Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Justice Scalia Thinks the Supreme Court Should Follow the Will of the Executive and Congress Except When He Thinks the Supreme Court Should Ignore the Will of the Executive and Congress

Today the Supreme Court handed down its rulings in the DOMA (United States v. Windsor) and Prop 8 cases. While I have not yet had an opportunity to read either opinion (and, frankly, I’m not sure that either will qualify as good poolside summer vacation reading material…), comments that I’ve seen online have drawn my attention to one particular passage in the DOMA case. In his dissent, Justice Scalia writes:

That is jaw-dropping. It is an assertion of judicial supremacy over the people’s Representatives in Congress and the Executive. It envisions a Supreme Court standing (or rather enthroned) at the apex of government, empowered to decide all constitutional questions, always and everywhere “primary” in its role.

Did you get that? By ruling that DOMA was unconstitutional, SCOTUS asserted “judicial supremacy over the people’s Representatives in Congress and the Executive”. Hmm. First, let’s remember that the Executive who was just re-elected in November believed that DOMA was unconstitutional. Moreover, and more interesting, Justice Scalia did not make a similar argument when just yesterday he voted to overturn “the people’s Representatives in Congress and the Executive” in their view that the Voting Rights Act was both constitutional and necessary. So, in Justice Scalia’s worldview, it’s a bad thing to strike down laws that are opposed by the President and which actually discriminate against people but it’s a good thing to strike down laws that are supported by the President and by the Senate 98-0 and which, when invalidated, will lead to actual discrimination against people. Or, said differently, the determining factor of when it’s appropriate for SCOTUS to “assert judicial supremacy over the people’s Representatives in Congress and the Executive” seems to turn on which result will do actual harm to minorities.


And for those who wonder whether Justice Scalia’s views are a function of legal reasoning or are, rather, tinged with animus towards homosexuals, allow me to offer this collection of his views (from Mother Jones):

Justice Antonin Scalia has written that “it is our moral heritage that one should not hate any human being or class of human beings.” Judging by the things he has said in court or written in his legal opinions about gays and lesbians, he doesn’t really mean it.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments over whether the Defense of Marriage Act and California's ban on same-sex marriage are constitutional. Despite Scalia’s long public history of expressing revulsion and contempt for gays and lesbians, on the subject of whether people of the same sex should be allowed to marry, he is among the nine people whose opinions will really matter. Here are the lowlights of Scalia’s anti-gay comments:

“Flagpole Sitting”

What’s a little frat-boy humor between justices? In 2003, during oral arguments in Lawrence v. Texas, the case challenging a Texas law that criminalized homosexual sex, Scalia came up with a tasteless analogy to illustrate the issue. “[S]uppose all the States had laws against flagpole sitting at one time, you know, there was a time when it was a popular thing and probably annoyed a lot of communities, and then almost all of them repealed those laws,” Scalia asked the attorney fighting the Texas law. “Does that make flagpole sitting a fundamental right?”

Let’s throw gay people in jail because some people don’t like them

In his dissent in Lawrence, Scalia argued that moral objections to homosexuality were sufficient justification for criminalizing gay sex. “Many Americans do not want persons who openly engage in homosexual conduct as partners in their business, as scoutmasters for their children, as teachers in their children’s schools, or as boarders in their home,” he wrote. “They view this as protecting themselves and their families from a lifestyle that they believe to be immoral and destructive.” Some people think obesity is immoral and destructive — perhaps New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg should have imprisoned people who drink sugary sodas rather than trying to limit the size of their cups.

Laws banning homosexual sex are like laws banning murder

In his dissent in the 1996 case Romer v. Evans, which challenged Colorado’s ban on any local jurisdictions outlawing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, Scalia brought out an analogy that he’s used to attack liberals and supporters of LGBT rights for years since. “Of course it is our moral heritage that one should not hate any human being or class of human beings,” Scalia wrote, in the classic prebuttal phrasing of someone about to say something ludicrous. “But I had thought that one could consider certain conduct reprehensible — murder, for example, or polygamy, or cruelty to animals — and could exhibit even ‘animus’ toward such conduct. Surely that is the only sort of ‘animus’ at issue here: moral disapproval of homosexual conduct[.]” It’s true that people generally disapprove of murder, but there’s more going on in laws banning murder than mere disfavor — the rights of the person being murdered, for example.

…And like laws banning child pornography, incest and bestiality

Scalia decided to take the “moral disapproval” argument up a notch in his dissent in Lawrence, writing that the Texas ban on homosexual sex “undeniably seeks to further the belief of its citizens that certain forms of sexual behavior are ‘immoral and unacceptable,’” like laws against “fornication, bigamy, adultery, adult incest, bestiality, and obscenity.” Scalia later tees up “prostitution” and “child pornography” as other things he thinks are banned simply because people disapprove of them.

Homosexual couples are like roommates

Not content to analogize laws singling out people on the basis of sexual orientation to laws banning murder, Scalia suggested in his dissent in Romer that the relationships of same-sex partners were comparable to those of roommates. “[Colorado’s ban] prohibits special treatment of homosexuals, and nothing more,” Scalia wrote. “[I]t would prevent the State or any municipality from making death benefit payments to the ‘life partner’ of a homosexual when it does not make such payments to the long time roommate of a nonhomosexual employee.” Like his “flagpole sitting” comment, this remark goes far beyond the law in expressing Scalia’s basic animus towards same-sex couples, implying that what they experience together cannot even properly be considered love.

First they came for the Cubs haters…

Scalia’s dissent in Romer is a long lament over the supposed “special rights” being granted to people on the basis of sexual orientation. In one section, he complains that banning discrimination based on sexual orientation in hiring amounts to granting gays and lesbians special treatment that Republicans, adulterers, and Cubs haters don’t get. He writes “[A job] interviewer may refuse to offer a job because the applicant is a Republican; because he is an adulterer; because he went to the wrong prep school or belongs to the wrong country club; because he eats snails; because he is a womanizer; because she wears real animal fur; or even because he hates the Chicago Cubs.”

Have gays and lesbians tried NOT having homosexual sex?

During oral arguments in Lawrence, the attorney challenging the Texas law argued that it was “fundamentally illogical” for straight people to be able to have non-procreative sex without being harassed by the state while same-sex couples did not have the right to be “free from a law that says you can’t have any sexual intimacy at all.” But Scalia pointed out that gays and lesbians could just have sex with people of the opposite sex instead. “It doesn't say you can’t have — you can’t have any sexual intimacy. It says you cannot have sexual intimacy with a person of the same sex.” Later on in his dissent, Scalia argued that Americans’ constitutional right to equal protection under the law wasn’t violated by the Texas law for that reason. “Men and women, heterosexuals and homosexuals, are all subject to [Texas’] prohibition of deviate sexual intercourse with someone of the same sex.” That should sound familiar: It’s the same argument defenders of bans on interracial marriage used to make, arguing that the bans were constitutional because they affected whites and blacks equally.

You decide.

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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Reflections on a Few Recent Articles Concerning the Israeli-Palestinian Dispute

Over just the last few days, I’ve come across several articles that, especially when taken together, help expose some of the fallacies and disingenuous positions taken by those who oppose Israel.

First we have the article Anti-Israel “Rabbi” in anti-Semitic attack in Amsterdam detailing how an ultra-Orthodox Jewish member of the anti-Zionist group Neturei Karta (several members of the group are pictured below to give you an idea of the likely appearance of the victim) was attacked by an apparently Muslim man. Before the physical attack began, the assailant apparently shouted slurs at the rabbi. When the rabbi called for help … he was ignored.


