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This blog is the work of an educated civilian, not of an expert in the fields discussed.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Something For The Press To Include

And Also: Katyn was an Academy nominated film based on real events related to a Soviet massacre of Polish officers after its joint invasion of the country with Nazi Germany. Katyn: The Untold story of Stalin's Polish Massacre by Allen Paul is an excellent book discussing the events, using survivor testimony to provide special narrative drama to the overall experience of Poland during WWII and the effort to find the truth afterwards. Lows and highs of humanity.

I wrote the below in answer to a tidbit in "Today's Papers" over at Slate, today's round-up also citing another columnist furthering the "Obama's no long bipartisan" meme in charming fashion. After all, it's almost April!

It also came to me that it took years to develop the New Deal, and that after FDR was elected years after the stock market crash, and decades of progressive activity that included multiple constitutional amendments. That is, it took a lot of time and popular development, that -- some noise notwithstanding -- isn't really there yet. [see here]
[Sen. Gregg] also said that a Democratic proposal to use reconciliation, a budget procedure that would allow a measure to pass without significant Republican support, to pass health care reform was akin to an "act of violence against the system here in the Senate."

This procedure would require a simple majority (of a body already undemocratic given the two senator rule) to pass various budget proposals. The alternative would be a filibuster. This would allow a handful of Republicans to block economic measures even if nearly every Democrat supported it. That is, five can block 54 (one seat still open).

And, even then, you would not need "significant" support, since a handful of Republicans and conservative Democrats could pass the measures. Recall the stimulus bill required three. Once the farce in MN is finished, you might not even need that many. Still, it is nice that Gregg is standing on principle. Now ...
While Republicans seem to be experiencing a particular form of political amnesia from the Bush years, they ought to be reminded that budget reconciliation has been used by several other presidents, including Clinton and Reagan. In fact, Republicans — with Bond and Gregg among the leaders of the charge — were instrumental in pushing through key provisions of their signature legislative agenda, the Contract with America, using budget reconciliation.

Once upon a time, Gregg's sentiments were: "The president asked for it, and we’re trying to do what the president asked for." Oh well. Good he had a conversion experience.


* The op-ed against Obama's actions regarding G.M. had a charming tidbit:
Fully one-half of the company’s unionized work force has been laid off or taken buyout packages, and the U.A.W. has agreed to a two-tier wage system in which new workers make only $15 an hour. Just a few years ago that would have been unimaginable.
This is deemed a good thing.

Monday, March 30, 2009

The Haunting in Connecticut

The Haunting in Connecticut is surely not "based on a true story" in any real sense, but it is a pretty good ghost story. The leads are rather good and dramatically true. Nice sense of place too. The ghost story gets silly. Still, it is worthwhile, and PG-13 (even an obligatory shower scene is tame) to boot.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

7th Heaven

And Also: Darn rule of law Europeans.

One problem with 7th Heaven is that it is somewhat simplistic. I use the qualifier advisedly, though some critics will roll their eyes at the suggestion of complexity. All the same, you should not take things simply on face value, or rather, take a simplistic view of the show. This does not mean the show is simplistic -- more below -- but it also does not mean you should avoid the nuance. And, when you examine your typical movie or television show, it are those signs of nuance that makes them stand out. For various reasons, we are not re-inventing the wheel here. After all, you have too many shows, too few time and resources, to do that.

But, the character of Lucy Camden is an example. Lucy is probably the one most like her parents on the show, rather close to her mother while following in the footsteps of her father (training to be a minister). In fact, it is notable that the other children do not have a similar close relationship with their parents, though the younger ones (Ruthie and then the twins) are somewhat closer to the mother, since they have less independence.* There are also clear sibling duos, Ruthie/Simon (later, quasi-sibling Robbie), Lucy/Mary with the oldest (Matt) having a big brother role over more than one of his siblings. Still, though there is an overall closeness as shown by failure to keep many secrets and much familial interaction, it is not really a unit in many ways. This is clearly the case later on, when the oldest leave home.

One positive noted somewhere was that the show makes one nostalgic because it honors the family and the safety of the home. Some bad things happen to these people, including a miscarriage, but there is clearly a safety there. The Lucy/Kevin marriage also has some of that too. But, on another level, the family can be as splintered as some real families tend to be. BTW, once Matt and Mary aren't around too much, the show started to go a bit downhill. This also was after about half of its long run, so this was due to occur anyway. But, letting Lucy and various teens outside the family carry more weight was clearly a step down.

Anyway, Lucy is emotional, an exaggerated case of her mother. And, is conservative in her actions, reflecting her parents. Mary, furthered by problems Jessica Biel had with the show (infamously shown in an ill advised explicit pictorial that in hindsight is rather embarrassing, including a thinly clothed shot with her in a sink), is a rebel. But, Lucy does have a thing: she loves to makeout with guys. The show is very anti-premarital sex, though a few characters tellingly do it (one main one, after a VD scare, seemed to have repented), the family basically against it. All the same, Lucy makes out a lot -- this includes on the first date, outside of a movie theater in her small town (one movie showing). Another character gets a tattoo. Small things, sure, but it offers some sense of reality to the show. And, to the degree the characters can be too good to be true, they also are a bit hard to take (bratty too), so flawed anyway!

Another charm of the show btw is that at some point, it has a great flow. When the dad self-knowing says at one point "you're lying" on the phone to one of the kids, it was amusing in a "we know these guys" sort of way, and an example of regulars totally into the flow of their characters. [Contra, iCarly is depressing this season in part because everything seems forced ... one gets the idea that something is wrong there, though some of the lame plots don't help.] There are also some nice episodes, such as a musical Valentine Day one (also the birthday of the twins), and good guest stars. I liked the woman who played Robbie (Mary's bad boy bf who later repented) and Matt's girlfriend, for instance. And, on the real inside baseball guest list, the rich girl/maid on Newhart played a history teacher here, and a teacher on Drake and Josh ... doing a pretty good job in both cases!

And, even if not realistic, the marriage after the first date episode was a hard to resist episode. This is so even when we learn Matt voted for Bush (his father is a Democrat, though apparently of Lieberman persuasion, given his moralizing). Of course, this allows him to have sex with his wife, though the religious ceremony would not come for a few months. [As with Lucy, and apparently Mary (husband in family business), he married someone well-off. Don't know if Annie's family is wealthy. Lucy's husband is Catholic, Matt's Jewish, so there is also some interreligious stuff going on.] The show's Puritan take on sex (I do not know of a homosexual episode, nearly every other topic apparently tackled, including the Taliban in the late 1990s) has to be forgiven. Compare this more realistic take on another television show.

The overall liberal nature of the show mixed with its Puritan side (including Simon not having video games ... the family doesn't even have a computer or cell phones until circa 2005) suggests its complexity -- the children are level-headed about things overall. But, it had a set formula, and in various ways was not the real world. Even for a television show. So, you take the good and the bad, and enjoy it for what it is. Or was. I did. It is like that show Rules of Engagement. It is not a masterpiece, but for 9:30 P.M. lower expectations, it fits. And, recent episodes actually were rather good.

Back to our story. More can be said about this series, including its ill-advised decision to come back for one more year after a clear series finale ending with an actual fat lady singing, but I'll end there! But, that non-ending -- sheesh -- not only are we asked to forget about an obvious big hint involving a baby, but a pregnancy was dealt with in an unpleasant fashion. Oh well, the show coasted some on good feelings earned earlier on, and it is only Christian to forgive such transgressions.

Oh, and "Matt" is on Christiana Applegate's latest show. Just one sighting. There is some life after 7th Heaven, don't worry fans!


* Ruthie also is the most self-confident of the children, a reflection of her mother, which might be an aspect of why certain people simply do not like Annie Camden's character. Some consider her self-indulgent, though dealing with seven kids as a (mostly) stay at home mom alone requires a great amount of self-confidence, putting aside her dealing with the sickness and death of her parents, and all the drama her social outreach husband is involved in.

Over at IMDB, I actually got into a debate over this with someone (too silly to link to), pointing out that it is unfair to cite Annie without noting Eric also leaves something to be desired. One of the least attractive aspects of the show is that he has something of a God complex, always wanting to know what is going on, always cocksure about what people should do. The angels in Touched By An Angel and Highway to Heaven weren't as confident at times, but then, overconfidence (helped by scriptwriters) is a human failing.

