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1880′s Wingnuttery Today

[ 5 ] November 14, 2007 |

Idaho Republicans try to use public policy not only to trap women in marriages they want out of but to encourage them to stay at home where they belong. Which is indeed in character with their refusal to regulate day care because, of course, quality day care might provide a disincentive against women staying barefoot and pregnant! Ugh.

Worst American Birthdays, vol. 29

[ 96 ] November 13, 2007 |

Fred “Gramps” Phelps, patriarch of “The Most Hated Family in America,” turns 78 today. Best known for his work with Topeka’s Westboro Baptist Church — a clown ministry consisting almost entirely of his extended family — Phelps enjoys a parasitical relationship to the ills of the world. Picketing various funerals and endorsing mass catastrophe on behalf of God, Phelps enforces his Lord’s gay-unfriendly agenda with a devotional style best described as canine. By Phelps’ account, the 9-11 attacks, the Virginia Tech shootings, IED casualities, and the Minneapolis bridge collapse are all expressions of God’s displeasure with American infernalities like Will and Grace.

In one of his typically breathtaking moments of Biblical exegesis, Phelps explained the most notorious of his organization’s slogans:

“Fags” is a contraction of the word “faggots,” which is an elegant metaphor for all the homosexuals and their enablers. It’s elegant, and its appropriate. They’re called faggots . . . because they have kindled the fires of God Almighty’s wrath. They’ve kindled the fires of wrath in their lust, one for another — kindled the fires of wrath by virtue of the place they’re headed, where the worm that eats ‘em never dies and the fires never quench. By a multitude of common sense arguments, “God hates fags” is not only true, it’s profound, and it’s divine. And we are intent on publishing that message to the whole world. God indeed hates fags.

If Phelps didn’t cause real people genuine agony by picketing their loved ones’ funerals or harassing them through the mail and in the media, one might be tempted to dismiss him as a clever performance artist, a useful idiot cultivated by the Anita Bryant caucus. After all, among other things, Phelps’ antics provide a helpful alibi to less-obviously deranged public figures who — having inoculated themselves by denouncing the open and unsophisticated hatred espoused by the WBC — endorse more subtle and consequentially homophobic policies. Social conservatives (and squeamish liberals without the courage to oppose them) might not love gays and lesbians enough to protect them from job discrimination or offer them equal rights of contract in marriage, but — thank heaven for small favors — at least they don’t hate them enough to picket their funerals or blame infrastructural failures on them.

Sentencing on Crack

[ 3 ] November 13, 2007 |

As a number of bloggers have noted, the U.S. Sentencing Commission will be hearing testimony today about whether their new guidelines reducing the gross and arbitrary disparity between sentences for crack and powdered cocaine should be applied retroactively. Sentencing Law and Policy points to this WaPO story, noting that upwards of 90% of those affected by the change would be black, while only 6% are white. Hopefully the Commission will act to address this injustice for those who have already been affected. Jeralyn Merritt concludes with this argument:

Reducing the crack penalties is just the beginning. A renewed fight to get Congress to change mandatory minimum sentences based on drug quantity alone must come next. Perhaps with the internet’s ability to spread the word, it will come, before all those serving life sentences die in prison of old age and can still benefit from it.

Evidently, the War on (Some Classes of People Who Use Some) Drugs — expensive, ineffective, and where civil liberties go to die — is in need of serious reform. One thing I’ve wondered is how politically damaging opposing at least its most draconian aspects would be at this point. Hopefully some popular incumbents with a conscience will allow us to find out sooner rather than later, although there’s a very long way to go. It’s very important, however, for drug laws to be applied more equitably if headway in reforming them is going to be viable.

Take the Pledge

[ 132 ] November 13, 2007 |

No troll feeding, please. Comment threads are one of the very best features of the blogosphere. The point of trolling is to ruin a comment thread; people cease to say anything interesting or useful, and instead simply react to the troll. Consequently, the troll takes ever more outrageous positions, in order to provoke. So, again; don’t feed the troll.

Modeling Harm Reduction

[ 9 ] November 13, 2007 |

In yesterday’s NY Times Giving section (yes, a whole section devoted to charitable giving and public service organizations), the paper published an article about a San Francisco organization that should serve as a model of a harm reduction approach to pregnancy, homelessness and drug addiction. A nice alternative to the pervasive “lock up the ‘bad’ mothers” perspective.

