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#Ferguson Protests -- Did You March?

Shortly after 5 pm yesterday, I joined with others and marched in protest. While I was marching, I had time to reflect: What brought me there? The immediate and proximate cause was of course the lack of an indictment in the Michael Brown case. I am profoundly concerned about the racialization of the criminal justice system. But an equally important commitment comes from a concern about the militarization of police power in our country. This is something I will address in forthcoming posts; I want to ask here whether any of you marched yesterday. What was your experience? What brought you there? If you didn’t march, did you find other ways of registering your protest? Where should we go from here?

As always, I welcome your comments.

'Firestone & the Warlord'

In case you missed it: last week, in collaboration with Frontline, ProPublica published its must-read investigation of "Firestone, Charles Taylor, and the Tragedy of Liberia." Here's how it starts:

HARBEL, Liberia — The killers launched from the plantation under a waning moon one night in October 1992. They surged past tin-roofed villages and jungle hideouts, down macadam roads and red-clay bush trails. More and more joined their ranks until thousands of men in long, ragged columns moved toward the distant capital.

Men in camouflage mounted rusted artillery cannon in battered pickup trucks. Thin teenagers lugged rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Children carried AK-47s. Some held long machetes.

The killers wore ripped jeans and T-shirts, women’s wigs and cheap rubber sandals. Grotesque masks made them look like demons. They were electric with drugs. They clutched talismans of feather and bone to protect them from bullets. In the pre-dawn darkness, they surrounded Monrovia, the capital of Liberia.

They loosed their attack on the sleeping city. Artillery slammed into stores and homes. Mortars arced through thick, humid air that smelled of rot. Boy soldiers canoed across mangrove swamps. As they pressed in, the killers forced men, women and children from their homes. They murdered civilians and soldiers. Falling shells just missed the U.S. Embassy, hunkered on a high spot overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.

A new phase of Liberia’s civil war had begun. It would whip savagely out of control over the next decade. More than 200,000 people would die or suffer terrible injuries, most of them civilians — limbs hacked off, eyes gouged out. Half the country’s population would become refugees. Five American nuns would be slaughtered, becoming international symbols of the conflict’s depravity.

Orchestrating the anarchy was Charles Taylor, a suave egomaniac obsessed with taking over Liberia, America’s most faithful ally in Africa. For the attack that October morning, he had built his army of butchers and believers in part with the resources of one of America’s most iconic businesses: Firestone.

Read the rest here, see related videos here, and watch the full Frontline episode here.

Salaita, Abbate and Academia

I have good news and bad news. Let’s start with the good news. Steven Salaita is suing the University of Illinois. Or rather, his attorneys are suing the university, not because his job offer was withdrawn, but because officials at Illinois are refusing to reply to an FOI request that specifically targets emails sent from outside the university. The evidence trail thus far suggests (but does not prove) an orchestrated letter-writing campaign aimed at Illinois administrators. Connecting the dots between right-wing activists and university officials would shed new light on the Salaita case. It would also illuminate a disturbing (and growing) trend.

Which leads to the bad news. A Philosophy TA at Marquette University has become another casualty in the right's culture war. In a nutshell, here's what happened: Philosophy grad student Cheryl Abbate leads a class on a discussion of ethical theory. The issue of gay marriage arises. Professor Abbate addresses the topic briefly and then moves on. A student then comes to her after class and complains, saying that he was offended they didn’t spend more time talking about gay marriage so that he might fully register his disapproval. As Professor Abbate elaborates on her pedagogical decision to keep the discussion moving in a different direction, she notices that the student is recording her responses. The recorded discussion as well as a (one-sided) account of the incident then goes to another faculty member at MU -- John McAdams, in the Political Science Department -- who posts it on his blog. In McAdams’ account, what was originally a pedagogical decision about the direction of a discussion becomes an egregious example of political correctness and the chilling effect that happens when liberal professors take over to promote the interests of (what he calls) the “gay lobby.”

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Obama administration proposes new disclosure rules for abortion coverage.

According to a new rule proposed by the Obama administration, some insurance companies that sell coverage on the health-care exchanges will have to disclose whether their plans include elective abortion—before consumers enroll. The move comes a day after two prolife groups launched a website to help consumers determine which plans available on the exchanges cover abortion. They note that in four states the exchanges offer no plans that exclude elective abortion. The proposed rule will be published in the Federal Register on Monday.

