Belief and Reality

Thinking one’s religious beliefs are substantially burdened—no matter how sincere or genuine that belief may be—does not make it so.

Sonia Sotomayor

This week’s featured article: “How Threatening Is the Hobby Lobby Decision?

This week everybody was talking about the Hobby Lobby decision

The majority opinion claimed to be narrow; the dissent said it was sweeping. I’m coming to look at it as a narrow gate into a vast new realm of judge-bestowed rights for some people and burdens for others.

I tried to cover the legal landscape in “How Threatening Is the Hobby Lobby Decision?“. That already ran so long that I didn’t want to extend it with the many satires of the decision. Here are a few: “Supreme Court Rules JCPenney Allowed to Sacrifice Employees to Appease Cthulhu“, “My Breakup Letter to Hobby Lobby“, and “Supreme Court Upholds Little Caesar’s Right to Feed Christian Employees to Lions“.

A point I didn’t get around to making there is that not everything you don’t want to do is a violation of your religious rights, even if you share your distaste with the members of your church. Compare a conservative-Christian baker who doesn’t want to make a same-sex-wedding cake to a black waitress who doesn’t want to serve a table of guys wearing Confederate-flag t-shirts. One has a religious justification for his distaste and the other doesn’t, but I contend the two situations are more similar than different, and the feelings affronted are more tribal than spiritual. Each feels his/her identity threatened by being required to serve members of an opposing tribe.

and the Fourth of July

If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to fly through a fireworks display, this drone did it for you.

If flag-waving and fireworks isn’t your style of patriotism, consider re-affirming your commitment to democracy. Lawrence Lessig has started the Mayday PAC, a SuperPAC to end all SuperPACs. It supports candidates for Congress who are committed to reforming the way we finance political campaigns.

and the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer

In the summer of 1964, about a thousand college students from all over the country descended on Mississippi to help black citizens register to vote, to educate black children about subjects their Jim Crow schools wouldn’t touch, and to challenge the right of an all-white delegation to represent Mississippi at the Democratic National Convention.

It’s worthwhile to be reminded that, back in the day, freedom was a liberal word. It pointed to the desire of traditionally oppressed peoples to be listened to, to vote, to have the equal protection of the laws. Today, by contrast, freedom typically means the right of corporations and wealthy individuals to exercise their power without government restraint or consideration of the public interest.

If you want to educate yourself about that summer, a lot of good stuff is out there.

It’s easy to forget the sheer terrorism that dominated Mississippi in those days. The whole point of sending white students down there wasn’t that they had some special voter-registration magic, it was that if they were beaten or killed, the country would notice; white supremacists had been killing uppity blacks for a long time and Northern whites didn’t care. But as the Neshoba murders showed, the whites weren’t safe either. Not everyone had a headline-grabbing experience, but a lot came home with stories like this:

I was walking along a road. We were told never to leave the place we were staying, by ourselves. They jumped out of the car. They started calling me “Hey, nigger lover! We got you. We finally got you. We ain’t killed ourselves a-a white girl yet. You’re going to be the first.” They get this lynch rope. It really was a noose like you see like I had seen in the pictures of the hangings, right? They put this noose over my head. And this is attached to a long rope. They jump back into the car, and I just saw myself being dragged to death. I’m walking like this. And they’re laughing and calling me all kinds of names. And then they moved along, slowly, a little bit faster. I’m walking faster. And it was like, “Okay, this is it.” And then they dropped the rope. And I just stood there. Because we had to wear skirts. We weren’t allowed to wear pants in those days, so we all had our little shifts on and everything. I peed all over myself. Just stood on the [road], and just peed.

and you also might be interested in …

One thing we’ve learned from the seemingly endless series of mass shootings is that a shooter is most vulnerable while reloading. So if gun magazines hold fewer bullets, maybe fewer people will be killed before shooters are stopped. It seems worth a try.

The New Jersey legislature tried it, and Wednesday Governor Christie vetoed it. I can’t see this pander to the NRA winning him many votes in New Jersey, so I think it means he still sees himself as a presidential contender.

I’ve been ignoring BridgeGate for the last several months. The legislature’s investigation continues, but hasn’t yet turned up a smoking gun with Christie’s fingerprints on it. The U.S. attorney’s investigation seems to be the important one, but it’s also the hardest to keep tabs on. We won’t really know what they have until they start issuing indictments, and no one knows when that might be.

If Christie isn’t indicted, and if none of the people who are indicted hang their defense on blaming him, then he’s probably a viable candidate again. What he lost in bad publicity he can regain by appealing to the far Right’s delusions of persecution.

Interesting article in the NYT Magazine: “Can the G.O.P. Be the Party of Ideas?” In other words, can the Republican Party stop saying “no” to everything and instead come up with localist and free-market plans to help solve the problems ordinary people face? And if they could, would the base of the party go for it?

Salon published an amazing conversation between Thomas Frank (What’s the Matter With Kansas?) and Barry Lynn (Cornered) about the hidden monopolization of our economy, what it has to do with inequality, how it happened, and what can be done about it. Something they agree on is that completely unfettered markets are unstable; they lead to private monopolies that then make the markets unfree.

