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Book Review: My Life As a Foreign Country

| Tue Sep. 16, 2014 4:33 PM EDT
my life as a foreign country

My Life As a Foreign Country

By Brian Turner

NORTON

In this moving account of his time as a sergeant in Iraq, Brian Turner, whose poem "The Hurt Locker" was the namesake for the Oscar-winning film, delivers a succession of oddly beautiful, appropriately devastating reflections that drive home the realities of war. Turner takes us from training camp to war zone and home again, where, in bed with his wife, he dreams he's a drone, flying over countries of wars past.

This review originally appeared in our September/October issue of Mother Jones. 

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Even Liberia's Legislature Can't Escape the Ravages of Ebola

| Tue Sep. 16, 2014 4:30 PM EDT
The chambers of the Liberian legislature

Of all the countries doing battle with Ebola, Liberia has been dealt the gravest blow. According to the World Health Organization, the impoverished West African nation now accounts for about half of all documented cases. And more than 1,200 residents are known or suspected to have died from the disease. In late August, the government quarantined an entire neighborhood for ten days to prevent the outbreak from spreading.

Now the virus is forcing Liberian lawmakers to put their own work on hold.

On Monday, Liberia's legislature announced that the House of Representatives had canceled an "extraordinary sitting" to discuss the outbreak because its own chamber had been tainted by "a probable case of Ebola" and was being sprayed down with chlorine. The statement didn't specify the source of the infection, but it noted that one of the chamber's doormen had recently died after a "short illness."

Liberia is ill-equipped to fight off the Ebola outbreak. Its entire national budget for 2013-2014 was $553 million, with only $11 million allotted for health care—about what Kanye West and Kim Kardashian are estimated to have spent on their Bel Air mansion in 2012.

Despite its meager resources, last month Liberia's legislature allocated $20 million to battle the virus. But the nation had already burned through a quarter of that money by the first week of September. On Tuesday, United Nations officials pleaded with the international community to step up assistance to Liberia and neighboring countries, saying it will take $1 billion in aid to keep the number of cases in the region confined to the "tens of thousands."

Rand Paul to Appear at Event Featuring Neo-Confederate Aide He Had to Fire

| Tue Sep. 16, 2014 3:29 PM EDT
Sen. Rand Paul (left) and former Paul aide Jack Hunter.

This week, the Ron Paul-led Campaign for Liberty hosts its fourth annual Liberty Political Action Conference, and the speaking list features a roster of well-known Republican politicians and libertarian activists. The biggest draw of this year's LPAC will undoubtedly be Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who each day inches closer to a 2016 presidential run. Slated to speak at the same event, though, is Paul's ex-aide Jack Hunter, who the senator fired after his past as a neo-Confederate advocate was revealed.

Hunter used to be the social media director in Paul's Senate office, and he co-wrote Paul's 2010 book, The Tea Party Goes to Washington. But in 2013, the Washington Free Beacon revealed that Hunter, under a different identity, had long been involved with the neo-Confederate and southern secessionist movements. For 13 years, Hunter was a South Carolina talk radio host who called himself the "Southern Avenger." In public, he wore a luchador mask bearing a Confederate flag. As the Avenger, Hunter made many a provocative remark, including arguably racist comments. He said that John Wilkes Booth's heart was "in the right place" and that he celebrated Booth's birthday every year. He claimed that Abraham Lincoln would have been romantically drawn to Adolf Hitler. He called the NAACP a "malicious hate group" on par with the KKK. He contended that a "non-white majority America would simply cease to be America."

Hunter also chaired an organization called the League of the South, which advocated "the secession and subsequent independence of the Southern States from this forced union and the formation of a Southern republic." The Free Beacon reported,

"The League of the South is an implicitly racist group in that the idealized version of the South that they promote is one which, to use their ideology, is dominated by 'Anglo-Celtic' culture, which is their code word for 'white,'" said Mark Pitcavage, the director of investigative research at the [Anti-Defamation League]. The ADL said it does not necessarily classify it as a hate group.

The League of the South maintains that it is not racist and does not discriminate in terms of membership.

"When I was part of it, they were very explicit that's not what they were about," Hunter told the Free Beacon. "I was a young person, it was a fairly radical group—the same way a person on the left might be attracted in college to some left-wing radical groups."

