Monday, April 27, 2009

That, that, socialist!

The day after the election, I wrote that
the wackos and nutballs populating the right edge of our political discourse are not going to go away. I do not even expect a moderation in their rhetoric; in fact I expect it to escalate.
Certainly, there is more than ample evidence to prove that this prediction was accurate. (Go scan some back posts at Orcinus is you have any doubts.) But that escalating rhetoric has not been without its unintended consequences. For example, Saul Anuzis, a former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party who lost a bid to became national party chairman, recently called Barack Obama's fiscal policies "economic fascism." Why that term instead of the right-wing standard screech of "socialist?"
“We’ve so overused the word ‘socialism’ that it no longer has the negative connotation it had 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago,” Mr. Anuzis said. “Fascism - everybody still thinks that’s a bad thing.”
In other words, it's just name-calling without regard to the meaning. Nonetheless, what Anuzis (sorry, but I can't look at his name without thinking of Anubis) says is true: Calling someone or some program "socialist" just doesn't have the impact it did not that long ago.

That much-noted Rasmussen survey from earlier this month bears that out:
Only 53% of American adults believe capitalism is better than socialism.

The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey found that 20% disagree and say socialism is better. Twenty-seven percent (27%) are not sure which is better.

Adults under 30 are essentially evenly divided: 37% prefer capitalism, 33% socialism, and 30% are undecided. Thirty-somethings are a bit more supportive of the free-enterprise approach with 49% for capitalism and 26% for socialism. Adults over 40 strongly favor capitalism, and just 13% of those older Americans believe socialism is better.
Rasmussen notes that its survey did not define either capitalism or socialism, so what the poll likely measures best is people's general perception of what the terms represent. And while some right-wingers have tried to say "Hey, wow, 53%! A majority! That's great!" it's hard to imagine that it really was an expected or to them favorable result to have nearly half of Americans say in essence that socialism is better than, or about as good as, capitalism.

However, as others, perhaps not so invested in obtaining a certain result, have remarked, having 20% of Americans think socialism is better may reflect the GOPpers overuse of the term: They keep saying everything to the left of Rush Limbaugh is "socialist" and a lot of people wind up going "Hey, socialism doesn't sound that bad." (AfterDowningStreet had a good rundown on the range of reactions.) But of course, what the Obama team is advocating is not "socialism" by any reasonable definition despite the wide variety of meanings applied to the term. So this may not tell us a lot about what people feel about actual socialism as opposed to the wingnuts' paranoid vision of it.

Still, there might be more to it. Downplaying the results, Rasmussen refers to an earlier survey, this one from December, in which 70% of respondents endorsed the "free market." But in that same survey, 15% said a "government-managed economy" is a better system, with an equal number unsure.

Extrapolating from just two surveys that asked different questions using undefined terms is obviously a very risky undertaking, but I still have to admit that it seems to me to the extent the surveys are accurate, to that same extent they indicate that most people in thinking about "socialism" think in terms of a "government-managed economy," which is an incomplete but not grossly inaccurate description of economic socialism. If so, and I do think it's so, there is a solid base of support for some form of socialism - not a majority by any means, but not the vanishingly small number we'd traditionally been lead to believe, either.

This means that those of us who, unlike the Obama team and the Obamabots, really are socialists have an opening, a basis to work from. Certainly, if the US had a European-style multiparty system, there would be a decent chance of creating a socialist party large enough to have a real and regular effect on elections, a party to be regarded for what it said rather than for the impact it has on what the major parties say and to have a place in governing rather than being an outside force trying to pull the government to the left. But it doesn't, so we have to work from where we are.

I think the first order of business would be to try to lay out what socialism is - and is not - both as an economic and a social system. There would be, of course, a considerable range of opinion, a range which would grow the more specific you got, but I believe there are some common, basic principles on which most if not all socialists would agree. What I intend to do here is to lay out some of my own ideas on that score. I may wind up quoting myself from previous posts; if I do, feel free to skim.

The first thing that needs to be said is that socialism must be democratic. Or, to be more accurate, must involve representative government, be that a democracy, a republic, a parliamentary system, or whatever. The word "socialism" comes from the French socialisme and ultimately from the Latin socius, meaning "associate" or "companion," and if it is to mean anything, it must mean people freely working together for their mutual benefit. Doing that on a national scale is not possible without basic political freedoms that allow people to express their views and advocate their ideas freely. Socialists who embrace this concept, as I do, often refer to themselves as "democratic" socialists. But even though I use the adjective for clarity, I regard it as unnecessary in principle: As far as I'm concerned, a "socialism" that is not based on and in political freedoms is not socialism. Period.

Next, contrary to common misconception, socialism doesn’t seek to take control of our economy away from a corporate elite only to give it to a government elite. (It's worth noting at this point that this is what happened in the old Soviet Union, whose economic system more and more people came to call "state capitalism" and not "socialism." It was still a system run by a few for the benefit of a few. It was just a different few.) A change that consists of a change in the titles of the members of a dominant cabal from "CEO" to "the Honorable" is no change at all. If that's all we succeeded in doing, we would have failed.

