Tag Archives: current affairs

Post-Post-Democracy America

Twenty-four hours and I’m changed. Not radically, and not necessarily in a more optimistic direction, but thoughts have settled and I’ve reached some conclusions, as well as realized additional concerns.

If the issue was purely freedom of expression, the court had no choice but to make the decision it did. The First Amendment is just that — the first. Prima. It’s the basis of all the other amendments and freedoms we enjoy. If one is going to shut down a corporation’s right to free speech, what about newspapers, which are also corporations? There’s no sensible way to draw the line.

All of this leads me to a deeper concern. The idea has crossed my mind before, but Citizens United is making it seem all the more relevant: our eighteenth-century constitution is not always ideally suited to the challenges of the twenty-first century.

One of the most famous, if not most eloquent, pleas for freedom of speech is Milton’s “Areopagitica,” yet that excellent example of persuasive writing is deeply flawed. I’m not simply referring to the narrow freedom of speech for which Milton argues: “Papists” are denied the right as if it were as natural as denying free speech to boulders. Instead, I’m referring to Milton’s contention that there was no censorship in classical times. He’s right, but what was there to censor? There was absolutely no means of mass communication in Socrates’ Athens: he was many centuries removed from a printing press. Thus, it is disingenuous of Milton to make a comparison between the age of Socrates and seventeenth-century England. Regarding communication and potential censorship, there are almost no similarities between the two ages. Specifically, there was virtually nothing to censor in classical Greece compared to Miltonian England.

Similarly, there are very few similarities between twenty-first century America and colonial America. Communication with the entire citizenry now is instantaneous; in the Framers’ day, it took days. There was nothing like the “too big to fail” corporations that exist today, and with the possible exception of some trading companies, multi-national corporations were nonexistent.

Had such things been the eighteenth-century reality, would the Framers have created the same constitution? Most probably not. And it might be a good thing that the internet and General Electric were not the reality: the Constitution is remarkable for its brevity, and I highly doubt modern politicians could match it, or even come close.

Still, that brevity is due in large measure to the relative simplicity of the times. Occasionally, I think it comes back to haunt us.

We have an option: the Framers were wise enough to see the need for an evolving document. We can pass new amendments but those are few and very far between. Peter Shane at the left-leaning Huffington Post has already created a first draft for just such an amendment:

Sec. 1. Notwithstanding any other provision of this Constitution, Congress may prohibit or otherwise regulate political contributions and expenditures by commercial, for-profit corporations for any federal office.

Sec. 2. Notwithstanding any other provision of this Constitution, States may prohibit or otherwise regulate political contributions and expenditures by commercial, for-profit corporations for any state or local office, or for any state or local referendum or initiative, within their jurisdiction, and may delegate such regulatory. (Huffington Post)

Amending the First doesn’t seem wise or even feasible. But what about a 14th-Amendment style definition of personhood? The Fourteenth Amendment was designed, in part, to overrule the Dred Scott decision of 1857. It sets forth the very broad conditions of citizenship:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Couldn’t we do something similar? After all, every contract in America begins by defining all the terms in the contract. Shouldn’t the Constitution have something similar?

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Post-Democracy America

It might be a little too early to begin carving the tombstone, but SCOTUS made a valiant, naive effort to destroy American democracy and prove everything George Carlin said about corporate America absolutely valid.

Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission might very well go down in history as the most significant change to American democracy since the ratification of the Constitution.

Elections will soon become a shower of cash and attack ads. Candidates will be unable to keep up with corporate spending, and in an act of self-defense (the name of a populist political party in Poland, ironically enough), campaign spending limits will disappear and an election, even more so than now, will be a question of capital.

How many Americans know about this decision? “Who won last night?” “What happened on Idol last night?” “Have you seen that new iPhone app?” These are the concerns of the average American; SCOTUS rulings generally go unnoticed by everyone but law school professors, academics, and attorneys. We pay attention to the tube, and while we might notice an increase in political ads, who is going to notice who is paying for those ads? Who is going to think critically about what the advertisement’s financial backer gains by our buying into that interpretation of this or that politician’s stance or legislative plan? Swift Boat showed how effective an ad campaign can be. We’re sure to see more of it — exponentially more.

