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Secretary Kerry: Nice Try

Secretary of State John Kerry's effort to bring the Israeli-Palestinian stand-off to another level is clearly failing, if it has not already failed. So what's next? Some weary but knowledgable observers offer their thoughts. I read them to say in general: time for the United States to sign off.

Tom Friedman at the NYTimes: "The truth is Kerry’s mission is less an act of strategy and more an act of deep friendship. It is America trying to save Israel from trends that will inevitably undermine it as a Jewish and democratic state. But Kerry is the last of an old guard. Those in the Obama administration who think he is on a suicide mission reflect the new U.S. attitude toward the region. And those in Israel who denounce him as a nuisance reflect the new Israel."

Henry Siegman at Haaretz:  America has been seen by the entire international community as “owning” the peace process, not because its statesmen are believed to be wiser than all others, but because it enjoys leverage with Israel that uniquely enables it to influence the Jewish state’s policies.....[I]t is the consequence of the many decades of unprecedented U.S. generosity towards the Jewish state in the form of virtually unlimited military and economic assistance.... It has long been assumed that a point would surely come when Washington would use its long-accumulated leverage to inform Israel’s government that it could no longer fend off international criticism of Israel’s occupation without incurring serious damage to its own credibility and national interests. It was believed that when the U.S. reaches that point, Israel would have no choice but to withdraw from the West Bank to the pre-1967 lines, subject to minor mutual border swaps and appropriate security guarantees....But that moment of truth never came, and no one believes any longer it ever will.

Paul Pillar at National Interest: Reviews "What to Do After Peace Process Failure."

McCarthyism or Corporate Survival?

Mozilla Firefox is my browser and it works. Every now and again I get an update; sometimes a note asking for a contribution to what is largely/wholly a public-spirited effort to keep the internet open source (or something like that). For some reason, I thought it was an Italian effort (as in Mozarella), but it turns out it organizes itself right here in the U.S. drawing on sources from global techies.

Brendan Eich, its recently appointed CEO is now its recently resigned former CEO. The issue: he donated a thousand dollars to California's proposition 8 campaign in 2008. It was an effort to turn back a California court decision allowing same-sex marriages in the state. Apparently when this contribution was discovered, there was a social media uproar (didn't see it on Mozilla though). There were calls for his resignation, and according to this story in the NYTimes, he did resign.

The great debate: Should Eich have been penalized for his views and his contribution? Andrew Sullivan thinks not in this post on the Dish, "The Hounding of a Heretic."  And continues here. And on Sunnday posted this [HT: Ann Olivier]. Meanwhile,  Farhad Manjoo explains at the NYTimes  why Eich had to go: The very nature of Mozilla required it.

UPDATE: Saturday's NYTimes story: The issue of Mr. Eich's social skills comes up. What would social skills consist of in a libertarian context? The story suggests to me that no Mozillian has much in the way of social skills! Or at least, it can't be much of a job requirement.

UPDATE2: Many comments here link to posts elsewhere on this issue. Michael Kelly @4/7,9:04 quotes some particularly interesting comments on the Supreme Court's treatment of donor lists.

What’s up with 59 percent of white Catholics?

A new Pew survey shows “modest decline” in support for the death penalty, with 55 percent of U.S. adults saying they favor it for people convicted of murder and 37 percent opposing, as opposed to 62 percent favoring and 31 percent opposing in 2011, the last time Pew asked the question.

Any drop comes as good news for those opposed to capital punishment, but as usual the drill-downs turn up the interesting information. Take race: Many more whites (63 percent) continue to support the death penalty than do Hispanics (40 percent) or African Americans (36 percent). Or religion-and-race: 67 percent of white evangelical Protestants and 64 percent of white mainline Protestants support the death penalty; for Hispanic Catholics and black Protestants, support is 37 and 33 percent, respectively. And white Catholics? Support for capital punishment is higher than the overall number, at 59 percent.

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An April Fools' Day Joke? Paul Ryan Proposes a Budget

More of the same from Paul Ryan

A full repeal of the ACA? Check. Cuts in food assistance? Check. Medicaid cuts? Check again. All these cuts add up in Ryan's mind to economic growth and a balanced budget. It boggles the mind. 

