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Category: General

The Problem For Civil Libertarians

[ 149 ] February 9, 2012 |

Like Glenn, I’m dismayed by polling showing widespread support — including among Democrats and liberals — for arbitrary executive power in the “war on terror.” But I take somewhat different lessons from it. Glenn sees this as above all as evidence of tribalism — that liberals only oppose violations of civil liberties when a Republican is in the White House. While I’m sure that partisan considerations affect popular support for these actions at the margin, I think the primary issue is somewhat different and much more disturbing: namely, that civil liberties don’t just have a strong political constituency no matter who’s in the White House.

If this were primarily about tribalism, then one would expect Democrats to rally strongly around Obama when he took a position more civil libertarian than the status quo. But, to put it mildly, this didn’t happen. When Obama tried to close Gitmo, not only was this unpopular with the public, but the Senate vote blocking it was 90-6, not just some conservative Democrats collaborating with Republicans. A lot of blue-state senators, at a minimum, believed that preventing the president from closing Gitmo wouldn’t extract any political cost, and of course they were right. The expenditure of political capital to try to give Khalid Shaikh Mohammed a civilian trial is a similar story — unpopular with the public as a whole, and finding himself without support either in Congress or with politicians in New York (including the Democratic governor.)

It’s easy to forget this if you spend a lot of time online, but people strongly committed to civil liberties are a minority among liberals, let alone the population as a whole. This is the central reason why the number of modern presidents with good records on civil liberties is “none”: the lack of a constituency for civil liberties means that presidents can (within reason) only pay a political price for being too protective. Presidents can’t even count on the support of their own partisans when they try to protect the rights of unpopular minorities or individuals. This absolutely doesn’t mean that presidents don’t have substantial discretion and especially doesn’t mean that the actions of presidents that violate civil liberties shouldn’t be criticized — civil libertarians should do what they can — but this is the political landscape we’re dealing with.


[ 64 ] February 9, 2012 |

The top 5% are overwhelmingly conservative!

Foreshadowing and Genocide and Quite a Bit More, Actually, in “Amy’s Choice”

[ 17 ] February 8, 2012 |

(Another one of those now-more-conveniently-located posts, only significantly longer than usual because I’m squeezing three episodes into one three hour course. So apologies for the length in advance.)

One of the core assumptions of the way I teach visual rhetoric is that directors often know more than they know (or are letting on). This is because shooting schedules often don’t track with air dates—for example, the episode I’m going to be discussing today, “Amy’s Choice,” was the seventh aired, but last one filmed in Series Five of Doctor Who, meaning that writer Gareth Roberts and director Catherine Morshead already knew what would happen in the four episodes that would follow it. The result is a kind of foreknowledge masquerading as foreshadowing: the audience experiences the latter because the writer and director possess the former.

Sound obvious? That’s because that’s how we think foreshadowing works. Only one problem: foreshadowing doesn’t require authorial intent to be visible in a work. The Jews didn’t sit around writing a book foreshadowing the eventual arrival of some guy named Jesus—they wrote a book that a bunch of Christians later interpreted to contain a number of moments when the coming of some guy named Jesus was foretold. Foreshadowing, in other words, often functions as an interpretation used to bolster the authority of a particular reader. (“What do you mean you didn’t see Jesus’s coming foretold in the Hebrew Bible? What are they teaching at the monastery these days?”) Whereas foreshadowing was once largely a matter of readerly interpretation, thanks to some technological innovations I haven’t the time nor the space to get into here—it starts with books and evolves into lending libraries and marches forward—foreshadowing is now considered to be more a matter of authorial (or directorial) intervention.

More succinctly, material that used to be wrenched from variably willing texts is now forcibly inserted into them. The classic example of the latter would be the medical drama in which someone suddenly feels a sharp pain in his or her head. The cause? Some writer forcibly inserted a tumor into it as a cheaps means of “foreshadowing” death. It’s about as subtle as:

Read more…

Ten First Times

[ 92 ] February 8, 2012 |

Kim Morgan has a list up of the top 10 old movies she saw for the first time in 2011. It’s an interesting list. The only one I’ve seen is “Other Men’s Women,” which has its limitations, but is enjoyable enough. Here’s my, probably less exotic, top 10 older movies I saw in 2011. For the sake of argument, we’ll say an older movie is at least 30 years old. I tend to mark 1967 as the dividing line between old and new movies, but I might as well play by the more expansive rules.

