April 2010

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Rags and Bones


by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net



The new Jimmy Carter


            Is President Obama another Jimmy Carter....highly intelligent, ineffectual, out of touch with politics and presentation, and lacking control over his own party?


New York politics


            Just when you thought the Paterson administration could not get any sadder or more ridiculous, the Governor intervenes to protect his former driver and current consigliere in a domestic abuse case. People are starting to resign from his administration in droves, and not too far in the future he will have to resign himself, like his predecessor. Its a ridiculous thing to wonder, but what would it take to get a governor in  New York who can stay the course? Will we have to endure decades of Republican rule brought on by this ridiculous cluelessness?


            It is also time for Charles Rangel to go and let someone not as obviously corrupt take over. He's been in office too long, and too carelessly.


Virginia gun sales


            About fifteen years ago, Virginia was badly embarrassed by the discovery it was the leading source of murder weapons in New York City. Gangbangers were riding in on Greyhound buses, then hiring local “straw men” to walk into gun shops and buy arm loads of weapons. Indiscriminate drug fire among competing drug crews in New York projects was taking out not only gangbangers, but little roller-skating girls. Virginia adopted a rule that nobody would be allowed to buy more than one handgun per month.


            The Virginia House of Delegates recently voted to repeal this rule. In today's new, Rush Limbaugh and Tea Party-driven, “fuck you” atmosphere, Virginia apparently no longer needs to show a “good neighbor” policy to New York.  “We shouldn’t get rid of our Second Amendment rights because some people in New York City want to abuse theirs,” said Robert Marshall, a Republican delegate from Manassas.


Amicus crimes


            I was stunned by the Solicitor General's answer to a Supreme Court justice's question during the argument of an appeal of a federal law vaguely criminalizing unspecified support for terrorism. Justice Kennedy asked Elena Kagan whether filing an amicus brief on behalf of a terrorist group would be a crime.  Kagan said,  "To the extent that a lawyer drafts an amicus brief [for designated terrorist groups] ... then that indeed would be prohibited."


            I myself have committed this crime. In 2004, I filed an amicus brief arguing that Jose Padilla, an accused Al Qaeda terrorist then held in a military brig, should be transferred  into the federal court system for a civil trial.

            Filing that brief is one of the things I have done in my life of which I am the proudest.


            I am unable to figure how Elena Kagan, an intelligent and skilled lawyer, could possibly consent to say those words, about which I cannot believe she felt any conviction. Or how the Obama administration could require her to defend a law which so obviously violates the First and Fifth Amendments.


Where are we living?


            I connect these last two items together: the “fuck you” uttered by Virginia to New York and the “fuck you” exclaimed by Elena Kagan in the direction of the Constitution. These are small signs, but they each signal a terrible transformation of this country into something harsh and dishonest, not necessarily a place I will want to continue to live.


Back to military commissions


            There are apparently some early indications that the President may back away from his commitment to try Khalid Sheikh Mohamed and other 9/11 plotters in civil trials. This would be extremely disappointing, and would confirm a growing sense that the President has become something of a weathervane—which isn't buying him anyone's respect or increasing his political capital.


            Trying Al Qaeda terrorists in civil courts is in my opinion the touchstone issue in the ongoing debate as to whether we plan to remain a democracy or not. Military commissions are kangaroo courts, without guaranteed rights as to admissibility of evidence, confronting testimony against you, and the other underpinnings of a fair trial.


            I hope the President stands his ground on this issue.


            Republican efforts to deny funding for civil trials and force a military commission, by the way, are an unconscionable intervention by the legislative branch in the affairs of the other two branches: the executive, which decides who to prosecute and where, and the judicial, which carries out the trials.


The Pentagon gunman


            The thirty-something California man who fired on Pentagon police and got himself killed is the latest in a series of people who have attacked institutions of government in this country—the young man who shot military recruiters, the Austin programmer who flew his plane into an IRS building are two other recent examples. The first was an Al Qaeda wannabe and the second was the subject of a posthumous debate as to whether he was an adherent of the right or left. With this latest would-be killer, we will certainly see the same attempt by each party to blame him on the other. He was apparently a conspiracy theorist, a hater of big government and the Iraq war.