I think I've plumbed the depths of the impoverished libertarian vision; what I find baffling about Ryan's proposal is its purported moral (and even religious) message. It seems like nothing more than a mobilization of the Calvinist distinction between the damned and the Elect. And what a wonderful world in which to be one of the latter. Has conservative Catholicism crossed over to the side of radical puritanism?  

Even the NYTimes Objects

Maybe this is too parochial, but... even the NYTimes thinks the Sheldon Adelson Republican primary is a shocking travesty...though their news columns didn't seem to pay much attention.

Here, from the Editorial Page Editor's Blog (who knew?) is David Firestone's comment under the headline: "The Line to Kiss Sheldon Adelson's Boots."  Well you know what they mean but it's not fit to print.

"It’s hard to imagine a political spectacle more loathsome than the parade of Republican presidential candidates who spent the last few days bowing and scraping before the mighty bank account of the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. One by one, they stood at a microphone in Mr. Adelson’s Venetian hotel in Las Vegas and spoke to the Republican Jewish Coalition (also a wholly owned subsidiary of Mr. Adelson), hoping to sound sufficiently pro-Israel and pro-interventionist and philo-Semitic to win a portion of Mr. Adelson’s billions for their campaigns."  And it gets better: NYTimes

Hobby Lobby invests in same drugs to which it objects?

Today Molly Redden at Mother Jones reports that Hobby Lobby holds mutual funds that invest in the manufacturers of the same pharmaceuticals and devices to which the company claims religious objection.

Documents filed with the Department of Labor and dated December 2012—three months after the company's owners filed their lawsuit—show that the Hobby Lobby 401(k) employee retirement plan held more than $73 million in mutual funds with investments in companies that produce emergency contraceptive pills, intrauterine devices, and drugs commonly used in abortions. Hobby Lobby makes large matching contributions to this company-sponsored 401(k).

Several of the mutual funds in Hobby Lobby's retirement plan have holdings in companies that manufacture the specific drugs and devices that the Green family, which owns Hobby Lobby, is fighting to keep out of Hobby Lobby's health care policies: the emergency contraceptive pills Plan B and Ella, and copper and hormonal intrauterine devices.

There would have been many ways to avoid this, since "faith-based investing" in funds that avoid "vice" industries or other objectionable companies is a well-known phenomenon with competitive rates of return.

All nine funds—which have assets of $73 million, or three-quarters of the Hobby Lobby retirement plan's total assets—contained holdings that clashed with the Greens' stated religious principles.

Hobby Lobby and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the conservative group that provided Hobby Lobby with legal representation, did not respond to questions about these investments or whether Hobby Lobby has changed its retirement plan.

I would have assumed a company taking the issue of corporate free exercise all the way to the Supreme Court would have looked into this. I doubt it would have affected the case's outcome, but it certainly could have affected the oral arguments by forcing the plaintiff to distinguish degrees of cooperation between providing health insurance options and providing retirement plan options. If these drugs and devices aren't too objectionable to invest in for your employees' retirement plans, a justice might have asked, why are they too objectionable to include as options in your employees' health insurance plans?

Read the details here.

All is well: voting restrictions are really about ‘uniformity’

One of the first things you learn in high-school political science is that high voter turnout tends to favor one party while low turnout favors the other. Back when this was basic enlightening fact was made known to me, there weren’t the early voting, weekend voting, extended polling, or same-day registration-and-vote options as we’ve come to know them– although there were still plenty of fresh tales about the kind of suppression efforts, from the comprehensive to the spontaneous, that had spurred passage of the original Voting Rights Act in 1965 and given Congress in the intervening years ample reason to reauthorize it multiple times. Still, for a class of high-schoolers grappling with the particularities of the most recent reauthorization (this was 1982, for the record), it was generally much easier to view the axiom in meteorological terms: sunny voting days favor Democrats; rainy and snowy ones, Republicans.

Currently unable to dictate the weather, Republicans in swing states are finding ways to make conditions as inclement as possible. “Uniformity” is now the stated objective of their mission, which has gained urgency and speed since last summer’s Supreme Court ruling rolling back the preclearance requirements of the VRA. In places like Ohio and Wisconsin and Texas, making everything uniform basically means making it harder for the people who don’t fit a certain (shall we call it “uniform”?) demographic to cast their votes.

