The Death of News

February 3, 1959, was the day the music died – that’s what Don McLean told us in 1971 in that odd hit song about how it was all over for us. That was the day Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens, and the “The Big Bopper” died in a plane crash in Iowa. Is this heaven? No, it’s Iowa, and you’re dead. Buddy Holly had just disbanded the Crickets and had put together a new group with Waylon Jennings and bunch of his other West Texas buddies, but now that would never be. Ritchie Valens, from out here in Pacoima, the scruffy dusty barrio at the far empty north end of the San Fernando Valley, had had a smash hit with La Bamba – Anglo kids loved it. That was going to change everything, and then his short eight-month recording career was over. Rock would revert to white imitations of black music for the next few decades, and the Big Bopper was just fun. The fun was over. That age of rock music was over. Happy innocence was over. Drive your Chevy to the levee, but the levee is dry.

It was 1971 after all – Nixon was in the White House. That September, the White House “plumbers” unit burglarized a psychiatrist’s office to find files on Daniel Ellsberg, the guy who leaked the Pentagon Papers, to prove he was pervert or something. The New York Times and the Washington Post had published those papers, and suddenly Washington Post reporters were no longer welcome at White House events. Nixon was going to stick it to the Post, and to its editor, Ben Bradlee, who he despised. There’d be news, but the Post would have to report it second-hand, and late. Bradlee was on Nixon’s Enemies List – set up that August by a bunch of White House aides to “use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies” – even if Nixon himself may not have known about it. It was a nasty time, but the next June, five burglars were arrested in the middle of the night exiting the offices of the Democratic National Committee at Watergate complex, and one of them was James McCord, the security director for the Committee for the Re-Election of the President, appropriately known as CREEP. The Washington Post reported that, and got Attorney General John Mitchell, the head of the Nixon reelection campaign, on record denying any link to what those five guys had been up to, whatever it was. Mitchell would end up in jail. Nixon would eventually resign, the first president to ever do that.

Nixon learned that you don’t mess with Ben Bradlee. He wasn’t Perry White, the blustering befuddled editor of the Daily Planet, trying to figure out what Lois Lane and Clark Kent and Jimmy Olsen were up to, and never quite getting it. Bradlee was the real deal, and he had Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. He gave those two holy hell until they had the Watergate story nailed down, with all the details doubly confirmed, or better – there’d be no speculation or bullshit – and then, and only then, would he run the story. Get the news right or get out. Obama’s birth certificate might be a forgery and he might have been born in Kenya? Ebola might be an airborne disease and all the scientists are lying about it, just like they’re lying about global warming? Bradlee would have none of that nonsense. Confirm the story, from multiple sources – otherwise it’s not news and he wouldn’t print it. Nail it down, make it airtight, and he would print it. He kept his reporters honest. He kept his newspaper honest. We won’t see his like again.

Now he’s dead, and October 21, 2014, may be the day news died too. The New York Times – the newspaper that published all those Judith Miller front-page stories about Saddam Hussein’s very real and very scary weapons of mass destruction that turned out to be crap she was fed from a single dubious source – lauds Ben Bradlee in their obituary, as well they should, given that they could have used someone like Ben Bradlee back them, and includes these details:

Mr. Bradlee’s Post and Woodward and Bernstein, as the two became known, captured the popular imagination. Their exploits seemed straight out of a Hollywood movie: two young reporters boldly taking on the White House in pursuit of the truth, their spines steeled by a courageous editor.

The story, of course, became the basis of a best seller, “All the President’s Men,” by Mr. Woodward and Mr. Bernstein, and the book did become, in 1976, a Hollywood box-office hit. Jason Robards Jr. played Mr. Bradlee and won an Oscar for his performance.

Bradlee did become a bit of a folk hero. He was a man who forced others to get it right, and when they did, he let it rip. He gave America the confirmed and verified truth about what was happening, and folks wanted more of that:

After Watergate, journalism schools filled up with would-be Woodwards and Bernsteins, and the business of journalism changed, taking on an even tougher hide of skepticism than the one that formed during the Vietnam War.

“No matter how many spin doctors were provided by no matter how many sides of how many arguments,” Mr. Bradlee wrote, “from Watergate on, I started looking for the truth after hearing the official version of a truth.”

All those would-be Woodwards and Bernsteins, however, can forget that they need someone like Bradlee to keep them from taking that heroic intrepid-reporter thing too seriously. Hemingway once said that every writer needs a foolproof, shockproof crap-detector. Few have one of those. That’s why there are editors. They’re probably more important than the reporters. Someone has to keep them honest.

Judith Miller learned that:

On May 26, 2004, a week after the U.S. government apparently severed ties with Ahmed Chalabi, a New York Times editorial acknowledged that some of that newspaper’s coverage in the run-up to the war had relied too heavily on Chalabi and other Iraqi exiles bent on regime change. …

Public editor Byron Calame wrote: “Ms. Miller may still be best known for her role in a series of Times articles in 2002 and 2003 that strongly suggested Saddam Hussein already had or was acquiring an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction… Many of those articles turned out to be inaccurate… The problems facing her inside and outside the newsroom will make it difficult for her to return to the paper as a reporter.”

Two weeks later, Miller negotiated a private severance package with Times’ publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr. She contested Calame’s claims and gave no ground in defense of her work, but cited difficulty in performing her job effectively after having become an integral part of the stories she was sent to cover.

She needed someone like Ben Bradlee to keep her honest, and the Times didn’t have one of those. She would go on to write for Rupert Murdock’s Wall Street Journal, and on October 20, 2008, Fox News announced that they had hired her. They’re not all that particular over there, and while at the Times she did go to jail to protect Scooter Libby and thus Dick Cheney, after all – so she’s one of them. Their concept of news is not Ben Bradlee’s.

That sort of news died when Ben Bradlee died, or earlier when Bradlee retired as executive editor of the Washington Post in September 1991, and he continued to serve as Vice President at Large until his death, but that was a ceremonial title. He faded away, but the loss is real. Who do we trust now? On the day of Bradlee’s death, Pew Research gave us this:

When it comes to getting news about politics and government, liberals and conservatives inhabit different worlds. There is little overlap in the news sources they turn to and trust. And whether discussing politics online or with friends, they are more likely than others to interact with like-minded individuals, according to a new Pew Research Center study.

The project – part of a year-long effort to shed light on political polarization in America – looks at the ways people get information about government and politics in three different settings: the news media, social media and the way people talk about politics with friends and family. In all three areas, the study finds that those with the most consistent ideological views on the left and right have information streams that are distinct from those of individuals with more mixed political views – and very distinct from each other.

John Avlon at the Daily Beast explains it all:

We’re two weeks from Election Day, and you can feel political debates turning bitter, more personal.

Even in a midterm election when exhaustion rather than exultation drives the conversation, there is desperation behind the poll watching. There are no happy warriors these days. Everything feels like a cycle of revenge and retrenchment.

“Politics has become more bitterly partisan and mean-spirited than I have seen in 30 years of writing a political newsletter,” attests Charlie Cook.

What’s changed? Well, the two parties in Congress are more ideologically and geographically polarized than at any time in our recent history. But we’ve had deep divisions in our politics before. And yes, the Wingnuts seem to have an outsize influence on our politics debates. But we’ve had extremists in our politics before.

What’s different is the proliferation of partisan media via cable news and the Internet. Amid unprecedented access to information, our fellow citizens are self-segregating themselves into separate political realities.

The idea here is that “the asymmetric polarization we see in Congress not coincidentally extends to media consumption” now, and the Pew poll just confirms that:

For example, 47 percent of “consistent conservatives” view Fox News as their main source of information. Their “consistently liberal” corollaries split their allegiance among CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and the New York Times. And while liberals deem 28 of the 36 news outlets surveyed as “trustworthy,” conservatives take a dimmer view, declaring 24 of the 36 untrustworthy.

That finding is a direct reflection of the original premise behind Roger Ailes pitching Fox News as “far and balanced.” For conservatives, only explicitly right-wing news organizations can be trusted to tell the truth. Any news group that aims for the elusive ideal of objectivity is de facto liberal, in their view. It’s an extension of an idea more appropriate in wartime: If you’re not with us, you’re against us.

All this makes the pluralism of the modern world a scary, unwelcoming place. And so the reaction seems to be to corral oneself off from disagreement. Sixty-six percent of “consistent conservatives” say most of their close friends share their views on government and politics, and nearly half say they mostly see Facebook posts that match their politics.

It’s not like that for everyone else:

On the other side of the spectrum, while liberals are more likely to consume a broader diet of news sites, just over half say their close friends share their views, and 24 percent of “consistent liberals” say they stopped being friends – or stopped talking to – someone because of politics. For these self-righteous and thin-skinned folks, there are apparently limits to the liberal virtue of tolerance.

Then there are the details:

Among moderates, or those with “mixed” political affiliation, as the survey insists on calling them, CNN fares best as the most trusted cable news network and the Wall Street Journal is the only news organization to be deemed trustworthy across the political spectrum (no small feat, especially given its ideologically driven editorial page). Among the news providers underwater in the trust category are Daily Kos, Sean Hannity, Ed Schultz, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and, oddly, BuzzFeed. Likewise, Slate is viewed at the liberal end of the spectrum.

The leads to nothing good:

A few decades ago, politicians sent talking points to talk radio hosts. Today, talk radio hosts and online echo-chamber pundits send talking points to politicians. They keep their readers and listeners addicted to anger. The durable wisdom of the late, great Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan – “everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts” – gets discarded when people come to political debates armed with their own facts. And in a time when the fringe blurs with the base and competitive congressional general elections are all but extinct thanks to the rigged system of redistricting, these base-corralling fanatics have the power to strike fear into the hearts of the gutless wonders on Capitol Hill.

This is not a wake-up call as much as it is a challenge. If we don’t find a way to reverse this media trend, America is headed toward Tower of Babel territory.

It kind of makes you miss Ben Bradlee. He wasn’t out to get Nixon. He was out to get the story right.

Justin Elis isn’t that worried:

On their face, these findings might seem to lend support to the idea that we’re becoming a country of smaller and smaller filter bubbles, personalized universes of news and people that fit our own interests. But the connection between how Americans get news and their political polarization is not black and white.

Pew found that on Facebook, the majority of people only see political posts they agree with some of the time. That’s also reflected in the real world, as Pew found people on all ends of the political spectrum tend to get a mix of dissent and agreement on politics in their everyday life. 58 percent of consistent liberals and 45 percent of consistent conservatives say they often get agreement and disagreement in their conversations on politics. For people with mixed political views – Pew’s middle ideological category – that jumps up to 76 percent.

We’re still talking to each other, aren’t we? Cool. But we may not know what we’re talking about at any given moment. We “trust” different news sources, each without a Ben Bradlee these days, to keep things honest, and Christopher Ingraham notes something odd about the least-trusted new sources:

Overall, four of the top five least-trusted news outlets have a strong conservative lean: Limbaugh, Fox News, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity. MSNBC rounds out the list. The most trusted news outlets, on the other hand, tend to be major TV networks: CNN, NBC News, ABC News and CBS News, with Fox at No. 5.

The Pew Study notes that “liberals, overall, trust a much larger mix of news outlets than others do. Of the 36 different outlets considered, 28 are more trusted than distrusted by consistent liberals.” By contrast, among conservatives “there are 24 sources that draw more distrust than trust.”

That makes sense. Liberals are, well, liberal – they like a wide range of things, they like divergent views, they’re accepting of the unusual, and people not like them fascinate them. Heck, they find foreign languages fascinating. Conservatives find that odd, or evil, or at least un-American and unpatriotic. That sort of thing leads to the worst thing of all, multiculturalism. It could even lead to moral relativism, and soon people will be marrying box-turtles, and speaking Spanish.

One of Andrew Sullivan’s readers says it’s not like that:

As a grad student who has studied polarization, the Pew study isn’t all that surprising (although it is very useful in confirming what many have long assumed.) I think it may be time, however, to challenge a long-standing assertion of polarization studies. As Bill Bishop has argued in The Big Sort, Americans seem to be increasingly segregating themselves along partisan/ideological lines. Not only are our neighbors more likely than before to share our political views, but we also are probably consuming the same kinds of political news and cultural products. This extends to Facebook as well. Some people argue this creates an “echo chamber” that merely reinforces our political beliefs. In other words, the more Fox News we listen to, the more conservative we become.

But I wonder if there isn’t an opposite effect going on as well. The proliferation of media outlets also makes it easier for us to bump into dissenting views. Unlike the 1950s-1980s, when there was one monopolistic media establishment that kept the heated rhetoric toned down, now there are many outlets, giving us all greater opportunity to encounter viewpoints that we find abhorrent and that we can’t believe others harbor. Facebook didn’t so much create an echo chamber as expose us to the private opinions of people we previously assumed were “sane” in their opinions. Consuming partisan news isn’t so much about finding the truth as it is like running for cover in a crazy world.

That might be so, but another reader adds this comment about Facebook:

I think it’s probably worth noting that liberals are more likely to defriend conservatives over politics, but the chances are good that they weren’t very close friends in the first place (although you can find many laments over the end of long-term friendships on the left, often precipitated by relatively mild pushback and a stream of abuse in response). I’m from the Deep South originally, and of course everyone back there “knows” that Obama is a Muslim socialist, because between Fox and talk radio and right-wing churches and the NRA, that’s what all self-described respectable, well-informed people hear (plus, Democrats are the party of black people, who are widely seen as lazy, violent, and ignorant). I effectively defriended almost everyone there many years ago when I left; social media allowed for at-arms-length reconnections without my having to pretend that I had any interest in the ideology or institutions it was such a relief to leave.

