dotCommonweal

A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors

.

dotCommonweal Blog

Bibi-Boehner Brouhaha: What Does It Mean

The editors have laid out the fundamentals of what's wrong with Majority Leader John Boehner's invitation to PM Benjaming Netanyahu to speak to Congress. And this post from January 21 links to early commentary on Why and How this happened.

Since then, there have been reams of analysis. Among the most diverting, those suggesting that there are no strategic national differences between the U.S. and Israel even if Israel wants to bomb Iran and the U.S. does not. Rather it is just personal or political or something.

Two example of that commentary:

The Bad Marriage metaphor in which the bad relations between Obama and Netanyahu are said to lie at the heart of the controversy. Here from DC and Jerusalem is that analysis by Times' reporters Peter Baker and Jodi Rudoren.

The second is an analysis arguing that the famous "bipartisan" support for Israel no longer exists. Bernard Avishai writes in the New Yorker:  In "Netanyahu and the Republicans," he argues that the Republicans and Likkud are now aligned. How will the Dems take that?

 

Mike Huckabee, bard of 'Bubba-ville'

“It is trying on liberals in Dilton,” reads the first line of Flannery O’Connor’s story “The Barber,” which could with tweaking aptly apply to the unfolding 2016 presidential campaign season for those maybe uninclined to vote for one of the score or so of potential Republican candidates. The GOP’s field of declared and undeclared are riding the usual hobby horses--Obamacare, “big government,” Obamacare, public schools, moral collapse, Obamacare—with some already honing their grievances into slogans, sound bites, and hashtags. Does “Bubble-ville vs. Bubba-ville” work for you?

Best-selling author Mike Huckabee thinks it will. Well, maybe not for you, but hopefully for the fractious choir he’s preaching to with his newest book, God, Guns, Grits and Gravy. “Bubble-ville” describes the population of Americans associated with the iniquitous and elite “nerve centers” of Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, D.C.; “Bubba-ville,” everywhere else—“the flyover country” that “more often than not votes red instead of blue, roots for the Cowboys in the NFL and the Cardinals in the National League, and has three or more bibles in every house.” (The characterization invites debate, but, to use a construction for which Huckabee shows fondness: I digress.)

GGG&G, in short, makes use of a simple construct to capitalize on resentments by reaffirming the preconceptions and prejudices of its intended audience. Neither polemic nor screed, it’s mainly a book-length unspooling of commentary that’s also needlessly broken into chapters, though if it weren’t, then readers would be deprived of nominally edifying (if not necessarily organizing) headings like “The New American Outcasts: People Who Put Faith and Family First” and “Bend Over and Take It Like a Prisoner!” (this following one bemoaning “The Culture of Crude”). His musings are at times entertainingly wrought. In places he risks naughty ethno-religious offense: “I can see the look of horror on the faces of friends of mine who have spent their lives in New York City when I talk about owning a wide variety of firearms: It’s the look one would get announcing in a synagogue that one owns a bacon factory” (it’s an image he uses more than once). In places he’s more plainly insulting, as when contending that Beyoncé is unwittingly allowing herself to be pimped out by her husband, Jay-Z. Sometimes he’s hilarious:

Read more

Koched up.

In the fall of 2013, the Catholic University of America announced a $1 million pledge from the Koch Foundation, one of the many not-for-profit outfits with strong ties to the billionaire libertarians David and Charles Koch. The money, according to the university, would go to the business school, allowing it to hire professors and offer a course on "principled entrepreneurship." You may remember the Kochs from their charitable efforts to undermine public-employee unions, to support a campaign against renewable-energy standards, to suppress the vote, or to discredit the minumum wage (which the U.S. bishops want to raise).

A group of about fifty Catholic theologians certainly remembered. They sent a disapproving letter to Catholic University, voicing their concern that by accepting the grant, the university was sending "a confusing message to Catholic students and other faithful Catholics that the Koch brothers’ anti-government, Tea Party ideology has the blessing of a university sanctioned by Catholic bishops." But university president John Garvey and business-school dean Andrew Abela remained unmoved. They replied by pointing out that several of the professors cash paychecks from universities that accept Koch money, and accused them of trying to "score political points."

