2012 - %3, May

Senate Panel Advances Measure To Broaden Military Access to Abortion

| Fri May. 25, 2012 2:26 PM PDT

On Thursday, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for 2013 that would allow greater access to abortions for women in the military and their families.

The measure, from New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D), would allow the military to pay for ending pregnancies that are the result of rape or incest. Current Department of Defense policy only provides abortion coverage if the life of the mother is at stake. Under the 1976 Hyde Amendment, federal money cannot be used to provide abortion services, except in the case of rape, incest, or if the woman's life is endangered. But since 1979, the DOD has had an even stricter limit on abortions, refusing to cover them in cases of rape despite the high rate of sexual assaults in the military. (Over 3,000 sexual assaults were reported in the armed services in 2010 alone.)

If Shaheen's measure passes, the 400,000 women in the armed services will have the same access to abortion that other federal employees get. If a Department of Health and Human Services employee working in Washington, D.C. is raped, her government health insurance plan will pay for an abortion if she wants one. But if an Army medic serving in Afghanistan is raped and wants an abortion, she can't use her government health insurance to cover it—she'll have to pay out of her own pocket. And even when she does pay for it, she won't be able to get the abortion at a military hospital, because that's illegal, too

Attempts to lift the military's abortion ban failed in 2010 and 2011, but advocates are launching an all-out push this year through the Stand With Servicewomen campaign launched by retired military officers and a coalition of reproductive rights groups. Given all the attention abortion has received over the past year, you can bet the military abortion debate will be contentious this time around, too.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Friday Cat Blogging — 25 May 2012

| Fri May. 25, 2012 2:10 PM PDT

Last week, when I mentioned that I lived with four orange cats, some folks were disappointed I didn't post pictures of all four. If you were one of those people, today is your lucky day.

Here's Pumpkin, who says it's time to get off the computer:

And here are Butters and James, hanging out:

Here are Burns and James (right), who happen to be twins although Burns takes much better care of himself:

Now, you might be wondering whether they all decide to crowd on one person ever. The answer is yes, and this is what it looks like when the herd of Garfields is at full strength:

This is about sixty pounds of pure, uncut marmalade tabby.

Anyway, I'm going on vacation next week, so some of my other Mother Jones colleagues will be pitching in. I'd like to thank Kevin for giving me the opportunity to blog in his absence, and all of you guys for putting up with the lack of charts in the meantime.

Adam is now done filling in for Kevin while Kevin is on vacation.

Obama and Marijuana

| Fri May. 25, 2012 1:43 PM PDT

Turns out young Barack Obama was a fairly frequent weed smoker, according to a forthcoming biography by David Maraniss:

A self-selected group of boys at Punahou School who loved basketball and good times called themselves the Choom Gang. Choom is a verb, meaning "to smoke marijuana."

[...]

Barry also had a knack for interceptions. When a joint was making the rounds, he often elbowed his way in, out of turn, shouted "Intercepted!," and took an extra hit. No one seemed to mind.

This shouldn't and won't bear on Obama's reelection prospects, which seems about right. But we shouldn't ignore it, particularly given the president's recent campaign against medical marijuana in states that have legalized it. It's past time that public officials who have smoked weed acknowledge that youthful marijuana use doesn't consign individuals to a life of crime and addiction, and that current policy is at odds with that basic fact. 

Liberals' Targeted Killing Problem

| Fri May. 25, 2012 1:15 PM PDT

The Associated Press recently reported that White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan is America's new death czar—the individual most responsible for overseeing the Obama administration's targeted killing of suspected terrorists. 

There's long been a right-wing meme comparing targeted killing to torture, with the conclusion that torture is obviously less immoral. The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf doesn't make this argument directly, but he alludes to it in his post on Brennan's new authority:

So to sum up, Barack Obama insists while campaigning that "enhanced-interrogation techniques" are a euphemism for illegal, immoral torture that makes us less rather than more safe from terrorism, and insists that the Bush Administration was imprudent for using those tactics.