For what it’s worth, I just hide the crazies, and have been defriended a couple of times by conservatives (one a relative to whom I used to be close) even though I’m rarely aggressively political except in political fora or among like-minded acquaintances. The truth is that a) I don’t always want to know what people are thinking about important issues, and b) I do think less of political conservatives, because I consider it a mean, regressive, often self-serving inclination in practice. That’s why I left an area in which it is so unquestioned … and a state that un-coincidentally ranks at or near the bottom of every quality-of-life measure.

What did this person expect? The music died on February 3, 1959, and the news that all of us can trust to be the actual news, officially died on Tuesday, October 21, 2014 – and them good old boys were drinking whiskey and rye, singing this’ll be the day that I die, this’ll be the day that I die. It’s like that.

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Playing Fair

Americans are fair and open and generous. That’s what we tell ourselves, but when we declared our independence more than two hundred years ago we probably shouldn’t have started by declaring that all men are born equal, because that’s just not so. Those who were born to be short and squat aren’t going to be professional basketball stars, and some people just can’t carry a tune, so they’re not going to be crooning breathless romantic ballads to the nation, for big bucks, and they won’t be knocking them dead on Broadway. They’ll have to settle for wall-of-noise rock stardom. We’re all born with different talents, or a lack of any particular talent, but those who penned the Declaration of Independence had that covered. They really didn’t assert that all men are created absolutely equal, just that all men have, or should have, certain inalienable rights – to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

That’s the “given” in the axiom they presented. There are those three basic rights that all men have, which should never be taken away by any king, like that King George guy on the other side of the ocean. Of course there are dolts and hopeless losers, and geniuses and winners at everything, but the idea was that everyone should get a fair shot at making what they want of their lives, if they are white males, of property. There was a lot to work out over the years, a process of including more folks in that group who have those same rights – black folks, the former slaves, and even women, who finally got the right to vote, and one day may be guaranteed equal pay for equal work. Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009 and many Republicans are still fuming about that. It cripples business. Stuff like that will ruin America.

We’re still working on a lot of this. The Fourteenth Amendment with its equal protection clause was added in 1868, and we’re now in the process of deciding if that applies to gays, and the current consensus is that it does. The pursuit of happiness is also the pursuit of marriage, although many married straight folks will say happiness is a bit iffy there – but what the heck, let gay folks give it a go. They may have better luck. Things tend toward playing fair. Americans play fair.

That’s why there’s a direct line from the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011 to the current popularity of Elizabeth Warren, the eloquent populist – something seems unfair. Income inequality has never been this severe. The game seems to be rigged. The one percent, those who hold almost all the wealth, can’t be THAT much better than the rest of us, even if they say they are. Every Republican from Herman Cain to Mitt Romney has said anyone in America can be a millionaire – all they have to do is get off their fat lazy ass and just do it, so everyone should stop whining – but no one believes that. Many have tried. It didn’t work out. Hard work doesn’t get you there. Luck does, or being born into the right family – the hard work is optional. The game is rigged, or it’s all random. Either way, fairness has nothing to do with getting rich – unless you’re one of those that blames only yourself for everything that goes wrong in your life, because you’re just a miserable excuse for a human being. Republicans thrive on the votes of such people. Republicans tell you that the problem is not them, it’s you, and you know it – or it’s those black folks, or the brown ones, who are the problem. There are many ways to use Americans’ sense that things are just not fair. Americans hate unfairness. That’s why we started this country.

This sense of fairness is almost innate:

Even at 15 months, when they are just beginning to grasp language and acquaint themselves with their newfound motor skills, babies understand the concepts of sharing and fairness, suggests a new study.

The researchers also found that infants do have different sharing “personalities,” with some being shocked by unfairness and others by equal sharing.

“These norms of fairness and altruism are more rapidly acquired than we thought,” study researcher Jessica Sommerville, of the University of Washington, said in a statement. “These results also show a connection between fairness and altruism in infants, such that babies who were more sensitive to the fair distribution of food were also more likely to share their preferred toy.”

Even infants are little Democrats and little Republicans. Some are shocked by unfairness and others are shocked by equal sharing, which they see as unfair to them. Abolishing slavery was unfair to the slaveholders after all. That ruined them economically, and this whole business is complicated, as the infant-study shows:

The majority (92 percent) of babies who shared their preferred toy were also the ones who were shocked by unfairness in the videos and were named “altruistic sharers.” Of the infants who shared their least favorite toy, 86 percent were also shocked by equal sharing in the video, called “selfish sharers.”

“The altruistic sharers were really sensitive to the violation of fairness in the food task,” Sommerville said. Fairness seems as though it might even be built into our brains; research published in the journal Nature in 2010 showed that our brain centers react to unfair allocation of monetary rewards.

Though fairness may be ingrained in even the youngest of infants, our ideas of fairness seem to change as we age. Previous research found that young children seem to like all things to be equal, but older adolescents are more likely to consider merit when it comes to dividing up the wealth, a study published in the journal Science in 2010 found. It could be due to brain changes and adaptation to social experiences.

Perhaps we outgrow our sense of fairness, and Republicans are the only grown-ups in the room, but in the Washington Post, Matt O’Brien sees something else going on:

America is the land of opportunity, just for some more than others.

That’s because, in large part, inequality starts in the crib. Rich parents can afford to spend more time and money on their kids, and that gap has only grown the past few decades. Indeed, economists Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane calculate that, between 1972 and 2006, high-income parents increased their spending on “enrichment activities” for their children by 151 percent in inflation-adjusted terms, compared to 57 percent for low-income parents.

They have the money to do that, but it’s more than the money spent:

It’s also a matter of letters and words. Affluent parents talk to their kids three more hours a week on average than poor parents, which is critical during a child’s formative early years. That’s why, as Stanford professor Sean Reardon explains, “Rich students are increasingly entering kindergarten much better prepared to succeed in school than middle-class students,” and they’re staying that way.

It’s an educational arms race that’s leaving many kids far, far behind.

But wait! There’s more:

Even poor kids who do everything right don’t do much better than rich kids who do everything wrong. Advantages and disadvantages, in other words, tend to perpetuate themselves. … Specifically, rich high school dropouts remain in the top about as much as poor college grads stay stuck in the bottom – 14 versus 16 percent, respectively. Not only that, but these low-income strivers are just as likely to end up in the bottom as these wealthy ne’er-do-wells.

Hard work and education get you nowhere, unless you’re there already:

What’s going on? Well, it’s all about glass floors and glass ceilings. Rich kids who can go work for the family business – and, in Canada at least, 70 percent of the sons of the top 1 percent do just that – or inherit the family estate don’t need a high school diploma to get ahead. It’s an extreme example of what economists call “opportunity hoarding.” That includes everything from legacy college admissions to unpaid internships that let affluent parents rig the game a little more in their children’s favor.

But even if they didn’t, low-income kids would still have a hard time getting ahead. That’s, in part, because they’re targets for diploma mills that load them up with debt, but not a lot of prospects. And even if they do get a good degree, at least when it comes to black families, they’re more likely to still live in impoverished neighborhoods that keep them disconnected from opportunities.

Opportunity hoarding, then, is unfair, but there’s not much that can be done about it. Fredrik deBoer cites study after study (with nifty charts) that shows the same thing and throws up his hands:

The question of how much control the average individual has over his or her own economic outcomes is not a theoretical or ideological question. What to do about the odds – that’s philosophical and political. But the power of chance and received advantage – those things can be measured, and have to be. And what we are finding, more and more, is that the outcomes of individuals are buffeted constantly by the forces of economic inequality. Education has been proffered as a tool to counteract these forces, but that claim, too, cannot withstand scrutiny. Redistributive efforts are required to address these differences in opportunity. In the meantime, it falls on us to chip away, bit by bit, on the lie of American meritocracy.

At least someone is doing some chipping away at that lie:

Sen. Elizabeth Warren railed against the GOP during a campaign rally in Minnesota for Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) on Saturday.

“The game is rigged, and the Republicans rigged it,” she said during her speech at Carleton College, according to the Washington Post.

Warren told the crowd that she would fight against the banks that oppose her legislation that would allow students to refinance their student loans.

“We’re coming after them,” she said.

Every little bit helps, unless it doesn’t. The Republicans will sink any legislation she proposes, because she’s dangerous, as the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson explains here:

Sen. Elizabeth Warren says she isn’t running for president. At this rate, however, she may have to.

The Massachusetts Democrat has become the brightest ideological and rhetorical light in a party whose prospects are dimmed by – to use a word Jimmy Carter never uttered – malaise. Her weekend swing through Colorado, Minnesota and Iowa to rally the faithful displayed something no other potential contender for the 2016 presidential nomination, including Hillary Clinton, seems able to present: a message.

The message is simple. Play fair:

“We can go through the list over and over, but at the end of every line is this: Republicans believe this country should work for those who are rich, those who are powerful, those who can hire armies of lobbyists and lawyers,” she said Friday in Englewood, Colo. “I will tell you we can whimper about it, we can whine about it or we can fight back. I’m here with [Sen.] Mark Udall so we can fight back.”

Warren was making her second visit to the state in two months because Udall’s reelection race against Republican Cory Gardner is what Dan Rather used to call “tight as a tick.” If Democrats are to keep their majority in the Senate, the party’s base must break with form and turn out in large numbers for a midterm election. Voters won’t do this unless somebody gives them a reason.

Warren may be that somebody. Her grand theme is economic inequality and her critique, both populist and progressive, includes a searing indictment of Wall Street. Liberals eat it up.

Of course they do:

Warren talks about comprehensive immigration reform, support for same-sex marriage, the need to raise the minimum wage, abortion rights and contraception – a list of red-button issues at which she jabs and pokes with enthusiasm. The centerpiece, though, is her progressive analysis of how bad decisions in Washington have allowed powerful interests to re-engineer the financial system so that it serves the wealthy and well-connected, not the middle class.

It’s unfair:

There once was consensus on the need for government investment in areas such as education and infrastructure that produced long-term dividends, she said. “Here’s the amazing thing: It worked. It absolutely, positively worked.”

But starting in the 1980s, she said, Republicans took the country in a different direction, beginning with the decision to “fire the cops on Wall Street.”

“They called it deregulation,” Warren said, “but what it really meant was: Have at ‘em, boys. They were saying, in effect, to the biggest financial institutions, any way you can trick or trap or fool anybody into signing anything, man, you can just rake in the profits.”

She went on to say that “Republicans, man, they ought to be wearing a T-shirt. The T-shirt should say, ‘I got mine. The rest of you are on your own.'”

Those were the “selfish sharers” in the infant-study, and Robinson senses something is changing:

She’s not running for president apparently because everyone assumes the nomination is Clinton’s. But everyone was making that same assumption eight years ago, and we know what happened. If the choice is between inspiration and inevitability, Warren may be forced to change her plans.

Americans are fair and open and generous. We have an innate sense of fairness. Everyone does, as that infant-study showed, and Warren thinks we should take our country back, even if she prefers to help America do that from the Senate, not the Oval Office. That’s what she’s saying now, and she may not change her mind. Hillary Clinton had better hope she doesn’t change her mind. If Warren does change her mind, however, that election would be clarifying. The Republican candidate would offer the same message as before, the Tea Party message – I’ve got mine, and the rest of you are on your own, and that’s only fair, because you have no right to my stuff. That’s the country they want to take back, a completely different country. Some are shocked by unfairness and others are shocked by equal sharing. Let’s see who wins.

The outcome of that election would be determined by who is allowed to vote, another matter of fairness, and Joan Walsh covers the latest twist in that fairness battle:

It’s become a cliché that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg issued a “blistering dissent” from a conservative, pro-corporate anti-democracy majority position. We need a new term for what Ginsberg did at 5 a.m. Saturday morning, in a rare public dissent from a SCOTUS decision not to take up a case – this one a challenge to Texas’ harsh and in Ginsberg’s words “discriminatory” voter identification law. …

Not only did Ginsberg demand to write a dissent – she was joined by Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor – but she laid out her reasoning in stirring words that echoed a conservative judicial critic of voter identification, Richard Posner, calling it an “unconstitutional poll tax.”

Now that we know what to call it, and we have a legal framework for understanding that voter ID is a direct descendant of Jim Crow laws, will it be easier to fight? I’m not sure, but understanding is always a necessary first step to action.

This is a matter of fairness, with competing views of just what that is:

It can be hard to combat the notion that voter ID is a common-sense requirement. The vast majority of us have driver’s licenses, and we’re used to showing ID to board a plane or enter a major office building. Yet 20 million adults, or 10 percent of eligible voters, don’t have a driver’s license. Voter ID laws disproportionately hurt black and Latino voters, but also elderly people and students. With the exception of the elderly, those voters are the cornerstone of the Democratic coalition.

In Texas, a federal trial court found that Gov. Rick Perry’s voter ID law was intentionally discriminating against minority voters, disenfranchising as many as 600,000 Texans. But the 5th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals overturned that decision last week, so the ACLU and other groups went to the Supreme Court. The court declined to consider the case, in line with earlier decisions not to change the rules for voting so close to an election. Ginsberg challenged her colleagues’ peculiar decision to prioritize orderly election administration over protecting voting rights.

