomen and the Continuum of Aggression

Men look at Elliot Rodger and say, “I would never do something like that.” Women look at his victims and say, “That could totally happen to me.”

Last week the Isla Vista murders — and Elliot Rodger’s bizarre rants justifying his revenge on the female gender because women wouldn’t have sex with him — were recent enough that I hadn’t processed them. I described my snap reaction as feeling “slimed”. Letting Rodger’s thoughts into my head just made me feel dirty, polluted, unclean. And I wrote, “I can’t imagine how women feel about it.”

This week women told the world how they feel about it. (They were already starting to tell the world last Monday, but I hadn’t discovered it yet.) I have read only a tiny fraction of what has been tweeted with the #YesAllWomen hashtag, but it has been eye-opening.

The struggle for meaning. Every striking news event starts a debate about what it means, or if it even means anything. For a lot of men, Isla Vista didn’t mean much: Crazy people do crazy things. Shit happens.

For others, it restarted the eternal gun-control debate, which always ends in the same place: Yes, a large majority of Americans want at least minor restrictions on guns, and no, it’s not going to happen, because America really isn’t a democracy any more. A victim’s father channeled the majority’s frustration in an interview with Anderson Cooper: “I don’t want to hear that you’re sorry about my son’s death,” he said to any politicians who might be planning to make a condolence call. “I don’t care if you’re sorry about my son’s death. You go back to Congress and you do something, and you come back to me and tell me you’ve done something. Then I’ll be interested in talking to you.”

Bizarre exception, or part of a pattern? To a lot of women, though, Isla Vista looked very different. Rather than a bizarre random event, it seemed like the extreme edge of the male aggression they experience constantly: They get grabbed or groped; men yell obscenities at them or make unwanted “flattering” comments about their bodies; they are harassed online; men demand their attention and refuse to go away; when women try to walk away, men grab their wrists or stand in the doorway or follow them as stalkers; men get angry and abusive when their uninvited advances are rejected; and on and on and on.

And while the exact statistics on rape are hotly debated — the difference depends in large part on how forcefully a woman has to say “no” before you count it — I have a lot of confidence in this qualitative statement: Just about every woman knows somebody who has been raped. (If you don’t believe me, ask some.) Whatever the definition is and whatever percentage that leads to, rape is not a monsters-in-the-closet phobia; it’s the well-founded fear that what happened to her (and maybe also to her and her and her) could happen to me.

So while men look at Elliot Rodger and say, “I would never do something like that”, women look at his victims and say, “That could totally happen to me.” Men divide the world into murderers and non-murderers, observing that the murderer pool is very small. Women look at murder as the extreme edge of a continuum of aggression, disrespect, and threat that affects them every day.

#YesAllWomen. And that is what I see as the point of #YesAllWomen: encouraging women to express and men to feel the oppressive weight of that continuum. #YesAllWomen is at its best when women simply tell their stories, one after another. Read enough stories and the bigger reality starts to break through: The meaning of Isla Vista isn’t that shit happens, it’s that the same kinds of shit keep happening day after day all over the country. And when there’s an widespread pattern like that, sooner or later it’s going to break out into something really horrific.*

The brilliance of #YesAllWomen is in its framing: It sidesteps the objection “Not all men are like that.” True or not, that objection misses the point. Whether or not feminist terms like misogyny or rape culture unfairly tar some good men is a minor issue compared to the environment of danger all women have to live in. Let’s not drop the larger issue to discuss the smaller one.**

And let’s not fall into the trap of interpreting every problem in the forest as the fault of individual trees. Laurie Penny explains:

of course not all men hate women. But culture hates women, so men who grow up in a sexist culture have a tendency to do and say sexist things, often without meaning to. … You can be the gentlest, sweetest man in the world yet still benefit from sexism. That’s how oppression works. Thousands of otherwise decent people are persuaded to go along with an unfair system because it’s less hassle that way. … I do not believe the majority of men are too stupid to understand this distinction

[And before we leave the gun-control issue entirely, can we discuss how the two issues interact? Think about the open-carry demonstrations in Texas or Georgia's new guns-everywhere law. Now picture a woman you care about having a drink after work with some friends, and being accosted by a strange man who won't go away. Now picture him armed. And no, NRA spokesmen, picturing a second gun in your sister/daughter/friend's purse doesn't fix the situation.]

