AMERICAblog News A great nation deserves the truth // One of America's top progressive sites for news and opinion Mon, 22 Dec 2014 18:41:09 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Christmas Truce of 1914 Mon, 22 Dec 2014 18:41:09 +0000 I saw something on TV the other day about a truce that took place during the Christmas of 1914, during World War I, between British and German troops fighting in France.

It struck me as odd, albeit somewhat touching as well, that men dead-set on killing each other would then take a break to sing a few Christmas carols and share some make-shift gifts of cigarettes and helmets.

(Apparently, it struck some of the brass of both sides as odd as well — they expressed concern the first year it happened, and then basically banned the “fraternization” in future years.)

Wikipedia has some pretty neat coverage of the event, including some great archival photos and news clips. Here’s one of the news clips from a UK paper on December 26, 1914:


I want to be touched by all of this — and am. But at the same time, something just feels odd about the notion that the men all went out and wished other a Merry Christmas, then the Germans went back and gassed all the Englishman. It reminds me of that old t-shirt about the Marines that read:

Join The Marines. Travel To Foreign Places, Meet Exotic People, And Kill Them.

It also reminds me of the Thomas Hardy poem, “The Man He Killed.” (Written in 1902.)

The Man He Killed

“Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have sat us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin!

“But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place.

“I shot him dead because —
Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
That’s clear enough; although

“He thought he’d ‘list, perhaps,
Off-hand like — just as I —
Was out of work — had sold his traps —
No other reason why.

“Yes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You’d treat if met where any bar is,
Or help to half-a-crown.”

And here’s a pretty cool photo from Wikipedia:

British and German troops meeting in No-Mans's Land during the unofficial truce. (British troops from the Northumberland Hussars, 7th Division, Bridoux-Rouge Banc Sector). (From the collections of the Imperial War Museums.)

British and German troops meeting in No-Mans’s Land during the unofficial truce. (British troops from the Northumberland Hussars, 7th Division, Bridoux-Rouge Banc Sector). (From the collections of the Imperial War Museums.)

Do they know it’s Christmas, indeed.

More info here and here. And there’s a 2005 film about the Christmas Truce — it’s called “Joyeux Noel.” (That’s “Merry Christmas” in French.)

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Monkey desperately revives fellow unconscious monkey (video) Sun, 21 Dec 2014 19:00:22 +0000 It’s a rather amazing video.

A monkey in India frantically bites and then dunks in water a fellow monkey who has fallen unconscious after touching some high-tension electrical wires over the local train system.

The second money eventually comes around.

It’s just amazing to see how much human, self-aware, animals can be.

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Kids surprised by gift of kitten (video) Sun, 21 Dec 2014 16:41:52 +0000 This is via Ellen DeGeneres, and it’s pretty sweet.

The kids found a kitten a few days before. The parents were going to turn it over to a no-kill center, but at the last minute changed their minds. The video shows the kids being surprised by the reappearance of the kitten.


You need to watch the entire thing.

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PO’d kangaroo takes down drone (seriously) Sat, 20 Dec 2014 00:09:17 +0000 This is pretty great.


A drone was checking out some kanagaroos in Australia, until the kangaroo — baby kanga in tow — finally got supremely ticked off and took the drone out.


It’s a pretty amazing video. See it below.

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Stephen Colbert’s final broadcast (video) Fri, 19 Dec 2014 17:46:11 +0000 Last night was Stephen Colbert’s final broadcast on the Colbert Report.

As you know, Colbert is moving over to take David Letterman’s spot on The Late Show.

Here are the various segments, including a rather interesting one in which seemingly every guest (or practically every guest) that Colbert has had on over the years came back for a final group song. There’s everyone. And I mean everyone.


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The Banality of Bitter: “A Christmas Carol” revisited Thu, 18 Dec 2014 19:02:23 +0000 Channel-surfing last night, I stumbled upon Patrick Stewart’s TV-version of “A Christmas Carol” (not his one-man show).

Watching Scrooge visit with the Ghost of Christmas Past for the umpteenth time in my life, I had a bit of unexpected insight.

As you get older, you get bitter.

Or at least you run the risk.

It’s something I never appreciated at all when I was younger. Now, I get it. Not to say that I’ve become bitter. But rather, that entering my sixth decade of life (I’m 51) I’ve begun to understand how it is that people become bitter, in a way I never appreciated when I was younger.


Patrick Stewart and Joel Grey in the 1999 production of “A Christmas Carol.”

I like to cite the example of the apocryphal old man yelling at the kid to get off his lawn. We laugh at the story because it seems so ridiculous to even care about someone walking on your grass. And it is ridiculous — the first time the kid does it. And maybe the tenth or even the 100th time as well. But imagine that man living in that house 50 years, and having just gone through five decades of kids trampling his flowers and cutting a dirt path through his nice green grass. I can understand how by the 49th year, the old guy has just about had it.

It’s something I’ve experienced as an online writer and advocate. People email me. A lot. And I’ve found over the years that, perhaps because the medium is online rather than in-person, some people sometimes assume the worst (and the worst tone) when contacting you for the first time. In other words, they’re kind of gratuitously mean in a way they might not be when approaching you in person.

