AMERICAblog News A great nation deserves the truth // One of America's top progressive sites for news and opinion Thu, 02 Oct 2014 01:13:56 +0000 en-US hourly 1 2nd possible Ebola case in US, 5 kids possibly exposed Wed, 01 Oct 2014 20:12:53 +0000 An update on yesterday’s story about the first case of Ebola diagnosed in the United States.

According to news reports, the man is from Liberia, and was simply visiting the US.

The man has been identified as Thomas Eric Duncan.

UPDATE: Good news, his condition was upgraded to serious from critical, today.

At the same time, there are reports of a suspected possible second case of Ebola in the US.

And there are concerns that the first patient could have possibly exposed five children to the disease. The children attend four different schools, and are now being monitored.

Symptoms of Ebola, by Mikael Häggström.

Symptoms of Ebola, by Mikael Häggström.

In total, officials are reportedly monitoring 12 to 18 people, including 3 members of the ambulance team that transported the man to the hospital.

The Washington Post has an interesting article up about why passengers from west Africa are still permitted to travel to the US. The Post reports that not only are travel bans not very effective, or necessary, but in fact travel restrictions might make it harder to fight the disease.

Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone are already economically isolated because this epidemic has spread far wider and lasted much longer than any other Ebola outbreak in history. What those countries need most now is assistance from the world.

More flight restrictions will only make it more difficult for life-saving aid and medical professionals to reach West Africa. The restrictions already in place have proved so problematic that U.S. military forces are building an “air bridge” to get health workers and medical supplies to affected areas.

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Sex, death and what banning books teaches our kids Wed, 01 Oct 2014 16:00:59 +0000 It’s 2014. Does anyone really think they can ban a book and come out the hero?

The Riverside Unified School District in California banned The Fault in Our Stars — written by my namesake-sharing, fellow Kenyon College alumnus John Green — from its middle schools last week.

The decision was made in a 6-1 vote by the district’s Orwellian-named “Book Reconsideration Committee,” because apparently “book reconsideration committees” are things that actually exist outside of the first draft of 1984.

Yes, the Riverside School District has a formal process by which books can be banned.

Since 1988, the committee has reconsidered 37 books, and only two — The Fault in Our Stars; and The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier — have ever been taken off the shelves.

Clearly a dangerous man.

Clearly a dangerous man.

Members of the district’s school board, who you would think would have the final say before decisions like this are made, have responded with collectively incoherent statements ranging from: a) insisting they didn’t know the book was being considered for blacklisting; to b) wanting to revisit the issue; to c) deferring to the decision made by the middle school’s literary politburo.

Green, for his part, had this to say:

I guess I am both happy and sad.

I am happy because apparently young people in Riverside, California will never witness or experience mortality since they won’t be reading my book, which is great for them.

But I am also sad because I was really hoping I would be able to introduce the idea that human beings die to the children of Riverside, California and thereby crush their dreams of immortality.

It would be easy enough to leave the story there, but the story doesn’t end with Riverside.

School districts ban books deemed too mature, sexual, explicit, graphic or otherwise inappropriate every year, most often at the behest of parents. Along with Stars, John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines, Paper Towns and Looking for Alaska have also faced challenges from other districts in recent years, making Green the fourth most-challenged author in 2013.

And just in case there were any misconceptions about these challenges being anything other than prudish, absurd and arbitrary, the most-challenged author last year — and it wasn’t even close — was Dav Pilkey, author of the Captain Underpants series.

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Most of the books I’ve mentioned so far were more-banned than 50 Shades of Grey — a book notable for both its poor writing and semi-rapey BDSM scenes — so let’s not pretend like these decisions are based on promoting educational reading or systematic arbitration of appropriate content and themes.

No, these are the decisions made, in many if not most cases, by parents who want to stunt their kids education because they’re afraid of what might happen if they grow up. And you don’t grow up by reading 50 Shades of Grey; you grow up by laughing at, crying over, and grappling with ideas and themes that make you stop and think, whether it’s a bald fat man in tightey-whiteys fighting crime as a superhero or the notion that sometimes life will hurt, and eventually it will end.

It’s no coincidence that many of the parents who push for their kids to be shielded from certain icky, cootie-filled books often homeschooled their kids through elementary school, as was the case when a parent got The Fault in Our Stars taken off of a summer reading list in a Tampa Bay school district.

It’s also no coincidence that these parents overlap to a significant degree with the folks who opt their kids out of sex ed.

And it’s definitely no coincidence that the state with by far the most book challenges, Texas, is also the state pushing the hardest to put creationism in the science classroom.

You know who else thought books were dangerous? (Courtesy of the German Federal Archive via Wikipedia.)

You know who else thought books were dangerous? (Courtesy of the German Federal Archive via Wikipedia.)

They’re deathly afraid that their kids might snicker at some toilet humor. Or have an emotional reaction to death. Or become aware that they have genitals. Or, heaven *literally* forbid, experience independent thought that might, just might, lead them to question their (parents’) faith.

As a parenting practice, I can’t really object. You can homeschool your child and try as hard as you want to prevent them from being exposed to ideas you don’t like. But public school is a microcosm of the community you’re set to enter as an adult, and kids — humans, really — learn as much from their social or otherwise extracurricular environments as they do from formal practice. They’re paying closer attention to the novels they choose to keep by their bed than they are to the textbooks we put in their backpacks. That puts banning a #1 New York Times Bestseller and the most popular young adult novel in the country nearly (but not quite) on par with passing off creationism as biology.

Reading The Fault in Our Stars may teach your kids that teenagers dig sex, and sometimes they die for unrelated and unfair reasons. Banning The Fault in Our Stars teaches them that if someone’s ideas make them uncomfortable, it’s perfectly alright to whine and ruin it for everyone else.

If your middle schooler is already reading at a higher grade level than that, there’s no point in trying to parent at a lower one.

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“Boobs on the ground”: Fox host on female troops fighting ISIS Wed, 01 Oct 2014 14:00:11 +0000 A friend sent me this Jon Stewart clip from a few days ago, in which he discusses the GOP’s latest “treason” charge against President Obama: namely, that the President held a coffee cup while saluting.

We’d written about this previously, and about how President Bush also saluted the troops with something in his hand, in Bush’s case a dog.

But I hadn’t seen this video from Stewart, in which Fox Host Eric Bolling refers to a female air force pilot from the United Arab Emirates as “boobs on the ground.”

In fact, the pilot, Maj. Mariam Al Mansouri, led the UAE’s recent air strike against ISIS. That’s pretty incredible social progress for anywhere, let alone that region.

But leave it to Fox News to turn a brave military mission against terrorists into a discussion of breasts.

On a decent television network, let alone a “new” network, you’d lose your job for a comment like that. But not on the Republican “news” channel.

Here’s Jon Stewart, covering this and the larger “story.” He was pretty ticked, and at one point even told Fox News: “F— you, and all your false patriotism.”

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How contagious is Ebola really? Wed, 01 Oct 2014 12:00:59 +0000 The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has confirmed that a patient in the US has Ebola. It seemed timely to have a discussion of just how contagious Ebola really is.

As you probably already know, other American Ebola patients have already been flown back to the US for treatment, but they were brought in under conditions of quarantine. This patient traveled back from Africa (Liberia) on a commercial flight, arriving on September, 20th. He was asymptomatic while traveling.

Ebola can only be transmitted when the patient is displaying symptoms. The patient developed Ebola symptoms on September 24th, four days after returning to the US.

Upon developing symptoms, the patient sought treatment on September 26th. He was treated and sent home. When his symptoms continued, he went to a local hospital in Dallas on Sunday, September 28. He was admitted and placed in “strict quarantine” per the hospital.

Specimens were taken to test for Ebola, and sent to he CDC and a Texas State Health Department laboratory. Both sites showed that he has Ebola based on highly specific tests.

A sign warns visitors that area is a Ebola infected. Signage informing visitors that it is a ebola infected area. September 27, 2013, Congo, Africa. Sergey Uryadnikov /

A sign warns visitors that area is a Ebola infected. Signage informing visitors that it is a ebola infected area. September 27, 2013, Congo, Africa. Sergey Uryadnikov /

Since the patient had symptoms for four days before being admitted, the possibility exists that some family members could have become infected if they came into contact with body fluids from the patient.

