Thursday, May 30, 2013

Weekly reminder

As of May 28, at least 4,437 people have been killed by gunfire in the US since Newtown, 38 of them in Massachusetts.

Left Side of the Aisle #110 - Part 6


So we just had the Memorial Day weekend and the semi-official start, if not the actual astronomical start, of summer.

And of course, as always, the weekend was festooned with flags and bunting and celebrations of things military and effusive expressions of thanks to all our men and women in uniform linked to declarations of patriotism that seem invariably to involve swirling flags and martial music.

I want to raise a dissenting voice. I want to talk about patriotism.

When I've talked or written about this general subject before, I've always noted at the beginning that I know that what I say will be misunderstood by some and deliberately twisted by others - and I've never been disappointed in that expectation. So I say it again here. I will try to be clear but I know that no matter how hard I try, for some I will fail.

To start: I am not a patriot.

And right away, I have to amend that. I am not a patriot in the shallow way the term is usually understood. I do not wear a flag pin. I do not put my hand over my heart during the national anthem (which, I’ll note in passing, I was taught as a child was something that some folks did but was not required). I do not sing along with the national anthem. In fact, I don’t even stand up for the national anthem. I will note that I certainly don't intend to give offense that way, so I usually manage to be out of the room at the time.

And I don't celebrate soldiers, nor do I, as candidate Barack Obama called on us to do, "always express our profound gratitude for the service of our men and women in uniform. Period," thus exempting those folks from any and all moral judgment. I can and do celebrate individual soldiers - but not "soldiers" as a category. As I have said and written several times, soldiers are not heroes. They can be heroes, they can act heroically, they can do heroic things - but the act of putting on a uniform does not make you a hero, it does not make you or your life more worthy of honor or respect than anyone else's.

Joseph Darby, the soldier who revealed the abuses at Abu Ghraib, is a hero. The soldiers in his unit who in response threatened him to the point that he had to be shipped out early for his own safety, are not. Bradley Manning, the man who revealed war crimes committed by US troops in Iraq, is a hero. The soldiers who committed those crimes, such as those in the video called "Collateral Murder," are not.

So, I say again, I am not a patriot. Except that I am. How? Let me explain.

Patriotism that consists in, that is measured in terms of, wearing flag pins, singing the national anthem, and the like is worthless and even dangerous. It is a shallow, a hollow “patriotism,” a shell that prefers form to substance and too easily, as we have seen over the last years, slides from “patriotism” into jingoism. If, as someone said a while back, “patriotism requires no apologies,” neither should it require conscious demonstration.

And to try to head off some of that misunderstanding I expect, don’t bother claiming I said wearing a flag pin or whatever is itself “hollow.” I said that a patriotism measured or defined in those terms rather than by a deeper commitment is hollow. And it is.

But that obviously raises the immediate question of "what deeper commitment." What does it consist of - or, more exactly here, what do I think it consists of?

Well first, saying it consists of a commitment to "flag and country" is meaningless, empty, it's the vapid patriotism of bumper stickers and needlepoint homilies. It doesn't mean anything. Saying it's based on the supposed fact that "this is the greatest country in the world" is nothing short of absurd - unless, that is, you want to tell me which country is the 7th greatest or the 14th greatest or the 63rd greatest. Because to say this is the greatest country means you must have some objective standard by which countries can be judged and ranked. I can't imagine what such a standard could be since on so many social scales - inequality, poverty, child poverty, access to health care, the list goes on - we rank so embarrassingly low and even on some of our proudest achievements, such as the Bill of Rights, we are losing ground.

And a patriotism based on calling out Stephen Decatur's famous line "my country, right or wrong" is downright dangerous. Unless, that is, you want to amend it to the version of then-Senator Carl Schurz, who said in the 1870s "our dignity, our free institutions and the peace and welfare of this and coming generations of Americans will be secure only as we cling to the watchword of true patriotism: Our country - when right to be kept right; when wrong to be put right."

BTW, look up Carl Schurz. Interesting guy. And his quote about "true patriotism" points toward my own convictions.

In addition to embracing the comment I read some years ago that “it is natural to have an abiding affection for the land of one’s birth,” I say being an US patriot means being dedicated to the ideals on which the country was supposed to have been founded and which, at its best moments, it strives to uphold to as full a measure as possible: Ideals such as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” as the right to rebellion against oppression, as “promot[ing] the general welfare,” as political freedoms, as representative government “of, by, and for the people” - the ideal of, to sum up in a single phrase, an intent to “establish justice,” a justice I say must include the economic and the social as well as the political if it is to have real meaning.

Patriotism means embracing those ideals; it means striving to hold this country to the highest of those ideals instead of the lowest of its prejudices, as committing to a notion of what the US, of what we as a people, can be and have at times approached being.

Patriotism, that is, lies in the devotion to the ideals, not in any symbolic outward expression of it. Further, patriotism thus does not lie in support for or opposition to any particular administration or any particular policy except insofar as that support or opposition is an expression of that internal commitment to those ideals. Someone who during the Bush administration who opposed the Iraq War and was angered by Bush's usurpation of power was much more patriotic than the war supporters who kept referring to Bush as “the commander-in-chief” as if we were all soldiers expected to obey orders rather than citizens with an obligation held by any free people to “question authority.” And someone during the Obama administration who denounces his unprecedented attacks on whistleblowers and is outraged by his mad claim that he can on his own authority order the assassination of Americans without trial or charge is more patriotic than the Obamabots who stand silent in the face of the drone war and are incapable of seeing the very obvious distance between dissent based on political rejection and dissent based on racism.

So on that basis, on that understanding of patriotism, I submit to you that I am as patriotic as they come. And I have neither patience with nor tolerance for those who would make patriotism a matter of gestures and decorations rather than conviction. And I have even less of either patience with or tolerance for those who would try to prove their patriotism by impugning mine.

I am not a patriot. Except that I am.


Left Side of the Aisle #110 - Part 5

Update 2: Kaitlyn Hunt

The second update refers to the case of Kaitlyn Hunt, the 18-year-old high school senior facing felony charges with a possible 15-year term over a same-sex relationship with a 15-year-old classmate.

Persecutors had offered her what they claimed was a "very generous deal" under which she would have been labeled a sex offender and been under house arrest for two years. The deal has been refused.

Hunt’s lawyer, Julia Graves, said that “If this case involved a boy and girl, there would be no media attention to this case. If this incident occurred 108 days earlier when Kaitlyn was 17, we wouldn’t even be here.”

There are those who claim that homophobia is not the driving force here despite the rarity with which charges are ever brought in cases of high school sex, citing two cases where a teenage boy was successfully prosecuted for having sex with a younger girl. Unfortunately for those folks, both those cases involve a black boy and a white girl, which would seem to re-raise the question of bigotry in the decision to prosecute which they had hoped to put aside.


Left Side of the Aisle #110 - Part 4

Update 1: DOJ vs. media

I've got updates on two things I've noted recently.

