AMERICAblog News A great nation deserves the truth // One of America's top progressive sites for news and opinion Wed, 25 Nov 2015 03:13:51 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Democrats need to stop playing politics with the terror watch list Tue, 24 Nov 2015 20:31:33 +0000 In the wake of the Paris attacks, Republicans have come out with a number of mind-boggling proposals for how to prevent such events from transpiring in the United States. These have included, but are not limited to:

And so on. As each one of these proposals has been offered up by an increasingly frantic Republican field, progressives have been right to be outraged. Not only would none of the above proposals prevent a Paris-style attack, in which citizens of the host country use homemade and (in the US) legally-purchased weapons to attack large public gatherings, but many of them would also constitute gross violations of our civil liberties.

However, Republicans have not been alone in making cynical proposals in response to the attacks that would exploit anti-Muslim sentiments to restrict civil liberties. Democrats in Congress, with at least one Republican co-sponsor in New York Congressman Peter King, are pushing a bill that would prohibit anyone on the FBI’s Terror Watch List from buying a gun, highlighting a Government Accountability Office report showing that over 2,000 people on the list legally purchased guns between 2004 and 2014. The Bush administration supported a similar bill in 2007. Both bills were immediately scuttled by the NRA.

Not only is this bad policy, it isn’t even good politics. Rather than driving a wedge between NRA absolutists and foreign policy hawks in the Republican Party, they’ve cross-pressured liberals into deciding whether proving a symbolic point on gun control — See? These gun nuts are so gun-nutty they won’t even keep TERRORISTS from having guns! — is more important than deconstructing anti-Muslim bigotry both in government policy and our broader culture.

One would think that self-described progressives wouldn’t need a refresher on exactly how much of a civil liberties nightmare the terror watch list has been since its inception in 2003. But here we go:

Muslim man via Shutterstock

A Muslim man who could have been added to the watch list for tweeting a joke about posing for Shutterstock

You don’t need to do anything specific to get on the terror watch list. The FBI reads your tweets, tracks where you travel and even watches how you walk — all of which can be used to nominate you for placement on the watch list. Nominations are rarely rejected, and probable cause of committing an actual crime is almost never considered. What’s more, once you’re on the list, there’s no way to challenge your placement — you usually can’t even find out why you were placed on the list. Oh, and your friends and family members could get added to the list simply because you’re on it, because why not?

Those who are on the terror watch list aren’t even really suspected of plotting terror attacks, to say nothing of having been charged with actual crimes. They’re simply people the government has at some point decided to flag because of probably-unrelated actions that they or their family member did — most likely years ago. The ACLU estimates that well over a million citizens are currently on the watch list. The Intercept reported that the FBI processed 468,749 nominations for the watch list in 2013 alone — and again, nominations are rarely rejected. In short, the net is cast as wide as possible.

The terror watch list was created in post-9/11 hysteria, and was (rightly) decried by progressives at the time as being little more than a legally neutral way for the government to make it harder for brown people to get on airplanes in order to give the rest of the country the illusion of safety — exactly what we’ve spent the last week calling conservatives out for. So while those on the right are up in arms (figuratively, for now) over the prospect of the terror watch list being used by President Obama as a means of taking away their guns, they aren’t exactly wrong to point out that restricting gun access based on the unverifiable and unchallengeable suspicion of thoughtcrime ten years ago is a bad road to go down. As the National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke put it:

You will note, I hope, that [Harry] Reid, [Chuck] Schumer, [Reid’s Deputy Chief of Staff Adam] Jentleson, and co. are not proposing to place restrictions on those who have been “accused,” “charged,” or “convicted,” but upon those who are “suspected.” They are not referring to those who are working their way through the judicial system, but to those who remain outside of it. They are not seeking to limit the rights of those who are out on bail or awaiting trial, but those who have not so much as been handcuffed. Loudly and proudly, they are arguing in favor of removing fundamental rights from anyone whose name has been written down on a list. Because they hope to confuse the public, their talk is peppered with references to “Paris-style” “assault” rifles and “automatic” weapons. But this is a red herring: Their proposal applies equally to guns of all types, not just those that give Shannon Watts and Diane Feinstein the willies.

Cooke is concerned with restrictions on gun rights, but the point can be applied to civil liberties more generally. As a matter of fact, it’s a decent argument in favor of getting rid of the watch list entirely. To be clear, Cooke’s readers would lose their gun-clutching minds if President Obama proposed doing so, or even if he called for reforming the watch list so that it was harder to be placed on it and easier to challenge your placement. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have a point: This watch list in its current form shouldn’t be used for much of anything. If that happens to include restricting gun purchases, then so be it.

At the end of the day, it’s odd, to say the least, that the same self-described progressives who say they’re concerned about attempts by our government to demonize Muslims and erode civil liberties at the same time now want to take the prime example of that combination seriously as a counterterrorism tool. By pushing the idea, they’re granting the watch list legitimacy that it never deserved.

All for the sake of saying toldyaso to the NRA.

Donald Trump comes out as pro-torture Tue, 24 Nov 2015 17:00:12 +0000 Yesterday, I wrote that Donald Trump’s endorsement of waterboarding was more worrisome than past Republicans’ endorsement of the policy because he didn’t rely on semantics to make his point. While Republican politicians usually justify the practice by insisting that it isn’t torture, Trump merely said that it was fine because it’s “peanuts compared to what [the Islamic State would] do to us.” In other words, the acceptability of interrogation techniques, regardless of the semantics surrounding whether they could be classified as “torture,” is relative: If we think our enemies could or would do it, then it’s fine.

Donald Trump, screenshot via YouTube

Donald Trump, screenshot via YouTube

I wrote that one of the reporters on the Donald Trump beat should follow up with the creeping fascist to ask whether his justification for waterboarding meant that he would support other forms of torture. As it turns out, they didn’t even need to ask. Last night, Donald Trump went a step beyond endorsing waterboarding, saying that he’d “approve more than that” as president.

Said Trump, to a crowd of supporters at a rally, “Don’t kid yourself, folks. It works, okay? It works. Only a stupid person would say it doesn’t work.” I guess scientists and interrogation experts are pretty stupid, then.

Not that it matters. As he continued, “Believe me, it works. And you know what? If it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway, for what they’re doing. It works.”

As the Washington Post reported:

Trump said such techniques are needed to confront terrorists who “chop off our young people’s heads” and “build these iron cages, and they’ll put 20 people in them and they drop them in the ocean for 15 minutes and pull them up 15 minutes later.”

To be clear, beheading and drowning prisoners doesn’t make them talk. It does the opposite of that. But at this point I think Donald Trump owes us a follow-up on whether, as president, he’d endorse beheading and drowning prisoners who don’t provide us with actionable intelligence. There seems to be a reasonable chance that he would say yes (excuse me, “wouldn’t rule it out”).

To recap, Donald Trump doesn’t care whether waterboarding is officially classified as torture because he’d be more than willing to approve torture techniques as president. And he’d do so not because of some “ticking time bomb” scenario, or because the intel we’d gather from such techniques would be legitimate, but as a means of proportionate revenge. In other words, Trump is pro-torture simply for the sake of satisfaction.

And his supporters are loving it, endorsing out-and-out sadism as foreign policy.

The night Ferguson burned Tue, 24 Nov 2015 16:30:28 +0000 One year ago, the St. Louis region burned in the wake of the grand jury decision not to indict officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of unarmed teen Michael Brown. I was back in the area as a result of the turmoil in my own life, triggered by the implosion of a 14-year relationship which spurred me to leave my home and career in the Bay Area for a failed reboot in New York, and then decide to downshift and return to St. Louis to finish my book, Delusions of Grandeur.

Following is the excerpt from my book regarding the events of that night.

Over a hundred days passed since unarmed teen Michael Brown was shot and killed by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, and as the region braced for the grand jury’s decision on whether to indict Wilson, it became popular to speculate about the coming storm. The public was whipped into a frenzy by the media, particularly the false reports from local right wing blowhards like “The Arch City Pundit,” who circulated a fake list claiming the protesters planned to shut down the region’s hospitals. PD Ferg

I’m not scared of much. I’ve walked from San Francisco’s gritty Tenderloin to the pre-gentrified Mission drunk, many times. I’ve wandered alone all over NYC at fifteen, back before Manhattan turned into Disneyland. I’ve strolled past ruins in Detroit. I’ve climbed through the pitch black basements of abandoned buildings and have been to the East St. Louis projects at two in the morning.

When something is perceived to be scary I often make a beeline to check it out. That’s also how I’ve made some great friends.

I wasn’t going to hide from protests. This was my city, and I wanted to see what was happening and talk to the people. My cosmopolitan friend Karen, a professor who divided her time between her hometown of St. Louis and her husband’s hometown of Milan, Italy, had been reading and offering feedback on this book. I invited her to join me in going up to meet the Ferguson demonstrators who’d been camped out along New Florissant Road around the clock for months.