The SCOTUS has sold us out, in short. Our voice is no longer heard because our fiscal contributions — and let’s face it: that’s what gets you heard today — are insignificant compared to Big Tobacco, Big Insurance, Big Unions, Big Everything.

Big Capitalism; Little Us.

It’s not just the outcome that’s disturbing: equally troubling is how this case played out.

The court elevated that case to a forum for striking down the entire ban on corporate spending and then rushed the process of hearing the case at breakneck speed. It gave lawyers a month to prepare briefs on an issue of enormous complexity, and it scheduled arguments during its vacation. (NYT Editorial)

There is hope for remediation: the legislature could require share holders to approve of a corporation’s political activities, for example. Whether that would that survive an inevitable challenge is a question I’m in no position to answer.

I do know that I haven’t felt this pessimistic about this country’s future in a very long time. Crony-capitalism and democracy went head to head: our democracy has one knee on the mat, and corporate America is sitting in a dark corner of the arena with a smug grin.

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Opportunity Lost

Not many people have a chance, a clear-cut chance, to be magnanimous. Obama had one today, and he blew it. By his own admission he doesn’t deserve the Nobel prize, yet he accepted it, leading to countless howls from the right and some raised eyebrows on the left.

He should have declined to accept it. There’s precedent: Lê Ðức Thọ was awarded the Peace Prize (along with Kissinger) in 1973, but he did not accept it, explaining that there was still no peace in his country. He’s the only person to decline it, and it shows a certain honesty that is rare.

Obama should have said, “I am humbled by the honor bestowed upon me. However, I feel I do not deserve it; therefore, I respectfully decline to accept the award.”

What could anyone, on the right or the left, have said about that? Amid the inevitable cries of “political posturing,” a reasonable person could only, however begrudgingly, admit that it was a magnanimous decision.

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Start the Presses!

How to keep dollars local in a global community? It’s not quite isolationism, but it’s a legitimate concern in these Made-in-China times. During the debate — such as there was — about Bush’s first stimulus plan, many joked that we were borrowing money from China to buy Chinese products. Now consumers are more interested in keeping the resources local, and communities are helping out:

A small but growing number of cash-strapped communities are printing their own money.

Borrowing from a Depression-era idea, they are aiming to help consumers make ends meet and support struggling local businesses. […]

About a dozen communities have local currencies, says Susan Witt, founder of BerkShares in the Berkshires region of western Massachusetts. She expects more to do it.

Under the BerkShares system, a buyer goes to one of 12 banks and pays $95 for $100 worth of BerkShares, which can be spent in 370 local businesses. Since its start in 2006, the system, the largest of its kind in the country, has circulated $2.3 million worth of BerkShares. In Detroit, three business owners are printing $4,500 worth of Detroit Cheers, which they are handing out to customers to spend in one of 12 shops.
(USATODAY.com)

A few thoughts — mostly questions — about this:

First, this shows how utterly arbitrary cash is. BerkShares or Cheers have value because people agree that they do. Dollars, Yen, and Euros, theoretically, work the same way; more people simply agree that they have value. They were willing to agree because currencies represented something tangible: gold, silver, or whatever. Of course the value of gold only arose — in pre-scientific communities — because people agreed it’s valuable.

This leads to the second question: what backs this money? Indeed, we could ask the same of most world currencies, especially the dollar. Does anything, or is it just a dollar surrogate? Is it just pegged to the dollar? If so, that leads to the final thought.

Third, why do they need to do this? Just to keep the cash in the community? Couldn’t they keep the dollars in the community as well — a well-orchestrated campaign to “Keep the Dollars Here” or some such? Would this be happening if the dollar were actually worth something?