Now, the first time a stranger is gratuitously mean to you, you laugh it off. But the 500th time, it’s a lot harder to shrug off. In fact, by the 500th time, you’re ready to bite the head off of bunnies. And you suddenly find that you’re becoming the old man yelling at the kids.

One of the things you tend to think increasingly about as you age is mortality. And I’ve found it’s not simply a matter of thinking about death because you’re one step closer to it. It’s also about watching people around you die who you may not have expected to go so soon. It could be friends, parents, siblings, or even (especially) a child (and also, I’d add, celebrities). And the older you get, the more of them that pass. And like the proverbial old guy with the lawn, over time the serially repeated experience changes you.

Now, that’s not to say that you might not change for the better. Death is one heck of a motivator. As a kid, probably like every kid, I imagined what it would be like to be immortal (probably due to reading a few too many Greek myths). At the time it sounded pretty cool. Now, I’m not so sure. First, what’s the incentive to do anything if you have unlimited time? “There’s always tomorrow” — literally.

But a worse thought crossed my mind: Imagine how bitter people would become the millionth time they got cut off driving to work in the morning. Or the 500,000th year some kid stepped on their lawn.

My point is that experience changes us. Sometimes for the better, sometimes not. And taking this all back to Scrooge, and how his carefree younger self turned into a bitter old, well, scrooge, the challenge for all of us is how to channel our growing list of experiences into something positive; or at the very least, not have them change us permanently for the worse.

As I said at the outset, I’m not worried that I’ve become bitter. I do, however, worry about becoming bitter. When I was a kid and watched “A Christmas Carol,” Scrooge was an outsider; an oddity. He wasn’t me, and there was no way he was ever going to be me. So while the show was entertaining, it’s lesson was somewhat lost.

But now that I’m older, I’ve met a lot more Scrooges in my day. And I’ve gotten to appreciate how Scrooges come to be. And it’s not by a fluke. We all have the potential to become a bit of a bastard over time. And becoming aware of that fact is perhaps the biggest challenge, and lesson, of “A Christmas Carol.”

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It’s time to modernize our rape laws Thu, 18 Dec 2014 13:00:49 +0000 All citizens would be better served if felony rape were changed from a general intent crime to one of criminal intent.

My suggested definition — to inflict physical and/or emotional damage on another person by forcing that person to engage in sexual act — is only a place to begin. Without a criminal intent, prosecutors cannot legally examine an alleged rapist’s mindset.

(This is a follow-up to my earlier piece about the problems surrounding the current legal definition of “rape.”)

Researchers such as David Lisak have been studying rape mentality for years, including a study of college students. Lisak’s 2002 paper, “Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending Among Undetected Rapists,” suggests that a small number of men may be responsible for a disproportionate number of rapes, rape defined to include threats and/or physical violence. This in turn suggests that rapists have a criminal intent. Lisak cites possible motivations: high levels of anger at women, the need to dominate women, hypermasculinity, lack of empathy and psychopathy and antisocial traits. These can also be applied to non-heterosexual rapes.

It’s time to stop speculating that all men are capable of rape, when research suggests otherwise. Most adults have been in a sexual situation in which we’ve asked our partners to stop altogether or stop doing a certain thing. A normative response is to stop. An abnormal response is to continue. A rape happens when force or threats are used by the rapist in order to continue. “Consent,” as victims know, is beside the point.

Victims don’t decide when crimes happen; criminals do.

Giving rape a criminal intent would allow prosecutors to examine the accused’s background, leveling the credibility issue. For example, in 2010, Yale fraternity pledges marched around campus shouting, “No means yes, yes means anal” — a slogan that suggests a need to dominate and intimidate others, as well as a lack of empathy. The fraternity called it a “joke.”

Under current law, if one of the fraternity members had been later accused of rape, participating in that group chant could not have been used as evidence against him. If rape had a criminal intent, it could. If you publicly joke about murder, even in general, and someone connected to you turns up dead, those statements, while not proof of the actual crime, are suspect as they go to motive. Oddly, free speech allows anyone to talk about committing a crime, but it doesn’t excuse you if you’re accused of a crime — unless the crime you’re accused of is rape.

While the above example helps victims, the use of criminal intent might also slow down accusations that stem mostly from misunderstanding. While women talk more openly now about feeling pressured to have sex with upper classmen or pleading partners (baby-you’re-so-beautiful-I-want-you), these regrets are a cultural problem, not a legal one. Unless the person you hooked up with threatened you to comply or used force, more than likely, you were not raped. Women have trouble being assertive. Men need to know that. Men aren’t stupid, and they can sense a partner’s discomfort. Rather than continue to plead, a man should directly ask a sexual partner if she or he would rather stop.

Using the criminal justice system to settle these gray areas does a disservice to people who have been raped using force and threats. Rape victims don’t suffer regrets only. They’re subject to post-traumatic stress disorder, fear and anxiety disorders, and feelings of worthlessness. A recent Washington Post article connects these problems with economic losses, such as tuition and wages. As far as rape disproportionately victimizes women while in college, the government has an obligation to conduct Title IX investigations to ensure equal access to education. (Of course, this does little to address men who have been raped.)

