Monday, January 26, 2015

Fair warning

With something like, we're told around here, 20-30 inches of snow on the way and things already being shut down tomorrow and maybe Wednesday as well, including the studio where Left Side of the Aisle is done (a studio which on top of the rest is in the middle of moving) it can be safely said that there will be no video of Left Side of the Aisle this week.

Assuming I keep (or soon regain ) power, I'll try to while away the snowed-in hours by posting some stuff of what would have been in the video so, y'know, y'all won't be too disappointed.

In fact, this seems like a good time to talk some about global warming and the fact that 2014 was the warmest year on record and that 13 of the 15 hottest years recorded have come in the 21st century - y'know, global warming, the thing that can't be happening because, well, it's snowing.

Stay warm.


Again. If you break it down, "again" could mean "without gain." And so it is here.

I wrote just recently about our 16-year-old cat, Shadow, that had just died. I would call this an echo but it's more a loud crack than a mere echo: Our 18-year-old cat, Isis, died early Saturday morning.

I found her sprawled under the corner of the bed. I nudged her with my foot, expecting her to emerge with that sort of "What do you want?" air that cats can put on, seemingly at will. Instead, she didn't move. I took her out from under the bed, picked her up, and she was a rag doll. Her eyes were open but she was unresponsive and clearly unconscious. For a moment I thought she was dead but I checked and she was still breathing. Very shallow, but she was breathing.

So I lay in bed, with her wrapped in a towel and laid across my chest as we - essentially - waited for her to stop breathing. Sometime in the night, she did.

Isis was solid black except for a bit of white under her chin and for her entire life she was as skinny as a rail. By the end of her life she was about as close to skin and bones as you would think to get. But right up to the end, she ate, drank, used the box, got around fine, still loved being held.

Which makes this one harder than Shadow because with her we'd known for a time she was failing and this time it was sudden: in the afternoon fine, in the late evening barely alive (if alive at all; we suspect that when I found her she truly was already dead from either a heart attack or a massive stroke and her body just hadn't realized it yet).

It's also harder because, well, I'll be honest enough to say Isis was my favorite of the "original three" and the one that seemed most attached to me. Thinking the other night that she would never again come and lie across my chest when I went to bed or snuggle in my right arm as I sat on the couch watching TV, well, yeah, that was kinda hard.

Anyway, thanks for letting me go on about it.

RIP, Isis.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

190.8 - Everything You Need to Know: about the state of the economy in one sentence

Everything You Need to Know: about the state of the economy in one sentence

Finally for this week, an episode of one of our occasional features, Everything you Need to Know, where you can learn a great deal about something in a very short time.

In this case, in the wake of the happy talk in the State of the Union address, it's Everything you Need to Know about the state of the real economy, the one most of us live in, in just one sentence:
According to a new analysis from the Southern Education Foundation, for the first time, more than half of US public school students live in low-income households.
And that is Everything you Need to Know.

Sources cited in links:

190.7 - Outrage of the Week: National Research Council says no viable alternative to bulk data collection by NSA

Outrage of the Week: National Research Council says no viable alternative to bulk data collection by NSA

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

There doubtless were sighs of relief throughout the American intelligence community when on January 15 the National Research Council declared that there is no viable technological alternative to bulk collection of data by the National Security Agency.

Bulk collection, of course, refers to massive sweeping up of telephone metadata, internet communications, and all the rest of the personal information and conversations the spooks swallow in their conscious attempt to strip away every bit of privacy we have - all of it done, of course, in the name of making us safe.

The report was commissioned last January by President Most-Transparent Administration-Ever in the wake of revelations by Edward Snowden that government spies routinely sucked up and stored information about the day, time, length, and location of tens of millions of phone calls made by ordinary Americans suspected of no wrongdoing. Is there, the National Research Council was asked, a better way to do this than bulk collection?

The conclusion? Sorry, no better way to do it. Bulk collection is the only way. Gotta be this way. So take that, Mr./Ms. Privacy Advocate! We're protecting you the best way we can!

Except - here's where the outrage creeps in - here is the first sentence of the Washington "Post" article on this. Note the last phrase:
A committee of scientific experts has concluded that there is no viable technological alternative to bulk collection of data by the National Security Agency that allows analysts access to communications whose significance only becomes clear years later. [Emphasis obviously mine.]
Get  it? The researchers were not asked if there is any alternative to bulk collection to better track actual terrorists or at least actual suspected terrorists, they were not asked if there is any alternative for use in legitimate investigations, they were asked if there is a different way, a "better" way, to gather information for which you have no present use but which might hypothetically become what you would think of as useful in some as yet unknown way at some unknown time in the future. Is there a better way to have all that information than gatherng all that information?

Well, quoting the report,
if past events become interesting in the present because of new circumstances ... historical events and the data they provide will be available for analysis only if they were previously collected.
In other words, the conclusion of these devoted researchers is that the spooks can't have that information if they didn't gather that information. Why it took them since January to determine that is unclear and suggests they took more time examining piƱa colada than technological capabilities.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said in 2002 "there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns - the ones we don't know we don't know." He was soundly mocked for the absurd remark but must now feel vindicated because the National Research Council has firmly embraced the importance of unknown unknowns and declared that the only way we can protect against the looming danger of unknown unknowns is for the spooks to know everything, because if they don't, we're all going to die!

But let's be fair to National Research Council: It investigated what was assigned to investigate.

The scope of investigation was determined by James Clapper, the director of the Office of National Intelligence, a proven liar in that he indisputably flat out lied to Congress in June 2013 about the very existence of the bulk collection program, claiming that the NSA did not collect any data about innocent Americans and if it did it was "inadvertent."

The scope as defined by The Clap did not include any consideration of privacy issues or any intelligence impact of eliminating bulk collection - which is understandable because previously, a panel appointed by The Amazing Mr. O said bulk data collection should be shut down and a report year a ago by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board said it could not find single instance in which the telephone records program either made a concrete difference in the outcome of a counter-terrorism investigation or directly contributed to the discovery of a previously unknown terrorist plan. And Clapper certainly didn't want a repeat of that sort of thing.