The Homeless Prenatal Program provides a wide range of services, including yoga and parenting classes, to Bay Area pregnant women who are homeless, pregnant, and – quite often – addicted to drugs, in need of proper nutrition, and lacking prenatal care. The program, which was started 19 years ago by Martha Ryan, sees over 3,000 people (90% of them women) each year, and employs a staff of 53, half of whom have been homeless. It’s a model of a non-punitive approach to substance abuse that should be exported to other communities and that should (but won’t be) embraced by our government.

Sadly, but not surprisingly, the women who turn to the Homeless Prenatal Program have more in common than homelessness or drug dependence: abuse and poverty.

Ms. Ryan said the real common denominator was poverty and abuse as a child. More shocking than the sheer numbers, she added, was that the cycle keeps going. Children of women she treated 18 years ago are now clients, pregnant or with children and living in poverty like their mothers….

The center reports that among homeless women under age 50, 8 percent reported being pregnant at the time that they were homeless. Ninety-two percent of homeless women say they had been physically or sexually abused severely either in childhood or adulthood.

Supporting women who battle drug addictions instead of throwing them in jail seems to me a good – and vital – first step in stopping this cycle of abuse, poverty, homelessness, and drug addiction. But this is only one organization — and they can’t even get state or federal funding (Ms. Ryan, the program’s founder, seems surprised by this, but I’m not). Harm reduction programs, especially ones that also provide services, aren’t popular in this country. Some say they “condone” or even “encourage” drug use. Maybe that’s true. But maybe that’s not so bad, especially when the option is to turn our backs on people or to jail them (which might be one and the same).

Mmmm…. Predatory Loans….

[ 25 ] November 13, 2007 |

This is what I call “sidestepping the question“:

Myth: It is unethical to charge a poor person 100 times the interest rate a rich person would pay.

Reality: We live in a free market society, if the working poor are willing to pay 100 times the interest rate a rich person would pay (e.g. 550% APR instead of 5.5% APR) there is clearly a market need for our service.

It’s an interesting post on how the predatory lending industry justifies itself; check out the rest.

The Wall

[ 19 ] November 13, 2007 |


Whenever I teach the American Civil War, I always end the last lecture on the conflict by reading a passage from Walt Whitman’s funeral hymn for Abraham Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”

I saw battle-corpses, myriads of them,
And the white skeletons of young men, I saw them,
I saw the debris and debris of all the slain soldiers of the war,
But I saw they were not as was thought,
They themselves were fully at rest, they suffered not,
The living remained and suffered, the mother suffered,
And the wife and the child and the musing comrade suffered,
And the armies that remained suffered.

I also read this passage whenever we look at war memorials — particularly the Vietnam Memorial in DC, which substantiates like nothing else that crushing sadness in Whitman’s verse. Anyone who’s visited the site knows this.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall was dedicated 25 years ago today. This is a photo taken by my father sometime in the early 1990s, when he visited the wall for the first and — to my knowledge — only time. As I’ve written before, Dad never expected to survive the American war in Vietnam, where he served as a helicopter pilot for nearly two years before returning to live another forty. While he was in Vietnam, seven pilots and passengers from his company lost their lives; he may have known as many as six others who died in the year after he left. Overall, roughly half of Dad’s training group, which included somewhere between 300-400 young men, never made it back from the war.

One of those killed was CWO Kenneth Edward Messenger, whose name is visible just below center in this photo. I didn’t see this picture — and never heard the story about Dad’s visit to the wall — until a day or two after he had passed away. As a result, I was never able to ask him about his friend, who died in May 1968 from a mortar that struck his sleeping quarters during a brief NVA/NLF offensive known as “mini-Tet.” Donald L. Merry and Lloyd Lockett — the men whose names bracket Messenger’s — also died the same day as Messenger, as did nearly 30 others on panel 55E, which contains 199 names.