“The greatest threat to public confidence in elections in this case is the prospect of enforcing a purposefully discriminatory law,” Ginsberg thundered, “one that likely imposes an unconstitutional poll tax and risks denying the right to vote to hundreds of thousands of eligible voters.”

And here, context matters:

Texas has the worst voter ID law in the country, not even allowing student IDs or Veterans Administration IDs, unlike other states. Unlike her majority colleagues, Ginsberg took seriously the costs of obtaining public ID, as well as the difficulty of traveling to get it. That’s what makes it a poll tax, comparable to the imposition of voting fees that were used to turn away poor black voters in the Jim Crow South – which were outlawed by the 24th Amendment.

Ginsberg’s reasoning echoes that of 7th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Richard Posner, a conservative who’s had a change of heart and mind on the issue of voter ID. Amazingly, Posner wrote the decision upholding Indiana’s voter ID law, which the Supreme Court later upheld. In his remarkable dissent from his colleagues’ refusal to take up a challenge to Wisconsin’s voter ID law earlier this month – the Supreme Court actually stepped in and suspended that one – Posner specifically blasted Republicans for hyping the “essentially nonexistent” threat of voter fraud.

“There is only one motivation for imposing burdens on voting that are ostensibly designed to discourage voter-impersonation fraud,” he writes, “and that is to discourage voting by persons likely to vote against the party responsible for imposing the burdens.” He noted that such laws are “highly correlated with a state’s having a Republican governor and Republican control of the legislature and appear to be aimed at limiting voting by minorities, particularly blacks.” Posner specifically mocked right-wing groups like True-the-Vote, which claims Democrats are busing minority voters to the polls “on nonexistent buses.”

Posner was fighting a lot of nonsense:

While his colleagues claimed anyone could “scrounge up” their birth certificate, the 75-year-old jurist admitted he “has never seen his birth certificate and does not know how he would go about ‘scrounging’ it up.” … Posner attached to his dissent 12 confusing pages of documents given to an applicant whose birth certificate couldn’t be found. He noted that getting ID could cost $75 to $175, much higher than “the $1.50 poll tax outlawed by the 24th amendment in 1964.”

This fairness bug is catching, even if not much can be done now:

Between Posner and Ginsberg, we have a rare bipartisan intellectual, political and moral agreement that voter ID laws are a 21st century descendant of Jim Crow, only now playing nationwide, not just in the South. This should settle the issue, but it’s unlikely to. The Republican Party faces demographic extinction, on its current course, but it has two powerful weapons in its arsenal: stoking fear – of Ebola, ISIS, immigrants, nearly anybody who isn’t white, our first black president and uppity women – and voter suppression.

That may be so, and unfair, but isn’t it fair to ask for a simple photo-ID to vote in Texas and all the other states where the Republicans have changed the rules? The states are supposed to administer the voting process, because it’s a precinct by precinct thing and quite local, and tedious. Why can’t the state specify which sort of ID is good and which is not? If you can’t get one, because you’re poor, that’s hardly the state’s problem. Fair is fair. Maybe you should get a good job and stop insisting on being poor, because you like government freebies.

This is fairly simple. If you now can’t vote that’s your fault, not theirs. That seems to be the counterargument, from the days when everyone had a fair shot at making what they want of their lives, if they were white males, of property – the good old days. It seems that everyone wants to take their country back. They just choose different points in time, which means they choose different countries.

The issue, however, is fairness, and even a fifteen-month-old infant knows all about that.

Posted in Elizabeth Warren, Income Inequality, Voter Suppression | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Persistence of Buffoonery

A good friend – a high-powered attorney who is the leading expert on some rather arcane details of securities law, who spends his time shuttling between Wall Street, where the players are, and Washington, where the regulators are (and the politicians, who need to have things explained to them over and over) – just got back from two weeks in France – Paris and Provence and that sort of thing. Everyone needs a break now and then, and Paris in October is rather fine. The city looks good in the rain, and the summer tourists are gone. The city becomes itself, a place where people simply work and live, in their French way. The text messages followed, but not about the sights or the food or any of that. It was the feel of the place. He was impressed with the formality there, which he characterized as a refreshing absence of buffoonery. That just made sense to him, but he lives in a big house in New Jersey, a pretty enough place with Princeton nearby, but of course his governor is Chris Christie, New Jersey’s buffoon, to match the buffoon across the river in Manhattan, Donald Trump. Some would say neither is a buffoon – they’re just brash or bold guys who like to shout about what they say is right and wrong, and sneer at those who disagree with them, and that’s refreshing, because they’re not politically correct in any way. They tell it like it is, in your face. If you don’t like it, screw you. Perhaps only the French would call them buffoons, or those who spend a few weeks in Paris, where careful formality is the norm. One can be pointed and nasty without being an asshole. The French have mastered the art of deadly irony you might not get until it’s too late and subtle ridicule that sounds like praise, until you think about what was just said.

It’s an art form. The suave Dominique Marie François René Galouzeau de Villepin smiled and told us that our plan for immediate war with Iraq was ill-advised, as if he were explaining this to a petulant child he was nevertheless fond of. At the UN in early February, 2003, he almost laughed at Colin Powell when Powell asked for the UN to go to war with us, or at least tell us our little war was fine with them. Dominique de Villepin, with that bemused smile of the loving adult for the confused child who needs a little help with his tantrum, said wait, let the inspectors finish – there may be no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and even if by some odd chance there are, there are better ways to handle this. And of course the guy was right. It just took ten years for us to realize it. We’re not French. We expect buffoonery, which we can counter with our better buffoonery.

That seldom works. It’s too easy to see being careful and formal and precisely polite, and deadly logical, as weakness – but some things just aren’t done. If you’re invited to a private dinner at a French home, and if your French is up to it, you need to know there are some things that are not discussed after the cheese and then the cognac and coffee. What you do for a living isn’t all that important, how you choose to live your life is, and discussing how much money you make is appalling. Mention that and everyone suddenly falls silent. As the French say, an angel passes. That’s so crass, and don’t tell everyone you’ve been born again and have accepted Jesus as your personal savior. That’s your business, no one else’s. Europe has had more than a thousand years of religious wars – the last caliphate made it all the way up to Lyon, Hitler wiped out six million Jews and the French helped a bit, there are too many Muslims everywhere over there now, and the French have designated Scientology a cult that’s really a scam – so keep it to yourself. Such stuff is private. France is a Catholic nation, but privately Catholic. We discuss the separation of church and state all the time, as if Thomas Jefferson might have been wrong, or might have meant something else. They live it and it works rather well for them. Thomas Jefferson lived in Paris from August 1784 to September 1789 – that says something.

Save all that stuff for when you get home to New Jersey or wherever. Brag all you want about how rich you are, or how rich you’re going to be, or how rich you would be if there were justice in the universe – or whine about how poor you are – and get into whatever heated arguments you’d like about religion. It’s a free country, but there is the idea that such talk is gauche – the French word for what is vulgar and tasteless and a bit embarrassing, and maybe a bit dangerous. It’s also very American.

Americans do like their righteous buffoonery, and religion – and the foolishness of political correctness – is a hot topic now. At the beginning of October it came up on Bill Maher’s HBO show:

Bill Maher, who has been more than vocal (and sometimes sexist) about his views on Islam, dove back into the fray – this time with Ben Affleck as his opponent on Real Time with Bill Maher. Maher argued that “liberals need to stand up for liberal principles,” like equality for women and gays and lesbians, but said they’re reluctant to denounce Islam: “But if you say, in the Muslim world, this is what is lacking, then they get upset.” One of those liberals, Ben Affleck told Maher that conflating Islam as one entity was “gross” and “racist.” Affleck went on, “Or how about the more than a billion people who aren’t fanatical, who don’t punish women, who just want to go to school, have some sandwiches, and don’t do any of the things you say all Muslims do?”

Yeah, well, Maher said the Muslim world gave us ISIS, and gave us the practice of female genital mutilation too, and then others chimed in:

Religion scholar Reza Aslan said Maher’s argument was “not very sophisticated” because many Christian countries also practice female genital mutilation, and many Muslim countries do not. Aslan argued that he should be saying it’s a Central African problem rather than a Muslim one. …

Affleck was joined by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who pointed out that there are multiple Muslim reformers like Malala Yousafzai…

It was a lively I’m-right-and-you’re-wrong discussion, of a sort – it was mostly shouting (Affleck) and sneering (Maher) – and a bit embarrassing. The comedian and the movie star were each claiming they knew the real truth about one of the world’s major religions, because some things are just obvious. It was typical American righteous buffoonery, a lot of shouting that was pretty far from logical and informed – don’t invite these guys to your next dinner party – and it may have been a bit dangerous. There’s a reason the French avoid such topics. Such talk can start wars – but Maher’s fist show like this on ABC was Politically Incorrect. He’s still at it. It’s what he does. That’s how he makes a living. He creates a buzz.

The buzz didn’t die down. Others, however, decided to add some light to the heat, and Andrew Sullivan offered this:

I think it’s pretty indisputable that any religion that can manifest itself in the form of something like ISIS in any period in history is in a very bad way. I know they’re outliers – even with respect to al Qaeda. But, leaving these mass murderers and sadists to one side, any religion that still cannot allow its own texts to be subject to scholarly and historical inquiry, any religion that denies in so many parts of the world any true opportunities for women, and any religion whose followers believe apostasy should be punished with death is in a terrible, terrible way. There is so much more to Islam than this – but this tendency is so widespread, and its fundamentalism so hard to budge, and the destruction wrought by its violent extremists so appalling, that I find Affleck’s and Aslan’s defenses to be missing the forest for the trees.

Yes, there are Jewish extremists on the West Bank, pursuing unforgivable religious war. There are murderous Buddhist extremists in Burma. There are violent Christian extremists in Nigeria, and in Russia. All religions have a propensity to banish doubt, to suppress humility and to victimize outsiders. But today, in too many parts of the world, no other religion comes close to the menace and violence of Islam.

We have an exception here:

Christianity has a bloody past and a deeply flawed present. Islam has a glorious past in many respects, and manifests itself in many countries today, including the US, humbly, peacefully, beautifully. But far too much of contemporary Islam – from Pakistan through Iran and Iraq to Saudi Arabia – is more than usually fucked up. Some Muslims are threatening non-believers with mass murder, subjecting free societies to shameless terrorism, engaging in foul anti-Semitism, and beheading the sinful in Saudi Arabia just as much as in the Islamic State. And if liberals – in the broadest sense – cannot stand up for freedom of speech and assembly and religion, and for toleration as a core value, then what are liberals for?

Does this make me a bigot? Of course it doesn’t. Criticizing a current manifestation of a religion is a duty – not a sin.

Sullivan is trying to remove the buffoonery from what Maher was saying, and adds this about contemporary Islam:

In history, some of these deviations from the humility of true faith have been worse in other religions. Christianity bears far more responsibility for the Holocaust, for example, than anything in Islam.

But the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries forced a reckoning between those coercive, reactionary forces in Christianity, and in the twentieth century, Catholicism finally, formally left behind its anti-Semitism, its contempt for other faiths, its discomfort with religious freedom, and its disdain for a distinction between church and state. Part of this was the work of reason, part the work of history, but altogether the work of faith beyond fundamentalism. Islam has achieved this too – in many parts of the world. But in the Middle East, history is propelling mankind to different paths – in part because of the unmediated nature of Islam, compared with the resources of other faiths, and also because that region is almost hermetically sealed from free ideas and open debate and civil society.

Let me put it this way: when the Koran can be publicly examined, its historical texts subjected to scholarly inquiry and a discussion of Muhammed become as free and as open in the Middle East as that of Jesus in the West, then we will know that Islam is not what its more unsparing critics allege. When people are able to dissent, to leave the faith, and to question it openly without fearing for their lives, then we will know that Islam is not, in fact, ridden with pathologies that are simply incompatible with modern civilization. It seems to me that until that opening happens, there will be no political progress in the Middle East. That is why we have either autocracy or theocracy in that region, why the Arab Spring turned so quickly into winter, and why the rest of the world has to fear for our lives as a result.

And this sounds very French:

Western democracy was only made possible by the taming of religion.

Western democracy made religion a private matter. That’s what we put in our Constitution. Many in America resent that, but the words are there. Christians aren’t being persecuted. There is no war on Christmas. Christians are being left alone to be whatever they want to be. This isn’t Iran, with the other religion, not Islam, and this was a strange way to bring up the whole issue. Ed Kilgore puts it this way:

You don’t have to watch the segment in question to understand, a priori, that five non-Muslims, none of whom are in any way experts on Islam, aren’t going to do much of anything other than damage in dissecting a big, complicated, multifaceted World Religion in a single segment of a single television show.

In the New York Times, Reza Aslan argues that religious identity is not about this particular faith here, as it’s more about culture and history:

As a form of identity, religion is inextricable from all the other factors that make up a person’s self-understanding, like culture, ethnicity, nationality, gender and sexual orientation. What a member of a suburban megachurch in Texas calls Christianity may be radically different from what an impoverished coffee picker in the hills of Guatemala calls Christianity. The cultural practices of a Saudi Muslim, when it comes to the role of women in society, are largely irrelevant to a Muslim in a more secular society like Turkey or Indonesia.