After Hunter was unmasked, Paul said that his Southern Avenger commentaries were "stupid" and canned him. A few months later, Hunter wrote a story titled "Confessions of a Right-Wing Shock Jock" and distanced himself from his old comments. "I said many terrible things," he wrote. "I disavow them."

Now, Hunter is back in the fold and back on the speaker's list in the liberty movement presided over by Ron and Rand Paul. The Campaign for Liberty bills him as "the one and only Jack Hunter." Hard to argue with that.

No, Ronald Reagan Was Not Just a More Amiable Version of Barry Goldwater

| Tue Sep. 16, 2014 3:09 PM EDT

Jacob Weisberg is critical of Rick Perlstein's The Invisible Bridge, the third volume in his history of movement conservatism from 1958 to 1980. The first two books covered Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon; the third spans the period from 1972 through 1976, which encompasses the end of Nixon and the rise of Reagan. Here's Weisberg:

Most historians view the Nixon-Reagan transition as a break in the ideological continuum, a shift from an era in which Republicans made peace with the growing welfare and regulatory state to one in which a newly energized conservative movement effectively challenged it. Perlstein, by contrast, sees the move from Nixon to Reagan as continuity: Both men tried to reverse what the 1960s were doing to the country.

....An alternative thesis is the one Perlstein seemed to be framing up with his first, shorter, and better book: that the crucial bridge in modern Republican politics was the one leading from Barry Goldwater to Reagan. Nixon was the last important President of the New Deal Era, in the same way that Bill Clinton is best subsumed under the rubric of the Reagan Era....In his attack on government, Reagan drew very little from Nixon, and a great deal from Goldwater....Reagan’s views were not simply Goldwater’s views; they were Goldwater’s views purged of their excesses and abstraction, grounded in the country’s lived experience, and given a hopeful cast. That’s the bridge Reagan walked across and the one I wish Perlstein had tried to sell us.

I think Weisberg has missed the bridge that Perlstein is trying to sell us. Reagan wasn't merely a better, more congenial version of Barry Goldwater. That's part of the story, but there's a second part as well: Reagan's exploitation of the politics of resentment that Nixon rode to victory in 1968 and 1972. Just as Reagan sanded off the scariest edges of Goldwaterism to make it more palatable to a national audience, he also sanded off—or perhaps just kept hidden—the scariest edges of right-wing populist resentment. But make no mistake: it was there, and it was a big part of Reagan's appeal. Intellectually, Reagan's politics may have been the child of Goldwater, but emotionally they were the child of Nixon.

That said, I think Weisberg also makes some sharp criticisms of The Invisible Bridge. I enjoyed it, but it rings true when he complains that "for long stretches, reading this book feels like leafing through a lot of old newspapers." It's a little more of a pastiche than either of his first two books, and too often this is to the detriment of the bigger story.

But there was another, more fundamental, disappointment. The genius of Before the Storm, the first book in the series, is that it explained the birth of movement conservatism to a liberal audience. This is harder than it sounds. A conservative history, simply because of the unspoken assumptions that would inevitably color it, would largely leave liberal readers cold. An overtly liberal history, by contrast, would almost certainly be unable to truly explain the appeal of Goldwater and his supporters. But Perlstein threads this needle brilliantly. Before the Storm explains the rise of Goldwater in a way that conservatives consider fair but that liberals find comprehensible.

For better or worse, Perlstein abandoned this approach in The Invisible Bridge. Maybe that was inevitable as the spotlight moved first from a principled loser like Goldwater to a destructive manipulator like Nixon and then to a man who set back the liberal project in a way that's still painful to this day. It's just plain easier to be dispassionately curious about Goldwater than about either Nixon or Reagan. Nonetheless, this failing also makes The Invisible Bridge less interesting. Even granting the hagiographic glow that conservatives tend to demand of Reagan biographers, this really isn't a book that very many conservatives would consider fair. And except for brief flashes of insight1 it doesn't truly explain to liberal sensibilities just what was so appealing about the man.

It's still a lovely book that I paged through hungrily. And let's face it: saying that it's not as good as Before the Storm is something you could say about nearly every book ever written. It's still pretty damn good. But I wish Perlstein had gone a little lighter on his obvious contempt for Reagan and spent a little more time owning up—perhaps uncomfortably—to just what it was about the liberalism of the 70s that finally drove so many voters crazy.