The game. Men, by and large, have not handled our side of this discussion well, attempting either to disown the problem or to mansplain what women should do to fix it.*** But a few men have had intelligent things to say. I thought the Daily Beast piece by self-described nerd Arthur Chu was particularly on point:

[T]he overall problem is one of a culture where instead of seeing women as, you know, people, protagonists of their own stories just like we are of ours, men are taught that women are things to “earn,” to “win.” That if we try hard enough and persist long enough, we’ll get the girl in the end. Like life is a video game and women, like money and status, are just part of the reward we get for doing well.

The game metaphor explains a lot about what was wrong with Rodger’s point of view, and how it relates to a problem in the larger culture. Elliot Rodger’s complaint wasn’t that he couldn’t find his soulmate or that his genes might fail in the Darwinian struggle for immortality. It wasn’t even about pleasure, really, because you don’t need a partner for that. The essence of Rodger’s complaint was that he couldn’t level up — no matter how long he played or how hard he tried — in the multi-player game of sex.

To grasp the full dysfunction of that game, you need to understand who the players are: men. Rodger wasn’t playing with or even against women when he went out looking for sex. He was playing against other men to gain status. Women are just NPCs — non-player characters. Figuring out what to say or do to get their attention or their phone numbers or to get them into bed is like solving the gatekeeper’s riddle or finding the catch that opens the door to the secret passage.

Rodger’s virginity wasn’t just a lack of experience, comparable to someone who has never seen the ocean or been to Paris or tasted champagne. It was his state of being. He was a newby, a beginner, a loser. And it wasn’t fair. He had put so much of his time and effort and passion into the game; he deserved to get something out.

Chu explains the error:

other people’s bodies and other people’s love are not something that can be taken nor even something that can be earned—they can be given freely, by choice, or not.

We need to get that. Really, really grok that, if our half of the species ever going to be worth a damn. Not getting that means that there will always be some percent of us who will be rapists, and abusers, and killers.

What will we pass on? Phrasing the game metaphor in computer terms makes it sound like a new problem of the internet generation, but it’s not.**** Computer games are just a good way of describing an attitude that has been around since Achilles and Agamemnon argued over a slave girl: that women are just tokens in a competition among men. In junior high in the 70s, my friends and I talked about “getting to second base”, and today commercials sell Viagra and Grecian Formula to older men by telling us we can “get back in the game”. We all know what game they’re talking about.

As long as that attitude gets passed down from one generation of men to the next, there’s going to be an aggression-against-women problem. Because that’s how men play: You sneak some vaseline onto the ball, hide an ace up your sleeve, take that performance-enhancing drug, or push away a defender when the refs aren’t looking. If you can get away with it, it’s part of the game. So if it raises your score to grab some body part otherwise denied you, or to intimidate women into submission, take advantage of their unconsciousness, drug them, or even kidnap and imprison them, someone’s going to do it.

No one ever asks a boy whether he wants to play this game. At some point in your adolescence, you just find yourself in the middle of it, being told that you are losing and advised on how to win. There are competing visions that (for most men, I believe) eventually win out as they mature: the search for companionship, or looking for an ally to help you face life’s challenges. In those visions, women can be “protagonists of their own stories” rather than NPCs. But no one ever tells you there is a choice of visions and lays out the consequences.

If we did discuss these competing visions openly with boys, I don’t think the game metaphor would stand up to conscious scrutiny. Few men would openly defend the idea that women exist to be tokens of our competition, and even most teens already have enough empathy and experience for it to ring false. But the game attitude survives because we don’t bring it out into the light and discuss it.

Changing that dynamic would be a fine response to #YesAllWomen.

* I shake my head at the people who want to make an either/or out of whether the blame for Isla Vista belongs to a misogynistic culture or to Rodger’s personal insanity. Growing up, I had the chance to observe a paranoid relative. She went crazy during the McCarthy red scare, so the Communists were after her. If she’d broken with reality a few years earlier it might have been the Nazis; a few years later, the Mafia. Maybe people go crazy because their brains malfunction, but how they go crazy is shaped by their culture.