These guys didn’t know what they were talking about in the first place, but the damage had already been done. There was David Horowitz is the National Review with this:

The horrific images of the beheadings, the reports of mass slaughters, and the threats to the American homeland have accomplished what our small contingent of beleaguered conservatives could never have achieved by ourselves. They brought images of these Islamic fanatics and savages into the living rooms of the American public, and suddenly the acceptable language for describing the enemy began to change. “Savages” and “barbarians” began to roll off the tongues of evening-news anchors and commentators who never would have dreamed of crossing that line before, for fear of offending the politically correct.

Virtually every major Muslim organization in America is an arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, the fountainhead of Islamic terror. Huma Abedin, who was deputy chief of staff to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (and is still Clinton’s confidante and principal aide), comes from a family of Muslim Brotherhood leaders. Yet legislators who have the power to investigate these matters are still intimidated from even raising them. Representative Michele Bachmann, who did raise them, was excoriated as a racist not only by the Left but also by John Boehner and John McCain.

David Horowitz thanks ISIS for starting to turn this around, because all hate Islam now, or soon will. That’s one way to look at it, but Freddie deBoer in an email to Andrew Sullivan offers this:

I find it disappointing that you have not once, in your series of posts on Islam, significantly reflected on 100+ years of American murder, destruction, destabilization, support for dictatorship, and stealing of resources as radicalizing factor in the Muslim world. The constant arguments of the type “well, Christianity doesn’t have a radicalism problem” completely ignores that the Christian world has not been subject to a century-long campaign of aggression and mistreatment by America. There can be no hope for moderation among a people who have been subjected to constant injustice since before either of us was born. Since World War I, there has never been a time when the United States has not been directly and destructively influencing the greater Muslim world. That has radicalized many Muslims. And it is a failure of basic moral principle to be a citizen of a country that is participating in a destabilizing, radicalizing, moderation-undermining campaign against the members of a religion and to turn around and ask why they are not more moderate.

If there is a cancer in the Muslim world, then America’s behavior is the carcinogen.

He’s angry with Sullivan:

According to the most basic moral principles – that’s Western principles, by the way, Christian principles and secular alike – your responsibility is your own country. In democracy, your job is your own country. So clean your own house before you tell a billion other people how to clean theirs.

Sean McElwee offers an analogy:

The criticism of “radical Islam” in fact bears resemblance to another dodge today. In the wake of usurpation, violence and plunder, white Americans look at blacks and worry about “cultural pathologies,” where only economic deprivation exists. At the core, the fallacy is the same – ascribing a negative culture to an oppressed and maligned group.

During the debate, Bill Maher claimed, “Islam at the moment is the motherlode of bad ideas.” A more correct assessment is that the material circumstances in the Middle East, many of them the legacy of colonial repression and exploitation, are the motherlode of bad ideas. …

Ultimately, the attack on Islam is a convenient dodge, a means to obfuscate the harm of past oppression under the guise of liberal pluralism. Religion will always exist and will reflect material circumstances; it is therefore best to support religious moderates, but also remove the despair and deprivation that allow violent ideologies to flourish.

Reza Aslan adds another twist to this:

People don’t derive their values from their religion – they bring their values to their religion, which is why religions like Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, [and] Islam, are experienced in such profound, wide diversity. Two individuals can look at the exact same text and come away with radically different interpretations. Those interpretations have nothing to do with the text, which is, after all, just words on a page, and everything to do with the cultural, nationalistic, ethnic, political prejudices and preconceived notions that the individual brings to the text. That is the most basic, logical idea that you could possibly imagine, and yet for some reason, it seems to get lost in the incredibly simplistic rhetoric around religion and the lived experience of religion.

Think of it this way:

This is the thing – it’s not that you can interpret away problematic parts of a scripture. It’s that the scriptures are inundated with conflicting sentiments about almost every subject. In other words, the same Torah that tells Jews to love their neighbor also tells them to kill every single man, woman, and child who doesn’t worship Yahweh. The same Jesus who told his disciples to give away their cloaks to the needy also told them to sell their cloaks and buy swords. The same Quran that tells believers if you kill a single individual, it’s as though you’ve killed all of humanity, also tells them to slay every idolater wherever you find them.

So, how do you, as an individual, confront that text? It’s so basic, a child can understand: The way that you would give credence or emphasis to one verse as opposed to the other has everything to do with who you are. That’s why they have to sort of constantly go back to this notion of an almost comical lack of sophistication in the conversations that we are having about religion. And to me, there’s a shocking inability to understand what, as I say, a child would understand, which is that religions are neither peaceful nor violent, neither pluralistic nor misogynistic – people are peaceful, violent, pluralistic, or misogynistic, and you bring to your religion what you yourself already believe.

That’s why you never discuss religion after the cheese and then the cognac and coffee, should you find yourself at that dinner party in Paris. Try it and everyone will fall silent. They know better. It’s dangerous and stupid. Leave your buffoonery at home.

Posted in Islam | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

At the Edge of Hysteria

Halloween is coming, and everyone likes a good scare, but that means all the old movies on television that people idly watch at the end of a long day, often something they’ve watched many times before but remember fondly, will be the usual Hollywood horror movies, but probably not the classics from the thirties – Dracula (1931) with Bela Lugosi, or James Whale’s Frankenstein, with Boris Karloff, from the same year. The next year it was The Mummy with Boris Karloff, and King Kong (1933) was Adolf Hitler’s favorite movie. The Bride of Frankenstein was a hit in 1935, and four years later in was the Son of Frankenstein, but those films have now lost all their power. Only Mel Brooks could bring Frankenstein back to life, as a charming and iconic comedy. His all singing-and-dancing stage musical version of his Young Frankenstein is now on stage here in Los Angeles. It’s a revival and it’s a hoot. It lives!

Those horror movies from the thirties are quaint now. The terror has been drained away, and what we’ve been offered since has settled down into different tropes. Teenagers make stupid choices. No, that empty old house on that dark hill isn’t a good place to spend that dark and stormy night. There’s probably a nice enough motel just down the road, maybe a Holiday Inn Express. Some doors should not be opened. Some things are none of your business. But the bad choices mount, and much gore and a lot of slashing follows, and the more panicked the sweet young thing and her wide-eyed boyfriend become, the worse choices they make, until everyone’s dead. One can feel deep sympathy for their fate, or decide they were both really stupid. And by the way, don’t mock the hapless ugly girl in your high school, if she’s named Carrie. Actually, mocking the meek and weak is probably a bad idea in general. What’s the point?

There are no more mad scientists or intrepid explorers unleashing horror through their overreach, even if they are smart as hell. We’ve settled on stupid kids making bad choices, then even worse choices as they panic, and we eat it up, probably because that’s closer to our experience. Most of us aren’t smart as hell, and we know all about shared hysteria, leading to worse and worse choices, and then people die. Saddam Hussein had those weapons of mass destruction and we were all going to die unless we took care of him, which would take care of them. There was no solid proof that Saddam Hussein had those nasty weapons, there was no smoking gun, but we were told the smoking gun could come in the form of a mushroom cloud. George Bush said so. We walked right into the haunted house on the hill, and then as things got really nasty, we made worse and worse choices – we tortured people, thinking that would make things better. We decided the Sunnis over there were expendable and a Shiite government would probably work out just fine, and now outraged Sunnis have formed ISIS and the whole region is falling apart. We shouldn’t have opened that door. We’re still in that horror film where everyone dies.

Hollywood was onto something. One stupid choice leads to another, and then another, and pretty soon people are dying left and right. Hollywood just packaged this as something we could watch from a safe distance, for a bit of vicarious thrill, but they knew we all know all about this all too well. That could be us. That is us. Maybe George Bush stoked mass hysteria to get the war he wanted, not that boring war in Afghanistan, or maybe we caught Dick Cheney’s all-consuming hysteria and belligerent paranoia, but we panicked. The American public knew this war was necessary, except for those Americans who kept saying we shouldn’t do something stupid, and the French. One really bad choice can lead to further even worse choices, which always leads to very bad things happening, just like in the slasher movies. Life imitates art, or the other way around. Hillary Clinton and many others mocked Obama for having a foreign policy that he admitted came down to one simple principle, don’t do stupid stuff, but there’s something to be said for that.

That’s of course what the nerd in the horror movie always says. Don’t do that, whatever it is. Think things through. Use your head, not your fears – and the worst thing to do is panic. If you panic you’ll make even worse choices, and panic is catching. Soon everyone will be making stupid choices – but no one listens to the nerd. The horror begins.

This happens a lot, and we seem to be at the same point again with Ebola, where the nerds are trying to get everyone calmed down and sensible, and this is getting worrisome:

As health officials scramble to explain how two nurses in Dallas became infected with Ebola, psychologists are increasingly concerned about another kind of contagion, whose symptoms range from heightened anxiety to avoidance of public places to full-blown hysteria.

So far, emergency rooms have not been overwhelmed with people afraid that they have caught the Ebola virus, and no one is hiding in the basement and hoarding food. But there is little doubt that the events of the past week have left the public increasingly worried, particularly the admission by Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that the initial response to the first Ebola case diagnosed in the United States was inadequate.

On Wednesday, the CDC offered up the latest piece of bad news, announcing that a second infected nurse in Dallas had flown back from Cleveland a day before developing symptoms. Even before the announcement, two-thirds of the respondents to a Washington Post-ABC News poll said they were concerned about a widespread epidemic of Ebola in this country.

That’s not going to happen:

The risk of Ebola infection remains vanishingly small in this country. The virus is not airborne, not able to travel in the way that, say, measles or the SARS virus can. Close contact with a patient is required for transmission. Just one death from Ebola has occurred here, and medical care is light-years from that available in West Africa, where more than 4,400 people have died in the latest outbreak.

By contrast, in some years, the flu kills more than 30,000 people in the United States. Yet this causes little anxiety: Millions of people who could benefit from a flu shot do not get one.

One can be logical about this, but we’re too far into the horror movie for that:

Experts who study public psychology say the next few weeks will be crucial to containing mounting anxiety. “Officials will have to be very, very careful,” said Paul Slovic, president of Decision Research, a nonprofit that studies public health and perceptions of threat. “Once trust starts to erode, the next time they tell you not to worry – you worry.”

Mass hysteria follows, not that we’ll invade Iraq again – but we might. As for Ebola, we’ve been here before:

Experts said the most recent precedent of the Ebola risk, psychologically speaking, is the anthrax scare that followed the Sept. 11 attacks. In the weeks after an unknown assailant sent deadly envelopes with powdered anthrax spores to public officials, people across the country were seized by anxiety.

Some duct-taped windows and stayed away from work. In pockets of the country – Tennessee, Maryland and Washington – people reported physical symptoms like headaches, nausea and faintness. Ultimately they were determined to be the result of hysteria.

“I was in college then, and I remember they evacuated the business school building because someone saw white powder in the cafeteria,” said Andrew Noymer, a sociologist at the University of California, Irvine. The powder turned out to be artificial sweetener.

Expect that sort of thing now:

Psychologists have known for years that people judge risk based on a sophisticated balance of emotion and deduction. Often the former trumps the latter.

Instinctual reactions are quick and automatic, useful in times when the facts are not known or there is not enough time to process what little is known. Analytical reasoning is much slower and much harder; if we relied on analysis alone, decisions about risk would paralyze us.

Sure, but the risks are known here, not that they matter, as David Ignatius explains:

You could feel a shiver of panic coursing through the American body politic this week as the country struggled with a metastatic set of crises: the spread of the Ebola virus, the surge of Islamic State terrorists and the buckling global economy. Listening to the news, many Americans must have felt … that the protection layer had been breached.

President Obama tried to speak calmly to a rattled nation on Wednesday, describing how he had kissed and embraced nurses at Emory University Hospital who had treated Ebola patients safely. Don’t panic, was the unspoken message. It’s safe. Listening to the president, you couldn’t help but wonder if he was straining to keep a polarized, fearful country from losing its cool.

That’s a tall order:

Panic is a natural human response to danger, but it’s one that severely compounds the risk. Frightened people want to protect themselves, sometimes without thinking about others. Often, they get angry and want to find someone to blame for catastrophe. Inevitably, they spread information without checking whether it’s true.

That’s how we ended up in Iraq, and as then, Ignatius sees the press as an issue:

My own business, the news media, has a peculiar responsibility in times like these. We have to deliver information quickly and reliably, and also hold officials accountable for their performance — all without unnecessarily frightening people or contributing to the kind of hysteria that makes public-health measures more difficult. This role is harder in an unfiltered, Internet-driven media world, where careful reporting can look to some people like suppression of information.

There’s no winning. The hysteria is here, although an odd hero emerged:

Fox News’ Shepard Smith railed against the media’s Ebola hysteria on Wednesday.

“You should have no concerns about Ebola at all. None. I promise,” stated Smith. He went on to tell viewers, “Do not listen to the hysterical voices on the radio and the television or read the fear-provoking words online. The people who say and write hysterical things are being very irresponsible.”

He explained: “We do not have an outbreak of Ebola in the United States. Nowhere. We do have two healthcare workers who contracted the disease from a dying man. They are isolated. There is no information to suggest that the virus has spread to anyone in the general population in America. Not one person in the general population in the United States.”

