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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for September 15, 2014

Mon Sep. 15, 2014 11:49 AM EDT

A US Marine carries a round back to his gun in Hawaii for a fire mission. (US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Victor A. Mancilla)

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Maybe Obama Can Change the Way We Think About War

| Mon Sep. 15, 2014 11:43 AM EDT

Over the weekend, Peter Baker wrote a story about President Obama's cautious, calculated approach to the fight against ISIS. It is, Obama says, a reaction against the frenzied buildup to the Iraq War in 2002-03:

In his own way, Mr. Obama said, he had seen something similar, a virtual fever rising in Washington, pressuring him to send the armed forces after the Sunni radicals who had swept through Iraq and beheaded American journalists. He had told his staff, he said, not to evaluate their own policy based on external momentum. He would not rush to war. He would be deliberate.

“But I’m aware I pay a political price for that,” he said.

His introspection that afternoon reflected Mr. Obama’s journey from the candidate who wanted to wind down America’s overseas wars to the commander in chief who just resumed and expanded one....He alternated between resolve as he vowed to retaliate against President Bashar al-Assad if Syrian forces shot at American planes, and prickliness as he mocked critics of his more reticent approach to the exercise of American power.

“Oh, it’s a shame when you have a wan, diffident, professorial president with no foreign policy other than ‘don’t do stupid things,’ ” guests recalled him saying, sarcastically imitating his adversaries. “I do not make apologies for being careful in these areas, even if it doesn’t make for good theater.”

....This account of Mr. Obama’s thinking as he arrived at a pivotal point in his presidency is based on interviews with 10 people who spoke with him in the days leading up to his speech Wednesday night....The president invited a group of foreign policy experts and former government officials to dinner on Monday, and a separate group of columnists and magazine writers for a discussion on Wednesday afternoon.

What I'm curious about is why Obama is so intent on making this public. Obviously you don't invite a bunch of columnists and reporters for a chat—off the record or otherwise—unless you intend for everyone in the world to hear what you said. In fact, this is a bit of theater in its own right, since a supposedly "private" meeting is bound to get more attention than a garden-variety interview.

So....why? Is it something of a sop to his base, trying to assure them that he's not planning to let the current fight morph into Iraq War 2.0? Is it hubris, making sure everyone in the foreign policy community knows that he doesn't care what they think? Is it a deliberate jab against the media and its complicity in ramping up war fever? Or does he truly think that the Beltway punditocracy will respond favorably to this kind of thing?

It's all very strange. It's obvious that Obama truly believes he's being cautious and wants everyone to know that this is deliberate, not merely the ramblings of a tortured executive who can't make up his mind. Perhaps he's trying his best to normalize this kind of decisionmaking about war, since it's basically unheard of in modern history. If that's the case, then I wish him the best of luck.

And you know what? He might actually be having an effect. He might really be embarrassing a few people into facing up to their tacit assumption that the only kind of strong foreign policy is one that involves both liberal use of the military and plenty of Churchillian rhetoric to go along with it. Maybe he really is normalizing a more levelheaded approach to the world's problems. That would certainly account for the almost insane gibbering we've been getting lately from folks like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, both of whom have apparently been driven mad at the thought that all-war-all-the-time might be losing its appeal as the default foreign policy of serious people. Who knows? Maybe a few serious people are even starting to see it for the folly that it actually is.

There's an Easier Way to Get Rid of Plastic Bags

| Mon Sep. 15, 2014 10:24 AM EDT

Katie Rose Quandt explains why banning plastic bags is no panacea:

Although plastic bags' manufacture is relatively energy intensive (according to the Australian government, a car could drive 36 feet with the amount of petroleum used to make a single plastic bag), other kinds of bags use even more fossil fuel. A heavy-duty, reusable plastic bag must be used 12 times before its global warming impact is lower than continuing to use disposable bags, according to a study by the UK Environment Agency. A cotton bag takes 132 uses, and a paper bag—which will still be legal with California's ten-cent fee—must be used four times before its global warming impact is less than using single-use bags.

What a mess. Carbon taxes are no panacea either, but this is a pretty good example of why they're so useful. Instead of sponsoring endless studies of the carbon impact of various bags—and then trying to educate consumers about these studies—just tax carbon and forget about it. The carbon-intensive bags will rise in price and eventually, if plastic bags really are the worst option, they'll get priced out of the market. No muss, no fuss. And if consumers decide to pay for them anyway, that's not a big problem either. It just means they'll have less money to spend on other carbon-intensive activities. One way or another, it will come out in the wash.

