Monday, March 09, 2015

Republican Senators Channel Nixon

Just when you thought they couldn't sink any lower, the members of the Republican  majority go and prove you wrong.

Last week it was Boehner having Netanyahu speak to a joint session of Congress to undermine President Obama's negotiations with Iran, but now the Republicans in the Senate have topped him.

Monday 47 Republican senators sent an open letter to the president of Iran again seeking to undermine the nuclear weapon negotiations by means of a veiled threat to refuse to ratify any treaty reached by the parties, and to rescind any executive action Obama may take to implement an agreement.

Their letter says, in part:

First, under our Constitution, while the president negotiates international agreements, Congress plays the significant role of ratifying them.  In the case of a treaty, the Senate must ratify it by a two-thirds vote.  . . .
 Anything not approved by Congress is a mere executive agreement.

What these two constitutional provisions mean is that we will consider any agreement regarding your nuclear-weapons program that is not approved by the Congress as nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei.  The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time.

Sadly, this repeats a pattern the Republican Party has been guilty of before. In 1968, when he feared that Hubert Humphrey might seize victory from the jaws of electoral defeat, Richard Nixon dispatched Anna Chennault to South Vietnam to encourage them to block any possible negotiation in the Paris peace talks, promising a better deal if he was elected. Nixon's sabotaging of the peace talks may have extended the war for another five years, at a cost of untold tens of thousands of lives.

Once again, the Republicans have chosen to put their partisan interests ahead of the national security of the United States. If they are successful, the product of their betrayal will be the defeat of the nuclear weapons talks, the immediate resumption of nuclear weapons development by the Iranian government, and the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran within a few years.

Boehner, McCain, Orrin Hatch, and most of the Republican extremists in the Senate (along with so-called moderates like Kelly Ayotte) seem intent on a 2015 version of the October Surprise plot of 1968.

Have you ever seen anything more contemptible?

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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Flash Boys: A Wall Street RevoltFlash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt by Michael Lewis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Michael Lewis’s latest book, Flash Boys, talks about high frequency trading and the creation of a new stock exchange to create fairness in stock sales. I started hearing him on Terri Gross and 60 Minutes when the book came out, but now I understand more about the issues.

Lewis has established himself as one of our leading authors in explaining economico-cultural phenomena, like baseball or the 2008 housing collapse, and Flash Boys continues in this familiar vein.

Lewis describes a number of characteristics of the current stock market system that have the potential to work to the detriment of investors. They include:

1.       While we tend to think of the stock market as a unitary system, trades take place not on one or two exchanges, like the New York Stock Exchange, NASDAQ, and the AMEX, but on a dozen or fifty public and private exchanges.

2.       High frequency traders (firms running computer algorithms) invest millions of dollars in getting closer to the exchanges--actually placing thir computers physically closer to the computers where the stock trades take place--so that they have access to market information microseconds before ordinary traders, which enables them to make trades ahead of trades that were ordered first, and use that information to buy lower or sell higher than the investor first seeking to make the trade. (How this happens is complicated, but the way it works is that they see an investor looking to make a big purchase or sale on one exchange and then, using their faster electronic connections, they can run ahead of that investor to the other exchanges, cut to the head of the line, and get a better price.)

3.       The advantage that high frequency traders and big banks have is not limited to speed: these multiple exchanges also make financial arrangements—kickbacks or payments--that pay investment banks and brokers to make transactions in a way that makes them money even though their investors, whom they are supposed to be serving, worse off.

The book talks about the establishment of a new exchange called IEX (from their original name, Investors Exchange, which had unfortunate connotations when reduced to a URL) designed to eliminate these distortions in the market (i.e. stop traders from screwing investors).

As with Lewis's other books, Flash Boys brings the subject matter to life through the stories of well-drawn protagonists who must move beyond what they--and we--think they know in order to understand and respond to changing circumstances. Also, as with The Big Short, once you understand how the market and money manipulators are making things very profitable for themselves at your expense you may have a hard time keeping your temper in check.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

More Muslim--and Christian--terrorism

Since the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo last week there have been plenty of discussions of what is really terrorism, and whether there is such a thing as explicitly Muslim terrorism.

