Saturday, June 28, 2014

164.5 - Iraq: some comments

Iraq: some comments

I'm going to spend some time, probably the rest of the show, talking about Iraq. It's actually a hard topic to cover on a weekly show like this, because the flow of events can be such that whatever I say will be passe by the time you hear it.

So, instead of some sort of up-to-the-minute overlook, herewith some perhaps disjointed observations on the overall topic of Iraq.

To start with, though, we have to consider what is going on as it is described to you by the mass media: The forces of a radical fundamentalist Muslim group called ISIS - which stands for Islamic State in Iraq and Syria - have swept through a significant portion of western Iraq, as the government army just ran away. Those forces now control the border crossings into Syria and Jordan and are threatening the capital city of Baghdad.

Now, that is in a broad sense true, but it's not entirely true, and the way it's not entirely true is significant: The forces are actually a range of Sunni militant groups, of which ISIS is the most prominent and probably the most numerous. But it is by no means the only. That can be important for what happens in the future and I will come back to it.

It's also not entirely true that the army simply ran away. There was some resistance, but the army in the area was composed of a combination of Sunnis and Shiites. The Sunnis were largely unwilling to go into battle against other Sunnis and the Shiites wound up thinking "why should I risk my life to defend Sunni towns when my Sunni comrades won't do it themselves so I'm getting out of here." And as often happens in war, retreat turned into panicked flight.

But the way to get a grip on real thing that's going on to realize about what's going on can be found by a comparison of two maps.

The first map comes from I think NBC and it displays where the militants have made their military gains in these weeks.

The second map displays the outcome of the Iraqi parliamentary elections in 2010. The dark blue areas were won by Sunni political parties; the yellow areas were won by Kurdish political parties; the green areas were won by Shiite political parties; and the light blue areas were won by Sunni-Shiite coalition political parties. The little light blue area sort of sticking up, almost surrounded by dark blue, is Baghdad.

Comparing those two maps tells a real story. All of the militant gains have come in heavily, even overwhelmingly, Sunni areas.

The fact is, we are not seeing some outside force sweeping a new caliphate into existence, we are seeing a Sunni uprising against a Shiite-dominated, highly sectarian government in Baghdad.

Our fundamental failure in understanding Iraq has been our refusal to recognize the extremely deep and sharply sectarian divisions that exist and have existed all along. Iraq is a sort of artificial nation, one whose borders were set by the League of Nations in 1921 for the benefit of western nations and without regard either to natural, ethnic, or cultural boundaries.

Our federal government shows some signs of recognition of this, as usual, too little too late, but there are reports that US is "increasingly exasperated" with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who over the past three years, since US troops pulled out, has stopped doing all the things that lead to the cooling of sectarian tensions, the reduction in sectarian violence.

Nouri al-Maliki
He stopping providing payments to Sunni tribes, stopped providing patronage to Sunni groups while favoring Shiite ones. He started persecuting Sunni politicians, jailing them, even killing them through death squads.

It's not that this is a surprise or previously unknown. Over a year ago, in the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, I warned that "al-Maliki is consolidating his personal power on the road toward a dictatorship."

Two months after that, I described how Maliki, had been "engaging in an increasing crackdown on political opponents," including police raids on peaceful Sunni protest encampments.

And in January of this year, I noted the violent arrest of a Sunni member of parliament on bogus terrorism charges and the violent destruction of the lrest of those encampments. At that time, I said:
[T]here has indeed been a resurgence of violence in Iraq, including in the capital of Baghdad. Over 8,000 people were been killed in sectarian violence in Iraq in 2013, the highest total since 2008. But blunderbuss tactics such as Maliki is employing are less likely to bring an end to such violence than they are to intensify it, as other Sunnis take up arms....

As negotiations between government officials on the one hand and Anbar provincial council members and tribal sheikhs on the other fail, Iraq stands now on the edge of a renewal of outright civil war.
Fareed Zakaria, a CNN journalist who never found an international situation he couldn't grossly oversimplify, still did manage to make a solid point when he said that what's happening now in Iraq
was inevitable in the sense it was predictable because we’ve seen this movie before. This is exactly what happened in '04, '05, and '06 when the Shia government in Iraq essentially started persecuting the Sunnis, purging them from office, disempowering them in various ways, and the Sunnis started fueling and funding insurgency. That's what created the civil war in Iraq.
And now, years later, doing the same damn things is leading to the same damn result: creating another civil war.

But of course, it's only now, now with disaster (from our point of view) at the door, only now we are pressing Maliki to make some political overtures to the Sunnis in order to create political opposition to ISIS among the Sunnis. For his part, Maliki is stalling, posturing, and pontificating, figuring that if things get bad enough, we will save his butt.

Meanwhile, while US is flying 30 or more warplane or drone missions over Iraq daily, they are merely watching the militant advance and military officials even directly deny rumors of a single drone strike.

As Time mag notes,
the U.S. military generally "sends messages" by attacking. Now it is sending messages by not attacking. And its target this time around isn’t the enemy, but its purported ally running the country.
Bluntly put, the US is dragging its feet about defending Malaki’s government, taking what Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon's chief spokesman, called "a measured, deliberate approach to help us and the Iraqis get better eyes on the situation." He added that the teams going to Iraq "will provide their findings within the next two to three weeks," and after getting and considering those reports the brass will decide what to do next. The whole purpose is to force Maliki to make concessions as a condition for expanded US assistance.

In other words, the US and Maliki are playing a sort of political chicken. The questions are who blinks first and how many die both before and after that time.

Because people are dying. The UN estimates that more than 1,000 people have been killed in Iraq in June, a figure the UN human rights office said "should be viewed very much as a minimum." Seventy-five percent of the dead were civilians.

And it may get a good deal worse. Clear signs of a return to sectarian reprisal killings are appearing in Baghdad similar to the dark days of 2006-07 when most every morning revealed victims, sometimes dozens of victims, murdered in the night for the crime of believing in the wrong version of Islam.

So what happens now? First, it's safe to say that the Sunni forces will not have it so easy from here on out, especially if they stand by their declared (at least by ISIS) plans not only to take Baghdad but to advance to Shiite holy cities such as Najaf. If they do, they are going to be finding themselves up against well-armed, well-trained Shiite militias with combat experience, who will be defending, in essence, their own turf, not someone else's.

