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18 September 2008 Charles J. Brown
11:55 pm

Joltin’ Joe

Another great point from the only VP candidate actually qualified to hold the job:

COURIC: Your vice presidential rival, Governor Palin, said “To the rest of America, that’s not patriotism.  Raising taxes is about killing jobs and hurting small businesses and making things worse.”

BIDEN:  How many small businessmen are making one million, four hundred thousand–average in the top 1 percent. Give me a break.

I remind my friend, John McCain, what he said–when Bush called for war and tax cuts–he said, it was immoral, immoral, to take a nation to war and not have anybody pay for it. I am so sick and tired of this phoniness.

The truth of the matter is that we are in trouble.  And the people who do not need a new tax cut should be willing, as patriotic Americans, to understand the way to get this economy back up on their feet is to give middle class taxpayers a break. We take the tax cut they’re getting and we give it to the middle class.

Pow! Bam! Zing!

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18 September 2008 Charles J. Brown
07:45 am

Death to Mickey!!

Turns out that Mickey Mouse is haraam:

As it happens, there are four Disney comic books published in the UAE and distributed by in Saudi Arabia. Here’s one called, of all things, “Mickey.”

The distributor is none other than Al-Arabiya, the Saudi-owned, UAE-based media company that competes with Al-Jazeera.

I had a fatwa issued against me once.  I always thought it was because of my human rights work.  But maybe it was because I had the same name as a cartoon character.

Hat tip:  Checkpoint Jerusalem

Comic book: Disney Comics Worldwide

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17 September 2008 Charles J. Brown
04:45 pm

Paralympics: Helping NBC Do the Right Thing

The Paralympics ended yesterday and will return in 2012 in London.

International Paralympic Committee chief Philip Craven hailed Beijing 2008 as “the greatest Games ever” during a moving, colourful closing ceremony. . . .Craven paid tribute to “the best ever Paralympic villages, a never-ending and self-generating supply of passion and emotion, superb organisation and wonderful volunteers” in his speech.  He hailed “millions of new Paralympic sports aficionados both here in China and around the world.”

Of course, thanks to NBC, none of those “new aficionados” live in the United States.

I have a suggestion.  Let’s spend the next four years urging NBC to get their act together and broadcast this event live on one of what, by that time will be the 117 channels they own.

Mr. David Zucker
President and Chief Executive Officer
100 Universal City Plaza
Universal City, CA 91608

Dear Mr. Zucker,

We the undersigned were dismayed to discover that the NBC-Universal family chose not to televise the Paralympics in real time (live and tape-delayed rather than as a special taking place long after the event was over) in the same way that it chose to feature the Olympics.

We write you today, however, not to object to your current actions, but rather to urge you to make a different decision in 2012, when the Paralympics come to London.  he athletes competing in the Paralympics are as extraordinary as any in the world, and deserve our attention and respect.

We also think you would find them to be a tremendous ratings success.  Covering them therefore would be not only the right thing to do, it also would be the best business decision for your company.

We hope you will reconsider your decision and give Paralympics fans in this country the opportunity to support our athletes and share in their achievements.


If you’re willing to sign such a petition, please add your name and city/state to the coments section below.  And feel free to share it with others.  If we have enough interest, I’ll pass it on to NBC.  I will not share any contact information — only your name and city.

Photo:  Jonas in China via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license

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17 September 2008 Charles J. Brown
09:45 am

Additional Thoughts on David Foster Wallace

David Foster WallaceWhen the first reports of David Foster Wallace’s death hit the internet, the mainstream media clearly had no real sense of his impact or his influence.  The Washington Post, for example, called him a “nontraditional writer” and a “cult figure popular among ’90s college students.”  Other outlets described him as the author of Infinite Jest, as if that work somehow captured fully his contribution to American letters.

Fortunately, there have been a number of posts and articles since then that convey his brilliance, his important place in American letters, and — from those who knew him — his generosity of spirit.  I particularly appreciated the tribute to him at McSweeney’s — I urge you to take time to read it yourself.

I never met Wallace, but his writing captured my imagination in ways that few other authors have.  As I noted in an email to Reihan Salam thanking him for his post, I regard Wallace as Orwellian in all the best meanings of that word — precise, smart, truthful, shorn of pretense.  Or as Zadie Smith put it over at McSweeney’s,

It was the. . . purity one finds in the books: If we must say something, let’s at least only say true things.

There are very few other essayists I would put in his class — Orwell, of course, and among his contemporaries, Sarah Vowell, Nick Hornby, and perhaps Jonathan Franzen.  His essays were small polished gems, each word carefully chosen to capture a mood, a sense, a moment.

I first read Infinite Jest shortly after it came out in paperback, largely because it caught my eye in a local bookstore and I was looking for one book to take with me on a four-week trip to Africa.  I had never heard of Wallace at the point, and had no idea what I was getting myself into.  Reading that huge wonderful mess of a novel in places like Eritrea, Uganda, and Tanzania gave it a particular poignancy and resonance.  The challenges of everyday life in places like Dar es Salaam and the turbulence of the characters’ lives in the novel just seemed to go together.

I remember exactly where I was when I finished it — sitting in the living room of a friend who happened to be assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Dar.  My friend had to attend an official function, so I spent the evening reading the last few chapters and listening to the surf.  I remember how angry I was at the novel’s ending, enough so that I almost threw the damn thing across the room.  Yet I also remember raving about it to my host, and leaving it behind so she too could experience it.

In 1998, after the U.S. Embassy in Dar was bombed, my friend’s house became the interim embassy.  My friend had moved on to her next posting by then, but it felt as if a place that had been an idyll had become part of the chaos.  Infinite Jest thus took on a new meaning for me beyond its content:  a placeholder for memories whose meaning had changed over time.

