Friday, January 31, 2014

144.6 - Outrage of the Week: how the rich think of you

Outrage of the Week: how the rich think of you

Okay, let's wrap things up with our other regular feature, the Outrage of the Week.

Start with some facts: long-term unemployment is the worst ever, tens of millions continue to live in poverty, while real wages stagnate or fall. Over the so-called "economic recovery" period of 2009-2012, the incomes of the richest 1% went up by 32% while the incomes of the other 99% went up 0.4% - put another way, 95% of the gains went to the 1%, leaving 5% for everyone else.

In 2012, the top 10% got half of all income in the United States, surpassing even the peak of the stock market bubble in the "roaring '20s." The richest 1% got 22.5% - nearly a quarter - of all national income. Five years after the financial collapse, few outside the very richest are anything but worse off.

But who are we supposed to feel sorry for? Who is supposed to feel our concern? The rich. The poor, besieged, maligned rich.

The latest in a long line of sniveling whiners blubbering about how hard it is to live with their yachts and mansions because people are so mean to me! is one Thomas Perkins, a venture capitalist worth about $8 billion, who, it seems, lives in constant fear of the unwashed hordes coming to get him.

In a recent letter to the editor he wrote to the Wall Street Journal, he said, these are quotes,
I would call attention to the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to its war on its “one percent,” namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the “rich.” ...

I perceive a rising tide of hatred of the successful one percent. ...

This is a very dangerous drift in our American thinking. Kristallnacht was unthinkable in 1930; is its descendent “progressive” radicalism unthinkable now?
That's right, according to Thomas Perkins, being a multi-billionaire in the US in 2013 is just like being a Jew in Nazi Germany.

And in case you thought he was drunk or doping or that he would "clarify" because he "misspoke"- or "miswrote," I suppose - you'd be wrong. In a subsequent email to Bloomberg, he declared that “In the Nazi era it was racial demonization, now it is class demonization.” Of course, he is the one engaging in "class demonization," proposing that everybody poorer than him is a real or potential Nazi, but folks like him are often irony-challenged.

After a day of being ridiculed, he "apologized" for the use of the word Kristallnacht but not, he insisted for "the message." I'm not sure exactly what that's supposed to change.

The important point here, however, is that he is by no means alone. He's just the latest. David Sirota offered a few more:

-Supermarket mogul John Catsimatidis reacted to a proposal to raise taxes on the rich by comparing it to how "Hitler punished the Jews."

-Private equity mogul Steven Schwarzman called a proposal to tax private equity income at the same rate as other income "like when Hitler invaded Poland."

-When Sen. Chuck Schumer offered a bill to close tax loopholes abused primarily by the super-rich, Grover Norquist, who said that "The Nazis were for high marginal tax rates," claimed Shumer probably just translated a law from 1930s Germany.

-And you may remember this one: AIG CEO Robert Benmosche swearing that anger over his bailed-out company’s bonuses was “just as bad” as lynchings of African Americans in the Jim Crow South.

This is how they think of you. This is how they think of you: an inchoate, threatening, mass of failures jealous of their success. In their minds, the 85 people who hold as much wealth as 3.5 billion people are not grasping, selfish, insanely rich "winners" whose riches are built on the hard work of a multitude of others because whether you like it or not, bozo, no, you didn't build that, they are a persecuted diaspora in constant risk of annihilation.

Well, for my part, I can't wait for the day when their nightmare comes true, at least in the cultural sense. For the moment, I'll confine myself to saying that people such as Thomas Perkins and the rest are morally degenerate outrages.


144.5 - Global warming: It's going to get worse

Global warming: It's going to get worse

Probably the best single line in the entire State of the Union speech was "Climate change is a fact." What made it special was the direct, matter-of-fact way it was said, something rarely done by politicians. Obama pledged to, in the words of Washington Post columnist Ryan Cooper, finish what he has started. And, indeed, there are things he can do by executive order, things entirely within his authority as president, to reduce our national output of greenhouse gases.

The problem is, as is all too often true with President Hopey-Changey, we've heard it before. Just a year ago, at his second-term inaugural, he said “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.” Which was followed by - what? Yes, there were a couple of good moves, such as calling on the EPA to set new standards for carbon emissions from power plants - but months later, the rule still isn't finalized. Once again, the words soar, the deeds crawl. And we don't have time to crawl. We don't have time for "eventually."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, has found that 2013 tied for the fourth hottest year on record around the world. Those records date back to 1880.

NASA, which calculates records in a different manner, said 2013 was the seventh hottest on record - but both agencies said nine of the 10th warmest years on record have happened in the 21st century. What's more, the 13 years of this century, 2001-2013, are all among the 15 hottest years recorded, with the hottest year worldwide being 2010.

And it's going to get worse.

According to a new study by researchers in Australia, at the rate the Earth is currently warming, temps will rise a full 4 degrees Celsius by 2100, twice the amount of warming that climatologists say can be tolerated without severe, damaging effects to the environment on which humans depend - and a number of those scientists say even that 2 degree limit is too high.

To make it even more depressing, the researchers note that while climate models certainly are not perfect, the mistakes they are often making is in predicting less warming than actually occurs rather than more.

The effects of climate change are already being seen. Until recently, climatologists have been very careful to avoiding connecting particular extreme weather events to global warming, but increasingly, that is no longer true. For one example, a study recently published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Climate Change concludes that the current rate of carbon emissions would mean twice as many extreme El Niños over the next 100 years as there would have been otherwise, with profound socioeconomic consequences. The last extreme El Niño, in 1997-98, resulted in the hottest year on record, and the accompanying floods, cyclones, droughts, and wildfires killed an estimated 23,000 people and caused scores of billions of dollars in damage, particularly to food production.

