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

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Without A Clue

And Also: So goes the year, and depending on how you count, the decade. No great loss really. To a better 2010/2010s.

By the wonders of YouTube, recently watched the Sherlock Holmes spoof Without A Clue (broken up into 11 parts), which is not in the NYPL. An IMDB comment took me to a Siskel & Ebert review. While growing up, I enjoyed that duo, though don't recall ever reading a Siskel review (he died in 1999, before I first had ready available Internet access). The review suggests some of the excesses of Ebert's review style. He is upset that the movie doesn't focus more on the humorous byplay between the two without watering it down with a story. How else would they do it, Roger?

The original duo after all showed their personalities not while hanging around, but during actual mysteries. I guess S&E might not have ruined their byplay by actually spending so much time reviewing some of the more boring flicks and all too. I joke. Siskel appeared to realize this, accepting that the movie wasn't a classic, just very good even if restrained by certain standard film norms. IOW, working within them, it did the job.

It was very good, particularly Caine and Kingsley in the leads, the conceit being that Watson was really the brains of the outfit. The charm of the film, directed by someone with not too many films under his belt (or those anyone heard of), particularly is its ability to fit into the environment. A good feel for the setting is essential to a successful spoof/parody/satire, and this definitely has that. And, the central mystery is pretty good with a rewarding resolution. It holds up pretty up to the end,* which is often not the case in films of this type.

Ebert is correct that films often fall off when standard tired plot developments occur, including necessary (often fake) conflict in your standard romantic comedy, action sequences and violence (killing off people is a lazy and deep down troubling standard device, particularly since it too much reflects an actual ethos on dealing with messy details) and at times convoluted plots. Many films basically have an hour or so of good material, the rest filler. The bottom line turns on the degree. Dragnet is a suitable case in point, that is, the spoof combined charming aspects (and a great lead performance) with a ridiculously over the top plot.

It is such violent (yes, the original stories had some action, but martial art skills or the like was not the point; for instance, a fight took place at the conclusion of what turned out not to be the final chapter of the Holmes' saga, but off screen, so to speak) and convoluted plot devices that I fear about the new Sherlock Holmes flick, though some of the online comments do lead me to be curious about the whole thing. The leads supposedly make things worthwhile. Films are often like that -- enough components to make them enjoyable, the boring stuff able to be pushed aside. Some reviews don't understand that, akin to complaining fast food is too salty. True enough.

Still can be somewhat worth the money all the same. Especially if it's gratis.


* The film even has an amusing bit near the end of the credits, apologizing to the original source material.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Rights Lite = Stupid

Already, some commentators have suggested that suspected terrorists like Abdulmutallab don't "deserve" the protections of the US criminal justice system. Such a claim reflects a deep misunderstanding of the purpose of criminal justice guarantees. Despite the formal construct of "the People" or "the United States" versus the defendant, the criminal justice system is not a zero-sum game; what protects the defendant does not hurt the public.

Indeed, it is by requiring that the accused not be subject to abusive interrogations, have a meaningful opportunity to challenge the evidence against him, and enjoy the assistance of counsel, that the US system of criminal justice tries to get at the truth. Wrongful convictions don't just inflict grievous injury on the defendants, they waste scarce resources, and harm the credibility of the entire system.

The US federal courts – and the credibility of their verdicts – are one of the greatest assets that the United States has in fighting terrorism. To waste this asset by relying on substandard criminal proceedings would not just be wrong, it would be stupid.

-- Joanne Mariner

This works as a general summary of various aspects of the unfortunately (even by Democracy Now!) named "underwear bomber" (blah) story. What stands out for me -- more than the idea someone fell between the cracks (see the comments there about how that will happen) -- is the ridiculous over the top responses. For instance, this person is quite like the "shoe bomber," who during the Bush Administration did receive a criminal trial. But consistency is not always present. And, the whole innocent until proven guilty thing is really passe.

I'm with those who are happy about the relatively calm, if firm, response from the Obama Administration. This will include, at least for the short term, some stupid aspects that are par for the course (e.g., Rachel Maddow had an expert on Monday that noted any "one hour before landing" rule would be stupid, since his timing really didn't mean anything). See also here (bottom) for an instance first hand perspective of airport screening rules.

OTOH, as TPM (and others surely) noted, it is systematic for such groups to react differently. Thus, the Pat Buchanan's will push for torture (don't recall learning about that in my Catholic education, though it was during the wimpy 1980s*). It does lead me to reaffirm my political picks, even if my options at times amount to clear lesser evils not people who I would ideally want to pick if I had my druthers. Druthers, however, are something you often do not have.

Meanwhile, this is what happens when we just "move on" and ignore things as "partisan" differences of opinion -- torture enablers are given suck-up interviews and continue to educate our children (well not mine, but you get the idea). Just one more face in a crowd, nothing special happening around here.


* I separated this into the previous entry.

How to Read the Bible

And Also: The Young Victoria looks good and I like Emily Blunt, but the plot comes off as a somewhat tedious PBS entry. The goings on deserve better.

For instance, How to Read the Bible: History, Prophecy, Literature- Why Modern Readers Need to Know the Difference, and What It Means for Faith Today by Steven L. McKenzie might be more of a problem for Pat's teachers.* The Bible is more meaningful if you truly understand what went into its creation, both for the believer and general reader.

Prof. McKenzie argues that one reason why you have to know the difference is that a true understanding of the reason for let's say Jonah or Daniel can lead to a stronger faith because you realize that it is not supposed to be taken as literal history. One might add, though he doesn't emphasize the point, someone can also better criticize its content by realizing that this alone is not a reason to totally ignore it as religious dogma.

He also is a bit too positive. Let's say Chronicles "creatively" re-wrote history found in other works (and sources that are lost) to promote a certain religious principle. Particularly in a day when only a few read, many people would not realize this is what was being done. It is one thing for Greek historians (or Acts) to create speeches that say what certain people are assumed to have said. It is quite different (or more problematic) to delete, 1984-like (as did Egyptian palace historians too), uncomfortable history. The result is that faith is based on fiction. I don't know how much the general reader (or believer) even then knew just what was being done.

The author neutrally notes what is done and lets others judge but the implication stands that judging too harshly is wrong. One other thing, which again should not lead someone not to read this interesting approachable volume, is that the misunderstandings are at times a bit exaggerated. For instance, he explains how Pauline epistles were specifically tied to certain situations. This is true, but the reason why they were collected was that they also put forth certain basic doctrinal discussions that are useful for the general Christian reader.


* See next entry for the reference.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Another Underdog Wins In Week 16

Though I don't have all the hate some have for the guy, even after his Jets performance last year, his routine and all the praise received has gotten tired. So, I was pleased with last night's result. Still, how can the summary leave out the missed extra point, a key aspect to the need for OT? Go Green Bay! (Saints are so beatable.)

Monday, December 28, 2009

Dawn Johnsen DOA?

She will have to be re-nominated. The delay of a pick that has a few Republican supporters and of special symbolic value to liberals and those against torture / for good picks overall rightly bothers many people, including me. This is not some mundane pick. It matters.

Redefining = Understanding Their Complexity?

Ms. Clinton's lumping of economic and social "rights" with political and personal freedom was a standard doctrine of the Soviet Bloc

I [Joe] and others deal with the b.s. of the "liberal" WP, but also where was all the "tireless" respect for rights when our allies violated them? And, why the respect for such "European" rights anyway, given how so many disdain "European" (Canadian etc.) health care?

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Week 17 WILL Matter For NY

To gain control of their playoff destiny for the final week, all the Jets need this weekend is a Jaguars loss, a Dolphins loss and a loss by the Ravens or Broncos. And, oh yeah, they have to beat the undefeated Colts on the road.

Piece of cake indeed. Giants are [done].