If colleges and universities want to use affirmative consent guidelines to help students better understand one another and prevent miscommunication, that’s fine. But deans and administrators should never attempt to resolve rape. The Higher Education Act requires postsecondary institutions to collect and make public crime statistics, so administrators have an obvious conflict of interest.

So why are we stuck with a justice system that treats rape as a crime of desire gone wrong?

Rape law has a distant origin in property crime. Until the mid 1800s, U.S. women were considered the “chattel” (property) of their male relatives or husbands; meaning they had no legal standing, nor a right to own property after marriage. Going further back, the property crime of rape amounted to the general “ruin” or impregnation of a person who belonged to another. So rape prosecution addressed the lost “value” of the victim to her owner, not to the victim herself. “Consent” was a method of determining whether the victim should be punished along with her rapist: was she innocent or guilty of having sex outside of marriage, etc.?

It’s time for rape law to catch up with the emancipation of women.

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Sony pulls movie “The Interview” after cyber-attack, terror threats by North Korea Wed, 17 Dec 2014 23:12:33 +0000 Thanks, North Korea.

Now all I can think about is seeing a movie I had no intention of seeing.

You see, apparently North Korea, the most repressive place on the entire planet, has collectively freaked out over Sony’s new comedy “The Interview,” about the assassination of North Korean leader-for-life Kim Jong Un.

The film stars James Franco and Seth Rogan.


Pull the film, or the puppy dies.
(Seth Rogan and James Franco in the film, “The Interview.”)

In response, the North Korean government launched a cyber-attack on Sony, releasing the private medical records of Sony employees, among other thigns, and then threatened to launch terrorist attacks on cinemas that showed the movie (invoking September 11, of all things).

Screen Shot 2014-12-17 at 5.13.51 PM

Dear god I have to see this movie.

In response to the North Korean terror threat, a number of theaters pulled the film, finally prompting Sony to pull it all together.

But fear not. I suspect the movie will go straight to digital, and will likely make a killing.

No pun intended.

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Marco Rubio says Pope Francis isn’t for “freedom” Wed, 17 Dec 2014 22:26:18 +0000 Erstwhile Catholic, Baptist and Mormon — and likely 2016 GOP presidential candidate — Marco Rubio thinks Pope Francis isn’t a friend of “freedom.”

Rubio expressed his rather lengthy scolding of the Catholic pontiff today after President Obama revealed a Pope-brokered plan for the United States to resume diplomatic relations with Cuba.

“I would also ask His Holiness to take up the cause of freedom and democracy, which is critical for a free people — for a people to truly be free,” Rubio told reporters, according to TPM.


Barack Obama and Marco Rubio.

“I think the people of Cuba deserve the same chances to have democracy as the people of Argentina have had, where he comes from; as the people of Italy have, where he now lives. Obviously the Vatican’s its own state, but very nearby. My point is I hope that people with that sort of prestige on the world stage will take up the cause of freedom and democracy.”

Because the Pope isn’t? That’s clearly Rubio’s point.

The Cuban-American Senator has had a troubled relationship with the Catholic church.

While growing up initially Catholic, Rubio then became a Mormon, then switched back to Catholicism, then became a Southern Baptist and a Catholic, then left the Baptists and simply became a Catholic, then he became a Baptist again, then a Catholic again, all the while technically remaining a Mormon.

So it remains unclear which religion Rubio is now speaking on behalf of when he excoriates Pope Francis for not being a friend of freedom. All I know is that this likely won’t go over well with Latino voters, who are overwhelmingly Catholic, and unlike Mr. Rubio, actually like their pope.

If you want to be president, don’t mess with a guy who has a 67% approval rating.

Screen Shot 2014-12-17 at 4.32.14 PM

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Elizabeth Warren? How about Michelle Obama. Wed, 17 Dec 2014 13:00:01 +0000 I was invited to the White House Christmas Party this year (there are 12 or so such parties in fact — ours was the print press party), and invited my nephew Anthony Katsivalis as my guest. Anthony has worked in politics (most recently on the Giannoulias Senate campaign), and now is an Internet marketing specialist in Chicago.

I’ve noted this before, and had the same reaction this year — Michelle Obama is a seriously impressive woman in person.

First, she’s beautiful. It’s something that I don’t think comes across on camera. But on meeting her in person, it’s the first thing you notice. And that’s why I mention it. (Cf. The first thing I noticed about Bill Clinton was his blue eyes — I’m an equal opportunity observer :)

The official White House portrait of First Lady Grace Coolidge with her dog Rob Roy.

The official White House portrait of First Lady Grace Coolidge with her dog Rob Roy.

Second, and more important, is her presence. Michelle Obama has the kind of grand presence that leaders have.