If any of those theologians were clinging to the hope that, given enough time, Garvey and Abela might come around to the idea that there's something odd about a Catholic business school accepting money from people who are so deeply committed shrinking the social safety net, cutting taxes, weakening environental regulations, ending the minimum wage, and busting unions, they can let go now. Because Catholic University's business school recently accepted another $1.75 million pledge from the Charles Koch Foundation (in addittion to $1.25 million from other donors).

Read more

Arrogance & attitude on climate change

"It is the sense of the Senate that climate change is real and not a hoax." Let it be noted that the most vocal of the climate-science deniers in the U.S. Senate this week joined ninety-seven of his colleagues in resolving so. This otherwise meager concession to reality might have signaled a significant coming around on the part of the senator, Oklahoma’s James Inhofe, who three years ago published his seminal The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future. Might have, except that in conceding one point he made sure to hold fast on another: That “man can't change climate" and that climate has always changed—there’s “biblical evidence” of that. “The hoax,” Inhofe declared, “is that there are some people who think they are so arrogant to think that they are so powerful that they can change the climate.”
 
Which might explain why he didn’t join the fifty senators (necessarily including some Republicans) subsequently resolving that humans “significantly contribute” to warming. Never mind that sixty votes were needed for approval: that it won support of even half the chamber came as better-than-expected news to the resolution’s sponsor, Hawaii Democrat Brian Schatz, and even Barbara Boxer, top Democrat on the Senate's environmental panel, declared victory: “It means that there's a softening of the attitude of the deniers.
 
None of this even begins to imply imminent action, of course; the resolutions were part of the maneuvering around the more politically urgent issue of the Keystone Pipeline. Which makes the celebratory remarks seem like another kind of denial: Symbolic votes to reject obvious falsehoods and to support obvious facts are taken as measures of progress, softening attitudes on hard realities as victories.
Read more

Cuomo analysis, Cuomo anecdote

The funeral for Mario Cuomo was held today at New York’s Church of St. Ignatius Loyola. In addition to inspiring tributes and remembrances, his death has also prompted archive searches for items like this: A 1990 letter in which the governor took up Commonweal’s invitation to join in a reasoned debate on abortion. “Perhaps the best I can do right now,” Cuomo wrote to the editors, “is to reflect on some of Commonweal’s commentary of the past six or seven months,” which he proceeded to do, at length, using bullet points and providing detailed citations [.pdf].

Much of the recent commentary, at Commonweal and elsewhere, has focused on Cuomo’s position on abortion and whether he’d given “intellectual cover” to Catholic politicians personally opposed but not inclined to act politically against it (the editors write about this and other aspects of Cuomo’s legacy in “Mario Cuomo, Politician,” just posted on our homepage). Or, if not that, his keynote speech at the 1984 Democratic Convention, which to those then longing for someone to speak truth to the heartless power of Reagan and sense to his legions of heedless followers was (and remains) a galvanizing event.

I still have the copy of that speech that was handed to me some months later, on my first day at my first real job in New York City, as a college intern in the press office of Governor Mario Cuomo. Since I’m now also at the age where I can say things like, “this was before the internet, so getting a printed copy was a big deal,” I will: It was. Few of my friends or classmates seemed to care, most having happily—with their first-ever presidential ballot—participated in the landslide re-election of Reagan, while some of my family members liked to dismiss my new “boss” as “your friend Mario Cuomo,” when they weren’t calling him “the most dangerous man in America.”

I had exactly one personal encounter with Mario Cuomo, when during my internship I was told to write a public service announcement for him to record: Two hundred words or so on the importance of protecting Adirondack rivers and streams. “The waterways of the Adirondacks are among our state’s most precious resources,” it began. No pretentions about it rivaling a stump speech much less a keynote, but then, I had not yet heard it in Cuomo’s voice.