** One of the prerogatives of any form of privilege is that your concerns move to the top of the agenda, even if they are comparatively minor. Privileged classes of all sorts take this prerogative for granted and have a hard time seeing it as an injustice. So it is here: Men who feel smeared by a term like rape culture tend to think the conversation should immediately shift to their hurt feelings. It shouldn’t. To the extent that this objection is justified, it can wait. Let’s talk about it later. (Privileged classes aren’t used to hearing that response, but under-privileged classes hear it all the time.)

An important reason it should wait, in addition to its comparative insignificance, is that when a man fully grasps the continuum of aggression, it’s hard to claim that he’s never played any role in perpetuating it. (I know I can’t make that claim.) But by changing the subject to their own victimization, men avoid that realization.

*** Most advice about how to avoid rape — how to dress, places to avoid, not leaving your drink unattended — is really about making sure the rapist picks someone else. It’s like, “You don’t have to swim faster than the shark, you just have to swim faster than your sister.” It’s got zero impact on the overall rape problem.

**** And the attitude behind it is not even unique to men. In the pre-war chapters of Gone With the Wind, Scarlett is playing her own version of the game. While she wants to wind up with Ashley eventually, in the meantime she wants every eligible man in Georgia to be her suitor, and she “wins” whenever a bride realizes that she has married one of Scarlett’s cast-offs.

But there’s one important difference between the male and female versions of the game: Men who tire of Scarlett’s game can get on their horses and ride away, and in the end, it’s up to Rhett to decide whether or not he gives a damn. Women would like to have those options in the male version of the game.

Ta-Nehisi Coates Goes There: Reparations

The wealth gap between blacks and whites is the direct result of centuries of policy. Why should using policy to fix it be unthinkable?

Wealth is off limits.

For as long as I can remember, the idea of paying reparations to African Americans has been the boogyman in any discussion of race. Just say the word reparations in any room with more than one white person, and rational discussion ends. And if you can tie any other program to reparations — affirmative action, food stamps, whatever — rational discussion of that ends too. That’s what Rush Limbaugh meant to do when he invoked reparations in an attack on ObamaCare:

This is income redistribution. This is returning the nation’s wealth to its quote/unquote “rightful owners”. This is a civil rights bill, this is reparations — whatever you want to call it.

He didn’t go on to explain why that would be bad, or even why blacks aren’t really the “rightful owners” of more than they own now. He didn’t have to explain, because reparations are literally unthinkable: Just say the word and whites stop thinking.

So The Atlantic‘s senior editor Ta-Nehisi Coates was throwing down a gauntlet this week when he wrote the current cover article “The Case for Reparations“: Approve of them or not, reparations are not unthinkable. Here’s the argument. Think about it.

Coates’ article is very good and very long, and you should absolutely read it rather than just my summary of it. (Second best: Watch Bill Moyers interview Coates.) But judging from the comment thread on even a relatively liberal site like The New Republic (not to mention Free Republic , where the most popular reparations offer is “25 grand and a plane ticket back to Africa”) a lot of people are struggling very hard to continue not thinking about it. Rather than engage any of Coates’ arguments, they are going off in response to that one offending word.

In “How to tell who hasn’t read the new Atlantic cover story” NPR’s Gene Demby quoted this Adam Serwer tweet:

How to Read TNC’s piece on reparations: 1. Read the title. 2. Stop reading. Do not read past the title. 3. Explain that racism is over.

So before you react, at least understand these two things about Coates’ article:

  • It’s not just about slavery.
  • He’s not saying, “All you white people need to send me a check.”

What it’s about. Coates’ argument is that the wealth gap between whites and blacks in America has a simple cause: Throughout American history, blacks have been systematically cut off from the sources of wealth. It started (but didn’t end) with slavery: Black labor cleared the forests and drained the swamps to create those southern plantations, and black labor built the planters’ mansions, but after the Civil War all that black-created wealth stayed with the whites. The first reparations proposal — forty acres and a mule — would have been simple justice for the people who built the South, but it never happened.

Instead of restoring some of the Confederacy’s wealth to the people whose labor had created it, or even just starting blacks at the bottom and letting them work their way up, it wasn’t long before whites instituted a new system for building their wealth with black labor. In a story told at length by Douglas Blackmon in Slavery By Another Name, blacks in the post-Reconstruction South were blocked from owning land, preventing from leaving, forced back into exploitative relationships with whites, and denied access to the courts when they were cheated. Tens of thousands were literally re-enslaved: convicted of bogus crimes and sentenced to hard labor for a white employer. This lasted well into the 20th century.

