Tuesday, March 31, 2015

How the Media Miss the Story

A couple of times I've joked about having a "mind meld" with President Obama that has allowed me to predict when something is up...like I did recently when he had a convo with David Simon. But I'll let you in on my secret. It's not about a mind meld or even being a "smartypants." It's just about paying attention.

A lot of people in the media miss a story like this because they're lazy. I've seen a couple of articles (here's the worst) about the President's recent commutations and they all zero in on a narrative that was started a long time ago about him being stingy with clemency. All that was required to adopt that narrative was counting.

But if you read the President and Attorney General's comments when they kicked off the Clemency Initiative, you knew what had held things up in the beginning and what they were doing to change the process. It was inevitable that - before his second term was over - there were going to be some big announcements. Furthermore, if you pay attention to what the White House said about this announcement, you know there are more to come.

The other thing I paid attention to a long time ago might seem difficult to connect with this story. But hang in there and I'll get to the point.

A couple of years ago reporter Michael Lewis spent six months shadowing President Obama. That resulted in a long-read article titled: Obama's Way. Included in it were all kinds of little and big stories about how Barack Obama approaches his job as POTUS.

One little thing I found interesting is that he only has a couple of choices for what he wears. His reasoning is that his days are so busy and full of demanding/difficult decisions, he doesn't want to waste time on his attire. Overall, he limits any kind of distraction that would sap the energy he needs to do the job.

Paying attention to that, it makes sense that he wouldn't sit down and videotape a conversation with someone like David Simon just for kicks (as much as he might enjoy that). Everything this man does on the job has a strategic purpose - even the fun stuff.

So that's my big secret. Ultimately, understanding President Obama simply means paying attention...something too many in the media are too lazy to do.

Did I Call It...Or What?!

Last week when President Obama sat down for a conversation with David Simon, I KNEW he was up to something. Today we got the first inklings of what that is:
Building on his commitment to address instances of unfairness in sentencing, President Obama granted 22 commutations today to individuals serving time in federal prison. Had they been sentenced under current laws and policies, many of these individuals would have already served their time and paid their debt to society. Because many were convicted under an outdated sentencing regime, they served years — in some cases more than a decade — longer than individuals convicted today of the same crime.

In total, the 22 commutations granted today underscore the President’s commitment to using all the tools at his disposal to bring greater fairness and equity to our justice system. Further, they demonstrate how exercising this important authority can remedy imbalances and rectify errors in sentencing.
The article notes that these commutations are a result of his Clemency Initiative.
To further this progress, the President has established a clemency initiative to encourage individuals who were sentenced under outdated laws and policies to petition for commutation. At his direction, significant reforms have followed, such as the promulgation of new criteria for potential commutation candidates to meet, including those who pose no threat to public safety, have a clean record in prison, and have been sentenced under out-of-date laws. In addition, the Department of Justice has raised awareness about how to petition for commutation to ensure that every federal inmate who believes they are deserving of this invaluable second chance has the opportunity to ask for it.
And there's more to come...
The Administration will continue to work to review thoroughly all petitions for clemency. And, while commutation is an important tool for those seeking justice and fairness in our penal system, it is nearly always an option of last resort, coming after a lengthy court process and many years behind bars. That is why President Obama is committed to working with Democrats and Republicans on sensible reforms to our criminal justice system that aim to give judges more discretion over mandatory minimum sentencing.
Six years into it...President Obama is still bringing the hope and change we voted for!

Standing Up Against Misogyny and Islamophobia

This is a story that I believe should be getting more attention from those of us in this country who call ourselves feminists.
Running a human-rights-oriented foreign policy is a challenge, even for the Swedes. In October Sweden became the first Western government to recognise the state of Palestine. Margot Wallstrom, the foreign minister, was duly invited to address a meeting of the Arab League on March 9th. Ms Wallstrom wrote a rather anodyne speech exhorting the member states to live up to their commitments on human rights, particularly women’s rights. Saudi Arabia objected, and the league blocked her from speaking. Now Sweden’s relations with much of the Arab world are in shambles.
Ms. Wallstrom is coming under some pretty heavy fire for her intentions to speak up for the rights of women. The Arab League publicly condemned her - calling her cancelled speech an offense, not only to Saudi Arabia, but to Islam.