After being elected, Obama forbids those tactics from being used. And he names as a top counterterrorism adviser someone who advocated the tactics he regards as imprudent and immoral -- ultimately entrusting him with more power than anyone else to decide whether various figures should be assassinated by our classified flying robot army.

There's a really important moral and legal distinction to be made between torture, which is always illegal and always wrong, and killing, which can occasionally be both justified and legal. And conservatives who argue that targeted killing is worse than torture are not saying we should stop killing people—they're saying we should also torture them. There is an obvious legal and moral bright line between mistreating people in our custody and killing on the battlefield.

Blurring the lines between custodial treatment and killing combatants only aids lawlessness. The laws of war exist to contain violence to combatants, who have consented to fight one another with the knowledge that doing so could lead to their deaths. This is why we should (but we sometimes don't) make a distinction between those who fight willingly and those who cannot consent, such as child soldiers. By definition, no one consents to being tortured. 

Nevertheless, liberals' uncritical embrace of the Obama administration's widespread use of targeted killing represents a significant departure from their stated values. Although the ethics of targeted killing don't parallel the ethics of torture (except as far as disclosure is concerned), they do resemble the ethical debate around detention. For most of the Bush administration, liberals fought against President Bush's attempt to place suspected terror detainees in a legal black hole without habeas rights. Bush's critics understood that the concept of membership in a terrorist group is far more nebulous than being a soldier in a uniformed military. Establishing that the individuals we're treating as terrorists are actually terrorists is therefore a moral imperative. 

With targeted killing, the same issues are at play. Unlike detention, however, the results of targeted killing are irreversible. Dead is dead. And the collateral damage is considerably greater, because civilians can be killed along with the target. Osama bin Laden's death was the most justifiable use of targeted killing in the past decade, but he's obviously also a unique case. What percentage of the thousands who have died in American drone strikes represent as clear-cut a choice as killing the man responsible for carving a bloody hole into New York City? That lethal force is sometimes justified does not absolve the government to ensure that it is only used when it is justified.

Yet that same insistence on accuracy, on making sure that we "had the right guy," so to speak, is largely absent in the debate over drone strikes. Liberals have been largely content to use Obama's body count to defend his foreign policy record without confronting the moral implications of our vastly expanded covert battle against Al Qaeda and its affiliates. The admirable skepticism towards Bush's claims that those imprisoned at Gitmo were "the worst of the worst," long since vindicated, is absent.  Many of the same people who fought the Bush-era imperial presidency—groups like the ACLU and the CCR—still hold fast to their banners, but for the most part political liberals have quit the field, preferring to defend their president from right-wing lunacy about Democratic weakness. That's a tragic abdication of responsibility that will have profound implications for national security in the future.

Adam Serwer is filling in while Kevin is on vacation.

LA Bans Plastic Bags—Is Your Town Next?

| Fri May. 25, 2012 12:01 PM PDT

Attention Los Angelinos: It's time to start hoarding those plastic shopping bags you love so much. The Los Angeles City Council voted on Wednesday to phase out plastic bags over the next 16 months. The city will eventually implement a 10-cent charge for paper bags, too.

LA is the largest city to approve a ban on "single-use" plastic bags in supermarkets. The ban is a victory for environmentalists, who campaigned for it for years. The decision did not pass without complaint, however—employees of plastic bag companies and some consumers have voiced concerns over the change.

LA's not the only city that has passed a plastic bag ban. Here are some other places that have similar ordinances:

  • San Francisco was the first US city to adopt a plastic shopping bag ban in April 2007. The ordinance originally applied only to supermarket and pharmacy chains but was expanded to all retail establishments earlier this year.
  • Maui, Hawaii banned plastic bags in August, 2008, becoming the first county in Hawaii to do so. Since then, Kauai and Honolulu have also passed legislation to ban plastic bags.
  • Washington, D.C. has charged 5 cents for all disposable shopping bags since 2010. The tax has reduced plastic bag use.
  • In December, Seattle unanimously passed an ordinance banning single-use plastic bags and forcing stores to begin charging for paper bags. The new rules will go into effect later this year.
  • In March, Austin adopted a ban on all single-use shopping bags for all business establishments. The ban begins in 2013.
  • Portland passed a plastic bag ban in July 2011 after the state legislature failed to pass a state-wide ban.