So now we're to be treated to a re-hash of the "no alternative" bull, the "vital importance" nonsense, and the "it's a dangerous world" fear-mongering because the spooks not only get to spy on us, they get to decide what questions will be asked about their spying - and the third time was the charm.

And that is an outrage.

Sources cited in links:

190.6 - Clown Award: Fox News host Jeanine Pirro

Clown Award: Fox News host Jeanine Pirro

Now it's time for one of our regular features. It's the Clown Award, given for meritorious stupidity.

I had to think about this one this week. First, I was going to give the Clown Award to former Rep. Joe Walsh for his creeped-out tweet about the Charlie Hebdo cartoons:
Let's hope that when the Islamists next strike they first behead the appeasing cowards at CNN, MSNBC, etal who refused to show the cartoons.
He later tried to "clarify," saying he's not hoping for another attack but knows one will come. Yeah, and when it does, he hopes they first kill the people at CNN, MSNBC, and any others who made an editorial decision with which he disagrees.

Then I was going to give it to Jaime Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, the nation's largest bank, who whined that the "banks are under assault" from federal regulators because you used to deal with one or two and now you have to deal with five or six. That was, he said, unfair and maybe even un-American.

This was while he was announcing a record year for his bank, including earnings of $4.9 billion in the 4th quarter.

But those guys simply got outclassed.

Jeanine Pirro
So the Big Red Nose this week goes to Fox News host Jeanine Pirro, who recently went on a truly out-of-her-skull seven minute rant about how we have to kill every radical Muslim. In fact her very first words were "We have to kill them! We have to kill them!"

We are supposed to do this by arming other Muslims who can be trusted, apparently, to ruthlessly kill those other Muslims and only those other Muslims we want dead. Considering how well this has worked out in the past in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, hey, what could go wrong?

Among other points in this brain-dead diatribe, she called Pakistan an "Arab state" (it's not and it appears she doesn't know the difference between being Muslim and being Arab), claimed there is a "reverse crusade" (which, considering how well the real crusades ultimately worked out for Europeans, I don't know why she's worried), expressed shock that Muslims had been invited to worship at "our national cathedral" (because no Muslim can be an American citizen), predicted "efforts to limit our First Amendment rights, to comply with Sharia law" (I can't even come up with a good sarcastic response to that one), and claimed the "fanatics" have "conquered us" through "immigration" and - wait for it - "interfaith dialogue."

At one point, she declaimed "Are we morons?"  Not us, kiddo.

Fox News host Jeanine Pirro: a moron - and a clown.

Sources cited in links:

190.5 - Footnote: Media says loss on same-sex marriage good news for Republicans

Footnote: Media says loss on same-sex marriage good news for Republicans

The other footnote is also amusing, although in this case it's sort of bitterly amusing.

The amusement came from a New York "Times" article which suggested that a victory at the Supreme Court for marriage equality could be good news - for Republicans.

The reasoning, quoting the paper, is that such a decision
has the benefit of largely neutralizing a debate that a majority of Americans believe Republicans are on the wrong side of - and well ahead of the party’s 2016 presidential primaries.
That's because, our "paper of record" goes on, candidates in those primaries could have "a political escape hatch" in saying of same-sex marriage "It’s been settled. Let’s move on." Which of course they never did about gun control in the 70 years between US v. Miller and District of Columbia v. Heller and still have not done about abortion in the 42 years since Roe v. Wade but apparently they will do and be able to get away with here. So says the New York Times.

I do find it amusing, bitterly amusing but amusing, that no matter what the issue, not just court cases by any political issue, and no matter what the developments on it, victory or loss or stalemate or on-going argument, there will be someone in the mainstream media who will explain to all and sundry how this really is good news for the right wing.

Sometimes ya just gotta laugh....

Source cited in links:

190.4 - Footnote: AFA demands Kagan, Ginsburg recuse themselves from marriage equality cases

Footnote: AFA demands Kagan, Ginsburg recuse themselves from marriage equality cases

I have two Footnotes to the story about same-sex marriage.

The first is that hilariously, the American Family Association is demanding that Elena Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsburg recuse themselves from the marriage equality cases.

Why? Because they have opinions on the matter! They have been "partial" to same-sex marriage in their rulings on related cases, which is a really odd basis to demand they recuse themselves because it would mean that any justice who voted in any case should recuse themselves from any future case on a similar topic. Which, I expect, would very quickly leave us with few judges able to rule on anything.

Oh, but they have been advocated for it outside the courtroom! Except justices are allowed to take part in the political process just like any other citizen. The president of the AFA, Tim Wildmon, says that "Congress has directed that federal judicial officers must disqualify themselves from hearing cases in specified circumstances." Which is true. None of them apply here.

As a poster at DailyKos said, "What was once a maliciously aggressive adversary against equality has been reduced to a quivery ooze of despair."

A lovely sight to see.

Sources cited in links:

190.3 - Update: SCOTUS takes up same-sex marriage

Update: SCOTUS takes up same-sex marriage

I was talking about marriage equality last week, and I said that by the time you saw the show, the Supreme Court may have announced a determination to take up the issue. They did and they have.

More specifically, the Court will take up appeals related to the ruling of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals decision upholding state bans on same-sex marriage in that circuit. This was a consolidation of four cases from various states in the circuit. The Court said it will consider two related questions: the right of same-sex couples to marry and the obligation of states to recognize such marriages legally performed in other states. An unusually long time is to be allowed for oral arguments on each issue, which will take place in April. A ruling is expected by June.

Anthony Kennedy
Justice Anthony Kennedy is likely to be the key figure in the case. He's a generally conservative jurist but he has authored several decisions favorable to LGBT rights and I think most people expect a 5-4 decision declaring that same-sex couples must have the same right to marry and to have their marriages recognized that straight couples do.