When the open-carry folks show up in the same shops and restaurants you frequent, what should you do? PQED advises that you just walk out with your food on the table and your bill unpaid. Carte Blanchfield disagrees, arguing that the armed crazies might then shoot you. Both are discussing what philosophers call the problem of other minds: You know that you have good intentions and aren’t threatening anyone else, but they don’t know that. The problem of judging other people’s intentions becomes very important when deadly weapons are involved. Tom the Dancing Bug also addresses that issue:

and let’s end with something cute

Here’s how you know you’ve been letting your dog and turtle watch too much of the World Cup.

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.


The Monday Morning Teaser

The Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision came out at about the same time I was pushing the Post button on last week’s Sift. In my neighborhood of the blogosphere, it’s all anybody’s been talking about ever since. Every time I thought I had seen all the important angles in the decision, some new article pointed out something I hadn’t noticed.

In my view, it’s kind of a sneaky decision. It appears limited to the particular facts of this case, but its logic has vast unexplored consequences that will play out — and already are playing out — in cases still to be decided. So the most extreme criticisms of the decision can easily be denied: Hobby Lobby doesn’t really do those horrible things, it just lays the groundwork for future decisions to do those horrible things. And the Court’s conservative majority will also be in a position to deny that those decisions are radical; they’ll just apply the precedents set in Hobby Lobby.

Explaining all that will take some time, both time this morning to finish the article and time as measured in words.

Diabolical Persistence

Errare humanum est, sed perseverare diabolicum. (To err is human; to persist is diabolical.)

– Seneca (quoted Friday by Paul Krugman)

This week everybody was talking about the Supreme Court

Like freshmen research papers, the Court’s biggest decisions always get finished on the last day of the term … which is today. So this is when the Hobby Lobby case will be decided, and we’ll find out whether a bizarre reading of the First Amendment’s free exercise clause will allow employers to control their employees’ health care options. There’s no time for me to process the decision, so I’ll put off that commentary until next week.

But other important decisions have been trickling out during finals week.

Police need a warrant to search your cell phone. The Court was unanimous in this ruling, which kind of obvious when you think about it. Police need a warrant to search the photo albums on your shelf, so why not the photo collection on your iPhone? My only regret is that Justice Scalia didn’t write a separate opinion. I would have loved to hear him explain the Founders’ “original intent” regarding cell phones.

The Court severely cut back the President’s power to make recess appointments. Before the Senate changed its filibuster rules, Republicans in the Senate had been using the Senate’s constitutional power to “advise and consent” on presidential appointments to nullify certain laws, by refusing to approve the appointment of anyone to enforce them. In particular, the refusal to approve any appointments to the National Labor Relations Board would have left that Board without a quorum, essentially invalidating all the nation’s labor laws. Continuing a struggle that the Bush administration had with a Democratic Senate in its final two years, President Obama filled the vacancies by making “recess appointments”, using his constitutional power to fill jobs when the Senate is out of session. The Senate then had “pro forma” sessions with virtually no one there to prevent a recess from taking place, which the President refused to recognize.

The Court ruled 9-0 that the Senate is in session whenever it says it is, as long as those present are able to exercise the powers of the Senate. (In theory they could pass something by unanimous consent during a pro forma session, though this almost never happens.) The point matters far less, now that filibusters on presidential appointments are no longer allowed. But it underlines the importance of Democrats retaining control of the Senate in the fall, which is currently rated a toss-up.

They invalidated a Massachusetts law creating a protester-free buffer zone around abortion clinics. Again 9-0, they ruled that the ability to buttonhole strangers on the street and try to change their minds about something is a freedom-of-speech issue. Slate‘s Dahlia Lithwick disagrees:

more than anything it seems to reflect a continued pattern of “free speech for me but not for thee” or, at least, “free speech for people who think like me,” that pervades recent First Amendment decisions at the court. More importantly, I don’t know where to locate this ruling in the burgeoning doctrine of “the right to be let alone” that Justices Alito and Thomas and Breyer have espoused, nor do I know how to reconcile it with the court’s persistent second-rate treatment of any speech that threatens to harass the justices themselves. … In a gorgeously un-self-aware way, the same Supreme Court that severely limits speech and protest in a buffer zone all around its own building, extolls the unique and wonderful properties of the American boulevard

But Lawrence Tribe thinks the Court got it right:

Thursday’s opinion in no way restricts the right to choose whether or not to terminate a pregnancy guaranteed by Roe v. Wade, in 1973, and reaffirmed, in 1992, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Nor does recognizing a duty to protect freedom of speech in this setting ask us to deny the genuine anguish suffered even by women who are confronted by quiet protesters rather than noisy agitators on their way to use reproductive health services. But neither empathy for their anguish, nor the need to protect the safety of women seeking such services, nor the clear need to guard against the rising tide of state laws designed to restrict access to abortions, can justify far-reaching measures that restrict peaceful conversation in public spaces.

and the World Cup

Like many Americans, I’m watching the World Cup seriously for the first time — even a few games between non-American teams. I wasn’t aware this was a political issue until Ann Coulter and a handful of other conservatives started getting upset about it. But it is political, sort of. The Atlantic‘s Peter Beinart explains:

