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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Saturday, January 25, 2014

Oklahoma, NOT OK

Republicans in Oklahoma are showing that, like the rest of the Republican Party, they are taking their cues from the racists who brought us the strategy of massive resistance during the civil rights movement.
 Of course, the new civil rights movement is for marriage equality and equal treatment and dignity in general, and the dead-enders don't like it one bit. They especially don't like that the federal courts are ordering them to stop discriminating, so in Oklahoma they're resurrecting a favored tactic from the Jim Crow days.
You know that a couple of weeks ago a federal court found Oklahoma's marriage equality ban to be unconstitutional, but you might not have heard that the legislature has been trying to decide what to do about it.
For their solution they are looking to the ideas of the old South, when cities under pressure to integrate their public schools closed the public schools entirely, creating what were colloquially known as seg academies, private schools with the ability to keep discriminating. Or, if the city was told it had to integrate its swimming pools it would just close down the public schools.
Bingo, problem solved, no race mixing allowed.
What's the marriage equivalent? Pure simplicity, really. Just abolish marriage.
No, really, I'm not kidding. Watch this:



I'm thinking they may not have thought this whole thing through, though. For instance, lots of people like being married. In addition, lots of people, even straight couples, like the tax and other benefits that being married brings.
I don't think this is going anywhere, but if you want to have a clue to their mindset this is a good place to start. 

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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The banality of evil

In her book Eichmann in Jerusalem Hannah Arendt coined the phrase "the banality of evil" to capture the sheer horror of someone like Adolf Eichmann, who carried out his executions of the Jews in the same way that another government functionary would file tax forms, distribute zoning permits, or even hand out railroad tickets, accepting the validity and normality of every dictate of the state.

This is precisely the phrase that came to my mind while listening to last week's two-part NPRinterview of John Rizzo, who is flogging a book based on his experience as the interim general counsel for the CIA during the torture years. (No, not linking to the book here. If you want to pay him for approving of torture you can find it yourself.)

Rizzo is clearly not a fanatic, but the interview makes clear that he had no difficulty accepting the premise that the government was essentially permitted to do whatever it wanted to extract information from those it held captive.
Rizzo even clings to the tired line that waterboarding isn't torture.


 He's right, it is defined in U.S. law. Here's one definition I found: 

As used in this chapter—
. . . 

 Guess what: this is exactly what waterboarding is. It isn't simulated drowning, or giving the victim the impression that he is drowning. No, it is subjecting him to drowning, only to rescue him before he succumbs. It absolutely carries with it the threat of imminent death, the suggestion that if he does not cooperate the torturer will eventually decide not to stop pouring the water over him but continue until he can no longer breathe.

I don't expect Rizzo to ever face ethical or disciplinary charges for presiding over torture by the CIA, but if he does I am pretty sure I know what his defense will be.

"I was only following orders." 

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Wednesday, January 01, 2014

My top books of 2013

Note that I'm not saying "top ten", because I don't necessarily know how many I'll want to list. Still, I have a feeling that I won't have trouble with the dividing line between the books I would strongly recommend, those that are just okay, and those that I would steer you clear of.

This year we saw Republicans in state legislatures continue to try to keep black voters away from the polls and Republicans on the Supreme Court gut the Voting Rights Act, so this is a timely reminder of the difficulty and heroism of the fight to establish voting rights.

 Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup
At a time when conservatives think slaves should have been grateful for the life they had, and Southern conservatives express nostalgia for the Lost Cause and anger at what they like to call the War of Northern Aggression, it is still important to have a clear vision of the reality of slavery in our past.

 A new poll just demonstrated that the percentage of Republicans who "believe in" evolution (do you "believe in" gravity? the germ theory? the heliocentric model?) has dropped to a minority. Maybe it's because some of the smart ones are leaving, but it's important to know the facts.

We are constantly seeing new research demonstrating the limited effectiveness and affirmative harms of psychiatric medications. In this book Carlat exposes the moral bankruptcy of the industry in which so many policy makers continue to repose their blind faith.

 Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann.
New York City is falling apart, Richard Nixon is about to resign, and a French tightrope walker prepares to walk between the two towers of the World Trade Center.  This novel, which I had some reluctance to read, captures these events and a world we can hardly imagine or remember forty years later.

 My interest in fantasy pretty much begins and ends with Tolkien, but I know that fantasy readers are always on the lookout for a new voice. Here's one that presents a believable world and believable, relatable characters. It's worth reading, even if I, the author's father, say so myself.

The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
 You really haven't read it yet? Come on, what are you waiting for? Too big a fan of capitalism? 

 Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon.
 I never thought I'd have any interest in a book about the world of horse racing, but this is definitely worthwhile.


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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

New Hampshire Democrat channels George Costanza

Okay, not the weightiest matter we have to talk about this, but I hope you didn't miss this story.
According to the Nashua Telegraph,   

 And get this--it was their fault!

 When a witness took a picture of Campbell's legislative license plate, his excuse was "The ducks should have moved.”

Or, as George Costanza taught us many years ago:

Don't we have a deal with the pigeons? 

Saturday, December 21, 2013

More proof that vaccines kill

Monday, December 16, 2013

What an outrage!!!!!!!!

My god, do you believe this?

The Chronicle of Higher Education has released its latest salary survey and, if you can believe it, there are forty-two presidents of private colleges and universities in the United States who get paid more than one million dollars!

Forty-two!

Some of these schools are exactly the big-name schools you would expect to pay high salaries, like Columbia, Yale, MIT,  Stanford, or the place at the top of the list, the University of Chicago. Others, however, are kind of surprising. Roger Maris College, Johnson & Wales, or the University of Laverne ??Granted, it probably is the only institution of higher learning you've ever heard of in Laverne, California, but really? $1,184,224 (31st)?

Who knew American colleges had so much money to throw around?

I'll tell you who knew: football and basketball coaches.

That's right, while the Chronicle is surveying academic salaries, USA Today surveys what NCAA members pay their coaches, and it happens that one or two of them also haul in over a million. Like seventy--yes, seventy--head football coaches, thirty-six basketball coaches, three assistant football coaches, and nine athletic directors.

In fact, if you want to find a coach who makes less than what Robert J. Zimmer, the president of the University of Chicago and the highest-paid president in the country makes, $3,358,723, you have to go down to Steve Spurrier, who coaches football at South Carolina and is number twelve on the coaches list; or number six on the basketball coaches list. Mike Krzyzewski, known universally as "Coach K" because literally nobody can pronounce his name, makes more coaching basketball for Duke than the top two university presidents.

So if you're a fundraiser calling for contributions to Michigan State, where I got my undergraduate degree, or Michigan, where I went to law school, don't be surprised if, instead of getting out my checkbook, I ask you about the $11,725,488 you paid your head football and basketball coaches last year.

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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

What's going on in New Jersey?

I grew up in New Jersey, and because I went to school in New York I spent many hours sitting on a bus on the Jersey side of one of the Hudson River crossings, often the George Washington Bridge. It's painful sitting there, not moving, watching the time advance to the inevitable late arrival at school and the punishment, "jug" (traditionally from the Latin word "jugum", which means "yoke") that was sure to follow.

Nevertheless, I'm pretty sure I never got delayed for hours because the governor ordered several lanes of traffic shut down because he wanted to punish the mayor of Fort Lee for not supporting his reelection bid. No, that particular instance of malfeasance had to wait for Chris Christie, who is obviously gearing up for a presidential candidacy.

At this point we don't have the facts one way or the other, but we do know two things:

First, the excuse being put forth by Christie's people, that it was done to carry out a "traffic study", seems transparently bogus, at least until they can present affirmative evidence of the planning for the study, the study design, testimony from traffic engineers, study results, and the like. Maybe evidence will be forthcoming, but I kind of doubt it.

Second, can anyone doubt Christie's capacity to carry out such a vindictive act?