When I sat down to write this, I went to my library to get A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.  I discovered that I no longer owned a copy of it, or of any of Wallace’s other books.  Over the years, I had loaned them out to friends.  That’s what Wallace inspired in his readers — not merely a passionate devotion to his work, but an intense desire to share it with others.

I can think of no better tribute than that.

Photo:  Steve Rhodes via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license

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11 September 2008 Charles J. Brown
01:03 pm

9/11: Democratic Martyrs and the American Idea

About a year ago, The Atlantic asked a number of prominent thinkers to write, in 300 words or less, what they thought was “The Future of the American Idea.”

This is what novelist David Foster Wallace had to say in response.

Just Asking

Are some things still worth dying for?

Is the American idea one such thing?

Are you up for a thought experiment?

What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, “sacrifices on the altar of freedom”?

In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life—sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?

In still other words, what if we chose to accept the fact that every few years, despite all reasonable precautions, some hundreds or thousands of us may die in the sort of ghastly terrorist attack that a democratic republic cannot 100-percent protect itself from without subverting the very principles that make it worth protecting?

Is this thought experiment monstrous? Would it be monstrous to refer to the 40,000-plus domestic highway deaths we accept each year because the mobility and autonomy of the car are evidently worth that high price?

Is monstrousness why no serious public figure now will speak of the delusory trade-off of liberty for safety that Ben Franklin warned about more than 200 years ago? What exactly has changed between Franklin’s time and ours? Why now can we not have a serious national conversation about sacrifice, the inevitability of sacrifice—either of (a) some portion of safety or (b) some portion of the rights and protections that make the American idea so incalculably precious?

In the absence of such a conversation, can we trust our elected leaders to value and protect the American idea as they act to secure the homeland? What are the effects on the American idea of Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, Patriot Acts I and II, warrantless surveillance, Executive Order 13233, corporate contractors performing military functions, the Military Commissions Act, NSPD 51, etc., etc.? Assume for a moment that some of these measures really have helped make our persons and property safer—are they worth it?

Where and when was the public debate on whether they’re worth it? Was there no such debate because we’re not capable of having or demanding one? Why not? Have we actually become so selfish and scared that we don’t even want to consider whether some things trump safety? What kind of future does that augur?

Links added.

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11 September 2008 Charles J. Brown
09:03 am

September 11, 2001

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was in New York City to interview some job candidates at my then-employer, Amnesty International USA.  As I walked from my hotel to the AIUSA office, I came upon  dozens of New Yorkers standing on the sidewalk outside a McDonald’s on the corner of 28th Street and 6th Avenue, staring at something going on downtown.

When I looked up, I saw that the North Tower of the World Trade Center was on fire.  Nobody around me knew what had happened.  I pulled out my cell phone and called a friend to tell her to turn on CNN.  As we were chatting, I started yelling into the phone — “Oh shit oh shit oh God oh no no no. . . .”  As I and all those around me watched in horror, United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower.

Before the day was out, I saw first the South Tower and then the North Tower collapse.  I watched as a convoy of dozens of ambulances raced down 8th Avenue.  I stood in the door of a neighborhood delicatessen as hundreds of soot-covered residents trudged past.  I consoled friends and colleagues who lost loved ones in the collapse. I saw a city I loved turn into a silent ghostly shell of itself.

I also had spent much of the day desperately trying to reach friends in Washington to make sure they were okay.  When the attacks had just taken place, there were dozens of what later turned out to be false alarms.  CNN reported was that a car bomb had destroyed the northwestern corner of the State Department — which was where my office had been and where many of my friends still worked.

That night, as a result of a tip from a friend still in government, I managed to get on one of the few trains leaving New York for Washington.  Sitting across from me for the first two stops was a firefighter who had lost over half of the members of his company.  The trip took a lot longer than it normally did — we must have stopped at least a half-dozen times while engineers checked the tracks to make sure nothing was wrong.

That train felt like a refugee convoy – except these refugees wore suits, carried suitcases, and kept trying to use their non-functioning cell phones.  The trip turned into a discordant symphony of repeated “call failed” signals.

I returned home to a city under siege, with military police in armored personnel carriers patrolling the streets around the Union Station.  Although that worried me, my main emotion was relief that I made it home.  But when I got there, I couldn’t go to sleep.  Instead I stayed up almost all night, watching CNN replay the days’ events over and over and over again.

I am not a “survivor” of September 11.  My life was never at risk, and none of those I love died.  I have no right to speak on behalf of those who lost their lives or loved ones on that sad day.

For the next few months, that’s what I kept telling myself:  what happened to me wasn’t that bad.  But then I started to have trouble sleeping.  When I did manage to get to sleep, I dreamed of planes crashing into my apartment building.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but these were symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, PTSD is “an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened.”  Those suffering from PTSD often have flashbacks in which they believe the traumatic incident is happening again, as well as other symptoms.

That’s what happened to me.  That’s what the dreams were about: planes I could see coming but couldn’t stop.  I had no trouble getting on a plane or flying, but the sight of planes in the air freaked me out.  Living near the Potomac River, which is the approach path used by commercial airlines flying into Washington National, became a nightmare.  Planes come in low and fast, and often look as if they’re veering towards the city.  Every time I saw one, I would panic.  A couple of times, I had to pull off the road.

There were also other symptoms, ones that weren’t as obvious but which often manifested themselves in unexpected ways. I got angry a lot — irrationally and blindly angry — often for no reason.  I became moody.  I snapped at people –- no, I yelled at people.  Folks didn’t want to be around me.  I withdrew from the world.

The good news is that I got better.  Thanks to a wonderful therapist and caring friends (especially my future wife), I was able to understand what I was going through and start taking the necessary steps to get better.  After some bumps in the road, including one significant relapse triggered by a completely unrelated incident (also not uncommon among those with PTSD), I no longer have the dreams, get angry for no reason, or panic at the sight of planes over the Potomac.