Why do I direct your attention to this incident? Because we’re told time and time again that opposition to Israel is about opposition to Israel and its policies and is not anti-Semitism or opposition to Jews. But it seems that at least one member of Amsterdam’s Muslim community was unable to make the distinction between anti-Israel violence and anti-Jewish violence. Of course, given that so much of the anti-Zionist/anti-Israel rhetoric is couched in anti-Semitic terms, I guess we shouldn’t be surprised, should we?

Which leads me to the second article, Palestinians: “No Jews Allowed!” by respected Arab Israeli reporter Khaled Abu Toameh.

“We will approve the meeting on condition there are no Jews.”

This is what you are likely to hear these days if you request a meeting with any senior Palestinian Authority official in the West Bank.

Palestinian journalists who try to arrange meetings or interviews with Palestinian Authority representatives for Western colleagues have become used to hearing such things almost on a daily basis.

Just last week, for example, a journalist who requested a meeting between Western journalists and a top Palestinian Authority official was told “to make sure there were no Jews or Israelis” among the visitors.

The official's aide went on to explain: “We are sorry, but we do not meet with Jews or Israelis.”

Another Palestinian journalist who tried to arrange an interview with a Palestinian Authority official for a European colleague was turned down “because the man's name indicates he is a Jew.”

In yet another recent incident, a Palestinian Authority ministry instructed its guards to “prevent Jewish reporters” from attending an event in Ramallah.

First, it’s hard to make peace if you won’t meet or talk to the other side. But, OK, so the Palestinians won’t meet with Israelis. But Jews? If the opposition is merely to Zionism or the State of Israel, then what is the problem with meeting with Jews or allowing a Jewish reporter to ask a question? Imagine the international outcry if Israeli officials refused to meet, not just with Palestinians (whom they are actually willing to meet with…), but with any Muslim. We’d hear cries of racism from every corner of the globe. But when Palestinians expand their objections beyond Israelis to all Jews? Crickets.

Which brings me to the third article, also by Khaled Abu Toameh: Lebanon’s Apartheid Laws. How often have you heard Israel referred to as an Apartheid state or heard condemnation heaped upon Israel for its treatment of Palestinians? But what about Palestinians in Lebanon? Have you heard much about the way that Lebanon treats them?

About three years ago, the Lebanese government decided to amend its Apartheid law that denies Palestinians the right to work in as many as 20 professions.

Then, Palestinians were told that from then on they would be able to work in many professions and even own property in Lebanon. But now Palestinians have discovered that the Lebanese government, like most Arab countries, has lied to them.

Although Palestinians have lived in Lebanon for more than six decades, they are still treated as foreigners when it comes to obtaining a work permit, according to Lebanon’s The Daily Star newspaper.

Lebanon is not the only Arab country that openly enforces Apartheid laws against Palestinians.

Palestinians have, in fact, long been treated as third-class citizens in most of the Arab countries, where they are denied not only basic rights such as employment and health care, but also citizenship.

For example, Palestinians in Lebanon are banned from working as doctors, dentists, lawyers, engineers or accountants.

By contrast, anyone visiting an Israeli hospital or medical center would quickly notice the presence of a significant number of Arab doctors, nurses and pharmacists.

Hmm. So why don’t we see movements on college campuses to boycott, divest, and impose sanctions against Lebanon (or other Arab countries for that matter)? Shouldn’t Lebanon’s treatment of its Palestinian population be subject to the same scrutiny as Israel’s treatment of its Palestinian population? For that matter, shouldn’t the Palestinian Authority’s treatment of the Palestinian population of refugee camps in the West Bank under the control of the Palestinian Authority be subject to the same scrutiny? But it isn’t, is it. Ask yourself why.

And that leads me to yet another article: A modest proposal for a new ‘Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions’ campaign [internal links omitted; typos in original]:

There is a country in the Middle East which makes a great play of being a democracy and about espousing Western ideals regarding human rights, and is forever bragging how different this makes it to its despotic Arab neighbours. But this self-same Middle Eastern country for decades now has been occupying the lands of one of its neighbours and conducting apartheid-like discrimination against its internal minority community. Its charismatic right-wing leader has one message for its close ally the United States and for the EU, with which it seeks closer ties, but quite another for its internal allies.

Isn’t it time this so-called democracy was held to account, and was made to face up to its hypocrisy? Isn’t it time the international community as a whole, and the International Solidarity Movement in particular, launched a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Turkey?

The crux of the argument by those engaging in BDS [boycott, divestment, sanctions] against Israel is that, no, they don’t single out Israel because it’s a Jewish state or because it is an ally of the West. They choose to boycott only Israel, they claim, because it’s a democracy and should therefore behave like one — and because boycott of a tyrannical regime doesn’t work, whereas boycott of a democracy can influence its citizenry to lobby for change to the offending policies.

Well, dear friends of the BDS movement, now is your chance to prove that you are not just shills for terrorists and Arab rejectionism, that you are not closet antisemites or anti-western ideologues and that you really care for oppressed peoples everywhere.

Now that the eyes of the world are focussed on Turkey, here is your chance to say no to Turkey’s occupation of Cyprus. Here is your chance to say no to Turkey’s institutional discrimination against Kurds who, unlike the Palestinians, have no autonomy, no government, no parliament, no courts, no police, no education system of their own, and whose very language is suppressed by government edict. Now is the time to send your message to Prime Minister Erdogan and his cronies that the world will no longer tolerate their brutal repression of human rights.

Israel is constantly accused of committing a non-existent genocide against Palestinians. Turks committed a real genocide against Turkey’s Armenian population, but even mentioning that historical fact can get a reporter or author thrown in jail in Turkey.

And you’ve probably heard it said, again and again, that Palestinians are the “indigenous” population and that Jews … er … Israelis are colonizers. Well that argument doesn’t sit very well with Ryan Bellerose, a Métis from Alberta, Canada, founder of a the native rights group Canadians for Accountability, and an active member in the native rights movement Idle No More. In his editorial Native, Jewish bond thicker than water, Bellerose takes direct aim at this Palestinian claim (I reprint the entire article in case it is no longer accessible via the Toronto Sun’s website):

Justice for Palestinians is attempting to organize with the Council of Canadians a conference titled “Indigenous Perspectives on Water: Canada and Palestine.”

The objective is to conflate Palestinian and Native rights issues. Indeed, Justice for Palestinians is seeking a speaker from Idle No More, a Native rights movement in which I have been active. I take strong issue with Palestinians’ appropriation of the Native cause.

To begin, though Palestinian propagandists love to characterize Zionism (that is, Jewish nationalism) and the re-establishment of Israel in 1948 as colonial enterprises, it is the Jews who are aboriginal to the Holy Land. Alone among other nations, Jews’ language, history, culture and folklore were born and forged in the Holy Land. There is no statute of limitations on being indigenous. Accordingly, to claim the Jews are colonizers in the Holy Land delegitimizes all indigenous peoples because such attempts trivialize the unbreakable, maternal ties to the land that make us, like the Jews, indigenous.

In stark contrast, Arabs arrived to the Holy Land only in the seventh century, when Arabian armies colonized the Middle East. Longstanding presence may generate rights, but it is not synonymous with being indigenous. For example, Europeans have been on American soil for centuries but that does not render them indigenous in the political sense. Like Arabic culture in the Holy Land, white North American culture was imported via empire.