Blacks who managed to succeed in spite of the system were often the targets of white violence. Today the words race riot evoke thoughts of black uprisings in the 1960s — Watts, Detroit, etc. — but white race riots against blacks had been going on for a long time: New York in 1863, Louisiana in 1873, Atlanta in 1906, Chicago in 1919, and many others. (Add to that the 3,446 blacks who died in lynchings between 1882 and 1968.) Two riots in particular — Greenwood, OK in 1921 and Rosewood, FL in 1923 — destroyed entire black communities that were thriving and building wealth for their citizens.

In a story told at length by Ira Katznelson in When Affirmative Action Was White, blacks were largely cut out of the mid-20th-century New Deal and Fair Deal programs that created the white middle class. Even the benefits of the G. I. Bill were constructed in such a way that blacks had difficulty taking full advantage.

Coates talks at some length about real estate discrimination. Legally until the mid-1960s and practically for some time afterward, blacks were allowed to buy homes only in certain neighborhoods. The Federal Housing Administration considered those neighborhoods high-risk and refused to insure mortgages in them. Banks followed that lead with red-lining, refusing to issues mortgages at all on those houses. Blacks who wanted to own their own homes were forced to buy on contract from brokers who frequently cheated them.

For most middle-class American families in the post-World-War-II era, home ownership was a wealth-building tool that the government subsidized through mortgage insurance and mortgage-interest tax deductions. But that tool was not available to many black families.

Red-lining concentrated urban blacks in a few neighborhoods. And — surprise! — those neighborhoods often had poor infrastructure and bad schools, a pattern that continues to this day. They are also over-policed, resulting in blacks being far more likely to go to jail for minor crimes (like smoking pot) that whites commit equally often. This story is told at length in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.

Taking it personally. On the surface, I have a good case for claiming that this all has nothing to do with me: My family never owned slaves, hired convict labor, or profited from real-estate scams targeting urban blacks. I was a working-class kid who entered the professional class on his own merit, by getting an education that led to a high-paying job.

But look again. My town’s public high school did well by me. I went to a state university in an era when tuition covered only a fraction of the cost. My Ph.D. was paid for by the National Science Foundation. So, sure, I worked for what I have. But I also had help every step of the way.

Now consider: What if my family had been red-lined into a neighborhood with crummy schools? Maybe I never step on that educational escalator to begin with. And what if generations of hard knocks had hammered home the point that even when people like me work hard and play by the rules, somebody just invents a new rule to take it all away from us? Under those circumstances, do I really stick it out all the way to a Ph.D? Or do I grab the first shiny career-bauble that shows up?

Finally: My sister and I just sold the small farm that our grandfather bought in the 1920s. For each of us, that sale put the capstone on a retirement plan. And why shouldn’t it? Grandpa took a risk and worked hard, and my father worked hard after him. Why shouldn’t we benefit?

But family lore tells of a crisis during the Depression. Failing crops weren’t paying the bills, and new bank loans were out of the question now that Grandpa’s $22K farm was appraising at $8K. Fancy footwork by a friendly lawyer stalled foreclosure long enough for a New Deal farm-loan program to become available. Would those breaks have gone in our favor if we were black? Or would the white lawyer have shrugged and the white federal bureaucrat have moved our application to the bottom of the stack? Maybe. And then our family would have lost the farm — totally legally and by the rules — and had to start over in our attempt to accumulate wealth. If I complained about that circumstance now, what would people tell me? “Well, you gotta pay your debts. Your grandfather should have known that.”

As I’ve describe at length elsewhere, the point of that what-if fantasy isn’t to make me feel guilty, and in fact it doesn’t make me feel guilty; it makes me feel lucky. It gives me a more accurate assessment of my success. The Week‘s Ryan Cooper elaborates:

I think what motivates the worst responses to Coates’ piece is … a resistance to being labeled a racist. And that is missing the point. His article is not a personal critique; it is a structural one, which ought to minimize some of its personal sting. Structural racist outcomes (mostly) aren’t the fault of white people alive today; they’re about the foundations of society and the legacy of history. Such analysis isn’t about making white people feel guilty, it’s about providing countervailing structural pressure to right past wrongs.