That's not a given, of course, and one possibility is a move to split the difference and say that states do not have to allow for same-sex marriage but do have to recognize such marriages performed in states where they are legal. Which would be the real point of considering both those questions separately, considering that a "yes" on the first part - same-sex couples have the same right marry that straight couples do - makes the second one unnecessary.

Still, it appears most observers think there will be a 5-4 decision to support marriage equality. Which makes sense: The four moderates on the Court are safe "yes" votes and Kennedy is a fairly safe fifth.

I, too, predict a favorable 5-4 decision - but I'm going to toss something else out just for the heck of it:

I think there is a possibility of the outcome being 6-3, with the sixth vote being that of John Roberts. Not because I doubt how conservative he is (and I did oppose his nomination to the high court), but because I think Roberts is giving some thought to the legacy of the "Roberts Court," how his time will be seen in 40 or 50 years. And I think he doesn't want to be seen as having been on the wrong side of history. Of course, a 5-4 decision would be the same as 6-3 in terms of the legacy of the "Roberts Court" but there is still his personal legacy. This is really blue-skying, but I figured I'd just throw it out there.

Sources cited in links:

190.2 - Update: NY governor to propose increase in state minimum wage

Update: NY governor to propose increase in state minimum wage

A couple of Updates about things I've talked about before.

First up, I've talked several times about the minimum wage, so I wanted to include this update.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has announced that he plans to submit to the state legislature a proposal to raise the minimum wage in New York to $11.50 an hour in New York City and $10.50 an hour in the rest of the state. He had earlier opposed allowing different cities to have different minimums, saying that would force communities to compete against each other, but apparently was finally persuaded that it's just significantly more expensive to live in the city than in the rest of hte state.

The minimum wage in New York is now $8.75 an hour, rising to $9.00 by the end of the year.

The Working Families Party, a recognized party in the state, applauded the proposal but was disappointed that Cuomo had stepped back from the minimum wage of $13 an hour he supported last spring. Then again, that's when he was trying to get the endorsement of the Working Families Party, and you know how that goes.

Sources cited in links:

190.1 - Good News (mostly) - feds largely end corrupt "Equitable Sharing" civil asset forfeiture program

Good News (mostly) - feds largely end corrupt "Equitable Sharing" civil asset forfeiture program

We're going to start with some Good News, which in this case is tempered Good News, but it's still worth noting.

On Friday, January 16, Attorney General Eric Holder announced he was sharply restricting federal participation in a program under which cops can seize personal property based on their "suspicions" - where "suspicion" is not based on anything demonstrable or even sound but more like on basis of "hey, whatever, sounds good to me."

You may not have heard of this program before, but if you haven't it's time that you did. It is a corrupted and corruption-ridden outgrowth of that abysmal failure known as the War on Drugs. The program is called civil asset forfeiture and it allows cops to seize assets based on nothing more than a claimed belief - not evidence, I remind you, but "belief" - that the assets were involved in, or purchased with the proceeds of, illegal drug activity. They can do this even if they have no basis for any charges against the person possessing the asset. No, I am not exaggerating. Not one tiny bit.

Under this program, cops have seized money, computers, TVs, jewelry, cars, even homes and businesses without ever presenting - or even having to present - a single shred of evidence that the owners had done anything illegal.

Once an asset is seized, it becomes the responsibility of the person whose property was taken to prove that the asset was not obtained through the drug trade, that is, they have to prove a negative and they have the burden of proof in doing it. And remember, this is a civil matter, not a criminal one, so you have no right to an attorney and have to bear any legal costs to try to regain your property out of your own pocket, costs which can easily run to thousands of dollars and exceed the value of the asset. So very often people just give up and don't even try to get their stuff back.

Civil forfeiture is not new: Its practice by the King of England was one of the issues that drove the American Revolution and was the purpose of the Fourth Amendment guarantee of people being secure in their effects against unreasonable seizure and the Fifth Amendment guarantee against property being taken without due process of law. Beyond limited cases such as piracy, civil asset forfeiture was not widely used in the US - until 1984.

That's when Congress passed the Comprehensive Crime Control Act. Until then, the value of assets seized went into the general fund - but this law established a special fund that turned over proceeds from forfeitures to the law-enforcement agencies responsible for them. Which meant most of it went to the cops and prosecutors. Put another way, the cops now had a profit motive for seizing property. The result? At the Justice Department, proceeds from forfeiture went from $27 million in 1985 to $556 million in 1993 to $4.2 billion in 2012.

The horror stories are endless.

- A driver in Texas is stopped for "driving too close to the white line." The cops take both the $3900 he had and his car, based on a claim of an "odor of burned marijuana." No drugs are found. "Don’t even bother getting a lawyer," he's told. "The money always stays here."

- A man is busted for selling $20 worth of pot to an informant. Philadelphia cops move to seize the home where his elderly parents live on the grounds that the sale occurred there.

- Federal officials move to seize a family-run motel because they allege that several times over a period of 15 years some guests had dealt drugs from its rooms. No claim is made that the owners or any of their staff were involved and - get this now - local authorities were tipped to the motel by a federal agent whose primary job is to identify properties for forfeiture.

Since 1984, most if not all states have adopted their own civil forfeiture laws, but many of them come with standards clearly stricter than the federal program, standards involving being able to show actual evidence of related criminal activity. But there was a huge loophole: A federal program called, creepily enough, Equitable Sharing, a program under which the feds could "adopt" seizures made by state agencies, which could then be justified under the looser federal rules. The feds would keep 20% of the proceeds, with 80% going to the local police departments and drug task forces - not, again, to the general fund.

Since 2008, thousands of local and state police agencies have made more than 55,000 seizures of cash and property worth $3 billion.

And in fact there are programs across the country that are instructing local cops in how to use asset seizure to fatten their departmental budgets. One described a house to be seized as a "gold mine." Another described cops drooling over the possibility of grabbing a BMW on the grounds that the driver was drunk.

