Blogs

What to Read This Winter

| Fri Feb. 1, 2008 12:18 PM EST

A la yesterday's post on the literature of campaign endorsements, today Slate is running a wonderfully enticing compendium of books recommended for our winter reading pleasure. They cover all genres, but, being a non-fiction nerd, this one caught my eye:

Texas Death Row by Bill Crawford, ed. When I cracked open Texas Death Row, I thought, oooh, I see, it's a catalog of all the folks who've been put to death there, not the kind of book you sit down and read cover-to-cover. Then, I sat down and read it cover-to-cover. Not only because I knew a few of the unfortunates who wound up "riding the needle" from my long-ago stint covering Texas prisons, but because it's impossible to turn away from this inch-by-inch indictment of a culture that would feed a man with a 7th-grade education enough food to kill him right before actually doing so, and call that justice. (And how could anyone choke down a last meal of "fifteen enchiladas, onion rings or fries, eight pieces of fried chicken, eight pieces of barbecue chicken, eight whole peppers, ten hard-shell tacos with plenty of meat, cheese, onions and sauce, four double-meat, double-cheese, double-bacon burgers, T-bone steak with A-1 sauce, and a pan of peach cobbler?" No idea, but nobody dies hungry in Huntsville.)
Bill Crawford's book contains no commentary, just basic biographical information about the 391 men and women executed in Texas in the last 25 years. On page after page you see person after person who never made it past the seventh or eighth grade, and crime after crime connected with drugs—so tell me again why you still hear Texans boo-hoo about that awful Ann Richards, making them fund schools and treatment programs? This should be required reading for anyone even thinking about uttering the words fair or deterrent or closure in connection with the death penalty. As this compilation of loss makes clear, most of these people weren't thinking much of anything when they threw their own and others' lives away.
As if we readers didn't already have too many titles we're trying to get to. The same strategy that works with crackheads works all too well with us; we know we shouldn't read all those reviews but, dammit, we're just too addicted. Need more temptation?

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Dem Debate: A Cordial Twosome in Hollywood

| Fri Feb. 1, 2008 1:05 AM EST

obama-clinton-happy250.jpg Tonight in Hollywood, with celebrities packing the seats of the historic Kodak Theater, anyone expecting a blockbuster debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama was sorely disappointed. Neither made a bold play for the other's supporters. Neither took any chances. In general, both were civil, composed, and very impressive. One could argue that Obama won as a result, because he showed a national audience of newly attentive February 5 voters that he could match Hillary Clinton point for point. One could also argue that the calmness of the debate favored Clinton, who, as the frontrunner, avoided any incidents that could jeopardize her supremacy.

One could also argue the campaigns decided that, because the delegate count will be relatively close after February 5, they had no reason to go for broke and were content to leave the night as a wash.

There were moments, however, that rewarded close attention. Early in the debate, the candidates were asked a question about whether illegal immigrants take African American jobs. Obama, responding first, argued that there are systemic problems in the American economy that steal opportunities from minorities and the poor. To point to illegal immigrants is to make them a scapegoat. Clinton responded by pandering to downscale voters.

Casualties of War Down in Iraq, Up at Home

| Thu Jan. 31, 2008 8:50 PM EST

Military officials announced today that Army suicides increased by 20% in 2007, and attempted suicides went up more than 40%. These grim statistics come in the wake of President Bush's final State of the Union address, during which he touted the troop surge as the answer to violence in Iraq. The president said, "high profile terrorist attacks are down, civilian deaths are down, sectarian killings are down."

But with more troops serving and staying longer in Iraq and Afghanistan, it's not surprising they come home carrying more baggage. Some are even bringing the violence home with them. Earlier this month, the New York Times revealed that 121 veterans of the two current wars have been charged with murder on U.S. soil. Many of the cases have been easily traced back to combat trauma and the stress of deployment. It goes to show that the aftermath of war is never confined to the war zone; it always hits home.

—Celia Perry


Be Still My Heart and Lower my DMV fees

| Thu Jan. 31, 2008 8:34 PM EST

Go ahead and laugh, but I think Vermont is on to something.