Then again, everything does generally turn out in the end, so no wonder he is so confident. Eric Camden, deus ex machina. One character's father, e.g., was an alcoholic. He was amusingly blunt about being a "functional alcoholic," itself notable for this show (him making Lucy so angry that she tossed a soda in his face almost made me stand up and cheer). But, darn, if he actually becomes sober in time for his daughter's birth. Joining with the other grandfather's landscaping business in the process! He too was absorbed into the Borg.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Earth Hour and Other Issues

And Also: Have been watching 7th Heaven (on WGN and Hallmark, the latter repeatedly on Sundays) of late, a show admitted to be addictive even to those who find it tripe. I never really watched it when it was on, but a chance to see many episodes (its universe complex) led me to respect it more. Yes, it can be too sanctimonious, but it is comfort food, and is done with some talent.

The city is one of more than 2,600 communities in roughly 80 countries that'll [sic] participate in the movement. By turning off lights from 8:30-9:30 p.m., the effort aims to conserve energy and curb global warming.

But for skeptics of global warming, or the theory that humans caused it, Earth Hour is sham. And Tupelo's participation irks them.

-- "Critics blast Earth Hour, but support conservation" BY EMILY LE COZ [Northeastern Mississippi Daily Journal]

A few things can be said about this news story, including how even among conservative (an interesting word in this context) sorts certain things can be agreed upon. It also is a lesson in how different communities see things. The short mention in the NY Daily News did not feel a need to reference "skeptics of global warming" or such. This underlines how useful it is to somehow, even if if seems hard [see also, comments], we need to keep an eye (and maybe even talk to!) others outside our milieu. The fact a quick Google News search led me to find this article by chance underlines the power of the Internet.

I cheer those bloggers who actually do this on a regular basis and don't all become Keith Olbermann in the process. One such person, who at times even debates them, is Glenn Greenwald. Deep down, he is a libertarian sort, something that comes up from time to time, such as his recent efforts on drug criminalization. GG thus is logically impressed at Senator Webb tackling our prison problem, including the signicant drug criminalization aspect of the whole thing. There has been some positive local developments in this area.

As GG cites Andrew Sullivan noting, Obama only goes so far in this area, though his administration's policy of not targeting medicinal marijuana use in states that do not have state policies against it underlines some positives. All the same, when legalization (and its positive fiscal consequences) was brought up in an online Q&A session, Obama was unsurprisingly uncomfortable with the whole thing. This underlines the limits of our discourse (Andrew Sullivan):
The chuckle suggests a man of his generation. The dismissiveness toward the question of ending Prohibition as both a good in itself and a form of tax revenue is, however, depressing. His answer was a non-answer. I'm tired of having the Prohibition issue treated as if it's trivial or a joke. It is neither. It is about freedom and it's deadly serious. As for your online audience, Mr president, have you forgotten who got you elected?

As GG notes, the role of true leaders is to change the conversation, even if it does not seem "pragmatic" to do so:
Actual leaders, by definition, confront majoritarian views when they are misguided and seek to change them, and politicians have far more ability to affect and change public opinion than they want the public to believe they have. ...

Parties, by pushing for things, make them part of the sphere of debate. Important and visible people can question consensus, and all of a sudden expand it. These spheres are malleable; if the conversation of democracy is alive and if you make your leaders talk about things, it becomes valid to talk about them.

Changing the conversation, making certain subjects or issues sound reasonable, is quite important, even if it does not immediately directly affect policy. And, often, even if you are on some level on the right side of an issue, framing can be problematic. William Saletan, who I simply stopped reading (another Slate boob), is a favorite whipping boy underlines the point. I'd add, why do people insist on saying "fetus" when talking about the first trimester? That is an "embryo," which is much lower in the stage of development, and sending a much different image. So many language pratfalls in that area.

It can be tiresome to worry about language when discussing issues, trying to be all politically correct, in this context meaning not giving the other side fodder. And, this includes not speaking out on controversial issues for fear of political backlash. But, that is what true leaders do. Drug policy, which threatens liberty and skewers rational discourse in any number of ways, surely needs more of them.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

"failure to recognize kinship"

And Also: Salon had a good piece today on the dangers of "personhood" for the unborn, including a video from a pregnancy women advocacy group. The Angela C. case also was discussed in the book Caroline Kennedy co-authored on privacy rights. Overall, as the group notes on its website, you need not be "pro-abortion" to see all of this. Under my email, I left some comments over at the Salon article, including another Pearl cite.

John Hope Franklin, who died yesterday at 94, was one of the most remarkable Americans of the 20th century. He was the master of the great American story of that century, the story of race. John Hope wrote it, he taught it, and he lived it. ...

But John Hope always looked at the state trooper blocking the bridge, the figure standing in the way of freedom, and saw there another child of God. He knew, as Charles L. Black Jr. said, that the tragedy of Southern race relations was drawn from that "prima materia of all tragedy: the failure to recognize kinship."

-- Walter Dellinger*

This "failure" is repeatedly shown to be one of our biggest problems. We fail to follow words from our birth certificate:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

This sense of interconnectness was an important theme in Mariane Pearl's book too, and comes to me all the time. So many things for me seem interconnected, so the fact we all are as well, including in an intimate kinship sort of way, seems rather natural for me. Not all the time, yeah, but enough for me to hope it matters. This is not always the norm.


* We are told that "The writer is a lawyer in Washington." Yes, and also the head of the OLC and acting Solicitor General during the Clinton Administration. You know, nothing worth mentioning.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

"petite dynamo of blond curls" fights on

Now 42, the mother of three said discovered a lump in December 2007 while doing a self-examination, and has since undergone seven major surgeries. She kept the illness private while campaigning for reelection and stumping nationwide for presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, then Barack Obama. She didn't want the illness to "define" her, [Rep. Debbie] Wasserman Schultz said. Most of her staff didn't know about her condition, according to a spokesman.

-- "a petite dynamo of blond curls" shows her courage

I have seen this progressive voice fighting the good fight with passion and humor on places like C-SPAN and MSNBC. Since I can download such things now, a link to YouTube might be in order here. See also here on "US Redeployment Out of Iraq." Rep. Wasserman Schultz has shown that her private life affects her political decisions before, noting choices involving her own father showed the horrible nature of the federal government interfering in the Terri Schiavo matter.

Her voice for breast cancer education is utter personal, as recent news has shown. Such an issue goes beyond politics, but it has a special force of feeling when it comes from someone who I respect overall, someone who is out there daily passionately promoting issues -- even when it is a losing battle at the moment -- for the good of the nation. As with the choice of Christiana Applegate, someone I grew up watching, to take a pre-emptive decision to have surgery to avoid breast cancer, these hit home when people you care about (even in this small way) has to go through them. They are a representative of so many more.

[Update: Applegate discussed the matter on Dave last night.]

All the best and keep on fighting! We need you!


* Over here, the story linked is criticized for focusing on women crying and such. I don't think this is fair. It was a very human story, one that emphasized that her crying at the event ("by a sisterhood of other breast cancer survivors") is atypical for someone who didn't want her illness to "define" her (so says the caption to the picture). Likewise, it does not take to the "ninth" paragraph for us to learn:
Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), a rising star in her party, was there to announce legislation for a national campaign to educate the public, particularly young women and their doctors, about the need for a much earlier approach to breast cancer detection. The accepted standard of mammograms at age 40, advocacy groups say, creates a false sense of security for younger women. Other cancer survivors, some in their 30s, came to the Hill to ring the alarm, to applaud Wasserman Schultz for going public and to cry with her.

And, after hooking us in with a great human interest story, the article surely does tell us about the legislation, again, several paragraphs of information. If this is the "most insipid" story out there today, the media is much better than I thought.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Various Things

And Also: One other thing about A Mighty Heart is how big the effort is, how so many people, from all over, try to work together, need to work together, to save one man. Of course, it is much more than about saving one person. They fail, but on some level, they succeed. This too was recognized by the author.

$$$: When Obama broke his promise last year and supported the telecom immunity bill, it underlined my problem with the guy. He's a sort of centrist/pragmatist that is a lot more sane than the person we used to have, but still leaves something to be desired. Useful to remember that, though when people who supported people no better and often worse (Clinton? the Republicans? much of the media?), it's comes off as a bit lame.