In a continuing-education program for cops, Mercer (NJ) County prosecutor Sean McMurtry said civil seizure is about
cash or assets that can be utilized by law enforcement: motor vehicles, computers, flatscreens. We’re not interested in taking a charter from a company as forfeited asset because it doesn’t have any monetary value to law enforcement. [My emphasis.]
He also told the cops "when in doubt, take it" because "in the worst case scenario, we can always give it back," a worst-case scenario, he hastened to say, that almost never arises.

What's more, it's not true that what's involved is just "assets that can be utilized by law enforcement" to truly investigate crime unless you include paying for bonuses and parties and buying everything from popcorn machines to boats as fitting that description.

Massachusetts is not immune to this. A newspaper investigation a couple of years ago revealed that over the past several years, Massachusetts cops and prosecutors have seized tens of millions of dollars in property via civil forfeiture.

Middlesex County officials have seized not only cash, cars, and bank accounts, but cell phones, computers, an engagement ring, GPS devices, and Lottery scratch tickets. The county DA described whether or not to seize property as "a business decision."

Meanwhile, among the "other law enforcement purposes" on which Worcester County spent money it obtained by seizures were bottled water, attendance at conferences, tree-trimming services, and the purchase of a Zamboni - which, if you don't know, is the machine used to smooth ice at hockey and ice-skating rinks.

Which brings us, at last, back to the Good News: What Holder has announced is that Equitable Sharing is being mostly shut down and federal agencies will no longer be able to "adopt" seizures unless the property includes firearms, ammunitions, explosives, child pornography, or other materials concerning public safety.

Which means that even though local cops can still undertake asset seizures - which is why this is tempered Good News - they will now have to justify them under their own state laws, which are, again, often stricter than the federal standards. The howling that has started to come from some quarters is an indication of the importance of the move.

The move does have a limitation beyond those I just mentioned, however: It does not apply to joint state and federal operations. And therein comes a shadow cast over the Good News, because we're seen too many times how slippery words can be: Don't forget that is was our own Mr. H here who defended the extra-judicial killing of an American citizen on the grounds that "due process and judicial process are not one and the same" and the Executive Branch's unreviewable determination that someone is a terrorist to be killed thus is "due process."

The shadow lies in the exception for joint operations. If that refers to cases of actual on-the-ground inter-agency cooperation, it likely doesn't mean much. But if it includes the hundreds of federally funded anti-drug task forces across country on the grounds that they have a federal liaison, it's a loophole big enough to drive truckloads of seized personal property through.

So that remains to be clarified but for the moment let's take it at face value as a solid step toward ending the whole corrupt and corrupting practice, the whole I can't see how it's not blatantly unconstitutional practice, of civil asset forfeiture. That solid step is good news.

Source cited in links:

Left Side of the Aisle #190

Left Side of the Aisle
for the week of January 22-28, 2015

This week:
Good News (mostly) - feds largely end corrupt "Equitable Sharing" civil asset forfeiture program

Update: NY governor to propose increase in state minimum wage

Update: SCOTUS takes up same-sex marriage

Footnote: American Family Association demands Kagan, Ginsburg recuse themselves from marriage equality cases

Footnote: Media says loss on same-sex marriage good news for Republicans

Clown Award: Fox News host Jeanine Pirro

Outrage of the Week: National Research Council says no viable alternative to bulk data collection by NSA

Everything You Need to Know: about the state of the economy in one sentence

Sunday, January 18, 2015

189.9 - Charlie Hebdo and ethical limits on speech

Charlie Hebdo and ethical limits on speech

You know about the terrorist attack on the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo. Twelve people were killed and 11 more wounded when gunmen attacked the magazine's offices and five more were killed and 10 more were wounded during the hunt for the murderers - not counting the three suspects who were killed. It was the deadliest act of terrorism in France in over 50 years.

The cause, supposedly, apparently, was the magazine's habit of publishing cartoons mocking Islam in general and Muhammed in particular. That seems pretty sound, considering that the attackers shouted "Allahu akbar" ("God is great") and that the group al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula later claimed responsibility for the attack, although US and European intelligence sources say they have no evidence that the group organized the attack and the claim may be opportunistic.

In the days since, the phrase "Je suis Charlie" ("I am Charlie") has become a rallying cry for free speech and for the recognition that free speech must include the right to be rude, crude, and insulting.

But it has also sparked a discussion, debate, argument, whatever you care to call it not about the legal limits of free speech, but the ethical limits of free speech. The limits of what for lack of a better term I'll call acceptable speech. Not legally acceptable, ethically acceptable. And I don't even mean the bland, vapid notion of "responsible" speech but of acceptable, socially acceptable, speech.

Because this is not the first time for the magazine. It makes a practice of being rude and crude; it refers to itself as "irresponsible" and "atheistic" and makes a regular habit of mocking religion and religious figures, often in very crude ways - for example, it has published cartoons of nuns performing oral sex.

It's not even first time it's been attacked by disturbed wackos fantasizing they were defending their religion: The magazine's offices were firebombed in late 2011 after running a spoof issue “guest edited” by the Prophet Muhammed honoring an Islamist party’s victory in Tunisian elections.

In the time since, the magazine has published a number of caricatures of Muhammed. Which is where the ethical issue starts to get sticky. The magazine, we need to be aware, is deliberately offensive.

Something else of which we need to be aware, as I just learned recently, there is no ban on images of the Prophet in the Quran. Those bans are drawn from the Hadith, which contains reports of the teachings, deeds and sayings of Muhammed.  And there is more than one version of the Hadith. Nonetheless, many Muslims accept the Hadith as authoritative with regard to religious practice and so believe that any depiction of Muhammed, even the most respectful, is inherently offensive .

For those of us who are not Muslim, it can be hard to understand the depth of feeling about it, to grasp just how offensive this can be. Maybe try to imagine the reaction of a devout Catholic who is faced with a cartoon of, again, nuns performing oral sex and then try to imagine that on top of that there is a prohibition in Catholicism on any depiction of nuns. The sense that this would seem not just mockery but a direct attack on your religion would be hard to avoid.

Charlie Hebdo strives to provoke that sort of outrage. Consciously and deliberately.

