For years, a shifting alliance of activists here in California has been pressing the idea of calling a constitutional convention to try and cut through the partisan tangle in Sacramento.  Unfortunately, since only the legislature can call a constitutional convention, the partisan tangle in Sacramento stands in the way of cutting through the partisan tangle in Sacramento.

But the effort has picked up steam lately, with a couple of ballot initiatives being filed that would (a) allow the people to call for a convention and (b) call a convention.  If backers can get a million signatures for these initiatives, they'll be on the ballot next November.  Unfortunately, the public isn't yet on their side:

Backers of an overhaul of California's government, who hope to leverage disgust with Sacramento into support for changing how the state raises taxes and spends money, have a difficult path ahead, according to a new poll of California voters.

....Voters don't want the tax code overhauled in the ways that many fiscal experts promise would tamp down the wild revenue swings that have led to a constant state of budget crisis in California. They don't want the Constitution changed to allow a simple majority of lawmakers to push a budget onto the governor's desk, as most other large states allow. And they don't want the state to touch Proposition 13 property tax restrictions, even if residential property taxes would remain strictly limited.

The problem is that the partisan tangle in Sacramento is basically a reflection of California itself. My fellow residents have no desire to pay higher taxes and no desire to cut services in any significant way, and they're apparently willing to destroy the state before finally admitting that they can't have both.  But we haven't quite reached that point yet, and the purpose of a constitutional convention is simply too clear to be covered up: backers want the legislature to have the power to raise taxes.  The anti forces will have absolutely no trouble making that clear, and that in turn means that these two initiatives are almost certainly doomed.

But we'll see. It's possible — unlikely but possible — that things will deteriorate enough in the next year to make Californians realize that they don't have many choices left.  There's not much left to be squeezed out of higher education without simply abandoning it completely; K-12 is inviolate; nobody seems willing to get rid of our insane sentencing laws and fantastic prison population; public employee unions have no intention of moderating their pension demands; and taxing marijuana isn't going to get the job done.  All those things have been true for years, though, and the battle lines are pretty much the same today as they were a decade ago.

So what's left?  Beats me.  But unless some kind of catastrophe drives home the scope of our problems to 50% + 1 of our citizens next November, it's hard to see how anything changes.  Maybe the initiative backers need to hire Roland Emmerich to produce a few ads for them.

ABC News says that "US intelligence agencies" knew for weeks that Army Major Nidal Hasan, the suspect in the Fort Hood shootings, had tried "to make contact with people associated with Al Qaeda." The piece also reports (citing an unnamed "senior lawmaker") that the CIA has "so far" refused to brief Congress about whether it had prior knowlege of any connections between Hasan and Al Qaeda.

Over at Talking Points Memo, Mother Jones alum Justin Elliott reports that the CIA is denying that it refused to brief Congress—but Elliott says nothing about whether the CIA contradicted the ABC piece's core claim about the intelligence community knowing that Hasan had been trying to make contact with Al Qaeda.

Bottom line: the situation is still very unclear, but since Hasan is now awake and talking, we'll probably know more very soon.

This isn't exactly a forgotten part of history, but still, it's nice to see reporter Mitchell Koss reminding us today that although the fall of the Berlin Wall was the most dramatic aspect of the end of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, it wasn't the original trigger.  In the LA Times today, he writes about the changes in Hungary between a visit in 1987, "when it seemed as if the Soviet presence in Eastern Europe would last for a thousand years," and a visit two years later:

By 1989, when I returned, everything had changed. When I visited that same embassy the first week of March, a U.S. official talked openly to us — and presumably to the KGB eavesdroppers — about how, as the impending March 15 demonstration seemed to get bigger, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was not responding to pleas for instruction from Hungary's communist rulers. "We don't know what to make of it," he said.

....It all began to come into clearer focus two months later, when Hungary removed the barbed-wire fence along its border with Austria and told guards not to shoot those who wanted to cross. Months after that, the Berlin Wall fell, and two years later the Soviet Union dissolved, albeit with fewer memorable images. Before the decade was out, Viktor Orban, one of the mildly rebellious students whom we'd interviewed in 1986, had become prime minister of Hungary.