If the paper's conclusions are borne out by further study, it would be devastating because the change would be, in the words of the chief researcher, "essentially an 'irreversible' climate change phenomenon, and it would take a dramatic reduction in greenhouse emissions over a number of generations to reduce the impact."

We, the adult generations of today, have to suck it up and realize that we have to change our ways dramatically and we have to do it now; we have to accept some inconvenience in our lives or our children and even more our grandchildren will pay a severe, even a catastrophic, price. We have no time for eventually. We have no time for "later." We have no time to crawl.


144.4 - Clown Award: Susanne Atanus

Clown Award: Susanne Atanus

It might come as a surprise to some of you out there, but I expect it won't to some, that creationism - the notion that the Earth is only 6000-something years old and the evolution doesn't exist and that god created everything just the way it is - is being taught in science classes in schools across much of the country. There are at least hundreds of schools that are, in essence, using the Bible as a science textbook.

And I'm not referring to private fundamentalist religious schools, but to taxpayer-supported schools. Charter schools and even, in some cases, public schools.

In Texas, a publicly-funded charter school system operating 65 campuses (with plans for 20 more this year) does it - with no need to be coy about it, because the state science education standards allow teachers to present "alternatives" to evolution, with the result that the opening line of the workbook section on the topic is, quoting, “In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth.”

Recent laws in Louisiana and Tennessee allow teachers in any public school in those states to, again, teach “alternatives” to evolution. In Florida, Indiana, Ohio, Arizona, Washington, DC, and elsewhere, taxpayer money is is funding creationist private schools through tuition vouchers or scholarship programs.

And what does this kind of thinking produce? What does it lead to? It leads to this week's edition of one of our regular weekly features, the Clown Award, given for meritorious stupidity.

Susanne Atanus is one of two candidates for the GOPper nomination to challenge Democratic Rep. Jan Schakowsky for her seat this year. She describes herself as "a conservative Republican" who believes in "God first."

She sure does. During what the suburban Chicago Daily Herald called an "endorsement session" both candidates had with the paper's editorial board on January 20, she declared that she believes God controls the weather and has put tornadoes and diseases such as autism and dementia on Earth as punishment for gay rights and legalized abortions. "God is angry," she said.

Actually, Susie, if there was a god, I suspect most of that supreme anger would be directed at twits like you. She was bad enough that state and local GOPper officials insisted that the party has nothing to do with her.

Her opponent in the primary is no prize, a Ron Paul supporter who favors doing away with all income taxes and replacing them with a 23% national sales tax, opposes raising the minimum wage, and - oh yeah - has an outstanding domestic violence protection order against him. But it takes real skill to rise to the level that Susanne Atanus has achieved. Susanne Atanus: champion-level clown.


144.3 - The discovery of COINTELPRO: March 8, 1971

The discovery of COINTELPRO: March 8, 1971

Talking about Pete Seeger and activism and commitment kind of lead me into something else I wanted to talk about.

The fact is, government spying on us is nothing new and neither is active attempts by that government to disrupt or better yet undermine opposition.

During The Dreaded '60s, there was a lot of talk in the movement about government agent provocateurs and a sometimes irritating number of half-serious remarks about paranoia - which became even more irritating when they became more than half-serious. The boldest course, pursued by many, even most, was simply to assume you were being watched and just do whatever it was you were going to do anyway. At one point in the 1970s it was estimated that the FBI had files on about 7 million activists and the joke became how disappointed you would be if you found out that you were not among them.

The FBI field office in Media, PA in 1971
Anyway, the point here is that on March 8, 1971, a group of anti-war activists calling themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI broke into the FBI field office in Media, Pennsylvania and made off with hundreds of pages of secret counterintelligence files, which they released to the media.

The documents proved the existence of exactly the sort of program that activists had suspected. It was called COINTELPRO - for Counter-Intelligence Program - and was devoted to destroying a range of peace, civil rights, New Left, student, and black power groups that the FBI's deranged director, J. Edgar Hoover, believed were out to destroy America!

Under the plan, the FBI spied, infiltrated, and wiretapped. It planted rumors, intimidated activists with repeated rounds of questioning intended to, quoting Hoover's memo, "enhance the paranoia endemic in these circles" mad make them thing "there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox." It used agents provocateurs to spark internal dissension or provoke groups into actions that would discredit them. It sent out anonymous letters, including one notorious one that tried to blackmail Martin Luther King, Jr. into committing suicide.

Hoover was enraged by the revelations and sent out 200 FBI agents to track down the people involved. They failed. The case was never solved and the FBI finally gave up, closing the case two days after the statute of limitations had expired.

Now, nearly 43 years later, five of the group have come forward and a book on the event, called The Burglary, has come out this month. I haven't read it yet, but I fully intend to do so. Let it be a reminder that while the scope of the spying today is orders of magnitude beyond that of - or even possible in - the 1950s and '60s, the viciousness of that era has yet to be repeated. But as long as the capability is there, the threat remains. And because of that orders-of-magnitude difference in scope, what could be unleashed at any time now would likewise be far worse than that which we survived - and struck back against - then.

I have two final notes about this. One is that both the Washington Post and NBC try, at least implicitly, to take credit as being the first to publish stories about what the papers liberated from the FBI revealed. In fact, the first was probably a little pacifist magazine called "WIN," which was published in cooperation with the War Resisters League.

The other note is a personal one: One of the first articles I read about the people coming forward said that the break-in was "the brainchild of William Davidon, a physics professor as Haverford College near Philadelphia...."

Wait. Stop. William Davidon? Bill Davidon?

I knew him. I worked with him on antiwar stuff. I worked with his wife, Ann Morrisset Davidon, on the National Committee of the War Resisters League. He never mentioned his role. Not once. A good part of the reason the folks were never caught was that they agreed in advance that after quickly preparing the papers for release they would never again meet as a group (they never did) and that they would never speak of their role (they didn't).