What I wonder is whether my country — our country — also has gotten better.

There’s another moment that day that I still remember.  After I got off my cell phone that morning, when I and all those around me were still not sure what had happened, a woman next to me noticed the Amnesty pin on the lapel of my jacket.  She asked me if I worked for Amnesty and when I said yes, she said “Good luck.  You’re going to need it.  We’re all going to need it.”

I had no idea how right she was.

We have, over the past seven years, suffered from a collective form of PTSD, one from which we have yet to recover fully.  It manifests itself in many ways:  the fear of the other, the blanket hatred of Muslims and Arabs (and, for a brief period of deep insanity, even Sikhs), the irrational anger, the use of torture and other heretofore unspeakable acts.

Is it too soon to suggest that we need to move on?

We must find a way to continue mourning those who lost their lives but stop trying to revenge their deaths.  We must remember that we were wronged but stop using it as an excuse to inflict harm on innocents.  We must recognize that what happened that day, horrible though it was, cannot justify moral relativism or situational ethics.  We must accept that we do not honor the dead by undermining our values or abrogating our freedoms.

I believe that we as a nation can do these things.  I believe that we can get beyond the symptoms of our collective stress disorder and start living our lives again — without fear, without anger, and with acceptance.

But we’re not there yet.

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10 September 2008 Charles J. Brown
04:15 pm

The Foreign Service and America’s Diversity

Yesterday, Condoleezza Rice delivered a keynote speech at the annual conference of something called the White House Initiative on National Historically Black Colleges and Universities.   Here’s what she had to say.

I have lamented that I can go into a meeting at the Department of State — and as a matter fact I can go into a whole day of meetings at the Department of State — and actually rarely see somebody who looks like me. And that is just not acceptable. . . . Because when I go around the world I want to see black Americans involved in the promotion and development of our foreign policy. I want to see a Foreign Service that looks as if black Americans are part of this great country.

She’s right.  Off the top of my head, I can think of three African-American foreign service officers I’ve dealt with over the years.  That’s ridiculous.

I could offer a long explanation of why diversity in the foreign service is important, but Life after Jerusalem already has done a better job than I could do:

As an American Indian, I am painfully aware that there are only 35 American Indians in all of the Department of State. So when Secretary Rice says she can go through a whole day and see few people who look like her, I get it. I see none. And I don’t believe, and I doubt she does, that the reason for this is that “white administrators refuse to hire them.” I do think there are plenty of qualified African Americans and American Indians out there who just don’t know that the State Department is an option. I certainly didn’t, and never even considered it until my partner joined.

What I think she is saying, and I agree, is that we need to make a conscious effort to reach out to other communities. No one is saying to hire blacks or Indians for their color. But maybe we could recruit a little better at traditionally black or Indian universities to let them know of the opportunities at State. Because the Foreign Service SHOULD look like America. The Foreign Service has been accused of being “pale, male and Yale.” We should send men and women of all hues, religions, sexual orientations, etc., abroad to represent us because that is what America is.

I would only add that by looking more like America, a more diverse foreign service also would look more like the world.  Many folks around the world have no idea that the United States is anything other than white and black.

To cite one example, one of the things that made Harold Hongju Koh such an effective Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor is that other governments had a very hard time suggesting to him that the United States was racist. The Chinese, in particular, just hated the fact that they had to go toe-to-toe with an Asian American.

Like LAJ, I’m not suggesting that we should appoint people just because they are a certain gender, skin color, or sexual orientation.  Harold was A/S because he was the single most effective human rights advocate ever to hold the job, not because he happened not to be white.  By celebrating all that is American, we also demonstrate to the world much that is great about America.

Hat tip:  Life after Jerusalem

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10 September 2008 Charles J. Brown
12:45 pm

So Much for Mars

Further proof of the absolute inability of this Administration — and its allies in Congress — to think through the consequences of its actions:

NASA is about out of options for keeping U.S. astronauts in space after 2011.  Unless President George Bush intervenes, or whoever succeeds him in January immediately steps into the space arena, the dismantling of the space shuttle program will be too far along to reverse course. . . .

The three-ship fleet is scheduled for retirement in 2010. NASA wants to use the shuttle’s budget for developing replacement ships that can go to the moon as well as to the International Space Station. The new vehicle, called Orion, won’t be ready until 2015 — five years after the shuttle stops flying.

NASA had counted on buying Russian Soyuz capsules to transport crews to the space station during the gap. But in recent interviews, NASA administrator Michael Griffin said he has no hope Congress will pass the legislation needed for NASA to keep the Soyuz assembly lines running. . . .  “My guess is that there is going to be a lengthy period with no U.S. crew on (the space station) after 2011,” Griffin wrote in an email to top NASA managers that was posted on the Orlando Sentinel’s Web site.

The agency cannot purchase Russian rockets unless it receives an exemption from a trade sanction Congress levied in 2005 after Russia reportedly helped Iran develop nuclear weapons technology. Griffin has said the exemption to the Iran, North Korea and Syria Nonproliferation Act, needs to be in place by early 2009 to keep U.S. and partner astronauts in orbit.  U.S. outrage over Russia’s handling of a dispute with neighboring Georgia has pretty much nixed any chance Congress will lift the trade ban again, Griffin said.

“Exactly as I predicted, events have unfolded in a way that makes it clear how unwise it was for the U.S. to adopt a policy of deliberate dependence upon another power for access to ISS,” Griffin wrote.

When I was growing up, there was nothing more exciting or romantic than the space program.  John F. Kennedy’s challenge to land on the moon by the end of the decade was both a great achievement and a wonderful example of what we as a nation could do if we put our minds to it.