In fact,'s definition of "socialism" isn't that bad: Socialism, it says, is
a theory or system of social organization that advocates the vesting of the ownership and control of the means of production and distribution, of capital, land, etc., in the community as a whole.
The important phrase there is "the community as a whole." The goal of socialism is, must be, to empower communities and the public as a whole to control their economic future through methods like cooperative economic planning and public ownership of national natural resources, the birthright of all citizens. It aims to involve workers, whether their collars be white, blue, or pink, directly in the management decisions that affect them and base major investment policies on the will of public good, not the whims of private greed.

We can argue at length about the particulars of the best way(s) to organize such a system as well as about the best ways to transition from what we have now to what we would have then. I'm not concerned with that now, but with the ethical and moral principles on which such a system would be founded.

One thing I will mention quickly is that socialists in general, myself included, do not envision the abolition of private property or even of private enterprise or private profit. Rather, it's that such private profit must be subjugated to the needs of, again, the community as a whole. "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few," as it were - especially when the "need" of the few is to achieve selfish gain, often at the expense of others who do the work to produce the wealth but don't share in the full value of what they produce.

That idea of community is central to pretty much every version of socialism, even as - no surprise - the details of what the term means vary. But at bottom it expresses the moral principle of each of us having reciprocal responsibilities and obligations with and to other human beings. That we are, contrary to Cain, "our brother's keeper." (Perhaps the reason why the right-wingers never seem to speak of "community" is their difficulty with the concept of obligations to others.)

In a similar vein to not abolishing private property, we do not envision that all will be the same and have the same or that none will be richer than others. As I have said often enough, "We have no desire to place a ceiling over anyone's aspirations, but we do intend to put a floor under everyone's needs." It's not that everyone has the same, it's that everyone has enough. Enough for a decent life free of hunger, fear, and oppression.

This in turn brings up the "social" part of socialism, the aspects that go beyond the narrowly-defined economic. Because the concept of "enough" is not merely a financial one. As Abraham Maslow outlined in his famous "hierarchy of needs" in a 1943 article, once certain needs are met, others come to the fore. Meeting physical needs does not ultimately make for a complete life. Simply having enough is, well, not enough. Not for a decent, full life.

Having "enough" but facing racism is not a decent life. Having "enough" but facing sexism is not a decent life. Having "enough" but facing homophobia is not a decent life.

Having "enough" but breathing polluted air or drinking polluted water or having your community be a dumping ground for toxic waste; having "enough" but being unable to pursue educational dreams or to have access to health care or to walk in a neighborhood park - no, that is not "enough" for that decent life.

So a true socialism must also dedicate itself not only to political justice and economic justice, but to social justice as well. A full justice, one that, as I have said so many times before,
rejects the ascendancy of bombs over bread, of private greed over public good, or profits over people. A justice that centers on the preciousness of life and will fight to maintain and even expand that preciousness.
What does this all mean in practice?

Various democratic socialist parties in the US (as judged by their platforms, not their names) have laid out at some length and in some detail the policies they would implement if they could. As just two examples, links to the sections of the 2008 platform of the Socialist Party, USA are here and the complete 2004 Green Party platform is here. (Warning: The latter is a relatively large .pdf file.) In the course of my own campaigns for public office some years ago now, I developed my own platform with a list of proposals, some of which got developed into position papers. I won't go through any long list (I can supply one by email if anyone is foolish enough to ask), but in very quick summary, these are some of goals advocated in some of those position papers (those being the ones I remember now and offered here without, obviously, any supporting facts or arguments), through which you can, I expect, get some insight into the thinking of this particular socialist:

- A 50% cut in the military budget over four years, including a 90% cut in nuclear weapons.
- Public ownership of major energy corporations, coupled with worker management and decentralized economic planning.
- Public ownership of national natural resources, again linked to decentralized planning.
- A program I called "businessteading" (like "homesteading" except for businesses) to encourage the creation and stabilization of community-level businesses.
- An energy policy called "No One Answer" based on using whichever clean, renewable sources were best suited to a given region of the country and an end to the use of nuclear power.
- A national health care system, paid for through taxes (and fees based on ability to pay), with layers of facilities from community-level clinics up to a few large national hospitals for the rarest and most complex treatments.
- A National Land Use Policy, to guarantee adequate housing, protect wilderness and wetlands, limit sprawl and encourage "brownfielding," and protect farms, especially smaller, family farms.

That, again, was not the entire platform, it was rather just those parts that got fleshed out into full position papers. And certainly, were I running now, there would be other issues that were part of that platform that would be more prominently displayed, such as - to name a few obvious choices - civil liberties and Constitutional rights, same-sex marriage, and taking over the damn banks. But the thing is, when I ran for office as a socialist, what often surprised people is how reasonable a socialist platform could sound and how in at least a fair number of aspects it was not that far removed from what the public desired. (I once got told by a reporter that I had "the ability to make the most radical ideas sound like a voice of sweet moderation" and while I've used that remark as an example of what makes for good framing, I've always harbored the suspicion that the truth was that the ideas just didn't seem that radical after all.)