Bored Movie Reviewers

And Also: Fans of The Nanny might want to check Living with Fran on Youtube. It comes off a bit like its sequel, if her marriage didn't go well and she actually married a somewhat caddish version of him years earlier. Familiar faces pop up including an actor from Drop Dead Diva. As with Fran, the voice will give him away.

The most entertaining moment of "Did You Hear About the Morgans?" came halfway through the press screening, during yet another scene of middle-aged bickering. Hugh Grant, one-half of a recently separated New York power couple, sputters an excuse for his infidelity to his estranged wife. "I'm not perfect," he says. "I'm human. I made a mistake." At which point the woman next to me cracked, "That's what Tiger said!"

A good film reviewer will find something to write about even when they are reviewing bad movies. A really good one will look past the mediocrity and realize when there is some good in even some of the ones they think are really bad. Or, something more than what amounts to a big yawn. Sometimes, when a reviewer is not really paying attention to the movie (the result are comic asides or such that actually seeing the movie would ruin), it can get a tad annoying. See, some reviews of Roger Ebert.* And, this one.

The striking thing about the review's comments is that they basically all are negative though one gets to the heart of things by saying that it actually sounds like a not bad movie if you wanted something predictable. This often is why we go to the movies, so hits an important point in a gentle sort of way. The comment is an example of reading between the lines -- the negative review actually suggests to some a conclusion not quite what was intended. It is something like when a reader of Pravada learned something critical of the government by the phrasing or what was not said.
Soon, these fish out water are doing hilarious things like milking cows. (Hey, remember when this happened on that episode of "Sex and the City" almost a decade ago? Because I do.) and falling in love all over again. (Remember that shot in "Nine Months" involving Hugh Grant, his costar Julianne Moore and a twinkling city skyline? Because I remember that as well!).

Actually, she doesn't really milk cows exactly. She basically tries to milk one cow while talking to Sam Elliott's character about her relationship, and the real joke is that she reads too much in a comment he makes about how to milk one. It's the sorta amusing joke with a point made by a somewhat annoying lead and a more pleasing supporting character that does represent the movie fairly well. And, the result is actually overall pleasing as I noted. You read this review and it sounds like one of those scenes where some city dweller spends five minutes trying to milk a cow, when actually it is not. As to standard plot devices, so? See footnote.
The movie might have had a flicker of redemptive eye candy had Grant and Parker displayed anything but what looks like utter repulsion for each other. In the moments when they kiss (oh, like that's a spoiler) they actually seem to be pushing each other away. At least old pros Sam Elliott and Mary Steenburgen, as the wise local law enforcement, have an easy, sexy chemistry. The rest of the cast, including a painfully snappish Elisabeth Moss, are ill-used and, apparently, terribly angry. "Morgans" does bear the distinction of boasting the sourest cast ever assembled outside of a Lars Von Trier production.

Yes, the leads aren't great together,** but in time, as I said, they did grow on me. I can even see them together, particularly why she would like someone like Hugh Grant. Someone like her would like a self-effacing sort that would make her laugh. It's a bit harder to consider why he likes her, though probably she does provide some sort of balance to the relationship. But, the review in passing ruins itself -- oh no! It actually says something nice about the film (the law enforcement couple). With a bit of thought, it might have to say a few more nice things about it. I disagree about Moss (from West Wing btw) and unsure where all these sour people (you mean like the giddy nurse or laid back doctor? the hint of gay agent protecting Hugh Grant in a fun throwaway?) are. And, where are all these "terribly angry" people?

It ends continuing to whine about the "this epic waste of two hours," which exaggerates not only its length but it's level of bad. I guess it helps that the previews and clip shown on Letterman were not promising, so inviting low expectations, but really now. You can think the movie is lame without all of these histrionics, can't you? Maybe not if you have to write for a publication that requires you to have a hip attitude. To be fair, as I noted, others do this as well. After awhile, you expect it as just a regular cliche in the review business, though you can still whine about it as if it a "epic waste" of your time or something.

Note: This is as much a reply to a general trend in such reviews than any one review.


* Ebert's review is bored. Oh, look the movie is full with cliches ... why did anyone make such a retread?! Darn, wish I was back in the good old days when romantic comedies were not all predictable with standard plots and supporting stars. You know when Doris Day, Rock Hudson and Tony Randall basically starred in the same movie about three times.

Lazy, Roger. The laziness is underlined by the fact that the real problem for him is not the same plot devices, but the follow through. He loved The Sure Thing, where two mismatched college students fall in love during a road trip that was standard by the 1930s. The standard plot devices didn't suddenly make the film lame. Other films aren't so good, but comfortable shoes sometime do a good enough job all the same.

** The whole adultery business is unpleasant and the earlier Tiger Woods reference hits home up to a point, except -- yeah this ruins it again -- HG's character cheats once during a period of stress, not repeatedly with a bunch of chippies. And, we later find out she too cheated on him, which sort of reminds me of the back/forth cheating of my governor and his wife.

Saturday, December 26, 2009


And Also: Let's remember that FDR, with more Democrats and a more blatant need for change (and no war to handle on the side) put forth a compromised version of change on the insurance front too. The naysaying might not be as overblown as some say, but the critics of the critics have a pretty good point too.

While chockablock with colorful anecdotes and psychological insights, “Molly Ivins: A Rebel Life” isn’t convincing as the biography of a significant figure in journalism. Minutaglio and Smith fall short of making their case that she was, variously, “one of the best-known and most influential journalists in American history” and “a Texas Mark Twain.” Despite publishing some best-selling collections and several well-regarded magazine articles, and co-­writing two slight volumes about Dubya, Ivins never wrote the big, important book about Texas that she’d always wanted to.

This isn't a convincing conclusion to the book review either. Apparently, reading the review, she is a great and admirable person and journalist, but something had to be tossed in at the end to show the reviewer's neutrality. Ivins, who knew that sometimes progressive criticism isn't bias, it is just fact, probably would have nodded knowingly.

I read those "slight" volumes, amounting to over five hundred pages total, and just the smaller first one succinctly provided a fair warning -- before he was elected (whatever) the first time -- of what his presidency would offer. Her not writing a major opus about Texas does not erase her place in political journalism. She surely is "one of" the best known and probably (I assume the book backs it up) is also quite influential to the style of many commentators out there. She surely is a pioneer for the modern female journalist / analyst and a model for dissenting voices of any political persuasion in that business.

Meanwhile, the NYT also has a positive review of Sue Grafton's latest alphabet novel. A quick check at the library suggests that about halfway through, the books started to get progressively longer, the first a crisp 250 or so pages, the most recent over 400. Her current practice of providing not just the voice of her thirty-something female detective from the 1980s (the books go in real time, which amounts to twenty-five years of publishing, but only five or so of plot) but other characters helps here, but only so much. Too much padding in both cases, plus some stupidity on her part.* A red pen would have been helpful here. The good stuff (including some of the flashbacks) is overwhelmed.

I read (well, listened -- not a good thing here, since it is best read quickly as a sort of beach read, audio dragging things out) all of her alphabet novels (and an obscure non-mystery ... she focused on television scripts in an earlier life), but this one was surely not her best. "U is for Unsatisfactory." Providing the perspectives of other characters in the mystery (will we hear the inner voice of her friends next?) has potential, but she seems to have a tendency thus far not to be able to hold it up for the whole length of the novel. She didn't help herself here by providing excessive details on multiple characters.

A bit tedious when it involves the detective, it truly is when we get to hear about someone else's urine taking.


* The ending is particularly stupid on her part. The mystery and a parallel personal story has some interest, but overall, it also is a tad stupid. Well, you can't provide gems all the time on the road to twenty-six.

Pleasant Film Pick

Did You Hear About the Morgans? has received mixed reviews, but I found in pleasant fare, well put together and filled with pleasing parts. And, even though you realize it is basically a trifle (good time for that), you also care about the characters.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas

Still think it a pretty nice day including all those corny holiday specials. Time to wrap and start things off.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A sense of proportion as we slog

And Also: Top economists, including health care experts, praise Senate bill as "reform legislation" that should be passed. Will the conference actually add something more? What of Sen. Nelson's threat? To be continued, I guess.