It’s hard to describe if you’ve not experienced it in person, but some of the greatest leaders in Washington (and I’m sure beyond) have a bit of an aura around them, that extends out a good several feet. For some, it’s an aura of pure power — Ted Kennedy’s was such. For others, it’s power and energy — such is the case with my former boss Marian Wright Edelman. In Michelle Obama’s case, it’s an aura of energy and vitality and, well, just good ole charm. Every time I’ve met the woman she comes across as the nicest, most sincere person on the planet.

I don’t know if Mrs. Obama has political aspirations, but she’s darn impressive, more so than people realize. With all the talk about Elizabeth Warren being drafted to run for president, progressives shouldn’t forget another perhaps less obvious and just as impressive choice: Michelle Obama.

Below is our photo with the President and First Lady. Every guest gets a photo. It’s something that has to be an incredible PITA for the first couple. Each guest gets ushered by, you chat briefly with the first couple, and then flash flash flash! And you’re gone. They’re quite literally having 900 flash bulbs go off in their face over a nearly 4-hour period. And they’re smiling the entire time. I don’t know how they do it.

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama greet John Aravosis, AMERICAblog, and Anthony Katsivalis during the Christmas holiday Press Reception #1 in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House, Dec. 11, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama greet John Aravosis, AMERICAblog, and Anthony Katsivalis during the Christmas holiday Press Reception #1 in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House, Dec. 11, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

You literally only get seconds with each of them, so I had my greeting for the President pre-planned and tightly packaged like the ping from a submarine. I told the President that my former deputy on the blog, Joe Sudbay, was the person who famously asked Barack Obama about “evolving” on gay marriage. It was quite an interview, and it generated a lot of press. As a result, the President remembered Joe every time he saw him in the future.

Back to my nano-summit at the Christmas party, I thanked the President for everything he had done on LGBT civil rights, telling him I/we truly appreciated his work. (I ran into White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer in the hall, and told him the same).

Say what you will about President Obama regarding your particular pet issue, but on the civil rights of gay, lesbian and trans people, he ultimately came through. I’ve always believed that it’s important to thank politicians when they come through for you, even if the road had a few bumps along the way. And the man came through.


I will admit to being all hands at the glorious dessert table. That’s a quite good huckleberry pie on the right, and at the other side of the table was a neat British “pudding.” Greg Sargent’s British wife was skeptical, but it was really delicious. (And being British, it of course had nothing to do with the American concept of pudding — it was more like a (very tasty) soaked cake.)

PS Mom noticed how short I look compared to Michelle. I’m 5-10, for comparison sake.

One more thing. As for the placement of my right arm — a question much discussed on Facebook the other night– it’s a bit hard to know exactly what transpired. You see, the moment you realize you’re 1.5 seconds away from meeting the President of the United States you feel an incredible, and unexpected, rush of energy that tends to wipe your brain numb. For the record, I had no idea I had made Mrs. O my main squeeze. I suspect in retrospect, being a gentleman and all, I was aiming for her waist. But being also a relatively short Greek, at least as compared to the average Obama-family denizen, I overshot my platonic greeting.

It just goes to show you: The best laid hands of mice and men oft go astray :)

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Evolution in our national science museum, thanks to David Koch Tue, 16 Dec 2014 13:00:30 +0000 Say what you will about the Koch brothers (and there is much to say), but thanks to GOP billionaire David Koch, 8 million people per year are schooled in the reality of evolution at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC.

You see, among other socially liberal causes like PBS, Koch has funded an entire “evolution” exhibit at the federal government’s only national science museum.


From the Koch evolution exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC.

Now, the exhibit is not without some controversy even among liberals. ThinkProgress wrote a few years ago about the exhibit, expressing the concern that it glossed, and even misled, on climate change.

That wasn’t really my sense on visiting the exhibit for the second time just last week. I took away an entirely different message: That evolution is real, and that climate change may have in the past forced humans to adapt, while killing off lots of other people and things. I didn’t take that as a particularly cheery message, and in fact, I took it as confirmation that climate change is “real,” not that it’s “survivable.”


I also couldn’t help but feel a bit of glee at the notion that the guy who helped create the Tea Party was responsible for educating 8 million people per year that evolution is real. And doing it in the nation’s premiere federal science museum, no less. The religious right must be incredulous. Comparing people to apes, and suggesting that our common ancestors go back millions of years, rather than 6,000, has got to smart.


One of the more interesting parts of the exhibit was a walkthrough of the various ape-ish ancestors we’ve had over the ages — and being able to see how their faces gradually turned more human.


I thought the height of the one below was amazing — the reconstructed head is at her actual height.


Another fun part of the exhibit, which also surely has exploded a few religious right ape-descended heads, is the part where you can become an ape ancestor of your choice.

Here’s the exhibit in action, morphing your photo into an early ape-ish ancestor.


Perhaps it’s my impending old age (well, impending in a few decades), but in this case I choose to see the Koch glass as half full.

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Is Elizabeth Warren ready to be president? Mon, 15 Dec 2014 19:00:48 +0000 There’s been increasing chatter of late about the prospect of US Senator Elizabeth Warren running for president. Many progressives love the idea of a Warren presidency, but the question arises as to whether Warren yet has the experience to be president.