So, Obama pushes forth an economic policy that trusts the people who got us into this mess, trying to fend off those who are rightly pissed off at such things like the bonuses in the process (powerful symbols should be ignored as trivial? in what political universe?). Let the economists battle it out, but political reality seems a core issue here. Reality that suggests the people we voted in will not go all the way yet, even if that is the right way to go. We didn't vote in an Atrios or Hilzoy.*

Letterman: Sly dog. After announcing another celebrity wedding, Dave blandly noted that he too got married, after knowing his girlfriend (a perfectly ordinary looking sort, which is not surprising given his personality) for over twenty years (who knew?), and having a child with her five years ago. Paul basically had to assure everyone that he was serious. It was so low key that the news (it occurred last week) just came out in the media yesterday. He was married back in the 1970s and the divorce turned him off from the institution. But, his heart surgery and son clearly changed his life and sentiments too.

Plan B From U.S.: Good Salon commentary on the realities of family planning, including how unofficial burdens can be a big deal. For instance, a doctor's receptionist lied to someone needing Plan B, resulting in further fiscal burdens and complications. "Trivial" (maybe) for forty-somethings who could handle it, but maybe not so much for someone else. The reality of teenagers: you might not like it, but sometimes they will need family planning, even if they won't tell you about it. Blocking Plan B from minors therefore is not good policy.

Bristol Palin can tell you about the realities of the situation; maybe, others can get with the program too. Even if they don't like to admit reality. This is advice that can be applied across the board. Again, the vote for Obama et. al. is in part one realizing we have a better shot at it this way.


* I fear the current plan might subsidize and further enable those who got us into this mess. I hope this is not too much "populist anger" on my part. Still don't think the political environment is there to jump over to more governmental intervention. And, again, this is simply not the mind-set of the guy we elected. It's important to stick to reality here, especially when people claim to be members of the "reality community."

Monday, March 23, 2009

A Mighty Heart

And Also: The Oyez Project website, devoted to the Supreme Court and its work, has been updated. Some highlights: financial disclosure reports for the justices, a twenty minute documentary about the Court with involvement of the justices, a look at the chambers of various justices, and so on. Along with the oral argument audio and transcripts, this suggests the value of this resource.

I enjoyed the movie based on Mariane Pearl's account (A Mighty Heart) of the kidnapping of her husband, an account that is dominated by an international effort to find him. The movie was a well acted police procedural effort that felt to me (fwiw) to give a real sense of time and place, including a positive view of certain Pakistani authorities. It had a certain dry flavor at times -- almost like a documentary -- but showed clear skill worthy of respect.

I also saw Ms Pearl herself speak (on C-SPAN) about the book and her husband, her voice showing that she truly does try to follow the tenets of a poem she used to close her book:
I swear I will not dishonor
my soul with hatred,
but offer myself humbly
as a guardian of nature,
as a healer of misery,
as a messenger of wonder,
as an architect of peace.

This is from "School Prayer" by Diane Ackerman and ends thusly:
I will honor all life
—wherever and in whatever form
it may dwell—on Earth my home,
and in the mansions of the stars.

A close friend of Danny Pearl, and Mariane's key support during the search, was very upset at the movie. Asra Nomani, a fellow female journalist born in India, discussed the matter in a distraught fashion in an interview with Brian Lamb. [The interview is not just about that, and is worth reading, even if you disagree with her criticism.] She seems to ignore the reality of dramatic license and is upset that Danny Pearl is given such a small role, though his wife (play by Angelina Jolie, who went on Charlie Rose and elsewhere with her to promote the film) supported the film.

Yes, the film focuses on Mariane, but a film can only do so much, especially one concerning a search where the husband is obviously off-screen. The presence of a major star would also be focused upon, but we should also be fair -- Jolie did an excellent job, and this is no vanity project -- she plays it with the correct degree of humility and due care. And, again, imperfect as it might be (and, if I was her, it also might distress me to view how what I experience was skewered in certain ways), the movie portrayed events overall with due care as well.

Or, at least as well as one might reasonably expect a film would. I am currently reading the book, which ends with many letters written in support addressed to the author (or, rather, co-author), her son, and Danny Pearl's family. The extended format allows us learn more about Danny, the author and others involved in this story. About half done, and it is recommended, particularly for the brave voice of the author, including her Buddhist sentiments. I will toss in any further comments that might be warranted.

In his memory, we too should all try to "honor all life" as humbly as we can.

Long Term Economic Policy

And Also: Various justices have been concerned of late about civics education. Kennedy had a series of seminars. Breyer gave interviews, only partially to promote his book, itself a learning tool. Rather private Souter was on a panel (aired on America and the Courts) promoting civics and funding of the humanities. [He also pointed out courts in different eras have different understandings of societal realities using Plessy v. Brown.] And, O'Connor is promoting a new website geared to schoolchildren.

The Treasury Secretary prologues his plan for bad bank assets thusly:
No crisis like this has a simple or single cause, but as a nation we borrowed too much and let our financial system take on irresponsible levels of risk. Those decisions have caused enormous suffering, and much of the damage has fallen on ordinary Americans and small-business owners who were careful and responsible. This is fundamentally unfair, and Americans are justifiably angry and frustrated.

And later:
This requires those in the private sector to remember that government assistance is a privilege, not a right. When financial institutions come to us for direct financial assistance, our government has a responsibility to ensure these funds are deployed to expand the flow of credit to the economy, not to enrich executives or shareholders. These provisions need to be designed and applied in a way that does not deter the participation by the private sector in generally available programs to stabilize the housing markets, jump-start the credit markets, and rid banks of legacy assets.

Any plan that will have long term success, or a shot at it, needs to address the "irresponsible levels of risk" and other things that are "fundamentally unfair" that leads us to be (not mindless "populist anger") "justifiably angry and frustrated." Quick attempts to take back bonuses via taxation and the like is not the way to do this. I don't know if this plan will work, though some economists are more optimistic than others. I trust these people more than the last set of boobs in office, or the likes of "I don't know much about economics" McCain and his "you betcha" sidekick, though that is a pretty low bar.

FWIW. But, I do know that if our only concern is that: "We cannot solve this crisis without making it possible for investors to take risks," we will be in trouble. We also cannot truly solve this crisis without changing the way those risks are made, so that we won't go through something like this again. Or, at least, as badly. The way not to do this is just focusing on dealing with the mess after it happened, which will more likely occur if we don't do some things to stop it from being such a big mess the next time around.

The insiders chosen to be on Obama's team doesn't help make me more confident about these things, but hopefully, the force of reality will set in enough to give it a shot of happening.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Race to Witch Mountain

Race to Witch Mountain, the name tellingly tweaked, is a re-make of Escape to Witch Mountain ... a movie less a chase / Dwayne Johnson affair than this, plus less violent in a few ways (a fan of the original book underlined the point). Formula it might be (down to the evil government alien chaser, sigh), but it is fairly painless formula. Added plus that Carla Gugino joins in.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Small Gestures: Iran and Foie Gras

So on the occasion of your New Year, I want you, the people and leaders of Iran, to understand the future that we seek. It's a future with renewed exchanges among our people, and greater opportunities for partnership and commerce. It's a future where the old divisions are overcome, where you and all of your neighbors and the wider world can live in greater security and greater peace.

I know that this won't be reached easily. There are those who insist that we be defined by our differences. But let us remember the words that were written by the poet Saadi, so many years ago: "The children of Adam are limbs to each other, having been created of one essence."

With the coming of a new season, we're reminded of this precious humanity that we all share. And we can once again call upon this spirit as we seek the promise of a new beginning.

Thank you, and Eid-eh Shoma Mobarak [Happy New Year].

-- President Obama

It is a bit remarkable how small acts can be so important, showing a certain respect and effort that can mean so much. We know this from our daily lives. Though some people who would know such things suggest Obama's message is an important act, we need not give too much credit to be appropriately respectful. We are obviously just talking about a single gesture. Still, this is the sort of thing he meant when he talked about engagement -- it does not mean being naive or a lapdog. It does mean engaging with nations, particularly ones that aren't going anywhere, and reaching out. And, doing so in a way that shows understanding and respect of their culture.