It was a drizzly night, and we first went to dinner at the Ferguson Brewing Company, a microbrewery a few blocks from the encampment, and then drove up to find a group of about a dozen holding down the corner. Florence, a heavy Black woman in her sixties, sat on a cooler wearing a disposable poncho while commiserating with Dan, a white man also in his sixties, about eyesight problems, particularly when driving at night. Behind the cooler was a bottle of Orange Crush and a bucket of soup.

“Would you like some soup?” a young man offered.

We’d just pissed away a chunk of money on dinner and drinks, and it was humbling that this scrappy group of people, who were feared and vilified in the media, were offering to feed us.

“How does it feel to be the most feared group of people in the country right now?” I asked Florence and Ed, while a diverse cluster of twenty-somethings stood behind them.

“The media needs a villain,” Florence replied.

We then drove to Canfield Green, where Mike Brown was shot and a memorial was set up in the middle of the road. We passed boarded up businesses where artist Damon Davis plastered posters of raised hands, images that were being shown in galleries as far away as Boston.

The creativity coming out of the region was getting national and international attention. London’s Daily Mail marveled at the elegant protest of song that interrupted the St. Louis Symphony, with protesters singing “Which side are you on?” as banners demanding justice for Mike Brown unfurled from the balcony. Chalk outlines symbolizing unarmed black men shot by police, a concept created by St. Louis artist Mallory Nezam, had spread around the world. The cutting edge .Mic proclaimed, “Ferguson Now Has the Most Powerful Street Art in America” and the Ferguson Protesters were in the running for Time’s Person of the Year.

There was no bigger critic of the city than my estranged husband Damon, who was raised within a mile of Ferguson, and even he gave a nod. “There’s a lot of good work happening in St. Louis right now.”

On a Monday afternoon it was announced that the Grand Jury reached their verdict, and the announcement would be delivered at eight that evening.

Businesses around the region that hadn’t done so already boarded up their windows, especially in Ferguson and in Clayton, the county seat. Local governments and businesses closed early. My dog groomer and several others I knew fled for the countryside.

I knew I had to be in Ferguson.

I called John Aravosis to let him know I would cover the events for AMERICAblog, and then asked Karen, who was preparing to return to Milan, if she’d like to join me.

Hundreds of protesters shut down New Florissant Road through the heart of Ferguson while reporters from around the world mingled. Chants included, “We’ve got nothing to lose but our chains,” and, “Stop killing our kids.”

I sent photos to Aravosis, but he asked for video. My phone didn’t have enough memory, so I had to decide right then whether to delete hundreds of photos from the past year or two. Photos from the California coast, from my cross country trip, from my time in New York. All pictures symbolizing past lives and what I’d traded to be where I was standing.

FergusonI was near a beat up, graffiti covered car in the middle of the street that was serving as a stage for several protest leaders who stood in anticipation of the verdict. Quiet fell over the crowd as Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, climbed atop the car to stand with half a dozen others as the Prosecuting Attorney read his long, meandering statement, which was broadcast over loudspeakers. Before most of us heard it, she shook her head as tears rolled down her face.

“Defend himself from what? From what? Tell me that!” she yelled in response to the assertion that the officer acted in self-defense.

“That’s right, sista” said a soulful woman standing next to me. “We with you, baby. It’s ain’t over. It ain’t over.”

“Everyone wants me to be calm. Do you know how those bullets ripped through my son’s body? What they did to his body?” McSpadden continued as cameras clicked and flashed in the frigid night air.

“Ain’t no peace!. Ain’t no calm!” a woman in the crowd yelled in support. “He didn’t die in peace, there ain’t gone be no peace!”

“They wrong, they wrong!” McSpadden sobbed as she doubled over in grief.

“They don’t care about us! Fuck them!” someone yelled.

Brown’s stepfather, Louis Head, then shouted, “Burn this bitch down!”

The video I took was on its way to 180,000 hits, and my social media was blowing up, mostly with people telling me to get out of there.

The crowd was restless and tense, bottles and other objects were thrown at the police, who were lined up in riot gear behind barricades. I reported to John Aravosis over the phone and when the crowd began to move, I told him I was leaving. I knew chaos would break out any minute.

From Karen’s apartment we monitored the situation on television and on our computers. Several buildings in the Ferguson area were burning, looting had begun, and the FAA diverted flights from Lambert St. Louis International Airport due to machine gun fire.

In the Shaw section of South City, protesters shut down Interstate 44, and a mile away on South Grand protests turned violent as numerous windows were smashed. Hours after the violence ended police heavily tear gassed the intersection of Grand and Arsenal, where many peaceful demonstrators and brand new 15th Ward Alderwoman Megan-Ellyia Green were taking sanctuary at MoKaBe’s Coffeehouse. With nowhere to go as the tear gas seeped in, patrons and demonstrators sought refuge in a sealed basement.

The issue of police brutality was front and center on the national conscious, with tragic cases in New York, Cleveland, and other places around the country, spurring massive demonstrations, and the epicenter of it all was the great awakening in St. Louis.

The night of the verdict, as I logged off, I made one final post, making sure the pearl clutchers didn’t misunderstand where I was coming from with my coverage of the fiery mayhem. Many were looking on in horror at the images on their screens, but while I’d prefer there to have been no arson and looting, I saw it as a mere forest fire. There are pinecones that only release their seeds in fire, and I knew there would be much sprouting from the charred and storied ground.

The moment was so powerful, there was no place on Earth more relevant that evening.  The change happening here would transform the dysfunctional structure of St. Louis County and the ninety municipalities/ fiefdoms that stifled regional progress, but would also impact people around the world, as we’d see from subsequent protests.

I wrote: For the record: There’s no place I’d rather be right now. I don’t want a gentrified or suburban life. I’d rather live in a passionate city in flames.

Kentucky Governor Beshear restores voting rights for 180,000 non-violent ex-felons Tue, 24 Nov 2015 15:57:12 +0000 Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear has signed an executive order today that automatically restores voting and officeholding rights for 180,000 ex-felons who have completed their sentences. Felons whose convictions were for violent crimes, sex offenses, bribery or treason were excluded.

Let me stop you before you make a “this would have been great to do before the election” joke. While the number of felons who will have their rights restored does exceed Governor-elect Matt Bevin’s margin of victory, it doesn’t exceed it by a whole lot. Given the fact that statewide turnout was barely over 30 percent, even if every ex-felon had voted for Jack Conway, nowhere near enough of them would have turned out.

Besides, that really isn’t the point behind restoring these people’s voting rights. As I wrote last week:

Nationally, the Sentencing Project estimates that 5.85 million citizens were disenfranchised due to felony convictions as of 2012. 2.2 million of them are black. Put another way, African-Americans represent 38% of disenfranchised felons while accounting for just 13% of the American population. And it’s not as if there’s any evidence that felon disenfranchisement serves any law enforcement purpose. If anything, it alienates felons from society.

Beshear had stoked speculation that he would issue such an executive order last week when he told Insider Louisville that, while he was still considering whether to issue the order:

Steve Beshear, via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Steve Beshear, via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

A lot of states have made it automatic, and we ought to make it automatic, honestly…When you’ve served your time out and you’ve paid your restitution and all that, and you’re trying to become a productive member of society again, part of your integration back into society is the right to vote. It’s just a basic right that you ought to have, assuming you’ve paid your debt.

Kentucky is one of just four states that does not automatically restore voting rights for felons who have fully completed their sentences. And to be clear, it is still on that list. Beshear’s executive order didn’t change Kentucky’s law, it simply amounted to a blanket pardon for existing ex-felons who have completed their sentences. Current and new felons will still be without their voting rights, absent action from the legislature.

However, such action could be on the way. Kentucky Governor-elect Matt Bevin has previously indicated his support for automatic rights restoration, as well, so it is unlikely that he will undo Beshear’s actions. What’s more, legislation that would make rights restoration automatic has made progress in Kentucky’s legislature, and is currently being held up over non-meritorious reasons. As Insider Louisville reported last week:

Republican Governor-elect Matt Bevin — who will be sworn into office in three weeks — told IL during the campaign that he supports the automatic restoration of voting rights along the lines of HB 70. He also said he was confident that he could change the minds of Republicans in the state Senate on the issue — such as Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, who vowed to continually block the bill because a handful of voting rights activists jeered him in a committee meeting two years ago.

A slightly more serious reason for the bill being held up in the State Senate was Republicans’ insistence on a five-year waiting period, which Democrats have refused due to the sheer arbitrariness of such a waiting period. If someone has completed their sentence and satisfied all requirements for having their rights restores, why make them wait any longer?

At the end of the day, there isn’t any good reason for felons who have completed their sentences — who have “paid their debt to society” — to continue to be denied their rights. This is a welcome move from Governor Beshear, and here’s hoping that the state builds off of his rights expansion in the near future.

White supremacists shoot five Black Lives Matter protestors at sit-in in Minneapolis Tue, 24 Nov 2015 14:51:57 +0000 White supremacists shot five Black Lives Matter protestors yesterday at a sit-in that was being staged at Minneapolis’s Fourth Precinct Police Station. All of the injuries were non-life-threatening.