Lastly, what of that 5%? Who covers it? Why are banks willing to sell $100 of BerkShares or Cheers or gls-dollars for $95? (This seems to be hinting at what actually backs these currencies.) Is this debt? Do they get something in return from the business that agree to use these local currencies?

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Juxtaposition

The two top stories that Google news is showing:

Seems Hugo could have taken some lessons from Vlad.

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Don’t Call Him Brother Romney

Interesting article on Romney’s Mormonism at “Get Religion”:

If you’ve not followed the decades-long theological debate between apologists for evangelical Protestantism and apologists for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, brace yourself. You’re probably in for an extended mass media discourse on those differences, at least until the primaries settle who will be the Republican nominee for president. Don’t call him Brother Romney just yet — GetReligion

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Interview

I was recently interviewed by the local paper. Another teacher had called the paper to recommend me for “Teacher of the Week” due to my Polska adventures, and voilà: a article in the paper after living in the city less than three months.

(A few mistakes here and there, but…)

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Yes, My Lord

Saudi King Abdullah visited Buckingham Palace, and he received a villainous welcome.

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Medicaid Cuts

From the Sacramento Bee

The Bush administration plans to stop reimbursing states for school-based Medicaid activities, including transporting disabled students, a move that would cost California schools more than $100 million a year.

Read the rest of the story.

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For Those With Any Doubts

Ahmadinejad is indeed a nut:

Not since the prime minister of the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada presented an address claiming that UFOs posed a mortal threat to the future of mankind has the United Nations been treated to such a bizarre spectacle.

Many people believe the greatest threat to world peace concerns Iran’s nuclear programme, so there was understandably great interest at this week’s general assembly in New York when the country’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, took the platform.

But instead of seeking to reassure delegates that Iran’s nuclear intentions were purely benign, Mr Ahmadinejad took advantage of his official visit to a country deemed – in the lexicon of the Iranian Revolution – “the Great Satan” to embark on a discourse about the wonders of the 12th Imam. (Will the 12th Imam cause war with Iran? – Telegraph)

It appears that he may be wanting war as much as any warmonger Christians — those hoping to hasten Jesus’ return — here in the States.

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PETA Suit (Taken Off)

I heard about this on NPR coming home the other day: Jury selection begins in animal cruelty trial of PETA activists. According to the article,

Jury selection began Monday in the trial of two animal rights activists charged with animal cruelty after they were discovered dumping dead animals in a trash bin.

Adria J. Hinkle, of Norfolk, Va., and Andrew B. Cook, of Virginia Beach, Va., are charged with 21 counts each of animal cruelty in addition to charges of littering and obtaining property by false pretenses. Both volunteered with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA.

PETA on the receiving end of an animal abuse case?

According to NPR, this is all just a big misunderstanding, the PETA defense team explains. This local PETA chapter had some kind of agreement with the shelter from which Hinkle and Cook were taking the animals. They were apparently supposed to be euthanizing animals, and the volunteers’ only mistake, PETA lawyers explain, was where they chose to leave the bodies.

There’s something more than a little odd about this. PETA, euthanizing animals? That sounds about like the NRA melting down illegal assault rifles.

I went to PETA’s web site this morning to see if I could find anything out about this odd ly ironic case. Instead, I got distracted by PETA’s State of the Union Undress (Warning: the video contains nudity). Apparently, PETA thinks if it has buxom volunteers undress while talking about animal rights, it will get a more attentive audience. One has to wonder what demographic the animal rights organization is targeting with such tactics, and whether said demographic will be receptive to PETA’s vegan animal rights position.

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State Sentence

We’ve all seen the picture of the hooded executioners putting the noose around Saddam’s neck. The International Herald Tribune and the New York Times ran it on their main pages, as did al Jazeera‘s English website. The Washington Post didn’t.

What struck me about the photo was the lack of officialness about everything.