The downside, of course, is that this only accounts for carbon. If you want to ban plastic bags for other reasons, then you'll just have to go ahead and ban them. But that's true of everything. A carbon tax doesn't solve every problem on the planet, but it does quickly and cleanly provide a price signal that reduces the demand for carbon-intensive products.

And it's a pretty market-friendly mechanism, too, so conservatives ought to like it. Except for the fact that it is, unquestionably, a tax, and we all know that taxes are verboten as long as a single Republican with breath in his body remains in Congress. So we'll get no carbon tax in the foreseeable future, even though it would be good for the planet; allow us to cut taxes in other areas; and make everyone's lives easier. Maybe someday.

Music Review: "Pressure" by My Brightest Diamond

| Mon Sep. 15, 2014 6:35 AM EDT

TRACK 1

"Pressure"

From My Brightest Diamond's This Is My Hand

ASTHMATIC KITTY

Liner notes: The fourth MBD album gets off to a rousing start with this joyful brew of marching-band rhythms, xylophone, brass, and Shara Worden's big, operatic voice.

Behind the music: An alumna of Sufjan Stevens' band, Worden's résumé includes collaborations with David Byrne, Matthew Barney, the Blind Boys of Alabama, and the Decemberists.

Check it out if you like: Brainy art-poppers, meaning St. Vincent, tUnE-yArDs, or Joanna Newsom.

Lia Ices' Newfound Urgency

| Mon Sep. 15, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Lia Ices
Ices
Jagjaguwar

Ices

After displaying her mastery of mesmerizing dream-pop on 2011's Grown Unknown, Lia Ices adds a shot of energy to the mix on this charming third album. Though recorded piecemeal at studios around the country, Ices feels focused and cohesive, with the leadoff track "Tell Me" setting the tempo, setting a typically lush melody to a thumping party beat. Ices is still happily indebted to Kate Bush—witness the meditative seven-minute "Waves"—but jaunty songs like "Higher" show she has the confidence to play around with her sound and not settle for ambient-music clichés. If this bracing newfound urgency indicates a willingness to court a larger audience a la Lykke Li, more power to her.

Music Review: "Is What It Is" by She Keeps Bees

| Mon Sep. 15, 2014 5:35 AM EDT

TRACK 10

"Is What It Is"

From She Keeps Bees' Eight Houses

FUTURE GODS

Liner notes: Smokey and languid, Jessica Larrabee croons defiantly, "Be not completely consumed/Do not surrender," on this hazy ballad, with kindred spirit Sharon Van Etten singing backup.

Behind the music: Larrabee fronted the Philadelphia band the English System before teaming with drummer Andy LaPlant to form the Brooklyn-based duo.

Check it out if you like: Moody chanteuses (Cat Power, Angel Olsen, PJ Harvey).

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How Should the NFL Handle Domestic Violence Cases in the Future?

| Sun Sep. 14, 2014 12:07 PM EDT

I was browsing the paper this morning and came across an op-ed by sports writer Jeff Benedict about Ray Rice and the NFL's problem with domestic violence. After the usual review of the league's egregious mishandling of the Rice incident over the past few months, we get this:

So this nagging truth remains: It should not take a graphic video to get the NFL to do the right thing. For too long the NFL has had an antiquated playbook when it comes to players who commit domestic violence.

....NFL players aren't like men in the general population, especially in the eyes of children. Rather, NFL players are seen as action heroes who epitomize strength, athleticism and toughness. That's why so many kids emulate them. And that's why one instance of a celebrated player using his muscle to harm a woman is too many.

Etc.

I read to the end, but that was about it. And it occurred to me that this piece was representative of nearly everything I've read about the Rice affair. There was lots of moral outrage, of course. That's a pretty cheap commodity when you have stomach-turning video of a pro football player battering a woman unconscious in an elevator. But somehow, at the end, there was nothing. No recommendation about what the NFL's rule on domestic violence should be.

So I'm curious: what should it be? Forget Rice for a moment, since we need a rule that applies to everyone. What should be the league's response to a player who commits an act of domestic violence? Should it be a one-strike rule, or should it matter if you have no prior history of violence? Should it depend on a criminal conviction, or merely on credible evidence against the player? Should it matter how severe the violence is? (Plenty of domestic violence cases are much more brutal than Rice's.) Or should there be zero tolerance no matter what the circumstances? How about acts of violence that aren't domestic? Should they be held to the same standard, or treated differently? And finally, is Benedict right that NFL players should be sanctioned more heavily than ordinary folks because they act as role models for millions of kids? Or should we stick to a standard that says we punish everyone equally, regardless of their occupation?