First is that the real Obama scandal of recent weeks, the Justice Department's investigation and surveillance of the Associated Press and Fox News, has led to a sustained wave of criticism of the administration's media policies.

Last week, the Committee to Protect Journalists declared that the DOJ's secret subpoenas for over 20 AP phone lines "represent a damaging setback for press freedom in the United States." Over 50 media outlets signed a letter to the DOJ which made similar arguments.

Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank called labeling Fox reporter James Rosen a "co-conspirator" in court papers "a flagrant assault on civil liberties."

Even the New York Times got in on the act, charging in an editorial that the White House "has moved beyond protecting government secrets to threatening fundamental freedoms of the press."

One additional observation: This business also serves to point up - again - the utter amoral hypocrisy of the right wing. They have been screaming about the surveillance of James Rosen. But a few years ago, when New York Times reporter James Risen was being pursued in court first by the Shrub team and then the Obama gang over a leak involving the massive, secret surveillance of international communications by the National Security Agency and another leak about a botched intelligence operation in Iran, the parts of the right wing that didn't stand mute were calling for the NYT to be prosecuted for printing Risen's story about the NSA.


Left Side of the Aisle #110 - Part 3

Clown Award: Springboro, Ohio, school board

Now for the Clown Award, given regularly for acts of meritorious stupidity. This week, the big red nose goes to the school board of Springboro, Ohio, a suburb about midway between Cincinnati and Dayton.

In 2011, the board considered a proposal to allow teaching of creationism as "supplemental instruction" in the schools. That plan was scrapped due to public opposition.

But far be it from clowns to give up in the face of reason, so they're at it again. The board is currently considering a proposal that would allow the district to teach creationism as part of a larger proposal about controversial issues in the classroom.

Parents who spoke at the school board meeting about it are against it. The ACLU of Ohio has pointed out that creationism has repeatedly been found by the courts to be inherently religious and so teaching it in public schools is an unconstitutional violation of church-state separation. The board doesn't appear to care and three members of the five-member board are in favor of it.

One, who is also head of the local Tea Party, called creationism "a significant part of the history of this country" and "an absolutely valid theory." Another said “we’re pointing out evolution is a controversial issue.”

Evolution, of course, is not controversial among scientists but only among the yahoos and know-nothings who can't stop thumping their Bibles long enough to gain some clue as to what the hell it is they're talking about. Ohio, unfortunately, seems to have an overabundance of them - at least among the clowns on the Springboro, Ohio, school board.

Oh, by the way, there's a footnote to this: The 2012 platform of the Texas GOP, in discussing education, says the party is opposed to "critical thinking skills and similar programs." Now, leaving aside the observation that it's easy to understand why right-wingers are opposed to critical thinking, I wonder what that means for all those various dodos who use a claim of "advancing critical thinking skills" as a means to attempt to lever creationism into the schools? It's apparently a case of the right hand not knowing what the other right hand is doing.

And by the way, there actually is some good news on this front: As reported by the National Center for Science Education, two antievolution bills died in the Missouri House of Representatives on May 17, when the legislature adjourned. One of those bills referred to, yes, helping students "develop critical thinking skills" by discussing creationism. In all, eight antievolution bills were introduced in six states in 2013: Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, and Oklahoma. None passed.


Left Side of the Aisle #110 - Part 2

Outrage of the Week: corporate-defined health

Time for one of our regular weekly features, the Outrage of the Week.

This week, it's another assault on our privacy and another example of how corporate America wants to control more and more of our personal lives. Various corporations are demanding that employees meet certain health goals or face some sort of punishment.

For example, CVS, one of the country's largest pharmacy chains, expects its workers to go to their doctor and have them determine their height, weight, body fat, blood pressure, and other health indicators, then to allow that personal data to go not only to the insurance company but also to yet another company, one that provides benefits support to CVS.

CVS's health insurance plan will pay for this “wellness review,” but workers who don’t take part in this supposedly "voluntary" program will have to pay an annual $600 penalty on their insurance premiums - a meaning of the word "voluntary" of which I was previously unfamiliar.

Michelin North America is another one. The tire manufacturer plans to monitor employees’ Body Mass Indices, blood pressure, glucose levels, triglycerides, and waist sizes. If your waist size is larger than 35 inches for women, or 40 inches for men, or if other "metrics" fall outside of what the company decides is the “acceptable” range, penalties kick in that will cost you $1000 more per year for health care coverage. No word on if Michelin is planning on changing its corporate logo.

Other large companies including Walmart and Home Depot have similar policies.

Now remember, the whole idea of group health insurance, of any group insurance in fact, is to spread the risk over the whole population, population here meaning everyone in the group. Treating some members of the population differently based on particular characteristics denies the whole notion of group coverage.

But that's okay, really it is, because these corporations and others are, of course, claiming that all this is actually for the benefit of the employees, nothing at all to do with cutting benefits or advancing corporate profit margins, oh no, perish the thought. Michelin claims, for example, that the new policy “helps us help our employees.” Do it our way or pay $1000 a year. Just look at all we do for you!

CVS was even worse: A corporate flack claimed that “Our benefits program is evolving to help our colleagues engage more actively to improve their health and manage health-associated costs.” The company even labeled the "wellness review" as done "so that colleagues know their key health metrics in order to take action to improve their overall health." It's all for you, don't you see? That's why it'll cost you $600 a year if you don't go along: It's for you.

And by the way: colleagues? What kind of corporate-speak double-talk is that? I'm really sick of that business. "We're all colleagues here; we're all members of the team." Just for the fun of it, I looked up "colleague" in a thesaurus. This is what it said:

Main Entry: colleague - associate, fellow worker
Synonyms: aide, ally, buddy, chum, co-worker, coadjutor, cohort, collaborator, companion, compatriot, comrade, confederate, confrere, crony, friend, helper, pal, partner, teammate, workmate

You want to tell me where in that list would you fit in "bosses empowered to penalize you 600 bucks a year if you don't do what we say" as a synonym for "colleague?" No matter what BS they hand you, you are not your boss's "colleague."

CVS also lied about its program, saying it's “a common practice.” The company relied on a survey from 2011 that claimed that 80% of large employers who offer health benefits include a health assessment as part of that. But a 2012 survey found that only 18% of employers specifically asked their workers to take part in a health risk assessment, and only half of those penalized employees for failing to do so. What CVS is doing is not common practice.

On the other hand, it may not be common now, but it will become more common. Obamacare specifically allows employers to penalize workers who don’t participate in company wellness programs with higher premiums or higher deductibles or both. The same applies in some cases to workers who don’t meet certain health targets. As a result, another survey indicated that six in ten employers may decide to impose penalties on employees who fail to meet some arbitrary fitness criteria which they set.