1. Victim, 1961
Basil Dearden’s brave film about anti-gay prejuidice in postwar Britain is incredible. Easily the best film old or new I saw in 2011.

2. La Jetée, 1962
The best science fiction film I’ve ever seen. Although to be fair, it’s not a genre I overly care for.

3. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920
As a silent film person, I don’t know how I had never gotten around to this before.

4. Rebecca, 1940
If anything, could Hitchcock be underrated?

5. Knife in the Water, 1962
I don’t know if this is Polanski’s best film, but it is pretty fantastic.

6. The Friends of Eddie Coyle, 1973
Fantastic and entertaining. Great role for Robert Mitchum.

7. The Mark of Zorro, 1920
True silent entertainment. The cheap amusements in their finest form.

8. Christmas in July, 1940
Preston Sturges–the best comedic director in film history?

9. In the Year of the Pig, 1968
Best old documentary I saw all year, powerful anti-war film.

10. Street of Shame, 1956
One of Kenji Mizoguchi’s great films about “fallen women.”


[ 77 ] February 8, 2012 |

There was a lot of interesting discussion around my angry post about the FAA reauthorization bill screwing over unions, especially the Communication Workers of America. If you didn’t watch CWA President Larry Cohen’s rant yesterday, here it is.

Mike Elk has a more in-depth discussion of how precisely the FAA bill is bad for labor:

Under the “compromise bill” passed by Senate Democrats, CWA would need not only 50 percent of the 9,000 passenger service workers currently working for American in order to file for an election, but 50 percent of those workers and the 2,000 laid off employees combined; many of these laid-off employees will not return to American Airlines and are difficult for union organizers to track down to sign union petitions since they no longer worker there.

In addition, the “compromise bill” would strip the rights of unionized airline or railway employees when their company merges with a nonunion company. Currently, under the Railway Labor Act, when a unionized company merges with a nonunionized company , a union election is automatically triggered to see if the workers in the new merged company want a union (as long as the previously unionized workforce represents 35 percent of the workforce).

Under the new rules, workers in a unionized company would be immediately stripped of their union rights as soon as their company merges with a nonunion company if those workers represent a minority of workers in a workplace.

Hopefully, that helps answer some questions.

I want to address a larger point though. Our valued commenter Brien Jackson brought up something well worth thinking about in the comments:

Maybe I’m missing something here, but isn’t this just another case of the Democrats getting screwed over by their need to be the adults in the room? I mean, I’m certainly supportive of the unions position, but if Republicans are really willing to kill re-authorization of the FAA over the provision, your hands are tied just a little bit if you actually care about good government, no?

This is at the core of the paradox Democrats face. They are by and large grownups. A functioning FAA is a very important thing. So it makes sense to compromise to keep the government functioning. But Democrats do this on every issue. Republicans know this will happen. So they take extreme positions, win major concessions, consolidate their gains, and do the same thing the next day.

Where does this stop? For those who fundamentally believe in being the grown-ups here, what is the endgame? Where do we see labor (or any number of other progressive issues) 15 years from now? Does this strategy pay off? Are we buying time until sanity returns to the Republican Party?

I’m not advocating for the shutdown of the FAA necessarily. But I am asking for people to articulate where they see labor in 2020 or 2025. Is it better to compromise constantly and be destroyed over a 20 year period or to go down fighting? Maybe the latter, after all another two decades of worker protections, limited as they might be, is better than nothing. But the end result is about the same.