The willingness of growing numbers of Americans to embrace soccer bespeaks their willingness to imagine a different relationship with the world. Historically, conservative foreign policy has oscillated between isolationism and imperialism. America must either retreat from the world or master it. It cannot be one among equals, bound by the same rules as everyone else. Exceptionalists view sports the same way. Coulter likes football, baseball, and basketball because America either plays them by itself, or—when other countries play against us—we dominate them.

and the Mississippi Senate primary runoff

Republican Senator Thad Cochran barely hung on against Tea Party challenger Chris McDaniel, who had run ahead Cochran in the original primary (but failed to get a majority) and had been leading in polls just a few days before. And he did it in an unusual way: Under Mississippi law, anybody who didn’t already vote in the Democratic primary is eligible to vote in the Republican runoff. So Cochran appealed to Democrats, especially African-American Democrats, to help him beat back the McDaniel challenge.

It’s worth pointing out that Democrats were not monkey-wrenching (voting in the other party’s primary for the candidate who will be easy to beat; probably Cochran is harder to beat in the general election, though few really imagine Mississippi electing a Democratic senator under any circumstances). McDaniel has done just about everything he can to alienate blacks, probably figuring they don’t vote in his primary and aren’t a big enough bloc to defeat him in November. He’s spoken at a Neo-Confederate event, retweeted a white supremacist, and started talking about fraud as soon as Cochran began reaching out to the black community, as if black votes were somehow inherently fraudulent. McDaniel invited True the Vote — a notorious voter suppression group — to send poll watchers. Slate‘s Jamelle Bouie summed up:

If McDaniel resembles anything, it’s not a libertarian—although he swims in the current of right-wing libertarianism—as much as it’s a Southern reactionary whose appeal is built on resentment of assorted others, which in Mississippi, inevitably includes black Americans.

So Mississippi blacks saw a run-of-the-mill conservative — Cochran has an 88% rating from the American Conservative Union and National Journal ranks him as the 41st most conservative senator, just ahead of Lindsey Graham — running against someone who may or may not be racist himself, but certainly courts racists and repeats racist tropes. So some black Democrats, probably enough to sway the outcome, decided to vote for the lesser evil in the Republican runoff.

If you expected McDaniel or his supporters to take their defeat gracefully — to say, “Well played, Republican establishment. You out-maneuvered us fair and square.” — you haven’t been paying attention. Tea Partiers, particularly in the South, have a massive sense of entitlement. They aren’t just entitled to play, they’re entitled to win; if they don’t win, somebody must have cheated. They are the only real Americans, so if they lose, this isn’t America any more. They need to “take it back”, by force of arms if necessary.

So the McDaniel loss has lots of Tea Party voices talking about a third party. Right now it’s just talk meant to whip the Republican establishment into line. (The Tea Party has far more power as a faction within the Republican Party than it would as a third party, something I wish was better understood on the Left.) And it seems to be working. Witness the next note.

and John Boehner’s lawsuit

One popular talking point on the Right is that President Obama is ruling tyrannically, ignoring Congress and issuing his own decrees that circumvent the laws. There’s really no way to make that case consistently without indicting all recent presidents, maybe as far back as FDR, but right-wing talking points are not known for their consistency. (It’s like “czars“, a practice started by FDR, continued by Reagan, and expanded by George W. Bush that suddenly became tyranny when Obama did it. It’s almost like Obama is different from all other presidents in some way. I wonder what that difference could be?)

I haven’t discussed this in the Sift, but in online comments I leave on news sites my position has consistently been: If you think he’s doing something illegal, don’t just talk about it, take him to court. I think it would be amusing to watch Republicans state and defend an actual case, rather than just make vague accusations.

Well, apparently that’s going to happen. Maybe. Speaker Boehner says he is preparing a lawsuit accusing President Obama of failing to “faithfully execute the laws” as the Constitution demands. However, Boehner’s memo does not specify exactly which executive actions he’s talking about, and when asked he said “When I make that decision, I’ll let you know.

Pundits are split over whether the lawsuit is a prelude to impeachment or a way to placate extremists who want impeachment. In any case, specifying the details of the lawsuit will be politically dangerous, because in almost every case — not deporting DREAMers, say, or increasing the minimum wage, or regulating the carbon output of power plants — it’s been Obama representing the popular majority and Boehner’s caucus standing in the way. A list of Obama’s “power grabs” would also be a list of issues where Congress has been dysfunctional.

By all means, Speaker Boehner, raise those issues. Focus everybody’s attention on them as we go into the fall elections. Better yet, shut down the government to defend polluters. That’s a sure winner.

but the continuing good news about ObamaCare still isn’t getting attention

If only there were a liberal media that could call as much attention to ObamaCare’s successes as our actual media focused on the (now clearly false) predictions of its impending doom.

Friday, Paul Krugman listed six doom-saying forecasts that have proved to be totally wrong — all without apparent damage to the reputations of the doom-sayers.

