2012 - %3, February

House GOP Memo: "Abortion Is the Leading Cause of Death in the Black Community"

| Mon Feb. 6, 2012 12:31 PM EST
Anti-abortion billboards in Atlanta sparked a nationwide controversy last year as Georgia tried to pass a law outlawing abortion on the basis of race.

A House GOP memo obtained by Mother Jones argues for a controversial "prenatal discrimination bill" by referring to "black abortions" as distinct from abortions in general and claiming that "abortion is the leading cause of death in the black community." The memo (PDF) was circulated by Republicans on the House judiciary committee on Monday in advance of Tuesday's markup of Rep. Trent Franks' (R-Ariz.) Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act.

Franks' bill, which is also known as H.R. 3514, didn't make it out of committee when it was introduced in the last Congress. But the fact that it's now receiving a markup—a key step on the way to a floor vote—and that 78 cosponsors have signed on suggests that it could proceed to a vote of the full House before November's elections. In addition to banning abortions based on the race or gender of the fetus, H.R. 3514 would give a woman's family members the ability to sue abortion providers if they believed an abortion was obtained based on race or sex. Critics warn that it would be next to impossible to prove that an abortion was obtained on the basis of race or gender and fear the provision could lead to nuisance suits against abortion providers by family members who are opposed to abortion on principle.

Bills outlawing sex-selection abortions—a procedure most Americans oppose—have passed on the state level. But a bill outlawing abortions based on race ran into trouble in Georgia in 2010. As my colleague Stephanie Mencimer reported: 

The campaign started with controversial billboards, which began popping up in the state after President Obama was elected. They featured a photo of a beautiful, sad black baby boy and the line: "Black children are an endangered species." Anti-abortion activists claimed to be out to save the black community from genocide at the hands of Planned Parenthood.

"The most pernicious part was, they're trying to hijack the civil rights legacy in the service of conservative causes, trying to appropriate the mantle of the civil rights movement in a really despicable way," says Loretta Ross, the national coordinator of SisterSong, a reproductive justice organization for women of color in Atlanta. She says the effort even featured white people singing "We Shall Overcome" at black women as part of a pro-life "freedom ride" bus tour that stopped at Atlanta's Martin Luther King Jr. Center. 

As with the Georgia bill, backers of Franks' bill, including Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the powerful chairman of the judiciary committee, have pointed to a supposed epidemic of abortions based on the race of the fetus—an argument that dominates the memo below. As Ross told Mencimer, the whole notion of black women choosing an abortion because of the race of the fetus doesn't make sense:

"It's kind of hard to find evidence that a black woman is going to have an abortion because she's surprised to find her baby is black. It just strains credulity to think that's a problem," [Ross] says with a hearty laugh. "I mean, she wakes up in the morning and says 'Oh my god! My baby's black?'"

UPDATE: My colleague Adam Serwer notes that the essay the Republican memo cites as evidence that "a thorough review of the American family planning movement reveals a history of targeting African-Americans for 'population control'" is actually a thorough debunking of arguments like those in the memo that argues the opposite point. Here's a choice excerpt:

Activists are exploiting and distorting the facts to serve their antiabortion agenda. They ignore the fundamental reason women have abortions and the underlying problem of racial and ethnic disparities across an array of health indicators. The truth is that behind virtually every abortion is an unintended pregnancy. This applies to all women—black, white, Hispanic, Asian and Native American alike. Not surprisingly, the variation in abortion rates across racial and ethnic groups relates directly to the variation in the unintended pregnancy rates across those same groups.

Also, it's worth noting, as Jill Lepore did in her excellent New Yorker essay on Planned Parenthood in November, that prominent black Americans such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. were supportive of birth control and family planning, and the history of race and abortion in America is more complicated than the GOP memo would lead you to believe.

You can read the House GOP memo below. (The Document Cloud embed might take a second to load. If it doesn't appear, try refreshing the page.)