In retrospect, some things that seemed puzzling at the time now seem so clear. The embassy wondered why Gorbachev was ignoring the Hungarian leaders' plea for assistance. But as it turned out, his not responding was central to all that happened next. Months later, he also didn't take the calls from panicky East Germans seeking guidance for how to react when the wall was breached. He had decided to disengage, and that made all the difference.

By 1989, the Soviet Union was so far in hock to western banks that they basically had Gorbachev by the balls.  He couldn't afford a repeat of 1956 or 1968, and when that became clear the jig was up.  Hungary went first, Berlin followed, and within a few months the Iron Curtain was on the ash heap of history.  In the end, it was hard currency, not ICBMs, that brought down the empire.

The Economist's Democracy in America blog has a good item today on the offshore wind farms that are planned for the waters off Cape Cod and the stereotypical liberal elitist folks from Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, and the Cape who are trying to block them:

There's a modestly sympathetic way to read this kind of resistance, and it has to do with the way that environmentalism straddles different strands of American romanticism, which can sometimes conflict with each other. Historical preservationism and the romantic mythologising of indigenous cultures have both played valuable roles in American culture, and they grow from the same "On Walden Pond" roots as environmentalism itself. And that's all fine and good; but CO2 is at 370 ppm and rising. Enough is enough. If we are to have any hope of reducing carbon emissions, we are going to have to change our energy infrastructure. That requires some modicum of willingness to tolerate public action that affects one's own lifestyle. If we can't even get an offshore wind-farm project running, after eight years, because of a bunch of wealthy, self-indulgent whiners, there is absolutely no hope for reducing carbon emissions, and the heirs of those privileged preservationists will be able to watch the sun rise over the pristine Atlantic waters covering what used to be Nantucket Island.

DiA also points to an editorial on the subject that appeared in the New York Times last week. Unfortunately, our friends at the Economist either forgot about or are not aware of the definitive take on this controversy: a Daily Show report from over two years ago. The Kennedy-bashing dates the segment, but it's pretty brutal and dead-on:

Mother Jones' Kate Sheppard will have more on the Cape Wind project in a blog post later today.

Rep. George Miller's 90-second speech mocking the GOP health care plan got me thinking about how political information gets disseminated. The 2008 presidential campaign demonstrated that YouTube creates some interesting incentives for politicians. Before YouTube, if you wanted your point to reach the largest possible audience, it was crucial that you fit in some real "zingers" that could be turned into quotes in newspapers or sound bites on the evening news. Your argument and the structure of your speech (or the structure of your questioning of a witness at a hearing) didn't matter as much. 

In the YouTube era, people's attention spans for political speech are actually slightly longer. It's not just that people will watch Barack Obama, by all accounts a great orator, give a 40-minute speech on race. It also seems that people will watch five minutes of Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), who is no Barack Obama, blasting the Federal Reserve. They may even be willing to watch 90 seconds of George Miller, a powerful but fairly obscure legislator, criticizing Republicans. And the realization that people are okay with watching those sorts of things has affected television. When I interviewed him last month for a profile in the next issue of Mother Jones, Grayson said that he specifically aims for short, YouTube-friendly speeches—and those speeches are short enough and fiery enough that they sometimes end up being played, unedited, on national television. Here's what he said when I asked him how he deals with what he sees as the media's fixation on manners:

Since we are speaking directly to the audience these days, it doesn't really matter. I consistently give speeches no longer than two minutes. Very few of my colleagues in congress do that. The result of that is that every once in a while we get lucky and the entire speech is played without editing on national TV, so I'm able to communicate directly to a national audience without the mediation of the media.

Miller's speech follows that mold. This is a good thing. The more people get to see what Congress is actually like, the better.

Ben Smith passes on a column by the Charlotte Observer's Mary Newsom on Charlotte's new Democratic mayor, Anthony Foxx:

Amid the bloviation-fest following Tuesday's election, Charlotte's mayoral election seems to have kept on flying under the national political radar. Odd.