I make no bones of my appreciation for what President Obama has accomplished on gay rights during his two terms. The President made a series of promises (and policy pronouncements), and for the most part he’s followed through, grandly.

But there were some bumps along the way. And I suspect some of those hiccups occurred because Barack Obama came to the White House little governmental managerial experience — the kind of thing you’d find in, say, a governor.

elizabeth-warrenIn my younger years, I spent five years working in the US Senate as a legislative aide to the then-senator from Alaska. One of the things I found hardest to navigate in the position — it was my first job out of grad/law school — was how to manage a staff (of 1) and an office. I had, for example, no idea how to file things (back then, we were much less electronic than we are today). For example, did that new aviation report get filed under A for Aviation, T for Transportation, S for Safety, or something else entirely? You could only pick one — this was the analog world, after all — so which one was it?

Now, I’m not worried as to whether Elizabeth Warren has a good system for filing reports. I do worry, however, about what kind of experience it takes to be an effective president. And that experience goes far beyond simply having the right positions on policy matters. You have to know how to make a government apparatus work for you; and you also have to know how to fight the political baddies, and win.

I always get a chuckle — or perhaps not so much a chuckle at all — when some folks on the left bash the “beltway.” We’re told we have an “inside the beltway” mentality. And, it’s explained to us, that said “beltway” experience somehow makes it more unlikely that we can do our job effectively, be that job journalism or running the country.

I’ve tended to sit back and watch while my liberal brethren bashed Washington — and ancillarily (if that’s a word; if not, I’ve just made it one) the media. But in retrospect, I worry it’s been a mistake. All we accomplished was a furthering of two (or more) key Republican talking points: that Washington — and all government — stinks; and that the media “elites” can’t be trusted. As a result, we handed responsibility for arbitrating the “truth” over to Fox News, and we reinforced the GOP message that government is worthless and should be defunded.

When my peers question “beltway experience,” I ask them how well they think the local 7-11 manager in Topeka would do with Lehman Brothers’ demise and the ensuing near-meltdown of the entire global financial system.

While I find the idea quaint of Mr. Smith going to Washington, I would never choose an inexperienced, but earnest, man to be my doctor, lawyer, mechanic, or even dog sitter. There’s something to be said for experience in any field. And while in some people experience can jade, in others it hones.

I don’t know if Elizabeth Warren has what it takes to be a good president. But I think it’s worth asking if “outsiders” make the best presidents. As someone who cares fervently about civil rights, I think President Obama has done a stellar job on the issues I care most about. But I also recognize (and believe) that some of what made the path to victory so difficult these past several years was an Oval Office learning curve that, say, Governor Obama would have never needed to surmount.

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How the laws governing rape fail everyone Mon, 15 Dec 2014 16:59:52 +0000 The aftershocks of the recent Rolling Stone article, “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA,” once again enable the interpretive dance performance of rape anxiety and rape denial.

The stage was set with accounts of rape at its most horrifying, followed by university wagon-circling, hand-wringing, and angry discussions of campus rape culture.

Journalists began to peck away at one another, and eventually the Washington Post reported that the story’s centerpiece, an account of a violent gang rape, was filled with inconsistencies.

Media attention has now turned from “rape,” to “what went wrong with the reporting on rape” (a more comfortable topic).

Supreme Court via Shutterstock

Supreme Court via Shutterstock

The specter of a false rape accusation can create bewilderment and confusion. What is rape? How do we know when it happens? Some men worry they might “accidentally” rape someone. Women sometimes define “consent” in fuzzy ways. Others wax on about “affirmative consent,” or asking for, and receiving, a verbal “yes” at each step in a sexual encounter. Then there’s the fact that a media focus on heterosexual rape glosses over the fact that men also rape men, women rape women, and, less frequently, women rape men—both on college campuses and off.

My own question has been “why is rape so confusing?”

As I posed this to lawyer friends, my answer emerged. The way the law defines and prosecutes rape makes confusing something that should be pretty straightforward: A rape happens when one person forces another person to have sex.

Rape laws vary by state, but it’s always a felony. In most felonies the perpetrator must intend to commit the specific crime (have a criminal intent). However, because rape is considered a crime of “general intent,” the prosecutor’s first job is to establish that the perpetrator wanted to have sex, which the state doesn’t even consider a crime. That is, the state begins its prosecution of rape by questioning whether a crime has taken place at all.

Now, this is different from considering someone innocent until proven guilty. With other felonies, the state begins its prosecution with the assumption that a crime has taken place, the question being, is the defendant the person who committed the crime? That’s innocent until proven guilty.

As the law continues to parse its way to an actual crime, the next issue the prosecutor must establish is whether or not consent took place. If consent were obtained, then there was no crime. If not, a crime occurred. While lawyers might grasp this waffling logic, reasonable people don’t think that way. If a felony were committed, someone must have had a criminal intent to begin with, or developed criminal intent along the way. Who is a rapist? We’d all like to know.