 

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Behold the Most Racist Political Ad of the Year (So Far)

| Mon Feb. 6, 2012 12:04 PM EST

The year's most offensive Super Bowl ad—and the competition was stiff—wasn't seen in most of the country. It was from Michigan GOP Rep. Pete Hoekstra, who's challenging Debbie Stabenow, an incumbent Democratic senator, in the fall. Or as the ad helpfully calls her, Debbie Spend-it-Now—"it" being "money," which Hoekstra fears will all end up in the hands of smiling, cunning Chinese women.

In the ad, an apparently well-educated young Chinese woman rides her bike through a rural rice paddie (Heaven knows why), and recounts Stabenow's support for raising the debt ceiling. Then she says, in perfectly broken English: "Debbie spend so much American money you borrow more and more from us. Your economy get very weak. Ours get very good. We take your jobs. Thank you, Debbie spend-it-now."

Stabenow's campaign is calling it "nothing more than a hypocritical attempt at a Hollywood-style makeover because the fact is, Pete spends a lot." But I think it's fair to say it's a lot more than just a Hollywood-style makeover; it's a play to racist Chinese stereotypes—simulatenously backwards, cold and calculating, anti-American, and capable of communicating only in broken English. Big Trouble in Little China was more progressive than this.

Thankfully, our new favorite Tumblr, "Racist Political Ads," is on the case.

A Brief Look Into the Conservative Mind

| Mon Feb. 6, 2012 11:12 AM EST

Generally speaking, I try to avoid implying that liberal wonks are somehow fundamentally superior to conservative wonks. This includes suggestions that, for example, the former tend to be tolerably intellectually honest while the latter tend toward hackdom. Or that liberals mostly maintain consistent positions while conservatives cheerfully shift sides based on little more than who's in office and what the current party line is.

Yessiree. I try to avoid saying things like that. But good Lord, conservatives sure make it hard to maintain this pretense. For today's example, click here to see Stuart Butler of the Heritage Foundation explain why he's suddenly changed his mind on the individual mandate. Ezra Klein very kindly responds that he would "find this more persuasive if there were evidence that the shift predated President Obama’s embrace of the policy," but I will less kindly say that Butler's explanation is simply risible. Nobody with more than a fourth-grade education would take it even remotely seriously. The truth is that he thought the mandate was a fine idea until Barack Obama endorsed it, the entire conservative movement declared it the work of Satan, and he then needed to change his mind or be drummed out of polite society.

Maybe I'm blinkered, but I simply can't imagine a liberal wonk explaining a flip-flop with such transparently laughable arguments. But I'm open to examples that I might have forgotten.

Don't Mind the Gap

| Mon Feb. 6, 2012 10:51 AM EST

St. Louis Fed president James Bullard, who's been sort of hawkish and then sort of centrist, now seems to moving back toward hawkishness again. "Hawkish," of course, normally refers to the Fed's attitude toward inflation, but at this point it seems to have morphed into "the economy sucks and we'd all better just get used to it":

If the Federal Reserve doesn't change the way it takes stock of the economy and its relationship to monetary policy, the U.S. may be facing a "looming disaster," a top central bank official said Monday.

At issue is the commonly held view that the Fed must use its policy tools to help the economy regain the ground it lost over the financial crisis and ensuing recession, in turn closing what economists see as the gap between the economy's potential and its actual rates of growth, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis President James Bullard said. But the nature of the shock suffered over recent years is such that if this model continues to drive policy, "it may be very difficult for the U.S. to ever move off of the zero lower bound on nominal interest rates," Bullard said.

....Bullard said he worries that current preoccupation with closing the output gap "may be keeping us all prisoner" because it puts monetary policy makers in the impossible position of trying to get growth to converge back to pre-crisis levels, which were themselves a reflection of the housing market bubble.

So there you have it. We managed to make up the output gap after the Great Depression, but it's not going to happen this time because — well, just because. Bullard's view seems to be that we're stuck because the 2008 crash was caused by an asset bubble, but the world has seen lots of asset bubbles before. It's not clear why he thinks this one is so special that we're never going to make up the ground we lost when it burst.

So suck it up, America. And keep in mind that as these things go, Bullard is actually something of a moderate. As near as I can tell, about half of the FOMC thinks Bullard is just pandering to the hippies and we should end this nonsense of keeping interest rates low right now. Sure, it'll be a little painful, but eventually all you malingerers out there will get the message.

