2010 - %3, December

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 20, 2010

Mon Dec. 20, 2010 3:30 AM PST

Soldiers from Company H (Hawk Co.), 3rd Squadron, 2nd Striker Cavalry Regiment, dismount from a their vehicle and prepare to raid a series of compounds Nov. 22, in the Maywand District, AfghanistanPhoto via US Army

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Obama After Two Years

| Sun Dec. 19, 2010 12:11 PM PST

Jonathan Bernstein has a question for us left-leaning types:

Think back to what you were thinking in November 2008, and in January 2009. As the 111th Congress winds down, what's your biggest disappointment of the things you expected to happen? Not your wish list, but the things you really expected to happen. What's your biggest happy surprise?

This is fairly easy for me, since I wrote a blog post on November 3, 2008, saying that I'd consider Obama's first term a success if he got three things done: (1) withdrawal from Iraq, (2) real healthcare reform, and (3) carbon pricing. "Get something serious done on those issues, and Obama's administration will be a big success. Fail on them, and it's not clear to me that any combination of other new programs will be enough to salvage it."

This leaves me in a pickle. Withdrawal from Iraq appears to be proceeding apace, and healthcare reform did indeed get passed. Carbon pricing, obviously, didn't. On the other hand, we can add a modest stimulus bill, a modest financial reform bill, and repeal of DADT to Obama's list of accomplishments. Does that make up for the failure of the carbon bill? Two years ago I said I didn't think any combination of other new programs would be enough to make up for failure on one of the big three, and that's a tough statement to walk back. So I guess I'd say I consider Obama's first term a success, but not a big success. How's that for weaseling?

As for happy surprises, I'm not sure I have any. I didn't expect miracles, but I did expect more from Obama, and I can't think of anything significant he passed that I wasn't expecting. Partly this was due to epic levels of Republican obstructionism, and partly it was due to Obama's native economic conservatism. On the other hand, I can think of two big disappointments that I didn't fully expect: the size of the buildup in Afghanistan and Obama's failure to rein in some of the civil liberties excesses of the Bush era. Again, I didn't expect miracles, but neither was I expecting 140,000 troops in Afghanistan or almost complete acquiescence to the national security posture of the Bush/Cheney administration.

So there you have it: on net, I'd call Obama a successful president, but not a hugely successful president. But he's still got six years left. There's still time to surprise us.

The Descent of John McCain

| Sat Dec. 18, 2010 6:34 PM PST

Joe Klein on John McCain, who led the charge this weekend against both the DREAM Act and the repeal of DADT:

I used to know a different John McCain, the guy who proposed comprehensive immigration reform with Ted Kennedy, the guy — a conservative, to be sure, but an honorable one — who refused to indulge in the hateful strictures of his party's extremists. His public fall has been spectacular, a consequence of politics — he "needed" to be reelected — and personal pique. He's a bitter man now, who can barely tolerate the fact that he lost to Barack Obama. But he lost for an obvious reason: his campaign proved him to be puerile and feckless, a politician who panicked when the heat was on during the financial collapse, a trigger-happy gambler who chose an incompetent for his vice president. He has made quite a show ever since of demonstrating his petulance and lack of grace.

I was never all that entranced by McCain even back in his Straight Talk Express 1.0 days, but like him or not he was a mostly honorable guy. It's hard to recognize the same man in the seething stew of resentment and bitterness he's become. I suspect that someday he'll come to regret what he allowed the past four years to do to him.

TSA Misses Man's Loaded Handgun (VIDEO)

| Sat Dec. 18, 2010 5:49 PM PST

They're all up in your junk, but they'll probably miss your Glock. For all their newfangled body scanners and enhanced pat-downs, TSA agents at the country's eighth-busiest airport failed to stop Houston businessman Farid Saif as he boarded a commercial jet with a loaded .40-caliber semiautomatic handgun. "I mean, this is not a small gun," Seif said. According to a report by the local ABC affiliate:

Seif says it was an accident which he didn't realize until he arrived at his destination. He says he carries the glock for protection but forgot to remove it from his bag. He reported the incident as soon as he landed, shocked at the security lapse. "There's nothing else in there. How can you miss it? You cannot miss it," Seif said.

In fact, you can. A lot. The ABC report cites an anonymous source who says TSA workers fail 70 percent of their agency's routine spot checks and that "two weeks ago, TSA's new director said every test gun, bomb part or knife got past screeners at some airports." That's an incredible statement in any case, but coming as it does on the heels of the controversy over passengers' civil liberties and the government's (supposedly) tougher security measures, it's unconscionable.