The local newspaper, the (Bergen Evening) Record, is demanding answers:

While partisan politics are certainly afoot here, Democrats are right to press the issue. We still need to know why average commuters were inconvenienced when two of the three approach lanes to the bridge from Fort Lee local streets were suddenly closed for five weekday mornings.

Recent testimony in Trenton by Bill Baroni, the authority's deputy executive director and a Christie appointee, vaguely attributed the lane closings to a traffic study. That served only to confuse things and to confirm the view that the Port Authority is unresponsive to public concerns.

What the public still deserves to know is why the lanes were closed, why no one was told about the closures in advance and what closing the lanes accomplished. Answers to these questions should not be state secrets.

Even if you don't follow North Jersey news, this is worth paying attention to.

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Sunday, December 08, 2013

This is what legalization looks like.

It's started to spread across the country, especially in beer aficionado circles, but here's a news story that first started attracting chuckles here in Vermont. From the Burlington Free Press:
The Vermont Department of Liquor Control cited a Burlington woman who they say sold the popular Vermont beer Heady Topper online.
 It's pretty irresistable, right? Hipsters willing to overpay for overhopped beer, headlines for Vermont's current fave local product, juxtaposed with a little private enterprise and a government agency too concerned with prosecuting minor, if not imaginary, victimless crimes. If you're looking for a little harmless diversion on your way to some serious news, this one has it all.
Only the thing is, get used to it.
Nowadays the tide on marijuana prohibition has turned, and just about every sensible person agrees that legalization is inevitable, with the only question being "How soon?". The problem is that as a recent article in the New Yorker makes clear, legalization of marijuana is way more complicated than clearing the path for you to keep buying from your old college roommate (let's call him Dave), only without worrying about getting caught.
 No. Remember how part of the argument for legalized marijuana has always been that it's such a lucrative agricultural product that we might as well be collecting taxes on it? Maybe enough to wipe out the deficit?
Well, to be sure the taxes are being collected we have to do way more than tell the cops to stop arresting dealers, we also have to establish a whole regulated, taxed market, which is pretty complicated. They're trying to do it right now in Washington, but new questions pop up at every turn. For example, if you want people to buy their pot in the regulated market, and not keep buying it from Dave you have to give them reasons to make the switch.
As Mark Kleiman, a public policy expert, says in the New Yorker article:
 We want people to pay the taxes, which means they're going to have to stop going to their old friend Dave and start going downtown, maybe right next door to where they buy their Heady Topper. Otherwise, no taxes, no controls on safety and purity of product, chaos.
That doesn't sound terribly bad to me, and maybe not to you. After all, if marijuana is going to be a legal product, why should I care any more if the people selling it have licenses than I care about any other legal product, like flashlights or umbrellas in New York City within thirty seconds of when it starts raining?
Well, we want to collect the tax, right? And why would someone buy in a licensed retailer, where you know you're going to pay the tax on top of the price, when they can call Dave, get a bag, and pay less?
Which is where our Heady Topper entrepreneur comes in. Beer is a legal product, and just about every adult is allowed to buy it, but that doesn't mean everyone who is lucky enough to get their hands on a case of the old Topper is allowed to sell it legally.
You should read the New Yorker article. You'll see that, at a minimum, it raises questions you probably never thought about. 

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Thursday, December 05, 2013

Amandla!


Look at this picture. It's easy for us to get misty-eyed, and remember the man of peace, but look at him. This is a tough guy. Twenty-seven years in prison, and when twice offered his release he refused because it was based on the condition of renouncing violence as a political weapon.

Like George Washington, he could have been president for life, but unlike every other African leader who overthrew a colonial power he established stability and stepped down after one term.

We knew this day was coming. He was ninety-five and in poor health. Each new report made me feel that people were trying to hold onto him, make him struggle beyond any human endurance, simply because nobody wanted to bear the loss. 

My first political activity in Vermont, back about thirty years ago, was working on divestment of state funds from companies doing business in South Africa. While Mandela did more than any of us could do, American activists were proud to play a small part in maintaining pressure on the apartheid regime, even when Ronald Reagan was supporting it.

The mourning will be universal, and rightly so. 