So it turns out that I knew the guy who was the brains behind the operation that proved massive spying by the FBI on peaceful dissent. Cool. And I never knew it.


144.2 - RIP: Pete Seeger

RIP: Pete Seeger

We're going to spend a couple of minutes remembering someone who was probably as close to a living legend as we get these days: Pete Seeger, who died January 27 at the age of 94.

An article about his music in the San Jose Mercury News said it best: Pete Seeger was folk music. He was, very likely more than any other person or influence, responsible for much of America discovering - or, rather, rediscovering - its folk roots. The Weavers, a quartet started in 1948 consisting of Seeger, Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert, and Fred Hellerman, certainly set the stage with hits (yes, actual hits) such as “Goodnight Irene,” ”Tzena, Tzena” and “On Top of Old Smokey.”

But Pete Seeger wasn't just about preserving the past in a glass jar. As an example, I remember hearing the story that one time, during the folk revival of the 1960s, he heard someone complain that people were writing new folk songs rather than preserving the old ones. He answered "Don't interfere with the folk process." He has been credited with popularizing “We Shall Overcome,” which became the anthem of the civil rights movement, and he wrote or co-wrote "If I Had a Hammer," "Turn, Turn, Turn," "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," and "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine."

He dropped out of Harvard in 1938 and hit the road, hitchhiking and hopping freights around the country, learning folk songs as he went. By 1940, he was part of a group performing benefits for disaster relief and other causes.

He and his friend Woody Guthrie toured migrant camps and union halls. He sang on overseas radio broadcasts for the Office of War Information early in World War II. In the Army, he entertained soldiers in the South Pacific. As the years went on, he sang in support of workers and for peace and against racism, the death penalty, and nuclear power. He never stopped singing or performing in a career that spanned 70 years.

Perhaps one of his proudest moments - or at least it would be one of mine if it were me - came in August 1955 when he faced down the House Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC, a Congressional panel aimed at uncovering the commies they insisted were under every bed. The Committee kept demanding to know if he sang to this Communist Party group or that Communist Party gathering or at the other Community Party benefit. He simply refused to answer. Wait, the Committee said, are you pleading the Fifth Amendment? No, I'm not, he said. I just won't tell you. I'll tell you about my songs but I'm not going to tell you where I sang them or who I sang them to because you have no business asking. Finally, they gave up.

He was charged with 10 counts of contempt of Congress and sentenced to a year in prison. The conviction was overturned on appeal, but as a result of his defiance he was blackballed for TV and from recording contacts for over 10 years - until in 1967 the Smothers Brothers had him on. Controversy came along with his appearance: CBS deleted his Vietnam protest song, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” with what became its famous refrain, "We're waist deep in the Big Muddy; the big fool says to push on." Five months later, he came back on and did it, but even then at least one station censored the last verse.

In the late '60s, he founded the group Clearwater to support the sloop of the same name built by volunteers which sailed up and down the Hudson River, raising money and awareness for cleaning up the river.

By the 1990s, he was being heaped with honors. He performed at the Kennedy Center in 1994. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. In 2006, Bruce Springsteen did an album in his honor. In 2009, he was treated to - and performed in - a concert at Madison Square Garden to mark his 90th birthday.

He was an activist to the end: In 2011, at the age of 92, he walked two miles through Manhattan as part of an Occupy Movement march and protest. His ever-present banjo was actually not present as he had to use two canes to walk - but walk he did.

His wife Toshi, a remarkable woman in her own right, died in July at the age of 91, just 11 days short of their 70th anniversary.

And now this - as someone accurately dubbed him - "ever-so-gentle rabble-rouser" has rejoined her.

Personally, I never thought all that much of Pete Seeger as a singer, but his compassion, his conviction, and his conscience - to put that more picturesquely, his soul - more than made up for it. “Be wary of great leaders,” he said after the Occupy march. “Hope that there are many, many small leaders.” On that basis, he did his part - more than his part.

RIP, Pete Seeger.


144.1 - Good news: Some federally-contracted workers to get $10.10 minimum wage

Good news: Some federally-contracted workers to get $10.10 minimum wage

We have some sorta good news to start off the day. Before the State of the Union speech, I saw a headline along the lines of "leftists and progressives prepare themselves to be disappointed in the speech." And lo and behold, we weren't disappointed - about being disappointed. Like way too much of what comes out of President Hopey-Changey, there was a lot of lofty talk and almost no specifics, a lot of "I will do this and I will do that by executive order" without actually doing any of it.

With one exception, and that's the good news.

Under an executive order announced by the White House in advance of the speech, some low-wage, federally-contracted workers will have a new minimum wage of $10.10 per hour. The full scope of the program is not yet clear, but it could mean a raise of up to $2.85 an hour for hundreds of thousands of workers under future federal contracts.

But you'll notice that already the effect has been limited: It applies to future contracts, not to current ones and doesn't even apply to renewals of current ones unless other other terms are changed.

What's more, it fails to address the other two issues raised by groups like Good Jobs Nation, the outfit organizing the rapid-fire one day strikes by federally-contracted workers such as, to cite an example from last week, the one by non-union cleaning and concessions workers at the Pentagon. The other two concerns are to strengthen enforcement of labor law against scofflaw contractors and beef up workers’ organizing rights because without those, the increased pay will mean little to those facing employer illegalities and retaliation as they struggle to form unions so they can raise themselves up rather than having to depend on future executive orders.

Still, despite the order's shortcomings and limitations and failures - something which always seems to be true of any supposed improvements coming out of the White House which sound great until you check the details - let's still take some pleasure in the fact that anyone's minimum pay is being raised and especially take pleasure in the knowledge that it was militant labor action over the past several months that made it happen.

[Note: The image is not of the labor action at the Pentagon but of an earlier one at a federally-run museum. Same type of workers, same concerns, same demands, part of the same effort, but different time and place and used to illustrate the "militant labor action over the past several months."]