Because the law takes a pass on establishing a criminal intent for rape, the perpetrator’s motivations cannot be taken into account—the law treats “intent” and “motivation” separately. The law’s first reaction to a felony like homicide is to collect and consider evidence, including state of mind. The first reaction of the law to rape is to say: Whoa, wait a second, was there even a crime? In homicide, the alleged killer’s state of mind (part of motivation) would be evidence. With rape, state of mind is generally not admissible because the statutory intent assigned to rape is not necessarily criminal. Anyone can formulate an intention to have sex. So does that mean anyone can be a rapist?

The more you parse the law of rape into terms a reasonable person would understand, the more circular and inexplicable the standards become. The standard for determining whether or not a rape happened isn’t physical or motivational evidence—it’s “consent,” another legally murky term. This is the “he said/she said” part (or he said/he said, she said/she said). But the law doesn’t specify whether one person is supposed to obtain consent or whether the other person is supposed to grant it. The law just speaks of “non-consensual” sex, as though we can somehow know what rape is by talking about what it is not.

No wonder men freak out about the possibility of “accidentally” raping someone: The law suggests they can. The responsibility for consent isn’t specified, so, yes, a victim can, hypothetically, define the crime. But good luck with that, because the law doesn’t allow much in the way of evidence to enter the courtroom. Unless a rape has been extremely violent, rape kits tell little about what happened, other than identifying who had sex with the victim. With all violent crimes, police advise victims not to resist, but credible physical evidence of a rape often depends on the level of resistance. Inside this legal vacuum, prosecutors have little choice but to consider a victim’s credibility.

Victims don’t report rape because the law is written, by default, to make questioning their credibility an issue in prosecution and defense, rather than collecting or establishing evidence. Over 60 percent of rapes go unreported as a result. Comment threads on articles about rape far-too-often fill with hostile, misogynistic words by men who feel threatened by the perceived power women have to define rape. And all of this is because the law doesn’t really define what rape is, or why a rapist might rape.

The law fails everyone by defining rape as a crime of general intent. The solution may be to treat rape like other felonies, by assigning it a criminal intent: to inflict physical and/or emotional damage on another person by forcing that person to engage in sexual acts.

I’ll expand on this more in a second article coming up.

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The speech that may make Elizabeth Warren president Mon, 15 Dec 2014 13:00:45 +0000 Elizabeth Warren gave quite a speech on Friday night after the US Senate passed a trillion dollar spending bill that repeals a key part of the Dodd-Frank law, and lets billionaires donate even more money to political parties.

They also blocked marijuana legalization in DC, and blocked new rules to limit sodium in school lunches because, well, you can guess why — someone bought off some Senators.

Interestingly, much of the reporting on this doesn’t actually tell you what any of the amendments actualy do. I was able to find some of what we’re looking for in The Hill:

The bill includes language repealing part of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law that will allow banks covered by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to directly engage in derivatives trading.

elizabeth-warren-doddThis set off the biggest political storm for the legislation, as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) led a liberal insurrection against the White House, which decided not to fight Republicans over the measure.

Wall Street lobbied for the change, and the bill will be sent to Obama with the language in it.

Campaign finance

The bill also raises the limits on what people can give to political committees each year, greatly increasing the money wealthy people can donate. The provision would allow a wealthy donor to contribute a total of more than $1.55 million to a national party.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) lambasted the change in a floor speech in which she broke with the White House over the bill.

DC marijuana

The bill prevents Washington, D.C., from implementing a new referendum that legalizes recreational use of marijuana.

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton complained that it was another example of Congress stepping on local rule, but she won few allies for her position in Congress.

Warren’s speech particularly took on the Dodd-Frank repeal, and the fact that taxpayers will now be on the hook for more bailouts in the future. Here’s the video of Warren, and below that is some of the transcript thanks to HuffPo.

Here are some of the key parts of Warren’s speech:

Democrats don’t like Wall Street bailouts. Republicans don’t like Wall Street bailouts. The American people are disgusted by Wall Street bailouts.

And yet here we are, five years after Dodd-Frank with Congress on the verge of ramming through a provision that would do nothing for the middle class, do nothing for community banks, do nothing but raise the risk that taxpayers will have to bail out the biggest banks once again…

So let me say this to anyone who is listening at Citi[group]. I agree with you Dodd-Frank isn’t perfect. It should have broken you into pieces!

If this Congress is going to open up Dodd-Frank in the months ahead, then let’s open it up to get tougher, not to create more bailout opportunities. If we’re going to open up Dodd-Frank, let’s open it up so that once and for all we end too big to fail and I mean really end it, not just say that we did.

Instead of passing laws that create new bailout opportunities for too big to fail banks, let’s pass…something…that would help break up these giant banks.

A century ago Teddy Roosevelt was America’s Trust-Buster. He went after the giant trusts and monopolies in this country, and a lot of people talk about how those trust deserved to be broken up because they had too much economic power. But Teddy Roosevelt said we should break them up because they had too much political power. Teddy Roosevelt said break them up because all that concentrated power threatens the very foundations up our democratic system.

And now we’re watching as Congress passes yet another provision that was written by lobbyists for the biggest recipient of bailout money in the history of this country. And its attached to a bill that needs to pass or else we entire federal government will grind to a halt.

