AMERICAblog News A great nation deserves the truth // One of America's top progressive sites for news and opinion Fri, 01 May 2015 21:00:16 +0000 en-US hourly 1 White America refuses to understand the death of Freddie Gray Fri, 01 May 2015 14:00:08 +0000 Baltimore is a southern city with a northern culture. Because of Maryland’s location south of the Mason-Dixon Line, Maryland was a slave owning state. However, Abraham Lincoln believed that keeping Maryland in the Union was of paramount importance, so much so that jailed Confederate sympathizers without habeas corpus to prevent Maryland from seceding.

To this day, Maryland has maintained its identity of a border state, neither culturally southern nor culturally northern.
On April 19th, 25-year-old Freddie Gray died as a result of injuries sustained when the police nearly severed his spinal cord as they arrested him. According to the City of Baltimore, on April 12th “an officer made eye contact with Gray, and he took off running, so they pursued him. Though he’d had scrapes with the law before, there’s no indication he was wanted at the time.” Even if he had been wanted, even if he was carrying a gun, he did not deserve to be killed by the police.

The people of Baltimore were understandably outraged, and took to the streets. Protests began on April 18th in front of a police station in West Baltimore, and were peaceful for nearly one week  before becoming violent on April 25th, and even then only roughly 100 out of over 10,000 people were violent.

On the 25th, one got a vastly different perspective on the protests depending on what news channel one turned to. CNN tore their hair out over “scenes of chaos and rioting” while Al Jazeera described the same protests as mostly peaceful and nonviolent, with “pockets of violence erupting.” Al Jazeera’s journalistic reporting is sadly in the minority amongst American news media outlets, as most other channels sensationalized the situation and seemingly blew things out of proportion, with some reports saying there were “thousands of black rioters” and others calling the city a “war zone.” In fact, the major news networks were more concerned with their self-aggrandizing dinner disguised as a fundraiser – the White House Correspondents Dinner (aka “Nerd Prom,” which is neither nerdy nor prom-like) – happening just 35 miles away in Washington DC, than they were with the riots.

One startling example of actual journalism came from the local NBC affiliate in Baltimore, WBAL TV 11. One reporter interviewed members of rival gangs, who came together not to make a plan to kill white cops, like most news sources were saying, but were in fact trying to stop the rioting because they were in support of Freddie Gray and believed that the riots were not helping the cause in any way. Let me repeat this for emphasis: Rival gang members, who could have very easily capitalized on the chaos, were trying to stop the riots in support of nonviolence! That’s a great story in and of itself, and yet even NBC’s national network, to say nothing of the other major outlets, insisted on either getting it wrong or ignoring it completely.

By April 27th and 28th, following Freddie Gray’s funeral, the once peaceful protests had turned into full-scale rioting, looting, and arson. Newly-elected Maryland Governor Larry Hogan had declared a state of emergency, calling in the National Guard and declaring a week-long curfew.

These protests, and the nature in which they are being carried out, should come as a surprise to no one. Many non-white Americans are living in a terrible situation that they feel trapped in, and have tried every peaceful avenue available to get the attention of the news agencies, government and the rest of “White America.” Over a quarter of Baltimore’s population lives below the poverty line, and the city’s unemployment rate is 8.2%. While its crime rate has improved in recent years, it is still well above the national average. Only 2/3 of Baltimore’s high school students will graduate — and that’s an improvement.

Black man stopped by police, via Shutterstock

Black man stopped by police, via Shutterstock

Combine lack of economic and educational opportunity with a bloated, top-down law enforcement infrastructure, and you’ll get violence every time. Baltimore does not exist in a vacuum; it is the airing of grievances that are held throughout the country. Non-White Americans know that Freddie Gray or Michael Brown could have very easily been them. White Americans like myself will never fully be able to understand this. We don’t have to seriously consider the possibility that we could have our spine severed like Freddie Gray, or that we could be shot in the back like Walter Scott, or choked to death like Eric Garner, all while posing no threat to the police officer doing the killing. Until white Americans – especially those with the power and influence to make a difference – realize that this is the reality faced by millions of Americans every day, nothing will change.

Although this situation hits particularly close to home for me, as I grew up just outside of Baltimore, this is by no means an isolated instance of police brutality. The number of black men that have been killed in the last few months by police officers goes beyond there being “a few bad apples;” it is a pattern. A pattern indicative of systemic racism and violence condoned and perpetuated from within police culture itself. This pattern has been corroborated by the US Department of Justice’s report on institutionalized racism within the Ferguson, Missouri police department. But going beyond that, if the Justice Department were to carry out investigations of random police departments I’m positive that they would find similar results in almost every American city — especially cities with large minority populations.

The pattern is also reflective of the prison industrial complex as a whole, which overwhelmingly imprisons people of color and is instrumental in perpetuating the cycle of violence and poverty for racial minorities in America. The US has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its prisoners. African Americans constitute 1 million of the total 2.3 million prison population and are incarcerated at six-times the rate of white Americans. The majority of those arrests are for petty crimes and drug possession.

We as a nation are guilty in part of perpetuating the cycles of poverty and violence as well as the stereotypes of racial minorities. If I tell that someone has been murdered in a major American city, what gender do you think they are? What race do you think they are? Are they old or young? When someone mentions gangs, what images come to mind? If our image of a violent gang member or murder is that of a young African American or Hispanic male, then is it really surprising that the police, who face violence every day, also have that image in their heads?

How do we end the cycles of rioting, police brutality and poverty in America? The subcultures of both the police and the African American community need to change. First, both groups need organization and leadership from within. For the police this needs to come from above, from the lieutenants and commissioners of major American cities. For the African American community, this needs to come from civil rights and church leaders, especially those who lived through or were influenced by the Civil Rights movement in the 60s. Second we need proper education. For the police, this must come in the form of training in non-violent methods to de-escalate violence. For the African American community this comes in the form of proper government funding for schools in impoverished areas, and programs to increase the graduation rate. Third, the police need to develop a mutually supportive working relationship with the communities that they oversee by working with community leaders and members, and encouraging cooperation when crimes occur.

All of those things sound fairly simple. As President Obama noted on Tuesday, if we really wanted to address this problem, it is well within our means to do so. The only question that remains, then, is if we are going to be honest with ourselves about what it’s going to take to make racial justice a reality.

The curfew seems to have quelled the violence for now, but the anger and the lived reality for millions of Americans persists. This is not the end of the violence. All it takes is one more example of police brutality, one more data point in the trend, to begin the cycle anew. This. Will. Keep. Happening.

Although the anger and the violence is completely understandable, the death of Freddie Gray does not and cannot justify the violent behavior of both the protestors and the police. We as a nation cannot ever condone rioting and looting. However, you don’t need to condone rioting and looting to understand it. Until white America begins to understand the reality that millions of minorities struggle with every day, a reality that they cannot escape from, it can’t act surprised when marginalized communities insist on getting its attention.

Calls for calm in Baltimore ignore the language of the unheard Thu, 30 Apr 2015 21:54:00 +0000 “It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible of me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.” – Martin Luther King Jr. 

The timeline of events surrounding the death of Freddie Gray unfolded in a pattern familiar to anyone observing America’s recent racial tensions. First, the death of a black American — who had committed no crime and posed no risk — at the hands of white law enforcement. Freddie Gray was taken into custody after (curiously) deciding to turn and run from a police officer he made eye contact with. Gray’s repeated requests for medical attention were denied by the arresting officers, and it was soon discovered that Gray’s spinal cord had been severed during the arrest. A week after the incident, Gray was dead. The Baltimore Police Department has (absurdly) claimed that Gray’s injuries were self-inflicted.

After the death of this innocent black man came a massive community response. Citizens of Baltimore, described by Ta-Nehisi Coates as regarding the police “not with admiration and respect but with fear and caution,” overcame their fears and poured into the streets by the thousands to express their discontent with a brutal police department insulated from the consequences of its actions. Raucous baseball fans showered the protesters with racial slurs, calling the blacks “porch monkeys” and the whites “n***er lovers.” Through all this, the protests remained overwhelmingly peaceful, and largely ignored.

Two days later, the day Freddie Gray was put to rest, the protests turned violent. And while violence does not need to be condoned, it does need to be understood. Should the child who kicks rocks at a soldier be held to the same standard as the soldier who fires back? Of course not. Attempting to understand the underlying causes of the violence in Baltimore enables us, as individuals and as a society, to address America’s original sin and climb out of the mire nearly 400 years of racism have trapped us in.

But unfortunately for proponents of productive discourse, the American news media consistently fails to articulate the complexities of these issues, instead throwing up their collective hands in sensationalized faux-angst. As President Obama remarked on Tuesday, “one burning building will be looped on television over and over and over again, and thousands of demonstrators who did it the right way” will be ignored. The mainstream media has latched on to the riots in Baltimore as a excuse to avoid addressing the long-standing economic, political and cultural roots of racial tensions in America. In so doing, they have fabricated a false dichotomy between non-violent and violent protests, establishing the former as legitimate and the latter as illegitimate.

Black Lives Matter, via Creative Commons

Black Lives Matter, via Creative Commons

Within this dichotomy, a protest can only be legitimate, and therefore successful, to the extent that it is conducted in terms set by the very institutions it seeks to criticize. In the context of police brutality, this both ignores and undermines the underlying causes of the protest itself. As Coates writes, those who criticize the crusade against police brutality “can offer no rational justification for Gray’s death and so they appeal for calm,” and obfuscate the true dichotomy: the violence of individuals versus the violence of the state.

Telling people they ought to act in accordance with the law is beyond insulting when the law enforcement is itself at issue. It is striking to see how many regard police aggression as the norm and angry, frustrated reactions as the surprise. Those who remained silent as courts time and again ruled in favor of the police in seemingly open-and-shut cases of horrifying brutality have no ground to stand on when they condemn the smashing of windows or the overturning of cars. As community organizer Deray McKesson reminded Wolf Blitzer, whose insistence on the illegitimacy of this week’s protests has been as consistent as it has been insulting, broken windows are not worse than broken spines. Windows can be replaced; lives can’t.

There is no level of property damage that could possibly compare to the violence America has inflicted and continues to inflict on its black citizens. There is no monetary settlement that could possibly compensate the families of the countless innocent Americans who have lost their lives to overarmed, undertrained cops. There is no small amount of irony in the fact that the journalists who claim that all protests should be peaceful are the same journalists who heralded the bombing of Baghdad as an act of “liberation.” The truth is that our politicians and pundits have no qualms with violence until they realize that appropriating the rhetoric of peace serves to preserve the sordid status quo they’ve spent decades creating.

So long as the media presents the violence of the state in one light and the reactionary violence of the people in another, they are complicit in maintaining the system of control that allows our government to act with impunity. So long as we choose to focus our attention on protests’ optics instead of their causes, we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.

I turn 24 today. Happy birthday to me? Wed, 29 Apr 2015 12:00:51 +0000 I turn 24 today! Before you ask me if I feel any older, I don’t. However, since this time last year I was wrapping things up at Kenyon College, I do feel like (more of) a grownup.

I took time off from school to work on campaigns, so 23 was my first year of adulthood. As I learned the hard way, your first year out of college is a lot like your first year in college, but with worse hangovers and fewer naps. Once again, you’re in a new place that everyone around you is more familiar with. There are new social norms to follow and new social networks to build. And no one cares about your senior project.

But seeing as I’m turning 24 in 2015, my experience as a first-year adult has been vastly different from what it would have been in 2005 or even 2010.