Still, it's distressing to look at those old platform statements from the early 1980s and note how much of what's in them represent ideas that still need doing today. Which is why we can't fool ourselves about the "change" represented by Barack Obama. Yes, despite my frequent (and entirely deserved) slams of him for backing Bush policies on presidential power, he has done some good things and yes I expect he will do some more good things over the rest of his term. But ultimately what he is doing is patching the cracks in a wall set on a weak foundation: It's not that what he's doing is necessarily bad, it's that it doesn't actually change anything in any fundamental way. If you consider his economic policies, his stand on health care, his foreign policy (aside from the ban on torture, about which I'm prepared to accept his sincerity for now), they all have one thing in common: He is trying to resolve the crises and shore up the institutions while changing as little as possible about the logic or principles on which they're based. It's not about changing the social and economic systems, it's about maintaining them.

Socialism, on the other hand, is radical. It is about change. It's about changing some fundamental relationships, power relationships, in our society. To express it symbolically if a touch flippantly, it wants to change "me" to "we" and to create economic and social structures that look across rather than up and down. Those changes can't be imposed by fiat and bringing them about, in something else I've said before, will not be easy, cheap, or convenient. But it is possible - and after all is said and done, it's the right thing to do.

For now, consider that the finding that people aren't as taken aback by cries of "Socialist!" as they used to be may, just may, reflect an increasing awareness of that need for radical change and a gradual, even if grudging, acceptance of the logic of that radicalism.

So 15% think a government-managed economy is better than the "free market?" And 20% think at least some vision of socialism is better than capitalism? Hey, socialists: Talk to your neighbors. They may be a lot more on your side than you think.

Footnote: The two socialist parties I mentioned are independent third parties. If you're one of those folks who thinks that's "wasting your vote," you can try the Democratic Socialists of America, which works within the Democratic Party to push more socialist policies. Personally, I believe that is the waste of time since the DSA winds up supporting whoever the Democrats nominate, regardless of what positions they express, but I believe even more strongly in doing what you can, where you can, how you can to advance the cause of justice and if you think working with the DSA is the best thing you can do to that end, then dammit, do it and screw what I think of them.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

I told you so

Updated Dammit, dammit, dammit, dammit, dammit! I told you so! I did, I did, I did! You know I did! And more than once!

The day after the election, I told you so:
I strongly suspect that in a while a lot of people are going to be very disappointed in Barack Obama. ...

I believe that those who insist that on matters such as FISA he will be different as president than he was as a senator are just kidding themselves. In fact, I suspect that the reason he flip-flopped on FISA is that he started contemplating having those powers himself.
And now it seems even those sort of powers are not enough.

Jewel v. NSA is a suit filed last fall by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) on behalf of five customers of AT&T (acting on behalf of all AT&T customers) challenging as illegal and unconstitutional the program of dragnet communications surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency. With the EFF's agreement, the initial government response was delayed until April. Now it has come and it's a doozy.
In a motion filed on Friday, April 3rd, the Obama Dept. of Justice (DOJ) demanded that the entire lawsuit be dismissed based on both the Bush administration's claim that a "state secrets" privilege bars any lawsuits against the executive branch for illegal spying, as well as a novel "sovereign immunity" claim that the Patriot Act bars any lawsuits of any kind for illegal government surveillance, unless there was "willful disclosure" of the illegally intercepted communications.
That latter argument is a stunner, an entirely new argument that goes clearly beyond any CYA claim advanced by the Shrub gang. While they had claimed "sovereign immunity" against suits under FISA, even they never insisted that the administration had such immunity against suits about illegal surveillance under any law.

But that is exactly what the Obama DOJ is now claiming. They are saying that if the government illegally spies on you, illegally intercepts any or all of your personal communications, even if the the government knows its spying is illegal, even if you know the government illegally spied on you, even if everyone knows the government illegally spied on you, even if you can undeniably prove the government illegally spied on you, there's not a single goddam thing you can do about it unless the government "willfully disclosed" the information it illegally gathered.

In a statement, the EFF called the argument "deeply troubling," "pernicious," "radical," and "utterly unprecedented."
No one - not the White House, not the Justice Department, not any member of Congress, and not the Bush Administration - has ever interpreted the law this way. ...

Essentially, the Obama Adminstration has claimed that the government cannot be held accountable for illegal surveillance under any federal statutes.

Again, the gulf between Candidate Obama and President Obama is striking. As a candidate, Obama ran promising a new era of government transparency and accountability, an end to the Bush DOJ's radical theories of executive power, and reform of the PATRIOT Act. But, this week, Obama's own Department Of Justice has argued that, under the PATRIOT Act, the government shall be entirely unaccountable for surveilling Americans in violation of its own laws.
That sentiment was echoed by Prof. Jonathan Turley, who called the Obama team's claim "breathtaking" and said it represented
yet another break with its campaign promise to fight to restore civil liberties and privacy.... It appears the “yes we can” means “yes we can do most anything that we want” when it comes to unlawful programs.
(Prof. Turley notes that this is not the first time Obama's DOJ has gone beyond Bush's: In February, it threatened to unilaterally "withdraw" a document from a court case when it lost a ruling related to it, something of which Turley said he'd never heard.)

