Sunday, June 26, 2011

Footnote to the preceding

New York is not the only place with some sort of news on this front. Even in deep red Arkansas, there are signs of progress. Small signs, maybe, but still signs.
Given the state's conservative leanings and voters' support of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, it's hard to measure progress for gay rights advocates, said Hendrix College political science professor Jay Barth.

"In a place as conservative as Arkansas, the status quo is — somewhat counter-intuitively — 'progress' when compared to the anti-gay actions taken in states surrounding Arkansas," said Barth, who is openly gay....
Still, there is the fact that Gov. Mike Beebe appeared before the Stonewall Democratic Caucus this past week. And that the state Supreme Court overturned a ban on unmarried foster and adoptive parents. And that a new anti-bullying law includes sexual orientation as a protected category.

And then there was this, buried several graphs down in the linked story:
The University of Arkansas' annual Arkansas Poll last year showed that only 19 percent of very likely voters believed gay couples should be allowed to legally marry and 30 percent supporting civil unions. Forty-nine percent said there should be no legal recognition of a gay couple's relationship.
Yeah, "only" 19% - but that would have been a high figure almost anywhere in the country just a decade or two ago. And note this, and note it well: Even in Arkansas, 49% of the public is prepared to accept some form of legal recognition of same-sex couples. And that is twelve percentage points higher than it was just four years earlier. I call that noteworthy. In fact, I call it progress.

[m]ore than 100 Methodist ministers in New England have pledged to marry gay couples in defiance of the denomination’s national leadership, which maintains a ban on same-sex unions.

Roughly 1 out of 9 Methodist clergy in the region signed a statement this month pledging to open their churches to gay and lesbian couples.

“We repent that it has taken us so long to act,’’ they wrote in the statement.
They thus join with some 400 clergy in New York, Illinois, and Minnesota who have signed similar statements.

The signers are risking punishments ranging from a warning to being defrocked as they press the General Conference, which meets every four years to set policy and will convene next April, to give up the irrational prejudice.

Bishop Peter D. Weaver, head of the church’s New England Conference, who thus oversees pastors in the region, has made it clear he wants there to be no change in church policy. Since church hierarchies have shown historically that they do not take kindly to doctrinal disobedience, the risk of punishment is not trivial, leading Alexx Wood, spokeswoman for the New England Conference, to say "It is quite a statement that they’re doing this."

And so it is.

BIG Victory!

I know you know about it, so I will mention it just briefly:

New York has done it!

By a vote of 33-29, the New York state senate has passed and sent to Gov. Andrew Cuomo a bill authorizing same-sex marriage in New York. The final bill was the result of some hard negotiating over the extent of the carve-out for protection of religious bigotry, but they got it done.

New York thus becomes (or rather shortly will, after Cuomo signs the bill) the sixth state to recognize same-sex marriages - Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont are the others; Washington, DC also recognizes such marriages - and it is by far the largest. (Twelve other states have some version of civil unions.)

The bill goes into effect in 30 days and people are already making plans to marry.
Gay rights supporters chanted and danced in the streets of New York City into pre-dawn hours as news spread....

Crowds of people gathered to hug, dance and cheer outside the Stonewall Inn, in Manhattan's Greenwich Village, where riots broke out on June 28 1969 after police raided the gay-friendly bar. The incident is seen as the birth of the modern gay rights movement.
This video is worth watching. It's the last speech on the bill followed by the call of the vote. That begins at about 3:15 into the video and the sheer joy in the outburst that follows the formal announcement of the result is just - well, it nearly made me cry. And those who know me know that is a damn hard thing to do.

Footnote: Credit for the link to the video goes to Rumproast, one of my reciprocal links. Truth is, they are such Obama sycophants that I can't imagine how they can stomach reading me, but as long as they keep linkin' to me, I'll keep linkin' to (and occasionally reading) them.


Kinda, anyway. The battle is not over and yes, it could prove to be a temporary victory. But for now, it's still a victory.

A federal judge has blocked implementation of a new Indiana law stripping all Medicaid funding from Planned Parenthood because a small part of the agency's work involves abortions. The temporary injunction issued by District Court Judge Tanya Walton Pratt
"means that Planned Parenthood of Indiana can once again be reimbursed for the preventive health care it provides its 9,300 Medicaid patients," Planned Parenthood of Indiana (PPIN) said in a statement.
Kansas and North Carolina have also banned funding for Planned Parenthood but they cut only state funding and not federal Medicaid funds as well, as Indiana did.

Pratt also barred a provision in the law that requires health care providers to lie and tell a pregnant woman that a fetus can feel pain at or before 20 weeks. However, she allowed another section that requires telling a woman that human physical life begins at conception - another lie - to go ahead.

And yes, those are lies. The brain of the fetus does not develop until rather late in pregnancy. The idea that "pain" can be felt in the absence of a brain is utterly ridiculous. As for the "human physical life begins at conception" crap, even by the most generous understanding, the notion that a fetus can be referred to as "human" before it is capable of surviving outside the womb is worse than absurd, it is a fantasy hatched by people who want to insist that a woman's body is not her own but merely a vessel for the next generation.

Still, while it's not a complete victory and may even prove in time to be a temporary one, these days you take what you can get. I recall Cesar Chavez saying that the farmworkers lost so many battles that they had to celebrate their defeats. So I guess a near-total (but maybe temporary) victory should be enough to take pleasure in.

..equals this (#4)

A freer corporate hand, more corporate control, increasing attacks on workers, abandonment of the middle class, it all adds up to this:
Over the last decade, the share of U.S. national income taken home by workers has plummeted to a record low. ...

[O]ver the last year or so, U.S. companies have made record profits, while unemployment has stayed high and wages have barely risen.
The CIA World Factbook - don't be put off by the "CIA" part, it's actually an excellent resource - contains a listing of nations ranked by income distribution. Using a standard measure called the Gini index or the Gini coefficient, the ranking reveals the level of income inequality within a nation. A score of 0 means everyone has the same income; a score of 100 means one person gets it all.

In the Factbook's list of 136 nations, the US, with a score of 45, ranked #39. That means that only 38 countries in the world had a worse distribution, had a more unequal distribution, of income than the United States did. Ninety-seven nations had less income inequality or, to put it another way, 97 nations were more equal in their incomes than the US.
Although income disparity in the U.S. has been growing for decades, the latest figures show that it has now reached levels not seen since the Great Depression.

Ten percent of the total personal income in America was taken home by the top 0.1 percent of earners in 2008, the latest year for which figures are available.

Research suggests the reason for this extraordinary disparity is a huge rise in pay for company executives.
Executives whose companies continue to sit on piles of cash which they would rather use, if they use it at all, to pay people scores of millions of dollars to run companies into the ground for short-term gain, rather than hire people. And companies prepared to ditch the middle class entirely (the poor never having been in the mix) for the sake of the rich and their own increasing power - all while they manipulate fears to deflect blame from themselves.

We are so, so, very, very screwed.

...and plus this... (#3)

The assault on public workers - and through them all workers - continues unabated.

The latest case, as I know you've heard, took place in New Jersey, where Gov. Chris "The fattest thing about me is my head" Christie, with the active support of Dimcrat leaders in the state legislature, got passed legislation that will add thousands of dollars to the annual out-of-pocket costs for public employees at all levels of state government - which, of course, actually means a pay cut of thousands of dollars a year.
The legislation will sharply increase what state and local workers must contribute for their health insurance and pensions, suspend cost-of-living increases to retirees’ pension checks, raise retirement ages and curb the unions’ contract bargaining rights.
The move applies to some 750,000 government workers and retirees, including
all state employees and to a much larger number of county, town and school district workers, because most local governments participate in the state-run pension and health care systems. When it is fully phased in, after four years, the average government worker will pay several thousand dollars more into the benefit funds.
What's more, the bill strips away the already-limited collective bargaining rights of most of those employees.
Most public employees in the state, other than teachers, police officers and firefighters, have had no guarantee of collective bargaining on any issue except for health benefits.