[I use an example of a particular blogger as he might -- as an example of a trend that goes beyond him, just as an op-ed can provide a launching board for discussion while not being seen as gospel.]

Glenn Greenwald repeatedly cites statements that underline to him that President Obama has violated campaign promises, such as openness during the health care debate. It all gets rather depressing, especially since he does not really provide perspective: the overall message is that he is a same old same old liar, leading to loads of comments about how crappy everything is. The problem is that this simply is not true -- things have improved and some good things have occurred. The reduced expectations does not change this.

GG might say that it's not his job to cheer on Obama, but his accounts (at times shoving qualifiers like how he is ambivalent about the health care bill, not strongly opposed, deep inside posts) with titles and repeated references that send a different message. The result is somewhat misleading. When called on this, he is at times a tad too defensive, and it pisses me off a tad. This does not erase his message -- Obama deserves to be called on various things. On some level, I feared this when he ran, since Obama seemed to me then to (ironically) not be audacious enough. Compromising too much, even while promoting nice sounding things in principle. And, on some level it was not just compromising, but he himself deep down supported. [Bottom line, if he thinks something is not politically possible, what he would like in 'let's all have a pony' land is really not too important.]

Sometimes, the problems are mixed. The NYT had an article today about how Gitmo might not close until 2011 ("at the earliest"). This after even President Bush (fwiw, i.e., not much) said we wanted the place closed down as did McCain. Of course, McCain is a b.s. artist, even Maureen Dowd now on his case as a naysayer no different than your average Republican. Obama's detainee policies underline that responsibility in this area is partly on his shoulders. Nonetheless, congressional Democrats also share the blame here, since any move would have to be paid for by Congress. Something allegedly bipartisan -- Gitmo has to close -- suddenly is deemed controversial. Yet again depressing mixed with aggravating.

Other times, it rests on Obama's shoulders. He didn't have to stay behind the scenes as health care was delayed in the Senate. He surely didn't have to provide this level of b.s. ... saying he didn't "campaign on" [note the b.s. -- a message is sent but it can be spun otherwise; see the comments in the DK entry here trying to avoid the common sense understanding of his words] the public option. The thing to do in situations like this is to note that you really wanted something, but given the necessities of the situation, compromise was required. And, the net result is still useful in promoting your overall aims. You don't simply say that you never really promoted the idea. It really rankles in this area since it is just a piece of the whole bait and switch -- single payer was not even "on the table" (as with impeachment, what the hell would be the problem with that? a fair hearing doesn't mean you have to pass the f-ing thing) since a compromise was put in place.

But, progressive supporters of what Obama himself promoted don't deserve to have the bargain upheld. Come on, it's necessary, don't be like that. People who call them on it are naysayer fools, like Howard Dean, clear a bunch of Naderites or something. The likes of Sen. Sanders do get useful things like health care centers added to the bill, but overall the general public might rightly be upset about the whole thing. It just rankles to have Obama come out Peter-like (public option? I know not what you are talking about ... but we have evidence from your own lips ... I deny it) on this point. The spin some supporters used when a Daily Kos diary pointed the matter out is almost amusing if also sad.
For Weber, "three pre-eminent qualities are decisive for the politician: passion, a feeling of responsibility, and a sense of proportion."

These guidelines are pretty useful in general, though if you are an advocate, not so much. You often are somewhat "johnny (jane) one note" though I think even there useful advocacy can be done by keeping some perspective. A cause is often promoted by accepting the complications of the situation. Anyway, even a politician has to be kept to certain standards, and at times (even in the perspective of a politician) Obama does not. There we can call b.s. and push against him, demanding more. Such situations can very well be those where even as a politician, he is acting badly. Obvious b.s. like this statement is bad on that front. Note how the Kos diary speaks of "surprise" -- not "disappointment" alone.*

Ah well. It shall be a slog, if somewhat in the right direction.


* See also, Joan Walsh:
The latest insult is the president telling the Washington Post on Tuesday: "I didn't campaign on the public option," when in fact it was a staple of his policy papers and Web platform. It's an astonishing statement. His supporters are right to chastise Obama.

Again, note the "astonishing" bit. Walsh knows how politics works, she isn't naive. This underlines the level of b.s. in the statement. Here's a more sympathetic view of things. I'm not really convinced. "Campaigned" now means "invested much time" now? Come on. It's not that convincing is it? On that level, it deserves the footnote status it is getting here.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Filibuster Rules etc.

And Also: Interesting discussion of the removal of a satire of Brittany Murphy and eye contact.

I added some comments to a discussion of the aforementioned Krugman op-ed on how we need to change the system, particularly how the Senate does business, before real change will occur. I discussed current realities, the need to avoid scapegoats and examined current procedure and the history behind it.

One problem is that the two parties currently work differently: certain Democrats joined with Republicans during the Bush years, but Republicans voted as a bloc (on stimulus, all but three, one later becoming a Democrat) and try to filibuster on a regular basis. And, the problem is not ultimate one person (Lieberman, Nelson or whatever -- there always will be some people on the edge with more power, whose votes will have to be traded for somehow*) but those who go along with a bad system. This includes people who have received some deserved praise such as Sen. Feingold.

In response to someone else, I also pointed out the differences between the House and Senate, both constitutionally and in practice. First, from a CRS Report:
Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution provides for a system of staggered six-year terms for Senators, one-third of their terms expiring at the conclusion of each Congress. As a consequence, the Senate is a continuing body and does not have to reorganize itself each new Congress, as does the House of Representatives, by adopting new rules and electing new leaders. Any changes in Senate leadership take place in the party conferences prior to the opening day, and there are no floor votes to ratify these changes.

A CRS report also discussed the "nuclear option." It cites the Nixon finding noted in the comments. Nixon said it was his own opinion and not a ruling from the chair. The proposal to change the rules was tabled. The "continuing rules" practice was upheld.

Here is the beginning of the 111th session of the Senate. It began with a prayer and certificate of elections. These are acts of the Senate. No agreement of rules occurred beforehand. The first resolution related to a quorum being present. Then, the inauguration, time to meet, and sundry mundane matters (which cited standing rules that were by the resolution at times altered in some fashion). As the nuclear option report notes, the attempt to use this process to change the filibuster rule failed thus far. Either way, they did not adopted a new set of rules as a whole.

Here is the same for the House. "Precedent" was cited for the opening proceedings (involving certification of elections and so forth). HR 5 dealt with the rules. Unlike the Senate, the House dealt with the rules as a whole:
That the Rules of the House of Representatives of the One Hundred Tenth Congress, including applicable provisions of law or concurrent resolution that constituted rules of the House at the end of the One Hundred Tenth Congress, are adopted as the Rules of the House of Representatives of the One Hundred Eleventh Congress

Since the House is not, contra the Senate, a "continuing" body, this would be necessary.

In reply, someone argued: "In any event, whatever is going on here is not a Constitutional problem but rather a problem with the Senators themselves." This is debatable. One sticking point in past filibuster debates is that the current regime violates constitutional principles, both the idea of majority rules and the ability of current sessions of the Senate to change rules without being overly tied to the past. OTOH, some like Sen. Byrd think the filibuster is not just some "rule" but basic to the constitutional idea of the Senate.

And, no matter what, current practice is in place and furthered in some fashion because of the systems arising from the Constitution itself. The Constitution does give each house power to set rules for its proceedings, so political question concerns aside, it is not like some federal court will override a change of the filibuster rule by majority vote. But, the nuclear option report and someone on Rachel Maddow last night notes that even there the minority party can make things quite difficult via other rules. This was the case in the Bush years too, but a failure of will meant Democrats did not practice the power they had.