Nearly a year ago I reported that finding out whether exchange plans covered elective abortion was nearly impossible. And in some states, you can't buy a plan without such coverage. The administration indicated that it was looking into the problem, but nothing changed. This past September, a Government Accountability Office report revealed that eighteen insurers across ten states were not in compliance with the Affordable Care Act when it came to abortion coverage. It found that some insurers were failing to segregate premiums for elective-abortion coverage from all other premiums, and others were still not disclosing whether their exchange plans included such coverage, even though the law requires such informtion be available "at the time of enrollment." The GAO also found that some insurers were not filing their plans with state regulators, who are responsible for monitoring compliance with the law. Again, Obama administration officials said they were examining the issue. This new rule appears to be the administration's first step to address these longstanding problems.

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The Best 2014 Election Analysis Was Written Two Years Ago

"(T)he biggest single under-discussed aspect of contemporary national politics is the consistent disparity in turnout patterns between presidential and non-presidential elections, which at the moment happen to align almost perfectly with party preferences."

If anyone's taking nominations in the category of "Best 2014 Election Analysis", I nominate Ed Kilgore's Nov. 9 post, "Turnout Disparities and the Democratic Dilemma for 2014", on the Washington Monthly's invaluable Political Animal blog.

What's so good about Kilgore's piece?  Well, for one, it's from Nov. 9, 2012.  That means it was written during the euphoric afterglow (for partisan Democrats) of President Obama's convincing re-election.  Second---and this may be the most important reason---it remains resolutely focused on the fundamental interplay of how US voters actually behave and how the US electoral system is structured:

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What kind of Democratic Party and what kind of candidates (Cont.)

The 2014 Election post-mortems keep spinning their wheels. This story in Saturday's NYTimes managed to wrangle in many of the conflcting views of party leaders and party pundits.

A curious feature of the story is that the contending forces have so many labels: moderate, liberal, progressive, populists. Is that part of the Democrat's problem? Also curious that Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren are cited as representatives for at least two of the factions.

Easy enough to say that nobody seems to have it right, but I'll say that--and leave it to you all to get it straight.

 

 

Four churchwomen and their killers, nearly thirty-five years later

Today the New York Times is featuring on its homepage a video “retro report” on the murder of American churchwomen Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel, and Jean Donovan in El Salvador in December 1980. The report is titled “A Search for Justice,” and the tagline reads: “Nearly 35 years later, the case continues to take surprising turns.”

The video is just over thirteen minutes long and is variously disturbing, heartbreaking, and enraging, with footage of the discovery of the women’s bodies; of family, colleagues, and officials speaking of the women and of efforts to identify the murderers; and of Ronald Reagan’s U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick (“the nuns were not just nuns but activists”) and Secretary of State Alexander Haig (“perhaps they ran a roadblock”) suggesting that the women were culpable in their own rapes and executions. The report also reminds us of the involvement of two U.S. administrations in supporting the right-wing military government at whose hands the women were killed; of the reluctance of the Reagan administration to pursue an investigation; and of the fact that the two generals ultimately identified as having issued the orders had since “retired” and were living legally in Florida (one having received the Legion of Merit award from Reagan). There’s also a clip, in the early part of the video, of Maura Clarke’s 1980 interview in the U.S., just prior to her return to El Salvador, and for all of the report’s painful reminders and revelations, it’s her simple statement that also should be noted: “In my work, it has been very much trying to help people realize their own dignity, to realize the great beauty that they have.” You can watch the video here.

Lessons learned: Civilian casualties division

General Martin Dempsey, head of the Pentagon's Joint Chiefs, has seemed to me a prudent and cautious observer when it comes to U.S. military action. His recent calls for more special forces in Iraq seemed ahead of President Obama on the issue, though on Friday the White House announced more boots on the ground (as advisors).  So I was taken aback with General Dempsey's remarks at a recent presentation at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.

He commended the Israeli Defense Forces on the measures they took to protect civilians in the attacks on Gaza. Between 2,100 and 2,200 Gazans were killed (513 were children) and between 10,000 and 11,000 were wounded. (the UN calculates that 70-75 percent were civilians; Israel says 50 percent). Still a lot of people were killed or wounded.

Dempsey goes on to say that he has sent a team of U.S. military to study "lessons learned" on the IDF's protection of civilians living in Gaza. The concluding sentence: "...I can say to you with confidence that I think [the IDF] acted responsibility—although I think Human Rights Watch just published a report that there were civilian casualties. And that's tragic, but I think the IDF did what they could.