Read more

Undoing Racism...Or Not: The Case of Steve Scalise & David Duke

As the new year gets underway, it appears US Rep. Steve Scalise's role as Majority Whip for House Republicans remains secure despite the revelation that he addressed a convention of white supremacists in 2002.  Here's some of what we know:

  • During his second term as a Louisiana state representative, Scalise spoke to the European-American Unity & Rights Organization (EURO) at the Landmark Best Western hotel in Metairie, LA on the weekend of May 17-18, 2002.
  • Founded by former KKK Grand Wizard (and Louisiana state representative, and losing candidate for governor in 1991) David Duke, EURO is a racist and anti-Semitic hate group that currently exists primarily as a vehicle for Duke's self-promotion.
  • According to Duke (who was not at the EURO conference), Scalise was invited by Howie Farrell and Kenny Knight, two of Duke's longtime aides.
  • Longtime Louisiana political columnist James Gill observes in his New Year's Day column, "To accept an invitation from Howie Farrell and Kenny Knight, then act surprised they were fronting for David Duke, is like turning up at a rally with Goebbels and Goering and wondering how come there are swastikas all over the place."
  • In an interview this week with the New Orleans Times-Picayune Rep. Scalise said he detests "any kind of hate group" and said of EURO, "When you look at the kind of things they stand for, I detest these kinds of views. As a Catholic, I think some of the things they profess target people like me. At lot of their views run contradictory to the way I run my life."
  • On the other hand, as conservative activist/commentator (and Louisiana native) Erick Erickson noted: "By 2002, everybody knew Duke was still the man he had claimed not to be. EVERYBODY.  How the hell does somebody show up at a David Duke organized event in 2002 and claim ignorance? Trent Lott was driven from the field in 2001 for something less than this."
  • Despite all this, after Scalise on Tuesday acknowledged his speech at the EURO conference as "a mistake I regret", his House Republican colleagues quickly issued strong statements of support, in part (it seems) because Scalise is good at his job.
Read more

Mario Cuomo, in Commonweal

Mario Cuomo, who died New Year's Day and about whom Paul Moses writes here, was also a Commonweal author. In "Persuade or Coerce?" he responded to Kenneth Woodward on the subject of Cuomo's 1984 speech at Notre Dame; in "Faith & Government," he wrote about the experience of elected officials who try to reconcile personal religious convictions while serving a pluralistic American constituency. "Catholicism is a religion of the head as well as the heart, and to be a Catholic is to commit to dogmas that distinguish our faith from others," Cuomo wrote in our pages:
Like most religions, it also requires a lifelong struggle to practice that faith day to day. The practice can be difficult. Today’s America is a consumer-driven society filled with endless distractions and temptations for people struggling to live by spiritual as well as material impulses. Catholics who also happen to hold political office in this pluralistic democracy-and therefore commit to serve Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, Protestants, as well as Catholics-undertake an additional responsibility. They must try to create conditions under which all citizens can live with a reasonable degree of freedom to practice their own competing religious beliefs, like the right to divorce, to use birth control, to choose abortion, to withdraw stem cells from embryos...or even to fight the belief in a God.
Also, in 1985, the editors of Commonweal interviewed Cuomo, then in his first term as New York governor; you can read the complete interview here.

 

How does your Jesuit college sell itself?

Autumn Jones’s current piece on Jesuit colleges at the Atlantic (“Teaching God in Jesuit Universities”) bears a hompage teaser that poses the perhaps inevitable question: “Can mainstream institutions of higher ed also follow the teachings of the Catholic church?” The inside headline: “The New Brand of Jesuit Universities.”

“Brand” is the key word, and branding that emerges as the main subject of the piece, which is premised on the notion that most American high schoolers will be disinclined to apply to and enroll in schools that seem too “Catholic.” It cites well-known Pew data about millennial “nones” and statistics on American Catholics’ weakening ties to their faith. From the comments of university officials interviewed, these are pressing concerns, especially as they seek to retain the qualities or adhere to the criteria that make a school Catholic. For some, this means striking a balance between “Jesuit” and “Catholic,” while for others it means downplaying if not eliminating one or the other from their marketing materials and websites, although not necessarily from their campuses or curricula. Gonzaga University president Thayne McCulloh sums it up this way: "There is a tension between desire to be strongly identified as Jesuit and Catholic and the desire to respond effectively to the call to be a contemporary, competent university in North America.”

Regis University and Rockhurst University are two of the schools Jones focuses on. The former “‘hides the word “Catholic” from prospective students,’” as a university fundraising official evocatively puts it, preferring to emphasize, she says, “the Jesuit piece.” The latter has removed the word “Jesuit” from its marketing tagline, although Rockhurst’s director of marketing states that “our Catholic, Jesuit tradition is reflected in everything we do.”