The sit-in was being staged in protest of the death of Jamar Clark, a 24 year-old who was fatally shot by the police in November. Black Lives Matter has maintained a peaceful presence at the precinct ever since.

From the Minneapolis Star-Tribune:

Miski Noor, a media contact for Black Lives Matter, said “a group of white supremacists showed up at the protest, as they have done most nights.”

One of the three counterdemonstrators wore a mask, said Dana Jaehnert, who had been at the protest site since early evening.

When about a dozen protesters attempted to herd the group away from the area, Noor said, they “opened fire on about six protesters,” hitting five of them. Jaehnert said she heard four gunshots.

Police have identified at least one suspect in the shooting, but thus far no arrests have been made:

There isn’t much to add here, but two quick and rather obvious points:

Black Lives Matter, via Gerry Lauzon / Flickr

Black Lives Matter, via Gerry Lauzon / Flickr

First, for all of the conservative talk about how dangerous the Black Lives Matter movement is — they’re “thugs,” they’re “lawless,” they are “calling for the murder of police officers” — it remains the case that the violence associated with the movement has been directed at them, rather than having come from them.

Second, Sherrod Brown was on to something when he said that the greatest terror threats in the United States generally come from people who look like him, rather than Syrian refugees. There were as many armed and dangerous white supremacists at last night’s sit-in as there have been refugees arrested on terrorism charges since 2001. Don’t tell me how dangerous five year-old orphans fleeing a civil war are when you’re looking the other way as white supremacists are showing up to peaceful protests (and mosques) armed.

White people are showing up to protests and places of worship armed and dangerous, and yet we’re scared of the people who the guns are pointed at. It’s high time we got our heads screwed on straight about who in our country is really dangerous, and who isn’t.

Donald Trump’s “toothpaste politics” Tue, 24 Nov 2015 13:10:30 +0000 There weren’t any Muslims in New Jersey cheering after the Twin Towers fell on September 11, 2001. But Donald Trump’s inaccurate description of such an event will likely do him more good than bad in his campaign for the GOP presidential nomination.

That’s because Trump doesn’t care about how factual his statements are. He only cares about how entertaining they can be, and how long they can linger to his benefit.

Trump understands the base of the Republican Party better than any other candidate seeking the nomination. He is part of the base of the Republican Party: Angry, red-blooded and ready to believe anything absurd so long as it fits their narrative.

So when Trump suggests that “thousands” of New Jersey Muslims were cheering on the 19 hijackers on 9/11, the base is more than willing to forget about facts and accept his fable as truth, even without evidence that backs it up. Even Ben Carson, when asked about the non-event, felt compelled to lend credence to the conspiracy theory before walking it back.

What’s more, the media gets stuck in the trap as well. Instead of reporting on the facts, the media produces an “objective” storyline, treating Trump’s tall tales on an equal playing field with the truth. For instance, when Trump tweeted a neo-Nazi meme with made-up stats about black-on-black homicide rates, Buzzfeed’s headline called the infographic “Questionable” (it has since been changed to “Made-Up” following heavy criticism). And while some may report his stories as inaccurate portrayals, it doesn’t matter: they’ve reported it, and their headlines merely perpetuate the message that “the Donald” is trying to disseminate.

Donald Trump, screenshot via 60 Minutes

Donald Trump, screenshot via 60 Minutes

I call this “toothpaste politics,” because once a story is out, no matter how absurd it is, it’s hard to put back in the proverbial tube. I once used the term to describe Scott Walker in Wisconsin, who was adept at creating narratives that didn’t necessarily match reality.

Walker had claimed, for example, that the union-backed system of seniority had cost a teacher-of-the-year her job, when in fact that particular teacher hadn’t won that honor (the teacher also frequently asks Walker to stop telling the story). Walker also said that, during a visit to the United Kingdom, Prime Minister David Cameron had expressed doubts about President Barack Obama’s leadership on international issues. Cameron disputed these allegations, and said he had never mentioned any such qualms with the president to Walker.

Neither the fabrication of the teacher-of-the-year story, nor what Cameron had actually said to Walker, mattered. The lie runs through the general public faster than the truth can catch up. The base continues to forward narrative-confirming lies — be it through social media or in talking with their neighbors — until they might as well be true in the minds of their supporters.

Part of the reason why Walker floundered so fast in his own campaign for president is because Trump out-toothpasted him in the polls right away. And since then, Trump has only squeezed harder on the tube. Whether it’s doubling down on support for a fascist Muslim database, or suggesting that black-on-white crime is higher than it actually is, Trump doesn’t care about trampling on the facts. He only cares about scoring points, which he’s certainly doing against his fellow Republican candidates.

None of whom have figured out how to fight back.

Donald Trump’s position on waterboarding deserves a followup Mon, 23 Nov 2015 18:27:57 +0000 Donald Trump had a wild weekend. From insisting that New Jersey Muslims cheered on 9/11 (a widely-discredited rumor) to retweeting a racist meme that originated from a neo-Nazi twitter account to endorsing supporters of his who choked and repeatedly kicked a Black Lives Matter protestor at one of his rallies, it was — once again — hard to keep up with what amounted to a personified and slightly more fascist than usual Breitbart comments section.

But one of Trump’s statements in particular flew (slightly) under the radar, buried under the rest of his steaming pile of white nationalism that he’s dumped on the country since the Paris attacks. When asked on ABC’s The Week if he would bring back waterboarding, among other “enhanced interrogation techniques” that are widely classified as torture, Trump answered with an emphatic yes. As he said, quoted by Politico, “I would bring it back…I think waterboarding is peanuts compared to what they’d do to us, what they’re doing to us, what they did to James Foley when they chopped off his head. That’s a whole different level, and I would absolutely bring back interrogation and strong interrogation.”

Trump is far from the only Republican candidate — in both this and previous election cycles — to either endorse or refuse to rule out waterboarding, but his rationale for why he supports waterboarding suspected terrorists is new. And scary. Usually, Republican candidates (and presidents) justify waterboarding by insisting that it isn’t torture. The United States doesn’t torture, they say, but we can waterboard because it doesn’t count. It’s a matter of semantics.

For Trump, however, the semantics don’t matter. The question as to whether waterboarding is just, to say nothing of effective, to say nothing of whether it qualifies as torture, is measured not by our own actions but rather by those of our enemies. He didn’t say that waterboarding is fine because it isn’t torture; he said that waterboarding is fine because the Islamic State is beheading people. It’s a matter of proportionality and revenge.

By this logic, nothing is off the table. Donald Trump didn’t just endorse waterboarding with his answer; he implied that we can do pretty much whatever we want, up to and perhaps including the most barbaric atrocities our enemies would do to our soldiers. Sustained beatings? Burning and freezing? Electrodes? The rack? Beheadings of our own? All presumably fair game in Trump’s book, as long as he can say the other guys are as bad or worse. What’s more, torture may be illegal under the Geneva Conventions, which the United States has signed on to, but Donald Trump is notoriously unbothered by contractual obligations. There is absolutely no reason to believe that, if elected, he would give a first thought to whether kneecapping suspected terrorists is in violation of international law, let alone waste his time getting his administration to write up a legal justification for it.

All this is to say that Donald Trump’s justification for waterboarding as an acceptable interrogation technique merits a followup. One of the many reporters following him around the country needs to ask, point blank, if he supports torture. Trump’s initial answer to the waterboarding question suggested no concern for the moral question of whether torture is wrong (it is), or the practical question of whether torture is effective (it isn’t).

That complete disregard for what we like to say separates the United States from the Islamic State is as if not more concerning than his repetition of an outdated and discredited anti-Muslim conspiracy theory.

Study: North Carolina’s changes to early voting sites have dramatic racial disparity Mon, 23 Nov 2015 17:11:32 +0000 Black voters in North Carolina will have to travel roughly 350,000 extra miles in order vote early after the state moved 114 of the state’s 363 early voting sites (while adding three locations) last year, according to a new analysis from insightus, a non-profit data consultancy. White voters in the state will have to travel a total of just 21,000 extra miles, despite representing 71% of the state’s population (African-Americans account for 22% of the population).

On average, each white voter is now just 26 feet farther from an early voting site; the average black voter is more than a quarter mile farther away. In other words, shifting the polling locations moved black voters’ nearest early voting location more than 50 times farther away than it did for their white counterparts.

Early voting is popular in North Carolina, and helped keep President Obama competitive in the state (carrying it once) during his two runs for the White House. In 2008 and 2012, 70 percent of black voters cast their ballots early, compared to 50 percent of white voters.

Though the policy change was conducted under a Republican administration with a history of restricting ballot access for lower-income and minority voters, no one is alleging (yet) that the move was intentionally designed to make it harder for African-Americans to vote. From MSNBC’s Zachary Roth:

Local election administrators move the location of polling sites frequently, in order to better accommodate changing voting habits and serve voters more effectively. No one is alleging that the counties coordinated on a plan to make it harder for blacks to vote.