  • Not enough people will sign up. Actually, the program’s sign-up estimates were too low.
  • The apparent sign-ups will turn out to be an illusion when people don’t pay their first premium. Since the actual policies are written by private companies rather than the government (i.e., ObamaCare was never a “government takeover”), the exact numbers are scattered in privately-held databases. But the available numbers suggest the sign-up-but-don’t-pay percentage is about the usual insurance-industry rate.
  • The number of uninsured will go up, because more policies will be cancelled (because they don’t meet ObamaCare’s minimum standards) than new policies written. Gallup tracks the number of uninsured people; it’s going down sharply. And that doesn’t count the number of people who replaced bogus insurance with real insurance. The two big tests will be whether the number of bankruptcies caused by medical bills goes down, as I predict it will; and whether the death rate among the newly insured goes down, as it has in Massachusetts, where RomneyCare might be regarded as an ObamaCare pilot program.
  • ObamaCare’s premiums will be unaffordable. Nope. Not everyone paid less, but the great majority did.
  • Young people won’t sign up. Since young people cost less to insure, not getting enough of them could doom the whole program. But they have been signing up.
  • Health care spending will soar. A short-term increase was planned for, as people who have been doing without insurance start going to the doctor. (In some cases, this saved their lives.) Long-term, the program was supposed to create efficiencies that would cut costs. The recent numbers indicate the the initial surge is ending and costs are rising more slowly, as predicted.

You have to wonder how successful ObamaCare would be if Congress and Republican governors hadn’t tried to sabotage it at every turn.

Krugman added a blog post with supporting links, but he left out a seventh failed prediction of doom: That in the second year insurers would flee the ObamaCare exchanges. In fact, the exact opposite is happening.

Let me head off a comment: Naturally, ObamaCare critics will never admit they were wrong — that’s Seneca’s diabolical persistence — so the American Enterprise Institute’s Chris Conover has a column rebutting Krugman. (A certain amount is just nit-picking, like pointing out that sign-ups just barely beat predictions until the sign-up deadline was extended two weeks, as if the original doom-saying hinged on those two weeks. I don’t recall any ObamaCare critic saying, “Nobody will sign up, unless the deadline is extended two weeks.”) Charles Gaba counters Conover here and here. He also links to Jonathan Cohn’s larger collection of bad ObamaCare predictions.

and you also might be interested in …

Apropos of nothing: Segway Maximus

Thursday, “#YesAllWomen and the Continuum of Aggression“became the 9th Weekly Sift post to go over 5,000 hits.

Rick Perlstein believes the Cliven Bundy showdown marked an ominous “watershed moment”:

When legitimately constituted state authority stands down in the face of armed threats, the very foundation of the republic is in danger.

And while we’re talking guns, Robert Evans at Cracked has an amusing-but-serious “5 Things to Know About the Armed Men in Your Local Chipotle“.

New word: When white people suddenly “discover” something that non-whites have known about for a long time, it’s columbusing. As in: “Columbus columbused America” or “Miley Cyrus columbused twerking.” College Humor illustrates in a hilarious video sketch.

A Republican finally proved voter fraud exists: Scott Walker donor Robert Monroe just got arrested for voting five times in Walker’s recall election. I think I understand what happened.

Hardly anyone gets prosecuted for voter fraud, probably because hardly anyone commits voter fraud. (Election fraud exists, but it’s party bosses and corrupt election officials who cheat, not voters.) Voting expert Richard Hasen explains that stealing votes one-by-one is a lot of work for not much benefit:

It’s no surprise that the numbers are so low, because voter impersonation fraud is an exceedingly dumb way to try to steal an election.

Federal Judge Lynn Adelman has spelled it out:

The potential costs of perpetrating the fraud, which include a $10,000 fine and three years of imprisonment, are extremely high in comparison to the potential benefits, which would be nothing more than one additional vote for a preferred candidate (or one fewer vote for an opposing candidate), a vote which is unlikely to change the election’s outcome.

Still, Republicans often claim voter fraud is rampant, to the point that some even think Obama’s two massive victories are suspect. If you believe that, then you must conclude that not only do lots of people vote multiple times, but that they almost all get away with it. After a while, a true believer might start to feel stupid for just voting once when everyone else must be cheating.

Monroe made the classic mistake of believing his own side’s propaganda. No, Bob, that voter-fraud stuff is for conning other people and justifying crap your side wants to do for other reasons, not for applying in your own life. Like they say on Mythbusters: “Do not try this at home.”

If you’ve been reading about massive voter fraud in North Carolina, it’s a story of the same type I described last year in South Carolina: a computer check yields a large number of “possibly” fraudulent votes — more than 35K in NC — but after an enormous waste of election-official time, all but a handful of cases — 3 in SC — have reasonable explanations and none lead to prosecutions. That’s how the story has played out all over the country, and that’s what will happen here.

The Washington football team continues to take heat for calling itself the Redskins. The federal Patent and Trademark office revoked the Redskin trademark, which will have major financial implications if it takes effect. But the team’s appeal to federal court will at least delay things for years.

The main immediate impact is that it keeps the issue in the headlines, which is the kind of publicity no business wants. For now, polls show that most people either support the team or don’t care about the issue. But I think that changes if the discussion goes on long enough. I think most of us would like to dismiss the whole issue as ridiculous, but if we can’t do that, we’ll eventually have to admit that there’s no justification for keeping the name. That’s the conclusion John Oliver came to.

TPM’s Josh Marshall wrote an insightful article.