Based on what little information I’ve been able to gather over the past month, Messenger was about three weeks from leaving that awful war for good. He was 27 — three years older than my father — and had never been married, never had kids. His parents may or may not still be alive, and there are no websites devoted to his memory. Still, though, he had musing comrades who remained and suffered. On a Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund site, one of Messenger’s neighbors at the airfield in Soc Tran posted a brief tribute to someone he barely knew:

The mortar round that stole his life was the first of many. He surely never heard it, he never suffered. The impact of it blew me out of my bunk, the beginning of another horrible night of man killing man. I never knew him, but he was my neighbor, and my brother in arms, another American serving with honor. I didn’t know him, I wished I had. We fought all night, the war stopped at dawn, as usual. I cried when I learned of his fate. I never knew him, but I dearly miss him and I will never forget his name.

Herbert v. Bobo

[ 0 ] November 13, 2007 |

Following up on the fine post of his colleague, Bob Herbert tees off (implicitly) on David Brooks’s attempts to whitewash Reagan’s awful record on civil rights and use of rhetorical code to appeal to the white supremacists whose votes were crucial to the post-CRA partisan realignment:

Reagan was the first presidential candidate ever to appear at the fair, and he knew exactly what he was doing when he told that crowd, “I believe in states’ rights.”

Reagan apologists have every right to be ashamed of that appearance by their hero, but they have no right to change the meaning of it, which was unmistakable. Commentators have been trying of late to put this appearance by Reagan into a racially benign context.

That won’t wash. Reagan may have been blessed with a Hollywood smile and an avuncular delivery, but he was elbow deep in the same old race-baiting Southern strategy of Goldwater and Nixon.

Everybody watching the 1980 campaign knew what Reagan was signaling at the fair. Whites and blacks, Democrats and Republicans — they all knew. The news media knew. The race haters and the people appalled by racial hatred knew. And Reagan knew.

He was tapping out the code. It was understood that when politicians started chirping about “states’ rights” to white people in places like Neshoba County they were saying that when it comes down to you and the blacks, we’re with you.

And Reagan meant it. He was opposed to the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was the same year that Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney were slaughtered. As president, he actually tried to weaken the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He opposed a national holiday for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He tried to get rid of the federal ban on tax exemptions for private schools that practiced racial discrimination. And in 1988, he vetoed a bill to expand the reach of federal civil rights legislation.

Congress overrode the veto.

Reagan also vetoed the imposition of sanctions on the apartheid regime in South Africa. Congress overrode that veto, too.

Throughout his career, Reagan was wrong, insensitive and mean-spirited on civil rights and other issues important to black people. There is no way for the scribes of today to clean up that dismal record.

Indeed. Similarly, I’m sure it’s an amazing coinky-dink that the lone dissenter in Bob Jones v. United States thought as a Supreme Court clerk that “Plessy v. Ferguson was right and should be re-affirmed,” served as a polling booth goon, opposed civil rights at the federal, state, and local level, etc.

…and this, of course, is also a critical point.

Big Al

[ 0 ] November 13, 2007 |

It’s appropriate that Al MacInnis is being inducted into the Hall of Fame on the same day as Mark Messier; as a contemporary of Ray Bourque and Chris Chelios, he was always destined to be overshadowed. But he’s always been a personal favorite, not just because he was the greatest player on the Only Championship Team I Will Ever Root For but because he was a neighbor for a bit; I used to see his wife jog by all the time. My jersey is still a MacInnis #2; I suppose I need to update it, but I’ve never been compelled to.

Since bean will kill me otherwise, I’ll also reluctantly acknowledge that magnificent bastard Messier. And of course the formidable Scott Stevens; that’s an amazing crop.

$20 mil up for Grabs, but No Takers from the States

[ 8 ] November 13, 2007 |

The current insanity of life sentences should be familiar to everyone. Three strikes laws have stranded thousands of low level offenders in prison for life.
Back in the day, “life” in prison meant roughly 15 years. Yet as Adam
Liptak reports,
thousands of incarcerated men and women are on course to spend the rest of their lives—large fractions of a century—behind bars as parole boards take their life sentences far more literally than the judges who sentenced them ever intended. I can hear the protestations already: “Life means life.”