1For example, there's this brief bit about the White House consulting Reagan during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war:

Kissinger [] solicited him for advice on the extraordinarily delicate matter of how to frame an Israeli resupply operation that, if handled incorrectly, could lead to a military confrontation with the Soviet Union. Reagan suggested: "Why don't you say you will replace all the aircraft the Arabs claim they have shot down?"

This was brilliant. Since the Arabs were wildly exaggerating their success, presenting them with a Hobson's choice—saying nothing or facing international humiliation—was perfect. Reagan's interpersonal intelligence was something to behold.

More like that, please.

World Leaders Have Failed to Seriously Confront Climate Change. Could That Change Next Week?

| Tue Sep. 16, 2014 2:14 PM EDT
New York City will host history's biggest climate march this weekend.

Break out your protest sign materials and take your polar bear costume to the dry cleaner, boys and girls: This coming weekend marks the kickoff of Climate Week NYC 2014, a flurry of meetings and protests about climate action. It all starts with the People's Climate March in Columbus Circle on Sunday. Organizers are already calling it the biggest climate march in history, with over 100,000 folks expected to turn up.

But the week's main event is on Tuesday at the United Nations, where Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will preside over a confab of heads of state (including President Obama), diplomats, CEOs, and policy wonks who will all be talking about how to prevent global warming from reaching catastrophic levels. 

The UN conference is meant as a preparation for the major international climate negotiations scheduled for next winter in Paris, a summit that is theoretically intended to produce an aggressive carbon-cutting treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol. In other words, in classic UN fashion, it's a meeting about a meeting, or as Mashable's Andrew Freedman more eloquently put it, "the cocktail party ahead of a formal dinner." So it's probably safe to assume that next week we'll be served appetizers and amuse-bouches rather than a substantive meal, climate action-wise.

Still, New York is a city on the front lines of climate change: Just yesterday the last subway line damaged two years ago by Hurricane Sandy finally came back online. So the excitement is building. Here are a few things to look for:

Quote of the Day: Maybe Bill Clinton Needs a Minder

| Tue Sep. 16, 2014 1:01 PM EDT

From Ed Kilgore, commenting on the latest "gaffe" from Bill Clinton:

The idea of a former two-term President of the United States having to get his remarks vetted by some campaign operative who was in high school when Clinton was negotiating with the Israelis and Palestinians may seem humiliating. But it may come to that.

This is all related to a minor dustup over Bill making some ambiguous off-the-cuff remarks about Bibi Netanyahu in a rope-line chat at the Harkin Steak Fry this weekend. By itself, it's not a big deal, but it might be an omen of things to come. After all, you may recall that Bill's remarks during Hillary's 2008 run for the Democratic nomination were not, um, 100 percent helpful at all times. And there's nothing the media loves more than a bit of Clinton discord that can be dissected and psychoanalyzed for days on end. It might not be fair, but no one ever said presidential campaigns were fair.

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Chart of the Day: Fox's Benghazi Obsession

| Tue Sep. 16, 2014 12:21 PM EDT

The good folks at Media Matters have taken on the soul-crushing task of tallying up coverage of Benghazi on Fox's prime-time evening shows, and they report that Fox has aired nearly 1,100 segments in the 20 months since the attacks. In a bit of a shocking upset, the winner of the obsession war wasn't heavy favorite Sean Hannity, but the normally more mild-mannered Bret Baier.

However, don't count Hannity out quite yet. By far, the stupidest Benghazi talking point has been the endless "stand down" infatuation—the notion that rescuers were available but someone in the White House deliberately ordered them not to go in. This is stupid not just because it's been debunked over and over and over, but also because it makes no sense. Even if Obama hates America, why would he do this? It's political suicide.

Anyway, guess who's spent the most time on the stand down order? That's right: Sean Hannity, by a huge margin. Hannity might not have won the overall obsession crown, but he certainly won the special award for pandering idiocy.

As you'd expect, coverage was heaviest just after the Benghazi attacks in 2012, but even after that initial flurry Fox has kept up a steady drumbeat of 20-30 Benghazi segments each and every month. It makes me wish I could figure out an anti-Obama angle for my obsession with lead and crime. These guys would be the greatest allies ever. I need to put my thinking cap on.

