2010 - %3, August

This Week in National Insecurity: Orwellian Edition

| Thu Aug. 26, 2010 3:37 PM EDT

Whichever side of the fence you land on, chances are you agree that America's not a very secure nation these days: economically, electorally, or physically. So we grabbed our lensatic compass, rucksack, and canteen, then mounted out across the global media landscape for a quick recon. Whether you're scared because our military isn't good enough—or you're scared because it's too good—here's all the ammunition you need, in a handy debrief.

Today is our special Orwellian edition! Black is white, down is up, and we've always been at war with Oceania! In this installment: Islamophobia is the new Beatlemania; Iraq is the new utopia; Afghanistan is the new Iraq; a robot heat ray is the new billyclub; virtual war is the new war war; and sometimes James Bond loses...his life.

The sitrep:

The United States government's national threat level is Elevated, or Yellow. You're welcome.

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VIDEO: Embedded With the Taliban

| Thu Aug. 26, 2010 3:01 PM EDT

Courtesy of Andrew Exum at the Center for a New American Security, here is "Behind Enemy Lines," a report for Australian TV by Norwegian journalist Paul Refsdal—who lived with an active Taliban unit as they prayed, ate, played with their families, ambushed US soldiers, and dodged AC-130 gunships in the dead of night. Irrespective of your war opinions, this will be the most fascinating 20 minutes of television you see anytime soon.

Why Do People Think Obama's a Muslim? Duh.

| Thu Aug. 26, 2010 2:37 PM EDT

There have been, by my unofficial count, approximately 5,487 stories written about the Pew poll showing that 18% of the country believes that Barack Obama is a Muslim, up from 11% a year ago. But why has this number gone up so much? Because Americans are dumb? Don't be silly. They aren't any dumber now than they were in March 2009.

The answer, of course, is obvious to anyone with a pulse, but since we no longer live in a country where obvious answers are good enough, we need a political scientist to provide us with some hard data. John Sides does that today, breaking down the Pew data by party affiliation and level of education. The results among Democrats are boring: belief in Obama's Muslim-osity is up only slightly, and it's up about the same among all educational cohorts. What's more, just as you'd expect, the better educated folks are more likely to have things straight. 

Results among Republicans are on the right, and they're far from boring. Here is Sides:

The growth in this perception among Republicans is more notable among those with some college education (a 19-point increase) or a college degree (15 points) than among those with a high school degree or less (9 points). In other words, better educated Republicans have changed more than the less educated Republicans.

....Obviously, we cannot draw definitive conclusions from this analysis. It does not prove that some media personalities and political leaders are responsible for the increasing perception that Obama is a Muslim. But it points in that direction.

Well, yes, the data does point in the direction of media personalities feeding the perception that Obama is a Muslim. In fact, it points to it with a gigantic, blinking red neon arrow. Of course the reason more people think Obama is a Muslim is because Fox and Rush and Drudge and all the rest keep insinuating it. And the more educated demographics, who ingest more political news, are therefore the ones most likely to change their views.

Really, it's remarkable that we all pretend to be idiots on this score. The conservative media promotes a variety of wacky memes on a 24/7 loop, their viewers eventually buy into them and pass them along to their friends, and this eventually shows up in poll results. No other explanation is even marginally credible, but in our current fantasy world we're all expected to stroke our chins and pretend that the source of these wacky memes is an open question worthy of extended discussion and multiple interpretations. Jesus.

