Friday, July 31, 2009

I came by for a beer

Updated I haven't posted anything here for over two weeks - yeah, I know, "obviously" - and some suspected I had abandoned the thing. Truth be told, for a time so did I. I didn't disappear from online, but it was limited to making a couple of comments at a few sites. One guy even teased that I was "slacking." Which I was.

I just found I couldn't get interested in what was going on in the world. I still can't, not really. I've given up fighting the darkness on my own but so far the artificial help isn't working out so well. Still, we'll see. I tend to be very empiric about such things.

But I'm back here trying in the face of a case of writer's block because of something related to the arrest of Henry Louis Gates. As I expect unsurprisingly because it's usually the way with me, it has to do with one aspect that I thought was not getting enough attention.

In the midst of all the arguing, charging and counter-charging, claims and denials of racism, demands for apologies from everyone from the cop to Obama, there are certain points that are undisputed: Gates had to force his way into his house. The police got a call. One Sgt. James Crowley went to investigate. He confronted Gates. At some point Gates produced ID to show that he was in his own home. It was after that, that he was arrested. No one, to my knowledge, disputes any of that.

So here's the question that I don't think has gotten enough attention: Once Gates produced ID, why was Crowley still there? Faced with a visibly and understandably angry homeowner, why didn't he simply say "Okay, sorry for the misunderstanding, Mr. Gates" and leave? Whatever "confrontation" occurred at that point was at least as much Crowley's fault, in fact considerably more so because as the cop, he was supposed to be the professional, the one trained in self-control.

And that in turn raises the point I really wanted to consider: In a surprising number of comments on the matter, including from some unexpected places (such as a blog at the Mother Jones website), Gates was criticized as foolish or as blundering or making "a rookie mistake" by arguing with the cop. "Everybody knows you don't do that," we were told, it's "unwise," it "just gets you into trouble." Even former Judge Andrew Napolitano, acting as a legal analyst for Fox News, who agreed the arrest was improper (a judgment seconded by FindLaw columnist Vikram David Amar of the UC Davis School of Law), who even said that Gates has good grounds for civil action against the cop and the Cambridge police, ended up saying it is "crazy" to defy a cop.

Why? Dammit it all, why? Why is it such a "blunder?" Why is it "crazy?" I expect Gates did mouth off some; considering the circumstances, it would hardly be surprising. But mouthing off to a cop is not a crime. It should not result in a bogus arrest or any other kind, for that matter.

But no matter - of course it is true, it is "unwise" to argue with a cop. Everyday experience on the streets tells us so. So to refine my question, why should it be "crazy" to argue with a cop? Why are we supposed to just accept that? Why are we supposed to approach every encounter with police thinking that this person is prepared to abuse their authority, to violate the law and our rights, even to go off the deep end and turn violent? Why are we to conduct ourselves on the basis that we have to be always afraid of saying the wrong thing, of having the wrong "attitude," afraid of the consequences of challenging authority even when we are in the right? Why are we supposed to approach every encounter with police wondering if we're being passive enough, obedient enough, subservient enough?

And, yes, that is exactly what we are supposed to think. Because to do otherwise, to act otherwise, is "crazy" in the eyes of all to many people and in fact a crime in the eyes of police. Not a real crime, no, but a "I'll fix you" crime. A, if you will, cop-defined crime. Years ago, former DC Deputy Chief of Police Robert Klotz labeled the offense "contempt of cop," the "crime" of being insufficiently respectful and obedient. Being busted on some spectacularly subjective charge like disorderly conduct is the frequent result - and too often it goes beyond that.
Criminologists and civil rights lawyers see similarities in many police beating incidents. The triggering offenses are typically minor, but the officer often perceives a challenge to authority and acts to regain control.
It's not a matter of criminality, not even of "disturbing the peace." It's a matter of "disrespect," of "a challenge to authority." Put another way and more simply, it is a threat neither to public order nor the cop's safety, but to their sense of power, their sense of control. Put even more simply, it's a threat to their ego. And we are simply supposed to accept that, indeed to embrace it, to when faced with a cop instantly transform ourselves from independent adults who have done no wrong (or at worst have committed some minor wrong like a traffic violation) into serfs on the feudal estate, shuffling our feet and casting our eyes downward in the presence of the lord of the manor.