The legislation will supersede that right, allowing the state to impose health care terms unilaterally. For many workers, this means that if contract talks reach an impasse, the government will be able, at least in theory, to dictate all terms, like wages, time off and work rules.
Do not forget that even though Gov. Krispy-Kreme has been after state employees since he got into office, this was accomplished through the active collusion of the Dummycrat leadership more interested in pleasing the moneybags who finance them than the people who actually voted for them and who they - falsely - claim to represent.

Not everyone went along.
"For those of us who haven’t sold out our party, we decline to accept. And for those of us who work for a living, we decline to agree," [Assembly Majority Leader Joseph] Cryan said in a telephone interview. "[W]e all want health care. We all believe in a better life for us and our children. And how terrible it is that the Democratic Party today chose to take a different path."
Unfortunately, there weren't enough like him and New Jersey now heads down the same dark path laid out by others, widening and smoothing the road as it goes.

The various attacks on workers in New Jersey and elsewhere, as such attacks always do everywhere and every time, have their vacant-eyed frozen-smile defenders in and out of the media. Not surprisingly and I say that because of how often it is the case, the facts don't add up to the total the corporate boot-lickers claim. For one thing, a good number of studies show that public employees are on the whole not really better off than similarly-placed people in the private sector. Even the New York Times, in a story about how state governments are going after public pension plans, finally managed to mention - in the 12th graph - that
[a] raft of recent studies found that public salaries, even with benefits included, are equivalent to or lag slightly behind those of private sector workers.
What's more, contrary to the wailing and gnashing of teeth about them, unfunded pension obligations are not bankrupting states. Pension contributions, on average, only account for about 3% of state spending - about the same as for private industry - and even those states with the worst problems could pay out benefits for several years even making no allowance for any recovery in the stock market. And as economist Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research wrote in March, while the dollar figures involved seem frightening (as they are intended to be), in context things aren't so bad:
The size of the projected state and local government shortfalls measured as a share of future gross state products appear manageable. The total shortfall for the pension funds is less than 0.2 percent of projected gross state product over the next 30 years for most states. Even in the cases of the states with the largest shortfalls, the gap is less than 0.5 percent of projected state product.
But for all of the lies and lying liars who tell them, the thing about this that really gets me, the thing that really disturbs me, is how easy it has been for the reactionaries. How easy it has been, for example, to demonize teachers as overpaid part-timers sucking the public treasury dry.

Now, it's true that Americans have always had a love-hate relationship with government and that despite our self-proclaimed generosity, we are on the whole a rather selfish people (I once said the actual name of the country is the United States of A-ME-rica), with the result that we damn well want our kids educated, our homes protected, our garbage picked up, our potholes fixed, our streets plowed, and all the rest but we also damn well do not want to have to pay for any of it. Even so, it wasn't that long ago that teachers were "the backbone of the community," people occupying a place of honor to who we entrusted "our future - our children." Now, the economic stress has generated a desire for easy targets and the right has been more than willing to supply them. Still, it remains disturbing how easily the shift from teachers being "self-sacrificing angels" to "self-interested demons" was accomplished.

That ease does not bode well for our future.

Footnote: Part of the reason for New Jersey's shortfall in its pensions funds is that Gov. IThinkI'mChrist-y skipped a legally-required $3 billion payment to the pension fund last year. This year he promised to make a $506 million payment - one-sixth of what he was required to do - if and only if the Legislature approved his plan to impoverish future retirees. He keeps saying it's necessary because the state just doesn't have the money and keeps saying that despite having vetoed an extension of a surtax on people with incomes over $1 million.

Put another way, he's saying that a teacher earning say $65,000 a year (median family income in New Jersey is somewhere around $70,000) can take what amounts to a 10% pay cut - but a somebody taking down a million can't afford to kick in an extra penny.

That, we are increasingly being told, is our future. this... (#2)

Writing at about two weeks ago, Chrystia Freeland noted that
[n]early 14 million Americans — 9.1 percent of the working population — are unemployed. That’s just a couple of a million shy of the populations of Greece and Ireland, Europe’s two problem children, combined. Another 8.5 million would like to work full time, but can only find part-time jobs. A further 2.2 million have been so discouraged by the grim labor market that they have given up looking for jobs altogether.

It is hard to blame them — those still actively looking for work have been unemployed for an average of 39.7 weeks.
Even at that, current projections by the Fed of future unemployment, already only slightly heartening, may be too rosy, reports Zachary Roth at
The Fed said [Wednesday] it expects joblessness, currently at 9.1 percent, to come down by almost 2 full percentage points by the end of 2013. But it also said it expects GDP growth to average around 3.4 percent during that period.
The problem is, there is a formula that economists use that relates unemployment to economic growth. And according to that formula, that GDP growth will cut unemployment by no more than about 0.5 percentage points. So even two and a-half years from now, instead of the still-high 7.1% unemployment the Fed projects, it could be about 8.6% - that is, if things go well.

The effect on the public has been devastating and one big, largely ignored, cause is that, as Roth reported earlier, companies are making record-busting profits and have unprecedented amounts of cash, but they are doing nothing with it except paying extra dividends to stockholders. That is, they have the money to spend on hiring and investment, but they simply are not doing it; not spending, not investing, not hiring. Just amassing while the number of "99ers," those who have exhausted all their unemployment benefits, grows.

Despite the jobs crisis, Freeland says, the focus in Washington and the media has turned to deficit reduction and spending cuts. But she uses that as a way of moving on to what she accurately calls a "more chilling" prospect:
Perhaps U.S. business is learning to get by just fine, thank you, without middle-class U.S. consumers. And while that may be good news for chief executives and shareholders, it could be the beginning of a new and socially wrenching political logic that leaves the great American middle behind. ...

[A] new white paper by Ad Age, the industry’s trade journal, argues that growing income inequality means the only buyers who count are those at the top.

“Simply put, as the discrepancy between the rich and poor has become more and more stark, a small plutocracy of wealthy elites drives a larger and larger share of total consumer spending,” the paper concludes, citing research that shows the top 10 percent of U.S. households account for nearly 50 percent of all consumer spending. “It appears that mass affluence may be a thing of the past — and that luxury marketers should reconsider how their products appeal to elite consumers.”
Ever wonder why there are so many commercials that come on like everyone can afford, say, a Lexus? Now you know why: It's because everyone that corporate America gives a shit about, can.

These four items are connected, because this... (#1)

On Thursday, the Supreme Court handed the pharmaceutical industry a major victory and consumers and privacy advocates a major defeat by striking down a Vermont law that banned the sale of prescription drug records for marketing purposes.
The court, in a 6-to-3 ruling, said Vermont violated the free speech rights of drug manufacturers by forbidding pharmacies from selling doctors’ prescription information to them yet allowing the data to be sold for other purposes, such as research. ...

Pharmacies collect information about prescriptions that they fill, including the names of patients and doctors, dosage, patient’s age, gender, and drug history. They sell the information, with patients’ names encrypted so companies cannot see them, to data-mining firms such as IMS Health, one of the companies that sued the state of Vermont. The companies compile each doctor’s prescribing history for each patient and sell the information to pharmaceutical companies, which use the data to devise plans on how best to sell drugs to individual doctors.
In short, what is involved here, without question, is the desire of corporations to obtain information that they can use to sell drugs. Period. And the Supine Court says they can't be stopped because "It's free speech, baby!" Free speech, my ass. Just when the hell did commercial speech become the same as free speech? Actually, I think I know: It was probably when corporations became "legal persons" with similar rights of free speech in election campaigns.

In fact, in the view of the Injustices, is there any longer any such thing as "commercial speech," which can be regulated? Perhaps not:
“Fear that speech might persuade provides no lawful basis for quieting it,’’ [Anthony] Kennedy wrote [for the majority].
In that case, how can advertising be regulated? I'm serious. After all, "speech to persuade" is exactly what advertising is. What we have right before us is a case involving obtaining information for the specific purpose of selling a product, that is, to persuade. If that can't be regulated, then I ask again, how in hell can any advertising be regulated? Is the FTC about to be deemed unconstitutional?