So we have the invasion of privacy, we have the cold exercise of corporate power, we have the stigmatizing of people with physical conditions as if every problem was their own fault, their own personal failing, we have the penalizing people who fail to meet arbitrary standards, we have the cutting of benefits, we have the lies, we have the bull about "colleagues," and on top of all that we have the fact that these "wellness programs" just don't work!

The RAND Corporation performed a Congressionally-mandated analysis for the Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services. And it found that wellness programs have at best a modest effect.

The report found, for instance, that people who participate in programs for weight loss lose an average of only one pound a year for three years. Participation "was not associated with significant reductions in total cholesterol level." Smoking-cessation programs only work "in the short term." Wellness programs did not catch warning signs of disease or prevent emergencies. No statistically significant decreases in cost or use of emergency department and hospital care was found.

Some experts not involved with the new report say even the modest benefits RAND found may be overstated for the population as a whole because most of these programs are still voluntary, which means that participants tend to be the most motivated people.

And this is not the only recent study to find much the same thing. This year researchers at the University of California conducted an analysis of dozens of existing studies of workplace wellness programs on behalf of the California state senate. It found that participating in work-based wellness programs does not lower blood pressure, does not lower blood sugar, does not lower cholesterol, and rarely leads to weight loss, and even where it did lead to weight loss, it was not always sustained. A different study out of the University of Arizona, also earlier this year, found no overall decrease in health care spending as a result of wellness programs.

Wellness programs are fine when they are voluntary. It's not the programs that are to blame, it's the absurd expectations placed on them and the demands placed on employees by corporations which think that their soaring profits have not soared enough and never will. So offering wellness programs in fine. But demanding participation, slashing employee benefits by punishing those not willing to participate and penalizing those who do not meet corporate-defined health standards, all while demanding our personal health information be handed over to yet another set of eyes, all for something that doesn't even work, that is truly an outrage.


Left Side of the Aisle #110 - Part 1

Good news: BSA, Joe Arpaio, A&F, Pope Francis, strikes

As ever, I like to start with good news where I can. This week I've got a few things which I'm going to run through rather quickly.

1. The Boy Scouts of America has voted to allow gay Scouts. The organization has chosen to eliminate sexual orientation as a criterion for youth membership.

It's only a partial victory, since under the new ruling, gay Scout leaders are still banned, leading to the obvious question of at just what age, in the collective minds of the group's leaders, do gays turn from innocent youths into dangerous sexual predators. But for the moment, take what we got.

2. On a different sort of good news, the self-aggrandizing, power-hungry, self-promoting Arizona lawman Joe Arpaio has been found by US District Court Judge Murray Snow to have violated the constitutional rights of Latino drivers in his supposed "crackdown on illegal immigration." Snow ordered him to stop using race or ancestry as a factor in law enforcement decisions. It's about time someone started seeing Arpaio for the bigot he is.

3. It appears that Abercrombie and Fitch may be seeing some real pushback as a result of renewed attention to statements made back in 2006 by CEO Mike Jeffries. In that interview, Jeffries said that "In every school there are the cool kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. We go after the cool kids. A lot of people," he said, "don’t belong in our clothes."

This came up again when Robin Lewis, co-author of the recent book "The New Rules of Retail," said in a recent interview that Jeffries doesn't want larger people even to be shopping in his store.

Jeffries' sneering dismissal of the worth of, let's just say, an extremely large number of people did not go over well. In response, Jeffries issued this laughable excuse for an apology: "I sincerely regret that my choice of words was interpreted in a manner that has caused offense."

You know those non-apology apologies, the ones where someone says "I'm sorry if anyone was offended," supposedly "apologizing" without actually admitting you did anything wrong? This one does not even rise to that level. It's pathetic.

The good news is that it's possible there has been some impact: The company's US sales fell 17 percent in the first quarter of the year and future profit forecasts have been cut. How much of that is due to anger over Jeffries' culturally-bigoted stupidity can't be told, but still there is likely some.

By the way, that is Mike Jeffries in the photo and in case you're wondering, yes, he dyes his hair blond. Why this guy is so convinced he understands "cool" escapes me.

4. Pope Francis has declared that everyone was redeemed through the death of Jesus, including atheists. All, he said, of all faiths and of no faith can do good and have the duty to do good. Why is this good news? Because it's a heck of a lot more open-minded than his predecessor was.

5. Finally, it's appearing more and more that at least some American workers have finally just had enough. The latest one-day strike by low-wage workers, which took place on May 21, wasn't by employees of Walmart or McDonald's. It was by people who work for companies who are contracted by the federal government to provide staff at landmark Washington, DC, buildings such as Union Station and the Smithsonian. They are among the nearly two million people working for federal contractors around the country at near poverty-level wages while their CEO's can legally be reimbursed by taxpayers for total compensation of over $760,000 per year.

Strikers are calling on President Hopey-Changey to lift their wages, which he could do with an executive order - but hasn't.


Left Side of the Aisle #110

Left Side of the Aisle
for the week of May 30 - June 5, 2013

This week:

Good news: BSA, Joe Arpaio, A&F, Pope Francis, strikes

Outrage of the Week: corporate-defined health

Clown Award: Springboro, Ohio, school board

Update 1: DOJ vs. media

Update 2: Kaitlyn Hunt


Friday, May 24, 2013

Weekly reminder

As of May 21, at least 4,298 people have been killed by gunfire in the US since Newtown, 36 of them in Massachusetts.

Left Side of the Aisle #109 - Part 8

A solution to poverty: a guaranteed income

Long-term unemployment is the worst ever and getting worse. If you're an older worker who has been unemployed for six months, you might as well give up the idea of finding work. Poverty is rising: 13.2% in 2008, 14.3% in 2009, 15.1% in 2010, over 16% - including nearly 20% of children - in 2012. Ultimately, poverty and hunger seem intractable; we seem incapable of getting the poverty rate below 11%.

Here's an idea to deal with that whose time has come.


MSNBC host Chris Hayes responded to a question from fellow host Melissa Harris-Perry about how we can combat poverty with a sign that read "Just give people money. It actually is that simple."

And yes, it actually is. The idea goes by various names, guaranteed minimum income, guaranteed annual income, universal basic income, but the "guaranteed income" part is the constant. If the problem is that people don't have enough money, then give them money, enough money to keep them out of poverty.

The fact that at first blush the idea seems impossibly radical or even, well, a little weird is a reflection of how far our political debate has fallen. This is a not a new idea; it was widely discussed in the 1960s. In fact, although this is rarely remembered now, in 1970 Richard Nixon proposed a type of guaranteed income for families with children, that he called the Family Assistance Program. It actually passed the House of Representatives. It was limited in that it only applied to families with children and the benefits were not enough to support a family, providing the equivalent of about $15,200 in cash and benefits in 2013 dollars for a family of four with no other income - but it was guaranteed and it did promise a floor below which no family would ever sink.

The plan died in the Senate when Nixon, attempting to placate the right, kept proposing stricter and stricter work requirements as part of the plan, costing support among liberals - sound familiar?