I imagine I’m like many my age who at one level just intuitively think about the Redskins and the Cleveland Indians and the Atlanta Braves as just part of the natural landscape of American culture. Even now, when I think about the Redskins, part of me is like, ‘We’ve been saying this forever.’

For a football fan, the Redskin name evokes history: Sammy Baugh, Billy Kilmer, Joe Theisman, the Hogs and Smurfs. But Marshall explores a different history, the history of “mascotization”, which didn’t begin until whites stopped seeing Indians as a real threat. (It started in New England, where the threat disappeared first.) He concludes:

The simple fact is we shouldn’t be using whole peoples as mascots for sports teams. Whether or not Indians in America today find it offensive is almost beside the point. The fact that most do is just an extra reason to do away with the practice.

With all I’ve said, there’s a part of me who feels like, ‘We really can’t have the Cleveland Indians anymore?’ It feels like a loss – part of the landscape of American sports I’m attached to. But it’s time.

The New Yorker‘s profile of Ted Cruz (who I think will be the 2016 Republican nominee) contains this quote from former Solicitor General Walter Dellinger:

Ted is able to use erudite constitutional analysis with politically appealing slogans—that’s a rare talent. The only problem is that Ted’s view of the Constitution—based on states’ rights and a narrow scope of federal power—was rejected at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, and then was resurrected by John C. Calhoun, and the Confederates during the Civil War, when it failed again. It’s still around now. I think it’s wrong, but Ted does a very sophisticated version of that view.

I’ve been in a year-long reading project about the Confederacy and Reconstruction, and that’s the same conclusion I had come to: When Tea Partiers talk about “the Founders”, they’re really talking about Calhoun’s misrepresentation of the Founders. The key document in this tradition is not the Constitution or The Federalist, but Calhoun’s A Discourse on the Constitution and Government of the United States published posthumously in 1851.

Daily Kos’ Dante Atkins has been forced to give up on the theory of Peak Wingnut — that there is some limit to how crazy the Right can get.

and let’s end with something amazing

OK Go’s new video “The Writing’s on the Wall” presents a series of illusions, not with CGI, but with old-fashioned perspective. And all in one continuous take. (Watch them make it.)


The Monday Morning Teaser

So much has happened these last two weeks that this week’s Sift is entirely devoted to catching up. I’m spending my full (self-imposed) word limit on the weekly summary and don’t have any separate featured articles.

What’s been happening? Well, it’s the end of the Supreme Court’s year, so decisions have been spilling out like the term papers of procrastinating freshmen. Unfortunately, though, their last day is today, so I won’t have time to digest the most important decision: Hobby Lobby, where a trumped-up notion of Christian entitlement masquerades as religious liberty and threatens to give employers control of their employee’s health care. But the Court did rule on the privacy of cell phones (which the Founders apparently foresaw), the President’s power to make recess appointments, and buffer zones around abortion clinics.

Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran’s primary run-off victory over Tea Party challenger Chris McDaniel has been good theater. Cochran won by taking advantage of Mississippi’s open-primary rules to get votes from blacks who usually vote for Democrats. McDaniel apparently thought he was in an old-fashioned white primary (which used to be a thing in the Jim Crow South), called a foul, and has refused to concede. It’s like grade school recess: If the Tea Party loses, somebody must have cheated. They’re working to identify who it was.

John Boehner announced that he’s suing President Obama for … something. He didn’t specify exactly.

The news about ObamaCare continues to be good and mostly unreported. Paul Krugman — I guess all by himself he’s the “liberal media” we hear so much about — collected some of it.

And a bunch more stuff, ending with an amazing use of perspective illusions in the new video by OK Go.

Since I’ve decided not to wait for the Court, the weekly summary should be out by 10 o’clock Eastern, or close to it. But if I get delayed and then the ruling comes out, who knows?


Ignorance and Nostalgia

Anyone who was there [in Iraq] can tell you we had the conflict won. John McCain on Friday

You know nothing, John McCain. – paraphrase of Ygritte, from Game of Thrones

There will be no Sift next week. The next articles will appear on June 30. This week’s featured articles are “Iraq is Still Broken, We Still Can’t Fix It” and “Actually, David IS Goliath“.

This week everybody was talking about Iraq

I covered this in “Iraq is Still Broken, We Still Can’t Fix It“.

and Eric Cantor’s primary defeat

The media is portraying Dave Brat’s victory as a David vs. Goliath story, but that ignores all the powerful forces on Brat’s side. I try to right the balance in “Actually, David IS Goliath“.

Politico points out an interesting angle on the Cantor loss: Cantor is currently the only Jew in the House Republican Caucus.

It’s easy to overstate the significance of Cantor’s ethnicity/religion to his loss: Dave Brat’s stump speech contains no overt anti-semitism or even a clear dog-whistle. And while Brat does call attention to his divinity degree (prior to his Ph.D. in economics), he doesn’t style himself as the Christian candidate. But Cantor’s Jewishness shadows him the same way Obama’s blackness does: Stereotypes lurk in the background and make the overt case against him more effective.