Meanwhile, as SCOTUS hands more power to corporations, other corporations are just going ahead and trying to grab what control they can.
Apple is developing software that will sense when a smartphone user is trying to record a live event, and then switch off the device's camera.
The idea is that concert promoters would have infrared lights installed at the venues and if anyone held up their iPhone to record the show, sensors on the phone would detect the beams and shut down its camera function.
[T]he real reason Apple is developing the technology is to placate broadcasters upset that members of the public are posting footage of events on websites including YouTube when they have bought the exclusive rights. ...

Assisting record companies in this manner is likely to help Apple secure more favourable terms with labels when negotiating deals to place music for sale on its iTunes website.

It could also potentially provide Apple with another source of revenue by charging people to film live events.
So again, it's about the money, about the profits. But there is another fundamental point here, because it's also about something else: the control. If I have bought an iPhone, then I own it. I paid for it. What I do with it is neither Apple's legal responsibility nor its concern - nor, frankly, is it any of Apple's damn business. But none of that matters because Apple wants the ability to continue to control your phone even after you buy it.

Those of us who remember Apple's famous "1984" commercial remember how the company liked to present itself as the challenger to, the underminer of, corporate hegemony. That was always a fantasy, of course, but it is still disappointing to see how determined it is now to become an enabler of that same corporate control.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Third Footnote to the preceding

During the news coverage of Obama's speech on Afghanistan, I heard him say something that struck me as so risible that I had to find out if I had understood it correctly. So I sought out the text of the speech and in reading quickly through it I found three things that jumped out at me:

1. "But we must be as pragmatic as we are passionate; as strategic as we are resolute."

Reading that line, Alanis Morissette singing "One Hand in My Pocket" springs unbidden to mind.

2. "We are a nation that brings our enemies to justice while adhering to the rule of law, and respecting the rights of all our citizens."

This from the man who among other things, refused (and refuses) to prosecute Bush administration crimes, who has expanded executive power, endorsed and even broadened Bush Co. claims justifying official secrecy, pushed for renewal of expiring Traitor Act provisions, wants to expand the ability of government to electronically spy on our communications, waged an unprecedented war on whistleblowers, and allowed the torture of Bradley Manning. I really don't think he is in a position to talk about "respecting the rights of all our citizens."

But this is the one that originally got me, the one that made me think "Did he really say that?"

3. "Now, we must invest in America’s greatest resource – our people. We must unleash innovation that creates new jobs and industry, while living within our means."

I assume that's his entry into the contest for the greatest number of vapid cliches in the shortest length of time.

But to the extent it means anything at all, it means "We'll work on our problems as long as it's not inconvenient."

The O-crowd figures they can get away with that kind of crap because they are counting on the left feeling it has nowhere else to go, that he can keep placating the GOPpers and playing footsie with Wall Street and expanding executive power and undermining civil liberties and failing to fight for those things he claimed to support as a candidate (his mantra appears to be "when the going gets tough, the tough get gooey") - all because hey, whadda ya gonna do, elect Michele Bachmann?

And as long as there is no price for them to pay for taking us for granted, none of that is going to change.

We are so screwed.

Second Footnote to the preceding

Updated Prior to Wednesday's announcement about troop levels in Afghanistan, the military brass made it clear that they would not be happy with anything more than the smallest, slowest "drawdown" of those forces, warning against a "precipitous" withdrawal that would "undermine the gains made," an argument used to drag out every conflict at least since (and including) the Indochina War. During his confirmation hearings to be the new spook-in-chief, Gen. David Petraeus was asked by Sen. Dianne Feinstein if he supported Obama's announced plan to withdraw about 30,000 troops by next summer. Petraeus spent about 450 words trying to avoid actually saying "no," but that still is what he said.

Which is what prompts me to note for the record that I am fucking sick and tired of hearing generals prate on about how they "hate war as much as anyone." For people who "hate wars" so damn much, you sure as hell seem more than willing enough to keep fighting them.

Updated with a Footnote: In comments, DaisyDeadhead refers to a marching cadence that seems relevant enough here to elevate it to part of the post, Note the very last line.

"Old King Cole"
Old King Cole was a merry old soul and a merry old soul was he
He called for his pipe and called for his bowl
And he called for his privates, three
Beer, Beer, Beer said the privates
Merry men are we
But none so fair that they can compare to the airborne infantry

Old King Cole was a merry old soul and a merry old soul was he
He called for his pipe and he called for his bowl
and he called for his corporals, three
I need a three-day pass said the corporals
Beer, Beer, Beer said the privates
Merry men are we
But none so fair that they can compare to the airborne infantry

Additional Verses:
Sergeants three--"File from the left, column right said the Sgts"
Lieuues three--"I'll lead the way said the lieuies"
Captains three--"Charge that hill said the captains"
Majors three--"Who's gonna shine my boots said the majors"
Colonels three--"Where's my star said the colonels"
Generals three--"War, War, War"

First Footnote to the preceding

According to a recent poll for The Hill, people are more than restive about Libya, Afghanistan, and the rest, they are fed up.
An overwhelming number of voters believe the United States is involved in too many foreign conflicts and should pull back its troops....

Seventy-two percent of those polled said the United States is fighting in too many places, with only 16 percent saying the current level of engagement represented an appropriate level.
Beyond that, people are questioning the value of the two "big" wars. Some 54% of those polled say that the war in Afghanistan has either made no difference to US national security or actually has increased the danger of terrorism. Sixty percent feel the same way about Iraq.

Public opposition is strong enough that
[t]he U.S. Conference of Mayors approved a resolution on Monday calling for an accelerated end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,
the first time such a resolution had been passed since 1971.

Now we'll get to see if either the GOPpers or the Dims actually believe in that "listening to the voice of the people" crap they keep spouting.

And by the way, this also shows why we need a movement that is on the streets, that is less focused on being "respectable" and more focused on being visible: An issue like this has to be pushed toward the top of the national agenda if it is to be moved and it won't get to that point if it remains a matter of private (even if mass) opinion rather than public presence.

Because of national news blackouts as the herd brain of the mainstream mass media gets hypnotized by the shiny new penny of the tea partiers and corporate publishers make clear their preferences in what gets covered, that visibility may be more local or regional than national, but that makes it no less important: Legislators, after all, are elected locally, not nationally.

Footnote to the Footnote: For anyone who might want to argue that it was unfair of me to combine "made things worse" and "made no difference" to get the majorities I described above and that I could also have gotten majorities by combining "made things better" and "made no difference," I would reply that since both wars were predicated on arguments about US security and so the supposed point of each was to make things better, saying they "made no difference," which of necessity means that the money spent and lives lost or damaged were a waste, amounts to a rejection if not a condemnation of those wars and cannot be read as expressing any sort of support and so cannot be combined with "made things better."

Wars and (not) rumors of wars

So PHC* wants to be seen as some kind of peacemaker ("The tide of war is receding.") because a little over a year from now there will be only twice the number of US troops in Afghanistan as there were when he entered office.

Personally, I think it's time the Nobel Prize committee looked into the possibility of revoking his Peace Prize. The US is today engaged in military action in five countries that we know of: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Libya. A quick rundown:

Iraq - Although the formally-declared "combat role" of US forces in Iraq ended last August, there are still close to 50,000 US troops there, plus tens of thousands of private contractors (also known as mercinaries). Those troops are supposed to be out by the end of the year, but there are two points to bear in mind: One, the schedule of withdrawal was not due to Obama; it is based on an agreement reached by the Bush administration, which really was forced into it by the Iraqis, in the fall of 2008. All Obama has been doing is carrying that agreement out.

The other point is much more important. Ever since that agreement was reached, the US has repeatedly said that troops will stay longer "if the Iraqis ask," which is exactly what we have been pressuring them to do. It's all been "Hey, Iraq. All ya gotta do is ask. Really. Just ask. That's all you hafta do. Ask. Really. We mean it. Ask." For a recent example, during his June 9 confirmation hearings as DOD chief, Leon Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee that
it is up to Iraqi leaders to lay out what support they need, and for how long, in order to make sure security gains there are not lost.

He says he has every confidence that a request will be forthcoming.
Every confidence, that is, that the Iraqis will eventually submit to US pressure, a pressure arising from the on-going US desire to have long-term bases in Iraq.