Reminding them, and us, that we are of a "common humanity," too precious to have a policy dominated by war and war-like attitudes. Talking about small gestures, the now no more ban on foie gras in Chicago -- joining California and many European countries (plus Israel) -- is ridiculed by a Salon piece reviewing a book on "The Foie Gras Wars." The Chicago measure surely was more interesting to most people as a reflection of local politics than as a push to stop restaurants from selling a controversial delicacy. But, the review -- even for someone who doesn't care about the issue -- is best seen as a biased case of bad journalism.

The article doesn't start off on the right foot, the very first sentence telling us the stuff (which I never tasted to my knowledge) is "truly, indisputably, delicious." Are you kidding? How can we take someone who starts off like that totally seriously? Besides, we are talking about fatty duck or goose liver here, right? I have tasted normal liver -- it isn't as horrible as some make it out to be, but it wasn't "truly, indisputably, delicious," and I doubt foie gras ("fat liver") is somehow uniquely special either. I also am not a big proponent of lard. Anyway, after finishing drooling, the author notes:
It's undoubtedly true that some farms use inhumane methods, like caging the birds in tiny, individual cages that cause them pain and distress, but when foie gras is produced the right way (the way Hudson Valley does it, for instance) it's simply not torture.

The author, however, does not actually discuss how "the way Hudson Valley does it." The review also does not say some compromise can be reached, where only product from those HV-like nirvanas can be sold. The result is that many animals are needlessly harmed, the good (a minority? who knows from such coverage) covering the bad. It quickly quotes one critic to suggest she simply cannot admit reality, but a quick search led me to some who question (one with video) how grand Hudson Valley does things. The video, for instance, shows many birds in a single cage, roughly handled, and so forth.

And, the fact the birds do not have a gag reflex or normally might gorge before long flights does not suggest artificially doing it via feeding tubes for our benefit does not hurt the birds. The author (and opponent) of Farm Sanctuary also discusses the process, involving force feeding ducks and geese to unnatural levels, and any credible review would actually spend a paragraph or two truly putting forth that side. Not saying things like:
They're being waged by vegans who believe that all meat eating inevitably involves torture but who are smart enough -- and disingenuous enough -- to focus on a product the average person might never eat, one that can easily be portrayed as a decadent luxury enjoyed only by fat cats who could not care less about animals.

Many movements receive their core power from true believers who realize that the best they can do are small steps that might lead to bigger ones down the road. It is not "disingenous" to take such a tack, nor is it left to crafty vegans. The impossibility of tacking bigger fish, if the true vegans will pardon my metaphor, underlines why it is not hypocritical or anything to tackle this while factory farms churn out eggs, meat, and so forth. And, there also can be degrees of harm, and force feeding for a delicacy involving fatty livers quite arguably might be different than mass production of meat or even use of the whole duck or goose. Next up, those who eat chicken, but find veal particularly distressing are hypocritical liars.

A regular reader of this blog does not share by views on eating animals, and obviously the matter of what is "torture" in this context, and what the appropriate path might be is a matter of much debate. And, the book in question might very well raise good questions, including supplying perspective of the production of this particular item, plus background on its long history. But, this is not helped too much by slanted articles that begin with insisting that obviously its so yummy, which is both debatable and a dubious way to open up discussion on what some think is a horrible practice. (Item: You can't deny child labor is so cute, especially when they sing while making all those clothes. ... Not that this would matter if it's cruel and all.)

Meanwhile, California recently passed a ballot measure dealing with treatment of animals raised for food. It is a small step, but one that is in the right direction.*


* Item: "Report: Energy Production Choking Bird Population ... The U.S. State of Birds report, released by the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Tuesday, was requested in October 2007 by President George W. Bush. The report did not indicate whether one form of energy production is more detrimental than the other." That last bit would be useful to know.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Forest/Trees: AIG Bonuses and Beyond

And Also: I had some "fun" recently regarding automatic help line options (the choices at times a bit selective), including some rather sarcastic (and unhelpful) sorts. At the end, though not before a lot of the former, I actually got a good result. I am all for persistence, but also support good customer relations. Depending on who the "customer" might be, you know like maybe a patient or whatever, a useful reminder across the board.

One concern of "mls" in this comment stream over the AIG bonus issue is that the "populist anger" (aka democratic feedback, you know, without the snark the previous term often implies) will lead to missing the forest for the trees. This is a valid concern, up to a point. But, if we look at coverage (e.g., TPM and Glenn Greenwald), we have both learnt a lot from such anger, and the discussions and actions have also dealt with various broader themes. This is far from unique: a specific point often helps us address the broader matter at hand. In fact, this often is the best way to approach things. Don't try to bite off too much, have a powerful hook, and so forth.

The bonus matter raises sensible responses given the number of people who -- without f-ing up and being required to be bailed out -- losing jobs and otherwise hurting in this economy. Meanwhile, they see how the rules are variable, especially for the powers that be. This only starts to suggest why we have this "populist anger" (aka "human anger"), and yes, the government should address it when it arises. But, the Obama Administration itself seems not to quite have gotten the memo, its actions (some, as those involving Dodd, looking a bit sleazy) suggest that they thought of the "big picture," that this was really a side show. This is not how life works,* and in the process, the mind-set was problematic across the board.

The fact, as GG notes today, that the critics often come off as bigger assholes does not really change this. This too is how life works, though we need not let them spin things as much as they sometimes are able to do.
IN the hallway of Hostos-Lincoln Academy in the Bronx this week, two ninth-grade girls discussed the pop singer Chris Brown, 19, who faces two felony charges for allegedly beating his girlfriend, the pop singer Rihanna, 21. At first, neither girl had believed Mr. Brown, an endearing crooner, could have done such a thing. ...

Underneath harsh, judgmental bravado, teenage girls themselves seem perplexed by the unfolding story, whipsawed by allegiance to their celebrities, fantasies about romantic relationships, and the terrifying mysteries of intimate violence — the savagery of the beating as well as the speed with which Rihanna apparently agreed to see him again.

-- Teenage Girls Stand by Their Man

This is a rather different subject, but it underlines the possibility of letting an extreme case (as repeated photos in the NY Daily News showed) can provide an important teaching moment. We cannot just say that most girls in this discussion are not being beaten up, or say that "feminist anger" can cloud the issues. First, as in the AIG case, too many serious cases of wrongdoing do occur. Second, a serious case involving a celebrity can be used to address a broader issue, in this case romantic and gender relations. Again, there is some hook to start things off.

And, the article is interesting in itself -- when addressing a story like this, we are often given too much coverage, because it is so easy to do so. If we are going to get such extended coverage anyway, let's try to include within it some broader context. This too can have broad appeal, since it does not just involve some celebrity or person in the news at the moment, but something to which many "regular" sorts can relate.


* Or, politics. See, Kerry not thinking the Swift Boat attacks was worthy of his concern, at least until much too late.

I'd note also that mls does exactly what s/he warns against: the very first comment is a snark that distracts, and makes it hard to take what comes next seriously. This includes conclusionary comments on how "unclear" things are or how "reasonable" AIG might be, or shots at Democrats. Rather symbolic of the "cloud the issue" nature of some voices.

OTOH, the comment stream (underlining why the blog should have them, some members thinking otherwise notwithstanding) has some good stuff, including "Shag" on the limits of the sanctity of contracts. To the degree the original post addressed a specific matter, which is what blogs quite often do, the comments help to add perspective. This includes addressing some who might be turned off by the specific blogger.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

RIP Natasha Richardson

Letterman had some good stuff this week -- his Rachel Maddow and Julia Roberts interviews were quite enjoyable. Sad to see news of Natasha Richardson -- at first, it seemed like it might be okay, but suddenly she is dead. Not a great fan, but she was a pleasing presence in many films, and to be trite, it suggests how flimsy life can sometimes be. [Salon had a nice obit.]

Anti-Breast Feeding Article

And Also: An AP piece referenced a revision of rules by/for federal judges to address the "appearance of impropriety" issue without noting that a pending U.S. Supreme Court case addresses this very matter. The case involves state judges, sure, but this seems to be relevant, no? Meanwhile, let the confirmation wars begin!

There has been some discussion over a "case against breast-feeding." Problem is that the article is a strawwoman argument, which selectively uses evidence. The fact something is "natural" does not make it best. Or, a "right," to reference some recent discussions.