In contrast, our policy today, as Griffin notes, is “deliberate dependence.”

Here’s the thing.  I think it would be cool for us to go back to the moon or to Mars.  But I also think that there are other things that are more important and more worthy of funding if we have to make difficult choices.  I’d love for us to do all the things we’d like to do, but those days are gone, at least for a while if not forever.

But if we are going to have a space program, is it too much to ask that it not be completely half-assed, utterly dependent on unreliable “third parties,” and hopelessly unrealistic about the gap between what we want to do and what’s possible with the money we plan to spend?

Ask not what the Bush Administration can do for you.  Ask the Bush Administration whether they can screw things up any more than they already have.

Maybe we can beg the Chinese to let us hitch a ride.

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10 September 2008 Charles J. Brown
10:45 am

John McCain, Jack Bauer, Torture, and Situational Ethics

From an interview John McCain did with Marie Claire magazine:

MARIE CLARE: You liken Obama to Britney in your famous ad, while portraying yourself as the more serious candidate. Which celebrity would you like to be compared to? Bob Dylan? Jack Nicholson?

McCAIN: Kiefer Sutherland. [laughs, imitates a voice from the show 24] “It’s Jack Bauer.” We have a lot in common because he escapes all the time.

MARIE CLAIRE: Um, he’s also a torturer.

McCAIN: Yeah, that’s right. That’s where Jack and I disagree. He believes in torture, but I don’t. He says, “Tell me where the weapons are.” The person says, “I won’t.” Bam! “OK, I’ll tell.”

Okay let me get this straight.  McCain admires Jack Bauer, the most sick, sadistic character on television, but he doesn’t approve of his use of torture — which is only about 98 percent of what makes Jack Bauer tick.  And then after offering a pro forma “that’s where Jack and I disagree,” he then talks about how he beats people to get answers — as if he approves.

Another thing:  does McCain think Bauer is a real person, or is he having internal dialogues with a fictional character?  And what exactly does he mean when he says he escapes all the time?  From whom? From what?  And are the people he escapes from somehow morally equivalent to the bad guys on 24, who also torture?

John McCain has to figure out what exactly he thinks of torture.  And he can’t have it both ways.  He can’t be against torture before he was for it.  He can’t condemn it and then express admiration for a character who does little else (and, lest we forget, do a cameo on that show).  He can’t say he opposes torture and then vote against a provision that would have prohibited government officials from committing it.

If he’s going to run on his history — which after all is ultimately the story of how he was a victim — he can’t also favor making victims of others, no matter how wrong or disgusting or evil they may be.  Because when it comes to torture, there is no double standard.  It’s wrong all the time.  Anything else is situational ethics.

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10 September 2008 Charles J. Brown
09:45 am

Obama, Messaging, and Dean Wormer

Take a moment to watch this clip.  It’s from an Obama town hall appearance yesterday in Farmington Hills, Michigan.

At first glance, it seems pretty good.  He says that “there should be no contradiction between keeping America safe and secure and respecting our Constitution.”  He gets in a good shot in about the need to catch the terrorists before you worry about what to do with them.  And he has a great line at the end:  “Don’t mock the constitution.  Don’t make fun of it!  Don’t suggest that it’s un-American to abide by what the founding fathers set up.”

Those are all good points.  The problem is that along the way, he violates two fundamental rules of messaging:

1.  Don’t use your opponent’s talking points to frame your arguments.  Obama did that on three occasions:

“Senator Obama is less interested in protecting people from terrorism than he is in reading them their rights.”

“You may think it’s Barack the bomb thrower, when in fact it might be Barack, the guy running for president.”

“The reason you have this principle is not to be soft on terrorism.”

When you do this, you reinforce people’s preconceptions about you.  If folks are already inclined to worry about whether you’re the right guy, then what they’re going to hear is that Obama is soft on terrorism, has a Muslim name, and is interested in protecting the bad guys.

2.  Don’t try to convince people with facts.  Obama spends over a minute explaining the concept of habeas corpus.  He sounded like a professor.  Most people don’t have any idea what the words “habeus corpus” mean.  But they do understand the underlying principle:  that sometimes, our government makes mistakes, and we need rules to protect innocent people from being thrown in jail indefinitely.  They’ll understand that much more readily than talking about how this right goes back to before we were a country.

So what should have Obama said?  How about something like this:

You know, all of us want to be treated fairly.  You could say that’s the basic idea behind the Constitution and the Bill of Rights:  do unto others as you would have them do onto you.  In this country, we give people the chance to be heard. We promise them that they won’t be tortured.  We say to them that they have the right to prove that they are innocent of the charges against them, and that they don’t have to incriminate themselves.

These are our core values.  These are incredible gifts that the founding fathers gave to us.  And these are the very things that our opponents are now mocking.  How dare John McCain and Sarah Palin suggest that what was good enough for Thomas Jefferson and John Adams and Benjamin Franklin isn’t good enough for us.

Other than our familes, our freedoms are the most precious thing we have .  They are what made this country great.  They are the promise that all men and women are created equal, that we are endowed with certain inalienable rights, and, as you said so beautifully, ma’am, that we are the sweet land of liberty.

John McCain and Sarah Palin, just like George Bush and Dick Cheney, want you to believe that our security is more important than our freedoms.  What you know and what I know — and what McCain and Palin and Bush and Cheney certainly should know is that we cannot have security without freedom.  We cannot have justice without freedom.  We cannot be America without our freedoms.

Those who suggest otherwise should be ashamed of themselves.

They should be ashamed for resorting to torture, for doing the very same things that John McCain himself suffered in Vietnam.  They should be ashamed for letting places like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, instead of places like Farmington Hills and Peoria define who we are.  They should be ashamed for allowing waterboarding, beatings, sleep deprivation, and other techniques that we used to think only happened in places like Zimbabwe and Burma and Cuba.  They should be ashamed of themselves for believing that it’s all okay because the President can do anything he wants anytime he wants.