(I should pause here to make the necessary qualification that my experience is that of a white, male, non-first generation college graduate. Some of my experience is generalizable beyond those dimensions, but much of it isn’t. This might also be a good place to point out that my age groups is — with pros and cons — more sensitive to generalized statements than our elders.)

The most striking difference is in how mobile I am, both geographically and professionally. I’m currently transitioning out of my first job, which I’ve held for less than a year, to write full time — a job I can do from anywhere on the planet that has an Internet connection. My experience matches up with data showing that people my age — I’m not going to use the M word — are staying in their jobs for about half as long as our older counterparts, and that 91 percent of workers around my age expect to stay in their current job for less than three years.

The cost of finding a new job is lower than it used to be, as LinkedIn, et al has made it easier to apply. In response, employers have made themselves more attractive, but part of being attractive is, ironically, making it easy for your employees to leave. In breaking with corporate tradition, my current day job offers flexible hours, unlimited vacation time and — the real kicker — a one-year hill on your stock options as opposed to a four-year cliff (rather than fully vesting after four years, you quarter-vest after one year and then 1/48th-vest every month after that). They’re still “golden handcuffs,” but they aren’t as tight because a four year tenure simply isn’t a realistic expectation for an employer to set in the industry I work in.

23 year-old me in the private sector.

23 year-old me in the private sector.

Don’t worry, though. Things aren’t all bad for The Man. Employee flexibility and mobility are great ways for businesses to save on costs associated with longer-term employees in a traditional 9-5 gig. After all, if no one’s staying around for more than four years, why bother with a retirement plan? More workers than ever are even more mobile than myself, piecing together any number of side jobs in the “sharing economy,” and what they gain in freedom (if you can call it that) they lose in instability. This trend isn’t new, but it is more pronounced.

However, workers aren’t more mobile today just because the incentives are structured differently. The preferences are, as well. The current crop of recent college grads is fiercely, clinically competitive. Kids like me have been told that we’re above average since we were in kindergarten, and have been told that everyone (but ourselves in particular) is special since we were two. Now we have to square those cultural axioms with the fact that the adult world doesn’t inflate its grades. Combine that with the fact that we see the best version of our friends’ lives on Facebook — every promotion, every successful project, every 15 minutes of fame — and you wind up with a generation of workers who are always looking for something better, or at least different. Our insistence on (as opposed to preference for) self-actualization, amplified by our interconnectedness, fuels our intrinsic and extrinsic desire to succeed.

24th Birthday, via Shutterstock

24th Birthday, via Shutterstock

So some of us climb, or at least move laterally so that it looks like we’re climbing. Some of us work odd jobs abroad to fund our travel; many teach English. Some of us take a chance on a business venture that doesn’t pan out. Some of us bounce around because we have no idea what we really want to do with our lives, and many of us eventually go back to graduate school. The point is that fewer of us start our careers straight out of college; we just get jobs. This has always been true to a certain extent, but it’s more true now than it used to be.

This may all sound rather depressing, but as someone who’s a part of this as much as an observer, it isn’t. It’s just different, a natural extension of all of the things that make 2015 a great year to be alive. The advances that amplify my angst are the same advances that make it possible for me to tweet to an activist in Baltimore, or to navigate the streets of Panama City without a guide. 23 was a blast, and 24 looks to be even better. I can pay my bills and write at the same time, which is hard to beat, but if that ever changes I can get another great job. And then another, and another after that.

In any case, here’s to being 24 in 2015. And do forgive me if there aren’t as many new posts on the site tomorrow. If my friends have their way, I’ll be nursing a nasty hangover in the morning.

Rand Paul isn’t a libertarian: criminal justice edition Tue, 28 Apr 2015 22:06:04 +0000 Rand Paul’s evolution from dyed-in-the-wool libertarian to generic Republican as he dives headfirst into primary season is not news. He has regressed to the mean on marriage, science and, depending on who he’s talking to, foreign policy.

But one of the few remaining areas that Paul could claim credit where his primary opponents couldn’t was on criminal justice. A vocal opponent of the War on Drugs, Paul is thought to be one of the few Republican candidates who can credibly challenge Hillary Clinton on issues that lie at the intersection of race, economics and justice.

Well, at least he was until yesterday. Discussing the recent protests over the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore on Laura Ingraham’s radio show, Paul explained the protests in the context of a “lack of fathers” and a “lack of a moral code” before quipping that “I came through the train on (sic) Baltimore last night, I’m glad the train didn’t stop.” He ended his answer by saying that “there can be no excuse for the behavior” that protestors have engaged in, referring to the clashes with police, looting and rioting that has taken place in Baltimore over the last few days.

Here’s the audio, via Media Matters:

There are a host of explanations for why Baltimore is in a state of emergency right now, the first of which being that Freddie Gray’s death was an all-too-common case of the police exercising unnecessary force on a black man who posed no threat to their life — and then fudging their report. One could also look to, as Baltimore Orioles executive John Angelos did, the decades of economic neglect in Baltimore — and subsequent civil rights degradations — that have created dire, unstable conditions in the city. Furthermore, as President Obama noted today, the current round of violence came after non-violent protests were largely ignored by the nation and its media for over a week.

Finally, as Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic wrote yesterday, perhaps definitively, the residents of Baltimore have legitimately rejected the notion that calls for nonviolence by the authorities are being made in good faith:

Rand Paul, via Creative Commons

Rand Paul, via Creative Commons

When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con. And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is “correct” or “wise,” any more than a forest fire can be “correct” or “wise.” Wisdom isn’t the point tonight. Disrespect is. In this case, disrespect for the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the community.

If you can acknowledge all of those factors and still say that the uprising in Baltimore is, first and foremost, caused by black people misbehaving moral decay brought on by the breakdown of the nuclear family, then I’ve got a caucus in Iowa to sell you.

When Ferguson turned violent, Rand Paul was there calling for the demilitarization of the police. In response to the Freddie Gray protests, Rand Paul had a chance to seize the mantle he’s previously held to take a stand against police brutality in a similar fashion. Instead, he dog-whistled and joked about black people being immoral and violent.

His transformation into a mainstream Republican is complete.

Takeaways from oral arguments in Obergefell v. Hodges Tue, 28 Apr 2015 19:12:09 +0000 The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Obergefell vs. Hodges this morning, and preliminary indications are that the Court is ready to rule 5-4 in favor of marriage equality. However, while even those opposed to marriage equality concede as much, a win — especially one in which marriage equality is affirmed as a civil rights issue — is no guarantee.

Justices Kennedy and Roberts asked probing questions on both sides, but seemed to break for and against the plaintiffs, respectively. The other justices were their predictable selves, questioning and arguing with attorneys along the ideological lines everyone expected them to.


Anthony Kennedy is notorious for being a “human jump ball,” a reference to his unpredictability and penchant for asking difficult questions of the side he eventually rules in favor of. Living up to this nickname, Kennedy worried pro-LGBT observers early on when he noted that the institution of marriage has been around for “millennia,” suggesting that tradition should be cause for caution and patience in ruling.  However, soon after that, he noted that roughly the same amount of time stood between the Lawrence v. Texas and Obergefell v. Hodges rulings as there was between Brown v. Board of Education and Loving v. Virginia, drawing a clear parallel between sexual orientation and race and undercutting his own tradition-based line of questioning.

Kennedy also had little patience for lawyers defending state-level bans on marriage equality when they claimed that legalizing marriage equality would result in more children born out of wedlock, shooting back that “I think that argument cuts quite against” banning same-sex marriage. Finally, he poked holes in Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage, remarking that the law “assumes” that homosexual couples by definition can’t have the “more noble purpose” for marriage that heterosexual couples have.


Chief Justice John Roberts could be the most important justice in this case because of how he rules as opposed to what he rules. And it did appear through his questions that he was at the very least skeptical of using heightened scrutiny to legalize same-sex marriage — an indication that the LGBT community might rather not have his vote.

The first question in the proceedings came from him, as he interrupted Mary Bonauto, arguing for the plaintiffs, to object that same-sex marriage would “redefine” the institution of marriage, not merely allow same-sex couples to “join in” the institution. He went on to note that he had gone to the dictionary and been unable to find a definition written earlier than about twelve years ago that defined marriage as anything other than one man and one woman.

This would suggest that Roberts has found LGBT-inclusive definitions of marriage written in the last twelve years, but to him that was apparently beside the point.

Roberts expressed further concerns about the maintenance of defining marriage as husband and wife, objecting that “if [the plaintiffs] succeed, that core definition will no longer be operable…You aren’t seeking to ‘join’ the institution, you’re seeking to change the institution.”

While it would be possible for Roberts to rule in favor of marriage equality while being opposed to “redefining” marriage as anything other than one man and one woman, such a ruling would almost certainly be grounded in states’ (as opposed to civil) rights, which would give the LGBT community a muted victory.

As Adam Liptak of the New York Times reported, Roberts was also worried about the Court reaching such a definitive conclusion on a fast-moving social debate.

Breyer, Ginsburg, Kagan and Sotomayor

The court’s liberal bloc of justices gave predictable indications that they would rule in favor of marriage equality. Justice Sonia Sotomayor openly sparred with Justice Antonin Scalia over whether establishing a constitutional right to marriage equality would force religious leaders to perform marriages they held religious objections to, and strongly objected to the defendants’ argument that allowing same-sex marriage would have negative effects on society at large.

Justice Elena Kagan also rebutted Scalia’s concern over religious objections, noting that many rabbis currently refuse to marry Jews to non-Jews without running afoul of constitutional requirements.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg took on the argument that the state has a procreative interest in marriage by raising the hypothetical of a 70-year old couple who wanted to get married, saying, “You don’t have to ask them any questions. You know they are not going to have any children,” but that no one is objecting to that couple getting married. She also pushed back against the argument that the United States should rely on “millennia” of historical understandings of marriage, noting that such a view would encourage the state to define marriage as being one man presiding over at least one woman. She went on to argue that, yes, same-sex marriage would not fit with this understanding of marriage, but it would fit with our current, more egalitarian understanding of marriage.

Justice Stephen Breyer, who didn’t feature heavily in directly questioning the attorneys, nevertheless delivered a powerful rebuttal to John Roberts’s aforementioned tradition argument, calling marriage a “fundamental liberty”:

I thought that I heard the answer to the question being given in respect to tradition of 2000 years, and to the democratic ballot box and so forth was quite simple. What I heard was, one, marriage is fundamental. I mean, certainly that’s true for 10,000 years. And marriage, as the States administere it, is open to vast numbers of people who both have children, adopt children, don’t have children, all over the place.

But there is one group of people whom they won’t open marriage to. So they have no possibility to participate in that fundamental liberty. That is people of the same sex who wish to marry. And so we ask, why? And the answer we get is, well, people have always done it. You know, you could have answered that one the same way we talk about racial segregation.

Or two, because certain religious groups do think it’s a sin, and I believe they sincerely think it. There’s no question about their sincerity, but is a purely religious reason on the part of some people sufficient?

Taken together, the four traditionally liberal justices all seemed to be safe bets to come down in favor of marriage equality.

Alito and Scalia

Conservative Justices Samuel Alito and Antonin Scalia were predictably hostile to the plaintiff’s arguments, throwing out a number of hypotheticals that mirrored common conservative talking points with respect to marriage.

Alito remarked that he was unaware of a culture prior to the 20th Century that recognized marriages between members of the same sex, prompting Ginsburg’s rebuttal. He also wondered aloud if permitting same-sex marriage would open the door for marriages involving more than two people.