The CDC estimates that there may be “a handful” of people who could be exposed and potentially develop Ebola. Additionally, health care workers at the first treating facility will be tracked and monitored. The epidemiologists have interviewed family members and are working on locating and interviewing others with whom the patient may have had contact. At this time, none of the contacts are symptomatic. All contacts will be monitored for 21 days.

Remember that Ebola is not transmitted via the airborne route as something like influenza virus is. Patrick Sawyer, for example, flew into Lagos, Nigeria, symptomatic with Ebola. He was feverish and vomiting on the flight. Yet, only one other person on the flight developed Ebola – that was Sawyer’s personal assistant who had been traveling with him for days. His assistant might have even gotten Ebola from the same source as Sawyer.

If Ebola could be spread via airborne transmission, I’d expect dozens of people on that flight, and members of the crew and cleaning crew, to have gotten Ebola. That didn’t happen. And in any case, the Dallas patient wasn’t symptomatic with Ebola when he flew.

Epidemiologists from the CDC are en route to Dallas. They will coordinate with the hospital and public health agencies in Texas. Dr. Thomas Frieden, Director of the CDC, and Texas public health officials did a press briefing on this case of Ebola. Dr. Freiden says that he is quite confident that Ebola can be contained in the area. He stressed that, as long as the outbreak continues in Africa, we need to be vigilant and have a high index of suspicion that Ebola could be present in people who have returned from West Africa within the last 21 days, or health care workers who could have had contacts with Ebola patients.

Dr. Freiden stated that the patient can be treated adequately in Texas. He emphasized that any hospital that can isolate a patient in a private room with its own bathroom, and use basic isolation precautions (hand washing, mask, goggles, gown, gloves, limiting visitors, keeping a log of visitors, etc.) can care for Ebola patients.
Patients would also need to be treated symptomatically for dehydration, shock and other problems that Ebola may cause.

Ebola is much more difficult to treat in developing countries than is it in more developed areas. For example, the clinics and hospitals in Africa where Ebola patients are treated are basically large rooms filled with many patients. There are few doctors and nurses, hundreds to treat million of people. Isolation equipment and supplies are limited. There is often no running water, electricity or adequate sanitation. IV fluids, necessary to treat severe dehydration, are at a premium. Many workers have only limited training and experience using isolation techniques. Transportation may be primitive or lacking. Advanced medical techniques (dialysis, ventilators, etc.) are not available. There are difficulties communicating with and educating the local people. Medical infrastructure is poor. Tracking contacts of Ebola patients is often hit-or-miss. These, and other factors, can easily contribute to high mortality and continued spread of the disease in Africa.

In the US and other developed nations, almost all of these problems don’t exist. Most hospitals would have no problems with handling isolation and intensive medical treatment. The local health departments could handle tracking, reporting, monitoring and education. There are many more physicians, nurses and allied health personnel available. Laboratories are ready to test patient samples.

The upshot is that containing and treating Ebola in a developed nation will be easier that it would be in areas like Africa. That doesn’t mean that Ebola isn’t dangerous – it is. But it can be controlled.

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Ebola now in the US, first case confirmed by CDC Tue, 30 Sep 2014 21:14:16 +0000 The CDC has confirmed that a man in a Dallas hospital has Ebola, CBS News is reporting.

I’ve been able to find nothing posted by the CDC publicly.

Apparently the man had been in west Africa recently — Liberia, to be exact — where there’s been a rather large outbreak of Ebola. He’s been in strict isolation as soon as the hospital suspected Ebola.

According to the CDC press conference, the man left Liberia on the 19th of Septemnber. Arrived in the US on the 20th of September. Had no symptoms, but then around the 24th of September, began to develop symptoms. Sought care on the 26th. And then Sunday the 28th admitted to a hospital and placed in isolation.

He was admitted into isolation on Sunday.

The CDC director, Dr. Thomas Frieden, says that Ebola is not contagious until you have symptoms.

CNN says that while this is spread through bodily fluids, if you shook hands with this man between the 24th and the day he went to the hospital, you would have to be put into isolation for three weeks. Wow.

The good news is that he had no symptoms until long after he arrived in the US, so at least people on his flight are safe.

The Ebola virus, courtesy of Shutterstock

The Ebola virus, courtesy of Shutterstock

The hospital announced last night that it had a patient suspected of possibly having Ebola:

ARLINGTON, Texas — Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas has admitted a patient into strict isolation to be evaluated for potential Ebola Virus Disease (EVD), based on the patient’s symptoms and recent travel history.

The hospital is following all federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Texas Department of Heath recommendations to ensure the safety of patients, hospital staff, volunteers, physicians and visitors.

The CDC anticipates preliminary results tomorrow.

In the meantime, feel free to check our Ebola archives.

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GOP Senate group run by Sen. Moran lapses into 9/11 trutherism Tue, 30 Sep 2014 16:10:36 +0000 Will the Republican party’s lapse into 9/11 trutherism be covered by the mainstream media?

It probably should, no?

In a stunning development, the official Republican party organ in charge of whipping US Senate campaigns, the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), is using its Twitter account to promote the notion that 9/11 was an inside job.

The NRSC is chaired by Republican Senator Jerry Moran of Kansas.

NRSC Communications Director Brad Dayspring yesterday used his Twitter account to direct people to a GOP Web page that included the following absurdly-offensive assertion about the World Trade Center’s collapse on September 11, 2001:

“There’s some evidence that were charges planted in the buildings that brought them down.”

GOP Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas.

GOP Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas is the chair of the organization that lapsed into 9/11 trutherism.

In fact, there is no credible evidence that September 11 was an inside job.

And the accusation, in addition to being false, also tends to be anti-Semitic — it often is couched within another lie, that “New York Jews” were forewarned of the attacks, and that many of them didn’t show up to work at the World Trade Center that fateful day. It’s simply not true.

The GOP Web page which writes that “there’s some evidence that were charges planted in the buildings that brought them down” is run by America Rising, the lead GOP political action committee, launched last year by Mitt Romney’s former campaign manager, Matt Rhoades.

It is unclear at press time whether Mitt Romney agrees that 9/11 was an inside job, orchestrated by President Bush and Vice President Cheney, who then forewarned the Jews.

Now that I’ve had my fun, what’s really going on here is that the Republican party is desperate to take back the US Senate in this November’s election.

So, in order to beat the sitting Democratic Senator from Colorado, Mark Udall, the NRSC and America Rising decided to trump up a 9/11-truther charge against Udall.

How did they do it? The same way I trumped up the same charges against the NRSC and America Rising. They simply took a “quote” from the Senator, and asserted that he agreed with the substance of the quote because he repeated the quote.

Specifically, Udall was at a town meeting in 2007 when some nut job in the audience suggested that 9/11 was an inside job. Udall repeated the question, then rebutted it. Here’s Udall’s refutation, that the NRSC and America Rising don’t bother quoting:

UDALL: I would tell you this, I think we should exhaust every possibility to understand what happened whether there was a structural incident (INAUDIBLE) National Institute of Standards and Technology which we should all be very proud, it’s one of the federal (INAUDIBLE) driving our economy. They’ve been charged with investigating what happened to the steel beams and why the buildings came down. In my readings of their reports, I’ve seen nothing to suggests that there was that kind of pre-placed charges in the building. When it comes time (INAUDIBLE) asked the question. I have to tell you, my wife, public service as a private citizen, when conspiracy theories surface I almost always go first to the stupidity theory? and I think that the key point here is regardless how the buildings came down, we were attacked on 9/11, we were attacked.

But that wasn’t enough for the NRSC and America Rising. They used Udall’s quote of the quote as “proof” that he endorsed the substance of the quote.

Here’s the NRSC communications director:

Okay, I’m game. So the fact that America Rising quoted the quote of the quote, and that the NRSC is promoting America Rising’s Web page quoting the quote of the quote, is “proof” that both America Rising and the NRSC are “lapsing into 9/11 trutherism.”