Let's take a look at the definition. Federal law defines terrorism as follows:

"International terrorism" means activities with the following three characteristics:

Involve violent acts or acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law;
Appear to be intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and
Occur primarily outside the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S., or transcend national boundaries in terms of the means by which they are accomplished, the persons they appear intended to intimidate or coerce, or the locale in which their perpetrators operate or seek asylum.*

"Domestic terrorism" means activities with the following three characteristics:

Involve acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law;
Appear intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination. or kidnapping; and
Occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S.

There are some differences, but the key concepts include violent or dangerous acts intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population. Let's keep those concepts in mind.

Last Friday, a blogger in Saudi Arabia received the first fifty lashes of the sentence he received of ten years in prison and one thousand lashes for "insulting Islam". According to the Washington Post, In 2011 prosecutors alleged that his Web site “infringes on religious values.” He was arrested in 2012, when a well-known cleric issued a religious ruling that Mr. Badawi was an apostate who must be tried. 

In the Philippines, local cultural activist Carlos Celdran is appealing a sentence of imprisonment imposed for violating the law against “offending religious feelings.”

In both cases, the state seeks to carry out violent acts to prevent public criticism of the dominant religion.

There are differences. For instance, critics of Celdran might be quick to point out that the crime he was convicted of involved his going into a church service with a protest sign, but look more closely: he wasn't charged with unlawful trespass, or disrupting the church service. The gravamen of his crime was that he offended religious feelings.

The State Department publishes a list of state sponsors of terrorism, countries that have been "determined to have repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism". The listing has always been political. Nevertheless, given the actions of these two United States "allies", one of them, Saudi Arabia, being one of the most repressive regimes in the world, can we justify not targeting these states for terrorism against their own people?

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Monday, January 12, 2015

Prosecutorial discretion

I'm sure you don't recognize this guy, because, after all, you don't live in Idaho.

If you did you might recognize him as Barry McHugh, the prosecuting attorney for Kootenai County, Idaho.

Old Barry's hit the news, and maybe not for something he'd want to be in the news for. You see, Barry has issued a warrant for the arrest of a nine-year-old boy for stealing gum.

I don't know, maybe the kid's a repeat offender. Maybe he stole a cookie when he was six and got away with it, so now he's headed down the road to a life of crime. A cookie here, gum there, and there's no telling where it will end.

I'm sure Barry has his reasons, because, you see, he has prosecutorial discretion. He gets to decide who he will prosecute and who he won't prosecute, and there's pretty much nothing that anybody else can do about it. So the nine-year-old gets sent off the the Little Big House to learn the error of his ways.

But you know, practicing law can be hard work, especially with all that exercising prosecutorial discretion. You mouth sure can get dry from all that discretioning, especially up in Idaho.

So wouldn't it be a kind gesture, a way to let him know how much we appreciate his efforts to keep Kootenai safe, to send him a piece of gum?

I know that's what I'm going to do, and if you're inclined to do the same, here's the address:

Barry McHugh, Prosecuting Atty
P: (208) 446-1800

Physical Address:
501 Government Way
Coeur d'Alene, Idaho 83814

Oh, one other thing: I went and got some legal advice and I'm told that if you are inclined to send ol' Barry some gum you should make sure not to send him anything with a liquid center or a powdery residue. There are people who send dangerous stuff through the mail, but a little gum never hurt anybody.

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Sunday, January 11, 2015

Just say no, Boston edition

Lord knows there's no shortage of issues to get organized about, but I know what my number one advocacy issue would be for the coming year if I were living in Boston right now.

It's the Olympics.

Sure, it's supposedly a point of national pride when your country is selected to hold the Olympics, and within the country it's supposedly a point of pride, of preeminence, a sign that you've made it if your city is selected, but what's the benefit of being selected for the equivalent of a flood, an earthquake, or a major hurricane? Yet that's exactly what the U.S. Olympic Committee wants the people of Boston to do.

Friday Nate Scott posted a column in USA Today laying out some of the practical problems with trying to shoehorn an extra half million people into a medium-sized, already congested city with already inadequate transportation and housing infrastructure. Boston's already been through one massive, disastrous public works program in recent years, and the congestion, delays, and cost overruns of the Big Dig will be dwarfed by the spending and construction needed to build the Olympics.

In addition to the problems with this plan that Scott enunciates, anyone in Boston or anywhere in Massachusetts who thinks that there are already misguided priorities in the city and state budgets will be shocked by what can only be a massive diversion of funding from human needs to this plaything for the international rich.