Glenn Beck's Greatest Racist Hits

| Thu Aug. 26, 2010 2:22 PM EDT

In preparation for Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally this Saturday, the liberal watchdog group Media Matters has put out a compendium of the Fox News demigod's greatest racist hits. He says the rally is supposed to honor Americans in uniform, as well as those who "embody our nation's founding principles of integrity, truth and honor" (like everything else Beck-driven, though, it's all about him). But the event has drawn controversy because it falls on the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. Though Beck writes the timing off as mere coincidence, he's also spoken of the rally as an opportunity for his followers to "reclaim the civil rights movement." Then there's the fact that Beck will be addressing his 9/12 faithful from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where King delivered his speech. Surely that's a coincidence, too. Democratic strategists are poised to use the event and any racist tea partiers it draws out to further turn moderates against the GOP, Greg Sargent notes, writing that "the sight of Beck trying to coopt the legacy of King while crazed Tea Partyers bash the first African American president in the ugliest of terms may well go down as an iconic moment in the history of this movement." If conservative activists follow Beck's lead, the rally will be quite the race-tinged spectacle indeed. Courtesy of Media Matters, a sampling of Beck's charged rhetoric: 

  • Beck suggested Obama's name is un-American. On the February 4 edition of The Glenn Beck Program, Beck said of Obama: "He chose to use his name, Barack, for a reason. To identify, not with America -- you don't take the name Barack to identify with America. You take the name Barack to identify with what? Your heritage? The heritage, maybe, of your father in Kenya, who is a radical?"
  • Economic stimulus package. "It is the nanny state. They're going to tell us what we can eat. They can tell us what our temperature needs to be in our homes. They can tell us what kind of car to drive. They can tell businesses how to run their business. It's slavery. It is slavery."
  • Everything Obama does. "Everything that is getting pushed through Congress, including this health care bill, are transforming America. And they are all driven by President Obama's thinking on one idea: reparations. ... These massive programs are Obama brand reparations -- or in presidential speak, leveling out the playing field. But, just in case the universalness of the program doesn't somehow or another quench his reparation appetite, he is making sure to do his part to pay the debt in the other areas." [Glenn Beck, 7/23/09]
  • Beck's "funny 'black guy' character." Journalist Alexander Zaitchik wrote in his September 2009 profile of Beck for Salon.com that Beck, as a younger man, had many "racial hang-ups." According to Zaitchik: "Among the show's regular characters was Beck's zoo alter ego, Clydie Clyde. But Clyde was just one of Beck's unseen radio ventriloquist dolls. 'He was amazing to watch when he was doing his cast of voices,' remembers Kathi Lincoln, Beck's former newsreader. 'Sometimes he'd prerecord different voices and talk back to the tape, or turn his head side to side while speaking them live on the air. He used to do a funny "black guy" character, really over-the-top.' "

Beck says that his rally "is going to be a moment that you'll never be able to paint people as haters, racists." Forgive us if we don't take his word on that.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

| Thu Aug. 26, 2010 2:00 PM EDT

Andrew Sabl offers an etymological eulogy: 

The “infinite loop” metaphor is dying, almost dead. At 41, I’m almost certainly one of the youngest people to use (in middle school, when it was already almost obsolete) a reel-to-reel tape player on which one could actually splice the tape containing some music or words into a loop for the machine to play ceaselessly. Granted, “infinite loop” is also programming talk for a subroutine from which there’s no exit — hence Apple Computer’s corporate address — but that’s hardly common knowledge. I suspect most younger people have no idea what an infinite loop is, nor should they.

Seriously? I've never heard of the tape-player version of "infinite loop" being used as a general conversational metaphor. Is/was that common back in the day? Granted, I'm a nerd, but it's never even occurred to me that there was ever any other origin of the phrase aside from programming lingo. That's always seemed like the "common knowledge" version to me. From old-school BASIC, for example:

10 Print "I am in an infinite loop."

20 Goto 10

Dictionary.com offers only the programming origin, not the tape player origin. What's the deal, hive mind?

Found: BP's Missing Oil

| Thu Aug. 26, 2010 1:24 PM EDT

Remember when the media, and then the government, announced that all the oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill was gone, and then we all rejoiced because the troubles of those sad weathered Cajun dudes Anderson Cooper kept confronting us with were finally over, and then Pegasus came to my house and asked me if I wanted to make out and made me a batch of hummus that was too refreshing and light yet robust to be believed

Well, some cleanup workers in Pensacola, Florida—which is not anywhere near as wrecked as any of the shores in Louisiana—are determined to ruin everyone's fairy-tale ending by talking about how they picked up 4,000 pounds of oil the other night (h/t @LibrlSandlapper). Nevertheless, their crews are being massively scaled down, which should definitely take care of this sort of thing being reported in the future.