And again, the truth is that if we fail to do so, if we fail to tug our forelocks, the risk, the danger, is real enough. More and more police are more and more ready to inflict extreme and debilitating pain at the smallest provocation, the first sign of resistance or defiance, and yes I am talking about tasers. Those handy little devices, pitched as a "safe" alternative to lethal force, have become what I predicted from the beginning they would become: alternatives not to lethal violence, but to any (other) violence, to any physical effort, alternatives even to persuasion and patience. Weapons of domination, of control, of the exertion of power - and of convenience.

Indeed, some police forces now specifically allow the use of tasers on "uncooperative" victims - not, note carefully, violent or threatening victims, but "uncooperative" ones.

(One so-called "expert" in the UK even advocates using tasers "earlier rather than waiting to the very last minute." Instead of it being a last-resort-before-guns, it would be a first resort, to be used any time someone appears "agitated." One can only wonder what he would have had Sgt. Crowley do to Gates.)

So yes, the risk is real, and while that risk is multiplied if you are black - because racists certainly continue to populate police forces around the country - the parameters of that risk are not strictly bound by race. I don't know if Crowley is a racist, although I do know the issue of race can't be filtered out. (And I do dismiss as evidence on his behalf the course in tolerance he taught; another thing we know from real-world experience is the ability of some to speak the words without actually embracing the concepts - as evidenced, it would appear, by Crowley's inability to apply that supposed understanding to the situation at hand. I'm also going to leave aside the fact of his patently false arrest report, one which Time's Lawrence O'Donnell calls "a written confession of the crime of false arrest.")

But even if we were somehow to filter out race from this incident, it would not change the basic underlying fact of, as a reader at TalkingPointsMemo had it,
the power the police have to arrest someone whether or not a crime took place. ... I had so many cases [as a Public Defender] in which someone cursed at an officer or made a gesture to an officer and ended up spending the night in jail. ... There simply is no reason to arrest someone for hurting your feelings or making an ugly gesture at you.
That is, even filtering out race would not change the basic underlying fact of cops who think they are beyond challenge, beyond criticism, beyond being questioned - who, ultimately, think their ego is more important than the law, if indeed they do not think their ego defines the law. In cases such as Gates', the charges are quickly dropped because there is no case and the cops don't really want to pursue it. They just want to punish you for being insufficiently obsequious and they figure a night in jail is enough for that. (If it went beyond that and you were beaten, you can be guaranteed you would be charged with "resisting arrest" and "assaulting an officer.") They have proved their power over you and that was the point all along. It's not about safety or order - it's about, again, ego.

And if we are "wise," we are supposed to accept this as a fact of life. That the police need make no allowances for us - but we must make allowances for them. We must submit to and obey authority without objection even when we are right and they are wrong - or pay the price.

The question all this raises for me is: Just what kind of society do we want to live in?

Two Footnotes, This is the First: The email by Boston Police Officer Justin Barrett that referred to Gates as acting like "a banana-eating jungle monkey" - and used the term "jungle monkey" three other times - was originally sent to Boston Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham, who had written in support of Gates. She noted in a subsequent column that in the same email he also said suspects don't have any rights. (The full text of the email can be found here.)

Two Footnotes, This is the Second: You surely heard about catching flak for remotely deleting from customers' Kindles copies of 1984 which, it developed, had been sold by some outfit that didn't have distribution rights.
Whether or not people are bothered by these possibilities may in part be a function of their age, as a new generation grows up with an implicit understanding of the rules around these networked devices and learns to live with them.

“I’d like to live in a perfect world where I own this content and can do whatever I want with it,” said Justin Gawronski, a high school student whose copy of “1984” was erased by Amazon, but who recently declined when a lawyer asked him to join a class-action lawsuit over the incident. Mr. Gawronski said, “This is probably going to happen again and we just have to learn to live with it.”
And the passive submission to authority, the passive acceptance of loss of control, loss of privacy, expands beyond government to business. Justin sounds like he'll fit right in, in a future that I see coming and do not regret I will not live to see in full bloom.

One other thing: The cartoon at the top is from the excellent August J. Pollak.

Updated to add the link to the text of Barrett's email.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

New rule

A post at Digby's place about some truly atrocious anti-journalism at CNBC has called forth an addition to my list of winger debate tactics:

Rule #14: Specifically for use on TV: When you fear a contrary point may be raised, shout. If that contrary point is a good one, shout very loudly.

Quick recap

This is from a couple of weeks ago and I know you know about it; I mention it only to provide a coda for previous posts.

The Jena 6 case is for all intents and purposes over.
Five members of the Jena Six pleaded no contest Friday[, June 26,] to misdemeanor simple battery and won't serve jail time, ending a case that thrust a small Louisiana town into the national spotlight and sparked a massive civil rights demonstration.