Now I have to make a quick aside because I know that some people will by this point be ready to accuse me of blaming the victim, of saying that the attacks were the magazine's own fault.

No. Period. Absolutely not. Don't even go there.

You want to see victim-blaming, go to Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, who declared that Stephane Charbonnier, the editor of Charlie Hebdo and who was among those killed, “didn’t understand the role he played in his [own] tragic death” and that had he "not been so narcissistic, he may still be alive."

For myself, it should not be necessary to say but, unhappily, in cases like this it often - make that always - is: Offense, no matter how deep, no matter how profound, does not justify violence. It does not justify attacks, it does not justify firebombs, it does not justify murder. As Mr. Spock so pointedly put it, "I do not approve. I understand."

Or, as the well-known phrase has it, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." That's often attributed to Voltaire, but actually came from Evelyn Beatrice Hall in her biography of him. No matter, the point remains: It is not required that we agree with or approve Charlie Hebdo's practice of giggling, sophomoric, mockery to condemn the attack.

The question I'm considering here is not one of the attack but one raised by the attack, one of are there limits to free speech - again, not legal limits, but ethical limits - and if so, what might they be. And frankly I resent those who imply that by raising that question I or anyone else who does it is making excuses for terrorism or proposing cowardice as an editorial principle. That is utter and complete crap.

By the way, something else I want to insert here is that contrary to what you might like to think, Christians are not immune to that sort of outrage. For one thing, it's hard to get through a single day without some flake declaring that Christianity is under attack in the US. More seriously, consider the case of American artist and photographer Andres Serrano. He did a series of photographs involving classical statuettes submerged in various sorts of fluids. One such work was called "Immersion (Piss Christ)" and showed a small plastic crucifix submerged in a glass of the artist's urine. Now, you couldn't tell it was urine if he hadn't said it was and put it in the title; it just looks like a rich, amber-colored liquid that actually gives the crucifix a sort of mysterious air. Nonetheless, that's what it is.

When it was exhibited in New York 1989, he and the work were attacked by people including US senators; he received hate mail and death threats; he lost grants. When a print was shown in Australia in 1997, the Catholic church there tried to get it legally banned from being exhibited; when that failed someone tried to rip it off the wall; when that failed two people attacked it with a hammer, leading the gallery to cancel the show. In 2011, a print was vandalized "beyond repair" by Christian protesters while on display in Avignon, France.

And we must never forget the firebombings, the shootings, the murders aimed at abortion clinics and the doctors, nurses, and other people who work in them done in the name of upholding church teachings on abortion. Christians are not immune to offense-driven violence.

With that said, let's get back to the question at hand. Charlie Hebdo in effect takes the position that anything goes; that everything is within bounds, nothing is off-limits, nothing is unacceptable.

Is this acceptable?
But if that's true, what does that mean? Joe Sacco, a cartoonist for the Guardian, a newspaper in the United Kingdom, said if anything is acceptable, he could do a cartoon of a naked black man falling out of a tree holding a banana. That's okay, right?

Is this?
And he could do a cartoon of a classic anti-Semitic vision of a stereotypical Jew with a big nose clutching his money. That, too, is okay. It must be if anything goes.

Here's one that I thought of, although not being a cartoonist I'll have to describe it rather than show it: It depicts a young black man shooting a cop while saying "I feared for my life - he reached for his waistband." Surely, no one could object because nothing is off-limits.

But are any of those off-limits? Do any of those go so far, become so offensive, that just on the basis of decency or even just good taste that you would decline to publish them, decline to approve them, decline to declare them socially acceptable? If so, if you would say of any one of those that they reach a point where the person who published them should not - again I emphasize not legally could not but ethically should not - have done so, then you agree there are ethical limits.

Despite the "anything goes" vibe it strives to create, even Charlie Hebdo agrees: The magazine fired a writer in 2009 for an anti-Semitic article.

The kind of mockery and ridicule in which Charlie Hebdo engages are important and valuable weapons - when you are punching up, not down (or even across). Remember, this is a French publication, published in France, in French, for a French audience. In France, Muslims are still a small minority, no more than 5-10% of the population. You want to punch up in France? Go after the Catholic Church. Go after Christianity. That is punching up.

To attack Muslims, especially on a regular basis, to persistently ridicule their religion and culture, is to punch down, to attack the weak. To punch down, to attack a minority population, is wrong - morally and ethically.

What's more, punching down promotes no form of freedom except the freedom to be an obnoxious jerk. What punching down does promote - and provoke - is bigotry. Europe today is seeing a re-emergence of bigotry, not only anti-Muslim but anti-Semitic. In an atmosphere like that, you need to be extra careful about who your targets are. Not because of fear of the law. Not because of fear of attack. But just because of wanting to be a decent human being.

The magazine has made what I think is a clear effort in that direction: The new cover shows a tearful Muhammed holding a sign reading "Je suis Charlie" under a headline that translates to "All is forgiven," which the cartoonist said is meant to be addressed to the attackers. I think the magazine has done well here: The editors and staff have found a way to be true to themselves and to the spirit of the magazine while still expressing an understanding of the world in which they and we live. And there should be no limit to that.

Sources cited in links:

189.8 - Outrage of the Week: attacks on The Commons

Outrage of the Week: attacks on The Commons

It's time now for our other regular feature, the Outrage of the Week.

This time it's not particular thing or event, but rather several things that have happened over the past few moths that serve to illustrate a point I keep trying to make about the attack on what I call The Commons, that notion that we are a society and that as a result there is an area of mutual interest, available to and shared by all, the notion of a mutual, society-wide responsibility each of us has to the other.

Back on October, Maine Gov. Paul LePage proposed dealing with unemployment faced by recent college grads by creating a system of what amounted to indentured service, where employers would get a tax break for hiring a new grad and paying off some of their student loans - in return for which that student would be bound to that company for a period of three to five years. After which, apparently, they could be dumped without having worked long enough to obtain any significant benefits as the company hires another "fresh young mind," as LePage called them.