But, understanding that the bottle is fine for many women, especially given the burdens of the alternative, is not the same thing as ignoring (to quote a feminist blogger) "breastfeeding is better in most cases" Or, exaggerating about being "half naked" when you breastfeed or making fun of people who use pumps etc. The fact some enthusiasts on the other side exaggerate does not mean "more of the same." Balance, please.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

JP Day Approaches

I'm an Irish/Italian mutt, so today (St. Pat's) and Thursday (St. Joseph's, patron saint of Italians) is of some note. As is tomorrow -- it is JP Day, in honor of us mutts. Sample food: pasta and beer. Meanwhile, Meghan McCain ... you go girl.

The Invention of Air

And Also: Andrew Ross Sorkin's (NYT) defense of AIG blackmail on the bonuses has to be read to be believed. The double standard b.s. laden piece is countered here. The blackmail requires helping people no longer there too. But, the money involved is just a tiny portion of the bailout! So, is it just "populist anger," or perhaps, a matter of hitting these people where it apparently counts -- in the pocketbook. See also. This does not mean our net should be broader, e.g., no strings were warned about, and this is the result.

Although it centers on the life of Joseph Priestley, the 18th century English chemist and clergyman, Steven Johnson's "The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America" is far from a conventional biography. It is the story of Priestley's ideas -- who inspired them, whom they influenced and how they came to be.

Thus, this book, which I briefly referenced earlier, is in effect an intellectual history. This reflects the author's past works, but for those who find that sort of thing a bit boring, it is not only quick about it (a bit over 200 pages), but also provides enough narrative of his life for those who like that sort of thing too. In fact, the intellectual history -- the history of ideas stuff -- is only a relatively small part of the book as a whole. It is an important part, since putting historical characters in perspective is necessary to truly understand history.

Joseph Priestly, if one might forgive a less well known "JP," had eclectic interests.* This was not uncommon in his era -- his mix of religion (a pioneer of the Unitarian Church, and a major influence of Jefferson on this point), politics and science is underlined by a common term of the times -- "natural philosophy." The index cross-references the term with "science." This is telling, especially for those who based their philosophy of government on the laws of "nature's God." And, a good understanding of science remains important:
We live in troubling times, filled with signs of a great economic apocalypse, politicized science on topics from birth control to climate change, and religious zealots who kill innocents rather than live peacefully with them. This is exactly the moment to learn from Priestley, who survived riots, threats of prosecution, and other hardships and yet never doubted that "the world was headed naturally toward an increase in liberty and understanding." Ironically, The Invention of Air underscores that there is nothing natural about progress and liberty, each of which must be fought for and defended every single day by visionary individuals.

Steven Johnson notes that Priestly succeeded in revolutionizing science because various factors worked together to provide the right combination for this to occur. This is both a reflection of his times and his specific situation, including having the time (akin to a research professor who teaches a few classes, he had various patrons) to do his experiments, an open process to share ideas and the people with whom to share them. This included the "Lunar Society," whose industrialist members helped him in ways industrial research scientists would today, though without the proprietary secrecy now often involved.

Priestly shared the optimism of others in his times, a true progressive, who thought the world was on an upward path. As with his inability to let go of certain dubious religious beliefs (e.g., connecting the French Revolution to the book of Revelations), such optimism could blind him in certain ways. But, such is the nature of things -- imperfection is nature to man.** He also was a popularizer -- an important step on the road to his success was a proposal to collect the works of scientists like Franklin (the result made science not only seem like a work for demigods like Newton, but helped to make Franklin's kite experiment so famous) into a narrative history.

Overall, Joseph Priestley is a fascinating historical subject, an important symbol of the age. Johnson provides a very good snapshot, while also teaching us a bit about the at times underreported intellectual history aspect of things in the process. For instance, how could it take so long for people to realize the carbon dioxide/oxygen interplay of animals/plants, why Priestley in particular (with an important assist from Franklin -- who also discovered the Gulf Stream) found out, but still could not give up a misguided theory on why things burned all the same. The complexity of the whole thing, plus the charming nature of the man involved, makes for a great read.

Thanks Steven Colbert for inviting him on your show to talk about it.


* Malcolm Gladwell, another intellectual historian of sorts -- as shown by Tipping Point -- uses that word in his blurb. The "tipping point" theory comes to mind while reading this book too, including Johnson's argument that information networks are necessary for the shaping of new ideas, not a simplistic "light bulb" moment. I'm quite supportive of this view, one I'm of course not really describing with any real detail here.

** Priestley even was optimistic about the not too pleasant ride over to America once he was hounded out of England for his beliefs. This is not a matter of ignoring the dark side of things -- he lashed out at his enemies too -- but a matter of focusing on the good side of things. Things do not "happen for a reason," but we can make the best of things all the same.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Sunshine Cleaning

I enjoyed Little Miss Sunshine and past work from its leads, but Sunshine Cleaning was just painful overall to watch -- the reviews that suggest it is derivative indie material are on point. The annoying and at times disgusting kid didn't help, though Amy Adams in a bra did. AIG's actions on bonuses is a new low. We allow this ****? Yet again, we peons don't follow the same rules as the PTB. So sorry.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Various Weekend Tidbits

And Also: Watch out Julius!

According to a study by two Cornell University professors, honeybee pollination accounted for $14.6 billion worth of crops annually between 1996 and 1998. Honeybee research doesn't sound so funny now, does it?

In a particularly forceful entry, Media Matters talks about the "media's deliberate stupidity" as to earmarks, including ridicule of funny sounding measures that a bit of research will underline are often pretty important. As Paul Krugman suggested, this is more appropriate for Beavis and Butthead (which popped up on MTV2 recently) than serious sorts. Or, maybe, Sen. McCain.
In Fall 2008, Link TV presented the U.S. broadcast premiere of the controversial hit Israeli comedy series Arab Labor (Avoda Aravit). Created by Sayed Kashua, a 32-year-old Israeli-born Palestinian journalist, Arab Labor (translated from the Hebrew “Avoda Aravit” which colloquially implies “shoddy or second-rate work”) focuses on Amjad, a Palestinian journalist and Israeli citizen in search of his identity as he seeks high status in the society into which he was born but where his car is searched everyday when he drives from his neighborhood to his job at a newspaper in Jerusalem.

By chance (once in awhile you actually find something by channel surfing), I saw this show on Link TV, which is on the educational band of channels on Dish TV (Direct TV has it too). It has received some U.S. attention, including a NYT article suggesting some find this Arab Israeli Seinfeld insulting. The broad character types suggests sitcom criteria crosses national and language borders, including the value of humor and satire to inform about different cultures.

As Palestinian issues dominate, it is helpful to recall they do not just include residents of the West Bank and Gaza, but a large number of Israeli citizens as well. Talking about viewpoints from different cultures, a Bolivian wrote a guest op-ed yesterday concerning the stupidity of making coca leaves illegal. Noting the trivial amount of drug content in this traditional chew, one recalls the tiny amount of THC in industrial hemp, but it is still basically illegal (just try to get a permit to grow the stuff). Oh, the op-ed was written by the president of Bolivia.

Finally, Whale Rider was on television. I saw the film a few years back and just read the young adult book (it was in the children's section, but the fact it is narrated by a guy in his twenties alone suggests it is a bit mature for preteens), an interesting experience when it talks about the 21st Century and all (it was written in the late 1980s). The movie is one of those that if anything is better than the book, focusing more on the girl, which is fine given how great Keisha Castle-Hughes' (Academy Award nominated) performance is.

Hughes later played Mary in a more flavorless, if functional, account of the Nativity, which makes sense since the actress also became a teenage mom. Without the dramatics, though.

Friday, March 13, 2009

"Enemy Combatants" (or something)

The Administration, on Friday of course, announced that Gitmo detainees will no longer be called "enemy combatants," will tighten the standard some, and is not claiming any freestanding commander-in-chief power here. This is hazy and imperfect, but the law is filled with degree, so it still matters. Plus, it is a key moment honoring the rule of law. Is the AUMF obsolete at this point? Flawed? Worse? Fine -- ball in your court, Congress. And, court review!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Obama's First Signing Statement

And Also: My morning Salon email provides lots of interesting stuff, including discussion of a new report that raises doubts as to the value of parental notification/consent laws. A look at the details suggests a mixed bag at best, many negative results at worst. A companion read for Helen Silverstein's Girls On The Stand: How Courts Fail Pregnant Minors. But, when Bristol Palin (single mom?) provides a realistic stance on abstinence only education, how surprising is this?*

Obama ran and is governing as a centrist, which is good in various ways, except to the degree that things are so skewered that being in the center is not really acceptable in various respects. On the latter front, I have referenced his stance on truth commissions, state secrets, and so forth. But, clearly, he has done a lot of good even this early in his administration. And, a middle of the road path is sane on many levels. For instance, earmarks. McCain's extremism on the topic is inane. It's an annoyance, can be abused, but also is a part of the system that will continue, one that actually has good points. Such perspective is but one reason Obama won.