Beyond the immigration issue, Brat’s case against Cantor was that he’s out of touch, he doesn’t really represent the American people, he’s in bed with the Wall Street bankers, and that he’s a backroom deal-maker who sells out his principles. All that is much easier to believe if the back of your mind contains some timeworn stereotypes: the Jew as an outsider in America, a corrupt money-changer, and a duplicitous conspirator.

and polarization

Pew Research released the first of a series of reports on political polarization in the United States. The top-level takeaway is one of those “Scientists Prove Sex Causes Babies” results: Americans are far more polarized today than in 1994. Anybody who had been paying attention already knew that, but it’s nice to have the phenomenon quantified in graphics like this:

Deeper in the report, though, is some genuinely interesting stuff: Right and Left are not just mirror-image tribes. Increasingly, liberals and conservatives live different lives and want different things. For example, they value different kinds of communities. So, given their druthers, they won’t live near each other.

A more ominous difference is in polarized attitudes towards compromise. As Jonathan Chait put it: “Conservatives don’t hate the immigration deal. They hate all deals.

That’s why Republicans keep driving us into government shutdowns or to the brink of a debt crisis: Their constituency sees compromise as corruption, so a Republican legislator who compromises needs to be able to claim it was a last resort before disaster. As Jonathan Haidt spelled out in The Righteous Mind, conservatives place a much higher value on purity than liberals do.

The disturbing thing about the compromise-is-corruption notion is that it’s fundamentally un-American. James Madison’s whole notion of separated powers with checks and balances depends on the willingness of the separate people who wield the separated powers to work something out. If they refuse to, then the whole constitutional system goes belly-up and the mob demands a man-on-horseback who can get things done. (I described this process in more detail — and how far along we are — in last fall’s “Countdown to Augustus“.)

It’s worth remembering that in our history, that system of compromise has only failed once: the Civil War. It failed then because a powerful group of Americans — the Southern slaveholders — decided they were done with the long series of compromises that had held the Union together since its creation. So they rejected the North/South Democratic coalition that had held the White House for Pierce in 1852 and Buchanan in 1856, and walked out on a Democratic convention that was ready to nominate another likely winner, Stephen Douglas. (Lincoln’s plan to keep slavery out of the territories but leave it alone in the slave states was similarly unsatisfying to abolitionists, but they mostly voted for him anyway.) And when slaveholders’ unwillingness to unite behind Douglas let Lincoln win with under 40% of the vote, they seceded from the Union rather than wait to see what they could work out with the new president after he took office. When it became obvious they were losing the war at horrible cost, they kept fighting anyway. Even after Lee surrendered, Jefferson Davis was captured trying to get to Texas, where he thought he might keep the war going. All because the Confederate aristocracy rejected the very idea of compromise. (A readable account of the political lead-up to the war is in Douglas Egerton’s Year of Meteors.)

and school shootings (again)

This one was Tuesday in Troutdale, Oregon. has listed 74 school-shooting incidents since Sandy Hook.

In the 50s, the threat was nuclear war, so we convinced ourselves we could protect children with duck-and-cover drills.

Now it’s lockdown drills against gunmen. Soon maybe we’ll have kids practice hiding under bulletproof blankets.

The Bodyguard Blanket is the kind of solution a hyper-individualistic free-market society comes up with. It’s like responding to air pollution not by regulating polluters, but by encouraging breathers to buy gas masks.

An insightful article by a lifelong gun owner is Gawker’s “It’s Really Hard to Be a Good Guy With a Gun“.

The universe of scenarios in which carrying a gun seems prudent or useful just keeps shrinking and shrinking, even as the legal freedom to wield personal firepower keeps expanding. The NRA has recalibrated its message for the 21st century: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” But in many ways, the 21st century has already overtaken us good guys.

and tenure for teachers

A California judge ruled that the state’s teacher-tenure system is unconstitutional, because it violates minority students’ right to a quality education. I expect a higher court to overrule, because the decision just screams judicial activism; California’s public education policy would be better decided by the voters’ elected representatives. And while a judge might well decide that the education provided in some schools does not fulfill the state’s constitutional commitment, it seems well beyond a judge’s competence to decide that the flaw is the tenure system.

Behind the popular fire-bad-teachers meme lurks a notion I find very doubtful: that there are legions of effective, well-qualified teachers eager to work their magic in under-performing schools, if only we could get rid of the teachers who occupy those jobs now.

and you also might be interested in …

George Will stepped on a hornet nest on June 6, when he wrote that colleges and universities are learning that

when they make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate.

The proliferating victims he’s talking about are female students who claim to have suffered a sexual assault on campus. Will’s statement got roundly condemned all over the internet, and launched a petition for the Washington Post to end Will’s twice-a-week column.

Most of the time, I’m against these fire-somebody-who-wrote-a-bad-thing campaigns, because it’s genuinely hard to engage the culture without occasionally mis-stepping and enraging people you didn’t mean to provoke. But I’ve got a second reason for the Post to fire Will: In his old age he’s become a bad writer. Will’s column wastes the big stage of the WaPo’s opinion pages.

Take the column in question. It’s not even about campus sexual assault. He only mentions that inflamatory topic on his way to a far more vague and boring point: Because they have embraced a never-defined “progressivism”, universities have no basis to protest the government’s plan to rate them. Why they should protest — and why the government wants to rate them — is also unspecified. So of course Will never lists the “privileges” that make sexual-assault-victim such a “coveted” status, or identifies anybody in particular who covets it. Why should he nail down a throw-away line when he doesn’t nail down anything?