Scalia, while remaining skeptical of same-sex marriage in general terms, at least conceded that, “the issue…is not whether there should be same-sex marriage, but who should decide the point,” a remark likely aimed at John Roberts in hopes of giving conservatives at least a partial victory in the case by classifying marriage as state-level policy issue as opposed to a civil right. He also quipped that it was “refreshing” when protestors interrupted the oral arguments to scream that homosexuality was an “abomination.” It was unclear if he was referring to the break in argument, or to the protestors themselves.


Open up the transcript of today’s oral arguments, hit Command+F and type “Thomas.” You will find no matches. You should not be surprised. He’s going to side against marriage equality, and has no interest in asking anyone why he should or shouldn’t change his mind.

The Supreme Court will release its ruling on Obergefell v. Hodges in June. While there’s reason to be optimistic, the oral arguments did not provide a clear win for the LGBT community, and even if marriage equality is affirmed, it could be affirmed in narrow terms that aren’t transferrable to other LGBT cases involving discrimination unrelated to marriage.

Fingers crossed until then.

CNN: Bernie Sanders could announce presidential run “within days” Tue, 28 Apr 2015 14:00:54 +0000 Hillary Clinton has done her best since announcing her bid for the White House to shore up her left flank, but it looks like her best hasn’t been enough to avoid a progressive primary challenge. In one of the less-reported stories emanating from the Sunday shows this week, CNN’s Nia-Malika Henderson reported on Inside Politics with John King that Bernie Sanders could announce that he’s running for president “within days.” MSNBC added that if he were to run, he would do so as a Democrat.

UPDATE: Vermont Public Radio is reporting that Sanders will announce his campaign on Thursday.

CNN has not provided an embed link to place in posts, but you can watch her report here.

Henderson’s report comes from conversations with Sanders advisers in South Carolina this weekend, where a host of potential challengers to Clinton spoke at the state’s Democratic Convention. Per Henderson, Sanders’s speech at the convention received a “standing ovation,” even impressing veteran Democratic leader Congressman Jim Clyburn.

Sanders has previously hinted at a 2016 bid numerous times, but this is the clearest indication he has given that he will enter the race.

While Sanders would not be the only potential primary opponent for Clinton, he is the only one who is uniformly to her left on social, economic and foreign policy issues. Jim Webb is to her right on climate, Martin O’Malley’s body of work puts him to her right terms of both issue statements and fundraising and Lincoln Chafee (who has technically already announced he’s running, but hasn’t filed the paperwork yet) used to hold elected office as a Republican.

Given the fact — yes, fact — that Elizabeth Warren is not going to jump in the 2016 race, this would make Sanders the lone progressive running for president this cycle.

And if he were to win, he would be the actual pot-smoking socialist that conservatives have been wailing about for the last six-plus years.

If Sanders does launch a bid, it won’t be because he expects to win. It will be because he, like many of us, sense a massive void on the left in the current political discourse. The Democratic Party, for all the points they score on the issue, has not yet come to terms with the steps necessary in order to tackle economic inequality. It has not yet come to terms with the steps necessary in order to address climate change. It has not yet come to terms with the steps necessary to reign in the military industrial complex. Bernie Sanders may not be able to beat Hillary Clinton, but he sure as hell can make her talk about these issues, and can make her answer for her record on them. It’s a record that’s suspect at best.

Assuming he does in fact run, I look forward to seeing him on the trail.

What to watch for at the Supreme Court today Tue, 28 Apr 2015 12:00:43 +0000 The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Obergefell v. Hodges today, holding debate on whether state-level bans on same-sex marriage are constitutional and, perhaps by extension, if marriage is a fundamental right that cannot be denied on the basis of sexual orientation. It’s an historic day, and could be an indication of more historic days to come.

The case comes shortly (in legal terms) following the United States v. Windsor decision, in which the Court held that the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional, and that the federal government had to recognize same-sex marriages that were legal on a state level.

Here are a few of the important things to listen for as the LGBT community and nation as a whole attempts to read the tea-leaves as to how the justices plan to rule later this summer:

What are the conservatives arguing?

Over 100 amicus briefs have been filed by various parties in advance of these oral arguments, many of which entail a wide range of conservative cases against marriage equality. Some are absurd, like the one filed by “over 100 scholars of marriage” — a title in search of a job — arguing that legalizing same-sex marriage will directly result in over 900,000 abortions over the next generation. Others argue that the court should reject marriage equality because sodomy was illegal for so long that tradition mandates upholding bans on same-sex marriage. Still more argue that endorsing marriage equality will stigmatize religious conservatives, effectively telling the Court to preemptively exercise heightened scrutiny for them as a protected class, not the LGBT community.

In oral arguments in lower courts, and in Windsor, conservatives have also argued against marriage equality on the grounds that the state has an interest in defining marriage on the grounds of procreation, and that children of same-sex couples fare worse than children of opposite-sex couples. It would be a gross understatement to say that those arguments did not fare well under scrutiny.

If the conservatives arguing against marriage equality in court adopt any of these arguments, it will signal that they’re going for a big, unlikely win. If, on the other hand, they make a smaller case, arguing that the Court should resist public opinion and punt the issue back to the states, it will amount to an admission that marriage equality should be legal, just in as few places as possible.

Making their case in terms of federalism and states’ rights is likely conservatives’ last best hope for walking out of Obergefell with anything to hang their hats on. It would be a major concession, but a calculated one. As oral arguments commence, we’ll know early on if that’s the tack they are taking.

Will the plaintiffs cite Scalia?

In his 2013 dissent in Windsor, Justice Antonin Scalia (R – VA) penned an impassioned outburst denouncing the victory of the “so-called homosexual agenda,” warning the nation that the ruling set a dangerous precedent for future cases:

The real rationale of today’s opinion, whatever disappearing trail of its legalistic argle-bargle one chooses to follow, is that DOMA is motivated by “‘bare … desire to harm’” couples in same-sex marriages. How easy it is, indeed how inevitable, to reach the same conclusion with regard to state laws denying same-sex couples marital status.

To which those in favor of marriage equality responded: “Yep, pretty much.”

Scalia’s Windsor dissent has been used in numerous cases in which lower courts have invalidated state bans on same-sex marriage. As Garrett Epps of The Atlantic noted, it was even directly referenced in roughly half of the majority decisions that struck down same-sex marriage bans.

The concession embedded in Scalia’s rant is crucial in determining not if the court affirms marriage equality, but in how broad their ruling is. So it would constitute more than simple trolling if the plaintiffs were to remind the Court of it.

If the Court rules in favor of marriage equality on the same grounds as Scalia cited in Windsor – that same-sex marriage bans are motivated by a “bare…desire to harm” — then the ruling will have used heightened scrutiny and classified sexual orientation as a protected class of citizens. That would be huge in the context of future laws and court cases concerning LGBT discrimination, which we may well see in the near future. As many of the recent religious freedom “right to discriminate” laws were passed in part as a response to state-level marriage equality, it’s highly likely that marriage-related discrimination winds up back in court in the coming years.

Another way the Court could use heightened scrutiny in deciding Obergefell would be to rule that same-sex marriage bans discriminate based on sex, not sexual orientation. As Kenji Yoshino at Slate noted, “James Obergefell was prohibited from marrying his now-deceased partner, John Arthur, because of their sexes, not their orientations. If John had been a woman, they could have married, regardless of their sexual orientations.” However, this form of heightened scrutiny would not constitute the same kind of victory for the LGBT community, as it could not be used as precedent in cases concerning anti-discrimination efforts that really are about sexual orientation as opposed to sex. However, as Yoshino also points out in their article, heightened scrutiny concerning sex and sexual orientation is “not mutually exclusive.

The Court is widely expected to rule in favor of marriage equality, but how they rule is almost as important. And in what is probably the only time I will ever use these words in this order: The Court should use Scalia’s logic as precedent in deciding this case.

What is John Roberts thinking?

Anthony Kennedy is considered the Roberts Court’s swing justice, but his opinions in Windsor have led many to believe that he will come down in favor of marriage equality, and could do so using heightened scrutiny. This being the case, almost as much attention is being paid to John Roberts, who court observers are having a harder time reading.

The Bush appointee is regarded as being both personally opposed to marriage equality and professionally concerned about his legacy as Chief Justice. One need look no further than his opinion(s) in the NFIB v. Sebelius case that partially upheld the Affordable Care Act to see this tension at play. In Obergefell, Roberts could go through another tug of war in which he both wants to be on the right side of history and has personal objections to what being on the right side of history entails.

That said, when it comes to Obergefell, the LGBT community may not even want Roberts’s vote. As Michaelangelo Signorile noted earlier this year in the Huffington Post, it is entirely possible that Roberts will vote with a majority in favor of marriage equality for the purpose of writing a narrow opinion. By voting with the majority Roberts, being Chief Justice, could reserve the right to write the controlling opinion. Unlike a majority opinion written by any of the other pro-marriage equality justices, Roberts’s opinion could potentially be much narrower, avoiding heightened scrutiny.

In other words, Roberts could elbow his way into a majority opinion that could, in theory, approach marriage equality in terms of federalism, in which states have to recognize out-of-state same-sex marriages but can’t be required to perform them within their own borders. This is essentially what conservatives such as Marco Rubio — and Tony Perkins — have been arguing ever since they stopped shaking their fists at Windsor.

Today’s an historic day, and will give us clues as to what an even more historic day this summer will look like. All signs point to some form of victory for the LGBT movement, but the deal isn’t done yet.

Stay tuned.

Senator Gillibrand pushes for comprehensive online voter registration Mon, 27 Apr 2015 21:50:28 +0000 In a press conference yesterday, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand announced a new bill, the Voter Registration Modernization Act, that would require the 25 states that do not currently have online voter registration to implement it. It would also create a national online registration system, building upon the online registration capabilities at the state level.

If passed, the bill would expand online registration to the approximately 100 million Americans who currently have to register to vote on pen and paper, a requirement that contributes to low registration rates nationwide.

In the 21st Century, it’s a wonder that online voter registration isn’t already universal. While government typically lags behind the private sector in terms of updating their technology — we don’t like paying for new computers at the DMV — online voter registration saves time, resources and, by extension, money for municipal governments. So setting aside the civic benefits associated with expanded ballot access, the bill is also a financial winner for states who simply haven’t gotten around to setting their system up yet.

It is unlikely that her bill will gain much traction in the Republican-controlled Senate. Gillibrand sponsored a similar bill last year, seeing little success. However, it will at least be interesting to see the grounds on which the GOP kills the bill this time. Online voter registration has been successfully implemented in 21 states, and passed in four more, with no issues relating to fraud or security breaches. In fact, online voter registration is arguably more secure than paper and pen methods, as it could include a form of email verification that would prevent citizens from registering someone other than themselves to vote without their knowledge.

This being the case, the only reason to oppose the Voter Registration Modernization Act is if you are worried that the citizens who stand to gain the most from it are going to become voters who vote for the “wrong” candidates and parties. If and when the VRMA fails, it will serve as further proof that the GOP’s concern with ballot access has nothing to do with generalized democracy and everything to do with specific elections.

It’s OK if Bruce Jenner is a Republican, but not for the reason she gave Mon, 27 Apr 2015 14:00:23 +0000 Friday saw the airing of Diane Sawyer’s landmark ABC interview with Bruce Jenner, who confirmed tabloid speculation that the former Olympic gold medalist identifies as a woman. The interview offered a glimpse into Jenner’s life and identity, deconstructing the oft-blurred distinctions between gender and sex, and between gender identity and sexual orientation.