Speaking of bases and wars, the big one now, of course, is...

Afghanistan - After 10 years of war, people here are just tired of it and even Congress, or at least the House, is getting restive. That was why PHC spent so much of his time talking about domestic concerns in what was supposedly a major foreign policy announcement.

But the fact is that even after the withdrawal of some 30,000 "surge" troops to - supposedly - be completed by next summer, there will still be nearly 70,000 US troops in Afghanistan and they are going to be there at least through 2014 with an as-yet unspecified number to remain indefinitely after that for "support" and "training." In a display of bullshit that leaves one blinking in wonder that he really thought someone would fall for it, outgoing DOD secretary Robert Gates denied to TOLONews (Afghanistan) that the US wants permanent military bases in Afghanistan, saying we merely want to be a "tenant" on Afghan bases. Very long term tenants, it seems.

Why the desire for such bases? As places from which to launch attacks, on, for example...

Pakistan - The drone war there is intensifying. According to the New America Foundation, which tracks drone strikes in Pakistan through local media reports, under Shrub, there were 42 such strikes. As of June 23, under Obama there have been 213.

These drone strikes, for us nice and clean and safe, are thought to have worked so well - never mind the civilians killed and the anger roused and all that silly stuff - that the premise is being exported to...

Yemen - AP is reporting that the US is building a new CIA air base in the Persian Gulf region so that the spooks can launch drone strikes against suspected al-Qaeda types in northern Yemen. These would
augment a clandestine effort by U.S. special operations forces, which have been conducting manned airstrikes, drone strikes and small raids in Yemen, [US] officials said [last week].
Ali Abdullah Saleh recently left for Saudi Arabia to recover from wounds suffered in a rebel attack on June 3, perhaps never to return. That has lead to something a power vacuum, which the US is "exploiting" to intensify the "secret" war, a war which, contrary to the anonymous "official" assertions, may not be so much about al-Qaeda after all, at least not in the short run.

According to a a senior Yemeni defense ministry official quoted in The National (United Arab Emirates) on Tuesday,
US drone attacks in Yemen are focusing on Islamic militant targets in Abyan province, ignoring the more dangerous Al Qaeda stronghold of Shabwa province....

"More than 85 per cent of the fighters killed in Abyan over the last three weeks have not been Al Qaeda members. Militants in Abyan and other areas in the south are well-known Jihadists, but we cannot prove their links to Al Qaeda," said the official.
That is, most of the recent focus has not been on the group calling itself Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, now the supposed "#1 terrorist threat" to the US, but on other militants fighting the central government. Which does raise questions about if the US actually believes that, in the words of "a senior U.S. diplomat,"
whichever side emerges from the four-month political crisis to lead the nation will cooperate with Washington in battling Yemen's al-Qaida branch
or if the US actually is more committed to preserving a "reliable partner" government than to the future of the people of Yemen.

Which just leaves...

Libya - This is where PHC turned into GHC**, openly asserting by his actions even if not in so many words that the US military is his to use as he sees fit and Congress can go suck an onion. Initially, he asserted authority under the War Powers Act - falsely, because that law requires a direct attack on the US or its armed forces - but after the 60-day window it allows, the engagement continued unchanged even though the administration could give no reason why that would be lawful.

A full month later, they finally came up with an argument, one I'm sure you've heard: GHC don't need no stinkin' authorization because we are not engaged in "hostilities." A report to House Speaker John Boner argues that
U.S. operations [in Libya] do not involve sustained fighting or active exchanges of fire with hostile forces, nor do they involve the presence of U.S. ground troops, U.S. casualties or a serious threat thereof, or any significant chance of escalation into a conflict characterized by those factors.
That bizarre, not to say inhumane, argument amounts to saying that NATO is not involved in hostilities in Libya because the Libyan military is essentially unable to shoot back. It's an argument which would mean that Obama - or any future president relying on this precedent - could, for example, launch a full-scale drone, cruise missile, and B-52 attack on Costa Rica, Panama, Iceland, and more than a dozen other places while claiming straight-faced that there are no "hostilities" involved. In making the claim about Libya, Obama ignored the advice and legal opinions of the general counsel for the Pentagon, Attorney General Eric Holder, and most importantly, the Office of Legal Counsel, whose job it is to make such interpretations and whose advice typically is regarded as the controlling one. Instead, he lawyer-shopped and just like Shrub in the case of "torture," found someone who would interpret the word "hostilities" the way he wanted.

As in Afghanistan, the public and members of the House are getting restive; the House is expected to vote to cut off funding for the Libyan adventure. Unfortunately, it will then go nowhere: The Senate is unlikely to take up the related bill for months and when it does, there will be strong voices against the move, including those of GOPpers John McCain and Lindsey Graham and Dimcrat and Obama-sycophant John Kerry.

So do not look for any near-term end to a US-financed, US-supplied, NATO air war in Libya. And more importantly, do not look for Libya to be the last example.

*PHC = President Hopey-Changey
**GHC = Generalissimo Hopey-Changey

Sunday, June 19, 2011

I suppose "better late than never"

Between 1961 and 1971, during the Indochina War, the US sprayed some 12 million gallons of the defoliant Agent Orange over the jungles of Vietnam. Throughout that time, the US insisted that the compound was harmless to humans and claims of harm made by the North Vietnamese were enemy propaganda. Similar claims of harm coming from US veterans of the war were dismissed as unreliable or based on urban legends, despite reports that one of the main components of the herbicide had damaging health effects.

Eventually, however, the government was forced to admit that the same prime component had been contaminated with dioxin, a highly dangerous chemical and a known carcinogen. Eventually, the Veterans' Administration had to accept exposure to Agent Orange as connected to a number of health conditions and thus a cause for obtaining benefits with the VA.

That addressed the unintended targets. That, however, still left the intended ones.
Vietnam estimates 400,000 people were killed or maimed by the defoliants, 500,000 children have been born with defects from retardation to spina bifida and a further two million people have suffered cancers or other illnesses.
But now, after years of arguments about health effects and compensation,
Vietnam and the United States have taken the first step towards cleaning up Agent Orange contamination. ...

The development is being hailed as one of the most significant in relations between Washington and Hanoi.
And it may be a good step toward resolving the last outstanding issue about a war that ended over 35 years ago. Damn well about time, I'd say.

Meanwhile, in post-racial America

They have some pretty thin-skinned legislators in Texas.
A Texas state senator angrily criticized a man for giving his testimony in Spanish during a committee hearing in Austin on Monday, telling the man to "speak English." ...

Republican state Sen. Chris Harris told [Antolin] Aguirre that his testimony was "insulting to us."
The "insult" apparently being that Aguirre, who was testifying against a proposed bill to expand police powers to demand information about the immigration status of people they encounter, was speaking in his native language because he felt more comfortable that way. Exactly why that's insulting I'm not sure; perhaps Harris was just embarrassed by the fact that he can only speak one language while Aguirre can speak two.

The bill's sponsor, as you would expect, talked about "freeing up" police in order to "catch criminals or aspiring terrorists who slipped into the country." However, Texas law enforcement officials are against the bill because, echoing the sentiments of immigrant advocates, it could make immigrants afraid to report crimes. Normally, the opposition of cops to a law-enforcement bill would kill it off, but not when yer talkin' 'bout them furriners.

In fact, some people think being afraid to go to police is a good thing. Consider one newly-elected GOPper state representative in the oh-so-liberal state of Massachusetts. His name is Ryan Fattman and when Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick decided about two weeks ago to decline to join the federal Secure Communities program that deports illegal immigrants accused of crimes, Fattman accused Patrick of "siding with criminals."
Mr. Fattman dismissed concerns of some law enforcement officials — cited by the governor — who said using local police to enforce immigration laws could discourage reporting of crime by victims who are illegal immigrants.

Asked if he would be concerned that a woman without legal immigration status was raped and beaten as she walked down the street might be afraid to report the crime to police, Mr. Fattman said he was not worried about those implications.

“My thought is that if someone is here illegally, they should be afraid to come forward,” Mr. Fattman said.
Under the Secure Communities program, anyone arrested in the state is supposed to have their fingerprints sent to federal authorities to check their immigration status. If they are found to be undocumented, they are deported - even if they are convicted of no crime.