Just now emerging from more than a year of college searches for my oldest child, I’ve become familiar with the modern mode (and amount) of marketing done by institutions of higher learning. It’s been an education in itself to see how schools try to position and present themselves, and having worked a little bit in marketing I appreciate how seemingly small adjustments in language or shifts in emphasis might be viewed as crucial in increasing a school’s appeal or creating a competitive edge. Business is business and universities, as we’re told, are under ever greater pressure to “grow” enrollments while maintaining endowments and turning out graduates who will become well compensated enough to give back financially. On the other hand, what are we supposed to make of Catholic (or Jesuit) schools soft-pedaling, when not hiding, their Catholicism? My alma mater still has the word “Jesuit” featured prominently in its website tagline and other marketing materials; some other (and prominent) Jesuit colleges do not feature it, or much of anything specifically Catholic, at all.

Jones notes in her story that Jesuit schools are by virtue of their tradition of teaching and their emphasis on service perhaps in a good place to appeal to this spiritual-but-not-religious generation of students, without necessarily discarding that which makes them Catholic. Michael Sheeran, president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, characterizes such an effort as “invitation Catholicism versus command Catholicism.” It’s an appealing phrase, but then Jones’s paraphrasing of it raises something else: Schools can invite students “to ask questions of meaning and purpose,” she writes, “without the fear of appearing too religious.” Is fear the factor here? I’d be especially interested in hearing what those who are more closely associated with Jesuit and other colleges think about this, as well as other issues Jones’s piece raises.

On the Importance of Discipline in Mass Protest

March from Selma credit: Jim Karales

Among the thought-provoking comments in the lively discussion thread prompted by Kaitlin Campbell's superb post, "Thoughts on New York Protests and the NYPD", is one from Jim McCrea (12/27, 6:33 pm) raising questions about the responsibilities of nonviolent protestors (and especially, protest organizers and leaders) when confronted by violence initiated by "self-styled anarchists" marching with them.

This has been a serious and recurring problem at Oakland protests in recent weeks, according to McCrea, and I suspect it was an issue elsewhere too, even before the killings of Officers Liu and Ramos in New York and the shooting of Shaneka Thompson in Maryland by Ismaaiyl Brinsley.

Elsewhere in the blogosphere URI historian Erik Loomis has a brief, powerful reflection on "Violence and Nonviolence" in which he concludes, "It’s just hard to see what violence is going to accomplish within the American context. Even if violent resistance can be morally defended, tactically it can’t be defended."

Loomis is answering a theoretical/ideological question, but doesn't answer the practical question Jim McCrea raised: what are leaders, organizers and participants in public protest to do when others begin destroying property or attacking people?

One effective answer is clear instructions from leaders/organizers to participants (and the general public, the police and the media) about how to act when confronted by violence from within the march or protest.

For example, a couple of years ago Mexican students in the "Yo Soy 132" movement put out a list of clear, disciplined guidelines for isolating and eliminating violence from a march they were organizing:

Read more

Commonweal & the New Republic

The big news in the world of opinion journalism—where Commonweal swims unobtrusively alongside much bigger fish (or sharks)—is last week’s mass resignations at the New Republic, long the flagship intellectual journal of American liberalism. First the editor, Franklin Foer, and TNR’s longtime literary editor Leon Wieseltier, resigned. The next day, in a very impressive act of suttee, most of the senior editorial staff and virtually all of the magazine’s well-known contributing editors threw themselves onto the pyre. I’ve been a journalist for more than thirty years, and that sort of personal and professional loyalty (Commonweal excepted!) is about as common as a typo-free newspaper (or magazine). Or a money-making journal of opinion.  

Foer obviously was a much beloved and respected boss, and Wieseltier, who had edited the back of the book for more than thirty years, was an intimidating figure, a notorious champion of both critical seriousness and critical severity when it came to book reviewing and literary journalism. He is also a terrific writer, and a fierce polemicist, in his own right. I, for one, have always felt compelled to read just about anything he writes, especially if I’m inclined to disagree with him. In recent years he has written scathingly about the shallow and trivial nature of much of the “journalism” found online, and about the dangers the relentless demand for “content” presents to reasoned political debate, literary standards, and our public culture. Amen, I say.    