But it's not just the money. Just last year Norway decided to pass on a bid for the Winter Olympics because of the arrogant demands of the International Olympic Committee to be treated like royalty throughout their say at the competition. Here are some of their demands:

*A meeting and cocktail party with King Harald before and after the opening ceremony, with the royal family or Norwegian Olympic committee picking up the tab.

*A full bar for IOC pooh-bahs at the stadium during the opening and closing ceremonies.

*IOC members must be greeted with a smile upon arriving at their hotels.

*Hotels for IOC members must be pre-cleaned “particularly well,” and hotel management should be prepared to correct the slightest problem posthaste.

*All meeting rooms must be kept at 68 degrees.

*The usual car and driver at the beck and call of IOC members.

When I was growing up I always enjoyed watching the Olympics, and the exploits of athletes like Michael Johnson and Usain Bolt remind us all that we can count on greatness from the competitors. Nevertheless, as time goes on, the excess of the ceremonies, the celebrity and personality focus of the coverage, and the sheer bloat of the entire event has led me to conclude that I don't really care if they have another Olympics ever.

At a minimum, I would expect the people of Boston to be saying "Not here".

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Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Cowardice: Did it ever go out of style?

It was just over five years ago that we were writing about censorship at Yale. On that occasion Yale University decided to excise the Danish cartoons from a scholarly work examining freedom of expression and the cartoon controversy.

As we said at the time: So what does it say when one of our greatest universities lacks the courage of a small newspaper in Denmark?

Again it's a tiny publication in comparison to one of our great institutions of journalism, and again the terrorists and murderers have won.

Yes, the New York Times has decided that it won't publish the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo that apparently led to the murders of twelve free people. The same is true of NBC News. And the Washington Post.

Here's one of them:

Pretty crude and juvenile, right? Muhammad is depicted as saying, "100 lashes if you don't die of laughter."

The voices of "responsible" journalism have the usual things to say: they're not being intimidated, they're being sensitive; they are never in the business of being offensive just for the sake of being offensive; how can they justify putting their employees at risk?

The thing is, though, that freedom of speech is important to us here in America. We figured out a long time ago that we can't have a democratic, civilized society without it. If some people are offended, so be it.

And the other thing is that there's no limit. There's no way a writer, an editor, or a publication can say, "If I just give in to them on this one point it'll be okay." There's never just one point. Once you let the terrorists decide what you can publish they'll be making that decision for you and your readers every day, and all of a sudden you're out of the journalism business and into--well, I don't know what you call it at that point.

Coincidentally, down in Maryland we just observed the case of an idiot politician threatening to sue a local newspaper any time they published his name. They didn't back down, and they made him a laughing stock. Rightly so. That was an easy one, though, because the entire world knew that he couldn't make it stick: his was a hollow threat.

The threat to kill journalists who publish pictures someone doesn't like has repeatedly been shown not to be a hollow threat at all. Still, the fundamentalists and terrorists don't get to win, because after they win one, what's to stop them from winning all of them?

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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Hell yes, prosecute them

The most bizarre reaction to come out of Tuesday's release of the Senate Intelligence Committee's torture report has to be the calls, mostly from liberals, for Obama to pardon everyone involved.

Yes, I'm not kidding. I suppose we must take it on faith that the people making these claims are not just doing it because they support the use of torture, but it's hard to see any other sensible rationale for this position.

Here's a sampler:

In the Times, ACLU national president Anthony Romero says: The spectacle of the president’s granting pardons to torturers still makes my stomach turn. But doing so may be the only way to ensure that the American government never tortures again.

In Slate Jamelle Bouie makes the same point: Besides, if we’re trying to keep this from happening again, we don’t want punishment as much as we want to restore the consensus against torture. With explicit pardons, you can send the message that torture was illegal (and as Romero notes, signal to those “considering torture in the future that they could be prosecuted”) without taking legal action against the architects. And, as Bernstein argues, you can give generous pardons and lessen the officials’ “reputations as bad guys.”