A bill is pending there to allow its citizens to opt out of driver registration fees - for life - if they agree to donate their organs when they die. At Vermont's rates, drivers would save $480 (depending on how long they live and drive) while another magazine noted that:

that there were 530,000 valid driver's licenses in the state as of 2006. So, there are a lot of available organs – in Vermont alone – to help the nearly 1 million people on transplant waiting lists in the U.S.

While stolen organ-rackets may be an urban legend here, they're not in India and certainly not among China's executed prisoners. While the need is acute generally, African Americans in particular face an severe shortage of donor kidneys, for instance, which largely have to come from other blacks to be compatible. Unfortunately, they have a low donation rate. Until more states try such initiatives, we simply won't know what it takes to raise these rates. Imagine: just a few states could eliminate the need for donor waiting lists!

But now?

Sadly, store clerks are routinely surprised to see that I'm an organ donor when they check my driver's license and look at me like I'm either Mother Theresa or some freak-show, wild-eyed pagan. But initiatives like Vermont's might just get more of us out of our comfort zones and our life-giving hearts out of our dead bodies. We shouldn't have to be paid to do something so easy - though I will greedily accept the discount - yet such an unbelievable blessing to the suffering. But if it will save more lives (and stop the desecration of the Third world's living humans) - small price to pay. And an idea brilliant in its simplicity. Here's hoping the Vermont bill passes and that it's opponents get the pillorying they deserve.

Study: Republicans Don't Care About Warming Planet

| Thu Jan. 31, 2008 7:56 PM EST

Maybe this just confirms what you already knew, but a new study by Pew shows that Republicans don't care about global warming. Only 12% of Republicans in the January 2008 poll thought dealing with global warming should be a "top priority," as oppposed to 47% of Democrats and 38% of Independents. In fact, global warming was the issue Republicans cared least about.

For a Mother Jones summary of where the candidates, Republican and Democrat, stand on issues like global warming, check out our "Primary Colors" package here.

Remember Afghanistan?

| Thu Jan. 31, 2008 7:05 PM EST

bruce-86.jpg

Afghanistan. In the 1980s, we sent in the CIA, gave weapons to the mujahideen, and defeated the Soviets. In the 1990s, we got out, allowed our erstwhile allies to kill each other, and sat by as the country was taken over by religious fanatics and terrorists. After 9/11, we realized our mistake, went back in, chased Al Qaeda and the Taliban out of their caves, and declared victory. Afterward, we invaded Iraq and once again forgot all about the place. But the pendulum still swings, and now, as before, our willful ignorance of that troubled country (if indeed it meets that definition) is coming back to bite us.

Or so conclude three separate reports released yesterday by the National Defense University, the Atlantic Council, and the Afghanistan Study Group (ASG). "Make no mistake," says the Atlantic Council report, "NATO is not winning in Afghanistan... Urgent changes are required now to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a failing or failed state." The problem (and don't say you didn't see this coming) is that the war in Iraq drained political will, money, and military resources away from Afghanistan, allowing it to drift back into the very same chaos that first attracted Bin Laden to the sanctuary of its caves. According to the ASG report:

Afghanistan stands today at a crossroads. The progress achieved after six years of international engagement is under serious threat from resurgent violence, weakening international resolve, mounting regional challenges and a growing lack of confidence on the part of the Afghan people about the future direction of their country. The United States and the international community have tried to win the struggle in Afghanistan with too few military forces and insufficient economic aid, and without a clear and consistent comprehensive strategy to fill the power vacuum outside Kabul and to counter the combined challenges of reconstituted Taliban and al-Qaeda forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a runaway opium economy, and the stark poverty faced by most Afghans.

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Obama: #1 Most Liberal Senator?

| Thu Jan. 31, 2008 4:27 PM EST

obama-smiling.jpg According to the National Journal's nonpartisan ratings, released today, Barack Obama was the most liberal member of the Senate in 2007. This raises a number of issues for the senator from Illinois.