Can't Vote, via Daniel Lobo / Flickr

Can’t Vote, via Daniel Lobo / Flickr

And, importantly, even after the changes, black voters are still closer to early voting locations on average than white voters (though blacks are more likely not to have a car, so they may still face a longer journey by time). Before the changes, blacks were 2.90 miles away while whites were 3.77 miles away, on average, according to Busa’s numbers. After the changes, blacks were 3.14 miles away while whites remained 3.77 miles away.

But [insightus’s] analysis underscores how even minor changes to election systems that might have been intended to be neutral can nonetheless have the effect of hurting racial minorities more than whites. In this case, that might have been because white neighborhoods are more likely to have amenities like parking, leading election administrators to put polling locations in those areas.

However, as Roth pointed out, changes such as these would have been subject to federal scrutiny under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act prior to the Supreme Court’s Shelby County v Holder decision, which removed pre-clearance requirements. Had North Carolina’s early voting site changes been subject to federal scrutiny, they would likely have been blocked due to their racially disparate effects — regardless as to their intent.

Those effects could be large. As Roth writes, “All told, an increased distance of a quarter mile to vote, played out across the state’s roughly 1.5 million registered black voters, could have a significant impact. A 2011 study of Los Angeles County voting found that for every one-tenth of a mile increase in the distance to a polling place up to 0.4 of a mile, voting declines by 0.5 percent. By those numbers, North Carolina’s changes might have kept nearly 19,000 black voters from the polls.”

That said, it’s unclear as to how large of an effect the early voting site changes had on the state’s most recent elections because North Carolina has gone out of its way to make early voting in general more difficult. In addition to moving sites, the state has ended same-day voter registration (which was commonly used in conjunction with early voting) and cut the number of days early voting is offered in half. The law that implemented those effects, the Voter Information and Verification Act (VIVA), has been shown to have kept roughly 30,000 North Carolinians from the polls in 2014 — and those would-be voters were disproportionately low-income and non-white. In addition, the state is currently facing a lawsuit over irregularities in its implementation of the National Voter Registration Act, as the state has seen a large, uniform decrease in voter registrations processed by public assistance agencies since Republican Pat McCrory became governor in 2013.

So regardless as to whether North Carolina’s elections officials intentionally moved early voting sites in order to make it more difficult for African-Americans to cast ballots, their move has reinforced and fallen in line with a series of other changes that have done exactly that. And as long as it remains the case that the burden of proof is on the citizen to prove discrimination, as opposed to the burden of proof being on the state to prove a compelling interest in restricting ballot access, it will remain difficult to keep these nominally neutral policy tweaks from tilting the electoral playing field in favor of higher-income and white voters.

How much do Republicans hate Obama? A large plurality of them oppose him on turkey pardons Mon, 23 Nov 2015 16:32:57 +0000 When pollsters say that Obama’s a polarizing figure, they really aren’t kidding.

Public Policy Polling released a poll this morning showing, among other things, that by a 35/22 margin Americans approve of President Obama’s decision to pardon two turkeys last Thanksgiving, as opposed to the customary one. However, the polling firm found a sharp partisan divide on the question, with 38 percent of Republicans opposing the move to only 11 percent in favor. Democrats and independents both favored the move, by 59/11 and 28/21 margins, respectively.

To be clear, this poll question isn’t measuring how people feel about the relative merits of pardoning two turkeys as opposed to one. It’s measuring just how much President Obama’s name affects people’s likelihood to support [generic and totally not political thing]. Much in the same way that members of the out party will criticize the president’s book choices, vacations and golf games only to shrug their shoulders when their party takes control of the White House, it’s hard to imagine that Republicans would oppose pardoning two turkeys by anywhere near a 27 point margin if, say, Mitt Romney were president.

In other words, there really is no limit to what Republicans will oppose so long as it has Obama’s name attached to it:

The poll also found that, by an overwhelming margin, Donald Trump is the presidential candidate voters feel would be most likely to ruin Thanksgiving dinner:

Thanksgiving Turkey

Turkey via Shutterstock

46% say they think Trump would be the candidate most likely to ruin Thanksgiving, as much as all the rest of the candidates combined. Hillary Clinton at 22%, Bernie Sanders at 7%, Jeb Bush and Ben Carson at 6%, Ted Cruz at 4%, and Marco Rubio at 1% round out the standings on who people think would be most likely to wreck the holiday.

Many of these poll questions were conducting in some measure of good fun, but like the off-beat questions they include in many of their other polls, they’re still telling. Last week, one of their surveys showed that 69 percent of Republican voters agreed with the statement that President Obama has waged a war on Christianity, and that only 49 percent of Republicans agree that Islam should even be legal in the United States.

If you want to know why Donald Trump can get away with saying that we should close mosques and deport Syrian refugees who are already here — to say nothing of entertaining the idea of Nuremberg-style tracking of Muslims legally residing in the United States — there’s your answer.

Conservative challenger Mauricio Macri wins in Argentina: Will he be Carlos Menem or Charlie Baker? Mon, 23 Nov 2015 15:49:49 +0000 In 2014, Massachusetts, a liberal state, elected Republican businessman Charlie Baker to be its governor over Martha Coakley, an establishment Democrat who had underperformed in previous statewide races, by a razor-thin margin. On a related note, yesterday Argentina elected Mauricio Macri, conservative Mayor of Buenos Aires and President of Boca Juniors, the country’s best soccer club, to be its next president — also by less than five percent.

Macri defeated Daniel Scioli of the incumbent Frente para la Victoria (FpV), winning with just over 51 percent of the vote to Scioli’s 48 percent. Macri rode a wave of momentum he carried from the first round of the election, in which he outperformed expectations and nearly tied Scioli, who had been favored to win the most votes and perhaps even secure a runoff-proof plurality. However, Scioli failed to consolidate support on his left flank following the first round, with fellow Peronist candidate Sergio Massa and Progressive candidate Margarita Stolbitzer both publicly saying that they weren’t sure they could bring themselves to vote for him in the runoff.

The Massachusetts race seems relevant because, as I’ve watched the election unfold since coming to Argentina, it feels like the most analogous US race to the one that just concluded here. Like Massachusetts, Argentina’s median voter is to the left of center. Like Martha Coakley, Daniel Scioli was a longtime party veteran who ran a lazy, entitled campaign — Coakley made headlines for refusing to shake hands with voters at the 2010 Winter Classic hockey game; Scioli showed up to cast his ballot in the first round on October 25th wearing ripped jeans and a biker jacket. Like Charlie Baker, Macri played up his business credentials and avoided discussion of his (and his party’s) wacky ideas on social issues while promising to leave in place many of the incumbent party’s more popular policies.

Like Baker, Macri seems well aware of the fact that his victory is less about him and more about his opponent. Or, rather, his opponent’s party. Argentina’s current president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, has seen her popularity wane recently as her party has been rocked by scandals and charges of corruption, ranging from high-ranking party officials being involved in drug trafficking to possibly arranging the murder of an independent prosecutor who had accused Kirchner of covering up Iran’s involvement in a 1994 terrorist attack in exchange for cheap oil. Perhaps even more importantly, Argentina is in a state of economic crisis, with double-digit inflation — and Kirchner’s government has been accused of manipulating official data to downplay its severity. (Former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick does not line up with Kirchner in this analogy).

During the campaign, Scioli seemed willing but unable to effectively distance himself from Kirchner, striking a more pro-business tone on the campaign trail but failing to articulate how his policies would differ in any significant way from the current administration’s. For a country that had grown increasingly frustrated with the current government’s lack of transparency and lackluster response to the country’s high rate of inflation, Macri was able to run on a platform of transparency, accountability and good governance — all while avoiding getting nailed down to too many specifics on economic issues. He promised change — the name of his alliance, Cambiemos, literally means “change together” — and he promised to govern “for all of Argentina,” a not-so-subtle jab at Kirchner’s staunchly pro-worker (as in, anti-corporate) ideology.

Mauricio Macri, via Wikimedia Commons

Mauricio Macri, via Wikimedia Commons

However, while positioning himself as generally more pro-trade and pro-corporate than the FpV, Macri avoided making too many commitments on economic issues, which is notable given that his economic team features veterans from the last conservative administration — that of Carlos Menem. The inclusion of Menem advisors has led to widespread speculation that Macri, once in office, will implement “shock” policies — most notably, drastic cuts to public expenditures and decoupling the currency from the dollar and allowing it to float, which would lead to an immediate devaluation of the currency from 9.80 Argentinian pesos to the dollar to roughly 14. The Kirchner administration has kept the currency pegged to the dollar so as to benefit Argentinian exports, which are sold in dollars, even as the policy has produced an informal “Blue Market” for American dollars that reflects the floating exchange rate (currently just over 15 pesos to the dollar). As domestic businesses have adjusted prices to reflect the Blue Market rate, white collar workers whose salaries are based on the official rate have seen their purchasing power decline as the Blue Market rate has strayed farther from the official exchange rate in recent years.