Big cleanup cutbacks have also happened in Grand Isle, Louisiana. Sounds like the crisis there is over! Although Drew Wheelan of the American Birding Association sent me these pictures he's taken there over the last 10 days. What a jerk.

Oil all over the beach:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oil under the water:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oil in the shoals:

Oil beneath "clean" sand:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stay tuned for more photos like that: This morning a contractor told me BP has informed cleanup supervisors that a 200-foot-by-2-mile swath of oil is going to make landfall on Grand Isle in the next couple of days.

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E-Verify vs. a National ID

| Thu Aug. 26, 2010 12:46 PM EDT

MoJo's Suzy Khimm, on sabbatical over at Ezra Klein's place, has a post today that sets out the current state of play on E-Verify, an electronic system designed to prevent employers from hiring illegal aliens. The good news is that the system has gotten better over time: the initial error rate for authorized workers is now only 0.8%, and that error rate drops very close to zero when results are contested. Error rates for foreign-born workers were a bit higher, but this has also improved considerably over the past couple of years. (The full report is here.)

The bad news is that the error rate for unauthorized workers was way higher: about 54%, thanks to identity fraud. But here's what I think is interesting. Chuck Schumer is one of several senators who thinks E-Verify is flawed and needs to be overhauled completely. This is from a report last year about a hearing where Schumer explained the changes he wanted to see:

At the top of the 10-point list was the requirement that the system “must authenticate the employee’s identity by using a specific and unique biometric identifier,” such as a fingerprint. He said that giving workers PIN numbers or security codes would not suffice.

....In addition to a biometric dimension, Schumer said an effective verification system must apply to citizens and non-citizens, require minimal compliance costs for businesses and exonerate employers from liability if they use the system but severely fine or prosecute them if they knowingly hire illegal workers.

....Schumer’s focus on biometrics was endorsed by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas and the ranking Republican on the subcommittee. He recommended a “secure, tamper-proof and easily verifiable card” as proof of employment eligibility.

Can someone explain to me how this differs from a national identity card? Longtime readers know that I'm actually in favor of such a thing and am completely unmoved by fuzzy notions that this brings us a step closer to a fascist police state. But that puts me in a distinct minority. It hardly seems likely that Schumer and his colleagues have even a ghost of a chance of getting majority support for this.

Still, I admit that it's interesting that Cornyn, hailing from one of the states seemingly least likely to accept the idea of a national ID, is also in favor. Is it possible that anti-immigrant fervor is actually strong enough to break down traditional American fear and loathing of a national ID card? If this ever gets any real traction, the collective cognitive dissonance from the Tea Party crowd might produce enough steam to eliminate half the coal-fired electric plants in the country. Sounds like a winner!

Income Inequality and the Crash of 2008

| Thu Aug. 26, 2010 11:34 AM EDT

Some fellow named W.W. at the Economist is skeptical of the idea that rising income inequality had anything to do with precipitating our recent financial crisis. Economic historian David Moss thinks that rising inequality put too much power in the hands of Wall Street, thus allowing them to promote a wave of deregulation that put the system in jeopardy, but W.W. scoffs at that:

It's very hard to take seriously the idea as stated here. If Wall Street titans had "too much power" over policies regulating the financial industry, it's hard to see how a lower level of income inequality would have left their relative power much diminished.

Are we to imagine that somewhat less titanic Wall Street operators would have lacked sufficient motive and opportunity to rig the regulatory structure in their favour? In any case, regulatory capture is primarily an effect of asymmetrical information and the revolving door between government and business. What does the size of the gap between the first and fifth income quintile have to do with it?