Even after that failure, the idea did not fade away immediately. In 1972, George McGovern proposed as part of his presidential campaign what he called a "demogrant" but became known as the "McGoverngrant." He proposed giving a grant of cash to each individual, making it a true universal guaranteed income not tied to family status. Unfortunately he presented it as a concept rather than an actual program and was never able to put a budget figure on it, which lead to it being mercilessly mocked.

And so here we are, 40 years later, coming back around to the same ideas: If poverty is the problem, money is the answer.

Now, it's not the complete answer, because what it does is to enable people to enter the marketplace to buy the things they need, to not go cold or hungry. It's building that "floor under everyone's needs" that's I describe as a basic part of my political philosophy. But it's not a complete answer because there are some things that are or at least should be part of what I call The Commons, that area of joint right and mutual obligation that should by all that is just lie outside the reach of The Market (pbui): areas like basic human physical needs, like food, like health care, as well as areas of basic human, if you will, psychic needs, like open spaces and the arts. While a guaranteed income, while a certain amount of money, can improve access to areas such as these, it should not be required for it. There should not be a minimum amount of money you need in order to have access to adequate nutrition and health care, to open spaces and the arts.

I'm going to cut myself off here and get back to the basic idea: Can it work? Can ending poverty really be as simple as giving people money?

Yes, it can. Yes, it is. The arguments against it are of two types, one financial, one, well, I'll get to that.

The financial arguments are "Where will the money come from" and "It will cost too much." For the first argument, there are two sources: One, we just print it. Yes, that can lead to inflation, but that just isn't a problem we have now.

The other place where some of the money can and should come is from the rich, whose share of our national income has been rising pretty much consistently for the past more than 40 years. Our work, our productivity increases, over the past decades have been going mostly into making them richer and it's past time we took some of that back.

As for "it will cost too much," those making that claim seem mostly to just multiply the amount per person times the number of people. Which is a terribly flawed method both because it doesn't account for what monies will not be spent in support programs as a result of a guaranteed basic income and because it doesn't allow for the fact that such a guaranteed income would increase family income across the board, so families' federal income taxes would also increase, meaning that a significant portion of what went out would wind up coming back in.

But still, is there a net cost? Is there a net increase in federal spending? Maybe. I don't know. And I don't care. A program that would end poverty, that would increase bargaining power for workers, that would put an end to state officials determining whether or not a single mother “deserves” help, that would put an end to the drug tests and the other humiliating demands, that by its nature recognizes the value of cooperative, non-labor activities, that is a program with a price surely worth paying.

But that brings up the other objection, one that comes exclusively from the right. It's the harder one to overcome because it's not built either on economic logic or even self-interest, something that has lead some right wingers to embrace the concept of a guaranteed income because it also means smaller government. No, this objection is cultural. It's classism: contempt for the poor.

It's the notion that if you provide poor people with the means to live above poverty, to not be hungry or cold, to not have their children be hungry or cold, they will just lie back and live off other people's work. It was reflected in that long-stale bumper sticker that said "Work harder. People on welfare are depending on you." It was reflected in the statement of my former mother-in-law that people on welfare "are laughing at us." It's the idea that "they" are not like "us." That "they" just "don't want to work." That "they" are lazy, indolent, loafers.

Oh, no, if we were in that position, we wouldn't just sit around. We'd strive for more, for better. We'd work hard to improve ourselves. Not like "them." We're not like "them."

It's bigotry, economic class bigotry, a bigotry that is often founded in racism but extends beyond it.

I admit I don't know how to overcome this, especially given the right wing's failures at reification, at being able to make an emotional connection with those not part of their circle. I guess we just have to keep on keepin' on. The truth is, I don't know what else to do.


Left Side of the Aisle #109 - Part 7

Updates: phony IRS "scandal," real snooping on the media scandal

Last week I talked about the phantom "scandal" of the IRS supposedly "targeting" teabagger groups and the real scandal of the White House going after the phone calls of potentially scores of AP reporters. There are updates on both parts.

On the IRS front, contrary to previous reporting and contrary to what I said last week that no group lost its tax-exempt status during this time of closer examination of applications for tax-exempt status, it turns our that there was one group that had its tax-exempt status revoked. It was a liberal group called Emerge America, which works with nine state affiliates that train Democratic women candidates. I doubt that's going to get the right wing outrage machine going.

Meanwhile, on the real scandal front, it's another case of "wait, it can always get worse." The Washington Post has published a story about the Justice Department's monitoring of a Fox News reporter named James Rosen. It was because of yet another whistleblower case, this one that of Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, a State Department contractor, who was charged with violating the 1917 Espionage Act for supposedly leaking some information about North Korea's nuclear program to Rosen.

The DOJ tracked Rosen's comings and goings from the State Department. Agents traced the timing of his calls with a State Department security adviser. They got a search warrant to obtain and read the reporter’s personal emails, which the Department justified by labeling Rosen a "co-conspirator" with Kim because he made an arrangement with Kim about how to get him information. The department also obtained the phone records for at least five different numbers used by Fox News.

It's all part of President Hopey-Changey's obsession with government secrecy. This is getting scary. The only upside is that previous presidents have found themselves in trouble when they went after the press. Hopefully the same will be true here.

Oh, by the way: The Amazing Mr. O has frequently praised the idea of whistleblowing. He even signed the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act. But when the Huffington Post asked several non-profit groups and the White House to name a single whistleblower, a single actual person, Obama had praised, they got zilch.


Left Side of the Aisle #109 - Part 6

The Oklahoma tornado and global warming

The other thing I wanted to talk about in the wake of the Oklahoma tornado is the connection, if any, to global warming. Certainly, that has come up, as it inevitably will in the wake of any major weather event.

And the fact is, the evidence not only that global warming is real but that the effects are being seen already just keeps growing. For one example, according to a study by the UK's national weather service, known as The Met, which was published in March, human-driven global warming was one of the causes of East Africa's drought in 2011, making global warming one of the causes of a famine that killed tens of thousands.

Here's another: One prediction of the impacts of global warming is the spread of disease and we may already be seeing that here in the US, where there has been an 850% increase in the incidence of "valley fever" since 1998, with California and Arizona the worst hit. Valley fever is a painful, debilitating, and sometimes deadly disease contracted by breathing in fungus-laden spores from dust disturbed by wind or activity. A warming, drier, climate creates more dust more easily spread, carrying a fungus that is sensitive to environmental changes - and thus you have a spreading disease.

So back to Oklahoma and the tornado. Did global warming cause this tornado? No one can say. It's not scientifically possible to ascribe any individual weather event to climate change. That is, you can't say that if human-driven climate change wasn't happening, that such-and-such a storm or whatever would not have happened. You can, however, talk about likelihoods.