There's another issue about those Sunni militants, which is that ISIS has a crucial weakness. As I noted at the top, ISIS is the most prominent and very likely the largest of the various Sunni groups - but with maybe 8000-10,000 fighters in Iraq, ISIS simply does not have the numbers to take and hold multiple urban centers. It is totally reliant on its support from other Sunni groups and from the local population, which still sees them as the answer to repression by the Shiite-dominated central government.

But ISIS has a record of violence, extremism, absolutism, and ruthlessness such that even al-Qaeda disavowed them and in Syria they are as busy fighting other rebel groups as they are Assad's forces. ISIS has repeatedly gained and then lost local support and it's easy to imagine the same thing happening in Iraq. So there is a real question of how long the Sunni militant coalition, for lack of a better term, can stay together.

That's where the hope for a political settlement lies, in that this is not a battle of Iraq against an invading army of fanatics, but a battle of politically-entrenched Shiites versus disaffected Sunnis, Sunnis who could, the thinking goes, be brought back into the fold with some concessions, some gestures in their direction.

My own sense, however, is that the US belief that a new power-sharing agreement in Baghdad would soothe the anger among the Sunnis is hopelessly naive. Because if once bitten is twice shy, what is twice bitten? As Zakaria said, we've seen this movie before. Why would Sunnis believe any promises from Maliki or his government about a new power-sharing agreement? Why should they believe them?

What may come out of this - after the bloodshed that always seems to be required in such matters before people come to their senses - is what others have predicted, even advocated, before: an Iraq that exists less as a nation than as a confederation of three Iraqs: one Sunni, one Shiite, and one Kurdish.

I know not talked about the Kurds. They are an important part in what happens to Iraq in the future and deserve a full consideration, which I have not given them here. But I am going to have to save that for another day.

Rather, I'm going to wrap up by saying that, who knows, maybe things will work out in Iraq because we have evidence that miracles do happen.

Last week, someone said this about Iraq:
Not one more life. Not one more dollar, not one more airplane, not one more bullet, not one more Marine, not one more arm or leg or eye. Not one more. This must end now. From the beginning, most people on the left were against going into Iraq. I wasn’t.... Liberals, you were right. We shouldn’t have.
The person who said that was Glenn Beck.

Sources cited in links:

164.4 - Outrage of the Week: no legal argument in kill memo

Outrage of the Week: no legal argument in kill memo

Now for our other regular feature, the Outrage of the Week.

On Monday, June 23, a federal appeals court in Washington, DC, made public large portions of that infamous Justice Department memo that deemed it lawful for the CIA or the military to kill Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen in Yemen, based solely on the administration's internal, unreviewable, decision that he was an an operational terrorist leader whose capture was not feasible.

The memo was completed more than a year before the September 2011 drone strike that killed
Awlaki along with another American, Samir Khan, who was not specifically targeted but apparently deserved to die because he happened to be standing nearby.

Knowledge of this memo has been out there for a while and bits of information about it have leaked out over time. The ACLU and the New York Times filed suit under the Freedom of Information Act, demanding its release. After battling the case for some time, the Obama gang, faced with an appeals court order to release a redacted version of the memo, gave in after some senators threatened to hold up the nomination of its primary author, David Barron, to a position on the federal court if the memo was not released.

Now, again, we've known about the memo for a while. We've known about the "we can kill the guy" claim for some time. It was over four years ago, in April, 2010, when in response to news reports about the decision to target Awlaki that I wrote, on my blog and to the White House, "Mr. President, just who the hell do you think you are?"

But we kept hearing about how there was this legal argument for why this was okay, all according to the rules, all's fair, and all that. They were, we were told, on sound legal footing. We should trust them on that.

And so now we've seen the memo, or at least a version of it released by the court - and it's more of an outrage than ever.

Anwar al-Awlaki
Barron took the premise that Awlaki was "an operational terrorist leader whose capture was not feasible" and just declared that therefore it would be lawful for either the military or the intelligence agency to kill him, notwithstanding federal statutes against murdering Americans overseas and protections in the Constitution against depriving someone of life without due process of law.

And that's pretty much what it says, all that it says, at least in the heavily-redacted version of it released by he court.

I'm trying to make this clear, just what I find so outrageous. This is not a tightly-reasoned legal argument, it's essentially a list of talking points, of assertions, of premises presented as conclusions, conclusions that would apply not just to Awlaki but to anyone this or any future administration, it its own, again, secret, internal, judgment, unreviewed and unreviewable by any outside agency or authority or court, it would apply to anyone they decide is a "terrorist leader."

What all this means is that the administration's vaunted legal reasoning, its supposed hard-nosed argument for why it's okay to murder American citizens away from any actual battlefield, comes down to "because it just is." We can kill anyone we think deserves killing - just because.

Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, said of the memo “It’s hard to believe that it was produced in a democracy built on a system of checks and balances.”

Pardiss Kebriaei, a senior attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, said the memo's contents showed that the targeted killing program was built on "gross distortions of law."

Gross is a description of it. So is deeply, ethically, morally, outrageous.

Sources cited in links:

164.3 - Clown Award: Google

Clown Award: Google

Now for a regular weekly feature, the Clown Award, given for meritorious stupidity.

The winner of the Big Red Nose this week is Google, whose motto "don't be evil" seems evermore internally contradictory.

To be more specific, the target of scorn this week is YouTube, which is owned by Google.

YouTube has become a major source for streaming free music with more than 1 billion visitors per month. I was just listening to a bunch of Phil Ochs recordings just the other day.

Always looking to make a buck for itself and its google-eyed masters, YouTube recently made a pact with major record labels that would create a premium service, available to consumers for a subscription fee, featuring ad-free music.

Last week, a number of indie labels came out against the plan, arguing that the terms of the deal favor major labels at the expense of smaller ones.

In response, YouTube announced that "in a matter of days" it would blacklist artists and record labels that refused to sign on to the agreement. That is, if you didn't agree to join the subscription service, you would be booted off YouTube entirely.

