Archive for December, 2010

Liberal Federalism

Like the often-used cry of “judicial activism,” the cry of “states’ rights” is an excuse to like or dislike a point of view while clothing it in a higher, “principled” calling.

The debate over “states rights” aka Federalism is not new. This debate is as old as the nation, probably older. More importantly, it doesn’t break down into convenient left/right, liberal/conservative divisions.

Federal power can be good if the law is good. States’ powers can be good if their laws are good or if they are resisting a bad federal law. Historically, neither left nor right has a monopoly on good policy. Left, right, and in-between have used the tactic of federalism when it suits them.

The Civil Rights Act is a good use of Federal power trumping the power of the individual states. The Patriot Act is a bad one.

Medical marijuana is a good use of states rights asserted against the federal government. Capping damages awarded in medical malpractice lawsuits is a bad one.

Whichever side wears the mantle of federalism is a tactical decision depending on the issue at hand. But, to hear right-wingers talk these days, you’d think they invented the idea of federalism and states’ rights. Well that just ain’t true.

The right has overreached and overruled state laws with federal powers plenty of times: no child left behind, tort reform (attempted), the war on drugs, and mandatory minimum sentences come to mind. The right has also stood up for states’ rights in the name of despicable causes like Jim Crow laws, resisting school integration, and blurring the lines between church and state. Heading into 2011, they can be expected to continue opposing health care reform under the guise of “states’ rights” as well. It’s clear that conservatives are for federalism only when it suits them as a political tactic.

Liberals also use federalism when appropriate. Gun control, stem cell research, medical marijuana, and environmental protection come to mind as liberal “states’ rights” issues. The difference is that liberals don’t wear federalism on their sleeves like the current crop of right wingers.

Ultimately, the issue of “states’ rights” depends on the issue at hand, and the positions of each side reflect their views of what is just and what is good policy. It comes down to values.

The Last Words of Richard Holbrooke

Since the traditional media will probably gloss over them, I want to make sure everyone hears about the last words of Richard Holbrooke, US Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. According to members of his family, his last words were, “You’ve got to stop this war in Afghanistan.” These candid words of a dying, distinguished diplomat are like a real-time WikiLeaks. And they are the truth.

We have been in Afghanistan longer than we were in Vietnam.

We have been in Afghanistan longer than the USSR was in Afghanistan. (They were the previous record-holders.)

We have been in Afghanistan too long.

It’s time to bring our troops home, save money and lives, and focus on our own borders and infrastructure. While we’re at it, we should bring home most of our troops stationed abroad in countries where there hasn’t been war in half a century or more. Germany and Japan come quickly to mind.

And, if we want to get all “founding fathers” on this mess, let’s remember that the US of A is — Constitutionally speaking — not even supposed to have a standing army, much less an empire, even much less a globe-spanning one.

The real question is: are we too far gone down the military-industrial rabbit hole? Can we ever make it back?

The Language Game Continues

Framing is the most important concept that the modern informed electorate needs to understand. 

The words and phrases that are spoken to us by pundits, news anchors, politicians, and the like tend to be carefully chosen, focus-grouped, think-tanked WEAPONS of language that are deployed on the general public.  They establish the boundaries of an issue before any debate or discussion takes place.

The language game is serious business. 

Back in the health care debate, a (recently leaked) memo from Fox News instructed their on-air personalities to refer to the public option as the “government option,” a right-wing labeling of the concept that resonated better with focus groups.  To me, this is a no-brainer example; of course Fox News is a right-wing propaganda machine who takes their marching (and speaking) orders from the GOP.  But, it illustrates the concept of framing nicely.

Similarly, one of the biggest right-wing frame jobs that has persisted in our discussion of government programs is the word entitlement.  The word entitlement carries within it the idea that something is expected without earning it.  The word entitlement conjures up visions of lazy, ungrateful masses with their hands held out in expectation of a reward without work.  This image is literally what many on the right see in their mind’s eye when they imagine their fellow not-so-well-off Americans.  The seeds of indignant outrage and righteous fury are sown with only one word out of the gate.

And we keep letting the word entitlement be used inappropriately.

99% of the time, government programs that are referred to as entitlements are never in place to give handouts to ingrates as the right would have us believe; rather, they serve some important function in our society.  Social Security is exactly what the name says it is — a stabilizing force in the lives of working people in their old age (and among survivors and the disabled). Unemployment benefits are given to people who 1) had a job and lost it, and 2) are actively looking for a new job, so that people don’t lose everything when life throws them a curve ball.  Public education is the foundation of a strong democracy, and having educated neighbors is in the self-interest of every citizen.  Yet, all three of these programs (and others too) have been vilified as entitlements by the right in America.

These programs are not entitlements, they are agreements, parts of the social contract. They are also investments in the public good, a concept which I am starting to doubt that the right acknowledges or cares about these days.  They are also important parts of social justice, a concept which I have seen American right-wingers openly mock or spread fear about, and shame on them for that.

To put framing in perspective, look across the Atlantic.  Students in Europe who are rioting in the streets have it right.  (And I am amazed that Texas college students have taken little action in the face of 86% tuition increases from 2003-2009.)  Those European students should be outraged that their governments are unraveling a lifetime worth of mutually understood plans, infrastructure, and moral fiber.  It’s a Darth Vader meets Lando Calrissian moment: “Pray I do not alter the deal any further.”