Climatologists are already predicting more extreme weather as a result of climate change. One example is hurricanes: The prediction is for fewer but more severe storms over time. The actual science involved is of course complex, but the logic is pretty straightforward: Heat is energy. A warmer climate means more heat and therefore more energy in the atmosphere and the oceans. Hurricanes draw much of their energy from the warm water over which they form, which is why they form in the tropics, where the water is warmest. Warmer air can hold more moisture than cooler air. Add that up and you have more energetic storms that can hold more moisture before releasing it, totaling hurricanes with more wind and more rain.

A similar prediction holds for blizzards and that does appear to be happening: the intensity of blizzards appears to be on the rise.

Tornadoes, however, are a different animal. There's a lot about tornadoes that meteorologists and climatologists still don't understand. But something that is known is that there are two main ingredients for making a tornado. One is an energy-building mix of heat and humidity. That will become more likely in a warming world. The other, however, is lateral wind shear; that's what creates the twisting air currents that are a tornado. And some researchers think that a warming climate is actually less favorable for lateral wind shear, which could actually reduce the number of tornadoes by making it harder for them to form. On the other hand, it could also mean that those tornadoes that do form will be of the most intense sorts.

As one researcher noted, if one factor for tornadoes is more likely and the other is a wild card, it's still more likely than not that the combination of the two will result in more tornadoes - but the bottom line is that it's still too early to tell.

So should we expect more hurricanes as the result of global warming? Yes. Should we expect more blizzards? Yes. Should we expect more droughts? Yes. Should we expect the spread of diseases such as valley fever? Yes.

Should we expect more tornadoes? We don't know yet.


Left Side of the Aisle #109 - Part 5

The psychological shortcomings of the right wing

You know about the EF4 tornado that struck in Oklahoma on May 20, a massive storm that killed at least two dozen people and leveled a section of the town of Moore, a suburb of Oklahoma City.

There are two things this raises that I wanted to address here.

The first is that this tragedy, as such tragedies often do, brought out the best in some among us. We've heard the stories of the help, the assistance, the donations, the surprise rescues, the grateful reunions with people or pets feared lost.

But such events sometimes also help to bring out or at least shine a light on the worst in some among us. And for an example of that, we need look no further than Oklahoma's joined-at-the-hip right wing bozo boy senators, James Inhofe and Tom Coburn.

These two have repeatedly tried to deny disaster relief aid to others. For example, in 2011 both of them opposed legislation that would have granted necessary funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which administers federal disaster relief. Coburn called the funding "unconscionable."

Last year, they both supported slashing disaster relief to victims of Hurricane Sandy because it included, Coburn claimed, "wasteful spending" such as a provision for "future disaster mitigation activities and studies" - that is, looking to make it less likely such levels of destruction would happen again. That, to Coburn, was "wasteful."

But when it comes to Oklahoma, when it comes to their interests, oh, well, that's totally different. They've been more than willing to ask for and take whatever federal disaster aid they can get. In January of 2007, Coburn wanted speedy disaster relief aid after Oklahoma faced a major ice storm. In 2008, Inhofe got emergency relief from the Department of Housing and Urban Development in response to the impact of some severe weather. Just last month, Obama signed a disaster declaration for the state following severe snowstorms.

In fact, despite ranking just 20th among states in area and 28th in population, Oklahoma ranks third in the number of federal disaster relief declarations, behind just Texas (second biggest, second most populous) and California (third biggest, most populous).

Now they not only want federal disaster relief in the wake of the tornado, they want it paid for by "offsets" from - that is, cuts in - other federal programs. So not only do they want the relief that they would deny to others, they want to pay for their relief by taking funds from other programs, monies that might benefit other people.

Now, of course the people of Oklahoma should get the aid. Of course they should. That's not the issue here. The issue is the selfish parochialism shown by Coburn and Inhofe in asking.

Which raises the thing I really wanted to bring up: We'd usually call this hypocrisy. But is it really hypocrisy or is it a psychological failing? Are right-wingers just psychologically limited, the poor dears?

I think I've mentioned in the past - I'm way too lazy to actually find out for sure - but I think I've mentioned in the past that I believe a real difference between the left and the right, and this goes right to the notion of psychological differences that lead to political and social differences, that lead you to be on the left of the right, a real difference between the left and the right revolves around reification, which is the ability to perceive something abstract as real.

An example I can use to illustrate the idea was found in healthcare debate, when people talked about 50 million or more people lacking any sort of health insurance. By the way, I'm not going to get into the important difference between having health insurance and having access to adequate health care, the latter of which is what's important and where Obamacare still fails for tens of millions, that's for another time.

The point is, for the right wing that figure of 50 million-plus is just that: a figure, a statistic. For the left, it's more than 50 million actual people just one serious illness away from - if they're lucky - bankruptcy. It's not just a number. It's real people feeling real effects. That's reification and it's an ability the right wing seems to lack.

The result is that right wingers can care about, feel sympathy and compassion for, people somehow close to them, people with who they identify directly, the idea of "me and mine." So when people from Delaware to New Jersey to New York to Connecticut get smashed by Hurricane Sandy, it's something "out there," the casualties and property damage just numbers. But when it's Oklahoma, then for Coburn and Inhofe it becomes "hey, wait, that's my state, that's my home, that's my people, those are places I've been, I might have met some of these people." In short, to them it's real, the effects are real, in a way the people and communities left in Sandy's wake would never be.

I think that difference explains a lot of things in disputes between left and right. And if you want to conclude from that that I think that those on the left are on the whole more psychologically evolved than those on the right, you go right ahead.


Left Side of the Aisle #109 - Part 4

Outrage of the Week: Teenage girl charged with sex crime for dating another teenage girl

Now for our other regular feature, the Outrage of the Week. This one is also from Florida. It's not exactly late-breaking news, but I just heard about it because the family involved took it public last week.

Kaitlyn Hunt was an 18-year-old high school senior at Sebastian River High School in Sebastian River, Florida. She was highly respected, with good grades and participation in cheerleading, basketball, and chorus. She was even voted the student with “most school spirit.”

That is, until cops showed up at her family's home on February 16, handcuffed her, and arrested her on two felony counts of "lewd and lascivious battery on a child."

Her actual crime? She had a relationship with another girl, a 15-year-old teammate on the school's girls' basketball team. They started dating last fall. And the younger girl's parents just couldn't handle it. So they are, it appears, out to destroy Kaitlyn for "turning their daughter gay."

Kaitlyn's mother wrote in an statement that the other parents "never came to us as parents, never tried to speak to us and tell us they had a problem with the girls dating." Instead, they had her arrested as an accused sex criminal.

Then the other girl's parents tried to have Kaitlyn expelled. Despite the school administration's refusal and a judge's order allowing Kaitlyn to remain in school so long as the girls had no contact, the 15-year-old's parents successfully petitioned the school board to have Kaitlyn kicked out of school some weeks prior to graduation.

And now, the state attorney's office is pressuring Kaitlyn to take a plea deal which includes two years' house arrest and a year of probation, which not only would put her life on hold for a couple of years, it would remain on her adult record as a conviction and so greatly limit her career choices. In other words, the other girl's parents may not succeed in destroying Kaitlyn's life, but they may well succeed in severely damaging it.