The Music Producers Guild, a membership-based group of industry producers and engineers, lambasting Google's subscription model and the company "abuse of its monopoly and associated market power" as well as the impact it will have on "funds available for innovative and creative content production in the future."

It should be noted that indie labels now hold roughly a third of the music industry's market share.

As of June 23, YouTube had not yet begun removing content owned by labels that did not agree to the ad-free premium deal. Doesn't matter. The fact that you would even consider it marks you and particularly your corporate masters at Google as what we've long suspected Google to be: a money-grubbing, toad-sucking clown.

Sources cited in links:

164.2 - Update: George Will and sexual violence

Update: George Will and sexual violence

Now for an update on something from two weeks ago. At that time, I gave George Will the Clown Award for a column in which said being a victim of sexual assault was "a coveted status" at colleges and universities, complete with "privileges."

He was roundly condemned in a number of other places as well as here, and in fact got hit in the best possible place: his wallet: The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has announced that it will no longer run his column, indicating in a note to readers that Will had crossed a line and, referring to the column, said "we apologize for publishing it."

In response, there were of course the usual muttering from the right about "censorship" and high-falutin' talk from the left about "let him speak," but the fact is, George Will has no more right to a nationally-syndicated column than I do. Sometimes, I think less.

Anyway, I say right on, St. Louis Post-Dispatch. As every parent does or at least should know, bad behavior doesn't change if there are no consequences.

More than that, I don't want to hear about consequences suffered by George Will, consequences that would be a tiny fraction of the consequences of sexual assault to the women he belittled as little more than status seekers.

A study published in the June issue of the journal "Gender and Society" concluded that there were several reasons why girls and young women rarely report incidents of abuse - but a major reason, significantly, is because they regarded sexual abuse and violence directed against them as "normal." They regarded, they had been socialized to accept, the grabbing, the groping, the unwanted fondling, in fact pretty much everything short of physically forced intercourse, as a routine, even expected part of life.

That's what we're putting women through on a daily basis - and that's what George Will is content to see continue.

By the way, a bit of a footnote: Studies such as this one reveal that we are socializing young women so that they are expected to accept being the target of unwanted sexual aggression. Related to that, I would hope for research - maybe it's already being done and if so I'd like to see it - on how young men are socialized so that they are expected to exhibit sexual aggression. You want to be ostracized? Be a 16-year old boy among a group of 16-year old boys and say that you wouldn't cop a feel even if you could because it just not a right thing to do. See what happens.

Sources cited in links:

164.1 - Good News: no-fly list declared unconstitutional

Good News: no-fly list declared unconstitutional

We start, as I try to do every week, with some good news.

The no-fly list maintained by the US government has been what one writer accurately called a "Kafkaesque quagmire" ever since it was created in the wake of 9/11.

The list bans people suspected of some sort of link to terrorism from boarding flights of commercial airlines. The list is secret, there are no clear rules as to how a name gets placed on it, there is no way to know if you are on it except by trying to board a plane, and if you're on it, no way to find out when or why and essentially no way to challenge the listing.

Another secret is just how many people are on the list. As of last year, the FBI said it included some 20,000 people, including about 500 US citizens but there's no way to know if that's an accurate number or not: Consider that a year earlier, it was supposed to have 8,000-10,000 names.

Now, finally, over 12 years after it was created, some justice has been done. On June 24, US District Judge Anna Brown ruled that the no-fly list is unconstitutional because it gives those who discover they are on the list no meaningful way to contest that decision.

The ruling came in a case filed by the ACLU on behalf of 13 Muslim Americans, four of them US military veterans, who were branded with the no-fly status. Judge Brown ordered the government to come up with new procedures that allow people on the no-fly list to challenge that designation. She said:
The court concludes international travel is not a mere convenience or luxury in this modern world. Indeed, for many international travel is a necessary aspect of liberties sacred to members of a free society.
Accordingly, on this record the court concludes plaintiffs inclusion on the no-fly list constitutes a significant deprivation of their liberty interests in international travel.
I should note that the feds insist that there is an adequate means of contesting the flight ban - but it's unwieldy and essentially ineffective.

Rahinah Ibrahim
Well, in that event, the feds claim, you can petition a US appeals court directly for relief.


The first person to successfully pursue that course was a former Stanford University student named Rahinah Ibrahim. It took nine years: The case started in 2005 and was concluded in January of this year. According to her lawyer, Elizabeth Marie Pipkin who with a team of laywers handled the case pro bono, it cost $300,000 in court costs and $3.8 million in legal fees covering some 11,000 hours of work and featured a sealed court decision with strange redactions.

So, yeah, "no meaningful way" to contest being on the list seems accurate.

Hopefully, Judge Brown's ruling will be  upheld on appeal. Now that would be really good news.

Sources cited in links:

Left Side of the Aisle #164

Left Side of the Aisle
for the week of June 26 - July 2, 2014

This week:

Good News: no-fly list declared unconstitutional

Update: George Will and sexual violence

Clown Award: Google

Outrage of the Week: no legal argument in kill memo

Iraq: some comments

Thursday, June 19, 2014

163.9 - Iraq: No! and Why?

Iraq: No! and Why?

Okay - this will be the last thing for this week. It may surprise you, but I am not going to spend a lot of time talking about Iraq. That is, not this week.

But with the news that nearly 300 armed American forces are being positioned in and around Iraq to help secure US assets in the area and our Nobel Peace Prize President is supposed to be considering everything from airstrikes to inserting Special Forces units, and the media is chock-a-block with right-wingers giving advice that always revolves around "do something" without, usually, being particularly specific about what that something is and I swear John McCain must have a special cot set aside for him at the Meet the Press studio, he's there so much - but in the face of all this, I have just two things to say. The first is to Barack Obama:

Mr. President, don't! Just don't. Don't do the bombing. Don't send in Special Forces, even just as "advisers." The idea that you are going to solve a conflict that has quite literally gone on for more than a thousand years with a few bombs or some Special Forces is ludicrous. And please do realize that all those news stories about Iraq "teetering" or "on the brink" of civil war have it wrong: Iraq is and has been in a civil war ever since we invaded. It never ended, it just cooled off some for a time. We might, as we did at the cost of such bloodshed in the years before withdrawal, suppress the conflict - but we won't stop it. Please please please do not repeat the stupidity of 2003.