Left Side of the Aisle #144

Left Side of the Aisle
for the week of January 30 - February 5, 2014

This week:

Good news: Some federally-contracted workers to get $10.10 minimum wage|htmlws-sb-bb|dl3|sec1_lnk2%26pLid%3D435684

RIP: Pete Seeger

The discovery of COINTELPRO: March 8, 1971

Clown Award: Susanne Atanus

Global warming: It's going to get worse

Outrage of the Week: how the rich think of you

Friday, January 24, 2014

143.7 - Clown Award: Glenn Beck

Clown Award: Glenn Beck

Just enough time for our other regular weekly feature, the Clown Award, given for meritorious stupidity.

This week, because time is short, I'm going after an easy target: Glenn Blech.

Now there obviously could be any number of reasons for this, but this is the one I've chosen because it's recent.

You know of Bill Nye the Science Guy. What you may not know is that he of late has become a leading voice in the scientific fight against creationism and in favor of the scientific principle of evolution. He has been using his celebrity and his ability to explain scientific topics in terms that non-scientists can understand to battle the ignorance that creationism represents.

This is where Blech comes in. He played a clip of Nye telling creationists that it’s “fine” if they want to live in an alternate reality, but “Don’t make your kids do it.”

This, Blech insisted, put Nye on the wrong side of history and asked if in the future Nye "is going to look like the people who threw Galileo out."

That's right: Glenn Blech says that history will declare that Bill Nye, in standing against those who want to deny the reality of evolution, was just the same as those people who "threw out" Galileo in order to deny the reality that the Earth goes around the Sun rather than the other way around.

One thing I think we can be confident will be said in the future - because it's already being said now - is "Glenn Blech? Oh yeah - that clown."


143.6 - Outrage of the Week: Forced ultrasounds not only intrusive and burdensome, but useless

Outrage of the Week: Forced ultrasounds not only intrusive and burdensome, but useless

Now for one of our regular features, it's the Outrage of the Week.

You know - or you damn well should know - that access to legal abortion is being systematically strangled in the US. In fact, in 2011 and 2012 states passed a total of 135 laws restricting access, more than the 10 years preceding.

Among those laws in several states are ones that require forced ultrasounds before women can access abortion care. The lawmakers behind the bills are open enough about it; they hope the ultrasound will make the woman change her mind about the procedure. Which means, to put it another way, they figure that women are too stupid to understand what being pregnant means.

Beyond that, there are what Tracy Weitz, Director of the Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health program at the University of California, San Francisco, described as the highly specific and intentionally punitive provisions of forced ultrasound laws, laws which can present a real burden to women seeking abortions.

For one thing, ultrasounds are usually done by a technician. Requiring, as these laws often do, they be done by a physician, in fact the same physician who would perform the abortion, not only contradicts medical best practice, it drives up the cost, putting it out of reach for lower-income women. The requirements also by their nature intrude into the course of health care as determined by the patient and her doctor. (Whatever happened to the right-wing blather about not having the government between you and your doctor? Oh, sorry, I forgot: That only applies when it's something about getting you health care, not interfering with it.)

These laws are an outrage. But they have been all along. So why are they the Outrage of the Week?

Because according to a comprehensive new study published in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology, the overwhelming majority of women who seek an abortion do not change their minds after receiving and viewing a sonogram, which is the image produced by an ultrasound.

Researchers reviewed over 15,000 visits to a provider where women were given the option to view their ultrasound image before going forward with an abortion. A majority chose not to look, which only serves to point up the intrusive and manipulative nature of the laws. However and more to the point, something over 40% of the women did choose to view the sonogram. Among those women, 98.4 percent still went forward with the abortion, a figure virtually identical to the percentage of women who did not view the ultrasound who went forward with the procedure. Put another way, among those women who did not view the sonogram, one percent changed their minds about having the abortion. Among those who did view their sonogram, 1.6 percent did.

And, it turns out, those women who changed their minds after viewing the sonogram were among those who had expressed mixed feelings about getting an abortion from the start, those who had the least confidence in their choice. Among those women who expressed confidence in their decision, zero percent, not one, changed her mind after viewing the sonogram.

In other words, ultrasounds have essentially zero impact on a woman's decision to proceed with an abortion. These laws have all the intrusiveness, all the burdens, all the unnecessary expense, all the sexist condescension about a woman's ability to make her own health care choices; they are an outrage. And they don't even work the way the right wing wants them to. They are intrusive, burdensome, expensive, and sexist - and useless to their avowed purpose.

Which makes them even more outrageous. They are, let's call them, the Outragier of the Week.


143.5 - Everything You Need to Know: world income inequality

Everything You Need to Know: world income inequality

Very quickly, an edition of our occasional feature, Everything You Need to Know, where you can learn everything you need to know about something in no more than a sentence or two. Sometimes less.

In this case, it's Everything You Need to Know about world income inequality in just one sentence:

According to a new report from Oxfam, the world's richest 85 individuals control as much wealth as half of the world's population, some 3.5 billion people.

And that is Everything You Need to Know.


143.4 - Update: Iran

Update: Iran

The other update relates to something else I'm revisiting because of the importance. The update is that the first stage of the agreement between Iran and six bullying - excuse me, major - powers about Iran's nuclear program has gone into effect. Iran has halted its most sensitive nuclear operations while the US and the European Union suspended some sanctions they had imposed on the Middle East nation.

This is supposed to be followed by a long-term agreement within six months, although negotiators have given it up to a year to be completed.

Everyone agrees the bargaining will be hard and a mutually-agreeable pact hard to come by, and not only because of the complication of national pride which will inevitably come up: Bear in mind that any agreement will by definition involve Iran submitting to letting other nations determine its policy on a national issue. What would be the reaction here if the roles were reversed and the US was being forced to let a group of six other nations determine its energy policy?