The interview represented massive progress for transgendered people and their struggle for acknowledgement, let alone acceptance, in American society. The ABC interview noted that there are an estimated 700,000 transgendered Americans, and the stigma associated with not identifying with the gender assigned to the one given at birth contributes to an attempted suicide rate over eight times the national average in the gender nonconforming community. Additionally, while Sawyer reported that 85 percent of Americans say they know someone who identifies as gay, only 8 percent of Americans say they know someone who identifies as transgendered.

So the fact that someone who previously held the title of greatest athlete in the world identifies as a woman is a big step in assuring transgendered Americans — especially kids who aren’t accepted at home — that they are normal; they don’t need to feel ashamed of who they are.

However, the disclosure in the interview that is perhaps hardest for many in the LGBT community to wrap their head around is that fact that, aside from identifying as a woman, Jenner also identifies as a conservative Republican.

As Jenner said, “Neither party has a monopoly on understanding.” When encouraged by Sawyer to reach out to Republican leaders Mitch McConnell and John Boehner to push for legislation protecting transgendered Americans from discrimination, Jenner replied, “I think they would be very receptive.”

Those statements are nowhere close to correct.

To be clear, the LGBT community is no monolith, and many within it identify as conservative and Republican. LGBT Americans care about more than marriage equality and non-discrimination; they care about jobs, the economy, education, health care, etc. just like everyone else. So if Jenner had said that she identifies as a Republican because she’s massively wealthy and the GOP wants to cut her taxes, that would make sense. But to suggest that Republican leadership would be open to not only voting for but sponsoring legislation that affirms Jenner’s identity is to be willfully ignorant of the current climate in American politics.

As pointed out in Newsweek, the Republican Party is less than indifferent to the concerns of transgendered Americans; it actively works to exacerbate them:

Earlier this month, Colorado Senate Republicans axed a bill that would enable people to amend gender listings on their birth certificates without requiring surgery, reports CBS Denver. In January, Kentucky Republican Senator C.B. Embry Jr. proposed a bill that would stop trans-inclusivity in bathrooms, and those who reported a “person of the opposite biological sex” in a stall or bathroom could be given up to $2,500 as a bounty.

Most recently, two Republican delegates from Virginia, Bob Marshall and David LaRock, publicly opposed a proposal that would protect transgender students and staff members in the Fairfax County’s school system’s official non-discrimination policy measures, reported The Washington Post on Friday.

The GOP is also responsible for initiatives on the state and local level that would regulate the bathrooms that transgendered citizens can and can’t use, initiatives that serve no purpose other than to shame and delegitimize transgendered people and their identity.

Bruce Jenner, via Newsinc / Creative Commons

Bruce Jenner, via Newsinc / Creative Commons

Republicans provide nearly all of the support for legislation that hurts transgendered citizens, and provide nearly all of the opposition to legislation that helps them.

Furthermore, the major organizations for Republicans who don’t hold a heteronormative gender identity and/or sexual orientation, GOProud and Log Cabin Republicans, consistently have to struggle for recognition, to say nothing of acceptance, in the Republican Party.

When members of the LGBT community come out and identify themselves as such, it is always important to, out of a necessary concern for avoiding delegitimizing them, let them do so on their own terms. It isn’t OK to tell them they’re wrong, and it isn’t OK to tell them to change. But if the Republican Party had their way, American culture would not be accepting of Bruce Jenner’s decision to publicly affirm her own gender identity. In other words, the interview that aired on Friday may never have happened.

If Bruce Jenner wants to identify as a Republican, that’s her prerogative. There are plenty of reasons why she could and even should. But it’s simply incorrect to say that the Republican Party identifies as a party that accepts Bruce Jenner for who she is. Despite what should be the case, right now one party really does have a monopoly on acceptance.

Bob Schieffer introduces Tony Perkins by reminding viewers that he runs a hate group Mon, 27 Apr 2015 12:00:42 +0000 The Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments on the constitutionality of state-level same-sex marriage bans on Tuesday. And in light of the upcoming debate in the Court, Bob Schieffer invited Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, along with Evan Wolfson of Freedom to Marry, to appear on ABC’s Face the Nation to discuss the likelihood that marriage equality will soon be the law of the land.

But before Schieffer let Perkins speak, he reminded viewers that the FRC has been classified by the Souther Poverty Law Center as a hate group, and that many viewers objected to Perkins appearing on the show on the grounds that he “[doesn’t] speak for Christians.”

Schieffer went on to take Perkins to task for claiming that it would be “open season” on Christians if the court ruled in favor of marriage equality, asking him with incredulity, “How can you say that?”

It only got better from there.

Watch the video, via RawStory:

Throughout the interview, Perkins’s answers were uncomfortable, contradictory and in some cases flat-out false.

He argued that the Court has no business adjudicating marriage because it’s a matter of public policy, which makes no sense given his insistence, which he repeated to Schieffer, that the definition of marriage is codified in natural law itself, immune to any tinkering by mere mortals.

He disputed the numbers from the recent Washington Post/ABC poll showing 61 percent support for marriage equality, arguing that there were issues with the way the poll’s questions were worded. This ignores the fact that the poll asked the question three different ways, showing essentially identical levels of support each time.

He even lied to Schieffer’s face in denying that he called for the impeachment of Supreme Court justices who rule in favor of marriage equality. Here’s the audio with those comments, courtesy of Right Wing Watch:

When given the chance to respond, Evan Wolfson rightly called Perkins an “outlier” for his rabid opposition to marriage equality.

Wolfson also gave a great answer when asked what he would say to those in “the four in ten” who oppose gay marriage, but do so without expressing Perkins’s brand of hate:

You’re absolutely right that not everybody opposed or not with us is somebody like Tony Perkins. You’re right that there are people who are still thinking it through, and the good news in America is people do think it through and they do move. And I’m confident that these people will see what the majority of Americans have come to see, which is that when we end discrimination, when we end exclusion, families are helped and no one’s hurt…People, when they get a chance to see it for real and to open their hearts and to talk to their neighbors, understand that civil rights advances like this are good.

Not everyone who opposes marriage equality is as deceitful and hateful as Tony Perkins and the Family Research Council. The growing support for marriage equality is an indication that the culture has changed, and is continuing to change, in a more accepting manner.

Let’s hope the courts recognize that shift as the necessary affirmation of civil rights that it is.

Hillary the Hawk Sat, 25 Apr 2015 15:09:41 +0000 Much ink has been spilled regarding Hillary Clinton’s 2002 vote supporting the Authorization for Use of Military Force in Iraq. Many news outlets mention it merely as an aside, as if only to pay lip service to the serious questions such a stance raises. To be fair, Mrs. Clinton herself admits her mistake: in her 2014 memoir Hard Choices, the former Secretary of State and current Presidential frontrunner writes “I wasn’t alone in getting it wrong. But I still got it wrong. Plain and simple.”

Such a candid admission of one’s mistakes is certainly refreshing. But unfortunately for Mrs. Clinton, words are worse than worthless during election season. When every one of a candidate’s lines is being scrubbed clean by her campaign staff, the only accurate barometer of a candidate’s stance is her past record. And in Mrs. Clinton’s case, a glance at her record reveals a galling disconnect between her actions as Secretary of State and the anti-war attitudes to which she pays deference in hindsight.

In a May 2014 article, part of a series analyzing the foreign policy stances of likely 2016 presidential contenders, Bob and Barbara Dreyfuss of The Nation describe Mrs. Clinton — in terms of her foreign policy — as a “right-wing realist” who was among those in the Obama administration most keen on employing American military might. The authors extensively cite the memoirs of Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense under the Bush and Obama administrations. Gates writes that “on the crucial decision to escalate the Afghan war in 2009 and then to slow the drawdown in 2010, he and Clinton were on the same side.” The article goes on to detail Mrs. Clinton’s role in (successfully) persuading President Obama to order airstrikes in Libya and (unsuccessfully) arguing for the use of military force in Syria.

Hillary Clinton’s credentials as a war hawk were clearly established during her four-year tenure as Secretary of State. Nonetheless, it is expected that a great deal of President Obama’s supporters — who were urged time and again during Mr. Obama’s presidency that America’s best option was to tread lightly — will line up behind Mrs. Clinton. In today’s America, where voters are motivated more by partisan loyalty than by substantive values, liberals will gladly forgive the mistakes of their candidate as they have done so often in the past. Look no further than President Obama’s reversal on Senator Obama’s 2006 call for “a way forward to make sure that we can stop terrorists while protecting the privacy, and liberty, of innocent Americans.” With a Republican in the Oval Office, Mr. Obama was opposed to the expansion of the surveillance state; upon assuming the Presidency himself, he promptly shifted his stance.

This is the reality of a bipartisan political system such as ours, plagued by entrenched interests. Voters have divided themselves into one of two camps whose policies — particularly regarding foreign affairs, but also on subjects such as the national security state and economic globalization – have taken on a startling resemblance in recent years. We may have two parties, but they think with one mind on a whole host of vital issues. The limp American left’s inevitable embrace of Hillary Clinton’s right-wing realism reflects the current state of American politics. When advocated by both sides of the political aisle, the American military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan may become a model for the years to come.

America is not an honest broker in the Israel-Palestine Conflict Fri, 24 Apr 2015 16:00:18 +0000 Throughout the varied and violent history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, American reporters have consistently characterized the US’s involvement by way of a kind of national superhero: he is…the Honest Broker!

Who is this Honest Broker, you ask? A real stand-up fella, that’s who! The Honest Broker is a measured, impartial mediator — simply helping the Israelis and the Palestinians get along, and very much dedicated to facilitating a swift, and efficient peace-process!

Back in March, The Honest Broker hit the headlines again, as a supposed confrontation between the U.S. and Israel reared its head. The source of the beef? Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “walk back” from his pre-reelection support of a two-state solution, which President Obama claimed was “unacceptable.” Esteemed outlets like The Atlantic, POLITICO and the New York Times wasted no time in penning articles chastising Bibi, while lauding the Obama Administration for rhetorically sticking it to the hypocritical politician.

The Honest Broker saves the day!

The only problem with The Honest Broker is that he’s a work of total fiction. The national media’s peddling of this absurd nationalist caricature horribly misrepresents our actual relationship to the conflict. In truth, the U.S. is probably the biggest force blocking the peace-process, not facilitating it:

America: An “Honest Broker” for Peace?  

Actions speak louder than words — or so we’re told. There’s no doubt that, in terms of rhetoric, the Obama Administration has been incredibly supportive of a two-state solution. On March 14th, 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that Obama was “committed” to the creation of a sovereign Palestine. As quoted by the International Business Times:

// //


The position of the United States with respect to our long-expressed hope, [among] the Republicans and the Democrats alike [and] many presidents of the last 50 years or more, has always been for peace, and President Obama remains committed to a two-state solution.

While this sentiment was nothing new — past speeches made by Presidents Clinton and Bush, along with Obama, show concerted harmony on the issue — it was interesting given how little it reflected policy decisions.