Adding fuel to the fire: Seif is reportedly an Iranian-American, and pro-profiling conservatives are certain to ask why he wasn't given extra scrutiny before he boarded his Continental Airlines flight in the company's hub airport, George Bush International. (Those conservatives likely will overlook the fact that Seif is a Texan American, and the CEO of a Houston-based oil-services company, to boot). Regardless of a passenger's race, creed, color, or origin, though, you'd like to think that airline screeners can spot the great big locked-and-loaded Austrian-made hand cannon in your carry-on.

DADT is Dead

| Sat Dec. 18, 2010 9:57 AM PST

DADT repeal won today's cloture vote in the Senate 63-33. Actual debate followed by actual voting will now commence, but this was the vote that mattered. DADT is dead.

So: Good work, White House and congressional Democrats — and kudos as well to the few Republicans who stood on the right side of history with them. The tax deal was a tough swallow, but this makes things a little easier.

UPDATE: The final vote was 65-31. DADT has been officially repealed, awaiting only President Obama's signature.

The WikiLeaks Bollywood Anti-Terror Conspiracy (Video)

| Sat Dec. 18, 2010 4:00 AM PST

Kurbaan starts just like any other Bollywood flick: An unknown woman is irritated by an unknown man who'll eventually win her heart. In this case, the man tricks her and takes the cab for which she was waiting in line. But this film is not your typical Mumbai-based song-and-dance production: It's a heavy-handed action film...and a cautionary tale for terrorists! And according to a WikiLeaked State Department cable, it may be the product of a conspiracy between American diplomats and Bollywood bigwigs to propagate an "anti-extremist genre" in Indian films.

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Protecting Prostitutes, United Nations Style

| Fri Dec. 17, 2010 7:26 PM PST

In November 2003, 54-year-old Gary Ridgway admitted at his trial for first-degree murder that he was indeed the Green River killer, the long-sought culprit behind the murders of 48 women, mostly street prostitutes. Nearly all his victims were strangled in Seattle, Washington, from 1982 to 1984. His unapologetic statement to the court read, "I picked prostitutes as victims because they were easy to pick up without being noticed. I knew they would not be reported missing right away and might never be reported missing... I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught." (PDF)

Two decades after the murders, the Sex Workers Outreach Project USA started the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, a week-long memorial for Ridgway’s victims and an anti-violence campaign calling attention to hate crimes against sex workers. Today marks the event's seven-year anniversary. And last month, two women took the sex workers' right-to-safety movement even further.

In early November, a trans woman ex-sex worker who'd worked in Washington, DC (who we'll call Regina to protect her identity) and a 20-year sex worker rights advocate named Penelope Saunders appeared at the Palais des Nations in Geneva to lobby UN delegates reviewing the US's human rights record. Holding a report (PDF) assembled by an international coalition of advocacy groups, Regina and Penelope tried to talk ambassadors from Columbia, Australia, New Zealand, and 12 other countries into recommending that the US dismantle its anti-prostitution policies. The report suggests that all mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines for those arrested under prostitution charges should be repealed. And that sex workers arrested and charged under prostitution laws should have their records cleared. Support services like education, job training, and healthcare should replace criminal charges, it adds. 

"Arrests for sex work," the report explains, "can lead to a cycle of continued exclusion from housing and other job opportunities, and to re-imprisonment." And since sex work in the U.S. is treated as a crime, "law enforcement officials frequently fail to recognize that sex workers can be victims of crime, and thus deny justice or support to sex workers who seek their help.

Law enforcement officials frequently fail to recognize that sex workers can be victims of crime.

Denying help is just the start: "You’d be surprised how many policemen I had sex with," Toni Collins, co-founder of D.C.’s Transgender Health Empowerment told Amnesty International in a report on police abuse against gay, lesbian, and transgender people in the US. "They’d say, 'You do it with me, or I’m going to arrest you for prostitution.' Then they’d tell me to go home and I better not tell anybody."

"I think it’s really hypocritical to say that some people deserve protection from violence and others don’t," Regina says. "That’s a really classic thing we use toward any group we don’t like." Mother Jones caught up with Regina on Skype and Penelope over email to talk about Geneva, feminism, and what decriminalized prostitution in the United States could look like.

Mother Jones: How was Geneva?

Regina: We had a lot of great conversations. I don’t think anybody blew us off. Everyone at least listened to us and took the information and said they would consider it... Countries from Latin America were the most interested and more engaged. At the end, Uruguay did make a recommendation to the United States about the need to address the special vulnerability of sex workers to violence and human rights abuses. It was interesting because they put that phrase in with some recommendations about LGBT people... November 20 was Transgender Day of Remembrance and, how many of the people who are remembered who are killed,

You don’t have to arrest people to stop having used condoms on the sidewalk.

are mostly transgender women of color who have been involved in sex work?