Overall, the filibuster rule and others arise from complex interplay of events and institutions, and should be replaced once they jump the rails. This is so even if they make some degree of sense when restraint is shown.


* Keeping an eye out for excesses by said individuals is quite proper and helps show that at some point their power can go too far. It is one thing for a few to water down things to get it out of committee or pass by majority vote, quite another when they might block what 58 senators already have decided upon.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Mike Royko Happy Holidays

And Also: Some good people are trying to convince us that the Senate bill is a poison pill, sometimes appearing to be loathe to actually mention the good stuff in it in the process. This does not justify ignoring their honest belief that it is a bad bill. Still, the problem still would be broader than just one matter as bill supporter Paul Krugman noted today.

A few years ago, I wrote the below, which received some hits because of the Mike Royko Christmas tree column citation.
That tells me Sampson [a supporter of Mayor Sawyer who argued that not supporting a certain candidate would lead to racial unrest] doesn't understand how an election works. The person with the most votes wins. If you don't get enough votes, you lose. That appears simple and fair enough. But Sampson doesn't see it that way.

-- Mike Royko [Mike Royko: A Life in Print]

One wonders how Mike Royko, patron saint of Chicago and newspaper columnists (the right sort), would have thought about 2000 and its aftermath. We need more pointed commentary like his these days, and not just in blogs. Frank Rich hits hard, but has a pointed headed liberal sort of vibe that is a bit tiresome after awhile. The redhead also hits home sometimes, but other times seems a bit too trivial or over the top with her at times childish sounding barbs. In fact, a NYT editor, Gail Collins, once reminded me of Royko. She used to have a column in the NY Daily News, pointing out all the foibles and idiots found in the city government. As she noted in one ad, Collins once wrote about pigeons, and received much more feedback worried about their well-being than of that of public officials.

The NY Daily News doesn't really have someone like that any more. Juan Gonzalez sometimes provides a left of center bit of truth as does a few others, but they always seem to be on a somewhat out of the way place in the paper. Surely, not on the editorial page or anything. Thus, one valuable column on immigration and civil service issues is deep in the paper, mixed in with want ads and other matters people skip over to read comics and supports. A bit of verve, especially one that takes no prisoners, is a bit harder to find these days. We need more Roykos.

I speak as someone who only had a passing knowledge of the man, but appreciated him all the same. His column used to be syndicated in the Daily News and I enjoyed it enough to purchase one of the volume of his columns. I don't believe he was there any more when he died in the mid-1990s, surely not consistently. I also checked ... no longer have the collection, but I remember some of them, a few that are also excerpted in a biography by a former editor, friend, and reference in his column, F. Richard Ciccione. For instance, his tongue in cheek review of the Roykoesque film Continental Divide, or his discussion of his new high rise (with picture pointing out the necessaries of such living) apartment. It showed his, forgive me, eclectic tastes and romantic side.* Such things appeal to me as well. I also remember a column annoyed that some moron alderman nixed honoring the writer Nelson Algren with a street sign.

The book was an enjoyable read, especially since it had a healthy citation of his columns (and love letters to his first wife ... who died way before her time). His respect for hardworking ethnic Chicagoans was also noted. I think he might have liked my dad. He too was of the first generation born in America, his family, did in his time in the military (stateside though), and was a deep believer in hard work. Such basic things puts matters in a certain perspective. I did not know he and his second wife ("the blonde") adopted two children (a boy and a girl, the latter no girly girl -- she gave him the finger before she was three), but overall the book provided a picture of Royko that fits my image of the man.

[I didn't know of his computer loving side, including his penchant of hanging out in chatrooms. He might have liked all these online message boards.]

As a fan of the Billy Goat tavern, and its "curse" on the Cubs, he would have appreciated a recent post by the Slate fray wag doodahman on the subject. And, the 2003 fiasco would have been quite understandable to him -- the book notes that it was almost hard to take when the Cubs actually went to the playoffs in the '80s, and won the first two games. But, he had more perspective them some. He would not blame that one fan alone. Like his column noting the public ultimately was to blame for Nixon, his last column noted the delayed introduction of black players to the team. The author noted that he said that it "was racism, not the Goat, which haunted the Cubs."

I think he would appreciate these times. Ciccone noted that the Chicago politics changed since the Boss Daley days and the tenor of Royko's columns changed with it. The incompetence, cronyism, and linguistic stupidity (and vulgarity) that we must deal with these days would have be quite understandable to Mike.


* The book reposts what appears to be most of a touching column, told through the eyes of alter ego Slats Grobnik, about a young married couple that clearly had very money buying a Christmas tree. They bought two cheap trees ($3), both half crummy. SG later saw a tree in their window, and it looked wonderful. Turns out, they tied the two together, and "if you put them together just right, you can come up with something really beautiful." You know, "Like two people, I guess."

[Slats was introduced in the 1960s, when a major policy role in the poverty administration was given to a poor person. This seemed off to Slats. He was drunk for as long as he could remember, but was never offered the presidency of Seagrams.]

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Dead Girl

Brittany Murphy, the voice of Luanne my favorite King of the Hill character, has just died at 32. Fans with some sense of irony might want to find a copy of The Dead Girl. Others might want to check out The Ramen Girl, a pleasant little known lead performance.


The Jets fail to take advantage of various shots at scoring and give up the game with less than two minutes left, 10-7. Meanwhile, the 0-6 Titans now have the same record, and more of a shot (however slim) of playoffs. Multiple 7-7 teams now. First major snowfall in NYC too.

Saturday, December 19, 2009


The Colts' defense hung on as a back/forth game went their way, helping the Jets, who also need to beat them next week to hang on to slim playoff hopes. OTOH, the Saints' offense took too long to come. The Redskins gave them a gift OT win; Dallas was not so kind. The Giants' margin of error went down some more.

Yes, Virginia (Wicca Edition)

And Also: I referenced two things that got Sen. Nelson's support on the health care bill. One was a usual monetary thing to get support that actually helps people if perhaps selectively, the other was a somewhat less burdensome abortion funding measure. Given current realities and Hyde, not a deal breaker; still bad for women.

[A reply to a form of this post here challenges me that "scientific inquiry and experimentation" can be part of the mix. I agree. Scholarship in fact can lead to stronger religious beliefs, particularly when it provides a less simplistic view of things. It also can challenge certain faiths. My perspective below is not meant to deny that. In fact, the "provable" comment is not as much a defense of religious belief than a warning of taking it too far.]

Wicca is not a unified movement ... [b]ut Wiccan teachings are for the most part a stew of demonstrably false historical claims. ... The rare Wiccan belief that pans out is that Christmas is an adaptation of a solstice celebration.

A Slate article seems to reject some expressions of a belief system that has many strands. Such criticism (e.g., certain historical claims are demonstrably wrong) is valid, but to the degree it implies all of Wicca share them (even if some are "starting" to see the light), it goes too far. To take one issue referenced in the article, are many Wiccans truly focused on medieval witch burning? And, to the degree the article is correct, it still is wrong to single out Wicca as particularly wrong in this respect. The negative replies are on point.

Various Wiccan beliefs are not really based on "historical claims" as such but beliefs in general. The fact that some Wiccans in part use dubious historical claims makes them fairly typical -- scholars have shown many incidents in the Bible (written down at times centuries after they supposedly happened), for instance, did not really happen.* As an aside, Wicca underlines that belief in a God as such is not what makes "religion," since various religions honor nature or some other cosmology (see, e.g., Buddhism), not a specific "God" figure. Then again, as shown by a locality (blessed by a federal appeals court) that deems Wiccans as ineligible for legislative prayers, such exceptions might not count to some people.