Speaking of 2003, that's the other thing I wanted to raise. All over the media, we are seeing familiar faces. Sen. John McCain, who never saw a war he couldn't propose sending US forces into. His BFF Sen. Lindsey Graham. Douglas Feith, former undersecretary of defense for policy in the Bush administration and one of the architects of the Iraq war.

Paul Bremer, who as U.S. presidential envoy to Iraq after the invasion, disbanded the Iraqi army, a critical blunder that was followed by sectarian violence that has declined but has never stopped since.

Former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who pushed for the Iraq invasion soon after 9/11, an attack with which Iraq had no connection, and was the man who told Congress that Iraq could "finance its own reconstruction" with "oil revenues."

Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, one of the most influential media figures to have promoted the war. Even former NY Times reporter Judith Miller, whose credulous reporting during the run-up to the war become synonymous with the media's astonishing failure, who recently appeared on Fox News to, yes, criticize media coverage of Iraq.

So here's the question: Why are we listening to these people? Why are the people whose hubris, stupidity, and avarice were responsible for the political, economic, and most importantly humanitarian disaster that was our invasion of Iraq, why are they now being asked to pontificate on Iraq today?

Why are we listening to these people?

Sources cited in links:

163.8 - Outrage of the Week: US worst in health care

Outrage of the Week: US worst in health care

Now for our other feature regular feature, it's the Outrage of the Week.

It seems we have a streak going: Over the past 10 years, The Commonwealth Fund, which promotes improved health care, has issued five reports ranking western, industrialized nations on the quality of their health-care systems. Its most recent report, involving 11 industrialized nations, was released on June 16.

And for the fifth consecutive time, the US has been ranked dead last.

Factors included quality, access, efficiency and equity of health care. There were a total of 11 measures. While the US didn't rank at the bottom in every area, it did rank lowest overall, including cost, efficiency, equity, and the overall health of its citizens. In fact, the US ranked no higher than third on any measure and that was on the one we most usually pride ourselves on: the "effectiveness" of care, that is, how good is the care available. The claim "we have the best health care in the world" is simply no longer true, assuming it ever was.

At the same time, in something that will come as no surprise, the US was far and away the most costly in terms of health care, leading to financial barriers. For example, more than a third of US adults reported skipping a recommended test or treatment or not filling a prescription because of cost.

Other barriers and problems included a relative shortage of primary care physicians - forty percent of US adults who went to an emergency room said they could've been treated by a regular doctor if one had been available - lack of access to primary care, especially for the poor; high infant mortality; inordinate levels of mortality from conditions that could have been controlled, such as high blood pressure; and lower healthy life expectancy at age 60.

It doesn't have to be this way, of course: The UK was ranked first among the eleven nations, a significant improvement over the years - because as the report notes, the UK diagnosed its health care system’s problems and addressed them, something we continually fail to do and no, Obamacare is not an adequate response. Not nearly.

Besides the US, the countries surveyed were Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and the UK.

Bottom line: We pay the most and get the least benefit any many of us still can't afford or even have access to adequate health care. And we are the worst - for the fifth time in a row. And that is an outrage.

Sources cited in links:

163.7 - Footnote: Workers rights in US are substandard

Footnote: Workers rights in US are substandard

As a footnote to that, it's not only minimum wage workers who are getting screwed.

According to a new global comparison by the International Trade Union Confederation, an international labor coalition that represents 176 million workers from 161 different nations, the United States ranks in the bottom half of the world when it comes to labor rights.

The ITUC has a five-point scale, with one being the best and five the worst. It's based on a 97-point evaluation of the state of labor rights in each country, ranging from worker-related fundamental civil liberties to collective bargaining rights.

The US scores a four, joining other nations where the ITUC finds “systematic violations” of worker rights. The only country in North or Central America to get a five was Guatemala.

American labor rights and union strength have been waning for decades, a decline that has accelerated of late. Over the past three years, more than a dozen states have put restrictions on collective bargaining for public employees and 19 have taken up anti-union, anti-worker, so-called “right-to-work” laws over that same time.

And just like in the case of the minimum wage, the world is starting to notice.

Sources cited in links:

163.6 - Update: Even the IMF says "raise the minimum wage"

Update: Even the IMF says "raise the minimum wage"

We've got what can be considered an update, a follow-up, to something from last week.

Last week I reported on the good news that some states and cities have finally responded to the lack of action on the federal level and have acted to increase the minimum wage in their jurisdictions.

Still, as I said then, the federal minimum wage remains a paltry $7.25 an hour. How low is that? If it had been adjusted for inflation on a regular basis, it would be at least $10.68 an hour. If it had kept up with increases in worker productivity, it would be close to $22 an hour. Instead, it is one of the lowest among the world's developed economies.

In fact, it's so low that the US is starting to get shamed by the rest of the world.

On June 16, the International Monetary Fund came out with its latest economic forecasts. It cut its forecast for US economic growth this year and warned of sluggish growth for years to come - and said one of the things that should be done to improve things would be to raise the minimum wage. Quoting the report:
[G]iven its current low level (compared both to U.S. history and international standards), the minimum wage should be increased. This would help raise incomes for millions of working poor and (help) ensure a meaningful increase in after-tax earnings for the nation’s poorest households.
Of course, the after-tax earnings for the nation’s poor means nothing to the rich as long as their after-tax earnings continue to increase. Which is doubtless part of the reason why that just eight days after Seattle enacted legislation that will raise the minimum wage there to $15 an hour over several years, a lobbying group representing major employers like McDonald’s and Taco Bell filed suit, asking the courts to repeal the legislation.

Some of the suit's arguments are laughably frivolous, such as the claim that it violates the employers' First Amendment rights of free speech because it could reduce the amount of money they have to advertise - which of course would mean any cost imposed on a business would be unconstitutional on the same basis.

There's too much in this suit for me to talk about here, but I may come back to it and its arguments because one commentator called those arguments "an attempt to repeal the 20th century." Which probably wouldn't surprise anyone who remembers that right wing darling George Will once wrote that "'Back to 1900' is a serviceable summation of the conservatives' goal."