The following month, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walkalloveryou defended his decision to not expand Medicaid in the state by saying that this would help poor people “live the American Dream” because they won’t be “dependent on the American government.” This even though the majority of people who stand to benefit from the Medicaid expansion are already working.

More recently, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence said that by refusing to ask for a federal waiver to continue providing Food Stamps for unemployed single people, which will result in 65,000 people in the state losing their benefits, he is "ennobling" the poor by forcing those he apparently considers to be lazy bums to go get a job rather than living in the luxury that $150-$200 a month in benefits provides.

In Texas, we've seen a proposal to allow a majority of a 14 member “joint legislative committee on nullification” to have the power to suspend any federal law within Texas’s borders, with the suspension becoming permanent if ratified by the state legislature in its next session.

Nullification, of course, is completely unconstitutional; the question is if any body in the Texas legislature cares.

Finally, just a couple of weeks ago we have a bill signed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snidely-Whiplash creating a drug-testing program for adult welfare recipients on the basis of "protecting the children." Recipients and applicants suspected of drug use will be required to take a substance abuse test. Refusal to take the test will result in losing benefits for six months.

This despite the fact that the experience of other states with such programs has branded them a financial disaster that found the levels of drug use among the poor are below those of the population as a whole.

These actions may seem different, but they are linked in their ultimate intent, an intent that has become the hallmark of the right wing. That hallmark is the driving force behind proposals such as these, with their transparent intent to throw people off assistance programs under the guise of somehow doing them a favor.

That driving force is the desire, the determination, to find ways to not care about other people. To justify not even a cold but a bland, emotionless, indifference to the needs and welfare of others. To make those in need not even ill-considered but unconsidered.

And no, it hasn't "always been this way." Because while what's happening here is not new, it is relatively recent. This is not merely greed or "cut my taxes" or "small government" or even bigotry. It goes beyond those to a rejection of a basic concept of society and its functions, to a worldview. It's not even hatred of government per se; it's a hatred of the concept of government as a means for society to act as a whole, a hatred of the idea of "We, the People," a hatred most all of the commonweal.

It used to be that the rich, the powerful, the elite, would temper their despising of those in need with a little noblesse oblige. Now, increasingly, they want to be freed of even that as they express a new social version of the banality of evil.

And that surely is an outrage.

Sources cited in links:

189.7 - Clown Award: Rupert Murdoch

Clown Award: Rupert Murdoch

Now for one of our regular features, the Clown Award, given for meritorious stupidity.

The winner of the Big Red Nose this week is a man who already has a big red nose, Rupert Murdoch.

On Friday, the owner of News Corp said via Twitter that even peaceful Muslims are responsible for the "jihadist cancer." Quoting exactly,
Maybe most Moslems [yes, he spelled with an O] peaceful, but until they recognize and destroy their growing jihadist cancer they must be held responsible.
In other words, maybe "most" Muslims are peaceful but still all Muslims are individually responsible for any and all terrorist attacks by any Muslim anywhere.

In this case, Twitter did my job for me:  Murdoch was openly and soundly mocked. He was asked in various Tweets if on his own logic he was responsible for everything from the Inquisition to violence in Northern Ireland to child-molesting priests. One person asked for specifics on how his own 60-year-old parents in North Carolina could stop fundamentalist violence.

My favorite response, though, came from J.K. Rowling, who said:
I was born Christian. If that makes Rupert Murdoch my responsibility, I'll auto-excommunicate.
Rupert Murdoch is and always has been a total clown.

Sources cited in links:

189.6 - Noted in passing

Noted in passing

Something I just wanted to note quickly in passing:

Apparently, there is some early-stage discussions going on where some GOPpers in Congress would propose an increase in the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.00 an hour over the next few years.

I recall that a few weeks back I suggested that one outcome of the election was the possibility of some movement on some things worth doing because now that the GOPpers are in charge in Congress they can take credit for them. Maybe I was right after all.

Sources cited in links:

189.5 - Update: Obama renews veto pledge after NE Supreme Court ruling

Update: Obama renews veto pledge after NE Supreme Court ruling

Next we have an Update on something I talked about last week: the Keystone XL pipeline.

I said last week that the House had passed a bill to force approval of the pipeline - which, again, is intended to carry tar sands, about the most polluting source of oil there is, from mines in Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Texas - but Obama said he would veto the bill if it passed the Senate. Among the reasons was that the issue of the pipeline's route across Nebraska was before that state's Supreme Court.

On Friday, January 9, the Nebraska Supreme Court upheld the law in question. What had happened was that the state legislature passed a bill stripping from the state utilities commission the authority to rule on the pipeline's route across the state and giving it to the governor, knowing full well that he would do whatever TransCanada, the corporation that wants to built the pipeline, wanted him to do - which he promptly did.

Some people challenged the validity of the law under the state constitution. They won at two lover levels and the state Supreme Court found by 4-3 that the law should be struck down. Unfortunately, Nebraska requires a supermajority of 5-2 to strike down a law. So the law was upheld and the route is approved.

Meanwhile, the Senate is moving forward with a bill to approve the pipeline. A final vote on the Senate version is expected  sometime in the week of January 19.

However, in reaction to the decision in Nebraska, the White House repeated its statement that Obama will veto that bill and while the pipeline does has enough support to pass the bill, in neither house of Congress does it have enough support to get the 2/3 majority needed to overcome a veto.

Some have argued that O's real reason for a veto is that the bill would strip from the Executive Branch the authority to make the final decision, so it's his turf, not an environmental principle, that he is defending.

It is true, Obama does not like his authority being limited or questioned. However, this still does to me have the feel that he is leaning toward rejecting the pipeline. And that certainly would be Good News if he did.

Sources noted in links:

189.4 - Not Good News: SCOTUS accepts challenge to ACA

Not Good News: SCOTUS accepts challenge to ACA

In what is Not Good News, the Supreme Court has agreed to hear a different challenge to the ACA that could cost millions of people the federal tax subsidies that help them afford health insurance.