I wonder what Mitt Romney has to say about his brush with 9/11 trutherism? Perhaps someone should ask him.

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“80% of all the income gains since start of recovery have gone to the top 20%” Tue, 30 Sep 2014 14:00:10 +0000 My final Five Questions interview was with economist Stephanie Kelton, chair of the Economics Department at UMKC and a leading light in the “Modern Monetary Theory” school. Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) is the school of economics that fully recognizes the nature of an economic system that is not based on “hard currency” — exactly the system we’re living with today.

MMT has much in common with David Graeber’s explanation of money in his seminal book DEBT: The First 5000 Years, though there are areas of divergence as well (that link is well worth a read, by the way). There’s a comment on Modern Monetary Theory immediately below. To jump directly to the interview, click here.

“I know you want roads, but where will the money come from?” — a primer

Economist Stephanie Kelton

Economist Stephanie Kelton

A simple question, for those of you curious about today’s money and where it comes from. When a bank loans you a dollar, it changes a number in your account. You can then spend it as cash, or transfer it to another person’s account. So, where did the bank get the money? Answer: It didn’t go anywhere to get it; the Federal Reserve gives it the power to just make it — in other words, to simply change that number. This is why the “money supply” constantly changes.

Seriously, think about that. The Fed doesn’t “print” most of your money — just the money in your pocket, in case you want cash. But is most of your “money” in cash? Is 10% of your “money” in cash? 2%? Or is most of your “money” just a number next to your account number? Banks don’t need “money” to change that number; just permission.

Now apply that idea to government purchases, and you understand why this unrecognized (and politically inconvenient, for both parties) truth is true:

According to modern monetary theory, “governments with the power to issue their own currency are always solvent, and can afford to buy anything for sale in their domestic unit of account[.]“

Bottom line, a government that creates its own currency is always solvent — never broke, by definition — and can have as much of it as it wants, so long as inflation is not excessive (which is entirely true today, and has been true since the 1970s). Think about that when some politician, of either party, tells you:

“Yes, you can have X (retirement benefits; better roads), but where will the money come from? After all, you have to ‘pay for it’ somehow. You have to take the money from somewhere.”

No. You don’t. And the proof? The Pentagon never has to “pay for it somehow” by taking the money from “somewhere.” Never. We give them trillions a year, literally, and where does it come from? The same place your home loan came from. If the Pentagon wants a bomber, or 1000 of them, the government writes a check for a bomber and the entity whose account got credited — Raytheon, say, or Boeing — sends one over. The money to buy it never comes from “somewhere else.” And notice — (a) we’re not broke. And (b) we still run the world, very comfortably so (for us).

What’s true for our military is true for our roads — so long as inflation is not excessive, which again, is entirely true today. So why do you have bad roads, but many excellent bombers? Because “they” — the people who decide what to buy — don’t want the roads, and they do want the bombers. That’s the only reason. If they wanted better roads, you’d have them.

But I digress. I’ll deal with the implications of this “inconvenient truth” — they are huge — in another piece. Now back to Dr. Kelton.

The interview

I interviewed Stephanie Kelton in a (thankfully) quiet room at Cobo Hall in Detroit during this year’s Netroots Nation. She was kind enough to make time during her busy visit to the convention. Listen by clicking below. A guide to the interview follows.

We began, as I did with all of my interviews this year, talking about climate. When I asked “Is there burnable carbon? Do we have a carbon budget we can ‘burn through’ and still be safe?” her answer was striking.

Her reply (a paraphrase) — “We better have a carbon budget, because it doesn’t look at all like we’re going to stop burning it. If there’s no budget left, it’s over.” I hadn’t considered that angle, that the existence of a “carbon budget” might be a blessing and not a curse — curse because it will give false security to the owners of burnable carbon.

(I disagree with that assessment, by the way. As regular readers know, I think there’s no burnable carbon, no budget; and also that it’s not over. But back to Ms. Kelton.)

We also discussed how to put the carbon industry out of business. At 7:40 we hit the phrase — “But these things are costly, so how are we going to pay for them?” That complaint comes up a lot, the “cost” of a climate fix. For the real answer, see above. For the other real answer, consider the cost of returning to hunter-gatherer status for the third age of man, the one where we revert to our uncivilized roots. Now choose which cost to pay.

The “why does 2016 matter?” question comes at 9:15. Her response is straight from the anti-“free market” playbook. Kelton is another economist who sees free-market conservatism and its twin, faux-leftie neoliberal privatization, as a destructive disaster. As Dr. Kelton says, we simply have to “throw overboard” the policies that got us where we are today. Her explanation of why is clear and cogent.

But the prize of the interview comes next. I asked two more questions. First, what would she do if she ran an FDR-style administration — one with FDR’s popular mandate and FDR’s “we’re with you, boss” Congress. I won’t preview the answer here, but it’s stunningly original, at least to me. That part starts at 12:38. If you listen to nothing else, click and jump to that point. It’s in this section, by the way that the headline quote appears:

“80% of all the income gains since start of recovery have gone to the top 20%. … We’ve just shoveling cash into wheelbarrows for these people. … What do they do with it? … They buy art.”

She has an answer to the fact that, sorry to say, those manufacturing jobs aren’t coming back. But not to worry. There is a solution, and the fast food workers are onto it. Her suggestion for even bigger change is so striking, though, that I’ll be expanding on it in the future.

Finally I asked (at 26:00) about her personal path, about what in her background and history brought her first to economics, and second to be “present at the birth” of Modern Monetary Theory. The answer is human and heart-warming. I couldn’t have manufactured a better close to my last interview of the convention.

The segment also includes this comment about Modern Monetary Theory:

“The MMT school is the ‘anti-austerity on steroids’ school. We’re not the sort of ‘soft left’ that says, ‘Well, austerity today is bad, but we’re going to need austerity sometime in the future’.”

In truth, we haven’t needed austerity since Jimmy Carter was president, if then. Keep the phrase “soft left that says, ‘Austerity today is bad, but we’re going to need austerity in the future'” firmly in mind. To coin a phrase, that truth “changes everything.” Again, for a quick look at the implications, click here.

This year’s previous Five Questions interviews also included Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison (here) and strategist Robert Cruickshank (here). I hope you enjoyed them all.


Twitter: @Gaius_Publius
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How modern politics killed compromise Tue, 30 Sep 2014 12:00:41 +0000 The following passage is from Amy Walter, writing for the Cook Political Report last week. She’s (rightly) worried that the absolutism demanded of campaigns is making sound governance impossible.

There’s a reason why the people who run campaigns are rarely the people responsible for implementing policy. The job of a campaign operative is to work in absolutes – you win or you lose, there’s no gray area. The job of a policy operative, of course, is to look for the gray, to look for solutions within the increasingly narrowing options of our polarized political system.

However, the way one wins a campaign ultimately determines how an incumbent and his/her party can (or cannot) legislate. And, the way that both sides have boxed themselves in on tough issues like immigration, entitlements, and climate change on the campaign trail ultimately leaves little room for any meaningful compromise in a 2015 Congress.

There are two problems with ending the argument there.

First, the reasons why campaigns demand hard-line absolutes aren’t new by any means. Good/bad binaries have always been and will continue to be easier to package into information that voters understand and respond to than qualified gray areas.

Second, Congress used to have a number of institutional norms and mechanisms that served to counteract scorched-earth madness of the campaign trail. Their absence, along with a few other things, have been the real contributors to compromise’s decline.

Campaigns and their consequences have always been polarized

Throughout America’s political history, campaigns have always been nasty, and their consequences have always been partisan. Here are a few examples:

1800: The very first presidential campaign featuring nominees from two opposing political parties pitted the Federalists’ John Adams against the Democratic-Republicans’ Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson called Adams a tyrant (not-so-subtly alluding to King George) and Adams called Jefferson an atheist. Jefferson won, and the first thing his new Democratic-Republican congressional majority did was repeal and replace the Federalists’ law concerning the organization of the nation’s court system.

