Kevin Drum - May 2012

Conservatives Trying to Rewrite the History of Civil Rights

| Wed May 23, 2012 11:38 AM EDT
Former Sen. Edward Brooke (R-Mass.)

I can't recommend enough Jonathan Chait's rebuttal to National Review's attempt to rewrite the history of the civil rights movement to portray conservatives as its most ardent supporters:

It is true that most Republicans in 1964 held vastly more liberal positions on civil rights than Goldwater. This strikes [Kevin Williamson, the author of the National Review piece] as proof of the idiosyncratic and isolated quality of Goldwater's civil rights stance. What it actually shows is that conservatives had not yet gained control of the Republican Party.

But conservative Republicans — those represented politically by Goldwater, and intellectually by William F. Buckley and National Review — did oppose the civil rights movement. Buckley wrote frankly about his endorsement of white supremacy: "the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically." More often conservatives argued on grounds of states' rights, or freedom of property, or that civil rights leaders were annoying hypocrites, or that they had undermined respect for the law.

What Chait doesn't say is that Buckley's editorial wasn't just an endorsement of white supremacy, it was an endorsement of vigilante violence, tacitly if not explicitly supported by local authorities, in pursuit of enforcing white supremacy. Elsewhere in the piece, Buckley writes, "sometimes the numberical minority [whites] cannot prevail except by violence: then it must determine whether the prevalence of its will is worth the terrible price of violence." As long as it's up to them.

Amazingly, nowhere in Kevin Williamson's piece does he attempt to reckon with this piece of National Review's legacy, even as he puts forth a revisionist history of the civil rights movement in which conservatives are its most ardent supporters. Buckley, and his declaration of solidarity with Southern white supremacy, is entirely unmentioned. Instead, Williamson adopts the usual sleight of hand Republicans deploy here, using the sort of liberal Northeastern Republicans who have since been purged from the GOP to argue that the civil rights movement was a conservative accomplishment. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 couldn't have passed without Republican votes, but few if any of the Republicans who voted for it could survive a primary challenge today. That Republican votes were necessary for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 doesn't change the fact that the conservative movement was ardently opposed to it.

The clearest evidence of this legacy is the current Republican Party. The priorities of today's GOP include rolling back the very civil rights accomplishments Williams wants to take credit for. A Republican-appointee-dominated Supreme Court has all but begged for another opportunity to overturn the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and Republican-led states are falling over themselves trying to put a case in front of them. The Bush administration flooded the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department with Republican partisans, and civil rights enforcement fell almost across the board. The GOP has since engaged in a campaign to delegitimize the entire Civil Rights Division as a font of anti-white racism. When America was rocked by the economic crisis in 2008, Republicans flocked to the explanation that decades-old laws preventing racial discrimination in lending were responsible.

Say that this opposition is all about an ideological commitment to decentralization and federalism, and has nothing to do with race. Fine: But even in unicorn-land where political views are entirely unshaped by history and culture, that philosophy is against the concept of a strong federal government that uses its powers to secure the rights of individuals even when local authorities disagree. In other words, it stands in direct opposition to what Martin Luther King Jr. and his allies were trying to accomplish, and except where gun rights are involved, it remains the prevailing ideological disposition of the modern Republican Party and the conservative movement that dominates it.

Adam Serwer is filling in while Kevin is on vacation.

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Bin Laden Filmmakers Got "Unprecedented Access" to National Security Officials

| Wed May 23, 2012 9:40 AM EDT
President Obama and his advisers observe the raid that killed Osama bin Laden from the White House.

Top Obama administration officials provided details about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden to filmmakers working on a movie about the operation even as the White House was trying to keep those same details out of the media, Bloomberg reports:

The Obama administration promised a Hollywood filmmaker unprecedented access to the top-secret Navy unit that killed Osama bin Laden to help her make a feature film on the operation at the same time it was publicly ordering officials to stop talking about the raid.

The Pentagon’s top intelligence official, Michael Vickers, offered Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow interviews with a member of the SEAL team that helped plan last year’s assault on bin Laden’s compound, according to a transcript of a July 15 meeting that was released yesterday by Judicial Watch, a Washington-based legal organization.