And also in Slate, Eric Posner says: But Obama’s best argument for letting matters rest is the principle against criminalizing politics. This is the idea that you don’t try to gain political advantage by prosecuting political opponents—as governments around the world do when authoritarian leaders seek to subvert democratic institutions. Of course, if a Republican senator takes bribes or murders his valet, the government should prosecute him. But those cases involve criminal activity that is unrelated to the public interest. When the president takes actions that he sincerely believes advance national security, and officials throughout the government participate for the same reason, then an effort to punish the behavior—unavoidably, a massive effort that could result in trials of hundreds of people—poses a real risk to democratic governance.

Before we consider these arguments, let's just review what the CIA and the Bush administration did in their torture campaign:

They subjected five detainees to forcible anal rape in the guise of nutrition and hydration, resulting in lasting physical injuries.

They killed a man by stripping him, chaining him to a concrete floor in freezing conditions, and leaving him there until he died of hypothermia.

Beginning the evening of March 18, 2003, KSM began a period of sleep deprivation, most of it in the standing position, which would last for seven and a half days, or approximately 180 hours.

They repeatedly lied about what they were doing and its effectiveness to Congress and the American public.

While it's to be expected that Republicans will rush to support the most vile crimes committed at Bush's behest, and they have, it is beyond inconceivable that Democrats or civil libertarians should take the same position.

But let's consider the proffered arguments as though they deserve to be taken seriously.

First, Romero claims that issuing pardons may prevent the future use of torture. The reasoning seems to be that issuing a pardon is an unequivocal statement that the conduct was illegal, and it will send a message to future torturers and their bosses that they'd better not do it again. Yes sir, nothing deters future bad behavior like issuing a statement that there are no consequences for that behavior, right?

But what of the unequivocal statement of criminality? What of it? He uses Ford's pardon of Nixon as an example (and you will never convince me that there wasn't a deal for that pardon in advance, probably before he picked Ford to be vice president), but Nixon went to his grave proclaiming that he didn't do anything wrong except to give his political enemies the ammunition they needed to get him, and that "If the president does it, that means it's not illegal."

Second, Bouie argues that issuing pardons will "reinstate the [bipartisan] consensus against torture. The problem is, this consensus is wholly imaginary. Look at what the Republicans are saying now: everything the CIA did was right, they just should have done more of it. They just don't oppose torture; they don't see anything wrong with it as long as it's the Americans who are doing it. Look at Lindsay Graham, whose support for torture hearkens back to the Spanish Inquisition. Nothing Obama does, from pardons up to giving each one of these torturers the Presidential Medal of Freedom, will make the Republicans turn against torture.

Bouie also makes this very weird statement, quoting Jonathan Bernstein: pardons will lessen the torturers' reputations as bad guys! That's really what we're concerned about? That someone will think ill of a government official who orders waterboarding, anal rape, and slamming detainees against a concrete wall? If you're worried about making these guys look bad I suggest that your moral judgment is seriously deficient.

Finally, Posner, whose biggest concern seems to be that pardons will keep the issue from being politicized. This is a Republican Party whose members on the committee couldn't be bothered to participate, much less seriously consider the merits and morality of torture.

No, rather than follow these pusillanimous moral cowards, I prefer the views of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, who said: "In all countries, if someone commits murder, they are prosecuted and jailed. If they commit rape or armed robbery, they are prosecuted and jailed. If they order, enable or commit torture — recognized as a serious international crime — they cannot simply be granted impunity because of political expediency," he said.

And the special rapporteur on terrorism and human rights, who said: international law prohibits granting immunity to public officials who allow the use of torture, and this applies not just to the actual perpetrators but also to those who plan and authorize torture.

Obama did a great thing by immediately stopping the Bush torture program. He must follow the legal and moral logic of his position and prosecute those responsible.

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Torture, finally

I had hoped to post this yesterday, the ninth anniversary of Rational Resistance, but some kind of attack temporarily knocked both Rational Resistance and Green Mountain Daily off the air last night. Nevertheless, the release of yesterday's torture report by the Senate Intelligence Committee is way too important to overlook.

The shortest summary I can provide goes like this: everything we said about torture by the Bush administration was true, and everything they said about torture was a lie.

They did it all the time, without regard to need.
It didn't work.
Other, non-torture approaches to interrogation did work.

We've been talking about torture by the Bush administration for almost the entire nine years we've been here, so it's almost hard to believe there is anything new to say about it, but that's just not true. Mother Jones and other sources have reported on new outrages that none of us would have anticipated.