For instance, approximately three months before Kerry said this, he was instrumental in the U.S.’s rejection of a proposal from the UN security council to recognize Palestine as its own state along the 1967 borders. The resolution would’ve ended Israeli occupation of the West Bank, and set a three-year timeline to establish a sovereign Palestinian state. At the time, in late December of 2014, the U.S. threatened it would veto any resolution with “unilateral moves.” These “moves” were described as any language that might indicate:

  • Setting a timeframe for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank
  • Recognizing Palestine as a member state of the UN

This is not new behavior for the Obama administration. The president personally made a bid to block a two-state solution in 2011, and has — as a matter of general principle — perpetually sought to undermine the legitimacy of Palestinian nationhood. A report from CommonDreams on the veto record of Susan Rice gives a pretty clear account of the U.S.’s role in the peace process since early in Barrie’s presidency:

In December 2009, the U.N. General Assembly passed 18 resolutions on “The Question of Palestine” which, among other things: reaffirmed the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people over their natural resources, including land and water; reaffirmed the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and their independent State of Palestine; reaffirmed that the Fourth Geneva Convention is applicable to the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem; and reaffirmed that Israel’s settlements in Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem, are illegal and an obstacle to peace and economic and social development. The United States under President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Ambassador Rice, voted against each of these resolutions. Overall, Obama, Clinton, and Rice, by voting with Israel, voted against 16 of 18 General Assembly resolutions in 2009, which were otherwise approved by an overwhelming majority of U.N. member states.

Since then, things haven’t changed much. In 2014, the U.S. voted against and/or abstained from action in 14 UN resolutions to give general assistance to Palestinian refugees, and to assist in the remedying of the human rights nightmare occurring in the occupied territories. The majority of the International Assembly urged the U.S. to aid in the fallout from:

…the conflict in and around the Gaza Strip in July and August 2014, and the civilian casualties caused, including the killing and injury of thousands of Palestinian civilians, including children, women and the elderly, as well as the widespread destruction of or damage to thousands of homes and civilian infrastructure, including schools, hospitals, water, sanitation and electricity networks, economic, industrial and agricultural properties, public institutions, religious sites…

Despite these pleas from over 160 countries, and despite the fact that 2014 was the most deadly year for Palestinians since 1967, the U.S. abstained from or voted against draft resolutions to send aid to Palestinian refugees, to decolonize the Syrian Golan and to allow displaced Palestinians to return to their homes.

Of course, in case you’re looking to blame this all on President Obama, it’s important to acknowledge that his position is not unique. Our efforts to undermine Palestine date back to the 1970s when our relations with Israel became especially friendly. If actions truly speak louder than words, then the U.S. has been pretty loud (albeit not at press conferences or in televised speeches) about what it actually wants. The full list of security council vetoes that the U.S. has cast over the decades is staggering for its consistency, the aim of which is simple: no two-state solution.

Unofficial U.S. Policy: Protecting Israel, Unconditionally

By contrast, the degree to which the U.S has supported Israel is truly mind blowing. We are, in many ways, solely responsible for its continued existence in the Middle East, in that we subsidize massive sectors of their tech industry, their infrastructure and economy; we bolster their population with immigration programs, and we are pretty much the only country that defends their breach of international law. We also quietly ignore Israel’s unofficial nuclear program.

Yet the most striking expression of our unbridled enthusiasm is the U.S.’s massive subsidization of Israeli defense systems. Analyst Jeremy Sharp reported that “U.S. military aid” over the decades has effectively turned Israel into a military state, and that we have “helped transform Israel’s armed forces into one of the most technologically sophisticated militaries in the world.” This massive financial assistance program is part of the U.S.’s agenda of giving Israel a “qualitative military edge” (QME) over “neighboring militaries.” QME is a concept unique to Israel, into which untold funding and legislation has gone. Some of this legislation and funding includes:

  • A mandate obligating the U.S. President to conduct an “empirical and qualitative assessment” of Israel’s QME, and to report the findings to the Israeli government every four years.
  • Laws prohibiting U.S. arms contractors to sell to any countries in the Middle East that may “adversely affect Israel’s qualitative military edge.” If you consider how absurdly powerful the U.S. arms industry is, this is a huge deal.
  • Hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies for various Israeli defense programs: these include state of the art anti-rocket systems like the Iron Dome, David’s Sling and the Arrow programs; a number of F-35 Joint Striker Fighters; batteries for homing Hawk and Patriot missiles; X-Band radar to detect airborne attacks; and much, much more.

Out of all of these subsidies, however, nothing is more symbolic of the U.S.’s unconditional support for Israel than the fact that Arabs are literally being killed with American bullets. Not only does the U.S. subsidize Israel’s defense systems, but it stockpiles $1.2 billion worth of its own military equipment in Israel for emergency use, and for Israel’s use in times of war. As Israel is perpetually in a state of war, it uses this equipment. A lot. During Israel’s 2006 conflict with Lebanon, for instance, it was American tanks, missile launchers and machine guns that were used in a conflict that left thousands of Lebanese civilians wounded and dead. The use of American firepower had to be, and was, specifically authorized by the United States.

Benjamin Netanyahu and John Boehner, via Creative Commons

Benjamin Netanyahu and John Boehner, via Creative Commons

This bolstering of Israeli military might is foreseeably endless. In 2007, the Bush administration agreed to sponsor “a 10-year, $30 billion military aid package for the 10-year period from FY2009 to FY2018″ to Israel. Since then, we’ve shown no signs of slowing down. Obama agreed to continue Bush’s aid package, and his proposed aid to Israel for 2015 reportedly dwarfs all other foreign military funding (FMF) worldwide, accounting for a little over half of the U.S.’s total FMF for the year. As Sharp reported, “Annual FMF grants to Israel represent 23% to 25% of the overall Israeli defense budget,” making the U.S. the indispensable sponsor of Israel’s militant initiatives. Furthermore, this is just the the most recent stage of a subsidization process going back decades — one that makes Israel:

…the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. foreign assistance since World War II. To date, the United States has provided Israel $121 billion (current, or non-inflation-adjusted, dollars) in bilateral assistance. Almost all U.S. bilateral aid to Israel is in the form of military assistance, although in the past Israel also received significant economic assistance.

What We Get Out of It

That’s a lot of dough, and the U.S. doesn’t give away billions of dollars out of the goodness of its heart. We always want something in return. Benefits of our military assistance may seem obscure at first, but some consideration of the mutual goals of Israel and the U.S. provide answers. What do we get?

  • Geo-strategic Positioning. This is the big one. In a region of timeless political/economic significance, the U.S.’s relationship with Israel gives us an ally in one of the most important places in the world. Because of our unconditional support for them, we expect Israel to act as a client-state for U.S. interests and, more importantly, as an implicit threat to other Middle Eastern countries. Our relationship is a means of asserting regional dominance.
  • Israel/Iran via Shutterstock.

    Israel/Iran via Shutterstock.

    Mutually Assured Production. Our interest in the arms trade makes us natural partners. The U.S. is almost solely responsible for the creation of the Israeli arms industry, and has since the 1980s worked hard to make it rank “as one of the top 10 suppliers of arms worldwide.” This has conveniently opened the door to collusive trade partnerships between U.S. and Israeli contractors. Many of these deals also bear political value. Back in 2013, a 10 billion dollar arms sale to Israel, as well as Saudi Arabia and the UAE (United Arab Emirates) helped put pressure on Iran, which has been a longtime target of the U.S. for containment.

  • It’s always nice to have a friend. Aside from defense, many steps have been taken to strengthen ties between Israeli and U.S. corporate, scientific and academic communities. Add to this the rampant collusion between U.S. government officials and Israeli support groups like AIPAC, and you have yourself a true bromance — a perfect melding of financial and geopolitical interests.

Funding Palestine, Very Conditionally

It should be noted that the U.S. funds Palestine too. Since the 90s, we have given about 5 billion dollars of aid to the Palestinians. But don’t let that fool you: Our contributions to the Palestinian Authority (PA) bear a drastically different purpose than those given to Israel, and are subject “to a host of vetting and oversight requirements and legislative restrictions.” Some of the qualifiers to Palestine receiving aid are:

  • The aid to the PA must not go toward Palestine’s defense capabilities
  • The PA must not allow co-governance with Hamas
  • The PA must not make a bid for UN member status

If the U.S. is serious in its commitment to establishing a viable Palestinian state, then these conditions for aid make zero sense. They undercut basic tenets of statehood: secure territory, defense and membership in the international community. On the whole, the U.S. has shown a total disinterest in allowing Palestinians the freedom to self-defense and democratic self-determiniation.

In particular, the threat of an “armed” Palestinian state is immensely disconcerting to U.S. officials. So desperate has our government been to thwart any Palestinian administration with the capacity for self-defense that in 2007 the Bush administration went as far as to attempt a coup against the democratically elected Hamas-backed government in hopes of driving the country into an implosive civil war. The attempt failed, speaking both to the resilience of the Palestinian people and to the enduring goal of the U.S. to undermine and destroy their sovereignty.

Another profoundly consistent agenda of the U.S. has been to deny Palestine a voice in the international community. The right of UN member status, though pursued by Palestine for many years, and overwhelmingly supported by the International Assembly, has been kept from realization by the power of the U.S. security council veto. After many years of obstruction by the U.S., the PA recently switched tactics, and sought the status of “Non-Member Observer” — a position that would allow them to appeal to other international coalitions like the International Criminal Court (ICC) for support in their conflict with Israel. Though overwhelmingly supported by the international community, the U.S., again, deeply opposed the bid, and Congress threatened to cut PA funding if the status was pursued.

The continual refrain heard from the U.S. as rationalization for this perpetual process of subversion is that to do otherwise would “threaten the peace process.” A footnote in Jim Zanotti’s Palestinian financing report, however, gives a more apt description of what the U.S. might feel “threatened” by:

One possible reason that some Members of Congress have shown reluctance to continue funding the PA in light of Palestinian initiatives within the U.N. system is a possible perception of these Palestinian initiatives as an attempt to undermine the U.S. role as “honest broker” and guarantor of the peace process.

The next few lines of the footnote seems to clarify the broader implications of this “perception” [emphasis added]:

U.S. lawmakers and officials also may view Palestinian action in international fora as a sign that U.S. attempts to use aid for political leverage with the Palestinians are unproductive. However, in testimony offered to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, on May 8, 2014, Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies said, in addressing the possible consequences of a U.S. aid cutoff to the Palestinians, “You know, if we zero out Palestinian funding, then here is the big problem. You are going to have someone else come in and they are going to be worse. More than likely, you are going to see the Saudis, the Iranians, the Qataris, the Turks. They are all going to come in and they are not even going to hold the Palestinians to account at all. The important thing from my perspective, if we are going to keep the funding going, we need to make sure that we have tighter controls. We need to demand performance. And, in my opinion, we have just simply failed to do so.

Reading through the political euphemism here, it is clear that what U.S. politicians fear most is not the breakdown of peace negotiations, but that their work as The Honest Broker will be usurped. The U.S. aids Palestine, yes, but this aid isn’t meant to facilitate the peace process; it’s meant to control it. By vetoing resolutions of international aid, American politicians keep their power to broker and direct policy to the Palestinian Authority. By denying that this assistance go towards armed resistance, the U.S. bolsters Israel’s QME, and takes steps towards establishing a defense-vetted neighbor, whose territory is largely regulated and controlled by Israeli militia.

Where does this all leave legend of The Honest Broker? Firmly in BS-land, unfortunately. It would appear that, far from being the impartial mediator of a swift peace process, the U.S.’s real role is imperialist grand planner. Not only are we the single biggest impediment to the UN’s attempts to remedy the Palestinian situation, but we are using our self-created relationship with Israel to direct events in the Middle East to our advantage. Geostrategically, Israel is the U.S.’s greatest proxy: it’s our window to the Orient and our muscle in the Middle East. It provides a strong platform from which to direct operations in regions of great economic consequence; and, in this sense, our desire to craft a castrated and ineffectual Palestinian neighbor to our subsidy-laden warhorse Israel is — while morally bankrupt — a pretty slick move.