It is the equating of standing up for women's rights to the current fervor of Islamophobia in both Europe and the U.S. that is meant to silence those who would speak out against state-sanctioned misogyny. That's where we need to weigh in.

This can be a difficult line to walk for many of us. I know that nothing makes me more angry than to hear people like Bill Maher justify his Islamophobia by condemning the treatment of women in many Islamic countries. He usually couples those remarks with statements about how Western countries abandoned that kind of thing decades ago. In other words, he completely ignores facts like this:
While its true that these acts are not sanctioned by our government, the persistence of violence against women and children in this country puts a lie to the idea that we have some kind of moral high ground to stand on when it comes to the treatment of women.

No...I'm certainly not making a case for moral equivalency between the United States and countries like Saudi Arabia when it comes to the treatment of women. What I'm saying is that we have to approach these discussions with humility and with our eyes wide open to the facts.

On the other hand, we must reject the idea that standing up for women's rights is an affront to any religion. Almost every religion on earth (including Christianity) has been used at one point or another to justify misogyny. The particulars are irrelevant. Women are human beings and, as Hillary Clinton declared years go, "women's rights are human rights."

People are free to practice the religion of their choosing. As feminists, we respect that and stand up for their rights to do so. But that gives no one license to abuse and/or oppress women. That's the line we must walk...loud and proud!

Monday, March 30, 2015

Sununu's Lunacy

Sometimes I use the work "lunatic" to describe the right wing that has seemingly taken over the Republican Party these days. Believe me...as a former mental health professional, I don't use that term lightly. It is meant to describe things like this:

Yes folks, that is the former Republican Governor of New Hampshire and Chief of Staff for President George HW Bush suggesting that it is President Obama who is "inciting" birthers by making a trip to Kenya.

A sane person would recognize that it is the birthers who are responsible for their own nonsense rather than blame it on the object of their deranged obsessions. But that's not what we get from a leader of what used to be known as the "Grand Old Party" that once claimed the mantle of "personal responsibility."

Of course, lost in that discussion was also the fact that the President will be traveling to Kenya to attend the 2015 Global Entrepreneurship Summit - the goal of which is to spur economic growth, strengthen democratic institutions and improve security in African nations. And so the pettiness of Sununu's suggestion that it's all about inciting birthers is a direct insult to people all over that continent.

The truth is that I'm probably being kind to call that kind of thing lunacy.

A Ray of Hope

On a day when all eyes are on the celebration of the "Lion of the Senate" in Boston, I thought it might be appropriate to revisit this song dedicated to Ted Kennedy by The Rascals after his brother Bobby was assassinated.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Odds & Ends

In the event that Iran and the members of P5+1 reach a preliminary agreement on Iran's nuclear program this week, we can expect a release of sound and fury from conservatives about how it sets the world on fire. To prepare yourself for making your own determination about the value of any such agreement, Jeffrey Goldberg lists the five questions you should ask.

During the 1980's when Iran and Iraq were at war with each other, the Reagan and Bush administrations facilitated the selling of chemical agents and equipment to Iraq. Then during the first Gulf War, the U.S. bombed some of those chemical weapons facilities and more than 200,000 of our troops were exposed to nerve gas and other chemical agents. If you've ever questioned why President Obama hesitates to arm factions in the Middle East, you'll want to read the whole story by Barbara Koeppel.

One of the negative consequences to the delay in a Senate vote to confirm the nomination of Loretta Lynch as our next Attorney General is that it has given rightwing advocacy groups more time to lobby against her. It should come as no surprise to anyone that the NRA is doing just that.

Yesterday when I listed some of the recent accomplishments of the Civil Rights Division at DOJ, I left one out.
Teenagers awaiting trial on adult charges in Baltimore are being kept in solitary confinement for far too long — up to 143 days in one case, according to a highly critical review by the U.S. Justice Department's Division of Civil Rights.

Federal prosecutors say being isolated for more than a few days can damage a person's mental health — especially if it's a teenager whose brain is still developing. But teenagers accused of breaking rules inside the Baltimore City Detention Center are being isolated for 13 days on average, and in some cases, far longer.
Placing children (and yes, teenagers are children) in solitary confinement is unacceptable. End of story.

On a lighter note, here's something to look forward to this fall.
Focus Features has slated Suffragette, starring Meryl Streep, Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham Carter, for an October 23 limited release. Inspired by the early-20th century campaign for women’s right to vote, the film sports potentially awards-friendly subject matter — not to mention a certain 19-time Oscar nominee...

