Category: Civil rights

Hey, Progressives! Watch the Language!

Today I return to one of my recurring themes. I’ve been saying this for years. In political confrontations with conservatives, we progressives (aka liberals) consistently concede the other side too much of the argument credibility by defaulting on the labels.

Labels as political shorthand are not going away. Unless we learn to master them the way the other side has, we’re destined to start out with a language deficit on important issues. This has been particularly evident in the culture wars battles over a woman’s reproductive rights.

pro-choiceFrom the beginning, those who would deny a woman the right to determine whether and how to give birth have called themselves “pro-life.” Meanwhile, progressives have been for the most part unwilling to clearly differentiate ourselves as “pro-choice”. Instead, we find ourselves being labeled “pro-abortion”, “anti-life”, and “abortion rights supporters,” which seems to be the latest label being used by journalists like Dana Milbank who are supporters of pro-choice. I do not know of a single pro-choice person who would accept or embody any of those labels. It’s not the right to abortion — and by implication, in the conservatives’ minds, abortions themselves — for which we stand, but the woman’s right to choose whether to have an abortion.

If those who are anti-choice (the only proper label for their perspective on this issue) were truly pro-life, they would oppose capital punishment and they’d be concerned with what happens to newborns, infants, toddlers and children. But these are consistently the very same people who support the death penalty and oppose childhood health programs as well as early childhood education and other government-funded activities designed to enable children and young people to live healthy, productive lives.

They hide behind a completely bogus label in a futile effort to disguise themselves as “pro” anything. They are, in fact, anti-government. Except, of course, when it comes to inviting that same government into the most private aspects of their lives to intrude where there’s no room for anyone other than the prospective mother, her doctor and her God.


Religious Freedom “Restoration” is Just Code for Bigotry. Period.

The mini-tidal wave of legislation dating back to an ill-advised Federal law passed during the Clinton Administration under the guise of “Religious Freedom Restoration” is making a lot of headlines today because of Indiana’s passage of its own version of the law. As several other states have attempted — and some succeeded — in passing similar laws over the past few years, minor tempests have also brewed in local teapots. Never mind that the Federal law governor after governor has cited as precedent for their actions was found unconstitutional as applied to states and state law in 1997 by the Supreme Court. That’s just a minor annoyance.

RFRA-Love-one-anotherAs is so often the case with extremist viewpoints when their supporters try to get mainstream America to support their outlandish views, the very title of this legislation is directly misleading. Religious freedom in this country has not been diminished, abolished or otherwise found itself in need of any restoration. Those who support these laws do so out of either ignorance, ill-considered belief in the truth of ardent backers or deliberate obfuscation intending to hide simple bigotry.

There is absolutely no difference between the government actions these hard-right conservatives who have pre-empted the once good name of Christianity to their own nefarious purposes claim to object to, and the “freedom” to discriminate on the basis of race. In fact, one consequence of these un-American laws could well be to provide legal cover to racial discrimination while broadening the legitimacy of bigotry to include other kinds of behaviors and beliefs which, while perfectly legal in their own right, somehow offend prejudiced religious fanatics of many stripes.

Under these laws, nobody can be “compelled” to comply with a law that interferes with the reasonable pursuit of their deeply held religious belief.

Does this mean that a Muslim storekeeper can refuse service to any woman appearing in public with her head uncovered? How about an atheist restaurant banning anyone wearing apparel or jewelry supporting a particular religious cause? If one’s “deeply held” religious belief opposes government imposition of vaccination laws, can I demand to see everyone’s shot records as proof that they haven’t succumbed to government overreach?

These may seem silly or trivial to you but I promise you that somewhere in America there is a business owner who has exactly those feelings and would be overjoyed at being able to enforce his or her beliefs on the public by discriminating in public accommodations. Which is why we have a Civil Rights Act in this country.

Those who would “restore” religious freedom by allowing faith-based behavior to be imposed on others act directly counter to the democratic society and system they hide behind while invoking their right to be bigoted.


Charlie Hebdo, Satire, Religion and the Banning of Books

The recent attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a bitingly satirical French magazine, and the slaying of a number of its cartoonists and editors drew worldwide attention. The attack was carried out by terrorists hiding behind the Quran who objected to the magazine’s use of drawn images of the Prophet Mohammed. While there is no question many of the images the magazine published of the Islamic Prophet and Founder were intentionally insulting, the deeper question raised by conservative Muslims is whether all depictions of the Prophet are to be prohibited.