Tellingly, Palestinians are silent with respect to the rights of indigenous peoples still dominated by Arab states from Morocco to Iraq.

Second, there can be no comparison of the Palestinians’ experience to that of Native Canadians. North American indigenous peoples suffered unprecedented genocide. Our people were obliterated through massacres, disease, starvation and forced assimilation in an attempt to remove us from the pages of history. (This, ironically, was the declared aim of the Arab armies that attacked Israel in 1947.) Sixty-five million people were reduced to less than three. The Palestinians, on the other hand, have grown from a population of approximately one million in 1948 to more than six million today. The average Palestinian under Israeli rule lives in conditions that our people could only have dreamed of and that are often better than those on reservations. Moreover, the Palestinians have received approximately $30 billion in international aid since 1993. This, despite the fact that Palestinian nationalism’s preferred method of expression has been terrorism.

Third, I am offended that my people’s cause appears to serve merely as a prop for Palestinian propaganda. For example, I have seen materials juxtaposing Native-American symbols — the feather, a symbol of peace — to AK-47 assault rifles, a symbol of Arab militantism. And yet, unlike most Palestinian nationalist groups across the board, Native rights movements seek to be peaceful and inclusive. Palestinian groups who are otherwise all too eager to wrap themselves in the indigenous mantle systematically ignore this crucial difference.

Zionist activists, on the other hand, seem genuinely motivated to help and have shared innovative agricultural techniques with Native groups. They have highly relevant water technology to share as well. They are democratic and don’t exaggerate the tragedies they have suffered. And they listen. The importance of this cannot be overstated.

For too long, we Natives have let an uncompromising and reactionary Palestinian narrative substitute for facts. But today the stakes are too high for that. The Canadian government is currently fighting to remove protections from our waters. The impact of these measures could be considerable as many Indian communities still rely heavily on natural water sources. Natives cannot let themselves be used merely as ornamentation to often-damaging Palestinian propaganda.

My attention was also called to the report “Concluding observations on the second to fourth periodic reports of Israel, adopted by the Committee at its sixty-third session (27 May – 14 June 2013)” from the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (the advanced unedited version of which was released on June 14, 2013). The blog Elder of Ziyon pointed to one particular passage in this report that is quite troubling (there are several other sections in the report that also caught my attention, but the details of those issues are more nuanced and beyond the scope of today’s post). Anyway, the report criticizes Israel for … well, I hope you’re ready for this one. In sections 41-42, under the heading “Harmful practices” the report states (bold in the original):

41. The Committee expresses concern about reported short and long-term complications arising from some traditional male circumcision practices.

42. The Committee recommends that the State party [Israel] undertake a study on the short and long-term complications of male circumcision.

Did you catch that? The United Nations is “expressing concern” about traditional Jewish male circumcision practices. I’m sure that there is a similar report about Muslim circumcision practices, right? Right? Interestingly, the World Health Organization, also a United Nations organization recommends male circumcision as an bulwark against the spread of HIV/AIDS.

My attention was also called to a report from the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship and Presbyterian Church USA’s Office of Public Witness which states, in part:

If any peace agreement is to succeed, it must address core concerns of the conflict, including:

  • The cessation of systematic violation of human rights by any party, specifically, practices of administrative detention, collective punishment, the torture of prisoners and suspects, home demolitions and evictions, and the deportation of dissidents.
  • The end of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and diversion of water resources.
  • The dismantling of the wall between the regions.
  • An immediate freeze both on the establishment or expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and on the Israeli acquisition of Palestinian land and buildings in East Jerusalem.
  • A shared status for Jerusalem.
  • Equal rights for Palestinian citizens of the state of Israel.

Notice anything about the “core concerns” expressed by the Presbyterian church? Hmm. Let’s see now. Go back and look at that list and tell me what precisely the Presbyterians expect the Palestinians to do? The only things that seem to even remotely touch on Palestinian obligations are the cessation of “systematic violations of human rights” and “torture of prisoners and suspects”. However, I’m not sure if the the Presbyterians mean rocket fire into Israel when they talk about violations of human rights and the only prisoners and suspects being tortured by the Palestinians are other Palestinians (now that Israel traded over a thousand of prisoners for Gilad Shalit). But every other item in this list is directed solely at Israel. There is no mention of a cessation of rocket fire or terrorist activity. There is no mention of the cessation of incitement in the media (including, for example, children’s television shows). There is no mention of cessation of the glorification of violence (such as children’s summer camps or the naming of streets and soccer tournaments for suicide bombers). There is no mention of agreeing to sit down at a table and talk without preconditions. Nope. None of those things are “core concerns”. The only real way for a peace agreement to succeed, at least according to the Presbyterians, is for Israel to do everything and the Palestinians to just keep on truckin’ (or killin’, as the case may be).

Finally, it’s worth taking a few minutes to read this press release from the Anti-Defamation League about the newest book from The Color Purple author Alice Walker. Among the observations of the ADL:

  • Speaking of Black churches whose leaders recount Biblical stories about the Israelites’ various triumphs and travails, Walker writes, “It amazes me, in these churches, that there is no discussion of the fact that the other behavior we learned about in the Bible stories: the rapes, the murders, the pillaging, the enslavement of the conquered, the confiscation of land, the brutal domination and colonization of all ‘others’ is still front and center in Israel’s behavior today.”
  • On several occasions Walker seems to indicate that the purported evils of modern-day Israel are a direct result of Jewish values, alleging that Jews behave the way they do because they believe in their “supremacy.” She suggests that Israeli settlements are motivated by the concept that “possession is nine-tenths of the law,” which she claims is a lesson she “learned from my Jewish lawyer former husband. This belief might even be enshrined in the Torah.”
  • When discussing Israel’s alleged theft of Palestinian land, she writes, “Can people who hunger so desperately for what other people have ever have enough? One thinks of Hitler, of course, and Napoleon….” She writes of the inclusion of Israeli films in the 2009 Toronto Film Festival that it was comparable to “festivals in the past, festivals leading up to World War II,” which were designed to “make the bully look more respectable.”

There is more, but I think you get the point. I could spend a whole post on some of the things that Walker has said and done (not the least of which would be her praise of a conspiracy theory that seems to accuse Jews, the British Royal Family, and some others of actually being invading alien reptiles here to do … um … something evil — seriously). But I’ll leave that for another day.

Anyway, I thought that this group of articles and news items, all coming within a fairly short time period, were illustrative of types of canards and accusations being leveled both at Israel in particular and Jews more generally. To repeat a point that I feel I’ve made ad nauseum, criticism of Israel is not a problem. I do it myself from time to time. But when that criticism holds Israel to a standard different than that to which other nations are held, then there must be a reason for that double standard. When criticism of Israel is framed in terms of Jews or Judaism, rather than just Israel, then, again, there must be a reason. All too often that reason is anti-Semitism and claims that anti-Semitism (or simply hatred of Jews for those who have trouble with the term “anti-Semitism”) is not the basis for anti-Israel criticism must be closely examined to see when and if the criticism crosses the line from fair to … something else, something old, something vile and hateful and dangerous, something that has led to the persecution and murder of Jews for thousands of years. Call it whatever you want. But hatred of Jews is not justification for vilification of Israel and hatred of Israel ought not be the reason to hate Jews.