As Kasich plots “moderate” run, Ohio’s budget gets extreme Fri, 24 Apr 2015 14:00:25 +0000 John Kasich is closer to announcing his presidential ambitions than ever. Just last weekend he went on NBC’s Meet the Press and stopped just short of declaring his intention to run, touting, among other things, his “moderate” credentials. He may even attend a gay wedding! Then yesterday, the Washington Post and others reported that Team Kasich had officially set up a 527 organization, “New Day for America,” that will start raising funds for his campaign.

While Kasich prepares an impending announcement, the Ohio General Assembly is considering his two-year budget proposal for 2016-2017, making its own changes along the way. So if Kasich is indeed the moderate he plays on television, then a look at his ideas for Ohio’s two-year 2016-2017 budget would show that his policy priorities are in line those of most Americans. There’s nothing he’s more eager to tout on the campaign trail than his record, after all.

Kasich’s proposed budget

Before the state legislature got to tinker with the budget, Kasich outlined his policy priorities for the next two years in his State of the State speech late February. As far as speeches go, it certainly struck all the right moderate notes, stuffed to the brim with folksy overtones. Quite literally, in fact. He referred to his audience as “folks” eight times throughout the speech, and it was notable to say the least that he mentioned the “working poor” (three times) more than the “middle class” (just twice). For their part, “hard” and “work” appear together nine times throughout the speech.

However, the specific proposals Kasich outlined in his address were as radical as his rhetoric was moderate: Kasich’s new budget would include massive changes to Ohio’s tax structure and public school funding mechanism.

Kasich’s tax reform proposal is as ideological as it is extreme. In his State of the State, he repeatedly expressed Ohio’s need to rely more on consumption taxes and slash income taxes — going as far as to completely eliminate income taxes for small businesses. The logic behind this move is that consumption taxes “put you in control,”  whereas income taxes – since they’re deducted paycheck to paycheck – offer less control. Therefore, consumers can  save more money by making smart choices in a state that relies more on consumption taxes, and those savings can be invested back into the economy .

But that isn’t exactly true – as Matt Bruenig of Demos pointed out to me on Twitter – savings on consumption taxes won’t necessarily get invested back into Ohio’s economy:

Moreover, raising consumption taxes doesn’t make any sense if your stated goal is helping the poor, as Kasich was so adamant about in his address. There’s some debate over whether consumption taxes are regressive or not, but there’s real reason to believe that low and middle income groups, who can’t save as much and spend a greater share of their income, would subsequently take a hit from higher consumption taxes. There is no reason to believe that they shift the tax burden in a more progressive direction, and no reason to believe that they leave the working poor any better-off financially.

At the end of the day, this is an ideological debate over whether supply-side economics – better known as “trickle-down” – actually work. Multiple Republican presidencies have shown that Kasich is, at the very least, playing a dangerous game with the pocketbooks of low-income citizens across the state of Ohio. Moreover, a recent YouGov poll shows that 45% of Americans disagree with trickle-down policies, while only 29% of the public supports them. Even among Republicans, only about 50% take trickle-down seriously.

By contrast to his tax plan, however, Governor Kasich’s plan to reform Ohio’s school funding formula does appear to come from something of a compassionate place. Decades ago, the Ohio Supreme Court declared that the way the state allocates education funds is unconstitutional. His plan is an attempt to undo that by shifting resources from districts that can raise more money on their own to low-income districts that can’t.

Many of the wealthier districts would actually see cuts to their funding, however, so it’s no surprise that the plan elicited serious backlash – especially from his conservative colleagues in the legislature.

The legislature’s budget plans

School funding isn’t the only topic that the Republican dominated General Assembly has its own ideas about this budget season. State legislators have proposed big changes to Kasich’s tax plan. As with many budget negotiations, they’ve inserted in a host of extreme proposals in the hopes that even if they don’t all make it to the governor’s desk, at least some of them will.

Such measures were legion in this budget. There was one that would make it possible for counties to privatize jails if they end up in a fiscal crisis. Another proposal would have blocked the State Auditor from issuing citations to any public entity that does not comply or selectively complies with open records laws. The legislature considered defunding absentee voting. They mulled over controversial changes to the way the state deals with the developmentally disabled. A pair of anti-union measures would have negatively affected adjuncts and charter school teachers. And of course, there were plans to cut off hundreds of thousands of Ohioans from the Medicaid expansion Governor Kasich begrudgingly accepted. None of these ideas, fortunately, made it out of committee in the House.

Unfortunately, others did, like a provision that would stop any state-funded projects from using project labor agreements — another attack on unions. The fact is, Ohio General Assembly is so full of bad ideas that it’s hard to keep track. And they have plenty of time and another round in the Senate before the June 30 deadline when the governor must sign the budget.

How’s that for a moderate?

To further discuss the impact these policies might have on Ohio families, I spoke with Zach Schiller, research director at Policy Matters Ohio, a progressive think tank focusing on statewide issues.

Asked about the Kasich budget and the legislature’s budget, Schiller was upfront: “We don’t think that either plan would be very beneficial to Ohioans.” In terms of tax policy, he more than skeptical that cutting income taxes would create the growth the legislature had projected. As Schiller said, “the whole idea… has been discredited.”

Schiller walked through some recent events in Ohio’s tax history and elsewhere. Back in 2005, the state government – again under full Republican control – significantly cut income taxes and projected that this would generate massive growth. There was some growth in the years after, until the financial crisis. And in 2011, when the state faced an $8 billion budget shortfall, the actual cost of those tax cuts became much more obvious — the revenue predictions they had originally used to estimate their cost didn’t pan out. The whole situation, he noted, was not dissimilar to what we’ve seen in Kansas, where Governor Sam Brownback’s tax experiments have led to fiscal chaos.

But where Sam Brownback gets painted as a red-state ideologue, Kasich dons the mantle of a moderate. Schiller gave him credit for things like trying to pay for the tax cuts he proposed by raising revenues in other places. Although, many of those proposals, such as a hike on oil and gas severance taxes, got cut out of the House budget. And of course, allowing the Medicaid expansion to go through, granting half a million more Ohioans health coverage, has boosted his aisle-crossing bona fides.

A “Compassionate” Conservative?

A few cases of moderation do not erase certain other aspects of his record, as Schiller then explained.

When Kasich came into office in 2011, the state was facing a crisis in assisting its poorest families. Between December 2007 and February 2010, the state lost 406,800 jobs, and it only just formally recovered those losses a month ago. But during the recession, the state saw a 45% drop in caseloads for its cash assistance program, “Ohio Works First,” even as unemployment remained high. Various factors including onerous work participation requirements under the program made it simply impossible for many to stay enrolled because they weren’t any jobs in the near-depression, which hit rural areas especially hard.

Fixing Ohio’s cash assistance program would have required bold reforms and, among other things, changes to how the state allocates federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funds. A truly compassionate conservative would have made an effort. Instead, Kasich did nearly the exact opposite thing.

In 2013, Kasich refused to accept a federal waiver for the majority of counties in the state that would have lifted work requirements to receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits during the recession, effectively cutting off families from food stamps when many had already been cut off from cash assistance. Conceivably, a family of four making up to 11775 dollars of income a year and living in the wrong county could have found itself cut off from both SNAP and TANF. Being a fully funded federal program that participants can only use to buy food for their families, refusing the SNAP waiver was an utterly baffling move. Researchers at Policy Matters Ohio interviewed over 2500 adults in just one county who had lost access to SNAP benefits and found that about a third of them “suffer from poor physical or mental health.”

Schiller pointed out to me how especially disturbing he thought the decision was: “for someone to say that they’re compassionate and take that kind of step… showed the exact opposite impulse.”

Considering that the measure was already fully paid for, it’s hard to disagree. It would be wrong, of course, to say that John Kasich doesn’t have a bipartisan bone in his body. He does because he is a smart, practiced politician. But to look past the reality that his track record hasn’t always been so compassionate would be to miss at least half the story.

Washington Post poll: Filibuster-proof supermajority of Americans support marriage equality Fri, 24 Apr 2015 12:00:33 +0000 Yesterday, the Washington Post released a poll conducted with ABC News showing a record high 61 percent of Americans support marriage equality, with 35 percent opposed. The poll also showed a nearly identical level of support for requiring states to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states, and nearly identical opposition to allowing individual states to ban same-sex marriage.

In other words, if the American people were the Senate, full marriage equality could break a Republican (because of course it would be a Republican) filibuster.

This is the first time support for marriage equality has polled above 60 percent, and comes right before the Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments concerning the constitutionality of state bans on same-sex marriage next Tuesday.

The Post also noted in their release that the high level is support is not simply due to changing demographics. While younger Americans overwhelmingly support marriage equality, the rise in overall support comes from both a shift in generational makeup and greater support from older Americans than in previous polls.

At the risk of sounding arbitrary, I think an increase in support from 59 to 60 percent is more significant than an increase from 58 to 59 percent. Yes, marriage equality has had majority support in the American public for a few years now, but now it has a supermajority. That changes how we can talk about it — for example, two days ago I couldn’t quite use the word “supermajority” to describe public support for marriage equality. Now I can and I will. Frequently.

Once support for a given policy crosses the 60 percent mark, it’s not only difficult but downright silly to argue that the issue is “controversial” as if to imply that the public is even close to evenly divided over the issue. The minority may be loud, and they may be hateful. But it the public can’t be said to take them seriously.

That’s almost as big a deal as the Supreme Court not taking them seriously next week.

Bobby Jindal’s denial of our hyphen-nation Thu, 23 Apr 2015 15:00:01 +0000 At the First in the Nation leadership summit this past weekend in New Hampshire, potential Republican 2016 presidential candidate Piyush “Bobby” Jindal echoed remarks of his at CPAC earlier this year:

“I don’t know about you, I’m tired of the hyphenated Americans. No more “African-Americans.” No more “Indian-Americans.” No more “Asian-Americans.”

Jindal went on to assert that President Obama’s rhetoric “seems intent on dividing us by class, by geography, by race, by gender, by income.”

But is it really speeches that are dividing American society? Is the core of the “problem” our hyphens, which slash through the fabric of our nation?

After all, we are a society that almost entirely consists of folks who originally were from someplace else. Some families came 200 years ago, some came two weeks ago, but the story of the United States is comprised of individuals tales of immigration. I don’t know about you, but growing up attending public schools in northwest Ohio I was spoon-fed the nationalist myth of the melting pot, and later that of the salad bowl – that metaphor was more in vogue when I was in high school. I believed it then, and I believed it when then junior Senator Obama made the speech that would galvanize his career at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. As I use my own family history to try and deconstruct my Turkish university students’ notions of a solely or predominantly blond-haired blue-eyed America, I believe it still. Our diversity is our strength.

So whether Bobby Jindal likes it or not, the story of America is one of a hyphen-nation.

I don’t think I need to explain that we don’t live in a post racial society, as some would like to argue. The choice to attach one’s religious, ethnic or national origin (or sexual orientation for that matter) to their American identity, in addition to the pride and cultural awareness such a choice can foster, should also be seen in light of that group’s treatment in American society at large. No one can convince me that the experiences of a black American are the same as those of a Hispanic American or an Arab American. The prejudices and stereotypes faced by a Hindu American or a Jewish American or a Muslim American, and the relative safety any of these groups, are not a result  of their inherent “American-ness,” but of their identities which include that of American. The prefixes that some Americans choose to affix to their sense of national self are not lines of demarcation, but rather windows into both the historic legacy they inherit and their unique lived experiences. When Bobby Jindal tries to pull the curtain on that window, quite clearly with the hope of targeted political gain, he insults what real American-ness is built on (multi-pluralism) and deeply offends some members of the Indian American community as well.