That is apparently not necessarily found in the Quran; the teaching relies on Hadith, a collection of stories about the Prophet’s life and teachings assembled during the first century or so after his death. And while Islam teaches that the Hadith are subordinate to the Quran, many Muslims, particularly those of a radical persuasion, have elevated Hadith to a level equal or nearly equal to that of the Quran. (See this good piece from the BBC on this subject.)

In the broader social context, the issue here is censorship, specifically a form of censorship called “prior restraint.” And while the term is generally limited in legal terms to rules and laws imposed by a government on a society, censorship of the more informal kind is no less real. So in some circles the argument surrounding Charlie Hebdo’s publication of images of Mohammed centers on whether it was inappropriate and insensitive for the magazine to do so in light of Muslim sensibilities.

Part of the reason it is difficult for us in the United States to identify with those who oppose the magazine’s right to print content that is insulting to another person’s religion is that we don’t have such a prohibition. In our country, freedom of speech and of the press is nearly absolute. So when Pope Francis opined that, ““You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others,” New  York Times columnist Timothy Egan begged to differ. “In fact, you can. Maybe you shouldn’t. Maybe such provocations are in poor taste, or degrading. Yet an enlightened society should be able to take the punch of satire and ridicule, even coarse satire and savage ridicule.” As Egan continued, “A faith that cannot withstand ridicule is no faith at all. And a faith that cannot laugh at itself is a faith that defies human nature.”

But we Americans are holier-than-thou when it comes to the freedoms we’ve enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Unless, of course, their exercise results in Power being offended. We are a country that has, over the centuries, banned some great literature on the grounds that it offended the pure eyes and ears of our more conservative people. And although much of this censorship took place during historic periods, it is worth noting that James Joyce’s Ulysses, e.g., was barred from the United States as obscene for 15 years, and was seized by U.S Postal Authorities in 1918 and 1930. The lifting of the ban in 1933 came only after advocates fought for the right to publish the book. Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders was published in 1749 but until 1966, its legal status as uncensored was unclear in the United States! That year, the U.S. Supreme Court had to declare its censorship to be unconstitutional.

So where does all this take me? Censorship is and always has been more of a social issue than a legal one. Sex is very often at the root of attempts in this country to censor or challenge books and most censorship in recent years has taken place quietly at a local level where librarians and school boards and teachers have been urged to remove books from reading lists and bookshelves because one or another minority of parents or citizens was offended. So perhaps before we are too quick to judge the condemnation of many conservative Muslims of allowing images of their Prophet to be displayed, we should think about the sensibilities Americans show with respect to the display of books and other artifacts that offend someone.

In recent decades, we Americans have become more sensitive to what we brand as “hate speech.” There are even laws against it which make speaking your opinion on many subjects illegal. I’m not condemning such laws, but we seem hypocritical when we question other nations’ right to pre-censor certain kinds of publication or speaking when their basic goal is to protect people from offensive encounters in the public arena.

The violence must be condemned. Its perpetrators must be pursued. But the attack on Charlie Hebdo must be viewed in the broader social context of offensive speech and in the social milieu in which it occurred. France has laws against speech which offends people based on their religion. That very un-America shouldn’t be surprising; France (and several other European nations)  has a law punishing people who deny the Holocaust. Tolerance is relative.

Pot Legalization in CO Makes Everything…Better!

When Colorado voters legalized the sale of marijuana for recreational use as of last January, the doomsayers lined up to predict the dire consequences of such rampant immorality.

Fictional warning: Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper said the number of children using drugs would increase.

Actual fact: Colorado teens reported a two percent decrease in pot smoking according to the last reporting period.

Fictional warning: Former attorney general Edwin Meese and Charles Stimson argued violent crime would surge.

Actual fact: Total ‘Part 1′ crimes in Denver (Homicide, sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, auto theft, and arson) decreased 7.9 percent through November 30, 2014, compared to the same period in 2013.

Fictional warning: Kevin Sabet, a former senior White House drug policy adviser, warned of high addiction rates, spikes in traffic accidents.