Sources cited in links:

163.5 - The illness of guns

The illness of guns

Following up on the Clown Award, what's really amazing is how deeply the concept of guns has penetrated our culture. I don't mean gun ownership; in fact the number of people who own guns has been gradually declining in this country for some time even as the number of guns owned continues to increase - that is, fewer and fewer people are owning more and more guns each. Rather, I mean the idea of guns as just a routine part of our culture. Let me give you some examples to illustrate.

On June 27, the administration of Preston Memorial Hospital in Kingswood, WV, is staging a "community BBQ," during which the hospital plans to raffle off a matched set of Ruger handguns with .357 and .44 Magnum cartridges.

What makes this even more insane is that this is the second year they have run a gun raffle.

Tickets this year are $20 and proceeds benefit the "PMH Foundation Building for a Healthy Future Capital Campaign." Put a little less clumsily, the guns are being raffled off as a fundraiser for expanding the hospital.

I certainly hope that expansion includes an improved emergency department.

And this is not even an isolated case.

In March, as part of a bid to attract more people to its services, the Grace Baptist Church in Troy, New York gave away an AR-15 assault rifle in a free raffle: the only requirement to win was to be in church on the day. Pastor John Koletas said the event was to honor hunters and gun owners, and, he went on, "we’re being a blessing and a help to people who have been attacked, viciously attacked, by socialists and anti-Christian people - the politicians and the media."

The church promoted the event with flyers saying "Win a FREE AR-15" right above a quote taken from John 14:27: "my peace I give unto you." And yes, they spelled it p-e-a-c-e not p-i-e-c-e.

Pastor Koletas claimed "the Bible is replete with defending yourself and arming yourself, and being capable of defending yourself." Apparently the Bible can serve as a tactical military manual. The article did not specify any of the "replete" passages which the pastor may have cited. And I guess this passage doesn't mean anything:
You have heard that it has been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say to you, That you resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue you at law, and take away your coat, let him have you cloak too. And whosoever shall compel you to go a mile, go with him two. Give to him that asks you, and from him that would borrow of you do not turn away.

You have heard that it has been said, love your neighbor, and hate your enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for those who despitefully use you, and persecute you.
That's John 5:38-44. It's part of the Sermon on the Mount, which apparently doesn't appear in Pastor Koletas' Bible.

Nor, apparently, does it appear in the Bible used at the Lone Oak First Baptist Church of Paducah, KY, which, a couple of weeks before Grace Church's BBQ, drew 1300 people to a steak dinner at the church hall by raffling off 25 rifles for free.

So many of us have become so used to guns, so inured to the death machines that they are, that they are built to be, that by the end of the first week in June, the TSA had discovered 892 guns in passengers’ carry-on bags at security checkpoints. That’s a 19 percent increase from the comparable period of last year, which was a record - and 80% of the guns were loaded.

Why were they trying to carry loaded weapons past the security checkpoint? Usually, the excuse was "I forgot it's there."

John Pierce, a Virginia lawyer and co-founder of, which is campaigning for the right to “openly carry properly holstered handguns in daily American life,” said that those for who firearms are not a daily part of life might find it hard to understand those for who carrying a gun is second nature.

No, Mr. Pierce, that's not it - because I can understand that. That's the problem. You are so connected to the gun that you can forget you have a loaded gun in your carry-on bag, as if a loaded gun was no more consequential than a cell phone or an extra pair of shorts.

More than that, more important than that, our love of guns, our mythos of guns, our identification with guns, has gone beyond an acceptance, for too many of us it has gone beyond an obsession into a sort of mental illness, a psychosis driven by a constant state of fear combined with a feeling of powerlessness to improve or even to affect our own lives, a psychosis that leaves us envisioning Jesus packing heat and expecting at any moment a crazed murder-rapist-terrorist to come smashing through our front door.

NY state Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin, who attended the event at the Troy church, said he couldn't understand why the event would be controversial. The thing is, for the most part, it's not - and again, that is exactly the problem.

Sources cited in links:

163.4 - Clown Award: CNN

Clown Award: CNN

Talking about guns and gun nuts and their gun nuttery brings us to one of our regular weekly features, it's the Clown Award, given for meritorious stupidity, this week complete with special commendation for intellectual cowardice.

This week the big red nose goes to CNN.

Last week I told you about how a group called Everytown for Gun Safety had compiled a list of 74 school shootings since Newtown.

Now, in what has been accurately called "a shameful and mind-numbingly insensitive move," CNN has decided that most of those 74 school shootings simply do not count.

In fact, CNN, has decided that only 15 of those 74 are real, honest-to-gosh "school shootings" - even though those other 59 incidents resulted in 25 dead and 40 more wounded.

How? CNN decided that only those 15 were "school shootings" because they were the only ones that involved someone walking into a school or onto a campus and just starting to shoot. If the shootings arose as the result of an argument or gang activities or whatever, well, those just didn't make the cut.

In fact, the standard used by CNN is a bit hard to figure out: It didn't matter, for example, if the victims were specifically targeted by the shooter or if they were random. You'd then perhaps think the standard was premeditation, but a suicide, which was clearly premeditated, was among those excluded.

Ultimately, it seems CNN sought to eliminate every instance where they could find a way to say it was not fundamentally the same as Newtown except for the number of bodies.

Beyond the student who committed suicide in full view of his classmates, among those incidents not included in CNN's revised list, according to Think Progress, was a brawl that escalated outside a college basketball game at Chicago State University, a shooting at a Mississippi town’s football game that left a 15-year-old dead, and a Georgia college that saw two shootings in two days.

Okay, that's the how, what about the why? That's easier to figure out: CNN backpedaled after right wingers started attacking the list.

It started with a series of tweets from a so-called journalist named Charles Johnson who makes a living telling readers of various right-wing rags what they want to hear. Johnson repeatedly called incidents on the original list "fake," a chant the rest of the right wing press picked up almost instantly, as its hive mind usually does.

And of course, CNN almost immediately caved. Because my gosh, how could any news media outlet be expected to stand by its own reporting when challenged by the intellectual heavyweights of outfits like - and these are the real names - the Daily Caller, HotAir, and PajamasMedia?

Actually, I can tell you what news media outlet could be expected to do that: any self-respecting news media outlet unwilling to lets its coverage be determined by a collection of right wing hacks - a description which apparently does not apply to CNN.