Will’s muddled essays have come to resemble shaggy-dog jokes. Only after you decrypt his pseudo-intellectual prose and follow the labyrinthine thread of his logic can you realize that his point is insubstantial. What a waste of one of the highest-profile spaces in American media.

The note above brings up something I’ve wondered about before: Doesn’t the WaPo have any editors? I write for much lower-budget publications, but even so, editors occasionally save me from making a fool of myself. Editors are a benefit of organized journalism. The Post isn’t doing Will any favors by leaving him unsupervised.

NBC giving big bucks to Chelsea Clinton is more than a little creepy, even if they do plan to terminate her contract if/when her mom officially starts running for president. The fact that they also employ Republican daughters like Jenna Bush Hager and Meghan McCain (for salaries the article doesn’t specify) doesn’t make me feel any better. It all points to the corruption of the meritocracy Chris Hayes described in Twilight of the Elites. For all I know, Chelsea and Jenna and Meghan might be brilliant; but they wouldn’t be where they are if they hadn’t been born with a head start.

and let’s end with something fun

As the Joker asked about Batman: “Where does he get those wonderful toys?” Photographer Chis McLennan goes to Botswana, attaches a camera to a little radio-controlled dune buggy, then drives it into a pride of lions. Because we’d all do that if we had Batman-scale toy budgets.

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.

The Monday Morning Teaser

Two stories grabbed everyone’s attention this week: Sunni extremists seizing a big chunk of Iraq, and Eric Cantor losing his primary to Dave Brat, a guy most of us had never heard of.

On the Right, the Iraq story was all about how Obama should never have pulled out all our troops. Chatter on the Left, conversely, focused on how Bush never should have destabilized the country in the first place. Perversely, the media kept consulting “Iraq experts” whose advice was spectacularly wrong in 2002. In “Iraq is Still Broken”, I’ll go back to an expert whose accounts hold up pretty well to hindsight: University of Michigan history professor Juan Cole.

The Cantor debacle was covered widely, but not very deeply: It has been presented as a David-defeats-Goliath story in which the conservative grass roots take down a powerful insider. Yes, Cantor is a powerful insider, but in “Actually, David IS Goliath” I’ll take a closer look at the powerful forces behind Brat.

Not quite as newsy, but fascinating all the same, was a Pew report on political polarization. Not only did it quantify what everybody already knows — Americans are diverging into liberal and conservative camps — but it pointed out some interesting ways that the two sides are not just mirror images of each other. When James Madison was designing the Constitution’s system of separated powers, I don’t think he imagined so many of those powers winding up in the hands of people who think compromise is evil. I’ll discuss that in the weekly summary.

Also in the summary: Capitalism’s answer to school shootings. It’s really hard to be a good guy with a gun. Yes, George Will wrote a bad thing, but the reason WaPo should fire him is that his column is such a waste of valuable opinion-making real estate. And a photographer in Botswana does what we’d all do if we had a Batman-level toy budget: attach a camera to a radio-controlled dune buggy and drive it into a pride of lions.


Making Peace

NED STARK: Make peace with the Lannisters, you say? With the people who tried to murder my boy?
PETYR BAELISH: We only make peace with our enemies, my lord. That’s why it’s called “making peace”.

Game of Thrones

This week’s featured article is “This Is How It Ends“. If you missed it, last week’s “#YesAllWomen and the Continuum of Aggression” was very popular, with nearly 5,000 hits.

This week everybody was talking about Sgt. Bergdahl

Two weeks ago, could you have imagined that the last American POW could be freed and it would make people furious? Or that Fox News and the rest of the conservative media machine would start villifying the POW? And his family? I certainly didn’t see that coming.

I don’t think there’s a political explanation for this. Sure, Republicans are looking for something new to get excited about as the ObamaCare issue continues to fizzle on them, but why this? Especially when so many of them have to do a complete about-face and pretend they never said a bunch of things they were saying just a few weeks ago.

I think this response requires a psychological explanation: Trading POWs makes it a little too real that the War on Terror fantasy is ending. All those heroic dreams about “ridding the world of evil-doers” have come down to this. It’s a sad, hung-over morning in America, and a lot of people are pissed they have to wake up. “This Is How It Ends” fills that frame in.

and the impact of Obama’s new carbon rules

Grist summarizes nine things you should know about them. That article has the most succinct response I’ve heard to the perennial “Environmental regulations kill the economy” objection:

Job losses in the coal industry will be offset by hiring in the construction and clean energy sectors. Lower rates of respiratory illness will save money on health care and improve productivity. EPA estimates that lower particle pollution from coal burning will reduce annual heart attacks, asthma attacks, premature deaths, hospital admissions, and lost days of work and school by the thousands. The economic value of these savings could outweigh increased costs by up to a factor of 10.

Well-designed regulations don’t cost money, they save money.

and yet another school shooting

This one at Seattle Pacific University. The gunman was pepper-sprayed and tackled by a student while he was reloading. Two takeaways:

  • Once again, a bad guy with a gun was stopped by a good guy (or a good woman) without one.
  • Limiting how many shots a gun can fire without reloading is a good idea. It gives by-standers a chance to tackle a shooter before the death toll gets too high.