Fattman, whose name seems descriptive from the neck up, acknowledged that under the program people could be deported after an arrest even if they are not convicted of a crime, but he just didn't care, saying of the presumption of innocence that “I don’t think that principle extends to illegal immigrants.” He also said he had no concerns about racial profiling by police even though it would be local police who would decide who got arrested and thus who got fingerprinted and had their immigration status checked. Whether his lack of concern was that he didn't think it would happen or that he didn't care if it did - that is, whether it was based on stupidity or bigotry - was unclear.

However, neither Senator Harris nor Rep. Fattman have anything on Kansas State Representative Virgil Peck. At an Appropriations Committee meeting in March, one legislator suggested a solution to the problem the state has with feral swine could be shooting them from helicopters.

Peck responded by saying that if that worked "maybe we have found a [solution] to our illegal immigration problem."

No doubt this equation of undocumented immigrants with feral swine who should be hunted down and shot produced a good chuckle to be shared by all. Of course.

Because, after all, for all these people, it has nothing to do with immigrants! Of course not! They just love immigrants! No, it's about the law and about enforcing the law!

I suppose that does go down easier than ranting about maintaining "the purity of the race."

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Gonna make this garden grow

Another good sign on this same front is that the bigots are getting a little desperate. Here's an example: Righties are getting a hard-on over the fact that
[a] poll released Thursday by Public Opinion Strategies shows that 62 percent of Americans say that marriage in the United States should be between a man and a woman.
Sounds bad, in fact it runs directly contrary to a string of recent polls from a variety of mainstream polling organizations, the most recent one of which was a Gallup poll from early May. But here's the point:
The poll found that 62 percent of Americans agreed with the statement, “I believe marriage should be defined ONLY as a union between one man and one woman,” with 53 percent strongly agreeing with the statement. Thirty-five percent disagreed.
That is, they did not ask if same-sex marriage should be legal or not. Rather, they asked people how they personally would define the word "marriage." This is like asking a group of women if they personally would have an abortion and using that as a measure of support for abortion rights. Or asking people if they smoke pot and using that as a measure of support for reforming drug laws. It is a completely bogus measure.

And the fact that the wingnuts and wackos and their fellow-traveling bigots have tried to use this bogus result to support their wingy, wacky, bigotry is, as I said, a sign of some desperation. They are losing the argument, they know they are losing the argument, so just like all good right-wingers (see Rule #3), they are trying to change the subject.

I believe that it will not work.

Footnote: As the linked article notes, Public Opinion Strategies is a GOPper polling firm that was hired by the Alliance Defense Fund - founded in part by Focus on the Family, Campus Crusade for Christ, and the American Family Association - to conduct the poll. POS (a very apt abbreviation) released a one-page summary of the results which did not include more than basic information on methodology and provided no breakdown of results.

Row by row...

The state of New York is literally one vote away from becoming the latest - and the largest - state to approve same-sex marriage.

The state Assembly passed the bill on Wednesday by a comfortable margin, as it has in the past. It has always been the state Senate where it got hung up. But this time, 31 of the 62 state senators have already announced their support of the bill, meaning it is one vote short of passage and being signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who strongly supports the measure.

The sticking point is over the extent of a carve-out for religious organizations that want to maintain their bigotry. Cuomo has been negotiating with GOPpers and said Friday that he expects the bill to pass before the legislative session ends this week.

The Catholic hierarchy in the state remains opposed - what a shock - with Archbishop Timothy Dolan calling the bill an “ominous threat” to society, writing on his blog (yes, he has one) that
God, not Albany, has settled the definition of marriage a long time ago.” This is New York and America, not China or North Korea, the archbishop said. “In those countries,” he wrote, “government presumes daily to ‘redefine’ rights, relationships, values and natural law.”
Still, he voiced some pessimism: "The forces pushing this are very strong,” he said. “They’re well oiled. They’re well financed.”

Which he apparently said with a straight face, even as
Dennis Poust, communications director for the New York State Catholic Conference, says it has a network of more than 60,000 people across the state emailing and making thousands of phone calls to senators' offices. ... [and] ...

Brooklyn Diocese' Monsignor Kieran Harrington says every diocese is now aggressively getting the word out to Catholics across New York, which make up 38 percent of the state population, to encourage parishioners to contact senators.

“Every diocese is speaking out to congregations to realize how significant this is,” he said.
Speaking of well-oiled. In fact, speaking of greasy....

Footnote: Clyde Haberman, linked above, quoted Dorothy L. Sayers: “As I grow older and older/And totter toward the tomb,/ I find that I care less and less/Who goes to bed with whom.”

Inch by inch...

Sometimes it seems that this is the only bright spot in the future. So with, I freely note, credit where it's due, I'm glad to be able to report that
[t]he United Nations endorsed the rights of gay, lesbian and transgender people for the first time ever Friday, passing a resolution hailed as historic by the U.S. and other backers and decried by some African and Muslim countries.

The declaration was cautiously worded, expressing "grave concern" about abuses because of sexual orientation and commissioning a global report on discrimination against gays.

But activists called it an important shift on an issue that has divided the global body for decades, and they credited the Obama administration's push for gay rights at home and abroad.
Like I said, credit where it's due.

The vote was close - 23 in favor, 19 against - amid the usual railings about "unnatural" rights and there is no enforcement mechanism, but
it also established a formal U.N. process to document human rights abuses against gays, including discriminatory laws and acts of violence. According to Amnesty International, consensual same-sex relations are illegal in 76 countries worldwide, while harassment and discrimination are common in many more.
Perhaps most important, it is, in the words of Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Baer, a sign to all the bigots everywhere that "change will come." Not soon enough, but it will come.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Global weirding

Updated Every time it snows, you can be sure some right-wing wacko is going to be snickering "So where's your global warming now?" along with some head-scratchingly irrelevant snark about Al Gore.

Of course, as any climatologist will tell you (and as I have said any number of times), one cold winter no more disproves global warming than one hot summer proves it. It's the overall trend that's at issue, and no individual event or short-term condition can by itself tell you much of anything.

However (and you knew that was coming), one of the baseline predictions of global warming (or climate change, if you prefer; the terms refer to the same ongoing process and are used interchangeably) is an increase in severe weather. For one example, an area may get the same total amount of snow over the course of a winter but because of global warming, get it in a few major, disruptive and even dangerous blizzards rather than a large number of easily-handled light snows.

Another baseline prediction, and more directly related here, is of a greater number of anomalous weather events. The US has experienced a considerable number of such events of late, and while it remains true that no individual weather event can be chalked up to global warming, some folks are starting to ask how many anomalies it takes to make a pattern.
Heavy rains, deep snowfalls, monster floods and killing droughts are signs of a "new normal" of extreme U.S. weather events fueled by climate change, scientists and government planners said on Wednesday.

"It's a new normal and I really do think that global weirding is the best way to describe what we're seeing," climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University told reporters.

"We are used to certain conditions and there's a lot going on these days that is not what we're used to, that is outside our current frame of reference," Hayhoe said on a conference call with other experts, organized by the non-profit Union of Concerned Scientists.
One example she cited was west Texes, where a record five-year drought has been marked by two 100-year rain events, i.e., a rainstorm so major you expect to see one like it once in a century.
"What we're seeing is the new normal is constantly evolving," said Nikhil da Victoria Lobo of Swiss Re's Global Partnerships team. "Globally what we're seeing is more volatility ... there's certainly a lot more integrated risk exposure." ...

Globally, da Victoria Lobo said the annual average economic losses from natural disasters have escalated from $25 billion in the 1980s to $130 billion in the first decade of the 21st century.
Meanwhile, the major nations of the world, for the most part, spend their time making excuses or offering grandiose plans of how they will at some point in the future reduce carbon emissions by some fraction of what's actually necessary. Our children will not speak kindly of us.

Updated with a Footnote: Someone else talking about global weirding is environmental author Chip Ward, who writes here about how climate change is burning the American west.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Geekzilla returns

My dog can read minds!