1860: In an election that hinged on the most polarizing issue in the history of our democracy, slavery, the Democrats pointed to Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech as evidence that he was a secret abolitionist (they also called him a “black Republican“). At the time, he didn’t meet the definition of abolitionist since he was fine with slavery remaining legal in the states that already had it, but it didn’t matter to his political opponents who wanted to scare anyone who was in any way squeamish about freeing African-Americans. Lincoln won, leading the Democratic South to break the tenuous legislative truce it had struck with the Republican rest-of-the-country over slavery, and the rest is history.

Not for nothing, doesn’t the “secret abolitionist” barb sound an awful lot like Republicans’ rhetoric on immigration reform (sorry, “amnesty“) on steroids?

1920: As argued by Professor Jeffrey Tullis in his book, The Rhetorical Presidency, you can trace the steady diet of red meat the American electorate is fed every year all the way back to the Progressive Era, which came to a head with the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. The Progressive Movement was marked by absolutist stances on women’s suffrage and the progressive income tax (which we can safely say were good) and Prohibition (not so good) — all three of which culminated in Constitutional amendments (compromise legislation be damned). While the movement included presidents from both political parties, the escalation in rhetoric was so stark that, by the end of Wilson’s presidency it had made it difficult for him to effectively communicate with Congress, which was tired of him making grandiose claims to the public that he couldn’t back up when it was time to actually hash out new policies.

1950: McCarthyism. Need I say more?

All this is to say that raging political rhetoric — mostly during but not limited to campaign season — is nothing new in this country. When we scratch our heads wondering why Congress can’t get anything done, one thing we can rule out is the notion that 21st Century American discourse is particularly rigid and nasty compared to other eras.

There are plenty of other reasons why compromise is dead

Instead, there are a few things that have changed in the last couple of decades that go much farther in explaining why our current batch of representatives can’t agree on anything:

The end of pork: One of the easiest attack lines in American politics — “pork barrel project” — is also the reason behind any major piece of compromise legislation. Without pork, members of Congress have no incentive to vote for bills that are in the national interest but not in theirs. Perhaps most famously, Lyndon Johnson may not have been able to pass the Civil Rights Act had he not thrown his support behind the Central Arizona Water Project in exchange for Democratic Senator Carl Hayden’s vote.

GOP House Speaker John Boehner.

GOP House Speaker John Boehner.

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The process that’s been called “political grease” for the legislative wheels was curtailed in 2010 by the new Republican majority in the House. Since their official ban on pork (although they still indulge when it suits them), legislative deals have been ground to a screeching halt. The problem is in part ideological, but it’s also very much political: with nothing on the table, there’s no incentive to bargain. In 2006, before House Republicans came to Jesus and banned members from voting in favor of bills containing earmarks, pork accounted for about one percent of the budget. That’s a small price to pay for being able to agree on the other 99 percent of it.

As perhaps the most famous (infamous?) solicitor of pork spending, former Senator Robert Byrd (D – WV) said, “potholes know no party.

The conclusion of party realignment: I caught some heat a while back for suggesting that “While Democrats have kinda moved to the left over the years; Republicans have lurched to the right.” Readers took issue with the whole Democrats kinda moving to the left thing, because corporatism. But the metric used to make that statement — the DW-Nominate score — is revealing: Democrats haven’t moved to the left because the American liberal has moved to the left; the Democratic Party has moved to the left because a bunch of Southern, conservative members have literally left the organization; and those former Democrats all became rabidly conservative Republicans. The Democrats who stayed didn’t get more liberal, they just constituted an ever-increasing proportion of the party, hence the party becoming more liberal in its (relative) voting patterns.

And since I wrote those damning words, polarization has continued to increase year over year.

The party realignment, which has its roots in the New Deal, scaled after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and was kicked into high gear by Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy in 1972, is only now reaching completion. The Blue Dog Coalition — predominantly Southern Democrats who share the closest relation to pre-1960s fiscal conservatism/states’ rights Democrats — now lists just 15 members. The realignment looks to continue this year, as red-state Democrats such as Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mark Begich of Alaska and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana are all underdogs in their respective reelection bids. On the other side of the realignment, there are currently no Republican House members from the New England region, and only 17 House Republicans represent districts won by President Obama in 2012. That’s down from 79 Republicans in 1995 who represented districts President Clinton won in 1992.

And without pork, which crosses party lines to localize federal elections, the way in which a state or district votes for their representative is more likely to mirror how it votes for President. Not only does this mean that red-state Democrats and blue-state Republicans are going to continue to be a dying breed, this lowers the overall incentive for compromise. Since the electorate is more polarized, Congress will be, too.

The better-matched ideology is with party, the less likely compromise becomes. The current trend has nothing to do with partisan rhetoric and everything to do with organizational membership and geography.

The voting filibuster: Our current Congress is on pace to pass fewer laws than any Congress since 1948, and part of the problem is procedural: the talking filibuster was far less effective than the cloture vote in gumming up the Senate’s works. Until relatively recently, filibusters went like this: someone would want to block a piece of legislation; they would talk for as long as they could to delay a vote; eventually, either they would get tired of talking or a cloture vote would be held; and then they would stop talking and a real vote would occur.

Using cloture as a go-to political tool really is a modern phenomenon. For the first 90 years that cloture existed — 1917 to 2007 — no Senate ever held more than 100 cloture votes. In fact, until 1990, the number only went above 50 once (1987-88). Our current Senate is on pace to approach 200 cloture votes by the time it ends its business.

So while the rhetoric hasn’t changed all that much, the game absolutely has.

The commuting Congressmember: As I’ve written before, perhaps the most disastrous thing Newt Gingrich did as Speaker of the House, and he did many disastrous things, was to tell his caucus to go home to their districts on weekends instead of staying in Washington. When the members actually lived in DC, instead of having an apartment there for the week and commuting to their district for the weekends, it meant that their kids went to the same schools, their families knew each other and, consequentially, they wound up hanging out. And what do you talk about when you hang out with your work colleagues outside of work? Often enough, well, work. Those kinds of relationships were forged irrespective of partisan alliances; without them, Congressmembers have no opportunities to be friends with each other outside of intra-party caucusing. That makes for fights, not amicable disagreements.

Now we consider it both intriguing and odd when Ted Cruz and Cory Booker have dinner together. That used to be normal, and it made our democracy function better.

Compromises aren’t forged on C-SPAN, where any inch given is recorded and exploited for everyone to see. More often than we’d care to admit, compromises — or at least the goodwill that makes them possible — are forged over an alcohol-fueled debate at 9pm on a Saturday. Now that Congress spends their weekends commuting and, let’s be honest, pandering to their districts instead of having friendly debates with each other (the absurd amount of time they have to spend fundraising doesn’t help, either — and the lost time is more damaging than the money raised), the opportunities for those kinds of cross-partisan policymaking are nearly impossible to come by.

All of this isn’t to say that invective without nuance is helpful for our democracy. This is to say, however, that if you want to identify the causes behind the inability of Congress to pass the compromise legislation that the electorate says it wants, you’ve still got all of your work ahead of you when you say that “the way that both sides have boxed themselves in on tough issues” is the reason why nothing meaningful is likely to get done in the 114th United States Congress.

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Media: Obama was right about ISIS, but we’re mad at him anyway Mon, 29 Sep 2014 20:30:22 +0000 The media is very upset with President Obama today for telling “60 Minutes” something last night that the media admits is in fact true.

But, but, but… Obama!

You see, when asked about ISIS, the President said that the intelligence community underestimated the threat the terrorist organization posed to Iraq and Syria.

In response, not only did Fox News produce one of its usual propaganda pieces translated from the original Republican, but the Daily Beast did one too.

The thing is, both Fox and the Daily Beast admit that Obama was right, but then they blast him anyway.

First, here’s Fox:

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 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.

In the interview, Obama was asked how the Islamic State was able to gain so much territory. “Our head of the intelligence community Jim Clapper has acknowledged that I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria,” the president said.Clapper previously had admitted that U.S. analysts both underestimated the Islamic State, or ISIS, and “overestimated” the ability of the Iraqi army to fight them….

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., speaking on CNN, also said he’s “puzzled” by some of the president’s statements.

Oh, so the President was right. But John McCain is still puzzled by the truth. Yeah — when isn’t he?