The same can be said about signing statements. Obama said he opposed their abuse, but -- again unlike McCain -- was not an absolutist about the whole thing. Obama said that in various ways, signing statements are legitimate, and he would use them ... just with more care and discretion than his predecessor: "with caution and restraint, based only on interpretations of the Constitution that are well founded.” As I noted recently, it is this abuse that was the core problem, not the use per se. Likewise, the proof will be in the pudding -- that is, how they are used. Coverage should highlight this issue, including addressing in some fashion if the use is legitimate, and if it is truly comparable with his predecessor.
Numerous provisions of the legislation purport to condition the authority of officers to spend or reallocate funds on the approval of congressional committees. These are impermissible forms of legislative aggrandizement in the execution of the laws other than by enactment of statutes. Therefore, although my Administration will notify the relevant committees before taking the specified actions, and will accord the recommendations of such committees all appropriate and serious consideration, spending decisions shall not be treated as dependent on the approval of congressional committees. Likewise, one other provision gives congressional committees the power to establish guidelines for funding costs associated with implementing security improvements to buildings. Executive officials shall treat such guidelines as advisory. Yet another provision requires the Secretary of the Treasury to accede to all requests of a Board of Trustees that contains congressional representatives. The Secretary shall treat such requests as nonbinding.

-- "Obama issues first signing statement" (Salon)

Charles Savage did yeoman work over his former Boston environs on executive power issues during the Bush years, including a fundamentally important questionnaire given to presidential candidates. Now at the NYT, his article on Obama's first signing statement therefore is particularly worth reading. TPM and Salon also reported on the issue, but Savage included more details. The former two focused on provisions concerning spending, particularly ones that in effect were legislative vetoes requiring committee approval for certain actions. This is in clear opposition to INS v. Chada. IOW, for those who want court review when there is a debate between the branches (or a veto), the review has been held.

He would consider such things as advisory, but will be sure to reasonably keep the Congress informed. This is an omnibus spending bill, and Obama specifically addressed such legislation as warranting some middle of the road approach. This is acceptable, surely realistic, on some level. This was a budget already in the works, not one developed during the Obama Administration entirely, and thus provided less opportunity for feedback and consideration. One hopes that some controversial measures of this sort can be addressed during this process beforehand, so that signing statements are not the first time we hear about the issue. Not that executive/legislative jocking will end, it being inherent in the process. But, there are degrees.

Savage adds additional details, such as:
One of the budget bill's provisions that Mr. Obama said he could circumvent concerns United Nations peacekeeping missions. It says money may not be spent on any such mission if it entails putting United States troops under a foreign commander, unless Mr. Obama’s military advisers so recommend.

"This provision," Mr. Obama wrote, "raises constitutional concerns by constraining my choice of particular persons to perform specific command functions in military missions, by conditioning the exercise of my authority as commander in chief on the recommendations of subordinates within the military chain of command, and by constraining my diplomatic negotiating authority."

More troubling. To the degree it places "conditions" etc., it does so by the power of the purse. The legislature has every right to condition spending in this fashion and this on the face of it appears to me an abuse of the signing statement power. Now, the substance of the provision also is suspect -- it has a taint of right wing anti-UN about it. Ike can command foreign troops in various ways, sure, but hey, no Frenchie is going to command our troops! It's absurd. The UN will require various actions that require leadership. The U.S. will not be able to control everything or be able to be freestanding actors. So sorry. That's not how it works.

On another issue:
He also raised concerns about a section that establishes whistle-blower protections for federal employees who give information to Congress.

"I do not interpret this provision," he wrote, "to detract from my authority to direct the heads of executive departments to supervise, control and correct employees' communications with the Congress in cases where such communications would be unlawful or would reveal information that is properly privileged or otherwise confidential."

This is more a matter of nuance. What does "properly" mean and so forth. Still, to the degree whistleblowers need protection from executive departments, their very function to say things that the PTB might not wish to be heard, there is a troubling flavor to the statement. The statement implies to some extent that if heads say something is "confidential" (state secret alert!), it could block whistleblowers from reporting to Congress on important matters that again is something Congress has the power to demand. Both statements can be defended as necessary to guard executive power over underlings, though the former hits closer to the core of executive power. This one however is more domestic in scope and bad policy to boot. And, when would it be "unlawful" for whistleblowers to go to Congress?! Are we to trust the executive -- who the whistle is being blown on! -- that "there's nothing to see here?" Absurd.

Savage ends with some context:
Many of Mr. Bush's signing statements made arguments similar to those made Wednesday by Mr. Obama. But Mr. Bush invoked particularly contentious claims of executive authority, as when he declared that a ban on torture violated his powers as commander in chief.

The Bush administration defended its use of signing statements as lawful and appropriate. The American Bar Association, on the other hand, condemned them as "contrary to the rule of law and our constitutional separation of powers," and called on presidents to stop using them.

Other legal specialists have argued that there is a role for the practice so long as presidents invoke only mainstream legal theories. They say Congress sometimes includes minor constitutional flaws in important bills that are impractical to veto.

The word "similar" will rankle with some, but the whistleblower provision is not so far afield from the last administration to be free of such taint. The commander-in-chief power defended, ironically addressing a conservative friendly provision, is less controversial. After all, what is the substantive effect of such a provision? What military commander would overrule the wishes of the Obama Administration? And, if s/he did, Obama clearly has the power to remove said miscreant, making the whole thing basically symbolic. The legislative veto matters also are not really controversial, and a careful statement is welcomed as a matter of full disclosure.

OTOH, how are they similar overall? Details? It also is not surprising that the Bush Administration defended what it did. It would be a tad bit surprising if it did not. As to the ABA, I question if their stance is so black/white, but if it is, that is a tad extreme. Simply put, laws provide enough discretion that signing statements are useful for that reason alone. As to cases of executive nullification, which is but one aspect of signing statements (which sometimes are just a sort of press release, btw), that is more troubling. Still, those "other legal specialists" have a point, and in various respects, Obama clearly is taking a reasonable centrist path on this issue ... one he was upfront about during the campaign.

This in no way means there will be difficulties and line crossing involved. Defense of executive power is part of the job, but we still have checks and balances. The whistleblower provision alone underlines the point. Continue to be on guard, since even our friends slip now and again.


* Nancy Pelosi's daughter is also out there making documentaries, often on conservative subjects. We also have been hearing from McCain's daughter -- having dating woes since she doesn't like Dems or Republicans who are too gung ho -- including how she doesn't like Ann Coutler and on the importance of something of a moderate path that includes providing a critical take on one's own movement. This all is welcomed.

She was on Rachel Maddow last night and gets an "A" for enthusiasm, if not coming off as totally mature as of yet. It is unfortunate that RM didn't ask her why she is so excited about the Republicans as such. M. was on for an extended interview after all, and it would have been a better question than a half-hearted "are you really supportive of all their policies" question, letting her off the hook as about as clued in on economic issues as her dad. But, she has an excuse -- she is in her mid-20s and did not run for President.

Anyway, hopefully, other Republicans will go on the show. It can be more useful than having the likes of Frank Rich. BTW, Keith Olberman had an extended anti-O'Reilly segment on last night. Keith's speaking to the choir qualities annoy, but there is a place for addressing right wing talking points. He provided counterpoints with facts. This is appreciated.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Death Row Cert Denial Dissents

And Also: New book list -- authors who pop up on Jon Stewart and/or Steven Colbert. Am reading an enjoyable read by one such guests, on Pluto's status as a planet, Pluto Files by Neil Grasse Tyson. Remarks about an early talkie where Mickey Mouse, ex-con, is horny mixed with more serious scientific discussion underlines its style.