First of all, we should point out that the numbers are ridiculous. According to the NJ press release, "Obama voted the liberal position on 65 of the 66 votes in which he participated, while Clinton voted the liberal position on 77 of 82 votes." So he took the liberal position less frequently than Clinton did, and less frequently than a number of senators. But because he was out campaigning, he only returned for big, divisive votes where the Democratic Party needed him. He only cast one vote against the liberal position, meaning he was usually content to skip votes where he would be voting against his party. As B.B. points out, "a senator who takes the 'liberal' position 95 times out of 100 is somehow less liberal than his colleague who takes the liberal position 48 times out of 50." In years past, when Obama voted as many times as a normal senator, he was the 10th and 16th most liberal senator. That is likely a truer representation of his politics. Does anyone really think Obama and Joe Biden are more liberal than Russ Feingold or Bernie Sanders (a socialist)?

And let's not forget that John Kerry was identified by the National Journal as the most liberal senator of 2003 just as Kerry was wrapping up the Democratic nomination. (Probably because he missed votes due of campaigning, as Obama is doing now.) Not a bad system for publicity, huh?

But regardless of how legitimate the numbers are, Obama has now been tagged. Will Hillary Clinton use it against him? That would be awfully low—first, she's just as liberal as he is, and second, a Democrat should never try to sink another Democrat by using right-wing talking points about the "L word." But John McCain or Mitt Romney will use this against Obama, assuming Obama is the nominee. How does he respond?

Martin Luther King Responds to Hillary Clinton on Social Change

| Thu Jan. 31, 2008 2:31 PM EST

Earlier this month, this statement of Hillary Clinton's got lots of attention:

I would point to the fact that Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when he was able to get through Congress something that President Kennedy was hopeful to do, the president before had not even tried, but it took a president to get it done. That dream became a reality. The power of that dream became real in people's lives because we had a president who said, "We are going to do it," and actually got it accomplished.

What's gotten less attention is what Martin Luther King himself thought on this subject. Chris Rabb points out that King wrote this in an article published in January, 1969 after his death:

Hope for Obama on February 5

| Thu Jan. 31, 2008 2:30 PM EST

primary_polls.bmp Over at the Economist's Democracy in America blog (no, not these guys), they point out that Obama tends to outperform polling pretty substantially. Check out their chart at right. In four of five states where the Democrats have held primaries—including Florida, where Obama didn't campaign—Obama's actual results have beaten the polls by 6, 12, 13 and 10 percentage points.

That means he could seriously surprise people in the February 5 states where polling shows him within striking distance: Alabama (-10), Kansas (-5), and New Mexico (-7). That said, the polling in the February 5 states has been very spotty. The most recent Rasmussen poll out of California has Obama trailing Clinton by just three, while the most recent CNN poll has him getting walloped by 17. That's a phenomenon you see in Connecticut, Arizona, Colorado, and a number of other places. But here's one thing you can take to the bank: when polls are averaged, which they are at pollster.com, Clinton has huge leads just about everywhere.

Eat Burger, Waive Right to Sue

| Thu Jan. 31, 2008 1:07 PM EST

whataburger-photo-shop.jpgMandatory arbitration agreements forcing people to give up their rights to sue are now standard fare in everything from cell phone contracts to Hooters' employment agreements. But the owner of an East Texas Whataburger has apparently taken arbitration mania to a new level. Every public entrance to the burger franchise displays a sign informing people that simply setting foot on the premises means that they are giving up their right to sue the company for any reason, even if, for instance, they get a little e coli along with their fries. Instead, customers will be forced to arbitrate their claims before the American Mediation Association, an organization that seems to consist of three lawyers in Dallas hired by the Whataburger (part of a 58-year-old fast food chain deemed a "Texas treasure" by the state legislature).

Attorney Dan Sorey spotted the sign in early January while in Kilgore investigating the scene of a motorcycle crash for a case. The Whataburger offered an ideal vantage point to study the intersection where the crash happened. Sorey says when he went in, he told a befuddled cashier that he didn't think that the arbitration notice was enforceable, that anyway he wasn't agreeing to it, and, "I need a taquito and a coffee." He says he sat down, watched some traffic, and ate his taquito. "I didn't choke, I didn't burn myself, and I didn't sue 'em," he reports. Sadly, while we suspect there is a good story behind the signs, the Whataburger franchise owner did not respond to requests for an interview. We'll just have to assume that the signs are the product of one too many late-night talk-show jokes about McDonalds' coffee lawsuits.