Think about it: A young African-American Democrat, raised by a single mom and his grandparents, now a successful lawyer, aims for a seat that's been Republicans for years. He mobilizes young and African-American voters and wins in a strong showing. Sound familiar?


Democrat Anthony Foxx's win over Republican John Lassiter is not an insignificant anthill on the political landscape. The largest city in the nation's 10th largest state elected its first Democratic mayor in 22 years, an African-American in a majority-white Southern city, a progressive mass transit supporter and an environmentalist.

Charlotte is America's 18th-largest city, with a population of 687,456 in 2008. That means that Foxx now governs slightly more people than Sarah Palin, onetime candidate for vice president, did as governor of the state of Alaska. Charlotte has more people than Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont, the District of Columbia, and Wyoming. If you take the population of the entire Charlotte metropolitan area, the contrast is even more striking. With around 1.7 million people, the Charlotte metro area has a population larger than 11 states and the District of Columbia. Each of those 11 states has two Senators. The political structure of this country is truly bizarre.

Here's Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the education and labor committee, mocking the Republican health care plan in a very effective 90-second speech on the House floor on Saturday:

When he talks about the Republican plan "leaving people behind," Miller is referring to the Congressional Budget Office's scoring of the plan. The CBO found that the GOP plan would save money because it doesn't actually extend insurance coverage to any of the 17 percent of legal, non-elderly Americans who the CBO thinks will be without health insurance in 2010. In fact, most of the Republican plan centers around reforms that would make the health insurance industry work more like the credit card industry by allowing insurers to base themselves in the state with the weakest regulations and then sell their health plans nationwide (as credit card companies already do from South Dakota).

Today, November 9, is the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I would like to associate myself with these comments by Matt Yglesias:

It’s hard to think of non-cliché things to say on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.... [Life in East Germany in its final days] is the subject of two excellent films, Good Bye, Lenin! and The Lives of Others, that everyone should see. I’m not really clear how representative daily life in the GDR was of everyday existence in other Eastern Bloc countries, but since as far as I know there aren’t excellent movies about daily life in Communist Poland or Communist Bulgaria this is probably how we’ll remember things.

One somewhat clichéd idea about November 9 that's still worth considering today is the argument that in the grand scheme of things, 11/9 was more historically significant than 9/11. Victor Sebestyen, who has written a book about the revolutions of 1989, has a decent column on this subject over at the Guardian. I especially liked this part of his argument:

Last, but not least, 9 November was gloriously happy. Anything seemed possible that night. 11 September was a day that sparked panic and fear. I know which is a better 9/11 to remember.

We can probably all agree on that.

Mother Jones contributor Shane Bauer, who has been detained in Iran since late July after accidentally crossing the border while hiking in Iraqi Kurdistan, has been charged with espionage. Bauer and his two companions, Sarah Shourd and Josh Fattal, who were also charged, face the death penalty if convicted.

The families of the three detained hikers held vigils yesterday, November 8, to recognize the hikers' 100th day in detention. Last Monday, Shon Meckfessel, a travelling companion of Bauer, Shourd, and Fattal who was sick the day of their hike, wrote an open letter to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad asking for their release.

Ahmadinejad has suggested that he might consider releasing the three hikers in some sort of swap. Reuters explains:

Ahmadinejad suggested in an interview with the American television network NBC in September that the Americans' release might be linked to the release of Iranian diplomats he said were being held by U.S. troops in Iraq.

We will keep you posted on any further developments.

Tori Amos
Midwinter Graces
Universal Republic

A Tori Amos Christmas album? Seriously?

That was my first thought when I opened Midwinter Graces, a new album out this week from the indie queen. The quirky, moody crooner seems like a strange fit for the wholesome, fuzzy holiday season. Plus, Christmas albums are usually crap (a fact MoJo staffers recently lamented at length).

But I should have known better than to to doubt the seditious songstress. Rather than recording syrupy holiday tunes, Amos has crafted a collection of covers and originals filled with whimsy and melancholy—the musical equivalent of spiked eggnog.