Think about that kind of power. If a financial institution has become so big and so powerful that it can hold the entire country hostage. That alone is reason enough to break them up.

Enough is enough.

Enough is enough with Wall Street insiders getting key position after key position and the kind of cronyism that we have seen in the executive branch. Enough is enough with Citigroup passing 11th hour deregulatory provisions that nobody takes ownership over but everybody will come to regret. Enough is enough Washington already works really well for the billionaires and the big corporations and the lawyers and the lobbyists.

But what about the families who lost their homes or their jobs or their retirement savings the last time Citigroup bet big on derivatives and lost? What about the families who are living paycheck to paycheck and saw their tax dollars go to bail out Citi just 6 years ago?

We were sent here to fight for those families. It is time, it is past time, for Washington to start working for them!

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The future has arrived: Now you can dial! (video) Mon, 15 Dec 2014 02:07:50 +0000 Best I can tell, this video from AT&T is from 1954. It’s to teach people who to correctly use this new-fangled thing called the “dial telephone.”


Here’s the description from the YouTube page:

The goal of this film was to aid in reducing customer dialing irregularities by demonstrating the correct way to use the dial telephone. It documents the shift between operator-based connections (which were on the way out) and having to dial the phone and make the connection yourself.

The dial telephone was new at this point, although the two-letter, 5-number system was still commonplace. This film even has to explain what a ringing and busy signal sound like!

This film opens with the demonstrator pointing out the importance of correctly using the dial telephone. Correct dialing techniques are demonstrated, with an emphasis placed on the following:

1. Be sure of the right number
2. Wait for the dial tone
3. Refer to the number while dialing
4. Turn the dial until the finger hits the finger stop
5. Avoid confusing the letter “O” with the “0”
6. The difference between ringing and busy signals

One by one, the conventions described in this film that aren’t already gone may disappear imminently – for instance: with voicemail the norm, when is the last time you got a busy signal on a call?

Susann Shaw, the demonstrator in this film, was a popular fashion model throughout the 1940s and 1950s, making frequent appearances in the pages of Vogue.

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Colbert interviews Smaug the dragon (video) Fri, 12 Dec 2014 15:59:05 +0000 Smaug, the dragon, (from The Hobbit movies) goes on The Colbert Report to be interviewed by Stephen. It’s pretty funny.

One thing I didn’t realize until a few weeks ago was that Smaug is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, of “Sherlock” and the new Star Trek movies fame.


I posted his audition video a while back, and while post it again below the Colbert clip.


Oh god, my nephew just told me that Colbert has a cameo in the new Hobbit movie, and he does! Here’s that clip:


Here’s the Colbert interview. Just one more week to go and Colbert is off the air :-(

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Low oil prices might be decreasing demand for oil Thu, 11 Dec 2014 15:51:43 +0000 As you probably know, the price of oil has been cratering over the past six months, dropping from over $100 per barrel, to just over $60 today.

And the Iranians are warning that it may drop as low as $40.

One of the counterintuitive things I’ve been noticing about all of this is that the stock market is unsure how “good” a thing this really is. Another surprise: Cheap oil may be decreasing, rather than increasing, the demand for oil.

Oil drilling

Oil via Shutterstock

On the face of it, you’d think low oil prices would go hand in hand with economic prosperity. And in fact, when oil prices go down a lot of industries (other than the oil industry) benefits. The airlines, for example, are doing quite well as a result. (I’m sure any day now their cute little “baggage fees,” read: taxes, will be lowered.) And really any product that needs to be transported to the market will benefit from lower fuel prices.

As for why the markets are reacting poorly to dropping prices – the market plunged (well, kinda plunged) yesterday by 1.6% (the S&P500), it’s biggest drop in 2 months, because (they say) of oil. From what I’ve read, some of the concern is deflation. And not just deflation caused by lower oil prices, but deflation caused by lower business investment in oil and energy-related industries (alternatives too many suffer, as higher oil prices make it more worthwhile to invest in non-oil alternatives).

Another surprise, for me at least, was that lower oil prices aren’t necessarily leading to higher demand for oil. Demand is actually still down. Part of the reason is fuel economy in cars has grown 28% since 2007. Another: young people are moving into cities, and aren’t getting cars.

A final reason demand might be dropping, or might eventually drop, as a result of lower oil prices: consumers will use the money they’re saving to buy more fuel-efficient cars:

Funny, that oil isn't lowering my demand.

Funny, it doesn’t feel like oil is lowering my demand.

And then there’s this twist in the energy independence story — lower crude prices could paradoxically weaken demand. The argument goes like this: Declining oil will give consumers more disposable income that they can use to purchase more efficient vehicles, energy economist Philip Verleger said Dec. 8 by phone from Carbondale, Colorado. Likewise, airlines will reinvest profits made possible by cheaper fuel into new planes with more economic engines, he said.

“Consumers are doing their best to get themselves out of buying petroleum products,” Verleger said. “The fall in oil prices is going to accelerate the fuel’s own demise.”