This was unusual on Fox News, where viewers are told we’re all going to die if Obama is not stopped, but this was even more unusual:

“With midterm elections coming, the party in charge needs to appear to be effectively leading. The party out of power needs to show that there is a lack of leadership,” said Smith.

Smith stressed, “I report to you with certainty this afternoon that being afraid at all is the wrong thing to do.” He called media-stoked Ebola panic “counterproductive”, saying that it “lacks basis in fact or reason.” …

“Someday there may be a real panic. Someday, something may start spreading that they can’t control. And then, do you know what we’re gonna have to do? We’re gonna have to relax and listen to leaders. We’re not gonna panic when we’re supposed to and we’re certainly not gonna panic now. We have to stop it.”

Then there was this:

Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh complained on Thursday about Fox News host Shepard Smith’s commentary calling for news outlets to cover the burgeoning concerns about Ebola in the U.S. more responsibly.

“Shep Smith was crying so much during his reporting from New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina, his mascara was running,” Limbaugh groused.

Smith did report the Bush folks had messed up in their response to Katrina, and folks died. Limbaugh seems to think the right folks died, as they should have, but Limbaugh is not alone:

According to the American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer, it is because Smith is a gay “card-carrying liberal” who is seeking to provide cover for President Obama because Obama “supports the homosexual agenda.”

“Shepard Smith is a card-carrying liberal,” Fischer explained. “He has been outed as an active homosexual, so he’s down with the entire homosexual agenda. People think he’s on Fox so he’s conservative. Anything but.”

“Why would he want to support President Obama?” Fischer asked, before playing Smith’s segment on the Ebola panic. “Because President Obama supports the homosexual agenda.”

Bryan Fischer knows sentence fragments are powerful, and he knows that Smith is gay, even if that matter is far from clear – and he knows there’s reason to panic. Jonathan Last at the Weekly Standard says there are Six Reasons to Panic:

Start with what we know, and don’t know, about the virus. Officials from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and other government agencies claim that contracting Ebola is relatively difficult because the virus is only transmittable by direct contact with bodily fluids from an infected person who has become symptomatic – which means that, in theory, you can’t get Ebola by riding in the elevator with someone who is carrying the virus, because Ebola is not airborne.

This sounds reassuring. Except that it might not be true.

Viruses mutate. This one will mutate. One of those mutations could make it airborne, maybe. Panic is appropriate, and the “general infection rates are terrifying too” as lots of people got Ebola, maybe not here, but lots of people. Think about that, and think about this:

What’s to stop a jihadist from going to Liberia, getting himself infected, and then flying to New York and riding the subway until he keels over? This is just the biological warfare version of a suicide bomb. Can you imagine the consequences if someone with Ebola vomited in a New York City subway car? A flight from Roberts International in Monrovia to JFK in New York is less than $2,000, meaning that the planning and infrastructure needed for such an attack is relatively trivial. This scenario may be highly unlikely. But so were the September 11 attacks and the Richard Reid attempted shoe bombing, both of which resulted in the creation of a permanent security apparatus around airports. We take drastic precautions all the time, if the potential losses are serious enough, so long as officials are paying attention to the threat.

We should obviously shut down travel from these places, but one can catch a flight from Liberia to Lisbon, and then one to Lima, and then one to Miami, and then one to DC – so maybe we need to shut down all air travel. That seems to be the implication here, and this goes on and on. The Africans have been useless containing this over there, and this will surely get worse everywhere, and there’s this – “We have arrived at a moment with our elite institutions where it is impossible to distinguish incompetence from willful misdirection.”

Ah, now we know we can trust no one who says they know what they’re talking about. Obama could be lying through his teeth, and no one would trust him even if he was telling the truth. It’s the same for every doctor and scientist. We’re all on our own. That’s the final reason to panic.

One should remember that William Kristol’s Week Standard a dozen years ago was the place to go for all the arguments for why we had to go to war in Iraq, right now. It was Panic Central. Kristol’s staff provided all the turns of phrase Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld and Rice would work into their press conferences and speeches. It was the neoconservative service bureau, and it doesn’t seem to have changed much.

Palm Waldman sees it this way:

I don’t know if Ebola is actually going to take Republicans to victory this fall, but it’s becoming obvious that they are super-psyched about it. Put a scary disease together with a new terrorist organization and the ever-present threat of undocumented immigrants sneaking over the border, and you’ve got yourself a putrid stew of fear-mongering, irrationality, conspiracy theories, and good old-fashioned Obama-hatred that they’re luxuriating in like it was a warm bath on a cold night.

It isn’t just coming from the nuttier corners of the right where you might expect it. … One candidate after another is incorporating the issue into their campaign. Scott Brown warns of people with Ebola walking across the border. Thom Tillis agrees: “Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve got an Ebola outbreak – we have bad actors that can come across the border. We need to seal the border and secure it.” “We have to secure the border. That is the first thing,” says Pat Roberts, “And in addition, with Ebola, ISIS, whoever comes across the border, the 167,000 illegals who are convicted felons, that shows you we have to secure the border and we cannot support amnesty.” Because really, what happens if you gave legal status to that guy shingling your roof, and the next thing you know he’s a battle-hardened terrorist from the ISIS Ebola brigade who was sent here to vomit on your family’s pizza? That’s your hope and change right there.

The Weekly Standard has done its job well, for the team:

Even if most people aren’t whipped up into quite the frenzy of terror Republicans hope, I suspect that there will be just enough who are to carry the GOP across the finish line in November. When people are afraid, they’re more likely to vote Republican, so it’s in Republicans’ interest to make them afraid. And you couldn’t come up with a better vehicle for creating that fear than a deadly disease coming from countries full of dark-skinned foreigners. So what if only two Americans, both health care workers caring for a dying man, have actually caught it? You don’t need facts to feed the fear. And they only need two and a half more weeks.

It’s a plan, but Andy Borowitz imagines how it could backfire:

There is a deep-seated fear among some Americans that an Ebola outbreak could make the country turn to science.

In interviews conducted across the nation, leading anti-science activists expressed their concern that the American people, wracked with anxiety over the possible spread of the virus, might desperately look to science to save the day.

“It’s a very human reaction,” said Harland Dorrinson, a prominent anti-science activist from Springfield, Missouri. “If you put them under enough stress, perfectly rational people will panic and start believing in science.”

Additionally, he worries about a “slippery slope” situation, “in which a belief in science leads to a belief in math, which in turn fosters a dangerous dependence on facts.”

That’s a bit fanciful. People who panic never start believing in science, and they certainly don’t suddenly develop a dependence on facts. They open that door that’s there no real reason to open, and the monster jumps out. Everyone has seen the movie. Panic and hysteria follow, which leads to more panic and hysteria. People die. It’s great fun, in the movies.

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Riding the Ebola Wave

Something changed after the Greatest Generation took care of Hitler and Mussolini and Tojo, when America ended up with the only economy in the world that hadn’t been devastated by that war. America hadn’t been bombed into smoking rubble, and now we knew how to make almost anything on a massive scale, and had the capacity to do so. Incredible prosperity followed, for almost everyone. We built cars, not tanks and planes, and the televisions, and then anything we could think of. Everyone wanted a house in the suburbs, and everyone could have one. There seemed to be good jobs for everyone, and if you didn’t like any of those jobs, you could go into business for yourself. You’d do fine. People had money in their pockets. They’d buy what you were selling, and back then the government wasn’t regulating much of anything. You could sell crap that didn’t work at all and then just move on, and then sell something else that might be a little questionable. Ten years after the war ended, Detroit started selling big wallowing cars with giant tailfins, the same cars as before, but now space-age snazzy. People bought them. Kids bought hula hoops. There was a lot of money sloshing around. The economy exploded in all sorts of directions.

That explosion is what changed things. Those of us born just after the war wouldn’t live our lives like our parents, in one respectable career, rising to the top, or at least to the respectability of loyalty to the firm, and the honor that comes with that. We disappointed our parents by job-hopping and even changing careers entirely, several times. We didn’t stick to anything, but then that was impossible, given how the world kept changing. Old industries died. Whole new industries were invented. Success became a matter of riding the next wave, and then the wave after that. There were many awkward conversations in the early sixties. What are your career plans, how do you want to spend the rest of your life? There was no good answer to that. Where do you see yourself in ten years, and how do you plan to get there – what are the specific steps you must take to get there? Okay, fine – tell me what the world will be like in ten years. You can’t, can you? Baby boomers went off into the world willing to improvise. There was no other choice. Their parents looked sad.

No one settled down, but that was okay, and all of us have our tales of how thing somehow worked out. Teaching high school English in the seventies was fine, but that was a dead end. Moving to California and working in the “real world” wasn’t. The aerospace companies were hiring, and Training and Organizational Development wasn’t much of a stretch, but that was a dead end too – but in the mid-eighties desktop computers suddenly arrived, and all sorts of Human Resources stuff could be automated. Suddenly there was such a thing as Human Resources Systems, another wave to ride, something no one saw coming. Cool – and that led to something else no one ever heard of before, outsourcing, dumping all the tedious systems stuff, letting a contractor do the work, and working for the contractor, not the aerospace company, was cool too. There were no dead ends there. They had other contracts, and running the systems shop at that locomotive factory halfway between Detroit and Toronto was something entirely new – the legacy COBOL-based manufacturing resource planning system, running on a competitor’s mainframe in Texas, was a hoot – but that was a dead end too. Why not quit? A chain of Catholic hospitals in Pasadena needed someone to manage the business operations shop – payroll, accounts payable, general ledger – and that was fine, until the nuns outsourced us all to another contractor, who “streamlined” everything and sent us elsewhere. Fine – it was good to learn their fancy system that handled HMO stuff – contracts and eligibility and such things, so the HMO made good money, by making sure no one was getting any sort of treatment that wasn’t authorized by the bean-counters. It was a slick system for maximizing profits, merciless, or looking at it another way, superbly efficient – but then the HMO that wanted to use it went under before any of us could get there, swallowed up by a larger HMO with a different system. Oh well – a year or two off was fine – and then working for an actual HMO was fine too. It was a way to look at the same set of problems from the inside, but their systems were in chaos and some of us were forced out in the churn.

That was okay. It was time to retire anyway, and looking back at all this, it’s clear that any career plan from 1964 or so wouldn’t have worked. As they say, who knew? Additionally, over all the long and strange years, one does learn what controls one’s fate. Others want to make money. They don’t give a damn about you unless you make them money – then they’re happy with you, if they remember your name. This was nothing like teaching high school English. Thirdly, it’s obvious that sooner or later we’ll all end up working in healthcare, one way or another. The boomers are getting old, needing the medical help age makes necessary, and the days when America knew how to make almost anything on a massive scale, and had the capacity to do so, are long gone. Others, overseas, make what we buy. We have a service economy, where we service each other, coupled with that financial world out there where the rich get even richer selling imaginary assets to each other.

Our parents wouldn’t recognize this world. No one stays in one career. There’s no longer any honor in that, and in fact that doesn’t make sense, not now. That hasn’t made sense since 1947 or so, when laissez-faire capitalism was fully unleashed, when Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand became more important than any of us. It’s every man for himself now, in a world where everything was always changing. There were parents, back in the day, who wanted their son to grow up to be a doctor, someone respected, who really helped others, and made a good living too. The daughter might be a nurse – the same thing, without the good money. They wouldn’t recognize this world, where such people are just tools of others, the ones who make the real money, who run the world.

The Ebola crisis is making that painfully obvious, and one of Josh Marshall’s readers over at Talking Points Memo offers this:

I have a perspective tying together today’s big news brouhahas. My wife is an ER nurse at a major urban hospital owned by the Hospital Corporation of America, the hospital chain once run by Rick Scott. It’s the largest for-profit medical system in the world, and is of course also notable for its “creative billing” practices in the largest Medicare fraud settlement in history. Scott was booted from the CEO position following that fraud investigation, so he’s not directly responsible for current conditions in those hospitals.

But it is obvious to those who work there that the combination of lax training and toxic labor relations “leaders” like him have brought to the company are emblematic of a big problem for US hospitals if a major outbreak of Ebola or other infectious disease occurs. My wife’s ER has an “Ebola cart” with some lightweight protective gear and written instructions for putting on a PPE [Personal Protective Equipment] but the instructions are a loose bundle of papers and the pictures don’t match the gear in the cart and has inaccuracies that put them at serious risk.

It’s an object of gallows humor for the staff. That’s the totality of their training or preparedness so far. As we all now know, PPEs are not easy to put on and take off correctly. Even though nurses all have experience with standard droplet control (they see TB and HIV all the time), Ebola is a special case. They have gone months and months without a nurse education director because no one wants to deal with their management and take the position. Her coworkers are clear that they will refuse to treat an ebola patient because they have woefully inadequate training in the correct procedures and lack proper gear.

Rick Scott is currently the Republican governor down there in Florida. The largest Medicare fraud settlement in history didn’t hurt him one bit. He said his subordinates did that and didn’t let him in on what they were doing. Scott was booted from his CEO position because he was a clueless executive who hired and trusted the wrong people. He wasn’t fired for the fraud, and he told the voters of Florida he’d end government waste, cutting everything in sight. He told them he’d drug-test everyone on welfare, and they liked that. He didn’t tell them his wife owned the company that would do all the testing and the two of them would make a fortune billing the state. It’s a strange situation, but conservative voters down there wanted someone mean – merciless or, if you wish, superbly efficient – to slap the state into shape. That’s what they got. He runs the state like he ran his hospital chain, ruthlessly – and he’ll make a bundle too, with a bit of slight-of-hand. He spent seventy-five million dollars of his own money to get elected. It was a good investment.