Then we hear from Eli Lake at the Daily Beast, who’s written things I’ve actually liked in the past:

Obama specifically blamed James Clapper, the current director of national intelligence: “Our head of the intelligence community, Jim Clapper, has acknowledged that, I think, they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria,” he said.

Reached by The Daily Beast after Obama’s interview aired, one former senior Pentagon official who worked closely on the threat posed by Sunni jihadists in Syria and Iraq was flabbergasted. “Either the president doesn’t read the intelligence he’s getting or he’s bullshitting,” the former official said.

Clapper did tell The Washington Post’s David Ignatius this month that he underestimated the will of the ISIS fighters in Iraq and overestimated the ability of Iraq’s security forces in northern Iraq to counter ISIS. (He also said his analysts warned about the “prowess and capability” of the group.)

Still, other senior intelligence officials have been warning about ISIS for months.

So again, Obama was right.

Note that Lake goes on to say that some other intelligence officials, who were subordinate to Clapper, have been warning about ISIS for months. Yeah, and their boss believed otherwise. So, what is Lake suggesting exactly? That the President is supposed to ignore the advice of the head of the entire intelligence community because some staffer disagrees with him? (“Sorry James, but we’re invading Syria anyway cuz Joe the janitor is pissed.”)

It’s all well and good, and fair even, for the media and Fox News to ask why nothing was done about ISIS earlier. But to suggest that the “smoking gun” here is the President’s statement to “60 Minutes,” when both Fox and the Daily Beast then admit that the President’s comments were in fact accurate, is bizarre.

The issue here isn’t what President Obama told “60 Minutes,” as both outlets admit that the President spoke truthfully. The issue is why we’re only hearing about ISIS now. And so far I’ve seen no smoking memo warning the President of an imminent ISIS attack. So far, we’ve only heard the truth.

But hey, why let that get in the way of a good scandal.

(If only Obama had listened to level-headed John McCain.)

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Gays are like ISIS beheading America, per religious right confab Mon, 29 Sep 2014 16:00:49 +0000 The Family Research Council once again earned its officially-designated status as a “hate group” during last week’s Value Voters Summit in Washington, DC.

While the religious right conference is a traditional hate-fest for many of America’s most intolerant religious extremists, this year’s talk by the effete Benham Brothers was out there, even by FRC standards.

The Benhams are a religious right duo that recently lost their house-flipping TV show on HGTV, after the network found out just how extreme these boys really are.

Now, it’s not like HGTV wasn’t forewarned.


You go, gurl.

The Benhams are the sons of notorious anti-abortion protester Flip Benham. Daddy doesn’t begin to describe “nutty.”

And Flip’s hunky-yet-rather-effete sons aren’t far behind, in terms of not just their anti-abortion zeal, but their animus towards Muslims and gays as well. (Gays apparently have something to do with Satan, and feet.)

Oh, but it gets better. One of the Benham boys recently quoted, favorably, the biblical passage about gays needing to be stoned to death.


Yes, go hard.

This was around the time they compared gay marriage to Nazi Germany (and then got the decade of World War II wrong, but hey, numbers are hard when you’re pretty.)

God only knows how they lost their TV show.

Well, just when you thought the Benham boys couldn’t top (or bottom) their last outrage, they compare gays to ISIS, saying we’re beheading America with silence, or something.

Here’s David Benham:

“There is a radical agenda that has come in our nation, the weapon of choice for the agenda in the Middle East is a sword, but the weapon of choice for the agenda in America is silence. They demand silence…. We are watching it over in the Middle East right now. ISIS is filled with rage. They are empowered by a demonic bloodthirsty spirit that needs to be confronted and dealt with, not tip-toed around the tulips…. And it’s time that God’s spiritual leaders see that the plot of Haman to silence the beliefs of Christians in this nation, thank God it’s not through a sword, it’s just in the form of silence.”

Apparently, the irony of religious-extremists-who-hate-gays comparing gays to religious-extremists-who-hate-gays was lost on the peroxide twins.

And tiptoe through the tulips?

Why do all these anti-gays always set off my gaydar?

The Benham boys, doing heterosexuality proud in their pastel shirts, perfectly coiffed hairdos, and fabulous hand gestures. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)

The Benham boys, doing heterosexuality proud in their pastel shirts, perfectly coiffed hairdos, and fabulous hand gestures. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

The video is below, courtesy of Right Wing Watch.

And here’s a chaser:

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Virginia GOP could suppress 2% of the vote this November Mon, 29 Sep 2014 14:00:12 +0000 This November’s general election will be the first in Virginia conducted under the state’s new voter ID law — one of the strictest in the nation — which requires a photo ID in order to cast a ballot. Drivers licenses are the most common form of accepted ID.

On Thursday, the Washington Post reported that nearly 200,000 active registered voters in Virginia don’t have a drivers license. Virginia has 4.8 million active registered voters. Divide 200,000 by 4.8 million and you get just over four percent.

On Friday, Virginia state senator Mark Obenshain (R – Harrisonburg) penned a response in PJ Media that recalculated the figure excluding military, overseas and federal-only voters to cut the figure roughly in half, coming up with 93,117. So we can say with confidence that a, pardon the pun, conservative estimate of the figure is around two percent.

Mark Obenshain.

Mark Obenshain.

But while Obenshain could be right when he argues that the new law only affects two percent of the electorate, that’s still a HUGE number in electoral politics. And Obenshain should know: had Virginia’s photo ID law been in effect last year, keeping even two hundred eligible voters from casting ballots (to say nothing of 200,000), he’d be the state’s attorney general right now.

Additionally, the gubernatorial contest in Virginia was decided by 56,435 votes, or just over 2.5 percent of that year’s electorate.

Two percent is the benchmark figure that field campaigns use to measure success. If a campaign executes its get-out-the-vote (GOTV) program effectively, it can be expected to outperform the polls by about two percent by turning out people who otherwise wouldn’t vote.

So when you pass a law that makes it harder for at least two percent of the electorate to cast ballots, and a disproportionally Democratic two percent at that, you’ve already matched the Election Day efforts of even the best political operations.

The Post‘s report and Senator Obenshain’s response only put more numbers behind what we already knew about this new batch of photo ID laws set to go into effect in a number of states this November: They are nothing more than the Republicans’ keep-in-the-vote program; a program that’s been executed brilliantly across the country.

Similar ID laws have already swung the outcomes of more elections than the statistically nonexistent voter impersonation fraud they are designed to prevent. While I’m not worried about the state’s senate race this year, there’s a good chance that a handful of down-ballot Republicans will win races by two percent or less. If and when that happens, they’ll have anti-democratic jerks like Mark Obenshain to thank.

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I test-drove a $100,000 iPhone (aka Tesla) Mon, 29 Sep 2014 12:00:30 +0000 My friend Joel and I went to go test-drive a Tesla electric car yesterday in Washington, DC. And I have to say, it was $92,000 worth of good clean fun. (The car goes for around $60k, but by the time you add-on the extras, the price rises.)


The first thing I noticed when getting into the Tesla as a passenger was the handles on the doors. They don’t move. They don’t lift up, they don’t click, they don’t control some metal components inside the door. The handles stay in place, sense your hand, and the door clicks open. The same, somewhat unnerving, but ultimately quite cool, thing happens when you go to “lift” the handle to get out of the car. Pretty cool.


Joel drives the Tesla down the section of Washington, DC’s Pennsylvania Avenue which runs from the White House to the Congress.

Joel took the first stab at driving. The first thing the Tesla guy told us to pay attention to was the lack of any engine noise. Being an electric car, it runs on a battery – there is no engine, there is no engine noise. We were in a parking garage, going up a ramp, and there was nothing but silence. It was wild.

The car has a huge interactive screen – you work it like you would an iPad, pinching and scrolling with your fingers. The screen has a GPS, but also controls the sun roof and much more. Among the screen’s features, a camera showing you a quite wide-angle view of behind the car (which includes your blind spot on the right and left).


The screen shows a rear view, but is large enough to show the GPS at the same time.

