Nelson Mandela at 95

Nelson MandelaThe great French Baroque painter Hyacinthe Rigaud was born on this day in 1659. He is one of the best painters of that era. You really should check him out. The anti-Hegel, philosopher Immanuel Hermann Fichte was born in 1796. See if you don’t think he looked a lot like Denholm Elliott. The great satirical novelist and write of Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray was born in 1811. The great physicist Hendrik Lorentz was born in 1853. Gangster Machine Gun Kelly was born in 1895. He is notable because he lived to the ripe old age of 59. It helps to be caught. But just to show that in many ways, the universe evens out, the same year Kelly was born, so was one of the 20th century’s greatest ballerinas, Olga Spessivtseva. There is only one video of her dancing; it isn’t great, but it is worth watching:

The playwright Clifford Odets was born in 1906. He is perhaps best known for his first play, Waiting for Lefty. Overall, he’s known for his socially conscious Great Depression era plays. That was when a financial collapse actually caused the country to think about what had happened. Today, it is more like Sarah Palin said: it’s a hopey changey thing. The great theatrical producer and damned good actor Hume Cronyn was born in 1911. Comedian Red Skelton was born in 1913. His humor is far too broad for me now, but when I was a kid, I thought he was hysterical. In fact, I saw him when I was a kid and he was very much like this on stage:

The great historian of science Thomas Kuhn was born in 1922. Wildman Screamin’ Jay Hawkins was born in 1929. Here he is doing one of my very favorite songs:

And writer Hunter S. Thompson was born in 1937.

Astronaut John Glenn is 92 today. Reuben, Reuben director Robert Ellis Miller is 81. Kitschy science fiction film (e.g. Total Recall) director Paul Verhoeven is 75. Steve Forbes is having a birthday today, but who cares? Actor Elizabeth McGovern is 52. And actor Vin Diesel is 46.

The day, however, belongs to Nelson Mandela who is 95 today and apparently out of intensive care. What I find so remarkable about him is our perceptions of him. There is a good article on this in the current hard copy edition of The Nationas it applies to South Africa. But it is important to remember that here in the west, he was loudly labeled a terrorist by those great defenders of freedom Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. But now, of course, he is the “good negro.” It is just the same old conservative idea: any man who demands his rights is a terrorist. Regardless, Mandela was never a terrorist. He was just a man who made the lives of the power elite harder. And that’s why he’s a great man.

Happy birthday Nelson Mandela!

Is Outrage at Rolling Stone Cover Racist?

Time: Monsters Next DoorI like checking out the MSNBC prime time lineup on the computer. As much as I like Chris Hayes, Rachel Maddow, and even Lawrence O’Donnell, I find that I can miss vast swaths of their programs without being deprived of any insights or entertainment. And so it was as I skimmed through The Last Word. There was a segment on the controversial new Rolling Stone cover with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, so I clicked in for a listen. It annoyed me almost from the first word. O’Donnell’s smug conventional wisdom can often be overpowering, and that was fulling on display. So I skipped ahead several times, never having to wait more than a couple of seconds before he said something else that I thought was stupid or irrelevant.

I was thinking back to the year after 9/11 when Time‘s Person of the Year was… Rudy Giuliani. I was talking to my sister-in-law and I remarked at how ridiculous that was. Traditionally, the Person of the Year was not necessarily a good guy. Clearly, Osama Bin Laden should have been given the award, not Giuliani. She said if they had done that, she would have canceled her subscription. Well, what do you expect from someone who subscribes to Time? Still, it struck me then and now as a very childish reaction. Can’t we admit that a man is bad and important? What did Giuliani do other than somehow demonstrate to the world how to act after 9/11?[1]

I feel the same way about all the outrage over the Rolling Stone cover. And really, I think this is all forced outrage. You have to be determined to be outraged in this case. The whole point of the article is to show that just a regular kid—just like dozens of other kids you know—can turn quickly into a homicidal fanatic who holds his ideology above the lives of fellow human beings. He is not insane. He has no horns. This young man’s sweet face is what evil looks like. That is an entirely reasonable argument to make and the cover does that.

What’s perhaps most amazing is that this is not a new idea. In 1999, Time put two attractive smiling teens on its cover: Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. They were the two Columbine shooters who were responsible for 13 murders. Yet there wasn’t much outrage over that cover. And I think we need to look at why that is. Mark Joseph Stern over at Slate thinks that the reason that one is acceptable and the other isn’t is because of the different way the two magazines are perceived. (But he agrees with me that the cover is effective.) That might be part of it, but it isn’t the core.

I think it’s fair to say that the outrage over the Rolling Stone cover is not about protecting the victims of the Boston bombing. It is about racism, pure and simple. It was fine to remember that something terrible must have gone wrong if these two white teens went on a murderous rampage. But we can brook no such questions about dirty foreigners with their anti-American religion. I don’t mean to suggest that everyone shouting about the cover is a racist. Outrage has a tendency to perpetuate itself. Once the whole thing got going, especially with a reasonable rationale (the understandable concern for the victims), it fed itself.