At this rate, it's only a matter of time before folks with fashionable eco-friendly tote bags no longer stand out in a crowd.

Also, it seems that the British are behind the trend, too:

Record Early Start to Hurricane Season

| Fri May. 25, 2012 12:00 PM PDT

Hurricane Bud at 1345z on 25 May 2012 NOAAHurricane Bud at 1345 Zulu on 25 May 2012: NOAA Last night Hurricane Bud off Mexico's west coast peaked at Category 3 strength, with 115 mile-per-hour winds. That makes it the earliest Category 3 hurricane on record this early in the Eastern Pacific. As Jeff Masters writes at Wunderblog:

Hurricanes are uncommon in the Eastern Pacific in May; there have been just twelve since record keeping began in 1949—an average of one May hurricane every five years. If Bud ends up making landfall in Mexico as a hurricane, it would be only the second Eastern Pacific May hurricane on record to hit Mexico.

Sea surface temperatures in degrees Celsius. NOAASea surface temperatures on 24 May 2012, in degrees Celsius: NOAA Masters also notes that sea surface temperatures (SSTs) this year in the Pacific where Aletta and Bud formed are slightly above average... though he concludes that large-scale atmospheric patterns are the more likely cause of this year's exceptionally early start to hurricane season in the Eastern Pacific.

Near-average SSTs are one factor NOAA is citing in its prediction for a near normal hurricane season on the Atlantic side this year—with 9 to 15 named storms, 4 to 8 hurricanes, 1 to 3 major hurricanes, and an Accumulated Cyclone Energy for the season ranging from 65 to 140 percent of the median.

94L at 1915 Zulu on 25 May 2012 NASA | NOAA | GOES Project Science94L at 1915 Zulu on 25 May 2012: NASA | NOAA | GOES Project Science At the moment the National Hurricane Center is following a system called Invest 94L 275 miles southeast of the Carolinas. There's currently an 80 percent chance this system will develop into a tropical or subtropical cyclone in the next 48 hours and turn west into the US coast over the weekend.

The good news is that 94L, which may develop into Beryl, will likely bring relief to the severe drought underway in the US Southeast. 

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Senate Says 'Frankenfish' Don't Need More Testing

| Fri May. 25, 2012 12:00 PM PDT
It's alive!

Despite strong lobbying from northwestern senators for a measure that would require more testing of genetically engineered salmon before it's introduced in the US,  the Senate on Thursday voted it down. The "frankenfish" measure, introduced by Alaskan Republican Lisa Murkowski, failed by a 46-50 vote.

Murkowski put forth the measure as an amendment to the Food and Drug Administration Reauthorization Bill (a measure that would create a user-fee to partially fund FDA's work).  Her measure would have required that the FDA hold off on approving or rejecting so-called "test tube salmon" until the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has done its own tests on the environmental and economic impacts the salmon might have on fisheries.

The FDA granted preliminary approved for GE salmon back in September 2010, but it remains a contentious issue. If approved, it would be the first GE animal approved for human consumption in the US.

AquaBounty Technologies has been seeking approval for the fish for 15 years. The fish is an Atlantic salmon that has been tweaked to include a growth hormone gene from a Chinook salmon that allows the fish to grow to full size in half the time it takes for normal Atlantic salmon. But that's probably the least strange thing about them. As the Los Angeles Times described last year, the company's proposal "calls for the embryos of the fish to be sterilized in Canada before being shipped to Panama, where the males would be exposed to estrogen and sex-reversed."

Murkowski and other opponents argue that the FDA is not looking at the wider environmental concerns. Agitating against GE salmon is a bipartisan issue in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. Murkowski's cosponsors included Democratic Alaskan Sen. Mark Begich, Washington Democrat Maria Cantwell, and Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley—all from states where the salmon industry is a big player. The fast-growing GE salmon would provide stiff competition with regular salmon.