The five, standing quietly surrounded by their lawyers, were sentenced to seven days unsupervised probation and fined $500. It was a far less severe end to their cases than seemed possible when the six students were initially charged with attempted murder in the 2006 attack on Justin Barker, a white classmate.
Two quick things: The "no jail time" is, well let's call it misleading. One of the five, Theo Shaw, spent seven months in jail because he couldn't make bail. And the article refers to growing racial tensions in the months preceding the incident.
Residents said there were fights, but nothing too serious until December 2006 when Barker was attacked.
A few days before the fight that resulted in the Jena 6 case, one of the defendants had his head cracked open by a white armed with a beer bottle. Apparently, that was not "serious."

Footnote: For some reason, the posts that come up from the "Jena 6" link do not come up in chronological order. I've no idea why. So you may have to do some jumping back and forth.

Apollo Geek

Okay, this should satisfy the older geeks among us for a time. Really. Check it out.

Quick question

As news reports of the past couple of days have it,
[a] review by top U.S. government investigators says a secret surveillance program approved by President George W. Bush after the September 11 terror attacks got too little legal review when it started.

The program included wiretaps without court approval and some unprecedented intelligence collection efforts. ...

The report was published Friday by five inspectors general of agencies with intelligence responsibilities: the Defense and Justice Departments, along with the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
This is the question I have: Why are people still acting as if this crap having been illegal is some dramatic new discovery? Why is it that every time it's shown anew that the Shrub gang was a bunch of power-hungry thugs who thought the law didn't apply to them, the media greets it with gasps of astonishment? The only explanation I have is institutional Alzheimer's: These people have faulty memories and limited insight.

Footnote: There was an important bit in this, however:
The report concludes information gathered by the secret program played a limited role in the FBI's overall counterterrorism efforts. The report also says very few CIA analysts knew about the program and could not fully use it in their counterterrorism work.
In other words, it was not only illegal, it didn't even do a flaming bit of good even on its own terms.

Which raises the real question anew: Not was it illegal, it was. Already asked, already answered. The real question is was it about security? Or about power?

Or are you just glad to see me?

Here's a quick little treat for you: Now pending in the Senate Judiciary Committee is S.845, the "Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act of 2009." It would, in its own words,
allow citizens who have concealed carry permits from the State in which they reside to carry concealed firearms in another State that grants concealed carry permits.
What this means, in short, is that if you have a concealed weapons permit, you would be able to legally carry a concealed, loaded gun across a state line so long as you would not be banned from obtaining a similar permit in that other state. In a truly 1984-ish (or maybe I should say Gingrich-y) twist of meaning, the short title of the bill is the "Respecting States Rights and Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act of 2009." [Emphasis added.] How this respects the rights of the second state in each case escapes me, but I'm sure it sounded good to the twenty-two NRA toadies and sycophants who sponsored it in the Senate.

(The information about the bill comes from THOMAS but because of the way it updates files, a link is pretty much pointless. Go to the THOMAS home page via the link and search for S.845 as the bill number.)

The Freedom States Alliance, a gun control group, is pushing for opposition. Contrary to the linked post, it's unlikely that the Senate could vote "at any time" since the bill isn't even scheduled for committee hearings yet. Still, who would have thought that the NRA would win a regulatory change to allow people to carry concealed loaded weapons into national parks, as it did in December. So yeah, some caution is advised.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

I'll keep saying it

Last month, the Obama administration "fully embraced the Bush administration's shameful effort to immunize torturers and their enablers from any legal consequences for their actions," in the words of Ben Wizner, a staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project.

In April, a panel the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had reversed a District Court decision that threw out an ACLU-filed suit against a Boeing subsidiary for its role in Bushco's illegal "extraordinary rendition" program. The District Court acted after the Bush gang intervened to invoke the bogus "state secrets" privilege but the Appeals Court ruled that the privilege must be invoked about particular evidence, not the entire suit.

The Obama crowd has responded by filing for a rehearing before the full court, asking the panel's decision be overturned and the Bush cabal's position on "state secrets" be upheld.

This happened just about the same time that Obama promised to “use every legal and administrative remedy” to keep additional torture photographs hidden from the public.

Also last month, Congress passed a $106 billion war supplemental appropriation which also included some funds for the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). But that latter cash came with some restrictions, some good, some bad - the former assuming that anything done through those bastions of "the hell with the people, pay the banks first" thinking can be good.
Obama, in a statement made as he signed the bill, said that he would ignore the conditions.