Um, yeah, sure, whatever....

No, really!

Right. Look, just stay calm. Everything will be okay. Okay? Just stay calm.

Well, okay, my dog can't actually read minds, but it can sense emotions. According to a study of domestic dogs and wolves led by Monique Udell of the University of Florida and published in the journal Learning & Behavior, canines
may be born with the inherent ability to perceive and react to human emotion.
Wolves and dogs were given the option to beg for food from either someone who was paying attention to them or someone who ignored them, with the first more likely to give them food. While the dogs, with long experience of contact with humans, were better at telling the difference, even the wolves showed some ability to judge human attentiveness.

So all of you out there who have been insisting that your dog can sense your mood? You may well be right.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Why the previous post matters

The New York Times reported on Monday that the FBI is giving itself additional powers to poke, prod, pry, and probe into our privacy.

The agency is re-writing portions of its field operations manual in what it falsely claims is a mere "fine-tuning of existing rules" but actually is a clear expansion of power.

Here's the background: In 2008, the FBI gave itself a new power to "proactively" investigate people and organizations even in the absence of any suspicion of wrongdoing. That is, even if there was no reason to think the person or group had done anything wrong or was planning to do anything wrong, the FBI could investigate them. In effect, the FBI could investigate you for the purpose of seeing if it should investigate you. This was called something along the lines of "improving national security in a time of international terrorism." Previously, it would have been called "a fishing expedition." Or perhaps "official paranoia."

(Sidebar: The changes were made in secret and emerged only a year later as the result of an FOIA suit.)

Anyway, the way the federales got that "proactive" power was by creating a wholly new category of investigation called an "assessment." An assessment, again, required no evidence, no suspicion, that there was anything illegal going on.

As an example how this worked,
[a]fter a Somali-American teenager from Minneapolis committed a suicide bombing in Africa in October 2008, the Federal Bureau of Investigation began investigating whether a Somali Islamist group had recruited him on United States soil.

Instead of collecting information only on people about whom they had a tip or links to the teenager, agents fanned out to scrutinize Somali communities, including in Seattle and Columbus, Ohio.
That is, simply being a Somali-American required that you be "assessed" just to see if you might be some sort of threat, even if there was no hint that you had any connection with that teenager. Or anything else illegal, for that matter.

You'd think that sort of thing, of being able to investigate without any evidence of wrongdoing, was bad enough, but of course it wasn't enough for the feds. So now comes the "fine-tuning." For one thing,
[u]nder current rules, agents must open an assessment before they may search for information about a person in a commercial or law enforcement database. Under the new rules, agents will be allowed to search such databases without opening an assessment.
That is, they can do such searches without there ever being a record of it having been done. It's entirely secret.

That's not the only "fine-tuning" going on. For example, under current rules individuals or groups under "assessment" can be physically surveilled only once for a certain period of time. Under the new rules, that period of time can be renewed repeatedly by a supervisor. Bear in mind here that an "assessment" can be kept open - and thus the surveillance can continue - indefinitely.

The use of lie-detector tests, now blocked until a "preliminary investigation," which requires a factual basis for suspected wrongdoing, is begun, will under the new rules be used in assessments and not just on someone being assessed, but on potential informants. More seriously to my mind, the trash of such potential informants would be subject to search by agents - because the feds want to be able to use information found that way to pressure the person to assist the government's investigation. That is, they want to be able to use surreptitiously-gathered information to force someone to spy on their behalf. This is called "protecting our freedom." In another context, one with only the slightest of differences, it would be called blackmail.

There are now rules governing agents' or informants' attendance at meetings of, and secret participation in, organizations on which the feds are gathering information. Those rules are not public. Under the new rules, those agents or informants can attend five meetings even before the secret rules apply.

Finally, some investigations, including those into public officials, members of the media, and scholars, are considered "sensitive" and call for additional oversight. Under the new rules, much of that oversight is being relaxed; for one example, the rules on academic protections will apply only to scholars who work for institutions based in the US. All you furriners, you is outta luck.

This is what FBI general counsel Valerie Caproni called mere "fine-tuning" but which Mike German, National Security Policy Counsel for the ACLU, called "an expansion of power that is completely unaccountable."

The bizarre thing here is that Caproni may indeed think of the changes the way she described them: Remember that one of the conclusions to be drawn from the work of psychologists Joris Lammers and Adam Galinsky is that "people with power ... feel at some intuitive level that they are entitled to take what they want" - in this case, taking more power, a freer hand to find out whatever they want to find out, to know about you whatever they want to know about you, and to do it behind a thicker wall of secrecy: remember the new power to conduct databases searches without any record of it.

That, too, that pattern of "we can know about you but you can't know about us," is regarded as "natural" by power. Several years ago, commenting on the use of tracking technologies by private companies and individuals, I wrote this:
Are the children going to be able to track the parents? Are the employees going to be able to track the boss? Will the public be tracking government agents or Starbucks executives?

Of course not. It seems silly even to ask. ... This is not about protection or accountability, it's about power. Establishing, using, extending, demonstrating power. Whether it's the direct intimidating power of "they know I'm watching" or the more subtle power of "I can catch them at something," both of which assume those being watched are untrustworthy (which is what the watchers always assume about the watched), it is something those with power put on those without it ... [including] ... the power of voyeurism, the power of "I can know your secrets."
Oh, but don't worry your pretty little heads about things like that, Ms. Caproni says. Agents, she assures us with the straightest of faces, could only retain the results of those secret database searches if there is a legitimate law enforcement purpose for doing so.

In other words, "Trust us."

Well, I first encountered the name Valerie Caproni in late 2005 in a post about the alarming increase in the use of so-called National Security Letters, legal documents by which the FBI can demand secret access to a variety of someone's personal and financial records from places such as banks, credit card companies, phone companies, ISPs, and so on without the need for any sort of warrant. At the time, she dismissed concerns about possible overreach and violations of privacy, arguing there really wasn't a point to the agency engaging in either. That is, "Trust us."

This came just 15 months before the DOJ's own Inspector General revealed that there were "many instances" of the FBI having "improperly, and sometimes illegally, used" NSLs to obtain information.
Moreover, record keeping was so slipshod, the report found, that the actual number of national security letters exercised was often understated when the bureau reported on them to Congress, as required.
I next came across her name last fall in considering PHC*'s intention to push for legislation that would force communications services including encrypted e-mail transmitters like BlackBerry, social networking Web sites like Facebook, and software that allows direct “peer to peer” messaging like Skype to provide convenient means for the feds to engage in electronic surveillance of their users - including decrypting data - that the telcoms are currently required to provide.

Of that move, Caproni said "We're talking about lawfully authorized intercepts ... We're not talking expanding authority." I responded at the time:
You're talking about being able to force companies to do what they didn't before, to have cop-friendly capabilities they didn't before, in order to enable you to wiretap where you couldn't before, spy where you couldn't before, to get data (including messages in decrypted form) that you couldn't before. Yes, you are talking about expanding authority, Ms. Caproni, and you are a liar.
And now, here again, comes Valerie Caproni, mouthpiece to power, to declare there is no reason for concern, to assure us that information gathered in secret database searches will not be kept unless there is a damn good reason. That is, yet again, "Trust us."

And just why should we do that, Valerie "Two-time loser" Caproni? Why, in light of your record, should we simply take your word for it that the agency for who you make excuses will not secretly retain secretly-obtained information? How can we even know if you did dispose of that information when there is no record that you ever obtained it in the first place?

In fact, we should not. We dare not. Not only because you are a two-time loser, but on the general, vitally-important, but too-often overlooked civic principle that in any free society, in any society that hopes to be free or to remain free, in any free society it is bad public policy, it is incredibly bad public policy, it is insanely bad public policy, to give anyone, particularly government, particularly police forces, additional powers under the totally lame-brained assumption that they will never abuse them.

All of history, all of human experience, screams as us that that is just an absolutely nutty, crazy, wacko, stupid, dangerous thing to do.

Why? For the same reason that back in the '60s we said "Question Authority."

Because power corrupts.