Those parents are bigots, the school board that expelled Kaitlyn is made up of buffoons, the state attorney's office is populated with twits, dolts, and jackasses, and the whole thing is an outrage.


Left Side of the Aisle #109 - Part 3

Clown Award: Florida risks car crashes to raise bucks

The Clown Award, given as always for acts of meritorious stupidity. This week, the big red nose goes to the state of Florida.

WTSP-TV in Tampa Bay, Florida, has uncovered a systematic statewide scam to shorten yellow lights for the specific purpose of collecting more money in traffic tickets for running red lights. In some places, the money from such tickets has more than doubled.

The station's investigating team discovered that back in 2011 the Florida Department of Transportation quietly changed the state's policy on yellow intervals, reducing the minimum to a point below federal recommendations. The rule change was followed by engineers, both from the state and localities, collaborating to shorten the length of yellow lights at key intersections, specifically those with red light cameras.

Red light cameras generated more than $100 million in revenue last year in approximately 70 Florida communities, with over half of the revenue going to the state. The rest is divided among cities, counties, and the camera companies. In 2013, the cameras are on pace to generate $120 million in revenue.

What makes the Clown Award especially appropriate is that this not only crummy, it's stupid because shortening yellow light times makes traffic less safe. A US Department Of Transportation study concluded that "a one-second increase in yellow time results in a 40 percent decrease in severe red-light related crashes" - which also, of course, means shortening yellow times increases red-light related crashes. But apparently that doesn't matter as long as Gov. Voldemort gets his money. Indeed, the term "blood money" seems quite apt here.


Left Side of the Aisle #109 - Part 2

Good news 2: same-sex marriage advances

Bill Clinton, the man who signed the Defense of Marriage Act and has since changed his mind, is let's say trying to make up for lost time. He has urged the Illinois state House of Representatives to pass the same-sex marriage bill already passed by the state Senate three months ago.

The bill has been held up by opposition from conservative groups and some black churches, but supporters are now claiming they have the votes in the House to pass it before the May 31 deadline. Gov. Pat Quinn supports the measure, so passing the House would mean that Illinois shortly would become the 13th state to approve same-sex marriage.

Meanwhile, on the international side, on May 18 French President Francois Hollande signed a law authorizing marriage and adoption by same-sex couples. France is the most populous country to have legal same-sex marriages, and the 14th country worldwide. The first marriages could take place within days.


Left Side of the Aisle #109 - Part 1

Good news 1: Arizona abortion law blocked

Arizona had passed a law barring abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy absent a medical emergency. On May 21, a panel of the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the law, saying it violated a woman's constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy before the point that a fetus is able to survive outside the womb, generally considered to be the 24th week of the pregnancy.

The state had tried to weasel out of the ruling by claiming this wasn't a law but a medical regulation, but the Court wasn't having it.

Nine other states have enacted similar bans starting at 20 weeks or even earlier. Several of those bans had previously been placed on hold or struck down by other courts.


Left Side of the Aisle #109

Left Side of the Aisle
for the week of May 23-29, 2013

This week:

Good news 1: Arizona abortion law blocked

Good news 2: same-sex marriage advances

Clown Award: Florida risks car crashes to raise bucks

Outrage of the Week: Teenage girl charged with sex crime for dating another teenage girl

The psychological shortcomings of the right wing

The Oklahoma tornado and global warming

Updates: phony IRS "scandal," real snooping on the media scandal

A solution to poverty: a guaranteed income,2

Friday, May 17, 2013

Weekly reminder

As of May 14, at least 4,094 people had been killed in the US by gunfire since Newtown, 32 of them in Massachusetts.

Left Side of the Aisle #108 - Part 6

The real Obama scandal: government secrecy and surveillance

It is finally, it is at last, it is in fact long past time that we stopped believing the boldfaced lie that President Hopey-Changey has any commitment at all to the "transparency" in government that he promised. He came into office promising the most transparent administration ever only to prove himself more committed to government secrecy and domestic spying than anyone who preceded him.

For example, I've talked before about his unprecedented war on whistleblowers, prosecuting more of them under the 1917 Espionage Act than all previous presidents combined. That includes the persecution of Bradley Manning, the American hero who dared to tell the public the truth about Iraq and other parts of US foreign policy. He was held in solitary confinement for month after month - which is considered torture by international standards - in an attempt to break him and make him give false testimony against Julian Assange so that the White House could destroy WikiLeaks. When that failed, he is now in what increasingly looks like a kangaroo military court. The government is building a wall of secrecy around the trial, with secret witnesses testifying in disguise in secret locations, secret "dry runs" of future court proceedings, something even the prosecutors say is unprecedented, and the petty refusal of the government to release transcripts of the public parts of the proceedings, making accurate reporting difficult.

Now, just recently, we have scandal on scandal on scandal, or at least the appearance of them. I have to say, to be fair, and of course I am always scrupulously fair, some of them bother me a lot less than others.

For one, all the frothing about the "scrubbing of the talking points" in the wake of the attack on the consulate in Benghazi really fails to impress me. For one thing, the deaths of US diplomats is hardly unprecedented. Between January of 2002 and September of 2008, 60 US diplomats were killed, including 12 in Karachi in 2002 and 16 in Yemen in 2008, none of which, to my memory, produced the wailing and rending of garments and gnashing of teeth seen in this case. What's more, the memo itself was little more than typical political CYA and the "scrubbing" amounted to the State Department and the CIA each trying to preemptively blame the other for any screw-ups that might emerge later on.

It's clear the administration was, as the term of art goes, "less than forthcoming" about Benghazi and there are questions about the routine level of security available at the consulate, so there are legitimate concerns that can be raised - but this memo ain't one of them.

Another one, frankly, is the business about the IRS supposedly "targeting" teabagger groups. A few days ago, I would have condemned the IRS using political standards as strongly as anyone else, but the fact is, the more I learn about this, the less of an OMIGOD! it becomes.

First, these were not criminal investigations, they were investigations of eligibility for 501(c)3 and 501(c)4 tax-exempt status. Obtaining and maintaining that status requires that the primary focus of the organization is social welfare. Only limited political activity is allowed.

Second, there was no "targeting" of teabagger groups. The idea was that a group with "Tea Party" or "Patriot" in its name should get a closer look because that raised a reasonable possibility that they may well be engaged in political advocacy rather than social welfare and so be ineligible for 501(c)3 or (c)4 status.

Third, "tea party" and "patriot" were not the only triggers for closer examination. CBS News reports that according to Lois Lerner, who heads the IRS division that oversees tax-exempt organizations, only about 300 of the 3400 applications for 501(c)3 or (c)4 status in 2012 were given extra attention and only a quarter of those involved "tea party" or "patriot."