Glenn Greenwald, who said in his commentary on the filing that it's "hard to overstate how extremist [it] is," makes two significant points. One is that this is the initial government response to this suit. That is, this is not the Obama administration just carrying over a Bush administration argument (not that that would be an excuse), flying on autopilot as it were, this is the Obama administration's own, considered, position. There is no hiding behind the Bushites here.

The other point is one he just brushes by, but is very important to understand: You are, he said, "barred from suing [government agencies] unless they 'willfully disclose' to the public what they have learned." To the public. That's the phrase to note.

Because under the Obama administration's position, the information gathered can be kept and it can be disclosed. Depending on exact circumstances, it can be disclosed to other government agencies. It can be disclosed to law enforcement agencies. It might even be disclosed to foreign governments. But as long as it is still called "secret," as long as it has not been officially released to the general public, it has not been "willfully disclosed." And you still have no recourse. In fact, even if the information was deliberately leaked, you likely would have no recourse against anyone but the actual leaker - assuming that by some miracle you could identify them.

That's why Keith Olbermann's description of it as being like someone stealing your money but that's okay as long as they don't spend it, is not right: It's more like someone stealing your money but that's okay as long as they don't tell you what they spent it on.

It's been said by several observers that no president wants to surrender any of the power of the office. It's also been said that power corrupts. Barack Obama gives every sign of proving both adages correct.

And dammit, I told you so.

Updated to note that Dday at Hullabaloo has some additional stuff about a growing anger over Obama's use of secrecy and national security claims to conceal information about Executive Branch criminality. I also found interesting how in comments several people strove mightily to argue that everything is fine, trust in Obama; one even suggested that this is a strategy, that Obama is deliberately abusing assertions of presidential power to force Congress to pass limiting legislation, while another labeled the opposition "simple-minded" and employed the hoary "we don't have all the facts" dodge.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

And the good times just keep on rolling

"No, no!" said the Queen. "Sentence first - verdict afterwards."

In a little-noticed ruling last week, McClatchy reported on Monday, a federal judge found a witness's testimony to be unreliable.

Okay, not a big deal in and of itself, in fact an everyday occurrence. What made it notable was that the person in question was a government witness in a "significant" number of Guantanamo cases - and that in those cases the government improperly withheld from the defense information about him, a fellow detainee, including that he was undergoing weekly treatment for a serious psychological problem that cast doubt on his fitness as a reliable witness.
Court records appear to indicate that the witness had an antisocial personality disorder. In a legal brief, Batarfi's lawyers point out the diagnosis could mean the person is prone to lying and lacks regard for the difference between right and wrong.
Batarfi is Aymen Saeed Batarfi, a Yemeni doctor who had been held in Gitmo for seven years until last week, when the government suddenly decided at the last minute that it didn't have sufficient evidence that he was an "enemy combatant" to prosecute him and he could be released as soon as it found a country that would take him.

But that didn't satisfy Judge Emmet Sullivan, who
castigated the government for not turning over the medical records and ordered department lawyers to explain why he shouldn't cite them for contempt of court.

"To hide relevant and exculpatory evidence from counsel and from the court under any circumstances, particularly here where there is no other means to discover this information and where the stakes are so very high ... is fundamentally unjust, outrageous and will not be tolerated," Sullivan said, according to a transcript of the hearing.

"How can this court have any confidence whatsoever in the United States government to comply with its obligations and to be truthful to the court?"
He also criticized the government's motives for dropping the case against Batarfi at the last minute and suggested that the government didn't genuinely intend to seek a country that would take him.
"I'm not going to let this case drag on, or any of the other cases on my calendar, indefinitely while the government embarks on what it calls its diplomatic process, because I have seen in the past that that diplomatic process can indeed span months and years, and I have some serious concerns as to whether it's yet and still another ploy ... to continue with his deprivation of his fair day in court. ...

"I'm not going to continue to tolerate indefinite delay on the part of the United States government," Sullivan said. "I mean this Guantanamo issue is a travesty ... a horror story ... and I'm not going to buy into an extended indefinite delay of this man's stay at Guantanamo." ...

Sullivan ordered the Justice Department to notify other judges of the psychiatric records so they could assess whether the government's failure to reveal the extent of the witness's mental problems have bearing on other detainee cases.
This was not an isolated case, either.
According to court records in a separate case, an unidentified government witness who was believed to have psychiatric and substance abuse problems provided information to the government about 40 other detainees.