As a justification, it’s probably a less impeachable one than limiting fraud—evidence of which has been scant to nonexistent. It’s harder to argue against efforts to restore an unquantifiable “orderliness” to a process that for some has grown too unruly.

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Can't be too careful

Governor Chris Christie, otherwise known as Governor Bridgegate, personally misspoke (he can't blame Bridget Kelly) at a Republican gathering in Las Vegas, otherwise referred to as the Sheldon Adelson Republican primary. The major potential Republican 2016 candidates were auditioning their ideas to some of the richest men in America, along with the richest, Adelson himself.

Christie referred to the "Occupied Territories," let it be said, in way wholly sympathetic to Israel. But the phrase is forbidden in Adelson land, and Christie quickly apologized for the slip-up--unlike some of the other slip-ups he's made. The territories, i.e., the West Bank, are not occupied because they belong to Israel from time immemorial, or so Adelson insists. Politico

The potential anti-Semitic fall-out from the whole meeting has been thoroughly discussed by J.J. Goldberg at The Jewish Daily Forward under the headline: A GOP Plan to Save the Jews: Buy White House.

Where is George Orwell when we need him?

Juan Cole offers five signs that the West Bank might be said to be occupied:

1. The UN General Assembly partition plan for British Mandate Palestine in 1947, which was extremely generous to the Jewish settlement community of the time, did not award them Gaza or the West Bank, where there were at that time virtually no Jews!

2. Israel militarily conquered Gaza and the West Bank only in 1967. Typically you refer to territories not belonging to a country, which it holds during wartime, as “Occupied Territories”

3. Israel is in violation of over 30 United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding what the UNSC explicitly calls the Occupied Territories....

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Americans and the ‘obnoxiously different’

Writing in the current New Yorker, Malcom Gladwell offers a reliably pat pronouncement in his assessment of the conflict at the Branch Davidian complex in Waco, Texas, which culminated in the deaths of seventy-four people on April 19, 1993. He says the lesson of “the battle of [Waco]… is that Americans aren’t very good at respecting the freedom of others to be so obnoxiously different.” He goes on to write that “many Mormons, incidentally, would say the same thing,” and then as supporting evidence provides a tidy, three-sentence recap of the death of Joseph Smith at the hands of an armed mob while awaiting trial in Illinois in 1844.
 
It’s not really the words “obnoxiously different” that are the problem; Gladwell notes the construct comes from historian R. Laurence Moore, who about the Mormons wrote: “[They] said they were different and their claims, frequently advanced in the most obnoxious way possible, prompted others to agree….” The problem is that the spirit of lazy assertion (“the lesson of Waco is that Americans aren’t good at respecting…” and “many Mormons, incidentally, would say the same thing”) undermines the larger if perhaps equally tossed-off observations Gladwell makes in the piece.
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Francis & Obama meet, opening singularity that sucks oxygen out of U.S. media.

On my way home from work last night, I fired up my Twitter feed and found a series of tweets suggesting that today's meeting between pope and president might not go as well as some liberals had been predicting. They had read a piece by Thomas Reese, SJ, who worried that "controversy" could "cloud" the event. He'd seen a Vatican Radio report that concluded with a sloppy summary of disagreements between Obama and the U.S. bishops over the contraception mandate and gay marriage--rather than emphasizing areas of agreement, such as poverty. Reese pointed out that Vatican Radio is under the direction of Holy See spokesman Federico Lombardi, SJ, and wondered whether the article in question might be part of a "coordinated media strategy coming out of the Vatican Secretariat of State."

When Tom talks about the Catholic Church, people listen--as well they should. Good luck finding a more knowledgable observer of the scene. But on this issue, I think Tom's final thought in that post is the one worth heeding: "Sometimes a story is just a story and has no more authority than the individual author." Vatican Radio is not micromanaged by the Holy See press shop. If it were, people might start thinking the pope was poised to adopt the agenda of Future Church.

Over the past week, it seems like everybody with an internet connection has published explainers and prognostications about the meeting. It's only natural. The first Latin American pope meets the first black president. Is Pope Francis the Barack Obama of the Vatican? Obama the Francis of Washington? Contraception mandate at the Supreme Court. Putin's border-crossings. Inequality. Poverty. War. It's news. But media coverage has run the gamut from useful to really not.