MJ: Did any of the delegates say anything that really stuck out for you?

R: We had a really good conversation with Colombia. They had just had a Constitutional Court decision that recognized the right of sex workers as workers and as individuals, to the point of saying that there’s an explicit contract between a sex worker and a client when they make an agreement about something. That’s really powerful. I don’t think any country has gone that far.

MJ: A lot of advocacy groups came together to create the report on abuse faced by sex workers for the Universal Periodic Review, which reviews the human rights records of its 192 member states once every four years. What do you hope your report and recommendations will accomplish policy wise?

PS: This is the first time that I know of that the international community has asked the US about its record on sex workers' rights. This gives advocates within the US an opportunity to speak to US policy makers and raise all the issues highlighted in the report. It's a very positive opportunity because rather than advocates reacting to poor policy proposals made by the US (such as the anti-prostitution pledge) it means that advocates can be pro-active and say to the US, "what will you do to improve the lives of sex workers, people in the sex trade, and people profiled as such?"

MJ: Could you describe how decriminalization would affect sex workers' lives in the US?

PS:
 Removing laws against prostitution is one part of a broad campaign for sex workers' rights. In Arizona, people convicted on prostitution related offenses are incarcerated on the first offense. Obviously this dramatically affects people's lives. In other places, people face mandatory HIV testing when they are arrested for prostitution related offenses and if they test positive face felony charges and other repercussions. This violates human rights standards and undermines health initiatives.

R: I often hear people say, "They’re out on the corner all night and they’re used condoms on the sidewalk," and whatever. And it’s like, if we were in a different context those problems could probably be solved without needing to arrest people. You don’t have to arrest people to stop having used condoms on the sidewalk. Sometimes the negative affects of the work sex workers do is a result of criminalization and stigma. If the environment for it were a little bit different maybe we wouldn’t have some of the same problems. 

For folks directly affected by anti-prostituion laws right now, who actually exchange sex or sexual services for money as opposed to the simulation of it, I think a model where they can work safely, where their informal contract will be recognized and validated and respected, so that if someone abuses them during the contract they have some recourse, a model where they can get services, where police will take violence against them seriously, that's what should be used. How that looks exactly I’m not sure. But local sex workers need to be at the table and leadership of whatever policy changes there are.

Seventeen or 18 percent of sex workers reported violence, especially sexual violence from the police towards them. Those people were more likely to be transgender and also more likely to be migrants. The violence committed by police and other law enforcement ... It’s usually ignored. Police won’t take violence against them (whether by pimp or whomever) seriously because of the stigma, and their label against them as, "well, you shouldn’t be out here anyways so what do you expect. That’s what you get." That’s a widespread mentality: that people engaged in sexual work, sexual exchange, sexual trade... that they are worthless. They are throwaway. That’s the attitude that allows and perpetrates violence both from police and from other people such as the Green River killer Gary Ridgway.

MJ: What do you say to people who think prostitution should be criminalized to deter people from getting into it or to convince those in it to find another vocation?

R: I think people defend criminalization because they think [prostitution] is wrong and that sex workers are dirty and they’re bad and they’re just criminals and whatever happens to them they deserve it. And to those people obviously I say, we’re human beings and we provide an important service and sometimes the negative affects of the work we do is a result of criminalization and stigma.

I think for people who are so-called feminist or otherwise claiming to be wanting to help sex workers and criminalizing them is a way to help them, they’re suffering from a problem where they think they know all the answers and they don’t. And they’re not interested in actually listening to people talk about what will help them. They want to tell people how to be helped. They don’t want to hear that maybe this sex worker actually felt that jail changed her life, but that these other three actually have different prospectives about it. Anti-prostitution feminists they want things to be very simplistic. But they are supporting policies that often end in human rights abuses.

Fun With Google's Ngram Viewer

| Fri Dec. 17, 2010 3:36 PM PST

When I first heard about Google's new Ngram viewer, I thought: Good God, when did the Scientologists get a hold of the search-engine monopoly? What's next, online e-meters?!

Fortunately, our inestimable blogging machine, Kevin Drum, set me straight. Google's new gadget—named for a generic measure of character-string length—gauges the popularity of selected terms over time, based on their frequency in the 5.2 million-strong book collection on Google Books. And Kevin promptly put it to good use, proving how "data is" has grown acceptable as an alternative to "data are." (I'm with you, K., though I'll probably have my American Copy Editors Society card yanked for admitting it.)