And earlier this year, news reports revealed that the government relied on testimony by detainee Yasim Muhammed Basardah for evidence in dozens of cases although his reliability was questioned by military officials.
In the "get 'em any way you can" atmosphere of fear-mongering permeating the War on Terror(c)(reg.)(pat.pend.), the niceties of due process and legalities became useless frills if not outright impediments. Even assuming the best of intentions on the part of the Obama administration - which for good reason I'm obviously not going to grant and which would be a bad idea under any circumstances involving any administration - a combination of the criminality of the WHS*, their campaign to populate to DOJ with ideological stooges, and our own complicity with the Democrats' blundering, cowardly, floundering failures to confront them, we have created a pit of immorality and unethical behavior out of which it will take us years to climb. And I have to say that dammit, every instance of someone saying "that was then, this is now" or any version of "But Obama isn't/doesn't/won't" only lengthens that span of time.

*WHS = White House Sociopaths

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Good news!

Human rights have taken a step forward in Vermont: This morning, in an historic act, both houses of the state legislature quickly voted to override Gov. Jim Douglas’s veto of a bill allowing for same-sex marriages. This not only secures basic rights for same-sex couples, but it strips away the argument used by the opponents of justice that "no state has ever established same-sex marriage by the legislative process."

The override, which required a two-thirds vote in each house, wasn't even close in the state Senate, as was expected. But in the House, it was a squeaker: 100-49.
[T]he outcome in the House of Representatives was not clear until the final moments of a long roll call, when Rep. Jeff Young, a Democrat who voted against the bill last week, reversed his position.
It comes on the same day that the DC Council voted 12-0 to approve a measure that recognizes same-sex marriages performed elsewhere as valid in DC. That is, if a same-sex couple was legally married in one of the four states that now allow same-sex marriages, they will be regarded as married in DC. It also allows the mayor to certify relationships that fall short of marriage as domestic partnerships.

The district itself has a domestic partnership law but does not allow same-sex marriage. However, this vote is regarded by a number of council members as a sign that it's only a matter of time before the council takes up a bill to legalize same-sex marriage.

Last year, the council gave the mayor they authority to recognize same-sex relationships if they are "substantially similar" to domestic partnerships already recognized by DC. But as of a month ago, he hadn't acted on that authority, using the excuse of questioning what would constitute being "substantially similar." So the council pretty much said "well, screw you, we'll do it ourselves," recognizing marriage and ordering the mayor to "broadly construe the term 'substantially similar' to maximize the recognition of relationships from other jurisdictions as domestic partnerships in the District."

This is an initial vote with a final vote to come next month, but I see little reason to expect the numbers to change. This sets up a possible clash with Congress, which has to approve DC laws under Home Rule. While Congress certainly has been heavy-handed with the District in previous cases and I fully expect the reactionaries to make a fuss over it, to huff and puff and posture and provoke, I honestly don't seem them as prevailing, just as using it as a talking point to rouse the base.

And, happy happy, the good news doesn't stop there. Or, I suppose better said, it didn't start there. Because this comes just days after the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously ruled that a state law barring same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, declaring that
"We are firmly convinced the exclusion of gay and lesbian people from the institution of civil marriage does not substantially further any important governmental objective. The legislature has excluded a historically disfavored class of persons from a supremely important civil institution without a constitutionally sufficient justification."
In its press release about the decision, the court said that
[i]n addressing the case before it, the court found one constitutional principle was at the heart of the case - the doctrine of equal protection. Equal protection under the Iowa Constitution “is essentially a direction that all persons similarly situated should be treated alike.” Since territorial times, Iowa has given meaning to this constitutional provision, striking blows to slavery and segregation, and recognizing women’s rights. The court found the issue of same-sex marriage comes to it with the same importance as the landmark cases of the past.
The court's ruling was plain-spoken, even blunt, but what I found remarkable was the level of understanding that there are real flesh-and-blood people involved here, an awareness all too rare in the briefs and circumlocutions that usually fill our legal process.
As the court wrote ... the 12 plaintiffs (six couples) expressed "the disadvantages and fears they face each day due to the inability to obtain a civil marriage in Iowa." These include: "the legal inability to make many life and death decisions affecting their partner, including decisions related to health care ... the inability to share in their partners' state-provided health insurance, public employee pension benefits, and many private-employer-provided benefits and protections," and the denial of "several tax benefits."

"Yet, perhaps the ultimate disadvantage expressed in the testimony of the plaintiffs," the court continued, "is the inability to obtain for themselves and for their children the personal and public affirmation that accompanies marriage."
What the plaintiffs wanted, that is, is to be regarded as families. It is to the court's credit that it not only recognized this, it found it to be a significant and relevant factor.

What's more,
[t]he ruling appeared to dismiss the option of civil unions as a marriage alternative, finding that “a new distinction based on sexual orientation would be equally suspect and difficult to square with the fundamental principles of equal protection embodied in our constitution.”
As an added bonus, a move by conservative forces in the state senate to respond by pushing for an constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage will go nowhere, at least for this year. Eleven years ago, Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal supported the bill overturned by the Iowa Supreme Court, but when asked by Senate Minority Leader Paul McKinley if he'd join in crafting a bill to move an amendment forward, he said no. He'd learned a lot in the years since, he said.
“I see a bunch of people that merely want to profess their love for each other and want state law to recognize that. Is that so wrong? I don’t think that’s so wrong.” ...