As a people, we are badly in need of greater education about why people do bad things. In general, it is not because they’re just bad to the bone. There are all kinds of things that affect how people behave. That, for the umpteenth time, does not justify the act or the actor. But we need to remember that all of this terrorism isn’t just about those funny looking people over there who hate us for our freedom. And we need to realize that we aren’t going to bomb away this problem. In other words: we need to be smart. And that means treating the Rolling Stone cover as more than a bit of outrage fodder.

[1] Here is the money quote from David Letterman, “And I just want to say one other thing about Mayor Giuliani: As this began, and if you were like me, and in many respects, God, I hope you’re not. But in this one small measure, if you’re like me, and you’re watching and you’re confused and depressed and irritated and angry and full of grief, and you don’t know how to behave and you’re not sure what to do and you don’t really… because we’ve never been through this before… all you had to do at any moment was watch the Mayor. Watch how this guy behaved. Watch how this guy conducted himself. Watch what this guy did. Listen to what this guy said. Rudolph Giuliani is the personification of courage.”

More Bad Bradley Manning News

Bradley ManningIn the trial of Bradley Manning, Judge Colonel Denise Lind has ruled that the most series charge of aiding the enemy cannot be dropped. She said, “He was knowingly providing intelligence to the enemy.” That statement shocks me on two levels. First, she seems to have already convicted him. Second, really?! If we are talking about Osama Bin Laden, then this is clearly not true. If we are talking about the press, then okay. In modern America, the government has defined its enemies so broadly and the concept of damage so vast that no one can say anything without risking indictment.

But the government apparently now knows that some of Manning’s leaked information was found on Bin Laden’s computer. When the government killed him, you were probably like me in thinking, “I’ll bet there is some good information that the government can use to fight terrorists.” But apparently not. There was good information there for the government to use to oppress its citizens. James Madison would be so proud!

In general, I’ve always seen military courts as little more than well catered drumhead court-martials. So I’ve never expected that Bradley Manning would get justice. The only question in my mind is whether he will die in prison. Judge Lind’s ruling is yet another step in that eventuality. There is still some hope, but I’m not optimistic.

The fundamental problem with the military is that it stands against everything that is supposed to make America great: our individual spirit. I’ve increasingly found the Nuremberg trials hard to accept. Certainly, I strongly believe that it is no excuse to say, “I was just following orders.” But there is a bait and switch that has gone on—a clear demonstration that the winners write the history. What we are told is that one should push against authority if that authority will go on to lose. But here in the United States where our military is as big as the next 11 countries combined, one should always follow orders. If you try to shed some light on the misbehavior of our government, we will hunt you down to the end of the earth. And as in Manning’s case: we will deprive you of basic human rights and charge you with outrageous offenses.

I hate to say this, but it’s true. The only way one can be really proud of this country right now is to live in delusion. The more you know, the worse it is. Whether for our own citizens or others, we don’t stand for what is right. Like all countries that get big enough, we stand for might. And God help those who forget that.

Update (20 July 2013 1:32 pm)

I have not seen any information indicating that leaked documents were found on Bin Laden’s computer. The case the government is making is weaker even than that. The idea is that if Manning leaked any information that Bin Laden might have found interesting, then Manning is a traitor. I’ll keep you updated.

The Real IRS Scandal

Scandal?!Michael Tomasky wrote a good summary of the recent news about the IRS non-scandal at The Daily Beast, The Nature of the Beast: the Breathless Press and the Phony IRS “Scandal.” (What is wrong with editors? It wasn’t necessary to put scare quotes around “scandal” when “phony” precedes it.) Like most liberal commentators, he still focuses too much on how this “scandal” (see what I did?) had nothing to do with the White House. To me, that question was settled a long time ago: at the beginning since there was never any evidence that what the IRS was doing was led by the White House. Actually, there was lots of evidence that is wasn’t. I’m more interested in the fact that this isn’t even a scandal in terms of the IRS targeting conservative groups. And Tomasky provides lots of details about that.

But there does seem to be a scandal here. It looks as though the Treasury Department inspector general Russell George politicized his report. What he delivered to Darrell Issa was exactly what the conservative propagandists were looking for: something that said that the IRS (conservatives’ most hated institution) were targeting conservative groups. There were no liberal groups targeted. And all those Obama sycophants at the IRS may not have been taking orders from the White House, but they knew what needed to be done. That’s how Obama won re-election, because as all conservatives know, Obama is hated by the “real” America. The only way he won was by the IRS efforts to stopping Tea Party groups and ACORN (which of course was long out of business) efforts to commit voter fraud.

I don’t even think that George and Issa are being disingenuous. True believing conservatives just know that the Democratic Party must be even more corrupt than the Republican Party. And if that were true, it would indeed make the Democrats very corrupt. This is what comes of creating a whole insular conservative media where no mainstream facts can penetrate. The whole question of truth becomes an exercise in mythology. “Liberals have horns, or so I’ve heard from other conservatives who claim to have talked to people who have seen them.” But one would expect better from an inspector general and a sitting Representative.

There are three specific issues about George’s report. First, he did not report an analysis of 5,500 IRS email messages that showed that there was no indication that the behavior was politically motivated. Second, George claimed that “progressive” and “occupy” were never used to flag groups the way that “tea party” was. That is simply untrue. And third, none of the witnesses have done anything but push back against George’s report.