Why we’re not fixing it. In order to understand where Coates is coming from, you need to appreciate where we are: The Supreme Court believes that any government action for the specific purpose of benefiting blacks (or any racial group) is unconstitutional. To the extent that affirmative action still exists, it has to claim other justifications. (A racially diverse classroom provides a better educational experience, a racially diverse police force can relate to the community better, and so on.) Legally, reparations are the dirty secret of affirmative action. If a program is caught trying to fix the racial injustice of American history, it is thought to violate the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment.

That legal situation is reinforced by the political situation: Even colorblind attempts to deal with America’s underclass, or to make life easier for the poor (even the working poor), are undercut by the politics of white racial resentment. If you want to campaign against food stamps or the minimum wage or Medicaid, all you have to do is suggest that this is really a racial transfer from white makers to black takers. It’s no coincidence that Arkansas is the only state of the Confederacy to accept Medicaid expansion under ObamaCare, while all but four Union states have. (And two of those are still on the fence.)

If you ask, whites will explain that if black oppression happened at all, it is ancient history. We have said this in every era. In 1837, Senator John Calhoun argued that slavery was a benefit to blacks:

Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually. It came among us in a low, degraded, and savage condition, and in the course of a few generations it has grown up under the fostering care of our institutions, reviled as they have been, to its present compara­tively civilized condition.

In 1883, the Supreme Court explained why further civil rights laws were unnecessary, now that whites had ended slavery through “beneficent legislation”.

When a man has emerged from slavery, and, by the aid of beneficent legislation, has shaken off the inseparable concomitants of that state, there must be some stage in the progress of his elevation when he takes the rank of a mere citizen and ceases to be the special favorite of the laws, and when his rights as a citizen or a man are to be protected in the ordinary modes by which other men’s rights are protected.

And in 1896, the Court saw the problem of segregation as existing mainly in black psychology.

We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff’s argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.

I could go on. The Brown decision leveled the playing field in 1954. Or maybe the civil rights legislation of the 1960s leveled it. The election of Obama proved it was level. And so on down to John Roberts gutting the Voting Rights Act last summer by simply saying “Things have changed.”

In every era, whites claim that we have done everything justice demands, and that any remaining problem is due to some inherent black inferiority of either biology or culture. And then a few decades later we realize that wasn’t true then, but it certainly is now.

What Coates wants. In his Atlantic article, Coates doesn’t put forward any specific plan, beyond endorsing a perennial bill by John Conyers to study reparations.

the crime with which reparations activists charge the country implicates more than just a few towns or corporations. The crime indicts the American people themselves, at every level, and in nearly every configuration. A crime that implicates the entire American people deserves its hearing in the legislative body that represents them.

John Conyers’s HR 40 is the vehicle for that hearing. No one can know what would come out of such a debate. Perhaps no number can fully capture the multi-century plunder of black people in America. Perhaps the number is so large that it can’t be imagined, let alone calculated and dispensed. But I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as—if not more than—the specific answers that might be produced.

Coates fears that the details any specific reparations proposal will become the issue, and allow whites to jump right past the question of whether reparations are justified in principle. And so the history of “multi-century plunder” will continue to be ignored.

But he also wants more than just a hearing or an apology, as he makes clearer in his Moyers interview. What he proposes is not personal reparations — trying to figure out what each individual is owed and cutting them a check — but a reorientation of public policy that holds the history of white supremacy in mind. (As a successful American, Coates expects that any tax increase to pay for this would hit him as well; quite the opposite of expecting me to send him money.) Rather than run away from policies that disproportionately benefit blacks, if we were looking for a way to make reparations we would consciously embrace such policies. We would recognize that black poverty and other social dysfunctions in the black community are not just specific examples of the general problem of poverty or social dysfunction. They are unique problems with a unique history, and they exist because they were created by public policy.

[W]e would not have to retreat to other language like quote unquote class. We would say, no, no, no, this is about white supremacy. And we have a problem with this. And we have had a problem with this for a long time. And we need to be conscious of that in our policy. When we pass a stimulus budget, for instance, we need to specifically think about helping people who have been injured in our past, because they’ve occupied a certain place in our country.

And when the Limbaughs charge that ObamaCare amounts to reparations, there could be simple response: Good.


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