The article implies that Wicca rests on fictional history, when in actuality it appears to rest on various beliefs, some of which some of its members (to some degree wrongly) tries to backdate to times past. I'm no expert, but taking a religion I'm more familiar with (Christianity), I reckon various people who practice it are not that concerned with that aspect of the religion, more so with the rites, morality and various basic beliefs it promotes. Beliefs that are are shared by non-Wiccans, e.g., nature is sacred, reincarnation and that a certain moral path results in true happiness. Again, "religion" is seen in its complexity, specific beliefs not the whole point, but an overall worldview and ways to put it into day to day practice.

Finally, from what I read about Wicca and related religions, some seem to see the "history" cited as fiction here as more akin to myths -- stories that have a symbolic point. In this sense, let's say, the biblical creation stories are "true" in some way, even if we accept they are not "history." As someone once told a little girl:
Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours, man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge. ...

Only faith, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

Some members of all religions miss the true meaning of that letter. They focus on the literal, trying to prove what cannot be provable. They act more like historians and scientists than promoters of a way of life. Some, including many Wiccans, avoid that path.


* The article suggests in some fashion that the false historical claims of Wiccans are harder to deal with because they are newer, thus the people making them can be challenged. But, other religions often make some historical claims which are as open to challenge. The age of said religions give them some degree of authority and some of the things challenged are in the more distant past, but this doesn't stop such criticism.

Again, I see whatever valid message the article sends is not somehow unique to Wicca. Thus, Christians are advised not to rest too much on the exact authority of the texts (a result of disputed translations and somewhat ad hoc choices) found in the gospels or historical events found therein (e.g., the location of Jesus' birth, which is part of a "factual" account that is more important for the overall message it is sends).

Imperfect in the Right Direction?

Sen. McCain (Maddow noted the gap in the video) and Snowe again suggest that being a Republican means being a b.s. artist, emphatically. Bottom line, I lean toward Yglesias regarding health care, even with Nelson/NE getting his/theirs. Also, for me (some disagree): focus on expansion of benefits, then worry about costs.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

What Has Changed? (Gitmo Edition)

And Also: At first, I was no fan but lately it seems that Craig Ferguson grew into the role nicely. He is in effect the new Conan and does so basically alone. CF's style of winging it probably is a mix of planning and actual ad libbing. Overall, it is pretty fun and shows real talent as a performer. His somewhat ad hoc interview style also can be rough, but also shines if the moment is right.

Glenn Greenwald often is compelling reading, but sometimes goes too far, including in his now familiar harsh tone against those deemed to deserve it. This includes his responses to comments, which reflects an admirable involvement with his readers, something that shows the possibilities of online commentary. OTOH, such responses also provide a chance for blithe replies that suggest the person is not taking the readers seriously. Orin Kerr, e.g., seems to do this from time to time.*

GG recently sneered that Obama's decision to move some residents of Gitmo (those not to be put on civilian trial) in a facility in Illinois was just "Gitmo North" (unmentioned is that this label is a Republican talking point). No real change. I responded in a comment (addressed not to Glenn specifically), getting annoyed at another set of "Obama is no different" complaints, that people should remember that even GG doesn't think things are that bad. Also, in at least some limited ways, the move is a change. GG responded to my "myths" with a bunch of "so whats." I might call this the "Bad Glenn."
The administration has already announced that it will rely on the Bush/Cheney theory to justify its indefinite detention power -- that Congress implicitly authorized that when it enacted the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force.

First, the Supreme Court also accepted this "Bush/Cheney theory," and the fact it warned (as GG responded) that at some indefinite point it would no longer be sound is not really disputing the point. The Supreme Court in 2008 and lower federal courts in 2009 sent no signal that the time is about up. Since POWs were held years after WWII was over, even after the current new "Friedman unit" in Afghanistan is over, the executive would probably have lots of time. Also, Congress implicitly supported this argument by this point. To the degree Congress supports unconstitutional or otherwise bad policies (e.g., watering down habeas), it is not grand, but it does address one aspect of the "Gitmo problem."
The sentiment behind Obama's campaign vow to close Guantanamo was the right one, but the reality of how it's being done negates that almost entirely. What is the point of closing Guantanamo only to replicate its essential framework -- imprisonment without trials -- a few thousand miles to the North? It's true that the revised military commissions contain some important improvements over the ones used under Bush: they provide better access to counsel and increased restrictions on the use of hearsay and evidence obtained via coercion. But the fundamental elements of Guantanamo are being kept firmly in place.

This begs the question what the "fundamental elements" really are. The basic element was that it was some lawless place (not less law) where things were basically up to the discretion of the executive while being out of sight. This is why Obama's reliance on AUMF and the law of war, not raw executive power, matters. ("So what") Congress can further executive power as it did on FISA immunity etc., but this only underlines the breadth of the problems ofthe Bush years. The "moderate" path still is problematic. There is still some limits to discretion based on even too executive friendly statutory powers, which is why the Bush Administration fell back to the third argument. Under that one, judicial review would be barred. And, mistreatment would be winked at -- out of sight, out of mind.

This has been successfully challenged, if not to a totally satisfactory degree. Habeas review is present. The Geneva Conventions apply (how exactly is unclear, but they apply). And, since Obama came in "some important improvements" were passed regarding military commissions. Plus, for the third category who will not get them or civilian trials, Obama proposed further safeguards, including periodic judicial reviews. Thus, things have changed, if not enough. Yes, these things would still apply if they were left in Gitmo, but my overall point addressed the "nothing changed" argument.
But what made Guantanamo such an affront to basic liberty and the rule of law was far more than symbolism, and it certainly had nothing to do with its locale. If anything, one could argue that it's now more dangerous to have within the U.S., on U.S. soil, a facility explicitly devoted to imprisoning people without charges.

Gitmo was a problem for many reasons. The problem with limited rights was not limited to that area. For instance, the FISA debate underlined the concern of watering down rights and checks/balances during the "war on terror." The "lawless zone" problem has been addressed and closing it would be a major symbolic move, which often is what foreign policy means at the end of the day. Also, having the prisoners within the U.S. forces us to deal with the problem (or, at least, makes it harder to hide it), while easing their involvement with lawyers and perhaps the outside world in general (family, media, etc.). This is a far from trivial matter. And, there also might be a real legal consequence:
All this means that the pending cases can--and will--remain in D.D.C. But it also suggests that there is no barrier to a detainee filing a new petition (perhaps raising a conditions of confinement claim) in a jurisdiction that might be more receptive to the argument that the petitioner has some modicum of constitutional rights (an argument rejected by the D.C. Circuit in Kiyemba I), especially once the petitioner is physically present within the United States.

It is true that they would retain habeas protections if held in Gitmo (as compared to Bagram, though a lower court disagrees with Obama on that), but the Insular Cases (still good law, to some extent) treats various areas under our control differently, the "U.S." offering the strongest protections. It is unclear how the courts would treat (alleged) enemy aliens like these, but it is possible that the locale will help them in some cases. Since it is a reasonable path of litigation, it also might at least serve as a negotiating tactic for the lawyers involved. Again, the move matters.
Even worse, by emphasizing that Thomson will be an even more "secure" supermax than the utterly inhumane hellhole at Florence, Colorado -- even boasting that it will be the most secure prison "of all time" -- it's likely that individuals who have never been charged with any crime will be held indefinitely in a facility even worse than Guantanamo.

I don't really know how seriously to take such "boasting." It can very well be just a public relations move to deal with blowhards that try to scare us, ignoring all the other convicted terrorists in our prisons. Not being able to predict the future, and again noting that not being in an out of the way island prison has its benefits, I don't know if it will be "worse" than Gitmo. Just to remind, this does not make it the right choice overall -- that would be to try them at least in military commissions, the alternative being the distinct possibility that mistreatment or the like will "benefit" us because it will serve as an excuse on why we need to detain dangerous people who we cannot convict because of our own misdeeds.