So CNN, you have shown yourself to be both moronic and gutless, more interested in placating the right wing than in truth or accuracy, with the result that you have downplayed the continuing deadly toll of guns. CNN, you are a clown.

Sources cited in links:

163.3 - Good News: SCOTUS takes stuffing out of straw gun purchases

Good News: SCOTUS takes stuffing out of straw gun purchases

Another bit of good news comes from a relatively unexpected source: the Supreme Court.

On June 16, the Court dealt a rare but sharp defeat to the gun nuts when it declared that two lower courts were correct when they ruled against so-called straw purchases, where one person buys a gun actually intended for another person.

The primary purpose, bluntly, for a straw purchase is to hide the identity of the true owner of the gun, something often done for criminal purposes. Since one of the purposes of gun buyers having to identify themselves and fill out a form is to have some chance of tracing the gun in the future. Allowing straw purchases, the majority reasoned, makes no sense and defeats the purpose of registration in the first place.

The case involved a former cop who bought a handgun for an uncle, during which he signed a federal form saying he was the "actual buyer" of the gun. He was convicted of making a false statement on the form. His attorney argued that because both men were legally able to own guns, there was no crime because - get this - Congress was "not concerned about the ultimate recipients of firearms or what happens to a gun after it leaves the gun store."

To which I can only respond, say what? What is he point of the form at all? What is the point of the registration at all, if it's only supposed to apply for the time it takes for the buyer to get to the door? Fortunately, a majority of the Supreme Court agreed. Elena Kagen, writing for the majority, argued that had the cop told the truth, that the gun was intended for someone else, the sale could not have gone forward because the uncle would not have gone through a background check.

The down part of this good news is that the case was decided by a mere 5-4 majority - which means four rightwing members of the Supreme Court want people to in effect be able to obtain guns secretly, they want people to be able to obtain guns from gun shops without having to go through a background check, even though studies show that background checks do help to keep guns out of the hands of people who should not have them and do save lives. But they, it seems, simply do not care, preferring to chant with the NRA, "all for guns and guns for all."

So it may not seem like a big win, but it is a win - and when dealing with the gun nuts, any win is a big one.

Sources cited in links:

163.2 - Good News: Obama to bar LGBT discrimination in federal contracts

Good News: Obama to bar LGBT discrimination in federal contracts

Next up this week, we have the fact that Barack Obama has decided to do the right thing - which frankly happens sufficiently rarely to deserve notice.

The Amazing Mr. O has directed his staff to prepare an Executive Order that will prohibit federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

This is something Obama has been promising for nearly six years now, since his 2008 campaign for president.

It appears that what finally brought this to a head was the failure last year of the Employee Non-Discrimination Act to get through Congress, meaning that it was still legal under federal law for members of the LGBT community to be fired or denied public accommodation.

Obama can't do anything about the public accommodation part by executive order, but he can say that any company that does business with the federal government - and if you count both direct federal employees and those working for contracting companies, you are talking about nearly a quarter of the nation's workforce - Obama can say that any company that does business with the federal government can't discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

And now it appears he has finally faced the fact that Congress isn't going to fix this so he has to step up if he's ever going to. It appears now that he intends to do just that. And that is good news.

Sources cited in links:

163.1 - Good News: Voter photo ID drive stalls in Nevada

Good News: Voter photo ID drive stalls in Nevada

First off, we have some good news about voter ID.

I haven't talked about this a lot of late, but as it gets into election season, I expect it will come up more.

Just as a quick reminder, the voter ID issue involves demands that prospective voters produce some specified form of photo ID at the polling place in order to cast a ballot. It's supposed to prevent in-person voter fraud, something the right wing claims is "rampant."

But first, such fraud is almost totally non-existent - in fact, the numbers are so small, often running to something like one ten-thousandth of one percent, that Stephen Colbert once joked that "Our democracy is under siege from an enemy so small it could be hiding anywhere."

Second, the people most likely to be affected by the law are the poor and minorities, followed by students and the elderly. So the move would disenfranchise millions to prevent a crime that essentially doesn't exist. By the way, three of those groups most affected - and a good part of the fourth - tend to vote liberal and the demand for voter photo ID comes almost exclusively from the right wing. Just a coincidence, no doubt.

Anyway, there had been some sense in some corners that the effort at voter photo ID had peaked. Now there may be some actual evidence of that, as an effort to place a voter photo ID measure on the Nevada ballot this November failed miserably. Organizers had to turn in over 100,000 signatures by 5 pm on June 17. The deadline came and went, and the effort failed so badly that voter registrars in two counties said they’d received no petitions whatsoever.

This doesn't mean the effort is dead, even in Nevada. But it does appear to mean that it's getting harder to convince people that some things are just more important than others and being able to have the most people free to vote is one of them. And that is good news.

Sources cited in links:

Left Side of the Aisle #163

Left Side of the Aisle
for the week of June 19-25, 2014

This week:

Good News: Voter photo ID drive stalls in Nevada

Good News: Obama to bar LGBT discrimination in federal contracts

Good News: SCOTUS takes stuffing out of straw gun purchases

Clown Award: CNN

The illness of guns

Update: Even the IMF says "raise the minimum wage"

Footnote: Workers rights in US are substandard

Outrage of the Week: US worst in health care

Iraq: No! and Why?

Sunday, June 15, 2014

162.7 - RIP: Chester Nez

RIP: Chester Nez

We have an RIP this week. You may have heard about this; it got a decent amount of coverage, but just in case you didn't, it's interesting enough to note. It revolves around one of the lesser-known - better-known than it was, but still lesser-known - stories of World War II.

The man's name was Chester Nez, and he died of kidney failure on June 4. He was believed to be 93.

Chester Nez was born at Cousin Brothers Trading Post on the Navajo Nation, about 15 miles southwest of Gallup, New Mexico. The offical date for his birth was Jan. 23, 1921, but his family isn’t certain of the actual date.

He grew up at Chichiltah - which I hope I am pronouncing correctly and means “among the oaks” - until, at age 9, he was sent to boarding school where the federal government was determined to teach him, as it did with many native children, to be white. He was required to learn and always speak English. He was punished by having his mouth washed out with soap if he spoke his native tongue.