Actual fact: Colorado roadway deaths dropped by 25 percent in 2014 compared to 2013, the Washington Post reported.

(The above data is taken from a post on the SFGate blog today.)


When Any Felony Can Become a Capital Crime, Something is Wrong

I don’t have any idea whom to believe or what actually went wrong in those fatal moments on August 9 in Ferguson, MO, when a police officer shot and killed an 18-year-old man who did not have a conventional weapon. Last night, a grand jury declined to indict the officer, Darren Wilson, for the death of Mike Brown. There was a lot about the case that was, shall we say, unusual.

But what I want to focus on is the law in Missouri that enabled those grand jurors to find no reason to take the charges to a trial, which was all they were asked to judge. Not whether Wilson acted unreasonably or illegally, just whether there was sufficient reason to think he might have to warrant having a full, public trial on the issue. An old legal saw holds that a DA can get an indictment against a ham sandwich. The fact that the county DA in this case couldn’t get an indictment says plainly that he didn’t want to get one. Instead of using the grand jury to determine whether there was probable cause that needed to be determined in a trial, the DA dumped all of his evidence on the grand jury and then asked them to determine what, if any, charge should be brought against the officer.

And reports that are now filtering out of those deliberations seem to focus on one thing. Prior to the fatal shooting, there were several witnesses who saw Wilson and Brown struggling while the officer was in the car and Brown was outside. They were apparently (or at least possibly) struggling over the officer’s weapon.

That tussle, in which the officer said he felt his life was in danger, gave the grand jury legal cover to decline to indict the policeman. Under MIssouri law, “officers can act with deadly force when they believe it is necessary to arrest a person who has committed a felony.” Read that sentence again. All that is required for a policeman in Missouri to become judge, jury and executioner — often (though not in this case) in a split second — is a “belief” that the person they are about to kill has committed any felony. Are you kidding me?

By all accounts, this is an unusual law. Most states require that the officer believe his life is in imminent danger. In this case, the officer said Brown matched the description of a shoplifter who had stolen a pack of cigarillos from a convenience store. I assume that’s not a felony.

But the bigger issue here is that this law has the potential to turn any felony — or suspected felonious conduct — into a capital crime. In effect, what it does is make it a capital offense to refuse to heed an order from a police officer. Legitimizing such behavior on the part of a police officer is a key ingredient in creating a police state. And we are certainly drawing ever closer to that reality.

There must be realistic limits on police conduct so that the potential consequences of committing a crime suit themselves to the seriousness and nature of the criminal act. Stealing a pack of cigarillos shouldn’t be a capital offense. Neither should hitting a police offer and then leaving. There is time and capability for retribution short of death after such an incident.

Obama Can Still Salvage His Presidency: His Top Priorities for Me…

…are, in order of importance:

  • global climate change
  • criminal justice reform
  • immigration reform

Global Climate Change

I am greatly encouraged by what I’ve seen and heard lately from the Obama Administration on global climate change. Several people inside his White House have indicated that he has settled on this as his signature issue, the thing he must get done in the final two years of his Presidency. Not that they care, but I agree.

Humanity is in peril. I know that sounds extremist. I know that most people disagree or have no opinion. Most people are wrong. The science is there. The math cannot be argued. The trend lines are all wrong. We are headed for catastrophe. We have already gone too far to avert it; all we can do now is minimize the damage from it. If everyone in America read Greg Craven’s book, What’s the Worst That Could Happen? A Rational Response to the Climate Change Debate, we could end the discussion and proceed to addressing the problem. He demonstrates with absolutely unarguable logic that the cost of doing nothing is far too enormous a risk to take.

But conservatives keep bringing out the same old short-term and short-sighted arguments. Climate reform, they say, will cost jobs, interfere with America’s global competitiveness, and hurt the economy. Those are opinions, not facts. But let’s grant for the moment — and only for the moment — that they are right. Global climate change must still be stopped. Because it is not a short-term problem, it is harder for people to grasp its significance. But what we are doing to the planet today will affect our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren. When faced with a chance to do something about a huge, long-term peril, a true leader sacrifices near-term goals as short-sighted thinking.