I fear that last reason is giving consumers too much credit. But we’ll see.

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Obama guest-hosts for Stephen Colbert (video) Wed, 10 Dec 2014 15:56:57 +0000 Stephen Colbert’s final episode is December 18. As you know, Colbert will take over for David Letterman soon.

In Monday night’s episode, he interviewed President Obama live at George Washington University in Washington, DC.

First off, Obama sits in for Stephen and does The Word segment for him. Excedpt for Obama they call it The Decree.

Then there’s the actual interview with Obama.

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Why Americans fall for the anti-vaccination song and dance Tue, 09 Dec 2014 19:30:05 +0000 Reader rmthunter weighed in in the comments to my earlier post about America’s phobia of science.

After a history of susceptibility to upper resp infections, including the flu, and a couple of really scary episodes with pneumonia, I get vaccinations religiously.

They do vary, not only in effectiveness but in individual reactions — this year’s flu shot had me in bed three hours later, wrapped in quilts and shivering, nose running like a faucet. I slept for eleven hours and was fine.

Last year, I had no reaction to the shot. But I’d rather be sick for a couple of hours than for days, if I’m going to be sick at all.

Look, it's magic! (via Shutterstock.)

Look, it’s magic! (via Shutterstock)

As for the American rejection of science, chalk it up to fundamentalist religion and the right-wing noise machine. Science challenges Scripture because it describes the world as it is, not as God or his interpreters say it’s supposed to be.

The press, which is terrified of the right, is only slightly more reliable than the Internet, which puts it somewhere in the range of Louie Gohmert as far as real information goes.

And science reporting is appalling — I used to read the science section of NYT years ago and scratch my head — it was pretty sketchy, even then. (I don’t know if anything’s changed for the better, but several years ago I read a report that most Americans read at a fifth grade level, which is inexcusable, and which probably has a lot to do with the level of public discourse.)

Americans on the whole don’t seem to be equipped to handle the basic concepts and methods of science, which aren’t really that arcane, because they aren’t taught to think rationally. Even the labeling and information signs at the zoo have been dumbed down.

And now I’m getting depressed just thinking about it.

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Reality (sic) TV Tue, 09 Dec 2014 17:23:14 +0000 ‘Reality’ TV is the opposite of reality. It is fiction masquerading as reality.

The cameras are never forgotten by those present, even though we viewers are supposed to pretend the camera crew’s presence doesn’t affect how the people on the show behave.

The inside scoop is all of the scenes portrayed on these shows are basically scripted, even if the dialog isn’t (and often it is). The people on these shows aren’t playing themselves; they’re amateur B- or C-grade actors pretending to be someone we’re supposed to think they’re exactly like in real-life.

Les Stroud of "Survivorman."

Les Stroud of “Survivorman.”

Those people on the ‘survival’ reality shows are never in any real danger, because there are safety crews. Even the guy I actually like and have learned some useful tips from, Les Stroud, even though he shoots all his own video, nevertheless doesn’t record his regular daily contacts with his safety crews. Sure, he puts himself in some very uncomfortable situations, but always in the back of his mind is the comforting knowledge that escape is one radio call away. Which he’s done on more than a few occasions when a bad situation became a little too ‘real.’ (CORRECTION: Mr. Stroud has reached out to me personally and said (1) he is not in daily contact with his safety teams and (2) he has not ever actually had to ask for rescue. Mea culpa.)

And the guys on the fishing boats aren’t actually desperate for that ‘last catch of the season’ — because as long as they bluster all macho-style for the cameras, they can count on the TV syndication checks to tide them over. The ‘homesteaders’ in Alaska mostly put on little vignette scenes to show what they would’ve done 20-odd years ago before the Discover channel showed up and gave ‘em enough money to live comfortably (and usually elsewhere) whenever the cameras are turned off.

(For instance, it is never EVER mentioned that the Kilcher homestead on Kachemak Bay is a mere 5 miles or so from the town of Homer, Alaska, population 5,000, with dozens of stores, restaurants, and attractions; and with Kenai, an even bigger town with a Walmart and Home Depot, another hour or so up the coast on Hwy 1. Oh no — those folks are living on the frontier! “Have to kill that bear or go hungry… ‘cuz the Safeway in Homer might be short on ground beef and frozen pizzas this week.” (/snark))*

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And these ‘ethnic’ reality shows, that John has written about, are nothing but voyeuristic soap operas, where the actors are told to behave outrageously and stereotypically by the producers and show-runners — because NORMAL is repetitive and boring. They’re instructed to ham it up as much as possible. The shows are as real as a Harlem Globetrotters basketball game, or any TV wrestling match.

It’s just trash TV, ‘Potemkin Village’ shows. Trash sells, and the TV producers like ‘reality’ (sic) shows because they’re crazy-cheap to make. It’s the fast-food version of entertainment. You think maybe you’re consuming something genuine, but afterwards you just feel numb, bloated, and vaguely dirty.

* = I know a fair amount about the survival-ish / homesteading shows because my wife is into them, and sometimes we watch together, because not everything is about the shows I’d prefer. ;-)

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