"At my home, we eat a lot of salmon and I can stand there and I can say 'This is brain food, this is good for you, it’s loaded with Omega 3 fatty acids – it’s as good as you’re going to get.’ And I can say that with certainty," said Murkowski in a floor speech on Thursday. "We can’t say that, and we won’t say that with this genetically engineered fish. As a mom, I’m not going to say, 'Eat this Frankenfish.'"

Supporters of GE salmon argue that the modified fish would help grow the industry in the US, and provide alternatives for declining natural fish stocks. And you could grow the fish in places where it doesn't live naturally, they argue.

While the measure failed, supporters at the Marine Fish Conservation Network said in an emailed statement that they believe the 46 votes in favor is "indicative of wide-spread concern on behalf of the public" about GE salmon. 

11 Awful John Edwards Pickup Lines

| Fri May. 25, 2012 11:48 AM PDT
Former Sen. John Edwards (D-NC)

The way we live now: On Friday, ABC News reported that former Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards has been flirting with a female alternate juror at his trial for allegedly making illegal payments from his campaign fund to cover up an affair. Per the story:

Since the alternates were identified last Thursday, it has been impossible to ignore the dynamic between Edwards and one of the female alternates, an attractive young woman with jet-black hair, who seems to have been flirting with Edwards for days.

The juror clearly instigated the exchanges. She smiles at him. He smiles at her. She giggles. He blushes.

But what does he say? We took a stab at it:

  • "Want to see what a $400 haircut buys? [Winks.]"
  • "Improper use of federal matching funds? More like matching fun, amirite? [Winks.]"
  • "[Points at electronic tracking bracelet.] [Winks.]"
  • "Hello, voir dear [long pause] [winks]."
  • "Shall we adjourn to my place? [Winks.]"
  • "I'll bring the handcuffs [winks]."
  • "You've been acquitting yourself nicely [creepy laughter] [points fingers] [claps] [winks].."
  • "They say justice is blind. But I can't take my eyes off of you [winks]."
  • "We can build one America, baby [winks]."
  • "Did it hurt...when you fell from heaven? Because I know a good personal injury lawyer [winks]."

And for old times' sake...

  • "My daddy worked at a mill all his life."

Okay, now we need to take a shower.

SPLC Highlights New Extremist Leaders To Watch

| Fri May. 25, 2012 11:12 AM PDT

Michael Boldin, founder of the Tenth Amendment Center Gage SkidmoreMichael Boldin, founder of the Tenth Amendment Center Gage SkidmoreThe Southern Poverty Law Center published a new report this week on 30 up-and-coming leaders of the radical right. There are some old familiars on the list, like David Duke, and many others who probably won't come as much of a surprise to regular Mother Jones readers. SPLC singles out some of the chorus of anti-Muslim activists like Pam Geller, Frank Gaffney and David Yerushalmi as people to keep an eye on. There are some gay-bashers in there, too. Birther-conspiracy theorist Joseph Farah, the founder of WorldNet Daily, also makes the list. But not everyone on the group seems to rise to the level of menace that SPLC suggests.

Among those might be Mike Vanderboegh, a former militia activist from Alabama. Vanderboegh is probably most famous these days for having encouraged readers of his blog to break the windows of Democratic Party headquarters after the passage of health care reform, which prompted some of his readers to toss bricks through the windows of a few Democratic congressional offices. 

Vanderboegh, though, is a bit more of a complicated character than the SPLC has made him out to be. His rhetoric is certainly inflammatory, but it's also mostly confined to his blog, which has a very small following. Vanderboegh has also helped bring to light some evidence of wrongdoing on the part of the government in the "Fast and Furious" gun scandal, in which the federal government allowed guns to be illegally exported to Mexico in the hopes of tracking them to major drug cartel leaders. (The ATF agents ended up losing track of thousands of the guns, which later turned up at crime scenes in Mexico and the US.) He's also got a sense of humor, a rare quality in an extremist. He responded to his inclusion on the list by writing a blog post about it that included a photoshopped picture of Mark Potok, the SPLC senior fellow who tracks right-wing extremism, wearing a tin-foil hat.