But beyond that, it bears repeating that there are two major roadblocks to a long-term agreement. The first is Israel, which has called the interim pact an "historic mistake" and has repeatedly threatened to attack Iran over its nuclear program and which has for more than 20 years claimed that Iran is no more than five years away from developing nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, Israel itself is believed to have a nuclear arsenal of up to about 200 nuclear weapons, just slightly fewer than the UK, France, or China, a fact which the West, screaming about a purely hypothetical and entirely unproven future Iranian nuclear weapon, persistently refuses to address.

The other, related, roadblock is a bizarre legislative coalition of right-wing fruitcakes and liberal cowards in the US Senate, a coalition which seems determined to pass a bill the would undermine the negotiations with Iran by imposing additional demands and the threat of additional sanctions - that is, moving the goalposts. It's related because the coalition is based on a commitment to Israel - on the right because of some fundamentalist notion that Israel has to exist so that the conversion of the Jews can happen and usher in the Second Coming and among the liberals because they are terrified of the idea of crossing the rabidly pro-Israel lobby AIPAC and so losing both votes and contributions from the Jewish community and being labeled anti-Semitic, the fate of most everyone who dares criticize Israeli policies.

I said it before, I will say it again: Those people in Congress who support this bill are saying that they do not want a settlement. They do not want peace. They may not want outright war - although I believe some do - but they do want to maintain the constant shadow of war, the better to advance their own personal agendas. Last week I called this bill an outrage. It still is.

Which is why I feel so good about being able to say that there is good news on this. Ten Democrat committee chairs have come out against the bill along with several other Democrats, including, most recently, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington and, I'm pleased to say, Elizabeth Warren. The top leadership is divided, with Chuck Schumer in favor of the bill and Harry Reid and (reportedly) Dick Durbin against it.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and USA Today have all come out against new sanctions, as have influential commentators such as Ron Fournier, James Fallows, and Jeffrey Goldberg, who is usually a strident supporter of Israel.

The overall result is that, according to columnist Greg Sargent of the Washington Post, if current conditions remain, a vote is starting to look less and less likely. Outright defeat would be even better, but I'll take a no vote.

As a quick footnote, among those who has been silent on the bill but who in the past could be as rabidly pro-Israel as anyone else, is our own Ed Markey.


143.3 - Update: Net neutrality

Update: Net neutrality

Now for Updates on two things I talked about last week, things to which I'm returning because I think they are important enough to merit more attention.

The first, I suppose, is not so much of an update as a backfill and there are two parts to the backfill.

To start, there's a basic point you need to understand. You probably already do, but I want to lay this out to make sure it's clear. There are essentially, at its most basic level, two parts to the Internet: There are content providers - the people who create the videos, the blogs, the websites, all the stuff you actually look at, read, and listen to over the Internet. Then there are the content carriers, the corporations that own and control the networks, wired or wireless, over which that content is transmitted. There are complications in that content carriers can also be content providers, providing their own original content, but overall, you can say there are content providers and content carriers.

Okay, last week I spoke about Net neutrality, about the principle that all information transmitted on the Internet is treated equally. I described the decision in federal court that said that the FCC could not regulate broadband - that is, high-speed internet traffic - the way the agency tried to do it and how that decision essentially undermined Net neutrality.

That's because result of that court decision was that the handful of giant corporations such as Verizon and Comcast and AT&T that control the networks over which that traffic passes could favor some content (including their own) over others - which means, in practice, they could favor that content produced by other large companies with the bucks to pay for special treatment while everyone else would just have to wait until Veriz-cast and Com-zon got around to them. That is, if it got around to them at all because now there is nothing to prevent them from saying to some content provider "we just won't carry your content - as far as the US is concerned, you are off the Internet."

The first part of the backfill is that I said that as a result of that decision, that unless something changes, the future of the Internet could be found in the past and I compared it to the argument over the Fairness Doctrine. But because time was short last week, I didn't explain that as I wanted to, so I'm going to do that now.

The Fairness Doctrine was an FCC rule that required broadcasters to deal with issues "of public interest," including some controversial ones, and that, overall, the station's coverage of those issues be reasonably "fair" with various sides having a "reasonable" opportunity to be heard.

The Fairness Doctrine was around for a long time. In fact, an early version of the Fairness Doctrine was in place before the FCC was created. Over the years, it existed in a number of different forms. But some form of it was there.

As broadcast media corporations became more concentrated and more powerful is the '60s and '70s, they started to complain about the Fairness Doctrine. They spent years trying to get the rule repealed. A main argument was that the rule was unnecessary because broadcasters could be trusted to address controversies, and do it a way fair to all sides, on their own.

At the time, I was involved in efforts to maintain the rule and I wondered aloud why, if that was true, if the rule only required them to do what they would do anyway, they were devoting such time and energy and money to getting it repealed.

Finally, under the corporate capitalist friendly Reagan regime in the 1980s, it was repealed - followed almost immediately by the explosion of right-wing talk radio, the virtual disappearance of even just liberal voices, and the emergence of overtly biased networks such as Fox. I had my answer, the one I knew to be true all along.

Okay, that's the past. What about the present? Randall Milch, executive vice president of Verizon, had this to say, which I also quoted last week:
One thing is for sure: Today’s decision will not change consumers’ ability to access and use the Internet as they do now. Verizon has been and remains committed to the open Internet that provides consumers with competitive choices and unblocked access to lawful websites and content when, where, and how they want.
In other words, he's trying to claim that "The elimination of Net neutrality won't make aaany difference at all and we went to a lot of time and energy and money to get rid of a regulation that didn't make us do anything we wouldn't do anyway." As I said last week, we've been down this road before. We have to make sure we don't wind up in the same place.

Which brings up the second part of the backfill.