Lets also not forget the substantial political power that is employed via ethnic national or religious identification in this country. Look at the fundraising details of many political candidates and you find that, especially early in their careers, they seek the support of those who come from similar ethnic or religious backgrounds.  Political candidates with Greek heritage, Polish heritage, Arab heritage, Asian heritage, Latino heritage; candidates who are Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Buddhist, Mormon…all are known to both actively seek and receive unsolicited financial support from individuals and organizations on the basis of those identities.

Piyush "Bobby" Jindal, via Christopher Halloran /

Piyush “Bobby” Jindal, via Christopher Halloran /

Bobby Jindal, of course, is not removed from this long-established practice. The history of Indian American support for his political career is as long as that career itself. This is no small part of his hypocrisy regarding identity and political messaging, of course. For example, the United States India Political Action Committee (USIPAC) began its engagement with Bobby Jindal in as early as 2003, organizing coalitions to support his 2004 campaign. It seems to have worked, as Jindal reportedly received more than $2 million in campaign contributions that year from members of the Indian American community. At just one 2007 fundraiser, a Dr. Desai in Louisiana raised, “more than $100,000… for Jindal’s campaign.”

His latest comments about eliminating hyphens from identity discourse are just another step in Jindal’s long history of distancing himself from the community that has long celebrated his political successes. Though often seen as a role model for future potential Indian American candidates, one has to wonder what kind of message Jindal sends to those future generations by downplaying his own heritage. To me, the schism he creates in the Indian American community by doing so is perhaps the largest insult he makes to the project that is American society and pluralistic political participation.

As a kid, I knew which of my classmates had German heritage, or Vietnamese heritage, or Irish heritage, or Japanese heritage, or Scottish heritage, or Mexican heritage, or Ghanaian heritage, or Chinese heritage, or Polish heritage, or an amalgamation of heritages because we openly discussed and celebrated our backgrounds in the context of our coursework on civics and American history. Bobby Jindal likes to talk about the importance of instilling in our schoolchildren a sense of pride in the legacy of American exceptionalism. While I find the implications of that kind of rhetoric troubling, I will say this: if Bobby Jindal wants American children to grow up feeling a sense of pride in their nation, how is denying the very thing that makes the United States exceptional productive?

The longstanding myth, the longstanding danger in what was once the epithet of “hyphenated American” is that of dual loyalty, implying a lack of patriotism or worse as a result of identifying with one’s cultural or religious traditions alongside their American selves. Despite this, I am grateful to have always been given the space to celebrate my German and Egyptian heritage in the context of my sense of self as an American citizen. Living in Turkey as I do currently, I tend to blend in and so when people find out that I’m American, I usually explain that both of my parents are born and raised American citizens, but that my mother’s family came to the United States from Egypt (hence my coloring, which is often the source of the confusion). My most difficult, most important and indeed most frequent task as a Fulbright ETA here is explaining my families immigration stories, and having to defend the “American-ness” of my mother’s side of the family.

Those who have come and settled in the United States have had a long and dark history of presuming that the longer they or their ancestors have resided in the States, the more “American” they are, and that myth has journeyed out into the world as a result. As scholar Ashis Sengupta has noted, “American national identity had long been synonymous with a single white, male, middle-class culture – a collusion of race, gender, and class.” I am none of those things, but I am an American national, and I retain my right and, indeed, my privilege as an American to assert that I am as American as my paternal grandmother’s cheesy potato casserole, and I am as American as my maternal grandmother’s stuffed grape leaves.

Like Bobby Jindal, my name and my identity are as intracultural as my nation; my name is Tess Waggoner, and I identify as an Arab American. But unlike Bobby Jindal, I refuse to deny or downplay any given aspect of my identity, because I know that my story and my family’s story are an intricately woven part of the larger story of the nation which all of my immediate family so gratefully calls home. Unlike Bobby Jindal, I don’t see my choice to identify as an American with an addendum as something divisive; quite to the contrary, I see it as evidence of my pride in my identity as an American.

Hyphens aren’t shredding the fabric of our society, they’re the stuff of that fabric.  Using a hyphen or a capital letter does not negate ones American identity, it celebrates it.

Senate cooks go on strike, highlighting issues with privatized public services Thu, 23 Apr 2015 13:00:40 +0000 Bertrand Olotara is a cook employed by the federal contractor that operates the Senate cafeteria, Compass Group. Yesterday, he announced in The Guardian the he and his coworkers are going on strike. Compass Group pays him $12 an hour to live and work in Washington, D.C., and that is not a living wage:

I had to take a second job at a grocery store to make ends meet. But even though I work seven days a week – putting in 70 hours between my two jobs – I can’t manage to pay the rent, buy school supplies for my kids or even put food on the table. I hate to admit it, but I have to use food stamps so that my kids don’t go to bed hungry.

Now, before anyone raises their hand to say that $12 an hour ain’t bad — after all, it’s well-above the federal minimum wage of $7.25, and more than the $10.10 that President Obama has mandated federal contractors pay their employees — remember that the same conservatives who oppose raising the minimum wage are the ones who are quick to point out that tweaking the tax rate on the top 1 percent isn’t fair. Because 1 percenters live in major metropolitan areas like New York and Washington, where the cost of living is so high that $250,000 a year isn’t actually all that rich. If these HENRYs (High Earner, Not Yet Rich) have it so bad, imagine how hard it must be for Olotara.

Or Charles Gladden, who puts in more than eight hours a day at the Senate cafeteria and is currently homeless.

In Washington, D.C., cost of living is high to the point at which $12 and hour, and another part-time job on top of that, isn’t enough to support a family. And, as I and others have noted recently, when wages aren’t high enough to support workers’ most basic needs, the government steps in to pick up the slack.

And I thought conservatives were against socialized labor.

Going beyond the wage issue, however, the Senate cafeteria strike raises the less-covered question of why in the world the United States government is contracting labor out to a foreign company (Compass Group is based in the United Kingdom) that doesn’t pay living wages and doesn’t allow its workers the right to collectively bargain.

In short, decades of underfunded government — not government programs, but government itself — have taken quite a toll.

No one thinks about what kind of computers the EPA uses, or whether Congress has independent staff researching the bills they propose, or whether the people who serve Senators lunch can feed their own families when they get home. In an era of budgetary antipathy toward the federal government, voters have set incentives for Congress to cut first and ask questions later — if at all.

This has led to a government that increasingly relies on “public-private partnerships” — in which private companies are hired to do the work we’d normally expect the government to take care of. This can range from serving lunch to fighting wars. The Senate cafeteria, for example, was privatized in 2008. In shifting money off of the bureaucracy’s balance sheet and into the private sector, Congress is able to shave off some spending that would otherwise be lumped in with what the voters feel is unnecessary government excess. If you’re wondering why the federal government doesn’t pay its interns, there’s a big part (although not all) of the reason.

The executive branch can barely get room in its budget for buying paper. From senior staffers to the janitors, no one is paid what they’re worth. This has contributed to a brain drain in the federal government, in which our best and brightest graduates choose “financial security” over public service, and it’s also led to a world in which the Senate cafeteria has been turned into a reverse soup kitchen, with the homeless working for the well-off.

Regardless as to which line items they fall under under, the American people pay for basic government functions. And while many aren’t fully aware of it, we get what we (don’t) pay for. We don’t get to cheer on freezing or cutting pay for federal workers, and eliminating offices that conduct internal research and review, if we then turn around and complain that our government doesn’t work. Successful businesses invest in themselves. It’s time we did the same.

This surprise engagement video is beyond adorable and will make you melt Wed, 22 Apr 2015 19:12:02 +0000 We were just sent a stunningly heartwarming engagement video sent to us from a reader, Amber Baysinger.

She surprised her girlfriend, Adelia, with a proposal video that got their friends, family and pets in on the fun. Amelia said yes (of course!) and they can’t wait to be legally married in Amber’s home state of Texas.

Congratulations, Amber and Adelia!

Hillary Clinton and the echoes of history Wed, 22 Apr 2015 16:00:27 +0000 The launch of Hillary Clinton’s campaign opens up a long eighteen months (assuming she eventually secures the Democratic nomination) in which friends and opponents alike will battle to define her. Clinton is likely to change campaign tactics many times, but some things about her are not going to change, and one of them is her religious background.

In an increasingly pluralist America, Clinton represents the mainline Protestant establishment that has been falling from the top of America’s cultural hierarchy.

As a Methodist and a Democrat, she is positioning herself as a standard-bearer for church-going liberals (an oft-overlooked demographic), who are dismayed at the growing influence of right-wing Catholics — such as House Speaker John Boehner, VP candidate Rep. Paul Ryan and Chief Justice John Roberts.

Hillary is thus standing in the shadow of Eisenhower and even older Protestant men. Indeed, we may have to go back to the 18th century to find leaders who had the political appeal, along with the limitations, that she does.

Frederick II of Prussia (born 1712, died 1786) was a ruthless monarch who led his kingdom through two wars against other European powers. He used his Protestant affiliation to great effect in grabbing the Protestant-majority province of Silesia from the Austrian Empire. At the same time, he cultivated an image of the “enlightened absolutist,” willing to take on entrenched interests such as the landed aristocracy so that administration could be modernized. In an age before modern democracy, Frederick used all the techniques of positioning and cunning diplomacy that today’s presidential candidates are expected to have down pat.

Frederick’s adversaries were, for the most part, other monarchs, but his style of rule, with policies including compulsory military service, was considered forceful even by observers of the time. All told, he left a less-than-progressive legacy of authoritarianism in Germany, so much so that his brand of forceful nationalism led him to be embraced as an icon by the Nazis.

Hillary may be able to leave an equally decisive imprint on American history as president, but to get elected she will likely have to incorporate her religious values in her rhetoric, and fashion a somewhat new persona as a leader grounded in Christian faith.  Her Republican opponent is, without a doubt, going to play upon the fears and resentments of conservative Christians; she needs to offer a more forward-looking vision that is also grounded (in fact, better grounded) in Christian scripture. Nostalgia for the 1990s is useless; those who are truly, achingly nostalgic for the days when open homosexuality was taboo in Washington aren’t worth her time.

The quasi-monarchical position of the Clinton family in the U.S. today invites a comparison with hereditary rulers of the past, no matter how populist Hillary’s campaign may appear. I raise the example of Frederick II, an “enlightened champion” of the 18th century to point out that the human desire to see privileged people crusade on behalf of the oppressed (however that slippery term is used) may not have changed that much in 250 years. Hillary Clinton, as Frederick did, must thread the needle of maintaining an image of reliable Protestantism and American tradition while also tapping into the zeitgeist of these post-confessional, techno-utopian times. It is an unenviable task.

Possible new HIV therapies, and the potential for a cure Wed, 22 Apr 2015 14:00:39 +0000 Antiretroviral medications have been at the forefront of HIV treatment for years. Used in multi-drug combinations, they’ve been effective in controlling HIV infections by acting synergistically to lower the number of circulating HIV particles — to undetectable levels in many patients.

These drugs have prolonged the lives of many of those with all over the world, but they don’t cure HIV. They don’t cure HIV because some HIV infects specific cells in the immune system, and can then remain dormant there. Over time, this HIV from some of the infected cells can become active again, replicate and be released into the bloodstream. This cycle can keep repeating such that the virus will always eventually reappear. The antiretrovirals suppress the virus, but if the drugs are stopped, the virus returns to the blood. The antiretrovirals and the patient’s immune system hold the virus in check, but neither side wins.