Last month the NFL rushed out new punishment guidelines regarding domestic violence after enduring a tsunami of criticism for the way it handled Rice's suspension. Details here. Are these guidelines reasonable? Laughable? Too punitive? I think we've discussed the bill of particulars of the Ray Rice case to exhaustion at this point, so how about if we talk about something more concrete?

Given the circumstances and the evidence it had in hand, how should the NFL have handled the Ray Rice case? And more importantly, how should they handle domestic violence cases in general? I'd be interested in hearing some specific proposals.

This Is Why You Should Never Take Moral Lessons From Films You Stopped Watching Halfway Through

| Sat Sep. 13, 2014 2:08 PM EDT

Jordan Belfort (aka the Wolf of Wall Street) went to the 92nd St. Y to talk about how great and innocent and redeemed he is. The whole night was a predictable shit show with casual sexism and the like, but this bit struck me as particularly funny:

Belfort said people should realize that the actions portrayed in the film were bad and not something they should follow. "If you're in this audience and you can't go to see The Wolf of Wall Street and realize that that's bad, then there's something wrong with you. You are fundamentally screwed up. It's obvious," Belfort said. Belfort said that he idolized Gordon Gekko's character in Oliver Stone's Wall Street. He said that had perhaps Gekko fallen, then he would have felt differently. "At least in The Wolf of Wall Street, I lose everything. My life is destroyed. I go to jail," Belfort said.

In the end of Wall Street, Charlie Sheen wears a wire and narcs Gekko to the feds. Gekko is sentenced to more than a decade in prison and, upon his eventual release, a year of hard Shia.

How Superbugs Hitch a Ride From Hog Farms Into Your Community

| Sat Sep. 13, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
If you walk this line, you might just get MRSA in your nose.

Factory-scale farms don't just house hundreds of genetically similar animals in tight quarters over vast cesspools collecting their waste. They also house a variety of bacteria that live within those unfortunate beasts' guts. And when you dose the animals daily with small amounts of antibiotics—a common practice—the bacteria strains in these vast germ reservoirs quite naturally develop the ability to withstand anti-bacterial treatments.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria leave these facilities in two main ways. The obvious one is meat: As Food and Drug Administration data shows, the pork chops, chicken parts, and ground beef you find on supermarket shelves routinely carry resistant bacteria strains. But there's another, more subtle way: through the people who work on these operations.

Unredacted Court Docs Reveal Yahoo's Name and Other Top-Secret Stuff

| Fri Sep. 12, 2014 5:59 PM EDT

Yahoo has just released 1,500 pages of previously classified documents relating to its legal challenge to the government's warrantless wiretapping program. Yahoo lost the case in 2008 and was ordered to cooperate with National Security Agency or face a $250,000 fine for every day that it withheld its customers' data. The ruling in Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which was released to the public only in heavily redacted form, became a legal precedent for the warrantless wiretapping program that was later revealed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Today, based on a successful appeal by Yahoo, a slightly less redacted version of that court ruling finally became public.

Below, I've posted the more lightly redacted version released today as well as the redacted version of the ruling released in 2008. A side-by-side reading of the two documents may offer some insight into how the government has sought to cover up the true nature of its surveillance activities, or it might just be an example of how little has changed.

The new version of the ruling is notable for what it doesn't disclose: Key evidence presented by the government. A block of text that had previously been removed from the ruling still does not fully explain why warrantless searches are necessary to thwart terrorists:

Scanning the 1,500 pages of newly unsealed documents will take a while. Here are few examples of new information contained in the partially unredacted ruling:

  • The name of the plaintiff (Yahoo) and its law firm
  • A footnote defining the term "surveillance" to mean "acquisitions of foreign intelligence information." But part of the definition of the term still remains redacted.
  • The date when the government moved to force Yahoo to comply with the order (November 21, 2007)
  • A mention of "linking procedures" (defined as "procedures that link [redacted] targets.") as a one of the safeguards against unreasonable searches

You can help us out by pointing out any other interesting tidbits in the comments; we'll note additional highlights here if we find anything worth noting.

The slightly less redacted ruling released today:

 

 

 

The original redacted court ruling: