Nostalgia for the Future

The future ain’t what it used to be.

attributed to Yogi Berra

This week everybody was talking about the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech”

and just how much has or hasn’t changed since then.

Nobody who was alive in 1963 (I was six) can honestly say that nothing has changed. In the white working class where I grew up, white supremacy — the idea that whites are inherently superior and ought to be superior under the law — was a mainstream position. Supremacists didn’t sneak around and use code words and build camps out in the woods, they announced their ideas openly (saying “nigger” if they wanted to) and were included in respectable conversations.

So yes, things have changed. But changed a half-century worth? That’s a more dismal question. It’s like re-reading the science fiction of the era. By now we were supposed to have flying cars, Moon colonies, limitless energy, and maybe even teleporters or time machines. I like smart phones and a black president and all, but 2013 was supposed to be the effing FUTURE. Anything was supposed to be possible.

It sure doesn’t feel like anything is possible.

and the school shooting that didn’t happen

Antoinette Tuff showed that sometimes a bad guy with a gun can be stopped by a compassionate woman without one.

and the violence in Egypt and Syria

Speaking of dismal, the maps in some of my grade-school textbooks still showed Egypt and Syria as the United Arab Republic. In four years we’ll have the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War (which kept 10-year-old me glued to the TV during a sick day). Who thought we’d be here?

This week brought new reports of the Assad regime using chemical weapons. After the Bush administration’s shenanigans about Iraq’s WMDs, you always have to look for independent sources on stuff like this. So here’s what Nobel-prize-winning Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) says:

Three hospitals in Syria’s Damascus governorate that are supported by the international medical humanitarian organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) have reported to MSF that they received approximately 3,600 patients displaying neurotoxic symptoms in less than three hours on the morning of Wednesday, August 21, 2013. Of those patients, 355 reportedly died.

… “MSF can neither scientifically confirm the cause of these symptoms nor establish who is responsible for the attack,” said Dr Janssens. “However, the reported symptoms of the patients, in addition to the epidemiological pattern of the events—characterised by the massive influx of patients in a short period of time, the origin of the patients, and the contamination of medical and first aid workers—strongly indicate mass exposure to a neurotoxic agent. This would constitute a violation of international humanitarian law, which absolutely prohibits the use of chemical and biological weapons.”

President Obama has promised a “serious response“, and now we’re left to wonder what consequences America can inflict without doing our interests more harm than good.

In yesterday’s NYT, strategist Edward Luttwak (never a bleeding heart) claimed that victory by either the Iran-backed regime or the jihadist rebels would be bad for the United States. So:

Maintaining a stalemate should be America’s objective. And the only possible method for achieving this is to arm the rebels when it seems that Mr. Assad’s forces are ascendant and to stop supplying the rebels if they actually seem to be winning.


As for Egypt, I recommend reading “Egypt in Crisis: Ten Observations” by University of Illinois Professor Feisal G. Mohamed. The gist: Egypt’s military is a vast institution with no foreign enemy to fight, so it’s mainly interested in extending its own power. There’s not much hope of balancing that power until the Islamists and the democrats come together in a movement that genuinely feels both Islamic and democratic. So far that’s not happening.

and what to do about Russia’s anti-gay laws

Dan Savage says boycott Russian vodka, but Villanova’s Mark Lawrence Schrad says not to. Since I never drink vodka no one can tell whether I’m boycotting or not. So I don’t find either choice very satisfying.

The bigger question is how to handle the Winter Olympics, which will start in February in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. If you are gay or just in the habit of correcting people who say incredibly ignorant things about homosexuality, it’s really not safe to go to Russia now. Legally, “propaganda of homosexualism to minors” (i.e., tweeting that gays and lesbians are people just like you and me) can get a foreigner fined, deported, or jailed for up to 15 days. And then there’s the illegal stuff. PolicyMic reports:

Against this backdrop, violent attacks on gays or “suspect gays” are becoming commonplace.

If gay athletes (or reporters or fans) aren’t safe at the Olympics, or if they’re safe only as long as they keep their mouths shut, why are we sending any people there at all?

But what’s the alternative? Given the huge logistics that surround an Olympics, moving the Games somewhere else really isn’t feasible. I also hate the idea of boycotting the Winter Olympics, since that affects mainly athletes, most of whom only get one shot at an Olympic medal during their prime.

The only satisfactory outcome I can imagine is a massive protest. Individual protests (as when Tommy Smith and John Carlos gave a black power salute from the medalists’ podium in Mexico City in 1968) would be welcome, but I hope the entire U.S. delegation plans something together. Sneak a rainbow flag into the opening ceremonies.  Attach a rainbow-flag patch to the standard uniform. Make a statement for freedom.

and that photographer in New Mexico

You may have missed this, but the religious right is going nuts (read the 3300+ comments at National Review) over a straightforward ruling the New Mexico Supreme Court made Thursday.

A New Mexico photographer refused to shoot a lesbian commitment ceremony, saying that she photographed only “traditional weddings”. This is a fairly obvious violation of New Mexico’s Human Rights Act, which states:

It is an unlawful discriminatory practice for: [skip over paragraphs A-E]

F. any person in any public accommodation to make a distinction, directly or indirectly, in offering or refusing to offer its services, facilities, accommodations or goods to any person because of race, religion, color, national origin, ancestry, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, spousal affiliation or physical or mental handicap

The Court’s ruling isn’t long (30 pages including a concurrence) because the law is so clear. Justice Bosson’s concurring opinion addresses the “religious freedom” issue directly:

In a constitutional form of government, personal, religious, and moral beliefs, when acted upon to the detriment of someone else’s rights, have constitutional limits. One is free to believe, think and speak as one’s conscience, or God, dictates. But when actions, even religiously inspired, conflict with other constitutionally protected rights—in Loving [i.e., Loving v Virginia, the case that established the right to interracial marriage] the right to be free from invidious racial discrimination—then there must be some accommodation. … [The photographer’s] refusal to do business with the same-sex couple in this case, no matter how religiously inspired, was an affront to the legal rights of that couple, the right granted them under New Mexico law to engage in the commercial marketplace free from discrimination.

As I have stated on this blog many times, the principle is simple: When you open your business to the public, you have to serve the whole public. You don’t get to decide who is or isn’t included in “the public”.

and Private Manning

Wednesday, Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison for releasing a vast cache of secret documents through WikiLeaks, including hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables. He’ll be eligible for parole in ten years.

Manning’s case (like that of Edward Snowden and Vietnam-era whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg) raises the fundamental conflict of a system that keeps so many secrets:

  • The system can’t survive if every individual makes his or her own judgments about what secrets to keep.
  • At some point, you have to make your own judgments.

It’s the nature of secrecy that a person’s pledge to keep secrets is never really an informed choice. Only after you start learning secrets do you understand what your pledge means. Sometimes you sign up for a secret-keeping position because you believe you’re fighting for the good guys, but after you start learning secrets you come to believe that you’re fighting for the bad guys. Or you sign up to keep secrets from the enemy, and end up keeping them from your own people.

Then what?

That said, I only have a limited amount of sympathy for Manning, because he could not possibly have read all the material he released or thought carefully about the consequences of releasing it — something I believe every responsible whistleblower ought to do.

Finally, I know that some people will consider this simplistic and naive, but the best solution to the whistleblower problem is to keep fewer secrets and do fewer morally objectionable things. The more nasty secrets our government has, the more likely it is that somebody on the inside will grow a conscience and tell the world.

Another twist in the Manning story was his announcement Thursday that he wants to be considered a woman and addressed as Chelsea. Manning wants to undergo hormone therapy, which is not part of the healthcare provided by military prisons.

A person’s gotta do what a person’s gotta do, but I consider this twist unfortunate, because a story that connects whistleblowers and the transgendered isn’t going to help either group. National Review has already published the predictable they’re-just-delusional article about the transgendered (and ThinkProgress responded). I’m sure somebody is already writing a trangendered-people-can’t-be-trusted-with-secrets article and a whistleblowers-are-mentally-ill article.

and what voters are telling Congress

Nothing I’ve heard in the last two weeks has changed my belief that we’re heading towards a major budget crisis, either when the new fiscal year starts in October or when we hit the debt ceiling in November. The gist of the conversation between the Republican leadership and their conservative base during the August recess — which I detail in How Republican Congressmen Spent Their Summer Vacation — has been the leaders’ warning that shutting down the government to stop ObamaCare is a doomed strategy, and the base responding “So?”

The Far Right really wants to see a Charge of the Light Brigade, and they may get it.

and you also might be interested in …

I’ve been working on an article summarizing what we now know about the NSA’s domestic spying. The story has been a bit hard to follow, since startling revelations are usually followed by the release of details that make the revealed program look a bit less startling, and then later we find out there’s a loophole in those details or another program entirely that is even worse. And so on.

Space considerations are pushing that article off to next week’s Sift. In the meantime I’ll leave you with TPM’s summary.

The scariest story I saw this week was Bloomberg’s “China Coal-Fired Economy Dying of Thirst as Mines Lack Water“.

About half of China’s rivers have dried up since 1990 and those that remain are mostly contaminated. Without enough water, coal can’t be mined, new power stations can’t run and the economy can’t grow. At least 80 percent of the nation’s coal comes from regions where the United Nations says water supplies are either “stressed” or in “absolute scarcity.”

… Severe water pollution affects 75 percent of China’s rivers and lakes and 28 percent are unsuitable even for agricultural use, according to the 2012 book “China’s Environmental Challenges,” by Judith Shapiro, director of the Masters program in Natural Resources and Sustainable Development at the School of International Service at American University in Washington.

Slate’s David Weigel coins the perfect phrase to describe right-wing talking heads’ repeated attempts to equate some black-on-white crime with Trayvon Martin’s shooting: “the search for the Bizarro Travyon“. The latest attempt fails for the same reason all the others did: The Martin story was never about white-on-black crime, it was about official indifference to black victims.

[U]ntil some white teen is killed and the killer walks for 40-odd days before being charged, the search for a Bizarro Trayvon will be fruitless.

Media Matters notes the difference between Obama-birtherism and Ted-Cruz-birtherism:

Absent from Hannity’s attack on “the left” was any specific example of a high-profile liberal or Democrat who has actually questioned Cruz’s eligibility. That differentiates Cruz birtherism from Obama birtherism, which has adherents in the House Republican caucus, was endorsed by Hannity’s Fox News colleagues, and became an absurd national spectacle in early 2011 owing to the incessant agitating of fake Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

The two strains also differ in that no one doubts Cruz’s U.S. citizenship or his place of birth, while the animating principle of Obama birthers is that Obama is lying about where he was born and engaged in a decades-long conspiracy to falsify documents to that effect.

Finally, let’s close with something optimistic

OK, at least the Future gave us this much:

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  • R M Bruns  On August 26, 2013 at 11:17 am

    Sigh. My summary of your summary is an old acronym, SNAFU … Situation Normal All F***** Up.

  • Philippe Saner  On August 30, 2013 at 4:17 am

    I’d appreciate it if you could adjust your pronouns when referring to Chelsea Manning. Whether or not her coming out is helpful to the whistleblowing cause, there’s no need to mis-gender her.

    • weeklysift  On August 30, 2013 at 7:48 am

      I intend to going forward. I considered the issue carefully in the note above, and decided that I would cover the Manning events in chronological order. Sentencing was Wednesday, announcement of the name change was Thursday. Using “Chelsea” in both would elevate the gender issue above the whistleblowing issue, since I’d have to explain it before readers would know who Chelsea Manning was. (The headline uses the gender-neutral “Private Manning”.) In the future, I will assume my readers know who “Chelsea Manning” refers to.


  • By The Yearly Sift: 2013 | The Weekly Sift on December 30, 2013 at 12:53 pm

    […] most prescient statement: In August, when everyone else was saying a government shutdown would never happen because the Republicans had […]

  • […] In New Mexico, a photography business was successfully sued by a lesbian couple whose commitment ceremony (same-sex marriage being illegal in New Mexico) it refused to photograph. (I covered the ruling in a weekly summary last August.) […]

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