Researchers have been working for years to try to end this stalemate. Recently a few new techniques have been developed that may help with the problem. None of these techniques represent a cure in and of themselves. But, perhaps, if used in conjunction with each other and the antiretrovirals, they may be able to produce a cure in the future.

Broadly Neutralizing Antibodies (BNAs)

HIV is a shapeshifter virus. It mutates often. Some of these mutations affect the surface of the protein outer coat of the virus. At times, when that happens, the antibodies that the patient has made to destroy the HIV will no longer work. These antibodies have specific structures that mate with reciprocal structures on the virus. When that reciprocal structure changes, the antibody fails to attach to the HIV particle. When that happens, the HIV isn’t cleared by the body and the virus can then remain in the blood infecting other cells. It can continue to infect at least until the immune system retaliates by shapeshifting on its own to produce new, effective antibodies.

Scientists have discovered that there are some antibodies against HIV that aren’t limited to a single, small site. That is, these antibodies don’t focus on just a small part of the HIV coat. They look at larger pieces of this shell. These antibodies can still work even when mutations cause small changes in the structure of the virus. This class of antibodies, called broadly neutralizing antibodies (BNAs), has been synthesized and can be injected in to humans.

Scanning electron micrograph of the HIV-1 virus, colored green, budding from cultured lymphocyte, via Creative Commons

Scanning electron micrograph of the HIV-1 virus, colored green, budding from cultured lymphocyte, via Creative Commons

There has been an initial trial of BNAs in humans. A dose of BNA was injected intravenously into volunteers. Those who had HIV showed a significant decrease in viral load, usually within a week after the injection. Their viral loads gradually started to increase as the infused antibody deteriorated over time. If this result is duplicated in other trials, it may mean that HIV can be suppressed with an IV injection every few months. Possibly freeing HIV patients from daily medications.

Data from these trials could also lead the way for the development of an anti-HIV vaccine. Researchers may find a way to get the immune system of an uninfected person to start producing BNAs that would then protect them from acquiring HIV. Again, not a cure by itself. But read on to see another strategy that might be combined with this for a possible cure:

Kick and Kill.

One of the problems in treating HIV is the fact that the virus establishes reservoirs in certain populations of cells. As I mentioned above, the virus in these cells can act to reseed the bloodstream with HIV episodically and thereby prevent antiretrovirals and the body’s immune system from removing all of the HIV allowing for a resultant cure.

The concept of “kick and kill” refers to targeting the cells that still harbor HIV. Depending on the study and drug(s) used, researchers will target the cells that host the resting HIV, attempting to either totally destroy all of the infected cells, cause them to eject all of their protected HIV or some combination of both.

In one technique, some of the individual patients’ specific HIV RNA is harvested. That RNA is then given to dendritic cells. These cells are then used to stimulate the production of T cells that are even more efficient than the patient’s own active T cells, as they are better at locating infected cells and destroying them. As those infected cells are destroyed, the HIV is released and can be cleared from the blood.

Another method uses a drug that acts to cause the cells infected with HIV to externalize the virus. The end result is that most of the cells survive now without having any remaining HIV.

Dr. David Margolis is trying a different approach. He’s using a class of drugs known as histone deacetylace inhibitors (HDACs).
One member of this class, vorinostat, when applied to HIV-infected reservoir cells, causes the HIV to reanimate, replicate and burst out of the cells. The idea is that patients given vorinostat could have a massive release of all of their hidden HIV at the same time. If those patients are also given BNAs and are taking antiretrovirals, all of the patient’s HIV would, in theory, be expressed from cells, neutralized and cleared. Thus resulting in a cure.

Of course, all of the above are still in various stages of development. Only two have made it into FDA clinical trials as yet. A lot of work still needs to be done on all of these possible therapies. That will take a few more years, at least. But all of these are interesting possibilities for treatments and, possibly a potential cure, showing how creative researchers can be when facing such a challenging problem as HIV.

4 questions that GOP candidates don’t deserve a cookie for if they answer correctly Wed, 22 Apr 2015 12:00:41 +0000 As the Republican primary season heats up, the potential candidates are getting bombarded with questions. Some of them are good; others are bad; still more are completely empty.

Many in all three categories aim to pluck at the tension between the Republican primary and general electorates, forcing candidates to send ideological signals to voters that they wouldn’t volunteer on their own.

These types of questions — the ones that require Republican candidates to choose between South Carolina and Ohio — are the ones many on the Right cry foul over. They’re “gotcha” questions, designed to further a liberal agenda by making Republican candidates “look bad” when they answer with standard Republican talking points.

And when these candidates choose the general electorate, risking blowback from Fox and the Kochs and the Family Research Council, we’re supposed to stand up and applaud. How brave they must be, what with their saying what every sane person in the room knows they should have said!

This is ridiculous. You don’t deserve a cookie for correctly answering easy questions, however difficult your deranged base may make it seem. Here are a few of the questions that GOP candidates are having a really difficult time answering, and that they deserve no credit for when they finally do figure out answers:

1. Is President Obama a Christian / does he love America?

Variants of these questions got quite a bit of play back in February, right when the invisible/unannounced primary field was beginning to gel. That was also when Rudy Giuliani said what 62 percent of Republican voters believed at the time, that President Obama doesn’t love America, and reporters naturally lined up to ask likely GOP candidates if they agreed.

In response, Republican contender after Republican contender, fully cognizant of those polling numbers, fumbled through answers that led many of us to believe that if you had asked them “Is President Obama a reptilian snake demon from the Black Lagoon?” they would have paused before saying “I take him at his word that he isn’t.”

The one candidate who made any degree of sense during that news cycle was Marco Rubio, who (rightly) rolled his eyes at the absurdity of the question before saying “I’ll suffice it to say that I believe the President loves America; I think his ideas are bad.”

The only reason this answer earned Rubio any points is because of how badly the rest of the field handled the question, ranging from Rand Paul’s and Jeb Bush’s refusal to “question President Obama’s motives” to Scott Walker’s and Lindsey Graham’s “I’m not a scientists/psychologist, so I gosh darn it I can’t say for sure.” Rubio was the only candidate to use the word “love” to describe President Obama’s feelings toward the country that he, you know, is in charge of. But since he calmly stepped — not jumped — over the bar, he was able to plant his flag as some kind of voice of reason in the GOP circus.

2. Would you attend a gay wedding?

On Monday, Slate’s William Saletan devoted an entire article to walking through each candidate who has tried (and failed) to tackle this question through their missteps, coaching them on how to handle it in they event they are granted a mulligan.

As a refresher, those answers were:

The correct answer to this question is the same answer you give to any other wedding invite: “Yes. Unless it was really far away or I didn’t really know the person or there was something I’d rather do than, you know, go to a wedding.” It really isn’t that hard.

Of course, as Kasich learned the hard way, this answer is inevitably followed up with the question the reporter meant to ask in the first place: “How do reconcile that with your opposition to same-sex marriage?”

Kasich responded to this followup by shrugging his shoulders and chalking it up to a reasonable disagreement amongst friends. Saletan, appropriately, took him to task:

If you’re going to your friend’s wedding because you care about him and you don’t want to make a statement by not attending, that should tell you something. Don’t block millions of people from being legally married just so you can claim that you’re morally opposed to same-sex marriage when, in fact, you aren’t.

You don’t get a cookie for saying you’d go to a same-sex wedding if you, as president, would prevent millions of other same-sex weddings from taking place. “Would you attend a gay wedding?” is being used as a proxy for “Do you think gay people are real people?” as if saying yes to the former means saying yes to the latter. It doesn’t.

3. Do you believe in evolution?

As Keith Blanchard has noted in The Week, you don’t “believe” in evolution; you understand it. Saying you don’t believe in evolution is like saying you don’t believe in supermarket strawberries, which humans have bred over the years into bigger, fatter, juicier versions of their original species. The same is true of dogs and infection-resistant bacteria.

In other words, evolution is a thing. It’s occurring all the time, and in your daily lives. It isn’t a matter of faith.

And while it may seem like it doesn’t have any direct federal policy implications, whether or not our president understands basic scientific principles, or is at least willing to defer to people who do on questions relating to science, is critically important. As Neil DeGrasse Tyson pointed out last week:

But the moment the politicians start saying they are in denial of what the scientists are telling them, of what the consensus of scientific experiments demonstrates, that is the beginning of the end of an informed democracy.

Marco Rubio, these cookies aren't for you, via Creative Commons

Marco Rubio, these cookies aren’t for you, via Creative Commons

If our President suggests, with absolutely zero evidence, that the measles vaccine you’re about to give your child might give them autism, that isn’t just a difference of opinion; it’s dangerous. If our President sends a message to students across the country that science is just for nerdy “experts” who play around with “fuzzy math” but don’t actually know anything, we’re going to raise a scientifically illiterate generation. You can’t take any Presidential candidate who talks about science, technology or education seriously if they don’t take evolution and other scientific consensuses seriously.

No Republican candidate has come out and said that they believe in evolution, let alone understand it. And I don’t expect any of them to anytime soon. But if they do, they deserve an “It’s about time,” not a medal.

Speaking of which…

4. Do you believe in climate change?

Again, this isn’t a matter of belief. The science is settled on the fact that the climate is changing. All evidence points to humans contributing to this change. A lot. Furthermore, all evidence points to us needing to do something about this — and fast — to avoid having to redraw all of our maps with new coastlines in the next 100 years. You either understand this, or you don’t.

But we’re at a point in our civil discourse where a Republican who agrees with any of the words in the above paragraph, with the possible exception of “the” and “climate,” has literally earned themselves a freaking medal. Because courage!

That isn’t courage.

And the Republican who earned themselves that medal, former Congressman Bob Inglis, isn’t even running for office this year. The few Republican candidates who go as far as to admit that the climate is changing — none of them admit that humans are causing it or can do anything about it — have coalesced around the game-changing talking point of “So what?”

Check out Marco Rubio’s answer to the climate change question from his appearance on Face the Nation last week (and watch all the way through to hear him admit that being gay isn’t choice, but that he’s still against same-sex marriage):

Per Rubio, the climate is changing, but “scientists can’t tell us” how much curbing our carbon emissions will do to reverse the damage we’ve already done. So even if those nerds are right that it’s our fault, it’s probably too late. We might as well make sure that, when the time comes, we can put a ton of people to work building beachfront property in Pine Bluff, Arkansas.

And Rubio’s supposed to be the bold, new, tough-talking intellectual Republican in this race. Please.

Seeing as the effects of climate change are set to have far more disastrous economic effects than the measures proposed to mitigate those effects, this Republican concern over jobs is really just concern for donors who operate in fossil fuel-based industries.

And if any Republican candidate dares piss off the Kochs and adopts, say, a Republican-backed market-based approach to tackling climate change, like cap-and-trade, they don’t deserve a medal for doing so. They deserve a nod and a welcome into the community of sane Americans who accept the scientific consensus on a critically important issue facing the world in the 21st Century.

As Stephen Colbert said, reality currently has a well-known liberal bias. But that doesn’t make it courageous for a Republican to hop on board. It makes them rational. In the event that any of the Republican candidates see the light in the coming months, or try to Etch-a-Sketch their way to sanity after primary season is over, let’s not forget that just because they’ve lowered their standards doesn’t mean we can’t hold them to normal ones.