[Update: ScotusBlog flags for me that Stevens' opinion is formally a "statement," but I see that Breyer's is labeled a "dissent." Stevens basically uses the opinion as an example of a problem, while Breyer formally notes he would vote to hear the case. Stevens in effect provides a concurrence like in Baze v. Rees, where he states his opposition to the death penalty, but notes that he will follow current precedent that allows it.]

Now and again, a justice writes an opinion dissenting from the Court not hearing a case, generally to make known a subject matter they feel warrants examination. In the scheme of things, they might be glad that the matter was not heard, since the result might not to be to their liking. Not that justices are just results-orientated! Such opinions can have a personal flavor, since they need not be agreed upon by the Court as a whole, and specifically deal with issues that might not otherwise be particularly covered in that fashion. Such opinions are found on the Supreme Court website, but generally do not get much press. And, is not just a matter of the justice wishing to hear the case without the usual three other votes needed, which comes up somewhat more often.

Justice Stevens recently wrote opinions of this nature in two death sentence cases, both which received some support from at least one justice. First, with videos provided, he argued that the development of victim impact statements in capital cases has reached a state of development that some standards need to be decided upon to guide lower courts. Even if statements of victims during the penalty stage is legitimate, which he does not agree to, elaborate emotional laden videos might be a step too far. The second case involves the death penalty directly, particular those cases that have lingered for decades, a matter Justice Breyer also has addressed in this fashion. In this case, Justice Thomas concurred in the denial.

The basic concern is that there are cases that have lingered, with multiple last minute stays of execution, into a third decade. This wait, in itself, might be deemed cruel and unusual. Thomas argues that the litigant is to blame -- he is the one who brought up continual appeals, and did not agree to the "reasonable" (as Justice Breyer admits) judgment that he deserves the death penalty based on particularly heinous facts. You cannot have your cake and eat it too. All the same, if the delay is a result of the state violating his due process, why should he to be blamed for the length of the appeals process? We are not talking a few years here -- normal capital appeals generally can take the better part of a decade, if done quickly. We are talking decades.

Justice Thomas' opinon only tempers the arguments of Stevens and Breyers. Stevens raises the matter of the heinous nature of solitary confinement. Thomas is correct in saying that it is in some significant part a result of reasonable safety concerns. Without a death penalty, safety will warrant keeping some people in horrible conditions. But, the death sentence factors into the placement. Thomas discusses, in detail, the horrible nature of his crime. This counters -- up to a point -- Breyers detail that suggests possible mitigation. But, as with Scalia raising the point when Justice Blackmun said he will no longer tinker with the machinery of death, was the murderer's compatriot really so less heinous here to not warrant the death penalty?

The fact that even when the death penalty can be defended on some grounds, such as the horrible nature of the offense, that it still can be shown to be arbitrary underlines its problems. Thomas is correct to suggest no punishment can be error free. The problem is that there can be some point where error and other problems makes it unconstitutional.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Natural/Nurtural Rights and Prop 8

And Also: Chuck (D-NY) acts like an ass in the Charles "He Isn't Pro-Israel Enough" Freeman battle. GG discusses the matter today, though Andrew Sullivan has done yeoman reporting throughout. I leave this to the experts, but it surely sounds like the powers that be win again. Getting tired of Chuck. Pro-Wall Street, pro-AG Gitmo II, overall snarky, insider pol flavor, etc. Gives "establishment" a bad name. But, hey, helps the party. One we want?

I recently re-read Alan Dershowitz's small book on the Declaration of Independence, which he followed up with Rights From Wrongs, which is a somewhat rambling expansion of his "nurtural rights" replacement for "natural rights" argument. He firmly is on the side of the needs for rights, but argues that they are human inventions, not discoveries from nature. To wit:
The function of rights--indeed, of law and morality--is to change that natural condition for the better: to improve upon nature, to domesticate its wild beast, and to elevate us from the terrible state of nature into a state of civilization. It is a never-ending challenge. If the advocates of rights fall asleep at the wheel for even one historical moment, there is danger that the natural human condition will rear its ugly head, as it has so many times over the millennia.

His argument at times is a bit question begging. AD repeatedly relies on the fact that our views of natural rights were divided and flawed, including support of slavery, but the same could be said about our understanding of scientific laws. The fact we over the years put into the mouth of God some dubious things suggests our reasoning abilities are flawed. It doesn't by itself refute the whole idea of natural law itself. Ditto the idea that natural law is widely open to debate. "Nurtural Rights," rights developed from human wrongs, also are open to debate.

I agree that the idea of "rights" (and "law" in that context) is a human invention. OTOH, I don't think the idea of "natural rights" (putting aside if they arise from nature and/or nature's God) is totally bogus. In some real sense, the Declaration of Independence as concerned about rules of "nature," as in those rules that go beyond what established governments set forth. Consider, the "rule of the jungle" as a metaphor for how life is really like on the street or in the war zone. This is our "nature," our life beyond civilized governments. And, to the degree we agree that there must be rules, rights, even here, "natural rights" has some force.

In some fashion, even the simplest tribal bands can be said to have a "government," but I doubt it is what Thomas Jefferson quite considered when writing that word in this context. Next, when determining the rights that are necessary for our basic happiness, for any just society, we also need to look to our natures. AD accepts the point, but notes the "is" of nature is not the same as the "ought" of rights. Sure. All the same, when looking at rights that go beyond positive law, rights that are necessary for our happiness in some "natural state," what word should we use? Natural rights in some fashion, again imperfect as it might be, makes sense.

[Are they "inalienable?" By whom, I guess. If "rights" are inventions, in some fashion, they can be removed. OTOH, if there is some basic rights necessary for happiness, no truly free government could "alienate" them. Anyway, no law tends to be truly absolute, even if it says so. And, how does one "alienate" a right to liberty etc.? If you choose to restrain yourself, the liberty is still there.]

Finally, when determining "natural rights," we look at those rights necessary for our happiness pursuant to our nature and experiences. I don't see any problem with this being an ever developing process, so don't know why AD thinks the imperfect application of the process proves natural rights lacks force. It might better to think of these as "unenumerated rights" or "human rights" or whatever, "natural rights" having some baggage and all. And, yes, this is different than arguing that the rights are just there to be found, like rules of gravity.
At oral argument, some members of the court -- including, most notably and surprisingly, some who were in the majority in the Court's original decision recognizing equality of rights between straight and gay, In Re Marriage Cases -- seemed attracted to the notion that the people have an inalienable right to do whatever they want. Dean Starr made this argument for the opponents of Proposition 8, but with all due respect that is not an affirmation of inalienable right, but a prescription for tyranny.

Conservative Obama/Prop 8 supporter* Douglas Kmiec provides a somewhat surprising analysis of the ongoing court challenge. Basically, he thinks the opponents of the measure have a point, at least to the degree that they have a sound (if not necessarily slam dunk) argument that the fundamental right at stake can very well make stripping away the rights of same sex couples a basic structural change that requires a supermajority. The people themselves, as recognized by previous state precedent, agreed to this framework. Comparably, the idea of some "natural rights" that the Parliament could not deny was in effect agreed upon by the colonialists.

In effect, his solution is to interpret Prop 8 rather narrowly as basically about terminology. And, push for an across the board removal of the word "marriage" (a religious word), which in return honors the higher scrutiny given by the Californian Supreme Court to sexual orientation. I do not think "Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California" is just about terminology. Did those who vote for the measure think calling it "espousal," applicable to both same sex and different sex couples, was different? I also understand that "marriage" for many people has a religious flavor, but many also simply go to city hall. Are birth certificates akin to baptismal certificate too?

But, apparently the Kmiecs of the world do find this determinative, concerned not about the state recognizing unions for both that have the same benefits, but use of the word "marriage" alone. And, arguments against same sex "marriage" often tend to have a religious flavor, including (unreasonable) fears that somehow they will interfere with religious rights somehow. I do wonder how Prop 8 is acceptable even in this narrow sense given it explicitly favors a certain group by gender (or sexual orientation) by recognizing "marriage between a man and a woman" alone. The textual argument has some force -- up to a point -- but it still is discriminatory. You simply cannot get around that.