“Friday I hugged my wife. I felt like our love was just a little more meaningful last Friday night, because thousands of other Iowa citizens could hug each other and have the state recognize their love for each other,” he said.
Bravo for growth and learning. They make living worth the effort.

This reminds me of how nearly two years ago a Massachusetts Constitutional Convention rejected an attempt to overturn that state's Supreme Judicial Court ruling that found a ban on same-sex marriages violated the state's constitution. The previous year, it had passed but it had to pass two years in a row before going to a referendum. The second time around,
it did not [pass], thanks to some hard lobbying and the admission of at least one legislator that he changed his mind after same-sex marriages started and, well, life went on as usual and society did not rip itself apart in raging controversy.

That the amendment failed is a measure of how far we've come; that a legislator could be surprised that same-sex marriage did not bring about the collapse of civil society is a measure of how far we have yet to go.
And we do, yes, still have a ways to go. The squealing, bug-eyed, vein-popping reactionaries are still out there and easy enough to find. But, amazingly, it appears that within the ranks of elected officials, the opponents of justice often feel the need to be more circumspect, to veil their bigotry in the language of reasonableness.

Consider, for example Vermont governor Douglas's veto message, which he had prepared in advance and was delivered "moments" after the bill passed the legislature. It was rather odd: He argued that the bill provides no more rights to same-sex couples than they had under the previous civil union law and that they still would not be recognized as married for the purposes of federal benefits. In other words, he was vetoing it because it doesn't really change anything legally one way or the other.

But in that case, why veto it, especially in such an emphatic manner? (I consider having your statement already written, just waiting for the moment the bill is delivered to your desk, to be an emphatic veto.) Why not just say "Yeah, sure, what the hell, makes no difference?"

The thing is, the bill does change something, even if not in some technical legal sense. It enables same-sex couples to say "We're not 'separate but equal,' we're equal. We're not 'as good as' married, we're married. We are that much less 'other' than we were before." I can't escape the feeling that this is the difference, the change, which Douglas was resisting by denying there was any change at all.

That feeling has echoes in the case of Connecticut, which is in the process of revising and cleaning up its laws in response to a state Supreme Court decision in October that the state's civil union law was inadequate recognition of the rights of same-sex couples and violated the principle of equal protection.

Some there are finding ways to dig in their heels where they can:
There was one item of controversy: The five stipulations added to the landmark 1991 anti-discrimination law. In order to placate Roman Catholics and other socially conservative constituencies ... the bill that made it illegal in Connecticut to fire or evict someone for being gay stated: 1) the state does not necessarily condone homosexuality, 2) schools wouldn't be required to teach about it, 3) there would be no quotas of gay employees for businesses, 4) marriage was still between a man and a woman, and 5) gays and lesbians aren't part of a protected class.

[State rep Bruce] Morris, who helped move along amendments clarifying that religious institutions wouldn't have to participate in same-sex unions, says the first stipulation - that Connecticut does not officially condone homosexuality - is important.

He stresses that he "owe[s] all people in [his] district equal protection," but says, "I don't think the state should condone or condemn any lifestyle," adding that, "I think [the statement] is still necessary for some, particularly those that are people of faith who need to know that the state doesn't oppose or want to interfere with their religious beliefs." It's about neutrality, Morris says.
Which is bullshit. What it's about is saying to gays and lesbians "We may not be able to keep you from getting married, but we still think you're scum." Just imagine anyone proposing any similar language in a law protecting the rights of blacks or women or Jews or anyone. They'd be condemned as the bigots they are.

And "lifestyle?" What the hell is that crap? Just as an experiment, I'd like to see someone in the Connecticut legislature or media ask Mr. "It's all about neutrality" Morris how he'd feel about amending the language to saying "the state does not necessarily condone homosexuality or heterosexuality." I wonder what he'd think about thus regarding heterosexuality, by his own logic, as a "lifestyle."

A good way to sum up is to think about this from CBS News:
[M]ost Americans do not support gay marriage: According to the latest CBS News poll on the topic, just one in three back full marriage rights for same-sex couples. Another 27 percent support civil unions, while 35 percent want no legal recognition at all.

Those numbers, however, have been moving, and not in the direction gay marriage opponents might like. In 2004, just 22 percent supported gay marriage – which means that there has been a nine-point increase in five years. And even the most optimistic gay marriage advocate would have been hard pressed, 15 years ago, to predict that 33 percent of Americans would be backing gay marriage by 2009.

In fact, the demographics suggest that support for gay marriage will only increase: Opposition comes largely from those 65 and older, just 18 percent of whom support gay marriage. Younger people – those 18 to 45 – are far more supportive, with 41 percent backing allowing same sex couples to marry.
And, of course, it should be pointed out that another way of expressing those poll numbers is that 60% of Americans favor legal recognition of, and rights for, same-sex couples, differing more on the symbolism of the word "marriage" than on the legal rights involved.

Over at JayV's place the other day, I commented in response to a post about the Iowa decision that
[t]he day will come when even needing to have this discussion will seem as odd as advocating laws against miscegenation does now. I don't know when that day will be and I'm old enough to think I might not live to see it - but it will come.
Not soon enough, but yes, it will come.