Josh Marshall’s anonymous reader knows this guy and this world, and his wife’s hospital. The hospital can’t handle Ebola. Everyone knows that:

And yet the head of infectious disease at this hospital went on the local news to proclaim the hospital was ready to receive ebola patients safely. They obviously didn’t bother to speak to a single nurse on the front lines. I’m not particularly panic-y about ebola, even though obviously the family members of ER personnel have a lot at stake in Ebola preparedness. But I think that this situation will be the weak link in any major national response.

So many of our hospitals are run by lunatics like Rick Scott who seek only the highest profit margin – they do not invest in training, they build charting mechanisms that are good for billing but not treating patients, they constantly fight with their unionized employees, they lie to the public, etc., etc. We like to imagine that competent, highly-skilled medical institutions like Emory will save us, but we have way more Dallas Presbyterians in this country than we have Emorys. You can see exactly this managerial incompetence—and toxic labor relations – woven through the statement released by the nurses at Dallas Presbyterian today. Also see the head of National Nurses United on All In With Chris Hayes for a similar perspective.

To put it bluntly: we’ve entrusted our national medical system to the managerial competence and goodwill of the Rick Scotts of the world, and that is much scarier than a podium fan.

In case you miss the podium fan thing see this:

In one of the weirdest and most Floridian moments in debate history, Wednesday night’s gubernatorial debate was delayed because Republican Governor Rick Scott refused to take the stage with Democratic challenger Charlie Crist and his small electric fan… Rather than waiting for the governor to emerge, the debate started with just Crist onstage. “We have been told that Governor Scott will not be participating in this debate,” said the moderator. The crowd booed as he explained the fan situation, and the camera cut to a shot of the offending cooling device.

“That’s the ultimate pleading the fifth I have ever heard in my life,” quipped Crist, annoying the moderators, who seemed intent on debating fan rules and regulations. After a few more awkward minutes, Scott emerged, and the debate proceeded, with only one more electronics dispute. When asked why he brought the fan, Christ answered, “Why not? Is there anything wrong with being comfortable? I don’t think there is.”

Rick Scott may not be governor down there much longer. He may be appropriately mean and merciless, but he threw a tantrum like a prissy sixth-grade little girl, thinking it would impress every voter in Florida. That might have been a miscalculation. The whole nation is making fun of him now. The little things matter. Perhaps he made some good points in that debate. No one will remember them now.

Rick Scott, however, may pull this off. He’s a Republican in this unforgiving world, the kind of guy who does what makes economic sense, not matter who gets hurt, and David Stirling explains how that relates to Ebola:

Ebola has been killing people since 1976, so why do we still have no vaccine?

There is no profit for pharmaceutical giants in developing expensive drugs for rare diseases in countries with no money to buy them.

They are interested only in mass-market medicines for First World conditions such as cancer and heart disease, or lifestyle drugs such as Viagra.

Even health experts have ignored Ebola. Two years ago, the World Health Organisation listed 17 neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) that afflict more than one billion people. Ebola didn’t rate a mention – until the current outbreak killed more than 4000 people so far and put the world on alert.

Of course, drug companies are not charities, they answer to shareholders, and for that matter, where’s the financial incentive for governments when the disease afflicts only Africa?

All that is rather obvious – the Invisible Hand has spoken. No, wait – market forces have spoken. Hands don’t speak. They slap people around, which may be the same thing, but someone will make money here. The Washington Post’s Abby Ohlheiser explains how that works:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Tuesday that a person has been diagnosed with Ebola in the United States. The market reacted accordingly. The most striking monetary effect of the CDC’s announcement was encapsulated in this headline from USA Today: “Ebola stocks soar after infection hits U.S.”

Yes, the makers of experimental drugs that have a shot at becoming the first confirmed Ebola treatment fared well in the markets after the Ebola-in-the-U.S. news broke.

“The first confirmed Ebola case in the U.S. is fanning fears around the country, but it’s also driving greed in some corners of the stock market,” CNNMoney said.

It was just the latest in a series of boons for those companies.

There wasn’t money in this before. There is now. Just add panic, and the “natural remedy” folks are seeing green too:

One of the more reliable byproducts of something like the Ebola outbreak in Africa (and its arrival in the U.S.) is the marketing of products that aren’t actually drugs as potential cures or treatments for the illness. This is something the FDA anticipated would happen this year, as Ebola began to spread across West Africa. “Oftentimes with public health incidences, like Ebola or even during H1n1, we see products that are marketed, often online, that claim to treat or cure the disease … without FDA approval,” FDA spokesperson Stephanie Yao said in an earlier interview with The Post.

Last week, the agency sent letters to three companies, alerting them that some of their paid consultants were marketing their products – which included essential oils and organic dark chocolate bars – as Ebola cures and treatments against FDA regulations.

That is rich:

Although two of the companies in question made it very clear in statements to The Post that they don’t condone the marketing of their products in this way, one company was promoting the idea itself.

Natural Solutions Foundation claimed in its online marketing materials that its Nano Silver product could cure Ebola, Hepatitis B and C, and H1N1, among other diseases. “WHO, FDA, the New York Times, etc., have gone on a rampage of disinformation to keep you in the dark about natural ways to dispose of dangerous microbes without damaging your beneficial bacteria,” the company added.

The ads will be on your television screen soon, and then there are the hedge fund managers:

It turns out that the spread of Ebola through West Africa prompted some hedge funds to bet on it affecting cocoa prices. The countries hardest hit by the outbreak border the Ivory Coast, one of the world’s largest cocoa producers. According to Bloomberg, the possibility that Ebola will spread there is one of many factors leading experts to speculate that cocoa prices will continue to rise.

A September 24 Moody’s report cited by Bloomberg notes that Ebola control measures might produce labor shortages during the beginning of cocoa’s harvest season in October.

It’s time to play those cocoa futures. There’s money to be made, and we do live in a world where laissez-faire capitalism was fully unleashed long ago. It’s every man for himself, alone, and we are actually all libertarians now. At Newsweek, Victoria Bekiempis discussed how that’s working out in Texas:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the first case of Ebola diagnosed in the U.S. on Tuesday, in Dallas, Texas. This presents both epidemiological and political questions. Libertarianism is a major political force in Texas, and Libertarianism generally advocates against government involvement in healthcare – so if the 135 Libertarians running for office in the Lone Star State this November were elected, would they want the government to fight the disease?

The answer is more nuanced than one might expect: Most Libertarians interviewed by Newsweek agreed government should intervene to protect public health in exceptional circumstances, but said intervention would have to be very careful and limited – and, perhaps, that it is better executed by the private sector.

That goes like this:

Carla Howell, National Libertarian Party Political Director, says “governmental bureaucracies” involved with epidemic control are ineffective compared to private and voluntary efforts, in addition to costing too much money and violating individual rights.

“The sole purpose of government is to protect our life, liberty and property from harm caused by others in those few instances where the private sector cannot do a better job,” Howell writes in an email to Newsweek. “Containing Ebola in Africa is best left to private charities such as Doctors without Borders rather than the NIH [National Institutes of Health] or the CDC.

“Screening is better handled by airlines and private hospitals that are both liable for damages and fully free of government red tape. (Sadly no such hospitals exist today in the United States).”

Digby (Heather Parton) summarizes the rest:

To be fair, some other libertarians who are running for office in Texas reluctantly agreed that as much as they loathe “government bureaucracies” like the CDC, they have “bigger fish to fry.” Others recognized that quarantines enforced by the proverbial men with guns might be necessary. Overall, they seemed to be more uncomfortable with implications of their belief system in this instance than we usually see. In fact, they remind [me] of the anti-abortion zealots when confronted with the inconvenient fact that if they consider abortion murder they are morally required to arrest the women who have them.

The spokesperson for the national Libertarian party is the only one who is unashamedly willing to spell out the solutions their philosophy truly requires.

Why not be honest about this? Everyone understands now. This is not the world of the Greatest Generation. There’s no respectability in loyalty to something larger. You’re alone. Ride the wave, and then the next one, no matter who drowns around you. We’ve lived our lives like that for many decades now. Now we know what that means.

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Dead Ends

There are some curious people in Congress, particularly that high school dropout from Cleveland, who was indicted for grand theft auto – not the video game – multiple times. Each time he beat the rap. He’s a smooth-talker, although he did once receive six months of probation, when he was convicted of carrying a concealed weapon, without registration or permit. This would be Darrell Issa – on his seventeenth birthday he dropped out of high school and enlisted for three years in the Army. Somehow he became an Explosive Ordnance Disposal technician, trained to defuse nasty bombs, and claimed his unit provided security for President Nixon, sweeping stadiums for bombs before the 1971 World Series. Nixon didn’t attend any of that year’s World Series games, but Issa’s unit did perform security sweeps for the World Series. He exaggerated. After the World Series, Issa was transferred to a supply depot – poor ratings from his superiors – and there a fellow soldier claimed Issa stole his Dodge Charger – “I confronted Issa. I got in his face and threatened to kill him, and magically my car reappeared the next day, abandoned on the turnpike.” No charges were ever filed. Issa says it never happened.

Issa did go back to Cleveland and got his high-school equivalency diploma and was off to Kent State – not the real one, the one at Stark – and he joined the ROTC there, so he eventually ended up in the Army Reserve. Just before his discharge in 1980 he was indicted on charges of grand theft auto. Issa said it was a misunderstanding. He just bought the damned car, so the charges were dropped. There was also the hit-and-run thing. Issa crashed a truck he was driving into a woman’s car and, according to court records he told her that he just didn’t have the time to wait for the police. He had things to do. He left the scene. She sued him for twenty grand. They eventually settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. The whole thing went away. All records of that are sealed.

It’s odd that this fellow made it to Congress, but after all this unpleasantness Darrell Issa hooked up with the right electronics people and eventually made a fortune in car alarms, the ones with a speaker with Issa’s own voice – “Protected by Viper!” – “Stand back!” – “Please step away from the car!” Everyone remembers those, and the company grew by leaps and bounds, and it is headquartered out here in Vista, down in North County, San Diego. That’s where Issa became a severely conservative Republican congressman, and that’s his congressional district – Oceanside, Vista, Carlsbad and Encinitas – next door to Duncan Hunter’s district.

Everyone is severely conservative down there. Liberals are told to turn around and drive back to Los Angeles. Issa is also the wealthiest currently-serving member of Congress. He must know things, anyone that rich must know things, and in 2008 was appointed ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, leapfrogging over more than a few senior Republicans. He became the House Republicans’ bulldog, launching investigations into one scandal after another that would surely bring down Obama, forcing Obama to resign in disgrace.

That didn’t work out. The Fast and Furious gun-running scandal turned out to be about a secret operation the Bush administration had set up, that the Obama administration was trying to shut down. The IRS scandal wasn’t a scandal either – the IRS was denying tax-exempt status to odd liberal “public service” organizations too, not just the Tea Party folks. None of these groups should lie about not being purely political, to avoid taxes. The IRS was picking on everybody. That’s what they were supposed to do, and then Benghazi didn’t work out either. Barack and Hillary didn’t tell our military to stand down, because they wanted our ambassador and those three others to die, because Barack sympathizes with all terrorists and Hillary is incompetent and kind of likes to see our people die. It was a tragic screw-up, with the CIA and State Department not talking to each other. That can be fixed. There was nowhere to go with that, but Issa kept stirring the pot, which was a bit embarrassing. John Boehner took the matter out of Issa’s hands, setting up a Select Committee to look into all things Benghazi. It hasn’t convened yet. It may never convene. About the only thing that Issa has going for him now is that Bill Maher sometimes invites Issa to be one of the three panelists on his HBO show Real Time. Maher finds him amusing, but that means that Issa has to drive up here to Los Angeles. The Maher show is taped at CBS Television City, just down the hill here on Fairfax. That’s enemy territory.

Darrell Issa has met a dead end, but he won’t accept that. There’s always a scandal, or there should be because Obama is who he is and Democrats are still Democrats, and now Issa is accusing the EPA of working too closely with environmental groups. He’s appalled, and this is about a report from the New York Times about the “cozy” relationship between EPA administrator Gina McCarthy and David Doniger, a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council:

Republicans say the most vivid example of a cozy relationship is an email exchange … celebrating legal maneuvering that provided Mr. Obama with something both the EPA and the environmental group wanted: a court-ordered deadline for release of a 2012 EPA regulation curbing greenhouse gas emissions on future power plants – a precursor to Mr. Obama’s announcement in June. (The environmental group had joined with others to sue the EPA to force the regulation, and the EPA quickly settled.)

On Dec. 23, 2010, the day the settlement was announced, Mr. Doniger emailed Ms. McCarthy, “Thank you for today’s announcement. I know how hard you and your team are working to move us forward and keep us on the rails. This announcement is a major achievement.” He added, “We’ll be with you at every step in the year ahead.”

Ms. McCarthy responded, “Thanks David. I really appreciate your support and patience. Enjoy the holiday. The success is yours as much as mine.”

Issa sees this as a smoking gun, but Kevin Drum doesn’t:

Explosive! “Thanks David. I really appreciate your support and patience.” Truly a smoking gun of improper influence! They used first names and everything!