Unfortunately, that’s the world that we live in.

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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The NSA and Unreasonable Searches

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last week or so, it’s hard not to have seen or heard some of the breathless reporting on the NSA “whistleblower” Edward Snowden and the tales of the NSA’s alleged spying on Americans. I have lots and lots of thoughts on this still-developing story and I’ve held off writing about it because … well, it’s still developing and because my thoughts are somewhat jumbled and haven’t yet coalesced to form an overarching view of the entire situation. But I decided that I didn’t want to continue my own silence on the matter and that I should, instead, offer the thoughts that I have at present with the important caveat that I reserve the right to change my mind as facts continue to develop or on the basis of arguments that I hear on the subject from others. Open mind, and all that…

So, in no particular order (remember, I said that my thoughts were still jumbled…), here are my current thoughts:

First, I’ve seen a number of people suggest that the NSA’s data collection is in violation of the Fourth Amendment. In all honesty, I’m not so sure, I don’t think that it’s a slam dunk argument one way or another. Let’s recall that the Fourth Amendment protects, not against all searches, but “against unreasonable searches and seizures” (emphasis added). What, in the context of anti-terrorism efforts, constitutes an unreasonable search? I’m not sure that I know the answer to that question. But it does seem important to keep clear the context of the nature of the search that is being discussed, the information being sought, and the use to be made of any information obtained from that search. We’re not talking about searches to see who is illegally downloading movies or growing marijuana in their garage; we’re not talking about finding out who is cheating on their taxes or their spouse; we’re not talking about discovering which investment banks are knowingly selling junk investments or which home builders are capitalizing on undocumented immigrant labor. We’re not even talking about learning who might be planning to rob a bank or use a date rape drug at the next fraternity party. No. We’re talking about information that could help keep Americans from being killed by our enemies. With that in mind, I think what is “reasonable” may be vastly different in one scenario than in another. I’m much more willing to live with an intrusion of privacy or to view a search as reasonable when the purpose is to prevent a terrorist attack rather than to build a standard criminal case to be presented in a court of law. I’m not sure where I draw the line, but the Founding Fathers chose the word “unreasonable” because they recognized that context mattered and that times and situations could evolve. Thus, you may still feel that the NSA’s data mining operations are an unreasonable search but I don’t think that it’s fair to say that it is clearly a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Next, I suspect that the previous discussion will cause some long-time readers to accuse me of hypocrisy because I’ve repeatedly been critical of the Bush administration’s search and seizure policies. But there is one critical difference that I think properly inoculates me from the charge of hypocrisy: I believe that if you go back through my blog, you’ll see that my criticism was not for the act of acquiring information; rather, my criticism was of warrantless wiretaps. I don’t believe that I leveled criticism for trying to obtain information; I think that my criticism was for the perceived need to do so without a warrant. Now perhaps I’m wrong, but it’s my understanding that the NSA’s searches have been both overseen by Congress and approved by the FISA court (or based on a warrant obtained from the FISA court). Am I uncomfortable with the idea of secret warrants? Of course. But I’m more comfortable with a secret warrant than with no warrant at all; I’m more comfortable with some Congressional oversight than with no oversight at all. It’s not a perfect situation, certainly. I get that. But let’s also think about what a perfect situation might look like and whether it is obtainable and whether it could serve the national security function needed. I just don’t know. Given the stakes, though, my initial reaction would be to err, at least a bit, towards the side of safety. A bit.

I want to respect civil liberties and privacy; I also want to keep my family and my fellow citizens safe. I don’t think that we have to sacrifice all of our civil liberties or privacy to be safe, but I also recognize that safety must come with some cost. Is it a pain in the ass to take off my shoes at the airport? Of course it is. Is that a search or privacy invasion that I’m willing to live with given the scope of the infringement when compared to the harm being guarded against? You betcha! (Oooh, did that sound like Palin? Yikes. Sorry.) Like so many other issues, I think that we need to examine issues like this with a degree of pragmatism rather than hyperventilating about invasions of privacy and illegal searches or claims that without unfettered access to everything the terrorists will win. There are gray and blurry lines in the middle … but there is a middle ground to be found.

Whew. Sorry. Moving on…

I think it’s also worth mentioning that the data being mined by the NSA is metadata and not the actual content of the communications. I’m a lot less concerned with the notion that the NSA knows that a particular cell phone called another particular phone than I am with the NSA knowing what the parties to that phone conversation may have said to one another. Furthermore, if that sort of metadata helps the NSA find patterns that help them find the terrorists, then I’m not sure how worried I should be; again, we’re not talking about that metadata to see who might be calling a criminal defense lawyer, whether two business tycoons are calling one another to plot a monopoly, or whether Congressman X has a mistress that he calls on his way home. Rather, we’re talking about patterns that might allow us to prevent a terrorist attack.

(And please, don’t fall for the red herring argument that, “well, gee, the NSA data mining program didn’t prevent the Boston Marathon bombing. Nobody said that data mining would prevent every attack and, so far, we don’t really know what sorts of attacks it may have prevented. By way of analogy, just because an anti-aircraft missile battery didn’t knock down every incoming hostile missile is not a reason to jettison the entire missile battery, but it may be a reason to try to make it better; just because one gun control law wouldn’t have stopped Sandy Hook doesn’t mean that gun control law might not stop another tragedy.)

Maybe what I’m saying is that we need to think — at least somewhat — differently when we’re talking about information that will eventually be used by prosecutors in a court of law as opposed to information to be used by SEAL Team Six in the tribal regions of Pakistan. Even information used by the FBI to stop a bombing plot should be viewed differently than information that helps find and prosecute a criminal. Or, said another way, Information to put a criminal behind bars is different, I think, than information that will keep Americans alive. Just imagine if metadata had shown the NSA that a series of telephone calls from “burner” (one time) cell phones had been made to pilot training schools in late 2000 or early 2001…

Now I want to change my focus a bit and look at the man responsible for the leak of the information about the NSA’s programs: Edward Snowden. He is being referred to by many people as a “whistleblower”. As far as I can tell, that is a completely inaccurate description. A whistleblower is someone who reveals illegal acts. That is not what Snowden did; rather, he leaked classified information about Congressionally approved and court-sanctioned acts. The difference between revealing an illegal act and a legal act with which you disapprove is enormous and shouldn’t be overlooked, especially in this case. Perhaps look at the issue this way: Let’s say that Snowden (or someone like him), had information about the imminent assault on the compound in Pakistan where Osama Bin Laden was hiding but disapproved of that mission. Would disclosure of that mission information have been “whistleblowing”? Or what if Snowden (or someone like him) learned that the President had authorized a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facility and disclosed that information to a newspaper? Whistleblowing? Or treason? Or is there something in between?

I keep seeing comparisons of Snowden’s conduct to that of Daniel Ellsberg and the disclosure of the Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg has been making the rounds of the news shows to talk about Snowden’s “whistleblowing” activity. But I think that there are several crucial differences to be drawn between Ellsburg’s conduct (and the content of the Pentagon Papers) and that of Snowden and I think those differences are so fundamental that they make the comparison almost wholly inapplicable. First, and most important, the Pentagon Papers disclosure was of information of things that had happened in the past (specifically 1945-1967 when disclosed in 1971). Second, before going to the press with the information, Ellsberg tried to get people in the administration to pay attention to the information. Third, the information that Ellsberg disclosed had, in part, led to the United States’ involvement in and escalation of the Vietnam War and to 58,000 or so American casualties. A better comparison to the Pentagon Papers would be the disclosure of information showing that the Bush administration knew that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq before taking us to war. But a disclosure of information about ongoing activities related not to the escalation of a prior conflict but rather to the attempts to prevent future terrorist attacks is, I think, completely and totally different. For example, what if, rather than disclosing the NSA’s PRISM program, Snowden had disclosed information related to the operations of nuclear, chemical, and biological detectors installed in American ports to detect efforts to smuggle those sorts of agents into the United States?