Joel drove all the way to the Pentagon, then I drove back. It’s a fascinating drive. The car accelerates quickly — more quickly than most cars I’ve driven in — and it slows down just as fast. An interesting feature of the Tesla is that when you ease off the “gas” pedal, the car starts to brake itself (in order to recycle the energy). The effect was enjoyable on the highway, but somewhat unnerving in city driving. You had to get used to only lifting your foot when you truly wanted to brake the car. In city driving, I found myself driving like a bit of a grandpa when I’d come to a stop-light — lurching a bit. But after a while I got the hang of it.


The front seat was comfy. I found the back seat a bit small — not too small, but not large either. The back seat, and back floor, have no hump. Making it far easier to ride with 3 people in back.

Another neat feature, you can adjust the wheel for what kind of driving you want — a more responsive wheels that doesn’t require much movement, or a wheels that requires a lot of movement to turn the car.

As for the battery, it takes about 8 hours to charge on a 240 volt outlet (the kind your washer and dryer use). You can plug it into a regular 110 outlet, but it will take 3 days to charge. A full charge costs around $6 to $8, and goes around 300 miles. That’s about the price of 2 gallons of gas, which definitely won’t take you 300 miles.


The car is plugged in, charging.

To recharge the car, they do have superstations around the country that you can use for free. You plug the car in, and in 20 minutes you get half a charge. I seem to remember being told that in 30 minutes you could get a full charge — though full is relative. They recommend you only recharge the battery to 80% to help extend the battery life. Here are the 115 stations in the US and Canada, and they also have 66 in Europe and 23 in Asia. And they’re building more. The supercharging stations are meant more for when you’re planning a road trip, and need to drive more than 300 miles round trip.


If you look at the chassis, you’ll see that the car really isn’t make up of much other than a small motor and some batteries throughout. I’m pretty sure when Joel and I stopped by another Tesla start back in July, they told us they also pack batters in the side of the car frame as well.

Rear of the car, with the battery.

Rear of the car, with the battery.

Front of the car.

Front of the car.

As we pulled back up to the dealership, the guy had me pull into a driveway and stop right before a gate that was up. The car dutifully warned me that I was 4 feet away from the gate with a quick noise, then as I got about 2 feet away it started beeping again. At the same time, the dashboard immediately started indicating how many inches I was away from the wall I was approaching:


One interesting thing, when Joel was driving, and backed up into a parking space against a curb, it beeped to let him know he was 4 feet away, then didn’t beep again to warn him that he was getting awfully close to the curb. I asked the Tesla guy why. Because the car sensed that the curb was so low, the back fender would clear the curb so there was no need to warn the driver to stop – if Joel backed up too far, he would feel the wheels touch the curb and he’d know to stop. Again, pretty cool.

Overall, it’s like driving an iPhone. The entire experience, from talking to them in the shop, to driving the car, feels like you’re dealing with the cult of Apple. And not in a bad way. It’s fun. Even to a guy like me, who was never into cars. But I do like gadgets. And this was one big honking $92,000 gadget.

Our little baby, dutifully parked 18 inches from the gate.

Our little baby, dutifully parked 18 inches from the gate.

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Sarah Palin thinks the President lives at 1400 Pennsylvania Avenue Sat, 27 Sep 2014 15:59:58 +0000 God bless her disastrous little soul.

Great piece from Olivia Nuzzi at the Daily Beast:

Had John McCain been elected president in 2008, Sarah Palin still may not have ever set foot in the White House…because she wouldn’t have been able to find it.

Sarah Palin as a sportscaster in Alaska. The early days.

Sarah Palin as a sportscaster in Alaska. The early days.

On Friday afternoon, the failed reality-television star and one-time VP nominee materialized in Washington, clad in a leather blazer, to deliver a speech to the crowd at the Values Voter Summit—an annual social-conservative confab held at the Omni Shoreham Hotel, a sprawling, gilded maze of a place that is rumored to be haunted by a dead maid.

Maybe she was the one screwing with Palin’s notes, because about halfway through her remarks, Palin said this: “Don’t retreat: You reload with truth, which I know is an endangered species at 1400 Pennsylvania Avenue. Anyway, truth.”

The White House is at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

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BREAKING: Obama admin. may urge Sup Ct to recognize gay marriage nationwide Sat, 27 Sep 2014 00:36:40 +0000 Reportedly, outgoing US Attorney General Eric Holder told NBC news this evening that the Obama administration will urge the US Supreme Court to recognize gay marriage nationwide.

This is new, and news. If it’s true. Unfortunately, the only confirmation of this comes from an ambiguous press release that devotes only one confusing line to the actual breaking news.

UPDATE: Well, the ambiguty is NBC’s Pete William’s fault, and not the press release. I just watched the broadcast, and it’s Williams himself who uses the confusing language.

Up until now, the Supreme Court has not recognized a nationwide right of gay couples to marry.

The court reached two important decisions last year on gay marriage. The first refused to consider an appeal of a lower court decision striking down Prop 8 in California. By doing this, the Supreme Court effectively legalized gay marriage in California.

Eric HolderThe second decision, US v Windsor, did not recognize gay marriage nationwide, but with its incredibly broad language, in essence made it nearly impossible for any lower court to rule otherwise. I believe the court did this intentionally, to ensure that gay marriage arrives slowly, on cat feet, court by court, state by state, in order to make it feel common, unthreatening, and inevitable.

But now, the Obama administration is willing, apparently, to go the next step and push the Supreme Court to rule in favor of gay marriage nationwide. Though we find out the news via a press release from the Human Rights Campaign that isn’t terribly clear. The release is below, and here’s the salient line:

“This evening, reporting by NBC News Justice Correspondent Pete Williams revealed that the Justice Department will soon ask the Supreme Court to uphold marriage equality, indicating that Holder believes the country is ready for it.”

I’m not entirely sure what that means. “Ask the court to uphold marriage equality”? And “Holder believes the country is ready for it.” The country is ready to “uphold marriage equality.” What does that mean?

It’s unfortunate that Williams used this language, as it just doesn’t really say anything. But it implies a lot.

Here’s the release from HRC. See if you can make heads or tails of it. (HRC basically reiterated Williams’ quote from the broadcast.)

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: September 26, 2014

Justice Department to Soon Ask Supreme Court to Uphold Marriage Equality

WASHINGTON — On Thursday, Attorney General Eric Holder made a surprise announcement that he will be stepping down from his position in the Obama Administration. Only one day later, Holder made news by indicating that he will once again take action on the issue of marriage equality. This evening, reporting by NBC News Justice Correspondent Pete Williams revealed that the Justice Department will soon ask the Supreme Court to uphold marriage equality, indicating that Holder believes the country is ready for it.

“Once again, Attorney General Eric Holder and the Obama Administration have stood up for marriage equality at a critical moment,” said HRC President Chad Griffin. “As the nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court gather on Monday to evaluate several marriage equality cases for full hearing, I hope they consider two facts — that the nation is ready for marriage equality, and that there are painful consequences to inaction. Committed and loving gay and lesbian couples can’t afford to wait any longer. It’s time to settle this constitutional question, once and for all.”

On Monday, September 29, the Supreme Court will be considering which cases pending before them will be chosen to hear on appeal. Included amongst the cases they’ll be considering are marriage equality cases from five states — Utah, Oklahoma, Virginia, Indiana and Wisconsin. Earlier in the year three federal appeals courts upheld lower court decisions that ruled state bans on marriage equality are unconstitutional.

We could know soon thereafter whether or not one or more of these cases has be granted certiorari — meaning the Court has taken up the case(s) — though the court could delay making a decision for weeks or even until next term. Recently Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg told an audience that there is “no rush” to take up a case, especially if the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals continues the current streak of circuit courts striking down state marriage bans.

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Eliz. Warren, 4 other Dem. Senators, join NOH8 photo campaign Fri, 26 Sep 2014 15:18:05 +0000 US Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has joined four other Democratic US Senators in being photographed for the pro-gay/pro-tolerance “NOH8” campaign.

NOH8 is the brainchild of photographer Adam Bouska, and was inspired by the Proposition 8 campaign in California that repealed gay marriage in that state. (Prop 8 was subsequently struck down by the courts, and gay couples can now marry in California.)