But that’s not so clear. For a long period in American history, sentences were often one day to life. Yup. One day to life. The faster you rehabilitated, the
faster you were freed. Irrespective of the severity of the crime. This system of indeterminate sentences left many people uncomfortable — so much power concentrated in the hands of a judge and so little to guide him. But still.
Life has rarely—indeed, until recently, virtually never—meant an entire life in

But Liptak tells us there’s a new twist:

A federal judge in Detroit last month [ruled] that the state had
violated the ex post facto clause of the Constitution when it changed
the parole rules. The clause says the government cannot increase
punishments retroactively.

Ironically, the change in parole rules basically politicized the parole
board and so indirectly made paroles for lifers 25 times rarer (if my
math served me well, which it doesn’t always). This has been in few places clearer than in New York, where Pataki’s parole board refused to parole people who had committed violent crimes, no matter how clean their records during incarceration.

At $40,000 per convict per year, you’d think states might just stress the
spirit rather than the letter of the sentence. When else could the state
of Michigan save $20 million a year by showing a little sensibility and a
modicum of compassion?

I Told You What?

[ 1 ] November 12, 2007 |

Matt provides some useful quotes taking on Paul Berman’s attempt to claim that he was contemporaneously against the Iraq War. Perhaps even more instructive is this one from another post in the Slate symposium. After conceding that mistakes were made by the leaders of the war, he turns to another enemy:

But some of the blame falls as well on the anti-Bush naifs who pretend not to hear when anyone speaks about the larger reasons and goals—the people who pretend that WMD and non-existent conspiracies were the only reasons for war and pretend that the only serious goals were the arrests of a couple of men, or the achieving of a magical utopia tomorrow, and pretend that if war has still not ended, we have gotten nowhere at all. It’s all too true that better leaders could have made better plans, and the French and the Germans and the United Nations could help even now, if only they would. But it ought not to be so hard to see that, even so, the prospects of the totalitarian movement are looking a lot less healthy today than they did on Sept. 10, 2001 and the prospects of Muslim liberalism are looking up, somewhat.

So if I understand the argument here, Berman is saying that 1)the war has, on balance, been a good thing (the prospects of the totalitarian movement are looking a lot less healthy), 2)the administration did in some measure support Berman’s strategic goals and anti-war liberals simply refuse to acknowledge this, and 3)to the extent that the war, while still good, has been less good than expected the fault lies largely with liberals who, unlike Berman, fail to see the value in the war. (As is often the case with Berman’s arguments about Iraq, the causal chain here seems to be missing a few links; if more liberals had foolishly supported the Iraq war or at least attributed better motives to the Bush administration, this would have done what exactly to facilitate a stable liberal democracy in Iraq?) And then there’s concluding sentence: “In Iraq as in Afghanistan, a liberal war is going on—liberal in the philosophical sense, meaning liberty.” If Berman was opposed to the war and thought it was going badly, this argument is…strange. Either Berman supported the war, or for a brief period in 2004 repudiated liberal interventionism.

The other thing to say is that I think it’s entirely possible that many members of the Bush administration did in some measure share Berman’s conviction that stateless Islamic terrorists, different Islamic dictatorships, and secular dictatorships were all part of a common “Islamic totalitarianism” that posed an existential threat comparable to the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany. Since this underlying theory is both transparently erroneous and neither here nor there in terms of the Bush administration’s ability to create a liberal state ex nihilo in Iraq, I don’t find this terribly comforting.

Things that are Abjectly Moronic

[ 26 ] November 12, 2007 |

The Ohio state legislature is considering a law mandating that sex offenders use green license plates on their cars:

“It won’t prevent every crime,” said Democratic state Rep. Mike DeBose, who co-sponsored the bill with Republican state Sen. Kevin Coughlin. “It’s just a tool in the tool box, but cars are a weapon used by sexual predators. They don’t come to the bus stop and try and take kids in a sack.”

Family and friends agree.

“If this sex offender had green license plates Kristen would have known to stay away and not to get in his car,” said friend Christina Haley.

Right; because if I’m a sex offender, I’m certainly not going to be able to find an alternative license plate (much less borrow a car) and attach it when I’m out cruising for kids. Oh yes, and teaching our kids that they can get in the cars of strangers as long as said cars lack green license plates is a sure path to success. The only thing this law would actually result in is high rates of road violence. But hey, at least it’s bipartisan abject stupidity…

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