In other gun news, the NRA briefly showed some sanity, but then changed its mind. The NRA’s Institute for Legal Action posted a statement on its website asking open carry demonstrators in Texas — the ones taking AK-15s into Chili’s and Target — to cool it, referring to such behavior as “downright weird”. But when Open Carry Texas asked for a retraction of those “disgusting and disrespectful comments”, the NRA backed down. It removed the post from its web site and instead claimed the NRA is “the leader of open carry efforts across the country.”

The NYT’s Juliet Lapidos wondered whether this was the NRA’s “Tea Party moment”: Has the NRA pandering to the lunatic fringe “spawned a movement it can’t control”?

The Daily Show had a fabulous piece about the racial angle on guns: black and white “experts” give open-carry do’s and don’ts.

White expert: When you bring your gun to a restaurant, DO calmly inform the other patrons that you are there just to eat and not to shoot anyone.

Black expert: And when you bring your gun to a restaurant, DON’T be black. Because even if you tell them you’re not going to shoot, they’re probably not going to believe you.

but gay marriage rulings don’t even make headlines any more

Add Wisconsin to the list of places where federal judges have found that a state ban on same-sex marriage can’t be sustained after the Supreme Court’s Windsor ruling last June. WaPo counts 13 post-Windsor rulings for same-sex marriage and none against. I’m not even reading them any more because they’re all the same: States have no reason to ban same-sex couples from marrying, beyond the simple desire to make life harder for gays and lesbians. This was a radical argument when Massachusetts Chief Justice Margaret Marshall made it in 2003, but it has become the conventional wisdom.

It’s fascinating to look back at my account of the 2003 Goodridge decision and see that — in spite of a dozen years of losses in court — the arguments against marriage equality have not changed. The anti-homosexual side keeps saying the same thing and hoping that this time it will convince somebody.

and you also might be interested in …

“I don’t plan on getting raped,” says a daughter on her way to college. And Mom answers: “Neither did I.

The platform of the Texas GOP is always a good read. This year’s proposed version endorses quack “reparative therapy” to cure gays, plus (according to Steve Benen)

complete elimination of the Voting Rights Act; policymakers at all levels should deliberately “ignore” climate change; public schools should end sex-ed and start promoting Christianity; abortion should be banned; English should be the official language of Texas and of the United States; open-carry laws should apply to gun owners statewide

The San Antonio Current has the raw quotes, but they left out some of the best stuff:

All federal enforcement activities in Texas must be conducted under the auspices of the County Sheriff with jurisdiction in that county. … We believe the Environmental Protection Agency should be abolished. … we urge Congress to withhold Supreme Court jurisdiction in cases involving abortion, religious freedom, and the Bill of Rights … We strongly support the Electoral College. … We support the adoption of human embryos … We unequivocally oppose the United States Senate’s ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. … We oppose any laws regarding the production, distribution, or consumption of food. … We pledge our influence toward a return to the original intent of the First Amendment and toward dispelling the myth of separation of church and state. … we support reducing taxpayer funding to all levels of education institutions. … We believe the Minimum Wage Law should be repealed. … We support the return to the time-tested precious metal standard for the U.S. dollar. … We support the withdrawal of the United States from the United Nations and the removal of U.N. headquarters from United States soil.

If you live somewhere else, you might just shake your head and say “Texas”. But as voters have discovered in North Carolina and a few other states, Texas is just where right-wingers feel free to let their freak flag fly. Give Republicans a big enough majority in your state legislature, and crazy stuff will start showing up there too.

Religious freedom for me, but not for thee. In Cincinnati, no Catholic school teacher can support same-sex marriage in public on his/her own time. This new clause in the teaching contract is causing veteran teachers to resign.

You can expect a new push to teach Christianity in the public schools under the guise of Biblical literacy. In addition to trying to expand the definition of religious liberty to diminish the health insurance of his female employees, Hobby Lobby President Steve Green has been funding the Museum of the Bible‘s development of a curriculum aimed at high schools: The Book: The Bible’s History, Narrative and Impact.

SMU religious studies professor Mark Chauncey reviewed the curriculum, finding:

This is a classic example of preaching religious beliefs in the guise of promoting religious literacy. It’s hard to imagine this curriculum, with its sectarian elements, errors and oddities, was put together by dozens of scholars as claimed.

Those who want to tear down the wall between church and state often try to make the law sound complicated, but it’s actually quite simple. If a public school teacher says, “In the New Testament, Jesus rises from the dead, and many present-day Christians regard this as a historical event rather than a myth.” that’s teaching about Christianity, which is completely legal. But if s/he says, “Jesus rose from the dead.” that’s teaching Christianity, which is illegal. If someone convinces you that this principle is tricky, the person being tricked is you.

So far, Senator Mark Pryor in Arkansas has been doing the best job of any Democrat in making his opponent pay for his far-right voting record. Here’s a recent Pryor ad:

 and let’s close with something vast

If you’re not paying attention to the Astronomy Picture of the Day at NASA, you’re missing out. This was Sunday’s picture, of the open cluster NGC 290.


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