The NYPD's Muslim Profiling Problem Gets Worse

| Mon Feb. 6, 2012 10:05 AM EST
Protesters in New York City rally against Rep. Peter King's 2011 Muslim radicalization hearings.

It's no secret that New York City is a huge target for terrorism. In the last few months, however, the Associated Press has shown that the New York City police have responded to that threat by treating its entire Muslim community like possible suspects. That approach harms the NYPD's ability to respond to threats in the future, since American Muslims are frequently the ones who alert law enforcement to poential threats. 

Here's what we now know about the NYPD's counterterrorism operations:

Muslim advocacy and civil libertarian groups have protested the NYPD's strategy, and on Friday they sent a letter to New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman requesting a "prompt investigation into this matter." Fatima Khan, the director of the Muslim civil rights group Muslim Advocates, released a statement saying that the NYPD policies "have completely shattered any confidence and trust with affected communities, and can only be repaired by rectifying these policies and holding those who engage in abusive and discriminatory practices accountable."

The NYPD's issues with racial profiling seem reflective of an obvious structural issue: it has responsibilities and powers approaching those of a federal agency without federal-type oversight.

Writing in the New York Times, the Brennan Center's Faiza Patel and Elizabeth Goitein argue that what the city needs is an independent inspector general focused on the NYPD.

History shows that any attempt to oversee the police will be met with great resistance by the department and its political allies. But no agency is immune from mistakes. When the stakes are as high as they are in fighting terrorism, there must be a mechanism to identify excesses and wrongdoing. We need an independent inspector general for the Police Department. Such an official would have seen the film scandal for what it is: not the error of one sergeant, but an indication that procedures for authorizing training materials are lacking. Oversight makes government stronger, not weaker.

Patel and Goitein note that Bloomberg himself has bragged that the NYPD is "the seventh biggest army in the world." A mechanism for accountability that reflects that power is probably in order.

Your Daily Newt: Crack Negotiating Skills

| Mon Feb. 6, 2012 9:00 AM EST
Then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich photobombs Bill Clinton's 1997 swearing-in ceremony.

As a service to our readers, every day we are delivering a classic moment from the political life of Newt Gingrich—until he either clinches the nomination or bows out.

One of Newt Gingrich's most compelling arguments on the campaign trail is that as president, he'll be able to win converts to his policies through sheer intellectual force and powers of persuasion. Put him in a one-on-one debate with Barack Obama and he'll wipe the floor with the president. Let him deal with Congress and he'll find a way to break through. Newt's been in the trenches with Bill Clinton, the thinking goes, and has the legislative victories to show for it. But as Robert Draper reported for GQ in 2005, Gingrich's negotiating skills often left his conservative colleagues shaking their heads:

The Clintons are never far from Newt's mind. They're like the Kennedys were to Nixon: glamorous, charismatic, brazen power-grabbing elitist amoral lying dream killers. Wrong on health care, wrong on the budget, wrong on the military...and so goddamned clever! Newt's staff and the class of '94 had seen it time and again: Every time Speaker Gingrich galloped into the Oval Office with his musket loaded for Slick Willie, he shuffled out holding his own gonads. "It got to the point where the Republican freshmen were afraid to send him in there alone," remembers Newt's archivist and friend, Mel Steely. "By the time Newt would get back to his office, Clinton's press secretary had already announced the opposite of what they'd agreed on. I'd say, 'Newt, how did you get suckered in?' And he'd say, 'Clinton would come up from behind his desk, put his arm around me, and say, "Newt, you're absolutely right." Just charm the pants right off of you.'"

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NBC's New Broadway Drama, "Smash," Might Actually Be...Good?

| Mon Feb. 6, 2012 7:00 AM EST
Katharine McPhee in NBC's "Smash"

When watching the first two episodes of Smash, it's hard not to feel a little queasy about the predictability factor. In a serial drama centered around the casting and production of a Broadway musical, of course at least one of the two finalists for the lead female role is going to sleep with the director. But at the half-hour mark of the second episode? Really?