They would "interfere with my constitutional authority to conduct foreign relations by directing the Executive to take certain positions in negotiations or discussions with international organizations and foreign governments, or by requiring consultation with the Congress prior to such negotiations or discussions," Obama said in the signing statement.
On Thursday, the House slapped him upside the head, voting 429-2 to deny funding for any agreement that doesn't meet the conditions set out in the supplemental.

But the point here is the signing statement itself. Signing statements were traditionally used by presidents to explain how they would interpret certain sections of a law. Sometimes it was as simple as laying out the administration's understanding of what would be a "reasonable" effort in some direction; sometimes it was more complex. But it was really only during the Shrub regime that it became commonplace for a president to simply declare that certain parts of a law did not apply to him and that he could, on his own authority and without recourse to the courts, declare himself free to ignore them. And here was Barack Obama doing exactly the same thing.

Well, it's another month, and the beat goes on.
The Obama administration said Tuesday it could continue to imprison non-U.S. citizens indefinitely even if they have been acquitted of terrorism charges by a U.S. military commission.

Jeh Johnson, the Defense Department's chief lawyer, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that releasing a detainee who has been tried and found not guilty was a policy decision that officials would make based on their estimate of whether the prisoner posed a future threat.

Like the Bush administration, the Obama administration argues that the legal basis for indefinite detention of aliens it considers dangerous is separate from war-crimes prosecutions. Officials say that the laws of war allow indefinite detention to prevent aliens from committing warlike acts in future, while prosecution by military commission aims to punish them for war crimes committed in the past.
Which instead of justifying the policy actually illustrates just how extreme it is. "We can hold anyone we want forever and nobody can do squat about it - not because of what they've done, not because of what they were planning, not even because of what we think they were planning, but because of what we think they might plan in the future. We don't need proof, we don't even need evidence and we sure as hell don't have to show anybody any. Because we are all-seeing, we are all-knowing, and our judgments are not to be questioned by such trifles as laws or courts or constitutions."
Rep. Jerrold Nadler ... questioned the administration's plan to allot prisoners to federal courts, military commissions or indefinite detention.

"What bothers me is that they seem to be saying, 'Some people we have good enough evidence against, so we'll give them a fair trial. Some people the evidence is not so good, so we'll give them a less fair trial. We'll give them just enough due process to ensure a conviction because we know they're guilty. That's not a fair trial, that's a show trial," Mr. Nadler said.
Seems to me I just said that somewhere.

Also this week, the Obama crowd
threatened to veto the funding bill for US intelligence agencies because the House included a provision that would increase the number of members who receive briefings on highly secretive covert operations
from the so-called "Gang of 8" - the chairs and ranking minority members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, the Speaker and Minority Leader of the House of Representatives, and the majority and minority leaders of the Senate - to include all members of the Intelligence Committees. It would also allow Congress, not the president, to restrict the briefings in extraordinary circumstances.
The Obama administration, like all previous administrations of the modern era, believe that the president, and only the president, has the power to determine what constitutes national security information and, even more vitally, what safeguards ought to be in place to protect the information.
There's that key, recurring phrase: "only the president."

Finally, TPMMuckraker makes an interesting observation about Karl Rove's recent testimony to the House Judiciary Committee. He had been cited for contempt of Congress for refusing to testify before the committee on the grounds of "executive privilege," which the Shrub gang claimed applied not only to White House policy staff but to all White House staff, including former staff, and continued to apply even after the administration left office. That is, they claimed in essence that no one at the White House, no one at all, now or in the past, could be made to appear before Congress without the president's express permission. More bluntly, the executive branch was not subject to Congressional oversight except to the degree it chose to allow it.

A district court ruled against Rove, but the matter was on appeal when an agreement was reached among the committee, the White House, and Bush lawyers.
The [Bush] White House's foot-dragging may have inflicted some measure of political damage. But in terms of the legal repercussions, by coming to a deal while the case was still pending in an appeals court, the Bushies have largely succeeded in one of their goals: ensuring that no clear precedent has been established limiting the president's power to claim executive privilege in such cases. And the Obama White House's role in helping to secure the deal for Rove's testimony suggests that's an outcome they wanted too.
That is, the Obama gang wants to be able to make similar spurious claims of "executive privilege" whenever it wants to avoid facing Congress.