This reflects an ongoing double-standard in how the Obama administration handles information related to national security. This White House is certainly not the first to leak sensitive information with the intention of shaping the media narrative (see Iraq War, the). But the Obama team's highly selective release of information has been paired with an unusually aggressive pursuit of leakers. The current administration has pursued more leak investigations than all previous administrations combined, including several against individuals who were clearly acting in the public interest

When the government gets involved in a film like this one, it has a great deal of power to shape how the film comes out. The Obama administration is understandably concerned about how this story is told, since it will likely play a significant role in shaping the legacy of the man currently in office. But there's still something grating and profoundly hypocritical about the discrepancy between how whistleblowers are treated compared to those "authorized" to leak such information.

When the White House is shaping how a story is told, inconvenient information almost invariably gets downplayed or left out. I hope the final film will include at least some acknowledgement of the Pakistani doctor who was just sentenced to thirty years in prison for treason for allegedly helping the CIA locate bin Laden.

Adam Serwer is filling in while Kevin is on vacation.

Obama in 2008: Not That Positive

| Tue May 22, 2012 6:21 PM EDT

Slate's Dave Weigel offers an important corrective for the amenesia about Obama's supposedly positive 2008 campaign:

The myth that Obama ran a Different Kind of Campaign is based on a few bold bets -- like rejecting an early summer gas tax holiday -- that paid off. But we're also talking about a campaign that completely fabricated an anti-NAFTA position, and a campaign that tipped off Ben Smith to the haircut that destroyed John Edwards.* We're talking about a campaign that outspent John McCain by as much as a 3-1 ratio in the final stretch, and devoted most of that money to negative ads. The "hope and change" campaign was the happy cover on a dogged, overwhelming attack campaign. It used to benefit Democrats to obscure this; now, it benefits Republicans.

The most memorable negative ad the Obama campaign ran was the "fundamentals" ad, which mocked Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) saying "fundamentals of our economy are strong" and was apparently cut the afternoon of the day McCain said it. There are a lot of contrasts between 2008 and 2012, but a willingness to go negative isn't one of them. Journalists hyping Obama "going negative" this time around are probably just reacting to the fact that the president faces a much closer election than he did four years ago.

Adam Serwer is filling in while Kevin is on vacation.

Is One Superhero's Same-Sex Marriage an Existential Threat to Comic Book Marriages?

| Tue May 22, 2012 4:47 PM EDT
Superhero marriages are pretty extravagant.

Marvel Comics' Northstar, a French-Candian superhero who came out as gay in the 1990s, is getting married to his longtime boyfriend Kyle. Jill Pantozzi at The Mary Sue explains:

In a press release Axel Alonso, Marvel Editor in Chief, said, "The Marvel Universe has always reflected the world outside your window, so we strive to make sure our characters, relationships and stories are grounded in that reality. We've been working on this story for over a year to ensure Northstar and Kyle’s wedding reflects Marvel's 'world outside your window' tradition."

Judging by the images, Northstar and Kyle appear to be getting married in New York, which legalized same-sex marriage last year. Popular culture has played a significant role in humanizing gays and lesbians to straight audiences—Vice President Joe Biden literally (literally) cited the NBC sitcom Will & Grace as contributing to his "evolution" on the issue of same-sex marriage.

Like many other subcultures, comic book geeks can veer from the open-minded to the distressingly homophobic. Marvel rival DC Comics will soon be letting one of its established characters out of the closet, which for the reasons Alyssa Rosenberg outlines here seems much more risky than a same-sex wedding. Marrying off Northstar, who's long been understood to be gay, is different from altering an existing character. Comic book geeks, you must understand, are frequently possessing of a Burkean reverance for tradition. Same-sex marriage is no big deal, but a writer who changes the color of Superman's costume could get burned in effigy.

Given how some corners of the conservative media reacted to Marvel introducing a black, Latino Spider-Man last year, we can probably expect some culture war rage over this latest attempt to warp the minds of children into thinking that gays and lesbians are people. But take heart, anti-marriage equality conservatives! Comic book marriages tend to be doomed, because happily ever after doesn't work out so well when you have to keep writing new adventures every week. Between telepathic affairs, space-time continuum altering Faustian bargains, homicidal rage, and plain old continuity reboots, Northstar's straight colleagues face existential threats to their unions that are far more serious than a gay superhero getting hitched. Those existential threats are a lot like the "existential threat" marriage equality supposedly poses to "traditional marriage" in that they're also entirely fictional.