That’s not my America.  That’s not your America.  That’s not George Washington’s or Abraham Lincoln’s or Teddy Roosevelt’s or FDR’s or JFK’s or Ronald Reagan’s America.  Nowhere in our Constitution does it say the President can do anything he or she wants.  Nowhere.  That’s not Martin Luther King’s or Susan B. Anthony’s or Bobby Kennedy’s America.  That’s George Bush’s America.

It’s time we reclaim our heritage of freedom, our role as that shining city on the hill.  It’s time we say “not on our watch,” not here, not in Guantanamo, not anywhere.

It’s time that we say to Bush and Cheney and McCain and Palin and anyone else who supports them, we’re taking America back.  We’re taking America back to what it stands for.  We’re going to make America great again.  We’re going to be the America that respects people’s rights, that honors our core values, that draws so many people around the world to our shores.

Let’s start showing the world why we’re better than our enemies.  Let’s honor our founding fathers by returning to the values that make America America.

That would knock McCain and Palin on their butts.  It would force them to explain why they support the very torture techniques that  John McCain himself endured.  It would make them explain why they aren’t un-American.  It would require them to argue that they don’t want to destroy the Constitution or shred the Bill of Rights.  Tar them with every sin of the Bush Administration, and do it in a way that will leave them no space to reply except by repeating your arguments.

That, after all, is exactly what they’re doing to the Democrats.

So for crying out loud, Senator Obama, stop defending yourself and start attacking them.  It’s the only way you win.

P.S.  To my colleagues in the blogosphere and the mainstream media, this goes double for you.  Stop caring about how many times Sarah Palin lied about the bridge to nowhere and start talking about why Obama and Biden are the right choice. Stop parsing every lie that McCain and Palin tell and start talking about what their Administration would do to the country.  And if you can’t, then shut the hell up.

It’s the Dean Wormer Theory of Politics.  In Animal House, Dean Vernon Wormer tells Flounder, “Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son.”

In politics, defensive, bitter, and angry is no way to win an election. 

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9 September 2008 Charles J. Brown
02:15 pm

Compare and Contrast: Libya

Here’s what the State Department’s most recent human rights report has to say about Libya:

The Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya is an authoritarian regime with a population of approximately six million, ruled by Colonel Mu’ammar al‑Qadhafi since 1969. . . .Qadhafi and his inner circle monopolized political power. . . . The government’s human rights record remained poor. Citizens did not have the right to change their government. Reported torture, arbitrary arrest, and incommunicado detention remained problems. The government restricted civil liberties and freedoms of speech, press, assembly, and association. The government did not fully protect the rights of migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees. Other problems included poor prison conditions; impunity for government officials; lengthy political detention; denial of fair public trial; infringement of privacy rights; restrictions of freedom of religion; corruption and lack of transparency; societal discrimination against women, ethnic minorities, and foreign workers; trafficking in persons; and restriction of labor rights.

Now here’s what our favorite government blog, Dippynote said after The Condi finished her Weekend at Moammar’s:

Libya’s journey to rejoin the community of nations came after a long process of reengagement. Its historic 2003 decisions to voluntarily rid itself of its WMD program and renounce terrorism created the foundation from which Libya has today become a leader in Africa and a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. . . .Today, Libya is a vital partner in the fight against terrorism, helping to stem the flow of foreign fighters to Iraq. It works closely with its neighbors to combat the growth of terrorism in the Sahara and Trans-Sahel regions.

Libya is also a leader on the African continent. It maintains a humanitarian corridor that provides much needed supplies to the people of Darfur. Working with the African Union Contact Group, it is helping to mediate the conflicts in Chad and Sudan. Additionally, Libya provides development assistance to other African countries. . . .

The U.S. and Libya have shared interests, but have also differed at times on some key policy points and use of diplomatic tools. Naturally, we would prefer to have their support on some of these issues, but it is noteworthy that Libya — which serves as a model to others — voted in favor of placing additional sanctions against Iran for its non-compliance with international efforts to ensure the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program.  Libya has come a long way in its transformation from an isolated pariah to renewed membership in the international community.

One of these things is not like the other.

By the way, this is the sixth consecutive Dippynote post on Libya.  That’s more than the total number of posts on Iraq (five) since the beginning of April — and equal to the number of posts on Afghanistan (six) since Dipnote began.  And they wonder why nobody takes them seriously?

Here’s the best part:  it’s very likely that the two statements above were written by the same person — Amanda Johnson, a Libya Desk Officer in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs (NEA).  Ms. Johnson is identified as the author of the Dippynote piece, and since there was no diplomatic presence in Tripoli at the time of the last human rights report, it probably would have fallen to Ms. Johnson to prepare the first draft of that report.

This is what drives me bananas about the State Department. I have no beef with Ms. Johnson, who in all likelihood is a fine foreign service officer.  But given her age (she says in the Dipnote piece that she was born in 1977), she is in all likelihood a fairly junior one.  And junior foreign service officers — those without tenure — might as well be party apparatchiks for all the influence they have on the policymaking process:  they either toe the party line or find themselves out of a job.

In Ms. Johnson’s case, that means writing something highly critical of Condi’s creepy stalker boyfriend wannabe, and then, eight months later, being told to write something highly complementary.  It’s no wonder that foreign service officers get cynical about political appointees — and about the U.S. government’s commitment to human rights.

So which one is right?  Let me offer you the following hint:  the happier the tone, the bigger the lie.

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9 September 2008 Charles J. Brown
12:15 pm

Jimmy Buffett Pwns Hu Jintao

Will Americans ever tire of lists?  Every week there’s another one of the damn things.  And what drives me crazy is that they often are worth examining.