Russell George is set to talk to Issa’s committee today. But this time, it is the Democrats who are on the offensive. It will be interesting to see what he has to say. I expect him to give some variation on, “The preponderance of the evidence was blah, blah, blah.” Not that it will matter. The Republicans have gotten everything out of this scandal they can. The media has been really helpful in pushing the idea that the Democratic Party, the White House, and the IRS are corrupt institutions. At best, there may be a short story on the nightly news about how it turns out that the IRS did nothing wrong and there was nothing political going on. But even that is unlikely. “There was nothing to the story we hyped for a couple of months” is not a compelling headline. And here is a Ted Cruz ad that is running right now on television:

It makes me wonder: will the mainstream press ever see through the continual parade of false scandals by the Republican Party? I know one thing: they will not stop until the Democratic Party stops falling for this right wing propaganda. When the story first broke, I wrote, Obama Wimps Out on IRS Scandal. I was (And still am!) mad about the firing of acting IRS chief Steven T. Miller for nothing other than the fact that Republicans were claiming something had happened. It was Shirley Sherrod all over again. The administration can’t take even a tiny bit of political heat; they just fire people before any of the facts come in. And that is what is truly messed up in American politics. A two party system doesn’t work when one of those parties is all backbone (that is: no higher brain function) and the other is none.


Note that Ted Cruz in his “abolish the IRS” commercial is pushing the flat tax. I’ve had countless conversations with conservatives about this. They really like the idea of a flat tax. But they begin to dislike it when I explain to them how their taxes will go way up. Of course, the information never sticks; conservatives are very much like EPROMs: you can program them with correct information, but Fox News comes on, erases the programming and puts incorrect information back on. But really, this isn’t difficult. How do people think that there can be a major overhaul of the tax code that is going to lower everyone’s taxes? And why do they think that the rich are so keen on the flat tax? It isn’t because they mind paying accountants to do their taxes. It is that they would pay less—generally far less. The most honest flat tax proposal was by half billionaire Steve Forbes who offered a 17% tax. Do you now pay 17% in federal income taxes off your gross income? If not, your taxes are going up. But the wealthy? Their taxes would go down. His tax would be 0% on all capital gains and other unearned income. So if you earn your money, you are taxed, but if you just live off daddy’s trust fund, you are not. Fairness!

Filibuster Reform Unstable

FilibusterSomething has been bothering me since Tuesday. Richard Cordray was allowed to go to a vote because a number of Republicans voted in favor of cloture. So it wasn’t that Cordray wasn’t filibustered, it was just that the Senate voted to end the filibuster. But that had been going on since before the recent deal to avert the nuclear option, so that doesn’t too much matter. Then yesterday, the Senate held another cloture vote on Fred Hochberg, which also got the necessary votes to move on. But it’s still a filibuster, right?

Finally, I got confirmation from the grand wizard of everything filibuster, Jonathan Bernstein, Why the Senate Deal Is Worse Than They Should Do. This is more than just a technicality. The Republicans are still using the filibuster—just not to stop nominations. Instead, they are using it to slow nominations down and eat up the time that the Senate has to deal with other issues. So Tuesday’s deal is not at all that the Republicans will stop their de rigueur filibustering of every executive branch nominee. It is just that they promise not to do it for too long.

Bernstein thinks the current situation is unstable. It requires a constant stream of Republicans to “cross over to the dark side” and vote for cloture. A better idea would be to get Republicans to vote once to change the rules of the Senate to forbid executive branch nominations. The real reason that everyone is so hysterical about the so called nuclear option is not the fact of changing the Senate rules; it is changing them with a simple majority vote. Now I don’t mind that for a couple of reasons. First, I think the filibuster is a bad thing. It adds a highly undemocratic element to an already undemocratic institution. Second, I am certain that the Republicans will use the nuclear option the moment it is to their advantage.

Rather than take all these “difficult” votes on a string of nominees, a few Republicans (6 now and most likely 5 in a couple of months) could just vote for the rule change and that would be that. Or at least that is Bernstein’s notion. But I think that the current Republican behavior shows why this isn’t going to happen. If they can’t stop the nominating process, at least they can slow it down. It is hard to just say, “No more parties!” It is a lot easier for a few Republicans to come in after the obstruction party has been going on for a while and say, “Time to wrap it up!” Bernstein notes that the Republicans would still be able to do their limited filibustering as they are now, it is just that it could be stopped by a simple majority vote. But who’s he kidding? All the Republicans would know why the Democrats had the power to stop their fun.

The current system is unstable. For one thing, it is not clear who the agreement is with. The Senators who vote for cloture seems to be ever changing. But even more so, the Republicans are already showing their tendency to push the extent of the agreement. Soon they will start balking at the slightest controversy in a nominee and they will eventually move to blocking all nominees again. In fact, Marco Rubio as of yesterday—One day after the deal!—called for a full filibuster of the Labor Secretary nominee Thomas Perez:

I’m not hopeful moving forward. Fool me once, twice, three times… After a while, I’m just an asshole.