Adam Serwer is filling in while Kevin is on vacation.

Leave Private Equity Aloooone!

| Tue May 22, 2012 12:45 PM EDT
A screenshot from the latest Obama campaign ad tying Mitt Romney to Bain Capital.

Cory Booker's not alone. A number of other Democrats are criticizing the Obama campaign's decision to attack Mitt Romney for his work at the private equity firm Bain Capital. Here's former Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford

"Private equity is not a bad thing," Ford said. "As a matter of fact, private equity is a good thing in many, many instances."

Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell called the attack on Bain "disappointing":

"I think they’re very disappointing," Rendell said of the ads attacking Bain. "I think Bain is fair game, because Romney has made it fair game. But I think how you examine it, the tone, what you say, is important as well."

So what's going on here? It seems to be a pretty straightforward case of Democrats not wanting to bite the hands that feed them. Josh Israel at Thinkprogress writes that Booker's first mayoral campaign received large contributions from people who work for Bain and the financial services industry. Ford got Bain money, too—the firm is listed on Open Secrets as his sixth-largest contributor in 2006 cycle. Rendell also received sizeable contributions from the financial services industry. Overall, as my colleague Asawin Suebsaeng noted months ago, Bain Capital's employees have given more to Democrats than Republicans. (Obama himself received a good chunk of change from Bain employees.) 

Demonizing entire professsions is part of politics in the United States. Just ask a trial lawyer, a community organizer, or a Harvard professor. No one is above criticism obviously, but there's something bizarre about watching high-profile Democrats wring their hands over criticism of private equity, particularly given the beating teachers and other public workers have received over the past three years for their alleged "greed." Despite the alarming level of sensitivity over the feelings of financial services executives, private equity isn't going anywhere, particularly not when the industry can afford to have such ardent defenders in both parties. 

Adam Serwer is filling in while Kevin is on vacation.

The American Race War That's Not Happening

| Tue May 22, 2012 10:21 AM EDT
As you can see from this picture of Obama and several advisers in the Oval Office, white people can't get a break in Obama's America.

Buzzfeed's McKay* Coppins published a story on Sunday about the Obama-inspired race war being waged against whites by legions of uppity Negroes. In paragraph 23, Coppins explains it's all a myth:

Indeed, the irony of the race war narrative's latest flare-up is that it comes at a time when national crime rates have reached historic lows — including reported hate crimes against whites. According to a report released by the FBI, there were 575 anti-white bias crimes reported in 2010 — up slightly from the 545 reported in 2009, but distinctly lower than the 716 reported in 2008. Overall, the past decade has seen a downward trend in anti-white bias crime. What's more, hate crimes against blacks have continued to outstrip those against whites by about four-to-one: In 2010 alone, there were 2,201 reported. Violent crimes across the spectrum reached a four-decade low in 2010.

As Coppins writes, the conservative "race war" narrative is largely about flooding the zone with stories of white persecution in order to blunt liberals' charges of racism, which conservatives believe are unfair. That strategy, in and of itself, reflects the conservative view that racism against minorities is largely nonexistent; that disparities in wealth, employment, and education are simply manifestations of self-perpetuating discrepancies in human capital; and that the only reason anyone ever brings up race or racism is as a political weapon. Moreover, the notion that explicit racial violence is the only accurate barometer for bigotry ignores the uncountable ways institutional prejudice can sustain itself without explicit violence. Even if hate crimes in 2010 were slightly higher in 2008 instead of being lower, that wouldn't alter the fact that more young black men were "randomly" stopped and frisked in New York City than there are young black men in New York City.

The more disturbing implications of the newfound conservative focus on "black-on-white violence" is the idea that allowing black people to rise to positions of authority places white people in physical danger. Or as Rush Limbaugh so concisely put it, "[I]n Obama's America, the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering." (We can assume an exception for allowing Republican African-Americans to rise to positions of power. As Ann Coulter put it, "Our blacks are so much better than their blacks.")