A few other points worth considering, too. Daniel Ellsberg didn’t make his disclosure to a foreign newspaper as Snowden did. Ellsberg disclosed the Pentagon Papers to a respected journalist rather than to an advocate who clothes himself in a the guise of a journalist and who appears to truly despise many aspects of America including President Obama. Perhaps, most importantly, Ellsberg didn’t run. In fact, he turned himself in to the United States Attorney’s Office in Boston. Snowden, by contrast fled the country with the information before disclosing it. Not only that, he fled, not to an ally of the United States but to China. And then, as if that wasn’t enough, Snowden revealed additional information about American surveillance and espionage activities to both China and Russia. Those are not the acts of a patriot. And even presuming that Snowden’s disclosure of the NSA’s domestic surveillance programs was a form of “whistleblowing”, how can that designation be used when talking about the disclosure of information concerning how the American intelligence community conducts itself with regard to foreign governments?

Finally, Ellsberg had been involved with the Pentagon for years in a senior policy position. By contrast, there is some evidence to suggest that Snowden, who was only with the NSA for a fairly short period (and at a very low level not involved with policy), took his job with the outside contractor after he began communicating with reporters. Did Snowden take the job in order to get access to the classified information that he later stole and leaked? I think that’s worth considering. And if the facts demonstrate that Snowden did take that job under less than honest circumstances, isn’t that, by definition, a form of espionage? And what do we call it when someone commits espionage against the United States? Or, think of it this way: Imagine that everything that happened was exactly the same, but with one difference. Imagine that Edward Snowden was the alias of Pavel Nemekov, Russian spy, who infiltrated the contractor in order to access and then disclose information about the NSA. Or, what if instead of “Edward Snowden” the leaker was an American citizen named “Abdullah Mohammed”. Does that change how you view things?

I also think that it is worth noting a few of the things that Snowden said previously and in Monday’s online Q&A session. For one thing, he previously suggested that as a low-level NSA IT system administrator, he could wiretap anyone, including the President. Do you really believe that? Even for a minute? If Snowden is willing to make that egregious of an exaggeration, then how much should we trust the veracity of anything else that he says?

One of the most troubling statements, however, that Snowden made was this (emphasis added):

I did not reveal any US operations against legitimate military targets. I pointed out where the NSA has hacked civilian infrastructure such as universities, hospitals, and private businesses because it is dangerous. These nakedly, aggressively criminal acts are wrong no matter the target. Not only that, when NSA makes a technical mistake during an exploitation operation, critical systems crash. Congress hasn’t declared war on the countries — the majority of them are our allies — but without asking for public permission, NSA is running network operations against them that affect millions of innocent people. And for what? So we can have secret access to a computer in a country we’re not even fighting? So we can potentially reveal a potential terrorist with the potential to kill fewer Americans than our own Police? No, the public needs to know the kinds of things a government does in its name, or the “consent of the governed” is meaningless.

Snowden claims that he didn’t reveal operations against “legitimate military targets”. OK. And on what basis does Edward Snowden get to decide what is and is not a legitimate military target? How does a IT system analyst even know what the real targets of the data mining operations are? Then he talks about the NSA’s activities as “nakedly, aggressively criminal acts”. Um, what “crime” would that be? In which of Snowden’s law school classes did they discuss these crimes. Oh, wait. He didn’t go to law school. He decided which acts were criminal. Not Congress, not the FISA court, not the Executive branch, but Edward Snowden. But perhaps the most important line from this whole paragraph is when Snowden seems to scoff at the idea of espionage in the first place. Don’t we want our intelligence services to know what is going on in other countries, whether or not we’re at war with them? Isn’t that what our intelligence community is supposed to do? Or, in Snowden’s world, should our espionage activities be limited to working against North Korea (who, if I’m not mistaken, is the only country with which we technically have ongoing hostilities)?

The last series of points that I wanted to make concern the reporter to whom Snowden disclosed the information: Glenn Greenwald. I hate ad hominem attacks. I really do. That said, though, I think that it is often important to consider the source of certain information in order to determine both whether the information is accurate and whether there is a (possibly hidden) agenda to the way that information is presented, beyond simply revealing “the truth”. With Greenwald, unfortunately, it appears that accuracy and journalistic integrity are less important than his agendas.

I’ve wanted to write about Greenwald for a while now. But, alas, there is so much to say about him, so many unbelievable quotes to recite, so much written about his style of “journalism” and penchant for attacking anyone who challenges him without ever really addressing the issues, that I’ve decided that this post, long enough already, just isn’t the time to really get into a discussion of Greenwald. Let me just note any examination of Greenwald’s writing will reveal that he appears to have a tremendous amount of regard for two other leakers and a great deal of anger at the way that they have been treated: Julian Assange (founder of Wikileaks) and Bradley Manning (the US Army soldier who disclosed massive amounts of secret and confidential information to Wikileaks). The fact that these men are treated as criminals rather than heroes demonstrates, to Greenwald and his followers, that America and its western allies are … well … I’m not really sure. Police states or something. But I suspect that it was Greenwald’s lionization of Assange and Manning that appealed to Snowden.

If you’re interested in learning more about Greenwald before I get around to writing more about him, here are a few critiques worth reading:

The Daily Banter’s Official Helpful Media Guide for Interacting With Glenn Greenwald by Chaz Pazienza at The Daily Banter

On Glenn Greenwald and His Fans by Rick Perlstein in The Nation

Lawfare > Why I Won’t Engage Glenn Greenwald by Benjamin Wittes at lawfareblog

On bullying: Glenn Greenwald and the ‘Obama nun rape’ smear by Joy-Ann Read at Reid Report

Drooling Self-Love & Dime-Store Third Worldism by Unrepentant Jacobin at

A Greenwald primer – in progress (update 6/10/2013)

Glenn Greenwald: Neither a Liberal Nor a Progressive by Dana Houle

The Final Word on Glenn Greenwald by Troubador at Daily Kos

Not an exhaustive compilation, but it’s a good start…

In summary, then, as I said at the outset, I’m still not sure what I think about the NSA’s programs. That may be because I don’t know enough of the details (and, yes, I do recognize the chicken & egg problem there). But I’m pretty sure that Edward Snowden is not a whistleblower as I understand that term. Moreover, it does seem likely that his disclosures were harmful to the United States, especially disclosures that he made to China and Russia regarding American espionage activities.

As I was finishing this post, I recalled that I had written about Julian Assange and the Wikileaks disclosures back in December 2010. I re-read (well, skimmed…) that post again. Two passages from that post stood out and seem to remain applicable to the current controversy and discussion:

I think that most of us would agree that there are some secrets that are OK, and there are lots of things that I think a government probably should keep secret. Certainly, a government should not disclose military battle plans (and probably not contingency plans, either) or ongoing intelligence operations. A government should not disclose information that could directly lead to the death of a citizen (but what about the deaths of non-citizens?). We don’t need to know about cutting-edge research in military technology. And a government should probably be able to keep secret things that will put that country or its citizens at a competitive disadvantage with other countries or harm that country’s ability to work in the international community….