Macri will also likely seek to improve relations with the United States by both lowering trade barriers and by settling with American investors who have bought up Argentinian debt — referred to in the country as “vulture funds.” Marco Rubio megadonor Paul Singer holds one of the largest investments in Argentinian debt, which American investors purchase at discounted rates before suing for full repayment. Rubio has been one of the most forceful advocates in the Senate for putting US pressure on Argentina for full repayment.

Given Argentina’s natural leftward tilt, it’s unclear as to exactly how many of these policies Macri will be able to implement in the next four years without sparking significant backlash. One of the reasons the Kirchners and the FpV alliance were able to stay in power for as long as they did was that the general public still remembers the severe economic depression that ran from 1998 to 2001 — for which former president Carlos Menem and his neoliberal economic policies carry much of the blame. Furthermore, while Argentina’s executive does have control over many of the levers of economic policy, FpV still maintains a majority in Congress, so they will be able to block at least some of Macri’s agenda.

Again, this situation draws parallels with Charlie Baker’s current term as governor in Massachusetts. Governing in a liberal state and working with a Democratic legislature, he is limited in his ability to implement conservative policies — he has even made moves that would be progressive by Democratic standards, such as issuing an executive order that made Massachusetts the first state to include LGBT businesses in its supplier diversity program. This being the case, Baker is rated as one of the most popular governors in the country, clocking in at 70 percent job approval as of last summer (public opinion polling on Baker is sparse, but it’s safe to say he’s remained popular).

So while yesterday’s elections signaled a defeat for the left in Argentina, it should not be interpreted as a mandate for conservatives. Macri successfully turned the election into a referendum on Kirchner’s government, but not her pro-worker Peronist ideology. It will be interesting to see if his administration resembles Menem’s, as many on the left fear, or Charlie Baker’s, as his path to office would suggest.

Meet the activists who would co-op(t) the tech industry Fri, 20 Nov 2015 20:46:59 +0000 As it represented the third in a series of gatherings on digital labor, guests at the New School for last weekend’s Platform Cooperativism conference didn’t need much convincing that the state of platform-enabled work is… not great. More and more it seems as though companies are only hiring contract workers, which makes for unstable incomes and a lack of worker protections. Meanwhile, the business model behind much of the online economy relies on surveilling its users. Having followed its progress online, I can say that last year’s digital labor conference sounded exceedingly dark.

And yet, this year there was a heady mix of optimism in the air. For all the reservations and anxieties that speakers and participants expressed about the future of work in the “sharing economy,” there was more or less an agreed-upon answer: workers should own the platforms. Uber, for example, should belong to its drivers (and not the other way around). The real question – instead – focused on how to get there.

Considering the size and might of today’s industry dominants like Amazon, Uber and Airbnb, that’s a big question. Valued at about $250 billion, $70 billion and $24 billion, respectively, it is difficult to imagine anyone challenging their market position. Still, these valuations are based largely on projection — particularly the projection that a service like Uber will assume total control over the ride-sharing market and more, even while it currently hemorrhages money. Still, as fast as these companies are burning through cash, they continue to pull in investment capital even faster.

Trevor Scholz, via Flickr

Trebor Scholz, via Flickr

That gig economy giants owe their success to speculation was not lost on many attendees. And as Uber and Airbnb attempt to mobilize their users as a political constituency, it becomes clearer every day that a certain political calculation is baked into their value. As New School faculty member and one of the conference’s organizers Trebor Scholz said in his opening remarks, “the on-demand economy is Reaganism by other means.” Union busting, peeling back regulation and normalizing flexible work have all been accelerated by these new platforms, even if their size relative to the economy as a whole remains small. “For millennials,” Scholz said, “their career path looks like a self-driving car heading towards the job-ocalypse.”

Arguments about the actual viability of a services-based online economy as “the future of work” permeated discussions inside and outside the lecture halls. Yochai Benkler, co-director of Harvard’s Berkman Center for the Internet and Society, framed the general mindset in strong terms: “The drive to cooperativism is the idea that, after 40 years of wage stagnation; unsustainability; and boom and bust; capitalism is actually inefficient.” He likened the model co-ops could follow to the free software movement’s, arguing to “build our own things and shift power through changed ownership structures.”

The crowds flocking into overbooked seminar rooms ranged from young techies, freelance workers, students and academics to activists and agitators. Attendees probably skewed whiter and maler than your average subway car, but it was evident that each panel was consciously balanced. There was even a Student Town Hall that brought together recently-unionized grad students and Black Lives Matter organizers (very likely not the case at Silicon Valley’s concurrent Next:Economy event). While the variety of different constituencies was apparent, the ideological diversity present made for interesting and meaningful encounters (those not debating the relative merits of capitalism and socialism were, likely, busy tweeting).

Speakers floated ideas from the radical to the accepted and respectable. Dmytri Kleiner talked about his books, Venture Communism and The Telekommunist Manifesto, while Robin Chase, co-founder of Zipcar, spoke to the financial challenges of building a viable platform: the not-inconsiderable funds they require, and the importance of network effects in determining which ones succeed (for a while at least, the ones that show up first). Building a platform is so much more than developing an app.

Leveraging network effects became a dominant theme throughout the weekend, to the extent that it became a kind of metaphor for the whole gathering. Yochai Benkler concluded his talk by saying that “the most important thing is to be here… the only thing that will make platform cooperativism work will be a shift in ideologies.” To hear them tell it, it was as if consciously coming together and talking about these ideas would unleash untold events down the line. That the major platforms have succeeded by controlling the flow of information between supply and demand while extracting rents from that exchange oddly reinforces this point. With the Internet and the on-demand service economy, it has never been quite so clear how, at a fundamental level, the markets respond to and are shaped by messages being relayed back and forth over the networks, be they telegrams, stock prices on Bloomberg dot com or AP wires out of the Central African Republic. Surge pricing is an obvious and illustrative example of this.

In the beginning there was data. Only after that was there supply and demand. But to admit this would be to suggest that the economy is something political, and (perhaps) that to demand something is to generate demand for it.

At times the atmosphere reflected the can-do spirit and solutionism associated with Silicon Valley in ways that were rather surprising. At others, the labor and activist contingent took a markedly different stance. In her closing speech for the conference, while Astra Taylor talked about creating a financial ecosystem for cooperative development, she also brought up the importance of non-cooperation. Taylor has been instrumental in organizing debtors and in forcing the US Department of Education to cancel debts for some former students defrauded by the now-bankrupt for-profit Corinthian College. “I want my platform cooperativism confrontational,” she concluded.

Given the way the conference billed itself as “a coming out party for the cooperative internet,” Taylor’s sentiment held even more truth than many of those gathered had even realized. Coming out, after all, comes with major cathartic release, but even then is often followed by years of struggle and confrontation.

Those who would seek to challenge the tech industry giants can expect as much, and they just might have to look forward to an awkward Thanskgiving.

Marco Rubio one-ups Trump, will shut down ALL the maybe-terrorist hangouts Fri, 20 Nov 2015 17:39:45 +0000 Marco Rubio’s been trying to keep a low profile on his way to becoming the establishment “anyone but Trump” pick for the Republican nomination. He made every effort to walk political tightropes on issues ranging from his tax plan to whether he supports a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

But if Rubio was trying to walk the same kind of tightrope with respect to how he would handle counterterrorism efforts as president, he just fell and fell far. Asked whether he agreed with Donald Trump that we need to close down mosques associated with people deemed to be terrorist threats, Rubio had this to say:

It’s not about closing down mosques. It’s about closing down anyplace — whether it’s a cafe, a diner, an internet site — anyplace where radicals are being inspired. The bigger problem we have is our inability to find out where these places are, because we’ve crippled our intelligence programs, both through unauthorized disclosures by a traitor, in Edward Snowden, or by some of the things this president has put in place with the support even of some from my own party to diminish our intelligence capabilities.

So whatever facility is being used — it’s not just a mosque — any facility that’s being used to radicalize and inspire attacks against the United States, should be a place that we look at.

There’s a lot going on here, but obviously the most glaring problem with Rubio’s comment is that he just endorsed a program of mass surveillance that would be wholly unprecedented in a Western democracy. In order to identify every terror threat, shutting down any place that the government considers to be a place “where radicals are being inspired” the very concept of privacy would have to go out the window. For everyone, but probably for Muslims to a greater extent.

What’s more, closing down businesses, organizations and social networks associated with radicalization runs up against the same problem that closing down mosques does: Unless you’re willing to keep people from freely associating everywhere, closing specific avenues of communication will only lead to new ones opening up.

xDVYn7iAs the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent notes, you can read Rubio generously here and take his comments to mean that we should move the discussion away from Islam and back to national security policy more generally. I don’t think the context in which the question was asked merits such a generous reading — he was asked about surveillance of Muslims in particular, and he didn’t take the opportunity to allude to the fact that the majority of terrorist attacks in the United States are carried out by white Christian men. However, even if you grant Rubio your generosity and assume that he would expand the surveillance state without regard to religion, he’s still calling for an unprecedented expansion of the surveillance state!