The conservative race war argument—that if "those people" get something, you're going to lose, or perhaps even get beaten up—is well-suited for a world of budget cuts and public-sector layoffs. The smaller the pie, the more hostile people get to the idea of sharing, particularly with those who are "undeserving." It also helps explain why some people might have thought that now-disavowed ad tying Barack Obama to Jeremiah Wright was a good idea. If you're working back from a predetermined conclusion that the Obama agenda is the product of anti-white racism, you're primed for the ad's explanation that Wright is responsible for a still-sluggish economy.

*An earlier version of this post mispelled McKay Coppins' first name.

Adam Serwer is filling in while Kevin is on vacation.

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Our Awesome, Totally Effective, Non-Good Guy Killing Drones Are a Secret

| Tue May 22, 2012 9:09 AM EDT
CIA Director David Petraeus shakes hands with Lt. Gen. Michael Ferriter at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit in February seeking records pertaining to the legal basis for the Central Intelligence Agency use of its deadly flying robots. On Monday, government lawyers filed a response brief, which says the agency won't acknowledge whether the drone records exist because they're secret:

Regardless of whether plaintiffs seek records of any CIA involvement or intelligence interest in U.S. drone strikes generally, or the alleged use of drones by the CIA specifically, or both, the district court properly held that plaintiffs failed to establish official disclosure by the CIA of the existence of any records that would be responsive to such request and that the CIA therefore is not prevented from providing a Glomar response. Instead of citing any direct statements to that effect by an authorized official, plaintiffs rely on vague and ambiguous statements by former CIA Director Leon Panetta and President Obama, none of which expressly acknowledges the information that plaintiffs seek here: that the CIA possesses responsive records relating to drone strikes.

Plaintiffs alternatively suggest that such an official disclosure may be inferred from those statements, particularly if those statements are considered in the context of media reports and statements by other government officials, which purportedly acknowledge the CIA’s involvement in drone strikes. But an official disclosure cannot be premised on speculation or inference by the public or media, or on statements made by unauthorized or unofficial government sources.

In early May, White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan gave a speech in which he acknowledged the existence of the targeted killing program, defended it as legal, and argued that it almost always only kills bad guys. So the CIA's argument here is: Just because a high-ranking public official gives a speech explaining how awesome and effective the targeted killing program is doesn't mean the program's existence isn't a secret. It's a state secret despite the fact the White House likes bragging about it.

Adam Serwer is filling in while Kevin is on vacation.

The NAACP's Evolution on Same-Sex Marriage

| Mon May 21, 2012 11:12 AM EDT
NAACP President Benjamin Jealous

The national board of the NAACP, America's oldest civil rights organization, officially endorsed same-sex marriage rights Saturday after a vote in which only two members dissented. Although it may seem like the NAACP was conveniently following President Barack Obama's lead, the group's decision was a long time coming, and reflects an internal evolution that began years ago.

During the fight over Proposition 8 in California, the state chapter of the NAACP actively fought on the side of gay-rights organizations, seeking to increase opposition to the anti-marriage equality measure in the black community. That move wasn't without controversy. NAACP President Ben Jealous, whose brother is gay, traveled to California to help fill a fundraising gap after several donors protested the San Francisco chapter's support of LGBT rights, and shortly afterwards Jealous was among those who pushed the national office to oppose California's ban on same-sex marriage. Local NAACP chapters fought against the recently passed same-sex marriage and civil union ban in North Carolina, and supported legalizing same-sex marriage in Maryland. The head of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP, Rev. Keith Ratliff Sr., has probably been the most vocal opponent of the NAACP's evolution on gay rights, but he seems to be in the minority—there were just two no-votes out of 64 board members. Former NAACP Chairman Julian Bond has been a vocal supporter of same-sex marriage rights for years, even before stepping down in 2010.

The NAACP isn't as influential as it once was, but part of its lingering power comes from the fact that religious leaders comprise a non-trivial percentage of its national and local leadership. Some of those leaders may continue to speak out against the organization's decision on marriage equality. But the NAACP's endorsement could also help smooth over confusion or frustration among black voters over Obama's decision to support the idea of same-sex couples getting married. As the Washington Post's Jonathan Capeheart suggests, because Obama is the most admired black political leader in the country, his endorsement of same-sex marriage is already paying dividends by providing other black leaders and institutions cover to do so as well.