What lessons will the U.S. military learn? Stay tuned. General Dempseys' full remarks after the break; the whole transcript of his conversation here.

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What kind of Democratic Party and what kind of candidates

One of the factors behind Republican victories across the country was the party's success in excluding candidates who were over the top (e.g., in 2012, the candidates from Missouri [Akin] and Indiana [Mourdock]). This year they did a better job of vetting.

According to the NYTimes: "Republicans’ impressive showing Tuesday night — marking the first time the party will have a majority in both the House and Senate since 2006 — was the result of methodical plotting, careful candidate vetting and abundant preparation to ensure that the party’s candidates would avoid repeating the same devastating mistakes that cost them dearly in 2010 and 2012."

Looking ahead, what would the Democrats have to do to exclude equivalent over-the-top candidates from the 2016 primaries.

In the Wake of Tuesday's Elections - Open Thread

Let's try an experiment.  Rather than dive right into a national overview of what happened at the polls, I'd be interested to see what dotCommonweal readers and contributors found most interesting about the returns from elections in their own states and localities.

For example:  Here in Massachusetts Republican Charlie Baker narrowly defeated Attorney General Martha Coakley in the race for governor.  That might seem like it's part of the national Republican wave (and it may be) but with Baker's election, five of our last six governors have been Republicans.  (We like our tall, square-jawed, conventionally handsome patricians here in the Bay State.) Democrats retained control of both legislative chambers in the State House, and the commonwealth's congressional delegation remains all Democratic.

We had four referendum questions in which the voters 1) repealed a gas tax increase dedicated to roads, bridges and other infrastructure, 2) overwhelmingly voted down a proposed bottle bill expansion, 3) defeated an attempt to ban casinos, and 4) approved an earned sick time benefit for the nearly 1 million Massachusetts workers without one.

I may have more to say about the last one, but the overarching lesson I draw from the ballot questions is that money talks.  Except when presented with an opportunity to cut their own taxes, voters sided with the campaign that spent the most money.

What happened where you are?  And what lessons do you draw from it?

Death penalty in the Colorado gubernatorial race

Over the past few election cycles, Colorado has become an important "battleground state" and a bellwether for larger electoral trends. Featuring contested races for both a Senate seat and the Governor's mansion, it is arguably the most important site of the upcoming midterm elections. The gubernatorial contest has Bob Beauprez, an established figure in the Colorado Republican party, attempting to unseat (the previously very popular) Gov. Hickenlooper.

Social issues have entered the two campaigns in some expected ways -- abortion, health care coverage, gun safety laws, and marijuana legalization. But during these gubernatorial debates, the issue of the death penalty has also briefly held the spotlight.

Back in May, Beauprez made a campaign promise that surprised many, since he presents himself as a faithful Roman Catholic. "When I'm governor," he said during a GOP debate, "Nathan Dunlap will be executed." Or, in a headline offered by Mother Jones, "Elect Me, and I'll Kill that Guy."

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All in a night's work for Ruth Bader Ginsburg

You’re permitted to cast a ballot in Texas (where early voting began Monday) if you show a concealed-handgun license at the polling place, but not if you present a student, veteran, or federally recognized Indian tribe ID card. Of course, that eligible voters (in Texas and elsewhere) would suddenly need specific types of photo identification or meet any variety of strict new requirements was foreseeable when the Supreme Court last year struck down the preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg memorably dissented at the time: “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” The umbrella discarded, Texas duly implemented measures making it indisputably harder for many people to vote—precisely the kind of maneuver the preclearance provision had many times since the civil rights era forestalled.

Just how hard was made clear by Ginsburg (who else?) in her quickly-becoming-famous, wee-hours dissent in the Court’s weekend decision allowing Texas’s voter identification law to stand—this despite an earlier federal ruling striking it down explicitly for its discriminatory intent. Ginsburg noted that more than 400,000 eligible voters face round-trip travel times of three hours or more to the nearest government office issuing the allowable forms of ID, where they will likely have to present a certified birth certificate. Those normally cost $22; though the state offers certificates for election purposes at $2 or $3, this information isn’t available on relevant websites or forms. Taken together, Ginsburg logically concluded, it amounts to a poll tax, and those were outlawed with ratification of the Twenty-Fourth Amendment.

Texas has justified its strict new requirements as a safeguard against voter fraud. Two instances of voter impersonation were confirmed in all of the elections held in Texas between 2001 and 2011, so clearly there is a problem—though fraud isn’t it.