There’s simply no good way to spin this. Either Rubio is for a massive restriction of civil liberties for Muslims, or he’s for a massive restriction of civil liberties for everyone. In both cases, the sheer logistical lift required to monitor and shut down any and every establishment or organization that may or may not be planning to do anyone harm is staggering.

Recently, a man in Ohio was arrested for allegedly inciting terrorist violence online. The chief evidence against him? He had reblogged some gifs on Tumblr and retweeted some memes on Twitter. The federal government, in cooperation with both of these social media platforms, tracked his IP address and — after shutting down his accounts no less than eight times — raided his home and arrested him. There was no evidence that he was plotting a specific attack; all the government has are posts on social media expressing support for and sympathy with Islamic State militants. As The Verge wrote regarding his case:

It’s unclear whether simply reblogging the GIF qualifies as a solicitation to crime, and the court will have to grapple with that issue as the case proceeds. McNeil’s case is also notable for being almost entirely based on online activity. The affidavit justifying his arrest lists more than 50 different posts from his various Tumblr and Twitter accounts, but only minimal physical surveillance of McNeil, detailing his morning commute and various bank accounts linked to his name. As it stands currently, the case rests entirely on McNeil’s online persona, and whether it can be seen as inciting tangible violence elsewhere in the world.

This sort of surveillance and enforcement in the context of counterterrorism efforts is already enough to make the average American uncomfortable. We generally understand that retweets are not necessarily endorsements, and that even if they are, we have the right to say what we want unless we pose a credible and specific threat to others. Under the kinds of surveillance and policing programs proposed in the last few days — first by Trump and now by Rubio — these kinds of arrests would be the norm, not the exception. They would turn the United States into even more of a police state.

And a government that has the power to police members of a specific group to such a great extent has the power to police others to the same degree.

The Islamic State’s threat is closer to Paris than Syria’s refugees Fri, 20 Nov 2015 16:39:32 +0000 Over the past week, attacks carried out by people who were neither Syrian nor refugees have jump-started and fundamentally changed the way the United States is debating how to handle Syrian refugees.

By 7:33 PM EST last Friday, after the attacks had taken place but before the Islamic State’s involvement had been confirmed, Congressman Jeff Duncan, among other social media users, was already making snide comments targeting the European Union’s refugee policies as though they were responsible for the attacks. Knee-jerk reactions against people fleeing war-torn Syria may score political points, but they ignore the threat of homegrown radicals traveling to and from Syrian battlegrounds, and they threaten to reinforce the Islamic State’s propaganda bonanza.

Long before the attackers were even fully identified, though after Duncan’s snotty remarks, police discovered a Syrian passport that was allegedly linked to one of the perpetrators. This ignited a firestorm, with numerous Republican governors instantly assuming that at least one attacker was a Syrian refugee and subsequently calling all Syrian refugees threats to national security. Soon after, however, the story became more complicated for those interested in the truth: AFP reported that the owner of the Syrian passport, who had been loyal to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, had died months before the attack. French officials investigating the situation stated that the passport may have been planted, saying that it was not on the attacker’s body, but “lying nearby, as if meant to be found.”

The deathblow to xenophobia against Syrian refugees here should have been the actual identities of the attackers: All of the attackers identified thus far have been either French or Belgian. Furthermore, Greek officials have said that none of the attackers even set foot in Greece on their way to France, whether they masqueraded as refugees at any point in their travels or not.

These facts have proven irrelevant to members of Congress and presidential candidates, who have spent the week trying to one-up each other over who can come up with the most draconian anti-refugee declarations and policies. Regardless as to whether the passport was planted, the Paris attacks have led numerous pundits and politicians to develop narratives unjustly framing refugees as national security threats. Duncan’s, Donald Trump’sBen Carson’s and others’ profoundly irresponsible and misleading rhetoric have successfully framed large populations of the West as fearful or antipathetic toward Muslims.

They have with poetic irony played into the Islamic State’s strategy, which, as detailed in its Dabiq magazine, is focused on destroying Muslim and Arab coexistence with the West and political pluralism. The Islamic State’s recruitment operations of foreign fighters have long relied upon alienation of Muslims in Western countries. They tell adolescent Muslims that they aren’t welcome in their own countries, and that they need only turn on the TV to see right-wing politicians proving their point. What the Ben Carsons, Donald Trumps and Marco Rubios of the political class fail to understand is that US’s counterterrorism strategies rely upon military action complemented with economic and political outreach efforts used to prevent attacks from occurring in the first place. Bombing terrorists to hell makes for a great headline, but unless you starve terrorist organizations of their source of angry recruits vulnerable to extremist indoctrination, all you’re doing is racking up a body count for the sake of a body count.

How it’s at all possible that self-proclaimed leaders of American conservatism fail to demonstrate the slightest understanding of the role of politics and propaganda in counterterrorism is a question I’ll leave for the reader.

the flag of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or simply the Islamic State (IS). Via Shutterstock.

The flag of the Islamic State, via Shutterstock.

Politically, the Islamic State has everything to gain from xenophobic responses driven by terrorism. It helps them prevent the integration of Arabs into the West, bolsters its attractiveness to foreign fighters and constructs an image of the West as unfriendly to refugees fleeing the Islamic State itself. Stopping the outflow of refugees has become especially important in the Islamic State’s development as a self-proclaimed caliphate — its religious legitimacy relies on the predicted migration of Muslims to live and serve under its rule, and its operations demand populations for extortion, which declined as it lost 25% of its territory in early 2015.

Based upon previous attacks claimed by the Islamic State, the greatest threats to national security, aside from xenophobic rhetoric bolstering its recruitment, lie not with refugees but with Western citizens fighting in Syria. Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who allegedly served as a link between the Islamic State and the other French and Belgian Paris attackers, developed his relationship with the Islamic State after leaving to fight in Syria in 2014. As a Belgian citizen, he was relatively free to move throughout Europe, and intelligence gaps had resulted in the failure of surveillance and military action against him.

A similar background has been associated with other attackers allegedly linked to the Islamic State, including the perpetrators of a May 2015 shooting in Garland, Texas. These individuals were US citizens who were inspired by ISIS, though, in contrast with Abaaoud, they were unsuccessful in their attempts to travel to Syria before the attack.

What does this mean in the broader context of national security? At the moment, Europe might be at a much greater risk than the US for Islamic State-inspired attacks. Not because of the incoming refugees, but because of the thousands of EU citizens who have traveled to Syria. In the US, the intelligence community can point to just 40 individuals who have done the same, and none of them pose credible threats.

By overblowing the threat of the refugees, right-wing politicians have created a self-fulfilling prophecy of alienated individuals unable to integrate with the West due to the very real xenophobia they experience in Western countries. These knee-jerk xenophobic reactions have failed to demonstrate the slightest understanding of the fight against the Islamic State, and have weakened our counterterrorism efforts in the long run. Indeed, Congress’s willingness to halt the resettlement process for Syrian refugees will only serve to undermine America’s efforts by playing into Islamic State propaganda without addressing the actual threats to Western security.

Conservatives scrambling to explain why the Bible is negotiable for refugees, not for same-sex marriage and abortion Fri, 20 Nov 2015 15:00:03 +0000 For decades now, we have been told by the conservative end of our political spectrum that the King James Bible is the answer to all of our major questions for how best to live together. We have been told, in so many words, that on the sixth day God made Adam; gave him Eve, a handgun and a sandwich from Chick-fil-a; and told him that public sector unions were the work of Satan.

Not only is this story true, we are told, but our Founders believed it, so we should govern accordingly. We are told to forget the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, the Establishment Clause of the Constitution and the “wall of separation” between Church and State mentioned in the Letter to the Danbury Baptists because Jefferson, Madison and the rest of the people who founded this country did so using “Judeo-Christian” principles — a term I’m fairly confident no Jew had a hand in coining — that we should continue to abide by.

The longer this game goes on, the more we find that the Bible should only be used as public policy in certain instances. That is to say, when our “Judeo-Christian” principles clash with secular right-wing principles — namely sexual purity, patriarchy and nationalism — self-described Christians lose their religion quick.

This week has represented a madder-than-usual dash away from Jesus. With few exceptions, the same people who have been telling us for years that evolution is bad, same-sex marriage is worse and abortion is the actual worst because Jesus said so are now being forced to explain why, when it comes to accepting refugees fleeing violence and repression, the Bible is just a parable.

Take a look at these passages from the Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway, who has carved out a niche in the blogosphere as an authority on the evil, immoral, un-Christian impulses of Planned Parenthood:

Jesus, presumably telling someone to chill out and think for themselves, via Wikimedia Commons

Jesus, presumably telling someone to chill out and think for themselves, via Wikimedia Commons

The media aren’t known for their friendliness to Christian beliefs, so it was surprising to see some reporters attempt biblical exegesis of their preferred domestic policies. As Hans Fiene has explained in “The Christmas Story Is About Christ, Not Obama’s Syrian Refugee Policy,” the Christmas story is about Jesus Christ, not Obama’s Syrian refugee policy. Reasons he cites include that Mary and Joseph were not foreigners in Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph were not refugees, Mary and Joseph were most likely not denied room at a hotel, and, most importantly, the Christmas story is not a morality tale about hospitality.