  • The executioners are wearing street clothes.
  • The room looks relatively small, and suspiciously like a randomly chosen room in a building’s basement.
  • The executioners are wearing tattered ski masks.
  • Not only are the executioners not wearing uniforms; not a single uniform is visible anywhere.

Of course, it’s difficult to tell much of anything about the room itself with such a closely cropped photo.

Still, what immediately came to mind when I first saw this was the obvious similarity to all the beheading videos released from Iraq. It hardly looks like an official state action.

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Restrained Freedom Part II

I’m not sure what to make of this, except to say that, combined with the David Irving conviction earlier this week, freedom of speech in Europe is not all that it’s made out to be:

German court convicts man for insulting Islam

I wonder if he’d have been convicted — or even prosecuted — if he’d simply stated on a web site that he had made toilet paper with the word “Koran” printed on it, but in fact actually hadn’t.

But can you imagine what would have happened if he hadn’t been convicted?

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Malkin Reconsidered

Thud pointed out an interesting piece via email by August Pollak regarding Malkin’s “selective memory.” Several points taken.

But…there’s always one of those…

Pollak writes,

Are the cartoons freedom of speech? Well, yeah. Of course you have the right to print shitty, racist cartoons that serve no purpose but to inflame Arab sentiment and make racist right-wingers feel good about themselves.

“Inflame Arab sentiment?” It’s done a great deal more than that.

Yet I can be extremely angry and yet keep my urge for violence in check.

If I piss someone off and get hit, even if I deliberately tried to piss the person off, he’s still responsible for his actions. No matter what I said.

Self-control.

Same applies here.

Pollak accuses Malkin of being a racist. I don’t really follow Malkin’s commentary — scratch that. I don’t follow it at all. Maybe she is a racist. Maybe she isn’t. The “right-wing” part of the epithet is true enough.

Still, does that somehow disqualify what the pictures (which she’s simply assembled from various web sites) tell us about the reaction of a fairly significant portion of Muslims? Sure, the tag, “No, you go to hell,” is a little silly — but I do think the pictures speak for themselves. Am I saying _all_ Muslims are reacting irrationally violently? No — I am only privy to what the media presents to me.

Still, while purposely insulting someone is immoral, wanting to behead someone because of it is on quite another level.

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A First?

I’m not one who usually quotes Michelle Malkin, but there is something worth seeing on her site: “In Their Own Words.”

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Conversion

From “Capitalism Magazine:

Implied in the claim that images of Mohammed constitute blasphemy, is that anyone who creates such an image is guilty of blasphemy. What the Muslims are demanding is that non-Muslims accept that religious tenet. Thus, “respect” by non-Muslims of the tenet, at the price of surrendering the right to criticize Islam, means virtual conversion to Islam, a major step in the direction of actual conversion.

No emphasis added.

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Deadly Doodling II

So the Arab world is upset at “offensive” cartoons published in a Danish daily. They’ve been boycotting Danish products, burning Danish flags, and threatening to kill Danes abroad as well as bomb the offices of the newspaper in Denmark. It seems that instead of typing “PBUH — Peace Be Upon Him” every time after mentioning Muhammad, the newspaper made fun of the guy. In September.

Now other newspapers have come out in support of the Danish paper’s right to print anything, no matter how blasphemous, by reprinting the cartoons themselves. Provocative, to be sure, but not without reason, and making an excellent point. I’d like to see more newspapers do the same.

I understand the offense. Mixing sacred and profane, obliterating taboo — that’s nasty business for believers. Officially registering offense is an appropriate measure; boycotting is an appropriate measure — but threatening violence?

Most strikingly this shows that there is a real disconnect in the Muslim world about what democracy and freedom of speech is. This is highlighted by the calls from Islamic nations for the Danish president to punish the newspaper.

Government ministers from 17 Arab nations have asked the Danish government to punish the Jyllands-Posten newspaper for what they called an “offense to Islam.” (Washington Post)

It’s what they would do, and so it’s a logical request. But it’s not a request — it’s a demand, backed up with threats of death and mayhem.