What should CWA do here? I’m a bit reticent to suggest a lot of particular policy proposals, or at least to push for any one. But should a union support a politician who votes for a bill inimical to its interest? I would argue no. Should CWA put its considerable resources into promoting the individual politicians who supports its position? I know CWA effort could make a major difference in Ohio, where Sherrod Brown is a top Republican target. Same in Missouri for Claire McCaskill. And in many House races. Should the CWA contribute to the reelection campaigns of those who don’t support their agenda? I would argue probably not. Moreover, I would guess that the very real threat of this would scare some of those Democrats who voted for this bill to change their minds pretty quick.

Labor is not totally powerless here, but it does have to decide whether its strategy of supporting the Democratic Party in elections regardless of the policies of the individual politician is particularly effective. President Obama naming people to the NLRB that will uphold the laws is important. But as Cohen says in the linked video, the next Republican president will change any rules Obama makes and name horrible people to the NLRB. And whether in 2012, 2016, or 2020, a Republican president will take office. What matters more than rules and NLRB appointments to Cohen is legislation that puts protections on the books. And on this key issue, unions have been very disappointed in the administration. The votes certainly weren’t there for EFCA, but holding the line at what things were like during the Bush Administration does not seem an unreasonable expectation.

9CA’s Safe Play

[ 24 ] February 8, 2012 |

Like a majority — although not all — commentators, I think that Reinhardt’s narrow opinion striking down Prop 8 was probably represented the right way to proceed:

Still, Reinhardt’s decision to go for a solid base hit rather than a home run represents a sound instinct. Kennedy is much more likely to uphold the ninth circuit if he believes such a ruling to be consistent with his own precedents. Forced to choose between a broad, immediate national right to same-sex marriage and upholding Proposition 8, Kennedy is quite likely to choose the latter. Creating a Bowers-like bad precedent would be a disaster, making it much more difficult to successfully litigate in the future – and also, possibly, allowing states to impose more disabilities on same-sex partnerships.

A ruling that immediately gave California’s 37 million residents the right to same-sex marriage and creates a precedent that would likely expand that right to many other, if not all states in the future would still be a major victory. We have to hope that Judge Reinhardt has read Justice Kennedy correctly.

Much more about the costs and benefits of the approach at the link. See also Lithwick.

Dirty Energy’s Threat to the American Landscape

[ 7 ] February 8, 2012 |

I have a piece out today at Alternet detailing the struggle to protect some of the United States’ most beautiful and unique landscapes from the scourge of dirty energy production. Ranging from the Sand Hills of Nebraska to West Virginia, upstate New York, the Louisiana marshlands, and the Powder River Basin of Wyoming, dirty energy production threatens to devastate (and is devastating) some of the this nation’s unique places.

I also focus heavily on the impact of energy production on the human body, particularly exploring east Texas and southern Louisiana:

A polluted ecosystem leads to sick people. This is the case on the Gulf Coast from east Texas into Louisiana, where the oil industry processes its raw material. The people who live near these plants, ranging from roughly Corpus Christi to the Mississippi River, are mostly poor and African American. Petroleum companies have intentionally sited their plants here, assuming that underprivileged people cannot resist a multinational corporation. Local residents have seen high cancer rates, birth defects and congenital health problems. Working conditions in these plants are notoriously poor. A 2005 explosion at a BP refinery in Texas City, Texas killed 17 workers and injured more than 170.

However, locals have fought back. Although environmental organizations have been reluctant to take on their cases, environmental justice movements have demanded protection from exposure to toxic chemicals. Steve Lerner’s book Diamond: A Struggle for Environmental Justice in Louisiana’s Chemical Corridor chronicles how the community of Diamond, Louisiana took on the town’s Royal Dutch Shell complex to stop the headaches, respiratory illnesses and cancers that afflicted residents. After years of organizing, Shell finally agreed to relocate their homes away from the plant.

That’s one limited success story, but thousands of poor people live their lives subjected to the environmental racism of the petroleum industry. Our energy future needs to include processing energy in a way that protects people’s health and spreads the burden of energy production more evenly.