One other thing to keep in mind, is who should decide what information should remain secret and which information should be disclosed? It is probably too easy for a government to simply err on the side of secrecy; keeping the secret doesn’t harm anyone, but disclosing it might. The obvious distrust that many have in government may come from governments keeping too many secrets (or it may come from any of a number of other things, like torturing civilians, waging wars, denying rights, etc.). But as much as we may distrust governments to make a proper balancing determination with regard to what should or should not be kept secret, do we really think that the decision should be left to one or a few individuals who may have their own personal agendas (I’m pissed because I didn’t get promoted; my boss didn’t adopt my idea; I don’t like Secretary of State Clinton…)…

So, what do you think? Is Edward Snowden a hero or a traitor or something in between? Is data mining different than content disclosure? Do you object to the NSA having access to phone records? Let me know what you think.

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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Very Strange (and Scary?) Email

Over the weekend, I received a very odd email. The sender is identified as and the subject of the message is “HITLIST”. In case you don’t remember, an AR15 is the type of gun used in the Sandy Hook massacre. And in Aurora. And in Santa Monica. And the Sikh temple in Wisconsin. And other tragedies. is apparently a gun enthusiast website.

The email has no introduction or real message. It just starts with ALABAMA and is followed by a list of names and addresses, some with a question mark preceding the name. The list goes through all fifty states. Here is the entry for Indiana (though I’ve redacted the actual addresses):




?RICHARD G LUGAR, xxxxx, VALPARAISO, IN 46383-5558
?RICHARD G LUGAR, xxxxx, MC LEAN, VA 22102-2425
?RICHARD G LUGAR, xxxxx, JOHNS ISLAND, SC 29455-5421



LARRY D BUCSHON, xxxxx, NEWBURGH, IN 47630-8730

?ANDRE D CARSON, xxxxx, WASHINGTON, DC 20024-4503

?DANIEL R COATS, xxxxx, FALLS CHURCH, VA 22043-1754


?CHRISTY M STUTZMAN, xxxxx, IN 46746

TODD C YOUNG, xxxxx, BLOOMINGTON, IN 47401-7154



So do the names on that list look familiar? They should. It appears to be a not quite accurate list of Indiana’s Congressional delegation (Mike Pence, Dan Burton, and Richard Lugar are no longer members of Indiana’s delegation; Susan Brooks who is, is omitted from the list). I don’t know if those addresses are correct.

What is the purpose of this list? Why is it being emailed? Who is it being emailed to?

I spent a few minutes looking around online, but wasn’t able to find any good answers. Not surprisingly, a website for fans of Ron Paul has speculation that the email is from a pro-gun control group and is meant to sow fear in order to get gun control passed.

Maybe. But I doubt it.

I also doubt that it’s really supposed to be a “hitlist” for foes of the government to use to track down members of Congress at their homes. At least I hope it isn’t.

Nevertheless, this email caught my attention and not in a good way.

I’m curious to know if anyone else has received this email or knows anything more about its origin or purpose.


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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Hamas Child Care (Islamic Jihad edition)

In May 2009 I posted Hamas Child Care. To date, that remains one of the posts on my blog that has received the most views. Well, an article that I saw today prompted me to return to the subject matter of that prior post. Ynet News has a story, sourced from images from Agence France-Presse (AFP) about a summer camp operated by Islamic Jihad in Gaza. According to the Ynet News story (I have not been able to find the original AFP story):

In a somewhat unorthodox summer camp in the Gaza Strip, children aged between six and 16 picked up AK-47s and engaged in a series of quasi-military drills, including a lively game of “kidnap an Israeli soldier” in the sand dunes of Rafah.

An AFP correspondent listed some of the activities the Islamic Jihad summer camp offers its enrollees: Weapons use, jumping over fire and crawling under barbed wire, all performed to the tune of exploding charges.

Aside from technical skills, camp organizers also promise religious lessons.

Several photographs released on Wednesday show a young khaki-clad vacationer, his face colored in camouflage, dragged by two gun-toting tykes from an “outpost” adorned with an Israeli flag, in what appeared to be a reenactment of the Gilad Shalit kidnapping.

AFP reported that the summer camp organizers expect the participation of thousands between the ages of six and 16.

And now the photos:


Please explain to me how peace will ever be accomplished if one side raises their children in summer camps where the lessons are violence and war.

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Thursday, June 6, 2013

More Examples of Today’s GOP Being Out of Touch With Reality, Civility, & the Basic Concepts of a Functioning Government

Today I want to take a brief look at several items from the last few days that, I believe, help demonstrate just how far removed from reality the Republicans and the right have strayed from reality.

First, we have a video of a Q&A session with former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Did you catch the question that was posed to Rumsfeld?

As you go around the country, do you have any sense or the same sort of sinking feeling that the rest of us have that [Obama has] actually switched sides in the War on Terror?"

“Switched sides in the War on Terror…” And note how the audience applauds the question. While much of Rumsfeld’s response focuses on President Obama’s policies with regard to Guantanamo and indefinite detention, note that his only answer to the actual question is “You know, I just don’t feel competent to answer. I can’t tell.” Wait, what? Rumsfeld, the former Secretary of Defense and architect of the war in Iraq, isn’t competent to tell if President Obama has “actually switched sides in the War on Terror”? Seriously?

Rumsfeld may have legitimate policy disagreements with President Obama. That’s fine. And he articulates some of them. But to allow a question that accuses the President of treason, of working for the terrorists and against America, to go without an immediate and strong condemnation is inexcusable. It’s dangerous. It just feeds further the flames that have been stoking the right’s indignation and belief that President Obama is “un-American” or … well, something other than the legitimate, twice elected President of the United States. “See, look! Even Rumsfeld thinks that Obama might really be a sekrit Mooslem working for al-Qaeda” is how this sort of non-denunciation may be received. We can’t keep letting questions like this be dignified as legitimate. Doing so will do nothing more than continue the erosion of the core that binds our country together.

Compare Rumsfeld’s answer to the answers that then-presidential candidate Sen. John McCain gave at a rally in October 2008 (shortly after Sarah Palin went off on her unscripted attacks on then-Sen. Obama):

See the difference? Sen. McCain defuses the arguments about trust or “otherness” and focuses, instead on policy. Look how far the Republicans have fallen in just 4½ years. What does that say about their vision for America?

But let’s move on, shall we?

Article 2, Section 2 of the Constitution gives the President the right to appoint federal judges. Currently, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals has three vacancies. And so President Obama nominated three people to fill those vacancies. That doesn’t seem to sit well with Republicans. In just the last few weeks, at least three Republican senators (Minority Leader Mitch McConnell [R-Kentucky], Sen. Mike Lee [R-Utah], and Sen. Chuch Grassley [R-Iowa]) have accused President Obama of trying to “pack” the Court. That claim is, of course, completely false; as noted by Politifact, “packing the court” refers to the effort to add seats to a court in order to appoint more judges and has nothing to do with appointing judges to fill existing vacancies on a court. But that narrative isn’t as powerful to the GOP who wants to deny President Obama even the ability to carry out his constitutional duties and, instead, frame his efforts to do so as illegitimate. In fact, Sen. McConnell said in a press conference that he questioned “the appropriateness of confirming these three judges” and “whether this circuit court — which is apparently less busy than all but one circuit court in the nation — needs to have a full complement of judges”.