That goes back to Milch's statement: "Verizon remains committed to the open Internet that provides consumers with competitive choices and unblocked access to lawful websites and content when, where, and how they want." Note carefully - note very carefully - that he declares a commitment to "unblocked" access but not to "equal" access. That is, while he clearly tries to make you think that there will be no changes at all no way no how, he very carefully avoids any commitment to Net neutrality, promising only "competitive choices," which, as we all learned long ago, is corporate-speak for "pay up or give up."

And we truly have been down this road before. Remember when the P in PBS meant "public" broadcasting and it was going to be the outlet for all the previously-unheard voices? Remember when UHF TV (for the kiddies, that's broadcast TV channels 14-83) was going to open up so many outlets for creativity and, again, unheard voices? Remember when that was also supposedly going to be true for cable TV - and how, for a time, it was? So far, the Internet has escaped the fate of those others precisely because of its essentially democratic, even anarchic, nature: Unlike broadcast media or cable, there are not a limited number of content providers available to any given user. You aren't limited to a dozen TV stations or even a couple of hundred cable channels, there are millions, tens of millions, of options. The whole Internet is there. But now we are faced with the very real possibility of that no longer being true, both literally in the sense of blocked access and, more importantly because more likely, effectively in the sense of delays, bottlenecks, and agonizingly slow transmission rates for less-favored (that is, less well-heeled) providers.

We have been down this road before. We have to make sure we don't wind up in the same place.

I should add as a footnote that Net neutrality is not dead, just moribund. The court decision relied significantly on the FCC having classified Internet service as an "information service" rather than a "telecommunications service" and found that the regulations in question had treated outfits like Verizon, which brought the suit, as the latter, as a telecommunications service, which made the regulations invalid. So the FCC could try re-issuing the regulations while treating the corporations that are transmitting the data as an information service (even though that classification was designed for content providers, not content carriers). Or, much better, since this was based on the FCC's own classification, it could reclassify Internet service providers - content carriers - as providing a telecommunications service, overcoming that objection to the regulations.

An even better - but far less likely - alternative would be for Congress to pass legislation specifically establishing Net neutrality as law and empowering the FCC to regulate the telcoms to that end. In any event, buckle up, kiddos: In a few years, this show may be the only alternative news source you can get without paying extra.


143.2 - Good news: Virginia Attorney General supports marriage equality

Good news: Virginia Attorney General supports marriage equality

And the good news just keeps rollin' in.

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring announced on January 23 that he believes the state’s ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional and that Virginia is joining two same-sex couples in asking a federal court to strike it down.

It's a dramatic reversal from the position of Herring's predecessor, Ken Cuccinelli, who once referred to same-sex marriage as "nothing but self-destruction, not only physically but of their soul." It's proof that, as the GOPpers keep telling us when they want to strip away union rights or restrict voting or access to abortions or whatever, elections have consequences.

It's also a personal reversal for Herring, who as a state senator had voted against same-sex marriage eight years ago. Now, however, he says that Virginia has been on the “wrong side” of legal battles involving school desegregation, interracial marriage, and single-sex education at the Virginia Military Institute. He wants Virginia to be on the “right side of the law and history” in the battle over same-sex marriage and, he said, "As attorney general, I cannot and will not defend laws that violate Virginians' rights."

Good for him. And good for the future of Virginia.


143.1 - Good news: Pennsylvania voter photo ID law struck down

Good news: Pennsylvania voter photo ID law struck down

As always, where there is good news, we start off that way.

Last Friday, January 17, Pennsylvania's voter photo ID law was struck down by a state judge as unconstitutional. Commonwealth Court Judge Bernard McGinley said the law unreasonably burdens the fundamental right to vote and the state had no convincing explanation for why it was necessary.

The legislative debate on the measure when it was passed in 2012 was the same as everywhere else this has come up: Right-wingers argued it was necessary to prevent in-person voter fraud - while being forced to admit, when pressed, that they had no evidence that such fraud was occurring and certainly not to anything near an extent that would justify the massive disenfranchisement of voters that would result. In fact, in the specific case of Pennsylvania, came up with precisely five confirmed cases of voter fraud of all types, not just in-person fraud - while at trial, the state's own witnesses said that by their own estimates somewhere between 320,000 and 400,000 already-registered Pennsylvania voters did not have the required ID and so would be barred from voting by the law.

Pennsylvania Governor Tom "Space Cadet" Corbett has asked the judge to reconsider while he thinks about his options, which could include an appeal to the state Supreme Court. He might want to bear in mind that this is the second time a Pennsylvania state court has delivered a smackdown over this law.

Witold Walczak of the ACLU, which helped lead the legal challenge, said "the act was plainly revealed to be nothing more than a voter suppression tool," a nation given extra credence by the recently-published research of sociologist Keith Bentele and political scientist Erin O’Brien of UMass Boston. They found that the states that have enacted tougher voter ID laws in the past few years are the same states where both minority and lower-income voter turnout had increased in recent years.

When they looked specifically at 2011, when many of these laws were passed, they found the three strongest common factors among those states were 1)GOPers controlled the state legislature and the governor's office, 2)they were likely to be swing states in the 2012 elections, and 3)minority turnout was up in 2008 and with high proportions of African-American voters.

In other words, as headlined it, the study "confirms every bad thing you suspected about voter ID laws" - that they are nothing other than attempts by the right wing to hinder the ability of blacks, the poor, women, and other historically disenfranchised and under-represented groups to vote. These laws are racist, classist, sexist, profoundly undemocratic, and bluntly un-American. Those who push them are only interested in maintaining their own privileged positions in society. I would say they should be ashamed except that their actions prove they have none.

There is some feeling in some quarters that this decision in Pennsylvania will strengthen efforts in other places to strike down or prevent the enactment of such laws. Now, that would be good news.