Christians are to help others in need, but that doesn’t mean all Christian policies should be U.S. policies. And I’m kind of surprised at how many people are suggesting otherwise — or at least suggesting that U.S. policy should be Christian moral law. It’s certainly a different tune than what you hear when it comes to certain other hot button political topics (including those with far more biblical clarity).

The thing is: she’s right. All Christian policies shouldn’t be U.S. policies. We shouldn’t need the Bible to tell us whether to accept Syrian refugees. Of course, that isn’t the point liberals are making when they invoke scripture to point out that, if faced with the question, Jesus would absolutely accept as many Syrian refugees as he possibly could.

The point is that the Bible isn’t a guide for public policy at all. We can play (and have played) the “actually, the Bible agrees with me” game on abortion, same-sex marriage and gun control, too. It doesn’t mean that I’m in favor of abortion access, same-sex marriage and gun control because the Bible says so. It means that I’m in favor of those things because I think they’re good ideas for secular reasons, and I think it’s silly to have them dismissed because you can point to a passage in a book that says otherwise. That’s the “Lucille says you’re wrong” argument, and those who rely on it deserve to have it thrown back at them so they can see how ridiculous it is.

Accepting Syrian refugees is the right thing to do because helping people in need is the right thing to do. Especially if they’re trying to escape a violent, hellish situation that we played a big role in creating. What’s more, on top of being cruel and indifferent, rejecting refugees makes no sense given the baselessness of the threat we are told they pose. As President Obama said yesterday, we face a bigger threat from tourists than we do from refugees, who already go through an insanely rigorous screening process.

Also, this:

Ted Cruz wants you (to pray for him)! Fri, 20 Nov 2015 13:52:44 +0000 Ted Cruz announced yesterday that he is putting together a “national prayer team,” which will send him good Christian vibes as he navigates the campaign trail.

From the New York Times:

Mr. Cruz, who has aggressively courted the support of evangelicals, said the creation of the team would “establish a direct line of communication between our campaign and the thousands of Americans who are lifting us up before the Lord.”

Group members will receive emails containing prayer requests and a short devotional every week, the campaign said. They will also be invited to take part in a 20-minute “prayer conference call” each Tuesday.

I mean, on its face I guess this is fine. How a candidate chooses to tap Evangelical voters is their own prerogative. In 2010, the campaign I worked for had a “tithing” program, where one day a week we took time off from the campaign trail and organized a community service event. It was quasi-religious and it was decent politics, but at least the upshot was that a food bank or Habitat for Humanity got a few extra sets of hands.

But of course, this isn’t like that: Ted Cruz is tapping into a particular flavor of Christianity that is less about helping your neighbor and more about scolding them. This fierce advocate for “religious liberty” has yet to distance himself from Kevin Swanson, the pastor who thinks that we should kill gays in public (but only after they’ve had a chance to repent) and who hosted Ted Cruz at a conference earlier this month — a conference at which Cruz said that non-believers aren’t fit to be president.

With that in mind, it’s very clear that when Cruz talks about our right to religious freedom, he isn’t talking about me. He’s talking about him and his supporters’ right to be placed at the top of the cultural hierarchy. Placing Evangelical Christians at the top of his campaign’s hierarchy is only part of that picture (to be clear, Cruz is by no means alone in the Republican primary in doing so).

There are a number of different ways to incorporate religion into your campaign, and every candidate (even the secular/Jewish Bernie Sanders) will find a way to do so. But it’s at least worth noting that Cruz, who spends quite a bit of time talking about “religious liberty,” has made Christianity — not “Judeo-Christian” values — central to his case for the presidency. He’s angling to pick up Donald Trump’s voters when (if) those voters realize that Trump is lying when he says he hearts the Bible. That requires winking and nodding to the First Amendment’s religious protections while rather openly claiming religious supremacy.

Sounds like he’ll be doing some winking and nodding every Tuesday.

Donald Trump doubles down on fascism, “would certainly implement” Muslim database Fri, 20 Nov 2015 13:00:57 +0000 In case you thought you had somehow read too much into it when Donald Trump wouldn’t rule out implementing a database of all Muslims in the United States, Trump ruled it in yesterday:

Asked by NBC News if he thinks we need a database system for tracking Muslims in the United States — citizens and non-citizens alike — Trump said that he “would certainly implement” that kind of database, among others, adding that Muslims would “have to be” legally obligated to register with such a database.

“There should be a lot of systems, beyond databases,” he added, although he didn’t elaborate as to exactly what he meant. Although he still hasn’t ruled out requiring a special ID for Muslims — something you would almost certainly need to include in order to effectively track a minority population within your own borders — so maybe that’s still on the table. Until he says it isn’t, he’s going to keep getting asked. And the longer he goes without saying no, the more of a yes his silence becomes.

NBC’s reporter followed up to ask how requiring Muslims to register with the government would be any different from Nazi Germany requiring Jews to register under the Nuremberg Laws. Trump had no answer, simply saying “you tell me” to the reporter four times in a row. He also didn’t respond when asked if there would be legal consequences for Muslims who didn’t register for said database.

But wouldn’t there have to be? And wouldn’t the enforcement mechanism have to be monumentally invasive, requiring a degree of authoritarianism that would amount to actual fascism? While Trump chalked his entire implementation strategy as simply “good management,” it’s hard to see how you get from Point A to Point B here without some kind of federal enforcement agency (the FBI?) going from mosque to mosque forcing Muslims to sign up, matching their records with social media and other databases to see if any self-described Muslims hadn’t voluntarily added their names.

In other words, it’d be a full-on 21st Century Inquisition.

What’s more, as the Southern Baptist Convention’s Russell Moore told Buzzfeed yesterday, this isn’t the kind of power you want to give to an executive — no matter how specifically-targeted the power is initially. Said Moore, speaking to Trump’s proposal of shutting down mosques associated with terrorist threats, “Evangelicals should recognize that any president who would call for shutting down houses of worship … is the sort of political power that can ultimately shut down evangelical churches.”

As I wrote yesterday, until Donald Trump pays some kind of electoral price, he’s going to continue openly calling for more and more extreme forms of Muslim persecution. As it stands right now, however, it’s hard to imagine that any of his Republican opponents stand up and call him out for the Mussolini knockoff that he is. If the median American voter has told us one thing this week, it’s that they think xenophobia is bad, but Muslims are worse. If the median Republican voter has told us one thing this week, it’s that xenophobia is actually alright, and that they’d like to see more of it from their field of candidates.

Ted Cruz calls Obama administration support for trans teens “lunacy” Thu, 19 Nov 2015 19:10:14 +0000 In a radio interview on the conservative show Louder With Crowder, Ted Cruz took a brief aside from hate-mongering over Syrian refugees to get a dig in at the Obama administration for supporting a Virginia teen who is suing the state for the right to use the bathrooms corresponding to his gender identity.

Prompted by the host, Steven Crowder, who said of the Obama administration that “we’re talking about a generation of people who get offended if you use the genetically proper pronouns,” and therefore “getting to the point of calling something Islamic terrorism is a little further down the trail,” Cruz responded:

Look, these guys are so nutty that the federal government is going after school districts, trying to force them to let boys shower with little girls. Now listen: I’m the father of two daughters, and the idea that the federal government is coming in saying that boys, with all the god-given equipment of boys, can be in the shower room with junior high girls – this is lunacy! …You know, the funny thing is, my five-year-old knows there’s a difference between boys and girls. And yet modern Leftists can’t figure that out.

Here’s the video:

The irony here is that trans teens are acutely aware of the difference between being a boy and being a girl, and how harmful it is when people like Ted Cruz insist they’re wrong. These aren’t boys trying to sneak into girls bathrooms for the view — although it seems as though Cruz has certainly had that idea himself. In the Virginia case, which Cruz was responding to, the teen is fighting for the right to use the boy’s bathroom! Because they identify as a boy! Pearl-clutching over a hormonal rape-fest in the girl’s locker room has absolutely nothing to do with the issue at hand.

But it sure does turn the god- (and trans-) fearing Christians out to vote.

(h/t Buzzfeed)

Kentucky Governor Beshear hints at executive action on voting rights for non-violent felons Thu, 19 Nov 2015 17:18:58 +0000 Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear only has a few more months left in office before governor-elect Matt Bevin takes over, and he may have a few good moves left in him before he goes. From Insider Louisville:

Steve Beshear, via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Steve Beshear, via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

For over a decade, activists in Kentucky have pushed for a constitutional amendment that would automatically restore the voting rights of over 100,000 nonviolent felons who have completed their sentences, as the state is one of the few remaining to not do so. While the popular legislation has been continually blocked in the state Senate, outgoing Gov. Steve Beshear hinted in an interview Tuesday that he is considering taking executive action in the next week to address the issue.