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Tracking Syria's Cultural Heritage

It goes without saying that the worst tragedy of Syria's war is the loss of life and liberty. Those with the power to ameliorate suffering must do so. But academics and other scholars of the region don't have that power, and instead they have been developing their own means of trying to help Syria. The past two years have seen a dramatic expansion in efforts to track Syria's cultural heritage.

Cultural property -- monuments, buildings, artifacts, museums -- is not superficial ornamentation of a nation's identity. Rather, nations use cultural heritage to understand their pasts, bolster their spirits during times of conflict, and imagine their futures. For these reasons, archaeologists and historians of Syria, whether professional or amateur, have built up an impressive infrastructure for the acquisition and dissemination of information.

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Meanwhile, back at the war

Perhaps you have been distracted by doings at the Vatican and the fear-filled news of Ebola (Although, there's this: Nina Pham, a critical-care nurse who cared for Mr. Duncan, the Ebola victim,  is now in isolation herself at Texas Presbyterians. She has been described as a compassionate and caring person [I felt proud reading that she grew up in a Vietnamese Catholic family]). NYTimes

But back to the ME: Things seem to be falling apart. Patrick Cockburn of the Independent, who always sees the dark side of things (he may be right this time), writes today that the Shiite militias who are the only real fighting force protecting Baghdad are also busy kidnapping and killing Sunnis. (So much for a coalition government.) Meanwhile ISIS has moved further south in Anbar province and are now due west of the Baghdad International Airport. They have moved up their artillerly. (Do U.S. advisors now in Baghdad have an alternate departure route?) Juan Cole has much the same news with the addition that ISIL has looted heavy weapons from the Iraqi army base it captured in the Anbar province of Hit.

Turkey is dragging its feet on cooperating with the U.S. and its "coalition," while it is also reported that the Turkish Air Force is bombing Turkish Kurds while Turkish Kurds are leading protests against President Erdogans's foot dragging.  Here is an analysis of the Turkish/Kurdish struggles from a Turkish source.

The Day George Mitchell Saved American Patriotism From Oliver North

(When Sen. George Mitchell receives Commonweal's Catholic in the Public Square Award later this month, there will be little---and perhaps no---mention of his work on the Iran-contra committee and his July 13, 1987 statement to Col. Oliver North.  (There's no mention of it in the lengthy biographical entries about Mitchell on Wikipedia and the Academy of Achievement.) And that is probably as it should be.  Mitchell's more recent work as an international peacemaker, and particularly his work in Northern Ireland, will rightly take center stage.  All the more reason then, to remember it here.)

It was the summer of 1987 and the Iran-contra hearings were in full swing. As Congress came back from its Independence Day recess the man in the middle of the scandal, NSC aide Lt. Col. Oliver North, began his testimony...and a folk hero was born.

With his erect bearing, immaculate uniform, beribboned chest, and puppy-dog eyes, North embodied an American patriotic ideal.  A man of action who loves his country and will do what it takes to get the job done.  A man alternately bewildered at and defiant of those who would besmirch the honor of his good name.

Meanwhile the Congressional investigators looked like...members of Congress.  Mostly older, graying, paunchy, suited men who sounded like...well, members of Congress, speaking the orotund dialect peculiar to that body.

To the evident delight of some Republicans (e.g., Rep. Richard Cheney of Wyoming) on the 26 man (yes, all men) combined House and Senate select committees, North's reputation soared overnight as he cleverly exploited the committee's own rules to make soaring speeches in defense of himself and of the secret and illegal policies he had carried out---selling arms (despite an arms embargo) to Iran for the release of American hostages (thus providing a further incentive for kidnappers) and secretly funneling the funds raised to the contras in Nicaragua (despite the Boland Amendment).  "I didn't think it was wrong; I thought it was a neat idea," said North.  Most Americans watching the televised hearings cheered him on.

It was different on radio.

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Paul Ryan, America & the Option for the Poor

Well, kudos to America magazine and to Rep. Paul Ryan for their mutual engagement---with each other and with Pope Francis---on the issue of poverty.

That said, it appears Rep. Ryan's "big idea" for how the federal government can help the poor is by blockgranting federal aid to the poor and letting state governments "try different ways of providing aid and then to test the results—in other words, more flexibility in exchange for more accountability".  Not only is this an old conservative policy idea; it's one that doesn't help the poor.  (It can, on the other hand, be helpful to state governments that want to cut their own spending on the poor.)