            It seems to me that with fringe individuals, it is almost a useless debate to try to categorize them as left or right. Politics is a Moebius strip anyway, and people tend to disappear off one end of the spectrum and reappear on the other. The real question is, of the two parties, who is pitching their message to the political fringe today, and engaging in rhetoric most calculated to inspire violence? Answer: the Republicans win, with their accusations of socialism and gun-grabbing.


Attacks on lawyers

            A group led by Liz Cheney is attacking Justice Department lawyers who previously represented Guantanamo detainees. This has led to a commendable backlash from lawyers, including some conservatives, who point out that under the American system, even Adolf Hitler would have been entitled to a vigorous defense.


            The Cheney attack is consistent with Solicitor General Kagan's statement, noted above, that filing an amicus brief might be a federal crime.


            What we are tending towards is a Soviet show trial system, in which controversial defendants either won't be able to get lawyers, or will obtain token representation who will at the crucial moment revile their own clients, and ask  for the maximum penalties.


            Either way, it will not be democracy.


Eric Holder


            Attorney general Eric Holder is also being attacked for filing a Padilla amicus brief in which he said, “our nation has always been prepared to accept some risk as the price of guaranteeing that the executive does not have arbitrary power to imprison citizens.”


            I am very proud to be a member of the group who filed amici briefs in the Padilla case.


Glenn Beck is an idiot


            Glenn Beck is catching some flack for saying that “social justice” in sermons is a codeword for Communism and urging people to leave their churches.


            The scary thing about demagogues is that they exert maximum authority with no responsibility. Whenever authority and responsibility are sundered from each other, there is always a problem.


            Glenn Beck probably decides what to say based on the impact it will have and the press it will get. He probably believes some part of it, but that's not the point. Any damage he inflicts he will always say is someone else's fault.


            Demagogues are the worst people on earth, short of those who commit actual physical violence. They hound and destroy people's careers and lives, and chip away at any system in which they live with the goal of destroying it or at least impeding its function. These are strange times; an easily swayed electorate eager for someone to blame, and a weak president, have given Beck an almost blank canvas on which to paint his images of hatred.


Texas textbooks


            Among the proposed standards changes to be echoed in textbooks distributed in Texas, I was most interested to see that a reference to Thomas Jefferson. He apparently is not idolized by the far right, because he called for a separation of church and state.


            If the right ever gets a lock on education in this country, it will be a major step towards the oligarchy I see in our future. Already, anyone who works in the technology industry knows how hard it is to find Americans who are up to the same par as Indians or Chinese when it comes to math and programming skills. Texas textbooks, with their questioning of evolution and global warming, their suspicion of the civil rights movement and rejection of cultural diversity,  their glorification of America as a Christian country, their support of mindless American exceptionalism, will take us a long step towards a new peasant class, a feudal society in which the rich will send their children abroad to be educated.


Health bill passage


            Two cheers for the Democrats for finally growing a pair. There was also some communication so that I now have a better sense what the bill does, though I am still unsure if or how it will affect me. I hope the backlash the Republicans are gleefully summoning will not happen, but even if it does, there is a certain moral and historic glory having done the right thing. The Republican claim that the bill has to be repealed so that a vague reform can be passed at an unspecified time is a new height of mendacity for them.


John McCain


            He is a tired, bitter old man who has now sold out everything he once stood for—independence, integrity, immigration and campaign finance reform. I hope his Tea Party opponent defeats him.


Sarah Palin


            She will host a documentary about Alaska on one of the self proclaimed educational cable channels (all of which now seem to specialize in the same serial killer and UFO programs as everyone else). This is astonishing and funny, considering how hard she fought against any kind of environmental regulation. When she shows footage of polar bears, will she explain why she opposed listing them as endangered? When she shows the glaciers melting away at an unprecedented rate, will she tell us humans have nothing to do with it? Or, even better, will she introduce a new low  in outdoors reality, maybe shoot a polar bear and use melted glacier to mix a tequila sunrise in celebration?