“President Obama has made no secret that his climate crusade will proceed irrespective of what the American people want or what other global leaders caution,” said Laura Sheehan of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, which represents the coal industry. And so it should! What the American people want cannot be paramount, not now, not in the face of this impending crisis for the entire planet. We don’t get to cast the only vote.

Affordable energy, jobs, and freedom from regulation are all short-term and short-sighted goals that ignore the reality that the human race is in peril. It is at times like these that true leadership emerges. To refuse to do the popular thing, the easy thing, to pursue the path of least resistance in the face of enormous obstacles is to pursue doomed policy. What will it matter if unemployment ticks up another point or two — and 50 years from now everyone is in peril? This is Big Picture Time and only a “lame duck” President willing to risk the judgment of history and with a vision big enough to ignore the near term politics is suited to it.

But it will take courage and stubbornness and a willingness to be attacked repeatedly, possibly even impeached. “Yet even some of Obama’s existing steps could well be repealed by ascendant Republicans in Congress, who also have plans to stop the president from going any further,” according to this AP story today. “Republicans are finding common cause with many Democrats in trying to force Obama to approve Keystone XL, a proposed pipeline that would carry tar sands oil from Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast. And with the GOP set to take over the Senate in January, Republicans are already pursuing a concerted effort to gut his Environmental Protection Agency’s rules on power plants….”

Renewable fuels must be the cornerstone. It’s not enough to reduce pollution and reliance on carbon-based fuels because our economy still needs energy to be sustainable. What has to change is the kind of energy we produce and use. Conservatives don’t seem able to imagine a country in which many if not most of the jobs being shed by an industry that is literally a dinosaur can be replaced by jobs producing the next century’s energy. This is not policy, it is short-term politics.

I hope — and fervently pray — that President Obama will have the courage and the vision to see this through to the maximum extent he can in the face of withering blind opposition stuck in the next election cycle.

 Criminal Justice Reform

I rank this ahead of immigration reform for three reasons:

First, it affects a far greater number of people.

Second, there appears to be somewhat broad bipartisan support for it.

Third, it is a much more complex problem that requires a clear-headed thinker and while I’ve not always agreed with Obama nor considered him clear-headed, he seems likely to be more clear-headed than anyone from either major political party I see as viable candidates in 2016. Thus, I think immigration reform is more likely to get done in 2-3 years.

Immigration reform is the smarter political choice. Many of those who would be affected by criminal justice reform can’t vote. Of those that can, perhaps most are not Democrats. And I am not discounting the impact of a proper immigration policy on the 11 million undocumented workers in America. But the criminal justice system is out of control and it’s going to take a major shift in thinking to bring about the needed reforms.

Katrina vanden Heuvel took a close look at this issue in the Washington Post today. Here is her succinct summary of the problem’s components.

During the past four decades, the U.S. prison population has quadrupled even as the crime rate has dropped. We have some 2.4 million people behind bars, far more than any other country, costing about $80 billion a year to maintain. Worse yet, as result of racial disparities in sentencing, more than half of U.S. prisoners are minorities. These staggering statistics stem from the failure of the “war on drugs,” the true impact of which can only be measured in destroyed lives and devastated communities, especially among the most marginalized segments of society.

If you multiply 2.4 million behind bars by an average of eight people in their families who are also dramatically affected, this is a 20-million person problem. And that’s just the prison part of the issue, which has far more tentacles than that one.

There are strong appeals to both conservatives (fiscal impact and moral obligation) and progressives (who see it as a racial justice issue). Already two major bills have been introduced in the Senate with plenty of bipartisan (or what vanden Heuvel calls “transpartisan”) support.

But she also says that getting any legislation passed in 2015 is going to be tough sledding. Not because of a lack of support but because of conflicting and overcrowded agendas between the parties and inevitably between Congress and the White House.

This is a place where Obama can use his bully pulpit to influence some key votes and perhaps get something meaningful, if not comprehensive, done.

Immigration Reform

The framework is already in place for the President to use his Executive powers — which Republicans, who are now predictably howling about his “abuse of power” demanded for their guy when he sat on the throne — to accomplish important work here. I presume he will soon implement that set of policies and the debates and threats and arguments and irrationality will already have begun in a small number of days.