So it is not much of a surprise to learn that the implosion of the New Republic was caused by a fundamental disagreement over the digital direction in which the magazine’s new owner, multi-millionaire Chris Hughes, was taking the venerable magazine. A little surprising is that the upheaval occurred just a few weeks after TNR celebrated its hundredth birthday with a big gala in Washington, D.C. The principal speaker was Bill Clinton. (He’s no George Mitchell, but still a pretty big deal.) News reports suggest that the antagonism between ownership and editorial staff was barely concealed during the dinner. Ouch. How awkward to announce a divorce right after an anniversary party.

The thirty-one-year-old Hughes, who made his fortune as a college roommate of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, bought the magazine in 2012, and has spent millions upgrading its digital presence and reorienting and redesigning the print magazine. One of his first steps was to do away with editorials, which should have sent a clear signal about the value the new owner placed on the historical weight of the New Republic’s “voice.” More recently, it was announced that the magazine would cut the number of issues from twenty to ten a year, and that TNR was no longer a magazine, but a “vertically integrated digital media company.” At the same time, Hughes hired a more web savvy replacement for Foer. He did not tell Foer he was being ousted. Whatever an integrated digital media company is, it does not appear to be very good at actual communication.

Read more

‘Invisible Bridge’ and Reagan’s hold

June of this year marked the tenth anniversary of Ronald Reagan's earthly departure, while October marked the fiftieth anniversary of the speech thought by many to have signaled his political arrival. That address, “A Time for Choosing,” was his endorsement in 1964 of Barry Goldwater for president, and has in the words of Jonathan Chait “become a cherished relic in the Reagan myth,” not just for the mythic impish charm with which he delivered such lines as: “We were told four years ago that 17 million people went to bed hungry each night. Well that was probably true. They were all on a diet.” (This was some years before Republicans promulgated the coinage "compassionate conservatism.")

Between these bookends arrived Rick Perlstein's The Invisible Bridge, eight hundred and ten pages (not including index, but including a two-page note on sources--more on that later) detailing American life and politics between 1973 and 1976, spanning Watergate, the Ford presidency, and the Republican national convention in Kansas City. Or, as Perlstein contextualizes in the book’s subtitle: “The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan,” a Robert-Caro-like framing that necessitates the marshaling of Caro-like amounts of fact, much of it predating the book’s ostensible period of examination.

The book is the third in Perlstein’s social history of the postwar rise of American conservatism, following Before the Storm and Nixonland, and the first to feature Ronald Reagan as a main player. I trace a personal fascination with Reagan to the fact that his presidency and personality dominated the period of my adolescence and early adulthood; I remember where I was when Reagan was first inaugurated, when he was shot, when he quipped that he’d signed new legislation outlawing Russia forever and bombing would begin in five minutes (August was the thirtieth anniversary of that), and when it became clear he would be absolved of knowledgeable participation in the Iran-Contra affair despite evidence of direct involvement.

But I was less familiar with the particulars of his rise and the interplay of political and cultural forces that, in retrospect, would seem to have made it foreordained.

Read more

"This stops today": Eric Garner and police accountability

As New Yorkers know and others may have heard - if you were reading social media, watching cable news, or perhaps just tuning in to the Rockefeller Center tree lighting ceremony last night -- New York City saw a clutch of protest marches and demonstrations last night, after the announcement that a grand jury had failed to indict the police officer who killed Eric Garner. More are planned for today.

It was a shocking outcome, even given the frequent failure of grand juries to indict cops (an exception to their otherwise high rate of indictment). As so many have observed, if the details were fuzzy and accounts hard to reconcile in the Ferguson, MO, shooting death of Michael Brown, in this case they were utterly clear. A bystander's cell-phone video captured the whole encounter, including Garner's pleading for breath as officers tackled him and Daniel Pantaleo kept an arm wrapped tightly around his neck. Garner was unarmed; he posed no threat to the the police, or to anyone else, except of course to their sense of authority. His "resisting arrest" was nonviolent. His supposed offense -- selling individual cigarettes on the street -- was minor. His cries of "I can't breathe!" were clear.