In each case, over and over again, regular as clockwork, the Obama administration has adopted and run with Bush administration policies that concentrate power in the president and give the office extreme, even dictatorial, powers to conceal information, ignore laws, arrest without proof, imprison without charge, and govern without oversight as soon as the magic words "foreign policy" or "national security" are invoked. And over and over again I have argued precisely that: that Obama was adopting Bush policies.

At what point are some people going to give it up? At what point are people going to stop saying "they haven't had time to re-evaluate" or "the case came up too fast" or "give them time?" At what point are people going to stop using the excuse of being "focused on health care" or "focused on the economy?" When are people give up the fantasy that this is either the result of a settling-in period or a hidden brilliant political strategy that we are just too inferior to comprehend?

Obama has his 20-percenters, just like Bush did: that certain portion that will believe and support him no matter what he does, as first became clear when what should have been a clear red flag - his craven flip-flop on FISA last year - provoked instead a flood of excuses. But for the rest, when are you going to face the fact that all this is not some kind of temporary aberration, not a pile of exceptions, that in the areas of presidential power and national security, this is Barack Obama? This is who he is, what he thinks, what he wants, what he intends?

Seriously, what more will it take?

Footnote: So Obama claims he has the authority to ignore a law if it "interferes" with his "constitutional authority to conduct foreign relations." So why does he also claim that he can't issue an order suspending enforcement of Don't Ask, Don't Tell on the grounds that the policy arises from an act of Congress - even though no one appears to dispute his "constitutional authority" as CIC to issue such an order?

Monday, July 06, 2009

Footnote to the preceding, Huh? Div.

Updated Updated Again Intelligence agencies refer to the information they pick up from and about terrorist groups as "chatter" and hold that "increased chatter" is a sign that something is afoot.

Well, there is "increased chatter" about the possibility of an Israeli attack on nuclear facilities in Iran. Not for the first time, of course, as
[t]he Israeli air force has been training for a possible attack on Iran’s nuclear site at Natanz in the centre of the country and other locations for four years.
But now additional hints are being dropped, such as the report that
[t]he head of Mossad, Israel’s overseas intelligence service, has assured Benjamin Netanyahu, its prime minister, that Saudi Arabia would turn a blind eye to Israeli jets flying over the kingdom during any future raid on Iran’s nuclear sites following a meeting with Saudi officials earlier this year to discuss the idea.
Apparently such an attack is felt to be in both nation's interests because
“The Saudis are very concerned about an Iranian nuclear bomb, even more than the Israelis,” said a former head of research in Israeli intelligence.
If these reports are true, it's safe to say in the case of the Saudis that the concern is much more Sunni-Shiite than it is Saudi Arabia-Iran but that wouldn't change the calculation.

What should change the calculation - but probably won't - is that
[t]he incoming head of the UN's nuclear watchdog has said that he has not seen any hard evidence that Iran is trying to develop atomic weapons.

"I don't see any evidence in IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] official documents about this," Yukiya Amano told the Reuters news agency on Friday, shortly after being elected to head the body.
There is also the fact Iran has threatened a "real and decisive" response to an attack and while it doesn't have the ability to target Israel directly, it does have the ability to train, equip, and finance terrorist operations in addition to encouraging sympathy/solidarity actions among the contacts it already has. An Israeli attack on Iran would be “very destabilizing” according to JCS Chair Admiral Mike Mullen and surely would lead to an upsurge in terrorist strikes against Israel and Israelis.

So what's being bandied about is a blatant act of war against a very likely non-existent threat that would destabilize the region and encourage terrorism that would cost the lives of some of the very people it is supposedly intended to protect. And everyone knows it. But none of that is likely to change the calculation.

Why? Because none of the proponents want it to. Neither the US nor Sunni Arabs states nor, particularly, Israel, as it would be the nation to carry out such an attack. Each is in some way tied to a policy centered on fear of and hostility toward Iran. Each with their own particular bitter flavoring, but united in their fear and hostility. And that is a really, really, really bad basis for rational decision-making.

So that's bad. But what's the "Huh?" part? It's this:
In an interview on ABC's "This Week" on Sunday, [Vice-President Joe] Biden was asked whether the U.S. would stand in the way if Israel ... decided to launch a military attack [on Iran].

"Look, we cannot dictate to another sovereign nation what they can and cannot do," he said.
Huh? Isn't that exactly what we're trying to do with Iran? What the hell? Just what defines a "sovereign nation" is the view of the Obama administration?