Footnote: This is the status of legal recognition of same-sex couples in the US today:

Nine states and the District of Columbia have some form of legal recognition.
- Connecticut, Massachusetts, Iowa, and Vermont recognize same-sex marriage.
- New Hampshire and New Jersey have civil unions. Moves are on in both state legislatures to move from civil unions to marriages; in New Hampshire the measure has passed the House while in New Jersey, Gov. Jon Corzine has said he will sign the bill now in the legislature if it passes.
- California, Oregon, Washington, and the District of Columbia have domestic partnerships.

New York recognizes same-sex marriages performed elsewhere. The District of Columbia has taken initial steps to do the same.

In addition to New Hampshire and New Jersey, at least seven additional states will this year consider relevant legislation. Those include New York, Maine, and Rhode Island.

On the other hand, 43 states, including some of the above, have laws against same-sex marriage and 29 states have constitutional amendments limiting marriage to "one man and one woman" or similar language: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Georgia, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin. The California case, from the infamous Proposition Hate, is under challenge in state Supreme Court but that challenge is expected to fail.

Bad news!

Just over two weeks ago I cited with praise the decision by the DOJ to declassify and release three internal agency memos from 2005 that, in the words of Michael Isikoff of Newsweek,
will lay out, for the first time, details of the "enhanced" interrogation techniques approved by the Bush administration for use against "high value" Qaeda detainees.
Those memos were described as "ugly."

Unfortunately, I may have to take back that praise or at least put it in the refrigerator for a while, because Isikoff is now reporting that
[a] fierce internal battle within the White House over the disclosure of internal Justice Department interrogation memos is shaping up as a major test of the Obama administration's commitment to opening up government files about Bush-era counterterrorism policy. ...

U.S. intelligence officials, led by senior national-security aide John Brennan, [have] mounted an intense campaign to get the decision reversed, according to a senior administration official familiar with the debate. "Holy hell has broken loose over this," said the official....
Yes, that is the same John Brennan who flopped as nominee for the post of CIA director because he is, let's call it, soft on torture. He didn't go very far away, did he?
Brennan ... argued that release of the memos could embarrass foreign intelligence services who cooperated with the CIA, either by participating in overseas "extraordinary renditions" of high-level detainees or housing them in overseas "black site" prisons.
Which seems to me an argument in favor of the memos' release, but that's just not the way things work among "serious" people. At the same time, I wonder how serious they can be if they've never heard of the word "redact."

For the moment, Isikoff says, Brennan and CIA Director Leon Panetta have succeeded in
stall[ing] plans to declassify the memos even though White House counsel Gregory Craig had already signed off on Holder's recommendation that they should be disclosed, according to an official and another government source familiar with the debate. No final decision has been made, and it is likely Obama will have to resolve the matter....
This is the basic divide: If the memos are released, it will significantly increase the chances of there being some means of holding Bush administration officials "accountable" - I would prefer the term "liable" - for their crimes in the War on Terror(c)(reg.)(pat.pend.) by making available previously-classified evidence. If they are not released, it would seriously hamper any effort in that regard.

Based on Obama's record to date, which has reflected an extreme reluctance to investigate or even directly address (much less prosecute) the crimes of the Shrub gang, I don't have a lot of hope that he is going to come down on the correct side of this.

I could be wrong; as I said, I don't have a lot of hope but I didn't say I had no hope. But even if I'm not wrong, that may not be the end. Remember that this all came up as the result of on on-going suit filed by the ACLU. Even if Obama declines to willingly declassify the memos, the possibility remains that the court could order him to do so, which would considerably raise the stakes for an administration that aggressively touts its commitment to "transparency."

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Unhappy anniversary

I missed an important anniversay last week, but better late than never and all that.

Last Saturday, March 28, was the 30th anniversary of the meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant. As Democracy Now! described it,
[i]n the pre-dawn hours of March 28, 1979, the cooling system of Three Mile Island’s Unit Two reactor malfunctioned, causing temperatures inside to skyrocket. Without water to cool them, more than half of the reactor’s 36,000 nuclear fuel rods ruptured.

Lieutenant Governor William Scranton first appeared on local TV and told residents there was no need to evacuate but advised all citizens within ten miles of the plant to stay indoors with their windows closed. Pennsylvania Governor Richard Thornburgh then evacuated pregnant women and small children living within five miles of the plant. Some estimate that well over 100,000 people fled Harrisburg and the surrounding areas.
The breakdown, exacerbated by human error, lead to a situation that was much more serious than officialdom initially admitted. As the New York Times noted,
[w]hen the accident occurred, movie theaters nationwide were showing the movie "China Syndrome" about a nuclear plant meltdown. After engineers finally got inside the stricken Three Mile Island Unit 2 after the accident, they learned how closely reality had closed in on fiction.