The new NBC series is guilty of several other blench-worthy faults: Too much of the dialogue is clunky or hackneyed. Stock characters abound. There's a pesky, croissant-fetching assistant at the center of the action who simply will not go away. The interwoven stories are weighed down by pointless subplots—some disposable (a messy divorce from a rich, bimbo-chasing husband), others even more disposable (a songwriter adopting a baby from mainland China).

Review: Sharon Van Etten's "Tramp"

| Mon Feb. 6, 2012 6:00 AM EST

JagjaguwarJagjaguwar

Sharon Van Etten
Tramp
Jagjaguwar

Sharon Van Etten, a singer-songwriter based out of Brooklyn, has slowly been building a reputation for herself over the past few years. First pegged as a talent to watch by TV on the Radio's Kyp Malone, she won critical acclaim and a small but devoted following with her 2009 album Because I Was In Love (Language of Stone), 2010's epic (Ba Da Bing), and opening stints for the Antlers and Neko Case. Last summer, at Justin Vernon's urging, she signed with Jagjaguwar, a label with a roster of distinctive indie-folk performers, including Vernon's Bon Iver, the Cave Singers, and Black Mountain. Tramp—produced by the National's Aaron Dessner and featuring contributions from members of the Walkmen, Wye Oak, and Beirut—might be the album that finally breaks her into the (relative) bigtime.

The album opens with Van Etten’s voice languidly swooping over grungy guitars on "Warsaw," a song that was lodged in my brain for days. Though lyrics like "I want to be over you"  are standard heartbreak fare, Van Etten lingers over them in a way that suggests she might take her time about it. The repeated refrains of "Give Out"—"You’re the reason why I’ll move to the city/Or why I’ll need to leave” and "It might not be I always hold on/It might be I always hold out"—likewise epitomize Van Etten's characteristic combination of simple but perceptive lyricism and powerful delivery, while the album's first single, the uptempo but ominous "Serpents," showcases her vocal and emotional range as she's alternately vulnerable and accusatory, soaring on the line "serpents in my mind" before sneering "you enjoy sucking on dreams."

Obama's Golden Nuclear Option

| Mon Feb. 6, 2012 6:00 AM EST

Sometime this month, after receiving a year's worth of research and analysis from the Pentagon and his national security advisers, President Obama will get to decide for the first time in his term what the United States' nuclear war strategy should look like. Every four years, the strategy comes up for review and revision; Obama could determine its scope, where it's aimed, and whether the US could use nukes for a first strike.

In light of the deficit cold war gripping Washington and the post-Iraq move toward a more conventional military strategy, Obama has an unprecedented opportunity to reduce the world's danger of nuclear attack, security expert Joseph Cirincione wrote in Foreign Affairs on Thursday. (Full disclosure: Cirincione is president of the anti-proliferation Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation which has provided funding to Mother Jones.)

Since early in his presidency, Obama has insisted that the US should work to reduce and eventually eliminate its stockpile of nukes. He re-emphasized that point last month when announcing his new overall military strategy at the Pentagon. "It is possible that our deterrence goals can be achieved with a smaller nuclear force," he said, "which would reduce the number of nuclear weapons in our inventory as well as their role in U.S. national security strategy."

Current conditions certainly seem ripe for nuclear reductions. Politicians from both parties have been looking for cuts in the federal budget. Some of America's nuclear-armed missiles, bombers, and subs are reaching the end of their operational lives and could either be replaced at great expense, or allowed to "sunset." But most important, according to Cirincione, the president now has his once-in-a-lifetime (or, at least, once-in-an-elected-term) shot to change the nation's nuclear policy guidance, with potentially huge benefit to US fiscal strength and military posture alike.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 6, 2012

Mon Feb. 6, 2012 5:57 AM EST

Army Pfc. Shari Crump (center) listens to a convoy brief by her platoon leader prior to a resupply mission at the Joint Readiness Training Center, Fort Polk, La., on January 22, 2012. Crump is a truck driver assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division's, 1st Brigade Combat Team. DoD photo by Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod, US Army.