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Justice Kennedy's Logic Puzzle

Everyone knows the power granted by Justice Kennedy’s middle position on the Supreme Court. Indeed Paul Clement, the advocate for the plaintiffs in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby, seemed to direct most of his arguments toward the concerns he imagines Kennedy to have about the case.

But even in Clement's most hopeful fantasies, he could not have imagined the gift that Kennedy would present him during questioning of the Solicitor General. Kennedy introduced the idea that, by the logic of the government’s case -- in some future scenario, at the calamitous bottom of a slippery slope -- for-profit corporations could be forced to “pay for abortions.”

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Putin: Why Did He? UPDATE: And why won't he.

Putin's motives and actions have been cloaked in a fog of political confusion and media alarum. Here is a piece, the first I've seen, that makes some sense about what has happened in the Crimea.

One item: "Safeguarding this maritime muscle [navy base in Crimea] may well have been one reason President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia sent armed forces to seize Crimea. But is it possible that the Sevastopol base is just the most concrete manifestation of Russia’s deep interests in Ukraine that the United States and its NATO allies either ignored or forgot as they tried to bind it more tightly with the West?"  NYTimes.

Have you seen stories that throw light on Ukraine, Russia, etc?

UPDATE: Here is William Pfaff (corrected link) in CWL on why Putin has gone as far as he will go. Too Sanguine?

Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius today (UPDATED 1:30 PM)

And here we are. After years of debate, protest, and litigation about the "HHS mandate" and its levels of exemption, accommodation, or non-accommodation under the Affordable Care Act, Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius and the related Conestoga Wood v. Sebelius are having their day in the Supreme Court.

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Crumbling Crackers Crisis

No, not Ukraine. Much closer to home. After the Christmas crisis looking for usable pot holders and candy canes, the household now faces the crisis (and mystery) of crumbling crackers. Our long-time favorites "Stoned Wheat Thins," crumble when touched, barely touched.

What are crackers good for? As platforms for peanut butter, herring, and cheese. Shortly after the New Years, opening a new box, I found they did not stay intact long enough to break in half along their perforation. Forget peanut butter!!! Subsequent boxes: more crumble.

Took the matter in hand and wrote to the manufacturer, Mondelez. They have replied: "The differences you noted may be due to a change in the production facility and the process we use to make the cracker. We have also made some minor changes to the formula. Some of the changes we made are: Changed the oil; Removed the Whey Powder; Added Ammonium bicarbonate and sodium metabisulphite (used to make dough rise)....We apologize for this experience. We will make sure our Quality team is aware of your comments. Thank you for your loyalty and we hope that your next experience is a good one."

Can the experience of crumbling crackers ever be a good one?

Counter-typical thinking: Russia-Iran Division

Now that Russia has become enemy numero uno again, suspcion has fallen on their attitude toward Iran and the P5+1 negotiations to prevent Iran building nuclear weapons. But why would Russia, right next door to Iran (closer than Israel), want its islamic near-neighbor to have such weapons? Doesn't make sense.

Paul Pillar makes that obvious point. He goes on to speculate that Russia's hint that it might ratchet down its sanctions participation against Iran and begin trading could help bring the negotiations to a successful conclusion.

His argument: "Actually, some opening up of commerce with Iran, whether at the initiative of the Russians or of someone else, would probably help the negotiations....What is most needed now to sustain Iranian cooperation and seriousness is not still more sanctions; if that were true we would have seen results long ago. What is needed more is to persuade Iranians who matter...that all those sanctions really were for the declared purpose of eliciting Iranian agreement to arrangements that preclude an Iranian nuclear weapon. That is needed because the Iranians have been given much reason to be skeptical about whether that is the true purpose of the sanctions. And it is needed because, after the Iranians made major concessions in the preliminary agreement reached last November in return for only meager sanctions relief, they are still waiting for proof that their cooperation is buying the economic relief they seek."

In other words, the Iranians have to be convinced that the sanctions are not finally for the purpose of regime change (the goal of some U.S. policy makers and congress men/women).

"Grass is Greener" conundrum; more conundrum

While there is still a lot of hand-wringing in DC about Crimea becoming part of Russia, we might consider this story in the NYTimes about the consequences of joining Russia. South Ossetia signed up in 2008 after a scuffle between Russia and Georgia; now a certain amount of seller's remorse has emerged, at least economically.