Issa must really be getting desperate. I mean, normally I understand the supposed malfeasance in his investigations. I may think his charges are foolish, but at least I get it. But this time? Even in theory, what’s supposed to be wrong here? An environmental group expressing pleasure at a court ruling? The EPA administrator sending back a polite note? Everybody knew all along that both sides wanted the same thing, so this is hardly a surprise. And certainly light years from scandalous.

Issa must be going off his nut because his investigations keep failing to excite anyone. Or maybe this is just designed to provide some fodder for fundraising emails for the upcoming election. It’s hard to figure out what else could be going on.

It may be hard to figure out what else could be going on, but there’s a lot of this going on. All it takes is a little bit of something, like C. J. Chivers of the New York Times with a new piece, a backgrounder to tie up loose ends, about chemical weapons found in Iraq after the 2003 invasion:

The soldiers at the blast crater sensed something was wrong.

It was August 2008 near Taji, Iraq. They had just exploded a stack of old Iraqi artillery shells buried beside a murky lake. The blast, part of an effort to destroy munitions that could be used in makeshift bombs, uncovered more shells.

Two technicians assigned to dispose of munitions stepped into the hole. Lake water seeped in. One of them, Specialist Andrew T. Goldman, noticed a pungent odor, something, he said, he had never smelled before.

He lifted a shell. Oily paste oozed from a crack. “That doesn’t look like pond water,” said his team leader, Staff Sgt. Eric J. Duling.

The specialist swabbed the shell with chemical detection paper. It turned red – indicating sulfur mustard, the chemical warfare agent designed to burn a victim’s airway, skin and eyes.

All three men recall an awkward pause. Then Sergeant Duling gave an order: “Get the hell out.”

Five years after President George W. Bush sent troops into Iraq these soldiers had entered an expansive but largely secret chapter of America’s long and bitter involvement in Iraq.

That’s how it opens. The piece is very long. Cleaning up this crap was dangerous. Some of our guys died. The Bush administration kept this quiet, but that led to items like this:

Even when it publishes a detailed investigative report that basically says George W. Bush was right in stating there were dangerous weapons of mass destruction in Saddam’s Iraq – even when its own reporters reveal the truth about Saddam Hussein’s deadly chemical weapons stockpiles – the New York Times tries to vilify President Bush by essentially rewriting history and ignoring present danger.

Splashed across the front page of Tuesday’s Times is an article that repeatedly makes clear that one of President Bush’s main, stated reasons for invading Iraq post-9/11 was legitimate. There were WMDs – chemical weapons, lots of them – hidden in Iraq and discovered by our troops. …

In the ongoing attempt to “blame Bush” and cast the former president in a negative historical light, the Times piece attempts to condemn the Bush administration for, essentially, covering up the existence of those WMDs, thus leading to risk and injury for military personnel who found them and were involved in their destruction.

Brad Dayspring, a Republican explainer-of-all-things and a former aide to former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor argues here that “those who mocked any statement that there were WMDs in Iraq were/are wrong.” At the conservative Media Research Center there were other triumphant tweets too, including this one – “Every single thing media told us about Iraq and WMD was wrong.”

Again, Kevin Drum is not impressed:

This is ridiculous enough that – so far, at least – the savvier wing of the conservative movement is staying mum about the whole thing. There are three main reasons for this. First, most of these weapons were rotting remnants of artillery shells used during the Iraq-Iran war in the 80s and stored at Iraq’s Muthanna State Establishment as well as other nearby sites.

Drum says Murtaza Hussain of the Intercept explains what this means:

The U.S. was aware of the existence of such weapons at the Al Muthanna site as far back as 1991. Why? Because Al Muthanna was the site where the UN ordered Saddam Hussein to dispose of his declared chemical munitions in the first place – those weapons that could not safely be destroyed were sealed and left to decay on their own, which they did. The site was neither “active” nor “clandestine” – it was a declared munitions dump being used to hold the corroded weapons which Western powers themselves had in most cases helped Saddam procure.


In other words, these shells weren’t evidence of an active WMD program, which had been George Bush’s justification for the war. They were simply old munitions that everyone knew about already and that were being left to degrade on their own.

Second, the Bush administration kept its discoveries secret. If any of this were truly evidence for an active WMD program, surely Bush and Dick Cheney would have been the first to trumpet the news. The fact that they didn’t is pretty plain evidence that there was nothing here to back up their prewar contentions of an Iraqi WMD program.

Third, there’s the specific reason these discoveries were kept secret.

That’s where Chivers adds useful detail:

Participants in the chemical weapons discoveries said the United States suppressed knowledge of finds for multiple reasons, including that the government bristled at further acknowledgment it had been wrong… Others pointed to another embarrassment. In five of six incidents in which troops were wounded by chemical agents, the munitions appeared to have been designed in the United States, manufactured in Europe and filled in chemical agent production lines built in Iraq by Western companies.


Far from being a smoking gun of Saddam Hussein’s continuing quest for illegal WMDs, these discoveries were evidence that Western powers in the 80s were perfectly happy to supply illegal WMDs to an ally as long as they were destined for use against Iran. This was not something Bush was eager to acknowledge.

And there’s more:

Iraq had no active WMD program, and it was an embarrassment to the Bush administration that all they could find were old, rotting chemical weapons originally manufactured by the West – so they kept it a secret, even from troops in the field and military doctors. But lies beget lies, and American troops are the ones who paid the price. According to Chivers “the government’s secrecy, victims and participants said, prevented troops in some of the war’s most dangerous jobs from receiving proper medical care and official recognition of their wounds.”

Today, the consequences of our lies continue to haunt us as the rotting carcasses of these weapons are apparently falling into the hands of ISIS. Unfortunately, no mere summary can do justice to this entire shameful episode.

Jessica Schulberg adds perspective:

The existence of aging chemical weapons in Iraq was never the justification for Bush’s invasion, nor was it a secret. The secret was the harm that they were causing to U.S. troops and the subsequent failure to care for these individuals.

That story warrants attention. It’s just not the story the right was hoping for, and Derrell Issa is out of luck again – but of course this has nothing to do with Obama, so he won’t run with this.

But the New York Times is not done with their backgrounders. Now it’s Mark Mazzetti with this:

The Central Intelligence Agency has run guns to insurgencies across the world during its 67-year history – from Angola to Nicaragua to Cuba. The continuing CIA effort to train Syrian rebels is just the latest example of an American president becoming enticed by the prospect of using the spy agency to covertly arm and train rebel groups.

An internal CIA study has found that it rarely works.

The still-classified review, one of several CIA studies commissioned in 2012 and 2013 in the midst of the Obama administration’s protracted debate about whether to wade into the Syrian civil war, concluded that many past attempts by the agency to arm foreign forces covertly had a minimal impact on the long-term outcome of a conflict. They were even less effective, the report found, when the militias fought without any direct American support on the ground.

The findings of the study, described in recent weeks by current and former American government officials, were presented in the White House Situation Room and led to deep skepticism among some senior Obama administration officials about the wisdom of arming and training members of a fractured Syrian opposition.

The intelligence community was quite clear over a year ago that the idea of arming Syria’s “moderate rebels” was unworkable:

“One of the things that Obama wanted to know was: Did this ever work?” said one former senior administration official who participated in the debate and spoke anonymously because he was discussing a classified report. The CIA report, he said, “was pretty dour in its conclusions.” … The CIA review, according to several former American officials familiar with its conclusions, found that the agency’s aid to insurgencies had generally failed in instances when no Americans worked on the ground with the foreign forces in the conflict zones, as is the administration’s plan for training Syrian rebels.

Send in the troops, lots of them, to show these guys how to fight, by fighting alongside them, showing them how it’s done – or forget it. That’s what the CIA said. We’re now, finally, sending the “moderates” aid, and arms, but not the troops to fight alongside them, as role models of a sort. Did this ever work? No, it doesn’t, and Andrew Sullivan is stunned:

Did this stop the program of arming the rebels? Of course not! Even when the CIA itself argues against such a crazy idea, the underlying pro-intervention paradigm holds – always. Something bad happens anywhere in the world and Washington is addicted to its own fantasy of being able to fix it. Obama went ahead anyway – but with apparent reluctance. That could not be said of Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, John McCain and David Petraeus, the unreconstructed liberal/neocon hegemonists, who were passionately in favor of a proxy war that even the CIA opposed.

That’s worth knowing as we face the grim prospect of a future Clinton administration.

PM Carpenter sees it this way:

Had George W. Bush earnestly and patiently listened in 2002 and 2003 to all his intelligence officials, he never would have gone into Iraq. Four-thousand-four-hundred-eighty-nine Americans, tens of thousands of Iraqis and at least a trillion dollars would have been spared. A decade later, on the precarious matter of arming Syrian rebels, President Obama did listen to all his intelligence officials. Their empirical findings were pessimistic, and thus he rejected the interventionist advice of his then-secretaries of state and defense, as well as that of his CIA director.

And then he didn’t, because he couldn’t:

Beheadings and political pressure have forced Obama to an official reversal of policy. But it’s significant that he seems to be slow-walking training and arms materiel for Syrian rebels. … His reluctance appears to be holding. Present circumstances, no matter how ominous, don’t change empirical findings.

That, however, is cold comfort:

We are left, then, with the distressing question of why (probably) the next president of the United States advised the current president of the United Stated to intervene on behalf of Syrian rebels either in the absence of the CIA’s imminent conclusions (Mrs. Clinton left the secretary of state’s office in early 2013) or indeed in the “dour” presence of those conclusions. If all the CIA’s findings hadn’t yet come in by the time of Hillary’s departure, then she was offering somewhat blind advice. And if the findings were in, then she was offering advice in contravention of what intelligence officials were warning.

Remind you of any other US president?


Hint: He was in favor of the same war Hillary was in 2003. And she didn’t even read the full intelligence report back then either.

Here we go again. Obama doesn’t want to be George Bush so he’s slow-walking this, but then he is sort of walking this, and Hillary Clinton seems to want to be Bush. She’ll run with this. President Ted Cruz, or any Republican, will run even faster, and at the moment this could be the next big scandal. Obama foolishly didn’t listen to the experts, who told him go big or go home – there’s nothing in-between. What’s wrong with Obama? Darrell Issa should hold hearings!

That, however, could be another dead end. The country might not be ready for a third major war in the Middle East again, now, even if they’re not quite ready to go home, as an alternative to going big. Even if they don’t know it, Obama is probably doing what most Americans want, doing something – not much, and maybe the wrong thing – but doing something vaguely likely and hoping for the best. When public opinion removes the polar alternative there’s no scandal in mucking about in the middle, unless you make stuff up.

That’s been known to happen:

Conservative legal activist Larry Klayman has filed a lawsuit against President Obama for “providing material support and aid to international terrorism and facilitating terrorism” by not implementing a travel ban on people from countries facing an Ebola outbreak.

Health experts have advised against enacting a travel ban, explaining that such a move might actually increase the risk of an outbreak, but Klayman has his own idea as to why the Obama administration hasn’t enacted a ban: anti-white racism.

Klayman writes in his weekly column that “Obama has favored his African brothers over the rest of us by allowing them free entry into this country” and “relegating whites and others who are not black or Muslim to the back of the bus has become an invidious form of reverse discrimination. This was not right when blacks were subjected to this treatment, and it is not right now – particularly given its deadly implications.”

“I do not advocate violence, and I want Obama to be taken alive to be deported and pay for his inadequacies under the rule of law,” Klayman writes. “But he must be forced from office as soon as possible, before all is lost.”

Klayman doesn’t want violence. That’s awfully white of him, but this one is just one more dead end. This lawsuit is preposterous.

Klayman should talk to Derrell Issa, the car thief who made a fortune offering others protection from car thieves. You can talk a good game. You can dazzle folks and confuse matters so no one knows quite what’s what. You can cloud men’s minds like The Shadow used to do – “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” But there are dead ends. Sometimes there is no evil and you end up looking like a fool. Derrell Issa is slowly learning that, even if that’s a work in progress.

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Hope in Unlikely Places

It’s good to have friends at CNN. Press credentials are cool, and that meant live-blogging the Los Angeles Democratic Presidential Debate on January 31, 2008, at the Kodak Theater here on Hollywood Boulevard – now the Dolby Theater of course – from the press room, with all the big shots. This was the big face-off between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, when Hillary still had a chance, but all the “Hope” posters and placards out on the street must have troubled her folks. The rest is history. She promised competence and steely strength, based on her vast experience as a consequential first lady, not some bit of fluff, and her many years as a senator, not Obama’s half-term so far. She knew stuff and she knew people – world leaders and such. Obama promised hope. He won the nomination, and then he went on to defeat John McCain – a man a vast experience and steely strength, even if he seemed a bit bloodthirsty and often a bit befuddled. Choosing Sarah Palin to run with him didn’t help much either – but the idea was that at least he really knew his stuff, and he’d slap the bad guys around until they did what America wanted them to do, or there’d be war, damn it. Obama offered hope, whatever that was, and won rather easily. Things could be different. They would be different.