But then again, why be surprised? After all, Obama and Biden and members of Congress, with no challenge from the mainstream media (print or electronic), continue to blather on about "Iran's nuclear weapons program" even though the most recent National Intelligence Estimate on Iran and nuclear weapons concluded that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and had not resumed it as of mid-2007 and was unlikely to be able to develop such a weapon before 2015 even if it wanted to. That is, they are asserting what their own intelligence estimates say is probably untrue. That is, they are lying.

I will, however, say this: Mohamed El-Baradei, who is departing as head of the IAEA come November, told the BBC last month that he had a "gut feeling" that Iran was seeking the ability to produce nuclear arms. And why? Because, he said,
perceived threats from neighbouring countries and the United States could encourage Tehran to work towards weapons of mass destruction as an "insurance policy".
Which, I will note for the record, is what I was saying four and a-half years ago, in December 2004:
I can and do entertain the possibility that Iran is being deceptive in its dealings and about its intentions. But I also entertain the notion that Iran, like most nations, like most people, may just really dislike the feeling of being bullied and is behaving more out of misplaced pride than a desire to manipulate and mislead the world community. ...

In fact, a case could easily be made that if Iran is indeed pursuing nuclear weapons, it's because the mullahs feel threatened by Israel - which does, after all, have a rather large nuclear arsenal - rather than that they seek to threaten it. We would call that classical deterrence if we were doing it.
And in light of those recent reports, the idea that Israel is a threat to Iran can't be reasonably denied. Which in turn brings up one other thing in this connection, something else I said a while ago, in this case over five years ago:
Instead of focusing on nations in the Middle East whose nuclear weapons program was "moribund" (Iraq) or years away from any significant development (Libya) or just reaching the point of suspicion (Iran), how about we pay attention to the one nation in the region that already has nuclear weapons?

That nation, of course, is Israel, whose 200-400 nukes makes it the world's fifth largest nuclear power, behind the US, Russia, France, and China, and ahead of the UK.
The question and the attached judgment are still hanging in the air, unaddressed.

Updated to report that I learn from Marc Lynch at Foreign Policy magazine (via Digby) that both Israeli and Arab media are interpreting Biden's words as a green light for an Israeli attack. The White House, however, says it's being "misreported," Biden merely "refused to engage hypotheticals," and he was not changing US policy.

That's hard to take. Biden could have said "I won't deal in hypotheticals. Israel knows where we stand, etc." But he didn't. Instead, he referred to Israel as a "sovereign nation" four times in the course of three consecutive answers in addition to saying "Israel can determine for itself what's in their interest." That doesn't sound like merely avoiding hypotheticals or, as some have suggested, "misspeaking."

Based on the mushy ground of public statements, Obama wants to give "diplomacy" (read "political coercion") until the end of the year in dealing with Iran. Taking that at face value, my suspicion here is that the Israelis are itchy to use the disruption in Iran as an opportunity to attack, Obama is trying to hold them back, and Biden's statements - which again were too clear and too insistent for me to ascribe them to a case of "Biden bloopers" - were intended to get out the message, just in case, that if Israel does attack it has nothing to do with us.

Updated again to say that it develops that Juan Cole and I are pretty much on the same page here. He wrote:
So what Biden was really saying is that the Obama administration intends to engage Iran diplomatically, and that if anyone wants Iran attacked they will have to do it themselves. This is not a green light to the Israelis, who hardly need one. It is a tough message to the right wing of the Israel lobbies that the Obama administration is not going to launch any hostilities with Iran, even after the hard line power grab of three weeks ago.
The difference is that he says it was a policy message to the right wing Israeli lobbies while I think it was more a defensive statement for general consumption - but the notion that it was a deliberate effort to distance the US from a plan or intention to attack Iran (at least in the short-term) is the same.

I do think Dr. Cole is wrong when he refers to the references to Israel as sovereign as "boilerplate" - you don't put as much effort into making a boilerplate point as Biden did in insisting on Israel's right to do what it wished. But I do think the bottom-line contention that Biden was putting up his hands and going "Hey, don't look at us" is right.

Sunday, July 05, 2009


I did not expect this.

I said of Iran that "it's not over and likely won't be for some time." And it's not. I said that "I also expect the resistance to continue." And it has, even though it is, as I suggested, "small-scale," just "enough to show that ... the resentment remains alive," while the large-scale demonstrations have "fizzled out" in the face of massive government brutality. I said "I expect the repression to continue, even increase." And it has.

But I did not expect this.
Iran’s biggest group of clerics has declared President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election to be illegitimate and condemned the subsequent crackdown.