Beyond those reforms, however, Obama still must find more that he can convince a semi-reluctant Congress to do in this important area. His proposed actions, from what we know so far at least, only affect about 5 million undocumented workers, mostly those who are parents of kids who already have citizenship or where brought here too young to be subject to deportation under any sane and humane policy.

We still need a comprehensive immigration policy shift across the board. It must be aimed at striking a balance that neither overburdens our economy and political system nor unnecessarily rejects those who seek an improved life and can contribute to our success as a nation. This is a major tightrope walk and only a lame duck President with no fear of political consequences can lead the walk across it.

I Feel Sad for Eric Kennie…and for Texas

It takes something to get me to feel much emotion (other than righteous indignation) for the State of Texas. But the story in today’s Guardian about Eric Kennie, who won’t be able to vote in next week’s mid-term elections for the first time in his 45 years as a dyed-in-the-wool Texan, evoked some sadness mixed with just a touch of anger.

The stringent new voter ID law in Texas has disenfranchised an estimated 600,000 registered voters, most of whom are people of color and/or of lower economic status. In other words, likely Democratic voters. Kennie is one of them.

voter-id-lawThe saga told by chief US Guardian reporter Ed Pilkington is heart- and gut-wrenching. Those who support disenfranchisement laws like that adopted in Texas (and, incredibly, allowed by the U.S. Supreme Court to be in effect for this election) always tell us, “These are no big deal. We have a special ID card you can get for little or no cost so you can vote.” Kennie’s saga of attempting to obtain such a card is a tale of incredible persistence in the face of a heartless, mindless bureaucracy intent on one thing: preventing voter fraud. Right. Actually, as Pilkington points out, Texas is “a state where in the past 10 years some 20m votes have been cast, yet only two cases of voter impersonation have been prosecuted to conviction.” To protect the citizens of Texas from having their vote stolen — stolen, I tell you! — by impersonators, 600,000 people will be barred from voting at all.

And that ultimately makes me sad for Texas. Because it is keeping itself stuck in the 19th Century when one race, one culture, one people, suppressed those who were different. Without the rich fabric of multi-culturalism and populism that makes America the great nation that it once was and still can be, we are left in an echo chamber where no real progress can be made on the important issues of our day.

Austin, where Kennie lives, is a truly cosmopolitan city. It is one of my favorite cities in the country. A few years ago I had a chance to spend some time there and get to know some of its denizens, including my good friend and then business partner Chipp Walters. Chipp and I disagree about almost everything political, but we both like Austin (he far more than me, of course). But Austin is an oasis, an intellectual melting pot in a state that is trying desperately to hold back the tide of multi-culturalism that is sweeping our nation.

Eventually, the recalcitrant and conservative Texans will lose. The Hispanics and the blacks, the poor and the middle class, will rise to power by sheer dint of numbers. Those states which have accepted and embraced and facilitate this change will continue to grow and prosper while states like Texas, Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida (among others) will remain stuck in the backward days, wondering why their children are poorly educated, their population unhealthy, industries abandoning them (a not-yet-visible trend that must follow the lack of an educated work force). They will then be looking for a Federal handout which, by then, it may not be possible to offer thanks to the intervening years during which these myopic governments closed their eyes, put their fingers in their ears and yelled “no, no, no” at the world.

I hope Kennie is alive to see that day and to vote real representative government into power in Texas. Until then, all I can feel is sad.

News Flash: Pope Infallible When Supported by Two-Thirds of Bishops!

I’m not a Catholic but I have studied church history and fundamental Christian theology more extensively than most non-academics. So I was surprised today when the special Synod on the Family called by Pope Francis refused to grant him the two-thirds supermajority he needed to get his specified language on gay rights and unmarried Catholic couples living together into a final document.

pope_francis_wavingI have always been under the impression that the Pope is infallible in matters of doctrine. Yet this document was clearly described as an attempt to “restate Church doctrine” on a number of family-related issues. So in my apparent naivete, I expected the Pope would simply announce, in an encyclical, the new doctrine, and, voila!, the church’s official belief would change In my lifetime, I know Popes have used that power (for example on the whole fish-on-Friday thing).

But because the revised document — even with some very watered-down language on gays that supplanted what the Pope really wanted — could only muster 118 of the required 127 votes to adopt the document, the Roman Catholic Church continues operating out of 16th Century ignorance on topics of increasing importance to its followers.