This week, Vanity Fair came out with a list of the “World’s Most Powerful and Influential People.”  Here are the Top Ten:

  1. Vladimir Putin
  2. Rupert Murdoch, News Corporation
  3. Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Eric Schmidt, The Googles
  4. Steve Jobs, Apple
  5. Warren Buffett, Berkshire Hathaway
  6. Jeff Bezos, Amazon
  7. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai
  8. Roman Abramovich, Millhouse Capital
  9. Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt
  10. Al Gore

President Bush did not make the list.  Neither did Barack Obama, John McCain, Joe Biden, or Sarah Palin.

Here’s a partial list of the people Vanity Fair thinks are more influential than they are.

  • Bill Clinton (11)
  • Michael Bloomberg (12)
  • Stephen Spielberg (14)
  • Ralph Lauren (15)
  • Arnold Schwartzenegger (33)
  • Tom Hanks (34)
  • Bono (36)
  • Oprah (43)
  • Jon Stewart (44)
  • Stephen Colbert (45)
  • George Clooney (56)
  • Jay-Z (57)
  • Judd Apatow (58)
  • Mick Jagger (61)
  • Ron Howard (65)
  • Matt Drudge (74)
  • Charlie Rose (81)
  • Joel and Ethan Cohen (85)
  • Arianna Huffington (90)
  • Tom Brokaw (95)
  • Jimmy Buffett (97)

I like Jimmy Buffett.  I have quite a few of his albums.  I’m from Florida, after all.

But am I supposed to believe that he’s more influential than Hu Jintao?  Hell, Hu Jintao could have half the people on this list put to death before breakfast.

Why do I get the feeling that a bunch of writers at VF sat around a room, drank some good wine, and rattled off a bunch of names? The magazine says that inclusion on the list was based on “a number of factors: wealth and influence, as well as such intangibles as vision, philanthropy, and the x factor.”

I realize that Bush is a complete and total disaster, but you’re telling me he has less influence than Jay-Z? Or Judd “I’ve made three funny movies” Apatow?  And last I checked, Charlie Rose does not have the ability to rain nuclear hell down on anybody.

Here’s a list of ten somewhat influential and powerful people that these idiots left off the list:

  • Bill Gates
  • Nicolas Sarkozy
  • Angela Merkel (named the most influential woman by Forbes, but eclipsed by Angelina on this list)
  • Condoleezza Rice
  • Lee Kwan Yew
  • Gordon Brown Tony Blair
  • Hillary Clinton
  • Manmohan Singh
  • Pope Benedict XVI
  • Hugo Chavez

Then there are folks like Mahmoud Ahmadenijad, Robert Mugabe, and Kim Jong Il, who can make people wet their pants just by sneezing.

Now that is what I call an x-factor.


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9 September 2008 Charles J. Brown
07:45 am

Cuba and the United States: Politics over Principle

As I’ve noted before, I despise the Castro regime (both its Fidel and Raul editions).  I spent a year in the early 1990s documenting its use of psychiatric institutions to detain and torture human rights advocates and regime critics.  But I also oppose the U.S. embargo — I agree with the position held by many of the brave human rights and democracy activists on the island, who believe that it is one of the few things propping up the current regime.

So I have to say I was not surprised at the following report:

After days of pressure by certain Cuban exile leaders on the Bush Administration to temporarily lift travel and money remittance restrictions to Cuba to aid storm victims, the State Department has finally delivered a response.  The answer is no, the federal government will not lift restrictions that limit Cuban exiles to visiting close relatives in Cuba once every three years and sending up to $300 every three months.

In a statement issued Friday, the office of the State Department spokesman had this to say in direct response to the pleas for lifting restrictions: “We do not believe that at this time it is necessary to loosen the restrictions on remittances and travel to Cuba to accomplish the objective of aiding the hurricane victims.Non-governmental organizations on the ground in Cuba are already mobilizing to provide such assistance.”

The issue arose last week when three prominent members of the Cuban exile community, Ramon Saul Sanchez of the Democracy Movement and congressional Democratic Party candidates Raul Martinez and Joe Garcia called on President Bush to lift the restrictions. Then Democratic Party presidential candidate Barack Obama endorsed the exile appeals. A bipartisan group of congressional leaders, four Republicans and three Democrats, issued a separate statement urging the U.S. government to send aid directly to storm victims. The Republicans included the two incumbents Martinez and Garcia are challenging: Lincoln and his brother Mario Diaz-Balart.

So let me get this straight.  The Cuban exile community supports the temporary lifting of the embargo to facilitate the delivery of relief to the victims of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, but the Bush Administration refused — in all likelihood because they’re trying to placate the Cuban exile community.

The ongoing stupidities of this Administration will never cease to amaze me.

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8 September 2008 Charles J. Brown
04:45 pm

Miranda Watch: Arizona v. Johnson

Earlier today, I wrote about the Republicans’ likely attack on Miranda v. Arizona.  Now, via SCOTUS blog, we have the fall Supreme Court docket.  It includes a case called Arizona v. Johnson:

Whether, in the context of a vehicular stop for a minor traffic infraction, an officer may conduct a pat-down search of a passenger when the officer has an articulable basis to believe the passenger might be armed and presently dangerous, but had no reasonable grounds to believe that the passenger is committing, or has committed, a criminal offense.

U.S. Supreme Court building.This is not directly related to the Miranda decision, but it will provide a litmus test of where Alito and Roberts stand on these issues.

The Court will hear arguments on December 3.

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8 September 2008 Charles J. Brown
09:45 am

McCain, Palin, Boumediene, and Miranda

There’s a line from Sarah Palin’s acceptance speech that has rankled quite a few progressives and libertarians:

Al Qaeda terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America … [Obama]’s worried that someone won’t read them their rights?