*PHC = President Hopey-Changey

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A rambling meditation about power

A few posts down I made what I said I expected to be my only comment on Anthony Weiner. That's still true except that it got me thinking about something I've thought about before, a sort of recurring philosophical theme for me: power. Power in this case not in the sense of who has it and who doesn't but in the sense of the psychology of power, how we experience and relate to power from both sides of the powerful-powerless divide.

What really prompted this was the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the now-former head of the IMF who was arrested for sexual assault in New York. In the wake of the arrest, a number of people asked, in one form or another, why does this keep happening? Never mind whether Strauss-Kahn is himself guilty or not, there are more than enough proven cases of powerful people - the vast majority men - physically or sexually exploiting, abusing, even assaulting, those over who they have some authority or who are otherwise perceived to be in a "lesser" position. "Why? Why do they do it?" people asked.

Very frequently, the answer, the simple, bold, cold, answer came back: Because they can. Because they think they can get away with it. Because they think their position will protect them. Because no one ever tells them "no."

Because they can.

It was Lord Acton who said, in it's popular form, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Over the years, psychologists have performed literally hundreds of experiments testing the concepts of power and its exercise and overwhelmingly they have come to the same conclusion Lord Acton did: Power corrupts.

Writing in his "Frontal Cortex" column at Wired last summer, Jonah Lehrer noted that
[a]ccording to psychologists, one of the main problems with authority is that it makes us less sympathetic to the concerns and emotions of others. For instance, several studies have found that people in positions of authority are more likely to rely on stereotypes and generalizations when judging other people. They also spend much less time making eye contact, at least when a person without power is talking.
That is, the very experience of having power removes us from connection with others. Put another way, power undermines empathy. It's a state that social psychologist Deborah Gruenfeld calls "disinhibition," which
involves acting on your own desires in a social context without considering the effects of your actions. It implies a heightened sensitivity to your own internal state and also a reduced sensitivity to other’s interests and experiences.
This was illustrated in a series of experiments done two years ago by Joris Lammers (Tilburg University, the Netherlands) and Adam Galinsky (Northwestern University, Illinois).

Without getting too bogged down in procedural details, in the first they divided a group of volunteers in half and "primed" one of those halves to feel more powerful than they normally would and the other to feel less powerful than normal. They then divided each of those groups in half and swapped one of those halves. So now you've got two groups, each of which have half "high-power" and half "low-power" members.

They asked the first group to rate on a scale of 1 to 10 how morally objectionable it would be for others to over-report travel expenses at work - that is, to pad their expense account.

The high-power members thought that was significantly more immoral than the low-power members did. That is, they seemed to be taking the more moral position.

However -

Each member of the second group played a dice game that would produce a score between 1 and 100 with an average of 50. They then self-reported the score to the experimenters. The higher your score, the more chances you got in a small lottery to be held at the end of the experiment, so the higher your score, the greater potential for gain.

The members of the low-power group reported an average score of 59. They were likely fudging a little. Those in the high-power group, by contrast, reported an average score of 70, which is so far removed from the expected average that the likelihood of this happening by chance was extremely small. The high-power group, to put it simply, cheated.

What this indicated is that high-power people judged others more harshly but themselves more leniently and what was objectionable to them when done by others was significantly less so when done by themselves. The attitude seemed to be "It's okay for me but not for you."

Power corrupts.

To test their finding more directly, Lammers and Galinsky ran a second test on a different group of volunteers. Divided, "primed," and reorganized the same way as before, the first of these groups was asked how acceptable or unacceptable it was for someone else to break the speed limit if they were late for an appointment and also how acceptable/unacceptable it would be for they themselves to do it.

For the high-power people, it was worse if others did it than if they did it themselves; again, they judged others' behavior more harshly than their own. The low-power group judged themselves and others the same.

The other group was asked a similar question about fudging on your tax return. Yet again, the high-power people were like "if you do it, it's bad; me, not so much." Interestingly, in this case the low-power people said it was worse, i.e., more immoral, for themselves than for others: They judged others more leniently than themselves. What remained consistent, though, was the sense of the high-power members that it was acceptable for them to do things which were not acceptable for others.

Because power corrupts.

So the pair of researchers did a third, more subtle version. In this one, they "primed" four groups: a high-power group whose members felt they were in such a position legitimately, another high-power group but one whose members felt they shouldn't have gotten that power (that is, the power was "illegitimate") , and the two associated low-power groups: one "legitimately" so and one "illegitimately" so.

In this case, the description of the experimental question wasn't clear to me, but as best as I understand it, the scenario was this: You find a bike lying around. You need a bike. How objectionable or unobjectionable is it for you to take the bike for yourself and keep it, rather than bringing it to the police in hopes that the real owner can be found? How about if someone else did it, that is, kept the bike?

Not only did both low-power groups find it more objectionable (more immoral) for they themselves to keep the bike than for others to do so, the "illegitimate" high-power group did as well. But "legitimate" high-power group found it to be significantly more objectionable for others to keep that bike than for they themselves to. Once more, it was "I can do what you can't; I can behave in ways you can't."

Because power corrupts.

Drs. Lammers and Galinsky
argue, therefore, that people with power that they think is justified break rules not only because they can get away with it, but also because they feel at some intuitive level that they are entitled to take what they want. ... If [the researchers] are right, the sense which some powerful people seem to have that different rules apply to them is not just a convenient smoke screen. They genuinely believe it.
Because power corrupts.

You want a real-world example? Try tasers. As too many have forgotten (to the point where I have had taser-lovers actively deny it), they were originally pitched as an alternative to firearms, as weapons that could be, would be, used in situations where otherwise guns would have been.

Well, I have written about these contemptible things a number of times but even the very first time, over seven years ago, I predicted they would be abused:
The infliction of pain, sometimes intense, to "secure compliance" - better described as meek and unquestioning obedience - is well-established practice among police forces everywhere. With the increasing availability of tasers ... will come the increasing temptation to use them routinely, no longer in lieu of lethal force but in lieu of persuasion and patience, no longer against someone posing a physical threat but against someone giving "a hard time," no longer for protection but for dominance.
And we have seen exactly that in the years since. That has come exactly true.

We have seen children as young as six tasered. We have seen unarmed grandmothers tasered. (In fact, Amnesty International has determined that 80-90% of those tasered were unarmed.) We have seen people in wheelchairs tasered. We have seen severely mentally handicapped people tasered. We have seen people already arrested, already in handcuffs, tasered. We have seen people holding babies tasered. We have seen people tasered for running onto a baseball field. We have seen people tasered repeatedly for not obeying a cop's order quickly enough. We have seen people tasered for nothing more than being frightened. We have seen people being threatened with being tasered for nothing more than arguing with a cop.

And we have seen hundreds die.

The fact is, police have shown they cannot be trusted to use tasers in the way and for the limited purpose for which they were originally pitched and marketed. They cannot be trusted to not use tasers "routinely, ... no longer for protection but for dominance."

Because, dammit, power corrupts! And anything and everything we do with regard to social policy has to keep that in mind. Power corrupts.

Footnote: In considering the people who demanded higher morality of themselves than others. Drs. Lammers and Galinsky coined the term "hypercrisy." They suggested that the results were a product of seeking to avoid the possibility of punishment.

Personally, I think they are wrong. I think, rather, that the experience of low power has the opposite effect of that of high power: It increases empathy. So for example in the case of the bike, low-power respondents were thinking "It would be wrong of me to keep the bike - but someone else, well, you know, maybe they really needed a bike, so maybe, I dunno, maybe that wouldn't be so bad."

Related to the preceding

Related through the idea of whistleblowing.

I have noted before that the PHC* administration, the one that came into office pledging to be the most transparent ever and ever and cross our hearts hope to die, has instead proved to be, as I called it in March, "as egregiously obsessive about secrecy as any administration in memory" and has also prosecuted whistleblowers more aggressively than any previous administration.

One example of that was the prosecution of a former NSA official named Thomas Drake, who was indicted in April of last year on a variety of charges under the Espionage Act, charges which could have sent him to prison for 35 years.