The family of Michael Brown has set a goal for protests in St. Louis: body cameras for police officers, which would capture encounters like the one that resulted in his death and reduce the need to rely on an officer's own account of the details. One thing video evidence has revealed, time and again, is that -- hard as it may be to believe -- police officers do sometimes lie about their actions in ways that make them look better, when they think no one will know the difference. But the Garner case has thrown cold water on that crusade: no body camera could have captured the incident more clearly than the video we already have, and still no indictment -- that is, a jury did not find probable cause for Pantaleo to stand trial for having wrongfully caused Garner's death.

Read more

Class or race?

Let's just say I am no fan of David Brooks. Usually I pass over his first sentence and move on. His column this morning got something important right (i.e., correct) and I read all the way to the end.

Spoiler alert: He mentions Ferguson and then goes on to open up a conversation we should be having about class.

"Widening class distances produce class prejudice, classism. This is a prejudice based on visceral attitudes about competence. People in the “respectable” class have meritocratic virtues: executive function, grit, a capacity for delayed gratification. The view about those in the untouchable world is that they are short on these things. They are disorganized. They are violent and scary. This belief has some grains of truth because of childhood trauma, the stress of poverty and other things....This class prejudice is applied to both the white and black poor, whose demographic traits are converging."  Whole column here: NY Times.

'Blackness is not probable cause.'

Few are surprised by yesterday’s Grand Jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson for shooting Michael Brown, despite the fact that it is extremely rare for grand juries not to return an indictment. A front-page story in today's New York Times paints a picture of both rage and resignation, quoting a protestor in New York: “You’re kind of numb to it at a certain point. It’s so systematic.”

Coincidentally I’ve been re-reading Kiese Laymon’s How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, his 2013 collection of essays on being young, black, and male in the south, and it conveys the same sense of simultaneous anger and weariness.  The epigraph is by James Baldwin: “Morally, there has been no change at all, and a moral change is the only real one.” It recalls the verse, Jeremiah 6:14, making the rounds today: “They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.”

In Laymon’s title essay, he recounts being pulled over by police for throwing non-existent drugs out the window of his girlfriend’s car. After he’s handcuffed and thrown in the back of a police car “for his own safety,” he comes home shaken and tries to work on his novel. He finds himself writing three times in a row: “We are real black characters with real character, not the stars of American racist spectacle. Blackness is not probable cause.”

Read more

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:

Read more

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?

Citizen Snowden, the movie

Citizenfour is the new documentary about Edward Snowden, who in 2013 disclosed the existence of a secret NSA mass surveillance program. In its subject and production it looks and feels a bit like those conspiracy movies from the 1970s—Three Days of the Condor, Marathon Man, or All the President’s Men. There’s the unwitting protagonist, the chance at heroism not sought but thrust upon him; the outsized, amorphous antagonist, the extent of its reach and capacity for treachery heretofore unimaginable; and the paranoia informing and infusing the story, heightened by ominous music and weirdly ominous shots of ordinary buildings, streets, and rooms. I say “a bit,” because Citizenfour is a documentary and not a dramatization—but also because that even as a documentary, it seems second-hand and overdone in comparison to fictional treatments.

How can that be? Shouldn’t access to the figure at the center of the story make for riveting work? In fact, the issue might be Snowden himself, whose presence dominates the long middle section of the movie, filmed over eight days in the Hong Kong hotel room he absconded to. The fear accompanying the growing awareness of what their characters have stumbled into—and the growing danger it puts them in—seems less manufactured in the acting of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman than in the actual speech and behavior of Snowden, hiding out from U.S. authorities. True, the key revelations and developments aren’t coming in the “real time” of the narrative, but it’s precisely that Snowden’s actions were undertaken prior to this moment that the tension should be higher. It’s understood he’s in danger, so when and how it will it arrive? He professes to feel anxiety, and he exhibits the classic tendencies of the paranoiac—convinced that he’s being watched because, of course, everyone is after him. But he’s also aware of being watched being watched: It’s a virtual performance in the role he may have been destined to play.

Read more

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."

Read more

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.

Read more

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.

Read more