Media coverage of the black community and LGBT rights issues has also frequently put black folks on one side of the equation and LGBT rights activists on the other. Support for LGBT rights from established black institutions like the NAACP should help break down that false binary, and help reduce the invisibility of black LGBT rights activists who have often been frustrated by a frame that implicitly cuts black gays and lesbians out of the story.

Adam Serwer is filling in while Kevin is on vacation.

Unmasking the Bundlers

| Mon May 21, 2012 10:11 AM EDT

The Obama campaign discloses its "bundlers," that is, fundraisers who help the campaign collect large amounts of money from many different donors. The Romney campaign doesn't. As my colleague Andrew Kroll reports, that work is left outside watchdog groups like the Public Campaign Action Fund that try to figure out who is raising money for Romney:

A new analysis by the Public Campaign Action Fund finds that at least 25 lobbyists have bundled $3,065,126 for Romney's campaign. Those lobbyists including Patrick Durkin of Barclay's Financial who's bundled $927,160, Ignacio Sanchez of the powerful law firm DLA Piper who's bundled $84,200, and Bruce Gates of tobacco company Altria Client Services who's bundled $27,500.

As Public Campaign's Adam Smith notes, two of Romney's bundlers have reached the campaign's "Stars" level and one has reached the "Stripes" level. That's Romney campaign lingo (PDF) for the two most elite levels for fundraisers, each of which give the fundraiser inside access to the campaign, an invitation to a June Romney finance committee retreat in Park City, Utah, and VIP access at the GOP convention this summer.

This seems a gaping hole in campaign finance law that ought to be fixed and made compulsory. The Obama campaign has already returned more than $200,000 in donations from two brothers of a fugitive who was convicted on fraud and drug charges, and as Kroll points out, several Obama bundlers have been identified as unofficial lobbyists. It's possible that none of that would have been disclosed without the Obama campaign willingly releasing the names of its bundlers. Yet Romney still refuses to release the names of his most important fundraisers. It seems rather strange that this isn't a bigger deal. 

Adam Serwer is filling in while Kevin is on vacation.

Cory Booker Thinks Obama's Attacks on Bain Are "Nauseating."

| Mon May 21, 2012 9:34 AM EDT

In case you're wondering whether it's a slow news Monday, the big news to come out of the Sunday shows last weekend was Newark Mayor Cory Booker saying on Meet The Press that he found the Obama campaign's focus on Mitt Romney's record at the private equity firm Bain Capital particularly "nauseating." That's sort of awkward, because at least theoretically Booker is supposed to be supporting Obama:

But the last point I'll make is this kind of stuff is nauseating to me on both sides. It's nauseating to the American public. Enough is enough. Stop attacking private equity, stop attacking Jeremiah Wright. This stuff has got to stop because what it does is it undermines, to me, what this country should be focused on. It's a distraction from the real issues. It's either going to be a small campaign about this crap or it's going to be a big campaign, in my opinion, about the issues that the American public cares about.

Booker later released a YouTube video trying to walk the statement back.

"Mitt Romney has made his business record a centerpiece of his campaign," Booker said in the video. "He's talked about himself as a job creator. And therefore, it is reasonable, and in fact I encourage it, for the Obama campaign to examine that record and to discuss it."

Booker's reasoning is odd since the Obama campaign is directly attacking Romney's record at Bain while the proposed Wright ad was associated with a pro-Romney Super-PAC. The premise behind the ad was that Obama's presidency has been an act of revenge against white people stemming from the hatred Obama absorbed at Wright's church. It's hard to see the two as comparable, because Obama is directly responsible for the Bain attacks and Romney is not directly responsible for the Wright proposal. On the other hand, criticizing Romney's business record is far more justifiable than the deranged premise of the Wright ad.

This isn't the worst example of disloyalty or veering off message, but if you're a Democrat who finds it "nauseating" to even discuss how some people end up needing the social safety net, you may be in the wrong party. 

Adam Serwer is filling in while Kevin is on vacation.