With the initial loss of cooling water, portions of the 100 tons of radioactive uranium fuel quickly began to heat up. A chain reaction of multiple equipment failures and control room operators' mistakes followed. Before the damage was brought under control, nearly half of the reactor core with its fuel had melted down. A bubble of hydrogen gas exploded inside the reactor, and fears of another explosion gripped the Harrisburg area for several days.
It was very nearly a death blow to the nuclear power industry in the US. But while nuclear power was certainly was put into a coma, it didn't die and even today some people remain too willing to swill the swill the industry puts out about the accident. One such is Marc Levy of AP, who wrote last week that
[n]o one was seriously injured in the accident, in which a small amount of radiation was released into the air above the Susquehanna River island 12 miles south of Harrisburg. Studies of area residents have not conclusively linked higher rates of cancer to radiation exposure.
But as Harvey Wasserman has pointed out,
stack monitors were saturated and unusable, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission later told Congress it did not know - and still does not know - how much radiation was released at Three Mile Island, or where it went. [Emphasis in original.]
He told Democracy Now! that
there’s just been two new studies released in Harrisburg this week. One indicates that as much as a hundred times more radiation escaped than the government and the industry have been willing to admit. And the other is that the statistics clearly show ongoing problems of cancer, leukemia, other radiation-related diseases.
(Video about those reports is available here.)

But that doesn't matter to the PR flacks of the industry.
"There's a lot of support for nuclear now, and most of that support is borne out of a concern for the desire to have emissions-free energy sources," said [nuclear industry economist Doug] Biden, who still advocates for power companies as the president of Electric Power Generation Association in Pennsylvania.
And the propaganda, driven in part by a bizarre notion that nuclear power is an "answer" to global warming, appears to be having an effect.
Policymakers in numerous states are warming to nuclear power, even in states where the facilities are banned. Nuclear reactors generate one-fifth of the nation's power. Some see nuclear as a stable, homegrown energy source in light of last year's oil price spikes. Others see it as a way to meet carbon-reduction goals.

Public interest is emerging, too: A Gallup Poll released in recent days shows 59 percent favor the use of nuclear power, the highest percentage since Gallup first asked the question in 1994. ...

In the last two years, 26 applications for new reactors been submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which expects to issue a license no earlier than 2011. No such application was filed in the 28 years following the Three Mile Island accident.
Levy is misleading about nuclear's contribution: It provides about 20% of the US's electricity supply, not its power supply; the latter should include elements such as the heat supplied to homes and businesses by fossil fuels and solar panels as well as electricity.

More importantly, this push for more nukes is not happening without opposition. For one example, the original economic stimulus bill contained $50 billion for the nuclear power industry. It was stripped out in the Senate and attempts to reinsert it failed, all as the result of the efforts of a coalition of environmental groups and the work of some Congressional leaders. (Wasserman credited Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid for their help; assuming that's true and not just political game-playing, good for them and credit where it's due.)

And yes, that is to the good because despite the claims and the hype and the desperation of some environmentalists, nuclear power is not the answer - or even an answer - to global warming. From Greenpeace:
The promotion of nuclear power as the answer to climate change is a dangerous diversion from the real solutions: a massive uptake of renewable energy and the adoption of energy efficiency are the only effective ways to combat climate change. They are available now; they are clean, cheap and have the added benefit of providing energy security.

Nuclear power belongs in the dustbin of history; it is a target for terrorists, and a source of nuclear weapons. The future can be nuclear free. Renewable energy is peaceful energy and it is available today. ...

Nuclear power has not suddenly become safer or cleaner. The legacy of the nuclear waste remains unsolved and accidents happen across the world daily. ...

The environmental, social, security and proliferation problems that have always plagued the nuclear industry continue to do so, despite over half a century of attempts to find solutions. We should not be conned into accepting one environmental threat on the premise that it will avert another when a future free of both nuclear and dangerous climate change is possible through the speedy deployment and development of renewable energy technologies and energy efficiency.
But perhaps the most telling point with regard to global warming is this:
Even if it were climate-friendly, nuclear power could do little or nothing in the fight against global warming. Nuclear power is used only to generate electricity. It represents a mere 16% of the world’s electricity. Electricity itself only accounts for approximately one third of greenhouse gases.
It's generally agreed by environmental scientists that a worldwide reduction in greenhouse gases on the order of 50% by 2050 is needed to head off the worst effects of global warming. That means that even if we were to more than sextuple the use of nuclear power in the next 40 years (even if that were possible, which it very likely isn't) so that all the world's electricity came from nuclear, we still would fall well short of what we need to do - even as we multiply the issues of the health effects of mining, milling, living near tailings piles, and the still-unsolved problem of waste disposal (as well as drastically driving up the price of uranium - already five times what it was a few years ago).

A "dangerous diversion" indeed.

Footnote: Another question about nuclear power is just how long the uranium for fuel will last. According to Steve Fetter, dean of the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy, known and suspected uranium resources are enough to supply nuclear power for roughly 230 years at today's rate of consumption. If we max out nuclear power build enough plants to more than sextuple their total power output, those resources then would last only about 40 years. Yes, we could build fewer in order to stretch the supplies, but that would only reduce the nukes' already-insufficient contribution to adequately cutting greenhouse gases.

No matter how we cut it, it doesn't work.
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