Another entry on SPLC's list that seems slightly off-base is Michael Boldin, the founder of the Tenth Amendment Center, which urges states to nullify federal laws they see as unconstitutional. SPLC links Boldin with the "Patriot movement" and far-right extremists. But it overlooks a lot of the issues that Boldin himself has championed. I met him two years ago at a Tenther conference in Atlanta, which definitely featured some fringey right-wingers, including the John Birch Society. But Boldin stuck out for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that he is a California hipster who travels with tins of sardines in his suitcase to ensure that he eats enough omega-3 fatty acids.

Boldin got into politics through his opposition to the Iraq war, not through the tea party or any other right-wing cause. He is a libertarian, and believes the Tenth Amendment applies to all sorts of things that right-wingers generally wouldn't agree with. For instance, he and his organization support pot legalization and the right of states to legalize gay marriage. Lately, though, he has been focused on state opposition to the new National Defense Authorization Act because he believes it could allow for the indefinite detention of American citizens—a position that puts him squarely on the side of the American Civil Liberties Union. That's why he was a little surprised to find himself on the SPLC list. He told me in an email:

I think these people are just lazy and aren't paying attention to the work we do, the columns I write, or the speeches I give. Or, maybe they're just exploiting fear of real radicals who use propaganda to advocate their wars, racism to justify their torture, and fear to promote their indefinite detention scheme - both in Guantanamo and here in the U.S. Then again, I just happen to think that most of those dangerous people are wearing suits in Washington D.C.

SPLC deserves credit for keeping tabs on the nation's potentially violent fringe elements, but it does seem like they are occasionally casting too wide a net in their efforts to identify the next Timothy McVeigh. But then again, it only takes one guy like him to create mass carnage. Maybe when it comes to monitoring extremism, you can't really have too much information.

Explaining Black Voters' Shift on Same-Sex Marriage

| Fri May. 25, 2012 7:23 AM PDT
Obama supporters march in the 2008 Gay Pride Parade in San Francisco, California.

Black voters in Maryland have flipped on same-sex marriage, going from majority opposed to majority in favor in the space of two months. As I noted on Thursday, that means that Maryland could become the first state to approve of marriage equality by referendum.

So what does this say about the power of the bully pulpit? Empirical data suggests that presidential speeches rarely move public opinion in an affirmative direction, and may even harden it against whatever the president is proposing. The key shift on same-sex marriage, though, comes from a population that was already supportive of Obama. Political scientist John Sides points to an experiment that may shed some light:

Although the polling data thus far generally support the finding that presidents don’t move public opinion very much or very often, there is some reason to believe that Obama himself could move opinion among African-Americans. In a 1994 paper (gated), James Kuklinski and Norman Hurley conducted an experiment in which respondents read a statement urging African-Americans to demonstrate more self-reliance. The statement was attributed to Jesse Jackson, Clarence Thomas, George Bush, Ted Kennedy, or no one.

Among black participants, the most persuasive cue-giver was Jackson, following closely by…? Thomas...This is nothing unique to Jackson or Thomas or even African-Americans, of course. Sources of information are generally more credible when they are perceived as sharing our identities, values, etc.

I'm inclined to think that this doesn't mean that Obama's been holding out on magic pixie dust for influencing public opinion, but that this is a fairly unique circumstance in that black Americans, prior to Obama's endorsement, were more likely to oppose marriage equality and really like Obama. The president has given many more public speeches in support of the Affordable Care Act than same-sex marriage, without moving the dial a notch. Also "really like Obama" is understating it a bit: the president is a singularly unique figure in the black community as a symbol of accomplishment and hope for a better future. 

Another factor here is that I think opposition to same-sex marriage among black Americans is wide, but for the most part not particularly deep. This is why black legislators who support same-sex marriage don't get punished at the polls. There's also a partisanship factor at work here: As Jonathan Bernstein writes, "African American voters who really don’t care very much one way or another about the marriage issue — but do consider themselves on Team Democrat — are now aware that marriage equality is the normal position of that team." I'd say that we saw similar psychological effect with Republicans and climate change.

Adam Serwer is filling in while Kevin is on vacation.