In 1942, in response to military recruiters who came to the school, he enlisted in the Marine Corps. And this is where it gets interesting.

Chester Nez was the last survivor of the original group of Code Talkers. The Code Talkers were Navajos recruited by the US military in World War II with the idea that they could create an essentially unbreakable code.

You see, very few non-Navajos spoke Navajo - and it was a pretty safe bet that probably none of them were in the Japanese military. What's more, the Navajo language had no written form.

So Nez and 28 other Navajos were set the task of developing a code based on their native language. It  took them 13 weeks, but they created an initial glossary of more than 200 terms using Navajo words as well as an alphabet.

Each Code Talker memorized the code, which involved assigning letters to terms in the Navajo language and substituting Navajo words for military terms. For example, a submarine was an iron fish, a tank was a tortoise, a grenade was a potato, and so on.

They then went into combat with various US Marine units in the Pacific, communicating with each other in their code via radio.

Although the Japanese had proved themselves skilled code-breakers, this code was never broken. Because after all, how do you break a code spoken in a language probably no one in your entire country speaks and which you don't even have a way to write down?

This wasn't the first use of Native Americans as Code Talkers; in fact, it appears to have originated in World War I when the task was taken on by Cherokees and Choctaws. Nor were Navajos the only Native Americans so used by the military in World War II: Lakota, Meskwaki, and Comanche soldiers were also used as Code Talkers; in all, including the Navajo, 16 Native American peoples contributed their language skills.

Nez was proud of what he did in the war, which is a bit ironic considering that at the time he enlisted, Navajos could not even vote in this country. But for a long time he couldn't tell anyone what he had done because, with the usual grace with which the government gives up its secrets, the program was not declassified until 1968 - which was especially silly because people had already known about the program for some time: The 1959 movie "Never So Few" includes a Navajo Code Talker as a character.

Nevertheless, what I have always found interesting about the story - beyond an enduring movie-driven image of Japanese soldiers listening the Code Talkers on their radios and scratching their heads in utter bewilderment - is what it tells us about the variety and complexity of human language and the cultural importance of preserving the rapidly-declining language diversity which we on this planet now have.

So Chester Nez, last of the original World War II Code Talkers, know that what you did was about more than winning a war: It was about the idea of cultural survival, about preserving and celebrating complexity and cultural diversity.

RIP, Chester Nez.

Sources cited in links:

162.6 - Guns: another school shooting

Guns: another school shooting

Another week, another school shooting. This one took place in Troutdale, Oregon, a town in the Columbia River basin east of Portland. A teenager armed with a rifle went into Reynolds High School and opened fire. He killed one student and wounded a teacher before going into a bathroom and killing himself.

It was just the latest in an ever-lengthening string of shootings at schools across the country. It was, in fact, the 74th school shooting since Adam Lanza shot down students and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

Just to be clear, not every one of these incidents involved deaths or injuries. But they did involve guns being fired - not just carried, but fired - in schools or on school grounds.

Despite the fact that the gun homicide death has declined substantially in the past two decades,  about 11,000 Americans are still murdered every year by guns. About 19,000 more commit suicide with a gun. That's a much higher rate than anywhere else in the developed world.

Why? What can we do about it? If the shills for the gun industry at the Nutzoid Rabbit-brains of America (NRA) continue to have their way, the answers to those questions will be "who knows?" For years, the Centers for Disease Control, whose mandate is to research causes and prevention of threats to public health, which gun violence surely is, has been pushed away from doing research that is "advocacy for gun control" - and any research that would show a connection between guns and gun violence, which any research on the topic would, would be considered "advocacy for gun control."

K-12 in red; college/universities in purple
The very idea of research is anathema to the Congressional lobby for Murder, Inc. A proposal to renew funding for CDC research on gun violence is "funding propaganda for [Obama's] gun-grabbing initiatives" according to one bought-off Congressman, echoing the NRA's having called the idea an "unethical" "abuse of taxpayer funds for anti-gun political propaganda." Which tells me, tells everyone with two synapses to rub together, that they don't want the research done because they know what it will say. They know they are in the wrong, they know that their drive for profit and perks is causing thousands of deaths a year, and they don't care.

And what do we as a nation do about it? On the whole, nothing at all.

We as a people have for the most part given up - there is so much blood, so much grief, that we have gone through denial, anger, and bargaining and are now deep in depression just a step short of the final stage of acceptance. In fact, the satirical online newspaper The Onion summed it up nicely. In the wake of the Isla Vista shootings three weeks ago, The Onion headlined its coverage with
No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.
Quoting the article:
“This was a terrible tragedy, but sometimes these things just happen and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop them,” said North Carolina resident Samuel Wipper, echoing sentiments expressed by tens of millions of individuals who reside in a nation where over half of the world’s deadliest mass shootings have occurred in the past 50 years and whose citizens are 20 times more likely to die of gun violence than those of other developed nations. “It’s a shame, but what can we do?" Mr. Wipper said.
As is too often the case, it's the comedians and the satirists, not the media, who say what needs to be said.

Still, as I said two weeks ago, not everyone has given up. I mentioned a couple of examples then, to which can be added a new effort by members of the California state legislature to expand the ability of families and relatives of those showing violent tendencies to obtain intervention to prevent that person from owning guns.

As an aside, raised by that idea of an intervention, I have to tell you, one of the things that most drives me nuts in this whole thing is the argument that we can't have gun control because it would impede on the rights of "law-abiding citizens." So let me remind you: Until he opened fire that night in that theater in Aurora, Colorado, James Holmes was a law-abiding citizen: every bit of the armory of weapons he had, he got legally. Until the moment he fired the first shot at Virginia Tech, Seung-Hui Cho was a law-abiding citizen. Until he killed his mother before heading to Sandy Hook Elementary, Adam Lanza was a law-abiding citizen. I expect we'll learn that the shooter at Troutdale was, until the moment the first body hit the floor, a law-abiding citizen. So don't even try that argument on me.