The campaign consists of celebrities and regular people being photographed with the phrase “NOH8″ (i.e., “no hate”) tradtionally written on their cheek, often while having a strip of silver tape across their mouths. Many of the members of Congress opted for a more subtle placement.

The addition of Warren and Mark Udall (D-CO), Carl Levin (D-MI), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Tom Udall (D-NM), brings the number of Senators in the campaign to 12. Over 100 US House members have also joined. That entire group includes only one Republican, U.S. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida.

Here are the new Senators:


U.S Senator Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts).

U.S Senator Mark Udall (Colorado).

U.S Senator Mark Udall (Colorado).

U.S Senator Carl Levin (Michigan).

U.S Senator Carl Levin (Michigan).

U.S Senator Ron Wyden (Oregon).

U.S Senator Ron Wyden (Oregon).

U.S Senator Tom Udall (New Mexico).

U.S Senator Tom Udall (New Mexico).

Senator Heinrich, photographed earlier, was one of the few who opted for the full tape and tattoo.

U.S Senator Martin Heinrich (New Mexico).

U.S Senator Martin Heinrich (New Mexico).

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CDC: 1/3 of gay, bisexual men with HIV don’t even know it Fri, 26 Sep 2014 12:00:42 +0000 The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has just issued a report on HIV/AIDS treatment in the US, finding that half of gay and bisexual men with HIV go untreated.

And about 1/3 of gay and bisexual men in the US who are infected, don’t even know it.

The report was released in time for National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day (which falls on Saturday, September 27th this year.) Much of the reported data is NOT good news, especially for some subgroups of gay and bisexual men.

An important note is that this data is drawn from a segment of the US population, not the whole US population with HIV/AIDS. So there is a chance that the numbers may be somewhat different if data from the whole population were used.

HIV/AIDS ribbon via Shutterstock

HIV/AIDS ribbon via Shutterstock

The first bit of bad news is that of all new cases of HIV, almost 2/3 of that total were found in MSMs (Men who have Sex with Men, primarily composed of gay and bisexual men.) That means that in spite of efforts by the CDC and other scientific, medical and social organizations, many gay and bisexual men are still getting infected with HIV.

The CDC is trying to use additional methods of outreach to limit the spread of HIV. Promoting safer sex methods on social media is one method.  Another is encouraging men to use PrEP (Truvada), a daily pill that has been show to significantly decrease the transmission of the HIV virus.

To try to improve treatment, and decrease the viral load (the quantity of virus in the bloodstream) of those already infected, the CDC has targets that it will try to reach by 2015 in regards to the treatment of HIV patients. The targets are:

  • 85% of MSMs who are diagnosed with HIV should be linked to care. That is, after diagnosis, they should be given a follow up appointment with a doctor, clinic or hospital where they can get appropriate care including being started on appropriate anti-HIV medications. [Some patients are always lost to follow up. They may refuse treatment, die, become incarcerated, move or in some other manner be lost.]
  • 80% should be retained in care. That is, steps should be taken to make sure that patients continue in treatment. This can be done via case management services, appointment reminders and other means to encourage them to continue treatment.
  • The proportion of patients with an undetectable viral load should be increased by 20%.

Most recent data shows that (for all MSM demographic groups):

  • 78% of newly diagnosed HIV patients were linked to care.
  • 51% were retained in care.
  • 42% achieved viral suppression.

What is disturbing here is that almost 80% of patients are linked to care, but ALMOST 30% OF THOSE LINKED TO CARE FAIL TO REMAIN IN TREATMENT.

That’s 30% who don’t keep appointments, get prescriptions for medications,or have blood tests done.

Obviously, a key issue here will be keeping these men in treatment. That will mean taking a look at why they either never take the opportunity to start treatment, or why many leave treatment.

More bad news. The above data were for all MSM demographics. When the data is digested and broken down into subsets, the results are even worse for two particular groups. Young MSMs and black MSMs.

The number of men successfully linked to care increases with patient age. In general, older patients are more compliant and get into treatment after diagnosis. Men aged 45-54 years link to care at a rate of 84%. But the males in the 13-24 year old age range only got linked to care at about 70% — almost 15% lower than older men.

Breakdown by race shows that African-American males had the lowest percentage linked to care at 71%, while whites and Hispanics/Latinos were linked to care at about a 10% higher rate than African-American men.

For these groups (young MSMs and African-American MSMs) retention in care was also low.

The authors of the report state that it is critical to improve all three areas (linking, retention and suppression) in order to help decrease the number of new cases of HIV in MSMs.

They suggest that perhaps social stigma, lack of easy access to care, lack of health insurance and discrimination might be reasons that young MSMs and black MSMs are not being enrolled and maintained in treatment.

The authors of the CDC report conclude:

CDC has adopted a high-impact prevention approach to reduce the number of new HIV infections by using a combination of scientifically proven, cost-effective, and scalable interventions targeted to relevant populations and geographic areas for increasing the impact of HIV prevention efforts and achieving the goals of the National HIV/AIDS Strategy.*** CDC currently funds prevention, surveillance, research, and evaluation programs for a diverse range of MSM, including young racial/ethnic minority MSM.††† The findings in this report highlight the need for continued expansion of prevention, care, and treatment efforts for achieving improvement in linkage to care, retention in care, and viral suppression for MSM, particularly MSM aged <25 years and black/African-American MSM. Given that MSM account for more than half of new infections and comprise approximately half of persons living with HIV infection, to reduce HIV incidence, improve health outcomes, and reduce HIV-related health disparities in the United States, the prevention and care needs of MSM must be addressed.

I’d like to add that there is more that can be done. We can act to spread the word about HIV testing, treatment, safer sex, PrEP to friends and relatives. If you don’t feel that you don’t have enough knowledge about HIV to talk to someone about HIV, HIV prevention and treatment, you can at least direct them to a site that would be a beginning.

Some places for you (or them) to start are:


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Is Bill Clinton redeemed? Thu, 25 Sep 2014 21:55:40 +0000 The Human Rights Campaign, America’s largest gay rights group, has invited former president Bill Clinton to keynote their annual dinner next month.

That’s led a reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle to suggest that Clinton has been “redeemed” for the double sins of embracing the anti-gay Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) during his tenure in the 1990s.

I wasn’t thrilled with how President Clinton handled DADT in 1993 (clumsily), nor with his approach to DOMA in 1996 (welcoming it with open arms, and then using his support of it to rally southern voters). But. There is no question that Bill Clinton was, as my friend Richard Socarides calls him, a “transformational figure” in the battle for gay rights.

And keep in mind, Clinton addressed the HRC dinner back in 1997 as well. And that was right after DOMA passed the previous year. So this effort to read-the-tea-leaves about Clinton’s invite might prove weak tea after all.

Then-President Bill Clinton appearing at the HRC annual dinner with then- HRC President Elizabeth Birch.

Then-President Bill Clinton appearing at the HRC annual dinner with then- HRC President Elizabeth Birch.

I was just coming out around the time Clinton was running for president, and elected. And it was a big deal having a candidate, and then president, who dared to speak our name.

I remember watching the Democratic convention and seeing Clinton supporter, and someone I grew to know and admire years later, Bob Hattoy address the convention during prime time as both an openly-gay man and a person living with HIV/AIDS. That was unheard of at a political convention, let alone prime time. And, it forced the Republicans to then do the same, inviting AIDS activist, and GOP doyenne, Mary Fisher to speak at their convention. (Though Mary was “safely” straight.)

And that was only the beginning.

Clinton gave us the first administration committed to fighting HIV/AIDS, including appointing an AIDS czar. He gave us the first openly-gay appointees at the most senior levels in any administration as of that date. He gave us the first openly-gay US ambassador, and more.

Bill Clinton wasn’t perfect. And as good as he was on our issues, there was reason for our community to be annoyed with him at times during his presidency and after. (For example, it took him a while to come around on marriage equality.) But during his time in office, and subsequently, President Clinton made a huge difference for our community, and on issues we care about like AIDS.

So I have no problem with HRC embracing Bill Clinton. Yeah, DADT and DOMA kinda stunk. But he still made a huge difference for the gay community at a crucial time. And for that, he shall forever be thanked.