There's also no mention in Ryan's America essay of his fervent desire to cut taxes for wealthy Americans.  In an August interview with The Weekly Standard, Ryan stated that cutting the top marginal income tax rate is "even more pressing now" than it was during the Reagan administration.  Tax cuts---especially for the rich---are in Ryan's view "the secret sauce" that yields "faster economic growth, more upward mobility, and faster job creation".

Ryan does engage with the Church's teachings on subsidiarity and solidarity in his America piece.  Opinions will vary as to how successfully; but given that Ryan will take over budget and tax policy for House Republicans in January, it's worth paying attention to what he's thinking and doing.

What would a deal with Iran mean? And no deal?

The negotiations on Iran's nuclear development with the U.S. and five major powers are coming up against a November 24 deadline. Charles Freeman, retired diplomat and former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, offers an assessment of the central issues in reaching a deal--or failing to.

Should the negotiaitons fail, he notes at least three serious consequences: 1. the sanctions will seriously weaken (the sword the U.S. believes it holds over Iran); Iran could proceed with its program without international monitoring; nuclear proliferation woud increase in the Middle East. All of this, he argues, needs to be measured against the current upheval in Syria and Iraq.

At LobLog. Iran Nuclear Talks: Ironies, Observations, and a Bottom Line.

George Mitchell: A Profile in Political Courage

There's a nice little story in our local paper about the Kennedy family delivering its Profile in Courage award to former president George H. W. Bush for his role in the 1990 budget compromise that cut spending, raised taxes and---along with the 1993 Clinton budget---laid the foundation for the federal budget surpluses of the late 1990s.

Unfortunately for both the Kennedys and the Bushes, the historical record undercuts the notion that Bush acted courageously.  As his granddaughter pointed out when accepting the award on his behalf back in May, "Candidly speaking, my grandfather didn’t want to raise taxes in 1990...".  Well then, with all due respect, it's hard to conclude it was an act of political courage on his part to do so, isn't it?

Especially because Bush had painted himself into that particular political corner with his craven (and unnecessary) "Read my lips; no new taxes" pledge at the 1988 Republican national convention.  "The Pledge" didn't get him elected in 1988; and breaking it was not the cause of his defeat in 1992.

No, if any politician deserves a profile in courage award for the 1990 budget deal it's then-Senate Majority Leader---and Commonweal's 2014 "Catholics in the Public Square" honoree---George Mitchell.

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What Next? Who Benefits?

What is the U.S. doing in the Middle East? A senior retired diplomat, Robert Hunter, looks back on U.S. policy after 9/11 and looks forward to the effort to degrade ISIL. He argues that U.S. presidents have failed to ask two questions: What follows? Who benefits? He points to the cross-purposes and their conseuqences as the U.S. once again tries to lead a grand coalition against ISIS/ISIL.

"The US has committed several key errors, some out of lack of knowledge, some out of the felt need to respond to external events, and some in misguided response to the desires of US partners in the region.

"After 9/11, the US chose not only to extirpate those responsible for the first attack on the continental United States since 1814, but also to overthrow the Taliban regime, occupy the country, pull in all 27 other NATO allies to help, and try—but fail—to create a New Afghanistan. Then in 2003, a small group of advisors around President George W. Bush leveraged popular reaction to 9/11 to invade Iraq, one of the greatest foreign policy mistakes in US history....

"With the invasion of Iraq, the US blundered into the midst of civil war in the Middle East. It overthrew a Sunni regime that dominated a Shia majority population. Most of the troubles the US now faces in the Middle East flow from that fact. Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states have sought to “redress the balance,” in particular by getting the US to overthrow the minority Alawite (Shia) regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.... Thus the United States became an active party in a Sunni-Shia civil war, first unwittingly on the Shia side (invasion of Iraq) and subsequently on the Sunni side. It has also been supporting the geopolitical interests of states that oppose Iran, among other countries, which are competing for power among themselves, thus double-binding the US in support of others’ regional agendas that should mean little or nothing to the United States and its interests.....

And it goes on, check out Hunter's analysis at LobeLog.

The racist dirge of America

When I commute by bus, I am often the only white person on it. I've been to diversity training many times and absorbed its lessons. I've had my classroom secretly subjected to a race audit -- a student who was tracking how many non-white voices were in the syllabus or cited as authorities in class. I know what redlining is.

In short, as a student and a teacher, I've been confronted about my white privilege quite consistently.

But I still needed Ferguson.

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