Little wonder that the Church continues to fade in its influence. The most recent Pew Research polling found that just over 1/4 of self-identified Catholics considered themselves “strong” supporters of Church doctrine.

Military Offers Pathetic Excuse for Not Deposing Gitmo Officers

The United States military has asked a Federal judge to deny a petitioner’s demand that three former senior officers at Guantanamo be excused from sitting for depositions in D.C. because:

“should not be compelled to leave their active posts for depositions,” because “Military discipline and morale surely would be eroded by the spectacle of high-ranking military officials being haled into our own courts to defend against our enemies’ legal challenges, which might leave subordinate personnel questioning the authority by which they are being commanded and further encumber the military’s ability to act decisively.”

Huh? You have got to be kidding me! How in hell could subordinates question the authority by which they are being commanded because their boss has to fulfill his Constitutionally mandated legal obligation to testify at a hearing? Are these idiots claiming that to expect military commanders to travel to D.C. (or anywhere else) to be deposed somehow brings into question their authority? In what universe?

Furthermore, if their commanders have done something in their tours at Gitmo to warrant a question about their authority, isn’t discovering that a good side effect?


Jim Hightower Backs 28th Amendment as Movement Gathers Momentum. Please Join Us!

Populist columnist and all-around champion of progressive causes Jim HIghtower published a single-issue newsletter today backing the growing grass-roots movement to enact a Constitutional amendment barring corporations from personhood and redefining money as not being speech.

The movement — of which I’m a part through my involvement with MoveToAmend — proposes a two-clause 28th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Here’s the text of the amendment as proposed:

House Joint Resolution 29 introduced February 14, 2013
Section 1. [Artificial Entities Such as Corporations Do Not Have Constitutional Rights]
The rights protected by the Constitution of the United States are the rights of natural persons only.
Artificial entities established by the laws of any State, the United States, or any foreign state shall have no rights under this Constitution and are subject to regulation by the People, through Federal, State, or local law.

The privileges of artificial entities shall be determined by the People, through Federal, State, or local law, and shall not be construed to be inherent or inalienable.
Section 2. [Money is Not Free Speech]
Federal, State, and local government shall regulate, limit, or prohibit contributions and expenditures, including a candidate’s own contributions and expenditures, to ensure that all citizens, regardless of their economic status, have access to the political process, and that no person gains, as a result of their money, substantially more access or ability to influence in any way the election of any candidate for public office or any ballot measure.

Federal, State, and local government shall require that any permissible contributions and expenditures be publicly disclosed.

The judiciary shall not construe the spending of money to influence elections to be speech under the First Amendment.

In our present circumstances, the Constitutional amendment route is really the only open avenue to reforming a badly out of control government. Mere legislation — even assuming it could pass a House of Representatives hell-bent on making government irrelevant and non-functional — would simply be struck down by a Corporatist majority on the Supreme Court. To be sure, an amendment is a tough hill to climb. There are no fewer than seven different Constitutional amendment proposals on the legislative agenda in Washington. The Senate is expected to vote on some form of this law before the year is out. I think it’s important that the language above — or something substantially like it — be adopted. Some of the other proposals don’t go far enough or are vaguely worded, presenting the Supremes with yet another opportunity to legislate from the bench in their corporate owners’ interests.

Sixteen state governments have already sent petitions to Washington asking for an amendment to accomplish what the MTA proposal would. That’s almost half of the 34 that will be required to get the issue enacted. Here are those states and the dates of passage of their petitions:

Hawaii, April 2010; New Jersey, Oct. 2012; New Mexico, Jan. 2012; Montana, Nov. 2012; Vermont, April 2012; Colorado, Nov. 2012; Maryland, April 2012; West Virginia, April 2013; Rhode Island, May 2012; Maine, April 2013; California, July 2012; Illinois, May 2013; Massachusetts, July 2012; Delaware, June 2013;Connecticut, Sept. 2012; Oregon, July 2013

If your state isn’t on that list, I urge you to join MTA, get active in this movement, and overrule a corporatist Supreme Court by the will of We the People. There’s no time like Independence Day to re-declare our freedom from tyranny.