The statement by the Association of Researchers and Teachers of Qom is an act of defiance against the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has made clear he will tolerate no further challenges to Mr Ahmadinejad’s “victory” over Mir Hossein Mousavi. ...

In a rebuke to the regime it declared on its website: “Candidates’ complaints and strong evidence of vote-rigging were ignored ... Peaceful protests by Iranians were violently oppressed ... Dozens of Iranians were killed and hundreds were illegally arrested ... The outcome is invalid.”

It called on other clerics to speak out, demanded the release of all those arrested in the past three weeks....
In addition, it directly challenged the authority of the Guardian Council, saying it no longer had the right "to judge in this case" and that some of its members had "lost their impartial image in the eyes of the public."

“How can one accept the legitimacy of the election," the group asked, "just because the Guardian Council says so?"

It was, in the words of one analyst, "a clerical mutiny." More than that, it's also a political mutiny. It would be hard for anyone who has not been following events to really get the significance of this. I've been trying to think of an equivalent, but haven't come up with a really close one - maybe in terms of the impact it would be like the US president's entire cabinet resigning en masse over some policy dispute. Even that's not right. The best I have come up with is to suggest that this would be something like the College of Cardinals openly disputing the Pope on a matter of church doctrine: It is that direct a challenge to Khamenei's authority and particularly to his moral authority.
“This crack in the clerical establishment, and the fact they are siding with the people and Moussavi, in my view is the most historic crack in the 30 years of the Islamic republic,” said Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian Studies Program at Stanford University.
This doesn't mean the defiance will succeed: Khamenei has the support of other clergy, along with segments of the political establishment and, increasingly importantly, the military. It does mean that the split in the ruling elites in Iran has become obvious. More than a split, it's a schism. And the battle lines no longer are drawn clearly across the face of Ahmadinejad but across the face of Khamenei. He is becoming if he has not already become the issue.

The sense that I get emerging from the dispute is that by becoming so openly involved in the political process (rather than trying to appear above it) by his endorsement and support of Ahmadinejad, he has started to look like another politician who can therefore be attacked as one. Those attacks are driven to some degree by personal interest but more broadly by fears that have arisen that he is trying to move from being Supreme Leader to being Only Leader. Put another way, I have said before that until recent events, Iran had remained within hailing distance of a democracy: It was limited, but there was some opportunity for moderation and dissent. Now that is gone and what I sense in the fear among moderates and reformers that Khamenei wants to keep it that way - and that is the underlying conflict.

A BBC report said that former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, who in a pointed display met with the families of some of those who have been arrested by the government, gave hints that there may be efforts going on behind the scenes for a settlement.

If so, I'll go out on a very thin, very dry, limb to make a prediction. Such a settlement would: accept Ahmadinejad as president on the grounds that there were irregularities but not enough to affect the outcome; establish a new election commission to establish tighter rules and taking oversight of election procedures and counts away from the Guardian Council (while leaving it the power to screen candidates); and establish the principle that the Supreme Leader is to stay neutral in all elections and election disputes.

We'll see how I do.

Footnote: The video is of a song recorded June 24 by Iranian star Andy Madadian, Jon Bon Jovi, Richie Sambora, and American record producers Don Was and John Shanks. It is not for sale anywhere and was intended as a gift to Iranians. The sign in Farsi reads "We are one."

Late but worth noting in passing

This is from last week and there is a particular reason I expect most you know already know about it, but I have a reason for mentioning it.

A week ago, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that
[s]tate governments can challenge the practices of national banks in court ... in a decision that bolsters the power of states relative to federal bank regulators.

The decision gives state attorneys general the ability to pursue in court banks that are alleged to have violated state laws such as those protecting consumers. Banking groups and their national regulator, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, argued that that power is restricted to the federal regulator.
More particularly, the OCC argued that it alone could demand from so called "national banks" any information that might be relevant to an investigation - for example, in the case at hand, Cuomo v. Clearing House Association, information about the a bank's lending patterns related to an investigation of minorities being steered into bad mortgages.

Happily, the Supreme Court disagreed with the agency. The OCC's rule, the decision read, "says that the State may not enforce its valid ... laws against national banks. The bark remains, but the bite does not." It essence, it undermined state-level consumer protection laws about major financial institutions by leaving enforcement of those laws up to a federal agency.

Now, the reason you probably heard about this is that the decision was written, to most people's surprise, by Antonin Scalia, who joined with the usual liberals (Breyer, Ginsburg, Souter, and Stevens) to form the majority.