Director Sarah Gavron’s pic centers on Maud (Mulligan), a working wife and mother who decides she must fight for her dignity both at home and in her workplace. Realizing she is not alone, she joins with several other women in becoming an activist. Those early efforts at resistance were passive, but the suffragettes become galvanized — risking it all for the cause of women’s right.

That provides the perfect segue into the next entry in "Nancy's favorite feminist songs." This one has a definite 80's feel to it. But I still love it a lot.

The Effects of Epistemic Closure

Back in 2010, Julian Sanchez did us all a favor by defining something he called "epistemic closure."
One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. (How do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!) This epistemic closure can be a source of solidarity and energy, but it also renders the conservative media ecosystem fragile...It’s not just that any particular criticism might have to be taken seriously coming from a fellow conservative. Rather, it’s that anything that breaks down the tacit equivalence between “critic of conservatives" and “wicked liberal smear artist” undermines the effectiveness of the entire information filter.
The only information allowed inside this bubble of epistemic closure conservatives have built is that which confirms what they already believe to be true. Anything that contradicts their beliefs is written off as coming from "wicked liberal smear artists" and so, not only will it be rejected, it must be destroyed for the threat it represents.

As Sanchez points out - that creates a certain vulnerability for conservatives. What happens is that every now and then, the reality outside the bubble is simply too difficult to ignore and/or reject. We all watched as that happened to one conservative commentator after another on election night 2012. Even the Republican candidate himself was finally shaken out of his epistemic closure. Reality stepped in a provided a bitter pill for all to swallow.

But when your whole identity has been built underneath the protection of that bubble of epistemic closure, even moments like that are followed by rationalizations that breech the fabric that was torn by the intrusion of reality.

What we're witnessing right now is that Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana is experiencing just such a breach in the bubble of his own epistemic closure. He actually believed that the people of Indiana (and the country) would hail his state's adoption of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act because that's what everyone inside his bubble believes.
I spoke with Pence on the same day that thousands of people rallied at the Statehouse in opposition to the law. And the same day that Angie’s List CEO Bill Oesterle announced that his company will abandon a deal with the state and city to expand the company’s headquarters in Indianapolis because of RFRA’s passage.

Oesterle’s statement is a telling sign that the outrage over RFRA isn’t limited only to the political left. Oesterle directed Republican Mitch Daniels’ 2004 campaign for governor. And it’s a signal that the damage from the RFRA debacle could be extensive...

I asked the governor if he had anticipated the strongly negative reaction set off by the bill’s passage. His response made it clear that he and his team didn’t see it coming.

“I just can’t account for the hostility that’s been directed at our state,” he said.
Of course Gov. Pence is now backtracking on this bill and promising to clear up the "confusion" about its intent. But, just as legislators in Georgia learned this week, it is the intention of supporters of RFRA to discriminate against LGBT people. He's about to learn precisely what it means to be between a rock and a hard place.

Democrats should take note of this moment. We often give the pronouncements of those who live inside a bubble of epistemic closure too much power. As Stephen Colbert said so many years ago, "Reality has a well-known liberal bias."

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Odds & Ends

Recently I wrote about how the Obama administration has strengthened the Civil Rights Division at DOJ. This week they made some big announcements:
Yesterday Ed Kilgore wrote about the confusion Scott Walker's pronouncements have created over the use of the word "amnesty" amongst conservatives. Apparently Walker isn't the only one that has people scratching their heads over this one.
Republican presidential hopeful Ted Cruz’s office on Friday indicated the Texas senator remains open to a path to legal status for undocumented workers, putting him at odds with conservatives who deride such a position as unacceptable “amnesty.”...

The idea anyone could get to the right of Cruz on immigration, who has repeatedly threatened to shut down the government to defund Obama’s “illegal executive amnesty” might come as a surprise. But by the terms of the immigration debate set out so far, his bona fides could absolutely come into question. Many conservatives, including the leading anti-immigration groups, consider any policy that falls short of deportation “amnesty.”...

This lack of an clear definition of amnesty, beyond “thing conservatives don’t like,” can create a lot of confusion in trying to tease out candidate’s positions.
As we look toward the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris later this year, Mexico is the latest country to get on board with a plan to cap greenhouse emissions.