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Israel, academic freedom, and my alma mater Thu, 25 Sep 2014 18:18:20 +0000 Steven Salaita’s offer to teach Native American studies at the University of Illinois (my alma mater) was rescinded last month after university officials objected to the tone of a lengthy series of recent tweets from Salaita man about Gaza and Israel.

The story has created a backlash against the university, and has more generally provoked a fervent debate about academic freedom and “hate speech.”

Just to set the record straight, Salaita is no friend of Israel. Judging by his tweets — and there are many — he has a visceral contempt for both the country and its people. (He’s not terribly keen on the US either.)

But does that mean he shouldn’t teach?

Steven Salaita

Steven Salaita

You can read through Salaita’s Twitter history for yourself. It’s lengthy, and it won’t take you long to get the flavor of it. In some cases there are 50 to 60 angry anti-Israel, and pro-Gaza, tweets a day.

Several of the tweets, or retweets, are sure to push buttons. For example, there’s this retweet about Adam Lanza, the young man who brutally shot to death nearly two dozen children at Sandy Hook Elementary:


And these:

by-default-2014-09-25-at-1.46.31-PM by-default-2014-09-25-at-1.46.54-PM

And this may be the tweet that finally sealed Salaita’s fate with the university:


I suspect I disagree with Salaita on a lot of issues, and I find his tweets, and overall style, obnoxious. But I’m not sure that’s a quality I’d object to in a professor. Let’s think this through a bit.

First off, Salaita was going to teach about Native Americans, not the Middle East.

Second, his comments were off-campus, as it were, on Twitter. They weren’t in the scope of his academic duties.

And regardless, at what point does one become too obnoxious to teach?

So long as he weren’t an ass about it, I’d find it interesting to hear Salaita’s point of view on the Middle East, Native Americans or any other topic. And so long as students knew what they were getting when signing up for his class, I’m not sure I terribly care if there’s a ridiculously anti-Israel professor teaching a class so long as the university lets ridiculously pro-Israel professors teach as well.

But that presumes that what Salaita tweeted doesn’t constitute hate speech. Does it? And even if it did, does that necessarily mean he’d make a bad professor?

As an aside, Salaita isn’t just a professor who happened to post a few tweets about Israel. He’s written six books on related subjects:

Steven Salaita is Associate Professor of English at Virginia Tech. He is the author of six books: Israel’s Dead Soul; Modern Arab American Fiction: A Reader’s Guide; The Uncultured Wars: Arabs, Muslims, and the Poverty of Liberal Thought; Anti-Arab Racism in the USA; The Holy Land in Transit; and Arab American Literary Fictions, Cultures, and Politics.

And, on his Facebook page, Salaita calls the Anti-Defamation League “a hate group”:


Salaita has been a strong advocate of boycotting Israeli academic institutions, and most of his Facebook page is devoted to denouncing Israel, at least for the past three years.

And finally, Salaita wrote a piece for Salon that undercut gay and other human rights advocates concerned about Russia and the Olympics this year.

So there’s a lot more history to this guy than simply a few Tweets.

This is a problem you confront way beyond universities as well. A number of us, for example, were not too thrilled that Mozilla, a while back, picked proud Prop 8 supporter Brendan Eich as its new CEO. And the same issues arose during that debate: Are your fervently-held positions outside the workplace, however obnoxious, ever relevant to your job?

I’d argue: “sometimes.” In Brendan Eich’s case, the fact that he was anti-gay, and actively worked against gay marriage, while running a California tech company which likely has gay staff who are married, was relevant to his ability to perform his job — especially once his own staff, and board, revolted.

I’m not sure what I think about Salaita. I tend to be in the middle on Middle East issues, which tends to make both sides hate me at some point. And while I found myself getting angry reading Salaita’s tweets, I’d still have to hear further argument as to why that’s enough justification to deny the man a job at a university.

As a U of I alum, I don’t want Salaita teaching at U of I. I think his Twitter and Facebook style shows a bit of immaturity in tone, and naiveté about online discourse being some kind of “get out of jail free,” let it all hang out, free-for-all speech zone. Many of his tweets, and Facebook posts, and writings are in your face and obnoxious. (Which left me wondering how old Salaita actually is. He may be a member, and victim, of a generation that grew up thinking there were no repercussions to letting it all hang out online.) It’s also bizarre that no one at the university did any due diligence about what exactly they were buying into.

But having said all of that, I’m honestly divided as to whether my distaste for Salaita, his tone, and many of his views, is sufficient to deny him a job.

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“There’s no ‘burnable carbon’. We need massive reductions & sustainable infrastructure.” Thu, 25 Sep 2014 14:00:30 +0000 As in previous years, I again lined up a series of Five Questions interviews at Netroots Nation. This year’s group includes House Democrat Keith Ellison, co-leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus; Democratic strategist and activist Robert Cruickshank; and economist Dr. Stephanie Kelton.

Cruickshank and I spoke in the middle of the exhibit hall, which explains the background sound. The interview is clear however. I started, as usual, asking about “burnable carbon” and the climate crisis — which, if you haven’t noticed, is already upon us. His reply was simple — no burnable carbon, period. Good to hear, and good to hear the reasons.

The interview is here:

Use the following to guide you, if you want to jump to one of the sections.

To the question — What should we do to stop this? — Cruickshank replies (at 4:45):

This is where a clear strategy and a clear message is really valuable. There’s always a temptation to say, “Well, if we have this really complicated policy formula that works exactly as planned, without change or alteration, we might be able to have some form of burnable carbon and not sacrifice ourselves to major problems in the future.”

But we know that profit incentive for burning carbon is so high, that even if you set up a system that looks to us like it could work, it’s going to be gamed and exploited and used by people who want to profit off of burning carbon.

So I think for climate activists, the “ask,” to me, is what it has always been. Let’s go on the path to reducing carbon emissions. Let’s not be burning any new carbon reserves. Leave that coal in the ground. Leave that oil in the ground. And instead spend our money building things that will put us [on a path to] sustainable infrastructure.

My follow-up: That’s the Ask. What’s the Do? His answer: There are lots of doable local actions — Divestment. Stop coal and oil trains. Stop the construction of new oil and coal export terminals. (Chris Hayes’ piece “The New Abolitionism,” which he references, is an excellent read, by the way.)

The answer to question four — “What to do about Hillary, corporate Dems and electoral blackmail?” — comes at 12:52. Jump there if you like. As he said, he’s answering for both himself and the Howard Dean–founded group DFA (Democracy for America) at this point.

That led, at 18:14, to this — “If you don’t get what you want, what are you willing to threaten in order to turn up the heat (on Dem candidates)?” His answer involved primaries — good so far. But how far would he personally go? In 2008, Cruickshank says, for example, he would have advised killing the ACA if the Public Option was left on the table. I call that “taking credible hostages” — something the other side really wants — then acting forcefully if they don’t respond to the threat. Cruickshank calls that “overturning the table and walking away.”

For example (at 24:29), he and DFA seem willing to support a “Matt Damon” type candidate — a viable “someone with nothing to lose” — in the 2016 primary, should that person arise, as a way for Dem voters to say No to “four more years” of privatizing corp-Dem rule.

Listen at 25:40 to hear his personal journey, how he went from Rush Limbaugh Republican (as a teen) to leftwing activist. A fascinating, and not uncommon, story. As I told him, “We all stray young.”

Next and last interview will be with Dr. Stephanie Kelton, a leading economist and part of the cutting edge “Modern Monetary Theory” school of economic thought. Stay tuned for that — it contains a truly startling, and surprisingly workable, alternative to a mandated minimum wage or even minimum working conditions laws.

The previous interview, with Representative Keith Ellison, is here.


Twitter: @Gaius_Publius
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John Oliver on the NFL’s ongoing domestic abuse scandal (video) Thu, 25 Sep 2014 12:00:33 +0000 John Oliver weighed in on the NFL’s ongoing domestic abuse scandal, which came to a head a few weeks ago with the release of new video showing (now former) Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice knocking his then-fiancée unconscious, then dragging her body nonchalantly out of an elevator.


Oliver’s barbs were particularly directed at NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who didn’t exactly shine at a press conference last Friday.

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