Assignment Desk: How Does the Media Deal With Domestic Violence?

| Tue Sep. 16, 2014 11:46 AM EDT

I have an assignment for an enterprising reporter or intern with access to a telephone. I'd like a survey done of a dozen or so major media outlets, including but not limited to ESPN, CNN, the New York Times, CBS, Fox, the Nation, and National Review. And Mother Jones, of course. Here are the survey questions:

  1. To your knowledge, have any of your employees ever been charged and/or convicted of domestic violence?
  2. In general, what is your corporate policy for dealing with employees who have been convicted of domestic violence?

Just curious!

It's Hard to Say It, But US Policy Toward Terrorist Ransom Demands Is Probably Right

| Tue Sep. 16, 2014 10:33 AM EDT

Rukmini Callimachi's story in the New York Times today about the anger and frustration of James Foley's family over their treatment by the US government is heartbreaking. Foley was among dozens of hostages being held by ISIS, but one of the few to be murdered. Why? Because the others were Europeans, and European governments routinely pay ransoms to win the release of their citizens:

“The F.B.I. didn’t help us much — let’s face it,” Diane Foley said in a telephone interview. “Our government was very clear that no ransom was going to be paid, or should be paid,” she said. “It was horrible — and continues to be horrible. You are between a rock and a hard place.”

....The United States and Britain are among the only countries that abide by a zero-concession policy, refusing to accede to terrorists’ demands, arguing that doing so encourages more kidnapping. By contrast, European countries have repeatedly paid to free their citizens, despite signing numerous declarations vowing not to, prompting condemnation from former American officials and analysts.

....As early as February of this year, the Europeans proceeded from requesting proof of life to making a ransom counteroffer, according to a person closely involved in the crisis who said the average sum negotiated per person was around €2 million.

The Foleys and the other American families were left to answer the emails themselves and kept largely in the dark....The families said they had little evidence that the kidnappings had become a major concern for the Obama administration, though they acknowledge that they were not necessarily aware of all of the government’s efforts. While they reached out to the State Department and were repeatedly told “everything was being done,” they said they never had any clear indication that this was a policy priority.

The Foley family has been berating the Obama administration for the death of their son ever since the video of his beheading was released, and who can blame them? If I were in their shoes, I'd probably feel exactly the same way, and I probably would have been desperate to try to raise the ransom money.

But the hard truth is that this is why I wouldn't have been in charge of the government's response. There's very little concrete research that tells us whether the US non-negotiation policy is effective, but common sense suggests that it is. And at the very least, it starves terrorist groups of a flow of cash they can use to finance their operations. The European approach may seem more humane, but it's largely driven by political cowardice—their governments are afraid of the public backlash if they get stuck in a long-running hostage situation—and seems highly likely to lead to more hostages and more deaths in the long run.

Of course, we now know that the US government was trying to free Foley and the others. But the rescue mission failed, and the Foleys, of course, were told nothing of it beforehand.

How hard-hearted do you have to be to say that, sadly, the Foleys are wrong and US government policy is right? I'm not sure. But that's how it strikes me. And I have nothing but contempt for conservative writers who have used this episode as an excuse for launching crude attacks on Obama. If you think the United States should change its policy regarding ransom demands, then have the guts to say so. Otherwise, keep your yap shut. The Foleys have an excuse for their grief. No one else has an excuse for exploiting it.

Americans Are Refreshingly Realistic About the ISIS Threat

| Mon Sep. 15, 2014 6:28 PM EDT

Paul Waldman draws my attention to a new Pew poll with an interesting result. Hawkish Republicans have been running around for the past month insisting that ISIS terrorists are a direct threat to the United States, and therefore we have to fight them in Iraq so they don't come over here and start killing helpless women and small children en masse.

But apparently hardly anyone is buying it. Only 18 percent of Americans think that fighting ISIS will reduce the odds of a terrorist attack on US soil. And there's not a big difference between the parties. Even among Republicans, only 23 percent think a military campaign against ISIS will make us safer at home. That's a refreshingly realistic appraisal.

But why? Is it because the Republican fear campaign is so transparently unhinged? Or is it because of President Obama's unusually low-key approach to the ISIS campaign? I'd like to think it's at least partly the latter. I'm not very excited about any kind of campaign against ISIS at the moment, but as a second-best alternative, it's at least nice to see it being sold to the public as a case of having to eat our vegetables rather than as yet another exciting bomb-dropping adventure in defense of our national honor. It's a step in the right direction, anyway.