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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Support Our Troops! (Some of them, anyway)

The states of Oklahoma and Texas have revived one of the beloved traditions of the Civil Rights Movement in the sunny South: the segregation academy.

Back in the 1950's, 60's, and 70's many southern states responded to court integration orders by simply closing the offending institutions. If ordered to integrate their municipal swimming pools they closed the pools so that their beautiful white babies wouldn't have to play and swim with black children. Ordered to integrate their schools, they closed the public schools and established so-called private "academies", colloquially known as seg academies, to skirt the legal effect of the court orders while continuing to deny educational opportunity to their black citizens. 

Now we hear, in the wake of the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, that some of the southern states are taking a lesson from their segregationist forbears.

Back then the enemy was racial desegregation, this year it's equal treatment for same sex couples.



 Other states in the proud Southern tradition who are refusing to provide same-sex benefits for their National Guard members include Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Georgia.  

Since the 2001 terrorist attacks and our military response you can't go a day without seeing one more jingoistic appeal to "support out troops", and this sentiment seems to be strongest in the hyper-militarized Deep South. 

One can't help thinking that it's ironic that these are the states that are in the forefront of denying benefits to the troops. 

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Monday, November 18, 2013

More great moments in religion

UPDATE: The church jury has passed its verdict. This hero has been suspended for thirty days and told that at the end of that time he's going to have to publicly state his willingness to knuckle under. As a friend of mine put it, "confess, or call for "more weight.""

After the jury pronounced its sentence, Schaefer's supporters began overturning chairs in the courtroom — symbolizing the biblical story of Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers — and held an impromptu communion service.



Just so you don't think I'm singling out any one religion, here are a couple of highlights showing modern religions living up to their holy principles.

The most current first. Today a Methodist minister was convicted in a religious church of violating church principles by performing a wedding ceremony for his son. You guessed the reason, right? The son married another man.


As reported in the Los Angeles Times:

The jury will reconvene Tuesday morning to decide the penalty for the Rev. Frank Schaefer of Lebanon, Pa., the Associated Press reported. Schaefer faces punishment ranging from a reprimand to losing his ministerial credentials.
. . . 
The United Methodist church, the nation’s largest mainline Protestant denomination, rejects homosexuality as contrary to Christian teaching and bars its clergy from performing same-sex marriages. However, gays and lesbians are allowed to be full members of the church.

Feel free to try to engage your brain in a system of reasoning that accepts gays and lesbians as "full members" while it disrespects and condemns their families. Just don't complain to me if it gives you the mother of all headaches.

********************

And another story I came across today relates to a crime we've seen all too much of in recent years: clerical child rape. The twist is that it's not just for Catholic priests anymore.

It's reported in Vice:

Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg—who is 63 with a long, graying beard—recently sat down with me to explain what he described as a “child-rape assembly line” among sects of fundamentalist Jews. He cleared his throat. “I’m going to be graphic,” he said.

. . .

 The victims, like those of Catholic priests, are mostly boys. Rabbi Rosenberg believes around half of young males in Brooklyn’s Hasidic community—the largest in the United States and one of the largest in the world—have been victims of sexual assault perpetrated by their elders. Ben Hirsch, director of Survivors for Justice, a Brooklyn organization that advocates for Orthodox sex abuse victims, thinks the real number is higher. “From anecdotal evidence, we’re looking at over 50 percent. It has almost become a rite of passage.”

Ultra-Orthodox Jews who speak out about these abuses are ruined and condemned to exile by their own community. Dr. Amy Neustein, a nonfundamentalist Orthodox Jewish sociologist and editor of Tempest in the Temple: Jewish Communities and Child Sex Scandals, told me the story of a series of Hasidic mothers in Brooklyn she got to know who complained that their children were being preyed on by their husbands.

It's tempting to say, as so many did in the Catholic rape crisis, that this is the actions of a minority of depraved individuals. The key here, though, as in the Catholic Church, is that the institution has stood together to protect the perpetrators and isolate and compound the crimes visited on the victims.

All we need now is aggressive action in behalf of these children.

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