What was the heinous thing he did to produce such severe accusations? He revealed information showing that the NSA was shot through with incompetence and waste, such as a case where it outsourced work for $1 billion that it could have done in-house - and better - for $3 million (0.3% as much) and, worse in the White House view, that the NSA was engaged in a massive, illegal surveillance program. For that, the Obama administration wanted him jailed for decades.

So forthwith, some good news:
The Obama Administration’s aggressive war on whistleblowers suffered a humiliating setback on June 9 when former NSA official Thomas Drake accepted a misdemeanor plea agreement for exceeding his authorized use of a government computer.
As the date for the trial approached, the case simply fell apart. For one thing, there was no indication Drake had cause to believe the information - part of a complaint to the Inspector General about mismanagement at the NSA - would harm the US. Some charges were withdrawn because the judge ruled Drake wouldn't be able to defend himself unless the government revealed some things about one NSA program which it didn't want to. Others were dropped because some the "classified" material Drake was accused of releasing actually wasn't classified and other materials had been declassified since the indictment.
Faced with the prospect of trying to convict a man for leaking unclassified information, the government frantically crafted a plea deal in the last days before the case was due to go to trial.
Drake, however, is not the only example. For another one, former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling is being prosecuted on the basis of the claim that he was the source for the story about the agency's attempts to trick Iran into accepting bogus blueprints for a nuclear weapons facility. Again, the information is not damaging (the plan didn't work), just embarrassing - and that is enough, apparently, for the O-crowd to want to see you behind bars.

And then there is, of course, Wikileaks. There, the government isn't trying to prosecute whistleblower Bradley Manning (leaving that to the military, which after failing to break him with nine months of solitary confinement, moved him to Leavenworth) but rather WikiLeaks, the media outlet that published it. The grand jury probe is widening, spreading out from WikiLeaks itself to people associated with it and to supporters. That suggests to me that the government is not so much investigating WikiLeaks or its officers such as Julian Assange for any particular crime as it is fishing around, trying to come up with something with which it can charge someone - and also suggests for that same reason that it's proving hard to find one such.

So all of these cases may ultimately fail altogether or at worst lead to minor wrist-slaps. But ultimately, of course, that is not the point. The point of these prosecutions is not to punish those who have blown the whistle on government incompetence or criminality, it's to intimidate any others who might be thinking along the same lines, to send the message to those aware of wrongs "Keep your mouth shut, or else."

Whether the White House achieves that victory or not remains to be seen.

*PHC = President Hopey-Changey

Noted in passing

In perhaps the biggest anti-climax in human history, the Pentagon Papers were declassified on Monday.

He said what?

So Larry Summers, late of the White House National Economic Council, has argued in a recent piece in the Financial Times that the US is "halfway to a lost economic decade" and that the economy is in need of serious help, including additional stimulus spending.

Isn't that kind of like the snake oil salesman coming back to town six months later to inquire after your health?

Summers was one of the prime architects of the Obama economic policy that is focusing on deficit reduction (meaning domestic spending cuts) and tax gimmicks to, they say, inspire the "confidence on Wall Street" that will, yes indeedy, "get the economy moving again." Last July, in the same Financial Times, he was preaching precisely that, chapter and verse.

Well, welcome to the real world, Mr. Summers; it's just too bad you couldn't have done that when it might have made more of a difference.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

I expect this will be my only comment on Anthony Weiner

I don't think he should have to resign because this was unrelated to his office and he wasn't one of those "I'm pro-family and you're not nyah-nyah" hypocrites.

But my gosh, what a fucking idiot.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Ruins amid the hope

For the second time in three weeks, Israeli troops have shot down unarmed Palestinian protesters.

This time it was at the Golan Heights, where, the BBC says,
[t]he protesters defied razor-wire fences and ditches along the Syrian border in Golan to mark the 44th anniversary of the 1967 Middle-East war. ...

Several hundred demonstrators - Palestinians and their Syrian supporters - marched to the razor-wired fencing and trenches close to the frontier village of Majdal Shams at around noon.

Many carried Palestinian flags and threw rocks and rubbish over the fence.
The Israelis insist they acted with "restraint," shouting warnings and firing warning shots, but doggone it, those evil Palestinians "chose instead to clash with the soldiers," in the words of Lieutenant Colonel Avital Leibovich, by evilly continuing to walk forward, evilly waving their evil flags, and evilly trying to cut through the noble and peaceful razor wire at the border of Israeli-occupied territory.

So, like the mugger who tells you it's your own fault that you got robbed because yoe chose to walk down that street at that time, having established to their own satisfaction that anything that happened now was the Palestinians' own fault and they themselves were entirely blameless and had "no choice," the Israelis opened fire.

The numbers killed and wounded are unclear; Syrian media claims 20 or more dead while the Israelis say the Syrians' number can't be trusted even while admitting they have no count of their own and didn't even try to establish one.

But here's the "really good" part:
After live gunfire failed to disperse the crowds, Israeli troops fired volleys of tear gas over the border. Many people fled while others lay on the ground.
After? After?? They used tear gas after live gunfire? Even assuming - and it is a big assumption - that some kind of aggressive response to what was clearly a nonviolent action was necessary, by what bizarre definition of "restraint" or "measured response" does live gunfire come before tear gas?

The Israelis, not used to dealing with coordinated nonviolent actions, are responding as many other regimes have down through history: increased violence, both physical and verbal. After last month's marches,
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel said the protests had been aimed at destroying Israel, not creating a Palestinian state alongside it.

“The leaders of these violent demonstrations, their struggle is not over the 1967 borders but over the very existence of Israel, which they describe as a catastrophe that must be resolved,” he said.
The intensity of the response shows that Israel is feeling the pressure. I can only hope - and I do hope even if that's all I have, which it is - that the Palestinians have the resolve and the courage and yes, the self-control to not give in to the temptation to violence born of frustration and to continue this agressive but still peaceful campaign.

For I don't know how long all sorts of people, including the Israeli apologists, have been demanding the Palestinians use nonviolent action. Many of those voices - Tom Friedman, for example, just a couple of weeks ago - have said that if only that would happen, it would be "a global news event" that would pressure Israel into a just peace settlement.

Okay, here's the nonviolence. Where is the pressure?

Footnote A: The Israelis said they were better prepared this time than as compared to last month. That time, there were four major actions involving thousands of people. This time there were only two, involving significantly fewer people. (The other was in the West Bank and was broken up by Israeli tear gas and sound grenades even before it got started.)

Last month, twelve people were killed. This time, it might have been more than 20.

Puts a different spin on "better prepared," I think.

Footnote B: An exercise in "compare and contrast." This is how the BBC report on the Golan Heights events began:
Israeli troops have fired on pro-Palestinian protesters in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, with Syrian state TV saying 20 are dead.

The protesters defied razor-wire fences and ditches along the Syrian border in Golan to mark the 44th anniversary of the 1967 Middle-East war.
This is how the report in The Independent (UK) opened:
Israel's northern border with Syria was a scene of bloodshed yesterday after Israeli troops fired on pro-Palestinian protesters attempting to cross its ceasefire lines in the occupied Golan Heights. Syrian reports claimed that as many as 20 were killed, including a 12-year-old boy.
And this is how the Associated Press chose to begin its coverage:
Israeli troops on Sunday battled hundreds of pro-Palestinian protesters who tried to burst across Syria's frontier with the Golan Heights, killing a reported 20 people and wounding scores more in the second outbreak of deadly violence in the border area in less than a month.

The clashes, marking the anniversary of the Arab defeat in the 1967 Mideast war, drew Israeli accusations that Syria was orchestrating the violence to shift attention away from a bloody crackdown on opposition protests at home. The marchers, who had organized on Facebook, passed by Syrian and U.N. outposts on their way to the front lines.
The first half of the article wasn't even about what happened at the Golan Heights, being largely given over to references to the struggle against Assad. Something of a different tone, I'd say.

And as a Footnote to the Footnote, as I expect you know, the headlines to wire service stories usually are not written by the service but by the publishing outlet. The link above is to FauxNews, which chose to headline the AP story this way:
Heavy Fighting Erupts Along Syrian Border Between Israeli Troops and Pro-Palestinian Protesters
A different tone, indeed.
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