Astronauts Scott Kelly, Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka made it to the space station for their #YearInSpace.
The crew will support several hundred experiments in biology, biotechnology, physical science and Earth science — research that impacts life on Earth. Data and samples will be collected throughout the year from a series of studies involving Scott and his twin brother, former NASA astronaut Mark Kelly [Gabby Gifford's husband]. The studies will compare data from the genetically-identical Kelly brothers to identify any subtle changes caused by spaceflight.

Finally, I've decided to adopt a focus for my musical postings. Over the next few months I'm going to highlight some of my favorite feminist songs. Of course there will be a few obvious choices. But stick around...some may surprise you. Also, feel free to suggest what you think I should include.

For today, here is a new cover of Lesley Gore's "You Don't Own Me" by Grace (featuring G-Eazy). It's good to know that the young folks still respect this feminist anthem.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Free Eric Holder

I can't tell you how much I LOVE this!
A new fashion trend is sweeping the halls of the Justice Department for spring – “Free Eric Holder’’ wristbands, an inside joke among Attorney General Eric Holder‘s top aides and supporters about the months-long political standoff over his successor.

The black rubber bracelets were the idea of Molly Moran, a senior Justice Department official, according to people who have received them. The wristbands, like the kind people wear to support various charities or causes, started appearing on staffers’ wrists a couple weeks ago, when it became clear there was no end in sight to the standoff over the nomination of Loretta Lynch...

Staffers have paid for the bracelets with their own money – not taxpayer funds – and have talked about making Free Eric Holder T-shirts as well.

“We’re hoping for a day we don’t have to wear these bracelets anymore, even if it takes a charity album,’’ joked one.
One of the best ways to deal with the kind of insanity we're seeing from Congressional Republicans over things like the Loretta Lynch nomination is to simply point and laugh. Good job on that front Molly!

What Minnesota and California Have in Common

I've probably done enough humble-bragging about my home state of Minnesota and Governor Mark Dayton. But I did appreciate the way this visual summed it up.

I was also reminded that the two states in the country that are getting a lot of attention right now for their robust economic recovery are Minnesota and California.
For years, business lobbyists complained about what they derided as "job killer" laws that drive employers out of California.

Rival state governors, notably former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, made highly publicized visits to the Golden State in hopes of poaching jobs.

But new numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics tell a different story. Total jobs created in the 12 months ending Jan. 31 show California leading other states. California gained 498,000 new jobs, almost 30% more than the Lone Star State's total of 392,900 for the same period.
Of course these two states have almost nothing in common. But there are a couple of things that stand out. Both Governors - Mark Dayton and Jerry Brown - took office in January 2011 following Republicans who had served more than one term. They beat the odds of the 2010 midterm elections that brought in Republican Governors like Scott Walker, Rick Scott, Rick Snyder and Sam Brownback.

But what I find even more interesting is that both of these Governors are old white guy political re-treads. Perhaps that's just a meaningless coincidence. But in an era when there is a lot of focus on young up-and-coming energetic newcomers in politics, it does make me wonder if the old guys who have already been around the block once or twice might not bring something to the table that we need these days.

Just a thought...

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Two Men I Admire Most...In Conversation (updated)

As soon as I saw this, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven ;-)

Barack Obama and David Simon talked about The Wire and our failed war on drugs.

I also have to note that, in the midst of this conversation, President Obama points out something that I wrote about a few weeks ago: the fact that one of the reasons why the Labor Force Participation Rate (LFPR) remains low is that our over-incarceration during the war on drugs has produced a record number of Americans with felony records (mostly brown and black men).

UPDATE: Question: Why would President Obama do this interview now? He's laying the groundwork and setting the stage. Somethin's up.

The Lack of Consensus on GOP Foreign Policy

Over the last few elections, the centerpiece of Republican campaigns has been to blame President Obama and Democrats for the slow economic recovery from the great recession. But now that Americans are finally feeling the benefits of a stronger economy, that is going to be a tough sell.

For now, it appears that the big issue Republicans want us to all focus on for 2016 is foreign policy. Step one in that process is to convince us all that the "world is on fire" and we are threatened by "Islamic extremists." Step two is to suggest that this is all President Obama's fault and he is doing nothing to stop it.

If this were a rational approach to political differences, step three would be to promote an alternative strategy to address the problem. But other than truly deranged people like John Bolton (who actually laid out a plan for war with Iran), we get no specifics.