Republicans have also introduced legislation to reduce the size of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals by, you guessed it, three seats. Query whether that is to become the new standard method of doing business? If a Republican is elected President, should Democrats reduce the size of courts to deprive the new Republican President from nominating judges to fill vacancies? Or perhaps Democrats should simply filibuster virtually every nominee for any post as Senate Republicans have done. Imagine a government in which a President cannot get any of his (or her…) chosen nominees confirmed unless the President’s party has a supermajority in the Senate. Is that what the Founders intended? Would that be good for America?

But let’s continue on, shall we?

I told the following bit to my kids last night on the way to dinner. They’re 13 and just finished 7th grade. Their responses to the following story: “insane” and “stupid”. I’m not sure which I prefer. But you have to wonder when 13-year-olds who don’t follow politics “get it” while elected officials … don’t.

You may recall that many Republicans blame the group ACORN for “stealing” the election for President Obama in 2008. And you may recall the “sting” videos that showed ACORN employees doing all sorts of “heinous” things. You may not recall, because it didn’t get anywhere near as much media coverage, that when the full, unedited versions of those sting videos were released it showed that the ACORN employees, in fact, did nothing wrong and that the videos had been fraudulently edited to imply wrongdoing. But never mind that. In 2009, Congress banned ACORN from receiving federal funds (for things like voter outreach and voter registration drives). Thus, in the wake of bad press and a loss of federal funding, in early 2010, ACORN dissolved. The organization hasn’t existed in three years. Gone. Finished. Kaput. Does not exist.

But you see, that’s only true in the reality-based world. In the reality-free world of the modern GOP, ACORN is still an evil villain to be feared. That’s why Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) included the following language in a government funding bill that he introduced last week:

None of the funds made available in this Act may be distributed to the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) or its subsidiaries or successors.

And just in case that was too nebulous, the next day Rep. John Carter (R-Texas) introduced language in another funding bill to be sure that appropriations from previous funding bills couldn’t be given to ACORN. Which still does not exist.

I’m curious. How many jobs will be created by introducing two pieces of legislation to ban federal funding of an organization that ceased to exist three years ago?

That’s what I thought.

Moving along…

Republicans have also been parroting a talking point that former IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman visited the White House 157 times, the implication being that he was visiting the White House to help plan the “discrimination against” Tea Party groups. But, as seems to happen so many times, those articulating and repeating this talking point have no concept of looking beyond the numbers or of analyzing what something might really mean.

“The alibi the White House has wedded itself to is that it had to work closely with the IRS to implement ObamaCare,” the Investor's Business Daily has written — as if that were not true.

And yet the public meeting schedules available for review to any media outlet show that very thing: Shulman was cleared primarily to meet with administration staffers involved in implementation of the health-care reform bill. He was cleared 40 times to meet with Obama’s director of the Office of Health Reform, and a further 80 times for the biweekly health reform deputies meetings and others set up by aides involved with the health-care law implementation efforts. That’s 76 percent of his planned White House visits just there, before you even add in all the meetings with Office of Management and Budget personnel also involved in health reform.

Complicating the picture is the fact that just because a meeting was scheduled and Shulman was cleared to attend it does not mean that he actually went. Routine events like the biweekly health-care deputies meeting would have had a standing list of people cleared to attend, people whose White House appointments would have been logged and forwarded to the check-in gate. But there is no time of arrival information in the records to confirm that Shulman actually signed in and went to these standing meetings.

Indeed, of the 157 events Shulman was cleared to attend, White House records only provide time of arrival information — confirming that he actually went to them — for 11 events over the 2009-2012 period, and time of departure information for only six appointments. According to the White House records, Shulman signed in twice in 2009, five times in 2010, twice in 2011, and twice in 2012. That does not mean that he did not go to other meetings, only that the White House records do not show he went to the 157 meetings he was granted Secret Service clearance to attend.

But you see, none of that helps drive the conspiracy-mongering or the drive to prove that President Obama did something evil. (Oh, and don’t forget that Shulman was appointed IRS Commissioner by President Bush; do you really think that a Bush appointee would conspire with President Obama to target Republican groups?)

I also want to direct your attention to this video of Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Oklahoma) speaking on the floor of the House of Representatives a few days ago. See if you can count how many half-truths or outright falsehoods Rep. Bridenstine manages to work into his one minute rant.

Did you catch his conclusion?

Mr. Speaker, the President’s dishonesty, incompetence, vengefulness and lack of moral compass lead many to suggest that he is not fit to lead. The only problem is that his vice president is equally unfit and even more embarrassing.

Imagine, if you will, the outcry had a Democratic member of Congress made a speech like this about President Bush?*

It was just a few years ago when a Republican member of Congress heckled the President during a speech to a joint session of Congress. Now we have a Republican Representative saying, on the floor of the House, that the President is dishonest, incompetent, and vengeful and, most importantly, lacks a “moral compass”. But then Republicans have been looking for reasons, practically since President Obama was inaugurated, to commence impeachment proceedings. They’ve already decided he’s guilty; they just need to figure out what he’s guilty of (well, other than being a Democrat … and black).

It may be worth noting that Rep. Bridenstine is the Congressman I wrote about back in March who claimed that “Just because the Supreme Court rules on something doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s constitutional.” In other words, he’s clearly not one of the bright intellectual bulbs on the Republican side of the aisle. But he can sling an insult, can’t he?

We should also look at the statement last week from Rep. Steve Stockman (TP-Texas) about the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty (regulating the international trade in conventional arms), which would have absolutely no impact on the domestic laws of the United States:

The right to keep and bear arms is granted by God and protecting from government aggression by the Constitution. It is not subject to the whims of global totalitarians massed in New York City,” said Stockman. “I oppose any UN treaty touching the right to keep and bear arms. It’s beyond time for the United States to withdraw from the UN.”

It’s worth noting the only three countries that voted against the UN Arms Treaty: North Korea, Iran, and Syria. Don’t you feel more comfortable knowing that Republicans are siding with those countries in their view of the Treaty? And can someone point me to the clause in the Bible where G-d talks about the right to keep and bear arms to protect against government aggression? I don’t seem to recall which chapter told the story where Jesus picked up his AR-15 to fight off the Romans. For that matter, do you really have a right to take up arms against the government?

I could go on. I could talk about how Republicans responded to recent reports that women are the primary breadwinners in 40% of American households (hint: It’s “against nature” and “against science”). I could talk about any number of other things. But I don’t feel like it. This post is long enough already. More importantly, it’s unbelievably depressing to write posts like this. As I keep saying, I don’t mind honest disagreements on policy, but when those disagreements are devoid of factual basis or ignore reality or just repeat lies, then those disagreements cease being honest and worthy of consideration. And it seems that all too often now, from all too many voices, today’s Tea Party controlled Republican Party has left the reality-based world and entered into Alice’s Wonderland.

*Before someone finds a similar speech about President Bush, please be sure that it’s about issues of similar import to those being spoken about by Rep. Bridenstine and not, for example, about the decision to invade Iraq leadings to the deaths of thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and costing a trillion or more dollars or about permitting Americans to torture those in our custody; I don’t know about you, but I view those sorts of acts as way, way more important that what some low-level staffers did at the IRS or attempts by the government to stop leaks of classified information.