The nation decided that was a good idea. They’d had enough of steely strength and war, and at home, neglect and incompetence offered as “freedom” from intrusive government. They hoped for something more from what was “their” government after all. Obama offered that hope – and now, six years later, his approval ratings are stuck in the low forties. No one is very happy with him – he keeps deferring action on immigration reform, and Iran still has nukes in the works, and Putin is still working on grabbing the rest of the Ukraine, for starters, and there’s ISIS and Ebola too, and Netanyahu calling him a fool in public, and to his face, and cops are shooting unarmed black kids dead every other week, with half of America staying they’re fine with that. What the hell happened? There’s no hope now.

Howard Fineman wonders what happened to the Barack Obama who once won over the country, but he says that there are subsets of that question:

What happened to that fresh, idealistic guy? What happened to his power and popularity in the United States? Why doesn’t he dominate the political stage the way he once did? Why isn’t he as effective as we thought he would be?

Fineman then offers some answers, like this on the Middle East:

The region that initially made him look wise now makes him look, at best, confused. His promise to end what turned out to be a nine-year war in Iraq helped win him the presidency. But while Osama bin Laden is gone, the Islamic State terrorizes people in his place. And the president who won a Nobel Prize for idealistic aims is raining bombs on Syrian territory and resisting calls to put “boots on the ground.”

And words matter:

Trained as a lawyer, Obama should be aware of the uses of ambiguity. But he makes sweeping declarations that damage his credibility. He assured all Americans that his health care plan would allow them to “keep their doctor.” It wasn’t quite true. He declared that if Syrian President Bashar Assad crossed a “red line” and used chemical weapons, the U.S. would respond severely. He did and we didn’t. Obama said that Ebola was “highly unlikely” to come to America; two weeks later a victim died in Dallas.

Of course some of the problem was Hope itself:

Obama arrived on the stage with Kennedy cool, youthful optimism, Ivy League credentials and self-evident proof that America was overcoming its “original sin.” His life story was a triumph of multiracialism and internationalism. By his very nature, he would end wars, make peace with Islam, help the downtrodden and save the U.S. and world economy. These expectations (which he did his best to stoke) were impossible to meet. He hasn’t met them. No one could.

Obama was wrong. We were wrong. There would be no wonderful post-racial age of sweetness and light in America – just the opposite, as many deeply resented that a black man was now in charge of America, a “first” they didn’t appreciate at all – and even Obama’s success with the economy was success stripped of hope:

Obama’s record here is more solid than critics and even some friends admit. His calm support for early bailouts helped prevent catastrophe. His “stimulus” worked somewhat. His team has kept the U.S. economy better positioned than most to compete (and cooperate) with China. Obama’s health care plan, though raggedly implemented, has aided millions and placed needed regulation on insurers.

He got re-elected in 2012 on this record, but still did not win enduring support. Why?

Because the rich have gotten richer while the middle class stagnates – productivity rises; real wages do not. Obama’s unspoken message is, “Without me, it would have been worse.” He’s right, but it’s hardly an inspiring slogan.

And then there’s the matter of competence and the man himself:

Obama has avoided a dramatic, Katrina-like administrative catastrophe, and his tenure has been relatively free of venal corruption. But everyday management is another matter. The rollout of his sweeping new health law was a mess, enforcement of border security has been spotty and the initial response to the Ebola outbreak was slow and low-key. The metastasizing Ebola threat could come to dominate the last two years of his term.

Fiercely proud and self-assured in public, Obama is also cautious and wary. He favors complexity over simplicity. Praised all his life for his gifts and path-breaking accomplishments, he is used to being respected even if he isn’t beloved. He likes to put others at ease and does not seek confrontation. He has climbed the greasy pole through charm and timing more than chesty combat.

His thoughtful, soothing, hopeful nature got him elected. It also made him disdainful of Congress and of unpleasant political realities in general… But the world is under siege today, making it easy to conclude that ferocity and confrontation are required.

That’s what Hillary Clinton and John McCain were saying back in 2008 – hope is nice, but you have to slap the fools around. They’re still saying that, although John McCain knows better than to run for president again, maybe. Everyone who is thinking of running for president is saying that. The Age of Hope is over. There won’t be another Obama. The new age may not be an age of despair, the opposite of hope, but it will be a return an age of nastiness, where we have to be nastier than the other guys. Howard Fineman, in these examples – and he has others – is just telling us it’s over. Obama was an anomaly.

Maybe you’ll have to look for hope elsewhere. Buy a lottery ticket. Marry that woman with her odd but lovable problems. Hope will revert to being a private matter, and it will still be foolish. That may be reading too much into what Fineman is saying here, but maybe it’s not. We got our hopes up. Now we know better. Even Obama knows better now.

There’s just the reality of things. People proud of their positions, based on their long-held beliefs, or insecure about both, aren’t going to change, no matter how much reason and charm are applied, by the most engaging of personalities. Public opinion won’t matter to them either. They’ll just dig in and double down, and it’s the same with hide-bound institutions, like the Senate, or the NRA, or the Catholic Church. Know hope? No hope is more like it.

Everyone knows that’s the way it is, but then there are occasional surprises. The new Pope is doing what Obama couldn’t do:

Gay rights groups hailed a “seismic shift” by the Catholic Church toward gays and lesbians on Monday after bishops said homosexuals had gifts to offer the church and that their partnerships, while morally problematic, provided them “precious” support.

In a preliminary report halfway through a Vatican meeting on family life, the bishops also said the church must recognize the “positive” aspects of civil unions and even Catholics who live together, with the aim of bringing them to a lifelong commitment in a church wedding.

The report summarized the closed-door debate that Pope Francis initiated to discuss a host of hot-button family issues such as marriage, divorce, homosexuality and birth control. No decisions were announced, but the tone of the report was one of almost-revolutionary acceptance rather than condemnation, and it will guide discussions until a final document is issued Saturday.

Pope Francis, who may be known one day as the Pleasant Pope, didn’t slap anyone around – like Obama, that’s not his style – but he still got the job done:

The bishops were clearly taking into account the views of the pope, whose “Who am I to judge?” comment about LGBT people signaled a new tone of welcome for the church. Their report also reflected the views of ordinary Catholics who, in responses to Vatican questionnaires in the run-up to the synod, rejected church teaching on birth control and homosexuality as outdated and irrelevant.

It did help that ordinary Catholics were telling the guys at the top that they were full of crap. Public opinion may matter more to them than that it does to our Republican Party over here, and that did the trick:

The bishops said gays had “gifts and qualities” to offer and asked rhetorically if the church was ready to provide them a welcoming place, “accepting and valuing their sexual orientation without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony.”

Perhaps something can be worked out now, and that’s a big deal:

For a 2,000-year-old institution that teaches that gay sex is “intrinsically disordered,” even posing the question was significant.

“This is a stunning change in the way the Catholic Church speaks of gay people,” said Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit author. “The synod is clearly listening to the complex, real-life experiences of Catholics around the world, and seeking to address them with mercy, as Jesus did.”

The bishops repeated that gay marriage was off the table. But their report acknowledged that gay partnerships had merit.

“Without denying the moral problems connected to homosexual unions, it has to be noted that there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners,” they said.

This would be like the Republicans admitting that the basic idea of Obamacare – that things should be arranged so that every citizen would buy at least some basic form of certifiable useful health insurance, for the good of everyone – was a pretty good idea. Obama could never pull that off. Pope Francis pulled this off.

Andrew Sullivan, a gay Catholic conservative, happily married in spite of his Church, is more than pleased with this Pope:

Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI understood the power of open dialogue, which is why they did all they could to shut it down within the Catholic Church. The sensus fidelium – the insight that ordinary Catholics may have into the Christian life – was all but banished in favor of top-down control and increasingly fastidious theological certitudes. And perhaps the most striking thing so far about the Synod now going on in Rome is simply that: a venting of reality in that airless context, that, while not in opposition to church teaching, is nonetheless frank about its challenges in the modern world.

Reality is nice, and Ed Morrissey notes this:

The most intriguing part of that discussion – at least as noted in the briefing – was a call to change the language associated with those teachings [on marriage and sexuality] and find more inclusive and welcoming language instead. The specific terms that some bishops wish to stop using are “living in sin,” “intrinsically disordered,” and “contraceptive mentality.”


Each of these terms is designed to define human beings in ways that can only wound and alienate. A couple co-habiting before marriage cannot be reduced to “sin” without obliterating everything else that may be wonderful about their relationship – and that may well lead to a successful marriage that is perfectly orthodox. Suggesting that all couples who use contraception can be reduced to endorsing a “culture of death” is equally likely to push flawed human beings away from Jesus rather than toward Him. And, as for “intrinsically disordered”, Ratzinger’s prissy prose was impossible for a gay Catholic to read without feeling punched in the gut. The key to a renewal of Christianity in our age will be a shift in language, a reintroduction of the core truths of the faith with words that are not designed to wound, hurt or alienate, and that can convey truth in a positive manner for a new generation.

Language does matter, and Sullivan adds this:

Christianity is about, among many things, a defense of human dignity and a love of the family. The hierarchy – which again has no such direct experience of actually navigating the challenges of parenting, and which seems incapable of seeing gay people as “first-class citizens” – has lost sight of this. They are still bound by fear – fear of actual gay people, of our happiness and self-worth, of our living example of the complexity of human love and sexuality. They cling to arid doctrine with little appreciation of how anyone can actually live it and not, in the heterosexual world, be cruel or dismissive or discriminatory or callous, or in the homosexual world, be uniquely alone…

What we’re seeing, I think, is how the mere fact of open discussion can shift the very direction of such discussion. We saw this in Vatican II, when new currents in the world and church transformed the meeting in ways no one quite expected – and Francis’ leadership in this contrasts so powerfully with his predecessor’s. He is not telling the church what it should do or how it should change. He has simply made it impossible for the lived reality of most Catholics to be ignored or dismissed any longer.

Some things cannot be unsaid. Some testimony from actual, broken but struggling Christians can never be forgotten. Dialogue shifts minds and hearts from the bottom up, not the top down.

Someone should have told Obama. Or maybe he knew that. Some things are harder to change than the teachings of the Catholic Church. Sullivan reads the whole of the document in question and sees this:

Let me address one of the more controversial and revolutionary aspects of this document, and one which obviously affects me deeply: the section the document actually titles:

“Welcoming homosexual persons”

Yes, you read that right. Instead of being seen as intrinsically disordered human beings naturally driven toward evil – and thereby a contaminating influence to be purged when we become visible (see the recent acts of cruelty and rigidity toward gay parishioners around the country), the church is now dedicated to welcoming gay people. You can write a long disquisition on how this changes no doctrine, but it seems to me you are missing something more profound – a total re-orientation of the church toward its gay sons and daughters. I have managed to find churches that do indeed welcome gay people; but even they rarely publicly declare that they welcome us with open arms – as we are, “her most fragile sons and daughters, marked by wounded and lost love.”

And there’s this:

Gone are the cruel and wounding words of Benedict XVI to stigmatize us; instead we have the authentic witness of someone following Christ who came to minister to the broken and the hurt, the fragile and the strong, the people who had long been excluded from the feast – but now invited to join it as brothers and sisters – “a fraternal space” in the church. Notice too that the church is now emphasizing a pastoral “accepting and valuing” of homosexual orientation, yes, “valuing” the divine gift of our nature and our loves. Yes, the doctrine does not change. The sacrament of matrimony is intrinsically heterosexual – a position, by the way, I have long held as well. But it is possible to affirm the unique and wondrous thing of heterosexual, life-giving union without thereby assuming that gay people are somehow intrinsically driven to evil, as Benedict insisted. It is not either/or. It has always been both/and.

And look too at the positive aspects of a gay relationship: “mutual aid to the point of sacrifice.” Instead of defining us as living in sexual sin, the church is suddenly seeing all aspects of our relationships – the care for one another, the sacrifices of daily life, the mutual responsibilities for children, the love of our families, the dignity of our work, and all that makes up a commitment to one another. We are actually being seen as fully human, instead of uniquely crippled humans directed always and everywhere toward sin. And, yes, there is concern for our children as well – and their need for care and love and support.

What’s not to like? You don’t have to be a Catholic to see something extraordinary has just happened. Even an atheist can be impressed with Pope Francis’ political skills, no matter what the theology involved. This pleasant man promised hope and change, and he actually delivered, and as Thomas Roberts notes, this actually makes a difference:

What practically results from this document? Perhaps bishops will not be so quick to turn away from their schools the children of gay parents or to fire gays and lesbians involved in ministry because they are living openly with or married to a partner. Perhaps they will consider the “concrete circumstances,” as the document suggests, of people divorced and remarried and welcome them to the communion table.

A key term in Francis’s papacy from the start has been “mercy.” Application of the law and of doctrine, he preaches, must be tempered by mercy. In an earlier meditation, he said he wished the church to be “the place of God’s mercy and love, where everyone can feel themselves welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live according to the good life of the Gospel.” That is not a recipe for cheap grace. The good life of the Gospel places some extraordinary demands on the believer.

The approach is clearly disorienting, however, to those who believe that the church must be a place where teaching and practice are absolute and immutable, where the dividing line must be clear between those who are in and those who are out.

Sullivan calls it “a depth charge against the neurosis of fundamentalism” – a nice turn of phrase. See the full discussion-thread at his site – filled with theology and church history – if that’s your thing. If it isn’t, simply note that what Howard Fineman was saying about how hope always gets mugged by reality – that hope is nice but in the real world you have to slap the fools around – isn’t always do. Sometimes you can find hope in unlikely places.

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