This is a cramped view. Take a step back and try again. What kind of system would have produced Wall Street titans with less income and less power? Answer: a system in which there were competing power centers that prevented the rise of inequality in the first place. Those same power centers — primarily labor unions, but also public interest groups and the old non-corporate dominated Democratic Party — would almost certainly have fought a lot of the deregulation that ended up proving so dangerous. In other words, it's not inequality per se that's the problem, but the system that produced the inequality. A better system that produced wider prosperity would almost certainly have produced a better regulatory regime too.

This is, obviously, a counterfactual, and it can't be proven any more than any other counterfactual. But is it really so hard to believe? A system in which there are countervailing powers with the strength to demand that economic growth be shared broadly is also a system that fights Wall Street's efforts at deregulation. It's a system in which the rich have somewhat less vast pools of money to loan out to the working and middle classes. It's a system in which the incomes of the working and middle classes are growing faster and they have less need to borrow money in the first place. It is, in short, almost certainly a system in which the 2008 financial crisis was, at a minimum, less likely to happen.

It is also, unfortunately, not the system we have, and all the legislation of the past two years hasn't really done much to get us any closer to it. We continue to live in a world in which corporations and the rich have too much power, there's way too much stupid money sloshing around at the top of the wealth pyramid, and the middle classes continue to stagnate. It ain't healthy, folks.

Gay Activists to Mehlman: Not So Fast

| Thu Aug. 26, 2010 11:13 AM EDT

Well, big surprise. Ken Mehlman is gay. And now the former Republican Party chairman says he yearns to be a gay-marriage advocate. But Mehlman, who headed George Bush's 2004 re-election campaign, is a little late to the wedding party, and he's getting a frosty reception in some quarters of the gay rights world--for good reason.

Mehlman was outed years ago not just by gay activists appalled by his party's electoral strategy, which included vicious attacks on gays and lesbians, but by other gay Republicans. During the 2004 presidential campaign, the Bush reelection effort and the GOP used anti-gay marriage initiatives in key states, such as Ohio, to enhance their electoral prospects. The party continued to whip up anti-gay sentiment after Melhman assumed the helm of the Republican National Committee. Meanwhile, rumors about his sexuality persisted. (After a 2005 Republican Party dinner in Ohio attended by Mehlman, one local gay Republican attendee told the Gay People's Chronicle that while Mehlman didn't quite admit publicly that he was gay in response to questions about his sexual orientation, "as long as he’s sleeping with men behind the scenes, that’s all I care about.”) Mehlman's hypocrisy is legendary on this front.

Mehlman is hardly the first big-league Republican to come out of the closet. Last year, longtime GOP political consultant Arthur Finkelstein, a highly secretive down-and-dirty political operative who helped orchestrate the rise of notorious gay basher, North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, shocked the politerati by marrying his partner of 40 years in a civil ceremony in Massachusetts. (Prior to that, there had been merely unconfirmed rumors about Finkelstein's orientation.) Fred Karger, a long-closeted California political consultant who helped devise the Willie Horton campaign against Michael Dukakis during the 1988 presidential campaign, came out a few years ago, and he has become a prominent gay rights advocate, as we explained in this article earlier this year. But unlike Mehlman, Karger never worked for the extreme social conservatives of his party or promoted gay-bashing electoral strategies.

Given Mehlman's particular record, many gay activists believe he has lots of apologizing to do, and not all of them are ready to link arms with the guy. In a post headlined, "Repulsive Anti-Gay Quisling Homophobic Scumbag Asshat Closeted Former RNC Chair Ken Mehlman Has Come Out," gay blogger Joe.My.God writes, "Mehlman's crimes against his own people are motherfucking LEGION....We can be sure that GOProud and the Log Cabin Republicans [organizations of Republicans who support gay rights] are positively drooling over the prospect of welcoming Mehlman onto their boards of directors. VOMIT."