Asked by Insider Louisville if he is considering a blanket pardon for Kentucky’s former nonviolent felons — as groups such as Kentuckians for the Commonwealth are hoping for — Beshear said he would make an announcement soon on the restoration of rights process, but he was not ready to reveal the specifics.

Kentucky’s House of Representatives has passed legislation that would have amended the constitution to allow for automatic rights restoration for non-violent felons on numerous occasions, but that legislation has been stalled in the State Senate. The Sentencing Project estimates that over 243,000 Kentuckians have had their right to vote taken away due to a felony conviction, and 180,000 of them have completed their sentence. A majority of those 180,000 were convicted for non-violent offenses.

In commenting on the proposed policy, Beshear certainly gave the impression that he would move to expand voting rights. As he said yesterday:

A lot of states have made it automatic, and we ought to make it automatic, honestly…When you’ve served your time out and you’ve paid your restitution and all that, and you’re trying to become a productive member of society again, part of your integration back into society is the right to vote. It’s just a basic right that you ought to have, assuming you’ve paid your debt.

It’s also worth noting that Governor-elect Matt Bevin has spoken in favor of automatic rights restoration, as well, suggesting that it wouldn’t even be all that controversial from a political standpoint if Beshear were to act unilaterally.

Nationally, the Sentencing Project estimates that 5.85 million citizens were disenfranchised due to felony convictions as of 2012. 2.2 million of them are black. Put another way, African-Americans represent 38% of disenfranchised felons while accounting for just 13% of the American population. And it’s not as if there’s any evidence that felon disenfranchisement serves any law enforcement purpose. If anything, it alienates felons from society.

While it would require legislation in order to change Kentucky’s overarching policy toward restoration of rights for felons, Beshear would be within his authority as governor to pardon people who have completed their sentences, thereby restoring their right to vote. Future felons would still be disenfranchised, but over 100,000 people would be put back on the voter rolls after having “paid their debt to society,” so to speak.

Felon disenfranchisement remains one of the greatest restrictions on ballot access in the United States, although restoration of rights has become more politically viable in recent years. In Virginia, Governor Terry McAuliffe recently removed the requirement that ex-felons pay all outstanding court fees before being allowed to vote again — a major impediment to many ex-felons who were seeking to have their voting rights restored.

Rights restoration is a tough issue politically because the people who stand to benefit from it are, by definition, not allowed to vote in favor of politicians who would enact it. So for a very long time, the continued disenfranchisement of felons was a no-lose issue for politicians who wanted to brush up on their “tough on crime” credentials, and rights restoration was a no-win proposition for politicians who would otherwise be favorably disposed toward expanding ballot access. But now that voting rights are becoming an increasingly partisan issue, and the drastic racial and economic disparities in ballot access are being made more plain, voting rights advocates are gaining momentum in the push for rights restoration in a number of states. President Obama, for his part, has come out in favor of rights restoration.

So fingers crossed that Beshear waves his executive wand and does the right thing here. There’s no good reason for felons who have completed their sentence to still be barred from the electoral process. Given the steady reddening of the state, executive actions such as this one may be the only way for them to get their rights back for a long time.

Donald Trump won’t rule out mass surveillance, special IDs for Muslims Thu, 19 Nov 2015 15:13:36 +0000 Alright, it’s time to go there. Donald Trump just earned himself a Hitler comparison.

In a lengthy interview with Yahoo News, Trump promised to deport Syrian refugees who are already in this country, doubled down on his promise to monitor mosques and, when pressed by Yahoo News as to what other drastic actions he would take, expressed an openness to warrantless and widespread surveillance on the general Muslim population:

Donald Trump's historical precedent, via Wikimedia Commons

Donald Trump’s historical precedent, via Wikimedia Commons

“We’re going to have to do things that we never did before. And some people are going to be upset about it, but I think that now everybody is feeling that security is going to rule,” Trump said. “And certain things will be done that we never thought would happen in this country in terms of information and learning about the enemy. And so we’re going to have to do certain things that were frankly unthinkable a year ago.”

Yahoo News asked Trump whether this level of tracking might require registering Muslims in a database or giving them a form of special identification that noted their religion. He wouldn’t rule it out.

Trump didn’t elaborate on whether the “form of special identification” could be, say, a yellow crescent that every Muslim would be required to sew into their clothing. But he may as well have. I’m a big proponent of reserving Hitler comparisons for the most extreme circumstances, but this is one of them. Donald Trump just pulled a policy proposal straight out of the Nuremberg Laws.

What’s more, unless he’s called on it, he’s going to say something worse tomorrow. Since the attacks in Paris, Trump has been inching further and further toward advocating for open fascism. First he said we should “seriously consider” closing mosques associated with extreme clerics. When that claim didn’t hurt him, he went a step further, saying we have “absolutely no choice” but to close them. He’s going to keep going back to the anti-Muslim bigotry well until the Republican base signals for him to stop. And they’ve shown no intention of doing so.

Yesterday, we heard an elected official say that Japanese internment wasn’t actually that bad of an idea. Now we have the frontrunner for the Republican nomination seriously considering a policy that was one of the defining characteristics of pre-war Nazi Germany. All over a contrived threat and an irrational bout of Islamophobia.

America needs to chill the hell out. This is going south fast.

Duane Carridge, Ben Carson’s anti-Ben Carson foreign policy adviser, is bad news Thu, 19 Nov 2015 13:47:51 +0000 Remember Duane Carridge? The foreign policy adviser for Ben Carson’s campaign who went on the record with the New York Times to say that “Nobody has been able to sit down with him and have him get one iota of intelligent information about the Middle East”? Well, Carson’s campaign distanced themselves from him by, in effect, calling him a senile old fool who doesn’t really have a role in the campaign. But today, the Times is reporting that Carridge had a hand in crafting Carson’s off-the-wall-bonkers op-ed in the Washington Post, which Carson very clearly didn’t write himself, but which nevertheless outlines “his” strategy for how he would eliminate the Islamic State.

Here’s an excerpt:

We have in place both the technical and legal capabilities to prohibit the widespread dissemination of hate-based propaganda disguised as religious teaching. We can monitor social media by expanding the search algorithms already in place to safeguard against inappropriate behavior, including religious hate speech. Once flagged, we can notify platform providers and encourage them to censor communications (and block users) that violate the terms of constructive discourse. The hacker group Anonymous has already provided a model for accomplishing this. We should use every tool at our disposal to root out and destroy the global online recruitment efforts of these extremist organizations. We must not allow their macabre murder videos and threats to be promoted anywhere.

Setting aside the fact that our government already engages in this kind of mass surveillance, and already works with social media networks in counterterrorism efforts, the idea is particularly unsettling coming from Carson given that he considers “religious hate speech” to include any criticism — polite or otherwise — of fundamentalist Christianity. Furthermore, Anonymous may have declared “war” on the Islamic State, but thus far all they have done is shut down Twitter accounts. That’s great, but shutting down Twitter accounts isn’t much more than an online game of whack-a-mole. And again, our government is already doing it.

However, broadly speaking, if Carridge is still playing a role in Carson’s campaign, it may be worth taking a look at just what kind of foreign policy expertise he’s bringing to the table. After all, he’s got an extensive resume — one that’s either impressive or disastrous, depending on how you feel about American imperialism.

That’s because Carridge was the head of CIA operations in Latin America during the first three years of the Reagan administration — years that we generally look back on as a time when we weren’t exactly a force for good in the world. Although to hear Carridge tell it, that’s fine as long as America got what it wanted:

Contras, via Wikimedia Commons

Contras, via Wikimedia Commons

Under Carridge’s watch, the United States toppled democratic regimes and installed puppet governments across Central and South America. He is directly or indirectly responsible for what could reasonably be construed as war crimes across the region — including but not limited to death squads in Chile under Pinochet. Following his exit from Latin America, the United States was forced to pay reparations to Nicaragua after being found guilty by the International Court of Justice at the Hague of illegally mining Nicaragua’s harbors, which was Carridge’s idea. He was also instrumental in recruiting and organizing the Contras in an attempt to overthrow the democratically-elected Sandinista government in Nicaragua, and later received a pardon from President George H.W. Bush before his trial for perjury over his role in the Iran-Contra scandal could be completed.

As the New York Times wrote in a 2011 profile of Carridge, who by then was operating his own private intelligence service, “From his days running secret wars for the C.I.A. in Central America to his consulting work in the 1990s on a plan to insert Special Operations troops in Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein, Mr. Clarridge has been an unflinching cheerleader for American intervention overseas.”

It’s a common refrain in presidential politics for candidates who are clearly out of their depth on a given issue to say they’ll “hire the right people” and “get good advisors” to supplement their knowledge in areas where their experience is thin. But it’s hard for Carson to make that case when the advice he’s getting is likely worse than getting no advice at all. Duane Carridge is bad news. If he says you don’t know anything about foreign policy, consider it a compliment.