Finally, if this was an attempt "to punish political enemies," is was a damned inefficient one: Lerner says that 150 of those cases have been closed and while some groups withdrew their application, no group had its tax-exempt status revoked.

In reality, the whole thing was an attempt by the IRS to find a way to deal with the soaring number of applications. The method they chose - or, more accurately, this part of the method they chose - was surely not the best. Scratch that, it was stupid. But to turn it into some conspiracy (directed by who?) to attack political opponents is total nonsense.

A buzzword of fairly recent vintage is "optics," the idea that what something is, is less important than what one side or another can make it appear to be. This is definitely a case of that.

Which brings us to the third scandal of recent weeks, and this is the real one.

The Associated Press was just informed by the Justice Department that it had secretly obtained two months of telephone records of reporters and editors for AP. For the months of April and May of 2012, it got lists of all outgoing calls for both the work and personal phone numbers of individual reporters, for the general AP office numbers in New York, Washington, DC, and Hartford, Connecticut, and for the main number for the AP in the House of Representatives press gallery. In all, it covered 20 separate telephone lines assigned to AP and its journalists, including general office ones that might be used by any of about 100 reporters and an office-wide shared fax line.

AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt called it a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" into how news organizations gather the news that went far beyond anything that could be justified by any specific investigation.

He was hardly alone: The ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the New York Times' Editorial Page Editor, the Washington Post's Executive Editor, and a number of other journalists all used terms like "unacceptable abuse of power," "a terrible blow against the freedom of the press," "outrageous," and "shocking." Even Democratic stalwart Sen. Pat Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said: "I am very troubled by these allegations and want to hear the government's explanation." Even some GOPpers got in on it: Rep. Darrell Issa and Sen. Rand Paul both criticized the intrusion into the press. Lo, and the word "Nixonian" was heard in the land.

The government wouldn't say why it wanted the records, but the belief is that it was another whistleblower case, this one looking for the source of an AP story from May 7, 2012, which revealed some details of a CIA operation in Yemen that stopped an al-Qaida plot to detonate a bomb on an airplane bound for the US - a story which, by the way, the AP obtained and then held off from publishing at the request of the White House until the day before the administration itself was going to release it. Put more directly, it grew out of this White House's continuing drive to achieve complete control over what the public does and doesn't know about what the administration is doing and when it knows it. I wonder how long it will be before they finally just cut to the chase and propose a Ministry of Truth.

The thing is, the Obama gang can't even be trusted to obey their own rules. The Department of Justice has its own regulations about obtaining the telephone records of journalists, which require that "all reasonable attempts should be made to obtain information from alternative sources" and that "negotiations with the media shall be pursued in all cases in which a subpoena to a member of the news media is contemplated." What's more, a subpoena to the media must be "as narrowly drawn as possible" and "should be directed at relevant information regarding a limited subject matter and should cover a reasonably limited time period." None of that happened.

But that didn't matter to Eric Holder, the man who leaped to launch an investigation into the "inappropriate" behavior of the IRS in thinking that politically-oriented right-wing groups might actually be politically-oriented. In this case, he insisted that he knew everything was on the up and up and did it at the same press conference where he did his Sgt. Schultz impression and claimed that he had recused himself from the investigation and had chosen to "not be fully informed."

They can't even be trusted to obey their own rules. Not when their secrecy fetish is involved. And the other thing is, you have to bear in mind that the flip side of government secrecy is always, always, government knowledge: us knowing less and less about them and them knowing more and more about us.

You want to know how bad it's getting? I'll give you an idea.

In response to a Freedom of Information Act filing, the ACLU just this month obtained documents on FBI and Justice Department policies which show that the feds believe they can read your emails without a warrant - and were advising agents of that over two years after a federal court ruled that the Fourth Amendment requires warrants for all emails because their contents are just as private as our letters or phone calls.

But simply ignoring the courts is just a holding action. According to documents obtained in April by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, or EPIC, the Obama administration has authorized a new government program involving the interception of internet communications, part of which involves promising telcoms that the government will not prosecute them if they violate US wiretapping laws by illegally handing over the information the feds want without the legally-required warrants. That is, rather than even worrying about warrants one way or another, the government will simply "ask" for the information, the companies will hand it over - illegally - and the feds won't prosecute. How much more blatantly corrupt can it be?

And the surveillance authorization here - the legal basis for which is classified, of course - is quite broad, covering all "critical infrastructure sectors" including the military, energy, healthcare, and finance.

If you think I'm being paranoid, just remember that like the bumper sticker says, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you. The extent of government intrusion into what we would like to think remains our private - or at least our not overtly-public - lives has become astonishing:

Tim Clemente, a former FBI counterterrorism agent, has twice asserted on CNN in recent weeks that "no digital communication is secure," by which he means not only that the government can actively monitor any of our digital communications, including phone calls, emails, online chats, and all the rest, but that all such communications are automatically recorded and stored and available to the government after the fact.

If that sounds incredible, bear in mind it's not the first indication. Columnist Glenn Greenwald points to some: In 2007, former AT&T engineer Mark Klein revealed that AT&T and other telecoms had built a special network that allowed the National Security Agency, the NSA, full and unlimited access to the phone calls and emails of all of their customers.

In 2008, two NSA employees claimed to have witnessed and even participated in the interception of hundreds of personal, intimate calls from American service members and aid workers and that NSA employees routinely intercepted calls of individuals with no connection to terrorism.

In 2009, government intelligence officials told the New York Times that the NSA had been engaged in what they called significant and systemic “overcollection” of domestic communications of Americans.

In 2010, the Washington Post reported that the NSA was intercepting and storing 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls, and other types of communications every day.

In 2012, NSA official-turned-whistleblower William Binney estimated that the agency has assembled 20 trillion records of phone calls, emails, and other forms of data from Americans, including copies of almost all of the emails sent and received from most people living in the United States. Also in 2012, Sens. Ron Wyden and Mark Udall said Americans would be "stunned" to learn what the administration thought it had the legal power to do under the Patriot Act.

Remember I said earlier about same-sex marriage that on that one, we're winning? Well, I have to say that on this one, we're losing. Badly. And we're running out of time.


Left Side of the Aisle #108 - Part 5

Outrage of the Week: elevating corporations in new trade deal

From the ridiculous to the outrageous. If you needed any more evidence that there is a need for dramatic, dare I say revolutionary, changes in our social and economic system, this should do it: It's the Outrage of the Week.

On May 13, President Hopey-Changey and British Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to achieve a new, broad trade agreement between the US and the European Union. But since tariffs between the two are already low or nonexistent, what is the point?

The point, my friends, is what are called regulatory issues and who gets to decide what the standards are for everything from environmental protection to food safety to worker protection and back again. And the "who" is just who you might expect.