It should also be added that they (at issue here are those who will not be tried at all) do have habeas rights, with more rights perhaps forthcoming if Obama's proposed procedures for them ever come to pass, so federal judges have put the evidence used to hold them to some sort of test. Thus, it is not akin to some tyrant just tossing people into holes with only their own say-so (the rules set up by a rump group, see, e.g., The Dark Side) as a restraint. The bar is low, and even if found not met, there is no assurance the executive will release the individuals (a matter now under review). But, the bad situation need not be exaggerated for effect -- reality is bad enough, improvements do not deny it.

That is "so what," GG et. al.


* What is the point of his socialist professor story? The proposal would just as well mean that anti-socialists would have more power to pass their own policies. And, the Senate as currently constituted seems more "conservative" than "centrist," in that some things that the "center" wants (e.g., the public option) is not being passed. OTOH, Kerr's own philosophy leans conservative, so he gets to have his cake and eat it too.

Kerr is deemed by some as a reasonable conservative, and given some of his brethren at Volokh Conspiracy, this is true enough. But, other times, honestly, he comes off as a bit of an ass. This included his "reasonable" take on presidential power during the Bush years, that seemed reasonable at times only in comparison.

No Fight?

"I know there's been a lot of game theory from people about how that would never work, etc. But the fact is that you can show leadership for big ideas and there's always still room to compromise at the end. At least then it would be clear that there was no other way, that you put up the good fight, better luck next time."

Characters v. Real Character

Dean is right; it's not all about Lieberman. But, Collins has a point:
You can move on, and try to make yourself useful (Kerry, Al Gore). Or you can work out barely suppressed rage by attacking things that you used to be for, like trying to control Medicare costs (McCain) or expanding Medicare eligibility (Lieberman).

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The War That Made America

The War That Made America: A Short History of the French and Indian War by Fred Anderson is the companion piece to the PBS series of a few years back. It is an interesting and timely read that looks at things from different perspectives -- British, French, colonials, and Native Americans. Unexpected consequences is a repeated theme.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Hanukkah - The Value of Moderation

And Also: I needed a tricolor connector to hook up a VCR/DVD. Went to Rite Aid and the item was $8.99. The local .99 store had it for eight dollars cheaper. Going different places for different things can get tedious, but sometimes it is worth the trouble.

Update: Anne Frank's family celebrated this holiday as well as St. Nicholas Day (also noting a tradition of giving poems to each other on that day), in her diary emphasizing the latter, even though the former clearly is particularly emotional given their situation. OTOH, the latter might be more colorful and nicer to focus upon for the same reason. She also spoke about giving Christmas gifts to their protectors. I'd add, re-reading her last entry alone, Francine Prose was quite right to honor her skills as writer. Quite eloquent for someone fifteen.

Behind the spinning dreidels, holiday presents, and other "kiddy" traditions of Hanukkah lies a story of acculturation, civil war, zealotry, and tyranny. In a 2005 article, reprinted below, James Ponet explores the historical context of Hanukkah and casts the holiday in a new light.

A basic principle of Aristotle can be summarized as moderation in all things. The article cites concerning Hanukkah leads me the same place. As noted in the article, if someone picked up a Bible and looked for the story of Hanukkah, particularly the miracle of stretching a bit of oil for eight days, it might be difficult to find. The celebration started in the times of the Maccabees in the second century before the common era. The two biblical books covering their story is not found in many of the bibles out there because it is among those not accepted in the official canon of Jews or many Christians.

If we actually look at the First Book of Maccabees, the ceremony is less miraculous, no nice story about a tiny bit of oil stretched out provided:
And they kept the dedication of the altar eight days, and they offered holocausts with joy, and sacrifices of salvation, and of praise.

The Hanukkah (dedication) would be an annual event:
And Judas, and his brethren, and all the church of Israel decreed, that the day of the dedication of the altar should be kept in its season from year to year for eight days, from the five and twentieth day of the month of Casleu, with joy and gladness.

The use of the word "holocaust" here underlines the complications in reading the Bible without knowledge of what exactly is being talked about. The term has a different connotation these days; here is is a type of burnt offering. Thus, many Jews prefer "Shoah — a Hebrew word connoting catastrophe, calamity, disaster, and destruction."

But, the story in the actual book also is not solely about the "religious right" of the day rebelling against liberal Jews who started to adopt the ways of the Greeks. True or not, the book tells of a despotic king who ravaged their holy places and denied freedom to honor their God as they saw fit ... it was not that the Jews simply turned away from traditional ways. Those who did not were persecuted by the state. Compare this to the times of Jesus, where there also were Hellenized Jews (Greek cities were referenced in the gospels) AND more traditional religious practice. Or, references in the canonical scriptures of Persian leaders who respected the religious freedom of the Jews and allowed them to rebuild their temple.

Apparently, there could be such a mixture -- not all or nothing, even if people like Jesus rebelled against those who did not follow the traditional path as they understood it. The origins of the holiday either way make it a bit ironic that what many Jews deem a relatively minor celebration is highlighted by some as a sort of balance off of Christmas. A holiday that seems to some as a way to fit Judaism among mainstream culture was originally about the concern Jews adapting too much to the non-Jewish culture of the day. The problems with the fit is addressed here, in what else, a holiday display lawsuit.

The "miracle of Hanukkah" appears to be a later addition, much like many of our Christmas traditions cannot be found as such in the Bible. For instance, the very timing -- late December -- is not biblical, but more a reflection of pagan practice of celebrations that were later adapted by Christians. It's overall meaning, as with Christmas, can be many different things. A dedication to God as well as a reminder of the threat of persecution -- not necessary the same thing as religious diversity or even being ruled by non-Jews -- is one way. It also can be honored (as was the case by Anne Frank's family) along with St. Nicholas Day or Christmas, those celebrated as a sort of secular holiday by some Jews as well.

Perhaps, the eight days of the festival can be used to examine the various aspects of this matter.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Religion and Supreme Court Picks

All of which raises a question: Are the days of caring about religious diversity on the high court behind us? Or is it merely that the days of talking about it openly are behind us?

- Dahlia Lithwick

We should talk about religion in this context but make sure we do so carefully.* Prof. Sandy Levinson, referenced in the article, wrote a book about the importance of diversity in education and other contexts. A review of the book (Wrestling with Diversity) over at Amazon notes:
In the book's most compelling chapter, "Identifying the Jewish Lawyer," the author discusses how identity is constructed by both culture and religion, and vice versa. Levinson's quiet insistence on bringing religion into our definition of diversity is a critical gesture that is particularly welcome coming from a legal scholar.

Prof. Levinson promotes diversity, but not in the single minded fashion of some (race, gender) but in a truly diverse way, including religion, region, or profession (Thurgood Marshall's jurisprudence was greatly affected by him being a defense attorney / advocate, not merely by his race and racial experience) and so forth. If we honor diversity and/or reject that justices are purely fungible parts who will just "follow the law" like "umpires," their backgrounds will clearly in some fashion affect their judgment. This matches experience as well as human reality.

Religious belief and practice is one aspect, which is why for some time there was a "Jewish seat," even though one Jew on the Court has a daughter, who is an Episcopal priest. Pat Buchanan argued in this light that evangelical Christians are not represented. Not true -- see, Justice Thomas. Also, "Catholic" is really a catchall, given the different positions of Kennedy and Scalia on many issues ... lest we forget, Justice Brennan also was Roman Catholic as was Ted Kennedy.

It was not "five Catholics" on the Court that gave us Gonzalez v. Carhart, but as Catholics For Choice might tell you (reflecting a chunk of its membership in the U.S.), conservative leaning (on certain issues at least) Catholics. This is why we cannot simply look a labels here, even when realizing that religion does matter. Brennan v. Scalia underlines that only some Catholics are originalists ("originalists"), Judaism and Islam also underlining the different shades of a religion, the position of the latter on let's say the legitimacy of interest running the gambit. Evangelicals are more comfortable with Scalia (and Catholics can be evangelical in various ways) than Souter.