Unlike Republican attempts to hide their actual economic policies (see budget gimmicks), I would suggest that their lack of specifics on foreign policy has less to do with an awareness that Americans wouldn't support their proposals and more to do with the fact that there is no consensus about what an alternative strategy would be.

Right now the fear-mongering that is fueled by Obama Derangement Syndrome is playing right into the hands of the neocon interventionists. That is making life difficult for Sen. Rand Paul. As some have noted, it puts him in the position of having to decide whether or not to abandon his father's non-interventionist libertarianism and contempt for Israel.

As I have been pointing out recently though, it also puts Jeb Bush in a bit of a bind. Matt Lewis suggests that the pressure he is feeling is whether or not to align himself with his father's "realists" on foreign policy or his brother's neocons. Lewis reminds us that it wasn't just James Baker who parted ways with the latter. Back in 2002, Brent Scowcroft (national security advisor to both President's Ford and George H.W. Bush) published a prescient op-ed in the Wall Street Journal titled: Don't Attack Saddam.

Over the Bush/Cheney years, this disagreement between the neocons and the realists was mostly kept under wraps. But as I have suggested, it appears that in 2006 (when Rumsfeld was fired and Cheney sidelined), the realists staged a quiet coup and took over. The idea that Poppy Bush and his friends would sit quietly by and watch Jeb make all the same mistakes brother George did is not likely.

The truth is that, in their modern-day iterations, the lines that separate Republicans and Democrats were more clearly driven by domestic than foreign policy differences. After all, it was Kennedy who got us into the war in Vietnam, Johnson who escalated it, and Nixon who ended it. In a fascinating overview, Ronald Reagan's assistant secretary of defense Lawrence Korb has written about where there is overlap between President Obama's foreign policy and that of Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

I'm not sure that in today's political climate it is possible to have a rational discussion about what a foreign policy for the 21st century should look like. President Obama has clearly outlined his own thoughts on that and we are just now beginning to finally extricate ourselves from the mess the neocons made of things during the Bush/Cheney years. As they ramp up the fear-mongering to suggest we should repeat those mistakes, it will be interesting to watch whether or not the libertarians and realists still have a voice in the Republican Party.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

GOP Sanity? Oh No - We Can't Have That!

It's clear that the sanity expressed by Former Secretary of State James Baker on Israel and Iran that I wrote about yesterday has posed a bit of a problem for Jeb Bush. The so-called "establishment candidate" is already in trouble with the Republican base for his lackluster demonization of Common Core and his position on immigration reform. So it should come as no surprise that today the latest Bush candidate for president had to respond to Baker's speech with an op-ed in the National Review.

Jeb didn't really say anything noteworthy in his commentary. It contains all of the usual distortions about President Obama's actual positions and policies as well as being completely devoid of alternatives. But I have to say that this sentence is particularly absurd coming from someone named Bush.
And Iraq continues to fall further under Iran’s orbit — a surrender of American influence and an insult to the troops and commanders who sacrificed mightily to stabilize that country.
Of course Jeb wants us to blame that on Obama and completely forget that it was his bother's decision to force regime change in Iraq that installed a Shia government led by Iran-friendly Nouri al-Maliki - whose suppression of Sunnis is what led to the formation of ISIS in Iraq.

But nevermind...Jeb has a presidential campaign to run. Appealing to Republican sanity has become a losing proposition.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Photo of the Day: Supergirls

President Barack Obama made some waves and warned the robots at the White House Science Fair on Monday, but it was the elementary-school Supergirls who captured his science-loving heart. Wearing red capes over their Girl Scout uniforms, the 6-year-olds from Tulsa, Oklahoma, showed off a page-turning robot, made from Lego blocks and designed for use by disabled people. Later, Obama confessed he was tickled by the kids' command of techno-lingo. "This is a quote. They said, 'It's just a prototype,'" he recalled.

Let's Run the Tape Back

Last week in Cleveland, President Obama said this:
It’s important to note that at every step that we’ve taken over the past six years we were told our goals were misguided; they were too ambitious; that my administration’s policies would crush jobs and explode deficits, and destroy the economy forever. Remember that? Because sometimes we don’t do the instant replay, we don’t run the tape back, and then we end up having the same argument going forward.
The folks at NowThis pulled the tape so we could run it back.

It's a total unambiguous route for President Obama.