Kevin's also got the right idea, treating this thing as it should be treated: a fun toy. I'm sure some journalists and academics will flock to it as a source for trend stories and testable hypotheses, and that's just fine. But it's of limited scientific utility just now. That, of course, will change as the cloud finds new ways to mash up the Google Labs technology. Until then, here's a comparison of the frequency with which we've referred to "global thermonuclear war" and "red fire engine" since 1920:

It's red fire engines by a mile.

And if you've always wondered who's been written about more since 1998—academic postmodernists, or Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden—here's your answer:

Don't look now, Saddam: Foucault and Derrida just drank your milkshake.

From Cayenne to Viagra: The IRS' Dos and Don'ts of Health Care Spending

| Fri Dec. 17, 2010 3:17 PM PST

It's that most wonderful time of the year when those of us lucky enough to have jobs, jobs with benefits no less, get to figure out how much to set aside for medical expenses to come. We can sign up Flexible Spending Arrangements, or FSAs, set up to help employees pay for some of what their health plans won't cover. (Also, ever since GWB signed the Medicare bill into law in 2003, consumers who go it alone have the option of setting aside some of their pre-tax dollars into Health Savings Accounts, bypassing coverage altogether.) Whatever is set aside in a FSA is use-it-or-lose-it so it helps to know what you can submit for reimbursement. What's allowed will change some next year because of the health care bill. Namely, drugs you buy over-the-counter, from Advil to NyQuil, will no longer qualify. But lots of other things still will. The IRS' list suggests over and over that whatever you want to be reimbursed for needs to be medically necessary to treat an illness, a medical condition, a sick child, or the like. But not every entry on this 14-page list follows that logic, and there are some bizarre inclusions. Some that stand out:

Cayenne Pepper: Yes, so long as you include "a note from a medical practitioner outlining the specific medical condition that exists and how this pepper is to be used."

Ear Piercing: No, "not even if performed by a physician."

Lip Balm: No

Petroleum Jelly: Yes

Controlled Substances (illegal substances and drugs): "Illegal substances purchased outside of the United States [are] not reimbursable." Wow, if they hadn't have included this bit I totally would have tried to expense my trafficked cocaine from Juarez. No reference to in-country purchases.

Invisalign: Yes, covered. Invisalign is basically very high-end braces. Invisible retainers that refashion teeth into a flashy set of straight whites, covered.

ProActiv: Acne treatments are serious business, and cost serious dough. This one, that comes with infomercials and endorsements from Katy Perry and the like, get specific mention. See also, Retin-A

Rogaine/Propecia: Yes; Hair Growth Medications/Transplants/Procedures: No

Memory Foam Mattress Topper: Yes, with doc's permission, must include "a newspaper advertisement" indicating cost difference.

Mastectomy and Related Specialty Bras: Nope, not unless "a doctor's or medical practitioner's note is received stating that this will help in treating the mental health of the patient."

Dancing Lessons: Yes, if to treat a specific medical condition. (We likely have the Dancing with the Stars lobby to thank for this one.)

Feminine Hygiene Products: No, "considered general use items." As opposed to petroleum jelly, and bandages, and laxatives (also both Yeses).

Diapers: For healthy babies (and adults, see Adult Incontinence), No. Super unfortunate since gov't programs like WIC and food stamps don't cover diapers. This alongside the statistic, c/o a Huggies study, that 1 in 3 families can't afford enough diapers for their kids.

Viagra: Of course! "Viagra prescribed by a doctor to treat a medical condition is allowable."

Christian Science Practicitioners: Yes, though "the treatment must be legal."

The Missing Scientific Integrity Policy! At Last! Sort of!

| Fri Dec. 17, 2010 3:01 PM PST

The Obama administration on Friday finally released that scientific integrity plan it was supposed to produce almost a year and a half ago.

President Obama called on John Holdren, his chief science adviser, to "develop a strategy for restoring scientific integrity to government decision making" and ensure that the new administration makes decisions based on "the soundest science" in one of his first executive orders. Holdren announced on the White House blog that he's issued a memorandum describing the "minimum standards" expected for departments and agencies as they write their own scientific integrity rules. So it's not exactly the plan—more of a framework. But I guess that's something.

Holdren wrote that the new standards call for a "clear prohibition on political interference in scientific processes and expanded assurances of transparency." Each department and agency is expected to report on its progress on that front in four months.

While watchdog groups are glad to finally see the directive, they're somewhat nervous that implementation appears to be left up to individual agencies. Francesca Grifo, senior scientist and director of the UCS Scientific Integrity Program, called it a "rough but promising blueprint for honesty and accountability in the use of science in government decisions." "If the details are fully articulated by federal agencies and departments, the directive will help keep politics in its place and allow government scientists to do their jobs, said Grifo in a statement. “At the same time, I'm worried that the directive leaves an enormous amount of discretion to the agencies."