Left Side of the Aisle #143

Left Side of the Aisle
for the week of January 23-29, 2014

This week:

Good news: Pennsylvania voter photo ID law struck down

Good news: Virginia Attorney General supports marriage equality

Update: Net neutrality

Update: Iran

Everything You Need to Know: world income inequality

Outrage of the Week: Forced ultrasounds not only intrusive and burdensome, but useless

Clown Award: Glenn Beck

Thursday, January 16, 2014

142.6 - Net neutrality neutralized

Net neutrality neutralized

One last thing, which again requires some explanation.

Net neutrality is the principle that all traffic on the internet should be treated equally. Some streaming video from some major media corporation gets no special treatment as compared to the email from your grandmother. It's all the same.

Net neutrality as a principle is one of the main reasons that the internet has grown so far so fast: It's democratic, kind of like one byte, one vote, if you will.

With the rapid growth of broadband and thus of video and intensive graphics as opposed to just text, that became an even more important consideration. In 2010, the FCC issued long-awaited and long-pressed-for regulations to that effect, designed to prevent internet carriers, such as Verizon, from favoring some traffic over others - favoring, that is, those that can pay extra for the privilege of higher transmission speeds. Now, however, net neutrality is under threat.

On January 14, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the rules, arguing that the FCC didn't have the legal authority to issue the regulations.

The decision came in response to a suit filed by - guess who - Verizon, which argued it should be able to do exactly what net neutrality was designed to prevent: the ability to charge content providers for faster connections with their end users, with the inevitable result that large, rich, powerful media corporations get the special treatment while others - the smaller, the lesser-known, the start-ups - are stuck in the backwaters. It's kind of like if all roads were privately owned by a few giant corporations and all the highways had tolls on them: You pay the extra or you take the twisty back roads with all the traffic lights and stop signs - and no, the scenery is not worth it.

A media watchdog and advocacy group called Free Press said in response to the ruling that "the biggest broadband providers will race to turn the open and vibrant Web into something that looks like cable TV" with tiers of service. What's more, because as part of its decision the court threw out an FCC rule that barred providers from blocking net traffic outright, the comparison may be even more apt: Just as not every channel is available in any cable system, the carrier could simply refuse to connect you to some site it doesn't want you to get to or doesn't want to carry, perhaps one that is politically unpopular or that is a competitor.

The silver lining, if I can call it one, is that the decision was based on what amounts to a technicality: The court found that broadband providers aren’t “common carriers,” like telephone companies, and so can't be regulated as such under the law. The FCC retains the underlying power that Verizon wanted to strip away, so it could be a matter of re-issuing the regulations on a firmer legal basis by reclassifying the companies. Two of the three judges in the case suggested as much.

Unfortunately, that would take desire and political will and the current chair of the FCC, Tom Wheeler, a former lobbyist for the telcom industry, seems to lack both. He says the FCC must have the ability to preserve the net's open architecture, he says he supports net neutrality, but he also says that he doesn't want to regulate broadband providers but rather wants to police them on a case-by-case basis if their behavior is anticompetitive or hinders Web access.

Oh joy, I'm sure that will work out just as well as it has with regulating the banks.

Barring some dramatic turn of events such as the White House developing a spine or Wheeler developing a conscience or a successful appeal to the Supreme Court, which is itself a two-fer, one for an appeal and two for it being successful, the future of the net may well be found in the past.

How? Well, several years ago, there was a debate over the Fairness Doctrine. This was an FCC rule that required broadcasters to deal with issues "of public interest," including some controversial ones, and that, overall, the station's coverage of those issues be reasonably "fair" with various sides having a "reasonable" opportunity to be heard.

Corporations spent years trying to get the rule repealed. A main argument was that the rule was unnecessary because broadcasters could be trusted to address controversies, and do it a way fair to all sides, on their own. At the time, I wondered why, if that was true, they were devoting such time and energy and money to getting it repealed.

Finally, it was repealed - followed by the explosion of right-wing talk radio, he virtual disappearance of liberal voices, and the emergence of overtly biased networks such as Fox. I had my answer.

And what do we hear now? Randall Milch, executive vice president of Verizon, had this to say:
One thing is for sure: Today’s decision will not change consumers’ ability to access and use the Internet as they do now. Verizon has been and remains committed to the open Internet that provides consumers with competitive choices and unblocked access to lawful websites and content when, where, and how they want.
In other words, "We went to a lot of time and money to get rid of a regulation that didn't make us do anything we wouldn't do anyway." We have been down this road before. We have to make sure we don't wind up in the same place.


142.5 - Outrage of the Week: GOPpers and Dimcrats combine to ruin Iran negotiations

Outrage of the Week: GOPpers and Dimcrats combine to ruin Iran negotiations

For the rest of the show I'm going to spend a few minutes each on two things you need to know about, but which require a little explanation. First up is our other regular weekly feature, the Outrage of the Week.

On Sunday, January 12, US and Iranian officials announced that Iran and a group of six major nations have reached agreement on the first phase of the deal they have been working on for months regarding Iran's nuclear facilities. The six nations are the five permanent members of the UN Security Council - the US, France, the UK, Russia, and China - plus Germany.

The agreement, worked out in a month of talks among technical experts and diplomats following a preliminary agreement signed on November 24, goes into effect January 20. At that point, Iran will open more of its facilities to the United Nations' nuclear watchdog agency, the IAEA, and in return Iran will get access to some of its frozen assets. It also sets a timetable of six months to a year for negotiating a long-term agreement.

Okay, a couple of things: First, this means the negotiations are making progress. Neither side has gotten everything it wants by any means, but each has gotten something and each can live with the agreement so far. Progress.

Second, far more important, this whole business of sanctions on Iran, of pressure on Iran, of demands that Iran stop working on some nuclear-related projects and slow down on others, is all based, at least on the public record, on fears suspicious questions speculations whatever that Iran has been trying to build a nuclear weapon.