Still Coming Up Mittens

[ 76 ] February 8, 2012 |

Santorum’s beauty pageant sweep was fun and everything, but Romney is still inevitable. The key point is the first one — Romney’s massive edge in resources didn’t come into play yesterday because he didn’t attempt to swamp Santorum in these states the way he successfully buried Gingrich in Florida. Which makes sense, since no delegates were actually at stake and Romney will get them anyway if he crushes the opposition in March. Once we get to contests that actually award delegates again, Santorum is doomed. If there was a parity of resources, the race would be genuinely unpredictable — but there isn’t.

….similar thoughts here.

Attacking Women’s Rights is the Neutral Position

[ 9 ] February 8, 2012 |

Shorter Karen Handel: I am outraged that Planned Parenthood politicized my successful move to get them excluded from funding because what they do conflicts with my reactionary political views.

“Judgifying I Don’t Like” Hack Watch

[ 22 ] February 7, 2012 |

Whenever the courts strike down a law that discriminates against a group conservatives don’t like, every reactionary think and group blog must draw straws to see who gets to throw out the stale, transparently unprincipled cliches about judicial restraint. At the Heritage Foundation, the assignment apparently went to vote suppression guru Hans A. von Spakovsky, who delivers the goods:

As the Ninth Circuit writes, the question of how to define marriage “is currently a matter of great debate in our nation.” Unfortunately, instead of permitting that debate to occur through the political process, decisions like the one issued today remove the question from voters in favor of judicially imposed social policy.

Let’s leave aside the fact that judicial review is, in fact, a long-established part of the American political process. Given von Spakovsky’s deeply principled commitment to deferring to the judgment of legislators on contested constitutional questions, I wonder how he feels about the litigation attempting to get the signature policy achievement of the Obama administration ruled unconstitutional based on constitutional arguments nobody had thought of before 2010 (even when the same people were arguing for federal mandates to buy privatized annuities?) I think you know the answer!

How the Right-Wing Climate Change Deniers Work Their Evil Magic

[ 11 ] February 7, 2012 |

Leo Hickman has a nice little piece of investigative journalism in the Guardian about how a right-wing climate myth gets born and spread. In short, a scientist working on whether wind farms might affect localized weather (within 300 meters), gets published. He suggests it might. A right-wing newspaper, in this case the British paper The Daily Mail, picks up on it, effectively rewrites the paper to fit its agenda, and publishes it. Climate change denier websites spread it around the internet. Right-wingers gloat.

Hickman interviewed the scientist involved, who is completely befuddled by what has happened.

I don’t know if there’s anything to be done about this, but scientists rarely have much of an understanding of how the right wingers will misrepresent their research. I mean, what are they supposed to do, stop their research? No. But it would be worthwhile for the leading scientific associations to create PR departments that fight for the proper dissemination and understanding of research and to provide some pushback when the anti-climate change forces make things up.

Bureaucratic Discretion and Environmental Protection

[ 3 ] February 7, 2012 |

The Obama Administration is producing a comprehensive planning document for national forest management. By and large, environmentalists are OK with it. Except for one major exception. One of the key environmental victories in protecting the northern spotted owl and thus the Northwest’ old-growth forests was a 1982 United States Forest Service regulation that forced the agency to focus on the distribution of species throughout the forests, meaning that you had an emphasis on species movement, genetic diversity, and protecting swaths of habitat throughout a national forest. The timber companies and Republicans hated this because it empowered the courts to order the end to most old-growth logging to protect the owl.

This regulation is severely watered-down in the new regulations. Specifically, it allows the manager of a national forest to make these decisions, allowing a bureaucrat massive discretion in deciding the future of a species. Under a Democratic president, it’s possible that these decisions will be made with the health of the species and forest as a whole in mind. Under a Republican, appointees will almost certainly eviscerate any attempt to protect wildlife.

The larger question is whether science or politics will govern our national forest land. Is it more important to ensure the proper distribution of a species or play politics? Unfortunately, and again despite an overall forest policy that is reasonably good, the Obama Administration has decided to open the door for future presidents to undermine wildlife protection.

Another way of putting it is that the timber industry and their Congressional flacks like Doc Hastings are very pleased. And that’s never a good sign.

….Here’s a good example from New Mexico about why allowing political appointees to create environmental management policy is a bad idea.

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