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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Abolish the IRS? Seriously? Do These People Even Think Before Speaking?

Once again, we’re hearing voices from the right suggesting that we “abolish the IRS”. Seriously. For example, this weekend, in an interview on Fox News, Sen. Ted Cruz (TP-Texas) said:

“I think we ought to abolish the IRS and instead move to a simple flat tax where the average American can fill out taxes on postcard,” he explained in a Fox News interview over the weekend. “Put down how much you earn, put down a deduction for charitable contributions, home mortgage and how much you owe. It ought to be a simple one-page postcard, and take the agents, the bureaucracy out of Washington and limit the power of government.”

It’s worth noting that Sen. Cruz didn’t simply “misspeak” or use “inarticulate language” in the interview. No. That’s really what he meant. How do we know? Well, here’s a video that Sen. Cruz made (and note the title of the video: “Abolish the IRS Now”).

Apparently, he meant what he said. Did I mention that he’s a Harvard grad? That august university must be so proud. Of course, he also said that Harvard Law School had twelve communists (his word) on the faculty “who believed in the overthrow of the U.S. Government”. Again, seriously. And to think people take this guy seriously or think of him as a viable candidate for President in 2016. I suspect that I’ll have much to write about Sen. Cruz in the coming years.

Anyway, back to the main thread…

But it’s not just Sen. Cruz calling for the abolition of the IRS. Ron Paul has been calling for the abolition of the IRS since at least 2009. Mike Huckabee has supported similar proposals. Soon-to-be-former (thankfully) Rep. Michele Bachmann (TP-MN) has specifically called for the IRS to be abolished (while lying). The Daily Caller (you know, the pinnacle of journalistic integrity) recently ran an editorial entitled simply “Abolish the IRS”. The Senate Conservatives Fund has set up a website There’s a Facebook page with 51,671 likes (as of the time that I wrote this). Not surprisingly, there is a Twitter hashtag #AbolishtheIRS (and a review of that hashtag for just this morning’s tweets will reveal observations such as “IRS shreds Constitution”, “IRS has turned the American citizenry into subjects”, and “It's either this or Banana Republic time”). Popular thriller writer (and occasional Glenn Beck host) Brad Thor has chimed in on Twitter to advocate for abolishing the IRS (he has also called for people to “rise up in civil disobedience against the IRS”). And the Tea Party News Network is running an online poll asking readers whether the IRS should be abolished.* There are more examples. Many, many more.

How stupid are these people?

The point of this post isn’t to debate what reforms, if any, we need in our tax code and taxation policy. No, I want to focus just on the shorthand attack that is gaining Tea Party (mostly) momentum: Abolishing the IRS.

So let’s go back and look at Sen. Cruz’s proposal again:

I think we ought to abolish the IRS and instead move to a simple flat tax where the average American can fill out taxes on postcard… Put down how much you earn, put down a deduction for charitable contributions, home mortgage and how much you owe. It ought to be a simple one-page postcard, and take the agents, the bureaucracy out of Washington and limit the power of government.

See any problems? Let’s start simple: To whom do I mail my postcard? Congress? The President? Some giant Post Office Box in Washington? Presuming that the giant PO Box exists, I’m supposed to take this postcard and write down how much I earn. I presume that based on that I’m going to pay an amount in taxes, right? I’ll gloss over who I make the check payable to; we’ll assume that the payee is The United States of America. But let’s say that I’m not really a big fan of paying taxes. You know, like if I was a Tea Party kinda guy… What’s to keep me from, you know, lying? Hmm. How much did I earn? It was a tough year, so I’ll just say that I earned $178.35. I should be safe doing so (even if I might feel a bit guilty); after all, who is going to check to see if I lied? The same thing goes for writing down my charitable contributions and my mortgage. Hmm. I seem to recall giving just over a million (or was it three million?) to the charity my wife and I established to pay for our vacations to Disney. Seems fair, no? And again, who is going to check to see if I lied? For that matter, who will check to see if I even sent in my tax postcard? Or paid my taxes?

Starting to see the problem?

How are we going to determine what qualifies as a charity? And who should investigate whether a charity is real or a sham? Who is going to help promulgate regulations setting forth what qualifies as income? What qualifies as a tax-deductible expense? Who will ensure that everyone pays what they’re supposed to and chase those who don’t? Who will make sure that those who can afford to “hide” their income are compelled to pay their fair share?

And even if the eventual decision is to switch away from an income tax and toward a national sales tax, just who is going to collect those funds? Who will make sure that all retailers collect taxes and forward them to the government? Who will prosecute retailers who fail to collect the taxes or who pocket a portion of what they collect?

Wait a minute. I know! I have the answer! We can form a new governmental agency tasked with helping to write and enforce the tax laws. We can be sure that the agency has a staff to check the tax postcards that people mail in to be sure that they are correct and that people aren’t cheating. We can have that agency examine entities that think that they should be classified as charitable or tax exempt to be sure that they’re not violating the law and are, in fact, charitable or deserving of tax exempt status. And the staff of this new agency could be charged with prosecuting citizens who don’t pay their taxes. Isn’t that a great…


Oh, wait.

Never mind.

The problem isn’t the IRS. There might be a problem with the tax code. Like I said, that’s a question for another day and it’s a fair discussion to have. But the simple notion of “abolish the IRS” is just … silly. Or worse. And while I recognize that some of those calling for the abolition of the IRS understand that it’s just a shorthand way to express a desire to reform the tax code, I suspect that the vast majority of those who parrot this line don’t see any further than the expression itself. I mean, think about it. These are the people who think Obamacare was a “government takeover” of healthcare; that President Obama is a sekrit Mooslim who is allied with al-Qaeda, hates white people, and is a communist hell bent on destroying America; that the UN will force America to take away guns; that Agenda 21 is a plan to force us into a concentration camps so squirrels can live unmolested; that bike sharing is a sign of the devil; that women can’t be trusted to make decisions about their own bodies; and that the Earth is just 6,000 years old and that Abraham rode from Ur to Canaan on the back of his pet T-Rex (or was it a triceratops? I get confused).

If we want to talk about tax policy, then let’s have that discussion. But calls and surveys and petitions designed to work low information voters into a frenzy is yet another disingenuous and dangerous political ploy.

Two more quick points: Civil disobedience regarding taxes? Really? So you’re going to deprive the government of money (and commit a crime at the same time…). OK. So which things should we defund now that we’re not getting your money? The military? Your social security check? If you don’t like the tax code, work to change it. Don’t commit a crime.

Second, is the standard now that anytime we have a scandal tied to a branch of government, we should simply abolish it? So, then we should abolish the military because of the torture at Abu Ghraib, right? Abolish the CIA because of torture, right? Instead of “abolish” as a gut reaction, how about we work together to find reasonable ways to solve problems? Oh, wait. That might involve compromise. Never mind.

*I know that you’re curious how the Tea Party News Network framed the question for their poll, right? I mean, it’s not like how the question is framed could have any impact on the result, right?

With the most recent Obama scandal in which the IRS was used as a political weapon to intimidate and harass conservative/tea party groups, some, including Sen. Ted Cruz and, are making the call to abolish the IRS.

Looks like a totally unbiased question to me; phrases like “political weapon” and “harass” would never lead one to a particular result.

I took the poll, just to see what the results looked like.

image I presume that my “no” is included with that 0.5%.

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