The partisan crowd responded, as you would expect, with an extended standing ovation — in fact, it was one of her most popular zingers in a speech filled with them.

Some have argued that Palin’s comment is merely an extension of McCain’s criticism of Boumediene v. Bush.  In that case, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that those being held at Guantanamo have a right to habeas corpus under the Constitution and that the section of the Military Commissions Act that took away that right was unconstitutional.  When Boumediene was announced, McCain called it “one of the worst decisions in the history of this country.”

Here, for example, is what Daniel Larison has to say:

[Palin's speech] is a fundamentally misleading framing of the issue of providing detainees with the ability to challenge the charges against them through a judicial process. . . .The question is whether the government has the right to seize someone, whether a foreigner or a U.S. citizen, accuse him of conspiring with terrorists, strip him of all legal protections and keep him detained indefinitely without access to due process.  The McCain/Palin position is apparently that the government can and should do this.

Andrew Sullivan describess Palin’s one-liner as her position on Boumediene, quoting Larison’s comments in even greater detail.  Daphne Eviatar calls Palin “Dick Cheney in a skirt,” arguing that

Palin’s speech last night suggests that in a McCain-Palin administration, the indefinite detention and abuse of foreigners without charges will remain an issue for at least another four years. And it could well be that if McCain has his way with the Supreme Court, we could easily end up with another decision as infamous as Korematsu.

Larison, Sullivan, and Eviatar have a point — it’s clear that the McCain campaign not only dislikes the Boumediene case but also sees it as an opportunity to hit Democrats for being soft on terrorism.

But the real target of Conservative attacks is not Boumediene.  It’s Miranda v. Arizona, the 1966 Supreme Court ruling that a suspect in police custody has the right to consult with an attorney, as well as the right not to incriminate themselves.  The Court also ruled that suspects must be made to understand their rights, and that police cannot interrogate a suspect without an attorney present unless the suspect has waived these rights.

Conservatives despise Miranda v. Arizona.  They hate it more than any other Supreme Court ruling, with the possible exception of Roe v. Wade.  They regard it as a leading example of judicial activism — which they define as the effort of certain judges (including Supreme Court justices) to create (”legislate”) law, rather than merely interpret it.

Since Nixon, conservatives have argued that judicial activists should be replaced by “strict constructionists,”  who, as Wikipedia wryly notes, believe in “a particular legal philosophy of judicial interpretation that limits or restricts judicial interpretation.”

Scalia, Thomas, Roberts, and Alito all are strict constructionists. Were a case challenging Miranda ever to come before the Court, they would favor overturning the original ruling. For example, in Dickerson v. United States (2000), Scalia, joined by Thomas, said

Miranda was objectionable for innumerable reasons, not least the fact that cases spanning more than 70 years had rejected its core premise that, absent the warnings and an effective waiver of the right to remain silent and of the (thitherto unknown) right to have an attorney present, a statement obtained pursuant to custodial interrogation was necessarily the product of compulsion. . . .Moreover, history and precedent aside, the decision in Miranda, if read as an explication of what the Constitution requires, is preposterous.

Here’s what John McCain had to say about strict constructionism in his acceptance speech at the convention:

We believe in a strong defense, work, faith, service, a culture of life, personal responsibility, the rule of law, and judges who dispense justice impartially and don’t legislate from the bench.

Much as was the case with Palin’s anti-habeas corpus line, McCain’s statement was greeted with thunderous applause.

I read McCain’s statement as an endorsement of the long-standing conservative practice of appointing strict constructionists to the Court (and to lower courts as well).  Larison therefore is right in suggesting that, under a McCain Administration, we could end up with a strict constructionist-dominated Supreme Court capable of overturning Boumediene.

But that’s not really the point.

The real danger is that such a Court would gut Miranda and other key ruling on defendants’ rights, thus opening the door to arbitrary detentions in the United States.

John McCain has stated repeatedly that he would end the practice of torture and close Guantanamo.  But such promises are meaningless if he also were to appoint Supreme Court justices who don’t believe that the Bill of Rights guarantees the right to silence, the right to legal representation, and the right not to incriminate oneself.

Were a strict constructionist-dominated Court to gut Miranda and other key rulings, Americans would live in a country were executive fiat had replaced the rule of law.  Even if McCain were not to use such powers himself, it would only be a matter of time that a future President — say a President Palin, for example — would suspend fundamental rights in the name of national security.

And that, my friends, is the kind of change that we should never believe in.

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7 September 2008 Charles J. Brown
09:45 am

The Dems Strike Back

Beware McCain-Palin — Obama-Biden are ready to rumble, baby.

First, Obama:

Next, Biden:

And only one gratuitous “literally”!

These guys are gonna open up a really big can of whoop-ass on McCain-Palin over the next fifty-eight days.  Give ‘em hell.

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6 September 2008 Charles J. Brown
11:47 pm

Overnight Thread: The Housing Bubble Explodes

So. . . How much is the stock market gonna tank tomorrow?  My prediction is a cool 300 points.  Any takers?

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6 September 2008 Charles J. Brown
11:45 am

While You Were Away: Hot for Condi

You may have missed it, what with Sarahpalooza and everything, but Dick Cheney wasn’t the only Bush Administration official exiled sent overseas during the Republican National Convention.

For some reason, Condoleezza Rice, perhaps second only to the Vice President on the list of people George Bush actually listens to, was sent to Libya to meet with raving nutjob new ally Moammar Gadhafi (or however the hell he’s spelling it this week).

Libya was never major-league caliber evil, but they did make it to the high minors a couple of times, particularly during the Reagan Administration.  There are some who still think they have the stuff to be Axis-caliber, but the Bushies have decided to make nice.