The Amazing Mr. O and Cameron are pushing for what's called "investor-state resolution" to be included in any new pact. Currently, trade between the US and the EU is governed by the rules of the World Trade Organization, or WTO. Under those rules, if a corporation feels it has been wronged by some aspect of a nation's trade policies, it has to persuade a national government to take its case to the WTO court. Under investor-state resolution, that's not necessary and corporations are given the political power to sue governments directly. If the court - composed of supposed trade experts - finds the government policy in question violates some trade agreement, it can impose financial penalties and other sanctions.

Put more bluntly, investor-state resolution provides corporations a forum in which they can attack and try to roll back whatever nation's food safety rules or environmental laws or banking regulations or whatever are the strongest at a given moment on the grounds that they create "unfair barriers to trade" - and do it before a panel of people whose interest is in trade, not in food safety or the environment or consumer protection or whatever.

This is not the first time the US has done this; similar provisions have been included in bilateral pacts since the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, in 1994. But including it in a trade agreement with the EU is unprecedented and gives the lie to the claimed purpose of investor-state resolution, which is to protect companies from dictators or weak court systems in developing countries. Instead, it reveals the real purpose: to formally place corporations on the same legal level as national governments.

Keep reminding yourself: These people are not on your side. And it is an outrage.


Left Side of the Aisle #108 - Part 4

Clown Award: US Customs Dept.

Time for our regular feature, the Clown Award, given as always for acts of meritorious stupidity.

The winner of the big red nose this week is that ever-reliable source of bitterly amusing inanity, the DHS, the Department for the Protection of the Fatherland, in this case in the form of Customs agents, part of our front-line troops in the battle to preserve and protect our forever-endangered levels of paranoia.

Hussain Al-Khawahir is a 33-year-old Saudi Arabian man who was arrested at Detroit Metropolitan Airport on May 11. According to reports, agents at Customs became suspicious when it appeared that a couple of pages - pages 33 and 34, to be specific - were missing from his passport. Okay, fair enough. So they searched his luggage.

And then they found it, the item, the thing, the reason for his arrest: He was trying to bring into a US a pressure cooker! And then, they claimed, he "changed his story" about why he had it.

First, the agents claimed, Al-Khawahir said he bought it for his nephew, who attends the University of Toledo in Ohio because he couldn't buy them in the US. Then, later, he said he brought the pressure cooker because the one his nephew purchased was "cheap" and had broken the first time he used it. Omigosh! The blatant contradictions! Caught in a lie! And let's not forget, it was a pressure cooker!

Let's also not forget that he doesn't speak a word of English and was questioned by Customs via an interpreter. So the questions went from English to Arabic and the answers from Arabic to back to English. It is so terribly unreasonable of me to suspect that something might have been literally lost in translation and Al-Khawahir's first statement was actually that his son had been unable to buy a "decent" one in the US or that he can't get one "like this" in the US? Or are we supposed to think, as Customs apparently does, that international terrorists are so stupid that they are trying to smuggle pressure cookers into the US because they actually don't know you can buy them here?

The clownishness of the DHS here is matched by the clownishness of the media: Most every story I saw on this - and I looked at several - wrote as if it really is a crime to bring a pressure cooker into the US and every single one of them just had to mention the Boston Marathon bombing. Because, after all, pressure cooker!

This is insane. I mean it. Really. The day before Al-Khawahir was arrested on I'm still not sure just what charge, a young Saudi Arabian student living in Michigan told a Saudi newspaper that cops issued him with a warning after he was seen outside carrying a pressure cooker full of rice to a friend’s house for dinner.

Apparently, a neighbor saw a "suspicious" man carrying a pressure cooker and called police. Cops came to his house, questioned him about his education in the US, the date of his arrival, and his activities outside the university. They also examined the pressure cooker and then told him "to be careful while handling such items in public." Maybe they should have remembered Richard Reid and Umar Abdulmutallab and warned him to be careful about appearing in public wearing shoes - or underwear.

The Saudi Arabian embassy in Washington, DC, reports that a number of Saudi students in the US had their homes raided in the aftermath of the Boston bombing. Nothing was found.

Meanwhile, Hussain Al-Khawahir remains in prison until a preliminary hearing on May 28.

Clowns. We are governed by clowns.


Left Side of the Aisle #108 - Part 3

RIP: Ray Harryhausen, Joyce Brothers

We're going to go from the good news to the bad news. We have two RIPs this week.

The first is to Ray Harryhausen, the master of stop-motion animation, who died last week in London. He was 92.

You may not have heard his name, but you very likely know his work. Often working alone or with a small crew, he created and photographed many of the most memorable fantasy-adventure creatures in movie history: the dinosaur in “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms,” shown in the picture shortly before it destroyed Palisades Amusement Park (which I note fore the benefit of anyone for who that may ring a bell), the skeleton warriors in “Jason and the Argonauts,” the pterodactyl in “One Million Years B.C.,” the alien beast in "20 Million Miles to Earth," and many more dating all the way back to "Mighty Joe Young." He developed a way, which he called Dynamation, for his models to appear to interact directly with the actors.

George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Peter Jackson - all cite his films as antecedents for their work. I just remember the fun of watching his movies.

RIP, Ray Harryhausen.

Our other RIP this week is for Dr. Joyce Brothers, "the mother of media psychology," who turned a victory on the television game show "The $64,000 Question" into a decades-long career popularizing psychology through radio, TV, and a syndicated newspaper column. She was 85.

I remember encountering Dr. Joyce through the TV when I was quite young. She had a 5-minute show that was tagged onto something or another and she would answer a mailed-in viewer question while sitting stiffly and properly behind a desk, square-shouldered and facing the camera directly. I thought she was a little creepy.

But I grew up and she thawed out and I came to respect what appeared to be her determination to remain open-minded.

And another part of my childhood slips away. RIP, Joyce Brothers.


Left Side of the Aisle #108 - Part 2

Good news: "death with dignity" in VT

And in another bit of good news - probably actually a bit more controversial these days than even same-sex marriage, but which I think is good news - on May 13 the Vermont legislature gave final passage to what is usually called a "death with dignity" bill and sometimes an "assisted suicide" bill. The governor has promised to sign it.

The new law allows doctors to help terminally ill patients die by prescribing lethal doses of medications to patients with no more than six months to live. The rules are rather strict: The patient must specifically request it, of course, in fact they must do so on three separate occasions. They must also get a second medical opinion confirming the prognosis, be offered a psychiatric examination, and wait 17 days to fill the prescription.

Vermont is the fourth state with such a "death with dignity" procedure; a court order in Montana and ballot initiatives in Washington and Oregon had previously legalized the practice in those places.

A big concern of opponents is the idea that people may end their lives unnecessarily, that maybe they would outlive the prognosis or, worse, had been misdiagnosed. But the experience of Washington state helps to allay those fears: Since assisted suicide was legalized there in 2010, only 255 people have received a lethal prescription, some of who chose not to full it. For them, the fact that they had the prescription and could fill it if they so chose gave them enough comfort, enough of a sense of control, so that they never felt to necessity of doing so. So the prospect of this as a lightly or easily-chosen option seem rather far-fetched.

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