The problem is, there is no actual, no solid, evidence that they are or were trying to do any such thing. But the claims go back a long way: the Christian Science Monitor published a timeline dating back to before the overthrow of the Shah in 1979. The government of Israel has been claiming Iran is three to five years from having nukes since 1992. The US joined the chorus in 1995, saying Iran could have The Bomb within five years. The warnings, always with the same rough three-to-seven year projections, have been repeated at regular intervals since.

Not only is there no hard evidence that Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons, there is some hard evidence that they aren't, including converting some of its partially-enriched uranium into a metallic form useful for nuclear power reactors but incapable to being converted to bomb use.

It doesn't matter, no evidence for, some evidence against, it doesn't matter. It's taken as an article of faith among the American punditocracy that the only reason Iran has not already nuked Israel and who knows where else has been the constant pressure and hostility of "the civilized" - which apparently means the non-Muslim - "world." That faith allows US government officials to act as if that is known to be the case, known that Iran is trying to build nukes, even though they will admit if directly asked that they don't have actual evidence of it.

Okay. Put those two things together in your head and then consider this:

There is a bill in the Senate that would impose a new set of demands on Iran, including, for example, a provision that would re-impose sanctions and add new ones unless Iran agreed to dismantle its entire nuclear infrastructure. Not just limit its growth, not just have it be unable to produce nuclear weapons, not even to dismantle part of its nuclear infrastructure, the whole thing.

The bill is insane, it is madness, it makes demands that its supporters have to know - how could they not know - that Iran will never accept. No nation would. It amounts to national humiliation on a grand scale.

Despite that, its backers insist with straight faces that this is going to help negotiations. Dimcrat Bob Menendez calls it "reasonable pragmatism." Yeah, it'll help - kind of like being put on the rack will help with your stiff back.

It's so bad, so likely to undermine negotiations, that the "No Drama Obama" White House has accused supporters of having a hidden goal of drawing the country into another Mideast war and demanding that if they “want the United States to take military action, they should be up front with the American people and say so."

The thing is, this insane bill is approaching, if it doesn't already have, a veto-proof majority. It has at least 59 co-sponsors and Congressional aides are saying the actual count of supporters could be as high as 77 and in any event is well above the 67 needed to guarantee overturning a presidential veto.

This is madness, madness driven to a significant degree by right-wingers happy to do anything they think might embarrass Obama no matter the cost, by extreme right-wingers who are waiting for Israel to trigger the Second Coming, and most importantly, frankly, by sheer, craven political cowardice among the Dimcrats, who are terrified of standing up to the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC and yes I'm looking at you, Chuck Schumer and at you, Bob Menendez, and at you, Corey Booker.

The fact is, anyone who votes for, anyone who supports, this bill is saying in effect that they don't want a settlement with Iran. They don't want an agreement. They don't want a peaceful resolution. They may not want outright war, no, but neither do they want peace. They want to be able to maintain Iran as, in a role reversal, The Great Satan. They want to have Iran be the looming, always on the horizon but somehow never approaching, but always there, the threat, the looming darkness, to be used as leverage for why Israel needs yet another couple of billions dollars in US aid and why Israel can't negotiate with Palestinians.

And yes, I am saying that for at least some of these people, that is exactly why they are doing it. This bill is dangerous and foolish and anyone who supports it is dangerous and foolish. It is an outrage.


142.4 - A personal aside

A personal aside

On a bit of a personal aside, you could consider this an update of something I talked about last week.

Last week, I mentioned being an atheist and how I resent being told that because of that I can't experience wonder at or be awed by the majesty and beauty of existence and nature.

In the course of that, I mentioned that as an atheist I'm a member of a community that faces prejudice. Not legal prejudice, no, but yes, social prejudice. By coincidence, the day after I did the show I came across an example so I decided to share it.

It starts with the fact that the Morton Grove Park District, of Morton Grove, Illinois, had a problem.

Last fall, American Legion Post 134 pulled all of its funding - $2600 a year - from the park district because one member of Park Commission, Dan Ashta, refused to stand for the pledge of allegiance. Ashta said he was doing it to make the point that no one should feel compelled to stand, but the Legion was having none of it. While admitting, "with some regret" - and that's a quote, admitting "with some regret" - that, yes, Ashta had the right to not stand, the Post said it wouldn't contribute any more until either Ashta stands or he is off the board.
In response, a local teacher named Hemant Mehta, who runs a blog called The Friendly Atheist, asked his readers to contribute to make up the loss. He raised $3000.

But when he tried to deliver the check to the Park District, it was rejected.

In an email to Mehta, Park District Executive Director Tracey Anderson said the board "has no intention of becoming embroiled in a First Amendment dispute" and that the board does not want to appear "sympathetic to," or show a perceived position for or against, "any particular political or religious cause," a difficulty which does not seem to arise with the American Legion.

So Mehta tried to give the money to the Morton Grove Library. They, too, refused to accept the donation, with one trustee, Cathy Peters, labeling Mehta's blog "a hate group" and likened it to the KKK based on a scattering of inflammatory anti-religion comments among the 2,000 a day that go up on Mehta's Facebook page. Not based, I note just to make the point, on anything Mehta wrote.

After two months and those two rejections, the $3,000 donation was accepted by a third group: the Niles Township Food Pantry. Niles Township Clerk Charles Levy said the check came in as a contribution and it was deposited with the other contributions that came in. Which is exactly how the Morton Grove Park District and the Morton Grove Library should have handled it. But even at that, Niles Township Supervisor Lee Tamraz expressed concern that other donors would pull funding, thinking the pantry was making some kind of political or religious statement by accepting a donation from an atheist.

Mehta said at one point “I can’t believe how hard it is” to give away the money. You want to know the truth? I can.

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