Michael Rogers, who outed Mehlman six years ago, writes a blistering post suggesting that gay rights activists should wait before embracing Mehlman as one of their own:

I want to hear from Ken that he is sorry for being the architect of the 2004 Bush reelection campaign. I want to hear from Ken that he is sorry for his role in developing strategy that resulted in George W. Bush threatening to veto ENDA or any bill containing hate crimes laws. I want to hear from Ken that he is sorry for the pressing of two Federal Marriage Amendments as political tools. I want to hear from Ken that he is sorry for developing the 72-hour strategy, using homophobic churches to become political arms of the GOP before Election Day. And those state marriage amendments. I want to hear him apologize for every one of those, too.

And then there is one other little thing. You see, while you and I had the horrible feelings of being treated so poorly by our President, while teens were receiving the messaging 'gay is bad' giving them 'permission' to gay bash, while our rights were being stripped away state by state, Ken was out there laughing all the way to the bank. So, if Ken is really sorry, and he very well may be, then all he needs to do is sell his condo and donate the funds to the causes he worked against so hard for all those years. He's done a lot of damage to a lot of organizations, while making a lot of money. A LOT of money. It's time to put his money where his mouth is. Ken Mehlman is sitting in a $3,770,000.00 (that's $3.77 million) condo in Chelsea while we have lost our right to marry in almost 40 states.

THEN, and only then, should Mehlman be welcomed into our community.

Perhaps Mehlman should go one more in his quest for atonement (should he decide to atone, that is). Karger, the gay former GOP consultant, is running for president as a Republican. Needless to say, the party hasn't rallied around his historic, if exceedingly long-shot, campaign. Mehlman could join Karger's campaign staff, or at least raise money for him. Karger, who is vacationing in Martha's Vineyard and schmoozing with the White House press corps to advance his campaign, emails that he'd already been planning to ask Mehlman for assistance before the news broke. After all, he notes, there aren't that many gay, Jewish Republicans. Now that Mehlman has come out, Karger is more than happy to welcome him to the fold--and to his campaign, saying, "Ken, I need your help!"

Why ARRA Matters

| Thu Aug. 26, 2010 11:05 AM EDT

Jon Cohn says that if Time's Michael Grunwald is enthusiastic about the 2009 stimulus bill "then you should be, too." OK then! But why should I be so enthusiastic? Because beyond the short-term tax cuts and jobs creation in the bill, about a sixth of it is dedicated to longer-term projects:

For starters, the Recovery Act is the most ambitious energy legislation in history, converting the Energy Department into the world's largest venture-capital fund. It's pouring $90 billion into clean energy, including unprecedented investments in a smart grid; energy efficiency; electric cars; renewable power from the sun, wind and earth; cleaner coal; advanced biofuels; and factories to manufacture green stuff in the U.S.

....The stimulus is also stocked with nonenergy game changers, like a tenfold increase in funding to expand access to broadband and an effort to sequence more than 2,300 complete human genomes — when only 34 were sequenced with all previous aid. There's $8 billion for a high-speed passenger rail network, the boldest federal transportation initiative since the interstate highways. There's $4.35 billion in Race to the Top grants to promote accountability in public schools, perhaps the most significant federal education initiative ever — it's already prompted 35 states and the District of Columbia to adopt reforms to qualify for the cash. There's $20 billion to move health records into the digital age, which should reduce redundant tests, dangerous drug interactions and errors caused by doctors with chicken-scratch handwriting. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius calls that initiative the foundation for Obama's health care reform and "maybe the single biggest component in improving quality and lowering costs."

The whole piece is worth a read — and worth passing along to skeptical friends. There's nothing really new in it, but it's a pretty good distillation of a lot of underreported aspects of the stimulus bill. As Grunwald says, it won't leave behind a trail of physical icons the way the New Deal did, but "it will create new icons too: solar arrays, zero-energy border stations, an eco-friendly Coast Guard headquarters, an 'advanced synchrotron light source' in a New York lab. But its main legacy will be change. The stimulus passed just a month after Obama's inauguration, but it may be his signature effort to reshape America — as well as its government."