One last thing for now: It develops that it's for the drooling gun nuts who apparently think NRA President Wayne La PepeLePew is too soft, to go too far. An outfit of wackos called Open Carry Texas has been going around into stores and restaurants wearing their manhood slung over their shoulder instead of in their pants. The result has been that Starbucks, Wendy’s, Applebees, Jack in the Box, Chipolte, Chili's, and most recently Sonic have all announced policies of saying "Please keep you damn guns out."

In a video, after being refused service at a Sonic, one of the over-compensating crowd griped that "nobody likes us." To which I could only say "good." And I hope for more of the same.

Sources cited in links:,36131/

162.5 - Clown Award: George Will

Clown Award: George Will

Now for our other regular feature, the Clown Award, given weekly for meritorious stupidity

The winner of the big red nose this week is the man who puts the "p-u" in "pundit," the man who became the go-to intellectual for the right wing by proving you can be polysyllabic and still be a complete moron: George Will.

In his syndicated column on June 6 - though it's a wonder that this guy even has a syndicated column, but nevertheless - in his syndicated column on June 6, George Will addressed what he called "the supposed campus epidemic of rape, a.k.a. 'sexual assault.'" Oh no, it's not sexual assault, a term he more than once in the course of this slime puts in quotation marks, it's actually, quoting him now,
the ambiguities of the hookup culture, this cocktail of hormones, alcohol and the faux sophistication of today’s prolonged adolescence of especially privileged young adults.
The problem isn't sexual assault, oh no no no. The problem is all the "ambiguities." Apparently a man taking advantage of a woman too drunk to know what's going on actually isn't really sure of what it is he's doing - it's just so ambiguous, y'know? How's he supposed to tell if he's sexually assaulting her or not? How's he supposed to tell if it's rape or not? I mean, c'mon! It's, y'know, ambiguous!

That's the real problem, according to Will: Colleges just are not recognizing "the ambiguities of the hookup culture." Instead they are letting (as the theme from "Jaws" rises in the background) progressivism run roughshod over their administrative policies.

And here is where it gets really disgusting, because Will argues that the result of that progressivism is that, quoting again,
they make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges.
That's right: George Will says that being the victim of sexual assault is "a coveted status" at colleges and universities, complete with "privileges." Being sexually assaulted is something to be desired, a status people hope to achieve.

That's why the number of reported sexual assaults on college campuses increased by 50 percent between 2001 and 2011, from 2,200 to 3,300 cases: All those women just wanted to get in on the goodies.

Now, I will say that personally, I have to disagree with those who say there is an "epidemic" - a term I've seen used several places - an "epidemic" of sexual assault on campuses, because that implies that there is a lot more assault now than there used to be. I believe, rather, that there has always been an issue of sexual assault at colleges but in recent times women have finally just gotten sick and tired of being expected to put up with it, to put up with the grabbing and groping and to keep silent about the brutalizing attacks.

But that's exactly what George Will does expect. George Will expects women to continue to put up with it, to put up with the routine violations, the affronts, the assaults, the humiliations. He surely would protest he means no such thing, he certainly does not condone rape, but he does, he condones it by trivializing it and trivializing the issue as just "the ambiguities of the hookup culture."

On top of everything else, his argument is not only callous, it is dishonest. He tells the story of a student at Swarthmore College, who in 2013, this was just last year, got into bed with an ex-boyfriend after he fell asleep on her bed in her dorm room. After a while, he woke up and started trying to undress her. She told him no, he'd stop for a while, then go back to it. Finally, just wanting to be able to go to sleep, she let him do it just to get it over with. Later, she reported she'd been raped.

Will found that absurd, mocking that "Now the Obama administration is riding to the rescue of 'sexual assault' victims."

First off, as one observer said, "that was sexual assault - not 'sexual assault.'" But the point here is that the very next part of the story Will quoted tells how the school counselor to who she went refused to believe her. The counselor told her that the male student was “such a good guy” and that she had to be mistaken. The purpose of the original story, the one of which Will told only the part he thought he could mock, was the difficulty women had and still have in reporting sexual assaults to administrators that are all too often incompetent or callous or, often, more interested in protecting the school's image than in justice or even simple human decency.

So to sum up, George Will is callous, ignorant, and dishonest, locked into a past that never actually existed to avoid a present he can't deal with. In other words, a true right-winger.

You may be able to string together phrases like "excavate equities from the ambiguities of the hookup culture," but it doesn't change the fact that George Will, you are a complete and total clown.

Sources cited in links:

162.4 - Outrage of the Week: making it a crime to feed the homeless

Outrage of the Week: making it a crime to feed the homeless

Now for one of our regular features, the Outrage of the Week. This week it's going to be short but, naturally, not sweet. It's actually not a new event, rather it's an on-going festering wound on our national conscience, but one which I was reminded of this week.

It started with my stumbling across an article from last fall - November, to be more exact - stating that the city of Los Angeles was considering passing an ordinance making it illegal to feed homeless people in a public place.

The Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition had been feeding the hungry homeless for 27 years, but as homelessness got worse in Los Angeles County even as it declined most other places, the city wanted them to just go away and not disturb the local homeowners who didn't want to see all these icky homless people around.

I was unable to find out if the bill passed or not, but I would not be surprised if it did: In recent years, dozens of cities have passed such laws.

Philadelphia. Denver. Ashland, OR. Atlanta. Phoenix. San Diego. Miami. Oklahoma City. Orlando. Dallas. Dozens more, more than 50 in all.

The bans have been challenged, sometimes successfully. But it's like trying to kill the Hydra.

A crime in 50 cities
The excuses sometimes border on the absurd.

Birmingham, AL said it was to protect the homeless from tainted or otherwise unsafe food.

Philadelphia claimed banning feeding the homeless in public was actually about extending services to the homeless.

New York City actually went further than most, outlawing food donations to homeless shelters because - get this - the city can’t assess their salt, fat and fiber content and, apparently, getting no food was healthier than getting food with not enough fiber.

That absurdity only serves to point up the real reason for the bans: Despite all the talk about wanting to help the homeless, it remains just that - talk. And while it's true that the number of homeless has declined in recent years, dropping 16% between 2010 and 2013. But that still means that on any given night, around 600,000 people have no place to be. And the idea that it could be - and in many places is - a crime to feed them because we just don't want to have to see them, that is an outrage.

Sources cited in links:
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