Even if the Times story suggests a bout of schadenfreude, the outcome may be of interest to the Crimeans. "These days South Ossetia’s economy is entirely dependent on budgetary funds from Russia. Unemployment is high, and so are prices, since goods must now be shuttled in through the tunnel, long and thin like a drinking straw, that cuts through the Caucasus ridge from Russia. Its political system is controlled by elites loyal to Moscow, suddenly wealthy enough to drive glossy black cars, though many roads are pitted or unpaved."

William Pfaff speaks: Right here at Commonweal, a balanced and brief assessment of what Putin is NOT likely to do.

UPDATES: Leadership is a major challenge for Ukraine as it attempts to move ahead. The heroine of the moment, Yulia Tymoshenko, recently released from jail is likely to be a candidate in the coming elections. This profile shows why many Ukrainians who hope for change might hesitate to re-elect her though as Putin has said, "She's the only man in Ukraine." He should know!

A Round-Up of what the EU missed in the run-up to the Ukraine conundrum. Detailed but succinct analysis; some helpful maps. Ukrainian Tumult Highlights EU's Past Missteps and Future Dangers.

A Kathleen Parker interview with Nikita Kruschev's (he gave Ukraine the Crimea) great-great grandaughter; it's about Putin and what he did and is likely to do (or not). HT: Jim Jenkins

Tourist season in Crimea

The ATMs in Crimea have run out of cash and local banks are restricting withdrawals to prevent a run. Also, the hotels and other tourist attractions are having serious cancellations. No doubt, the Russians could take up the slack in this vacation spot for Czars and Czarinas, etc. But will they? It puts you in mind of short term, small consequences that politically excited citizens might not think about when carrying out a revolution.  NYTimes (March 18).

AND HERE: Great Reporting. C.J. Chivers the NYTimes battlefield guy has gone to Kharive in eastern Ukraine where he reports on a demonstration and "confrontation" between proponents and opponents of the interim government in Kiev, "The Curtain Goes Up and the Clash Begins." He captures the choreography of staged events that no doubt have some political resonance. Nonetheless his story suggests that no one wants things to get out of hand. This seems to be a ballet staged for the benefit of Russian TV, but maybe they're just having fun.  Chivers is probably a Russian-speaker and captures the rhythm of events and has some good quotes.

As a frequent critic of the NYTimes (every day I am cancelling the subscription, and every day I don't), I applaud the resources they are putting into their coverage in Ukraine, Russia, Crimea, etc. The photo in the Chiver's story is attributed to Tyler Hicks, who we will all remember from his horrific and heroic Iraq photos.

Nate Silver weighs in on the Crimea vote

Fans will be delighted to know that 538 is back up and running. Leading off is an assessment of what the citizens of the Crimea may really have thought: an interview with leading pollsters on polling in the Crimea and Ukraine. Headline: "Many Signs Pointed to Crimea Independence Vote--But Polls Didn't"

Same-sex marriage and religious liberty, continued

Since the controversy about (and subsequent veto of) Arizona's SB 1062, a pointed debate in newspapers and blogs has ensued about civil rights vs. religious liberty.  Ross Douthat's New York Times column expressed frustration that religious dissenters are not being permitted to "negotiate terms of surrender" in a culture "war."

What makes this response particularly instructive is that such bills have been seen, in the past, as a way for religious conservatives to negotiate surrender — to accept same-sex marriage’s inevitability while carving out protections for dissent. But now, apparently, the official line is that you bigots don’t get to negotiate anymore.

But is this best construed as a war, or does a less threatening metaphor suffice? Perhaps we're not fighting an apocalyptic war of religion vs. secularism, but instead tinkering with our delicate balance of Constitutional rights.

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Ukraine: Some Politics

Confusion over the politics behind the opposition in Kiev is gradually clearing. This profile of a rightist group leader underlines the problem of political maturity--or as some of the quotes suggest political immaturity. It is interesting and instructive to watch the NYTimes reporters on the scene catching up with the blogosphere and providing a clearer picture of the situation, though it is still not the whole picture. "Front and Center in Ukraine Race, A Leader of the Far Right."

Yes, there is also thuggish behavior (and worse than thuggish) in Sevastopol, Crimea. The Washington Post has this story, including the disappearance of those opposed to a union with Russia.