What is really pathetically ironic about the situation is that the protests that “Islam is not a violent religion and this cartoon presents stereotypes that it is” are shown to be so empty by the behavior of so many Muslims around the world: bounties placed on the head of the cartoonists, calls for targeting Danish soldiers in Iraq. We are painting the Muslim world with broad strokes, they say, then express their desire to kill Danes who had nothing to do with the cartoons themselves, for clearly all Danes hate Islam.

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NYT on Bush Nomination

The New York Times says the following of Harriet Miers, Bush’s nomination for Supreme Court:

In choosing Ms. Miers as his nominee, Mr. Bush once again signaled the importance he places on personal loyalty and familiarity. Ms. Miers has served in a number of posts for the president, and at one point was his personal lawyer.

That’s a nice way of saying, “Bush’s primary method of chosing nominees depends -heavily- exclusively on cronyism to the point of ignoring
a complete lack of experience.”

Unfortunately, we’d have to live with Miers’ lack of experience a bit longer that we lived (and people in New Orleans died) with other appointees’ lack of experience, should she be confirmed.

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More on ID

Thud mentioned “the kind of ID that also rejects short-history ‘the world is 5000 years old’ creationism.” It’s been my sense lately that “ID” is an effort by more moderate believers to distance themselves from the more literal, fundamentalist reading of a six-thousand-year-old universe. Look at the

Catholic church’s official position: the Vatican holds that God created the universe, but it makes no claim as to how he did it. Very sensible, but too sensible for fundamentalists — who often are rabidly anti-Catholic as well.

The problem lies with the fact that creationists — and I mean the hard-core, 6k variety — take the issue very personally. I once stumbled onto a teen message board of a fundamentalist sect and jumped in on the question, “Do you believe in evolution?” I found that the kids’ initial reaction was always an emotional one. “I’m not descended from primal sludge!” was a common theme. While I fail to see how the origins of my species affect my personal worth and self-confidence, the thought of being able to trace the human race back to amoebas somehow offended their sense of personal dignity.

“Something that used to be sludge can’t possibly be a child of God,” they reason. “I am a child of God,” they continue, concluding with, “Therefore, I did not evolve from primordial soup.”

Not the most well-founded syllogism I’ve ever encountered, but these are emotions we’re dealing with, not reasonable, rational responses.

Accepting evolution is rejecting God. For them, it means rejecting the very bedrock of their lives: the Bible. It makes the Bible a liar, because the use of figurative language has largely escaped them as a possible interpretation. If “And the evening and the morning were the first day” (Genesis 1.5) can be interpreted figuratively, so can “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3.16). If the Bible got it wrong about biology, then what confidence can we have in it regarding salvation.

This black-and-white, either-or thinking permeates the fundamentalist world.

All we had to do was elect an evangelical president to see that.

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Tatical Nuclear Theater Ticket Stike

In Moscow, Putin pissed off Poland. How? By failing to mention Poland’s tragic victimhood in the Second World War. Poles were infuriated. But the president of the republic said nothing — he was a perfect politician.

In cafes and bars, plans for a strategic nuclear strike were drawn up and then abandoned with the realization that Poland doesn’t have nukes. The thought of using the forty-eight F-16 fighters in a mass attack was also abandoned because, well, they haven’t been delivered yet, and the fighter is rather ill-suited for bombing runs.

In the end, Poles did what they could — the one voice of protest and ill-will Poles could manage: they gave back their theater tickets. In Warsaw, a Russian dance troupe was scheduled to perform. Virtually all the tickets were returned.

Counter-strike, thought Putin. Now, instead of coming to Poland for a ceremony celebrating the end of the Second World War, he’s sending the a henchman.

Russia’s actions are widely seen here as a gigantic, Slavic middle finger extended in Poland’s general direction. I’ve wondered what the Russian interpretation of all this is, but since I don’t know Russian, I’m left imagining. The old master-and-servant mentality? Colony and colonizer? I don’t know.

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