It's based, as I gather, on a bizarre legalism: The bill envisions states setting up state insurance exchanges to provide low-cost or subsidized plans, similar to the Health Connector here in Massachusetts. It also says there will be federal exchanges set up in the states that don't set up their own. Apparently, in one of the various references to this, it doesn't refer to both state and federal exchanges, only state ones, and therefore, these people say, Congress never intended such federal exchanges to be established so they have no authorization under the law and must be shut down.

Oral arguments in that challenge are scheduled for March 4.

Sources cited in links:

189.3 - Good News, mostly: ACA survives a challenge

Good News, mostly: ACA survives a challenge

Last up for this week is somewhat limited Good News, but on the whole it has to be put on the plus side of the balance sheet.

After the Affordable Care Act aka Obamacare was passed, there were various suits challenging various aspects of the law, including one on the so-called individual mandate, the provision that required people to have some kind of health insurance that met certain minimum standards or pay a tax penalty.

The challengers lost in federal district court in 2012. They lost in federal appeals court in 2014. And on Monday, January 12, they lost at the Supreme Court, which refused to accept the case, leaving the appellate decision as the final one. Which is good news.

The reason it's limited good news is that I felt all along and still feel that Obamacare is not good enough; it does not meet the challenge set for it. According to various polls at the time the bill was being debated, somewhere around 18-20% of Americans opposed the law because it didn't go far enough. I was among that number. I felt and still feel that what we need is a national health care system - not national health insurance, even less the kind of publicly-subsidized private health insurance system that the ACA created, but national health care.

During the debate over the law, my concerns were dismissed by O supporters, who insisted for some reason that I still can't fathom that starting by going for what you actually want is foolish and besides "we'll get this passed and next year come back to make it better." I said no you won't, you'll spend your time and energy fighting to not lose the little you have gained. I think history has shown who was right on that.

Sources cited in links:

189.2 - Good News: same-sex marriage comes to South Dakota

Good News: same-sex marriage comes to South Dakota

Next up, another one bites the dust: On Monday, January 12,  federal District Court Judge Karen Schreier ruled that the ban on same-sex marriage in the state of South Dakota is unconstitutional.

She wrote that the plaintiffs in the case "have a fundamental right to marry," a right that the state was denying them "solely because they are same-sex couples and without sufficient justification."

Six couples were plaintiffs in the case; one couple wants to get married in South Dakota, while the other five want South Dakota to recognize their marriages, which took place in other states. The decision, as is common, is stayed pending a possible appeal to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.

South Dakota state Attorney General Marty Jackley says he’s obligated to defend the state law, which raises something else worth noting: Increasingly, when states undertake these appeals, they're not doing it on the basis of "this is an important law, necessary to uphold the sanctity of marriage, the people have spoken," and so on, but on the basis of "We are obliged to defend the law." Which I also think is a sign of progress.

The last time the 8th Circuit ruled on same-sex marriage, it upheld a ban in Nebraska - but that was in 2006 and hell of a lot has changed in the meantime.

At the time I'm doing this, there are five petitions from states before the Supreme Court about same-sex marriage. The court has not taken announced it is taking up any of them, but that could have changed by the time you see this and the court is expected to take up at least one of them this session.

Update: Since this was done, the Court has announced it will take up related cases this session. More on that in the next show.

Sources cited in links:

189.1 - Good News: Antonio Weiss gives up

Good News: Antonio Weiss gives up

Starting, as we always like to do whenever possible, with some Good News, we have the news that Antonio Weiss has withdrawn his name from consideration for nomination to a government post.

Who is Antonio Weiss? He is a senior banker at the financial giant Lazard who had been proposed by Obama to become Undersecretary for Domestic Finance in the Treasury Dept., the third highest post in the department.

His nomination was opposed by some of the more progressive members of the senate, lead by Elizabeth Warren, who denounced the revolving door between Wall Street and the administration and argued about Weiss in particular that he is unqualified for the position considering that his former work centered on international mergers and his government post would involve overseeing consumer protection and domestic regulatory functions.

The fact that if he got the Treasury spot, Weiss stood to be paid $20 million by Lazard for not going to another financial group also rankled people, since Lazard would be among those he would be regulating as part of overseeing the Dodd-Frank regulations.

With six Dems openly opposing him and others clearly wavering, things got too hot for PHC*'s latest kowtow to Wall Street and he pulled out.
This doesn't mean the next one will be any better and there's always the risk that, having shown they can be "tough," Dems might well just roll over for whoever is nominated in Weiss's place, but for now, enjoy the Good News. Progressives win one.

*PHC = President Hopey-Changey

Sources cited in links:

Left Side of the Aisle #189

Left Side of the Aisle
for the week of January 15-21, 2015

This week:
Good News: Antonio Weiss gives up

Good News: same-sex marriage comes to South Dakota

Good News, mostly: ACA survives a challenge news

Not Good News: SCOTUS accepts challenge to ACA news

Update: Obama renews veto pledge after NE Supreme Court ruling

Noted in passing

Clown Award: Rupert Murdoch

Outrage of the Week: attacks on The Commons

Charlie Hebdo and ethical limits on speech

Sunday, January 11, 2015

188.11 - RIP: Shadow

RIP: Shadow

I met a cat.

I was told her name is Shadow. I don't know for sure how she got the same, but Shadow it is.

The thing I noticed most about her when I met her was how loud she was, not just her meow but her purr, how insistent she was about attention, how no amount of holding was ever enough, no amount of petting was ever too much.

In other words, she was a pest. A very sweet, affectionate, loveable pest, but a pest. A pest of the sort you finally had to chase away in order to go to sleep - only to wake up later and find her under the covers and starting to purr and as soon as she realized you were awake. A pest.

That was about 12 years ago.

She died last night.

It was no surprise: We knew she was failing. She'd been failing for months. She had lost her meow and she had started keeping to herself for the most part. She pretty much stopped grooming herself. She would be content and purring (quietly) if you picked her up or held her or petted her, but she didn't come looking for attention the way she had almost her whole life. She was drinking little and eating less. There were a couple of times we thought she wouldn't make it through the night - but she always did. Until last night.