For example:

 The CIA used previously unreported tactics, including "rectal feeding" of detainees (p. 100, footnote 584):

rectal feeding

The administration spokespeople, including now federal judge Jay Bybee, liked to Congress about the nature and effectiveness of the torture program.

At least one detainee died of hypothermia after being held in cold temperatures shackled to a concrete floor. And George Tenet directly lied about it when he was asked on 60 Minutes.

As I say, you should read as much as you can about this, and I guarantee that you will be shocked.

The fact remains: we were right, and everyone working for Bush lied about everything they said.

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Sunday, November 23, 2014

A note for our Republican friends

Well, I have to hand it to you. You rode that Benghazi horse as far as it would carry you, and, to be fair, you got a lot of mileage out of it.

Sadly for you, the horse has run out of steam and is headed for the glue factory. And yes, it's your own guys that are sending it here.

Yes, the Republicans in Congress were absolutely determined that the Obama administration was covering up the truth about Benghazi that they decided that they had to have their own investigation and their own report. Well, be careful what you wish for.

Here's what Lindsay Graham was saying about the investigation as recently as this past Monday, before the report was released:

I’ve been calling for this for two years. Trey Gowdy and Elijah Cummings have done a good job. What I would envision is a select committee being formed in the Senate of members from the appropriate committees instead of a stovepipe approach. We would create a select committee in the Senate to marry up with the select committee in the House, become a joint select committee, bootstrap on the work already done by the House, and take this to its logical conclusion.

Funnily enough, when the investigation came to its logical conclusion, here's what Graham is saying now: "I think the report is full of crap," Graham said on CNN's "State of the Union."

I don't really expect you to read the whole thing, but here are some of the highlights:

Republican claim: HusseinHillaryObamaClinton wouldn't let anyone go to rescue the Americans!

Report: The Committee first concludes that the CIA ensured sufficient security for CIA facilities in Benghazi, and, without a requirement to do so, ably and bravely assisted the State Department on the night of the attacks. Their actions saved lives. Appropriate U.S. personnel made reasonable tactical decisions that night, and the Committee found no evidence that there was either a stand down order or a denial of available air support."

Republican claim: This was caused by an intelligence failure.

Report: "[T]he Committee finds that there was no intelligence failure prior to the attacks."

Republican claim: The Administration lied about a movie protest to cover up the facts.

Report: "The Committee found intelligence to support CIA's initial assessment that the attacks had evolved out of a protest in Benghazi; but it also found contrary intelligence, which ultimately proved to be the correct intelligence."

Republican claim: The administration threatened, intimidated, or fired people for telling the truth.

Report: [T]he Committee found no evidence that any officer was intimidated, wrongly forced to sign a nondisclosure agreement or otherwise kept from speaking to Congress, or polygraphed because of their presence in Benghazi.

There's more in the report, but these are the key findings: what the Republicans have claimed for two years has been unfounded, if not outright lies. All we need to do now is wait for them, starting with Lindsay Graham and John McCain, to come out an publicly admit that they were wrong and President Obama and his administration were right.

But you Republicans who read this don't have to wait, you can go ahead and admit it right now.

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Tuesday, October 07, 2014

What an awful, awful family.

Lie Down in DarknessLie Down in Darkness by William Styron
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Lie Down in Darkness is William Styron's first novel. It provides an exhaustive (and exhausting) portrait of a world-beating dysfunctional family. Milton Loftis, a middle-aged lawyer who has missed out on his youthful fantasies of parlaying his military background and law practice into a political career; Helen, his wife, who suffers from extreme, debilitating depression, and whose family money subsidizes Milton's inadequate legal practice; Peyton, their beautiful, smart, spoiled daughter; and Maudie, their physically and mentally handicapped younger daughter.

The novel starts and ends on the day Milton is driven to the train station to meet the coffin carrying Peyton, dead in her mid-twenties of an apparent suicide in New York City; Helen, who has always hated Peyton, doesn't come along, but he is accompanied by the family servant and his mistress. Throughout the ensuing 400 pages the author draws a believable but repellent portrait of the failures of this family and the way that Milt and Helen in particular make each other miserable.

Helen hates Peyton, who is Milton's favorite, and closes herself off to any positive relationship with either Milton or Peyton, devoting herself to the care of Maudie. Milton, partly in response to rejection by Helen, becomes an alcoholic and establishes a long-lasting affair with a woman, leading to her divorce and unrequited dependence on Milton. Peyton, meanwhile, exhibits an uncomfortably flirtatious relationship with her father, possibly implying some earlier sexual contact between them.

Although the novel is not primarily plot-driven, the author vividly portrays five pivotal days in the life of the Loftis family: a birthday party Milt throws for a teenaged Peyton at the country club, where he provides her with liquor while Peyton and her mother frankly express their hatred for each other; a trip Milton takes to Charlottesville to see Helen and the dying Maudie in the hospital in which he descends into drunkenness in an hours-long side trip to his old fraternity house and the UVA football game, which he rationalizes as an attempt to connect with Peyton to tell her of Maudie's condition; Peyton's wedding day, when Milton's theretofore successful resolve to lead a sober and responsible life falls apart; the last day of Peyton's life, fifty pages of stream of consciousness, reminiscent of the Benjy section of The Sound and the Fury, in which Peyton's first-person account veers between a reality-based narrative and her psychotic interior experiences; and the day of Peyton's burial, which opens and closes the novel.

Although the Peyton section is the only one told in the first person, Styron gives plenty of information to provide a good sense of the motivations, thoughts, and emotions of all the main characters. Milton, the alcoholic father, may be the most sympathetic because each time he starts to lose control of his drinking, seeing one drink slide into two, three, and then beyond counting, the reader keeps hoping he'll stop. The portrayal of Helen is unremittingly negative. Given Styron's later and well-known problems with depression one wonders whether his portrayal of Helen's depression comes from personal experience (he was writing this from ages 23-26), and why he couldn't muster a scintilla of sympathy for her.

In addition to these three main characters there are outside characters who are able to see this family for the disaster it is: Helen's ineffectual minister, on whom she develops an excessive dependence (it being easier to complain about her life than to do something about it); Peyton's Jewish husband; and the Black household servants, barely more than racist caricatures.

Although slightly over 400 pages, the paucity of true narrative action, the excess of description and inconsequential incidents, and the unremitting grimness of the life of this family made Lie Down in Darkness a burden to read pretty much from beginning to end. For this reason it is hard to recommend it, although readers who favor (hard to say "enjoy") novels based almost exclusively on the interior workings of their characters are likely to find this rewarding.

Finally there's an interesting side note. In the last couple of years the novel has been optioned for a movie and is said to be "in development". There's been a quite public rivalry between two prominent young actresses for the Peyton role, and they could hardly be more different: Kristen Stewart, whose main acting skill appears to be her ability to maintain an unchanged facial expression regardless of the situation and emotions her characters are faced with; and Jennifer Lawrence, who has already shown herself to be a gifted and versatile actor. You can understand why either one of them would want the part, but it's hard to understand why a director with the chance to cast Lawrence would ever choose Stewart.

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Saturday, August 30, 2014

AmericanahAmericanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ifemelu is a young girl growing up in an educated family in Nigeria; Obinze is her friend, then boyfriend, then the love of her life. Both good students, Ifemelu manages to obtain admission and a scholarship to a college in Philadelphia, and when she arrives in the United States the author's idea really gets going. While Ifemelu was an African living in Africa and surrounded by Africans race was invisible to her; once she moved to America the issues of race and identity, only hinted at in her homeland, form the core of her experience. She struggles to make a living, struggles to fit in with American and African students, and she must venture out of her student surroundings, observing the various ways white and black Americans react to her in the process.

I've heard from many people that this is a great, overwhelming book, but I thought it had its weaknesses. I found the long segments of the book in which the author explores the ideas of race and identity through the experience of Ifemelu and other central or peripheral characters was very perceptive. Do you define your identity, or does it come from those around you? Is identity a constant or can it be successfully molded at will? And when you move from Nigeria to the United States and back to Nigeria, or even from Philadelphia to Boston to Princeton to New York, are you the same person?

The other major plot is a conventional romance: two young people find each other but life places obstacles in their path. Will they overcome those obstacles to reunite, and will their enduring love turn out to rise above the experiences and situations that have kept them apart? It was this second plot that some may consider "the" story, while I considered it a distraction.

During her time in America the main character becomes a successful blogger, writing on the experience of a non-American black living in America, and the reader sees her experiences reflected in her blog posts in which she thinks about the meaning of those experiences. I don't think it was a coincidence, but I noticed themes in her blog posts similar to those developed by the author in her TED talk, "The Danger Of a Single Story". It's worth watching whether you read the book or not.

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Friday, August 08, 2014


Today and tomorrow, August 8 and 9, mark the glorious fortieth anniversary of the end of the Nixon regime, so it's appropriate to look back, post some memories, and maybe think about the significance of the time.
Having watched it in real time I know that my memories and thoughts have changed over the last forty years. I remember as clearly as if it were yesterday my reaction the day I woke up and the news of the break-in broke. "Now they'll never vote to re-elect him" was literally my first thought. Just goes to show how wrong you can be.

Even looking back it's striking how completely this one story dominated the national attention throughout the summer of 1973, when I would get home from my summer job as a letter carrier to watch the hearings, and into the run-up to impeachment in the summer of 1974. I'll share a few of my observations and maybe you, our readers, will have some thoughts of your own to share.

==> One thing that the revelations of subsequent years have shown us is that Nixon may not have been worse than we thought at the time, but he was definitely worse than we knew. I'm talking, of course, about the fact that had been suspected but has since been confirmed that Nixon betrayed his country by trying to prevent an "October surprise" that would throw the election to Humphrey in 1968. To avoid this Nixon carried on secret communications with the government of South Vietnam urging them not to make any deals, but to hold out until he got into office when he would get them a better deal than they would get from the outgoing Johnson administration.  Think of the tens of thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese whose deaths are directly attributable to this one action on Nixon's part.

==>Nixon and so many of the men--yes, they were all men-- around him were lawyers. Not knowing any lawyers at the time I didn't really understand why it seemed so shocking that it was lawyers saying the things we hear on the tapes and making these decisions, but having spent thirty-five of those intervening years practicing law I now see just how shocking it was. Even if you don't attribute any particular virtue to lawyers, how could they not have considered the legal consequences and criminal liability as they sat in the Oval Office planning payoffs of a million dollars to convince potential witnesses to clam up or lie in order to protect the presidency? If nothing else, this level of criminality, in which the President, the Attorney General, and all of his top aides were in it up to their elbows proves that Nixon was uniquely corrupt in the ranks of American presidents.

==>Finally, the "where were you?" moment. We knew the resignation was coming, but I didn't get to see either of his last two speeches on television. The announcement of his resignation was on the evening of August 8, and while he was making his resignation speech I was at Pine Knob outside of Detroit at a Joni Mitchell concert. We knew the time was coming, and someone a few rows in front of us had a portable television, but we didn't see anything. Still, the crowd roared with one voice when Joni came onstage after a warmup set of dental music from her backup band, Tom Scott and the L.A. Express, and announced "The president has resigned!" 

What about you? Where were you and what do you remember? 

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Monday, March 31, 2014

BREAKING: Arrest Warrant for Pat Boone

Here's tonight's news from Comcast:

Pat Boone is a wanted man.

The legendary “Ain’t That a Shame” crooner, who scored five number one hits in the 1950s, has an arrest warrant with his name on it after missing a scheduled court appearance in connection with a recent lawsuit.

Needless to say, I have no objection to anyone wanting to throw Pat Boone in jail. It's just ironic--not to mention almost sixty years overdue-- that the warrant isn't for this:

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Sunday, March 23, 2014

Speaking Truth to Power

Opening scene: A telephone plays a voice message. It's a message from Ginny Thomas, wife of Clarence Thomas, asking Anita Hill if she wouldn't perhaps like to consider apologizing to Clarence Thomas for what she did to him in 1991.  

You may know I'm a lifelong Legal Services lawyer. One of the first cases I remember doing was back in 1979 or 1980, an unemployment case where my client had quit her job because of sexual harassment from the boss. Demands for oral sex, suggestive comments, and so forth. Our argument was that the sexual harassment gave her good cause for voluntary leaving, and we won.

Probably for many people the first they heard of sexual harassment was when Anita Hill came forward in 1991 and testified about how Clarence Thomas sexually harassed her. It was so sudden, because his confirmation hearings were already over, and then were reopened over a full weekend. I know that it wasn't only people like me, with an insatiable appetite for both law and politics, who were glued to the TV.

We know the outcome: the Republicans, particularly the vile Arlen Spector, Orrin Hatch, and Strom Thurmond, a man who, if the world were arranged according to his preferences, would be eligible to own Clarence Thomas, attacked Hill with every imaginable innuendo and insult and managed to confirm Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, where he continues to disgrace the institution.

What most people don't know is what happened to Anita Hill. I just got back from watching Anita: Speaking Truth to Power at the Green Mountain Film Festival. It goes inside the hearings, literally taking us backstage as Anita Hill is escorted into the committee room, and show us her life as a law professor before and after the Thomas hearings. It also, if you were watching, will reawaken the feelings of outrage you had over twenty years ago.

What happened to Anita Hill is what happens to a lot of people. She was just going through her life, doing her job, working hard, and things were pretty good. She was never an activist until she was forced into the public eye, forced to confront what happens when the male power structure decides to silence a woman for telling the truth.

It's clear from the movie that Anita Hill isn't glad about what happened to her. It was painful at the time, her job, her career, and her life were threatened, and she was uprooted from a successful professorship  not far from where she grew up in rural Oklahoma.

What she gained, though, was not only perspective, but an activist mission that wasn't there before. Hill's experience has led her to a career of advocacy for women's equality and opportunity that was not there before. We are no longer where we were in 1991, when Senator Alan Simpson could openly refer to "this sexual harassment crap". Anita Hill shows us politicians, judges, law professors, and young women and girls who have been moved by Anita Hill's experience and efforts. 

Anita Hill opened in New York Friday night, but if you can get away from work for a couple of hours you have a chance to see it in Montpelier this Friday at 11:45. You'll be glad you did. 

Oh yeah, in case you're wondering, it's still absolutely clear: Anita Hill told the truth, Clarence Thomas lied. 

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Saturday, February 01, 2014

Scarlett Johansson channels a Baptist minister

One of the odd stories in the lead-up to the Super Bowl, which I understand is tomorrow, is the news about Scarlett Johansson.

There are always stories about the commercials that are going to be on the Super Bowl, or that were on the Super Bowl in the past, or that didn't make it past the censors for the Super Bowl.

It turns out that Ms. Johansson's commercial made headlines for more than being in two of the mentioned categories. It's a commercial for Sodastream, the kitchen appliance that is going to save you big bucks that you would otherwise be spending on soda at the store, like Coke or Pepsi.
Oops--that's how they didn't make it past the censors. Since Coke and Pepsi are big advertisers, no fair mentioning the competition, so it's back to the drawing board for Sodastream.

The big story, though, is the conflict between Ms. Johansson's decision to rake in the bucks--I haven't been able to find out exactly how many--and her role as a spokesperson for Oxfam, one of the leading human rights and antipoverty organizations worldwide.

You see, Sodastream makes its home soda machines in a settlement in the occupied territories in Palestine, so her support of Sodastream puts her in direct conflict with Oxfam, because "Oxfam is opposed to all trade from Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law."

The story percolated for a few days, with human rights activists criticizing Ms. Johansson, but Oxfam not dropping her as a spokesperson. Eventually, though, she resigned her position with Oxfam, who accepted the resignation.

 This is the only way it could have ended, obviously. Ms. Johansson couched her endorsement of Sodastream in the self-serving language Sodastream itself uses, the humanitarian mission of providing employment for Palestinians, never mentioning the sizable checks that are obviously flowing her way. She sure doesn't come out of this looking good.

 I haven't seen the comparison made, but the parallel that strikes me about this is South Africa and the Sullivan Principles. Leon Sullivan was a Baptist minister from Philadelphia on the board of General Motors, and when anti-apartheid activitists were agitating for divestment of American companies from South Africa Sullivan came up with the Sullivan Principles, a set of standards designed to justify American corporations making big bucks off apartheid.

In the case of the Sullivan Principles, as in the case of Sodastream, humanitarian reasons were trotted out to justify corporate policies: we're a positive force for change, the people need the jobs, blah, blah, blah.

Never mind that the activists on the ground supported divestment as the only effective tactic against apartheid, either in South Africa or Palestine.  Ms. Johansson's "argument cuts no ice with Palestinian groups, who say SodaStream pays Palestinians less than Israelis, or with Oxfam, which says that trading with Israeli companies operating in West Bank settlements legitimates the occupation regardless of how they treat their workers."

 Don't expect this to have any impact on Ms. Johansson's career, but at least we can hope that it creates some greater visibility to the settlement issue in the wider world.

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