All the same, yes, if the court can somehow decide that the proposition is narrow in scope, reminding that its strict scrutiny protection of sexual orientation holds true, it could be a good solution. After all, the legislature, and the governor too, has spoken in support of equal protection of all in this context. Prop 8 might make it impossible to have true equality by use of the word "marriage." So, go around that barrier, and use some other word. Given the baggage "marriage" has, this would be beneficial. I seriously do not know if "espousal" ("spouse" has a marriage flavor, doesn't it?) will work, but hey, maybe it will.

Bottom line, Prop 8 threatens a basic fundamental right, one many deem "inalienable" (which has force, even if it is a legal fiction). Constitutional avoidance is a good approach here, especially when the bigots left themselves open to it.


* An op-ed cited by Part II of his analysis notes he did so on "religious liberty" grounds. Facially, that sounds really bogus, but his proposal puts a somewhat different spin on the matter.

Palestinians are Sorta Equal To Others?!

There is an old cartoon used in textbooks showing the shadow of anti-immigration WASPs being their own immigrant ancestors. Sen. Leahy reminded us of something similar when he opposed a proposed ban on Palestinians by reminding Irish immigrants often were criminals at home. Meanwhile, per "Today's Papers" at Slate, I counter the latest transcript journalism, this time regarding Obama's signing statement policy. Some good WBC games, including upsets.

Can we do that there?

Seen today (well one like it):

Redwood and others over here raise an interesting point: should we not focus on how the lease does not justify how we are using Gitmo? You know, not as a coaling or naval station, but a prison camp?

Monday, March 09, 2009

Interesting Reads

How are a few converted NYC Catholic schools doing? Apparently, Cablevision has a Barbie Channel ... here's an Iranian emigrant on the doll. Obama is sane again -- this time on signing statements. Since it has to be done, here's a partial response to Robert Samuelson's pathetic anti-Obama hit piece today. BTW, iCarly was lame again while Rules of Engagement was decent on its return.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Stem Cells and the Value of Good Science

And Also: The Supremes vacated the al-Marri ruling now that Obama decided to shift him to civilian custody. It is good that the troubling Fourth Circuit ruling is no longer binding, contra the one on Padilla, but a loaded weapon remains -- if they lose, will they simply send him back to military custody? Anyway, ditto on GG's scorn on the "they are defending illegitimate executive power so they can lose on appeal" fantasy.

The author of a new bio on Joseph Priestley was recently on The Colbert Report (light as the interview segment is, Colbert has had some interesting guests on who got a chance to promote books and ideas to a wide audience who otherwise might not have learnt about the matters discussed in such a way). A review in Reason suggests the broad importance of such a work at this time:
We live in troubling times, filled with signs of a great economic apocalypse, politicized science on topics from birth control to climate change, and religious zealots who kill innocents rather than live peacefully with them. This is exactly the moment to learn from Priestley, who survived riots, threats of prosecution, and other hardships and yet never doubted that "the world was headed naturally toward an increase in liberty and understanding." Ironically, The Invention of Air underscores that there is nothing natural about progress and liberty, each of which must be fought for and defended every single day by visionary individuals.

The importance of sound scientific policy is just one reason to support a certain group to govern. I referenced the point four years ago when discussing the issue of stem cells, the federal funding policy about to change, to make a broader point on science in the Bush years. In part:
And in a broader sense, a more nuanced moral understanding of the world we live in, including not limiting the "health and well being of the many" for the beliefs of the few. Not just scientific research, but abortion, condom use, euthanasia, homosexuality, medicinal marijuana, and a lot more is at stake. A simplistic view of public values, one that all too often interferes with the rights of others with a contrasting moral belief system that deserves equal respect in this nation (and sometimes internationally as well), mixed with partisan politics is just one more reason to vote the current bunch out of power.

Now we have a Nobel laureate as Energy Secretary. Global warning is back deemed an important fight. Gag rules are removed. A more sane policy on family planning is possible. There even seems some positive signs on the medicinal marijuana front. As in other areas, such advancements will have limitations. But, such is the nature of the game. Overall, however, there is clear evidence that science is more secure. This should not really be a partisan issue, and the support of efforts against global warning by the likes of McCain and yes Rick Warren underlines it need not be.

Partisan policy does cloud the issue (Jefferson's myopic view of racial issues suggests this crosses party lines), however, and at the end of the day one party has been shown to be better as a whole on this issue. So, we have to take that into account. We should not let that cloud what should be our ultimate end -- reason over something little more than superstition in many cases -- but yet again we seem to have more of a fighting chance since November.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Justice Ginsburg Lives On

"First, I wanted people to see that the Supreme Court isn't all male," the lone female justice said of the evening event Feb. 24. "I also wanted them to see I was alive and well, contrary to that senator who said I'd be dead within nine months." ...

Ginsburg appeared in fine form, getting up often to retrieve books to show a visitor. She has resumed her usual schedule of conferences, dinners and travel.

-- Joan Biskupic

Cross Creek

And Also: Baseball pre-season has begun, with the WBC extending things to early April, the latter games already begun being shown on ESPN2. A mostly minors Mets team barely won 3-2 vs. Italy in an exhibition game. John Maine, showing his Al Leiter side, walked the first three. Sox/Cubs match-ups also have been on WGN, Cubs making last night's game interesting with three in the ninth (4-3, Sox). A-Rod seems to be okay -- I'm really tired of him.

The author of The Yearling and other works, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, moved down to Florida to Cross Creek in the late 1920s. Her love of the area, one not shared by her first husband who divorced her a few years after they moved there, is suggested by this Thomas Jefferson-esque* discussion that provides a conclusion to her book on her time there:
Who owns Cross Creek? The redbirds, I think, more than I, for they will have their nests even in the face of delinquent mortgages. And after I am dead, who am childless, the human ownership of grove and field and hammock is hypothetical. But a long line of redbirds and whippoorwills and blue-jays and ground doves will descend from the present owners of nests in the orange trees, and their claim will be less subject to dispute than that of any human heirs. Houses are individual and can be owned, like nests, and fought for. But what of the land? It seems to me that the Earth may be borrowed but not bought. It may be used, but not owned. It gives itself in response to love and tending, offers it seasonal flowering and fruiting. But we are tenants and not possessors, lovers and not masters. Cross Creek belongs to the wind and the rain, to the sun and the seasons, to the cosmic secrecy of seed, and beyond all, to time.

I first learnt about her book Cross Creek by means of a movie for which it is loosely based. The fact her husband does not move down there with her is but one fact changed, though the general feel of the book remains, and some stories found in it are placed in the movie in some form. And, on its own, the movie is pretty good, with Rip Torn providing the best supporting role. The book is evocative of the land and people of Cross Creek, but for me personally a little bit of description of the fauna can go a long way. Helpfully, even some of the chapters focused on the land, such as the different seasons, often include some narrative to help things along. The book btw was published mid-WWII, and it is not surprising a special armed forces edition was established, many nostalgic for home.

For me, the book was worth reading for the characters that could talk, even if some of them are of the non-human variety. She might overdo the noble poverty thing a bit, and she even got in trouble via an invasion of privacy suit with one description of a friend as mannish (see here), but Rawlings draws some powerful and touching portraits here with an amused touch. This includes, with some biases of the time mixed with a form of progressive thought (she was friends with the likes of Zora Neale Hurston, whose Their Eyes Were Watching God, I found very good), a good amount of stuff about the local blacks including her trials and tribulations in finding a good maid. (The movie version takes the story of just one of them.) Rawlings provides a respectful portrait of them too, one of the key figures in the book a local black matriarch.

Both the book and movie are worth checking out, the latter on television of late, but both provided by any good library system. BTW, I caught a bit of The Yearling (with Gregory Peck) a few months back -- looked pretty good too. The movie version of Cross Creek mixes in a yearling like story that is not in the book, one of the sort of overdone touches that probably does the movie a disservice. But, even there, it comes off okay enough.


* Jefferson believed that "the earth belongs in usufruct to the living," which can be compared to a type of life estate, "the right to make all the use and profit of a thing that can be made without injuring the substance of the thing itself." The application to modern environmentalism is evident, the responsibility of the current generation to the future ones not a foreign idea even then.

It in fact was a logical concern in an agricultural society, needing to protect your land for your children. This might even be seen as a natural sentiment, TJ speaking of "natural rights" here too, but selfishness along with short-sightedness are too. TJ should know.