When promoting diversity, it is important to keep in mind that people can bring things to the table in many ways. Given Justice Sotomayor is divorced and one assumes might not stay loyal to traditional doctrine as to premarital relationships, is she a "Catholic" or does she bring one aspect of a diverse Catholicism that to some raised in the faith almost appears to be Protestant? Should we rather desire a Protestant white man or woman with a less notable background was chosen? I am more concerned that there are five conservative former appellate judges with certain judicial views than that they are all Catholic.

Religion surely matters, including if you are a judge. Clearly, and this is why there is no religious test barring individual religions from public office, it is a complicated matter all the same. Just ask the author and main dissent in Lawrence v. Texas.


* This came to mind today while listening to part of President Obama's Nobel Prize acceptance speech as well:
For if you truly believe that you are carrying out divine will, then there is no need for restraint -- no need to spare the pregnant mother, or the medic, or the Red Cross worker, or even a person of one's own faith. Such a warped view of religion is not just incompatible with the concept of peace, but I believe it's incompatible with the very purpose of faith -- for the one rule that lies at the heart of every major religion is that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

This might be the "very purpose of [his] faith," and he does say "I," but it need not be the definition of all faith -- the Golden Rule can be determined to not apply. The desire to blend religions together at times leads to troublesome mixtures of church and state (or other institutions), the sectarian favoritism arising from assumptions. Ditto the belief that certain things like "marriage" obviously cannot be religiously recognized when a same sex couple is involved, even though some religious faiths do so recognize.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Obama Wins Nobel Peace Prize (Seriously) (Update)

Reading about politics in blogs and so forth can be tiresome after awhile, especially given the kneejerk responses about President Obama. I've been down this road before, but for those who say "what did he do for us" why not take a look at this. His Nobel Prize acceptance speech, suitable for Human Rights Day,* is also telling. It is an eloquent speech, even if you disagree with him about the need for force in certain cases. One striking thing is how he defends the use of force ("just war") and our role in the world to possible critics.

More here on a strong effort; thanks Mr. President, even if I disagree with some things you do, such as the use of "evil." Some sneer he sounded like Bush in his support of force and the power the U.S. -- unilateral if necessary -- to defend itself. But, not supporting pure pacifism isn't that. Even the U.N. accepts unilateral use of defensive force. A honest and halfway sane reading of the speech does not lead one to say "oh well, just Bush."

[Update: BTC News is a bit less positive on the whole speech thing. Glenn Greenwald today appears to wonder why both conservatives and liberals like it. Conservatives hook on to the support of force and U.S. power stuff, while liberals (who aren't pacifists to begin with) look at it as a whole, and see much more to like than not. Yeah, even with the use of "evil," particularly since his religious outlook already told us he believes in that sort of thing.

And, then there are Andrew Sullivan sorts, who see in him a sort of realistic optimist, a conservative who remains "audacious" in a troubling time. Not overly familiar with the philosophy stuff, but "slow, uncertain march of human enlightenment" is not bad. I want more sometimes, but given our politicians these days, there is something to be said for it all the same. Someone who didn't vote for him over at Volokh Conspiracy not only praises the speech but notes the Golden Rule point is true overall -- the "major" religions do have the basic idea front and center in various respects.]

Over here, I discuss Dahlia Lithwick's interesting article on how wary we are to deal with the role of religion in judicial nominations. My reply cites Obama's speech, including his sentiment (addressed in a former speech on religion in public life) about certain things that all what is in "every major religion" and what he thinks is the "very purpose of faith." I have said before how this gives me pause, in part since it tries to homogenize religion in ways that don't match reality. Some religion is nasty. Unity isn't always possible here. It's one reason why we have separation of church and state.

Given the day and his promotion of human rights, a nod also is appropriate to Rachel Maddow's efforts (joining others) against bill in Uganda that targets homosexuals, originally making it a death penalty and life imprisonment eligible offense. To the degree this aspect of the bill might be removed, the opposition (including from Secretary of State Clinton) has shown some results. Maddow also reported how "The Family," a conservative religious group with many members (including Stupak of the infamous amendment, and Rick Warren) had a role, Warren eventually coming against it. A good use of responsibility to address the seedy members of your group. [As Rachel Maddow noted tonight, his overall record stinks and he b.s.-ed even on this matter.]

Finally, Nova's Einstein's Big Idea was an interesting and well acted dramatization of the history behind his famous equation, including looking back at fascinating (and some little known) scientists. Many women too.


* "Let me make one final point about the use of force. Even as we make difficult decisions about going to war, we must also think clearly about how we fight it. The Nobel Committee recognized this truth in awarding its first prize for peace to Henry Dunant -- the founder of the Red Cross, and a driving force behind the Geneva Conventions."

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Adam Liptak on Sotomayor's First Opinion

And Also: Stuff on the climate flap in the news, which in effect blows out of proportion / misconstrues emails of one climate research center. Perepolis was on yesterday -- great adaption of the great graphic novels. The author's other works are fine too.

[Update: This analysis is pretty good.]

Adam Liptak was part of a panel discussion on media reporting of the Supreme Court (Dahlia Lithwick and Emily Bazelon was as well) recently and somewhat modestly spoke of the importance of his job, suggesting at one point there were some redundancies in having four papers, let's say, cover the same ground. The Slate duo wasn't so sure about that. Neither am I, at least, if the different voices do a good job providing the public the various sides of the question.

[Some of the panelists promoted standard frames like the Sotomayor hearings were lame that are tired -- what about pointing out that the Roberts nomination arose in a different context (deemed the best you can hope for under Bush and besides the guy was Rehnquist's law clerk, filling in the role of the just deceased justice) with the minority party of the time not being half as lame about criticizing him or having their minds on other matters as well?

Or, that it was up to the senators to challenge her confirmation safe "just following the law" line, one that was really no worse than Roberts' umpire metaphor, better in a fashion, since she was following precedent and defensively dealing with attacks of her being a racist etc.. Noting only about a quarter or so of the rulings follow a stereotypical 5-4 line also would help, including noting some 5-4 rulings actually are different match-ups. And so on.]

Liptak in general is a pretty good read in the Linda Greenhouse role (she provides occasional commentary for the NYT), providing some informative material to the general public. Still, his reporting on the first opinion of Justice Sotomayor had a couple dubious moments. For instance:
In a concurrence, Justice Thomas took a swipe at his new colleague, saying she had “with a sweep of the court’s pen” substituted “value judgments” and “what the court thinks is a good idea” for the text of a federal law.

Thomas did not take a swipe at Sotomayor in particular here given she wrote an opinion that was joined by seven other justices in full. This is why he said "the court's pen," not "Justice Sotomayor." One can also say, since he concurred alone, Thomas "took a swipe at his old colleague [Scalia]." It is somewhat notable that in an otherwise "dry opinion," Thomas felt the need to concur separately given it was Sotomayor's first. But, it doesn't seem personal and it is misleading to frame it that way, which "swipe at his new colleague" appears to do.

The public also can be misled when the Supreme Court refuses to hear or examine a case or particular issue, which is the norm (only a tiny percentage of appeals are accepted, the ones that are focus on issues not litigants in particular and even the cases taken often only examine some of the issues decided below). Sometimes, the coverage implies that the Supreme Court substantively decided on the matter at hand when all they did was refuse to decide one way or the other on the issue of law decided by lower courts. So, this is a bit troubling:
The federal government had urged the court to rule as it did but asked the court to exclude appeals of claims of the state secrets privilege and other governmental privileges from the sweep of its ruling. Justice Sotomayor obliged with a footnote saying “we express no view on that issue.”

I'm unsure if taking "no view" means it (again, the Court, not "Sotomayor" acted here) "obliged" to a request "to exclude," which seems to in fact "express a view" on said issue which appears to be quite logical given "other governmental privileges" was not germane to the matter at hand:
Because we agree with the Court of Appeals that collateral order appeals are not necessary to ensure effective review of orders adverse to the attorney-client privilege, we do not decide whether the other Cohen requirements are met.