Don’t let language control your thoughts like a Jedi mind trick.  Spotting frames through linguistic vigilance requires critical thinking and a constant questioning of even the ordinary-sounding terms we hear in mass media.  It’s not easy, but it’s what we have to train ourselves to do in order for our democracy to survive.

Three Priorities

To make the lame duck session less lame, there are three long-delayed priorities on which the Democratic majority should focus their efforts to pass before the end of the year:
1) The DREAM Act

2) The START Treaty

3) The repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT)

These bills are all active in Congress right now, so call your representatives to urge them to do the right thing.  The popular support for each of these bills is there (especially among the Democratic base), and they could be up for vote as early as today.

As for Monday’s deal, I still hope it doesn’t make it.  If it does, then passing the above three pieces of legislation would go a long way toward soothing irritated liberals.

Drop the Deal

Thanks to a Republican filibuster in the Senate, the plan favored by the Democratic majority in Congress (and by President Obama) to let the Bush tax cuts expire for the wealthiest Americans while preserving them for the middle class has failed.

The next best option now is to let all of the Bush tax cuts expire. However, that is not the deal that President Obama announced yesterday. Obama has, essentially, paid the ransom demanded by Republicans and the wealthiest Americans they represent. In order to get an extension to unemployment insurance benefits, the Bush tax cuts will be extended another two years.

I think now is the time for Congressional Democrats to drop this bad deal. Don’t let this Stockholm-syndrome compromise through. Several House Dems have spoken to this effect already, and Sen. Bernie Sanders has even indicated he may pull Tom Coburn-style antics to derail the deal in the Senate, where legislation goes to die. (Incidentally, I highly recommend watching Sanders’ recent remarks about how the Republicans are holding us hostage to get another giveaway to the extremely wealthy.)

Aside from food safety and child nutrition legislation, this will be the lamest of lame duck sessions if the Bush tax giveaway to the rich is extended.

Let’s Generate PAC Names

Sunlight foundation has released a new PAC name generator. Why? If our political landscape is now determined by faceless, money-funneling, semi-corporate organizations, then we may as well get a chuckle out of it.

Best one I got was “United Citizens for Limits.” Post your favorite in the comments below.

Have fun!

Birther Berman, Broadcast Bomb

Here’s something funny for your Thursday. CNN’s Anderson Cooper absolutely demolishes the bizzaro birther logic pushed at the State Legislature by Tyler, Texas’ own State Rep. Leo Berman.

The only thing missing from this video clip is a South Park -esque message: “THIS IS WHAT BIRTHERS ACTUALLY BELIEVE.”

I’ve poked fun before at our own Congressman Randy Neugebauer’s birther antics (remember, he was one of the original sponsors of the Birther Bill) and at our recently-reelected County Judge Tom Head’s courthouse birther-ism. I thought we would be done with this by now. It’s sad now to see that, 2 years down the line, people still advocate this crap.

And what happened to the GOP’s supposed love of the Constitution? I guess the founding fathers really messed up with the “full faith and credit” clause; they forgot to add the bit about a long form birth certificate.

Let’s Talk WikiLeaks

Like just about anyone following the latest WikiLeaks document dump of tens of thousands of diplomatic cables, I am fascinated by it and the implications surrounding it.

The best interpretation of the WikiLeaks “cablegate” event that I have seen comes from Salon’s Glenn Greenwald, who absolutely knocks it out of the park. The entire article is worth your time, but here is the main point for the to-lazy-to-read crowd:

The central goal of WikiLeaks is to prevent the world’s most powerful factions — including the sprawling, imperial U.S. Government — from continuing to operate in the dark and without restraints. Most of the institutions which are supposed to perform that function — beginning with the U.S. Congress and the American media — not only fail to do so, but are active participants in maintaining the veil of secrecy. WikiLeaks, whatever its flaws, is one of the very few entities shining a vitally needed light on all of this. It’s hardly surprising, then, that those factions — and their hordes of spokespeople, followers and enablers — see WikiLeaks as a force for evil. That’s evidence of how much good they are doing.

The amount of important stories resulting from this information is staggering. The cablegate information dump runs the gamut from funny-but-newsworthy quips like “Putin and Medvedev are like Batman and Robin,” to timely stories like “Middle Eastern nations besides Israel are nervous about Iran,” to infuriating stories like “The USA supported the 2009 military coup in Honduras.” We’ll be hearing new revelations from cablegate for weeks to come.

Like the WikiLeaks information itself, my ideas about it are a disorganized jumble. Here are some random thoughts to play us out:

* Technology is always disruptive to the old order of things. WikiLeaks is another manifestation of the disruptiveness of the internet.

* To those, including our own Secretary of State, who are accusing WikiLeaks and Julian Assange of being criminals — what crimes have they committed? The leakers of the information have almost certainly committed a crime, but WikiLeaks / Assange have not. Similarly, calling WikiLeaks “terrorism” doesn’t make sense; that is an authoritarian, knee-jerk response.

* Media is being deconstructed, decentralized, and democratized before our eyes. What is required of us is our participation. Without it, we are bound to be led by the nose by those in power yet again.

* Secrecy is a form of power. The gaze is a form of power. In a healthy democracy, ordinary citizens should have some measure of both in all aspects of their lives. The WikiLeaks cablegate helps to restore the balance between government and people.

* WikiLeaks’ next leak promises to target a major U.S. bank (most likely Bank of America). Get the popcorn ready.

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