But the reason I wanted to mention it before it got too far away is that, as I noted in May, in arguments before the Court, the Obama administration went against the briefs filed by all 50 state attorney generals and a wide variety of consumer groups and sided with the banks. It was another case of the Obama team - either due to sloppiness, laziness, or preference, none of which is an acceptable reason - sliding along and endorsing a position held over from the Bush regime.

This time, the Court did the right thing. But we know we can't count on that continuing. When are we going to get fed up with the "we haven't had time to re-think it" excuse from the White House?

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Happy Fourth, Part Three

And one last thing I like to post every Fourth. It's something I wrote about a trip to a fireworks display on July 4, 1969.
The 4th of July and Other Downs
The Day dawns again and it's time to love freedom. All the fascists come out to play and long hair and peace are decidedly un-American. Keep muttering things like "My country, right or wrong" and "America, love it or leave it" and you're really in. Middle-class America is out in force to celebrate liberty. Don't look now, but there's a knife in your back. A car goes by covered with flags, streamers, bunting, decals, and assorted other paraphernalia vital to your well-equipped American. Off we go to a fireworks show whose rockets sounded just like mortar fire. (Everything about the Fourth is so appropriate.) A motorcycle cop chomps away on something or other and glares at us with hatred that should have melted his shades as he leans on his bike and tries to figure a way to bust us. Red, white, and blue are the colors of the day, but be careful you don't have more red than blue or you might get lynched in the name of freedom. (You can have as much blue as you want, but the whiter you are, the better off you'll be.) Don't look now, but all the flagpoles look like spears. All in honor of the 36,000 brave boys who've given their lives to bring freedom, truth, beauty, and President Thieu to the South Vietnamese. Three cheers for Richard Nixon and six for J. Edgar Hoover, and better dead than red. The officially sanctioned day of national paranoia has come again, and all is right with the Pentagon.
I've noted with amusement was how the relative meanings of "red" (which at the time, kiddies, meant Communist) and "blue" have shifted over the years.

Go have a cookout and watch some fireworks. Happy 4th.

Happy Fourth, Part Two

Something else I like to repeat every Fourth is this, from a leaflet I wrote for distribution on July 4, 1975. After quoting the paragraph in the previous post, it read:
These words should form the backdrop against which the Bicentennial should be seen. Our 200th birthday as a nation should not be a time for celebrating the status quo or for patting ourselves on the back in an orgy of national self-congratulation, but rather a time to reexamine and rediscover the truly revolutionary heritage which America has.

Even more than that, it should be a time to rededicate ourselves to the ideals of the Declaration, to recognize that it is, as the Declaration says, our right and duty to resist dramatically increasing government control of our lives. It is our duty to resist the CIA and FBI when they try to probe every secret of our lives; it is our duty to resist attempts to muzzle, restrict, intimidate, and otherwise restrain both freedom of speech and of the press. It is our duty to resist a militarist US foreign policy that destroys the life and liberty of people in other lands and a militarist US federal budget that proposes to increase spending on weapons by 30% while human needs go unmet. It is our duty to resist government policies that favor big business at the expense of the general public, while inflation and unemployment run rampant. It is our duty to resist a government that seems no longer (if indeed it ever was) interested in and dedicated to securing the "safety and happiness" of the populace.

We do not believe in violence, but we do believe in revolution - nonviolent revolution. And we believe that we are fully within the revolutionary heritage of America when we say we believe it is our duty to demand our rights and our duty to use nonviolence to make any changes necessary to secure those rights, for ourselves and for all others.
And this year I think I can do no better than quoting what I said last year when posting this:
In the 33 [now 34] years since, I have been both encouraged and discouraged, hopeful and despairing. So much has changed and so little has changed, so much has been done and so little has been done. Sometimes it seems that the only comfort is that the only reason things aren't worse than they are is because of the struggles there have been both during that time and before. So even where we have - as we have more than often enough - fallen short, we can at least say those struggles were not in vain: No genuine effort for justice ever is, no matter the outcome. And those struggles can be nothing but invigorated when we maintain a day-to-day awareness of, and base the only legitimate patriotism on, our revolutionary heritage.
Footnote: The date for the flyer is not a typo; the official Bicentennial Year ran from July 4, 1975 to July 4, 1976.

Happy Fourth, Part One

I like to repeat this every July 4:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
Footnote: The website has some interesting background on the Declaration of Independence, including earlier drafts. Some of the changes are revealing - such as one long passage denouncing the English slave trade that was deleted.
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