That is, a specific privilege, not something else that might warrant special protections. Still, the article did add this interesting wrinkle:
Justice Sotomayor’s opinion in the case, Mohawk Industries v. Carpenter, No. 08-678, marked the first use of the term “undocumented immigrant,”* according to a legal database. The term “illegal immigrant” has appeared in a dozen decisions.

This is a telling matter addressing something that sometimes is a concern of the fray. As Rudy Giuliani noted:
"I know that's very hard for people to understand, but it's not a federal crime," Giuliani said, adding later that "I was U.S. attorney in the Southern district of New York. So believe me, I know this. In fact, when you throw an immigrant out of the country, it's not a criminal proceeding. It's a civil proceeding."

The opinion of the Court ended with a note of restraint mixed with flexibility:
This admonition has acquired special force in recent years with the enactment of legislation designating rulemaking, “not expansion by court decision,” as the preferred means for determining whether and when prejudgment orders should be immediately appealable. ...

Indeed, the rulemaking process has important virtues. It draws on the collective experience of bench and bar, see 28 U. S. C. §2073, and it facilitates the adoption of measured, practical solutions.

That is, Congress authorized the Court to establish rules for appellate review, which points to the flexibility the Court has in deciding what the law is. As the public focuses on individual decisions, such rules might be what truly matters to the litigants. In fact, as many focus on the results or hot button issues, many cases spent as much or more time on such procedural matters. Matters the public don't know much about, even if they realize something about the many turns required to get things through Congress.

Dare I say that even her first opinion is a "teachable moment?"


* "According to Carpenter’s complaint, his termination came after he informed a member of Mohawk’s human resources department in an e-mail that the company was employing undocumented immigrants. At the time, unbeknownst to Carpenter, Mohawk stood accused in a pending class-action lawsuit of conspiring to drive down the wages of its legal employees by knowingly hiring undocumented workers in violation of federal and state racketeering laws."

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Sotomayor Alert, ACORN and Football

And Also: Last week, the Ravens nearly blew a national game; this time they did, including a choke at the goal line. Good op-ed: "How gay unions lost -- but won: Same sex marriage supporters dominated the debate in the Senate."

The first set of signed opinions for the 2009 Term appear uncontroversial, including Justice Sotomayor's first. "Held: Disclosure orders adverse to the attorney-client privilege do not qualify for immediate appeal under the collateral order doctrine." The law is technical but the facts of the underlining case are notable:
When respondent Norman Carpenter informed the human resources department of his employer, petitioner Mohawk Industries, Inc., that the company employed undocumented immigrants, he was unaware that Mohawk stood accused in a pending class action—the Williams case—of conspiring to drive down its legal employees’ wages by knowingly hiring undocumented workers.

She did use "his or her" at one point, which is my preference. Meanwhile, an independent report provides further information on ACORN:
ACORN employees caught in those undercover videos advising a couple posing as a pimp and a prostitute on how to break the law acted unprofessionally and inappropriately, but did nothing illegal, an independent report has found.

The report, by former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger,* recommends nine steps for ACORN to take in order to regain public trust in the wake of the scandal, including that it return to its "core competency - community organizing and citizen engagement empowerment, with related services."

The last section is particularly telling about giving context to the situation. Overall, though this is not a complete account, it provides a better picture of the nuances of the situation than much of the news coverage Jack Shafer (Slate) et. al. thought should be "cheered." It also notes that in a fashion such coverage has a good side in that ACORN does have problems, including lax oversight. The problem is when lack of balance, including Democrats selectively turning against a group that helped them in the past, skewers such an important check on groups that on balance add to the public good.

Other organizations -- including those that receive much more government funding and have deeper problems with the law -- also would benefit from scrutiny, preferably some done in a more professional and less biased fashion.


* Some will disdainfully note that ACORN paid for the report; in this fashion, they will argue that a former attorney general violated his ethical responsibilities to provide a neutral and competent account and cannot be trusted. OTOH, some of these people will trust an advocacy group who selectively (and possibly illegally) "reported" on the matter more. Or, media coverage that has been shown to be slanted and misleading.

Monday, December 07, 2009


Some more good/bad football (yes, that means you SF!), including another Oakland upset (!) and Redskins failure to complete the deal (chip shot field goal missed, New Orleans wins). Meanwhile, the Giants stay alive and the Jets imagine what could have been as the Pats lose. Oh, and Brett and the Viks look mortal against Arizona.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Outwaiting Death?

SCOTUSBlog tells me that there should be an actual opinion on one of the argued cases as compared to the per curiam jobs we had thus far. As noted here, along with opinions related to orders, some death penalty issues were dealt with all the same. In fact, perhaps Justice Sotomayor's first on record vote involved a dissent from a death penalty order. A borderline retarded (some say that's half-right) murderer was just executed. Interestingly, here's something for SC nerds, Justice Sotomayor was the only one on record supporting a stay (middle 12/3 order). Linda Greenhouse also wrote about two per curiams on this subject.

Johnson v. Bredesen was one of Justice Stevens' opinions (here joined by his long term supporter of the cause, Breyer) dealing with death penalty orders. Here he was concerned with the long delays of execution, over two decades in solitary confinement, in large part because of state delays and procedural problems. For instance, having a credible claim of evidence, the right to see key evidence was not present for over a decade. Since execution after decades of delay (he cited a case involving a thirty year delay) is cruel and unusual in his view, the procedural problems (due process) is but half the trouble.

Justice Thomas, as he did in the past, rejected this view. He does not find it compelled by the Constitution, though he should respect lone wolf views in that regard. Comparing Stevens/Breyer's past opinions on the same might lead some to a contrary conclusion. Thomas in effect blames the delay on the defendant as it is his fault that there are various problems with the death penalty, including new evidence coming out years after a guilty verdict, often evidence in no way present at the time. There is a Catch 22 -- due process takes time, so what is too much -- but perhaps (as Stevens noted) that is a flaw in the death penalty system overall.

Thomas finds it absurd to think the death penalty -- originally understood to be okay in a very different time and criminal justice system -- is unconstitutional, so this cannot be right. He also takes a shot at citation of foreign opinion on this issue, but such citation is only used as informative. It is our Constitution, our "cruel and unusual" provision being interpreted. All same, just as foreign courts do in respect to our own rulings (or state courts in our own system do regarding other states), foreign rulings (here in countries where the death penalty still is legal) can be informative. Justice Breyer covers the ground well here.

Thomas debates Stevens over procedure, which I will lead to experts, though Thomas often is in the dissenting side in such matters anyways. He also alleges Stevens' reads on "policy" disputes on the "retribution and deterrence" secured by delays of executions. Thomas is not really only debating Stevens, but Supreme Court precedent, since these factors were used since Gregg v. Georgia (which Stevens' co-wrote) to help determine the constitutionality of the death penalty.

Justices Brennan, Marshall, Blackmun and Stevens (and Powell, according to his biographer, after retirement) opposed the death penalty on constitutional grounds for various reasons. The length of stay on death row is surely a somewhat ironic grounds; it is after all but one, plus is telling all the same. A trivial wait in contrast was deemed unjust by the Supreme Court in 1890:
Nor can we withhold our conviction of the proposition that when a prisoner sentenced by a court to death is confined in the penitentiary awaiting the execution of the sentence, one of the most horrible feelings to which he can be subjected during that time is the uncertainty during the whole of it, which may exist for the period of four weeks, as to the precise time when his execution shall take place.

I argued in the past that life imprisonment might be worse than death but not the death penalty. An op-ed basically said the same thing. If the death penalty is going to amount to something comparable, why not cut to the chase, save time and probably some constitutional problems, and just make it a life without parole situation?