Not everyone — particularly the families of the victims of Pan Am Flight 103 — shares that sentiment, so apparently the Administration thought that sending The Condi to Tripoli in the middle of the Republican National Convention might mean that most Americans would be too distracted by McCainia to realize she was meeting with the Gadster (or is it Qaddster?  Khadster? GQKaaadster?  I can never keep it straight):

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi - once reviled as a “mad dog” by a U.S. president - on Friday on a historic visit that she said proved that Washington had no permanent enemies.

Rice’s trip, the first by a U.S. secretary of state to the North African country in 55 years, is intended to end decades of enmity, five years after Libya gave up its weapons of mass destruction program.

“I think we are off to a good start. It is only a start but after many, many years, I think it is a very good thing that the United States and Libya are establishing a way forward,” Rice told a news conference after talks with Gaddafi at a compound bombed by U.S. warplanes in 1986.

For a couple of years now, the Bush Administration has bragged about how it forced the Libyans to give up its nucular nuclear ambitions and return to the community of nations.  But what we didn’t know was that Gadhafi had a secret motive for improving U.S.-Libyan relations:  love.

From a 2007 Al-Jazeera interview with the Lucky Gadhafella himself:

Qadhafi:  I support my darling black African woman. I admire and am very proud of the way she leans back and gives orders to the Arab leaders. She beckons to the Arab foreign ministers, and they come to her, either in groups or individually.

Interviewer:  You are referring to the American secretary of state, right?

Qadhafi: Yes, Leezza, Leezza, Leezza… I love her very much. I admire her, and I’m proud of her, because she’s a black woman of African origin. I congratulate her on reaching this global status. When she beckons to the heads of the Arab security agencies, they come running. She’s the secretary of state, yet she heads the Arab security agencies.

I think we’ve just established a new gold standard in the category of creepy stalker boyfriend wannabes.

Dipnote, the State Department’s little blog that could (if it only had the proper clearances!), either didn’t see this little tidbit or has a much more twisted sense of humor than I thought.  This is the headline to their story about The Condi’s visit:

What Lessons Can Be Learned from the U.S.-Libyan Relationship?

Nudge nudge, wink wink.  Say no more!

But what do you do with a problem like Moammar?  I have a suggestion.  The Condi should invite him to play a round of golf.  And now that Dubya has set a timetable for withdrawal of our troops in an aspirational horizon for success in Iraq, he could give up giving up golf and join them.  Add Dick Cheney and you have a war criminal foursome!  Be careful:  if you don’t let them play through, you might be taking lessons from the golf pro at Guantanamo Country Club.

Better yet, Moammar could tour with Van Halen.  They need a new lead singer (again), and “Hot for Condi” has a nice ring to it.

Hat tip:  Somewhere in Africa

Photos:  Wikipedia

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6 September 2008 Charles J. Brown
09:45 am

Words Matter

Interesting bubble graph showing which words the candidates used during the Conventions:

What I found most interesting is that the Republicans never uttered Dick Cheney’s name once, nor did they ever talk about “four more years.”  The Democrats mentioned Bush nearly seven times as often as the Republicans did.

I knew the Republicans would run away from Bush.  They have to.  But I didn’t expect them to do it to the degree they have.

The last thing I would note is how infrequently foreign policy was mentioned (unless you count energy, but most of the time candidates were talking about American energy independence).  Only four topics made the cut — Iran, Iraq, “war,” and “terror(ism)/terrorist(s).”  The Democrats spoke of these issues 64 times, the Republicans 46 times (although the numbers may have been more even had Russia-Georgia been included — Obama mentioned it at least once, and virtually every Republican speaker highlighted it).

What’s striking is what’s not on the list:  torture (which I believe only Bill Richardson and Rudy Giuliani mentioned, and in the case of Giuliani, it was in reference to John McCain), Afghanistan, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, Sudan, democracy, human rights, climate change/global warming.

That’s not to say that some of these issues were not covered — they just didn’t make the cut for the graph.  It’s therefore hard to say whether the speakers did not discuss foreign policy or the graph has a built in bias against those issues.

Hat tip:  Switchblog

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5 September 2008 Charles J. Brown
05:30 pm

Obama, McCain, Palin, and Analogies

Assume for a moment that John McCain is a transitional figure, and that he will serve only one term if he actually does manage to get elected.  If that is true, where does the Republican Party go after he leaves office?

Sarah Palin represents a dead end for the Republicans.  A Palin candidacy in 2012 will be to the Republicans what George McGovern was to the Democrats:  a transitional, highly partisan individual who appeals to the base without significantly expanding it the way Reagan did.

To make an even more forced analogy, Palin is the Republicans’ Neil Kinnock, the Labor Party leader who preceded Tony Blair.  Kinnock was an old-school traditional Labor ideologue who helped solidify the base but could never translate that into electoral success.  It may be that Republicans have to go through a similar period where they enjoy the false comfort of an ideologue in charge, one who gets trounced regularly, before moving back to a centrist, more inclusive place in American politics.

To further strain the analogy to the breaking point, the fundamental question is who will be the Republicans’ Bill Clinton/Tony Blair/Bruce Cameron — the thoughtful, charismatic, and young centrist who pulls his/her party back into the mainstream of the political discourse.

Another way to look at it is that John McCain is to Ronald Reagan as John Major was to Margaret Thatcher:  the last exhausted gasp of a once-vibrant worldview.

There really are three types of political leaders in the United States:  base mobilizers (McGovern, Mondale, Bush II, Palin), centrists (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Bush I, Clinton, Dole, Gore, Kerry, McCain), and game-changers (FDR, Goldwater, Reagan, and perhaps Obama).

The problem for Republicans is that they will see Palin as a game-changer when in fact she is only a base-mobilizer. And with the (disastrous) exception of Dubya, most base-mobilizers don’t win elections.


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