The embarrassing thing for me here is that at one time I made my living as a photographer - but I have no picture of Shadow to show you. So I'll have to try to describe her. She was a Persian-American Shorthair mix, making her a house cat but with an extra-thick, soft coat. She was tricolor but not calico: She was mostly brownish gray with some black streaks and some flecks of gray. And she was just shy of 16. A fairly ripe age - but not long enough. Not for a loveable pest.

People who don't have pets don't understand how much a part of your life that animal becomes, how much a part of your family it is. And when they are gone, there is a hole there. I'm not going to suggest that hole is anywhere near as big as the hole left by the loss of a spouse or a parent or a sibling or a child - but I am going to say that it is undeniably there.

Shadow had been a presence in my life and my home for over 12 years. And now she's not. And there is, right now, a Shadow-shaped hole in my life.

So I just wanted to say RIP, Shadow.

188.10 - Outrage of the Week: poorest of the poor to lose Food Stamps

Outrage of the Week: poorest of the poor to lose Food Stamps

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

According to a new study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, roughly one million of the nation’s poorest people will lose their Food Stamps over the course of 2016. Food Stamps are now properly called SNAP, for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, but most everyone still calls them Food Stamps.

The problem here arises out of the 1996 welfare "reform" law. Remember that law? The Bill Clinton-era law that was going to, in his words, "end welfare as we know it?" Remember how it was going to fix everything? Remember?

That law said that unemployed adults aged 18-50 who aren’t disabled or raising minor children can't get SNAP benefits for more than three months in any 36-month period. Three months in three years. The law created an exception for those in a work or training program for at least 20 hours a week - but it did not require states to create such programs, so most didn't and so for most affected people that "exception" does not exist.

What's more, there is no exception for an inability to find work - so these individuals will lose their benefits after three months regardless of how hard they are looking for work.

Waivers could be granted for states to skip the three-month limit if the state's unemployment was high enough. During the Great Recession, most states got such waivers. But with declining unemployment, those waivers are now expiring in the 40 states that still have them and - surprise, surprise - Congress is in no mood to extend them.

The impact on the folks affected by the loss of the waiver will be severe. Agriculture Department data show that 82% of the people subject to the three-month limit have average monthly incomes no more than half of the poverty line. Even more shocking is the fact that, as a group, their average monthly income is about 19 percent of the poverty line. That's not 19% below the poverty line, it's 19% of the poverty line. Less than one-fifth of poverty level. And they typically qualify for no other income support.

Hitting those people with a loss of food assistance averaging approximately $150 to $200 per person per month will - not might, will - cause serious hardship. These people will go hungry. Period.

There are a lot of things Congress could do. It could restore the funding that was cut last year. It could extend the waivers. Hell, it could make the waivers permanent. Hey, I know that waiver business was supposed to be temporary, based on economic conditions, but the same was true of those famous Bush-era tax cuts and that didn't stop them from becoming permanent, did it?

But Congress isn't going to do that, in fact, no one  is even talking about doing it, even among the supposed liberals. But the real reason it won't happen is that Congress is now in the grip of ideology-driven fruitcakes who won't do anything to help the poor - not because of small government, not because of cutting the budget, not because of reducing taxes, but because they just don't care. They do not care that people will go hungry, they do not care that people will starve. Not even out of a drive for personal gain or benefit. They just do not care.

That's something I will be coming back to. For now, I'm just going to say it is a gross moral and ethical outrage.

Sources cited in links:

188.9 - Proof (as if proof was needed) of our national shame

Proof (as if proof was needed) of our national shame

On Friday, December 26, the day after Christmas, a person with a gun terrorized a neighborhood of Chattanooga, Tennessee. They were wearing body armor and drove around pointing and firing their gun at people and cars. When the cops found the shooter at a church parking lot, the shooter took off, leading police on a chase to an intersection where the shooter pointed their gun at one of the cops.

You know what happens next: That's right, they were taken into custody without incident or injury.

Julia Shields
Why? Because the person in the picture on the left is who did it - or, if I'm going to be legally accurate, allegedly did it. She is Julia Shields, she is 45, and more importantly, she is white. She has been charged with multiple felony charges including attempted murder - but she is alive, despite actually having a gun, actually shooting at people (thereby proving the gun was actually loaded), and actually pointing the gun at a cop. She is still alive.

Can anyone out there seriously try to argue that had she been a black woman  - or even more, a black male - that in that case they would still be alive? That if a young black male had done the same thing, that the car would not have been ripped to shreds with bullets and their body along with it?

There is a group of mostly young twits in Texas who have taken to confronting cops on the streets, armed with video cameras and assault rifles, trying to provoke the cops in some way that, they claim, will demonstrate police brutality, the better, they say, to expose it and so stop it. They are, of course, all white.

Is anyone out there seriously going to try to argue that if an armed young black man got into a confrontation with a cop that the young man would be able to walk away with nothing worse than a cliched tongue-lashing about "respect" instead of winding up lying in a pool of his own blood?

Kory Watkins
Is there anyone out there who is going to claim that if the guy in the picture on the right - his name is Kory Watkins - that if he was African-American that the store where he is pushing around his cart would not be swarming with cops screaming "put the gun down" and maybe - if he was lucky - maybe giving him more than two seconds to comply before opening fire, time they did not give to John Crawford to put down the toy gun he was holding before they shot him down in the aisle of a Walmart in Ohio?

Yes, this guy is in Texas, which is an open-carry state, which means what he's doing is technically legal. Do you think that would have made a difference? If you do, you should know that Ohio is also an open-carry state. That did not help John Crawford.

You may think - some of you may think - that I have been going on too much about this of late. But frankly, as long as Kory Watkins can without fear walk around with an AK-47 on his shoulder while 12-year-old Tamir Rice can be shot down literally in less than two seconds because of a plastic toy and Rumain Brisbon can be shot and killed because a cop thought a pill bottle in his pocket was a gun, I say we haven't gone on about it nearly enough.

Sources cited in links:
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